How Do You Spend Your Summer Day?

It was ninety degrees in New York and everyone was happy. Vivacious kids shouted at a cheery vendor for cherry ice and the hearty proprietor waved his hand, ushering the kids beneath his canopied shade as he carved out bright granular chunks into pristine cups. A shirtless man with a ratty straw hat angled at a hard random slope strummed a banjo in the park and attracted admirers. Not long before, I ambled past the crackling reports of men slamming dominoes onto the artisanal concrete of fixed outdoor tables sprouting from a brick sidewalk. Even the squirrels were decent enough to leave people alone. It was the kind of summer day where the humidity stops just short of uncomfortable and the sweat feels more like a comforting film and the heat peals a pleasant melody into your pores. And there’s really nothing to complain about at all.

I was walking around Lower Manhattan with a big smile on my face. I had just bought David Lynch’s new book and had read the first few pages and was caught in a very giddy daydream, thinking about some funny characters on a story I’m now working on. That’s when I spotted one of my archenemies, one of the old ones from the literary days. She had once publicly announced that she would throw a fulsome fete if I successfully managed to kill myself (and she had never apologized for it). That couldn’t be her, could it?

The sun was pleasant and the laughs were infectious and my ears picked up the hilarious snippet of a woman describing her hookup from the night before on the phone. And the warm rays kept me giddy. No matter. Not important. Let my archenemy stray away. Now about this barbeque scene! Oh, my actor will love that twist! And if I make that narrative move, oh man, this is going to be so much fun to produce and edit!

And I carried on walking and I looked around and I listened and I marveled and I felt truly blissful. My smile did not wane. How could it? I was still in an incredibly marvelous mood. I’d had a very fun weekend, probably the most fun I’d had all summer, probably among one of the best summer weekends of the last five years if I had to be honest, even if I had not slept much. Wonderful people, everyone friendly, banter with good friends, strange and unreportable adventures. The sight of my archenemy dissipated from my mind completely.

That’s when I looked up and saw my archenemy go way out of her way to cross twenty feet through a thick throng of people, approaching me like a stalker who flouts a restraining order. She was gunning at me with an especially forced and artificial smile. It was the shit-eating grin of someone who wanted to announce that she was a conquerer, but who lacked finesse. I didn’t find her threatening or intimidating in the least. But I did see a sad look in her eyes that her fury could not entirely occlude, the lonely look you often spot in a bully’s adamantine gaze. I still didn’t know if it was really her. And I honestly didn’t care. I mean, I was just happy, truly happy. The hell of it was that she could have spouted off the nastiest invective in the world and I would have (a) probably been very congenial and (b) easily welcomed an opportunity to patch things up.

Finally the moment arrived. What did she say? She said, “Excuse me.” A soft voice. No plan. She didn’t say her name. She didn’t say mine. She didn’t acknowledge what she had done. Or even the many other times she dehumanized me. She didn’t even have the decency to cry “J’accuse!” and declare me the villain. What she probably saw was a very abstracted man lost in his own felicitous reveries, which seemed a damned strange target to impugn and which defied her easy thesis about me. I walked to the right. She then heaved her way there. And we faced each other and I said “Oop!” in the way that Nicholson Baker memorialized in The Mezzanine and we somehow walked past each other. And then I realized that it had been her.

Why had she done this? Well, that question is unimportant. That question is not the right one to dwell on.

What I felt at that moment was not anger, but compassion and pity. One of us was committed to natural connection, to embracing life’s funny knack for resembling a dreamstate. The other saw an enemy she had never had the guts to talk to and zeroed in and went well out of her way to act on a tepid hate. Something about seeing her do this made me realize that only one of us had grown and the other had stagnated. One of us was committed to wonder and positivism. The other was looking for a fight. And when people look for a fight, they are often doing this because they haven’t found the guts to confront their own fears and to stare down hard truths and to finally love the totality of who they are so that they can, in turn, love the totality contained in others.

And that’s the thing about happiness. It is a close cousin to maturity in the way that it sneaks up on you without warning. Months pass and you commit yourself to fully embracing who you are and you suddenly find that you can take more hits on the chin or even forgive someone who had been nothing but nasty and hateful and vituperative to you. And you wonder just who in the hell this new person is. Yet this is a self-examination that’s really not worth going into. The takeaway here isn’t that you’re better when you’re happy, although there is that. It’s that you’re kinder and stronger, kinder and stronger in ways that the unhappy bully never can be. And happiness really is the thing to chase. I really believe that this is the quality that will eventually restore America from its often harrowing fascist trajectory. It may take many years, but we will do it.

