June 07, 2012
Greenland’s latest novel, The Angry Buddhist, is a scathing satire of American family, marriage, and politics, situated at the intersection of the Old Testament, Penthouse Forum, and Elmore Leonard. I love Larry David’s blurb:
June 07, 2012
Greenland’s latest novel, The Angry Buddhist, is a scathing satire of American family, marriage, and politics, situated at the intersection of the Old Testament, Penthouse Forum, and Elmore Leonard. I love Larry David’s blurb:
I had the chance to kick Gregory Corso to the curb. Could you blame me for mistaking him for a homeless man who had wandered into the gallery that afternoon? He had on a more than well-loved down jacket, one side hopelessly stained with what I hoped was coffee, and beneath it the left pocket had been completely torn away, exposing the white stuffing inside. He had barely a tooth in his head by that time, and his hair was matted as if he had just woken from a Rip Van Winkle sleep. He appeared in my tiny office, mid-sentence. I didn’t hear “hello,” or “what’s your name?”; maybe the world “lunch” was in there somewhere. Standing, I hoped to encourage his departure. I had grown up in Brooklyn and had had my share of experiences with street people. No direct eye contact was an important dictum, one that applied equally to madmen as it did to babies and dogs. Be firm and say little. Shut it down, and fast.
Seattle, December 1984
I was a teenage art-geek. Frizzy-haired and studious, I hadn’t yet learned to work a prodigious vocabulary and ample rack to my advantage. But junior year at my strict Catholic high school, I finally had my first real boyfriend, Chris. Both of us loathed our surroundings and this intensified our bond. We discussed Dylan Thomas at lunch and at night, after we finished our reams of homework, he played King Crimson riffs for me over the phone on his second-hand Stratocaster. I was in love.
My Greek parents, like most progenitors of our nationality, were hardly laissez-faire when it came to their kids, particularly their young daughter’s newly acquired romantic interest. At that time, Dad was Supervisor of the Sentencing Unit for the Criminal Division and Mom was a Deputy Prosecutor assailing fraud cases. So when Mom and Dad insisted on meeting Chris, I balked, sensing they would terrify him and that this was their intent. I relented, however, when Dad threatened to run Chris’s license plates.
“This house is like living in a cop show!” I yelled, eliciting a bemused smirk from Dad and an eye-roll from Mom. I posed no more threat to them than a gnat to an elephant. Resistance was futile.
The next day after school, Chris loaded his books into my used Mustang, and we drove to my family’s large brick house, festooned with multicolor lights along its perimeter and holly and snowflake appliques in its dining room windows. It was two weeks before Christmas and I’d told Chris my folks wanted to include him in a traditional Greek holiday meal. Once inside, Chris and I sat on the living room couch by the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be home for a few hours and I thought my brother, 18 months younger, was at soccer practice.
“You’re my other half,” Chris said and put his hand on my knee. As he leaned in to kiss me, a moaning sound wafted down the hall. Barely audible at first, it grew persistently louder. I realized it was my brother.
“It sounds like someone’s jacking off,” Chris said, alarmed.
At that moment, we heard the bathroom door fling open and my brother raced into the living room.
“Aaaahhhh!” he yelled and ran directly toward Chris. His hands were coated with a viscous white liquid and he waved them maniacally.
“Is he retarded?” Chris asked frantically, tripping over the hassock in an effort to get away.
“I want to give you my baby juice!” my brother continued, and chased Chris into the kitchen. I heard my mom’s planter knock into a wall.
By now, I knew what was going on. My brother, reflexively hilarious and the ultimate class clown, was hazing my new boyfriend. Said boyfriend, however, had no clue.
“Goddamnit, Greg! Leave Chris alone!” I sprinted into the kitchen, grabbed Greg by his shirt and yanked. He stopped and burst out laughing.
“Oh, my god! You should have seen the look on your face!” he told Chris, who was visibly shaken. “Lighten up there, pal. It’s just Ivory Liquid. I would have had to crank it eight or nine times to get that much jizz.” He said this as if it were clearly self-evident.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Chris wailed.
That night at dinner, Chris endured my parents’ inquisition with aplomb. He answered questions about his college and career plans and made polite conversation with my brother as though nothing unusual had happened.
