Maspeth Avenue, 6:05pm

A mom and grandmother push an angry infant in a stroller. A two-year-old girl with dirty blonde curls flails at her restraints. She arches her back trying to snap herself loose and expels primal howls of want.  If you had no visual and only heard her screams you would think the girl was either being murdered or was committing a murder. She doesn’t care that she looks and sounds crazy. Kids have to learn how to be sane.

I am a half a block away from the trio when the screams first catch my attention. I am walking the opposite direction. We will soon overtake each other. Once I spot them I feel my steps quicken. The little girl is a magnet of anger and id.

I have been where they are many times. Every parent thinks s/he can win a battle of wills with a two-year-old and every parent is proven wrong. You want to demonstrate you will not give a child what she wants just because she wants it. You want to instill some idea of patience and propriety. And then one day you’re out in public with your kid and she loses her mind over something trivial and suddenly your larger point is subsumed by the need for a few precious moments of peace.

The grandmother silently acquiesces to the little girl’s shrieking pleas. She reaches into a bag slung over the back of the stroller to produce the prize that will restore order to her universe.  What the girl wants is a tiny toy gun. Assembled in garish plastic of purple and yellow and green. Shaped like a 1950s idea of a Martian weapon. It is a gun all the same.

The moment the little girl has the gun in her hands she points it at the only living thing in her line of sight. That thing is me. I am five or six feet away when she aims the gun at me and looks down the barrel and jabs it in my general direction. She doesn’t say bang bang but the motion has the same effect. After each “shot” she jerks the gun back and sets it up again as if reacting to recoil.

She adjusts her aim as I get closer and continues to “fire” at me even as I draw parallel to her stroller. The mom and grandmother are relieved the scene she caused is over and say nothing.

I pass them by and continue on my way. The little girl continues on hers being chauffeured toward new targets.

[image blatantly stolen from Forbes]

Buy My Novel At Your Local Book Shoppe (Sort Of)

Last week, I took Hang A Crooked Number down from Amazon for a variety of reasons delineated here. Since then, I’ve made it available for purchase directly from my blog in epub and PDF form.

Following that announcement, I’ve gotten a number of requests from the device-disinclined population to read the book in non-electronic form. I wish I could fulfill these requests, but while book printing is easier and cheaper than it’s ever been, it remains neither cheap nor easy. The price to make physical copies of my book wouldn’t be insane in the grand scheme of things, but they would probably run into 4 figures, and if my ebook sales are any indication, I’d never make back those costs.

I honestly wish I could make my novel a “real” book because I still have a romantic attachment to seeing a book I wrote on a shelf in a quaint book shoppe where WQXR plays gently in the background and some weird dude monopolizes the store’s only table to plow through a pile of Schopenhauer. So I went ahead and did the next best thing.

I’ve put my book up for sale via Kobo, an ereader device/app that has partnerships with a number of indie bookstores across the country. It’s a small way to read ebooks for titles like mine that are only available in ebook form, yet still support the existence of local bookstores (as opposed Amazon, which wants to crush them). If you go to this page, you can a zip code and find a nearby store that sells ebooks via Kobo.

If you’re in the NYC area, I know Word, Housing Works, and Greenlight all work with Kobo. So if you wanna buy Hang A Crooked Number while still supporting the printed word dispenser near you, consider this path. The bookstore gets a cut, I get a cut, local shops get to stay in business, and you get to buy something quickly and easily without stepping on someone’s throat. What a novel concept.

F train, 7:20 am

I used to see him every morning waiting for the F train. I’d climb the stairs from the L to the F platform and there he’d be, as if he wouldn’t appear until I arrived. He wore black frame glasses and had a mop of carefully messed-up sandy brown hair with sideburns, and was always dressed with assured but subdued style. He favored striped shirts and dark pants and I got the idea in my head that he used to be in a power pop band, or still was.

