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Candy and Cigarettes

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Monday, February 28, 2011

Before the Old Man Died

I’m driving down to Yale New Haven Hospital, where my father is dying.  He contracted milofibrosis from a contaminated job site, bitter irony…OK, not a bitter irony, but interesting, since my father’s whole life was his work and one of the many wedges that kept us apart.  OK.  Maybe that is not even that interesting.  Fathers and sons have been warring since forever, and there is nothing inherently compelling about our rift.  I wouldn’t be even driving to see him, except that he asked.  It is a meaningless gesture.  I would see just about anybody who was dying if they asked.  Not that I am giving, do-gooder sort, just that even when a man is tied to the post about to be shot, it is customary to give him a last cigarette, a chance to speak his peace.  

Maybe that isn’t even true.  But if something else is, I don't know what.

I light a cigarette and turn on the Replacement’s cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” only this is the Replacements, so it’s “Like a Rolling Pin.”  It’s part of their two disc greatest hits set, All for Nothing/Nothing for All, a double double entendre, since the band was shortchanged their entire career, never getting what was owed.  In short, they are the greatest American rock ’n’ roll band ever.

I have the same routine most mornings.  I like routine.  I leave the condo I share with my sister, the house we got when our mother died a few months ago.  Our folks are divorced, haven’t even spoken in years.  I stop at the gas station in the center of town, which is only recently the center of town, as the town expands.  What used to be two donut shops and a bank is now a lot of donut shops and banks, and sprawling gas stations and Stop ’n’ Shops.  I would come home from San Francisco to visit, and there was always some new construction being undertaken, some new hole in the ground and big piece of machinery idling near by, and there are still dairy farms and cattle farms and mom and pop delis but not as much and there are more chains and paved roads, and the same yokel country I once scorned I now miss because everything is changing.  I am changing.  My parents are dying.  And it would be nice if at least this fucking hick town could stay a fucking hick town.

Fill up, grab a Red Bull, because I can’t do hard drugs anymore, and maybe a coffee too, even though I’ve probably had a couple cups already, and then I curve up past the house of my first girlfriend, who I got pregnant at sixteen, and every day I have the same routine, and every day I wonder how different my life would’ve been if I’d told my mom and we’d kept that baby.  But it wouldn’t be different.  If I didn’t put a shotgun in my mouth, which would’ve been the best option, I’d be the same shit father my father was.  What people don’t give me credit for--yeah, I was fuckball junkie, living by my own set of warped rules, taking advantage of everyone who was stupid enough to love me, but I learned a lot.  Some people are just hardheaded and have to learn that way, because they can’t any other, and I couldn’t, so I did.

It’s sticky sweet summer.  I hit the turnpike, speed past Centerfold’s, one of the town’s two strip clubs, and the significantly better of the two.  I spent more than a few nights in Centerfold’s when I'd come back, three a.m., high on speed, as some poor girl tried to rub one out of an amphetamine-raging dick.

If I time it right, the Red Bull, the coffee, the cigarette, I can get a little head rush, the “rush” being what I miss most about shooting up.  

The cigarette tastes like dry chalk in the June heat.

The Good Years: 16

I got laid.

That's pretty much the extent of it, and it didn't come easily, or cheap.  16 was also the year that switch tripped in my head, and though I'd later learn to navigate around it, my world undoubtably got a little darker, a little heavier, a little..funkier. But I am not going to make the mistake I did with the last post about being 12, getting bogged down in "stinkin' thinkin'."  No, sir, this is going to be a goddamn happy mutherfucking post.

At 16 rock 'n' roll started to mean something to me, and since it has been a lifetime companion, that cannot be understated.  Springsteen in particular offered me a promise of something better.  When you live in a small farm town, are the weirdo eating the proverbial paste with the bowl haircut, hearing "It's a town full of losers, and I'm pulling out of here to win" for the first time is your Breakfast Club walking-across-the-football field, fist in the air, Molly Ringwold's stank still on your finger moment.  The turnpike just over the hill that leads out of this town to...where? A better fucking place.  Because you've read about it.  Maybe.   But you've seen it in movies, that's for sure.  And you've heard stories about it.  You own a goddamn TV, have seen articles in magazines.  There are people living...better...than this.  Or maybe not.  Because one day you will find that the problem with running is the ol' "no matter where you go, there you are."  But at 16?  No, man, that's James Dean shit. James Dean, the reason I still walk slightly hunched over and crooked, because when I saw that cockeyed tormented outcast sonofabitch in East of Eden in Mr. Brittingham's Film Appreciation class ("They seriously have a class where you can watch movies? Fuck yea, I'm taking it!"), I wallpapered my walls with his posters and affected his every mannerism, curling my shoulders and only peeking up through the tops of my eyelids to mumble.

A fringe element, you start scouring the cultural junkyards and collecting the shiny scraps you'll need to make it in, or out of, this place.  I found the Boss, and Pink Floyd, and James Dean, and learned to embrace the one thing I could do: art.

I wanted to be an athlete.  My brother Josh was an athlete.  And popular.  He was my younger brother but was bigger, stronger, and more well liked than I, especially by our father.  I couldn't compete with that.  So I went the other direction, withdrew, started a band, tried to become...smarter.  Not "book" smart, at least not yet.  I wanted to "figure it all out," ask the big game hunting questions, so even though I didn't read much, I decided I'd be a writer, and so I wrote terrible poetry, culling what I could from pop song lyrics and the school assignments, misreadings from Shakespeare or random, single lines that sounded good to my ear, and I'd throw them together in sprawling 40+ pages poems about death that literally said nothing. Not that there wasn't some worth in them, mostly an ear for language, I suppose. Or rather, just the fact that I cared to try and submitted creative writing assignments made English teachers at Berlin High like Ms. Virosteck encourage, citing, and I quote, "a fine flair for writing," a compliment I remember since it was the first time anyone told me I was good at something scholastic.

And, yeah, I got laid.  My friend Shawn had a girlfriend.  I hung around with these three guys, Shawn, Bob, and Bill, and for a few months we did everything together. Y'know, it was The Boys.  It was the first time I'd been a part of a group like that. I'd played team sports, but not being as good as the rest painted me an outsider there. Here, we just hung out, drove around town, listened to music, laughed, felt like bad kids causing trouble because we threw stuff at mailboxes once in a while.  Instead of walking like a freak around my hometown on Friday nights waiting to be offered rides back home, I actually had plans, something to do, parties to go to, girls to talk to.  But I wasn't so good at talking to girls.  So when Shawn broke up with his girlfriend and she kissed me, well, I threw those boys aside to get laid.  At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


OK.  Cheap move, titling this post "twilight."  Shameful, really.  No, this isn't a piece about oversexed, pale teenage vampires and the girls who just can't let them die.  It's about a cruise ship I took the other night when some of Justine's friends were in town, a group dubbed "The Chis" (pronounced, like, "Thai"), cute bubbly SoCal girlfriends from college, who stayed at our house for a couple days, and though there were no panty-clad pillow fights, it's always nice to have cute, bubbly college girls at your house.

So they have a nickname for their group, these Chis, and I don't mean just "Chis." Apparently there are even groups within groups.  For instance, this particular two-girl contingency is named "Team Yinky."  I guess Team Yinky is part of the Chis. This is something only girls do, like Sisterhood of the Traveling Yeah Yeahs or whatever.  I mean, is any guy ever going to say, "Yeah, baby, I'm hanging out with Rich and John tonight, y'know, The Wumpets"?

Anyway, since the girls are from LA, Justine wanted to show them around, and we booked the Twilight Cruise around the bay, one of those red and white line boats, where you circle around Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate at dusk, and hear stories about Indian occupation and prospector justice and shit in the 1800s.  And I like doing that stuff.  You only get to take visitors to cheeseball places like Alcatraz under the pretense of showing them around, because you can't ever do touristy shit like that if you live there.

The whole point of this post isn't about cute college girls who make up cute girl gang names (and occasionally have panty-clad pillow fights?).  It's about a guy I met on the boat, this old outlaw cowboy-type named Billy D.

Billy D has a nightly gig singing and playing the guitar on the cruise line.  In between, he helps manage Rambling Jack Elliot as well as makes music with his own band, The Billy Boys.  He gave me a CD they just recorded called "Under the Big Sky."  (On a side note, which may not last long if Justine takes this the wrong way and makes me take it down, but like the Ramones or the Donnas, everyone in the Billy Boys has the same name.  There's Billy D, Billy W, Billy C, etc.  Now Justine is really smart, is getting her MBA at Mills and all that, but every once in the while she can have these moments where it's like the blonde dye has seeped into her brain.  So when Justine sees the CD Billy's given me, she looks it over and is, like, "How cool! What a coincidence!  Everyone in the band is named Billy!"  God, I love her.)

