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The Tipping Point

I recently Tweeted a few thoughts on tipping, making a joke about how I use tipping to enforce my will like a modern day Caligula. That’s half-true. I also use tipping to reward good service, like a normal human being. And while there are scenarios where I’d celebrate the end of Tipping Culture (as discussed in Think Pieces here, here, and here) in general I’d likely still tip even if the person’s hourly wage was adjusted up to compensate for a theoretical lack of tips. Because I like tipping.

You Sure, Brah?

Not me. I'm cuter.

Not me. I’m cuter.

One weird artifact of tipping is when you’re a big tipper, as I like to think of myself, sometimes, and society recoils in horror. For example, my barber.

I hate getting haircuts. This is known by the Internet, which is collectively subjected to my whining about it on a regular basis. The reasons I hate haircuts have nothing to do with hair or style, and have everything to do with having some Rando touching my head and talking to me while I am forced to sit there in mortal fear as they wield sharp objects near my jugular. So when I find the Platonic Ideal of barbers—someone who doesn’t chat, who simply gets to work cutting my hair in a silent, businesslike manner, I want to reward that person. I want to tip like 50% and reinforce that urge to not talk, to not ask me what I do, to not pretend that we’re somehow friends just because I allow them to touch my head.

And every time I try to tip some ridiculous amount, the software at the POS machine always pauses and makes me confirm the amount. It’s essentially a message that says, whoa, brah! that’s a lot of coin. You sure?

It’s 3PM on a Thursday, motherfuckers. I’m sober-ish. I am fucking sure.

The Public Shaming

There is an idea that tipping is like a limited resource you should only parcel out in tiny sips, as if you might someday exhaust your personal supply of tips. That every transaction is a complex equation where you weigh millions of pros and cons, each worth, like, a penny or something, and end up with some bizarre number like $23.64. That awarding some peon a tip is like Caligula waving an imperial baton and granting clemency to a gladiator. Like leaving a tip is equivalent to pissing out a kidney stone or having a child: painful and difficult and only to be done with lots of down time and rest in-between attempts. When you attempt to tip in a more freefall, fuckit manner, you get a lot of pushback in the form of calls from fraud services on your credit card account or, as with the barber, robots demanding that you certify you haven’t been day drinking since 11AM and are tipping your barber $25 because they’ve slipped you some Roofies or are holding a straight razor to their throat.

In short there’s an assumption that being generous is by default a mistake, and that’s troublesome.

And that’s likely because rather than a reward for good service, tipping is supposed to be a form of control, a way of making people jump through hoops. Giving someone a bit of kosh because they treated a haircut like the grimly uncomfortable horror that it is seems like I might not quite understand the capitalist system, and thus must be discouraged. Fact is, most of the barbers I’ve met treat cutting your hair like an opportunity to make a new best friend, or possibly to recruit you into their Amway cult. They talk, they ask the same questions every time (because they don’t actually remember me from the last time) and they try to upsell you on hair product.

You’ve seen me. Do I look like a man who uses hair product? Note, not a man who needs hair product (because, obviously: yes) but one who actually uses it. The answer is no. Trying to upsell me hair product while I am writhing in awkward discomfort in your barber’s chair is just dumb.

So, my current barber: A glorious woman who speaks exactly ten words during the entire experience:

Hi Jeff.

Same as last time?

See you next time!

A glorious woman who gets to work, doesn’t waste time, and doesn’t even ask me what kind of shampoo I use, or whether that smell is me, or if I am in fact wearing pants made of cocktail napkins and duct tape, possibly cobbled together in a public restroom after waking up pantsless in a dumpster. She just does the job, takes her pay, and we both move on. And whether the robots like it or not, I am going to keep tipping her as heavy as I can.

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DICK FOR ETERNITY

The Urban Bizarre

The Urban Bizarre

I wrote this story in 1993, and in 2004 it appeared in the anthology The Urban Bizarre, published by Prime Books and edited by Nick Mamatas. It was actually one of two of my stories that appeared in that anthology, which I can only assume meant Nick had space to fill :-).

It’s disorienting to read something you wrote so long ago. Very clearly inspired by some of the awful parties I attended in my college years, it also sports the gross nihilism I pretended to as a younger man.

The title comes from a Too Much Joy song, “What It Is,” which contains the line “Congratulations, James, now you’re a dick for eternity!”

 

I used to know this girl named Brenda, but that was before Rodney killed her, almost completely by accident. A big-boned redhead with horrible pale skin that seemed to break out into sympathetic rashes with alarming regularity, Brenda was a loud, outgoing girl that didn’t let the fact that no one liked her slow her down any. I guess someone liked her. Someone kept inviting her to the parties. Looking back, I suppose it was Rodney, since he’d been sleeping with her.

At the time, though, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that this tall pale girl with bad teeth and the loudest voice in the world kept showing up at the house and chasing everyone away. She talked to all of us with big hugs and excited squeals, as if we were old, old chums reunited by chance, no love lost. We’d squirm in her grasp until she took her eyes off us, and slip away one by one to grouch in private until she was all alone and had to find new victims.

Eventually she’d disappear, but not until drinking enough to awe even Fat Billy, who could sink most mortals, his liver glowing softly.
The night I’m thinking of, however, she didn’t disappear, didn’t leave us to the relative peace and quiet of our little lives, although I did get a few minutes of quiet relief when I thought she had. That night, though, Rodney came hooting down the stairs, tucking his shirt in and grabbing me in tight-sweat desperation.

####

Let me tell you a little about Rodney. He was half Black and half Puerto-Rican and all asshole, one of those sweaty heart-attacks for whom life was a never-ending series of surprises, usually unpleasant. He had a bug-eyed stare that had a remarkable steadiness, it latched onto you and didn’t let go until someone waved something bright at him. I don’t know what he had at the center of his life, what kept him waking up in the morning, I didn’t know him that well and didn’t feel the loss at all. It had something to do with drinking and his dog Percy, though, I knew that because they were the only things he gave a shit about.

