New York City, 1978-9.
That was the year I lived in a crappy little apartment on the Lower West Side, and when the police blocked off Broadway during the early afternoon of December 31, I decided to wander down to Times Square to see what all the hoo-ha was about.
I had fun for the first few hours, strolling down the center of the wide streets which normally held thousands of cars, trucks and buses. After The Big Apple's 24/7 hustle-bustle, it was strangely peaceful.
But at 6PM, when the number of people began to climb into six figures, the newcomers pushed us early arrivals into a compacted mass, and we were all helpless to move. The center of the mob was so tightly packed that I could lift up my feet and be swept along by the human currents.
Everybody was drunk... and when people drink, they eventually need to pee. So you can imagine what happened when those folks couldn't get to a toilet. By 11PM, the stench of urine rising from the street was overpowering.
That's when the gangs with bicycle chains began to show up. They had no problem cutting swaths through the crowd, because everyone was desperate to avoid the slashed faces and hands they left in their wake.
The ball drop at midnight was anticlimactic. We all just wanted to go home and lick our wounds, but we couldn't even begin to move until after 1AM.
According to native New Yorkers, my adventure was not atypical at all, but I've never been able to find any trace of what I experienced on Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve...
The Turn Of A Friendly Card. Rock music for grownups. [video] Later, The Alan Parsons Project hooked me for good when they released a tribute album to the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí was probably best known for his irregular, fantastically intricate, uniquely weird (and yes, somewhat hallucinatory) basilica, La Sagrada Família, still under construction in Barcelona.
1) There are unsmiling faces and bright plastic chains
And a wheel in perpetual motion
And they follow the races and pay out the gains
With no show of an outward emotion
And they think it will make their lives easier
For God knows up 'til now it's been hard
But the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No, the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
There's a sign in the desert that lies to the west
Where you can't tell the night from the sunrise
And not all the king's horses and all the king's men
Have prevented the fall of the unwise
For they think it will make their lives easier
And God knows up 'til now it's been hard
But the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No, the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
But a pilgrim must follow in search of a shrine
As he enters inside the cathedral...
2) There are unsmiling faces in fetters and chains
On a wheel in perpetual motion
Who belong to all races and answer all names
With no show of an outward emotion
And they think it will make their lives easier
But the doorway before them is barred
And the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card
No, the game never ends when your whole world depends
On the turn of a friendly card.
Bi-Coastal. Written by Peter Allen, David Foster, Tom Keane; from The Very Best of Peter Allen:
You used to live in New York City
Then you moved to L.A.
But you still miss the streets
Where you used to play
So you hurry on back there
Even leave your pool and your car
Only to find you no longer belong
Fool, don't you know what you are?
Hit the streets at midnight
Still dancing after dawn
But something seems to be missing
Just what are you running from?
Do you like your love in the dark
Or laid out in the sun
When you just can't make up your mind
Don't you know what you've become?
Miss the natural speed of the city
California's fine if you're pretty
You can always hear me singing
Oh, say can you see?
From the towers of Manhattan
To the hills of Beverly
All those girls in TV movies
All those boys on Broadway
When you can't make up your mind
You know you'd go either way
Miss the natural speed of the city
California's fine if you're pretty
When both are so much fun
Why do you have to pick... one?
It's been a long time since I lived in a radio market that could support a full-time dance music station. So I was pretty excited to discover KNRJ... and when I'm bopping around town, they usually provide the soundtrack.
A few weeks ago, they played a great track called "Lazy," and the lead vocalist sounded a lot like David Byrne (Talking Heads). I immediately hinted to my lovely wife that this recording would make a cool Christmas present for moi.
After quite a bit of research, Anikó found the song on Muzikizum, an X-Press 2 album. Sure enough, Byrne was the singer. She also dug up the video and lyrics, along with a interview quote from DB himself: "I love the contradiction of a pumpin' dance track that's called 'Lazy.'"
[...] There's some folks they got money and some folks' lives are sweet
Some folks make decisions and some folks clean the street
Now, imagine what it feels like, imagine how it sounds
Imagine life is perfect and everything works out
No tears are falling from my eyes
I'm keeping all the pain inside
Now don't you wanna live with me?
I'm lazy as a man can be
Ohh, I'm wicked and I'm lazy
Ohh, don't you wanna save me?
Imagine there's a girlfriend, imagine there's a job
Imagine there's an answer, imagine there's a God [...]
Hard men, hard lives, hard keepin' it all inside
Good times, Good God, I'm so lazy I almost stop
You Are Sleeping. WARNING: X-rated. I recently heard this weird little flash piece on--of all places--a trance/dance CD. "You Are Sleeping" is credited to Prince Quick Mix (Manuel Napuri, PQM's Deep Head Pass Mix), track 5 (7:49) on the first disc of Essential Mix:
You pick up this working girl who's hooked on smack, who hustles and scores.
"That's all I do," she says. She says, "Ten bucks for head, fifteen for half and half."
She says, "Three hits a day at thirty-five per."
You say, "That's seven tricks a day, at least."
But she says, "Sometimes I get lucky. Once this guy gives me a bill and a half, just to eat me. Only time I ever came."
You figure you can save her.
You sell your color TV; it keeps her off the streets a whole day.
You hock your typewriter for one jolt.
Then your shotgun, your watch.
A week later, you say, "Listen, I'm a little short."
But she says, "No scratch, no snatch."
You say, "Look, it is better to give."
