Double-decker slices of life

Babe's

“Mommy, I went boom in my pants.”

In 1978, my mother retired her well-worn copy of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and re-married, giving her hand to a professional wrestler who was also a high school football coach and whose mission in life seemed to be to confirm every stereotype anyone had ever heard about New York Italians. Flaws aside, he had an Erik Estrada smile, and so mere months after we’d run into him at a matinee of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” they said their vows in a small backyard ceremony and moved us to the only neighborhood where they could afford a four-bedroom house.

It was a cookie-cutter subdivision aptly and depressingly named Four Winds. Even at a young age, I always imagined it signified that by moving there, your hopes and dreams for the future were officially scattered to the four winds. Our new house was located in  Brandon, Fla., a shitty little cowtown that was a suburb of Tampa, and it was in Brandon that I went on to spend many of what they call your “formative years.” I say this because when I finally left there 10 years later, I felt completely unformed as a human being.

Like many small towns across the country — perhaps the world — it was devoid of culture. We had a two-screen movie theater and a dilapidated bowling alley, but otherwise the landscape was an endless grid of cow pastures and churches and identical housing subdivisions (three of my best friends during this time lived in the exact same house a few blocks from each other). Essentially, it was “Pleasant Valley Sunday” only without the killer guitar riff and sweet vocal harmonies. Driving through Brandon in 1978 felt eerily like watching Fred Flintstone run through his house, as the exact same background passed by again and again and again.

Aside from a single McDonald’s and one of the last remaining Burger Chefs (look it up), there was just one restaurant in town. Recently opened, Babe’s was a no-frills pizza parlor with a super-creepy logo featuring a hollow-eyed toddler in a diaper tossing a pizza. Defying decades of marketing wisdom, it quickly became the de facto post-game destination for Little League teams.

For years, every Saturday after soccer, my parents and I — and occasionally my sister — would crowd into black vinyl booths alongside teammates and other parents to munch on Babe’s signature Double-Decker pizza while the kids marveled at the model train cars chugging around the ceiling and the adults held trial for whoever hadn’t mowed their lawn in more than a week.

That was some 25 to 30 years ago.

Tonight, for the first time in ages, I went to Babe’s. I have no idea why. As I was leaving the parking garage at work, I decided I would eat out and Babe’s,  inexplicably, was the first place that popped into my head.

So I drove, roughly 15 miles — past the tuxedo shop I managed in high school, past the strip mall where I got arrested for shoplifting, past the apartment complex where I first kissed a girl, through the intersection where I had my first car accident — and parked in the back, just like we always did back when I was a passenger and the idea of driving a car still seemed like the most glorious freedom in the world. (It is, you guys. It is.)

The twentysomething waitress pointed me to a table in the corner and asked if I’d ever been there before. I smiled, maybe just to myself, and said, “Yes, thanks.” I ordered a medium double-decker with pepperoni, green pepper and black olives, which I’m pretty sure is the only thing I’ve ever ordered at Babe’s in 32 years.

When I was a kid, my stepdad and I would split a double-decker. Four slices each. He usually couldn’t finish his half, but I always did. It was a point of pride for me. I couldn’t outdo him at much of anything, but when it came to eating, I was the king of the castle.

After two slices tonight, I was stuffed. That’s when I posted this:

Twenty-two years ago, I scored 780 out of 800 on the math section of the SAT.

Tonight, I couldn’t figure out why I was so full after just two slices of double-decker pizza.

Moments later, a friend who’d seen the post texted me — coincidentally, she’d gotten the exact same math score. We started discussing SAT performance and I admitted to her that my score on the reading and writing portions (back then, they were called “Verbal”) was embarrassingly low.

Mainly I confessed this because I thought I’d already mentioned it to her before. (Apparently not.) It’s always a difficult thing to explain.

I’m an editor. I’m a writer. I got a liberal arts degree. I chose this path, despite — and probably in spite of — the fact that it led me away from my natural gifts.

“You love a stuggle,” my friend texted. “Correction,” I replied. “I *used* to love a struggle.”

In 10th grade Geometry class, my teacher wrote out an “extra credit” problem on the board — I’m pretty sure it was something about defining the curvature of a projection using a Lie bracket, but it’s hard to remember exactly — and told us that anyone who could come up with the solution would get an A for the semester. I spent the rest of the period scribbling in my notebook and, just before the bell rang, raised my hand with the answer.

When the teacher responded with nothing but a wide-eyed look of shock, a classmate named Scott — the biggest bully at my school, a guy who wasn’t friendly to anyone, a guy who I’d watched break the nose of the second-biggest bully at my school in 6th grade, resulting in a geyser of blood that covered the lunch room floor — turned to me and shouted, “Man! I wish I had your brain!”

These days when the subject of intellect comes up, I often tell people, “I’ve never been smart; I’ve just always worn glasses.” I started saying it to be humble, but over the years I’ve come to believe it.

But you know what? I think I was probably pretty damn smart at one point.

And maybe that’s why it killed me to discover, via the SAT, that I was a profoundly mediocre English student. Maybe that’s why I chose to turn my back on math, which came naturally to me, in favor of language, which seemed to elude me entirely.

