Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Porn Star Played "All Night Long"

When I was 16 I graduated high school and hit the road.  I moved to San Francisco and raised hell, doing everything illegal under the sun.  At 18 I moved back to L. A. and went legit, attending UCLA during the day and working as a bartender at a gay bar at night.  I was 6' 6" and bearded, so nobody thought to ask if I was 21.

The bar owner had a finger in every money-making scheme ever invented, but primarily he produced gay porn.  (My past is clean, though if they'd offered me a little more money or snappier dialogue everything would be different now.)  One night he brought in his latest discovery: a Swedish porn star called Eric.  Eric had been around the block a few times -- okay, he'd worn a groove in the cement -- but he was still totally naive and very sweet. That's not a combination you found very often, let alone in the San Fernando Valley.

Eric knew everything there was to know about men and sex, and he immediately realized that I needed help. This wasn't hands-on help, since we both enjoyed the same thing in bed, but more like teacher and student. It was like "The Apprentice," if Donald Trump was 25, bleached blonde, and had biceps that could crack pecans. Eric taught me sex secrets that wouldn't just drive a man wild: they'd hypnotize him, enslave him, make him add you to his will. Though I could barely understand a word Eric was saying, we quickly became fast friends.

At UCLA, one of the tenured professors -- I'll call him R. -- also took an interest in me.  Older, distinguished and rich as a Rockefeller, he also knew a few things that could come in handy, should I ever take a job that required a shirt. He invited me to a "Musicale" at his house, and naturally I jumped at the chance. I didn't have a clue what a Musicale was, but I was sure of one thing:  if I was going to a party for old intellectuals, I'd want another young idiot to keep me company.  I asked R. if I could bring a date and he said yes.

The house was spectacular, starting at the bottom of a Brentwood hill and meandering all the way to the top.  There were candles on every step and Christmas lights in every tree, and when I rang the bell it played Chopin.  R. nearly lost his Gucci bifocals when he opened the door and saw my date.  I guess most professors assume their students don't hang with porn stars, especially when they're going for their bachelor's degree in math. Or maybe he recognized Eric, I thought. "Florist Hump" had gotten a nationwide release.

As we wandered around the palatial estate, the meaning of "Musicale" became clear. In every room of the house, gray-haired gay men in tuxedos were clustered in various musical configurations.  A quartet in the library played Schubert, a string section on the patio played Scriabin, and two guys with bassoons rattled a closet with early Lizst.  Everyone was transfixed with ecstasy until they spotted Eric. He had a veritable glow around him, not just from the Lady Clairol, and instantly all eyes went his way.

Instruments went flying as the seniors clustered around him, giddy as teenagers. The muscle-bound god must have been hit on by every septuagenarian in the city, turning up their noses at the ordinarily-built me.  At some point Eric shyly admitted that he could play the piano, so the nearest real pianist was unceremoniously shoved off his stool.  Eric's specialty was show tunes, plunked slowly with two fingers, but that didn't keep the crowds from coming. They fought their way to the piano like bargain hunters at a fire sale, staring starry-eyed at Eric and energetically singing along. They sang that they enjoyed being girls, that they were girls who couldn't say no, and that the sun would come out tomorrow. Considering these were eighty-year-old men, the first two seemed more likely than the last.

Though Eric's talent was limited, his repertoire was not. When I finally pried him out of those gnarled old mitts at three-thirty in the morning, there was still a crowd four-deep around him, and he was pounding out "All Night Long." His pockets were so stuffed with phone numbers -- on business cards, on calling cards, on blank checks -- he could barely fit in the car.

I lost touch with Eric for a while, eventually hearing that he'd taken up with an older, cultured man. The next time I saw him I discovered it was true. The transformation was incredible. He was impeccably dressed, beautifully coiffed, and quoting Rilke in perfect English.

As for what the older partner learned from the relationship, I won't even hazard a guess. But if you find yourself in Los Angeles being cruised by a distinguished senior, go for it. Sure, muscles will cramp, blood pressures will skyrocket, absolute exhaustion will set in.

But you're resilient. You'll bounce back.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Back when I was a bartender, every gay bar had country music night. Even our semi-popular place got packed to the rafters. Nobody cared about the music, because even the tiredest queen somehow turned hunky in the hat.

We had our night on Thursdays, and like clockwork John would appear. He looked like Mr. Drysdale from "The Beverly Hillbillies" so it took me a while to notice him. He'd stare at me from afar, tip me with ten dollar bills, and glare daggers when other guys approached me. Eventually the invitation came.

"Ah got third-row tickets for 'Evita,'" he drawled. "How's about you and me goin' out?"

John was Stanford educated, but the accent seemed to come with the hat. I liked attention a lot more than I liked musicals, so without even thinking I said yes. When date night rolled around, though, something had gone horribly wrong. "I told my friend Mike about tonight," John announced. "He said he'd never seen 'Evita,' so I gave him our tickets. I picked up two more for us, but they're a little bit further back."

I gave him the smile I usually reserve for altruistic friends who, as a birthday present, give a goat to an African village in my name. I said it was fine, though I'd never been more disappointed by a man wearing clothes. Throughout the show I seethed as I squinted, watching dull gray shapes cavort over half a mile away, and in his car outside my apartment I got revenge.

"My place is just a few minutes from here," John offered, the streetlight sparkling off a square-cut amethyst ring. "If you want to come home with me."

"I shouldn't," I said, grabbing his hand and shaking it. "But I had a wooonderful time."

The next Thursday he dropped by the bar again, bearing another offer I couldn't refuse. "Ah got second-row tickets for 'Cats,'" he said. "How's about us steppin' out again?"

This time I agreed with some reluctance, hoping his prior benevolence was a one-shot deal. But once again when he picked me up The Confession was the first thing out of his mouth: "My friend Carl said he'd kill to see 'Cats,'" John said, "and I just couldn't stop myself. I bought a couple more tickets for us, but they're not quite as good."

