The Spectacle of the Scaffold: Why We Love Crime and What We Should Do About It

 

 

July 5th, 2011. We had been waiting for three and a half years. Every deposition, every juicy bit of gossip, every over-analyzed clip of the defendant’s apathy in the courtroom was leading up to a unanimous guilty verdict. The American people wanted her to die. And then Nancy Grace told us she was innocent and Jesus wept.

The Casey Anthony trial has been touted as the most important judicial event since O.J. Simpson was similarly acquitted for a heinous crime. In both cases, television shows were preempted, magazine covers ubiquitously showed us their faces, and every one in the country had an opinion. Following her verdict of Not Guilty, Anthony was voted the Most Hated Person in the World; 15 years later and the name O.J. can still make our blood boil. But why? Why did we care about them in the first place?

O.J. is easy. He was the perfect storm of sensationalism. Famous, adored, attractive person pulls the rug from under our feet. We couldn’t believe it was true. We felt betrayed, lied to, and wanted to know why. Not only that, but here was a black man who killed a white woman. Race was at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the Simpson trial, especially after Det. Mark Fuhrman admitted to having used the “n” word in the past. The idea of racism superseded the idea of justice and illuminated the racial divisions in our country. If O.J. were found guilty, the system was racist. If he were found innocent, a man got away with murder. And we refused to be seen as racist. Even now, the outcry is drawn on racial lines. In 2004 for the tenth anniversary of the criminal trial, NBC conducted a poll concerning Simpson’s guilt: 87% of the white people canvassed believed that O.J. did it; not surprisingly, only 29% of the black people did. Thankfully, Simpson has dug his own grave, writing the ludicrously incendiary book If I Did It, laying out how he would have killed them – which the Goldman Family has exploited to the nth – and gotten himself 33 years in prison for armed robbery; a sentence so stringent because, as many of us believe, he got away with murder.

Casey Anthony, on the other hand, was a nobody; just another young, pretty girl, from Florida, sponging off her parents, strapped with the consequences of having unprotected sex. Until she killed her daughter. But thousands of children die every year, many of them at the hands of their parents, so why was she different? Two words: Nancy Grace.

For the half a dozen of you who didn’t see any of the Anthony trial, Nancy Grace is a salacious, bombastic, yellow journalist who uses her nightly forum to “investigate” missing child cases, talk down to guests, and present us with melodramatic, MTV style video packages designed to make the accused look their absolute worst. That said, without Ms. Grace, little Caylee’s remains may have never been found. It was her obsessive persistence to convict “Tot Mom” that kept the investigation moving – and in the minds of the American people. Ironically, like all publicized murder cases, the focus shifted from the victim to the accused. As much as Grace claimed she was “seeking justice for Caylee,” it is impossible to divorce her quest from its outcome: she made Casey Anthony a celebrity.

Of course this is nothing new. We have always loved, as Foucault called it, “the spectacle of the scaffold.” As far back as the Romans, we have been lining up to see people get eaten by lions, burned at the stake, quartered, and beheaded. We know the names and faces of Nero, Caligula, Elizabeth Bathory, and Vlad the Impaler better than we do the saints. Countless books have been written about the Nazis and serial killers. And in many of our homes, we hang a naked dead man on our walls.

If you asked people to name some of the most famous people of the 20th century, chances are the names Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Leopold and Loeb, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Jack Kevorkian, Terri Schiavo, Lorena Bobbitt, Jon Benet Ramsey, Michael Jackson, and, of course, O.J. Simpson would be somewhere on their lists. But again, why? Why do we care about these people?

Most people would say the media. True, the media dictates the news, tells us what is important and what is not. But they have to know that there will be an audience. And what about the centuries that CNN didn’t exist? The days before the New York Times and Facebook? Our obsession with crime and criminals didn’t begin in the 20th Century. It didn’t even begin with the printing press. Some of man’s earliest cave drawings are depictions of battle. What the 20th century’s technology has brought us is immediacy. No longer must we wait for the latest Marquis de Sade to be smuggled into our town by way of fake book jackets and bribery; we have 24 hours of violence, tragedy, carnage, and despair at the click of a mouse every second of every day. Plus, something that we forget in our blanket blame of the media is that we are the media. The media is not made up of aliens from some alternate galaxy (although some could argue where Grace or Ann Coulter hang their hats); the media is made up of people like you and me: parents, friends, siblings, co-workers, conservatives, liberals, independents, gay, straight, black, white, men, women, young, old. The media gives us what we want because it too is what they want. So why do we want it? What is it about these horrible things that make us watch? Let’s examine them closer.

What fascinated us about Charles Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders was the outright lunacy of the crimes. Manson wanted to instigate a race war that in a convoluted ideology would see him as the leader of the world, which prompted a two-day killing spree in the Hollywood Hills. Actress Sharon Tate, pregnant wife of Roman Polanski, and a few of her wealthy, white friends (including Abigail Folger, heir to the coffee fortune) were slaughtered in a gruesome way that Hollywood has been trying to duplicate ever since. And of course the media circus that followed with camp outs, swastika carvings, Messianic claims, and an utter ambivalence for the consequences only fueled their fame and our desire to see them. What fascinates us today is not that a famous person was killed – she was a B-star at best – nor really even that she was pregnant (our allegiance has shifted to Lacy Peterson for that quota), but how his accomplices have changed. How did Leslie van Houten go from Homecoming Queen to stabbing a woman 16 times? Inversely, how did Tex Watson and Susan Atkins go from being cold-blooded assassins and psychotic derelicts to Born-Again Christians? The Manson Murders make us look deep into our own humanity and wonder, “Could that happen to me? Could I ever lose my sense of self and become wrapped up in abhorrent behavior?” Similar questioning explains our fascination with Patty Hearst.

Ted Bundy makes us address our bias for attractive people. We simply feel they are above suspicion or immorality. Same goes for Scott Peterson. In 1977, Bundy broke out of prison and people actually printed up t-shirts that said, “Run, Ted, Run” to support his escape. We didn’t want to believe that the man we may have dated or fantasized about last week could actually kill us when we weren’t looking. Bundy also brought the debate of violent pornography and its effects to the table, using it as his defense. If he never would have watched violent pornography, he might not have committed the murders. So should we ban pornography to save ourselves from the Ted Bundys of the future?

Leopold and Loeb were two attractive, upper class young men from very affluent families who decided to kill a teenage boy just to see if they could. They had no motive other than hedonism and a feeling of superiority. Should we fear the intelligencia? And how can we hope to protect ourselves when the least likely of people could be our killer? This was part of what was so shocking about Jeffrey Dahmer, a man with no violence in his background from a good, normal family – who happened to eat people and sleep with dead bodies. Again, how do you get from A-Z and will it happen to me?

John Wayne Gacy was the model citizen. He was involved in local politics, a pillar of the community, and entertained children at birthday parties. He also raped and killed 33 boys and buried them in his house. Gacy falls under the “Kane Effect”: can you ever truly understand another person?   JFK showed us that no one, not even the President of the United States, is beyond reach. His death was violent, tragic, and public. We have analyzed those 486 frames of the Zapruder film more than any movie a Bergman or a Welles ever made, still almost 50 years later trying to discern its truth. How could it happen? Why did it happen? And will it happen again? Lee Harvey Oswald was not only the accused assassin of our beloved President, but the first man ever killed on live television.

Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein continue our fascination with Hitler. How can one person get so many others to do their bidding? Manson, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite are microcosms of this phenomenon. Also, Hussein and bin Laden, being foreigners, were not as tangible or controllable as a BTK or a DC Sniper. We feared them because they were out of our jurisdiction; therefore, felt helpless to defend ourselves. This is why their deaths, in addition to their symbolic weight, gave us such pleasure.

Jack Kevorkian and Terri Schiavo ignited debates about the rights and qualities of life. If I can choose to live, why can’t I choose to die? Lorena Bobbitt put Freud’s “castration complex” to the test. Jon Benet Ramsey – and Casey Anthony – brought out the parent in all of us in order to understand how you could kill your own child. And Michael Jackson – like O.J., Robert Blake, Phil Spector, Paris Hilton, Kobe Bryant, and Lindsay Lohan – forced us to look at our idolization of celebrity and their special treatment within the judicial system.

But there has to be something more to all of this than just “morbid curiosity,” right? Philosophers, psychologists, pundits, media critics, and lay people have tried to discern a definitive reason why we love violence and crime and aggressive behavior when it can simultaneously create such a negative visceral reaction within us. Even more than understanding why we love violence, though, we as a culture are obsessed with trying to figure out the effects of our violent media. Does violence beget violence? Bundy thought so. The parents of the Columbine victims thought so. But how do you explain the millions of people that watch violent media and don’t commit violence? Can we still consider Aristotle’s Catharsis Doctrine as a valid explanation? Is viewing violence a way of purging ourselves of our animalistic tendencies still bubbling ‘neath our skin after millennia of evolution? And is there something about being American – the nationality of most of the world’s famous serial killers – that makes us more violent? Is it our obsession with guns as Michael Moore thinks? Or something deeper?

Nietzsche thinks that, “dreadful experiences raise the question whether he who experiences them is not something dreadful also.” Darwin would say we love to see others suffer because it eliminates a competitor. One could deduce from Freud’s idea of masochism as sadism turned inward that we need to witness terrible things to counteract our guilt brought upon by our superego’s need for dominance.

There are innumerable factors that make us tune in to atrocity after atrocity, but there is one that unites them all: the anxiety of death. No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, no matter what we accomplish, we all share the knowledge that someday we will die. When we acknowledge death by watching Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel or play Mortal Kombat or sit on the edge of our seats for the most gruesome details of Caylee Anthony’s remains, we are reminded that we are very much alive. We have stared into the face of death and conquered it. We fear and admire killers like Gacy or Bundy – and by extension Jason and Michael Myers – because they have the dual power to inflict and evade death, out there among us, ready to kill – and conquer death – again. We are jealous of their power over death and long to understand and channel it.

We yearn to see death because death has been hidden from us. Gone are the days of public executions in the town square. How many of us watched Saddam Hussein’s hanging? How many of us clamored to see a photo of bin Laden’s demolished head? How many of us slow down to see a car accident on the side of the road? The closest most of us can get to death is through media. Not even funerals, with our attempts at recreating the way they looked in life, allow us to stare death head on. Is it any surprise we watch videos like Faces of Death or boxing matches or the Indy 500 or jump out of airplanes or mountain climb? Where else can we experience death and live to tell the tale?

Arendt argues in On Violence that the “praise of life and the praise of violence” are the same. “Have not men always equated death the ‘eternal rest,’ and does it not follow that where we have life we have struggle and unrest?” Take this and counter it with the idea of Thanatos, or the Death Urge: if life is seen in the context of pain, death is a relief from that. The next time you watch a horror film, ask yourself, “Am I identifying with the killer or the killed? Am I enjoying their suffering to feel like a conqueror of death or because I long to be dead myself?”

