Recent Work By Joi Brozek

It’s three in the afternoon on Saturday. I’m on my second or third double espresso of the day, not because I need it, but because I love it. I got home this morning at six, after a night spent out and about town, went to bed and rose like black magic at noon to get going. Yesterday marked the end of a 60-hour week at a job I adore and now, I’m writing this piece. My energy levels are through the roof, but I promise you I’m not manic. This is the life and I’m still living it, even though I’m not 22 anymore. Far from it. Though I’m not quite Disco Sally, either.

I live hard. I work hard. I play hard. And I just can’t stop. Late nights, strong cocktails, out until dawn… you know how it goes.  The kind of life you told yourself had to end once you hit your mid-twenties, only I’ve never stopped. I fear if I stop, I’ll hit the wall, and when you’re going 100 MPH, you know the ending result will not be pretty.

That’s me in all my green skin glory, about a month ago. It was taken around midnight in a bar with a camera phone, that is, no bells nor whistles, no filters nor airbrushing involved. It’s definitely not the best picture of me, but I think it captures how I look on any given night (rather than, say, my TNB photo which was professionally shot for a magazine). I still get carded and challenged that my driver’s license is actually my own, granted the lighting in most bars is pretty forgiving. Don’t for a second think that I actually believe I look under 21, but I could easily lie about my age by 10 years. My mom does. Lies about my age, that is. But, I think lying is silly. On the other hand, avoiding the full reveal = awesome! It seems that when most women hit their thirties, especially if we look good, we start to conveniently not mention our age. We do have this mystique to maintain, right? Just call me ageless.

I went to a new doctor recently and when she came in the room after the nurse took my stats, she demanded, “OK, what’s your secret?!”

Secret? I started to freak out thinking she somehow knew I had lied about how many drinks I actually consume in a week on the new patient form.

“We were all just marveling over your age!” she continued. “And we don’t believe it.” Relieved, though a bit shaken, I shrugged and said what has become my throwaway answer: “good genes.” But I come from a family that is prone to just as many maladies as any other.

Look, I’m not here to rub anything in your face (except for a good face serum, maybe). There’s nothing to envy. After all, the past ten years haven’t been easy by any stretch and sometimes I’m shocked and extremely grateful that a pre-plastic surgery Joan Rivers isn’t staring back at me when I look into a mirror. Let’s see, there was the excruciating task of opening and running a business that eventually went south and made me financially and emotionally drained, not to mention the end of relationships, falling in and out of love a couple times. You know… grown-up stuff. Who really has it “easy” anyway?

Consider for a moment what I do “right” and I promise not to lecture. It’s not all that impressive: I avoid the sun (easy for night lovers), get plenty of sleep (I don’t get less than 7 hours a night, on average), eat well (vegetarian, non-processed foods, though that’s undoubtedly its own separate subject), exercise like there’s no tomorrow– while forcing myself to enjoy it (I do, really, I do. Perhaps I’m even a bit addicted. Hey, better than crystal meth right?) and I take care of myself, especially my skin, which I don’t take for granted for a second. It may be kinda green, but it’s smooth and other than a few fine lines, wrinkle-free.

Surely, you’ve heard all that before, so what else? What’s my secret? It could be that I treat myself well, because I feel I deserve it. I love to spend money on clothing, shoes, quality beauty products and services. I also love to spend money on good food, books, travel and entertainment. All of this keeps me stimulated, inspired and healthy. Could it also be that I refuse to “settle down”? More like I refuse to settle. Once you settle, then you become complacent and then you might as well die as far as I’m concerned. Call it extreme, but this philosophy works for me.

Let’s get back to the topic of work, though. It’s what keeps me in Fluevogs and good bedding (a sound sleep is crucial to a divine daily existence, so go ahead and splurge on those 700-thread count sheets and luxury mattress), not to mention, earning a paycheck allows me to be able to afford those things I can’t live without. But it’s more than that. I was raised with a really strong work ethic, which sucked at 16 when I wanted to fuck off and just go to the beach on weekends, but now I appreciate that ethic. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a workaholic, if you allow for the other aforementioned good stuff. I don’t sacrifice my own happiness for work and won’t do so ever again after owning my own business and having to make constant compromises with a partner who did not share the same outlook as me. Ever since that ended, I have followed my own rules, worked many jobs, often two or three at a time, and other than a brief hiatus in employment due to a life-changing move to the Midwest, I now have the career of my dreams. I think that once you get there, you should want to devote yourself to overachievement.

