Targeted Nostalgia

Two unrelated things that aren’t have thrown me into a fit of nostalgia today: baseball and Target.

It was the last game of the season today, and despite the fact that the Rockies had a catastrophic time this year, I forced myself to listen, to take the pain and punishment of hearing them fail miserably. They won, despite having a skeleton crew of almost all third-string players and late-season replacements against a World Series-defending team. It got rough for an inning, and I thought it would all fall apart, but they pulled it out, and ended a dismal 2011, well below the .500 mark.

I listened to almost no games this year, because after about May, things imploded like an old Vegas casino making way for a new chrome-and-glass monstrosity. And this is the first year I didn’t see any Rockies games in person. In fact, I only went to one game all year, mostly because I can’t stand watching the Giants about as much as I can’t stand going to games at Oakland Coliseum. So there was a certain nostalgia to firing up the game audio today, the same way I feel after it’s been a long winter and I tune into that first game, hear the familiar announcers, get all of the standard commercials and station identification bumpers and little audio touchstones that bring me back to the summer I lived in Denver, pulling in the 850 KOA signal on my AM radio.

My year in Denver had two distinct eras, the first being the summer of 2007, when I worked from home for Frankov’s startup, and went to every day game I could afford at the one-block-away Coors Field. But then, almost exactly four years ago to the day, I got a job as a tech writer for this internet security firm. I didn’t know anybody in Denver, and suddenly found myself driving an hour a day to this high-tech campus, or as high-tech as the area had, at least. I was the second tech writer, and the first was totally consumed with his work, so we almost never talked. And because of the strange reporting structure, my own introverted mannerisms, and this mild disconnect between me and the work culture of the tech industry, I didn’t hang out with many people at work.

What do I mean by the work culture? I guess every place I lived had its own style or flavor of the tech industry. Seattle in the mid-90s was very Microsoft-driven; MSFT was practically printing their own money, and every company was either trying to keep up with them compensation-wise, was somehow dependent on them for their livelihoods, or was trying hard to be the exact opposite of them. New York was very Wall Street, except for that minor blip of “silicon alley” doofusism that vanished when the NASDAQ did. Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley, the gold standard of tech company behavior, no explanation needed.

But Denver had its own odd little identity. There were pockets of high tech, but it was held back by this attitude by some who thought it was still the wild damn west out there. Denver 2007 was just barely Seattle 1997 to me, and socially, it felt like one in maybe five people belonged to some outback conservative christian church with kids in a lockdown academy and a barefoot wife at home. This was the land of Promise Keepers, Ted Haggard, megachurches. I’d seen worse — I spent a dozen or so years in Indiana where the ratio was more like 5 out of 6.  But it wasn’t just the politics or religion; it was a combination of that, of age, of technical background, that made me feel like an outsider there.

The job didn’t have a cafeteria, and we sat four people to a mega-cube with low walls, so the idea of brown-bagging didn’t appeal to me. Instead, I’d get in my brand new little car, and drive around the neighborhood until I landed at a fast food joint. The office sat on the edge of nowhere, a half hour south of Denver, an area with a few golf courses, an executive airport, and a whole lot of high mesa desert occasionally punctuated with strips of prefab big-box culture dropped on straight roads spaced apart at a mile per. Twenty years before, it was probably all barren cattle-grazing land, when an invisible SimCity player in the sky clicked and dropped all the big names down: Safeway, Chipotle, Chili’s, and Target, with a peppering of Subways and cell phone stores. From horizon to horizon, you’d see the orange-brown Colorado high plains, littered with the same exact stores I’d seen in every other place I’d lived or visited.

I’d always end up at the same two or three places, mostly Taco Bell or McDonald’s. I’d always bring a book, sit in my car, eat the same thing every day and read. The Yaris still had the new car smell and the novelty of car ownership I’d missed during my time in New York. I think I told Sarah one time about how I preferred to eat alone like this every day, and it depressed her, but I liked it. After almost a decade of being surrounded with ten thousand people in the same city block as me, it felt so nice to be absolutely alone.

It would take me five minutes to drive to Taco Bell, and ten to eat my Mexican pizza and nachos. That meant I’d had another 40 minutes to kill, until I’d need to tech write my way through the back half of the day. I’d inevitably end up at the big Super Target on Lincoln, this massive version of the familiar red department store, a two-story version with a double-decker parking lot and a grocery store welded to the side. I’d sit on the top deck of that garage, and you could see this great expanse of nothingness to the south, rolling hills and scrub brush and mountains in the distance, the ribbon of I-25 stretching from Lone Tree and vanishing on the horizon of Castle Rock. I’d go to Target for everything and nothing, to look at the twenty-dollar polo shirts and the seventeen different kinds of car air freshener, and end up with a case of Coke and some new cat toy we didn’t need.

But I mostly went to watch, to see who ends up at a Target in the middle of the day. And the answer, at this Target, was apparently nobody, because I’d only see a small trickle of stay-at-home moms, all younger than me with a gaggle of kids in tow. This wasn’t like the LA I’d know a year later, where in the middle of the day, you’d see all kinds of people and wonder who in the hell actually worked in a town like that. This reminded me of the solitude of working a day shift at the mall back in Indiana, where you’d only run into geriatrics and pediatrics. It had this certain feel to it, a feeling that I shouldn’t be there, the same feeling I had when I skipped a day of high school and saw a world I didn’t belong in.

