Handbasket

By Ted McCagg

Cartoons

I was raised proper, by which I mean a proper appreciation of language in all its splendor. Our family did not exclusively fawn over the most flashy words, nor the most humble. We took delight in using descriptors of all stripes, including those reserved for the bawdy house. Within the panoply of adjectives and expletives, I learned at my mama’s knee how best to decry, offend, verbally defenestrate.

We practice our art with caution but devotion. It’s too easy to rely upon the ugly but poignant “Fuckwad,” so we reach for more interesting ways to express distaste. “Blithering, emo, wuss-tastic fuckwad” is, to my ears far more interesting, and importantly, more precise. “What is the fuckwad doing?” Blithering. It’s all right there, sewn up in a tidy package. “What kind of fuckwad is he?” An emo fuckwad, who aspires to such far reaches of wussiness that he’s wuss-tastic.

I guess it’s always been this way. I got damned to hell by my best friend in second grade because I said “damn,” a bit of irony that was lost on me since I neither knew what “damn” meant, nor what this place called “hell” was all about. Was it near Mount Olympus? Did Zeus live there? If so, I really wanted a date with Cupid, the Roman hunk of “Cupid and Psyche” fame and Eros’ doppelganger. I was only eight, but I knew hotties when I read about them. Plus, he had wings. That’s pretty awesome.

Once my son Milo was born, I valiantly razed my language to the realm of modestly offensive, and then further into the dull confines of Vanilla Soft Serve Ice Cream once we belatedly realized that Milo had a real knack for language too. Instead of wusstastic-ness, I have become enamored of completely antiquated charmers like “Sweet Fancy Brown!” and “Good grief!” I don’t say “Gosh” or “Gee whiz,” but the words “Criminy,” “Dangit”  and “Oh, crumb,” feature often in my mild expletives.

And let’s face it, expletives help. You drop your groceries: what do you do? Thank the heavens for giving you one more challenge in your already ridiculous day? No. You curse, blurt, spit, and then you pick the frozen strawberries up and move on. If I couldn’t do that, those groceries on the ground might just send me around the twist, and I would lie down next to them tearfully, wondering how I used to manage to get through my day at all.

But I’m not stupid. Not very, anyway.

I know that there’s a time and a place for everything, and first grade is probably not the place for a seven-year-old to be yelling “Fuck off, ______!” at his friend who had just told him to go to hell. I realize this is probably a little raw for the playground out of the mouths of babes. I really do.

So after telling Milo that it was inappropriate and he wasn’t allowed to say words like that, I created a mutual disciplinary response to the elegant but perhaps misplaced use of “Fuck.” (I mean, syntactically, Milo nailed it: “Fuck off!” was the perfect response to someone who just told him to go to hell, and if he was fifteen it wouldn’t have raised any alarms.)

So I created the “Potty-Mouth Pot,” the bank into which we must pay our debt to the gods of expletives and curses. It’s a blown glass jar displaying our shame for all to see: Milo owes twenty-five cents for every use of the span of “grown-up words” (which linguists might argue are a badge of the truly immature); I owe a dollar.

Why the disparity to the potty-mouth pot? Because to teach the lesson well, I figured that we needed to identify who was winning the contest and who was losing. Each dollar bill was so much easier to separate from the quarters my son reluctantly placed in the jar that we could, by taking a quick glance, estimate the winner.

This is also known as “hubris.”

The first day went predictably. Chastened by my admonishment but also soothed by the admission that I too suffered the curse of cursing, Milo and I paid our first debts to the pot together. He was testing the boundaries of our agreement. Did “Damn” fit the requirements? Yes, but “Dam-age” did not. He paid a quarter for “Damn” but not “Dam,” and he was terribly proud of finding the workaround.

I symbolically paid my first dollar into the kitty. (“What’s the kitty?” he asked. Same thing as the “pot” in poker. Now we’ve introduced gambling terms.) Even though I hadn’t said a single blue word, I felt I should make the point that I would be fair and honorable in the contest, that he could count on me for holding up my side of the bargain. If he had to pay, so did I.

