How You Do It

“What difference did it make to Azrael?” I asked him, when he told me how upset Azrael had been when an insect drowned in hot water while he was running a bath.   

“I asked him that after he came out of the bathroom,” he said.  “He’d been running hot water to rinse the tub when a bug he realized was alive a moment too late to save it died a horrible, plunging, drowning death in the pipes.    What he said to explain it to me was so simple it still strikes me.   He said ‘picture your own moment of death — would you like it instant and painless or prolonged and painful?’  I always think of that when I kill a bug, to this day.  That bug desperately swimming for his life away from the sucking drain could have instantly been put out of his mortal terror and unavoidable death by a merciful finger.  

“Azrael had been too slow to react when he saw the bug, at first he didn’t realize it was even alive.  Then he saw it struggling to swim in the hot water away from the drain.  Then he’d watched the bug get swept over Niagra Falls to die an agonizing death by drowning in the churning, unbearably hot water.  It impressed me how awful he felt about not sparing that bug such a miserable death.”  

“Instant and painless or prolonged and painful,” I said.  “I like that.  A no-brainer for a marketing/branding scheme exploiting that no-brainer:   ‘Quick/no pain or slow/maximum pain, your choice.’  It’s appealingly philosophical, too.”    

“Of course, life is not so black and white,” he said.  

“Exactly, which is why such idiotically phrased choices are so irresistible, anyone who’d choose the wrong choice is so obviously wrong.   I like the phrase, and I think we can monetize it, I think it’s a good choice phrase,” I said.  “Plenty of imagery and punch, the rubes will love it.”

“The phrase is fine, monetize away, I’m just sayin’,” he said.  

“You know, it’s not like Azrael was exactly into Ahimsa or any ascetic religious practice that would have made him so sensitive to a bug’s soul.  He ate meat, he’d curse, he was always rough breaking up a fight,” I said.   “He certainly didn’t shrink from hurting anybody.”

“He didn’t, but when you say Azrael ate meat, that’s funny, yeah, he ate meat.  He lived on meat, ate almost nothing besides meat.   He was a shoichet’s assistant, at a place down the street from the butcher’s, from shortly after his bar mitzvah, if I recall correctly, until he started working at the delicatessen,” my brother reminded me.  

“He was one tough son of a bitch,” I said.  

“Yiss,” he said.  

“And he always kept a dog.”  We both remembered Azrael’s dogs.

“Yiss,” my brother said.


A Way With Words

You have a way with words.  

Away with words!   Speak little, do much.  

Nicely said, Ned!  

I’ll pretend you didn’t say that, Fred.  

Now, why you want to be like that, Ed? I was trying to tender you a kind word.  

Yet you rendered me a mind turd, dittn’t you, Ted?

I just said you have your way with words.  

You sayin’ I don’t respect ’em, just have my way with ’em, is that what you’re saying, Zed?  

I’m not saying that.  I’m not saying anything.  

You sure have a funny way of not saying anything, Red.  

You said it.

Addiction to Social Media

It’s understandable, friends.  There is a human longing to be connected to…. hang on a second,  I’ve got to send a quick email, excuse me.

What’s the deal with looking at the smart phone every couple of minutes, every few seconds, what’s the …

It is addictive, this feeling of being connected, of having the world at your fingertips. A moment of total control in an out of control world when you stop to make your phone do something cool, smart, informative, interactive.

In elementary school, for me decades ago, when any of this was the domain of the smartest science fiction writers, a teacher described a psychological experiment that has a lesson in it for all of us today…. wait, got a message coming in, hang on.

They hooked an electrode up to the pleasure center of a rat’s brain.  Many rats were hooked up this way.  They had a button to push to give them a jolt of pleasure, the equivalent of an orgasm.   It took the rats a very short time to make the connection between pressing this button and the immediate jolt of pleasure.  

The scientists were not all that shocked to find that every rat died with his or her paw on this button.   There was no reason for them not to keep pressing it and it was irresistible, after all.

I had something more to say, but my phone is now fully charged and I’m thinking of downloading the electrode to the pleasure center app.  I’m sure someone is developing it… hold on, there’s a notification.  

Shoot, just an email, I’d better answer that.