And the visits to Target tied into that first era. Sarah worked a lot at her job, working nights, weekends, long days. And we didn’t have cable, didn’t watch TV, didn’t do much of anything outside of work except try to regroup to get ready for more work. And it seems like we spent an inordinate amount of time at the Stapleton Target, undergoing consumer therapy by experiencing the big box lanes of SKUs in a store that we didn’t get to experience in Manhattan. We’d end up with hundreds of dollars of damage in those white and red bullseyed bags, Method, Archer, Market Pantry. I’d have the next PlayStation game that would consume my off-hours in my little office, and whatever little cellophane-wrapped junk food I’d consume at my desk while listening to those games and not writing my next book. But those trips to the world outside the womb of my home office were strikingly themed by the uniformity of the Target experience. And when the first era quickly ended and the second era made me miss it, those trips to another branch of the same outlet let me briefly revisit my lost summer.

Now, four years, later, twelve hundred miles away, and 5280 feet lower, everything is different, except a daytime run to Target. They just built a new one, about a mile from my house. Now that I work from home, I’ll end up there after lunch, to pick up a case of (now diet) Coke or a box of Claritin. And it’s a different shape, a different layout, but the same experience, the same types of daytime shoppers, the same red-shirted staff and aisles of things I don’t need but will probably buy.

This nostalgia is a painful and potent drug for me, something it’s very easy for me to get lost in.  I can waste far too much time exploring the connections and bridges of a present day to the past, grasping at these raw feelings I try to replay as a time machine to a distant era or pleasant memory.  I stumble across these things, like the smell of a faded air freshener or an old receipt to a lunch from 2002 stuffed in the back of a book, and it can trigger this rush of thoughts back to that time.  And I spent 1999 wishing it was 1992, and 2008 wishing it was 1989, and now bits of 2011 wishing I could open a window to 2007 and take a quick look again.  I wonder if I’m the only person who does this, if I’ve accidentally segmented my life into these predefined periods by moving and changing jobs, or if it would be the same if I still lived on the same street in the same town where I grew up.  It’s hard to be present in now, except that I know at some point in the future, I’ll be looking back and remembering 2011 again.  And maybe the bridge will be a consumer store, or maybe it will be a kind of food or a song or the sound of an appliance or the smell and feel of an autumn breeze at the tail-end of a long summer.   But I know that it’ll happen, at some point.

And now, I’ve gotta stop doing this, and go immerse myself in the now of trying to write my next damn book.  Stay tuned.


Eversion and the mass-hallucination we call life

So Facebook recently fucked over its entire interface.  That’s big news and not big news; I mean, it’s been beaten to death in various memes, even though it just happened a matter of hours ago.  It’s big news in the sense that a somewhat-usable product has been made into a much less usable product.  It’s not big news in the sense that we’re all marching to our graves at a rate of an hour every hour, some a bit faster than that, and nobody really gives a shit about various wars and economic disasters as much as they care about the order and sorting of various updates from their friends describing their bowel movements.

What’s interesting to me is how social media sites have changed our abilities to disseminate information.  I’m almost convinced you could film an entire movie backwards, or edit it together so the events happened in reverse-chronological order, because people are so used to following feeds of information like blogs and twitter backwards.  Everyone complains about how twitter and texting is killing the letter or the long-form prose entry, how people used to write long letters, which were replaced by long emails, which were replaced by blog posts, which were replaced by 140-character bursts of information.  And I suppose that’s true.  But I also wonder about people’s ability to glue together narratives from disparate entries of text, and how that will change our perception of reality.

William Gibson, the guy who invented cyberspace, later claimed that we are already in cyberspace.  (He called it everting.) He didn’t mean that we had stupid goggles glued to our head or were immersed into some Tron wet dream.  I think back in 1995, those Lawnmower Man days, I thought there would be a sudden tipping point where computers would get enough horsepower and the right neural tap so that we’d be able to spend time in a simulated reality.  What happened instead is a parallel reality was created, and it slowly became woven into our daily lives, until we reached the point where more of this cyber-reality existed than our actual lives, and I don’t think anybody really realizes it.

Maybe I’m a bad example of this, but the bulk of my social interaction now takes place over TCP/IP.  I work from home, and aside from two meetings a week, I conduct all of my work through emails and chat rooms and bug tracking software and wikis.  And technically, my phones run through VOIP, so those are also funneled through the ether.  I talk to friends in email; I post on this blog; I write twitter updates and reply to Facebook posts; I do pretty much everything online.  I shop online; I sell books online; I post the high scores of my video games online, and prior to cutting my copy of Call of Duty in half because it was consuming all of my free time, I played against and with other people solely through my network connection, in a virtual reality where we blew each other up in deathmatches.

Look at all of the stuff that has been replaced by a digital counterpart: you download songs in iTunes instead of buying a physical CD; you get your software in binary form from an app store instead of a shrink-wrapped box.  All of your photos are JPEGs and TIFFs instead of printed on Kodak paper.  Maybe you haven’t moved to e-books yet, but a lot of people have.  Films?  Tax forms?  TV shows?  Calendars?  Maps?  It’s all another subdivision of cyberspace.  Sure, you aren’t sitting at a digital desk in the Matrix and whipping your hands around in the air to manipulate these objects.  But instead of having this completely separate world you enter by jumping in a holodeck or a VR isolation tank, you’ve got an infestation of these objects peppered throughout your regular blood-and-guts reality.

