Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The whole Gay Thing.

Dumb Badge
Fashion police maxim: if you don't wear an article of clothing for two years, get rid of it. Bearing that in mind, I assiduously dredge up something from the bottom of my dresser now and then, no matter how hideous, worn out or ill-fitting, just so I won't have to give it away. After the day's wear, the article somehow burrows its way back to the bottom of the drawer without a fuss. Problem solved.

Like most true slobs, I have a reasonably diverse wardrobe, but feel no compunction to continuously draw water from that well. I could cite environmental concerns; laundering clothes dumps phosphates into our rivers and streams. Since I have no idea what a phosphate is, here's the real reason: rising from an evening's slumber, the first thing my crusty eyes encounter are the self-same, serviceable, comfortable clothes I wore the day before. Why not put them on again? They won't mind, and neither will I.

Yesterday it was a pair of drawstring sweat-shorts. I got them at Sally's¹ for a buck or two. They're a bit short, and a bit tight. What the hell, it's August in the Bronx. Combined with a standard wife beater, I was all set for an arduous of day of watering houseplants and smiling at funny kitten pictures that my not-very-close friends had posted on Facebook.²

My 13-year-old daughter eyed me suspiciously when I came downstairs.³
"What's with the shorts?"
"Why? What's wrong with them?"
"No offense, but you look kinda gay."

I laughed heartily (because I'm a hearty guy) and walked to the hallway, to self-consciously look in the mirror. I had to admit--if I knotted the the tanktop at my belly button and wore a pair of flip-flops, the look would've been complete: very gay.

The whole gay thing is no big deal to me, but it was at one time. My first job out of college was at a medical publishing company in Greenwich Village. Aside from a diverse full-time staff, the company had a 24-hour print shop that attracted a lot of freelancers--local people from the surrounding area, comprised of artists, musicians and gays in general. It didn't hurt that the two managers of the department were a gay man and woman.

Flaming suspenders
Never went as far with
the outfits as Freddie Mercury...
It was a time when gays were coming out of the closet. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Freddie Mercury, George Michael in denial--I was fascinated by the glamorous gay lifestyle. Commuting from an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, I had never been around openly homosexual people before. Of course there were closet types in our area while growing up. They got picked on, beat up and abused on a daily basis, enduring a veritable potpourri of vitriol and hatred spewed by the local intelligentsia: homo, fag, pansy, queer and the like. I wasn't a part of that, preferring to insult and demean fat kids instead. Every cruel child has a specific genre they should stick to, and weight problems were my forte. Nice, huh?

Downtown though, gays could express themselves freely, showing themselves to be creative and intelligent, and more than anything else, a lot of fun to be with. They seemed to know where all the good parties or trendy clubs were, living in interesting parts of Manhattan or Brooklyn that I wasn't familiar with. I wanted in.

Performers like Michael Jackson and Prince were always wearing makeup. I started experimenting, especially if I was going clubbing. For any man reading this, I have news for you: makeup doesn't just work on women. I looked fucking great. I had no idea how to apply it, but my best friend's girl did: she would apply a touch of mascara to my eyelashes, pencil in some eyeliner and add the slightest bit of blush. It made my hair look blacker, my gaze more intense, gave my gaunt cheekbones an angular look and hid any zits I had. I was sure men wearing makeup would eventually become mainstream, in the same way earrings are now.

Other days I went for an androgynous look. There was no dress code at my job. I'd wear colorful flowing shirts, baggy pants, ballet shoes or pirate boots, with big poofy scarves for a belt. There was a liberal company newspaper that came out once a month, inviting any and all comments, professional or not. I purposely made outrageous statements about a preference for latex or wanting to be licked head to toe. Predictably, a few gay men started hitting on me. Their advances made me vaguely uncomfortable, but I figured I could handle it.

I was mostly a post-punk though, into the Clash, Ramones and Chili Peppers. I owned a 1978 Honda 550 motorbike, with matching biker jacket and chains. I had spiky hair ala Sting; most of my clothes were black and torn.

Gregory Cole sat in the cubicle in front of me. He dressed impeccably every day in oxford shirts, pressed jeans and black loafers. With a strong, sharp nose and a conservative haircut graying at the temples, it was impossible to guess his age. He was very elegant, and most assuredly homosexual. I was jealous of his language skills; foreign phrases rolled off his tongue, perfect accents and inflections intact. If a European author neglected to send photo #36 of an atrophied testicle, I'd ask him to call the doctor for me. When Gregory planned on visiting Turkey, I asked him how his Turkish was. He dismissed the idea with a wave, saying, "No big deal. I'll pick it up in a day or two." We started having lunch together.

One day he invited me for a drink after work, with an editor named Suzanne. She had short hair, dressed like a man and had sexy photos of Cher plastered all over her cubicle. Walking towards the bars on Christopher Street, Gregory suggested we stop in somewhere for a cocktail. The place was sparsely populated with males chatting, but nothing really screamed gay bar. Gregory ordered the first of many Remy Martins, taken neat. Even after six drinks, he never slurred a syllable, had a hair out of place or lost his panache. I really liked him. He said the place was dead; we should try another bar further down the street, with a better happy hour.

We paused in front of a bar with no windows, called The Wicked Anvil or something.
"This place is a bit stronger," warned Gregory. "If you feel uncomfortable we don't have to stay."

Stronger was a mild adjective. Men were wearing leather chaps, some with thick handlebar mustaches. Two guys at a table were in a clinch, sucking face with gusto. Shock must have read on my face, because Gregory immediately suggested we leave. I had no intention of leaving; I didn't feel threatened, and wanted to see what this was all about. I was getting a glimpse into a secret world. We had a drink or two and left, without anyone approaching us. I was almost disappointed.

Back at work, there was a woman who intrigued me. Jean McPhee was a production editor with tri-colored hair and a few artsy tattoos on her wrist, rare for a woman at that time. She played bass in a band with Gordon Gano, of Violent Femmes renown. Nobody told me she was gay, figuring I already knew. She was 30, eight years my senior.

My entry-level job consisted of entering new manuscripts into an archaic DOS computer system. There were in and out boxes for manuscripts, with production assistants distributing them to the editors. I started specifically searching for her journals to enter, personally bringing the manuscripts to her desk when finished. Although I dropped them into her inbox with a loud thump, she never looked up at me. Nonplussed, I started writing little notes on the article photos. "Help me, Jean!" screamed neurons and protoplasm. I wasn't going to be ignored.

Boring pic
If you had to stare at these photos all day,
you'd find this hilarious. 
Mitochondria mutations successfully asked her to lunch; a nucleotide landed me our first date. Sharing sushi on Eighth Street, I guess she felt a need to set the record not-straight.

"You're the first guy I've dated in eight years. I've only been with women since then."
"Is that when you decided you were gay?"
"It wasn't a decision..I always knew. I've always been attracted to women."
"Then why are you here with me?"
"You got my attention. And you're cute."

Cute was very, very good. I was in, baby. I was sure her lesbian experiences were some experimental phase, something she could forget about now.

She met my parents the way most of my girlfriends did, getting caught in their house screwing. Jean had her own apartment in Fort Greene, but I wanted to show her the neighborhood I was from. My folks had their winter house in the Bronx and a summer cottage in nearby Lake Carmel. I lived at home all through college; being a commuter-loser, I needed a place to have sex with girls. It didn't matter to me which house I used, just as long as my parents weren't there. No matter how many times I asked when they were leaving, returning, coming back or whatever, they always managed to fucking catch me (or better said, catch me fucking).

It was about 11 am; we were on the front porch relaxing when the car pulled into the driveway. I had put fresh sheets on the bed; there was no need for panic.

"Mom, dad, this is Jean."
My mom smiled faintly and cleared her throat.
"How do you do?"
Jean took the intrusion in stride, smiling broadly. "Really good, actually. I've just given up drinking, so I feel a lot better."
This was not the salutation my mom was expecting. "Well, I suppose that's a good thing."
"My dad's an alcoholic.  I really don't want to end up like him."
I looked at Jean critically for the first time. She was wearing black leotards, leather short-shorts and Doc Marten paratrooper boots. With her tattoos and punk haircut, she wasn't exactly the girl to bring home to mom. I made a lame excuse about Brooklyn traffic and high-tailed us out of there.

