All posts by Matthew Callan

What’s Cookin

With the sheer amount of insanity that has transpired in the last week or so of the presidential campaigns (never mind the accumulated insanity to this point), you easily could have missed a special sliver of crazy that emerged down the home stretch. It’s difficult for anything or anyone to appear particularly bonkers in an election season that has legitimized the voices of anime-loving Nazis. That feat was managed late last week when the topic of Spirit Cooking lit social media aflame.

The budget version (and fair warning, even this condensed explanation could lower your IQ several points) proceeds thusly: the fire-and-brimstone segment of the electorate pored over the recent Wikileaks emails and found one in which Hillary Clinton operative John Podesta talked about attending a show by performance artist Marina Abramovic called Spirit Cooking. Said show purports to involve various bodily fluids, pig’s blood, self-cutting, etc., in a tortured bohemian tableau familiar to anyone who’s ever been dragged to a freshman art show. Through the fevered interpretation of the Alex Jones crowd, however, Abramovic’s work was not a high-school-goth level metaphor but an act of actual witchcraft.

Continue reading What’s Cookin

You Have to See This Thing

You have to see thing. I can’t believe I never made you watch it. It’s so stupid. I have this tape from when I was a kid and oh my god. You just have to see it.

This kid was in my class in elementary school. Every year kindergarten through fifth grade. Had this weird lisp that never went away. You know some kids can’t talk quite right yet when they first start school but they figure it out as they get older? This kid couldn’t. It just stuck on him.

We’d play Hot Wheels or whatever on the playground when we were little but he kept wanting to do it as we got older way beyond when we shoulda been playing with Hot Wheels. All the other kids started making fun of the way he talks. Like to his face. I don’t think they woulda done it if he was just a little off anyways but since he was it was like fair game. So I don’t wanna really hang out with him too much anymore. I mean I was nice enough to him. Didn’t really make fun of him or nothing like that. We lived on the same street so we had to ride the bus together and we’d walk home when we got dropped off. Not together. More like side by side.

He was too much like a little kid still and it bugged me. He was the youngest of six which I bet is rough in its own way but I was a kid and I didn’t care about that at the time. I just didn’t wanna hang out with this weird little guy anymore and he didn’t seem to get it.

So anyway. His dad puts in his 30 and the family moves off to one of the Carolinas the  summer before sixth grade. I didn’t think of this kid for a minute after he left. And then one day I get home from school and my mom says I got a package. I’m not expecting nothing and you know when you’re a kid getting a package in the mail is like the greatest thrill in the world. It was one of those manila envelopes with the bubble wrap inside. I open this thing up and it’s a VHS tape. No label on it or nothing.

I pop it in the VCR and oh my god. I almost died. It’s a home video of this kid. He grew a little since I last seen him but only a little. But he’s trying so hard to be a teenager. So god damn hard. He’s wearing what woulda been the hot fashion back then. An Agassi shirt and Bugle Boy jean shorts and a paid of gleaming white Reebok Pumps. Kid’s got a chain too. White gold it looks like. I would bet a million dollars he’s drenched in Drakkar Noir too. His hair’s moussed to death or at least what I can see of it because the camera’s on a tripod or something and the way the shot is angled it cuts off the top of his head. He’s sitting on his bed with one leg up and one hanging off the bed like he’s a camp counselor about to give me some real serious talk.

He starts talking to me. What’s up man. Haven’t seen you in a while. His voice is a little deeper than the year before but just barely and he’s trying to make up for it by talking as low as he can. He sounds like a cartoon and with the lisp on top of it the way he talks is almost upsetting. He tells me Carolina’s a little hotter than Queens but he’s used to it already. There’s no palm trees. I thought there were palm trees he says and he does this theatrical shrug that kills me just to think about it.

He’s showing me his new room. The new Super Nintendo games he got. A crossbow he begged to get for his birthday. The poster of a girl in a bikini washing a Lamborghini on his wall. And he’s talking about it all like he’s a god damn millionaire who’s made it to the top. He actually says Yeah life’s pretty good and clasps his arms behind his head. Except with the lisp it comes out life’th pretty good.

Then he starts talking about his new junior high and he’s trying to play like he’s a big man there too. Tells me he has a girlfriend named Tina. She’th awethome. Totally hot too. And I think to myself oh man no why are you saying that. I know you’re lying about having a girlfriend. Why are you doing this no please stop.