I have this thing called a writing habit, too. My recently completed novel may be on the back burner, but it’s warming up quite nicely. Slow cooking means the most enjoyable eating, I’ve found. And I have some hobbies, too.

But the secret, what’s the secret to looking and feeling young? I think it’s the grand sum of these things. For example, without the exercise, I have to wonder if I could sleep as well as I do. Without eating healthily, would the drink make me a lazy lush? Without sleeping a full night, would I still have endless energy and not get sick? If I didn’t sleep, eat well and drink a few quarts of water a day would my skin look this good? Who knows? It’s a life in progress. I do take breaks from the hard living. There may be a week or two of staying in at night, too. Too much of anything can get boring. I guess I just fell into good habits somewhere along the way, to counterbalance the not so good ones. Listen, not trying these days isn’t an option anymore.

The first paragraph of this piece could have easily started differently. I could have listed all that I do “right,” and I do plenty right but wouldn’t you rather have the fact that I do plenty wrong as a frame of reference? I am not perfect. I drink. A lot. I love caffeine. I love late nights and “sleeping in.”  A lot of this I can attribute to two decades of practice. I started going out when I was underage and living in Greenwich Village. I cut my teeth on New York nightlife as soon as I could.

I do it all, all that I want to do, and I’ll stop when I’m dead. But I will try my best to look and feel fabulous all along the way.  Who knows, some day I may even achieve Zelda Kaplan status.

The living hard part? It’s not crucial, nor is it advisable for everyone, but why not gradually make a go of it? You may find yourself feeling better, having more energy and you may just want to pull an all-nighter or two.


I stand at the top of a waterfall, all trussed and tightened up in a rope harness, the most crude of corsets, ensuring that I do not plummet to an untidy death on the jagged rocks and in the choppy water far, far below, 120 feet below, to be precise. You are one tough bitch, I tell myself. You are so freaking badass. Hardcore as Murphy’s Law. I stare up at the people above me, some of whom look over the side dubiously, clearly terrified out of their minds. But I am fearless. Yes. I am fearless and I’m gonna rappel down this goddamned waterfall like I have been doing it since I could walk.


OhmygodohmygodwhatthefuckamIdoinghere, I ask myself, an internal agonizing scream, my mantra that day, after jumping off various cliffs, slipping on many a rock and hiking down impossible paths filled with fauna and horror on an empty stomach and perhaps two hours of sleep after being wakened this morning at 5 by wailing monkeys in the rain forest. There is not a bathroom in sight, of course there isn’t, so I don’t dare take a sip of water. I realize hours ago that I am better suited to jaywalking across 6th Avenue than I am to peeing in the woods. And here I am, about to go through with this charade all in the name of fun. And adventure. And proving…something.

How did I get into this mess? Well, this is a year and a half ago and I am in Costa Rica on vacation with my friend, Vanessa.

Even before getting there, I had these grandiose ideas of doing a zip line, so upon arrival, we immediately signed up for that, and lo and behold, there was a package where you could do the zip line and go canyoning on two separate days. You need to know, the photos in the tourist office did not do justice to what these two activities entailed. I saw children, for God’s sake, with peaceful looks on their faces, joyous even, as they were hooked up to a pulley, hard hats cockily placed on heads. “Beginners welcome!” the sign proclaimed. We were beginners! We were welcome! How could we pass that up?

The zip line, oh the zip line. Now, that I immediately chickened out of, due to the apparent lack of control I’d have over my own fate. All the zip line involved was being hooked up at the waist on this endless steel cable attaching two cliffs, with oh, I don’t know, hundreds of feet between them. So, no skill involved, hence the beginner being welcomed. Apparently, I’d be zip zip zipping along, a haphazard little psychotic zipper with a death wish, full speed ahead to the platform which seemed to be a mile away. As I hesitated on the platform looking death in the maw, I was told, “just don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights!” Right. No, thank you, y’all go on ahead. I’ll pass.

