A number of years ago, I volunteered to man the telephones during a pledge drive for WBAI, a New York-based non-commercial, listener-supported radio station, whose programming featured political news, talk and opinion from a left-leaning, liberal or progressive viewpoint, and eclectic music.
During popular programs that offered nice gift incentives for pledges, the phones never stopped ringing. When a less popular show was on the air, the phones experienced plenty of downtime. This was when you got to meet your fellow volunteers. Most were friendly, chatty folks, happy to make connections with people who shared their political interests, some were dyed in the wool anti-establishment protestors whose roots were still firmly planted in the hippie movement, and then there was Dave. And he sat next to me. Because I am a magnet for the unusual.
It was the middle of summer, and a brutal one, if memory serves, and Dave was wearing a wool hat, and thick cable knit sweater, with a woolen scarf beneath his puffer coat. But that wasn’t the first thing I noticed about Dave. Not to be cruel, but Dave hadn’t quite gotten his body odor under control. But he was friendly, so we got to talking and in the course of the conversation, Dave admitted that he was a homesteader.
Now, to me, a homesteader was a person who lived and grew crops on land given by the government, so I bombarded him with homesteading questions because I was genuinely curious about the arrangement. He had to stop me in order to explain the modern usage of the term. Dave would break into abandoned buildings, run extension cords to the street lamps for electricity, and arrange to receive mail at the address for at least a month to prove residency in order to avoid being tossed out onto the street without undergoing a proper eviction process.
Squatting wasn’t anything new, and in New York there used to be a law that if squatters were able to restore a derelict building with everything (electrical, plumbing, etc.) up to code, then they could petition as a group to form a business entity and place a bid to purchase the property, using the cost of repairs as a down payment.
Dave wasn’t a part of any such coalition. He was a one-man army and he claimed that he was facing ongoing battles with the owners of the abandoned properties—throwing his possessions out on the street, re-padlocking the property, sending “muscle” to physically evict him, etc.—but this is not the true issue of the post.
Dave (whose name wasn’t “Dave” because I wouldn’t out him like that) had no income and he lacked the skill set to rig the pipes in the abandoned buildings to run water, so he cased houses, and when he was sure that the owners were either away at work or on vacation, he broke into their homes, took showers, and made meals for himself before he left. He claimed he never took anything besides food, always cleaned up after himself, and effected minor repairs if he saw something that needed fixing.
So, the real issue of this post (a bit of a departure from normal) is to ask you a question:
“Besides the obvious breaking and entering charges, how severe a crime do you think the use of the shower and the fixing of a meal is, assuming Dave entered your home without your knowledge or permission?”
The damnedest thing can place a bug in your brain. Rod Serling is the source of one of mine.
It happened while I was deep within my Twilight Zone infatuation phase, in the prehistoric information days before civilian access to the internet, when I devoured every Serling-related book, article or fanzine I could lay my grubby little mitts on. In one of the pieces, I read how Rod’s widow, Carol, found a number of scripts and stories amongst her late husband’s possessions that were unproduced at the time.
And thus the bug found a home in my grey matter.
I pictured Rod in the final moments before he shuffled off this mortal coil, his gaze sliding across the room until it fell on the closet door, eyes filled with that unique brand of sadness only known to writers. Carol would remember that stare and later be drawn to the closet by a mysterious force that urged her to dig out a box buried deep beneath the material remnants of Rod’s life, shed like so much old skin. A box filled with his regrets, the stories that remained untold, that never found a proper home.
You don’t have to say it, I know that’s all rubbish. Simply me fictionally placing myself in the position of a man I never met. If Rod had any regrets at all, I certainly wasn’t privy to them. But that doesn’t make my brain bug any less real.
You see, I have a box–well, it started off as a file folder and grew into a box–filled with stories in various stages of development. Ideas written on scraps of paper, composition notebooks loaded with concepts and outlines, and completed stories that only exist in paper form–written pre-computer on an Underwood typewriter, circa 1950–as I haven’t gotten down to the laborious task of transferring them to my computer.
