StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Two)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013

Montmartre photo

Bridge Chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)1112, 13)



Simon the Sorcerer. That’s what Menard Jake Minshew had been calling Simon from the day Simon’s eyes had first seen shapes and his hands had first been able to grasp at the mobiles of Abraham, Moses and Isaiah on the plastic vane above his crib. Why they had to go and name him Simon, Menard never knew. Except that Menard’s wife had kept telling him that the Lord kept telling her to baptize the baby—who wasn’t Menard’s baby but some no-count punk’s—Simon. Menard had refused until his wife had argued that Simon was a good name since Simon Peter was the apostle who’d started the first church and, without the first church, there’d be no Calvary in Wizard’s Stone today. To this point, Menard had shown her the back of his hand, saying Simon Peter had founded a church of graven images and superstitions that the Reformation should’ve put an end to. But, almost in the same breath, he’d changed his mind and decided to go with his wife’s idea—which she’d said was the Lord’s idea—since Menard had wanted to get her in the habit of turning to the Lord. And so, with his own hands, in his own church, with his own water pitcher, Menard had taken it upon himself to christen his wife’s firstborn Simon. He rubbed the sign of the cross on the screaming infant’s forehead but something told him not even that was enough to save Simon.

And Menard had wondered again and again why Simon was his own lot when he was his wife’s mistake. It couldn’t have been so he could pass a test and get in good with God since, as far as Menard was concerned, he’d built Stone Mountain Calvary by the sweat of his own brow and, as such, was already in. It must’ve been there was something in Simon that God had given him to reform. So, maybe Simon was a good name. After all, his namesake, Simon Peter, was symbolic of an order that warranted reform (or, better yet, annihilation). However, Menard had gone on to rethink the matter and determined that he’d go his wife one better and nickname her son Simon the Sorcerer because, among the seven Simons in the Bible, one is a sorcerer who asks the apostles to let him share in their miraculous powers, only to hear from Simon Peter—the selfsame Simon Peter his wife had brought up—“thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” And Menard had not been able to think of a truer description of their own Simon, conceived in sin, unlike his three half-brothers, all junior preachers now with wives and legitimate children of their own. But it turned out, didn’t it, that Menard would never succeed in reforming Simon to his specifications though he’d been able to keep a church community of over 200, the largest in all of Wizard’s Stone, under his spell. Ergo, he’d failed the homework God had given him. Guess Providence won’t be setting him up with that megachurch he’s been praying for all these years.

This is what Simon had been thinking about as he stood at the mirror, combing his hair and smiling, the morning after his first night with Pascal at Soho Grand. Sorcerer—that’s a cheap shot coming from Menard but, for Simon, it’s an archetype of mystery and empowerment, which is probably why Menard and the Bible writers before him had made it into an insult, something thou shalt not be. After all, all of them wanted to be the ones plying the power, casting the hexes, the aspersions and that’s why thou shalt not. But it must have been by dint of his own sorcery, which he’d wielded unwittingly, that he had attracted Pascal, whom he was now watching in the mirror, asleep on his stomach, his bare back rising and falling in gentle undulations.

Simon had already showered and left a message on his boss’s voicemail saying he wouldn’t be in on account of a middle-of-the-night fever, which wasn’t a lie since the best fever of his post-virgin days had been spiking until about three that morning under the sheets that Pascal still was laying under, catching what z’s he could before he had to be up for his morning meeting downstairs in the breakfast room. Simon slowly combed back his brown, ear-length locks. He was wearing the same clothes that he’d made his grand Soho Grand entrance in, but soon he’d have to do the so-called walk of shame back out and make a trip back to Bushwick to change.

He wondered, what was it Pascal saw in him? He appraised himself in the mirror. His skin was copper now on the parts that showed, here at the height of summer, and his body was sturdy if a bit scrawny, still nothing he himself would turn down if it came strutting up to him in a bar or on a subway platform. But his clothes weren’t much to speak of, standard-issue, white-boy, twenty-whatever, Brooklyn: faded, holey jeans, black canvass Chuck Taylor sneakers—clothes that were both in style and didn’t cost much—though he preferred short-sleeved collar shirts to tight t-shirts, which might have made him look a little like a Bible salesman but at least differentiated him from the run-of-the-mill on the J train to and from work. And yet he’d bagged a filmmaker from France, who was laying right behind him.

How in hell’s bells could he have done that, except by some strange sorcery? Must be a new aura about me, he thought. Or, if there were any such thing as a presiding fate (he’d been on the fence about that since long before he’d dropped out of Reginald Hill Bible College), maybe it’d decided to throw him a bone. After all, it’d seen him work hard enough on his self-study French lit (translated) courses. It’d seen him study up so much on France that it’d rewarded him with the best Frenchmen he’d ever seen. Taken further, Pascal’s presence in his life must mean he’d gotten an A on his homework, unlike God’s own flunker-flunky Menard Minshew, with his sodomite stepson and no megachurch to call his own.

Before they’d fallen asleep, Pascal had told Simon he could come to his breakfast meeting if he wanted. It was just going to be Pascal and his co-director Luc, who was staying one floor up, and all they’d be doing was reviewing the interview and shooting schedules for the day. He’d also said he was sorry but he couldn’t take him on location, as he had a full day of meetings around town, some with researchers and historians way uptown at places like Columbia University and El Museo del Barrio. How did Pascal manage to get into this field?, Simon wondered. What strings did he have to pull? Was he the kind who always had been firmly on foot or squarely on horseback, unlike Simon, who seemed to be tripping his way perpetually down some unmarked path that could lead to nowhere? Pascal is 43 now, all established in a career, and he must have started out on the right rung in life to climb as high as he has, thought Simon.

Pascal had asked Simon what he does for a living, and Simon said there’s a big divide between what he does and what he wants to do, even though Simon knew full well he should thank his lucky stars that, after seven years of grunt-work jobs and no college that he’d ever admit to, he was lucky to land his communications assistant position at the August Strindberg Theatre on 38th Street. Simon came clean and told Pascal he was working in a theater, doing a lot of photocopying and mail-outs for new shows, and he wanted to write plays and books but he’d felt he still had a lot of living and learning to do and, he confessed, he hadn’t had any higher education—except at Reginald Hill, which he didn’t confess to, not to anyone, much less someone who travels the world over making films and being important. Simon had already done the math so it wasn’t lost on him that he was talking to someone who, by the time he was his age, had already earned a master’s from the Sorbonne (Sartre and Beauvoir’s alma mater, Simon had also noted) in film et médias électroniques and who, by that time, had already assisted film crews everywhere from Zanzibar and Botswana to Buenos Aires.

Pascal told Simon, “Paris wasn’t built in a day. You’re still in za possible.” Simon smiled, even though he knew Pascal was being a lot kinder than he was realistic, especially for a Frenchman. After all, he’d heard they give you a lot less of a window for getting your shit together in Europe, where you either inherit your profession or have to choose one when you’re barely old enough to drink, whereas in America, you can shoot from the bottom to the top overnight if you’ve got the right gimmick and, even more importantly, the right connections. How sweet, though, that Pascal hadn’t noticed (or wasn’t holding it against him) that his position at Strindberg was entry-level and about four or five years behind that of so many of the people his age who were already starting to tear up the town in whatever their industry.

Simon went with Pascal to his meeting, where he met Luc, a stocky guy with a lot of wispy white chest hair peeking out from under his long-sleeve charcoal gray shirt, unbuttoned down to his sternum. Luc said bonjour and opened a manila folder. From that point forward, Simon merely sat there, drinking black coffee and munching on a cherry Danish while Pascal and Luc conducted their entire meeting in French.

At one point, Pascal lunged at Luc, “Il est trop tard pour modifier le calendrier. Je me suis arrange tous les entretiens.

Oui,” Luc replied, “Sans me consulter.

They seemed to be at each other’s throats over each and every point of the itinerary, but half an hour later, they both glared at each other, albeit with a hint of le-faire collegiality, and got up to go on assignment. Pascal told Simon he’d call him at 4 o’clock and kissed both of Simon’s cheeks, as dispassionately as he would Luc’s, but this was business, so Simon didn’t take the impersonality personally. Simon said enchanté to Luc, gave his hand a solemn pump and took the subway to the Brooklyn Public Library to apply for his first-ever passport before going home.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter One)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on September 10, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013


A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

First chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)1112)


Montparnasse Overture

There are over 300,000 bodies buried in Montparnasse Cemetery and right now Simon Minshew is wishing his could be one of them. He’s looking down from a third-story window of an apartment building. He’s thinking, if he cranes his neck enough, he could spot Sartre and Beauvoir’s grave. He knows where they are. He went and visited them yesterday, as he has done at least a few times a week, these past two months in Paris, sometimes with a bouquet of daffodils and daisies in his arms. But today is gray and rainy and a flock of mourners, attending the burial of someone Simon does not know, have their black umbrellas opened up, high above their heads, forming a raven-wing pattern that plumes and ruffles as the mourners shift their weight from side to side, blocking out all the best tombstones that side of the graveyard.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir rest in the same tomb, though they were never man and wife and believed even less in any kind of afterlife than they did in the bourgeois convention of marriage. And Simon knows that Beauvoir was wearing Nelson Algren’s ring when she died. Still, comme c’est romantique! Afterlife or no afterlife, their ashes are interred together. Simon used to have this picture that’d be him and Pascal someday, if things had gone according to Simon’s daydreams, if Simon could have cut the figure in the world that Sartre and Beauvoir or even Pascal cut, or maybe if he’d had a college degree to boast of—then maybe Pascal’s love might have blossomed instead of withered. Was that it? Not having a degree? Or a good enough job like Pascal? Or any job anymore, for that matter? Or was it that Simon doesn’t know French? Or that he corrupts what little French he does know with innocent but egregious American crassness and a southern drawl, to boot? Pascal never narrowed it down to any one specific thing, so Simon hasn’t known what to fix or how to fix it.

Just yesterday, Simon had made a visit to Balzac’s grave in Père Lachaise. Of the over 90 or so novels Balzac wrote, Simon had stayed in nights or gone to coffeehouses and read at least 20 of them while all the other aspiring types he’d come to know back in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side were out hitting bars or getting into whatever the latest craze was, according to Gothamist or New York or TimeOut, that month. Shouldn’t he get points not only for knowing the names of, but also for knuckling down and reading, 19th Century French novelists?

And poets! Baudelaire’s bones are right outside in Montparnasse too. In fact, Simon had to point that out to Pascal. Turns out, for Pascal, Baudelaire is just another stone in the bone orchard he yawns and looks out over while reading Le Monde and drinking un café before grumbling his way off to work with that indigenous French sour puss that Simon had come to see so much of on his own flâneur promenades and Metro rides around the city.

Too bad Georges Simenon isn’t on the list of the dead outside. If he were, then Pascal and Simon really could find something to bond over. After all, Simenon is the one who brought Simon and Pascal together.


