Anatomy of a Lengthy Rejection Letter, Part III

Dear James,

Thanks so much for sending me SWIRLS IN THE NEGATIVE SPACE and my apologies for the delay in responding. Your memoir is very well written and your story is quite gripping. However, I think that this story could benefit from a more traditional structure (with an opening, climax, and resolution) and perhaps less reminiscence. I also felt that while we got to know you very well, the secondary characters were a bit under-developed. Ultimately, I’ve decided to pass but I really enjoyed reading this and I’m grateful for the chance to consider.

All best,

[Name Redacted]

Okay, so this one’s not so lengthy, but since I’d already set the franchise in motion with the previous post, I figured WTF.  Make it a trilogy.  Couldn’t resist.  (The length of these letters was never really the key factor.  I borrowed the title from Bukowski’s “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Letter”–which, ironically, was the first story he ever published.)  Also I’ve been feeling a bit guilty that I haven’t posted in a while, which is absurd on its face because who gives a crap?  Not that I’m a lazy blogger per se.  (Scroll through and you’ll find many, many posts, close together, and most of them are, in my humble opinion, well composed.)  I’m simply not the type of person who’s eager to hawk his own web presence.  Honestly, I’ve only a vague idea about how to do it.  The sense I get is that by being a fastidious practitioner of social media, and by visiting and commenting on other people’s blogs and leaving links to your own, you might develop a following–assuming the content is any good.  But I’ve never had “a Facebook” or “a Twitter” or anything else and I’m certainly not going to spend my time trolling the “blogosphere.”  Not that I’m snobby about that stuff; it just doesn’t interest me.  Which is probably why I’ll never succeed.  At anything.

But I’ve gotten way off topic, haven’t I?  Let’s tackle this rejection letter line by line.  One last time, for posterity…

1. “Thanks so much for sending me SWIRLS IN THE NEGATIVE SPACE and my apologies for the delay in responding.”

–A thank you and an apology in the first sentence.  Agents are a polite breed in general, no doubt about that.  As I’m sure you realize, agents don’t–in most cases–do the approaching.  As the unrepresented writer, you reach out via a “query”–a standard letter that may only vaguely (and probably clumsily) let that agent know that you’ve researched her.  You look for the ones who seem most likely to be receptive to your genre, project, etc., but in the end, it’s basically a crapshoot.  So when an agent actually requests to see your manuscript, it’s always a surprise, and, depending on where you are in your “career,” kind of a big deal.  But a polite agent (and most are) will always thank you anyway for sending your work–which is sort of like a Wall Street banker thanking a panhandler for taking his change; it’s nice, but hardly necessary.  Now as for the apology part, yes, there was a “delay in responding.”  Seemingly.  Most of the agents who requested my ms got back to me pretty quickly–within a week or two, which is actually quite fast, but this one had been sitting on it for four months.  From the beginning I promised myself that I would be patient with this process.  That I wouldn’t be one of those itchy query people.  (You know, the ones who populate Absolute Write Water Cooler with their nerdy threads.  GOT A REQUEST TODAY FOR A PARTIAL!!!  YIPPIE!!!  FINGERS CROSSED!!!)  I told myself that I would just stay cool, with every submission I sent out, no matter how long it took each agent to respond.  But I couldn’t.  Stay cool, that is.  Last week I sent this:

Dear [Redacted],

My name is James Ferry.  On August 31 of last year I received, from [Redacted], a full request for my memoir, Swirls in the Negative Space.  I sent the ms the next day; your email was provided for tracking purposes.
I fully understand that these things take time and that priority lies with your current list, but having reached the four month mark, one wonders: Am I still in the running?  If so, great.  If not, I appreciate the opportunity.
All the best,
James Ferry

 

This is what they call a “friendly reminder.”  Supposedly they’re acceptable.  Thing is, when you think about it, it makes no difference.  Either the agent hasn’t gotten around to reading your work yet…or she hasn’t gotten around to rejecting you yet.  Because you can be sure that if she read your ms and loved it, you’d have definitely heard from her.  I have no idea whether or not this “friendly reminder” had anything to do with the timing of the rejection.  As you can see, it was not mentioned.

2. “Your memoir is very well written and your story is quite gripping.”

–A sentence like this, on its face, is very nice.  I wish I could say that I was flattered by it, but I’ve grown jaded.  It has “but”–or in this case, “however”–written all over it.  I’m so used to this by now that it leads me to wonder what an acceptance letter looks like.  Do they just compliment you the whole time?  Or is the BUT actually the acceptace part?  As you probably know, I typically take on new clients through referral only, and finding something in the slush pile that I love is extremely rare, BUT…

3. “However, I think that this story could benefit from a more traditional structure (with an opening, climax, and resolution) and perhaps less reminiscence.”