I don’t discuss my box much and I only brought it up to respond to an email I recently received (copied and answered here with permission):
“I want to write a blog but I’m scared of being exposed and having people judge or attack me because of my opinions and I don’t think I have the writing skills to get my point across in the right way. What gives you the courage to write?“
Guess what? Self-doubt and anxiety regarding humiliation and criticism is all part of the process and grist for the mill, so welcome to the club. What separates writers from non-writers is that instead of running away from that fear, we invite it in for wine and cheese. Befriend the beast that frightens you most because there’s a story just waiting to be revealed in that encounter.
It’s true that honest writing takes courage, as does sharing your writing with people who may not be kind in their opinion of it, but you also have to realize that it’s not your job to make people like your writing. Some people will flat out hate it because of your views or your writing style, and because they may not know any better, can possibly hate you because of it. Hopefully, it’ll be the minority. Accept it as an unavoidable truth and move on.
As for the question, “What gives [me] the courage to write?” Everyone has their own reason for writing, and fear of acceptance isn’t high on my list. Sure, it’d be great if the unwashed masses loved my work, but the simple truth is all writing has its audience, whether infinite or infinitesimal, and if you never put your writing out there, there’s no chance in hell of your audience ever finding it.
The real reason I write is because of the aforementioned box. I just don’t want to be lying on my deathbed–hopefully many, many, many years from now–and staring at that damned box full of unwritten stories. I no doubt will have my fair share of regrets in my final days, but I’m determined not to have that box be one of them.
And since we’re on the topic of regrets, I recently read a book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing” by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who cited the most common lamentations as being:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
So, while I can’t offer you reasons why you should write, I can tell you that most of the regrets listed above factor heavily in my need to write.
In closing, someone once wrote, “writing is like getting into a small boat with a wonky paddle and busted compass and setting out on rough waters in search of unknown lands.“
So, paddle forth, friends, and be regret-freely writeful.
Author’s note: Since I’m never at a loss for ideas, I don’t dip into my story box as much as I’d like to, though I will occasionally post one or two of them on this blog or slip them into or in between current projects. The story idea folder on my computer? That’s a whole different story.
Staten Island is easily my least favorite of New York’s five boroughs and there ain’t a damned thing I miss about it. Okay, there is one thing. A pub. A tiny mom and pop tavern with that everybody knows your name ambiance that I didn’t discover until the final two of my nine-year stint on the isle. Bored, I popped in for a quick pint and stumbled upon Thursday karaoke night. It made my stay in hell a little more tolerable.
Shortly after leaving Staten Island, I found myself in Los Angeles (that move is a story in itself, believe me) and I’d been casually searching for a neighborhood tavern with a similar vibe. A drinking hole that was non-touristy and non-themed, frequented by locals that had the benefit of being divey without being stabby. And one weekend when I wasn’t even looking for it, I found a contender.
I was on my way home from a day of sightseeing and decided to wet my whistle before hopping on the bus. I used the scientifically proven picking rhyme method of ip, dip, dog shit to select from the three bars within my line of sight.
I chose the smallest of the three and when I opened the door, a guy was suddenly in my face, “Hey, cabrón, you didn’t even say what’s up, cabrón, da fuck’s up with that, cabrón?” Before I could respond, he got in a good look and followed up with, “Oh, sorry, bro, thought you was some other dude.” Less than ten seconds in and no stab wounds to speak of. I knew that I had chosen wisely.
It was a beer joint, not a wine glass in sight, narrow with an alcove for a pool table and video poker machine (if you’re a regular to my blog, you might recognize this description from yesterday’s story, and that’s because I used it as reference, deal with it). The bartender was dive bar attractive (if you’ve ever spent time in a dive bar, you know exactly what I mean), and she
was on the back end of her forties
used to own a restaurant in Santa Clarita
had to find a job after her boyfriend dumped her
her friend taught her the ropes behind the bar
dropped $500 at bartending school
went on a dating site that rhymes with No Way Stupid and met a guy
on their second date, he took her to Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) and he promptly turned into a dick, so she dumped him and enjoyed her free 10-day India vacation
I knew all this because as the bartender was draping a vinyl cover over the pool table, she was being bombarded by questions from a woman who hailed from Kew Gardens, New York, and was only in town a few days visiting her parents.
