First first bass

I keep mentioning that my first bass was one of the Cort headless basses with the Steinberger licensed tuners.  I’ve got a duplicate one sitting at the house now, and my old roommate has the original one.  But that actually wasn’t my first bass.  I have to start the story with how I first decided to play bass.

I had a friend named Jamie who was a 15-year-old guitar prodigy, one of those guys who spent all of his time locked in the basement learning Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen songs note-for-note.  I took a semester of piano in high school, and had a little Casio keyboard I screwed around with, but wanted to play something else, because strapping on a keytar and rocking out some Rick Wakeman solos didn’t exactly appeal to me.  I met Jamie because he was in a band with Ray and Larry, and after he quit or they fired him or whatever, I used to go over to his house in Granger, right by the UP mall, and just hang out, watch him belt away sweep-picked arpeggios on his Ibanez, and talk about Joe Satriani.  He said I should learn bass, and I thought about it, but didn’t jump on it, partly because I didn’t own a bass, and didn’t have any spare money, with all of the end-of-high-school expenses looming, like prom, college applications, SAT tests, and all of the other junk they nickel and dime you with at the end of your senior year.

I went to prom, and we originally planned on some day-after-prom trip to Great America, but ended up not going.  So the Sunday night after prom, with that extra money burning a hole in my pocket, I called up Jamie and told him I wanted to start lessons.  He told me to come over, and he’d charge me five bucks an hour, and I had to buy him smokes, since he wasn’t 18 yet.  I used the cheap bass he had at his house, and we did all of the basics: EADG, the major scale, breaking apart chords, and a basic bass line.  My alcoholic stepdad had an old acoustic at our house, so for the time being, I could practice on the lower four strings of that, but I needed to get my own bass.

Musical instruments are pretty cheap now – you can get a brand new Squier for a hundred bucks online, and the build quality of even the cheapest Chinese-made guitars are pretty decent, especially now that half of the stuff is done by robots or CNC machines.  But back then, a crap guitar cost a few hundred bucks, and none of the pawn shops in Elkhart had anything even playable.  (I’m sure people will disagree and say they had tons of 60s Fender Jazz basses sitting around in pawn shops for a hundred bucks a pop back in the 80s.  All I know is we did not in the middle of nowhere, Indiana.)  I always used to go to the couple of pawn shops downtown, but they would generally have maybe one or two basses, and they were typically beyond repair, things that were junk back in the early 70s and had now seen decades of abuse and neglect.

So I couldn’t find a used bass, and I certainly couldn’t afford to shell out for a new one.  But, I had a JC Penny charge card.  I’m not sure why; I probably filled out the application to get a free candy bar.  The Penny’s in the Concord Mall didn’t sell electronics, but they did have a catalog department.  So, I went there, and sight unseen, ordered the only bass they sold through mail-order.

Check out this catalog page.  This is from a 1982 catalog, but the 1989 offerings were pretty similar.  Most of their instruments were made by a company named Harmony, which back in the 60s made instruments that are coveted by a small group of fanatics over on eBay. But I think they went out of business and someone bought the name and started slapping it on low-end instruments made in China and sold through catalogs.  There are two basses shown on this page; I ordered the one on the right, the single-pickup design.

About my bass: I think it was called a Harmony Igniter.  It had the P-bass-shaped body, although mine was black, along with a very cheap pickguard, single pickup, bolt-on neck, and very low-end tuners that stayed in tune for about six minutes.  It showed up with mile-high action and the whole thing felt like plastic. It had a super lightweight plywood body and the neck felt okay, with a very glossy finish and razor-sharp fret edges.  The sound was very anemic, with weak electronics, and of course the factory strings were junk.  But, it was a bass, and I played the hell out of it, until I got the Cort about a month later.  I kept it as a backup, and also carefully removed the pickguard and painted it, a weird Eddie Van Halen meets Jackson Pollock abstract mess of splashed Testor’s paints that actually looked pretty cool on it.  If I was smart, I would have tore out the pickup and put in something hot, and at least changed the strings.

The bass is a distant memory to me; I have no pictures of it, no documents or instructions or old manuals, because it came with nothing.  I got a “real” bass about a month later, so I spent little time on this one.  It came to school with me, and I ended up trading it to a guy in my math class who was studying violin making and did a refret job on my Cort bass.  What actually lived on for much longer was the amp and case I bought from the catalog.  The case was cheap but had backpack straps, and I think Simms might still have it somewhere at his house.  The amp was a plastic piece of shit that had a clock-radio speaker and could run on C-cell batteries.  After it died, I tore out the “amp” part, a little circuit board the size of a business card, and used it basically as an overdrive pedal and headphone amp for years.

There’s also little to no Harmony information on the web, at least about the late 80s version.  There is a Harmony collector’s site, but it focuses on the 60s version.  There are a couple of people who have mentioned the name over at Talkbass, but I don’t know anybody who has one.  I’m very certain that nobody with a functional fireplace would hang onto one for long.  There is a part of me that almost wishes I could find another one in a dusty pawn shop or an eBay auction for $40, just for goofs, but I’ve wasted enough time and energy just hunting down that catalog page.