The next dollar I shelled out was when I was on the phone: I said “Damn” to someone and Milo shrieked “YOU OWE A DOLLAR! YOU OWE A DOLLAR!” I gamely paid up, neatly folding my dollar and placing it in the jar.

Then he said “Hell,” and I had to wrestle him for the quarter he was loathe to part with. He cried as he let it tinkle to the bottom of the jar, separated from its mate by only two single bills, and Milo begged me to change the rules of engagement. His bereft display confirmed my impromptu but cleverly crafted lesson from which he was suffering the consequences in a real and tangible way.

Depressed over the loss of a third quarter, Milo bemoaned our arrangement to his father as he was going to bed one night.

“Don’t worry,” Lars said. “Mom will lose. I guarantee it.”*

Aside from the fact that I married the male version of Mata Hari, this information was enough to give Milo a renewed sense of purpose and hope.

He mastered his reliance upon potty words with the zeal of a convert. After his third quarter went in the pot, he was done. Not a single verboten word has passed his lips, though he has danced playfully around acceptable substitutes.

I have not been so fortunate. It turns out it’s mitochondrial. While I have, in general, turned an about-face on the real dirt-bombs, I seem incapable of eradicating the basic building blocks of interesting language: damn, hell, crap are so intrinsically bonded with my molecular material that they are woven into the fiber of my tongue. I cannot, apparently, get rid of them. Like herpes, or gout: there for the duration, like it or not.

My son has learned valuable lessons, too. He has learned the skill of secondary hearing, which eluded him until now. I used to beg, scream, shout, dance in front of him, block the television, pull his socks off–whatever it would take to get his attention. Now I don’t need to worry. If he’s engrossed so deeply in a book that I could throw a hockey puck at his head without him flinching, all I have to do is drop my guard and talk like my DNA tells me to and I have Milo’s undivided attention. “Potty-mouth!” he shouts with delight as if being revived from a coma. “You just said a bad word! Pay up, MOM!”

He has three quarters in the bottom of the Potty-Mouth Pot. I have at least thirty bucks in there. But who’s counting?

Don’t answer that.


*Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not even the star player on the potty-mouth stage. Grandma, from who I learned everything I know, talks like a trucker with a fatal case of gutter-tongue. Even now, with her adorable Grandma walk and her devotion to baking holiday cookies, she blasts the room with language dripping with so much ooze it’s amazing people let her into nice places. Colorful, descriptive, eloquent and utterly demented, she shames all pretenders to the potty-mouth crown with their pedestrian lack of creativity.

So I found it both charming and ridiculous that after Grandma heard about my struggle to reign in my gutter mouth, she paid up one lowly quarter to Milo in the interest of making a good impression…even though she had outshone my every utterance in front of the boy in two short hours over dinner.

A quarter.



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.

Move over, Pulitzer. Step aside, Man Booker. National Book Award? Pfft.

We asked our esteemed TNB editorial staff to nominate their selections for best books of 2009. The only rules were: the book had to be published this year, and books by TNB contributors were not eligible. The result is the first annual TNB Best Books of the Year award—The Nobby, for short.

Here are the Nobby winners, presented in alphabetical order by author:

Like a grown-up version of musical chairs, speed dating was all the rage during the post-9/11 urge to merge. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center left some couples clinging to each other as if their very survival depended on it. Other relationships snapped under the pressure. Young singles who were previously perfectly happy on their own suddenly felt compelled to pair off.

As with everything in those frightening months, time was of the essence. Activities that separated the wheat from the chaff were in high demand. We wanted to spend quality time with our loved ones, write our wills, donate to patriotic causes, and contemplate the meaning of life. All of this while being slightly suspicious of everyone around us.

Speed dating was just what the doctor ordered: a single location for multiple, time-limited dates in one evening without the bother of having to offer or receive awkward rejections.

Several months after the traumatic break-up of my almost three-year relationship, my friend Karen asked me to accompany her to a speed dating event. While I knew that we were both feeling the urge to merge ourselves, I was stunned that she’d consider such a thing. Of course I told her no way, but she reminded me that I hadn’t had a single date since my break-up. I honestly don’t know what possessed me, but I agreed.

