(This piece, part one of a serial, first appeared in the September 2002 issue of Newtopia Magazine. It was originally written in the Spring of 1993 shortly after the World Trade Center was bombed for the first time.)
1993 was my first post-collegiate, post-partum year, but I spent most of it trying to grasp the fact that my childhood was officially over. I had literally woken up the day of my college graduation, and realized for the very first time since I started school four short years before, that as of five o’clock that evening I was out on my ass. Literally, owing to the fact that I lived in university housing, and plans for subsequent housing of my own did not avail themselves as I had imagined. The through-the-lookingglass, blanket-immunity, functionally somatic world of College was over, as in please exit the ride to your left. What was worse was that it was over just as I was beginning to enjoy it, had really learned how to really maximize the experience of living a meaningless, theoretical existence, pure, unadulterated undergraduate bacchanalia. Of course, due to these host of distractions, I hadn’t a god-given clue that Reality was bearing down on me like the Germanic hordes on their way to sack Rome, dirty, hungry, and severely pissed off. I was such an idiot then, such a social liability, that I laugh at myself now. But do not be mistaken: woven into the laughter are always the years of tears.
I had just returned from our actor’s colloquium in Manhattan with a pocket full of benign business cards from dubious agents and a repertoire of unsolicited commentary about the style and content of my headshots. Each agent showed marginal, non-committal interest, but said little more than the standard, “I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can if I see something happening.” It was amusing that they requested resumes. They knew damn well we hadn’t done anything yet, and that the University forbade us from performing professionally while we were still students. Our resume was simply a list of roles from college productions, and no one on earth, including other actors, gave one red hillbilly’s butt about that. But always always was the headshot.before the audition. Always. What did that say, really, in the big picture? Well, it explained a whole lot of rich and famous bad actors, didn’t it?
Yes, I was bitter. I couldn’t wait to be one of them.
I spent the better part of the first three or four months out of school running around frantically trying to meet audition schedules, catching rides to New York, making video resumes, studying lines, and calling, calling, calling every agent and producer and producer-wannabe and agent wannabe from here to Lagos trying to slide my way in to the “biz” in a way that hadn’t been done before. This was a feat tantamount to trying to discover another means of procreation that didn’t involve sperm meeting egg. Very soon, I was burned out.
You see no one in Acting School had ever bothered to teach us how to market our talent. And they certainly didn’t teach us the one thing that every artist must posses: Patience! I went around the world not realizing there were more miles to walk than my feet were willing to go, so I settled down in some unfamiliar territory, and that was where I stayed. I very quickly became angry, and then people didn’t like me so much anymore. I did a lot of coke too, way too much, with vodka and women. Bad combination.
I quickly became broke and basically unemployable, so I downshifted into a life of drinking godawful swill during the day, waiting tables at night-drunk, stoned, and pissed off-and then drinking after work. This would be where I talked about what I was going to do when I “made it.” I decided, drink in hand and waiting for the coke man to show, that it would be best to simply wait it all out, and make the best of the “limbo time”. I heartily, deliciously deluded myself into believing that one day miraculously I would be in the right place at the right time and would be DISCOVERED!!!!
The last time someone was “discovered”, Orson Wells was called “that snot-nosed kid with the Hearst movie.”
It only took me six months to become the actor’s cliché. Bravo.
Thusly deposed from acting life, I moved through my days recklessly, not bothering to think too much unless something deemed it absolutely necessary. My only act to remind myself that I was alive was my obsessive need for women. They were the only way I could validate my whole existence, and so they became my sole focus. It was easier to anguish over being lonely than being a failure at 22. Besides, it was an excellent way to hone my acting skills.
It was truly pathetic.
The truth of the matter was that I had nobody and nothing to call my own. I hadn’t yet made even the slightest of accomplishments. And rather than hear another person tell me to “put my nose to the grindstone”, I chose to lay back and bitch about it. I was swallowed up by the curse of my generation: I was lazy and arrogant and ignorant to the ways and means of existence.
I went back to the campus quicker than I had imagined. I found myself wandering the halls staring up at casting notices for student productions. The whole practice, the whole discipline, suddenly seemed so stupid, so futile, just a goddamn waste of time. They ought to be teaching them how to carry a bus tray or ring a cash register. It wasn’t the same to look at a notice in the trade papers anymore; it had lost its romance. In school, everyone got cast. You had to, or else they couldn’t grade you. The real world graded with prejudice, and most often you didn’t even get a chance to be graded.