But she says, "Beat off, creep."
One night they spot you on the street in your skivvies, trying to sell your shoes.
You tell them who you are, but they nail you.
Then she happens by and she says, "Christ, you look fucked." She says, "Hang tough!"
But you don't say anything.
You just think, "What a bum rap for a nice sensitive guy like me."
"Good people, please help me."
This 131-word nonfiction, my first publication in English, was selected from over 700 submissions as one of 54 pieces to appear in the First Annual Ultra-Short edition of The Binnacle Literary & Arts Magazine:
The old one's call drew me away from the usual path between my schoolyard and our flat. At the next corner, she was lying on the cobblestones between two wooden-spoked wheels.
"Good people, please help me."
Her quavering voice had mesmerized a small group of townsfolk, who watched silently in a half-circle next to the farmer's overloaded wagon.
"Good people, please help me."
The words grew fainter with each repetition. Perhaps her gasping was caused by the imprint of the horse's hoof, stamped deep into her stomach. Or maybe it was the furrow left by one of the metal-rimmed wheels, crushing her chest to within a few centimeters of the street underneath.
Now her desperately wandering gaze finds my eyes, and she whispers: "Good people, please help me."
But nobody does.
NB: when I first submitted this material, to another editor, she agreed to publish it only if the last line was changed to "But nobody has a gun." Alan advised me to pass. I'm glad he did.
Vengeance On The Danube. Alan and I co-wrote our first screenplay via eMail, two years before we met face-to-face. Later, he turned the opening scene into a flash piece that was published on three continents:
The modern city formed by the ancient towns of Buda, Obuda and Pest basks in a riot of color - many leaves are flaunting their autumn tints in the warm afternoon sunshine. The majestic Danube flows through the midst of this glittering metropolis, with its historic bridges linking together millions of souls into a sophisticated city known as "The Paris Of The East."
A sleek cigarette boat drifts offshore, through the sparsely-inhabited outlying precincts of Budapest. It's a lovely day to be on the river... for some people.
Resting on a narrow ledge at the end of this streamlined craft lies an anchor, partly hanging over the water. A four-meter chain attaches the anchor to a human ankle, encased in a bright orange hazmat isolation suit. From behind the suit's protective Plexiglas mask, a terrified face peers out, eyes desperately straining to look downward.
Below, the hand of a burly man is poised on the plunger of a syringe, leading into the suit's oxygen supply line.
István lounges negligently on his deck chair, a short distance away. His friends might give him the nickname Pista, but he has no friends. Therefore, he encourages his 'business associates' to use that moniker. Zoltán, one of these unlucky few, stands beside him, nervously pointing an automatic weapon at the hazmat suit, and awkwardly clearing his throat. "Pista, isn't this a little harsh?"
"He betrayed the cause."
"I suppose it's not connected to his flirtation with Zsuzsi?"
Pista allows himself a nasty chuckle. "Perhaps just a tiny bit."
"But he's been a good friend to us. I'm sure he's very sorry." The face behind the Plexiglas nods vigorously.
"He's been a good friend to you, Zoltán. Are you offering to take his place?"
"Then do it." Pista signals to the burly man, who eagerly pushes the plunger. A muted wail emanates from the suit, and the face behind the mask looks down, incredulous. Pista checks his watch, muttering wearily, "Besides, we needed to test this sample, to see if it's worth the money. They said to expect a few nerve spasms."
The hazmat suit begins to twitch uncontrollably. In a few moments, the suit is jerking ghoulishly across the small ledge. Delighted, Pista claps his hands, as if keeping time with a gypsy dance. "Ho-pa! Clap with me!"
The burly man starts to clap, but Zoltán turns away, disgusted. The hazmat suit tumbles off the ledge and splashes into the river. Pista promptly loses interest. "His waltzing days are finished. Let's go."
The speedboat's driver pushes the throttle forward. As the launch streaks away, the floating, twitching hazmat suit drags the anchor off the back ledge, submerging the suit almost instantly.
The Last Lesson.
When my brother and I were small, my father insisted that we call him by his first name, "Chet," rather than "Dad." As we grew older, he sometimes referred to himself as "watashi." That sounded like a weird Indian name, so Chris and I turned it into a taunt, calling him "Ol' Watashee" whenever he pissed us off. But it never had the desired effect... he always laughed.
A few years after Chet died, I overheard an elevator conversation in Japanese, and one of the men used the word "watashi." When I asked what it meant, he said it was the personal pronoun, "I." Suddenly, the pieces of a puzzle came crashing together: Chet had spent some years in Japan before he got married, and I'm sure he loved it when his rebellious sons unwittingly identified themselves so closely with him.
I think about the old sonofagun quite a bit, this time of year.
[I sent the piece below to the Soaring Society of America, and they published it in January 1999.]
The mountains all around Tehachapi were booming.
It was early spring, and the sun was warming the large rocks and empty hillside fields so hot that the air shimmered. The heat waves rose and merged into columns of heated air. Some of those twisting columns were wasted in dust devils, mini-tornadoes of no particular threat except to scare the cows. But much of the rising air combined into large, swirling circles which were too diffuse to have the destructive energy of a tornado, but their lifting energy was awesome.
The glider pilots called the large circles "thermals," and those air columns were the ticket to a unique soaring experience. If a lightweight aircraft maneuvered into one of the thermals, it signaled the beginning of an elevator ride of perhaps several thousand feet - an acceleration so strong and sudden in its "lift" that the physical experience of flying a glider into a vigorous thermal was much like getting kicked in the seat of the pants.
