My Early Years of Apathetic Something Part 5: More Mob Stories and a Clown Suit

(Continuing my Confessions.)

The Chess Club had slowed down and JJ just sat in the mostly empty room, telling more stories about the gym.

“Did I ever tell you about Lydia Plowman?”


“She’s this girl who worked out at the gym. She had a boyfriend who was the grandson of some really big mob guy-I’m talking big, like he was mentioned under a nickname in that book they based Goodfellas on.

“She looked kinda dykey, but I dunno man-something about her. My grandfather said ‘Wah? Why are you interested in that dyke?’ And I said ‘Grandpa, just keep watching the TV.’

“So as I’m closing the gym, she starts telling me about all these problems she’s having with her man. And she does this for like a week. I’m just chill, listen and stuff. One night she seems really distressed. And I’m not gonna lie, the thought went through my head, this is the night I could have sex. But I think ‘No,’ do the right thing and hear out her problems and tell her to go home.

“She doesn’t show up to the gym for like a week. I ask around, I say ‘Anybody seen Lydia Plowman?’ And one guy says ‘You didn’t hear? She slashed some guy’s throat with a broken bottle when they were having sex. Was all over the papers.’

“At that moment I thought to myself ‘If I’d just had sex with that woman, that guy might be alive right now.”

Eventually JJ gave up on trying to get an accounting degree after 7 years part time. He found a sales job with commission at a mattress store.

The parts of newspapers with overheard statements and anonymous confessions always fascinated me. Particularly the Eye Saw U columns. Strange and lonely with a whole set of sub dialects of misspellings. I think the ones in the local alternative weekly were submitted through an internet chatroom.

“I come in coffee shop every day and see u. U-maybe…23? Dyed pink hair. Look like a Pixie. Well bebe I wil be ur Peter Pan. Cum to my coffee shop sometime ;)”

At the time I held suspicions people only showed their “true” selves when they simultaneously thought that everyone was watching but no one could see them. I studied the columns closely. Several people I spoke to said that they’d recognized a description of themselves in one of the columns and knew who had probably sent it in.

I liked to spend time in the subway stations idling around those little booths that had all the religious pamphlets and the Scientology Thetan testers that looked like tin cans or love buzzer handles. I once took the 300 question Dianetics written test at the Scientology Celebrity Center with a friend. He scored extremely well. They were willing to give him the L. Ron Hubbard books for free. They wanted him in a leadership position.

I, on the other hand, apparently got one of the lowest scores they had ever recorded. When they took me in the office to discuss it afterward, the young Scientologist in the suit they’d assigned to me asked “You know killing is wrong, right Mr. Levine?” L. Ron Hubbard did not want me.

We took the N train all the way to Coney Island and back in the middle of the night figuring that if we stayed on the same train car long enough, something interesting was bound to happen.

While we waited for the train to start in the opposite direction back from Coney Island, a pimply boy of maybe 16 came onto the train with two girls who must’ve been 14. They were both covered in sores and wearing parachute pants.

The two girls put their legs up over my legs and my friend’s legs on the opposite subway bench.

“How big is it?” one of them said.

“Yeah, how big is it,” the other said.

The boy was holding an aluminum baseball bat.

“Depends on the spacing and the formatting,” I said.

“The spacing?”

“Yeah, it’s bigger double space than single space. And the font.”

“Is yours double spaced? Is it big?”

“I have a girlfriend,” my friend interjected and the woman took her legs off his. They sat with a space between them for the rest of the ride to Manhattan.

“Mine’s 8.75,” the boy interjected.

“Metric or imperial standard?” I asked.

“Inches. Metric it’d be 22.223 cm.”

We checked these numbers later when we got home and found that whether or not this was the actual size of his penis, his metric conversions were strong.

The rest of the way there we had a long and detailed discussion of the problems the US has had converting to the metric system and whether a pimp could ever be considered a sex addict if the activities in fact didn’t interfere with his work.

The air became less formal. He even loosened his grip on the baseball bat.

I had been undecided on whether to go to the party earlier in the evening. When I decided to, I found myself without a costume and rushed down to the bodega in my pajamas. They had a clown wig, nose, and makeup kit for sale. I put my make-up on on the train. It looked jagged, like something scratched in a desk.

This was a break from my tradition of previous years where I’d not change my clothes at all and when people would ask me “What are you dressed as?” I’d say “What do you think I’m dressed as?” and when they suggested something just said “Yes.” By the end of the night I would just reply with earlier suggestions.

“I’m a retired pirate who wants to keep it low key.”

“I’m your neighbor.”

One year I went around saying I was going dressed as the decline of western civilization. I showed up in my normal clothes and no one noticed the difference.

I arrived at the party and there were three other clowns. They all looked more professional than I did.

A guy in an ape suit took off his ape head to smoke a joint. He passed it to me. I was in a clown suit and when I walked inside I met a woman dressed how I normally dressed when I wasn’t in the clown suit. She drunk, I in a clown suit. We started living together soon after. We weren’t sure what else to do.