All of this works, until part of it radically changes.  In the real world, you don’t wake up and suddenly find that every house in your subdivision, instead of being arranged on streets in numerical house-number order, were sorted by their frequency of use or color.  But in a virtual world, you’re at the whim of its maker.  When you get used to consuming those status updates in chronological order and they’re suddenly sorted by some piss-poor AI that thinks it knows what’s most important, you obviously throw a fit.   Another example of this — also this week — was when Netflix suddenly decided it would be a great idea to take their existing service and split it into two parts, which completely upends the decade-old experience of putting stuff in a queue and expecting the discs to come in the mail, by complicating the situation with two entirely incompatible queues, one of them having a bafflingly stupid name.

I don’t know anything about human factors (I’m sure A’s dad could give me a lesson on it) but there’s gotta be a term or a threshold on how people react to sudden changes like that.  But is it something learned?  Will the kids born in 2011 who live a lifetime of CEOs with completely stupid UX ideas making dumb adjustments on the fly instantly adapt when their reality is suddenly shifted?  And how will a generation of people like this change the way companies work?  I grew up in a generation that, for the most part, always had email and always knew how to get on a computer and enter in a URL.  So companies started saying “fuck it – don’t ship a manual; just put the URL on the box and let them figure it out” or “we don’t need to staff a toll-free hotline, just have them email when they need to order new checks/change their password/whatever”.  And I’m fine with that, but the generation before me freaked the fuck out, and every Andy Rooney type started in with the “REMEMBER WHEN YOU COULD GO TO THE BANK AND GET THE TELLER TO HELP YOU” crap.  In twenty years, will I be saying “REMEMBER WHEN EVERYTHING WAS IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER?”


Dot Matrix and Word Processors

I was writing about something completely different the other day, and went on this side diversion about dot-matrix printers, and thought about how a giant subset of the population (like everyone born after about 1985) never had to deal with them, while I spent far too many hours fighting them in computer labs, pulling apart the intricate pieces to pry loose jammed scraps of paper that got worked into the machinery.

There’s so many distinctive features of this whole era of printing that are long forgotten.  Dot matrix printers usually used eight little pins to stamp a ribbon as the print head jumped across the page.  My friend Matt had one of these, the Commodore 801, and the thing I remember most about it was that it was unidirectional; the little print head would zip across the page at a breakneck 50 characters per second, then the page would move up a line, and the head would return to the left.  But it didn’t print on the sweep back to the left, which meant it was half as fast as the expensive printers that would print on both passes.

The printers were also tractor-feed back then.  The paper had those little perforated runners hanging off of each end, little strips with holes in them, and the box of paper was fan-fold, so you could feed in the sheet and it would continuously chew through the giant thousand-page sheet of paper in a carton.  Then, after you spent 20 minutes staring at the printer, hoping the thing got through your term paper in one pass, you then had to fold and tear apart each page, then tear off the feed strips on either side.

And, of course, that never worked right.  If you didn’t line up the paper exactly, turning the little knob on the side of the printer, the end of the physical page would not match up with what the computer thought was the end of the page, and you’d get this mangled mess with a blank strip of what was supposed to be the top and bottom margins in the middle of the printed page.  The whole operation of aligning and feeding and advancing paper was a precision thing, and if the paper got folded or creased or otherwise fucked up, the printer would have no mercy and create an origami disaster out of your precious schoolwork.

The output of a dot-matrix looked like shit, and they did a lot of little tricks to get it to resemble actual type.  Like some printers had this “near letter quality” feature, where they’d do multiple passes on the same line to get a higher resolution, and they started adding more pins.  When I was at IUSB, we had armies of these Panasonic KPX-1124 printers, which had 24 pins instead of 8.  These pieces of shit were the bane of my existence back in 1991, and I spent untold hours tearing jammed paper out of these while some dumpy housewife screamed at me about her Psych 101 paper getting trashed.  (If you ever did time around one of these, watch this video and tell me if the clunking sound of that print head slamming into the left margin over and over doesn’t make you go full postal.)

It seems like everyone forgets the other bastard child of that era that made perfect typewritten letters, at the sake of glacial speeds and 120-decibel print runs.  The daisy wheel printer had a hub with a bunch of little spokes coming off of it, each one carrying a little type letter.  It could spin the wheel with a servo motor and then hammer it against the ribbon with a solenoid, making an ink impression that looked exactly like a typewritten page.  These were a big deal if you were printing out things like college admission letters, or you had an English teacher that had a hair up their ass about dot-matrix printers and wanted you to hunt down a selectric and hammer out the damn thing the old fashioned way.  Daisy wheel printers were louder than fuck, and a low-end model typically cost more than your entire computer.

But not everyone had computers.  When I was in high school, I had this “word processor” which was a glorified typewriter, except it had a single line of an LCD display, and it used a thermal print head.  It took these cartridges of some kind of crap that it could transfer to a page with a set of heated pins.  If you have one of those label maker machines, it was a similar deal, but masquerading as a desktop machine.  I think you could only type in one line at a time, and then hit return and wait a minute for it to etch onto the paper.  This wasn’t the best machine for stream-of-consciousness writing, but it was way faster than hunt-pecking on the K-Mart manual typewriter I got at a garage sale as a kid, where you’d type any faster than three characters a minute and all of the little hammers would get wrapped around each other and jam.

I somehow lucked into finding this girl in my freshman year of college that thought I was some kind of writing genius, and got her to type my papers for a semester.  I guess that sounds sort of chauvinistic, but that’s an arrangement that I feel sorry the current generation won’t find themselves in.  The “can you help me type my W131 paper?” pickup line has gone the way of the dodo.

