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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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.”

Snow-Day

A Wintry Mix: Snow Days and the Parent-Child Time Gap

Mayor Bill de Blasio caught a lot of flack on Thursday for not closing schools in the face of an all-day snowstorm. He even raised the ire of the normally apolitical Al Roker, who horned in on Nate Silver’s turf by predicting de Blasio would be a one-termer for his shoddy response to the inclement weather.

The mayor’s office did a bad job of storm response, and an even worse job of handling criticism. However, his response pointed to an even bigger issue. Namely, that schools and municipal governments everywhere (not just New York City) have failed to evolve along with the changing needs of working families.

Once, it was more common for a family to have one breadwinner and one stay-at-home parent. This has not been the case in the majority of households for several decades. By 2007, there were three times as many households with two earners as households with just one. And that’s across America as a whole. It’s hard to find comparable stats for New York City, but the simple economics of living there require both adults in a two-parent household to work.

New York City tends to not shut down the school system because doing so induces a ripple effect that negatively impacts thousands of businesses, as workers are forced to stay home and watch their kids. The mayor’s response when criticized for leaving the schools open was clumsy at best; some of his assertions were straight up not true, like when he insisted the National Weather Service’s snow predictions underestimated the strength of the storm, which they did not. But de Blasio did one thing right when he pointed to the impact closing schools has on working parents as his primary reason for that decision.

However, the school system doesn’t work on the same schedule as most businesses. Most parents work 9 to 5 or 6, but schools close at 2:30, for seemingly no other reason than that’s when they’ve always closed, and because there used to be stay-at-home parents waiting to receive all these kids mid-afternoon.

For most parents, the childcare gap is occupied by afterschool programs. Some are run directly by the city; others are funded by city grants and run by community organizations. These provide a vital service for working families, especially for low-income households that can apply for such services at low or no cost.

Here’s where the issue lies. Education—as represented by the school system—is considered a vital service. Child care—as represented by the afterschool programs—is not. The number of two-earner households continues to rise, a trend that is unlikely to reverse in our lifetimes. And yet school systems, and the municipalities who own them, continue to regard child care services that serve working families (such as afterschool programs) as something “extra,” a nice add-on. In reality, these services are every bit as vital to working parents as school itself.

On Thursday, though schools were open, the Department of Education canceled all afterschool programs (see screenshot from the DOE’s website below), already the third time they were canceled since the first of the year. When afterschool programs are canceled, it forces parents to leave work early and travel home on roads that are, presumably, treacherous enough to warrant said cancellation.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 1.11.00 PMHow this affects a working parent depends on what kind of work the parent does. If you have a professional office-type job, your management is probably sensitive to these issues. Thus, leaving work early to pick up your kid in a snowstorm is a mere inconvenience. If you’re salaried, you won’t have to worry about losing any money to do so.

But let’s say you work in retail or the service industry. Your boss might let you leave, but you won’t get paid. Someone who works a retail or service job will probably feel the loss of a few hours’ pay more keenly than a better-compensated office worker would. In short, the cancellation of afterschool programs hurts most those who can afford it least.

The failure to recognize the importance of afterschool programs is indicative of a larger failure of school systems everywhere to adapt to the needs of modern households. In New York State, for instance, there are around 180 school days per year. Assuming a parent gets two weeks’ vacation, receives all major holidays off, and never has to work weekends, he or she has to be at work about 230 days a year. That leaves a differential of 50 days, and even this gap assumes an amount of off time that many parents can’t count on.

Compared to the rest of the industrialized world, American adults have a pronounced antipathy to taking days off of work. This has to do less with ingrained Puritan work ethic and more to do with the fact that many of us simply can’t afford lengthy vacations. And yet, we give our children one of the shortest school years in the world. Making kids spend more time in school clashes with our post-Boomer notion that the ideal childhood is filled with acres of free time to play and be creative. This is how parents wind up with a gap of 50 days (or more for many parents) that must be filled by some form of child care.

What’s especially infuriating about this gap is how little bearing it has on the realities of modern lives. The bulk of those 50 days are comprised of summer vacation, an antiquated remnant from the days when most kids had to help out on farms during the hotter months. The rest comes  from extended vacations that do not correspond to any parallel time off received by working adults. The discrepancy between the schedules of school-age children and the schedules of earners forces periodic child care crises, adding unnecessary stress to the already stressful state of being a working parent.

Next week, kids in New York City won’t just have off for President’s Day. They receive five days of something called Mid-Winter Recess. Most working parents don’t get their own Mid-Winter Recess. There are day camps to take care of all those unleashed kids, assuming parents can afford them. Those who can’t have to hope a grandmother or friend can keep an eye on the kids. If not, they have to take off those five days, assuming their boss will let them come back to work when it’s all over. And keep in mind that this Mid-Winter Recess comes only six weeks after kids were off for eight days around Christmas and New Year’s.

All this time off has no relevance to a modern family’s schedule, and it might even be detrimental to children’s academic development. The same can be said of a school day that ends when most parents still have hours left on the clock.

Of course, there is no solution that will make everyone happy. Absent federal legislation for paid family leave (which seems a non-starter), it would basically require employers to be accommodating to working families’ schedules. Any solution would also require teachers to work more days and hours. Most teachers would say they work hard enough as it is, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. But the difficulty of arriving at a solution shouldn’t be a reason to not fix something that’s clearly broken.

There has to be some way to shrink the time gap between working parents and their children. Perhaps it begins with thinking of those post-2:30 hours not as afterschool, but school period, thinking of child care not as some extra thing but a necessary thing. Until we do, snow days are the least of our problems.

A potentially explosive collection of verbal irritants