So caught up in this conversation, and patiently awaiting the bartender to take my drink order, I failed to notice the graying, horseshoe bald, rail thin near-double for Malcolm McLaren setting up equipment. He wore a faded Led Zeppelin tee, skinny jeans and weathered suede cowboy boots and I hadn’t become aware of his presence until he tuned his guitar and interrupted Sade singing Hallelujah with a “check one, check one, check one.“
In Staten Island I had stumbled upon karaoke night, here, according to the handwritten poster behind McLaren’s head, it was Open Mic Nite.
A guy in camouflage walked in, lugging an oversized backpack like he just returned from a tour of duty and placed his name on the sign-up sheet. He was a twitchy fella and at first, I thought it was drugs but he asked the bartender if this was a smoking bar.
She replied, “Dude, this is California. You ain’t gonna find a smoking bar anywhere near here,” which forced Twitchy Backpack to feed his addiction out back in the parking lot.
McLaren took the mic and set the ground rules:
Every artist on the list gets two songs the first round and one song each round after until closing time or everybody runs out of songs.
Originals or covers, all songs were welcomed.
A woman popped her head in, attempting to bum ciggie butts but was promptly told to kick rocks as she was in violation of the No Cigarette Bumming sign plastered on a nearby wall.
McLaren, as the official host, was first up and opened with the joke, “Cherokee, reservation for a thousand. Your land is ready now,” before launching into his folk set.
It’s amazing how the bar cleared out as soon as the open mic went underway. No more than ten people remained and every last one of them was accompanied by a guitar… except for me, and Twitchy Backpack.
I’m pretty hazy on all the performers and most of the songs were original but what I can remember is
An older gentleman who performed lyrical impressions that all seemed to sound exactly like him.
A Russian guy who brought a little R&B to the joint. Not only were his broken English jokes kinda/sorta amusing, but he wasn’t half bad (and that’s a compliment, coming from me).
Twitchy Backpack, who stripped out of his camo jacket down to a filthy white tee with what I assumed was fake blood stains to add a little character. At least I hoped they were fake. He plugged his smartphone in and played a beatbox track that he recorded for his Eminem wannabe set.
An African American gym rat who was on a serious John Legend love tip. The three female performers in the remaining crowd loved him. No, I mean, they were seriously into him to the point of being embarrassing. This guy sent these women into estrus. Imagine having that superpower. Sigh.
A wet-haired model-type who looked like he just swam there via Dawson’s Creek. He rocked a banjo and stomped on a tambourine as he improvised his way through original songs that he had forgotten the words to.
A lyrical comedian who broke out a little ditty rallying against songs about tits and ass and lamented the loss of songs about sweet, juicy pussy (hey, don’t look at me like that, I didn’t write the damned song).
And the all girl, all blonde, all guitar rock band. That’s right, three acoustics. More guitar bang for your buck. Their aim was to resurrect Ska but when their set was done, I still couldn’t detect a pulse.
There were others but as I’ve mentioned before, my memory downgraded to working a part-time job. Anyhoo, all the performers that remained (most departed after the second round) had gone through their material and McLaren tried to squeeze one last song out of the performers but had no takers. He looked my way and asked, “What about you?”
I shook my head. “Not a performer, don’t play an instrument and I sound shitty a cappella.”
Without missing a beat, Dawson’s Creek pulled his banjo out of the zippered bag and chirped, “What are you singing? I’ve got you.”
I’m normally not susceptible to peer pressure, but I’d knocked a few back so I was a little loosey-goosey and the clapping that accompanied the chant, “One song. One song. One song.” was kinda heady.