He worked as a bartender at a strip joint, which was good money but bad health, because he stumbled home in a horrible mess of intoxication and lust, his little bug eyes nervous, gasping in big gulps of air. he’d rush into the living room and sit on the edge of the couch next to me, his hands clasped between his knees and the stale living-room air squeezing in between his teeth. Sometimes I waited a few minutes for him to speak up, sometimes I couldn’t take it and asked him outright.

“Those girls……” he would say with a dull, hollow haunt in his face.

We would all nod and ignore him, then, having heard it all before. That was Rodney. Rodney didn’t make love, he banged. It was sweaty, uncomfortably desperate act of drool for him. We know this because we lived with him between tissue-thin walls and he had no concept of how much noise he made, screaming, begging, cursing.

He was banging this girl Brenda and God knows why it wasn’t obvious to me. Part of it was the fact that you stop being interested in your room-mate’s sex life pretty fucking quick. And no one could ever hear the girls over Rodney’s hopeless bellows. We all had our own problems, coming up with one-fourth rent every month being chief among them. Rodney just didn’t rank.

####

Just like every night, it seemed, a tape-loop, eternity, that night we’d thrown a party. Rodney’d gotten Brenda up into his room, although no one noticed. Things were sweaty and except for me, who was eagerly driving people away with snarling insults and steely glares, no one was paying anyone else any attention unless sex was involved, somehow. I was standing by the front door, sweating buckets in the heat made worse by hundreds of leech-like people struggling to bore their maws into us. I was demanding that newcomers know names before I let them in, picking fights and talking with this brunette girl who wasn’t drinking. She insulted me back with pretty sobriety. We kept blowing smoke into each other’s faces, and I was falling in love with her.

I felt the sweaty paw on my shoulder and turned to find Rodney at my elbow, half dressed and ugly.

“C’mon upstairs, Lenny. I got something you gotta see.”

I squinted at him suspiciously. Beer did nothing for him, just made him grey and pasty-faced. I tried to put on a friendly ‘not-now’ face. “Fuck off.” I grinned, patting him on the shoulder. It was my job to torture these people. It was why I was here. They thought they were having fun. It was up to me to prove them wrong.

“No, Len,” he hissed, “you gotta.”

I looked back at him, this puffy leech which had inserted itself into me. There was doom about him, the clinging scent of emergency. There was no way he was going to let me get back to wooing the wonderfully abrasive girl before I had a peek into his private life, so I waved him on and followed. I just hoped he wasn’t having a mid-life crisis or something.

Everybody was having a mid-life crisis. Every other night some poor joker was up in his room weeping for his lost youth or something. It spread like a disease, from room to room, identity crisis again and again, grown men trying to find themselves. You could hear the wailing even downstairs sometimes, but this particular night I was lucky, in one small sense. Rodney wasn’t having a midlife crisis, which was good, because I was no good at talking people down from ledges. I got bored too easily. I wasn’t much of a friend, but I was fun at parties so everyone kept me around. I even think they were a little afraid of me, which was why I hated them all, the spineless shits. They probably wanted me to move out, but were too scared, and I hated cowards.

####

Rodney’s room was upstairs buried next to the bathroom, which was safest for all involved. We paused in the doorway, staring at her like she was just an ugly rumor, a joke in bad taste staring blindly up at the ceiling with bland, dusty eyes, one bra strap pushed off her pale shoulder.

I eyed Rodney with a discomfort born of any number of truths but held together by the uneasy realization that I was in a murderer’s midst. Neither of us would say it, but the possibility hung there anyway, the unutterable image in our minds, that Rodney had fucked her to death.

He stood there like a behemoth, unsure what to do with his hands. I turned and shut the door. I leaned against it and put my hands in my pockets, just to show I knew what to do with my hands.

“You crazy Fuck,” I said conversationally, “you’re going to jail.”

That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. His sallow face crumpled up into a gibbering hole of terror, and he started to pace around his room in a sweat, muttering curses under his breath, until finally exploding.

“I can’t do that, Lenny!” he hissed, grabbing my shirt and pulling re close. “You gotta help me!”

I eyed him with hopeless sarcasm. I put an arm around him and led him on a spiral around his room,

“Let me spell out a few quick ones, okay, Rod? You’re going to jail. You’re going to have a new friend named Bubba or Pinky or something who’s going to try to do to you what you just did to Brenda.” I paused to glance reflectively at her. I was enjoying myself.

Rodney quivered there in my arms, ready to just burst into tears. I was terrified that he might start bawling. Completely terrified.

“Now,” I went on, “if someone came up to you and asked you to go to jail too and get fucked to death by some guy named Tiny, you’d tell him to go to hell, wouldn’t you?”

He paused. “Well —”

“Go to hell, Rodney.” I snapped, leaving him alone by the bed.

####

I was fighting my way through the crowd around the bathroom, trying to get away from Rodney’s inevitable pursuit, when I saw Fat Billy fighting his way toward the toilet. Fat Billy was three hundred pounds of heaving, sweating flesh and I’d seen him throw up once and once was all I needed to be very afraid of seeing it again.

I was caught between two hells, and in the end I let Fat Billy go by and so got caught by Rodney, who had a trickle of spittle lolling from the corner of his mouth. From the bathroom, Fat Billy drowned out the crowd, because Fat Billy howled in sheer terror or something whenever he threw up. We couldn’t hear a goddamn thing over the pitiful wailing driving everyone away, so we retreated back into Rodney’s room and shut the door again. I stood defeated before him, a victim of fate.

“All right,” I sighed, “Let’s think.”

