“If you have a song about nuclear war, you are new wave. If you sing about gay sex and nuclear war, you are Frankie Goes to Hollywood. If you are a hot German chick and you sing about nuclear war, you are Nena. If you sang about starting a nuclear war via making out, you are Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark […] If you start to sing the word ‘ass’ but change your mind and substitute a drum solo, you are Huey Lewis, which is as far from new wave as you can get.”—Rob Sheffield, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran
I saw a commercial for Kohl’s last night where two women who make their careers dressing the two-legged coat hangers from some Grade C Reality Show were explaining what ‘Punk’ meant to them. “For me, it just means anything goes!” the one with more elaborate eyeshadow beamed into the camera. Behind her, a bright-cheeked teen tried to look sullen while she stood in a tank top screenprinted with a repeating cross pattern.
When punk is defined not by music or a mindset but exclusively by what kinds of second-tier separates you can buy at a strip mall department store, it’s pretty much dead for real, smothered with the plastic bag that pair of distressed faux-leather jeggings came in.
False alarm, you guys! Wikipedia was so very, very wrong. According to other, more reputable sources (read: pretty much the rest of The Internet) Huey Lewis is only 63. Adjust your fantasies accordingly.
“Be sloppy, the snakes of cords on the floor are always cool, never leave the sidemen out. Make it smell like the spilled beer of r&r. Go tight almost always and just fuck up in general. Fuck up. You’ll do just fine.”—
A friend wrote these sentences in an email and meant for them to be a How To when it came to filming concerts for him at a local rock club. But it works pretty well as all-around life advice too.
“Everyone is, in fact, alone. Being contractually tied to another person—in marriage, for example—accentuates the loneliness, because you have effectively allowed the state to determine your obligations to someone, as if you can’t trust and manage your own feelings by yourself. Anyway, I see humans as essentially solitary creatures, and this is not changed by surrounding ourselves with others, because they too are solitary. Life is a very serious business for the simple reason that nobody dies laughing.”—The always cheerful (but bleakly correct) Stephen Patrick Morrissey
1) It doesn’t matter which hotel key I slip into my pocket or which front desk has my credit card information (so they can discreetly charge me if I accidentally put the table lamps in my luggage), I always feel like a fraud when I’m in Manhattan. Those midtown hotels have been carefully designed for maximum coolness and—because I look like your middle school gym teacher—I’m pretty much the opposite of that. I recently stayed at The Hudson, which was no different: sleek modern décor, dimly lit public areas and rooms designed for people whose sex lives are more exciting than mine, a category that includes every other guest I saw in the elevator, most characters from Victorian literature and pandas in captivity.
My room was boss though, with mirrors lining both walls and a shower that had a giant glass panel that faced the bedroom, presumably so whoever was lathering up with the swanky C.O. Bigelow shower gel could put on a super steamy show (thanks, non-skid flooring!) for whichever of their friends or relatives were sitting expectantly on the bed. That works for the people who, when wet, look like Daryl Hannah in Splash. I look like a raccoon that was just sucked into a storm drain.
BUT the ambient darkness of their lobby-level pickup bar meant that no one could see me in there at midnight, hunched over my Table for One while I made out with a bad decision called Peanut Butter Pork Ribs.
2) Last Thursday night, I saw Wesley Stace at City Winery, and it was a fantastic show. He’s spent the past twenty-something years filling records with perfectly crafted pop songs as John Wesley Harding, but has recently dropped the name that he borrowed from Bob Dylan and is recording under the one that was neatly typed on his birth certificate.1 The show was to celebrate the release of Self-Titled, his, um…debut album, an intimate (and excellent) set of songs that essentially tell the stories behind every scar on his heart.
That night, the only track he borrowed from John Wesley Harding’s back catalog was “I’m Wrong About Everything,” which everyone who’s seen High Fidelity will recognize as the song playing when Rob recounts the end of his relationship with Catherine Zeta Jones, her Revlon Colorstay lipstick and her sweet-ass Pretenders t-shirt. That song—which has aged better than John Cusack—has one of my favorite lines ever (“Then we lie awake/And watch headlights climb the blinds”), which totally nails the feeling of being unable to sleep beside the person that you’re sleeping with.
