StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

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

Polaroid Roles: Patti Smith as Mary Magdalene, Robert Mapplethorpe as Faust

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on September 14, 2008

White Hot Magazine loved the Mapplethorpe piece! It’ll be published in their next volume (without the footnotes below…)

Polaroid Roles:

Robert Mapplethorpe as Faust, Patti Smith as Mary Magdalene

By Kyle Thomas Smith

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe

Filmmaker Derek Jarman once described photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s life as “the story of Faust.”[1] As any student of Goethe knows, Faust was an alchemist who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge and power. In Mapplethorpe: A Biography, Patricia Morrisroe describes how, shortly after dropping acid for the first time in the summer of 1966, Mapplethorpe stopped going to Mass and started attending Timothy Leary’s “Celebrations” at his League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) in Greenwich Village. As the nuns at Our Lady of the Snows in his native Queens might have warned, these wayward excursions would soon lead Mapplethorpe to explore Satanism.[2] As Morrisroe says, Mapplethorpe was “convinced that exploring the dark side would incite his imagination.”[3] In 1967, twenty-year-old Mapplethorpe told his roommate Harry McCue that he had sold his soul to Lucifer so that he could become the rage of the art world and “destroy all the bullshit people”[4] who looked down on his work at Pratt Institute.

That same summer, at a love-in in Tompkins Square Park, Mapplethorpe met a homeless waif and future rock star named Patti Smith. For the next five years, Mapplethorpe and Smith lived together, first as lovers and then as friends. Both were obsessed with becoming famous artists and, in their early creative efforts, studied the macabre and paranormal together. Smith created poems and drawings to invoke the spirit of Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, the archetypal enfant terrible who lived in poverty and addiction while vagabonding across three continents and producing one of French literature’s greatest corpuses of poetry. Mapplethorpe’s forays into the occult led him to concoct early collages and installations that fused the themes of pornography, religion, homosexuality and guilt.

According to Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality “happened overnight”[5] in the summer of 1968: “The gay thing wasn’t there and then suddenly it was.”[6] This wasn’t the gospel truth, of course. Mapplethorpe had struggled with homosexual desires all his life and had been willing to do almost anything to conceal them from himself and others, going so far as to join the ROTC and pledge the Pershing Rifles fraternity in his freshman year at Pratt. Even years later, in the free-love days when Smith dumped Mapplethorpe to shack up with painter Howie Michels, Mapplethorpe screamed, “Please don’t go! If you go, I’ll become gay.”[7] The next day, Smith came back to the apartment to collect her personal effects and found Mapplethorpe sitting amid piles of pictures that he’d clipped out of gay porno mags.

When Smith’s relationship with Michels fell apart, she discovered that Mapplethore was sleeping with a young man named Terry. “If I had been going out with another woman, it would have been different,” Mapplethorpe later recounted, “But Patti couldn’t compete with a man…She went crazy.”[8] Smith did indeed become suicidal, so she decided to take a break from her life in New York. She scraped up a paycheck or two from her cashier job at Scribner’s and flew to Paris with her sister Linda. She spent four months there, hanging out with street musicians, picking pockets and stalking the boulevards mapped out in her treasured Rimbaud biographies.[9]

This past May, my partner Julius and I were in Paris for Land 250, a collection of 40 years of Patti Smith’s photos, sketches, films, and written works on exhibit in the basement of Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain. The exhibition’s namesake is the Polaroid Land 250 camera, a throwback to Smith and Mapplethorpe’s salad days before the rocker started rock and the photographer boxed up his Polaroids in favor of a Hassebald 2 ¼-inch camera, his passport to art-world superstardom, which longtime lover Sam Wagstaff would give him in 1975.

Luridness was the name of the game at Land 250. There were Polaroid snapshots of crypts, headstones, Hendrix’s guitar, former lovers like Mapplethorpe, and literary mementos like Herman Hesse’s typewriter and Virginia Woolf’s bed in Bloomsbury. Found objects on display included a rock from the river Ousse where Woolf drown herself. There was also a reconstruction of Smith’s pre-fame “dungeon” bedroom, where one could find notebooks full of jagged sketches, apocalyptic poems, and vicious crayon caricatures of Mapplethorpe and Smith’s consorts at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City.

Several of Fondation Cartier’s walls were awash in black-and-white video footage of Smith in various states of disarray and disorientation. Mapplethorpe directed and filmed one such short in which a bony, raven-haired Smith stands in a white room, wearing a virgin white nightgown: she sways in zombie-like slow motion, holding a Crucifix; candles burn before her, a demon’s head glares behind her. At age 7, Smith came down with scarlet fever and began having horrific visions on the scale of those in Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels. Although her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and her father a Christian fundamentalist, her parents did nothing to disqualify or “exorcise” these hallucinations, so, from an early age, Smith was free to channel them into poetry and the visual arts. Thus, it’s no coincidence that she was attracted to Rimbaud’s absinthe-soaked “disordering of the senses”[10] or to Mapplethorpe’s unshakably Catholic visions of reprobation and damnation. One of Land 250’s main attractions was Smith’s letters to Mapplethorpe during her 1968 stay in Paris, where she wrote him many apotheoses of Rimbaud and attempted to come to terms with Mapplethorpe’s “coming out.”

