Split-Feather

By Mag Gabbert

Essay

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When I was fourteen, my father got a split-feather tattoo. He came home one Saturday and rolled up the leg of his jeans, wincing and cursing as it chafed his skin, and revealed his calf with a red and brown and black split-feather spanning its entire length. I touched it, running my index finger over the varied terrain of its healing. Tiny red and yellow scabs flaked off from the rough parts amid other smoothness; they looked like fruity pebbles in my hand.

“What does it mean?” I almost whispered.

I was seventeen when a new millennium reset the world. I started it by drinking a bottle of cinnamon-flavored liquor at my own New Year’s Eve party and passing out in my room, sleeping right through the ball drop. In the morning, my mother woke me with the dregs of the bottle in a shot glass, the sickly sweet, spicy fumes like smelling salts under my nose. She told me to drink the shot or get grounded for being an asshole. I drank the shot and slept the entire first day of the year 2000.

I have an overwhelming urge to tattoo myself, basically at all times.

I have exactly zero tattoos.

I have threatened to get any number of tattoos over the years, a fact of which no one is quite so acutely aware as my dear friend Brad, who has drawn for me–at my request and even once combined with cash as a wedding gift–no fewer than four different tattoos.

Saknussemm\'s Tattoo

I got a tattoo on my 19th birthday. I figured I was old enough to get one and I was definitely still young enough to dream of waking up one twisted dawn in Singapore or Copenhagen and looking in the mirror and remembering the wasted golden days of my youth.

I started thinking about the tattoo the moment I arrived in LA. I visited Cliff Raven’s studio. His specialty was Oriental design, but a tiny black unicorn, beautifully detailed, would’ve cost me about four months’ rent. I put the idea on a back burner until the afternoon of my birthday, when I found myself drifting around Hollywood, pleasantly pickled with my friend Matt Bauer, an ex-pro baseball player addicted to painkillers.

Mad life was streaming by. Huge fat Hispanic ladies screaming at their husbands, grotesquely powdered Jewish ladies arguing with shop assistants, car horns honking, music thudding, black kids dancing for money, cute little blondes in cut-off jeans, gays with their shirts off, old Italian men talking with their hands, old hippy ladies talking to themselves, Japanese tourists blinking in the sun after seeing Deep Throat a second time-a man in a straw hat talking about God, the Devil and retiring to Arizona.

Bauer kept saying it was important that I do something significant for my birthday. I told him about the tattoo idea. He became obsessed. I tried to fend him off. When it came down to it, I was a little nervous. He kept at me. Finally, we came across this place called the West Coast Tattoo Studio. Bauer said it was now or never. I said I had to find the right tattoo. Bauer asked what I had in mind. I thought for a second, and figured that a clown was a pretty unlikely design for them to have. And it couldn’t be a wimpy clown. It had to be cool, like one of those old circus posters. It had to have a certain look, a certain expression-it had to capture that vanished sideshow-ghost carnival feeling. I said, “I’ll do it, if I can get a clown tattoo.” Bauer slapped me on the back.

The place was up on the second floor in a window overlooking the street. I don’t know what I was expecting-some big bearded fellow chewing Red Man tobacco-a lot of skulls and Rebel flag designs in glass cases on the dirty walls.

What we found was a cross between a Sam Spade-type office and a veterinarian’s. A Korean-looking guy without a shirt on was working on a longhair’s forearm-putting the finishing touches on a coiled rattlesnake. He was locked in sweaty concentration and his own chest and back were entirely covered with an elaborately detailed series of dragons, imperial warriors, winged horses, naked women, and suns with fiery faces.

The next customer, or patient, was a vaguely Latina woman who lay back on a vinyl seat with her pants down and her you-know-what right up in the guy’s face while he gave her a bright pink strawberry just above her pubic hair. His back was to me. He had a hatchet-head and a white T-shirt with huge sweat stains under the arms.

The third tattooist looked like a skinhead version of Richard Chamberlain. He was wearing a white cotton madras shirt that disguised but didn’t hide the most disturbing tattoo I’ve ever seen. Fortunately, he didn’t show it to me until after mine was done or I’d have chickened out. I was plenty ready to chicken out and of course I had my excuse all ready-they didn’t have the clown face I wanted.

Skin Man listened to my description, scowled and lit a cigarette. He pulled a ring binder off a shelf and flicked the pages. He stopped, then showed the page to me. It was exactly the face I had in mind. I looked at Bauer who grinned hugely. Skin Man said, “The colors will fade a little in time, but when you die they’ll be nice and bright again.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I took off my shirt and Skin Man traced the outline from the stencil. The humming, sewing machine irritation was just enough to keep me alert. Bauer went over to chat up the strawberry girl while I sat observing the swarming little dramas of Hollywood Boulevard unfold.

What I became fixated on was a wino-at least I thought he was a wino-lying motionless in the doorway of the International House of Pancakes across the street. I concluded later that if he was a wino, he was a fairly well to do wino because at first he had on a green fedora, a herringbone jacket, burgundy polyester trousers, white leather loafers and pale pink socks. It was a bright warm afternoon, thousands of people in the street. This guy was lying down in the doorway of a popular restaurant and people were stepping over his body to get in and out. Hundreds more were stepping past him every minute.

I looked away to ash my cigarette and when I looked back, his green fedora was gone. I turned away to answer Bauer-for a split second-and the guy’s shoes were gone. I thought I was seeing things. He was being picked clean and it was happening before my eyes. The crowds kept churning past. Then I lost sight of him again-and when he reappeared I got a glimpse-the guy was barefoot!

Finally, I watched an actual derelict steal the man’s coat. It was done cleanly, but not so fast that it couldn’t be seen by me, and about five hundred other people. I didn’t see who got the trousers. Bauer came over after the strawberry girl left and I got distracted. When I looked back the man was lying in a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even notice that my tattoo was finished.

As if to welcome me to the fold, Skin Man took off his shirt. His chest was white, surprisingly delicate and hairless. Then he slowly turned to show us his back, which was entirely taken over by an enormous octopus-something out of an opium nightmare-Bosch meets an old Dutch map. The sheer intensity of the thing made me cringe. In each tentacle was a sword or an axe or-something. There were mermaids crushed in the grip of the suckered arms, black ink rising-sailors’ knots, sunken ships, skeletons and sharks.

“It took 75 hours,” he said without emotion. I nodded. He nodded. I paid and we left. We looked in a couple of store windows and watched this guy performing on the corner. He must’ve had double jointed jaws because he was able to open his mouth, or what seemed like his whole head, just like a Pez dispenser. Anyway, by the time we got over to the I-HOP, an ambulance or the cops had taken the guy in the doorway away. Completely gone. The slow fade finally finished.

