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When someone asks you what you do for a living, do you begin your answer with, “I am…”? As in, “I am a lawyer,” or, “I am a sandwich artist?” Most of us do, even though I think we can all agree that as complex creatures we can’t be defined by a single, occupation-based label. A plumber is a person, as is a politician and a poet and a physician (except Dr. Teeth, who is made of fabric, and Dr. Phil, who is made of mistakes).

Lately I’ve been thinking about what I do, what I’ve done and how it relates to who I am. I’ve had over 35 jobs in the past two decades, starting at age 14 when I worked at an ice cream parlor in Palm Springs. (Sonny Bono came in once, and when I asked, “Mr. Bono, could I get your–” he obliged me with an autograph. I didn’t have the heart to finish my question: “–order?”)

In high school I babysat several children who miraculously escaped the gruesome murders I daydreamed for them during their Time-Outs. At 16, I worked at a pizza place until my 40+ boss decided it would be funny to withhold my paycheck until I agreed to go out with him. I spent my 18th summer at a telemarketing company, encouraging smokers to speak out against tax hikes. I didn’t even smoke.

Throughout college I worked at a mall, three truck stops, a bakery, a grocery store and a UPS warehouse. I spent a month working as a production assistant on an almost-porno directed by one of my professors. I volunteered to teach children how to read, which I was terrible at (not because of an aversion to reading, but because of an aversion to children) and then switched to teaching college students about safe sex (something I have no aversion to at all). I was a receptionist at an HIV testing clinic, where for two years I let the phlebotomist practice taking blood from me every week (if there was an award for Most Confidently Free From STDs, I would win it, hands down).

Since graduating, I’ve worked at a sports photo agency, produced feature films, sold underpants and written blog posts for a cable network. I’ve chauffeured friends’ bands on tour (which paid only in opportunities to meet rock heroes) and I filed papers in the back room of a bank (which paid in beer money and suicide fantasies). There was six months of selling concert tickets, two months watching NIKE videos and three days editing corporate films about airplanes for a really mean Chinese guy.

Taking all of this into consideration, you could conclude that I am versatile, or you might think that I am easily bored. It’s hard to know if this is the career history of a polymath, a drifter or a mental patient.

So I must continue this self-examination by determining which jobs I could never do. I mean, I know as a feminist and an optimist I’m supposed to believe anything’s possible, but even as an atheist, I’d pray for the poor soul of anyone who needed me to be his surgeon or contractor. And even though I’d like a career as a Certified Badass, I keep failing the test. Two for flinching, every time.

I think animals are cool, but I bet being a Zookeeper is actually depressing, and Park Rangering requires a lot of wandering around outside, which interferes with my love of staying pale and being lazy. (Also, I hate searching for pic-a-nic baskets–if you can’t hold onto your sandwiches, you don’t deserve to have sandwiches.)

I couldn’t be a call girl, either. I just don’t have the energy or enthusiasm to pretend to be someone else all the time, or to Scotchgard my fancy dresses, or to wear/own fancy dresses. I also don’t have the required drug addiction or an elastic asshole. I am grossly underqualified. But I would consider being a madam. I would drive a Ford Escort (because of irony) with a vanity plate that read HNKFHRNY.

So no power tools, no wandering outdoors. No kids, no animals, and no fucking by appointment (especially kids or animals). In fact, the less human interaction, the better. Forced socializing makes me ill. I’m the person who always uses the unmanned checkout lane at the grocery store — anything to avoid casual chit chat with strangers.

So what does that make me, a soulless machine?

I suppose it’s no coincidence that I currently work in advertising. If you want to draw some parallels between my character and my current profession, I would say that, like me, my job can be easy (like selling candy to a baby!) and fun (“thinkin’ up stuff” is one of my job responsibilities). And, like me, it can also be manipulative and a little sneaky. Also, it’s impossible to know whether professional me or personal me has worked harder at convincing people to eat hot dogs.

I might be a terrible person.

No. I think you can only know the real me by examining the job I would do, if given the opportunity. My dream job: President of Movies. As POM I will leverage my years of education, experience and undeniable kickassitude to improve Hollywood’s chief exports. The world will finally know true joy as I prove myself infallible in the selection of buddy cop duos. When I ask, “Who have we cast as the buddy cops?” and the response begins with either “Clancy Brown” or “a monkey”, I will hold up one hand to silence the room and make out a check for “the sky’s the limit!” THAT is the dream I make possible by my very existence!

That is who I am.

And I can live with that. I’m okay being that person. I hope to meet others like me — those who will support me in my quest to rid all films of talking babies and talking chihuahuas and Andie MacDowells. If you’re out there, please say hello.

