New York State of Mind

July 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last Sunday, at the bookstore, I saw the name ‘Emily Gould’ in red letters on the spine of a book in the memoir section. I don’t forget the names of editors I worked with briefly as a literary agent. Back then Emily was an editor at Hyperion. She has since worked at Gawker and is now on her own doing freelance. Her memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever, is a snapshot account of her life from college through young adulthood in New York City.

“I felt the vacuum of the empty suburbs surrounding me like a black hole in which my body was suspended, as though I were the only warm alive thing left in the world (Gould, 27).”

After her childhood in the burbs, Emily only lasted one year at Kenyon, a university in the Midwest full of loser frat boys, where women end up objectified or abused. It’s obvious that she does not fit – the same way that I did not fit at small, conservative George Fox University. While all of my roommates were out with their fiancés, I was sitting alone in my bunk bed with a stray cat, eating Chinese take-out and watching old Fellini films. I dreaded the moment when they would return, “What is this crap you’re watching? It doesn’t make any sense!”

Once in the city, Emily pays her way through writing classes with a series of server jobs where she suffers from anxiety. She feels exhausted from performing, leaves her feminism at the door, and puts up with being treated like a dimwit.

My first job in New York was in Soho at an Italian restaurant. The manager wanted me to stand outside to try and draw people in. I was not even a host, and I was not getting paid. Around 9pm, a band started to play, and the manager asked me to sit with some rich businessmen. I have to admit, though he was turning me into some kind of unpaid escort, I enjoyed the conversation, since one man owned the art gallery across the street, and bragged about how he had worked with Andy Warhol.

The manager said I would be serving at another location that was just opening up in the Lower East Side, where my commute would take twice as long. On my first day there, the owner only came upstairs to yell at us then disappeared into the basement for hours.

The other two servers were actors and called me “babe,” in a condescending tone that I found irritating. There were no sections, and they viciously fought for tables. Being the newbie, I had one lone table, and ended up bussing the other 49, spinning in confusion.

When it was time to go, I went downstairs to find the boss. Down a long hallway, he was sitting in a grimy office smoking a joint and counting piles and piles of money. There were at least twenty stacks over six inches high. I’d been in New York for one week, and already I was working for the mafia. I’ve since learned that in Jersey and New York, restaurants are backed by mafia money, while in Seattle they are backed by drug dealers – same thing, different titles.

I walked back to the original location and told the manager that I wanted to work in Soho, but he didn’t have a position for me. It was a good thing. I was the only person there who wasn’t right off the boat, and all the money was under the table with no salary. I was beginning to think that the entire city was outside of the law.

A year later I ran into the manager again at a party thrown by a flamboyant Italian man. At all of his parties, the host hired a model to walk next to him carrying a sign that read, “Stefano Is Here” with an arrow pointing down. The manager was working as the DJ that night, and I had been hired as a dancer with a percussion band that I performed with. We were at a swank restaurant uptown, called Zanzibar, and the party had a tribal theme.

The ex-manager/DJ was completely shocked to see me. I was no longer shell-shocked and outside of my element. In fact, I was getting paid to be the life of the party. Things moved fast in New York, so fast, I can’t believe it all happened.

After a series of serving jobs, Emily Gould found herself working as the Editorial Assistant to a Senior Editor at a publishing house.

“I was realizing that the production of book-shaped products had very little to do with “books,” the holy relics that my college education had been devoted to venerating (Gould, 99).”

Once at the literary agency, I imagined myself taking on literary clients and life-changing books, but I couldn’t halt the constant stream of fluff being thrown at me by my boss or the pressure to find a sale that could meet current trends. I didn’t feel strong enough, or maybe nothing seemed good enough, and everyday was a pressure cooker to make that deal happen.

Being let go was a tremendous relief. For all that time I’d never been able to read my own books, or write my own words. So every morning for the next six months, I was up at 6am to write for an hour outside the coffee shop, with people rushing past me to work. After writing ten pages, I would begrudgingly join them, and go to my shitty job in the city, numbering every single piece of crap artwork that came out of Peter Max’s factory. Like that first restaurant I worked at, only recent immigrants lasted in his exploitation-fest. He was donating millions to charity, and I couldn’t afford to live. But as long as I got that writing in every morning, it seemed okay.