It was frustrating because Bauer hadn’t seen the guy from the window and hadn’t really believed me when I told him what had been going on. What could I say? The mysterious thing is that later, whenever I tried to point out the West Coast Tattoo Studio to anyone, I could never find it again. It seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. No one even remembered where I thought it had been.

Of course I only have to roll up my sleeve to prove that at least for one warm afternoon, it existed. No matter if I wake up in Singapore or in the doorway of an International House of Pancakes. Even when I’m gone, the glitter in the clown’s green eyes will still be bright. Skin Man told me.


CHAPTER 2


Does This Mean You’ll See Me Naked?

Yes, it does mean precisely that. The funeral director who prepares your body for a final viewing will invariably at some point need to remove your clothing. So, yes. You will be naked.

But you’d be amazed at how many times I’ve been asked that question—and how often, when people voice their fears regarding death, the issue comes up. What is this hang-up people have about nudity? It’s as bad as their hang-up about death! Some of my closest friends have expressed reservations in letting me handle their funerals because of it; even my own sister has mentioned it!

I have repeatedly assured everyone that, as a -professional, I have no sexual interest whatsoever in dead bodies—male or female—particularly family members and friends. Any loved one reposing on my embalming table is someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, or grandparent and is reverently and respectfully cared for in a totally businesslike manner. Only a sick mind would interpret or insinuate anything else.

Furthermore, preparation room decorum has always been maintained wherever I have worked. All of my coworkers have been men, and in my opinion, men are all pretty much mama’s boys. They therefore reserve a great deal of respect for deceased women. Any little old lady reminds them of their own beloved grandmothers; a middle-aged woman might be the same age as their mothers. And in the case of a deceased little girl, all of us are instantly transformed into protective father figures, feeling intense sorrow right along with the family and sometimes even blubbering in tears as we work.

There have obviously been cases involving improprieties in funeral home settings, but such incidents are few and far between. Many years ago I worked at a home with a man who eagerly reported for work each morning and then made a mad dash to the preparation room to see whether there had been any calls overnight—he supposedly wanted to see whether he knew the recently deceased personally. If so, he was on the horn immediately to report the death to his wife and other acquaintances. But he also made a habit of lifting the sheets covering deceased women so that he could gaze at their private areas. When I questioned him one day, he responded that he was merely looking for a toe tag to determine identity. “The tag is not in her crotch,” I told him. He sheepishly left. But when the same incident occurred again the next morning, I reported him to my immediate supervisor. The man was fired on the spot, and rightfully so.

Body Art

Sometimes we funeral directors do occasionally marvel at the physical oddities we encounter. As a college student working in the county morgue, I saw several decedents whose attributes were, well, noteworthy. Some took the form of off-the-wall embellishments.

A navy man lay on the table one morning; he sported tattoos over nearly every inch of his body, save for his hands and face. A detailed battleship, complete with billowing smokestacks, festooned his chest. On his back, from neck to buttocks, was an intricately designed butterfly. Around his neck was a broken line with the words Cut Here in bold letters. The stereotypical Mom was emblazoned on each bicep, and on each forearm was a buxom lady, each one naked and well endowed. On each leg, from groin to ankle, were hissing snakes with open mouths and forked tongues. And, of course, he had the prerequisite love on his four left fingers and hate on the four right ones. (All such body art is considered a distinguishing mark and is therefore noted and photographed by morgue personnel.)

I entered the morgue another day to find the coroner holding a magnifying glass to the private parts of a naked man. As I stood next to the body, the coroner handed me the magnifying glass and told me to check out the head of the man’s penis. In full detail was a tattoo of a housefly.

A few months later, we used the magnifying glass again to observe another penis tattoo, this one reading Cherry Buster. I had to wonder just how drunk that person must have been when he decided to get that tattoo. Perhaps the finest tattoo I have seen to date, though, is a red-and-white barber pole design, no doubt meant to resemble a candy cane.

Tattoos on deceased women are usually less brazen—flowers, butterflies, and the occasional Harley-Davidson insignia. However, I’ve also encountered Jimmy’s Toys emblazoned above a woman’s ample breasts; Honey Pot, complete with an elaborate arrow directing the viewer to the vaginal area; and most incredibly, Deliveries in Rear inscribed just above a young lady’s buttocks.

Back when I got started, there were not many piercings of note, unlike today. Now men have rings attached to their penises and scrota, women have rings in their clitorises, and both males and females sport nipple rings. Among the more elaborate piercings I’ve seen was that of a young woman who had both nipples and her clitoris pierced, and all three were connected. A gold chain attached to her nipples hung downward in a U shape across her chest with another chain attaching the center of the nipple chain to the ring located between her legs. When her mother asked me for any jewelry her daughter might have been wearing, I nervously explained my findings. Although upset, she graciously accepted the items following the funeral.

Face Down and Naked

In my business, prurience, or at least the suggestion of it, is an ongoing issue. I once prearranged the funeral services of a man who insisted that he be placed in his casket completely naked and face down. At first I assumed that this was his interpretation of the old cliché, “Lay me out face down and naked, so the whole world can kiss my ass.”

However, his explanation was far less dramatic. He’d always slept on his stomach and in the nude, he said, and he desired to be positioned that very way for burial. Also, his casket should be closed, for obvious reasons. I drew red asterisks all over the front of his prearrangement sheet, so that in case I was away when this gentleman passed on, others would be aware of his wishes.

When he died two years later, I informed his daughter of his request, and she readily agreed to it. I placed the man on a dressing table, covered him with a sheet, and then allowed the daughter to view her father and say good-bye before proceeding with the aforementioned arrangements.

Honoring requests of the deceased is something we pride ourselves on, and those requests take many forms. Many family members have expressed to me that their deceased loved one would have enjoyed a less-than-traditional send-off—more of a party atmosphere than the normal visitation and ceremony complete with traditional hymns and a consoling sermon from a man of the cloth. Although many mention a desire to do something different, I can think of very few who have actually carried out such a plan.

There was one memorable one, however. Twenty years ago, I arranged for a visitation and service to be held in the social room of an exclusive retirement center. The facility was ahead of its time, without peer. Separate -condominium-like housing was available for those who were still active and could drive their own cars, and there were also assisted living areas and a nursing home setting. The gentleman who had passed away was a wealthy business owner. His three grown children applauded his zest for life and preference for the finer trappings. His oldest son told me that his father always wanted to have a send-off that involved his Dixieland bandmates, with whom he had played for many years. They had marched on the field at Cincinnati Reds and Bengals games, and the group had remained quite close into their old age.