I waited an hour on that bloody platform for the group of zippers (most of them optimistic med students) to return. I was the only one who chickened out, but I think I was also the only one who knew there were twenty-odd more platforms to zip between (I asked). This is fun? Hell, there was no apparent skill, strength or sportsmanship involved. I figured I couldn’t let my fate be decided by a clip at my waist and a steel rope. I could only think of how people about to attend their own hanging must feel. I just wish I would have done my research before gleefully plunking down 60 bucks. Or Googled zip line deaths.

Feeling like a travel brochure failure, I decided I would be brave and try the canyoning. I wasn’t any closer to a computer so that I could Google canyoning deaths, but then, I don’t think I would have thought to do that anyway. The waterfall part sounded tropical and practically serene, and there was mention of swimming in pools under the waterfalls. It sounded like a Club Med commercial. The only thing you needed was the ability to swim (I can!) and have an open mind (suuuure). Plus, I reasoned, I’d be in full control of what I was doing and my feet would always be planted on something, even if that something was the side of a mountain.

Here is a photo of Vanessa and I unawares. See how excited we look to be doing this? We were open-minded at the start of this adventure.

In a strange twist of fate, Vanessa and I turned out to be on a tour with five other folks from New York City. Queens, in fact. Well, awright, we were gonna kick some canyoning ass, I was sure. Not really. What we were going to do was bounce our neuroses back and forth between us, whilst alternately playing a game of one-upmanship in our heads. None of us were the outdoors type.

I, personally, was glad there were no Europeans, or heaven forbid, Australians, on the trip because it seems like every single one I’ve ever met has been accomplishing major feats of prowess in the great outdoors since toddlerhood. Nothing to make you feel even more inept in the jungle than a plucky Australian wearing hiking sandals.

I don’t do nature very well. There was this time that I was walking through Central Park, from the west side to the east side, only it was on a winding path. Within 15 minutes, I was panicking, lost and wondering when they had transplanted an actual forest into Central Park. I lost sense of space and time and any sort of cell phone signal. I started to look for berries to hunt, just in case. I kept walking, babbling in tongues, when suddenly I saw them, the precious buildings, in my sight line. “Oh, thank God, the city!” I recall thinking. THEN I realized that I had, in fact, wandered right back to where I had started, virtually one block away, but still on the west side of the park. This is kind of funny, right? Kind of.

“Joi’s afraid of heights,” Vanessa had said to our guide earlier, before we even got out of the jeep. He positively hooted with laughter in response. “I mean, she couldn’t do the zip line,” she continued worriedly, meanwhile I felt like pinching her. The guide was a tanned Lothario. The last thing I wanted to appear as was a wimp with a debilitating fear of heights. He winked at her and told her not to worry.

So, getting back to the adventure through the stream full of rocks more slippery and deceptive than black ice. My body was so banged and bruised by that point, and my head was half filled with water because we had to jump off of all of these ledges. Hours of this. Swimming in the choppy stream was fun, but the trekking was endless, not to mention treacherous (the next day I’d resemble Hedda Nussbaum). Also, it was especially fun to do this when dodging fucking bees, trying not to step on poisonous frogs, and god knows what other pernicious insects that surrounded us. For all I knew, there were schools of piranhas in that body of water where we were hiking and swimming.

The first 12-foot waterfall, you can see I handled pretty easily, but that was just the practice before hitting the massive waterfall.

See? Isn’t that inspiring?

And then, a mere few feet away, we heard it. The Niagara Falls of the rain forest.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to rappel down the waterfall. Apparently there was a path down the side of the mountain. Vanessa wisely chose that option, but stayed to provide her moral support. I was determined, though, to kick ass and so I moved bravely ahead.

And this brings us back to the beginning. Me, the intrepid rappeller, at the cusp of breaking boundaries and blowing minds.

Not believing that I am actually going through with this insanity, I take a deep breath and begin to rappel down, graceful and flowing, like the water, rappelling like Rapunzel’s hair, envisioning myself to look like an extreme sports rock star ala this. Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking of this. I push aside all thoughts of a cave dwelling, brain sucking troll waiting for me at the bottom of the canyon.

