StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A (Bascom Hill Publishing, 2010)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on January 17, 2010

I’ve been off the blog for a while but thought I should get back on with some good news.

85A is being published by Bascom Hill Publishing in Minneapolis!

It will be released by May 2010.

This is the new cover (above)!

Bascom loved the original cover (below), which my ingenious friend Joe Flood illustrated with my novice art direction, but they feel that their version has better marketing potential in the current publishing climate.  Either way, Joe’s work will remain enshrined (mounted and framed) in my home office.  Seeing it pulled me through many a hard and hopeless querying day.

The book has gone through many incarnations since I began writing it in January 2008. Most notably, it went from an unwieldy 446 pages to a slim 243 pages.

Writing 85A, not to mention getting it published, has been one of the highlights of my life. Here’s hoping there are more highlights and more books to come from Kyle Thomas Smith (aka, Colin MacGowan and Ethel Moneymaker)!

In my acknowledgments, I thank the following people:

I’d like to thank my partner, Julius Leiman-Carbia, for his endless inspiration and support throughout the writing of this book; the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn for being infinitely patient with me as I sit writing for hours on its couches, almost every day, after ordering only one or two cups of coffee; Mike Levine for his friendship and unqualified backing in tough times; Mark Levine for helping me get published; Rachael Dean Scholes for her friendship, feedback and expertise on all things English; Joe Flood for his artistic excellence; New York Insight and Vajradhara Dharma Center for priceless instruction in meditation and the dharma; the great Geoff Herbach for offering to read 85A; Shell Fischer, Gail Martin, Randy Peyser, Sarah Getty and Rachel Fichter for pivotal editorial support; my illustrious cats, Marquez and Giuseppe, who always let me know I’m aces to them; and my mother, Maureen Ann Smith, for encouraging me to be a writer when it wasn’t even a thought in my mind.

Greenhorn of Africa (Part One)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on October 3, 2009

A New York Navel-Gazer Looks at Botswana, South Africa

and Mozambique by Way of London

By Kyle Thomas Smith

Part One


Today I heard on a podcast that Boyd Varty, son of the Varty family who owns the Londolozi Game Park in South Africa, is writing a memoir. I don’t know the book’s title. All I know is that the opening line is something like, “Come sit by my fire.”

From there, he launches into harrowing tales of walking away in one piece from multiple plane crashes, saving ingénues from crocodiles’ jaws in Brazil, and fending off starving lionesses on his treks through Africa, all before pursuing a career as a boxer in Thailand. At age 20, he fell into a deep depression but came across a sangoma, a witch doctor in an African village, who made some magical incantation that spurred Boyd’s dispirited soul on to a protracted vision quest that would later become the subject of his forthcoming autobiography.

2nd Image Ex-Oficio Clad White-colar

Let me say straight out that this blog post is bound to be less fascinating than the Varty boy’s life. First of all, I was only in Africa for two and a half weeks, most of which was spent in game parks where the chardonnay flowed in rivers every time our jeeps full of retirees and Ex-Officio-clad, white-collar warriors returned to camp from our two daily photographic safaris.

3rd Image Tea LoungeTea Lounge Union

Second, I’m writing this dispatch in the throes of jetlag from my Brooklyn watering hole, the Tea Lounge, which reeks more of Quattro Breves and Turkish Lattes than it does of wild savannah perils.

4th Image Malarone

I’ve also been popping Malarone for the past three weeks, so I can’t even recount fever dreams that I might have otherwise had during bouts of malaria. Besides, late August/early September is winter in the subequatorial regions of Africa and the mosquitoes were either dead or too flaccid to fly when I was out peering at pachyderms. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t hot. Holy shit, the sun could burn right through your binocular lenses, at least in mid-afternoon, but there too, I can’t even bring back field reports of sunburns since I shellacked my pasty Irish skin with enough 50+ SPF Sunblock to shield myself from the greenhouse effect for life.

Cheetahs Julius Kyle

(I’m hardly the danger-seeker Hemingway was. Rather than picking up muskets, Julius and I found ourselves paying a few hundred South African Rand—the equivalent of about 20 US dollars, each—to pet a trained cheetah cub at the southern tip of South Africa.

6th Image green_hills_africa_450h

Papa Hem would have boasted about staring that endangered creature down and laying it low with a single shot, but I have never, will never, and could never hunt a living thing—especially one so (deceptively) adorable. I mean, I can’t even bring myself to preorder flounder from a Long John Silver’s aquarium.

Leopard One

Unlike my fellow spectators at the lodge, I cheered when I watched an impala near Simbambili Lodge outfox a slow-witted leopard. I hope to God my tenderhearted disposition doesn’t ruin my writing career.)

8th Image Londolozi

But one thing I do have in common with the Londolozi author is that I was in the general vicinity of his family’s park when I was on the airstrip en route to Nelstruit and then Cape Town. By sheer coincidence, my hot minute near Londolozi coincided with my guru Martha Beck’s Starlight Safari at the game park, but, alas, she was nowhere to be seen before our four-seat propeller jet took off. (BTW, if you’re a Martha fan too, please note that her beloved beagle Cookie recently passed away, so you might want to send your sympathies to her website.) Anyway, this morning’s podcast inspired me to throw down some notes from our trip, which Julius has been bugging me to post. So here goes, warts and all (almost unabridged):

Kyle and Julius Capetown

****These are only notesraw notestaken straight from a travel notebook I kept. Please forgive the shorthand (e.g., @, &, tho, ~, thru), grammar lapses and paucity of possessive pronouns (e.g., “their,” “mine,” “his,” “hers”) and articles (e.g., “a,” “an,” & “the”).****

Kyle and Julius C. Good Hope

****Many photos are mine & Julius’ but at least as many are lifted from Flickr & other websites. Many images are filler for what we failed to capture as amateur/often inattentive photographers.****

Kyle and Julius Nelson MandelaLion Over Kill

August 21, 2009Soho & Trafalgar Square, London

11th Image Hazlitt's

Arrive @ Heathrow @ 9 am. Still sliding on last night’s Ambien. Mysteriously arrive @ Hazlitt’s—favorite hotel in all my years of slipping in & out of rented rooms. Can’t even recall passing through customs or taking taxi. Staff fixes me pot of Darjeeling tea, seats me in one of their many ground-floor libraries. I munch, red-eyed, on biscuits while gazing @ old, crumbling books on shelves. Too blitzed to get off ass & check if pages on The Voyage Out are authentically yellowing or just plain blank.

12th Image V Woolf

Rest ruddy cheek on palm as I wonder if V. Woolf ever stayed @ Hazlitt’s (est. 1718) but am awake enough to know it’s a stupid meditation. She was already living a couple neighborhoods over in Bloomsbury, tho it’s true she wasn’t known for her frugality & might have splurged on a Hazlitt’s room while up-cycling.


13th Image Hazlitt Room

Room ready. Can’t hit sack ’til nighttime, not unless I want jetlag locked in its infernal place.

14th Image Hazlitts Bathroom

Take shower, rubbing soap in zombielike slow-mo over body. Ablutions so automatic, eyes so heavy, am not even sure if I undressed before stepping into tub. Satisfied I’ve done so by time I step out, reach for towel & notice I’m in front of full-length window as lunchtime crowd marches by, taking time out of busy schedules to snicker. Close curtains, happy to have harvested at least some admiring glances.

1:00 pm

15th Image Cafe Boheme

Meet Rachael for lunch @ Café Boheme. Have long prided myself on moving beyond mainstream gay identity. Still, first thing I do is hand Rachael program to her all-time favorite musical, South Pacific, which I saw last week @ Lincoln Center. (In my defense, I only went to show b/c Julius promised to spring for pizza afterwards. Wasn’t moved by outdated depictions of race relations in Polynesia; thought blonde was being ridiculous – kind of like watching Giant in the 21st Century, but not as good). Order bottle of something red. R has salmon omelet; me, salade nicoise.