After I wasn’t able to fully seal that deal, I dated someone who bought one of those Brother word processors, which were a very brief halfway-house between a typewriter and a computer.  It was this huge microwave oven-sized thing that was a fusion of a printer, a tiny CRT monitor, a keyboard, and the Notepad.exe program in ROM.  You could type a few pages at a time and then save them to a floppy disk (which was totally incompatible with any other computer) and then when you got it all situated and edited, you pressed a key and it would spit out the creation on actual paper.  My roommate Kirk later had one of these beasts, and I think I remember Larry working off of one for a while.  Here is a nice video of one in action.

Now, computers are cheap as hell, something it seems that most people forget, and laser printers or nice inkjets are everywhere, and we don’t really think about stuff like this.  But I remember the smell of the fine paper dust inside of a monster line printer on campus, one of these washing machine sized beasts that would mass-print thousands of pages off of VAX computers, so long as one of us consultants hooked it up with the occasional corrugated cardboard box of 17″ wide tractor feed paper, that cream and light green-lined stuff.  Every now and again, some idiot would send an ASCII-art dragon to the printer, a giant picture rendered in letters that would print banner-style across three dozen pages of paper, over the course of an hour.  (Even better, when you’re sitting in a public lab and someone in a dorm sends through a picture of a Penthouse Pet done up ASCII-style.)  That was all infinitely better than when someone would accidentally dump a binary file to the DEC LG06 in the library, and it would spit out page after page of random junk until you could get an operator in the machine room to kill the queue.

My last hurrah with dot matrix was about five years ago, when I bought a Tandy 100 off of eBay.  The guy threw in a bunch of other random crap, including a Radio Shack printer from circa 1985, with some bizarro serial cable and no chance in hell of ever working with a machine produced this century.  It went straight to the dumpster, but I probably should have videotaped it going off of a four-story building, or getting it Office Space style with a baseball bat.


The Replay

I’ve been dreading this post for years, but it’s a band-aid I need to rip off.

I was at this acupuncturist in Berkeley a year ago, in some stupid last-ditch attempt at getting rid of my allergies.  (It did not work.)  And I remember laying on his table, with a dozen needles in my arms and feet and face, thinking, “I really should post something today, but I don’t want to regurgitate the same old shit, and it’s only the nine year anniversary.  I’ll wait for an even ten.”  And it’s now ten years, and everyone is either waving their flags and beating their chest and ringin’ them bells, or they’re talking about the folly of spending two billion dollars a day to catch a man that’s already dead.  And every show on TV this weekend is trying to get their spin on it, about how the world of cooking shows or pet rescue or hillbilly alligator hunting was forever changed on this day.

Seriously, fuck all of that.

It all makes me replay the day, and I do that a lot, but I don’t really think about who I was on September 10th, 2001, and what really did change.  And I play this game a lot, with a lot of other arbitrary dates.  I pull up old pictures or dig through old emails, wondering what person I was on 9/11/01 or 7/4/92 or 1/20/97 or any other date.  And I try to reconstruct it, and I always find information I’d totally forgotten.

Here’s how it ended:  I’d been sober a year, more or less.  No meetings, no steps; I just quit drinking.  But that night, my power was out, not because I lived in lower Manhattan, but because my stupid landlord had my entire apartment on two 15-watt breakers, and I was watching the news coverage on NY1 as I was running my computer and cooking in the microwave, and I blew a fuse.  And the fuse box was in a locked box in the basement, and my landlord was in Italy for a month.  So I had no power, in half my apartment, and ConEd had bigger problems on their hands, so I walked to Rob’s and he offered me a beer, and I started slamming them away.  It wasn’t because, like usual, I needed to be the life of the party and get blotto and do stupid things to make everyone else laugh.  It was because I thought if there’s ever a time to fall off the wagon, watching thousands of people die and two skyscrapers collapse was probably that day.

What I know about the weekend before: I just switched jobs, and I thought it was a huge mistake.  I was in way over my head, working as a lone writer surrounded by people who were 18 steps ahead of me.  I think I was the only person in my section of the cube sea that didn’t have a PhD.  I’d moved to New York to be in a relationship, and that ended; I’d found this job at Juno, which started out pretty awesome, and that ended.  I forgot all about this, but I’d emailed Frankov that weekend and asked him if there was anything going on out in SF, if I should pack it in and move out there.  This was post-NASDAQ crash, and he said don’t do it unless you can line something up, and that he lost his job and his apartment, and was now couch-surfing and stringing together a bunch of scraps of contract work to keep alive.  I don’t remember why I wanted to move to San Francisco, except that I wanted to leave New York, and I wanted a lot of different things, depending on the time of day.

I finished my first book the year before, and it didn’t really sell.  I was struggling with finishing my second book, and in this weird funk where I didn’t know how it would ever end.  I was constantly printing drafts and editing them on the train and putting the pieces on index cards and rearranging them on the floor of my apartment and dumping the whole thing into spreadsheets to try and untangle this mess of a book into a cohesive 200 pages.  I’d start with a fresh printout, and read the first page, and think it was perfect, then move to the second, and by the 3rd or 7th or 12th page, I would get sick of the whole thing.  So the first page was damn near perfect, and pages 150-200 were unbearable.

The first page, the first section of the book starts with a scene where all of lower Manhattan was accidentally blown up by a nuclear bomb.

