Instant Karma: 9/11 Up in Harlem



Collection 9/11 Memorial Museum. Gift of NYU Child Study Center.

A few words about this blog post…
It has been over 16 years since 9/11. And during these years, I have tried, at various times, to write about my experiences living and teaching in New York City on that day.
I couldn’t pull it off.
If I’m honest, I’ve just never have been able to do the sort of moment-by-moment reliving of that day that this kind of writing requires. It is, perhaps predictably, a difficult subject for me. Mainly, it has been elusive; the closer I’ve gotten to it, the further it has retreated. While I have briefly held it in my hands, here and there, it would always end with me opening them only to find feathers there. It has been, in the end, flimsy as gossamer. But there is a time to every purpose…
A few of weeks ago was the anniversary of that day and, in the time since then, little by little, I have found that I have been able to go back there, to those times, and, finally, relive those moments.
And then, this morning, the news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The very thought that a madman was raining death down among innocent people whilst I was writing this…
Predictably, I had more than a few reservations about posting this–today, or ever. But after thinking about it, I feel that this post, about 9/11–and its follow-up post, regarding the next days after 9/11 (which I’m in the process of writing)–is a valid reminder that we should all pause, everyday, to cherish our time here with each other–and to also be brutally honest about how dangerous and fleeting that time can potentially be.
If you are one of the handful of people who have read this blog before, you know that its ostensible ‘purpose’ is to reminisce about growing up—mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. I touch on other times too, other topics, but what all of my posts try to do is to give a ‘feel’ of a time. This one is different. What you’re about to read here is drawn mostly from a daily journal I kept at the time—it’s all facts. In fact, it may be the closest thing to actual reportage as I’ll ever get.
I hate to use this word, but I got ‘lucky’. The fact is, I was merely keeping a detailed day-to-day journal of my experiences as a new-ish teacher living and working in Harlem. That’s all. I thought that, maybe, if I paid attention, if I wrote down the details of my days—after changing my career drastically, and moving (back) to the east coast—I thought I might be able to capture an important moment, when something was born, when things changed, maybe bottle just a little lightning–but purely for my own purposes. Maybe, to look back on, to reminisce. So, I stuck to it: I would, every day, cast my net, pull in the details of what happened and write them down–sooner or later, my thinking went, something of interest had to happen.
I had no idea…
NOTE: While I’m here, I should also warn you that I wanted to tell you the story, my story, the way I saw, heard, and lived it. Like I say above, this is as close as I’ll ever get to reporting, so I tried my best to tell it exactly as it was. Consequently, much of this contains material that can should be considered offensive: language, images, and…
Well, as the kids say, it’s NSFW.


Dateline: September 11, 2001 – Harlem, New York City

I can see by my watch that it’s 3:51 in the morning. The orangey street light glow that bleeds through the broken blinds and the noise from 135th street twelve floors below—the random yelling of threats and profanities, the sound of not-too-distant gunfire, the drone of traffic and constant honking of car horns—connive to bathe the room in a kind of perverted and inexplicably calming Muzak. It’s weird at first, but it soon feels familiar. You end up counting on hearing it in the morning, like a marker that things are in their place, that everything is where you left it before sleep took you over. But this… this is not that sound.


Someone is pounding on my door.

“Open the door, motherfucker!” comes the plaintive wail of a young woman’s raspy voice from the other side of the steel door. She knocks and hammers on it so hard that I swear it’s going to break open. “YO!”

I get out of bed—which is only a matter of inches from the door in this barely 20 x 30 ft. ‘room’—just big enough for a child’s sized bed, a broken chest of drawers, and a small ‘student’ desk. I say, as assertive as I can, “You have the wrong room!”

“I aint got the wrong nothing, motherfucker,” she answers. “Why aint you fuckin’ open the door? C’mon…” she trails off. Then, nearly sobbing.

“Look, you’ve got the wrong room—The. Wrong. Guy. I’m not who you’re looking for,” I say more forcefully this time.

“Who the fuck is you?” she demands, as if she is just realizing that I am, indeed, not who she’s looking for.

“My name is Steve,” I say, obediently, and as I hear my voice say these words, I am certain that a more square, more milquetoast, nay, white, thing has never been uttered in the history of Harlem, NYC.

My name is Steve… Jeezuz. Of course, it is.

A pause. I put my ear up to the door and can hear her shuffling something, the sound of paper—I imagine a brown shopping bag, god only knows what’s inside. Then, finally, I hear her dragging her footsteps as she walks away from the door. I sit on the bed and exhale in relief. She’s gone. Maybe I can get back to sleep.

“I SUCK YOU FOR FIVE DOLLARS!” barks her voice through the door, loud as bombs. 

Shiiiiiitttt… I mutter under my breath.

“Uh…” I involuntarily begin, “No, thank you. You really should–”


I hold my breath, hear footsteps—loud, then soft.

I wait.

I wait some more.

Finally, I don’t hear anything but the rhythmic ‘chirping’ sound of a smoke detector warning of its dead battery down the hall.

How did I get here? How did I end up here, in the Harlem YMCA, in the middle of the night, berated by a desperate woman clearly on the margins of sanity? This is the only thought I have in my head as I try to get back to sleep before I have to wake up in two hours. I soon realize it’s impossible—sleep. Or an answer. Fuck.

The short explanation is that, in my late 30s, I chucked my previous life as a filmmaker and writer into the dustbin and headed back east to be a teacher, and to attend graduate school. (There’s a whole labyrinthine story in that backstory, so full of improbable escapades and personal misadventures as to rival any of those to be found in the pages of a Bukowski novel or an issue of Tales of the Unexpected. Let me just offer, for now, that I experienced a ‘perfect storm’ of both career-related and personal calamities, and like some ragged vagabond-with-a-past in some old scratchy black and white movie, I was exiled, searching for as much physical and ideological distance from my old life as I could muster—and so ended up here.)

The ostensible ‘reason’ I was here, back in NYC (my third tour-of-duty living there), was that I became a member of The New York City Teaching Fellowship. What that entailed was, roughly, this proposal:

  • Do you have a university degree and skill and ability in a field that could be taught in high schools?
  • Do you have teaching experience?
  • Do you have a felony-free criminal record?
  • Do you have the stones to teach in some of New York City’s roughest schools?
  • Are you strapped for cash for your master’s degree?

Well, if you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, boy, did they have a deal for you! In exchange for at least 2 ½ years of full-time teaching, you got a full tuition-paid master’s degree, and full teaching certification.

Not a bad deal, right?

There was, of course, some fine print, a checklist of attributes that just weren’t in any of literature:

  • Teaching assignments being in some of the most difficult teaching environments that you could ever encounter.
  • Having your students telling you to go fuck your mother. Every day.
  • Having to negotiate a student into handing over his firearm to you.
  • Having to break up physical confrontations on a daily basis.
  • Being harassed and threatened regularly with racist comments and threats of violence—from random toughs on the street to shop owners, barbers, the elderly, young children… (If you were, like me, one of the only white people in the entire neighbourhood).

(Give this link a whirl to get a feel for my school, just months before my arrival—it’s an article from The New York Post: LOCKDOWN DAYS AT I.S. 275)

If none of this put you off, there was the niggling detail of having to complete your master’s degree in the evenings and weekends—after you’ve logged in a full, beginning-teacher’s-day or were hoping for, at least, one day off. (And this program was no pushover. While others’ might have had easier experiences, my program was exceedingly rigorous; it consisted of difficult courses taught by tough professors with chips on their shoulders who would, when you finally defended your thesis, make you rue the day you applied to the program.) Oh, and one more thing: you had to do all of this in one of the most expensive cities to live in on the planet and all on an interim teacher’s salary. Pure joy.

Anyway, all of this (and more!) brought me to the sweet digs located at 180 West 135th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard known as The Harlem YMCA. Now, a quick Google search will show the current incarnation of the YMCA in Harlem to be a clean, welcoming facility, with modern conveniences. With all due respect and gratitude to the YMCA organization, this was NOT the Harlem YMCA I knew and came to (begrudgingly) call home for a time.

During my time there, the Harlem YMCA’s residence facilities were used, among other things, surely, as a halfway house for newly-released prison inmates looking to make successful transitions to life on the outside. The availability of rooms was scarce (I snatched the only available room at the time) and to get one you had to provide proof that you were legitimately in financial need (I was) and that you were pursuing some sort of legitimate occupation (I suppose my teaching and attending graduate school covered this) and you had to provide this in writing—weekly.

The rooms were microscopic and had few amenities (although, as I was reminded regularly by the YMCA’s manager, my room did have one of the only working televisions in the building. It took nearly five minutes for it to warm up, and it only successfully would display three channels, but it was, I would find out soon enough, one of my only windows to the world outside of Harlem, or, for that matter, New York City.) The bathroom was… interesting. Communal, it featured a wall of showers, which were shared with large, tattooed men who were understandably bewildered at the slight (compared to them) and ever-so-white guy standing (with a nervous and bemused expression on his face, surely) next to them.

The toilets were lined up, opposite of the showers, none of which had doors on them, and all in various states of disrepair. This allowed you to see someone sitting, attending to their business on the toilet whilst they, in turn, could watch you shower. To say that this was a slightly unsettling experience is to sorely test the definition of ‘understatement’.

But it was worth it—all of it. The Travis Bickle styled micro-room, the harassment I received from the crotchety old guard that saw me into the building every evening and out every morning (What! You ain’t left yet?)… you see, this was, in the end, free graduate school, and a fast track to a legitimate career—and certification to make it binding. And it had an important feature: reciprocity. Once I finished grad school and got my teaching certification, I could (and would, as it turned out) teach in any part of the world. It was my ticket to the rest of my life. And it was free. As long as I could survive.

Which after being woken up so early and in such demoralizing fashion is starting to feel like a tough proposition. I have a long day of teaching and a full night of classes ahead of me. And, truth be told, I’m hungover. I spent most of the night in Jersey City, hanging with two other teachers in my program in a dive bar with a jumping jukebox and cheap, stiff drinks, arguing, appropriately, the merits of Springsteen’s Born to Run vs Darkness on the Edge of Town. By the time I stepped off the New Jersey Transit and made my way through the labyrinthine World Trade Center Plaza, a curious mixture of 1970s design meeting contemporary efficiency, to finally get on the subway to find my way back up to 135th street in Harlem, it was already well past midnight. It would be the last I would ever see any the World Trade Center—in less than twelve hours, all of it would be destroyed. It is September 11, 2001.

I take advantage of being up so early to take a shower—at this hour, the bathroom is empty and I have the shower stalls to myself. The water is, as usual, cold as ice. I finish as quickly as I can. As I finally turn the water off, I notice a used condom laying there on the tile floor. Nice.

I make it back to my room, and make an important decision: The Music. You see, my main concern right now—more important than finding the last clean pair of underwear, or whether or not I can wear those socks again—is to find The Music. This is imperative. My whole day could ride on this.

Ever since I was in high school, it has been important to find the right tone-setting music to listen before I left for the day. Back then, it might have been the first side of Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! or, maybe, London Calling, by the Clash, or, if it was a sunny spring day, some Van Halen.

Today, it’s Legend Lennon, The Very Best of John Lennon. “Imagine” opens things up and, even though I’m not the biggest fan of this song, it’s just the sort of soothing tone my pounding temples and slight sense of vertigo (thank you, hangover) are asking for. I gather the last of my things and put them into my messenger bag as “Instant Karma” comes blasting out of my small laptop speakers…

I glance at my watch: my time’s up; I’ve gotta make it out the door, fast. Why? Because the Harlem YMCA is located directly next door to my school—I have to leave before any of my students see me come out of the building; I’ve heard them ruefully talk about the ex-cons that live there. If they saw me come out of there… well, I can only imagine their reactions–I would be finished. I take out the CD and put it back in it’s case, the cover poorly printed, a blurry picture of Lennon on the cover, just barely legible print on the back. The tell-tale signs of a bootlegged CD. I bought it—and a few others—in Chinatown, on my way to Jersey City the day before. While I might normally be against this sort of thing—you know, stealing royalties from artists, etc.—pennies are tight at the moment. Four bucks a CD is too good of a deal to pass up and, fuck it, I only boned Yoko out of a few cents at this point, so why not? I jam my lesson plans into my bag and head out the door. John’s words echo in my head…

You better get yourself together

                    Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead…”

My day starts off fine. The first period today is a planning period; time for me to plan out my lessons for the day and do any other preparations I may need to do—making copies, mostly. Please, let me make copies. Please.

I’ve been trying to make copies of my parent-student-teacher contracts (around 80 of them, for each student I teach) ever since the first day of school (just over a week ago), but have been unable to. This, naturally, undermines any authority I have with my students. I have been promising them a stern manifesto regarding class rules and policies—one that requires their parent or guardian’s signature, and going into the second week of school, I haven’t provided it. There are two messages I am sending, loudly and clearly, to my students:

  1. I am not to be trusted
  2. I don’t have my act together

(But, really, looking back on this, after nearly two decades of teaching and in a variety of schools in three countries under my belt, this seems all pretty quaint, at best, and legitimately worrying at worst. I mean, get real; as if a signed piece of paper is going to put an end to kids brazenly telling me to fuck my mother, or stop them from bringing knives or handguns into the building, or, seriously, get them to actually open their textbook. What I would, thankfully, learn pretty quickly is that students will do what you ask if they know that you have their actual best interests at heart and if they trust you to be there for them, every day—not if you’re telling them what to do. While I might have legitimately a high threshold for being uncomfortable, some street smarts, and varied life experience, at 37 years of age I had no idea whatsoever what made kids tick. Frankly, my naiveté, back then, is both charming and embarrassing to behold.

So, back to our story: what’s the problem with the copies? Welcome to Issues in Public School Politics, 101…

You see, the school does, indeed, have a working photocopier in the building, but there are complications related to just who has access to this thing and for what purposes. It seems that, technically, the photocopier is actually UFT (United Federation of Teachers) property—our union. I walk into the staff room—the last place I saw the venerated machine—and am barraged by a maelstrom of yelling and condemnations volleyed back and forth between our union representative and our principal.

But no photocopier.

The debate, as usual, revolves around who can use the machine, but also where it can be placed. Apparently, the machine—according to the union—can only be placed upon veritable hallowed ground, i.e. any area that is officially sanctioned as a union area in the school. This issue has become such a bone of contention that during a staff meeting being held in the school’s auditorium last week, a loud confrontation between our representative and principal became so heated that it resulted in our union representative’s physical removal by the New York City Police School Security guards. She screamed and flailed about whilst three large men, literally, carried her down the aisle, past slack-jawed staff, and out the door.

Then, mysteriously, the photocopier went missing.

Early this morning, the word got out: It’s in the basement! Get down there before they move it again!

So why am I telling you this? Because, this is September 11, 2001—about 7:45 am. And people are ready to throw fists over a copy machine. In a matter of an hour, all of our lives are going to be forever changed—thousands of people in our city are going to violently and grimly lose their lives—people we know and love, our relatives, our friends, our husbands and wives, our children… these people are going to be vanquished from the earth, and we’re arguing over a fucking photocopier.

I finally find it. It’s sequestered in a back room of the basement, like some crazy treasure cache in a pyramid antechamber. As I enter the small room, I pass a smugly satisfied teacher greedily clutching onto her stack of fresh copies as she scurries by. I quickly load up my originals… only to realize that I’m screwed: the code has been changed. I gamely yet uselessly punch in the numbers over and over, as if, for some reason, it’ll finally just work. It doesn’t.

Fuck this. I decide to go to the second floor, to the questionably named Teacher Center, a sort of catch-all area wherein you can get a life-shortening cup of coffee, and, at the very least, a place to stay during your planning period—as your room is almost certainly being occupied by another class. (This room, The Teacher Center, is not the staff room, that is NYC Public School property, this Teacher Center is a UFT enclave. Confused yet?) I decide to make some constructive use of my time and take out a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl to ascertain whether or not this might be something I could get my students to read. It’s short, so I’m thinking that maybe this is the sugar that the medicine could hide in.

I’m a few pages into this thing, just after the part where the parents, who are seeking medical help for their baby—who has been stung by a scorpion—are turned away by the rich, corrupt doctor.

Instant Karma’s gonna get you

                    Gonna knock you right on the head…”

Lennon’s words echo in my mind when Mr. Jackson, the social studies teacher, bounds into the room and comes towards me, a peculiar smirk on his face. This going to be good, I think, bracing myself for another anecdote—Jackson’s been going on a post-divorce dating marathon and while it has yet to produce any meaningful relationships, it’s supplied him with endless tales to entertain us. In short, Jackson can tell a story.

“How’s it going, man?” I ask.

“Get this,” he begins. Here it comes. “Some dumb motherfucker just crashed his plane into the World Trade Center.”

“What?” I say. What the hell is he talking about?

“Yeah,” he says simply and shrugs his shoulders.

Into the building? Just how dumb can  you be? How could you be so stupid—I mean, how could you miss it? It’s only one of the biggest building complexes in all of New York City.

“Well, let’s check the Internet—maybe there’s a news story,” I offer.

We go to the computer station in the room and try Yahoo, but the ‘working’ icon just spins uselessly until, finally, we get a ”your session has timed out” message over and over again. The internet is down.

Then Jackson’s phone cell phone rings.

