Dearest Stephanie,

Lately, I’ve been seeing this one celebrity—I won’t name names, let’s just call her “Ms. Cutie”—at Starbucks, like, everyday. This girl loves Starbucks even more than I do, I think!

Ms. Cutie is a former child star who appeared on Dancing with the Stars. I believe she is originally from the East Coast, and she now lives in my little boring-ass East Coast suburban town with her husband and children.

The first time I saw her was at Starbucks #2 in my town. Actually, I didn’t see her, but one of the barista’s whispered to me (as she was handing me my change), “Did you see Ms. Cutie over there? Her kids are really rambunctious.” Then the barista thought better of this and amended her statement, “Not really. I mean, they’re like all the kids.”

I tossed my hair over my shoulder and refused to look, by which I meant to communicate, “Oh really? [Yawn] How banal.”

I am not a celebrity gawker!

Then I started frequenting Starbucks #1 in my town because it’s right on the water and has a small outdoor seating area that is so nice during warm weather. And would you believe?! She turns up there every day! I’m not judging—I also turn up there everyday. But it did strike me as odd to see her sitting at Starbucks with her computer checking her email or hanging out with her kids and other moms.

“How can she stand it?” I exclaimed recently to a friend. “How is she not bored after what she’s coming from?”

“Well she never had a normal life,” he replied. “She worked through her whole childhood. Maybe it just feels good to relax and have some normalcy.”

Personally, I think normalcy is over-rated and possibly non-existent. But maybe that’s just me.

Do you remember one time when we were walking down some side street in the Village, and you said (under your breath), “It’s Ethan Hawke and some other Hollywood guy whose name I can’t remember!”?

And I said, “Don’t look! Don’t give them the satisfaction!” And I felt exactly zero temptation to look, partly because I have never found Ethan Hawke attractive, dating back to that movie he made with Jeaneane Garofalo. Get over yourself, Ethan Hawke! You’re not nearly as smart and interesting and soulful as you think you are! I don’t know. He just gets on my nerves.

But I digress. My point is that I’m deeply troubled because I find myself increasingly desirous of acknowledging Ms. Cutie. It’s entirely possible that I have spent some time crafting the perfect ironic, witty comment.

I’m so horrified.

I’ve given it a great lot of thought, and I think I understand what’s happening. When you live in the suburbs, and you go to the same Starbucks everyday, and you see the same people at that Starbucks every day, you become site-specific buddies—you smile at each other, exchange pleasantries, ask after their work or children or pets. It’s all very civilized. Ms. Cutie has now become one of those people. A couple of times, she’s looked at me with that “oh, it’s you again. Hey” thing Suburban Starbucks regulars do. On the other hand, maybe she’s thinking, “I know that you know who I am. Go ahead. Say something. You know you want to!” But assuming the former is true, two policies are colliding—my Starbucks regulars policy and my celebrity policy—and it’s fucking with my system.

Is this what Foucault would call a “double bind?”

I feel like an asshole casually turning away at the moment of eye contact as if it is imperative that I look out the window at that exact moment because otherwise, I might miss the parade going by, except there is no parade. But the problem is that if I were to make eye contact with her, if any sort of verbal exchange were to transpire, I would have to say something about the two shows she did because

I fucking loved those shows!

They were so wholesome and funny and quirky!

I wonder if I’ll see her tomorrow.

Love,

Stella

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Dearest Stella,

I love, strangely, that the first thing I do is the most disgusting thing: the mats. I pull in giant, heavy, black mats from outside to cover the floor behind the bar. They are so heavy I need both hands to carry them and I almost can’t do it. They are disgusting, wet from rain or the hose, with food pieces and clumps of mint and basil stuck in the grooves, looking like vomit. My hands get gross and black from handling the mats, but the mats’ heaviness forces me out of my mind and into my body immediately. I can’t think when I’m carrying. I’m immediately in my hands and my arms and my legs, carrying one in, laying it down, pulling it into its proper place, then walking outside for the next one.