Or maybe I just wanted to piss off my dad, the accountant.

Either way, here I am. Forty years old, stuffed full of pizza and working as a mid-level editor at a fading publication in a dying industry. It would be extremely convenient if I still loved a struggle.

When you’re young, running around soccer fields and scarfing down pizza with your family, you just assume that as you get older you’ll also get better.

And once you finally get older, you realize you don’t even know what “better” means.

I’m kinder at 40 than I was at 15. I’m more generous. I’m more autonomous, certainly. More open-minded. More compassionate. Honest. Forgiving. Patient. Sincere. Appreciative.

Does that make me better?

I have no idea. I do know this: I’m nowhere near as smart as I used to be. I’m not as friendly or funny, either. I’m way more tired, and slower of mind and body. I’m almost devoid of energy or enthusiasm. And, also (this is a big one), hope.

Also, I can’t eat nearly as much pizza.

Does that make me worse?

Again, no idea.

Maybe it does. Maybe I peaked at 15. Maybe that was the best I’ll ever be, and the 25 years since have been nothing but a long, slow decline.

But at least I can drive now. And the pizza was fucking phenomenal.

On eMusic and et cetera

Today I logged into my eMusic account to discover that — for at least the third time since I became a user — their pricing structure is changing.

I haven’t really thought this out, and it’s probably a case of sour grapes, but I need to get some things off my chest.

Years ago when I first signed up for the MP3 service, I got unlimited downloads for $9.99 a month. Admittedly, that was a steal. But, then again, the number of high- or even mid-profile artists whose music was available on the site at that time was scant, especially for the mainstream listener.

Until last year, I got 40 downloads a month for $9.99, still a heck of a bargain.

And until recently, I was getting 30 downloads a month for $11.99, which, while a considerable downgrade from my previous plans, was at least a good deal compared to the outrageously priced alternatives such as iTunes.

Starting next month, it appears that they’re giving me what, on average, will amount to roughly 20 downloads per month for $11.99. It’s tough to say exactly, because the per-song price now varies, whereas before every song counted as one credit. But at best, I’ll get 28 songs, assuming all I care about are obscure outtakes from Third World vuvuzela bands.

OK, yeah. It’s still better than iTunes. As they helpfully point out in their explanation to users, “Under the new currency pricing system, eMusic members will enjoy savings of 20%-50% compared to iTunes’ a la carte prices.”

I suppose if that’s all eMusic wants to be, maybe they can turn it into a marketing slogan: “eMusic! Hey, it’s better than iTunes!”

Way to aim high, guys.

Listen, eMusic. I get it. You’re a business. You’re trying to make money. That’s fair.

And I’m sure the addition of the Universal Music Group catalog — which, ostensibly, is what prompted the change — will be swell. That’s a lot of music, some 250,000 tracks in all, many of which might even be worth hearing.

But aren’t we losing track of the larger point here?

This shouldn’t be about eMusic offering an alternative to iTunes and other Internet-based music retailers. It should be about digital distribution being an alternative to brick-and-mortar shops.

Ten or 15 years ago, I’d drive to my local store and shell out about $10 to $12 for a CD, which typically included 12-15 songs. That works out to about 75 cents per track. That price-tag covered the cost of recording, the artists’ royalties, the copyright fees, the marketing and promotional efforts and, of course, a hefty cut for the bloated music industry to line its pockets with.

But it also covered the cost of CD production, artwork and packaging, worldwide shipping and distribution, and a tidy little profit for the retailer itself. Those costs are no longer necessary.

And yet I’m still being asked to pay 70 to 80 cents per track? What gives?

I have my theories.

For example, a big part of it, probably, is that because digital downloads allow me to pick and choose the tracks I want, the labels can no longer force me to pay for the filler. After all, when you’re no longer able to charge for the chaff, you have to mark up the wheat.

(Of course, this model disrespects artists, who overwhelmingly continue to write, record and release songs as albums, presumably intended to be heard in their entirety, and arguably encourages throwaway culture by elevating the hit single above more “serious” works, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

Still, it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that it all boils down to something obscenely simple. Namely, that the major record labels simply aren’t willing to let go of the outrageous profit margins they grew accustomed to in the CD era.

And I guess that’s what bothers me most. At one time, eMusic wasn’t just an alternative to iTunes (which arguably started this whole mess by capitulating to label demands for higher prices). It was an alternative to the whole fat-and-happy, self-interested corporate culture of an increasingly soulless industry that cared about its consumers even less than it did about its artists. At least, it was a thorn in its side. At best, it was a catalyst for change.

Or at least I thought so.

So maybe the record industry won’t be brought to its knees today, or tomorrow, or maybe not the next day, either. But isn’t it inevitable? Isn’t the writing on the wall? The way I see it, you either evolve or you die, and for all the lip service the major labels give to change, they’re ultimately the same as they’ve always been: A wildly overgrown, woefully inefficient and largely unnecessary middleman.

Oh, and eMusic? It might be worth keeping something in mind. You’re a middleman, too.

Good luck with that.

