Tonight I took the public bus to the public library to return, browse, and borrow some books.  I was car sick (or bus sick) on the ride down Fifth Avenue.  I still harbored resentment for the driver of the previous bus I had just missed, who closed up and advanced the bus twenty feet to wait out the red light at the crosswalk instead of the bus stop where more riders could have boarded. I decided my present driver was okay but not good enough to prevent my bus nausea.

My favorite bus driver is one who seems as eager as I am to reach a destination rather than just making his/her rounds, and he takes pride in his confident, skillful maneuvers that let us just make the light and continue on for a few more blocks saving, literally, minutes.

Sometimes I think of getting the driver’s name and calling the MTA with praise but then I wonder if the qualities I like most in this driver are the same qualities that would be considered by the MTA to be related to the breaking of certain guidelines.

My nausea persisted so I got off the bus two stops early and schlepped a tote bag of hardcover books to the Mid-Manhattan branch library at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue which is open until 11pm on weekdays.

More than usual, perhaps because of the heat, the scent of urine and shit wafted through the bookshelves, but was not as nauseating as the bus ride.  And, perhaps because of the time and day, 9pm, Tuesday, there was an unusually large ratio of weird old men shuffling around to not weird old men not shuffling around.

I dumped some books in the book drop (two days early!) and headed toward the elevators where there stands the only obvious recent improvement in the cleanliness of the library, an automatic Purell dispenser.  I took some Purell and took the elevator to the third floor.  Yeah, I already knew which floor the Art books are on because I am someone who takes buses and goes to libraries.  I even take buses to libraries.

More old men shuffling around, not seeming to know each other but similarly styled in academic wear and would be presentable but for their unshaven faces and yellowy-white unwashed hair, and a third “je ne sais quoi” quality.

I visited my favorite shelves and amassed a pile of books too heavy to carry home.  I picked a chair at one of the communal tables and began skimming, editing out the least useful.  At a parallel table, a few seats to my right and facing my direction, one of the old men who seemed particularly skittish in the way he was turning the pages of a book that he was reading at a diagonal, said to the girl across from him in a muffled, gravelly voice, “Are you a model?”

I saw from behind as she lifted her head in surprise, paused, and then sternly answered “No.”

The man went on about her having an interesting face and something else about models.  She said, “No, and I’m not interested in that, sorry.” and went back to reading.

The situation felt familiar.  I am sure that is the kind of thing I used to sometimes get asked by weird old men, or naive (or scheming?) country bumpkins and I felt a little surprised, a little jealous, and a little relieved that I was not the one being asked.  I wondered if I would have had an answer as effective as hers at shorting the conversation. Her answer implied to me her experience of having been asked those sorts of questions before.

Now it was time to see if that old library copy card still had any juice on it.  Around six years ago, upon returning from Nepal, I took out six books on learning to speak Urdu, (because I had bought a CD in Kathmandu by a Pakistani band called Strings who sing in Urdu) from this very branch, got as far as kind of learning the Arabic alphabet but without any meanings, and returned the books late enough to rack up a $46 fine.  This copy card was at least that old and I had miraculously remembered where I saw it last and to bring it.

I picked one of the heavier books to copy parts of so I could save my back the weight.  I shifted the rest of the books into a neat stack in front of my chair and placed my large, three quarters full Poland Spring water bottle on top to indicate that these books were not abandoned and should not be reshelved.

I found a nearby copy machine.  My card had 35 cents left on it, enough to make two copies at 15 cents each, and it worked.  I then refilled my card with a dollar bill at the nearby card vending machine and copied more pages.  I was impressed with the system and myself for having seamlessly blended back into it. The color copies were still $1 each which seems old-fashioned considering how these days everyone prints photos from home like it’s nothing.

I put my copies in my tote bag, walked back to the tables and scanned for a tall clear bottle to locate my seat.  I saw that same man who was interested in models rummaging through and spreading around my pile of books. I came up next to him and said somewhat hostilely, “Excuse me, those are my books.”