–Ah, the whole non-linear thing.  I have so many thoughts about this that I’m going to have to wrangle myself here, in order to keep from going on and on.  (If you want a detailed explanation of why I structured my book the way I did, simply go the top of the page and click on–you guessed it!–Structure.)  For the record, my story does have an opening, a climax, and a resolution.  And she knows that, so as far as what she’s actually suggesting, I can only speculate.  Bear in mind that memiors, by their very nature, are not suspenseful.  I’m the narrator, obviously, so there’s no point in pretending that I didn’t survive.  And you know that I’ve changed; why else would I have written a memoir?  So there’s never any question as to whether or not there’s resolution.  I suppose it could be argued that I “opened” with the “climax,” but that makes a limited amount of sense since no matter how you open your story, that’s your opening.  Bear in mind that this manuscript was my master’s thesis.  It was evaluated by three professional writers on the faculty at Goddard; it was workshopped extensively; and, post graduation, it went through two passes with a freelance editor (big bucks).  Nobody ever expressed doubt about the opening.  (Again, you can go to the top of the page and click First Chapter, and see for yourself.)  So right there, we establish a narrative that will be circuitous in nature, and by definition “non-chronological.”  That said, I agree with what I think this agent is trying to say, which is that chronology should not be played with willy-nilly.  But when it comes to memoir, it’s not the order of events that really matters–it’s the context in which they happened and the themes they represent.  For example, my father’s death, though it occurred after the main narrative events, hovers over the whole story.  We learn about it early on, and the popular notion that “everything happens for a reason” is a recurring theme in the book.  So while the reader might be moved by my depiction (many claim to have been), the death becomes thematically relevant only when we see that my downfall was a blessing in disguise.  Had it occurred at any other time, I would not have connected with my father so deeply, just prior to losing him.  But to have revealed his passing after that event would’ve robbed it of its thematic and contextual weight.  These are complex issues.  Had this agent agreed to rep me, I’d have been open to whatever suggestions she had, structural or othewise.  In terms of editing, structure is relatively easy to fix; it generally means a re-ordering of material.  But as a criticism, “more traditional structure” is too amorphous to work with.  And the last part, “perhaps less reminiscence” is too vague to even consider.  It’s a fucking memoir.

4. “I also felt that while we got to know you very well, the secondary characters were a bit under-developed.”

–Perhaps.  It sort of depends on which characters we’re talking about.  I’ve always maintained that my book has three central characters: cocaine, the city of Los Angeles, and myself–and if you ask me, they’re all fully developed.  Beyond that, the book is populated, mainly, with characters who weaved in and out of my life.  Needy cokeheads.  Crazy lovers.  Fairweather friends.  What defines a relationship is an underlying theme, and some of these “secondary” characters are drawn quite extensively.  Others not so much.  They’re all important; they’re there to help tell the story, but if the time you spend on them outweighs their worthiness, then you end up slowing things down.  My early drafts were sprawling–superflous characters and sub plots that didn’t really serve the narrative (once you have a workable draft, hopefully, these things become clear).  But editing your own work is always a struggle.  Your inner critic keeps telling you to cut anything “extraneous.”  But on your darkest days, the whole goddamn thing seems extraneous.  So you trust your gut, and go with what you feel serves the story, nothing more.  Now, did I cut too much?  Perhaps.  But what really irks me about this criticism is how fixable it would be, and how much I’d enjoy fixing it…if this agent had agreed to rep me, and provide me with concrete examples.  (Chances are, any missing “characterization” could easily be found among the many discarded pages currently sulking on my hard drive.)  See, a writer is used to being told to cut.  We love to ADD.  We want as much of our work out there as possible.

5. “Ultimately, I’ve decided to pass but I really enjoyed reading this and I’m grateful for the chance to consider.”

–Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I think the key word here is “ultimately.”  In the context of the letter, it sounds almost like “regardless,” or “all things considered.”  What I mean is that I don’t think this woman is rejecting the manuscript based on her criticisms per se.  First of all, lets assume that the criticisms are valid.  Based on the work as a whole, having access to my bio and everything else, I’m sure this agent realizes how capable I am.  (If she were to provide me with a comprehensive set of notes, I could have an entirely new draft within two weeks, if that.)  But she’s choosing–ultimately–to pass.  Which is fine.  Disappointing, of course, but fine.  It simply means that even if I addressed her criticisms directly, and rectified them, the project would still be too tough to sell.

Anatomy of a Lengthy Rejection Letter, Part II

Dear James,

So I read your pages, and then went back and reread your query. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they were good since you teach writing, but hey you never know what to expect.  I think what you’ve set out to do is impressive, not so many people who’ve been in the drug culture have the level of self-awareness as you have, nor the ability to write about it so matter of factly.  I like that and susect others will as well.

But I am also too old for this – too removed from this world to really know how to advise you editorially, as well as whom to market it to. Yes there’s an audience of your peers, and younger who probably will relate, and maybe even learn a thing or two from what you’ve been threw and taken away.  And if I were handling that’s who I’d be sending this to – but as I said, this is not my crowd,, and it would be a mistake for me to get involved knowing I wouldn’t really being doing the best by you.  So keep it out there  and I’m confident you’ll connect.  And hey, thanks for nice words about [redact name], I think [redact book title] is dynamite, just too bad not much has changed in that world all these years later.

That’s it.  Signed her name, sure, but you don’t need that info.  Right away I’m a bit flummoxed because, unlike before, the cut and paste seems to have formatted seamlessly.  As I type this, it’s prior to publication (duh) and I can already see that there’ll be no difference between the text I just pasted and the rest of the post.  So you’ll just have to take my word, again, that this is an authentic rejection letter–as if the original post seemed more cogent for its contrasting fonts.  I suppose I could just put the letter portion in italics, but would that make it more believable?  (You see how my mind works?  Agonizes?)

Anyway it’s a new day, thus another one of these.  (I don’t get rejected every day.  I wish I did.  Just seeing something in my inbox makes me feel like I’m still in the game.  When I’m feeling particularly pathetic, I’ll even check my spam.)  I wanted to share this, primarily because I suspect it will be seen.  I check my “stats” daily, sadly, and I’ve noticed that “Anatomy of a Rejection Letter” has gotten more views than any other post.  Must have something to do with the title.  (As for “Referrers” or “Search Engine Terms”–I’m still too dumb to interpret that data, but I kinda get what “Top Posts and Pages” tells me.)  And though sequels in my opinion are a bit pedestrian, I’m doing one here because I want hits.  And also because I felt that this  letter was simply too good to keep to myself.  It’s a total anomaly.  Agents rarely go this far, and it was all based off a partial: a mere 25 pages.  In keeping with the “anatomy” formula, I’ll go line by line, like last time, only I suspect it’ll be trickier, syntactically, with this one.

1. “So I read your pages, and then went back and reread your query.”