Anyway, there’s a brief look into a k-hole for you.  It’s sort of infuriating to me how a part of history from only 25 years ago is completely unsearchable on the web, but you could probably find a million more things about some event that happened in 1865.  That’s the weird thing about technology and the constant flow of information.  Items that were in paper records from over fifty years ago will live on for much longer than, say, TV commercials that were broadcast to millions in 1986.  Part of me thinks that at some point, some new technology is going to come out, like a low-power MRI that can scan the slightest iron content in print books and digitize entire libraries in ten seconds flat, and there will suddenly be a huge influx of data that was previously gone.  There is a part of me that hopes this never happens, because when it does, my writing will completely cease, and I’ll spend all of my time digging through the internet instead of actually writing.


Dropping computers

My Mac is back in the shop.  It has TS4088.  When it switches GPUs to save power, if the computer is hot enough, it crashes.  It’s common on this specific make and vintage, and it’s the problem with buying a computer on the first day of a major revision.  I complained to the right person, and Apple agreed to swap out the entire logic board for free.  Now I just have to wait.  I’m using S’s computer in the meantime, which is much faster than my 2007 MacBook, but I only have my most vital of files on it, like my new book I’m writing.  Maybe this will make me get more done.

My computer is now just shy of three years old.  Once it is back, I am swapping in an SSD drive, which is currently sitting on my desk.  It’s still a good computer, fast and light and well-constructed and all of that.  The logic board thing is unfortunate.  I hope that when it’s replaced, I can get another year or two out of it, although three years is about the right timespan for upgrading.  The only thing I miss having is that the newer models can mirror their entire screen to the Apple TV, and mine can’t.  I don’t know what I’d use that for, especially since it’s easy enough for me to mirror any movies on my computer to the TV.

I went to the Apple store to drop it off.  I drive down this ghetto back road that is barely paved, like an Indiana road.  I hit a pothole and one of my wheel covers came off.  It rolled like a Tron deadly disc and went right under a moving semi truck.  Now my car looks weird, with three silver wheels and one black.  I went online and the official Toyota wheel cover is $80 each, or I can get a set of four generic ones with no Toyota logo for $30.  I ordered the generic ones.

As I was walking down from the second floor above me, there was a woman walking in front of me.  She looked sort of like that woman from Cagney and Lacey who was later on Nip/Tuck, the kind of woman that still wears 80s pantsuits with the giant padded shoulders.  She was trying to carry an airline roller bag down the stairs and somehow became discombobulated and fell dramatically, half-flinging the bag, which slammed into the metal hand rail, then bounced and hit the stairs hard, falling down a dozen steps to the landing.  The fall was so stupid and awkward, I was certain she triggered it from some kind of brain aneurysm.  I stopped and asked her if she was okay, and she said she was, but papers from the bag were everywhere.

I’ve been noticing more weird episodes like this every time I leave the house.  Like almost every time I go to a store, someone is in a shouting match with a clerk.  I went to the drug store last week, and this woman was screaming at the pharmacist.  HIPPA rules probably prevent the public disclosure of prescription information, but this woman was screaming the entire episode over and over, so I know what it was.  The pharmacist called her doctor to check on something, and it turns out they could not fill her vicodin prescription for two weeks because she just filled her methadone prescription.  It seems like everyone around is on massive amounts of oxycontin, and can’t sleep at night without valium, and takes a dozen of those five-hour energy drinks every day.  And then when they go to a store, and a clerk is just doing their job, they scream at them like the CIA just called in a drone strike on them because someone misspelled their last name.

The last time I picked up a computer at the Apple store, this happened.  The system is simple: you make an appointment, they help you with your computer.  So they brought my computer out, and set it down in front of a cashier, and all I needed to do was show her my ID, and she would hand it to me, and say “have a nice day” or something.  But in that heartbeat between the guy handing it to her and me showing her the ID, a guy comes up, no appointment, broken phone, “I DROVE TWENTY MINUTES YOU NEED TO HELP ME WHERE IS YOUR FUCKING MANAGER.”  I just needed to flash my driver’s license, take the computer 18 inches from my hands, put it in my bag, and he doesn’t even give her a chance to speak, just continuing over and over “I DON’T UNDERSTAND I DROVE ALL THE WAY HERE FROM WALNUT CREEK AND YOU GUYS CANT JUST LOOK AT MY PHONE I DONT WANT AN APPOINTMENT NEXT TUESDAY I JUST DROVE TWENTY MINUTES.”  And so on.

I used to work in retail.  We’d have customers like this.  It wasn’t every day, maybe once or twice a week.  Is it worse?  Is my timing just bad?  Does everyone think they are the center of the universe?  Has the internet made us hate big companies?  Is the quality of everything so shitty now, with everything outsourced and nickel-and-dimed to the point of nothingness, that everything always breaks, with no recourse?  Are we all just cynics because we can’t believe anything anymore?