As I sauntered into the end of a glorious July afternoon, I knew now that only one of us considered the other an archenemy. I also knew that one of us would enjoy the summer and the other would not. Sometimes it’s just a question of how you decide to spend your summer day.

The Rightful End of Roseanne

Roseanne Barr is finished. And it’s about goddam time.

I watched the first few episodes of the Roseanne reboot with an open mind, but the show’s racism and intolerance, well on display within the show and bluntly expressed in Roseanne’s off-air demeanor, demonstrated very conclusively that this was not a contemporary answer to All in the Family, but something more akin to a sitcom version of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. An early scene showing the Conners swapping an insufficient supply of medication due to inadequate American healthcare created the illusion that this was a show like its previous iteration, one aligned with the working class roots that had made the original such a success. But then we saw the Conners casually belittling “all the shows about black and Asian families” and it became very clear that this was a program committed to white supremacy. As The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum pointed out, the show relied on coded language, unrealistic dialogue, and sideways jabs to disguise its bigotry-drenched narrative.

I was not the only viewer to flee. It took only weeks for the reboot to drop from 18.44 million viewers to a mere 10.42 million. This was the show that Trump had said “was about us,” but that “us” shed 44% of its purported unity within months. The cast and crew quickly became unsettled by the Faustian bargain they had bought into. Co-showrunner Whitney Cummings left. Then writer Wanda Sykes left. And as actress Emma Kenney was about to bolt, she was informed by her manager that the show was cancelled. The linchpin was a startlingly racist tweet in which Roseanne declared that former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett was the product of “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes [sic]” having a baby.

For anybody who had been watching this hatred from the sidelines, Roseanne’s vulgar and vituperative racism was there in the unfettered manner in which she tweeted easily debunked alt-right conspiracy theories as if these hurtful falsehoods represented true gospel. She falsely claimed in March that David Hogg, one of the brave kids who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and who went on to become a formidable activist, had offered a Nazi salute, despite the fact that Roseanne herself had dressed up as Hitler for Heeb Magazine.

Barring a pickup from an online streaming giant — an unlikely event, given Amazon’s recent woes with Transparent and the Roy Price scandal, Netflix cutting ties with Louis CK, and Hulu likely not wanting to risk its progressive-minded programming slate given the success of The Handmaid’s Tale — there is little chance that Roseanne will return, unless she decides to produce it on her own dime. And even then, she would probably not have enough clout to convince all the cast members and crew to return. Such a hypothetical reboot, untethered from the manacles of network Standards and Practices, would only amp up the atavism further in the interest of “truth-telling,” perhaps inspiring the Southern Poverty Law Center to include Roseanne Barr amidst its distressingly voluminous list of offenders.

This was the first television show cancelled by a single tweet. And I don’t think it will be the last. What Roseanne’s self-immolation demonstrates, quite rightfully and righteously I think, is that America does have limits to what it will tolerate. There will undoubtedly be Daily Caller-reading banshees writing thinkpieces proclaiming this cancellation as a calumny upon the First Amendment. But the decision to write and produce a show, much less watch one, has not been quelled and the audience hungry for this casual xenophobia has regrettably not been deracinated. There are still ten million loyal Roseanne viewers. And I can easily imagine Roseanne being propped up as an underground comic, recast as an alt-right faux Lenny Bruce or perhaps the American answer to Dieudonné, and making a fortune through a monthly Patreon account.

In an age in which a self-help transphobic huckster like Jordan Peterson is framed by the “Paper of Record” as a “dark web intellectual,” Roseanne will probably not be the last repugnant show airing on American television. I fear that we are only at the beginning of hatred and intolerance marketed as “wholesome entertainment.” And while mainstream media rejects Roseanne, one must now be on the lookout for independently produced offerings cut from the same Klan cloth that are snatched up by television executives in the interest of corporate profit. This is, after all, how Roseanne was rebooted in the first place. The question now is who has the chutzpah to push the envelope further into a fetid swamp of ugliness and whether some network desperate for a hit is willing to pick up such a bilious offering, counting upon the American public to forget how these same gatekeepers helped make Roseanne happen in the first place.