It's a great CD, full of cowboy songs--real cowboy songs--about lone riders on long plains and hanging trees in Montana, and this guy Billy D has a helluva voice.  He's one of these guys whose whole life story is on his face.  He's seen a lot.  He's been around a lot.  A true artist.

Right when the ship took off, he'd given up his booth so we'd all have somewhere to sit with Holden, and he and I had started talking.  There's that saying in AA I love: water seeks its own level.  Artists will gravitate to other artists, especially when you get a little older, because it is like a little club.  Maybe you don't make up a nickname for your club (artists are too cool to do that), but you share the same...fight?  Trying to carve out a way to stay alive, while staying true to your need to create, finding a way to pay the bills without compromising, etc.

I am always enthralled when I meet guys like Billy.  I get down a lot, since it feels like I have been beating my head against this same wall my entire life, trying to find someone who will let me in and pay me for my art, and you can only complain so much. There is an unspoken social edict, one that almost says, "OK, you want to play artist and not get a real job?  Fine.  Then do it.  But shut up about it.  I don't want to hear you whine about nobody buying your crappy paintings."  And it's easy to see where it comes from.  I mean, who isn't an artist these days?  You've got self-publishing and the Internet, you've got...blogs...and digital marketing, plus you will always have the girls playing with beads and gluing macaroni to construction paper. Bottom line is: if you are good enough, eventually you will get paid.  The question is, how long do hang in there before you have to face the facts that you just may not be?

Old cowboys like Billy give me hope that I might have a little more time to find out.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why Inception Sucks Ass

I hit on this yesterday, briefly, and have received enough response that I feel the need to delve in further.  Plus new friend and fellow blogger Greg Kim tells me not to worry about posting on the weekend since the Internet shuts down anyway and so no one is probably going to read this, though I am  going to take a page from Greg, who says a catchy title helps catch readers, which renders this primarily an exercise in discipline and consistent production.  I've been saving my other go-to title, A Heartbreaking Pile of Steaming Shit, to talk about why I am so disappointed with Dave Eggers' opus, and I still may do that, but criticizing Eggers seems like an invitation to fighting with nameless Internet types, his denizen of loyal supporters who've anointed him the saint all off things endearing and indie, and I don't feel like doing that, even if Eggers is guilty of the worst crime a male writer can commit: whimsy.  Still, I don't hate A Heartbreaking Work.  There are so laugh-out-loud moments, and the book does have a heart; I'm simply not sold on its being "one of the American greats."  Inception I do hate.  So I will direct my scorn there.

This killed me.  I walked into Inception wanting to love it.  I am huge Christopher Nolan fan.  Not only Memento, which is listed along the righthand side of this blog as one of the best dozen or so movies I've ever seen, or even the Batman films, which are, unquestionably, the best superhero films ever made, I also loved Insomnia, a lesser-known effort, a Dutch remake, I believe, staring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, who is quite good as a hack mystery writer turned serial killer, and though I have never seen The Prestige, because magic is stupid after 7, I can safely say I like Nolan.  A lot.  Which is why Inception let me down so hard.

Now, I am doing this from memory.  If I were doing an actual critical analysis, I'd have to watch Inception more than once, and since I'd rather get tested for chlamydia again, that's not happening.  I lost two hours of my life on that fuckbomb; I will not lose another minute.  I could open up IMDB to get character names, and I may, depending on where this goes.  But I doubt it.  The problem with this film doesn't lie with the actors, or even the direction; it is the writing, which is shoddy, flimsy, and lazy.

Christopher Nolan often works with his brother, Jonathan, who I am guessing is the writer in the family. They should've stuck to their original arrangement.  Unlike when Sam Raimi brought in brother...Ivan (to replace, um, Michael Chabon) to pen Spider-Man 3, arguably one of the worst superhero movies ever made, Nolan would've been wise to keep it in the family.

Let's get to it then.  Why Inception sucked ass.  Because it is the worst kind of American movie, all sound and fury signifying shit.  James Cameron gets bashed for stupid dialogue and lots of bells and whistles, but at least he had sense to steal from Dances with Wolves (and I still found Avatar imminently more watchable than The Hurt Locker, which is terrible and the worst Best Picture choice since Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, not that Avatar is a gem, just better than The Hurt Locker). Inception is an idea traced backwards.  This is what writers do.  I guaranfuckingtee you, Nolan had this idea of tapping into dreams and then this cool ending image in his head of the top spinning, which would leave the audience guessing as to whether it was all real (which is a pretty stupid idea anyway, and one that will land you in writer jail), so he went back and wrote a screenplay of how to get there.  And you can get there, but you better be fucksure you've earned it.  And Nolan doesn't.

Why?  Because writing that "middle part," the part where all the shit happens, is difficult.  In fact, it's the hardest part of writing.  You have a great idea.  You often see a cool resolution (even if you have to muddle through the middle to get there in a shitty first draft), but then you have to go back and make all the dots connect, the ts and is.  And that's fucking hard to do.  In short, Nolan bit off more than he could chew, writing himself into a problem he couldn't solve, and after trying and trying, decided to leave the holes, because there aren't gaping, just...there.  And you only see them if you want to see them.

It didn't matter.  Critics, by and large, loved the film, audience's too, and it's up for an Academy Award as Best Picture, so who cares what I think?

Who cares that the thread that ties the film together, the tapping into dreams to obtain deep secrets, has no solid foundation, no explanation of how this is done exactly, other than a big metal box and lots of wires and pressing "Go," or that the plot of "planting an idea" has no tangible basis, who cares that the flawed character subtext of Leo's Cobb and his dead wife, what's-her-name would automatically get him fired and make no one ever want to work with him, or that the frame with Wantanbe has no payoff.  It is an excuse to have car chases or shots fired, to make high style with big budget, and everyone loves the emperor's new clothes.

ala Winter's Bone, is just as good or better or whatever.

I guess it comes down to this.  There is often a certain amount of disbelief one must be willing to suspend, especially with movies like this.  If a viewer doesn't mind the '"dream within a dream" and how to get there aspect, and if he or she can overlook the inconsistency with Leo's Cobb, and if the moviegoer can just lean back, eat popcorn, watch the spectacle, and think about it--but not too hard--it's fine.  I couldn't.  So it sucked.

Friday, February 25, 2011


We’re going old school this morning, like back in the ’90s, or maybe the ’80s, in that brief window where there were writing processors but Gore hadn’t yet invented the Internet.

The only time I really get to write these days is 7 a.m., after Holden gets up, before he whacks his head on the… Hold on.


The Internet is down and it’s fucked up my whole morning routine.  I am a clock.  Same thing, every day.  Up at 7 a.m., start the coffee, let the chicken out, change the kid and set him on tummy time (y’know, ’cause he’s still got a flat head), then check my e-mail, blog, and sports sites.  Then write.  But a storm blew through town last night.  A good East Coast kind of storm, with the slashing wind and rain.  Might’ve even heard a little hail in there.  Knocked out the electricity and Internet.  Got light now, but can’t do my routine.

I’m not underplaying this either.  My sister came to visit me when I was still in Miami.  It was a little while after the accident so I think I was walking and stuff.  We rented this movie, The Lookout, a terrific little heist-gone-wrong flick, with an original premise.  Can’t remember the character names (and I can’t look them up because I can’t get on the Internet.  I once asked Dan Wakefield, one of my professors at FIU, who’s, like, really old, how they did research in his day.  He told me this horrific story about having to go to the New York Public Library and filling out cards and handing them to librarians and waiting a long time while these librarians took these cage elevators up to a special floor.  [Cages!]  Seriously, it sounded like a prison labor camp.  Terrifying.  If I can’t find the population of everyone named Bob in Sudan in, like, 8 seconds, I ain’t trying.  I’ll just make that shit up.  8.  8 Bobs.  Done), but the lead's played by Joseph Gorden-Levitt, that kid from Third Rock from the Sun with John Lithgow, and who’s been in some terrific movies, including this one and 500 Days of Summer, even though he’s probably gotten the most exposure for that shitfuck of a film Inception—I don’t claim to be the arbiter of good taste.  OK, maybe I do.  But Inception is a shitty fucking movie regardless and if you like it, you are wrong.  More plot holes than an undergrad/ESL writing workshop.  How the fuck did they get into your dreams?  A box.  A wire.  Plug the wire in, don’t ask any questions.  People who like that movie are the same people who claim to like classical music and Prince.  They like the idea of them.  (“I love Prince!”  Really?  Name one song that isn’t “Little Red Corvette” or “Party Like It’s 1999” or that wasn’t on the Purple Rain Soundtrack.)  Matthew Goode was also in the movie.  The Lookout, I mean, not Inception.   Anyway, the premise of The Lookout centers around Gordon-Levitt, who used to be a hot-shot hockey player in high school but has an accident and suffers brain damage, and so he has to make a list to remind himself what to do every day, like, 1.) wake up, 2.) make coffee, 3.) take shower, etc.   Because without the list, he’d forget to brush this teeth, and my sister was, like, “He sounds like you.”  Not because I have brain damage.  Well, maybe a little because of that.  But mostly, I think, because I do the same thing every day.  Now that I think about it, I should ask her what she meant…

Hey!  Internet’s back on! 