We Wuz Stars, yo

A couple of decades ago, when I still thought I’d make my living by writing a great book or something, I answered an ad in the New York Times and got a job as tutor to the stars.  It didn’t pay much, but it was a cool gig that took me to several nice hotels in different cities and for a while I had hopes of a song of mine being bought for an album by a number one recording group.  The lead singer, my student, dug the song a lot.  I’d daydream about hearing their version of it on the radio, cashing the fat royalty checks.  

It was also fun designing a custom curriculum for my student, as I’d just read Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (ghost writing a paper for my sister’s most oppressive grad school class) and was able to put its excellent principles directly into practice.  It was gratifying to see how well it worked, like water falling on a parched plant that suddenly begins to flower.

The reason the youngest member of the group needed a tutor is a law that apparently requires show biz kids under 17 (maybe 16) to have a tutor hired by the management company who is profiting off them.  It is an offshoot of the Child Labor Laws, I suppose.   My student and I, when in NYC, most often met in the conference room at Get Down Bitch Records, several floors above the lobby where Tupac was shot in the balls one dark night in a gun attack prior to the drive-by that killed him.

“Ordered by (insert name of mogul in charge of Get Down Bitch Records– not its real name) no doubt,” I said to my 16 year-old student one day.   He pointed in panic at the ceiling and mouthed words that led me to understand that the conference room was mic’ed, that the mogul could easily listen from his desk while smoking a blunt and having his knob polished by one of the fine looking women there who had no clear job description.   I caught on quick, “of course, everybody knows Mr (insert name) is a great man, a good friend of Tupac’s and had nothing to do with it, I know he’s looking for the shooters,” I added, quick and cowardly as a young Bob Hope.  My student smirked.  

“That ain’t gonna save you,” he said, laughing.  Then we continued discussing Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, from the book we were reading together.

“Would I have heard of him?” my sister asked as we walked on a street in a fancy section of Boston.  We were passing a record store and, as I ushered her inside, on cue, my student Jason, all in white, was dancing across a wall full of TV screens.  Twenty or thirty graceful, glossy Jasons exuded charisma as their hit song lip synched its way over the excellent sound system.  “Wow!” said my sister.

For a short time these four talented and obnoxious brothers, my student the youngest, were plucked from obscurity and little Jason was, for a moment in time, young Michael Jackson.  It was like walking down the street with Elvis, when we ventured from Get Down Bitch to nearby Manny’s to play the sequencers there together.  I pretended to be his body guard when fans crushed in, ushering him quickly to some imaginary appointment I reminded him we were late for.

We joked, the road manager and I, that they should have a reality TV show (this was before such shows existed) called “We Wuz Starz, Yo”— never were four bigger assholes given a luckier break they were so comically intent on blowing.   I harbor no bitterness, mind you, heh, but these pricks were Grade A and they fell back to obscurity as quickly as they had risen to fame, and as justly.  The record company likely never recouped its million dollar advance, even with the platinum record, and when their second album tanked the company was glad to get rid of the four prima donnas.

I am thinking about them at the moment for a reason I’ll get to presently.  They came by their brutality and dysfunction the time-honored way.  They were raised by an enraged and upright religious fanatic who whipped the boys with wire hangers he straightened into whips, handles made of masking tape, the better to have a good grip.  The youngest, my student, had been spared at the mother’s insistence, I was assured.  He was the only one to escape the father’s rage in physical form.  The oldest had the whip marks burned into his back, like in an old black and white photo of a slave’s hideously scarred back.  It accounted for their savagery as a group, though one at a time they were nice enough young men.  

My favorite, aside from my bright, wise ass, Special Ed for no reason other than attitude student, was the oldest brother, Chris.  If I remember correctly his nickname was Choc, because he was the darkest of these Trinidadian brothers.  

We flash forward, past the weekend in Beverly Hills, past a second California trip that included a great time in San Francisco, past the great strides the bright, semi-literate Jason was suddenly making when he was engaged with what he was learning, past Chris telling me how much his brother Jason admired me, never stopped talking about me, past the fateful plane trip to Toronto where, after they’d fired the experienced road manager and put the sister in charge (to save money), we were promptly detained for hours at the Canadian airport for lack of the required paperwork the sister and former road manager had argued about.   There was no transportation arranged, and being the only one over 25 with a credit card, I was forced, after a call to the concern I worked for, to rent a van to drive them around in.  It was not part of my job, I was not paid anything for it, but I became these assholes’ chauffeur.  