He’d never be alone. A little girl clutched his hand, adorably and impossibly blond. She appeared to be around my own daughter’s age at the time, three or four years old. The dad also had a Snugli strapped to his chest cocooning an infant girl, who barely stirred except to occasionally nuzzle her tiny head into her father’s chest.

They went the same way as me, boarding the F at the very front of the train. The little girl would perch on her seat and look out the window at the nothing of the subway tunnel yet still see enough to ask an endless series of questions: What’s that? What’s that? What’s that? The dad would answer to the best of his ability while reminding her they would be on the train for just one stop and then they had to get off, okay?

They would position themselves to disembark at the very first door, a few feet in front of me as I steeled myself to do the same. I would wait to move until the dad got his cargo off the train, the little girl toddling onto the platform with harsh but unsure little girl steps,

Sometimes I would dash past them, not wanting to get caught behind them on the stairs leading back to the street because I was running late or had work waiting on my desk. But sometimes I wouldn’t care and I’d walk behind them, watching the little girl scale the steps, lifting one foot as high as she could, then the other.

Seeing him with his little girls reminded me of my own little girl I’d just dropped off at day care. He reminded me that my work day was just one long countdown until I could see her again. I envied him, but I wasn’t jealous. I was happy for him, happy that he could do this, happy that somebody could, happy that he was happy, and he looked happier than anyone should that early in the morning.

I saw this dad and his girls most mornings for a year or two, maybe more. Then one day I didn’t seem them, and it made me sad. I didn’t see them the next day, or the day after that, and I was still sad. But then I didn’t see them for a while, and soon I forgot that I hadn’t seen them in a while, and they were lost in some hazy place in my mind.

On Monday morning, I took my usual route to work at my usual time, my ears plugged up with headphones and my mind swirling with a legion of slights I hadn’t even suffered yet, and as I ascended the stairs from L train to the F, there he was. He had only one little girl with him now, and not the same one as before. The blonde girl had been replaced by a tiny redhead, the former Snugli occupant. The Snugli was gone, and so was the blonde chatterbox who used to clutch his hand. Older and off to school, just like my own girl.

They weren’t waiting around for the F train like they used to. The dad and the tiny redhead climbed the stairs to street level. The girl hoisted one leg with defiance, then the other, just like her sister used to, while the dad beamed, and so did everyone on the platform who saw them climb.

I stared at them as they went, until the F train arrived to take me away. I used to see that every day, I remembered. I was glad to know that I missed them.

Kent Avenue, 2002

She must have been hiding. I’m walking up Manhattan, almost home, when she steps onto the sidewalk out from some darkness, wrapped in a camelhair coat.

She walks alongside me and says, “Can I ask you a favor?” Her teeth almost chatter when she says it. It’s near midnight and cold, but not teeth-chattering cold.

I’ve always been an easy mark for panhandlers. If someone wants my spare change or five minutes of my time, they’re probably going to get it. It has occurred to me I will probably die from being too nice to say no. But this feels different. I sense a want, but no hustle.

I stop, but she says, “No, keep walking, please.” So we continue down the block. A few steps later she looks back to where she’d been, a bar with all its rhubarb and glass clinking. She says, “Some creep was following me from the G train. I ducked into that bar for a minute but I couldn’t tell if he was waiting for me. I just need someone to walk me home.”

Her place is around the corner on Kent, so we walk in that direction. Manhattan Avenue and the bar fade behind us and the night becomes quiet. I make some feint stabs at small talk. Each word that leaves my mouth feels dumber than the last, but I don’t know what else to do. Talk, even dumb talk, feels better than silence. Talk will keep away the creeps, I think.

We reach her building. I wait with my back turned to the front door while she fumbles in a purse for her keys. I scan Kent up and down. I see no one. The bodegas are shuttered and the apartments are dark. It’s so quiet, you can hear the drone of cars rumbling on the FDR across the river, echoing against the night.