I am determined to do this. Of course I can do this! I am a New Yorker, born and raised to handle just about anything (ah, what a myth about to be destroyed for now and for ever more). I’ve got street smarts! Wait. What good are street smarts going to do me in the rain forest, pray tell, when they couldn’t get me through Central Park? Pushing aside my panic attack, I descend. I descend a bit more. Baby steps. Wait, I’m better than this! Giant step. I’m making progress! I’m almost past the first shelf, but then I look down. Bad idea. I am 12 stories about the earth. Why, if this were the Empire State Building, I’d be…on the twelfth floor! This is no time for epiphanies, Joi. There I go, already referring to myself in the third person as if I were dead.

I want to jump from here, maybe. They say fear of heights comes from an impulse to jump. I have in fact experienced this when riding, ok, you better not laugh, Splash Mountain at Disney World, the one and only time I rode it. I hadn’t known that when I got to the top of what seemed to be a complete vertical drop 8 stories down, I would stand up in the log next to my mother right as we went down the flume. It was an insuppressible urge. I would have rather jumped than be helpless, gone for the ride to an undignified death below. A Disney Disaster. After the ride was over, my mother had angrily informed me that I wasn’t supposed to stand up, that it was dangerous, what was I thinking? What was I thinking?

What am I ever thinking? I sure wasn’t thinking when I plopped down 100 bucks to engage in these shenanigans.

Now I realize I am a full 4 stories higher than Splash Mountain at Disney World and really start to panic.

Have I mentioned that I am barefoot? “It’s the only way,” the guide had said, “you must go barefoot if you don’t have the right footwear.” He always rappels barefoot, in fact. This way, you feel the elements under your feet. It’s true. I am rappelling down this thing barefoot thanks to thinking steel toe Doc Martins are suitable hiking shoes. They are not, I assure you. Especially when you have to jump off increasingly higher cliffs into the streams below. They, in fact, pull you down right into the mud. It’s all part of the canyoning experience, my darlings. And now, now I’m stuck. I have nowhere to go but down. But.

There are no more shelves in the rocks! It’s all straight down from here! I can’t feel my feet! Help!

“Just try and feel the next indentation in the rock,” our handsome, virile guide tells me in broken English. He is smoking a cigarette and swigging from a beer. This is no big deal to him, of course. In that instant, I despise him.

“I can’t!” I insist. “I can’t feel anything.”

I am reduced to a complete mess. It feels like hours, but I remain in place, losing all feeling my feet, grabbing on to the rope for dear life, my wrists aching and burning. I need to be rescued. The guide sighs and effortlessly lowers himself down next to me. I have to be hooked onto his harness like a baby bird with a broken wing and ride on his coattails the rest of the way down the waterfall. It is also unavoidable: I have to-gasp-embrace him! Let it be know that I have serious touch issues when it comes to strangers.

I keep apologizing to him, not that he speaks much English at all, but he sure understands the language of hysteria and I feel like a teenage soldier holding on to his guts as they explode out of his body, begging for Momma. More than slightly humiliated, I make it to the bottom and like a coyote, chew my arm free from Lothario’s harness. He quickly disappears up the aforementioned mountain path back up to the top so he can help the others down. Didn’t he want to take a moment to appreciate what we had shared together?

One guy who comes down the waterfall after me, lets go of his rope and ends up knocking his face into rocks before the guide comes and rescues him. I am not the only one rescued! A small triumph. He is really banged up and then gets stung by a bee later. I’m not the only failure on this expedition!

I am told by the others we have to all “hike” back up the mountain, I think, to get back in the jeep home. Where is that damn jeep, anyway? I thought it was down here? (I refer you back to the mention above where I got lost in Central Park). The jeep is not, of course, up at the top of the waterfall.

I put “hike” in quotes because I’ve been hiking before on a variety of trails, but I have no idea that this trail consists of a 12-inch wide muddy, rocky path where if you slip the wrong way, off the side of the cliff you go. I am faced with an extremely precarious climb where there is NO LEDGE and my fear of heights is just crippling and despite being motionless with terror for a good five minutes, I make it back up and then I hear the news.

It’s lunchtime, boys and girls! Like I could eat?! The 70-year-old Jewish woman who is always lurking deep inside of me suddenly makes a cameo today just when I need her.

AND, brace yourselves for this one, the even bigger news is, after lunch we’ll be rappelling down the other half of the waterfall!!!!! And…there is no choice because that is where the blessed jeep is parked, in fact! Yes, down below, where I had just come from. Are you laughing and crying, perhaps slitting your wrists, with me at this point? I start to fume. I’ve been tricked! I don’t like being tricked, it’s been a sore spot since my father promised me a pet elephant in my backyard and placed a stuffed Dumbo on the patio furniture.