So the social room at the retirement community was bedecked not with black bunting but with bright green ribbons and noisemakers normally reserved for New Year’s Eve. The kitchen staff strolled around with serving trays, offering finger food and alcoholic beverages. I stood at the room’s rear, pleased by what I observed—folks of all ages eating, drinking, and toasting the deceased. Here was the life of the party, the one they’d all come to honor, lying in a solid bronze casket, dressed in a pair of black tuxedo trousers, a white ruffled shirt, green satin bow tie, and a red-and-white striped sports jacket. His bandmates were off to one side loudly playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” and having the time of their lives. When the band took a break, they all congregated at their late friend’s casket, each tipping a glass in his honor.

The deceased man had left behind a wife and a wealth of memories, especially from their annual trip to Hawaii. At the funeral the next day, in recognition of his love for our fiftieth state, I was asked to play the music of Don Ho. His favorite song? “Tiny Bubbles.” Everyone in attendance received a small bottle of soap bubbles and the obligatory wand. As the mourners and family members passed the casket, they administered a bubbly tribute as the song wafted in the background.

Disrespect can take many forms. A young man killed in an auto accident reposed in his casket with gospel hymns playing softly in the background. His parents were very religious and appreciated the solemnity of Christian music for a churchlike atmosphere. But the decedent’s hoodlum friends requested that I instead play the rap CDs they had brought along. I looked over the cases and discovered warnings proclaiming that the talentless ramblings contained extremely explicit, profane, and sexually degrading lyrics, obviously inappropriate for a funeral. I showed the CDs to the parents, and to my surprise, they said to go ahead and play them. Well, after about three minutes into the first selection, the father frantically begged me to go back to the hymns. He and his family had probably never heard the bittersweet recollections of a “ho” shaking “the junk in her trunk” and feverishly fondling many male appendages until they “shot their spunk.”

Bury Me with Buster

Honoring last requests is often a simple matter of inclusion. Over the years I have placed myriad items inside caskets—fishing rods, a bow and arrow, golf clubs (sometimes a whole set), golf balls, basketballs, autographed baseballs, baseball gloves, and other sports memorabilia, along with complete baseball, football, and basketball uniforms. Unloaded handguns, rifles, and shotguns often find their way into the casket—sometimes because the deceased was an avid hunter, but just as often because someone apparently didn’t want certain family members to take possession. I’ve included playing cards, bingo cards, lucky pennies, room keys from hotels in Las Vegas and other destinations, cigarettes, marijuana joints, pet rocks, favorite books, a tape recorder, a glass eye, sexual devices, jewelry (some expensive, some not), apples, oranges, buckeyes, walnuts, photographs, leaf collections, coin collections, Penthouse and Playboy magazines (once, an entire collection), and occasionally even a racier publication.

Then there are the dead animals—cremated remains of beloved dogs and cats or the recently euthanized dog, which is placed in a plastic bag and laid at the feet of the deceased.

One recent casket-depositing incident caused quite a furor. The late gentleman was thrice married and divorced, and all three of his ex-spouses insisted on attending the services. His current female companion abruptly requested that I remove one of those ex-wives from the funeral home as soon as possible. “Why?” I inquired. She informed me that the woman had just peeled off her panties and placed them in her late ex-husband’s hand.

The majority of gestures are loving, however. An elderly gentleman friend contacted me when his wife passed away. After the service and with the room empty of mourners, he and I approached the casket. He then handed me a $50 bill and requested that I slip it into his wife’s bra. Apparently it was a tradition of sorts—whenever she went someplace without him, he would playfully slip $50 into her bra so she would always have some money with her. This time would be no exception.

What motivated you to write Does This Mean You’ll See Me Naked?

The original premise of my book was to be a primer for consumers to understand that funeral arrangements are not to be taken lightly. Whether someone is arranging for funeral services and disposition for a loved one, or for themselves, one should be more prepared in order to make good, and not hasty, decisions. For most of us, we are all ill prepared for death; we are conditioned to be afraid of death and we deny death in our society. My objective was to inform consumers what they may expect and to provide ammunition to make good decisions, whether it concerns the type and price of caskets; how and why the funeral director charges for certain services and specific funeral etiquette.

Why did you decide to become an embalmer and funeral director?

My older brother was serving his apprenticeship at a funeral home and as fourteen-year-old I tagged along with him at night and on the weekends. My brother and the other gentleman employees were all like big brothers to me- punching each other in the arm, making fun of each other’s mothers- yet when it was time for work, these young men were all business. I was impressed and even touched by the way these men would be so compassionate and helpful to the bereaved family members and friends of the deceased in their care. It seemed to me that such a vocation was truly a gift and perhaps a calling.

What is the most annoying or ridiculous question you are asked about your business?

Ever since I became involved in the funeral business I constantly am asked if dead bodies raise up, make sounds, or do fingernails and hair grow after death. Such inquiries materialize because of the ignorance of death in our death denying society. Most folks know so very little, and probably do not wish to know much, about death and its associated processes. By applying a small bit of thought to the idea, one should realize that since death is the cessation of life, no life sustaining events can possibly occur after death.

Give an example of a humorous or odd occurrence that has been encountered lately.

For obvious reasons, we always retain any clothing items or other belongings of a deceased loved one in our care. Keeping and bagging someone’s clothing came to light recently after we removed an elderly lady from her home after her death. After we brought her body back to the funeral home, we removed all clothing and placed the items in bag to retain for her family. The next day her daughters came in to make the funeral arrangements and at the point of discussing the financial obligations, one of the daughters mentioned that I already had her mother’s funeral money. I wondered if her mother had pre-arranged and paid for her funeral expenses, and the daughter said, “didn’t you take Mom’s clothes off last night?” I told her that I did, and she said, “Well, her funeral money is in her bra.” I excused myself and went to the preparation room and opened the lady’s bag of clothing, fished out the bra, and lo and behold, three thousand dollars cash was inserted in each cup of the bra. The late lady had sewn a small pocket inside each cup of her bra and stashed her funeral money there. Needless to say, that was a great example of why we never dispose of a decedent’s clothing right away.

What would you like to accomplish with your book?

I would like the reader and or consumer to be educated about the funeral business. Hopefully, the reader will come away with knowledge of certain funeral etiquette, such as refraining from using the word “coffin”, an outdated term. A coffin was narrow at the hips and wide at the shoulders–the box that Dracula slept in. A casket is the box that the deceased reposes in today. Ceremonial terms, such as “funeral service”, which is a liturgical rite conducted with the deceased human body present. A “memorial service” is a funeral ceremony in which the body is not present. “Interment” in the burial of the body in the grave–not “internment”. Japanese Americans were placed into internment camps during World War II. And, of course, I would especially desire that the reader would pay attention to the descriptions in my book detailing costs, be it the funeral home’s service charge or the prices of funeral merchandise. By merely digesting the cost information the reader could acquire some needed “ammunition” that would come in very handy should funeral arrangements be on their mind.