I imagine armies of silent creeps hiding in shadows, lurching in the darkness like zombies. They will emerge all at once if I take my eyes off of the street for one moment. Strike one creep down and another will climb over his undead corpse to pursue what he thinks is his. I’ve never seen the world like this until now. It occurs to me that she must see it this way quite often. Every night. Every day.

She unlocks her front door and her mouth says “thanks,” but her face doesn’t. There’s still too much worry and anger there, anger that some creep threatened her. Anger that her best hope for getting home safely was to latch onto a random stranger and pray he wasn’t also a creep. She’s not angry with me, she’s just angry. She should be angry. I should be angry.

I want to give her some kind of apology, but I know it won’t make this night any better and I know it won’t change anything. So I wish her good night and I turn and make my own short walk home and I suppose I am safe but in truth she wasn’t and wherever she is now she still isn’t and so none of us are.

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Donald Sterling’s Word Hole

As the current controversy swirls around Donald Sterling, many people are surprised he could be bounced from the NBA for making racist statements when he is a horrible human being who has done many horrible things over the course of his horrible lifetime. In his basketball dealings, the Clippers owner has consistently treated his players like chattel. In his other businesses, he’s even worse, as he did his best to impose racial quotas on his Los Angeles real estate properties and celebrated beating lawsuits brought against him by elderly widows.

For many, Sterling’s potential demise stemming from something he said in a secretly taped phone conversation feels unsatisfying, like Al Capone going to prison for tax evasion (or maybe racist tax evasion). He said some hideous words—the reasoning goes—but they were just words, which pale in comparison to his past actions.

Such reasoning fails to understand the character of what our world has become. In the 21st century, we have little else but words.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in the First World (the arena where the Sterling mess is being discussed in earnest), chances are you spend your day dealing in total abstractions. Rather than make tangible objects, you arrange words and send them to other people, who read them and arrange their own words in response. Or you interpret data into recommendations for possible future actions for someone else higher on the chain of command, someone you may never see.

If your job does involve making something, it is probably an app or a web site or something else that is, at its core, a carefully arranged series of ones and zeroes. The highest paid, sexiest jobs in our universe hinge on the writing and interpretation of huge blocks of letters and numbers and symbols we call code.

More and more human interaction is performed through some kind of electronic intermediary (the Internet, or some form thereof), free from physical contact and other sensory input, sometimes even free of any sort of context. As our world has grown increasingly abstract, the abstract has increased in value.

Words—abstract expressions, as opposed to action—mean more now than they have at any other point in human history. There was once a wide gap between saying I’m going to punch you in the mouth and actually doing it. The distinction between the two narrows more and more every day.

In such a world, an action is not as important as an event. An event is something that allows people to react publicly (on the internet) in the abstract form of words.

Donald Sterling made two fundamental mistakes that are indicative of him being a product of the 20th century (or, based on his racial politics, maybe the Dark Ages). His first mistake was assuming there’s any such thing as a private communication. His second was making his racism an event. He did so by condensing his horrendous views into a bite-sized chunk that could be easily disseminated and reacted to in the abbreviated channels in which most of us now interact.

In a world in which most of us get our news from condensed media like Twitter, Facebook, or frantic texts from friends and relatives, an event is not important unless it can be quickly understood and engender an immediate reaction across a wide swath of people. Such events have to possess as little ambiguity as possible, and allow people to construct outsized emotional reactions.

The events that have traction in this world are ones that allow uninvolved observers to climb atop soapboxes and adopt stances that bestow upon them a feeling of abstract righteousness. Something will stay in the news as long as it permits people to feel their reaction to it means they’re making a stand, even if that stand consists exclusively of tweeting about it once a day.

These abstractions push aside events that are, materially, far more important. A civil war in the Ukraine is kind of a bigger deal than anything Donald Sterling said, but a civil war has way too many complicating factors to afford any casual observer the luxury of feeling they’re on a side that is totally “right.”