(Tomorrow: Further misadventures and fanservice!)

My Early Years of Apathetic Something Part 4: I Ate a Lot of Cheese and Got Home at 6am

(Excerpted from my unfinished opus From the Belly of the Other Thing: Letters From Places That Aren’t Prison. Pt. 1. Pt. 2. Pt. 3)

I met two women who lived down the hall. They’d both come to college from the same small town in Indiana and had worked at a coin-op laundromat in a strip mall together when they were younger. They told me around Easter one year, the CVS on the other end of the strip mall hired a guy to stand near the road in a giant rabbit suit.

“Well, at the time there was this thing that was big…well maybe it was only big in Indiana, some things were. Anyhow it was called ‘dooring’. So these guys would drive by places at like 15 miles an hour and open their door on people. So we heard a scream from the parking lot. ‘Somebody doored the bunny! Somebody’s doored the bunny and the bunny won’t get up!'”

“Did somebody have to call the ambulance?”

“I can’t remember.”

One of them called me in the middle of the night and told me to turn on the television. A documentary was on showing two men with pregnancy bellies and mullets screaming at each other near a drag racing track.

“That’s Indiana! I know those people!” she proclaimed.

She was a nursing student. I used to go to the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market a lot back then. I saw a box of Cabbage Patch doll legs there. Just the legs, like a bucket of fried chicken. Another time I saw a cardboard box of disconnected rows of teeth.

I wasn’t sure if they were dental school examples or souvenirs from the war. I never asked the man behind the card table how much they were.

I told this to her when I got back to the apartment building. She was disappointed. She would’ve liked them to help study for her nursing exams. “How could you see a cardboard box full of stray teeth and not think of me?” I think she said.

I had no answer.

Our relations were terse thereafter.

I still however, was invited to a party her father threw in a room at the Chelsea Hotel. I ended up talking with him for some time. Both of us were very drunk. Afterward he said “This kid’s a genius! And I’ve been in advertising for 30 years!”

I ate a lot of cheese and got home at 6am.

Things Too Horribly Depressing to Contemplate for Too Long

  • When the screens of old, discarded CRT televisions are smashed by other garbage, obvious as the other garbage is lying inside the screen. It just seems like giving a dead man a Glasgow smile.
  • A bachelor in the process of purchasing icing that you know will be used for direct consumption, not out of some imagined baking ambition, and possibly with storage of the unused quantity in the refrigerator.
  • The cumulative cost of all the drinks you’ve discarded halfway through because the ice melted and they got too watery.
  • The sheer amount of first-world services that could’ve been bought for the cost of those fucking tanks the Pentagon didn’t want.
  • Hearing that your estranged ex, or really any chick you’ve ever had a passing interesting in fucking, has gotten married, and the sudden sensation that thirty is no distant notion and you’re setting yourself up to be forever alone.
  • Institutionalized white-lying, ala Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Come on, think about it: you know it’s a pretty fucked-up thing to do.
  • That feeling when separate media simultaneously playing all come to be playing productions from the decade you grew up in. It renders your heart into a form with near-zero function, and the beats strain harder and harder with repressed memories. Then “Creep” ends and you resume acting like a creep.
  • Realizing that for the price of those mosquito nets you bought for malaria-ridden Africans, you could spend all of your disposable income and probably become known as the Net Man of Africa, your praise sung and sacred tribal songs composed about you for generations, and then realizing that you would never, ever do this, because noble though that may be, you just need to keep on trucking and the imaginary reality in your fantasies will come true, especially the house of cards that hinges on that fantasy wherein you win the lottery.
  • Old-ass people wearing nice fucking clothing and jewelry who saunter into convenience stores, nose wrinkled, to buy lottery tickets. There’s no corresponding existential ennui here: the desire to kick defenseless ass is unrestrained in this moment. In few moments in life is the right action so blatantly unambiguous and the risk/reward ratio so favorable.
  • That speed-walk home filled with dread, knowing the bodega was covered in security cameras and that they even had one of those technicolor measuring tapes on the door frame so they’ve got your height down too. That really narrows down those police descriptions, you know.
  • The realization that you are leaving your friends, family, everything you’ve ever known in your unremarkable life, as you pile full a suitcase and a handkerchief, the latter of which will soon become your literal hobo-bag-on-the-end-of-a-stick. You go over the Hobo code in your mind and set off for the railroad tracks. Before you do, you throw your IDs on your bed, knowing it is the last time you will ever hear or see those names.
  • As you head to the station, you come upon the crest of a hill and the train has already departed! Between you and the station, however, is a curve of track the outgoing train will be slowing around. Do you want to:
    Carefully skitter down the hill and try to make the train in time? (Read next paragraph.)
    Run full-speed for it and dive into one of the first, slowest-moving boxcars? (Skip next paragraph.)
    Leave the area and go to the bodega to buy a lottery ticket? (Skip next two paragraphs.)
  • Choice One: You did it! You are greeted by a pleasant, if pungent, elderly man named Roy. He shares his canned beans, tales of the rails, and advice with you. While you sleep, he cuts your skin off with a linoleum-cutting knife for not having any IDs. You come to make for a very nice book-binding.
  • Choice Two: You stumble and fall into a roll down the hill. You slam into the side of the passing train but luckily do not roll under its wheels. At the last second, you look up, and in a luxury dining car your ex is being proposed to by some jackass. You roll yourself under the wheels of the train. That’ll show her!
  • Choice Three: Like the jackass you’ve always known yourself to be, you return to the scene of the crime in search of a lottery ticket. The crime scene has been cleaned and the store re-opened, but police are still stationed nearby. You successfully purchase a lottery ticket and are swiftly arrested, arraigned, tried, and sentenced to death.