Rachael & I email 1 to 2 x/day but still find loads to catch up on in person. R tells me BBC laughs @ American wingnuts & evangelicals. UK & liberal Americans like me not amused now, tho. Furious over ignorance & ultra-partisan opposition to Obama’s healthcare plan. Am equally outraged @ WH for seeking consensus w/ right, bargaining over public option & letting right run debate. Conservatives say: “We don’t trust government.” Why the fuck weren’t they screaming that when Bush launched unholy war? & why didn’t media cover Iraq protests anywhere near as much as town-hall riots? & did Republicans deign to give us town halls before going ahead w/ Shock & Awe? That was Big Government at its baddest. And Dems were all too quick to capitulate, as usual; hope they don’t this time. (Mention to R that am glad to also have EU passport, thanks to Irish Grampa.)

17th Image Dog & Duck

~ 5:00 pm

Move on to drinks up road @ The Dog & Duck. Still chattering but look @ watch, see it’s already 7 pm. Am full to bursting with Fosters Lager but have only 15 minutes to claim ground-floor table for 7:30 show @ Playhouse Theatre near Trafalgar Square.

18th Image La Cage

The show: La Cage Aux Folles, another wrecking ball to non-cliché gay status. (Must admit: bought ticket just to hear “I Am What I Am.” Also smitten by antique, feather-boa camp.)

19th Image Playhouse Thea

7:20 pm

Arrive @ Playhouse Theatre late but still time before curtain call. Didn’t realize would be occupying 1 of few tables. Rest of audience in regular seats behind me. Am right up against stage.

20th Image Rent Boy

Sitting w/ 3 muscle boys who wink @ & flirt w/ me. Guy w/ them looks like Col. Sanders in an ascot. Must be rent boys. Play it off w/ them but am thankful they don’t later extend invitation to orgy that I’d have to spend awkward 20 mins or so turning down. (Heard all about London boys.) Couldn’t explain that one away to Julius, who is due to arrive @ ~ dawn, nor would want to besmirch unblemished record of fidelity.

8:12 pm

Sinuous can-can dancer from cast jumps on table, gropes me as stage lights flash. All above waist, tho, so = okay.

22nd Image Soho @ NightSoho at Night (ii)

10:30 pm

Soho erupting w/ nightlife. Even more jam-packed than Manhattan due to narrower streets. Unabashedly drunk mobs. Can’t justify going to bed.

23rd Image Bertorelli

Opt for Margherita pizza half a block away @ chi-chi restaurant called Bertorelli. Fashionista waiter acts like my table’s not worth his time. Won’t even get me another Peroni. Have to wave down his buddy for a check. Leave no tip. Tips are To Insure Proper Service, & where the hell was that?

24th Image Hazlitts

11:20 pm

Back @ Hazlitt’s. Log on to Bertorelli website. Tell them to tell their waiters to get over themselves. Say I come from city where restaurants are 2x as full & wait staff at least as gorgeous & infinitely politer; say, in NYC, servers know it’s to their financial & karmic benefit to be nice to customers. Website has extensive Comments & Suggestion protocol, tho. Have to go thru ~ 12 screens; takes 1/2 hour to rifle off complaint. Worth it, tho. Plus, am automatically registered for raffle for all-expenses-paid trip to Italy. Prob’ly be disqualified once they read my Comments & Suggestions.

Soho Morning (ii)

August 22, 2009London: Soho, Belgravia, Picadilly Circus, & Islington


Can’t sleep; wake up @ 4: 25. Write, meditate, shower. Hope to see J by time I’m done but no sign of him. Roma Espresso only place open on Greek Street. Order espresso and Peligrino. Woman in layers of raggedy 80s clothes sits outside; egg yolk dripping from hair (don’t know how that happened); manila file folder on lap,

26th Image Woman Escapes Jack the Ripper

mumbling to herself in cockney flourishes like strumpet from Jack The Ripper movie; making random scribbles on corners of papers in file. Besides Roma Espresso owner, she & I = only ones out this early. No call from J. By 10:30, checking world news & American Airlines websites for plane crashes.


J turns up @ Hazlitt’s @ ~ noon. Both his bags weigh ~ 500 lbs. Concierge helps carry. Hope she’s eligible for worker’s comp. J says had to sit on JFK runway in rain for 4 hrs. Surprised plane could take off w/ his bags in back.

27th Image Pimlico

Go to Pimlico, Belgravia to look @ houses. Both locales sterile & dead cf. Soho. Has Buddhist Center, tho, w/ Theravada & Mahayana teachers. Closed for next month, tho. How will people keep in practice? Also, band of Cambridge-looking elite on white-pillared balcony drinking champagne & listening to Gnarls Barkley’s St. Elsewhere. What street cred! (I know, I’m a fine one to talk!)

28th Image Picadilly Circus

Julius realizes he didn’t bring Malarone. No Malarone, no Africa. Need Rx. Call everyone we know in London. All say go to Public Health Dept. We go, waiting room’s full. Boots Pharmacy @ Picadilly Circus (equiv., Duane Reade, NYC) doesn’t offer help on where to find self-pay physician on Saturday. Tough bollocks, they all but say.

29th Image Harvie & Hudson

Before having nervous breakdown, we decide to buy socks at Harvie & Hudson. Salesman overhears us discussing dilemma.


Suggests we go to London Clinic, a self-pay physicians office near Mayfair. We hail cab, walk out w/ Malarone Rx 20 mins later. Boots of Picadilly has to fill it – more egg on their faces now than in schizophrenic woman’s hair.

31st Image IslingtonIslington


Meet friends Matthew & Neil for dinner @ gastro-pub called The Draper’s Arms in Islington. Rachael joining us. Matthew & Neil want to meet her, vastly intrigued by specter of oft-referenced penpal. Thank God, instant rapport b/t all parties once R arrives. (R & husband Adam had trouble finding babysitter for Mimi, so Adam had to stay home.) Turns out, Neil = good friends w/ R’s society journalist sister Emily. Conversation steers itself now. J & I both enchanted by Islington houses. Might move into one if/when we relocate. Lucky to have ready group of friends if/when we do.

(Continues w/ Part Two)

Coming Up

56th Image Tubu Tree GroundsTubu Tree Camp, Botswana

Furball: A Blog Memoir of My First Days in New York

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 7, 2008

By Kyle Thomas Smith

Today, August 7, 2008 marks my fifth anniversary in New York!

Not long ago, my friend Ross, one of the first people I met here, said: “Kyle, Remember when you came to New York in 2003? With champagne dreams and Pabst Blue Ribbon pockets – and then you met up with FURBALL! Oh, man. Please blog about that!”

Actually, I did live in New York briefly in 2000. It was after I left Chicago to be an expat writer in Paris. Turned out I was just reading too much Hemingway.

After a month in Paris, I realized how terrible my French was and how seriously the French take their language. So, for the next four months, I kept heading east through Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, and Poland. I stopped at point of interest after point of interest and cafe after cafe with my notebook, writing and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. It never became clear.

So, I took the train all the way back west to Barcelona and, after enough sangria, decided I’d get my life back on track in Manhattan. I’d only been there twice, both times to stay at Hotel Riverview and see Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Jane Street Theater. (Why did that show ever close? It was a masterpiece.) I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Still and all, New York seemed the logical next step up from Chicago, where I’d lived my whole life.

Desperate for new beginnings, I subleased my friend’s sister’s studio apartment on Horatio Street with my last $1,700. I had never known rents so high. Actually, after paying for the sublet, I had a little more left over to buy Ramen Noodles, which became my cuisine for the month as I patched together all the editing and temp jobs I could.

Then my friend’s sister came back from her time away. She was kind and generous enough to let me stay with her for a cut of my meager wages until I could find a permanent job and a place of my own. After two more months of interviews and near misses, I still turned up nothing and wound up on the Amtrak back to Chicago, a city I’d tried so hard to leave. As the youngest of seven kids, I’d always felt such a need to strike out on my own and prove myself. But, after failing in New York that first time in 2000, it looked (and felt) like I’d just flat-out struck out.

Fortunately, for two months, one of my brothers was going to be away from his place at the Edgewater Beach Apartments on Sheridan Road. I stayed at his place while I found work and got back on my feet.