I counted to ten and then nodded, sparks shooting out from my gritted teeth. From the upper balcony we might have been watching dancing bedbugs. Again, later in the evening was payback time.

"So, maybe tonight we can get together?" John offered. "I've got champagne and a fireplace and a big, soft bed."

I knew what I had to do again. It wasn't particularly hard. He was the owner of a cardboard box company in Monrovia, and that's what he looked like without the hat.

"I couldn't," I said, grappling for the doorknob. "But thanks sooo much all the same."

I can't explain why I saw him the third time, except hope springs eternal in the dumb. And this time I got lucky. When the curtain went up on "Phantom," John and I were front and center. Afterwards, he got lucky too.

When I woke up the next morning in the unfamiliar room, I was all by myself. Next to a lukewarm cappuccino on the bedside table was a note:

"Had business to see to, but I'll be back tonight. Make yourself comfortable. Don't try to go anywhere, though, because the alarm's turned on."

Naturally I was horrified, trapped like a tiger in a cage. I searched high and low for an escape route: I searched the media room, with the wall-sized TV and popcorn machine, the walk-in closet with a wall of leather chaps, and the anonymous room under the stairs that seemed to hold nothing but cases of bourbon and economy packs of paper towels from Costco. When I found the kitchen with a double-wide fridge stocked like Gelson's -- crisp white boxes full of prepared salads and rotisserie meats, a battalion of plastic bottles with fresh-squeezed tropical juices -- I decided maybe I wasn't in such a rush.

After that day, John and I sort of became a couple. I gave up the job bartending and he supported me. I tried to get out a few more times, but my heart wasn't in it. I think I really only turned serious after Andrew Lloyd Webber peaked.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Say Cheese

When you wander the streets of New York, you're always under somebody's control. Most of the time it's overzealous policemen who are in charge, knowing they can throw us in jail if we so much as look at them crosseyed. But every so often a major movie studio tosses a suitcase full of cash at Mayor Bloomberg to buy the right to shove us around for a day or two. Evidently our tax dollars aren't enough to keep the world's financial center afloat: we need rental fees from Woody Allen too.

Approaching Seventh Avenue on 27th Street I see the warning signs. I'll forfeit every human right by entering the area, they declare, making me wonder if there are pirates or transplant surgeons crouched in the bushes to take advantage of this lawless tract. They're filming a chase scene from "The Bourne Ultimatum," and any soul foolhardy enough to venture into the vicinity agrees to dance to the studio's tune. I blithely stumble ahead: like most Americans, I'd trade my civil rights for a glimpse of Matt Damon.

The Seventh Avenue set looks like a war zone. There's a four-car pileup down at 26th and -- even more out of the ordinary -- a phalanx of cars patiently idling. I gawk for a couple seconds before an officious woman with a walkie talkie approaches. "You can't stand there," she says. "We're filming."

"Oh," I reply. "Okay."

I back up a couple feet and we stare at each other. "Not there either," she snaps.

I take few more steps back but her accusing gaze doesn't falter. Another step. She shakes her head. I keep retreating until she nods, but now I'm closer to New Jersey than Matt Damon. While she turns her attention to a stroller-pushing couple who stupidly think they can wander the streets at will, I assure myself that it's not humiliating to take orders from a woman in fleece who looks like she should be handing out samples of peanut-butter pretzels at Trader Joe's. The deafening sounds of a monster crash resound from Seventh Avenue and my opinion solidifies: no lowly Production Assistant is going to push me around.

By the time I get back to Seventh Avenue, she's ready. She blocks my path, with two other PAs providing backup. My eyes dart left and right, and when I spot a burrito restaurant with a wall of windows next to the crash site, an excuse pops unprompted into my brain. "I'm going to Chipotle," I announce. "Surely a guy's got the right to eat lunch."

She reluctantly lets me pass when filming pauses, and minutes later I'm inside Chipotle, a burrito in my hand and my nose pressed against the glass. The place is jammed: when you question authority in New York, odds are you won't be alone. We're congratulating ourselves on our ingenuity when another PA barges in. "You can't all stand in the window!" he shouts. "It looks ridiculous. I want everybody sitting at tables, facing different directions, and not paying any attention to the shoot!"

Now, maybe in Kansas people would jump to this man's tune, but in New York it doesn't wash. We blithely eye him over our burritos. "Move!" he snaps. "To the tables! And don't look outside!" Without waiting for an answer, he storms out.

When the action starts, there are eighty people in the window, all snapping pictures with their cellphones. A police car screeches a U-turn, ricocheting off a parked car. Snap. An SUV gives chase, steered by a driver on the roof. Snap. As the fleet disappears around the corner and we take our final shots, Angry PA returns. "Just so you know," he says, dripping disdain, "you guys ruined that take. And the director says it's all my fault." He settles onto a stool and runs a hand through thinning hair. "People, my name's Paul, and I'm a nice guy. I just happen to have a lousy job." He's trying to break into filmmaking, he says, so he needs work experience and connections, and this is the only way to get them. He delves lightly into his cinematic history, waxing poetic about his love for movies, and by the time he gets to Saturday matinees with grandpa our tortilla chips are soggy with happy tears.

"Okay," a chubby guy assures him. "Do it again, and we'll be good."

Paul gazes at the man with gratitude, then turns to us. We nod sheepishly, realizing how selfish we'd been. "We'll pretend we're interested in each other," a man says, like he's agreeing to wear suspenders to work.

We watch as they move the cars back into position, but the minute somebody shouts "ACTION!" we look away. We pretend to be sociable. We eye our food like we've never seen burritos before.

The extras meander past our window, and the counter help go quiet. "It's MATT DAMON!" one whispers, but that doesn't break our resolve. "What are all these little green flecks?" I ask, shoving my burrito in my neighbor's face. "Could that possibly be cilantro?"

She nods and forages into her own food. "Mine is certainly replete with beans."

From the corner of my eye I see cars hurtling by. Still, I resist temptation. "The rice is so . . . white," another woman declares. "None of that brown rice here."