At first Steward occupied the booth on Wednesdays and weekends, Webb the rest of the time. But as Steward established himself as the superior craftsman, customers in search of tattoos began abandoning Webb in favor of Steward. In retaliation, Webb put the word out that Steward was homosexual. “In those days,” Steward later wrote, “you had to keep it hidden. Otherwise [you either risked a beating, or else] would be bartering blowjobs for tattoos.” (Faced with a sudden influx of “barter-boys,” Steward simply told them they had the wrong man, and directed them across the street to a grotesquely ugly and alcoholic tattoo artist named Shaky Jake.)

Why did you write Sam Steward’s biography? It’s not often one runs across a biography of an unknown person.

As a writer with an interest in American art and culture of the 1950s, I kept bumping into Steward’s name. In other people’s biographies, social histories, cultural histories, oral histories, monographs, and memoirs. And I already knew the name Phil Andros, his pen name, through my reading of gay pulp fiction and gay pornography of the 1960s and 70s. So when I suddenly realized that Steward and Andros were one and the same I got very excited.

 

What did you hope to do?

At first I simply wanted to know what had happened to his papers after he died. It took me about a year to track them down. But when I finally gained access to those 80 boxes of material that no one else had ever seen – well, I realized that even though Steward was far from a celebrity, his life was of cultural importance. Simply put, the scope and magnitude of his work as an underground writer was amazing – and so was the life he had lived. It was at that point that I realized I simply had to write about him.

 

Why?

Biographers rarely come across such exciting subject matter. Steward’s voice was fresh and unique, and – more important – his life experiences were unlike anything that has ever been written about up to now. Most important to me as a biographer was the fact that he was entirely, obsessively truthful about everything he had done. His papers consisted of a massively detailed confession. The fact that he had kept such phenomenal records of his experiences – sexual and otherwise – gave me the raw material for an incredibly story.

 

Did you have any particular personal reason for writing the book?

Well, partly to satisfy my own curiosity. Not just about Sam, but about the texture and trajectory of gay lives in the mid-twentieth century. Steward describes his various moments of sexual self-realization as few others have done, and he does so in the context of a particularly toxic and hateful period in American culture. His diaries in particular are amazing for that reason alone. I hope that someday they are published in their entirety.

 

Do you think Steward’s life story is typical of the lives that gay men lead during the 1950s?

No, that would be an enormous generalization. But at the same time one sees that there was not much room in American society for a homosexual man to live a settled domestic life with another man. Steward was sexually active with a very large number of men throughout his life, and he had very few intimate sexual relationships. Partly that was his own personality, and partly it was determined by the society in which he lived. A lot of my work in writing Sam’s life story consisted of figuring out to what extent his life story was shaped by the circumstances in which he lived, and to what extent is was shaped by his essential nature. Through him, though, I think one gets an incredible view of what men were getting up to sexually during that period. Because, as you’ll see when you read the book, many if not most of the men Sam had sex with lived as heterosexuals.

 

Did Steward think of himself as “gay”?

The word “gay” came into usage to describe some of the men who engaged in homosexual activity starting in the 1930s, but it only became a preferred term of self-identification among homosexually-identified males in the mid-1960s. I don’t think Steward ever cared for the term.

 

How would Steward have described himself?

I think he would have described himself as primarily homosexual in orientation and activity.

 

Why would he use such deliberate terminology?

In writing Steward’s biography I’ve tried to evoke the world before gay liberation — a world with different understandings of homosexual activity, where understandings are demonstrated by word choices. For example, homosexuality was at that time considered a form of “perversion” — but if you called a gay man a pervert today, he’d probably punch you in the nose!

 

I see.

Sam had a poet’s sensitivity to language, and he was a pioneer in writing positively about his own homosexuality and the homosexuality of others. He did it through careful word choice – just as Kinsey did. Throughout the book I try to demonstrate how well Sam did it.

 

To many younger people this is all going to seem very strange. Speaking of which, how do you think Steward’s life experience will inform the minds of the younger generation?

In his journals Steward reflects over and over again on living in a society that wants either to deny that homosexuality exists or else to condemn it as bad and wrong. In his writings Sam gives us his life experience (and the experiences of other men around him) as they are collectively attempting to reconcile their essential sexual orientation – something, after all, that they were born with — to a seemingly endless variety of pressures to conform: spiritual, legal, professional, and social pressures. Conflicts of this sort remain with us to the present day, but they are nothing like as terrible as they used to be. For that reason, I think that anyone who has ever questioned his or her sexual identity – or cared about someone else going through that struggle – will find much in this book that looks and feels familiar.

 

You write in your book that Steward never had a long-term partner and that he never even lived with anyone.

Yes. He did have people stay with him briefly, but for the most part he lived alone.

 

What do you make of that?

Well, I think that like many writers and poets, he was essentially a solitary person who shared the best of himself through his writing. I think he cherished the moments of intimacy he achieved through sexual activity; but I also know he was most comfortable on his own. Many artists and writers are like that; they need time and space to be left alone with their thoughts, and are most comfortable (and productive) in solitude.

 

Do you think he was incapable of living with another person?

I think he had a series of early life experiences that shaped his personality, and that perhaps made prolonged intimacy with another person very difficult for him. But I know he longed for that intimacy even though it was difficult for him to manage. He lived with that paradox.

 

Steward sounds like a sex addict, but you never describe him as one. Why not?

I thought it might be better to let readers draw their own conclusions about how much sex is enough sex. Plus – I am not anti-sex!

 

Why not just say he was a sex addict or sexual compulsive?

Because who is to decide such things? Shouldn’t they be left to the individual? Moreover, in Steward’s case, sex was not just a pastime; it was his vocation. Exploring and describing his own sexuality in full – that was really his life’s work. Saying “Steward had too much sex” is like saying “Madame Curie handled too much radium.” It may be true, of course, but in saying so, aren’t you missing the point of everything they did, everything they stood for?

 

Do you have any tattoos?

No.

 

Are you partnered?

Yes. I am a partnered gay man. My partner values his privacy however, and so do I.

 

Let’s talk about the writing of the book. What was the most difficult part?

Selling it to a good publisher.

 

Why?

It was hard for editors to imagine a market for the book. Even my current editor, when I finally found him, felt that he was taking a risk.

 

Did he tell you so?

Not in so many words. But I sensed that if I didn’t deliver something extraordinary, the book contract would simply be cancelled. That sort of thing happens pretty frequently these days.

 

How was writing the book difficult?

