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.
This past weekend the wife and I attended a co-ed baby shower for my friend and spiritual advisor Rabbi Jay Levitz and his wife Sarah. We were in Oceanside, Long Island, New York, a short drive outside the city for us, as we live in Eastern Queens. As we talked with Jay, the conversation turned to what constitutes the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
We all agreed that the term was more of a cultural construct than a geographic one, though we acknowledge that the two go hand in hand in many ways. Where I live now in Queens is not a trendy area at all and is too far from any of the celebrated night life to become popular among the moneyed classes or the upwardly mobile youth any time soon. That is actually a blessing. We happen to have decent access to public transportation, though getting into Manhattan always involves at least one bus and one train. My commute to work is at least one bus and two subways, and it is terrible, subject at all times to the fickle whims of the increasingly incompetent MTA.
The “bridge and tunnel” term may have been initially meant to denote people coming from outside of New York City—especially from New Jersey, considered by many to be a cultural leper colony filled with only guidos and hill people. But my current settings would qualify me as a bridge and tunnel crowd person when I venture into Manhattan for cultural events.
Manhattan was once the undisputed epicenter of New York City’s cultural life. Now that cultural life is much more diffuse and spread through the outer boroughs, most prominently in Brooklyn. New movie theaters, restaurants and music venues are more likely to be opening in Brooklyn or Queens today than in Manhattan. Accordingly, real estate prices in the outer boroughs are still going through the roof.
This shift has made use of the term “Bridge and Tunnel” a bit outdated, but the cultural chasm between whose who perceive themselves as cultured city residents and the people who travel to the city only on the weekends to party is not gone. Someone who takes the Long Island Rail Road from Mineola to see a concert in Brooklyn is considered part of the bridge and tunnel crowd, though they did not use a bridge or tunnel (yes, I understand that the LIRR in Brooklyn does use subway tunnels and uses overpasses on its way to the city; shut up).
And these social demarcations between what is city and what is not stretch to the outer boroughs as well. I mentioned that I drove to Long Island to attend a baby shower this weekend, but as I live in Queens, I already live on Long Island. When New Yorkers talk about “Long Island” they don’t mean the Island itself but Nassau and Suffolk Counties, the parts of the Island that lie outside of the border of New York City.
I could never justify the expense of living in a more trendy or celebrated area of Manhattan. I had a chance to move to the Upper East Side one time. I looked at an apartment in Yorkville and realized that I would be doubling my rent and would still not be able to fit the modest furniture from my small studio in Ozone Park, Queens into the new place. It wasn’t worth the money. I could have said I lived on the Upper East Side, but I’d be living like a hobbit.
So while proximity to Manhattan is become less and less of a cultural touchstone to judge a neighborhood, I propose a new measure of the value of where you live: proximity to live Shakespeare.
A good measure of the value of any place to live is how far away you are from some free Shakespeare. When I lived in Inwood in uptown Manhattan, it had yet to become a trendy place to live and people hadn’t heard of it. But I lived across the street from Inwood Hill Park which had free Shakespeare plays every summer. Score.
I can’t easily walk to free Shakespeare like that, but I am a very short trip from more than one of the venues of the free Shakespeare in the Park in Queens.
Some will argue that this Shakespeare standard is an unfair way to judge where you live, but I don’t think so. I don’t want my children to live in a world where they can’t easily see some free Shakespeare every summer. I’ll be dragging their soggy asses to Two Gentlemen of Verona this season; I won’t need a bridge or tunnel to get there.
There’s not much of a reason to watch tennis except to gawk at women in short skirts, and you can do that anywhere for free. I’m sure for fans of the sport in New York, the Open is a great opportunity to see some great masters of the game up close, but it’s not an interesting enough game for the price you pay. You can watch it on TV for free.
What the U.S. Open does for the many riders of the 7 train is flood our already overburdened subway with gaggles of U.S. Open attendees who do not know how to ride the subway.
I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Riding a subway is easy. How can someone mess that up?’ Well, they manage. The tennis fans headed to the U.S. Open are easy to spot on the 7 train. Whereas the afternoon and evening 7 train is usually filled with haggard working people tired after a day at work and quietly waiting to get home, the tennis fans move as gaggles of cheery chatterboxes, filling the air with their inane conversations.
Tennis fans have every right to their inanity of course, but they are thoroughly unversed in the concepts of being courteous to others in a public space. Riding the subway is a quaint slumming experience for them, and their mannerisms betray them at every turn. They constantly lean on subway polls or spread out over spaces meant to accommodate several people. They constantly delay trains by hesitatingly getting on and off of a subway as they are unsure if they are on the right train or at the right stop.
On Main Street, Flushing the other day, I made my way to the subway for the second leg of my three-leg commute to work. A pair of older gentlemen made their way down the sidewalk among the throngs of Asian immigrants. They wore overpriced athletic gear though they looked like they had not exercised in years. One of them was bald but had hair around the edges of his head, and that hair had been dyed the color of a tennis ball.
Something about the soul-deadening luxury of the event and the blank eyes of many of the tennis fans that makes me vow that if I ever have enough money to attend the U.S. Open, I still won’t. I’d rather not be among people who can’t figure out how to use public transportation.