Breaking Up

I think my agent and I are breaking up.

It's nothing she's said, or done, really, just something I feel, like something is different between us these days.  Our intimate moments aren't as intimate, our passionate exchanges less passionate.  We don't talk about the future like we used to.

I think she's seeing other people.  It's OK.  It's not like we talked about being exclusive.  Well, we kind of did; she had me sign a contract promising I wouldn't.  It didn't matter.  I didn't want to see anyone else.  She was the one.  She has been everything to me--a staunch supporter of my work, a confidante, a trusted ally, and a friend.  So where did it all go wrong?

We started out so strong, like so many relationships.  We wanted the same thing, and we worked together to make that dream come true.  And for a while, it looked like nothing would stop us.  Then came the rejection letters.

She assured me these were just bumps in the road, buoyed my spirits, kept me believing in myself.

Then came the big blow.


I awoke early one December morning.  There was a message on my phone.  My agent.  Call her immediately.

Are you sitting in front of your computer? she wanted to know.

I can be, I said.

I want to be on the line when you read it, she said.

In my inbox was a letter from a publisher, a glowing letter that spoke of having read my memoir, Junkie Love, in one sitting, how enthralled they were with my work, best thing this particular editor had read in a long time.  Unbridled enthusiasm.  Next week, the editor would make the pitch to the sales' team.

We don't have an offer yet, my agent said said, but...

It hung in the air, an all but certain guarantee my life's work would finally be realized.

I called my sister, told her it looked like we'd found a publisher.

She said our mother would be proud.


The cold December winds blew, and the holidays came.  And they went.  The January rains rolled in with the new year, with wet, bone-chilling purpose.  My son grew older.  I would whisper to him as he slept that his father was not a bum.

I talked to my agent daily, seeing if the publisher had written back.  No, she said. And I could hear it in her voice.  Doubt.

When official word came that they were passing, I was devastated.  Maybe I withdrew, stopped doing the little things that keep a relationship going, keep it strong, stop a love from dying on the vine.

Things happen in relationships.  Betrayals.  Disappointments.  Even joyous occasions, like a promotion or fellowship.  These changes can bring about the irreversible, set in motion diverging paths, send one another in a new, separate direction, taking your love with it.  And when that love is gone, it does not come back.  It goes somewhere else, for others to use.  And you can only wish them well in their journey, hope they fare better than you did, because to begrudge them that is selfish, irresponsible even, strips you of the one thing you have left.  The memories (sigh).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Billy Martin

Smoke ribbons through the room stale with cigar and beer.  There are other boys.  I am wearing my Yankees jersey, pale, thin arms in an oversized shirt, baseball cap pulled down tightly over my eyes because that is how I always wear my baseball hat, and I am always wearing my baseball hat.  And I am a rabid Yankee fan even at eleven. 

Yankee manager Billy Martin is the guest speaker and he’s telling raw jokes, jokes I am too young to get.  There are no women here.  It might be the American Legion.  Or it could be a banquet hall, even a Y.

My father brought my brother and I.  Josh doesn’t care much about baseball at this time, or the Yankees.  He’s a behemoth of a boy.  No one knows where he got his curly hair from, but they say, he, like my father, inherited our great grandfather’s gargantuan size.  At six or seven, he’s already bigger than I will ever get.  He has a fat, cherubic face.  Not dour and scowling like I am now, or he will become.

The night winds down.  This wasn’t an autograph session.  Still, Martin says he’s got time to sign a couple autographs if there are any kids there.  My father looks at me, and brings my brother up to shake Martin’s hand and get his autograph.

I don’t recall this ever taking place.  Have no recollection of ever seeing Billy Martin speak.  I once saw Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly speak, got his autograph on a baseball we lost in the woods behind our house, because we had run out of other baseballs but the game had to go on.  I don’t think my father took me to see Mattingly.  Though, maybe he did.

No, I know this story only because my brother tells it one night, when we get drunk on New Year’s at his ex-wife’s condominium.  I’ll be a junkie by that point, but my brother, more than anyone else, will love and forgive me, even going as far as looking up to me in admiration for my commitment to rage against whatever institution I held to blame.

Our father will still be alive.  I don’t know why we will talking about him, but we are, and my brother will recount this story, through tear-filled eyes, apologizing to me for a night I’m not sure ever happened.  Even through my opiated haze, I know what he is really saying.  “Sorry that our father loved me more.” 

I laugh at his sentimentality, and he laughs too, because we are drunk, and ain’t nothing feels better than blood on blood. 

And it doesn’t make a difference if this night with Billy Martin happened.  In my brother’s memory, it did, and it is one more thing to feel guilty about, just like I do, mortar and brick, bone by bone, over things over which we have no control.

Running Pt. II

I began 2007 in a hospital bed.  My right leg wasn't allowed in its joint, so my acetabulum, which had been fractured, and my femur had to be forceable held out of place.  The doctors accomplished this by drilling two holes in my knee on the outside, screwing in some pins and attaching ropes and 5 lb. sacks of water, which were slung over the footrest, pulling my ball socket out of my hip.  They weren't allowed touch because I'd shattered the pelvis, and until the surgeons put it back together my pelvis was like a shale jigsaw, not the best place to wedge a bone in. This kept me on my back, literally, weeks where I couldn't shift to the side to sleep, or shift at all; I felt like a marooned turtle.  My lung had collapsed so breathing was hard, but worse I'd broken some ribs, and my back, the lower traverse lumbar, which is where the muscle hooks onto the spine, and with the lung I kept coughing, which the cracked ribs and back didn't like, my entire body spasming, seizing up, sending a searing pain through my chest almost as bad as when Amy Krois stopped returning my calls.

It was worse than that, really.  My leg had turned a funky shade of blue, which despite doctors assuring me was perfectly normal, brought back horrible memories of almost losing my hand to junk that one time.  Speaking of junk, it was pretty funny after the accident.  They scrape me from my bike, and my girl from the bushes, where she'd landed after I laid the motorcycle down, whisking us away in separate ambulances.  All this, a haze.  The car came at us so fast, I'd reacted so fast, and then we're on the ground, and I'm bleeding from my head, and I can see my girlfriend on her knees, sort of hunched over, and I just want to see that she's alive, and I actually get up and walk a good distance toward her, because she was flung pretty far, and I hear her moaning but I can't say anything, because I can feel my insides torn and busted to shit, and how I'm able to walk on a broken leg and shattered pelvis, I'm guessing adrenaline, and then a motorist who'd stopped takes me by the shoulder and tells me to sit down because I am spitting up blood.

So in the ambulance, they've got me strapped to a gurney, and I am in and out, and when I keep asking if my girlfriend is all right, and one of the EMTs goes, "Don't worry about your girlfriend.  She's doing a helluva lot better than you."  Then I see them drawing up some medicine, and I'm, like, "I'm a recovering addict; I can't have morphine," and the EMT sort of chuckles and says, "You need morphine."

In the hospital, I find out my girlfriend is OK, a bruised tailbone, walked out of the ER on her own.  She comes to see me, shaken obviously, but more worried about me, and you can see how fucked up you are by the expression on other's faces, no matter what they say.  It hurts just to be, even with the morphine they pump nonstop.  I'd later see, via some photographs taken, that another reason it hurts is that my back is one black slab, all the blood burst inside me spreading to the surface behind my skin, which is rippled red road rash.

People come to see me, including my brother and sister, who drive straight through from CT, a 20+ hour drive to Miami, and my friend Christopher makes me homemade macaroni and cheese, and sends out daily e-mail updates, in which my maneuvering of the motorcycle to spare my girlfriend takes on superheroic proportions, and I am not going to set it him straight that she was spared by the hand of God.  Or luck, depending on your beliefs and/or superstitions.

They have to wait several days for things to settle before they can operate and reconstruct humpty, and I am a turtle with a blue leg, and I know I will eventually break-up with my girlfriend, because a man has to protect his woman, and even if this archaic, it is deeply engrained, in both of us, and though I may not be consciously cognizant of this fact, it adds to the weight dragging me down.


By the time I am released, she's gone, back to California, because it was long-distance relationship, and she has school.  She'd flown in a day before the accident, December 30, 2006.

My brother and sister stay with me, then my sister leaves for school, leaving my brother to put me in the shower.  He jokes that he never expected to see my ball sac so many times.  Then he leaves, too.  And I am left in my wheelchair.

And the doctors say I won't be able to walk for at least six months.  Non-weight barring.  It'll be wheelchair, walker, crutches, cane, and then I can try walking in a pool, because water makes one weigh half as much.  And running?  Probably not a smart idea.  Ever again.  But we can't even talk about it for years.