Once I landed a paying job and saved a couple paychecks, I moved down to Wicker Park. That’s when I went hardcore into writing five to six hours a day, mostly just filling up spiral notebooks a la Natalie Goldberg, trying to find my true writer’s voice. I also continued working with Trap Door Theatre, a European absurdist theater in Bucktown. I’d already been writing for them for over two years, even while telecommuting from Europe and New York, and they fitted me with an indispensably supportive community while I lived down my New York losses.

Although I was rebuilding my life in Chicago and becoming more and more prolific with my writing, I felt a persistent tug to move back to New York. I knew I’d need a lot of money to make that happen, though, so I saved a buck wherever I could.

Even after a year, I still didn’t have enough.

Fortune favored my bold plans, though. Some friends of my parents, Ray and Mary Simon, owned a condo in a building overlooking Lake Michigan in the Edgewater neighborhood. Their tenant had moved out, so they offered to lease the condo to me for $400 a month! I already had a good job writing for a civil rights organization and, at only $400 a month, I could save a much bigger bundle than I could while living in Wicker Park. So, I moved into a luxury lakeside highrise. I stayed in Chicago for two more years, spending sparsely and saving copiously.

Again, I loved my job at the civil rights organization, but, after a number of romantic disappointments and fading friendships, I knew the Universe was telling me to move on. In late June 2003, I gave seven weeks notice at work. In July 2003, I flew to New York to secure an apartment before the move that I’d scheduled for August 7, 2003.

The Tuesday before my trip, I saw an ad on that read: “One-Year Lease Available. Apartment in the historic Bushwick area. $950 mn for 950 sq ft.” My mouth dropped. Back then, Chicago still had lower rents than the ones advertised, but $950 for 950 square feet? Even in Chicago, you couldn’t get something that big for that price.

I didn’t know if the landlord would lease to me, though, since I didn’t have a job lined up out east. Plus, I’d heard all sorts of Midwest horror stories about apartment-hunting in New York. One claimed that, just to see an apartment, you had to camp out on the sidewalk the night before and stand in lines that snaked around the block. Not only that but, if you liked what you saw, the storytellers averred, you’d better have at least $7,000 in ready cash or the landlord won’t even look at you. And you’d better have that money masking-taped to your chest! Your odds of getting mugged in even the nicest New York neighborhoods are about 90%.

So I called the number on the ad. Some Greek guy answered. I asked about the apartment. He said, “When you a-be in town?” I answered, “Friday.” He said, “Okay. You come. You come. I show.” I said, “Yes, but I have to be honest with you. I don’t have a job yet. Would you still be willing to rent to me?” He asked, “Can you leave one month’s security?” My first unspoken reaction was, “Just a month?” I’d heard from various atrocity addicts that you need to pay up to a year’s security on a New York apartment. But I wasn’t going to pass up a bargain, so I said, “Sure. One month, no problem.” The man said, “Okay. Okay. You come. I show.”

So, I found a drastically marked-down price on for two nights at the Radisson on Lexington. The room cost less than the flophouse rates at Hotel Riverview, where, last I saw, rival tranny hookers were tossing switchblades from one hand to the other as they crouched down like front-linesman to face off in the hallways over allegations of stolen tricks.

Not only did I find a nice hotel on that New York go-round, but I had arranged a job interview for that Friday morning too. Actually, earlier that same week, I’d already had the phone interview for that job. The guy said to me, “I’m very taken with you, Kyle. I got the portfolio you Fed-Exed me. Your writing samples are superb. And now that I’ve spoken with you, I see no reason why you wouldn’t make a great addition to our team. Why don’t you come see me on Friday at 10 am and we can wrap things up.” A job! Already! Could things possbily fall into place more perfectly? And I’ll be signing a lease on an apartment right after the interview too!

It was 95 degrees, the morning I showed up to the interview in a blue wool Brooks Brothers suit. My interviewer was wearing Levis and a Ramones t-shirt. He didn’t hold my fancy attire against me, but he did inform me that the president of the organization and his wife had met the other candidate for the position on Thursday. That candidate had favorably impressed them. They wanted to hire him on the spot, but my interviewer had managed to keep them from making any offers until they could meet me.

“Great,” I exclaimed, “Will we be going to the president’s office this morning?”

The guy shook his head, “No. He couldn’t make the interview today. He was called out of town. He won’t be back for a week.”

I tried to hide my cringe, “Well, how soon does he want someone in this position?”

The interviewer sighed, “He wants me to make the other guy an offer by Monday. I’m going to try to hold him off again. I’ll try. I think I would work better with you than with this other guy, but it’s the president’s call.” I had a gut-feeling that my situation was hopeless; I knew it all sounded too good to be true. I dogged my way through the rest of the interview, shook the guy’s hand, and haven’t heard from him since.

So, in my wool suit with $7,000 taped to my chest, I descended the stairs into the boiling 2 Train station, following the map I’d scrupulously drawn for myself, downtown to the L train to Bushwick.

I got off at Morgan Street. I approached a musclebound black man in a nylon skullcap, “Excuse me, sir. Could you please direct me to Central Avenue?”

He sized me up, down and sideways before leaning in close and telling me, “Man, you in the wrawng neighborhood.”

I said, “Well, I normally don’t wear a suit, you see.”

He said, “Look. Central is about ten blocks that way, up Flushing. Just…watch your ass on the side streets.” Then he gave me another once-over and said, “Actually, watch your ass on the main streets too, okay?”

I nodded, “Thank you, Sir!”

I made my way over to Central Avenue. There it was – the building. I saw people exchanging money and cellophane bags out of a car with tinted windows. I saw trash bags stacked almost to the top floor. Saw a grizzled old man, passed out on the building’s front step, using an empty bottle in a paper bag for a pillow. I recalled the job interview I’d had about an hour or so earlier. Then I looked back at the building.

“Guess I’m not on Sheridan Road anymore,” I said to myself, “If I’m gonna be unemployed, I don’t want to be living right next to this kind of unemployment.” I didn’t keep my appointment with the landlord that day.

I turned and walked back to the J train instead. The nice man in the nylon skullcap was still there. He gave me a wave as if to say, “Glad to see you got back alive.” I waved back and thanked him again for his help. By the time I got to the subway, I was dehydrated under the weight of my wool suit. I could feel some of the masking tape on my chest peeling away under the last of my sweat and, for the first time that day, I could smell all the $7000 worth of bills too. Radisson, ho!

7th Ave, Park Slope, Brooklyn

7th Ave, Park Slope, Brooklyn

Fortunately, I made appointments to see other sublets that were available in Brooklyn, just in case my quest for a permanent lease didn’t work out (it didn’t). After washing up for another twenty-four hours or so in my Radisson bathtub, I put the money back on my chest with a new stretch of masking tape and made my way over to Park Slope on the F train.

I’d never been there before, but, by all accounts, it was a nice, sunny neighborhood. You can never tell these things from a subway tunnel, though, and I was still wary from my apartment hunting on Central Avenue.

When I walked up the F train staircase at 7th Avenue, I saw jovial faces of all colors on the street. Baby carriages abounded, along with upwardly mobile-looking people who looked to be around my age.

I should also throw in that I was carrying a gray velvet bag of Viking Runes. It’s no secret that I was once horribly addicted to oracles. My oracle of choice that month was Runes, so I checked my bag of Viking Runes to see if Park Slope would be a good place for me. I pulled out the Breakthrough Rune.



I went to 322 7th Avenue, #1 to see a lady named Theresa. She was offering a one-month sublet on a one-bedroom apartment for $950. “Well, it’s less space than the Central Avenue apartment, but, then again,” I reassured myself, “It looks like you get what you pay for on Central Avenue.” Moreover, $950 was one of the lowest priced sublets available in Park Slope on that month.

Now, there was a reason the price was so low. This Theresa woman had a cat named Furball. Whoever subleased from her would have to cat-sit Furball. Reduced rent would be their compensation.

