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Candy and Cigarettes

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Help Me Write a Funny Ending

As you might know, I've been trying to find The Funny.  I have a chance to get in an anthology of humorous 750-word stories.  I submitted my short story "Chuckles." The editor likes it and thinks it can work.  But he wants a new ending. Two things have to happen, he says.  1.) the mean girls have to get their comeuppance, and 2.) the puppy can't die (preferably, he lives with three legs).  I posted this story a couple months back, but if you don't remember it, I'll do so again.  If you can think of a new ending (and you have about 150 words with which to work, so it can't be too convoluted), this is what you get.  Nothing, really. Basically, I'll take your idea, call it my own, and use it to promote my career.  You will, however, be able to buy this anthology (hell, I'll buy it for you), and point to friends and loved ones, and say, "Hey, that was my idea!"  Pretty cool, eh?  Get to work!


On my twelfth birthday, I received as a gift from my parents a puppy, whom I named Chuckles.  Already at this young age, I was grotesquely overweight, though my overbearing mother, so fond of smothering her precious baby boy, assured me, I was merely “big boned.”  I had no friends to speak of, and was oft times the subject of sadistic taunting and ridicule at the hands of the older kids in the neighborhood who loitered and smoked cigarettes behind the laundromat. 

Chuckles and I became inseparable, he a loveable rascal, and I a fat kid.  Knapsack packed with Twinkies, we’d steal away those blustery New England afternoons, hiding from the world in an abandoned tree fort I’d stumbled upon that had been gutted by a fire.  I taught Chuckles tons of neat tricks, and, for the first time in my chubby life, I didn’t feel so alone.

One Saturday morning, a few weeks after my surprise birthday party (at which only my cousin Timmy, a surly lad stricken with male pattern baldness at the tender age of fifteen, showed up), I took my new puppy, Chuckles, out for a walk.  As Chuckles frolicked playfully at my side, lapping my thick sausage fingers with his hot puppy tongue, I saw her. 

I had been in love with Katie Ross since the 1st grade.  (She never knew, of course, how many times I had scribbled her initials interwoven with mine, inside pink swirly hearts, on the inside cover of my notebook, lest my secret be detected.)

Katie jumped double-dutch, on the basketball court pavement, with some of her girlfriends in the park across the street.  She looked radiant, a curly-cued Kewpie doll to whom I would have pledged the remainder of my fragmented adolescent life, in blind obedience.  There I stood, face pressed into the mesh of the wire fencing that kept me out, lovelorn and spellbound. 

I don’t know how long I’d been standing there before the unbelievable happened.  Katie Ross, a girl who I thought never even knew I existed, beckoned to me to come over.  With lumbering strides, my heavy, sweaty body heaved its massive girth through the swinging iron gate and over to the playground where she stood, giggling enchantment, with her friends on the tarmac.  Gingerly outstretching her alabaster, nubile arm, Katie handed me a note. 

What happened next is still a blur, a rapid fire of images and sounds, but this is the moment indelibly imprinted on my mind: the crinkled unraveling of a perfume-scented piece of Hello Kitty paper, and its one word message: Fatso—the sound of screeching tires, the stench of burning rubber, the shriek of a little puppy who had been left unattended and unloved and forgotten for just a few minutes, the yelping and whimpering of the maimed little guy, and then, the roaring sound of a pervasive and deafening silence. 

I tore asunder from that chorus of giggling girls and ran as fast as my flabby, wobbly thighs would permit.  I thought my brain would explode; my head pounded hard, throbbed, my spongy boy-breasts jiggled, and my stringy hair clung in caked on perspiration, as I made my way to the flattened tiny canine carcass. 

Behind me, in the park, I could still hear those girls laughing. 

I lifted Chuckles’s crushed and now lifeless body out from underneath the wheels of that sedan, and carried him home, fighting in vain to hold back the tears that would stain my pudgy, big boned cheeks.

My Mother Was Right

Holy shit.  I just teared up at Toy Story 3.

In my defense, it's very musty in the house, allergies and what not, and yesterday was an emotional day, as I'm getting life insurance and blood samples bring up deep-seated issues of mortality and Catholic guilt.

But, yeah, I just cried over a toy cowboy and plastic spaceman, because my son, Holden, was sitting on my lap, and it made me think how he's getting older, and one day he'll be going to college and leave behind his toys and father.  Of course, I'm jumping the gun; he's not quite 8 months old.  But it made me miss my mother, who could tear up at the random overwrought Hallmark commercial or schmaltzy book when I was a kid, and when I'd ask what was wrong, she'd say, "Someday you'll have a kid of your own, and you'll see."  And I thought she was crazy.  I also didn't listen when she said I needed to eat right, exercise, and would someday return to my faith.  Check, check, check.


Fellow writer/blogger and friend Greg Kim suggested recently that I start a "Daddy Blog."  The thought of which making a part of me cringe.  As Harmon Leon said at a recent Lip Service West: Hell is other people's babies.  Before I had a kid, I'd see all the assholes who posted their kids' photos as their profile pic.  And now I am one of those assholes.  Because it is all vantage point, right?  When I was a criminal, I hated the police.  Didn't want to see them, hear about them, wanted nothing to do with them.  The other day I was driving back to my safe, gated community, saw a police officer guarding our entrance way, and I instinctively nodded.  Thanks, officer.  I realized what I'd done a few feet up the hill, so I rolled down the window and spit, turned up the rock 'n' roll.  But not too loud.  I wouldn't want to disturb my neighbors, most of whom are elderly, with names like Lucille and Eleanor.

So perspective.

Greg's idea was born from my need to get more hits on this thing, though as we close in on 10,000 for about 3 months' worth of work, we're doing well.  The most interesting part of having 10,000 people read this thing is that I have received 5 negative comments.  5 out of 10,000.  I've received a lot of positive comments. Don't remember a damn one of them.  But I remember each negative one.  I can even tell you their names: Cynthia, Eric, D. Waz, and Bradley.  OK.  I forget one. But his comment wasn't really that negative.

So it's giving the people what they want.  The negative comments tend to target two areas: my tendency to be snarky, and my life as an ex-junkie.  And now that I am a dad, especially, I kinda get sick about writing about the latter, and I'd like to soften the former.  I mean, I'm a nice guy, one of the nicest I know.  And a Daddy Blog would let me do that.  But would anyone read it?  Yes.  Mothers.  As Greg pointed out, parenting blogs get linked and linked and linked, and the fuckers blow up.  I could be a the "Cool Dad."  A-like so:

Or maybe not.  And I'm afraid I've been pigeon holed.  For though I am a bit sick of, to quote Johnny Thunders, "too much junkie business," it's what people want to read.  I mean, those are the posts that get responses.  My fiction and non-drug narratives?  Not so much.  You can see on the blog the most read pieces, and they are all drug-related and snarky.  So you give the people what they want, no?

No.  Or yes.  Not sure it matters much.  I don't write this thing for money.  I write it to keep writing, to keep my sanity, to fend off the demons of...mental...problems? It's keeping me limber, loose, for that moment when I am called upon to...write a book review?  Not sure.  Like Little Marie says, writers write.  And with that comes a lot of shit.  My friend Andrea summed up the writing profession the other day perfectly.  I hadn't heard back regarding a submission and was telling her they must've hated it.  She said, "Here's my four-word writing memoir: hear nothing, assume hate."  I guess when you factor that in, we're about 50/50 on the positive/negative comments.