So on the 10th, it was a Monday.  I spent all weekend trying to buy a car on eBay.  I had a good lead on a 1980 Z-28 that some kid in Queens was trying to unload.  It had no exhaust, and there was no way it would pass a NYS emissions test.  He would reply to my emails in all caps, but not answer my questions.  I bid on an AMC Gremlin in Staten Island, but got outbid.  I also looked at a 1982 VW Rabbit convertible.  I owned one in ’92, the one in Summer Rain.  I bought a second one in ’98, when I was writing said book.  Why not a third?  But I figured Ray and Larry would give me unending shit if I bought a sorority chick car.  And I didn’t have a place to park a vehicle, and had no need for one, except for that desire to do what I did as a kid and hit the road when I got depressed, drive for one side of the tape, flip it over, drive back.

I wanted to go to Iceland.  No passport, too expensive.  I spent two weeks in Florida that summer, doing nothing in a motel room, trying to write, sleeping all day, taking long walks at night.  It just barely scratched the itch, and I needed more.  I talked to A about coming back to Bloomington to do a book reading, but I couldn’t get away with coming back to Indiana and not visiting my family, which I really didn’t want to do.  I thought about taking a flight to Nebraska, finding a Motel 6, locking myself in with no internet and nothing but the laptop, and finishing this damn book.

That afternoon, it poured rain.  I bought a lunch at this crap Chinese place downstairs, and it was inedible, so I went to Wendy’s, and it wasn’t much better.  I gave up on lunch, and went to the JetBlue web site, trying to find a vacation for October. For some reason, I bought a plane ticket to New Orleans.  I didn’t know where I would stay or what I would do, so I emailed Suzanne and Chuck, the two people who I knew who spent some time down there.  (I don’t know why I didn’t email Bart, who later became the face of Katrina for a lot of us.)

Chuck’s dead now.  I dug through all of his old emails when he died in 2007, and saw that he was one of the many people that emailed me on the 11th and 12th asking if I was still alive.

Everyone worked at this new place until 6, 7 at night.  Startup mode.  I stayed until 7, then walked in the rain, and took some pictures of people on the street, up by the Tower Records at Astor Place.  One of those pictures ended up being the first cover for Rumored to Exist.  I walked to Kiev, the Ukrainian greasy spoon diner, one of my favorite places to eat, and red-penned a draft of Rumored.  I got through the entire draft while eating pierogies, then set off to catch the N back to Astoria.

Right outside of Kiev, I ran into John, this guy I used to work with at Juno.  He said he was on the way to see a play, because he got a job reviewing theater for some random newspaper, and asked me to tag along.  We walked through the East Village to get to this Alphabet City theater, one of those hundred-seaters that’s probably a cupcake bakery now.  On the way, it poured rain, the standing-in-the-shower-fully-dressed kind of rain.  When we got to the theater, I took off my new dress shoes and literally poured out a half-liter of water.

The play was insanely boring, and I left after the first act.  When I got to the train, I realized that my draft of the book, filled with comments, had turned into a chunk of runny pulp, all of the precious corrections now a smear of pink nothingness.  I got home and took everything out of the bag: my digital camera, the minidisc player, all of my books and papers, and decided to straighten it all out in the morning.

For the record: Kiev is gone.  The Tower Records is gone.  The company I worked for is moving out of their office this month.

Digging through the old emails, I had a couple of online dating prospects going on.  One was a theater actress who would later go on to be Neighbor #2 in a Law and Order episode.  The other, who I really liked, was an artist and trained dogs.  We met up once, and I really did like her, but we never connected, and in all of our later emails, she kept talking about how she was trying to leave town because we were going to get hit with another attack any second now, which was always awkward.

Tuesday morning: my dress shoes were warped and damp and completely unwearable, but I put them on anyway.  I only needed to walk to the train station, then I could take them off and let them dry.  My bag was still wet. I threw out the pulpy Rumored draft, and decided to leave behind my digital camera.  I always brought it to snap pictures of New York streets, but I figured I wouldn’t miss anything if I left it home for a day.

I got on the N train.  I hated the N, and they just changed the schedule, adding this W train that skipped stops and ran express and made it more difficult to get to work.  The N crept into the city, and once we got past Lex, it kept getting held up at each station.  I figured it was this god damned schedule change, that the MTA had fucked it all over, and my commute would be forever filled with these delays.  It’s maybe ten till 9:00, and I was hoping to get to work by 9:00, but it’s obvious that’s not going to happen.

It’s about 9:00, and the train is being held at Union Square.  Someone gets on the train, a hispanic guy, and starts talking to me, but I have my headphones on.  Nobody ever talks to anybody on the train; it’s like using a urinal: you don’t talk to the person next to you.  I realized this was not a panhandling attempt, and took off my headphones.

“Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center,” he said.  “They stole a plane and crashed it.”

The train was full of murmurs and misinformation.  I remember once reading about how a B-25 crashed into the Empire State Building during World War 2.  It took out a whole floor, killed a couple of people.  I figured someone stole a little Cessna or something, broke out a bunch of windows and started a big fire. I think this happened a few years before, a kid stole a Bonanza prop plane in Florida or something and flew it into his work building in the suburbs.  I wonder how they get a plane out of a building when it’s a hundred stories up?  They can’t use a crane.  I started playing engineering scenarios in my head, how to disassemble a plane with cutting torches, when the subway doors closed and the train slowly ambled south.

The N train, the train I was on, went to the WTC.  It stopped at Cortlandt Street, and you could take a tunnel into the lower concourse, and end up at the big underground mall.  When it was cold in the winter, I used to take the train there and go to the Borders at the WTC all the time.  Rob worked there, and would get me his employee discount, so I bought many a Bukowski book in that store.  That Borders is obviously gone.  And now all Borders are gone.