So, as everyone else ate lunch, I obsess over the two evils: 1. rappelling down the waterfall again or 2. hiking back down that hazardous mountain path which was potentially even more dangerous because of the lack of any kind of ledge or anything to hold on to, with the exception of plant roots. I am NOT KIDDING. I held on to plant roots to brace myself on the way up and hiking down a steep path is always harder.

Suddenly I notice that the group has turned to me as I pace back and forth past the flimsy rope protecting us from accidentally getting too close to the edge (there are no accidents where I’m concerned, I’ll have you know). They are. Laughing at me. And leading the pack is my savior, that horrible Lothario, the smoking, beer swigging tanned god, I mean, guide. And here I thought he loved me for making him feel the big guy, the hero, but he is making fun of me in Spanish to a few of the people in the group who are fluent and they in turn translate his wicked words to the others. You bastard. Did you not get the memo that I am hardcore?

I toss my head the way I do and brood on a rock, trying to ignore the puddle (are those fire ants?) at my feet.

“What’s wrong?” asks Vanessa.

“I want drugs,” I all but wail. Fuck this nature shit. I am done.

“Um, you don’t do drugs,” she points out, laughing.

“Yeah, well, at this point I’m yearning for a crack pipe or hell, even a dirty needle would suffice. Either would be preferable to this suicidal sure shot.” I get this way when I’m faced with certain, tragic death. One has to have one’s vices, even if they are only in one’s head. At this rate, I might as well be engaging in an indiscriminate sex act with that dork who had to be rescued, too. Oh Christ, what the fuck is the point of life, after all?

Why am I pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica?

Hello, brain, this is a life or death situation, of course you should be pondering the meaning of life on vacation in Costa Rica. If you’re about to die, what else should you be thinking about? I might be thinking instead about how my last meal could have been a nasty ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. Regardless, it’s much more dignified to die on an empty stomach.

Considering the rope corset again, I think about how I can whittle my 28-inch waist down to a wasp-like 23 in mere seconds without any help. And I think about the first time I saw the Pixies in 1988, the night before Thanksgiving and when the concert was over, I had walked through a foot of snow on the quiet Greenwich Village streets. And when I was 7, I saw the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs and going back further than that, I see my Aunt Jay holding me up as my mother waved out of a hospital window after she gave birth to my brother. I was 2. And now, gee this blankie is so so fuzzy and soft…goo goo ga ga…and I let out a scream as I enter the harsh bright light.

In the end, only two of the group of 7 decide to rappel back down the waterfall while the rest of us choose the hiking down the death strip option.

And guess who has to be rescued on that path too?

Yours, truly, first summons up some atavistic trait, going back to Cro-Magnon Man that is, and crawls on all fours. Then I slide down on my ass, only it gets to be so narrow that I can’t even do that (my ass won’t cooperate), and our benevolent guide has to make yet another divine intervention. Yes, I cry. Again. This is a petite mort of the worst possible kind.

We make it back to the jeep, water logged, bruised in body and spirit, and one of the folks from Queens points out, “That was worse than getting mugged at gunpoint.”

Moral of the story: New Yorkers are badass only when in their comfort zone. Sure we can crack wise with the best of them, throw around f-bombs like they are rose petals, make our way through a 6-lane traffic jam on foot, push you tourist bitches out of our way as we desperately rush somewhere, anywhere more important than you’ll ever have to go, mace a mugger without blinking an eye, but bring us to the bosom of Mother Nature, and we are a helpless, pathetic lot.

Or, maybe that is just me.

It was after you slurred those filthy songs with a sweet voice, eyes rolling up to the colored gels covering the lights, thinking, “FUCK! They can make me beautiful,” that I decided I couldn’t look at you anymore,

The first time I met Tricky, she told me to pour her a double, baby, and so I did. On a good day she drank Stoli and soda, heavy on the Stoli, light on the soda, in a glass. On a not so good day she did away with the glass and drank straight out of the bottle. I had never seen thirst like hers.