So maybe I will write a Daddy Blog, Greg.  And maybe people will read it.  Because frankly I am in transition.  I am not a thieving scumbag anymore.  I am dad who cries at Toy Story 3.  And if nobody reads it, really, who gives a fuck?  I've got my boy.  And I might not be a great writer.  But I'm going to be goddamn good dad.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spring Training and Divorce Season Pt. II

(*Note: This is the continuation of a story I started a while back in this blog.  Hence, the "Pt. II.")

The Yankees were playing the...I don't remember.  This was 2005, a lifetime ago for my limited memory.  But let's say it was the Tigers.  So the Yankees were playing the Tigers at Legend's Field in Tampa, and my friend from grad school, Ollie, and I made the trek up from Miami, across one of the worst stretches of road in America, a strangled nightmare wasteland nicknamed "Alligator Alley."  It was only three hours, this stretch, and if you haven't driven across it, it would be hard to convey the exact layer of Hell it occupies in the Inferno.  But it's bad.  Nothing to see but scrub brush and signs for places that no longer exist, and the ride honestly feels more like 16 hours than it does 3.  It's the kind of stretch where if you're driving alone, late at night, you seriously begin to wonder if you're actually dead and half expect to see a hobo hitchhiker to take you to the netherworld, like an episode of the Twilight Zone.

My father-in-law--we can call him Don--lived in Tampa.  It was a weird deal.  Don and my mother-in-law, Marcy, didn't live together.  She lived in Connecticut.  He worked in Tampa, flying back every other weekend or so.  In the time I dated my wife, April, I'd been around them plenty, and though it sounds like a  strange arrangement, they seemed to have a terrific marriage.  I'd been around Don alone a lot, and he wasn't the kind of guy to stray, and Mary was a goddamn saint (paling in comparison perhaps only to the original Marcy and maybe her other daughter, April's younger sister, Kalie, who was an absolute sweetheart of a human being, as well as drop-dead gorgeous [after the divorce, I'd find out she had a stint on one of those fashion reality shows, the one with Heidi Klum]).

When you have the benefit of looking back on something post-tragedy, the "after the fire" summary, signs and dots and evidence plain as the blister of a herpe presents itself.  April's family was really good people.  They were so good in fact that I overlooked these signs.  My own parents had just died and I needed replacements.  The problem when you have a family as good as April's is there is nowhere to go to distinguish yourself.  April was pretty.  But she wasn't as pretty as Kalie, never would be.  And she wasn't as nice as Kalie, as genuinely decent, caring, and kind.  So she lost out on being Mama's girl, because Marcy and Kalie were both sweet as pie.  That left Dad.  By default.  She prided herself on being "daddy's girl."  Which always comes with its own set of problems.  No man can live up to Daddy.


I'd been married for five months at this point.  Maybe.  April, modeling out marriage after her parents, was flying to Tampa during the week, returning home to Miami on the weekends.  Again, going back to those telling "signs," I am pretty certain she was sleeping with someone else in Tampa.  This isn't that much of a venture.  After the divorce, I found out she'd done a few things like that.  No big deal.  There is treatment for chamlydia.

As you may or may not have read in "Spring Training and Divorce Season Pt. I," April had a mini-meltdown (which she did frequently.  That and get sick.  She was always getting sick), and I'd offered to come back to Miami, but the catastrophe was averted, or quelled, or whatever, and that was that.  So Ollie and I met up with Don, who took us to dinner, showed us all the high-rise apartments his company was working on, and then we went to the game.

It was an unremarkable game, as spring training games usually are.  I wouldn't even be writing about this had it not been for the very tender moment Don and I shared. It was maybe the 7th inning, and I always called him "Don."  And I was probably saying something like, "Jeter looks good, Don," or "Don't think they have the pitching to go all the way this year, Don."  But in the 7th inning, my father-in-law leaned over, put his arm around me, and said, "Call me Dad."  And it's cheesy, I know.  But I've always had father issues, and it meant a lot.

For about six minutes.

Because within two weeks, my wife was blowing one (or two) of my friends in Houston, TX.

And "Dad" stopped returning my phone calls.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Tom Pitts & Hepatitis Heights

Regular readers of this blog have heard about my friend, fellow ex-junkie, writer, and soldier of mutherfucking righteousness, Tom Pitts.  I just put up a story of his yesterday, about our time together at Hepatitis Heights.  It's a house I go back to often, not necessarily literally, though I do drive by from time to time, and it still looks the same from the outside, crumbling, dilapidated, peeling paint and broken steps and broken windows, and it still feels...evil, so high on the hill, cast against the backdrop of San Francisco's "angry European sky."  That's how Tom described the city once.  Reading Tom's story about me and that house has got me waxing...nostalgic.

Although "nostalgic" is anything but the right word.  For a long time after I got sober, I could look back on those days with some fondness, even romanticism, because a part of me, a sick part, still wanted to be there, fucking up and dying, because dying is the easy part.  Those things inside that can cause a man to opt for the path Tom and I took don't go away just because you stop getting high, and the pull to stop trying, which is all you do when you clean up--try, really really really hard--is fucking strong.  Then a day comes when that seed of sickness, if not entirely buried is far enough out of the light, stomped down good and hard, and you don't water it with romance, don't even crack the blinds of nostalgia, because you can't let that fucker sprout, not ever again.  You look at these things with a cold, cynical eye.  The days I spent at Hepatitis Heights were about as bad as a life can get.  Turning what happened there into "stories" may be the only way guys like Tom and I can exorcise what happened, not just there, but with our lives.  Because as Tom once sang, "I don't want the money back; I want the time." (Forgive me for butchering the line, Tom.)

I am not an optimist.  Anyone who knows me can vouch for that.  I am a bitter, jaded, and angry man.  Or cynic, and every cynic is just a wounded romantic.  And romance is born from optimism, so there is still that part of me.  What I'm trying to get at is you can't waste that much time, even if you now view those decisions and actions as deplorable as they were.  Something good needs to come from even the darkest days, however small, and you use it to carry you forward, to do something good.

All this is a long way of saying that, although I am fucking glad I don't live like that anymore, I am glad I was able to extract some truly positive things.  One of those "things" is Tom Pitts.

You get older and it's harder to make new friends.  At least it has been for me.  Most of my falling out with friends takes place with new friends.  The guys I've known for ten, twenty years we don't fight, ever.  Don't even really make fun of each other.  I need that in my life, that stability.  I have a handful of guys I am close to these days, mostly because I am a new father, and I am mentally ill, and I have a difficult time with relationships, romantic or otherwise.  I isolate.  It's safer that way.

One of the exceptions I make is for Tom.  It's not all that different than guys who served together (and, yes, I know, one is patriotic, awesome, and defending America and freedom; the other is being a lowlife junkie [I don't want to see any nasty letters, Was Not Waz]).  I just mean, in terms of the irreversible psychological damage it did.  Sometimes I wonder if it was even real.  I am such a different person these days; it seems like someone else's life.

Stories like the one Tom let me put up yesterday don't just remind me that it was real, and that I did get out; it's proof it wasn't all for naught.  I made some good friends during that time.  That is one of the misnomers about addiction, how "those people aren't your 'real' friends."  Yes, there are a lot of useless scammers, but some of my best friends today, the guys I still talk to and care about, were junkies/addicts just like I, who also got sober, and knowing them now confirms what I suspected then: that at heart we were good people.  We were just messed up, caught in something too deep that we couldn't get out of.