Emily Gould still lives in Brooklyn, and I have to admit, I feel a sense of envy that I am not still in New York too. There is always the sense that I am missing out on something – connections, parties, shows. You can find all that in Seattle too, the problem is that I really haven’t yet.

I also have a theory – that when you leave New York you get slightly weak and introverted because the pressure is finally off. I hadn’t realized how much energy it took. I’ve watched as friend after friend left the city and completely went into reclusive mode. One friend even took to the mountains, and never lasts for more than 24 hours when she comes to visit me. In New York she was a tough, angsty, goth rocker chick in platform boots. Now she is a peaceful hippy, who prefers to live in a yurt, pee in an outhouse, and grow vegetables.

Five years since my move back, I’m teaching myself how to refind my New York energy. I’m remembering that in New York, amidst all the crazy, I learned how to live, how to survive, and how to love exponentially. Not the fake romantic love of adolescence, but real love for all of my friends and my community.

Instead of complaining about how I lost that when I left, I’m now remembering how to be what you wish others would become. And surprisingly, I’m finding what I’ve been looking for. Friendships are flowing naturally, the way they should be. I sense I’m growing closer to the pulsing beat of energy. Life takes a turn, once again.

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Portrait of an Addict

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

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            For the first time in twelve years, I am sober now for the last five months.  I am happier and more productive than I have ever been.  My mind feels crystal clear every morning – excited to write, bursting with ideas and thoughts.  And when I’m out with friends and the bars close and they’re all loaded and stumbling through the streets – I realize I am the only person who is really seeing everything, feeling everything, experiencing a memory that won’t slip from my mind by morning.

I have just finished reading Bill Clegg’s memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.  Clegg is a successful Literary Agent in Manhattan who struggled with an addiction to crack.  The very drug, crack, is symbolic of his state of being at the time.  Though outwardly he is a success – amazing job, parties, beautiful home, loving and supportive partner, friends that care about him – on the inside he feels an absolute disconnect.  He does not love himself, does not even seem to know himself, and he would rather be dead.  Eventually, he loses everything he had.

“It feels as if each week, there is some lunch or some dinner or some phone call that is going to blow my cover, reveal that I am not nearly as bright or well read or business savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.  My bank account is always empty, and when I look at the ledgers at the agency, I wonder how we will pay our employees, the rent, the phone bill…  I often wish it all felt the way it looked, that I could actually be living the life everyone thinks they see.  But it feels like a rigged show, one loose cable away from collapse (Clegg, 128).”

I relate to this so completely.  I too worked as a Literary Agent in New York and never stopped thinking that someone would blow my cover.  My boss was a bit of a rogue, and I liked that about him.  We clicked – I was his first employee, and in the beginning it was pure joy.  He trained me intensively.  I read books on law, and editing, and publishing.  I read manuscripts to report back with critiques.  He helped me refine my style and challenged me.  Then I began taking on clients and lunching with editors, which is when the shit hit the fan.

Being an agent is like being a gambler – and I’ve never had good luck.  You put your time and energy into a book in hopes that the editors will buy it – but you don’t get paid until they do.  My boss wanted me to quit my restaurant job, so I did.  He gave me $1,000 a month – but my dad always ended up having to give me $300 more.  After paying the bills, there was barely anything left.  Lunch with the editors was the only time I wasn’t eating hot dogs and lentils or some other cheap fare.

My boss gave me money to go out and buy a decent pair of shoes, but the ones I finally found didn’t even seem right.  I certainly couldn’t walk miles in them, and I realized they were too trendy.  I felt like I was wasting all of his money.  He believed in me so much.  Outwardly, I looked and seemed ready to be a success.  But on the inside I was a raging artist, becoming more and more lost in the role I was playing.

There was this voice that wouldn’t shut-up inside my head – I believed in my own writing more than anyone else’s.  It felt selfish.  But I was putting all of my energy into the others – and nothing was left for me.  My boss grew upset that I couldn’t keep up with the two new hires.  I wasn’t reading fast enough.  There was no time for a life outside of work.

