A few years ago, right around this time, in fact, a friend of mine drowned. It was as terrible a day for those who cared about him as you would imagine. I won’t get into the details of his death or the hours spent that afternoon, frantically at first, then solemnly, trying to find him, or recover his body: that too was as awful as you think. He was a funny, cheerful, fundamentally goofy guy, quick to laugh, especially at his own folly. That’s how I remember him, and so in that spirit, I want to talk about something else.
At work two days after it happened, a coworker overheard me telling my friend Chris about it, and she said, “I’ve heard drowning is the best way to go. Very peaceful.”
I had no immediate reaction to that statement: in a sense I was far away and barely heard her, for one thing, but for another, I don’t tend to jump on inane comments right away because my inner voice is too busy tossing it around: Did she really just say that? What the fuck does that mean? Why do people say shit like that? Heard from whom? Is she communing with the souls of the dead, polling them on their particular death experiences? Even if she does have access to the dead, what can they really tell her? None of them have any frame of reference for comparison. It’s not like the guy who was shot in the head has any basis for believing he had it worse than the guy who was burned alive. Seriously, what the fuck?
Seriously, this is what was going on in my head, and by the time that monologue came to a close, my coworker had walked away so I couldn’t ask her. Probably for the best, she would have misunderstood and gotten all butt-hurt. Is there a word for the way people who actually believe the nonsense they pull out of their asses get bent out of shape when you call them on it? I’m drawing a blank.
But I don’t want to be mean: I want to be better than that. And so I decided to take what she offered and make something of it, and here’s what I came up with: my Top Ten Ways to Go. And if you’re reading this and you happen to actually be dead, don’t bother telling me I got it all wrong: life is for the living, gang, and you had your chance.
TOP TEN WAYS TO GO
Number 10: Extreme old age
This is actually a Woody Allen joke, but I’m going to steal it because, in my forty-plus years on the planet, I have yet to encounter as many as five people who have seen that movie, and I’m only outing myself as a poacher as a courtesy to the memory of Woody when he was, you know, good. This way-to-go comes with a big caveat: it only applies when facing execution and being given the choice of how you want to die (does not apply to firing squads – see below), i.e., if you’re on death row in, say, Texas or Georgia – although, would you really want to grow old in either of those places? Personally, I would rather not.
Number 9: Any death that is so uncanny people are still talking about it years later
Houdini got punched in the stomach (bad timing, poor communication: the word “No” can sound a lot like “Now” when you have a bit of a Hungarian accent), Isadora Duncan was dragged out of a moving car when her signature scarf got tangled in the car’s wheels (allegedly her chauffeur thought she was doing an interpretive dance), Steve Irwin managed to prove his point about the precision with which a stingray can strike (Crikey, mate!), Elvis died on the can (crap). I’ll remember you all, always.
Number 8: Firing squad
Yeah, I said it. Look, if you find yourself standing in front of a firing squad, chances are you did something notoriously cool to get there. So pat yourself on the back, smoke one last Gauloises, and tell ’em to stick that blindfold up their fat fascist asses, cuz you’re the kind of dude who wants to see it coming. Fuck yeah.
Number 7: Bacon coma
Do I need to explain this? You eat bacon, and it makes you happy, so you keep eating bacon, and your body is so thoroughly overjoyed by this bounty of awesomeness that it just stops: because it knows there will never be a day that’s better than this. If you’re in a hurry, go with the bacon appetizer at Peter Luger’s Steakhouse: it’ll cost you a little more, but it will get the job done fast, and you’ll be dead anyway, so what are you holding onto your money for?
Number 6: On a high note
I used to have these fantasies when I was a kid, before my favorite team, the Red Sox, had won a championship in my lifetime. I pictured myself digging in against a quintessentially great post-season pitcher like Orel Hershiser or Jack Morris, it’s the seventh game of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, two outs, we’re down by a run and the slowest, fattest guy to ever step on a diamond is our runner at first (we’ve blown through our whole roster playing catch-up since the second inning, because we’re the Red Sox and we’ve made a legacy out of shitting in our own hats), but no worries, because I take an 0-2 pitch in on my hands and muscle it up and over the Green Monster and, for the first time since 1918, the SOX ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS! I round the bases as the stands collapse under the weight of drunken, blissful tears, and as my toe touches homeplate and my teammates mob me, zing, I’m dead. And, as any Red Sox fan will tell you, I go straight to heaven (God, it turns out, fucking hates the Yankees, as he should). These days of course the Red Sox win all the time, so if I want to go out on this particular high note, I’m going to have to move to someplace like Cleveland or Milwaukee. If that’s the case, I think I’d rather just die some regular crappy way.
Number 5: Wearing clean underwear
I say this in part to satisfy my mom’s gravest lifelong concern, but also because wouldn’t it be pretty fantastic to be the first person in the history of undergarments to actually show up at the morgue in pristine undies? That would be one for the books, people.