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Elegy for a Fiend

The thin man looked up and down Second Avenue for the fuzz and raised the snuff spoon to her nostril and she scooped it up with her beak in less than a second. Then the man said he wouldn’t leave because she had sampled the merch and he insisted she had an obligation to buy. She said that fifty dollars was too much and that thirty was the going price in her hood. Then he muttered something about this being Manhattan and she grew truculent.

I stood there, frozen, even as he got in my space aggressively with the spoon from the start when I said no I would not be partaking. And I tightened my knuckles and wondered if I was going to have to get into a fight. Just how in the hell had I managed to get to this place? I was standing outside an underpopulated dive with sky priced drinks and the worst DJ mix I had probably heard in five years and I wasn’t having any fun at all. The man wouldn’t leave and, given his showy scrutiny, it was clear that he was a small time type trying to unload some supply. I had lost a friend to coke many years before. My mother had snorted blow. I had never actually seen her do this, but I did sometimes see the white dusty residue on the mirror some Saturday mornings, along with the whir of the tumbleweed she’d picked up the night before, blowing out the door without even stopping for a newly brewed cup of MJB.

After five minutes, the dealer left. She had a satisfied smile on her face. And the scene gave me new context for someone who I had pegged before all this as merely exuberant.

It was not long after this that I realized $100 was missing.

I had come to her because I had had a wild night and I thought she was the knowing soul who could help me make sense of it. An evening that started with a date that never showed, continued with a happy hour among old men sitting by themselves and sipping their old man drinks as I nursed a pint while staring at nautical symbols, and that concluded in a feral surprise with three young ladies at a karaoke bar who really liked my singing voice and had rather bold ways of expressing their appreciation that thoroughly confused me. It was a story too unbelievable, the kind of tale that a man my age would invent to make himself feel better, yet it actually happened. And I needed a friend who could help me make sense of it. Because it was too improbable. The first woman had left. She had a train to catch the next morning. Shortly before ensuring that the two remaining women, one quite drunk and the other quite stoned, were with friends and had safe passage home, I texted my friend and asked if she was out and wanted to talk. She told me to meet her at a Midtown bar.

I’d met her months before during one of my bar crawls and we’d hung out a few times. We were strictly platonic. She was young. She had a bright voice and a magnetic charisma and an inexhaustible energy that matched mine. We bonded over Russian literature. It was impossible not to like her. And I couldn’t help but love her a little. We had one conversation in which we described our respective sexual histories packed with such loaded tension that we later ended up kissing, although we both put a stop to that when she said she was not into me. I’d let her crash at my apartment a few times. She was quite fond of having me buy a six pack at a bodega around four o’clock and taking it to a bench, with the two of us drinking as the sun came up, casting a lambent tranquility after a raucous evening. Often I would go to one of my early morning shifts right after this, without sleeping. She once sent me a picture where she sat defiantly on the edge of a rail, careless about her balance. I thought it was a pretty thrilling image that captured her spirit and I showed it to a friend, who promptly told me, “That’s nothing special. What do you see in her?” Adventure. Liberation. Independence. A deliberate flouting of the rules. Existence, in a word. But there were many qualities I didn’t see until life happened.

I never really understood what she saw in me until that night. Then I realized that I usually paid for the drinks because I was a gentleman and I tried to be nice. There had been one time in which she had experienced a concussion and I felt the scars on her head and she was curiously elusive about the cause. When I met some of her friends, they all seemed to be strangely quiet around her, almost hesitant to speak and always giving her the floor. When I asked amicable questions of them, they offered terse and sheepish answers. They didn’t want to be known even though they laughed at my jokes. It was damned odd.

When she asked if I had disapproved of her gotcha moment with the dealer when we returned inside the lackluster dive, she already knew my answer. But I replied sadly, “It’s your choice.” What had seemed amusing all the times before had now twisted into this new challenge: who was living the better and more vibrant life? And then I realized why all her friends had been quiet. And between that and the missing cash, that’s when I knew I had to get the hell away from her.

She chased after me, calling me a child. She shrieked that everyone in the neighborhood could hear us shouting at each other. Predictable tactics to shame me. But I could not be shamed. And I would not let her reduce me any further. Her instincts revealed her as a fiend, not a friend. And I ran to the subway and I raced down the stairs and I wept over what had been so horribly revealed and what had always been there all along as the subway began its slow trundle forward.

