Swallows in Midair

By Meg Worden


Watching the towers, like two roman candles all lit up and waiting to take flight, we tense for the whistle, the earsplitting boom. The air is a sweltering buzz of fiberglass and dissonance, it’s full of walls that no longer protect anyone from anything and it clings to my skin. I breathe it in and it singes my lungs. Someone says the words asbestos and attack.

The absurdity of our direction is becoming painfully apparent.

Standing at the top of the pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge we are bookended by two very different sorts of skies. One is so black and the other so very, very blue. It’s a glass marble sky. A circular world sky. We are walking forward with the intention of going into Manhattan to check the office, but the way we are pressed into this crowd it’s just too hard to move. This direction is absurd.

Old stone and new people span the bridge from arch to arch, suspension wire to suspension wire, an exodus of phantoms no longer angry at co-workers, spouses, not thinking about the raise, the stockholder’s meeting, the diet, the myriad of ways they fail themselves. They are now The Great Witnesses Of Gravity, a sea-of-faces, marching on solemn feet this way. Not that way.

The sound is an unearthly roaring – internal, tidal, absolute – and the bridge pulls itself taut like a swing at the top of its rise. The-sea-of-faces, masked in white dust and marked with fear, swivel back toward the city in unison like swallows in midair. Swoosh. The collective intake of breath.

Everyone knows someone who is still there. And the marble spins, the sky upends.

A cloud of dust precedes the collapse of the first tower. It crumbles in a sort of slow motion effect. A special effect. A summer blockbuster, alien and unbelievable. It slips and spreads, down and down and down, until it is swallowed by its own insides. Ashes to ashes, and it’s gone. The Manhattan skyline loses a tooth from its iconic grin, and everyone is bleeding. When the faces reappear they have open, screaming mouths. They are all eyes, throats, tongues, tears.

I have a thick handful of Drew’s jacket as we are backed up to the railing and carried into the current off the bridge, where we spill onto the grass, a little under-the-bridge park scattered with sitting and waiting and seeing. Witnesses telling witnesses where they were when the planes hit, how they got out, where they lived, not here in Brooklyn, but in Long Island, New Jersey, Queens, somewhere where they couldn’t reach their family, get their car out of the  garage because there was no more garage, or car.

Drew and me we make nervous jokes about the grassy knoll, under this strange sky with asphalt-gray clouds punctuated by paperwork liberated from files, desks, inboxes. Pavement clouds. World-turned-upside-down clouds. I still have a handful of jacket, his hand rests on my shoe. But we don’t notice these things. We also don’t say the things we usually say. This chaos is sufficiently trumping our own. And maybe we’re just sick of ourselves and our redundant, self-perpetuating problems. Or we’re scared. Yes, we’re definitely scared. I don’t know whether or not we notice these things. Too stunned to cry, too tight to collapse, we laugh about grassy knolls and their cliched connection to American tragedy.

“Where were you when the towers fell?” the interested parties would inquire.

“On the grassy knoll,” we would reply, stifling inappropriate hysterics.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha and we aren’t really as funny as we were hoping. We notice this and become quieter than quiet. Dense quiet. Asphalt cloud quiet. We would have to completely rethink our plan, change direction. Swoosh. Just like that. Swallows in midair.

There is nothing that wouldn’t require a new perspective. The fabric of our reality has been irrevocably unravelled.

“I finally get clean and the world falls apart.” I say, mostly to myself, but loud enough for him to hear. Last night in Brooklyn, in the basement of Grace Church, they were different than before. They asked if my life was unmanageable, which was an entirely different question than, “Are you an addict?” They sat in a circle, drinking the coffee that Hazel I’m an alcoholic made. They were kind of funny. Mostly, they didn’t make me feel like crap and they didn’t annoy the crap out of me.

Swoosh. Just like that.

Hazel with the coffee pot said I should make no major moves, no big changes for the first year. Just don’t use and come back. She said quitting wasn’t the end of the world.

I woke up the next morning to a city on fire.

Drew pretended to ignore my getting clean comment and, instead, was starting a conversation with a man who’s eyebrows hung low over his narrow eyes, who had stopped in front of Drew and I on the grass, set down an armload of books and asked if they were letting anyone into Manhattan. “I have to get in, to school. A test. Important.”

Confusion was pandemic and all directions seemed absurd. Because no one really knows how to go swoosh, just like that. Because we aren’t actually hollow-boned swallows, covered in feathers, light as air. We have bodies, heavy, fleshy, burdened. It takes an act of Congress, God, Terrorists.

We ordered Reubens with extra Russian dressing at a diner a few blocks up on Atlantic Avenue, iced tea to drink. I can see us growing old together, drinking iced tea. Problem solved.

The pastrami sours in my throat when the waitress announces the second collapse. I notice her tired legs in compression stockings, the way her shoulders strain under an invisible burden. I don’t notice her take Drew’s order for a vodka tonic. Worlds ride high on apron strings.

Two days later dust covers unclaimed bicycles and the witnesses wander the streets, chanting the names of the missing and the dead. Two days later, we shield our faces from the smell, sweet and acrid, identified by the Vietnam Vet on the subway as “Burnt flesh, man. I know that smell, I smelled it before and I swear to you it’s burnt flesh.”

Two days later over styrofoam cups of Hazel’s coffee,  someone asks what would you do if you stood between fire and a seventy fifth floor window? Who can imagine a choice like that? To fall or to burn. Opinions split among us, as they were split among the ones that actually had to make that choice. We knew this for certain: too many burned and too many jumped.

And it was two days after the bridge and the grassy knoll and the reuben sandwiches, all of us still trapped under mortar and glass and grief, that I got pregnant. Swoosh. Just like that.

The summer before we stole the car from the English electrician, our friend who arranged for us to pick grapes in Southern France, Eve, gushed from her perch in the 107th Street bistro, glass of wine in hand, fresh-faced and rested from what we would later learn was an extended stay at a sanatorium.

“I’ve spoken to the Madame, and her grapes are definitely growing,” Eve’s smoky laugh tinkled imperceptibly in the noisy bar. “She’s very excited to host you girls in Provence this fall. Oh, I wish I were going,” Eve lamented politely. “I’ve got to finish this semester, though. I’ve got to finish something.”

I admired so many things about Eve: her frosty hair and lined face seemed worldly at 20, as did her dry pride in the social nuisance of finishing college in four years. Add the fact that she kept disappearing, keeping my travel partners and I guessing about the grape-picking gig, and she quickly became just the right type of mysterious to me. One week I’d bump into her on the crowded city campus, finishing a blue cigarette by the Pan statue before our creative writing class. “See you upstairs in a minute,” she’d said with a weary smile. But when her empty chair persisted for that day and days after, Eve’s power only grew in my mind. She was living an urban, Cheshire life and I couldn’t think of anything more romantic.

I longed to break out of my suburban girl’s shell. Besides working as a hostess in a dingy, Upper West Side jazz club, I lived a fairly sheltered life for a twenty-one-year- old, commuting by bus from my parents’ house to Columbia University, scrunchies in my ponytail, buried under books in the magnificent library after lectures. I had no social life to speak of since relinquishing my cool magazine internship (I couldn’t afford not to be paid). New York was all around me, but I hardly felt like a city girl.

According to Eve’s pitch, if I was willing to take a semester off and fly to France, I could work the harvest for a few weeks and stay with Eve’s family friend, Madame Beauvert, who prevailed over acres of what would become Cotes du Rhone. My imagination conjured not backbreaking work, but lavender fields and nearby Mediterranean beaches; and Paris. I could live in France instead of read about how Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller did. So I withdrew from the upcoming fall semester and bought non-refundable plane tickets in cash, my first two major decisions made without parental consent. With a few hundred dollars saved from drunken tippers, I boarded a plane with a borrowed backpack and an elevated feeling that I was both finally living and pulling off a stunt meant for other, more privileged people.

But once seated and angling into the air, I felt sweat seep into the armpits of my Putamayo dress. In retrospect this onset of in-flight panic, prompted by fears of a future ruined while sipping free champagne on Air France, stood to reason. I had had no direct contact with Madame Beauvert. Our “plans”, arranged through Eve, had no confirmed dates of beginning or ending. I had no credit card, and of the three of us traveling, my college-level French was by far the best (I had gotten a B- in Conversation).

My travel partner, Mae, shook her head. “We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said, as one who had the glorious trait of worrying about nothing might. Mae was my age but Southern. She waited tables and lived alone in her mother’s Washington Heights apartment, and one of those circumstances made her as fearless as a secret agent.

Kay, our party’s third member, agreed. “Traveling is one of the good things in life,” she soothed, and because Kay was an artist and daughter of a tragically famous New Yorker, I believed she knew more about life than I.

We lugged our bags through the chaos of Orly airport, amid the human-smelling crowds and sexy, overhead announcements. Not one familiar face, sound or scent. Nothing to read, study or intelligently discuss. Someone stepped on my foot, but I didn’t care. I glimpsed a crepe stand and while waiting for a taxi, my fears became small and ornamental. That safe state in which I had lived, that of dissatisfied longing, had gone. I leaned my head out the window, feeling the urge to make a mark strike my face like raindrops on headlights.

For weeks, Paris was wet. We walked over puddles in our black city shoes and red lipstick, exploring old cathedrals and desecrated cemeteries that, while lovely, didn’t match my visions of sun, wine and the Mediterranean Sea. I had imagined there would be an obvious beginning by now, the pop of a cork, a magnanimous “welcome” from Madame Beauvert and ensuing directions of how to get to our new jobs at her palatial estate. Mae tried calling Madame Beauvert once or twice a day casually, as if it didn’t matter, and Kay echoed Mae’s cool calm about money more easily than I, sketching leisurely in the Left Bank tabacs. She had already finished college, and since Mae had no real intention of going back, the two of them shared a drifter’s context perfect for long afternoons in the Latin Quarter. I was alone with my urgency.

In order to not worry about money during the day, I tried evoking what I imagined would be Eve’s demeanor, smoking and ordering water and coffee to keep from wanting to eat more than camembert on baguettes. At night, I counted my remaining francs and dollars, about 150 total, and imagined myself as Eve, sitting by the statue of Pan, Greek God of the Wild, awaiting a change of fortune.

It was as if I had inadvertently said a prayer.

“Hi Madame Beauvert? My friends and I have arrived in Paris.”