–Okay, so she likes cliffhangers (perhaps I should’ve written a thriller).  In order to get the gist of this sentence, we need to move on.

2. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that [the pages] were good since you teach writing, but hey you never know what to expect.”

–I find it curious that she opened with this.  What she’s saying, basically, is that she expected the pages to stink, was pleasantly surprised when they didn’t, and then she went looking for an explanation.  Wait this guy’s actually good, I smell a rat.

3. “I think what you’ve set out to do is impressive, not so many people who’ve been in the drug culture have the level of self-awareness as you have, nor the ability to write about it so matter of factly.”

–Grammatical issues aside, this sentence is not only flattering, it’s quite keen.  Having only read the opening pages, this woman has essentially captured the essence of the entire memoir.  Ex drug dealers rarely, if ever, tell their stories.  If they’re not dead, then often they’re in jail.  Or they’re trying to conceal the past, not use literature to make sense out of it.  In any case, what this agent has gleaned is precisely what I hope to convey: That I’ve written a memoir that works AS a memoir.  A narrator that engages with the experience.  A character with an arc.  A man who is redeemed.

4. “I like that and susect others will as well.”

–I suspect there’s a p missing from that word there in the middle.

5. “But I am also too old for this – too removed from this world to really know how to advise you editorially, as well as whom to market it to.”

–I knew the but was coming; I’m no Pollyanna.  And I’m not under the impression that I’m owed any excuses, but here she’s offering one up: her age.  Granted, it’s probably been decades since she’s puffed on a joint.  Groovy, man.  I get it, but I don’t really see how that translates “editorially.”  Suppose I’d written a YA novel.  Forget about the joint, how long has it been since she’s stood by her locker, her heart all aflutter, when Jonny boy walks by?  Or what if I’d written about unicorns?  Let me be clear about this: I don’t think she should have taken on the manuscript if she didn’t want to.  And clearly she didn’t want to.  But if agents and editors only took on projects with subject matter that they could “relate” to, then they’d all be starving.  And I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, but at least then they’d know how most published writers feel, let alone the unpublished ones (wink, smile).

6. “Yes there’s an audience of your peers, and younger who probably will relate, and maybe even learn a thing or two from what you’ve been threw and taken away.”

–Just to get this out of the way: I, like most writers, am a stickler who believes in exceptions–relies on them, even.  Sometimes a word oddly used or a grammatically incorrect turn of phrase just fits better, sounds better, or looks better on the page.  I can’t remember the difference between homonyms and homophones, but are there really grown people–literary agents, no less–who don’t know that “threw” and “through” mean completely different things?  I mean, this is a professional correspondence; we’re not texting (and if she were merely trying to shave keystrokes, then why didn’t she just use thru?).  But that’s all petty, okay, fine.  What she’s acknowledging here is that there is in fact an audience for this kind of material.  And not just Williamsburg or Silver Lake, either.  The world is full of tattooed hipsters who’ve been on the snorting end of a coke straw at one point or another, but honestly, I really don’t think my story is all that esoteric.  I mean, I’ve never worked on Wall Street, but when I see the movie, I can relate to Bud Fox.  The Faustian bargain, the lure of easy money.  Same thing when I see Boogie Nights.  Never been a porn star (God knows, if only my cock were big enough), but I get Eddie Adams, aka Dirk Diggler.  I get how an impressionable kid would get corrupted by that environment, all those enablers.  We see these characters–rendered beautifully by Charlie Sheen and Mark Wahlberg–losing their innocence in increments, their souls slowly hemorrhaging.  And then we see the consequences.  And finally, some form of redemption.  These films weren’t targeted toward a “finance” or “porno” crowd any more than Fifty Shades of Grey was published for a BDSM reading audience.

7. “And if I were handling that’s who I’d be sending this to – but as I said, this is not my crowd,, and it would be a mistake for me to get involved knowing I wouldn’t really being doing the best by you.”

–A bit strange, almost contradictory.  Two lines ago she’s saying that she wouldn’t know who to market this to, and now she’s kind of saying that she would know, but that those people aren’t her “crowd.”  It’s all moot anyway.  She’s not into it, regardless, and I respect that.

8. “So keep it out there  and I’m confident you’ll connect.”

–Every personalized rejection letter I’ve received, I’ve gotten this: actual encouragement.  This thing is good.  Don’t give up.  It’s just not for me.  And all my jokey shit aside, if you’re a frustrated writer, reading this, this is what I hope you’ll glean.  Agents really mean this stuff when they say it.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother.  They don’t make shitloads of money.  They’re in it, by and large, because they love books.  They respect authors.  All agents who stay in the game long enough will see a manuscript they’ve rejected go on to become successful.  And they take a lot of no’s.  They just don’t whine about them as much.

9. “And hey, thanks for nice words about [redact name], I think [redact book title] is dynamite, just too bad not much has changed in that world all these years later.”

–Didn’t actually read the book.  I fibbed.  Sue me.

An Asshole Eats Crow

The plane taxied at Wayne County Airport.  We disembarked, grabbed our bags, found the queue and hopped in a cab.  I turned to Jeannie.  “Okay,” I said, “hand ‘em over.”  She slid her hand down the front of her pants and grimaced.  A few moments later she produced the two hot pink baggies only now they were flat with fine powder filling them from top to bottom.  I laughed.  “Look at that,” I said.  “You pulverized it.  From now on I’m calling that thing the Velvet Hammer.”

We drove to a nondescript suburb outside of Detroit.  When we pulled up to the house I could see that it was unusually narrow and supported by short stilts of some kind.  Jeannie’s mother greeted us.  I hugged her.  “Nice to meet you, ma’am,” I said.  “I’m the last-minute replacement.”  Everyone within an earshot laughed except Jeannie who scowled.  A doughy guy in a porkpie hat approached me and shook my hand.  He leaned into my ear.  “I’m Joe, Jeannie’s brother.  I’m kinda surprised she brought you.”

