In 2004 I sat on someone’s couch, listening to a writing group take turns demolishing one of my short stories. The final critique, delivered by a woman in pointy architect’s glasses, concluded by saying “It’s so Sam Lipsyte.” I had no idea what that meant. A few days later I picked up a copy of Home Land, dreading the worst. Instead, I found it to be hilariously unhinged, a string of baroque epistolary riffs wound around the neck of its reliability-challenged narrator. Exactly the palate cleanser I needed at a time when spending a Tuesday With Morrie seemed desirable to large swaths of the populace. The Architect had done me a real favor.

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 a late bloomer.  Drinking never appealed to me in high school.  Maybe it was because I was shyand/or depressed.  I was always filled with contempt for people around me who were loud, horsing around, unaware of the circumference of their waving limbs, bumping into me, stepping on my toes, totally unapologetic about having more fun than I was having- right in front of me.

However, after a long, calculated process of overcoming my shyness through various personal tests that I created for myself (I’ll go into these shortly), having settled upon and embraced Welbutrin as the cure for my depression, and having discovered that I love the sweet taste of Bourbon – my life is a lot different.  Better, I’d say.

Having become a happy person, everyone around me endeared themselves to me by their mere existence.  I remember sitting on a bench at a bar watching a jock-ish, bridge-and-tunnel guy attempting to flirt with a slutty bridge-and-tunnel girl.  I thought about how each of them had probably taken some care earlier that day in picking out their outfits.  If I were asked to fill out a survey I would have had to admit that I found their ensembles rather “tacky”, but no- because right then I imagined them looking in the mirror, measuring their insecurities and pride, feeling hopeful about the night’s opportunities, just as I had, and I loved them.



Makerssmall

In high school and college I had always prided myself on not relying upon alcohol as a crutch, as I imagined others did in order to talk to people and have a good time.  I practiced one of my personal exercises at a club, Don Hill’s, where I would stand somewhere near the middle of the mostly-empty dance floor, legs together and straight, hands dangling at my sides, no cigarette or drink to play with, staring straight ahead, and see how long I could hold that position before the awkwardness and embarrassment overcame me.  Other more practical goals I set for myself involved approaching and talking to strangers whom I wanted to know.  That was rewarding in both increasing my confidence and making new friends.

So, starting around two years ago, I would let someone order me a Makers and Ginger.  That’s my drink.  Unlike past occasions when people thought they could turn me onto alcohol through a vodka cranberry which I found bitter and would nurse throughout the entire evening, barely making a dent, I actually enjoyed the taste of the Makers and Ginger and eventually would finish it.

One of the biggest changes that came with drinking was my new-found ability to dance.  My whole life I had sat on the sidelines and physically resisted both friends and strangers who tried to pull me up from my seat by my arms onto the dance floor.  Dancing is now one of the elements I most look forward to in a prospective night out.

I have to interrupt my apparent direction and reveal my true train of thought, that even now as I type, I still feel I have a toe stuck in the Alpha Zone.  I’ve only heard about the Alpha Zone once, secondhand.  My friend Ben told me about a scene in a documentary he had just watched on Jimi Hendrix.  One of Hendrix’s buddies describes him as being in the Alpha Zone before he died.  He says it’s when you know you’re going to die.  I don’t remember any further details but I immediately recognized that I already had my own interpretation, my own sense of this, and now I could give it a name.

So from here forward, whatever you know about Jimi Hendrix’s Alpha zone, or if it is a well known phenomenon in general, keep in mind that I am referring to my own variation.

The Alpha Zone is when you are moving just slightly faster than your thoughts – your inhibitions surface just as you’re already performing the questionable task.  You watch almost in slow motion and disbelief when it’s already too late, it’s just up to chance whether or not you’ll land unscathed.  Then again, sometimes in the Alpha Zone, you’re not doing anything, you’re just sitting there, but you know that you have no control and therefore anticipate your time coming sooner than later, maybe so it doesn’t catch you by surprise.

Returning to the first story, throughout the last two years, every few weeks I would have a night where I would say “Now this is the drunkest I’ve ever been!” or a morning where I would feel a little crappy and think “Is this my first hangover?”  But after a night of drinking and dancing I would often wake up after only a few hours of sleep, more invigorated than usual.

