“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”
“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
― John Waters
When I first moved back to New York City as an adult, I made it a point to make regular pilgrimages to The Strand to stock up on books. There was no way I could manage to leave there without several bags of books.
My small studio in Queens had two windows that looked out over a bus stop on 101st. Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. One of those windows was home to my air conditioner, the other window became my extended library. I already had a hutch bookcase filled with books but as my trips to The Strand and other bookstores multiplied, I needed more space for my books. Soon I was picking up plastic milk crates I found on the street to use as bookshelves. Then I acquired more milk crates, and soon had to double-stack books in them. More than once I found a great deal on a classic book at The Strand and bought it only to find that I already had that book at home.
When I moved to new apartment a few years later, I had space for actual bookshelves and bought four of them. They were quickly filled.
No longer single and free to binge at bookstores, my wife and I are now in the process of trying to make more space in our apartment for our family of five. That includes making more space in our living room, which currently houses most of our books. It is not an easy task.
It is not easy to part with books, nor should it be. Each book is an adventure waiting to happen, to give away a book without having read it is to deny a future possibility, a potential new thrill or idea. To turn away from books is to turn away from inspiration, from moving dreams and a new way of looking at life. Books are the lifeblood of the soul, and the building blocks of a civilized society.
Some purists may not forgive me for trying to adapt to the confines of space in our urban environment and using a Kindle. I know, I know: there is no substitute for the printed page, and the satisfying heft of a hardcover tome cannot be replicated by any electronic device. I agree. But as a commuter it is helpful to be able to read things with one hand, and while I would love to fill every spare inch of wall space in my apartment with shelves full of books, my kids need space to sleep and play. The Kindle has been a great evolution in the reading life if you can adapt to it. Some die-hards will not have it and I understand. If space and convenience were not factors, I’d be there.
But I have not given up printed books altogether. I will buy printed books when I can and use the Kindle as much as possible as well.
My collection of printed books will continue to grow, albeit a bit slower than in my bachelor days. My children are growing up in a home with plentiful books. They already love reading and if I fail in every other aspect of life, I have already achieved great success there.
Taking a road trip sometimes happens on a whim on a random weekend day, not because I’m suddenly inspired with the desire to know the American road, but because our toddlers have fallen asleep in their car seats and the wife and I want them to nap for a while. So began our latest sojourn on the great American road, which kept us mostly around our borough of Queens, but that’s OK because as you might have surmised, Queens is secretly New York City’s greatest borough.
We left the Queens Botanical Garden in our neighborhood of Flushing and our twin girls were asleep before we reached the nearby highway. We headed to the Rockaways because it was the anniversary of the Easter Uprising in Ireland and the Rockaways have been a home to hardscrabble Irish for a long time, including one Queens native who wound up fighting in the Easter Uprising of 1916.
Our navigation system took us into Nassau County and we passed by Valley Stream State Park before getting off of the highway and driving through the villages of East Rockaway, Malvern, and Lawrence.
We didn’t end up in the Irish part of the Rockaways, and the housing projects that tower over the bungalow houses are not filled with Irish immigrants. We decided to start our journey home going through Broad Channel and my old neighborhood of Ozone Park.
We took Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge and cruised over Jamaica Bay. On one side of the bridge the skyline of Manhattan was prominent through the haze of sun and clouds. On our right and north was JFK Airport. Broad Channel is a small community that sits on the waterfront of Jamaica Bay. It’s a rare example of small town life within the five boroughs of New York City.
Cross Bay Boulevard brought us farther north, past the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge on both sides of the road and into Howard Beach and Ozone Park.
When I first came back to New York City, I worked at JFK Airport and lived in Ozone Park. I was very happy to learn that Jack Kerouac lived in Ozone Park for 12 years. He’s celebrated a lot in Massachusetts where he is originally from and buried, and in Manhattan where he would give readings and where he wrote On the Road. But Kerouac wrote his first novel, The Town and the City, while living in Ozone Park.
There is a historic marker outside the house where Kerouac once lived. When I lived nearby, it was good to go to Glen Patrick’s Pub and gulp down drinks, hoping some literary magic might have survived and would rub off on me. That kind of sentimentality is crap, really, but it was good at the time to know that the inheritors of America’s great literary traditions came from working-class enclaves like Ozone Park and Howard Beach.
It was good to see reinforced the knowledge that real literary grit and work takes place not in the posh hipster enclaves and trendy bars or bookstores of Manhattan or (nowadays) Brooklyn. Kerouac didn’t haul his typewriter to a coffee shop so people could gawk at him write. He got his writing done in a cramped apartment a few feet away from Cross Bay Boulevard.