Blurry bits of my life through phone pictures

I call him Mr. Integrity, but it’s not important why. His ex is one of my besties. Otherwise we’d probably never talk, or maybe we’d talk more. In any case, we work together. And he’s walking toward me right now, his hat all askance in the effortless laissez-faire fashion of bullshit iconoclasts.

“Dude, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m clipping my nails.”

“In the parking garage? At work?” He smiles, but only for a moment. He wouldn’t want me to think he cares. About anything, ever.

“It was time,” I say, instantly exhausted by the hopelessness of the conversational girder I suddenly find myself pinned beneath.

“You couldn’t do it at home this morning?”

“They weren’t ready yet,” I explain, the delivery of each word a supreme struggle. I decide I should mentally prepare myself to teach him how to breathe, should it come to that.

“So you brought a nail clipper with you? Just in case?” he inquires. You know, inquisitively.

“I always keep one in the car. Some people carry pocket knives or flashlights or boner pills. You never know. But when you need it, you need it.”

“Dude, you’re so OCD it’s ridiculous.”

“I do not have OCD.”

“You realize you park in this same space every day, right?”

It’s almost adorable how he thinks he’s got me cornered. Almost.

“That’s only so I can easily remember where my car is.” Dipshit.

But he isn’t finished. I can see him reaching for his ace in the hole. The one I put there myself.

“Didn’t you tell me once that every time you walk past the paper cutter, you think of chopping your finger off?”

Fucking hell. I never should have said anything.

“Maybe, but I only think about it. See?” I hold up my 10 fingers, their nails now perfectly trimmed, not too long, not too short. I wiggle them around a little bit, just to show off. I’m such a dick sometimes.

“Whatever, man. That’s still OCD,” he says with the sort of conviction you only get from people who believe in anything at all. I wonder for a moment if he has the entire text of the DSM-IV tattooed on his leg, but then our marketing coordinator squeals around the corner in her blue SUV, waving at us like we’re on fire. We might be.

Whatever. It’s better to burn out. And, anyway, I’m finished here.

“Listen,” I say. “Do you want to stand around in the parking garage all day talking about my non-existent problem, or do you want to start taking the 406 steps to the front door?”

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Air travel sets a low bar for bars

When I’m here in my own city, making the best of my mundane workaday world, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m visiting a different city, be it for important work or a frivolous vacation, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m en route from one of those places to another, well … even then, I sometimes go to bars.

The latter mostly happens in airports. I rarely travel by car, bus, train, boat, rickshaw or jetpack. Rarely. In fact, in my admittedly limited experience, most train stations, bus stations, marinas, ports and late-model automobiles don’t even include bars, which should not be overlooked as one possible reason their popularity as alternative modes of long-distance transport consistently takes a back seat to air travel.

(It may be worth mentioning that I once got obscenely drunk on a ferry to Victoria, B.C., while playing Rummy and downing B-52’s with a high-school crush. I never slept with her, but when we got to the island we sat in vibrating massage chairs together, which — if you’ve ever tried it, I’m sure you’ll agree — is probably the next best thing. Even so, I would absolutely get drunk on a ferry again given the opportunity, so score one point for watercraft. Well played, boats.)

Incidentally, one of the nice things about airport bars is that the chances of “hooking up” are infinitesimal. Most people who belly up to an airport bar are just killing time until their flight boards. Sure, you might strike up a conversation with them, and you might even hit it off. But I’ve spent hundreds of hours sipping (or, in some cases, gulping) whiskey in various airport establishments around the world and I’ve never once heard one of those conversations end with the line, “So … your city or mine?”

Invariably, you’ll go your way and your fleeting friend will go theirs. As a result, despite the typically cheesy decor and generic names that reek desperately of some Midwest marketing focus group, airport bars are surprisingly unpretentious. Their barstools tend to fill up with people who genuinely appreciate a good beer or a fine cocktail and, at least in that sense, they often remind me of my favorite bars both at home and abroad. While trendy nightspots shower publicly in their immediacy, drawing mirror-kissing trendspotters with fruity novelty drinks, the humble airport bar — like any serious watering hole — knows what it’s there for. It’s not a dance club. It’s not a catwalk. It’s just a bar.

One of my few quibbles with airport bars is that they’re not open 24 hours, and nearly all are closed when you need them most — during that painful layover in the wee hours while waiting for the red-eye home. Here in my town, the airport bars close down between 9 and 11 p.m. and don’t re-open until 7 a.m. I do a lot of early-morning travel, and generally rely on a quick drink to supply the fortitude for tolerating my fellow passengers. As such, the minutes between 6:55 and 7:00 tend to take their sweet time passing by, allowing for the type of self-reflection that once prompted me to tweet, “The only thing more depressing than last call is first call.”

You take the bad with the good, though. The best airport bar I’ve ever visited was in the United Airlines first-class lounge in Beijing, China, which was a serve-yourself open bar that had recently been re-stocked with a fresh bottle of green-label Johnnie Walker and plenty of ice. I won’t lie: As I worked my way through the first half of its contents, I found myself for the first time in my life honestly hoping that my flight would be delayed. Sure, it was free Scotch Whisky — the good stuff, too — but my mindset then was more or less the same as it is in every airport bar: “Hey, I’m not driving.”