“Why?”

“’Cause I would never bring a girl I was dating back here.  I don’t wanna show my white trash ass.”

Jetlagged, Jeannie and I tried to sleep late the next day but we were roused by the happenings.  We ambled onto the back porch.  There were about thirty people, grouped in fours or fives, spilling out into the yard.  It was a muggy Midwest day and everyone was coated in a thin, grimy film.  The bride-to-be, whom I’d met the night before, was drinking wine and puffing on a cig.  She was seven months pregnant.  John, bridegroom, was a spindly dude with eyes that were bugging, unblinking.  As I hunted around for the beer cooler, I could hear him working a small crowd.  “Back in the seventies,” he was saying, “the weed dealers weren’t cheap at all.  If you bought an ounce, they’d just turn over a Frisbee and fill it full of weed and dump it in a bag.  That’s why they called it a lid.”  I didn’t say anything though I knew this to be factually incorrect.  A “lid” of grass is old school slang for an ounce, that’s true, but it references the storing and selling of weed packed inside of Prince Albert cans—a practice that had fallen out by the seventies.  Why anyone would conflate an upturned Frisbee with the covering of a container was beyond me, but everyone seemed to accept it.  I located the cooler and grabbed a beer, lit a cig and joined the fray.

“It’s hot as balls!” Joe announced to no one in particular.  He already considered us buddies so I sidled up to him.  We chatted mundanely for a few minutes, but as young men drinking beers and smoking cigs, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to sex.  “If she won’t fuck in the ass,” he said, “I ain’t callin’ her back.”

“Oh, c’mon,” I said, “most women need time on that.”  You know, they’ve tried it before with some selfish dick and he just rams it in and ruins it for her.  She needs to know that she can trust you.”

He scrunched his face.  “Ah, fuck all that!”

I debated no further as he was obviously inflexible.  Then he leaned in close.

“So how’s my sister?”

With a closed mouth I laughed through my nose.  I’d known this man fewer than 24 hours and he wanted to know if his sister was seeing to my needs.  “She’s doing just fine.”

“Good,” he said.  “I hope I taught her well.”

There was no need to dress, so I was wearing sweatpants.  Sitting with Jeannie in my lap, I noticed for the first time that the pull-tab on my zipper pocket read KKK.  (Most pull-tabs bear the inscription YKK: the predominant company headquartered in Japan; they’re to zippers what Tyvek is to home wrap.)  I called this to everyone’s attention.  “Can you fucking believe that?!  What the hell could it possibly mean?  Is it some kind of logo?”

“You don’t mean logo,” Jeannie said.  “That’s not the right word.”

“I know,” I said.  “I was gonna say acronym but I knew you wouldn’t get that, so I dumbed it down for you.”

By definition, an acronym is a pronounceable word formed from the initial letters of a compound term, like ADIDAS or NATO, so I was even wrong about that.

Everyone laughed except Jeannie who scowled.  “You’re an asshole!” she said.  Then she bolted.

I fell into form, basking in the glory of having timed and delivered a joke aptly for an audience.  Then I scampered off to find Jeannie, to beg forgiveness.  It was a device I’d cultivated in my youth.  I always knew it to be dastardly, but I looked at it in terms of the numbers.  The crowd’s laughter intoxicated me, and they were many.  So what if I had to eat crow before the one?  It was bullshit anyway.

Back in LA, Jeannie and I resumed our routine.  I arrived home one night to find her passed out on my stoop, slumped over with a tallboy wrapped in a brown paper bag at her feet.  I squatted to reach beneath her outstretched legs, and then I hoisted her up, limp in my arms.  Some passersby snickered.  “Nothing to see here,” I said.  “It happens all the time.”

Just(ify) Sex

Vic was someone to whom I owed no excuses.  She’d be walking away with more than she’d started with and she knew it; she had no cause to gripe.  But I needed something—a rift to justify my disgruntlement.

There was her aborted marriage.  The engagement was in the final stage: invites out, two families mobilized, travel accommodations booked, everything nonrefundable.  Then, with only days left to go, her fiancé bailed.  One could only imagine the humiliation.  Vic had become calloused after that, eschewing commitment altogether and indulging in casual sex, which she regarded as essential.  We’d discussed her history, which I had no issue with.  (We’d both been slutty.)  But Vic truly believed that a sexual relationship could persist in a state of unemotional purity—a notion I knew I could debunk quite easily, so one night I baited her.

“So Vic, I’m curious.  You can sleep with a guy and it’s just sex, is that right?”

She said yes.

“So, what would happen if you and your fuck buddy bumped into each other randomly one night?”

“Then we’d probably end up together that night.”

“Okay, here’s the scenario: You go out to a club and he’s there, you spot him easily, but he doesn’t notice you…because he’s with another woman, what then?”

“Then I’d avoid him.”

“Okay—weird enough, but okay.  But suppose he calls you the next night wanting sex, what happens then?”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit, Vic, answer me!”

“Why are you being mean?”

“Because I’d like you to face reality, that’s why.  What do you do?  Do you fuck him? Even though you know he’s fucking someone else?”

“I don’t know.  I guess not.”

“You guess not?  Well if it’s just sex, then what’s the problem?”

Winning the argument didn’t make me feel any better.  I knew I was projecting.  But I felt justified.  I was, at the very least, aware of my own artifice…whereas Vic was blissfully accomodating hers.

The Moody Blues Incident

Los Angeles, 2002

I was looking in the mirror, futzing with my hairdo, when the phone rang.  I saw that it was Jon (caller ID was still newish to me), a boyhood friend turned Hollywood bartender.  I flipped open the phone, said hello.  “Jimmy!” Jon said, “How fast can you get your ass down here?  There’s a guy at the bar with a shitload of drugs!”