Pascal wasn’t wearing a sour puss the night they met, but Simon kind of was, educating himself while everyone around him was having fun and unwinding. This was four months ago, when it was still summer in Manhattan. Simon had gone to Métier on Mercer Street after work and settled in on the patio with a liter of Stella Artois—Stella Artois, no less. It was ceremonial, a Belgian brew, custom-made for poring over a Belgian author’s work. He had brought with him a paperback copy of La Folle de Maigret, the original French-language version of a detective novel he’d read in English by Simenon, Maigret and the Madwoman. He’d bought the French version at Idlewild Books and had planned to write down the words he didn’t know (which were practically all of them) and translate them with the help of the Larousse translator app on his new iPhone. He figured, since he already knew the story, this would be a way of learning French from the ground up until such time as he could meet one or the other of his faraway goals: to take a full load of college courses, including French 101, or go live in France and gain life experience like Hemingway and Gauguin. And he had his nights free for these autodidactic pursuits now that he’d given up on love, something that had never once lasted for him, not even into months, in all his 27 years of life. He’d learned to settle for hook-ups instead, which is why he’d also downloaded a Grindr app. But he wasn’t going to troll the west-side streets for fellow Grindr users that night. For the next two or three hours, he planned to make it just himself, Inspector Maigret et Larousse.

Tables kept filling up around him with all kinds of other harried office, gallery and boutique workers shaking off the stress of the day, though it was only a Tuesday and most of them still had three more workdays to go before they could shake off all or even most of their stress. Still their dull roar made Simon feel less alone and didn’t disrupt his self-inflicted studies enough to make him want to reach for the headphones in his Brooklyn Industries satchel. He had his iPod all queued up with a classical playlist, just in case he’d need to drown everybody out with the kind of music that would keep him focused. Good thing he didn’t put on his headphones and press shuffle or he wouldn’t have heard: “Jules Maigret, a-t-il arrêté la folle?”

Now, even if those words had appeared right before his eyes in print, there’s no way they could’ve actually sounded off the pages of his book, not even if this were one of those French surrealist novels he’d heard about but hadn’t looked into yet. He looked up and found they’d come from the table to his left. As Simon took in the figure across from him, he wondered how he could have missed such a marvel coming in and sitting down (and, for a moment, he even congratulated himself: missing something so spectacular must mean he’s a good student, albeit of his own curriculum). “Simenon?” the man continued, “Es-tu un fan de ces livres?” The man’s skin was swarthy, bordering on dusky, and his frame was broad with hale muscles undergirding a gray soft-cotton dress shirt. Simon’s hand flopped away from the page it was keeping. The evening sun was shining hot onto Simon’s forehead and he hoped his skin had bronzed past the point where the sun’s rays could still brand him as the redneck he’d always be, no matter how tan he got or how much he studied up on French and haute culture. It also didn’t help that Simon replied in a honeyed twang, “Sorry, I, I don’t speak French,” which was no lie because, if he’d even known enough to say, Pardon, je ne parle pas français, he sure as hell would’ve said it. Still the man didn’t give up on Simon. He merely chortled, “Alors, pourquois lis-tu cela?” Simon’s face appeared about as mystified by the question as by the gentleman himself. This somehow charmed the Frenchman who, after pausing to smile, extended his hand, “Pascal de Brienne.” And that’s how Georges Simenon squared the deal for Simon.

Simon gripped Pascal’s hand and took note of how it was a different quality handshake than he’d ever felt, strong but somehow supple and altogether different, somehow. In fact, he took so much note, he forgot to give his own name. Pascal had to ask him for it outright. Simon apologized and said, “My name is Simon.” Pascal leaned in, “Your zurname?” Simon couldn’t remember ever being asked his last name by someone he’d just met in a bar but he gave it (must be a European thing, saying your last name, first thing, outside a work situation), “Minshew.”

Main-chou?,” Pascal nodded, “Iz zat French?”

“I don’t know,” Simon said, “It’s my stepdad’s name. I don’t know what he is.” (And Simon wasn’t about to add that, if Pastor Menard Jake Minshew ever found out he had a French last name, he’d be the last to admit it. Oh, Simon could hear Menard’s vituperations now: “Sissified…godless…with churches that’re nothing but pansy-socialist-papist-idolatry art museums, not anywhere’s near mmmyyyyy blood!”)

Et your real fazer, vat ethnic, er, origin vas he?” asked Pascal, “Pardon. I am…I am always intrigued by, er, cultures of diversity, like yours, ’ere, in, in America. I am, er, curieux to know people’s origins.”

“I understand,” Simon said, “Well, as far as my biological father, I don’t know. I never knew him.”

Pascal smiled, “He vaz a sailor?”

“No. No. He was a teenager. It was a mistake. At a keg party. After he found out, he just skipped off to some relative in Mississippi. Left my mom holding the bundle. She was a teenager too.”

“Ah! Zo you’re not from New York, you’re from Miz’ippi?”

“No. Georgia.”


“No. Wizard’s Stone.”

“Vizard’z Stone?”

“It’s a small town. Between Atlanta and Savannah.” That’s where Simon always says Wizard’s Stone, Georgia is, even though it’s light years away from either city, both in terms of miles and savoir vivre. Population 578, it never gets so much as honorable mention, not even on the most thoroughgoing state maps. “My real dad’s last name is Wright. I guess that’s English. Prob’ly Mayflower English. But everybody’s pretty much the same in Wizard’s Stone. Scotch-Irish, English. WASPs. The south, you know. ’Cept my mom. Her maiden name’s Muller. That’s German. Guess that makes me mixed.”

“Moi aussi,” cheered Pascal, “I’m mick’sed! My mozer’s Algérienne. My fazer’s French.”

“And you’re from…Where? Paris?”

“I live zer now, yes, for many, many years. But, er, I am origin’ly from Toulouse.”

After he had confirmed that he calls Paris home, Pascal didn’t register that, despite Simon’s intent gaze, Simon’s mind had just spun off a thousand miles, not to Paris or Toulouse but way down to Wizard’s Stone, which he’d not gone back to once in the eight years since he’d first made his way to New York City, broke and barely legal. From Mercer Street, Simon alone was able to see Wizard Stone’s rickety shacks, pierced-and-tatted-up white trash, Confederate flags hanging in the windows of foreclosed trailer homes, possession charges, battered wives, Bible bangers, empty beer bottles, teeth lost to too much meth and mangy lawns of twice-dead grass. It only made sense that his daydreams had picked this as their moment to plunge him into his Deep South cesspool of origin. After all, Algerian meant Muslim, at least to Simon’s mind, where Pascal had already become for Simon the infidel paramour from Paris whom he’d love to bring down and show off, maybe even as his husband, to Pastor Menard Jake Minshew at the First Stone Mountain Calvary Baptist Church. So what if you’re only Muslim by paternal lineage and Pascal’s father wasn’t Muslim? He’d be plenty Muslim enough for Menard Minshew, who had snapped up Simon’s mother when she was knocked-up jailbait, coming into Calvary and asking if his catchpenny church had an alms closet with baby clothes in it; who had made her cast off her Metallica and Judas Priest cut-off t-shirts; who had told her to quit her cryin’ and shut her two-bit whore mouth while he jabbed in with a sewing needle a long stem of aqua-green ink at the foot of the cross tattooed on her hand, so that the cross would go from upside-down to right-side up; who had made her thank him for it once he was done; who had made her into a housewife straight out of some Southern Gothic horror movie, with eyes gone glazy from watching only PAX, CBN and maybe a little Fox News all day, who answers the phone by screeching “Praise the Lord!” instead of  just saying hello and who’d sworn off her own son Simon—the first of her four boys—the day he’d dropped out of Bible college after not even one year, with a beefcake magazine rolled up in his back pocket and the last black eye, fat lip and bruised set of ribs Menard will ever give him. Yes, Pascal would be plenty Muslim enough for Menard Minshew. And as this homecoming hallucination was Simon’s sole and exclusive prerogative, he didn’t even have to factor in the likelihood of Menard’s Klan buddies stepping in and gunning them down before the two lovebirds could even open their rental-car doors. Instead, in Simon’s vision, Menard and the whole of Wizard’s Stone would be forced to stand there, balking, while Simon and Pascal French-kissed and fucked and fucked and fucked and fucked on the roots of the southern live oak tree on Stone Mountain Calvary’s front lawn. After a post-coital cigarette or two, they’d zip up their jeans, flick their filters and drive away with laughter and lewd hand gestures. It made him hard just thinking about it—something Pascal did register, as Simon had been sitting crotch-out at him (that’s what happens when you wear boxers instead of briefs), and Pascal assumed that he alone had aroused all the enthusiasm he saw abounding in Simon’s trousers—and Pascal on his own, with his soft almond eyes, elegant accent and close-cropped hair, could have aroused it—but there was a more comprehensive fantasy at work in Simon’s mind. As Simon’s reverie faded to black, his mind reeled right back to where he sat on Métier’s patio. “Toulouse sounds magical,” Simon said, “I’ve read about it.”

By now, the sun had grazed off Simon’s face to go brand someone else’s forehead and neck and Pascal had come to join Simon at his table, where Georges Simenon’s tour de force was soon relegated to a coaster for Simon’s first, second and, in time, third liter of Stella Artois. Pascal would soon order one and then another for himself too.

Mais, Toulouse, c’est nodzing compared to Paris.”

“It’s a dream of mine since high school to go to Paris. Is it anything like New York?”

Pascal told Simon that downtown—from Chelsea to the Village to Soho to Tribeca to Wall Street—all of it has some resonance with Paris, mostly due to the cobblestone streets and the superabundance of art, both classic and modern. That’s why Pascal said he loves Métier so much. There’s a cobblestone street outside of it and, inside, Métier is top-heavy with crystal chandeliers and fading paintings of august gentlemen in cravats and greatcoats, who once had names, though not even the waitress, manager or even the owner could tell you what those names or the stories behind them are. Yet there they hang, as vintage as the chandeliers. Pascal said that’s why he always stays downtown whenever he’s in town. It reminds him of Montmartre, one of his favorite districts of Paris. Montmartre, a name Simon recognized from Simenon, but which sounds so much better coming from Pascal, the way the re trills off so subtly when you say it right, as it does with the name Sartre.

Pascal asked Simon, “Do you like cobblestone streets?” Simon said yes. Pascal asked Simon if he’s seen the ones in Montreal. Simon said no. Has he ever been to Montreal? No. Has he seen the cobblestone streets of London, has he been there? No. Not even Boston? No. Where has he travelled? Nowhere, except that one time, up I-85 to I-81, from Wizard’s Stone to New York.

Simon asked Pascal what he’s doing in New York. Pascal said he’s directing and producing a program for French TV. What kind of program? Pascal said geography. Simon replied, “You mean like a nature special?,” but as soon as he said it, he wished he could take it back. Nature in New York City? What’s he supposed to film? Raccoons and possums in Prospect Park? Squirrels and pigeons in Washington Square? On the news once, there was this eagle that nested on a Park Avenue apartment ledge and everyone got their cameras. Pascal laughed and pinched Simon’s cheek, “comme c’est charmant!,” no, he explained, not nature, although the program does mention that Manhattan is built on granite, which is why it can support its skyscrapers. Mais, Pascal went on to inform Simon that geography goes far beyond the study of landmasses, landscapes, and maps. It goes beyond census counts and nation capitals and state capitals and everything that Simon had known as “social studies” way back when he was at Wizard Stone K-12, which he’d attended since halfway through elementary school, when the state had finally turned in a good verdict and deemed his mother unqualified to home-school. In fact, “géographie is poreux, c’est a lot like anthropologie,” it involves subtle analysis of cultures and their resources and the impact that climate has on local economies and the everyday lives and folkways of native populations.

