Ed Lin's Posts

Q&A With Actor Hoon Lee

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Hoon Lee, being bowled over.

Don’t diss “Banshee” star Hoon Lee on Twitter, even if you’re just kidding.

Lee had tweeted about an upcoming guest appearance on an episode of “The Black List” and I replied, tongue in cheek, “You’ve been on my black list for years.” I was rewarded with a fan of Lee’s telling me to “Back the fuck up!”

After I assured the tweeter that I was only kidding and that I was writing a profile about him, she gushed, “Mr.Lee is an awesome actor! He takes you into the heart of the character.” She added, “and he’s CUTE as hell!” Others had similar thoughts.

After watching two seasons of Cinemax’s hit show “Banshee,” it’s easy to see why Lee has so many fans. Apart from his ample acting chops, Lee is the most imposing Asian male presence ever in an American series. The man is as muscular as an action figure and can hold the menacing gaze of a panther. Lee’s cut enough to go shirtless, but for “Banshee” he takes it to another level: He squeezes into tight skirts. Job, Lee’s character (pronounced the biblical way), is a cross-dressing hair stylist and genius computer hacker who snaps lines like, “Suck my tit!”

Lee says he lost 30 pounds for his vision of Job. Staying in that shape isn’t always easy because in Charlotte, N.C., where “Banshee” is filmed, “You get hit with a biscuit every five steps.” He’s going to be hit with a lot more biscuits: “Banshee” was recently renewed for a third season.

You wouldn’t know it from seeing Job, but IRL Lee laughs easily and often. I caught up with Lee over ramen and pork buns–a reward for completing an intense physical workout session.

Hoon Lee

Giant Robot: How did you prepare to get into Job’s mind for the first time? Is it easier to slip into it now?

Hoon Lee: The first time would have been my audition. The scene was a confrontation with “homophobes,” I believe the script called them, in a diner. I keyed in on the things I knew I could swing: a sense of vindication, anger, violent intent. Everything else, the sort of external affects of the character I just sort of took a stab at. The script certainly carried a lot of the character to begin with. The character seemed “full” on the page already.

There’s an adjustment period with Job — to settle back in after I’ve been out of the skin for a bit. And so much of what he does and says is quite different from my natural impulse. So I have to make sure I give myself a bit of a soak in the character before cameras roll. I wouldn’t say it’s “easier” but I would say I have more faith that I’ll find him if I put in that little bit of time.

GR: Banshee is infused with violence and sex. But after the initial shock wears off, it seems like an artistic choice, sort of like the excess of bullets flying around in a John Woo film. There’s something deeper under there. At the core of it, what does Banshee mean to you?

HL: Banshee, to me, is a continuation of American popular fiction — gothic fiction, detective fiction, comic books, pulp. Like many of those genres, and like sci-fi, I think it establishes its own rules — heightened drama, sex, violence — as a way of re-lensing common and persistent themes. Things like the search for identity, self-knowledge, reinvention. Or the bonds of loyalty and family. Innocence and corruption. Everyone in Banshee is sort of in the process of reinvention. Which is perhaps the single greatest American trope there is. So at its core, I think Banshee is about American reinvention in the face of forces that want to prevent that.

GR: You’ve always lived in the Northeast so is it a bit of a culture shock living in Charlotte during shooting?

HL: Yes! But in a good way. We’re only there part of the year so the change in climate, general civility and pace is actually very welcome. I get to enjoy it on its own terms, knowing I’m not really putting down permanent roots. Six months is long enough to feel you’re not really a tourist, but not long enough to grow tired of the good things on offer.

Hoon Lee _ Frankie Faison

GR: Are you anxious to get back to the stage? I’m sure New York’s dying to see you tear it up again in person.

HL: I’m dying to — that still feels native to me. I get excited to do readings or workshops of new things in particular. Sadly the timing doesn’t always work out. Our hiatus is broken up by the holidays so it’s not always easy to commit to a theatre project on either side of the New Year. But stretching new muscles in the world of television and film is proving very rewarding. I’m learning a lot about the process as a whole, not just the relatively small part that is acting in a single role.

But yes. Dying to get back to stage. Would love to do some classics actually.

GR: Like a dirty little secret, people still get off on memories of Sides: The Fear Is Real by The Mr. Miyagi Theater Company. The last time the Miyagi crew was together, some were saying it felt like there was still unfinished business. Can the world expect an updated Sides at some point?

HL: Man, I don’t know! It’s very gratifying that people remember that show so fondly. But it’s been a really long time! I would never say “never” and if the right opportunity presented itself I’d leap at it. But the original show grew very organically and I wouldn’t want to force anything. I think when the time’s right something will pop into view.

GR: You’re like Jeremy Lin in some ways–Harvard guy goes and does the atypical, the unexpected. What advice do you have to younger people who want to pursue the arts but have hardass parents who are set on them going to medical school or worse?

HL: I’m so not like Jeremy Lin — as anyone who has seen me do anything athletic will tell you.
Any advice I might give is going to sound either incredibly clichéd or so general as to be meaningless. Everyone’s situation is specific to them. I guess the only thing I’d say is if nothing else, make sure you are checking in with yourself regularly and with complete honesty. Drives and desires change and fluctuate. The romance of being an artist might fade with time and lead you to more practical thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly stagnation in a more secure job might spur you to a different artistic challenge. Be honest about what you are actually pursuing though because there’s more overlap than you might think between professions. And things like “creativity” aren’t reserved for the arts. You can find that everywhere.

GR: What are your favorite toys?

HL: Right now, computers. Favorite tools and favorite toys. Especially the tiny handheld ones that look like phones…

Hoon Lee



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Q&A With Author Bushra Rehman

And I’m not talking about the beer, though it may help! (Art by Chitra Ganesh)

This is one of these short books that you finish in a few hours and it resonates with you for weeks, maybe years and possibly for the rest of your life. Corona reads like a fascinating collection of journals and fiction mashed together in a backpack and bound as is. It’s quite fitting that author Bushra Rehman was a vagabond poet.

Bushra and I met not even a year after after 9/11 and it’s a complete coincidence that I’m posting this on an anniversary of 9/11. 9/11 actually figures into the fabric of Corona, as narrator Razia Mirza, a Pakistani woman from Corona, Queens, travels through the country and through time, through troubled relationships and relationships with trouble. Smoking pot with asshole soon-to-be-ex-boyfriends. Drinking beer with racists in the burbs. It’s funny, it’s sad and, if you hang on long enough like Razia manages to, it’s funny again. The book is a brilliant rendering of life and if it is not always life-affirming, it is always genuine and honest.

Are you in New York this Friday Sept. 13? I strongly suggest you come to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and see Bushra in all her glory. She is a fantastic reader and always a joy to behold.

Below is Bushra’s official bio. Below that is a little romp of a Q&A with her.

Bushra Rehman’s first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press) is a dark comedy about being South Asian in the United States and was noted among this year’s Best Debut Fiction by Poets & Writers. Rehman’s first book, which she co-edited with Daisy Hernandez, Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism was included in Ms. Magazine’s 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time. Her writing has been featured in numerous anthologies and on BBC Radio 4, WNYC, and KPFA and in Poets & Writers, The New York Times, India Currents, Crab Orchard Review, Sepia Mutiny, Color Lines, The Feminist Wire, and Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America.

1) When we met you were a poet. Did you shift to narrative storytelling or have you been collecting these stories all along?

Yes, I remember those crazy tours we did with the Asian American Literary Caravan, hitting unsuspecting Asian-American students all over the country with our insidious literature! My poems were all so heavy and disturbing back then that I started to tell funny stories in the middle about my own personal misadventures to lighten the mood. That way the audience could join me on the emotional rollercoaster of my mind.  The book is composed of some of those funny stories, mixed in with some heavy dark moments. Onwards with the Asian American Literary Caravan!

2) There are so many crazy, dangerous and awful things that happen in Corona, and yet the reader comes away from it in the same way that the narrator Razia does — with a measure of humor. I feel that people who’ve lived tough lives are usually funny because they had to laugh their way through times that were hard. Don’t you agree?

You know I do. The hardest times in my life were the times I laughed the hardest. I hope people laugh out loud when they read Corona, especially if they’re going through a hard time.

Bushra’s not flaky at all. (Photo by Jaishri Abichandani)

3) True or false? People with roots in Pakistan, which literally means, “Land of the Pure,” are naturals to portray Puritans.

Ha!  All the required body parts are covered with a Puritan costume, and they have so much in common, like praying. I loved writing about a Pakistani woman working as a Puritan in Salem. When I was a child, I thought living history museums were places where English immigrants were so successful in preserving their culture, they’d completely lost track of time and place. Of course I also want to share this fun fact, that Salem, Massachusetts, is where the first South Asians settled in the United States in the 1700s. They were sailors who worked for the East India Trading Company. They jumped ship and blended into the Native population. So it makes sense that when Razia leaves home, she heads straight for Salem to be a Puritan.

4) What would happen if hipsters began to migrate to Corona and turn it into the new Williamsburg? There goes the neighborhood or change is welcome?

What are you trying to do Ed, make me lose the only audience that has the money to buy my book? Such a loaded question… so I’ll have to give a loaded answer, whether it’s loaded with BS, time will tell.

If the implied definition is that hipster=uber cool trust fund kids with a lots of attitude who cause the rents to increase wherever they move, it would be terrible! Corona is a family neighborhood with people from every part of the globe living there. It’s still a place where you can afford to raise a family. Whether or not they intend for this to happen, the presence of hipsters displaces these families. So, is it too late for me to say, “Corona is an imaginary neighborhood, people. It does not exist. Do not try to move there. You will get shot-imaginarily.”

I was so into this question, I ran it by a number of friends. One said, “Corona was already the ultimate hipster joint.”  Back in the 40s and 50s, it was home to the original hipsters, the jazz greats, Louis Armstrong, Nat Adderley and Jimmy Heath. What a great answer.

Another friend, who grew up in Williamsburg when it was rough and tumble, tumble being a euphemism for people dying on the street, and I talked until we found the hidden question: Why can’t people of color who pay taxes (maybe more taxes then hipsters) get the city resources to live in safe and clean neighborhoods?

At the end of the day, even I cannot move back to Corona. I’d just want to sit in a café with my laptop writing the next great American novel like the worst hipster around.

  I also want to share this fun fact, that Salem, Massachusetts, is where the first South Asians settled in the United States in the 1700s.

5) It’s interesting that the people who have been traditional threats — bikers, hot-blooded Italian men — are actually the one looking out for Razia while the traditional protectors — family and lovers — are the real menaces. Are you trying to say that Everything You Know About People Is Wrong?

Oh my god is it? Is everything I know about people wrong? No wonder things keep getting messed up! You know I rarely set out with a message when I’m writing, then later readers help me know what I’m thinking. It’s a highly advanced, complicated and inefficient form of psychotherapy for a person like me who is too broke to pay for it.

6) What are your favorite toys?

I don’t remember having toys in the traditional sense. There were these rusty milk crates we used to build up a lot into different structures and one year there was this old broken down car in my friend’s yard. We spent a whole summer pretending to drive around and go on adventures. It was so fun, it’s strange I never learned how to drive.

I do remember thirteen years ago being at Burning Man clutching a 2 liter bottle of water and someone saying, “You’re holding that like a teddy bear,” and I said, “I didn’t have teddy bears. I had younger siblings.” It’s true. When I first rocked my newborn daughter to sleep, I thought, this reminds me of my childhood. It was a sweet feeling.



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Q&A With Author Matthew Salesses

A swimmingly excellent novel.

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is a new novel in flash fiction by Matthew Salesses.

In 115 chapters, all shorter than a page and some as short as five lines of text, Salesses details a man’s life that is simultaneously falling apart and coming together.

A boy who is apparently his moves in with him after the mother passes away. Yet the man continues to juggle two affairs on the side while maintaining a passable relationship with “the wifely woman.” Meanwhile, his career advances, with no discernible effort on his part.