Just after 9:00, the train stopped again at 8th.  I anticipated another long wait, so I got out and started walking south on Broadway, to the office.  Gary, the company’s CPA, is outside of the office frantic, red-faced, looking like he’s about ten seconds from a massive heart attack.  He tells me that a bunch of people from the company are at a meeting on the 106th floor of the North tower.  The office is just north of Houston and Broadway, and I see a huge plume of smoke in the air.

The office is chaos.  Nobody has a TV; someone is trying to find a radio; our phones are alternating between working and a fast busy signal.  Nobody knows who’s at the meeting and who is en route and who hasn’t left home yet.  Nobody knows if tower 1 is the north tower or tower 2.  Someone reports that a second plane hit the other tower.  Some people are outside watching; some are trying to get their computers to work to pull up a news page.  CNN, MSNBC, and every other news site is completely unreachable. Google still worked, and they put a one-paragraph note on their minimalist index screen. (This would end up being the birth of the Google News page.)

I realize I don’t have my camera.  I walk across the street to one of those film developing/passport photo/lotto ticket places, and buy two disposable cameras.  I start walking south on Broadway, taking pictures.  I’m still thinking, “How do they put out a fire that high up? How are they going to repair this?”  For some reason, the WTC on fire reminds me of the image of King Kong on top of the towers in that horrible 1976 remake.

I see an unmarked cop car, black tinted windows, speed up Broadway the wrong way, sirens blazing, lights on.  It’s covered in about three inches of powdery grey dust.  It looks like the dust you used to see in Mt. St. Helen’s footage in the 80s.

I walked south, took pictures.  Some people were walking away from the scene, walking north.  Some police were trying to block roads, but there was so much disorganization, nobody knew what was happening.  I saw an F-15 fly over the Hudson river, at a ridiculously low altitude, maybe a few hundred feet, on its side, probably approaching Mach.  I’d never seen a fighter jet fly that low, that fast, even at air shows.

Almost ten years later, I’d see that same exact jet, same serial number, same markings, now retired and at an air museum here in California.  I touched its grey camouflage paint, the metal skin on the side by the cockpit, and instantly remembered all of this.

I went south, past Canal, snaking down West Broadway, and reached Finn Square.  By that time, the cops had completely blocked off the streets.  The towers had just collapsed.  I didn’t actually see it happen; I just saw this giant grey cloud where the towers used to be.  I walked back to the office, and I remember sitting in my cube for about an hour, trying to send off emails.  This is the email I sent to a bunch of people:

I’m OK.  The World Trade Center isn’t.  I think two or three hijacked planes hit it, and it’s gone.  The WTC is maybe a mile? south of where I work.  I was in the subway when the planes hit.
The news makes it look like it’s mt st helens with all of the raining ash, but it’s not that bad unless you are right on wall street.  I just bought two disposable cameras and walked to maybe 10 blocks north.  I saw the second tower on fire, and it was one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in my life.  Right after I took pictures, it collapsed, but I didn’t see it happen because of the smoke.
The subways are closed, and I think the bridges are too.  I will probably sit here at work for a while, or maybe just fill my backpack with bottled water and walk home.  (it’s only like 3 miles, so it’s not horrific).
As far as the people from work, it wasn’t the CEO, but it was three others.  They had a meeting on the 106th floor of the second tower that went, so nobody knows what happened.  To say that things are freaked out here in the office would be a major understatement.
The phones are sporadic so calls are timing out or getting a fast busy.  You can try me at 212 842 8848 but don’t be alarmed if that doesn’t work.  Pass on the word that I’m OK, and I’ll let you know more when I know more.

There was nothing anyone could do, so I started walking home.  I realized my feet were completely mangled from walking a few miles in these wet dress shoes, and I hadn’t eaten anything since that Kiev the night before.  I walked to the Astor Place K-Mart, dropped off the film at the one-hour counter to get it developed, then went to the second floor to buy a cheap pair of tennis shoes.  Fifty women in dress clothes were doing the same exact thing.  I sat in the Big K Cafe with a couple of corn dogs and fries, and tried to get my cell phone to work.  Then I realized the closest cell tower was probably on the roof of one of the two buildings.

I got my film, and the woman working at the counter was all pissed off that they were in a mad rush of film processing, and everyone had tried to get pictures of the people jumping off the towers.  I hadn’t heard about that until then.  They were saying 6,000 people probably died.

I walked to 34th Street, and the trains started running out of the city.  I got home, contemplated taking a nap.  I went to and checked if was taken, and it wasn’t.  I don’t know how I knew already that it was him, if the news was saying it or if I made the connection myself, or what.

I had to get rubbing alcohol to clean my scanner to scan the pictures.  The closest drug store was in this part of Astoria that’s basically an Arab neighborhood.  There’s a mosque there, all of the hookah places, and a bunch of Pakistani and Egyptian restaurants.  I remember looking at all of the people, and seeing the nervousness on their faces, that this white guy was going to show up and start shit.  I imagined all of the store windows broken within 24 hours, people beaten up by local kids wearing American flag muscle shirts.  I thought there’s probably going to be a lot more of this in the near future.

Inside the drug store, they had on an AM radio to the news.  They were interviewing some guy at a flight school in Florida, who was saying a bunch of Saudis took classes that summer, wanting to learn how to take off and not land.  I realized that this flight school was almost exactly where I was staying that summer.  It was the same exact time.  I even looked at taking some flight lessons when I was there.  I probably ate lunch at the same Denny’s as one of the hijackers and didn’t know it.

