Furious_Cool_Richard_Pryor_and_the_World_That_Made_HimThe first time Richard showed up for Miss Juliette Whittaker’s Youth Theater Guild at Peoria’s Carver Community Center, they were in the midst of rehearsing a play based on the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. All the parts had been cast, but Richard was so eager and insistent, Miss Whittaker gave him a role as a servant.

He was a “skinny little kid” in his mid-teens, she remembered, although “he looked about nine.”

One day, the boy playing the king was absent and Richard begged her to let him fill in. He knew the king’s lines. He knew everyone’s lines. “The other kids just broke up, he was so funny. When the original king returned, even he had to admit that Richard was better in the part. “So Richard stayed on the throne,” she was fond of saying, “and he hasn’t come down since.”

Go Set, Go

Starting over. A lot of shampoo sets and haircuts went up in smoke, along with the tragic loss of all my children’s photographs.

Richard took us to the Malibu Inn Hotel for a few days. We needed fresh air. Billy was still living at Richard’s, but the phone was disconnected. We found Billy, booted him out, and Adam, Daisy, and I moved into the bachelor pad with nothing but new toothbrushes—that was it. My kids were confused.

“Mommy, what happened, how come our house burned down?” Adam asked.

They called me Pelochucho. My best friends were Chuck Norris, Palo de Coco, and El Socio. Peseta gave us all our nicknames: mine for my hair, Chuck Norris for his beard, Palo de Coco for his height, and El Socio because he was Puerto Rican. Peseta was a local crack-head whose own name came from the Salvadoran twenty-five cent piece. At one time, he’d been the best surfer in La Libertad. Now he begged quarters from tourists and handed out nicknames.

Due to computer poltergeists, a portion of the conversation was lost.  You’re coming in mid-chat here after Brad has admitted that he’s from Indiana.

 

Jessica Anya Blau (JB): I don’t even know what Indiana is. I can’t imagine it.

 

Brad Listi (BL): It was bleak. A cultural void. Terrible weather. Bad sports teams. (Which have since improved.)

So here’s a question from Art . . . .

Benders

By Reno J. Romero

Memoir

I was sitting with Go at a bar on Main Street where years ago I fucked a girl leaning up against the building. We hadn’t seen each other in over ten years and were catching up over wings and whiskey. Go’s real name is Jerrod. We penned him Go because he had a huge appetite for meth. It was Go who gave me my first taste of speed. I was in the 9th grade. He chopped and railed out two fat lines on a Metallica cassette. I remember him laughing as tears streamed down my face. We stayed up all night riding our bikes through the desert until the sun came up.

Even though everyone still called him Go he’d been clean for years. A couple of runs through rehab and he finally got the obsession out of his head. Go came from a family of addicts. His dad was an alcoholic and his mom had a thing for pills. But it was his older brother Tommy who had it bad. He was addicted to everything. Pot. Tweak. Alcohol. Heroin. Coke. It didn’t matter. If you had it Tommy wanted it.

Years later in the sick stale rooms of rehab I heard an addict ask another addict what was his drug of choice.

“What do you have?” he answered.

That reminded me of Tommy.

In college he got into freebasing and everything went downhill from there. Dropped out. Started dealing. Crawled up and down the halls of rehab. Almost died. One night Go and I were on his balcony smoking a joint when a cab pulled up. On the side of the cab it said San Bernardino.

“No,” Go said. “I bet that’s Tommy.”

Sure enough Tommy got out of the cab. It was the middle of summer and he was wearing a leather jacket and ski gloves. His body language told us he was on a bender. He saw us on the balcony.

“I made it!” he said closing the door. “Hey, give me ten bucks. I don’t have enough for the fare. Twenty if you have it.”

We gathered nine dollars (we’d just spent all our cash on an ounce of weed) and threw it down to him. He counted it twice.

“Hey, it’s only nine dollars! Cheap bastards!”

Tommy was messed up, talking gibberish, and making erratic hand gestures. His eyes were gone, dope-stricken. Apparently, he had it out with the old lady, told her they were done, that he didn’t need to take any of her drama. He went to a bar down the street, got drunk, and called a cab. We got him high and cracked into a bottle of tequila. He said he couldn’t stay because he needed to go a buddy’s house so they could work out a contract because they found a cure for cancer. Me and Go were just looking at each other like fuck. We asked him what the remedy was. He lit a cigarette and examined us for a moment through the smoke.

“Sea water,” he said and headed for the door.

It has come to my attention, and perhaps yours as well, that virtually everyone in the digital age considers him- or herself an artist. A glance at Facebook is like a trek through the Casbah, with so many people hawking their photos, their music, their writings, and so on.

