So I told you all I was working on a book in lieu of this blog. One that I started writing a few years ago. I have not been working that book. I mean, I opened the manuscript like three weeks ago and thought, oh man, this needs some work. But beyond that, I’ve done nothing.
I’ve also been trying to do this self discovery thing where you think about what you want and what really matters and if you’re going about it the right way.
And what I’ve decided is, maybe this book, this Living with Strangers in Shitty Apartments thing, never happens. And that’s OK. And maybe the next book does, or it doesn’t, and that’s OK too.
But there was this one story, the one that I thought was the coup de grâce of the whole thing, that deserves to live, even if the rest of it never does or (likely) does later in some other work.
So here, for you guys, is my favorite story from the collection I was going to self-publish but have all but given up on:
Brooklyn Dough Baby
I can’t say exactly what it was about Mike that drew me in. His ratty jeans. His decision to rock an undershirt with permanent pit stains out in public. His unkempt beard, which no doubt played host to all manner of filth and grime. His greasy, brown hair. His perpetual scowl.
Yes, there was certainly that bevy of desirable qualities to consider. And there was also the fact that I’d never dated a hipster before. I used to joke with friends that they were on my “fuck-it list.” Perhaps he represented uncharted territory.
Whatever the case, the instant I saw Mike through the bar window sitting atop that stool outside The Snug, an urgent voice in my head spoke up, insisting, I want to know this man.
I went out front for a strategic cigarette with hopes of striking up conversation; within moments, I was rewarded for my efforts.
“Can I have one of those,” he asked me, gesturing to the pack I’d put down on the table in front of me.
“Sure.” I handed him one. “Need a light?”
“Nope, got it,” he said, and whipped out a fancy silver lighter. Its overt permanence signaled to me that he wasn’t an occasional smoker.
The cost of a pack in New York in 2009 had already risen to about $9 bucks a pop. So, by all rights, I should have been annoyed that, even though he had obviously planned on smoking, he hadn’t brought his own cigarettes to the bar. That he had instead been content to shamelessly bum one of my own very expensive cigarettes. That he hadn’t so much as attempted the song and dance of offering me a dollar for a
No, with his bold, unapologetic request, he’d robbed us of that bit of social make-believe. But instead of being irritated at the ask, I was thrilled he’d spoken to me first.
Wanting to carry on the conversation, I led with a pretty standard number that went something like: “So, what do you do?”
That was the wrong choice.
“What kind of question is that? We’re more than what we do, you know,” he answered sagely, taking a long drag of his pilfered smoke.
“Well, sure. I just meant, what do you do for fun.” I hadn’t meant that. Still, I hoped that I sounded convincing.
“This is what I do for fun,” he answered, gesturing to his drink with his cigarette. “But if you mean what do I do with most of my time — I’m an artist.”
An artist. Right there in Midtown Manhattan. I’d heard rumors that the city was lousy with them, but after my first few weeks there I had yet to meet a single would-be Warhol. I’d finally spotted one of my very own, wild and running free in the thick of the urban jungle. It was my lucky fucking day.
We stood there for a while talking about art, and life, and my cigarettes, and about how many of them he’d like to have.
After the third stolen smoke, with me running low on my drink and him showing no signs of offering to buy me another, I started to consider the number of cigarettes I was willing to give away for more moments in Mike’s presence.
The initial glow of excitement I’d experienced at the prospect of meeting him had started to lose its luster in the embers of the cigarette butts that had begun to litter the sidewalk. I was pocketing mine. He was dropping his on the ground, crushing them beneath the soles of his bleached-spattered converse. With each freshly extinguished butt, I felt like he was more of an ass. I didn’t care how cool he thought he was, littering in such a laissez faire manner was pretty lame.
But then, two people walking by on the sidewalk suddenly stopped in their tracks.
“Mike!” they greeted him. “We’re on our way to the gallery in Chelsea. Are you going to that show?”
Just like that, he went back to being wildly attractive to me. I was so very homesick, and witnessing Mike run into people he knew, as if this was some regular-sized neighborhood in a regular-sized city where things like that could regularly happen, gave me hope for a future in which such things might happen to me.
Mike told them that he’d already been to the show — but of course he’d already been, it had been up for nearly a week.
And then, without ever actually speaking these words, in his next few comments, Mike managed to convey that he was so far above the rest of us mere mortals here on the ground, grinding away at our day jobs, wasting hours of precious time — time that could be much better spent living off someone else’s largess and waxing poetic about how the only way to truly live was to be free.