My best friend, Rich, and I go running every Saturday.  Last year we ran Bay to Breakers, 7 and half miles.  I did it in 1:17.  Not great, about ten-minute miles.  But all things considered, I'll take it.

We're planning on going again this year, if they have it.  The sponsor, ING, pulled out after last year's event because of all the drinking and nudity.  Seriously, half the challenge of the B to B is getting out of the sea of bopping naked schlongs.

Rich is also my next-door neighbor in Berkeley.  We live near the aquatic park, so there are lot of trails and paths from which to choose, but most offer a spectacular view of San Francisco perched on its hills over the bay.

And every time I round the bend, my restricted right hip taking the pounding in stride, both keeping it limber and shortening its lifespan, it feels pretty fucking good to be alive.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gaslight Anthem Pt. I

This is what rock 'n' roll is about.

When I started playing rock 'n' roll in 1987, it was in response to a dearth of music that spoke to me.  I had Springsteen, and I'd later discover the Replacements and Co., but as I've admitted, I wasn't on the cutting edge of cool.  Nowhere close. There may've been ways to discover new quality music, but I didn't know where to look.  If it wasn't on the radio, I was lost.  And '80's radio was shit.  Big hair and songs about VD.  Winger.  White Tiger.  Whitesnake.  Posion.  Like anything else (vampire novels, anyone?), an industry gloms onto whatever trend is current and milks the fuck out of it.  I am not disparaging the record industry or even publishing.  People want to make money.  I get that.  If something sells, they will sell it.  And as for "quality," there is a great deal of "emperor's new clothes" going on, but I'll save that for a later post.  My point is, aside from the Boss, I didn't have much music to keep me going.  (In my mopey moments, I had Pink Floyd, but at their hardest they can hardly be construed as "rock 'n' roll.")

By the time I discovered the Replacements, who would become everything to me, they band had, in effect, broken up.  Bob Stinson was gone when I first heard "Alex Chilton."  Never forget it.  I was leaving work at the Hawthorne Inn and it came on the radio, and I was, like, "Fuck, what is that sound?!"  Soon, too, Chris Mars, leaving the boys to limp through a final round of concerts in support of All Shook Down, which is, effectively, a Westerberg solo effort.  But for as much I'd lean on the 'Mats, and even Springsteen, I always felt like I missed the boat.  You have catalogues but there is something about riding the wave with the band, waiting for new albums, catching them live while you can still get close enough to smell the sweat.

I am older now.  I'd sort of given up on finding "that band."  Much like, as Bruce Jenkins writes sarcastically (in response to Andrew Luck not coming out for the 2011 NFL draft, thinking he could later return for his degree) in a recent Chronicle article, "Because there is nothing cooler than a 30-year-old guy hanging around on a college campus..."  And I'd already done that.  A 40-year-old guy bopping along to a bunch of 27-year-old kids from New Jersey is tantamount to that guy who makes up his own nickname, so it'd have to be a pretty goddamn special band.

The Gaslight Anthem is.

Keys to Successful Blog Postings

So I've been doing this blogging thing for a while now, a little over three weeks, a little over three thousand hits.  Pretty good.  Not Stuff White People Like good, but pretty good.  So far, the feedback has been largely supportive, with a few people hating it, and a couple friends taking exception to their personal lives being made public.

Now any writer who tells you that they don't write for an audience is either A) lying or B) a shitty writer.  I may well be both, but you have to take audience into consideration if you want to have any impact.  I'm not saying to you go all Bruckheimer/Bay or anything, but writing is not done in a vacuum, even if it is a solitary and lonely act (unless you are James Patterson).  You can call it formula or template, or "the rules" or whatever the fuck you'd like, but every writer, no matter what they write, whether it's by-the-book thrillers or fucking poetry, study response.

Here is what I have learned in my three weeks blogging:

  • Posting daily is good.  Posting four times a day is not good.  Blog posts are best served in small doses.  One of the appeals of reading a blog, it seems, is feeling like you've read the whole thing.  1,000 words a day is doable.  5,000 words and people feel like they are being asked to read a book.  And no one wants to read a book.
  • Mentioning friends by name is good.  Unless they are named John. Since my readership consists of basically the same half dozen or so, addressing them by name creates a personal touch, makes them feel a part of the show, brings them back for more (right, Sean, Esther, Shawn, Justine, and Jimmy?)  This rule, however, should be suspended if the person is named "John."  For some reason "Johns" do not like to be personally addressed, even if you are promoting their work or lightly teasing them about baseball.   
  • Use the word "fucktard." It has been consistently proven.  You use the word "fucktard" in a post, the post will be successful.
  • Don't make fun of online zines with goofy names.   This was a hard lesson to learn.  While trying to continue a series where I post all my bad query letters, I made fun of a magazine called (and I am probably getting the name wrong) Bust Down the Door and Eat All the Chickens. People did not like this.  Especially Cynthia, who said I was a bad person and very unprofessional.  I explained to Cynthia that since I am writing this blog only to get my name out there and get people to like me that that wasn't my intention, so I deleted the post.  Even then Cynthia was still upset with me.  It wasn't only Cynthia.  Also Eric and some other guy were not happy with my poking fun at Chickens.  To date this has been the only post roundly hated and with more negative comments than positive ones.  As such, I hereby vow never to make fun of online zines with goofy names.  Dirty Goat, you are safe.
  • There is a fine line between bitching and whining.  When I posted a piece called "Vampire Love," where I replaced all the "junkies" from my memoir with "vampire" in a snarky attempt to cash in on the current vampire craze, I received this from Jess, who said... "Wow, this is pretty bad. When we hit Peak Phosphorus, our descendants will say 'Damn, we'd have had five more minutes of phosphorus if Joe Clifford hadn't ever existed. And we wouldn't have to listen to his whining about being a failure, either!'"  I was forced to concede Jess has a point.  I'd prefaced the entry with my frustration over the delay in getting my book published.  But truthfully it is probably just a matter of time.  My agent says it'll get published, and she knows more than I do.  And I do spend a great deal of time bitching, which can come across as whining.   
  • Mention Berlin High School.  That was my high school.  Like any mopey artist dressed in black, I didn't like my time there, but most of my friends are on Facebook and they like reading pieces about our hometown.  And mentioning Tracy Bartlett doesn't hurt either.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Good Years: 12

I talked about picking the Yankees as my favorite baseball team (in which I good-naturedly accused a current friend of bandwagoning," and who in response upon reading his name in print threw such a hissy fit and crawled so far up my ass, I have since removed offended perpetrator's name.  Where I am from, accusations of "bandwagoning" are about as harsh as a mama joke, but apparently south of Oaktown, them is fighting words.  And I ain't a fighter.  I'm a...[washing sick taste from my mouth]...a writer).  And I talked about blackboard duty with Muriel.  That about covered my first decidedly good year, my 8th.

On to 12.  I've already discussed my first date/probably-not-a-date at the Berlin Fair with Tracy (in the post titled "Berlin Fair"), which took place in my 12th year. Things were looking up after three disappointing follow-ups to that first successful campaign.  9 was spent, much like later 37 would be, nursing a broken body back to health, 10 and 11 lost in the mire of nothing much doing.  I did play baseball once the body cast came off (BTW, for those who doubt I was a "fat kid," when I had that body cast, they had to cut a hole out for my fat ass gut.  True story), to occasionally spectacular results, one game in particular coming in for relief and striking out the side.  My first stint as a pitcher.  It was an auspicious debut.  I thought I was on to bigger and better things.  But much like my writing career (which began with a tour of CT, an award with the CT Review, and girls girl asking for my autograph), I petered out.

That was Intermediate League baseball, a stepping stone to Little League, sugarcoated by parents in town as an alternative to the fast-pace and pressure of the big time.  Which of course, like so many lies they tell you, was bullshit. Intermediate Baseball was for fucktards with no athletic ability who could barely hold a bat upright (hence my masterful three K performance).  It was where they sent the Timmy Lupuses, the "booger-eating spazes" of town, sticking them in the pasture to smell their fingers and eat dandelions.

I was very good in Intermediate, clearly the the best in the league, which is sort of like being the tallest midget, and we could've learned a lesson here, one that would've served me well in my later life, answering the age-old question of whether it is better to be big fish in small pond or to test your mettle and see what you got with the big boys.  No doubt history boasts several who chose the latter and saw it work for them, the guys and gals who board that Kansas Greyhound and set out for the Hollywood Hills and become stars.  Far more, however, board that bus and find themselves sucking the proverbial dick out by the trucker motel.

So I tried out for Little League at 11 and made it.  The Red Sox.  Such was my love of the real Yankees that I cried upon hearing the news and threatened not to report.