Mae cleared her throat and spoke loudly into the youth hostel pay phone.

“We came from New York to work on your vineyard? For the harvest? For faire le vendage?”

“You are American?”

“Yes. Our friend Eve said she had spoken to you about our arrival. We’re here to pick–”

“I have men from Spain and Portugal to do that.”

“I see. Eve had said–”

“I am not well. I cannot take care of three girls. I’m sorry. Please enjoy Paris. Tell Eve I’m sorry.”


A few days earlier, a nun in a church vestibule where I had waited out a rainstorm had looked at me with pity. I scanned the wall full of nanny job postings, but her stare reminded me I didn’t belong, so I grabbed a few free publications like Libre Paris and France/USA, and covered my head across the street to the post office. In line for postcard stamps, two classifieds had caught my eye.

1. Join a crew of hot air balloon professionals for a two-month race across Europe. No experience necessary.

2. Restore a medieval farmhouse in the Provence countryside. Light construction/electrical experience preferred. Room and board.

My parents’ postcard, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful never slipped down the mail slot that day; the line for stamps was too long and the message felt untrue. But now, this morning after Madame Beauvert refused us, the sun cracked through gray clouds while Mae fed the phone franc after franc, finally reaching the medieval farmhouse (the hot air balloon line buzzed a constant busy).

“You can do construction?” the male voice asked.

“Let’s just say I know how to use a hammer,” Mae replied.

“Let me talk to him,” I grabbed the phone. Picking grapes had slipped through our fingers, but a medieval farmhouse in the French countryside, and the grand adventure I now felt entitled to, would not.

“I’ve helped build my grandfather’s shed,” I lied into the phone without the least bit of regret. “I’ve carried wood, I’ve worked in gardens. I’ve even dug a ditch.”

“You did all of this in New York?”

“Upstate New York. It’s very rural. But we can tell you about it when we meet. How do we get there?”

Within one hour, our bags were packed. I amended my parents’ postcard message, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful. We’re taking the train to Provence this afternoon but I was so excited, I forgot to drop it in the mailbox.

End of Part 1

Someday This Will be Funny, Tillman’s collection of short works, takes us through a myriad of subjects and styles—some with fast-paced quirkiness and economy of language, others with monotone didacticism.It’s amazing that the writer who turned out a multi-layered piece of flash fiction about a woman who hoards unpaid parking tickets in her glove compartment is also the same writer who produced a dull, overly sentimental and philosophical, essay-story-hybrid about mourning doves sitting at her window—unfortunately, the first piece in the collection.

My first melon fast began in response to being stalked by Tinley, with whom I had just ended things. I didn’t plan to split up with him so abruptly; in fact, I had struggled with how to break free of this frightening man twenty years my senior, whose mere sleeping presence made me shake in bed next to him with a carnal attraction that stemmed from deep unease.

“Will we still be together in May?” he asked, sultry and southern over the phone. It was February, and the thought of enduring his God complex another few months just for a mercurial vacation to Las Vegas was unbearable. So I said no. And after the first hour of him calling and screaming into my answering machine, I left the house for some clean, desert air.

I had moved to Tucson from New York City to become a graduate student and a new person. I was certain my friendships with eccentric and complicated people were behind me, along with everything unhealthy. Since arriving I had quit smoking and drinking alcohol, coffee and anything sugary, quit eating meat, cheese, and baked goods. I quit going out at night and instead woke up early to practice yoga before riding my used bicycle to campus. At first I was fulfilled by the lack of everything; the hot, dry landscape filled with craggy mountains and pointy foliage. But it wasn’t long before my thirst for the eccentric and complicated grew again with each quiet day, which is how I ended up with Tinley.

I chose the melon as my single fasting fruit based on advice from the plaid-shirted fellow who worked at the Food Conspiracy, the local food Co-op where one could live on a diet of things picked, sprouted, or dried. The anxiety from the breakup sent me in pursuit of dark chocolate, but I ended up being seduced by the luscious honeydew, honest and heavy in my hands. A good one could sustain a body and brain for at least three days, said the plaid-shirted fellow, who unlike Tinley harbored no force behind his persuasion. Tinley had tried to be a good boyfriend, but in the end, his drunken rages and personality shifts made for a freaky communication style. In the kooky quiet of the Co-op I posed in consideration, wishing I could just sit in a basket and join the non-genetically modified produce. A melon fast, I decided, was the next best thing. I was drawn to the idea of creating real physiological emptiness, a healthy vacuum that would absorb the prickly hollow already within me. I returned the plaid-shirted fellow’s approving smile, and plopped three honeydews into a canvas bag. Lopsidedly, I bicycled home.

DAY 1: My eyes saw but ignored the answering machine’s blinking red light. With a carving knife from Target, I procured a dinner of four banana- sized slices of honeydew. The first two went down quickly. Four minutes later I was done. Now what? The red light blinked furiously. I cared just enough to press play.

Beep. I fucking love you and would do anything for you. I love your weird gypsy face and your huge tits and your disappointing ass. I’d wipe your ass for you even if you were in a wheelchair, EVEN IF YOU WERE IN A WHEELCHAIR, bitch.

Beep. I’m sorry, baby. I just lost it. I thank God I even had a chance with you. The Buddha and Mohammed must have known I deserved you, Jesus knows I deserve you and if you open your heart you’ll come back to me, I know you will. I’m the only one who loves you as much as I do. You don’t even love yourself as much as I do. You’re not capable of loving yourself as much as I do.

Beep. Pick up the GODDAMN PHONE.

Calmly, I called a woman from my graduate program, someone also from the Northeast looking to thrive demon-free. She had started AA to stop drinking wine alone at night, but not for her habit of saving up five days’ worth of Ativan for the weekend. Someone I could relate to; someone eccentric and complicated.

I told her about the fast, not the guy.

“I want to do it, too,” she said when I told her about the promised endorphin high. Our chitchat drifted from melon size to rattlesnake and hairy spider size, but not ever the enormity of Tinley’s fury. I didn’t want her to think I was an idiot. Everyone in the program knew this guy—he was statuesque with impressive musculature and unbelievably good looks. He had worked as a runway model in Italy and his Aryan features were impossible to miss. So were his intense, insistent speech patterns and tendencies to compare himself to Jesus. But because his madness was about equal to his intellect, academia had given him the chance that the rest of the world had not.

Our small talk ended with words like lutein and indoles, the green fruit phytochemicals responsible for strong teeth and good vision. My friend hung up believing honeydew was a super drug. I fell asleep hoping to awaken with saber tooth canines and X-ray vision.

Instead, I suffered a fitful night of dreams that I was being watched.

DAY 2: At dawn, I dove into a quarter of a honeydew and a bitter cup of twig tea, grateful to be awake and in the company of fruit alone. The sun poured into my little adobe living room and illuminated its emptiness. A queasiness had begun to ebb and flow through me, like there had been a chemical spill. Juicists would say impurities in my organs were flushing out into my blood. With no digestive process to occupy my body, detoxification had begun.

The phone rang.

“This sucks,” my friend said. “I feel sick. I’m going to the mall to get candy.”

I told her I was sticking with the plan. I didn’t tell her why for fear of sounding too earnest. For me, the fast’s appeal exceeded that of a cleanse or a dare. It provided a chance to make a change and hold on, despite extreme circumstances, for the promise on the other side. It was a walk through fire. It was a transformation.

I drank three glasses of water. I swallowed two teaspoons of honey—the one non-melon food permitted—and sat outside under my orange trees. For years I had longed for something other than the concrete, crowded, New York life. Now here I was, queasily watching hummingbirds flit and listening to geckos chirp. In this moment of peace and nausea was when the note shoved behind my screen door caught my eye.

You’re beautiful when you’re sleeping I read in scribbled script.

The fear that stabbed me—knowing my dreams of being watched were real—burned in my gut and drove me off the porch. I jumped on my bike. Scared geckos scrambled into dirt holes. Where could I hide? The graduate student office– a warren full of singularly focused, intelligent humans– was the obvious haven. The more bodies around me the more insulated I, and the consequences of my poor judgment, would be.

But on my desk Tinley had already left my belongings: a t-shirt I slept in, three thongs, some K-Y jelly, a portable chess set I had bought him for Christmas, the corresponding card, and a brochure for a rafting trip in Big Bend, Texas.

This was going to be our spring break. Thanks for fucking up our future screamed the script.

A handful of Rhetoric and Composition majors, some of whom I knew, others whom certainly knew me because I was dating the foxy crazy guy, looked to be busy. I tried to chat them up, improvising a conversation about unreliability in ethos-based arguments. But as I encountered snubs and cold shoulders, I knew my unpopular position wasn’t the culprit. Tinley had gotten to everyone first. I felt like a pariah, a weirdo, and damaged goods instead of the smart, independent and adventurous person I had started out being. I was pissed. And worse, I was hungry.

But I swallowed my woes and continued on my bourgeois high road, empty stomach growling. I wrote my reply.

I’m sorry this is hard for you. Harassment won’t work, I’m afraid. We’re just not meant to be.

I rode down the mountain to his house, note in hand.

Now, conventional wisdom advises steering clear of someone undergoing a potentially violent episode. This I know. But Tinley had never been exactly violent with me. There was the time he left me in the woods in Colorado, without the map or much experience maneuvering on the cross-country skis he talked me into wearing. I actually enjoyed the two hours it took me to find my way back to the lodge, didn’t mind navigating through low temperatures and a blinding snowstorm alone, because I knew I was safer in the vast pine forest than with him when he was angry. But since then I’d come to see his rage as unsustainable, like a desert blaze. I reminded myself of how often his quick temper smoldered and blew away in the wind, perhaps because he was pushing fifty or because I had stopped offering fuel to stoke the flames. Either way, by now he’d probably be on the other side of his mania. I believed my even-tempered note would bring sobering finality.

But the scene in his front yard gave me pause. The giant cross that had hung creepily over his bed was now stabbed into the sand as if marking a grave. The front door was open and Mariachi music blasted from inside. A few Budweiser cans littered the doorstep. I didn’t see him anywhere, but half expected him to pop out from behind the Bougainvillea, shirtless and hot from heartbreak. I taped the note to the cross and pedaled away as fast as I could.

