2008-06-09 - 7:53 p.m.
My bathroom is always a repository for at least three books. These are generally specifically chosen, for my bathroom and most likely for publication, specifically for their ability to be consumed piece-meal: a quick five minute read, generally humorous, sometimes obscurely informative, but definitively disposable. Character work, drawn out themes, or any literary flourish are strictly verboten. Some people will use their poo-time to absorb Proust, possibly because of the metaphorical act that follows, but Iíll have none of that. Give me the quick useless bit of frivolity whilst I loosen my bowels. Iím at work after all. One set of muscles is already being taxed. I donít need to spread the strain.
Currently on my floor is a collection of David Lettermanís top ten lists from Ninety-Ninety-Six, or however you hyphenate that. Half the jokes are topical, and thus wildly out of date. A random page flip just turned up barbs at the expense of Connie Chung and Margo Schott. The book itself is warped beyond belief: the hard cover has bloated to the thickness of a college mattress; the pages are skewed into a sine curve, and each page has a large blue stain that bears more than a passing resemblance to penicillin.
Thing is, and Iím in no way proud of this particular personal tid-bit, but Iím fairly sure this tormented tome is my favorite book in my whole wall sized collection.
My father has an odd habit that troubles the few friends and especially girlfriends Iíve thrown into his wake. Without any kind of windup, heíll start hurling questions at them with the breakneck pace of a coked-up investment banker on the stock exchange floor. Throwing from the stretch heíll hit every angle: hometown, nationality, education, work history, favorite John Candy movie, and favorite kind of Mexican food. So thorough and rapid is this investigation that those whoíve endured it are convinced theyíve just been through some form of manic job interview, or else convinced that my father is about to ring them up on the CIA database searching for inconsistencies. (He e-mails me the report.) Before you have time to add any details to your quick blunt answer, heís off on the next question. You have about the span of a single breath to work through your reply. In the pause for inhalation, there absolutely will be another broadside.
I generally have to explain that, no, they havenít done anything wrong, and no, that wasnít some form of vetting system. Itís just how my Dad makes sense of people. He makes a net of background information upon which he can balance his growing understanding of who the person is across the table.
Any time I mentioned someone new in my life, heíd run me through the same line of inquisition, becoming more and more annoyed that I didnít have these pertinent threads already in order for him to digest. It was frankly odd to him that I didnít know these important details of my new friendís life. The first fifteen times he ran me through it, I too thought he was trying to determine the worth of my new life-acquisition. It wasnít until I passed through my combative teenage years that I worked out that those little morsels of history were how my father gets a handle on someone.
Thatís simply the way his mind works, and in a way, I envy him.
I donít have the slightest idea where any of my friends in New York went to college. I honestly have no idea. Okay, there is one guy who went to my schoolís rival, and not an evening passes with him in company that I donít throw disparaging epithets at his alma mater like a monkey throws shit, but outside of himÖno one.
I have a vague idea what my friends do for work, but thatís just because you need to know what kind of favors you can extract from them. Call my cynical, but I had a lot of geek friends when I worked at CompUSA thanks to my ability to nab them video cards at cost.
I know my ex-girlfriend worked at a law office, and wasnít a lawyer or a paralegal, which of course meant she had to clean up every bit of necessary work that anyone with a title didnít feel like doing. I have no idea what that entailed exactly, but I do have the vibe. Put short, she had your average job for a twenty something in New York: overworked, under-paid, under-appreciated, and well understood for searching for the bottom of the wine bottle after every shift.
Those with out of town sports loyalties, or the occasional utterance of ďyaíll,Ē will get a quick query on their origin story, but for the most part, my friends were simply born...elsewhere. At this point, the coming to New York story is more pressing and important anyway, although I know I havenít heard it from the majority of my weird little circle. (In all honesty, circle is absolutely the wrong term. The spread and gaps in my clan are so wide, itís more like a social oval, or a deformed social pentadecagon.)
My father goes straight for name, rank, and serial number. Instead I tend to either urge my new compatriot to babble until their style starts to take shape, or else, if Iím already impressed with the person, and nervously filling silence, Iíll babble off story after story to see how they respond to the bits of oddity I present under their nose.
If I tell them the story of the day I manscaped in the shower with my glasses off, only to emerge, put my eyes back in, look down, and discover what looked like an aerial view of George Castanzaís headÖwill they laugh in earnest, giggle in surprise at my confession, or flash me the ďOkay-Yer-Crazy-But-Iíll-Appease-You-So-You-Donít-End-Up-Following-Me-And-Collecting-All-The-Pudding-Cups-Out-Of-My-TrashĒ look.
Iím just after a vibe. A feeling for how they operate. Itís generally difficult to describe once I get a handle on it, and nothing Iíd have any amount of ease repeating back to someone, but once Iíve got it, I feel I have a good guide for dealing with the person in the future.
So long as I remember it.