So, to a pilot familiar with the air conditions, the hills were booming with lift. It was everywhere! The smiles on returning weather-beaten faces were testimony to the fact that it was one of those days when "you can't fall out of the sky!" The current wisdom was that lift existed wherever you looked - just hire a tow plane to haul your gossamer wings to a thousand feet or so, and you could ride all afternoon!
This was good news to me. I had only recently re-entered the sport of soaring after a two-year layoff, and it would be a game of chance for me to keep my rented glider up in the sky. My skills were still rusty, and I knew my rides would certainly be very short without the booming conditions. Hell, my flights might be short in any case...
I had just graduated into a hot German fiberglass glider from the two-place, American Schweizer fabric-covered training glider, much as someone would take tentative hair-raising spins in a sleek, manual-shift Porsche after learning to drive in a beat-up old Ford automatic. I was torn - I longed for the high performance of the German aircraft but I also wanted the easy familiarity of a Schweizer.
My supervising instructor recommended a compromise for my day's flying: I had demonstrated adequate proficiency in the German glider - enough to give him the confidence to let me take out a single-place Schweizer. There was no back seat holding an instructor to correct my errors, but he didn't feel that I would make any dangerous mistakes: "The worst you can do is miss a thermal, embarrass yourself, and glide back down in twenty minutes! But I'd like to see you stay up for an hour or more, if you can."
So I hooked the nose of the Schweizer 1-26 to a two-hundred-foot tow rope, and concentrated on staying behind the tow plane while it turned and climbed its way up to a particularly popular spot over one of the nearest peaks. I was excited to be flying a new aircraft - and it was my first experience of "teaching myself."
Since only one person could fit into this glider, the accepted method of instruction was to first take the prospective single-place pilot out in a two-place sailplane with difficult flight handling characteristics. If everything went well, it was then assumed that the pilot had the ability to teach himself how to fly a more forgiving single-place glider.
On the way up, I was still immersed in the process of getting familiar with the 1-26, and I just barely noticed the dozen or so other gliders circling around the mountain. The all tried to stay in a rising column of air that couldn't be seen - it could only be felt in the momentary rising of a wingtip, or, if they really had it pegged, they would feel that satisfying "kick" in the seat of their pants. I did notice that some of the pilots were doing very well - they flew in the same general area as several hawks. Since hawks are born to soar, by moving from one thermal to another with undetectable adjustments in their seemingly-stationary outstretched wings, if those pilots could fly near the hawks, they were piloting admirably.
Finally, it was time to release from the tow plane, and to test my new acquaintanceship with the 1-26. Would I be able to stay up for more than twenty minutes? I was excited to find out.
Thunk! I watched the once-taut tow rope recoil like a folding accordion, to gracefully trail behind the tow plane, now descending to the left. It was time to get busy, and to make the climbing right turn which insured that I would fly well away from the tow plane's path.
There! I sense a slight nudge on the control stick - it feels like somebody else is trying to take control of the Schweizer, but I know it's just the power of a thermal announcing itself, by pushing up on one of my wingtips. But which one? It's gone now - I pull the 1-26 into a tight, steep circle to search for that elusive nudge. And there it is again! Right away, I get the kick in the seat of my pants that indicates the strongest part of the lift. Whoopee! This is fun! And I gain five hundred feet of altitude during the circle! I've got to keep it up - if I can stay in this thermal, I'll put several thousand feet of altitude in my bank, to squander later when I go looking for other lift.
Abruptly, it disappears - there's a sinking feeling in my seat cushion, and a similar drop in the pit of my stomach. Instructors can teach certain patterns to fly, in order to stay in the concentrated part of a thermal, but when it comes right down to it, you almost have to have a sixth sense to keep your glider in a high-energy thermal for very long. And obviously my lift-seeking sixth sense was not operating very well today. I mentally kicked myself - "I can do better than this... my father taught me to do better than this."
Oh, no. That idea caught me by surprise - I hadn't thought much about my first instructor, my dad, in months. And to be thinking about him now... when I was flying the glider that he so dearly loved to fly while he was alive... it was too much. My eyes filled with tears, and I turned the 1-26 back toward the airport. Well, it wasn't such a bad flight - at least I kept it in the air longer than twenty minutes.
Then I flew into the second thermal, and I distinctly heard my first instructor's voice from the back seat, "Turn left. Hard left." Automatically, my right hand swung the 1-26 into a steep left turn. You don't question your instructor's command - you just do it.
Sure enough, the kick in the seat of my pants tells me we've flown into the liveliest part of a dynamic thermal. Wahoo! According to the instruments, we're going up at the rate of a thousand feet per minute. But it's hard work to keep this one pegged - we're slipping in and out of the strong lift, and it's taking all my concentration to fly an unfamiliar aircraft in this wild, powerful thermal that's quickly becoming a bucking bronco! I hope the instructor in the back won't notice. "C'mon - work it harder," again from the back seat. Damn. He's noticing. I shut out everything except feeling the 1-26, and checking the sky for other gliders. The 1-26 and I merge into one entity - we fuse at the control stick, and we have the flight of our lives.
When I could spare the time to check my watch, I noticed that we had gained five thousand feet in the last six minutes. The thermal was finally topping out and getting easier to fly. I turned back over my shoulder to thank my instructor for the encouragement... and suddenly remembered that I was flying a single-place glider.