When I conquered my sober shyness, I made the final push with such momentum by way of rationalization and reward that I think I may have shot passed the norm for which I was originally aiming, and crossed into that region inhabited by weirdos.  I no longer have any perception of where the line is.

Using this new found, but what I think must be innate ability to bluntly yet charmingly command a situation, and with a little extra spirit from some alcohol, I’ve had some fun or at least interesting nights where I went home with near-strange men (i.e. they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who I knew) simply to see where they lived. I would let them kiss around my face while I looked at their iPhoto libraries and tried to extract conversation.  I’d let them pass out, sleep next to them, wake up early, maybe watch TV and leave, sometimes having made a new friend.  That really only describes one situation in particular but there are a few others with just slight variations.  Just to ease your worries, friends, I always text a certain pal the name and address of any stranger with whom I leave.

Other times I think I’m commanding a situation but it turns out not to be true at all.  Like the recent occasion when I was very excited to meet a stocky Jewish guy and asked just for his e-mail address to continue our discussion about comedy, only to discover he had given me a fake address AND fake unsolicited number.  That’s another story that I plan on delivering soon.

Then, about two weeks ago (11/17/07)…
The day after a typical night of drinking and dancing, I began my morning with the assumption that I had left my new digital camera at my studio, since it was not in my bag.  I checked my e-mail as usual and at first was pleasantly surprised to see a letter in my inbox from F, a recent friend who I don’t hear from often.  But the subject was cryptic: “Don’t freak out!”  I thought it must be a mass e-mail, but the letter read “I found your camera on the floor [last night]…”

I was very embarrassed but when I talked to him he assured me that I had not seemed that intoxicated and said there had been a drunk woman searching for her missing bag, rooting around through everyone’s stuff, recklessly pulling up different items from a pile and my camera must have fallen out then.  Still, I was disappointed in myself because I usually never leave a place without checking for four things: Camera, Wallet, Phone, and Keys.

A week goes by, I don’t remember anything standing out.  Then two nights of going out and having to wake up early the next day.  The third night is Thanksgiving and I’m determined to go to sleep immediately after dinner.  Maybe it would have been easier if I hadn’t convinced my parents to get a chicken instead of a turkey this year.

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I was lying in bed too tired to fall asleep without the aid of Tryptophan when a friend called to invite me to another Thanksgiving dinner nearby.  Hosted by a Russian family, I drank vodka and ate a steady, delicious stream of potatoes, Russian style coleslaw, and cornichons until 1:30am when they brought out the desserts.  It was a rowdy evening, but wholesome.


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The next morning (11/24/2007), I had to be at work at 11am, was the usual 15 minutes late, blah blah blah blah and somehow ended up out at night again, at one of my bar-with-dance-floor haunts.  Totally exhausted, but carefree and full of wired energy, I stashed my stuff somewhere, including my cash, so I could then search for someone to buy me a drink and not be tempted to buy my own if I didn’t succeed.

But I kept running into people I had grown up with and I didn’t want to seem like a mooch.  I texted a friend M, who is always willing to treat.  I wrote him to get here soon because I was thirsty but he kept responding that he was “ambivalent” about coming.  Maybe this was the first cave-in of the evening: Frustrated and losing nerve, I asked my best friend K with whom I had arrived to lend me money for a drink.  I borrowed $10, got my whiskey-ginger and started to make the rounds.

Of course right then, my drinking patron (M) arrived and not to pass up a freebie I soon accepted another drink from him as well.  So now I’ve got a drink in each hand which makes it difficult to maneuver in a crowd, so I worked at finishing one as fast as possible just to have a free hand.

In my circle I’m known for wearing a fanny-pack.  This is where I keep my Camera, Wallet, Phone, and Keys.  It’s especially handy for dancing.  A fanny-pack gives you the security of having your valuables on you without the awkward lopsidedness of a shoulder bag or purse.  It can even act as a buffer if someone tries to grind you.