There's a screech, then the crunch of metal. "And the cheese," someone calls. "It's tangy, but not so sharp it'd scare the kids."

The room fills with an acrid cloud of burnt rubber, but that doesn't break our concentration. "You don't often find so many disparate things in a burrito," a Diane Keaton-lookalike muses. "It's like a pound of illegal immigration in a big foil square." Pause. "Somebody kill me before I have to talk again."

We take up individual study of our lunches until it goes quiet outside and Paul returns. "Guys," he declares, limp with relief, "that was amazing. Spectacular. We got a fantastic take."

We smile and put down our burritos, then wander outside to check out the scene. The crew high-fives, making us all feel proud. After all, like Paul said, we'd make or break the movie. And I can honestly say that when it finally opens in theaters, when that chase scene starts and viewers watch spellbound from their seats, people all over the world will look in the window of that humble Chipotle and think, "What in God's name is wrong with New Yorkers that they won't look up from burritos when all hell is breaking loose outside?"

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Amorous Adventures of Roman Hans

There's one thing I always wanted as a kid, and that was a personalized book. You know, where you fill out a list of information about yourself and somebody merges it into a story. You tell'em, like, your name is ROMAN HANS and your dog's name is Woofy, and you get back a book called, like, ROMAN HANS' ADVENTURES WITH HIS DOG WOOFY. Well, I never got one back then, but strangely enough I saw an ad for one the other day in a gay porn magazine. It sounded interesting, and for twenty bucks I figured what have I got to lose? Here’s how I filled in the form:

First they wanted my name, so I put down ROMAN HANS. Where do I live? No way around it: I’m trying to find a new place, but until then I’m stuck in THIS HELLHOLE. Last place I lived? Sheesh, that apartment was ONE STINKING TOILET. What I’d like to be called. Well, if I can pick anything -- MASTER OF THE DAMN UNIVERSE. Favorite fantasy? PLAY PRO FOOTBALL. Favorite drink? You know, I've been partying way too much recently, so I started drinking WATER just to flush out my system.

Here's one that confused me: favorite man's name. Do they want my favorite name for a man, or the name of my favorite man? Well, the finest man ever was GANDHI. Favorite man's profession? HINDU ASCETIC. Second favorite man’s name? ALEC BALDWIN. Something men want? Beats me. But I watched “Meet the Press” a couple weeks ago and every guy there kept whining about PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

What do I wear at home? To be honest, RATTY OLD UNDERWEAR. Something more men should wear? Hey, I live in New York. A STRAITJACKET. Four traits that describe my dream man: TALL, MATURE, GOAL-ORIENTED, A REALLY NIFTY DANCER. Something long? That’s easy. An ex made me sit through GONE WITH THE WIND like eight times and I swear it got longer with each viewing. Something that sucks -- don’t even need to think about it: THE NEW YORK KNICKS. Favorite partner? Nobody measures up to TYNE DALY as half of “Cagney and Lacey.”

Something that pounds: A BAD HEADACHE. What makes a man good in bed? I don’t care if he eats crackers or reads or snores, as long as he DOESN’T TRY TO GRAB THE REMOTE. Name something comfortable to lie on: BRAD PITT. How long do I wait before having sex again? I can be ready pretty quick, but my partners always say they’ll do it again WHEN JESUS COMES BACK AND GIVES US ALL NINTENDOS.

Anyway, I mailed in the form, and last week I got the book. Here’s how it goes.


It was a warm spring afternoon, the perfect day for moving. In fact, a handsome 20-year-old named GANDHI and his perky young friend ALEC BALDWIN were doing just that. Exhausted and sweaty they decided to sunbathe on the balcony of their new apartment. The two men put on their tiniest spandex Speedos and spread out on lounge chairs.

Just then their new neighbor ROMAN HANS came out onto his balcony to water his plants. When he saw the two athletic men his eyes just about popped out of his head. “Well, howdy there!” he called excitedly.

"Hi, new neighbor!" the lithe young blonde replied. "My name’s GANDHI and this is my friend ALEC BALDWIN! We're new to THIS HELLHOLE!"

"Yes!" ALEC BALDWIN piped in. "We just moved here from ONE STINKING TOILET!"

ROMAN HANS’s eyes lingered over the attractive pair. "My name's ROMAN HANS but you can call me MASTER OF THE DAMN UNIVERSE. I sure hope you like it here."

"I'm sure we will," GANDHI said. "Say, why don't you come over so we can chat?”

"I'll be right there!" ROMAN HANS said.

Minutes later ALEC BALDWIN answered the door wearing nothing but a smile and a towel. ROMAN HANS was standing there with a tray of drinks. “You two looked thirsty so I mixed us up a big, frosty pitcher of WATER,” he said.

GANDHI entered, and he too was just wearing a towel. He helped himself to a drink and quickly downed it. "Whew!" he exclaimed. "With all the exercise we've been getting that WATER is really going to my head. Do you mind if I slip into something more comfortable, MASTER OF THE DAMN UNIVERSE?"

"That's OK by me," ROMAN HANS said.

"I think I will too," ALEC BALDWIN said.

The two hunks dropped their towels and each slipped on a snug-fitting STRAITJACKET. ROMAN HANS felt himself getting aroused by the pair: one TALL and MATURE, the other GOAL-ORIENTED and A REALLY NIFTY DANCER.

"That STRAITJACKET really brings out the color of your eyes," ROMAN HANS said.

"Thanks," ALEC BALDWIN said. "My father wore it at his wedding."

"You must be warm too," GANDHI said, “in your RATTY OLD UNDERWEAR. Can I hang that up for you?"

"Thanks," ROMAN HANS said. He slipped out of it and felt the eyes of the other men examining every inch of his body. Soon his arousal was obvious to all.

"Oh, MASTER OF THE DAMN UNIVERSE!" GANDHI said, "You've got such a hot body! I want you more than PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST." He started to lick ROMAN HANS all over. "I've been trying to restrain myself, but we HINDU ASCETICs aren’t known for our self-control."