I’m trying not to let things like this bother me anymore, trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, trying not to lose my cool when it takes someone too long to do something.  I was at the post office the other day, and they were training a new cashier, and I had to mail a book to New Zealand.  The 2-minute transaction took about 7 minutes.  I think 80% of the people in Oakland would have fucking ended that trainee right there, cut off his head with his own chained-down pen and fucked his windpipe as the blood gushed out of his severed arteries.  I just smiled, and let him learn.  He’s a trainee.  It’s a post office job, and if he doesn’t lose it six weeks from now, it’s a good job and he’ll have a pension that hopefully won’t vanish soon.  He could be out stripping the wiring out of houses and selling it for meth, but he’s learning to work at a vital position so he can feed his kids and pay taxes that might someday repave that fucking road that ate my wheel cover.  I’ll give him the five minutes.

So I sit down at the Genius Bar, show the guy my paperwork, he starts to run tests on my MacBook.  Right next to me sits down the Cagney and Lacey woman.  She pulls out her MacBook Air that just fell down two flights of metal stairs.  It has a cracked screen.  “I have no idea what happened.  It must be defective.”



Automated board loading machinery

I spent a good chunk of the summer of 1993 trying to find a job.  I returned back to Elkhart for the summer, because even though that summer of 1992 in Bloomington was life-changing and ended up becoming my first book, I made absolutely no money selling glowsticks and telemarketing.  I needed real work, factory work, the kind of thing that would pay me more than minimum wage in exchange for spending three months operating a punch press or doing the same thing over and over, thousands of times a night.

I went to Manpower, the temp agency, with some hope of finding anything even vaguely computer-related, like changing backup tapes or reinstalling DOS programs or beating dot-matrix printers with a wrench.  But this was 1993, and there weren’t a lot of computers in factories.  And most of the places that did have them would farm out the maintenance and support through their home office, so some guys working at what was then called Anderson Consulting would drive out of the Chicago corporate office when an IBM mainframe went south, and bill all the hours back to the account.  I had a girlfriend who once spent a summer working for Manpower, loaned out to Miles Pharmaceutical doing mindless Lotus 1-2-3 stuff.  She only made a buck or two above minimum wage, and the work was mindless and air-conditioned.  I knew just as much about WordPerfect and Lotus – I’d worked as a computer consultant for the university for two years at this point.  But if you went to Manpower and you had a vagina and you knew how to read, they gave you the typing test and put you in the virtual secretary pool.  If you did not, they pulled out the manual labor listings and tried to slot you in at a factory somewhere.

The first day, they loaned me out to UPS, to help a guy do an inventory count of all of their repair parts for vehicles.  We went to the big Elkhart warehouse, which was just down the road from where Ray lived, and it seemed like it was only a year or two old at that time.  I don’t know where they used to be; I just remember a big empty field suddenly becoming a giant ugly UPS warehouse, built overnight from those prefab metal panels they used to construct every factory in Elkhart.  I don’t entirely remember the system we used for the inventory, although it certainly involved paper and not some kind of tabletized bar code reading beep-beep making Star Trek computer thing.  It was more like a clipboard full of tractor-feed paper forms, and the guy I worked with would say “1005734-slash-22-spec-4” and I would mark a box and say “check.”  This went on for hours, and I watched a bunch of guys in brown shorts dismember the contents of a large semi, throwing boxes onto conveyors, taking a big truck trailer and reformatting it into contents for dozens of smaller trucks.

Two observations that stuck with me: one, the backs of UPS trucks have clear ceilings.  They aren’t really clear as much as they’re transparent, like a see-through tinted plastic, that lets light through so they can see in the truck without lights.  It’s a sort of brown-green shade.  Two: those giant trucks are powered by four-cylinder engines.  Each cylinder is gigantic, coffee can-sized, but it’s not a V-8.  Someone must have done the math on the best engine to use for all of that stop-start traffic while hauling literal tons of boxes, and that’s what they got.

One of the mechanics was an old guy, an Ernest Borgnine from Airwolf looking dude, who spent the afternoon dismantling a huge four-banger, wrenching on it and carefully removing each part.  We stopped and ate lunch with him.  I told him I was into computers, and he produced a folded-up magazine ad for a 486-33DX computer, something from the back of Popular Mechanics or something.  It lauded that the machine came with dozens of software titles, a sound card, a microphone.  “You don’t even need to know how to program.  You can just talk to it,” he said.  Maybe it recorded voice memos, but this was twenty years pre-Siri.  “Well, you still need to…”  “No!  You just talk to it!”  I always wanted to see if he actually bought it and then did a “help computer” into the mic and got nothing but a DOS prompt.

That job lasted a day, and the inventory was over.  The next morning, they sent me to a factory in Middlebury, something with a vaguely generic name, like A&B Wood Works.  I was to report there at 6 AM.  I remember trying to go to bed at something like 8:00 the night before, which was completely stupid, since half the time I stayed up until four in the morning, and now I needed to wake up at four in the morning.  I didn’t have a car, and this place was maybe a half-hour away, so my Mom had to leave early and drive me there.  At the time, I was trying to avoid everyone in my family, so spending an hour a day in the car with my Mom wasn’t ideal.