How can a seasoned artist make a buck in such a climate? It was never easy, and it’s getting harder all the time, as the competition expands. Soon aspiring creative types will outnumber regular folk, who can only spend but so much money on things that—let’s face it—are almost always headed for permanent obscurity. Then, too, a lot of “artists” give their stuff away for free, leading audiences to think all creative output should be free, unless, for instance, it’s written by Jonathan Franzen, whose wealth must approach Illuminati levels if he charges by the metaphor.

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.



In a scenario reminiscent of My Dinner With Andre, only with way less creepy background music and little or no Wallace Shawn, two Nervous Breakdown newcomers utilize the cold war-era concept of the “face to face chat” in a likely misguided effort to push beyond the personal essay format. Daly, already a TNB darling due to his heavily reported dust-up with Wally Lamb, and Beaudoin, still reeling from the announcement of David Coverdale’s defamation lawsuit, come together for a wide-ranging discussion on a number of subjects. They each arrived armed with three pre-prepared questions in case things hopelessly flagged, but the idea was to wing it as much as possible. No topics were off limits and no feelings were spared. So here it is: unedited, unexpurgated, and without a single national security redaction:

Sean Beaudoin: (sliding into a booth in which Joe Daly is already comfortably ensconced. An awkward male-bonding slap-five handshake-y thing follows) So, this diner is a little on the sleazy side. Just the way I like it. But I’m guessing you took a pass on the eggs benedict.

Joe Daly: Food poisoning changes your perspective on everything.

SB: Our waitress looks exactly like Endora from Bewitched. If you don’t get that reference, I’m even older than I thought.

JD: You’re barking up the right tree, brother. I remember both Darrins. And they were both Dicks.

SB: They were, weren’t they? Dick Sargent and…

JD: Dick York.

SB: There used to be a bar in San Francisco called Doctor Bombay’s.

JD: Nice!

SB: Actually, it was good place to get punched in the neck by some guy who decided you stole his bar change.

JD: Yanno, the last time I was in San Francisco, some guy tried to pick a fight with me.  Has it always been a big fighting town, or was it just me?

SB: I think there are just certain places where it’s unwise to stare at the expensive vodkas, mostly because they’re full of people who see your back as an opportunity.

JD: Have you ever been in the mafia?

SB: Lipstick or Trenchcoat?

JD: Either.  Your comment about sitting with your back facing people made me wonder. That’s the thing about TNB- we really don’t know much about each other. That’s the royal “we” by the way.

SB: It’s true. I sort of feel like I know you through post-osmosis. But in reality, I know absolutely nothing about you. I guess that’s why we’re sitting here. I’m going to take out my folded piece of paper with three questions on it now.

JD: I’m keeping mine in my pocket until the last possible second. My list of questions, that is.

SB: Okay, here’s the first one: let’s talk about the ubiquity of Joe. It seems like every post I read, you’ve already commented on it. Which I mostly take to mean you’re really conscientious about participating in the TNB model, as opposed to just slinging your own work up and basking in the glory. Do you feel an obligation to make the rounds, or do you just really dig the give and take?

JD: (pulling fake pencil from behind ear and leaning over napkin) Hold on-I need to write down “The Ubiquity of Joe.” If I ever record a folk album, I now have a title. I just need the Irish sweater and kinky hair.

SB: I can see the cover. You’re on a stool in a pirate’s jacket with a banjo, doing tunes from David Crosby’s solo album. Which I’ve actually listened to, by the way. Every single song is called something like Ecology, Ecology, Mustache, Drugs. Or Morocco, Booze, Mustache, Freedom.

JD: Classics.

SB: Anyway, I know “ubiquity” might sound sort of negative, but I’m trying to say I think it’s kind of an excellent thing.

JD: How so?

SB: Just that there’s a certain sort of “writerly cool” that requires being all enigmatic and not putting yourself out too much, trading ironic for earnest, not being willing to say things if they’re not always “brilliant”…  I see you out there sort of just being supportive and I like it. It’s anti-cool. It’s zero-hipster.

JD: (chuckling) I’m like the Hootie of TNB. No, I mean, I realize some people might think it’s sort of a yahoo thing to do-to consistently comment. But I really appreciate the feedback when I publish something, so I want make sure I’m supporting other writers in the same way. Personally, I find virtually all comments on my pieces to be enormously helpful-at the very least it brings my attention to what caught their eye, good or bad, and what they related to on some level. And you?

SB: At first I felt weird commenting beneath my own pieces, like I was fluffing the totals. But I got over it. And I really like the dialogue. It forced me to think about the entire process in a different way. That whole dynamic of “I am the writer, you are the reader, there will remain a wall of silent genius between us.” Totally subverting that.

JD: I hear you. My first thought on commenting on my pieces was that it was a pretty slavish way of pimping yourself out. Then some other writers suggested to me that actively commenting on your pieces was a good thing because it drives discussion and brings readers deeper into the piece, as well as the TNB community. Let’s face it-the Bible is online, the complete works of Shakespeare, most of the Garfield cartoon strips. There are some pretty good options for readers looking to kill time on the internet. I think that for people to spend their time reading a piece on TNB is deserving of some grateful acknowledgment, in my opinion. Oh, and yes-I just implied that I’m bigger than Jesus.