Jean wasn't only direct with my mom; she was quite explicit when having sex.
"Fuck me on the table."
"Fuck me on the fire escape."
When we were in the act, as well. "Fuck my brains out!"
Still relatively inexperienced, I never had a partner talk to me that way before. I very happily complied with her instructions, but couldn't reply in kind. I just didn't have it in me to talk dirty. She asked me once how I'd feel if she invited a girl to join us. Like the honest, naive idiot that I was, I told her that I'd probably get jealous watching her kiss another girl. It was my first shot at a threesome, and I passed. Still haven't forgiven myself for that...

Otherwise, everything seemed to go great for about three months. We danced at underground clubs and ate vegetarian food; I went to all her gigs. One weekend I went upstate to hang with my friends, who I hadn't seen in awhile. Monday morning at work Jean avoided me, and didn't answer my phone calls later on. The next day was the same. Cornering her on Wednesday, she suggested we meet at the park after work. Something was up.

True to her style, she didn't waste time with trivialities.
"I went to a flea market on Canal Street over the weekend. I was looking at tie-dyed shirts at some stall, and when I looked up, there she was."
I looked at her blankly, uncomprehending.
"I met this girl and took her home. I was with her all weekend."

I sat there dumbfounded by the "there she was" part, like she had found a hundred dollar bill under a Dead Head shirt. I tried to wrap my head around it, but Jean was still talking.

"I don't want this to get ugly. I want to stay friends," she said. When I made no reply, she repeated the phrase.
"I really don't want this to get ugly."

I didn't understand this 'ugly' part, either. Maybe she was expecting me to lash out with some hateful metaphors about dykes. I was too hurt to say anything. It didn't matter whether she'd slept with a man or a woman. It was the first time a lover had betrayed me.

dump spot
Don't dump your lover on a park bench.
Try to be more original.
She feigned an excuse about having band practice and made a beeline for the subway, leaving me sitting there like an idiot. Dumping me on a park bench was the lamest cliche ever. It should've been in a souvlaki shop while yogurt sauce dripped down my chin. I could've thrown a gyro at her or rubbed babaganoush in her pink, straw-like hair. Anything but this.

It was funny...she had told me she was still getting over her last relationship; her girlfriend had cheated on her. Maybe it was some kind of twisted revenge she was taking out on me instead. I saw her sneak out to lunch the next day with the head of the typesetting department, an outspoken lesbian with a reputation as a man-hater. They didn't see me approaching.

"I mean, what was he expecting, anyway?" said the man-hater. The words rang in my ears as the elevator doors closed. I wasn't expecting anything, least of all my girlfriend cheating on me. I moped around the office for weeks, keeping a low profile for once. Everyone in the office knew about our relationship. I tried to immerse myself in stamping and entering, which required the attention span of a flower pot. I eventually did notice a cute, new-wavy looking girl in Subscriptions, who seemed to be using the photocopier by my desk a lot. I asked her out to lunch. With yogurt sauce dripping down my chin, I learned she had a steady boyfriend. But Jean McPhee didn't know that.

She magically appeared at my desk the next day. "Do you want to go see Robert Gordon with me on Friday night?" Robert Gordon was a rockabilly singer. I looked at her closely, surprised at the request. Although I heard every word perfectly, I made her ask again.
"Sorry, I didn't catch that," I intoned innocently.
She repeated the question word for word, as if she'd been rehearsing it beforehand. Not once did she look me in the eye. I knew this was an attempt at reconciliation, but I wasn't buying in. Not like this.
"I don't think so," was all I offered.
"Okay, fine," she said with a stammer. I watched her stiffly walk away. She quit a short time after, moving to San Jose. The man-hater told me she was delivering pizzas at night to make ends meet; eventually I lost track of her.

The gay community didn't hold quite as much allure for me after that. I was no longer interested in appearing androgynous, dropping hints about rubber products or watching men make out. In my heart I knew I was a straight guy, interested in dating straight girls. Although I really liked hanging out with Gregory, I stopped going to lunch with him. Maybe that was unfair to him, maybe not. I just knew I didn't want to lead him down a path and hurt him later, like someone had done to me.

I may be angst-ridden about a lot of crap, but thankfully, sexual orientation isn't on the list. I ain't giving those shorts away, though...

¹Hipster or Cheapster code for the Salvation Army.
²Silly anachronistic website for middle-aged people deluding themselves that they know the latest technology.
³Ibid..Ibid...Ibid, said the frog.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lopping Heads Off.

The other day I visited my mother at her 'assisted living' residence, a much cheerier syllogism than 'nursing home.' It's actually quite nice, at least until the bill arrives at the end of the month. For a cool $6,000 a month, management provides a two room apartment with small fridge, three meals a day, resident nurse, and a long list of daily activities: karaoke hour, arts and crafts, belly dancing lessons and scintillating group trips to the local Rite Aid pharmacy. Pleasant Jamaican aides scuttle about, pushing wheelchairs, changing beds and vacuuming the resident cat.

I never miss the jar of hard candies by the guest register. My wife always chides me about grabbing too many, but when I consider the monthly rent, I'm tempted to back up the station wagon to load up on Jolly Ranchers. My mom doesn't like the place, saying it's depressing, full of old ladies who sleep all day in their wheelchairs. This declaration is always uttered shortly after my arrival, once I've roused her from a catnap. She wasn't sleeping of course, just resting her eyes...

boy slays vatican
Oh, to be young and lop people's heads off...
She was actually awake the last time I visited, sitting on a sofa in one of the common rooms. A large flatscreen tv was blaring the Travel Channel at an earsplitting volume. Since a conversation was impossible, we watched the program, which featured the alpine wonderlands of Switzerland and Austria. The narrator was walking down quaint, impeccably clean streets, dotted with cheery cafes; well-dressed  natives sipped very good local beer and very terrible local wine. We drifted down the Danube River and into the national museums. Our illustrious guide seemed to quicken his pace through gold-leafed hallways depicting boring portraits of the Hapsburg dynasty, settling on hometown artists like Gustav Klimt and Paul Klee. Somehow Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath made an appearance on screen, a somewhat jarring image after frescoes of celestial cherubs. When the narrator pointed out that the head of Goliath was actually a self portrait of the artist, I laughed so hard it drew the indignant stares of two elderly women seated in the room. It seemed like a giant practical joke (literally) on the Church; I later read the masterpiece was an act of contrition after Caravaggio murdered one of the pope's soldiers.

Commissions by wealthy archbishops or nobility were keys for an artist to avoid starving to death. I'm sure Velazquez would've rather been painting a naked young woman lying on a divan in his studio, suggestively holding a plate of grapes. If only I could paint, or have fancy furniture...

The Entombment: Christ, you're heavy.
I love Caravaggio; one of his paintings provided my first real art experience. When I was about 20, my parents scored tickets to the Vatican exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Telling me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I begrudgingly agreed to go. We made some obligatory rounds before hitting the special exhibit, examining mummy's tombs and observing armless, footless or otherwise dismembered statues from a million years ago. When we finally reached the cordoned-off exhibit, there was a line; only a few people could enter at a time. Once inside, I wandered through the rooms, unimpressed with penis sizes on sculptures by Rodin and Michelangelo.

For someone who said he didn't want any other idols before Him, God was a real attention hog. There was even more Jesus stuff. I was wearily gazing at another Saint Somebody or Other the Martyr Tortured Unmercilessly, when I noticed a large group of people in the next room. They seemed to be transfixed, agape and staring at something hidden from my view. I walked in and had the same reaction; my jaw nearly dropped in amazement. Hanging in the center of the wall was a larger than life Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ. The figures in the painting seemed alive (except for Jesus), capable of stepping right off the canvas. I'd never seen anything like it, and have judged all great artwork by the same standard, regardless of the genre; a quality to the work that transcends the very medium used to convey it, an insistence on making its presence or point known to the viewer.

