I was sitting on the front steps reading, within ear but not eyeshot of the driveway, when I heard my mother talking to a woman with a slightly-crude voice. I thought it might be the woman who lives next door. I’ve never met her, but I know her husband, Al. He regularly drinks Natural Light beer with his shirt off in the middle of the day, so it’s fair to assume he’s married to a woman with a slightly-crude voice.

The woman asked if she was at 85 Joalco Road.My mother confirmed this, and then the woman explained she was here to administer an interview on behalf of the United States Public Health Service, that my brother, whom she referred to as “the 21 year old male,” had been randomly selected for the study and stood to earn $30 should he participate. She wanted to know when the 21-year old male would be home, because she had quotas to meet with regard to particular demographics.

“Too bad you couldn’t pick my other son. He’s a 28 year old male and he’s home right now,” said my mother.

When she said this, I decided not to stand up and have a look at the woman with the slightly crude voice, even though I very much wanted to. It occurred to me that the interviewer and I could help each other out, seeing as she has quotas to meet and I’m broke, unemployed and living with my parents.

But being broke and unemployed at your parents’ house isn’t all that bad. You get to do things like walkaround in a bathrobe outside at 10 a.m. bird watching and drinking coffee.

That is what I’m doing when a navy blue Jeep Cherokee pulls into the driveway. A woman gets out, smiles, and says, “You must be the 21 year old male.I spoke with your mom the other day.”

She doesn’t look the way I imagined her to, which was short, older and graying. Rather, she is tallish, oldish, dyed too-auburn.

“Yeah, she told me about you. You’re in luck. You caught me on my day off,” I say, opening the gate to let her in. “What a morning.”

It’s about 70 degrees. The birds are giving their morning recital. Early daylight spills over the top of early-spring-green leaves. Bands of clouds drift lazily overhead on the slightest of breezes.

We decide to work outside at the picnic table. I quickly go inside and pour myself a fresh cup of coffee then take a seat across from the stranger.

“Where do you live?” I ask her.

“Middleton,” she answers.

“I’m not sure where that is exactly. Near Concord?”

“Not really. It’s next to Farmington.”

Farmington is a very sleazy town, so Middleton is probably at least a little bit sleazy by association. I wouldn’t say this woman is sleazy, but there is a hint of sleaze. The voice…the dye job…the pack of Virginia Slims menthol extra long 120s…

“Do you work for the census department?” I ask.

“No, I work for a company subcontracted by the government,” she says and hands me a brochure.

The cover says: National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Answering your important questions. I open it up and read the first page:

What is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)?

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is the Federal Government’s primary source of national data on the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit substances. The survey also contains questions on health, illegal behaviors, and other topics associated with substance use. The study was initiated in 1971 and currently is conducted on an annual basis. This year approximately 70,000 individuals, 12 years and older, will be randomly selected and asked to voluntarily participate.

The woman finishes setting up a computer and some papers and explains that the interview will take about an hour, the bulk of which will be completed anonymously on a laptop and afterwards, she’ll ask me a few questions.

She then asks me my date of birth.I take a long sip of coffee, hurrying to calculate the year my brother was born.

“You stated your birthday as October 3, 1987, making you a 22 year old male.Is this correct?”

She has to say this according to protocol, but obviously it’s not correct because I am a 21 year old male.I fix my mistake, hastily adding the excuse that I suffer from dyslexia.

“I’m just awful with numbers.” I say.

She gives a half-laugh, half-sympathetic sigh and at this point I highly suspect she knows that I don’t have dyslexia…that I am not, in fact, a 21 year old male, but rather, the 28 year old male my mother mentioned.

“OK,” she says. “Ready to begin?”

And so, on a perfect Wednesday morning, outside at the picnic table, in the presence of a complete stranger, using a slate grey laptop, I anonymously reveal my entire history of personal drug use.