He said, “I’m sorry, I thought they were abandoned.”

Right then I noticed my manhandled water bottle.  It was rumply with many dents and still standing but with a slight lean.  I replied, “I put my water bottle on top of the pile to show I would be back.”

I quickly gathered the books I wanted to take, and my water bottle from which I made a note not to drink and to throw out as soon as possible.

I signed out some books with my tiny library keychain card which I keep on a ring with similar cardlets from Duane Reade, The Food Emporium, Staples and CVS.  To be honest, I can’t find the Staples one and I bought a roll of double-sided tape today (the one labeled “permanent” though I worry I may in fact find that I need the “removable” kind and have to pay for a whole new roll of tape) and was too lazy to look up my card using a phone number (which phone number?) so when the cashier asked me if I had a Staples Rewards Card I said no, which in a way is true since I did not have it on me.

This time I caught the first bus I saw, an M4 going up Madison Avenue.  This bus’s breaks were way too loud but at least the vehicle itself moved a little more smoothly.  The metrocard reader was not working so the bus driver waved riders in, motioning for them to keep moving and not worry about the fare.  That seems to happen quite often and it always feels like a happily fortuitous occasion.  The bus driver does not have to wait for riders to find their metrocard and then figure out which way to insert it and the riders do not have to pay.  I have an unlimited Metrocard but I still appreciate losing the hassle.

Service on several bus lines was reduced last week due to MTA budget shortages.  On the bus, with my fellow passengers, I thought, “That’s a shame.”  I imagined getting into an argument with some Libertarians or Republicans I know, who in this particular scenario I had just made up, were against having public buses.

A small Indian woman was pestering the bus driver for directions.  She mentioned Columbia Presbyterian Hospital which I sometimes took the bus to and from during the three months I participated in a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) study there.  But I heard that is one of the routes that has been changed so I didn’t chime in.

Whenever I saw a man in a suit on the subway, I used to look at his shoes to try to judge what type of man in a suit he was. Whether he was a really rich guy on Wall Street riding home after work to avoid traffic or some poor schmo with beat up semi-formal work shoes who has to take the subway because that is his only option.

I stopped being as interested in the shoes of suited subway riders when I learned that really, really rich people don’t ride the subway at all.  Sure, Mayor Bloomberg rides the subway to work but he has to be driven to a stop other than his own and have a large security escort.  But non-mayoral really, really rich people don’t ride the subway.  They have drivers.  And so, they do not really know the subway lines.  They do not have an appreciation for the colors and letters and the joy of a perfect connection between two trains that do not come very often and the special knowledge one gains of which trains run infrequently at night and how to get up from those folding seats without creating a loud bang.

But some fairly rich people do ride the bus.  Most people who have been in New York for a long time or who have grown up here ride the bus.  But the crazies usually ride the subway.  Although, once, a crazy guy on the bus, who, by the way, did not smell, called me an “anorexic salad-ass ho.”  At first I thought he was just an asshole, but when he ended his rant with something about God, I was relieved to feel that he was actually just insane.

I can be made to feel bad very easily and I do not like feeling bad.  I like to read on the subway.  In fact, it is the only place I can really read and make progress in a book.  So when a performer comes into my subway car and does some break dancing, there are really only a few routines that have been used for years, I often become annoyed.  I want them to know, “I’ve seen your act before, I’ve had a long day and am just trying to get home and I was hoping to sneak a little reading in, and if I wanted to be entertained I would go to a performance and maybe pay some professional performers of my choosing.  I just want to read, I don’t want to see your act so why would I pay you?”

But once when I was making a particularly serious face and staring at my book, trying to transition from staring into reading, a breakdancer in the troupe gave us, the mostly reluctant audience, a lecture.

He was pissed off.  Not because almost no one gave him money.  It was because of our attitude and I fear that my unamused expression was a large contributing factor to his indignity.