My Little League career lasted two seasons, and I was one of the better kids on the team, but the team sucked, and I didn't make the All-Star Team.  My buddy Dan likes to joke how when I got to San Francisco and would get drunk, I'd start bitching about where it all went wrong, citing my failure to make the All-Star team.  And it was a defining moment in my...

Wait.  This post was supposed to be about why 12 was a good year.

Come to think of it, 12 sorta sucked in terms of stuff happening to me.  I did have that date at the Berlin Fair, but my parents fought non-stop, I found out I'd never achieve my dream (playing for the New York Yankees), and I was chubby.  And Tracy Bartlett spent my $40.  But goddammit, 12 was a good year.  I remember feeling...happy.  There was a possibility present in my life.  I really did believe I could be anything I wanted to be.  And I had my mother, who was as good a mother as there ever was.  For every time my father called me "stupid," she was there to tell me I was something special, encouraging my art, throwing me surprise birthday parties, and doing whatever she could to shield me from my father's violence.

And I was 12.  12 is a pretty cool fucking time.  School isn't that hard.  At least not for me because I didn't do any homework or study.  And I read a lot at 12...

Hell, maybe it was just that fucking date at the Berlin Fair, or the years of abusing drugs have truly fucked up my memory, but goddammit I remember 12 as a good year!  That's my story.  And I'm sticking to it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Old Lang Syne

Talking with an old high school classmate on Facebook has got me thinking about...girls.  Specifically, high school girls.  Not high school girls now.   I'm 40. That'd be creepy.  I mean, the ones I went to high school with.  I don't want to embarrass anyone by calling them out by name.  Oh, what the hell?  Who reads this fucking blog anyway?   Melissa Cote.  Tracy Bartlett.  The Hodgson sisters. Heather Richotte.  Jodi White.  Jen... Listen, basically, if you were an attractive female who attended Berlin High School between 1984 and 1988, there was a good chance I was in love with you.  There's a good chance I wrote shitty 52-page poems about you with obscure pretentious references that made no sense, and that you, (through no fault of your own, other than your being really really pretty) made my heart hurt.

I am going to do something one should never do: quote Dan Fogelberg.

There's a line in "Old Lang Syne"--y'know, that Delilah after Dark classic, which starts, "I met an old lover in a grocery store..."

I'll admit it; the fucking song tears me up.

On the off chance you haven't even found yourself listening to lite rock after midnight on a lonely V-tines Day eve horking back a burger through the tears, it goes something like this.  The narrator is hanging out in the grocery story on Christmas Eve, looking for frozen peas or some shit, when he comes across an ex-girlfriend (here called "lover" because it's Dan Fogelberg, further adding to the shame).  So they start talking, decide to go somewhere to catch up.  All the bars are closed.  It's Christmas Eve.  So they grab a six pack, sit in her car.  Her life is shit. She's married to some limp dick architect.  He has it better, because he's Dan Fucking Fogelberg, but clearly she was something special, and her absence has left a void.  Then the conversation hits a wall.  They're older, different people, not young anymore.

Here's the part that kills me:

  The beers were empty and our tongues grew tired
  and running out of things to say
  She gave a kiss to me as I got out
  and I watched her drive away
  Just for a moment I was back in school
  And felt that old familiar pain
  And as I turned to make my way back home
  the snow turned into rain...

I can still feel those nights, man.  The quiet minutes where you were fortunate enough to be left alone with her.   The school dances.  The...drop ins.  The movies. The fair.  The games or buses or parties.  Doesn't matter.  You can feel every atom on your skin tingling in anticipation...for...the something big that may happen. Really, is there anything like the desperation and urgency of a high school crush? It's all you think about, pining all hope on its coming true.  Like Bogart getting his guts kicked out when it doesn't go the way you wanted.  And does it ever?  Because nothing does.  Not the girl.  Not the life you dreamed you'd have.  None of it.

Not that it's awful.  Far from it.  It can be terrific.  But it isn't through the unfettered, optimistic eyes of your sixteen-year-old self.  It is, at best, compromised.  And you miss that pain when it's gone.

The fucked up part, I mean unless you were a senior on the football team, or one of those self-assured types (and I wasn't friends with any of those), if you were a boy, you didn't have a chance.  You might get a girlfriend from the lower grades (a two grade drop off seems about right), some pimply flat-chest, but the hot girls in your class?  Forgetaboutit.  Me?  I was a fucktard, a creep and a weirdo.  I could barely walk straight with my stupid bowl haircut, drawing my goofy pictures and talking to myself.  Melissa Cote wasn't going out with me! (although she was my first slow dance).

Oh, to be cool in high school...

It's one of the injustices of this life, getting older and finally getting your shit together.  You hit 40 and you've got some shit figured out (and if you're lucky, you've even kept your hair).  It's good to have shit figured out.  You have decent credit, own a house, have a kid, a wife, some money, investments, a grasp on your mental, financial, and spiritual well-being.  You don't fall apart when a girl doesn't respond to your note by fourth period.  You are strong, sturdy, a right on holy roller... But, man, what I wouldn't give to be a lite rock song for a night, a night where you drive with no destination in mind, summer, winter, fall, doesn't matter, it's the boys packed in the car, it's blood on blood, and you're hearing "Wish You Were Here" for the first time, everything new, bursting with possibility, because what's-her-name might be there tonight, and you don't have to be home for another four hours, and you'll feel that nervous excitement just to be near her, for the chance to talk to her, and who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, this life will turn out just the way you are dreaming it...

I guess that's why we have high school reunions and fucking Dan Fogelberg.

Dear Editor: Daughtry

My letter to the editor at's Hot Clicks after author Jimmy Trania mentioned liking the singer Daughtry.

Dear Jimmy,

I religiously read your Hot Clicks every morning. You love the Yankees. You love hot chicks. In another life, we'd be best friends. In short, you seem like a cool dude. Until I read this: "I'm a Daughtry fan." Even if it is true, who the fuck admits something like that? It's not like singing Timmy T's "One More Try" at karaoke. It's not watching the occasional Disney Channel show. You just admitted to like fucking Daughtry! On Hot Clicks!! I don't think I can ever read your site again. Maybe not even SI, for fear I'd see your name. This kills me. Really? Jimmy? That bald douche who sings like he's taking a shit? That Daughtry? The arena-generic-as-fuck pseudo grumble rock poser fuckwad? That guy? This hurts worse than Melissa Cote not calling me back in the 8th grade. Thanks for ruining my day and ripping away one of the few pleasures I had in this life (Hot Clicks on SI). Jerk."

*Note: this letter was published in the February 12, 2010 edition of Hot Clicks.  It is available (along with Jimmy's gracious response) here:

Running Pt. I

I went running twice this weekend.  Not the smartest activity with my arthritic hip. I'm paying for it today.  I usually like to give it a couple days in between but I am trying to win that trip to Hawaii at my gym by trimming body fat.  Plus, I need to run; it's good for my mental health.  Doctors haven't forbidden the activity, though common sense somewhat does.  Running is tough on the joints, the hard pounding, and in my case it is bone-on-bone in my restructured right pelvis socket.  My hip showed traumatic arthrosis in the last X-Ray I had, which was almost a year and a half ago, so it's a pretty safe bet we've advanced to the traumatic arthritis stage, at which point the countdown to hip replacement begins, commencing when that bone-on-bone pain makes it impossible to do the little things, like climb stairs or walk.  Basically, I only have so much life left in my hip, like so many points, points used up with each activity; and jogging uses a shit-ton of points.  But there's a caveat.  Non-use, sedentary sitting-on-my-ass, also proves detrimental.  Not doing anything only slows the inevitable, not to mention the added stress gaining weight and body fat would put on the joint, and inactivity increases the constant, chronic pain condition stemming from the motorcycle accident, which escalates the more I don't do.  I sometimes feel like a shark.  I stop moving, I die.

All of which may be a little melodramatic, I admit, a detailed analysis where a simpler explanation would suffice.  I got fucked up in a bad motorcycle accident. Broke a bunch of shit.  Doctors say it's a catch 22.  Exercise is good, some better than others.  Yoga is less stressful.  But I ain't doing yoga (no offense, Ms. Brett). Like my father before me, I am man.  I lift heavy shit.  I run.

Perception is 9/10ths of the law.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Good Years: 8

I have a propensity to bitch, I realize, so I figured I'd focus on the positive for a change, with a series of my good years, starting with 8.