He’s been looking straight at the camera the whole time so it’s weird when he looks away all of a sudden. Darts his head like he heard a noise.

Thome of the kidth at thchool can be jerkth he says. But what can you do. It ith what it ith. And there’s a super long pause and he looks around the room. Like what he needs to say next is written somewhere but he can’t find it.

Then asks me to write him back but he stops himself mid-sentence. I mean tape. Video. Thend a tape. Tape yourthelf. And I swear to god he smacks himself in the head. He says Thupid in this squeaky cracking voice and he gets up off the bed and you see him turn off the camera and that’s it.

My mom thought this was the sweetest thing that he wanted to keep in touch and told me I should send him a tape too. She nagged me about it for months and I kept telling her I’d do it until she forgot or figured out there was no way in hell I was gonna do that.

Every time a friend came to my house for years I made them watch that tape. If they knew the kid it was funny. If they didn’t know him it was even funnier. The desperate sweaty try-hard-ness of the whole thing. Me and my friends would quote it to each other. If someone fucked up we’d say thupid just the way he did.

Freshman year of college we’d watch this thing in my dorm room every Friday night before we went out. I did a shot-for-shot remake of it for an intro to filmmaking class even though it confused the shit out of the professor. I’ve showed it at every party I ever had at every place I’ve ever lived. Like it’s three am and things are winding down I pop the tape in as a treat to everyone who stuck around that long. Sometimes somebody would be like oh no this fucking thing again and I’d be like yes this fucking thing again.

The tape made me laugh even harder as the years went by. If I had a shitty day at work I’d come home and pop the tape in. I still have a VCR just so I can watch it. The clothes the kid wore were so in that moment. Like if he taped it a week later he’d have been wearing something completely different. He looks so trapped in that time. He looks so trapped.

The tape used to be the litmus test for every girl I went out with. Like if they didn’t think it was funny then things probably weren’t going to work out. I was dating this one girl for like two months before I showed it to her and I thought we got along well enough but she didn’t think it was even a little funny. She said I was laughing at this poor kid and I was being too cruel. I told her I’m not laughing at him. I’m not laughing at whoever this person is now. I’m laughing 20 years later at a dumb kid doing something dumb. And this girl said But he’s still here. And I don’t know if she meant the kid is out there somewhere or she meant he was there on the TV screen. Anyway it didn’t work out between us. Probably dodged a bullet.

I thought about putting it on YouTube. I bet it’d get a million views. I know it would. But people would share it for a couple of days and it’d be forgotten. Who remembers what people were sharing last week let alone last year? This way it’s mine. I’m the gatekeeper. I decide who gets to see it. You come to my house and you watch or you don’t get to watch it.

If random people watched the video they would laugh at him. I’m not laughing at him. I’m laughing at this one moment caught on tape. The other day I tripped walking up the subway stairs and dropped an ice coffee all over the place. This guy walking in the other direction laughed and I was mad for a moment but then I thought shit if I saw myself at that split second I probably would have laughed too. That guy might still be laughing now and there ain’t shit I can do about it. So let him laugh.

This kid is probably fine now. He’s probably doing better than me. I got a crappy apartment and a job I can’t stand and meanwhile for all I know he’s a CEO with a penthouse and a hot wife named Tina. Got a speech therapist and got rid of that lisp. Everything’s great for him now. Better than things are for me. I bet.

But you gotta see this thing. It’s real. I mean it’s really something.

Trump, Bush, and the Curse of Memory

The worst thing about Donald Trump is that he’ll get to come back.

There are many terrible things about Donald Trump The Presidential Candidate, to be sure, more than I care enumerate in this space. But the worst thing of all about him is that he won’t have to pay for any of these sins. He won’t be punished for empowering an army of nazis (online and off), or stoking revenge fantasies among a sizable portion of the electorate that will be impossible for the next president to douse, or even for being a goddamn creep of the highest order. This is all next-level awful, and bodes ill for the presidential elections of 2020 and beyond, when another fascist with sharper political skills and a modicum of impulse control could play the Nixon to Trump’s George Wallace.

But even if we wind up with an actual race-baiting Putin-worshiping monster in the White House 4 or 8 or 12 years from now—someone who will have marched there on a road Trump paved—Trump himself will not receive the slightest blame for it, and he will not only be unrepentant, but will not be forced to answer any hard questions about the horror he has unleashed.