She worked in the club’s office upstairs, answering phones all day in a voice clouded by cigarette smoke and dripping with honey, but she wished she could get her bartending gig back. There was a day last summer when I had to go to work, despite feeling like an emotional wreck. As I opened the door to the office and walked inside, Tricky took one look at me and asked me what was wrong. I broke down in tears and words and expressed that I had just left my boyfriend. I typically detest showing any vulnerability, especially at work, but at this point in my life my closest friends were either living elsewhere or just not around that weekend. I have a lot of “friends,” but only a few people that I really confide in. “Oh, boo, it gets easier, but for some of us, the ache never goes away,” she said, tears in her eyes. Her boyfriend had left her several months before, and it sure didn’t seem like it was any easier for her. She hugged me. I hadn’t hugged anyone in months. It felt good.

a frail six-foot tall child who chooses to sleep on tattered, burnt velvet couches in the humid basement, not even caring that rats bite your ripped knees and floured skin falls from your tiny finch-like bones.

Tricky was larger than life, an exaggerated woman, a singer prone to maudlin expression and verse, a bombastic designer with decorations not for the faint of heart. She painted murals in the club with vague images of herself all gussied up like a Storyville whore. She told me that she was going to take her panache for flower arrangements and start her own business. She told me that she could get us front row tickets to Madonna. She told me that a world famous photographer was going to do a photo shoot of her at the club, which is why she showed up to work one day in perfect make up and hair like Veronica Lake. But the world famous photographer never showed.

Or you sit, a defeated ghost of your former self, haunting the corner of my bar.

And then she lost her job at the club. I had a regular who was the head chef and manager of a party boat in Manhattan. He sought my help in hiring suggestions. I recommended Tricky. Chef Ted called me after her interview and thanked me for sending her in and that she was hired. “I told him that he had to wear a shirt and tie, you know, be a boy if he wants to work on this boat, because customers aren’t going to appreciate his other look. I don’t mind of course. But he can’t scare people here.” He nervously laughed when I didn’t.

You make a brutal gesture to me, pour you another, your mother is dying, you miss your boyfriend, you lost your job, you make no money at your new job, you are being evicted, you are disappearing. I do pour you another, but at the same time, I think about how I want to rip your hair out, strand by strand, with my teeth.

I felt guilty for enabling her habit, but sometimes I felt like it would just go away on its own. I know that sounds insane. I didn’t want to face reality, either, I suppose. Whenever I saw her, she knew what to expect, an attentive bartender, a drinking buddy, a shoulder to cry on…how could I deny her that? I suck at tough love and never had to do an intervention either, despite having a fair number of addicts amongst my friends. Sometimes I feel guilty for being able to handle my alcohol, being able to know when I need to stop drinking. I am a heavy drinker, but I am undeniably a responsible one. I don’t drink on the job. I don’t ever drink and drive. I don’t drink during the day, save for the occasional bloody Mary at brunch. I love booze, but I also know there is a right time and place for it.

When you aren’t looking, I take the stolen bottles, greasy from your grab, out of that bag you told me to hold for you. I noticed the plastic seals now slack and ripped back from fat glass necks because you were like an eager child unwrapping presents on Christmas.

I adore this photo because it reminds me of Tricky at her finest. Despite the spur of the moment pose, despite the shitty camera phone and the not famous photographer, she treated it like it was crucial. I will always look at it and remember her with love. That night there was an upcoming big event at the club and she had been decorating the basement bar area to look like the secret cave of a teenaged princess. She had hung pink and red chandeliers, arranged giant bouquets of stargazer lilies in glass vases tinted fuschia, making the dank basement where she slept smell divine. She put glitter everywhere that could take it.

I want to spit on you. I want to hug you, your heart is as huge as a magnum. I pour you another. And this, I vow, this will be the last one, ever.

“Joi, I hear you’re moving! Where ya going?”


Kansas?!” they would shriek. “Why are you moving to Kansas?!” As if I had said, “Siberia,” or “New Jersey.” Why, even banshees cry, Kansas, don’t they?

I’d have to go through some variation of the above several times a night in the months prior to leaving New York City. Most often, this would be shouted across a bar. Typically this would be one of the two bars I was tending at the time, but it just as easily could have happened when I was on the other side of the bar, already halfway done with my Hendricks martini, or Hendricks Collins, or hell, Hendricks and tonic if I knew the bartender was inept at making a 2- or 3- step cocktail. I had developed quite the Hendricks habit once I started my drinking-for-free career in New York. It’s inevitable once you are a bartender. Ok, not the Hendricks habit per se, but definitely a top shelf habit.