SB: You are. My oatmeal is bathed in loving light.

JD: I wish I ordered oatmeal. Maybe I’ll try to multiply yours.

SB: Can you multiply me a coffee refill, too? Okay, here’s my second prepared question: Writing about music is easy in a way, because almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it, and also pretty impossible, since almost all of us have spent our lives immersed in it.

JD: Exactly.

SB: So there’s pretty much not a single thing you can say-“I love Rush, I hate Rush”-that won’t be considered by someone to be not only ill-informed, but actively offensive. So why take that whole package on?

JD: (briefly considering) Writing about music isn’t the most original endeavor. We music obsessives all suffer from the delusion that our passion is unique in intensity and/or variety. In reality, the only thing unique is probably our album collections, which are like snowflakes-no two are exactly the same. When I crawl into an album or a band’s catalog, sometimes a theme pops up, or I find myself struggling with the question of “what it is about THIS music that makes me feel this way, when this other music doesn’t?” And next thing I know, I’m writing about it. Know what I mean?

SB: I do. Except I tend to ignore that compulsion. To write about it. To me it’s like covering a Pro Choice rally. There’s two groups of people with signs and bullhorns, a bunch of nervous cops, and no possibility of convincing anyone of anything.

JD: Speaking of convincing, you used to write for The Onion. How in the world did that happen?

SB: I pitched the SF city editor an idea and he liked it. Never thought I’d hear back from him. They were desperate, obviously.

JD: Did you just come up with an individual story idea and send it to him, or was your idea to write a regular column?

SB: I pitched him “How to Spend Christmas Day Alone” which was essentially about being that guy who doesn’t have the cash to fly back to his parents’ in Cleveland like the rest of his roommates. The idea being, okay, here’s a list of places you can go to stag in hopes of warding off the crippling depression.

JD: So what’s open?

SB: Um, not much. The Avis rental car counter. Walgreens. I advised stealing lots of candy, getting caught, and spending the day with friends in jail. Also, David Brenner does a comedy night at this Chinese restaurant in North Beach every year. Which sounds almost like jail. After that I kept pitching the idea that SF really needed a sarcastic weekly sports column. And they finally agreed. As it turns out, it wasn’t at all what SF needed.

JD: What happened?

SB: I got canned.

JD: Sexual harassment?

SB: I wish. No, like two days after Lehman Brothers ate it, the SF and LA offices were shuttered. I’d just finished my column and the editor calls and says “don’t bother to send it in this week.” That’s more or less the last I heard from them.

JD: (reaching into pocket for notebook) I guess this brings me to my first pre-prepared question: In the cultural juggernaut Road House, Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton imparts nuggets of wisdom to friends and enemies like “Pain don’t hurt,” and “Go fuck yourself,” to name a few. Ok, in one of Buddhism-lite lectures, he tells the battle-weary staff of the Double Deuce, “I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.” Is it possible for a writer to follow this advice?

SB: (Crossing fingers over chin in a Zen manner) Well, you probably remember that just before the climactic fight scene, the bad guy tells Swayze “I used to fuck guys like you for breakfast in prison. That’s pretty much my writing motto.

JD: It’s all starting to fall into place.

SB: Not to mention the 26-point Helvetica banner I have tattooed across my back…

JD: I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see that.

SB: Obviously you’ve done a little research, and I appreciate you slyly bringing up Road House. Yeah, the lead character in my next book is named “Dalton.” And, yes, it’s an homage to Swayze.

JD: People are going to think you’re kidding. But you’re not, are you?

SB: Nope. It’s called You Killed Wesley Payne. But let’s talk about how Brad Listi called you and me onto the carpet of his mahogany-lined Fifth Avenue office last week.

JD: Good idea. We haven’t had a chance to break it down yet.

SB: So, after the usual niceties, he essentially told us-

JD: -to shape the fuck up.

SB: Yes, but also, if we did get our act together, we had the potential to be the Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry of this year’s TNB freshman class.

JD: Right.

SB: You seemed to think he was warning us not to stay up all night doing coke with Lenny Dykstra/Greg Olear anymore. I sort of thought he was trying to tell us to enjoy this time of innocence, because it doesn’t last.

JD: Seriously? I’ve been having a blast at TNB. It’s like a literary Lollapalooza. But without the eight dollar bottles of water and overflowing port-a-potties.

SB: You’ve mentioned you’re working on a book.

JD: (tenses up) Wait, is it bad luck to talk about a book that you’re still writing?

SB: Yes, and now the thing is doomed. Even so, what’s it about? What are your wildest expectations for it?