What I heard him say to me, in essence, was, “you don’t have to be a bitch, we’re trying our best and you’re sitting there pretending not to see us.  At least smile when we’re finished, clap, you don’t have to pay us, just give a little respect.”

At the time I was so taken off guard that in my head I became very defensive and imagined all sorts of things to yell back.  But the next day his point began to sink in and I am actually grateful for the talking-to because I feel that I now am able to respond appropriately in an honest and friendly manner, by boldly smiling and not paying, when someone unexpectedly performs at me.

Back to the bus ride home.  I got off the bus at 86th Street and walked home with an armload of books. The library no longer gives plastic bags but you can buy one for $1, or not.  I hoped I would run into one of my ritzier neighbors on the way in and they would notice the library stamps and call numbers on the books I was carrying and they would realize that I go to the public library and this realization would also be a proud, in their face assertion of my Jewish, liberal upbringing and my Jewish, liberal family and our continued presence in this ever-WASPier building.


I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.

Jackie was from Newport, Rhode Island, which as far as Franny knew was Nowhere, Rhode Island, and even though she was from Brooklyn, they both felt like total rubes at Barnard, where all the city girls wore going-out clothes to English class just because they felt like it. Their dormitory room was exactly the same as all the others on the hall, narrow and Spartan, perfect for two eighteen-year-old nuns. Jackie tried to spruce it up with some pictures she’d cut out of magazines, mostly models dressed up to look like Ali MacGraw. The two girls tried to do the same—sweeping bell-bottoms and collegiate sweaters. The effect was not great on Jackie, with shoulders as wide as an Iowan football player or on Fran, who stood just over five feet and had to hem every pair of pants by several inches, sometimes cutting off the bells entirely.


JC: Last week JR reviewed David Goodwillie’s new novel, American Subversive, saying that it picked up where Trance left off, and reminded him of Eat the Document, both of which are good enough to get my attention. Here he is again with a fine interview with the author himself.

Jason Rice: Where did the idea for American Subversive come from? Up to this point you’d written a memoir, Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.  The first novel, was it looming?

It was at least in part because of the memoir that I started writing about two characters completely different from myself (unless you’re David Sedaris, one memoir at a relatively young age is more than enough).  Paige Roderick is an idealistic young woman from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.  She’s from a military family, and when her older brother dies in Iraq, she turns to radicalism as a way to avenge his death.  The book’s other main character, Aidan Cole, is a failed journalist-turned-gossip-blogger, who starts investigating Paige’s group after a bomb goes off in New York.  I saw them as two sides of my generation—a woman who cares too much about the world, and a guy who’s apathetic and barely cares at all (at least in the beginning).  I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.  The book had been evolving in my mind for some time. I wanted to write about serious and often controversial themes—politics and media, apathy and activism, the way people should react to events in the larger world—and do so in a thriller-ish way.


The state of America right now seems perfect for these kinds of characters to spring forward and grab the spotlight.  Do you see someone like Paige or Aidan surfacing, or a Weatherman group forming?  With the past eight years — terrible at best — behind us, isn’t it ripe for something like you describe in American Subversive?

I’ve always been fascinated by American extremist movements—especially The Weather Underground.  Imagining something like that occurring today—an organized group of middle- and upper-middle class students (most of them liberal arts kids or Ivy Leaguers) using violent means in an attempt to stir revolt, and end a misguided war—might be hard to do.  But that’s exactly the problem.  We’ve been so conditioned as a nation—and this dates back to Joe McCarthy and the early rhetoric of the Cold War—to worship at the alter of untethered capitalism, that a dangerous close-mindedness—a bunker-like us-against-them mentality—has come to define our politics.  I’m reminded of a great line from the New Yorker writer, Ian Frazier:  “Capitalism, having defeated communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy.”  Well, I’m not saying there’s a better answer than capitalism—indeed I haven’t found one.  Certainly, The Weather Underground (misguided as they were) didn’t provide one.  But the seeds of their struggle, their idealistic conviction that taking some form of action could not just jumpstart wide reform but change the face of a nation…well, we could use a bit more of that these days.  You can look at what happens to the characters in American Subversive to understand that violent extremism is no cure for what ails us, but neither is burying our heads in the sand.  Collective apathy, silent terrorism (if you will), may be the deadliest form of all.