Setting up the bar puts me again in my hands. I find my way around the bar like a blind person—I can’t remember what I need to do next until I find it with my hands. I don’t have an order yet, a ritual, so I fumble around, do what I remember. It feels good, this budding relationship with the specific objects of this bar. These candles are real candles, tea candles floating in a splash of water, and, unlike the fake candles of Hotel Bar, these candles require care and attention. I must pick them up gingerly when they’re hot; when they go out, I need to toss the old candles and relight new ones. Lighting them is a challenge—I have to hold the long lighter with two hands and keep it steady. The glow cast is a real glow, not the fake, cold glow of electric blue.

I open the giant ziplock baggie of basil, then mint, and pull leaves out, stuff into large jam jars, add water to keep them fresh. The smell hits as soon as the bag is open—freshness and springtime. I line up smaller jam jars of red bell pepper chunks and chili peppers; I pour black pepper into a shot glass, salt onto the round black lid. I open the olives, the lime wedges, the jalapeno peppers, celery, and cherries and line them up near the draft beer. Candles and menus on the tables. Spill mats, garnishes, mixing tins all in place.

Light spills in from the front window. The bar feels warm and inviting. We are slowly becoming intimate, this bar and I, and I am slowly letting myself believe the warm wood hue, the golden glow, when they tell me, It’s going to be okay.

love,
Stephanie

Dearest Stephanie,

Since I’m not bartending now, I’ve been spending lots more time on the business end of writing. Meaning: I joined my town’s Chamber of Commerce and am aggressively attending their events. All this in a bid to enhance my “professional profile” and to market myself and my business. I paid $225 to join, so I feel like I need to go to as many events as possible to get my money’s worth. They provide food and drink at these things (I’m going to have to drink a lot of coffee to make up my initial investment) plus you “network” and “make connections,” and you’re supposed to pick up customers that way.

Oh my God! Do I feel like an idiot at these things? I most certainly do! Do I wear pumps? Indeed! Is a nametag involved? Why of course! I don’t wear gabardine, and the nametag isn’t hanging from a cord around my neck, like in my fantasy of being a pharmaceutical salesperson. They are sticky paper things, like we were supposed to wear at academic conferences but didn’t. They don’t give you a choice at these business events. At a hint that you might refuse to wear one, they shoot you a death look, so you don’t even think of refusing.

Whenever I slap on a sticky nametag, it instantly curls at the edges, as if it’s pushing away from my shirt. I don’t want to wear a nametag, and it doesn’t want to wear me!

I’m totally reminded of why I went into academia! Damn. I wished that would’ve worked out.

My second Chamber event was a breakfast hosted by a recruiting company. They went all out. A long banquet table is covered with bagels, a fairly impressive selection of cream cheeses, multiple boxes of coffee, orange juice, water bottles, fruit salad, and a selection of Danish, muffins, and donut holes (though my question is, why not spring for the whole donut?).

As I commence “mingling,” I notice a familiar-looking older blond woman. Oh, I think to myself. It’s that lady I saw last week at the other breakfast. I walk up to her and say “hi” in a familiar way, but she wears a slightly puzzled look on her face as she smiles and extends her hand. I realize in that moment that she’s not the woman from last week. Simultaneously, I notice a man in the background—tall, slightly portly with a ruddy face. That’s when it hits me.

The blond woman and the portly man were my customers at Asian-Fusion Two!

La!

“I know you from Asian-Fusion Two,” I explain. “I used to bartend there.”

She smiles nervously. Don’t worry! I want to tell her. I won’t bring up the fact that the portly man you are with was falling down drunk, and you wanted me to cut him off, and he was playing the baller with another customer, with whom I’m friendly and who later told me, “That guy’s a blowhard, nothing but talk.” We’ll keep it our little secret!

Isn’t life beautiful? That moment, by the way, made my $225 dollar investment totally worth it!

I move on to David, a banker at the Citibank in my town.

“There’s a Citibank here?” I ask him.

He sighs and replies, “We get that a lot.”

It seems I’ve inadvertently stepped into a shit pile.