Jon was calling me with the kind of information that would’ve seemed absurd had we been in most other cities.  There was a gentleman at his bar, claiming to be the lead singer of the multiplatinum-selling British rock band, The Moody Blues.  And he had a purported potpourri of drugs: coke, weed, and mushrooms.  “What the hell are you talking about?” I said.

“His record company called here looking for him.  He’s hiding, but he’s got a plane to catch and he wants to dump this shit before he goes.  I’m broke and we’re running out of time.  You were coming down anyway, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t gonna leave yet.  Are you sure this guy’s for real?”

“I told you, he’s the lead singer of The Moody Blues.  His name’s Ray Thomas.”

The thoughts came like a B movie trailer.  A rock star suddenly remembers that he’s due for a flight and recruits a random bartender to help move his stash, which he somehow forgot about.  What is he doing with all these drugs?  Who the fuck eats mushrooms anymore?  Don’t they grow naturally in cow shit or something?

I was skeptical.  But this was the Hollywood and Vine Diner, right there on Hollywood and Vine, home of Capitol Records.  Everything Jon was saying was within the realm of possibility.  Plus I was getting caught up in his fervor, an effect he’d always had on me.  “Something about this stinks,” I said, “but alright.  I’m on my way.”  I didn’t want Jon to think that he’d sold me.  I was probably more excited than he was.

I could never get fully satisfied with my appearance, and now I was rushed.  I went with the staples: Diesel jeans (boot-cut, my only pair), Nike Dunks from Undefeated (maroon-colored and kind of ugly, but Jon had the same ones), and a beat-up western shirt from either Jet Rag on La Brea or Wasteland on Melrose.  My hair was transitioning.  I’d been experimenting with cheap pomade called Sportin’ Waves, the idea being to look like I wasn’t trying, which was everyone’s goal.  I grabbed the necessities: wallet, keys, cell phone, cigs, and of course whatever coke I had left.

I fired up my Geo and went careening down the nameless dirt paths around Vasquez Canyon.  I was living in Canyon Country, thirty miles north of Hollywood, but I had the route down cold.  A straight shot south all the way from the 14 to the 5 to the 170 to the 101.  Once I hit the 101, I knew I could be anywhere in Hollywood within 15 minutes.

I hit the high beams, alerting the desert rascals and sending them scurrying.  How could there be so many bunnies, I wondered, and why do they seem so attracted and yet repelled by my headlights in the night?  I made my way down to Sierra Highway and onto Soledad Canyon Road where I blew through an intersection so brazenly that I’d have been pulled over for sure had I been clocked by a local.  There isn’t much north of the San Fernando Valley save for strip malls, aqueducts, tumbleweeds, coyotes, and cops.  And the cops are always idle and on the lookout for reckless interlopers like me.  I still had out-of-state plates.  Fuck it, I thought, hitting the gas harder.  There were drugs waiting and the situation was time-sensitive.

I was speeding down the highway—indicating, merging, flashing my beams.  No one in the fast lane was moving fast enough.  I cracked the window and lit a cig.  I’d just started smoking, so I was still a bit goofy with it.  I wanted to smoke like Rock Hudson.  He had such nimbleness about him, the way he’d slink his finger over the cig like a snake slithering around a stick.  I practiced, couldn’t come close.

I decided to call Jon, check on the status of the situation.  “What’s up,” he said, “you almost here?”

“Yeah, is everything on track?”

“Yeah, but he’s getting bitchy, this guy.  Did I tell you that the record company called here looking for him?”

I found this questionable.  Who knew if The Moody Blues were even signed to Capitol?  And then there was another strange assertion.  According to Jon, this guy was claiming to be the father of one Rob Thomas, lead singer for Matchbox Twenty.  This made absolutely no sense to me.  How could an icon of the original British Invasion end up fathering the front man of an Orlando pop band?  Jon had no older siblings, no one’s record collection to pillage as a youth, so he couldn’t appreciate my puzzlement.  (Today, of course, we’d have just gone to Google.)

I found parking on Vista Del Mar.  When I finally got to the restaurant, there was no straggly guy at the bar, no one fitting Jon’s description.

“I couldn’t wait anymore,” Jon said, “so I told the guy to meet me in the bathroom—you know, so I could see the shit.”

“Yeah, and?”

“He said that he could get it…but he wanted the money first.”

I laughed.  “Are you fucking kidding?  What’d you do?”

“I threw him out.”

“Good for you.  Was he ashamed at least?”

“No,” Jon said, “he was offended.  ‘Fuck you if you don’t trust me,’ he said.”

Annoyed as I was, I had to admire the guy for staying in character.

I sat at my usual barstool at the corner by the server’s station.  Brian, a bartender and newish friend, drew a pint of Stella from the tap, ineptly, and foam littered the bar.  Brian groaned characteristically, baiting me to comment.  I didn’t bite.  I knew my place.  He still had to burn through his shift, do his side work.  All I had to do was wait.  Soon enough we’d all be headed to The Well for last call.

Brian moved down the bar to clean some glasses.  “Got any mints?” he shouted.  I reached for my meager stash.  I kept my cocaine in one of those breath mint cases: small, round, opened with a firm press on the lid.  Pop.  It fit perfectly in the tiny pocket displaying the label on my Diesel jeans, which I’d taken to wearing dirtily and daily.

I slid the “mints” down the length of the bar and into Brian’s eagerly waiting fingers.  He hurried off to the bathroom.  Why, I wondered, did we even bother using code?

Hacking at the Root

An admission to myself

Often devoid of credit, but the desire for credit

Must be the greatest admission of all—how small

 

See the bases get covered,

The circular logic spinning itself

As if I didn’t pay the pattern maker

 

A seemingly impenetrable barrier

Of laundered and distressed awareness:

Too clean to recognize, but too dirty for display

 

The willingness to understand

Suppressed

By the thirst to be understood

 

How often can I arrive late to my own sluggish conclusions?