The first seven years weren't too hot.  Granted up until, say, three, I don't remember much, just flashes of color, the occasional searing pain (which I've been told, or rather was told, by my dead mother could have been the result of when I tried climbing on top of a burning stove to get some cookies, blistering my young baby hands,) mostly snippets, really--forest green and sunlight, red houses and dirt roads. Consciousness hits around four, and I have to say I was none too impressed.  Some of the highlights of those early years: a book made just for me, staring a giraffe and a kid named Nick, apparently created by my mom when she sent away details of my young life (things like "friends," "likes" [apparently I liked giraffes]), etc.) to some company that published tailor-made books (think: Shutterfly); riding on the back of my father's motorcycle, which would've been between ages 5 and 6, no helmet, driving down the Chamberlin Highway (in my father's defense, he would've only been 27 or 28 himself, and CT had no helmet laws); an imaginary friend named Mr. Fox, for whom I worked, and who, in addition to circumventing child labor laws, also paid me the illegal immigrant wages of one silver dollar a day.  These few memories aside, I have to say I wasn't terribly impressed with life, which seemed mostly an exercise in things one cannot do or have.  That changed when I hit 8.

Perhaps "changed" is not the right word.  But things definitely looked up.  For one, the Yankees won the World Series in '78, beating the Dodgers.  But to get there they had to beat the hated Red Sox in a one-game playoff, after the two were tied following 162 games.  Picking a baseball team is part chance, part fate, but it is a lifelong commitment (unless you simply bandwagon to whichever team is currently winning), one that will, if you are a man's man, determine a great deal of your life satisfaction.  I could've chosen the Red Sox.  My best friend Mark was a Sox fan, so too his cousin Rich (with whom I would later go to Europe and who would introduce me to Justine, and who is the oldest friend I still have).  Berlin, where I grew up, was split right down the middle in allegiance. Three things determined my picking the Yankees: 1.) my father did not like them. Whether he was a full-blown Sox fan, or whether that came in reaction to my becoming a Yankee fan, I cannot say.  But I already didn't like my father, who was brutish and threw my mother down flights of stairs. 2.) Mike Giana liked the Yankees.  I thought Mike was cool.  Mike was a helluva athlete.  3.) I liked the color blue.

The '78 playoff game was huge in my small social circle.  The Yankees had been down 14 and half games as recently as July.  The daily taunting by Red Sox fans on the school bus was particular brutal heading into that summer, the first summer of my complete recollected consciousness, not relenting after school let out, since my best friends were Sox fans, so that when the Yankees came storming back into first by the first day of school, vindication was sweet (bragging rights for your team really helps determine pole position at that age).  The Red Sox, admittedly, had a great team that year and would not go quietly, themselves mounting a minor comeback the last week of the season, winning on the last day (the Yankees losing to, I believe, Detroit), forcing the sudden death.  The game itself was played on October 2nd at Fenway Park.  All you need to know of this game is three words: Bucky Fucking Dent.

Being a Yankee fan has served me well.  Red Sox fans will cling to their comeback in 2004 against the Yankees as vindication for their choice (they also won in 2007). But this illustrates the very problem with Sox fans: an inferiority complex.  Though it hurt at the time, 2004 was merely another season in which the Yankees did not win the World Series, and now resides in the annals with 2001, 1981, 1985, and so on.  For Red Sox fans it needs to mean more, and when it can't, it fills them with a gnawing, unrelenting, though impossible to pinpoint, feeling of inadequacy, which may or may not be relating to having tiny penises; I can't say.  All I know is that since I've become a Yankee fan, I have seen my team win six World Championships (I can't count 1977, although I vaguely recall their winning it all that year too) to the Red Sox two.  Though I am no math major, I do know 6 (7) is more than 2.

It wasn't just the Yankees' victorious season that helped render my 8th year such a success, though it was a big part of it.  There was also Muriel Kucharczyk, with whom I shared blackboard duty that school year.  Muriel had a mucklemouth, which meant her mouth went all sideways when she talked (and which knocked me out).  For those five minutes after class and before recess, when I'd stand next to her, I felt safe, whole, warm, like I was something good.  Girls and women have been fulfilling this same role my entire life.

For my 8th birthday, I got a Huffy bicycle, my first taste of freedom on the open road.

I discovered my talent at 8, or rather I was told by others that I had talent.  I could draw.  This meant I was an artist.  I may've sucked at baseball (though I'd never stop trying) but I had a skill.  And like Napoleon Dynamite says, girls only like guys with skills.  Actually, girls didn't like me much through high school (though I'd have my revenge at the 20 year reunion, as one of only, I believe three, who kept his hair [we showed 'em, Jeff Dubac!]).

So at 8, things were looking up for me.  Until I turned 9, when Mike Piskorski broke my leg in a one-on-one game of tackle football in his backyard and I'd be stuck in a full body cast (he broke my right femur so high it was almost my right hip, the same hip I would shatter in a motorcycle accident nearly twenty-five years later that would leave me with traumatic arthritis, chronic pain, and in need of a replacement at 40) all through the winter, missing the start of Little League.  My game would never be rebound.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Berlin Fair

There are benefits to growing up in a little town over the big city.  You have lots of grass and trees, and you can play baseball at one of the town's many fields or football in the street in the winter, and there's ponds and streams and woods to get lost in and tall hills to throw rocks at cars from.  There's gravel pits and swamps and quicksand... OK, probably not quicksand, but there was a marsh past the end of our cul-de-sac that would suck you up to your knees (Adam Carolla has this funny bit about growing up in the '70s because quicksand hysteria was everywhere.  If you were a kid in the '70s, Carolla says, you figured you had a 50/50 chance of dying in quicksand).  I remember the adventures, the sprawling games of hide and seek that traversed entire neighborhoods and acres of untouched land.

We just bought a house in the hills.  A nice house.  But like most houses in the San Francisco Bay Area, there isn't much of a yard.  We actually got half an acre, which by Bay Area standards is a lot.  When Justine was pregnant with Holden, I seriously considered moving us back to the East Coast.  But I am a city boy now, even if I remove myself to the hills and look at it from afar.


When I was a kid, there wasn't much to do.  Yeah, all those fields and hills are nice now, where childhood takes on the warm nostalgic glow of the Saturday Evening Post, but growing up, it was boring as hell.  I couldn't wait to get out, for happen.

The town, Berlin, is different now.  Two gas stations are now seven or eight, including the mega Citgo in the center of town.  Food Mart used to be the only supermarket; now there's Stop and Shop and Rodgers.  Fuck, there's even a goddamn Wal-Mart.  The movie theater used to be the Berlin Twin.  99 cents.  No shit.  99 cents to see a movie.  I remember going after freshman football games with the team and packing the place.  They used real butter.  We must've watched The Karate Kid half a dozen times.  Jesus, everything feels nostalgic now.  It's like that last line in Catcher in the Rye, where Holden warns you against writing about people you used to know because you start missing the hell out of them all, even the ones like Robert Ackley that you hated.  I miss those friends from my childhood. Great fucking names.  American kid names.  Jim Case.  Michael Piskorski.  Jimmy Ahern.  Mike Giana.  Tracy Bartlett.

Tracy Bartlett.

We all have our first crush.  Mine was Tracy Bartlett.  Tracey lived up the block from us.  Well, more like over the hill and through the woods, cross the crik and down the rocky embankment.  She lived next door to my best friend, Mark Caliandri.  Which in rural Connecticut means a good three-quarters of a mile, because you didn't have one house on top of the other like you do out here.

There's a line in High Fidelity about girls.  How one day you're hanging out with your buddies, and then the next they're just...there.  And they've grown breasts.

Tracy hung around with us, me, Jim Case, Mark, doing goofy kid shit, like throwing snowballs at cars (throwing things at cars was a pretty big pastime in Berlin.  Along with crank phone calls).  And I never thought much of her, other than she was pretty good at throwing things at cars, because I cared more about baseball and the Yankees back then.  Didn't have much time for...girls.  And then one day...

Tracy Bartlett was all I thought about.  Couldn't get her off my mind.  I was twelve.

The big thing in town was the Berlin Fair.  An annual event, much hyped.  They even let you out of school early, like a national holiday or something.  I went to the Berlin Fair when I was visiting back east before my mom died for the first time since I was a teenager.  It was like when you go back to your old elementary school or those sledding hills, everything now so small, shrunken.  A couple rickety rides, some crappy games, a donut fryer and a pair of sickly ponies.  But when I was 12, man, this was a big deal.  Like Christmas or summer vacation.

The fair was held the first weekend in October, and for some reason it always rained.  Seriously, I went to the Berlin Fair every year until I was sixteen, and it maybe didn't rain once.  We always went on Friday, because school was only a half-day.  And you could go on Saturday.  But never on Sunday.  Sunday is when the...out-of-towners came.  And by that I mean the Puerto Ricans from New Britain.

The logistics of dating at that age always tripped me out.  I mean, you can't drive, so your parents have to drive you around and that's just weird.  I already had enough social anxiety.  You could meet the girl somewhere.  But where?  In Berlin, there wasn't much nightlife.  No Go-carts or Mini-golf.  There was the .99 movie theater and a Friendly's.  The Berlin Fair was the perfect date spot.

Now I don't know if Tracy Bartlett "liked" me.  Even now I'm not terribly sure. Later on in high school, she was one of most popular and pretty, having "bloomed," and by then I was hanging with the ugly kids in the art room and Tracy was dating some douchebag on the football team.  But at 12, she wasn't out of my league yet.  I felt like I had a real chance with her, y'know?