After he explains where they’re located, I marvel to him that I didn’t know Citibank was there given that I drive past it basically every day. For some reason—I think I have this quality that makes people want to tell me their problems—he begins to explain the “point system” that rules his existence. He has to earn 19,000 points per month. Every account represents a sale, which earns him points. So if I go in and open a checking account, he earns 400 points. If I go in and open a fancy “bells-and-whistles” (his phrase) checking account, he earns 600 points. If a business opens an account, he earns 750 points. He also earns points from past accounts opened when the balance remains with the bank. Meaning, if I go in and put $100,000 in my savings account (“That happens in this town,” he says rolling his eyes) and maintain that balance for three months, he earns points.

“You know what I find fascinating?” I say to him.

“What’s that?”

“That somebody actually sat around designing this incredibly complex system. Imagine if that person applied his vast intellect toward solving World Peace? I think he/she could do it!”

He chuckles mirthlessly.  “Yah. It used to be that the points were just a guideline to shoot for, but now, if you don’t achieve it for three months”—here he pauses to dramatize by holding out his left hand and spanking it with his right as he frowns angrily—“you get written up.”

“It must be very stressful!” As soon I say this, I sort of regret it. Why draw his attention to the negative? I think I did this as a bartender too in some bid to be empathetic when it would have been more helpful and positive to turn his attention to something positive (“Hey, at least you have a job, right…for now!”).

“You know, now that I’m talking about it, I can hardly believe I’m still there!” he says. “And they brought in a consulting company to develop this system, can you imagine?”

I think I’m supposed to understand something that I don’t here, so I nod knowingly. He continues, “So now, it’s like, ‘hey boss, I followed all your instructions—your instructions … boss.’ Because you want to make sure you’ve covered yourself.”

I’m trying to figure out how to get this poor man onto some more cheerful or positive topic of conversation.

“So … the bank belongs to the Chamber?”

“Yeah, the manager started a ‘leads’ group that helps hook people up with potential clients,” he explains. “I guess he thought it might increase our visibility.”

“Very clever!” I say.

“Yeah.” The “whatever” is implied in his tone.

I make a mental not to myself to close my account at my current bank to open one at his bank, just because I feel so bad for him. I guess that’s one way to network and recruit clients!

As I continue “working the room”—introducing myself, exchanging business cards, choking back the vomit in my mouth—the recruiter who is hosting the event keeps checking in with me. Oddly, she strokes my hair each time she’s within three feet of me. I’m kind of hoping this means I’ll become her pet project, and she’ll send lots of lucrative business my way.

When I realized I wanted out of academia, it was partly the humorlessness of the place, the excessive taking of one’s self too seriously. The potential for this exists in every subculture actually, but I won’t play by those rules no matter where I’m going. There’s the reality of needing to make money, but why must everyone be so dour about it? Since when does grumpiness increase net profits? I’ve never heard of any such correlation. Why can’t we have fun on our way to profit?

Besides, the only way I can maintain my focus at these events is by performing a stand-up comedy routine. If my goal is to make people laugh (thereby making myself memorable), then I have to listen to them and try to figure out what I need to do to amuse them. So this keeps me engaged and interested. Further, I can gauge how bearable people are by the extent to which they laugh at my silly jokes.

I adore the recruiter and the Chamber director because they have both told me more than once, “You’re really funny!” Then giggle.

Speaking of giggling, forced fun is a must at these events, and to satisfy this requirement, the company had set up a Wheel of Fortune-type thing, which you spin to win any number of exciting prizes: a pen, a water bottle, a padfolio, or a tee shirt. Needless to say, all were emblazoned with the company’s name and logo.

“You win a prize on every spin!” the chamber director exclaims. “Go up and spin the wheel,” she encourages me.

Here’s an activity sure to make me feel like an enormous asshole, but I gotta be a team player!

I give the wheel a delicate spin. It barely goes half way around, and the recruiter says in a tone of mild disapproval, “Oh, Stella” just as the pointer lands on “Padfolio.”

“That’s the one I wanted.” I exclaim, and my own genuine enthusiasm almost frightens me. “See, I had a plan.”

I hold the padfolio in my hands and gaze at it admiringly.

“I’m so happy about this,” I sigh contentedly.

“You’re so funny!” the recruiter giggles.

It would seem that my new testing ground, my fresh perspective, my new vantage point  is

The Business World.