Theresa was a comely bachelorette in her late thirties. For ten years, she’d lived in this 7th Avenue apartment, which had a narrow hallway leading to a cozy little living room. I saw a Columbia University diploma hanging on the wall above her desk. Off to the side was a utilitarian-yet-charming galley kitchen. The bedroom was on the other side of an arched doorway, where there was a downy queen-sized bed with a daisy-yellow, floral down comforter.

I couldn’t help but notice that she kept the bathroom door shut, though. In fact, she seemed to keep steering my attention away from it and to the other aspects and amenities of the building, such as the air conditioner. She even made a point of pointing out 7th Avenue, a charming main drag with lots of action.

Theresa told me that she had recently been downsized at her publishing-house job. She said she was going take a few weeks off to work on an organic farm in Nova Scotia before pounding the pavement.

As she related this to me, Furball walked into the room. Theresa blew kisses to Furball and then picked her up and started rubbing her nose into Furball’s face and belly. Furball was a mop of long gray hair with lion’s paws. If you brushed away the fields of fur covering Furball’s face, you’d see a radiant pair of golden eyes. I petted her head. She kept rubbing against my arm and my hand. “She likes you,” Theresa said.

I wanted to jump at the sublet, but I reasoned that this was New York, so I’d better be careful. I told Theresa that I was going to look at a few other sublets first. Theresa said, “Okay. But I have someone coming in about an hour. If she wants the apartment, I’ll have to lock in her offer.” I felt a gnawing in my bones, but I didn’t know if it was intuition or just jitters over my imminent move. I thanked Theresa and walked out of the building.

I wanted to go somewhere to think. Actually, I wanted to go somewhere and pull Runes to see if I should take Theresa’s apartment. (By the way, I no longer use Runes or any other oracular devices. Back then, though, I could barely stand to so much as order a coffee without consulting them first. Sick, sick, sick.)

I stopped into one place at 7th Avenue and 10th Street, just down the block from Theresa’s apartment. It was crammed to the gills with twenty and thirty-somethings. A dull roar overhead. People hanging out, studying. There was a pierced-up bull dyke and a hot guy with rippling muscles and tattoos behind the counter, which was three deep on the other side with hip young things, ordering coffee and espresso drinks. They had a wide selection of beer on tap too.

I sat on one of the couches. A spring from the cushion under me broke free and poked my ass. But instead of jumping up in disdain, I smiled at that spring’s cheeky charm. I looked at the name on the door. Tea Lounge, it said. Should I have taken Theresa’s apartment on the spot?, I asked myself. I had an instinct the answer was yes, but felt I had to check with the Runes first. I asked the Runes, “Should I take Theresa’s sublet?” Yet again, I pulled out the Breakthrough Rune.

Even though I was obviously in my element, I still didn’t want to rush into anything. So, I munched on a maple scone and thought it over. As I sat there musing, I said to myself, “This is one bad-ass, motherfuckin’ maple scone!”

Then I moseyed on a block over to a bar on 10th Street called Boom Boom Room. The bartendress looked like a hungover Kim Gordon with black hair, but she had a sweet voice and demeanor and only charged me a happy-hour price on my Guinness, even though the Boom Boom Room didn’t do happy hour on Saturdays.

On the neon grafitti walls behind the bar, the Boom Boom Room flashed music videos. What should be playing but Thin White Duke-period Bowie videos! “Look Back in Anger,” “Golden Years,” “Wild Is the Wind.” If this wasn’t a sign that I should move to Park Slope, I don’t know what was.

I looked at my watch. Oh my ears and whiskers! About an hour earlier, Theresa had said that the other potential subletter would be over to see the apartment in an hour. I gulped down the rest of my Guinness, waved goodbye to the nice renegade bartendress and high-tailed it back to 322 7th Ave.

I rang the buzzer. Theresa was surprised to see me back so soon.

“Hi, Theresa,” I said, “I decided that a bird in the hand is…Whatever, can I have the sublease contract?”

She said, “Oh, good! I liked you better than all the other subletters! Only, could I have some character references first?”

I dug into my bag, “Well, yes. You can have the references on page 2 of my resume.” I handed her my resume. “They’ll be happy to speak to you,” I continued, “Also, here are some photo-copies of letters of recommendation. They’re mostly for employment purposes, but I imagine the testimonials would work just as well for the situation we’re in now. In addition, I can give you the names and numbers of friends.”

Like any good HR professional, Theresa couldn’t help but take a gander at what was on my resume: international theater company, AIDS counseling services, civil rights organizations, part-time writing instructor in social service organizations. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Nah, I don’t need any references. You’re fine.”

We had trouble finding a lawyer to witness the signing of the sublease agreement. I didn’t want to be taken for a patsy. When none of the lawyers in her Rolodex were home, Theresa swore on her honor that she wasn’t the kind who’d void my contract and steal my money. After having her swear on Furball’s life that she was an honest woman, I ripped the masking tape off my chest, plunked $2,000 down on her coffee table and signed.

I then flew back to Chicago to finish up my last week of work and start packing. While I was handing the final draft of a proposal to my boss, the phone rang at my desk. It was Theresa. My boss walked on back to her office and I took the personal call.

“Hey, Theresa!,” I said, “How’s it going?”

“Fine. Fine,” she said, “I’m just getting packed for my trip to Nova Scotia. How’s packing for your move going?”

“Oh, it’s a labor of love,” I answered, “Just as I’m sure Furball will be.”

Theresa paused. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m calling about. Do you remember my bathtub?”

“No,” I answered, “The bathroom door was shut.”

“Right, right,” Theresa said, “Yeah. Um…well, see…there was a reason for that.”

“Oh?,” I replied, “Is something wrong with the bathroom?”

“No,” Theresa said, “Not at all. It works just fine. It’s just…see, there’s a litter box beneath the sink.”

“Well, don’t worry, Theresa. Of course I’ll clean the litter box.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will, Kyle. There was never any doubt. It’s just…well, Furball doesn’t use the litter box.”

“Oh?,” I asked, leaning into the phone.

Theresa continued, “No, she…I mean, in a way, she does use the litter box. Only…”

“Yes?,” I prodded.

“She uses the tub as a litter box,” Theresa huffed. “There. I said it. She uses the tub…as a litter box. It’s not my fault, Kyle! I’ve done everything I could. I’ve filled the tub with water, thinking that’ll keep her away. Then all I find is a tub full of floaters. I’ve bought fun-and-fancy litter boxes with all sorts of catnip toys glued to the rim. I’ve hung little yarn balls from the sink pipes, y’know, so she could at least have something fun to swat at while she’s doing her dirt. I’ve even moved the litter box out into the hall, with a trail of Bonkers treats leading up to it.”

“And what happened after you did that?” I asked.

Theresa sighed. “She ate all the Bonkers. Then she got to work squatting in the tub.”

A moment of silence ensued.

Theresa then mournfully added, “She’s just…she’s just…IMPOSSIBLE!”

Lest Theresa burst into tears, I quickly responded, “Oh, don’t worry! Don’t worry, Theresa! I’ll…I’ll make sure Furball stays in line.”

At last, the day of August 7, 2003 came.

It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to friends and coworkers. My friend Ruth had helped me pack and move boxes into storage. She and I then had a tear-stained goodbye at the W Hotel bar on the Gold Coast. Dubi and I had a last pitcher of sangria in the beer garden at Moody’s Pub. Laureen and I had coffee up the street from my Edgewater apartment. It would be my last coffee at Viva Java before the owner, my friend Ted, would die without warning and his shop would fold.

“We wish you all the luck in the world out there in New York,” a few managers at work said, “But now that you’re going, we’re screwed.” Less than two years later, the organization closed its doors for good. (I’m not claiming that I’m the glue that held them together. I’m just reporting what the managers told me right before I left. And they were screwed! But it was mainly on account of their new Executive Director, who ran the place into the ground after not bothering to show up to work for months on end.)