“Yo, whattup?” he answers, all smiles, recognizing the caller. But then his expression changes. The smirk and nearly constant grin are replaced with a look of seriousness. He suddenly grabs his hair, his hand comically pushing down his afro. “What…? Are you fucking for real? Just now?” then, pausing to listen, his head alternately nods, then shakes. People are coming into the room. I notice, in the background, the murmur of voices. “No… ah, hell no…” he continues. “All right, you too—go home. I’ll holler at you later. Right.” He closes his cell phone and looks at me and the rest of the teachers that have come into the room. “Another plane just crashed into The World Trade Center—TWO.”

“What? What happened?” I say, not for anyone to answer me, but to feel like I am saying something, filling up the awkward space. “What?”

“And they were jets—airliners,” he explains. “My friend, he saw it on the news.”

“Shit. This ain’t no damn accident,” someone says behind me.

We try the internet again. The same error messages.

I’m confused—moments before, I pictured a Cessna, you know, some single-engine plane, crashing into the building by accident, taking a bunch of lives—horrific, to be sure, but nothing anywhere near the horrors that were actually taking place, unbeknownst to us, at that very moment, just blocks away.

While we were happy about the fact that we didn’t have the distraction of a working television set in the building during the summer school session and, especially, during the first week of this new year, we are now desperate to find one, to even just to glance at it—if only to get some clarity on what’s happening, what has happened. The internet is down, there’s no TV, and we are limited to confusing and often contradictory information coming from various radios in the building, duelling on different stations, in low volumes in offices away from the ears of the students. The goal is to keep things as normal as possible until we, or someone, has some idea of what is happening, of what to do. And, noticing the time, I notice that I have just a few minutes before my first class.

I’m about fifteen minutes into the lesson, it’s around 9:45, when Mr. Jiménez, our special education teacher comes bounding into the classroom. Jiménez is tall, athletic, handsome, and always exudes an air of positivity, a permanent smile on his face. He is, predictably, exceedingly popular with the kids. But he’s not smiling.

He rushes next to me and whispers loudly in my ear, “Another jet just crashed into the Pentagon, and another one in Pennsylvania, so that’s four jets that they crashed and there’s a bomb scare at The Empire State Building. It’s fucking on!”

I stopped listening after he said Pentagon. My girlfriend was a manager at a department store at the mall directly across from the Pentagon. (Crazy as it sounds, it’s named Pentagon City and resides directly across Interstate 395 from The Pentagon.) I’m trying to focus my attention on my students alarmed expressions on me, what Jiménez is saying, all while trying to figure out how to get in touch with my girlfriend as soon as possible. Then, quickly as he burst in, Jiménez is out the door.

I turn back to the class and am met with thirty-five sets of questioning eyes—all on me. They look like they know that something is wrong, very wrong. I trust my gut and just carry on with the lesson as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on, as if Jiménez, someone they know to be impossible to annoy, anger, or distract, didn’t just look like he saw a ghost. No, I’m just going to take this moment-by-moment, minute-by-minute, one foot in front of the other, until I make until the end of the day. That’s the plan.

We were reading a short story aloud before the interruption, so I just pick up where we left off: “Okay, let’s get back to the story; I’m dying to know what happens next. Sandy, can you pick it up? Third paragraph, page seven?” She reads dutifully. And that’s just it; I can tell she’s distracted, her mind on something else as she dictates the words from the page. She gets a few more sentences in when, right on cue, Denelle, in the back row shouts, “Stop throwin’ shit, motherfucker!” Sandy stops reading. I look at the back of the class and, sure as shit, James, a small-for-his-age boy is throwing pieces of rolled up paper at Denelle’s head, trying to get the paper balls to stick in his hair. When I address James and ask him to stop, he pulls the classic teenage tactic of diversion by ignoring my intervention altogether and, now that he has the floor, to ask a question: “Mr. Hahn, what’s goin’ on, anyway?”

I hamfistedly say that there’s nothing going on at all and then ask Sandy to continue reading. She goes back to the book, her reading sonorous and, now, too soft to be heard. She’s a somewhat shy student—her studiousness and dedication to her work make her an easy target for most of the class; hard work in school is seen as something of selling out. “Louder!” yells Shaniqua, the class’s—maybe the school’s—tough girl. Then, and I don’t know why, James launches out of his seat and throws a looping haymaker at Denelle’s head. It connects.

All hell breaks loose. Everyone starts yelling, leaping out of their desks, and Denelle and James fall to the floor, arms tangled around each other, each trying to wrestle or punch the other (if they only could decide), wishing, surely, that the other would just plain stop. It’s more damaging to their egos than anything else. The sweet science, this is not.

I’m in the middle of sorting everything out, returning the rest of my thirty-three students to their seats (if not their books) when an administrative assistant comes to the door. I wave her in, relieved, frankly, to have another adult in the room.

“Pardon me, is Jeff Moore in this class?” she asks. Jeff’s face immediately slacks. He raises his hand cautiously. “Bring your things please,” she says. Jeff looks at me for direction. I nod for Jeff to follow her directions and go to her. “Jeff’s mother is here to pick him up,” she says as Jeff approaches.

“Did you remember your notebook?” I ask. He nods yes, but then looks at me with a worried expression. “Don’t worry; we’ll catch you up tomorrow on the story,” I say to him and, then, to the class, “No spoilers if you see Jeff later!” They groan and complain as Jeff and the assistant go out the door. As the door closes I think I can here, coming from somewhere down the hall, a radio, the dialogue indecipherable, and find myself keeping an ear on it, hoping to make out an odd word, here and there, to maybe get some idea of just what is happening. I successfully ride out the rest of the class. I purposely sit James and Denelle back in their own seats, in close and dangerous proximity, counting on them to provide enough distraction for the rest of the students so as they don’t get too curious about events outside of the building. They do not disappoint.

We make it to lunchtime. I’ve just lined up my students, and after nine—NINE—attempts at a quiet, orderly, or just plain quasi-peaceful dismissal to the hall exits, they are finally on their way to cafeteria food and hurried basketball games out in the courtyard. I’m on my way to listen to a radio, try the internet again, ask a colleague, anything to figure out what’s happening, when Mr. Jiménez flags me down in the corridor.

“Have you been outside? Have you seen it?” he asks anxiously.

“I’ve been in class all morning,” I say. “Seen what?”

“Let’s go outside;  you can see it from the corner,” he says as he hurries for the exit. I follow him, trying to keep up.

We shoot down the three flights of stairs and jog out to the corner of 134th street and Adam Clayton Powell (or Seventh Avenue). We look south, down the avenue, but, at first, I don’t know what I’m looking at. Or what to look for. But I know this: something is wrong, ‘off’.

“They’re gone,” he say. “Collapsed. Nothing left.”

All I can see is what looks to be a large cloud, or, maybe, a bank of fog down in the distance, in the distance where I would usually see… wait… The Towers. It feels, suddenly, like someone punched me in the stomach. We decide to cross the street for a better look down the avenue and as we wait to dodge the traffic, I notice the people who pass us—car service drivers, mostly, or the styled-out, young black men in tricked-out SUVs—they all have this look, this glazed look in their eyes.

We make it to the traffic island and I look directly down Seventh Avenue. They’re gone. The tops of the twin towers, things that usually looked like punctuation marks at the end of the avenue, are gone. Replaced by what looks like a soft, benign cloud. And just above the cloud and all around it, the bluest blue sky you ever saw.


A view of the disaster from Harlem. (Image credit:

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hahn, is Tanisha _______ in your class?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hahn, is there a Tyerell _______ in your class?”





And so on, as assistant after assistant from the main office come by my door to retrieve students. This scene plays out over and over for the next few hours, until, by the end of the day, I have nearly only a third of my usual class. With two hours left in the day and students, literally, being evacuated from my room, I realize that I have no choice but to come clean with my remaining students.

“Quiet, please… everyone, quiet… Terrel, I need you to sit down, sir,” I say, sternly, as Terrell does the exact opposite, standing up in his seat, readying what appears to be a projectile to throw at one of his remaining fellow students. “Terrel, NOW,” I bark.

There must be something different in my voice or expression because he immediately sits down and looks at me like he thinks I might have actually lost my mind. I go up to the front of the room and realize that I don’t have any idea how to say what I have to say.

“Well… you should know that… well, something happened today, a few hours ago, this morning,” I begin. The kids look at me intently, not making a sound. “Two planes—jets; airliners—crashed into The World Trade Center.” This is met with gasps, actual mouth-aghast gasps. And this look. A look on all of these children’s faces that I, to this day, cannot adequately describe. I’m reminded that these are, indeed, children, not the near-adult, tough guy and girl ‘gangstas’ in training—an image and lifestyle that they work so hard to convey the majority of the time.

“Apparently,” I begin, but stammer, thinking of my girlfriend, who, I’m sure, was, literally, across the street from the Pentagon crash. “Apparently, there were terrorists that hijacked, that stole, the planes.”

“On purpose?” John nearly yells.

“Yes, John, on purpose,” I answer, and this really sucks the air out of the room. “A plane also crashed into The Pentagon, in Washington, D.C., and another plane in a field, somewhere in the countryside in Pennsylvania.” They actually wince as I tell them this.

“Why? Why did they do that?” asks Shaniqua, looking at me like she’s certain that I’ll answer in a way that will make all of this make sense to her.

“I don’t know, Shaniqua. I don’t know,” is what I answer, and I don’t, but I want to blurt out to her and the rest of the class that people are shit and the world is fucked, and, goddamnit, just leave, get the fuck out of here this instant, go home and hug your mother, your sister, your brother, your father, your uncle, your grandma, your grandpa, the guy that runs the fucking bodega on the corner, look at your friends in this room and thank god or pure chance or whatever you think is responsible for what happens to you that you are still here, THAT… YOU… ARE… STILL… HERE.

And me? I selfishly, want to be anywhere BUT here. I momentarily daydream… I am skating, skating on a frozen pond, somewhere in northern British Columbia, Canada, a child, my yet to be born child, at my heels, and feel as if this already out-of-reach dream has, in a morning’s passing, already matured from the improbable to the impossible, an already wispy relic from a world that no longer exists.

A question rings out that brings me back, back into the moment: “Are they going to crash into us, our school? Are they going to crash into Harlem, too?” It’s Shakiel, visibly frightened.

“No, no, no, Shakiel!” I say, thinking that I would give the use of my legs to take away that look on his face that moment, because, well, because he usually has this smile on his face, this smile that, no matter what asinine thing he’s up to, just makes you want to hug this kid. But not now. Now, he has this look on his face that makes me feel helpless, that makes me want to cry, that makes me know that we are well and truly in it—all of us.

I say, again, “No, Shakiel,” and make the mistake of adding: “Why would you think that? Why would they…?”

But he cuts me off with: “Because we’re black?”

Let’s take a pause for me to interject something from the safe confines of 2017…

It may come as no surprise that I would like to think of myself as a good and reasonable person, and I didn’t back then nor do I now at the time of this writing, consider myself to be, in any way, racist. But let me make something clear. Or, at least, let me make it clear that I now know this to be true: I benefited then, I benefit now, and will likely always benefit from white privilege. (And, for me, it’s even worse: I am a white, middle-aged, reasonably attractive (or so I’m told) male. Doors open for me wherever I go.)

While I certainly tried my best back there to actually live what I preached/taught and would do so every day in a classroom since, my very questioning the notion that Shakiel’s bred-in-the-bone understanding that the very colour of his skin, who he is, makes him inherently guilty in the eyes of people who don’t look like him, deserving of hatred, of punishment, illustrates my clear ignorance of this fact. Big time. (But I thought I was doing the right thing. For example, even though I would, finally, move out of the YMCA, I spent the next two years living just a couple blocks from the school for two more years—my kids’ dangerous neighbourhood was my dangerous neighbourhood, too; it was important to me that I lived, as close as I could, to their experience—that was my thinking, then. Which, when I read these words now, with nearly two decades and a continent and a country between the me now and who I was then, is an ironic affirmation of my naieve and entirely priveleged point of view as I could ever conjure up.)

The fact is that me and my colleagues in my cohort—mostly white, upper middle class folks in their late 20s or early 30s—were, in a word, colonialists. With little experience or training, we were established as exemplars, as living ‘ways to be’ to people who didn’t want to be like me or my friends. Like all people everywhere, they wanted to be themselves, not anyone else, and certainly not me. But we were going to push it on them anyway. Even if we actually believed that we were doing anything but.

I clumsily stare at Shakiel in dumb silence. I am, literally, speechless. I have no idea how to answer this and as I sit there, I can feel all of the rest of my students asking the same thing with looks of expectation on their faces. I simply feel too small for this task. How can I convince a classroom of children, who feel that the world is predisposed to hating them because of the colour of their skin, that they’re safe, that no one would hurt them for no reason other than who they are, when I don’t believe it myself?


By the end of the day, there is only a fraction of my class left to excuse. I’m assuming that it’s a foregone conclusion that there will be no class tomorrow, although there has been no official announcement one way or the other. Following my efforts to maintain an air or normalcy, I assign a short writing assignment for homework. The final bell rings and they leave in a fury of chaotic laughter and giddiness. Watching them barrel out the door, I am envious of kids’ ability to be, well, kids in any situation.  As I am erasing my blackboard, there is an announcement to meet in the auditorium.

“You can’t be serious! You’re going to make these kids come into school tomorrow?” I  practically shout after it announced at the meeting that we will have a full school day, as usual.

Ms. Thomas, our principal, answers sternly, “Until we hear otherwise from The Board of Ed, we are going to conduct school as normal, Mr. Hahn.”

Ms. Jones, our too-kind-for-words literacy specialist comes to my aid. “How do we even know it’s safe? Not to mention the fact that these kids are going to have a difficulty time dealing with this.”

“Exactly!” I chime in. “Maybe, we should be giving these kids an opportunity to be with their families, people who can help them through this. I mean, at the moment, I don’t know how I’m going to process thisand, like most of us, I’m still not entirely sure what the hell is happening. Coming to school tomorrow, like everything is just fine is like telling our kids that nothing happened. That’s total bullshit!” Apparently, the rest of the staff just needed one guy to speak to the principal inappropriately, one Spartacus. Almost immediately, the rest of the staff is letting fly with Oh, hell no!s and Fuck that!s and the like.  My job here is done.

The meeting over (with a standing order to turn up tomorrow at 7:45 am, as usual), I head out onto the sidewalk in front of the school. I have class in about an hour, an adolescent psychology course, and I have just about enough time to make my way across the park and into campus. As I walk down the block, I notice a group of upper middle men hanging around the entrance to a deli, a boom-box tuned to a radio station. They’re all hovering around the radio, staring off intently, looks of concentration on their faces as they listen to the news reports. I can only make out the odd Afghanistan… President Bush… Terrorists… World Trade Center… thousands feared dead…

I cross over to 135th street and pass a row of brownstones. A few families sit on the steps listening to radios while kids, from young infants to early teens, hover nearby. The adults speak animatedly about the disaster.

“They should go over there and kill all of those muthufukas, ALL OF THEM! They whole fuckin’ families!” says a short, fat woman, a baby in her arm, venom in her eyes. She doesn’t say the words as much as spit them out.

Another woman sitting opposite her on the stoop adds, “Those muthufukas was celebratin! THEY. WAS. CEL-A-BRATING!” She let’s that sink in for a moment. “I saw it on the T.V.!”

Then one of the men, “They should get the fuck out of our country, know what I’m sayin’?”

The fat woman fires back with, “Should get outta our neighbourhood, you feel me?”

“Fuck them! Get the fuck outta our neighbourhood and take your muthafukin’ fried chicken with you!” says the man. (There are several fried chicken take-out restaurants, all knock offs of Kentucky Fried Chicken [Kennedy Fried Chicken, for example] that are, seemingly, largely owned and operated by Middle Eastern folks.)

“Uh-hmmm,” agrees the woman with the baby, as a small child races past me on a Razor scooter, swerving to not hit me and nearly ending up in the street. “Takyra, get you ass out the street!” the woman yells. Takyra’s head whips back as if she’s been shot and immediately redirects the scooter back onto the sidewalk.

As I pass, one of the men gives me a look of solidarity, a Can you believe this shit? sort of look that I return. Just yesterday, probably, I might have gotten the What’re you doing up here? look, or, as an owner of a deli said to me last week as I approached the bullet-proofed plexiglass that held him and the cash register at a safe distance, “You fuckin’ lost or something?” Something about this, all of this has, for the time being anyway, erased some of the lines, or, at least, blurred them.


I stare at the signs on the front doors of the university.


I don’t know why, but it’s this that makes it click in my head, that something is really happening. I haven’t seen a T.V. or even heard a full radio news report, so I don’t know what’s actually going on, or, for that matter, really, what’s happened, but when I see that the university has shut down, I know we’re really into something. It’s completely stupid, I realize, but I chalk it up to my plain inability to make any sense of things in a sensible way at that moment.

I’m heading back to the YMCA when I see a woman from my program walking up the steps. I don’t know her name—that is to say, I don’t remember her name—we worked together on a data analysis exercise in another class over the summer. She’s an African-American woman, early thirties, who always dresses like a fashion conscious Black Panther member.

“School’s closed. No class,” I say and nearly stupidly add, “So that’s good!” but stop myself. (I have a bad habit of trying to make a joke of everything and anything when nervous.)