Can you fucking believe that shit?!

love,

Stella

Why New York? Part One

March 11, 2010

Now and then, I meet someone who has never been to New York City. We look at each other in mutual fascination, or horror, in an attempt to understand the other’s internal landscape. I admit, it may be unfair of me to imagine a sweeping nothingness inside them, a deep well of absence where New York might have been. But I can’t help myself. And they are no better than me. One such stranger in particular, upon reading a blog post about my struggles to find an NYC bartending job over the summer, remarked to a friend, “I don’t get it. Why doesn’t she just leave New York?”

This question, as you know dear Stella, has haunted me. Not because it has made me question my attachment to New York–as in, why don’t I just let go of New York once and for all—but because it has made my attachment to New York even clearer. Of course I want to be in New York! Even if it is difficult, impossible at times. Sometimes, I find myself in a passionate imagined discussion with this person, whom I’ve never met, trying to explain why New York is obviously the place to be. But it’s not an easy discussion, as the spirit of New York is often quite beyond words. Everyone who has experienced it knows it, but when we attempt to articulate it we often fall into clichés, talking about it’s “energy” or feeling like we are in the “center of the things.”

So this, dear Stella, is the first of what I imagine will be a recurring (and inedequate) attempt to answer the question: Why New York?

Nothing is ever as striking as that first night after I’ve been away. Friday: I’m standing in the basketball-court-sized room in Williamsburg, waiting to read from my YA novel. There are 60-70 drinking, smoking, talking bodies here. When it’s my turn to read, it’s quiet. They are listening bodies now. A poet, me, a video artist, two filmmakers. People doing things, making things happen.

Saturday: Dawn and I meet a friend in Fort Greene for dinner. A warmly-lit wine bar. Bustling. We talk about ideas and possibilities. Our friend works for a foundation, gives money to good causes. She says she wants Dawn to come in for a meeting of smart people to talk about how gender is no longer on the radar and how people think sexism is “solved.” People are talking and doing and solving and making things here everyday—it’s the everyday here, and so they don’t even know how magical conversations like this are.

Sunday: I am walking to Kristin’s with my breakfast of tea and pie. This is a recurring moment–walking to a place, a job, a meeting, a class in New York with tea. The gathering of myself that walking allows. This walking as a professional in the company of other professionals walking. Not a driving to the place in a car, an isolated bubble. Being a part of the thinking walking drinking tea/coffee machine. It is a gorgeous day. I’m walking toward the first meeting of the Writers Collaborative that a group of us are founding. This moment of walking toward has been a long time coming, the moment of having a dream and doing the long, difficult work of clearing the space to make room for the dream, and then committing to the dream. The walk allows me to feel the pleasure and confidence and significance of this moment and all the choices I made leading up to this moment. The walk provides a slow transition, processing in the muscles, the body, the decisions one has made.

The meeting lasts five hours and something amazing happens in it. This idea is going to happen. A powerful new beginning. Walking, thinking, doing, making.

Then later: lying on the air mattress in my brother’s living room (true, the air mattress takes up the entire living room, like we are floating on an air boat). Afternoon sun streaming in the window. Dawn and the dogs napping beside me. My brother napping on the couch at the end of the air boat. The window open, sounds of the street. I am in the middle of things, close, surrounded, nestled. Safe and yet not the kind of safety that breeds complacency. Things are happening outside the window and I am near them, but paused, letting the ideas of the day settle.

“The air hums here,” I say to Dawn. “It’s like the air itself is filled with nutrients and just being in it nourishes us.”

“Um,” Dawn mumbles into her pillow, “I think the air here is polluted.”

“Can’t you feel it?” I say, “It’s…it’s got this energy, and when I’m here I just feel like I’m in the center of things.”

“Yes,” Dawn says, “It’s humming.”

Souvenir Diving

March 8, 2010

Dear Stephanie,

When I was eight years old, completely by accident, I almost committed suicide. What happened is that I was in Greece on some uncle or other’s yacht. We were moored a bit from shore, not that far it seemed to me, and swimming off the boat. The water was crystal clear as the cliché goes. I could see sand at the very bottom and what appeared to be very pretty rocks as well, and I thought it would be fun to dive down to the bottom and get me some of those rocks. Maybe I would put them in a jar when I got home and then I would always remember this trip. So I took a huge, enormous breath, and I dove for a souvenir.