Then, two weeks later, he dumped me for a cheerleader. He said it was because she blew him. Yet I can’t help but think Chris preferred his Christmases white, and not Ivory.
I’d been eating ketchup sandwiches for days when I drifted into the sanctuary of a midtown church to warm up and regroup. I needed to think things through, to figure out my next move. I was about to lose everything, including my apartment, my girlfriend Hope, and my two cats Jack and Milo, who were my kids. I hated that I’d become a broke-ass failed musician, presumably one of the world’s worst providers.
Insert musician joke: What’s the difference between a pizza and a guitarist? A pizza can feed a family of four!
The Midwest tour I’d just played with my current band had netted me exactly nothing, and now I was an out-of-work drummer on a mean losing streak, freezing my ass off, making the usual rounds, dropping off waiter applications anywhere and everywhere, with zero results. Restaurant managers must have found it impossible to overlook my severe lack of enthusiasm.
In the midst of this hopelessness, it took me a moment to notice the artistry of the stained glass windows or the rumbling of the hundred-year-old pipe organ. The church organist was in deep concentration practicing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. I knew the symphony from my childhood—the direct result of playing too much “Guess the Composer” on long family car trips with my music-obsessed parents and younger brother Jed. My brother and I were definitely the only kids on the playground who knew the difference between Vivaldi and Handel.
The music echoed through the cathedral like it was Madison Square Garden. Steeped in the tranquil atmosphere of the church, my panic subsided as the vibration of a passing subway train rumbling beneath the wooden floor gave rise to an idea. I immediately raced back to my apartment and grabbed my gear. Within minutes I was trucking down the frozen steps of the Lexington Avenue subway station, ready to take my first crack at busking.
Half hallucinating, under the influence of low-blood-sugar delirium, I slid my guitar and battery-powered amplifier under the turnstile and jumped over it. From behind, I heard the clerk’s muffled disapproval: “Pay your fare!” Sorry token booth dude, can’t this time. I’m saving up for a D19! Earlier, I’d scanned Go Noodle’s takeout menu for job-hunting inspiration, and the prospect of the delectably greasy D19—shrimp lo mein with soup and an egg roll—had me salivating as I rolled my equipment along the marble platform. I crammed my gear onto the train and rode one stop up to Seventy-seventh Street, just beyond Hunter College, where I’d often seen an old Asian guy playing recorder and doing pretty well. Hoping to emulate his success, I planned to set up exactly where he’d been performing.
Despite my desperation, I was self-conscious about my appearance. My thin black bomber jacket that had faithfully served me through several winters was now a shadow of its former glorious self. After several duct tape alterations, it resembled a Flash Gordon wardrobe malfunction. And there were holes in my jeans through which my long underwear was exposed, but not in that cool rock’n’roll way. My hair was longer than usual and pulled back into a ponytail. Today, I know buskers who try to look disheveled, using the tactic to grab the “pity drop.” I don’t blame them though; you gotta do whatever works for you.
After setting up, I nervously fastened the guitar strap to both ends of the guitar with fingers numb from one of the worst winters on record. Telling myself, “Dude, stop thinking, just play,” I tuned up and flicked on the amp. The light by the power switch glowed yellow. Okay, all systems go. Time to play!
At the time, I was barely a guitarist, more like a drummer who desperately wished he could play the guitar. To skirt the need for years of lessons, I used an uncommon method of tuning that immediately enabled me to play a few songs, a kind of shortcut to competency. In this “open D” tuning, the neck of the guitar became similar to a keyboard, allowing me to form any chord simply by pressing the top two strings.
My awkward strumming wafted across the subway platform, surrounding me with confused, dense clouds of sound. As I played, I intuitively disguised the bum notes with my drummer’s sense of rhythm, as if playing on beat would override my utter lack of skill. Whenever I caught a figure coming toward me, I assumed it was a cop or a station supervisor bent on my ejection. But after a few false alarms, I gave in and let the music take over, wearing my song like an invisible protective coat. Maybe that’s why folks gathered around as they stood waiting for their trains. We were warming ourselves by the same fire.