ALEC BALDWIN grabbed ROMAN HANS’s masculinity and moaned. "Your massive tool is driving me wild with desire!" he said. "Let's go into the bedroom and PLAY PRO FOOTBALL!"

The three went into the bedroom, where the two handsome men surrounded ROMAN HANS like a sandwich. ALEC BALDWIN dropped to his knees.

"Oh, ALEC BALDWIN!" ROMAN HANS cried. "You suck like THE NEW YORK KNICKS!" His head swam with passion as he realized he hadn't experienced sex this intense since that time with TYNE DALY.

Just then GANDHI jumped on the bed and laid out flat, his impressive member standing at attention. "Oh, MASTER OF THE DAMN UNIVERSE,” he moaned. “Do me like A BAD HEADACHE!"

Soon shrieks of desire filled the air. Just as ROMAN HANS thought he couldn’t stand another moment of passion the three simultaneously exploded in a flood of ecstasy. Afterwards they collapsed in a heap atop BRAD PITT.

"Whew!" GANDHI gasped. "You sure know how to satisfy a guy!"

"Why, thank you," ROMAN HANS replied.

"Oh, it's our pleasure," ALEC BALDWIN said. "I swear, your manliness is longer than GONE WITH THE WIND!"

“It’s not just the size that counts,” ROMAN advised. “It’s how it DOESN’T TRY TO GRAB THE REMOTE.”

"Please," GANDHI begged, "let’s do it one more time."

"I'd love to," ROMAN HANS said, as the three exchanged glances of delight. "WHEN JESUS RETURNS AND GIVES US ALL NINTENDOS.”


Thursday, May 17, 2007

They hate us, they hate us not.

Heterosexuals don't know how easy they've got it. There's no heterophobia, no job discrimination, no centuries-old pronouncements from a Supreme Being declaring them personas non grata. And when they read the newspaper, they don't need a PhD to figure out what's going on.

A five-year-old can understand heterosexual news stories. "Chilean Bus Plunges Off Cliff." "Storms Hit Miami Coastline." "Lindsay Lohan Has a Firecrotch." Nothing convoluted about these. They make their point simply and concisely. You don't need to concentrate or massage your temples to get what they're saying. As opposed to, say, your typical homosexual news story:

"Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to Meet with Republican Leadership to Plot Course for Overturning Ruling Striking Down Constitutional Amendment Banning Same-Sex Marriage."

Got that? It's a little tougher. In fact, it's less a sentence than the glossary from the Congressional Report. Somewhere between the first word and the last, your mind starts to protest. Don't we have enough words for a sentence yet? Your attention wanders. Isn't there something tasty in the fridge? Isn't there laundry to be done? This could explain why so few gays are politically active: obviously somebody here is an asswipe, but it's impossible to figure out who.

This could explain why heteros think gays are vapid. If we had a gay man and a straight man sitting side by side reading the newspaper, the difference would be painfully obvious. The happy hetero would be scanning the headlines, saying stuff like, "Whoa, ain't that the truth!" or "Gosh, isn't that interesting?" while the gay guy is holding his well-coiffed head and screaming "WHAAA?"

The problem with gay news stories is the double negatives. Frankly, I'm surprised newspapers can get away with it. My parents used to yell at me if I said something like, "I don't want no damn chicken."  This headline has like fifteen negatives in it, and without graph paper and a Sharpy I don't see any way of figuring out who did what. It's totally unfair. You don't see them in hetero stories. Baba Wawa doesn't dispute Meredith's theory that Star's husband isn't gay. Katie doesn't disagree with dissenting opinions to press reports that Tom didn't use a stunt double to consummate their marriage. Paula doesn't uphold Randy's denial of Ryan's contention that Simon has perky man-boobs.

Meanwhile, this is just the tip of the iceberg. What happens as the Georgia case gathers steam? You'll be laying on the beach sipping a Frappuccino and trying to get through this: "The Supreme Court today quashed an appeal of a lower court decision upholding the overturning of a ruling striking down a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage."

At this point even Stephen J. Hawking is flipping to the comics. It makes Sudoku look like a receipt from The Dollar Store. But recently a friend told me about this trick to make sense of difficult headlines: start at the end and replace the clauses that you understand with either the word "GOOD" or "BAD."

On the first pass, this line becomes "The Supreme Court today quashed an appeal of a lower court decision upholding the overturning of a ruling striking down BAD." "A ruling striking down BAD" is obviously GOOD, and overturning GOOD is BAD. After twenty or thirty minutes, a readable sentence emerges: "The Supreme Court today was BAD."

See -- works like a charm! Sure, you won't exactly be able to share the details at parties, but you got the gist. Besides, it's kind of fun . . . and it's suspenseful. You won't know till you're finished exactly how the government feels about you. Sound familiar? It's like that old "He loves me, he loves me not" flower thing, except it's about you and Clarence Thomas.

If you want to stick with holding your head and screaming "WHAAA?," I think we'll all understand.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why I don't read the classics.

I’ve been reading way too much trash recently -- books with sex or drugs or violence and no redeeming value whatsoever. The last book I finished was about a gay vampire who had other things on his mind than sucking blood. Try checking that out of the library without a fake moustache and dark glasses. I figured I’d read something respectable for a change. I’d seen most of the classics on “Masterpiece Theater” and they didn’t seem all that difficult so I figured I’d get one of them. To speed things up, though, I figured I’d skip over Derek Jacobi’s part.

I ended up with “Pride and Prejudice.” It’s one of those books you mean to read but never do, and halfway through the book I understand why. Like a PBS miniseries it’s interesting in theory, but after more than a couple minutes in reality it just bugs the pants off you.

For one thing, I expected intrigue, intelligence, and wit, but instead got a Victorian potboiler on the level of “All My Children.” Austen uses plenty of obscure words in Ye Olde English, but I’m still pretty sure the first printing had Fabio’s great-grandfather in a torn pirate shirt on the cover.