“Know any Billy Idol?” I asked. Dawson’s Creek nodded and I wound up scream-singing White Wedding to patronizing applause, hooting and hollering.
Although it was closing time and everybody was ready to go home before I took the mic, I preferred to see it as I officially closed the joint. All the other performers were my opening acts and I was the headliner. One song and done. How fucking rock and roll was that?
When choosing some sort of creative art as a career, you find out early on that you need to find other employment opportunities outside your field of interest In order to pay the bills. And since I have yet to acquire the fortune that is my birthright, when I lived in Los Angeles briefly, one of those jobs was working background on tv and film sets — also known as being an extra.
As I had no aspirations of being an actor, I’m pretty easygoing regarding my placement in the crowd. Tucked behind tall people? Facing away from the camera? Set in a position farthest from the principal actors? Not a problem. I was glad to be working and I kinda liked being on set and watching the crew set up shots. Other perks include:
Absolutely no acting ability is required (thankfully)
Being booked on a series or feature gets me out of the house and breaks the monotony of my average day
I get to slip into the skins of different people (hospital administrator, construction worker, churchgoer, Muslim, parent, etc.)
I’ve seen myself on TV three times to date (freeze frame is my best friend)
The pay could be better (but I’m non-union, so dem’s da breaks)
Lugging around your own wardrobe (always bring at least two options) on public transportation (guess who never learned to drive?) can be cumbersome
The hurry up and wait… and wait… and wait… and wait… can wear on your patience, especially later in the day
Craft services (the snacks and drinks table) for extras is a bit of a dice roll
And sometimes other background actors. Not all, mind you, you come across some interesting people chock full of stories and experiences who are willing to let you pick their brains… then there are the others.
Before I get to the meat of the nutshell, I need to set the stage. Picture a room that holds one thousand people. Only one person in that thousand is certifiably crazy. Do you know how you’d be able to spot the nutjob? It would be the only person speaking to me. Got it? Good. Let’s proceed.
One time I was on the set of a tv show named Grey’s Anatomy in extras holding (just as it says on the tin — a place where background actors lounge about while they wait to be called to set) minding my own business, when an attractive young woman stood close to me and started speaking. She clearly wasn’t looking at me, so I followed her eyeline to see if she was perhaps conversing with someone behind me. Nope, no one there. So, I assumed she invited her imaginary friend to the set to keep her company, and I shrugged it off.
For the record, I do not discriminate against people with invisible friends as I know full well the difficulty in making and maintaining worthwhile friendships, imaginary or otherwise. That, and I once dated a woman whose older sister was pretty chummy with Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Pluto and the rest of the Disney gang, and they would often go on Magic Kingdom adventures in the solitude of her bedroom.
A story for another day.
But this woman kept repeating the same sentence, loud enough for me to hear, but no one watching would ever had accused us of having a conversation. More like we were secret agents who daren’t risk breaking our cover, she was giving me the sign and awaited the countersign.
“You’re not the first one to live in a strange place with strange people, nor the last,” she repeated.
I looked at her. She, however, refused to make eye contact and simply waited for my reply. Never one to resist the urge to poke the mental tiger, I finally said, “Sometimes it feels that way, though.”
The sluice gates were opened and I wasn’t prepared for the rush of conversation headed my way. Among the many topics she introduced:
How women are Christlike when they menstruate, as they suffer for mankind.
How she’s happy not to be dancing for biker gangs anymore.
How pigeons are truly blessed and carry our prayer up to heaven.
How she gave up selling subscriptions to a specialist magazine for ukelele players because she made a decision not to give up her integrity for money.
How the government was concealing the fact that chicken fried steak was the cure for cancer.
How her stepfather used to send Chinese pornography to her Toy Yorkie.
How July always smelled like shades of red.
How okra smells like sex before you cook it.