Possibly medicated (prescribed and otherwise) into ambivalence, the narrator puts in appearances where and when necessary most of the time, trying to stave off the genuine pain that comes from true engagement. And yet, by taking his poison a thimbleful at a time, the bite eventually seeps in and both the narrator and the reader come to an understanding about his place in the world.

Salesses is a husband and a father. His writing has been published widely. Recently, he took the time to share some thoughts about I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying with GR.

 

1) Is it harder or easier to write against type? I can tell you’re a nice guy and a good dad, so what is it like to write about a man who is ambivalent about relationships and fatherhood?

I’m not sure whether it’s harder or easier, in general. It’s harder for me to make up someone than to use myself as a character. One thing I like about nonfiction is that I don’t have to worry about how to create fully rounded characters; I only have to worry about how to represent people/myself as fully rounded.

The reason to choose fiction over nonfiction is to get at a truth that can’t be gotten at, or can’t be presented, as convincingly in an essay. Which means that in fiction I’m often writing against type, because I want to tell a story, and I don’t generally make a lot of interesting things happen in real life.

In this book, that choice meant using the voice of someone more directly conflicted than I am. I could have written nonfiction about my own fear of commitment, but it wouldn’t have been as interesting or convincing (coming from a married man with a daughter) as the story of this narrator, who is deeply afraid and makes choices out of that fear.

I guess to answer the question, it would have been harder to write this particular story if the narrator was nicer and a better dad.

I’ve never actually seen an Easy-Bake Oven, but I love the myth of it.

2) Flash fiction. Here to stay as a viable format, or something that, in the future, will date all work to 201X?

Here since at least Kafka, or maybe oral myths, and here to stay.

Also, I remember teachers telling me in undergrad to write fiction that is timeless and would last because it couldn’t be dated. I don’t think I believe that, now. I like fiction that represents a particular time and place, whether that’s Homer’s Greece or our present, and I don’t think that timeliness prohibits something from being timeless.

3) How and when did you determine that your narrator wouldn’t have a name? Was it a conscious decision or did you put it off and then realize he didn’t need one?

I don’t name a character, especially a narrator, unless I have to. If you call a character, “Mom,” then the reader brings up an immediate image (for good or bad), but if you call her Alice, the associations aren’t as evocative or useful–at least until you make her Alice.

4) Regarding the cover art, what were the circumstances that you first saw it? Does a fish on a line symbolize the narrator’s life? He’s thinks he’s somewhat free, swimming in the air, and yet he’s really caught?

I found the cover art years ago, and years before I started this book. I was looking for a cover for the magazine I edited then, Redivider. The image has stuck with me–partly because it tells a story of its own. There is a symbolism to it in the context of the image itself–the kite-fish is pretty clearly a symbol in the drawing.

Why I think it works as a cover for this book is that the association can be made between the story told by the cover and the story told by the novel. That is (I hope), it multiplies the associations and symbolism in a way. I wouldn’t want to say it means something in particular.

5) What are your favorite toys?

The Easy-Bake Oven–I’ve never actually seen one, but I love the myth of it. I love people’s reactions when it comes up in conversation.

My favorite toys as a kid were sticks and the bullet shells my friend and I used to find in the sand dunes behind his house. A toy is just something you make into play.



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Oh, Snap!

 

C’mon, Trader Joe’s People!



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Top 10 Shows of 2012

 

2012 was a pretty great year for shows, but of course, some are way better than others. Here are my top 10!

Psychedelic Furs play tiny Maxwell’s in Hoboken, recapturing some of the magic from the first two awesome albums (at least until they play “Heartbreak Beat”).

 

Bruce Springsteen! At Madison Square Garden! My first time seeing Bruce live. Everybody should go at least once and soon. He’s the hardest-working man in showbiz.

 

Swervedriver at Bowery Ballroom. The juggernaut returns!  Frontman Adam Franklin is awesome singing in this band and solo.

 

Asobi Seksu at Highline Ballroom. Yeah, man! The coolest band in the world keeps smokin’!

 

Agnostic Front at Warsaw. Three decades along, the veterans show the whippersnappers also on the Power of the Riff bill how it’s done.

 

Asobi Seksu at Brooklyn Bowl. They count again because Yuki sang through a cold for this show. She is like so great!

 

Grimes at Hudson River Park. The show almost didn’t happen due to warnings for a thunderstorm, but Grimes could not be denied. Not my sort of music at all, but from the standpoint of delivering a live show — she killed it!

 

Ringo Deathstarr at Cake Shop. My favorite new band will go on to rule the fucking universe!

 

Public Image Limited at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. John Lydon has a never-ending supply of bile.

 

Corrosion of Conformity at St. Vitus. The Animosity-era lineup is having the time of their lives playing shows, judging by the smiles and jokes. “How’s the weather?” asked singer/bassist Mike Dean. This was about a week after Hurricane Sandy. “Too soon!” yelled back an unflappable audience member. New York. You gotta love it.



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Hurricane Sandy and Midtown Manhattan

Grand Central Station, one of the busiest terminals in the world, is locked and completely empty.

Sandy hammered New York City Monday night. Midtown Manhattan was spared of the worst. We don’t have flooding like other parts of the city, but 39th Street has emerged as the dividing line of the have and have-nots. Of electricity that is. I’m straddling both worlds because while I don’t have power at home, I do at work! Here are some pics from my morning commute.

A loss of power doesn’t stop the Korean greengrocer from staying open while nearly all chain groceries and drug stores are closed.

 

One of my favorite burger joints remains closed, but they prepared as most other businesses did by boarding up the doors and laying down plastic to prevent flooding into the below-the-street storage.

 

As a former Cub Scout, I know that in the case of rain (or record hurricanes), the flag should be taken down and stored inside. C’mon, closed post-office people!

 

This Sanitation Dept. big gun is probably headed to the Lower East Side, parts of which are under a few feet of water. Wonder what kind of shape the old GRNY space is in!

 

Not only are our bus lines down, but so are some of the bus signs! Even though the MTA has suspended trains and buses, cars are still assiduously avoiding the bus lanes even though I doubt they’d be fined at this point.

 

No days off for Asians! Most countries have closed their consulates for the day — not the Philippines! The guy’s stepped out for a moment, though.



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C’mon, Supermarket People!

Allied Old English is the maker of this fine “sauce,” which is basically sugar! You know, if you’re gonna do it this way, at least make the whole thing in a chinky font. C’mon!



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Q&A With Writer Gina Apostol

Photo by Ken Byrne

 

Gina Apostol’s fascinating novel Gun Dealer’s Daughter has just been published in an American edition. This incredible book traces the seduction of Sol, a young privileged girl, by a romantics in a revolutionary group during the heady Marcos era in The Philippines. The first-person narrative is colored with defective memories and unreliable (but sympathetic) narratives. The reader will fall apart with Sol when she realizes too late that she’s sealed the cruel fate of the one person who truly cared about her.

I recently had the pleasure to read Gun Dealer’s Daughter and Gina agreed to a few questions and answers for Giant Robot readers. For those in New York City, Gina will be reading with Sabina Murray at The Asian American Writers’ Workshop on Thursday Sept. 6.

 

Congratulations on writing such a stunner of a book. Has anything changed editorially from its original 2010 publication on Anvil in the Philippines and the American W.W. Norton edition earlier this year?

I cut some sections of the opening, mainly. I had always thought the beginning was too slow. But I was also attached and wanted to keep everything. I did keep most of it, like the carousel ride, etc., minutiae the reader would not remember but I thought were crucial to my design—the book was designed with a circle in mind. My editor helped me cut. It was great to work with an editor who was, to my mind, always on the same page with me, but had a sharp eye for killing, killing, killing all the lice—Flaubert’s term for the incidents and words you can get rid of, but don’t want to, because they have already sucked your blood.

 

 I was once at this coffee shop in Baltimore listening to this incredibly stunning kid go on and on about Salinger and why she loved Catcher in the Rye. She turned out to be Winona Ryder talking to her boyfriend at the time, Johnny Depp

 

I couldn’t help but feel a certain vibe similar to the film Heathers. The feeling of play-revolutionaries mixed in with adolescent infatuation careening into something horribly real. How far would the teenage-girl narrator go in her zeal to impress Jed? On a different day would Sol (the girl) and Soli have changed places?

I just found the novel’s old Mac disks (those cute, colored squares that slide into the 1990s Macintoshes—I still keep that computer in my closet, like a sad robot of things past) and they were labeled Fil CITR —Filipino Catcher in the Rye. Oh, snap. It was only when I had finished the book that I thought—the bookend of carousels is a secret nod—of course!—to Catcher in the Rye. Heathers is a very good reference. All those films and books about adolescent stupor among the beautiful who become the damned. Now if Winona Ryder could also sing the Internationale as well as epater le bourgeois girls, she’d be Sol’s sister. I was once at this coffee shop in Baltimore listening to this incredibly stunning kid go on and on about Salinger and why she loved Catcher in the Rye. She turned out to be Winona Ryder talking to her boyfriend at the time, Johnny Depp. He was in town doing the movie Crybaby. He had a huge pimple on his face because John Waters kept making him eat Cheez Doodles or something during the shoot. What one learns from such models is that it is not good to take your teenage angst seriously. You might come to a bad end. In Winona’s case, she shoplifted; if only Sol had done the same. I always thought if Holden in Catcher had grown up in the Third World, he’d have turned into a good Maoist instead of just wandering drunk on Fifth Avenue and wiping off graffiti from the Egyptians at the Met. For me, of course, the difference between Heathers and Holden and Sol—and Winona—is that in Gun Dealer, adolescent angst is diagnosed as a political matter—even our malaise has consequences beyond the small pool of our local disenchantments. As for Sol’s thing with Jed—it is, I think, a cover for other lusts—above all the lust to be “real.” She has the Velveteen Bunny around her, after all, toys, the illusory world her parents bought, but like the bunny she wants to be real. Jed is a screen for that hunger, but I think even Sol knows she’s fooling herself. If you asked me, I’d have told her to get rid of Jed, from day one. Guy’s a dope. But I am not Sol. The thing about Sol and Soli is that they are meant to be somehow interchangeable, I think, but I am not sure. That Sol has, perhaps, a desire to be that other one, Soli, her ethical self, maybe, but she’s locked in her own merry-go-round of security, her carousel of comfort.

 

I fucking don’t care if Mitt Romney has ever felt alienated in his life

(more…)



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A Robot’s Holiday in Beijing

Recently, I took a GIANT leap for a ROBOT and went off to explore the ancient city of Beijing. I had to start at The Great Wall. How can you not? I got some looks from people. I think they were imagining ripping off my arms and legs and sucking out the meat and juice.

Tiananmen Square was next. It was sort of square. Not a whole lot going on. There were some hawkers around so I bought some cheap firmware, lubricating oil and a memory upgrade that also included a bootleg of Anaconda.

I wrapped up at the Beijing Zoo. This famous stone tiger was my favorite animal because he reminded me of me. Stoic and strong. See you soon!



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Q&A With Actor Louis Ozawa Changchien

(Copyright, Harry Fellows 2012)

Louis Ozawa Changchien is a man of many faces so it’s a good thing he’s a damn good actor and not a thief. You may know him for having the most memorable scene in Predators (2010) in which his yakuza character Hanzo fights through a kendo match with a Falconer Predator. Changchien, who is of Taiwanese and Japanese descent, will be seen next in The Bourne Legacy (Aug. 10), although action movies aren’t his only forte. New Yorkers have an opportunity see him on stage in Kenneth Lin’s “Warrior Class,” playing Asian American Assemblyman Julius Lee making a run at Congress. “There is nothing more terrifying,” Changchien says of his role in the play, which opens today. By the way, his name “Louis” is pronounced the French way.