The book concerns several hundred people, all related, who alternately love and hate each other with the skill of Italians. At the center of the story are the Bennets: Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet, and their daughters. Lots of daughters. The number is never specified, and it seems to change by the hour. We start off with Elizabeth and Jane, then page by page discover Lydia, Beth, Kitty, Mary, Lizzy and Eliza, though someone smarter than myself may discern that four of these could refer to the exact same person.

The big romance is between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, a guy who doesn’t even get a first name until page 187. There’s a roadblock flung in their path: we’re supposed to think that Mr. Darcy is unforgiveably rude because he went to a ball and only danced twice. That’s rude? the guys reading will ask. Hell, if he showed up in his underwear, guzzled scotch from a bottle and asked the hostess to pull his finger maybe she’d have a case. Then we learn that a dance lasts fifteen minutes, that you have to book them like appointments with the cable guy, and that dancing with the same woman twice is roughly equivalent to proposing marriage. Under these conditions even Fred Astaire would be hanging around the buffet table stuffing rumaki in his gob. Besides, that’s unforgiveably rude? That’s an obstacle to a relationship? Once I forgave a hubby who had sex with a preoccupied paraplegic.

The characters hook up and break off straight out of daytime drama. Miss Bingley likes Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy likes Elizabeth, Mr. Bingley likes Jane but seems destined to marry Countess De Burgh’s daughter (his cousin) to unite their estates. Elizabeth ought to marry Mr. Collins, her cousin, but since she hates him she pawns him off on Charlotte Lucas, the only character who’s not a relative. There are like eight sets of cousins who consider each other for marriage, yet for some reason they’re more concerned with estates and property than bearing children who have bat ears and duckbills.

Adding to the overall confusion is the language barrier. Shew, sallad, chuse -- maybe these words used to be English, but now they sound like parts of a snail. When they play “Vingt Un” I’m not sure they need playing cards or a plastic mat with colored circles on it. I have no clue what a “quadrille” is, and in the book it seems to alternate between being a dance and a board game. A major plot point hinges on how the Bennet estate is “entailed.” I’m guessing it’s not the opposite of what a butcher does to a bunny.

Here are some of the convoluted phrases Austen uses, and what I determined they meant through hours of research:

“It is more than I engage for, I assure you.”“Huh-uh."
“Dare I say my eye might have misjudged the possibility?”“Really?”
“I see no occasion for that.”“Whaaa?”
“That is not an unnatural surmise.”“Maybe.”
“Upon my honour I have not the smallest of objections.”“Oh. Okay.”

Now, I don’t mind a little wordiness as long as the author keeps it all straight. Austen, though, turns the whole exercise into a word problem. There are forty countesses in the book, yet rather than referring to them by name she gives the name of their house. “’I visited your relations at Lancashire,’ the Countess of Marscapone exclaimed while her own thoughts dwelt on her sister at Longhorn.” Everyone has three or four cousins with the same name (Colonel Fitzwilliam and Fitzwilliam Darcy meet on page 152, much to my astonishment). And everybody’s got more aliases than Puffy.

Austen loves to throw all sorts of folks into a room and not tell you who she’s talking about. Pronouns, adjectives, past participles -- I‘ve never seen so many things dangling, and I spent one Christmas at a nude beach. Here’s a typical scene among the Bennet sisters (remember there are somewhere between five and forty of them). See if you can tell who’s talking, and who they’re speaking of:

“Tell me, dear Lizzie,” enquired the younger Miss Bennet of her sister, “who is it that you are fondest of?”

“Methinks she shall chuse herself!” a flaxen-haired lass cried, and her two elder sisters tittered.

Elizabeth looked at her older sister with fine eyes mingling incredulity and agitation. “Why am I thus subjected to this undisguised air of discivility? Whilst my desires burn brightly within my bower they are of no small importance to yourselves, and I fear you shall render them like insects ‘neath a hasty hobbled boot.”

Silence hung in the air, then the girl leaning against the mantle-piece spake. “Beth, you are over scrupulous, I assure you; her intent was not so bold.” She turned to the woman nearest the bird. “What say you, Kitty?”

The tallest sister who isn’t Lydia froze with mortification. “Indeed, madam, I am not Kitty,” she observed. “Kitty stands indifferently by the balustrade, nearest the girl who’s allergic to cheese.”

The woman with the bean-shaped mole and crinoline knickers pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. “I foresaw the return of this confusion within a fortnight,” she cried, and with the girl who’d recently returned from the dentist fled the room, fatigued.

And so, kind reader, to cut a long story short, I’m giving up. At page 264 I’m bidding a final “fare thee well” to the Bennets and the Bingleys and their fourteen hundred cousins and returning the book to the library, where it can be admired from a great distance. Tonight I’ll enjoy a respite from such obfuscation in my bed-sit chamber, neither playing nor dancing a quadrille with the one I hold in fondest regard who isn’t me.

My five-dollar onion.

I was picking up groceries at my usual downscale supermarket in Brooklyn. They had like three types of onions -- yellow, at $.59 a pound, red at $.99, and Vidalia at $1.69 -- so I grabbed a cheap yellow one and tossed it in my cart. When I got home I checked the receipt and saw I’d been charged for a Vidalia onion, for a total cost of $4.62.

My first reaction was anger: anger that some idiot checker had misidentified my onion. But mostly I wondered, was there really such a thing as a five-dollar onion? I mean, in my neighborhood you can buy two dollar pants, a three dollar ceiling fan, a four dollar toaster oven. Every one of these products has like hundreds of different parts made of everything from titanium to rubber, assembled by long lines of foreign workers, and they spend months on boats maneuvering their way through cyclones and tornados and monsoons to eventually reach distant American stores.