The other day I asked Tom if he'd be in my wedding party.  It's going to be pretty awesome having him stand up there with me, on one of the biggest days of my life, after all we've been through together.  I am proud to know him, still.  And he is one righteous mutherfucker, as well as a helluva writer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Guest Writer Tom Pitts and His Story, "The Joe Clifford Crazy Trick"

Today's guest writer is Tom Pitts. Sticking with our submission guidelines (stories can't be too long, and they have to be about me), Candy and Cigarettes presents

                                  THE JOE CLIFFORD CRAZY TRICK

“It’s gonna work.”  Joe said this with confidence.
I wanted it to work more than anything in the world. 
“We only have four dollars,” I said.  We were short sixteen dollars.  Two or three and the man might let us slide, but sixteen?
“Don’t worry.  It’ll work.”  Joe could see my face was knotted with anxiety.  It had taken us most of the day to come up with the four dollars and he knew I was getting sicker by the minute.  We took turns pepping each other up, bolstering our resolve. “Come on, have a smoke,” he said.
            I noticed there was lipstick on the butt of the lit cigarette he handed me.  I inhaled deeply.  The menthol caught me by surprise.  I began to cough.
            “Fuck, that’s disgusting.  Where did you get it?”
            “At Donald’s downstairs.”
            “I thought he was alone down there.  I never see anyone coming or going.”  I thought it was unusual that Donald would have female callers.  He was a strange old man sequestered in an in-law apartment in the front of the decrepit mansion that we both lived in. 
            “You didn’t know?  Donald dresses like a woman sometimes.”  He said it casually, like not knowing this piece of information was the strange part.
            “Funny thing is, when he’s all done up like a woman, he switches to menthol.”
            “Another stereotype confirmed.”
            Joe and I were trudging down 23rd Street toward General Hospital.  The giant shit-hole where we lived had no running water, no electricity, and certainly no phones.  The hospital had a bank of telephones in the Emergency Room.  Bathrooms, too, open 24 hours a day.
            We stood, waiting, staring at the telephone, urging it to ring back.  We’d paged Joe’s connection, punched in the payphone number, and now we were in limbo.  A watched pot never boils, so I took a piss.  When I came back out, Joe was promising his dealer, “Yes, of course I have money, I wouldn’t be calling—”
            I closed my eyes.  I couldn’t stand the suspense.  Joe hung up the phone.
            “Fifteen minutes,” he said.  We were on.  I already felt a little bit better.

            We began the much more difficult hike back up the hill toward Hepatitis Heights.  We stopped halfway at De Haro.
            “Now we wait,” Joe said.
            I was still confused about how we were going to squeeze twenty dollars of dope for four dollars from a dealer that we already owed forty.  We were overextended; it was simple math.
            “Don’t worry, it’ll work. That’s why I gotta start getting into character.”
            The plan was simple. Joe was going to get into the man’s car and ask him for the dope, hand him the four bucks and start weeping hysterically.  Joe would then lock his door and refuse to leave until he got some dope.  Simple.
“They don’t know what to do.  It’s a very macho culture; the sight of a grown man crying is too much for them.  After a few minutes, they’ll give up the dope just to get you out of their car.”
            I was skeptical.  “Why don’t they just slap you in the face and send you on your way?”
            Joe laughed.  “That’s why you gotta pour it on thick.  That’s the trick.  They gotta believe you’re actually crazy, that you’re capable of anything.  You gotta be hysterical, man.  That’s why I need to prepare.”
            Joe began to pant.  Short, little, breaths.  His eyes went vacant, looking far away to some other time and place.  Soon they were rimmed with tears.  His left hand shook a little, a nervous palsy.
            “What time is it?” he asked, “I need to save it up.  If I let it go too early, he’ll never let me in the car.”
            Soon we saw the dealer’s car pull around the corner.  I waited as Joe walked up and climbed in. They pulled a little further up the block.  So far, so good.  Then, brake lights.  They’d only gone about 50 yards before the abrupt stop.  I could see them facing each other.  The rear window began to cloud up lightly with fog.  I could see the car rock just a little, and I tried hard to listen for secret trick Joe was unleashing on him.  I could see Joe’s arms flailing and the Mexican shaking his head.  Minutes dragged by. 
            Finally, Joe exited the car and the dealer sped away.  Joe walked right toward me.  He eyes were red-ringed; his face a blotchy white and red, tear tracks stained his cheeks. Even his clothes were somehow messed up, pants twisted, shirt unbuttoned.  He looked like a rape victim.
            “No way, huh?” I knew that it wasn’t going to work.
            “I did everything short of shitting my pants,” he said.  Joe waited until he was very close to me before smiling. 
In his hand was one singular fat and beautiful four dollar balloon.
“Of course it worked,” Joe said.  “Didn’t I say it’d work?  Christ, it wasn’t easy though.  Let’s go get well.”
            We were both relieved.  I felt like crying too.  The rest of the hill didn’t seem so steep.  The end of the sickness was now in our sights.  We could now be well enough to plan for our next fix.  I couldn’t believe the audacity of Joe’s move.  It was bolder than stealing, smarter than a front.  It took a conviction that was beyond my ability.
            “Thank God. I can’t believe he went for it. I guess we can’t try that one again.”
            Joe looked at me and smiled.  He put his arm around me in a strangely paternal way and said, “Oh, we’re definitely gonna try it again.  Definitely.”
            This too, he said with confidence.

Tom Pitts 04/04/2011

Do you have a story about Joe?  Is it kinda short?  Does it not suck?  Then we'd love to see your work!  Please send all short, non-sucking, Joe-related stories to  

Monday, April 25, 2011

Top Ten Insults I Have Received from Women

So I was driving with Justine the other night, and she started complaining about how unromantic I am, how cynical, how jaded I've become in my ripe old age of 40, especially when it comes to the subject  How can you explain personal pain?  I tried.  I started talking about how I used to be a wide-eyed, optimistic rube, before delving into an long (and unadvised) rant about how my "trust" and "love" earned me her kind taking a collective dump on my heart.  Which went over about as well as you'd think.  She got that wrinkled brow, nose crunched like she'd just smelled a terrific fart, and said, "What are you talking about?  What is wrong with you?"

So how did I end up like this?  Let's break this fucker down, High Fidelity style.

The Top Ten Insults I Have Received from Women/Girls 

(Some names have been changed, some have not, and for the truly evil, they have been omitted outright)

10.  "I'm going to stand over here now."
Some girl dressed like Parker Posey from Dazed and Confused, Halloween Party, 2006

C-Love and I had thought it would be a great way to meet girls at the Halloween party if we dressed like the gay cowboys from Brokeback Mountain.  Reassessing shortly after arrival, not so much.  I'd been told I looked like Jake Gyllanhall (which I don't, and never have), C-Love like the recently dead Heath Ledger.  I don't know why we thought two grown-ass men going as matching homosexuals would be a good way to pick up girls.  Alcohol might've been involved.  Or maybe not.  In San Francisco, where I was from, this would have been ironical and well received.  In Miami?  Not so much.  My self-esteem was already reeling from my second divorce, and I've never been particular smooth picking up the ladies.  It was an ugly night. By the time I got up the courage to talk to Parker Posey (and if I am not mistaken, C-Love might've "brought her over" to talk to me, never a winning move), I was mumbling and staring at her shoes.  Resulting in long periods of silence and discomfort, until she eventually said what she said, the rejection made worse by the fact that I'd just spent $200 on a cowboy hat, boots, and buckle, to go to a Halloween party (at 36) dressed in matching gay cowboy costumes.