I thought I’d tried most things.I was wrong.There’s a book I have to look through and answer things like list all of the drugs from Box A you have tried in:

A.the last 3 months

B.the last 6 months

C.The last year

D.At any point

The boxes are divided by drug category, such as opiates, hallucinogens, amphetamines, sedatives, etc, all with an accompanying photo and ID number.Every drug imaginable is listed.There are a lot that I’ve done.But also many I’ve not done…or even heard of.

I take mental notes of the drugs I’d like to try.It’s like the feature on iTunes when you’re searching for a band and they show you what Other Listeners Bought.Well, I love amphetamines, so I’ll probably like lisdexamfetamine as well…and all the other drugs in Box C for that matter.

It all reminds me of the D.A.R.E . (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which most Americans over the age of 27 probably were forced to take part in.Like D.A.R.E., this survey is opening my eyes to all sorts of wonderful substances.

I recall the first day of D.A.R.E. distinctly.The entire 5th grade gathered in the library and a police officer came in with a display board containing illustrations of all these different drugs and explained how they had horrible side-effects and we should never even consider trying them.The cop told the story of a man who, in a PCP rage, took 18 rounds from police officers before going down.

As a 5th grade boy, I figured if I could get my hands on this PCP stuff…well, I could rule the neighborhood.Nobody would fuck with me.

The D.A.R.E. curriculum consisted largely of role-playing where, in a typical scenario, one student played the drug dealer and another an abstaining youth who employed the proper version of “Just Say No” to reject the dealer’s advances.

Not once in my adult life has a drug dealer materialized out of thin air and tried to push their goods on me like in D.A.R.E.There were plenty of times I wish they would have, but to no avail.The closest I’ve gotten is in tourist hot spots where drug dealers whisper, “marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy” as you pass by.As an 18 year old in London, I tried to buy weed from one of these guys and ended up with oregano.Since then, I’ve learned you don’t buy shit from drug dealers on the street in an unfamiliar area.You go to a university area and ask around at bars.

Back in the 5th grade, I even starred in the D.A.R.E. play, which was the culmination of the ten week program. I can’t recall much about the production, except that I had a lead role.The character I played, due to some unholy cocktail of substances, collapsed.My line was “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” (That’s right-Steve Urkel style.)

Between then and now I’ve done a lot of drugs and never once have I fallen and been unable to get up. Quite the opposite: When I get up, I don’t want to fall down.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education was started by members of the Los Angeles Police in 1983.Today, 36 million children around the world and 26 million in the U.S. participate.

Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted to ascertain the efficacy of D.A.R.E.Some particularly interesting findings include a 1992 Indiana University study that found students who completed D.A.R.E. used hallucinogenic drugs at a higher rate than students who didn’t enroll in the program.In 1998, Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum reported D.A.R.E. graduates were more likely than non-graduates to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.Also in 1998, Psychologist Dr. William Colson claimed that exposing young students to drugs encouraged and nurtured drug use.He wrote: “…as they get a little older, students become very curious about these drugs they’ve learned about from police officers.”

In 2001, the Surgeon General of the United States placed D.A.R.E. in the category: “Does Not Work.”The Association for Psychological Sciences (APS) put D.A.R.E. on a list of treatments that can potentially harm clients in 2007.

D.A.R.E. reflects the U.S. drug control policy of zero-tolerance.It was adopted as part of the control strategy of the U.S. government’s War on Drugs.Last year, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated the Obama administration would not use the term “War on Drugs,” claiming it to be counter-productive.

After 40 years, $1 trillion dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it seems the War on Drugs is counter-productive not only in name.Comments by Mr. Kerlikowske suggest as much.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful” he told the Associated Press recently.“Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This month, President Obama made a pledge to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” through a revamped policy that treats drug use as a public health issue, focusing on prevention and treatment.Despite his promise, the president has increased spending on drug prohibition through law enforcement, which accounts for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget, a record in total dollars and as a percentage of the drug-control budget.Obama’s drug-fighting budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon’s was (including inflation adjustment) after he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1971, which effectively began the War on Drugs.