That book of Top Ten Lists survived the fire that took down my first New York apartment. Hence the blue bits inside; remnants of the flame retardant chemicals that doused my belongings in the blaze. The puff of the cover and the tides in the pages came from my third apartment. Sans bookshelf, I chucked all of my dead trees into one of the five window sills in that well lit sixth floor apartment. One day I left the windows open. And one day it rained.
The book has the scars of living with me. Evidence of being.
This aside from the fact that back in those not-so-halcyon days of high school when I started fancying myself a writer and a humorist, my first jokes were all written up as Top Ten lists. After my parents had allowed the crappy TV they were going to throw out to take up residence in my room, and then had given up on impressing me with some kind of bedtime, I became addicted to late night TV.
(The bedtime war was mostly because my witching hour guffaws were keeping up my mother. My father slept right through them, of course. If my father had been a passenger on the Titanic, heíd have slipped into sweet slumber just before the ship lumbered into that lump of ice, and woken up eight hours later, floating in one of those inner tubes amidst the Atlantic, with a single thought in his mind: ĎWhereís the fucking coffee?í For my mother's sake, I learned to giggle into my sheets .)
I wrote upwards of thirty lists before I started showing them to people. Then I started writing skits, then plays, then horribly angsty fiction and non-fiction, and thenÖokay, well, Iím still doing that, but you see my point.
This book, riddled as it is with punch-lines like ďOscar Mayer All-Beef Marital Aid,Ē has survived over a decade in my possession and has all the damage to prove it. Each bruise is proof to some event in my addled past. From my first stabs at writing, to my disastrous apartments a decade later.
Evidence of being. Evidence that I didnít make all this shit up.
I have a drawer reserved for these kind of artifacts: A hand-drawn web charting out the many links in my incestuous high school clique. The garter I caught at my cousinís wedding. (I had no idea what catching the garter entailed. All I remember is the calls of my cousins shouting ďHigher! Higher!Ē and me answering, ĎIím ten!Ē) The harmonica shaped like a mouth that my high school theater teacher gave the entire cast of the play I was in my Senior year. The silvery silly putty my college girlfriend gave me. The packaging labeled the substance as ĎAngel Snot.í When she gave it to me it was a malleable dough. Time has hardened it into a swirly marble.
Thereís a cigar box in the back with every love letter Iíve ever received. I havenít added to it for years. Not that my more recent relationships were any less romantic, just that the need to describe them prosaically, in long hand no less, seems to have diminished. Now that I think about it, there are a couple embarrassing e-mails I have saved. A few more even more embarrassing e-mails saved in my drafts folder. But those are from a forgone era. There are a few pictures in the cigar box as well. I have a couple photo albums, but there are a some pictures with a certain emotional weight that you just donít throw them into the collective beside the photos of you standing surly beside Goofy at Disney Land.
I have an entire hard drive full of sound clips from the days when I used to walk around with a tape recorder the way tourists walk around with cameras. Itís nice to listen to but it doesnít have the impact that those artifacts do. The smiles as those tokens were exchanged, or the meaning behind someone actually putting their hand to paper to scribble out the bombast of young love; they hit harder.
Itís one of the more depressing things about the digital age. Those photos and videos and sound clips will never age. They remain locked in the time they were created. Perfectly preserved. In my drawer, the corners of those letters have started to curl, and the photos have begun to yellow. The memories age with you, and the obvious age growing like mold around the corners reminds you of the journey youíve been through since they first skipped into your life.
It keeps them and you honest. It keeps them real.
My father has a net of facts to buoy his conceptions of people. I gather some ineffable taste in the air they exude. And to be honest, his has more permanence. I look back on ex-girlfriends and ex-friends from the past, and all that comes sometimes is a flippant glance. The problem with ineffability is that you canít inculcate yourself with it. You canít harden that foundation. It needs to be rebuilt occasionally. True, it only takes about twenty seconds to present itself once you have a general idea where itís coming from, but it can so easily get caught in the cross winds of your mind, and blur.
The stories are beaten into my brain cells, but theyíre all story now. Repetition after repetition, and the necessary distance you manufacture has turned them into resitations rather than recall. The only memories that have managed to sidestep processing are the niddlers off the side that only reappear when stirred by random circumstance. Like those songs you half remember from your youth that you could never name, but you know the words to anyway when it comes on the radio for the first time in what seems like forever.
The vibes are just that: vibrations in the air that dissipate. The stories are strung and pressed and canít be trusted. These digital markers we plop down are so frozen they have no context. The only thing, it seems, that could remind us of who we were, and who all those people long gone were, are these dingy artifacts. These bits of scrap gathering dust. Just beginning to crumble. Fragile bits that saving would ruin, and losing would leave abscess.
Bits of your identity slowly molding. Except the mold is you too.
Of course, I write this all because itís time for spring cleaning, and guess what?
Iím not throwing a damn thing out.
Top Ten Rejected New York City Tourist Slogans:
8.) New York: A Steaming Pile of Fun!
- All respect to D. Letterman and his crew of writers.
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