You know what you are going into will be eternal, the long, dark nothingness. You are filled with dread, then with nothingness as well, as you realize you will find your calm and be at peace at last. You tell the priest to fuck off like a cool dude and ask what the numbers for the Power Ball were. They were yours. The executioner throws the switch. At last.

My Early Years of Apathetic Something Part 3: Bad Blind Dates and the Poker Table

(This part 3 of an excerpt from My Life and Harder Times. Pt. 1. Pt. 2)

I tried to date again. I met a woman in one of my journalism classes. Her name sounded vaguely like an item on the Taco Bell menu but I couldn’t remember which item. I seemed able to gauge my interest based on what I’d accidentally call her when I mentioned her to friends. It started out a something like Chalupa. I knew I no longer held any interest when I once accidentally called her Soft Taco, Hold the Lettuce.

We went out to a bar. She told me she had trouble making decisions on her own. I asked her how she made decisions. She dumped a wad of 60 fortune cookie fortunes from her purse onto the table. “When I have trouble making a choice, I pull out a fortune. My mother eats all the Chinese food.”

I think we did karaoke drunk once. Wherever she is, she has my copy of The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People, a hardcover encyclopedia of rumors about things like size of WC Fields’ penis and how many male sexual partners Cary Grant had. I’ll probably just find another copy.

I remember little else about her.

I’d been quoted the previous week at a school event sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The event, a hoax beer pong tournament, had been stocked with non-alcoholic beer. The student government president and a MADD representative spoke at the end. On the line in, a reporter asked me why I went. I replied: “I’m here to drink until I forget I’m at Baruch College.” This line was printed with attribution on the front page of the school paper the next day.

I’d developed quite a business in the back of the chess room selling papers to Asian kids who couldn’t speak English and just wanted to get their accounting degrees and leave. I wrote about topics from migrant farm worker relations in the 1930s to the Du Pont company’s work in the Manhattan project. Because I did this, all these guys owed me favors and I had a little gang of tiny Asian guys who’d keep an eye out on goings on within the club hallway while I read and typed and played internet streams of Delta Blues 78s.

There were these guys in the club hallway who would set up a poker table and hold Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments with surprisingly high buy-ins for a commuter school. The school finally cracked down on them, and they came to JJ. JJ offered to rent the chess office for these illegal poker games to these guys for $250 a day. There were two gym rats who ran the table, a jacked up Asian guy and a black guy. This was when 50 Cent was more popular so they’d go everywhere in basketball jerseys, wearing bright red flat bill baseball caps and band-aids on their cheeks purely for fashion.

A meeting was had with all the members of the chess club. $250 was a lot of fried chicken. A unanimous decision was reached wherein the members of the club would now take the timers and chess sets into the hallway for a couple hours a day and the rent money would be spent on promotional events and fried chicken.

JJ had problems collecting rent from the poker guys. JJ didn’t sleep much, because he lived with his senile grandfather and would put in late nights explaining to his grandfather that the women in the Girls Gone Wild infomercials were not in fact talking to him. I told JJ to just change the channel. He said his grandfather always turned the channel back.

One night, JJ sent a group FB message to everyone in the Chess Club to confront the poker guys and get the money that was owed. It was extremely long and unhinged.

An excerpt: “If that nigger with the shitty teeth tries to fuck with you, tell him he’s ugly. Tell him his teeth are shitty. If the chink comes at you pull that fucking band-aid off his face. You guys know what I mean by chink. You know, there’re Asian guys and there’re chinks. If they come at you, tell them you’ll fuck their grandmothers. And rape their mothers.”

Eventually the deal with the poker guys fell through and we all ate much less fried chicken.

I’d moved into a different apartment by then, situated in a floor of an old YMCA that was done up to resemble a dorm hall for kids attending the commuter schools in NYC. I’d struck up a friendship with a Stuyvesant graduate who lived down the hall and spoke like the announcer on the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. I’ll call him D.

D rarely ever left his apartment, spending his days and nights in bed listening to Opera recordings and lurking on College Quiz Bowl internet forums. He read so much Victorian literature that his natural temperament-easy-going, conversational, approachable-was hard to distinguish from behind the wall of slang phrases I have only ever heard him say. I presume they have not been in common usage since the late 19th century.