But I was leading a parallel life.  I lived in Hoboken.  My tribe was a crowd of never do well musicians.  The bartenders only charged me six bucks to drink all night.  And when the bars closed we’d head to someone’s apartment and drink till the sun came up.  On weekdays, I’d wake up with some passed out rocker in my bed and then go into the process of switching lives – from braids to sleek ponytail, from combat boots to heels, from gypsy skirt to pressed slacks.  I’d rush to the train in a crowd I didn’t belong in – the yuppies that we’d just been taunting the night before.  And then I would reach the perfectly sleek office with the glass doors and the blonde hardwood floors and the giant view of the Empire State Building and the insanely bright lights.  Suddenly I would realize that I looked like shit – that my eyes were bloodshot and my skin dull and dry.  At lunch I’d buy something greasy like a patty melt from the corner deli.  My boss would cross over from his office to my cubicle and stare down at my desk at the mess of a sandwich and say, “Hangover food.”  And then I’d make some lame denial, “Not really, it just looked good.”

My first potential sale was a client he’d pawned off on me – a chick lit thing that I didn’t really like.  I failed to sell it and felt humiliated.  The pressure was unbearable.  None of my clients seemed exactly right.  I’d grown attached to them and was driven more by the emotion of making their dreams come true than by their talent.  Their work was good, but not great.

It all came to a head.  I lost my footing completely and anxiety took over.  And then came the talk.  My boss took me to the conference room, and said, “Lauren, you are the artist, not the agent.  This is a waste of my money.”  I called all of my clients to tell them they would need to find new representation.  I’d lived vicariously through their hopes and dreams, and it felt terrible letting them down.  My hands were shaking.  But there was a huge sense of relief as I walked out the glass doors, rode the elevator down and was at last out on the street where I could breathe.  Where I didn’t have to be something for anyone.

Drinking was only part of my failure as an agent.  I was young, introverted, uncertain, and completely inept at sales.  My boss always told me, “If people are drinking, you drink.  If they are smoking, then smoke.  If they’re talking about church, then you’re a church-goer too.”  But I didn’t want to live my life to please others.  I’d escaped from that already.  All I wanted was truth.

I didn’t stop drinking of my own accord.  For years it was normal to have six drinks a day.  I’d try to take two days off a week, but rarely managed that.  Then for the past five years, after particularly heavy nights, my liver started to hurt.  By last summer the pain became constant.  Even one sip caused sharp pangs to shoot through my side.  Physical activity grew difficult from the swollen discomfort.

I’m not sure if or when I’ll ever get to go back to that feeling I always loved.  Not much beats that charge of excitement, that interconnectedness with other human beings; on the other hand – the monotony of going in circles, the hangover, the lagging energy, the boredom.  It used to be a social crutch, but now I don’t need it, and don’t need to go out as much.  The worst of it was, alcohol was always good for taking a romantic night and turning it into a knock-out fight.  Eventually, it may have ended my marriage.

I enjoy the experience of being around others who are drinking.  I like to ride the wave of their energy and partake in the free flowing conversation.  I’ve learned to not try and make sense of what they say beyond a certain point.  And the only time I feel depressed is when there is a ridiculously nice bottle of wine on the table, and I can smell all of those complexities and the journey it could take me on -complexities that I was known as an expert for describing.

“But it’s more than just a conversation, it’s the best sex, the most delicious meal, the most engrossing book – it’s like returning to all of these at once, coming home, and the primary feeling I have as I collapse back into my desk chair and watch the smoke roll through my office is:  Why on earth did I ever leave (Clegg, 187)?

            For years I looked down on people who were numbing out the pain and not working through their issues.  Their drug of choice kept them stagnant.  But when I quit drinking, I realized that I was this person.  Everything came up from before the time that I had my first drink.  I had recurring dreams of being trapped in college.  It began to purge out of me, painfully, as I remembered the person I left behind a long time ago.  I began to make peace with her.  And I am still making peace with the fact that addiction can steal your life away.

Bill Clegg was a man who lacked self-acceptance.  But I think he found it through his writing and through sobriety.  He purged his secrets, and freed himself from the power they had over him.  Having a perfect life is a façade that doesn’t really exist.  Accepting the truth makes for a much better story.

Patti Smith Lays It Bare

October 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night I was driven to finish Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, before going out to see Annie Clark aka St. Vincent play at the Neptune.  The book’s ending left me sad and stoic, barely able to look forward to the show.  But I was blown away by Annie’s performance.  I never expected she would have the raw emotion of Patti Smith, gritty and truthful, losing herself in a cover of an obscure punk band.  We need more of that energy out there – real poets who internalize the pain of the world and magically transform it into beautiful art.