The Associated Press has tracked how taxpayer money has been spent to combat drug use over the past 40 years.Here’s what we’ve been billed for:

  • $20 billion to combat drug gangs in countries like Columbia and Mexico.Annually, 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the U.S.Almost all of it is imported from Mexico.
  • $33 billion to promote prohibition-style “Just Say No” messages and prevention programs (like D.A.R.E.)to young Americans.Reports indicate that high school students today use drugs at the same rates they did in 1970.
  • $49 billion for enforcement measures along America’s borders to halt the flow of illegal drugs.This year alone, 25 million Americans will use illicit drugs, around 10 million more than in 1970.Almost all of it comes in across the borders.
  • $121 billion to arrest over 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, roughly 10 million of them for possession of marijuana.Studies reveal being locked up has a positive correlation with drug abuse.
  • $ 450 billion to lock up these nonviolent drug offenders in federal prisons alone.Half of all federal prisoners last year in the U.S. were incarcerated for drug offenses.
  • $215 billion per year, estimated by the Justice Department, for “an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity and environmental destruction.”

And I thought I’d spent a lot of money on drugs and had nothing to show for it.

When I’m done with the computer the interviewer asks me a few questions about my employment, insurance, household income, etc., and then we’re done.I sign an interview payment receipt and the woman counts out 3 crisp 10s and lays them in my hand.My time as a 21 year old male is officially over.

I walk the interviewer to the gate and wish her well.

“What an interesting job you have…traveling to people’s homes, setting your own hours.” I say.

“Yes, I enjoy it.” she says.“I get to meet many interesting people.The only thing is that if I ever run into somebody in town or at the grocery store or something, I don’t know their name.”

“Well, if I ever see you, just call me 21 year old male.” I say

It’s now around 11 o’clock, giving me five hours before my mother comes home.I should probably go fill out some job applications.But it’s an awfully nice day.And I’ve got a lot on my mind.

Had I taken D.A.R.E. more seriously and never used drugs, would I be a broke, unemployed 28 year old male living at home?

If the War on Drugs has failed, then who is the victor?Drugs?Drug dealers? Drug users?

What, precisely, is implicit in the reality that America has 5% of the world’s population but uses 50% of its illegal drugs…and has 25% of its prisoners?

Is Middleton a sleazy town?

Such matters deserve a deeper consideration.

But I’m all out of weed.I have no car.And unlike in D.A.R.E., drug dealers don’t just materialize while you’re walking down the street.Especially not on Joalco Road in Strafford, New Hampshire.

Besides, while drug use rates haven’t changed much after 40 years and $1 trillion spent, the prices have.I’ll be lucky to get a few joints from $30 of today’s hydroponic shit.As a generation of D.A.R.E. – mockers know: Drugs Are Really Expensive.

But there are other options.

I hear Al whistling from his porch.His shirt is off.There’s a koozy on the railing.

“Yo Al, I’m comin’ over buddy.You owe me from last time.”

Whiskey Thieves, Geary Street, 10 p.m.

My head swims from free drinks after reading passages of my novel at bar. Then I’m invited to another bar, the free drinks decided to go snorkeling in my head. One Jamison, two Jamison, three Jamison, more. I walk over to Whiskey Thieves to introduce one last drink to the party in my brain.

She sits next to me at the bar. She is semi-gothed out. She wears fishnet stockings. Teasing. Exposing the dark skin of her legs. I say hi. She tells me her name and I immediately forget. She is from Chile.

Do you know Hocico? she asks.

Not personally, but I’m familiar with their music.

I’m not the type of guy you would think would have his pulse on an EBM project from Mexico, but I’m full of surprises.

Come to Death Guild with me, she says. It’s a long running dance club in San Francisco that caters to a goth crowd and actually plays music I like, but for some reason I can’t stand the place.

No, I say and sip more whiskey to snorkel through my head.

Yes, you come, we’ll go back to my place first.

Her place?

Let’s go, I say and the snorkeling alcoholics in my brain come up for air and applaud and they call my libido friends in my brain and we watch as the Chilean wiggles her skinny body down the street in those excellent fishnets.