The program he’s developing is a three-part series called, New York: Toujours une Nouvelle Amérique. It will study immigrant populations in New York City, from the 19th Century to today, and explore everything from immigrant life in the early tenements in Hell’s Kitchen and on the Lower East Side to life among immigrants today in places like Canal Street, East Harlem, Flushing and Jackson Heights. It’s all based on a collaborative study of the same name, which a team of French social scientists and historians published this year and from which a team of French TV writers has developed un scenario. Now it’s up to Pascal, le réalisateur, to bring it all to life on film. After he went into all this, Pascal chuckled at himself for being so pedantic. But his oration had the opposite effect. Simon couldn’t wait to get someone so learned and accomplished (French TV doesn’t hire just anybody to make documentaries) into bed.

By now, Pascal and Simon had looked in each other’s eyes enough to begin holding hands as they closed out Métier.

“Is Mount Martyr anything like Diagon Alley?”


“From Harry Potter.”

“Ha! Books again! Vy you read Simenon, all alone here at night, eh?”

“To learn French.”

“Vy you vant to learn French?”

“So I can go some day.”

“Let me teach you,” Pascal said, kissing a few of Simon’s knuckles.

Pascal picked up the beer tab, brushing off Simon’s halfhearted clamoring to pay for the three he drank. How their evening together ended may have been as predictable as last call at the bar, but their first kiss, which Simon received with his back up against Métier’s service door (before they hauled out the trash), brought him alive to the point where he could let the dead bury the dead back in Georgia. Right then and there, Simon would retire any exhibitionist fantasies he’d set in Wizard’s Stone and recast them on a Parisian dreamscape, where he and Pascal would do all their lovemaking tout seuls in some Left Bank apartment (he’d people the fantasy with furnishings and designs later, as no doubt he’d be replaying it for some time to come). A crescent moon hung high in a star-studded sky above the Manhattan Bridge as Pascal and Simon went arm in arm, nestled like two purring cats, down Mercer Street’s cobblestones to Pascal’s room at the Soho Grand.

In all his years in New York City, Simon had passed the Soho Grand countless times and had always wanted to go in. Now here he was, a guest, or at least a guest of a guest, and he couldn’t have planned his entrance better if he were Inspector Maigret lui-même. If nothing else, it beat the hell out of inviting Pascal to Simon’s sinkhole in Bushwick, where Pascal’s libido would never be able to withstand the sight of Simon’s three hipster roommates with their uncoordinated bodies and tacky t-shirts offset by trendy tattoos and high-end haircuts. Another thing Simon knew for sure: he’d be calling in sick to work the next morning.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

85A Galleys Approved: RIP Malcolm McLaren

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 9, 2010

Malcolm McLaren died yesterday, the day I approved the galleys for 85A (with minor changes).

Without him, I could never have written the book.

In Lipstick Traces, Griel Marcus does homage to McLaren’s balls-out cultural revolution, beginning with Seditionaries boutique  (later called Sex) on King’s Road and climaxing with the Sex Pistols:

It may be that in the mind of their self-celebrated Svengali, King’s Road boutique owner Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols were never meant to be more than a nine-month wonder, a cheap vehicle for fast money, a few laughs, a touch of the old épater la bourgeoisie. He had recruited them out of his store, found them a place to rehearse, given them a ridiculously offensive name, preached to them about the emptiness of pop music and the possibilities of ugliness and confrontation, told them they have as good a chance as anyone to make a noise, told them they had a right. If all else failed they could be a living poster for his shop…

That was 1977.

In 1975, the same strategy hadn’t worked so well when he tried it on The New York Dolls whom he draped in hammers and sickles at the height of the Cold War, successfully ending their career before they could recover from the loss of drummer Billy Murcia and fulfill the enormous promise they’d shown only a couple years before.

After giving the Sex Pistols their last rites and creating Bow Wow Wow, McLaren would make his own records in which (like Johnny Rotten) he would experiment with world music and even become a pioneer of the emerging hip-hop genre. Eminem would even bite from the above-captioned McLaren song “Buffalo Gals” (1983) in his smash-hit “Without Me” (2002).

Malcolm McLaren died of stomach cancer in Switzerland. He was 64. RIP, Malcolm, and thanks for your inspiration on 85A.

Unlike McLaren, I’m not a marketing master, which is why I am going to have to develop a lot of hitherto latent muscles if I’m going to get 85A out into the world.

I’ve only done one public reading of it at a pre-inaugural ball for Obama on the Lower East Side, where they stuck me between two high-powered music acts. It was the writer’s worst nightmare. People were getting up and leaving before I even got halfway through my second sentence! Others were talking over me until I stopped dead and stared them down. It was a chapter about skinheads and I guess I was embodying the spirit of the characters because they all shut their traps. After I was done reading, I got many compliments, which was consoling, but it wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat.

Until now!

I want to do readings and signings cross-country. I want to bring it to England, where I have a good friend in PR.

My blog was featured on a website in Saskatchewan, so maybe 85A can find an audience there too. I’ve always loved Canada, ever since I was 20 years old and spent 10 days alone in Toronto. I grew up watching Degrassi Junior High on PBS and was so impressed by how surefooted and adult those little Canadian kids were. I recently saw Degrassi: The Next Generation. It’s a much more polished show than the original, although the kids are way too glib like Ellen Page in that corrosively obnoxious movie Juno. Still, it betrays a zest for coming-of-age material up north. I’m definitely going to try to arrange for public readings in Canada.

Naturally, I have all sorts of excuses for not doing it. I’m a homebody and I feel so lonely when I travel without Julius. I love my cats and, though they have the best cat-sitter in all creation, I can’t stand to be away from them for any more than 12 hours. I’m an introvert and, though I have been told I have great stage presence, I feel like I’m being publicly disemboweled whenever an audience member’s attention drifts (which inevitably happens, it was even business-as-usual for Churchill!) or when someone shows open contempt. But which would I rather do? Hide or have a career?

85A comes out in May. Soon I’ll be speaking with the marketing department at Bascom Hill and hopefully setting up the next phase of my life. (Don’t worry, Kyle. The cats will be fine.)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 12, 2010

This post might be premature, but I’m just too antsy to keep it in!

85A will soon have its own website at!

This photo, from years ago, will be my web photo.  It was taken in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn.

At this point, I’m still planning on blogging right here at


Kyle Thomas Smith

85A: Chapter 9: “Colby at Irving Park Station”

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 2, 2010

So I thought I’d give a sneak preview of the book, 85A, on the blog.  It will be published this year through Bascom Hill Publishing.

Please remember that Seamus is 15 years old in the book, and he’s recounting an incident from when he was 14.

Also, the date is January 23, 1989 and he’s recounting something that occurred in the fall of 1987.

He’s an immature and vulgar narrator.  Hopefully with some redeeming qualities.

This is the chapter where he recounts how he once tried to pass himself off as English.  This incident did not happen in the author Kyle Thomas Smith’s actual life.

While we’re on the subject of the author, if you in any way reproduce the contents of this chapter without my express permission, I will find you and sue you!


Chapter IX

Colby at Irving Park Station

There’s this lavender-scented sex hormone—a crotch-teasing, unisex Spanish fly—they pump from all the ceilings on all the floors at Medusa’s. It fills your nostrils, fills your pores. It makes your blood beat, your body burst into flame. Mix that with all the cigarette smoke and sweat, you got yourself a two-story teenage cathouse—three stories if you count the stairs going up to Granny, the bouncer.

And that’s before you hear the drum machines and heavy bass. The owners are probably drumming up business for the local abortion clinic: “Send us your teens! No fetus can beat us!” If so, that clinic must be doing one hell of a business. On every other stair up to the top floor, there’s another funny-haired guy knocking back another funny-haired girl’s tonsils and pressing her tits so hard and spazzy, you’d think he’s making an emergency batch of biscuits out of them. And the only lights on the staircases are the little cartridges set in the walls that only give off about as much light as bike reflectors on an empty street with no lampposts. The hallway walls come in lots of colors. The coal-black walls stay coal-black, but they swirl the blood red and sky blue walls with cloud white. They all glow in dim neon till close. Not that I’m ever there to see them turn the neon off. I got a fuckin’ curfew, remember?

They can’t serve booze at Medusa’s. It’s a juice bar for minors. It’s against the law for them to tank us all up, so you gotta go out back by the dumpsters and guzzle out of a paper bag before going in. Even Medusa’s is forced to prohibit some vices. That’s why they got Granny frisking you for firearms and drugs before she lights another cancer stick and dropkicks another rabble-rouser out onto Sheffield Street.

Beyond that, you’re free to let your dick hang out and your body get beat in a mosh pit. The bouncers are required by law, though, to break up any brawl they see involving less than three people—that’s word for word what I heard Granny telling a new bouncer she was training one night. In the pit, though, it’s nothing but consensual punk rock. There are a few signs up saying that they’re not responsible for any injuries or lost or stolen items, but I’m not sure that stands up in court. Course, if anyone’s stupid enough to sue, they’ll probably have motherfuckin’ Al Capone at their door before a judge can even sign a subpoena.

As for dicks hanging out, maybe you see it once in a while, but I don’t think guys in the video room got too much to show for themselves there. And their teeny-weeny weenies were just what I was thinking about as I walked around the top floor after seeing Colby get busted. True, Colby did keep his hands up while Narc searched his pockets, didn’t kick him into the train while it was moving. Doesn’t mean he don’t got balls.  Means he’s got brains. Nobody gets away with shit in this country unless they’re in the White House—or my neighborhood’s whitey households. Colby knows when it’s in his best interest to cooperate. But just his naturalness—that hair he refuses to fuck up—it shows he’s got more going on in his jock than any of those sneering, snooty, funny-haired freaks who run from jocks and futz with their hair every fuckin’ five minutes. When I think of Colby, it makes me want to stop fuckin’ up my hair too. But I’m not ready to give that shit up just yet.

The L’s pulling up to Irving Park and Pulaski now, far, far away from Medusa’s. This is where courtyard apartment buildings make their first appearance on the O’Hare line, left and right of the train. The building to my right has gray-painted wooden staircases, running at sharp angles down to the alley where dumpsters sit brimming with garbage bags. Not a lot of nightlife here. Some dive bars, some greasy spoons, not a lot of trendy restaurants, and no clubs. No one ever talks about it. Never gets mentioned in The Reader, which I pick up every Thursday to look up shows and sex ads. Every morning, this L platform is crammed pillar to post. Unlike Jefferson Park, Irving Park station doesn’t have a lot of buses coming in from all over Chicago. Must mean people boarding here live here. Yeah, I could see that. There are lots of apartment buildings around; you can pack a lot of people into a neighborhood that way.