And a host of others I can’t recall at the moment (I’m sure they still haunt the nightmares I can’t remember). Throughout the day, I tried my best to avoid her. Trips to the restroom, striking up conversations with strangers, hiding within crowds of people, but she always managed to sniff me out and made other people uncomfortable to the point they drifted away and gave us space. I had been designated friend-of-mental and no one wanted any part of providing me shelter.
After the scene I was in wrapped for the day, I stood in line for one of the shuttle vans to take me from the set to base camp. Okra-Sex-Smell-Girl was nowhere in sight and as the van pulled up I thought I’d made my getaway. But the Transportation Captain held the van because there was still an available seat. I know I don’t need to tell you who the seat was next to, or who filled it.
Okra-Sex looked straight ahead. To my knowledge, her eyes never once fell on me. I was an entity that only existed in her peripheral vision. “Can you call my ex from your phone, please?” she asked.
“What? No.” Okay, not the best response, but she blindsided me.
“Please? I tried calling him but he won’t pick up the phone, probably because he recognizes my number. I think he’s still mad at me. I just want to make sure he’s okay because my friend threatened to beat him up.”
“Call your friend and ask him if he beat up your ex.” Mystery solved. Columbo was on the case.
“He wouldn’t tell me if he did. He knows I’d be upset.”
I shrugged an oh, well.
“You’re not going to call?” She seemed genuinely surprised.
“Nope. Not happening.” By this time I stopped looking at her, as well, figuring maybe the cold shoulder would silence her for the rest of the ride. As if.
“Hmmm, because not my ex, not my problem?”
“But he doesn’t know you. When he answers, just say you dialed the wrong number or something. Then tell me if he sounds beaten up or not.”
If he sounds beaten up. Under different circumstances, I might have let the exchange play out a little longer, but it had been a long day and I was both tired and hungry, so the best I could manage was, “What did I say? No? Then that’s what I meant,” before I officially checked out of the conversation.
Not that it mattered. Even without my participation, her side of the discussion continued without skipping a beat:
“If you call, I won’t have to stop by his house tonight. You’d be doing me a big favor.”
“You’re so mean.“
“Do you think I should just leave my ex alone?”
“Well, you obviously don’t know what being in love is like.”
“I’d do it for you. Do you have somebody you want me to call? Give me your phone, I’ll do it.”
And it went on like that for the entirety of the trip. When we reached our destination, she smiled, still not looking my way and said, “Thanks, for being sweet.” And maybe it was my imagination but as she walked away I thought I detected a spring in her step, like she’d made her decision on what needed to be done.
For at least a week afterward, I followed the local news for reports of a lover’s tiff gone horribly wrong in a room that reeked of sex… or maybe uncooked okra.
Native New Yorker, born in Manhattan, raised in The Bronx, and because I inherited my mother’s transient nature, I’ve managed to live in each of the five boroughs. Poor as a skunk’s misery, a church mouse, Job, Lazarus, and dirt. Hell, I’m still poor, and most likely always will be.
The best thing about growing up without anything is that you learn to make the most of what you’ve got and distract yourself from what you haven’t got. My major distraction was television.
It was my babysitter, my tutor, and my secret friend that entertained me as the rest of the world slept. Its siren call would lure me into the living room, where I’d toss my blanket over the both of us so the light didn’t spill out of the room and give away my position. Then I’d plug my mono transistor radio earphone into the headphone jack and marvel at all the noir, horror and science fiction movies that played on CBS’ The Late Show, The Late Late Show, and The Late Late Late Show.
I was always a wreck in school the following day, but man was it worth it.
The only thing that trumped this near nightly process was the first Saturday of the month. Like most poor folk, we were on welfare and this was before the Food Stamp bill was passed in 1970 which meant everything, rent, bills, and food monies arrived in the mailbox in one convenient check. The Saturday that followed check day was always considered my day. Wherever I wanted to go, wherever I wanted to play.
My playground of choice? 42nd Street. The first stop was Tad’s Steak House. Sure, the broiled steak was thin and more gristle than meat, the garlic bread was oilier than Brylcreem, the chocolate pudding coated with that yucky skin and a fountain Coke served in a large red plastic tumbler that smelled like the previous beverage it held… but to me, it was pure heaven.
