When I was in high school I wrote music. When I was in high school I did a lot of things. I used to write stories and write sketches and draw cartoons and draw comic books and play trumpet and play bass. I was not encouraged to do any of these things. I didn’t go to an artsy school and I don’t come from artsy people. I simply wanted to do many things and didn’t understand people who said it was important to pick one thing and stick with it. Who could be satisfied doing just one thing with their life?
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.
HBO’s critically acclaimed series COMPLICATED ANTIHERO returns for another season of gritty, uncompromising drama.
COMPLICATED ANTIHERO wakes up in a seedy motel room next to a stripper who is totally naked and nude but still asleep. The end table is strewn with empty fifths of Jack and overturned pill bottles. He sits up in bed and places his weary head in his heads while we hear Metallica’s cover of “Turn the Page.”
You try to be a good man. But what is a good man? What is good? What is right and what is wrong? What is “is”? Does anything mean something anymore? Not from where I’m sitting.
CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO pouring wet concrete down a snitch’s throat.
* * *
COMPLICATED ANTIHERO is at his EX-WIFE’s house. She smokes and looks on disapprovingly while he watches his SON play with blocks. He has a look of paternal pride mixed with an immutable element of sadness and also wears a badass leather jacket.
You wanna be a father to him now, after all this time? You’re gonna teach him right from wrong? (sardonic laughter) You ain’t no father.
You think you know what a father is? You think anybody knows what a father is? You think anybody knows anything?
CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO running over the mayor with a tank.
* * *
Police interrogation room. COMPLICATED ANTIHERO sits handcuffed to a desk and his face is a little beat up but not so much we can’t see his eyes still burn with righteous indignation over all the world’s injustice. His nemesis, DETECTIVE WISNIEWSKI, gets right in his face.
You might beat this rap, scumbag, but mark my words, I will take you down if I have to do it all by myself. Because YOU represent everything that’s wrong with this world. We used to have RULES. We used to have RIGHT and WRONG. We used to have CLEARLY DEFINED BORDERS BETWEEN THINGS.
COMPLICATED ANTIHERO lets out a wan laugh.
CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO whipping everyone in a subway car with a bike chain lit on fire.
* * *
COMPLICATED ANTIHERO sits in a confessional, his hands clasped in prayer and clutching a rosary.
I used to have faith, Father. I used to believe in things like right and wrong. But I don’t see them in this world no more.
I wish I could tell you otherwise, my son. But I’m afraid I don’t see them in this world either.
A single tear runs down COMPLICATED ANTIHERO’s cheek, lit by the slightest hint of moonlight creeping through a latticed window. It also lights up his stubble and makes it look great.
CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO forcing some dude to eat an anvil.
* * *
COMPLICATED ANTIHERO genuflects at his FATHER’s hospital bed. There’s tubes up his father’s nose because he’s gonna die of some cancer thing. COMPLICATED ANTIHERO grasps his father’s wizened hands in his own and chokes back the tears welling in his throat.
You never cared for me, Pop! You never taught me right from wrong! You never taught me nothin’!
I taught you the most important lesson of all, son. There ain’t no right and wrong in this world.
So, let’s see how our patient is doing…
COMPLICATED ANTIHERO pistol-whips DOCTOR with crash cart.
* * *
A dream sequence. COMPLICATED ANTIHERO watches helplessly as a bird pecks away at his hands, eating the flesh all the way to the bone. The bird flies away.
COMPLICATED ANTIHERO wakes up, in a different motel room next to a different totally naked nude stripper. He sits at the edge of the bed and rests his head in his hands.
What does it mean? What does anything mean?
CUT TO: COMPLICATED ANTIHERO throwing a flaming school bus at an orphanage.
It is near-rush hour on the F train which is to say it is crowded but not packed. A pair of drag queens crack each other in a nook by a shut door. One baby wails in each half of the car. The one attacking my left ear is a little more persistent than the one attacking my right. A panhandler says “Excuse me” in a clear smooth voice so he can move past other riders before adopting a pitted groan to give his SPARE CHANGE pitch.