9.  "Yes, I am busy Friday night.  But even if I wasn't, I still wouldn't go out with you."
                                                                                        Katie Ross, CCSU, 1989

I can't be sure Katie Ross was the one who actually said this.  It might've been Sherri Gagliardi.  I was equally in love with both, but I am pretty sure it was Katie. If the name "Katie Ross" looks familiar it is because I used her in my short story "Chuckles" as the antagonist who calls me "fatso" and gets my puppy run over.  Not that I harbor any resentment.

8.  (8, 8, 8, I forget what 8 was for...)
    "And your little friend can come too."
                               Some girls at an amusement park, to my younger brother, 1984

My younger brother Josh has always been bigger than I am.  He's 6'5", pushing 300 lbs.  He played football, wrestled.  Like our father, he's a big dude.  Because of this, I have always been thought of as small.  But I am not small.  I am 6'1", 210 lbs. That is not fucking small!  You hear me?  I am a big fucking guy.  I can bench press a shit ton of weight.  I am fucking big!

7.  "You're fat and ugly."
                                  Anne Hodgson, McGee Middle School, 1982

I don't know if I should be using actual names, especially for those who might read this.  So let's do the ol' strike-through on this one (even though you'll see I still carry a torch a li'l fondly...)  Now when I was 12, I may've been a...little on the soft side (more skinny/fat than actually pudgy)--but I've never been ugly.  In Anne's defense, I sorta prompted her to say this.  I was desperately in love with her but nowhere near the bastion of self-confidence you see before you today.  If you can imagine, I was actually weirder and more insecure back then.  Anne was very cool and popular, and she was nice to me.  I mean, "nice" appropriate for a person of her station.  But I wanted her to be my girlfriend, and girls like Anne  couldn't date guys like me; it would've violated middle school decorum (time eating itself, black holes, the end of life as we know it, you know the drill).  We were in...Mrs. Black's class, if I recall, and Anne asked me a question, and because she didn't love me, I snapped back something rude.  To which she responded I was fat and ugly.  

*Update* I went to my high school reunion a couple years ago, and Anne was there.  She was as beautiful as ever.  She was a little tipsy, but she called me "handsome."  And it's funny, how even 20 years later, those girls can still make your heart melt...

6. "Call me when you get some self-esteem."
                                    Leslie, after a Something Like Paisley show, 1987

OK.  This one wasn't even said to me.  It was said to Chris Judd, our rhythm guitarist.  But since Leslie actually picked Chris over me, I take this one to heart. Not to pick on Chris, who was an amazing songwriter, but I was the Paul to his...Ringo's significantly less attractive cousin, Bart.  Boy, we were fucked up, even then.  I've always wondered what it must be like for regular dudes, the ones who can just go up and talk to girls and not start to sweat in strange places.  We were like that Areosmith song, a high school loser who never made it with the ladies, only no advice, no remedy ever came with a catchy chorus.  For us, the song ended there.

5.  "We're doomed.  You're just too...old."
                                           Tina*, following Ricky Smith's wake, 2006

I've done a lot of creepy things.  Walking out of my dead friend's wake to try and pick up a 19-year-old still living in the dorms might just be the creepiest.  I was 36 at the time.  My friend, Ricky, had died, and we were having his wake at the local cafe, because Ricky, like me and most attending the wake, were associated with Florida International University's graduate writing program.  The cafe, Luna Star, was where we frequently held poetry readings, so that night Tina and some friends walked in thinking there was a poetry reading, only to find a wake, and walk out the back door.  When I followed her out, I didn't know she was 19.  But when I persistently tried to get her to go out with me for the next three weeks, I did.  And there's the whole "wake" thing.  Overall, a 10 out of 10 on the creepy scale (rivaled only by, perhaps, a desperation jackoff to a picture of Ellen Degeneres).

4.  "Joe, make a muscle.  If you have any (snicker, snicker)."

                                          Lisa Blake, Mr. Brittingham's English class, 1986

Nah, this one didn't stick with me, has nothing to do with why I lift weights six days a week, eat nothing but protein shakes and steak, can bench over 300 lbs., but still see a skinny little boy every time I look in the mirror, causing me to weep soundlessly inside.  No.  Nothing at all.

3.  "I watched my cousin waste her life with a [deadbeat] artist.  I'm not going to make the same mistake, living broke and hungry.  You have no work ethic, and you'll never be able to get me the things I want out of life."
                                   Marla*, over the phone when she broke up with me, 2007

I think about this one a lot.  Like when I am moving around mutual funds between my various accounts, at my computer, where I make my own schedule, every day, at my house, high in the hills, with the splendid panoramic view of San Francisco, its shimmering bay and Golden Gate Bridge, with my hot wife-to-be and adorable son on one of the three floors, as I do exactly what the fuck I want to do, every day, and I'll wonder, Maybe she was right?  

2. "I do."
         My second ex-wife, our sham of a wedding ceremony, 2005

Some resentments soften with age.  And some fucking don't.

1. "Joe, you need to get yourself a hobby."
                                   Amy Kross, at lunch, 1990

Does it get any better than that?  I'd been chasing Amy around for the two years since I'd been at Central, sending roses and writing her poems and spending $4,957 on her lunch (seriously.  That was my American Express bill for all the lunches I took her to).  Hailing from blue blood in Greenwich, Amy was my Jane Gallagher. To date, I have written 17 songs about her (included the thrice studio recorded "So It Goes").  I was fifteen seconds from a restraining order.  


But you, Justine, for some reason, still love me.  I feel a little like Groucho Marx, wondering about the company you keep.  But, baby, I am still about to make you "the 3rd luckiest girl in the world"... Thanks for sticking around with a damaged man.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lying Writers and the Two Things I Have Learned about People

They're installing the new sliding patio door.  It's 8:30 a.m.  Can't really think with all the pounding, but Holden is with his mom in the bedroom, giving me time to write, and since I'm always bitching about not having time to write, I will work through the chaos and disjunction.  Heroically.


Saw a Yahoo headline this morning, which is where I get all my news, especially when Mariano blows a save to the cocksucking Blue Jays and I can't check the sport sites, and this caught my eye: "New Interest in Lying Writers."  If you follow this blog, you know that one of the obstacles my agent and I have faced in trying to get my memoir, Junkie Love, published involves James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and acquisition editors and salespeople being leery of ex-junkie tell alls after it turned out that Frey made up and/or greatly exaggerated the most harrowing parts of his book.  (That, or I suck).  These are generally the headlines that catch my eye, the ones that directly relate to me and my struggle.

The article talked about Frey and Stephen Glass and some other dude from the NY Times that I vaguely remember hearing about, and how they presented fiction as non-fiction, and where are they now, etc.  It's funny.  Even though I think James Frey is a douche, mostly because I need someone to blame for my failures, I find it hard not to defend these writers.  I mean, where is the line between the two?

(Wow.  This is going to be hard without talking about politics.  But I promised Jimmy and Duane that I wouldn't.  And I won't.) 

Regardless of which side of the ideological fence you drink your coffee, I think we can all agree that life is fair amount of bullshit.  From the "you can be anything you want to be" when you're a kid, to the "vote: it makes a difference!" when you are an adult, only the most fervent optimist is going to claim it's all on the up and up, that good people eventually get what they deserve, and the wicked parish (even if this has to take place in the afterworld), and true love overcomes all, and whatever else they're selling at the five and dime.

Pretty much, from an early age, we start to "get it."  Well, most of us do.  We all know plenty of people who will never "get it."  But they ain't reading this blog, and chances are they are not in your kitchen right now.  Politicians lie.  People are selfish. Weathermen are rarely right.  What you see is rarely what you get, and in the rarer instances it is, you can start counting the days and planning vacations around when it won't be anymore.