So if watching trials, viewing horror movies, reading Stephen King novels, playing Call of Duty, or writing letters to Richard Ramirez in jail are all to overcome our fear of dying, should we look upon them as having negative effects on our culture? If the media is sensationalist because the human race is sensationalist do we need to change the format? Does Videodrome have the right idea or does Network?

Part of the reason we love to hate violence is that it taps into our basest emotions. We like to forget that we were once animals, roaming the hills for survival. The human race is supposed to be better than this. Yes, we are evolved. Yes, we are intelligent. Yes, we do have opposable thumbs. But we’re still animals, endowed with survival instincts, sexual urges outside of acceptable society, and selfish genes that allowed our ancestors to make it through the centuries.

The beauty of America is that we have choices and with each purchase, each Neilsen rating, each principal that manifests to action, we are voting. If you feel that society should be “above” sensationalism and the glorification of violence, don’t buy the inevitable Casey Anthony tell-all or watch the Barbara Walters Special. But if you acknowledge that even though we are at the top of the food chain, we still harbor biological and social traits that need to be addressed, then violent media and the exploitation of crime should – and must – be here to stay.

But where can it go from here? Will we return to gladiator days and public executions? Or is this even a “return” since UFC fighting and football and trials airing on HLN are barely a step removed? What can we see that we already haven’t seen? We’ve seen dead bodies ad nauseum, rape, degradation, childbirth, live suicide, live murder, torture, open-heart surgery, fat sex, midget sex, geriatric sex, kiddie porn, beastiality, sadomasochism, scat, watersports, fisting, bukake, double penetration, every millimeter of the human body, and the construction of a creature out of humans by sewing someone’s mouth to another person’s ass. Again, how much further can we go? If we asked our grandparents if they as children imagined a world where sex, crime, and violence in all of their glorious forms would be commonplace, chances are they would say no. What will our grandchildren ask us? Whatever forms crime and its representation take on in the second half of the 21st century, chances are we will say yes.

The ? Project with Betsy Hillstead

My friend and fellow writer Betsy and I are writing a short story? – novella? – epic? one paragraph at a time. I will begin, she will follow, I will continue, and so forth. There are no rules. No plan. No outline. No conversations. Just writing. It could be awesome. It could be terrible. But here we are. Enjoy.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 11.19.37 AM

***

The sun entered through the mini-blinds like a noisy intruder. Stuart had been meaning to replace them with the curtains his mother had sent him for Christmas – the ones she spent way too much money on and reminded him way too many times. But they still remained in the bottom of his closet, along with the unopened show rack she had sent for his birthday (“Oh, hush. It was only $10. Besides, someday when you get a lady friend, you’ll be glad you have it”; Mom refused to say “girlfriend” or “wife” when referencing a life mate for her son. She didn’t want to be a “jinx,” as she called it, going through a similar circumstance with his sister – well, half-sister, really, but Connie Wright didn’t go in for that “mess of foolishness. Family is family.” – when she and her boyfriend parted ways after five years of dating).

The clock on his bedside table glared 6:38, mocking him in shiny red numbers. Stuart needed to be at his desk in less than three hours and he hadn’t even slept yet, again, for the third time this week. He reached over the naked woman (what was her name, Charlotte?) sleeping next to him and picked up the mirror and straw he’d left on the desk next to his bed. Fuck it, he thought, have another blow for your nose. The girl stirred slightly as he railed the line, and Stuart paused to look at her as he pulled himself up off the bed. She really was beautiful, whatever her name was. Deciding to wait to wake her until after his shower, he went ahead and called her a cab. It’d be at least another twenty minutes before the car actually arrived.

As he stood over his tryst (Stefi? No, Stefi was the redheaded stripper from Tuesday) and jolted (forget Folgers!), he wondered where they had met. It could have been Darren’s party, but that was two (six?) days ago. It could have been The Max – that horribly kitschy bar where his brother does stand up, the one decorated in Saved By the Bell memorabilia and all the cocktail waitresses are named “Kelly” – but he swore he would never set foot in there again after the last time the kitchen burned his Bayside BLT. Was she a prostitute? Not likely; one look at him in those jeans and the girls (and the boys) go wild. Most probably, they met in passing on the street, his favorite form of pick-up, noted for its danger; a test of his natural swag. The possibilities are endless; Rick James was right: cocaine is one hell of a drug.

Stuart shut the bathroom door behind him and turned the hot water handle on in the shower to full blast, then stood, naked, examining his face in the mirror. Was it his imagination or was his face looking thinner? When was the last time he’d eaten? The thought of food brought back a memory of the girl’s lip-gloss, and he could still taste the sticky tang of her chapstick around his mouth; there was a small hickey on the inside right corner of his collarbone. He liked the way she’d bit him. Had they used a condom? The scratches on his back looked like matching tic-tac-toe boards across his shoulder blades. As steam filled the room and Stuart’s reflection became nothing more than an obscure figure in cloudy glass he stepped carefully into the shower, letting the scalding water rush down his body, his skin taking on a crimson hue. The water felt good. The water felt real.

Melinda – or at least that’s the name she was assigned this go around – sprawled out in Stuart’s bed, “awoke” and slid to the edge. Now that the man – the one from her photograph – had left the room, she could rise from her feigned sleep and search for the box in peace. Previous targets had stored their sensitive materials in clandestine compartments in bookshelves, but Melinda had neither the time nor the desire to fumble behind this endless collection of Michael Crichton and Tucker Max. Sure, she could just throw them all on the floor in a fury like they do in the movies, but secretly she hoped to see him again and didn’t want to raise suspicion. She began to lift his antique looking-yet probably from Goodwill roll top desk, but it began to creak and these walls were most definitely thin – as they learned last night when Stuart’s neighbor pounded on the wall for them to keep it down. And then she remembered. Of course. It was under the bed. She had seen it only hours before when she threw him to the floor and he begged her to do what women usually didn’t. With his face buried deep in the carpet, she spotted that little black box Gretchen had described to her in detail, right down to the pearl handle. How could she have forgotten? The truth was she didn’t give a shit. This assignment was just that. There was no gangster giving her 24 hours. No kidnapped lover in need of some grand retribution for release. This was just another gig for cash. And the money was only mediocre at that. The thrill, as they say, was most definitely gone. Then why do it at all? Melinda had asked herself various versions of this question since she left the convent ten years ago, but had yet to arrive at a definitive answer. She began asking herself this question more and more lately. She had a good time with Stuart; the most alive she had felt since the dentist in Phoenix. The best sex she had had since Vegas. But Melinda knew when her time was up and her next venture began that afternoon. She grabbed the box, surprisingly without security – Was this Stuart’s first rodeo? – and tucked the address under her left breast. Quickly slipping back into her dress – Where did I leave those panties?! – Melinda applied her green apple chap stick (her favorite of flavors to combine with her morning dosage) and kissed the remaining scraps of coke off the mirror before heading for the door.

Stuart heard the crack of his front door slamming as he stepped out of the shower. Leaving a trail of dripping water behind him he reached the front windows just in time to see the cab pulling out into the street, the girl tucked securely into the backseat. So that was it. Easier than usual, Stuart thought, as he headed into the kitchen for a glass of juice. 7:00am. Ticking off the day’s upcoming tasks on his fingers, Stuart made a list of all the carefully planned stops he needed to make on his way into work. He was meant to arrive at the address in exactly forty minutes. That mother fucker better not be late again, Stuart thought. The breeze from the open window sent chills down Stuart’s spine and felt crisp on his damp skin. And again he was reminded of the girl’s fingernails, digging into the small of his back. He shivered and imagined he could still smell her on the tips of his fingers, her perfume lingering like spider webs in the air around him. For a second, he almost regretted the fact that she was gone, had left in exactly the same way he would have had they ended up at her place. It was foolish to bring her here, he thought. How had he let that happen? There was too much at stake. Too much booze and too much blow and too much of the smell and taste of her had made him drop his guard. He wouldn’t let it happen again; he couldn’t let it happen again. But still he smiled as he headed back into his bedroom, remembering the way she had looked at him, those dark green eyes. What was the worst that could happen?

  *

Gina pulled the last strips of bacon from the frying pan at precisely the right moment: a consistent brown, never burnt, just the way Dante liked it. Pleased with her daily accomplishment, she called the troops to “Breakfast!” It had taken her nine years, but she finally had this whole mother and wife thing down pat. Quite a far cry from the dunes of Baghdad and the sweet embrace of an AK 47.

Dante walked into the kitchen just as she was setting the table for breakfast, and stopped to admire his wife’s ass as she bent over to position her enormous plate of scrambled eggs next to the giant stack of pancakes she’d made for the boys. It still surprised him how much those boys could eat. He snuck up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist, gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Morning Sunshine, smells great in here baby.” he told her. Gina smiled and turned around in her husband’s arms, kissed him good morning. “Hey I was starting to get worried you’d sleep all day. Don’t you have that early meeting today?”

Dante tried not to let his panic show. Had he told her in his sleep? This precarious habit had cost him his first wife when Gina’s name began entering the midnight ramblings of his marriage bed. The hypnotist – a “present” from his therapist – supposedly cured him of this annoying handicap, but lately Dante had been noticing a strange behavior in Wife #2. One night after returning from a business dinner he caught Gina going through his pockets for phone numbers and cigarettes (a habit in which he indulged only after sex). Other mornings, he would swear she was staring at him with antipathy as if she knew his double life. Or maybe it was just her PTSD. Dante was never sure. But this morning’s meeting was not one he was looking forward to attending; ten kilos of blow in your trunk would make anyone jumpy.

*

Stuart walked into his bedroom and stood in front of his open closet. He selected a pair of carefully pressed khaki trousers and a starched white button up, removed them from their respective hanging perches, and carefully laid the clothes out on his bed. His head was starting to pound and his palms were damp with anticipation. Steadying himself against his dresser, he stepped into his white boxer briefs. That’s when Stuart noticed his desk. His papers had been moved. What the fuck? Taking a moment to try and remember if he had been the one to leave the right drawer open, he surveyed the rest of his bedroom. The box under the bed, why was it out, in plain view, when he was sure had kicked it well under the night before, out of sight of the girl? Oh shit, Stuart thought, the address. Adrenaline surged into his veins. Where the fuck was it?

*

17832 Washington. A crumbling facade with thick padlocked bars on the windows and a faded sign that once read Woofie’s. And Pho City. And O’Malley’s. Luciano’s. Viva la Cocina. And Nate’s Paint Shop. The neighborhood had been through more disaster and poverty than New Orleans and each time the smoke cleared, it seemed another business was trying their hand at the American Dream, only to face the inevitable. Dante figured it would be the perfect place for a drug deal. He knew these mean streets well and though he had moved up and out into the suburbs after his last great score – the one he thinks Gina knows nothing about – coming back to the neighborhood gave him an uncomfortable comfort, an ease he had not expected. The years had been many, but the miles of memory are few.