Sometimes I stuck to Chianti.

I have a penchant for good Italian wines. Actually, I also have a penchant for cheap Italian wines, if it’s on my dime. I truly believe you can’t ever go too wrong with an Italian red (I rarely drink anything other than red wine, so I can’t vouch for the whites). My golden rule for wines: You can always trust the Italians. The French, not so much. And forget the Australians with their far too sweet Shiraz nonsense. California can suck it, for the most part.

You might want to trust my opinion, but if you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you either, as I know I can be bombastically opinionated. I’m not just a drinker with refined tastes. I’m not just a bartender either (no worries. I will not refer to myself as “mixologist.”) I’m all that and more! I owned a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for 4 years and managed or worked in several others after that. This was to supplement my main source of income (a career in social services is my chosen profession, but it’s not exactly going to let you lead a comfortable existence in a city as expensive as New York).

“What the hell is in Kansas?” they’d persist.

Bar customers are a demanding lot and I’ve come in contact with all kinds. I had a remarkable stint at a downtown strip club. I actually worked in the clothed portion of the club, a room with a separate entrance above the strip club itself, where they had a decent sized performance space for bands, etc. By “etc” I mean burlesque shows, comedy nights, porn parties. “Anything goes,” I was told. The catch was, I had to be the “anything goes” booker 6 nights per week. A big part of the job was dealing with my oh so charming Ukranian boss (the venerable owner of the strip club and unintentional downtown celebrity) who annoyingly reeked of salami. He didn’t speak to many of the girls who worked for him. In fact, he usually just referred to his female employees as “The Girl.” He called me by my name from day one, I’ll have you know. On better days he was prone to utter such bon mots as, “I am not a lawyer…but I am very…legal,” and during less jovial moods would sit upstairs in his office glaring at the security cameras to make sure none of the other bartenders were pouring too much, or heaven forbid, stealing (“I once caught a girl stealing from me. I fired her but gave her one more chance. I caught her again. Very bad things will happen to her.”)

I thought I had seen it all after working some pretty crazy nights in my own bar, but working above a 35-year-old Manhattan strip club attracted a whole different end of the spectrum. There was the night I was serving Kurt Russell on one end of the bar, and Moby on the other. They were attending someone’s engagement party. Kurt was very effusive when it came to complimenting the ladies present, including me. At one point he asked me, “Why are you so goddamned beautiful?” and then opened his wallet and splayed out all his cash on the bar. “Take it. Take it all!” he insisted as I rolled my eyes and ignored him. I mean, I’m no Goldie digger. I had a giant little girl crush on him in Junior High. He suddenly seemed so greasy and awful in that moment of indiscriminate generosity. Ok, in retrospect, he was kind of cool. Moby was just quiet and in a raucous environment such as this, it was unsettling. He also complained to the DJ that he needed to play something more dancy. It should be mentioned that my friend was playing 80s pop music. Kids in America, for fuck’s sake. And everyone except Moby was into it! So, deal with it, Mr Grouchy pants who only tips $1 a drink despite having sold all of his songs to various commercials, thereby making him a a billionaire. Yeah, fuck Moby. Not that I’d want to, I assure you. Kurt Russell, maybe. Moby sure as hell wasn’t telling me I was beautiful.

“But, how can you leave this? What are you gonna do in Kansas?”

After leaving the strip club, I got a job as a booker/bartender/Assistant Manager at a world famous drag queen/tranny club/restaurant in the East Village. Here, I was mistaken for a tranny almost every day of my workweek, usually by hopeful “tranny chasers.” In theory, I wouldn’t mind this. In fact, I’d take it as a huge compliment because, hello, have you seen these girls work platforms or stilettos? I sure as hell couldn’t do more than hobble down the rickety staircase to the bathroom in my sensible 5 inch Nanette Lepore sandals. They apply make-up better than any born female I know and they have bodies that would tempt Hugh Heffner out of his smoking jacket. So, go ahead, think I’m a tranny. This wasn’t the problem. The problem was the way these men would assume that I didn’t deserve respect because I was a tranny. And that, I’m sorry, is disgusting. Basic human decency seemed to be a lost art these days in a place such as this. I miss working there, despite the often rude clientele. Sometimes I miss the girls I worked with more than I miss my mom, although, I’ve never had a dysfunctional relationship with a job as much as I did at…Fortunate Chinaman’s. I loved it. I hated it. I loved it. I’d go in on my nights off. That’s typically a no-no in The Unofficial Bartender’s Guide To a Healthy Lifestyle, but when drinks are free and you are surrounded by your friends, why would you go elsewhere?