This won’t happen because Trump is a psychopath who can compartmentalize the segments of his consciousness like a serial killer, or because he’s a self-proclaimed multibillionaire who can spend his way out of trouble, although these factors certainly help. This will happen because no one will call him to account. On the face of it, this seems impossible; surely Trump will have to answer for something he’s done during this election. But American political history—particularly that of the last 20 years or so—provides ample evidence to prove this, and the hyper-accelerated pace of media and life in general guarantees it.

Continue reading Trump, Bush, and the Curse of Memory

I Want to Live on a Paid Street

I want to live on a paid street. The paid streets have the nice buildings and the good stores. There’s no good stores on the free streets where I live. On the paid streets they got grocery stores with fresh stuff in all the windows. They got real herbs in the stores on the paid streets. These big bushy green things that look like trees. I don’t even know if I want to eat any of that stuff but I know they got it. Plus they got coffee shops and bookstores and other places like that. There’s hardly any stores on the free streets except for the check cashing spots and bodegas and the bodegas got nothing in them but black bananas and ramen.

The roads are better on the paid streets and there’s hardly any traffic on them because they got these trolleys that run right down the middle of the street. The trolleys don’t even got drivers. They’re like robots and they know where to go and when to stop. The roads on the paid streets don’t got all those potholes like the free streets do. Mom wrecked her car going over one when she was driving a little too fast because she was running late to work and she bottomed out and cracked an axle. Now we gotta ride the free streets buses that smell like shit. The fare is $3.75 and they only take quarters so I gotta lug around 8 pounds of quarters just to get to school and go back home again.

You can’t drive on the paid streets unless you live there. If you live on the paid streets it’s because you work for the company that maintains them or you live in one of the buildings the company owns or something like that. Mom explained it to me once but I still don’t get it because she works for the company too. She says it’s because she only works in the cafeteria and I said to her but that’s still working for them and she says it’s not enough. The rules say she could live on a paid street if she made enough money to get a place there but you don’t make enough money working in the cafeteria and that’s just how it is.

They got these toll booth things where the paid streets start and the toll booths scan your plates so they know if you’re allowed to drive there. If you’re not supposed to drive on the paid streets these barriers go up that cut your tires to shreds. But the paid streets are right in the middle of town and you gotta go around them to get from the east side to the west. It takes forever. When we had the car and mom wanted to visit my aunt sometimes she’d try to go through the paid streets because some of the toll booths worked better than others and you could sneak through if you were lucky. And sometimes it worked although she felt weird because she thought her old car stuck out against all the Lexuses and Priuses the paid street people got.

One time we snuck through a toll booth and we got into the paid streets but when we got to the end of the paid streets the barrier went up ahead of us and these cops came out to give mom a hard time telling her, You know you not supposed to be here. The cops got different uniforms on the paid streets. Not dark blue but light brown that’s almost green. They made mom go back the way she came and followed her in a squad car the whole way with the lights on like she was some dangerous criminal. Then a couple days later she got a bill in the mail for using the paid streets when she wasn’t supposed to. I don’t know how much it was for but she was pissed.

We can’t go the paid streets but the people in the paid streets can come to the free streets any time they want. You see them pull up in shiny cars at the Mexican place down the street. I think it’s Mexican. The sign’s in Spanish. My friend Javy is Colombian and he says it’s not Colombian but that’s all he knows for sure. It got a good review in the paper or something and all of a sudden the place was packed past midnight every night with paid street people spilling out onto the block. I can hear them all the way down in my bedroom which is four buildings away and five stories higher. The paid street people never shut up. You see their cars at the dispensary too. They didn’t want to put a dispensary on the paid streets. They fought it like hell. I saw the paid street people yelling about it and shaking signs at the mayor on the news. But you sure as hell see a lotta paid street cars outside it all day long.

They used to open the paid streets once a year around the Fourth of July. When I was little that was my favorite thing to do all summer. When the paid streets was open they gave out free ice cream cones and balloons which is all you need to make you happy when you’re a little kid. They had an inflatable bouncy castle I went in maybe a hundred times before mom dragged me out of there. They had fireworks at night. It was great.

And then there was the Fourth of July when mom said I was too old for her to take me there but I still wanted to go so I went to the paid streets with my friend Javy from school. But it felt different. I felt it right away but I didn’t want to feel it. I wanted to think it was still the same way it always was. So I just pretended like the feeling wasn’t there and everything was fine.