But vanity…  For some reason that night, apart from my large tote which I don’t mind leaving on a chair because it only has things like an umbrella, magazine, book, bottle of water, etc., I had brought a small fancy purse just for walking around the club.  Within the purse was a fanny-pack holding my camera and wallet.  Earlier that evening I had misplaced my phone at K’s house and for some reason I had left my keys in my coat pocket, the coat being stuffed into the tote.

However many drinks later from my patron and other benefactors, I found myself talking to a guy to whom a friendly acquaintance had just introduced me, and who was waiting in line for the bathroom.  When it was his turn I said “It’s your turn!”  He said he was enjoying talking to me and to just come in while he peed.  No big deal, so I did, and mostly looked away while he peed and continued our conversation.  I have no memory of what we were talking about, just that we were the same amount of silly-drunk and seemed to share a similar sense of openness.

Then we made our way to the dance floor where he said, “Wanna make out?”

“Sure” I said.  So we kissed a little while dancing.  Then he said he had a girlfriend.

I don’t remember how I transitioned to the next scene, just that I was a little hungry, M wanted to eat, K wanted to stay, and I had no idea where my little purse containing my fanny-pack containing my camera and wallet was.  But M would take me to a very good restaurant and everything right there and then was so loud and full of motion and smoke that I just wanted to go eat.

I grabbed my coat and tote.  It’s not that I looked for my little purse and was surprised not to find it.  I had no recollection at all of where or when I had put it down.  So, I left my wallet containing my credit card, two ATM cards, expired learner’s permit, 2 different health care cards, unlimited Metrocard, magnetic key card for my studio building for which I have no replacement, and my new digital camera (replacing one I had dropped and broken), which I MUST have on me at all times.

M and I took a cab to Blue Ribbon where he ordered me a matzah ball soup, a fried chicken with mashed potatoes and collard greens (I had ordered this combo a few nights earlier), and I chimed in a slice of chocolate cake.  I don’t even remember waiting for the food.

One thing I must make clear is that I do not and will not eat anything of the sea. I despise all seafood, ranging from the most obviously unappetizing crustaceans to seemingly innocent seaweed.  I cannot count the times I have been eating at a restaurant with someone who has said “You’ve just never had really good fish.  Try this.  It’s not fishy!”  And I would humor them with a small bite and a near-gag.  But what I’ve come to realize is this: Fish is inherently fishy. It’s fish!

I was a very picky eater growing up and the matzah ball soup, fried chicken, and chocolate cake is a good survey of the kind of foods with which I’ve always felt comfortable.  It does not reflect all the non-sea related food hurdles I’ve overcome and come to love such as eggs, cheese, steak, spinach, avocado, just to name a few.  But overcoming my distaste for seafood is not even on my horizon.

And in the entire kingdom of the sea, there is one subject I’ve always felt, and always said I’ve felt was the grossest possible thing a human being could put in their mouth.  That is shrimp.  It’s see-through and it looks like a giant bug.

I think a past boyfriend once persuaded me to try a nibble of a piece of shrimp and I think I spit it out or winced as I swallowed it mixed in with some other flavors.

At Blue Ribbon our food had arrived.  I was excitedly looking over my crispy fried chicken which as I had learned a few days earlier came with honey instead of honey mustard without my even asking!  I had probably drank some water by now and taken a few bites of my food.  All of a sudden M is talking about how this is his favorite dish and lifts a giant comma of a shrimp off the edge of a martini glass, dips it in a dark sauce and holds it out toward my face asking me to take a big bite.

I leaned in an inch, met the shrimp, took a big bite out of the top fat part of the comma, grimaced and chewed and chewed.  It just tasted like a fried tastiness in a sweet and salty sauce.  I couldn’t taste the shrimp, but I had to chew and chew and break apart these unfamiliar bendable structures.  Still holding the remainder of the comma, M brought it closer and said to just take one more bite.  I chomped a much smaller piece into my mouth, joining it with the previous acquisition and I chewed and chewed.  Eventually I swallowed part of it and kept thinking about getting the rest of this alien being out of my mouth by way of my throat.  After my mouth was clear I drank water and ate mashed potatoes to get a new taste in it.  I tried to convey to M how crazy it was, what just happened.  And of course, here I would have a photo of the historic shrimp if I hadn’t lost my camera.