1 His own reasons for the swap are here, which is a totally entertaining read.
On Friday, I caught the Waterboys at the Bowery Ballroom. Frontman and scarf enthusiast Mike Scott and fiddlemonster Steve Wickham are the only members remaining from those LPs I’ve shelved beside the turntable, but they put on one tremendous show. Of course they played “The Whole of The Moon,” which I’m pretty sure everyone in the crowd had rollerskated to at some point, but they also did a blistering version of “We Will Not Be Lovers,” ten-plus minutes that swapped the bitterness of the original for what sounded like vindication.2
Before the show, while the techs were tuning the guitars and taping setlists beside the mic stands, I noticed a guy standing a couple of rows in front of me, right at the edge of the stage. He was squinting at the Sharpied song titles through chunky glasses and had a haphazard haircut that looked like he might have done it himself, possibly while riding a log flume. BUT he was cute in that Ira Glass-slash-Hot Nerd sort of way and the way we’d make eye contact and then quickly look at our own shoes made me think we were equally matched in Social Awkwardness. So yeah, he seemed promising.
By the time the ‘Boys took the stage, I was already debating what kind of Doritos we’d serve at our rehearsal dinner (COOL RANCH OR THIS WEDDING IS OFF) when I noticed that instead of clapping, he was doing that aggressive finger-snap thing that people do at poetry slams or when they’re signaling for the check at an airport concourse Applebee’s. I immediately canceled the imaginary order for our Save the Date cards and added ‘finger snapping at concerts’ to my list of Signs We’re Never Sleeping Together, right between ‘Says the word ‘co-inky-dink” and ‘Knows the words to a Christopher Cross song.’
2They’re also the only group other than the Charlie Daniels Band that can prompt an entire room full of people to start playing Air Fiddle.
3) Last music-related bit: I caught up with some friends in Greenpoint on Friday morning and, immediately after hearing their door close behind me, broke into a sprint to hit some record stores before heading back to the G train. I thumbed through crates in several spots but the biggest and best haul was courtesy of the Record Grouch: a Robyn Hitchcock “Flesh No. 1 (Beatle Dennis)” single—on blue vinyl!— a crazy rare copy of The Loud Family’s Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things and several other pub rock-era LPs that I had to somehow shove into my carry-on bag. Actually, I’m just putting this paragraph here to remind myself why I’ll die alone.
4) When I wasn’t loading up on R.E.M. bootlegs (did I mention that one? It’s on the illustrious Pharting Pharaoh label) I shoved a lot of art into my eyeholes, hitting the Met, the Jewish Museum and MoMA. The Met currently has a Balthus exhibition called ‘Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations,’ which provided an unsettling combination of all four of those capitalized promises. Most of the collection focused on his infatuation with painting young girls in suggestive poses, 14-year-olds who flashed bored expressions and their white underpants in equal amounts. The gallery was reasonably deserted when I was there, although the two groups of people staring at his canvases seemed to be either the ones who were totally offended by the entire exhibition (“He’s sick!” a seventy-something woman hissed to her wheelchair-bound husband. “He’s a sick, sick man.”) or those who were totally on Balthus’ side.
Two men in matching berets and mock turtlenecks would move from painting to painting, turning to face each other for a 150 decibel discussion of what they’d just seen. Because my level of Art Knowledge is being able to recognize which Van Gogh painting is screenprinted onto a novelty tie, I listened. “You’re being subtly manipulated here,” the one with the louder voice and louder pants said. “Yes, and look here,” the other said, moving his finger around the edge of the tablecloth in the Still Life. “This could be a vagina. And this could be a vagina. This also.” The other man nodded before they continued into the room to the left. I went right.