The plan was that we would meet in the restaurant’s bar where the event was being held. That way, we could walk into the special event room together. The bar was filled with couples holding hands while they waited for their tables. The tables were filled with couples who ate from each other’s plates and finished each other’s sentences. The acoustics created by the high ceiling in the cavernous space made for a carnival-like experience. I waited and waited. Finally, my phone rang. I started for the exit as soon as I saw Karen’s number on the caller ID. Of course she wasn’t coming. Stuck at work. Of course I wasn’t staying.

Then she reminded me that I had already paid for the event so I may as well attend. I should “be open to possibilities.” She wanted a full report later, and she offered that perhaps the evening would make a funny story one day.

Um, yeah right…

I walked through the dining room filled with happy couples toward the event room. Dead woman walking. Perhaps I should have paused for my last meal. The Pasta Bolognese smelled amazing.

For some reason, I feared I would be the lone geek in a room full of poised and accomplished young professionals. I envisioned well-dressed lawyers and doctors sipping sophisticated cocktails and partaking in witty conversations about their stock portfolios, foreign policy, or literature. With quivering knees, I entered the room to find men segregated on one side and women on the other. Good Lord, it was eighth grade with pink girlie drinks for the women and beer for the men!

The men were clumped into small groups pretending to be in deep conversation, while sneaking quick glances to size up each woman as she entered.

The women seemed oblivious to the men. They were all gathered around one woman at the bar who was rather loud and who sucked down drinks in single gulps. The woman was statuesque, a redhead, and the sister of a friend I’d dated briefly. She turned to welcome the newcomer into the tribe and immediately recognized me. She proceeded to introduce me as her brother’s ex-girlfriend, which was definitely not how I would have described myself. Looks of pity followed from the peanut gallery.

Hey, I went out with him for a few months in the course of a ten-year friendship. And we’re all single here. Why else would we put ourselves through this torture? Keep your pity to your damn selves! I thought.

The organizer, Patrick, was obviously a cheerleader back in high school. He rang an obnoxious bell and called everyone to the middle of the room. Women were in a semicircle to his right, and the men mirrored us on his left. A peppy spiel about being open to everyone, balanced with warnings about inappropriate behavior, ensued. He provided extensive directions about the proper way to fill out the scorecard. He didn’t actually call it a scorecard, but we all knew what it was.

There were several tables with numbers on them. Each woman was directed to pick one and have a seat. The men were told to approach a table one at a time for our seven minute “dates.” We were not allowed to talk before Patrick rang the begin-date bell nor were we allowed to speak after he rang the end-date bell. At the close of each date, the men were required to switch tables. They were not allowed to return to a table they’d already visited.

The first gent to approach me looked very much like Bill Gates. Not rich, just incredibly and stereotypically nerdy. Now New Orleans is not known for its beautiful people, but you generally think of people this geeky living near Silicon Valley, MIT, or Microsoft headquarters. I took a deep breath and prepared to be “open to possibilities.” He’d moved to, as he called it, The Big Easy (cringe) from the Midwest. I wasn’t surprised. I was being open. Nothing inherently evil about the Midwest. I have friends from the Midwest.

I asked him what his favorite things were about living in New Orleans. His answer: the food. Great, we had something in common. I could work with that for the next five minutes. I asked about his favorite restaurants. Chili’s and Applebee’s. Um, dude, you could have stayed in the cornfields and eaten at chain restaurants. Good grief.

Okay, next subject. I asked what he thought about Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and our general party culture. He proudly informed me that after living in New Orleans for five years, he thought that this year would be the one when he “would go to the Bourbon Street to see the Fat Tuesday.”

For the uninitiated, the syntax of this sentence was utterly bizarre. It’s akin to someone in New York going to “the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue to view the celebration associated with the annual advancement of the Gregorian calendar.”

Ding!

In retrospect, Bachelor Number Two turned out to be the most promising of the lot. He had lived in New York making a living as a writer but had returned to New Orleans to run the family plumbing business after his brother suddenly died.