I scanned the pictures, fielded some frantic phone calls, but could not call anyone because my phone was all messed up.  I couldn’t make outgoing calls, but sometimes a random incoming call would make it. Every time I started to take a nap, another call would come in from a worried relative.  I stayed glued to CNN.  I blew out the fuse and lost my power.  I went to Rob’s, drank beer, came home.  I wrote a lot of emails, including an email to someone I dated earlier that summer that probably said a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have said, and was pretty much akin to playing a game of poker and laying every card you had face-up.  The next day, my DSL internet went out, because of course the closest colo was in the Verizon building in lower Manhattan, which had no power, and all of their generators ran out of gas.

I didn’t go back to work for a week.  Four people died.  I didn’t know how to feel about any of this, because I just started the job, and didn’t really know anybody at the company.  We had to go to grief counseling, but it was a joke. I became this weird conduit for all of these people in the Midwest, because I was their link to the tragedies.  New York became a ghost town; the city I wanted to leave really became a place to abandon.  I cancelled my trip to New Orleans, because I didn’t even know if there was going to be an airline industry anymore.  I went to a shrink and told him to give me whatever he could, and I started taking Effexor.  That gave me something else to focus on: crippling headaches and nausea.  Within a few weeks, that went away, the drugs took over, and I got back to work, back to writing, back to bitching about my lack of a dating situation.  I’d survive.

I just realized I started by saying I didn’t want to write about this, and I’ve now written about 3500 words about it.  I have no nice ending or message to wrap this up with, except the uneasy feeling that there will never be any real closure on this, because the event will forever be fetishized.  I’m constantly told what I should think about this, and it never is what I think.  I guess that’s the big takeaway, that it’s not something that can be pigeonholed into a nice, succinct bumper sticker-sized motto or slogan.

Okay, time to turn off the TV for the weekend and go on with life.


Answering stupid meme questions because I don’t feel like writing

Somebody sent me this on facebook.  Any time I try to write more than 38 characters on facebook, it usually crashes or tries to sell me auto insurance, so I will answer it here.  Also, I am so bored of the book I am trying to write that I almost went and googled “writing prompts” which is always a waste of my time, like googling “android vs. iOS” and expecting something concrete.  So here’s a bunch of answers to a bunch of dumb questions.

1. What time did you get up this morning?
4:40 AM, but then I reset my alarm to 5:59.  In a perfect world, I would have written for those 74 minutes, but having a dream about selling a moped to Spiro Agnew in an alternate reality where Hulk Hogan was killed on the cross and every church had an effigy of Hulk on a cross was preferable to staring at a blank screen for 74 minutes.

2. How do you like your steak?
I like it the way the chef prepares it.  I.e. I don’t like it with spit on it, so I leave him or her to decide how to cook it.  Paying $75 for a steak and then requesting that it be overcooked is like buying a Prius and then bolting a giant fucking bike carrier on the roof that doubles the amount of wind drag.

3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema?
The Debt.  It wasn’t bad.  Any movie set in East Berlin has got my attention until it no longer deserves it.

4. What is your favorite TV show?
TV is dead, and the only thing I watch with any regularity are stupid reality TV shows about cooking, and I’m usually reading the web at the same time.  The last show I really liked was this alternate history show that was on, although it was a pilot shot on like $37 and probably won’t get picked up.

5. If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?
What is that saying about LA being nine different cities?  There are at least two or three of them I would like.  One of the ridiculously huge and esoteric beach houses in Playa Del Rey or one of those weird things on the canal in Venice.

6. What did you have for breakfast?
A bowl of fiber one raisin bran and a thing of fat-free yogurt.

7. What is your favorite ice cream?
That fake Mexican restaurant Chi-Chi’s used to have fried ice cream, and I always liked that.  I went to a Mexican restaurant a couple of years ago in Daly City and ordered it, and they forgot to fry it, so it was a block of impossibly hard ice cream with the breaded coating on the outside.

8. What foods do you dislike?
Mushrooms, cauliflower, cilantro.  Mushrooms because my childhood was filled with slimy, canned, Kroger mushrooms that taste like fermented rubber tire pieces; cauliflower because I have a memory of my aunt pressure-cooking a huge amount of it until the house smelled like fried ass; cilantro, I have a weird reaction to it and even the smell of it tastes like soap to me.  I’ve heard this is genetic.  It means eating Mexican food in northern California can be very hit-or-miss for me.

9. Favorite Place to Eat?
How many of these god damned questions are about food?  Jesus christ, no wonder 114% of our population is obese.

10. Favorite dressing?

11. What kind of vehicle do you drive?
A Toyota Yaris.

12. What are your favorite clothes?
Jeans, t-shirt.

13. Where would you visit if you had the chance?
Mars.  Antarctica.

14. Cup 1/2 empty or 1/2 full?
If you answer half full to this, either you are a goddamn liar, or you live in some rural part of Africa where there is no water.

15. Where would you want to retire?
I thought I answered this in #5.  Or do people retire where they don’t want to live?  That would explain Florida and Arizona.

16. Favorite time of day?
Right after work, right before this west-facing house turns into an oven.

17. Where were you born?
I should probably stop answering this question online before someone identity thieves themselves into my mortgage account.