Comedian Greg Giraldo has a hilarious routine about getting drunk at the airport that includes the line, “Do you have any idea how wasted you have to be for someone to say, ‘Sir, you’re just too drunk to sit in a seat’?”

And that’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? Ultimately, air travel — for all its technological marvel and modern convenience — is excruciatingly dull at best. If everything goes perfectly — boarding is quick and efficient, departure is on-time, the pilot has a deft touch and your cabin mates are without exception polite and considerate — your day amounts to sitting quietly in a seat, doing absolutely nothing for hours on end.

Might as well have a nice buzz.

Don’t get too comfortable

Jumbo Slice

Size, as it turns out, does matter.

I just got home from Washington, D.C., where I spent the weekend to attend the bachelor party of a close friend and former colleague. We had ridiculous amounts of fun. I caught up with old friends and made new ones — all of them smart, creative, amibitious and, without exception, wonderful human beings.

I joked yesterday that when I met the groom-to-be about eight years ago, he was “a broken man.” But it wasn’t really a joke. He was miserable then, almost completely lost at sea, with nothing to buoy him but a nagging sense that things had to get better.

Within a year, he took a leap of faith and moved to the capital to take a demanding but potentially rewarding job that he wasn’t fully confident he was cut out for. “I feel like an impostor,” he told me in the early weeks of his new gig. But he stuck with it, because if nothing else it was challenging. It was interesting. Mainly, it was different.

Since then? His professional trajectory has been nothing short of meteoric. He has risen with distinction to the very top of his profession. Today he’s an extremely influential man in arguably the most influential city in the world. And, oh yeah: Next weekend, he’ll be married to an impossibly wonderful woman who makes him happier than I’ve ever seen him.

In the wee hours of Saturday night, we were riding home in a cab down 18th street in Adams Morgan when another friend spotted a neon sign that beckoned to him like a siren.

“Jumbo Slice,” it said.

“Stop the car! Let us out here!” he cried, and the driver obeyed. The rest of us were too drunk or half-asleep to question it.

So next thing I know, we’re stumbling through a crowd of drunks toward the promise of gooey cheese and pepperoni and grease running down our arms on a scale that is at least somewhat more “jumbo” than we’re accustomed to.

I’m happy to report the neon sign did not lie.

You don’t really get a sense for it in the photo, but these slices were massive, requiring multiple paper plates to (barely) support their bounty. They were the perfect ending to a night that had celebrated excess. And as we walked slowly back toward home, munching on our Jumbo Slices along the way, the groom-to-be drunkenly related the tale of their evolution.

“Originally they were just, you know, merely huge,” he said. “But then the place down the street started making a bigger slice. So these guys started making theirs a little bigger and then the place down the street bought a whole new oven — a bigger one, so they could make even bigger pies. Naturally, this place had to respond in kind, and so now it just keeps escalating. There’s no telling when it will end, really.”

“It’s like a pizzeria arms race,” one of us said. “A Cold War of kitchen equipment,” someone countered. “We can only hope that one or the other side enters a phase of perestroika and the whole thing ends peacefully,” we added, laughing hysterically between bites.

And that’s when it occurred to me: You really need to be around people who challenge you if you’re ever going to get anywhere.

Vagueness and vital organs

I can’t help but laugh every time I hear someone explain a break-up, divorce or  triple-homicide by saying, “Well, apparently Mr. So-And-So had a wandering eye.”

It’s usually older people who were brought up with a heightened sense of propriety, but I’ve heard my younger friends say it, too. “Did you hear they’re splitting up? Yeah, apparently he had a wandering eye.” And then, inevitably, the person they’re talking to cringes a little, because … well, because “wandering eye” implies so much while actually saying so little. Supplied with almost no real information, you’re left with only your imagination to fill in the blanks.

Who did he bang? I’ll bet it was his secretary, the brunette with the pale skin and the legs up to here. I’ll bet they did it on his desk. No, on her desk. Right out there in the lobby between the water cooler and the copy machine. At night, probably, after closing. They probably left the door unlocked just to make it more exciting. Yep, I’ll bet the janitor caught them. Or the security cameras! I’ll bet there’s video of it. It’s probably on the Internet. That’s how she found out. No doubt about it. Hell, I never trusted that guy.

That’s what I imagine other people think about, anyway.

Me? When I hear “wandering eye,” the first thing that invariably pops into my head is an Onion headline from two years ago, which read, “Stuart Scott’s left eye moves to Fox.”

With an amblyopia joke as my launching pad, I’m just a hop, skip and a jump from a fantastic Nikolai Gogol-esque tale about a sentient eyeball who tires of being merely one constituent of a dull, monogamous face, so he dons a dashing overcoat or perhaps a distinguished monocle and embarks on a series of romantic misadventures, gallivanting from club to club with his harlot du jour and cultivating a notorious reputation as a rakish eyeball-about-town.

So when someone says, “Did you hear? They’re splitting up,” I reflexively think, “He just couldn’t keep his eyeball in its socket, could he?” And I snort.

Which, as it turns out, isn’t generally well received as an appropriate response to heartbreak.

Go figure.