She walks up to me and says, “Yeah, I figured. But, you know, I just had to check.” She looks at me and says, “This… this thing.. it’s so…” Suddenly, spontaneously, she begins to cry long, hiccupy sobs. Reflexively, I hug her and her head falls onto my shoulder. We’re standing there for what seems like a long time, her heaving sobs in my ear, when, finally, she stops, looks at me. I say. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll see,” and hope that this is going to be true for her.

We sit on the steps and she says, “I don’t want to go home just yet.” I agree. We sit there, in silence, until, finally the skies begin to darken. We walk through the park and awkwardly stand at the 135th/Lenox subway station. Finally, I say, “I’ll see you in class,” and cross the street to head back to the YMCA.

The first thing I do when I enter the lobby is go to the payphone. I punch in my phone-card and dial my girlfriend’s number. I immediately get an error recording saying that my call cannot be completed as dialled. I hang up and try the operator, for a collect, person-to-person call. Finally, after three attempts, I get the operator—who tells me that any long-distance phone calls are, until further notice, impossible. There’s nothing I can do but hope that she, my girlfriend, not the operator—although, really, I’m throwing a wish her way too—is, like me, okay.

I exit the elevator on my floor and head to the bathroom; its windows look directly downtown and it offers a real postcard view of lower Manhattan. This postcard, however, is postmarked from somewhere I’ve never been before.

The first thing that strikes me is just… well, where in the hell are the Twin Towers? Where are those two buildings that have been such a part of my conscience for all of the years I’ve lived in New York City? (How many summer evenings did I spend in Washington Square Park, looking at the setting sun bouncing off the Towers in the distance, marvelling at their existence in my skyline, two beacons watching over me, telling young version of me, on the precipice of my life, that I had made it—all the way to New York City!) All I can see now is a gap in the buildings and that large cloud I saw earlier in the day, stubbornly hanging over the entire end of Manhattan. I sit transfixed, staring out the window at it for a long time. I’m finally interrupted by someone flushing the toilet behind me.

In my room, I throw my messenger bag on the bed, close the large metal door, and turn on the T.V.. It takes a long time for the picture tube to warm up, but there is, almost immediately, audio. “…a disaster of unprecedented proportions,” says the newscaster, and then, right on cue, the image fades onto the screen: one of the World Trade Center twin tower buildings, black smoke spewing from a gaping hole. Then, suddenly, and almost peacefully, causally even, a plane, a fucking airliner!, flies into the other building like a knife going through Jello. It is the most jolting thing I have ever seen and I catch my expression in the mirror over the desk. I look like a cartoon; I actually have my mouth open, stunned. I think about what I’m doing at this moment, this moment when hundreds of people are instantly vaporized: I’m cursing a photocopier. It’s all too absurd to comprehend.

I watch this news coverage for, literally, hours. It doesn’t get me any closer to understanding anything at all about what has just happened today. If anything, the constant loop of footage of the planes crashing into the building, people flinging themselves from floors hundreds off feet from the ground, the buildings collapsing, all just come together to make it all more abstract, more incongruous, more unreal. Finally, I decide to get some food—it hits me that I haven’t eaten a single thing all day.

I walk to the corner of Adam Clayton Powell and 134th. There’s a deli near there, but I notice that the block is cordoned off by police. There’s a police precinct on this block and this is obviously a precautionary security measure. I walk across the street anyway, thinking, maybe, I can still get into the deli, but I am almost immediately confronted by an obviously annoyed policeman.

“May I help you?” he says, but what he means is “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, idiot?”

“Uh, I was just going to the deli,” I say.

“Deli’s closed,” he says and looks away, making it clear that he doesn’t have time for any of my stupid bullshit. I turn on my heels and head, instead, to a Chinese takeout joint a few blocks in the opposite direction.

I walk into the place, approach the counter, and wait next to an elderly woman. She looks dignified and kind, a real contrast to the surroundings of the ‘restaurant’.

You see, this place conforms to the two distinct variations of Chinese ‘restaurants’ here in Harlem:

  1. Just a glorified window. Just enough space to walk in, stand, and order through a hole in a thick, multi-layered plexiglass wall. There is absolutely no sitting, no hanging around in places like this—get your food and get out.
  2. This one: same as above, but with an actual room with a few rickety fast-food bench type tables, horribly lit by bare overhead fluorescent lamps—get your food, sit uncomfortably for a few minutes, and get out. Honestly, it looks like the sort of warehouse back room where tortures are committed in movies or something. Interspersed between the ‘tables’ are stacks of cardboard boxes, their contents, thankfully, a mystery. Again, in this one, the cooks and the cashier are safely behind a full wall of plexiglass—there’s just that hole to yell your order through and to collect your food.

“Pardon me, ma’am, have you already ordered?” I ask the woman.

She turns and smiles. “Oh, yes. Yes, I have. Go ahead.”

I say thank you and order a pork lo mein. The cashier looks at me like she wouldn’t like anything better than to see me drop dead right there, right then.

“This is an awful thing, isn’t it,” the elderly woman says to me.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “Unbelievable.”

“So much hate in the world. So much hate… it’s a shame,” she says, looking off, somewhere, some other time and place. After a few moments, the plexiglass door flies open and the cashier thrusts a bag of food at the woman. “Your oder!” The woman, unfazed, smiles graciously, and takes the bag. “Thank you so much.” She turns to leave, then says to me with a smile, “Have a good evening, sir. Be safe.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” I offer. “You too.”

Later, back in my room, eating lo mein out of a styrofoam container, I’m thinking about her, the elderly woman, and wonder what she’s seen over her life, how this will all fit in, or if it even will. It’s when I’m trying to picture where she went with that order of food, where she went with that grace in the face of such ugliness, that an announcement comes over the local news: Mayor Guliani has closed all public schools tomorrow. I feel vindicated.

But, he insists, the city must “return to normal” as soon as possible, imploring all NYC residents to “go to restaurants, go to stores”, and so on. I wonder how many people—particularly folks in this neighbourhood—consider going to restaurants or stores as a barometer of normalcy. And it is also in this moment that I understand, just a little bit, where so much of the hatred and abject misunderstanding that we, all of us, have with each other. There’s a lot to pick up on in that tone-deaf proclamation for ‘tough New Yorkers’ to get back on the horse by opening their wallets and, I realize, from that moment on, that if you’re not part of the solution, sooner or later…

Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon you’re gonna be dead

What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin’ to do
It’s up to you, yeah you… 




Imagine: 9/12 at Ground Zero


One Way Ticket Home: The Night I Met Phil Ochs

Phil portraitDateline: August 17, 1988 — New York City

Tapes. Cassette tapes. R.E.M., The Replacments, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Michael Jackson, Terence Trent D’Arby, The Clash… and so on. Flying at me. Bouncing off my chest, my shoulder, my arms. All of them landing at my feet like wood chips being spit out by a chainsaw.

JU GONNA STEAL FROM ME?” Victor yelled as he reached into the young man’s coat pocket, gripped another tape, and threw it over his shoulder at me. It flew past my head. “I don think so, muthafuka!” Then he landed another punch to the young man’s side. “How you like that?” The young man didn’t seem to like it much.

Victor had the man—a boy, really, maybe 19, 20 years old, but big; probably 6’3” or so, easily pushing 200 lbs.—wedged up against the window of the shoe store that was next to our place of work, The Record Factory, Records & Tapes. We were smack in the wheelhouse of one of the hottest summers on record in New York City and Victor was barely breaking a sweat—he alternately threw tapes and punches as if assaulting people and retrieving stolen merchandize was something he did to cool off. A crowd was gathering around us on the sidewalk. I uncomfortably and comically gathered and cradled a ridiculous amount of tapes into my arms as, finally, Victor let the boy up. “Now get the fuck outta here—you don wanna have me call the cops.”

Bleeding from the nose, the boy got up, wobbled briefly, then sprinted like an Olympic champion down the street. “Here. One more,” Victor handed me another cassette—The Lion and the Cobra, by Sinéad O’Connor—and we headed back to the store. It was, you could say, a bad scene.

But wait—let’s dial it back about an hour, back to the relative comfort and peace of The Record Factory’s spacious and welcoming sales floor…

“Okay, now listen,” Victor, the store’s manager, said, looming over me, improbably tall, his percussive Puerto Rican accent clipping his words, emphasis falling on the wrong syllables, words haphazardly fused together. He was describing my new promotion to ‘bouncer’. Yes, bouncer. For a record store. Welcome to New York City in the eighties.

“Is eeeeasy! Ju jus gotta stan up here and look down da fucking tape bins—ju got it? Nothin’ to it.” He slapped my arm in punctuation. “Look how I do,” he got up on the elevated observation station by the front door and scanned his gaze dramatically down the long cassette tape bins that ran down the length of the store. “Juuunohhh, suntiiiiinnnne… ju look aroun’”, he sagely said, as he gazed around the store in mock wonder. “Everything okay… but wait… Shit!” he feigned surprise. “Ju gonna see some asshole stealing something!” His eyes got wide as he raised a finger to them. He smiled wryly. “I always watching.” He pointed his finger proudly at the office that overlooked the large but modest store. It was a command view that allowed whoever sat up there the ability to survey the whole store at a glance. “Ju remember, ju see someone stealin’ something?” he paused dramatically. “You get their ass!”

This was the job description:

  1. Just stand in the perch and watch for anyone stealing tapes (records, while not impossible to put under a coat, would be less likely than the ever-portable cassettes).
  2. Stop them from leaving the store.

It wasn’t rocket science. But it was, Victor wanted me to know, a Big Promotion. It was a position of trust, one that I had earned, he said, by my showing up early and leaving late, and by always keeping moving, finding things to do in the store during those first three weeks on the job—something, I came to realize, was an impressive run of employment for the place. That trust also earned me $.75 more an hour. I took it. I had no choice.

I had just permanently moved into my expensive apartment in the East Village after spending a frugal yet mostly comfortable summer term at NYU. It was my first term there, the housing was cheap and the meal plan helped, but now I had to pay rent, buy groceries, pay the Con-Ed bill. Shit got real, real fast. You better believe it, I needed money. As much as I could get my hands on. I hit every single conceivable place to find a job, from record stores, to pizza joints—even a Chinese restaurant where no one spoke English. (I don’t think I have to point out that I had no Chinese speaking skills either). Victor, at the Record Factory took one look at me and, with a look of recognition that made me uneasy, asked “Can you start today?”

In a city with few jobs for a twenty-two-year-old out-of-towner with few marketable skills, I took the job and acted like it was mana from heaven. But I knew it was shit. It was also obvious from the onset that this was the kind of place that could offer all sorts of possibilities for earning extra money, provided I could conveniently pocket my ethics, look the other way when I had to. It was clear that Victor wasn’t running a Sunday school.

And so it began.

The bouncer gig started off easily enough. So easy, in fact, that I thought I had actually scored the primo position of the entire operation—all I had to do, it seemed, was, indeed, just stand there.

And that’s all I did for that first hour. I just stood there. I gazed down the aisle, made conversation with one of the cashiers, Schell, an implausibly named African American kid from The Bronx, and listened to the eclectic mix of music loudly coming over the speakers, beckoning shoppers from the sidewalk. Schell, I had learned, also played guitar, and we were in the middle of talking about old blues players’ influence on Jimi Hendrix—who Schell bore a shocking resemblance to. Everything was looking like I was on easy street, like I would, if anything, be trying to find ways to not doze off on my shift.

Then it happened.

“GET HIM!” came Victor’s voice, booming from the office window above me. Startled, I looked down to see a young man with a large coat—incongruous in this heat; a detail that I completely missed—barrel down the aisle, aggressively pushing shoppers out of his way as he headed for the deliverance of the open door—that I was supposed to be guarding. “DAAAAMMMNNNN!” Schell interjected as the young man exited the door as easy as shit through a goose. “WHAT THE FUCK YOU DOIN’?” boomed Victor’s voice and in an instant it all flashed before me: unemployment, eviction from my apartment, starvation, and worst of all, revocation of my scholarship and expulsion from NYU. I knew what I had to do.

I bounded over the railing, hit the threshold of the doorway hard, and followed the trail of tapes on the sidewalk. I caught up to him quickly and, with financial ruin staring me in the face and recalling muscle memory of rugby games in my childhood, tackled him to the sidewalk. He kicked and flailed about and when I was just starting to think about what was next, it was all over: I found myself being magically lifted off of the ground and to my feet. Victor was on the scene—it was his show now.

Later, in the evening, close to closing time, and well after the commotion of the day’s earlier events were filed away into the ‘old news’ section of the day’s gossip, I was sweeping up the store’s fairly impressive jazz record section. The normally wall-to-wall music—which acted like a hawker to bring in shoppers from the sidewalk—was silenced. It was a long, hot day and we all wanted to go home, and the sooner the better. Suddenly, from above me I heard Larry, the store’s middle-aged record buyer, shout loudly: “Well, fuck you, Victor, you fucking bean bandit piece of shit.” There was some heavy stomping as Larry came down the stairs to the main floor. He made it just about to the door when he turned to look up at Victor, still in his office. “And, by the way, it’s YOU KNOW—YOU. KNOW. NOT FUCKING JUNO—WE’RE NOT IN ALASKA, DUMBASS. LEARN HOW TO SPEAK AMERICAN.” Then he calmly walked out the door.

Schell walked over and said, “Well, looks like Larry quit again—get ready.”

“Ready?” I asked. “For what?”

“Victor. He’s going to ask you to help out with the buying—for the jazz, folk, classical, progressive—all that shit that he thinks white people like,” he said with a wink. “You’re a smart guy, know your music, and, most of all, you’re our last white dude.”

The next day, I was (thankfully) taken off of the bouncer position and relegated to the back of the store. My task: reorganize the folk, blues, classical, progressive, and jazz sections into, at the very least, some alphabetical order—“White people like that,” is what Schell joked when I told him what I was doing. I’m not sure what Larry did, exactly, but whatever it was it didn’t seem to be the product of an organizationally inclined mind. He did, however, stock an interesting and deep selection of music. I found several records that I was interested in, some pretty rare recordings of T-Bone Walker and a nice pressing of Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions, for example, that I earmarked for my employee discount. And then, as I was organizing, as best as I could, the folk section, I came across this:

phil greatest 2

Just. What. The. Hell. Was. This? I mean, really, who was this clown?

There were a few things happening for me at once as I held the record in my hand:

  1. I vaguely remembered my high school art teacher, Mr. Gribbin, featuring Phil Ochs during the music he rotated for our workshop sessions. I could only remember that it was mostly acoustic protest music and that I didn’t mind it. But this memory seemed incongruent with the picture in front of me.
  2. What was with the gold lamé suit? It was obviously an allusion to Elvis Presley’s Nudie’s Taylors suit that he famously wore on his “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” album cover.


But it was also, obviously, bitingly sarcastic. Was this guy for real? Was he really talking shit about Elvis? I turned over the album cover and got my answer.
50 Phil fans...


Okay. Now I got it. He was talking shit… about himself.

I loved it.

As I said, I only had a foggy recollection of his music playing in the art room of my high school art class, so, I really had no idea what I was in for when I would finally put the needle to the vinyl, but I was determined to find out. I safely parked the Howlin’ Wolf and the T-Bone Walker records deep in the baroque selections of the classical section (a place where no one went—even old white people) for retrieval at a later date, and went home with the one record I could allow myself to afford. It was one of the best and most transformative things I have ever done.

There wasn’t much in the new apartment aside from an air mattress, a lamp, my clothes, and my stereo—my things were still on their way to me, along with my girlfriend that would share the apartment. They were both due at the end of the month, so I had whatever free time I had to myself. On that night, it was just this Phil Ochs guy and me. I unwrapped the cellophane from the album, took out the record, and put it on the turntable. The opening notes started a journey that I am still on to this day.

One Way Ticket Home” begins with a loud fanfare of rumbling tympani drumbeats and horns, as if heralding the beginning of something big, or, indeed, the return of a hero. But then… the voice.

I’d like a one-way ticket home, ticket home

Where I can watch my television, talk on the telephone

It was plaintive, yearning, real. And yet… there was something… almost tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic, about it. As if he were asking you to be in on the joke, whatever that was.

Ochs’ voice sounded at once like John Denver—melodious, kind—and also, rough, unsophisticated, as if the local railway worker was caught, thinking he was alone, singing on the job. And the song said out loud what I was too embarrassed, too proud, to admit to: I was homesick. And afraid. And lonely in New York City.

I was hooked.

The next song, a beautiful piano and voice only, paean to the actor and icon James Dean, “Jim Dean of Indiana”, made it clear in the very first few lines that, whilst there may be some legitimate sarcasm included in Ochs’ oeuvre and presentation, he was also dead-serious. “Jim Dean of Indiana”, features astonishingly honest singing—his struggle with maintaining pitch underscores the earnest admiration he obviously had for Dean’s upbringing, indeed, the very ideal of the Midwestern, blue collar, coming of age story so mythologized in literature and drama. The rest of the album featured similarly themed songs, unashamedly personal investigations into the legitimacy of fame, the trouble, even well into adulthood, of growing up, meeting expectations, or, indeed, of having the world meet yours.

Ochs, I was quickly realizing, was the very companion I needed at this exciting yet harrowing time of my young life. I needed a friend on this journey and Ochs seemed to be extending his hand.