I’m attempting to read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb which is a long and heavy book and not conducive to standing-up-on-the-subway reading but I’m reading it anyway. I’ve read this book before but I recently felt compelled to reread it. I’m not sure why.
We are stalled at the Queensbridge stop when a yell asserts itself above the din. I look down at the far end of the car and see a man in gray packed against a closed door. His brow is knotted as he unsheathes his shaved dome from his headphones.
IT’S CROWDED BUT IT AIN’T THAT CROWDED! he shouts. WHY YOU GOTTA BE ON TOP OF ME?! From where I stand no one appears to be on top of him. I can’t see the target of his yells. I can only see the other riders craning their necks to get a look at the noise.
MOTHERFUCKER YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME? he yells. These words are a signal that tell every pair of eyes to avert its gaze and every head to pivot away. Nothing good has ever happened after these words are spoken. No one ever says YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME?! before handing out freshly baked cookies.
YOU GIVE ME AN ATTITUDE?! YOU TRY THIS CONDESCENDING BULLSHIT WITH ME?! The man was obviously convinced that he of all people should not have to stand for whatever transgression was just visited upon him. The world should have known that he was a man not to be trifled with or a man with a reputation or a man at the end of a long bad day or a man at the end of his rope.
The doors won’t close to move on to the next station. This gives the drag queens enough time to give each other a knowing look and run out onto the platform to find another car to ride in. I contemplate doing the same until a conductor squawks over the PA. For a moment me and all the other riders in the car believe someone will do something about the man’s escalating anger.
The conductor has other fish to fry. I told you you can’t hold the train doors to panhandle, he bleats in exasperated pixilation to some other miscreant. Let go of the doors so the train can move. You do that again and I’m callin the cops. The doors stutter back and forth for a few seconds to chase away this unseen annoyance.
Then the doors shut and we continue on out way but the yelling man is still yelling. YOU DO THIS TO ME?! he spits. Everyone else’s head is cast down. The F is an express once it leaves Manhattan. A long ride lies between Queensbridge and Roosevelt Avenue. It will be an even longer ride with this man screaming and everyone silently begging the train to move faster toward its next stop.
The car takes on the feel of a hospital waiting room. No one can stand to look at anyone else. Everyone expects bad news and they prefer it come sooner than later. The bad news will be nothing compared to the torture of waiting for the bad news.
I try to distract myself with my book. The Making of the Atomic Bomb starts with the amazing discoveries of physics in the early 1900s and how these advances laid the groundwork for the weapon to come. I’ve reached the point in the book where scientists first ponder the possibility of fission: Is it possible? Can a reaction be contained? Would this unleash more power than the world can handle? It’s also the point at which the rise of Hitler in Germany sends many of the world’s best physicists to America. At least the ones perceptive enough to recognize the approaching danger. Even some of the smartest people who ever lived had trouble believing the Nazis were going to do exactly what they said they’d do. It was all too monstrous to be real until it was monstrously real.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb is about as accessible as a book mostly about physics can be. Rhodes’ prose alternates between breezy comparisons and touching profundity. But the finer details can be rough to negotiate even without a crazy person threatening to explode in your subway car. Someone who is wailing at a foe who I can’t see and who may have a weapon and may just be hunting in his overcharged brain for an excuse to produce it.
I kept my eyes on the exploits of Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard because they were all past. We all know how that story ended. The one in my car had a more doubtful outcome.
Bohr did not think his compound model of the nucleus boded well for harnessing nuclear energy….THIS AIN’T NO GAME…Einstein had compared it to shooting in the dark at scarce birds…I AIN’T PLAYIN…the efficiency of slow neutrons “might never have been discovered if Italy were not rich in marble”…YOU GONNA DO THAT TO ME?!…The truth was, uranium was a confusion, and no one yet knew…THIS WHOLE CAR MAN THIS WHOLE CAR…Szilard saw beyond “energy for industrial purposes” to the possibility of weapons of war…
The book slowly overtakes the voice. The yelling stops completely as light pierces the car and we approach Roosevelt. Whoever this man felt the need to yell at refused all that time to yell back—assuming he existed at all. Without someone to react with his anger burned up all its fuel and died off.