One day a former voice and speech instructor discovered me in the script library. Motherly, he asked me if I was interested in helping out supervising student productions, being an unpaid Assistant Director. It was great. I was, to say the least, flattered, even though I knew somewhere inside my deranged mind that it was only so that he wouldn’t have to pay someone to do a job he knew I would do for a slap and tickle with the undergrad actresses.
I was living a full and exciting life, or so I conned myself into believing, though I was doing nothing of any substance whatsoever. I hadn’t the slightest inkling to grow up and accept real responsibility, because the requisite software had yet to be installed in me. And frankly, I didn’t want to. My predominant sensation back then, my main sensory input, was nothing but a low, constant shriek.
This went on, despite my desire to break free from the mediocre mass of unemployed actors populating the countryside. But these were my days to relish being anonymous, to relish the freedom I had to go and do as I pleased. Soon all that would be gone, and in its place would be bodyguards and in cognito disguises. My god I was good at bullshitting myself. At the rate I was headed it was going to be a very, very long time before I got paid to be an extra, much less stroll the red carpet on Oscar night.
And all this was happening under the auspices of a little place called Café Algiers. It was a little place at the end of my block, in the Symphony Hall district of Boston, that became my surrogate home.
The Cafe was calm and welcoming, the walls were coated in this soft Jade, faux-marble texture, and the room stretched into a long back corner that was dim, and cozy, and at night lit by blue candles. The tables were meticulously clean and the walls were covered with a menagerie that consisted, of framed posters of Be-Bop greats like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughn. In the middle of the room was a black and white shot of the exterior of Birdland in Harlem. There were a few paintings by local artists, some Jazzy, non-linear mural art, and the occasional act of whimsy like a comic strip clipping or review from a local magazine.
Café Algiers had surreal, award-winning hamburgers upon which I subsisted for an entire year when I was poor. Many times it was my only meal of the day, but I felt I might be one of the luckiest men in Boston to be endeared to the greatest Middle Eastern cooks on record.
I don’t know how I became friends with those guys. Talking perhaps, showing my face a little too often, but it happened. And I loved the place, and they made the place fun. They were loud crazy men. They shouted everything. You had to have a certain disposition to be a regular. Those were the times when I had been able to forget about everything that passed outside the cafe doors, and possess a few rare, fleeting moments of quasi-serenity and the tangents of laughter.
It was interesting knowing Oran, the younger brother. He was one of those people with the mind of an artist who just didn’t know it, into the visceral world of sports, dancing, working, women, cooking, eating. He was tall and skinny and had red hair and freckles, a big, tall, goofy lookin’ guy who resembled an Irish Larry Bird. He and his brother were Muslim Berbers from Algeria. Ali’s wife was an Italian gal from Malden named Josephine. Ali’s girlfriend was from bumfuck Vermont. Her name was Rain, and she never shaved or combed her hair or wore pants. I was an upper middle-class mutt from Chicago. Now that’s what you call diversity.
What Oran and I enjoyed most about each other was our common love for hockey and Albert Camus. Oran was more than just a “token Muslim” friend. I had a bunch of those.from my recent days at BU. International students, despite their pretensions and their deathly effluvium of cologne and eau de toilette, were the best partiers and had the best drugs. They also went VIP at the most obnoxious clubs. So I hung with them a lot. Most were oil kids, some form of Saudi, Paki, Syri, Lebi, Kuwaiti. It was a nice ride, if you could hook on somewhere. That was the hard part.
But Oran was more than just a country of origin and an accent. He had a deep heart, but he was too incredibly happy all the time to notice what a shithole world was all around him. Oran was passive, friendly, always having something nice to say to anyone, always with a joke. It was this simple fact that led me to believe that he was blessed, however one understood the term. And it was hard then, man. It was 1993 in the American Northeast. The World Trade Center had been bombed, people in Japan had been gassed on the subway, and then, of course, there was Waco and one hell of an economic recession. The economy was so bad people with Doctorates couldn’t get jobs waiting tables. People like me.well, let’s put it this way: In an economic climate where people were grateful for minimum wage pay, I was fired from eight consecutive jobs in a row.
Ali was the older brother by eight years, and they were as different as they came. I did not like Ali as much as I feared and respected him. He was loud, passionate, obstinate, and felt entitled to everything the world had to offer. Where they were alike was in their personal loyalty, something they brought over from Algeria. It was loyalty to themselves, to each other, their beliefs and their morals. This was, to say the least, a novelty in my life at the time.