My own first attempt at the finer arts occurred in the third grade. Mrs. Muccigrosso (which means 'very fat' in Italian--those people shoot straight from the hip with their patronymics) walked into our art class one day with several large brown bags. There were 8x10 white canvases, tubes of acrylic oil paints, along with brushes and little plastic scalpels. The materials must of cost a fortune--at least as much as my catholic school uniform, which I promptly destroyed that day with Cerulean Blue paint stains. When I got home my mom had a heart attack.

"Whatever happened to finger paints?" she demanded to know. She had enough problems keeping me clothed. My favorite schoolyard game was Ringolevio, a rough game of group tag, or rather tackle. Captured players were put in a makeshift jail, but could be freed by a charging teammate. It was a great game for Mack trucks like Franco Biondi, who was shaving by age nine and had hair on his back at 12. Steamrolling into our jail at full speed, he'd bowl over pipsqueaks like myself trying to tackle him, shredding my pants on the asphalt in the process. All our team could do was grab his plaid necktie in an attempt to clothesline or choke him to death; he wore a clip-on though, rendering that tactic ineffectual. His bull rushes guaranteed himself a ripped shirt as we clawed at him; he never seemed to care. I'm sure his mother feared him too much to say anything.

Our goal with Mrs. Muccigrosso was to recreate Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night. We were handed a cheap lithograph print as a guide. I wasn't impressed by Starry Night; it didn't remotely resemble any night skies I'd seen in the Bronx. I preferred the collection of Norman Rockwell plates in my Aunt's living room in Queens: perfect, white Anglican children with rosy cheeks, wearing goofy old clothes that didn't quite fit, adoring cocker spaniels at their feet.

Swirly painting
The stars don't really look like that...
I read the brief biography printed on the back of the lithograph. It mentioned that the artist had cut off his own ear and mailed it to his girlfriend. I promptly raised my hand and asked why Mr. Van Gogh hadn't just sent her a box of chocolates or a Hallmark greeting card. Mrs. Muccigrosso sighed deeply as if in pain herself, declaring that Vincent suffered from a troubled soul. I figured maybe his ear was the reason the painting didn't turn out so good; his head must've been hurting like hell after that.

My own rendering was a complete disaster. Mrs. Very Fat made the mistake of emphasizing the cypress tree in the foreground, saying it contained thick layers of paint to provide visual context. I promptly globbed all my paint onto the left side of the canvas, later smearing it with my forearm when I bent over to wipe up the turpentine I'd spilled on the floor. Upon arriving home, my mom threw my shirt in the trash, and insisted on hanging the mess on our kitchen wall. Now that's love.

One of my many regrets is that I never took an art history class in college; I can't tell a Monet from a Manet. I can however, regale anyone with the basic principles of cost accounting. I love museums and art galleries though, eschewing any breaks for food and drink, compulsively reading all the plaques while my company patiently waits at the exit. I actually don't like Baroque and have seen all the major Impressionists, preferring work that's more abstract. Some people see a Jackson Pollock as nothing more than a bunch of paint drippings. I couldn't disagree more. Somehow the paintings have an internal logic and aesthetic that forms a logical whole my subconscious mind can make sense of. Someone standing next to me looked at the painting below and asked, "What does it mean?" Art doesn't have to 'mean' anything, any more than life does.

Autumnal Post Nasal Drip
Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm.  Does it have a meaning? Who cares?
Our world is an immense kaleidoscope of geometric shapes, bright and muted colors, redwood trees, plastic foam cups, fleeting orgasms, acid reflux indigestion, satori, sudoku, soy sauce, skyscrapers, hand-made sweaters, tsetse flies and brass trombones. Our conceived ideas and overt manifestations of society collectively resemble a giant Jackson Pollock painting.

I look at the painting, I feel the painting, I steal the hard candies on the way out. It's all good.

Monday, August 20, 2012

World Champion Bleeder.

If Bono raises money in the middle of the woods and no one hears it, is he still a good person?

A cynical school of thought holds that true altruism doesn't exist; it's really selfishness in disguise. According to this theory, Albert Schweitzer/Brangelina types are either promoting themselves, acting out of guilt, or simply smuggling in good drugs, stuffing their newly adopted's anus with pure-grade heroin or Retin-A, whichever is in greater need. By this same token, surely one of the biggest ego blows is to have one's philanthropic intentions coldly rebuffed; a tacit, "Get lost" as our eager, helping hand is pushed away.
Sciency-type photo
Electron micrograph of either: a) blood cells and a platelet,
b) soft chewy candy and lint.

The Red Cross held a local blood drive last week; they wouldn't accept a donation from me. Spain, the fair country I resided in for 10 years, has a high-risk designation due to Mad Cow cases reported several years ago. The nurse filling out my questionnaire seemed chagrined; she apologized profusely, afraid I would be insulted by the rejection. I told her not to worry; my platelets, plasma and blood cells were perfectly content staying put where they were. I did swipe a container of orange juice and some cookies before leaving, so perhaps I was a tad miffed...

Losing blood on a voluntary basis would've been a new experience, having spilled more than a few pints throughout my accident-prone life. Most people chart the trajectory of their life through major milestones and achievements. "Oh yes, that was the year I got my doctorate" or "I remember now--I bought my first Ferrari that Spring." My vague recollections coagulate along the lines of when I split my head open.

My first major blood-letting was at the age of six. I had a huge toy chest in my room, sporting a varied collection of cars, action figures, army men, guns and pistols, plastic musical instruments, stuffed animals and blocks. There were also hundreds of random Lincoln Logs, Legos, puzzle pieces and bits of models. The boxes for these particular diversions had been lost, broken or discarded long ago, with the remaining bits cast into the all-encompassing chest. There was no caste system in my world of toys; everything was thrown in haphazardly, often from different corners of my room, with a gleeful recklessness. Being a somewhat cavernous container, the easiest way to access any particular piece was to overturn the entire box and spread all the toys on the floor. My mother never understood this, operating under the faulty premise that I was making a mess. Her simple-minded thinking further mandated that all toys should be picked up afterwards. For me, simple laws of inertia and thermodynamics dictated that it was more efficient to leave everything where it was, yielding ready access again the following day.

blood letterThe best toys I owned were Tonka trucks, indestructible metal vehicles that could be sat on or rammed into furniture with great effect, leaving deep gouges in armoires and night tables. Capricious safety laws regarding sharp edges or toxic toys were nonexistent at the time. The resident bunk bed was really my favorite toy. A veritable Jungle Jim of possibilities, I was blessed with a baby brother who's face turned crimson red when hung upside down by the ankles. The structure came with an obligatory ladder and top retaining bar; I had ditched those long ago. I alternately climbed up or leapt down from the higher berth without a second thought. The bedroom also contained two cast iron radiators large enough to heat a prison cafeteria; winter nights invariably roused me in a sweat, totally dehydrated.  Needing a drink of water late one night, I leapt off the top bunk directly onto the waiting plow blade of a Tonka bulldozer, opening an elongated, scalpel-like incision on my insole. Fortunately for me, screaming was one of my best skills, even managing to wake my father, no easy task. The event proved to be the first of many trips to the emergency room.

My next major escapade occurred a few years later, at our summer cottage in Lake Carmel. My older sister had invited a few friends over one evening to listen to a new album: Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. Once I learned the record contained only three songs, I lost interest. As far as my young ears were concerned, that group was going nowhere. More interesting to me was Stevie Bickerson's bicycle; I asked if I could go for a spin. He took a pull on his Salem cigarette, shrugged and told me to help myself, adding laconically, "Be careful, the brakes ain't so good." Momentarily considering his statement, "not so good" indicated a corollary of not so bad, either; some modicum of stopping power could be safely relied on. Considering that we lived near the top of one of the longest, steepest hills in town, further cogitation on his oblique warning was probably warranted. Instead I jumped aboard and raced straight down the hill, peddling furiously for more speed. Into the valley of death rode the Schwinn Hundred.

I was enjoying myself immensely, until the first intersection approached. I pulled the calipers intently, with no palpable result whatsoever. Nothing, zero. Luckily, there were no cars; I flew straight through the intersection without incident. Looking ahead, I began to panic. There were three more intersections to cross before arriving at Shore Drive, a heavily trafficked, scenic road encircling the lake.