We got balloons and ice cream even though we were in junior high already. I don’t even know why we did that. I guess because in my head that’s what you were supposed to do when you went to the paid streets and I didn’t know what else to do. Me and Javy waited on line for a half hour to get a tiny little ice cream cone and when we got to the front of the line the guy in the ice cream truck took a look at us and he squinted like he couldn’t see us too good and he said, Really? You ain’t too big for this? Before we got to the front I seen him serve tiny ice creams to grown ups from the paid streets. Some of them was old too. White hair or bald heads. And he didn’t say nothing to any of them. So I said, Yeah really. It’s hot. We want ice cream. The ice cream guy sighed real loud like we was asking a huge favor. Like we wanted more than everyone who came before us.

And as soon as me and Javy got our cones I could feel all these paid street eyes on me. I’d look off to the side and they were staring at us. But they’d look away soon as I locked eyes with them. They were ashamed of staring at us but not so ashamed that they didn’t do it.

Me and Javy sat on a bench outside a coffee shop to eat our cones and this lady with an apron came out and she said to us, Excuse me can you please eat those somewhere else? And I asked her why and she said, I would just appreciate it. Thanks. My friend Javy asked her what we were doing wrong but she went back inside and we saw her take out her cell phone and talk to someone while staring at us the whole time. So we figured we better move.

So we’re eating our cones walking down the paid streets and Javy tells me that the trolley thing that runs down the middle of the street will stop automatically if you step in the track. I saw one of the trolleys was coming down the track so I told him to prove it. When the trolley was about 20 feet away from us Javy jumped on the track and landed in a karate stance like he was ready to fight it. The trolley stopped short with a squeak and the power lines up top shot out a few sparks.

Then Javy told me, Now you have to. So I ran ahead a little bit and I waited until the trolley was a little closer than when Javy jumped and I ran across the track. Javy called me a punk because I didn’t stop and stand on the track like he did but the trolley stopped anyway and there was even more sparks this time.

Then we took turns doing it. We’d let the trolley start up and move a little bit and then one of us would jump on the track or across the tracks or sprint through them. I would jump over and make a stupid face toward the trolley in mid-air. Me and Javy couldn’t stop laughing.

There was only six or seven people on the trolley maybe but I could see all of them was pissed. This nerdy looking guy with glasses leaned out a window and called us thugs and told us to stop. So Javy yelled back, Come out and make us. Of course he didn’t do nothing about it.

Then we see the paid street cops come running after us. The paid street cops don’t got guns but I heard they got tasers because there was a kid in the next building who got zapped the last Fourth of July when a paid street store thought he stole a pack of gum. And I knew for sure the paid street cops got clubs because I could seem them flapping back and forth as they jogged toward me and Javy. So we booked it. There was five blocks between us and the end of the paid streets. I never ran so fast in my life. My lungs was burning by the end.

Me and Javy made it out safe and when we got out into the free streets the paid street cops stopped short because they couldn’t do nothing to us once we got there. Javy grabbed his balls and screamed at the paid street cops and all the paid street people who was staring at us from the other side of the border. That’s right, Javy said, you can’t do shit to us now you punk ass bitches.

But the paid street cops and the paid street people looking back at us didn’t look mad or scared or nothing like that. They looked sad. And that made me so god damn angry. Don’t look at me like that. Don’t be sad because you see me. I can be where you’re at. All you got is money and all I need is money and we’ll be in the same place and you will look me in the eye on a paid street.

Labor Days

It is not a good time to work in a creative field, from a financial standpoint if nothing else. Despite this cold hard fact—or perhaps because of it—it is impossible to spend any time online without encountering aggressive creative encouragement. Every few days, you will encounter some meme ordering you to forge ahead with your project, which are basically 21st century versions of Hang in there! Barring that, you will receive a link to a personal essay that uses 2-3K words to broadcast the same message, usually depicting a Hero’s Journey from Unhappily Not Doing Things to Joyfully Doing Things.

As someone with writerly ambitions, my own anecdotal experience shows that literary corners of the internet are lousy with this stuff. The solitary nature of writing lends itself to a state of isolation that is susceptible to anything resembling encouragement, no matter how trite the sentiment or unrepeatable the path to success.

My pessimistic nature would cause me to chafe against these appeals regardless. But the more of it I run across, the more I believe it completely misses the boat in terms of what really ails anyone who aspires to do creative things.