Originally the cafe was to be called “Cafe Bonfrere,” (meaning “the good brother”) in memory of their brother, Ziad, who was killed in 1985 during a terrorist bombing in Paris. Somehow, Oran talked Ali out of it. They never mentioned why, but I’m sure they had their reasons.
But above the bar, framed in beautiful black marble that must have weighed six or seven pounds, they had a large photograph of Ziad. The measure of your importance to the Sardiq brothers would be gauged by how long it would take you to learn who it was in the photograph above the bar. I don’t remember how long it took me. By the time I knew his name they couldn’t have gotten rid of me if they tried. In many ways it set the tone for our entire friendship. All that seemed important to them was that their friends knew how he had died, and how pointless and painful his death was. They made you see that the world did indeed suffer a terrible loss when he died.
I felt sorrow for them. I could see that Oran had loved Ziad dearly, and had let him go. Ali was not so accepting. I had only one conversation with him about Ziad, and he said, among a sparse few comments, “Never love anyone too much, because if you love them too much, when they go away, all you do is hate what took them away from you. And there is never a day without hate from then on. Never.”
Throughout all my time in Boston, strangely enough, these two Algerian men remained my only constant. We were closer than formal, more respectful than casual, but friendlier than love. After spending four years with my so-called peers at BU, it seemed strange these people I had invested the most of myself in, my classmates and friends, were long gone, having moved on to bigger and better. When I looked around, all I recognized were these two Arab guys who fed me burgers and booze and belligerence and brotherhood. I spent a lot of time wondering if their purpose was singular, if they were to serve as a link between two phases of my life. But even over-analyzing it showed me that no matter who came into my life, at least for that year, eventually they passed through the doors of Café Algiers.
The brothers were happy to be in America. They understood what made America tick, and I would even go as far as to say that they understood this country better than most Americans. They certainly knew things most American’s never learn, or would never take the time to learn. It must be a bizarre feeling to look at America from a foreigner’s point of view. I imagine we’d all realize how much people hated us. We had no clue then. Things weren’t as, shall we say, cut and dry then as they are now. Back then a car bomb was Armageddon. What fools we were.
Boston was a strange place in 1993. You couldn’t really compare it to any other city, but there was something frighteningly familiar about it.
People living in Boston, for the most part, are de facto Bostonians, but they are not of Boston. Most aren’t. Irish South Boston, and black South Boston, are the only real exceptions anymore. Old Boston is long gone, much like the old New York. The new Boston is very different, and I was there just as it was beginning to change.
It is, simply put, an academic ghetto whose transient population turns over every four or five years. B.U as a unit was very much like Boston as a whole. It was an ethnically diverse population of students from all over the world. It looked wonderful when it was printed on the University Admissions Catalog, but in reality it was a very precarious situation. Ironically these individualistic, very self-loyal groups of students from different nations, who usually despised each other, spent their social time exclusively with each other under the same label as “International Students” or more simply “Eurotrash”, because–and here is the greater irony–they hated American’s more than they hated each other. It was, of course, largely an unfounded, fashionable hatred, but it did exist.
It was not always easy for us American’s to understand why every Saturday night when certain “Euro” clubs let out there was always fighting. The Arabs would get drunk and start cajoling the Turks or the Greeks; or the Italians would start annoying the French or the Germans, and before you knew what was happening, there was a full-on hootenanny happening. Or why they would out of nowhere begin screaming at each other from opposite sides of a room in the Student Union. Or why they would suddenly be inspired to cordon themselves off in their little groups and belt out their national anthems. Of course we Yanks never knew about all the wars going on over in their front yards that gave them more than enough reason to be angry. We Yanks sat by, drunk and fat, wondering when was the last time someone just spontaneously broke out with the Star Spangled Banner. This was amusing, to an extent, but underneath the anthems, the foreign disputes were ancient and fundamental, two things we Americans did not yet posses.
The Gulf War was the prime example. The whole city went nuts when we launched the air strikes. Anti-war protests clogged Kenmore Square and Federal Center. Then, after the hundred-hour ground war, those same hypocrites were in the streets celebrating. The foreign kids, they were pissed-off and frightened the whole time. For some of them, it was no longer fighting with the neighbors. We good Americans went over there and destroyed a goodly portion of the earth. Most of that part of the world was none too happy. Then we proceeded to camp-out in Mecca. Again, not the wisest decision. We let our diversified army send women soldiers with guns into holy mosques where no woman had ever been.
Yeah, they were just a little bit peeved.