Old Man on an Outdoor Lounge

The old man sat with his can and his hat on an outdoor lounge that had once been a lustrous beige. But the plastic strands had long faded into a crusted white that matched the old man’s ashen pallor. He squinted at the sun’s harsh heat, warmer now in April than in previous years, and tried to find some shade beneath the olive tree he’d planted decades before during flusher times, but the branches had dried out and the leaves wouldn’t sprout back despite his best efforts at nurture. Even the tree surgeon had informed him what a hopeless cause it had been and suggested to him gently that he grow another one. But the old man retained some strange faith in the dying tree and, as he took another slow tug from his near beer, he angled his Panama tighter atop his forehead, the beads of sweat dripping into the fierce forest of his bushy gray eyebrows, finding moist pockets within the crags now multiplying faster than ever before on the dry soil of his face.

The world had changed too fast and the old man was getting tired. His candidate had won, but he felt that the victory was anticlimactic and that there was still a great deal to be angry about. FOX News’s paranoid drone had replaced the daily half pot of coffee he’d imbibed before the doctors told the old man that he needed to cut down on his caffeine intake. But the old man still needed to remain on edge in order to feel alive. This was why he often loosened molten rivulets of hot rage against anyone who had another worldview. The old man hadn’t yet learned that people two or three decades younger than him, people who didn’t share his skin color, people who weren’t him, had rich inner lives and he still didn’t know how to understand or apologize, even though he’d tell you over and over again that he didn’t need to. The old man’s lungs, once the storehouse of reliably truculent gulps, had thinned out of late into a faint wheeze. The old man could not accept that his time had passed and that his efforts to matter had been largely unsuccessful. If you caught the old man on a good day, he would hold you hostage with long tales that wandered nowhere. Even his patient wife would no longer listen to him. But if he had to be alone, he would be alone.

The old man had fooled himself long ago into believing that he didn’t need anyone, but the outdoor lounge had been there every day he had escaped outside and the outdoor lounge had listened very carefully and had observed him weeping when the old man thought that nobody else was paying attention. Outdoor lounges do not have tongues and thus cannot gossip. But if this outdoor lounge could talk, it would tell you everything it knew about the old man: the many times the old man had talked to himself, hating who he was and detesting what the world had become, and the outdoor lounge would say to you in a plaintive voice that here was a man who needed help. But the old man didn’t believe in therapy. He didn’t believe in changing. He didn’t understand why his family and his friends had deserted him.

What the old man had in this premature summer was the buffer of his paid up mortgage and the instinct of his convictions, even if the old man’s great plans had never quite panned out in his younger years. What he had was a lackadaisical resilience. As long as he was alive, his way would last. That had been the belief anyway.

Eventually the near beer was gone. The old man would not risk another can. He didn’t want his doctors to lay into him. He heard a faint rustling behind him and darted his head. The two kids next door were peeking at him through the slats in the hickory fence, a barrier built long before, one that he could not fathom reconstructing.

“Mister,” they said.

The old man refused to hear them.

“Mister, our ball,” said the first boy. “We threw it over your fence.”

“It was an accident,” said the second boy.

“We didn’t mean it.”

There had been a time in which the old man had once played shortstop. But it was too long ago.

The old man would not leave his outdoor lounge.

“Mister, please.”

“Go away,” said the old man.

And the two kids went away. Time passed and he heard a knock on the door. But still he did not budge from the outdoor lounge, even when he heard his wife’s mellifluous apologies. Even when he watched his wife slide open the glass door that led to the spacious patio that the old man had built from scratch in more pro-active times. Even when his wife picked up the ball without saying a word and the glass door rumbled and he remained alone with an empty can of near beer and a hat that seemed to grow tighter around his large head as the afternoon sweltered.

The outdoor lounge was appalled. And it decided to commit suicide. The rickety aluminum legs collapsed, causing the old man to take one hell of a tumble into the patch of lawn that was still dry even though the old man had watered it every week. The old man could not get up. He cried to his wife. His wife did not answer. The kids did not answer, but the old man could hear the pats of their baseball swooping into the brown leather of their gloves without either of the two boys risking a word. The lounge did not answer. Nobody answered.

It took twenty minutes for the old man to crawl across the desiccated grass and onto the deck before he could summon the will to pull himself up. And shortly after he climbed in bed that night, which was an altogether different but not dissimilar struggle, he asked his wife why she had not helped him. She replied, “Because you have been alone for a very long time and there was no point in intruding. Just go to sleep, dear. Tomorrow is another day.”