On the other hand, it doesn't get much simpler than an onion. You buy yourself an onion seed, drop it in a hole in the ground, come back two months later and there it is. It's not like a chicken, which also doesn’t cost five dollars. You don't have to feed it, or pluck it, or build it a little cage. I feel like writing to Andy Rooney to ask what's up, maybe including a little P. S. about avocados.

You know, this is why I go to third-rate stores. You go to a nice New York store where everything’s expensive and you look petty when you complain about the price. "Ah, good choice!" the clerk says, ringing up your apple at $29 a pound. "A Garsoopal. Grown on the slopes of Mt. Etna and picked at four in the morning by clear-headed young virgins."

"No," you answer, "that's not quite right. See, I'm a normal person. I don't have a ‘lifestyle,’ $800,000 a year in disposal income, or Julia Child’s palate. This is a Granny Smith, and if it costs more than a dollar I'll be reasonably certain I'm being ripped off."

The clerk winces, and everyone behind you in line averts their eyes. "I'm sorry," he says, punching in the correct price of ninety-nine cents a pound. "I didn't know we carried those." And then he rings up your $80 carrot.

The worst part is, I can't even eat the onion, knowing what I paid for it. I have to save it for a special occasion. I'm thinking I'll dig a little basement under the house and build it its own little cellar, just to keep it safe. Put a lock on the door so a visitor doesn't accidentally slice it onto a burger or something. Maybe one day I'll have company over and I'll dust it off and casually bring it out.

"Oh my goodness," they'll exclaim, "what a lovely onion you have!"

"This?" I'll reply, lightly buffing it against my three-dollar shirt. "Oh, it's nothing."

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Tall Tale

All you need are three matching traits before you start to look like somebody famous.  If you’re thin, blonde and your face is stretched tighter than bongos, you look like Joan Rivers.  If you’re skinny, wrinkled, and you’ve got an enormous mouth, you look like Mick Jagger. 

Me, I’m tall, bearded, and have a big nose.  We’ve got a few people to choose from, ranging from merely ugly to stop-the-clock horror.

Back when I had long hair the comparisons hovered toward the high end.  “You look like that guy from the Who” was something I heard a lot.  I wasn’t a big fan of the group, but it wasn’t hard to guess who they meant.  Not Roger Daltrey, the athletic lead singer.  Not John Entwhistle, the band’s Darren Stevens.  And certainly not Keith Moon, the cute, spunky sparkplug.  No, I looked like Pete Townshend, the stoop-shouldered, hook-nosed guitarist.

This comparison took me by surprise.  I pictured the two of us hanging out together, like twins, perching atop cactus, and occasionally circling the desert in search of roadkill.

A few years later another big-nosed tall guy made the charts, so naturally the comparisons changed too.  Now when I wandered down the street everybody screamed “Hey, look, it’s Fleetwood Mac!”  This puzzled me, as frankly it raised more questions than it answered.  I certainly didn’t look like the entire group, having hardly enough tulle for one.  And no part of me whatsoever resembled Stevie Nicks.  I didn’t twirl, read Tarot, or snort cocaine off pale, hairless stomachs.  My suspicions raised, I popped into a record store to confirm my suspicions.  Yes, there was a tall guy with a beard and a big nose in the group.

Perhaps the word “ugly” should be thrown in there as well.  Before “tall,” in fact.  And maybe we should circle it, in sparkle marker.

Eventually the eighties ended, and I decided to change with the times.  As the barber snipped off my long, luxurious locks, though, I wasn’t just losing a resemblance to faded rock stars, or a rat’s nest that sucked up eight ounces of Dippity Doo a day.  I was gaining a horrifying new resemblance.

I didn’t get five feet from the salon before it smacked me in the face.  “You know who you look like?” some white-bread dad asked me.  He wore pleated khaki shorts, and had a cellphone the size of an ironing board strapped to his belt. “Abraham Lincoln,” he declared.

Now, I guess I should have been pleased.  After all, the man had a brilliant political mind, and was one of the major statesmen of the nineteenth century.  And he freed the slaves, and was supposedly a pretty good speaker.

But -- here’s the important part, casually tacked on -- the guy was not attractive. He was thin and gawky, always wore a stovepipe hat, and toward the tail end of his life didn’t even have the back half of his head.  And sure, maybe I don’t have the best complexion in the world, but that’s still a good-sized leap to a faceful of warts.

Plus, he was more than a little strange.  Supposedly he stored stuff in his hat, he had a voice like Meg Tilly, and once when he bought a bed, he brought the salesman home too.  Who spent the next seven years sleeping next to him, totally platonic.

One place where I totally identified with Abe, though, was with the stupid questions.  I get thirty or forty of them every day:  when did you start getting tall?  Did you parents feed you tall pills?  What’s the weather like up there?  And Lincoln got one of the worst.

One day after making a speech a female fan approached him.  She took one look at his long, lanky limbs, and asked, “Mr. Lincoln, exactly how long should a man’s legs be?”

He thought for a second before answering.  “Just long enough to reach the ground,” he said.

Now, let’s set the stage here.  It’s a pivotal time in American history.  The Civil War is raging, with almost two-thirds of a million people killed, we’re at war with Mexico.  But the thing this chick thinks is most important is how long this guy’s legs are.

This doesn’t reflect too well on women.  You start to wonder if maybe this Garden of Eden thing wasn’t such an isolated incident after all.  I mean, what was this woman thinking?  How do you get to a question like this?  She spots the president in public and she thinks, “Gosh, I’ll bet I can get away with one quick question.  What should it be?  Let’s see -- something about chickens?  No.  Game shows?  Nope.  I’ve got it!  I’ll ask him about legs.  Girth?  Hairiness?  Nah.  I’ll make it length.”

I can’t imagine anybody asking a president something so personal -- or so weird.  Picture this:  you’re seated in the third row of the Presidential Press Corps.  All the other reporters are asking questions about Iraq and the economy and employment, and you’ve been dying to get your two cents in.  Finally the press chief points to you, and you’re on.

“Mr. President,” you bark, “can you show me some more of them sweet, juicy feet?”

