Do A (Slightly Smarter) Thing, Idiot: Learning from 2013

My friend Laura runs a hair salon. Yesterday, at her shop, 150 people got haircuts.  She said that New Year’s Eve is one of her busiest days of the year.  My girlfriend and I wondered why, and, sure, there are the rational explanations: people are going to parties; they need that new ‘do that holds up while the fifth Slippery Nipple shot is coursing through their bloodstream; they want model-quality selfie pics.  But, beyond that, I can’t help but feel like those who got their hair done on New Year’s Eve are actually a representation of the bigger picture, of the larger psychological group-think that grips adults every December 31st.  It’s a time for reinvention, a time for hope, a time for looking forward.

Or maybe everyone just wants to get laid.

Exactly a year ago, I wrote this post.  As I re-read it, I’m more than a little embarrassed by it, and that embarrassment, will, I’m sure, be felt again in another 365 days as I read this post, and see how much has changed and how the year has changed me.

I had a lot of big plans for 2013 (if you read the post, I refused to call them “resolutions” for reasons I can’t really remember why… I mean, I say “[resolutions] have never worked for me” but who is to say if that was really accurate).  For the record, other than continuing to perform regularly with VAMP, I didn’t accomplish any of those goals.  In fact, I was so burnt out on trying to keep up with all of them, that I gave up by the end of January.  

However, this year saw a lot of things amazing things happen: I moved in with my girlfriend, saw my dad get as close to health as he’s been in years, watched my brother get married, got published, and rediscovered inspiration within my job.  And, honestly, I wouldn’t even remember having made any goals if I hadn’t written them down.  Such is the nature of the aforementioned group-think: it’s intoxicating to think that a fresh start aligns with the orbiting of our planet around the sun, but easy come, easy go, and all those ideals to lose weight, stop smoking, be a better person overall doesn’t hold a candle to the fact that I can order pizza online literally right now, at 8:33 in the morning.

I know that reflection is useful, which is why I’m forcing myself, blurry-eyed, hungover, and wrapped in a womb of comfy pajamas, to write this.  I know that refusing to acknowledge the past is and still hoping for growth is like buying avocados and wondering why you don’t have guacamole.  

So, here I go again.  I know I shot too high last year, so I’m trying to set more reasonable goals this year:

  1. Finish a crappy first draft of my novel.  Doesn’t have to be good.  Just has to end.
  2. Make health a priority.  There’s a longer story attached to this, hopefully I’ll post it up soon.
  3. Continue to do things that made me happy this year.

And as for what I learned from 2013: everything is a process.  Everything.  And although that thought is frustrating and disheartening sometimes, it’s also an essential step to acknowledging that a year is just year.  People, personalities, relationships, opinions: everything changes.

Even haircuts.

Like That One Green Day Song

I used to be so proud of my insomnia. “I can’t fall asleep until at least 3 a.m.,” I’d tell people. I thought it was so cool, so hip, so much proof that I was a night-owl, like I’d just stepped out of an Edward Hopper painting, provided that we lived in world where the rules were similar to Ah Ha’s “Take On Me” video.

But right now I’m just so frustrated by it. I want to sleep. I have to drive to my folks’ place for the holidays and everytime I close my eyes I feel like my brain kicks into overdrive and that overdrive is fueled by a meth addled truck driver hell bent on turning his usually languid morning routine into a level of Need for Speed.

A Very Daria Holiday

When I was 14, all I wanted for Christmas was clinical depression.

I didn’t know what depression actually was.  I didn’t understand what it does to people.  What I had surmised was that depressed people got to wear all black and that was good enough for me.  I was mired in adolescent angst like it was hormonal quicksand.  I should’ve worn a bracelet that read “WWDD: What Would Daria Do?”  I idolized that poorly-animated sarcastic brunette, who saw through the bullshit of her family and teachers; was never called out for being moody; and had a cool, witty, dry answer for everything.  Regardless that she was a girl and I was, for all intents and penises, a guy, she was everything I wanted to be.

Problem was I was acutely self-aware and not actually depressed.  I knew that, most of the time, when I was whining about school, I was really just bored or trying to get out of learning about SOH CAH TOA.  I described myself as “listless” and “dispassionate” because I secretly feared that I was actually mundane–just another suburban kid who was too scared to admit how afraid of everything he really was.

But winter–winter meant cold, dark evenings, and legitimate reasons to wear heavy jackets constantly, and not be judged for staying inside.  I was counting on getting in some serious brooding time: suburbanites-are-all-such-hypocrites brooding; all-the-good-t-shirts-come-from-Hot-Topic brooding; I’ve-watched-three-independent-films brooding. At least that was the plan.  Except that didn’t happen.