To achieve the “what happens next” quality of this book, you do two things: keep your action in one or two places, and never tell us anything we don’t need to know.  Do you think that’s accurate? And was that hard to achieve or involve great discipline?

Writing American Subversive was certainly a learning experience.  I was trying to toe that very thin line between literature and suspense (so many books, it seems, fall into one camp or the other).  I wanted to write the best book I could write in terms of language, but I was also quite aware of keeping the story moving, of building momentum.  It was hard at times, especially since the novel is told in (more or less) alternating voices and styles, and flips back and forth in time.  Once or twice I wrote myself into a corner, but I always got myself out (with an occasional assist from my editor).   Now, I think the plot may be the strongest part of the whole thing.


You said you did a lot of research to write this novel, but the book doesn’t seem “fact heavy,” you release details slowly, and make them grow organically.  Where did your research start for this book?

I’m a stickler for facts, even in fiction. It was important that American Subversive “feel” real, that the reader could envision these events actually occurring.  In researching the book, I read dozens of novels and memoirs, from political thrillers to extremist tell-alls–even bomb-making manuals.  I also ended up speaking with all kinds of experts, including an FBI ordnance specialist, and a former member of the Weather Underground.   I wanted, as much as possible, to understand what living underground was really like—not just the issues of movement, technology and assimilation, but the minute-to-minute pressures and anxieties.  Most were helpful, some were wary.  One former Weatherman told me, via email, to stop dredging up the past, and he actually got pretty angry.  When I told my agent, she laughed and asked me what, exactly, I’d expected.  These people blew up buildings for real.  Some of them might not be the most stable members of society.


You mention 9/11 in this book, and you really nail the mood in Manhattan after that awful day.  Do you think it was a watershed moment for our generation? (I’m 41.)  Can things ever be like they once were? There seems to be a level of paranoia in my own life that I just can’t shake, like the government got away with something in the last 10 years. Do you feel the same thing?

I didn’t want American Subversive to be a “9/11 book”—for one, it takes place in 2010—but of course it’s impossible to write about politics and terror without 9/11 looming over the story.  The events that precipitate the narrative—the Iraq war, the mood in New York City—can certainly be traced back to 9/11, and yet most New Yorkers I know feel pretty divorced—or at least separated from that awful day.  Many of us lived through it first or second hand, but we’ve moved on—or should I say pretended to.  We’re aware, of course, that we’re still target number one on most terrorist hit lists, but it’s not something you can think about too much without going a little crazy.


I like to ask writers I interview who they’re reading right now, and who shaped them as writers, asking something silly like what are your influences.  What’s on your nightstand?

I never took many writing classes—I thought being surrounded by so many other (no doubt better) writers would scare me off.  Instead I learned to write by reading voraciously—all kind of stuff, from serious literature to whodunits.   I write about books quite a lot now (for The Daily Beast and other places) so my reading is a mix of books I pick out and stuff that’s picked out for me.  A few recent favorites include Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, (absolutely hilarious), Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff (absolutely devastating), and—to throw in a little nonfiction—Ian Frazier’s On The Rez (absolutely perfect).


Are you working on another novel?

Yes.  And they don’t get any easier.


Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, David.

My pleasure, Jason.  Thanks so much.