I asked Tracy to go with me to the Berlin Fair in 1982.  Probably asked her by staring at her shoes and stammering awkwardly.  But she said yes, and I was so happy leading up to that year's fair.  I saved my money.  $40.  Which was a lot of money for a twelve-year-old kid in 1982.  I don't know how I saved it.  I didn't have a paper route like my friend Rich.  Probably my mother.  But I didn't spend it before the Berlin Fair, which is the important part.


It was raining, because it alway rained at the Berlin Fair.  I still remember she wore a blue padded coat with a hood.  We went on the Tilt-a-Whirl and ate french fries and donuts, and the place stank like a farm because they had livestock, you know that mix of manure and hay and horses.  Bells and whistles rang out with the start of the mechanical horse races and that game where you had to squirt water into a porcelain clown's mouth and blow up a balloon until it popped.

I don't remember what we talked about.  I don't think we held hands or anything.  I think we laughed about stuff.  I remember feeling happy.  To me it was a date.  And I know it was a date because Tracy Bartlett spent my whole $40.  $40 bucks and I didn't even get my hand held.  And she blew it all in one pop, too.

There was this game where you had to cover a red circle with five little silver discs. A sucker's bet.  Like tossing rings over those damn bottles.  Couldn't win.  Probably only cost .50 to play, but Tracy couldn't win, and she kept wanting to play more. What can you do when you're a boy in love with a girl?  You let her keep playing because you don't want the date to end.  As long as you are plopping down the .50, she's next to you, and you are happy.  The crisp autumn air, the light rain falling, the sounds of families and kids laughing and rides clanking, and she's next to you, and she smells so nice because she's a girl, and you've got that weird flippy-floppy feeling in your belly making it hard breathe, which should feel bad, but it doesn't.  It makes you excited with possibility...  Until the money runs out and the night comes, and you can't stop those things...  And it's funny how much that pattern would repeat throughout my dating life.

Oh, if I could write like James Joyce, I'd paint you a picture of Araby...

Don't Get Him Drunk

"Don't get him drunk," Jimmy said.

I was new to this drinking thing, and the first time I'd tried it hadn't gone so well.  I'd managed to abstain from alcohol my whole life, finally caving in one month before my twenty-first birthday, when Sherry Gagliardi rejected me and I returned to the Community Center with a bottle of J&B Scotch that had been in my parent's basement since we moved in nearly ten years earlier, left in its original green dusty box and stashed above the wood beam from which my father's heavy bag hung. Jimmy had been returning from a funeral when he saw the Community Center lights on.  Up until that night, I never touched the stuff.  Which was a little weird, since every kid I knew drank.  Ours was a little farm town and if you didn't drink, there wasn't much to do.  In fact, it was so weird, my not drinking, that when I hung around with Shawn and those guys, they'd feel the need to explain why I wasn't drinking, like, if we went to a party or something.  "He's allergic to alcohol," they'd say.  Which is funny, because that is practically the same thing they say in AA.

Anyway, when Jimmy walked in, I was pretty far gone.  I'd drank half the bottle and I don't remember much.  Though Jimmy does.  He tells the story a lot.  Apparently, because the Community Center was also the town's recreation dept. where they stashed all the sporting equipment, they had a starter's pistol among the basketballs and hula hoops, dodge balls and bullhorns.  I must've pulled it out, this starter's pistol, which if I recall looked pretty authentic, like a real gun.  Jimmy joined me in a drink.  Or three.   It had to be around 2 a.m. when the Berlin cops walked in to find me very drunk and waving a gun around, ready to pull their weapons.  I don't know what Jimmy told them, but it had to be good because it got them to leave.

Afterward, I vaguely recall yelling out to Jimmy that I was an airplane as I ran up and down the Community Center Halls making sputtering sounds.

I woke up the next afternoon in my bed with a tremendous headache and a vow never to drink again.


I'd been watching a band with my buddy Rich at the Cool Moose in Hartford.  I don't remember the name.  I think I was mostly there to meet the club's booking agent so I could get my band, Something Like Paisley, a show (and we'd get many a show at the Cool Moose.  And we'd rock the house).  Around midnight, Jimmy walks in with a girl with shorn red hair, wiry thin and a nose ring.  Now these things aren't that shocking, I realize, but at the time, for me it was.  For one, we were in Hartford, which was, like, the big city, because I never left Berlin.  Neither did Jimmy, not that I knew of.  I'd just turned 21, and yeah I'd gone to Europe on that trip to meet Syd Barrett, but I wasn't a very social guy.  And I hadn't drank since that one night, especially not around Rich, who was the only other teetotaler I knew.

Jimmy and I had only become friends after I started at the Community Center.  I'd known about him all through high school.  He was a year older than I, and someone who I thought was really cool.  This is based mostly on a short story he wrote that Charlie Blake had shown me in the library.  In the story, Jimmy's parents go away and leave him in the care of his sadistic older brother.  And there was something about spiders.  It was funny as hell.  I remember laughing so hard I couldn't breathe. So in a way you could say that I looked up to him.  Jimmy got girls.  (If you want to know more about Jimmy, you can read my short story "Tripping for Biscuits," which is pretty accurate, I think.)  This girl he was with was so...grown up.

Her name was Julie.  I can't say her last name because the last time I wrote anything about her--actually only used the name of a friend of hers in a short story--she told me I didn't have a soul.  But I liked her right away, especially when I found out she wasn't Jimmy's girl and that they were just friends.

So I grabbed a drink, because I wasn't going to be able to talk to her without a drink.  I think Rich left at that point, and Jimmy must've said he'd give me a ride home.  Then Jimmy must've taken off for somewhere, too, because he left us alone, but not before telling Julie, in no uncertain terms, "Don't get him drunk."

I got drunk.  Julie got drunk too.  Julie drank a lot, I think.  Either way, I never heard the story of what we did that night, before the arrest.  We could've gone to Elizabeth Park, or the Comet, or maybe even Scarlett O'Hara's.  I don't think I kissed her.  I know she smoked, a habit I found disgusting.  As disgusting as I would later find her liberal politics (I was a Republican back then).  We might've listened to Lou Reed.  But not at her house, because we wouldn't get to her house until later.

Jimmy must've come back because the next thing I remember is bouncing along like an overly stimulated tiger cub in the backseat of his car, hollering about who knows what.

When you wait to start drinking until you are 21, you have a lot of catching up to do.  All the obnoxious shit most guys get out of the way at 14, you're just working through.  I think I was charming, though.  I can be charming for short bursts.


When the officer shone the light in my face, I was flat on my back, clutching a copy of On the Road.  Where I got the book, or how much of it I had read, beats fuckall out of me.  I saw Jimmy's dark blue car a few feet away.  I was on grass.  And very drunk still.  The cops lifted me up and ask for my ID.

"What's your name kid?"

"Tommy Petersen," I sid.

With my ID in hand.  "Says your name is Joseph Clifford."

"I'm Tommy Petersen!"  Petersen was my boss at the Community Center.

I must've gotten belligerent, because the cops throw me against the car, and I'm screaming at them to give me back my book.  Jimmy and Julie come running out of the house, just as the cops are putting on the cuffs.

"Don't tell 'em nothin', Jimmy!" I'm screaming.  "Don't tell 'em nothin'!"


The sun is almost up me as I walk out of jail.  My first arrest.  My first night on the inside.  The big house.  Being in prison changes a man.  Those were three of the longest hours of my life.  Just a man with his lonely thoughts in a cold cell.  And a toilet.  And a bunkmate who calls himself The Big Stash.

Jimmy bailed me out and we drove down to his folk's cottage along the shore.  We got to Jimmy's cottage and were still laughing.  He grabbed some Michelob Lite and a couple lawn chairs and we watched the sun come up over the lake.

"We told her not to get you drunk," Jimmy said.

Later that afternoon, Julie called my house to tell me she had a wonderful night, asking if I wanted to go out again sometime.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How Holden Got His Name Pt. II

In the summer of 1990, my friend Rich and I went backpacking through Europe, a pre-college rite of passage, at least for white suburban kids.  In the fall Rich would attend Trinity College in Hartford, a tough school he'd worked hard to get into, applying himself at all levels and working a variety of jobs to afford the tuition.  I'd be going to State, because they were the only school that would take me.  Not that I applied to any others.  I was lazy and shiftless.  As a student, I was a slacker before the term was en vogue.  I rarely did homework, seldom read assignments, and had no concern for my future, academic or otherwise.  My plan was to be a drifter.

We'd start out in England, where we'd get jobs for a couple months, save money to fund the rest of our trip, buy our Eurorail pass and be on our way.