An “important” event also has to emerge, progress, and reach its endgame in a timely manner. The missing Malaysian Airlines flight was enormous news for a few weeks, due to the weirdness of the mystery and human sympathy for those on the flight and their families. Then, it became clear that the story’s resolution was nowhere in sight. Now, as far as the internet is concerned, that story is as over as a TV series that never figured out its own denouement.

Had Sterling’s remarks left any room for interpretation, he could have continued owning an NBA franchise no matter how many employees and tenants he harassed. Instead, he said something so cartoonishly racist it ripped through the internet at lightning speed. It both allowed people to stand firmly against a specific person and a specific thing, and it seemed to point to a specific, imminent conclusion; i.e., kicking Sterling out of the NBA.

Should the NBA’s official reaction to Sterling’s words drag on for any length of time (which it almost certainly will), the internet will be happy to move on to another target of outrage, confident it did its part in getting rid of him. Even if Sterling remains a franchise owner, we will at some point stop talking about him after having talked about him at length for what seemed like a really long time, and that will be sufficient punishment in some people’s minds. If no words are spent on your behalf in this abstract world, do you even exist?

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Hang A Crooked Number: Now Worth Nothing

Today marks the start of another Mets season. To celebrate the occasion, for a limited time you can join another lost cause at minimal cost. Which is to say, no cost. From March 31 through April 4, Hang A Crooked Number is on sale at Amazon for the considerable markdown of 100 percent. If I’ve done my math right, that means it’s free. As in, zero dollars. And zero cents.

If you’ve missed/ignored my many posts about this novel since it came out last year, this is Hang A Crooked Number in a nutshell:

Backstop lives a double life, and both are crumbling. He is a minor league catcher and an operative in training for The Moe Berg Society, a secret intelligence group that uses baseball as a front for its spy work. The mysterious disappearance of Backstop’s fellow trainee, Mark, has plunged him into a career-threatening slump. He gets one last chance at redemption when his handler asks him to investigate a connection between rumors of a mole and The Scouts, a faction of old-school spies hell-bent on seizing leadership of The Society. Backstop’s mission is complicated by his new roommate, The Swing, an aging slugger working on a major league comeback, and by Brooke, a tenacious reporter who suspects Backstop holds the key to her investigation into Mark’s disappearance. With one eye on his plummeting batting average and the other on the mounting casualties of his mission, Backstop attempts to unravel a conspiracy that could change the game forever before he unravels himself.

I know many people believe that spending money for anything on the internet is an affront to their human rights. Such folks contend that their function as consumers is so important that it is above such piddling concerns as paying people who make the things they consume. Under normal circumstances, I’m not inclined to encourage such beliefs. But I would also like people to know that Hang  A Crooked Number exists, and one way to do that is to give it out for free. There are other ways to do this, but they involve the spending of money that my family insists is better spent on shoes and rent. So, free it is.

I recognize that people who don’t want to pay for things on the internet also don’t like it when they’re asked to do anything on the internet. (I’m not sure what these people do like to do, other than scream that video games are art and tell other people to die in fires on Twitter.) However, if you choose to download this book that I worked on for years and you find you enjoy it, I ask that you at least consider giving the book a few stars on its Amazon page. And if you’re feeling really generous, maybe leave a nice review. Stars and reviews mean a lot to Amazon, so the more you leave, the more often my book comes up in searches for other books and hammocks and whatever the hell else Amazon sells. Damned if I can figure it out, but Bezos works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

Thanks.

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The Unbearable Heaviness of Slog

David H. Samson sits at a large oak desk in his cavernous office, stabbing fitfully at a freshly chopped salad with a plastic fork. The walls around him are lined with posters from the innumerable hit television shows he has created, shelves bowing under the weight of all the awards he has received, countless picture frames containing photos of him being embraced by celebrities, politicians, and royalty. But Samson is only here in spirit. His true vision is locked on the next great project that will occupy his fevered brain, even if, to the casual observer, it appears his gaze is on the small, viscous disk glistening on the end of his fork.