After an extended period of contented real estate monogamy, my family and I have outgrown our one-bedroom Brooklyn floor-through (it’s not you, it’s us!) and so, despite its great location, lovely landlords, double exposures, and adorable mice, we have been looking for new place. And by that I mean, we have looked at about fifty places. At least. Over the course of this search I have come to two conclusions: 1) There are no deals in New York realty, and 2) Apartment-searching is a bit like dating. I say this having never really dated, and so I am open to the idea that this analogy might be absurd, but follow me, if you will:

Because we are not desperate to move, we (much like serial daters in New York) have the luxury/curse of getting to be really picky. You look at a place (go on a date). You think, eh, it’s okay. It has some slightly ridiculous problem as most NYC apartments, and people, do – no tub, or no closets, or it’s on the fifth floor (real estate equivalents of an annoying laugh, or being too short or too tall– all things you could overlook if you were really in love, proving that you aren’t). So you think, eh, I’ll wait. Something better might come up next week. And you look at some more places (go on a few more dates). You start to forget that you yourself are not perfect either. After all, you want to receive a lot and give a little. But it’s easy to forget this because you are in New York City after all, and while there are a lot of duds (dank basements for $2500 a month/drooling hobos peeing into milk jugs on the subway) you know that there is also the possibility of perfection (gorgeous brownstones with jewel-box backyards/surprisingly humble models who really just want to work with children).

And thus, we have become the real estate equivalent of the dater who just can’t settle down because she always suspects there is something better right around the corner. Because there probably is. There must be! There just MUST be a non-crappy, large 2+ bedroom in a decent neighborhood near the train within a young family’s budget…right? With room in the hallway to store a stroller? And if it could possibly not be a directly beneath the freeway/adjacent to a housing project or live poultry shop/actively on fire, that would be super sweet too.

(Dear non-New-Yorkers, know that what I am asking for is roughly the equivalent of hoping to see a unicorn making love to a liger while sliding down a rainbow. Realtors have literally laughed at me.)

(Oh, and by the way, Dear Realtors. Please stop telling me that a “cozy little room” is a “perfect nursery” when it is clearly a closet. And that door-less “bedroom” leading into the kitchen? That’s called a dining room. I’m not that stupid.)

If only I could cobble together bits and pieces of the 50-some places we’ve seen. The windowed sunroom of the Windsor Terrace tempter; the two large, separate bedrooms of the wackadoodle co-op; the backyard with cherry tree of the crazy people’s place in Kensington; the elevator and pristine laundry room of the Ocean Parkway condo; the PS 10 school zone of the livingroom-less wonder. The most perfect apartment would rise like Frankenstein’s monster and shuffle-step over to our current abode, gathering into its guts all of our belongings and placing them just so. Then it could lurch back to its quiet, tree-lined street with ample parking and a cute, never-crowded, baby-friendly, inexpensive café/bookstore/organic fruit stand right by the park. “Dang,” we would say to each other, “it’s almost too sunny in here!” And, “Sheesh, what are we going to do with all this closet space!” And, “Darn this spare bedroom, now everyone we know is coming to visit us.”

Sigh.

On the upside, house-hunting does provide a unique treat for a writer and/or nosy person: the opportunity to boldly snoop where you would otherwise never go. How else would we ever have visited the Sunset Park apartment with the room dedicated entirely to collections of crystal and its bedroom display of hardcore gay porn? Under what other circumstances would we have seen the Queens haunted-house foreclosure with its friendly squatters, or the Crown Heights edifice that’s become affectionately known in our household as “the murder house,” or the dramatic decorative stylings of Alexei, he of the space-ship-Jacuzzi-shower, circus-tent-ceilinged-living-room, and belanterned “wine cellar” closet with its brick-veneer-wallpaper? We’ve dated oh so many homes and though we’ve had our hearts broken more than a few times at least, like a commitment-shy ladies’ man (or man’s lady), we have some stories to tell.

There is no fairytale-wedding-style-ending to this tale–not yet, anyway. But the other we did measure the baby’s crib to see if it would fit in my office. Which is really a closet. And you know? It just might.

[Ed Note: But then that night a leak busted a hole through the ceiling of that room, breaking the plaster and ruining many books! It has not been fixed! And to that I can say only: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!]