The cake arrived.  I was pretty full but managed to eat most of it.  M put me in a cab with money and I made it all the way uptown, home, probably around 5am.  My phone still missing but at least definitely at K’s house, I didn’t have an alarm to set.  I fumbled my way up to bed anyway.

I sat up at 10am, just the right time to get ready for work and sent an e-mail to friends who were out the night before asking if they’d seen my stuff.  I didn’t include F, who had found my camera the first time.  I was too embarrassed.  I made it to the office 15 minutes late and got down to business.  I didn’t necessarily feel hung over, but when I remembered the shrimp, and that it was still in me, I almost threw up.  I had to take measured steps to ease my nausea, sipping water, taking deep breaths, looking away from the computer, standing up.  I told my boss I’d barely slept in days and she said I didn’t look tired at all.

Soon A replied to my e-mail that my stuff was found and safe.  Feeling partially redeemed by chance, I e-mailed F to tell him the story and that I’d been too embarrassed to include him in my group e-mail that morning since he was the only one who knew that I had already lost my camera that month.  To my dismay he replied that once again he had been the one to find my belongings and had actually handed them over to A.

The more I thought about things, the more uncomfortable I began to feel with how much undeserved luck (Can luck be deserved?) had been bestowed upon me.  First of all, there was no reason why I should still be in possession of my cool purse, my wallet and its contents, my camera, and my fanny-pack which had even gone to Nepal and back with me.

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Furthermore, I had barely even been coerced into not only trying, but trying twice and swallowing the cocktail shrimp.  While sober, I might have done a thousand more questionable things before eating shrimp.  Now I realized that I might have ended up doing anything that night had I not been in the safe company of M and Blue Ribbon.

I don’t think I had been living in the Alpha Zone during the preceding weeks.  I was enjoying a robust love of life and had only been approaching the speed of Alpha at what might have seemed a safe distance if it was something someone could comprehend.  I guess you aren’t always aware of the exact moment of the crossover.  And this was not just an Alpha Zone of chance- it was my own doing.  My own lack of resolve, my carelessness, gluttony and vanity.  Now I’ve gotten myself stuck here like a spaceship crashed on an unknown and mostly unfriendly planet in a sci-fi series.

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There is a particular Alpha-related sensation I want to describe: The feeling of the sudden awareness of Alpha.  It’s that feeling when you’re falling and it’s too late to regain your footing or any control; you’ve given up everything to chance.  It’s part “Oh shit!” and part “Let’s see what happens.”  The “Oh shit!” part is fast and instantaneous, it flies right by you in time.  The “Let’s see what happens.” part moves in slow motion with you- until you land and sit there dazed and aware of the fact that you might as well have been a tree falling with no one to hear, or you clutch your bruised knee and breathe in or, well, luckily I’ve never had the other outcome – nothingness.

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After work on Saturday I came home to my messy death-trap of a room where on many drunk nights I might stand on an unstable stool and attempt a daring reach for a cup on a ledge or miss a step on my loft bed ladder and just be watching from my mind’s eye as I tumble onto various levels of mess, just waiting, curious to see if I’ll land in one piece.

Even after my drinking-based recklessness began I’ve still only managed to have these Alpha-conscious moments in my bedroom.  It’s the least safe place of all.  There’s no doting suitor, no annoyed but might-be-concerned suitee, and no M to watch out for me and it’s a ridiculous physically rigorous obstacle course.
That’s my bathroom door.

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I fear death a lot and I taunt myself by imagining my death written up in the New York Post.  I can just imagine a trying-to-be-sensitive-even-though-and-because-it’s-inherently-funny piece about a young New York artist and musician falling to her death from her rickety IKEA twin loft bed.  And if such a piece were written I would hope it would note, although I know it would not, that with this particular model of loft bed comes a warning label advising that only one person may be on the bed at a time, thus consigning the sleeper solely to nights of solitude.

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It’s Thursday, November 29, 2007, 2am as I write from my loft bed, and I haven’t gone out in the evening since that Friday, November 24.  That shrimp really made me think.