Well, at first there was no clear roadmap to Sam’s life apart from a brief, elliptical memoir he had published in 1983. And while the pulp pornography he had written was extraordinary, pulp pornography is not something that is often discussed in literary biography. Given the perceived obscenity of the subject matter, I really wasn’t sure it could be.

 

Were you worried that the book would come across as salacious or titillating?

Yes. The question of tone was really what made writing the book so difficult. I was dealing with highly inflammatory subject matter that could so easily have bored or disgusted people – even those who are sympathetic to homosexuality.  And of course not everyone is.

 

How did you find the right tone?

I rewrote the book endlessly. Also I edited it down from an original draft of 1600 manuscript pages to the current 550.  And I just happened to be in group therapy during those years with a therapist named Will Swift, who is also coincidentally a biographer.  Together in my group of about ten guys, we would sometimes discuss the most difficult moments in Sam’s life, and discuss as well some very touchy and controversial issues such as sexual addiction and sexual compulsivity.  Each of the ten men in the group had a different viewpoint, and it was good for me to hear all of them.

 

Were you worried that readers and reviewers would think you were simply gossiping about a person’s private life?

Well, in one sense I was lucky:  my writing about Sam’s sexuality could never be interpreted as a betrayal, because he himself had fought all his life (and against terrible odds) to be honest about his sexuality in his writing.  Moreover, he had devoted so much time and energy to reflecting upon his sexuality and noting down all its particulars.  In that sense he was the perfect subject for an intimate biography. After all, he made his entire personal life transparent for his future biographer.  Most writers and public figures don’t do that; they protect themselves from that kind of intrusion.   So – if the book is ultimately considered remarkable, it’s in large part because I had the most remarkable of subjects. You can’t read Sam Steward’s life story without coming to a whole new understanding of American society and culture during the middle years of the last century. And you can’t read it without coming to a whole new sympathy for the lives and daily experiences of gay men.

 

What is Steward’s greatest achievement, in your opinion?

He created a lifelong sexual testament, one which took many forms: data and statistics; diaries and journals; fiction; visual art; journalism. It is only when you see the whole body of work together that you really understand what he was getting up to.

 

What did you like least about writing Steward’s life?

I experienced a lot of sorrow for him and through him, particularly in his later years. He was a very lonely man for much of his life, despite being popular and loved. There were weeks and months during the writing of the book that I was profoundly depressed by what I was experiencing daily on the page. Sam endured a lot of rejection during his life, particularly as a novelist and writer. By the time the gay liberation movement came along, nobody of the younger generation wanted anything to do with old guys like Sam. Younger gay men saw the gay men of the previous generation as closet cases and cowards. It wasn’t true, of course, but that’s how they saw it.

 

What about his emotional development?

I think Sam was emotionally damaged by the early childhood experience of losing his mother and being essentially abandoned by his father. Added to these traumas was his inability to fit into the small-town world around him or to be the angelic little boy his adoptive aunts wanted him to be. He realized and wrote about this later in life: he knew he was in many ways a very closed-off, narcissistic person. He also knew that his narcissism and his alcoholism were linked, and that the alcoholism made the narcissism worse.

 

You write a lot about his alcoholism.

Yes. It’s very much part of his personality. Like many alcoholics, Sam was aware of his self-destructiveness even as he was self-destructing, and he wrote about it very well, particularly in describing the drinking years.

 

Do you feel that his sexual activity was self-destructive?

Well, I guess I would have to say that, at the very least, his compulsion to have sex so much – and with so many strangers — and often in ways that resulted in physical harm to his body – used up an awful lot of his time and energy. Particularly after he got sober. In a way, he substituted one compulsion (sex) for another (drinking). The compulsive nature of his sexual activity – he was constantly seeking out anonymous sex – really kept him from getting on with his writing. It was repetitive and time consuming, and he would get lost in sexual pursuit in the same way a drinker gets lost in the bottle. He didn’t just lose whole weekends having sex – he lost whole month-long vacations!

 

How is that kind of sexuality self-destructive?

Not so much self-destructive as deeply distracting. You have to remember that Sam was a very gifted literary novelist whose first novel received a glowing review from The New York Times. And he was a wildly popular professor whose classes were always oversubscribed. If he’d wasted less time on drinking and anonymous sex he might really have become famous. On the other hand, the written record he has left behind of his sexual activities is so utterly extraordinary and so utterly unique that I can hardly say that I’m sorry he chose to spend so much of his life having sex. Because he did it mindfully. That’s one very big difference between the drinking and the sex. The drinking led nowhere. The sex led to the writing about sex, and the record-keeping, and the art, and the photography….

 

What do you like best about Steward?

Well I’d like to say it was his sense of humor, which was wonderful, but really it was his honesty. Sam really told the truth about everything. He could take the most painful, the most deeply personal things and simply lay them out for his reader. There’s a rare clarity to his writing. You could easily overlook that kind of clarity, or take it for granted. But believe me, it’s rare – particularly when the subject is sex. And Sam did it every time.

 

 

Here is the continuation of a report on some big-name fiction writers I have seen in person. It could be interesting, though probably it is not. In Part I, we saw Salman Rushdie and Junot Diaz. Let’s see more.

*

GARY SHTEYNGART and GEORGE SAUNDERS

I paid $35 to see the comic duo of Saunders & Shteyngart perform as part of the New Yorker Festival. This was in October 2009 at Cedar Lake Theatre in Chelsea.

They aren’t really a comic duo; I was just joking. They’re authors! Saunders has always been one of my favorites (read In Persuasion Nation) and I’ve loved both of Shteyngart’s novels. I was very excited for the event.

As everyone settled in, New Yorker arts editor Francoise Mouly made a brief introduction. She has a fancy accent and is very smart. “Oh, look, Francoise Mouly!” exclaimed a woman to her boyfriend/fiance/husband. “Yeah, it’s Francoise Mouly!” he responded with equal excitement.

At this point I should “reveal” that I attended the event wearing a George Saunders temporary tattoo. My friend, an even bigger Saunders fan, and Syracuse, NY native (like him), brought them with her. She had an In Persuasion Nation tat for each of us. Hers said “In Persuasion Nation” with a flower and vines wrapped around the lettering. She wore it on the inside of her forearm, near her wrist. My tat had a purple shape of the U.S. with the letters IPN in the center. I stuck it onto my tiny bicep. We felt cool, and I’d bet we were the only Saunders groupies in the house who had worn tattoos. But you never know.

Gary Shteyngart read first. He read a long section from his forthcoming novel, Super Sad True Love Story. He told the audience sheepishly that this would be his first time reading from the book, and that if it sucked, we should tell him. We knew that it wouldn’t suck.