I watched as my first underground audience assembled in front of me. People could have turned a blind eye, but a backpack-toting Hunter College kid led the charge, throwing a buck into my waiting guitar case. It was the start of a flurry of cash. More folks gathered, urging me on with compliments like, “Sounds great man!” and “Thanks for chilling me out.” As the trains came and went, the ever-growing pile of my first busking dollars glowed succulently against the black velvet interior of my guitar case. With mounting excitement I realized I’d be able to make it through the month after all! As much as the cash meant to me, though, the compliments meant just as much.
A few hours later, I left the train station with a new job and enough money for fifteen D19s (looking back, I’m amazed I was able to perform uninterrupted for so long; the next couple of times I went back I was quickly thrown out). After years of struggle, I’d finally ascended to the level of professional musician, though in a way I had never anticipated. Why hadn’t I done this sooner? I’m ashamed to admit that prior to my musical awakening, I shuffled through the city believing that only inferior musicians performed on the street. Gifted buskers unselfishly filled the city’s public spaces with vitality, yet I’d been rushing by with scarcely a glance.
Triumphantly slurping lo mein and peering out of Go Noodle’s window, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. For the first time, it felt okay that record companies hadn’t appreciated me; I’d managed to bring my music directly to the public, regardless. But there was one more thing left to do. I had to track down my younger brother and ex-musical partner Jed and relay the news, in the hope he’d consider joining me again.
My thoughts turned to the pact we’d made ten years before: We promised each other we’d become rock stars together. For most of our lives, we’d had the kind of relationship other siblings envied. Maybe it was a result of sharing the same bedroom as kids, playing in the same rock groups, or simply surviving our father. For most of the previous two years, though, we had barely spoken. Our brotherhood had been annihilated by the bloody demise of our grunge band, Airport Hug. The trio we’d co-founded and lovingly nurtured from its inception had died a brutal death at the tender age of three. In band years, though, that’s about fifty. We learned the hard way that bands are fragile organisms; few survive long enough to make even a second album.
As kids, Jed and I had been seduced by the magical early years of MTV (back when they played videos). All we wanted to do was rock! In an effort to join the lofty Day-Glo ranks of our musical heroes, we recorded demo after demo and sent tapes around to all the record companies. At first, there were some tentative nibbles, but ultimately nothing more came of our efforts than the standard rejection: “We hope you find a home for your music.”
Undaunted, we maxed out credit cards, investing thousands of dollars to create and release our CDs independently. When all was said and done, we’d barely sold five hundred copies. By the time Airport Hug ground to a halt, our brotherhood and our finances had been pushed beyond the breaking point. We wondered if we could even breathe the same air again without kicking the living shit out of each other, and performing together seemed just as unlikely. The band broke up in true Spinal Tap form when I pressured Jed to ditch his girlfriend (also our acting band manager, and now his wife), who I was convinced favored him whenever it came to crucial band decisions.
Even so, I hoped to parlay my busking breakthrough into the excuse we needed to get back together. Over the last few months we’d begun to speak again, and now bit by bit we resurrected our relationship, growing closer, speaking on the phone and occasionally meeting for drinks at one of our favorite haunts, the Subway Inn across from Bloomingdales, where I first broached the subject of busking. Then, when the time was right, I invited Jed out for an early bird special in Little India, where, with sweaty palms and tail firmly placed between my legs, I blurted out over the Hindi music blasting in the background, “Hey man, I know I was a dick. I’m sorry about everything and hope you can forgive me.” After an intensive heart-to-heart, I was relieved when we sealed the deal with a congratulatory high-five and a hug, and officially rededicated ourselves to our childhood pact to “make it” in music together . . . or die trying.
As we began picking up and reassembling the pieces, we had no idea what the future might hold, or how long we’d be able to maintain our fragile truce. We decided to reform as a duo, simply called Heth and Jed, and resume our songwriting and performing partnership, the idea being we’d appear ninja-like in public places, ready to perform our songs. Both former skateboarders, we threw ourselves into the new gig like it was the X Games of street performance. Here was a chance to test our physical endurance while playing some of the gnarliest busking shows known to mankind, many lasting more than six hours. Today, after six years of playing in blistering heat and finger-freezing cold, tangling with police, drunks, crazies, and the roving gangs that attempt to dominate the city’s prime busking real estate, our chops are so well honed that you could fire an RPG at us and we wouldn’t miss a note. Over time, we proved the music industry wrong by selling tens of thousands of our CDs independently. More importantly, we figured out that while you may never reach the dream you hoped to achieve, with a little luck you might discover that the adventure was the ultimate reward.