As they left, he told them to make sure to check out this one piece in the back-right corner. And I chose to similarly install the impressions his condescending conversation had left on me into the back-right corner of my mind. Something hidden from sight, unless I decided to go looking for it later.
“Do you go to a lot of shows?” I asked him after they’d gone.
“If you want to create, you have to be around the creators,” he said.
At this point, regardless of my careful placement of his earlier careless comments to people he seemed to consider friends, I had more than realized I was dealing with someone who was very likely a pretentious prick. Even still, for whatever reason, instead of seeing the situation for what it was, I chose to foster an inexplicable conviction that Mike was only a surface-level pretentious prick, and a baseless belief that I only had to dig deeper and discover the beauty that was doubtless hiding within.
And so I asked him, “What’s the next one on your list?”
He told me there was a walking tour in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the following weekend, and that he actually had a piece in one of the exhibits. I was immediately drunk with excitement at the idea of attending a gallery on the arm of a featured artist — something I thought would be the crown jewel of quirky romantic dates one could have in the city. And so I expressed an embarrassing amount of unabashed interest until he eventually took the hint and asked me if I’d like to go with him.
I told him I would and we exchanged numbers. When he left, I went back inside and squealed to my friends that I’d picked up a hipster at the bar — and an artist, to boot.
That next weekend, I hopped on the subway. After a 45-minute ride to a part of the city I’d never before had a compelling enough reason to visit, I found myself in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Mike was about twenty minutes late. He showed up on a bike, carrying a messenger bag. We walked around the square for about ten minutes while he searched for a good place to lock it up, then headed off to the galleries.
God knows what was in that messenger bag, but it wasn’t cigarettes. He bummed another within the first five minutes of meeting me. Between drags, he let me know how much he hated Greenpoint. It was a fucking shit place. Fucking overrun with fucking yuppie douchebags jacking up the prices of everything. Fucking parasites.
I nodded along like I knew what he was talking about. The neighborhood and the people in it looked nice enough to me. I asked him if he lived in the area, and he told me Fuck No. He’d never live in a fucking place like this. He lived in Manhattan.
As we walked from gallery to gallery, it became clear that Mike wasn’t much a fan of Greenpoint artists, either.
“This is shit. This is all shit,” he repeated, gallery after gallery.
I briefly wondered if he took all his dates to places he hated to look at things he thought sucked.
And, considering his highly particular taste, I became curious about what he himself might be showing later this evening. So I asked him, “What’s your piece for tonight? Is it a painting?”
He scoffed. Apparently, he didn’t feel my question worthy of a verbal response beyond that, but the look on his face said, “God. Who even paints anymore?”
“So, not a painting then.”
He told me he’d been collecting postcards for over a year from thrift cards — vintage ones — and that he’d had a friend make him a post office box, an old fashioned looking miniature replica. With much excitement, he revealed he was going to fan out those post cards in front of a sign that read, “Write a letter, stamp it, send it.” The idea was, people would write on the postcards and then put them in the box.
“And then what will you do with them after that,” I asked.
“Well, I haven’t decided yet.”
Of all the shit we’d seen that day — most of which I thought was actually quite decent — I decided his piece promised to be the absolute shittiest. And yet, I had to stick around for it. At that point, I had more than committed. I’d been there since 10 a.m. By then, it was late afternoon. No way was I leaving before seeing this shitty installation.
I asked him what time that might be. He told me 7pm. In that moment, a part of my soul died in realizing I still had about three hours more of his company to endure before the big event. I also felt bamboozled, suckered into what had turned into a daylong first date — an ill-advised venture under any circumstance, and especially the one I had found myself in.
There being nothing else to do, we continued to walk around the galleries. I wondered if he regretted this plan as much as I did by that point. Finally, I was hungry and thirsty and thought we could benefit from a bite to eat and a beer before the show. At the very least, the activity would help to break up the time and the booze would help to numb the unpleasantness of this experience.
We went to a pizza joint near the gallery. He also didn’t have any money in that massive messenger back of his, so I bought the pizza and the beer. He ran into another friend there, though. Diedre. She was going to perform a piece at the gallery, recognized him, and asked when he planned to come by to set up.
“In about 15 minutes,” he said. That was news to me, because we were still pretty early for it. I decided I would let him go on ahead and would join him there later so that I could enjoy a second beer and think about my life choices.