The part he read from was about the main character, Lenny Abramov (destined to be another great Shteyngart Jewtagonist) bringing his Korean girlfriend Eunice Park home to meet his parents for the first time. As always with Shteyngart’s fiction, there was great dialogue.

Shteyngart did all the different voices of the characters quite well, acting out the lecturing father and over-the-top mother. People were in stitches, doubled over with laughter. Gary Shteyngart’s a funny writer. People came expecting humor, and they got some.

After Shteyngart finished, George Saunders came on to read. Shteyngart’s outfit had been pretty non-descript, but Saunders was wearing a corduroy jacket and a very “loud” tie. My friend commented that it was an ugly tie, but I wasn’t sure. It was certainly unconventional. The tie was orange and black and blue and red, with a white flower toward the bottom.

After everyone stopped noticing his tie, we were able to turn our focus to the story. Saunders was reading a short story called “Victory Lap” that had run in The New Yorker. The story was about a cross-country runner, which I liked, because I had been one of those myself. Saunders did all the voices, and performed them with even more differentiation and outrageous humor than Shteyngart did his. Saunders read very quickly, rushing through the story, making it exciting and frenzied.

If I were asked, with a gun to my head, to choose the better reading, it was the Saunders story. But both of them were great. The Q&A was uneventful, maybe because it was a New Yorker event. Most of the questions were kind of staid, except for when someone asked the authors what their favorite story was that they had done, and Shteyngart said, “Out of the two things I’ve written?” Everyone laughed at the person asking that question. Saunders said his favorite of his own stories is “Sea Oak.”

The event wrapped up and people filed out, but my friend and I lingered awkwardly because we wanted to show George Saunders our George Saunders tattoos. As we approached him, however, a woman who turned out to be Susan Sarandon slipped in front and introduced herself to Saunders. Susan Sarandon was with a guy, and she and her guy talked to Saunders for a very long time. They talked to Saunders for so long that a lot of people lingering, waiting to talk to him, gave up and disbanded. My friend and I stayed and finally, when we showed him our tattoos, he sort of vaguely smiled, though he didn’t laugh. We asked if we could get a photo with him and he invited Gary Shteyngart to be in the photo, which was fine with us. In the photo, Saunders looks pretty unamused.

This was a satisfying literary event and I’ll continue to read the work of these two funny dudes.

*

RICK MOODY and PAUL AUSTER

I didn’t really hear Moody do a reading, but I met him. It’s one of those stories I no longer think is as fascinating as I believed after it first happened.

I learned online that Rick Moody, who wrote The Ice Storm, was participating in a “Twitter fiction experiment” with a Brooklyn lit mag called Electric Literature. He had written a new, unpublished short story, and Electric Lit, on their Twitter feed, would be publishing the story as a series of tweets. I somehow convinced my editor/professor that this constituted Brooklyn news, so he said I could do a story about it for our class website. First, I called and interviewed the co-editors of Electric Lit. I asked them about the project with Moody. It was not the most fascinating phone interview I have experienced.

Then I learned—lucky timing!—that Moody would be introducing Paul Auster at a reading at 92Y in Manhattan that very night.

I went to the reading with the hope of interviewing Moody one-on-one, though I doubted it would happen. When I got there, I realized the place was a huge opera-style theatre hall, with multiple levels and a giant stage, and people were filing in, and I thought, “I’ll never get access to this guy. He’s going to peace out as soon as he introduces Auster.” Just before the reading began, I had an idea. I told an usher I was “with the press” and wanted to get backstage to where the authors are waiting. To my shock, this worked. He pointed the way. I walked down a hallway to a door and knocked. A PR woman opened the door and said I could write Moody a note. I scribbled down on my business card “Rick Moody, I’d like to interview you for a brief story about the Electric Lit Twitter thing. If you’re around after the show I’ll be in a Red Sox hat,” and still felt there was no chance.

The reading began. Moody came onstage and said “I wrote all of these really thoughtful remarks, but I’m going to try and just sound like a human rather than someone reading a canned introduction.” People laughed approvingly. Moody said that when he thinks of all the best young writers in New York, “they are all people who have been lucky enough to sit at Paul’s table.” I guess Auster befriends promising writers, like Jonathan Lethem, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Safran Foer. That’s nice for them. I’ve read Timbuktu and hated it, but read The Brooklyn Follies and loved it, so I guess it evens out so that I, too, would enjoy eating dinner with Paul Auster. And his daughter Sophie could come. She’s hot.

When Auster came up, he said, “I paid Rick a lot of money to say all that.” It was smart to kick off his reading with a joke. I wondered if Salman Rushdie taught him about doing that.

Auster was reading from his new novel, Invisible. As soon as he began, I was jarred by the voice, which was 2nd person (“you”). But then I was more jarred by the scene he read, which was about incest. It was a graphic night in which a brother and sister (biological, yup, no Brady Bunch stuff here!) have tons of sex while their parents are away. Penetration, blowjobs, all that. The scene is like a big sex party. They go nuts on each other, except that they’re brother and sister, so jaws were dropping in the audience. Auster read quickly, but without shame. He projected nicely, and he enunciated. He’s kind of old school, I’m not sure how, but he seems that way.

As soon as he finished, after a big sexual crescendo in the text, Auster read, “And you began your education as a human being.” He said, “Thank you,” and then quickly shut the book and walked off the stage before the applause even began.

Then the other author came on. I forgot to mention there was another author. His name was Javier Marías and is supposed to be “famous everywhere but America,” which makes sense because I hadn’t heard of him. When he stepped up to the podium, he did a facial expression that showed he felt awkward and didn’t know how to follow what Auster just did. People laughed in shared sympathy and relief. Then I fell asleep in my comfortable seat.

After the uneventful Q&A I waited in the lobby and sure enough, Rick Moody came out. I was happy about this. We interviewed for a few minutes. He struck me as pretty normal, maybe boringly normal. He seemed a little sad—his eyes are kind of weary and sad. He was a cool guy, though. He seemed to have the attitude that it was no big deal to be giving me an interview, even though I kept thinking, “This is a big deal.” I wondered how much my opinion of him was tainted by my having heard about all the drugs he used to do. Moody mentioned that he is close with Jim Shepard and Lydia Davis. I thought that was cool. After I interviewed Moody I felt good, so I bought a copy of Paul Auster’s new novel and had him autograph it for my mom. Later, I gave her the book as a gift but thought awkwardly about the moment when she would read that incest scene. Welp, what can ya do.

*

These events were all fun. I like going to readings and if you are a writer or reader on TNB I bet you do, too. I’m going to keep going to readings, and maybe more semi-interesting things will happen.