Then my mother gestured at the movie theaters that lined both sides of the street and said the most perfect thing anyone could have said to me at the time, “You can see all the movies you can stay awake for.”
These were once majestic movie houses that slowly transformed during the decline of New York City starting in the late 50’s into grindhouse theaters before grindhouse was even a word. Each one ran three films, usually one current and the others whatever was on hand.
On these magic Saturdays, I tore through Roger Corman flicks, Hammer Films, the Toho tokusatsu imports and so much more. All uninterrupted viewing aside from the occasional mom hand that would clamp over my eyes during nude or sex scenes. Only when I started to nod off was it time to head home, despite my protestations.
On the way home, we’d stop off at the Horn & Hardart automat and my mother would dump tokens into my hand and send me off to fetch dinner from the individual glass door compartments. Even though it was only plain food — sandwiches, beef stew, and the like — there was something about slotting coins and retrieving a prize that appealed to me.
The final detour before reaching home was the Optimo Cigars shop that had a spinning wire rack of comic books where I’d select my month’s reading material.
I realize this may not seem like any great shakes to you, but it remains the only positive memory I have of my mother — too long and too personal a story to go into here — and I can’t think of a better way to honor the anniversary of her passing.
“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” ― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
There are different types of stories. Some you share, some that transform themselves into other creative endeavors, some that are stillborn with no hope of resuscitation, and some that you hide from everyone, sometimes even yourself.
When I wore a younger man’s clothes, I wrote a story. One that I’ve never shared, one that will never transform itself into another work of art, one I have not read since its inception. But every so often when my mind settles into a rare resting mode and all my thoughts become inconsequential white noise, the story whispers to me so that I don’t forget it. It does what it needs to do in order to survive.
No, it’s not a true confession, nor is it based on or inspired by true events. There’s no deep-seated ideological conviction behind it. It’s also not the most powerful or hard-hitting thing I’ve ever written. Hell, the thing isn’t even written in my voice. Chiefly because it’s not my story.
The story belongs to someone else, told to me in part before she died.
Rose loved to tell stories to take her mind off her illness, so we’d meet occasionally when her health allowed or sometimes talk over the phone and she would spin her vignettes. She wasn’t a professional writer so the stories were uneven and structurally unsound, but they were enjoyable nonetheless. She was witty and articulate and sometimes, but not too often, a good telling trumps structure.
And she continued telling stories until the pain became too much to bear, but before Rose died she said to me, “Complete it,” and slow on the uptake as I can often be, I didn’t catch her meaning until months later.
It wasn’t an easy process. When I finally wrote the story down as close to verbatim as my past-its-sell-by-date memory could manage, I looked at the work and was confounded by what I could actually do with it. At first, I wanted to restructure and outline everything so that I could plot a logical ending, but that wouldn’t have been true to Rose’s storytelling style. A style I had become very protective of.
In the end, I decided this wasn’t a story that could be written, only transcribed, so I sat in front of a mirror with a digital recorder and recited the fragments Rose left me as a parting gift and traveled down a nonstructural road to see where it led me.
And I didn’t go it alone. I could feel Rose’s hand in mine, leading me down the path to the story’s final destination.
“Of course it hurt that we could never love each other in a physical way. We would have been far more happy if we had. But that was like the tides, the change of seasons–something immutable, an immovable destiny we could never alter. No matter how cleverly we might shelter it, our delicate friendship wasn’t going to last forever. We were bound to reach a dead end. That was painfully clear.” ― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
They say you meet friends in the damnedest places when you aren’t looking for them and I thought this was utter nonsense until the day I found a friend in the reflection of a mirror. I know what you’re thinking and no, this isn’t a story about finally finding and befriending myself or coming into contact with the Supreme Intelligence that exists within me, because it wasn’t my reflection. This person, this woman who has no name as far as you’re concerned, that I will call Alice, stood beside the mirror version of myself, to the left. Always left of center. I should have taken that as a sign, but you never see the glaringly obvious without the benefit of hindsight, do you?