Giant Robot: Please explain how you can have major roles in action-oriented films such as Predators and The Bourne Legacy and yet still play a lead in a staged political drama such as ‘Warrior Class.” What’s more dangerous: going one-on-one with a Falconer Predator or running for public office?

Louis Ozawa Changchien: Running for public office for sure. At least I knew who my enemy was in Predators! I’ll take my chances with a sword over just using my mouth any day. It’s a rare opportunity for an Asian American actor to play a politician in a contemporary play. No special effects, no explosions, no guns to hide behind. Just three actors on a stage speaking the unspeakable to each other. There is nothing more terrifying. I’m hoping that the audience will enter Julius’ journey into the backroom battle that is politics. In Hollywood, I’m asked to look tough and shut my mouth. Don’t get me wrong, these action movies can be physically demanding: tumbling down volcanic rock that is razor sharp in nothing but flesh-colored Vibram Five Fingers and a cashmere silk three-piece suit in the middle of a sweltering hot rainforest is pretty intense. Or fighting the Falconer Predator in 30-degree weather shirtless while being sprayed down with water for 12 hours in the dead of winter in Austin was pretty demanding, too. And let’s not forget the stomach bug that hammered me while shooting Bourne in Manila.  I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I was throwing up every 15 minutes on one of my most intense days of stunts. I had a bucket next to me that I would hurl into right before the cameras would start rolling.

GR: You’re a graduate of Stuy, an extremely difficult high school to test into. Did your parents hit the roof when you told them you wanted to act? What advice would you give to young people who need to break the news to their parents that they don’t want to be doctors?

Changchien: Actually, I was lucky. My folks have always been very supportive of my artistic endeavors. But then again, I think they knew that there was no stopping me. For young folks, especially young Asian American children of immigrants, it’s hard to envision a successful life as an artist. I had no clue how to truly live as an artist. We have so little precedence and so few role models. And the path is never so clear. It’s not like being a doctor or lawyer. Going to school is no guarantee of work, although, I’d recommend it to all young actors. There are so few Asian roles out there, you’d better be good when your opportunity comes. Be prepared for some ups and downs. Save money, and try to enjoy the ride. Try to see and be involved in the best shit. And try to communicate all of this to your folks. I know it can be tough sometimes with Asian parents, but it’s only because they don’t have success stories as a frame of reference. Nobody wants to see their kids struggle. My mom is always asking if I’m eating enough, or if I have enough money!

GR: It seems that American actors of East Asian and South Asian descent are hitting a stride now in film and television. In your fantasy TV show, who would play your mom and dad and why?

Changchien: Can we get Pat Morita out of the grave? He’d be a cool dad. And Gong Li would be my dad’s new wife. But then, it’d be an Oedipal story.

GR: I once overheard an actor say that while he was having steady film and TV work, he needs to act on stage to sharpen his acting skills and raise his game. Do you agree? Apart from that, do you find a live audience intimidating?

Changchien: I think that was me who said that! Yes I agree. I think having a live audience is mostly thrilling. But when I’m nervous I convince myself that the spectators are out there paying money to have a good time. I figure if I’m having a good time on stage maybe they will, too.

GR: Recently you’ve been to Asia for film promotions and for filming itself, and I know you’ve spent time there growing up in Taiwan and Japan. Do you ever see yourself pulling a Daniel Wu and moving there for a good chunk of time and working there?

Changchien: My folks live in Japan so it’s nice to have opportunities to work out there. However,  I don’t think I’ll move there for long periods of time. New York is my home. And I now have a dog. Who is a monster. He’s a six-month-old pit bull and it’s hard to travel with such a big dog (he’s already 55 pounds).

GR: Are you a coffee or a tea guy? Describe a perfect cup.

Changchien: Coffee for sure. I like making my own coffee. I like Stumptown and Ninth Street coffee beans. Intelligentsia is dope too. My local spot Joe on 23rd and Ninth makes good cortados. Sometimes I use one of those Hario ceramic gizmos to make a nice cup of filtered coffee or I’ve got a stove-top espresso maker, which I’m about to use now. If I’m going to have tea, I like to make oolong. Hey, I’m Taiwanese.

GR: What are your favorite toys?

Changchien: Gee, that’s a tough one. I used to have a lot of toys. I liked cars and motorcycles but I got rid of everything to live in Manhattan. My custom-made Hanzo action figure is my favorite toy at the moment. It’s made by this guy named James Ellis and he did an incredible job. I’m the only person in the world who has one! I also have a small watch collection. I’ve added the watch I wore in Predators and the one I wore in Bourne into the mix. These time pieces mean a lot to me. The one from Predators is the Hamilton Ventura Elvis Anniversary edition. It’s cool cause Predators was my first lead role in a Hollywood film. Any time I put that watch on, it brings back a lot of memories. The watch from Bourne is actually quite rare. It’s made by a small American company called Kobold, based out of Pittsburgh of all places. And the manufacturer was nice enough to engrave “The Bourne Legacy” and my character’s name onto the back. Bourne was a physically and mentally demanding experience for me. I wear this watch to remind me that I can survive a lot more than I think.



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 21

(Art by spoon+fork.)

When I got off the New Jersey Transit train, Johnson honked twice from his car and popped open the passenger door.

“Where’s the old sedan?” I asked.

“That was a piece of junk,” he said.  “I think they sunk it in the harbor to give the fish a new place to play.”  He looked me over carefully.  “Have you put on weight?”

“I eat more than I used to,” I said.  “I have more money than I ever had in my entire life.”

“I hope you’re saving some.  This city eats money as fast as you can feed it.”

“You are right about that, man.”

“LaVerne treating you right?”

“Yeah, I can’t complain.  It’s the most serious job I ever had.  I iron my shirts now!”

“I hope you stay on the straight path from here on out because I like you.  I want you to know, Sean, a lot of times I had to pretend to be mean.”

“I understand.”

“What’s that you’re reading?”

“Oh, it’s a mystery book.  I found it on the train.  I can see why they left it.”

“What did you think about the reading program when you were in jail?”

“The reading program?  Well, the library was great.”

“Yeah, those library books!  Did you hear the news that some communist groups have been filling prison libraries with their propaganda books and they had people on the inside who made sure they were distributed?”

“Was it illegal?”

“No, since the books were being donated, but the Church groups are hopping mad.  They’ve filed a lawsuit for equal shelf space.”

“That’s crazy!”

“It’s Jersey.  It’s standard operating procedure.”

“I don’t miss Jersey bullshit at all,” I said, surprising myself. “Any of it.”

“Naw, guess you don’t, ya city slicker!  Hey, you going to write a book?  Tell all about the whole drug thing?”

“I had thought about it.”

“And?”

“Let’s just say I understand why people wait until everybody else is dead before they write what really happened.”

“Yeah, you want to see me drop dead,” said Johnson, nodding his head.  “But that’s not going to happen.  At least not tonight.”

“Thanks for the invite to stay over, but I have that business trip tomorrow.  LaVerne’s taking me to the Los Angeles office.”

“Ah, yeah.  First time on a plane for you.  I understand.  For the first time you’re gonna get high the natural way.”

“What’s it like flying?”

“Stop sounding like a kid.  At least, don’t ask none of these guys at the bar.  They’ll think you’re a pussy instead of a hero.”

When I walked into JJ’s, shouts went up from everyone in the bar.  For the second time, I was the only white person in there, but now everyone wanted to come up and clap me on the back and shake my hand.

The bartender Curly came from around the corner and gave me a hug.

“Come on over here, I wanna show you a little something,” he said, walking me back to a spot by the jukebox.  There was a framed picture of me from the Asbury Park Press.

“You’re the first white man on the wall!” he said with pride.

It was true.  There was room made for me between two ancient pictures of doo-wop groups.

“I didn’t do that much,” I said.

“You stopped that towel-headed, snake-charmer motherfucker from selling more drugs to black kids.  That’s plenty,” Curly said.

Johnson cleared his throat.

“Come on,” he said, putting an arm around the bartender, “let’s get this man some drinks.”

Curly took a pewter mug down from the wall and washed it out.

“I’m gonna let you drink out of the John Vandyne Heroes Cup!”

“Who’s John Vandyne?” I asked.

(more…)



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 20

(Art by spoon+fork.)

A nice suit made me look sharp.  More importantly, it gave me confidence.  I’d never worn anything that gave me such a mental boost, apart from a protector cup.  I got my hair trimmed like Chuck told me, and before we got into the courtroom he took out a comb and tried to run it over me.

I flinched and grabbed his arm.

“Don’t give me your dandruff, Chuck!”

“Hey, it’s not my comb.  I just bought it!” he said.  “Anyway, you can do your own hair, Sean.”  Chuck handed it over and I repaired myself.

I got up on the stand and after they were done with the Bible, I got a good look at Mr. Aggarwal.

He folded and unfolded his arms and shook his right leg.  The lapels of his shirt were uneven and the tie knot was mushy.  His eyes were downcast and only slightly open, like his mouth.  Sometimes he would rub his ears.

Mrs. Aggarwal wasn’t around.

I had both feet on the ground and I placed my hands on my knees.  I made the left and right fingers mirror each other in the same exact spot.

Then I lied.

I lied like a motherfucker.

I had premonitions of what my testimony would be like.  I knew I wouldn’t be nervous.  I just pretended I was trying to get a girl to take a ride with me.

It was Mr. Aggarwal I was unsure of.  I had a vision of him lunging at me with a knife, or maybe the same wrench that he used to kill Howard.  On TV they always kept the murder weapons on the evidence table, like they were daring the murderer to pick them up and fight their way out of the courtroom.

But the wrench wasn’t there and because there wasn’t another camera angle to cut to, a sense of action was missing in the court.  I would have been incredibly bored if I weren’t testifying.

Mr. Aggarwal was completely still with his head down.

He looked like a boy preparing to meet the principal, not a man facing the death sentence.

 

We had a recess for lunch.  Chuck took me across the street to a lunch counter with a cracked-linoleum floor.

“Sean, you’re doing great!” he told me.  “I think you missed your true calling.  You’re a natural actor!”

“Oh, yeah.  So I’ve been told.”

Chuck took off his glasses and cleaned the lenses with his tie.  I leaned into him and said: “I’m one fuck of a liar, aren’t I?”

He looked at me strangely and when he put on his glasses I saw menace in his eyes.

“Don’t say that,” he said, his voice as faint as a lead pipe scraping against a wall in a back alley.  “Don’t ever say that.”

Chuck ordered a toasted plain bagel with nothing on it.  I got the tuna salad sandwich and a coffee.  I started with the chips first.

“I’ve already got a Star Ledger reporter who wants to interview you and get your whole life’s story,” Chuck said.  He only took a glass of water with his dry bagel.

“What do you think I should do?”

“Don’t do any interviews until the trial is over.  But in the end, it’s up to you, Sean, if you ever want to talk to them.  I mean, if you were the kind of guy who knew how and wanted to publicize yourself, then talk to them.  Someone could make your story into a book or into a movie.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  Happens all the time with stuff like this.”

He took a bite out of his bagel and chewed.  Watching him eat made my throat feel scratchy.

“How can you eat that, Chuck?”

He shrugged and kept chewing.

“That’s got to have no taste.  It’s like eating seashells.”

“I have a bad stomach, and on top of that, I’m a little nervous,” Chuck said.

“If you’re not going to put anything on it, why not get an onion or raisin bagel?  Why did you have to get a plain?”

“The plain bagel isn’t plain-tasting.  It absorbs the flavors from all the other bagels around it.  It’s like getting an everything bagel without all the crap falling in your lap.”

The waitress refilled my coffee and I finished it in about five seconds.  Then she gave me a dirty look, daring me to ask for another refill.

“Hey, there, don’t be that way,” I told her.  “I’m a hometown hero!” It was good for one last refill.

After we were done eating, Chuck said I had to take the stand again.

“I thought I was done,” I said.

“You’re only half done.  Now the defense gets to question you.”