Rodney collapsed in relief, and I Just patted him on the head and told him to shut up. In the background Fat Billy screamed so you’d think blood was shooting out of his nose as he knelt on the damp and scabby bathroom floor, and I had no doubt he’d driven everyone else away. I lit a cigarette and ashed on Rodney’s rug, staring at this fat and flaccid body still staring up at the dull ceiling. I was curious as to what had happened, but was afraid Rodney might actually start talking if I asked him about it.

“Well,” I said finally, “we’ve got to get her out of your room.”

This was not so easily done. Fat Billy had cleared the floor, so me and Rodney carried her milky white and soggy to the stairs without a problem. The stairs, however, had recently seen a frightened mob fleeing Fat Billy, and glazed strangers stared back at me with barely concealed apathy and dislike.

“Move aside, you bastards, I live here.” I growled.

No one paid me any attention. I glanced back at Rodney and pulled our luggage upright, her head rolling brokenly against my shoulder.

“Watch out everybody,” I said with an eat-shit grin, “I think she’s gonna puke.”

They studied her, judged relative distance and looked me in the eye to see if I was the sort to stand by and let friends puke on total strangers. After a moment a shallow path was opened grudgingly and we carried her down, only dropping her once.

The sons of bitches were everywhere, so we couldn’t just carry her outside and be seen disposing of a body. I snarled back at Rodney every chance I got, the fucker, pushing him into gibbering despair. We deposited her on the couch and put some distance between us.

I walked around and lied a lot, spinning stories and assuming names. Mostly, these parties were just big suckfests, the guys sucking up to the girls in hopes that, on a good warm night with cold beer and the right vibe, the girls would end up sucking off the guys. It never really happened that way, but that’s the way I described them to people when I wasn’t out to make friends, which I usually wasn’t when my housemates opened up our domicile to every bride-and-tunnel ass who could follow directions from Manhattan.

Brenda became the center of attention, wearing a pair of my sunglasses and sprawled in an open invitation on the couch. Rodney stared at her from the corner of the room as if he wished he’d at least gotten to come before she kicked off, and all the other beer-dicks followed his stare like lemmings eyeing a ledge. She was the focus of unbridled lust, a heady vision of fading perfume and one bra-strap slipped over a pale and paling shoulder.

####

Kent Booker, the skinny little shit, must have seen me carry her in, because he horned in on me to scam on her, pinning me against the wall with one finger and breath that would have been a health hazard if we hadn’t had the windows open. I didn’t see his sister Kelly with him, and figured she’d ditched him to make out with older men, as usual. She was a skinny eighteen-year old with a single monotonous eyebrow, pretty in a high-school way, and Kent spent much of his free time beating up his friends because of her. It was entertaining and okay by me; everyone here was being punished for something.

A few years earlier, Kent had been known as “Pud” Booker, because we’d caught him masturbating one lucky evening and even had negatives to prove it. We’d matured since then, of course, so we didn’t call him “Pud” any more. But we still had the negatives. Neal Tucklin kept them in the little cubbyhole behind his bed’s head-board.

They deeply worried Kent, they hung over him with dangerous weight and kept shadows under his eyes. Whenever he saw one of us he incessantly tried to barter them away in desperate attempts to regain his manhood. We usually jeered him heartlessly, wondering when he’d realize we only kept the photos because they worried him. If he quit worrying about them, we’d get bored and throw them away.

This particular night, however, he didn’t even mention the pics, he put a slimy, conspiratorial arm around my unwilling shoulders and asked me for Brenda’s name. That’s how I knew he really wanted her, with her gummy tongue and dry, bloodless lips. She was a vision of cooling indifference squeezed between various face-sucking couples, lolling elastically with each subtle shift of the cushions.

I sneered at him. “You goddamn bastard.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sister?”

####

Only relatives were safe. Unescorted women were mauled with a frenzy approaching the animal once they were drunk enough. Escorted women merely narrowed the mauling down to one. But sisters and cousins and aunts walked safe and miserably bored inside little pockets of protection. Only the foolhardy and the brave would attack someone’s sister, which is why your sisters always married the crazy fucks.

I denied the sister rumor, seeing the need to distance myself from the corpse on the couch in the living room. I moved into the Kitchen just ahead of the triumphant return of Fat Billy, amid shouts and cries of relief that the king had survived yet another bout with his liver. The drinking games had quietly degenerated into loosely moderated discussions about life. As if the bastards had ever stumbled far enough out of that very same fucking kitchen to have done any living—living bed to subway to office to subway to bed. I was surrounded by vinyl-skinned corpses who all wanted to fuck my poor dead sister sitting half-naked on the couch in the living room. They kept asking me about the meaning of life and I spat curses back at them, grinning around my beer heartlessly. They loved it. Everyone you met wanted to know what you did, meaning what your job was. We all had the same jobs: show up daily, donate a sizable portion of your breath, skin flakes, eyelashes, hair, and stomach gas to the contained atmosphere of the building, and go home exhausted enough to not cause any trouble. I told them dirty stories made up about that wonderful, acerbic brunette at the front door and basked in the warm glow of male bonding or some such crap.

Rodney sauntered in and crouched in the corner, watching me with his unhealthy pop-eyed adhesive stare. He didn’t laugh. I had all the pricks hooting and Rodney just stared. It was hard to tell if he just didn’t get the jokes or if he just had his mind on other things. I could have flipped a coin. I scowled at him every chance I got, but that didn’t help either.

####

At four thirty in the morning, Stan Manler used to say wisely, good parties are over and great parties were just beginning.
I was the clean-up team, walking through and pitilessly hauling loved ones and invited guests out into the street, the bunch of drunk parasites. Fat Billy was passed out on top of the kitchen table, which normally wouldn’t have stopped me from rolling Fat Billy out the back door into the driveway. Fat Billy was stuck fast to the table, though, glued on board by some magic combination of beer, drool, and cigarette ash. I left him as he alternately snored and whimpered in his sleep, crying out against something.