So in the wake of such dishonesty, disingenuousness, and some other negative "d" word to make this list complete (like I said, pounding, hard to think), we, above all, look to be entertained.

Which is a long-about way of saying, with all the daily shit in the newspapers and bipartisan spin doctoring and squawking, what difference does it really make if Jayson Blair fabricated some quotes?

Don't forget, as my friend Dan Wakefield pointed out in his book Spiritually Incorrect, we live in a country where 17% of the people think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

I get that we need to have "trusted news sources," and picking on FOX probably violates my "no politics" rule, so I won't.  But I can say there are plenty of people, myself included, who will only get their news from a source that validates his own belief system.  And if you are like me, meaning you grew up in the '70s in the Northeast, then you heard that the Indians were savages and the cowboys the good guys.  You didn't hear about Andrew Jackson cracking Indian infant skulls against trees.  And there wasn't much talk about Honest Abe wanting to kick all the black people out of this country after the North won the war.  Fuck, if you live in Kansas now, you've been taught that the world is 6,000 years old and man walked with the dinosaurs.  What's the big deal if Stephen Glass made up a stories about hackers and wild Young Republicans?  Because the president reads the magazine on Air Force One on his way to listen to insurance lobbyists and health care lobbyists and lobbyists that don't represent any of our interests?  Maybe it's a bad thing.  I don't know.  But it's certainly not any worse than a lot of other things.

Which brings us to our concluding point in today's overly didactic (though [for the most part] politic free) post:

The Two Things Joe Has Learned about People

  1. They are self-serving
  2. And they lie

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What We Learned from Yesterday

So I wrote a blog post yesterday, breaking down some creepy hate mail I received, and it quickly vaulted to the top of my most popular pieces, with almost 500 readers in one day.  Since I am in the business of shilling myself, I will attempt to break down what made "Hate Mail" such a hit.

  • A List.  People like the lists.  Text presented in easily digested chunks makes everyone feel comfortable.  Most of us (even those who claim otherwise) sorta hate to read.  We might really get into it once we really get into it, but approaching reading harkens back to when we were in grade school and mean Mrs. Tosco loomed over us and our spellers (in the little farmhouse high on the knoll above the prairie), thwapping us with a ruler if we didn't recite our vocab lessons fast enough.

  • Snarky/Being Mean.  This one is tricky.  I was bitten by this one earlier (see Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens).  I guess this one goes back to Jesus and "righteous anger."  You remember, that part in the Bible... Oh, well, never-mind.  Let's talk politics instead.  Basically, you can be mean to people who deserve it.  Magazines with goofy names who reject your work = undeserving.  Creepy stalker types who send hate mail to 85-year-old grandmas = very deserving.  

         Fucking '80s.  No wonder I grew up so fucked up.

  • Nothing Beats a Well-Place "Fuck."  Without a doubt, the most powerful word in the English language.  What makes it special is its versatility.  What other word can transition so effortlessly from noun to verb to adjective and gerund? (see "Fuck you, you fucking fuck.") More importantly, "fuck" is a surprise, even when it isn't.  There is something so harsh about hearing it, no matter how desensitized we think we are, yet it still comes with a certain... giddiness?  Maybe it echoes Mrs. Tosco, only here we are the "cool kids" in the back of the bus with the torn jean jackets, feeling pretty good about being bad.  

  • Good Writing Trumps Bad Writing.  Kinda obvious, I know.  But when you have you have two people insulting one another, the better writer, with the more logically grounded argument, is going to win. Misspellings, poor grammar, etc., implies (exposes?) an underlying character flaw.  Or at least it comes across that way, fair or not. Authoritative writing is convincing.  Dangling your participle (especially in public, where kids might be around) is not.

  • Nobody Likes a Stalker.  Cutting out letters and pasting them on scraps of paper makes you a weirdo.  Sending said letter to old ladies makes you a creep.  Really, there is nothing you can say in that instance that is going to engender feelings of warmth and acceptance.  No one is opening that envelope and saying, "Sure is an interesting presentation, but he makes some really good points."  You don't picture handsome men with strong jawlines who smell nice holding a quill.  You think of dudes with mullets and bad skin who smell like Cheetos and keep a collection of dead cats dressed up like dolls in jars of formaldehyde in their basement.  And nobody likes to think of that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hate Mail

Couple things.  First, this is my 100th post.  Yea for me.

Two, I received my first piece of hate mail the other day.  Pretty exciting.  Actually, I didn't receive it.  Justine's 85-year-old grandmother did.  No return address (at least nothing legible), typed on a quarter sheet of paper and addressed only to Justine's last name.  Which isn't even Justine's grandmother's last name.  It's not a long letter, only a paragraph, which spends the bulk of its time chastising my website, blog, and character.

I will reprint this letter.  Now.

Looking at joeclifford and [j], what is that all about? Him being an ex junkie as cool? As art? Are coddled, still in business heroin cocaine meth dealers going to be there? It ' s (sic) all so cool, so common. Too bad that bright, good things that need attention are being missed. To most it would seem that a lowlife has found the big scam.

I probably should just ignore this--I mean, that would be the smart thing to do, not giving airtime to someone who doesn't even have the decency to contact me directly--but I feel the need to respond.  Not because I am upset by these charges, but because the logic is so faulty, the writing so poor, I am offended.  Not as a person, but as a writer.  

Like I said, there was no real return address, but I like to know to whom I am speaking, and if you look closely enough on the back of the envelope you can almost make out "D. Waz."  So let's go with that.

And since everyone loves a list, let's break this fucker down, bullet style.

  • OK, Mr. D. Waz, first let me just say that, this being 2011, no one really types and mails letters anymore.  In fact, my blog, which you hate so much (yet still apparently read), comes with a convenient "comment" section.  This allows readers to, y'know, post comments.  It's not complicated.  Just type what you want to say in the little box there and click "post comment."  You don't even have to use your real name (which seems to be a concern of yours).  You also won't be wasting paper.  So, c'mon, man, what say you go electronic and save a tree?  It's the fucking Bay Area.
          Let's go line-by-line.
  • Looking at joeclifford and [j], what is that all about? Him being an ex junkie as cool? As art?  Ignoring your interesting pronoun choice (i.e., dangling modifier), I will answer your question, Mr. Waz.  Yes, writing is considered "art."  Some other artistic pursuits include, but are not limited to, painting, dancing, singing, and puppetry.  Now, no one is saying you have to partake, observe, and/or participate in these art forms, but you're the one who came to my fucking sites; I didn't come to yours.  Now is it "good" art?  I don't know; that really isn't my call.  But people seem to like my work enough that I spend a good chunk of time doing it, to middling/moderate success.  I have a handful of decent publications, an agent for my books, which have garnered a modicum of interest, a reading series I produce, have had my education paid for, etc.  Is all my work "about [my] being an ex-junkie as cool"?  Hmm. On my website, I have links to maybe two dozen publications, only five of which detail my addiction.  In fact, most of my stories are noir fiction, so I think you may be placing a disproportionate weight on a handful of pieces (fixating?)  But let's go with those few that deal directly with my former drug problem.  Maybe you don't understand how writing works (judging by your clunky syntax and complete disregard for grammar, I am guessing that is the case).  The first rule of creative writing, Mr. D. Waz, is "show don't tell."  That means when a writer is describing a scene, he or she should stick to the details, character traits, etc., and avoid commentary.  For instance, if I wanted to depict someone as angry, I might write, "His face turned flush and he clenched his fists." This is better than writing "He was angry," which is lazy writing.  I tell you this, Mr. Waz-Not-Waz, because when I detail scenes from my past that involve my addiction, I want to paint as accurate a picture as I can for the reader, good, bad, and ugly.  I do not wish to proselytize or get didactic (that means "preachy").  I merely want to place the reader in "the moment," let him or her make up his or her own mind.  That you read my work about eating out of dumpsters, living in skid row hotels and injecting mice shit as "cool," well, I think that says more about you than it does me.  Which isn't surprising.  There is a reason "junkie fiction" is a genre, which has been populated by everyone from Burroughs to Welsh to Carroll to Stahl, why it sells.  People like you find it fascinating.  I mean, you read my work, which is fairly extensive. I read a few sentences of yours, and I don't think I'll be reading any more.
          (I don't think I need to say this, but I will take the time here, in case anyone out there lacks the close reading skills of Mr. Waz-Not-Waz.  But, no, kids, drugs are not cool.  I lost far more than I ever gained.  I missed my sister growing up.  I missed my mother dying.  And I lost a lot of fucking time.)