The apartment buildings are big too. On my way back from school once, I overheard an architect trying to impress his girlfriend by calling all the buildings around here “Tudor.” Whatever the fuck that means. To me, they just look like a bunch of big Joe-Mama gingerbread houses. Every time I pass, I feel like I’m in a fairy tale. Tempts me to get off the L and walk into one of the courtyards. I keep thinking I’ll get sucked into some time warp, like in The Time Machine. I’ll be transported to some fairly tale, like Hansel and Gretel or Mozart’s Magic Flute, only I’ll be the main character. Finally get a shot at a life worth living.

But could I get that here, at Irving Park and Pulaski? It’s not Piccadilly Circus. It’s not even Belmont and Clark. The people getting on—a lot of the men—look and smell like big Bluto bohunks. Don’t know what kind of jobs they’re headed to. Maybe they’re on their way to construction sites or factories—but wouldn’t they be starting their shifts a lot earlier in the morning? The women, a lot of them look like Polish cleaning ladies, except others look dressed for the office. Maybe they’re secretaries. Must be the ones who learned English and took typing classes at community centers. Good for them. Not all of them do.  Some of ’em been here forty years, never learned a lick of English. Give them all the credit in the world, though. Must be fuckin’ hard as hell, making your way after moving halfway around the world with nothing.

The ones who do learn English a lot of times wind up way the fuck ahead of any of us who were born here; the Chinese almost always do. But I bet the Polacks send most everything they earn back home. Wonder if their money orders ever make it past the guards at the Iron Curtain. But why are their families back home so fucking poor? Aren’t they all guaranteed jobs under communism? That’s what the guy who passes out The Socialist Worker under the Belmont L says. So why the fuck do they want to come here?  Probably swallowed a shitload of American propaganda, just like Americans have.

No, Irving Park-Pulaski isn’t the coolest hood on earth, but I always scan the station anyway, hoping to see Colby. Why the fuck did he get on here? I mean, here, of all places? I don’t know, but I keep thinking I’ll see him getting on again and, when I do, I’ll walk up and say, “Hey, weren’t you the guy who got busted for packing a marker?”

Yeah, that happened on the L one Saturday night—months before the first time I saw Tressa get off at Logan Square. Out of nowhere, this legion of leather-clad kids got on at Irving Park and Pulaski. My eyes got big, round, hypnotized. I had to clench my jaw to keep it from hitting the floor. You gotta understand, these were ultra-vivid Brit punks, not bland, fuckin’ eunuch Americans. No, we’re talking, they had…oh, man…charisma…their presence, it just radiated throughout the car like nothing I ever saw on Belmont—only like what I’d seen in photos in Punk: A Sordid Saga, like the ones of Siouxsie Sioux on stage in ’78, wearing a black trash bag and a Nazi armband. And they didn’t even have English accents when they talked. But they couldn’t’ve been from fuckin’ Chicago. I mean, they sounded like they were, but fuckin’ no one knows how to dress that cool here, except maybe Tressa.

And they all got on here, at fuckin’ Irving Park and Pulaski! Four of them—two girls, two guys. One of the guys had this blond Billy Idol hair. No, but it was better, much fuckin’ better than fuckin’ Billy Idol. What he did was, he spiked it all around to look like Sid—a blond Sid Vicious, it was fuckin’ brilliant! He had this tight-fitting black peacoat. Looked like he tore it up and then put it all back together with all these safety pins and sewn-on calico swatches. And the guy wasn’t wearing combats like the rest of the fuckin’ world. No, he wore black motorcycle boots with a red bandana tied to one of them. First time I ever saw that. His skin was deep bronze. He had this one chick hanging on him. She had a tar-black bob, shaved close to the skin on the sides and back, the rest dangling in fringes from the crown of her head to her chin, and her eyes were lined Cleopatra-style. She fuckin’ flaunted that fifteen-year-old hooker look—leopard-print coat; shredded, sheer nylons; go-go boots; and this sizzling hot-pink mini. The other chick was this blonde with long, curly hair. Her body was wrapped tight in a knee-length, black leather coat, her big bust busting out of it. Don’t know if she had anything else on besides her sheer scarlet stockings and black fuck-me pumps. She was sitting next to the kid I heard them call Colby. Her arm was in his, she was damn near in his lap. He had his hand on her thigh. Saw him move it over to her other thigh too and a little ways under the hem of her leather coat. She acted natural and let him do it right there on the L. But I couldn’t tell whether, when he tried going up her skirt, he actually found a skirt.

What I wouldn’t’ve fuckin’ given to be Blondie right then and there in that seat. Oh, Colby. Like I said, he had that 1940s black-lid hat on. It had a bow, like a bowtie, on the right side. Used to see those hats on sale at Wax Trax, but they looked fuckin’ ridiculous, sitting like clumsy clods on the racks. I’d look at that pile of hats and think, who the fuck could pull off a look that’s worth it in that? But Colby was as good an answer as I could ever ask for. At one point, he took off his hat. He had black hair and a simple, short haircut. Didn’t do anything hardcore to it—no parts shaved, wasn’t bone-close or fuzzy like a skinhead’s either. He just let it be the way it was, nothing to prove. Now that’s guts. His eyes, I could fuckin’ drown in them—the deep blue sea with moonlight lapping in the waves. His skin looked like it could tan like Dr. Strykeroth’s, but he kept it white as porcelain. He wore a black biker jacket with the Murphy’s Law logo painted in green on the right sleeve—yet another band I never heard before Tressa. He wore a gray collared shirt and black Levis cuffed over black, 8-hole Docs, like he was about to throw a fuckin’ Molotov cocktail at Buckingham Palace.

But, no, there was something a little too precious for violence in him. Maybe he was a little like Siouxsie Sioux—a gutter punk gone sensitive artist. His lips were so rose-red, they could’ve dissolved into wine and I would’ve been on my knees lapping up every last drop. But his hand was up some succubus’ thigh. What I wouldn’t fuckin’ give to be that succubus with that thigh.

Colby and his friends were all laughing together. Looked like they’d all known each other a long time. Maybe they all grew up around the block from each other. He’s so fucking lucky to grow up in a neighborhood where kids are doing the same shit he is. Who do I have? Fuckin’ Andy Payne? I had to do all this shit on my own, and pricks on Lehigh are driving up and screaming faggot and freak at me for it. I couldn’t hear what Colby and his friends were laughing about. Maybe I was too stunned to listen. Maybe I was so caught up in all the fun they were all having together, their talk just faded into white noise.

I kept my head down and made like I was looking out the window. Dr. Strykeroth would’ve given me a noogie if he saw that and said, “Why don’t you go up and try mingling, knucklehead?” Dr. S says I should have every reason to feel confident. He says I’m beautiful. But, no, not like Colby. Didn’t even feel fit to look at him; couldn’t stop looking at him either, though. It was like standing before God. Every now and then, I’d scope out my own gear. Sex Pistols God Save the Queen T-shirt; red hair, loosely fucked-up, shaved on the sides and back; a moth-eaten long black funeral coat that I found in our crawl space and that Dad’s always trying to stuff in the Tuesday garbage; scuffed-up combats, too fuckin’ big for me. I had nothing on these cats and I knew it. If Colby didn’t have me so spellbound, I would’ve walked out between the L cars and dropped myself like a sad sack under the speeding wheels.

Sid Vicious/Billy Idol took flat balloons out of his inside coat pocket and started blowing them up. He passed the first one, a red balloon, to Colby. Colby took a black magic marker out of his Murphy’s Law jacket’s right pocket. Blondie hung on his arm and watched with a red-lipstick smile as he started scribbling eyes, ears, a nose, a goofy-ass mouth, and all these fucked-up curls on the balloon. When he was done, he let the red balloon fall and bounce at his feet. Sid Vicious/Billy Idol blew up another balloon, a purple one, and passed it to Colby who lost no time marking it up. I didn’t get a look at what he was drawing but they were all howling up such a fucking storm at how fucked-up it all looked, they got me laughing too, but I caught myself before they could catch me and quick-looked out the window at the oil towers and bungalows coming up on Addison.

A few stops later, as Colby sketched more shit on to the second balloon, some fashion-disaster redneck with Andy Travis hair, a lumberjack shirt, tan corduroys, and gray New Balance gym shoes got out of his seat and clopped over to Colby and his friends like Boss Hog. “Excuse me,” said the redneck. The whole posse looked up. Redneck said, “Get off with me at the next stop please.” Colby and his friends looked at each other and back up at him, ‘huh?’ scribbled all over their faces. Redneck dug out his wallet and flashed a badge, “Get off with me at the next stop.” He was a fuckin’ narc.

Narc waved down the black guy who worked the train doors. Black L Guy nodded back. The L pulled up to California and Fullerton. Black L Guy got on his walkie-talkie, mumbled something to the conductor, and got on the PA, announcing, “We’ll be standing in the station momentarily.” Narc said to Colby and his friends, “C’mon. Off the train. Now. Empty your pockets.” They all filed out on to the California Street platform in the setting sun, not knowing which fuckin’ way was up.

Narc started frisking Colby, who stood with his hands in the air. I got out of my seat and called out the car, “What? What the fuck you harassing him for?” Narc turned around, but Black L Guy closed the doors before Narc could make a grab at me. The L pulled out of California Station, taking me miles and miles away from Colby and his friends. Black L Guy said, “Lucky he didn’t drag you out for mouthin’ off.” I threw my hands up, “They’re all fascists, man. Cops are all fucking fascists. Anyone who looks different, man. Anyone who looks different.” Black L Guy looked down, shook his head and chuckled to himself.

I didn’t see the humor. I sat back down, fuckin’ fuming. What the fuck was asshole Narc bustin’ Colby and his friends for? Drawing on balloons? Littering, when the first balloon bounced? Guess there were no murderers or serial rapists to go out and hassle that night. At least Colby didn’t write “DIE FAG” or some shit like that with his Magic Marker like Payne, who never gets busted for any of the shit he does.

Part of me wished Narc did hustle me out to the platform. Man, I thought, I could be in a jail cell with them tonight. Beats the shit out of going to Medusa’s. We could play poker on the cement floor and talk Johnny and Jello Biafra and Malcolm McLaren all the way till we make bail. Would’ve been the start of something beautiful. But, no, Black L Guy had to close the fuckin’ doors. Probably for the best, though. Wouldn’t want Colby and his posse seeing fuckin’ Mom or fuckin’ Dad or fuckin’ both. I mean, shit, who else could I call to post bond? Brody? And I sure as fuck wouldn’t want any of them hearing the stupid shit Mom and Dad would say in front of everyone in the pokey: Mom’s shrill, condemning religious vomit; Dad’s bull’s-eye putdowns; their genius for making me want to crawl into a hole and die. So maybe Black L Guy did me a favor.