I never even got close. An uneven rise in the landscape combined with washed-away asphalt to form a huge dip, looming directly in front of me. The town's transportation department couldn't afford expensive heavy machinery; my Tonka steamroller probably weighed as much as theirs did. As a result, road paving was a somewhat casual affair, patching a bit here and there or repaving only the top inch or two of tarmac. Whatever tar managed to stick to the earth below was considered fortuitous; whatever washed away was just fine and dandy as well.

rural utopia
Putnam Hospital: many a fine summer day spent,
having my bandages changed.
Beyond the wash out was an abrupt bump, where the asphalt had tenaciously clung to an underlying boulder. I managed to navigate the dip without falling, then struck the jutting abutment at full force. I flew over the handlebars several yards before slamming into the pavement, landing on my right elbow. Having increased my diaphramic capacity several-fold since the age of six, I let loose a piercing scream, easily exceeding the town's central fire alarm by several decibels. I had landed in front of one of the few winterized homes on our road, with a trimmed lawn and accompanying gnome decorations. Sprawled on the pavement, I noticed one had a scowl, holding a Keep Off the Grass sign in his little arms. A real, live elfin-like man burst out of a screen door beyond, scooped me in his arms and started running uphill, the only logical direction I could've come from. He was met halfway by my mother, sister and all her friends. My mom examined the wound closely, blocking it with her body so I couldn't see anything. Looking into the faces of my sister's friends told me all I needed to know; most of them turned away in revulsion.

My mom took me home and dutifully attempted to clean and dress my injury, tolerating my screams the entire time. She dressed the wound with gauze and bandages, and sent me to bed. The next morning we discovered I had bled through the covers, underlying sheets, bedliner and possibly the entire mattress, greasing the squeaky interior springs. She took me to the hospital immediately. With my elbow resembling runny mayonnaise, I couldn't even brag about stitches; there was no skin left to sew up. Due to the danger of infection, they wrapped my arm in soft bandages. My mom drove me to the hospital every three days to have them changed. There was no cool plaster cast that people could sign, and no more swimming in the lake, either. It was the worst summer I ever had.

I later learned that injury could engender felicitous pity from nubile females. At the age of 17, my friend David landed a job cutting grass and landscaping for a local allergist, who owned a small farm. Because God Is Great, the residence yielded six uninhibited teenaged daughters from two different marriages, along with a shiny new swimming pool. Three sisters hailed from England, and showed no compunction about sunbathing topless. Needless to say, I made my acquaintances immediately, and was soon visiting on a daily basis. The pool's stiff diving board proved to be a good diversion from other stiff things, resulting from staring at pert young boobies. By August I could do a swan dive, jackknife, cutaway, front flip, back flip, and a one and a half. What none of us could master was the elusive gainer, comprised of a hurdle forward and back flip. An especially bodacious cousin named Caroline was visiting from Great Britain that week; she decided to remove her top as I was attempting the tricky maneuver. Understandably distracted, I slipped on the edge of the board and bashed my shin on the edge of the board, falling into the water. The girls jumped from their recliners, waited for me to surface, and asked if I was okay. My friend Tom examined the diving board, extracting a piece of leg meat by the hairs. "I don't think so," was his expert analysis. That one put me on crutches for a week.

Crap Car
A Tempest in only slightly worse condition than mine.
The biggest scar I have is from a 1968 Pontiac Tempest,  inherited from my Uncle Jerry.

Uncle Jerry was my favorite relative, ever since I could remember. On holidays, he'd sit me on his knee and extract a shiny quarter from his pocket; better than my grandfather, who was only good for a nickel or dime. He always ate too much turkey for dinner, with even more spumoni for dessert. Shortly after, he'd  fall sound asleep on our couch.  Snoring loudly, his head would tilt back slowly until the air was cut from his windpipe, involuntarily jerking his head forward. The cycle would then repeat, over and over. It was fascinating to watch, like one of those dipping bird toys that sips water out of a beaker.

He chain-smoked and owned a succession of vomiting dogs; I never did get the smell out of the carpeting. Eventually contracting emphysema, he suffered a series of strokes, lost his eyesight and finally, his driver's license. Before reaching total blindness and bequeathing me his beloved Pontiac, he successfully crashed into a host of stationary objects, systematically dinging and denting every part of the exterior. One of the larger dents was over the driver's door hinge; it chafed loudly against the quarter panel upon opening, emitting a pterodactyl-like krawwk. A leaking rust spot over the back trunk ruined anything stored inside. The transmission pan leaked as well; God knows what living or inert object he had run over to puncture it. Other than those minor faults, the 350 engine ran like a champ; I was happy to have the wheels.

There was a magnetic Virgin Mary affixed to the dashboard, with little red carnations around it. My first day driving the car, David tossed the statue out the window. Watching the figurine skip along the pavement in the rearview mirror, I knew revenge would be hers one day.

sexy I'm not
To think, I could've
been a ballet dancer...
I woke one typical July morning to move the car, in compliance with Manhattan parking regulations. A car had double-parked too close for me to unloose the pterodactyl. Walking around to the other side, my leg brushed against a mangled steel bumper, instantly carving a huge slit down my leg. The wound was so long and deep that it caused the surrounding skin to sag and pull away, partially exposing my calf muscle. After a few fascinating seconds of watching my sock and shoe fill with blood, I drove to the hospital four blocks away.

Before entering Emergencies, I scooped some fresh blood from my shoe, smearing it onto my pants and shirt. Visible gore is a sure-fire way to avoid the waiting room. The admitting nurse took one look and led me into triage.

I tend to get chatty and make dumb jokes when nervous. Trying to remain casual about seeing my own dark muscle tissue, I wouldn't shut up, blathering on and on about backless smocks and cold stethoscopes pressed against tender skin. The intern on duty eyed my leg with a mixture of ennui and distaste, making no reply. Working mornings in the ghetto was definitely not his thing.

"Were you in a knife fight?" he asked coldly. He was holding a clipboard, with a ninety-part form to fill out. No wonder he was in a pissy mood.

I stared back at him in surprise. One part of me took it as a compliment; the idea that I looked tough enough to be mixing it up with a stiletto in some high-stakes, gangland turf battle. It also implied I was white trash, which although true, didn't sit well with me.

"It's eight o'clock in the morning. I prefer knife fighting after a cappuccino and croissant."
He was nonplussed by my bon mot. "Cause of injury?"
"I scraped it against my car's back bumper."
"No, really."

I proceeded to show him a few sundry scars: seven stitches in my thumb, after hacking into it with a meat cleaver. 18 stitches in my left hand, after chainsawing it with my right; 6 stitches on the ball of my foot, courtesy of broken glass at Rockaway Beach;  12 stitches on my other leg from a minibike mishap; 8 stitches from--

"I get it now," he said, interrupting me. "I believe you. You're a klutz."

That's right, baby. I wasn't any gangbanger, sliced up by Crips or Bloods or Banditos or whatever. I had earned my scars the hard way, by being an absent-minded, accident-prone spaz. It was just as well the Red Cross didn't taken my blood; I probably would've knocked the IV over and made a mess, unleashing Mad Cow antibodies into the atmosphere, akin to the last scene of Twelve Monkeys.

Better still, I could conduct my own sociological experiment. Me and Bono could walk into the middle of the woods and have a shin-kicking contest, just to see what happens. I may not be an altruist, but I know I can scream louder than him.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hazed and Confused.

Erect Tower
Jones Beach Lighthouse:
always glad to see me.
Hell hath no fury like a rough day at Jones Beach. I got my ass kicked thoroughly at the beach last Sunday.

I love the ocean. The salt water purifies me inside and out, clearing sinuses, disinfecting minor wounds and washing away any hair care residuals. The surf's vocal roar flushes out my bosses' voice, the insistent demands of teenagers and that crappy One Direction song my daughter likes. Once in the water, all that surrounding blueness instantly anonymizes me--I'm literally just another piece of flotsam in a vast ecosystem. The ocean doesn't discern, pick and choose or discriminate; with my head bobbing in the waves, the water is indifferent to wants, needs or any stubborn acne from eating chocolate.