  • Are coddled, still in business heroin cocaine meth dealers going to be there? Is who going to be where?  My blog?  My website?  My wedding?  My house?  And I don't think "coddled" is the word you are looking for.  Expanding one's vocabulary is a good thing,  D. Waz, and I applaud your trying to do that here.  But it's really important you know what the word you are using means. Going to the Free Online Dictionary (you can also find the word in a regular dictionary, since you seem to be adverse to technological advances):  cod·del (kdl) tr.v. cod·dledcod·dlingcod·dles 1. To cook in water just below the boiling point: coddle eggs. 2. To treat indulgently; baby. See Synonyms at pamper. 

I don't think you you mean to imply I am an egg, so I guess you mean I've been indulged?  How exactly?  Was it my elegant depiction of Hepatitis Heights that invoked images of servant quarters and ponies?  No, Mr. Waz-Not-Waz, despite how "cool" you may think being a junkie was, it pretty much sucked balls.  You don't eat most days, get sick a lot, go to jail, and have friends die.  A lot happened out there; being "coddled" wasn't one of them.  And who the fuck are these "heroin coke meth dealers" who are "still in business"?  Dude, you need to stop watching TV so much.  Everyone who has a drug problem isn't a lowlife dealer hanging around preschool playgrounds tugging at his listless member.  Most people with drug problems are regular people who got caught up in something they can't get out of. People make mistakes, Mr. Waz-Not-Waz.  I've always believed that the mark of a man is not how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit...and keep moving forward. OK, maybe not always but certainly since the last Rocky movie came out. Life is for living, son, and when you screw up, even as bad as I have, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move forward.  It's called a second chance, and it is what America is all about.  So if you don't believe in that, then you are a freedom-hating commie bastard, and you can stop reading my blog.  Terrorist.

  •  It ' s (sic) all so cool, so common.  Learn how to fucking punctuate.  Again with the "cool."  That you read the hell I describe as "cool" has me concerned about you, Wazzer.  You might want to hit a meeting.  (But I will not take umbrage with the "common" part. Publishers seem to agree.)

  • Too bad that bright, good things that need attention are being missed. Oh, wait.  Wazzy...are you the "bright, good things"?  This is starting to make sense... I get it.  Dude, you're in love with my girlfriend, aren't you?  Justine used to live with her grandparents in high school, which is why you might send a letter there.  I am starting to get a picture here.  Did your creepy, crappy (anonymous) poetry (that you only showed to your cat) fail to make an impression all those years ago?  You see on Facebook that Justine is marrying me, brings up old feelings of rejection... Listen, Wazzy Waz, don't feel bad.  Justine is really, really attractive.  But so am I.  Water seeks its own level.  So you could've written as well as I and still not gotten her.  Not likely.  I mean, the "writing as well as I" part.  I've read your letter. 

  • To most it would seem that a lowlife has found the big scam.  What the fuck are you even talking about?  Having a website and blog?  Dude, anyone can have a blog.  They're fucking free!  You mean because people read my blog?  I'm supposed to feel bad about that?  I can't help that no one would read your incoherent fused sentences and crappy comma-spliced love letters.  Go read them to your fucking cat (unless he/she is dead by now.  In which case, I'm sorry.  I like animals).  But you want a website, hire a guy to design one. Shit.  It's not some secret club.  There are only, like, a billion websites. I won't argue about the "lowlife" part, though.  It's a mantle I wear proudly.  But where is this "big scam"?  To date I have made exactly $420 from my writing career.  Four hundred and twenty fucking dollars. I write because I like to write, and (most) people like to read what I write.  But I do it for free.  If there is some "big scam" out there that I can get in on with my writing, please please please let me know.

     I hope this answers all you questions, Mr. D. Waz.  If not, I run a reading series  The next one will be Friday, May 13th, 5512 San Pablo, Oakland, 7pm.  And my band, the Wandering Jews, will be playing at the Red Devil Lounge in SF on May 5.  I invite you to come and meet me, say these things in person, where we can open an honest discourse and share a beer (you can have a beer; I'll have a Diet Coke).  But I am guessing a man who doesn't even sign his name or contact me in person probably isn't big on the face-to-face.  In any event, I ask you please not to send nasty anonymous letters to my (soon-to-be) 85-year-old grandmother (in-law).  That sort of makes you a douche.   

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Guest Writer Dylan Petersen and His Story about...Me

So Candy and Cigarettes has decided to start publishing work by other writers.  Submission guidelines are--it shouldn't be that long because we sorta hate reading, and all stories have to be about Joe.


Readers of  this blog know about Petersen, who's as close to a father as I have.  Pushing 70, with balky knees and radical political sensibilities, Petersen chain smokes Merit Lights, farts at will, and is perhaps the last man in America who sports a mustache in earnest.  But he is also a helluva guy and a good friend.

And he's got a kid of his own, Dylan.  Dylan is 16, and I've always thought of him as a little brother in a way, even though I spent most of his formative years a drug addict, schlepping along the mean streets of San Francisco, 3,000 miles away.  And there may have even been a little sibling rivalry, because I stole his dad's time and attention.

Anyway, recently Dylan had to write a paper for class on who he "Knows and Admires."  I am pretty honored that he chose to write about me, snarky sarcasm and teenage angst notwithstanding.  Holden Caulfield would be proud.  

Below is his essay, which Dylan has given me permission to reprint.

It just may be the most accurate account of my life to date.

(I've tried to edit as little as possible, leaving as much of Dylan's original vision as I could.)