On the afternoon of August 7, 2003, Mom and Dad drove me to Midway Airport. Dad drove and Mom sat in the backseat. Dad insisted on listening to his favorite radio personality, Rush Limbaugh, on Talk Radio, even as I bashed my head against my passenger-side window, screaming for him to stop this madness and torture. Then I perked up, thinking, “This is yet another sign from the Universe that it’s time to leave Chicago!”

Finally, we arrived at Midway. I’ve never been good at displaying gooey emotions with my parents, so Mom kept her sentimentality in check for my sake. She had that look in her eye, though, of a mother sending her child off to the school bus for the first time. Only this kid’s bus was about to pull up to an east coast Babylon, and he didn’t know what was about to hit him. Because Dad had insisted that I get to the airport three hours early for my flight to LaGuardia, “just in case of long securities lines,” the guys at the Quick Check depot put me on a flight that was flying to La Guardia two hours earlier than mine. I considered this an auspices for the wonderful life that was awaiting me in New York.

After I landed, I had too many bags with me to take the shuttle from LaGuardia to the subway, so I took a cab instead, even though I wanted to save money.

Driving into Brooklyn, I had the definite sense that my life was about to change forever, that nothing would ever be the same again. I also had a mother’s intuition that something bad had happened to my Dell laptop when it passed through inspection at Midway. My heart started pounding. All my documents were on that computer. All my resumes and cover letters too! I’d hoped like hell that my laptop was okay.

As I dragged my suitcases up the stairwell, I heard the clanking of a chain-link collar and lots hoarse, heavy breathing rushing up behind me. Before I could look back, I felt four paws knock me flat on the stairs. I looked up to see a Great Dane, the size of Marmaduke, bounding up to the third floor. Its owner walked past me with a leash rolled up in her hand. She looked down at my flattened body, said, “Sorry,” and then went right on walking up the stairs.

I dragged my suitcases to Theresa’s door and into her narrow hallway. I didn’t feel like dragging them to the bedroom just yet, so I left them marooned in the corridor. At that moment, my primary concern was my laptop. I took it to the kitchen, plugged it in and pressed the Power button. I pressed it again and again. It refused to turn on.

Looking out the kitchen window onto 7th Avenue, I remembered both the cozy life I’d left behind and the chaos toward which I had willingly and consciously steered myself. I sat down at the kitchen table. I hung my head over the corpse of my Dell laptop, folded my head into my arms and cried.

Somewhere around my fifteenth tear, I heard a noise. “Meow,” a creature behind me seemed to be saying.

I took a deep breath. “Oh, Furball,” I said, “It’s you!”

Furball hissed.

I walked toward her, “No, no, Furball. You and me, we’re pals.”


“It’s okay Furball,” I said, extending my hand out toward her, “You’re okay. Believe me.” She walked right up to my hand, rubbed against it a few times, and then swatted it.


I put both my hands up and stepped backwards into the hallway to retrieve my bookbag. I withdrew my gray velvet Viking Rune bag. Furball hissed. I asked the Runes, “What do I have to look forward to in New York?”

It gave me the Rune for chaos and doom. I put one hand on my heart, one hand on my stomach. The computer crash, the hissing cat, and the Viking Runes had all spelled disaster and damnation in New York. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. There was nothing I could do but take a nap.

I lay down. There was all sorts of long, twisted gray fur stuck to the daisy, floral comforter. Even though I’d had cats for most of my life up to then, I all of a sudden started sneezing. While normally that would have disrupted my napping, I found myself falling asleep even as I sneezed. The stress of the move, the plane ride, the Great Dane, the hauling of the suitcases up the stairs, the computer crashing, the cat hissing – all that weariness had the same narcotic effect on me that the poppy fields had on The Lion, The Tin Man, The Scare Crow, and Dorothy.

Suddenly, Theresa’s soft bed seemed just right.

When I woke up hours later, I felt rested, restored, strong enough to take on all of New York City. As I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, though, I felt a presence hovering above my pillow.


I rolled over and sat up on the bed. There was a whole world to brave. First things first, though. I had to take a shower.

I made my way over to the bathroom. And there they were…

Furball’s infernal tub deposits.

I took one step back. I took a deep breath. Like many signs before, maybe this too was a sign, a message from the Universe: “If you’re going to move to New York, you’re going to have deal with a lot of shit.”

Not to worry, though. Just as I’d suspected, Theresa had masterful cleaning products stashed away under the kitchen sink. Formula 409…


And a sponge.

If I were to make no other friends in this town, at least I’d have the three of them. They became my prized companions throughout my first month at 322 7th Ave, #1 while I lived with Furball.

I picked up a scooper and transfered Furball’s care packages to the toilet. I then scrubbed with all my might until I was sure it was safe to step into the bathtub.

I felt like a million bucks soaping up and feeling all the suds rinse off my body. I built the Prell up into a thick lather that fell thickly on to my shoulders and on down to my chest, my belly, my privates, my legs, my feet. I dried off and decided to take a walk around Park Slope.

Paul Auster

Paul Auster, Author

I walked all around the neighborhood that night. I was hoping I’d run into Paul Auster, one of my heroes, whom I once wrote to requesting a writing mentorship. (He never responded.) Alas, he wasn’t out on a constitutional that night.

What did that matter, though. Park Slope itself was sublime at night. And now I was living here.

So intoxicating was Park Slope in its nocturnal grandeur that it didn’t even bother me that Furball hissed at me when I came home that night.

The Week Wears On…

As the week wore on, things appeared more promising than they had the first day.

Theresa called me from Nova Scotia to see how things were going. She apologized for Furball’s behavior. She told me, “Hiss back at her. Believe me, it keeps the relationship in balance.” She also offered to let me use her desktop computer all I wanted while she was away. I was able to repurpose old documents that I’d stored in the Sent file of my Yahoo email account, so my computer crash in no way deterred my job search.

On Theresa’s desktop, I applied for screen after screen full of job ads on the Internet. I figured this was New York, so, the competition factor being what it is, I shouldn’t imagine anybody getting back to me for an interview any time soon. But, within one week, three prospective employers called. I guess my resume stability in Chicago stood me well. (I ain’t had no stability like it since.)

It sure as hell wasn't no New York winter that day...

It sure as hell wasn’t no New York winter that day…but this was the Starbucks.

My first interview was for a writer position at a major Philanthropic Foundation in Midtown. I got to the area a few hours early, so that I might be able to get some writing done at Starbuck’s. Once again, I was wearing my blue wool Brooks Brothers suit and, once again, it was 95 degrees outside.

As I sat writing, some guy who looked remarkably like a 1970’s Dick Van Patten cruised me from the other side of Starbuck’s. Again, I had planned to sit there for hours with my notebook, so, after about 45 minutes, I walked over to the counter to get a refill on my ice water.

“Hi,” said Dick Van Patten’s doppelganger, “What are you writing?”

I answered, “Oh, just jotting down my usual discursive thoughts.”

“Well, you seemed to be going pretty hard at it.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, “I do nothing by halves.” I’ve never been into Dick Van Patten, so I tried squiggling out of the exchange as quickly as possible, but to no avail.

“You’re all dressed-up,” he noted, “Are you always this dressed-up?”

“No,” I told him, “I have an interview.”

“Really?,” he gave me a look of full-bodied inquiry, “What kind of interview? A job interview?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“What kind of job?”

“It’s a Writer position.”

“Oh,” he nodded his approval, “You’re a writer.”


“Maybe you can write for me some time.” He handed me his card. “What’s your name?”


“Kyle,” he affirmed, “Wonderful to meet you. I’m John. Wow, you look great. I’m sure you’ll knock ’em dead at the interview. I live out in California. But, still, email me. Maybe my company can send some writing projects your way.”

“Thank you,” I smiled and, with an ever-so-slight curtsy, walked back to my table to continue writing.

John came to my table on his way out, just to wish me luck before going to his meeting. “Write or call me,” he said.

Well, I never ended up writing or calling John. Nor did I trust that his California company’s assignments would come without strings attached.

Still, his flattery so emboldened me that I smoked the interview! So much so that the interviewer said I seemed overqualified for the job. I guess that’s why I didn’t get it.