Conversely, if you’re not ready to embrace a cinematic Clancy Brown/monkey police officer, please hand over your badge and gun.

Late night in New York City. So late it’s early. Pitch black with a fuzzy, artificial yellow glow around all the streetlights. Stores are shuttered.

The only places open are some bars, some late-night diners.

A few drunks tottle down the streets, call out into the darkness, try to hail cabs which screech to a halt on the corners.

D. is walking down the sidewalk, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his pale gray Patagonia fleece jacket, trying to find his way back to a friend’s new apartment. This new place is in a foreign part of the city (way up in the hundreds), and he just wants to get there so he can crash on the corner of a futon in a room that is way too small to even be called a bedroom.

After a night party-hopping at what he derisively describes as “the parties of the rich,” D., who works as a carpenter in New Jersey, only wants two things.

Food and sleep.

He’s simple that way.

A hooker starts following him down the sidewalk, waving slightly and chirping like some exotic bird. She wants his attention.There’s nothing scary about D., the man who would become my husband. When she tells him, “Ooh, baby, you are cute!” she isn’t lying.

Of all the men who might possibly pay her for her time, of all the guys walking the streets of Second Avenue at three a.m., D. seemed, I am sure, the choicest alternative. I mean, if the seller can choose the buyer, why not choose the one guy who obviously would never hurt you? The one with the shy, adorable, slightly crooked smile?

Most guys can look back on their youth and prove they were at least somewhat cute. But D. was Super Cute. There was just something about him—some fresh-scrubbed innocence, long eyelashes, perhaps, some aura that said he was responsible–that drew the ladies.

“Looking for a good time?” the prostitute pesters him, tottering on her cheap high heels, trying to keep pace.

D. just looks up and shyly smiles.

“I’ll give you a good time, honey. You and me, we could have a serious good time.”

“I’m not interested…in that,” he tells her. And then something—does she look upset, or is it something else, something more pitiful? He tells me later that she just looked run-down–makes him say, “But I would like to buy you some dinner. Or breakfast. Come on, you want to eat?”

The hooker brightens. She doesn’t say no. She must be the type of woman who doesn’t pass up a free meal, who might not remember to eat unless someone else is buying, or cooking.

They go to a diner. D. says later that his diner date was “sort of embarrassing” because she kept cursing loudly in the diner, using the most bald-faced and un-ladylike epithets, which–luckily–go largely unnoticed in the middle of the night in Manhattan (“So then I told that motherfucker, I told him, No fucking way you come in here and tell me you want my motherfucking bank statements…”).

But he did get her to eat a hamburger (he had to keep reminding her, “You have a hamburger. Are you going to finish your hamburger? How’s your hamburger?”), with the same relentless coaxing you’d give to a child who was too busy rambling on about some unintelligible misunderstanding on a playground to remember to chew and swallow.

Then D. and the hooker parted ways, though not after she said she’d gladly “Give [him] one for free,” and he refused (no, he really did refuse; he can be prudish or simply very modest) and finally found the friend’s apartment and rang the buzzer and went inside and dropped immediately into sleep.

D. barely remembers the story about buying the hooker a hamburger. But it sort of became legend among his friends.

“Where were you last night? Where’d you go after that last party?”

“I was buying a hooker a hamburger.”

It sounded so crazy, but it was true.

They recall that not only did he do that, but he also had a habit of buying hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya and handing them out, again in the wee hours, to the homeless.

There was one woman who stood out to him, surrounded by a sea of split plastic bags, wearing a terrible old coat, the kind that barely exist anymore (wool and polyester, man’s style, with large buttons, greasy lapels). She was thumbing through a ratty paperback, a book without a cover.

 

“Whatcha reading?” Doug asked, handing her some hot dogs and a drink.

“My favorite book in the whole world,” the homeless woman said dreamily, shocked back to reality by the steaming franks in front of her. “This book is very special.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it about?”

(I happen to know that D.’s favorite book at that time was “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. He also loves a book I gave him entitled “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line” by Ben Hamper).

“It’s about a beautiful young woman in New Zealand who’s adopted and then accidentally finds her birthparents.”

“I’m adopted,” D. says. This is absolutely true (and so am I). “I’ve always wanted to find my birthparents. Where’d you get this book?”

The book found its owner, it turns out. It found her and it spoke to her. It touched her with its sad beauty, the way it all works out in the end.

Because of the hot dogs, because of his kindness, because of the fact that he was adopted himself, the homeless woman hands him her most prized possession and begs him to take it.

“I can’t take your favorite book,” D. says.