Everything through the lenses of hunger and terror looked different, now. My reply: bait. My home: a trap. I rode on until the sun reclined behind the mountains, as if in a chaise lounge. The sky shifted through all shades of cotton candy before the clouds speared their way into the night. I have not admitted to anyone, until now, that I cycled away feeling somewhat entitled to this crazy experience, almost proud of this horrible mistake of character. Everyone, I heard once at a cocktail party, has one lunatic in their past. I used this reasoning to erase any lingering shame. My error was just a bit of dust on this endless landscape, wasn’t it? It would blow away with a strong wind like everything else left unfastened in the sand.

Later at home I guzzled water, ate four spoonfuls of honeydew and passed out, exhausted from my choices.

DAY 3: The phone woke me, but I didn’t get it in time. I braced myself for a screaming voicemail. It was my AA friend, eating her way through a second bag of Swedish fish on her way back from the mall, and I could barely understand her. I didn’t call back. I wanted to, but was too weak. I sipped twig tea in bed and started to doze off again, when I heard a scratching sound outside my door.

It was no coyote.

I recognized the joyous Indian music—my favorite, I had told Tinley one night in bed—but the treble-heavy boom box reduced the chanting to howling. I parted the curtain to see a can of Bud on my windowsill. A navy blue camping chair had been set on my porch. In it with his back to my window sat Tinley in his plaid pajama bottoms, no shirt. He held a cup, which I knew was to catch his spit. He chewed tobacco when he was upset.

“Now I know you can hear me, darlin’. I know you’re there and I know from your note you are willing to admit, even just if it’s a teeny tiny bit, that there’s still a chance for us. I know we have a chance, baby. And if you just come out and talk to me we can work it out. I’ll just sit here until you come out on this porch.”

My first response was to pretend I didn’t see him. I covered myself with the blankets. But in the dark my stomach growled and the Indian chanting floated in the window along with his babble, a terrible symphony.

Through the locked screen door I screamed, “Please leave.”

“I’m not leaving ‘til we work this out.”

“If you don’t leave I’m calling 911.”

He laughed. “Honey, this isn’t New York. You don’t call 911 on someone who loves you.”

And this is when the horror of the situation struck me. No amount of melon would make him disappear. I was kindling for his fire, and I both loved and hated my dry, flammable power. I called 911 from my kitchen, crouched between my stove and my sink. I army crawled to lock each window and door, then back between the stove and sink. I waited behind the pipes where scorpions lived.

A full 20 minutes later I called the police again.

“Where are you?” I said to the dispatcher. “I could be dead by now.”

The howling music and babbling Tinley droned on like voices from two opposing Gods. And then: another voice and a knock at the door. A stern-faced man in blue held Tinley by the shoulder, who wore mirrored sunglasses and a dirty smile.

“Tinley tells me you locked him out of the house. You’re having a domestic dispute?”

“That is not correct,” I said, “he doesn’t live here.”

“Oh sweetie,” Tinley chuckled and shook his head. “This happens all the time, officer.”

I gasped and protested and swore like a Bronx resident than this did not by any means happen all the time.

The officer looked bored. “Now Tinley, I bet she’d talk to you if you went home and showered and got dressed, sobered up and looked more presentable. Wouldn’t you now?” The man in blue persuaded me to answer. I longed to be in conversation with the Co-op fellow, quiet and plaid and virtuous about his diet. I must have answered the question sufficiently, because soon I stood alone in my living room with nothing but a heavy head and an almost imperceptible sense of my body. At the time I remember thinking I had adopted what seemed like the quality of a melon: sweet, passive, a little bit oblivious.

When Tinley returned clean with slicked-back hair, he asked quietly through my screen if he could collect his things. The music and the camping chair were gone. Though he left carrying books and a desk stool without another word, I spent the duration of my fast imagining the reconciliation that might happen next, which was a whole other high in and of itself.

This story isn’t really about fruit. It’s about risks you take just because you can, even though and maybe because they aren’t good for you. It’s also about substituting all your guilty pleasures with healthy alternatives, as if changing really is that easy: ginger chews for cigarettes; desert for city; melon for mayhem.

Transformation is slow and often un-thrilling. Sometimes, memories of what you left behind float by enticingly; the bad choices, the chaos, whatever almost killed you. They provoke a funny kind of nostalgia. Ask any addict.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a man shooting up. He knelt at curbside as though praying, his skinny white ass peeking out from his too-tight jeans and too-short shirt. Thwap-thwap-thwap went his needle. We walked away before we could see him do anything. When we returned, he was gone.

It’s 9:34 on a Saturday night. I’ve showered. I’ve gargled. I’ve buttoned my flannel shirt three quarters of the way and rolled up the bottoms of my jeans a little. I’ve even done ten quick push-ups to pump some blood into my frail biceps, a desperate attempt to mask inferior genetics.

I send out a mass text to my friends: “What’s the plan?”

For a few seconds, Xboxes are paused, YouTube windows are left unattended, and Gchats are interrupted. Three sets of preoccupied fingers type hurried responses.

I’m awaiting the inevitable. Watered-down gin and tonics, sweaty, rude crowds, and scantly informed discussions between twenty-two-year-olds about how “different real life is from college”. We’ll probably also talk about Kanye West’s tweets and how early we all have to get up for work during the week and why time seems to go faster when you’re out of school. It will be cool to ironically brag about how past our primes we are, because it’s not ironic. We really feel that way. Or do we? Or something. I’ll attribute our fleeting lives to the lack of any new experiences. (“We’ve kind of done it all. Except for marriage, I guess.”) Then someone will start talking about The Office and I’ll go to the bathroom, slicing my way through scattered conversations about American Apparel going out of business and how good Mario Batali’s Eataly is and how there’s no other place on Earth like New York City.

But that’s later.

Now, I’m in the bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. After all my careful preparation, I notice a pimple below my left nostril. God. Dark circles under my eyes. Ugh. The florescent bathroom light in my overpriced, disappointing apartment flickers.  I take a step back. For perspective. Maybe my whole will be better than the sum of my parts. Then, I see it. The biggest problem. My most glaring inadequacy: the long, dry mop on my head. Unruly wisps spilling over my ears. Rampant cowlicks hastily matted down by Duane Reade pomade. It dawns on me that there’s nothing I can do. I’ll look bad tonight no matter what.

I need a haircut.

Two full days of compulsively checking my reflection in storefront windows lead me to Tuesday, when hairdressers start their week. I call and make an appointment and I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I have a plan to improve my life, I think. I’ll be a better human once I get a trim. I’ll call my parents more and tutor a local elementary school student, maybe. I’ll definitely cut out fried foods and start to spend more time outside. The sun is good for me.

I blink and it’s Saturday at 12:10. I’m late for my appointment. I rush into the salon and nearly pass out from the smell of acrylic nail polish. I wipe the crusty yellow sleep out of my eyes and tell the receptionist my name.  She’s horrifying and beautiful all at once. I never thought orange skin and Juicy Couture sweatpants could make me feel so insignificant. I apologize for my tardiness. I’m fixated on her perfectly waxed eyebrows and I stumble over my words.

She gets up from her desk. “Let me see if Kendra is ready for you.” The receptionist walks over to a hairdresser and I see them look at me from across the room. I glance down at a stain on my shirtsleeve and notice that the elastic is stretched out. My wrist looks frail inside the floppy fabric. Why don’t I take better care of myself? I should start to work out again. I should’ve showered this morning.

“Kendra will be with you in a minute,” my spray-tanned goddess says upon her return. I pretend to be reading People magazine but keep sneaking looks at her while I wait. I imagine us getting away from here, from all this. We could move to Brooklyn. She could write children’s books like she’s always wanted. We would be happy there. Sunday dinners. One week at her family’s house. Mine the next. But, nothing’s set in stone. We’d go with the flow. Her dad would understand how it is and he would like me so much. “I know how it is,” he’d say to me when I called to tell him we were staying in. “I like you so much.”

I snap out of my fantasy and I begin to worry about how expensive this place is. I can’t muster the courage to inquire about the price. I’m embarrassed by my end-of-the-month poverty. I hope they take credit cards.

Kendra yells to me: “Lou, come on over!” I don’t tell her my name is actually Luke. She asks me to sit down so she can wash my hair. My neck cranes back over a porcelain sink and, for the first time in a long time, I’m relaxed. Kendra drops a cool dollop of shampoo on my scalp. I’m lulled by an unlikely melody of running water and her smacking bubble gum.

“You want an Aquafina?” she asks.

I do want one. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day. I’m weak and thirsty, but I can’t bring myself to say yes. I don’t want to trouble her. Never am I more considerate than when I’m in the company of complete strangers whom I’ll probably never speak to again.

“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

Like ten tiny knives, her fingernails gouge my sopping skull. Suds seep into my tearing eyes and I grit my teeth in agony. I wonder how a one-hundred-pound woman with pink highlights and four-inch heels could be so mercilessly strong.

“Is this too hard?”

“No, it’s perfect. Just what I need.” Then I make some comment about how long my hair’s gotten and how amazed I am at how fast it’s grown. She doesn’t respond, but what did I really expect her to say?

Kendra rinses me clean and taps my shoulder. “Lean up and come over to my chair.” The sharp pain in my head subsides and I let myself sink into her swiveling, black leather throne. I try to explain what look I’m going for.  She finishes my thought: “Professional, but you could still go out on a Saturday and get the ladies, right?” I think she’s mocking me. Or does she think I’m handsome?

“Exactly,” I say. She’s like a babysitter or an older sister who understands what I go through and knows what’s best for me. I’m comforted.

Now, it’s silent. She clips away.

Then, she asks: “So, are you in school?”

“I just graduated this past May.”

“Where did you go?”

I tell her. She doesn’t recognize the name. I pretend it’s not that well known.

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I mean school is school. It was fun to party.” Suddenly, I’m the Fonz. I don’t tell her about the four years of obsessive studying and meticulous extra-curricular preparation. I don’t tell her about how I perseverated over the modern-day validity of Kant’s Categorical Imperative and argued with people about the real meaning of Utilitarianism. I don’t tell her that I went out maybe two nights a week and spent the rest of the time panicked that I wouldn’t ever be able to find a job.

“Are you from Manhattan?”

“Yes,” I lie. “Born and raised.” It would be too much to explain my divorced parents and stepsiblings and patchwork of suburban Connecticut teenage angst.

Kendra takes a break from chewing her gum and lets out a grumbling moan. “Luuucky.”

I wish to be the person she thinks I am.