Still, on the way to Washington and Dearborn, Colby’s all I could think about. Even walking the Washington tunnel to the Howard Line, I just kept turning his image over and over in my mind. I started thinking I should go back to Wax Trax and take another look at those hats. I should get one. Then Colby and me could walk down the streets together. I’d wear the hat and the biker jacket just like him and I’d get something painted on my sleeve too. Maybe a Union Jack with a circle around it and maybe there’d be another circle in that circle too, one that wraps around a jagged A, the first letter to the words, “Anarchy in the UK,” all those letters sketched out all-cool-n’-shit on the inner perimeter of the larger circle that’s around the Union Jack.

Maybe I’ll even get Colby to paint it for me, I thought. I liked what he drew on the red balloon. He’s probably a good artist. I imagined somehow getting the money together for the hat and the jacket. I’d wear black Levis too, rolled up and cuffed just like his. Except I wouldn’t have Docs. No, I’d have fuckin’ motorcycle boots with a red bandana tied around one of them, just like his friend’s. Now that would be an original look! Colby and me could be a two-man gang. We could laugh together, walking down the street, just like Sid and Johnny used to down Kings Road, screaming, “We don’t fucking care!” I’d throw my arm around his shoulder like I’d later see that fuckin’ skinhead throw his arms around his friends’ shoulders, only we’d be real friends, not just a couple reverse-conformist thugs.

And it could be at Irving Park-Pulaski. I don’t fuckin’ care. Not everything’s gotta go down on Belmont. Maybe we could go back to his house, I said to myself. Maybe he lives in an apartment and his Mom’s never there; she’s always at work or with her boyfriend—y’know, typical broken home-type shit. We could play fuckin’ Dead Kennedys, 7 Seconds, Crass, and whatever else he’s got in his room. Bet Colby’s got all the albums anybody’d ever fuckin’ want. We could light cigarettes in his room. Play music on Saturday afternoons. Spend hours in there together, just the two of us. Then we could hit Medusa’s.

As I walked up the stairs to the Howard L at Washington, I thought, I’ll conscript Colby into my London Plan. Fuck knows I’ve been mapping it out since I was 11; now I’ll just add him. The Plan’s pretty straightforward. Right when we turn sixteen, we’ll get jobs at a supermarket or something, a Jewel or a Dominick’s—maybe even one around Irving Park and Pulaski, who knows? If something more glamorous turns up, well, so much the better, but anything’ll do at this point. We’ll save up a couple years and leave the day whichever one of us is younger turns eighteen. I’m sure Colby’s only fifteen. He doesn’t look any older than me. He’s just got his shit more together than I do. That’ll all change, though, once I build a bigger life in London. All this might mean we can’t go to Medusa’s or Wax Trax as much as we do now…not if we’re saving up and shit…but whoop-dee-fuckin’-doo! Those places suck ass anyway. Instead we can hang at his place, smoke cigarettes, blast 7 Seconds, Sex Pistols, fuckin’ PiL.

As the northbound L came, I told myself, I’ll tell Colby we’ll fly from O’Hare to London. Last I checked in the Sunday Trib, the cheapest fares run about $600—and that’s roundtrip. We only need one-way, so it’ll be a lot cheaper. We’ll get to Heathrow (that’s the airport there). We’ll get on the Tube (that’s what they call the L in London, and, in quids [that’s what they call bucks], it shouldn’t be any more expensive than the L). We’ll find a squat (that’s an abandoned building where you can stay till you have enough quids to pay rent on an apartment; lots of punks live in them) somewhere in Brixton (that’s where David Bowie grew up but it’s mostly Rastafarians now; they got blacks in England too, with British accents, it’s mental!). We’ll find some punks at the squat, ones we can trust to look after our shit. We’ll get back on the Tube and go apply for jobs at some West End pubs (that’s what the Brits call bars). Almost all of them pay you what they call “under the table” (that means you don’t have to worry about being an illegal alien).

We’ll start making money and get our own apartment. And then, who knows, maybe I will go to fuckin’ college. Maybe it’ll feel right by then. I’ll forge my high school transcripts and get into some college in England. Maybe Oxford. They won’t deport me if I have a student visa. I won’t have to work under the table anymore either. I’ll kick ass at Oxford and become a shrink like Dr. Stykeroth—but I’ll practice in England, not here. Fuck no, not here.

Or maybe I’ll follow my real dream of being a BBC actor. I hear they’ve got a lot of actors in the West End. Maybe I can meet ’em if I’m working in a pub where lots of them go after shows. They can tell me where to audition, how to get started in British show biz. I’ll get parts in plays. They don’t have to be big parts. They can be bit parts. But the more I act, the more attention I’ll attract. BBC agents’ll see me in small theaters and, pretty soon, all of England will see me on the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre and shit. That’s all it takes.

And I’ll tell Colby he can do whatever the fuck he wants, whatever he fuckin’ dreams of doing! I’ll encourage him. Maybe his mom never encouraged him, maybe his dad walked out on his mom before he even got a chance to give Colby a shred of encouragement, but I’ll fuckin’ encourage Colby. Maybe Colby wants to own a club, a much cooler club than fuckin’ Medusa’s. I’ll say, go ahead, do it. Maybe we can run it together, just as long as I don’t have to do any fuckin’ math. It can happen. All this shit can happen. You just gotta believe it.

I got off the Howard Line at Belmont and walked to Medusa’s, hoping Colby’d be out of the clink soon so we could make friends and get moving on our London Plans. Once inside the door at Medusa’s, I stood in line—or in the queue, as they call it in England—on the pitch-black stairwell heading up to the main floor, where Granny, the chain-smoking old lady, pats you down. She might be older than God’s own granny and bonier than a skinned fish, but I’ve seen Granny bounce skinheads the size of fuckin’ Appalachia on to the curb. Dudes who’ll mosh with Godzilla know better than to fuck with her. I stood among hordes of punks, skaters, New Wavers, housers, skinheads, trendies, poseurs of all stripes—every one of them pulling out every fuckin’ stop to show off how many people they all fuckin’ know. I stood all alone, this time thinking, I’d rather be alone than be friends with these assholes.

It took me fifteen minutes in the queue to make it up the stairs, which gave me ample time to look the whole Medusa mob scene up and down. What can I say, it looked fuckin’ pathetic! Most of them probably piled into cars and drove in from the fuckin’ suburbs, where they all play punk the same way little girls play dress-up with dollies. Not a one of them came anywhere close to Colby in coolness. It’s like, on the L at Irving Park, I had a vision of perfection that ruined me for anything I’d ever see again (until I’d see Tressa, that is, and maybe until I see London up close and personal). Granny slid her hands into my pockets and down my sides and legs and let me move on. I paid five bucks admission, looked back down the stairs and sighed so all those fucks could hear it as I walked up to the video room.

For about an hour, I wove through the Rosemary’s Baby meets Teen Steam orgies in the neon rooms, where they blast lavender-scented Spanish fly and Meat Beat Manifesto videos. It was like, all at once, I was walking across two planes of reality. One was the lower plane, where all those freaks are into all that show-off shit, playing up to each other, acting like they all fuckin’ know it all, not letting anyone into their little cliques unless the majority of their clique approves. Then there was another plane. Call it fuckin’ Mount Olympus, where the gods get together. Colby lives on high there. As I walked through the video room, I imagined his friends must live up on Olympus too, or else why would he be hanging out with them?

Mount Olympus, it’s where people are above all the poses video-room fops strike. It’s where people like Colby got bigger plans for their futures than fucking up their hair and buying twelve inches and test-pressings from bands only a few fucks know about. I thought, Colby and people like him…they do shit like move to other countries and make art and write books and make music, the kind that’s got lots of range and puts lots of styles together, not just this monotonous industrial shit. At least, that’s what I imagine they do. They express their true selves. You can see it on Colby’s face. Not a blemish on it. There’s just that glow rising from his soul. He’s lit from within. He doesn’t feel the need to fuck up his hair. Him and his friends—they’re fuckin’ self-styled. Lots of people wear leather jackets and boots, but, I dunno, not like them. I can’t explain. There was…fuckin’…something about it. I dunno. It was that…fuckin’…Mount Olympus experience. All at once, or, at least in my mind, I was on Mount Olympus and the lower plane, the neon rooms. And I wanted to be way up in the land of the gods and away from that fuckin’ lower plane, the fuckin’ neon rooms.

That’s why I walked out of the video room. From the third floor at Medusa’s, there are no stairs to Olympus—though I hear that, if you blow the DJ, he’ll take you up to the roof and cut you some lines of coke. I figured I’d cut my losses on the five bucks admission and walk back out, past the old lady with her cigarette and the bouncers following her lead. I didn’t expect I’d ever be back, though I also didn’t expect there was any other place for a fuckin’ freak like me to go.

As I stepped into the hallway toward the Exit sign on the main floor, I looked at the new queue of people waiting to pay up and get frisked. Right at the front of the queue, I saw a leopard-print coat. I saw a long, curly mass of blonde hair hanging down a knee-length black leather coat. I saw blond Sid Vicious hair. In front of all them, I saw a fuckin’ 1940s black-lid hat. I froze. It was like, I couldn’t go to Mount Olympus, so Mount Olympus fuckin’ came to me! But last I checked, wasn’t Mount Olympus getting hauled into the slammer? What’d they do, break out? Mustn’t be the cleverest group of punk-rock gods and goddesses if they decided to go on the lam in Medusa’s. Where the fuck’d they think the cops’d go looking for their divine little asses first?

What should I do? I thought. Go talk to them? Find out what happened? Find out if they got sprung or if they fuckin’ sprung themselves? I’m not good at that shit—going up and introducing myself. I used to try that shit at Xavier when I first got there. I’d go up to kids at school; I’d say, I’m Seamus; they’d look at me; I’d stand there. I’d ask what they’re into, who their favorite bands are. More standing there. I’d say my favorite bands, say what I’m into. More standing there, sometimes some laughter sputtering out of them. After a while, they’d take one last look at me and walk off. And I’d still be fuckin’ standing there. I don’t know what it is about me. I don’t know why the kids at Xavier walked off. I don’t know why they laughed at me later if they never bothered talking to me first. I told myself I’d never invite that experience again. I decided, if I wanted to know somebody, I’d wait for them to introduce themselves to me first. Only, nobody ever came up and introduced themselves—so I never met anybody, not till Tressa. I had to do everything by my fuckin’ self, go everywhere by my fuckin’ self, learn all this shit by my fuckin’ self. Rejection just hurt too fucking much to keep trying to talk to people, but Dr. Strykeroth’s still trying to get me to risk it anyway.

But I wasn’t up to it that night. I had Plans, real big fuckin’ London Plans for me and Colby, but I just couldn’t bring myself to walk up and introduce myself. I looked at what I was wearing. I looked at where I’m from. I kept my head down and decided to brush past Colby on my way out the building, even though I knew that later I’d regret being such a chicken shit.

But, on my way to the last set of stairs, Colby walked right up to me. Right fuckin’ up to me! He said, “Hey, weren’t you on the L when we got pulled off?”  I stopped, froze like a fuckin’ corpse in a morgue. My dream was fucking forcing itself to come true right before my fuckin’ eyes. I had no fucking idea what to say. I fumbled around my coat for a cigarette. Colby looked puzzled when, instead of answering him, I took a long pause to fish out and light up a Marlboro. Finally, I squeaked out the definitive answer Colby’d been waiting for: “Yeah.”