“What is this, a water chestnut?” he asks. His perception of food is as impeccable as his perception what TV audiences crave. It is, in fact, a water chestnut. “Never liked these things.”

Samson has just returned from a meeting with a team of foreign producers who hoped to adapt his latest masterpiece, the groundbreaking serial drama Slog, for French television. The producers were effusive with their praise, comparing Samson to Paddy Chayevsky and Gandhi while occasionally genuflecting. But when the time came to get down to brass tacks, Samson found his view of Slog and those of his would-be suitors to be incompatible.

“Ever since the show debuted, I’ve made it clear Slog was conceived as a 27-season arc, with 7 made-for-TV movie events, 3 theatrical releases, a Broadway adaptation, an animated series, and an imposter fragrance,” Samson sighs, showing the strain of explaining this yet again to uncomprehending minds. “The French producers could not guarantee the animated series and seemed iffy on the fragrance. It betrayed a complete misunderstanding of what Slog is all about.”

And what is Slog all about, according to its creator? “It is about…misunderstanding.”

Samson has TV writing in his blood, thanks to being the only child of the legendary producing team of Samson and Delilly. (Contrary to internet rumors, he does not have TV in his blood due to an experimental medical procedure he received in Geneva.) His parents, David H. Samson, Sr. and Marcy Delilly, were the husband-and-wife team behind such beloved sitcoms as You Make The Call!, Curtains!, and Mad About Madge! Samson-Delilly shows were noted for their gentle family-centered humor and earworm theme songs, while the couple themselves were known for their tireless political advocacy and generous charity work.

“Those two were a fucking nightmare,” Samson says.

Despite his comedy parentage, Samson’s own writing tended toward the shadows, even at an early age. He sold his first spec script for Hill Street Blues at age 5, then later used recess periods in grade school to do punch-up work for Law & Order. He grabbed Hollywood’s attention when, at the tender age of 16,  he dropped out of high school to showrun the short-lived pitch-black drama The Enforcer.

“It’s still one of best projects I’ve ever been involved with,” Samson says with a sigh, The Enforcer‘s failure fraught with all the regret of a lost love. “I know it seems ridiculous to us now, but back in 1994, America simply wasn’t ready for a tormented street vigilante prone to violent outbursts played by Jamie Farr.”

Undeterred, Samson sold three of his own shows to the networks for the 1998 season. NBC bought Street Cops, a police drama with a Nietzsche-quoting antihero; CBS opted for The Bar, a legal procedural whose main character quoted Camus; and ABC launched Deep Cover, a cloak and dagger thriller with a spy who quoted both Nitezsche and Camus. Samson promised to write every episode of each series, a commitment some observers described as “crazy” and others called “seriously fucking crazy.”

“I couldn’t trust another person to carry out my vision,” Samson explains. “Would you trust another person with your children? Yes, parents let teachers watch their children all day. And day care workers. And afterschool programs and nannies too, I guess. What I’m saying is that my shows are more important than your children.”

Samson not only shepherded each show, but turned all of them into huge hits, despite a grueling schedule and the crippling hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation. At the 1999 Emmys, he became the first person to accept awards for three different series at the same ceremony while also staving off imaginary bat attacks.

For the next several years, Samson cranked out one show after another, each more lovingly received than the last. Many credit him for ushering in television’s golden era of tormented, bestubbled antiheroes wrestling with their demons and the moral implications of their decisions. “Before Samson, dramas were drawn in broad, good-vs.-evil  strokes,” says Matt Zoller Seitz. “Now, thanks to Samson, every character on TV is a huge asshole.”

“It’s hard to say what it is about Samson’s dark vision that works,” critic Tom Shales wrote back in 2004 upon the debut of Samson’s landmark biker gang series, The Devil’s Disciples. “I do know that whatever it is you get when you watch a Samson show, you get a lot of it.”

Never was this more true than in Samson’s crowning achievement, Slog. In order to devote 100 percent of his energies to Slog, the former multitasker put all other work on hold, even abandoning his labor of love, the troubled domestic drama Doll Houses, which only managed to run 173 episodes without him.