Before you mistake Alice for an imaginary friend, know that were I in a mirrorless room, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with her because she simply wouldn’t be there.
How she came to be trapped within mirrors is anyone’s guess and I doubt she truly knew herself, though whenever asked, she would always blame her fractured memory, splintered like the shards of glass of a shattered mirror that held incomplete images of her past.
She was fascinating in her way, Alice was. A brain filled with dark matter. Insecure to a fault. A high maintenance friend if ever there was one. Not only was she needy, self-absorbed to the exclusion of all else, devoid of a funny bone—despite the fact she claimed to have an excellent sense of humor—but she was also passive-aggressive and more than slightly obtuse when it came to the rules of the world that existed outside her own head. But as I said, fascinating in her own right.
It’s a shame that fascination wasn’t enough to carry through. I was determined in the beginning to plant our relationship in the soil of time, water it with patience and let it bask in the rays of understanding.
What sprang from the dirt wasn’t the flower of friendship, but the weeds of unwanted advice. It’s what broken people do, you see, they have an undying need to give others advice on how to fix themselves. I am by no stretch of the imagination a Bible scholar, but I am familiar with the passage:
“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
But I endured it. You ask me why? I couldn’t tell you. That’s what friends are for, I reckon. But then I started to notice that her reflection was dwarfing my own. She began taking up the majority space in the mirror, and I, trying to keep the peace had ignored the signs and allowed it to happen. My own fault, I plainly admit it.
But no more.
As I grow older, reluctantly wiser, and I reevaluate my life choices and take stock of my friends, I see with regard to the Alice matter that I will never get a decent return on my investment. Some people are a bad fit within their own skin as well as with other people.
Not long after, I noticed she wasn’t simply trapped within a mirror. Alice was actually trapped in a glass box of her own construction, caught within a mirror pocket dimension. And to add insult to injury, she was attempting to trap my reflection, and thereby me, inside one as well.
In the end, I did the only thing I could do, for she gave me no other choice. I placed her reflection in the only fitting place I could think of — my rearview mirror. The very last time I ever laid eyes on Alice, she was shrinking in the distance until she was little more than a dot on the horizon.
My sincerest wishes for her are to find her way out of her glass cage and strive to be more than a visual echo in the reflectors of others. But that first step begins with her. She has to want to be a real person, and I’m not sure she knows how.
In any event, adieu, Looking Glass Girl. Here’s not looking at you, kiddo. To the rest of you lot, go forth, make friends, and be mindful of mirror-lurkers.
“We gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
I spent most of my early teens in the Bronx. The street I lived on, corner to corner, ran the length of three average city blocks and was the picture of diversity—the melting pot that New York had become famous for. It was all about migration. Italians were moving to new ground as black people nestled in and on their tail were Hispanics followed by West Indians. It was a neighborhood in transition where multi-cultures learn by cohabitation that differences in race didn’t make a person less human.
It was also the 70’s and I rocked a killer afro to end all ‘fros. Metal pronged afro pick with the handle clenched in a black power fist and a peace symbol carved out on the base, tucked in the back of my hair.
It drove my parents crazy. They rode my back constantly to get it cut but there was that preteen Samsonian fear that the strength of my personality—-my Madd-ness—-would be stripped away, were a barber to lay clippers on my precious locks. When I got the “as long as you’re living under my roof” speech, I knew I needed a solution and I needed it quick.
Enter: Cynthia Holloway. I mentioned my plight in passing and out of nowhere she offered to braid my hair into cornrows. So, we sat on the stoop of a private house and armed with only a comb and hair grease, Cynthia worked her nimble fingers like a loom.
She was one of those neighborhood girls that I’d never really spoken to before outside the odd hello. Not that there was anything wrong with her, she was simply a person that kept herself to herself. The type of person you’d have to make an effort to get to know.