Oh, well, at least I “knocked ’em dead,” as John put it. At least, in that first month, New York employers recognized me as a force to be reckoned with.

That first interview ended at about two o’clock in the afternoon. I had to be back up in Midtown by 5:30 to have dinner with some friends of a friend, who’d tried roping me into a three-way the week before (I might have done it too if they weren’t all grab-ass and drool when they importuned) but when you don’t know anybody, it’s tough to pick and choose. Now, normally on a day like this, I would have passed the time by taking a walk, window-shopping, or writing somewhere, but, again, I was wearing that sweltering wool suit. I elected to take the F Train back to Brooklyn instead.

I was so hot, spent and exhausted that I didn’t pay Furball the slightest attention when she hissed at me on my way in. I stripped off my suit, my shirt, my socks, my underwear and headed over to the bathroom.

I saw that Furball had once again renewed her donations to the bathtub.

I gathered the Formula 409…

The Comet…

The Sponge…

That's what I looked like when I first got to New York City!  Man, what this city will do to you after five years!

That was me when I first got to New York City! Man, this place will wear you down after five years!

I scrubbed the bathtub and bathroom floors to a clean sheen.

Then I took the most exhilarating shower. Once again, the soap oozed off my upper body and down, down, down to my lower body and down the drain. I worked that Prell into a lather on my head that would make stables full of horses neigh with alacrity. Then, as I put my head under the showerhead and let the shampoo woosh down my shoulders…

The lights went out.

I thought, “Shit, Theresa didn’t pay the electric bill and now she’s up in Nova Scotia leaving me to hold the bag! Ah, well. I don’t have time to get into all that right now. I’ll call her when I get back from dinner.”

Then, through the door, I heard the guy from upstairs talking to the guy from across the hall. “Did your electricity go out?,” one guy asked. “Yeah,” the other said. I sighed with relief. “Oh, it’s just a building thing. It’ll be fixed by the time I get back from dinner.” I dried off, walked past a hissing Furball, and put on my clothes.

I walked out on to 7th Avenue. All of 7th Avenue was on 7th Avenue. Crowds formed. There was no electricity anywhere up and down the block. “Oh, it’s a 7th Avenue thing,” I told myself, “I’m sure it’ll be fixed by the time I get back from dinner.”

I walked over to the F Train. People came boiling out of the subway. “No trains running,” they announced.

It was then that I realized I wouldn’t be making it to dinner that night.

I started talking to people on the street. They told me, “All of the northeast United States has blacked out.” I gasped, “Oh my God! Al Qaeda! They seized our electricity. We’re as good as fried!”

Where else to take refuge during an insurrection but at Tea Lounge. Luckily, before I could start screaming blue murder to the Tea Loungers, someone sounded a battery-operated boom box on the street. That’s when I heard a radio announcer say: “I repeat, this blackout was not the result of terrorist activity.”

Phew! What a relief! Tea Lounge started giving out free cold drinks, now that the refrigerators were down. In fact, all the restaurants all up and down 7th Avenue started serving free drinks and cut-rate food. I started meeting neighbors from all around the block. It’s a good thing I came home to shower after the interview. I would have been stuck in Midtown for God knows how long. Many people had to walk 20, 30 miles home. Sadly, some people were severely injured.

But, as far as I could tell, all of us on 7th Avenue were having a blast!

All except for Furball.

There was no fan, no air conditioner, and the water in her bowl met with the scantest approval.

And, yes, when I came back from the festivities, she stood on the bed and hissed at me.

Contract Work…

After only two weeks of hauling my ass from interview to interview and negotiating a balls-out job search, I managed to land a few months of contract work. Furball didn’t join in my solo celebration. It didn’t matter, though. I just planned to sit back on Theresa’s couch, open a genteel mystery novel and unwind from all the effort it took to even make it this far in New York.

I tried – I did – to get into Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None… Her work just doesn’t compel me. While I was reading, all I could think about was my checking account and how glad I would be to get my security deposit back from Theresa.

Then I reminded myself, “Why shouldn’t I get my security deposit back? I’m a responsible person. I don’t throw wild parties. It’s not like anything around the apartment is going to get broken on my watch.”

That’s when Furball entered the living room.

At the front of Theresa’s living room stood a one-hundred pound flowerpot. The pot was set on a plantstand that had reed-thin legs.

Furball meowed for my attention. I looked at her. She lifted her long, furry tail and slammed it against one of the plant-stand’s legs. Time not only froze, but yelled, “Timber,” as Furball and I watched Theresa’s one-hundred pound flowerpot crash into a glass picture frame and then break into a hundred pieces on the hardwood floor.

Furball bolted under the bed. I sprang up off the couch and stood in horror over all the dirt and wreckage on the hardwood floor.

“It’s not enough that you shit in the tub!,” I screamed at the bed under which Furball hid, “It’s not enough that you hiss whenever I walk in the room! Now, you’ve bilked me out of my security deposit, you little bitch!”

After I cleaned up the mess, I went out and took a walk to calm down. When I came back, Furball was grooming herself on the living room floor.


Five days later, I was sitting at Theresa’s computer.

Theresa was back in town, but she was staying at a friend’s house until my sublease ran out. She’d asked me if it was alright for her to come by and use her own desktop computer while I was still on the sublease. I said it was no problem. So, over the course of the last couple weeks of my stay, she would come by her apartment and we would prattle a blue streak together.

With regards to the potted plant, she once again apologized for Furball’s behavior and assured me that it would not impact the return of my security deposit. That was nice to hear. Anyway, ever since that incident, Furball and I had come to a detante of sorts. She didn’t hiss at me anymore and I didn’t freeze her out.

One morning, I checked my email and saw that my friend Rob had written me. He wanted to know how my first month in New York was going. I told him I’d gotten a contract job, a new computer, which I still hadn’t set up, and my own apartment in Fort Greene, which I hadn’t set up yet either. I told him I’d also started dating someone and it was going well. I was happy in New York.

In his email, Rob had also asked about Furball. I wrote to him, “Right now, even as I type this email, Furball has her chin on my wrist and is looking up at me with cow eyes. So, you see, there are no boundaries here.”

Shortly after I sent this message to Rob, Theresa rang the buzzer and I let her up. When Furball saw Theresa, she hissed and ran under the bed. Theresa ran after her cat, trying to force her to be more loving and respectful. But I don’t think all the Coalition Forces combined have enough ammo to force Furball to be loving and respectful.

“You know,” Theresa said, “I remember when I adopted Furball. It was from some woman, an acquaintance of a friend. She had this cat…named Furball – I didn’t end up renaming her.

“Anyway, I went to go see who this Furball was. She hid under the bed the whole time. I reached under the bed to pet her. She bit me!

“I told the lady, ‘I don’t know if I want to adopt her. I mean, this cat isn’t very friendly.’ She guilt-tripped me, though. Told me it was either me or the pound. Plus, she’d declawed her. How could Furball defend herself if the pound were to throw in a room with other cats? I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I didn’t adopt her. So, now…here she is!”

A knock came on the door. It was one of the neighbors across the hall.

“Hi,” Theresa said. She gave the tall, blond guy a big hug. “You’re back!”

“Oh, I’m back,” he assented, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m back!”

“Come here, there’s someone I want you to meet,” she brought him in, “Johnjon, this is Kyle. He’s subletting from me. He just moved to New York and he’s already got a new job, a new apartment, a new computer and a new boyfriend.”

We shook hands. Little did I know that Johnjon was soon going to become one of my best friends and that I’d soon be moving in with him. But that’s another story, all having to do with how none of those things Theresa mentioned – the job, the apartment, the boyfriend, the computer – lasted as long as I’d hoped they would.

To get back to the story, though: right before Johnjon walked down the narrow hallway to come meet me, Furball walked out from under the bed and laid down at my feet. Theresa said, “Kyle must be taking great care of Furball because Furball doesn’t miss me at all.”


I dropped by Theresa’s house for a visit several weeks later. By that time, I was living in Fort Greene, one neighborhood over in Brooklyn. Theresa was laying on the couch with Furball, who was snuggling up to her neck.