18. What is your favorite sport to watch?
Baseball, although demolition derby is a close second.

19. Who do you think will not tag you back?
I am not tagging anyone.

20. Person you expect to tag you back first?
See #19

21. Who are you most curious about their responses to this?

22. Bird watcher?

23. Are you a morning person or a night person?
I used to be a night person, but I’ve become more of a morning person.

24. Do you have any pets?
Two cats, plus by proxy eleventy billion pets because of all of the animal shelters were dump money into.

25. Any new and exciting news you’d like to share?
I fucked your mother.

26. What did you want to be when you were little?
A person who answers lists of questions.

27. What is your best childhood memory?
Best as in what I remember the most, or the best thing that happened that I remember?  I remember all of childhood pretty well, and I don’t really want to.  My best memory is probably when I turned 18 and childhood ended.

28. Are you a cat or dog person?
Cat.  Dogs are followers, but cats do not give a fuck, which I can appreciate.

29. Are you married?

30. Always wear your seat belt?
Only when I’m in a car.

31. Been in a car accident?

32. Any pet peeves?
See also the last thousand entries in this blog.

33. Favorite Pizza Toppings?
Chunks of gold.

34. favorite flower?
What is the one they make opium out of?

36. Favorite fast food restaurant?

37. How many times did you fail your driver’s test?

38. From whom did you get your last email?

39. Which store would you choose to max out your credit card?
The blank credit card store.

40. Have you done anything spontaneous lately?

41. Like your job?
It doesn’t involve food.

42. Broccoli?
I think broccoli was one of the first vegetables I really liked, although that was only because in Indiana, you can only get broccoli with two and a half pounds of cheese whiz on it.

43. What was your favorite vacation?
Hawaii is always good.

44. Last person you went out to dinner with?
My wife, to this Thai restaurant called Summer Summer.

45. What are you listening to right now?
The Naked Lunch soundtrack.

46. What is your favorite color?

47. How many tattoos do you have?

48. How many are you tagging for this quiz?

49. What time did you finish this quiz?

50. Coffee Drinker?


20 Facts You Didn’t Know About Muammar Gaddafi

Yesterday marked the 42nd anniversary of when Muammar Gaddafi assumed the title of Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council of Libya by ousting Prince Hasan as-Senussi. It’s disputed whether or not he’s currently in Libya or if he still rules the country.  And if he does show up, he’ll probably end up prosecuted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Even though he’s been in the news constantly for the last year, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Libyan leader. Here are some amazing facts about Muammar Gaddafi:

  1. He shares a birthday (June 7) with Dean Martin, Tom Jones, Prince, Bill Hader, and Allen Iverson.
  2. His first car was a 1958 Ford Thunderbird hardtop.  He now owns a large collection of classic Thunderbirds, including a 1960 hardtop/sunroof model with the 430 engine, of which only 377 were produced.
  3. As per his decree, Libyan TV has a channel that repeatedly plays only his favorite movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
  4. Prior to the US Embargo, his favorite town to vacation in was Rochester, New York, largely because Gaddafi is a great admirer of Millard Fillmore.
  5. Every year on September 1, he celebrates the anniversary of his coup by eating an entire squid for lunch and drinking a cup of Turkish coffee for each year he has been in office. These lunches are broadcast nationwide on the Al Nadi Sports Channel.
  6. Gaddafi often uses the various spellings of his name to his advantage.  For example, he has been known to join the Columbia House record club up to 32 times at once.
  7. In addition to Arabic, French, and English, Gaddafi was at one time studying Klingon, and announced in 1991 his eventual plan to translate the Green Book into the constructed language.
  8. His favorite WWE wrestler is Joanie “Chyna” Laurer.
  9. His parents made him play the alto saxophone in junior high school.  As a result, he has banned music programs in all Libyan public schools.
  10. He applied and was accepted to a graduate program in atmospheric sciences at Howard University in Washington, DC, but did not attend.
  11. A long-time fan of Lionel Richie, he admitted during an interview with Larry King that he listened to the album Can’t Slow Down daily for almost two years after its release in 1983, but was initially disappointed with Dancing on the Ceiling, because he preferred the album’s original proposed title, Say You, Say Me.
  12. His score on the GRE in 1967 was 505 verbal / 485 math.
  13. Aside from the Green Book, his favorite books include The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer, and You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again by Julia Phillips.
  14. He often bought and sold collector beanie babies on eBay with the username “gandalf69” until the US State Department discovered it and shut down his account.  He is rumored to have amassed a collection of over 500,000 of them in a storage facility on the outskirts of Tripoli.  Beanie babies purchased from him that can be verified are exceedingly rare and have sold for four and five figures on the secondary market.
  15. There is a Libyan law that prohibits anyone but Gaddafi from playing as Colonel Mustard in the Parker Brothers board game Clue.  In Arabic translations of the game, Colonel Mustard’s turn is first instead of second.
  16. His favorite classic video game is Q-Bert.  He owns a restored coin-op version and his high score is 492,000.
  17. His customized Airbus A340 jet, which was captured last month in Tripoli, contained a collection of all 41 Steven Seagal movies.
  18. Gaddafi refuses to fly over any country with exactly two vowels in its name that ends in a consonant.  He also avoids flying on Tuesdays, never eats fish when traveling on ship, and will always travel with an even number of bags.
  19. He was long-time friends with Gary Coleman, and was devastated after his death.  He is still convinced that Coleman was murdered by Mossad agents.
  20. He bowled a perfect 300 on the night of his birthday in 1976.  It was during official IBA league play, and he is often seen wearing his official 300 ring.