As the smiling lady in the polo shirt and grass skirt placed the flower necklaces around our necks, my older brother Barry said, “Dude, we just got lei’d.”  The walls of the airport terminal were awash in bright, tropical pastels, with occasional patches of festive-yet-out-of-place reds and greens.

We sniggered.  The floral garments were not the only symbol that we had arrived in Hawaii: ukulele-tinged versions of Christmas carols played over the loudspeaker, every halfway native person was saying “Aloha”, and the hoodies we wore on the plane were removed.  Here we were: Christmas in the tropics.

Great.  Hawaii.  A land of sunshine, coconut bras, where the tourist is king and all roads lead to the beach.

And it’s impossible to brood at the beach.  Trust me.  I tried.

I even owned a green jacket

Role model

The hotel room was completely devoid of Christmas spirit.  What it lacked in pine trees it made up for in palm trees.  And what it lacked in peppermint hot chocolate it made for in… palm trees.

And then my dad said the thing that everyone in Maui finds themselves saying when you quickly realize that you’re on an island with little else to do: “Well… I guess we’ll go to the beach.”

We went to the beach a lot.  And when we got bored with that, we went to the pool.  And then back to the beach.  

In some ways, going to Hawaii solved my problems.  I could legitimately bitch about something–ugh, perfect weather and crystal blue waters.  Ugh, snorkeling in stunning aquatic vistas.  Ugh, polite and friendly hotel staff who spin fire.  But on a bigger level, I was trying to be moody, dammit, and now I could say that my parents just didn’t understand me, and that would make for an awesome blog post eventually.

My parents let us have a relative amount of freedom.  After we had wasted enough time listening to the 3 mix CDs we had brought between us, my brother and I decided to go for a walk along the beach.  

Barry wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the Flameboy logo–a skateboard company, even though neither of us had embraced that particular So Cal subculture.  We walked and talked about stuff back home, friends, girls.  We stopped on a dune and rested when a guy with chunky dreadlocks, baggy jeans, and a ratty grey t-shirt approached us.

“Hey, Flameboy, alright!  You guys want some weed?” the guy asked in an unmistakable stoner drawl.

I was shocked.  Here was someone legitimately offering us drugs.  Actual, illegal drugs.  Were there cops around?  Do I need a lawyer?  Do I yell stranger danger?  My brother kept a calmer head and politely declined.

When we got back to the hotel, our mom asked, “How was it?”

“Fine, fine, totally fine,” we answered in that too-quick way that is like an SOS for mom radar.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Nothing.  We got offered weed.  But nothing,” Barry said.

I tried justify it, told myself that it so was not a big deal, after all–I watched rated R movies, listened to music with PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT sticker, and owned a t-shirt with Jay and Silent Bob on it.  I asked myself: What Would Daria Do?  Probably say something withering and perfect and treat the whole experience with reasoned logic before watching Sick, Sad World.  I knew that worrying about something as trivial as being offered a joint was completely blase, but I still made sure to shower and soap up thoroughly, lest any cannabis residue had clung to my clothes like bedbugs.

I didn’t really go to the beach without my parents after that.  I tried to maintain my superior attitude, but had to deal with the fact that the world was a scarier place than I thought and no amount of pop culture or MTV could prepare me for it.

On Christmas Eve, we dressed up for dinner.  I, decked out in ill-fitting khaki and an army green shirt with a dragon pattern–yes, dragons. It wasn’t until we pulled up in front of an ornate hotel, a place where our shoes clicked on the marble floors and everything was awash in the subtle, golden hue of money, that I realized how in over my head I was yet again.

This wasn’t just dinner–it was a fancy dinner.  

We’re talking five-course fancy.  We’re talking hushed-voices fancy.  We’re talking sage-water (which tastes like body odor) fancy.  Up until this point, the fanciest restaurant I’d been to before this was a Black Angus.

“Guys,” Dad whispered, “this place is, like, a big deal.”  He was talking about how much the bill would be.  We sat at our table, with its downy and pristine tablecloth, and upside down wine glasses that could conceivably fit a decent portion of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.  The restaurant had plenty of families–all the men wore blazers and all the women wore pearls–but no one spoke louder than a whisper, as if  talking a full octave louder would have soured the caviar or something.  We were about to eat dinner in a mausoleum.  