I didn't plunge in immediately, though. The usual rituals were performed first: setting up beach chairs and blankets, slathering on the SPF 900, attending to the all-important umbrella in the sand anchorage. Sitting in my beloved rusty beach chair for awhile, I acclimated to sun, surf and any discernible bikini cleavage that could be viewed from a discreet distance. When the first bead of sweat rose on my chest, I ventured to the shoreline.

The water was rough, which I usually enjoy. With my son's boogie board securely tethered to my wrist, I was ready for some waves. I raced in, quickly diving into the shallow water to avoid that creeping penis-shock that slow-wading males are forced to endure. Beyond that point the breakers were towering and insistent; it took quite a few self-dunks to avoid them. I felt a vicious undertoe pulling at my feet, shifting the sands below me. Once past the breakers, I rested in the slipstream of bouncing headers and incoming sets, looking for a good wave. I didn't have to wait long.

A tremendous crest was gathering on my right; I quickly turned the board towards the shore and kicked for all I was worth, trying to gain momentum. The frothy tip of the wave was upon me in a heartbeat; for one or two glorious seconds, I was surfing in the Maui championship, briny breeze in my hair, water droplets glistening on the tv camera lens filming me--then suddenly I was airborne. Like a colicky baby tossing a pacifier, the wave spit me out of its crest, dropping me into the trough as it crashed on top of me. Pummeled to the sand and trapped in the churn, I helplessly thrashed, tumbled and bottom-scraped. The board had the good sense to remain buoyant, violently yanking on my arm socket. Finally able to surface and gasp for air, I was instantly pounded by another crashing wave, repeating the entire wash, spin and sandblast process.

When I finally staggered to my feet in shallow water, both lifeguards were standing on the steps of their chair, gazing at me with a mix of disdain and detached amusement. Satisfied their assistance wasn't needed, they sat down again, turning their attention to a curvy young thing modelling a tight one-piece.

I'm actually a pretty good swimmer, having learned my aquatic skills at a young age. Later trained by the Red Cross, I worked as a lifeguard for five summers at Lake Carmel, a rural community 60 miles north of New York City. I never had to save anyone.

Lifeguard whistle
My original Acme Thunderer--
not that I'm sentimental or anything.
I applied for the job at 15, lying about my age. At 5'11,'' 140 pounds soaking wet, I was hardly Muscle Beach material. My first day on duty, I stood on a floating dock, blissfully twirling my whistle on its lanyard. A flabby punk approached, wearing an oversized white teeshirt and cut-off jeans. He appraised me from head to foot and sneared. "You're a lifeguard? Dude, there's no way a stringbean like you could save me." My first instinct was to reply that I wouldn't dream of jumping in after him; our rowboat was equipped with a long-handled grappling hook, especially designed for spearing cooties-infested yokels. Instead I recited my soon-to-be-standard line: lifesaving was about technique, not size or strength. I declined to add that rotund, semi-buoyant objects like himself could be easily manipulated in the water and towed to shore, sans winching cable or industrial tugboat.

Due to the lake's tranquil nature, I had no fears about anyone drowning. As an added preventative measure, rookies like myself were teamed with more experienced lifeguards, known as regulars. Within those words resided my deepest dread--Lake Carmel had a vaunted history of regulars hazing the rookies.

Hazing hell
Lake Carmel. Looks peaceful, right? Sure...
At five and a half square miles, it was a big lake, boasting six beaches. We had a crew of about 20, entirely comprised of late-adolescent males. The focal point and main torture chamber was the Shack, a tiny, two story clapboard building. There was a room downstairs, a loft upstairs, and a revolting, fly-infested shitter. We met there every morning for roll call and beach assignments.

So why the hazing? Heck, it was tradition. It was pointless to argue that certain traditions rightfully landed in the dustbin; human sacrifice being a relevant, shining example. My own Jungian belief was that the need to debase and torture others resided deep within the cerebral cortex, a collective unconsciousness dating back to neanderthal mating rites and territoriality. Perhaps bashing in the skull of your neighbor with the jawbone of an ass was a jocular prank, eliciting a giggle from macho troglodytes...who knows? I soon learned that these and any other personal opinions I harbored were better left unsaid. As a result, I secretly formulated psychological profiles of our lifeguard crew, using the now widely-accepted CSPQS standard (Chuck Steak Psycho Quotient Scale):

Pacifists -- None, zero, nil. Perhaps existing in some remote, goat herding village in India, but certainly not in Lake Carmel, New York.
Run of the Mill Sadists - This comprised the great majority of the crew, in a casual, take it or leave it fashion. A typical conversation between regulars would go like this:

"We're sending some rookies out to buy breakfast. You want something?"
"Yeah...get me a bacon and egg on a roll. Salt and pepper, extra ketchup."
"Anything to drink?"
"Hey...whaddaya say we assign a few orders to each rookie. We send them to different diners, and whoever comes back last, gets paddled."
"'Good idea."

Presto! Just like that, the potential was born to have your ass beaten. It was nothing personal, just some offhand whimsy to pass the time. If Angry Birds had existed back then, perhaps hazing would've been avoided altogether. The whole trick to surviving was to act invisible; fairly easy for me, since I had little personality to begin with. All rookies without exception lived by one Golden Rule, though: avoid Billy Ritello at all costs. Which brings us to the final category on our scale: the Complete and Utter Psychopath.

In the same way that a lab full of test tubes and Bunson burners would be a wet dream for an aspiring scientist, our hazing environment was a heavenly playground for a sick fuck like Ritello. Being able to walk up and sucker-punch someone squarely in the face without recrimination was a dream come true.

Disgusting SyrupThere were six of us rookies. We had to follow three predictably pointless, mildly degrading mandates each morning. Wear a tie, address all regulars as sir, and lastly, kiss Grandma every time you entered the Shack. Grandma's was a brand name of molasses: a sickly-sweet, brackish syrup, commonly used in cookie baking and roof tarring. If any of the three mandates were forgotten, a generous dose of molasses was rewarded. Told to kneel on the ground, it was poured straight from the bottle from a precipitous height, with some intentional spilling into the eyes, hair and whatever clean shirt was worn. I eventually got accustomed to the taste, and would take my Grandma's without a quibble, fairing much better than another rookie named Ernie. Immediately dubbed Upchuck, poor Ernie couldn't hold the stuff down. The entertainment value of his eruptions automatically earned him a daily dose, mandates followed or not. A main rule of hazing was that there were no rules.

Big Toe Dismemberer
A fine specimen of a big toe remover.
Rookies were unworthy of the Shack's benches; we had to sit on the floor in front of the captain's desk. No one wanted to sit anywhere near Ritello, who had the unnerving habit of leaning forward to kick us in the face. He did serve one useful purpose for the greater community: champion snapping turtle wrangler. They usually roamed the swampier thickets of the lake, hunting frogs, fish and the occasional unsuspecting duck. Occasionally one would migrate to a nearby beach, assuming residence under the shady dock. Older adults weighed in at over 40 pounds, with shell sizes approaching a trash can lid. A rumor would eventually surface around town about a swimmer being attacked and bitten. It was always a big toe dismemberment; smaller toes or fingers were obviously too paltry for a discerning snapper to consider. Billy's total disregard for health and safety extended to himself, so they'd send him under the docks to catch the monsters.  He'd take a deep breath in the shallow water and disappear into the murky darkness, magically emerging with the ugly beast in his arms a minute or two later. The cops would be called to cage and remove it; they'd take it to a remote location and shoot it in the head. My recurring fantasy was for them to come and take Ritello instead.

The only rookie who Billy occasionally spared malice was a young burn-out named Tommy Briggs, solely because he was a reliable source of schwag, a low grade of Mexican pot. Ritello would take any drug, in any quantity, at any time. I once saw him pop five purple microdots into his mouth at 10 am, displaying them on his tongue to prove it. The tiny, hard pills were known as mescaline, but actually consisted of speed mixed with acid. Many years later, I found out that Billy Ritello had died from an overdose of heroin. He was 22.

The mortal enemy of a rookie was a rainy day. A morning downpour still had the potential to earn a half-day's pay, but we were obligated to hang around the Shack until noon, in case the weather changed. This left two and a half hours to kill, trapped in a room with 20 testosterone-pumping elders. It meant a morning of terror.