Panic went through me like a lightning strike.  I cracked my thumb knuckles and rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth because it felt numb.

Mr. Aggarwal’s lawyer looked like the rat-like bad guy from the first “Die Hard,” Hans, and seemed as mean-spirited.

He came walking straight at me with his black eyes sharp as spearpoints smeared with ink.

“How long has it been,” he asked casually, “since you’ve rejected Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?”

I put my hands over my crotch.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“How long have you been working at the hamburger stand adjacent to my client’s hotel?”

“About three months.”

“Where were you employed immediately before?”

“I wasn’t.”

“You were in jail, weren’t you?”

Chuck spoke up. “May counsel approach the bench?”  The judge said yes and the three men had a conference.

Hans’s mouth swung open.   He stepped back to the floor. When he looked at me again, I knew the worst was coming.

“Are you familiar with the group known as the Dotbusters?”

“I have heard of them, yes.”

“What do the Dotbusters do?”

“They hate people from India.”

“And how is it that you’re familiar with the Dotbusters?”

“My co-worker, Howard, the murdered guy, told me about them.”

“Isn’t it true that he was a member?”

“Objection,” said Chuck.  “That’s pure conjecture.”

“I’ll rephrase.  To the best of your knowledge, was Howard a member of the Dotbusters?”

“He said he wasn’t,” I said.

“What do you know about the hate crime perpetrated against the Aggarwals?”

“Objection,” said Chuck.

“To the best of your knowledge, did Howard know anything about the posters that were put up around the Seahorse Hotel?”

“He told me he didn’t know.”

“I object to this line of questioning,” said Chuck. “The hate crime has nothing to do with this case.”

Die Hard villain said, “I’m trying to establish that the witness is prejudiced against the client.”

“I’m not prejudiced!” I yelled.  “Howard was!”

Chuck threw me the look of death.  I shut up.

“And yet you continued working with Howard,” said Hans.

“I didn’t have a choice.  I couldn’t quit and leave.”

“Wouldn’t you say were friends with Howard?”

“Not really.  We just worked together.”

“Do you resent immigrants such as Mr. Aggarwal coming into this country?”

“No.  I became friends with Mrs. Aggarwal.”

“Just friends, Sean?”

“Objection,” said Chuck, lazily.

“Did you have an affair with my client’s wife?”

“Objection.”

“Sustained,” said the judge.  “Counsel is warned that this is a frivolous line of questioning.”

Hans bit his lip and nodded.

 

When I got down and went over to Chuck, he muttered to me, “That was so fucking lame.”

“Me?”

“No, not you. The defendant’s lawyer. God, it was just pathetic. Was Aggarwal just trying to save money by calling 1-800-LAWYERS?”

“What happened earlier, when you walked up to the judge?”

“I told the judge that you were part of an undercover operation.  That any further testimony along the lines of your supposed imprisonment would put other undercover agents in jeopardy.”

“I wasn’t really.”

“No, it’s true.   I’m not lying. You just didn’t consciously know it.”

“What’s going to happen now?”

“I’d say Aggarwal’s done like Tandoori chicken.  Serve him up with some bread.”

I slid down in my chair and played with my jacket buttons.

 

That was the end of my testimony.  I was done with going to court.  Chuck told me to lay low and stay away from any cameras until the verdict came out.

The day after me, Mr. Aggarwal was on the stand.  There were other people testifying–Johnson as to how he found us up there on the terrace, and someone at the autopsy to say how Howard was killed–but it was basically me against Mr. Aggarwal as to what actually happened.

I read in the paper that he didn’t deny that he grew the pot or that he sold it to Howard.  Mr. Aggarwal even admitted killing Howard, though out of “temporary insanity.”  Howard had always made racist comments at Mr. Aggarwal, calling him a “dot” or “7-11.”

Mr. Aggarwal said he lost it when Howard accused him of sending the money to Al Qaeda.

He happened to have a cast-iron pipe wrench in his hand at the time.

The next thing he knew, something soft dropped on his foot.  It was Howard’s neck.

Judging from the demographic of the jury, they probably thought that Mr. Aggarwal was part of an Al Qaeda terror cell, too.  People on that jury were meatheads like me, Howard and Andrea Conti.

Mr. Aggarwal’s lawyer must have known what was going on.  He had Mr. Aggarwal’s engineering degree from M.I.T. passed around the jury, but it wasn’t enough.

Mr. Aggarwal hanged himself in jail that night.  He had ripped out strips of fabric from the waistline of his jail pants for the noose.

 

Chuck came to my apartment in person to tell me about Mr. Aggarwal.  I had been asleep and came to the door in my boxers.

I remember that when I heard the news, I curled up in a fetal position on the floor, crying.  Chuck didn’t know what to do and turned to leave.

I grabbed his ankle when he tried to walk away.  Chuck put his briefcase down and pulled me up to the couch.

“Hey, come on!  Pull yourself together, Sean,” he said.  “Look at you.  This whole thing is good for you!  You were the star witness, and now you’re a star!”

“I need to tell Mrs. Aggarwal that I’m sorry!”

“No!  Don’t ever contact her!”

“I killed him.”

“The jailors, the guys who didn’t take away all the things Mr. Aggarwal could hurt himself with — they’re to blame, not you.  Anyway, he killed himself.  Innocent and good people never kill themselves.  He was bad.”

“I was bad, too!  I was in jail!”

“Well, he was worse than you. Much worse.”

 

With such a dramatic ending to the case, the press came for me.  I talked with the Asbury Park Press, The Star-Ledger and the Philadelphia Inquirer.  I even had a telephone interview with The New York Post.

I didn’t really know why they bothered to talk to me, because it seemed that they already knew what they wanted to write.  I was a reformed drug user working undercover to topple the pot kingpin of the Jersey shore.

The New Jersey Devils and the Nets wanted me to come to pre-season warm-ups and meet the guys.  I went to see both teams and it felt like the whole thing was happening to someone else — someone bigger and taller.

But most importantly, Johnson arranged for me to have dinner with a retired detective who now ran a management consultation business in the city.  His name was Ron LaVerne and he looked like the guy who does the diabetes drug ad on TV.  LaVerne wanted me to come and work for him, starting out with a low-level office job.

 

What struck me, as I was getting set up in the city, was how similar my situation was to when I was on probation.  Actually, it was a little worse.

The first time I saw the apartment LaVerne had set up for me, on the fifth floor of a walkup way over on 10th Avenue and 52nd Street, I thought that there had to be some mistake with the address.  The neighborhood was poorly lit and the sidewalks were as dirty as the gutter.

In fact, the asphalt of the street was so high and the sidewalk blocks had sank so low, there was no curb.  When it rained, the sidewalk was the gutter that the water washed up onto and flooded.

People hanging out were a strange mix of elderly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and young white college students.

My building looked like the others up and down the block. The cracked and chipped stone steps up to the lobby door looked like they belonged in a haunted graveyard.

The tile floor of the lobby was mostly pulverized or missing.  The staircase was in surprisingly good shape.  It barely creaked when you walked up. The handrail had so many coatings of lead paint that it was bulletproof.

My apartment faced the street and even with the window shut, I could hear people yelling and laughing no matter where I was — in the small bedroom, the small living room or the tiny bathroom.

The first thing I did in that apartment was put the goldfish bowl on the toilet tank.  I watched him shake his fins and sink slightly.

I saw some nails on the floor so I took a broom off the counter and swept them out into the hallway.  I heard a girl in the next apartment on the phone, crying.  I came back in, shut the door and locked it.

In the morning, I walked down to 34th Street and then walked past The New Yorker hotel on the corner of 8th Avenue to a generic office building.

I was ready for my first day.  After taking the stand in court, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t face.

I walked into the lobby and tried to read the quote that ran the entire length of the lobby mural.  The guard behind the desk gave me a look like I was lucky his trap-door button wasn’t working.

Up on the 10th floor, the receptionist was on her cell phone and buzzed me in without even looking at me.

Ron LaVerne wasn’t in yet.  It turned out he rarely came in on Mondays, or early in the week or early in the month.

I got a cup of coffee and took a desk in a cubicle in the corner closest to the window.  I had a few coffee refills before a tech guy wandered over to set me up on the computer.   He got Firefox up and running but he couldn’t get me an actual company account until the boss came in.  I killed time by looking for a used copy of “The Corduroy Road.”

Ron came in on Thursday and had me backdate my paperwork to the beginning of the month.

“Someone show you the ropes around here, yet?” he asked as he glanced at my Social Security card.

“Nobody’s shown me anything.  I’ve been getting the cold shoulder around here.”

“You know what?  People think you’re my mole here.  They all know you from the newspaper and that you work undercover.  The first few months might be tough, but they’ll soften up.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, you need an eight-by-24 phone, here.”  I found out later that that meant I was going to be handling the calls. I also filled out FedEx forms and took deliveries.  I became the go-to guy for Excel spreadsheets because I learned it quickly and soon took over for the woman who taught me.  Now that I think about it, I guess she let me pass her on purpose.

I didn’t have a computer at home, so I stayed a little late every day just to surf the Web.  I tried searching for where Mrs. Aggarwal was, but I kept turning up lists of professors and doctors.

I finally found “The Corduroy Road” at a used-book site.  Someone was selling a used one from a public school that had just shut down.  Jesus, how many years did they teach that book?

I did a Google search for myself, but as time went on, newspaper sites with my name started expiring and leading to dead links.  Hitting too many of them was always a signal to go home.

I was in a bar one night when I felt someone grab my shoulder.  I turned my head and stared into the face of a pretty green parrot.  Its head was cocked and a little tongue was hanging out of its beak.

His name was Money and he belonged to this Polish-American girl, Crystal.  I wish mom could have seen me now, dating a college graduate.

We were on and off, depending on how much money I had at the time.  I guess I was old-fashioned because I think men should have to pay.

LaVerne drug-tested at work every month and was also my landlord, so I didn’t dare smoke pot or even call in sick.  I was so paranoid, I wouldn’t even put oregano on my pizza.

My goldfish seemed more active in the new apartment, or maybe it was just my lack of pot intake.

Above the mirror in my bathroom, a sign read, “Promotion to Office Manager.”

 

Sometimes late in the afternoons there would be a loud hoopla from the mailroom.  Because all the managers in the office were white, they were too scared to go into the all-black-and-Latino mailroom to see what was going on.

Not scared for their lives.  Scared of looking stupid or square.

Because I sent out and received so many packages and flat-rate envelopes, I was probably the only white guy who went in there regularly.

One day my curiosity got the better of me and after a spirited series of hollers and high-fives from the mailroom, I got up, put my hands in my pockets and sauntered in.

The enthusiasm in the room died two seconds after I walked in.

“What’s going on in here?”

“Why, we’re only working hard, boss,” said Pops, the senior mail guy.  He had been there since the beginning, almost 10 years ago.  Pops had a kinky gray chin and head but clean-shaven lips.

Somebody quickly hit some keys on the tracking computer and then stood in front of the monitor.

“What do you know about the stock market?” asked Pops.

“Nothing.”

“Do you want to learn?”

“Not really.  I just wanted to know what all the shouting was about.”

“Well, we made our nut this week.”

“Your nut?”

“Yes, well, Sean, when a trading desk makes back all its operating expenses – things like rent, salary and other costs – it is said to be making its nut.  After that, everything’s gravy.

I didn’t understand a word he said.

Pops rolled up his sleeves and took a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and started clicking the button.

“This is what’s going on, Sean,” he said.  “We’ve opened an online brokerage account and we’ve been trading stock.”

I didn’t say anything.

“Look, nothing illegal is going on here.  Except maybe we’re a little distracted from our work at times.  We’re even set up as a limited-liability partnership.”

“Okay.”

“When we first got our WiFi network in the office, I noticed that my subordinates were spending a lot of time going over sports stats. One day I figured, shoot, if we’re gonna be putting that much effort into numbers, we might as well be making money off of it.”