What Would Daria Do?  Probably look past all the trappings of money and wealth and make a hilarious blood diamond joke, thus exposing rich people as cut throat profiteers.  What did Rory, gangly teen extraordinaire, do? Awkwardly manhandle his water glass, only to clumsily let it slip out of his fingers, and watch in horror as it falls onto his clothes spill across the floor.  Fancy restaurant: 1.  Kelly family: 0.

The food came out in a hypnotic ballet of coordinated plate switching and fork changing.  Every course was delicately and minimally laid out and covered in geometric drizzles of sauce.  I looked over at a neighboring table.  A family that looked straight out of a Williams-Sonoma catalogue was quietly eating their meal.  They had two daughters, both younger than me, each wearing what looked to be communion dresses and as I looked closer, I noticed that each girl was wearing white gloves and yet somehow also expertly handling sterling silver cutlery.

My dad caught my eye.

I said: “I bet these people eat a ton of Godiva Ice Cream.”  This was the closest I could get to explaining it, since we were firmly a Baskin Robbins family.

“Just imagine,” Dad said, “everyone here… taking a giant crap.  I mean, massive.  I mean, like a huge log.”

I laughed.  Because my dad is effing amazing.

Once dinner was over, we left and breathed a sigh of relief.  Dad went to smoke a cigar on the hotel balcony and Barry asked to borrow the rental car.  

As Barry and I drove around the island, we remarked how bored we were: just like we were back home.  For the first time, I felt comfortable and didn’t care what Daria would do.

Smily Face Fountain

There’s a smiley face in the water of the magic fountain.  But not really.  The smiley face is just leaves, leaves that have been blown together in the vague shape of a mug that looks perpetually happy.  And the fountain–if you can call the rusted brown wrought iron design that now holds a murky pool of algae and microorganisms–is not really magical.  I was once told that it was.  But that’s kid stuff.  I’m 15 now.

“You gotta suck real hard,” Denise said.  “Like real hard, like it’s a diabetes-in-a-cup shake from I, Scream.  Then hold it in your lungs.  It’s gonna burn for a bit, but my sister says that’s totally what is supposed to happen.”

“And then what?”

“And then you exhale, man.  Then you’re hell of stoned, dude.  Come on, Buchanan, you know you’re up for this, right?”

And then we go to jail, Denise, I think to say, but do not.

Denise is the new girl.  Newer than me.  I have a full two days on her at Clancy.  And that makes me cooler than her.  I keep telling myself that.  I am cooler than her.  It keeps me sane, especially when she talks about all the guys she’s gone to third base with, or showing me her tattoo or talking about her boyfriend in Madison who is totally in a band, like a real band.  They’ve played in clubs on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

Denise takes out the pipe.  It looks like one of my dad’s old Grateful Dead shirts, but in glass form.

“Is it clean?” I ask.  “Like, when was the last time your sister used it.”

“Jesus, Amy, what’re you afraid my sister’s got the herp or something?  You trying to say something?”

“No!  Fuck, I’m just… how do you even clean that shit anyway?”

Denise looks at me like I’m fucking retarded.  “You just fuckin’ clean it, okay, with like chemicals and shit.  You don’t put it in the dishwasher or anything.  But it’s still clean.”  Denise angles the pipe so that some sun glints off it.  “Besides, I hear you can’t get anything off it.  Weed is, like, a natural germ killer.  Like Pine Sol.”

Denise takes out a small baggie, the kind that Ms. Wike gives us when our piercings go against dress code, which feels like they all do.  She–Denise, not Ms. Wike–takes out a small ball of army-green stuff.  It looks like a very miniature, kind of deformed rotten cabbage.  

“You gotta crumble it first,” I say.

“Oh, shit, look at Buchanan.  Stoner of the Year, yo!”

“Fuck you.  I saw that shit on YouTube.”

“Really?” Denise asks.  For half-a-second, I feel important.

“Yeah,” I say.  “It, like, makes the flame spread easier or some shit.  Fires need oxygen and shit to catch or whatever.”

It’s cold onImage this fucking fountain.  Denise and I are both wearing in our winter clothes–her in a leather jacket that looks like someone took a baseball bat to it, and me in my dad’s old bomber fatigue, the one with a million pockets.  I’ve got so many chap sticks in here it isn’t even funny.  We’ve both got mittens on and we can feel the cold rusted fountain on our asses, even through our gap jeans.  

Sticks her fingers in her mouth and rips off one of her gloves.  She drops it into her lap and holds the tiny cabbage between her thumb and forefinger like my little brother holds marbles.  She pinches it until it cracks and breaks and when half of the… stuff… falls to the leafy ground she yells “FUCKING SMEGMA LICKER” with enough force that some birds take flight.