JD: The book is a direct consequence of TNB. I know it sounds trite, but the author community really inspired me to give it a shot. Being outside the literary world, I always had the idea that all novelists were pretentious and unapproachable-

SB: Aren’t they?

JD:-and riddled with fear and sarcasm. But most of the authors at TNB seem down to earth, passionate about the writing process, and sincere in participating in a community vibe. I realized I could either keep doing the one-off pieces and being a hired gun for other artists, or I could take on the challenge and see what I’m all about…the book will deal with music, which means that any expectations I have for it are hellaciously modest. In a genre populated with Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman, and Michael Azerrad, I have no pretensions that I’m going to burst onto the scene.

SB: The scene could use some bursting. You could be the new Klosterchuck.

JD: I’ll just be happy to get it published and read by a few people whose opinions I respect….(suddenly laughing) um, excuse me, Miss? Yes, waitress? Did we really order all these cliches?

SB: She’s like, “fuck off and tip me already, you guys are camping at my best table.

JD: Here’s my next written question, while we’re on the subject: You’re quite a music aficionado, seemingly across a number of genres. One of which is apparently jazz, which is sort of like the absinthe of music-few dare to sample it for fear that they won’t understand the experience. Even established musicians can be intimidated by the unfamiliar scales and chord progressions. What does jazz do for you and is it possible to discuss it without sounding pretentious?

SB: It’s unfortunate but true that you pretty much can’t talk about jazz without sounding like an asshole. Unless I meet someone who’s as much of a twitchy stalker about it as I am, I usually play dumb. There’s definitely this sense that, if you’re into Charles Mingus or Sun Ra, it must just be a bid for hipster credibility. It’s like, “there’s no way you actually listen to that for pleasure!”

JD: Right, right.

SB: But, you know, I will cop to the fact that there have been times in my life when I claimed to like things that I was actually not that into-Foucault comes to mind-because I thought it might impress people. One of the great things about getting older is completely not giving a shit anymore. I mean, if I want to waltz into Starbucks and order a triple caramel whipped cream enema, I’m going to do it and not worry what the cute barista thinks, you know?

JD: It depends how cute.

SB: And I would say that the “intimidation” aspect of jazz is probably more about the fear of looking dumb at a party than the complexity of chord changes. Even the name is sort of meaningless, because it encompasses so many different styles of music. You mean your grandma’s Artie Shaw collection? Cake walks? Hard bop? The fifteen incarnations of Miles Davis? Machito? Free Jazz? B-3 funk? Fusion-y shit?

JD: So then what’s the appeal? Does it relax you, inspire you, make you want to lay with a woman?

SB: A long time ago, and this was back in the cassette days, I worked the overnight desk shift at a hotel, and I had this one TDK of Coltrane’s Ascension which is, you know, a challenging piece of music. Seriously dissonant. People would walk into the lobby, hear it, pick up their suitcases and walk right back out again. I wore that tape down to the felt.

JD: It’s like you’re a conundrum, inside of a mystery, served next to some potato croquettes.

SB: I get bored easy. Verse, verse, chorus, solo. Turn on the radio, here’s another song about a girl you like. Here’s another song about how it sucks to be twenty and have no idea how your life will turn out. Here’s an ironic song about a toy we all grew up with. Did you really order the croquettes?

JD: I did. Out of all the world’s vegetarians, I have the worst diet by far. (gripping non-existent tofu gut). And I’m ok with that.

SB: A bunch of people I know got into a massive pixellated conflagration about Lady Gaga on Facebook last week. One side loves her, mostly for campy reasons, but still some true acolytes. The other loathes her, mostly because she doesn’t sound anything like ZZ Top. And the middle thinks arguments about musical preference need to be left in the dorm room, so grow the fuck up already. But I thought it was interesting that the main sticking point seemed to be that while some people admitted to finding her entertaining, they weren’t willing to concede she had any actual talent. Well, Joe Daly, does she?

JD: Wow. I do have a theory on Lady Gaga, which may or may not impact this question. The theory is that there are at least five Lady Gagas.

SB: Good, I like it….keep going…

JD: If you look at any series of pictures of her, she looks wildly different across all of them. Basically, you’ll see that her body and facial structure aren’t particularly unique-just the outfits, makeup, and hair. It occurred to me that if she got really blown out at a party, and was too hungover to make an appearance the next morning, she could easily send a similarly-shaped friend to do the gig, and no one would ever be the wiser. Plus, the way she sings has been auto tuned up to the max, so really there’s probably a legion of women who could pass themselves off as LGG in the studio. You see where I’m heading?

SB: Completely. And I do think she’s incredibly talented. It may just be that her incredible talent does not lay in the musical arena. I mean, she and some very smart people got together, came up with a character to inflame the pop fires, and every day they deposit truckloads of cash into various accounts. They’re just really bald about it, which I sort of admire more than bands or singers who pretend they’re not all about business.