I dare to look in the yeller’s general direction as I depart for the local. I do not see him. He produced only fright before dispersing into the ether. If only every outburst failed to spark a chain reaction.
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And now, without further ado, we present our recap of episode 507, “The One Where Wrathmire Kills Galdarf and Assumes the Throne, Only to Be Thwarted By His Bitterest Rival and Burned Alive”
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.
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.
I’ve pulled my book from Amazon.
Doing this will cause me no hardship whatsoever, either now or in the foreseeable future. My novel Hang A Crooked Number has sold as many copies as it will ever sell, having gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. I have no writing career that a break from Amazon could damage. I’m no threat to acquire such a career any time soon; I once thought writing would be my vocation, but I’ve accepted that it will be nothing more than a hobby.
In other words, this move involves almost no sacrifice on my part. The stakes could not be lower for me. I’m pulling my book anyway.
I was ambivalent at best about putting my book on Amazon to begin with. Did I really want to associate myself with a company that had destroyed Main Street as thoroughly and ruthlessly as Wal-Mart, if not more so?* One that’s laid to waste thousands of stores across the country, and apparently has its eye on taking out shipping companies, too?
I weighed Amazon’s force of evil against my desire to see lots of people to read my book and eventually decided to side with the latter. Since my novel was only going to be available in ebook format, I wanted it to be available in the format most people use to read ebooks. I saw a caravan full of demons barreling down the road and stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride, figuring As long as they’re going my way…
I believe the word for this kind of reasoning is “chicken-shit.”
We all do this in some form or another, making explicit or implicit compromises with distasteful organizations because they might make our lives easier for a moment. It’s not that we don’t care. We just don’t want to care all the time. Life is hard. We treasure those brief moments where one minute hassle has been removed from our days.
Many people who use Amazon are fully aware of, and have issues with, the company’s lowballing and bullying tendencies, its rapacious hunger to devour all competition, and its pitiful record of charitable donations compared to other giant corporations. We hit pause on these concerns because we really want to be able to pick up a deck chair and a pair of shoes and a DVD set without driving to three different stores.
Just a few weeks ago, I ordered a few items from Amazon, reasoning that it was hard to find them at local stores because there weren’t many local stores where I could find those items. It wasn’t until my package arrived that it occurred to me Amazon was the reason those local stores had disappeared.
By all accounts, this was Jeff Bezos’s intention from Day One: Become so large and eliminate so much competition that concerns about how you play the game become immaterial, because you are the only game in town. If you could bring to life a Gilded Age robber baron’s wet dream, this would be it.
Amazon’s current tiff with Hachette is just the latest example of what happens when you let some evil slide for a while for the sake of convenience. In a fit of caprice befitting an inbred Renaissance monarch, Amazon has stopped selling certain books because one publisher dared say no to them. The company actually has the balls to tell customers to seek these books out elsewhere, knowing full well that there are few elsewheres to seek out (especially when it comes to books), and that they’ve trained their customer base to look upon any offline shopping experience as an insufferable ordeal.
I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book, or if I’ll write much of anything in the future. I do know that I would like someone to keep writing books, and I would like those books to be available in as many channels as possible. I do know that I don’t want publishing to devolve into the same state as other culture industries, to become a Brazil ruled by a small coterie of the super-elite perched atop a sea of dog-eat-dog favelas stretching out in every direction.
And so I’d rather not be a part of something that is actively working toward that end, however infinitesimally small my part might be. On the off chance anyone still wants to read my novel, it can now be purchased here. I’ll trade the loss of hypothetical reach offered by Amazon for the knowledge that whatever future pennies are spent on my book won’t line Amazon’s pockets.
Pulling my book from Amazon is barely doing anything, but it’s not doing nothing. Consider doing more than nothing.
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.
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?