Before the invitations, themselves

Return to an oblivious sender?

 

You hear my alarm as if I remembered to remember

As if the memories were available

As if availability was there when I needed it 

 

I was doing a lot less coke.  And the cleaner I got, the clearer I began to think.  I was still restless at night, scribbling in my notebook, but the verse actually seemed to be darkening.  Something was happening to me in increments, something that I wouldn’t have noticed had I been using; because I’d always assumed that the drug taking had darkened me.  But now that I was cleaning up, I was remembering that I wasn’t too cheery to begin with, so maybe the drugs weren’t the core issue.  Perhaps they were a distraction—or more pointedly, a symptom.  And I could buy nasal spray or whatever to manage the management, but clearly there was something inside me that required more effective handling.  Psychological shrubbery grown wild, the leaves of which I’d been hacking away at when I should’ve been hacking at the root.

There’s a scene in a film called The Salton Sea that opens with a tracking shot of a drug den.  It’s a group binge, the participants clearly enthralled, oblivious of anything beyond those walls.  Then the drugs run out.  Two are elected to go score, and as they head for the door one of them asks the time.  “Twelve,” says the other.  That means midnight, we assume, but then the door opens, daylight floods the room, and everyone recoils in horror.  That it’s noon doesn’t jar anyone.  It’s only the light—a literal assault on unadjusted eyes, but we get a metaphoric sense as well.  Light is the unwelcome reminder of the world out there.

I used to go to these parties all the time.  The only difference was that I was being paid, which provided a tidy excuse.  If you’re using regularly, you’re probably spending a lot more on drugs than you’d care to calculate.  You’re going out more and staying out later.  Eating, sleeping and exercise habits are being compromised.  You’re drinking more and smoking more cigs.  You’re talking more, listening less.  The only voices you really hear are the ones inside your head, and those voices are lying to you.

I remember one night at the restaurant, shortly after I’d moved back east.  It was a particularly busy shift and I was struggling to keep up.  Certain servers—I couldn’t tell which ones—were making it harder on me.  When I was watching, they’d do their jobs: placing the forks and spoons in the appropriate cradles to soak, the plates in the bus tub, rubbish in the trash bin, discards in the compost.  But when my back was turned, some would leave messes for me to disassemble: silverware, napkins, doilies, chicken bones—all jumbled together on shakily-stacked plates.  The few seconds this saved them clearly outweighed any guilt.  Sure, they weren’t dealing drugs.  They weren’t dropping bombs or selling bogus derivatives on Wall Street, but that’s my point.  We’re all for snuffing out insidiousness wherever it lurks, but we often overlook mindlessness and its cumulative effects.  That’s how it was for me: a slow accumulation of rationalizations and transgressions, and I see it everywhere now.  How often, and easily, convenience wins out over conscience, image over integrity.  This notion that you’re getting away with something—it’s like being holed up in a room.  It’s like hiding from the light.

The Wrong Rice

Jeannie was souring. She yearned for hairdressing work, her vocation of training, but rather than search aggressively, she was content to complain, blame the market. Then she “lost” her job at the clothing store. I was handling the bills, which suited her fine, but I was getting agitated as well. Jeannie was cute but she wasn’t exactly arm candy, which made her attitude all the more baffling. She spoke of connections she had—industry people—but the evidence didn’t bear it out. From what I could tell she had two friends, Nicole and CJ, her roommates from before she moved in. Theirs was a triangular friendship, built drunkenly at the Burgundy Room on Cahuenga every night. Now Jeannie seemed to be falling out with the other two.

I’d met Nicole and CJ. They had the funky hair and stylish clothes, but they were both brusque and unseemly. My theory was that Jeannie had always attracted more men, leaving Nicole and CJ to subsist on the runoff from last call’s panic rush. It’s the same scene at every club in Hollywood. The offensive house lights, having been forced upon the crowd so suddenly and so mercilessly, feel like a sexual death sentence. Bar patrons, looking like utter shit all of a sudden, scramble. Bedlam ensues. Bodies begin funneling through the bottleneck, spreading out into the night, regrouping on the waiting curb. 100 cigarettes are lighted. “So where’s the after party?”

With Jeannie becoming increasingly withdrawn, her phone stopped ringing altogether. I wasn’t surprised; surely Nicole and CJ were getting laid more. Jeannie was sedentary, sinking ever more deeply into my couch.

I’d dropped a few grams at the King King, and I was taking the surface streets home. I called Jeannie to see if she wanted anything. A burrito with beans and rice, she said, so I stopped at Machos Tacos on Vermont. When I got back she was on the couch watching Family Guy, my Homer Simpson slippers on the coffee table, her feet buried inside them. I handed her the bag of food. She thanked me flimsily and began excavating.

“Wait, you got me white rice.”

I just looked at her.

She presented me with a takeout container, flaps fanning out. “You got me WHITE rice from a fucking taco stand!”

“You asked for rice, I ordered rice.”

“I meant MEXICAN rice.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Whatever. Forget it.”

“Forget it? I don’t think so Tonya Harding.”

White trash equals Tonya Harding; my mind just went there. Missing the reference of course, Jeannie just called me an asshole. I agreed with a caveat: she was too dim to fathom the scope of it. She abandoned her food and began storming around, gathering belongings. I plopped on the couch and lit a cig.

“I don’t give a shit where you go, just leave the key.”

“NO!”

I got off the couch and went after her. “Give me my fucking key!”