When it was over things went back to normal, or so we believe. All of this happened just before I met the Sardiq brothers, and I have always wondered what it was like for them during the Gulf War. Oran, he worried about nothing. Ali bitched all the time about everything. It was nice to meet them in another, more friendly context. They were just the people I needed to know then, and they became my friends, my only friends, for a long, terrible year.
Of course, there was one other friend, briefly. He was around only for that year, but he made quite the impression, in the most cosmological, demented, quasi-evil manner I can imagine.
. . .
The day I met Michael was towards the beginning of the first genuine, charismatic winter I had experienced in Boston. Previously, winters had been bland and monotonous, without anything resembling snow or a good sub-arctic freeze like Chicago. Essentially, I felt I was being cheated. This particular Boston winter, however, was an altogether different experience, snow blowing horizontally, wind creeping through the minuscule cracks in the window and through the room, bitter cold snaps, and mountains of snow falling day in and day out. It was oddly comforting.
I was jolted awake that morning by the profanely loud ringing of the telephone. Ordinarily I would have simply ignored the call using an age-old method of placing approximately eight to ten inches of down pillow between my ears and the open room. But I was sufficiently enraged that morning to segue into an overwhelming urge to answer the call. Had I listened to my body, I would have stayed in bed, and the story would have ended here.
Dean Hardone owned the annoyingly chipper voice on the other end of the line. He was another of the many people I had gone to college with who still believed that life didn’t change after college. You had to believe his view of life was something most of us weren’t too familiar with. I suppose he had some right. He was a Connecticut blue blood trust-fund baby who decided to remain in Boston with all his “friends” rather than going off to try and do something substantial with his life. But regardless of the money he possessed, Dean was hardly anything you wanted to wake up to. And Dean always called while I was in bed, regardless of what actual activity I was performing at the moment.
Dean was loud, impudent, spoiled, and exceptionally obtuse, and that’s using precise terminology merely to be polite. It appeared Dean had little else to occupy his time than waking people he assumed were his friends and inviting them to all sorts of social functions, most of which involved a meal that you would eventually not be able to afford. Dean was all in favor of not giving anything away, and it always amazed me how, even after he knew that I didn’t have a trust fund and my old man wasn’t footin’ the bill anymore, and therefore I had taken the long hop to the poorhouse, he still bitched about the check at the end of the meal and even expected me to pick up the tab every once in a while. That morning, I decided I would bear him long enough to have him buy me a meal. He shocked me awake by agreeing to pay. Once fed and further sustained, I planned to feign illness to extricate myself from the situation as quickly and cleanly as possible. It wasn’t nice, but then again, neither was I.
Dean picked me up at my apartment a half an hour early, which annoyed me to no end because when he showed up he buzzed and proceeded to crash through my front door, laughing like a retarded hyena with the hiccups. He started to give me nougies, like he was my friggin’ grandfather. But what really irked me was that he wasn’t alone. Some guy I did not know had come along, and by that time I was so far removed from the concept of polite society that the thought of having to present myself-which you always had to do when you were out with Dean-and maintain conversation sapped whatever fleeting strength I had. Besides, I was still in my underwear.
It was not unusual for Dean to do this sort of thing, and I silently eviscerated myself for not considering the possibility before it happened. I always figured that these people he surrounded himself with were either from his Prep School-apparently a continuously growing network that, if calculated properly, spanned every person in the country with an Anglo-Saxon surname-or it was someone from the many “social clubs” he belonged to, which was another thing about him I couldn’t stand.
The stranger stood in the hallway outside my apartment while Dean shouted incomprehensible things as I ran my head under the tub faucet. I ran into my room dripping wet and freezing, and threw on the Boston Brunch Standard: jeans, shirt or sweater, blazer, black shoes, overcoat. We left a couple minutes later. The stranger ran ahead out of the building, and was standing by the car as Dean and I approached.
“Jordan, this is Michael Wasserman,” Dean said. I shook dude’s hand.
“Hi ya, Jordan.” Michael said, with pure obnoxiousness, and got back into the car.
Michael appeared to be our age, tall, thin, short dark hair, and glasses. He and Dean appeared to be in some inane discussion of which I only picked up parts because I wasn’t very interested.
They continued to talk as Dean drove, and I patiently listened.
This is part of what was said:
Dean: So you don’t think it was fair?
Michael: Fair? Nuremberg was fair. This son of a bitch ripped me clean. I mean the deposit was twice what I expected it to be. Actually it was twice what the normal sane human being would logically want to pay.
Dean: But you paid it?