She insists. He must take it. It was meant for him. She was meant to find it and love it and talk about it so that one day he could have it. That’s how things work. People who are meant to find each other or find certain things they need, eventually do find them.

“I can read that book anytime I want to,” the woman says, tapping the side of her head. “It’s all in here, now.”

So D. took the yellowed, tattered Harlequin romance and stuck it in his pocket and he went home and read it. A few years later, I read it, too. It made me cry. It was actually very good.

For years, we had this book, this falling apart, sort of smelly, crumbling book in our house. We couldn’t throw it away, could we? It was like a sign. Or simply just a gift.

It’s gone now, eventually tossed because it was literally disintegrating, but the book itself isn’t important anymore. It’s the story–it’s every story–that really counts.

 

 

 

 

 

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.



School is starting Thursday and for the first time in my life I’m watching from the other side of the proverbial school bus window. Yes, it’s true. I am about to be the mother of a school kid.

Over the next thirteen years I will watch as my child returns to me each day a little older and wiser.She will learn to skip rope, make fake lava, exhale the multiplication tables, spit out the capital of the 50 states on demand, discuss Hamlet in detail, and learn to calculate pi.

She will also learn to dress funny, hide gum in her mouth, text message her best friend without being detected by teachers, cuss, and spell the word “obfuscate” with first-hand knowledge of what it means.

The other day in the car she asked me what school would be like.

“Oh, you’ll learn a lot of really amazing things,” I told her sagely. “You’ll also make many great memories. Things you will want to tell your children about.”

“What do you remember about school?” She wanted to know.

I hesitated before spouting something lame about recess and how much I liked my friends and teachers. She’d caught me. What exactly were my memories? What did I think about when I remembered my school years?

I decided when I got home to make a list. I wanted to isolate the things that really stand out to me about each of the years that I was in school. The only rule I gave myself was that it had to be the first thing that popped into my head about that particular year. I wanted to see what really mattered to me in my pedagogic experience.

Here is what I came up with:

Kindergarten – We made stone soup. It was soup…from a stone. I believe we threw in other things like carrots and peas, but we were led to believe the stone provided the extra flavor. Like a Lipton dry soup pouch.

1st Grade – I farted really loud during story time. It was very embarrassing. I think I went home.

2nd Grade – I have this very clear memory of being at the top of the slide and somebody (I think it was one of the ‘bussed-in kids’ from the inner city) pointed out the word “fuck” scratched into the paint. I had no idea what it meant, but I was struck by the reverence with which the kid stared at it. I think the kid’s name was “Val”, but for a long time I thought he was saying “Vowel.”

3rd Grade – I was playing soccer with the boys at recess and looking across the field at the girls sitting by the swings playing with dolls. Even at the time I knew I was having way more fun than they were. Pansies.

4th Grade – My first kiss. It was with a boy named Cole. He and I had been surrounded by 40 or more kids at recess. They were all chanting, “Kiss her! Kiss her!” It was all very romantic.

5th Grade – I got teased for having hairy legs. I mean reeeeally hairy legs. I was quickly shamed into shaving.

6th Grade – Cole, my 4th grade love, had not only taught me how to kiss, he had also taught me how to cuss. Two years later, I could cuss with sailor-like proficiency. My girlfriends from church cornered me in the school bathroom this year and conducted an intervention. I would not cuss again until I was 23 years old. It was like riding a bicycle.

7th Grade – I joined the junior high band. We had this teacher whose breath reeked of Folgers-scented ashtray. This one time…in band class…he grabbed my flute and played it without asking. When he gave it back, it stank for days. I felt violated.

8th Grade – First day of school in a new town: I was handing papers back to the person behind me. I couldn’t reach her, so I tipped my chair back to get an extra inch or two in. I crashed backwards, taking my desk and all of the papers with me. Nobody. Said. A. Word. I changed schools the next week.

9th Grade – I have no clear memory of the 9th grade. Something about selling hotdogs.

10th Grade – I left the private Christian school I had been going to for 2 years to go to public school. My best friend there had an abortion that year. We used to speak to each other only in French.

11th Grade – I went back to the Christian school. My best friend from the previous year came to school with me one day. I told everyone she was a foreign exchange student and I translated for her all day. When my locker mate found out it was all a big lie, she cried. I don’t lie (much) anymore.

12th Grade – I was in a pageant, which I refuse to go into in any great detail here. Suffice it to say it was very embarrassing. My roommate (who ended up winning) left a douche box in the bathroom trashcan. I am still contemplating that douche box.

So that’s it. My list of the 13 most prominent memories of my school years. I think it explains a lot. I think it may also be the best argument for homeschooling my child I can possibly think of.

School starts Thursday.

Here we go.