I was dumbfounded. I knew someone had helped me - in fact, I remembered recognizing that voice from somewhere...
But it couldn't be... he died two years ago...
When I looked out toward the high right wing, still tilted up in a left turn to stay in the thermal, I saw a hawk eyeing me curiously and hanging in the sky, just a foot or so in front of my wingtip.
He honored me with his company for three full circles.
Update: The story is now in a book. Also: Chester Alton Baird (3 Jun 1929 - 2 Aug 1987) and When I was seventeen, it was a very good year... and Day 21,246.
Achmed's Book. Several years ago, I coauthored a book that turned out to be a dismal commercial failure and resounding critical flop. Then, in January 2004, I wrote a short essay about the experience for Corporate Mofo:
Five days a week, I show my identification badge to Achmed, our building's lead security guard. He always peers at it for a very long time. Achmed takes his job quite seriously. He knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he's our last line of defense against terrorist bombers. When I walk down the hall to my bank of elevators, I can feel Achmed's mistrustful eyes following me.
Then--DING!--I step inside the first door that opens, and tap my knuckle against 41.
Achmed is a short, strutting man who originally came from Pakistan. He used to wear a toupee. Some toupees look reasonably okay, but not Achmed's.
I usually walk past Achmed a couple of times each day, because I need to escape from my workplace. That 41st-floor bullpen can become quite the pressure cooker. Plus, our building's plaza contains a lovely garden, with flowers, waterfalls, trees, fountains, and a stabile by Alexander Calder. You can see this sculpture in Pretty Woman, right outside Jason Alexander's office building. It looks like a giant orange spider.
Achmed observes my daily comings and goings with great suspicion.
The lobby of our building contains a rack, offering free newspapers. These publications are composed mainly of advertisements, and nobody ever reads them.
About a year ago, one of these newspapers decided to do a piece on my wildly unsuccessful attempts to moonlight as an author. They dispatched a photographer, who took many pictures of me in front of the orange spider.
Achmed's skeptical nose was pressed up against the glass, looking out from inside his lobby. Terrorists have been known to hide bombs in camera-like contraptions.
After months of nervous waiting, the article and photo were finally published. I collected thirteen copies of the newspaper, in a pathetically misguided effort to impress friends, family and co-workers.
Achmed collected one copy. He was supposedly in the middle of writing a book, and wanted to better understand the promotional process.
When that article appeared, Achmed stopped wearing his toupee and became my best friend.
Achmed now enjoys discussing story arcs and character development, but I've never believed his book actually existed. Yesterday, however, he proudly showed me a brand new three-ring binder, containing four hundred pages of single-spaced typing. His first page recounted, in mind-numbing prose, the hopeless boredom of a typical security guard's day.
The narrative went downhill from there.
I never thought I would be able to say something like this, but Achmed's book is even worse than mine.
And now he wants me to convince the newspaper to take HIS photo.
Note: That in-your-face pose shown above was suggested by the newspaper's freelance photographer, local legend Gary Leonard. I said, "Your editor will never use it." He shot back, "You'd be surprised."
Sziasztok. My patootie is nearly frozen off, coz it's so *&^%$#@! COLD here in Scottsdale. That's why this ACB piece appears here today. It was first published in the February 2004 issue of The Edward Society:
"Sziasztok" is one of the few words I know in Magyar. When my wife's twentysomething children visited us from Budapest last summer, they often used this group greeting, roughly equivalent to "Howdy, y'all!"
Anita and Jenő desperately wanted to see Las Vegas, even though August at our home in L.A. was pretty darn hot. The Nevada deserts, of course, were even warmer: Hoover Dam's outdoor thermometer registered 136°F in the shade. My stepkids loved the inhuman heat and their mom, Anikó, ate it up with a spoon. I was usually dazed by the scorching weather, but I'm pretty sure I referred to all of them as "crazy Hungarians" more than once.
This summer, after my lovely bride suggested a trip to Death Valley, I began to detect a pattern. Much like swallows returning to Capistrano, Hungarians seem to have an inbred need to experience blistering heat at certain times of the year. When I hinted this might be the early warning sign of a severe genetic flaw, Anikó simply packed more beers into the cooler.
Lone Pine was our staging area. In the shadow of 14,491-foot Mt. Whitney (highest spot in the continental U.S.), we sipped our brewskis at sunset and watched four separate storms, each hurling thunderbolts and torrential rain onto the trackless waste just south of us. I shuddered while recalling some of the place names on our map: Desolation Canyon, Funeral Mountain, Devil's Cornfield, Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek. I was convinced we were heading into the maw of hell.
Much to my surprise, we survived the first day. In fact, we enjoyed a late-afternoon beer at the Forty Niner Cafe, a funky bistro in the middle of nowhere. They served up ice-cold Mojave Red, a tasty brew created by the same folks who make Sidewinder Missile Ale and Lobotomy Bock.
But during our sundown trek in the superheated air to nearby Zabriskie Point, it seemed strange that the other tourists used only foreign languages while gasping for breath. We heard no words in English, not even discouraging ones. I seriously considered revising my Hungarian Heat-Gene Theory to include several other nationalities.
The ground temperature never cooled down that night, so our shoes still stuck to the pavement the next morning, when we emerged from the car after a couple hours of driving. "Badwater," I read aloud from our guidebook. "At 282 feet below sea level, this salt flat is the lowest point in the western hemisphere." Despite the sheer cliff next to the road, there was no echo. The shimmering heat had sucked the words right out of my mouth.