We took our girls into the Cross Bay Diner and had a late lunch while watching boats and seagulls come by on Hewett Creek. Fishing boats, a police boat, and even a large fishing boat called The Capt. Mike, came by and served as a great distraction for the kids.
Howard Beach and Ozone Park have changed quite a bit since Kerouac lived there, and they’ve changed a lot since I moved away in the summer of 2001, but their working-class character survive and they remain great neighborhoods to live in. They will continue to inspire and bring more great artists to the world.
This short story is now for sale on Amazon, so buy it. It will be the best 99 cents you ever spend. This story was inspired by my year working as a bank teller right after graduating college. I hated that job. I hated dealing with the awful customers who wanted their egos stroked. I hated the provincial attitudes of many of the people I worked with. Looking back on it now, I realize that I was still a bit immature and I could have been better at my job. Luckily I left before going crazy. I thought up a plan to rob the bank, not because I intended to ever rob a bank, but because it would have made for an interesting novel. I still have a lot of notes from my bank robbing novel that I intendeded to write, and maybe I’ll come back to it. It would be a perverse, crime-ridden On The Road (what great American novel since 1957 doesn’t aspire to be the next On The Road?).
But here is ‘Big Plans.’ It’s a funny short story that you will enjoy. If you’ve ever worked a job you hate (and who hasn’t?), you will be able to relate. It also has excellent artwork by Sergio Zuniga.
Supernova Black Hole Butthole is now published. I am still new at the Amazon publishing game. I would like it if there were an option for people who buy things from Amazon’s kindle store to get them in printed book form as well, even if that means a smaller payout to the author.
But that doesn’t matter, because I have more fiction for sale on Amazon, out there and ready for the world to see, for a small fee.
This story was the first one I read at the Cash Prize Literary Open Mic at The Cobra Club in Brooklyn earlier this year. I didn’t win the prize at that open mic but the story was very well received and someone asked me after the reading if this was available online for purchase anywhere. Now it is.
So enjoy and thank the very talented Justin Melkmann for his awesome illustration.
The Borough of Queens is taking applications for its poet laureate, and I’m going to throw my sweaty hat into the ring. I think my chances of being accepted are low, but fuck it. I’m as good as anyone else and I like this borough very much.
Queens was where I lived when I moved back to New York. I had been away from the Northeast for several years and hadn’t lived in the five boroughs since I was an infant in the Bronx. I grew up mostly in Yonkers and while I came to the city frequently growing up, I am by and large a child of New York’s suburbs.
In college I decided I wanted to be a great American writer in the same way that thousands of other English majors do. I was determined to get myself back to New York City as if that would somehow magically bestow some great inspiration power and let me live a charmed literary life.
I got a job at JFK airport that helped me move back here and I went looking for apartments that were a reasonable commuting distance to JFK. I found a small studio in Ozone Park at $500 per month (it soon went up to $525). It was on 101st Avenue and John Gotti’s old Bergin Hunt & Fish Club was still there and only a few blocks away. That was a selling point that the realtor mentioned. “People know not to mess around in this neighborhood,” he said. Gotti had been locked up for several years by then but the neighborhood still had some old wise guys hanging around.
I enjoyed living in Ozone Park a lot. I would walk around the neighborhood as much as I could and enjoyed how quickly neighborhoods could transition from one to another. Not far from where John Gotti plotted his takeover of the Gambino Crime Family a store sold cricket supplies to the Indian and West Indian immigrants who were moving into Richmond Hill. I was not too far from Forest Park and I could also walk to the small apartment where Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel.
While immediate literary success proved elusive, I managed to publish my first poetry collection while I was living in Ozone Park. ‘Five Borough Blues’ was a small broadsheet of poems published by New Jersey-based Lucid Moon Poetry (RIP Ralph Haselmann Jr.).
Years later, after living in Inwood for a decade, I moved in with the woman who is now my wife and that brought me to Flushing. I got to learn Northern Queens whereas Ozone Park is in Southern Queens.
The greatest borough continues to impress me. I do miss Inwood a good bit, I can’t lie. But Queens has many more great neighborhoods that are still real neighborhoods and not overpriced tourist zones.
Queens has both the greatest number of interesting neighborhoods, real residential neighborhoods with character, as well as cultural institutions and a variety of environments that the other boroughs don’t have. Do you have the beachfront and harbor areas like Broad Channel and the Rockaways in Manhattan? No. Can you find 24-hour Korean barbeque in Staten Island? Good luck.