His friends gathered around me in a group. I thought I’d fuckin’ faint! Fuckin’…sensory overload! The chick in the leopard-print coat clutched on to her Billy Idol/Sid Vicious boyfriend and said, “We were arrested.”

“What?” I said.

Billy Idol/Sid Vicious said, “They called a squad car and took us to the station.”

“They fuckin’ cuff you?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said, “They have to by law.”

I didn’t know how the fuck I was gonna manage the rest of this exchange. It all came on so—phew! —fuckin’…all of a sudden. There’s no way I’m cool enough to keep this going, I thought. I gotta be, like, 100,000 times cooler than I am right now to measure up to what they’re all used to up on Olympus. I decided now was as good a time as any to put on the voice I always wished I had—a cockney fuckin’ British accent. Why not? It’s my life. I should be able to sound whatever fuckin’ way I want. I should be able to be whoever I fuckin’ wanna be, even it means I gotta make some shit up about who I am and where I’m from.

Right then and there, in Medusa’s lobby, I transformed from Seamus from the Northwest Side to Seamus from the motherfuckin’ East End of London. A whole spiel—all the basics I could tell people—started forming in my head. After all, I’d be meeting a lot more people now that I was the fabulous Seamus from the East End of London. I’d say, “Hello, I’m Seamus from the East End of London:

  1. I drink tea.
  2. My dad’s the British ambassador to America.
  3. ’is job shipped ’im to Chicago. I ’ad to accompany ’im.
  4. I miss London.
  5. I’m goin’ off me fuckin’ trolley with boredom ’ere.
  6. I plan on goin’ back to London. It’s so much fuckin’ better that side of the pond.”

This was a stroke of fucking genius! This would be my life story from now on! It’d be like living in England without living in England yet! My new voice, my new persona would charm the fuckin’ shit out of Colby. We’d take tea at teatime. We’d talk on the phone. He’d tell me how his day went. We’d plan to take tea-and-sympathy again, real fucking soon. There’d be lots of tea. Lots and lots of fuckin’ tea.

I’d tell him how outrageous London is. I’d study up on it in the encyclopedia and all the travel booklets you can get for free from Caldwell Travel Agency. I’d talk like a fuckin’ insider. There’s no way he could find out the shit-truth about me: that I’m Phil and Mary O’Grady’s son and I’ve lived on the Northwest Side all my life. He’d never meet Mom and Dad. I’d make bloody fuckin’ sure of that. And it’s not like I know anybody’d he’d know. It’s not like we’d run into anyone from my neighborhood, not around here. It’s not like I’d have to worry about anyone from St. Xavier busting me out if we ran into them; they’d never fuckin’ deign to speak to me in the first place. If Colby’d call my house and Mom’d answer, I’d just tell him my parents are using American accents to fit in (“What can I say? Wanker mum and wanker Dad is into fittin’ in.”). I’d never have to be Seamus from the fucking Northwest Side again. Now I’m Seamus from the East End of London. And soon I’ll tell Colby he could move back to London with me. This was a stroke of fucking genius!

All these thoughts flashed through my head in the time it took to take another drag off my Marlboro. Colby said, “They had us in custody for almost half an hour.”

My first word in my new voice was, “Ay? Why?”

Colby twitched down an eyebrow, “Well, you saw. I had a marker on me.”

“Righ’, Righ’,” I said. “The balloons.”

“Yeah,” Colby replied, raising and then twitching his eyebrow back down again, “the balloons. You saw that guy get up and walk over to us, right? He was an undercover cop.”

“Righ’,” I said, nodding, smoking and talking all at once, like I once saw Johnny Marr do on 120 Minutes. “Fuckin’ narc. Fuckin’ wanker.”

Dead silence, thick as midnight. I’d spent years practicing a cockney accent in my bedroom and I thought I was doing a pretty fuckin’ good job, considering the short notice.  But not a word of it washed with Blondie, Colby’s leather-succubus girlfriend. Fuckin’ Blondie. She let go of Colby’s arm and fixed me a glare that said I was the fakest fuckin’ fraud she’d ever fuckin’ laid eyes on. She even spun around and laughed at me in front of all the freaks traipsing down the hallway and bounding up to the third floor.

Colby was nicer than Blondie. He just went on with what he was saying, “Anyway, I told the cop I wasn’t using my marker to tag graffiti. I was just drawing on some balloons. They couldn’t find any evidence against us, so they confiscated the marker and let us go.”

I took a mean drag off my Marlboro, let it out in a long exhale and laid down the law, “Tell you wha’, them fascists is wankas. Fuckin’ wankas. Oughta declare a state a fuckin’ anarchy and say fuck off with the lotta ’em.” More morgue silence. Blondie snickered one last time and walked right on past me up to the video room. Leopard Print followed and so did Sid Vicious/Billy Idol, both of them chiming in on Blondie’s laughter.

I realized I was the stupidest fuckin’ twat alive. Mount Olympus was a fuckin’ golden bird, laying golden eggs in my hands and I dropped the eggs and let that fucker fly away. What about living in foreign countries? What about making art with all them?  What about the books I’d write while we’re all sitting around cafes at teatime and going to the gigs they play (if any of them are in bands, that is)? What about the friendships we could make with each other, the kinds people make movies and write biographies about years later? Did I fuckin’ blow it like I’m blowing my chances of staying at Xavier?

Since I couldn’t take looking at Colby’s flawless face anymore, I let my eyes drop to the dark hallway floor. My eyes fell in motherfucking defeat to Colby’s boots as he started marching away with his friends. I wanted to take the cigarette I was smoking and stab it a thousand times through my left hand. Gone were all hopes, dreams, and best-laid London Plans with Colby…and there was no one to blame but my fuckin’ self. Before that moment, I never met a mirror I liked and it didn’t look like I ever fucking would.

As I was taking another drag off my cigarette and was about to incinerate my flesh, I felt a gentle grip on my shoulder. I looked over. It was Colby. “See you around, man,” he said. “Take care of yourself.” He took a look back at me. To look me in the eye. To see me. It was a look of understanding, like he understood how hard it must be standing there, wanting to burn myself alive. Did he ever feel that way himself? I can’t imagine. He’s so fucking beautiful and cool. He got me, though. Caught me fronting with that stupid fuckin’ cockney accent. He fuckin’ got me and cast no look of hate when he did. His look seemed like love, actually. But, no, I wouldn’t go that far. He still followed his friends and kept his back to me the whole way up the stairs to the video room.

Guess he wasn’t expecting me to follow. I wasn’t expecting to either. But, after he went upstairs and I took a couple more drags off my smoke, which I didn’t end up stabbing through my hand after all, I took a pen out of my coat pocket and scratched my name and number on the piece of paper I always keep for emergencies like this. I walked back into the video room, the lower plane, where I saw Colby making the rounds through a fuckin’ blue million neon video-room denizens, getting hugged and kissed and clasped and loved a blue million fuckin’ times over—the ambassador from Olympus that Dad never was from England. I stood back a couple minutes and watched.

A Thrill Kill Kult video was raging on all the screens. It made me bold. I nerved up the nutsack to tap Colby’s shoulder. He didn’t feel it at first. Billy Idol/Sid Vicious and Blondie were watching me, fucking aghast, as I kept tapping him. Colby turned around, took a step back, and looked at me. I handed him the slip of paper with my name and number on it and said in my plain Chicago voice, loud enough for him to hear over Thrill Kill Kult, “Here. Just in case you need a witness for what happened on the L.” He smiled and said, “Thanks.” I smiled back and walked out of the dark neon rooms, past Leopard Print, Blondie, and Billy Idol/Sid Vicious. I thought of asking Colby for his number, but I already fucked up once in the main-floor hallway. I wasn’t gonna fuck up again. I walked off Mount Olympus for the night. But now its king, this teenage Zeus in a 1940s black-lid hat, heard my plea. Maybe he’d call me later to welcome me on to his pantheon.

But what would he gain by calling me or being my friend? He’s already got friends. By the looks of it, he had the whole fuckin’ video room. What did I have to offer, except my London Plans? And I could have a life in London without him, I know that. It’d just be a lot fuckin’ lonelier, that’s all. At least Colby’s always right there in my mind, though. That’s what I thought to myself as I made my last exit to Sheffield Street: “Colby will always be on my mind. Even if he never calls, even if we never take tea, he will always be on my mind.”

It’s been well over a year now. Colby still hasn’t called. Not that I’m waiting by the phone anymore. And I haven’t seen him around since that night either, not even at the fuckin’ Murphy’s Law concert, where my eyes were peeled out of their fuckin’ sockets for him. And I’ve been back to the video room time and again and he never turned up. He wasn’t even at Medusa’s when Ministry played. Fuckin’ everyone who’s anyone was there! Not him, though. Who knows, maybe he moved. God, I fuckin’ hope not. I so want to see him again.

I never told Tressa about the night I met Colby. Never told her what happened with Narc. Never told her about my attempts at a cockney accent and a new story. But I did ask her if the name Colby rang a bell. She said it didn’t and asked me why I asked. I said somebody told me some story about somebody on Belmont named Colby but I couldn’t remember how it went. I could tell she could tell I was lying. I remembered the story. Knew it fuckin’ chapter and verse. I was its author. “Colby’s coming with me to London”: I nursed the story all last year. I nurse it now, but not so much now that a year has gone by and the phone hasn’t rung. Yet my London Plans still stand if he ever wants to hear my pitch, if I ever see him on the L again, if we ever become friends. I’ll keep watching out for him at Irving Park station. But I won’t do a cockney accent next time. That was just fuckin’ stupid.

(c) 2010

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.

Goodbye, J.D. Salinger

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on January 29, 2010

I know this is overdue, but I’d like to pay my respects to J.D. Salinger on the blog.

He was an author of deep artistic integrity. He sure as hell stuck it to the publishing industry like no one else. No one has ever been such a holdout to those power-wielding prigs.

Still, I wish we’d been able to see more of his work.

Franny and Zooey is my favorite one of his books.

I’ll be the first to admit that Catcher in the Rye was an enormous influence on 85A.

In fact, this is how the back cover will read:

What do you get when you cross Holden Caulfield with Johnny Rotten? None other than Seamus O’Grady, the 15-year-old, punk-rock protagonist of 85A!

It’s a subzero Chicago morning on January 23, 1989—the Monday after George H.W. Bush’s inauguration—and Seamus is at his fighting best.  Braving the bitter cold at the 85A bus stop, Seamus rails against his repressive environment in anticipation of his “the-minute-I-turn-18” move to London.

His escape velocity mounts against the backdrop of a Midwest metropolis as memories, fantasies, and cityscapes collide on his commute to the south-side Jesuit high school that’s itching to kick him out for bad grades and excessive demerits.  When Seamus shows up late to school yet again, the dean prepares his expulsion papers. Liberated by failure, Seamus makes a break for London via an Amtrak to the mean streets of Late Eighties Manhattan.