Silence sets back in and I notice my hair for the first time since I sat down. It’s drying and I’m realizing she’s doing a terrible job.

“How’s it looking, hon? Still too long?”

“No, no. This is fine. Great, actually. You’re good at what you do.” A dumb, semi-patronizing comment that makes me feel important and suave, for a second. She smiles. I smile back.

She unclips my smock and starts brushing loose hairs off my neck. “Want to see the back?” She hands me a mirror and spins my chair around.

“Looks fantastic! Wow.” I respond like she’s just cured AIDS. I’m such an unbearable fraud. I look worse than before. I stand up and begin to feel queasy as I anticipate paying handsomely for this butchery.

“How much do I owe you?” I’m disappointed in myself at how crass that sounded.

“$55 is fine, hon.” She says it like she’s giving me a deal. I feel like I’m her best customer. I have an urge to be very loyal to her, despite the way she’s made me look. I’m a victim of stylistic Stockholm Syndrome.

“Is credit card okay?”

She pouts. “Sorry. Only cash or check.”

I have neither cash nor check. I tell her this and hand her my wallet and phone. “Let me run to the bank. Please keep these as collateral. I’m sorry.” I run faster than I have in my whole life.

When I come back from the ATM, she’s already with another client. I scurry over and give her $65 of the last $92 in my checking account. “I’m sorry. Thank you for waiting. I’ll see you soon.”

“Thanks, hon,” Kendra says.

I pass the receptionist. She’s reading the People magazine I pretended to thumb through earlier. “Looks nice,” she says reflexively, without looking up from her page.

“Thanks. She did a great job,” I say.

I walk out.

I never go back.

This week, I participated in a reading in New York City’s West Village. All I knew when I entered was that I was going to a new “science fiction” bookstore. That turned out only to be partially true. Ed’s Martian Book is indeed new, but what it stocks is nonfiction, namely author Andrew Kessler’s debut book, Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission (Pegasus). There’s something extremely surreal about being in a store where shelf after shelf, case after case, table after table only have one title. Perhaps that is science fiction-like. It’s mesmerizing, and I kept being tempted to open the books to make sure they weren’t blank inside (I gave in to temptation and, in fact, they were not blank inside). I emailed Kessler to find out more about his mission to Mars and his “crazy” bookstore brainstorm.

Steam Table

Fall 2002

Last summer my wife’s family and I decided to buy a deli. By fall, with loans from three different relatives, two new credit cards, and a sad kiss good-bye to thirty thousand dollars my wife and I had saved while living in my mother-in-law’s Staten Island basement, we had rounded up the money. Now it is November, and we are searching New York City for a place to buy.

We have different ideas about what our store should look like. My mother-in-law, Kay, the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers, wants a deli with a steam table, one of those stainless steel, cafeteria-style salad bars that heat the food to just below the temperature that kills bacteria—the zone in which bacteria thrive. She wants to serve food that is either sticky and sweet, or too salty, or somehow all of the above, and that roasts in the dusty air of New York City all day, while roiling crowds examine it at close distance—pushing it around, sampling it, breathing on it. Kay’s reason for wanting a deli of this kind is that steam tables bring in a lot of money, up to a few thousand dollars per hour at lunchtime. She also wants a store that is open twenty-four hours and stays open on Christmas and Labor Day. She’d like it to be in the thick of Manhattan, on a street jammed with tourists and office workers.

I don’t know what I want, but an all-night deli in midtown with a steam table isn’t it. I’m the sort of person who loses my appetite if I walk past an establishment with a steam table. I get palpitations and the sweats just being around sparerib tips. Of course, I don’t have to eat the food if we buy a deli with a steam table. I just have to sell it. That’s what Kay says she plans to do. But Kay has an unfair advantage: years ago, after she came to America, she lost her sense of smell, and now she can’t detect the difference between a bouquet of freesias and a bathroom at the bus station. My nose, on the other hand, is fully functional.

Luckily, I’m in charge of the real estate search, and so far I have successfully steered us from any delis serving hot food. As a result, Kay’s frustration is starting to become lethal.

“What’s the matter?” she asked me the other day. “You not like money? Why you make us poor?”

These are not unfair questions. I would say that one of my biggest faults as a human being is that I do not love money, which makes me lazy and spoiled. Like finding us a store, for example. Call me a snob, but somehow a deli grocery—a traditional fruit and vegetable market—seems more dignified than a deli dishing out slop by the pound in Styrofoam trays. Is that practical? We are, after all, talking about the acquisition of a deli, not a summer home or a car. If dignity is so important, why not buy a bookstore or a bakery? Why not spend it on a business where I have to dress up for work?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not insecure about becoming a deli owner. I even sort of like the idea. Aside from a few “gentleman farmers,” no one can remember the last person in my family who worked with their hands. After blowing off law school and graduate school, after barely getting through college and even more narrowly escaping high school, why would I suddenly get snobbish?

But the truth is, I’m still young (thirty-one is young, right?) and can afford to be blasé. It’s like the job I had as a seventeen-year-old pumping gas outside Boston, a gig I remember as brainless heaven. I enjoyed coming home smelly. I enjoyed looking inside people’s cars while scraping the crud off their windows. I enjoyed flirting with women drivers twice my age.

Who knows how I would have felt if seventeen were just the beginning, and I could look forward to fifty more years of taking orders from strangers.

Today we are looking at a deli with a steam table. This morning I was informed of the news by a fire-breathing giant, a creature escaped from a horror movie about mutants spawned by an industrial accident, who hovered at my bedside until I awoke with a start, upon which the creature said: For two weeks you be in charge of finding our store, and you not come up with anything. So starting today we do it my way. Then the creature exited, accompanied, it seemed to my half-asleep ears, by the sound of dragging chains.

For the rest of the morning I lie there under the sheets as a form of protest, not intending to get out, until my wife, Gab, sits down on the bed next to me with a cup of coffee.

“I want you and my mother to go together,” Gab says. “I can’t come because I have things to do at home.”

The store is near Times Square and has a name like Luxury Farm or Delicious Mountain. Its Korean owners claim to be making eight thousand dollars a day, a preposterous sum that nevertheless has Kay all excited.

“Don’t be afraid of steam table,” she says as we drive to the store. “If smelling something stranger, close nose and think of biiig money.”

I exhale deeply and try to follow her advice, but instead of fistfuls of cash all I can think of are slabs of desiccated meat loaf slathered in congealed gravy and the smell of boiled ham. So I focus on the drive into midtown—the glowering skyscrapers, the silhouettes of bankers and lawyers behind tinted windows a few stories above the traffic, the gigantic television screens featuring high-cheekboned models talking on cell phones, and at street level my future comrades among the peonage: the restaurant deliverymen, the tarot readers, the no-gun security guards and the DVD bootleggers.

The owner of the deli is a distressingly perky woman named Mrs. Yu. She’s frizzy-haired and victimized by an excess of teeth, and she’s wearing the Korean deli owner’s official uniform: a puffy vest and a Yankees cap settled snugly over her Asianfro. Her age—approximately mid-fifties—is the same as Kay’s, which makes her part of the generation of Koreans who came to America in the 1980s and became the most successful immigrant group ever—ever: the people who took over the deli industry from the Greeks and the Italians, the people who drove the Chinese out of the dry-cleaning trade, the people who took away nail polishing from African-Americans, and the people whose children made it impossible for underachievers like me to get into the same colleges our parents had attended.

“My name Gloria Yu,” she says when we walk in. “My store make you rich.” She winks at me. “Cost only half million dollar.”

It seems hard to imagine how any convenience store, even one that can get away with charging twelve dollars for a six-pack of Bud Ice, could be worth half a million dollars, but Gloria Yu’s store probably deserves it if any of them do. Like a ship squeezed inside a bottle, a full-sized supermarket has somehow been folded into the space meant for a restaurant or a flower shop. Thousands of items line the shelves, seemingly one of everything. In my general state of paranoia, it occurs to me that if I were to be trapped in this place by some sort of prolonged emergency, such as a flood or a toxic cloud, I could survive for months, maybe even a year, and find something new to eat each day.

“So,” Gloria Yu says to me, her voice quivering with excitement, “this your first store?”

“Yes, it is,” I confess guiltily.

“I knew it!” she says, practically jumping up and down with excitement. “I knew it! I knew it! You not look like normal deli owner.” A few customers glance nervously our way.

“So where you from?” Gloria Yu asks me.

“Um, Boston.”

“Boston? Like the Boston, Massachusetts? No, no, no. No, no, no.”

“What do you mean, ‘no, no, no’?” I ask impatiently. “That’s where I grew up.”

“Not where you grow up, where your family from?” Gloria Yu says.

“Oh, you mean originally? Like where are my ancestors from? Here, I suppose. Here as much as anywhere else.”

“Hmm . . .” says Gloria Yu, massaging her chin thoughtfully. “Very interesting. Okay, time to show deli!”

Now Gloria Yu thinks I am some sort of freak. Hopefully it will prevent her from selling us her store.

“You two go ahead,” I say. “I’m going to wander around alone.”

Am I a freak? Why does the steam table scare me so much?

On an even deeper level, though, I wonder, Is fear of the steam table a fear of commitment? A fear of going all the way? Maybe I just need to get it over with and eat a plateful of American chop suey.

“Hey you!” a voice says.

I look around, but there’s no one. Kay and Gloria have moved several paces ahead. I’m standing in the drink section, an area filled with glass-doored refrigerators and a rainbow assortment of fluids.

“Hey mister!” the voice commands.

Still nothing.

“Over here,” the voice says. “Look inside.” And now I see. Next to me, apparently imprisoned within a soda refrigerator, is a balding Korean man in a puffy vest.

“I’m you,” the man says, banging meekly on the glass.

“I’m sorry?” I say, yanking the door open. The prisoner stands behind a rack of soft drinks, only his right hand poking through.

“I’m Yu,” he says. “Mr. Yu. Store owner. You come to buy store, right?”

“Oh,” I say. “Nice to meet . . . you.” I speak these words, as far as anyone watching is concerned, to nothing but a rack of soda. (The refrigerator is one of those models that open up from behind, so you can stock the shelves from back to front. Except for his hand, Mr. Yu remains hidden.)

“This store very good,” Mr. Yu says cheerily, his hand gesturing dramatically and at one point seeming to lunge straight for my crotch. “Eight thousand a day no problem. You like something to drink?” The hand starts pointing at different flavors. “Which one your favorite? Have any one. Try many different color.”