“All right.”

“Legally.  Not with bookies.  I mean, I know how you’re the hero of the drug bust in Jersey, but there’s nothing here for you to sniff out.  Unless you want to join.”

“How do I join?  Um, what am I joining?”

The guy blocking the terminal broke in: “What are you asking him to join?  Just the investment club and not the book club?”

“Doug,” said Pops, “he can join either one.”

“A book club?  I like to read.  I’ll join that one, too.”

“Well, now, we have to take a vote on your memberships,” said Pops.  “Just wait outside for a few minutes for us to talk this over.”

They let me into the investment club, but I missed the book club by one vote.  The initial investment was $100 and I told Pops I’d have the money next week, after payday.

Just after congratulating me on getting in, Pops grabbed me by the shoulder and looked into my eyes.

“Tell me you have your 401(k) retirement plan set up.”

“I got the folder, but I didn’t read it.”

“Man, you gotta read that shit!  I’m enrolling you online right now.  Sit down!”

I sat down in the swivel chair in front of the terminal as Pops typed something on the keyboard.  It was a little too high, so I pulled on the lever on the side.

There was something very familiar about the feel of the lever.  I got up and turned the chair on its side to look under the seat.  It was made by DEPCOR, and maybe even by me.  I put the wheels back on the floor, sat down and slowly spun to the monitor.

“Now, what’s your last name, again?” asked Pops.

 

Johnson called me at work.

“O’Keefe!” I shouted into the phone out of instinct.

“I hate to admit it, but it’s nice to hear that name again,” Johnson said.

There are fables of people who wander into a hidden land of fairies and stay for a day and have fun. But when they leave the forest for home, they find out that in reality a number of years have passed — one year for each fairy hour.  You live in New York City in fairy hours.

When I heard Johnson’s voice I realized that it was now May, about seven months since the trial and everything, even though it felt like I was still in my first few weeks in the city.

May used to be a really exciting time for me.  The summer officially started in Shore Points with Memorial Day weekend, and before then, I had to get a job and a girl lined up, or at least my first job and first girl for the season.

Now it didn’t matter.  We went from winter to spring and the temperature and humidity of the office didn’t budge. It was the same fucking thing every day.

(Next week, the electrifying conclusion to Motherfuckerland.)



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 19

(Art by spoon+fork.)

Chuck worked out a deal for me and they released me to my overheated apartment.  The first thing I did was go into the bathroom and feed my fish.

I had been gone almost a week and was mildly worried I’d find him floating at the top.  He seemed hungry but normal.  I ran the water in the tub as I watched him eat.  I turned the fish food can over in my hand and read it for the first time.  I was shocked to see that the top ingredient was “fish meal.”

I knew fish in the ocean ate each other, but I thought tame fish were too civilized to do the same.  Would goldfish eat the flakes if they knew what was in them?

When the water was high enough, I undressed and got into the tub.

The reason I couldn’t eat the veal sandwich, and why I felt a little sick seeing Mr. Johnson eat it, was that my fourth-grade teacher Ms. Daley showed us some pictures from a veal farm.  She had pictures of cramped stalls with no windows and said veal was the meat of baby cows who were fed very little and had their legs chained or broken so they couldn’t develop muscle and their meat stayed white and tender.

She also had a picture of a dumpster that looked like it was filled with Corn Pops cereal.  But when you looked close, you saw that it was a pile of dead baby chickens.  The male chicks were thrown in the garbage and suffocated soon after they were born because they wouldn’t grow up to give as much meat as female chicks.

About once a week, she’d give us another reason to be a vegetarian.  Some kids were throwing their bologna sandwiches in the trash.

Then one day, instead of telling us about how bad our food was, she gave us all copies of “The Corduroy Road.”  After that, lunchmeat was okay again.  It hadn’t been a problem for me because I only had peanut butter, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Mrs. Daley went on quietly drinking a can of V8 with nuts and dried fruits on the side.  She didn’t even say anything when the boy in the back killed his first deer and brought in some venison for the whole class to try.  I remembered that the meat was tough and tasted like sweat.

After a while the water in the tub grew cold and filmy.  I had to piss so I climbed out.

I lay in bed naked for a while.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  It was going to be some time before the trial and my big show.  Until then I had to fight the urge to go to the hotel.  Mrs. Aggarwal wasn’t there anymore, but I wanted to walk around on the motel roof again.  We had had some good times together and it wasn’t just the pot, either.  I had never had such plain and open conversations in my adult life, and certainly not with a woman.

She hated me now.  I was sure.  I wondered if she would have hated me more if I had chosen not to testify and let her spend a year in jail like I did.

On the other hand, I saved myself. I think.

“I’m not Jesus,” I said out loud. I plugged in my TV but now it was dead.

 

In the morning, someone was buzzing my door.  I got up, put on a towel and slippers.

I went over to the intercom, pressed a button and said, “Yes?”

“Sean,” said Andrea Conti.  “It’s me!”

I pulled the towel tighter against my waist.

“What are you doing here, Andrea?”

“Get down here!  I’m gonna take you to buy a suit.”

“I already have a suit.”  It was from the thrift store and some guy probably died in it, but the suit fit well.

“Just get down here, okay?”

I went to the closet and yanked the suit off the rack.  It smelled a little musty, like young tree roots just pulled out from the ground.  I threw it on the bed to let it air out.  I put on a clean pocket T-shirt and a pair of cut-offs.

When I got downstairs I saw that she was in a shiny convertible, a Sebring.  Andrea flipped her sunglasses up and said, “Hi, stranger!”

She threw the car into drive even before I got the door closed all the way.

“Jesus, Andrea, at least let me get my seat belt on!”

“Sean, you’re going to be famous.  You already are!  You’re in the papers every day!” She was chewing a huge wad of gum but it didn’t slow down her talking.

“I came this close to . . .”

“You know, we let these people into our country and they come in here and they don’t even try to fit in!  They want our money but they hate our culture!  Cooking that disgusting curry and dressing in those harem dresses!  We should just close the fucking door.  Put up a sign that says, ‘Please Go Away, America Is Full.’  I hope they deport that fucker and his wife on their flying carpet!”

“You’re talking like a Dotbuster, Andrea.”

“Maybe they’re just saying what everyone else is thinking.”

“Do you support the KKK, too?”

“Hey, I am not a racist!  I’m pro-American.  That Aggarwal isn’t an American, is he?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I touched my wallet and asked her, “Why do you want to buy me a suit, Andrea?”

“Aw, it’s from Michael.  You know, it says you worked at his hamburger stand, he wants you to look good.  Not that we pay you well, but, you know.  You’re an employee, so you’re sort of family.”

“Howard was family, too, right?”

“Michael is taking care of part of the burial expenses.  You know they found Howard’s dad in Florida?  He was completely broke and he hadn’t talked to Howard in years.  He’s trying to get the court to give him Howard’s bank account.”

“Did you have to get Howard a suit, too?”

“Did you get him a suit, too?”

“You know it was a closed-casket funeral, Mr. Funnyman.”

“I was in jail when it happened, Andrea.”

“Oh, that’s right.  Well, it was a nice service.”

She took me to the Men’s Wearhouse at the Freehold Raceway Mall.  I got two suits, one black and the other dark blue.  She insisted that I get a matching handkerchief for each, although I thought it made me look like Ricky Ricardo.  They seemed to know her there, and the tailor made all the adjustments in minutes even though there was a sign that said tailoring would take a week.

Andrea wanted to go see a race across the street at the raceway, but it was shut down.  They didn’t have racing in the summer because it was too hot for the horses, and it didn’t come back until late-August–a week away.

We looked through the plastic slats in the chain-link fence and saw an old riding lawnmower parked on the dirt of the track.  The metal seat had rusted to the same color as the soil.  The suit hangers were biting down into my hand, so I hooked them onto the fence and rubbed the grooves in my palm.

“Think that thing even works?” Andrea asked.

“Of course it works.  They wouldn’t drag it out there if it didn’t work.”

“It looks like a stagecoach after the Indians burned it.”

“You don’t know what a stagecoach looks like.”

For whatever reason, that set her off.

“Fuck you, Sean!  Don’t tell me what I know!  I went to college!”

“Well, you didn’t fucking finish, did you?”

“I went for a year!”

“Yeah?  Well, unlike you, I didn’t want to pretend that I could do it!  Anyway,  I knew I couldn’t pay for it!”

“Sucks to be poor, doesn’t it?”

“No, it sucks to be a greasy fucking Guinea bitch.”

She stalked off.  Over her shoulder, she yelled, “I’m one-eighth Indian, that’s how I know stagecoaches!  Now go pick me some potatoes, ya mick bastard!”

“You don’t pick potatoes–you dig them up.”

“You’re corroded, Sean!”

Andrea went across the road.

There’s a certain kind of walk a woman does when she’s had enough.  She puts her heels down first and turns her feet out like a duck.  Her upper body takes the form of two elbows pumping.  You’ll never see her happy face again and she’ll duck you at the mall.

Andrea hopped in the car and swung it onto the highway in no time. I think she gave me the finger but there was a glare on the window and I wasn’t sure.

I sat down and leaned against the fence where my suits were flapping in the wind.  Right there under the spikes of the bottom of the fence was a book of matches, half of it torn out.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

I took out a cigarette that I had bummed from the Men’s Wearhouse fitting-room girl and lit it.  It was one of the best non-pot smokes I ever had.  When I finished, I picked up my suits and walked down the road to the bus stop.  When I got there I only had to wait about 15 minutes.

(Part 20 next week.)



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 18

(Art by spoon+fork.)

The Jersey newspapers usually run national news in the front sections.  Apart from high-school sports and construction kickback busts, there was almost never any local news.

Mr. Angrywall made the front covers of every newspaper that they let me have in my holding cell.  Only his name wasn’t “Angrywall.”  It was “Aggarwal.”

He had been growing several different kinds of marijuana in a few of the rooms on the top floor.  Some varieties were new to the law-enforcement community.

Which included James O’Keefe.  Turns out that wasn’t his real name.  His real name was Shawn Johnson.  He was a detective with the Narcotics Central Unit of the state.  I found out later that they had put Johnson on me because I was evaluated to be the most at risk of recidivism.  They wanted to see whom I would go to for more pot.

My court-appointed lawyer was a joke.  He was a nervous Oriental guy named Chuck Shu. Yeah, I’m not kidding.

He encouraged me to “remember” some sort of story of how I saw Howard regularly get pot from Mr. Angrywall.

“Better yet,” he said, “say you went with Howard to buy pot from Mr. Aggarwal.”

“Chuck,” I told him, “I didn’t see shit.  I have no idea where Howard got his pot from.”

“You’ve been apprehended in another drug-related crime, Sean.  Under your prior conviction, that’s an, ah, automatic three-year sentence.”

“So you want me to lie?”

“Oh, no, no, no — don’t lie.  But think harder.  You might have forgotten.  It could be suppressed deep down.  If you can remember a certain scenario, and testify against Mr. Aggarwal, I can probably get you an immunity deal.”

“That means no time at all for me?”

“Yes.  It could even make you a local hero.  Mr. Aggarwal was found to have an extraordinary amount of marijuana plants and, ah, associated paraphernalia.”

“What kind of sentence is Mr. Angrywall looking at?”

“Probably 20 to 25 years.  Ultimately, it could be reduced to 10, I think.”

“They wouldn’t deport him to India?”

“He’s a naturalized American citizen.  They won’t deport him.  Can’t, in fact.”

“What about Mrs. Angrywall?”

“Mrs. Aggarwal hasn’t been charged.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“I guess she’ll be visiting her husband on the weekends, heh.”

 

In my holding cell, I got back into reading, but not books.  They let me have newspapers every day with the classified sections and personal ads left out.

They were saying Mr. Aggarwal may have been the sole source of the strong marijuana that was going around grade schools in Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

An editorial in the Asbury Park Press said that “Raj Aggarwal should have used his knowledge and intelligence for good, not evil.”