I went to go pet Furball. She hissed at me.

Five years later, I’m still in New York. A little over four years ago, I adopted a Tuxedo kitten whom I named Marquez (namesake: Gabriel Garcia Marquez – which was setting the bar a little high).

Two years ago, I met my partner Julius. Nine months ago, Marquez and I moved into his house. Five months ago, Julius went to the ASPCA and adopted Giuseppe, a tabby, as a playmate for Marquez.

Both Marquez and Giuseppe make faithful use of their litter boxes. Theresa and I remain friends to this day, but Julius and I don’t want Giuseppe and Marquez hanging around Furball. She’s a bad influence.

We like our bathtubs just the way they are, thank you.

85A Log: High School Bullies and Skinheads

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 24, 2008

Alright, so, I’m at Tea Lounge on Union Street in Brooklyn, gearing up to do some final edits on 85A before handing it off to Shell. It’s so bizarre to be at an age where a hipster barista calls you “sir.” Maybe next time I’ll bring my walker and ask him to help me to my chair. It was only ten years ago that I was his age and now I’m Sir! Still, he played his cards right: I upped his tip to a whole dollar.

Jefferson Park, Chicago L Station - Destination of the 85A North Central Bus

Jefferson Park, Chicago L Station - Destination of the 85A North Central Bus

Anyhow, for all intents and purposes, the first draft of 85A is done. That is, I finished Parts I and II and then, for Part III, I basically threw mud at the wall, hoping at least a speck of it would stick. No such luck. The whole of Part III ended up looking something like: “And then, a lot of stuff happened and then…well…The End.” Thank God for Second Drafts. My editor friend Shell’s got her work cut out for her, at least with Part III.

Don’t worry, people, it will be all shaped up, scrubbed up and ready for inspection by the final draft. Above is a picture of the Jefferson Park L station in Chicago. Seamus takes the 85A bus there everyday before taking the L to his south-side school. This is an unorthodox stream-of-consciousness novel, most of which takes place on Seamus’ way to St. Saviour, the school that wants to kick him out. What happens next will affect the rest of his born days.

To help me flesh out the actual in-school parts of 85A, I started rereading Jodee Blanco’s Please Stop Laughing at Me…, her autobiography about being the victim of bullies from middle school right up to the last day of high school.

I remember when it was first released about six years ago. My Mom heard about it on the radio and then called and told me to buy it. Well, I didn’t rush right out to the store. In fact, I forgot she’d even mentioned it until a couple days later when I was poking around the stalls at Borders. Something told me to pick it up, though, so I did. A couple days later, some guy I was dating – can’t even remember his name now – unceremoniously dumped me. I had the day off work the next day, so I got into my shlub clothes, crumpled up on my couch, picked up Blanco’s book and proceeded to have a wailing cry.

Jodee Blanco, 2007

Jodee Blanco, 2007

Look at Jodee Blanco now. She’s hot! But, according to her book, it wasn’t always like that. The peer abuse and torture that she suffered was way off the charts – constant assaults and degradations. I’ve been there. That’s how it was for me, the class faggot, in my elementary and middle school years. (Actually, the Catholic school I went to wasn’t a middle school. It had grades 1 to 8. It would be a baleful simplification to call those years and that neighborhood a living hell, but I’m all out of worthy superlatives just now.)

Blanco went on to become a writer and an A-List p.r. consultant in New York. But, after the success of her New York Times Bestseller and all the many emails and calls she received from concerned parents and teens who were on the verge of recreating the Columbine tragedy at their own schools, she decided to relinquish her high-profile executive career in order to head up The Blanco Group, a nonprofit in Chicago that works nationally to prevent school bullying. I applaud Jodee Blanco’s efforts. A friend, who was complaining about office politics at her job, recently made the highly generalized statement: “Adults are just overgrown teenagers who play the same kinds of games they did in high school.” There might some truth to that, but adults are rarely as overt with their pettiness as pre-teens and teens and my heart goes out to any kid who has to stand defenseless against that kind of barefaced harassment and violence.

It seems to me that, for middle-class kids at least, bullying is probably worse at suburban high schools than at inner-city magnet high schools like my alma mater. One reason might be that, at an inner-city magnet school, kids commute to school from everywhere and, if you live in another neighborhood, there isn’t a sense that your life is confined to the same locale as your school. Even if the kids at your school are assholes, they at least have lives outside of school and they have the whole city to keep them occupied, which is an advantage bored suburban youth like the ones at Columbine don’t have.

from the film based on Marguerite Duras' novel THE LOVER

from the film based on Marguerite Duras' novel THE LOVER

In high school, I wasn’t bullied so much as outcast, which hurt terribly but not as bad as daily beatings would’ve. That’s how it is for Seamus in 85A too. He’s more outcast than bullied at St. Saviour.

In fact, he’s adamant about not making a world out of Saint Saviour. After many early experiences of failure and rejection, he holds himself aloof from St. Saviour and always has his bags packed to leave at any moment. His orientation is much the same as that of the girl in The Lover, Marguerite Duras’ roman a clef about her adolescent affair with a Chinese aristocrat, who was more than twice her age, in Saigon, 1929. Here’s how she describes the situation at her Vietnamese boarding school, where she’s one of two white girls:

{The teacher] says, You didn’t go to class and you didn’t sleep here last night, we’re going to have to inform your mother. I say I couldn’t help it, but from now on I’ll try to come back and sleep here every night, there’s no need to tell my mother. The young [teacher] looks at me and smiles…I’ll do it again. My mother will be informed. She’ll come and see the head of the boarding school and ask her to let me do as I like in the evenings, not to check the time I come in, not to force me to go out with the other girls on Sunday excursions. She says, She’s a child who’s always been free, otherwise she’d run away, even I, her own mother, can’t do anything about it, if I want to keep her I have to let her be free…My mother also said I was working hard in high school even though I had my freedom, and that what had happened with her sons was so awful, such a disaster, that her daughter’s education was the only hope left to her.

I say that Duras’ protagonist and Seamus share the same orientation toward school, but her life and Seamus’ are poles apart. True, Seamus also has a lover who is twice his age, but his mom and dad aren’t anywhere near as cool as Duras’ mother and they hang no hopes on Seamus doing well in school. Unlike Duras’ character, Seamus does not work hard at St. Saviour – he can’t pay attention in class and has a 1.4 GPA – but he does have the same proclivity for freedom as Duras’ girl and he does have a budding worldliness and sophistication that his GPA does not betray.

Belmont Avenue in Chicago

Belmont Avenue in Chicago

Until Seamus can make it to England, he’ll make do hanging out in the 1980s punk scene on Belmont in Chicago or in pre-gentrification Wicker Park. He doesn’t find a lot of acceptance on Belmont either, but it beats the hell out of the rejection he experiences at St. Saviour.

American Skin by Don De Grazia

American Skin by Don De Grazia

American Skin, Don De Grazia’s estimable novel about this same period in Chicago punk history, gives a much more flattering and sympathetic depiction of skinheads than 85A. Just like American Skin, some pivotal parts of 85A take place at a juice bar called Medusa’s. De Grazia changed Medusa’s name to Gorgon and I wonder if I’ll have to do the same before 85A is published.