JD: Dead on! You do have to respect an artist who plays it straight like that. So it’s my own personal conspiracy theory that Lady Gaga is like Lassie in that she’s played by a number of different actors/singers.

SB: And also that she can bark and claw the dirt in a way that tells you there’s a little boy who’s been kidnapped by Apaches and it’s time to run and get the sheriff?

JD: She would also probably be really handy if someone got caught in a bear trap. “What’s that Lady Gaga? It’s Timmy? Timmy needs help?”

SB: Seems like a good time to introduce a pretty clichéd scenario that was asked of me last week, mostly cause I got no more good material on Gaga…

JD: Bring it on.

SB: Okay, you’re going to the typical theoretical deserted island and can bring the entire recordings of only one artist to play on your coconut-fueled iPod. The caveat is, you don’t get any bootlegs or re-issues, just the studio albums. To listen to over and over, for the rest of your life. So, even if Working for the Weekend is your favorite song ever, choosing Loverboy limits you to a tiny pool of recordings. Who do you pick and why?

JD: Well, if it were one album, I was going to go with the Best of the Stone Roses, but as they only have two studio albums of original stuff, they don’t make the island.

SB: The smart move would probably be to snag Mozart, not only for the volume of material, but because you could while away the years studying him. If only to keep yourself from talking to a volleyball. Unfortunately I’m not that smart, so I’m going with Slayer.

JD: Because…

SB: Because only Slayer will keep me and my new monkey-wife sane.

JD: I’m going to have to go with The Who then.

SB: Really?

JD: I’ve just always related to them on a very deep level. I got into them in high school, when I was starting to feel my oats, and that was the same general age that Townshend was when he began writing some of his best stuff. I’ve always thought Daltrey was money. Great rage. Plus, end to end, they have a great legacy that includes anthems, punk, heavy riffing, and very melodic, stripped-down stuff.

SB: Supposedly Hendrix hated Pete Townshend. So, by extension, I am obliged to hate Pete Townshend, too. But I dig Live at Leeds. Total early punk.

JD: And one of the best motherfucking live albums ever! (waitress walks by, glares, shakes head.) Whoops-sorry for the profanity, miss. (In a quieter voice) Didn’t realize she was right behind us.

SB: We’re totally getting 86’d. I better do my final question.

JD: Good idea.

SB: (composing mentally, taking deep breath) Okay, so yesterday I was thinking about how, as a society, we process things in tiny increments-

JD: I agree. Next.

SB: (laughs)…we spend all our time like, what do I have to get done by noon? Who am I hanging out with this weekend? It’s pretty amazing how much has changed just in the last year alone, but we don’t really acknowledge it. For instance, Tiger Woods. He’s a punch-line. His iconography is permanently shot. But eight months ago he was a walking brand, one of the most revered, most reliable money-machines of the last century. Pretty much a god, at least to people who find their gods in someone else’s backswing. Okay, so….sorry this is so long-winded….so I was just reading that David Shields self-interview where for the third time he more or less said “literature is dead” and I was thinking how that was like saying “Tiger fucks waitresses at Waffle House.” Bang! Hit the defibrillator, lock your kids in the rec room, start selling off all those valuable first editions. But golf goes on. Tiger’s still playing. People still watch and care. It’s just different now. It seems to me that saying “literature is dead” is really “here’s a contentious generalized statement with which to drum up interest in my $25.95 hardback.” You know what I mean?

JD: I think I do. I mean, does anyone really think literature is dead? In fact, it’s more alive than ever-look at the growing list of contributors to the TNB, many of whom have their own books out. Maybe print is dying, but the fact that it’s easier than ever to get people to read your thoughts, via book, blog, or social networking site, shows that literature is very much alive, it’s just diluted. But for the record, I think the “contentious generalization” tool is about as original as the serial killer not being dead at the end of the movie.

SB: Right. You gutshot Michael Meyers. He gets up. Light him on fire. He gets up. But I do like that Shields is really confident about staking out his position. He’s like, “here’s what I think, here’s what my book is about, buy it or don’t, I’m not trying to make any friends.” He’s obviously spent years thinking through this stuff while the rest of us were running with scissors. I guess in the end I just feel protective of the old model. Which is dumb, since I mostly get screwed in the old model.

JD: Speaking of which, you just posted this thing called Read My Finger: How Not to Get Published

SB: I did. Which will probably guarantee I never get published again…

JD: All the TNB literary critics, editors, and very serious writers knocked each other over to effusively praise the thing. It felt like it was Christmas Eve and someone said there was only one Cabbage Patch Kid left, and it was in your article. Being an outsider in the literary world, I found the piece to be thoroughly entertaining, and at the same time, quite humbling. Not only did you name check a legion of authors I’ve never heard of, but you revealed the submission and acceptance process to be tired, saturated, and impersonal.