She kept her back to me. “I’m calling Maus!” she said. She’d struck another nerve. Jeannie had been telling people that she’d befriended Maus at the Burgundy Room, which was patently false. She’d glommed on to Maus while I was living with her, and the two shared a superficial girl bond at best. I knew that Maus was a capitulator, though, and that she’d buckle to Jeannie’s rants. I figured my key had to be in the bag swinging from her shoulder, so I reached for it.  Under its own weight, the bag bolted south, the strap catching the pit of Jeannie’s elbow. I was mortified, first at the thought of her being marked, then at the thought of my being implicated, and finally at the thought of having just prioritzed my reputation over her injury. I apologized effusively. Not only was Jeannie unmoved, she was emboldened. She left nearly gloating, key and all.

I went outside to brood over a beer. The skyline was orange, ominous, and I gazed for a moment, put a Parliament in my mouth. I patted my pockets for a lighter that wasn’t there, but I felt my blaster, so I pulled it out and bumped twice, maneuvering the scooper around the unlit cig dangling from my lips. There was work ahead: collapsible boxes to fill, locks to be changed. I hopped in the Geo and lit the smoke and headed for the Home Depot on Sunset and Western, the only one open 24 hours, the one that, because of the supposed aisle by aisle cruising code, my gay friends called the “Homo Depot.”  I want to say that hardware was for tops and plumbing for bottoms, but perhaps that’s just a fanciful reconstruction.

Gone Daddy Gone (excerpted)

I’m thirty-six years old and I’m pacing the yard outside the house on Bright Street in Northampton, working up the nerve to call my father.  It’s warm.  I’m coatless.  I could do this all day.

But we need to have the talk.  I’ve been procrastinating.  I know my dad; he won’t make the first move.  I have to thank him for the money anyway; that’s my Trojan horse.  I take a deep breath and dial 727.  The light beats in my chest turn to those thumps: the ones I associate with anxiety, bullying, confrontation.

I’m relieved when he answers.  I didn’t want to leave a message, prolong this, plus it soothes me to hear his voice: warm and crackly with age, like an old record.  At seventy-five he’s mellowed considerably, seems content, and contentedness had never come easily to my dad.  We have that in common.  And then the divorce, his retirement, the move: all within such a short period.  Everyone was concerned, including my mom.  Maybe even her especially.

The small talk goes well, so I decide to regale him with the story behind my living situation.  He knows that my brother Michael, his own divorce pending, has lost access to his house—a judgment that was handed down on the same day I left California—but my father is unaware of the effect that this has had on me.

I was permitted to leave Los Angeles on the condition that I continue formal probation in Hampshire County, living with my brother, a reputable businessman and homeowner.  I was to check in monthly and find legitimate work, like any local offender, but now I had to explain to Hampshire County Probation that the housing, my transfer’s lynchpin, had fallen through.  I contacted Chief Foley from my childhood home, pled my case.  Foley was unmoved.  He gave me twenty-four hours to land an address in his county—or else.  That meant revocation of the transfer, and my LA-based PO had bitched about the paperwork.  His final words were “Fuck this up and I’ll hang you.”  I repacked some things and headed for the door, brushing past my mother on the way.  “What if you don’t find anything,” she said, “where’ll you go?”  Back to jail, I replied.  There was no time to bullshit her.  I drove straight to Northampton with the goal of targeting tattooed, wayward-looking women on Main St.  I realized the outlandishness of that, but it was too late for Craigslist.  That I succeeded can only be attributed to luck coupled with the Jedi mindset: that zone in which you simply cannot fail.  A young woman named Teresa took me in, a situation that would sour soon enough, but I could tell Foley that I was living there, on Bright Street.

Dad likes my story, which I tell comically, leaving out the part about mom’s despair.  He laughs easily these days, and in stark contrast to when I was young, he’s very attentive.  He no longer talks over me.  I thank him for the money, a much-needed two grand that helped tremendously with the settling process.  I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can, I tell him.  Of course he rebuffs the offer.  “You’ll inherit it anyway,” he explains, “why wait another ten years when you need it now?”  I tease him about his optimism, reminding him that he’s already outlived his own father by several years.  Again, he laughs.

I wait for the next lull, take a breath, and dive in.  No amount of mindlessness or impulsivity could explain a drug business five years running, so I make no excuses.  I just explain that I did what I did willingly, recklessly, methodically.  I paint broad strokes, sparing him extraneous details.  No point in defending my product line.  That I sold only what I used, eschewing heroin and other opiates, probably wouldn’t sound cogent to him, I assume.  To him drugs are drugs.  I do explain, however, that while I broke the law, I broke no moral code of my own.  Everyone involved was a consenting adult and no one was ever coerced, cajoled, etc.  It’s very important to me that he understand, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” and though I know how flimsy that sounds, I say it anyway.  He stops me, tells me that he gets it: the temptation, the lifestyle appeal.  He even uses the word “glamorous,” which I’m sure I’ve never heard him say before.  I begin to realize that my nervousness had nothing to do with any perceived disapproval.  It was about my father’s true feelings, and how I’d have to live up to them now.

Ever since his boys had grown he’d cherished every moment he could spend with us, in person, on the phone, and the divorce had only intensified that.  Here I am throwing myself on his mercy, and all he wants is for me to feel better.  As determined as I am to repent, I feel consoled, so I give in to it.  “I just didn’t know,” I say.  “The sales thing wasn’t happening, and then this opportunity comes along.”  Again, he tries to comfort me, tells me that it’s okay.  Now I’m the one talking over him.  My new job (restaurant, kitchen), the writing I’ve been doing, the possibility of grad school.  I’ll make things right, I promise!  Then I feel the tightening in my throat.  I’m trying to keep from breathing—no, I’m trying to keep from crying.  “One day,” I say, “I swear I’ll make you—” and my voice cracks on “proud.”  Now the tears come.

I can hear my father choking up.  His breathing labored, he struggles to tell me that he’s proud already, that he always has been.  We’re both crying freely now, yet somehow I can’t resist appealing to his manliness, for he ought to know: his boy was no punk.  “No one fucked with me in jail, daddy.  And the cops didn’t break me, either.”  Again, he tells me that he’s proud, that I handled myself well, the way he would have.  “You were always a good boy, James.” 