Number 4: Laughing
Last week I was at the bar with my friends Chili and Smurfette, and as our waitress was walking away (Smurfette and I both kind of have a thing for her, but not Chili, because he’s Smurfette’s boyfriend, and he only has a thing for Smurfette because he’s not an idiot) I said, “Gosh, she’s so great, always so nice to me and stuff. Still, she’d never go out with me,” to which Smurfette replied, “Actually, I bet she would, she has terrible taste in men.” Smurfette gets on a roll every once in a while, and for days at a time the things that come out of her mouth that she intends to sound like encouragement actually sound like insults – just exactly like insults, and the only way you know they’re not insults is that she immediately dies laughing. Each time it happens I believe for a few seconds that she actually is dead because her eyes get very big like she’s looking into a not too distant light and she loses the power of speech. It’s like she’s having a caustic wit-induced stroke. I don’t want Smurfette to ever die, but I wouldn’t mind going out that way.
Number 3: In clown makeup
This is mostly for the sake of the first responders who find you. Think about their lives, climbing six flights of stairs to dirty, cramped apartments where they bag and tag stiffs who’ve been left to air out for three or four days before somebody realizes that’s not bad Indian food they’re smelling. They open the door, and there you are in suspenders and giant clown shoes, your face all made up in a big sloppy grin, red ball on your nose, spray seltzer bottle still clutched in your lifeless hand. Remember the clown’s credo: Always leave ’em laughing.
Number 2: Fulfilling a promise
Say you’re dating someone you know has one foot out the door, and you say, “I don’t know what I’d do if you ever left me – I’d probably die.” And of course she leaves, and then you die. Imagine the possibilities. Your mother would spit in her face. All your friends would hate her. They’d run into her on the street and be like, “Hey, have you seen Steve? Oh, wait, that’s right, he’d dead. He died because you left him.” Revenge is a dish best served at my wake.
And the Number 1 Way to Go: Fucked to death
Obviously. Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not saying you have a heart attack or the other person inadvertently chokes you out. No, you’re just fucking, and it’s the best fucking two people have ever – ever – engaged in, and you both do your thing, and the second it’s over, you die. It’s essential, though, that only one of you dies, because the other one has to walk the earth telling your story. Your legend must not die with you in that Motel 6.
Tune in next time when I’ll be offering up my Top Ten Ways Not To Go. Some of you are going to want to pay very close attention to that list.
I got a tattoo on my 19th birthday. I figured I was old enough to get one and I was definitely still young enough to dream of waking up one twisted dawn in Singapore or Copenhagen and looking in the mirror and remembering the wasted golden days of my youth.
I started thinking about the tattoo the moment I arrived in LA. I visited Cliff Raven’s studio. His specialty was Oriental design, but a tiny black unicorn, beautifully detailed, would’ve cost me about four months’ rent. I put the idea on a back burner until the afternoon of my birthday, when I found myself drifting around Hollywood, pleasantly pickled with my friend Matt Bauer, an ex-pro baseball player addicted to painkillers.
Mad life was streaming by. Huge fat Hispanic ladies screaming at their husbands, grotesquely powdered Jewish ladies arguing with shop assistants, car horns honking, music thudding, black kids dancing for money, cute little blondes in cut-off jeans, gays with their shirts off, old Italian men talking with their hands, old hippy ladies talking to themselves, Japanese tourists blinking in the sun after seeing Deep Throat a second time-a man in a straw hat talking about God, the Devil and retiring to Arizona.
Bauer kept saying it was important that I do something significant for my birthday. I told him about the tattoo idea. He became obsessed. I tried to fend him off. When it came down to it, I was a little nervous. He kept at me. Finally, we came across this place called the West Coast Tattoo Studio. Bauer said it was now or never. I said I had to find the right tattoo. Bauer asked what I had in mind. I thought for a second, and figured that a clown was a pretty unlikely design for them to have. And it couldn’t be a wimpy clown. It had to be cool, like one of those old circus posters. It had to have a certain look, a certain expression-it had to capture that vanished sideshow-ghost carnival feeling. I said, “I’ll do it, if I can get a clown tattoo.” Bauer slapped me on the back.
The place was up on the second floor in a window overlooking the street. I don’t know what I was expecting-some big bearded fellow chewing Red Man tobacco-a lot of skulls and Rebel flag designs in glass cases on the dirty walls.
What we found was a cross between a Sam Spade-type office and a veterinarian’s. A Korean-looking guy without a shirt on was working on a longhair’s forearm-putting the finishing touches on a coiled rattlesnake. He was locked in sweaty concentration and his own chest and back were entirely covered with an elaborately detailed series of dragons, imperial warriors, winged horses, naked women, and suns with fiery faces.