Better Safe And Sorry

If you’re a man who happens to be age 40 or over and you experience chest pains, do not dilly-dally, they say. Go immediately to the Emergency Room. This is not a drill; this is the real thing.

Health care industry workers take this particular symptom so seriously, in fact, that one time years ago, well before I was 40, I called my Primary Care Physician about a digestive issue and as soon as I mentioned feeling something — anything — in my chest, the nurse urged me to hang up and dial 911.

I’ve suffered from dyspepsia, reflux and a host of related upper-gastrointestinal issues my entire adult life, and as a result I’m intimately familiar with what it feels like to have simple, or even severe, indigestion.

So in May when I felt some discomfort in my chest that was unlike anything I’d experienced before, I panicked a bit. I’m not overweight, I don’t have high blood pressure and I have no real family history of cardiac disease, but I don’t live the healthiest lifestyle, either, and I’ve been a cigarette smoker for the better part of 17 years.

With that in mind, along with my age (40), I decided I should heed conventional wisdom. As it says in one of the medical books I pore over frequently (because, let’s be honest, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac), “Any adult who suddenly experiences discomfort in the chest must assume that it has something to do with the heart and act accordingly.” So off I went.

I drove up to the ER, walked inside, approached the check-in window and began explaining my situation to the woman behind the counter. Now, I work in a newsroom where we’ve grown jaded and unimpressed by ordinary events, such as murder, violence and corruption, so it’s only when something truly remarkable happens — say, a gunman is holding a hostage in the local elementary school parking lot, or a tanker explodes on the freeway killing two police officers — that we really even bother to wake up. In those rare electric moments, you can literally see a palpable energy spreading across the room like “The Wave” at a football game. When I uttered the words “chest pain” at the ER check-in window, I felt the spark of that same energy and watched as it flashed across their faces and shot through their limbs. Suddenly the room was all abuzz, and its meaning was clear: “Holy shit, we’ve got ourselves a bonafide emergency!”

I was fast-tracked to the ER. “We can fill out your paperwork later,” said the nurse who escorted me urgently to my bed. Without delay, another nurse hurriedly began hooking me up to everything in sight. Electrodes were attached to my chest and an IV was jabbed into my arm. My heart rate and blood pressure were checked. Blood was drawn. A chest X-ray was taken. An electrocardiogram was performed. My condition was stable.

Thirty minutes later, a doctor shuffled in. “You’re fine,” he said. He suggested it was indigestion. I respectfully disagreed. He recommended an endoscopy. I took it under advisement. He sent me on my way.

And that, more or less, was that. I trusted conventional wisdom. I consulted a doctor. I explained my symptoms and I was whisked away into a whirlwind of health care procedures that, presumably, were in my best interest. And then I was given a clean bill of health, or at least a reasonably clean one, and dismissed. “Nothing to worry about,” was the verdict. Who was I to argue? The doctor knows best.

Sure enough, within a few hours, the weird pressure in my chest was completely gone. “I guess I’m fine, after all,” I thought. “Awesome!”

And it was. Except …

Two weeks later the bills started showing up. Bills. Plural.

I got one from the hospital itself for $623. I got another one from the doctor I saw for $89.54. I got a third from my Primary Care Physician for $25. I got a fourth from another doctor for $27.64. Total cost out of my pocket: $765.18.

The kicker? None of them — not one — really explains exactly what it’s for. “Services rendered,” one says. By comparison, another that reads “Emergency visit” is acutely specific. Other charges listed on my various bills include “Drugs,” “Laboratory” and “Emergency Room.”

Now, I’m the first person to admit that I don’t know shit about how health insurance works. But this seems unnecessarily convoluted and (intentionally?) inscrutable.

I was there for less than an hour. I saw two nurses and spoke to one doctor. I did as I was told. I trusted them.

I have health insurance through my employer, and from what people who know about this stuff have told me, my coverage is pretty good. I realize a trip to the ER isn’t exactly “preventative” care, but considering the circumstances I’d think this would be something that would be fully (or, at least, mostly) covered.

Each year, I pay over $1,000 before taxes out of my paycheck and my employer graciously contributes something like three times that amount. In exchange for that, I get “coverage.”

What does “coverage” mean? I don’t have the slightest idea. But what it appears to mean is that my employer and I make a substantial “loan” to an insurance company, and then if I get sick they go ahead and put that money toward the parts of my bills that they find agreeable and then charge me for the rest. But if I don’t get sick — or sick enough, anyway — they simply pocket the change.

I’m sure it’s more complicated than that. I’m certain of it. What I don’t understand is why.

Why am I paying money to doctors I never saw? Why am I getting four different bills for one ER visit? Why are there 19 different nebulously designated items on my various bills? And how much of these unexplained costs are the result of nothing more than the fact that we’ve created a system that is needlessly complex?

I don’t have any answers for any of that. Like I said, I’m clueless about this stuff.

But here’s one thing I know: Given my current financial situation, if I experience severe chest pains tomorrow, I hope it’s no big deal because I’m not going to the ER. I don’t trust the system anymore. I don’t trust conventional wisdom.