But, they don’t have Hendricks. Or, a decent Italian red.

Nor did the other place I worked one night a week in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 4 months preceding my move to Kansas. I will plug this bar here, because it is, for the most part, drama free, as far as I’m concerned. Of course you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar or restaurant that is drama free. Hell, I daresay you’d be hard pressed to find any workplace to be drama free! Anyway, I worked at Park Slope’s only full time metal/punk/goth bar every Thursday night, Lucky 13 Saloon and this was my favorite, and easiest experience working as a bartender.

I digress. You probably will notice that I do that an awful lot. This isn’t about Hendricks. This isn’t about Italian reds, either. This is barely scratching the surface of my New York City bar experiences and that is all beside the point. And I’m still not answering the question of “Why, Kansas,” am I?

“You can always come back,” they’d assure me. “New York will always be there to come back to.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hope so. No, I know this is true. I lived through 9/11 (ahhh, no worries, no gratuitous 9/11 stuff here for at least another 3 weeks). If 9/11 could happen and New York could still survive, well, I think it “will always be there.” New York. It’s in my blood. Of course it will always have to be there as long as I’m alive.

Still, how to deal with the ache of missing it. At any point, some tiny memory will hit me. I’ll miss the rumble of trains on the elevated tracks overhead while sucking the dregs of a white fluted paper Italian ice cup in Ozone Park, Queens. I’ll think of my grandfather shuffling along with his beloved old mutt alongside of me on this day and think of how I’d scream as loud as I could to compete with the squeal of the trains. My grandfather is gone. So is most of what I loved about many neighborhoods. Yet, I still get mad when people say “New York isn’t what it used to be.” Can’t you say the same of Rome, Italy? Give New York a break, haters. I love New York. I will always love New York. I’ve traveled the world and I have traveled this country. There is NO place like New York. I grew up privileged and I don’t mean in a material sense.

In fact, I’ve always loved my city. My earliest memory is being in the backseat of my parents’ car. I could have only been 2 years old, as my brother was not yet born. I recall being enthralled with the tall buildings surrounding me. I recall lying down on the floor their car, the hump hurting my back, to try and see the tops of the buildings. As I did this, I remember the commercial playing on the radio. “More Park’s sausages, mom, please?” And I just had a feeling of love swelling up in me for this moment, for these buildings that became the night sky for me. Even for the kid’s whiny voice in the stupid commercial.

I had lived my entire life in New York and traveled to Europe, Africa and Central America. In this country, I’d been up and down the East Coast, to California, Nevada and Louisiana, but I had never been to the Midwest before last September. I admit it. How limited, a life without even a brief fling with the Heartland, and now I fucking live here.

Why, Kansas?

It’s crazy. I do love it here. Part of me always wanted to live in a big old house with a porch, which seems simple enough to anyone who doesn’t live in a big city. I adore my summer nights spent writing or reading to the relentless sound of cicadas outside where it is pitch dark and I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. Hard to think not too long ago, summer nights were spent walking home from work over the Williamsburg Bridge with Jeremy, drinking from a concealed bottle of Montepulciano and admiring the Domino sugar factory sign still lit up, not to mention the half-darkened Manhattan skyline seemingly looming right on top of it. Standing at the edge of the bridge, I vowed that I could swim the East River home on such nights, although I knew the strong current made it next to impossible to swim from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The distance appears to be much shorter than it actually is. New York is chock full of illusions, and many people become disillusioned living here, but that person would never be me. I still sob for such nights.

“So why are you moving to Kansas?!” they would all but demand after I’d ignore them for a while, or try and change the subject. But sometimes when I was feeling more generous, I’d answer.

“For love. I am doing it for love.”

This, the best of them usually accepted.