We walked down the ramp in front of our car, onto a small wharf with ropes and posts, which steered visitors over to a solid part of the salty white ground. Anikó and I squinted at each other, feeling like explorers on the first expedition to a distant planet. We hadn't seen another soul on the road for nearly an hour, and the nearest stop was Dante's View, one mile straight up. But then, just as we started back to the ramp, another car pulled into the tiny parking lot. A young couple got out, and the guy glanced at our rear bumper, with its two oval country stickers: "USA" and "H." When we passed him, he greeted us with a casual "Sziasztok."
Of COURSE he was Hungarian. It made perfect sense to me. And I still believe this bizarre heat-seeking behavior involves some sort of genetic imperative.
See also: Trans-Danubia Notebook I (II, III), Recipe: Meggy leves, Recipe: Sajtos Rud, Dirty Words. Monty Python's Hungarian Phrasebook sketch, Anikó & Kate, Azért is..!
Short Takes (7): Texting 4 Godot.
the shortest play ever written by acb:
Short Takes (6): Quick Fiction.
HARRY ZIMM (Gene Hackman): I once asked this literary agent what kind of writing paid the best. He said, "Ransom notes."
I once entered "The Ransom Note" in Quick Fiction magazine's Letter To Santa Contest (12/2002). They gave it an honorable mention... (scroll down)
Short Takes (5): the-phone-book.com.
This Manchester-based eZine used to buy very short stories and make them available via web and wap (wireless access protocol, for mobile phones). They paid 25 pence/word for <150 words, 35 p/word for <50 words, and 50 p/word for <150 characters. Using that system, 110 words = £27.50 = $53.68, 41 words = £14.35 = $28.01, and 24 words = £12 = $23.42 (length of the three ACB pieces below).
FYI, it's nearly impossible to cash a pound-sterling cheque here in America. ;-)
Rewrites (750Kb) and Forsaken (401Kb) were also produced as spoken-word recordings (download free Basic Player), and Forsaken was later named as one of the 50 best (out of 935 stories).
There's always at least one smarmy bootlicking word attempting to hide behind a larger pivotal phrase, in hopes of avoiding your red pencil. You'll normally catch him on the first or second pass. Then you can deal with the swaggering varsity jock words who enjoy hanging out together in the back, lazily teasing the cheerleaders. You've got to break them up, of course, just to keep the peace. Finally, some quiet and thoughtful words might be laboring diligently by themselves over in a corner, trying to save everything else from going straight down the crapper. That's when it becomes crucial to heed their muffled whimpering: "A little help over here...?"
Birth certificate, high school diploma, military discharge, marriage license, obituary: the old woman mechanically shuffles her precious stack of papers again and again, almost as if sorting them into the correct order will provide the magic combination that brings him back.
Another Man's Wife (6/02)
Her shy nipple ripens into a succulent raspberry between my lips. Later, when she moans his name, I try to pretend she means me.
Short Takes (4): magazine minima. Micro fiction and art. This piece was published in Issue 0.3, on the first anniversary of 9/11:
the tenth of september by alan c. baird
From the observation deck, Lady Liberty looked like a child's toy: so close, you could almost caress her with casually-outstretched fingers. By reaching with your other hand, it seemed nearly possible to touch the huge bridge spanning Verrazano's narrows.
NB: this piece originally ended with "Damn, that was a great view." But then the editor said, "Less is more."
Short Takes (3): really small talk. Once upon a time, there was a cool eZine in New York City that published tiny stories about the Big Apple...
Hack (by yours truly, 10/03)
The dispatcher in Hell's Kitchen assigns you a scummy taxicab at 4pm sharp, and you flash crosstown to catch the Mad Ave commuters. One fare wants 84th and Third, then it's down to the Bowery with an adventurous socialite. Up to Columbus Circle with a Met baritone. Across the park with a perfumed matron in the front seat who's so horny she tries to jump YOU.
After a few theater runs, you flip the Off Duty sign for lunch and remember how broke you were on that first day, six months ago. In fact, you had to sell a pint of blood just to buy a map.
The rest of the night is hair-raising, as usual.
You drop off the cab at 4am to grab some breakfast.
You swear you'll write about all this shit.
Short Takes (2): fifty word fiction. The idea behind this British publication was to tell a story in 50 words or less (3 pieces by moi, 6/02):
Double Bill Matinée
Drinks. Popcorn. Comfy seat in the dark. Crazed groundskeeper chases a wacky gopher around the golf course; hijinks ensue. End credits. Piss break. More comfy drinks and popcorn. Comical camp counselor teaches wacky kids about life; hijinks ensue. End credits. BLINDING SUNLIGHT.
Three Little Words
We'd been childhood sweethearts, inseparable since the age of seven, and our relationship was the envy of all our friends. Consequently, after seeing the photographs of those erotic escapades during her 'business' trip to Cannes, it was difficult--but not impossible--for me to say: "Kiss my butt."
This was becoming an obsession, to put it mildly: he began to wonder if treasured memories and peak experiences could be alchemistically distilled into fifty words. Might it be possible to shoehorn an entire life's story into one of those tiny little boxes?
The answer, of course, was no.