He’d express surprise by exclaiming “Oh, mother.” He’d express mock-surprise by chiming in “Oh, and they serve decaf in restaurants now.” By some perfect storm of circumstances he brought a girl from a party home one night and in the morning told me excitedly how they’d “necked.”

D was extremely politically conservative and fairly racist. A popular practical joke in the dorm hallway was to go in and ask him about the change of US immigration since 1924 and hear D’s 20 minute rant on the subject while mixing cheap liquor into soft drinks. He was possibly the only person in NYC still giving scientific credence to phrenology. It was far more entertaining than I’m getting across. He seemed like such a relic out of time, like a man dressed up in one of those medieval age theme parks who spoke with the politically incorrect bawdiness actual era. It was hard to take offense because to take offense would be to see Doug as little else besides a strange relic that had happened to float in from another age.

On the weekends he would go to Quiz Bowl tournaments on his own and register as the entire CUNY team. I went with him one time in Boston. We were team CUNY. I got 3 questions, one about Lenny Bruce and one about Neil Young and another one I can’t remember. They asked a lot of questions about the opera. We beat the West Point Academy team 400 to -20.

Doug described Stuyvesant High School-a giant holdover from the 60s or a Larry Clarke film. The students scored drugs in the park late at night. They had sex and did laughing gas in the hallways between classes. He’d been at the heart of a student controversy after releasing a fake magazine cover of him naked on a bed wrapped in a giant flag of Ronald Reagan’s face. He says I would’ve liked it.

His friends were all young Republicans. I was the token communist. His friend Jeremiah always dressed like a rich old man with pinstriped suit jackets and ties. Jeremiah stole a $50 bottle of vintage wine from his father’s basement and gave to D and I. That night we pulled out the large box of paper Dixie cups we kept in the one area of the bathroom that wasn’t covered in hair. We drank 3/4ths of the bottle, shot style, out of these Dixie cups. It was alright.

We were both pretty heavy drinkers and shared an appreciation of bottled champagne leftovers, the champagne they legally can’t call champagne, Andre. When we became roommates, we would refer to Andre as “the third roommate.”

We had neighbors and we’d go to movies with them. Well, one of them. I spent most of my time reading obscure comic books and watching Robert Bresson and Jerry Lewis movies.

We all drank a lot. I would get reports from a friend back home that a woman who lived down the hall from him, heir to a notable sports fortune, had taken a strong liking to Franzia boxed wine. He claimed that before recycling day she’d have the boxes of it piled up around her room that resembled a homeless shanty. She supposedly smelled like fish. Jokes spread around the campus about rumors that she and her boyfriend had decided to name their first child The Fronz. I didn’t stay in touch, and for all I know this may have happened.

(Tomorrow: Strange happenings at the flea market and Coney Island)

My Early Years of Apathetic Something Part 2: Chess, Fried Chicken, and the NJ Mafia

(Part 2 of Further Beneath the Underdog: A Fictional Autobiography. Pt. 1 here.)

After this life ends, there’s a special circle of hell reserved for writers. In this circle they spend eternity living the lives of all their fictional characters, and the ones that appeared in the non-fiction pieces twice.

I sometimes have dreams I’ve gone to this place, or at least awake with a sense I’ve been in it-that in my sleep I’m living the life of a fictional character I hadn’t put on paper yet. And like the strange predictive movements of molecules in the Feynman diagrams, I eventually find these characters returning in my flction. They seem more at home there. They anticipate leaving my head.

I was always unsure when I was making the art whether the activity was more spiritually akin to giving birth or taking a shit. If it was giving birth, it was most truly akin to child slavery as I would immediately pop something out without as quickly trying to sell it to any serious bidder. But it couldn’t be taking a shit either: America has many places to take a shit but no place for artists.

Sitting, listening to old radio broadcasts and drawing, I hoped to make my bold entrance into the world of alternative cartooning. I was never actually very good. I took to writing papers…well you know where this is going. It bought a fair share of groceries.

Baruch College, where I got my undergraduate, was touted as the diverse school in the nation, and this was probably true. Rather than ease tensions, this mostly seemed to lead to a lot of clubs with isolated rooms separated by ethnic group or religious denomination.

I spent a lot of time in the Chess Club. I didn’t actually play any chess, but found the characters interesting and the room confortingly dingy. There was a hole in the wall that had been filled in with a wadded up ball of masking tape with a smiley face drawn on it. There was a computer with internet access. I would sit in the chair playing streams of scratched up 1920s blues 78s researching random things and reading all the books the school library had on Lenny Bruce, Neil Postman, Ben Katchor or Lewis Mumford.

The president of the Chess Club at that time was a guy named Thomas. He looked like if Vladimir Putin had hair. Thomas had a key to the clubroom and had been taking “those Ukranian skanks” (there was an odd hostility in many of the clubmembers toward Ukranians) and having sex with them in the room before lunch when there weren’t people there. The janitor caught him once. Thomas, his administration not especially popular to begin with, was now embroiled in a pathetically small stakes sex scandal.