The result was a show Dave Itzkoff called “the reason humans were put on this planet. Go to your ancestors’ graves and laugh at them for not being alive to see Slog.” At the conclusion of the Slog‘s triumphant third season, Entertainment Weekly proclaimed, “We declare David H. Samson our new god. Worship him, infidels.”

Slog follows the trials and tribulations of Brad Derwood, a morally conflicted mob boss/doctor/stay-at-home dad who may be hiding a terrible secret. Each episode contains a small slice of Derwood’s endlessly fascinating life, whether that slice includes crushing a stool pigeons head with a wrench or simply waiting for his laundry to be done.

“If I didn’t capture every single moment of this character’s life, I would do a disservice to both him and the audience,” Samson said upon revealing that a future 12-episode arc would just be footage of Derwood asleep in bed.

Slog inspires fierce devotion among its devotees, thanks to its gripping storyline, and Samson’s insistence that true understanding of the show can only be achieved by watching it constantly, “to the exclusion of everything else in your life. If you think you understand it, then you’ve understood nothing. Go back and watch it again and again and again until none of it makes a bit of sense.” When recappers give an episode a less than glowing review, fans have been known to attack with harsh comments on the offending blogs, and also with baseball bats on the writers’ heads.

I ask Samson if he’s heard of the roving gangs of Slog fans who pummel anyone they suspect of never having seen the show, he smiles. “Legally, I can’t say I condone such behavior,” he says with a knowing wink. “But I can say that savage beatings are the sincerest form of flattery.”

There are a few spoilsports who dare rain on Slog‘s parade. Some critics charge that Slog too often veers into self indulgence, as in a recent episode comprised entirely of the protagonist sitting in a Pep Boys while waiting to get his car’s oil changed. Others say Samson’s whip-cracking style is needlessly hard on his actors.

“I demand a lot of everyone who works for me and I will not apologize for that,” Samson says. “I need everyone to keep focus and perspective and remember than making television is the most important job in the universe.”

Despite this, Samson has no comment on the charges that he forced series regular Bill Thompson to eat a brick on set. Accounts of the incident differ, but Thompson himself has refused comment, as his mouth is still wired shut.

Still others contend that the hyper-macho world he created for Slog leaves no room for women, and that he has never written roles for actresses that weren’t long-suffering wives, strippers, or murder victims. To this charge, Samson responds with a resounding, irrefutable, “Sure I have.” As an example, he names Lucinda, a prostitute featured in a two-episode storyline during season seven. “She dropped a cinder block on a pimp’s head. Gotta be pretty strong to do that.”

Can he name any others? “Not offhand, but the fact that I can’t proves I’m not a misogynist. If I was, I’d have preloaded examples in my brain to plead my case. This shows I’m not so sensitive.”

Samson is less annoyed by charges of sexism than by those who take issue with Slog‘s dramatic pace.  “I’ve even heard people say that Slog drags a bit for the first 90 episodes,” Samson mutters with a roll of the eyes. “To them I say, Of course it does. It was always intended to drag for the first 90, then have a sharp uptick for the next 20, then plateau for the following 15, then dip a bit for another 15, then get really bad for 10. Only then is the stage set for the series’ real action.”

“If I have to explain this,” he adds, “I’ve probably failed as a writer. But it’s more likely you’ve failed as a viewer.”

Even after creating a work of art of such unflinching mastery, Samson stares beyond his salad, pupils thrusting toward the next idea. “I have this vision,” he says, expelling the words in a rush, as if glad to unburden his mind of such weighty thoughts. “It comes to me only in glimpses, sometimes in the middle of the night. I reach to grab it and it slips from my hand. I don’t know how I can make this happen, I don’t know when or where, but I know someday I will bring this to life.”

“I really want to make a show about America’s most racist magician.”

A potentially explosive collection of verbal irritants