The mother fucker is late, Dante thought to himself as he looked down at the leather banded Cartier knockoff on his wrist. A gift from Gina for their latest anniversary. So you’ll remember to pick up the kids next time, she had joked as she’d presented it over dinner. Maybe with this score he would replace the damn thing with an authentic and get her that bracelet she’s always eyeing online. Where the fuck is this guy. Twenty past. Dante was starting to get nervous. The streets were still deserted so early in this part of town, so he jolted when he heard the sound of an engine rounding the corner and pull up outside the shop. He stowed the case, steadying himself and taking a breath before heading over to the window. He pushed aside the heavy, mildewed curtains just enough to get sight of the car. Through the tinted windows of a classic beamer he could just make out a figure before she stepped out into the light. Who, the fuck, is she?

Melinda shielded her eyes from the morning sun with her still sore hands; Stuart’s bulbous bravado was the one thing Gretchen had neglected to include in her dossier. As the sun’s rays created a backlight for her hands, she began to notice their imperfections. From an early age, Melinda had been championed for her beauty. Her mother, a failed beauty queen as is usually the case in these stories, pushed her avatar-like daughter into pageants and recitals, even helping her secure a major modeling contract when she was just 14. But this Dainty June was made for more and knew it – even if she was the only one who did. While the other models spent their time during Fashion Week on the Seine drinking cocktails and flirting with Frenchmen who had never even heard the term Megan’s Law, Melinda spent her free time reading Agatha Christie (a love she inherited from her grandmother), visiting the Louvre, and taking photographs of the local color, even comprising them into a book that saw a very limited release (rumor has it that you can find still find it on Ebay for a hefty sum; how the prices seem to skyrocket when you are infamous…). Melinda’s once alabaster skin was noticeably starting to roughen with age; her cuticles were in desperate need of a manicure; and she had recently broken a nail – no doubt somewhere in Stuart’s sheets. She noticed a scar on her left index finger, something she hadn’t spotted in years. Had it always been there? Where did it come from? It could have been one of dozens of jobs Gretchen sent her on. It could have been one of the many flagellations she administered herself at the convent; or it could have been something as innocuous as a fall from a tire swing at her Aunt Shirley’s farm when she spent her summers there as a youth. No matter now. As she dropped her arms, Melinda momentarily became dizzy, as she knew she would – a side effect of cocaine as it courses through your bloodstream. Quickly bracing herself in her 3 inch knock-offs, Melinda headed for her destination.

She knocked four times on the door through the gated, padlocked screen. Short – long – short – short, as per Gretchen’s meticulous instructions. “Who the fuck are you?” was her welcome from the other side as Dante inched the door open just enough so that she could see his right eye through the slit of sunlight passing through the still chained entry.

“Stuart couldn’t make it.”

“That’s not a fucking answer.” Dante didn’t like surprises.

“I’m Melinda.”

“Where’s the fucking money?”

“Open the door. You know I gotta see the product first.” She leaned back in her heals, presenting herself as she would have in one of those old pageants. Men were are so fucking easy.

Dante slammed the door shut in her face. Shit shit shit! This was not the fucking deal! He had a feeling about Stuart since the moment they’d met, three weeks ago in that bar; a meet arranged by Dante’s source. “That fucking prick” He thought to himself as he weighed his options. Why the fuck would that asshole send this broad?! But she clearly knows Stuart. She knows to meet me here, has the address… She knows his fucking name. And now I know hers. Mother fucking amateur hour. He unchained the door to let her in.   

The smell was staggering. The kind of scent that stops you dead in your tracks, causing your body to waver like one of those inflatable clowns that bob and weave as they drunkenly dance in the wind. The kind of smell that causes your eyes to instinctively widen, when all they should be doing is pulling the shades and retreating for shelter into the back of your skull. The kind of smell that stays in your nose for days no matter how many times you rub perfume or Carmex above your upper lip. It was the smell of a death. While Dante paced around in a nervous tizzy with that scrunched up look on his face – the one we think will somehow make the smell so offended it will leave in shame – Melinda stomped confidently down her imaginary runway, threw herself into a chair, and pulled some crumpled up Virginia Slims from her bra. For a moment, she just eyed him, slowly packing her cigarettes, rhythmically, bouncing off the cadence of the nearby train as it hustled over the Davenport Bridge. She studied his weatherbeaten, yet somehow innocent face for any signs of danger. Dante looked away in discomfort from her penetrating gaze; she knew she was safe. With her thumb, she flipped open her pack of cigarettes, pulled one out with her mouth, and leaned back. She wasn’t trying to be seductive; she just couldn’t help it. Melinda fingered the bullet hole in the arm of her chair.

“Got a light?”

“No.”

“Febreze then? What the fuck is that smell?” Without taking her eyes from him she dug a little deeper into her bra and produced a small bic lighter of her own, or maybe she’d swiped it from Stuart. Men have no fucking manners in this part of the world, she thought as she lit her own cigarette. “So where’s my product?”

Dante waited a moment, taking in the full site of her in that chair. She exhaled slowly, the smoke escaping her lungs in one controlled release, twisting and snaking its way around her body, encircling each delicate facet of her profile. “What do you mean, where is it, little girl?” He was punctuating every consonant with an embellishment of saliva in her direction. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears as he struggled to maintain composure. I am in charge here, goddamit, this is MY fucking deal… Jesus Christ those legs. He turned from her then, crossed the room, and tried to force the thought of what was between those legs from his mind. “Why don’t you tell me where the fuck Stuart is, to begin with, and then you can tell me who the fuck you are, Melinda?”

Who the fuck am I? WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU? Melinda was not accustomed to being spoken to in this manner. Instead of flying into one of her infamous rages – the ones that caused her to join the convent in the first place in the hopes of channeling her aggression for Pierre inward, like a good little Catholic – Melinda laughed. A laugh that was a little too large to be appropriate for this situation. But the whole situation was absurd anyway, wasn’t it? A drug deal? In broad daylight? In Jimmy Choos? What would the Mother Superior say…

“Stuart’s dead.”

Melinda uncrossed her legs to expose her inner thigh, adorned with a black leather holster and a .357.

“And unless you want to join him, I suggest we get this fucking ball rolling.” Melinda ashed her cigarette into the bullet hole, recrossed her legs, and smirked.

“You’re kidding me right? You think I’m scared of that piece between your legs?” With a jerk Dante swung his arms around his back and reached for his own weapon, but before he was able to finger the cock blood was already streaming down his forehead. Melinda hadn’t even removed her gun from its perch before she shot him in the head. So much for channeling that rage.

“Fuck.”

The barrel of the pistol was burning her leg. Quickly, she pulled it from its holster and threw her Father’s gun across the room next to Dante’s body. Everybody just stay calm. Melinda was still. With each inhalation of her Virginia Slim, she became more and more at at peace. Everything is fine. Putting her butt out in the arm of the chair, Melinda placed the potential evidence in the waist band of her panties.

*

Stuart rounded the corner onto Washington three minutes before Dante’d arrived at the address. Stuart had told the cabbie to drop him a few blocks north and made the rest of the way on foot. He watched from a distance until the girl was tucked inside the rotting façade, then made his way toward the ally.

Dodging the hypodermic needles sprinkled among the Coke cans and used condoms, Stuart hopped his way to the side of the dumpster like Indiana Jones spelling God. From this inconspicuous vantage point, he could see through the ratty curtains of the agreed upon drop, conveniently parted just enough to know if shit was hitting the fan.

He almost lost his footing when the shot rang out. The fuck! Stuart elbowed the windowsill hard enough to nudge the safety stick out of position and pulled himself inside.

The floor was a lot lower than it looked. Stuart landed with a thud on the grimy linoleum, hitting his left hip on what must have been a concrete cabinet, and rolled to the ground. Goddamn it! Stuart cocked his gun in haste and surveyed his make-shift hideout. All clear. He was somewhat surprised that he hadn’t happened upon a similar drug deal like the one he was supposed to be at next door. This whole block was nothing but a series of abandoned buildings, ripe for shady dealings and squatters. But Stuart had no time to consider who had died here or who was buried in the floor boards (or even why that concrete cabinet looked like a safe…). Those shots were fired from his drop. And one way or another, it was going to come down on his head.

Stuart kept low and made his way across the room. With his back to the wall he caught a glimpse of her beyond the door frame.

“So you made it after all,” She mused as their eyes locked. “You might as well help me clean this up since you’re here.” Melinda gestured in the direction of the dead guy laying on the floor, surrounded by an ever widening pool of his own blood. “Hope this jerk wasn’t a friend of yours. No fucking manners I swear.” She pulled two more Virginia Slims from the bust of her dress and extended one in Stuart’s direction, offering it to him as if coaxing a small cat from under the deck of an old house. “Smoke darling?”

He stared at her quizzically, trying to mend the images of that little girl from last night and this seemingly cold blooded dame in front of him. Last night, she was a sub – trained to perfection by what must have been a long line of Doms to obey his every command (and anticipate the needs he didn’t even know he wanted). But now here she was, completely dominating the situation, blood on her hands and a glint in her eye. Confused whether her power excited or terrified him, Stuart emerged from his place in the corner and grabbed her peace offering.

She glared at him amusingly, trying to see if he would take her lead or start firing with his own guns a blazing. Gretchen had warned her about his temper – and the whore he killed in Fresno. But Melinda knew a thing or two about quieting the monster within and decided to play chicken with this lion. She wondered how he would respond to this suddenly brazen vixen before him, hoping it would not break down the Walls of Illusion for their next sexual encounter – and for Melinda, there was definitely going to be a next time. Something about his power, his thrust, challenged her. And she had to figure out what it was. And what that said about her own.

Slowly and without taking his eyes off hers, Stuart reached around to his back pocket and pulled out an old zippo. He ignited the flame and with a gesture offered to light her cigarette. She leaned in slowly, letting the tip of her slim catch fire before taking a deep pull. She smiled at him.

“It was my grandfather’s” he said.

“Pardon?”

“This lighter. It belonged to my grandfather.”

It was silver, real silver. Melinda had learned to spot a fake at the convent; the Abbot, with whom she was having a torrid affair, had schooled her during their late night rendezvous in a myriad of ways – one of which was how to know if the Vatican was cheating them out of the supposedly pristine bric-a-brac he had earned for pulling an astounding 20,000 euros in tithes for the fall quarter. And yet, the purity of this metal wasn’t the only thing that caught Melinda’s keen eye for detail. An engraved swastika adorned its back. Her flirtatious smile turned to a caustic grimace.

“Nazi’s are good at taking care of bodies, right?” Melina gestured in Dante’s direction.

“Drugs first.” Stuart replaced the lighter in his back pocket and folded his arms across his chest.

Melina couldn’t help admire the site of his biceps across those pecs. Why is his shirt so tight?Stop staring, Melinda! she shook it off with a barely perceptible roll of her eyes. Refocused she said, “We were just getting to that, but then he got shot in the head. Figured you and I could take this one step at a time.”

Stuart stood his ground. “Drugs first.”

Melina squared off, “They’re leaving with me.” The flash in her eyes let him know only one of them would leave there alive if he disagreed.