Short Takes (1): Stories in a Bottle. In November 2002, the editor of Locus Novus (Faruk Ulay), designed the interactive visuals and sound effects for these six micro stories (I particularly enjoyed the moving red comma he put into #2):
Happy Chanukkah! The festival of lights begins at sundown today... and this site contains a charming little animation, showing how to light the menorah!
craigslist: digital commons. The Phoenix branch of this free-classified-ads site launched in 2002, and the Budapest version opened last summer. FYI, founder Craig Newmark was named one of "the world's most influential people" in the 2005 Time 100.
craigslist (with a lowercase "c"):
¤ gets 5 billion page views per month;
¤ has never paid a single penny in advertising;
¤ is responsible for billions of dollars of interpersonal commerce, more than any other stop on America's internet;
¤ has been referred to as "delightfully communist";
¤ provides the majority of housing and jobs for the U.S. urban population; and
¤ has hooked up more people than ALL other dating sites combined.
Page Daze. [The piece of nonfiction below was first published by The Morning News on May 6, 2003. Update: ...and reprinted on Gawker today.]
Low-rung employees at Saturday Night Live may not make Lorne's salary, but they do get to hobnob with the weird and wonderful. Former page Alan C. Baird looks back on the Belushi days.
1) John Belushi grips my blue tie, which is still attached to my neck, and drags me down the hall to his Saturday Night Live dressing room. The Windsor slipknot cinches ever tighter, and my vision becomes fuzzy around the edges. Dressing for my shift this morning, I never guessed the tie could be so easily converted into a deadly weapon.
John wanted to share a joint with someone (anyone!), and I happened to be the closest warm body. "C'mon, Tommy-boy. Rehearsal is over, and your work here is finished. Let's go get wasted."
But when you're the newest page on staff, and terrified of being caught, you try to make a show of resisting. At least when in public.
It's a classic case of mistaken identity. Tom is usually assigned to the Studio 8H desk during the week leading up to a live show, answering phones, taking messages, dealing with the steady stream of celebrities and hangers-on. And everyone says I look a lot like Tom. So the last images I see, before blacking out, are the smiling faces of two fellow pages, receding into the distance as I'm towed away. Those same two faces, now hovering above me and filled with concern, are also the first things I see upon returning to consciousness.
"Did I smoke with him?"
"No. He kept dragging until you turned blue and passed out. Why'd you resist?"
"This is a cool job. I didn't want to get canned."
They exchange knowing looks and mutter, "Rookie."
2) We're a lucky group of pages: our boss is hosting a weekend getaway at her summer cottage in the Hamptons. My colleague Robyn has gone outside to try the secluded swimming cove, but nobody else wants to break away from our showbiz gossip-fest in the rec room, so I decide to keep her company and head for the beach a few minutes later. Robyn emerges from her first dip when I arrive. There's no need to test the water; Robyn's exposed left nipple announces that it's quite chilly.
I'm not sure if she realizes the surf has tugged at her bikini top, so I gallantly offer my towel…after a short delay for gawking. She smirks up at me. Honi soit qui Malibu.
3) David Bowie and I manhandle his life-size plastic punching doll into the elevator. The next night, NBC's costumers will bolt David into this rigid contraption so he can spin and wobble across the stage on live television, while lip-synching one of the songs that made him into the icon known as Ziggy Stardust.
For a second, I gaze into Bowie's left eye and notice his famous blown pupil. "Why drag this all the way back to your hotel? The Props department could lock it up for you."
He laughs. "Nothing personal, but if it goes missing, I can't just buy another one down at the corner shop."
I giggle. "Good point."
I still look back on this comment as my best shot at the Melonhead Hall of Fame.
Nobody gives us a second glance as we struggle outside to the Plaza. The Thin White Duke and an anonymous melonhead are trying to stuff a six-foot-tall, brightly-colored punching doll into the back seat of a stretch limo, but New Yorkers, true to form, don't even notice this singular tableau. David turns, to say thanks for the help. Polite guy. My brain is churning at light speed, searching for another bon mot.
So I bring out the big guns: "Break a leg!" When David looks puzzled, I rush to explain: "Not now. Tomorrow night." He smiles and thanks me again.
Then his limousine is gone, and I'm left alone to compose my Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
4) Six of us are squeezed into the rented car, driving back from a glorious day at the shore. It's very dark and very late; we all have sand in our sneakers. And salt on our lips. Especially Mindy.
Traffic is light on the Long Island Expressway, and somebody flips through several NYC radio stations, hoping to avoid the musical stylings of Billy Joel. When a few strange electronic notes ooze from the speakers, we all perk up. "Stop! Right there!" At first, the exotic music seems cold and inhuman, as though composed by aliens. But we gradually fall under its spell, almost holding our breaths; nobody is willing to interfere, even slightly, with the unworldly sounds. We sigh when the song finally ends, nearly twenty minutes later. Our short silence is broken by a whisper: "What the hell was that?" The deejay tells us (Tangerine Dream's "Tangram"), and I spend the next ten years looking for a copy.
5) The Grateful Dead begin psyching themselves up to perform 20 minutes before air, and by the time we let the audience take their seats, clouds of marijuana smoke in the entry hall have reduced visibility to five or ten feet at best.
Then the red "On Air" light starts blinking, and through the heavy double doors, I can hear SNL's house band rip into the theme music. Don Pardo's dulcet tones announce the Dead and their guest host. Later, I'll go inside to watch some of the sketches that have survived dress rehearsal, and none of us will miss the two musical performances. But for now, I stand in the empty hallway, sucking up a few lungfuls of second-hand reefer. After an earlier rehearsal, Jerry Garcia gave me one of his plastic guitar picks, and I run a finger along its triangular shape, resting securely in my pocket. This little treasure will look mighty fine, pasted into the ol' scrapbook.