And now…I’ll share excerpts of Seamus’ Belmont experience in 85A before he meets his best friend, Tressa. (I reserve all rights to the contents of the following text. Steal it and I’ll sue your pants off!) Now, please bear in mind that Seamus is a foul-mouthed 15-year-old who abhors racism but is still at a point in his development where he sees blacks, Latinos, Asians and immigrants as “other.” And even though he moons over boys in his own narration and discusses his sexual experience with a much older man, he is still terrified of being pigeonholed as gay:

Man, I don’t care what people fucking say. They cut skinheads all this fuckin’ slack. Say most of them on Belmont ain’t Nazis, they’re anti-Nazi. Some are even black, some are Jews and some of the whites even walk around with t-shirts on under their bomber jackets that have ban signs over swastikas. That don’t mean dick. Nazi, anti-Nazi: one’s just as bad as the other. Like, for instance, some of the Anti-Nazi skins wear pink laces in their ox-blood Docs, meaning they killed a queer—maybe one of the queens walking around Halsted Street, just a block over from Punkin’ Donuts. They kick the shit out of people who don’t fucking deserve it just to show off to their friends. Skinheads are fuckin’ scumbags—Nazi or not—and, if I didn’t believe in anarchy, I’d petition for a law to lock them all up for life…

I lit my second to last Marlboro and walked over to Punkin’ Donuts at Belmont and Clark...That’s all I did on Saturday nights before Tressa. I’d end a lonely night at Medusa’s with a cigarette, a raspberry jelly donut, and a medium coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. They always got punks in there or in the parking lot. They don’t call it Punkin’ Donuts for nothing. I’d sit at the counter and watch crowds swarming out of restaurants and clubs. I’d sit and watch punks coming together in their own motley swarms inside and outside the store, never minding the Pakistani donut pushers, chewing them out every five seconds for acting up and being assholes. I’d sit at the counter and think, maybe I’ll have friends here someday. Or maybe I’ll know punks in England. They don’t even have to be punks. Just people. Just people. In England. And I’d smoke and stare out the window or at the smoke curling off my cigarette and I’d think about things I might be able to do for a living over there in England—maybe I could be a shrink like Dr. Strykeroth (I thought that a lot) or an actor on the BBC like I always fuckin’ wanted to be or maybe I’d write books—and I’d try cooking up ways I might be able to immigrate legally.

In my daze, I felt someone come up behind me and take the 1940s hat off my head. I swung around on my stool. It was a fuckin’ skinhead. He had these scary motherfucker red and steel-blue eyes and a face that some mad sculptor must have chiseled out on a bender—all those sharp-ass, severe-ass angles. He cocked an eyebrow to me, opened his bog slowly like a carp and then blew a mouthful of cigarette smoke he’d been holding, straight into my face. His band of nick-headed Neanderthals all hooted and howled and flipped me off. I didn’t say a fuckin’ word. (Shit, Would you, with eight motherfuckin’ skinheads staring you down?) Then they all turned around. Walked straight into a forest of other punks and skins, some of them grabbing on to some chicks who looked like they were itching for a grabbing. Then they decamped to make their rounds round the block. The fucker still had my hat on his head when he walked out with his arms hanging on his two buddies’ shoulders. Never fuckin’ knew how to walk alone, I guess.

But, see, there’s this shit I do every time someone dis’s me like that. I even used to do it with fuckin’ Payne. For about five minutes, I try convincing myself they didn’t mean what they just fuckin’ said or did. They meant something else. Maybe this guy thought I was someone else. And that’s what I dumb-ass did after the skinheads left. I said to myself, Oh, it’s crowded in here. He was talking to a lot of people after he took my hat. Maybe he just forgot to give it back before he left. If I see him again and ask him real nice, he’ll give it back. Maybe we’ll even hang out next time I see him. Maybe he’ll introduce me to his friends. Maybe I’ll end up shaving my fuckin’ head and hanging with them. But I can’t tonight. I got fuckin’ curfew. That’s what I fucking said to myself!

And then I went on thinking about England. And then I went on thinking about Dr. Strykeroth, how tight and tan his skin is, how lucky I am to be able to get together with him every week. And then about Colby. I wondered what he was doing these days, if I’d ever see him again. I remembered how Colby had steel-blue eyes too, but they weren’t fuckin’ schizoid and mixed with capillary-red like that fuckin’ skinhead’s (the one I said I wouldn’t mind hanging out with, even after he stole my hat and blew smoke in my fuckin’ face). And I recalled how Colby’s features weren’t craggy like that skinhead motherfucker’s either. They were soft, delicate. His cheek bones were high and they sloped down in such a gentle curve. His lips were like plump little cherries and just as red. I lost myself, thinking about England and Dr. Strykeroth and Colby.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone hovering over me. I was so caught up daydreaming, I didn’t even notice anyone sitting next to me. I turned my head. No, no one was sitting there. Dude wasn’t sitting at all. He was standing. Hovering. Some scruffed-up, fucked-up, scrawny-ass drunk, maybe 40 years old. I got a better look at him. He had a tight mellow-yellow undershirt on under a blue ski coat with a fur-lined hood. He was also wearing this crazy-ass belt, made up of a bunch of different colored bandanas (red, dark blue, black, yellow, baby blue) that he’d tied together. They hung down from a loose knot at the crotch of his faded Levis. He put his left hand on his left hip and jutted his right hip out toward me. He smiled, looking down at me, tapping the toe of his tan construction boot and taking a long drag off a Virginia Slim. (I saw the pack in front of him, under his pink Bic lighter. It was fuckin’ Virginia Slims.) He exhaled a long, lingering stream of smoke. His breath reeked of menthol cigarettes and bottles and bottles of hard liquor, I don’t know what kind, as he leaned up close and heaved a long, heavy, “Hah-iii,” into my face. Then he puckered up, looked deep into my eyes, and, losing and then finding his balance again, blew me a kiss. The punks around me were all falling all over themselves, laughing up a fuckin’ storm when they all fuckin’ saw all this.

How did that prick even get through the fuckin’ doors with all those skins and scary motherfuckers skulking around? How did he escape getting his gumpy ass beat? He’s lucky he didn’t get killed just for coming within a block of Punkin’ Donuts. I didn’t finish my coffee. Didn’t want that flit feeling me up or vomiting on me. I just hit the streets. As I left the parking lot, I kept looking back, hoping he wasn’t fuckin’ stumbling after me. For a second there, I could even see why the skins would be proud to wear pink laces.

I walked back toward Sheffield on Belmont. Passed a bunch of Jesus freaks. They were holding candles and singing “Amazing Grace.” One of them handed me a leaflet. I was still in shock from that drunken fairy, so I took it. I looked at the leaflet as I kept walking. The front page actually looked like some of those xeroxed booklets they got in Wax Trax’s boutique, except there were no sex-and-violence graphics and the punks on it were wearing Crosses on their leather jackets, along with slogans like “Jesus Rules” and ban signs over the numbers 666. I crumpled up the leaflet and threw it in the gutter. I lit my last Marlboro, crumpled the pack and tossed that in the gutter too. Not fifteen minutes earlier, Belmont was crawling with people. I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden it was almost empty. When I got to walking under the L tracks, I saw a group of burly guys walking toward me in the shadows. As I walked closer, I saw they were all skinheads. They were the ones in Punkin’ Donuts, the ones who fuckin’ laughed and flipped me off. I saw the one wearing my hat. I walked up to him. I said, “Can I have my hat back?”

He got up in my face, “What? What?”

I said, “Just, my hat. Just…wondering…can I—?”

He pushed me over into the alley off to the side of the tracks with his chest, “What? What?” He backed me up into the brick wall on the side of the pawn shop. His gang surrounded me. “What?” he bellowed, “You sayin’ I stole it? You sayin’ I stole your hat? Is that what you’re fuckin’ saying?” I looked at all their faces. There was nothing I could fuckin’ do but freeze. “Huh?,” he screamed, shoving me back into the bricks, “Answer me, you little faggot.”

I somehow uttered, “Well, in Dunkin’—” Next thing I know, he punched me hard in fuckin’ gut. Then, one of the black skins hollered, “Got any proof, you lil’ carrot-top faggot?,” then he clocked me in the face. Then, they whipped me to the ground. My forehead scraped against a pile of rocks, pebbles and some glass too when they turned me over. Felt a couple kicks in my back and a few in my stomach. I could feel every hit, but it was like part of me, the part of me that couldn’t feel any pain, had left my body and was watching all this shit happen from some kind of fuckin’ aerial view. I thought, shit, I heard of shit like this. This is fuckin’ it. This is it. They’re gonna award these animals some fuckin’ pink laces for what they’re about to do to me.

Alright, people, it’s been real, but I gotta get back to editing now. Shell’s waiting on my manuscript. She knows where I live and she knows where I hang out when I’m not at home.