Continue reading Labor Days

I Was Under the River Ma

I was under the river ma. The river. The East River. I was on the subway when you called. You know there’s no cell phone service in the tunnels. You know that. Can you hear me now. I can’t speak too loud. I’m on a train and I’m standing up and it’s crowded and I don’t wanna yell in some guy’s ear. How can there be a problem with the pills. I was just there yesterday and I set up all the carrousel for you for the month. Not a horse carrousel ma. The pill carrousel. It’s right there on the kitchen table. I don’t know why they call it that ma. Because it spins around I guess. It’s what the box said when I got it at Target. Today’s the first so just look for the little plastic box with the 1 on it and take that out and those are your pills for today. Why are you taking your pills now. It’s like 6 o’clock. You gotta take them all in the morning. Check your marker boards. I put them in the living room and the kitchen and the bedroom with all the important info on it so if you ever forget something no matter where you’re at you don’t gotta look far. Why are you looking for 2. Tomorrow is the second. No. Don’t take the 2 box out so you don’t forget tomorrow. They’re set up in the carrousel in number order so you can’t forget nothing. That’s what it’s for. What do you mean there’s no 2. I swear to god ma I was there on Sunday and I counted every pill for every day and I put every little box back in the carrousel. It’s gotta be there. I know it’s there. I’m not yelling. I know what I did is all. Find 1 then look right next to it and that’s 2. What do you mean there’s a space there. There’s no space there. I’m not yelling. Fine. If you can’t find 2 then do this. Look for 9.  The number 9 ma. Look for the number 9. You’re looking for 9 because that’s next Tuesday. You found it. Good. Take the 9 box out and open it up. Is there a little yellow pill in there. That’s the thyroid. You take those on Tuesdays. Take the 9 box and put it where the 2 box should be. Next to the 1. That way you’ll take the right pills tomorrow and I’ll fix the carrousel next time I’m there. What do you mean you can’t put nothing there. You just told me there’s a space next to 1. If there’s no space then what’s there. Then what’s there ma. Describe to me what you see. Explain to me what you’re seeing with your eyes because I do not have ESP. I can’t channel myself into your kitchen and see what you’re seeing. I’m not yelling. I sound upset to you. I been at work all day and I’m standing on this train and the AC don’t work so I’m sweating like a pig and I still gotta pick up Sara from afterschool and grab dinner. My day isn’t even close to being over ma. Sara. Your granddaughter ma. I put a picture of her on the boards. She’s wearing her tee ball uniform. Tee ball. It’s like little league. I can’t go over there tonight ma. Not tonight ma. No. Because Joe’s working nights now and he’s got the car. Joe. My husband Joe ma. His picture’s not on the board ma. No his name isn’t Greg ma. You’re thinking of Greg from high school. I’m sure I didn’t marry Greg ma. Because he fell out a window. Because drugs probably. I don’t wanna talk about Greg. It’s not that I don’t wanna help you. I’m there all the time ma. No. Do not call Steve ma. Because he won’t come and you’ll just get mad and even if he does come over he’ll be drunk off his ass and he’ll be useless like always. I don’t care if he’s my brother. Yes I can say that because it’s true. Don’t tell me to give him help. I help him all the time ma. I gave him 100 bucks last week even though I knew where it was going. I’m trying to figure this out ma. Because you can’t call Steve but I can’t hump over to your place on the 59 with a six year old under my arm. I’m alone tonight ma. You know what this is like. Yeah I got one kid instead of two but you know this is hard all alone and you want me to drop everything and. Jesus don’t cry ma. No I’m not gonna be happy when god comes to take you ma. Why would you say that. I’m doing everything I can. I can’t do this every night. Yes it is every night with this. Yes it is ma. You don’t know it’s every night because you’re. No. For the last time don’t call Steve ma. No I don’t trust Steve to even find a god damn 2. You’ll be lucky if he don’t take your ATM card. You didn’t give him your new PIN did you. I was on the phone with the bank for 2 hours clearing it up the last time you did that. Has he been by. Has he been by ma. Yes or no. I can’t do this. I can’t. No Steve ma. No. Then I’ll figure something out. That’s what I do. It’s always me. I’ll make it work ma. Look. This is my stop. I love you. I gotta go.