The next customer, or patient, was a vaguely Latina woman who lay back on a vinyl seat with her pants down and her you-know-what right up in the guy’s face while he gave her a bright pink strawberry just above her pubic hair. His back was to me. He had a hatchet-head and a white T-shirt with huge sweat stains under the arms.
The third tattooist looked like a skinhead version of Richard Chamberlain. He was wearing a white cotton madras shirt that disguised but didn’t hide the most disturbing tattoo I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, he didn’t show it to me until after mine was done or I’d have chickened out. I was plenty ready to chicken out and of course I had my excuse all ready-they didn’t have the clown face I wanted.
Skin Man listened to my description, scowled and lit a cigarette. He pulled a ring binder off a shelf and flicked the pages. He stopped, then showed the page to me. It was exactly the face I had in mind. I looked at Bauer who grinned hugely. Skin Man said, “The colors will fade a little in time, but when you die they’ll be nice and bright again.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I took off my shirt and Skin Man traced the outline from the stencil. The humming, sewing machine irritation was just enough to keep me alert. Bauer went over to chat up the strawberry girl while I sat observing the swarming little dramas of Hollywood Boulevard unfold.
What I became fixated on was a wino-at least I thought he was a wino-lying motionless in the doorway of the International House of Pancakes across the street. I concluded later that if he was a wino, he was a fairly well to do wino because at first he had on a green fedora, a herringbone jacket, burgundy polyester trousers, white leather loafers and pale pink socks. It was a bright warm afternoon, thousands of people in the street. This guy was lying down in the doorway of a popular restaurant and people were stepping over his body to get in and out. Hundreds more were stepping past him every minute.
I looked away to ash my cigarette and when I looked back, his green fedora was gone. I turned away to answer Bauer-for a split second-and the guy’s shoes were gone. I thought I was seeing things. He was being picked clean and it was happening before my eyes. The crowds kept churning past. Then I lost sight of him again-and when he reappeared I got a glimpse-the guy was barefoot!
Finally, I watched an actual derelict steal the man’s coat. It was done cleanly, but not so fast that it couldn’t be seen by me, and about five hundred other people. I didn’t see who got the trousers. Bauer came over after the strawberry girl left and I got distracted. When I looked back the man was lying in a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even notice that my tattoo was finished.
As if to welcome me to the fold, Skin Man took off his shirt. His chest was white, surprisingly delicate and hairless. Then he slowly turned to show us his back, which was entirely taken over by an enormous octopus-something out of an opium nightmare-Bosch meets an old Dutch map. The sheer intensity of the thing made me cringe. In each tentacle was a sword or an axe or-something. There were mermaids crushed in the grip of the suckered arms, black ink rising-sailors’ knots, sunken ships, skeletons and sharks.
“It took 75 hours,” he said without emotion. I nodded. He nodded. I paid and we left. We looked in a couple of store windows and watched this guy performing on the corner. He must’ve had double jointed jaws because he was able to open his mouth, or what seemed like his whole head, just like a Pez dispenser. Anyway, by the time we got over to the I-HOP, an ambulance or the cops had taken the guy in the doorway away. Completely gone. The slow fade finally finished.
It was frustrating because Bauer hadn’t seen the guy from the window and hadn’t really believed me when I told him what had been going on. What could I say? The mysterious thing is that later, whenever I tried to point out the West Coast Tattoo Studio to anyone, I could never find it again. It seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. No one even remembered where I thought it had been.
Of course I only have to roll up my sleeve to prove that at least for one warm afternoon, it existed. No matter if I wake up in Singapore or in the doorway of an International House of Pancakes. Even when I’m gone, the glitter in the clown’s green eyes will still be bright. Skin Man told me.
We decided I should buy a girdle in Brighton Beach. It became part of the plan. Drew’s Yorkshire accent had taken a hit after years in New York. He slid through the specifics with fast, slanted a’s and round Brooklyn o’s. How I would fly it in, how I would meet up with The Guy, how I would get the money, “Don’t tawk to no one, raht luff?” He said for the thousandth time while we walked along the Coney Island pier.
“No, I won’t. I can do this. Don’t worry,” I responded. He continued detailing how we’d call the fugazi travel agent, the I’m just a man with a computer, the guy who would get us a fourteen-day-advance fare for a same-day ticket. I’d heard about this agent, sure, but had never laid eyes on him. Drew saw him once, said he looked like Igor in Young Frankenstein. Abby Normal. We would drop off the cash, folded over and rubberbanded, with the agent’s doorman on the Upper West Side .
“No problem.” I said.