At this factory, they painted the chipboard pieces that make up entertainment centers and bookshelves.  The whole factory was essentially a huge loop of a conveyor belts.  One guy would put a board on the belt, and it would go through a sprayer that laid down a coat of lacquer paint.  Then it would go through a drying station, which would cure the paint quickly with hot air.  Then it would get flipped, and go through a second time, and then it would get pulled and stacked.  You’d do a couple of stacks per pallet, a pallet every couple of hours, a few pallets a day, a few dozen pallets per semi truck, a few trucks per order, and then you’d change color or change lumber type and do it again.

Maybe four or five people ran the entire factory.  They worked every day, from 6 AM to 6 PM.  Almost every week, they would work five days a week, sometimes six or seven.  They paid time and a half for every hour past 40, and double time for every hour past 60.  I think the minimum wage at that time was $4.25, and Manpower paid me $6.60.  So the average minimum wage burger-slinger made $170 a week, and at Manpower, I’d make $264.  But if I stayed at this job, I’d make $396 a week, plus an extra $158.40 for each weekend day I worked.  That meant if they did work seven days a week, I’d make more than a week’s flipping-burgers pay over the course of a weekend in the factory.  How hard could this be?

Factory work is always mind-numbing, but this particular setup seemed worse than normal.  It took a fair amount of effort to pull boards off of the stack and slap them onto the conveyor.  That sounds easy, but it’s a full-body workout; it’s like slinging kettlebells around.  You have to spin and dip and pull and lift and heft and spin and drop, all with precision.  And you do the same movements over and over and over.  The same exact movements.  The chipboard pieces aren’t heavy, but moving them in the same exact way makes them seem heavy.  I worked without gloves; when I asked if they had any, someone answered “we stopped paying the supplier, so they stopped delivering more gloves.”  The work was continuous, and I had to constantly supply boards.  I could barely think, and all of my thinking power went to one simple equation: $6.60 an hour, times 40 hours, plus 20 hours times 1.5 times 6.60.

Different factories have a different rhythm.  The best way to break the routine is to talk to someone, work at a machine next to another guy, pack boxes with someone else, find some job that requires you to stop every 20 minutes and sweep the floor or go to the other side of the building and get more parts.  But this job eliminated all of this.  You simply fed in boards, flipped boards, pulled boards, as fast as you could, just to keep up.  The machines weren’t deafening, but you didn’t work with anyone, as the people running the painter and dryer were stuck at their stations, a hundred feet away from you.  A guy ran a fork truck, but he was constantly moving around pallets, hauling in new blank boards and packing away the finished pieces.  We did stop for 20 minutes to eat a quick lunch, but I barely got to say hello to the coworkers before we got back to it.

A few hours into the shift, one of the boards grabbed the palm of my hand, gouged out a chunk of flesh.  I bled from the hand, but didn’t notice it, because I had to fight to keep up with the line.  The guy on the paint machine noticed it though, because I was bleeding onto the boards.  We were doing a run of black parts – those matte black bookshelves were all the rage in the 90s, and the department stores were selling them as fast as we could paint them.  So the blood-stained boards just got covered with a jet black, leaving behind no trace of my injury, although someone out there’s got a bookcase containing some of my genetic material sealed within.  The fork truck driver took over my spot for a minute, told me to go throw a band-aid onto my hand and get back to work.  I found a half-pilfered first aid kit, got fixed up, and went back to it.

It had been dark when I started work.  By the time we left, all but two hours of the day had passed, and all I wanted to do was eat and go back to bed.  Although the idea of going back and working 60, 70 hours a week seemed tantalizing from a financial aspect, I couldn’t see doing the same thing every day for the rest of the summer.  I told my mom I couldn’t go back, would try to find another temp assignment, maybe another agency.

Even though I felt exhausted, I couldn’t sleep that night.  My hand hurt, but mostly I still felt my body twisting, picking up boards, putting them back down, flipping them, pulling them, stacking them.  I closed my eyes and only saw the conveyor in front of me, heard the paint machine spraying down coats of matte black.  The only way I could sleep was to put a death metal CD on my headphones, on repeat, on low volume, a constant sound of something familiar to break up the automated feeling of being a board-loading machine.  I drifted in and out of sleep, in twenty minute fits and spurts, then took a shower and headed out on my ten-speed to find another job.



Notes from a trip journal, London

[I wrote this on 5.17.2012 and it doesn’t really have an ending.]

I’m in Nuremberg today, sitting in my hotel with a glass bottle of Coke and listening to Jimi. I’ll get to the first leg of my German trip (and the horrible travel day I had getting here), probably about the time I’m leaving here for Berlin. First, I wanted to put down some thoughts about London.