85A tracks a watershed day in the life of an adolescent antihero. Foulmouthed with a capital F-word, Seamus embodies Johnny Rotten’s anarchic image as a way of fending off the bullies at home, at school and in his whites-only neighborhood.  Luckily for him, his mixed-raced, teen-prodigy friend Tressa opens him up to great books and experiences that turn his worldview on its head. Similarly, the Chicago L takes Seamus into integrated areas, giving him a glimpse of life outside the neighborhood, and Chicago’s thriving underground music and art scenes fortify his rebellion against the mainstream.  Through it all, Seamus basks in rebroadcasted BBC dramas, dreaming of what life would be if only he could stow away to London.

By the time Seamus reaches his last L stop, he will come to see that his 85A ride that morning was just the kickoff to an intrepid urban odyssey.

Salinger has been a mentor to coming-of-age novelists for over half a century.

On the bright side, in light of his passing, Catcher in the Rye will be fresh on everyone’s minds when 85A is released.


On Tuesday, I got the email. It’s official. My mother has liver cancer. Two years ago, when she was 75 years old, they found two tumors – one the size of a tennis ball, the other the size of a cantaloupe – on her ovaries. They had to operate. She had a hysterectomy at 75! Fortunately, she’d gotten a lot of use out of that womb, what with having borne seven children, none of whom were twins. The surgery was a success. She went through almost ten rounds of chemo and beat the cancer into remission. It has migrated to her liver, though. She started yet another regimen of chemo yesterday.

In some ways, I can’t think of a worse time for 85A to come out. The novel is fiction, of course, but Seamus grows up in my old neighborhood in Chicago. Some things in the novel happened in real life, even more things never happened. But will the family buy that? Not to mention the explicit adult content and mature themes, which is why, like with Catcher, the book is being marketed to adults even though the protagonist is a teenager. That’s the risk we authors have to take, albeit in more opportune times, normally.

One of my brothers recently resurfaced in my life. He came to town last week and stayed with me and Julius. We got on better than we ever had before. He said he wants to see more of me. He also said he wants to read 85A. I deflected. I think he began to suspect why.

But it’s fiction, goddammit! With one or two exceptions, each character is a composite of anywhere from three to a dozen people I’ve known (or, in some cases, have never known) throughout my life. And I’ve got a right to write fiction! So I’ve elected not to retract publication of the book.


In any event, let me conclude with a quote. I’ve read the Tao Te Ching a zillion times throughout the years, but somehow glossed over one verse that I would think would have meant the most to me. Julius and I went to the Mark Rothko Chapel when we were in Houston a few weeks ago. While I did a 45 minute meditation, he read a copy of Lao Tsu’s book that was laying out on a bench by the front door. When I was done meditating, he came over and read Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching to me. It pretty much sums up Holden Caulfield’s life and mine and my character Seamus’ and possibly Salinger’s:

Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles.

Is there a difference between yes and no?
Is there a difference between good and evil?
Must I fear what others fear? What nonsense!
Other people are contented, enjoying the sacrificial feast of the ox.
In spring some go to the park, and climb the terrace,
But I alone am drifting, not knowing where I am.
Like a newborn babe before it learns to smile,
I am alone, without a place to go.

Others have more than they need, but I alone have nothing.
I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.
Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea,
Without direction, like the restless wind.

Everyone else is busy,
But I alone am aimless and depressed.
I am different.
I am nourished by the great mother.

(“Are You Different?,” Verse 20, Tao Te Ching)

R.I.P. – J.D. Salinger (January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010)

85A: The Cover

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 25, 2009
85A Front Cover (Joe Flood, Illustrator)

85A Front Cover (Joe Flood, Illustrator)

Yes, I’ve been away from the blog for a long time. I was busy finishing the pre-publisher/agent draft of 85A. Now I’m preparing the proposal.

The highly instructive book Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract by Blythe Cameson and Marshall J. Cook suggests that we take a kitchen-sink approach to proposal submissions,  incorporating everything from marketing ideas to possible cover designs.

Now seemed as good a time as any to tap my eminently talented illustrator friend Joe Flood to do the cover design. I am out of superlatives to describe the expertise with which he executed the illustration above.

The cover depicts a dream that my 15-year-old protagonist, Seamus, has after waking up in the hospital after a suicide attempt and hearing from the doctor that it was a miracle that he survived (naturally, if you steal any of the following text, I’ll sic my lawyers on you):

“Dr. Lang left the room. I closed my eyes. There was an IV in my arm but I was so beat, I hardly noticed. I dropped right off to sleep and dreamed I was back in the station wagon in our garage. Only this time, the garage was open. A wind whipped in and washed out all the exhaust. I got out of the car, walked out of the garage past Frank Seaberg, who was standing with one foot inside and one foot outside the garage, and down our driveway to the sidewalk. I walked down Ponchitrain Street to the corner of Lehigh. It was dark as the night before, the night I planned to make my last, and the streetlights were glowing. I looked far off into the distance across the railroad tracks and saw the Chicago skyline like I always do on a clear day. I watched it for a little while. But, all of a sudden, all the lights went off on all the skyscrapers and new lights started rising up. I saw London Bridges and Big Ben. London was in sight beyond the railroad tracks, where the Sears Tower, John Hancock and all the other downtown buildings used to be. I could feel my heart opening wider and wider. The Chicago skyline lights came back on soon after, but the London lights stayed on too. And between Chicago and London, more bridges and skyscrapers started coming up on the horizon, ones that I didn’t recognize at first. I recognized the Empire State Building from old movies, though, so something in me knew I was looking at New York. Looking out from the bus stop, I saw Chicago, New York and London standing together, not as three different places, but as one continuous city. I turned my head north toward Touhy Avenue and saw the 85A coming my way, opening its doors before it could even make a full stop. I looked at the driver. It was Oscar Wilde in his curls, a frock coat and a lavender silk scarf. I saw there was only one passenger on the bus. It was none other than Johnny Rotten, sitting toward the front with his legs draped over the seat next to him. He was wearing a black overcoat, square shades and a sneer. He was drinking a can of Guiness and wiping dribble off his chin. I remember thinking, I didn’t get to do Earnest, but I didn’t miss the bus either. There’s still life on the horizon.”

Check out Joe Flood’s work on his website,

85A Log: Joshua Furst, Salieri Complex, Virginia Woolf, Humility, and the White Horse Tavern

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 19, 2008

This is how Virginia Woolf agonized over Marcel Proust’s talent in a letter to a friend:

Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures–there’s something sexual in it–that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. . . . How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.

Then, even after writing Mrs. Dalloway (1925), she continued to give herself the short end of the stick in relation to Proust:

I wonder if this time I have achieved something? . . . Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.

It’s good to know that a writer of Woolf’s stature had these feelings toward a contemporary too.

It’s exactly how I’ve been feeling – diffident, self-loathing – while reading Joshua Furst’s The Sabotage Cafe. It’s how I felt yesterday, reading him on the subway on my way to see Mike at White Horse Tavern. It seemed like I was underlining every other line of well-turned phrases, wishing I had it in me to write them. Take this one, for example, about 15-year-old, punk-rock runaway Cheryl getting it on with her new boyfriend Trent:

It was oceanic, a salt-heavy weight roiling under her skin, lapping at her pelvis, dampening everything, condensing on the surface in filmy layers. She imagined taking him whole into her system – like that weird spiny fish she and Jarod had seen on the Discovery Channel – and holding him there, soaking him in her juices, until the two of them became a single organism, sharing veins and arteries and internal organs, never to be parted again.

Mind you, these are just two sentences. Most of the sentences I’ve read so far approach this level of brilliance. Furst’s narration is both documentary – capturing all sides of these kids’ interactions – and unfathomably deep, probing each character’s unconscious. Every sentence is so exacting and panoramic. Also, Furst knows his hardcore, he knows the punk scene, he’s not just guessing at it. It’s like D.H. Lawrence meets Lester Bangs.

To make matters worse, he’s writing about the same subject I am in 85A. I mean, Seamus is totally different from Cheryl and Trent, but Seamus is dabbling in the same subculture and, just like Cheryl, dreams of freedom from teenage confinement. Reading Furst, I think much the same thoughts that Woolf thought about Proust: “I can’t write like that”; “And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.”

I got a big ole Salieri complex. According to Peter Shaffer at least, Salieri felt cursed with a lethal combination of mediocrity and burning ambition. I think it’d make my life a lot easier if I’d just accept that there are many people – maybe many, many – who are better writers than I am.

When I was flunking out of high school, I consoled myself by thinking, “I will grow up to be among the greatest writers.” It’s embarrassing to admit that, but that’s what got me through each day. I did my best to walk like a writer, talk like a writer, master all the books that writers master, and even write like a writer. I felt like an impostor, but still I persevered, thinking that I’d have to fake it until I made it – all the way up to the summit; I had to redeem myself for not being a prodigy sooner.

Plus, it’s also true that many had told me, “You have a gift.” Not only that, but I also had so much sorrow, disillusionment and angst that I felt I was a shoo-in for greatness.

The years went by. I wrote my ass off. A lot of people were still giving me a lot of credit for my writing, but I still wasn’t producing major works. In my twenties, this bothered me. But I took solace in the belief that, in my thirties, I’d wake up one morning, possessed by some spirit of genius and my hand would move across the pages of my notebook – or the keys on my keyboard – without my will or effort. I wouldn’t have to depend on a limited human brain. I could rely solely on the muse. I could produce canonical works and then sit pretty on my laurels.

Here I am, though, in my thirties, wishing I had the talent of Joshua Furst and many other 30-something (or even twenty-something) authors. It’s one of the most humbling experiences I know. I mean, Jonathan Saffron Foer is literally my backyard neighbor. Sometimes, I catch myself resenting that whole tribe of elites, shaking my fist at the heavens, saying, “I’ve done my time on the bottom! I’ve suffered! I’ve worked myself into exhaustion! Won’t you please move me up!”

As Salieri learned, though, these things are beyond our will. The gods have given some people drive and other people talent and still other people genius. Yet we’re left with a choice. We can either train ourselves to honor and learn from geniuses (whether or not they’re humble about their genius) or we can let our envy and self-hatred eat us up for the rest of our lives. It’s a wretched ultimatum, but what other choice do we have?

In the final chapters of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes how he predicated his whole form of psychotherapy, which he called Logotherapy, on the following idea that he evolved while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.

A man came to him in enormous grief over the sudden passing of his wife. Frankl asked the man (this is not word-perfect): “What if it had been the other way around? What if you had died and your wife was left to mourn?” The man said, “That would have been terrible. She would have suffered horribly.” Frankl then pointed out to the man that, by dying before him, his wife had been spared the suffering of having to bear his death. Now it was up to him to bear that suffering for her. The man nodded. He didn’t walk away happy, but he had at least found a reasonable and meaningful explanation for why he had to endure this struggle.