It’s possible that as things escalated I may have found it necessary to ad lib the arguably anti-Semitic sounding “you assholes ought to make like the Jews and blow the chauffeur,” when I grew sick of their hassling and attempts to bully me.  Their threats heated up, they were going to trash the car, torch it, rip it up– it was on my credit card and I’d have to fucking pay.  Ha ha.  As the abuse became more feverish I told the other brother traveling with us to tell the other hyena motherfuckers to shut up, yelling grew even louder, objects flung at the driver, things got out of control.  I got back to the hotel, packed my bag and booked a flight back to NY.  “You bitches are on your own,” I informed them, driving the rented van back to the airport.

Things certainly could have ended better, I realize in hindsight.  No blood was spilled.  Sticks and stones and shit.  I’d lasted weeks longer than the previous tutor.  Wrote a short story about the experience, centering on the good looking and arrogant sister, and her delightful flirtation on a night flight back from LA, ending with her touchingly sincere, if way too late, voicemail apology for how things had ended.  She’d actually begged me to come back, said she understood if I didn’t.  It was a shit story, in any case.   My tune was never recorded.  C’est la guerre.

Decades ago, piss down the drain.  Funnily enough, a few months later I got a call from someone I’d met at Get Down Bitch, he had a new act, was I still tutoring?  Negotiated a deal for twice my old rate, the girl was smart, cool and very down to earth.  “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up, because you’re going to meet them again on the way down,” she told me one day.  A beautiful, talented girl, a wonderful student and very quick study, mostly a pleasure to work with.  Her mother, on the other hand, almost the complete opposite, destroyed the girl’s promising career before it could take off.  I managed to get paid in full before it all went into the toilet, though the mother did her best to beat me out of those last two paychecks.  Just another sad story in the Naked City.

Anyway, I’m on the A train last night, after midnight, riding uptown.  On the bench diagonally across from me was a guy I am about 75% sure was Chris, the oldest brother, the one with the driest sense of humor, the most intelligent.   Thought of saying “Chris” and seeing if it was him.  Looked at him a long time, couldn’t decide.  Saw him looking over at me, an old white guy who looked a lot different than when he possibly knew me.  It had also been 20 years, after all, years that had been a bit kinder to him than to me.   Besides, one has to be cool on the subway, it’s not a Starbucks in the midwest.   Weighed the pros and cons, couldn’t find enough pros, I suppose.  Closed my eyes and rested for a few moments.

I looked over later and he was lying down on the subway bench, staring up at the ceiling of the A train car.   I heard him singing suddenly– didn’t sound like much, but maybe he wasn’t trying too hard.  He was the best singer of the four, my student always said so.  Got off the train, walked up to my apartment.  Never will know if it was the guy or not.  Does it make a difference?

We wuz stars, yo.

Memory and mammary

“What say you, ghost?” asked the breeze of the fan.

But I wasn’t falling for it.  It’s true I have a lot of time on my hands, which famously makes for certain challenges, but I wasn’t going to go for that one.   I’m not talking to the walls yet (though this blahg is a kind of wall, I suppose).  I heard an old friend, with more than enough in his portfolio to comfortably retire, tell another old friend he will never retire.  

“What would I do?” he asked.  She suggested travel.  

“And after I travel the world for five years, what then?” he asked.    Reasonable question, nodded another grey head at the table.    I can see their point, but I don’t feel it, the work I want to be doing still just out of my reach.  

“What has this to do with memory and mammary?” asks another disembodied voice, not unreasonably.  

When we lose our memory, do not recognize old friends any more, cannot recall the things that excited us, made us happy, choked up, got us up and dancing… how much of life is left?  I can’t recall exactly what thought sent me here to write it down.  There was a short, coherent thought that inspired the title, now gone.  Imagine being unable to recall anything at all.  It’s not hard to picture, but it’s horrifying.  

Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s just like a painless death, you lie back, look at the interesting pattern in that light fixture, the way the light changes color on the walls as the sun paints the room for nighttime.  Coat after coat:  white, yellow, orange, pink, the gradations are seamless, perfect.  Now the light is almost purple, more blue creeping in, the electric lights go on outside the windows– or not.  Soon it is dark and your eyes close.  That’s right, dreams merge into each other and then slowly, gently fade.

“And mammaries?” asks nobody.

I remember them, Horatio.  Pressed against me, too young and foolish to know exactly what to do, but I loved it, Horatio.   To hold her for a moment, one more time, like a sleek seal, face upturned.   

And then?   I don’t recall.