Ask Yourself How Could I Get Hurt

I should say something. Bill’s telling the story like he did it and I know he didn’t do it. I did it. I know it’s his house but it’s that doesn’t mean he gets to tell the story wrong. I shouldn’t have come. My hip hurts and I’m sitting in the living room watching a football game that’s just on. I don’t care about this game. I barely know who’s playing and I keep dipping my hand into this bowl of Cheetos and I don’t even like Cheetos. Bill’s still telling the story like he did it and he has to know that’s wrong. I bet most of these people know it’s wrong too. They’re from the neighborhood. He used to tell it and he would tell it right. He can see me from the kitchen I bet. There’s a wall between here and there but there’s also a mirror in the dining room that reflects toward the kitchen and I bet he can see me in that mirror sitting here eating these Cheetos. He can see me I’m sure and he’s telling the story wrong anyway. I shouldn’t have come. Karen didn’t recognize me when she picked me up at the Metro North station. She was like How do you know Bill and I said We all grew up together and she said Oh of course but there was a pause and I knew she didn’t remember me. When I said We All I meant her too because we were in school together. Me and her and Bill. Do I look that different. I know I do. Everyone looks different. Karen looks different. Bill sure looks different. Gray and dad-fat. But he still looks like Bill in his way. How did Karen not know it’s me. We never talked much even in high school but I mean. I don’t care how much weight I gained or how I walk now with this hip. It’s still me. Now I can’t hear the story because a bunch of kids ran into the living room and started fighting with plastic swords right in front of the TV. I want to tell them to go away but I don’t care about this game anyway and I don’t think they’d hear me. Earlier I wandered into the back bedroom where the kids were playing and asked what they were up to because I didn’t know what else to do with myself and no one answered me. Kept jumping on the beds like I wasn’t there. I’m invisible. I shouldn’t have come. The kids are gone now and Bill’s still telling the story. He’s not telling it right. He has himself behind the wheel in this version but I was driving. Everyone knows I was driving. He doesn’t want me here. Then why’d he invite me to his barbecue. Maybe he didn’t think I’d come since I don’t have a car and I have so much shit to do taking care of ma and also the hip. The train seat was murder. I took some pain meds but they don’t give me the good stuff anymore. I only take it because I feel like I have to do something. I’m sweating even in the house with the AC on. There’s a stain on these pants I didn’t notice before. I should go into the kitchen and say how the story really happened. I can’t tell stories like Bill though. He could always tell stories even in school. King of the lunch table. Telling other people’s jokes. I watched the same shows as him and I knew when he was swiping jokes from standup routines and passing them along as his own stuff and I didn’t say anything then either. Should I go outside and grab a burger. Everyone will see me hobbling and hunched over with this hip thing. But if I don’t go out there they’ll wonder why I’m holed up in the house. Except if they don’t know I’m here to begin with. The thing with the story Bill’s telling is it even started with me. It never would’ve happened without me. It was my dad who worked in the traffic management office. He told me how the lights worked. Used to bore me to death with all the details. He could hardly talk about anything else. One afternoon at lunch when Bill was bragging about how fast he raced the weekend before and I felt like I had to say something just to get a word in edgewise like I didn’t want to be locked in my head anymore but I didn’t know what else to say so I blurted out that you could go the whole length of Woodhaven and Cross Bay and make it to Rockaway Beach without having to stop once if you timed it just right. It had to be at like 3 in the morning but you could do it. And I knew it because my dad would say it all the time and he’d always say it like he was saying it for the first time like whoah let me blow your mind. Bill said prove it. Maybe I’ll get a hot dog instead. Except they’ve been sitting out in the sun if there’s any left at all and if I go out there I gotta go down those porch steps and that’ll kill my hip. But it’s killing me right now anyway. Bill dared me to take dad’s car because I said dad had a Chevy Caprice and Bill said those were great dragging cars and the cops used them too. When I said I didn’t want to take dad’s car he said the only reason I wouldn’t is because I was lying about the lights. I said why don’t you take your own dad’s car and he said because I’m not the one who made the bet. I didn’t even know I made a bet. One of the kids is crying and another