Stan Manler himself was locked in the basement with Kelly Booker, the crazy bastard. Kent was walking around our backyard screaming to me to let him back in, because he couldn’t find his kid sister. Down in the basement Stan couldn’t hear anything, and he was lucky. I peeled them apart and spent equal time berating her for loose values and pounding him on the back with macho enthusiasm. As we chatted I guided them gently to the door and thrust them rudely out, at the mercy of Kent and all the overprotective brotherly fanaticism he could muster.

I found Rodney in the living room, sitting next to Brenda with a woefully lustful expression on his face, saddened by the loss of such a beautifully compliant girl with such pale and doughy skin. I felt sorry for Rodney, he had so little. Just his dog which none of us had ever seen but which he talked about lovingly whenever the subject was least appropriate, and long sodden nights like this one which had been ruined so early. But we still had a body to get rid of So I didn’t give in to sentiment.

The house settled around us and I knocked glass around as I sat down next to Brenda as well, quietly lighting a cigarette and enjoying a moment of peace that was immediately destroyed by Rodney and his chubby, bleating voice. I stopped feeling sorry for him. My night had been ruined, I wasn’t nearly as drunk as I deserved to be, I’d lost the insulting little brunette into the night forever, and Fat Billy was stuck to my kitchen table. I didn’t feel sorry for anyone. Not even Brenda. They all got what they deserved. Even me.

“What are we gonna do, Len?”

I curled my lip up. “We could eat her. Got any relish?”

He looked ready to agree, so I stood up. “Fuck, Rodney, I’m just gonna call the cops and have a clear conscience.”

He leaped up, pop-eyes bulging. “Len—”

I smiled. “Just kidding.” I said quietly. “Sit down before I kill you.”

He could see it in my eyes, the bloodshot near murder that had occurred. He sat down.

“We’re gonna bury her.” I finally admitted. “Pray your killer has the same mercy on you, asshole.”

####

The next morning I sat on our front porch in mud-caked pants and dirt-stiff hair, squinting into the sun and smoking my last cigarette. Rodney was asleep in his room, in his bed as if no one had or would ever die in it. The world was still and I just let the sun bake the mud on like sin.

“Been groveling?”

I turned and smiled at her, her short brown hair and beautiful “fuck you” grin. She held her shoes in one hand, and stood flat footed on my front porch eyeing me with insulting archness. Something lodged itself in my chest, and I smoked to dislodge it. Just like that, and I was in love.

She sat down next to me and we sat there like an old married couple, watching all the lunatics driving to work. Upstairs Rodney began screaming in his sleep and there was no one next to him to offer any comfort. He just went on and on and on.

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All Over the Place

I Think the Hair Sealed the Deal for Me. IT WAS SPECTACULAR.

I Think the Hair Sealed the Deal for Me. IT WAS SPECTACULAR.

I became obsessed with baseball as a kid because of Burger King. I think it was 1979; for the Mighty Somers Clan BK was our go-to low-rent celebration place, the fast food restaurant that Mom and Dad took my brother and I to eat when we got the Honor Roll or won a Little League game or something like that. There weren’t many good pizza places, I don’t think there was a McDonald’s at the time. The only other restaurant that was even close to BK in importance for getting little kids excited was Arthur Treacher’s. Man, I miss Arthur Treacher’s. But to go to Arthur treacher’s we had to drive into (gasp) Union City, so that was much rarer.

Anyway, BK had a promotion giving away Topps baseball cards of the World Champion 1978 New York Yankees, and I got a few one time when Mom took us out to eat. And I was fascinated. The design of the cards, the photos, which were all super serious and seemed like they’d been taken without the players being aware — and the stats. Oh, the stats printed on the back.

This is why baseball is the go-to sport of soft white boys everywhere. It’s the closest thing to a role-playing game that’s still a manly sport.

I started watching the game, playing the game (really, really badly; I played like eleventy seasons of Left Out in Little League, and I can still hear the groans of my teammates when I stepped up to the plate for my inevitable pop foul), and collecting baseball cards. Google tells me those Burger King cards are worth a little something these days, though I imagine only if you actually took care of them and haven’t had them rubber-banded together in a shoebox in varying climate conditions for nearly 40 years.

Anyway, for a while baseball was part of my personality. I could quote stats. I listened to every single Mets game on the Radio in 1987. Every single game! I can still hear Bob Murphy in my sleep. I wore a baseball cap everywhere. My Dad used to get free Mets tickets in the early 1980s, and even though Shea Stadium was absolutely empty for some reason we still sat up in the weeds, getting nosebleeds. I played Rotisserie baseball and formed a computer game league with friends from High School where we drafted Hall of Fame players and played 16-game seasons against each other.

Today, not so much. As a middle-aged man, baseball has slowly receded from me. I can’t give a single reason; it’s a tasty melange of changing tastes, boredom with something I’ve explored pretty thoroughly, the altered aspects of the game over the years, and yeah, probably the scandals. Whatever, for a wide variety of reasons that may indeed include my general level of suckitude, I don’t pay close attention to baseball any more.

####

I think of this, strangely enough, because I’m a novelist. A novelist with a messy range of books and shorter works out there, including thrillers, mysteries, dysotpian sci-fi, urban fantasy, and some straight-up general fiction. In other words, my work doesn’t fit well into a single shelving category, and I do think that hurts me sometimes.

That’s also a function of evolving tastes and interests. When I first started writing, I was heavily inspired by epic fantasy, so that’s what I wrote. Much of my pre-college work is swords and sorcery, epic quests, magical talismans and such. In college I got into crime thrillers and mysteries, and then I went into a very pretentious phase where I read classic literature and thought I was capable of matching it. A little later I got back into speculative fiction but more on the sci fi end of things. I’m all over the place.