I guess times haven’t changed much in a hundred-something years.  Folks still ask ridiculously personal questions without even a thought to foreplay.  Where Abe got incomprehensible weirdness, though, I get an idiot’s guide to porno science.

“Is everything in proportion?” everybody asks me.  “You know, big hands, big feet . . . ?”

I’m no world class orator, so I tell them what they want to hear.  “Are you kidding?” I say.  “You can see mine from space.”

Okay, it isn't “four score and seven years ago,” but at least I don’t need to buy a mattress to find myself a man.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Noose Paper

I wasn't trying to make trouble: I just wanted to throw stuff away. Which in New York is just slightly harder than becoming the next Mrs. Donald Trump.

I'll confess right off the bat, I've never understood the recycling flyers. They turn up every so often in my mail, creating their own little stack of waste newsprint. They're decorated with caricatures of trash cans with wide eyes and flashy lipstick that made me think SpongeBob SquarePants fans are their target audience, and the rules are so odd I think whoever wrote them must surely have been nipping at the Nyquil. They said we should recycle "glass bottles and jars," but not "any other types of glass." A bottle isn't a "type" of glass, but a shape. What if I had, say, a carafe of glass? A flagon? A vial, a flask, a decanter? Why are just bottles and jars deemed worthy? Similarly with "plastic bottles and jugs." How about a jar, a canteen, a beaker? Do we ignore the little recycling triangles embossed into plastic tubs and blithely fling them into the trash?

The rules for paper are just as capricious. Corrugated cardboard boxes can be tied into bundles, they said, but there's no such instruction for newspapers or magazines. They should be thrown haphazardly into a clear bag or a green bin, apparently. Not bundled, not tied, and certainly not stuffed into a yellow bag, or a purple bin. In fact, you know all those blue bags people use for recycling? According to the flyers, they're wrong.

Oh, and while trying to memorize all the details, remember that with one tiny misstep you'll get socked with a pricey ticket. Like everybody in my building, and now me.

It all started when I ran out of twine. I'd been tying up my newspapers and magazines for years, and figured doing away with it could be a good thing. Trader Joe's packed my groceries in doubled, heavy-duty paper bags, so I figured they'd be perfect for paper castoffs. They were strong, with reinforced paper handles, and totally recyclable. How sensible it all seemed . . . for such a short time.

On recycling morning I left them out at the curb, and an hour later the building's owner rang me. ""Did you try to throw away paper bags full of paper?" Edna screamed, like I'd passed out Ex-Lax to Trick-or-Treaters. "What on earth have you been smoking?"

I calmed her down with talk of the Yankees and the weather and paying rent by wire transfer, and slowly pieced together the details. The Recycling Men had not only refused to pick up my bags, but they'd attached a ticket to one. It was my trash so it was my ticket, Edna declared, and I agreed to take care of it.

The ticket looked like it'd been scrawled by an illiterate chicken, but I could faintly make out "loose newspaper in paper bags," and the $25 fine. There were so many errors and omissions it should have been tossed out just on technicalities. But my primary thought was: You can't recycle paper in recyclable paper bags?

I called the number listed for further details, and after ringing four or five times a bored man answered. "I'd think that'd be okay," he answered to my question. "But the rule is, dispose of paper in a clear or green plastic bag. Or tie it up with twine."

Interesting, I thought. Green bag, twine. Two methods not mentioned in the rules. "Is that what you do?" I asked.

"Hell no," he said. "I just toss mine out with the trash."

I emailed friends in various parts of the country, just for a sanity check. One blanched at the idea of Trash Police, but he was from New Hampshire. It's all "Live Free Or Die" there. The rest were unanimous: "That's ridiculous," they said. "You should be able to recycle paper in a paper bag. It's paper!"

And so, determined to bring logic to city government, I decided to fight. The ticket listed a hearing date a month away, and I pictured myself confronting the ticket writer. I'd bring in both bags and have them admitted as evidence, cool as Perry Mason, and after I showed how patently absurd it all was, the crowd would leap to its feet and cheer. The case would be laughed out of court.

Wait, I thought. I can't bring in the bags. I had errands to run afterwards; how would I get rid of them? The city has inspectors who do nothing but rifle through public trash cans to ensure that nobody's mixed in their household trash. Dumping these things would probably bring out the SWAT team.

Instead I snapped a photo and brought it into the Environmental Control Office, a dirty little maze with demanding signs covering every square inch of wall. No smoking, no eating, no drinking, no admittance, no standing in this area, no cash, no credit cards. Three photocopied pages declaring "RING BELL ONCE AND RELEASE IMMEDIATELY" were taped around one barred window.

After a forty-five minute wait I was led into a room just big enough for two. Keith was my "administrative law judge," though he had the middle-aged, almost-attractive look of a guy who'd date your sister. He flipped through the papers in his folder at a table so tiny the breeze fluffed my hair. "So you're representing Rocco?" he asked.

"Who?" I asked, with the candor of a man who had nothing to hide.

"The Sanitation Department paperwork lists Rocco as the owner, so if you aren't authorized by Rocco, you can't represent him."

Time stood still while I pondered. I could say, "Oh. That's too bad," virtually ensuring I'd be standing in sunlight within twelve seconds. Or I could say, "Oh, ROCCO. I thought you said PACO. Yeah, Rocco says I can speak for him." And I'd get a shot at defending myself.

Being a lousy liar, I went with the former. Since I didn't know Rocco, I didn't get a hearing.

When Edna purchased the place, Keith explained, she'd neglected to send a notarized copy of the deed to the Sanitation Department to update their records. Like a New Yorker has ever been that bored. But the situation wasn't totally hopeless, he said. If I dragged Edna in, or if I brought in a notarized copy of the deed and eight independent witnesses, or a swarthy waiter named Tatsuo, a souvenir from the Titanic, and a hamster that knew Jiu Jitsu, I could have a hearing.

Until then, I couldn't defend my trash in court.