“Fuck that shit,” she say as she jams the rest of the weed into the pipe.  “Fuck that shit thoroughly.”  

She stuffs the last of the green stuff like it’s last night math worksheets and offers it to me.  “Let’s go, Buchanan.  Time to party.”

Let’s Kill “Is A Thing”

Part of me understands.  Part of me sympathizes.  Content creators have the unenviable task of keeping us clicking so the page views go up so The Company can sell ads at higher rates and make more money.  It’s capitalism in action, no big deal.

But the other part of me can’t shake this gnawing feeling that something needs to be said.  It’s a pet peeve and a very first-world one at that, but…screw it:

Using “…is a thing” in place of an actual thought or adjective is not clever.  It is not colloquial.  It is not funny.  It’s just stupid, lazy, hackneyed writing.

Here are some headlines from the last 5 days:

Giant Lawn Machinery Everywhere: This is Actually A Thing

Apparently Guys Stripping Down For Sensual “Dudeoir” Photos Is A Thing

Rex Ryan Still Thinks The Wildcat Is A Thing

And here’s an entire blog devoted to the phrase.

You’ve seen this before.  Maybe you’ve done it before.  Hell, realistically, I’ve probably done it before.  And one of the few things more over done than “…is a thing” is a rant, so I won’t.  Let’s let bygones be bygones and simply agree to stop–stop writing like you’re the only incredulous, snarky person on the Internet.  Be specific.  If you think Giant Lawn Machines are weird or unnecessary or a sad commentary on American landscaping, fine–say those things.

You’ll still get your page clicks with genuinely funny, clever headlines.  More, probably.

5 Signs You Are An Adult

1.  You have a Costco membership.

2.  You have an Amazon Prime account.

3.  You don’t complain about cleaning the lint trap, you just do it, because that is the world you live in.

4.  All music will either be too loud or too soft.

5.  You regularly look at the fiber content of your cereal.

5a.  The day you found out Frosted Mini Wheats were kind of good for you, you rejoiced.

This Post Sucks

This post will not be very good, that I can pretty much guarantee.  In fact, it is not mean to be good.  And I know that may sound ridiculous.  Why write something if you don’t want to make it good?  And when I say, “you” I mean “I”.  To repeat: why should I write something if I don’t want it to be good?  There is an answer for that.

This is the answer: it is not going to be good, because it is not everything I write will be good. In fact, most of what I write will be not good.  In fact, most of what I write will suck.

This is an intimidating idea.  But, you know what?  It’s an important one.

Here’s what I was thinking: my brother is getting married soon.  Very soon.  Like, less-than-a-week soon.  I am the best man and it is one of my obligations to deliver the toast.  I plan on buttering it and serving it with jam.  Get it?  Because toast has two meanings (it has more than two meanings, I know).  Anyway.  That joke was not funny.  It sort of sucked.  But I needed to write it.  Needed?  Wanted?  Yeah, okay, wanted, but only for lack of a better word.  Anyway.  I’ve said anyway twice now.

Moving on: it is my job to write a toast for my brother’s wedding.  It has proven difficult so far.  I’ve written three drafts and it is not very good.  I want it to be so many things, but “so many things” is really too many things.  I think I need to just focus on one emotion.  Love, or whatever.  But that’s not the point.

The point is this: moving sucks.

That’s still not really the point, but its part of the point.  Recently, I moved in with my girlfriend.  That part does not suck.  In fact, that part is radical.  Tubular, in fact.  Downright boss.  Anyway.  The part that does suck is how much moving can uproot your whole life…literally, I guess, and figuratively.  So see before the move and the wedding and whatnot I was writing a lot.  And then I stopped.  And now writing has become very intimidating.  And scary.  Because I’m afraid that I suck.

So this point is, for lack of better words, is to embrace the suck.  To accept the suck.  Be one with the suck and move on.  That all sounds kind of dirty.  I am talking about figuratively sucking.  Not literal sucking.  Unless you’re an anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner.  In which case, you literally suck.  Also, I hope your name is Herbert Hoover.  Because what else would your name be?

Anyway, that’s the point of this short post: embrace the suck.  Here I go.

The Cat’s Pajamas, Part 2

I’m stalking the ledge, staring into The Alley below. The sun’s going down and I can hear the kittens mewing for supper. Furball is tired from the climb up here. He’s not as spritely as I remember.

“How long have I been gone?” I ask.

“Long enough,” Furball says. “The Alley’s different now–there’s order to things. It’s not like it was before.”

“Your ear says otherwise,” I say, nodding towards the bald stump on Fur’s head.