Michael: Oh, sure. You think money was the problem?
Dean: It never is.
Michael: Exactly. So I took it. I thought it would be a nice place. I mean come on, Dean, it was on Beacon Hill for fuck’s sake. But–and here we should not be surprised–little did I know what a shitbox this place really was. I mean, what do you expect? The place was two hundred years old!
Dean: Did you sue?
Michael: I’m getting to that. So I go down to that slut friend of yours…
Dean: She’s not the slut.
Michael: Wasn’t she the slut?
Dean: No, the other one was the slut.
Michael: Whatever. She moved like she knew a few things.
Dean: You did Mary?
Michael: Yeah. It’s no big deal, Dean.
Dean: I didn’t know that.
Michael: Yeah. Anyway, I go to Mary the Slut’s to see what her place is like and her place is completely different. Her layout, her design, her furnishings…her place was nice. What kinda Jew hating, Italian landlord bullshit was that?
Dean: You must have been mad.
Michael: I could have killed her just for living there.
Dean: That wouldn’t have been right.
Michael: You’re an idiot. So I get friggin’ Sal the Landlord on the phone and I tell him, Hey, you made-up second-class-citizen-daigo-wop-guinea-son-of-a-bitch, if I don’t see your greasy Sicilian ass up here doing some spackling, painting and tiling in the next twenty four hours I’m gonna ream you so hard you’ll wish you never passed Ellis Island. And I tell him I want some money as compensation for all the delays.
Dean: I didn’t know that. So what happened?
Michael: I showed him some pictures.
Dean: Those pictures?
Michael: You got it.
Dean: Oh, you’re sick.
Michael: True. He hasn’t looked at me the same since.
I could go on and give you more, but what’s the point? At that point I was thinking, If I had just not paid my phone bill.
After more of this, Michael turned around and looked at me, pointed at Dean and said, “I’m being punished. There’s no other explanation.” Then he turned around and continued his conversation. That little voice inside my head, which I rarely, if ever, listened to, was telling me that this day was going to be longer than anything I could possibly imagine.
We went down through the financial district to the Blue Diner, and oddly enough my only recurring thought was of the many colorful remarks Michael had made about people of the Italian persuasion. I don’t think it had much to do with my being offended, since terms like “Guinea” and “Daigo” and “WOP” had been essentially relegated to period gangster flicks. It was just the frankness with which he used his colorful aphorisms. To survive the car ride and the inane, moribund quasi-conversation emanating from the front, I chose to stare out the window and daydream about pornography.
I always loved the Blue Diner. Never as much as Cafe Algiers, but it always held a special place in my heart, if not in my bathroom. What I had always found amusing about the Blue Diner was that it was a historical kind of place. It used to be an old boxcar. I never actually substantiated this bit of lore, so for all I know it could have just been built to look like a box car. It was cramped, dirty, loud, and always smelled like grease. But, for some unknown reason, it had become a spawning ground for budding ’90’s-version yuppies, ignoring the subtle absurdity in the overpriced menu that was comprised of poor service and even poorer food. Were I to return to Boston, I would still visit the Diner, I just wouldn’t eat there. That winter, however, I was only a half step away from starvation, and would eat whatever was thrown in front of me, and worry about the grease and the abdominal cramps later.
Plus, the Diner was always lively and entertaining, and you never knew who or what would show up. Half the time, at three or four in the morning when we would go after the clubs let out, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see two button-downs sitting next to two leather bondage freaks, or three crackheads sharing a booth with a drunken frat boy from Northeastern, hounding him to hurry up and eat so they could all go score. At the Blue Diner, anything went. What did you expect from a place that employed ex-cons to cook the food?
We stood in the tiny doorway with about twenty other people awaiting a vacancy, and I felt strangely disconcerted where I was positioned, staring over someone’s shoulder past their dandruffed head into their plate of meatloaf. I felt a tap at my shoulder and I turned around and found myself nose to nose with the Michael.
“So what’s your deal?” he says.
“Pardon me?” I said.
He turned to Dean, who started cackling. That’s what Dean did. He didn’t laugh, he cackled, especially when he was nervous. It made me manic.
The Michael turned back to me. “Well, speak up, Private.”
I looked at Dean with one of those does this guy really take himself seriously looks, but Dean just grinned stupidly, like he was just happy to be there. It was then that I reminded myself I shouldn’t expect Dean Hardone to be any more perceptive that an amoeba.
“I don’t know.”
He smiled and patted me on the back. “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right.” Then he laughed.
I was thinking about it, so I had to say something.