My stop at MoMA was for their Magritte exhibition, because his surreal paintings appeal to the same part of my brain that Robyn Hitchcock’s lyrics do (the second largest part of my brain, right behind the part that remembers the words to 1980s sitcom theme songs. STAAAAANDING TALL! ON THE WINGS OF MY DREAAAAMS!) After fighting the massive crowd—going on Saturday morning was a tactical blunder—and being delighted at the inclusion of La Lampe Philosophique,3 I made my way to the 4th and 5th floors, which I love.
A harried looking family was rushing through the Painting & Sculpture I gallery, all four of them carrying identical Abercrombie bags that crashed into their identical khaki-covered legs as they stopped to avoid plowing into strangers. One of the kids grumbled and the mom turned, pushed her bangs from her forehead and said “I just want to see Starry Night.” She switched her bag to the other hand, adding “That’s the only reason we’re here.” Like, I’m not going to judge anyone, but if that’s the only thing you want to see, why not save yourself $25 bucks a head and go into any freshman girl’s dorm room? I swear they’ll have an even bigger copy.
3 Which is the cover art for Alan Hull’s excellent Pipedream record, one more thing to file under ‘Alone, Will Die.’
5) A total stranger followed me for half a block, saying nothing until a red light stopped us side-by-side at the same intersection. “Hey,” he said, leaning in with a serious expression that made me think he was about to diagnose me with a terminal illness. “You have some bionic titties.”
I will be the flounder on your southern shores On your southern sandy beaches If you would only show me where your sunshine reaches Where it reaches
So I’m listening to Superchunk this morning and thought “Surely ‘Sunshine State’ is the only rock song that has the word ‘flounder’ in it.” BUT NO! Pinkard and Bowden (“The Fish Song”) and Blink 182 (“Passion Flounder”) also mention everyone’s favorite flat fish.
“I don’t know what I done to my dad to have him start bringing me over here.”—A long-suffering West Ham fan who just told me that he’d been supporting the team since 1946. He also sounded just like Michael Caine and I wanted to ask him if he’d be my grandpa.
“…but she never wanted to be in a relationship again. Because relationships were the worst. So many obligations. So many compromises. So many arguments. Someone always got destroyed in the end. Sometimes everyone got destroyed in the end.”—Jami Attenberg, The Middlesteins
When I moved to my current address almost seven years ago, I was under-employed, spending each day reading Amazon reviews of self-help books and eating 2-For-$2 McMeals until I had the shimmering complexion of the oiliest Garbage Pail Kids. Most of the units in the building were still under construction, so for the first five or six months I rarely saw anyone other than men in sweat-stained V-necks and dusty hard hats. The only other resident on my floor was an elderly woman who wore a heavy shawl all summer and would tightly close her eyes if I stepped into the elevator with her. (She smelled—and continues to smell—like a blend of patchouli and old newspapers. She has never spoken to me.)
It was one of the loneliest summers of my life.
That December, I bought a dog. I was still lonely, but at least I had something to do, like cleaning up the shredded cotton carcasses of what used to be throw pillows and quietly sobbing into the pages of Cesar Millan’s magazine. When I wasn’t sprinkling carpet cleaner onto every square foot of my floor plan, we walked. A lot. We spent so much time on the sidewalks—at least an hour in the morning and another hour at night—that I’m pretty sure people thought we were homeless.
I started to see one of my newer neighbors when we were making our after-dinner circle around the building, a sixtysomething man who spent every evening sitting on the concrete steps outside his condo, chain-smoking Salems and emptying a box of wine into plastic cup-sized portions. It became part of the routine: I’d drag eighty pounds of Boxer around the corner and he’d be there, casting a small shadow onto the sidewalk while his wine and cigs fought to see which would leave the more impressive set of stains on his teeth. We’d talk while his terrified looking spaniel stared at me from behind his skinny calves, every conversation a rerun of the one we’d had the night before. They all ended after five or ten minutes when I’d realize that I was still holding a baggie of dog shit in my free hand and excuse myself to find the nearest trash can.
He was nice enough so I tried to be nice back.
That was the wrong decision.