Copyright © 2011 by Heth Weinstein and Jed Weinstein. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Soft Skull Press An Imprint of Counterpoint 1919 Fifth Street Berkeley, CA 94710
The name of your book is Buskers. What does that mean?
“Busker” is British slang for street performer.
People were constantly asking us about our street performing adventures, over 1,000 shows and counting! It was just a matter of finding out how to write a book. We began by keeping track of all the best stories in a daily diary. For example, one day we found ourselves embroiled in a massive turf war with the gangs who governed the most profitable high-profile performance spots. This made for some pretty decent entries! To say the least, busking the big city was a little unnerving for two dudes who’d grown up in the relatively placid suburbs. To answer your question, we’re not sure age plays much of a part in memoir writing aside from utilizing the perspective gained from simply maturing.
You guys barely graduated high school yet you wrote a book? What gives?
When we couldn’t get a recording contract we said, okay, fuck it man, we’ll just play on the New York City street corners and subway stations, anywhere we could set up and get our music directly into the public’s ears. And after 50,000 CD’s sold we’re sure happy we didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It was with this same spirit of defiance that we attacked the writing of Buskers. It took us a full year to organize our ideas into a book proposal. A year later the book was in the can. We’re pretty good at sticking with long-term goals. It’s definitely one of our strong suits, besides pounding shots of Jimmy Beam nightly.
Back in High School we were way too busy dodging the friendly fire of our parent’s marital problems and subsequent breakup to really pay much attention in school. At home, we lived in a war zone, but at least we had an empty refrigerator to keep us company. After school, while other kids were studying for the SAT’s and mathletes solved brain-melting equations, we were mostly distracted from our studies, spending the majority of our days trying to escape our dodgy home life. Luckily, we banded together with a bunch of adventurous kids (a surrogate family) who were kind of lost like us and out to have a little fun. Let’s just say we eventually found inventive ways to put food in that fridge. But like the t-shirt says, It’s not illegal until you get caught. Those were really intense yet exciting times.
What was your favorite part of writing the memoir?
Digging through the past and reminiscing about partying with our high school buddies, relating stories about daily Pac Man binges at 7-Eleven, and discovering the power of almighty rock n’ roll for the first time. It was also fun recounting our thrilling teenage days of petty crime, which sometimes included breaking into homes while tripping on acid. People have remarked that the early chapters of the book kind of have this Basketball Diaries thing going on. We are honored by the reference.
You sound like you two needed some guidance.
For all intents and purposes, our parents were AWOL. We had to fend for ourselves. Our father was like a meteor hurtling past us from some distant galaxy, and our mom had fallen into a deep depression.
Is it more fun to be a writer or a musician?
Not sure if they are separate entities. As long as we’re working on something creative we’re happy.
Was it cathartic to write a memoir?
Hell yes! It felt great to come clean about all the drama and emotions that had been building up over all the years. In the process, I think we’ve been able to make peace with our former child selves by giving them a little bit of a voice and finally put some of that residual pain to rest.
Speaking of that, Buskers delves into a lot of painful memories for you guys. How did you handle re-living the past?
Writing gave us the chance to revisit our former angst ridden teenage selves with a huge bear hug from the future. We were able to look back at the events that ultimately shaped us into what we are today, raging alcoholics . . . just joking. Some memories were raw like sushi (awesome 80’s Gerardo – Rico Suave name check btw!). By the end of high school, we had already become avid students of meditation. So we weren’t really strangers to our inner world. A daily meditation practice was instrumental in transforming us from junior Pablo Escobars into honor roll students. That shift occurred when our Mom introduced us to Dan, her meditation teacher. She knew she had better perform some kind of Buddhist intervention on us or we might end up in jail or dead.
So you guys are better off having dealt with your inner demons in book form?
I wouldn’t say better off but it certainly is cheaper than seeing a shrink.
Do you guys have any hobbies?
We’re recovering skate rats and big time reddit.com addicts, basically rock n’ roller nerds.
We heard you guys were quite moody when you were writing the book.