“Then I’m leaving with you too.”

***

The beautiful morning sun shone through the kitchen window across her face. Gina waved to her boys as they boarded the school bus. Once Max and Dante, Jr. rolled from view, that smile, that “mom” smile, that carefully rehearsed smile parents (and assassins) flash whenever they don’t want you to know their true feelings, melted into a reserved panic. Spinning from the window, Gina pushed herself from the sink and nervously paced her newly polished linoleum floors in her socks.

 

This Gun for Hire

You may not know it to look at me, or think it given my upbringing, race, and education, but I have been living at the poverty line for about the last ten years; my entire adult life.

According to the United States Health and Human Services’ Report 2012, yearly income for an individual at or below $11170 is considered to be in poverty. Take a look at my income tax returns for the past three years (the only ones for which I have used Turbo Tax, therefore the only ones I have readily available).

2009 – $10057 (Poverty Rate $10830)

2010 – $10171 (Poverty Rate $10830)

2011 – $13078 (Poverty Rate $10890)

All while living in the two most expensive cities in the United States: New York and Los Angeles.

So how did I survive, you may ask? The answer is multiple jobs, some cash under the table, parent and partner subsidies, and the good old kindness of strangers.

When I was growing up, I never really thought about money. My parents had succeeded their parents in the “class” game; my maternal grandparents were factory workers and skilled laborers, Grandma quitting school in the 6th Grade to help support her family by making dresses, Grandpa running a boat harbor (a time when they lived in a trailer) and eventually becoming foreman at a copper plant; my paternal grandmother never worked outside the home and Grandpa Saia supported eight children on a Willie Lohman salary. But Marge and Richard were toward the top end of middle class as medical professionals and had the two story we-designed-it-and-paid-someone-to-build-it house that sat on 2.5 acres to prove it. We had a pool, a garden, a trampoline, a piano, nice furniture, a few cars, even more dogs (breeding Ginger twice, taking on extra mouths to feed), took vacations, ate out regularly, hosted large family parties, got gifts on every major holiday (what 17 year old atheist still gets DVDs for Easter?), and Christmases, despite my mother’s vows each year to “not go crazy,” were like backing up the living room into the loading dock of a mall. If they had financial woes, I would never know it.

As I grew older and had adult conversations with my parents about finances (and realized the realities of bills, loans, and the chronic problem of eating), the veil of auspiciousness was raised like a curtain on opening night. Of course, we were better off than a lot of people in our tiny town of Troy – population 9000, charm 0; we didn’t live in one of those trailers we passed every time we came home from picking up dinner; we didn’t rely on the bingo hall for our entertainment, nor its winnings to pay our mortgage; and we bought our groceries from Schnuck’s all the way in Collinsville! bypassing Troy’s own Super-Valu or one of its five (five!) gas stations – but that didn’t mean we were living the high life over in Chesterfield either. I had jobs in high school and when it came time for college, there was no fund (I had spent all of that potential money being in shows for the previous ten years) and I was left to take out loans on my own. Unfortunately, my parents made too much to get enough public money (but not enough to pay the insane tuition AMDA and The New School charged – 50K each) so I had to go the private loan route.

This is where I shot myself in the foot and have essentially ruined the last decade – or at least made it as difficult as possible. I didn’t apply for scholarships, I didn’t work while I was at AMDA, and was very irresponsible with the money. I’m going to justify (or at least rationalize) it by saying this was a product of age and hubris. I moved to New York when I was 19 with the crazy notion that I was going to be a star. But of course I would. I had been “a star” in Troy and even “a semi-star” at The Muny. I had been performing for most of my life, was constantly told I was good, and believed it. But as every MidWestern wannabe must learn, I was just a big fish in a tiny puddle. This is not to say that I couldn’t have matched toe to toe with those city folk had I truly given it my all. But I didn’t for a myriad of reasons.

Maybe it was the sense of entitlement my generation was sold wholesale (“You are special!”) that made me assume someone would just give me – a nobody from nowhere – a role. Maybe it was my distraction to find a man. Maybe it was so I could hold onto that precept of potential if fame had passed me by, like Mama Rose who had been holding it down inside of her for too long and if she ever let it out there wouldn’t be lights bright enough…But perhaps the biggest reason was the constant fear of paying back the money I had borrowed.

My mother was the most vocal of the two. Not that my father was gung-ho about it; after all it was his name that was being co-signed to the loan, this last of which was for $80000. This was designed to pay off two of the $20000 loans I had previously taken out for AMDA and the $40000 I still owed The New School (minus the federal loans and student grants I was given). You see, I was going back to school.

After my year and half at AMDA (the duration of the program) and my two year tenure at Harry’s Burritos (making $10 an hour at the counter, $3.17 + tips on the floor, while sleeping on a couch in Spanish Harlem for 400 bucks a month and then living way out in the asshole of Brooklyn with five people in a three bedroom apartment for $250 a month), I decided that for my future (because I was going to be a film director now), I needed to go to school (because apparently you can’t learn the requisite skills from a book, volunteering for student projects that are always needing free help, and watching hours of movies). It was time to get out of the food industry and time to start my life. Or so I thought.

I knew this time around I would have to be smart and work while I was studying; I didn’t really have a choice unless I wanted to take out a loan to live on and knew that was not an option. However, I did allow the school, as part of their already exorbitant tuition, to tack Housing onto the bill. Out of the “worst neighborhood in NYC” (which I didn’t know at the time) – where I was glad I wasn’t a woman after dark; where the corner “restaurant” (a place you could get a sandwich, fries, dessert, and a drink for under $5) was encased in four inch bullet proof glass; where, inexplicably, I was told by the fat ugly Pakistani who ran the deli that he wanted to cum in my crack; where that shady office building and their want-ad promised managerial positions starting at 25K only to be a pyramid scheme selling lifted items) – and into one of the wealthiest (and gayest), Chelsea. I figured it out once that if I actually had to pay the rent up front (instead of having it rolled into my future monthly payments for the next 40 years), it would have cost me $1100 a month. $1100 a month. For a room I shared with two other people.

Even though most of my loans had been deferred because I was matriculating, there were some that required payment then and there because they had been matriculating (and gaining interest) already for four years. These were the federal loans I had taken out for College Number One, SIU-Edwardsville, back when I was planning on just doing the local school thing, living at home, saving money and moving to New York when I was done, but realized half a year in that I had to get the fuck out of the MidWest, started applying to schools (half-assed-ly like everything else in those days), and went to the only one I got into, a $50000 waste of time called AMDA. These payments were about $65 bucks a month. I was able to survive on one job for a very short period of time until the next batch of loans had hit their sell by date.

The 80K loan didn’t cover another 20 grand I owed to AMDA; I purposefully took out more money than I needed so I didn’t have to get a job and instead of giving the extra money back at the end of the term or saving it for later, I blew through it on food and superfluous purchases like Season One of Married…with Children and Who’s the Boss, causing me to have to borrow money from Tasha to eat my last two days in New York – last because I was moving home for a few months to live with my parents, work, and save because I, well, had no money to stay in New York. Turns out you can only defer private loans for so long (despite what my boss Nicca, a New School alumnus herself, told me those slow days at Harry’s we would sit at the bar and eat chips); Wells Fargo, Loan to Learn, and American Education Services want their money. And they want it now. They have been more than patient waiting the last two years, enough time for anyone to find a suitable job to pay back their ludicrous interest rates and principal amounts they never should have granted you in the first place. So on top of the $65 dollars a month I owed the federal government (which shortly thereafter jumped to over $100 when other federal loans began to kick in), I now owed an additional $225 dollars a month. So there is $325 a month just on loans. Figure in food because you aren’t getting it for free anymore (the best perk of working at restaurants, fast food, or catering) and you have a good 200 bucks a month. Then you have transportation (the subway was $1.50 a ride then, which I have heard has jumped to over $2 per), which can run you, if you buy the monthly Metro card, $85 (now it is over $100). Take into account you are living in the most amazing (and costly) city in America, a city where you are studying film and they have retrospectives and rare prints on rotation ($10-$15; at the multi-plexes, I would sneak from one movie to another, mostly around Oscar time and its endless parade of You-Have-to-See-These!), world famous museums (free-$30), rare book stores like Strand (I devoured that 99 cents bin), megastores like Virgin and Tower (I would spend hours roaming the aisles trying to decide the one thing I could afford to buy – back when they were still open) and, of course, the best theatre in the world, of which I saw roughly 12 shows in five years because it was just too damn expensive ($10 Off-Broadway = a huge meal at McDonald’s; $20 rush tickets are two movies; and the normal $50-$400 a seat prices were simply out of the question). So let’s average that I would spend $50 bucks a month on discretionary items and another $50 bucks on things like soap, toothpaste, and their ilk. That’s $325 on loans, $200 on food, $85 on transportation, and $100 on everything else. Which brings it to a budget of $710. All without paying for housing.

Now let’s talk employment. At the time, I was working in the stock department at Hershey’s Times Square, doing the graveyard shift at $8 an hour, which was not any different than what the people on the register made during the day (some jobs pay their night crews extra as an inconvenience fee). I had specifically requested this shift because A) It would give me my days free for school and another job if necessary B) it afforded me the luxury of working in customer service without the customers. Our shifts were anywhere from 2-6 hours, depending on the size of the shipment and we worked only 3 days a week. Obviously some quick math would prove that this was just not going to cut the financial mustard. Also, working from 9 pm to sometimes 3 or even 5 am on the big shipment nights is a taxing schedule and puts your body on a different rhythm than the rest of the world, making it difficult to get up early ever and makes you contemptuous that when people are going to sleep or watching TV, you are going to unpack pillows in the shape of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. So I switched to days. And to my delight, a promotion.

I expected to get a promotion on the night shift. The manager needed an assistant and told the GM that I was the guy. But like the empty promises at Taco Bell, Pinkberry, the Angelika Film Center, Rubio’s, and every other job I have spent more than six months enduring, my title change and the infinitesimal raise it would have yielded were not to be. Instead, I was made a “Merchandiser,” a position I enjoyed very much, on paper. My co-hort Candice and I were responsible for making sure the store always looked perfect. We were in charge of working with the day stock people on helping them put things back that were in the wrong positions, that when new items arrived they were arranged to Plan-o-Gram (the detailed schematic from corporate so every store looks exactly the same) standards, and when we ran out of something, it was up to us (oh, the power!) to decide what would be a temporary replacement. We also got to design window displays and did not – I repeat did not! – have to work the register. Unless, it got really busy and then we may be asked to knock out the lines. The thing about working in Times Square is that it is always really busy. And the major gift holidays (also the major candy holidays) Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas?! Forget it. People were lined up around the block, waiting for us to open. So there Candice and I were ringing in Kiss earrings and Mr. Goodbar purses.