This isn’t unusual; most writers have a wide range of influences and a wide range of projects they’re interested in. And plenty of writers manage to publish in a variety of genres and still have great success. But I do wonder sometimes if my work isn’t too varied, making it hard for someone who loves, say, the cyberpunk sci fi of Avery Cates to jump over to the snarky dark comedy of Chum. Whereas if I published exclusively in one genre I might build more momentum with people, as they’d be able to check into new books without having to research what they’re getting into.

But of course, sort of like my interest in baseball, you get bored with stuff, don’t you? I explore a concept, an idea, a character, and sometimes that’s it: There’s no more there there for you personally. So you go looking for something more interesting. And you write a new book. And no one knows how in the world to market it.

####

I’ve always been suspicious of people who are, in turn, suspicious of change. Changing, evolving opinions, tastes, and beliefs are healthy. Dogmatic refusal to re-asses and re-evaluate is kind of boring and unimaginative. Why in the world would you like exactly the same things as when you were younger? I mean, when I was 25 I thought lite beer was great and buried my whiskey in mixers. It was a savage, unschooled time.

So I don’t think too hard about baseball, and I don’t miss it much. Unless you told me I’d sell a boatload of books if I started watching Mets games again, in which case I’m all in. Because poppa needs new shoes.

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The Dangers of Not Enough Alternative in Your History

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

Like a man paralyzed with fear as he watches a horrible auto accident, I continue to tune into HBOs Vinyl now and then. The wonders of the digital age on my cable company’s circa-2005 technology allows me to time shift to my heart’s desire, which means a show like Vinyl that would get skipped hard if I had to choose between it and several other, much better shows actually gets watched in the wee small hours when I’m bored and tired. While being bored and tired when watching a show might not be the ideal headspace for appreciating art, it is the ideal headspace for undercooked prestige dramas.

Vinyl has its pleasures, but it remains an unsatisfying slog of a show filled with a clichéd antihero lead character and plenty of overblown self-importance. Overall, I’d give the show so far a hard C+, but something’s been bothering me about it from the get go, something that has nothing to do with the characters or the dialog or even the fact that the lead character is so awful (seriously, if you haven’t watched the show and want to know what the character of Richie Finestra [Bobby Cannavale] is like, imagine Don Draper on a bloaty, self-hating binge but then remove all his charisma and magnetism and any sort of redeeming artistic sense of beauty). I finally figured it out: It’s the half-measure alternative history of the show.

This is why watching or reading not-great works can still be profitable for a writer, because the failures can crystallize concepts for you. Put simply, Vinyl demonstrates that if you’re going to tell an alternative history story, you must be prepared to actually change history.

Vinyl As a Work of Sci Fi

Is Vinyl, the story of a record executive in the early 1970s, science fiction? No, of course not—except it kind of is, because Vinyl exists in that mainstay of SF stories, the alternate history. Richie Finestra isn’t just a fictional character at a fictional record company, he’s supposedly a heavy-hitter who’s the principle shareholder of a major record company. A company that has a reasonable chance of signing, say, Alice Cooper or Elvis to its roster.

And the show has fun with that, having actors portray some of the biggest stars of the time, and imagining they’re actually on the American Century label or being pursued by the team of A&R people working there. David Bowie shows up. Robert Goulet (!) shows up. A host of lesser-known stars of the era show up. The impersonations vary in quality and effectiveness, but the key here is that a plot point in several episodes has been American Century, a label in serious financial trouble, keeps trying to woo big stars onto their label. And it keeps failing, for the simple reason that those stars never signed with American Century, because American Century didn’t actually exist.

In other words, things like this keep happening: A hapless A&R guy, his job on the line if he can’t sign a new act, has a random run-in with Alice Cooper, who in 1973 was a huge rock star. So the hapless A&R guy spends a boozy, exhausting weekend wooing Cooper and trying to convince him to leave his band and go solo on American Century. That’s all fine, because it’s 100% possible that Alice Cooper was in fact wooed by a wide variety of A&R guys from a wide range of labels and no one was there to snap photos and write breathless accounts of it. But of course we all know that Cooper didn’t go solo until 1975, and when Cooper humiliates our hapless A&R guy because he hates Finestra and American Century, there’s no surprise. So far Vinyl has proved unwilling to actually re-write history too much, so we know it won’t take Alice Cooper from fictional version of a real person into the realm of 100% fictional character. That makes all the cameos by 1970s rock stars pointless. We know what will or won’t happen.

And so, Vinyl turns to fictional rock stars for the actual kinetic storytelling, inventing someone like Hannibal, an R&B superstar, so American Century can actually have a contract in play that won’t break history. That’s fine, but mixing the fake and the real just underscores the problem: Vinyl‘s unwilling to change history in service of its alternate version of history, and if an alternate history is kind of exactly the same as actual history, what’s the point?

Meet The Drapers

Mad Men danced the same dance: Set in the advertising world of the 1960s, it had a fake ad man in Draper, working at a fake advertising firm, but working with real-life products. And it works, for two reasons. One, people (or at least: me) are much less familiar with the shadowy world of advertising. In other words, as far as most people are concerned, Don Draper might as well have come up with the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign, because most normal people have no fucking idea who actually did it.

Two, Mad Men did in fact change history many times on the show, in the sense that it often had real products and real companies hire Don and company to work on campaigns for them. Heck, the Coke Ad in the finale is an actual campaign, a famous campaign, and Matt Weiner just decided that in the Mad Men version of the universe it was invented by Don Draper, and screw reality.

Mad Men is also assisted by the fact that large corporations often did and do have several advertising firms on the payroll, so it doesn’t break any rules to imagine the boutique-style firms Draper worked at might not have picked up an account here and there.