The Coney Island sun is mustard flavored. It’s hot sweep fades the signs advertising sword swallowers and Nathan’s hot dogs, and softens to a cold pastel those painted clowns with gaping holes for faces. Disembodiment photo ops. Splintered reds and blues ran right off the old wooden coasters and onto the boardwalk. Past the black haired Italian boys taking deep pulls off stolen cigarettes, past the Russian women, their calloused feet balanced precariously on tall Lucite shoes, and past the three elderly Jewish ladies in their wide-brimmed hats, unwrapping knish on towels in the sand. Coney Island is a diaspora-layered cake and I felt like I fit right in.
“Vatsa little ting like yous aneeda dees for?” asked the store clerk, as she folded the slick, skin-colored girdle and slid it into a plastic bag. I probably smiled and pretended not to understand. I absolutely didn’t say it was so Drew could tape thousands of ecstasy tablets around my waist, so I could subdue the plastic-wrapped pills underneath a loose shirt and trench coat. It was before the towers fell so you could still just walk right through security with coat, shoes, everything. All we really had to worry about was the dogs, but even then, not really. The odorless pills with their price per square inch made it a pretty easy act of espionage.
A week later, Drew walked me up to the metal detector, kissed me goodbye, saw that I made it past the badges and I descended, a few hours later into the agri-circles and low buildings of Springfield Missouri, my bladder bursting and my adrenaline on volume ten.
It wasn’t as easy as we planned it out on the boardwalk. It wasn’t just in and out, I had to wait. A lot of waiting. For This Guy and That Guy to come up with the cash because I couldn’t give it on the arm and someone was always out of pocket. I acted annoyed when I talked to Drew on the phone, told him I couldn’t wait to get back, but secretly, I loved the urgency. I possessed, or was possessed by, an unprecedented power. It was in me. Rather, it was in my backpack. But I felt it, all brilliant and scary and intoxicating.
I had something people really wanted. I sat still, I occupied a seat, I took up space in the world and they came to me.
In physics, power is the rate at which energy is converted. In politics, power is the ability to exert control. My perceived ability to exert control grew at the rate those tablets converted from tiny white circles, stamped with little stars, into stacks of cash. But power is problematic. Perceived power even more. This was a kind of gratification that eats through rather than inhabits. Like drinking acid. If I felt spare before…the dive into the world of buying and selling drugs pared me down even further, sucked the marrow.
I associated with a s/gr/n/eediness that manifested as a Hunger of insatiable proportions. I stayed up for days doing lines off the cover of a Roxy Music cd, and when I’d finished that, crushing the ecstasy tablets and cutting them up, while I waited for the money, the arm, the pocket; while I waited and wilted. Drew called daily screaming, “Where is my money?” and “Are you high? Don’t fucking lie to me, I know you’re high!”
I made sure I was horizontal when he called to make my voice sound sleepy.
“No, I swear I just woke up. I am not high.”
As if I could actually turn down that level of chemically induced adrenaline before answering the phone and then force my voice to sound tired. But you couldn’t have convinced me of invincibility’s fallibility for a million cocaine-covered dollar bills. I was on fire. I was an arrogant Secretariat with a heart the size of two, so full of pumping blood, I still thought I could outrun the demons pounding their hooves into the dust just twenty lengths behind me.
I was looking for a Klonopin or some Xanax bars when I found Jason lying on the floor of my rented room. Jason had originally introduced me to The Guy and was also my coke dealer. He was short and prematurely balding and he always wore these old green cargo pants full of drugs, full of money. I was on my way around the bed when I tripped over the soft mass of Jason’s leg.
His eyes were pressed wide open, squeezed open instead of shut. Like they were frozen in fear, popping out in cartoonish surprise. A string of clear drool trailed his mouth to the carpet. My knees disappeared and my liver rose up into my throat and lodged itself with a bilious fortitude. “OhmyGodOhmyGod,” I heaved. “OhmyGod.”
I knelt down.
I checked his breathing with my cheek.
I set my hand on his chest and felt the slow rhythm of a heart.
I stood up.
I kicked him a little in the ribcage.
Jasonwakethefuckup. I pushed his leg with my foot. Jasonwakethefuckup.
What I didn’t do was call 911. Aside from the rib kicking, I did absolutely nothing to help him. Even though I thought he was dying on the floor.
Instead, I grabbed my sunglasses with the red lenses, and because it was an emergency, and I was sure he would understand, I searched his pockets and stole what he was holding before I ran downstairs and vomited in the kitchen sink.
I didn’t want Jason to die.
But worse, I didn’t want to ruin this feeling, I didn’t want to admit defeat, I didn’t want to get caught, I didn’t want to disappoint Drew, myself, I didn’t want to stop.
When I stepped outside to sit on the concrete step that led to the parking lot of that low-rent, low-key-location apartment building, and I dipped my little finger into the baggie I’d lifted from Jason’s pocket, the air swelled. It became a swirling torrent of thick black dust and I was deafened by dissolution, by the malevolent thunder of forty-eight hooves.