“Thank you,” I say to the hand, while taking out a bottle of Code Red. “It’s a nice store.” Mr. Yu wants to continue the conversation, but before he can, I gently close the door. Then, in an unplanned gesture, I bow solemnly to the walk-in refrigerator.

“Okay, Mr. Original American,” says Gloria Yu, coming up behind me with Kay. “You ready to buy my deli?” She winks at me again and says something to Kay in Korean—something evidently quite hilarious, as they both erupt in hysterical laughter.

“What’s so funny?” I ask.

“Don’t be worrying,” says Gloria Yu, adding mysteriously, “You’ll be making successful again soon.”

“What? Excuse me?”

“Don’t be worrying, I said. Success coming! But first, I want to show you something.” A devious smile lights up her lips. “I want you and your mother-in-law to come with me so I can show you where this“—she gestures expansively at the steam-table spread, like a game show model unveiling a new car—”is made.”

We follow Gloria Yu to the store’s basement, where things get dingy pretty fast. The space is cramped, the light dim, and as the temperature starts to climb, the smell of American chop suey becomes as overpowering as a trash can full of baby diapers. In the basement we find a gang of six Mexicans dressed in thick fire-retardant gloves and steel-toed boots—work gear more appropriate to a steelworks than a kitchen. Evidently you don’t cook the food that gets served at a steam table. You attack it with extreme bursts of heat from an oven that looks like a smelter. And you don’t prepare it, either. You buy it premade from an offsite mass producer of cafeteria and hospital fare somewhere in Connecticut.

The whole experience is rather shocking, and I think Kay feels bad for me. On our way home, I expect the usual barrage of scorn, like sitting too close to a nuclear reactor, but instead she’s quiet. And then as we drive over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the gateway to Staten Island and the traditional summing-up point for any of our family’s journeys, she tells me she’s changed her mind.

“We need small place, for family only. That one too big. Besides, I’m not really trusting that woman anyway. If store be making eight thousand dollars every day, how come she and her husband still working there?”

A few minutes later we pull into the driveway of our home and find Gab outside. Instead of having just snubbed out a cigarette, which is what she was really doing, she pretends to have been waiting for us. She does have news, after all.

She bends over and sticks her head through the passenger window, maintaining just enough distance so that we won’t smell the smoke on her breath.

“I found the perfect store,” she says.

It wasn’t my idea to buy a deli. The idea came to my wife at the time of her thirtieth birthday. Thirty can be an uncomfortable turning point for those inclined to measure their own accomplishments against those of their parents. Gab took it especially hard.

“What have I done with my life?” she asked me.

I reminded her that she had graduated from one of the best colleges in the world (the University of Chicago, where we met almost ten years ago) and obtained both a master’s degree and a law degree. She’d even had a burgeoning career as a corporate attorney at a Manhattan law firm, until she’d decided to chuck it all so she could open this deli for her mother.

“And?” she retorted angrily. “Do you know what my mother had accomplished by the time she was thirty? She had three kids who she had raised with no help from my father. She had her own business, which she ran by herself. And she was about to immigrate to America, a country she knew nothing about. All by thirty!”

I thought of reminding Gab that her mom never finished college—Gab was beating her three to none in the degree category—but it didn’t seem like what she wanted to hear.

Over the course of the next few months, Gab’s thirtieth-birthday paranoia transformed into an obsession with repaying her mother’s sacrifice. Mistakenly, I had thought that she had already done that by being successful herself. But as the year went on, it became clear that Gab would not be satisfied without a sacrifice of her own. So her goal became to give back some of what Kay had given up in coming to America.

She was going to give her back her business.

And sacrifice her husband.

Kay’s old business had been a bakery serving typical Korean desserts. She spoke of it so lovingly one wondered how she had ever coped with its loss. However, unless Americans suddenly developed a taste for mung bean balls and glutinous rice cakes, doing the same kind of business was not going to be an option. Kay knew how to run a deli, having twenty years of experience clerking at 7-Elevens and Stop’n Gos across America. Yet she was no longer the same person she had been in her twenties. Though still frighteningly strong at the age of fifty-five (her one weakness being an inability to say no to relatives requesting favors), she was now prone to thunderous physical breakdowns that left her bedridden for days. And the breakdowns were getting longer and more thunderous. She still smoked, she ate terribly, and she invariably found ways to get out of the doctors’ appointments her children tried making for her.

Moreover, physical health was not the only issue. America had wrought some mysterious changes, like the loss of her sense of smell. And there was the question of why she’d never returned to owning her own business. Was she scared? Intimidated? Had she lost her nerve? Or had she lost the desire and the drive? Was she possibly depressed? No one knew, because Kay would no more discuss her feelings than she would go to a doctor. (She had no trouble exhibiting them, but discussing them was out of the question.) Due to her complex psychology, it was possible, of course, that she was all of those things. However, the only obvious reason why she hadn’t opened a store was money.

You need money to start a business, and Gab and I, around the time of her thirtieth birthday, were enjoying, for the first time in our married lives, having just a little money in our bank account. It was money we guarded with insane desperation, not even telling each other how much was in the account. The very act of saving was new to us, like a magic power we couldn’t quite believe we had acquired. But even more important, it was that money and that money alone that would eventually buy our freedom from Kay’s house on Staten Island.

We had moved into the basement nine months before, after the lease on our Brooklyn apartment expired. After living in Brooklyn for three years, we had tired of paying rent to our landlord, a former ad executive from Parsippany who had miswired our brownstone so that everything blew up in our faces. We wanted to own our own space and there were thoughts of starting a family, and when the lease ran out we decided it was time. Kay’s house was to serve as a temporary refuge while we house-hunted.

Deep shame attended our moving into Gab’s mother’s household, but it was not as bad as moving to Staten Island, New York City’s pariah borough, a place where once-hot trends like Hummers and spitting go to die, a place so forsaken that not even Starbucks would set up a store there, nor even the most enterprising Thai restaurant owner—only immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, people fleeing environmental disasters and the most involuted economies on earth. (Perhaps they found something homelike in the smoldering industrial landscape, a familiar scent in the air.) As Gab and I quickly discovered, friends were uneasy about visiting us in our new borough. “Can you smell the dump where you live?” they would ask. “How long does it take to develop a Staten Island accent?” We promised they wouldn’t have to go back to Park Slope wearing velour sweat suits or smelling like garbage, but still they wouldn’t visit us.

Our bedroom was in a basement. It had exactly one window, a shoe box‚ Äìsized portal at ground level that occasionally allowed us a clean, unobstructed view of an ankle. One of our neighbors had a bored old house cat who used to come and sit in the one window and watch us undress. Probably he wondered what kind of deranged animal chose to live its life underground, watching people’s ankles. Above our heads, clomping around day and night, were relatives of Gab’s who’d recently made the trip from Korea and were as surprised to see us as we them. “We can understand living with your parents in Korea,” they said, “but America is a very big country.” Some of them stayed with us for months, squeezing three at a time into beds made for one. Some of them were new immigrants who spoke no English at all, but it didn’t matter in Kay’s house because the television was forever playing Korean soap operas, and the radio was constantly tuned to Korean talk radio, and the refrigerator was filled with bean sprout soup, sea slugs and fermented cabbage. I was the only one for whom it mattered, because I did not eat Korean food and could not speak a word of Korean.

Gab and I had no sex at all for the first three months. Too dangerous. In an Asian household no one wears shoes indoors, so you never hear anyone coming. And since the general rule in the Paks’ house was that an unworn shirt was your shirt, an uneaten chicken leg your chicken leg, people were always barging into the basement hoping to get into our bed.

From the day we moved in, we were dying to get out, which gave us the power to save thirty thousand dollars in less than a year. But then came Gab’s thirtieth birthday, and suddenly our misery didn’t matter anymore—in fact, the greater our misery, the better Gab felt. “Don’t worry,” she said to me. “We’ll still be able to move out.” She had a plan. At first, she and I would be the owners of whatever store we bought, and Kay would be the manager. During this period, we would keep the store’s profits and use them to replenish our bank account. Later on, within the six months or so it would take for the business to stabilize, we would transfer ownership to Kay and resume our old lives.

This plan was so foolhardy, so pregnant with the seeds of its own destruction, that it was almost as if it had come from me, not Gab.

Gab’s “perfect” store is in Brooklyn, a borough that, while beloved by many, stirs nothing in the heart of Kay, or that of anyone else in my wife’s family, for that matter. For the Paks, Brooklyn is nothing but a sprawling, dirty, dangerous place with no Korean restaurants or supermarkets and none of the prestige or business opportunities of Manhattan. Except to go the airport or endure a passage on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the borough has no place in their lives.

“The store is owned by North Koreans,” Gab reports gleefully. This is excellent news because training in the Kim Il Sung school of neo-Stalinist entrepreneurship tends to put one at a fairly severe competitive disadvantage, and we have hopes that the store will be undervalued.

Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the spectacle we were about to witness. While the store is in a trendy neighborhood surrounded by restaurants with one-word names and menus offering eleven-dollar desserts, the store itself—well, I’ve seen hunting cabins in the woods that were better stocked. The shelves are all but empty, and the place looks like it has been bombed, judging by the rubble swept into the corners and the tattered awning fluttering in the stiff November wind.

The owners, an older couple and their two silent daughters, are extremely friendly, but things only get weirder after we meet. “Country people,” Kay whispers to me as they lead us on a tour. They are like human beings from a different century, and they have funny accents and use words that Kay and Gab don’t understand. Both have numerous missing teeth and haircuts they’ve obviously given themselves.

The store embarrasses them, and they apologize for it, offering to feed us as compensation. “Come,” they say, leading us to the kitchen, where a mysterious crimson broth burbles and seethes inside a blackened pot. “No, thank you,” we all say. Next to the stove I see a box of broken-down fruit crates, tree branches and other bits of scrap wood. Gab goes off to use the bathroom and returns wearing an alarmed scowl, having peed in a makeshift closet with only duct-taped cardboard for walls. This place has secrets. I begin to feel like an intruder. And then we ask to be shown the basement.

The owners look at each other nervously. “Okay,” says the husband. “Follow me.”