They would send us up the ladder into the tiny loft, board the window up and turn off the lights, until they decided what havoc to wreak upon us. Banging the rowboat oars on the floor in a rhythmic thunder, chanting all the while, I pictured my head on a sharpened stick, reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Flies. Sometimes they'd drag us down one by one, sometimes all at once. We might have to put on a talent show for them, or compete against each other; other times they would simply yell, "Rumble!" and leap upon us. In those instances, I'd try to find one of the McManus brothers, two older crew members who didn't quite relish beating up someone smaller than themselves. They'd simply tussle with me in a clinch until the captain declared the brawl over. First aid would be administered to anyone bleeding.
First Aid kit
My demise, my sore ass.

One dreadful rainy day, my luck ran out; I lost a competition. Part of a rookie's job was to check the first aid kit every morning before hitting the beach, restocking any supplies expended the day before. The kit contained an ace bandage, gauze in varying sizes, scissors, tweezers, a notepad and pencil, tubes of hydrocortisone and first aid cream, bottles of iodine and mercurachrome, along with a ton of band aids. It probably weighed about five pounds. We were told to assume the usual kneeling position; each of us were handed a kit. We were instructed to extend one arm, holding the box out straight. Whoever dropped it first was the loser. Simple and elegant. Within five minutes, we were all screaming in pain. I felt my meager strength ebbing away, unaware that other rookies were propping up their armpits with their other hand. Unfortunately I hadn't thought of that; cheating was always allowed and encouraged in competitions. Unable to foist the weight any longer, I watched my arm surrender, kit crashing to the ground. A momentary hush fell over the room; then the oar pounding and chanting started, with my anointed nickname ringing in my ears: Chuckles...Chuckles...Chuckles (don't ask). All other rookies were banished to the loft. I was to be paddled and windmilled, in short order.

The paddle of choice was a specially sawed-off oar, sporting a smooth, sanded handle and aerodynamic holes, to reduce drag, and aid swinging speed. One or two swats stung like hell, but were bearable. More than that hurt like a mother. Only the captain, co-captain and a few senior regulars could paddle rookies, which was just as well. Any additional turns at bat might've broken someone's spine.
The oar: innocent, laconic, innocuous --unless deployed as a torture instrument.
Still worse was the windmill. Regulars spaced themselves out in a long row with legs spread, each holding a wooden Lifeguard On Duty sign. These signs couldn't be swung as hard as the paddle, but still packed a collective wallop when multiplied by 15 guys. The goal was to crawl through their legs as fast as possible to avoid the brunt of blows. No matter; a few regulars squeezed their legs together as my torso passed under them, getting an extra swing or two. I took my beating in stride, without complaint. From one perverse, twisted perspective, I passed through a rite of passage that day, gaining some respect. It was little comfort to my skinned, sore-as-hell buttocks, though. Scabs stuck uncomfortably to my bathing suit and underwear for days. 

Why did I put up with it? Rituals of youth, I suppose. Besides, it really wasn't so bad. When not getting beat up, I actually had a lot of fun. Our crew played softball and volleyball together, drove down to Yankee games, and partied hard in general. The older guards lent me their IDs (not that I resembled Sean McManus) to get into bars with them, bought me drinks, and treated me like one of the guys. In retrospect, lifeguarding was the best job I ever had (which doesn't say much for my career choices). 

Life may or may not be a beach. But if you can get paid to sit on one, you're ahead of the game.

P.S. Trying something new...submitting this to a cool blog, http://dudewrite.blogspot.com/. Check them out!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Baseballs, Conspiracies, and Striking Out.

Rawlings hardballBeing a loyal Bronx native, I watched the Yankees' game on cable tv the other night. Before drifting off (boredom usurps loyalty), third baseman Eric Chavez hit a series of foul balls. Before the balls were out of play, the opposing catcher surreptitiously slipped his glove behind his back.  The umpire dropped another ball into his mitt from a little black satchel hung on his waist, similar to what a magician might keep a fluffy white rabbit in. After the fourth successive foul ball, the ump looked askance; a tow-headed tween in a poorly-fitting uniform scurried in and handed him replacements. All part of the game...

What I found disconcerting was that perfectly good baseballs were tossed out of the game as well, without a second thought. Not so many years ago, umpires would examine a ball for smutz every so often, give it a few rubs and throw it back to the pitcher. Before expensive player salaries, a few errant foul balls probably equaled a day's pay for Gene "Stick" Michaels, the good-glove, no-hit Yankee shortstop. Pitchers like Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro would illegally "doctor" the ball with spit, grease, jism or sandpaper. With it's delicate equilibrium compromised, the ball would float erratically, causing the batter to miss.

Today it seems if a ball hits the dirt, gets put in play or has a bad aura, it's instantly tossed out. The average baseball costs $3. Not a hefty sum, until multiplied by several dozen a game, 162 games and 20 teams. Just where do all these balls go? Something smells worse than David Ortiz' armpits, and I know what it is.

Baseball does not enjoy wide popularity outside the United States; only Japan and a few Caribbean nations have professional leagues. Not being an Olympic sport, MLB cash must be spent wisely, to keep competing interlopers from muscling in. The illicit trade for black-market baseballs, similar to those for healthy organs, is converted into non-traceable cash. An industry insider, who I'll call Deep to Left...That's...Outta Here! gave me the poop. DTLTOH! stated that once out of camera view, discarded baseballs--a veritable treasure trove of rubber and rawhide lucre--are quickly ferreted out of the country and laundered for cash. This plunder funds secret networks engaged in shocking, mercenary-like activities.

soccer rioters
Generally known as being too efficient to riot,
these Germans were paid to do so.
To combat the world-wide popularity of soccer, counter-intelligence agents are hired by baseball owners. Stationed in European soccer stadiums, these so-called "hooligans" wear warpaint, drink warm Carlsberg beer, pass errant gas and attack anyone within head-butting range.

To counteract interest in rugby, photographers are hired to take especially unflattering shots of toothless players with cauliflower ears. Photos of any random player usually produces the intended result. Prescription anti-psychotic drugs are hidden from athletes before games, causing their true natures to emerge on the field.

For cricket, announcers are paid under the table to comment in arcane jargon, randomly interspersing American, UK or metric equivalents for weights and measures. Payoffs to uniform manufacturers ensure that the cardigan sweater remain the official uniform, guaranteeing that macho American males will never play the sport.

But what of Eric Chavez, still at bat?

It was a long inning; the announcers were droning on ad nauseum about fastballs, curves, cutters, splitters, sinkers and any other artful way to hurl a small, round object from a mound of dirt. Their scholarly dissertation included topics such as staying in the zone, picking spots, painting corners, climbing the ladder, riding in, fading out, staying ahead or falling behind in the count. All stratagem had one purpose: to make it difficult for the batter to pick up the rotation of the rapidly approaching sphere. Personally, I never understood how batters see the ball at all.

I only tried to hit a hardball once, when my best friend Tom talked me into trying out for the high school team. Never having played little league, I thought it pointless. Tryouts typically brought out 75-100 young athletes, all vying for three or four coveted openings on the team. I went anyway, being a fierce competitor and determined athlete. Actually, I mindlessly followed my best friend everywhere, and was somewhat of a dope.

The tryouts took place inside the school gymnasium, which surprised me. Perhaps 14-year-old freshmen  risked divoting the immaculate diamond outside. We were paired off and told to toss the ball back and forth, presumably to probe for basic skills. After a minute or so, an assistant coach walked up to me--and only me--and asked what my name was. Scanning his clipboard, he quickly located my signature on the sign-up sheet.  He made a notation I couldn't see, which I imagined to be, “Cut immediately.”

We were then grouped according to defensive position. I had overheard the coach tell an assistant, “I’m looking for the next Lou Gehrig,” so I decided to try out for first base, envisioning myself as the next Iron Horse. I gamely leapt, lunged and stretched for balls thrown several feet asunder by a mouse-like shortstop named Pepe. I was pleased; not having touched a ball, my defensive skills couldn't be questioned.