For those of you lucky enough to never have worked on a register, let me enlighten you to its true awfulness. Imagine standing in one place for up to 8 hours – minus the never long enough 30 minute break that you either spend sitting in the disgusting break room (and they are always disgusting), spend sitting on some loading dock with the smokers (these are usually the youngest employees, smoking to be “cool” and “edgy,” the ones who don’t give a damn and are only showing up for work so they have money to blow on Jamba Juice and designer jeans OR they are the oldest employees who smoke their cigarettes like they are life support – elongating their waste of existence, their broken dreams, and their shouldacouldwouldas into an endless stream of Mondays – as they are given a temporary stay of execution from their  “Would you like to supersize that?”s and “The receipt is in the bag”s), or spend sitting in your car (laying down in your car!) trying to catch a quick nap as the sun boldly shines through the window and the cars continue their never ending parade of screeches and honks. Imagine always having to look present to give the customers – excuse me, the “guests” – that never waning feeling that you are there to serve them at a moment’s notice. Imagine being told not to talk to other cashiers or write or read a book or do anything that will take you away from the robotic stance they want you to maintain at all times. Imagine the uniform that always accompanies this type of job: a t-shirt or polo (always tucked in) with the company’s logo embroidered near the shoulder, the ugliest pants, the most uncomfortable shoes, and the most degrading two pieces of the puzzle, the name tag, and God help you, the hat. The name tag, ostensibly designed to “personalize” you to the guests, put you on a first name basis with the guests, making it easier to swap recipes and “request you every time they come in” (some jobs actually quantify these “referrals” and other meaningless bullshit designed to distract you from how meaningless it actually is, with a gold star on some stupid hand-made Excel spreadsheet on a poster board next to the sign that reminds you the state’s minimum wage – is this supposed to make us feel like we’ve “made it” if we make 50 cents more? – safety rules, and the number to call for sexual harassment like every one is not sexually “harassed” at every job every day via sex jokes and the symbolic rape of your soul, all located in the disgusting break room). But what the name tag actually does is remind you that you belong to them. Your name on their name tag on their shirt in their store. It also serves as management’s safe guard (or so they think) for rude behavior to customers through the fear that they can report you by name to the supervisor. Well, let me tell you as someone who has gotten in trouble for his attitude on every – and I do mean every – customer service job he has ever had the misfortune to stumble into. If you are the type of employee who is going to mouth off to a customer full well knowing they can report you, you will either A) take your name tag off (although this hasn’t mattered in many of my jobs where I am the ONLY white person) or B) You just don’t care. Why? Because this job. Fucking. Sucks. The final indignity is the hat. Again, it labels you as being owned by the company and quells even more personality by cramming your hair under an itchy piece of fabric. And. It is ugly.

I could afford this $710 because I was making the big money of about $1000 bucks a month. That is before taxes, so I saw roughly $850 of that, allowing me to save a very little amount or you know, actually do something marginally expensive once every two months. But come summer time, I had to move out of student housing. If I wanted to stay there through the summer, I would have to pay double the rent, which meant that I would have had to come up with $1100 out of pocket each month. For three months. I was thinking of finding some cheap (very cheap) room to rent somewhere or stay with friends, but after my mental breakdown on Easter, eating my Easter dinner at McDonald’s, alone, on a much needed break from Hershey’s register of death, the breakdown where I called my Mom and wept over my Big Mac of my loneliness and misery, I decided to get out of the City and move home for the summer, job lost or kept upon my return. I didn’t care. I needed out. My parents were more than happy to oblige.

But it wasn’t a summer of fun, a summer of parties and swimming, a summer of watching TV and bonfires. This was a summer of work. A lot of work. In order to not be destitute upon my return to New York, I quickly got two jobs. The first was Assistant Manager at Body Central in the mall. I secured an AM position at this “urban” girl’s clothing shop directly from the GM, a high school classmate. She didn’t ask why I had returned and wanted to work in retail and I didn’t tell I would only be there for three months and bounce. The pay was something ridiculous like ten bucks an hour (after all, this was IL money now!), but the hours were good (30+). Plus, I started dating a boy who worked next door at the Gap.

Of course, I wanted to make as much money as I could, unsure if Hershey’s was taking me back, so I called up my old boss at Taco Bell and returned to the steam line. For the third time. (Time Number Two was when I ran out of money the first time from blowing my money on DVDs). I should probably explain, and I am not sure if you will believe me even if I do, that I loved – Loved! – working for Taco Bell once upon a time. I worked there for two years from 17-19, my senior year of high school into my first failed year of college. I was a kid with no direction who didn’t give a damn, only showing up for work so I had money to blow on Denny’s and trips to Vintage Vinyl. I worked constantly, over time even. I was the guy Josie would call for extra shifts because I was fast, fun, and organized. And did manager duties without manager pay (the first of many employers I allowed to exploit me on the chocolate covered promises of promotion). I was the Steamer (the one who slops the “meat” into the tortilla) almost every shift without fail because I was incredibly fast (you should have seen me on 25 cent Taco Days; damn you, St. Louis Blues) and they knew if I had to deal with customers I would be a bitch. When I was having one of those days where I didn’t want to be there (something that happened more frequently with each passing return) or wanted to be alone with my thoughts to brainstorm things to write, I would request (announce, actually) that “I’m on back-ups.” Back-ups was the person that did the dishes (once a very soothing and enjoyable task); restocked the wrappers; “dropped” (into 350 degree water) the frozen bags of chicken and nacho cheese for seven minutes; fried the chalupas, twists, chips, and Caramel Apple Empanadas; swept the floors; took out the trash; added water to the packets of dried beans and red sauce; and, because I am Jonathon, counted the manager inventory in the walk-in. It was a position that allowed you to constantly be moving, constantly be doing something new every few minutes; when you were “on the line,” you could be stuck standing in one spot for up to two hours during dinner, constantly looking up at the order screen, hunched over in the “Stuff” position ready with your three fingers of lettuce and your two fingers of cheese, or burning yourself on the quesadilla grill every 27 seconds if you had to do “Expo.” I loved this job so much that I even made a scrapbook – a fucking scrapbook – to commemorate my time there full of photos, hand written notes from co-workers, cut outs of the wrappers, and even a poem I penned especially for the first page. Most embarrassingly (because that isn’t embarrassing enough), when I left the building for what I thought would be the final time, I kissed – this is beyond shame – kissed the front door before walking to my car on the verge of tears. Loser.

Back in NYC, my prediction was correct. Hershey’s had already replaced me. I could tell they were glad to be rid of me and my stank attitude. Well, fine. Who needs you? I got a “job” very quickly as a ticket barker in Times Square (“Who likes stand-up comedy?”) that lasted all of about two hours. Commission based pan handling? No, thanks. I like eating. Plus, now that I was out of student housing (I could no longer justify “spending” that kind of money) I needed a good job. And fast. I didn’t find a good job, so I got two mediocre jobs, one that allowed me to see movies for free and the other to have all the frozen yogurt I wanted.

Angelika Film Center is a bougie “cinema” in the West Village that shows those arty, farty films you won’t find in towns with a Wal-Mart. The pay was abysmal ($7.25/hr), but the work was simple. Most of the time, I got to be box-office (clearly word had not yet reached that part of town that I was not someone who should have face to face interactions with patrons you want to return). Here was a job where you actually got to sit AND read! The work itself, answering phones and selling tickets, was so mind-numbing you could do it on autopilot. All of the work there was mind-numbing (in fact, all customer service work is formed around the theory of draining all thought and replacing it with physical labor) that you could completely check out. The concession stand (making popcorn! counting candy boxes!) could have been done by a complete moron and the ushers (sweeping floors! changing trash!) were responsible for the kind of work they give ex-cons to prove they deserve another chance or reckless celebrities to work off their DUIs. The Harvard School of Law this was not. So one would think I would be hired as a manager because I was, you know, the same age as the managers, and, you know, college educated. I asked. They said, yes. Then it never happened. And after three months, without time to see movies, which was the perk of working in that Hell hole, I quit to devote full time to my other employer, the one who had promised me at my hire date that I would be advanced to management ASAP (and then of course, never was): Pinkberry.

Despite their obsessive attention to cleanliness, their stupid Korean chachkies we had to dust daily, their low-rate of pay ($9.00), their ugly ass uniforms – complete with nametag, hat, AND apron! – and their extreme levels of paranoia evidenced by “the mix” coming in unmarked Myler bags so some nefarious Philip DeBrassiere couldn’t steal their recipe, Pinkberry was not a horrible place to work. At first. In fact, the first few months of any job – even the worst jobs – are not beyond tolerable. Those first few months take you from outcast to cult member, the time to learn what you need to learn and feel confidant doing it. Pinkberry afforded me two things necessary to survive any job you would rather not be doing: a perk (their yogurt is amazing!) and a friend. The former is always nice to have, but doesn’t always materialize (see Angelika Film Centre), but a friend is beyond crucial. You need someone to remind you you are a human with feelings, dreams, and thoughts and not just a walking, talking, button-pushing cog. Someone to be a repository for all of your angst, disdain, and contempt toward being stuck in a terrible job. Someone who yells, rolls their eyes, and threatens to quit every day but somehow can’t take the ten steps to the front door, just like you. Someone who in spite of their bold animosity still shows up, does a good job, is nice to people as long as they can be because hey, it’s not their fault your life sucks, and resists stealing money from the safe when all they want to do is grab it, surveillance be damned, and run to Mexico. Just Like You. Taco Bell gave me Jessica, Body Central gave me Ty (the sexy ‘mo who took me to Boxers and Briefs, a gay bar in Centreville across from the Hustler club with all-nude men flopping their huge dicks on the bar under a shower and the worst drag show I have EVER SEEN), Candice and other I’ve-forgotten-their-names black girls (white gay boys sure love their black girls) at Hershey’s, David and Co. at Harry’s Burritos, and Cintrella at Pinkberry. Cintrella was an ex-model and actress. Beautiful and, as a fellow black girl once said on an episode of Tabitha Takes Over, “boug-hetto.” The sophistication and worldly ways of her professional side, the one that presumably got her the job as well as her clients (she was also a wedding planner), would give way to the ghetto side when things got ugly. It was this side that would come out when corporate (on one of their numerous fascist inspections) was in the kitchen, leaving Cintrella and I to compare sexual escapades, or when on New Year’s Eve, Cintrella left the store – during her shift – to get a pedicure for that evening’s party, causing her termination. (This was not a huge personal loss because I had already been transferred to the Flushing store after moving to the outer limits of Queens, known as College Point. My friend at this branch was Ashley, a 21 year old Italian Brooklyn native who had lost custody of her daughter because she assaulted her baby-daddy and went to jail. This and her previous gigs selling coke and changing “100s” – fake $100 bills that you would take into convenience stores and get changed for real money; “I would get $40 bucks, my boss would get the other 60…” – made her a fascinating replacement for Cintrella’s foolishness. To wit, she was also, what else?, my supervisor.

*As a general rule, I always make friends with management first so I can get away with having a bad attitude. But our friendship is not what keeps me employed. Despite my habit of taking my frustration out on others, I stay employed because I am a damn good worker with an attention to detail, an almost assembly line acumen for organization, lead when called upon, and have the ability to multi-task through tunnel vision.