It became my mission to find out, as soon as possible, as much as I could about Ochs. Now, remember, this was 1988—pre internet. But I did have access to one of the largest research libraries in existence at NYU. On my first day off, I woke up early, and was there when they opened the doors.

I spent hours there, pouring through old periodicals, books on the 1960s counter culture New York City folk scene, the political activism of the early 1960s—you name it. In fact, in my efforts to learn about Ochs, I accidentally learned more about the civil rights movement, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the East Village folk scene of the early 1960s (literally having taken place a block from where I was reading about it), the 1968 Democratic Convention debacle, in which Ochs, along with Abbie Hoffman and the rest of the Yippies, found their idealism meeting up with the blunt end of reality. Finally, I came across a biography on Ochs, Death of a Rebel: a Biography of Phil Ochs, by Marc Eliot.

I read the hell out of that book.

And I found a kind of absent mentor, a kind of benchmark of commitment. Ochs, contrary to the introspective and personal songs that almost exclusively make up Greatest Hits (the title itself a joke), was, I learned, a political protest singer—an actual one. Ochs, it seemed to me, and unlike so many ‘protest’ singers, actually believed in what he sang about, what he stood for, and he seemed well educated on his subjects. His political messages were to the point, delivered with razor sharp wit, all with apparent little care for ‘making it big’ or selling a large amount of records. (Which caused him no end of friction with his record company.) “50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong!” indeed.

But that night, the night I brought home that record to my nearly empty apartment… that’s the night that started it all. I would spend the following decades aligning, affirming, educating myself on my own politics and my personal code of ethics. And Ochs’ music, it can be said, was like a soundtrack to this growth. I soon tracked down the rest of his catalogue, old used and abused copies of his albums–they were most all long out of print.

And, just as true, Ochs’ music echoed much of my own personal life. An unhappy coincidence, I, like Ochs did, suffer from depression. I recognized in Ochs’ often incomprehensible movements and choices he made in his personal life—particularly after moving from New York City to Los Angeles—the calling cards of this difficult condition. I lived a lot of those same scenes, made a lot of the same bad choices, oftentimes in the very same locations, the same neighbourhoods.

But I believed in his story, what he had to say. So much so that I used what was probably my one at-bat in Hollywood to get a feature-film or mini-series TV project off of the ground. I had some very minor success with getting a feature film script into development at a major studio. While that ended up being passed on, I realized that I consequently had a short window of time wherein folks might actually return my calls. It seemed that, for the moment, I was someone who was regarded as talented and had, for the very short time being, the advantage of being part of some recent conversations. I would, in a turn of phrase, strike whilst the iron was lukewarm. So, for a time, a very short time, I was a real person in Hollywood–and took this brief moment of legitimacy to pitch my Ochs project.

I tried valiantly to get Sean Penn interested–a professed Ochs fan and, at the time, the perfect age to play Ochs. I got some interest but, as you, of course, know, there was no Ochs feature film made. There would be, eventually, in 2010, a damn fine documentary made about him: There But for Fortune. I think you’ll find that it’s a riveting look at a life lived strongly and with real purpose; a life that looked outward, not inward; a life that asked what it could do for others, not what could be done for it.

Ochs’ choices, his struggle, finally gave out to him in 1976, when, visiting his sister in Far Rockaway, in Brooklyn, he took his own life. He hung himself in her bathroom. The terrible detail here is that he sent his nephew out on an errand. Upon his return, the nephew noticed a chair missing from the dining table. He found it blocking the bathroom door. Ochs had used it to stand on whilst hanging himself.

It’s a grim detail, yet, I’m surely risking some good will here, but I’m going to submit that it is also the kind of poetic, but brutal, detail that sort of summed up Phil Ochs’ approach to his message, his art, his life.

Look at this picture:

Phil Gunfight

This is an image from a photoshoot for promotional stills that were used, ultimately, for the cover of his live album, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall. (The title a tongue-in-cheek reference to the audience’s open hostility towards him for, to their shock, Och’s coming out on stage in that gold suite and with an electric backup band. Up to this point, he was, the prototypical protest singer: just a guy with a message and an acoustic guitar.) This image, for me, sums up everything I love about Phil Ochs. (I love it so much that I have this image tattooed on my right shoulder and arm.) It makes an obvious and overt statement of confidence, arrogance, it’s cool as hell, and yet… it is so obviously satirical. Ochs seemed to constantly want to call bullshit on all and anything that anyone would dare to put on a pedestal—even, or, perhaps, especially, himself. He was a champion of women’s rights, labour rights, immigrant’s rights, he was vehemently anti-war, a fierce defender of the American Constitution—I could go on and on, for pages.

And he was flawed. After a succession of personal, professional, and, perhaps most importantly to him, political failures, he succumbed to alcoholism and, in his last few years, his behaviour became more erratic and dangerous–to himself and others. He was a mess. But, to me, he was a hero. He was the hero that I needed in some tough times in my life—in fact, I still need him.

I spent that first night with Phil Ochs staring out my window, overlooking the lower east side of New York City, the second avenue traffic passing below me, wondering. About what as next, just where my life would take me. About those lives, those choices, passing on the street and the sidewalk, through the grating of the fire escape from the sixth floor of my six-floor walk-up, and returned, again and again, to the turntable, to turn the record over just one more time. I thought about all of the things, the possibilities, that lay before me and wondered. The only thing I was certain of was that the voice in my ears, the new friend I was making, would be with me the rest of the way.


You must protest

It is your diamond duty…

Ah but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty

–Phil Ochs

EULOGY FOR THE DOOMED –Notes On the New Weird and the Birth of the American Nightmare: #1 “Come And See The Show!”


January 13, 2017

FROM: Hunter S. Thompson, The Other Side

TO: Ralph Steadman, United Kingdom


Dear Ralph,

Well, it looks like the worm has turned old friend. You and the rest of the poor bastards down there are on your own now. My old nemesis, Tricky Dick,  the inimitable embarrassment of evil riches himself, Richard Milhouse Nixon, has finally been usurped as the biggest piece of shit that modern times (‘modern times’ meaning since the arrival of Jimi Hendrix) could have produced. I never thought it could happen, but there he is, great and terrible; if he didn’t exist, we couldn’t imagine him: Donald John Trump.

Whoo-wee, Ralph, the very idea of this half-wit asshole running anything bigger than an illegal laundromat makes about as much sense as a monkey fucking a football. I mean, this man is STUPID. He would’t have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot with instructions written on the heel. At least Nixon had enough intelligence to understand what he was doing, he knew how to be truly evil; he knew where and when to stick it to you, where you would hurt the most and where your wound would take the longest to heal—or if it ever would. Trump’s too stupid to know whether to stab you in the back or shake your hand so, instead, he does a shitty job of both and hopes for the best.

But I have to admit it, Ralph, I underestimated the son-of-a-bitch. I really did. Had you told me that this tacky, two-bit real estate crook could ever be in a position to instil real fear—I mean, real, genuine fear—in accomplished, educated, established individuals—I’m talking old-guard, old-money white guys, Ralph, men whose bread and butter is screwing over the little guy—the very backbone of North America—well, I would’ve told you to pass me the Chivas and to double the dose of whatever prescription medication you were currently abusing.

Still, I have to admit that I am, in a perverse way, impressed; he moved from being the boil on a city’s butt cheek to being the world’s asshole—nobody’s doing anything without his say-so, it’s all got to get through him first. He’s got the key to the exit, Ralph. And, let’s face it, when that thing isn’t cooperating, the rest of the whole operation comes to a standstill—tell me it doesn’t. (And a better analogy for the office of the President of The United States of America, I defy anyone to produce.)

But goddamnit, Ralph, this is what happens when a maniacal rank and file hell-bent for vengeance against imagined foes and indignities perpetrated upon them, a bunch so feeble-minded and petty and who regularly and greedily gorge on NASCAR, incest, and illiteracy, gets the keys to the car, when they are granted the power to make decisions on the order of electing someone to be the foreman of the biggest shit factory on the block. Strange times ahead, Ralph. Strange times indeed.

And don’t think you’re immune over there across the pond, pal. Oh, no. Just remember this: shit rolls downhill, and Dear Old Blighty—just like the rest of the world—is in the path of the biggest turd in the history of modern civilization. And it’s just getting going, Ralph, it’s just picking up speed. If anything, your Brexit bullshit dug the groove for this rollout. Enjoy!

But to hell with all that crap, Ralph. Here’s the deal: it’s too late for apologies, things are well and truly fucked now. It’s going to get hairy, and it’s up to you to batten down the hatches, stock up on the ammunition, and to start drinking heavily. Or, to borrow a sentiment from one of your countryman’s most salient heroes for this time we find ourselves in, Lady Macbeth:

“We fail?

But screw your courage to the sticking-place,

And we’ll not fail.”

You see, Ralph, THIS is the sort of banshee-wailing-in-the-night kind of thinking the world needs right now to ride out this four-year (at least) shitstorm. It’s time for action. Just like ol’  batshit Mrs. Macbeth would do if she were here right now, attack first, think later, and never, not ever, assume that they’re not coming to get you.

Because they are, Ralph. And there’s no amount of hiding out with your silly doodles at Old Loose Court that can save you, you old looney bastard. They’re coming for people like you first.

Me? I feel a little guilty saying this, but I’m happy. It was Richard Nixon who got me into politics, and when he left, I felt lonely. Now? Now I have press box seats to what promises to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, clown show in all of modern political history, barring, of course, the rise of Nazi Germany.

But I’m not laying down my money yet, Ralph. Not me. If this were all a trip to Vegas, I would just be getting out of the car right about now and looking up at the neon marquees, peering out at the anesthetized, complacent sheep-like mob pushing their baby-carriages with one hand, raising their Budweisers with the other, all of them blissfully heading headlong into oblivion. And the best part? The best part is knowing that any manner of malfeasance, violence, or pure truth-telling anarchy that I get up to will be expensed.

Bliss, baby. Pure bliss.

I will leave you with these words from Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9. I blasted that record today and, well, these words speak to me, Ralph, (and in the phrasing of Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign slogan, no less) now more than ever:

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside
There behind a glass stands a real blade of grass
Be careful as you pass, move along, move along

Come inside, the show’s about to start
Guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth
Greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth
You’ve got to see the show, it’s a dynamo
You’ve got to see the show, it’s rock and roll, oh

Watch this space, Ralph. This will be, for now, for these times, the greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth. It IS a dynamo, and, boy-howdy, is it ever rock and roll!

Guaranteed to blow your head apart…




(I’m trying to track down Nixon for an interview. He’s slippery, but I think I might be able to pull it off. If I can’t get that bastard, I’ll settle for Al Davis. The going is getting weird…)

I Don’t Want to be a Feminist



Today is October 15, 2016. On this rainy day (here, in Vancouver, BC), most of North America and, perhaps, much of the world is tied up, on some level anyway, with the goings-on with the U.S. presidential election. I’m no different.

So, here’s the deal: I am Canadian–but I also possess a U.S. citizenship. (This is due to my father’s volunteering to dodge bullets for Uncle Sam during the Vietnam War. He was one of about 10,000 Canadians who answered the call of adventure and, to quote Private Joker from Stanley Kubrick’s (my old boss) Full Metal Jacket, “…see exotic Vietnam… the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. …to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and kill them.”

Anyway, for his troubles, he and his immediate family were awarded U.S. citizenships. Consequently, I was able to live and work, and attend university and graduate school in the U.S..

So, why am I establishing this, backstory, this exposition?

To establish context.

Two things:

  1. Again, I am Canadian. I was born a Canadian citizen–although, I was so abroad, in my mother’s home country of Italy. While I’ve lived in six countries, I now live in Canada and plan to spend the rest of my days here.
  2. It’s well into the 21st century. The Mad Men 1960s  have come and gone. As have the free-wheeling 1970s. Hell, even the Reagan 1980s and the milquetoast ’90s are well in the rearview. It’s modern times now.

Or it  least it should be.

We’re nearly two decades into 21st century, but what did this Canadian spend a large part of the last few days talking about?

  1. The U.S. presidential election.
  2. Grabbing pussy.

I won’t regurgitate the blow-by-blow laundry list of asinine things that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said or done in the last few days. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then Google the news and get caught up.) But let’s talk about this whole grabbing pussy thing. (Again, Google is your friend here. Try “Trump, Grabbing Pussy”)

Look, I’ll be frank: I’m tempted to rant (intelligently) about how a sort of wholesale ignorance of the rank and file citizens of the U.S.–by far, the majority–helps ‘create’ someone like Trump, but I won’t. (Too late?) Instead, I want to focus on one thing and one thing only: the fact that a fairly well educated, white, middle aged man has to still, in 2016, identify himself as a ‘feminist’. I hate it. In fact, I hate the word and everything about it.

I hate that I have to actually designate myself as someone who doesn’t consider someone ‘less’ (or more) simply due to their gender. The fact that I have to–regularly–actually explain that I believe that women should have the same rates of pay in the workplace, access to education, freedom to make choices about their body, access to political process, and, basically, be acknowledged to have the same basic human rights as men in this day and age is absolutely bewildering and, frankly, dispiriting. I hate that I have to go out of my way and say ‘I am a feminist’ to make this clear. I would rather just say, plainly, I am a citizen of this planet. But a feminist, apparently, is what I am. (Frankly, the fact that there has to be any designation or label for someone who sees all people as having access to all rights and privileges is beyond baffling.)

But, before I go any further, let’s get some full disclosure out of the way: in my experience, the most influential people, the most talented people, the people that have had the most impact on my life–that have impacted what I do, how I do these things, and why I do them–have been overwhelmingly women. Most of my bosses in my career(s) have been women. The most talented people I have ever known have been women. And, truly, the strongest people I have known have been, by far, women. Hey, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of guys I look up to as well–just read some of these blog posts–but if I had to get into some stupid bean-counting, bean-sorting bullshit, the women would end this contest with a commanding victory. It’s just the way it is, fellas. Sorry.

But that doesn’t mean I favour women in any given situation. I don’t. I don’t favour anyone. Hey, it’s an equal opportunity world with me; I dislike everyone equally. (That’s me channeling Oscar Wilde, by the way. Insert nervous laughter here.)

But let’s get to this silly bit of wordplay by Mr. Trump. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I spent my formative years in the 1970s. And you also know that I was raised by a single mother. Now, picture this: a newly divorced, attractive, Italian woman, in her early thirties, new to North America in 1973. The mid seventies was a heady time: free love, freedom of expression, bell-bottoms, aggressive sexual mores, the advent of disco and accompanying social scene, more drugs, more alcohol, muscle cars, 8-track tapes… I could go on and on. Let’s just say that it probably was an interesting time to be a young, newly single attractive woman, freshly liberated from an abusive marriage, her prison doors let open onto the wild west of the American west coast of the 1970s.

Me? I was just a young boy, but I can remember one thing clearly about the changes that came about after my parents divorce, all happening whilst we relocated to the U.S. from Europe: my mother’s wardrobe. Suddenly she went from dowdy Italian mother and dutiful wife, to the uniform of Women’s Liberation: pant suits, miniskirts, long go-go boots–you name it. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening in my parents life, but I came to an understanding what was happening to my mother: she was finding herself. And she liked what she found.

And there were other things that tipped me off. Those round containers I would see in the bathroom medicine cabinet, for example. Those little carrying-cases of ‘vitamins’ as my mother called them–The Pill dispensers. I saw those containers with the circular arrangement of pills in my friends’ bathrooms too. They were everywhere.

I can remember thinking, back then, assuming, as I saw people like Gloria Steinem on newscasts, interspersed with images of women marching, their Women’s Liberation banners waving over their heads, that by the time I became an adult–over a dizzying decade away–that this would all be, finally, over; that women, men, would truly be equal to each other.

But here I am, forty years later, hearing an actual candidate for the most powerful position on the entire planet talking about how he would grab women by their genitalia, their ‘pussy’. While a shocking number of people–both women and men–just stand idly by and shrug their shoulders.

My mother is gone now. And that movement never happened. She never saw it in her lifetime.

Sure, there was some progress–better pay, more rights, more opportunities for women overall–but nothing in the way of fulfilling the promise offered in those hopeful years of the 1970s. And, as much as I wish my mother were here right now, part of me is glad that she died (just) before the baffling, bewildering, and worrying rise of Donald Trump the presidential candidate and the ‘legitimization’, or, at least, defence of his worldview. She would have been horrified.

As a Canadian, all I can wish for is the best for my American friends. As citizen of the world, all I can wish for is that the world becomes a kinder, more peaceful, and, ultimately, safer place for all of us to be who we want to be on this short ride on this mortal coil. The ‘American’ in me–whatever amount a citizenship of that country that was bestowed entails–just wants it to all be different.

And as a man?

All I can do is try my best to be aware that I live in a world custom-built for me–particularly me: a white, blue-eyed, middle-aged, well educated man–and do my best to even the ledger the best that I can. Let’s face it, everything is built for my comfort, my approval. I am the archetype of the stakeholder, the decision-maker, the consumer. Middle aged, educated white men make more money, are given more opportunities, and are more trusted than any other ‘type’ of person on this planet. The game is mine to lose. But I’ve won before I leave the house every morning. All I have to do is show up.