A young George Lucas was nearly killed by an errant
pitching machine, inspiring him to later design
the AT-ST used in Star Wars.
Next was batting practice. Inside a camouflage-like netting was a curious contraption I had never seen: an automated pitching machine. When idle, it seemed innocuous. Two large rubber wheels were inversely set on a tripod, with a chute to drop the ball in. Once plugged in, the wheels spun rapidly, emitting an eerie, high-pitched whine. The coach briefly displayed the ball above the top wheel before dropping it in the chute, to warn the batter a pitch was coming. A loud ker-thump followed as the ball struck the spinning wheels; a split-second later it hit the net 60 feet away. I was fascinated--as long as someone else was in there with that monster, and not me.

There’s a reason it’s called a batting cage. The entire enclosure was netted; I imagined it being winched quickly from above, swooping the batter into the air to hang helplessly upside down. From that vantage point he could be spun around, poked and ridiculed as the coach deemed fit. The idea that I would be expected to enter this man-trap alone to face a high-powered bazooka made me more than a tad nervous. Freshmen entering before me were not fairing well, vainly swinging and missing or barely fouling balls off.

When it was my turn, I was handed a batting helmet more appropriately sized for Darth Vader. Resembling a bobblehead, I entered the cage with trepidation. I picked up the first bat I saw and gave it a few hefty swings, trying to look menacing.

When the coach displayed the ball above the machine for me, it was more like a game of Peek-a-Boo, or now you see it, now you don’t.  There was the ker-thump of the ball as it met the spinning wheels, the thwock of the ball hitting the net behind me, and nothing more. Although blessed with 20-20 eyesight, I never saw anything actually move. 

After two more balls whizzed by without notice, I started to swing at the first ker-thump sound I heard. “React to the ball, not the machine,” the coach announced to everyone waiting in line, rather than me. Translation: “Don’t do what this putz is doing.” To this day, I have no idea whether I swung too early or too late. Needless to say, I didn't make the first cut. Tom fared no better.

dumb statue
Although no Adonis when young,
I possessed many statue-like qualities.
Undaunted, his next idea was the track team, which had no tryouts. The coaches would take anyone, since few students had an interest in running around a large oval until exhaustion set in. The cross-country team sounded romantic, though. I pictured myself trekking across mountain ridges, silhouetted against the setting sun, traversing state lines and territorial borders, escaping notice at tiny wooden checkpoint shacks that were manned by guards wearing heavy overcoats and thick furry hats, hefting machine guns. After crossing the finish line, a kindly head of state would place an olive wreath upon my humbly-bowed, glistening crown, while adoring thousands chanted my name. The insistent applause would continue until I feigned a demure wave, as befits a champion...

The only hiccup to this pastoral fantasy was that I hated running. I never achieved that vaunted second wind, the zen-like, rhythmic breathing state similar to being foisted along on baby's breath. Unfortunately, I possessed only one coarse breath, which quickly abandoned my heaving, bereft chest cavity.  Daily practices were less than idyllic; I ran around the track until my heart was about to explode, took a shower and went home. It took me exactly three days to quit.

I eventually settled on soccer, a relatively new sport in American high schools. I found practice quite agreeable: most drills consisted of standing in line chatting, waiting to pummel a large inflated ball at some goalie’s head. Our coach was a science teacher with no idea about rules, regulations or strategy; he read everything out of a book. "Keep moving to open space!" was his favorite exhortation; good advice for a prairie settler driving a covered wagon. Visiting schools from Hispanic neighborhoods would routinely destroy us, five or six to zero. I didn't care; I got a bright-red, lettered varsity jacket out of the deal, sporting  imitation wool pile lining.

Diapered batter
"Very good, but stop saying
that's mommy's head."
Today, organized sports for children starts younger than ever, which I fully support. I especially like T-ball, which consists of  toddlers hacking at a stationery ball resting on a static platform. The game teaches these skill-sets:
  • How to strike an inanimate, stationary object. 
  • How to fetch and retrieve, in the manner of a Springer Spaniel.
  • How to ignore parents screaming at you.
  • Indoctrination into society as another uniformed, anonymous cypher.
And what of Eric Chavez? I heard he has several thousand, slightly used baseballs, available through extraordinary rendition black sites. Contact DTLTOH! for more information.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How To Raise a Zombie Army.

Zombie Venn Diagram
Working for a large government agency is fascinating. Not fascinating in the way that a large green caterpillar is, or observing what obese people put in their shopping carts at the supermarket, or the combination of hairspray and a butane lighter. Maybe just interesting.

Sometime in 2009, I applied for the position of Field Operations Supervisor (or FOS, for any acronym addicts out there) for the Decennial Census. I figured I had a shot based on my experience managing people, and more importantly, my ability to stay within the lines while X-ing the little boxes on the application. I didn't hear anything for nine months, and forgot all about it. One fine day in March, 2010, I got calls from four different people within a three hour timeframe, asking for an interview the following morning. When I drove to the building on Bruckner Boulevard the next day, it still had a gigantic OFFICE SPACE FOR RENT banner on the side.

Once inside, stacks of unopened boxes were everywhere; they lined the hallways, were piled on desks and occupied every corner. A sixty-ish, amiable bald man named John came to the reception area and met me, leading me past a door that said WAR ROOM on it.

He invited me to sit at a folding table; after that he barely looked at me. He commenced to read a series of questions out of a printed pamphlet, none of which had anything to do with my qualifications or previous experience. The first few had to do with basic aptitudes, like whether I had the ability to communicate with other humans (any method seemed acceptable), use complex tools that had been invented since the Age of Fire, or knew how to properly use a toilet (or would be willing to learn). The latter questions were security-based: whether I had ever been arrested, was intent on being arrested, or had even speculated that an arrest might be kind of fun. Another asked whether I would cause harm to my country. It was such a strangely worded question that I hesitated for a few seconds, causing John to momentarily raise his eyes from his script. To the best of my knowledge, the United States of America is an inanimate, hemispheric land mass. It would be a major feat to cause it physical harm; I doubted driving even a super-gigantic backhoe or steamroller could inflict much damage. Really though, harm is in the eye of the beholder. For me, littering is harmful, while fomenting a wide-scale insurrection against a corrupt political system is not. Eventually I mumbled something about the dangers of hairspray, butane lighters and the American flag in close proximity, which seemed to satisfy my interrogator. Within two weeks, I reported for training.

There were nine other FOS trainees for our area of the Bronx.  We were put in the War Room; there was a large box in front of every chair. John was our trainer, standing at a portable podium. Instead of a pamphlet, he had what looked like a Yellow Pages, but the book's color was a vomity shade of green. He started reading the introduction, which included his name, title and why we were there, then continued reading for a half-hour straight without stopping, looking up or breathing. There was no ad-libbing whatsoever, hence the moniker for the hefty tome: Verbatim. Like the word of God in the Bible, nothing could be changed, deleted or deviated from. Unlike the Bible though, there were no cool chapters about wicked plagues or man-eating whales. No one turned into pillars of salt; there was ne'er a word about fornicating with concubines, no apocalyptic predictions. It was ten times more boring than any reading I'd heard in church when I was young.

I tried to imagine who wrote this monotonous drivel; I was positive it was some nondescript, lifer employee, with a name like Stan Dribbley. Stan has heavily gelled black hair, thick black glasses and wears a white shirt, plaid tie and cheap trousers to work every day. Living in a small but comfortable tract home somewhere near Tempe, Arizona, he drives a Saturn and watches Entertainment Tonight when he gets home every day. His wife Minerva wears scratchy pantsuits, gets her hair done weekly, lavishes attention on their Lhasa Apso, and bakes a lot of glazed hams. Stan enjoys spending time grooming his impeccable lawn; the whirly-head sprinkler system always misses that corner out back, but he makes sure that--

I woke up to everyone busily opening the box that sat in front of them. We were instructed to take out bag AB-105, which contained stationery supplies. The first thing I noticed was a package of black stick pens. Notice the lack of the adjective "ballpoint" here, since that would indicate an orbitally gliding tip that precisely dispenses it's inky elixir. Nay...stick pens are thin enough to elicit a vicious hand cramp after five minutes, with a useless, ill-fitting cap to be instantly lost or choked on by the nearest perambulating tot. They tend to scrape across the paper, releasing feint scratches of ink. Shaking them violently to bring forth more ink is invariably futile.

writing suppliesA small box of pencils proved to be of a sturdier variety: the old  #2 workhorse. The illustrious pencil provides one of the rare cases in history where #1 failed to prevail. Perhaps  #1 couldn't handle the pressures of filling in a composition notebook--merely a calligraphal comet that temporarily blazed across the stationery spectrum, reached its amanuensinal nadir and fizzled out. Exiled to some far-flung graphitical limbo, #2 stepped in and never looked back.