SB: Actually, once it was done I considered scrapping the thing. Even though most of it was intended to be comical, in the end I don’t want to genuinely discourage anybody. Writing is just too hard as it is. But, you know, it was all true. The truth cannot be denied. On the other hand, my mother called me up and was like, “that’s the last time I write anything but XXOO on your birthday card.”

JD: Nice one, mom.

SB: Since we’re at the end here, it does seem like I should mention that, even on a telepathic level, we seem to have agreed not to speak of the Steve Almond contretemps. Maybe if for no other reason than that we’re both bored to tears by ever single facet of it. But it occurred to me to ask you one thing, and maybe with this question put it all to bed, permanently, next to Hoffa in a layer of quicklime…

JD: (nodding warily)

SB: Did that experience give you, in even the most fractional way, a glimpse of what it’s like to be pinned down in the public eye like a Lindsay Lohan? By which I mean, caught up in some “spat” that was probably bullshit to begin with, but for whatever reason becomes a cultural snowball, conducted through headlines and discussed by third parties and generally taking on a life of its own, so that it goes way past really being about you, and you sort of end up standing by watching it happen?

JD: Yeah, it was really strange to watch things spin out so quickly. My thinking is that Steve had every right to say what he wanted to say, and I responded to him accordingly as a comment to his piece. My involvement ended there. I wasn’t going to get baited into some internet feud. As the saying goes, “never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” But next thing I knew, people began weighing in and a very different debate arose. Greg Olear’s piece, Something Nice,” was awesome because it set off a very thoughtful and sometimes animated discussion about what the TNB culture means to different people and what their expectations are for the site. Apparently it was time for that discussion to happen at TNB.  But as you say, the debate had little to do with me or my writing.

SB: I feel compelled to mention that I do admire pretty much any willingness to leap into the fray brandishing unpopular sentences. To not worry if your opinion is going to keep people from being gentle with your own pieces. To toss it out there like a raw steak and deal with how it effects your Amazon ranking later. I mean, essentially, the internet is nothing but a massive binary excuse to be righteously pissed about stuff. So the guy with the pointy stick, in the long run, is sort of doing everyone a favor.

JD: When the TNB dust up was still pretty new, one of the more veteran authors told me that when you put something out there, some people will like it and some won’t, and to realize that none of them are right. The important thing is to just keep writing because that’s all I can control. I’m not going to say that I don’t care what people think about my writing, but I think that as long as I’m writing about topics that mean something to me, and not for other people’s approval or feedback, I can be happy with my process.

SB: Listen, people who say ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about my work’ are either lying or Thomas Pynchon. I mean, everyone cares. Deeply. The locus of writing is showing off. It’s narcissistic just by definition to imply “my deepest thoughts are worth your investment in time.” So I think it’s how much of that ego you can deflate, you know, that makes certain writing rise above. How much can you ignore your nature and access your true feelings without censoring them, or tailoring them to a specific audience. No matter what the genre, guns and spies or Jane Austen, that’s the kind of writing that, to me, never feels disposable. So, you know, I guess I’m trying to say, if you feel like you’ve written something artfully, but with a minimum percentage of bullshit, you can pretty much get away with anything. You can call anyone out, or reveal things that are totally ugly and not be condemned for it. But if you’re going to attack someone for the intellectual rigor of their distaste for Dave Matthews, man, you better have a pretty solid handle on your own failings.

JD: Ok, they’re turning the lights out in here. I need to ask one more question though, if that’s cool. When I was researching your works, I found out that your first book, Going Nowhere Faster, was just translated into Polish. Polish!

SB: I know, right? Now it’s called Donikad Byle Szybciej. I’m embarrassed to admit how pleased I am with how entirely random that is.

JD: Why Poland over say, France? Is there a big Young Adult market in Krakow?

SB: No clue. But I intend for my empire to span from Budapest to Helsinki by 2012. And by 2112, I intend for it to span from Spirit in The Radio to Tom Sawyer.

JD: Ha! In a perfect world, where would you like to see your writing take you? If you could decide your own fate, what does the future look like?

SB: Totally honestly? If I can sell just enough to not worry about checks or agents or self-promotion, to be able to sit in my little office with my laptop and concentrate on whatever project I’ve got going that day, I would be extremely happy. Anything beyond that is frosting.

JD: Amen.

SB: Selah.

JD: What does that mean?

SB: I’m not entirely sure. Hunter Thompson used to say it all the time. Something like let those with eyes see, and those with ears hear.

JD: It doesn’t get any more profound than that.

SB: No, sir. It really doesn’t.

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.”

kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

 

 

The advent of the New Year in the US has always been about regeneration, reflection and apologizing for relieving myself inside your piano bench, on top of the sheet music for Haydn’s L’impériale, which is an inferior symphony, I’ll have you know, but I’m sorry anyway. Regeneration is for lizards and draculas and reflection gets you nowhere. So how are we to deal with this maelstrom of transient morality, half-baked resolutions to get thin or stop sprinkling cocaine on my Fruity Pebbles before work? I say we go Chinese.