Revolution was in the air. The bulk of the club took him over to Popeye’s one day to give him the news of the coup. I wasn’t there. I heard he got a lot of extra grape jam packets with his chicken.

Thomas now ousted, the new favorite for club president was a guy I’ll just call JJ. JJ was a large Jewish man who had spent much of his life on a small pig farm with his senile grandfather in Puerto Rico. His accent was unusual; part coked up mobster, part well educated latin immigrant.

JJ was a small time con man. He had the sort of wits where if he’d ever applied himself he could’ve pulled something bigger than the 2008 crash, but he never was that ambitious. He used to tell me about flim-flam operations he’d operate on old ladies in Puerto Rico.

“Well, hehe,”-he’d chuckle confidently a lot in conversation-“what you do is you use a really common name and you go to all those retirement apartment complexes with the buzzers. And say ‘Tito! Tito! It’s about yout nephew.’ Most of them have nephews or grandchildren. And you say the car broke down down the road and you need like $60 to get gas and help getting it out of the ditch. Usually at least one will give you the $60. Then you go out and spend it on…you know…a good time. $60 bucks’ll get you a lot in Puerto Rico.”

He had an incredible charisma and an endless store of bizarre stories and observations about sexual politics that might be somewhat scandalous to publish.

His best stories were of his time working in a fake gym as a low level operative of the New Jersey mafia. The gyms would be set up and signs would advertise that they’d open in 90 days. Then after 90 days they’d go out of business.

“The secret to selling gym memberships is to make them think it was their idea to join. So you act really low key and just say stuff like ‘You look better, you feel better’ and ‘People in shape are always more attractive.'”

He also sold hypodermic needles meant specifically to shoot up cycles of steroids. You needed a specific smaller needle to shoot them or else you’d just get this bump on your arm. We’d eat Chinese food and watch baseball games on the television in the restaurant sometimes after class and he’d always point out when a guy would go up to bat and there was that puffy bump on his arm.

He was philosophical about it. “I’d always skim a little bit off the top sure, $20 here and there, but I’d never take a bunch. That’s how you get caught.”

Strange things would happen at the gym and be explained with shrugs.

“There’s this guy in the gym. Everybody calls him ‘The Master Apprentice’ because somehow he sawed off his ring finger in a woodworking accident. How do you do that? We never really figured out how he did it.

“Anyway, I’m cleaning the basement of the gym one day, and I see this person sized bump under one of the mats. I look at The Master Apprentice and I say ‘Is this a dead body?’ And the guy starts pointing around with his hand that was missing the finger-‘Dere’s a dead body, ovah dere’s anudder dead body, just shut up kid and staht mopping.'”

JJ became president of the Baruch College Chess Club when Thomas was ousted. JJ was the best chess player in the club. He had a ranking of 2200 or something. JJ soon started scheming up ways to make money renting out the Chess Club room on the third floor of the building. This money was then redistributed in the form of fried chicken for members of the club. They all loved eating fried chicken.

Around this time my friend Zach stayed at my apartment to get to a funeral in Queens. The funeral was for a  guy who’d been in Zach’s dorm hall. He’d been smothered in an avalanche in the Alps. Zach needed me to get him to Queens, so though I’d never met the deceased, I would attending his funeral as a plus one.  I had no dress clothes except a corduroy blazer I wore mostly for the extra pockets, a pair of wrinkled khakis, and a button down dress shirt with large black splotches from when I’d put it through the wash with a sharpie.

He’d gone to a ritzy college. The rest of the deceased’s classmates showed up dressed to the nines. They sat, choked up, telling stories of how good the dead man had been at playing Super Smash Brothers on the Gamecube. “He had such quick fingers,” said one mourner. “Yes, he would always get the most damage per game.”

After an awkward eulogy delivered by a minister discussed the “avalanche of God’s love”, it came time to line up to view the corpse.

My turn came. He had thick makeup like a wax doll. I looked closely at his thumbs. I thought. “These are the thumbs, the thumbs that were so good at Super Smash Brothers on the Gamecube.”

After the casket, at the end of the line, the dead man’s parents and an adolescent boy stood shaking hands with mourners. The father faintly smiled. The mother looked devastated. The boy looked confused. When I shook the grieving mother’s hand, she held onto it for longer than she had with the other mourners. She wailed and said “I have no son. Do you understand? I have no son.”

I took another look at the boy and realized it was her other son.

After the service we all had Subway sandwiches for lunch.

(Tomorrow: The Chess Club heats up. Strange blind dates. The seedy underground of Quiz Bowl.)

My Early Years of Apathetic Something Part 1: Getting to College


I’ve always had an incredible talent for alienating people. I feel I’ve deployed it wisely.