At her place she turns on the radio and brings more Jamison friends for my brain. I grab her close and she turns around and rubs her sweet butt against my pelvic area. Blood reinforcements are called in and my penis starts to expand.

There’s an Italian film called Stanno tutti bene. It has nothing to do with sex, but the title means, Everybody’s Fine. She rubs on me and everybody’s fine. Really fine.

Do you know this song, she asks and puts on a Hocico CD. I nod and go in for the kiss. The kiss is good. I never understand how a kiss can’t be good, but there’s a phenomena in San Francisco of women who can’t kiss. It’s quite shocking to a newly single man.

When I’m with a woman, I listen. Those subtle shifts of moans. Those sporadic shutters of their insides. I listen without a stethoscope.

We kiss and I pull her hair. She moans and pushes her pelvis into mine and we dry hump, me in my slacks and her in her mini-skirt and fishnets. I listen and grab her hair twisting her head to the side and plant one on her neck. She squeals and her dark eyes ask for what’s next.

I tease. I’m soft. Soft kisses on her Chilean ears. Then I pick her up and throw her onto the bed and rip her shirt off. I dive into her erect nipples and nibble and bite and finally teeth with a light stroking of the tips with my tongue. She pushes her chest as far into my mouth as those sweet little a-cups could go. I want her in ecstasy. I grab the back of her head so she can’t move and went in for more mouth kisses.

The little libidos and alcohol molecules in my brain brought out the sombreros and did some type of Ukrainian wedding dance with each other.

She gives half moans and half screams as her neighbors in that Tenderloin apartment either want to kill us, join us or be us.

She jumps out of bed to switch Hocico CDs. I’m out of breath and my body has a subtle shake, waiting for more teasing and sexual wrestling. That Mexican pig fucking industrial act, cock blocking me.

 

We’re going to be late for Death Guild, she says as she fixes her shirt and the Ukrainian wedding dance stops in my head to put their elbows on the bar. They go in wait-and-see mode.

Death Guild. Posers aching to reclaim an era long gone by. Death Guild, we’ll keep this going after Death Guild. My penis actually retracts knowing it will be released into action later.

As we walk to the club we mouth raped each other at every stop light. Every doorway was our chance to fondle each other for a few seconds and move on. I forget we’re going to Death Guild. I forget we bought another bottle of scotch that we drain as we suck face and walk.

Then the blackout.

Fade in:

Int. – Night – Death Guild

Tony and girl from Chile dance and fall. Tony falls on top of her. She’s lucky it was Tony and not some corseted Krispy Kreme.

Fade out.

Fade in:

Int. – Night – Death Guild

Tony looses the Chilean and looks around the club for her, oh snap, they play a Nick Cave song. Tony can’t resist the pull of his favorite singer so he dances alone.

Fade out.

Fade in:

Ext. – Night – SoMa

Tony still can’t find her so he hails a cab home. Whiskey Thieves calls him for one last drink.

Int. – Night – Whiskey Thieves

The bartender asks with a smirk, how did it go?

I can’t believe she talked me into going to Death Guild.

He laughs.

The party in my head is no longer interested in sex play and brings me home to pass out and eventually leave my bloodstream.

I still can’t remember her name.

I’ve been thinking about place recently.

How setting can affect pieces in fiction and non-fiction, short pieces and longer works.

I sat and waited for someone one night, a long time ago, and I was taken by the way the streetlights and the storm that was moving over the streets reflected off the wall of bottles behind the bar. I figured it was probably important to remember the way it looked, in case I wanted to write it into something someday.

And lately, I’ve been thinking about the places that I grew up in, and how they might affect future narratives – or even how future narratives might be entirely about them.

Place, you know? How does place figure into things? What makes for a good description of place? Who are the authors who are good at doing this?

Aside from Brin Friesen, that is?

What’s the best way to evoke the spirit of a place? To call it forth? Should place become a character? Is it that important? Does it depend on the place?


Discuss.

A friend and I, sitting and discussing the latest girl I’d fallen for. The waiter, walking through the glass doors and seeing us in conversation, set our coffee in front of us apologetically, hers a sculpted cappuccino in a white porcelain cup, perfectly dusted with cinnamon and chocolate, mine a latte with a napkin wrapped protectively around the heat of the glass.