Make no mistake, I know this. I know that when I’m in the queue at the coffee shop, or the bank, or am walking into a car dealership–and particularly if I’m coming from work, if I’m wearing a suit–I will get all of the attention. And have.

I don’t know how many times I have had to ‘correct’ tellers and salespeople, to remind them that a woman was ahead of me in line, or, worse, if I am with a woman and we are asking for, say, directions, or asking about a product or service, to remind them to, please, speak to both of us, not just me. I am a middle aged white man. And the world, I’m sad to say, is built for me–not your daughter, your sister, your aunt, or your mother.

Apparently, my cognizance of this issue, of the way things are and the part I unwittingly play in it, and my sincere stabbing at the status quo’s windmills, makes me something of a feminist. That’s fine, but what I really want to be is a person. Just one of the notes of this symphony we’re all contributing to–which, right now, sounds kind of wonky. But I’m hoping that, soon, it’ll be great, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, ‘Ode to Joy’ great. That we’ll all just be part of the same song.

Because, goddamnit, I don’t want to be a feminist. I hope the day will come when I don’t have to be.






Books That Kicked My Ass – #5 The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer


So, every now and then, someone who I respect, someone who I have actual admiration for–heck, someone I like–asks me for a book recommendation. Now, don’t get me wrong, people ask  me for book recommendations all of the time–I’m an english teacher. And all kinds of people ask me this question: my barber, other teachers, friends of friends, people’s parents, the clerk at the post office, you name it. I usually rattle off the usual suspects and move the conversation to something I actually like to talk about… which is really, if I’m honest, nothing–I hate making small talk.

But, as I say, I was in a peculiar position: I had to recommend that someone who I care about should spend their hard-earned free time reading a book of my choosing.

No pressure.

The choice was clear: The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. Over a thousand pages long and, when not being read, of a weight and stature to be used as a suitable and effective doorstop. This thing is big, no lie.

But don’t listen to me, listen to this guy:

“I want to urge you, with all my being, that you must read The Executioner’s Song. I want to further guarantee that you will finish it. It’s the fastest 1,000 pages you will ever know.”

– Dave Eggers

That’s a pretty damn conclusive recommendation up there. But here’s the thing: I’m not a big fan of Dave Eggers’ work. I find his writing to be all right, but can’t help but associate him with a lot of, for lack of a better word, ‘hipster’ diversions such as fixed-gear bicycles, man-buns, artisan condiments (you know, that crap that sells for $25 and that are packed predictably and without irony in mason jars) and with bands like Wilco.

Boring. Wake me up when the Sominex® Revolution is over. (So I guess that’s my submission to McSweeny’s rejected. Sorry, Dave.)

But, boring (to me) or not, there are two reasons I included his recommendation:

  1. He’s absolutely correct: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song is a book that must be read.
  2. He’s a ‘somebody’: he’s a writer that folks, probably you, have actually heard of. (Unlike yours truly. Hey, the guy’s won more awards than… well, something that wins a lot of awards. He’s popular, this guy.)

Okay, snarky bullshit aside, take his advice and get your hands on this book–the sooner the better. And read the hell out of it. It really will be the fastest 1,000 pages you’ve ever read.

So what’s this phonebook-sized thing all about? Roughly, and simply, it’s about the events leading up to the execution of killer Gary Gilmore in 1977. While the story itself is remarkable–seriously, read this book!–it is also notable in that Gilmore was the first person to be executed in nearly ten years in the United States. He was the first to be executed after the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1976. You could say that Gilmore opened the races again–the U.S. has since then been putting its citizens to death with a zeal, vigour, and frequency that is statistically impressive.

Buy why should you park however long it takes you to chip away about a 1,000 pages of reading? Two reasons.

  1. The story is at once bewildering and heartbreaking. You will find the reading by turns uncomfortable, exhilarating, damning, and, more than anything, you will recognize yourself in the largely unappealing ‘characters’ that inhabit this story.
  2. The writing. Dear god, the writing. Norman Mailer simply manhandles the English language in this book and makes it do whatever the fuck he wants it to do–proper grammar and writing rules be damned. And, please, understand something: my use of profanity and silly hyperbole here is completely on purpose and thematically consistent with the experience you will have with his delivery. Mailer, in this book, is like an orchestra conductor who shows up to the podium in his tux and with his hair neatly combed, but breaks his baton and terrorizes the musicians two measures into the overture, leaving both the performers and the audience forever changed. To say this book kicked my ass would be the understatement of all understatements. I’ve been an english, literature, and writing teacher for nearly two decades–I’ve read everyone, probably twice–and I would confidently put Mailer’s writing in this book against any other book or author in any kind of competition. Period.


Asshole? Genius? Both?

But, Steve, Norman Mailer was an asshole.

Yup. It’s true. Norman Mailer was an asshole. Completely. He was gruff, rude, a narcissist, a terrible womanizer, aggressive, macho, had several extramarital affairs, and was guilty of about a hundred other unflattering things of note. If this matters to you, he had a pretty hairy personal life. He was, for example, married six times and fathered nine children. Now, depending on what side of the coin you want to look at, he either was such an asshole that he got divorced five times and left several children in broken homes, or he had a strong belief in the institution of marriage and was optimistic about relationships. Heck, maybe he loved being a father.

Personally, I think he sounds like a real dick.

But, asshole or no, this guy could write. And, for your sake, I would strongly urge you to couch–as I similarly have in a previous blog post about a different artist–your reservations about Mr. Mailer’s movements in his personal life, and focus entirely on his art. Your restraint will be amply rewarded.

Look, I could, as is my usual routine, give you the story of how I got into this book, but I won’t–it’s simply not very interesting. I found a really shitty copy–a small paperback, with nearly microscopic print and a shape that made the book resemble a very tall brick–in a box of books at a school I worked at. It was jammed into a box of unused library books that were going to be thrown out–in the trash.

I had read other Mailer books, notably, The Naked and the Dead, and liked them, so I opened it up and went to read the first page. The truth is, this copy was so unwieldy, so inconvenient to read–what with the print being so small and the small paperback being comically thick due to its length–that I didn’t think I would get past  a page or two. I mean, I had to actually squint to read the type.

But I read the first page.

Then the next.

Then the next.

And, soon, I was hundreds of pages in, eschewing work, nutrition, and sleep in favour of reading this book. In the end, I was left shaken, moved, and I was actually amazed. And let me be clear, ‘amazed’ is a word that I think is overly used, abused, and normally tossed around with no regard to its definition. But make no mistake, I was actually amazed by this book. The writing is so completely masterful, the story so clear, so heartbreaking, so horrifying, that I couldn’t recall an experience anywhere near this from reading any other book.

Dave Eggers is right. Listen to him. He’s somebody. It really will be the fastest 1,000 pages you ever read. Me? I don’t have any coming-of-age story to tell you this time–only this: If you want your ass kicked by a complete master at the top of their game… get your hands on this book.

And prepare to read the shit out of it.






The Devil at the Drive-in: The Exorcist and Me

Exorcist Original Poster

Dateline: July 24, 1975 – Olympia, Washington

Treehouse. Late, sunny afternoon. Hot. The smell of plywood, pine tree sap, competing barbecues. The sound of somebody’s car stereo blasting Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love” somewhere in the distance.

“Jeezuz,” said Danny. “How long’s it been?”

I looked at my watch. “About 45 minutes.”

He shifted around anxiously. “You don’t think he got caught, do you?”

My stomach clenched. Mike would sell us out at the first hint of trouble. He always did. And this thing… well, this was my idea. I could imagine it playing out: Mike caught in his mother’s vice-like grip in one hand, her shaking the offending stolen item menacingly and accusatorially above her head with the other. And like some mouth-frothing evangelist casting out blasphemous spirits from an innocent parishioner, she would demand, in that two-packs-a-day rasp that she cultivated, “Michael, who? Who put you up to this?” Cowering, Mike would reflexively offer me up for sacrifice,”STEVE! IT WAS STEVE’S IDEA!”

I was cooked. I just knew it.

But then the trapdoor to the treehouse flew open and Mike’s portly body bullied through the opening. “Shit, that was close!” he said as he fell over, dramatically, out of breath, clutching in his hands the spoils of our scheme: a paperback copy of William Peter Blatty’s shocking novel The Exorcist.

Exorcist Paperback

The offending piece of literature.

“My goddamned sister almost caught me,” he said, eyes wide with a combination of panic and glee.

“Lemme see that thing,” Danny said, snatching the book from Mike’s hand. He peered at it for a moment, turned it over, looked at the back. “Huh. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“It’s a book, Danny,” I said, taking it from him. “You’ve gotta open it up and read the damn thing.”

Danny punched me in the shoulder with his canned-ham sized fist. “Shut-up–I’m not stupid.”

“Jeezuz,” I gasped. “Not so soft next time.” I smiled and pretended that my arm didn’t go numb or that a jolt of freezing pain didn’t rush down my side. Danny was my best friend, but he was a big, handsome boy from West Virginia that was used to getting by in the world through his southern charm, his tank-like build, and his athletic prowess. Books, let’s just say, weren’t his thing. They never had to be.

“Well?” Danny said to me.


“Are you going to read it, or what?”

“Yeah, c’mon! This is supposed to be better than Hustler!” said Mike, salaciously.

We had previously discovered Danny’s older brother Keith’s cache of porno magazines–Playboys, Penthouse, and what was considered to be the gold-standard of raunch, Hustler. (He had them hidden in his athletic bag, jammed under football pads and jock straps.) Those porno mags were the business for us, but this would be the first prurient book that we brought into the treehouse. It was something of an anomaly, to say the least.

A voracious reader, I argued that a good book could be better than any movie, and would certainly be better than any static magazine picture. Danny wasn’t convinced, but Mike had heard all about this book from his sister. “My sister says it’s goddamn disgusting!” We had to get our hands on it.

I opened the book to the first page. There were several acknowledgements, some bible quotes, dedications–all sorts of stuff.

“Well? What’s going on?” Mike asked.

“Hang on,” I said.

“Just read it,” Danny said.

I just read the prologue…

Northern Iraq

The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clang to his back like chill wet leaves.

I continued on, reading a long paragraph that detailed a disappointing archeological dig. When I got to the end of the paragraph, I stopped. “It just goes on like that,” I said.

Danny and Mike were silent. The disappointment on their faces said it all.

“Well, skip to somewhere in the middle,” offered Mike.

I randomly opened it up to the middle of the book and scanned the pages for something that might jump out at me, a random curse word, a tawdry sentence.

Nothing. Just a lot of dialogue between a police detective and a priest. Boring stuff.

“Listen,” I said. “Why don’t I read it first? Then I’ll know all of the good parts.”

“Forget it,”  Danny said. “There’s no reason to read a whole book.”

I wanted to keep it, to read it–just for me–but Mike had to get it back to his house, back to his mother’s nightstand where he had stolen it from. If he could get it home before she got off work, we’d be fine. And by ‘we’, he really meant me. He looked at me with traitorous eyes when he said so before squeezing out of the treehouse entrance and back to his house to perform the reverse heist.

One day, two weeks later, Danny called on the telephone, sounding like his house had just collapsed. “It’s playing!” Danny shouted, his voice distorting over the phone. “At The Sunset!”

“What is?” I asked

The Exorcist! The goddamn Exorcist!” He was out of breath with excitement. “Friday night!”

“Oh, man…”

“Whatta you think?”

Now, what Danny was really asking was akin to asking me whether or not we might be able to thread a needle whilst riding on the back of an ill-tempered and rabid bucking bronco in the middle of a tornado.

“Maybe,” I answered. “You figure it out on your end. I’ll talk to Mike.”

“Mike? He won’t be able to go!”

“If his mom will let him go, then my mom will let me go–and either one of them can take us,” I offered. “We’ve got a couple of days to figure this out.”

The Sunset was one of the last working drive-in movie theatres in the area and seemed to specialize in cheap thrill b-movies, soft-core pornography, and odd, one-off revivals of sensationalistic horror and sci-fi movies–we had made quantum leaps of understanding about life, sex, and just plain how the world worked through the movies they exhibited there. We got Mike’s sister to take us to see Death Race 2000 earlier in the spring, for example. Their presenting The Exorcist made perfect sense.

I got off the phone and started to rustle up a plan.

Death Race 2000.png

Pure 1975 drive-in movie goodness.

“Are you crazy? You are not seeing that movie,” my mom said. I made the mistake of asking her whilst she was sitting at the kitchen table, papers strewn about, her chequebook open, an expression of pure aggravation engraved on her face.

“But why?” I offered feebly.

Why? Was I serious? If Mike’s sister was to be believed, the book had scenes of a young girl masturbating with a crucifix and enough foul language to make a sailor blush. But I pushed on. And on. And on. Until, finally, my mother snapped. “Steven, shutup! Get the hell out of here–right now!” She was pissed. But even at that young age, I could tell that she wasn’t really mad at me. Oh, sure, my whining and begging to have a grown woman willfully take their eleven year old kid to a movie that featured a young girl violating herself with a symbol of Catholicism’s most sacred iconography seems completely psychotic now from the safe confines of sanity and reasoned thought here in adulthood, and would surely raise the ire of any parent, let alone my Italian born, devout Roman Catholic mother, but I could tell there was something else, something sinister at play here.

I went to my room and played some records for a while, some upbeat songs to bring my mood back up (Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” got a few spins). Then I heard her. On the phone. With my father.

After a few minutes, it was all clear to me. My mother had been struggling to wrangle my father’s child-support payments for a while now and things were coming to a head. Things were not going smoothly. My father, I should point out, was safely ensconced back in Europe, in Germany–far from the flimsy reach of a pre-internet, world-wide-webbed and digitally connected 1970s west coast of North America. My father might as well have been undercover in Siberia. But she found him. Finally.

I heard my mother rally off a volley of vitriolic epithets, then shift into angry, staccato Italian, and then, finally, she ended with a loud and assertive “Fuck you, Peter. Fuck you!” before slamming the big, rotary, 1970s Avocado Green Bell telephone to it’s cradle so hard that I thought it was sure to have broken. It was the only time in my entire life that I would ever hear my mother use the ‘f word’ and she did so with the conviction and acumen of a seasoned veteran.

An uneasy silence followed. So much that my record playing felt self-conscious, so I pulled the needle off of my 45 of Elton John’s version of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. (Heresy, I realize, but I still think that this version beats The Beatle’s version by a country mile.) I  waited to hear what would happen next.

I heard my mother talking with someone, the phone miraculously still in working order, apparently. The conversation was short, to the point. Then, footsteps. Loud, purposeful footsteps. And getting louder. My door swung open, my mother leaned in.

“If you want to go see that movie, we’re leaving at 8:30–with Mike and his mom. Ask Danny to come, if you want.”  She looked at me for a moment then added, mysteriously, “Just remember; you wanted to go,” before closing the door and leaving. Although I was curious as to what she meant with that ‘you wanted to go’ comment, I knew better than to ask any questions now. And, really, I couldn’t have cared less; we were going and that was all that mattered.

We rode to the drive-in theatre in the back of Mike’s mom’s station wagon like we were kings being chauffeured to our coronation–that is if kings punched each other, swore under their breath, and had their moms talking shit about them in the front seat.

Well, that’s what I thought they were doing–at first. Soon, though, I realized, after a bit of eavesdropping, that the ‘he’ and ‘hims’ that came out of my mom’s mouth weren’t meant for me but for my father. But I also learned that night that the distinction was minor; one fact was clear: I recalled, for her, my father–through my mannerisms, my physical appearance. Indeed, my very existence reminded my mother of my father–someone who she saw as a demon in his own right, if not the devil himself. It was no accident that were hurtling, headlong into a cinematic confrontation between good and evil, with none other than Catholic warriors leading the charge. Salvation and absolution were out of the question; I could tell from my mother’s mood, her look of determination on her face, that this was about victory.

We pulled into an empty stall. Mike, Danny, and I immediately situated ourselves on the hood of the big station wagon, laying pillows on the windshield which we improvised into a lounge chair, the three of us with a perfect view of the screen. My mother and Mike’s mother brought lawn chairs and sat at the side of the car, talking amongst themselves.

We made a quick trip to the concessions building to load up on popcorn, RC Cola, Raisenettes, and Sno-Caps. Then we crawled up onto the hood with our bounty, preparing for the bevy of forbidden images and sounds that were going to assault our senses, like interlopers who happened upon Aladin’s Cave.

“Oh, man, I can’t wait!” said Mike, his eyes like saucers.

“This is going to be amazing!’ said Danny.

I don’t know why, but at that moment, I looked over at my mother. She was animatedly in the middle of conversation with Mike’s mom, but she made eye contact with me–it was chilling. She gave me a look that seemed to reiterate her warning to me: “Just remember; you wanted to go.”

I should’ve listened to her.

After the movie, I sat silent in between my two compatriots, Mike and Danny, quiet as I have ever been. I was shell shocked. I witnessed, in no particular order, a young girl urinate on a carpet in front of her mother’s dinner guests, this same girl implore Jesus to fuck her whilst she lunged a crucifix into her crotch–to bloody, gore-filled results; I saw her head spin around, I watched her vomit green bile on a priest, I heard her say ‘fuck’ numerous times, I heard her tell this same priest that his mother–who just died–“sucks cocks in hell”. I was, probably, suffering a form of post traumatic stress disorder.