Your basic white notepad was also included, for dutiful note taking. Very unpredictable: if that gummy-edged binding is too hard, the page rips in the middle when tearing out leaves. Countless evocative sketches of kitchen cabinets have been ruined in this manner. Too little binding, and the leaves shed faster than a sycamore, maple, ash or other deciduously loose tree in November. Since I've never taken notes on anything in my entire life, these were moot considerations.

They even gave us a nice big pink eraser; a thoughtful addition, considering that if you rode a pencil down to the nub, there was no way that tiny rubber on the other end was going to keep pace. In grammar school I'd wear the eraser edge down flat to the metal cap, push my luck and gash the hell out of the paper, usually just as I was going to show Sister Mary Angela my wonderfully ovular O's during Penmanship class (a sexist name for a course if ever there was one). There did exist the equivalent of pencil condoms: little eraserheads that slipped over the spent end. Rubbing too hard made them crack and fall off, a valuable warning for upcoming puberty.

Pink erasers were fun. I'd write all over them, take my freshly sharpened pencil and drill into the soft core, with an intensity similar to the evil oilman in There Will Be Blood. The only drawback were the crumbs, which congealed with the ink from my fountain pen, sticking to the meaty underside of my hand. Fountain pens served as a pleasant diversion, and one more excuse not to pay attention. Schaeffer was the economic Ford Pinto brand, while Parker was the Cadillac. Replaceable ink cartridges pierced a syringe-like holder; a plastic trunk screwed on and provided the grip. The ink was a wondrously fluid, beautifully colored liquid; squeezing the cartridge would produce a large drop at the tip of the pen. Unclenching would absorb the ink back into the cartridge, no harm done. Of course, my squeezing talents at ten-years-old were less than perfect, resulting in huge blotches on my Christopher Columbus essay.  Even without the Rorschachs, the ink smeared. Being a lefty, my hand followed the line of the pen as it wrote left to right, smudging whatever fresh ink I had just applied. No doubt the first Chinese calligraphers were left-handed, compelling them to write top to bottom, to avoid the same smutzy predicament.

We were also given a Census briefcase-bag, constructed of predictably cheap nylon, specifically designed to fall apart after 60 days, when our temp employment would end. Considering that 635,000 Census enumerators were hired, I wondered if any special provision had been made for their disposal; maybe something similar to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada.

It took three and a half hours to fill out the formal application, job agreement and acceptance papers. A portly gentleman at the table in front of me caused quite the kerfuffle when it was time to sign the last paper. Declaring himself an atheist, he refused to swear to God that all his prior answers were true. Although our instructor told him there was an option to simply sign and write, "I affirm," he wasn't having it. The very presence of the word "God" on a government document was a diabolical marriage of church and state, a mocking affront to his non-belief.

oathOne part of me respects people like this; society needs individuals that are willing to stand on principle and clog up our court system in the name of semantic bullshit. My own apathetic, myopic psyche would never allow such rebellion. After enduring 15 minutes of self-righteous, pointless blather, I leaned over and whispered, "Look guy, we all want to go to lunch. Just sign the friggin' paper." He was unmoved. "There's a church right around the corner. You can go spit on it afterwards." Nothing. When another woman threatened to stab him in the eye with her stick pen, he relented. On the last day of training, after collecting 80 hours of government largess, he abruptly quit, saying he had accepted a job offer in Ohio. The position involved some kind of niche sales, like selling plastic-wrapped toothpicks to restaurants. So much for storied principles.

My last day of training contained the usual distractions: watching the ambient glow from the fluorescent lights reflect off John's bald head; trying to decide whether the Latina with cute face, bad skin, great breasts and a bit of a tummy was attractive or not; already wondering at 9:10 am where I'd go for lunch. I sensed a foreboding in the air, though...John said the next step was to split us up into teams of two, to train groups of twenty to be Crew Leaders. These crew leaders would then train classes of 20-40 zombies--err, people--to become enumerators. The computational, exponential ramifications of boring thousands of people into oblivion across the country were horrifying to consider. Every single temp employee would hear the same exact drivel. An entire army of non-thinking automatons was being raised for a tactical mission, code name NRFU (Non Response Follow-Up). Soon to be unleashed on an unrepentant, hitherto uncounted public, we knew better than to question our orders, react abruptly to an unfriendly dog, or wear uncomfortable, ill-fitting shoes. We were ready.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Full Moon Strikes Again.

full moon faceEleven o'clock is my normal bedtime; attempts to catch The Daily Show or the later Colbert Report usually result in pillow drool. I just can't stay awake. I remember when I bought the tv for the bedroom; my guy friends issued code red warnings. They said my wife and I would fall asleep just before the climax of movies, and have a lot less climaxes in general. Bad for sex, bad for a marriage. In a feat of inverse logic acrobatics, I had figured that as my kids got older, we'd have more time for sex. Au contraire, fretful libido. My kids stay up later now, and can interpret visual clues more accurately, like why their naked parents might be mounting each other. "Mommy is looking very closely at a boo-boo on daddy," just doesn't wash anymore.

As far as our carnal playground goes, our two teenagers have an indiscriminate habit of barging in to our bedroom without knocking. Complaints about each other, desperately sought wardrobe advice for the next morning, or the simple need to kiss their beloved parents goodnight effectively destroy any chance for robust, uninhibited prurience. Don't get the wrong idea: after 14 years of marriage, it's not like we've got our ears pinned against the bedroom walls every night, waiting for the kids to nod off. But I digress...

Like many other werewolves, owls and intrepid insomniacs, I can't sleep when there's a full moon. It's not stress or anxiety related, whereby manic worries are constantly careening through my head, or that horrible restlessness, when the mattress feels like it's filled with crunchy granola and my chicken wing-like joints are protruding into the box spring.

Nope...just can't sleep. Wide awake. Ready for anything. An often-ignored-for-very-good-reasons theory states that since the gravitational pull of the moon affects the tides, it affects us as well, since we are largely composed of water. It's true that I had an inordinate amount of fluids sloshing around in me last night, but didn't sense the Beck's I drained ebbing or rising anywhere inside me...
caveman carving
If that's an iron hammer he's holding,
why is he wearing a  primitive bearskin hula skirt? 

Due to my working class ethic, or more honestly, due to the insipid boredom of staring at the ceiling, I felt I should've been using the time productively. To me, the full moon has a certain primal quality; I was thinking that ancient man probably used the extra light to prepare himself a nice woolly mammoth sandwich, copulate with one or two of the less hairy females in the cave, or better yet, work on that pesky, unfinished petroglyph. Carving a jackal's head on the trunk of a human is trickier than it looks.

I unplugged my cell phone from its dutiful charger, clicked it on and was instantly blinded. Opening the Facebook app yielded typical results: well-meaning friends posting the usual collection of cute pet quotes, pithy adages or entreaties to help with their latest Ga-Zinga game. I rose from bed, drawing the attention of my busy, balls-licking dog (if I could do that, I'd never be bored). I descended the stairs quietly, and entered our tiny garden out back. There it was--the REM-depriving, intense silvery obelisk, chilling out in the Bronx skyline. It occurred to me to do something long overdue: I thanked the universe for my life. No joke. Just because I'm a cynical, jaded, misanthropic, acrimonious, dyspeptic, midlife-crisis-ridden 50-year-old, doesn't mean that I don't appreciate anything. I've been incredibly fortunate my entire life, sometimes more so in failing than succeeding. I've already had enough life experiences for two or three lives, and I ain't done yet...

It only took a minute or two; I traipsed back upstairs and crawled into bed. In a few seconds I was sound asleep, and didn't wake again until morning.