If if wasn't for Rich, I certainly wouldn't have found a job.  I was a terrible worker, with no ethic whatsoever.  Leading up to our trip, Rich and I had worked for Rich's uncle, Donny, who owned an ice cream truck.  I remember when Donny hired a new driver.  He said, "You do the job like Rich.  Not like Joe."

My "problem"--and I did have a problem--was a worm had snuck into my brain, boring and wriggling, and it had started to eat away at the fat.  Somewhere around sixteen, a switch tripped.  Up until then, I'd had friends, gotten along OK.  Not the most popular kid, but I was relatively normal.  OK, a little weird, artsy and whatnot. I spent a lot of time alone, too.  Made up a lot of complicated narrative arcs and storylines acted out by GI Joes.  But all in all, I was a kindasorta regular kid.  That changed around the time of my 16th birthday.  Everything got much darker, heavier, sadder for me.  I isolated much more.  The one girlfriend I managed to get, I smothered.  And when she was gone, I moped and brooded, subjected to terrible thoughts.  And I listened to a lot of Pink Floyd.

I started seeing my first shrink around this time, and I remember her asking me what kind of music I listened to.  When I said Pink Floyd, she nodded.  "A lot of troubled kids like that band."

I more than "liked" Pink Floyd.  Like most of my pursuits, I obsessed.  I didn't just buy every record and memorize every lyric; I bought every solo record from every member of the band, even the crappy offerings by the drummer (Nick Mason), as well as tracked down hard-to-find efforts like the out-of-print (and very underrated) Wet Dream by Rick Wright, who I considered the unheralded, George Harrison of the band.  Of course I had Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and About Face by co-leaders Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour, and in the break-up I took the less popular Gimour's side, even though Waters was the primary songwriter.  I picked up books about the band, watched Live at Pompeii and The Wall non-stop.  I was fascinated by all of them, and none more than original lead singer and songwriter, the madcap Syd Barrett.

Maybe it was because I felt the onset of my own mental illness around this time that I felt a kinship with Barrett.  I knew something was "wrong" with me, my anxiety and mini-nervous breakdowns, where I'd sort of shut off and begin an embarrassing shaking fit, which could be brought about by just about anything.  I'd cry and shake at the most inopportune times.  Later, in rehabs and psyche hospitals, doctors would explain it was a response to my father's temper.  I don't know.  Maybe I just liked to romanticize that the sadness I felt was indicative of genius within.  I was an artist. Or rather, I'd been recognized as such by classmates who'd voted me so in the yearbook.  I did draw a lot of pictures.  It was the thing I was good at.  I needed an identity.  Artists were often mad.  Or so I'd read.  It seemed a pretty cool way to be, y'know, like for a career.  If that is what was happening to me, that this thing I felt in my head was...madness, which did run in my family, aunts and grandfolk reprimanded to institutions, I could use a role model.

Syd Barrett was only in the band for one album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, contributing a single track to A Saucerful of Secrets, having been replaced by then by Gilmour, who was, honestly, a far superior singer and guitarist (and, yes, even songwriter).  Syd Barrett's music sort of sucked, to tell you the truth.  I didn't admit it at the time, of course.  But in retrospect, the guy had one or two good songs, "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play" with Pink Floyd, and his solo records had flashes of brilliance, but most of his tunes were an exercise in descent and self-absorption.  The Madcap Laughs, Barrett, and the cobbled-together Opel succeed only in the fact that they were actually finished (and Opel really stretches that concept).  Really, Pink Floyd became the band they did after Barrett was kicked out for his increasingly bizarre, drug-induced (acid, primarily) behavior.  Still, there is no denying his influence.  From Dark Side of the Moon to The Wall, with their best effort (in my humble opinion), Wish You Were Here, sandwiched in between--all dealt with Barrett's illness, either directly or indirectly, chronicling the allure of drugs and insanity, with Waters's pointed and pained lyrics about being imprisoned by one's one sick, depraved mind at the forefront.

Hell, I was 18.  What the fuck did I know?  I was sad, fucked up, and looking for answers.  So in the summer of 1990, I found my answer in Pink Floyd, and specifically Syd Barrett.

Rich and I got jobs working as porters for the Royal Air Force Club.  Pretty cool gig, since we usually got tipped in pounds, which was like $2 US a pop, even if we had to wear these goofy red and white get-ups.  You know the Brits and their formality.  I wrote my first short story in England, which was actually pretty good for a first effort.  Wish I still had it.  It was about three eccentric people in a town with one road, who band together to oust four butchers trying to open shop.  Pretty funny stuff, if I recall.  Y'know, for a first try.  I didn't read much in those days. Sort of hated books.  Had probably read less than fifty my whole life, including kid books and school.  Because teachers told you to read books, and I didn't like to be told what to do.

We had a room near Seven Sister's Station, a stop along the London Tube, in a house belonging to an Englishman named Pat Heaney, which was in the middle of a strict Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.  We were sitting in our room one night after work, eating Safeway cookies.  Never seen them again, those cookies.  Only in England.  But these fuckers were awesome.  Vanilla sandwich cookies  We could go through a box a night.  Anyway, Rich asked me if I ever read Catcher in the Rye.  I told him no.

"I think you'd like it," he said.  "It's not one of my favorites, but, you, you'd probably like it."  Then he went on to describe the plot about a kid who hated everything, which vaguely sounded like me.  And by "vaguely," I mean exactly.

All through high school they'd tried to get me to read that damn book.  But Rich's suggestion had weight, and now that I was out of school...and well, I needed something to read on the train anyway.

Because I was going to find Syd Barrett.

After Syd Barrett was kicked out of Pink Floyd, he went to live with him mum in Cambridge, only to emerge on the rare occasion to talk about pork chops.  At least that's what I read.  I did read some books, like ones about Pink Floyd and the Yankees, stuff I liked.

So on an off day from the Club, I bought a train ticket from London to Cambridge. There was a bookstore nearby and I grabbed a copy of Catcher in the Rye.

The ride to Cambridge wasn't long, but I had no idea where Syd Barrett lived or anything, so when I stepped onto the platform, I just started walking around town. It was a lovely summer's day, with big English clock towers and high skies, universities and wide open green quads.

In a year, the Hartford Courant would write a feature article about me and my band, Something Like Paisley, which I'd start when I'd return to the States.  And even though by then I'd be much more into the Replacements and the Smiths, they'd print the story of how I met Syd Barrett by listening to a song on the London airwaves called "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives."  There is such a song, and I'd tell the reporter that that's what happened, because I already knew Rule #1 of writing non-fiction: never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  But that's not really what happened, the truth far less exciting.

I sat half the afternoon on a cobblestone bridge, with a blank page torn from my book, on which I'd scribbled in big letters: Does Anyone Know Where Syd Barrett Lives?  Eventually some kids on bicycles told me.

"Yeah, mate," they said. "He lives at #4 Cherry Hinton Lane, Margaret Square." They then cautioned me from knocking on his door.  "He's a mad bugger.  He'll yell and curse and probably throw things at you."

I got directions and found Syd's street, looked up #4, which wasn't really necessary, since all the houses on the quiet residential block were well maintained, with tiny tidy lawns and fences, pretty drapes over the windows, little colorful flowerpots. Except one.  #4 Cherry Hinton Lane.  The house was decrepit, no lawn, just dirt. An ugly, unsightly house.  With big blankets draped askew.

So I knock on the door, and this great big fat bald man opens up, and I keep thinking of that line in "Shine On You Crazy Diamond": Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky...

I mumble something, socially awkward fuck that I am, and Syd says, very politely I might add, "No callers, mate."  And he shuts the door.

I contemplate banging for him to let me in, knowing full well that I'll never get the chance again, but what's the point?  What's he going to do?  Invite me in?  We'll become lifelong friends?  So instead I sit down on his steps and I crack open Catcher in the Rye.

And I keep reading until the the sun sets.  I can't stop.  I buy into Holden, hook through sinker.  He is me, and Salinger's writing, that voice, was art, everything I believed art could be.  It took me somewhere.  Gripping doesn't come close.  It was funny and sad, and I got it, like that book had been written just for me.  I know a lot of people like that book, but they don't get it like I get it.  And I sit there, eating a chocolate bar with biscuits inside, because this is England and they sell things like chocolate bars with biscuits inside, and it feels like England, y'know, with bells and whistles and bicycles and chimney sweepers and whimsy, and even if there were no whimsical bells, that is what I remember because that's what memory does with time, so that you can't say for sure what happened and what didn't happen, even though you can swear to certain details, like when I swear I heard from deep within the hollow walls of a madman's home the out-of-key lilt of Beethoven's Fifth...


So that's how my kid got his name.  Holden Caulfield.  In no small part, shaped because the first time I read Catcher in the Rye was on Syd Barrett's doorstep.  But I think more it's because that book opened up a world to me and got me reading, got me writing, and for as much as I fucking hate both of those things at times, it became a part of who I am, and that's a good thing.