Joe Clifford, the man whose arms could pick up the world but whose brain is no [bigger] than an atom, well, at least that is what I tell him. In reality Joe’s thought process could be comparable to someone of great stature in the world. In his late 30’s Joe has been from his farm town home to hell and back to now find[s] himself as the great writer in disguise of San Francisco bound for fame in his music or writings. Yes, again, at least that’s what he says. 
In his early twenties, holding a piss poor job at a local community center, Joe felt he needed to leave and escape from his reoccurring day to day deja vu. He did just that moving to San Francisco where he would seek a fresh start. While some would call this fresh start a disaster, for soon Joe would be flirting with the devil. It began when he was introduced to the wrong people and he began hanging out at a place called Hepatitis Heights, an area so dirty that you go in clean and come out with nothing but a skeleton and herpes. This is where the airplane of Joe’s life took a crash landing right down to the coldest place on the planet. An average everyday adult had now turned into a junkie with nothing but a needle and a schizophrenic girlfriend to accompany him on his cloud. After years of abuse he finally took a trip down to rock bottom and had a conversation with Lucifer. I guess the devil and Joe didn’t get along too well because Clifford walks the earth somewhere today. He decided to wipe the skin off his shin and take a shave. Before you know it Joe was clean and moved back into town.
My Father was Joe’s boss back in his late teens/early twenties and Joe looked up to my old man. He looks at my Dad as his Father since he and his Dad didn’t see eye to eye. Clifford and my Dad stayed in touch all through his drug years and my Dad was still there for Joe after his downfall. Although there are many aspects of the guy’s life I will try to avoid, in a way, I look up to Clifford and think of him as the older brother I never had since he and my dad are so close. 
Nowadays, Clifford still lives on a cloud, although this one supports his meathead weights, allowing him to think he is a big shot in Berkley. I always want to tell him he’d make the world’s greatest stand up comedian but he’s extremely passionate about his writing and is determined to make it, whatever that means. He now incorporates his writings into music and writes his own songs, thinking he is the next Elvis Costello. Although I think he sounds more like Justin Bieber. Like Joe or not, you have to give the man credit for his life turnaround and his unique writings. One day when he is famous I won’t raise an eyebrow[;] in fact, it puzzles me his work isn’t there yet. Just like he never gave up on himself, he won’t sell himself short with his passion for writing. The airplane of Joe Clifford’s life is in the air as we speak and who knows where it will land next. Knowing Joe though, it will probably end up in the back parking lot of a strip club.
Submitted by Dylan Petersen

There's really nothing I can say after that, Dylan.  Except Thank You.  And Fucking Awesome.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Rock 'n' Roll after 40

I woke up this morning with a head on fire, ears ringing, and though my eyes weren't bloody, I still couldn't see so hot.  My throat was raw, like I'd swallowed a cactus soaked in whiskey, my body felt like it had been run over by Gabourey Sidibe, and when the light crept around the edges of the heavy purple drapes of our bedroom, my throbbing head sank back to the pillow as I begged the gods for five more precious moments of sleep...

But I wasn't drunk or hungover.  All I'd had to drink was a Diet Coke.  And I was in bed well before midnight.

I was the victim of rock 'n' roll after 40.


The Wandering Jews are getting back together.  Not that we ever broke up.  It's just with day jobs, traveling, kids, and Pete French, regular practice is not possible.  Or even enjoyable, really.  It's hard work. Seriously.  But we have a show coming up, a benefit fundraiser for Japan (May 5th, Red Devil Lounge. w/ Recliner), so last night we all got together and worked out our set, which we ran through a couple times. And for not having played together in five months or so (and with a new guitarist), we sounded pretty fucking good.

But it wiped my shit out.

I suppose I should be happy that I've finally found the sound I've been after since I started playing music, a little alt country, a little more Replacements, and a fuckton of Springsteen.  I've got a terrific bassist (and proactive cat to get shit rolling), a guitarist who can actually play guitar (unlike me) with a pristine r 'n' r '80s twinge, a secret weapon keyboardist/backing vocalist who adds E Street without even knowing it, and the best drummer I've ever played with.

And let's start with this last bit.  Best drummer.  Loudest drummer.

Last time we played out, the sound guy stopped us after our first song.

"We've never had to do this before," he said over the PA.  "But I've got to ask you to not hit so hard.  You are the loudest drummer we've ever had."

And this wasn't a small club.

Pete French, our drummer, has been playing drums in the city since the '80s, some big bands, too.  And he's fucking terrific.  His Pieces of Lisa came close.  But over 40 now, Pete can't hear for shit, been banging the drums so hard so long.  Musicians have figured out to use ear plugs a lot these days.  Not so much in the '80s.  And it wouldn't help the guy now anyway.

And it causes a chain reaction.  Drums so loud, Tom's bass has to go up, then there's that rumble, so Jarret's keys go up, and you can't drown out Raviv's guitar, and fuck, man, I'm the singer, so you know that shit's going up.

And you have what we had last night.  Balls to the wall, rattle and roll.

"If it's too loud, you're too old."

I'm too old.

Not that I could walk away now if I wanted to.  Once this rock 'n' roll gets in your blood, it's as bad as any drug.  And that's regardless of how good you sound.  And this is sounding good.  Really good.  After 20 odd years of suffering through shit, I finally have a band that sounds the way I want, the perfect mix of swagger and sneer, polish and power, Westerbergian wonder.  And I ain't giving it up.

And I ain't wearing no earplugs, either.  Like wearing a helmet on a motorcycle. Ain't doing it.  I see those pussies on their stupid bicycles with their goofy little helmets, and I remember what my brother said to me once when I told him I was having a hard time seeing when I took the bike on the highway.

"We'll get you better glasses.  Ain't no brother of mine wearing a goddam helmet on his motorcycle!"

(And, yes, I'd later crash.  But it wasn't my head that was hurt.)

So we'll rock on.

Hope to see y'all May 5th.  The FREE HOT DOGS have already been ordered!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Funny

Every time I'd prepare a piece for Lip Service in Miami, I was convinced it was funny.  My partner, Andrea, would disagree.

I'd be, like, "The ATF comes while we're watching Cops on TV!  And we're all on drugs, so we're already paranoid.  That's funny!"

And she'd be, like, "No, Joe, that's not funny.  That's just sad.  Your stories aren't funny.  They're sad.  They're good, well written, and all that.  But they're really fucking sad."


So I'm searching for The Funny.  A friend of mine is putting together an anthology for a major publisher.  He's a good friend of mine, a former professor.  He asked me to give him something.  Publication is Nicollette Sheridan and I am John Cusack.  A Sure Thing.  All I need are 750 funny words.

And I got shit.

It's fucked up, because I consider myself a funny guy.  I mean, hanging with friends, I'm a funny guy.  The other day, my friend (and personal trainer), Adam, and I went and got Korean food, and when I told him the story of how, when I was a teenager, I used to like to pull along side really old people at traffic lights, and then put my car in reverse and slowly roll back, until the old person would see me out of the corner of their eyes and frantically step on their brakes, I thought Adam was going to pass out he was laughing so hard.  But maybe that's more "mean" than "funny."  And I do pay Adam to hang out with me.

I don't get it.  I have funny stories.  I know funny people and funny situations.

The other day at the housewarming, my buddy Tom Pitts and I were reminiscing about when we were junkies, and there was this gimpy guy Gavin we hung out with.  Gavin had screws in his neck and a stroke had left him partially paralyzed...

I guess you had to be there.

So I sent this professor my story, "Chuckles."  It's on this blog, but for those of you too lazy to search it, it's about a fat kid whose puppy gets run over when some pretty girls are making fun of him.  I mean, I remember when this guy in rehab, Russel (whose Hep C was so advanced his liver suspended over his belt like a stiff, overinflated beach ball), and I thought up the plot for that story, smoking cigarettes in the middle of an AA meeting, we were damn near rolling off the picnic tables.

My professor wrote back that he found the story more "tragic," and that only a "ghoul" could find it funny.

Come to think of it, maybe it's all just tragic.

My life, my work, my addiction, my near suicides, my divorces, my motorcycle accident, my parents' dying, all of it tragic.

And maybe that's why I laugh.  Y'know, so I don't cry.

Holy shit that's depressing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Good Years: 18

The only decade to see three--count 'em, three--entries, my teens, is also the decade where everything turned to shit.  Yes, 12, 16, and 18 were good years, but 10 - 13, 16, and 19 were such utter crap, as to pull the entire fucking decade down.