And without fail, Queens continues to inspire me to write poetry. The entire city does, to be sure, but Queens is my home and it’s where I believe you find the most New York part of New York. It has the widest array of cultural offerings and the largest sampling of interesting people anywhere in the world. It stands between the city and its suburbs. It has all manner of terrain. It even has its own zoo.
I will gladly accept the (unpaid) responsibilities of the Queens Poet Laureate. I will let no excellent verse about this borough go unwritten. Applications are due April 24th (April is national poetry month).
But whether or not I am poet laureate of Queens, I will continue to let the city inspire to create good written works. It deserves no less.
Years ago, before I returned to New York, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I had no real plan and to be honest my ambitions have languished at various times. But it’s long overdue that I stepped up my efforts to make waves in the world of fiction as I have long planned, and my effort comes at a time when more writers than ever are fighting to reclaim literature for the real world.
Like other parts of the art world, what is considered literature is often the judgment of a well-heeled clique of self-dealing academics. They feed on the dreams of earnest young writers and take them to the cleaners after convincing them that they need a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to be considered a serious writer.
The MFA programs churn out many hopeful and aspiring writers, and many of them are excellent. But when I look back on the great writers that I admire, none of them made their bones in an academic program, but by scrapping out a living in the real world. The academic journals and programs have a choke-hold on what gets considered literature at the moment, though history will offer a different opinion.
Either way, the current system of academic literature has never been in greater need of a hard kick in its well-powdered derriere. And getting books published at all often requires knowing the right people and getting the right agent.
The Internet has helped writers working outside of this established universe to be heard and even make some money off of their writing. I am honored to know people like Darren Pillsbury, who has more courage than just about anyone I know and moved to California to pursue his dreams as a screenwriter. He wound up excelling in online publishing and is best known for his ‘Peter and the Vampire’ series. He gave me some great advice on how to publish things online. I probably violated plenty of his advice when I put a short story on Amazon and charged too much money for it, but I did it to figure out how to do it.
I’ve been too long avoiding pursuing literary ambitions in earnest because I’ve busied myself with other creative things. In some way they’ve all made me a better writer and a better person. Being in a punk rock band demonstrated that a key to any success is finding good creative people to join you. No one wants to listen to me play bass lines on my own, but I was lucky enough to have excellent collaborators in Blackout Shoppers. Doing comedy showed how not all audiences will respond the same way to the same material. A joke that kills at one gig bombs at another. The key is remembering you have the microphone and pressing on.
The right niche for success likely lies in the more comic short stories that I write. I love writing them and people enjoy reading them. I don’t know how marketable that is. Short fiction doesn’t make much money these days, but so what? I’ve mastered the art of excelling at art forms that are money losers at their core. As one of my excellent musician friends said, “We are middle-aged men with an expensive hobby.”
For a long time I attempted to write what I thought would be what literary types wanted to read, but in reality even moody literary types want to read something interesting. My stories feature people shitting themselves to death, loaning a family member’s corpse out to necrophiliacs, and taking part in operations to kill Islamic militants with Ebola on their toast. I have not done any of these things, but they are more compelling subject matter than most of what passes for literature today. I think I manage to make these stories into literature that will stand the test of time, but even if you don’t think it is art, at least it’s damn interesting.
Too many people, in art and in life, do what they think they are supposed to be doing instead of what is right for them to do. It’s not right for me to try to write weepy sensitive stories about people coming to terms with their emotions. I’d rather write about people saving White Castle from terrorists or punk rock bands doing battle with crack head zombies.
So Monday, Feb. 16 I will be reading a short story at the debut Short Story Open Mic at The Cobra Club in Brooklyn. It is hosted by my good friend Phill Lentz, who lives the mad literary life of music art, blood, sweat and tears. I am honored to be the featured reader.
The reading is a competition. Writers pay $5 and the winner gets the whole pot. The crowd gets to vote on their favorite writer, with drink tickets being used for votes. You could rig the whole thing if you bring enough hard-drinking friends, but it’s still a more fair literary competition than what the academic journals are offering.
So if you have a short story that you can read aloud in five minutes or less, join us at The Cobra Club and put your work out there on the line. You will be living a truly literary life. Be bold.
It’s been a while since I’ve had some fiction published, so it’s long overdue that I managed to get a short story published by Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers.
The story is Grandpa The Clown and is about the kind of clown we should have been educated by while we were children, but were instead in short supply. Clowns are usually in cahoots with parents and authority figures. This is a story about a clown that isn’t.