“I noticed you have this dislike for Italians.” I was curious to see what he would say.
“You talking about Sal, the Landlord?”
“He’s an exception to the rule.”
“Right, and what are you?”
“Just you’re average Jew with your average sized shoulder chip.”
I turned to Dean.
“Where’d you find this one?’ I asked
Dean stepped in, I assume feeling heroic.
“I met Michael through Gerald–you know Gerald, right? At…um…oh, I forget, it doesn’t matter. Well, anyway, Michael is from Connecticut.”
“I thought he was from Israel.”
“By way of Connecticut,” Michael said. We all laughed, even Dean.
Just then a waitress came up and informed us we had finally obtained a booth.
Michael scanned the menu, snickering to himself, making juvenile comments about the staff of the Diner. “Oh, look at that one. Now I know where all the hair I shaved off my butt went. See the fry man over there? He looks like the kind of guy who’s always complaining about ‘all the damn faggots’, and then shows up in drag at the Ramrod on Texas two-step night.”
I assume, dear reader, that you are astute enough that I don’t need to explain what the Ramrod is and what type of individual patronizes the establishment?
“And what do you do, Mr. Wassermann?” I said.
“I’m a lawyer.”
“Of course you are. What else would you be? I said. “All Jews are lawyers.’
I winked at both of them, but Dean recoiled in horror.
“You told me you were still in law school,” Dean said.
“I am, idiot,” Michael said. I struggled to contain my laughter. “I’ll be a lawyer.”
“When?” I said.
He stared at me directly and said slowly, “I would assume when I graduate.”
Dean said, “Michael is independently wealthy,” to which Michael rolled his eyes.
“You mean my parents are,” he said.
“Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Dean said.
Michael said, “do you even know what that means?”
“Yeah, it means that his fruits are your fruits.”
“The only fruit around here is you,” I said. Michael and I exchanged glances and laughed. I began to suspect we shared the same opinion of old Deanny boy.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said, wondering how you would explain the concept of idiocy to an idiot. It seemed like a cruel trick, like asking a Mongoloid to solve Calculus equations.
The waitress (the “hairy” one) came to take our order, and Michael quickly jumped and held out the menu to her, pointing at something.
“What is that word?” he said. The waitress bent over and squinted.
“Challah,” she said, pronouncing it just like it looks, with a chuh.
“No, it’s Ha-llah. And you call this a Diner.” He turned to Dean. “Dean, you take me to a place that has nothing but shikzas who don’t know Challah from Chabad and you tell me to eat? Some friend you are. Next thing they’ll be asking if I want some Motts-Oh ball soup.”
“Did I do something to piss you off?” the waitress said. “Because if I did, I should apologize for it. But if you’re just busting my balls, I’m gonna dump a pot of hot coffee down your pants. That’s the kinda day I’m having, yenta. ”
Michael smiled. She straightened up and blew some loose strands of hair from her face.
“Well, there’s some moxie for the closeted lesbian sect,” he said. “You reach your man-bashing quota today or what?”
“I tell you what, Rabbi,” she said, “I can see where this will lead. I’ll get someone else to handle you and your followers here.” She shuffled away holding her hand to her temple.
Michael leaned in. “I love doin’ the yenta bit. I can’t believe she said that.”
Michael giggled, Dean cackled-why I don’t know-and I’m sure he didn’t either. I feltas if I was a nanny in Hell’s day care center. Before it got any worse, though, another poor soul appeared to try and take our order. Michael ordered first. Then I ordered, and finally Dean, and she smiled at Michael once more and then turned and walked away.
We talked some more about apartments and girls we knew and places to go at night and all the other safe things that people who don’t know each other very well can talk about. I had to admit I kinda liked this Michael guy, mostly because he had no shame about picking on Dean. When our food finally arrived we became quiet and intent. Throughout the meal Michael would occasionally laugh to himself without ever divulging the reason, or he would mutter something incomprehensible and shake his head slightly. Either way one got the feeling that he thought he was eating alone at his own little booth somewhere else. When he was finished, which only amounted to a few bites, he pushed his plate aside, took a cigarette from my pack of Camels sitting next to my plate, and stared out the window while blowing gigantic smoke rings. Dean was too engrossed in his food to notice anything less than an earthquake as he chomped away like a possum with a fresh bag of garbage. There was food constantly spilling out of his mouth, and when he did feel compelled to contribute some inane thing or another to the conversation, he did it through a mouthful of half chewed food, which rendered the words virtually indecipherable. And he always punctuated his remarks with some piece of food-pulp flying out of his mouth. I wondered if perhaps Dean was switched at birth with a chimpanzee.