Some Indian kids had been beaten in school.  One badly enough to be hospitalized.

The hotel and hamburger stand were both closed by the Shore Points sheriff.

They said that my role in the whole thing was as of yet unclear.

One paper profiled some jerk who had also been arrested under the Weed Out The Garden State measure and was now working in a gift shop, packing seashells imported from Mexico and playing organ in church on Sundays.

He said that being in jail was a wake-up call for him and that it would be a shame if it hadn’t straightened me out, as well.

 

They took me out of the cell and escorted me to an interrogation room.  I expected Chuck to show up, but it was O’Keefe, or Shawn Johnson.

Something smelled good.

“You like chicken or veal more?” he asked.  There were two subs wrapped in tin foil on the table.  They smelled like parmesan cheese.

“I like chicken more.  I feel guilty eating veal.”

He pushed the one marked “C” on the foil to a seat across from him.  I sat down in the chair and unwrapped the sub.  I felt moist warm bread push against the roof of my mouth and I almost choked on the first bite.

“Whoa, easy there!  You’re like a dog, Sean!”

“I don’t drink out of a toilet,” I said.  I didn’t have the balls to follow Howard’s advice.

We didn’t say anything else until we were both almost done eating.

“Now, I know you’ve had a chance to talk to your lawyer, Sean.  You got a story you want to tell me?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Now let’s look at how things are, Sean,” Johnson said, finishing his sub and slapping the crumbs off his hands.

“Can I just call you O’Keefe?  It’s hard for me to call you Shawn.  That’s my name.”

“You can call me ‘Detective Johnson’ or ‘Mr. Johnson.’”

“Mr. Johnson, what kind of spot am I in?”

“You’re in a position to help put away one of the biggest drug lords in the history of our state, Sean.  Aggarwal didn’t care who got hurt or how many families got destroyed.”

“When I think of a drug lord, I think of ‘Scarface.’”

“Yeah, he was another guy who came to this country, tried to get ahead taking the low road, so to speak.  But now he has to face the music.”

“It’s just pot, Mr. Johnson.  It’s not cocaine.”

“‘Just pot,’ huh?  What if I told you that your late pal Howard was selling Aggarwal’s pot to kids at black schools?  I’m talking about kids as young as nine.  That coward sold it early in the morning before most adults in the neighborhood were awake.

“I can’t help but take this personally.  You think black families don’t already have enough to struggle with?  Now Junior’s coming home all doped up, stealing money from his mother’s purse for more when she hasn’t got enough to buy groceries?

“Then farther down the line, Junior’s going to have to smoke more and more to get to that high again.  Then he’s going to try harder stuff.”

“Everybody I knew just stuck to pot.”

“I’ll bet nobody you knew was raised by a single mother who had to work two jobs to keep the family going.

“I don’t mean two office jobs, neither!  I mean shit jobs! Scrubbing toilets, mopping floors, and everything on the graveyard shift!  Getting paid like a parking meter!  And then she has to keep juggling jobs because they keep finding someone who will work for even less!

“There you are coming in late, not knowing where you been and all high or strung out and she’s left out a dinner plate for you in the oven because she had to go to another job and she’s praying every minute, every day that you’re going to straighten out your life on your own because she’s too damn tired to beat you or even yell!”

“You’re shouting, Mr. Johnson.”

He inhaled and it seemed like a full minute before he let it out.

“I don’t mean to shout.  I just get worked up.”

“I treated my mother badly, too,” I said.  He nodded.

“Sean, you have an opportunity to break this cycle of cruelty, of racism.  Don’t do it just for you.  Think about the children.”

“Do what?”

“Testify about what you know about Aggarwal selling marijuana to Howard, who then went on to sell it to kids.”

“I didn’t hear about anything about that.”

“You know Aggarwal was supplying Howard.”

“I don’t know for sure.  Howard could have been in that room for the first time and Aggarwal killed him to keep him quiet.”

“Just say you saw them meet up, or Aggarwal came around the hamburger stand, slipped Howard a package.”

“It didn’t happen. I never saw him come by.”  He leaned in close.

“Sometimes, Sean, you need a little lie to stop the bigger evil.  For example, if I didn’t pretend to be your probation officer, I wouldn’t have been able to gain your trust and plant a bug on you.”

“What!”

“The cell phone.  I was recording you.”

“Ha, I used to turn it off. . .from time to time.”

“The bug was a recording chip hidden inside that worked if the phone was on or off.  You talk a lot of bullshit when you’re high, Sean.”

“You can’t use any of that against me.  You didn’t have my permission to record me.”

“Au contraire!  As a convicted drug abuser, I had permission from the court to monitor your activities, your whereabouts and everything you ate, drank or smoked.  Do we understand each other?”

I didn’t say anything.

“And how about I throw in Mrs. Aggarwal for the abuse of drugs, too?  Be a shame to put such a sexy, spicy woman in jail.”

“What’s going to happen to Mrs. Angry–Aggarwal?”

“I knew you wanted to get with her.  Kinda disappointed you didn’t.”

“Hey, I could’ve.  She would’ve, too.”

“Of course.  I mean, now, she’s going to hate your guts for testifying against her husband.  But if you don’t fuck him over, you’re going to fuck her over.”

“I don’t want to fuck anybody over!”

“You have to fuck someone over!  Welcome to the real world, Sean!  You had enough practice fucking up your life and your mother’s!”

I wanted to hit him, but I was so mad I couldn’t even move.  Mr. Johnson brushed his sleeves.

“Personally, ” he said quietly, “I’d much, much rather have Mr. Aggarwal fucked over.  What do you say, Sean? Are you going to testify against him?”

I pushed my seat out and put my head on top my folded arms on the desk.  Mr. Johnson shifted in his seat to hold eye contact with me.

“What’s going to happen to your recordings of me and Mrs. Angrywall?” I asked.

“I’ll have a technical difficulty and delete them.”

“I want a copy of them.”

Suddenly, Chuck burst into the room.

“My client has nothing to say to you!” he stammered.

Mr. Johnson smiled and crumpled up the foil wrappers and tossed them into a garbage can.  He said, “We were just having lunch–a real good lunch.”

Then Chuck looked at the both of us and smiled, too.

(Part 19 next week.)



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 17

(Art by spoon+fork.)

Andrea Conti wanted to give me a handjob as usual, but I was done with it.  I think those anti-horny jail chemicals were completely out of my system.  I still wanted to jump on Mrs. Angrywall and I was mad at her for having that much control over me.  I guess I was mad at all women.

We were standing in the back of the walk-in van.

“Let’s not,” I told Andrea.  “It’s all right.  I held on to my zipper and pushed her hand away.

“What!”  She nearly dropped the sack of money from the hamburger stand’s receipts.

“Everything’s okay.  Just, you know, we’ll unload the food each week, I’ll give you the money, and that’s just fine.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.  It’s just. . .that’s how it’s going to be.”

“You don’t like it anymore?”  Her eyes were shining.  Christ, it was like trying to break up with someone.

“I’m gonna be honest,” I said.  “This just doesn’t do it for me anymore.  I’m tired of bunting when I step up to the plate, you know what I mean?”

“All guys are like this, aren’t they?  Deep down inside you only want to score, isn’t that right?  You just want to fuck!”

“Not all the time, but some of the time, yes, definitely.  I do have to get laid every once in a while.”

“Maybe I could suck you.”

“That’s nice, but it’s not going to do it, either.”

“I’ll give you what you want, then,” Andrea said slowly.  “But you have to wrap it and I don’t want to do it in the van.”

“Where we gonna do it?”

“How about one of the hotel rooms?”

“Here?” I said, nearly choking.

“Yeah, here.  What, are you scared or something, now?  You only want to talk about fucking?”

“Naw, it’s just that, I don’t know if they’ll let me.”

“Go ask the dot for a key.  She won’t give a shit.  You know what they do in her country?”

“Don’t call her a ‘dot,’” I warned.

“I’ll call her whatever the fuck I want!”  She crossed her arms.

“Wait here.”

“I’ll wait, but not too long.”

I rubbed my ears as I walked to the office.  I wondered if I could look into Mrs. Angrywall’s eyes and ask for a room key just like that.  Sure, she was going to ask what for.  I couldn’t lie to her, but maybe I should tell her that I’d clean the room up after, too.

Every potentially good situation always had something tough to overcome.  “Man Has to Be His Own Savior talked about it endlessly.  Mao had the Long March.  The American autoworkers nearly starved to get their right to a 40-hour workweek.  I could ask Mrs. Angrywall for a room key to get laid.

 

“You look positively gloomy, Sean.”  Mrs. Angrywall was reading through Auto Exchange, the free weekly newsletter of used cars.  “It’s a sunny day out, so chin up.”

“Are you looking to buy a car or something?”

“No, but I do like the little descriptions of the cars, particularly the antique models.  It’s a bit like reading tombstones, only one presumes the cars are still running.  I’m amused by the number of ‘easily repaired’ problems there are.”

“A lot of car dealers take out ads to make them look like some guy selling a car in his driveway.  But then you call them and show up at the address and it’s a used-car lot.  They’ll try to sell you another car for more money.”

“You speaking from personal experience?”

I thought about how I went with my mother to what turned out to be a used-car lot.  The guy was a snake.  Her instincts were good enough that she ended up not buying a car, but for whatever fucking reason she went on a few dates with him.

“No, I just heard,” I said.

“You on break now?”

“No, I just. . .I wanted to ask you for a favor.”

“I definitely owe you.  If anything, for that excellent weed this summer.  You name it.”

“Could I get a hotel room?”

“Are you throwing a party?”

“Not really.  I’ll only need it for an hour, tops.”

Mrs. Angrywall scrunched up her eyebrows and nose and tried to make them meet somewhere between her eyes.

“Sean?”

“Yes?”

“What exactly are you planning on doing?”

I put my hands on the counter and hunched down.

“I’m going to have sex with this girl.”

Mrs. Angrywall folded up the magazine and smoothed down her hair.

“Are you mad, Sean?  Just who is this tart you’ve brought in?”

“It’s Andrea Conti.”  I wanted to be as upfront as possible.

“She’s a married woman, you know!  Oh, I’ve forgotten! That doesn’t mean anything to you!  You can’t keep it in your pants!”

“Oh, it matters, all right.  But it’s not the biggest thing in the fucking world!”

“Is she aware of your plans, or are you thinking you can manage to seduce her and be through with her in an hour?”

“Andrea knows what’s going on.”

“I see.  Now, then, let me find a room appropriate for such debauchery.”

She turned her back to me to look through the key rack.

“Look,” I said to her shoulders, “I’m a man.  I’m human.  I have certain needs I have to take care of.”

“Yes, that’s completely legitimate.  All men should take care of their needs.  Otherwise they wouldn’t be men.”  She snatched a set of keys and came around the counter.  “Shall we inspect the room first?” asked Mrs. Angrywall, sweeping her arms to the stairwell.

On the second floor landing, she stopped and unlocked a small closet.

“You’ll be needing clean sheets, I assume.  I mean, for her sake, at least,” she said, standing on her toes to reach for the top shelf.  I dropped my eyes to her calves.  They were a sight I had missed from all our afternoons sneaking to the roof to get high.  They were incredibly tan, impossibly smooth.

She whirled around, two sheets over her left elbow.

“Wondering if you could seduce me, now, hey?”

“It’s not a crime to look.”

“No, it’s just rude to stare at a woman’s ass.”

“I wasn’t looking at your ass, I was looking at your calves.”

“A leg man.  And I once had you pegged for breasts.”

“You don’t know what men are like.  Hell, you don’t even know what people are like.  You only know plants, little fucking underwater green shit smears.”

“You think life is about doing whatever you want, never having to take care about anyone else.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, in America we tend to look down on momma’s boys.”