I’m sorry, did you say plumbing? As in pipes and poop? Okay, I had a big ick reaction but rallied on. After all, this guy was creative and responsible. What were the odds? I was opening to the possibilities more by the moment. We talked about his writing, which was heavily influenced by Charles Bukowski. Uh oh.

Now, here I must digress. Many people have types. Some men like women with blond hair. Some women like men who are really tall. My type was incredibly specific. For years, I dated men who played chess, juggled, ran cross-country in high school, and yes, were Bukowski acolytes. What can I say? Apparently, I liked them smart, agile, and highly dysfunctional. It wasn’t like I looked for them. I attracted them. It was an odd gift.

I never found out whether the plumber fit my other unconscious criteria. Once Bukowski was out of the bag, I was done. After all, I was there to break patterns, not repeat them. I somewhat sadly said goodbye when the bell rang.

Ding!

Bachelor Number Three’s appearance immediately set me back in my chair. He was wearing false eyelashes. Seriously. Not, I have a dermatological condition and have lost my eyelashes so I wear these so I don’t look weird false eyelashes, but Mary Tyler Moore from the Dick Van Dyke Show false eyelashes. It was stunning.

Somehow, I got over my mute shock and started a conversation. As it turned out, we were both Jewish and originally from New Orleans. I knew we did not belong to the same congregation because I’d surely have remembered this guy and his lashes. I asked him if he was affiliated. Yes, he did belong to a congregation, but he wasn’t too crazy about it. I asked if he’d attended services there all his life, and he said no. Apparently, his parents paid for his membership. They’d belonged to a number of congregations over the years because his mother tended to fight with people. Uh, how many Jewish stereotypes can you fit into a seven-minute date?

Ding! Thank G-d.

Now, I feel really guilty about describing Bachelor Number Four. He was very nice and seemed like a heck of a lot of fun. But he was remarkably short, maybe five feet tall in shoes, and a rodeo clown. Yes, you read that right. A rodeo clown. I was born in New Orleans, and I had no idea that there was enough rodeo work in the area to make it a full-time job. And maybe I’m being snobby here, but it seemed to me the speed dating people used a mighty liberal definition of the term “professional.”

I tried to maintain a conversation, but my mind drifted to the image of the little fellow emerging from a tiny car with 20 of his friends. Or maybe only circus clowns do that. Anyway, I feared I was going to hell for thinking these thoughts, but the night was so surreal. I felt like I was dating on acid: distortions of space and size, warping time, ringing bells.

Ding!

When Bachelor Number Five approached my table, I exhaled. He appeared perfectly normal, handsome even. He was dressed neatly but informally. He did hold his head at an unusual angle, but I thought he was just being flirtatious. I had no idea what the next seven minutes held.

As soon as he sat down, we agreed that it seemed like we’d met before. We didn’t live in the same neighborhood or hang out in the same places. Was it work? I told him what I did. He told me that he had his own business related to the casino industry. Definitely not work.

Okay, was he Jewish? New Orleans has a small enough Jewish community that sometimes you just know people because you’re Jewish. He responded by asking me if I was Jewish, and I said yes. He said he was not, but that I’d have known that if I had looked in his wallet. No money. Dude, I’d just told you I was Jewish and your reply was an anti-Semitic comment?

By then, I was kind of checking out, so he filled in the conversation with talk of his work. Apparently, the name of his business, 1-ey*d Jack, had special meaning but not for the reason people assumed. He said that he’d had the recent experience of presenting his business card to a “n***** woman” who worked in a casino on the Mississippi Coast. After she saw the name of his business, she indicated that she knew why it was named 1-ey*d Jack—by pointing to his crotch. At this moment in the story, he gestured to his groin. Dear Lord, was this some sort of Neo-Nazi screw with the racially-sensitive Jewish feminist Candid Camera?

No, he was getting to his point. It seemed his business was actually named 1-ey*d Jack because, although his name was not Jack, he had only one eye. The other eye was glass. He tapped it with his fingernail to prove it. I nearly vomited on the table.

Ding!

Throughout these seven-minute increments of hell, my friend’s sister was having a jolly good time. She whooped it up with one and all. I kept thinking she was so much better than I was at embracing the moment and being open to possibilities. Yeah, she is generally a much more go-with-the-flow kind of person than I am, but there were also the cocktails. I wished I’d followed her lead on that.