But even living all the way out in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where you are when you take the 7 train to the end of the line and still have a 20 minute bus ride, at $500 a month for a rented room, Pinkberry was not cutting the mustard. And as tasty as the yogurt was, you can’t live off that stuff (and survive to be 30) so I knew I needed to get out of there. But where to now? Definitely somewhere with food. I tried going back to Harry’s, but like Hershey’s, I think Ronny was glad to be rid of me. My loans had begun to rise again (after many months -years – of deferment and forbearance) and I knew that I needed a drastic life change. This type of life was just not sustainable. And this type of work was just not acceptable. I’d done food, fast food, clothes; merchandised, stocked, and sold; managed and cleaned toilets. Customer Service was out. So what was in?

I’m sure you are thinking, “Audition, dummy! Write. Put your artistic skills to use!” Which you would have a point. I should have done those things. In between being a full time student, working all of my free hours at jobs I hated to make as much money as possible as fast as possible, and working all of my other hours at finding a husband the long way around, I don’t know why I didn’t have the energy or interest to go out for shows that won’t be starting for another six months or go out of town when I am in New York at least another year or gigs that don’t pay any money. Silly, silly me. [I did, though, attempt to be a singer during this time, collaborating with some guys in Queens on some songs, until one of them got arrested (?) or went on the lam (?); the phone call was muffled]. Instead, I started seriously contemplating life as a…

*An Interruption: The following segment will be of a graphic nature. If you would rather not conjure up these images of me in your mind, feel free to skip the section between the lines.

_________________________________________________________________________

Still with me? OK. Let’s go.

After all of the customer service shenanigans and misery, I thought I would take “customer service” to the ultimate level and become a sex worker.

I thought I would start out small, more metaphoric than literal. I tried to get work as a bar back in a gay club, one of the guys in the bar who get beer from the basement and clean up dirty glasses used by the dirty men who want to do dirty things to you when you get off (or in the bathroom). When this didn’t pan out, I thought, shot boy! I could totally walk around in my underwear and let men grope me for tips. Or a go-go boy! Whatever. I can totally dance in my underwear for a few hours. So I auditioned at Rawhide on 23rd and 8th, right down the street from my house and one of the points of my cruising triangle that hooked up with that seedy video store and Rainbow Connection. If I had done any homework at all, I would have realized that Rawhide was for fans of Leather Daddy muscleheads. Which I was not (a Leather Daddy musclehead; a fan though? most definitely). After my 20 minutes of nary a glance (God, how humiliating), the manager told me I may want to try another bar that specialized in twinks (for those of you not aware, twinks are the 16-23 year old, feminized boys most appreciated by that part in a man’s brain that desires to dominate; anything older than 23, and even that is pushing it, no matter how submissive you are, loses the “twink” moniker as each passing year almost guarantees that you will not have been the first to plow the field). For some reason, I didn’t pursue this – or any other – “dancing” avenue. I decided, I guess, it would be easier to hook.

Porn was never an option. Despite my respect for Jenna Jameson and her I’m-A-Woman-in-Charge-Bitches swag, porn is on tape. Which means forever. And ever. And as long as my parents were alive (and I held dreams of doing something “important” with my life), I could not have absolute beyond the shadow of a doubt freeze-framable proof. Which meant to the streets (or the Internet, actually) I went.

To be honest, it wasn’t that big of leap. I wasn’t some bathhouse 1970s fag with 100s of scores to my credit or numerous prescriptions for Penicillin lying around my house, but I wasn’t shy – or particularly picky – procuring trysts. I also wasn’t ashamed of sharing stories of my adventures (Hell, I even wrote a memoir all about it) and thought it would make for some great tales to tell the grandkids I will never have. Turns out, though, I was a picky hooker. I hesitate to even call myself a “hooker.” I did it once and it wasn’t even “real sex.” $100 for a blow job. In a condom. From a guy who needn’t have paid for sexual favors. Another guy offered me 500 clams to eat my ass, which I turned down because he was old and busted, and the only other time I attempted to sell my body for cash was with this other old guy who had told me he had paid off another young hustler’s college education and said to myself What the Hell?, get it done, grin, and bear it. He was reticent to pay for it because “he didn’t need to” (according to whom?) and the evening actually consisted of us sitting on a park bench in the East Village near some Starbucks where he played therapist/parent to the whiny ramblings of a homesick 20 something whose life was turning out way differently than he had imagined back in his lime green bedroom at 5 David Drive.

I knew this was not a viable way of life for me either. You want to talk about hard work? People think hooking is taking the “easy way out.” But if you take it on full time, it is probably the hardest profession there is, constantly skirting death, the law, STDs, drug dealers, and a nearly irreversible life. The hilarious thing is that this wasn’t even my “lowest” point. In fact, upon exiting that guy’s house with the memory of his begging for more, the exchange of cash, and his pathetic attempt for a legitimate date, I felt a sensation of absolute power that I had never felt before – nor since.

The lowest point was when I worked as a tele-marketer for AT&T in some dingy office building in Long Island City with people who were, without hyperbole, ex-cons and drug addicts being given a second chance by society, answering phones and reading surveys for $7 an hour. I was, again, the only white person (which is not mentioned as a racist jab, but as a signifier of a system where people of color are shuttled into the shittiest jobs due to lack of opportunity and education AND as a point of frustration because I did have a good education and came from an upper middle class family and was now slumming as if I were born and raised into situations that made it nearly impossible to elevate – which of course fed my moods and complete dissatisfaction with the facsimile of life I passed off as existence).

__________________________________________________________________________

So back to customer service I went. Or at least I was prepared to. I got my loans deferred – again – and got some money from my parents – again, the eternal candles of support burning to tide me over until I found some other blah blah blah to pass the time. (This was also the wake-up call to “Never quit a job unless you have another to take its place”). I also got some occasional day gigs (dressing up as a toy soldier to promote the Rockettes’ Christmas show) and personal favors for food (helping Cintrella and her family move). I was also in therapy for the first time, attempting to fight through the inexplicable, undeserved feelings of unshakable sadness, as a “free” service (at least for 12 sessions) through the school’s Health Department. Through her positive mirror (therapists don’t “cure” you of your ills; they only hold up a giant picture of yourself to stare at and leave you to change what you dislike), I went out and auditioned for a cruise ship. And got it. After years of wasting time trudging through the trenches of muck and mire, I asserted myself and came out victorious. For the moment. One week before I was to hit the Atlantic from Florida, the producers fired me, not for my attitude, mind you, but for my out of practice talent. I couldn’t keep up, had trouble lifting the girls, and they needed to drop the dead weight. I wasn’t angry at them – they were completely in the right and I knew it – but it was starting over from scratch. Mercifully, all of my loans were in forbearance for the moment due to economic hardship (you think?) and I was back home at my parents’ house, proving once again that I had failed as an artist and failed as an adult.

I met Julian just prior to leaving for Florida. Due to his persistence for my affection (he really loved me?!) and my desire to give it a go, I moved back to New York (New Jersey, actually) to move in with him – after knowing him for a month. But love waits for no man and on the 4th of July, I was back on a plane to try again. And then, out of nowhere, while walking down the streets of the “Dominican Republic,” which is around 145th and Broadway, outside my temporary abode (I didn’t want it to look like I was taking advantage of J for a place to live so I rented a room from some lady who barely spoke English who then kicked me out because her sister was coming from…wherever she was from and needed the room), I got a phone call. Apparently, one of the random auditions I had attended months ago had paid off in the form of a national tour of Rumplestiltskin.  By no means glamorous (in addition to performing the role of the Tax Collector, I was also a part of the crew, constructing and tearing down our set in a new place each day – shitty gyms, lobbies, or make shift class rooms in the nation’s poorest schools – all for $500 a week) or good (the show was so horrible that over the course of our almost 300 performances in six months, we would try and come up with various ways to make each other break character or forget their lines just to keep it interesting), but it was theatre for money. And I was thrilled.

Due to no rent and the continued forbearance of most of my loans, my overhead was very low (very cheap hotel rooms, fast food, and “entertainment,” which consisted mostly of roaming the Wal-Marts at midnight) so upon my return to New Jersey, I could manage to not work for a while. But as it always does, the money began to run out and instead of trying to find a job (or give some of my excess money to the blood sucking loan companies), I relished in Julian’s own unemployment (he had been laid off a few months prior) as we lounged around the house, ordered Chinese food, and went to cheap movies at the Newport, our local mall. But then Julian got a job in LA. So we packed up our house (an awesome three story house that we still talk about buying one day), packed up the car, and headed cross country, draining every last dollar of my savings.

Thankfully (I suppose), the day I arrived in LA, I was interviewed for and got a job at Staples. The return to customer service post-theatre for cash (no matter the grueling circumstances) was not an easy transition. Why didn’t I hit the audition circuit full steam when I returned to New York? Because I didn’t want to leave Julian again. We had been apart for too long and knew if we were gonna make it, I needed to stick around. OK. So what? What about shows in New York? Maybe I could have gotten cast in a show – a good show, a well paying show – that allowed me to be the bread winner and kept me working on the dream. But I didn’t. I wasted my time watching Judge Karen and being in love. This is not to stay that either is mutually exclusive or that I would have traded Julian for a healthy bank account, but I definitely allowed myself to exist as a fun seeking, twitterpated teen instead of a You Have Responsibilities adult. And I ended up paying for it in the end by being trapped in the Copy Center for $9.75 – and then $10.25, my first raise at a job since Taco Hell bumped me from $5.75 to $6.25 –  an hour. For a year.

Of course, Staples – the most corporate of all my jobs with their stupid “team building” meetings, stupid training videos, and stupid rules about sitting even when there were no customers in the store – was not some bridge to financial freedom. Like every customer service job, they purposefully keep you under 40 hours a week so they don’t have to pay you benefits and even if they gave you 50 hours a week, the portion that would come out of your paycheck for said benefits is tantamount to your food budget and I would rather eat than have the option to see a physician. Since being taken off of my parents’ insurance in 2008, I have not seen a doctor (nor needed to, mercifully) and I have no idea the last time I was at the dentist (free clinics are super sketch and the waiting list, as well as the co-pay, at places like UCLA and USC Dental School are just not worth it).

One day while working “Ink and Toner,” a cash register job that occasionally required you to come out from behind the cage and find some Brother LC61BK or Epson T017 for a “guest” because they didn’t want to take the three minutes to find it themselves, a woman came in who returned me to the world of fast food, or “food fast” as she called it: the GM of Rubio’s on Bundy and Wilshire. She talked all this talk about needing a supervisor, an assistant manager even (a familiar music to my ears), and she just got this great feeling about me, but then when I met with her a week later – surprise! – she needed me to start as a crew member. Um, I’ve already done this job. Eight years ago. When I was 17. I told her the only way I would do it is if I started at 10 an hour (the other people in the back I learned were making somewhere in the 7 dollar range – Hell to the No) and that I would be fast tracked to management ASAP. B.T. agreed and made some genuine sounding plea of “I need you” and it’s nice to be needed, right?