It’s nothing to be ashamed of, really—just violently at odds with the city health code. The owners (or somebody; we don’t ask) turn out to live in the basement, where there are beds, dressers and clotheslines hung with wet laundry. Being basement dwellers ourselves, Gab and I withhold judgment, but Kay is appalled. It looks like the power has been cut off recently, judging by all the candles, and I assume that the kindling I saw by the stove is what they’ve been using to heat themselves. Then suddenly a loud noise fills the basement, vibrating like an earthquake, and a subway car goes by right on the other side of the basement wall.

“Bet that keeps you up at night,” I say to the male owner.

“Bet what does?” he replies.

We go back upstairs and take another look. The store is a full-blown disaster—during the twenty minutes we’ve been visiting, not one customer has come in—but with work it can be turned around, and outside waits a fancy neighborhood filled with big spenders. The owners want seventy-five thousand dollars, which we offer them; then we wait for their response. Nothing happens for several days. We have now been looking for a store for three months, and patience in the Pak family has truly all but run out.

“How hard can it be?” Gab exclaims. “Is New York City not filled with delis? We aren’t looking to open a whole supermarket. All we want is our own little space.”

“Maybe it’s a message,” Kay says. “Buying store is mistake.”

But we’ve already considered the alternatives, such as a Subway or a twenty-four-hour photo shop or a fishmonger’s, and ruled out each one, because the Pak family’s expertise lies in convenience stores.

Then the owners of the Brooklyn store call. They tell Gab they’ve decided not to sell after all and, in keeping with their mysterious ways, offer us no explanation. Perfectly polite and friendly, but perfectly strange at the same time. In a month or so we will drive by their business, just to see if they were telling us the truth, and we will confirm that indeed it has not been sold, but neither is it open. The place is dark and shuttered. A little after that Kay will hear through the Korean grapevine that the old man had suffered a heart attack and the family had moved to parts unknown.

“Now what we do?” Kay says in disgust. “I’m not be having energy anymore. This drive me to be the crazy person.”

We all look to Gab, who is slumped on the living room couch and seems in fact to be sinking into it, sucked down by some depressive force emanating from below the house. She says nothing for a while, but then:

“I can look at one more store,” she says. “Just one. After that I’m finished.”

Kay gets the Korean newspaper, and there in the classifieds it is: “Busy street, bright store, new refrigerators—Brooklyn. $170K.”

That was how we found out about Salim’s store.

Excerpted from My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe
Copyright 2011 by Ben Ryder Howe
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.



We met in New York when I auditioned for a play she’d written. She didn’t cast me. I struck her as being too intelligent for the part, or so she told me later by way of softening the blow. She’d done some acting herself, mostly in musical theater, where she excelled as a dancer. Then she hurt her back, and so turned to playwriting, graduating from the Yale School of Drama—an impressive achievement for a girl from a small town in Arkansas.

She was pretty, though she didn’t believe she was. She had a dancer’s lithe build, dark hair, and fair features that came off as wan in photos. She walked daintily, with mincing steps, and her voice had a kind of tremor, hinting at something brittle at her core. Still, she definitely attracted attention on the street, which surprised and, at times, amused her.

We didn’t get involved right away. She was with somebody else at the time, and we gradually began an affair that ended before I left New York for L.A. Then, with a new boyfriend, she also moved to L.A., where she, like me, wrote screenplays. Two of her scripts were produced, one with a lot of fanfare, though we seldom saw each other during that period, her boyfriend being jealous of me. Eventually, when they were done, she and I resumed.

Jesse had brought a rock-hard, stained futon mattress into the marriage. It took me two years to convince him to buy a new one. In what proved to be a last attempt to save our crumbling marriage, one Saturday morning we found ourselves at one of Bushwick’s few furniture stores. Next to the elevated railroad tracks on Myrtle Avenue, across the street from where the MTA once left 50 poisoned rats to decompose on the sidewalk, royal red polyester couches competed with golden vanity tables and rococo bed frames. As we curved our way past particleboard TV stands, a beer-bellied man with a comb over approached us. The salesman swiftly led us to a mattress adorned with a royal golden pattern against a shiny black background. He praised the mattress as if it were his first-born son. There’s no better quality for the price! It’ll last ten years at least! Maybe 15, he added, sensing my doubt. A special! A real special! Just as I wondered if he was paying for the mattress to go to college, I noticed that it had inner springs.

In Germany, innersprings went out with the Kaiser, or whenever it was that they invented foam. The last time I slept on an inner spring mattress was as a child at my grandmother’s house, and the bed still reeked of mustard gas from World War I. The springs poked my back and my chest was weighed down by a two-foot thick down blanket, so heavy with feathers that I felt like Leda gang-raped by a flock of swans. My Nazi grandmother put me up in her guestroom, a large, dark, wood-paneled space cold as a morgue. After tucking me in under the suffocating blankets, she sang Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, a lullaby based on a German folk poem. Provided with roses / Covered with flowers / Studded with nails / Slip under the blanket / In the morning, God willing / You will wake again.

Despite its funereal overtones, I requested the song frequently. I felt that if I considered the possibility of never waking back up, death might spare me. Catastrophes don’t happen if cautiously considered. If I only continued obsessing about the possibility of death—my own and the death of the people around me—I might be let off the hook.

Twenty years later at the furniture store in Bushwick, Jesse and I helplessly decided on the black innerspring mattress with the golden flower pattern, the one the salesman had called his best. I can’t claim that the mattress hastened the end of my marriage, but it certainly didn’t help.

After only three months the mattress began to sag, and for the two years that followed I slept on an incline with a continuously increasing slope. At first my left leg was wedged against the wall, only one inch higher than my right leg. But over the course of the next few years, the slope’s angle gradually increased to 20 degrees. With the advancing pitch, my marriage declined.

After Jesse finally moved out, I decided to buy a new mattress, opting for a larger one this time. If I got screwed again and the mattress sagged after only a few months, at least I would have enough space to disappear into it with my future boyfriend. But disappear where, exactly? Never again between innersprings. Coils and box springs are for losers. It’s the 21st century! When I think of coils and box springs, I think of straw and fluffy little baby chicks covered with potato sacks; I think of barns and alternating sleeping shifts.

Tempurpedic™ and its Swedish, (but puzzlingly) NASA-designed memory foam technology had caught my attention long before I considered buying a new mattress. Staying up late on my saggy incline while Jesse was out getting drunk, I felt oddly reassured by Tempurpedic’s infomercials. I still felt like hanging myself, but knew that one day in the future, I would be able to rest in peace.

According to Tempurpedic™, the mattress’s visco-elastic foam completely adapts to your body contours, releasing pressure from your spine and the heavier parts of your body. “This phenomenon,” Tempurpedic™ explains, “is similar to pushing your hand into the surface of a bowl of water and feeling the water flow to fill every contour and curve of your hand, then return to its original shape once your hand is removed.” Sounded like a dream to me. Never saggy, never sore! Completely resistant to permanent change! My heavy heart floating in a bowl of water—what could be better?

I knew I couldn’t afford a $2000 Tempurpedic™ mattress, so I tried to satisfy myself by taking the announcer’s advice and calling for an information kit. The package that arrived a few days later contained a video—which I never watched—and a memory foam sample the size of a teeny-tiny pillow, just big enough for my cat to rest her teeny-tiny head on. I briefly considered ordering enough 10 square inch foam samples to build my own mattress, but abandoned the idea after Tempurpedic™ kept bombarding me with intimidating brochures. The envelopes read like little death threats: “Open this envelope right now, Sabine Heinlein! This is your last chance!” What would’ve happened if I had ordered a few hundred samples! (Or if I wouldn’t have opened the envelope.) Covered with flowers, Studded with nails, Slip under the blanket… I wanted to burn those thick brochures, but instead started to use them to line my pet rabbit’s litter box.

Mr. Rabbit has certain preferences when it comes to his litter: It mustn’t be too soft, it has to be highly absorbent, and God forbid if I don’t arrange it neatly. My rabbit and I had both come to appreciate the thickness of the Sunday Times, but we were thankful for the little extra absorbance the generous mailings from the Tempurpedic™ folks provided. That is, until he began acting a little nervous. Was it the aggressive tone of their pitches? Or dreams of drowning in space-age foam? Whatever the case, I went back to using just the Times.

Rather than purchasing the Tempurpedic™ with funds I clearly don’t have, I decided to follow a more modest route and visit Sleepy’s. I entered my first Sleepy’s in Midtown Manhattan through an elevator that took me up to the show room on the second floor. Strangely, the worst thing about buying a new mattress isn’t the wealth of choices; it is the mattress salesmen.

Of all the salesmen I encountered on my mattress crusade, I liked this first one the very best. He did the store’s name some credit for he was actually asleep when I arrived. If he had been peacefully snoozing on one of the memory foam mattresses it would have clenched my choice. Unfortunately it was his office chair he was snoring on. Being a considerate shopper, I sneaked back out of the store on tippy toes. From there I went to another Sleepy’s just a few blocks down.

“Welcome to Sleepy’s! My name is Steve,” a wide-awake young professional greeted me. He asked what I was looking for and swiftly led me to one of his cheaper memory foam mattresses. He urged me to lie down. But naptime was over when I told him that I didn’t need a foundation because I already had one. “How high is your foundation?” he wanted to know. I pointed about three feet off the ground. His eyes widened with incredulity

“Noooo! That’s too high!”

“It’s worked for me so far,” I responded.

“But how you gonna get up there?” What did he mean by that? I’m not obese, I wasn’t using crutches. My feet and hands are beautifully shaped, if I may say so.

“I jump,” I said. He shook his head in disbelief and asked what I was keeping under my bed, a question I found a bit inappropriate. Who knows what some people keep underneath their mattresses? The space under one’s bed is nobody’s business. It is reserved for nightmarish creatures, undeclared earnings, useless crap and sometimes bunny rabbits. Before I could respond he added, “Drawers?”

“No drawers,” I said. “It is a hollow wooden structure. I store things underneath. Anything I don’t need on a daily basis. Suitcases, my ironing board, a surfboard.” I lied. I don’t have an ironing board or a surfboard, but I wanted to say something that made me sound neat and athletic. I also wanted to spare him the details about a rabbit who considers that space his own kingdom and turns into a monster if anyone reaches under the bed without knocking first. I proudly added: “I built it myself,” which clearly had the opposite effect I intended. I detected pity and deep sympathy in his eyes.