Vinyl has no such luxury, since rock stars are only signed to one label at a time. Teasing us that Richie might sign Led Zeppelin in 1973 instead of watching them get their own Swan Song label is only exciting if we think it might actually happen in the alternate universe of the show. Once we figure out that stuff like that is never going to happen, we get bored. When Richie sits down with a bloated Elvis in Vegas and tries to get him to dump his residency and start over with a new label, the audience twiddles its thumbs because the show has established that a major departure from reality like that is never going to happen.

If the show did take those chances, it would instantly be orders of magnitude more interesting. A show where Elvis cleans up, hits the gym, and signs with a demented cokehead record executive desperately trying to make music meaningful in his own life again? That would be interesting for no other reason than it would be 100% unpredictable. As it is, the impersonations of celebrities on Vinyl are only as interesting as the performers’ mimicry skills.

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The Writing Bona Fides: Software

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

I’m a lazy, lazy, lazy man. I mean, just writing that sentence exhausted me, and I had to go and have a shot of whiskey to regain my energy and lust for life.

I’m also an easily distracted man. I can’t remember what I used to be like pre-Internet, but with the Internet sitting on my desktop, I am a cocaine monkey.

So, to recap; I am lazy and have the attention span of a small fly. And yet I am a professional writer of some success. Let’s not quibble on what the precise meaning of success is in this context. Or professional. Or quibble. Let’s just say I have sold some books and make a living with words, and yes, there are plenty of teachers in the Jersey City School System who would be very amazed to discover this.

When interacting with folks who want to be writers themselves, I get a couple of standard questions. You can probably guess a few of them — what’s my process, will I read their manuscript, will I please give them back their cocktail, which totally wasn’t mine to just grab off the bar — but a couple always confound me, especially questions about the software I use when writing a novel.

I usually respond by grabbing them by the lapels and screaming are you going to buy me a whiskey or what until they flee. But the questions stick with me, because whenever I answer I feel like a fraud.

The Stipulations

First, a stipulation. This is important.

I am a moron.

No, seriously — I’m an idiot. A charming, handsome, well-spoken, pantsless idiot. I am frequently ill-informed, I sometimes have trouble hearing people and pretend I understand what they’re saying, I parrot opinions all the time and am easily confused and defeated in rhetorical competition. In short, for god’s sake my experiences are my own and mine alone and nothing I say here is meant in any way as a proclamation. In other words, there are many, many paths to writing a novel or having a freelance writing career. If your experience differs from mine, that’s great! I am a moron.

The Edumacation of Jeff Somers

The software question mystifies me, because writing a novel is the most straightforward thing you can imagine. You have an idea. You tell a story. It’s literally a process of putting one word after another until you have, oh, 80,000 of them. That’s it. It’s that easy. That’s one reason I aspired to being a writer in the first place, because it’s easy.

Of course, not everyone thinks it’s easy. I can understand that. Because it actually isn’t all that easy — the process is easy. The intellectual effort of creating characters, premise, action, and coherent narrative is hard. But writing is and always will be the act of putting one word after the other. Until about 20 years ago, I wrote novels on a manual typewriter. On paper. I still have drawers stuffed full of hardcopy manuscripts. When I grudgingly switched to writing on a computer because no one wanted to receive 400 pages of typescript covered in coffee stains, correction fluid, and shocking pornographic doodles, I used an open source, free word processor and still do (Libre Office, currently).

And that’s it.

The idea of using complicated software to track plot arcs, characters, and other minutiae frankly mystifies me. The idea that any App or software is helpful in any way is mystfiying to me. I’ve never felt the need for it, and can’t see the benefit, and that alternatively makes me feel smug and triggers my Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome

Sometimes the accoutrements of a profession, the jargon of a profession are comforting. You might not be at the top of your profession, but at least you know how to use the super secret tools that the rubes don’t even know exist. At least you know the passwords. So when people ask me about the tools I use to write fiction and my answer is literally “Uh: words?” and they give me that look I know so well from all the times I have emerged from pub restrooms without my pants, I wonder if maybe I am fooling myself. Can you be a professional if you don’t use any tools?

At other times my answer to that last question is fuck yeah you can. But the use of specific tools can make you feel like you’re at least part of the club. When I’m on panels or in informal gatherings and a writer starts talking about the complex array of tools they use to write their novels, I do start to feel a little like the Slow Cousin, and I wonder, if only briefly: Would my work be better, or would there be more of it, or would it sell better if I started using some kind of magical software?

And then I am usually distracted by alcohol and forget all about it.

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“10 Cloverfield Lane” & The Oldest Trick in the Book

I AM UNRELIABLE

I AM UNRELIABLE

So, there will be spoilers in this essay. Like, seriously. Like, this essay will be about 88% spoilers. So if you plan to see 10 Cloverfield Lane at any point in your life and you want to do so unspoiled, this essay is not for you.

So: 10 Cloverfield Lane. Good movie! Not like revelatory or anything, but solidly constructed, inventively plotted, well-acted, and frequently surprising. The premise is tight: A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), fleeing a bad relationship, gets into a bad car accident and wakes up chained up inside a bunker-cum-bomb shelter owned by a man named Howard, played by John Goodman. She’s terrified, but he assuages those fears: He’s not a crazy pervert, he tells her he’s saved her life because the Earth has recently been attacked by aliens using some sort of gas weapon, and everyone outside the bunker is dead.

And off we go. 10 Cloverfield Lane has a lot of fun with expectations, zigging and zagging several times as it fools the audience, and it does so using the oldest trick in the book: The film literally tells you exactly what’s happening in the first twenty minutes or so, but the audience dismisses the information because of the batshit, unreliable character who delivers it. Namely, Howard, who Goodman portrays as violently deranged even when he’s being quiet and plaintive. Because Howard is so obviously nuts, when he tells us aliens have attacked, we dismiss it. Guess what? That’s exactly what’s happened and Howard is 100% correct!