Because I am not a complete idiot and had done variations of this job (all customer service is the same house with a different coat of paint), I learned all I needed to know, including manager duties like walk-in counts, register functions, and closing procedures (without getting extra money for doing them, of course) within three months. But the ball rolls slowly in Corporate America and B.T. wanted to make sure that I was serious about the job before putting in the effort lobbying her DM and ponying up the money (her store would be responsible for my corporate training, where I guess I would have learned the company cheer and how to take their giant dick without lube). She shot herself in her own foot. If she would have hired me as supervisor from the go, as it should have been (one supervisor barely spoke English, fine for the other kitchen staff who barely spoke English, not fine for the English speaking customers with whom it is your job to communicate; the other supervisor was a high school drop out mother of three, proving that in fast food, excuse me “food fast,” education means nothing) I wouldn’t have had the chance to realize what a horrible job that indeed it was (Have you ever changed a fryer? The most vile job this side of scrubbing toilets in a nursing home), wouldn’t have had the mental wherewithal to understand that $11 an hour for a supervisor or $13 an hour for an assistant manager – an assistant manager! – was a slap in the face and I could be doing much better. But B.T. waited too long and the wool, thin at best, sheer at worst, had irrevocably been pulled from my eyes. I quit after four months.

So it was Staples. And Staples. And therapy. And Staples. I did not weather the move West well, mentally, and was most definitely at my lowest point, psychologically. Depression, or so I thought (what else would you call it when you can’t seem to dig yourself out of a cavernous pit of darkness, exacerbated by Roads to Nowhere you passed off as employment and the lack of being a part of anything artistic, which caused you to make up stories about your life mate in your own mind, assuming that he was the enemy at every turn which of course was just your own anger and malcontent turned outward due to not being able to pay your own way, which of course makes you less of a “man” and brings up all of the old wounds of being called a girl, and your loans – particularly the giant one, the $80000 one that had monthly payments upward of $600 – had reached the end of their deferments while you had no money to pay them so you started borrowing again from your parents all the while trying to quell the screaming voice of your mother and the fact that she was right, you never should have taken out these loans in the first place and thinking that your life, at least the life you once thought you would have, the life you once thought you deserved, was gone with the wind) consumed me and knew that I needed some sort of assistance. I found this place that worked on a sliding scale ($27 a session, which embarrassingly I ended up months later not being able to afford, having it dropped to a measly $17 a session, the lowest they could afford to go). Despite my financial burdens, I tried to remind myself that depression and the treatment of it, was a first world problem, and a luxury at that for the people who could even afford to have it. Most poor people, and I was and am a poor person, don’t have the time or the resources to “deal” with their problems the way the privileged classes do, the way that girls in Ethiopia will never understand anorexia because there is not enough food to worry about eating too much of. Mercifully, my “depression,” which my therapist Terence diagnosed in our final session as “hypomanic episodes,” was not so debilitating that I couldn’t get out of bed. At the end of the day, it really boiled down to me saying – and believing! –  “Get busy living. Or get busy dying.” It was about learning the lies and discerning the truth, taking away the power that the sadness had over me. And just growing the fuck up.

During this year of parental ruminations (and blame), game plans, and the continued combat of the self-esteem monster, I began the next branch of my quest for money: production work.

I stumbled into production by accident. One night at Staples, a man came in to print signs (the ones that say, “Quiet! Filming in Progress”) and I struck up a conversation. “Do you need PAs?” For the uninitiated, a PA (Production Assistant) is the grunt of a set who makes the coffee, makes the copies, and keeps that shit on lockdown. It really requires no experience so he hired me. This was it, I thought. I will finally start down the road to my dreams. The gig was a week (making $125 a day for 12 hour days, the standard rate for reality TV) at some dog show, the kind parodied in Best in Show, which they got so right, FYI, in Long Beach. I had a walkie. I answered phones. I made copies. I organized. I set up Crafty. Much better than standing around pretending to look engaged while people tried to decide on which stationary to buy.

The Industry, particularly the reality branch of it, is very small and one job can very easily need to the next. I started doing day shoots for Game Show Network, Fox, VH1, Disney, Deal or No Deal, and Q’viva, a Latin version of America’s Got Talent judged by the then recently divorced Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.

But production, without a car especially, is not easily sustainable. Plus, it is anything but steady. So I tried Office Team, a temp agency that had me sitting at various desks for eight hours, which is better than a register because you can at least write and cruise the Internet, but still just as braindraining; plus, they only paid $10 an hour and never had jobs to send me on (was this the economy or something about my character?). So it was back to customer service.

I found an ad on Craigslist for caterers. What the hell? At least I would get to eat. And I quickly discovered that if you have to work with food, this is most definitely the way to go.

Catering is better than being a waiter on many accounts.

1) You very rarely – if ever – have to take an order.

In catering, most of the time it is buffet style or prix fixe. The guests choose their own food or shut up and eat was is given (unless they are a vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, have soy, gluten, wheat or dairy allergies, or any other bullshit excuse why they don’t want the plate put in front of them; most of which you know ahead of time by little placards or notes on the function sheet because the world knows how obnoxious these “special” people are). If the party is large and expensive (these are mostly weddings), the guests will have a choice between Fish, Steak/Chicken, or Veggie, and you do have to write these down on a paper pinwheel, counter clockwise with the #1 chair in the 6 o’ clock position. But compared to being a waiter in a restaurant (“Mine was pinto beans, not black.” “You forgot my sour cream!” “This soda is flat.” “The beef is too spicy.” “Oh, that looks good. Bring me that instead”), this is only a minor inconvenience.

2) You very rarely – if ever – have more than one table.

In restaurants, sometimes you are tasked with watering, waiting, bussing, and putting up with the crying babies and whining adults at 2, 4, 8, 16 (!) tables at a time. Catering, because it is a luxury and exists usually only at events that can afford the man power, is so grossly overstaffed that your personal responsibility is next to nothing.

*This depends on the company. I have worked for five different ones and I will list them in ascending order. Party Staff (or Party Slave as they are called within the industry) was my first foray into the world of catering. They are a staffing agency that other catering companies, such as Patina and Wolfgang, hire as back-up. Their employees do the same amount of work (which I will get to in a few moments) as their parent companies, but at a drastically reduced rate. I was hired at $11 an hour (after an embarrassing moment of pleading for the job, the only time I have begged for employment) only to see that my first paycheck reflected a $10.75 an hour rate, a “training wage” they called it, until I demanded they up it to $11, which without fanfare, they did. I stayed with them for about a year, calling in almost daily for work, while trying to figure out how many hours I could work that week and make it worth my while to lose my unemployment check money.

Next up the chain was Imperial Staffing, They paid $14 an hour, but it was mostly country clubs and if you want to feel degraded, work for a bunch of rich white people who hang out and play golf all day and drink mint juleps on something called the Reagan Terrace.

Host Pros, while paying a slightly better $16 an hour, yielded a similar clientele. But you never “quit” catering companies. You just stop emailing them for work. Until you are desperate and appear out of the blue to score a quick 100 bucks.

Sodexo, own of my current employers, also pays $16/hr (now a whopping $16.65 since the union stepped in). This started out as a great job. It is a company located within LMU, a Catholic college, so naturally (you would hope) the clients, the students, and the staff are nice. The events are smaller and it really feels like a family. True, it’s not getting paid to perform, but the people (Carolyn the cantankerous chef, Chris the cute waiter with the Justin Bieber hair, Maria the spicy Latina who always calls me “guapo,” and Jason, the saucy manager who is simultaneously over it, sharing in an eye roll and a huff and a puff, yet cares enough to get flustered when it isn’t perfect) make it worth it. Or at least did. Now they just make it bearable. I was going to be a supervisor. Then I wasn’t. Whatever. Count the days til you are out of there. It is actually a blessing that I wasn’t promoted because then I would be stuck in one job, working 30/35 hours a week, without a lot of say over availability, making maybe $18/hr, which would still require me to have another job to pay my now almost $1000 a month in loans and another $1000 in rent, food, and living expenses that my “husband” (no we aren’t married, yes I want to be, someday, and no we don’t want kids, but we exist as a married couple, so whatever you want to call him) picks up the tab on when the going gets rough.

The best of these catering gigs, and probably the best job I have ever had, definitely in customer service, is Wolfgang Puck. I get paid $20 bucks an hour to work the same gigs that some Party Staff people do and most of ours shifts, we end up spending half of it sitting – SITTING! – waiting for instruction or killing time while the client’s presentation is going on. Through WP, I have worked the DGA Awards, the Oscars, movie premieres, bar/bat mitzvahs and proms (at, where else? movie studios, of course), and Scientology conventions (“Money, money, money, money…MONEY!”). There are A waiters (“Would you like the Chardonnay or the Cab?”) and B waiters (“Excuse me, are you still working on your salad?”) who depending on the event, double as runners (standing in line waiting for the plates for “sweep” or if it is a buffet – “Buffet 4 for Marty.” “Go Buffet 4.” “Buffet 4 needs pasta salad.” “Copy Buffet 4” – you run the platters, bowls, and 200 pans out to the grazing mob of socialites), tray-passers, or bussers. It is like being a lemming, a mindless lemming, none of which really want to be a server (is there any other company so full of struggling entertainers than Wolfgang Puck Catering?) so yes, they care because the client is paying a lot  – A LOT! – of money for our services, but they are also completely understanding with scheduling (you call the shots via an online calendar) and the general attitude is one of marking time. In a very professional way, of course. The great thing about being one of these struggling entertainers amidst a sea of them is that you are all in it together (the uppity patrons, the long hours) and you see, first hand, the realities of the industry (people who have made million dollar movies, had guest spots on TV shows, the gamut of ages from 25-65), reminding you to get up, get out, and do something before it’s too late so you don’t end up like the others: approaching senior citizendom, yet still carrying trays and pouring wine on Saturday nights.

3) You are not doing the same thing with the same people in the same place every shift.

Working in a restaurant – or a retail store, bar, office, etc. – can get very monotonous very quickly. Same people, same staircase, same broken down coffee machine. You realize the horribleness of the job much faster – and more often – when you are forced to relive its downfalls day in and day out. But catering is different. It is always a different party with different co-workers (catering companies like WP and Party Staff have hundreds of employees) in different venues (like L.A. Live, Hollywood and Highland, Sony Studios, Paramount, Pacific Design Center, Long Beach Convention Center, Pepperdine University, or some ranch out in Pasadena) at different times of day (definitely not a 9-5 gig).

4) You are not working for tips.