I quickly realized that it was hard to endure any mattress salesman for more than 10 minutes at a time. I decided to expand my research territory. After all, like 7-11’s in the rest of the country, Sleepy’s lurks on every corner in New York.

But before I moved on I noted down the first three conclusions as follows:

1. There are numerous companies producing memory foam mattresses for less than $2000, and they all have slightly incestuous names like Posturepedic, Therapedic, Posturetemp, etc. etc.

2. What the memory foam does is always the same; what varies is its thickness and the thickness of the supporting conventional foam layer underneath.

3. Mattress salesmen are curious people, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake.

The next Sleepy’s was located only a couple of blocks west. Again, a clean-cut gentleman rushed towards. “Welcome to Sleepy’s. My name is Jerry. How can I help you?” I briefly explained my situation, and he unexpectedly informed me that it was Father’s Day. “Really?” I said wondering what that had to do with my choice of mattress. He continued, “For our Father’s Day Sale everything is 30% off.” Father’s Day Sale! Noticing my skepticism, Jerry added, “And since you are my first customer today, you can get this mattress here for—” He punched the big keys of his old-fashioned calculator. “For $750, taxes and delivery included.” He looked up from his calculations with the eagerness of a child at Christmas. His excitement lessened when he saw that I was still not completely convinced. Where was I? On a souk in Marrakech? I was once forced to buy a carpet on a street market there. What started as a friendly negotiation ended with a knife on my ex-boyfriend’s neck. Ever since then, special, special offers make me very, very suspicious. But the mattress salesman had another trick up his sleeve: “If you leave a $25 deposit today, we will hold this offer for you for 60 days. Your $25 are fully refundable if you decide not to buy the mattress.”

Every day is Father’s Day for a measly $25! Or at least for the next 60 days. And of course after that there will be Easter, then Chanukah, then Labor Day, then Christmas, then Memorial Day, then Mother’s Day, then Kwanza and then, once again, Father’s Day (not necessarily in that order, though). What it boils down to is that you could be getting your fucking mattress any day for a reasonable price; and on those rare days that celebrate no special occasion you would be paying far too much.

After some fretting from me and some reassuring talk from Jerry, I laid down the deposit and decided to sleep on it. My old coils and the mattress salesmen had worn me out, and I simply didn’t have the patience left to make a choice. The next day I returned to Sleepy’s, where I encountered yet another mattress salesman. Where did Jerry go? “I laid down a deposit for a mattress, but I have one more question…” I started. “Yeah, what is it?” the new salesman growled as he pulled up my file. “Oh, nothing.” I gave up and handed my credit card over. The man, who never introduced himself, continued to sigh and moan.

I felt appropriately sleepy when I got back home.

There was a voicemail waiting for me from Sleepy’s. “Hi!” the salesman said cheerfully. “My name is Paul. I wanted to thank you for shopping with Sleepy’s, the mattress professionals. If you have a moment give me a call back and let me know how you experienced shopping at Sleepy’s.”

I apologize for not calling you back, Paul, but your mattress professionals exhausted me. But if you must know, Paul, I really like my new mattress. It is as comfy as a bowl of water, as a cloud, as… I’m sorry, but I’ve run out of metaphors for the moment. I need to lie down and rest.

Epilogue: Paul wasn’t the only one who made an effort to keep in touch. A few days into my new mattress experience I received more mail from Tempurpedic™. Hesitantly, I opened the envelope. “I hope you’ll understand why I’m so disappointed,” Dany began despairingly. (Dany made it sound like I had promised her love but then, with no warning, kicked her out of bed.) Evidently she is so disappointed because I have not yet bought my Tempurpedic™ mattress. She helpfully lists what might be jeopardizing our once promising relationship:

1. Inadequate description of the advantages of Tempurpedic™ mattresses.

2. Misunderstanding over the money-back-guaranty.

3. Insufficient communication about Tempurpedic™’s real affordability.

A fourth possibility never occurred to her: I had been cuckolding her with some mattress salesmen.

Mattress professionals are eloquent, utterly persistent, yet vulnerable people. Dany, Paul, Jerry and Steve, this is to all of you: Live your life on or under your own mattress, be it visco-elastic, box spring or latex. As for me, I have to go find the right pillow to rest my tired head on.

Smoke Point

By Keith Dixon


My wife and I are talking about making the ultimate financial gamble: that of buying an apartment in New York City during a recession. Over and above the fears I harbor about committing more money than I can fathom to a place I’ve spent maybe fifteen or twenty minutes in, I’m also having some genuine anxieties about giving up something I’ve deeply cherished about our current apartment: the window in our kitchen.

AS ANSWERED BY ALL OF US… We’re one united living breathing organism


Please explain what just happened.

We were just looking at a photo of three girls we know from high school that ended up on some porn site. We’re currently driving through New Mexico.


What is your earliest memory?



If you weren’t musicians, what other profession would you choose?

I’d be in the NHL, I’d be a teacher, I’d sling beanbags, I’d be the head of Def Jam.

Chapter 1

Boston, Massachusetts

* Overview: White people in Boston are very proud of their blue-collar roots. However, for many of them, two generations is as close as they will ever get to a job requiring manual labor. This also extends to the many Bostonians who will still send their white children to public school, provided that public school is Boston Latin. Boston is also home to three alternative newsweeklies that provide many young writers with jobs that don’t pay enough to make rent. The Boston white person can also be found throughout rural New England, but this breed is special, having cast off the shackles of the workaday world to begin a small organic microbrewery, creamery, or farm.

* Strengths: Mayflower relatives give them low-numbered license plates; can hold liquor.

* Weaknesses: Baseball-induced depression; movies about Irish gangsters.

* Secret Shame: They don’t really like the Dropkick Murphys.

Ivy League

The Ivy League is expensive, exclusive, and located in the Northeast and has campuses featuring beautiful, actual ivy-covered buildings. All these things are beloved by white people, so logically it would seem that they all love the Ivy League. But this is not true!

White people have a tortured relationship with the Ivy League, and if you broach the subject in the wrong way you can offend and even anger a white person.

But before getting into the more nuanced aspects of the subject, it’s important to know that all white people believe they are intelligent enough and have the work ethic required to attend an Ivy League school. The only reason they did not actually attend one is that they chose not to participate in the “dog and pony show” required to gain acceptance. White people also like to believe that they were not born into a privileged (enough) family for the coveted legacy admission. This should always be at the back of your mind as you discuss the Ivy League with a white person.

Once you have determined that a white person did not attend an Ivy League school, you should try to give them the opportunity to explain why their school was actually a superior educational experience. Some easy ways to do this: mention grade inflation, professors who value research over teaching, or high tuition costs. Any one of these will set a white person off on a multiminute rant.

When they have reached the end of their defense about why they chose the “right” school, you should say, “I knew a whole bunch of people who went to Harvard and none of them work as hard or are as smart as you.” This is a very effective technique for gaining acceptance among white people, since they need constant reassurance that they are smart and that they made the right choice with their life.

If you actually attended an Ivy League school, you will be seen as a threat, so prepare for a lot of questions from white people. They will constantly ask about how much work you had, the type of students at the school, the professors, your dorm room, and your reading lists, and they will try so hard to figure out your SAT score. They desperately need a source of comparison so that they can determine if you are actually smarter than them. In fact, the only way to stop this line of questioning is to imply that you only got in because of your minority status. Once you say that, white people will stop feeling threatened, since they can now believe they too would have been accepted to an Ivy League school if they were a minority. It also gives them a personal story about the effectiveness of affirmative action.

White people also like to call their school “the Harvard of the [insert region or athletic conference].” Do not challenge this; it will ruin their confidence.

Conan O’Brien

The news that Conan O’Brien would be replaced by Jay Leno caused white people to erupt with rage and hostility. You might have expected them to lash out and do something about it, like take to the streets or write letters to NBC to voice their dissatisfaction with the network. But no, white people solved this problem the way that they solved the election crisis in Iran: through Facebook and Twitter updates. In 2009, millions of white people took thirty-five seconds to turn their Twitter profiles green, and consequently sent a very powerful message to the leaders of Iran. Their message was that they wanted their friends to know that they would stop at nothing to ensure freedom and democracy for the Iranian people. Thanks in large part to that effort, Iran is now a functioning democratic paradise (as far as white people know). With that issue settled, white people launched a similar campaign for Conan that is sure to have similar results.

It is not hard to understand why white people love Conan O’Brien. He embodies so many of the things they already like: Ivy League schools, Red Hair, the Boston Red Sox, Self-Deprecating Humor, The Simpsons, and Bad Memories of High School (likely, but not confirmed). Seeing him on TV five nights a week gives white people who still have televisions a comforting sense of community.

If your plan is to try to use Conan O’Brien as a way to get white people to become more interested in you, then it is imperative that you understand a few key rules. First, all white people love “the Masturbating Bear.” If you don’t know what this is, do not worry. Just proclaim your love for the character, and the white person you are talking to will simply fill in the rest. Second, all white people believe that Andy Richter never should have left the show in the first place. And finally, you should do your best to develop a “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” impression. All white people already have one, so you might as well try to fit in. Complete these steps and watch your friendship with white people become considerably smoother.

Now, the biggest and most important thing to remember is to never, under any circumstance, bring up a Conan O’Brien sketch or joke that has taken place in the last five years. You will be met with only blank stares. For you see, while white people will fiercely support Conan O’Brien in any public forum, they always fail to support him in the only way that actually helps-by watching his show.

Note: Under no circumstance should you ever mention that you prefer Jay Leno. This might cause white people to think you have the same taste in humor as the wrong kind of white people, or worse, their parents.

Single-Malt Scotch

There is no getting around the subject: white people love alcohol. From their refined tastes in French wine to their fervent consumption of Maine’s microbrews, booze makes up a very important part of white culture. But many white people soon realize there are only so many beers that one can drink, and that being an expert on wine is almost impossible. Currently the most realistic way for a white person to look like a wine expert is to look at a restaurant’s wine list and then promptly order a bottle of a cheap-but not the cheapest-bottle on the menu. Advanced white people will pretend they recognize and enjoy this moderately priced bottle of wine.

With beer snobbery mastered and wine snobbery all but abandoned, white people were forced to try to find a new alcohol for snobbery. The process of elimination is a fairly simple procedure. First, any alcohol that’s mentioned by a rapper is immediately cast aside. Not just brands, but the alcohol itself. This is not because white people have any prejudice against rappers. Quite the opposite, in fact: their prejudice is simply against other white people who do what rappers tell them.