“I knew you’d go there, Tabs, I knew you’d say something about it,” he says casting his eyes back to The Alley. It’s going to rain. Furball should get back to his where he’ll be dry and warm. “Look… accidents happen, y’know? But, Boots is fair most of the time, alright? Yeah, he’s still… like, got issues or whatever. Yeah, sometimes he calls in Puma and Puma’s got his maulers, but it’s The Alley. That’s how it goes in the Alley.”

“How long have I been gone ?” I ask again.

“In cat years or human years?”

“Either.”

Furball doesn’t look at me when he says: “I stopped counting.”

“Sounds like things haven’t changed that much,” I say.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

I still remember the way down: hop from the ledge to the window sill, zig-zag until the fire escape is within distance. Drop quietly. From there: the lids of the trash cans make a good landing spot.

I keep my tail moving like Poppy taught me. I can already feel the eyes around me: yellow and black slits peeking out from the dumpster, the trash can lids, the cardboard boxes.

I move forward. The Alley has two openings: one way leads to the street, with its cars and trucks and a sure-fire way to get your belly crushed. The other way is to the vacant lot. Judging by how even the kittens are scrambling for a shelter, Boots probably had Puma and the maulers drag every halfway decent shelter back there, set up a nice manor.

I jolt as a little white and silver Ocicat dashes out from under some newspaper. He cuts a swath of brightness through the dark. He’ll tell the first mauler he can find that I’m back. They’ll come for me.

“Oh, Bast,” I hear Furball say. “This is bad, Tabs, real bad.” He must’ve followed me.

“Get to shelter, Furball.”

“Oh, Tabs, you should just go. Maulers’ll be here soon. They don’t like you. They don’t like anyone.”

Furball’s a German Rex. He’s small and can hide anywhere. But he’s not moving. I look over my shoulder. He’s standing on the closest fire escape. No dogs through the window that I can see but he still shouldn’t be talking.

I’m half-thinking I should hop up there with him. But I don’t move. I keep my tail calm, like Poppy said.

Then I hear: “Well, look who’s back in town.”

Poppy used say: To win a fight, you need to know two things: 1. Get the other cat on the ground.

I know this cat, but can’t remember his name. He’s a Havana Brown and last I saw him his coat was luxurious and dark–to the point where you’d forget that he wasn’t pedigree. Now, he’s more scar than fur: bring pink streaks across his back are the sure-fire sign of a mauler. He’s missing claws on his front right paw and his tail is little more than stomp, but it still twitches like a deranged snake.

“For an Alley Cat, you are, paws down, the worst slinker,” he says.

I force my tail to move again. Side to side. Nice and calm. The Havana moves closer and I wait. Poppy taught me to wait.

“What’s the matter? Silent treatment? What’s the matter? Cat got your–,”

I see it. I see it just like Poppy taught me. His tail stopped twitching. He’s scared.

And if he’s scared then I’ve already won.

To win a fight: get the other cat on the ground. I bound up to a dumpster, and right back down, tackling the Havana, pinning him. My tail doesn’t break its rhythm: side-to-side. Match my heartbeat.

I step on the Havana’s throat and extend a claw so he can feel it on his jugular.

“I need to send a message,” I say to the Havana. “I need Boots to know.”

The Havana stopped squirming. From this close I can tell he’s nipped out of his head.

“What? What do you want?” he says.

Poppy used say: To win a fight, you need two things: 1. Get the other cat on the ground.

And 2: don’t let him get back up again.

I extend my claws completely into the Havanas throat and pull.

The rain starts. It will wash away the blood.

The Cat’s Pajamas, Part 1

Cats like to brag that they don’t get lost.  Never, ever.  If a cat wants to go missing, he goes missing.  Doesn’t stop posters from going up.  “Help Us Find Sophie/Princess/Mittens.”

Strays don’t have homes, but, that’s okay.  We’ve got The Alley.  The Alley Cats.

Poppy used say: The less you speak, the more power you have.

I try to follow what Poppy told me.  I don’t brag.

But strays can get lost.  I am lost.  Right now.  I don’t know where I am.  It’s dark and wet and smells like cardboard.  Cardboard and dog.

“Who’s this then?” I hear a gruff voice say.

“They call him Tabs,” another, equally gruff voices says.  Dogs, definitely.  Their heavy tails keep knocking against the cardboard box.

“Never heard of him.”

“Me neither.  But, he’s an Alley Cat.  Least, he used to be.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Besides.  Chief said to grab him.”

The first dog grunts and says: “Pop the lids.  Let’s see this puss.