“In India, any man who treated his mother the way you treated your mother would be a perfect pariah!”

“Well, maybe that’s what I am!”  I didn’t actually know what “pariah” meant.  Sounded French.

“Let’s go to the top floor.  Some of the storm-damaged rooms might fit your fancy.”

We went up and I looked at her calves some more. There was nothing else to look at apart from rough gray concrete.

 

Room 424 was at the far end of the west wing.  Walking across the terrace to the room, I looked down at the hamburger stand.  It looked lopsided from that angle.  Andrea was sitting in the driver’s seat of the van, the door open and her bare legs sticking out.  A cool breeze was coming in, raking thin wisps of clouds.

“Do you want to open the door, or shall I?” she asked.  The key dangled on her finger like a little bird.

“Is Mr. Angrywall around?”

“He might be.  Do you care who knows that you’re taking care of your needs?”

“I’ll open the fucking door,” I said.  I took the key from her and tried to stick it in the wrong way.  I turned it over and slipped it into the lock, but it still wouldn’t budge.

“It’s not working,” I told her.

“Let me see.”  She couldn’t get it to work, either.  “I’ll use the master key.”  Mrs. Angrywall reached into her wrap and pulled out a key with a brass circle tag.  The door opened easily.

There was an unpleasant smell, like the carpet was woven from dirty athletic socks.  You couldn’t see much of the floor, though.  Most of the space was taken up by potted marijuana plants under a complicated system of lights and water pipes.

At some point the plants had grown to about two feet high, but they were all dead and limp, lying around like washed up seaweed.

“Oh, my,” was all I could say.

“That fiendish bastard. . .” whispered Mrs. Angrywall.

The smell got worse closer to the bathroom.  The door was closed.

I saw my hand go to the door handle.  She cupped both hands over her mouth and nose.  We both knew what we were going to find.

Howard was sprawled out on the bathroom floor.  Half his face was caved in.  There were maggots and flies in his mouth.  The stench interfaced with the most un-evolved and primitive cells of my brain.  For the first time in my life, I could make my ears twitch.

Mrs. Angrywall was out on the terrace, screaming.  I stumbled outside.  She was sitting on the concrete floor, throwing her head around, spraying spit and tears.  Her fingers were tangled in her hair.

From the east wing someone was running over.  It was Mr. Angrywall.  He slowed when he saw me.  As he got closer, he smiled.

“I changed the locks, but I had forgotten about the master key.  I forgot she had a copy, too,” he said quietly.

“You killed Howard,” I said, my voice sounding like someone said it in back of me.

“Hey, buddy,” Mr. Angrywall said, “be quiet.”  He crouched down and held Mrs. Angrywall.

He was still there when several cops led by O’Keefe charged out of the stairwell and told us all to freeze.

Of course, Howard’s body was foremost in my mind.  But right up there, in second place, was the thought that I was going to be drinking water out of the toilet for at least a few years.

(Part 18 next week.)



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Black-People Toothpaste!

The former “Darkie” name is gone and the smiling minstrel face is replaced with a man of an uncertain race in a top hat, but the toothpaste is still literally called “black people” (黑人, pronounced “hei ren” in Mandarin).

Black-people toothpaste is still sold in many Asian countries (we found this our first night in Taipei at a 7-11 two weeks ago). The parent company, Hawley & Hazel Group, is 50%-owned by Colgate-Palmolive.

On their site, Colgate says that while they replaced the “Darkie” English name with “Darlie” in 1990, they kept the “hei ren” characters because “Hawley & Hazel’s research shows that Chinese consumers perceive the ‘Hei ren’ toothpaste brand to be trustworthy, international and modern.”

If that’s the case, then how come there are zero black people on Darlie’s web site?

C’mon, Colgate-Palmolive and Hawley & Hazel people!



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 16

(Art by spoon+fork.)

Howard didn’t bother to show up to work on Tuesday.  Didn’t get a phone call, either.

I wasn’t surprised.  It was just a matter of time before this would happen.  He’d been saying he’d be there for years, but losing the laptop probably soured that fucker.  He had enough money, anyway.

Based on my years of working down at the shore, the people who show up late keep showing up late the whole summer, if they don’t get fired.  That kind of worker doesn’t have the initiative to find another job or to muster enough courage to quit.

The diligent ones, the people who show up on time, are the ones who leave for good.  No two-week notice.  Their phone number and address aren’t good anymore.  Any personal stuff they had at the job was already brought home over time.  That’s quitting Jersey style.

So Howard actually broke the mold — he was the slacker who actually quit.

I was ready for my break in the afternoon when I realized I might not be able to take one.  The lock was in bad shape and I didn’t feel like jiggling my key in it for five minutes so I dragged a chair outside and propped it against the closed door behind me.

I stepped into the hotel office.

“Howard didn’t call here, did he?” I asked Mrs. Angrywall.

“Nobody’s called all day,” she said, crossing her arms and slouching lower in her seat.

“He didn’t come in today.”

“And I’m certain you miss him deeply.”

I scratched behind my right ear and said, “You know, if he quit, that means no more, ah, smoking.” Her eyebrows rose.

“I see. . .” she said.

“It’s probably for the best.  Every time I lit up, I was putting myself at risk for serious bodily harm from O’Keefe.  He’d probably get you locked up, too. Anyway it’s way too risky for me to find another dealer.”

“It’s a shame.  I truly enjoyed our time smoking together.  Are you still able to get away for breaks?”

“I don’t know.  I better call Michael Conti.”

“Smoke backy?”

“Huh?”

“Er, regular cigarettes.  Do you smoke them?”

“Sure I do.  It’s like drinking soda instead of booze, though.”

“This situation calls for a carton.  I’m off to the 7-11.  I’ll meet you back at your stand.”

I went back to the hamburger stand, found the phone number on a fridge magnet and called Michael Conti, my boss whom I had never actually met.

Someone who sounded as sleepy and unconcerned as Howard answered the phone.  I had to wait a while as he went to find Michael.

A deeper voice then said, “Yeah?”

“Michael?”

“Yeah?”

“This is Sean, at the hamburger stand in Shore Points.”

“Yeah, the pothead.”

“That’s me.”

“Is something the matter?”

“Howard didn’t show up today.”

“So spank him when you see him.”

“It would be a little tough working here by myself.  I can’t do a good job when it’s just me.”

“Take a break.  Put up one of them ‘Back In 10 Minutes’ signs.”

“Aren’t you going to hire somebody to take his place?”

“Aw, it’s almost August, that means there’s one more month left in the season.  It’s not worth it.  Look at the employee pool out there.  It sucks.  Just stick it out for me, I’ll get you a better job in the fall.”

“What if I get sick, Mr. Conti?”

“Then don’t come in.”

“What if I quit, too?”

The receiver made a sound like the other end scratched against a stubbly, scabby chin.

“What if you what!”

“What if I quit?”

“Ha!  You can’t quit!  You have to work for me for a year.  That’s the law.”

My heart sank.  Sure Howard was no help, but he was company, even if he did make too much noise when he ate or drank.  And the pot sure as hell helped.

“Come on, now,” said Michael Conti.  I didn’t realize that I was moaning.  “Don’t go blubbering on me.  I been good to you.  Who else would even give you a job, with your record!”

“Nobody.”

“That’s right.  Just hang in there, man, just a few more weeks and keep giving the money to Andrea.  And no skimming.  I watch them books like a hawk.”

“Okay,” I said.

I tried to make an iced coffee, but I hadn’t used enough ice.  I ended up making a lukewarm drink that I poured down the sink.  I had a hot cup instead.

 

I went outside and sat in the bad plastic chair.   Mrs. Angrywall came over and sat in the good one.

“Working hard or hardly working?” she asked.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“My, you’re rude when you’re not high.”

“I’m just keeping it real, girlfriend.”

“You like Marlboro?”  She shook her pack until about an inch of a cigarette stuck out.  I took the pack from her hands and caressed her for a few seconds.

“Sean.  Don’t!”

“I’m not!” I said, holding up my right hand.  With my left I pulled out two cigarettes, put them in my mouth and lit them.

“This is such a comedown,” I said, handing one to Mrs. Angrywall.  “It’s like Kool-Aid after red wine.”

“I’ve always despised cigarettes,” she said before taking a long drag.  “Irritates the throat.”

“Anything that burns makes smoke,” I said.  I was sucking hard and it wasn’t giving me anything.

“Back in college, my boyfriend had a vaporizer.  It was brilliant.  Just drop the leaves in and it heats them up.  You just have to inhale the little mist that comes out.”

“Those things are like a couple hundred bucks.”

“It’s worth it for the benefits, long term.  No smoke smell in the house and fewer toxins.  It’s also a more efficient delivery system.”

“Do you think marijuana is addictive?”

“Not particularly.  Anything can be addictive when you can’t find happiness in your life.”

“I was happy on Howard’s weed.  That made everything easier.  I forgot how tough it was to get through the afternoons.”

“It’s even worse indoors, trying to while away the hours,” sighed Mrs. Angrywall.  “Yes, Howard’s weed was certainly special, wasn’t it?  It’s so odd to me that my husband will never have such an experience.  He is a complete square.  A goody-goody good boy.  He doesn’t even like to light candles.”

She turned to me and tilted her head.

“Do you like candles, Sean?”

“You’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you, Mrs. Angrywall?”

“I’m just being playful.”

“But you really won’t have sex with me?”

“I can’t.  I’m married.”

“Well, anyway, do you wish we had slept together that night?”

“I don’t know.  But I would have regretted it incredibly if I had.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.  Sean, I think you repeat yourself more when you’re not high.”

I tapped my cigarette.

“Did the cops ever catch the Dotbusters?” I asked.

“No, but the police have assured me that the hate crimes unit is handling it.  ‘Hate’ crimes.  That’s quite ridiculous, right?  Is there such a thing as a ‘love’ crime?”

“Oh, yeah.  In this country we call them ‘crimes of passion.’”

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a car going by.  In that quick glance, I thought it looked like O’Keefe’s car.

Let him come over here, I thought.  I’ll blow smoke in his face.

One of the taillights flickered and the car took the corner.  I wasn’t motivated enough to turn around to watch it disappear.

 

The ceramic plate that I used to reheat burgers I stole from work blew apart in the microwave.  There was a crack in it early on, and it was only going to last for so long.

I went into the thrift store to find a good sturdy plastic plate, the kind the Brady Brunch kids ate off of.  Plastic plates get scratched up and change colors, but they last a long time.  Think about it.  The toughest dog-food bowls are made of plastic.  That says something.

I happened to pass by the bookshelf.  It was crammed with softcovers for a dime and hardcovers for a quarter.  I saw a tattered cloth cover that looked familiar, even though the title wasn’t.  All the pages were torn out of it, but the back and front covers were still attached to each other.

“Batten Down the Hatches!” was the title.  I definitely had never read it.  But the inside of the back cover listed other books from the same publisher.  “The Corduroy Road” was the fourth in the series.  Maybe this was some sort of sign from God, or maybe even Gaia.

I looked through the stack for “The Corduroy Road,” but of course it wasn’t there.

In the back of the store, I found two plates, one red and one blue.  I got a deal on them and two sets of silverware that amazingly matched.  I was on a hot streak.

 

I had a scheduled meeting with O’Keefe and without Howard to cover, I just closed the stand and got on the bus to Highlands.

O’Keefe was sitting at his desk, fingers twisted into a big brown knot of knuckles on his desk.  We talked a little and I mentioned that Howard quit.

“How long,” he asked quietly, “has Howard not shown up at work?”

“Four work days.”  He exploded.

“Been four days and you don’t even bother to tell me!”

“You wanted to know?”

“You don’t think it’s prudent to keep me informed of material changes to your job?”  He untangled his fingers and pressed his hands flat like he was trying to hold the desk down.  “You need someone to slap some sense into you?”

Just when I thought we were something close to friends, O’Keefe was starting to scare me again.  There didn’t seem to be enough room in my seat for me to slide back in.