Here’s where I’ll point out that I’m not the most perceptive person in the world. I don’t read people well. If this were a Law & Order: SVU episode, I’d be the body discovered before the opening credits, facedown in a flowerbed with a pair of ripped leggings while my friends told Detective Benson that they warned me not to let that man with facial scars and prison tattoos into my kitchen.
Despite my defective intuition, I always thought there was something slightly unsettling about him, whether it was the way he stared at me with Cabernet-glazed eyes or how it started to feel like he was waiting for me every night. After he made several comments about my appearance—and asked repeated questions about my personal life—I started thinking that maybe he was interested in me, so I started to stay on my side of the building, even if that meant that I was illuminated in the headlights of oncoming cars while I bent over to scoop up a handful of still-steaming poop.
That’s when the emails started, the ones that said things like “I didn’t see your car in the garage this morning” or “I noticed your lights were on until 1 a.m.” or other selections from the Creepster Magnetic Poetry Kit. I eventually stopped responding and I stepped up my efforts to avoid him, darting around the building like Ethan Hunt in a pair of battered Adidas.
He still emailed. He told me about his cold medications and frozen waffles and favorite television programs, tiny dispatches from another lonely life.
I still didn’t answer.
His sentences got increasingly angry.
I ignored them even harder.
He eventually moved out of the building, but he continued to write, emails that had a brief layover in my inbox before joining eight thousand BOTTOMS UP! SKIRT SALE AT ANN TAYLOR LOFT! messages in the trash. I started writing a column for the local paper and he’d regularly bang out an irritated response, criticizing my sentence structure, telling me how he could’ve done a better job and calling me a phony (because he’s apparently Holden Caulfield, out of the asylum and all grown up).
I stopped that column, switched jobs, started another and those emails still intermittently arrive. He parks nearby and I still see him standing underneath the CAUTION: CLEARANCE 7 FEET sign in my building’s garage, smoking and scowling at my front bumper. If I make eye contact, I’ll get an email. If I don’t make eye contact, I’ll get an angry email. Last week, he wrote twice. The first was several paragraphs of nothing; the second was a late night freakout where he called me out for several things I supposedly did or didn’t do in 2008. He spent last Saturday night mad about things like:
—The time I didn’t introduce him to someone I spoke to on the street
—The time I wouldn’t help him carry a television into his living room
—The time I got mad when he followed me down the hall to tell me that he’d seen me at the vet’s office.
—All of the times I declined his offer to have a drink.
So he’s obviously reached an entirely new LACES OUT, DAN level of obsession and I’m not sure what to do about it. I’m not concerned about a physical confrontation (there’s a one thousand percent chance I could outrun him) but it’s the fact that he’s out there, fighting with an imaginary version of Past Me over non-issues that I don’t even remember. It makes me wonder where he’s leaving his little footprints, whether he’s cupping his hands to look into my car windows or standing outside to see what time I stop watching On-Demand episodes of French cop shows.
Even though it’s still largely innocuous, my friends have encouraged me to file a police report, just to put something in writing in case I disappear shortly before someone shows up at a swap meet with a lampshade made of human skin. “Something like this happened to a girl I knew in grad school,” one friend cheerfully volunteered at dinner the other night. “They found most of her in a dumpster. Well, except her head.”
She paused to take a sip from a straw. “They never found her head.”
They told me that I probably shouldn’t write about it either, but that’s how I handle things, by emptying my brain onto the internet.
"Often we write to rail against the world," Jami Attenberg wrote in a blog post last week. (Related: I love Jami Attenberg.) “We write to process our darkest (but sometimes best) experiences. Or we write because people are sometimes terrible and we need to figure out why they are terrible and also maybe how to like them regardless of their behavior.”
The last half of that sentence isn’t true, not in this case, but the rest of it is. Sometimes we write because, if we didn’t, we couldn’t get past it. We couldn’t close that inbox, get up from the desk and cross the room to stare out the window, forgetting—at least for now—that someone might be staring back.
UPDATE: Thank you, everyone, for your concern. A police officer has been made aware of the situation, has read through the emails and has advised me how to handle this going forward.