Maybe my struggle is to accept my Salieri complex for what it is, a test, and other people’s genius for what it is, a gift. Actually, Virginia Woolf elucidates this struggle extremely well in To The Lighthouse (1927) when she describes Mr. Ramsay’s Salieri complex over his shortfalls of intelligence and artfulness:

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q…But after Q? What comes next? After Q, there are a number of letters, the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached by one man in a generation…

He stood stock-still, by the urn, with the geranium flowing over it. How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reached Z after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, “One perhaps.” One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one?…Who shall blame him? Who will not secretly rejoice when the hero puts his armour off, and halts by the window and gazes at his wife and son, who, very distant at first, gradually come closer and closer, till lips and book and head are clearly before him, though still lovely and unfamiliar from the intensity of his isolation and the waste of ages and the perishing of the stars, and finally putting his pipe in his pocket and bending his magnificent head before her – who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?

Last night, all those thoughts had run through my mind on my way to see Mike at the White Horse Tavern. He had lost his debit card yesterday morning, so he got there late after having to haggle another debit card out of his bank. That was fine. I had a lot of journaling to do.

He got there eventually. We sat at one of the outside tables. We celebrated a great new job he just got, managing the website of the 92nd Street Y. Like a lot of people, he has had to manage through a lot of twists and turns and flotsam and jetsam in this economy. It’s good to see him safe and secure in such an excellent institution as that. He likes it a lot. He got the job partly because of all that he learned creating my website! I’m glad this was a win-win.

We talked for hours about everything under the sun. Then he asked me how the book was going. He hasn’t been reading my blog, so he didn’t know the rundown of my lunch with Shell. I told him that Shell’s suggestions were excellent and now I’m back to Square One with 85A.

Then I pulled The Sabotage Cafe out of my bag. I raved about it. Then I said, “I have to face it. I could never write a book this good. It’s hard as hell, but I just have to face the fact that some people are better writers than I am.”

He listened, but he didn’t nod or shake his head. All he said was, “Well, that guy has one thing to say with one voice. You have another thing to say with another voice. Don’t let that stop you.”

Simple words, simple idea, but it was enough to silence the monsters in my head.

Then I told him that I wrote a new opening sentence to 85A. This was after I read an essay by a writing teacher who said that the first sentence of a book should promise not only the beginning of the story, but also the end. So, this is the working opening sentence for 85A:

“Every detention, every spear of glass swimming up through my forearm, every minute the 85A is late brings me one step closer to London.”

85A Log: My Miracle Lunch with Shell

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 15, 2008

So, yesterday, I had my fateful lunch with Shell at Miracle Grill, where we went over the first draft of 85A. I had the Blue-Corn Fried Chicken Tacos with chips and salsa and an iced tea. She had a quesadilla and a few glasses of water.

Before we got started, we celebrated her most recent freelance breakthrough. AARP, circulation 38 million, has accepted Shell’s pitch to write a profile on the graphic novelist who created the Joker. A career salvo, indeed. Way to go, Shell!

Her feedback on 85A was entirely constructive. She began by praising both the writing and the concept. Still, as I already knew, there’s a lot more work left for me to do on the book. An entire rewrite, actually.

Here’s what she had to say:

1. Start with An Action Scene: As it reads right now, the books starts with Seamus standing at the 85A bus stop, ruminating on the racism and violence in his pure-white middle class neighborhood. This is not as compelling as beginning with an action sequence.

(notice the Icarus wings)

(notice the Icarus wings)

I knew just what she meant. What leaped to mind immediately were the first lines of Toni Morrison’s Paradise:

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest, they can take their time.”

Boom! Sucks you right in. Then, by and by, Morrison weaves in the history of Ruby, Oklahoma. Doesn’t spell it all out at once. She takes her time.

Similarly, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon begins with the North Carolina Mutual Insurance agent, Robert Smith (a black Icarus), leaping off the Mercy Hospital roof with a pair of homemade wings on the morning that Morrison’s protagonist, Milkman, is born.

So, yes, golden advice: start with a memorable action sequence.

2. Cut down on the F word: It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, in the first draft, every second to third word out of Seamus’ mouth is fuck. I wanted to show how dead-set he is on recreating the Johnny Rotten/Sid & Nancy experience in his barely pubescent Chicago life. Even I feared the fuck-repetitions were excessive. My fears proved true. I fully agree with Shell that it became more pesky than revealing after a while. As a matter of fact, she rightly discerned that, when the story really got moving, she saw that I wrote less and less fuck’s. Now, that’s not to say the fuck’s don’t have their place. In fact, they have a time-honored place. It’s just that the fuck’s are more effective when they’re more strategically positioned.

3. Imagery: Shell told me that I do a great job of vivifying the characters. What I need to do, once again, is to slow it down and include more sights, sounds, smells, and bodily sensations. Right now, it reads like I’m trying to get my main points down on paper – rushing to get to the point (a symptom of our ADD culture). But there needs to be more sensory input if I’m going to form a complete picture.

4. You See: There are times when Seamus will say things like “But, see, the thing is…” as if he’s speaking directly to the camera instead of soul searching.

A big challenge for me is that, while I want there to be action, I also want to show how Seamus is mostly solitary, idle and given to grandiose fantasies that have little basis in reality. How do you balance that with the kind of dynamism that keeps your reader reading?

I even picked up The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel for help. A sci-fi, fantasy writer named Tom Monteleone wrote it. Somewhere toward the middle of the book, he said something about how, every year, a glut of novels about alienated individuals trying to make sense of the big-bad world take up space on publishers’ desks, mostly before being shoved into the recycling bin. Monteleone then says, “If you’re planning to write that kind of novel, do yourself a favor. Don’t.”

I can sort of see the wisdom in that. Only, I feel like I have to write 85A, which fits the very description of the books he condemns. Plus, I have a long history of starting and stopping novels. Dammit, I’m gonna finish this one! Sorry, Mr. Monteleone.

The MFA Question

Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of whether an MFA in creative writing is absolutely necessary for someone who would like to write and publish novels. Still, I felt the need to ask Shell her thoughts on the matter since she got an MFA at Naropa University.

I never went to grad school. Some of our greatest writers never did either. On the other hand, many of our greatest writers – Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham, Junot Diaz, and my newly discovered hero Joshua Furst – did come out of MFA programs.

Shell came down on the side of it not being necessary. You can learn some good things in MFA programs, she said. You can learn the art of the short story. No one is ever prepared for the novel, though. You just gotta go balls-out.

Some years ago, I picked up a book called The Portable MFA. I liked it when I worked with it, but it’s now sitting in one of my dusty book boxes. I should dig it out again. I’ve always been the kind who has learned best outside of confining environments like classrooms and offices. That’s not to say I’ve learned nothing in those settings, but I’ve learned far less in them than I have by doing my own reading, conducting my own dialogues, and following my own interests.

I’m extremely fortunate to have someone like Shell to give me this kind of feedback. With that, let me give Shell Fischer’s services another plug and send you to her website, where you can contact her:

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got a novel to write.

85A Log: Ellen Page, Fox News, SLC Punk!, Barack Obama

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 10, 2008

So, I told myself I wanted to keep a blog of my incremental progress on 85A. I have a feeling, though, that I’d just keep keying in, “It’s coming along.” Don’t know how much more I can say about the book without handing out plot-spoilers.

I will tell you that I want Seamus to be the anti-Juno. Now, he’s smart in his own right-brain sort of way. His vocabulary is a little more advanced than your average 15-year-old’s. He’s even perceptive and precocious. But he’s naive and bewildered by the world around him, unlike in-crowd teenybopper Juno, who talks and acts like she’s been around more blocks than most merchant marines.

Ellen Page - Hard Candy

Ellen Page - Hard Candy

(I’m still working out my grudge against Ellen Page in therapy. I first saw her when Hard Candy came out in theaters in 2005. Her Little Miss Smarty-Pants routine was so obnoxious, I walked out of the Angelika halfway through the movie. Then I decided that wasn’t very Buddhist of me, so I rented it on DVD, hoping I wouldn’t hate her so much on that go-round. Nope! Didn’t work that time either. Kept wanting her to get killed. Juno was even worse. If you ever want to torture me to death, tie me to a chair, just like she did with that guy in Hard Candy, and put a bunch of teenage girls in front of me who talk just like her. Suffice it to say, my beautiful Seamus will NOT talk like Ellen Page.)

Stevo - SLC Punk

Stevo - SLC Punk

But Seamus is a character whom Stevo in SLC Punk! would call a poseur and might even try beating up. See, Seamus isn’t into punk because he loves hard-core. He’s into it because he’s angry and dejected and it’s one of the closest things to English culture his green little anglophile mind can conceive. Stevo has no love for limies or any American who acts like them.

Set in January 1989, two days after the inauguration of George Herbert Walker Bush, Seamus rails against Reagan, Bush and America in ways that will keep me (his creator) out of the White House for life. Good! I don’t want the job. And I give Obama all the credit in the world for standing up under all this heat. There’s no inhumanity too base for Fox News and its proponents to commit. (After all the lies and deceits of the past 8 years, does anyone still regard them as a credible news source?) I was punching holes in my office walls after I saw the video (see above) that sent around yesterday about how Fox is treating Michelle. Then I had to ask myself, “Are you surprised?”

Rather than ruining my own knuckles and health over the racist, fear-mongering trash Fox’s been talking since its inception, I now choose to instead put my hands together and bow to Obama like I do to my statue of the Buddha. He has been an aikido master throughout his whole campaign, letting his opponents’ every jab ram straight into the emptiness from whence it came. I wish I had that much cool. Some of my best moments each day are when I click on to RealClearPolitics and find that Barack is still ahead in the polls.

Last night over pizza at Two Boots, Julius told me, “I’d hate to say it, but, if Barack does become the next president, I don’t think it’ll be so much because he won the election but because McCain lost the election.” I knew what he meant. If the Bush administration hadn’t been such a dismal, sociopathic failure, would the country that reelected a war criminal in 2004 elect a black humanitarian in 2008? Methinks the answer would be, no. But, either way, the important thing is that he does become our next president. He will do so much to repair our international relations, race relations, our collapsing economy, and other domestic discords.

Is Obama perfect? No. I’m still pissed that he capitulated with the rest of the democrats on warrantless wiretapping. (That was the last capitulation I would stand from those side-with-and-then-blame-Bush wimps. I withdrew my Democrat status at that moment and became an independent.) Even though Barack is in favor of civil unions and gay rights, he maintains that, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” (He declared that like it was law and did not elaborate.) To which I respond, “Not when it’s a gay marriage.” Why does he feel the need to defend these benighted and exclusionary definitions? All that aside, he’s an amazing man, an amazing writer, an amazing speaker, and I’m sure he’ll prove to be an amazing president. If we elect Barack, for the first time in his life, Seamus would be proud of his country. (I mean, if he weren’t a fictional character, that is.)

Another thing I fear about 85A is that readers might take Seamus’ statements about race the wrong way. He wants racial unity and racial harmony with all his soul, but he comes from a racist home and a racist neighborhood in a segregated city and, at 15, he has yet to unlearn a lot of his preconceptions about immigrants, gays and non-whites. However, his best friend Tressa – a black teen prodigy and theater artist – does a lot to help him dismantle that mentality and see more things than he’d ever see without her.

So, anyway, 85A is coming along and, I’m happy to report, so is Barack.