The same book I referenced above goes on to say, “If it turns out to be a false alarm, you’ve lost nothing. But if it indeed was the heart, you may have saved your life!”

True enough on that last count.

But the first part? Not so much.

Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo

Her Grayness

Cats: They don’t like you, either. I respect that.

This is a cat. You probably recognized that. They’re very common house pets. This one is named Millie, but she also answers to the following nicknames: Mill, Millip, Millicent, Millejandro and Her Grayness.

Millie is 11 years old. She enjoys playing fetch with wadded up ATM receipts, chasing flashlights projected onto the floor and sucking her thumb. Like me, she doesn’t care for most people. Unlike me, she positively abhors cheese.

She belongs to my ex. When we were together, I lived with Millie for about six years. She was slow to warm up to me, but finally gave in. To this day, I’m the only person other than my ex who can touch — or even approach — Millie without her growling, hissing and/or swatting. Sometimes when the vet tries to handle her, she gets so angry she literally poops.

She’s just not a people cat. I can respect that.

Which is why, when my ex received a two-month fellowship overseas, she asked if I’d be willing to let Millie move in for a while.

So here she is, stretching out on my couch, sleeping in my sock drawer and throwing up under my bed, just like old times. It’s been a lot like reconnecting with an old friend. The first couple of days we were both tentative, and then pretty soon it was like we’d never been apart. Me and Millie. Millie and me.

But we have been apart — for nearly three years. And certain things are different now.

Back then she had a “brother” and a “sister.” Buddy and Beeble were the two cats I brought to the relationship. About four years ago, Buddy suffered renal failure and I had to put him to sleep. Beeble is an outdoor cat now, living at a friend’s house, where she frolics in the garden.

Millie hated sharing space with the other cats — she isn’t a cat cat, either — but eventually learned to tolerate their existence and mostly just ignored them.

When it comes to humans, though, Millie never ignores. While she hates to have her personal space invaded, she always wants to be around people. It’s like she doesn’t trust them and wants to keep an eye on them. She’ll follow you around the house for hours, watching as you wash the dishes or do the laundry or play a video game — you know, just in case. But as soon as you look at her, she tenses up. And if you make a move in her direction, she’s gone.

Back when we lived together, I used to play guitar, a behavior which Millie found exceedingly suspicious. I’d sit on the couch and strum along while Millie would perch herself on an armrest and watch, wide-eyed, trying to get her head around what exactly I was trying to accomplish with that noisy contraption.

Once we’d established this routine, I started singing songs to her. Her theme song, a simple but soulful number that my ex made up, consisted almost entirely of an awkward but catchy chorus that went, “Millie … she does ne’er like cheese.”

My specialty, though, was changing the lyrics of popular songs so that they told stories about the cat and her unique personality. The only one I remember at the moment was a reworking of “Candy Says” by The Velvet Underground that went like this:

Millie says,
“I’ve come to hate most cheeses.”
“And I don’t think that baby Jesus …”
“… would disagreeeee.”

These are the kinds of stupid things you do with your pets when nobody is watching. At least subconsciously, you figure, “It’s only a cat. It won’t judge me.” But with Millie, it’s different. You always get the sense she’s looking at you like you’re completely ridiculous.

I was reminded of that look this morning when I went to clean out Millie’s litter box. Back when we lived together, the litter box was one of my daily chores, and I crawled out of bed every morning to take care of it without even opening my eyes. One morning, though, I woke up with a tune in my head, some stray melody left over from a dream that I somehow managed to bring back into the waking world with me.

As I stood there scooping shit into a plastic grocery bag, I saw Millie sitting on the washing machine, watching me intently with a look that said, “Whatever you do, human, don’t engage in any nonsense. Because I loathe nonsense.”

And so my hand was forced. I started singing aloud to the tune in my head, a sort of country-ish jig that, in retrospect, is nearly identical to the melody from “Particle Man” by They Might Be Giants. The words that came out of my barely awake brain were as follows:

Bag of poo. Bag of poo.
Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo.
Buddy’s poo, and Beeble’s poo, and Millie’s poo, too.
Hey, everybody, it’s a bag of poo.

Brilliant, no? I never bothered to add a second verse, because why mess with perfection, right?

Anyway, after that, I sang that song every morning for at least a year before I went my way while my ex took Millie and went hers.

I sang it again today, for the first time since around May of 2007, and I suppose I’ll be singing it every morning through the end of July when Millie goes home. It’s no longer technically accurate, of course — today’s grocery bag contained the poo of only a single feline.

But that’s when two things occurred to me. First, that while I really miss Buddy, I don’t miss his poo one bit. And second … I feel pretty much the exact same way about my marriage.

R.I.P., my friend

This morning I got a phone call from an old friend I hadn’t heard from in at least a year. It’s been so long, I didn’t recognize the tone in her voice. “Hey!” I said, excitedly. “Hey,” she responded flatly. “What’s up?!” I nearly yelled.

Moments later, my voice matched hers. Hushed. Trembling. Serious.

“Trey hung himself,” she said.

And the world kept spinning without me.

_______

I don’t mean to be crass, but this isn’t my first rodeo.