In the book Patti shares the development of two struggling artists.  She leaves home and moves to New York with nothing, but when she gets there, she finds Robert Mapplethorpe.  All they have is their dreams, but as they become devoted to each other they manage to survive and build a life on their combined skills.  Their dedication survives Mapplethorpe coming to terms with his homosexuality, and their differing lifestyles as Robert climbs up into high society and Patti chooses the raw environs of rock’n’roll.  They remain until his death interchangeable artist and muse.

Patti Smith to me is synonymous with CBGB’s.  New York lost one more inch of its soul when CBGB’s closed and turned into a trendy John Varvatos boutique.  The boutique celebrates the grit and history of the venue without any of the grit left behind.  Now it’s all shiny and new with expensive clothes to give you that ‘rock star look.’  The dressing room is built over the stairway that once led to the most disgusting bathroom, magnificent in its filth.  Before it closed, the entire venue was a mutation, a continuing saga of live music.

I was fortunate enough to perform there just weeks before CB’s closed. It was before I began turning poems into music for the mandolin.  I was belly dancing for a percussion group, though with the addition of a keyboardist, our set was transforming into a jazz aural landscape.  I always danced barefoot, but the guys in the bands we came with thought the stage was too disgusting.  It had layers and layers of shit on the floor, built up over time.  Blood, sweat, broken bottles, sticky boos and who knows what else.  “I hope you got a tetanus shot.”

I loved experiencing the energy of the bands that had been on each stage, and felt that my bare feet brought me closer to those that had passed before. Despite everyone’s fears, CBGB’s ended up being the greatest bare foot stage experience.  As I danced I felt Patti Smith, the Ramones, Lou Reed, Joan Jett, the Talking Heads, Blondie.  It made me feel I could touch their success.  As though after our set I would step off the stage, put on some shoes and walk in their footsteps.  Surviving on hot dogs and lentils didn’t matter so much after that.

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“I can’t believe I just performed on that stage,” I said to a guy at the bar.

“Well, you didn’t play an instrument!”

What an ass.  I turned away from him and gave the bartender my drink ticket.  Playing an instrument is easy in comparison to dancing onstage. Though I did not play music through my hands, my entire body was an instrument.  Like visual sound, I was showing the audience how music moves. From then on our group performed one song where we all joined in a drum circle, building the beat into a crescendo that came tumbling to a halt right after it’s peak.  It was a kick to surprise people as I sat down with the drum – no one could say I was just some fluff dancer.

In a review of our show at CB’s, the writer compared me to the last belly dancer he’d seen at the venue – a woman who stripped back in the seventies.  He claimed my performance was G-rated in comparison, as though I was only there for his titillation. I felt misunderstood and interpreted as an objectified female.  To top it off, after reading the review, the percussionist asked me to wear a skirt with some slits up the side.  I was the lone belly dancer in a universe of men and their opinions.  Despite all of that, every show was a new adventure that I enjoyed immensely.  I bonded with many new people, and as my stage persona changed I went from being called “the belly dancer” to “Joan Baez.”

I no longer perform as a dancer or a musician because I lost the passion for it.  Performing was not the same when I moved back to Seattle.  I never felt a sense of community and support.  Instead of people working together to create something amazing, it is every man for himself.  My skin isn’t thick enough to withstand all the empty venues and people who don’t give a shit about the music.  At my very last gig, I got in a fight with the musician I was sharing a bill with.  He was determined to talk as loud as possible over my set and it was impossible to hear the music.  Through years of being onstage, I never encountered a more offensive musician.  And as I’ve gotten older, I have grown more sensitive and outspoken.

Instead, I like to remember the time I got up to play for a full house, and I saw two girls in the back who were about to leave.  As I began to play, they turned around and were riveted by my song – a poem about the limits of love. They felt what I had written and they knew it for themselves.  It was so intimate, as though there was no one else in the room.  I gave them every word like drops of blood, and by the end there was a tear in my eye.

Being onstage gave me motivation, discipline, confidence.  I learned to take my abilities much more seriously.  Just like Patti, I didn’t know I would ever turn my poetry into music and sing on stage.  But submitting to the flow of creativity, you release yourself to whatever will come.

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