Please explain what just happened.

There’s a girl parked out front who comes by sometimes and just smokes pot in her car and does homework or something for like an hour.

 

When I was about to publish my novel, Banned for Life, I had a number of exchanges with Jonathan Evison, whose counsel I sought with regard to promotion, among other matters. He was aware of certain aspects of my past, and he advised me to be forthcoming about them, since to do otherwise, he said, would amount to breaking faith with readers.

Jonathan is a wise man, but I regarded Banned as my child, and so wanted to shield it from the sins of its father. I imagined dismissive reviews based less on the book and more on my rap sheet, as well as sneering remarks posted on message boards. Paranoia? But I’ve been the target of such remarks, and I wanted to give Banned a running start before falling on my sword.

Now, I figure, the time has come. Banned has barely been noticed since it appeared more than six months ago, and I’ve tested the waters with friends made since, and none have responded as feared.

 

The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience is back in New York City this Friday night!

Brave the cold and let the writers of The Nervous Breakdown warm your cockles with stories written expressly for you and read aloud to you (and only you) around the theme: HOLIDAZE.

Details:

I grew up in restaurants and hotels, daughter of a restaurateur. People came around, people who were famous sometimes for one thing or another, people who had an entourage, people who tried to demand preferential treatment somehow. I didn’t necessarily recognize any of these people, sometimes I did, sometimes not, but there was a tension that hung around the kitchen and chef’s office when a VIP was scheduled to be in the dining room, a tension that would disappear the moment he or she arrived and everyone remembered the star was as human as the rest of us.

Later on, as I grew up and lived in Manhattan, seeing celebrities wasn’t any big deal. It’s what happens in New York, and only tourists dare make a garish scene and acknowledge the famous in any way other than that of a peer. Even if the heart is a teen-aged girl gripped with the Beatlemania of the moment, the exterior had to be cool.

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.

Age of Innocence

By J.E. Fishman

Essay

My daughter will be eight years old in three weeks and she’s convinced she knows with great precision how the entire world works.

“Gay means a boy likes a boy or a girl likes a girl,” she announces with confidence one day.  “And what’s the word for the regular way again?”

“Straight,” I tell her.

“Oh, yeah.  Right.”

“How does a woman get pregnant?” I ask another time.

Her shrug says, duh.  “She gets married.”

One August afternoon, we took her for lunch to Peanut Butter and Company by NYU.  My wife and I shared an Elvis Presley — peanut butter, banana, honey, and bacon on grilled bread.  My daughter had peanut butter and marshmallow fluff.  We expected a big smile, but the bread slices were huge and the sandwich didn’t thrill her.

She’s peanut butter jaded, I thought.  Wait till she’s in college and missing the comforts of home.  With NYU students coming and going around us, I had another thought and raised the subject of profanity.  I requested a verbal rogue’s gallery, awaiting the forbidden list that I imagined she was already exchanging with friends.

My daughter scrunched her face and blushed.  “I don’t want to say, because, you know, they’re bad words.”

But even her sainted mother was urging her on.  I guess the summer before third grade seemed like a good time to assess her moral dissolution.

“You know,” my daughter said, “there’s the S-word…”

I nodded.  “What’s the S-word?”

She rolled her eyes and whispered: “You know, Daddy.”  Dramatic pause.  “Stupid.”

“Of course!  The S-word is Stupid.”  I breathed.  “What else?”

“It’s bad to hold up this finger.”  She couldn’t extend it all the way, though.  It was too bad.

“Why?  What does it mean?”

We were on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear THE WORD.

She said, “I don’t know what it means exactly, but it’s like sending a bad message to God.”

My wife changed the subject and we walked from Peanut Butter and Company with unexpected parental satisfaction, even, one might say, a certain giddiness.