“O’Keefe, I didn’t think you cared.”

“Didn’t think I cared!” he exploded.  “Boy, I’ve been cutting you way too much slack!”

“You never asked me about Howard.  If you cared so much about him, why didn’t you ever call the hamburger stand?”

“You told the police?”

“No,” I said.  “I should call the cops because somebody quit?”  O’Keefe stomped, stood up and wrestled his suit jacket on.

“C’mon!  We’re going to the hamburger stand now!”

 

We got into his car.  The engine was making funny sounds at red lights — the same growling sounds O’Keefe had in the back of his throat.

“Sounds like there’s something wrong with your car.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with my car!” he thundered back.  “Some friend you are!  Guy goes missing a few days and you don’t want to help!  You’re not concerned at all!”

“O’Keefe, a guy not showing up for work isn’t something to worry about.  If I had quit, I wouldn’t have bothered to call.  I’d let Michael Conti figure it out.”

“Yeah, and you woulda been figuring out how to put your skull back together when I found you.”

I turned to the window and watched my reflection float over the gutter.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why he was so pissed.  Was he that much of a control freak that he wanted to keep tabs on me and everyone I knew, too?

I guess Howard was a friend.  Hey, if someone who gave you free pot wasn’t a friend, who was?

 

We got to the hamburger stand and I unlocked the door.  O’Keefe charged in first.  He poked around near the chair Howard used to slump in and eat noisily.

“He didn’t take anything,” I said.

“I’m looking for clues, son.”

“He never brought anything, never left with anything.  The one time he brought something in was his laptop computer.  That got stolen.”

“Course it got stolen.  Only a dumbfuck would bring a laptop into a place with a bullshit lock like this place.”

When he got sick of looking around, O’Keefe straightened up and folded his arms.

“His last day, did Howard say anything unusual?”

“He always talked strange.”

“Did he say something about how he had to go see someone urgently, or that someone was stepping on him?”

“He didn’t seem to have any problems.”

“Did he ever mention drug suppliers?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You either know or you don’t!”

“Then, no, I don’t.  You wanna give me a lie-detector test?”

O’Keefe wiped his lips with his entire left hand from the fingertips to the wrist.

“Now I’m going to ask you something really easy,” he said. “Even a stoned white boy can answer this: Where does he live?”

“I swear,” I said with my voice breaking, “I don’t know.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It’s true.  I’ve never been to his house.”

“You have no idea where he lives?”

“Somewhere, not too far,” was all I could squawk.

O’Keefe exhaled heavily and stared into my eyes the way all of my principals did.

“That hindu woman know?” he asked.

Leave Mrs. Angrywall out of it, flashed in my head.

“Why don’t you call up Michael Conti?”

O’Keefe brought his lips together and nodded.

“I can see that you didn’t smoke all of your brain away, boy.”

When he turned around to dial on his cell phone, I gave him an elbow-bird.

“Yeah, lemme speak to Conti.  Yeah, Michael.  Speaking, eh?  Hey, this is Sean Kerry’s probation officer.  Oh, yeah?  How’s he doing?  Well, he better be.  Anyway, I’m actually interested in another one of your employees, Howard, the other boy, er, guy you had. Where does he live?”

I got up to fix myself a soda.  O’Keefe shot a look at me.  I pointed to the soda fountain and then back to him while raising my eyebrow.  He shook his head and hand at the same time.  I made myself a mix of Sprite and Coke.  O’Keefe continued on the phone.

“Can’t tell me, huh?  Privacy, I see.  Feel strongly about that, huh?  Well, how about I put a call into my cousin over at the health inspector’s?  Oh, not for the hamburger stand, for your main restaurant!  I’m sure everything’s as good as it was since the last visit, right?”

O’Keefe turned to me and smiled broadly.  I took a long sip from my soda.  I felt better now that O’Keefe had found another target.

“I see, I see.  Well, you can trust me, Michael.  Who could ever know?  That’s right, that’s right.   Where’s that intersection? DuPont and Surf Avenue, huh?  Okay, I’ve got it.  Thank you, Michael.”

I barely finished off the soda when O’Keefe grabbed my elbow and growled, “C’mon, boy!”

 

We crawled down Surf Avenue, which ran parallel to the shoreline.  It was popular as a cruising street during the summer and a racing street in the off-season.  DuPont was just past where the boardwalk ended.  On the weekends, the sidewalks glittered amber and green with smashed beer bottles.

O’Keefe eased up next to a typical DuPont rental, which looked like a trailer that had been bricked in.

“This is the place,” he said.  O’Keefe reached over and jerked the glove compartment open.  It smelled like roller-skate ball bearings, oily and metallic.  He pulled out a gun in a leather holster.

Run, I thought.  Get out and run fucking run run run.  That motherfucker’s crazy.

“You look scared, Sean,” O’Keefe said casually.  “You shouldn’t be.  This is for our protection.”

I got out of the car and I couldn’t stop rubbing my kneecaps.

“Get up there!” O’Keefe said, indicating the front door.  “Get up there and knock.  Say you just want to talk.”

I went up to the front door.  In the late afternoon light I could see at least three layers of paint flaking off in the sea air.  The doorknob was crooked.

O’Keefe snuck up against the house, under the front window.

“C’mon, c’mon!” he whispered at me.

I looked behind me.  The street was empty and no people were around.

I knocked.  There no answer.

“Call out to him, Sean!”

“Howard,” I yelled.  My voice was louder than I meant because of the adrenaline pumping through my system.  “Howard!  Howard!”

I tried the door.  It was open.

“Shit!” said O’Keefe.  “Let me through!”  He pushed his way in.  I don’t know why I followed.  The place was a mess.  That wasn’t out of the ordinary, especially for a single stoner guy.

There were piles of videogame magazines and porn.  Two opened and empty boxes for Macintosh laptops sat on the couch.

In the bedroom every dresser drawer had been jerked open, with long-sleeved shirts crawling out like wounded soldiers in a trench.

The bathroom was disgusting.

In the kitchen there were three bottles of beer in the refrigerator.  O’Keefe took out two and handed me one.  He slammed the cap off against the counter edge and took a deep drink.

“Bitch took off!” he growled.

 

I knew Howard wasn’t coming back to the burger stand, but O’Keefe insisted he might.

“I’m going to be prowling just around the block,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if you turn around and see me in your back pocket.”

“I don’t think there’s enough room for you back there.”

“Don’t tell me there ain’t room!  You with your skinny ass!  And let me tell you something else: Don’t you even think of trying to warn this Howard to stay away.”

“He’s not my friend,” I said weakly.

“Well maybe he is and maybe he ain’t.  All I know is — and this is from extensive field testing — is that you white people always stick together and back each other up.”

“That’s not true!” I said.

“Like hell it ain’t!”

“That’s not true!” I said again, but not as clearly because my throat was closing up.  “None of my friends came to visit me in jail.  My mom didn’t even send me anything.”  My nose was caking up with mucus and I had to breathe through my mouth.

“Well, that’s what you get for only having white friends,” said O’Keefe.

I felt tears dripping off of my chin so I wiped it with my palm.

“Can’t we be friends?” I asked O’Keefe.

“Only if you stay clean.  Then we’re friends.”  He had on a tight little smile.  “Believe me, you don’t want me as an enemy.”

That was the truest thing he ever said.

(Part 17 next week.)



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 15

(Art by spoon+fork.)

When I staggered into work two days later Howard took a look at me and said, “You just lucked out big time.”

“Why? I’m not late.  Am I?”

“No, cops just left!  The Dotbusters came here last night and put posters all over the place!”

“Jesus!  Are the Angrywalls all right?”

“I don’t think they’re hurt.  Just some property damage.  The guy was pretty pissed off, yelling at the cops and all.  Like that’s gonna help, Apu.”

“I’m going to see if they’re OK.”

I put on a pot of coffee before leaving for the motel office.  When I got closer to the door, I saw two fliers wheat-pasted to the glass that both read: “Go Back to India Smelly Curry Motherfuckers — the Dotbusters.”

The office was empty, but I heard some grating sounds coming from the stairwell.  I found Mrs. Angrywall there, working with a butter knife on the fliers.

“Bloody cowards, all of them!” she yelled, her voice sounding huge and ethereal in the stairwell’s spiraling chamber.  “They put most of them in here where people in the street couldn’t see them.  They only had enough balls to put two up on the office door before running away!”

“Maybe you should get those two in the front first.”

“No!  I want to keep them up!  I want everyone to know that this is a business run by dots!  And that we smell!”

“Where’s your husband?”

“He went down to the police station to harass them some more.  They had the nerve to blame us for not staffing our office 24 hours a day!”

“I’m going to get a knife and clean off the front doors.”

“Sean!  Don’t!”

I left anyway and came back with a rusty old spatula I found under the hamburger stand’s sink.

Mrs. Angrywall sailed out with her finger pointed at my throat.

“Put that down!  Don’t touch that front door!”

“I have to get those fliers off!”

“Why do you need to get them off of there so badly?  You people put them up!”

“Don’t blame me, man!”

“Well there isn’t a chance in hell that someone black did it!  Only a white man would have the entitlement to tell us to get out of his country!”

“How do you know?”

“I know!”

“Well, anyway, there’s no point in leaving it like this.  If you let them vandalize your office, they win and they’ll be back to do something worse.”

I stepped around her to get to the door.  She grabbed my wrist.

“Don’t you dare!  You. . .you. . .motherfucker!”

I was shocked at her outburst and loosened my grip on the spatula.  She ripped it out of my hand and winged it.  We listened to it clatter on the concrete.

We both turned to the door.

“Why us, Sean?  Of all the hotels, of all the Indians in this entire state, why us!”

“Because you were here and they saw you.”

“Can’t they tell by the way this place looks that we haven’t got money?  Why don’t they go after the big hotels and the rich Indians who are prospering on the Jersey shore?”

“These Dotbusters, I bet they’re like high-school kids and they’re not too bright.  And the better hotels probably have an office open 24 hours with staff walking around.”

“You’re probably right,” Mrs. Angrywall said.  Then she ran her hands through her hair and shifted her feet.  “You don’t happen to have any idea who did this, do you?”

“I really don’t know.”  But Howard might, I thought.

She turned and walked away.

(more…)



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Motherfuckerland, Installment 14

(Art by spoon+fork.)

I was about to cross the street, far from the crosswalk, when I had to stop for a Jetta coming down.

It was moving just fast enough that I couldn’t cross the street but also slow enough that the driver wanted me to know he was holding me up on purpose.

I swept both arms to the left to suggest that the car speed the fuck up.  To my amazement, the car turned slightly and bared down upon me.  The sun was low and threw a glare on the windshield so I didn’t see Mrs. Angrywall in the driver’s seat until she was nearly on top of me.

“I thought it was you, Sean!” she yelled out the window.

“Hi, Mrs. Angrywall.”

“Can I give you a ride?”

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere in particular.”

“You’re just driving around?”

She smiled and shrugged.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I said.  “I don’t want to piss off your husband.”

“It won’t piss him off.”

“He looked pretty mad last time I saw him.”

“That’s how he gets from time to time.”

“I don’t know.”

“He’s out of town right now, if that really makes a difference to you.”

I shook my head and came around to the passenger side.  I sat down and strapped myself in.

“Which way?” she asked as she let up off the brake.

“Go down to the third light, make a left.”

“Are you just going to go home now?”

“That’s what people do when they’re done with work.”

“No!  The Americans go out and have fun in tacky corporate pseudo-pubs!  Go down to Applebee’s or TGIFs!”

“I’ve never been to a TGIF!  That’s for yuppies!”

“Do you want to go now?”

“God, no.  What’s gotten into you, Mrs. Angrywall?”

(more…)



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C’mon, Three Stooges People!

Wow, hope this scene isn’t in the reboot! (Flied Liceburgers — I get it!)



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