Down and down I seemed to be going endlessly down passing schools of tiny silvery fish. I remember that they sparkled when the light hit them like little flashes of lighting.

I never did hit the bottom.

At some point, two things occurred to me. One, I realized that the water was much deeper than I had calculated, and two, I realized that I was running out of air. I stopped my downward trajectory and looked up. The surface looked awfully far away. I felt a moment of panic then and started kicking my legs frantically as fast as I could to get back to the surface. Just when I thought my lungs would explode, I burst through the surface.

***

Family photos suggest that I made a friend on every vacation we took. We’ll be looking at family pictures, and my sister or brother will ask, “who’s that kid?” and then the one who didn’t ask the question will say, “that’s the friend she made when we went to such-and-such.”

“Ah,” the other one will say. “Ha! She was always picking up some friend.”

This is true! I suppose I’ve been curious about people and possessed a desire to connect with them long before I could explain that this is what I was doing.

I knew very little of substance about these kids. It was often the case that we couldn’t really communicate very effectively on a verbal level. Then again, who can? Words can be so deceptive, so misleading. They have connotations, but each person’s connotations can be slightly (or even markedly) different. You think you’re saying one thing, but I hear something else entirely. So words can’t be trusted. They are markers, gestures toward some thing but not the thing itself.

Scholars and literary artists have been writing about this for ages and ages, as you know. I have very little to say that’s new to contribute to this line of discussion.

At the end of the vacation, my new friend and I would both return to our “real” lives having had some sort of connection that could only peripherally be developed, owing to a language barrier, the reality of geographical distance, what have you.

For a while—maybe a few months or so—we’d send letters back and forth to each other. I most enjoyed seeing what kind of stamps they had in their homelands and also the excitement of receiving mail. It made me feel quite grown up, actually. Besides these, there was the thrill of knowledge and information about the other. Some person in a faraway land was walking around doing the kinds of things that I was doing half a world away only in a different language. Our particulars may differ, but in so many ways we’re the same, us humans. We tend to have the same existential concerns, the same physical and emotional needs.

Eventually, the letters would stop coming and going, and I’d always feel a little sad about this even though I understand that this is the way things go. What can you do? Time and circumstance dictated that we’d spend time together, but it was temporary. It would have to come to an end.

Even now, I think about these kids—what are their lives like? Are they happy? Do they have fulfilling careers? Children? It’s funny to think that even if I did run into them on some vacation now, I wouldn’t know it. It’s not as if I would recognize them at this point. I don’t even remember their names! But it could happen. That’s the exciting part.

I’m writing about this experience now to be less lonely just as I read to be less lonely. Though I understand their limitations, words are essential. Sometimes, I look for meaning where there is none. Other times (or concurrently), I ascribe depth to people for whom it does not exist. This can be dangerous, kind of like diving into what you think are deep waters but realizing too late that you’re diving into a kiddy pool. You can get very badly hurt this way, paralyzed or worse!

But what else is there to do? I choose to be in the world, experiencing something even if it’s just a pull on my heart inspired by some connection I make in this process—a connection to a person maybe but even to an experience or an emotion. It’s no kind of science, precise or otherwise.

Oh, and by the way, Asian-Fusion Two closed, and I am now looking for a job again. La!

Love,

Stella

:)

March 3, 2010

Dearest Stephanie,

Would you–or somebody…anybody!–please tell me what is with me and the smiley face? Why in God’s name do I feel compelled to insert a smiley face in any and all informal discourse? God, it’s so fucking saccharine sweet. It’s so fucking nauseating and tiresome. I mean, really!

I do not dream in Disney cartoon princess characters (but if I did, you’d be Snow White only instead of 7 dwarves it’d be 7 hot young guys, and I’d be Cinderella only without the fairy Godmother). I am not always cheerful and happy (just most of the time). Sometimes, people annoy me [usually they are either a) an authority figure who does not provide good leadership or b) a lecherous middle-aged male customer].

I am addicted to the mother fucking smiley face!

love,

Stella

🙂