one’s getting yelled at. Another stomps past me while his mother yells You get back here this instant. The kid runs into a bedroom and slams a door even though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t live here. I set an alarm for 2 am and slapped it quiet so no one else in the house would wake up and I snuck into the kitchen and grabbed dad’s keys from the rack real slow. Didn’t let one key clank against another. They felt so heavy in my hand. Bill was waiting on his stoop when I pulled up and he was pissed. He was expecting a police cruiser type car and not my dad’s shitty old station wagon. When we got Woodhaven by the mall he wanted me to floor it and I said No that’s not how it works. If I wait for the first green and take it easy we can make it all the way down and not hit a red but if I speed we’ll catch up to a red. He folded his arms and sulked because he thought we were going to fly down Woodhaven. We were 16 and Bill used to talk like he dragged on the weekends so he wanted to speed was all. I didn’t even have my license. I didn’t know why I was doing it except Bill said I was lying and being called a liar it just bugged me. I never did nothing like that. Taking dad’s car. He’s still telling the story and he’s telling it like he drove. He did not drive. It was my dad’s car and I drove and he sat in the passenger side arms folded all because I refused to speed. Don’t be a pussy he said and I said I’m not scared. I said I can get from one end of Queens to the other without hitting a red and this is how you do it. Bill would see some yellows way up ahead because it was so late and there was hardly any other cars ahead of us and he’d tell me to gun it and I said no they’ll be green when we get there. No matter how many times I was right he didn’t believe me. Maybe he tells the story better. I couldn’t get people laughing like he’s doing right now. When I got to Bill’s house he said it was good to see me but he was standing at the grill cooking burgers and he didn’t raise his head even when he said it. Then he ran off to talk to someone else. I brought a six pack. I didn’t know what else to bring. I put it in the fridge next to a bottle of generic soda and I sat down on the couch and I’ve hardly moved since. God this hip. When we got as far as New Park Pizza without hitting a red was when Bill started to loosen up a little. We’re gonna do this he said. We. Like we were a team all of a sudden. At school he bragged about dragging on the Connecting Highway and now I knew he was full of shit. Why I didn’t figure this out before I don’t know. Didn’t even have his own car. Didn’t know shit about cars and he sure didn’t know lights like I knew. It was just a thing to say at lunch. A story. Someone’s standing with the front door open calling for Tommy. I don’t know who Tommy is but whoever’s looking for him is letting all the cool air out of the house. I’m sweating. I’m sinking into this couch. Can I get up without help. I hope ma’s okay in this heat. All she’s got is a fan. I should call her and check. I should be at home with her instead of here. This fucking hip. I have dreams where someone takes me apart like a Lego figure and cleans out my bones from the inside and then I feel better. We went through Breezy Point with no trouble at all and I threw some change into the toll basket and we got on the bridge to Rockaway and Bill was shaking in his seat saying Holy shit we’re actually gonna do it. And then we got the exit toward the beach and up ahead was the last light on the way. The one right under the A train tracks and it was red. And Bill screamed Step on it! And I said to him If we wait… but he didn’t let me finish. He yelled Fuck that and he raised his foot in the air like he was gonna stomp a bug and he brought it down on my foot and pinned it to the gas. This is in my dad’s old car. This Chevy Caprice station wagon that already had 150K miles on it and handled like an old rollerskate. Bill had my foot pinned to the gas and I yelled That won’t make the light go green faster you dumbfuck. You don’t know shit about driving. That made him press down harder and I felt like he was going to put his foot right through mine. So I stomped on the brake with my left foot which was a mistake because this made the Chevy fishtail. It whipped around and hopped the curb and clipped a train support and the bumper fell right off. And the tracks above us were being worked on so there was all this orange netting and safety signs around and one of the signs tumbled off the overpass and landed on the car and took a big divot out of the hood. The sign said ASK YOURSELF HOW COULD I GET HURT. Bill gets this part right when he tells it. He includes the sign falling down on the car and everyone laughs. Bill says I swear to god this happened. And he pokes his head around the corner from the kitchen to look into the living room and he nods his head toward me and he says This guy can tell you. He was there.