When I was working at Harry’s answering phones, I remember my co-worker (and INCREDIBLE singer and actress) Aly Wirth yelling at me because I boasted that I didn’t tip servers. “What for? They are simply doing their jobs!” I didn’t understand they were making less than half of minimum wage, only enough to cancel out their taxes (because God forbid Uncle Sam doesn’t get his money). I actually was quite the asshole, eating out at Denny’s on the regular, leaving “tips,” little witticisms on scraps of paper like “Don’t park next to vans. They could be owned by serial killers” (an homage to Sigourney Weaver’s “tip” to a college girl before getting tortured in the bathroom by Harry Connick Jr. in Copycat). Now, no matter my financial situation, or their attitude or level of shitty service, I tip at least 20%. I get it. Your job sucks. And unless you physically assault me or spit in my food, I got your back.

In catering, no matter if you are put in charge of ten tables or just one, sit for four hours or on your feet for eight, you make the same amount of money.

But catering is not a recession proof business. And because the economy is in such a great state, there are dry spells, causing you to either be hooked up with numerous catering companies (I have friends who are on the payroll of more than ten; I am actively on two and could call up two others if push came to shove) or branch out elsewhere. So instead of getting a job in a restaurant, which for all of the aforementioned reasons would be, you know, awful, I fell into, surprisingly, doing something that, on paper, is part of “the dream”: teaching dance and choreographing shows.

After a three year hiatus, I returned to the theatre in 2008 with A Chorus Line. I hit it off with the director, Anne Gesling, loved the space, and wanted to continue my theatrical career anyway possible while I made the “real money” elsewhere. I choreographed a string of shows (Throughly Modern Millie, Pinkalicious, How I Became a Pirate, Seussical, and the upcoming Once Upon a Mattress) at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre for their youth program (ages 8-18) and worked with teens and adults alike staging The Geoffrey Awards, an annual self-congratulatory event to commemorate the season. I became deeply ensconced in the MWT, heading up their play reading committee, joining the YES (Youth. Education. Entertainment. Series) committee, and ushering for mainstage shows. While the MWT has upped the happiness quotient over the past two years, it hasn’t done much for my bank account. Being a non-profit, non-union theatre, stipends are small if they exist at all, which will eventually lead me to a necessary phase out in the search for a sustainable future.

But the MWT (and the relationships I have made there) has led me to other theatrical paying gigs such as choreographing Annie at Community Magnet Elementary, Bye Bye Birdie at Paul Revere Middle School with the awesome Nancy Cassaro Fracchiolla (who got me a job teaching Movement at AADA), and teaching in the after school CREST program in Santa Monica, as well as giving private lessons for the children of friends. But like Cassie, these jobs are a taunt to what I should be doing myself: dancing. Performing. Waking up in the morning to find I have somewhere exciting to go. So I started auditioning. Yes. I started auditioning. And booked shows. That paid. Not much, but mixed with my catering money, could have, maybe, fingers crossed, been enough to survive – and enjoy the survival.

But thanks to the greed of the car companies in the 1920s (mixed with its varied topography and the We-Had-No-Plan-For-the-City-So-We-Will-Just-Make-Neighborhoods-Wherever lay-out), LA is a car town. And without one, it is impossible (or takes up to four hours one way) to travel by bus and/or the shitty rail system to places like Cabrillo in Thousand Oaks where I was cast in Annie with Sally Struthers (paying a sum total of $500 for five weeks) and had to turn down Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Sherman Oaks because the performances conflicted with work and they only paid $20 bucks a show (they must have been desperate for me because they offered me $35, which I also had to turn down) or playing Tulsa (a dream role!) in Gypsy up north, which I had to turn down because $200/wk was not going to cut the $1000/month I owed in loans, plus the $900 I had to send to J for the rent (he’s got a good job, yes, but he ain’t got Sugar Daddy money). So back to Sodexo, Wolfgang, and Steve I went.

I met Steve about three years ago, not too long after we moved out here. I came across him on Craigslist, looking for “Gig” work, doing anything (within reason, of course; I am a married man, after all) for cash (one day, I put all of those organizational skills and experience gutting Grandma and Grandpa’s basement to work, cleaning out some old dude in WeHo’s storage unit; the whole time I was there, I felt like I was in Gods and Monsters, just waiting for the old troll to pounce on the young buck sweating in his tight white t-shirt, which he, thankfully, never did). Steve was looking for a research assistant, $25 an hour. Cash. Um, yes please.

I had volunteered as a research assistant back in NY for a few months on this indie short, which of course found its way to the top of my resume (along with various versions of fabrications and stretched truths that are crucial to resume writing). Steve liked what he read and we clicked immediately and have worked together on various projects over the years, culminating in a joint venture, a scripted television series. The great thing about this project, which I guess I am supposed to keep secret (?; I have no idea or interest in the politics. I just want to write!), is that I am no longer a gun for hire, but an equal partner, entitled to moneys from networks and residuals if and when it gets picked up by…well, I guess our leads should be a secret to, especially when they are famous (God, the waiting). The bad thing about this project is that I am no longer a gun for hire, which means I am not getting paid to work on it. OK, sure. If it takes off, I am entitled to potentially millions and a career as a professional writer (adios, Sodexo!), but what about the interim? I know it is not Steve’s responsibility to keep me afloat; that would be unfair and a strange business arrangement. But it doesn’t make it any less difficult on the pocket book.

In my spare time – what is that? – I’m sure most of you know I am an avid movie lover (check out the latest version of my 100 Greatest Movies in the archives of this blog) who watches as many as he can when he can. But what you may not know is that I also love to read. The only good thing about riding buses to and fro is that it gives you plenty of time to devour books (and I mean a real book made of paper, not this Kindle crap). My friend – and previous writing partner on a past TV series that never went anywhere (another year bites the dust) – Mary Helen (a fellow 20 something faking her way to the middle) let me borrow a book so apropos to our lives we could have written it ourselves: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Barbara is a journalist and author of 12 books and the proud owner of a Ph.D in Biology who decided to go “undercover” and report on the low-wage existence of millions by experiencing it herself in various states, working as a maid, a waitress, a nursing home attendant, and even a Wal-Mart employee. She didn’t just get to go to work though and come home to a place she paid for through savings from her white collar life. She had to live off the money she earned from these jobs of destitution. Talk about suffering for your art.

I didn’t really “learn” anything from the book, having lived a version of the story every day for the last ten years, except without the albatross of children that seems to breed poverty like mold in a basement. What it did do was force me to remember every crummy job I had ever had and reevaluate where I have come from and where I am going next. Since student loans are non-bankruptable (and the Student Loan Forgiveness Act like everything in Washington is moving at a snail’s pace), this is not a personal problem that will go away. I tried before to pretend it didn’t exist by deferring and forbearing and just not sending in payments, but I’m an adult now and it’s time to pay the piper (especially when my parents’ credit is affected by my level of responsibility).

What pisses me off the most is the indignation rich people have for the poor like it is somehow all our fault. One of my students said to me the other day, “Ugh. I would never shop at Goodwill.” To which I quickly retorted, “There are many people in this country who can’t afford to shop anywhere else.” To which she responded with ultimate shock (she is 17 and from Europe so I guess she hasn’t gotten the memo that America is in a class war), “Oh. That’s so sad! Well, I do give my old clothes to Goodwill,” as if that was some sort of I’m-Not-Racist-Because-I-Have-Black-Friends defense. I have shopped at Goodwill (and its “upscale” competitors like Marshall’s, Ross, and K-Mart) for years. I’ve even had friends so poor that they steal from Goodwill.

I admit freely my financial mistakes. I should not have taken out loans, should have applied for scholarships, or just not gone to college (it’s really not necessary to be an artist). I should have worked while in college the first time, should have been more discerning with spending, and should have been more focused on finding a job than finding a husband. But are these “crimes” tantamount to murder? Or rape? Or any other indiscretion worthy of 40 to life? Because that’s what this is: a prison term.

And sure. “I do the crime, I do the time.” And I would be fine with that if everyone got equal treatment. If the minimum wage was so high that you would have to be an irresponsible fool not to be able to live a happy, stress free life. If there were so many jobs in America that if you didn’t have one, clearly you were just lazy. If “affordable housing” was actually affordable and didn’t mean you were living in a project trying to skirt being accosted by sexual predators and drug dealers. If drug dealing and prostitution was some sort of mental defect instead of a by-any-means-necessary way of life for millions. Or if when heads of banks gambled away their patrons’ money they weren’t given more money by said patrons only to be used on vacations and bonuses that equal more money than most people make in a year. If those who had “made it” thought about how their decisions affected everyone and not just their billionaire friends. If people were treated like people instead of profit-making robots, designed to shut up and sell.

The great thing about America is that, yes, we have the opportunity to be anything and anyone we want. But the worst thing – the poorest thing – about her is that she makes it so goddamn hard. Even trying to get off welfare or reinstating yourself into society after paying recompense through time served, positive steps to make you more productive members of society, is met with stymies and No-I’m-Sorry-We-Don’t-Want-Your-Kind-Heres. You must know your place – which in America is defined by your race and your financial worth – and stay there. While the Army begs you to “Be All You Can Be” and to die for a country that doesn’t respect you as an equal citizen. And corporations are begging – demanding – your last dime because “I Gotta Have My Pops!” and “L’Oreal – You’re Worth it!”

Revolution is here, but it is misguided. If the members of the Tea Party, the ridiculous grassroots organization run by people like “Joe the Plumber” that harkens for financial responsibility, actually took a second to understand that the politicians they were aligning with – Republicans – have historically not been on the side of the poor and the struggling, constantly trying to cut social welfare programs so the Top 1% can continue to buy planes and start wars, maybe they would see past their racism and “socialist propaganda” for a President who is trying to help them, but is shut down by a baby-like Congress at every turn.

I’m not here to place the Democrats on a pedestal. First rule in politics is to get reelected. And sometimes that means you do things that are not always in the best interest of the people (like sign “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Mr. Clinton; or send Japanese-Americans to internment camps, FDR). There needs to be an overhaul of the entire system. To not have people elected by how much money they can raise (Look out, Bam! Mitt is moving on up!) or their religious  – or non religious – beliefs (so much for Church and State). But this will never happen because America is a business. A business that sells dreams on clearance to the highest bidder.

So what happens now? I’m not going to change the system so I have to make my life work within it. First things first. I need to get a better job. But how? Persistence. I can’t wait around for this TV show to take off or not and catering is a means to an end. So what can I do that won’t make me want to shoot my boss or kill myself? The possibilities will expand in two weeks. That is when I will have a car. I can finally return to PA work, maybe get a job at a studio. I can start auditioning for shows that are a 30 minute drive away that allows me to meet people that might get me better paying jobs elsewhere. Right now, I can apply for writing gigs; magazines, help polishing scripts, maybe even be a reader writing coverage. Somedays, I just want to pack up my clothes and head back to New York to try all over again. But I’m not 21 anymore, not single anymore, and I am much to jaded to think it will be a fairy tale the way it once was. So I stay.

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I know that I am not alone. I have Julian to laugh with. Dodger to snuggle with. My co-workers to struggle with. My parents to listen. And two fully loaded six shooters on my hips, ready to face any job that mozies my way.

So, all you employers out there, I just got one question for you: Do you feel lucky? Well, do you? Punk?