It would take many years for me to become that type of person.
But in sitting with her I discovered she was both intelligent and imaginative, with interesting stories to tell. Her father was a retired Army Ranger colonel, who spent a great deal of his free time on the road in a jazz band.
I’m not sure how much of that was true. No one could ever remember seeing Cynthia’s dad, so maybe it was a story she invented to keep nosy kids at bay. Or perhaps it was one of the quiet lies that parents tell their children to spare them from the harsh realities of troubled marriages.
Since we had nothing but time to kill, we talked about our constricted home lives, mentioned the odd hobby, told a few jokes and had a couple of laughs, and when all the conversation wells had run dry, we told each other stories.
At the end of every month, when the braids began to look a little ratty, I’d take them out and Cynthia met me back on that stoop to repeat the process. And after a brief bit of catch-up, we’d go back to telling each other imaginary stories and without meaning to, wound up designing an illusory sanctuary from the burdens and pains of our everyday pre-teenage lives.
While we mentally terraformed our neighborhood row by cornrow, we got to know each other in those months as the monarchs of our fantasy world. We explored the surroundings, went on adventures, and basically forgot the world for a few hours a month.
Come the fifth month, I sat on the stoop and waited, my hair a wild crop of imagination waiting to be plowed, but Cynthia never showed. I later learned from a friend of a friend’s sister that she and her mother had moved away in the middle of the night without telling a soul where they were headed.
I tried to imagine all the possible reasons that would cause them to make a hurried escape under the cloak of twilight and seriously hoped it had nothing to do with her retired-Army-Ranger-colonel-jazz-band-dad. Nothing negative, anyway.
And yes, I eventually had no other choice than to submit to the butcher shop barbershop haircut. Much to my surprise, I managed to retain all of my Madd-ness afterward. I was still filled with my nerdy sameness and when I missed her a bit, I’d sometimes sit on the stoop and give an imaginary Cynthia updates on the latest goings-on in the world we created.
Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.
PS. Cyn, if through some bizarre happenstance you should come across this, hit me up real quick. There’s a world in some need of serious upkeep.
My secret self—the bit of me that hides in plain sight just behind a corner of reality—has been wandering my memory palace of late, searching for an empty room in which to steal a bit of solitude for I sometimes need to swaddle my internal dialogue in silence when even the quietest place on earth can offer me no rest.
You might have surmised correctly that I’ve been met with very little success.
Oh, there are rooms aplenty in which I enjoy the occasional lounge-about, each filled with bric-à-brac I’ve accumulated along the way. Items or concepts or vagueries that may or may not find their way into a story, plot germs that piqued my interest for one reason or another, displayed neatly on shelves beside those things kept precious, but each of these pieces of me gives off unique vibrations that assault my mind’s ear like anamnestic tinnitus.
A few of my unused characters who can afford the steep rent have made the suggestions that I either choose my favorite among them to room with or take turns bunking with every one of them for short periods as not to overstay my welcome.
But that really isn’t my style. I like the idea of knowing where characters are so that I might visit them and engage in brief social interactions when I’m in the mood, and leave them to their own devices when I’ve had my fill. And although I am quite capable of being alone in a crowded room, I cannot find solitude with people around, not even the people in my mind, the ones that I have breathed life into.
My irritation at not being able to claim residence in a place that I have been constructing since childhood is beginning to infect other areas of my life. My current location annoys me. My inability to write annoys me. The presence of other people annoys me. The sameness of the day annoys me. Even my annoyance at everything annoys me.
And so Sunday comes ’round and I am attempting to build a new foundation for the memory palace extension on the lone and level sands of ground-down ideas, in a new territory where the old housing rules may not apply. Eventually, when my hoarder nature reveals itself and this section of the palace becomes filled with miscellanea most likely better left forgotten…
I’ll repeat the process. Search for my own patch of solitude. Light a candle and still curse the darkness. Build another room. And fill it with possessions that squeeze me to the point of eviction.