I’ve never been to London before, and I didn’t know what to expect. I envisioned it as a city like New York, except older, darker, and replace all of the Ray’s Original Real Famous pizza joints with fish and chip restaurants, or maybe pubs. What I found was completely different from that, and I have to say that I really enjoyed London.

I don’t feel like recapping in paragraphs, so I’m going to drop right into the bulleted list.

  • We flew out of SFO at around noon. That put us into town at about seven in the morning the next day. It was maybe an eleven-hour flight, and I almost slept an hour. S had a seat in business class, and because her ticket was booked from her work and mine was done by me on the web, I got an economy plus ticket. That meant I had a hair more room than the steerage section, but not enough to stretch out. I wrote for a long time, played games on my iPad, and watched the new Jim Gaffigan special, which was worth the five bucks.
  •  Heathrow is big. We got out and my first impression was that it was roughly the size of Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia put together. It took us forever to get from the plane to customs. Clearing customs was a non-issue, even though I had been up all night and was liable to say something stupid, but they asked me nothing except for the purpose of my visit. I did not answer “to fuck shit up,” so I passed.
  • All of the cabs are the same kind of car, and I don’t know the make or model, but it looks like an old 1940s sedan.
  • Once we got on the highway in the back of a cab, I quickly got confused by the right-hand drive thing. Like I’d look over and think “how the hell is that car driving itself, and why is that kid just sitting in the passenger seat and watching?”
  • For a country from which people get so shitty about the metric system, there are so many god damn inconsistencies. Like on the highway, some warning signs were in miles, but others were kilometers. I also noticed this in the right/left thing. For example, I would always expect a down escalator to be on the left, and on an escalator, for the standing/slow people to be on the left, and the faster/walking people on the right. I found a mix of both. I never knew what side of the sidewalk I should be using for a given speed/direction. Also, there wasn’t a bar where you could buy a 0.473176L of beer.
  •  We stayed in Marble Arch. I have only the vaguest idea of London geography, and I feel we barely scratched the surface in our brief stay, but to me, it felt like this was a slightly richy-rich neighborhood, although nowhere near as much as Nob Hill.
  • We checked into our hotel, which was one of these little boutique things that used to be a row of townhouses, but was converted into a hotel. It was pretty nice, albeit small, but we’re probably spoiled from American hotels.
  • On the first day, we showered and then vowed to not immediately sleep, and try to power through a day of seeing sights, to remedy the jetlag. This meant the first day was hell. I am officially old, because staying up past 9:00 at night will total me the next day, so an all-nighter is absolutely crippling to me.
  • We ate breakfast at a diner-type place, and I had a full English breakfast, which I always used to get at this diner in Queens when I lived there. This was roughly the same, although it didn’t have blood sausage, and had beans.
  • While at the diner, we talked to this couple next to us that had just finished this all-night charity walk, in which they walked a whole marathon over a period of like ten hours, so they were about as loopy and walking-dead-esque as us. One interesting thing that came up in conversation was that they had a son in college who was in an American Studies program, and as part of the degree, he was going to the states next fall to study for a year. He wanted to get into San Diego State University, but instead got assigned to Lincoln, Nebraska, and the parents had many questions about what the hell a Lincoln, Nebraska was. I’ve never been there, but my general guess answers were: a) It will be cheap; b) They have beer (sort of); c) Everyone will be really nice; d) If he likes blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls away from home for the first time, the world is his oyster; and e) I hope he likes steak and isn’t a vegan.
  • We went for a long walk that took us out to Buckingham Palace, where we ran into this huge congregation of people gathering. We asked a cop why, and he said the changing of the guard was happening in 45 minutes. We snapped a bunch of pictures, and headed south for a bit. (The guards, BTW, are now behind a huge fence with about 30 yards of space between you and them. You can get a decent shot with a zoom lens, but you can’t get in their face and try to make them laugh or whatever. I don’t know if this was some 9/11 terrorist thing or what.)
  • A bit later, we saw the Royal Guard building or museum or headquarters, and inside of that fenced-in compound, we stopped and watched them congregate. There was a marching band of some sort assembling and getting ready and inspected by their officer. These were the red coat guys with the big black penis-looking hats.
  • About half of the guards had on their belts, along with mounts for drums or drumstick holders or whatnot, a sheathed knife. S asked me why they had them, and I said “because you don’t want to bring a tuba to a knife fight.”
  • They got ready and started playing, and I expected to launch into some heavily British big brass jingoistic national anthem thing, but they started with this slightly jazzy easy listening-type number, like something that would be played on Lawrence Welk, which sort of blew my mind.
  • I should also mention that the tourists were out in force, and mostly consisted of high school students from other EU countries or further East. So lots of French, Italian, along with some Russian and Polish and other languages I couldn’t catch. All of them had the same Justin Bieber haircut, and it smelled like an Axe factory exploded. (Axe is, coincidentally, called something else in the UK. I think it’s Jaguar or maybe Sex Panther.)
  • We kept walking, and saw Westminster Abby, The Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, and crossed the Thames, then got some lunch and took the subway home.
  • One thing I noticed in general the whole time there was that service at restaurants was extraordinarily slow. Most places automatically add on 15% in service, and I don’t know if that’s part of it, or if Americans all suffer from ADD and impatience. (Maybe both.)
  • The undergroud (aka the subway or the tube) is pretty huge, and well-organized. It’s relatively clean, fast, and efficient. I’d compare it to the BART. Or I’d give the NY MTA about a 6 or 7 out of 10, and the underground a solid 8 from my limited experience.
  • I ended up falling asleep for about three hours, and then couldn’t fall asleep that night.
  • On Monday, it rained, and in some ways, being out in London in the rain gave me a better feel for the city. I expected London to be grey and dreary, and being out on the rain matched that. But the city had a bustle to it, and kept on running during the storm, which was impressive.