We live in Delaware.  But in the West Village, where we keep an apartment, there are sights and sounds that don’t discriminate between world-weary old ears and innocent young ones.  There are still some explicit video stores around, for example, shops in the Village that sell sex toys and the kind of lingerie you don’t see in the Victoria’s Secret catalog — at least, not in the edition that comes to my house.  My daughter walks by them in sweet oblivion.

There are gay and lesbian bars, of course.  When we see the patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk, my daughter never asks why someone forgot to invite the opposite sex.

With some frequency we also pass a certain S&M shop on Christopher Street, and the window displays don’t resemble anything from Cartoon Network or recall any of London Tipton’s adventures on “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.”  We quicken our steps whenever we pass that store, but one day, I know, the leather-clad mannequins will cry out to my daughter through the plate glass.

Then there are the real live people on the street.  We were in town the morning of Stonewall’s fortieth anniversary.  Crossing Hudson after brunch, we passed close to a pair of heavily made up, strapping, broad-shouldered drag queens in heels and boas.  My daughter didn’t even lift an eyebrow, and not because we’ve had that conversation.

Speaking of drag queens, a week after our curse-word review at Peanut Butter and Company, we went to see Billy Elliot on Broadway, in which a couple of boys cross dress and the lead character’s family accuses him of being “a poof.”

My daughter is rather sophisticated when it comes to stories, having seen and analyzed every Disney show and read most age-appropriate bestsellers.  She sat riveted and only asked one or two questions during the performance.  None of these questions featured the word “poof.”

At intermission, she declared that she already liked the show so much she wanted to return with a friend.  Her mother and I looked at one another.  The script is laced with the word “fuck” — pronounced “fock” by actors playing British miners — and there are some shits and a shite in there for good measure.

I said, “We’ll have to check with your friend’s parents first, because some parents might object to the bad words.”

Astonished, she wondered.  “What bad words are in this show?”

But the whole script didn’t go over her head.  She was conversant with the story when we discussed it afterwards.  And days later she recalled in great detail the opening of Act II and asked me to remind her what the closing scene of Act I had been.  Yet certain words just didn’t seem to register.

We took the subway home to the West Village late that afternoon.  Walking down Eighth Avenue, we came to a gas station on the corner of Thirteenth Street.  At that very moment, a yellow cab pulled out, the driver looking back at the station through his side view mirror and flipping someone the bird.  Before he departed, he half turned and shouted, “You don’t have one!”

My daughter was all ears.  Naturally, she had some questions about what just transpired.

“He’s angry at someone,” my wife said curtly.

That wasn’t good enough.  “Why did he say, ‘you don’t have one’?”

I clarified: “Probably the other guy said something unflattering about a member of his family.”

“About who?” my daughter wanted to know.

“His mother,” I said.

She took my hand.  “What about his mother?”

I gathered myself.  “Some people think the worst thing you can say to someone is to insult his mother.  Probably, someone at the gas station said something in anger about the cab driver’s mother and the cab driver wanted to say something worse back.  So he said the other guy didn’t have a mother.”

My wife acknowledged this verbal dexterity with an enthusiastic nod.  Wrapped it up, I thought, patting myself on the back.  Put a bow on it.

But my daughter frowned, unsatisfied.  She pressed:  “Like what would you say about someone’s mother?”

We were heading west, not far from the Meatpacking District and the Standard Hotel, which is currently famous for the free peep shows that some guests are providing to strollers along the new High Line Park.

To remind you, we had just come from a show that featured a boy whose best male friend sported women’s clothes, was accused of being gay because he wanted to dance ballet, and used more F-words than a trucker in heavy traffic.  And, I might add, we were maybe four blocks from where my daughter had failed to notice the drag queen.  Wouldn’t this kid have to learn sometime?

Like most adults, I cannot recall a time when my vocabulary didn’t include the word “motherfucker.”  In this context, though, it seemed like a foreign language.

We maintained our pace.  I said, “You know, when Grandpa was a kid, one of the worst things you could say to someone was, ‘Your mother wears army shoes.’”