That was unexpected for me, because I fell for the oldest trick. I tried to be smart, because I like leaning over to my wife and telling what’s going to happen in movies five minutes before it does happen, but I got fooled this time, because Howard couldn’t possibly be right. I figured something weird was going on, of course, but I also figured it couldn’t be an alien gas attack, because that’s what Howard said it was.

Of course, Howard also turns out to be a deranged pervert just as Michelle feared he was, which is more complicated because Howard also specifically denies that. And yet his unreliability didn’t fool me there–nor was it intended to–because, again, Goodman plays him as the Creepiest Survivalist Ever from his first appearance on screen. His behavior negates his denial over his motives for rescuing/abducting Michelle, and thus we’re not fooled, whereas his behavior makes his statements about alien invasions seem crazy. The great part is, he’s lying about one thing and telling the truth about the other and we’re completely wrong about which is which.

The reason his secret motivation for saving Michelle remains a bit of a twist though is because it turns out to be aliens. When Michelle makes a desperate grab for his keys and gets thisclose to escaping the bunker, she’s stopped by the revelation that everyone outside is, in fact, dead of some horrible chemical attack, and that she is, in fact, safe in Howard’s bunker. And so the audience forgets all that stuff about Howard being a weirdo perv, because suddenly he’s a hero who’s been telling the truth this whole time.

It’s a nice pair of tricks, and they elevate the movie significantly. And they remind us that sometimes the best way to fool your audience is also the simplest.

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The Awful Miracle of the Post Office

DIRTY MAGIC

DIRTY MAGIC

My wife hates the Post Office with a white-hot passion. This has nothing to do with politics or economics or anything rational; she just believes every single interaction she’s had with the post office has been horrible, terrible, no-good, and thus it should be burned to the ground and the ashes made into a delicious, nourishing tea.

Me, I have a more complex relationship with the Post Office. As a long-time zine publisher and a lifetime short story submitter from wayyyy back in the days before the Internet, I’ve spent a lot of time in post offices. And frankly, I am amazed that I can spend less than 50 cents and have something arrive halfway around the country in a few days. It’s like modern magic.

So, all respect to the beleaguered postal workers of the world (and they are beleaguered, trust me, baby), but stepping into the post office is often like stepping back into 1995. Which might have been the last time the PO was financially stable thanks to our friends in Congress, but let that drift. In other words, have you ever tried to mail something to Canada or (god help you) another country form the PO? Jebus.

Okay, so first you have to fill out a form CN-22 declaring what you’re mailing. Well, first you have to locate a CN-22 somewhere, and that can be a quest of some magnitude. And no, you cannot fill them out online or anything without special permission. How do you get that special permission? I have no idea, because my job is not “learn about obscure postal regulations.”

So you fill it out and then you show up and wait in line, and then you hand the person behind sixteen inches of bulletproof glass your package and your CN-22 and they proceed to type everything into their computer system by hand. I am not shitting you. You stand there while the beleaguered (and they are beleaguered) postal worker laboriously types in everything you just hand-wrote on the form. MY FUCKING GOD.

Now, imagine you have, oh, six or seven packages going to Canada. And one to Germany. OH MY FUCKING GOD you just lost like forty minutes of your life.

How is this the process in 2016? How? For the love of all that is holy, how?

Now imagine you walk into the Post Office at 10:30AM and it is empty. And as you stand there while the postal worker tries to figure out if you really meant 0 instead of O in that postal code, slowly a line of about thirteen people forms behind you. And all you can do is stare straight ahead and do subtle limbering exercises so when they jump you, you’ll be ready.

And yet, in a few days, people will be receiving things from me in other countries. And that still amazes me.

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An Evening Out

YES PLEASE

YES PLEASE

A Play in One Act

Jeff and The Duchess meet a friend for dinner. They arrive early at the restaurant and sit at the bar.

JEFF: A whiskey, please.

THE DUCHESS: And chips! And guacamole! And a bottle of wine!

The BARTENDER pours Jeff a whiskey roughly the size of the ocean. Imagine a bottle of Scotch, poured entirely into a tumbler the size of Jeff’s fist, and you have some small, meager idea of how deep this pour was. In the history of heavy-handed bartenders pouring deep drinks for you, this one ranks as possibly the deepest pour ever known to man. If Dylan Thomas had drinks this deep poured for him he would have died after three, maybe four.

JEFF: <sizing up drink> Yes, that seems about right.

<TIME PASSES>

BARTENDER: Another, hon?

JEFF: YES PLEASE.

BARTENDER (the true hero of this play) proceeds to pour another entire bottle and perhaps a bit of a second bottle into the tumbler. JEFF’s eyes grow wide and his whole body begins to tremble.

JEFF: <whispering> As it was prophesized …

<TIME PASSES. JEFF and THE DUCHESS meet their friend and are seated at dinner. JEFF finishes his second whiskey and begins to work on the bottle of wine>

THE DUCHESS: What do you think?

<JEFF smiles beatifically at her. One eye is apparently focused just over her shoulder>

JEFF: WAZZIT?

THE DUCHESS: We were discussing politics, and you need to tell your friend here that he’s wrong.

JEFF: Bizzurp. Fonda! MINGUS!

THE DUCHESS: Oh, dear.

JEFF: <standing up and tearing off trousers with one motion> MIIIIINNNGUUSSSSS!

And: Scene.

The lesson here, my friends, is that you’re never too old to be a jackass. Also: The Drink is good. But the Drink is Chaotic Neutral.

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This Is Not For You

Vinyl on HBO

Vinyl on HBO

The combined age of the main forces behind HBO’s new original series, Vinyl, is 200. That by itself means nothing, and lord knows when I am 73 years old, like Martin Scorsese is, I hope I am half as spry and mentally nimble as he is. Same for Mick Jagger at 73, and even Terrence Winter, the relative child here at the ripe old age of 55.