First Falafel

About ten years ago, I lived in New York: rented a shithole apartment in Astoria, took the N train in to Times Square every day, and worked three floors down from Puff Daddy at a soon-to-be-irrelevant dotcom. My life consisted of TPS reports, delays on the N train, and arguing with old ladies in three different languages at the local Key Food. I guess I wrote books too, but that involved more sitting at the computer wishing I could write than actual writing.

When the soot-black snow melted away that spring and I no longer needed to wear two jackets for my ten-block walk to the subway, I started developing this stabbing toe pain. It felt like I broke my big toe, but couldn’t remember actually doing anything like stepping on a mouse trap or slamming it in a car door or whatever else you do to break a toe. At least every other month, I’d have a stupid spaz moment while walking, hypnotized by whatever album spun in my MiniDisc player to cover the sounds of the city, and trip on a ten micron high difference in the pavement. Some cable company that just spent all of the previous summer jackhammering a trench at six every morning, dropping in new fiber, and poorly sealing over the pavement — well, they either forgot where the fiber was, or lost it in some wave of mergers and acquisitions and deregulation and re-regulation. They re-dissected the pavement and left even more opportunity for me to fall on my face when one of my clunky boat shoes hit a new asphalt patch the wrong way.

And that’s what I told the doctor at the ER a week later, after a $60 cab ride to the nearest hospital on an early Saturday morning, when I could no longer put on a shoe or sleep in bed with a sheet on my foot. I spent a Friday night with every possible combination of foot-propping and elevating pillows and pieces of couch I could find, before I finally gave up and went in for a two-hour wait with some worn Sports Illustrated issues so old, I think they were talking about rumors that the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn.

My feet are naturally fucked up. Every podiatrist who has examined them says they’re the worst they’ve ever seen, even a guy I went to who had been practicing since 1946. And on that morning in Queens Hospital, while I writhed in pain after a battery of x-rays, the ER doc paged every intern and resident from orthopedics and podiatry to come down and check this shit out. As a half-dozen guys in scrubs prod my feet, one of them, this guy with an uncanny resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson says, “hey man, you ever been worked up for the gout?”

Gout — I’d heard the word before, but didn’t know what it meant. I think one of my grandparents had it. And maybe it was a running gag with various old characters on The Simpsons. But no, I’d never been tested for it or diagnosed with it or anything else. So along with a cane, a soft cast, and a handful of Vicodin, they sent me home with an appointment to see a podiatrist who could tell me more about this gout thing.

New York City is the place to be if you want to be a writer, work in advertising, enjoy high fashion, make big bucks on the stock market, or you have old money and need to be in the center of the universe. But it’s not a place to be mobility challenged, as I found out the next Monday on my long hobble to work on a new aluminum walking stick with one regular shoe and one velcroed boot. Taking the subway involved at four long flights of stairs per trip; while I sat in the slow lane, taking it a tread at a time and gripping onto the rail for dear life, an army of insufferable guido pricks swore incessantly as they tore around me. And every time I got into a packed train car for the city, not a single self-absorbed person would give up their seat for the cripple trying to balance on one foot while hanging onto the rail above. Every step on the inflamed toe, now cherry red like it was hit with a hammer in a Warner Brothers cartoon, felt like pure evil. But the embarrassment and torture of the subway ride every day was far worse.

I got in with this podiatrist in Murray Hill, this Gary Shandling-looking fucker who glanced at my foot and without a second thought said, “yeah, that’s definitely gout.” He took x-rays and talked me into a $175 pair of orthopedic inserts to correct the flat feet, and I said yes, mostly because he had a really cute receptionist who talked to me. He got me an appointment with an internist to do some blood work, but first, he gave me a steroid injection into the joint of my big toe.

I don’t normally have a problem with needles. When I was a kid, I had allergy shots for three or four years, and I could probably handle jabbing myself with a hypo better than most junkies. But when a doctor says, “look, most podiatrists won’t give you this shot because it’s really hard to do, but I think I can try it,” followed with “I’m going to give you a shot of lidocaine so I can give you the actual shot,” then produces this giant railroad spike of a needle along with a giant jar of fluid that’s going in your intra-articular area, you tend to freak the fuck out. And I did. And I kept a straight face, until he had to push around the second needle and jockey with the syringe, like he was putting the eleventh gallon of gas in a ten-gallon tank. But I walked out of there — WALKED out of there, with both shoes on, no cane, and a Barry Bonds-like amount of steroid in the knuckle of my toe.