In July ‘06, one of the best friends I’ve ever had threw himself off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Mike was a brilliant writer and musician, possibly the smartest man I ever knew and certainly one of the funniest. He was eccentric and often standoffish, but had a good heart and a soft spot for his dog Rudie.

He was known for pouring his heart out while on stage and hiding it completely while off. He was also known for his long, spindly fingers, which not only made him a gifted guitarist, but also gave him the ability to hold a cigarette, a beer and a cocktail all in the same hand (which was pretty much his standard appearance). And he was known for his thrift-store-professional fashion sense, which equated to wearing second-hand sport coats and dress slacks with retro T-shirts and used Hush Puppies.

One time our company — we worked together — threw a staff party at the beach, and everyone was stunned when Mike showed up. I was stunned because he showed up at all. Everyone else was stunned because he was dressed in a suit. On the beach.

Because he was Mike. And that’s how Mike dressed.

I’ve almost never looked up to anyone, but I looked up to him. He was pretty much my hero.

He couldn’t fly, though.

_______

Suicides are weird.

They make people do odd things.

Every time one happens, it’s only a matter of time before friends and (mostly) acquaintances start airing the deceased’s dirty laundry.

“You know he was in an abusive relationship, right?”

“I heard she had a serious drinking problem.”

“I saw him doing blow in the bathroom at that show last month.”

“She told me once that her mother suffered from severe depression.”

This phenomenon drives me nuts.

First of all, have some fucking respect. Second of all, how does knowing any of this information help me? I don’t know for a fact that any of these things were what caused this tragedy, but even if I did the fact remains that my friend is still gone.

I think people just want to believe it can’t happen to them. They’re more comfortable when they know the suicidal person had bigger problems — or, at least, different problems — from their own. So they talk about ‘em.

I suppose I don’t blame them. I wish I could believe in all that. Dealing with these things would be so much easier if I could.

But I can’t. Because I’ve been there.

________

My cousin was the first suicide I had to cope with. Mike was second. Trey, naturally, is third.

Through those, I’ve noticed one other thing about the way people react.

For whatever reason, people love to attach themselves to suicides. Even suicides that barely affect them. It’s as if they want to be victims.

Or, more likely, they want people to feel sorry for them.

I saw this the most when Mike died. Because he was a musician of some renown, local scenesters came out of the woodwork to eulogize, mourn and bask in the martyrdom of my friend, who in my rage at this development I dubbed the Patron Saint of Tampa Drunks.

Fuck those people. Their loss, if it existed at all, was theirs to keep. But when they broke down sobbing over someone they barely knew or fainted over his casket, all I saw were opportunists exploiting the death of my friend. My friend for whom I was feeling real, genuine grief — grief that I still feel to this day, while those attention whores sit at the bar sharing a laugh.

________

I’ll be honest. Trey and I had drifted apart.

For about eight years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we were tight. We were part of a group of friends roughly a dozen strong who embraced their nerdiness. We were computer programmers and creative writers, theater geeks and political wonks, chess players and D&D dungeon crawlers.

We didn’t have much, but we had each other. And we stuck together through thick and thin. Partly because nobody else would have us, but also partly because we shared that special bond that only outcasts can ever know.

In high school, Trey was an actor, and he would talk at length about his chosen craft during the keg parties we’d throw at our friends’ houses, in empty lots and underneath bridges. In college, he became a DJ, spinning records at the local alternative danceteria until one night when he took so much LSD he became convinced he was in the cockpit of a alien spacecraft and his turntables were the controls. (Disaster, of course, ensued.) Not long after we graduated, Trey joined the Navy and started traveling the world. Pretty soon, contact with him began to dwindle until it disappeared entirely.

He met a sweet girl and got married. They moved back to the Tampa area and we reconnected occasionally, whenever time allowed. Eventually they had two kids — both boys — and Trey got a job as an ER nurse. There was almost nothing he loved more than telling stories about the lives he’d saved (or helped save) in the emergency room.

The last time I saw him was over a year ago. He called me out of the blue and said he was in Gainesville, which is where we went to college. “I’m at Caribbean Spice!” he said, naming a so-small-it-barely-exists eatery that we frequented during our school years.

“Dude! Have some carrot cake for me!” I said, remembering how much I loved their dessert.

About two hours later, my phone rang again. It was Trey. He was downstairs, standing outside my office. I went out to meet him and after we hugged, he handed me a small package.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“I brought you some carrot cake, man.”

_______

While his influence will always loom almost as large as his hulking frame, Trey barely existed for me in my everyday life as an adult. I heard from him maybe twice a year and saw him even less. From that perspective, I don’t have the right to pretend I’m as affected by his loss as his family or friends or even his more recent co-workers. After hearing the news today, I gently replaced the phone’s handset, took a brief moment to collect myself, and went to a staff meeting. Over the course of the day, I mentioned it only to a small handful of my closest friends.

Maybe it’s just that I hate attention, but I refuse to publicly parade around my grief over his tragic death.

But goddamnit, it’s fucking hard.

Because I’ve really missed that guy for a long time. And now? Now it’s forever.

No, this isn’t my first. Or even my second.

But it never gets easier.