Like Bast calling to me from the great beyond, light blinds me.  This light isn’t natural.  A massive Newfoundland pokes his snout over the top.  How such a cumbersome beast got the drop on me, I don’t know.  I must’ve nipped more than I thought.

“Come now, friend,” he says, softly.  Dogs always do this.  Talk real quiet, so as not to disturb the volatile cat temperament.  Most cats lash out no matter what, striking out with whatever they have.  More than a few mutts bear the signature of claws.  But the dogs win.  Always.  One way or another.

I am not most cats.  I stay calm, like Poppy taught me.

He takes the back of my neck in his teeth and lifts me onto the hard floor.  For the first time I get a sense of everything: a human hasn’t used this room in years and the dogs have long since claimed it.  Cages.  Cages everywhere.  Some of the steel wires on the cages are mangled so as to be improper instruments of imprisonment.  The majority, though, hold mangy, starved, scarred creatures.

I’m looking at two big monochromatic dogs.  The Newfoundland’s fur is so black he looks cut from a swath of midnight.  The other is a snow white Shepherd.  How he stays so clean in a city this dirty is beyond me.

“Terry,” the Shepherd says, “he’s a runt.  What are we going to do with a runt?”

“Murph, I’m telling you.  This is who Chief wanted.”

The Shepherd shakes his downy head.  “Chief is too old.”  But then: “Let’s see if the old dog has learned a new trick.”

I follow the two dogs down a hallway.  It’s dark and dirty.  We come to a door at the end.  The glass on it is grey and cracked.  Pieces are missing and the remaining words simply say: “Dr” and “Chief of”.  The Shepherd enters first and says something.  The Newfoundland and I wait.  He can’t be that fast.  I think about running.

Poppy always encouraged being still.

I keep my tail and paws calm.

The Newfoundland nudges me into the room.  There’s a wooden desk with a black stool near it.  The Shepherd directs me to hop on it.  I resist the urge to play with the puffs of stuffing showing.  It’s a cat thing.

On the desk an old Bulldog sits like a king.  Chief.  He’s predominantly grey save for brown paws.  The way he sits, I can see that he was once a powerful dog, ferocious probably.  It pains him to sit atop the desk and pains his pride even more that his joints have betrayed him.  There’s a big, warm doggie bed in the corner.  That’s where he would rather be.

When Chief speaks he says: “Boots runs The Alley, but he’s careful.”

Silence.  He has not asked me a question, but takes my lack of response as affirmation.

“He’s very careful.  And quiet.  In fact, save for  an occasional body we pull from the sewers, the cat doesn’t draw attention since he took over.  It’s no secret that we want The Alley back.  It’s no secret that this Boots character operates with a flagrant disregard for animal law.  These are both true things.  When dogs ran The Alley, we did what was necessary, but we provided order.  Were mistakes made?  Yes.  Had I wish we had been more understanding?  Sure.  But, we weren’t warlords.  We weren’t savages.”

Dogs.  Always talking.  Feel like I’ve used 3 lives just listening to him.

“Dogs and cats have learned to live peacefully elsewhere.  Why not The Alley?” asks Chief.

He cocks his head, waiting for a response.  There’s a lot to be said.  There’s a lot of arguments.  I’m not the one that will make them, but there’s a lot.

Chief continues: “Poppy speaks highly of you.”

I try to maintain my calm, but my perked ears give me away.

“Yes.  Poppy.  That Poppy.  Your Poppy.  We go way back–to our pup days.  Sure, he’s a Schnauzer, but he had his whole thing.  You know what I’m talking about.  All his little sayings.  A good teacher.  You… you’re pretty unique.  Poppy always swore he’d never teach a cat his ways.  But.  I guess he changed his mind, didn’t he?”

Poppy used say: Your tail is your tell.  Control it, say nothing, and give away nothing.  I keep mine moving slowly, hypnotically, softly swishing side to side, side to side.

“You’re pretty unique, Tabs.  Most of the Alley Cats think you’re dead.  The rest think you lost it.  Went crazy.  Or how do they put it?  Oh, right, right: ‘the cat’s pajamas.’” All three dogs chuckle.  “Little puss codes.”

Side to side.  Side to side.

Chief slowly, painfully, pulls himself to his feet and steps to the edge of the desk.  Our noses practically touch.

My tail doesn’t change.

“Here’s what it is: I don’t care.  You’re alive, which means I can use you.  If you’re pajamas, fine.  But if you’re half as good as your rep, you’ll get me what I want.  Kill Boots.  I want The Alley.”