I promised to answer your publishing questions so here are some thoughts about agents.

The first step to getting your book published is finding a literary agent. Why do you need one? Because agents know how to judge if your manuscript is ready to send out, and they know the editors and the publishing houses that are the best match for your work. Most of the big houses won’t even consider looking at a manuscript that does not come via an agent, so this is the place to begin.

So how do you find an agent?

The first thing you do is find the books (hopefully successful ones) that are most like the manuscript you’re trying to sell. Are you writing humorous essays ala David Sedaris? Are you writing literary fiction with Jewish themes ala Nicole Krauss? Are you writing teen vampire stories ala Heather Brewer? Once you find a stack of books that are most similar to your manuscript (i.e. you think you would share readers with that author), then turn to the Acknowledgments page. Sometimes it’s at the front of the book and sometimes it’s in the very back. This is where the author very likely thanked his agent for all of her help. Write down the name of the book, the author and the agent. And keep doing this until you have a list of 5 to 15 names.

Another way to develop this list of potential agents is to join PublishersMarketplace. I think it costs $20 a month, and that fee is definitely worth it at this stage in the game. Once you sign in, you can look up any author you want and find out which agent represents them. You can also see who else that agent represents and what they’ve sold.

Okay. You have your list of potential agents, so now what?

Now you send them a very short letter that gets them excited about your book and about you. Think about how you’d describe your book in a single sentence. And if asked for more detail, how would you describe it in, say, four sentences?

Here’s an example of a letter:

Dear Ms. Agent X,

I thought you might be interested in my newest manuscript because my writing has often been compared to your client, Christopher Marlowe.

I’ve just finished a tragedy called ROMEO AND JULIET about two teenagers who fall in love despite the fact that their families hate each other.

Set in Verona, Italy, young Romeo and Juliet fall in love against their family’s wishes and are secretly married by Friar Lawrence. Later, Romeo interferes in a fight between the warring families and ends up killing Juliet’s cousin, which results in his banishment. Friar Lawrence sets up a plot for them to get back together by helping Juliet fake her own death. Romeo thinks she’s died and kills himself. Juliet wakes up and sees that he’s died and kills herself as well. Their deaths unite the feuding families.

I run a theatre group. I have strong interests in ghosts and sword fighting. And I’ve published my poems in the local newspaper.

Thank you so much for your time, and I hope you’ll allow me to send you my manuscript.

Sincerely,

W. Shakespeare

Is it the best letter ever? No. In fact, it’s all off the top of my head, and I should sit with this for a week or two until I get it right. But it’s short and to the point, and it contains the elements that an agent needs to make a decision.

If you’re really good at these pitch letters, you’ll be able to capture your writing style in the letter. Someone trying to sell satire should have a punchier letter. If you’re trying to sell a horror story and manage to write a summary that gives the agent chills and makes her turn around to see if something is stalking her from behind, then you’ve done well. If you’re like most writers and your letter undersells your manuscript, then include the first two pages of the book in the letter. It won’t hurt, since it may be the poetry and the iambic pentameter that brings the agent to her knees.

And that’s it. You send out these letters, and see what happens. If agents start asking for partials (the first 50 pages), then you know your letter is working. If after reading the partials, you are asked for the entire manuscript or you get detailed rejections, you’re on the right track. If you hear nothing or you get form rejections, that’s a sign that either your letter or your manuscript (or both) need some more work before you continue.

Want to know more about agents? I interviewed mine here. Want to add to the discussion? Jump in!

TNB TV 
The trailer for author Brad Herzog’s new travel memoir, Turn Left at the Trojan Horse — A Would-Be Hero’s American Odyssey (read an excerpt here). A modern-day Odysseus in Kerouac clothing, Herzog plunges into a solo cross-country search for insight. With middle age bearing down on him, he takes stock: How has he measured up to his own youthful aspirations? In contemporary America, what is a life well lived? Or even a heroic life?