Top 5 concert experiences

Q: What are your 5 favorite concert/live music experiences? Yes, you only get 5.

 

A: In no particular order:

1. Geraldine Fibbers, Aug. 12, 1997, The Rubb, Tampa, Fla.: I’d never heard of them before, but a couple of friends who worked at the venue told me they’d get me in free so I showed up. Turns out, I was one of maybe 20 people who bothered to come out, so I ended up standing front and center at the foot of the stage in front of Carla Bozulich. Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the small turnout, the band played like the building was on fire. Nels Cline (now of Wilco) absolutely killed with versatile and virtuouso guitar work, and I have never before or since seen a singer pour as much energy and emotion into a performance as Bozulich did that night — five feet in front of me. When the chorus of “Dragon Lady” exploded, she might as well have pulled out a revolver and shot me between the eyes.

2. Fugazi, sometime in late 1990, Club Demo, Gainesville, Fla.: Ever the iconoclasts, Fugazi toured in front of albums rather than behind them. For this tour, they were working out a batch of new songs that would eventually become “Steady Diet of Nothing.” Club Demo was a short-lived shithole that crammed hundreds of sweaty people into a tiny room for only a few shows before disappearing like a mirage. It seems like a dream in retrospect, but for one glorious night the flagging ’80s hardcore scene was very much alive. The night of your life for just five bucks? Those were the days.

3. Yo La Tengo, Jan. 30, 1996, The Covered Dish, Gainesville, Fla.: From around 1995 to around 1997, YLT was hands-down my favorite band on the planet, mostly because of their live shows, which were invariably kick-ass affairs that veered thrillingly between the delicate beauty of an acoustic guitar alongside sweetly hushed boy-girl harmonies and the absurdly loud organ-drenched noise-fests led by Ira Kaplan’s brilliantly spastic guitar freakouts. (I’ve seen the band roughly 12-15 times, mostly during those years.) This particular show stands out, though, for two reasons. First, it was my birthday. And second, I had a crazy experience. During the song “I Heard You Looking,” I hallucinated that the music was a stream of light pouring out of me through my ears. About midway through, I swallowed and my ears popped, and I realized suddenly that the light wasn’t pouring out of my ears, it was pouring into them. Following the stream as it wrapped around the room, I mentally pinpointed the location of its source, and surprisingly it wasn’t coming from the stage — it was coming from about 15 feet behind me, slightly to my right. What the hell? So I followed it again with my eyes, turned around and saw that it appeared to be emanating from a woman’s face. The really weird part? I knew her. She was the only woman I’d ever loved, and I hadn’t seen her in three years. But there she was, and she was staring at me and I don’t know how to explain it, but … apparently I heard her looking.

4. Cat Power, March 1996, Liberty Lunch, Austin, Tex.: I was at SXSW with a Tampa band spending an amazing week soaking up all the great music at the festival. One night, I found myself standing in a sweaty mob, sipping on a Shiner Bock while waiting for Spoon and Guided By Voices to take the stage at the Matador Records showcase. This, of course, would require that I also sit (or, stand) through Liz Phair’s solo acoustic set and a litany of other up-and-coming acts I’d never heard of. Chavez wasn’t bad; Silkworm, not my cup of tea. (Good thing they had plenty of cold Shiner Bock.) That’s when an unassuming young girl slowly approached the microphone. She had short hair and an acoustic guitar. She was dressed like a boy, in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. She was trembling, and looked backstage repeatedly as if to plead, “Do I really have to do this?” Evidently, she did. This was Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power — and she was a mess. She tried to play, then stopped. She started to sing, then changed her mind. She mumbled. She fretted. She cried. The crowd, formerly raucous, fell silent. “Someone get this poor girl off stage,” we collectively thought. And then, in one glorious instant, everything came together. Marshall played “Nude as the News” — all the way through, without stopping, without missing a beat — and it was one of the most intense, most haunting and most powerful moments I’ve ever encountered in 25 years as a live-music freak. As she sang, “I’ve got the son (sun?) in me,” a spotlight flashed across my eyes and the full weight of the song hit me all at once. I felt like a voyeur, peering into this poor girl’s desperate life, and I was hooked. When her CD came out a few weeks later, I discovered she’d also recorded a cover of Peter Jeffries’ “Fate of the Human Carbine” and it seemed almost poetic to me. The chorus in that one goes, “Come and peek through a hole in the wall / Just to watch his heart undressing.” That’s exactly how seeing her perform felt. Her heart was laid bare on that stage — as nude as the news.

5. Sleater Kinney/White Stripes, sometime in 2000, Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY: “All Hands on the Bad One” was probably my least favorite S-K album, but it was around that time that the band was really hitting its stride as a live unit. This show was a knockout with Corin Tucker’s voice sounding powerful even by Corin Tucker’s standards, Carrie Brownstein confidently pulling off her best Pete Townshend windmill moves and Janet Weiss proving why she was the coolest chick in rock music since Kim Deal. Oh, and then there was this little unheard-of indie duo that opened the show and had the audacity to blow us all away. I was crushing hard on Meg White before I realized she was in the band, I met Cloe Sevigny at the bar, and I hung out with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. Surreal and awesome.