Here’s what I found out about gout, after a weekend of frenetic web searches: gout is a form of arthritis, where excess uric acid in the blood crystallizes in the coolest extremities of your body, where there’s the most pressure. Those crystals then cause inflammation and push into your nerves, making it feel like a lobster has clamped down on your toes. Doctors and junk science folklorists go back and forth every few years, either saying it’s caused by rich diet and alcohol, or genetics and heredity. Common treatment involves strict diet, a regimen of uric acid-depleting medication, or both.

And when I got to the internist’s office and got a few tubes of blood drawn, he told me the same thing, and gave me a script for allopurinol and some scare tactics about my daily McDonald’s regimen. The next day, he called and gave me the complete rundown, that my uric acid levels were off the chart, along with my cholesterol count, triglycerides, and every other bad thing that a 30-year-old shouldn’t have coursing through their veins. He told me to come back in six months and get more blood work to figure out if I needed Lipitor. But this was in April of 2001, and his office was in the World Trade Center, so you can do the math on that one.

I called my friend Cynthia, this Venezuelan swimsuit model in LA. She started emailing me about Bukowski a year ago, then read my books and became a fan. She told me she was a Venezuelan swimsuit model, and I became a fan. We met whenever one of us was on the wrong coast, and I considered selling everything I owned and moving to LA, except I just did that a year ago with New York, and it didn’t work out well.

“Cyn, how’s the city of Angels?”

“Horrible when you’re not here,” she said. “What happened with your doctor?”

“The prick told me I needed to take more pills, lose 40 pounds, go on a diet, and lower my cholesterol.”

“You don’t need to lose weight,” she said. “You’re fine.”

“Right back at ya,” I said. “But I’m hobbling around this fucking island like Quasimodo. I think I’m going to have to become a vegetarian,” I said. “I don’t know what the hell to do.”

“I’m a vegetarian,” she said. “It’s not that hard.”

“You live in the land of fruits and nuts,” I said. “The frickin’ Burger King out there has a vegan menu. I grew up in Indiana. Even the vegetables have meat in them. How the hell am I going to live on salads?”

“What about falafel? That’s vegetarian.”

“What the fuck is a falafel?”

“It’s ground up chickpeas, fried in a ball, in a pita. You’ve never had falafel?”

“I don’t even know where the hell to get it. The most ethnic food we had as a kid was Pizza Hut.”

“I’m sure you can find a guy in a cart selling it there. I know a really good place in the East Village — we’ll go the next time I’m in town.”

“I’m starving now,” I said. “I’m going to try to catch some lunch. Catch you later Cyn.”

Times Square might be the center of the universe for tourists, but that only makes it a horrible place to grab a quick bite to eat if you work there. When you’ve only got a half-hour between meetings, going to Sardi’s and beating past the Wednesday half-off theater crowd bussed in from Iowa isn’t an option. It’s one of many reasons my diet consisted mostly of grabbing a #2 meal from the mega-McDonald’s, and maybe switching off with the Pizza Hut Express hidden in the food court underneath the Viacom ghetto across the street. The BMG building had a giant cafeteria, but it wasn’t good for much except mediocre ten-dollar hamburgers, and occasionally running into celebrities. (I kept seeing Booger from Revenge of the Nerds eating lunch there.)

I prairie-dogged over the top of my cube to talk to my neighbor Amy. “Do you know of a good place for falafel around here?”

“There’s a guy with a cart that’s always on either 48th or 49th, between 7th and 8th,” she said.

I grabbed my MiniDisc player and headphones, and headed for the elevator. Down in the lobby, a group of ghetto kids stood at the security desk, trying to convince the guards to let them through the TSA-like checkpoint to go upstairs and tell Diddy they were the next big thing. Sometimes the guards would let them audition on speakerphone for the 30th floor receptionist. I always wondered if I could start some kind of scam telling wannabe rappers in the lobby I was a producer and could get them face time with Puffy for a small cash fee. But I was too hungry to deal with that today.

I cut east on 46th street, to avoid the crowds, and walked past the American Express office where I was always making last-second thousand-dollar payoffs to keep my corporate card out of hock. I hung a left back onto 48th and saw my destination, a green cart with glass walls and a middle-eastern looking guy manning the post, shuffling ice over cans of Coke in a plastic tub.

“Hi, uh, I’ll have a falafel?” I asked.

“Just one, boss?”

“Uh, I don’t know, actually. How big are they?” I had no concept whatsoever what constituted a falafel, or an order of falafel. For all I knew, falafel was one of those words that was both singular and plural. Does several falafels constitute a bunch of the fried balls in one pita, or many pitas, each with multiple balls? I had no idea.

“You never had a falafel? Here, try this out.” He pulled out one of the spheres from a pile just out of a fryer and handed it to me. My first thought was that it looked like a dried meatball, maybe something you got in an silver astronaut food pack and then reconstituted before adding to a spaghetti dinner.