Now I know.  This man, the one I’ve wanted so badly to please my whole life, the one I’ve always suspected of having to accept my existence after the fact—he loves me regardless.  And he always has.

That would’ve been September or October of ’09, whenever I got around to making the call.  But I know that mom called in November.  I was headed home from the gym, I think, but I was definitely going south on King St.  She asked if I was sitting down.  I said I was driving, which answered her question in the literal sense, I suppose.  Actually, mom, I’m standing.  On the edge of a cliff.  Teetering.  That might’ve made a difference, who knows?  You can’t blame someone in shock.  “Your father had a heart attack,” she said.  “He’s gone.”

Dissolving a Decade

I met Lola at the Lucky Duck on La Brea.  I was munching on the orange chicken she’d served me when she said, “You should come to my speakeasy.  I run it out of my place on 10th and Broadway every Saturday.”  She handed me a card that was busy with color.  It featured a sexy-looking Asian girl and a 213 number.  Call before you cum it said.

I went with my friend Vince.  We lingered by the door while I dialed the number.  Once inside, we were led around a drywall partition and into a loft space flickering with strobes.  The place was huge, black-lit, and littered with vintage lounge furniture.  There was a full bar with an Asian motif, so we ordered Tsingtao and lingered there, bobbing our heads to the techno and watching the go-go girls as they danced with their hula hoops on platforms in platforms.

Then Vince whacked me on the shoulder.  C’mon he motioned with his head.  I followed him to the bathroom where he pulled out a baggie.  “You got a key?” he said.  I handed him my set.  Propping the bag open between his thumb and forefinger, he extracted a heap of powder, perfectly peaked, like a snowcapped mountain.  He steadied it up to his nose and sniffled harshly.  Then he did it again, sloppily this time, and a mist of white cascaded to the floor.

My turn.  I snorted audibly.  The bite was sharp.  A bitter drip oozed down the back of my throat.  I swallowed, quivered.  It’d been nearly a decade, and I’d forgotten about the high, but I remembered the anesthetic quality, so I dipped my pinky in the baggie, put some to my tongue, and in an instant, that decade dissolved away.

We walked back out to main floor.  The music was thumping and the strobes were fracturing everything to discontinuity.  The dancing girls, short-skirted and knee-high-booted, seemed more elevated now, flashes of light hurling around them, their spasms reduced to a series of slow-motioned jerks.  Everything looked sexy.  People laughed and danced and drank and laughed and danced some more.  It’d only been a week since the last gathering, but it felt like a reunion.  It felt limitless.

A Luddite Weeps at the Gym

I once picked up a woman at Packard’s.  She was heavily tatted and pierced, had the geometric, multicolored hairdo, some scarification—the prototypical gal I’ve been attracting since I was twelve.  When we got back to my place, the first thing she noticed was a copy of Rolling Stone sitting on the ironing board.  “Lady Gaga is the shit!” she said.  This saddened me.  It made me yearn for the old days, when we met at all ages shows: all sweaty with sticky hair and runny makeup.  Ripped jeans, safety pins, Doc Martens with colored laces.  Ten dollar T-shirts from Newbury Comics.  We were like a tribe.  Maybe we weren’t into the same bands exactly, but fuck pop music, fuck the radio (though we loved our college stations), and definitely fuck Mtv (unless of course it was 120 Minutes).

Well, I’m old now.  And times have changed.  The average freak is more likely to be into Katy Perry than Nick Cave.  How the hell that happened, I can’t say.  It probably has something to do with Madonna.  (That issue of Rolling Stone, btw, featured a piece on Dennis Hopper’s final days, which is why it was on my ironing board.  As for why I had the ironing board, I have no excuse for that.)  I think everyone, including me, figured I’d outgrow punk rock culture.  But not only do I still love it at forty, my appreciation for it has grown, perhaps because it’s always been there for me.  For years I avoided downloading, for fear of it.  There’d be nothing tangible there, and I was reticent about providing information,typing shit, and, like, committing to something.

Well, all that’s changed.  I got my account with iTunes (way easier than I imagined) and I’m loving it.  I even had my mother dust off my old cassette tapes and ship them to me, so I could see what I’d forgotten about.  Dag Nasty.  The Virgin Prunes.  Anti-Nowhere League.  All my old favorites at 99 cents a pop!  I’ve been having a blast building my library.  Syncing to my Shuffle.

I was one of those sensitive-type punks.  (We didn’t have a name for it then, but I read that it’s called “emo” nowadays.  I also read that emo-types, understandably, hate that label.)  So what went along with all the thrash and hardcore was a slower, more melodic sound we called New Wave, which sort of morphed and mainstreamed, becoming “alternative” in the 90’s, but that’s getting off point.  Among my latest downloads is a song called “What’s the Matter Here?” by 10,000 Maniacs.  It’s about child abuse.

With the shuffle, obviously, any song could play at any time.  I was at the Northampton Athletic Club, doing shoulder shrugs real close to the mirror, when Natalie Merchant got to me.  It was the crescendo that did it:

All these cold and rude things that you do, I suppose  you do because he belongs to you.  And instead of love and the feel of  warmth, you’ve given him these cuts and sores that don’t heal with time  or with age.

I’d forgotten about the passion in that vocal, so hauntingly beautiful.  I felt the tears well up in my eyes.  I worried that this might look odd: a grown man crying in the gym.  I hoped that people would simply assume I’d had a blistering set, hence the puffy eyes and crimson face.

And then I wondered why it mattered.  I was feeling something.  And feeling felt good.  It was that old friend again, the one I keep neglecting.  The one who’s kind enough to keep giving me second chances.