Danny and Mike were carrying on like it was the best thing that had or would ever happen to them.

“Did you see her head spin around? Boss!” exclaimed Danny.

“And what about how she floated above the bed? That was crazy!”

And so on.

I remained silent. I had things to think about.

And think about them I did.

When we got home, my mother went to bed without anything to indicate anything out of the ordinary had occurred–except for one thing. Before I went to my room, my mom said, “I spoke to your father today,” she said solemnly. “Steven, I want you to think about who you want to be.” And then she went into her bedroom, closed the door.

I went to my room and turned on my small black and white TV. The Tomorrow Show, with Tom Snyder was on. I didn’t know who he was interviewing but I rarely did. I watched him sometimes, late at night, when I couldn’t sleep. I found his voice and his personality soothing, comforting. And, right now, I needed to feel safe.

The movie, for the obvious reasons, bothered me. But I was also bothered by the fact that I saw in Linda Blair, the actor that played the possessed 12-year-old, Regan, every girl that I knew–especially every girl that I had ‘funny feelings’ for. She was beautiful and sweet and every bit like me and my friends. I worried that, whilst I slept in my bed that night, that I, too, might wake up in the morning to find myself possessed. I had been up to all sorts of stupid things lately–as was befitting of a kid in adolescence in the mid seventies. Had I left the door open to The Devil himself? Would he come and take possession of my soul, my body sometime during the night? Maybe, if I stayed awake, if I kept sleep at bay, I could be on guard and thwart any attempts.

Think about who you want to be. I just lay there and really thought about those words, those words that my mother said to me. I didn’t really understand, but I knew that what she was talking about had to do with my father–that all of those times that she said to me, “You’re just like your father” were meant to be cautionary warnings, shots across the bow to me to get my attention, to change my course; that, in her world–and indeed mine–my father was analogous to the demon of Pazuzu in The Exorcist–a patient demon just waiting to inhabit me, take me over. I was already halfway there; I looked like him, I walked like him, I made the same snarly faces, heck, I even spoke like him, if what my mother said was to be believed.

I would learn later in my life–much too late to be of any use, unfortunately–that what I really should have been paying attention to, and what was, in actual fact, resonating deep within me, even on that first viewing of The Exorcist, was the character of Father/Dr. Damien Karras, the troubled young priest at the centre of the story. I couldn’t know at eleven years old, but my life would greatly resemble that of this guilt-ridden priest as my adult years spooled out.

I, too, would work hard and diligently to achieve success in my field of work–a work of service to others. (Whilst Karras would become a priest, I would become a teacher–some might say these to callings are more similar than not.) And both the character of Karras and I felt enormous responsibility for their ailing, single mothers and yet both of us lived close enough to make visits but far enough away to ensure that these visits were infrequent and short, due to the distance to be travelled and the complications of getting there. We both loved our mothers dearly, but simply could not coexist in their everyday world. I would recognize in Father Karras the same incongruent combination of unconditional love and gentle care for my mother but also the same suffocating sensation and impatience that would envelope me if I was anywhere near her for more than a few hours. And, like Karras, I would have to endure the unexpected yet strangely inevitable and predictable death of my mother and the attendant guilt and grief that accompanied it like a shadow.

Demon: You killed your mother! You left her alone to die! Bastard!
Father Damien Karras: Shut up!

When I watch The Exorcist now, I am overwhelmed with empathy for the young priest, his final act of defiance against the demon ostensibly to save a young girl, but in actual fact his last attempt at absolution, at clearing the ledgers of a life filled with regret and guilt.

It’s galvanizing stuff.

I can remember, even as that kid splayed out on that hood of the station wagon, my head resting against the pillow on the windshield, watching this exchange on the screen, realizing that, sure, there were spinning heads, foul language, immolation, and all sorts of horrors, but it was this, the story of the priest and the demon, that I was actually meant to pay attention to:

Demon: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Father Damien Karras: You would like that?
Demon: Intensely.
Father Damien Karras: But wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?
Demon: It would bring us together.
Father Damien Karras: You and Regan?
Demon: You and us.

If this priest, this handsome, adult priest, who clearly knew what he was doing, could be at risk, what hope did I have? Even at eleven years old, I felt that I was tempting fate, that I was being drawn, inexorably, to doing the wrong thing; that I had my own demon inside of me–patient, all the while working it’s claws around my heart–and that demon was me.

Over the years, I would heed my mother’s words with varying degrees of success. Always, in the back of my mind, through my precarious twenties, my ill-advised thirties, my thought-I-knew-what-I-was-doing forties… through all of those years, those decades, one thing was always in the back of my mind: don’t be ‘possessed’ by your natural nature–fight it. Be different. My mother’s words from that day when I was eleven years old still resonate: “…think about who you want to be.” She could see in me, even at such a young age, a natural tendency to arrogance, aggression, hubris. I would have to be conscious of these traits and fight like hell to suppress them, to rise above them and be a better person than I was hereditarily destined to become. If I’m honest, I have only been partially successful.

I woke up that next day surprised and relieved to realize that I had not been possessed, overnight, by a demon, or The Devil himself. I might have even felt, if I’m honest, a bit surprised–maybe even a little disappointed. If there was anyone that had seemed to have bad intentions born and bred into him, someone who had regularly left the door open for The Devil to enter his soul, whatever that was, I felt it was me. Little did I know that the real possession, the real fight of good and evil would be decided in my movements, the choices I would make, and the paths I would choose in the years that lay far ahead of me. If I am honest, it’s still a struggle I fight today. Every day.

Two Donkeys in Poland: The William Friedkin StoryFriedkin Exorcist 2

Little could I know that night at the drive-in, but I would, one day, make the acquaintance of the person responsible for the film that would make such an impression on my life: the director of The Excorcist, William Friedkin. It would prove to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life.

First, a bit of background. I’m a filmmaker. Or, I should say, I was a filmmaker. Now I’m a teacher—I teach screenwriting at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. Way back when, in the beginning of my career in film/TV (late ‘80s early ‘90s), I went to film school at New York University (Tisch School of the Arts), back when there were, really, only two primary film schools of note, USC and NYU. (Three if you counted UCLA’s grad program at the time.) Being that NYU was pretty prestigious, they would arrange for us to have some amazing guest lectures, screenings, previews, etc.

While I attended NYU, I was also a teaching assistant. This offered me a job, good experience, and, most important, it granted me access to every guest lecture or screening that the film school presented. (Oftentimes, I would be directly involved in the projection of films or the organization of the presentations.) One of the perks was that I would regularly screen movies well before their release, usually presented by their director, in-person, followed by a lecture and question and answer session. One of those screenings was with William Friedkin. He screened his (then upcoming) film The Guardian. Being that it was Friedkin, EVERYONE at NYU wanted to show up, but it was limited to about 30 of us, all packed into a small screening room.

“Mr. Friedkin, we all have a bright future ahead of us.”

Oh, you’ll need to know one thing to make this story work: NYU’s film school had a reputation—and it was (and still is) exclusive. Meaning that, at the time, the film program–particularly if you were  one of the ‘lucky’ ones to be whittled down to direct anything–was very small compared to programs today—and it was these directing majors who were the folks in the room. Add to that the fact that so many Hollywood luminaries had passed through NYU’s gates (Scorcese, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, etc.) and you may understand why there was a bit of a sense that we were all part of a Hollywood ‘farm team’, and you also may understand what is at the core of this story: complete and utterly misguided hubris of the sort that only kids in their twenties, with a little bit of knowledge, can possess. (For example, I would earn a fellowship from Warner Bros. that paid for my thesis film and which supplied me with a job on the lot and a pitch meeting with the head of the studio. Even I–intense skeptic and realist that I was and would forever be–was under the impression that it was a fait accompli that I would be rubbing elbows with Spielberg and Scorcese, sharing beers on the patio with A-list actors. So, you know, the signals were easy to misinterpret by even the most level-headed of us.)

Friedkin Exorcist 3

Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist

Anyway, things are going as you might expect for an Academy Award winning directer in a room full of eager film students; the usual questions about technique in the film we just screened, a ton of questions about his two most famous films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, etc. Everything, all things considered, is normal.

Then it happens.

Someone in the back of the room says this: “Mr. Friedkin, I’m sure you’re aware that we are all directing majors and that this is NYU—we all have a bright future ahead of us.”

At this moment, my buddy murmurs “Oh, shit” and nods in Friedkin’s direction. There was what can only be described as a mischievous smile beginning to form on William Friedkin’s face. The kid behind us blindly soldiers on.

“I guess what I’m asking is this: When we go out to Hollywood—and many of us have already got some offers—how should we go about deciding what project is right for us?”

Friedkin now looks genuinely puzzled. And he asks for the kid to ask the question again, pretending that he didn’t hear the question. The kid begins repeating the question. Now, remember, this is a small screening room and we’re in a pretty intimate setting—you don’t need to raise your voice to be heard in here. Remember this.

Anyway, the kid’s about ¾ of the way through his repeating his question when Friedkin cuts him off. “Okay, I think I get what you’re getting at. You guys are the cream of the crop here at what may be the best film program in the world—hell, all sorts of big guys, some real heavy-hitters have come out of here–Marty, Oliver Stone—and you’re almost out of here, things are happening. Hell, you’ve probably got a film out in the festivals right now—am I right?”

Well, shit. The kid couldn’t be happier—Friedkin knows! He’s one of us! There’s hope! And what’s even better, I’m sure the kid was thinking, He’s going to confer on us some inside knowledge; some real deal stuff for us real deals!

And that’s when Friedkin goes into ‘Friedkin’ mode. And that’s when I knew that, for the kid, it was all over.

“Well, here’s what might happen… uh, sorry, what’s your name?” Friedkin asks, fake humility poring out of every pore.

“Dave,” the kid answers proudly.

“Okay, Dave. Right. Well, you’ve got a point; you guys have to really start thinking about this, you’ve got to start getting your shit together. You’ve got your work out there, in festivals, and, here, NYU, and USC, the studios, the big boys, are checking you guys, your stuff out. NYU’s got quite a history of real talent coming out of this program.”

Now some of the other knuckleheads in the room are getting on board. They’re hanging on Friedkin’s every word as if their future families depended on them.

“You know, you’re going to go out to L.A. and your going to have a meeting. Dave, you’ll have a lot of meetings, sure, but let’s say you’re going to have a meeting that might go a little something like this: They’re going to give you a script, Dave. But you know this. You’re going to come out of here and your going to see a lot of scripts. But you’re at a meeting at Universal for this one, at the lot. And this one’s the one, man. I mean the picture’s on the studio’s Christmas release schedule. This is big stuff. Here’s how the script starts, Dave:

It opens up in the clouds. Nothing but clouds, a perfect shot taken from IN the clouds, Dave—but that’s okay; beautiful credits are over these pillows of loveliness, Dave. Your credit, directed by… what’s your last name, Dave?”

He tells him.

“Great. And now we’ve got a big swell of music, Dave, right on the ‘Directed By’—which is your name, Dave. And you know whose music it is? John fucking Williams, that’s who—the best. Like I said, Christmas release. And now, now, Dave, we come out of the clouds…”

Friedkin makes this moving shot gesture with his hands, his face oohing and aahing, at the shot he’s composing in front of us.

“And now we see them, Dave. Our main characters. They’re small—just dots, just dots on the horizon, a green horizon—a beautiful, greenmeadow in Poland, Dave.

And now the camera comes down—one of those perfect helicopter shots, just like that opening of The Sound of Music—you know the one.

And now, Dave, now we see what’s happening, we see our stars.”

And Dave and the rest of the chumps are hanging on every syllable now—who are the stars, they wonder? Bruce Willis? Eastwood? Meryl Streep?

“Two donkeys, Dave. Two big-ass, donkeys. And you know what they’re doing? They are fucking, Dave, like no two donkeys have ever fucked in the history of the world, I mean they are going to town. This is like The Last Tango In Paris of donkey movies.”

Well, finally, it dawns on Dave and company. It’s over.

“You still with me, Dave?”

Nothing. All we can hear is the air-conditioning.

Friedkin’s fired up now. “And this scene goes on, Dave, and on—for nine pages! You look through the goddamn thing—all 147 pages—and you see that the whole thing is one donkey fuck scene tied to another! And then the executive asks you, Well, whatta ya think? You want the job? We shoot in six weeks.”

Friedkin walks up the aisle a bit, gets poor, stupid Dave in his sights… and then lets in with, “You know what you say, Dave?”

Dave says nothing. Wishing, no doubt, that he could just disappear.

Friedkin lowers his voice, leans into Dave, and starts, in a near whisper, “This is what you say, Dave…”, then, suddenly screaming, like the screening room is on fire, “YES! HOLY CHRIST, YES! I’M YOUR GUY! I’M YOUR TWO DONKEYS FUCKING IN POLAND GUY! I’VE BEEN WAITING TO SHOOT A REAL EASTERN EUROPEAN DONKEY FUCK-FEST PICTURE FOR MY WHOLE MISERABLE LIFE. YES, YES, YES! JEEZUZ CHRIST ON A POGO STICK, YES! I’LL TAKE IT!” His words bounce off the screening room walls like the ball in a pinball machine.

He ambles down to the front, turns, and with a steely gaze looks at us and says, “If if anyone–ANYONE–graces you with a job offer to even clean some producer’s diarrhea spray off the fuckin’ studio bathroom—that’s what you say: YES!”

Lesson learned.



Books That Kicked My Ass – #4 Kitchen Confidential-Anthony Bourdain

BourdainSaturday,  September 23, 2000

10:23 PM – In the back of a busy restaurant kitchen, somewhere in a large metropolitan city, somewhere in the U.S…

“Where the fuck’s Hector?”

“Anyone seen that piece-a-shit Hector?”

“Donde estas Hector?”

“Hector! HECTOR!.. Hector?… Pinche cabrón.”



(Translation: Hector is in the potato room! THE POTATO ROOM!)

Then, as if someone has just flipped a giant faucet, a frothing frenzy of kitchen workers, cooks, waiters, busboys, and even the floor manager, flood the narrow back corridor in a gush of maniacal bloodlust that crashes at the door of the potato room like invading forces on a beachhead. They clumsily crowd their faces against the small bay window of the door, each pushing the other aside, jockeying for a better look, grasping for even a second-long glance at the proceedings beyond.

I cautiously walk up to the scene and see Javier, my busboy. He turns to me and whispers with a conspiratorial grin and a salivatory glee in his eyes, “That Hector, man. He fucking loves the potato room!” before clawing his way to the top, crawling up the back of J.J., our head dishwasher.

“Hey, what the fuck, Javier?”

“Fuck you, J.J., I wanna see!”

It’s bedlam before me; a rugby scrum phalanx of bodies alternatively hooting and snickering, then shushing and motioning to be quiet, as if there was rare and nervous wildlife just beyond that door–It’s a Yellowspotted Deer, motherfucker! Don’t scare it away!

There’s too much going on; I try to reduce my inventory of sensory stimuli, to pare down just what it is that is happening before me. Finally, I am able to resolve the focus to just one thing, just one sound coming from beyond the door:


Okay, let’s pause the action for a moment…

If you’ve worked in a busy restaurant kitchen, scenes like this little pastiche above, are second-hand news to you. You’ve lived it. (So have I–in fact, this little memory of mine is one of about a thousand Not-Ready-For-Primetime moments I’ve collected over my years working as a waiter and a sometimes line chef.) So, if this is the case, Anthony Bourdain’s famous—and, for a time, infamous—accounting of the shenanigans, good and bad, hilarious and grim, that go on behind your favourite restaurants’ doors in his breakout tell-all book Kitchen Confidential, might not be entirely enlightening to you. You will, however, be in for one hell of a treat: this guy is, first off, one of you–don’t let the fact that he’s on TV and a ‘star’ fool you; he’s the real deal. But the bottom line is this: he spins a good yarn and he does so with the precision of a sniper and with the mouth and efficiency of a sailor with a PhD on a one night pass. Look I’m saying that you’ll have a hell of a good time reading it, trust me. (Go ahead, crack a book open, you knuckle dragger. For chrissakes, it has the ‘f bomb’ in it, like, a thousand times. What more do you want, Balzac?)

If, on the other hand, you read the above recollection with equal parts bewilderment, revulsion, and titillation, this book will not only be a hell of a read, it will be–if I can use this beat-all-to-hell cliché without irony–a rollercoaster ride (reviewers love that term!) It will also be one hell of an education for you about what those folks that prepare your $100 a plate dinners actually get up to whilst you’re at your table doing whatever it is that you do there, talking about whatever it is you talk about.

When I first read Kitchen Confidential, it was a revelation. People–and by ‘people’ I mean folks that have a read a few books and have that carry around that oft-mention dangerous payload ‘a little bit of knowledge’–have compared this book and, indeed, Anthony Bourdain’s writing to that of Hunter S. Thompson’s.