When I was very young I found myself able to roll my eyes rapidly. The effect on people around me was one of feigned horror. We used to play Simon Says in a circle and when my turn would come I’d frequently win by telling everyone to roll their eyes like that. At a picnic once when I was ten I rolled my eyes like this. A baby saw it from across the park and burst out crying. I felt oddly as though I’d accomplished something.

Years later, on a date with a distant relative of Chilean prime minister Salvador Allende’s director of urban planning, I described this and the spectacular failure of a rap album I’d recorded on my computer when I was 15. It had gotten one review, on a website that used to exist as a low level competitor to Pitchfork called Splendid E-zine. Their gimmick was that they would review literally anything that was sent to them. We received the worst review in the history of the website. Six months later it was shut down as the site runner said “I can’t take this anymore.” Some part of me presumed this was directly referring to the remarkable awfulness of the rap album, but I could never be sure. When she’d finished hearing the stories, she claimed I had a reversed egotism; a sense of excitement when things around me imploded; in my own eyes I had the mystical powers of a pariah. Perhaps she was correct.

I had been employed during the summers when I was in college, but had never been able to take it seriously. When the chatter at family events turned to the subject of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I would present carefully prepared deflections to any serious discussion, “I’ve been reading through every book on homelessness in the college library. They have lots of them. They’re right next to this big poster that says ‘Explore exciting careers in Library Science’.”

At a baby shower once I simply glued eyes to a sock and wore it on my hand, doing shoddy ventriloquism and deflecting all questions to the hand puppet. If memory serves, I named it Pierce. While I ate supermarket pulled pork on a paper plate, Pierce got very drunk. The evening was uneventful.

During college, when I wasn’t in class I would sit around the apartment. It was tiny and I shared it with a failed Puerto Rican classical guitarist. I took it over from a grossly overweight middle aged man who worked somewhere on the corporate ladder at an investment firm. I met him briefly once before I took over his room. When I moved in, he’d left a small number of items. A couple binders with either corporate presentations or mangled X-Men comic books in them. A half-full bottle of Frank’s Red Hot. And in the DVD player of the small television, a pornographic compilation called “Nuttin’ Honeys”. The food motif was unnerving. I quickly disposed of the items except the binders, which I repurposed for school work. There was a perpetually out of tune piano in the room which I would play into a tape recorder in the middle of the night. I recorded several albums worth of mediocre Neil Young rip-off songs that year out of boredom. I’d mumble nonsense over the guitar and craft songs haphazardly when I couldn’t sleep. An example.

My sister helped decorate the room with a giant reproduction of the logo for a strange buttered food I’d taken a liking to at the Asian markets, “Exquisite Corn Snack.” None of my friends, acquaintances or relatives found the corn snacks edible, despite their exquisiteness, and the loss of appetites upon entering my apartment and seeing them saved me a lot of grocery money.

The guitarist was a hoarder. He’d saved every free newspaper that had come out in New York City in the prior 20 years that mentioned Puerto Rico or boxing. A once good-sized living room was half filled with Village Voice back issues, dead plants, and potting soil that had fallen out of their cheap vases.

He would buy small items at the Whole Foods down the street so that he could steal handfuls of sugar packets, salt packets, pepper packets, plastic silverware, napkins, and shopping bags. He would frequently scream at my closed door that he had replenished the supply, though there were already dozens more packets and napkins than could ever be used packed into one of the kitchen cabinets. He’d keep sliced onion halves in the refrigerator. All the food smelled like onions. He lived on raw onions and large plastic containers of cottage cheese. He would do his laundry in the bathtub and I’d hear water running and stomping noises at odd hours of the day and night. He owned 34 stretched out sweaters. He had seasonal girlfriends in several impoverished South American countries. We lived on the 5th floor but he was excessively worried about the possibility of a worm infestation. “GUSANOS! GUSANOS!” he’d scream. I never saw any worms. I’m not sure what he would’ve done had there been actual worms.

For two month intervals he would leave the country to live like a king in Puerto Rico on whatever money he’d scraped together from public assistance and giving guitar lessons. I’d sit around all hours of the night playing the banjo and drawing photographs from books in the dollar bin at The Strand. I took to doing my laundry in the early afternoon so that I could watch Jerry Springer and the Steve Wilkos shows when they were on. I was sustaining myself on a steady diet of whatever Spanish language game shows I could get in on the TV rabbit ears at night, black and white and barely legible reruns of Smallville, long selections from experimental fiction, Jerry Springer and the Steve Wilkos Show. My media intake soon reflected itself in my speech. When the guitarist would scream “GUSANOS!” or that there was a stray Cheerio on the floor somewhere,and I’d say “Whatcha gonna do about it?” He’d back down. In the laundromat I’d learned to use a folding chair on the offensive. I never had to tell him this. I think he just knew.

There was one English language show the Spanish language station would show late on saturday nights called Ms. Charity’s Diner. A Christian woman ran a truck stop style diner with puppet employees where young children would come in, drink apple juice out of comically oversized coffee mugs, and tell Ms. Charity and her fry cook their problems with their parents and ask questions about their budding Christian faith. The fry cook and the mail man were both puppets. Their eyes had large dark circles around them as though they hadn’t slept in a long time. It would be on after the Spanish language game show where the men in fat suits make their way through a ball pit for points.