I sat back and watched Michael for a few minutes as he stared vacantly out the window, tapping his fingers on his chin. When he finished his cigarette, he reached out blindly and crushed it out on the table.
He muttered the word whiteout.
“What was that?” I said, flicking the smoldering butt on the floor. He turned away from the window.
“Whiteout. You see it out there, how the snow is so thick that you can’t see? That’s a whiteout. They’re highly dangerous.” He shifted in his seat, took a sip of coffee and another of my cigarettes “from a tactical point of view.” I sat in quiet contemplation of his apparent non-sequitur. He continued.
“I’ve seen snow before. Lots of it, I’m from New England, I should. I’ve even seen storms that would scare the life out of anyone. Anyone who has lived here has seen that. You’re from Chicago, you know about winter. One time I remember driving with my father back from his office to our home in Westport and a storm hit and we had to pull off the highway and check into a hotel. A half an hour later there was eight inches of snow everywhere. We couldn’t see three feet in front of us, it was that bad. When I was over in Saudi and Iraq during the Gulf War…”
“Doing what?” I interrupted, hiccupped really.
“I was in the Army.”
“I see. Sorry, continue.”
“Anyway, the desert had it’s own version of a whiteout, except it wasn’t snow…it was sand. Sandstorms. They were a bitch. You could see them coming for miles because there wasn’t anything around but miles of sand, sand, and more sand. It got everywhere, into everything. I fucking ate sand for weeks. I shit sand for months.”
“At least you had clean bowels.”
“Yeah, that and the fact I don’t eat swine.”
“Right, the Jewish thing. So, these sandstorms?”
“They kind of looked like what rain looks like at a distance when you’re way up on a mountain looking into a valley. Now, take away the pleasant vista, and substitute everything around you with something flat and brown. It wasn’t like the Mojave with rolling dunes and cacti and sidewinder trails. The Arabian Desert looks more like Mars. These sandstorms, I tell you they were fierce, when you saw one coming you had to find cover fast. They came up quick. I mean, they look slow from a distance, but they’re movin at seventy miles an hour at least. And you had to get cover because the wind was so strong it was like being sandblasted. It would strip the paint off vehicles and rip the canvas on the tents, and if you were stupid and didn’t cover up it would take your skin off too.slowly and painfully. I saw what that sand could do to a person, and it wasn’t pretty. You feel it whipping against you like millions of little bee stings before you discover you can’t breathe and then sand is all in your mouth and the next thing you know you’re on the ground convulsing. Of course the real danger for us began after the storm had left. That’s when you discovered nothing worked, the guns were jammed, the vehicle engines were clogged, half our equipment ended up buried. We were essentially sitting ducks until we dug out. And I’ll tell you this: I have never experienced such a disturbing, vulnerable terror as when you’re helpless to defend yourself like that. Helplessness…is absolute terror. Your only hope is that the enemy is in the same condition as you. Now, how often does that happen?”
He smiled at me and then began to look around nervously, smoking more of my cigarette, as if he wanted to leave. I was almost expecting him to pull a rave-out right there in the Diner and start chucking plates and glasses and lord knows what else. As it was, he merely continued to look agitated, so I remained quiet.
“You want to leave?” Dean said. I was surprised he had caught any of the monologue.
“No,” he said, “just more coffee.”
“How long were you over there?” I asked.
“Too long. Or maybe just long enough. Well, who knows? Anyway you look at it it was still months longer than anyone else.”
“Why is that?”
“I can’t really explain that, and you don’t really want to know.”
I saw something in his expression and I tried to process it. My first impulse was one of pity or compassion. How many times did you hear of the “wounded soldier” returning from the war irrevocably changed for the worse? There was a bizarre glimmer in his eye and an ever so slight wrinkle at the corner of his mouth, and his ears were a little bit too red. It would have gone unnoticed by anyone else, but I, as a trained actor, could see it, or at least recognize it There was certainly more to Michael’s story than billowing clouds of sand and jammed M-16’s. I decided to probe.
“How was it?” I asked.
“How was what?” he said.
“Oh it was a friggin’ Mardi Gras. How do you think it was? It was war? Do you know what that means?”
“Then we have nothing to talk about.”
He paused a moment with his hand under his chin in an entirely exaggerated posture of reflection. “The war was…very…enlightening, to say the least. How was that?”
“Works for me. I imagine it was interesting.”