Just then, we came to the children’s clothing store on the next corner.  The window display was trim and bright.  No S&M equipment.  No strapping bare-chested men ready to get dirty on video posters.  No need for the F-word.

Best of all, without any effort my wife could change the subject.  When we paused to look, the word “fuck” left the corner unspoken.

Not long after that, I told my father this story.

“I hate to mess up your essay,” he said over the phone, “but ‘your mother wears army shoes’ wasn’t the worst insult you could hurl on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, even when I was a kid.”

Huh.  “No shit,” I said.

I hung up before he could tell me he wears a dress.

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

“Kansas.”

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.

Fresh out of college in 1993, I landed a job with a literary agent. Don’t ask me how. The job, however plummy it seemed, was actually insane. Every day was a lesson in Real Life.

I just used my boyfriend’s shaving cream to shave my legs and now they smell like a man.  On the one hand, I’m still shaving my legs, which I consider a coup in the war against the loss of my beauty regime.  On the other hand, my legs smell like a man’s face.  Sometimes that’s okay, but it’s better when you’re lying in bed with oxytocin rushing through your veins and the sheets rumpled beneath you rather than fresh from the shower.

I used to have my own shaving cream, fancy bath oils to make me smell pretty, creams to make my skin glow, creams to slow the aging process, top of the line make up to cover the aging process, expensive hair products and monthly mani-pedi excursions.  Truth be told, none of it was for anyone other than myself or maybe, as fellow TBN’r Kimberly Wetherell suggests in her short documentary, for other women.  Regardless, I loved it.

Thanks to the bankrupting war on Iraq, Bernie Madoff, those parasites at AIG and a global recession, I am cutting back with the rest of the world.  I’m grateful to have a job, a roof over my head, food on the table and Maybelline in my bathroom cupboard.  “Maybe she’s born with it?”  Maybe she’s broke!

Berlin seems to house an above-average percentage of folk who look like life has been pretty damn hard.  Perhaps it’s the horrible weather, perhaps it’s the harsh, mineral-filled water, perhaps it’s the marathon chain smoking or the beer. I’m often surprised to find out the 50-year-old woman next to me is actually 35.  It’s not helped by the trend toward androgynous fashion, either.  Of course we have our beautiful people in Berlin, but it’s not as important or prevalent in the culture as it is in places like New York, Miami and L.A.

The truth is, life probably is pretty damn hard.  Berlin has always been a poor city.  It’s where you come to live cheap, protest and create weird art.  Everyone here seems to be starting over and barely making it.  La Boheme is alive and well all around this city and, while there is some fantastic art in all its forms produced here, even moderately famous people are squatting or trying to squeak by on unemployment and an occasional commission.

What to do?  On the one hand, it’s an absolute release to escape the daily pressures and expectations of image that was part of my life in New York City.  On the other hand, there were parts of that I truly enjoyed.  Come on, I’m an opera singer.  I’m genetically coded to play dress up.  It’s nice not to feel like the fat girl in a sea of anorexic waifs, but at the same time, being a “girl” in some ways is something I really enjoy.  There has to be some middle ground.

For now I’m doing what I can not to lose myself entirely in the tightening of the purse strings.  I’m learning how to use TRUblend and remembering how to paint my own toes.  I guess if my legs smell like my boyfriend’s face, I’ll count that as a win over not having a razor to shave them with at all.  The creams will have to go.  I will try to embrace the grey when it comes and remember to love the creases around my eyes.  I have enough to get by–more than some–and I guess it won’t kill me to finally look my age.  Oh God.

People are always asking me for directions.

My body language must exude confidence. Or maybe it’s my face: steel-eyed determination successfully masking utter cluelessness. Then again, maybe not, because a blind office worker once asked me to guide him to his building from Grand Central Station.

Really. I kid you not.

Two previous generations of my family hail from New York and my sister was born in Brooklyn Heights. My brother and I were the only two schmucks born in Florida (and not even Miami!).