Watching their new show, however, you get the sense that it does matter, at least a little. Not simply because it’s a period piece set in 1973, or even because it’s a period piece that reconstructs certain events in a slavishly worshipful way that implies these events meant something to these men, in a personal way. But because the story they’re telling, at least through two episodes (as I write this) is one of those stories that seems pretty bare-naked in its psychological underpinnings, which in this case seems to strongly imply that these three old white guys are firmly looking backwards at this point in their lives. Because while there’s certainly an exciting story in the American music scene of the early 1970s, with the Summer of Love years in the past and punk rock bubbling under like acid, what Vinyl mainly is is a bubbling pot of clichés involving midlife crises, rock n’ roll as mystical energy binding the universe together, and, as Richard Hell put it, Scorsese’s “relentless framing of life as nothing but competition among men for power — represented by money, willingness to betray and kill, cocaine, and pussy.

This is Not For You

Privilege is awesome, let me tell you — you simply must try it someday — but it can really fuck with your head. When you’re younger and moderately affluent, everything seems like it was made for you, because it was. And even the stuff that isn’t made for you seems like it ought to be, or at least seems like you should be able to just wander over and get into it. And then you get older, and the world shifts, and things stop being aimed directly at your pleasure centers. They throw you over for a younger crowd, or a more diverse crowd, or just a different crowd, and there you are: Middle aged or thereabouts and confused. Why are people so excited about this new thing that you don’t get? It’s maddening!

I recall back in the days when Anthrax and Public Enemy were vibrant parts of pop culture, and their collaboration was Big News. I went to see them play a gig at the New Ritz (or maybe it was the Old Ritz, who the fuck can remember) and being super excited. The place was crowded with Public Enemy fans who were not in the least interested in skinny white kids like me, desperately trying to mosh around, and I got a bit roughed up when PE left the stage and half the crowd simply walked out rather than stick around for Anthrax. They weren’t friendly. It wasn’t for me, but I’d been convinced it was.

Anyway, Vinyl. Vinyl is the story, so far, of successful record producer Richie Finestra, who started off like everyone in the record business by screwing over a poor black artist and in 1973 is principal shareholder and CEO of American Century Records, a record label in trouble. Richie is struggling to stay sober, hates half the artists his company has on its roster, and is destined by the end of the first episode to have the sort of violent epiphany that only happens in fiction. Vinyl is a smorgasborg of things you have heard before, including the rather ancient saw about how Rock n’ Roll is some sort of primitive energy superpower that can change your life as long as you don’t lose sight of it.

I mean, seriously. This is 2016. Rock n’ Roll ain’t what it used to be, but here’s another story about how a moribund musical genre was once the most powerful force in the universe. But what it really is Scorsese, Jagger, and Winter looking back on a time when everything was, in fact, meant for them.

The Good Old Days

Most people have those moments when an experience kicked you in the ass. And for a lot of people — myself included — many of those moments included a discovery of music. Whether it was the first song you heard that really made you feel something, or a soundtrack to a special moment, we’ve all been there. So there’s nothing wrong with the way Winter and Scorsese pepper Vinyl‘s narrative with hallucinations of famous rock stars performing — Bo Diddly suddenly appearing at a birthday party, Jerry Lee Lewis turning up in an office, Karen Carpenter singing along to her own song on the radio in a car sailing down the highway. These moments are self-indulgent but passably interesting.

The thing is, Rock n’ Roll is no longer the magical culture-changing power it was in the 50s or 60s or 70s or, god help us, the 80s or 90s. We can argue about exactly when Rock n’ Roll stopped being a magical force that changed lives — some might argue it never was, of course — but the fact is any story that is predicated on just how powerfully transformative music can be is a snooze. What Vinyl represents is the recollection of people for whom Rock was personally transformative. We’re supposed to believe it because they can scrounge up the budget to have someone impersonate The New York Dolls and then film a nicely edited sequence where the sheer power of Personality Crisis brings a building down on Richie’s head and he walks away with that dazed look of wonder that truly powerful music can inspire. You know, the sort of music that makes buildings collapse. Because it’s so powerful.

Buried in that tired narrative, however, is something else: The constant refrain in the show’s first two episodes that popular music is crap. So far, characters on Vinyl have slagged just about every dubious rock artist of the era, from Chicago to ABBA to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer to Donny Fucking Osmond. With the smugness of hindsight, all the cool characters know this music is shit, and the music they love — old jump blues, the Dolls, Black Sabbath, burgeoning punk rock — is the real good stuff. But what they’re really saying, I think, is that today’s music sucks. Because it’s not for them. They can have someone on the show disparage Jethro Tull because it’s 2016 and seriously, no one can believe that Jethro Tull was a thing. But under that is the implication, I think, that if Richie were to wake up in 2016 he would be horrified at what’s happened to pop music, because, I suspect, Scorsese, Jagger, and Winter are horrified.

That Last Grasping Moment

Time leaves us all behind. I think people of a certain age who grew up with Rock n’ Roll’s first wave could wrap their heads around punk rock and heavy metal and grunge because they were just permutations, evolutions. They were even at times a return to roots, to a simple chord structure and insistent beat and personal lyrics. You could go from Jerry Lee Lewis to Television in just a few hops.

By 2016, things have changed. Rock is in such serious decline the only time you hear about a guitarist is when they wheel someone like Joe Perry out onto the stage to lend some hot licks to the goddamn new Pitbull song. If the last time you thought you had your finger on the pulse was when CBGB’s was still booking acts, it sure must feel like everything’s gone to hell, and telling a story about a coked-out record executive whose life is changed by The New York Dolls seems like a bold statement. It isn’t though. It’s just kvetching that not everything is for you.

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