You Have One New Message

Hey. It’s Tommy. Hope the Poconos is okay. The neighborhood’s gone to shit but you knew that already. You got out in time. The fuckin hipsters are all the way up to Cypress now if you can believe that. If they take a wreckin ball to this place they’re gonna have to take me with it cuz I ain’t goin nowhere.

Listen. I seen your mother’s grave when I was at the cemetery and I had to call you. This is Tommy. Did I say that already? I hate these things. Cell phones. They don’t feel like real phones to me and I never know what to say on em. I was at St. John’s. My great aunt Rose just passed. 93. God bless her. So while we’re drivin into the cemetery I seen a fresh grave with the dirt piled up and I seen your last name on the headstone. It’s one a them names where I see it and it sticks out to me. You always got pissed first day a school every year when the teacher’s couldn’t say it right. And then I seen your mother’s name on the headstone and I felt so awful. I hadn’t thought a your mother for years and now I seen her grave and I almost felt like it was my fault. Like if I hadn’t a seen it she’d still be with us. In my head I guess.

First thing I thought of when I seen that. You remember this one time my old man got hurt on the job and my mother had to go meet him at the hospital so she dropped me off at your place? Course you don’t. We was both like 10 or 11 maybe. It was just another day to you maybe but my I was scared shitless. I didn’t even know what happened to the old man. I just knew he was at the hospital and hospital meant bad things. When I showed up at your place I had to pretend like nothin was wrong and I didn’t feel like cryin. You guys was still on Stockholm and I thought your place was fancy cuz you had a backyard to play in. I called it a backyard anyways. It was just the alley with all the garages. We was playin wiffle ball out there while your mother made dinner. Just you and me with ghost runners on invisible bases and all that and me pretendin like I cared about while I’m wonderin if my dad is in a body cast or the morgue or what I don’t even know.

Your mother made these chicken cutlets that night that knocked me out. You know me. I eat like a pig even when nothin’s wrong but I was worried about my old man and wonderin when my mom was gonna come get me so I kept shovelin food in my face to keep from sayin somethin stupid or burstin into tears. I asked for like three helpings. You mother said she was glad somebody ate her food for once and you kicked me under the table like I was makin you look bad.

We was up watchin TV at least until Carson started which was real late for me. I wanted to stay up because you were still up but I was noddin off on your couch and your mother said I could sleep on her bed til my mom came to get me.

And she showed me to the back a your place and when I laid down she sat on the edge of the bed and she started singin this song. It didn’t have no words. At least not the way she sang. It was more like humming. She brushed my hair back and sang to me. It was exactly what I needed. She didn’t know everything was gonna be okay but she told me it would all be okay anyways. Just by her singin.

The song was still in my head when I woke up the next day. I don’t remember my mom comin to get me and I don’t remember leavin your house. Next thing I knew I was in my own place and I wandered out to the kitchen and my folks are both there and my old man’s readin the paper with his eggs and he don’t got a scratch on him. It seemed like magic to me.

The next day on the way to school you grabbed me on the bus and told me not to tell nobody your mom sang to me. Didn’t even ask me how my old man was. Just grabbed me and told me not to say nothin. You told me she used to sing to you all the time and it drove you nuts and you had to beg her to stop doin it. And I told you I wouldn’t tell nobody because who the hell was I gonna tell. You said you wasn’t a baby no more and you looked so god damn mad about it. I thought you was gonna punch a hole in a bus window. I wanted to know why it made you so pissed off but I figured askin you question would just made you madder. So I didn’t say nothin about it and it just sorta left my head after that. I forgot all about it until the other day when I seen your mother’s name on the headstone and I hear that song she sang to me. Clear as day. I never heard that tune before she sang it to me and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard it since but I swear I could hum it right now if I had to. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna.

It kills me that I forgot all about what she done. I shoulda held onto that. I shoulda thanked your mother. I guess I should be mad at you but I’m really mad at myself. It was up to me to remember. But then I think even if I did remember what she did I wouldn’t say nothin to her. That’s how kids are. When you’re a kid you think grownups exist to make you feel better when you need it. Then you grow up yourself and no one’s around to make you feel better no more.

I’m sorry. I’m ramblin. I wish you told me you was in town. We coulda grabbed a beer. You let me know next time. I got nothin goin on over here. You be good.

Excerpts From the Only New York Novel Ever Published

The bees are in full voice today, Jim thought to himself as he tended to his rooftop apiary. The customers at Freyja, the café he owned in Ridgewood, would soon be clamoring for more of the bounty of these hives. It came from a special breed, Apis laboriosa, native to the Himalayas, who produced a honey less sweet than store bought, with strong notes of tartness. How like life itself, Jim thought. How like his life.

When he first opened Freyja, there was nothing around it for miles. They told him he was foolish to quit his job at Goldman Sachs and open a café where no one lived. Back then, the café’s only neighbors were a check cashing business, a down-in-the-mouth community center, and a hospital that would soon close down. Now people lined up at dawn on days when the honey was available. Jim could produce more of it, but the bees were sensitive. You could only ask so much of them. Also, he had received  complaints when some of the oversized bees broke away from his colony and built their own hive in the jungle gym at the local playground.

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1995: Avenue C

I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.

Continue reading 1995: Avenue C