This, to me, just illustrates a lack of understanding of both Thompson’s and Bourdain’s work in particular, and a lazy and mediocre skill set for analyzing literature on the whole. One might think that this clumsy comparison flatters Bourdain, but I would argue against that point: the fact is, almost everyone–at least everyone I’ve encountered–grossly misunderstands Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. They read, dutifully, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and think that’s that; they get it. Throw in some profanities here, toss around some bewilderingly maniacal antics there and they’ve got it figured out–they’ve got the ol’ Dr. down pat. To them, Gonzo Journalism is all about writing fast and loose with the facts, raising hell, and skipping out on your bar tab.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Thompson’s writing actually was making astute and observant political statements about the world he inhabited (and whose effects are still felt today)–something that is clear, if you can see beyond the obvious avatar of the author as a kind of wacky, dangerous, yet loveable maniac. (I like to think of him as a drug and alcohol fuelled modern day Oscar Wilde.) And, true to form, Thompson was, first and foremost, a journalist.

But Bourdain’s writing, particularly as found in Kitchen Confidential, is the very definition of incisive memoir, not journalism–of any kind; Gonzo, New, Combat… whatever. Mr. Bourdain is telling you his story, not the story of the restaurant industry or even the story of your average chef’s rise to the top. No, make no mistake, this is an intensely personal story. This is, to put it the way Mr. Bourdain might put it, real shit about a real person.

No, if we really have to find some sort of analogue for people’s writing in order to cast it in some legitimacy, if we can’t just admire a writer’s writing for what it does wholly on their own, due to the application of their own craft, if I must really compare Bourdain’s writing to someone else’s–if only to cleans the palette off the Thompson comparisons–a far better analogue would be that of Norman Mailer.

Like Mailer, Bourdain writes clean, declarative prose, free from a lot of flowery description–and yet… and yet it is descriptive, oftentimes terribly so. And, like Mailer, Bourdain is  not a writer–or a person, apparently–inclined to saccharine leanings in his writing in either style or content. Further, Bourdain doesn’t suffer fools gladly–himself included. Like Mailer, there’s a refreshing honesty in his accounts.

So, following my template for these books that ‘kicked my ass’ posts, how did I get into this book?

Read on…

“Hey, if you aren’t too busy listening to other people fuck, you’ve got that banquet looking for you.”

It was Rhonda, one of the other waiters on the floor with me that night.

“They said you disappeared. They pulled me in to take their drink order,” she said and shoved a piece of paper into my chest.

“But Hector’s in the potato room!” I called after her.

“So make your own fucking drinks–I did!”

Hector was indeed in the potato room, not at his station, behind the service bar.

I looked at the list of drinks. It was long and had way too many foo-foo drinks–I’d have to go to the main bar, downstairs.

I bounded down the steps, made my way through the main dining room in a flash, but I approached the bar like I was negotiating a minefield. Wendy was working.

“What the fuck do you want? What’re you doing here? Where the fuck’s Hector? Are you fucking kidding me?” It all came firing at me, rat-a-tat, like a machine gun. “Well?”

I just threw the list on the counter.

“Shit, you’re fucking with me, right?”

I just looked at her.

“That 20-top?”

I nodded. She started pouring. “You fucking owe me–big time.”

She started pouring Martinis, Old-Fashions, and then she moved on to the stupid drinks; Daiquiris, Cosmos, a couple of Sex on the Beaches. “Where the fuck’s Hector?”

“Potato room.”

THE POTATO ROOM?” she exclaimed angrily. But then her faced softened. “Huh… Well, good for him.”

I started putting the Martinis on my tray when she dropped something else on it: a book. It was A Farewell to Arms. I had loaned it to her a few days before. She read it quickly. I was impressed.

“Yeah, it was all right, I guess. Fucking depressing shit, though,” she said, as she put the rest of the drinks on my tray. “All right, get the fuck out–Hector should be dead and buried by now–he’s a quick worker,” she said with a smile. I was  just leaving the bar when she said, “Oh, shit. Wait–take this, too.” She put another book on my tray. “That fucker… now that fucker, man… he can write! You’re gonna love that shit.”

I held the tray and leaned my head over, trying to read the cover of Kitchen Confidential without spilling the drinks.

“C’mon, this isn’t a fucking library–read that shit on your own time. And don’t let me see your sorry ass down here again tonight, or I’m taking your ass to the potato room!”

I did what I was told. I took that book home that night and read the hell out of it.

And so should you.



1972: Albert and Marc—The Magic Chauffeur and The Electric Warrior


As you probably are aware, David Bowie died this year. How could you have missed it? Everyone you know and everyone they know, apparently, were in-the-closet die-hard David Bowie aficionados. Flash back a few days to January 8, 2016, however, and hardly a soul is paying attention to the fact that Bowie has, that day, released a pretty badass album. Two days later, however, finds everyone and their postman recalling fondly how Bowie saved their lives in some fashion. In fact, if we are to believe at face value the outpouring of grief, the deluge of proclamations of lifelong loyalty to the Starman by all and sundry, then we have to also believe that a good many of these people were actually spinning their copies of Ziggy Stardust (or, if you really want to prove your Bowie’s worth, Pinups) loudly and proudly somewhere in the vicinity of January 9, 2016—the day before his death.

No. They weren’t.

So, you know, all of that Bowie woe? I call bullshit.

Of a kind.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t doubt that many, many people were sad as hell to hear of Bowie’s passing—I was one of them. And, listen, true story: I’ve been a fan since I was nine years old, when I bought my first Bowie record, that orange-labelled RCA 45-rpm of Space Oddity in 1973 that I absolutely played the shit out of. I own all of Bowie’s catalogue up through the early ‘70s. After that, he started to feel, even to my young ears, too geared towards European dance clubs. (Hey, I’m no snob; I just don’t dance). Anyway, that’s a lot of albums, and I have to confess that I might have listened to one of those, maybe, once a month, on average. Further, it’s not that I don’t listen to that kind of music any longer; I have a deep catalogue of early 1970s glam rock that would make your head spin and that does, surely, annoy my neighbours on a regular basis (come over for some Slade or The Sweet and a beer sometime). Predictably, my contemporaries are musically like-minded. Sad to say, they weren’t listening to Bowie either. Not really. Not actually. I mean, I hate to be honest—and blunt—but all this “Bowie was my idol!” stuff is yet another example of grief-bandwagoning. A celebrity dies and, all of a sudden, this person was everyone’s hero and was part and parcel of everyone’s daily lives. It’s a “Me too!” epidemic—everyone wanting to be part of the hive-mind of shared grief, as if co-opting the movements of genuine mourning gets you closer, somehow, to greatness, as if by proclaiming that _________ changed your life, you too can, somehow, brush the hem of their garment, touch the face of God.

Not me. Here’s who I was listening to the day before Bowie died. And the week after, the month before, this morning, yesterday…

Marc Holding Guitar

Who’s that? Well, if you grew up in North America in the 1970s, you might have no idea. But if you spent those years in the UK or Europe, you know exactly who that is: Marc Bolan, of the band T. Rex. Bolan was a contemporary of Bowie’s (click here for a primer on their relationship) and in the early 1970s they went toe-to-toe, in full battle for the hearts and minds of record-buying acolytes all over the UK and Europe.

Marc Bolan won. By a landslide.

I know; I was there. I contributed to that critical mass. I was one of those devotees. The fact is, Bowie didn’t have a chance; the popularity of T. Rex was a phenomenon that couldn’t be stopped. Hell, there was even a name for it: T. Rextasy. It was the biggest thing since Beatlemania—and the record sales prove it. (T. Rex, for a time, actually outsold Beatles’ sales, at their height, by a wide margin.) It’s simple, if you were a kid living anywhere near the British Isles that listened to music (and what kid didn’t back then?) anywhere between 1970 and 1977, T. Rex was, plain and simple, part of the soundtrack of your life. And your life? At the very least, your life grooved

This is why I was listening to T. Rex on January 8. And the days before and after. Because it grooves. Because it still holds up as strongly today as it did back then.

And, also, because it is just plain a lot of fun.

As corny as this surely will sound, Marc Bolan’s music was a pure celebration of life—it was the sound of a man loving life itself. Here was a small guy (he is generously listed as 5’7”) with skills on the guitar that can only be considered, at best, serviceable, and who was equipped with what can only be described as a warbling voice, but performed his music with such obvious glee and abandon that you can’t help but be completely won over when you hear it. In every nearly-got-it-right-that-time guitar riff, you can almost hear the confidence and swagger of someone who realizes that he’s in a dream and that he can do whatever he wants.

And so he does.

It’s this joy that keeps me coming back to my T. Rex albums. It is this that keeps me keeping T. Rextasy alive and well, in my slight, aging way. As the old cheesy-as-hell saying went back in T. Rextasy’s apex, Keep a little Marc in your heart. I do. Still.

During the height of T. Rextasy (say 1972), I was a young boy living in a British expat community in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. I attended private school with British and other kids from Commonwealth countries—all of us children of expat parents who worked for international industry or, like my father, for NATO. The school was situated downtown, in the middle of the old city and whilst I was driven to school every morning by my father, I was left to my own devices (my feet) to make my way home every day. It was a walk of probably a kilometer and half through the centre of the city to, finally, a large park that bordered the steep incline that was the edge of a large valley—on the side of which our flat was built into. In this park was located the United States embassy. A small mansion housed the ambassador and a small garrison of U.S. Marines.

I would look forward to walking past the embassy every day after school, not just because it heralded, finally, my approaching home, it being the last landmark of several on the long walk home—our flat was just below the embassy, down a long flight of medieval-looking stone steps along the side of a large stone outcropping. No, I looked forward to the chance that I might see Albert.

Who was Albert? Albert was the ambassador’s chauffeur. And when you think of the word ‘chauffeur’, in your mind you are unknowingly conjuring an image of Albert. Seriously, he looked as if he had just come from central casting; he wore a black uniform that looked to be tailored just for him, topped off by a perfect chauffeur’s hat. As far as what his face looked like, he reminded me of Peter Cushing in a good mood. (You know, not like he is, as Professor Van Helsing, always grumpy, always trying to kill Dracula in those awesome Hammer horror movies.) He was, probably, in his late forties, but he seemed—as people did in the 1970s and how they just naturally do to children—to be much older.

Peter Cushing 2

Peter Cushing in a good mood. (In other words, looking like Albert.)

He was friendly and kind and spoke with a mischievous lilt to his very British accent. (I never found out how or why a British man was a chauffeur for an American ambassador, nor did I wonder—everyone, it seemed, was British in our community. A revolving door of possibilities for his background played in my imagination, each more interesting and exotic than the last.) If I was lucky, I would be walking home at the same day and time that he would be washing and waxing the limousine—an item that was especially anomalous in Europe’s smallest country and appropriately populated with very small cars. This was something I always looked forward to because I would stop and talk with him. Also, he would always give me sweets. But there was one time, one day on my walk home, that was better than all the rest…

“Hiya, Steven! Alright?” Albert said, his smile lighting up his face.

“Hiya, Albert!” I returned. “Wot you doin’?” (I sported a decent English accent in those days, due to, ostensibly, being raised among British folks. Sadly, I’ve long since lost it.)

“Waxin’ up the machine, you know. You’ve skipped out on all the hard work,” Albert said with mock indignation. He thrust out his chamois cloth towards me. “Give a hand then?”

I dropped my book bag and greedily snatched the cloth from his hands. Albert always played a portable radio whilst he cleaned the limo and, at that moment, The Hollies’ Long Cool Woman was coming from the small speaker. I took the cloth and lightly buffed the ebony finish to the bouncy rhythm of the song, happily moving to the beat.

I waxed the limo for a few more minutes whilst I listened to Albert whinge about his beloved Manchester United’s continued slide down the table and, more specifically, his worries for his—and my—favourite footballer, George Best. (Albert’s misgivings where, it would turn out, not unfounded, as this old article from December 1972 illustrates.) Finally, Albert said, “I think that’s got her, Steven. The outside of her, that is.” He then walked over and did something he had never done before: he opened the limo’s door. “Its inside that could use a going over—fancy giving me a hand?”

I just stood there, silent as a shadow. Albert smiled and gestured for me to get in. “C’mon, it’s not going to clean itself.”

I peered into the interior of the gigantic car like I was looking into Aladdin’s cave.

“I’ll make you a wager, then. I clean the cab, up front here, and you clean that lot back there. Whoever’s finished first is the winner, alright then?”

I just nodded wordlessly and gingerly–and cautiously–climbed into the limousine, as if my 65 lbs. frame might damage the interior. Suddenly, I was startled by a barrage of sound. Music abruptly filled the large interior. “Let’s whistle whist we work, yeah? What you say?” yelled Albert over the sound of the limo’s stereo system. The music, previously coming out of the anemic speaker of the radio outside, filled the car like a quadrophonic symphony.

I gently pulled the cloth over the black interior to the beat of Badfinger’s Day After Day booming through the cab, the smell of the leather and old cigars wafting up with each pass of my hand and wondered about the song’s lyrics.

I remember finding out about you…

I sat on the opposite bench seat, facing the seat that, presumably, the ambassador and his wife sat on during trips out to who knows where. The limo was, surely, small compared to what even your average private school kid rents for the prom these days, but to my eyes, it was a cavernous carriage for royalty. (I thought this even though the ambassador’s wife had actually been to my house on two occasions. My mum had hosted coffee get-togethers for the wives of my father’s contemporaries. My father, like I said, worked for NATO and that, to this day, is all the explanation I have for these visits.)

I was in the middle of imagining some important trip that the ambassador had taken as I was wiping an armrest when Albert barked out behind me, “That’s me done!” He peered over the front seat, his face triumphant—and it was here, in the muted light of the interior of the limousine that I noticed the lines on Albert’s face, particularly around his eyes, and especially when he smiled—which was often. He looked old, serious, there in that light. “I win!” he bellowed like a giddy schoolboy.

“That’s not fair; I had twice the work you had, Albert!” I said.

“No whinging, my boy. You’ve lost, fair and square. And to the winner goes the spoils.”

“Right. What do I have to do—hoover the car?” I joked.

“Hmmm… not a bad idea. Not bad at all,” Albert mused with a grin. But then, abruptly, Albert’s kind face turned serious. He turned to me and said, “Steven, I’m going to ask you one question and I won’t ask it again—I promise. Answer it however you want to,” he paused for a moment to look at me. “But that’s what you have to do for losing.”

In that moment, I felt the familiar punch to the gut feeling that I often got whenever I was in trouble—which was often. I seemed to naturally do the wrong thing, no matter my efforts towards the opposite.

“Are you ready?” Albert asked.

I nodded that I was, but I’m sure that I wasn’t.

Albert looked at me as if he knew that this was as good as it was going to get with me. “Right,” he said and took a breath. “Steven, is everything all right at home? Do you…” Albert paused, seemingly fumbling for what to say, “Are you… hurt? At home?”

I knew what he was asking. I knew before he asked me anything that he would, eventually, ask. I had a bruise on my face. It happened on Friday evening, after my father had been drinking and fighting with my mum. I thought that it would have faded by now, they usually did by this time, but it didn’t. In fact, it only seemed to have gotten worse.

“Rugby. Scrum,” is what I said. And it was plausible. I played and being of only average size and not the most aggressive of players on the pitch, I often endured minor injuries. I gestured to my cheekbone. “My mate, Declan. Hard-headed, he is,” I said with a laugh.

“Right. Good. Good to know,” Albert said. His face changed back into its usual smiling visage that I knew so well and he said, “Well, I must repay your services, young man—that all looks a treat back there. A good lesson for you; never let your good work go unpaid. How ‘bout I settle our accounts with a drive home, then?”

“But, Albert, I live just down the steps!” I said, relieved to be talking about something—anything—else.

“Well, we’ll have to stretch the trip out a bit then, then.”

Just then, over the radio, came the unmistakable opening chords of Telegram Sam, by T. Rex. Its thumping backbeat groove, sparkling chords, and nonsensical lyrics bouncing all over the spacious interior.

“Oi! That’s T. Rex!” exclaimed Albert! “Love that Bolan character—don’t you? Now get comfortable back there, sir! We’re going to see what the old girl’s made of!” bubbled Albert, his ‘of’ coming off more like ‘uhv’, his northern roots showing.

T. Rex blasted through the radio, Marc Bolan’s nonsensical yet deliciously devilish lyrics filled the car with a celebratory air:

Bobby’s alright Bobby’s alright
He’s a natural born poet
He’s just outa sight
Jungle faced Jake
Jungle faced Jake
I say make no mistake
About Jungle faced Jake

Albert drove me all over Luxembourg City, driving past the town square where my parents would take me at least once a week after dinners to listen to live music performed by various travelling guest performers; we drove over the bridge that spanned the city’s famous valley; he even drove me past my school but, sadly, all of my friends were already long home. I can remember feeling, in that car, being driven by my own chauffeur, that everything was different from the view of the limousine’s window.

“Now, that was so nice, we’re going to do it twice. Here, once again, is Marc Bolan and T. Rex!” came the radio announcer’s voice right into the booming opening of Metal Guru. The limo’s speakers strained while Albert smiled and proudly drove, his head bopping to the beat.

Metal Guru, is it you? Metal Guru, is it you?
Sitting there in your armour plated chair, oh yeah…

And that’s what I felt like: strong, sitting in my armour plated chair, looking out at the world outside the limo’s window, everything at once so familiar as the town I lived in, the school I attended, and yet it looked so different here, from this window. I can remember realizing, perhaps for the first time, that things are not necessarily the way you see them. And that things can—and will—always change.

Soon—too soon—the ride was over. The radio switched over to America’s, Horse With No Name, which appropriately brought the mood in the cab down just as Albert pulled up to my parents’ flat.