After 1-ey*d Jack, I was done, so the final bachelor was a dream. He spent the entire seven minutes on his cell phone. Oh, he’d occasionally glance in my direction and nod, but other than that, nada. I didn’t even get his name. As I stared off into space, the rodeo clown winked at me from across the room.

Now, I have to admit, there were a few other fellows there who were decidedly less remarkable than those I’ve described. At the time, they seemed only slightly less wrong. Maybe, between the nerd, the plumber, the eyelashes, the clown, and the penis, I missed a gem. I guess I’ll never know.

But Karen was right. It did make a damn good story.

Pierre Bayard’s ode to philistinism, Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus, or How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is a unique experience. Upon completion of Bayard’s work (one wonders if Bayard himself ever read his own book), I found myself first outraged, then confused, and finally, a little constipated. I thought to myself, “How does this boorish Frenchman claim that a perfunctory flip-through of Anna Karenina should suffice for an understanding of St. Petersburg’s high society during that time—or Jasper, Missouri’s, home to the Double Deuce for that matter?” Can this Bayard be serious? Can we really talk—intelligently—about books we’ve never read?

On the jacket cover of his aggravating book, Mr. Bayard leans against a railing next to a dumpster leading up to a whorehouse, staring at the reader as if to say, “Hey, I’m French—perhaps you’d be interested in some beignets after I’m done with these prostitutes.”

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_e5CENKp5eYU/Sd5UyzPlj3I/AAAAAAAABPE/2Frsu4D8HOY/s320/pierre-bayard.jpgHe also claims that he is a professor of literature at the University of Paris. As intellectuals, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been to Paris—but has anybody ever seen this alleged university? Not I. All I saw in Paris was a gift-shop full of chocolate Eiffel Towers at Orly airport, as nobody was kind enough to direct me to my time-share in the 23 rd arrondissement, with what they assured me was a “first-class” view of the Bastille. It seems the French have a knack for deception, while bringing out the worst pseudo-intellectual hobgoblins into the cultural milieu.

Bayard begins by making the ridiculous claim that readers may finally “shake off the guilt” of not having read the great books that shape our world. Be careful with guilt, Mr. Bayard. Had you finished Roadhouse, you might sing a different tune when it comes to washing oneself of both corporeal and spiritual guilt. Do you have any idea what happens at the end? The bristling irony that clips at the thin threads of your argument? I assure you, the culmination of tropes during the end game of Swayze’s opus is terrifying—truly something that stays with you, like a disease, or a small dog stapled to your leg, gnawing at your testicles (not always, but a lot of the time). Read (or watch) the end of this, and you will rethink your gilded shit-head ideas on guilt.

As a freelance intellectual, I often find myself asked to contribute a book review, or deliver a lecture extempore after Jonathan Safran Foer has cancelled. So, I’m no tyro in this sphere. Mr. Bayard recommends that to lecture on a book one hasn’t read, it’s essential to “put aside rational thought and…let your sub-conscience express your personal relationship with the work.” Similarly, to review an unfamiliar book, Mr. Bayard counsels, “closing your eyes to perceive what may interest you about [the book]…then writing about yourself.”

Let me state categorically that allowing the sub-conscious to intervene during a lecture is a dangerous thing. I recall a commencement speech I was asked to give at Princeton (after Jonathan Safran Foer cancelled), in which my goal was to make a connection between the gateway to adulthood and the battle scene against the Cubans over the corn fields of middle America in James Joyce’s, Ulysses. At the time, I was 40 pages short of finishing Ulysses, but I panicked for one brief moment, allowing my subconscious to creep in and reference the heart-pumping Patrick Swayze vehicle, Red Dawn to fill in the gaps created by my literary malfeasance. The audience chortled and squirmed with typical Princeton fatuity, and I spent the rest of the address huddled under the gown of Joyce Carol Oates. Years later, when I explained at a PEN meeting to Mrs. Oates that I had, in my youthful folly, dared to reference a book I had not completely finished and I was soooo sorry and I now know that the varsity football team in Ulysses were fighting Communists, not Moonies, Mrs. Oates gave me a coy smile and sort of whispered, in that way she does, “Would you mind getting me a another vodka gimlet?”