A couple days after Julius and I returned home to New York, we went to The Whitney Museum of American Art to see Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids exhibit, which featured selections from the more than 1,500 Polaroid snapshots that Mapplethorpe took between 1970 and 1975. Before filmmaker Sandy Daley lent him a Polaroid camera in 1970, Mapplethorpe had shown no interest in photography. He did not regard it as an art or as anything more than a favorite pastime of his prosaic engineer father, Harry Mapplethorpe, and the engine behind his own volumes of pornographic magazines. But tired of making mixed media installations that did not sell, Mapplethorpe developed a rabid fascination for the instant camera’s capacity to capture the instant. Art historian Sylvia Wolf writes that, for Mapplethorpe, “the Polaroid provided instant gratification, but more important it ignited a lifelong passion for using the camera to penetrate appearances and get at the complexity within.”[11] Mapplethorpe would cut his teeth on the Polaroid before achieving his dream of becoming one of the most celebrated and reviled artists of his era.

Patti Smith was a chief subject of this period in Mapplethorpe’s art. Mapplethorpe was known for treating his models as puppets whom he could easily manipulate into compromising erotic and autoerotic scenarios. Such was not the case for Smith, however, who was anything but a passive player before his lens. Even when nude, she appears no more vulnerable than he does in his utterly commanding nude self-portraits. Instead, she was a combination of muse and soul mate, whose intense gaze and androgyny were a welcome departure from the frilly female magazine models of the day. Patti Smith’s raffish aspect dominates nearly a dozen of the Polaroid shots (mostly untitled) that were on exhibit at the Whitney, all taken just before Mapplethorpe’s breakout photo of Smith on the cover of her debut album, Horses (1975).

“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” the old chestnut goes. Just like Andy Warhol and Madonna, Mapplethorpe wove Catholic imagery into some of his most controversial works. In the Polaroids exhibit, a shot of his long-haired model Michael’s face closely resembles that of many historic depictions of Christ at his last gasp on the Cross. Mapplethorpe also frequently exploited the highly erotic motif of St. Sebastian, the loin-clothed, tied-up, arrow-impaled youth, whose picture catalyzed writer Yukio Mishima’s first orgasm at age 12. At the Whitney, we witnessed several allusions to this image both in Mapplethorpe’s untitled self-portraits and instamatic shots of porn star Peter Berlin. In two portraits, there are also full-frontal and full-rear nude photos of his model Manfred, who is standing in a niche, duplicating the haughty contrapposto of Donatello’s David.

As a lapsed Catholic and Buddhist convert gazing at these Polaroids, I couldn’t help but wonder: Given all the Catholic iconography in his early and later work, was Patti Smith both a muse and an impenitent Magdalene for Mapplethorpe? Remember her opening line to Horses, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”?

Whether or not Mapplethorpe ever actually made a deal with the devil, he did indeed develop a creative acuity and achieve worldly success far beyond anything his early critics at Pratt ever could have imagined for him. His work not only pinned American Puritanism to the floor, but gave kinky sex a supreme seat in modern art. How could this erotic explosion come out of a former Knight of Columbus, who hadn’t even seen a dirty magazine until just before his freshman year of college?

In 1989, months before Mapplethorpe’s death, his mother Joan sent the parish priest, Father George Stack, to her son’s Bond Street apartment with the words: “Father, he has AIDS and I want him to die in a state of grace.”[12] In his youth, Mapplethorpe used to drop by Father Stack’s office with portrait drawings he had made of the Madonna and Child. Father Stack later admitted that he found the drawings to be freaky, but he never told Robert this and always encouraged “this gentle, creative person surrounded by all these gung-ho macho types”[13] to continue his artistic endeavors. Holding true to the seal of the confessional, we will most likely never know what the priest and artist discussed at their reunion nor do we know if Mapplethorpe, like Goethe’s Faust, formally broke the bond he claimed to have made with the Prince of Darkness almost a quarter century before. But in his homily at Mapplethorpe’s funeral at Our Lady of the Snows, Father Stack said: “The last time I spoke with Robert he said he tried to present what he saw as beautiful in the most truthful way possible.”[14] He shared this same ideal with Patti Smith who can be seen sprinkling a likeness of his ashes on to her palm in her new film Dream of Life.

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the Editor of Sentient City: The Art of Urban Dharma and a frequent contributor to Edge Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito. He is preparing for the release of his novel, 85A.

[1] Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography (De Capo Press, New York, 1995, 1997), p. 104

[2] Ibid., p.44

[3] Ibid., p.44

[4] Ibid., p. 46

[5] Ibid., p. 59

[6] Ibid, p. 59

[7] Ibid., p.58

[8] Ibid., p. 61

[9] Ibid., p. 61

[10] From a letter from Arthur Rimbaud to Georges Izambard, May 1871

[11] Sylvia Wolf, Polaroids: Mapplethorpe (Prestel Verlag, 2007), p. 65

[12] Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography (De Capo Press, New York, 1995, 1997), p.6

[13] Ibid, p. 23

[14] Ibid., p.6

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.”