The Chinese New Year is transparent, honest and sincere. And just because it involves a little bit of ancestral ooga-booga, this doesn’t make it any more preposterous than our rituals involving black-eyed peas, soggy cabbage and the annual scavenger hunt to find my car on New Year’s Day, usually located somewhere between Bed-Stuy and Baltimore, if I’m lucky.

The Chinese New Year is steeped in a rich cultural tradition, like most things Chinese, including the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an and the “Dumpling Man” of St. Mark’s Place, next to Tompkins Square Park. I’m told that typically, the Chinese New Year begins with a massive house cleaning to sweep away any bad juju from the previous year. I suspect, however, that my girlfriend, who has been nagging me incessantly about tossing out my collection of jock straps from retired Mets, may have fabricated this “tradition.” She’s also not even Chinese, but sometimes love is about compromise and I must agree, Marv Throneberry’s athletic supporter doesn’t exactly “go” nailed up next to her Kandinsky print.

As I’m sure you’re also aware, with every Chinese New Year comes an animal used as the years’ avatar. This year, it’s the tiger, a charismatic megafauna that is ferocious and totally bad-ass, unlike the stupid ox, last year’s loser. The ox achieves through routine, and last year I was the picture of an ox, routinely watching the Law & Order/ CSI: Las Vegas cocktail and eating jelly-filleds from Doughnut Planet while cashing my unemployment checks for 1970s pornography on Betamax. The lesson here is to be careful. Next year will be the Year of the Rabbit, which will hopefully translate into lots of sex, but could also mean a year of coprophagy, or the consuming of night feces, another distinct and altogether unpleasant activity engaged in by the rabbit. But that’s the beauty of it. To coin a phrase, Chinese New Year is like a box of chocolates: You never know if you’ll be eating shit or running free, preying on antelope in the African savannahs.

Another interesting nuance of the Chinese New Year involves not just one night of revelry, but count ‘em 15 days and nights of rabble-rousing, which include setting pretty much whatever you want to on fire. For instance, the First Day of the Chinese New Year marks a time when families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended family, usually their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. A lavish meal is served, scantily clad second cousins perform a lion dance to keep evil spirits away, then the old people are typically set on fire and the fun can really begin.

The next thirteen days of the Chinese New Year are traditionally spent in a huangjiu-induced stupor. Huangjiu, or “yellow-liquor” was a particular favorite of Chinese poets in the Tang dynasty. Li Po’s protracted ode to yellow liquor, “I Can’t Feel My Face,” is a prime example of huangjiu’s influence over political and family life in China at a time when most people were in the middle of a gargantuan blackout. The thirteen-day blackout is also a good idea because most of these days are devoted to The Jade Emperor, who is often a royal pain in the 屁股. According to one of several Chinese creation stories, the Jade Emperor fashioned the first humans from clay, but as he left them to harden in the sun, a storm came down, misshaping some of the figures, accounting for the origin of infirmity, physical abnormalities and The Jonas Brothers. Just to hedge your bets, though, it’s never a bad idea to set something on fire to placate The Jade Emperor, because you never know. It’s said that The God of The Kitchen reports back to The Jade Emperor with news of our shortcomings and transgressions, but I’m not too worried about the God of the Kitchen. Oh, my coq au vin was too stringy? Do you really think the Jade Emperor gives a shit? But, like I said, better to torch a miniature pony or a clown just to be safe.

A brief note on safety: With all this arson going around, it’s easy to find yourself engulfed in flames, especially if you are dressed as a dragon or as an old person. So during Chinese New Year festivities, be sure to coat yourself in a fire-retardant material like asbestos cement, or for increased range of movement, calcium silicate.

Now, on the 15th and final day, the celebration starts to wind down. People usually eat vegetarian meals to cleanse their bodies after the two week pork party. This, and the fact that football season is over may be the main drawback of Chinese New Year. Why all this cleansing? It reminds me of the American New Year’s, where everyone gets new shoes and pretends to run for a week. Then we get all this alternative dietary claptrap so popular with today’s homeopathic nitwits. It’s hypocritical, it’s creepy and it’s mediocre, people. We are TIGERS this year. Fierce Chinese tigers. Would a tiger subject himself to vegetarian soysage or the indignities of the enema bag? Or hop in a Prius to go prance around at Pilates, under the illusion that the New Year has propelled him into righteousness? No, a tiger would probably eat everybody at the Pilates class, then drive around town growling or spraying anal gland secretions to pick up babes. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I’m going to roll in 2010.