Once when the guitarist was out of town, a mouse got into the apartment. I set up the paper glue traps that my parents had sent me out of the house with. The apartment was exceptionally quiet that night. My bed was situated near a window overlooking an alley where the trash and recycling was taken. The guy before me had taken his cheap mattress and thrown it out the window near the bins before I’d moved in. It sat there for several months. I’d be in bed, open the window, and look down on this discarded filthy mattress as it got filthier. A raccoon run out from under it once. It had a particularly striking large stain that resembled a bulls eye. I’d toss stray cheerios down at it when I was bored. I was a rebel.

I set up the glue traps. I ate spaghetti with sauce I’d dumped on it unheated from the jar. I ate the lukewarm spaghetti and struggled with the poor signal on the internet I was pirating from my neighbors downstairs. Eventually the mouse stumbled into the trap. I heard shuffling and high pitched squeaks.

I’d thrown out the package for the glue traps but remembered it said “No Kill” on the box. I picked up the blue slip of paper with the attached trapped mouse. The mouse was extremely small and very stuck. I wasn’t sure how to extricate the mouse from the trap so I could take it outside.

It looked scared, but also like it wanted to negotiate. But I was several dozen times its size and not in a glue trap. I was the United States. The mouse was Palestine. I remembered I had specifically gone to college to have experiences with other cultures that would expand my horizons. I took a mental note.

I looked around the apartment for scissors but could only find a pair meant for wedge-cutting construction paper. They had a safety on them. They were meant for children. The guitarist must have stolen them from somewhere in the late 1980s-the plastic grips were discolored green like dried mucous. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get the mouse off the trap and outside without killing it.

So for 30 minutes I sat, trying to cut the paper from the mouse. It had a heart attack. I rolled up what was left of the trap like a cigar and threw it and the mouse at the discarded mattress.

It hit the bull’s eye.

The next mouse I killed quickly with the blunt end of a tool kit.

(Tomorrow: My secondary ties to the New Jersey mafia and excursions in the world of Chess.)

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

This is a deeply flawed film, but unlike many deeply flawed films it has some merits. These merits stem entirely from the rightfully acclaimed performances of the two leads, Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue-both are outstanding, and Cage is in the best form I’ve seen him in in any role. His mannerisms and speech are perfect as the alcoholic protagonist; his alcoholic is neither the ‘cool’ outcast as in something like Barfly, nor is he the histrionic caricature like the alcoholic in The Lost Weekend. His portrayal is disturbingly understated, and he’s neither especially witty or idealized to any extent(at least by Cage.) For the second half of the film his pale complexion gives the impression one is looking at a zombie. Shue does her best in a fairly implausible role; she somehow manages to insert some nuance into her portrayal despite annoying scripted interludes in the film where she ostensibly narrates the film from a psychiatrist’s couch and sentimental implausible actions forced on her by the script. The script is poorly organized and the brilliance of the performances only help to underline where it caves in to convention.

Figgis also drops the ball entirely besides giving his actors free reign. He scored the film, and his light muzak jazz along with fake sounding Vegas lounge renditions of “Lonely Teardrops” blast over the film, distracting from the images and adding to the feeling of falseness. He also uses slow motion and various other visual tricks that aren’t half as clever as the film thinks they are, and yet again distract from the characters. On top of all this, occasional scenes devolve into a slow motion soft focus lightly scored purely aesthetic wallowing in the image that resembles softcore pornography. These disrupt the momentum of the film and the performances and if Figgis thought they’d help the emotional arc of film, then I fear he’s been hitting the sauce as much as his fictional protagonist.

Unfortunately Cage’s performance can’t be carved out of the muddled mess that is this movie, so whether I’d recommend this or not depends on how interested you are in film acting.

River’s Edge (1986)

Tim Hunter’s film has the supreme misfortune of containing multiple elements which David Lynch did close to the same time and much better. The theme of suburban malfeasance and the Dennis Hopper crazy person performance both were executed far better in the same year’s Blue Velvet. The teenage melodrama and female corpse near a body of water aspects were both done with far more style, wit, and competence on Lynch’s television project Twin Peaks. This film is an unfortunately dated relic; references in the dialogue to the Cold War and the two-dimensional hippie teacher character firmly place this in the mid-1980s.

However that isn’t meant as an indication this is just a movie that aged poorly. There are fundamental flaws and the whole thing is severely underdeveloped. The back of the DVD case of my copy claims it was directed from the script’s first draft as though this were some sort of grand achievement as opposed to a sign of laziness. The fact it was a first draft shows. The major narrative hook of the children’s lack of emotional response to their friend’s murder is repeatedly pointed out in the dialogue by characters the film seems to introduce solely so that they can point this out. A neon sign repeatedly flashing “The youth in this film are alarmingly apathetic” might’ve gotten the point home with a bit more subtlety. All the characters besides Crispin Glover’s Layne and Dennis Hopper’s Feck are extremely underdeveloped and rather boring to watch. Though the actors do their best, a weak script is a weak script. Glover nearly saves the whole thing through the sheer force of his bizarre and daring performance but in the end one man’s acting isn’t enough.