“There you are, governor—home at last!” said Albert with a smile, looking back at me in a way that I’m sure he must have looked at the ambassador hundreds of times.

I didn’t know what to say to him at that moment so I just smiled and reached for the door.

“Steven?” he said.

“Yes?” I said—I had already opened the door.

“You know where I am. If you ever need… if you ever want to talk football, our man Bestie, I’m right up those steps. Go to the gate and ring the bell—you’ll be welcome. Any time. Day. Night. You’ll be let in like a proper dignitary, you will.”

I just nodded. And I think that we both knew that I understood.

I closed the door and watched the large, black vessel drive off into darkness, its red taillights carving a path into the night until, finally, I couldn’t see those lights, those beacons, any longer.

And, now, whenever I hear T. Rex—which is, as you know, is always—I remember, for the length of the song, that time in the limo. I remember being strong, I remember being safe. During those songs, those fleeting and precious three minute gifts, I am reminded of the joy of being alive—of living.


The Bolan Boogie Continues…

I should provide, I suppose, a post-script to this. As you may or may not know, Marc Bolan died in a car crash on September 16, 1977. I was living in the U.S. at this time and, being that this was the U.S. and not the UK or Europe, I don’t think I finally heard about it until I read it in a magazine, days, maybe weeks, after the fact. At that time, a local TV affiliate that ran shows from England in syndication–Space 1999, UFO, The Prisoner, and the like–also ran Marc Bolan’s then current show Marc. (Click here for an episode featuring David Bowie–Bowie and Bolan jam together at the end and Marc, portentously, falls off the stage. He would die only days after the taping of this episode.) I remember watching this last episode (the one listed here) with genuine sadness. There would be no more T. Rex records. I felt like I lost a friend.


Marc stayed in my life ever since those days as a boy living in that British expat community in Luxembourg. I bought and re-bought his records. I’ve played his songs in a variety of bands. I even got into a real deal dust up with someone in a NYC bar after they had called Bolan a ‘twee homo’ and some other unsavoury names that I won’t repeat here in response to my playing “Get it On” on the jukebox. (Hey, I was in my twenties,  I was living on the Lower East Side, in the Village, and this was the late 1980s, a pretty raucous time for the city–and I had, maybe, one or two beverages. And it was 4am. A fairly combustible combination, all in all.) Finally, Marc Bolan actually prompted the end of a serious relationship  (well, as serious as you can be at 23) thanks, in part, to my loyalty to T. Rex  in the eternal David Bowie vs T. Rex debate.


Upon driving for hours to see David Bowie perform in Vancouver, BC, in 1987, my long-term girlfriend had finally had it with me when she turned to ask me, during the show, how much I loved it. I repaid her kindness for arranging the tickets, the long drive, the actual car, the food, and the love by saying  that it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. She was moved and appreciative–until I explained that it was because I was in the same room as someone who knew Marc Bolan personally. That was it, man. That was the last fucking straw after a long line of straws. (She was a Bowie fanatic and I was… well, we know what I was.) Within the month, we broke up in pretty spectacular fashion. Needless to say, I got my T. Rex records back–in what can only be charitably described as fair-to-middling condition.


And, finally, Marc Bolan has made a more recent ‘dent’ in my life–in my pocketbook. The Gibson guitar company somehow knew that Marc Bolan freaks still exist out in the world, here and there, and that some of those freaks are serious guitar players. So, in their infinite wisdom, they decided to make 100 EXACT replicas of his old Gibson Les Paul workhorse–right down to every single dent, scratch, and, oftentimes, extreme modifications he performed on his instrument. (For example, he refinished it himself and called the colour Bolan Chablis. Then, after breaking the original neck in a rage on stage, he replaced it with, of course, the wrong neck for the guitar.)  Naturally, I had to have one. And, consequently, it’s been Marc Bolan impressions up in here for weeks now–my neighbours love me. (SEE BELOW FOR A PICTURE. There’s Marc and his guitar on the top and bottom–my middle-age weapon of geekery is in the middle.) I hate to admit it, but every time–EVERY TIME–I strap that sucker on, I feel like I’m about to take the stage at Wembley in 1972.


As ever, thanks for reading.


And keep a little Marc in your heart.


Guitar Marc'sMarc GuitarImage
























A SERIOUSLY BADASS GUEST POST: “Learn Your Parents’ Music” by Vikki Littlemore

I’m not one to re-blog someone else’s posts–let alone, someone who I don’t even know. But this was too damn good to pass up. So,  yeah, I basically just hijacked it and hit the ‘reblog’ option that it gave me at the bottom of the article.


Vikki Littlemore, I have no idea who you are, but I do know two things:


  1. Your parents are bonafide badasses.
  2. You can write!

And, readers… if  you’ve lost, even a little bit, your raison d’etre for listening to music, then stop what you’re doing and READ this article/post. Now!


You’re going to love it.


And maybe you’ll even go out and buy some Bowie, or even better, Bolan…



I grew up with a Mum that taught me about David Bowie, and Marc Bolan, and a Dad that played The Smiths in the shower as loud as the stereo would go. I spent a large portion of my childhood being physically forced to transcribe James lyrics so he could learn them for the Karaoke. There was never any question in our house about what real music was. 

I did buy the Number 1 single every week, and knew the lyrics to Take That, and The Spice Girls, because I had to fit in at school, but I always knew, at the back of my mind, that that wasn’t the real music.  The real music was what my parents played at full volume when they were getting ready to go out.  The smell of hairspray, and perfume; the twist of lipstick, and the creak of leather jackets, will always be…

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Yes, I Worked For Stanley Kubrick. And, Yes, It Was Weird and Wonderful. Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Genius.

Stanley KubrickDateline: 1988-1990, New York City – My Stanley Kubrick Years

“Wait a minute—you want what?

The voice on the other end of the phone was pure exasperation. I knew I had only moments to get him on board, to reel him back in before he got away. It had taken me numerous attempts and four transfers—all morning, really—to finally reach who I needed to talk to, so I had to act fast. Calling NASA, it turned out, wasn’t as easy as dialling a 1-800 number.

“What I need is any schematic or technical drawings that you could release for the Space Shuttle.”

“The Space Shuttle?”

“Yes, sir. The Space Shuttle.”

“Yeah… that’s what I thought you said.” Silence. Some muffled muttering. Then, finally, “And you’re calling for who?”

“Warner Bros. Pictures. From New York City. The Warner Bros. Story Department,” I said and, usually, that’s where I would leave it. But I knew I had to bring out the big gun for this one; I was asking for a lot and knew that, without it, I was going to be hanging up the phone with nothing but feathers in my hand. I put the bullet in the chamber, cocked that sucker, pulled the trigger:

“On the behalf of Stanley Kubrick.”

“Kubrick? Stanley Kubrick? You mean, 2001: A Space OdysseyThat Kubrick?”

“The very same, sir.”

“Hang on…”

And so it went. Another voice came on the line, then another. I was presumably working my way up the NASA ladder with each bewildered response. Finally, I got to whoever was in charge.

“You have to understand that this is a highly unusual request.”

I told him that I completely understood and thought to myself how not unusual this request, this task, was for me. Tracking down odd or, for that matter, completely normal, entirely banal things for the obsessive Stanley Kubrick was just what I did. For me, this was just another Wednesday.

Finally, I asked that he call me back through the main Warners switchboard so that he could, after the myriad transfers for my office, confirm my identity. Beyond that, I couldn’t verify or explain my boss’s motivations. This was 1988—a time before email, cell phones, caller-ID—I mean, ‘tracing’ phone calls was still a convention in crime dramas. (After minutes of furious, brow sweating tracing they would always just miss the trace; the bad guy would always hang up too soon, the techno-wiz tracer would just return the phone to its cradle, shaking his head in disappointment, wearing an expression that said, I failed you—I’m sorry! Remember that?)

“So is Kubrick making another space movie?” the final voice said when he called back.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you that, sir,” I said.

“Oh, I understand,” he said, almost apologetically. “It’s a secret. A movie secret, then?”

“Yes,” I said. “Something like that.”

It was true; I couldn’t tell him. No one could. None of us, including my bosses, ever had any idea of what Kubrick was up to—or if, indeed, he was up to anything at all. And, ironically, it was me who would be the closest to the information than anyone; I was the one that took his requests, that tracked down the bounty.

A popular theory in the office—and one that I felt that I was actually a part of, that I was living out—was that Kubrick was just playing a long con of subterfuge-laden misdirection to draw off the fact that he was sitting around in his large estate in Hertfordshire, England working on… well, nothing. The list of items that I had to send him were baffling and bewildering; they seemed to point to no actual project at all. He either was burying what he was really working on amongst a whole bunch of other intellectual ‘noise’ or he was just toying with us—me in particular.

Here’s just a sample from one week’s requests:

  • All National Lampoon magazine back issues between the years of 1975-1988
  • All and any research articles on death and dying, with particular emphasis on work by renowned researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
  • Countless articles on The Holocaust, with a particular focus on Polish populations
  • Every single copy of any book that renowned crime author Jim Thompson that I could find (keep reading to learn how this still affects me to this day)
  • A mixture of pulp science fiction novels from the 1950s—my choice
  • A box of pencils, specifically Dixon-Ticonderoga, #2 

Could you figure out what he was working on? A satirical Holocaust movie involving a hardboiled detective?  Set in space? And then everyone dies in the end?


Pretty Much How I Felt Every Day Working for Kubrick: Mildly Panicked But on a Great Adventure

“Where were you?” It was the first thing my girlfriend said to me when I walked in the door.

“Working,” I said and threw my coat on the chair in the microscopic area that passed for a kitchen. Yeah, it was a ‘loft’, in midtown New York City, but spacious digs befitting Mad Men’s Don Draper this was not.

“You were at work until now?” She said it like she had me right where she wanted me. “You weren’t at fucking work; I called—you weren’t there.”

Shit. Here we go…

“I was in Brooklyn, at a library branch out by the arboretum. The Leonard Branch.”

“What the fuck were you out in fucking Brooklyn for? We have about a million branches here in Manhattan.”

“I was in fucking Brooklyn getting books for fucking Kubrick—they’re right fucking there,” I said, pointing at the bag full of books. “Jeezuz, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”

“FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE!” she barked at me. “I’m going out. I’ll be back later. Have fun with your boyfriend Kubrick.” And with that, she took her coat and went out. She stumbled through the door somewhere around 4:30 a.m.. My girlfriend kept her promises. Mostly.

Look, it was, pretty much, common knowledge that my girlfriend was having an affair. It was kind of like a dripping faucet or a running toilet—we both heard it, we both knew it was there, but if we threw enough noise at it—the TV, fights about anything but the faucet and the toilet, sex—well, it was like it didn’t exist.

She had started to take classes at Hunter College and had, almost immediately, found herself at odds with my New York University education, my job, my ambitions to be a writer—probably because she wanted to be a writer too. Her first job in the city was at the Ford Modelling Agency. While I encouraged her and tried to help however I could, she was desperate to be taken seriously. Anyway, she immediately made “connections” with a few people at Hunter. Men, naturally. They were, invariably, described as being fans of her work, of her writing.

It’s possible.

All I know is that they would show up to pick her up for class and, each and every time, they would be visibly surprised to see me at our door. What can I say? I was in my early twenties, lived in New York City, and worked for a major film studio as an assistant to a director whose movies I had grown up with. What did I know? I just thought this was the kind of shit that happened on the regular when you were growing up, becoming an adult. What actually bothered me more than anything was the low hanging fruit nature of it all, the lack of discernment on her part—I just felt that if she were going to be with someone else, it should be with someone better. Obviously, we had our problems.

I went down the street, ordered Chinese take-away, came back. I sat with my cold sesame noodle and black bean chicken and popped in a Star Trek episode on VHS and thought about it all: this apartment here in midtown, smack in the middle of Park and Madison Avenues, the Empire State Building towering above us; the way we were riding out our year’s lease, that lease the only thing keeping me and my girlfriend together at this point. Well, that, and maybe spite. I thought about this and watched Star Trek, ate Chinese food out of the containers. It was the one with Kirk going toe-to-toe with the Gorn, that giant lizard/man thing on that asteroid. I loved that episode.

Later, after equilibrium was reinstated to a chaotic universe by a righteous Captain Kirk, I went to the kitchen and looked at the books. They sat there, lifeless, ignorant of the trouble they had caused me. Old 1950s science fiction books from authors like Alfred Bester surrounded by as much Jim Thompson crime writing as I could get my hands on in the past few days and at six different library branches. I held those pulp novels, crime and science fiction of a different era, in my hands. I wondered about the trip those books would take—on a plane, across the Atlantic finally to an estate in the English countryside. Kubrick would receive my package—just like he had all the other packages—and he would look at what I gathered for him. He wouldn’t know (or care) about my girlfriend’s affair or the fact that I was late and the fact that I was out of communication for the afternoon would be evidence enough for my girlfriend that I was, in fact, not gathering books, but somewhere knocking boots with a less lovely on the outside but more lovely on the inside woman, maybe one of my NYU pals, some girl who I stole nervous and forbidden glances with across screening rooms or editing tables. What, I wondered, were Kubrick’s troubles, there in England. What conversations echoed off of his, surely, cavernous kitchen? More than anything, at that moment, I wanted to be one of those books.

I worked for Kubrick for another year. And my girlfriend and I spent that year in a low hum of agreement—to keep it together enough to keep our lease. We both needed to be in the city, she needed to learn to write, I needed to send things to Kubrick, we both needed a place to live.

And so I kept on sending Kubrick packages. Books, magazines, stationary, articles, research items—you name it. And, while I am here, I should note that I never—not once—even entertained the thought of sending Kubrick anything of mine, anything I wrote. Here I was, an aspiring writer—a screenwriter, no less—with a direct line to one of cinema’s most influential director/producers and a legendary writer himself. But I never sent him anything. It never occurred to me. This ability to keep completely on my side of the velvet rope probably led to him, finally, offering me a job with him and his assistant Tony Frewin there in England. As luck would have it, however, I was simultaneously offered a job to work for Warner Bros. in Burbank—they paid to finish my NYU thesis film and set me up with the opportunity to go to Hollywood. I weighed the options and, probably because I was twenty-something and full of misguided ideas that young twenty-something hotshots that had some idea of where to put a camera and how to write a scene or two would be on their way to being household names—and some were. Just not me.

I’ll cut to the chase: I was an idiot; I turned down Kubrick’s offer and took Warner Bros.’ instead. Soon, I was moving to Burbank.

My girlfriend and me? She actually beat me to L.A., moving there months before me and immersing herself in the dodgy and shaky world of musicians, writers, the strip, a number of people perpetually on the brink of their big break… in other words, she lived like a character in a budget Tarantino movie. We continued our Sid and Nancy dynamic for a while until, finally, I lost her to the parties in the Hollywood hills, drug abuse and, worst of all, for me, terrible writing. Let’s just say she found herself relying on her Ford Modelling experience more than any skills she might have picked up in her writing workshops at Hunter College.

Kubrick, by the way, never returned anything to me—even the things that were mine, that were sent with the clear understanding that they were for loan. He just kept every single thing I sent him. So, consequently, he never returned all of those pulp books I had gathered that week, for example—those books that I had checked out, under my name, from the New York Public Library. Consequently, I have been—and remain—banned from their system. I ended up owing a comically large amount of money for both the late fees and then, finally, the books themselves. (I never paid them a cent. Not so much on principal but due to the fact that this was a lot of money.) I’m pretty sure I would set off an alarm the moment I set foot in any of their branches to this day. (Recently, I screened a documentary about Kubrick’s collection of ‘stuff’—MY stuff, partly—called Boxes. It was brilliant—and enlightening. I could have sworn that I saw some of my things in that collection. Click Here to watch it.)

Later, as the years spooled out, Kubrick made two movies that I recognized my handiwork in—well, let’s say a movie and half: Eyes Wide Shut, directed by Kubrick himself, and AI which he couldn’t complete due to his passing. Also his work on The Aryan Papers is something I recognize from my parcels.

For example, I remember sending an enormous amount of research materials on the Nazi regime and The Holocaust, volumes of relationship research, the effects of infidelity on marriages, and all sorts of cutting edge research on burgeoning technologies in robotics and artificial intelligence. Many of these were in the same parcels, so it was impossible to make any connection. But now I know.

Stanley Kubrick is, of course, not with us anymore, but he still is with me. Because I learned more from those parcels I packed for him than he could ever know. With every box came a week’s worth of work, of sleuthing, and then of examining those items, finally, holding them in my hands. How are these things going to come together to make a story? I would wonder as I laid out the items in front of me, preparing them for their journey across an ocean. I knew from watching Kubrick’s movies that it was all in the details—the world building. In between the lines of those research articles I gathered, those books long forgotten by most, the details in the photographs—all of these things that I would soon send away—were meant to build worlds, worlds for living breathing characters to inhabit. It was those deep-focus worlds that he would present to us that would frame, would cradle the living breathing stories that played out before us. It was those perfectly, geometrically composed worlds that gave those characters living, breathing, life.

How do these things come together to make a story?

It’s something I wonder every single day.

Thank you, Stanley, for the lessons. It was scary as hell. And it was a blast.


Don’t worry about the books.


Kubrick Yellow Typewriter