NB: After I submitted this piece, TMN's editor removed four words: lasciviously, demurely, enigmatically, billowing. I still mourn the loss. ;-)
Words of Advice for Young People.
by William S. Burroughs (the poet/novelist behind Naked Lunch):
People often ask me if I have any words of advice for young people.
Well... here are a few simple admonitions for young and old:
Never interfere in a boy-and-girl fight.
Beware of whores who say they don't want money. The hell they don't. What they mean is they want MORE money, much more.
If you are doing business with a religious son-of-a-bitch, get it in writing. His word isn't worth shit, not when the good Lord taught him how to fuck you on the deal.
If, after having been exposed to someone's presence, you feel as though you've lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence. You need it like you need pernicious anemia.
Don't like to hear the word "vampire" around here. Trying to improve our public image.
Build up a kindly, avuncular, benevolent image. Interdependence is the key word. Enlightened interdependence. Life in all its rich variety. Take a little, leave a little.
However: by the inexorable logistics of the vampiric porosis, they always take more than they need.
Avoid all fuck-ups. You all know the type.
Anything they have anything to do with, no matter how good it sounds, turns into a disaster area.
Do not offer sympathy to the mentally ill.
Tell them firmly: "I am not being paid to listen to this drivel. You are a terminal fool."
Now, you may encounter the devil's bargain, if you get that far. Any old soul is worth saving, at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying, so you can take the offer as a compliment.
They try the easy marks first. You know, like money, all the money there is, but who wants to be the richest guy in some cemetery?
Money won't buy it.
Not much left to spend it on, eh Gramps? Getting too old to cut the mustard.
Well, time hits the hardest blows, especially below the belt.
How does a young body grab ya? Like three-card Monte or the pea under the shell. Now you see it, now you don't.
Haven't you forgotten something, Gramps?
In order to feel something you have to BE there. You have to BE eighteen.
You're not eighteen. You are seventy-eight.
Old fool sold his soul for a strap-on.
They always try the easy ones first.
How about an honorable bargain? "You always wanted to be a doctor, well, now's your chance. You could become a great healer and benefit humanity." What's wrong with that?
Just about everything. There are no honorable bargains involving qualitative merchandise, like souls, for quantitative merchandise like time or money.
So... piss off, Satan, and don't take me for dumber than I look.
As an old junk pusher told me: "Watch whose money you pick up."
--from Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales
Writing oneself into a corner. The New Yorker cover by Barry Blitt:
Don't strain your neck:
had [signature] planned to spend the night
and he had a good heart. To part
us a certain way. In the last eighteen
months or so, she was asked to undertake.
all other duties to which she agreed willing
enough. The brother had given up the early
and they both appeared to be in a bad temper
collapsed into an armchair, and began reading
paper. The brother came in about six and with ever
he proceeded to remove the great boxes of books
However, it was only a matter
Chuck... and upchuck. [The Power of Words Dep't.] Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced paula-nick) is the novelist behind Fight Club. Throughout his 2003 author tour, "[...] 67 unrelated people fainted while he read his short story 'Guts.' A few folks actually vomited and went to the hospital. Originally published in Playboy, 'Guts' features such delightful scenes as a stoned man masturbating with a rod of candle wax shoved up his penis only to have the rod slip into his bladder. In another scene, a chap gets his intestines sucked out though his rectum by a pump in a swimming pool. And then there's the obligatory carrot-up-the-butt scene. [...]"
One of the infamous fainting incidents is captured on film in Postcards from the Future.
Raising Arizona. From the film written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen:
EDWINA "ED" McDUNNOUGH (Holly Hunter): You mean you busted out of jail.
EVELLE (William Forsythe): No, ma'am. We released ourselves on our own recognizance.
GALE (John Goodman): What my brother here means to say is that we felt that the institution no longer had anything to offer us.
H. I. "HI" McDUNNOUGH (Nicolas Cage, narrating): Most ways, the job was a lot like prison, except Ed was waitin' at the end of every day and a paycheck at the end of every week. These were the happy days, the salad days, as they say, and Ed felt that havin' a critter was the next logical step. It was all she thought about. Her point was that there was too much love and beauty for just the two of us. Every day we kept a child out of the world was a day he might later regret havin' missed. That was beautiful. So we worked at it on the days we calculated most likely to be fruitful. And we worked at it most other days, just to be sure. Ed rejoiced that my lawless years were behind me and that our child-rearing years lay ahead. And then the roof caved in.
ED: Hi... I'm barren!
HI (narrating): At first I didn't believe it. That this woman, who looked as fertile as the Tennessee Valley, could not bear children. But the doctor explained that her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.
HI (narrating the final dream sequence): I saw an old couple bein' visited by their children - and all their grandchildren too. And the old couple wasn't screwed up, and neither were their kids or their grandkids. And I don't know, you tell me. This whole dream, was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleein' reality, like I know I'm liable to do? ... But me 'n Ed, we can be good too... and it seemed real. It seemed like us. And it seemed like well... our home... if not Arizona, then a land, not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable, and all children are happy and beloved.
... I dunno, maybe it was Utah.