Sunlight, what’s that? We were like zombies iChat-ing in the Bat Cave for twelve months. We hadn’t had any really good fistfight in years . . . and were long overdue. I would truly like to beat the shit out of my brother right now, but then we might mess up our hands and then we wouldn’t be able to play our guitars or write. Maybe I’ll attack him with a microphone stand or something when he’s not looking.
You guys recount some of the street fights you’ve gotten into while busking in the subway. Is it dangerous down there?
We have to keep our eyes open, but after seven years we’ve gained a few street smarts. People who test us quickly find they’ve made a grievous error in judgment. At times, we can be like a two-headed monster! RAWRRRR! A preacher friend of ours recently mentioned that God sends brothers to accomplish difficult tasks. He sited several brothers in the bible who were under significant stress—this feeds perfectly into our messianic complexes.
You don’t come of age in any measurable amount of time. Some people find they’re still passing through teenage well into their midlife crisis. Some find they never knew what teenage was to begin with.
Santa and I have long had an uneasy relationship. It began a few weeks before Christmas in 1962, the only time in my life when I looked good in cranberry velvet. My mother had ventured with me into Macy’s in Herald Square for my first real holiday experience. An experience that ended with me kicking Santa in the face with my shiny patent leather Mary Jane’s as she tried to pass me off into his enormous gloved hands. I was under two but at close range the Mary Jane’s had enough force from my sausage encased white clad thighs that Santa sprouted a cut lip and a drop of blood on his snowy beard. Santa’s helper promptly thrust me back into my mother’s arms while another Elf called for a wet cloth and bandages. My mother thought she heard Santa utter an expletive while she slinked away under the glare of angry parents and their wailing red-faced children who obviously thought I had killed Santa.
Coming from a large Italian-American family where church was something you did, not really explained, we all trooped to mass every Christmas Eve save for my grandmother who seemed to be excused by the man himself preparing the Feast of the Fishes while we were gone. Christmas Eve services: I was always hot, itchy and overdressed – wearing too many layers of clothing: tights, slip, sweater, blouse with peter pan collar, plaid skirt, wool coat, a hat, and gloves. I would slip slide along the pew, kicking my feet against the padded kneeler, crawling over my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins until I reached my grandfather’s lap, where I would fall asleep. The singing would wake me and I would be carried from church by my grandfather out into the night where everyone who greeted us assured me that now, Santa would be coming soon and somehow I took that to mean that since church was over, SantaJesus, one and the same, was cleared to deliver the gifts. I remember thinking I should have paid more attention inside the church, that maybe now he won’t bring me that Chatty Cathy doll. In my mind the two have forever become one.
Singy. The following Christmas, my great uncle returned from a trip to California with a special gift for me: Singy. So christened by me who was insistent, obviously on combining then shortening SantaJesus. Singy was a compact little man about sixteen inches in height with a hard plastic face and molded features. His painted blue eyes were affixed so it appeared he was permanently looking off to the side in a mischievous kind of way, his mouth partially hidden by a fluffy white beard, a solid, sawdust stuffed body covered in red and white flocking, a black belt with a buckle and hard plastic white boots for feet. In the pictures that year I am sitting on a small wooden chair in front of a soaring tinseled covered tree in my grandparents’ living room. I am wearing plaid flannel-lined corduroys rolled at the ankle, a sweater with snowflakes and flyaway pigtails that barely touch my shoulders. Singy is tucked beneath my arm, his eyes turned toward me like he thinks I’m going to hit him. I hadn’t been back on Santa’s lap since the Macy’s incident and my wary expression says it all. I’m afraid if I put him down he will be angry so I clutch him to me all night long, but when we go to sleep that night I turn his face to the wall.
When we were small enough not to care, my brother and I shared a room, twin maple beds at right angles to the other. A night light between our heads. My brother’s bed was covered by an army of stuffed animals. On my bed my mother propped Singy, brought out of Christmas storage and he grinned at the wall evoking anything but visions of sugarplum fairies. But I am still nice to him. I include him in all our games. I bring him to the table. I insist we set a place for him and give him some food. I shove his plastic head up the dirty fireplace to show him how it’s done. Just in case.