As for book reviews, I don’t have the faintest clue where Mr. Bayard gets off. Close my eyes and write about myself? What kind of self-aggrandizing, philistine claptrap is that? I was once stuck sitting next to Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer extraordinaire of the New York Times, on a flight to Zurich, and it turned out we were both reviewing the same new translation of Don Quixote. After we agreed that one of the key requirements of criticism is the removal of oneself from the work under consideration, I made a reference to the end of Don Quixote, when Sancho Panza is about to join in the rumble between the “Greasers” and the “Socs”, and how it’s a metaphor for the craft of writing. I think she must have been forced to digest this burst of protean insight, because for the rest of the flight, she said little. I remarked how every time I met Gore Vidal, he would sound a rape whistle and hog-tie me to a fire hydrant, and Michiko droned on as usual, always trying to one-up me with her one story; you know, the one she never finishes about, “Stewardess, can I change seats?” What’s the point, Michiko? It’s not even a story, per se.

http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/2008/11/custom_1227303927991_michiko-kakutani_01.jpgThe truth is, we read for any number of reasons: we crave a good yarn by the camp fire; we savor the world of words created by our greatest artists; we feel a preternatural magnetism toward an understanding of how and why we are the way we are; perhaps we are having a bowel movement. What Mr. Bayard suggests is an approach toward reading, and a discussion of reading, that goes against our nature. We are not partial beings—we are complete—complete in the sense that our minds create our realities. Mind is life. We must subscribe to life whole-heartedly, eschewing the notion that a partial understanding of our world, our ethos, our pathos, is tantamount to a full life. Anything else is a bourgeoise conceit! Dumbing-down displays the utter convenience of ignorance!

Bayard is a travesty of nature, like a Gaulloises-puffing ogre. His mongloid understanding of human nature will eventually lead to an early demise. He is a French Hamlet (although presumably shorter), pathologically self-destructing at every turn, although you’d think he might have learned something from all that post-mortem correspondence with Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, he escapes, but at what cost? What now will his wife Molly do? Can you have sex with a ghost? Is Claudius really going to poison a glass of Mouton Rothschild just because Baby Houseman is a Jew? And what of the Roadhouse?

I am reminded of something Flaubert said upon completion of Madame Bovary: “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n’est-ce pas?” Had Bayard finished Madame Bovary, he would have recognized—as Special Agent Johnny Utah did about Bodhi right before the appearance of Rodolphe—not everybody wants to be rescued from the fifty year storm.

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There’s a special room in Hell reserved for movers. It’s right beside the room holding the cable guy who said he’d be at your house between 9 and 4 and two doors down from the mechanic who swore your car needed a new filibusterator. This room, which is called something fun like The Devil’s Armpit, is only 528 square feet and:

  1. mind-blowingly hot
  2. completely and totally empty.

The way I see it, The Devil’s Armpit will look exactly like the apartment my wife Juliana and I moved to in Philadelphia in 2005. See, Juliana got a job in Philly so we moved away from Atlanta, family, friends, and grocery stores that sell beer. To help with this adventure, we hired professional movers. By “professional,” I mean “three guys in matching jumpsuits who handled our possessions like a Star Wars collector handles a 1978 IG-88 12” Bounty Hunter Robot.”

“You can never be too careful!,” Bob, the head mover called out as he carried a box marked FRAGILE out to the truck. Meanwhile, another mover walked in front to clear Bob’s path of any dangerous pebbles.

We gladly paid these men the amounts outlined in our contract: $300 (insurance policy), $800 (deposit), another $800 (1/2 the cost of the move. A final $800 would be due at delivery). Bob took the money order, we shook hands, and he and his partners drove off. It would be the last time we ever saw them. It would also be the last time we ever saw our stuff. At least, in any recognizable condition.