America, you can have your Times Square apple drop, your awkward midnight smooches, your mindless Gregorian calendar, your one night of fatuous, yawning “fun,” your black-eyed peas—your whole wretched, fabricated New Year’s hoodwink. I will take the Chinese and their fecund cultural traditions, their poetry, their piety, Peking Man, and Peking Duck. In this year, this glorious dawn of 2010, I will take the form of the tiger.

And if that means I relieve myself inside your piano bench, soiling the sheet music of the Yuan dynasty classic, Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower, that’s just the tiger in me. Plus, I think we both know that Cantonese opera is far inferior to the majestic musical treasure known as Kunquopera. But yeah, again…I’m real sorry about that.


One question I am often asked by readers of my novel, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, is “Have your daughters read it?!” The question is always asked in a way that demands at least one exclamation point, as the novel is full of sex and has some mild drug use. The answer is one daughter has read it, the other has not. I’m not too worried about it—it’s a novel, it’s fiction. What I worry about more is blogging—the real world, my real world and my kids’ easy access to it. With that in mind, I shall proceed anyway to tell you about one of my experiences with a celebrity penis.

I once spent a weekend in Los Angeles with a somewhat-famous, male, sex-symbolish celebrity whom I shall call Celebrity (we were both guests in the same chic, glass, hillside home). On the first night of my arrival my friend (blond, petite, movie producer) opened champagne while her boyfriend (cagey, tall, talent agent) poured cocaine from a plastic bag into little anthills in even rows on the marble coffee table in the living room. Also present at this party were Celebrity (of course!) and his screenwriter pal, a mutt-haired, middle aged guy who only talked about his Harley.

For most of the evening I sat alone on a black, leather plank couch and watched and listened while Celebrity and the others did sweeping, piggish snorts across the table using the same stunted silver straw. (I’d recently abandoned alcohol and all else, and so remained sober throughout the somewhat drug-laden weekend.) During the conversation, Celebrity often took center stage, chattering about prep school pranks and girls he had slept with. He was at once compelling (his onscreen persona in one of my all-time favorite movies was utterly captivating) and repellent with his endless exposition on himself. Celebrity seemed vaguely interested in me as extended eye contact occurred a few times and once he took my arm and escorted me around a room to show me a painting. I’m fairly certain that his attraction to me was not about me in particular as much as it was about the fact that I was the only one at the house who wasn’t used to being around famous people and so the only one who seemed (and was) impressed by him. He asked nothing about me and I spoke very little (it was like my first date in ninth grade when I went out with the most popular senior boy in the school. I was ridiculously quiet, like a stunned rabbit trapped in a garden.). In case you’re wondering, I shall let it be known right now that our flirtation did not go beyond eye contact and it is highly unlikely that Celebrity even remembers our time together, while I, sadly, can recall every detail.

The most interesting part of the weekend occurred on Sunday morning. I woke up somewhat late and stumbled out of my bedroom. I was wearing a black, silk nightgown that almost looked like a dress. My long hair was a straggled mess, like I’d just dismounted a motorcycle. No make up, cracked lips, crumbs in my eyes. I imagine I looked like some haggard woman stepping out of her mountain shack to chase the goats away from the turnip patch. Outside my room was a glass wall that surrounded the pool. On the other side of that wall was Celebrity. He was completely naked. I walked along the glass wall towards the glass door that opened up to the pool. Celebrity walked along beside me, holding my boggy-eyed stare the whole way—it was like Marcel Marceau doing the mirror act with another mime. When I opened the door and stepped out to the pool, Celebrity asked if I wanted a swim. I declined and instead sat on a lawn chair with the Sunday L.A. Times and watched as Celebrity dove in, climbed out, mounted the diving board, dove in again and swam some plashy laps.

Now here’s the most amazing thing about this moment: Celebrity had the smallest penis I’d ever seen in real life. And it was as white as flour. It looked like a powdered thumbtack pushed into his pubic patch. I was astounded.

Tiny penises are fine by me; I certainly don’t care and would never criticize anyone because they have a tiny penis (I’d hate to read the blogger who got a good gander at me strolling around naked!). What shocked me was that Celebrity seemed to have no shame in his penis—no worry that I would reveal to anyone the fact of his thumbtack. How marvelous to be so comfortable with whatever you were given at birth. How liberating to think, “This is it! Voila! Take it or leave it!” How fabulous to go through life believing that everyone finds you fascinating and has only adoration for your less-than-a-miniature-gherkin penis! (Alas, I do not have Celebrity’s non-judgmental self-acceptance. If I leave a room naked and someone else is in that room–my husband, for example–I back my way to the door so as to spare him the view of my undulating rear.)

Her husband's on the other side--she's backing up.

Her husband's on the other side--she's backing up.

This brings me to my problem with blogging: the easy access, the eternal life on the internet. If someone were to type into Google Jessica anya blau tiny penis would they pull up this blog? Would my daughters be forever ashamed because their mother wrote a nonfiction posting about a weency celebrity penis?

Let’s hope not.