When I got there, I saw him in the back of the room, and waved hi. Mike either didn’t see me or pretended not to. He was in a small group of people who he seemed to know, looking relaxed and comfortable and not at all like someone who had any interest in going out of his way to introduce a newcomer to the fold. So much for my vision of gliding through a gallery with a real-live artist by my side.
I walked around and looked at the pieces until I came to his.
Sure enough, there it was: a miniature wooden mailbox someone else had made for him, and a bunch of old blank postcards he’d found at some secondhand shops. I searched through them carefully, until I found the one. It pictured a devastated city, completely reduced to rubble, ravaged by war or something equally sinister and relentlessly cruel. It was perfect.
I turned it over, took the pen provided with the exhibit, and wrote on the back:
“This reminded me of you.”
Then I drew a stamp, and stuck it into that little mailbox. Signed, sealed, delivered. A part of me felt much better in that moment. And I would have left right after that, high on my perceived upper hand, except just then everyone started milling toward the back of the room.
“Deidre’s going on!” they were saying. It seemed Mike’s friend’s performance art was about to take place. Someone brought a folding table into the center of room. I sat cross-legged around it with the rest of the crowd — though to call it a crowd is being generous. There were maybe fifteen of us in the small, stuffy room. The atmosphere was claustrophobic. I could hear people breathing audibly, and I tried not to think about the fact that the air I was inhaling contained much of that breath.
Deidre came out from behind a curtain. At the bar, she had been in jeans and a T-shirt. Now she wore a mu-mu.
She proceeded to climb atop the table, grunting like a bitch in heat. At least, I thought that’s the sound I thought she was going for. Then I realized that she was actually trying to imitate what a woman sounds like while giving birth.
She lay flat on her back, panting, panting, panting and crying out again and again in feigned pain at decibels that made my ovaries shrink in fear. It seemed it would never, ever stop. Until, mercifully, she screamed bloody murder one last time, and freed a large pile of dough from the bottom of her mumu.
She stood up, cradled it in her arms, and made cooing noises at it while molding it into the shape of a baby with her mouth. How’s that, you ask? By licking and sucking the arms into being, the legs, the head, the mouth, and, eventually, even the penis.
She then whipped out a tit, and began to suckle the thing, sighing, cooing, and kissing all the while. A few minutes went by like this. And during that time, the rest of the audience was silent.
Our silence was pregnant with the possibility of what everyone else was thinking — and with two unanswerable questions: What should we be thinking? What would be the well-informed, open-minded, wizened thing to think about such a scene?
And then someone finally turned the lights down and the show was over.
I exhaled and turned to Mike, because, any port in a storm, and I asked, “Cigarette?”
We went outside. After lighting up, he said to me, definitively, “Well, there you have it.”
I paused, taking in a deep drag of nourishing nicotine, waiting for its effects to calm my nerves and also to hear what we had, exactly.
I didn’t have to wait long before he continued — “Women are the creators of the universe, and men just sit back and watch.” Then he added, “That was fucking incredible.”
And I balked. Of all the things we’d seen that day — the cool, funky neighborhood, the interesting galleries filled with people’s works that had taken much more thought and effort and dedication to produce than showing up with a box and some postcards and licking an uncooked pile of pastry mix — the whole fucking day…and this was what was deemed incredible to this man?
I didn’t think it was fair that he got to walk away from this train wreck of a morning, afternoon, and evening thinking anything was even the slightest bit pretty, so I had to smash it.
I said, “I don’t that’s what it meant at all.”
He raised his eyebrows in response, amused, waiting to hear what I had to add.
“No, it was about helicopter parents. You know, the ones who won’t let their kids play by themselves or do anything by themselves so they grow up to become wholly dependent adults unable to survive on their own? She was one of those. Think about it. She wouldn’t even let her baby grow his own dick.”
Then he smirked this insufferable smirk and said, “Well. We can agree to disagree,”
I let him know it was time for me to head home. We walked back to his bike first, even though it was a few minutes in the opposite direction from the subway station. I didn’t mind, though, because I was in an unfamiliar part of the city at night, and I preferred not to walk the several blocks to the subway alone.
I knew we both had to get back to Manhattan, so I’d assumed he would take his bike on the subway with me until we got to midtown, where we’d have to transfer to different trains. I’d assumed wrong.
When we got to his bike, he told me he thought he’d ride it home across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a beautiful night, after all.
Not wanting him learn that I ever thought I needed him for a goddamned thing, I agreed that was a great idea. We said our goodbyes with a quick hug. I walked back to the train alone and in the dark, and I was just fine.