Juliana and I arrived in Philly a few days later. It was Saturday and the middle of August. We made the trek upstairs (the elevator was broken) to the 12th floor—to the aforementioned 528 square foot sauna—and waited for the movers to arrive. A couple hours went by. We tried calling the movers a few times only to get an automated error message from AT&T. Finally, at 10 PM, the phone rang.

“YO!,” the thick Jersey accent shouted into the receiver while the sounds of live Jazz blared in the background. “WON’T BE THERE TONIGHT!”

“Where are you guys?!?”

“WE’LL BE THERE MONDAY OR TUESDAY!”

“I want to talk to Bob. He said–”

Click.

Monday or Tuesday came and went. The movers, on the other hand, did not. Calls to both the movers and the moving company led only to automated error messages. The one time we actually managed to reach a live person at the moving company, I was told they had no record of our move. Things were looking bleak. They were about to get even worse. We took a trip to the library and Googled “moving scams.” I’ll save you the time of sifting through the dozen pages of moving horror stories by offering you the following summary instead:

We. Were. Screwed.

Here’s the scam. A couple of crooks open a moving company. They’ve got a registration, license, even those dirty padded furniture mats that smell like broccoli farts. Everything checks out. The company is listed on reputable websites and you’ll read glowing testimonials about their service. You’ll sign a contract and the movers will show up and do a real bang-up job. Then they’ll drive off and your story will become a major motion picture summer blockbuster starring Ben Stiller or, if he’s available, Jack Black.

Around 45 minutes into the film—or roughly 312 Stiller pouty faces—your move will be taken over by an “independent third-party contractor,” which is code for “new crooks who are in cahoots with the original crooks.” One day, the new head crook will call and tell you that, due to a scheduling error, they won’t be able to deliver your stuff for about 30 days. They will, however, deliver it to a storage unit somewhere. For us, “somewhere” was Jacksonville, FL.

Three and a half weeks passed. One night, around 2 AM, I got a call from yet another crook. This time, it was a gruff-voiced cretin who sounded like he’d been gargling razor blades. Let’s call him “Sore Throat.” He wanted:

1. A signed waiver that released the movers (the original company we hired) of any liability.
2. $1000 (in addition to the already agreed-upon $800 payment).

If we failed to comply, “Sore Throat” warned, “you’ll never see your stuff again.”

I contacted lawyers, the Better Business Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Everyone said the same thing, namely “you’re screwed.” The Department of Transportation did elaborate slightly, saying that if the planets were to align in a Triple Lindy formation and pigs started to fly and Ryan Seacrest went down to holding only four jobs and—this is the big one—the DOT suddenly increased their staff by, say, 200%, then, maybe just maybe, they might be able to research our claim before the next Olympic games.

Back to the scam. The movers have all the power. Sure, you could sue them…and you’d win. But you’d never see a penny from the judgment. The crooks would simply declare bankruptcy and close up shop. Then, the very next day, they’d reopen with a new name and phone number. Cue Stiller pouty face.

OPERATION: UP A CREEK was well underway and we had no choice but to employ the age-old WHIPPED solution (see Jon vs. Kate). I called Sore Throat and agreed to his terms. The very next day, the moving truck pulled up in front of our building. A tall, lanky guy—another independent contractor—jumped out of the cab and, without talking, opened up the back of the truck.

Inside? Furniture that looked like it had been attacked by a chainsaw. Clothes, covered in mold from spending the past month in a wet storage unit, thrown around. And boxes, stacked floor to ceiling, in the shape of basketballs. Except the ones marked FRAGILE, interestingly enough. Those were shaped like footballs.

 

An open letter to Maggie, my neighbor’s black Lab:


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Dear Maggie,

I think your name was Maggie. You were a black Lab, and you lived in a small kennel made of chain-link fencing and wood in my neighbor’s backyard. I peed on you one evening when I was about seven years old, on a dare from a few of my friends. We were standing around your kennel, looking at you, when suddenly it occurred to me that I had to urinate. I mentioned my condition to my friends, and one of them suggested that I pee on you, for fun. And then the rest of them said, “Yeah, I dare you.” And so I did.

I remember you ran back inside your doghouse once you realized that I was peeing on you. And then I ran home.