My tail stops.  They expect me to offer a rebuttal.  Or maybe run.  “Betray my own kind?  The Alley is my home.  I’ll never!” is what most cats would say.

I am not most cats.

My tail resumes its clockwork rhythm.  I say one word.

I hop off the stool.  Terry and Murph step aside.

The word was: “Gladly.”

The Cat's Pajamas

These Guys

I’m cooling my heels in lunch detention, the junior high equivalent of solitary confinement.  The room is drab and me and the other rejects are sitting at these desks that look like voting booths.  I know why I’m here: I’m here because of a pip squeak named Brendon Del Platano.  I’m here because I’m the big kid.  And, in a way, this is all because I wanted a trenchcoat.

The best gift for my 13th birthday would have been to be David Boreanaz from the TV show Angel.  I had a veritable man-crush on the guy, but it wasn’t his incisive cheekbones or perfectly coifed hair.  It was that long flowing coat of his.  In terms of sci-fi and fantasy, the longer your coat is, the more badass you are.  All the confident heroes from my favorite works donned their trenchcoats like capes: Angel, Neo from The Matrix, Mulder from X-Files.

I wanted the confidence they had, but I was an overweight, new-in-town kid with curly hair that looked like something a homeless clown would have.  So, I retreated to my room, where I listened to Smash Mouth and read comic books.  I loved my comics, especially the really pulpy, morally dubious ones.  All that good-guy-wronged stuff–that was for me.

Two weeks before my birthday, my mom and I drove to an outlet mall, where I promptly flocked to the London Fog store.  I tried one on and Mom looked skeptical as the oversized khaki material dropped to the floor around my feet.

“Pet, you look like a rectangle,” she said.  “You really want one of these?”

I didn’t hear her, so marveling I was at the mirror.  “This.  Is.  So.  Badass.”

I wouldn’t have even gotten to wear the coat to school, since we had to wear uniforms, which my friends and I fucking hated.  As a nonviolent protest, we invented a game to help us scuff up our ill-fitting polos.  We used a PowerAde bottle cap as the puck and our feet as sticks and called it “foot hockey.”

Brunch was only 15 minutes and once that cap dropped, nothing else mattered.  Rules were sparse and points were tallied randomly.  Kick the cap and don’t scuff up my Vans.  It allowed us to exorcise some of adolescent rage-angst without resorting to piercing things.

We weren’t the smartest (none of us made the cut into honors classes) and we weren’t the most popular (that distinction went to the boys who lazed about on the grass quad and, miraculously, accepted hugs from girls like it wasn’t an earth-shattering deal).  We were the outsiders and we liked it that way.  We were the kids who headbanged to Limp Bizkit, debated Star Wars minutiae over cans of Cactus Cooler, and had sleepovers which amounted to marathon gaming sessions.

And then Brendon Del Platano showed up.

Brendon was the first friend I made in Southern California.  He was small for 13 and his size gave him a weasel shape, which is maybe why he acted so much like a weasel.  We were pretty close for about a year but one day he stopped talking to me.  His return to our makeshift foot hockey rink surprised me.  So I talked him.  “Hey,” he said, “want to come hang out with me instead?”

If this were a Judy Bloom novel, I would’ve hesitantly said yes and then learned an important lesson by the end.  But it’s not.  I knew who my friends were.

“No, man, it’s cool.  I like these guys.”

Brendon looked shocked.  “These guys?!  These guys!  Really?  You know if you stick with these guys, you’ll never have a girlfriend, right?”

Even if Brendon and I didn’t know the right words, “these guys” was the most accurate way to describe us: we were the outsiders, we were the different ones, and we were among the first group compared to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris when they brought automatic weapons to Columbine High School.

On April 20th, 1999, I just wanted to see if Korn make it into the top 2 on Total Request Live.  But when I got home, the TV hurled images a high school massacre: students crawling over chain link fences; kids with bleached hair and No Fear sweatshirts balling their eyes out; and grainy security camera footage of someone walking through a hallway with a gun.

I couldn’t look away.  The shooters listened to shitty rap-rock, like me.  They spent a lot of time on their computers, like me.

And they wore black trench coats–just like one I had been begging for.

My friends and I knew things had changed.  Before Columbine, we were left well enough alone, save for the occasional yard duty who would smile and wave.  Now, foot hockey had a regular spectator in the form of Bill–a mustachioed, burly gentleman who had the calm-but-intimidating demeanor of an off duty cop.  After Columbine, we were banned from eating near the bike rack in back of the school.  No students were allowed to have lunch anywhere except the quad.