Since this is titled "The Good Years," I will only briefly touch upon what made these other years so bad.  In a nutshell, conscious awareness of my own mortality and physical limitations as an athlete, acceptance of thankless plight as an artist, girls, and my father.  It was the decade where I first (though not last) seriously considered killing myself, the decade of my first broken heart, and the decade that closed with the firm understanding that I wanted more than this life could ever provide.

But enough of that stinkin'-thinkin', and on to why 18 rocked!

Just as the decade would eventually be bogged down by them, girls made my 18th year pretty fucking awesome.  I had a band and I was going to school!

It was my first semester of college, and by "college," I mean, the first year where I literally received funding by the state (and my grandfather) to spend all day surrounded by pretty girls.  In no particular order, Amy Krois, Katie Ross, Sherri Gagliardi, Jeanie Palmer, and countless, nameless other tight-bodied short-shorted nice-smelling 18 - 20 year old girls who sent my heart a-flutter.

The only thing that couldv'e made this better is if, you know, I actually dated and/or fucked (even finger) or, hell, got even an over-the-jeans rub from any of them.

That's not true.  I got an over-the-jeans rub from Amy.  And I have to say, not be blowing myself or anything, but it may have just been the best over-the-jeans (while not quite getting off) rub-off of all time.

OK.  So to quote Areosmith/RunDMC, I was loser who never made it with the ladies.  Without the happy ending.

Girls then, much like now, scared me.  I suppose it's confidence.

I talk with Adam, my 24-year-old friend/personal trainer, who clearly doesn't have this problem.  And as he'll explain "the game" of approaching women (while he spots as I blast my pecs), I am still in awe of those who can even do that: talk to pretty girls.

When I first met Justine--or rather after I creepily stalked her until she agreed to go out with me--our first date was a comedy of mumbling, stumbling, and admitting that I wanted to "be a private investigator because I was good at lurking."  Fortunately, Justine finds social awkwardness endearing.  Others not so much.

Years after college and after our one night over-the-jeans rub-off, I asked Amy why she and I never worked as a couple.

"We were never 'a couple' Joe," she said.  "You were too...intense."

Well, if writing 17 songs about a girl you came really close to getting a handjob from makes you too "intense," then color me guilty.


I could write a lot more about this year, my 18th.  The ups and downs (this was also the year of my boxing experiment), but I have to go to the doctor to see if I need my hip replaced.

Friday, April 8, 2011


When I was a kid, I used to draw superheroes.  Not just Superman and Batman but ones of my own I made up.  Usually, these were pretty lame.  I mean, I started doing this when I was real little and not terribly clever.  My superheroes tended to be born from some tragic event.  Like Lightening Man, who gained superpowers after being struck by lightening.  Like I said, not terribly clever.  I had a whole cache of them, sheafs and sheafs of papers with my superheroes and their magic bows and costumes, drawn by little kid hands.

A few years back, after my mom and dad died, I stumbled across some of these. One was of my favorite original superhero: Electric Man (not to be confused with LM). He wore all black and his arm glowed green.  Because, you know, he'd been electrocuted, which is what gave him his superpowers, namely being superstrong. He also had a beard.  And looking at this drawing a while, I realized something: all those years I'd been drawing my father.


As a kid, I was a smart-ass, a skinny-necked little shit, who could be quick with his tongue and mean as a rattler.  Not always.  Often in new social settings, I could be just as shy and wallflower in the corner.  But in my element, with my friends, on my street, I could get pretty brazen and snarky.

When I was around 7 or 8, my parents got divorced (for the first time), and my mom, my brother, and I moved to other side of the tracks in Berlin, which in our hometown simply meant renting instead of owning, and having to share a park instead of having your own 2-acre backyard.  But there was definitely a rougher element.  It seems silly now to write about a "rougher" element, especially knowing where my life would wind up, sharing rooms with legitimate murderers and ex-convicts.  But for an 8-year-old boy, Fairview Drive was pretty rough.  There were kids who smoked cigarettes and hung out behind the liquor store; you couldn't be around the park after dark because hooligans did drugs (which was probably, in retrospect, smoking more cigarettes, drinking beer, with the occasional joint); and there were fistfights.

Basically, Fairview Drive was home to a lot of single moms, where broken families went, or where the poorer families dwelled (and, again, "poor" for Berlin would probably be considered "well-off" in most other towns).

So I'd gone from the safe confines of the hills, down to the ghetto, taking my smart ass with me.  Which is where I encountered Jeff Pignatella.

I quickly made friends in the neighborhood--Peter Veleas, who was Rich Rice's cousin (the same Rich Rice who followed me out to SF twenty years ago, and who is Holden's godfather and will be best man at the wedding), and there was Steve, and Bob and Mike, both of whom were a little tougher than Pete or Rich or Steve, but we were all friends.  I was not friends with Jeff Pignatella.

Jeff Pignatella was a lot older than we were.  He rode a bicycle, so he couldn't have been 16 yet.  He had curly red hair, with crossed eyes and thick glasses, a pug nose, an ugly motherfucker.  You know the kind.  He's always the one who winds up telling you there's no Santa Claus on the back of the bus or shows you torn pages from a Hustler in the boy's locker room.  And he smoked Marlboro Reds.

It's hard to say I "picked on" Jeff Pignatella, since he was much older, and a lot bigger.  But standing behind the park fence with my friends, I could get pretty obnoxious, calling him names and making fun of what an ugly mutherfucker he was.  I mean, I was a kid.  And I always did my smart-ass thing from afar, leaving plenty of time to run away should Jeff Pignatella come chasing.  By the time he'd catch up with me, I'd be safely behind the glass in my living room, making pig faces and gesturing what an ugly mutherfucker he was.

In my own way, I guess you could say I was a bully.

Have you ever seen the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse?  That's pretty much the way childhood (and the world) works: the stronger pick on the weak.  We all know that.  But then the weak in turn will pick on the weaker.  Which is what I did.  I had a pretty good life, as far as money and stuff was concerned, so I'm not going to make my childhood sound like David Copperfield and all that crap.  But your basic personality is formed by age 5, and by age 5 my father had thrown my mother down a flight of stairs, and there were bad fights, and I lived with my alcoholic grandmother in cheap motels a lot, and well, that's that.  I got picked on.  I picked on others.  It's the Trickle Down effect.

After a few months (a year?) of living apart, my parents decided to get back together, and while my dad (who made the money) was having a new house built back in the good part of town, he moved in with us on Fairview Drive.


I had gone down to the corner store on Farmington Avenue to buy some candy.  It was probably a weekend, and Peter and the rest were off somewhere.  Walking along the side of the road in the dirt, eating my candy by myself, I heard someone call out from behind the Laundromat.  I turned to find Jeff Pignatella and a bunch of his friends.  They quickly surrounded me, knocked the candy out of my hands, and began shoving me back and forth, saying stuff, like, "Not such a smart ass now, are you, hotshot?"  And I remember smelling the nicotine and beer, and then someone punched me in the back of the head hard, and I fell, and I was genuinely scared.

A truck skidded along side us, and everyone stopped shoving me around, and I looked up and saw my father's pale blue truck.  My father shouted at Jeff Pignatella and his friends, who quickly cleared, and opened the passenger's side of his truck for me to get in.

We drove back to our apartment, in momentary silence.  He looked gigantic behind the wheel, blocks of muscle in a tight tee shirt, smokes rolled up, staring straight ahead with a nasty sneer.  I sat there, feeling relieved, and though my father and I weren't close, even then, I felt like I should say something, if only thank you.  But I couldn't get the words out.

"I should've let them kick your ass," my father said.  "Serve you right for being such a smart ass little shit."