I waited for Keith to laugh and tell me I'd been Punk'd, but he didn't. Somehow he kept a straight face, like it was actually possible to convince a landlord that Garbage Court would be a great way to spend an afternoon. Mine wouldn't fall for it. In fact, Edna and I had nearly exchanged gunfire over a letter marked "OCCUPANT."

"Level with me," I said. "If I brought in the old owner and the new owner and both of their lawyers and two independent witnesses and a dog that barked 'I love you,' would I win?"

He looked at my photo and then glared at me, like I'd offered him a hit off my bong. "Nope. You can't recycle paper in a brown paper bag."

I wrote out a check for the fine, my self-esteem dwindling with my bank balance. So much for bringing sense or reason to government. In fact, it'd take major alcohol to make me forget this travesty.

Drunk from a ewer, or a flagon, or an urn.

Why We Nag.

Relationships get easier as you get older. At the beginning everybody expects perfection, which means it’s nag, nag, nag. “Did you pick up my clothes at the dry cleaners?” “Did you drop off the mail at the post office?” Did you stop and get butter at the store?”

Of course, you’ve gotta defend yourself. “You never told me to pick up nothing.” “You never told me to drop off nothing.” “You never told me to buy nothing.”

And then the arguing starts: “Of course I told you! We were sitting on the couch watching TV, and I said this, and you said that, and blah blah blah.”

Then, about ten years into the relationship, it hit me: I didn’t need to defend anything. I was old and married and stupid, and it was about time I used that to my advantage. “Okay, maybe you told me,” I said. “Maybe I forgot. What, you think I’m some kind of genius? I’ve got to look down to make sure I’m wearing pants.”

There’s plenty of ready excuses when you’re older -- plus you’ve got a history together, so now you don’t have to care. Early on you pay close attention, because you know there’s going to be a quiz. They’ll have a birthday or expect some kind of thoughtful gift somewhere down the line. Every time they pick up a catalog you grab a pencil and paper, ready to take notes about anything they like.

After eight or ten years, it doesn’t matter so much. They flip through a catalog and their eyes grow wide. “Oooh,” they exclaim. “I like that!”

“Yeah,” you reply, sick of their voice. “You like all kinds of stuff.”

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Being freakishly tall.

I’m not six foot six. You may be under that impression if you were one of the twelve million people who asked me today exactly how tall I am, because that's what I told you. But there’s an upper limit that divides "really tall" from "freakishly tall," and call me crazy for occasionally wanting to pretend I’m under it.

Really, I’m six foot eight. If you’ve got a tall brother or a knack at estimating length you might have suspected that. But what are you going to do, call me a liar?

Nobody ever shuts up with just that question. “When did you get so tall?” they ask next. “Are your parents tall?” “Are you the tallest one in your family?” Their need for information confuses me. “Are you conducting a study?” I ask.

My parents always told me I should be proud to be tall. I didn’t believe them for a second, because they also said that one day I’d be happy I saved myself, and that everybody secretly envies guys who play the banjo. I never understood their rationale. Like it’s nice going to the doctor and hearing him wonder if I’ve got the disease that killed Lurch. Like being able to reach the canned okra in stores makes up for the fact that I’ll never have nice clothes, or coordination, or shoulders.

And it’s a little hard to be optimistic when the tallest man on record died at the age of 22. Nobody’d be proud to be Irish if Gaelic spines collapsed when they passed their teens.

Dating is hard for tall guys. People actually ask me if I date guys who are shorter than I am. “I’d better,” I tell them. “Because Wilt Chamberlain’s the only guy who’s taller, and he doesn’t want to go out.”

Men assume that because I’m tall I’m big and butch and dangerous. This causes a lot of disappointment among my dates. Like they'd bought a dalmatian, then discovered it got sick whenever it rode in the car.

But the good news is, times are changing. The stereotypes are loosening. It used to be, everybody automatically assumed I played basketball. Now it’s different.

Now a lot of people think I’m a drag queen.

Yeah, you better work.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Time to break the Harley-Davidson out of mothballs.

Spring is in the air.

Trixie, the idiot dog of the idiot neighbors who’s been skating across a pool of her frozen urine all winter, is bereft. Her playground has melted, and now after she whizzes she watches sadly as it runs off into the adjoining concrete yards rather than frosting another slick layer onto her own personal skating rink. Nothing stops her from pissing like a racehorse, but you can tell it’s not nearly as fun when the sole result is annoyed folks downhill.

The idiot neighbors have broken their Harley-Davidsons out of mothballs and now spend all their days cleaning and polishing them with the fastidiousness of manicurists, though no beautician I know would decorate a greasy ponytail with an even greasier bandana. Once their machines meet their exacting standards -- their users’ manuals surely use words like “bitchin’,” “rad” and “grody” -- they roll them in front of other people's windows and fire the things up. Everybody within earshot leap out of their chairs, car alarms go off, and all’s right with the idiot world.

Occasionally a moron will stretch a pasty thigh across the leather saddle seat and circle around the block, revving more than his twelve-mile-an hour speed seems to require. While the chimes of an ice cream truck coax out the normal children, the deafening farts of the idiot bike bring the idiot spawn running. Finally, after his fifteenth circle, when his appearance is met with looks of “You again?” from even the stupidest child, he parks the thing on the sidewalk, where its rumble awakens the bored Trixie. She barks forlornly and once again spritzes at the cement, then waits in vain for her pee to freeze.

Why I'd rather do the dishes than have sex.

The pots and pans don't glare at my flabby hands.

The spoons don’t tell me how hard to scrub.

Coffee mugs don’t beg me to whisper what I’m going to do to them.

Plates don’t mind if I turn on the TV during the dull parts.

Corningware doesn’t howl like a monkey while I’m rinsing it.

The cups and saucers don’t demand to be washed again two hours later.

Bowls don’t need me to tell them how dirty they are.

Tupperware doesn’t smoke after it's clean.

At least I know where my forks has been.

After I do the dishes only my fingers turn pruny.