We tried to stick to a shadowy tree and continue our usual intense analytics of Pokemon biology.  But, before we were outsiders in a nerdy way–now, it felt like people thought we were an actual threat.

My birthday came and went.  I didn’t get the coat, nor did I want it anymore.

The May 31st issue of Time ran the cover story: “How To Spot a Troubled Kid.”  One of the main features was a centerfold-style chart which explained how disturbed your kid was, based on their web browser history.  At the bottom of this list was hate group websites, which Klebold and Harris were known to frequent.  But the second to worst?  Porn sites.

I watched porn,  which means, according to one of America’s major news outlets, I was only one way step away from being a “troubled kid.”

We were still allowed to play foot hockey during brunch and even started to open up our circle, allowing a few 7th graders to join in.  After a while, Bill, the yard duty, moved on and we hoped it was a sign that things were returning to normal.

Out of the corner of my eye one day I noticed a small figure.  Brendon.  He looked remarkably less weasel-ish than before.  For some reason, I felt bad for the guy.

“Hey, man, you want to play?” I asked.

“That gay-ass game?” said Brendon.  But after a second: “Yeah, all right.”

We dropped the cap.  Game on.  This little 7th grader, Tyler, had some skills punted the cap right past Brendon and into the goal.

“You’re a fucking dick!” yelled Brendon, loud enough to make us stop playing.  “This gay-ass 7th grader stepped on my hand!”

“I did not!”  said Tyler.  “And if anyone’s the gay-ass it’s you!”

Brendon, small and fast, suddenly grabbed Tyler.  Shoving, name calling, a lot of flailing.  Brendon grasped the back of Tyler’s neck and flung him.  The kid’s face connected with a metal pole.  Brendon strutted away.

Tyler told his teacher.  Word got passed up to administration.  I was summoned to the main office and sat across from a scowling assistant principal.

“What happened?” she asks.

“Bredon threw Tyler into a pole,” I say.

“Just Brendon?  No one else?”  She seems skeptical.

“Yeah, we were just playing foot hockey.  It’s a game.”

“Fighting is not a game!” she says with barking intensity.  “Brendon told us it was a brawl.  That ‘foot hockey’ game is violent!”

Before I can protest, she hands me the lunch detention notice, tells me that my parents should expect a call.

So here I am: in lunch detention.  I look around but don’t see Brendon anywhere.  I hope he got suspended.

When lunch detention is over, I have two minutes to slam back a Cactus Cooler and I see Brendon, who is smiling this big douchey smile.  The kind that makes you know he’s going to grow up to be a failed DJ.

I ask him: “They gave me lunch detention for what you did, you know?  What’d you get?”

His smile gets even bigger: “Nothing.  They just wanted to talk to me.”

I knew why I was put in lunch detention for a crime I didn’t commit — I was an outsider and now they had another angry alienated teen to deal with.  I wanted so badly to fight this Brendon kid.  I wanted to pummel his unblemished face until his lips looked like two fat slugs.  I wanted to feel his larynx crush in my hands.  I wanted to wear his teeth on a necklace.

But I thought of Klebold and Harris.  I couldn’t be like them.  I couldn’t be a “troubled kid.”

I did the very un-badass thing and walked away.

I went home and furiously typed three single-spaced pages.  I wrote the only thing I knew: a pulp fiction story, like the ones in my comics.

It was about this guy who goes to work one day, but forgets something.  Upon arriving home, he finds his wife fucking the gardener.  He flies into a rage and promptly caves in the gardener’s face.  It was everything I wanted to do to Brendon but couldn’t.

One person read this story and although she’d been watching all the same Columbine stuff I had–all the news reports about disturbed teens and warning signs and how it was all the parent’s fault–she still had the best reaction.

“I love the details, pet.  It makes me feel like I’m right there,” my mom said, because she is fucking amazing.  She reminded me of why I liked being different in the first place.

I saw Brendon throughout high school–he was always bouncing among social groups.  He grew his hair long and started listening to techno.  The next week, he’d be wearing Dickie shorts and black socks.  Then, a trucker cap and snap-button shirts.  Cheesy as it may sound, I don’t think he ever found a place that actually accepted him.

A few years into high school, someone stabbed Brendon with a pencil.  By this point, Brendon had such a low reputation that people actually circulated a petition to get the kid who stabbed Brendon un-expelled.

I’d like to say that that I had learned that being outcast is an adolescent universality–like acne and creative excuses for all the tissues in the trash; that I had become more sensitive to the plight of kids who didn’t fit in; that I forgave Brendon and let it all go.

But, really, I signed it twice.

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