“Actually, Jordan, you really can’t imagine at all.”
“You know, the condescension is implied. You don’t have to keep ramming it down my throat.”
“Do you really think you have even the slightest clue what went on over there? Do you? Does anyone? I’ll go ahead and field that one for you. All you saw, the sit-at-home public, was footage of the same tank rolling from left to right across your television screen, or the same long line of surrendering Iraqis with only three U.S. soldiers guarding them. They had such a choke hold on the media that I’m surprised you even knew there was a war going on at all, except for the fact that the government and the media handled it like it was a goddamn TV mini-series. You have no idea what we did to that country. None! While these moronic students, these wannabe demonstrators, were prancing around the streets, staging bullshit protest rallies, trying to be just like Mommy and Daddy were back in the Sixties, we were slashing and burning the Middle East. We decimated that country from one end to the other. Absolutely destroyed it! Leveled every freestanding structure we could find. I mean Christ, we flew more bombing sorties in one hour over there than we did in a full week in Nam. We dropped Daisy Cutters on the little brown people like smokers flick ashes.”
“I’m sorry, Michael, I didn’t mean to offend you. I was just curious. You don’t have to eat my face.”
“I’m not eating your face. I’m just intense. I’m sick of the ignorance about the whole thing. Why is it so hard for people to believe that anything bad happened in that war? Wait, before you say anything, I already know the answer. CNN.”
“What’s a Daisy Cutter?” I asked.
“It’s the largest conventional bomb in existence, only a step away from nuclear strength. They’re so big they have to be pushed out of the back of an airplane. They can’t just be dropped. It’s like dropping a bomb the size of a truck. Sick stuff, I tell you. They annihilate anything in a two-mile radius, fuse the sand to glass, and leave a pile of ashes had to hit the ground real quick, cover our ears, bury our faces in the sand, and keep our mouths open. If you didn’t the percussion from the blast would shatter every bone in your body, rupture your ears and shatter your teeth and lungs. That wasn’t pretty either. I bet you never heard about that, did you?”
“No, I never heard about that. As far as I’m concerned we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
“I was there so that you didn’t have to be.”
“If that’s the case,” I said, “then I thank you.”
“But I thought hardly anyone died in that war,” Dean said, emerging from some food coma.
“Shuttup, Dean, you’re a moron,” Michael said.
“What’d you do in the war?” I asked.
“I was a Green Beret.Ranger, Airborne, Lerp.”
I laughed before I could stop myself. I couldn’t help it, itn was a total impulse. I liked to believe I was a person who never let stereotypes govern his perceptions, but I could not help but apply vast, sweeping generalizations when thinking of the feasibility of this skinny little kid from Westport, Connecticut in the Green Berets.
“If you don’t believe me…” he began.
“It’s not that I don’t believe you,” I said.
“Don’t patronize me.”
“Am I patronizing you? I thought I was agreeing.”
“I can show you my dossier.”
“No, no need for that, I believe you. If you say you were a Green Beret then who am I to refute your claims?”
“And, of course, if you say you’re a lawyer…”
“Oh, you’re funny. ”
“I wasn’t trying to be. You just don’t fit the.”
“That’s half the victory right there.”
I didn’t know what to believe anymore. Life had steadily and stealthily reinvented itself over the last year, so who was I to question this guy?
I didn’t care who this Michael Wassermann was. The hard truth of it all was that none of us in our particular little generation were really going anywhere. This of course by now has been well documented as the “Generation X” phenomenon. Half of us were starving as we continually ran screaming from the perennial question: what are you going to do with your life? The other half was still living off our parents to delay the very asking of that question. Our generation had little to claim as its own, and being that the world was largely an inhospitable place for us, what we could posses we held on to with a fervor that rivaled Feudal England.
So what else did we have but our lofty talk and our fantastic imagery of just who and what we were? Perhaps if we could impress each other, we might be able to impress ourselves. I didn’t blame Michael for being the way he was; he couldn’t help it, none of us could. But Michael, like many, said too much. If you said too much you ran the risk of being found out, and then you were a known fraud, and then no one would take you seriously. You would have been outed. In my opinion, this practice was an exercise in redundancy, because no one bothered to take anyone seriously anyway.
However, to some people, like Michael Wasserman, it mattered a great deal. He may have said too much, but he very well could have been telling the truth. If that was the case, the rest of us just looked like bigger idiots.
Newtopia founder and editor emeritus CHARLES SHAW is an award-winning journalist and editor, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, and Director of the documentary, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System.