Local flavor (ice cream division). Phoenix dairy Shamrock Farms offers Arizona-inspired frozen treats, like "Tombstone Roundup," "Sabino Canyon Neapolitan," and PHX fave "Caramelback Mountain."
Anikó chuckled at their "Coyote Cookies & Cream" - it just so happens that "cookie" is Hungarian slang for "penis." You fill in the blanks.
PHX metro bloggers w/Juice. Arizona Republic, East Valley Tribune, Phoenix New Times, ASU Prez, ASU CIO, Go Daddy CEO.
See also - Valley of the Blogs, Arizona word culture.
Vexillophiles (3): Arizona. Arizona's state flag was designed in 1910, two years before statehood, by Col. Charles Wilfred Harris, then a captain in the Arizona National Guard. He created the flag for the Arizona Rifle Team, when they attended the National Matches at Camp Perry. Arizona had been the only team in past matches without a flag.
The top half of the flag consists of 13 alternating red and gold rays which refer to America's 13 original colonies. Coincidentally, there were only 13 counties in Arizona at that time.
The rays represent a desert sunset, emblematic of a western state. The ray colors refer to the red and gold in the Spanish flag carried by the Spanish Conquistadors under Coronado when they came to Arizona in the sixteenth century. The red is also the same shade as in the US flag.
The bottom half of the flag is solid blue, matching the blue in the American flag. Blue and gold are also Arizona's official state colors.
The star is copper colored, identifying Arizona as the largest producer of copper in the US. It is a rising star, representing Arizona's ascendancy to the position of statehood.
The Harris flag was adopted in 1917 by Arizona's Third Legislature and was passed into law without Governor Thomas Campbell's signature.
"Governor Campbell did not officially state his reasons for taking no action on the bill, but it is generally supposed that the flag did not measure up to his ideals of what a state emblem should be."
--Arizona Republican (now Republic), February 27, 1917
Vexillophiles (2): Phoenix. Over the years, the City of Phoenix has used than 30 different phoenix symbols.
In the fall of 1986, they decided to launch The Great Phoenix Bird Design Competition, to standardize their feathered icon. The winning entry was from a firm known as Smit Ghormley Sanft.
Four years after the process began, the City distributed 350 graphic standards manuals that established a unified way to implement the new symbol.
Thank gawd for gummint efficiency.
Vexillophiles (1): Scottsdale. "Vexillology" is the scholarly or scientific study of flags, and a "vexillophile" is a person who likes and/or collects flags.
Scottsdale's website does not display any images of their flag. I just checked.
Apparently, there are no vexillophiles down at City Hall.
H-O-V... P-I-R... M-O-U-S-E.
[A] Upon first driving into Phoenix about six weeks ago, we noticed several puzzling signs, pointing the way to "PIR." What in tarnation is a "PIR"?
Luckily--or unluckily, depending on how you look at it--we bumped into some rabid NASCAR fans about a month later, and they cracked the code for us: Phoenix International Raceway.
[B] We've been seeing an equally-cryptic acronym on the carpool/diamond lane signs ("HOV 2+"), and that one kept us guessing until yesterday. It obviously limits the lane to Vehicles ("V") containing two or more people ("2+"), but what kind of Vehicles: (1) Huggable Orange Vehicles; (2) Hummer Offroad Vehicles; or maybe (3) Horrendously Overblown Vehicles? [Oops, sorry - #3 is indistinguishable from #2.]
Nosireebob. "HOV" refers to High Occupancy Vehicles. Hm. The bureaucrats not only created an obscure name, they also hid the name behind its initials.
Maybe this is why Europeans use pictograms on their road signs...
Prickly Pears & Chollas. Some varieties of the Opuntia cactus have interesting nicknames: Elephant Ear Prickly Pear, Tiger-Pear, Tiger Tongue, Cow Tongue Prickly Pear, Cow Blinder, Yellow Beavertail, Buckhorn Cholla, Staghorn Cholla, Grizzly Bear Cactus, Teddy Bear Cholla, Bunny Ears, Mojave Prickly Pear, Blue Diamond Cholla, Parish Cholla, Ground Mat Cholla, Florida Semaphore Cactus, Indian Fig, Marblefruit Prickly Pear, Dwarf Cholla, Desert Christmas Cactus, Brittle Cactus, Fragile Prickly Pear, Creeping Cactus, Roving Prickly Pear, Chain-Link Cactus, Pancake Prickly Pear, Whipple Cholla, Devil's-Tongue, Cola del Diablo (Devil's Tail), Coyotillo, Xoconoxtle, Spanish Lady, Eve's Needle, Pencil Cholla, Woollyjoint Prickly Pear, Boxing Glove Cholla, Polka Dot Cactus, Jumping Cholla, Road Kill Cactus, Bullsuckers.
And here's a recipe for Nopalitos.
Arizona word culture.
Anthology.org; IFP/PHX Screenwriters’ Group; Phoenix Screenwriters Association; AZ Authors Assoc.; Phoenix Writers Club; Phoenix Desert Rose, Romance Writers of America; Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, AZ; Society of Southwestern Authors; AZ State Poetry Society. UA Poetry Center; ASU Writers Conference: Desert Nights, Rising Stars; AZ Screenwriters Assoc. (DEFUNCT); Writers' Bloc Phoenix (DEFUNCT); AZ Book Festival (14Apr07) (DEFUNCT).
See also - Valley of the Blogs, PHX metro bloggers w/Juice.