On this particular Christmas Eve, my brother and I crawl into bed exhausted, aching from too much food, overheated houses, relatives of all shapes and sizes pinching our cheeks. We are wearing our Christmas pajamas. Me in a candy cane striped nightgown and matching ruffled sleeping cap and he in red and green plaid pajamas that button up the front purchased from the pages of the 1967 Sears Wish Book. It is not too much later when rustling noises at the bottom of my bed wakes me. I open my eyes and there is SantaJesus, resplendent in red suit, white beard, black sack rumpled on the floor at his feet. I had twisted my brother’s fingers in church tonight and made him cry after he broke my candy cane and so I think SantaJesus’ appearance in our room may have something to do with that. He is not as tall or as round as I imagined him to be and at first I try and pretend I didn’t open my eyes, but I can feel him watching so I flutter open my lids just in time to see him press a gloved hand to his lips. I pull the blankets up over my head but create a flap where I can peek out. He hangs our stockings on the posts at the end of our beds and then he exits the room, leaving the door just slightly ajar like my mother always remembered to do. I can see a Pez dispenser, the vivid green asymmetrical head of Gumby, the hook of a candy cane and the metal curve of a Slinky popping out the top of one stocking. While I’m debating whether I should go back to sleep or wake my brother, the door to our room swings open and my mother enters with SantaJesus. I am still hidden so she can’t see me. SantaJesus has his arm around my mother’s waist and she says something into his ear and he turns his face to her and presses the side of his white beard against her head and they both smile before leaving the room. I don’t know what to do with this piece of information and I ruin Christmas morning, ignoring the Barbie in the red plaid cape with the moveable arms and legs to pester my parents’ with questions. I spend the rest of the day searching for clues, but find nothing and instead come to the conclusion that because my mother’s name is Mary just like SantaJesus’, mother, then the two of them must somehow be related and I had better start paying attention during mass.
By the age of twelve I have long known that SantaJesus doesn’t exist, although I am still unclear on the reason why I must go to church. As far as I can see the pay-off of life ever after up in the clouds is just too far fetched of a concept for a girl who has yet to be kissed here on earth. During mass, instead of watching the altar, I stare at the ceiling hoping to see the face of Jesus in the shadows making me special and possibly a candidate for absolution of past and future sins. The only thing that holds my attention is the drama of benediction, where the priest swings the smoking incense filled bejeweled ball and speaks in Latin. I have long suspected that this is what SantaJesus smells like and a few years later, as a teenager, when burning cones of incense becomes the thing to do, I alternate between feelings of guilt over becoming a lapsed Catholic and intense longing to sit on SantaJesus’ lap.
But that December of my twelfth year I was still a semi obedient willing to please Catholic school girl. So when Sister Jean, the director of our Christmas Pageant had emergency surgery, Sister Mary Catherine announced there might not be a play unless a volunteer from the class came forward. I offered myself as writer and director. I constructed a play about an angry Santa and a Mrs. Claus who longs to travel and a few reindeer that refuse to participate in Christmas along with a monster and a wayward Elf. The storylines cobbled together from every televised Christmas special I have ever seen. I also, to please the church loving crowd, throw in Mary and Joseph and in the cradle, where the baby Jesus is to lay, I place the precious, albeit mangy, Singy with his shifty eyes turned to his supposed stepfather, Joseph
At the end is the big production number where we dance to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and I instruct the boy who played Joseph to toss Singy into the air for a grand finale. That is when, carried away by the music, the end of the play, the bag of candy kisses that I had backstage, the jubilation that we are done, Singy becomes the holiday equivalent of a hot potato. He is catapulted over and over again by greedy little fists that punch him, volleyball style, higher and higher into the air. When I finally get him back his beard is torn, the pom-pom from his hat is hanging by a thread, his belt is gone and the stitching on the side of his left leg has come unraveled.
That night when we get home my mother salvages his leg with thread and glues his beard back to his face. When I wake up in the morning I see that she has placed him at the end of my bed, his shifty little gaze looking off toward the wall. I sit up and stare at Singy; I demand that he look at me. Under the covers I rattle my feet so he moves. His squat little body tilts to the right, as does his gaze. Look at me, I say again.
Understandably, our long and tortured history not withstanding, that painted twinkle in his eye gave me a glimmer of hope.
But he refused.