My mother got a call from your mother a few minutes later. Apparently, she had seen the whole incident from her bedroom window. On hearing the news, my mother was horrified, and fittingly, I was grounded for the better part of a week as punishment. I also had to walk over and apologize to both you and your mother in person. I can only hope that you forgave me. I really felt bad about peeing on you, in the pit of my diminutive soul. I always thought that you were a really cool dog, and I secretly wished that you were my own.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA


An open letter to God, Creator of the Universe:


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Dear God,

When I was a kid, I was forced to go to church, and I was advised by my elders to believe in you. On many occasions, while seated uncomfortably on a hard wooden pew, listening with grave confusion to the rambling of a large, avuncular preacher, I turned my gaze heavenward and prayed in your direction. Almost every time, I prayed that you might provide some sort of definitive, supernatural evidence of your ever-abiding existence.

Dear God, I’d pray, could you please shoot a beam of purple light through that window up there above the altar, so that I can know for a fact that you’re actually listening to me?

Or:

Dear God, could you please blow out that candle sitting over there by the piano, so that I can know for a fact that your powers are actually real?

Naturally, on every such occasion, my heartfelt prayers went unanswered. My pleas were met with an altogether deafening silence.

Here and now, as I enter the prime years of my adulthood, I certainly wouldn’t expect you to trouble yourself with any of my petty requests issued forth in prayer. I can imagine that you are an incredibly busy entity with plenty of universal responsibilities to attend to. I wouldn’t think to bother you.

At the same time, I continue to find myself troubled by your total lack of regard for the innocent requests that I made as a young boy. One would think that a being as powerful and compassionate as God could trouble himself momentarily to shoot a beam of purple light through a small stained-glass window for the benefit of an innocent child.

No offense or anything, but the fact that you ignored me is pretty fucking lame. Hopefully, you will see fit to change your protocol for the next generation of good-hearted inquisitors.

Stay black,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA


An open letter to Julie, the girl who dumped me right after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded:


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Dear Julie,

We dated briefly in the fifth grade, and on January 28, 1986, you broke up with me. We were sitting in the Presentation Area, adjacent the library, and we had just finished watching the Space Shuttle Challenger explode. It ascended from the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, and seventy-three seconds later, the whole thing went up in a massive fireball, killing everyone aboard. The room was silent, and our teachers started crying. And then your friend Marianne walked over to me and handed me a note that said, “Hey … You’re dumped.”

I’m not the type to hold a grudge or anything, but I always felt like that was really insensitive timing.

Cordially,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to Jeffrey Dahmer:


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Dear Jeffrey,

You worked at the Ambrosia Chocolate factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the early 1980s. I read about it somewhere not too long after you were bludgeoned to death in prison. My second-grade class went on a field trip to the Ambrosia factory in 1982. I often wonder if you were there at the time of my visit. I wonder if we saw each other in the hallway or something. And naturally, I wonder if you looked at me and decided that you wanted to eat me and keep my skull as a souvenir.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA



An open letter to John Walker Lindh:


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Dear John,

You were born in 1981. Whenever I hear of adults who were born in the 1980s, it makes me feel old. You’re twenty-six now. And you’re in prison. I can’t think of anything worse than being twenty-six and in prison. I hope you’re not going insane.

I just reread your personal history online, and I have to admit, I find it pretty stunning. It’s hard to believe you started off in Marin County and wound up fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a massive statistical unlikelihood—which I suppose is part of the reason why you did it. For a teenager raised in Mill Valley, moving to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban has got to be the ultimate in youthful rebellion.

You must have been really pissed off at your parents.

At the time of your arrest, you were twenty years old.

When I was twenty, I was taking bong hits in a Boulder basement, listening to Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz.

People, generally speaking, are pretty stupid at the age of twenty. I know I certainly was. And I imagine that you were, too.

To be honest, I think you might have set some kind of record for misguided youthful indiscretion. If there were some sort of measuring device that could calculate this kind of thing, I’m almost certain that you’d rank right up near the top.

A lot of my friends lost their shit in college, but nobody grew a beard and moved to Afghanistan.

Kindest regards,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA

P.S. Forty is the new twenty.