I bit into the piece and was surprised by its crunchiness. It had a texture that was tactically satisfying, like the experience of biting into a hard-shelled M&M candy and finding the soft chocolate inside. The piece came straight out of the fryer and felt like it was a thousand degrees in my mouth, but this wasn’t the soggy, reconstituted, sad falafel patty you get in the freezer section of your local Kroger; this was the real deal.

I hurried back to the office with the paper bag containing the warm, foil-wrapped pita, got a soda from the break room, and sat at my desk to dig in. I quickly found falafel isn’t the best thing to eat at a computer, with tahini oozing from the seams onto your hands and pieces of lettuce and tomato overflowing onto the keyboard with every bite. And a single pita-ensconced sandwich wasn’t enough — I instantly regretted not buying two. But I loved the heartiness of it, and didn’t regret not eating some meat-based lunch. I always associated bean-oriented food with the thin, massless bean burritos you get at taco joints that taste like a beef burrito minus the beef. Falafel has a satisfying quality, and when you mix that with the tang of the tahini sauce offset by the crispness of the lettuce and the sweetness of the tomatoes, it’s a perfect storm of sandwich goodness.

I’ve eaten a thousand falafels since. From the raw food place in Mar Vista to the historic Mamoun’s in the heart of Greenwich Village; from the local sandwich shop I walk to almost every day in Silicon Valley to the time I discovered you could get a falafel plate at Dodger Stadium, I’ve loved every time I could wrap a pita around some fried or baked chickpeas. I never stuck with being a vegetarian — within a week of that attempt, I was at the Times Square Chili’s, eating the ten-pounds-of-ribs meal. But I cut the fast food, lost the weight, and still love me a good falafel.


New Watch

I had to order a new watch this week.  It was one of those annoyances in my schedule that was burning up my free cycles, that I just needed to get over with.  Another one of those is buying a new laptop – I think my current one’s days are numbered, but I don’t know which Mac laptop to get, and I think that obsessively googling every model will somehow return an oddball combination that has every feature of the highest end model at like $800 less because I don’t get iWork installed from the factory or some shit.

(There’s a reason this programming in my brain is broken.  Back in 1988 and 1989, Chevy used to produce the IROC-Z Camaro, and they added a “hidden” option level, the “0-level” 1LE.  If you picked a specific engine and differential and deleted the air conditioning, they would build a race-only configuration that had a true dual exhaust, a bunch of steel parts replaced with aluminum, lighter rims, dual-caliper brakes, and a beefed up suspension.  There’s probably some part of me that thinks if I order a specific MacBook Pro custom configuration, it will magically get a ten-petabyte SSD drive and a terabyte of RAM or something.)

I hate shopping for watches, because I have specific wants, and watches are one of those things where 90% of the population says “WTF just use your cell phone” and 9% want something that costs more than my car and looks like something out of Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  I don’t want an analog watch, and I want something waterproof and with a light.  That pretty much leaves Timex and Casio, who basically release the same watches every year, except slowly changing the design to make them 4% more annoying.  And their constant redesign means that if you bought a Timex in 2008, good luck on buying a replacement band now.

Watches are one of those things like soda cans that slowly change design so you can’t tell it’s happening, until you look back five or ten years.  If you told me the design of a Coke Zero can had changed in the last six months, I wouldn’t know, even though there’s one open on my desk at pretty much all points in time.  But if you showed me a picture of my desk from 2009 and there was a Coke Zero can there, it would look so completely different, it would more closely resemble one of those fake brand-scrubbed cans you see in a movie where they didn’t get clearance from Coke to use their trademarked design.

I was digging around the other day trying to find something, and I found a Timex watch I had in 1989.  I very clearly remember buying it at the College Mall, and thinking that the design looked futuristic and neat-o.  It was mostly square, and probably ripped off Star Trek: The Next Generation somewhat.  I think it lasted about a year before the band broke, and I threw it in a dresser drawer.  Anyway, I found it the other day, and size-wise, this watch that seemed gigantic at the time is about 40% the size of a modern Timex watch.  It doesn’t have 40% less functionality; it’s just that the modern design is much bigger, or we’ve become accustomed to carrying much larger chunks of plastic on our wrists.

I was almost on the verge of pre-ordering one of these Pebble watches, which is a PDA on a wrist band, maybe the size of an iPod nano.  But they claim it has a one-week battery, which probably means a three-day battery, and since I wear a watch day and night, the idea of taking it off every few days to charge it seems like a pain in the ass.  I also did the Timex DataLink thing before, and found it to be a huge pain in the ass for various reasons. I don’t want to be the guinea pig while they hash out the next generation of PDA-like watches.

One prediction, though: I think the Android size war will go to the wrist.  Just like people are carrying around these Android phones the size of a small TV, I think people will start to wear watches with screens bigger than an iPad Mini, along with an appropriate amount of smugness about how their screen is so much bigger than yours.