Here is a factual, but overly cynical report about some well-known writers I have seen or met in person. It might interest you.

*

SALMAN RUSHDIE

I saw Salman Rushdie read in Boston in summer 2008.

At that time I had limited experience with Rushdie. The only book of his I had read was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It was assigned my freshman year of high school by a teacher everyone hated. She seemed pretty humorless and thus surprised us by assigning (and obviously liking) this “fun” book. But we didn’t end up liking Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The book involved a tap in a child’s sink from which teardrops of stories flowed. Conversations took place on magic carpet rides, and central characters included a pair of rhyming fish. The book seemed to be an inappropriate choice for seventeen-year-olds.

The Harvard bookstore sold out the church for Rushdie, and then allowed even more worshipers to stand in back. It was a hot, sweaty July afternoon. People were hot and sweaty.

Rushdie began by telling us about his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, which is a fantastical story about—what else?—the magic of storytelling and the moving love affair of some royal princess and prince (or whatever).

“Much of the weirder stuff in this book is true, and the kind of ordinary stuff is the stuff that I’ve made up,” he said. Big laughs for that. As it turns out, people really like Salman Rushdie. People think he’s very funny. He busted out another snazzy one-liner when he told us, “I discovered to my intense delight that the Ottomans were fighting a war against Dracula. I mean actual Dracula himself, Vlad the Impaler. And the moment I realized that I could have Dracula in my novel, you know, without cheating, I thought that I’d gone to Heaven, really.” This, too, raised the roof. Rushdie cracked himself up.

Rushdie read a long section about the dashing male hero and the princess who loved him. I think. My dad fell asleep on my shoulder for part of it, and then that cute thing happened where I then fell asleep on him, my head on his head, which was on my shoulder. You know, that cute thing that happens?

I wasn’t out long. A description involving a tattoo (of a tulip) that the princely figure had on the shaft of his penis (!!) prompted me to wonder if Rushdie might be sharing an autobiographical detail. I wouldn’t be surprised; a penis tat might explain how this 62-year-old intellectual had managed to lure the objectively ‘hawt’ 37-year-old model/chef Padma Lakshmi into his bedchamber. But looks aren’t everything, and as we have learned already, Rushdie is a very funny guy. That can help.

In the Q&A, when asked to compare writing novels to a “9-5 job,” Rushdie said he has never been a writer who can get up early in the morning. “Martin Amis does that, Martin Amis gets up real early. He finishes his work by twelve noon, and spends the rest of the day playing tennis and drinking.” But who is Martin Amis?

One audience member/supplicant asked the Booker Prize Guru what he’s reading for pleasure right now. He began his reply by imitating the Italian accent of Umberto Eco (his good friend) who apparently said, “If it’s like my writing, I hate it. If it’s not like my writing, I hate it.”  More snickers for the impersonation, with the biggest laughs coming from Rushdie himself again.

His first mention was of Junot Diaz (see below!). He called Oscar Wao a “wonderful book.” Then, to everyone’s delight, he said: “I just re-read Gatsby. I hadn’t read Gatsby since I was 21, and I just couldn’t believe how good it was. Really, there isn’t a bad paragraph.”

Audience members nodded their heads vigorously, like ‘Yes, yes. Oh, so true. He’s right!’ It was funny. But I liked Gatsby too. So Salman and I could probably be friends, hang out, have a good time. Right?

The final question came from a timid young female student who asked him if he had any advice for aspiring writers. He said the best writers that he knows all began careers in their twenties and were immediately successful. All had a certain drive. “If you don’t have that real thing burning in you that makes it possible to spend twelve years trying to learn to do something without any guarantee that you’ll ever learn how to do it, um, then, it’s a problem.” Everyone laughed here, though I couldn’t quite see why. I felt this comment was very serious. He continued: “The great writers have always known why they wanted to be a writer. They’ve always known what was burning inside them that had to get said. So, if you don’t have that fire, don’t write.” There was silence. “I’m sorry, it’s brutal, but it’s a real truth. There are, you know, enough books in the world. None of us in this room could ever read all the great books that there already are to read. If you’re going to add to that mountain, it better feel necessary to you. It better feel like a book that you can’t avoid writing. And then it has a chance of adding something interesting to the mountain.”

After Salman Rushdie said this, I began to really like him. Rushdie has some good yarns to spin.

*

JUNOT DIAZ

Salman Rushdie’s appearance in July encouraged me to go to another reading sponsored by the Harvard Bookstore. This time it was in September 2008, and the writer was Junot Diaz.

The same starry-eyed bookstore employee who introduced Rushdie marched onto the stage to deliver a chain of Diaz ass-kissing that was rife with strange phrases and mispronunciations. First she told us that Oscar Wao “met, exceeded, and exploded all expectations.” The thought of “exploding expectations” made me think of those YouTube videos in which people drop a Mentos into a big 2-liter of cola and watch it explode. Would Mr. Diaz be doing that on stage today?

She went on to note that the book won the Pulitzer, which she pronounced “pew-litzer.” No matter. She hurried off and Diaz began with some jokes about being from New Jersey and therefore hating Boston. I’m from Boston. Just get to the reading, buddy!

After only a little more stalling, Diaz revealed that he would be reading from a work-in-progress, a short story entitled “Flaca,” which is a Spanish word for “skinny.”

Diaz is a great writer, but as it turns out, a poor speaker. This will sound cruel, but I’m describing these readings in a factual way, and it’s a fact that his jilted reading voice was distracting. He read the first line of the story: “I’m not going to stay… [awkward pause] …long.” There was also some stuttering and visible nervousness. Surprising from an MIT professor who probably addresses giant lecture halls every day. Is Diaz the real Oscar Wao? Of course, you’ll only get that if you’ve read the book.

In addition to the problem of his reading each sentence with the same cadence, there were some verbal stumbles, like “You stood besides me.” (Incorrect, right?) Later, he read the city’s name as “News Jersey.” That could have been a joke, though, that was over my head. Maybe New Jersey makes a lot of news

But none of that mattered; the story was terrific. It involved a guy reciting to a former lover a numbered list that recounts his memories of their relationship. One moving line that prompted sighs from the audience came when the characters have a sad, serious chat in which they agree that they could never marry each other, and then: “we fucked so we could pretend that nothing hurtful had just transpired.” The sentence was blunt and beautiful. At the same time!

Once the Q&A began, it became apparent that the author only has problems when reading aloud. Fielding questions, he was unfaltering. He was also more charming. He acknowledged his public reading problems when he joked, “I know I suffer from this utter lack of affect that makes me sound like I’m trying to be funny, but usually I’m not!” He was right in his self-analysis; he did read with a lack of affect.