Increased sales of Grey Goose, Patrón, Hennessy, and Cristal have effectively erased any real opportunity for white people to participate in snobbery about each respective beverage. To a white person there could be no greater shame than waiting in line at a liquor store and having a twenty-year-old frat boy say to them:

“Oh what? You’re on that ‘yak too?”

“This is a Hine Triomphe, perhaps the world’s finest-“

“I’m on that Hennessy!”

Even the possibility of this exchange has sent white people, especially white men, scrambling for an alcoholic beverage to set them apart from these wrong kinds of white people. What they found was single-malt scotch.

It has everything a white person could want. It’s got European heritage, it’s expensive, college-age white people avoid it, and perhaps most important, crotchety old white men love it. The latter point is especially important, since you should understand that white people, for whatever reason, are generally inclined to like or force themselves to like anything that angry, intelligent, old white men enjoy: sweaters, jazz, things made from wood, books, records, and complaining about how everything is terrible now.

Complaining About the Death of Print Media

White people are expert complainers. Witness the events that transpire after they are served a dish they didn’t order in a restaurant. But that type of complaining is done by all people. No, what white people are best at is complaining without being willing to actually do anything about the problem; see Conan O’Brien, Iran, Oil Spills, Air Pollution, Tuna Depletion, and any problem that would require them to make a sacrifice of time, money, or sushi dining experiences.

But in recent years, the biggest issue that has been bugging white people to the point of complaint but not action has been the death of print media. Bring up any newspaper and white people will begin saying how they fear for a world with no daily newspaper and that we will all suffer as professional journalists wither away and are replaced with silly blogs that have no importance.

This love of the print media comes from two places. The first is that all white people like to believe that they spend the majority of their news-consuming time reading the stories that matter and make a difference. Whether this is true is irrelevant, but it is a good way to appear smart to white people. Say something like “I can’t believe no one is getting upset about what the city government is doing right now. It’s like no one read that amazing piece in the paper.” The white person will agree with you and respect your news acumen.

Second, white people fear the death of the print media because deep down all white people want to believe that it’s possible to make a living as a freelance writer. Of course, this is perhaps the biggest lie in white culture, pushing out such favorites as “I’m going to write a novel” and “I’ll be fine for retirement if I start saving when I’m forty.”

Of course, when you ask the white person if they actually subscribe to a daily newspaper, they will say that they get the Sunday New York Times. Which is a bit like saying you sponsor a child in Africa but only give enough money for him to eat on Sunday.

New York, New York

* Overview: The New York City resident is one of the most envied white people in the entire world. Their access to art galleries, restaurants, public transit, and pools of hobo urine is second to none. Fiercely proud of their city, all New Yorkers consider themselves to be the last one in. That is to say, everyone who moved to New York after them made the city a considerably worse place to live and thus are not considered “real New Yorkers.”

* Strengths: Can get you into places that don’t exist; able to survive in small spaces.

* Weaknesses: Cannot go fifteen minutes without telling you they live in New York. Also driving.

* Secret Shame: Actually from Ohio.

Unpaid Internships

Throughout most of the world, when a person works long hours without pay, it is referred to as “slavery” or “forced labor.” For white people this process is referred to as an internship and is considered to be an essential stage in white development.

The concept of working for little or no money under a mentor has been around for centuries in the form of apprenticeship programs. Young people eager to learn a trade would spend time working under a master craftsman to learn a skill that would eventually lead to an increase in the intern’s own material wealth.

Using this logic you would assume that the most sought-after internships would be in areas that lead to the greatest financial reward. Young white people, however, prefer internships that put them on the path for careers that will generally result in a decrease of material wealth (at least when compared to the wealth accumulated by their parents).

For example, if you present a white nineteen-year-old with the choice of spending the summer earning $15 an hour as a plumber’s apprentice or making $0 answering phones at Acme Production Company, they will always choose the latter. In fact, the only way to get the white person to choose the plumbing option would be to convince them that it was leading toward an end-of-summer pipe art installation.

White people view the unpaid internship as their foot in the door to such high-profile low-paying career fields as journalism, film, politics, art, nonprofits, and anything associated with a museum. Any white person who takes an internship outside these industries is either the wrong type of white person or a law student. There are no exceptions.

If all goes according to plan, an internship will end with an offer of a job that pays $24,000 per year and consists entirely of the same tasks they were recently doing for free. In fact, the transition to full-time status results in the addition of only one new responsibility: feeling superior to the new interns.

When all is said and done, the internship process serves the white community in many ways. First, it helps train the next generation of freelance writers, museum curators, and director’s assistants. But second, and more important, internships teach white children how to complain about being poor.

So when a white person tells you about their unpaid internship at The New Yorker, it’s not a good idea to point out how the cost of rent and food will essentially mean that they are paying for the right to make photocopies. Instead it’s best to say, “You earned it.” They will not get the joke.

Excerpted from Whiter Shades of Pale by Christian Lander Copyright © 2010 by Christian Lander. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


DH: I. The sentences are swift, declarative. Like Joseph Roth used to say about Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the then-famous “Vienna walk”. See The Radetzky March (1932) for the reference. But who gets to be New York? Who gets to be Vienna.? That changes. But there will always be one. Just like there will always be a Grand Hotel. Do you know that one?

And then we get “the last rank in the armies of law” below the clever junior partners who are below the full partners who dined at the Century Club. August seniors who couldn’t urinate and those who couldn’t stop. I’ve only paraphrased Salter’s sentences. But notice how the last sentence, even in paraphrase, stops at “stop”. And we get not “the law” which would put us in a cable police procedural, but just “law” which means it’s your crowd. We also get that they were living in apartments with funny furniture and sleeping until noon on Sundays. Hierarchy, irony, swiftness, secularism, style, power, money, stacked vertically: New York. Just one paragraph.

II. Frank and Alan catalog the available girls at the firm and the girls that they wish were. It’s a catalog like they are petty Don Giovanni’s. JS is always providing us with poetic sequences in the form of these lists. It’s like the modulating chords in a Mozart symphony. The listings transition you.

The period in this list of “girls”…and I’m using the word in the text…is Brenda. And the guys end up at her apartment, too late for a party. Knock out image: rolling around the walls kissing as the dusk settles in. The sense of New York apartment light: for most diffuse, bouncing off a thousand buildings and two rivers before it gets to you. Brenda has the same kind of furniture her mother had, sits in the same kind of chair, only she does everything her mother wouldn’t. Exchange of office news: “Jane Harrah got fired.” Brenda said. “That’s too bad. Who is she?”

III. Frank and Alan jump-start to the next level by being more unscrupulous than their own management. They form a partnership and steal a lucrative client away from their own firm. The case settles out of court and their fee is a percentage of the deal, millions. They don’t get prosecuted for this. I don’t know if that’s possible. But Salter implies that the dumb shits got lucky and got away with it. It’s like they stumbled into a fortune at Las Vegas. It’s unethical but now they are rich.

This third part of the story transitions to the continent where the guys seem to be giving the worse kind of imitation of eurotrash. It’s always Frank in the lead with Alan as the follower. I appreciated how well JS sets up this relationship, this tacky friendship, so the reader sees a dynamic…not just two guys blowing away thousands on credit cards in Europe, spending themselves into boredom. Buying people too, in this case a young woman, a student they pick up, throwing thousands in gifts at her as if it were just so much shit.

The uselessness of inappropriate wealth. The waste. They are still the guys from the office. On the make for the girls. They haven’t learned anything. And they are even stupider than they were before. But here’s a great throwaway line from Venice: “On the curtained upper floors the legs of countesses uncoiled, slithering on the sheets like serpents.”

You’ll find pleasures both sacred and profane in the short stories of James Salter. But you are encouraged to be a connoisseur of the word if you want to appreciate them. This is a discussion of ‘American Express’ from James Salter’s collection, “Dusk and other stories”.

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Sex (I’m a…)

By Greg Olear

The Feed

Attention, New Yorkers,

On Thursday evening, September 16 — one week from today — I will be appearing at the famed “In the Flesh” erotic reading series, hosted by the inimitable Rachel Kramer Bussel.

The theme is “Virgin Night,” but I’ve been assured that Frank N. Furter lookalikes will not be pelting toast at newbies in attendance, nor will anyone be sacrificed to the dark gods.

Here are a few reasons to show up:

1.  The reading series, a mainstay on the Lower East Side, is winding down.  Because all good things must come.  To an end.  Must come to an end.  There are only four of these left.  So if you ever plan to indulge your deepest desires, now is the time.

2.  Past TNB readers at this event include Gina Frangello and Jillian Lauren. This makes me the first unsexy TNBer to appear.

3.  Joining me on the docket will be Marcy Dermansky, author of the fantastic Bad Marie (I read it. It really is fantastic.  I’m not saying that just because Gina liked it).

4. I will be reading a post that will never grace the pages of TNB.  Not something I want on the Internet. Nor will there be a recording. So if you want to hear my sort-of-sexy, sort-of-funny, sort-of-true tale, you have to show up at Happy Ending Lounge on Thursday.

5.  Free admission.

6.  Free cupcakes.

Here are the deets:

September 16, 2010, 7:30 pm – 10 pm
(B/D to Grand, J/M/Z to Bowery, F to Delancey or F/V to 2nd Avenue, )
Between Forsyth & Eldridge. Look for the hot pink awning that says “XIE HE Health Club.”
Admission: Free
Happy Ending Lounge: 212-334-9676

Featuring Logan Belle, author of a forthcoming burlesque romance series, erotica writer Megan Butcher (contributor, Best Bondage Erotica 2011), novelist Marcy Dermansky (Bad Marie), novelist Lee Houck (Yield), Greg Olear (Totally Killer), Moshe Shulman (“The Wise One”) and Can’t Help the Way That I Feel: Sultry Stories of African American Love, Lust and Fantasy editor Lori Bryant-Woolridge and contributors Sasha James and Erika J. Kendrick (Appetites, Confessions of a Rookie Cheerleader). Hosted by Rachel Kramer Bussel (Fast Girls, Please, Sir, Please, Ma’am). 100 free copies of Sexis Magazine will be distributed. Free Baked by Melissa cupcakes, candy and chips will be served. This is the countdown to the final In The Flesh December 16th so don’t miss a very special night!