Hunter is also very awkward with his cutting and use of sound. Music is employed to heighten tension but almost always pushes the scenes into absurdity. His use of fades make the film seem like after school alarmist TV specials of the time. And the use of 50s rock n’ roll in attempts to draw parallels between this and 1950s portrayals of troubled youth like Rebel Without a Cause seem too much like self-conscious posturing and further damages the credibility of the film. That Hunter ended up leaving features soon after this for TV directing is highly appropriate.

The performances are good and for Glover fans this is a must, but don’t expect anything that deep or insightful from this alarmist time capsule.

Fido (2006)

Zombies pose significant problems in making a work of art; unlike vampires they don’t readily become especially compelling metaphors for any part of human nature(though Shaun of the Dead tried to play that angle with some success). When a filmmaker tries to bring out some relevant human concern in a zombie film, it usually turns into a lazy Twilight Zone style commentary on how “the real monsters are us”. The best zombie films, like Evil Dead 2 realize the inherent absurdity in their premise and turn into cartoonish slapstick, which still doesn’t make for much beyond forgettable entertainment. Director Andrew Currie attempted to pull this trick off here. He lacks the chops.

So then why does the zombie hold such widespread and fervent appeal? The best guess I can make is that the zombie genre has the most rigidly codified stylistic rules of any type of film. This makes it a comforting thing to adherents; a genre with so little depth as to leave no one out for lack of critical eye. All novelties in zombie films are blatantly on the surface(ex.: the zombies are gangsters or one fights a shark) and the genre adherents can converse afterwards in such piercing critical appraisals as “Wow wasn’t that so awesome when the zombie fought a shark?!”.

As these films go, Fido is vaguely watchable, but still utterly dispensable and unworthy for anyone who values their time. The whole film is a series of winking references to other parts of the popular culture. This rewards a viewer’s vanity by making them feel smart for knowing things that most people already know. The bright palette and solid colored outfits reference 50s technicolor films, the boy meets dog story references TV fare like Lassie, and the parodies of cold war educational films featuring zombies achieve little beyond pointing out how wacky the 50s(roughly mirrored in its cultural products) were. 50 years late. This is not (excuse the pun) biting satire.

The zombie named Fido who the audience is expected to sympathize with kills an elderly neighbor early in the film. The death is minimized however by the elderly woman’s quick caricatured shrewish portrayal. Similarly, two classmates of the protagonist Timmy are killed later in the film but no real reaction of any sort is achieved in the audience. Like a video game, the film simply sets up targets, drains the audience of any compassion or sympathy for them, and then simply discards them for laughs. The father’s very reasonable fear that this creature that could potentially kill his loved ones is laughed off by the film.

Fido the zombie is carted around like a pet dog through the suburbs. Another in the long line of films dealing with the perceived “other” by means of infantilizing them to make them less threatening.

Tempest (1982)

Extremely good natured. Much of the photography consists of aesthetically pleasing extreme long shots of landscapes. Susan Sarandon and Molly Ringwald are both quite attractive in it and the acting, while sometimes corny, isn’t so one-dimensional or poorly conceived as to disprove the notion of “human progress”.

What’s most interesting is the superficial similarities to Cassavetes’ own Love Streams, which was released in 1985. Both are films about coming to terms with aging, the breakdown of and longing for family, and both feature Cassavetes’ and Rowlands’ characters as their emotional and thematic core. Also more strikingly is the violent storm which forms the films’ climactic sequence, which I can’t help but think Cassavetes had at least in mind at least partially when he appended the almost biblical thunderstorm to the end of Love Streams. However, the differences between the two films are vast and very telling.

In Tempest, when the protagonist Philip becomes emotionally isolated from all other characters, an island unto himself, he literally goes and secludes himself on an island. Robert Harmon in Love Streams is depicted as being this way through his interactions with the various women that come through his house. When Harmon scolds his child, the child is emotionally distraught and Harmon tries in some kind of half-baked and unfelt way to connect to him, while when Philip does this, its forgotten and his child’s feelings are never taken into much account. Both have lots of reaction shots from animals, but even when dealing with non-human actors Cassavetes gets the upper-hand. When the storm happens at the end of Tempest, it brings together the family unit; in Love Streams it simply leaves Harmon alone waving eerily through his window in a raincoat surrounded by animals-the mood is portentous and when you see it it’s as though Cassavetes is waving from beyond the grave. No moment of such intensity exists in Tempest.

Also, Mazursky tries to get Cassavetes to pull off a Woody Allen style upper-middle class urban neurotic in some scenes, which I don’t even think I need to say fails epically.