The vast majority of the questions asked were about the influence and presence of Spanish in the text. These questions started to get really old.

When one cool guy in the audience (it was me) asked Diaz what books he’s currently reading for pleasure, he delivered some cloudy references, mentioning “A Book of Memories,” a novel few had heard of (evident by the dead silence when he said the title). He called it “super-duper dynamite.” People smiled and liked him for his geeky enthusiasm. Diaz is an adult comic book geek. It’s cute.

Junot Diaz is not great at reading his own work aloud, but he’s great at writing. He seems like a cool, nerdy guy.

*

There are some other “big” writers I have seen, and you can read about the vaguely interesting things that happened at those readings in Part II. The readings in Part II are also more recent. Also, Part II has a photo, so that’s exciting.

This piece would have been too long if I had not broken it into two parts. Even broken up, I am aware that each part is already too long. Oops, sorry.

Inked

By Robin Antalek

Essay

Eighteen years ago on the way to the delivery room the feeling of not being able to stop what was about to happen suddenly overwhelmed me.  This baby that had been making me miserable for twenty-four hours had to come out and the passage of egress was not going to be a gentle one.  When my first daughter eventually emerged from her day long battle waged in the birth canal, cone shaped head and bruises on her face the size and shape of peach pits from the last ditch effort emergency forceps, a smudge of pink between the delicate fuzz of her brow that one of the nurses deemed an “angel’s kiss”, I was assured in a week, maybe less, her face would be healed and the trauma of her birth would leave no visible scars, only memories, where I would be able to chart the ghost marks on her face, badges of what she and I had endured in the moments before her birth.

From time to time, I have been known to work as a temp in Investment Banks when my financial situation lingers in the 25-watts-or-less range.

It’s mind-numbing work. Answering phones, scheduling (and rescheduling) meetings and defending a coked-up frat boy’s right to expense his SoHo House membership, succulent dinners at The Gramercy Tavern and executive limos to his Murray Hill penthouse, a mere ten blocks north of the office.

But the pay is great, there’s little-to-no responsibility involved and if you can find humor in the daily patronizing condescension that is heartily served by the aforementioned punk-ass bankers (usually several years your junior) then it’s a decent short-term gig.

Several times a day I would get e-mails that start like this:

To: ML-IBD-Worldwide-All
Fr: Candice Compliance
Re: Relationship Inquiry

The e-mails go on to give a brief bio of the people and their company history and then a contact number to call,

if you have had or currently have a relationship with Randolph Smarmyton or James Picklebum or one of the other senior partners at Super WASP-y Venture Capitalist Group, Inc.

Now being the kind of person I am, it would take everything in my power not to hit the “Reply All” button and begin a long-winded description something akin to:

Candice,

Oh. My. God. I DID have a relationship with James Picklebum and I have to tell you, girl… total nightmare.

At first, he was really sweet. Paid for everything, held open doors, sent flowers; my faith in chivalrous behavior was restored! We made plans for weekend ski trips, compared notes about reasonable numbers of offspring and started looking through the New York Times Real Estate section over our Sunday morning bagels and schmear; I loved Park Slope, he was keen on Brooklyn Heights. It was the kind of argument you dream about!

And then, without warning, it all changed! Turned out, he was a “Future-Talker.” After only our first open house, he vaporized. Suddenly he was working late every night. He had these all these ‘Client meetings’ and ‘restructuring sessions’ and since we were saving for the new house, couldn’t I just chip in just once in a while – what was he, made of money??? Four-time-a-week overnights turned into weekly phone calls turned into emails turned into text messages.

When he dumped me, he didn’t even give me the courtesy of a fucking phone call! Just ‘ping’-ed me from his Blackberry during the company Christmas party:

“No sparx left. U wr fun tho. Gd lck. xo –j”

Me! A “text-ex”!

So thanks for asking, Candice. If I can save just one woman out there from the horrors of pursuing a relationship with James Picklebum, then I’ll know that the agony I endured was worth it!

I would crack myself up thinking about how the Compliance Department would respond to something like that.

* * * * *

All joking aside, there are some seriously vitriolic websites out there devoted to this kind of thing. There’s rateyourboyfriend.com where you can actually assign a numerical value to your boytoy. You can vent your frustrations at HeDidWhat.com or join the message boards at stupidboyfriend.com. You can play Relationship Revenge, or consult the folks at Make Him Pay for fresh ideas to spew your venom.  All designed to make you feel better about not giving out the Rejection Hotline disguised as your real number to the ungrateful schmuck in the first place.

On the brighter side of this mossy-tinged copper penny, there is a heart-warming, only mildly-frightening site: greatboyfriends.com where you can herald your best-friend (or ex) and recommend them to other people on the prowl.  One of those “he is perfect… just not for me” kinds of things, which personally, I think is noble, but lame.  If he’s not good enough for you, why on earth would he be good enough for me??

Nowadays, I defy any single woman to bypass the pre-requisite internet search as part of the ‘Do-I-Want-To-Date-Him?’ contemplation ceremony.

Better safe than sorry, right?

Meh.

* * * * *

In May of 2001, I got a call from a friend of mine to help him out. Would I be interested in stage managing two operas in rep on a tour to Taiwan? It was a tiny production company and the fee was crap, but the airplane tickets, hotel and food would be paid for and the rehearsals would be in New York, minutes away from my apartment.

It took me about three seconds to bleat out “YES!”

When we got back to the States three weeks later; exhausted, drained and vowing NEVER to go through an ordeal as horrible as the one we had just endured; with possibly the most inexperienced and ridiculously incompetent producer on the scene, another friend asked:

“Did you ‘Google’ her before you accepted the job?”

“Google?” (remember, this was early 2001) “What the hell is that?”

She dashed for my computer and flipped open the screen.

In 4.83 seconds, page after page reported an embarrassing number of cases in appellate court from the New York chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 802, after countless offences had been made by said producer against said union members.

We could have saved ourselves weeks of torment, despair and sleepless nights if we had just performed a simple 4.83-second “Relationship Inquiry.”

If I had done that though, I would never have seen the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Theatre, met a brilliant artistic collaborator, eaten a 100-year old egg (disgusting, btw) or gotten a tattoo of the first phrase I mastered in Chinese: “Children to the stage, please”.

* * * * *

You know, if we performed due diligence before we did every little thing, think about how much fun we would miss out on.

I write a letter to Nikki, in my diary, each time the doctor takes a scalpel and carves out another mole.

He takes nipping strokes through my epidermis, dermis, and down to the fat, and drops the tissue—suspect for malignant melanoma—into a vile that’ll go to some lab in New Hampshire.

Jenniferduffieldwhite19a_2

To properly tell this story, I must first make a few confessions: