This is the true story of being a White Asshole in black sitcoms. The first time I thought it must be a coincidence. But by the fourth or fifth time, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I REALLY a White Asshole?
Category: Memoir Page 1 of 2
After I had my knee replacement I got addicted to opioids in about ten minutes. This is how I kicked my addiction. I wrote this as a cautionary tale for anyone with pain. Or anybody prone to addiction.
When David first met Tyler Knight, he was blown away by the combination of insight, intelligence, articulation, and smoldering black man porn star sexuality. They’ve been friends ever since. And now that his memoir is coming out, we thought we’d pick his brain on what’s harder, getting into porn or publishing.
The Book Doctors: Why in God’s name would you do something as crazy as writing a memoir?
Tyler Knight: I had no choice. There was a story in me and it was bursting to get out whether I wanted it to or not. The irony is when I was a kid with little life experience, I wanted to write but I had nothing to say. Later, as a middle-aged man, I didn’t want to commit to writing a memoir, but the story inside me had other ideas. I read Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight, Dave Eggers’ A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, and Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club. Those books showed me that to write a memoir that was worth reading required deep introspection… Picking at scabs and old scars, and then write the truth about myself no matter how ugly… And I wasn’t sure I’d the mettle to do that, let alone share it with the world. I knew it’d be a Sisyphean task of writing draft after draft of a manuscript for many years in a vacuum with no promise that the book would ever see the light of day. I expected my manuscript would be rejected by scores of literary agents. Maybe I’d find an agent crazy enough to schlep a literary memoir, from a pornographer no less, from publishing house to house until he found an editor who loved it. And that’s precisely what happened. But I also knew that I’d have no inner peace if I didn’t do it.
TBD: David’s family didn’t speak to him for about five years after his memoir, Chicken, came out. Has there been any fallout, blowback, or madness as a result of you writing about your life in public?
TK: Well, I haven’t spoken with my father or anyone on my father’s side of the family since the ‘90s anyway, so there was no effect there. My mother’s side of the family… I can’t be certain if they know what I do for a living or not. It’s odd and telling when at Thanksgiving, people at the table never ask me how work is going. Sometimes the absence of conversation says more than the words that are said…
TBD: We are big fans of Rare Bird; they put out great books. Tell us about your process of getting this book published.
TK: My agent, Peter McGuigan, who co-heads Foundry Literary, was extremely hands-on with the editing process. I’d send him drafts, and he’d ink them up and send them back. Peter was my de facto MFA professor. Once we got to a point where the work was salable, he stopped shaping it… He knew it was important that whichever editor acquired the manuscript felt that they had room to put their own stamp on it. The feedback from some of the big houses was a lot of, “Right, he is a talented writer, but we need to make it more commercial.” That would have been more than just putting a stamp on the work. Peter showed it to Tyson at Rare Bird. We met in his office for a half hour meeting that stretched into almost three hours. We talked what I was trying to say, and he had ideas on how to clarify my vision. He got me. We came from the same planet. Books can take years to come out, so the relationship between editor and author is like a marriage. Both parties have to decide that they can work together for years to bring the book into the world.
TBD: While you’re at it, tell us about some of the joys and difficulties of writing a book about yourself and your crazy life.
TK: I come from a school of literary minimalism called Dangerous Writing. Its most prominent practitioners would be Chuck Palahniuk and Amy Hempel. It’s called Dangerous Writing because it forces you to explore what scares you… What about yourself would be mortifying if anyone else knew about it… And you go deep into those crevasses and linger until the feelings are exhausted, then move onto the next. It asks nothing less than absolute commitment to honesty from the author. It’s the perfect cypher for a memoir. Exacting my pound of flesh was the most alive I’ve ever felt in my life.
I have no interest whatsoever in foisting upon the public some bullshit celebrity “I’m-just-like-you!” zeitgeist memoir that risks nothing, asks nothing of its readers, and leaves them just as clueless as to who the author is as a human fucking being when they started reading. I declare the airport memoir dead.
TBD: You have such an incredible way with words, you really make us feel like we’re right in the middle of your life, with all the sights, sounds, and yes, smells that accompany this life. How did you manage to do that?
TK: Thanks, David. That’s a technique of Dangerous Writing: Going to the Body. You sprinkle details about sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch all through the story that, by themselves may not seem like much, but the cumulative impact by the end of the story is nothing less than visceral. My Bukkake story was the first time after many attempts where I finally got it right.
TBD: David gets writing from all over the world that revolves around sex. Most of it is really bad. What approach did you take to writing about sex?
TK: Yeah, most sex writing sucks because their authors love their metaphors and adverbs, and fail to grasp the concept of less is more. My approach was to show, don’t tell. Again, that’s both Going to the Body, and another technique called Recording Angel… You show the reader details without judgement (no labeling anything as good, bad, sexy, whatever), and let her unpack the details and reassemble them in her mind as she reads. Trust the reader to come to her own conclusion… To take ownership in the creation of the scene and story as she reads it. Far more powerful that way.
TBD: What made you decide to use a quote from Moby Dick in a book about your life as a porn stud?
TK: Moby Dick is my favorite novel, and the Knights and Squires section spoke to me… The conflict of good and evil wrestling for possession of a working man’s soul… Dignity in whatever your station in life may be… Faith and moral courage…
TBD: Which was harder, breaking into the adult film industry, or the publishing industry?
TK: Publishing, by far, is more difficult. So, you’re a good writer. Who cares? You still must do the work. Even then, your work may be rejected based on your query letter (basically a sales letter to agents about your book which doesn’t contain a single sentence of your actual book) by a 22-year-old intern who screened and deleted it before anyone in the position to say “yes” to you ever reads it. It happened to me. It happens to everyone. At least with porn, if you are not hideous and you can do the job, they’ll find a place for you. Don’t get me wrong, porn is by no means easy to get into, and it’s far from a meritocracy, but you will get judged on your ability to perform from the get go, sink or swim, rather than a being judged on some letter you wrote describing how good you’d be if you just had a chance.
TBD: What, if any, are your plans for writing?
TK: This is it. Burn My Shadow isn’t a vanity project for me. I’ve pushed my chips all-in with writing books… I can’t imagine a life without writing. I have a novel in its third draft which has nothing to do with pornography.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
TK: Lookit, I broke every rule and piece of advice that writers should follow, from not sticking to a disciplined writing schedule, to writing a memoir entirely in first-person, present tense. The world already has every example of how a book should be written. What the world doesn’t have is your take on things. Tell your story however you damn well please. The more specific it is to you and your truths, the broader its appeal to the world. Just write, man.
Tyler Knight, author of Burn My Shadow: A Selective Memory of an X-Rated Life, is an adult film star who has starred in over 500 films. In 2009 he won the Good For Her Feminist Porn Award, as Heartthrob of the Year, and was a Playgirl Spokesmodel. In 2010 he was nominated for the Urban X Award for Performer of the Year. He has also been nominated for eighteen AVN awards and has won three. Tyler lives in Los Angeles.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
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Rumors of the death of male stripping in America are greatly exaggerated. I know, because recently on a dark dank Saturday night, I took the Queen of LA Stripper Intelligensia, 5’10” Private Dancer/Nordic goddess Nica Jensen, to the seedy sweet scrotum of Hollywood, Arena Nightclub, Santa Monica & Highland, where The Hollywood Men were reportedly going to be shakin and bakin their moneymakers, while frenzied females shriek & wave seas of money for dick-filled lap dances. Needless to say, me and Nica are highly skeptical. We’re early.
The club seats 500 people. So far there are only 7 lovely Latinas at one table, decked out in the height of East LA fashion. One wears a white wedding veil. One is in a wheelchair. They are already drinking heavily. Looks like we’re in for a long night. We’re greeted by Dan Remington, the emcee/part owner of The Hollywood Men. He’s a 16 pound bowling ball of a guy with slick hair and matching handshake, surrounded by a surprisingly nice smile. He is, and will remain, fully clothed, and is the only performer who will be able to say that. He tells us that December sucks, it’s the worst time of year, which is true in so very so many ways, in my opinion. You can see he’s a little worried that no screaming ladies are going to show up, and without them, it’s a very different show. But during the bachelorette season, Dan tells us, there are 500 women here 3 times a week, in fact they had to move here because they outgrew the last place. Guys come from all over the world to audition, if you’re interested just call, make an appointment, come down, one guy was just in last week from Europe, came all the way here to be a Hollywood Man. A kind of pilgrimage, I guess. Nica wants to know how many of the guys are gay. “NONE,” Dan Remington blurts a little too loud, then says softer, “None of the guys are gay. They’re not gay.” During the next 12 minutes he will tell us like nineteen more times how not gay all the guys are. Later Nica will say, “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much,” and I will laugh. Hard. Nica wants to know if any of the guys are married. We are told they are not. “They all have girlfriends,” Dan says, then leans in with a smile, “but almost all of them fool around.” Later Nica will tell me she has no trouble believing that, and I will laugh again, though not as hard this time. Nica wants to know where men sit if they want to watch. Dan tell us that no men ever come here to watch. In all these years, only one gay male couple came, and when they saw what the show was, they left. So none of the dancers or hosts or waiters are gay, and none of the audience is gay men. But what would happen, Nica wants to know, looking down at Dan, if a guy wanted to come and watch? “Well, we would sit him wherever he wanted to sit.” This satisfies Nica, which is a good thing, cuz you don’t wanna piss off Nica. Next we’re ushered into the dressing room to meet the brains and buns behind The Hollywood Men, the Sultan of Shwing, the King of the G-String, the dean of American male stripping, 1998 Playgirl Man of the Year, Scott Layne. If you called Central Casting and asked them to send over a male stripper, Scott Layne would show up. Even in sweats and a tank top, Scott exudes an utter American maleness, gunboats bulging, buff with mantan, hardbody with soft smile, chiselly cheeks with charmy eyes. I’ve known Scott since New York Chippendale’s, where we worked together, and he first became a star under the late great Nick de Noia, the Grand Daddy dandy of modern American male stripping. I’m happy to see him. And he me, apparently, as evidenced by the big bear hug he lays on me. Hug-wise I give as good as I get. Not in a gay way. I want to emphasize that. It’s a deeply heterosexual hug, the hug of men who’ve fought together in the trenches of the battle of the sexes, comrades in codpieces, me armed with roller skates, tux and microphone, Scott with the smallest G-string the law would allow. The show’s gonna start in half an hour, and I ask him if he’s nervous. “Why would you be nervous?” Scott and Nica answer at the same time. The mark of a true professional. Nica wants to know what the chances are of a woman buying a ticket, attending the show, and taking home a Hollywood Man. “Depends on how good looking she is,” Scott smiles. Sounds about right. Nica wants to know what Scott thinks turns a woman on. “For me, it’s all about sharp moves, quick moves, that are sensual and sexy without being graphic. I hate it when guys get graphic, that’s not what most women want to see. And I hate when dancers don’t pay attention to older women, to women who aren’t traditionally hot. Look, women are all about the chase. Men want to cut to the chase. Women love the tease in strip tease. Men are like, ‘Bend over and show it to me.’” Nica nods. Sounds about right. We’re ushered back out into the club, and glorioski, there are like a hundred women buzz-cocking around, power-drinking, primping, whispering, giggling, babbling in gaggles, a dozen white wedding veils waving like snow covered clouds drifting towards the land of Marriage. As the ladies chill, mill, and spill female hormones, half-nude spandexed cuffed and collared hunk Hosts hustle drinks and smear muscle-bulging flirtatious bodacious charm all over the women. All of a sudden this seems like it could be fun. The women seem like they’re already having a blast. With each other. Every little grouplet has the same kind of hair, the same kind of outfit, like different tribes, all with their own unique plumage. I don’t see one single woman here by herself. They are pack animals. Female strip clubs are loaded with lone wolves. Nica starts drinking. This is a good sign. She leans over and tells me that in a female strip club, if you say the girls are into having sex with each other, this is considered a very good thing. I tell her I think it’s the specter of a homophobic Puritanical low-touch erotophobic machocentric culture. Nica agrees. She chortles: “And for God’s sake, how do they know they’re not gay, what do they do, give them all some kind of gay test?” I laugh at that, too, as I imagine having to take a gay test: fashion sense, artistic ability, fellatio skills. More women are streaming in, and by Jiminy, there must be close to 200 women here. Me and Nica are impressed. Our waiter is cut, ripped, lean yet pec-heavy, hard-haired and ab-happy. It looks like it would hurt your fist if you punched his stomach. He doesn’t seem gay. He doesn’t really seem straight either. He seems kind of asexual to me. Like he’s a Ken doll, and if you took down his black Spandex, a smooth bump would be there. He seems like an accountant. Nica asks him if he dreamed of being a topless waiter when he was a kid. He laughs and says that he did not, that’s it’s a great part time gig. Nica asks him what he does apart from this. Turns out he is an accountant. Seriously. When he’s gone I ask Nica if she thinks he’s sexy. She looks at me like I’m stupid. “Not my type,” says Nica. “If there was some nerd here with glasses and a slide rule in his pocket, that would be more my speed.” Then all of a sudden, BOOM! lights go down, sound goes up, and Scott’s voice booms through the room: It’s Showtime. There’s smoke, there’s a big video screen, there’s crazy swirling lights, and when the first Hollywood Man busts onto the stage, a scream comes up from the ladies, a primal lioness roar that rattles my teeth, rolls through my bones, and lights up my balls like Chinese New Year, as I’m hot-wired right into all that grrrrl power. Nica looks over at me. She’s into it. The women are into it. She leans over and whispers: “There’s a lot of really beautiful women here, aren’t there?” I nod in agreement. There are. 5 Men pop out onto stage and do a hiphoppy Fosse meets Backstreet Boys choreography, and the women are up on their feet, like at a Southern Baptist church when the spirit lifts the congregation. Nothing like this in a female strip club. Big video presentation, clips of movies and local news segments featuring the Hollywood Men show, in front of all that tight seemless choreography. The men do take their shirts and pants off in the opening number, but not until they take off their jackets and shirts, unbuttoning and removing little by little. When they get down to their skivvies, the estrogen laden roar bounces off the walls. Now we’re into the numbers. Each is almost a Jungian American archetype: Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, the Cowboy, the Fireman, the Vampire. They all start off with lots of costume, surrounded many times by other dancers. Slowly they take it off while lip synching, until they take down their underpants to reveal their teeny G-strings. When they get to this point, they all make the same move: they turn around and bend over, their asses shining like a big happy heartmoon. The women seem to love that. They writhe, they undulate, they simulate intercourse, poundpoundpounding into the floor. They pour oil on themselves. The men touch themselves on their covered penis areas quite a bit. The women seem to love that, too. But honestly, after a while, the perfect smooth hairless chestpecs and the perfect smooth hairless 6 pacs, and the perfect smooth hairless asses all blend one into the other. Mind you the women are great. They are so much fun to watch. I love how they enjoy the show through each other. Understand this: in terms of sexual orientation, I am 70%, 20% lesbian, and 10% gay, so this show is not, as has been pointed out repeatedly, intended for me. But I did 2 years at Chippendale’s when it was the hottest show in New York City, so I know my way around men taking their clothes off. Plus, that’s why I brought the lovely and talented Nica, because she likes men and finds them sexual. Plus she’s taken her clothes off in front of them for money, and she’s not ashamed to say so. Plus she’s watched a lot of men watching women take their clothes off. So after every act, I turn to Nica and I ask, “Was that hot? Did that guy turn you on? What that sexy?” Every time she shakes her head and says, “No.” It’s not that she’s having a bad time. She’s actually enjoying the show. It’s just that none of these beekcakey bodies is beaming out any real sexuality. That’s what it seems like to me, and Nica confirms this. Then Scott Layne comes out, and she sees why he’s a star. He’s Danny Zuko from Grease, ducktail, tight leather pants and jacket. Behind him on the screen is John Travolta playing Danny Zuko from Grease. The effect is cooly postmodern in a Warholian way. The movie icon duplicated by the live male stripper icon. And Scott pulls it off, the same cocky shy nice intense calm vibe beaming out of both of them, stripper as movie star. Only Scott actually sings. He’s got a mike, and he’s singing. At first I don’t believe it, because his rockabilly Elvis thing very good. But then there’s a little slip, and it clearly is him singing. Nica turns to me and she nods and says, “Wow, he’s really good.” And you can see it really isn’t the meat, and it’s really is the motion. It’s the power and the skill that comes from having perfected a craft, being able to channel the Sex muse effortlessly with talent. Scott blows the roof off the joint, as the women go gaga. Afterwards I ask Nica if she thought he was sexy. She hesitates. Thinking. “He’s really good. I really enjoyed him, he’s a total pro, the guy is really talented.” Next up comes a guy in a bad female wig and skirt, with balloons shoved down his feminine sweater. It’s as if Jerry Lewis has decided to become a male stripper. Nica is intrigued. To a hip hop Spike Jones-ish soundtrack, this guy does an old school burlesque silent comedy number. And he’s fucking funny. With amazing control of his body. Slowly the wig, sweater and skirt come off, and he’s sporting a goofy Clark Kent meets Devo wig, with a Superman shirt. He shifts the balloons from his chest to his crotch, magically transforming them from huge breasts into gigantic balls. And the guy is an astonishing mindbending breakdancing fool. Isolating his body and moving the parts independently of each other in freakishly funny bendability, in the great tradition of vaudeville eccentric dancers like Donald O’Connor, with the good looks and athletic muscular grace of Gene Kelly, all filtered through new millenium streetwise edgy urban modernism. It is a breathtaking performance. I ask Nica if he was sexy. Her eyes have gone a bit dreamy in the middle of her creamy round face, and she nods her head: Yes. Nica’s got a crush on the guy. I ask her why. She tells me it’s because he diffused the manufactured, corporate asexual vibe with HUMOR. That ironically, a nice dose of humanity is still what entices more than a shapely butt and a bulging G-string.
Now one lucky gal who wins a lottery gets to sit on a chair in the middle of the stage. 5 guys disrobe down to their wee G-strings and towels. Then they gather in a tight circlejerk formation around her, facing her, and appear to remove their wee G-strings while opening their towels and exposing their johnsons and willies to her. The audience goes nuts and bananas. I thought if I was surrounded by 5 beautiful women and they all exposed their nakedness at me, I would like to see that. That is probably a sight that I could work into a fantasy that I could masturbate to. In fact now that I’ve thought about it, maybe I will. Okay, I’m back.
Now all that remains is the up-close-and-personal, interactive, hands-on segment of the show, where the Hollywood Men actually come out into the audience, and the women wave the money, or plant in their cleavage, or in their panties peaking out from under their tight jeans. And I’m telling you, when they climb down from that stage like so many Collosuses of Rome, it is an absolute free-4-all. Unlike in a female strip joint, there are no beefy security guys to stop the clients from mauling the dancers. And the fur is definitely flying. There are at least 6 dancers, naked but for small black underpants, working the room. And I mean working. You hear little random screams and squeals and shrieks as little knots of females gather around dancers like menstrual blood clotting. Every veil-clad bride-to-be in attendance gets at least one lap dance, and most of them get many. The dancer generally comes over to the woman with the dollar bill flag flying (either held by herself, or more usually, her friends) and the dancer takes the bill, then undulates around and into the woman. Many breasts and necks are nuzzled. Male faces are buried into crotch areas. Female hands stroke and fondle and feel up smooth hairless powerful male chests and bellies, and grab a package or two. Sometimes a dancer literally disappears into a forest of females, so you couldn’t even see him anymore. The 7 Latinas who were the first ones in the place are whooping and halloring and dancing. I have to admit it’s great to see a woman dancing in a wheelchair. Then she gets a lap dance, and the guy is really great with her, sexy and nice and respectful. She’s digging it. Then the bride-tobe gets her own lap dance, and she digs it even more. I gotta say, the room is really hyper-charged with sexenergy. Next to me, a truly stunning woman has stuffed a bill in her thong panties peeking out from under her tight jeans. As she slides down onto the booth/chair, the bill disappears. She tried unsuccessfully to fish it out. He tries grabbing it with his teeth. With as little success. She unbuckles her belt, unsnaps her jeans and parts the zipper like it’s a pare of beautiful vaginal lips, revealing her stunningly sexy lower belly. The dancer hesitated, then goes down. He nibbles around the bill, then slowly and seductively pulls it out of the string of her thong thing. I have to admit I was jealous. I wanted to be that dancer. This moment illustrates the best of the audience participation section, what at Chippendale’s used to be called the Kiss & Tip. I did see a couple of the guys pull women’s hair, yanking heads into crotches with what I thought was too much force. Some women seemed to like that. Other seemed put off when the dancer moved away. Regardless, MUCH MUCH money exchanged hands, and MANY MANY hands roved over ACRES & ACRES of naked flesh. I wanted to give Nica the opportunity to have a lap dance if she was into it. I was curious what her reaction would be to getting one, having given so many herself. I asked her if she wanted one. She nodded enthusiastically. This is just one of the things we love about Nica. Guess who she wants a lap dance from? Funny wildly talented smiling sweet guy. Naturally. I have to admit I felt a little odd asking this guy wearing nothing but tiny black underpants if he would give my friend a lap dance, but only because all that gay talk before the show made me afraid I would disrupt the delicate balance of the show. Me, I don’t give a shit, I just want Nica to have her lap dance. So I find the guy and tell him what I want, and he’s the very model of accommodation. Nica gives him the money. The guy’s got curly brown soft hair, as opposed to the hard sculpted look of so many of the other guys. He looks her in the eyes as he pulsates and undulates rhythmically before her. She sinks down into her chair as he moves in closer and closer to her until his smooth supple rippling skin is inches from her lips. Nica seems to be really enjoying her lap dance. She puts her hands on his chest. He is gentle with her, but still seems capable of rocking her world. He is professional, but slightly removed, an amazing mover with a supple lithe physicality and a serious soulfulness, although he doesn’t seem emotionally engaged like he did on stage. He spends a good 5 minutes with Nica before he kisses her on the cheek and takes off. Nica’s cheeks are flushing and her eyes are alive. I ask her if she enjoyed her lap dance. She says she did.
Then it’s on to the big slam bang finale, and Scott’s bringing the show home. Everybody gets their bows and applause, and then the lights are coming up. I go over to the 7 Latinas who were the first ones in the place. Turns out the lady in the wheelchair is the mother of the woman in the white bridal veil. They’re laughing and carrying on and having a grand old time. Turns out the veiled bride-to-be is getting married next Saturday. Her boyfriend knows she’s here. He told her to go out and have a good time. That’s why she’s marrying him. She points out the dancer Nica has a crush on and says, “Tell him, ‘Oh my God!” Just tell him that for me. ‘Oh my God!’” Her mother in the wheelchair points to a picture of Scott. “Tell him that I’d like to take him home.” Everyone hoots and hollars. You can tell they’ll be telling this story for a very long time.
Me and Nica head backstage to the dressing room. Many men are in various stages of sweaty robing and disrobing. Nica sneaks peaks. Scott bounds over. I tell him how much I enjoyed his show, and how Nick his mentor would have been proud. Scott seems genuinely touched. Nica thanks him for a great show. Tells him what a great entertainer he is. It’s nice to watch, one pro to another, acknowledgment always meaning more coming from a peer. “I’ve been doing it long enough, I better be good at it,” Scott smiles with wry self-deprecation. “How long have you been dancing?” Nica wants to know. “Over twenty years,” Scott says. “Not bad for being 42 years old, huh?” Nica cannot believe Scott is 42. I can. Nica wants to know if we can interview her favorite dancer. Scott hooks us up. Chris Watters is his name. 2 T’s. With his clothes on he seems smaller. He’s well dressed casually, groomed, moving with an easy animal grace. He seems shy and earnest. He’s traveled all over the world dancing for women. He got his start Jane Mansfield style, only instead of at Schwabs, Chris was minding his own business dancing in a nightclub in Boise, Idaho, when a guy spotted him and recruited him into the male exotic dancing business. He’s currently running his own music production company, CMW Productions (cmwproductions.net) while going to school studying business administration. His parents are into him being a dancer. They’ve seen the show and they dig it. Nica wants to know what he’s learned about women taking his clothes off for them. He smiles and thinks. He’s a thoughtful guy who chooses his words carefully. “I see women from a totally different point of view. I see women at their worst, when they’re drunk and rude.” Pause. Thinking. “I put up a lot of walls.” Pause. Thinking. “Some dancing… table dancing, makes you feel creeped out… it’s too much… people cross boundaries. I like it a lot better when I can just get out on stage and do my thing. Women dancers are a lot more protected. It’s weird feeling like an object…” Pause. Thinking. “it makes you feel creepy… people can be so… I come home with scratches, and bruises, and bite marks, and I have no idea where they came from… it’s scary… sometimes rich women make you feel like shit, they think they can say anything they want, and they say cruel things, sometimes, they’re drunk, they look down their nose at me… it can get really ugly.” Pause. Thinking. “Like I said, I see women at their worst.” Nica wants to know if Chris is married. He confesses that he is. Me and Nica shoot each other knowing glances. The wife’s a gogo dancer. Not a stripper, he says a little too quickly. Like we’d care. But that’s part of this world, those fine lines that distinguish what you will do and what you won’t. Take off your clothes. Leave on your G-string. Sell a kiss. Let a customer touch you in your most tender netherparts. Selling your sexuality is a tricky thing, and the shading between trick and performer, john and gigolo, hustler and dancer is crucial for mental stability. You set your boundaries, and that is how you define yourself. A lot of male strippers at I worked with at Chippendale’s sold sex, but they would never call themselves a whore. Whereas, when I’ve worked with women from the next class of sex worker down the foodchain, the street ho, many embrace their ho-ness, “Yeah that’s right, I’m a ho, so you wanna fuck with me, I have got to get PAID!” Nica wants to know if he’s planning on having kids. God love Nica, she’s keeping us on track. Chris smiles that crazy sweet sexy shy smile: “Yeah.” I ask what he’d say if his son turned to him and said: “Daddy, when I grow up I want to be a male stripper!” “No way!” he laughs very loud. He’s got a nice easy laugh, which he’s laughed a couple of times, but this laugh is loaded with jaded cynical world-weariness. Nica wants to know why not. “Dancers get lazy. It’s too easy, the money. There’s no work ethic in this world.” He starts to say something, then hesitates, as if his internal censor stopped him. I ask him to elaborate, but he shies away. It makes him more interesting, that there is something withheld. Nica wants to know what he thinks women want. “Confidence with a smile. Even if you can’t dance, if you really have a good time out there, women like that. “ Pause. Thinking. Smile. “I try to use the golden rule. I do to others what I would want done to me.” Hard to argue with that. Nica shakes his hand. I shake his hand. Solid handshake. Single pump. Firm without having anything to prove.
As we leave Nica says what a sweet fragile soul he seemed, and confesses how she wants to rap him up in her arms and give him a big long hug, because he seems like he’s been so wounded. She’s surprised. She never thought guys would feel so much like she does about taking their clothes off for money. She reflects how heterosexual male stripping is more akin to the neo-burlesque movement that is sweeping the country, as opposed to the more anatomical direction female stripping has evolved into, where girls make a series of poses which illustrate what they would look like having sex. “If you can’t show them what you’d look like fucking, forget it, you’re not gonna make any money,” says Nica, and I can’t argue with that.
Then me and Nica walk out into the Hollywood night, where it’s not raining men, it’s just plain raining. And I can say without hesitation that male stripping is very much alive and kicking, kissing and tipping, every Friday and Saturday night in the City of Fallen Angels.
“I’m starving,” Olive announced one day last week is. She’s my daughter. She’s six.
“You’re not starving,” I said, “you’re hungry.”
Epiphany. Laugh-of-luxury child has no idea what it means to starve. To not eat. To be poor.
Yes, she understands there are Poor People. But it’s an intellectual construct. Like knowing there are Emus or Mexican Jumping Beans.
I don’t want Olive to be one of those pampered, entitled suburban white kids who thinks of Poor People as the Other, to be denigrated, looked down upon, ignored, pitied from afar, used for cheap labor and/or cannon fodder. I was raised in lap-of-luxury suburbia, but I was taught that Poor People are just like you and me. Only they don’t have money. Or opportunity. Or a bubble of affluence surrounding them. I was raised to believe that it’s our obligation to give back. To help. To take care of those less fortunate than ourselves. I want my daughter to understand that the corporate-fueled greed which has corrupted this country is EVIL. I want her to understand that people are more important than profit. I want her to understand that it’s important to help people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
I know what it’s like to be poor. When I was 17 I was cast out, and lived in poverty for a decade. Food stamps. Dank basement apartments that cost $25 a month. Trying to choose between buying three slices of pizza or a used paperback. Figuring out how to become an expert shoplifter. Turns out I liked stealing more than I liked being hungry. But I was lucky, I’m white, I was educated, and I was loved and taken care of as a kid, told I could be whoever I wanted to be whatever if I worked hard and did the right thing. And I did. So by the time I was 30, I had returned to a lap-of-luxury life. And I want Olive to have an idea that is like to be poor, without her actually having to be poor herself. I know that’s not entirely possible, but I want to do all I can to help her understand.
So we decided on this Thanksgiving to volunteer to feed hungry people. We took Olive to Roosevelt Elementary School in Union City, New Jersey. We prepared her by telling her there might be some homeless people there, and they might dress and possibly smell different than us. But they were just like us. Only they didn’t have money. Or much chance of getting money. Or a fancy house or a fancy car or a fancy TV or fancy food. Olive has dreams of someday becoming a waitress. (Or an artist. Or an Olympic gymnast. Or an architect. Or a ballet dancer. Or a writer.) So the idea of getting to be a waitress for poor people on Thanksgiving was exciting to her in a way that only a six-year-old can get excited.
The volunteers at Roosevelt Elementary School were a rainbow coalition of all ages, races and sizes. There was festive bunting with “Happy Thanksgiving” festooned across it. Kids had made Thanksgiving art placemats that were totally cool. There was tons of food.
The vibe was festive, happy, thankful and giving.
Then the Mayor walked in. I was not expecting to meet the mayor of Union City on Thanksgiving. But there he was. In the flesh. He looked like one of the volunteers. His name is Brian P. Stack. He was born and raised in Union City. This was his brainchild. He started doing this on Thanksgiving when he was 14 years old. He handed out chickens back then, because he couldn’t afford turkeys. During the week of Thanksgiving he handed out 18,000 turkeys. Well, not personally. But his people. I asked him why he did this.
“I just know there’s so much need here, and I want to help.”
Politician has become a dirty word. They’re rich people who make dirty deals behind closed doors. They espouse goodness, while they lurk around public bathrooms looking for illicit hookups; they smoke crack like it’s going out of business; they cheat on their wives, their kids, and the people who voted them into office while they line their pockets with filthy lucre that’s meant to help those less fortunate than themselves. I didn’t expect on this Thanksgiving to meet a politician who gave me faith that America is not totally corrupt. There are still public servants who are, you know … public servants. Who serve the public. Instead of the other way around. Brian P. Stack seems to be in the business of making the word Politician mean something good again.
Then people started showing up to eat. Young, old, and in between. I was in charge of salad. Olive was in charge of rolls and cranberry sauce. She really got her waitress on, welcoming people, asking with a chipper smile, “Would you like a roll? Would you like some cranberry sauce?” She was the youngest one serving food by 25 years. She made people smile.
And they kept coming. At least 300 hungry mouths were fed by the time we finished. And lots of them took containers of food to go. They ate, they talked, they hung out, they ate. Some by themselves, some with their boy/girlfriend. Some with their family and kids.
After about an hour we took a break and Olive had a roll, some cranberry sauce and a giant helping of salad. There we were, eating with all the Poor People. After she finished eating, Olive looked around and said to me, “Dad, the poor people look the same as us.”
I asked Olive if she was having fun serving rolls and cranberry sauce.
“Yeah,” she said, “it’s super fun.”
She was right. It was super fun. It was pure joy. With no hangover.
I looked up and all of a sudden we were almost done. Apparently time moves quickly when you’re helping people.
As we were leaving, Olive looked at me with a big six-year-old smile and said, “I want to do this again next year!”
And so we shall. So we shall.
This is how I fell in love with Sally. But this is not a love story. It’s a tragedy. Even though we were instantly drawn to each other with a fiery flame, and grew to love each other deeply, we could never be together. We were too different. Our people would never let us. It would have been too scandalous, too shocking, too forbidden. The world was not ready for a love like Sally had for me. And I for Sally.
Sally and I are hired to act in a Michelob beer commercial. The theme of the spot is evolution. I am hired to star in the commercial as a Neanderthal Man. Type-casting. Four hours I sit while a crew of highly-skilled make-up artists glued thin layers of skin-colored latex over every inch of my face, transforming me from end of second millennium American Homo Sapien into Caveman. They sculpt a gigantic forehead with a scary hairy monobrow, wee sunken eyes, a flaring nose cauliflowering across my cheeks, thick rubber caveman lips, and huge wooly mammoth-eating fake teeth. My hair is almost fur, extending from the thicket on my head to my jaw lines, and down both cheeks.
When I look in the mirror I don’t recognize myself. I look for a long time but I can’t find myself in there anywhere. Until I look all the way inside my simian face and see my eyes. There I am. I have a deep desire to grunt and snarl and hump someone from behind.
Finally, I’m ready for my introduction to Sally. Her trainer comes up to me, very serious, doesn’t even notice that I’m a 2,000 year old Neanderthal Man.
“Don’t make eye contact at first. Let her come to you. Get down on her level and don’t make any quick movements. Be very calm and very still. She can sense fear. Plus, she can jump six feet straight up in the air, and she’s ten times stronger than you. For example, Sally’s jaw is so strong she could snap your arm in two like a dry twig. But it’s really important she doesn’t feel any fear coming off you.”
Suddenly all I can see is my bloody Neanderthal hand dangling out of Sally’s mouth and I’m panicking while trying desperately not to panic.
Sally comes out of her trailer, hand-in-hand with another trainer. I squat down to her level. Avert my eyes. I can feel Sally’s stare as she inches slowly towards me wary and dangerous. Sounds like a bass drum has been transplanted into my chest cavity. I’m so scared I have no spit. There’s a small crowd gathering, all quiet tension, waiting to see what Sally will do to David the Neanderthal. Finally she’s right in my face. Since I’m not making eye contact for fear of having my Adam’s apple ripped out, I smell her before I see her. She smells clean, wild, untamed, and of the earth. I feel myself calm with smell of her.
Sally sniffs me suspiciously, moving her mouth to my jaw. The tension is unbearable. Her hot breath breathes on my lips. She’s brings her lips to my cheek. She’s going to rip it open, tear the flesh off the bone, I just know it. I’m trying harder than I’ve ever tried anything not to visualize her biting my nose off with her superstrong jaw that can snap my arm in two like a dry twig.
Slowly, ever slowly, I turn bring my eyes to hers like a simian Southern belle, bringing my eyes up to meet hers. Sally’s stare almost knocks me over. Wise, curious, clever, keen, deep, sharp, smart, mysterious animal passion beams from Sally into me, jolting my soul and rattling my bones. Her face is a picture of puzzlement, brows knitted, head tilted to one side. As she stares into my half-man, half-monkey face, I find I can read her thoughts. She’s speaking to me with her eyes:
“What are you?… You’re not one of them… But you’re not one of me… Seriously, what are you?”
I smile. I can’t help it.
Sally puckers, then covers my face and lips with tiny sweet little kisses.
I’m overcome, undone, head-over-heels in love with Sally. She puts her arms around my neck and hops into my arms. The crowd oohs and ahs, witness to the start of a beautiful tragic love story.
The whole rest of the shoot, Sally and I are like sweet and potato. Whenever she sees me, she runs up to me excited as a longlostlover, jumps up in my arms, and covers me with kisses. I carry her around like she’s my sweet lovemonkey and I’m her ape loverman, holding hands and going bananas, swooning and spooning. I’ve never known a female who was so openly, unabashedly, good-naturedly affectionate, who lit up so in my presence.
Work laws for actors like Sally are very strict, due to years of Hollywood abuse. So Sally works very strict 12-hour shifts. This may seem trivial now, but it will prove crucial as our story unfolds.
In the commercial I, Neanderthal, will be sitting next to Sally, while an actress, playing a Homo Sapien waitress, flirts with me. We block the scene without Sally. The actress walks up to me all stiff and skittishy, just lobbing her line in my general vicinity, like a lazy newsboy tossing an errant morning paper:
“Hey good looking, come here often?”
It’s bad. Bad, bad, bad. The director stops everything, walks over to her and says, “I need you to hot it up, honey, make with the goo-goo eyes, like you did in the callback, babe.” She promises she will, shoots him a sex-baby look, which evaporates the second the director turns and walks away. I notice her gill are a bit aqua green as she thinks about how Sally’s powerful jaw can snap her arm like a dry twig.
The lights are tweaked for the ten thousandth time. The camera focused. Hair, make-up and wardrobe are fluffed, patted, and tucked. Finally everything is ready, hundreds of highly-paid technicians and advertising geeks all set to make commercial magic.
Sally’s brought in, hops up on her stool next to me at the bar, reaches over and kisses me on the cheek as I whisper sweet little Neanderthal nothings into her hairy ears.
“Scene 4, take 1. Roll camera!”
“Camera rolling. Speed.”
The actress walks towards us like a nervous cat at a dog show. Even I can feel her fear, and I’m certainly no monkey. She started to make the most tentative of flirty eyes in my general direction.
Well, Sally goes bananas, jumps up on the bar, bares her teeth, and hisses, looking like she’s going to rip this poor spooked woman’s heart out, show it to her, then eat it.
The actress’ scream curdles blood as she runs raging wailing and weeping through the set, and out the door.
I still think the advertising geeks should have used that in the commercial, because it says more about evolution than any of the lame shit they came up with.
But no, they decide to just write the waitress out of the commercial.
It’s a mad complicated shoot, and because the advertising geeks have been so busy figuring out which swanky restaurant they’re going to eat dinner at that night, we’re way far behind schedule.
So now it’s getting to be 6:30 PM. 7:00 is the end of Sally’s 12-hour shift. So the advertising geeks send some junior assistant flunky over to Sally’s trainer and he asks if they can get Sally to work overtime, because if they don’t get all her shots, they’re going to have to bring everybody back and go way over budget.
The trainer says he doubts Sally will want to work overtime but he’ll see what he can do.
The geeks huddle furiously, whispering toxically. It’s now 6:45 PM. A much better-dressed executive walks up to the trainer. They’ll pay whatever he wants. Name the price.
The trainer smiles. Slowly reminds the executive what Sally is, and how she’s not in any way shape or form financially motivated.
“Well then we’ll give her all the damn bananas she wants,” the better-dressed executive explains.
“Well,” explains the trainer patiently, as if he’s talking to a dumb animal, “Sally already gets all the bananas she wants, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Finally it’s 6:58PM. The best-dressed executive hustles over to the trainer.
“Listen, I don’t care what the hell she wants, we need to get three more shots off before she leaves, is that clear?”
You can see the trainer is about to lose it, wishing to God that he only had to deal with reasonable mammals.
But before he can say anything, it’s 7 o’clock. Exactly 12 hours after Sally started working.
Sally steps up on the bar, and slowly, dramatically, like the consummate performer she is, raises her left arm over her head, and slaps her wrist where a watch would be, the international sign for:
“Look what time it is.”
She then jumps down, and starts pulling me by the hand toward the door. As the highly-paid technicians try desperately not to laugh, and the advertising geeks shit themselves, Sally and I proceed through the set, and straight out the door, hand-in-hand, like a naked bride and Neanderthal groom heading for our abba dabba honeymoon.
They have to bring everybody back the next day, and Sally becomes a hero. She get sus all another day’s pay, and with incredible style, panache, and savoir faire, tells the oppressive exploiting fascist fatcat Bosses to stick it. Love Live Sally!
When I ask the trainer about it, he tells me that Sally has an acute sense of time. Because she works so often, she knows exactly when 12 hours are up, and has figured out that by making the sign for time, not only will her day be over, but she’ll also make everyone laugh real hard. Which she loves to do. All day, whenever it’s time for a meal, or a break, everyone from actors to Teamsters raise their hand up over their head, and slap their wrist where a watch would be, in silent homage to Sally the magical beauty. Much to the amusement of everyone except the advertising geeks, who seem basically jaded and disgusted by pretty much everything except what swanky restaurant they’re going to eat at that night.
As for me, one of the great regrets of my life is that I never get to consummate my relationship with the exquisite, talented and loving Sally. I know she would’ve been a powerful, wild, romantic, spiritual and highly rocking lover, and a fabulous life partner. Oh, the spectacular kids we could’ve had!
But alas, Sally and I had a love that could never be.
It took me a quarter of a century to transition from teenage rent boy to best-selling author, but soon after I did, I was invited into the office of the prominent book agent. “David,” he said as he leaned back in his air ergonomic Aeron chair, “whatever you do, don’t get stuck in the sex ghetto.” So I left the sex ghetto, and wrote several books on very straight subjects. On five of those books, the publishers would not allow me to use my real name, because I have the stink of fornication upon me. But the sex ghetto kept singing her siren-sweet song to me. So I plunged back in and co-edited an anthology in which the contributors have one thing in common: they worked in the sex business. Absolutely no one wanted to buy this book–agents, major publishing houses, smaller publishing houses, university presses, even the tiny presses that publish exactly this kind of book. Finally after two years, and dozens of rejections, we landed at a small but well-respected independent publisher. In the end, after we paid all the contributors, we lost money putting together this book. The publishers only printed 2500 copies. Dan Brown has sold that many books since you started reading this piece. But somehow this little book that nobody wanted has put me at the epicenter of the Whore Wars, a fierce and ugly battle that has been raging for years in the sex ghetto.
In the world of sex for money, there are two armies. The decriminalizationist, largely liberal lefty, “sex positive,” it’s-all-good camp. Many are turning tricks to finance their master’s degrees; others are dominatrixes who are equally at home deconstructing the Marquis de Sade and flicking a cat-o-nine tales; lots of very organized loud lesbian activists. Even though they’re always telling you how empowering it is to be a sexual healer, most are either retired, or looking for a lucrative exit strategy because when you retire from the sex business, there’s no golden parachute. They argue that prohibition makes criminals out of hard-working Americans who are just trying to make sure baby has new shoes. Across the road is the abolitionist, mostly conservative, Christian-tinged, prostitution-is-slavery, everyone-is-trafficked, it’s-all-bad camp. They are mostly academics who wear dowdy clothes and look like they haven’t had sex in years; quasi-neo-feminists who claim to speak for the downtrodden victims of commercial exploitation from the lap of luxury; and not-for-profit activists who overcame brutal beatings on the mean streets as junky hos. They will trot out statistics that prove everyone in the sex for money world was sexually abused as a child, and that everyone who trades their body for cash is brutalized by charming but subhuman pimps, traded by smugglers of human flesh. Except for the reformed junky hos, none of these people have ever turned a trick. Not surprisingly, abolitionists and decriminalizationists alike seem to want to simplify this ridiculously complex subject so it fits their agenda.
In 2002, when my first book and I came out, I was recruited by both sides. And before I looked, I leapt. Just say yes. A good recipe for getting yourself into the sex business in the first place. So I collected writing from both the groups. My mission was to give voice to the entire spectrum of this underrepresented population, to humanize these creatures who are reviled and glorified, worshiped and spat upon in the sex ghetto. I invited everyone. If you lived in the Life, and if you had a story to tell, regardless of whether it was polished prose or a diamond in the rough, you were welcomed with open arms. I very consciously didn’t grind my political ax. In our book $2500 call girls, $100 rent boys, and $10 crack hos are bedfellows.
Most everyone, except me and my co-editor, thought this book would fly under the radar and die a slow painful death, probably out of print in a year. But on August 23, 2009, all that changed. That’s when our little book rather shockingly appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. That’s when it got ugly for me in the sex ghetto.
Usually, a book or an idea gets attacked from the right or from the left. But I’ve got both sides calling for my head on a pike. One side thinks I am, “Deplorable… dishonorable…” The other is, “Disappointed… pissed off…”. I have no idea what percentage of people who toil in the world of sex for money are doing so voluntarily, and how many are doing so against their will. In my experience, it’s virtually impossible to get reliable statistics. It’s not like a census taker can go to a “massage parlor” where trafficked women are being kept against their will (as was the case in several recently busted in the Bay Area) and interview the slaves. Or from an independent contractor who gets her tricks through craigslist. Or, for that matter, from “Ashley Dupree,” after she’s had her way with Elliot Spitzer. And so many of the statistics we do see from the left or the right are manipulated to fit their agendas. The fact is, right now, in big cities and small towns across America, a hard-working sex worker who is not being coerced, who is doing this of his or her own free will, is making money having sex with someone. And at the same time, a victim is being used as a sex slave by the most hideous, vile creatures ever spawned. That’s what’s going on in America, and whether we like it or not, the sex for money business is booming.
Quite simply, our society is sexually ill. It is broken. I believe the vast majority of Americans do not come close to getting all the love and sex they want. So they try to buy it. I believe this book has generated such intense interest in part because the oldest profession seems to be the next taboo being exposed in the limelight of the American zeitgeist. Mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, one after another have been trotted out and examined like a bug under a microscope. Jim Carrol’s The Basketball Diaries, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life and William Styron’s A Memoir of Madness were all deeply personal accounts of aberrant behavior that had been previously swept under America’s rug. And now it seems like the world wants to know, who are these people selling sex? Why are we buying so much of it? Who are these hos, hookers, call girls and rent boys that make everyone from Catholics to Orthodox Jews to Islamic fundamentalists to Mormons regular guests in the sex ghetto?
This book was an attempt to answer that question. It took no sides in the whore wars. Should it be legalized? Prohibited? It seems both sides want the book to take their position. But it doesn’t. Our agenda is to let these hos, hookers, call girls and rent boys speak for themselves. This is why we opened our book with Post-Porn Modernist Annie Sprinkle’s “40 Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes.” And followed it with Oakland’s diamond-hard mochaluv’s: “Being a Ho Sucks.” Are whores heroes? Does being a ho suck? Yes and yes.
However, as we put this book together, one thing became clear. Until we take the millions of dollars and man/woman hours currently being directed at adults who, having weighed their economic options, choose of their own free will to exchange sex for money, predators and peddlers of flesh who operate in every major American city, largely ignored by law enforcement, will continue to flourish. People who sell sex will continue to be in constant danger of being abused and beaten by both johns and the police, with no legal recourse. While savage killers like Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, continued to prey on women in that world because, in his words, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”
If this book helps people see that men and women who have sex for money are mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, I will be happy. If it shines a compassionate light into the sex ghetto, it’ll be worth all the slings and arrows slung my way in the whore wars. But if nothing else comes out of all this, I hope the words of the legendary Georgina Spelvin, anthology contributor and star of The Devil in Miss Jones, ring out from between the covers of our book. “Do your part. Take a hooker to lunch.”
At 16 I’m shipped away to Boarding School for my sins. The school is full of bright, gifted, spindled, folded, and mutilated teenagers, almost all of whom have been kicked of at least 1, if not several, other institutions of learning. Believe me, I fit right in at Boarding School.
We have the worst hockey team in the history of the league. Our first game we get beat like 31-1. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to let in 31 goals in 30 minutes? Any way you do the math, that’s over a goal a minute, ladies and gentlemen. The best player on the team is Joe Skyfeather. We call him Joe Starfucker, and he likes that. He’s our goalie. A great goalie. After every game he’s one huge Iriquois welt. He says if he wasn’t a hopeless Indian drunk already, he’d have to start drinking heavily. The one good thing about losing 31-1 is that when you score that 1 goal, man, you celebrate hard.
Half-way through our season, we’re 0-5. We’ve scored 4 goals, while allowing about, I don’t know, maybe a kazillion. We’re going to play our sixth game, on the road, against Andover, 1 of the hoitiest of the toity prep schools in America. As we’re getting ready to leave, Rat comes in all excited. He’s just scored some acid from his brother who’s out on parole and laying low in Rat’s room. I’ve never taken acid at this point, but the word from Rat’s brother is that this is the trippiest shit he’s ever seen. And apparently he’s seen some pretty trippy shit. And there’s enough for everybody. Rat whips it out. I’m expecting some bubbling liquid in a laboratory beaker, with smoke and prisms and colored lights. But no. It’s just an 8 x 10 sheet of paper. He peels something off, and with an impish grins, places it on his tongue and downs it. He holds it out for us to join him. Everyone sits and stares.
“Come on, you sorry bunch of pansy-asses. We gotta go show those rich bitches what it means to be play this game with a head full of the trippiest shit in the Berkshire Mountains. We gotta show the world that we may be the worst hockey players in history, but we’re the all-time greatest partiers. We gotta let our freak flag fly, man!’
Rat’s speech stirs something within me. In all of us. We’re castoffs, misfits, the throwaways of our generation. And suddenly we’ve got a shot to go down in school history, turn ourselves from laughing stock into folk heroes, talked about around campfires for generations to come.
Still, no one wants to be the first to follow Rat down the road to Infamy. Eyes are averted. Feet shuffled. Harrumphs abound.
It’s times like this that turn boys into men. While us white suburban bourgeois laddies sit with our thumbs up our collective ass, it takes a young brave from the reservation to lead us. A boy warrior whose ancestors have been raped and pillaged, lied to, deceived, mocked, vilified, burned out of the land they loved, hunted down and destroyed like vermin. Joe Starfucker. He rises slowly, a beat-up rented mule of a goalie with long, straggly scraggly raven hair. He walks with the weight of the ages to Rat and sticks out his tongue.
“Yeah baby, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Joe Starfucker, you are the man!”
Joe closes his eyes and crosses himself, while Rat places the tab on his tongue like he’s giving Holy Communion. When Starfucker swallows, everybody whoops and hollers. Rat then dispenses the rest of the acid like he’s High Priest of the Order of Psychedelic Hockey, a cross between the Pope, Timothy Leery and Wayne Gretsky.
Beevo, Nevs, Harry the Hoagy, Fat Phil, Dougy the K, even Lurch, all gobble down their medicine.
When my turn comes, I’m shocked to find out that the tab of acid is actually a thin little transparent Mickey Mouse. I smile as I swallow my electric Disney coolaid, visions of Snow White and her freaky dwarves stoned off their nuts, as Jimi Hendrix wails “Some Day My Prince Will Come” in the background.
It’s quiet on the bus to the game. Scary quiet. Everyone’s bugging eyes at each other, trying to see if anything’s happening, wondering if this really is some trippy shit, and if it is, what it will be like trying to play hockey against the masters of the universe Andover superstars while we’re massively loop-de-looped.
Then suddenly we’re pulling into Andover. You can smell the money. At least I think that’s what the smell is. The dorms are all swanky swank swank. The grounds are manicured to within an inch of their strangulated lives. The boys are wearing their spiffy little blue blazers, and their spastic little tassley shoes with their dorkadelic little preppy haircuts. If you weren’t high on some trippy shit already, looking at all these Young Republican bootlickers-in-training would make you go all wavy gravy in a New York minute.
I’m still not feeling any effects, and frankly I’m beginning to wonder whether Rat’s brother sold us all a bill of goods, as we troop into the Taj Mahal locker room, looking at each other for any tell-tale signs of synaptic scramble.
Not a word is spoken as we don the tools of ignorance necessary for us to get the inevitable ass-whupping we are about to take. Our coach, Mr. Clament, the Clam, a besotted French teacher, senses something is amiss. He clears his drunken throat, and launches into a Win-One-For-the-Gipper speech.
About half-way through the Clam’s speech, his face starts melting, his tongue flicks out like an iguana, and his eyes spring loose from their sockets like those eyeball glasses that hang down and wobble when you move your head. His nose spreads out like Silly Putty smushed as his eyebrows do the Australian crawl across his face. His lips are wax candy and his teeth are changing colors like the Wizard of Oz’s horse: red to green to blue to orange.
I shake my head to try and clear it, but that just makes little fireworks with tails shoot across the inside of my eyeballs in wonderful waving watercolors.
I look around. Everyone’s shaking their head, eyes covered with potter’s glaze, like a flock of sheep who’ve just been converted to Christianity.
The Clam reaches his drunken crescendo, expecting a rousing jolt of competitive manchild testosterone. Nothing. We just sit there, staring like big mouth bass, tripping our little brains out. He’s dumbfounded, and decides his next logical move is go into the bathroom and drink, so he shrugs, turns, and disappears into the bathroom to drink.
“Is this some trippy shit or what?” Rat pops his eyes out of his head and rolls them around, and the laugher lets loose – KABANG! – and we chortle like whacked-out bobbing head dolls.
The Andover superstar uniforms are shiny and new as the masters of the universe prepare to use us as the tools of their athletic glorification. They look like bourgeois marionettes to me, stooge puppets of the paramilitary fascist state. The thought of cutting their strings and watching them crumble cracks me up, and I catch an edge of my skate on the ice, tumbling down, and sliding headfirst into the boards with a loud crash. The game hasn’t even started yet, and I’ve already checked myself. Our whole team stops their pitiful warm-up, stares at me, and gets the giggles, tittering like schoolboys, kids in the stands pointing fingers and laughing at us, Andover superstars glaring with smug, condescending menace.
Then suddenly the game is starting, and the crowd shape-shifts, all beautiful fuzzy colors that only make sense when you look at the whole thing from a distance. When I focus on any one person, the face seems to disintegrate and lose focus. Or maybe it is me who’s disintegrating and losing focus. Hard to say for sure. The referee looks like a big fat zebra. I chuckle thinking about the lion waiting for him at the watering hole after the game.
The puck takes about six weeks to drop from the fat Zebra’s hoof to the ice. I discover I don’t have to move my legs to skate. I float over the ice like an angel on a wave of feathers. Beevo is winning the face-off now, and the puck shuffles back to me. It takes its sweet time. It realizes time is sweet. I stop it with my stick, which bends and waves in my hands. An Andover superstar rushes headlong at me, snarling like an overbred hound from hell, but moving in slow motion. I sidestep him with the greatest of ease. I have to stop myself from laughing it’s so much fun. My bones are almost-congealed jello, my skin tingles with the fire of Godlove, and my third eye is wide open. I see Harry the Hoagy streaking with trails like a comet up-ice and I can see the line the puck will travel to get to him before I even make the pass. So I flick my stick and the puck goes on that exact line, like a geometry equation only I can see. As if Harry the Hoagy and I are connected by a Higher Power. The puck nestles gently on The Hoagy’s stick. He cuts between the two Andover behemoth superstar defensemen and suddenly he’s 1-on-1 with the master of the universe goalie, face to mask, stoned off of his nut. Harry the Hoagy starts to go right, the goalie bites, Harry changes his mind, slides the puck onto his backhand and eases it into the gaping mouth of the goal like Casanova scoring with the Queen of France.
We stop. The crowd is all stunned silence. The Andover superstars flabbergast. Then it dawns on us. We scored a goal. We’re ahead for the first time the whole year. We free-form to Harry the Hoagy and do a group hug interpretive dance celebration, Fosse meets Bullwinkle. The fat Zebra has to come get us to re-start the game. We’re too busy celebrating. We’ve never celebrated being ahead in a game before, and we have no idea how it’s done, or when it’s supposed to be over.
The whole game is like that. Lurch hits a guy so hard he airlifts him up off the ice and knocks out his whole family. Rat is a whirling dervish, breaking up plays, leading rushes, poke-checking guys who aren’t even there. Fat Phil is a man possessed, moving like one of those graceful hippo ballet dancers in tutus from “Fantasia”. And Joe Starfucker,a well, Joe plays the game of his life. Stick saves, pad saves, glove saves. At one point he makes a save, and his glove flies off. The puck rebounds right back to an Andover superstar, and he fires again. Joe Starfucker reaches out and catches that puck with his bare hand. This time even the Andover superstar crowd has to give him a big ovation. They don’t want to, you can tell. They have to. He holds the puck over his head, he’s showing it the Great Puck Spirit, then bows deeply, as if he’s a Japanese kabuki actor.
Late in the game, the Andover superstars manage to sneak one by Joe Starfucker, after they roughed him up in the crease, which as anyone who’s ever been roughed up in a crease knows, is nasty business, and strictly illegal to boot. The game’s winding down, and the Andover superstars are sharks who’ve smelled blood. But the acid still floods our collective brains with the power and beauty of Mother Earth and Father Sky, and we match the superstars hammer for tong.
There’s a minute left to play. We to get a face-off deep in superstar territory. Beevo takes the face-off, the puck falling like a big black penny from heaven. Beevo flicks it easily back to Lurch at the point. Lurch winds up and takes a Paul Bunyon swing at it. However, he mostly misses, catching the puck on end so it flutters like a drunken butterfly toward the net. The Andover superstars are caught off-guard. They’re expecting a bullet, clenched and moving towards the upper left corner of the goal, where it is happily headed.
I see the puck fluffernutting towards me, getting bigger and bigger as it calls my name:
“Here I come, David – here I commmmmmme…”
I see myself gently flicking the puck, caressing it lightly like a well-loved lover past the Andover superstar goalie. So I reach up with my wavy stick and kiss the crazy gyrating puck with it. The Andover superstar defensemen and goalie are already off-balance because it is loop-de-looping instead of shotgunning, and when I flick it, the puck tumbles down and right, leaving them grasping at air straws.
Gently lovingly it bulges pillowy into the billowing netting of the goal.
The buzzer sounds.
The game is over.
The silence sits on the ice like the gods have pushed the mute button.
David has slain Goliath. Not with a stone and a slingshot, but stoned with a headful of totally trippy shit.
We skate over to Joe Starfucker and jump on top of him, flopping around on the ice like a huge undulating amoebae, until they cart us off. In the locker room our clothes jump off our bodies. We sing in the rain of the shower, then have a wild raucous ride home.
Word of our triumph, and how achieved it, spreads like wildfire through our little community. Of course we never win another game all year. Never even come close. Rat’s brother gets put back in the slammer, and that’s the end of the great Acid Experiment.
But for one glorious winter afternoon, we were one with the universe, Kings of the World, and we did it tripping the light fantastic.
Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry was determined to make an immediate splash, which she did by making her mother’s water break at five o’clock in the morning on September 11. Olive’s due date was September 5 so technically she was a week late, although obviously the due date is an artificial construct of a society that wishes to control this most uncontrollable of events. But this artificial due date would come to influence Olive’s birth in a profound and terrible. Because she was “late” she was not allowed to be delivered in a nice quiet birthing center suite with a big tub and a double bed, kind of like a cheap room in a Ramada Inn redone by Laura Ashley. This was the first in a series of maddeningly arbitrary decisions which were forced upon Olive by the hospital which made her life, and all our lives, so much more difficult, and seemed solely motivated by fear of litigation rather than the safety and well-being of Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry. So Olive had to be born in the madness of the delivery room of the hospital proper, and by the time she was born, the hallway was sick with contracting cervixes, and babies were practically flying out of uteri.
Olive’s mother basically felt nothing out of the ordinary for the 18 hours after the breaking of her water. Unbeknownst to her cervix was having a series of teeny tiny mini-contractions. I don’t know who Braxton or Hicks are, but I hope one day to have a contraction named after me. Having both seen so many movies and television shows where a pregnant woman’s water breaks, and then she has to frantically give birth in the back of a taxi, Olive’s mother and father were confused when the water so monumentally broke, a tsunami of fluids gushing willie and nilly, and then … nothing. They went to the hospital, they were examined, and were told to go home. So Olive spent the night in her mother on the day the water broke.
The next morning Olive arrived again at the hospital, and she was checked in in utero. The mother and father could not understand how this could be labor. Laughing and cracking jokes, thinking about next year’s line of mismatched socks and chilling with friends and family. Then a woman came into the hospital who was also very very pregnant. But she wasn’t laughing and cracking jokes. Pain flashed furiously out of her face as her body wracked. She was flushed and cramped, wet with mad perspiration, insane pain beaming put of her eyes. Clearly, Olive’s parents thought, there’s labor and there’s labor.
Olive’s mother was now hooked up to machines, prodded and probed, jabbed and stuck, measured and examined. A microphone was placed on her belly, and Olive’s heart was broadcast out of a speaker, while numbers appeared on a screen, and a printout spit from a computer, all synched to the heartbeat of Olive.
BOOM BOOM BOOM!
The one constant in the whole birthing process was the heartbeat of Olive. Rocksteady, pounding, it was magnificent and inspiring. Through the thick and the thin, the pushing and shoving, the tears and fears and panic and triumphant, you could’ve set your watch by Olive’s heartbeat.
BOOM BOOM BOOM!
And so they all assembled: Olive, her mom, her dad, her mother’s mother, her mother’s godmother, her dula and her midwife, with a series of nurses, technicians, doctors, drug dispensers, and the occasional cleaning person making cameo appearances. The contractions were displayed on the graph, next to Olive’s heartbeat.
BOOM BOOM BOOM!
They were small and irregular, these contractions, especially when contrasted with the heartbeat of Olive. And they stayed that way for many hours, while everyone chatted, yacked, laughed and swapped stories. It was like a party in a really depressing apartment without any music or alcohol. When Olive’s grandmother and grandfather left the contractions suddenly intensified. Olive’s mother’s eyes glazed, a dazed trance dancing on her face, her breath short, all of a sudden she wasn’t participating in the happy banter. And there on the contraction graph, a huge spike, the line jumping straight up all the way off the paper. It lasted for 30 seconds maybe, but it seemed so much longer, because it was so intense. I lived through many earthquakes in California, and that’s kind of what it was like. An earthquake. Thirty seconds takes a month and a half to pass. And then it was over.
“Now it’s Active Labor.”
This new phase of quaking just kept going on and on and on and on and on and on, until time lost all meaning. But Olive still wasn’t coming out, and no one quite knew if her mother’s body was ready. No one knew, of course, that Olive was a behemoth. The midwife didn’t want to give an internal exam, for fear of infection, due to the fact that the water had broken so long ago. At the suggestion of the dula, Olive’s mother had been working diligently for months on the Big Ball, perfected a series of exercises which loosen the hips and pelvis. During this contraction marathon, she balanced furiously on the Big Ball, huffing and puffing and working her way through the spasms that wracked her body, telling everyone that Olive seemed to be sinking lower and lower and lower. Although at the time no one referred to Olive as Olive. Olive’s mother and father did not know Olive’s gender until they saw it. They had decided on the name Olive quite early on, but they had struggled to find a male name. Turns out they needn’t have bothered.
Finally, after too many hours of too much contracting, the midwife decided to determine how close Olive’s mother’s body was to being ready. Turns out it was not very ready at all. And by this time Olive’s mother was whipped into exhaustion, from over-exertion and powerful pain. She would start shaking, sometimes a leg, sometimes both, sometimes her whole body, violently involuntarily shaking. It reminded me of runners at the finish line of a marathon shaking uncontrollably, having lost control of their body.
The doctor wanted to cut into the belly of Olive’s mother and yank her out. It had been too long since water had broken, and if something went wrong he and the hospital would be libel. Olive’s mother said, No, please don’t cut me. Her father said , No, please don’t cut her. But the clock was ticking and the doc was a picture of institutional fiduciary grimness. Olive’s dad got so mad he wanted to punch the doctor in his smug face. Her dad managed to repress that impulse.
The dula and the midwife took the great white doctor aside and they had an animated discussion.
The image of the scalpel cutting into the flesh and Olive being ripped out made everyone edgy, tweaky and manic, especially since people hadn’t slept for such a long time and were freaked by the possibility that after all this, the baby could die.
After much deliberation and discussion, the doctor split and the dula and the midwife returned looked very happy with themselves. Something was inserted somewhere to try and make the process happen more quickly. This seemed to have little effect.
After more deliberation and discussion, it was decided that a drug would be injected to induce labor. And a pain relieving epidural seemed clearly in order.
The Anesthesiologist marched in. Crisp, meticulous and immaculate, a pin would look sloppy next to him. He seemed to have a spotlight shining on him. He wheeled in a large metallic box, like a magician, and laid out all his tools on its flat surface. I once worked as a fruit picker, with migrants. The way they attacked a fruit tree was a work of art. They didn’t seem to be moving that fast, but everything happened so rapidly you couldn’t follow it. It was surreal. That’s what the anesthesiologist was like. He had a small needle inserted near the spine of Olive’s mother so quick you thought your eyes were deceiving you. Then he threaded what looked like a metallic fishing line into the hole. Or I’m assuming he did, I didn’t see it happen, all of a sudden it was just there. I don’t even think the man spoke a word. Then all of a sudden, like the Lone Ranger, he was gone without even waiting for Thank You.
Instant relief bathed the grateful face of Olive’s mom. Her face was drained of pain, fear, tension and anxiety. The contractions kept coming thick and heavy, although Olive’s mom was bearing them much more easily. But still her body was not ready for Olive to come out. So Olive’s mother slept, gathering her strength. Recharged and revived, the inducing drugs working away, the epidural was discontinued. It was time.
This is where things got freaky. The midwife actually reached her hands into the womb and started manipulating things inside Olive’s mother. You could see Olive moving around through the thin skin, thrashing and kicking as she was sucked downdowndown into the canal as her heart beat:
BOOM BOOM BOOM!
59 hours and 45 minutes since the start of labor, the body was finally ready. The grandmother and the godmother and the husband and the dula and the midwife prepared with the mother for the final push. With the midwife’s fingers expertly manipulating inside the body of Olive’s mother, the pushing began again. Three to each contraction.
On and on it went, with each contraction the midwife exhorting, imploring, encouraging the mother to keep pushing even when she could push no more, three pushes, with the breath held, then release and sink into the bed.
Suddenly there it was. A miracle. The top of the head. Even though it was clearly visible it was completely unbelievable. Even though you knew it was going to happen, it was incomprehensible. Even though you understood what was going on, it was ununderstandable. Even though it was impossible, it was actually happening.
The grandmother wept and wept, as she helped, great tears of joy and release, and the godmother kept saying just the right things at just the right moment to relieve the tension. The dula was here there and everywhere, supplying what was needed even before it was asked for. The husband whispered in the ear, and supplied the oxygen. And the midwife was like the captain of the team, organizing, letting everyone know what they should do in a commanding yet gentle voice, always knowing what to do, with her hands deep inside the body of the mother, moving and rearranging and allowing life to enter the world.
A third of the head was pushed out and then went back in again at the end of the contraction. And then there it was again with another contraction and push, the whole head, even as they watched they kept asking themselves:
“How is this happening?”
The midwife started yanking on the head with what seemed like, to the interested observer, shockingly violently aggression. The father had a sudden vision of the midwife ripping his daughter’s head right off, the poor headless baby flailing its arms, while the horrified head looked on.
But no, the midwife’s magic fingers slid Olive right out of her mother.
A collective gasp filled the room. The mother was overcome with relieved jioe de vivre and unspeakable metaphysical physical soul opening exhilaration and awe.
Suddenly there she was:
Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry.
Alive, laying on her mother’s chest, still attached by the cord to the inside. The midwife and dula rubbed Olive with sweet vigor. Olive’s tiny yet huge lungs filling with air, and she gave out a small surprised cry, like: Wow, I’m really here!
The father cried copious tears overflowing with a love that he had never felt. He saw Olive learning to talk and walk and read and going to school and learning to drive and falling in love and getting married and having a baby of her own, eternity in an instant, infinity in an infant’s eyes.
And that is how, after almost 60 hours of labor, Olive Annabell Maureen Sterry came into the world weighing a whopping 9 lbs. 2 oz at 2:19 p.m. on September 13, 2007.
When I was Master of Ceremonies at Chippendales Male Strip club I hardly ever got laid. But I sadly watched on as sexy sexy people all around me were banging boffing & boinking.
to buy Master of Ceremonies
My first piece on Salon. Thanks to Arielle Eckstut. To read on Salon click here: http://www.salon.com/2013/02/14/i_wrote_my_way_to_true_love/
“You should stop writing these stupid movie scripts and write about your life, it’s so much more interesting.” Janine, my hypnotherapist, was not being unkind. She just had no filter. And she was right. That was the most infuriating thing about Janine my hypnotherapist. She was always right.
I had just gotten a three-picture deal with Disney. Well, it wasn’t really a three-picture deal. They hired me to write a script for one of their moronic ideas (Sinbad in the Army with dogs), and in the contract they locked me up for another two movies for slightly more money each time. But at the bottom of every page was writ in small letters: “We can terminate this contract for any reason at any time for perpetuity and eternity in this and every other conceivable universe and pay you NOTHING.” I asked my agent and she said I could tell everybody I had a three-picture deal with Disney. Even though I didn’t really. And that, in a nutshell, is Hollywood, baby.
But the thought of telling the truth about myself made me hot and clammy, sticky and jittery, teeth tearing into cuticles till they bled. I was much more comfortable working on my buddy script about two 12-year-olds who go to Vegas and beat the mob. Or my mobster-becomes-a-vampire script. Or my “Some Like It Hot” cross-dressing baseball script.
But I’d always wanted to write a book. So that night I started writing one. It was liberating. Gave my obsessive mind something to focus on besides my own sex-addicted self-loathing.
Turns out I wasn’t quite ready to tell that story yet. I hadn’t hit bottom. I was still living in my beautiful Craftsman home in the hills of Echo Park with my beautiful red sports car and my beautiful sex-denying fiancée. I hadn’t yet been fired by Disney, my Sinbad/Army/dog script unmade, my fictitious three-picture deal evaporated in a puff of smoke. I hadn’t yet been dumped by an entirely different beautiful damaged narcissistic sex-denying fiancée whom I DIDN’T EVEN LIKE. I hadn’t yet been whacked over the head with a metal pipe at 4 a.m. in Harlem by an angry disenfranchised crackhead while pursuing a transsexual thief masquerading as a female sex worker. That was when I hit bottom. The bottom of the bottom.
I decided I would try to get my book published. By this time I was living in the nasty skanky hovel in Venice Beach where you could satisfy all your crack needs by sticking your head out the window and yelling, “Yo!” I’d hang out at Muscle Beach with the steroid-bloated weightlifters and tourists and wannabe actresses, actors, screenwriters, producers, directors and other local whack jobs, begging people to read my book. Eventually I sent it to a woman who used to be my commercial acting agent in New York City. She said she loved my book, and asked me if I’d mind if she gave it to her goddaughter, who was a literary agent. “Do I mind?” I scoffed. “Are you kidding me? I will name my first child after you if you do me this kindness.”
I sent the Goddaughter Agent my manuscript. By that time it was called “Mort Morte.” A week after I sent the script I called to make sure she had received my manuscript. Contained herein is a valuable lesson for anyone doing business. Disregard the Follow Up at your own peril. Goddaughter Agent confessed sheepishly that she had lost it. I rolled my eyes, thinking to myself: What a bunch of buffoons these New York literary agents are. If I had done the typical writer thing, and assumed that the universe hates me, that I am a no-talent hack, and that the agent was rejecting me, I would not be writing this story now. But I did the Follow Up. My motto, which I adopted in Hollywood: I will not stop until the person I’m pursuing says yes or takes out a Restraining Order.
I sent her another “Mort Morte.” A month later, having heard not a peep from her, I called Goddaughter Agent. I didn’t snarl in a snarky voice, “Why haven’t you read my manuscript yet?” I was as nice as pie. I give good phone. I asked her how she was doing, cracked a joke that made her laugh. I never mentioned my manuscript. She promised me she’d read it as soon as she could. Later I found out she was Jewish. Well, she still is. And I was so nice that she felt guilty, and my manuscript moved up about 3 inches in the 12-foot pile by her desk. This was before the Internet, when people actually sent manuscripts through the mail! Can you imagine?!
One month later to the day I made the same phone call to Goddaughter Agent. Nice as pie. Unbeknownst to me, my manuscript rose a whole foot in the 12-foot pile. Nine months, once a month, I called her. One human gestation period. We could’ve had a baby in the time it took her to read my manuscript. Finally, guilt drove my manuscript to the top of the pile. By this time, we had a nice banter going. An idea popped out of my mouth, as if the Muse had pushed it out. I told her I was coming to New York for Christmas. She told me that if I did, she’d read my book and take me out to lunch. Of course I had no plans at all to go to New York for Christmas. I quickly accepted her lunch invitation 3,000 miles away. As soon as I hung up, I frantically bought a ticket to New York.
She took me to a swank restaurant, one of those places agents take writers when they want to impress them. She had seemed in my mind on the phone from 3,000 miles away like a very amiable dowager. Not at all. Turned out she was 20-something, totally cute, great smile, fabulous laugh, smoking hot body, kind eyes and spectacularly stylish, like she just stepped out of a magazine featuring wildly intelligent cutting-edge fashionista intelligentsia 20-something Manhattan babes. I was one smitten kitten. She told me she loved “Mort Morte.” And she had smart things to say about changes she wanted me to make. I was so used to getting the dumbest dumbass notes from Hollywood studio hacks that it was like a fragrant breeze on the first day of spring. She said if I made the changes, she’d represent me and my baby/manuscript. I was ecstatic. But there was something more. I liked this woman. A lot.
That night I couldn’t stop thinking about her. So the next day I called her and asked her if she wanted to hang out. She said she’d like to hang out. I later found out she had plans she broke for me. Nothing sexier than someone breaking their plans for you. We went to see one of Billy Bob Thornton’s most forgettable movies. I can literally remember nothing about it. Except that I was with her. Then she asked me if I wanted to go to a French restaurant near her apartment in Brooklyn. I was pretty sure that was dating code for: I want to hook up with you. Turns out I was right. The French restaurant was spectacular. But not as spectacular as she was.
Suddenly we were in her ridiculously stylish Brooklyn brownstone. She was so much fun to talk to. Religion, politics, books, America, the world, the universe. Einstein was proven right again, time really is relative. An hour passed in a minute. At a certain point she asked me in a funny, teasing and altogether endearing way, “Every first novel is about the author. But this book isn’t about you, is it? You didn’t kill your father and three of your stepdads, did you?”
I laughed. It was funny. The way she said it. What she was saying. Normally, I would’ve given her some lame retort that masked who I really was. I was like an anti-superhero. Instead of having a secret identity that was amazing and saved people, I had a secret identity that was a twisted grotesque monster bent on destroying me and all those who cared about me. But I decided to take off the mask. I was not going to lie about who I was or what I’d done. If she didn’t like it, that was her problem. I was so exhausted living a lie. I was ready to be set free by the truth. I’d hit the bottom. The bottom of the bottom.
So I told her everything. About the man who abused me when I was 17. About being sucked into the filthy underbelly of the Hollywood sex business. Becoming a drug addict and a sex addict and doing my time with Janine my hypnotherapist. I thought it would feel terrible to say all that to someone I was interested in. Just the opposite. It was such a load lifted. The black cloud that had been thunderstorming all over my life parted and the sun shone and the birds chirped and the angels sang. It was a transcendent moment. I thought if I told someone I was interested in about my sordid shameful dirty secrets that she’d be horrified and run screaming away from me. Just the opposite. Goddaughter Agent was fascinated. Spellbound. “That’s the book you should write.” Exactly what Janine my hypnotherapist said. Only now, I was ready. I didn’t care anymore. It was so good to be Out.
I moved in with Goddaughter Agent that night. I didn’t know I was moving in with her, but it turned out I was. Her name was Arielle. Well, it still is. She came out to visit me in Venice Beach. She was even better than I’d imagined. She helped me put together a proposal for my real story. That became a book called “Chicken.”
But much more important, I found the love of my life. Arielle AKA Goddaughter Agent. Two years after the Billy Bob Thornton movie and the French restaurant we were married high on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. A couple of years later we made a baby together. I know it happens all the time, babies being made, but it still strikes me every day as being spectacularly magical that two human beings, without any help at all, could make something as complicated as a human being. Olive. That’s what we called her. Well, we still do. She’s 5 years old now. Einstein proven right once again. That five years has gone by in about 10 minutes.
“Mort Morte” never got sent out by my agent/wife. As soon as we got married, she fired me as a client. But I still wanted to get that book published. I kept showing it to people over the years. Everyone seemed to love it, but they all thought it was just too weird. So I decided, at the suggestion of the lovely and talented Arielle, to go after a world-class artist to make some illustrations for my book. This led me to a French Canadian named Alain Pilon. I contacted him, and sent him my manuscript. He loved it and agreed to make a bunch of illustrations. All the while I kept tweaking and polishing, buffing and shining, making it better and sending it out there.
Finally, one day, to my shock and amazement, there it was in my inbox. An email from an editor who said how much she loved “Mort Morte.” I was used to this by now, and I knew the next sentence would be about why they couldn’t publish my quirky, wacky, coming-of-age Alice in Wonderland meets Tin Drum novel about gun violence and kids in America, and a boy who really loves his mother. But wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, this editor said she wanted to publish my book. I was gobsmacked. I showed the email to Arielle. We danced and made happy happy sounds.
Twenty years after I started writing that book I finally got it published. I’m a different person now than I was then. But every time I look at the beautiful Alain Pilon cover of “Mort Morte” I am filled with joy.
And that’s how writing a book led me to the love of my life.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 14 books, including his memoir, “Chicken,” an international bestseller that has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys,” was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. His new illustrated novel is “Mort Morte,” a coming-of-age black comedy about gun violence and children, and a boy who really loves his mother.
2 Pitchapaloozas in 24 hours. 3,000 miles apart. They said it couldn’t be done. They were wrong.
It all started on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon at the James River Writers Conference, in the shockingly excellent city of Richmond. JRWC came into our lives as the result of brutal failure. Two years ago I set up a DC area mini-tour for an infamous book I put together. My girl Shawna Kenney (whose memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix–which is about when she was a teenage dominatrix) was just optioned by Vince Vaughn) booked us into Poets & Busboys in Washington (packed to the rafters!), Atomic Books in Baltimore (filled to the gills!), and Chop Suey in Richmond. When Shawna and I walked into Chop Suey, there were exactly 0 customers in the store. There were
about 15 folding chairs. None of them had audience asses in them. Just as we were ready to call it a day, in walked a couple of brave souls who looked like they actually wanted to be there. One of them was a colleague and dear friend of Shawna Kenney named Valley Haggard. A ridiculously intimate show like that can actually be liberating, because let’s face it, since there are only four people, it really doesn’t matter, and you can just let loose. So I actually had an ecstatic rhapsodic performing experiences. This is one of the reasons I do it. Afterwards, Shawna and I went out with Valley Haggard. First of all, is that not the greatest name ever? Valley Haggard. Born to be an author. Or a country singer. Second of all, she was so smart, and funny, and generous, and goofy. At a certain point she told me she was part of a writing group: The James River Writers. I told her about Pitchapalooza and BOOM! Next thing you knew, we were on a beautiful Virginia Saturday afternoon about to unleash Pitchapalooza on Richmond. Beautiful old buildings, a rabid writing community, and the sheer NICENESS of the people make it a go-to destination. And I am not being paid by the Richmond Visitors Bureau to say that. Although if they did want to pay me, I would certainly take their money. One of the cool things about doing a writer’s festival is that you get to actually hang out with lots of pretty spectacular authors and writers. Plus, I did about a dozen seven-minute consultations.
It’s shocking how fast get to know someone in seven minutes. So it was fun to see all these people that we had connoitered with, filling the auditorium. By the time we started it was pretty much full, 150 writers and those who love them waiting in breathless anticipation. We had a very funny and savvy panelist, Michelle Brower, from the Folio Literary Management. As we do at every Pitchapalooza, we heard many crackerjack pitches. A middle-age dragon (Michelle said that a menopausal dragon would be hysterical, and in doing so brought the house down). I Do, I Did, I Don’t, a novel about a society where marriages have to be renewed every 10 years. Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks. But our winner was a cut above. He’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he worked very closely with trained military dogs. Dogs of war. His novel, Boots on the Ground, Paws on the Ground, about soldiers battling in life and death circumstances, and their relationships with these brave, loyal, and extraordinary canines brought Arielle to tears. In 1 minute. Plus, his man’s-man lantern jaw, buff hulking hunky humble manner, and his AWESOME story made him an absolute crowd favorite. Hurt Locker meets Rin Tin Tin, it just seemed to have bestseller written all over it. And it was just one of many pitches that screamed: BOOK!
As soon as Pitchapalooza Richmond was done, and I had said heartfelt thanks to my new Richmond peeps, I whipped back to the hotel, grabbed my baggage, got the kind of hug only a four-year-old can give from Olive, kissed Arielle a fond adieu, and was whisked away to the airport. It was a mad blast to have Olive with us, but we had decided she would go back with Arielle on the train, while I would fly solo to San Francisco, and do Pitchapalooza in San Francisco all by myself.
Having been awakened that morning at 7 AM by Olive begging me to play Biting Piggy (a game we made up about a month ago), I stumbled, mumbled, bumbled and numbled my way off the plane at 1 AM (4 AM EST!), feeling like someone had inserted nozzles into my ear holes and blown cotton candy into my skull. Red-rimmed pupils, baggage under my eyes bigger than the suitcase I was lugging, guts rumbling from too much bad trail mix and caffeine, I shuffled through the disorientating post-midnight fluorescence of SFO. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve heard too many zombie pitches lately, but being in an airport in the wee, wee hours will totally make you believe in zombies. As I threw myself into bed at 2 AM (5 AM EST!) I felt the sting of a tickle catch in my throat. A cough barked out of me. Followed by another cough. Then another. I could actually feel a flu bug attacking my larynx. HACK! HACK! HACK! Knowing that the thing I needed most in the world was a good deep night’s sleep, I tossed and coughed through a miserable night’s stupor. In my fevered dreams, zombies were pitching me books about werewolves, vampires, hard-boiled dicks, and yes, zombies. All while eating chunks of my flesh. It’s so depressing when you get out of bed in the morning, and you’re more exhausted than when you got in the night before.
Lead-headed, wheezing and sneezing, I coughed my way out the door. Luckily it was a rare robin-egg-blue sky day in Baghdad-by-the Bay, and a brisk but toasty breeze blowing lifted my spirits. Once I got to North Beach, I found, to my surprise and delight, that the massive annual street fair was raging. Columbus Avenue shut down, tables four deep set up on sidewalks outside restaurants, revelers and tourists and looky-loos cramjampacked in one of my favorite neighborhoods in the world, where Old Italian cannoli/espresso/gelato culture rubs elbows (and many other body parts) with drunken scruffy post-Beat writer types who scribble away in notebooks.
The fair was madness, in the best sense of the word. A WWII-type float with Andrews Sisters-look-alikes singing Roll Out the Barrel; a high-stepping marching band from Oakland rocking their synchronized syncopation; Chinese slow-motion tai chi masters; kilted-up bag piping bad boys; American flag flying, Harley hog-riders; wild west cowboys on a high-stepping horses, and cowgirls decked out in sparkly costumes that looked like a cross between Dale Evans and Liberace. It made me so happy to be alive.
I made my way to the Vesuvio’s, where I was going to be doing a reading for Litquake, the seismographic orgy of books that blows up San Francisco every October. For those of you who don’t know, Vesuvio’s is right across the alley from City Lights Bookstore, the beating heart and pulsating brain of San Francisco literati for 50 years. Everyone from Dylan Thomas to Lenny Bruce to Jack Kerouac have gotten polluted, plastered and plonkied while waxing poetic at Vesuvio’s. I felt a great wave of history as I walked in, an overpowering sense of honor, humility, and gratitude to be reading at this shrine where so many great writers have drunk until they passed out. The readers performed from the second floor balcony, looking down as if from Mount Olympus on the pulsating, hooch-fueled throng, shoehorned in wall-to-wall, cheek-by-jowl, the body heat wafting upwards, a crackling electromagneticity rocketing around the room, and ricocheting off those hallowed walls, which have seen so much literary history made over the years. I was up first, and my adrenal glands were spitting fire, my central nervous system all jacked up, while my heart felt like a hare being chased by the hounds. The din of the crowd was so loud it sounded like someone had turned the volume up to 11. I was worried that they wouldn’t shut up and listen to me. I underestimated the power of MC extraordinaire Mr. Alan Black, master of the pregnant pause and the growling punchline, a man who made his bones running shows at the Edinburgh Castle, where the Tenderloin sits like a festering sore on the bum of San Francisco. Like a lion tamer who uses a Scottish brogue and slashing wit as his whip and chair to control a room full of wild beasts, he subdued the crowd in 1.2 seconds. I love that feeling of a tightly packed mass of humanity waiting silently for the performer to try and conjure magic out of thin air. I took a deep breath, relished the moment, and plunged in. It was such a joy riding those words in that crowd through my story. Ridiculously gratifying.
Sadly I had to bolt as soon as I was finished, so I missed the show, and as I strolled back down Columbus Avenue toward the Pyramid Building, the adrenaline speed wore off and I was struck dumb by a numbing wave of exhaustipation. I had quite forgotten how depleted and drained my battery was, and I worried I’d have to call AAA to jumpstart me before Pitchapalooza Litquake, which was set to start in 20 min. Caffeine! my brain screamed. I collapsed into Starbucks. I coughed. I hacked. I wheezed. I drank. I made it to Market Street, rejuvenated, just in time to find the organizers starting to seriously worry that I wasn’t going to show up. It was my great good fortune to have two publishing stalwarts, Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark (Write That Book Already!) as my copilots. They arrived like the cavalry providing reinforcement for my battle weary troops. And we were off! A meta-post-modern novel about a writer battling his own book. A rich girl getting back at her bad dad. A juicy, gossipy guide to the London Olympics. An Australian graphic novel about fast food workers who are actually crime fighters: fries and spies! Dystopian apocalypses, literary opusi, zombies, werewolves, vampires and hard-boiled dicks. But again, the winner was a cut above: a hysterically told tale set in Liverpool, where soccer is a combination of religious obsession and drunken life-and-death spectacle, and a woman finds she can predict the outcome of matches before they happen. Madcap antics ensue.
Suddenly it was over. I staggered in a stupor out onto Market Street, wrung out like a ragged rag, but wildly satisfied. That night I collapsed into bed moaning and groaning, wracked by hacking spasms. Slept for 12 hours. Next night I slept 12 more. When I awoke, the bug, the tickle, the hack and cough were miraculously gone. I’m on the plane going back to my Jersey hearth and home. Happily anticipating the kind of kiss only a four-year-old can give from Olive, and snuggling into my own bed with my lovely and talented wife.
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Memoirs have been a source of raging controversy. Seems some memoirs are more true than others. But to me, a memoirist makes a deal with the reader: what I tell you is real, and you judge me by the stories I tell you. I think about this way too much because I am a memoirist. So when it came time to choose who would be the best leader of these great United States, I dove into the word-pools of John McCain and Barak Obama, these memoirists who would be president. I started with McCain’s The Way to Bravery. First off, McCain didn’t even write his memoir. And the book reads like it was written by the captain of the football team who had the smart kid do it for him. The facts are all there, but it’s generic as a can of beans with the word BEANS written on it. The book’s peppered with war stories, and he talks about America watching the Iraq invasion with shock, awe and a thrilling pleasure. It dawned on me as I read this book that the John McCain in this book is the archetypal American John Wayne male. A man who’d rather fight than talk.
Barack Obama did write his own memoir. Right off the bat, I like that. In the world of books we talk a lot about voice. The voice in Dreams from My Father is so strong and personal. A scene in an airplane to Africa, home of Obama’s father, stuck in my mind. An Englishman bound for South Africa talks about the poor buggers of godforsaken Africa. Obama feels silent fury, but even in the midst of rage, empathizes with the man and questions his own basic beliefs. If anything, this is a man too stuck in his own brain. But a man with poetry in his soul. He seems to be the model of the new American male. A thoughtful, sensitive international man of the world.
I have no clue how the economic plans of either candidate will dig us out of this gaping gasping chasm. But memoir wise, Obama feels the real deal, while McCain feels a fake. I’ve heard the pundits pundicate that the authentic maverick John McCain has let his true story be edited to the point of fiction, so that he doesn’t comes across like a man who wrote a memoir about courage. Obama, with his thoughtful, elegant prose, comes across like a man who’d rather talk than fight. A man true to his memoir.
Truth or Fiction: Voting By Memoir
Memoirs have been a source of raging controversy. Seems some memoirs are more true than others. A memoirist makes a deal with the reader: what I tell you is real, and you judge me by my stories. I think about this way too much because I’m a memoirist. So when it came time to choose the next leader of these great United States, I dove into the wordpools of these memoirists who would be president. I started with John McCain’s The Way to Bravery. First off, McCain didn’t even write his memoir. And the book reads like it was written by the captain of the football team who had the smart kid do it for him. The facts are all there, but it’s generic as a can of beans with the word BEANS written on it. The book’s peppered with war stories, and he talks about America watching the Iraq invasion with shock, awe and a thrilling pleasure. It dawned on me as I read this book that the John McCain in this book is the archetypical American John Wayne male. A man who’d rather fight than talk.
Barack Obama did write his own memoir. Right off the bat, I like that. In the world of books we talk alot about voice. The voice in Dreams from My Father is so strong and personal. A scene in an airplane to Africa, home of Obama’s father, stuck in my mind. An Englishman bound for South Africa talks about the poor buggers of godforsaken Africa. Obama feels silent fury, but even in the midst of rage, emphasizes with the man and questions his own basic beliefs. If anything, this is a man too stuck in his own brain. But a man with poetry in his soul. He seems to be the model of the new American male. A thoughtful, sensitive international man of the world.
I have no clue how the economic plans of either candidate will dig us out of this gaping gasping chasm. But memoir wise, Obama feels the real deal, while McCain feels a fake. I’ve heard the pundits pundicate that the authentic maverick John McCain has let his true story be edited to the point of fiction, so that he doesn’t comes across like a man who wrote a memoir about courage. Obama, with his thoughtful, elegant prose, comes across like a man who’d rather talk and fight. A man true to his memoir.
David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of nine books, an award-winning comic/actor, an activist, and a man who has not worn matching socks in 20 years. kept his first memoir, chicken, is being made into a TV series by Showtime. His new memoir, Master of Ceremonies: a True Story of Love, Murder, Roller Skates and Chippendales is the story of when he was at the epicenter of one of the great party cultures of all time, skating around in a tuxedo while Rome burned.
olive has really discovered how to smile, and apparently she enjoys doing itvery much. She had her first Thanksgiving at her grandfather’s birthday party. Everyone was very nice to her. She seemed to have a very good time. At one point on the trip back in the car, she woke up and went absolutely berserk. A whole new level of insanity, this death rattle of the scream that shrieks from the depths of her up her lungs shoots through her throat rattles off the top of her skull and careens out horrifically. In a small enclosed spaces like a car it makes you feel like plucking your eyes out. Arielle wanted to stop the car and comfort her. I said, just let her scream for a minute and see what happens. It’s okay to be furious at the world. It’s a very natural reaction to the human condition. Let’s see if she can figure out how to calm herself down. Sure enough about three minutes later she was asleep, and slept the whole rest of the trip. Being responsible for another human being’s existence makes for a series of seemingly life altering decisions every day.it‘s not dull. And when she smiles in my face it’s like the universe is a rose opening just for me.
Well, we did it.We put all of our stuff into boxes, hired burly man to put them in a giant truck, stuffed our most valuable (mismatched socks, my mother’s ashes) stuff into our Rav 4 and waved goodbye to our life in San Rafael California, where the sun shines all the time, and the deer are so friendly that we frequently found them rummaging through our refrigerator when they had the munchies.Packing, for me, after several months of doing it, was a source of almost unspeakable horror.the more I packed, and more than was to pack, one pile would disappear and 2 more would rear their heads.It was like a dream you have where you’re running as hard as you can, but you’re not getting any closer to the house where those men are molesting your girlfriend, or whatever particular thing you run towards in your dreams.
Several times I just broke down completely, weeping like a hurricane as I tried to decide whether to throw away some postcard my mother sent me 35 years ago, or some fab picture of some babe I boffed in 1979.All the fevered letters, the sweet notes, passionate poems, the broken hearts on both sides of the Highway of Love.It just plumb wore me out sifting through all the shit of my life and figure out the difference between junk and my stuff, what was trash and what was treasure.And of course I turned 50 on June 2.Half a century.If I live to be a hundred it’s already half over.And of course we were writing two books under a ridiculously preposterous deadline.And of course my lovely and talented wife was pregnant.All evidence points toward the fact that it is my child dancing in her womb, only time will tell.So there’s that.
But the results of all these churning tributaries of life feeding into one giant waterfall was that I lost part of my mind, and I’m just now getting it back.My hands have been aching.Ever since the move.While they were sore before that, but they really started aching during the move.A combination of deep sharp pain, slow strangulating pain.Throbbing burning pain, and the psychological pain that constant pain inflicts.The slightest difficulty became a source of intense irritation which flamed into rage so quickly it gave me the bends.Tracking down and talking to computer technicians, phone company lackeys, insurance brokers, tax record officials, it was all just beyond me.
Luckily, I had a lot of help, mostly from my lovely and talented wife, who as I said was pregnant, and continues to be so.Also, Judy, my moms widow, she packed about 17,000 boxes, all by herself.She’s from Minnesota, so she has that good Midwestern work ethic, and she was one box-packing fool.She was like a cartoon character, you stand there and all watching her arms and hands whirring all-around, and suddenly another box was packed and she was taping it shut, easy peasy, Bob’s your uncle.And mind you, I started collecting boxes and packing several months before the move.So it’s not like I was unprepared.
But the more I packed, the more my mental health deteriorated, until finally I was blinded by the light, and suddenly a migraine had somehow slithered like a computer virus into the mainframe of my brain.Apparently when you have a migraine it’s basically just everything tightening up and compressing.It feels like my head is in a giant vise being tightened by a circus strongman with an anger management problem.Then I start to see these lights in the corner of my eyes, only when you look right at them, they go away, so you’re not really sure if you’re actually seeing the lights, or if it’s just some floater that you see in the corner of your eye sometimes.But then I get this kind of disorientated, off kilter, askew feeling.It’s not so overpowering that you can’t carry on a conversation or brush your teeth or pack a box, but there’s definitely something wrong.Then I really really really see the lights in the corners of my eyes, and that’s when I know I’ve arrived in Migraine City, where excruciating agony awaits everyone who steps off that train.It used to be at this point in the migraine, I would get a knee buckling, chest heaving, jaw tightening pain started in the middle of my brain and worked its way out seismically.
However, since I started working with Dr. Marty Rossman, and his amazing creative visualization techniques, I am able to get through the whole thing now with basically no pain at all.Here’s what I’d do.I get myself in a cool very dark place, somewhere soft I can lay down and be very peaceful.I imagine a very happy moment from my past: a beach in Hawaii where wild horses cavorted on a hill 200 yards away, and the warm warm ocean broke in gentle waves.In.Out.In.Out.And I time the waves with my breath.In.Out.In.Out.Then starting at the soles of my feet, I breathe cool blue soothing light into my body, moving up little by little, toes, feet, ankles, calves, knees, and usually by the time I get to my poor wracked brain, I am asleep, and usually I sleep for a couple of hours.When I wake up and I’m groggy and it’s hard for me to put words together, and I’m logey, there’s tapioca pudding where sharp thoughts should be.So that’s what packing reduced me to: a useless, incoherent, blithering idiot.But somehow I got by with a little help from my friends.Then all I had to do was drive across the United States of America.With my lovely and talented wife getting more pregnant by the day, furiously trying to finish writing these books, and wrap our minds around the fact that very very very very soon we were going to be new homeowners, new parents, and new New Jersey-ites.
America is huge.And tilted.All the nuts and flakes eventually roll to California.And what you realize as soon as you leave California, is that you were one of the nuts and flakes.When you get into Nevada, and Wyoming, it’s almost incomprehensible how much land there is no one living there.Land as far as the eye can see.And then some.We drove and we drove and we drove.Then we drove and we drove and we drove.It was actually really fun to just get to talk with each other, without the phone always ringing, and some emergency or other to have to face down.And it was an excellent way to write a book.I would drive, and my lovely and talented wife would type with the laptop in, of all places, her lap. I think our child is either going to be madly in love with books, or will hate them with a fiery passion.
Cheyenne, Wyoming is not nearly as exciting as you think it would be.Basically it seems like a rundown, time-worn western town where everyone seems a little too anxious to talk to someone who’s not from there.We went into a pawn shop and the guy behind the counter with more nose hairs than teeth roped us into a conversation that was literally about the weather.And he would not let us go.We tried to extricate ourselves over and over again, to no avail.He did everything but physically restrain us from leaving his store.It took some classic misdirection involving the unborn within my lovely and talented wife’s belly to get us the hell out of there.But you can get a really good steak in Cheyenne, Wyoming.Omaha is also a very good town for getting a steak.We were going to get married on the trip across the country.Mostly for insurance purposes.Seriously.That’s what we’ve come to as a culture.Got to get married so you can get health insurance.Plus we thought it would be fun to get married while my lovely and talented wife looked so gosh darn pregnant.So we asked about getting married in Salt Lake City.We figured, it must be very easy to get married there, since men historically had so many wives in Salt Lake City.No, turns out it’s actually quite difficult to get married in Salt Lake City.Our waiter said he thought it was because they were trying to discourage polygamy.We had a very nice gay Mormon waiter in Salt Lake City.And I wondered what it must be like to be a gay Mormon in Salt Lake City.And I thought about Matthew Shepard and how those homophobes crucified him.
The open spaces of the planes and prairies are very peaceful and restful.The people we saw there seemed very well fed and friendlier, more interested in other people than folks on either coast.Everyone wanted to know when the baby was due, if it was a boy or girl, what name we picked out.Miles and miles and miles of rows and rows and rows of corn and beans and wheat.There’s so much food and so much space, and you wonder, How is anyone hungry?How is it that people don’t have a place to live?
Chicago is a very cool town.There’s all this amazing stuff going on, blues festivals and world-class theater and food that makes you happy to be alive.We treated ourselves in Chicago, took a day off, and did some chillin.We decided to go to the Ritz, and have their brunch.We had done that in Atlanta when we were on our book tour, and it was so decadent and disgusting and fun.In Atlanta there were three rooms with stations of food in them: meats of every kind and breads of every kind and salads of every kind and the even had a chocolate fountain.A chocolate fountain!Nothing says fun to me like a chocolate fountain.So we walked in about two o’clock to the Chicago Ritz, pregnant and roadburned.They did have a lot of stuff and the stuff was good, don’t get me wrong.But they only had a few kinds of bread, a few kinds of meat, maybe a quarter of the stuff that was in the Atlanta Ritz: certainly no chocolate fountain. We were sitting next to two Uber Alpha males.They were in their late 40s even on a Sunday they were in their killer suits, and tasselly shoes. I always feel like scruffy lad next one of these Alpha Males. Like they are Men.And I am a boy.So the one guy turns to the other and says, “I don’t want to hear about how your kids are sick, or your wife has cancer, or your car needs new tires, I don’t give a shit.You either put up the numbers or you don’t.If you have the numbers, everything else works itself out.If you don’t have the numbers, I don’t want to hear any of your bullshit.”
Either I forgot how disgusting, despicable, and deplorable New York City is, or I’ve completely changed since I moved in away from here in 1993.Or New York City has changed since then.Because it really sucks now.It’s abusively loud, it’s ridiculously expensive, would it is becoming one huge super Mall, where they’re trying to drive out all artists, and the artisans, and regular people who aren’t billionaires.Plus, it smells like sour kiss and old man’s balls.Don’t ask how I know what old man balls smell like, trust me you don’t want to know.Here are some of the highlights from my first week in New York City.
·I got two moving violations for ridiculous shift I didn’t even do
·I got three parking tickets
·the window of my car was smashed in, and all the license and registration material was stolen, clearly an attempt to steal my identity
·my wallet with my drivers license is, the keys to my motorcycle, and hundreds of dollars was stolen
·a cab driver tried to run me over while I was rollerskating on 6th Ave
And it was so hot and humid and muggy and some stinky.I really began to think that it was all a big mistake, I was yearning for California so bad to hurt.We moved from apartment to apartment, staying with our kind friends, trying not to wear out are welcome.We were urban Bedouins.Which is not easy when, as a couple, you are getting more pregnant every day.We did finally finish our books though.Except for a few dribs and drabs, Be Artists In the Me, and The Writer In Me are done and dusted, put to bed.Plus we had a really fun party, where people gave us a lot of stuff for the new baby.Much of which I could not readily identify.It was really great to see people I hadn’t seen in so long.And we went to see a show called Spring A weakening.It’s really a great piece of work.It’s all about repressed sexuality and adolescents.Something which I have been studying, formally and informally for many years, and in fact the subject of my next book, which will be a ghost story about a Shaker baby skeleton aerie in a wall at a boarding school.John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony for his work in the show, was unfucking believable, just electric.And we saw a fantastic movie called Once, and evolution in the musical, Irish, incredibly real, simple and moving.And I got to play a lot of soccer, with people from all over the world.So that was cool.
We took control of our house on August 1.The people we bought it from had lived here for 50 years.And they have done basically nothing to improve the house for 49 of those years.The electricity was installed by Thomas Alva Edison.The entire basement was constructed from asbestos.So on August 2, asbestosis removers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, architects, interior designers and decorators, colorists, general contractors, carpenters, and tradesmen of every ilk swarmed through our new home, painting, plumbing, electricing, madly removing asbestos.And then it was a crazy — toward the finish line: getting everything done before our stuff arrived in and/or the baby did.There was much sanding of many floors, paint was ordered and applied to walls, sinks were bought and installed, electrical boxes mounted on the walls, telephone and cable hard wired into this beautiful old house.It really looked for a moment what our stuff is going to arrive before the stain on the floors was dry.I kept having this image in my head of the movers tromping in with our stuff, and traipsing staying throughout every square inch of our house.But somehow, miraculously, almost everything was done by the time our stuff was due to arrive on Monday morning at 8:30 a.m..By about noon on Monday, we looked at each other and had the same thought.Where are the movers with our stuff?Because they certainly weren’t here at our house.So we called up the moving company.Turns out the driver was in Maryland, or Memphis, or Minneapolis.I can’t remember, someplace that started with an M. but they certainly weren’t in Montclair were our house was.And is.It was definitely a case of movus interruptus.So we had to do it all over again the next day.But this time, our stuff came.It was amazing how much of it just seemed like junk to me.I would open a box and think, Oh my God!Did I actually pay to have this moved?What is this?Is this mine?Oh my God!Two large movers, and one short Hispanic man bugged all of our stuff from the truck into the house.After about an hour, but the short Hispanic man started grumbling in Spanish, disgruntled and dismayed.As he walked up the narrow, steep stairs with another heavy boxes, he kept moaning No Mas.This became his nickname around our house: No Mas.It took them eight hours to haul all of our shit into our house, but finally it was done.We were in.Hallelujah!
Many said we were insane to try and move across country while Arielle was pregnant.Into a house that was basically in shambles.But we did it.And we are both very very happy in our new home.And the baby is due today.
After having been through this ordeal, I do have one piece of advice.If anyone out there is thinking of moving:
JUST SAY NO!!!
“I walk all the way up Hollywood Boulevard to Grauman’s Chinese Theater: past turistas snapping shots; wanna-be starlets sparkling by in mini-skirts with head shots in their hands and moondust in their eyes; rowdy cowboys drinking with drunken Indians; black businessmen bustling by briskly in crisp suits; ladies who do not lunch with nylons rolled up below the knee pushing shopping carts full of everything they own; Mustangs rubbing up against muscular Mercedes and Hell’s Angels hogs.
It’s a sick twisted Wonderland, and I am Alice.”
Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent (ReganBooks / HarperCollins, 2002) is the funny, touching story of a sweet, wide-eyed son of Seventies Suburbia who becomes a teenage sex worker servicing rich, lonely women in Beverly Hills. After being abused his first night in Hollywood, David meets Sunny, the manager of Hollywood Fried Chicken, who teaches him all about chicken: how to fry one, and how to be one. But the wild adventures and the mad money are never enough, as he’s sucked into the dark side of Hollywood: the blank-eyed women, the Fall-of-Rome orgies, and the hungry predators. With a mix of breathtaking honesty, sly comedy, genuine tenderness, and an innocent fascination for the bizarre characters and world he enters, Sterry creates a narrative that is fresh, smart, and unexpectedly uplifting. Chicken is a book like no other—a playful, gripping story that explores what it means to suffer through the underbelly of the American Dream. And make it out alive.
Chicken comes with a personal guarantee unprecedented in the history of publishing. If you’re not completely satisfied, I’ll come to your house and wash your car. If you don’t have a car, I’ll vacuum your living room. If you don’t have a living room, I’ll buy you the warm beverage of your choice.*
*Proof of purchase required. Must pass brief quiz.
“Sterry writes with comic brio … [he] honed a vibrant outrageous writing style and turned out this studiously wild souvenir of a checkered past.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“This is a stunning book. Sterry’s prose fizzes like a firework. Every page crackles… A very easy, exciting book to read – as laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing all within a single wrapper. What more could you possibly ask for? -Maurince Newman, Irish Times
“A beautiful book… a real work of literature… wonderfully written.” – Vanessa Feltz, BBC
“Insightful and funny… great stories… captures Hollywood beautifully…” – Larry Mantle, Air Talk, National Public Radio
“Jawdropping… A carefully crafted piece of work…” -Benedicte Page, Book News, UK
“A 1-night read. Should be mandatory reading for parents and kids.” -Bert Lee, Talk of the Town
“Alternately sexy and terrifying, hysterical and weird, David Henry Sterry’s Chicken is a hot walk on the wild side of Hollywood’s fleshy underbelly. With lush prose and a flawless ear for the rhythms of the street, Sterry lays out a life lived on the edge in a coming-of-age classic that’s colorful, riveting, and strangely beautiful. David Henry Sterry is the real thing.” –Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight
“Compulsively readable, visceral, and very funny. The author, a winningly honest companion, has taken us right into his head, moment-by-moment: rarely has the mentality of sex been so scrupulously observed and reproduced on paper. Granted, he had some amazingly bizarre experiences to draw upon; but as V. S. Pritchett observed, in memoirs you get no pints for living, the art is all that counts-and David Henry Sterry clearly possesses the storyteller’s art.” – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body
“Like an X-rated Boogie Nights narrated by a teenage Alice in Wonderland. Sterry’s anecdotes… expose Hollywood at its seamiest, a desperate city of smut and glitz. I read the book from cover to cover in one night, finally arriving at the black and white photo of the softly smiling former chicken turned memoirist.” -Places Magazine
“Snappy and acutely observational writing… It’s a book filled with wit, some moments of slapstick, and of some severe poignancy… a flair for descriptive language… The human ability to be kind ultimately reveals itself, in a book which is dark, yet always upbeat and irreverent. A really good, and enlightening, read.” – Ian Beetlestone, Leeds Guide
“Brutally illuminating and remarkably compassionate… a walk on the wild side which is alternatively exhilirating and horrifying, outrageous and tragic… Essential reading.” – Big Issue
“Visceral, frank and compulsive reading.’ –City Life, Manchester
“Sparkling prose… a triumph of the will.” -Buzz Magazine
“Pick of the Week.” -Independent
“Impossible to put down, even, no, especially when, the sky is falling…Vulnerable, tough, innocent and wise… A fast-paced jazzy writing style… a great read.” -Hallmemoirs
“Full of truth, horror, and riotous humor.” -The Latest Books
“His memoir is a super-readable roller coaster — the story of a young man who sees more of the sexual world in one year than most people ever do.” – Dr. Carol Queen, Spectator Magazine
“Terrifically readable… Sterry’s an adventurer who happens to feel and think deeply. He’s written a thoroughly absorbing story sensitively and with great compassion… A page-turner… This is a strange story told easily and well.” – Eileen Berdon, Erotica.com
“Love to see this book turned into a movie, Julianne Moore might like to play Sterry’s mum…” – by Iain Sharp The Sunday Star-Times, Auckland, New Zealand).
“Chicken expands our understanding of who does sex work and what it involves; of how family dislocation, dysfunction and desertion affect children and adolescents; and of the complex interplay between social norms, sexual practices, “deviant” behavior, and identity. Academics might use Chicken profitably to help students explore non-fiction and memoir writing, or substantively in courses on gender, sexuality, adolescence, deviance, the sexual revolution, the 1970s, southern California, and related topics. As a floodlit slice of life or an object lesson about attempts to counterbalance (dare I say “straddle”?) propriety and impropriety, Chicken is highly recommended. The writing style in Chicken is brash and engaging. Reminiscent of “gonzo journalism” and Lewis Carroll, Sterry’s style includes vivid descriptions, trenchant metaphors, creative compound words, and a taste for alliteration. Yet the book is more than just flashy, over-the-top recounting of colorful anecdotes. Rather, Sterry’s writing style serves his substance well, clearly evoking the milieu of 1970s sexual-revolution-era Hollywood. At the same time, the book is visceral and brutally honest about Sterry’s emotional and physical ordeals during his year as a sex worker. He expresses both sympathy and anger for his clients; in regard to his own behavior, he is subtly introspective, smoothly moving between an account of his feelings at the time and a retrospective evaluation of his actions and motives. While his account does not appear to temper the meanness, sadness or vapidity of many of his customers, he does not shrink from reporting his own failings, either. For example, his recounting of his displaced rage on the basketball court is unflinching and heartbreaking.” Dr. Ann Lucas –Sexuality & Culture, an Interdisciplinary Quarterly
CHICKEN: THE SHOW
#1 Play in Great Britain. -The Independent
“Poignant…a rare pleasure… moving and original… revealingly honest… Sterry is a sharp comic, using his limber body and versatile voice to create memorably portraits of the hungry, lonely, wealthy women who employ his services…Sterry needs no other prop than a wooden bench to get full mileage out of the ludicrousness of sex… But what gives it depth is the hard, sad reality beneath its Rabelaisian humor… Richly entertaining and thought-provoking… Speaks cleverly and provocatively to anyone who’s ever been or had a child.”
—Robert Hurwitt, Head Theater Critic to The San Francisco Chronicle
“Full of energy… fast, provacative, and highly engaging… Simply unmissable…” – The Hearld
“Irresistible… very enjoyable… radiates honesty… funny, physical, and fast…” -The Scotsman
“What a rare pleasure it is to see a writer perform his own work… dream-like profundity…Sterry’s portrayal of his 17-year-old self is immediately honest and believable… juxtaposed with his masterful control of poetic dialogue balances the show.” — SF Examiner
“Sterry summons up in glorious technicolour an amazing array of characters… Extraordinary… engrossing and touching… a great story… It’s a must!” —Daily Mail
“Graced with insight and empathy—Sterry finds a literary rhythm as fluid and alluring as the strut of his ‘nuthugging elephantbells’… a sense of humor as bright and ridiculous as a ‘blood-engorged wangdangdoodle- hammer’.” —S F Weekly
“Disturbing, heartrending, and so funny it makes you choke… intoxicating energy and magnetic storytelling charisma… the poignancy and honesty hits you hard.” – Brighton Argus
“A tour-de force.”—SF Bay Times
“Sextacular.” – Beth Lisick, SF Gate
“Frank, funny and surreal.” –The Stage
“Pick of the week… Hysterical.” – The Guardian
“Hard-hitting and universal.” -Time Out San Francisco
“Sterry is a man you should know” -Year-End Best Of SF Weekly
“Sterry tells a sad and harrowing story with humor, energy, and a sharp eye for the sort of characters an ‘industrial sex technician’ might meet in the weird aftermath of the ‘60s.” —Michael Scott Moore, The San Francisco Weekly
“Hugely compelling to watch… real skill… The story is told in deft snippets… the language is poetic, and a 1970’s soundtrack gets the audience in the mood… [a] triumphant story… it’s clear that this is a comedy hiding in a tragedy.” -The Independent
Yesterday I had an appointment with my Pilates instructor Jesse Singer, she runs SF Pilates on Market Street, spitting distance from Powell, where the world-famous cable cars originate, in the buzzing heart of the City, throbbing with freezing tourists, dead-eyed wage slaves, S&M slaves and their masters, masters of the universe barons of business, mumbling junkies, designer mothers with designer babies, beggars, borrowers, and thieves, high-end fashion models and lowlife hustlers, pseudo-Christian ranters and street dancing juveniles trying to become the next Michael Jackson, while the cable cars clang clang clang. I live in Marin, 24 minutes from this spot if I drive my Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster. My appointment is at 1 p.m.. If I drove in my car the journey might take an hour, and I knew for a fact that there would be nowhere to park and that didn’t cost a lot of money. Plus I love driving my Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster, and I feel it’s one tiny contribution I can make to this earth, to drive a vehicle that uses so much less fossil fuel, emits so much less toxic shit, takes so much less room to park. I grew up on the cusp of a generation who took those things quite seriously. Making the world a better place, thinking globally and acting locally and respecting the mother of us all: Earth. So it was a total no-brainer. I drove my 75 miles-to-the-gallon Harley to my one o’clock Pilates session with the lovely and talented Jesse Singer at SF Pilates.
Sadly, I was unaware that the City of San Francisco had declared war on her own citizens in such a sick, militaristic, police state way. I did not fully understand the City of San Francisco was now in the business of shaking down the very people who make it what it is. But her before I get to that, another reason I hate San Francisco is that as soon as you approach the Golden Gate Bridge, as breathtaking as it is, the temperature drops at least 15°. And when you’re on a motorcycle, that really sucks. Plus, people are so self obsessed that they pool are round in these enormous vehicles and don’t seem to be aware that there are other people driving on the roads with them. Many people in San Francisco seem to be under the mistaken impression that they’re shit doesn’t stink. And this certainly is evidenced by the way they we cruise willy-nilly in their vehicles, committing blatant acts of turn signal neglect and stop sign abuse. As I was slaloming along Lombard Ave., I found some space in the right lane, trying to beat the ridiculous traffic light pattern that makes it virtually impossible to go from one end of Lombard to the other without being stopped a half a dozen times by red lights, and I was making good time. Without any warning, a soccer mommish SUV with a very put together MILF yammering away on her Blackberry, decided to turn right from the middle lane. Thank God I have developed a system for handling these kind of situations on a motorcycle. I always operate under the basic assumption that everyone who is driving anywhere near me is trying to kill me. It’s kind of like I’m in my own action movie, I’m a hunted renegade and some evil government villains rife with greed and corruption are trying to have me assassinated. It’s a fun way to do something constructive about the very real danger inherent in driving a motorcycle. So I had already sized up the soccer mom and her SUV, already imagining her swerving into me, taking a shot at me with her state-of-the-art semiautomatic weapon, complete with its own silencer. So I am completely prepared for her unconscious attempt to kill me, and I jam on my brakes in plenty of time not to die.
So I make my way down to Market and Powell in plenty of time. I cruise around the neighborhood. I don’t want to park in the seedy groin of the Tenderloin, where crackheads, psychopaths, and other maniac lunatics who would love nothing more than to steal my Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster linger and loiter. So after cruising around the neighborhood, I park up on the sidewalk very unobtrusively, parallel to the street, next to a parking meter. I was very very careful not to block the sidewalk in any way. The same way I’ve been parking in San Francisco for years. I was always under the assumption that we had an understanding, the City of San Francisco and me. Yes, there is a parking epidemic, that’s obvious, we both acknowledged that, so we work together. If I can find a place to park my motorcycle where I’m not getting in anyone’s way, where I’m being respectful to others, I am allowed to park there. Because honestly, if everyone drove a motorcycle, or a moped, or scooter, around the Bay Area, it would be so much better for everyone in the smallest and the biggest of ways. So I locked up my Harley, and I went and had a fabulous Pilates session with Jess him e Singer of SF Pilates.
Try to imagine if you can the shock and horror I felt when I returned to my innocent with Harley, looking sad and abused and violated, with a parking ticket issued by the City of San Francisco sticking out of her. Imagine my rage when I discovered the City of San Francisco, who I thought was my friend and ally and partner, was extorting me for $100. $100. $100. To park, minding my own business, not hurting another soul. So that’s what it’s come to. A city full of millionaires run by fascist bastards extorting their own people, sucking their citizens dry run.
And that’s why I hate San Francisco.
IF YOU GO TOO FAR, YOU’RE LOST: A GOLFER’S NIGHTMARE
I had a dream last night where I was playing golf with Jack Nicklaus and two other professionals, one looked like view is from India or Pakistan or Fuji and the other was just your average old garden-variety professional golfer. A big gallery was watching us. We had all missed the green, and were looking at difficult approaches to saving our pars. The first golfer hit a fabulous flop shot, way up high in the air, it landed softly very close to the hole, and the appreciative gallery applauded. The ball rolled toward the hole, looked like it might go in, but at the last second it slid off to the right and almost came to complete stop. But it didn’t. It kept trickling, wouldn’t stop, just kept rolling along. It rolled slowly down a previously unseen slope, picking up speed as it went. It bombed toward a small creek running along the edge of the green, with a bridge over it. I thought to myself, That ball is going in the water, damn that sucks, he hit such a beautiful shot. But instead of rolling into the water, the ball was funneled towards a hidden hole, where it disappeared, like in a miniature golf putt putt course. The gallery groaned and sighed in dismay. The ball disappeared under the creek, you could hear it clunking down the tunnel, and you could feel the tension in the crowd as they waited to see where the ball was going to end up. Finally it spit out of the ground on the other side of the creek. It flew into the air, and landed next to a muddy, swampy bog where some very hungry looking alligators were lurking, lounging, ready for a midafternoon snack. In the background I could hear commentator saying what bad luck that was, what a great shot he hit, and how almost no one survives Alligator Alley, as the locals have dubbed it. Wait a minute, I thought, how did I miss those alligators? Were there always alligators there? Does the PGA know about this? Lanky lizards, that doesn’t seem right! I was standing on the other side of the green from the alligators, with Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, the greatest golfer in the world has ever known. He is studying his upcoming chip shot. It’s a big green, and the hole is in the middle, so there’s plenty of room to run a pitch right up to the hole, leaving the ball below it for a tidy up and down, thus saving par. The only difficulty is that you have to get the ball up over a small blooming cactus garden that sits between Jack and the green. Cactus garden? How had I not seen all those beautiful blooming cactuses? Radioactive reds, outrageous oranges, blinding blues. So I said to Jack, You just going to pitch and run that up to the hole, eh? After all, he’s executed shots like this a million times before. Hey, you don’t get to be the Golden Bear for nothing. But Jack shakes his head, worried, purses his thin lips, exposing his white teeth. No, it’s a lot trickier than it looks, he said. If you go too far, you’re lost. Wow, I thought to myself, Jack is a deep guy. If you go too far, you’re lost. Jack Nicklaus is a really profound man. Who knew? Jack studies his shot, talks to his caddie, the gallery is restless in anticipation, the TV commentator is whispering about how everything rides on that in this shot, how hard the shot is, but if anyone can do it, Jack can. Jack addresses the ball, performs a few waggles, then strikes it. The white ball travels in a majestic arc over the Technicolor cactus blooms and lands exactly where it should on the green green. It’s rolling straight toward the hole, tracking like it’s metal and the pin is a magnet. The commentator excitedly whispers how this may go in the hole, and the crowd is going berserk, ready to erupt explosively when the ball goes in. Closer and closer it rolls. You just know in your heart that ball is going in, there’s no way it can’t, this is the Golden Bear after all. And yes, the ball actually hits the pin. It can bounces straight up into the air, and it seems to take forever as it plummets down down down, and now the crowd is holding its breath, you could hear a pin drop as the pin quivers in the hole. And the ball disappears like a rabbit down the hole. He did it! the commentator shouts, Jack did it again! The gallery screams and shouts and whoops and hollers. As do I. What a champion, what clutch performer, that’s why he’s the greatest that ever lived. And then suddenly the ball pops back up out of the hole. It hit the bottom of the cup too hard, it was going too fast, and the golf gods spat it back. The crowd groans and moans as for the ball skitters away from the hole, picking up speed as it rolls away, off the green and coming to rest in a sand trap. Jack stoically shakes his head, like he somehow knew this was going to happen. But wait a second, the ball is disappearing, the trap is actually quicksand! And the commentator whispers excitedly that Jack is going to have to go in after it, and there’s a very good chance he will come out alive. Well, the commentator comments, it’ll be a fitting end to a heroic golfing career. Quicksand? Since when has there been quicksand on the PGA Tour? I’m gonna have to talk to my union a rep about this, there’s got to be something in the bylaws about alligators and quicksand! Now it’s my turn to hit my shot. I know exactly what I want to do with the ball, I have my 64° wedge, but I can see the shot so clearly that I need to make. I want to click the ball with some backspin, to make it check up just below the hole. But all I can think about is those alligators and that quicksand, and now on the left side of the green I notice that there are land mines. Landmines? What the hell are land mines doing in the middle of a golf course? Now I see myself blown to bits, my blood and guts shooting into the sky and landing all over the green. I am paralyzed with utter fear. There is no shot I can hit that will not result in all horrifying painful death. If you go too far, you’re lost. And then I wake up hyperventilating in a cold sweat. Good morning to me.
I was excited when I agreed to be the token breeder whiteman on the Sex Worker Art Show (SWAS) tour that bumped, ground and belted its way all across the USA. Ten well-met ex-sex worker women, one fine transgendered fellow and me, a forty-six year old ex-gigolo-ho-rentboy. I will now tell the true story of how my book got banned by the prostitutes, and how I became a better man for it.
It starts at the beginning, on the West Coast fish-netted leg of the SWAS, a traveling menagerie of musicians, artists, spoken worders, exotic dancers, and madcap activists, all of whom have worked in the sex industry. As I fly up to Portland, I’m excitedly optimistic and trepidatiously terrified. But I believe that despite our differences, there will be room for their whore stories, and my whore stories; that we will represent this under-represented population who’ve been reviled and glorified, jailed and inhaled, raped and worshiped, put on a pedestal and spat upon for centuries; that we will celebrate the humor and the beauty, the anger and the tragedy, the pure power of the artist-whore who makes people squeal and feel and laugh and cry, and screams that the emperor has no clothes on. Personally this is the next step in my attempt to unite my above-ground suburban whiteman half and my underground-raped-ho’-drug-addict half; so I can become my whole truth-telling, sweet-hearted, spreading, evolution-friendly, being-of-service self in every moment. As opposed to the apologizing, desperately-attempting-to-make-every-single-person-like-me self which I manifest so often in public.
Opening night I arrive at the club a mass of jangling nerves, the world-weary-weight of whiteman’s burden yoking and choking me, terrified that in this sex worker world a 46 year-old Caucasian breeder will be booed, heckled and hated, will never in a million years be able to rock the house. It’s January cold in rain-as-usual Portland. I stalk skittish through the skeevy club, like a freaked animal trying to pretend everything’s normal, but knowing he’s going to be eaten alive.
Luckily my need-to-please is so powerful that it provides me with an immediate opportunity to be useful. There is much roadie work to be done: guitars, amps and costume boxes need to be humped out of the van, down the stairs, hump hump hump. I like it. Gives my mind and my muscles something to focus on that isn’t my own miserable failure and the irrational fear that everyone’s gonna HATE ME.
After there’s nothing left to hump, I settle into the basement dressing room like a dog in a room full of cats. There’s flesh everywhere: overflowing, undernourished, hard, soft, rippling, cut, hanging, shaved heads and coochies, beaucoups of tattoos. Everyone’s preparing, as if for a religious celebration or battle, laying out costumes/uniforms and artifacts/weapons. Sweat pants magically morph into seamed stocking. Chunky boots into stiletto heels. Wooly scarves into feather boas. T-shirts into slit-happy minis and tit-lifting corsets.
A quick sample of backstage banter:
“Are you gonna do your puke number tonight? Oh, okay, cool, but try to keep it on the tarp.”
“One time I was doin’ phone work, and this guy says, ‘Yer a twelve foot giant, and yer sitting on my head.’ Thank God for the mute button, cuz I’m laughing my ass off. Then I get myself together, you know, and I’m like, (Deep Butch voice) ‘Yeah, baby, I’m huge, I wear size 24 shoes.’ That drove him wild. He was my regular after that, and he always wanted me to describe how big my shoes were.”
“One trick likes me to feed him dog shit. He loves it. Every week he brings me these baggies full of dog shit. And he’s a really clean guy, you know, he practically squeaks when he walks. He’s really sweet, you know, really quiet. But the funny thing is, I keep picturing him going out in his neighborhood with his little plastic bag and following dogs around waiting for his dooky snack.
“Why can’t people be naked on the outside?”
“I love it when people say, ‘I’m not hungry’, like that has anything to do with eating.”
“I got tired of the being the ho with the umbrella.”
A sex worker artist is scrambling to get her computer working, crazed mumbling, she flicks her lit cigarette near my feet and snarls, “Put that out!” dark blackness ripping out of her. A direct order. My Achilles heel, I can’t stand somebody ordering me around. Rankles my dander, raises my hackles. But she’s clearly in distress, so I put the cigarette out with a friendly smile.
Back upstairs the club is suddenly alive. Freaks in fishnets and preppies in plaid, trannies with hot fannies and shy guys in ties, vinylized virgins and rubberized radicals, lots of leather and plenty of pleather, piercings in tongues, lobes, noses, nipples, lips, and places you didn’t even know there were places, middle-aged men in diapers, lone wolves and vampy vipers, divas and dykes, piss queens and fisting mavens, CLEAVAGE, CLEAVAGE, CLEAVAGE, dandies with candy, women dressed as men, men dressed as women, women dressed as men dressed as women, and some who have clearly not made up their mind.
A bunch of grrrrrrrls crrrrrrrrowd around a drinking table: ultrawhite spiked mohawk, one you’d swear’s a beautiful boy in a greasemonkey shirt, and a shaved babe you just know could punch yer lights right out. Lots of piercings. Running up and down ears. Lips. Eyebrows. Noses. I visualize them all naked. Pierced belly buttons, labias, nipples and clits. What a drag to have to go through the metal detector at the airport. That’s my first thought. But boy o boy they’re having fun, laughing and carrying on. I’m slightly surprised at the number of extraordinarily hetero couples. Going to see sex workers doing art is apparently a valid breeder date these days. Go figure. Some tough leather men. Dandies flapping, flitting and drinking in kooky outfits. Flocks of goths in vampire colors. Women. Young. Middle-aged. Old. Women. I’m agog with a child’s wonder as I wander happily in this estrogen-happy land.
I approach a woman in her early thirties: beige pants and a sweater, very Portland. I asked her why she’s there. “When I was little I found out there were strippers, and when I asked my mom what a stripper was, she hemmed and hawed and she didn’t really answer me, so I knew whatever it was, it was forbidden, it was bad, and of course that just made it more appealing, and I really wanted to do it. Then I discovered there were prostitutes, and I really wanted to do that. I still do, I guess, I mean I’d like to just try it to see what it’s like. I’m a baker. I have my own company. I bake cakes, cookies, pies, muffins, everything.”
Annie Oakley, emcee and inventor of the Sex Worker Art Show, introduces the first performer to the packed-tight crowd and they roar in approval. When Ducky DooLittle sashe¥s on stage like four feet and ten inches of N’Awlins bordello lampshade, beaming sexy and sweet: “Hi Portland. I’ve had a lot of good sex in Portland!” The crowd crawls into the palm of her hand, and purrs there, as Ducky kicks us off with a bang.
I can’t focus, I’m all caged pacing. Each performer’s a blur of words: trick-hating, dope-shooting, hilarious harrowing narratives, rap and rhyme, my time getting closer and closer until it’s me, it’s suddenly my turn, she’s introducing me, and I’m up onstage, in the place where I can really be whatever I want to be. When I make fun of stupidwhitemen like myself, they laugh loud as one, and the transcendent wave sweeps through me, as they now crawl into my palm and purr. When I do the part about me getting raped, there’s that brutal stark silence as they all soak it in. And there it is, that’s why I’m here: to speak for all of them, the raped boys and the raped girls. I guide the audience back in, and before I even know it, my twelve minutes are up, and damn man, my slambang ending works like gangbangbusters, and I’m off to a thunderous ovation. I did it. The 46 year old whiteman rocked the house. Afterwards I’m accosted, as I almost always am, by women who’ve been ripped open and torn apart. They buy my book at the merch table where all the other books are. I sign my books. I listen to their stories. I feel their relief as they confess, toxins fuming out of them like invisible radiation. Hugs are exchanged. And I understand why I’m here: to speak the unspeakable, and to hear the unheard.
In Eugene sex worker’s/artist Violet Rae brings two young women up from the audience and teaches them how to strip. The squat&thrust, the turnaround bendover peekaboo, the pussypat and the shimmyshimmy shake. After some initial timidity, the two amateurs let loose their goose and get funky with their chicken, flaunting their raise-the-roof sexsexsexiness, bringing down the house. After the show I run into one them: she’s early twentyish, backwards baseball cap over tight blond hair, two large rings in her lip that make her look like she’s a large fish that’s been caught a few times but always manages to wriggle away. Statuesque cheeks and blazing eyes, she’s fabulous farmboy hot. Her grrrrrrrrrlfriends buzz around her like she’s a rockstar. Which, for tonight, she is. I ask her if she had fun. “HELL YEAH!” I ask her if she was nervous. “Oh yeah, definitely, I was mad nervous, but Violet Rae, she was like, so totally great… she made me feel like I could totally do it, so I was like, ‘I can either stand here and be a dork, or I can just go for it.’ So I’m like, ‘What the hell, might as well go for it.’ And when the crowd started goin’ apeshit, I’m like, ‘Wow, this shit rocks.’ So then I really started going for it, you know, and I’m just like… wow!” Funny how much more articulate she was with her body than she is with her words. I tell her she was really great. She takes it in. Looks right at me: “So were you, man.” She opens, moves in for the hug. And I give it to her, a hug of tremendous breadth and depth, a hug that takes its time and doesn’t need to hurry. If you’ve never been hugged by a 22 year-old dyke who really means it, you have no idea what you’re missing. And there it is again: this is why I’m here.
Four shows in, I’ve humped luggage, dozed fitful in vans, woken at dawn, busted and rebusted my ass to get it right every night. They’re crazy cheering audiences, they so want to interact, to fly their freak flag by embracing us. In our 2-van posse driving from Portland to San Francisco, we have a great midnight dinner at some divey lizardy truckstop, we walk in like rockstars, all heads turning, we’re got our own little tribe, and it’s dead powerful. It’s someone’s birthday and Annie Oakley has a cake and we all have this great chocolate bomb of a slice. And then suddenly it’s 4 AM and we still have a huge chunk of road to go to get to the Golden Gate, and everybody’s dog-tired. So I volunteer to drive, and while everyone else sleeps like cranky babies, me and the amazing shotgun-riding Ducky DooLittle tell each other our stories in whispers all through the long humming road night. As the sun also rises and we pull into the Bay Area, I feel at one with my sex worker sisters and brother, in that van, in the trenches, with this traveling-circus family, being my true self.
After the first four shows I take a break from the tour because of prior engagements. Fast forward to fifteen days later, I’m rejoining the SWAS in New York City, at the Knitting Factory. I immediately resume dragging bags and luggage humping. Hump hump hump. Before the show starts Annie Oakley pulls me aside and says, “We have to talk.” It’s one of those classic moments, when you go stone cold, cuz you know someone’s about to break up with you, or fire you, or tell you somebody in your family just died. Well, Annie explains softly and sweetly, it seems Certain Unspecified Performers have complained that my book is racist. She says that the Unspecified Performers claim I speak disparagingly about female genitalia. She is sympathetic on this point, as she herself speaks disparagingly about female genitalia in her part of the show. Reeling, I rock back, my mouth freeze-dries and my palms clam. Do not apologize! My brain screams, anytime anyone defends themselves against something like this, they immediately start to sound like a huge lame-ass. Annie Oakley informs me that I am to censor my performance. DO NOT DEFEND YOURSELF! But my need-to-please, my irrational fear that EVERYONE HATES ME, and my stiff British upperlip betray me and I pathetically mumble, “Wow, I’m really sorry.”
DAMN ME! This is not who I want to be.
Annie Oakley then informs me that my book will be banned from sale on her merch table, where everyone else sells their books. She tells me she hasn’t actually read the book (which been out two years) but she suspects that the charges of racism are probably true.
Sledgehammer to the knees buckles me. Lightheaded now, shortbreathed, the tears start to rise up from the well. And here I utterly fail. To be my genuine self. I stop the tears. The upper lip stiffens, and the flow of sadness is arrested. Why didn’t I show her my pain, the real me under the smiling and the apologizing? Why did I revert to being a stupid whiteman? Annie Oakley encourages me quite sweetly to continue on the tour if I want, but I will almost certainly be the object of angry confrontations, and/or cold shoulders. Now I err once again. I do the one thing my brain has been screaming at me not to do. I defend myself. And even as I’m shoveling it out, this is what it sounds like to me: “Blah blah blah, yada yada yada, blah blah blah, yada yada yada.” My voice has ratcheted up into that whiteman-in-anxiety whine, and even I have to admit that I sound like a guilty guy trying to weasel his way out of something ugly, until I actually utter that ultimate racist-defends-himself line: “Seriously, some of my best friends are black people.” Annie Oakley explains that I probably wrote something racist and didn’t even know it. Not that I necessarily did, because again she hasn’t read my book. But since she doesn’t know for sure one way or the other, and she really doesn’t want to marginalize oppressed people, my book will be banned from her merch table until further notice, and I will censor myself. Annie Oakley, like almost everyone on the tour, is white.
I smile sickly and I apologize, apologize and smile sickly, pretend like everything’s normal, like I did when I was a boy ho on a date that went horribly wrong and I wanted give the money back and get the hell out of there, but I couldn’t, so I disassociated and left my body, just bit the bullet and took one for the team while I kept that hunky dory expression plastermasked on my face. Through what looks like a pathetically insincere smile, Annie Oakley tells me she feels really bad about all this, but her hands are tied.
As she strolls away, my repression turns me into an angry sleuth, and I sniff around pissed, trying to figure out which ho accused me of being a racist. Could it be Scarlot Harlot, the kind-hearted activist? No, I’ve know her for years, and I humped her bags everywhere we went, she loves me. Could it be Erochica, the brilliant Japanese 2003 World Burlesque Champion? No, she stayed at my house, she was so happy to see me, big squeal of glee, big hug. Could it be the transgendered hiphopper? Possibly, he’s one of the only non-whites on the tour. Dubious though, he seems so way laid back, so live-and-let-live, so mindin’-my-own-beezwax, so like somebody who’d talk to your face about this kind of thing first. Could it be the shortstoryist who writes about her days as a street tweaker, petty thief, and hardcore ho? No way, she too stayed at my house in SF, I hung out with her husband and played with her beautiful mixed-race grandchild. Suddenly I feel all sick and twisted.
Sadly one of the aftermaths of getting violently raped is that I often imagine there is danger and trouble all around me, even when none really exists. Suddenly here now I feel like the ultimate odd man out. In a self-loathing daze of crazed confused alienation I wander around making eye-contact with each and every one of my fellow performers. Every single one of them smiles in my eyes like everything’s normal. They’re all so nice. It hits me then that it’s not just the unproven accusation of racism; it’s the making-ugly-accusations-behind-your-back-while-smiling-to-your-face-backstabbingness of the whole thing. It’s really creepy. We’re not exchanging ideas, being brothers and sisters. That’s what I’m here for. But they don’t seem to want a discussion. They seem to have tarred me in abstentia. It’s all gone so terribly wrong and become so very disturbing. I am disturbed. And here I fail again. I withdraw into my withdrawal, watching myself go slow through the motions, smiling and chitting and chatting as the pink elephant of racism waves its mammoth member around the room. Not who I want to be. Not at all.
Now the Rants began in my brain. Don’t they understand that censorship and book banning are tools of totalitarian religious fanatic fascism? That’s what rabid fundamentalist do to books they haven’t read and condemn out of ignorance. It’s what happens when people knee-jerk at words without trying to understand. Idiots and nincompoops banned Huck Finn for exactly the same reason these supposedly enlightened people are banning my book. Now I’m listening to the show through new furious ears. Ears that have been boxed and bloodied by the long arms of unsubstantiated racist rumors. A female performer comes out and says, “I hate men but I love c*ck.” And it hits me like a ton of dildos. She hates this whole group of people for no other reason than the accident of being born one sex and not another. This is a group of which I am a member. I imagine myself coming out and saying, “I hate women, but I love pussy.” Or, “I hate black people, but I love black pussy.” They’d hand me my roasted balls before they ran me out on a rail. It’s hate-spewing prejudice in a hate-filled world. She is not only permitted to say this, she is encouraged. And the things is, I want her to have the freedom to say it. I want to hear it. But why is there room for her voice, but not for mine?
And then suddenly it’s me up next. I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years, and Annie Oakley gives me the worst introduction I’ve ever had in a quarter of a century. After the show my friends will ask me, “Why does that emcee hate you?” I’ll say, “What do you mean? She doesn’t hate me.” “Well, it was like a cold wind whipped in when she introduced you. She called your book a novel when it’s memoir, she said you looked all nervous, and then she mumbled your name. And she said such nice things about so many other people, and nothing nice at all about you. It was weird.” I don’t even notice at the time. I’m overjoyed to be back onstage, a place where I can control everything, including myself. And I’m extry-sharp tonight. It’s packed again, and I have a blast, leaving with a broad roar, blasts of cheers and whistles and whoops and hollers and there in that moment I am happy once more.
As usual, I’m approached by the curious and the damaged. People want to buy my book. Like a smuggler I take them into a dark corner to sell them my banned black market book. They tell me their stories. I listen. It’s so good to swim in that river of confession and redemption again. I sign the books clandestinely, wondering in my sick agitation what would happen if I got caught selling my banned book. Usually I would help hump all the stuff up all the stairs. But tonight I don’t feel it. I leave with some straight friends from the straight world. Used to be I wasn’t straight enough for the straight world, nor ho enough for the ho world. Now that I’ve come out as a raped hoing boy, I’ve lost and/or cut out many of my alleged friends from the straight world. But those who’ve remained accept me as I am, and those are the good ones. O how they make me laugh as I recount the idiocy of Annie Oakley and the Sex Worker Art Show. They reflect on what a terrible thing it when an oppressed group takes on the worst characteristics of the group oppressing them. Yet, they sigh, it seems somehow inevitable.
That night after I go back to the little room where I’m staying, I feel like I’m losing my mind. Finally I lay my raging head down upon my bed, beyond tired, hotwired and brainfevered but determined to go on with the tour. To unite my selves. Who am I kidding, I can’t sleep. So I call the CEO of my company. She tells me I would be an insane person to continue on with the tour. To be attacked and/or cold-shouldered would gut me. As soon as she says that I start crying. I cry on and off for the next week, all those stopped tears pouring out with interest. Plus, says my CEO, I can’t in good conscience support an organization that bans books without reading them. She reminds me that I am violently opposed to oppression, suppression and censorshipping of all kinds. I argue with my CEO that it’s probably only a couple of people, that to run away would be chicken. My CEO laughs: the name of my book is Chicken, which is American slang for a teenager who engages in indiscriminate sexual activities for money. My CEO says that with my personality I’d have to be not only insane but a masochist moron to continue with a group who obtusely accuses me of the type of blind hatred I’ve been trying to eradicate for decades, and the thought of me lurking around like some haunted hated freak is too much for her to bear.
Again I lay me down to sleep, pillowed head on bed. Should I stay or should I go? I just cannot get comfortable. I toss. I turn. Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. Suddenly the sky’s lighting and OH GOD NO! It’s morning. I scrunch into the far corner of the bed and somehow find a position of comfort. Suddenly I’m in my Victorian Painted Lady dream house, with the turret, the long sweeping staircase, the four poster bed with see-through canopy. This is the place I am most at home in the whole world, the place I’ve been looking for ever since I was a raped hoing boy. People upstairs tiptoe and whisper. I know with dream certainty that certain unidentified sex workers are upstairs, and they are here to kill me. Pulse pounding heart thudding thumping breath noosed tight chest constricting as the sex worker women creep down the stairs. To kill me. I run hide in the kitchen, and crouching in a broom closet I can see through a hole peeping like a wee boy. They stalk, predator for my blood as I shiver in the closet. I can’t die here, not in this house. Clunky boots and stiletto heels tromp and spike silently stalking me. Holding breath, I’m smelling cleaning fluids and broom shit. They pass, I bolt to the next room, it’s an exhausting deadly hide&seek, cat&mouse: I will not die tonight I keep telling myself.
Sweating awake I shake my hot horrified head, gut in knots, balls aquiver. It’s clear I cannot continue with the tour. Here in this unfamiliar room in New York City I am suddenly more alone than I’ve ever been. I crave a sex worker I can have sex with, dive into and forget my sorrows with, soothe my ache, and ease back into my drug addict ho world. This is part of my illness. This is what I did for years after I retired from the sex business. Peeling back the next layer of the onion, I realize that’s not what I really want. It’s like an itching rash. You scratch it and it feels good at first. But you have to keep scratching, which just makes it itch worse, and before you know it, you’ve scratched so hard you’ve got an itchy bloody mess on your hands. What I really want is to drink from the cup of human kindness, and bask in the arms of someone who really loves me. But I’m away from home, and don’t know where to turn. So I call up a friend. She advises me to get some really good food first. Then write all this down. And when I write it all down, the itch disappears. Go figure.
In the end I am grateful that I had the opportunity to confront the worst part of myself. Grateful to take the next step towards uniting my selves. Yes, my book was banned by the prostitutes. And yes, I am a better man for it.
Google: Friend to the Author, or Fascist Corporate Totalitarians?
“Dude, djoo hear what Google’s doin?” Spud (not his real name) sounded all tweaky and freaked out through the phone. “No,” I said, “what’s Google doin?” “They’re stealin’ our books, dude!” Spud spat. “What are you talkin’ about?” Spud is a very good writer. But I’ve learned you have to take everything Spud says with several tablets of salt, because Spud loves his conspiracy theories, and is happiest when railing against how the Man is ripping him off. “Okay, check this out,” Spud launched. “Google, they’re downloadin’ every book ever written. EVERY BOOK EVER WRITTEN!!! That means your books, and my books, dude, they’re scannin’ em and they’re puttin’ on-line for free. FOR FREE.” “Really?” I had a small panic. That would be bad for business. Very bad. “Yeah, dude, even as we speak, in an underground lab in Mountain View, they gotta team of Umpa Lumpa’s scanning round the clock, my man,” spewed Spud, “and cuz they’re worth, like, 40 kazillion dollars man, they they think they can just like, rule the universe. It’s imperialistic totalitarian corporate fascism, bro, it’s like 1984, like Animal Farm, like Lord of the Flies, they’re like Attila the Hun of the cyber-world man, they’re rapin’ burnin’ and pilagin’ – “ “Spud, slow down, man, come back–“ “And now they’re comin’ after you and me, dude, talkin’ food off our plates, they’re violating our inalienable constitutional rights, they’re like AT&T used to be: ‘We’re Google, we don’t care, we don’t have to.’” After I talked Spud out of going to Google’s Mtn. View headquarters and blowing it to Kingdom Come, I hung up the phone, shaken. I make my living writing books. I have a Young Adult book coming out in April, and I had a vision of kids all over the world downloading my book, printing it out and reading it for free. FOR FREE. I had a vision of my first six-month sales print out: 0 copies sold. Which would mean when I go to sell my next book, that’s the advance I’d get: $0.00. And how am I gonna fight Google? I’m just one sadsack geek pecking away on my G5. They’re Google. They rule the Cyberworld, an omniscient, omnipresent omnibeast that would crush me like a crusty bug and turn me into road kill on the information super-highway. That night I had a terrible dream. A giant head, not unlike the Wizard of Oz, was hovering over me, booming: “I am GOOGLE! I will make millions off the sweat of your brow and the genius of your brain! The great and powerful Google has spoken!” I bolted awake sweating cold bullets, determined to fight this axis of evil with every fiber of my being. Over breakfast I vented about the attack of the killer mutant Google to my lovely and talented wife, Arielle Eckstut, who, thankfully, is the rational half of our partnership. She’s been a literary agent for a dozen years, sold hundreds of books to publishers large and small. I like to say she is one of America’s top literary agents, but she hates when I say that, so I won’t. She’s also the author of three books, two of them with me. To my surprise, Arielle had a very different perspective on the whole Google fiasco. “Look,” she said, “the hardest thing for the author is just getting people to notice your book, if Google can help you do that, great. Only 10% of books earn back their advance, so they go outta print. Look at Satchel Sez.” Satchel Sez is one of the books we wrote together. It’s about the Negro Leagues legend Leroy Satchel Paige. It was an American Library Association pick of the year for teens. It came out in ‘01. It’s now out of print. “We have the last ten copies of that book. Wouldn’t it be great if every time someone Googled ‘Ol Satchel they could find out about our book and read it? That’s why we wrote the thing, so people would read it.” “Yeah,” I sighed, “it’s so sad, it’s like that was our first kid and it died on its fourth birthday.” “And what about Mort Morte?” she continued. Mort Morte is a dark, twisted subversive experimental novel I’ve written that I haven’t tried to sell yet. “No one’s going to give you any money for that book. It’s too weird for mainstream publishers. Imagine if Google could help you reach 100,000 college kids who download that book, and they each told a friend, etc, etc, you could then go speak at colleges, and make money that way. You could go to Hollywood and make a very strong case that you already have a built-in, reachable audience for a movie. It would increase your stock as a writer. And what about business books or medical books? A lot of people write books because they have important information they want to spread. And once these books are out they then use them as a calling card. Like Marty.” She’s referring to Dr. Marty Rossman, a client of hers who has a medical practice in Northern California. He’s an expert on chronic pain and has written several books about it. “He could put his book on Google and get it linked to his office, and sell his DVDs, and his CDs, and his services as a lecturer.” Arielle was really hitting her stride now, like a thoroughbred coming around the turn at Churchill Downs. “And what about Seth?” She was talking about marketing guru, Seth Godin who is famous for giving away his books for free. “He thinks that ideas you give away, you put them out in the world for free, and then people come to you and pay you when they need ideas. Lots of books would be great on Google: poetry, books of essays, short stories. People who are self-publishing. Self-publishing is so huge now. It’s so hard selling a self-published book. Why wouldn’t you want your self-published books on Google, so billions of people could have access to them? Besides, people who love books really love books. They’ve been screaming about the death of books ever since the talkies. But people will always buy books.” At that point all I could do was shake my head and take a deep cleansing breath. After I gathered myself, I said: “Okay, but you wouldn’t want Google giving away PYPIP for free would you?” Putting Your Passion Into Print is the second book we wrote together. It came out in September 2005, and it is still a healthy growing baby, all vital signs very good. Arielle thought for a second. “No,” she shook her head, “ I wouldn’t.” The universe is a strange, mysterious and beautiful place. And the gods are a bunch of merry pranksters. Soon thereafter I got an email from Barbara Lane, from the the Commonwealth Club, a San Francisco institution, where the best and the brightest come to present and debate Ideas. Needless to say, I was shocked that they were contacting me. They were having a panel discussion and asked me if I would like to present the perspective of a book writer. The subject: Google’s announced plan to scan every book ever written and make them available on-line FOR FREE! Naturally, I accepted. Game on! This discussion was to be broadcast on National Public Radio. When I told Spud he almost wet himself he got so excitement, and implored me to kick some Google butt. The panel was moderated by Moira Gunn, host of Tech Nation, and consisted of: Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, a renowned independent bookstore; Brewster Kahle, Digital Librarian and Internet Archivist; Professor Pamela Samuelson, Director, Berkeley Center for Law and Technology of UC Berkeley; and Google lawyer Alexander McAlbrae. Plus me. Naturally, I Googled them all. Including myself/. That night, the Commonwealth Club was packed and buzzing. I felt slightly out of place with all these mucketymucks, but I sucked it up and put on my game face. When the light went on a hush fell over the room, and I swear I heard the Google’s lawyer sphincter snap shut, although I do have an overactive imagination. They grilled the Google lawyer to a crisp, and though he did get a little lawyery, he made it abundantly clear that Google had no intention of scanning and scamming, of uploading books they didn’t have rights to. Of course, he said, we’re going to obey all copyright laws and we’re not out to steal anything in any way shape or form. We want to make information available, while not ripping anybody off. At the end of the whole show, the Google lawyer said: “Google loves authors.” “I’m glad Google loves me,” I replied. In fact, it became clear to me that Google has no intention of making my current book available for free to anyone. However, they now have “Satchel Sez”, they’re scanning it in a basement in Mt. View, and it’s gonna be available for anyone in the world to look at. And with the 100th anniversary of Ol’ Satch’s birthday (or one of them anyway) coming up, I’m tickled pink. I’m seriously considering putting Mort Morte, my dark twisted subversive novel, up there for free too. The Commonwealth Club evening was, for me, a true eye opener. One observation: it’s amazing how when you become a billion dollar business, people start to automatically hate you. I hope one day to have this problem. So, I called Spud up the next day and after he vented at me for being a sellout lackey puppet of the paramilitary industrial state, I explained the whole thing to him. His reply: “Dude, you gotta hook me up with Google.” To listen to the broadcast, go to: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/archive/06/06-01googleprint-audio.html
You may not know it, but there’s a world-wide war on whores. And George W. Bush is leading the forces, just like he is in Iraq, where the death toll mounts daily. All over the world, he has tied United States financial support to his agenda of making prostitution a crime, with willing sex workers and the clients criminals. I found this out recently at the European Conference 2005: Sex Work, Human Rights, Labor & Migration in Brussels.
For years there’s been a raging debate between abolitionists who want to make all exchange of sex for money (whether voluntary or not) illegal; and sex workers who view the willing exchange of sex and money as a work issue, not a moral issue. The abolitionists, many of whom have never had sex for money, often contend that any exchange of sex for money is slavery.
The sex workers, all of whom have exchanged sex for money, are adamant that they should be able to make money in the sex business if that is their choice. And they insist that they should be able to do it in safe, sanitary conditions, with the same rights as any other worker to ply their trade.
Abolitionists have often used the trafficking issue (the international buying and selling of sex slaves) to cloud the voluntary exchange of sex for money. Many claim that if sex work is decriminalized, trafficking will flourish. However, the fact is that in America, sex work is illegal, and there is much trafficking. In the Netherlands, sex work is legal, and there is much trafficking. Furthermore it is clear that by focusing so much energy on criminalizing willing clients and buyers in the sex business, these resources cannot be used to fight real sexual slavery.
Traditionally people in the sex business have not had a voice in how we are treated. We are jailed, deported, beaten, silenced. Academics, social workers, lawmakers and do-gooders have spoken for us. And we’re tired of it. That’s one reason this conference was organized: so sex workers can speak for ourselves about the deadly serious issues that are at the core of the debate about sex for money.
Here’s what happened to me at this historic gathering. On Thursday October 14th I arrived sleep deprived at the Mercure Royal Crown Hotel in Brussels, Belgium for the. Excited, thrilled, yet terrified that I would be shunned and ostracized for being an ugly American stupid white breeder man. This is what it’s now like for an American abroad. Even as I arrived, my fears were quelled as I was greeted sweetly and immediately put me to work assembling documents. I was quite pleased to be put to work, as I come from a long line of beasts of burden, and as an ex-whore, I live to please.
As I stuffed manifestos into whore-red folders, I heard my old friend Scarlot Harlot downstairs practicing a speech in Russian. Apparently “bitch” is “bitch” all over the world. Why did I travel 6,000 miles to be here? “Connect. Celebrate. Challenge.” That’s what the folder said. Challenge the world’s perception of sex workers, prostitutes, whores. Attitudes, laws, policies, rights to work safely and move freely. Connect with my European sex worker friendly brothers and sisters. Celebrate good times, come on!
In the conference room, 75 or so current and former sex workers and allies congregated, mingled and chilled. Art hung on the walls: rentboy photos eating breakfast; line drawings of whore heroes; transgender warriors and brave streetwalkers. And in the corner was Scarlot Harlot’s Whore Store. For the whore in all of us.
My earlier trepidation now seemed ridiculous. I communed with sex workers from Russia to Washington. Suddenly I was face-to-face with the one and only Margo St. James, legendary icon activist and all-around hot mama. I have, of course, heard stories about her for years. Even performed at benefits for St. James Infirmary and Coyote (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), sex worker institutions she co-founded that provide help with medical, mental, professional, legal, financial and compassion needs in my San Francisco. It’s slightly odd to finally meet someone you’ve admired for so long. And such a relief when she is so smart, funny, down-to-earth and mad sexy. We talked about SF’s history as the sexual capital of America, the Hooker’s Ball, Dizzy Gillespie, cokeheaded lawyers and crooked-ass cops. I thought how odd it was to travel to Brussels to meet a legend from my own hometown.
First night a big group of us went out to dinner. Picture the scene: 17 sex workers dropping in on a nice unsuspecting Brussels restaurant at 10pm Friday night. A Scottish lap-dancer sat next to me. Apparently the women in Scotland pay a deposit before their dance shift, are required to do a couple of stints on stage, then do their lapdancing in a booth, which is carefully monitored by a closed-circuit camera. No touching policy is strictly enforced. So there is a real sense of safety in the workplace. Juxtapose this with SF, where I recently spoke to a lap-dancer who told me the woman have to pay to work, and if they don’t make the $300 they’re charged for a night, they lose their money, goodbye, sayanora, tought luck, baby! And in the booths she descibed, which woman are often forced into, the door is locked, and they are left unprotected. Coersion, rape and forced sex often ensue. And the cops don’t care, cuz they’re often the customers. Again I am embarrassed to be an American.
On the other side of me was an English sex worker man I’d been corresponding with electronically. Part of the joy of this conference was putting faces to e-mails. He was charming in a way only the English can charm, and whip-smart, with a fascinating story: from evangelic angelic English school/choir boy to wildly successful hustler.
Finally I dragged my raggedy ass to bed at 2am and slept until 5am, when my brain popped open and started gyrating wildly around the room. Sadly I was unable to find any way to stop it. Next thing I knew it was 9am, and I crawled like a dazed Kafka cockroach down to the conference room.
An absolutely radiant sex worker woman living now in the UK was decked out in a sexy boustier type deal, with a big feather headress flapping exotically on her head. She instructed us to blow up the red balloon on our seat, write something on it, bat it around the room, grab another, and write something on it. It was grand fun. And a beautiful sight, watching 99 luft ballons flying around the room, with all those whores batting them about.
Favorite things I saw on a red balloon: “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can rent some for awhile,” and “Practice random acts of kindness.”
Then they were popped:
BOOM! BAM! BANG!
We were then addressed by the committee who put the whole conference together. What an enormous undertaking: getting everyone here, translating everything into four languages, picking a clear agenda everyone could agree on. The most basic goals were laid out:
· Creating a network for sex workers and allies to share information easily and instantly
· Getting sex work addressed as a labor issue, and working to get sex workers rights to free movement and safe work, with dignity and respect
· Drafting and ratifying a manifesto and a declaration to state our needs and desires
It was stressed that people who want to make money from sex of their own free will should have the same human rights as everyone else: protection from harm and harassment, sanitary working conditions, a living wage, freedom of movement. But often when sex work is legalized, prostitutes are forced to register, often with their home addresses. They are given mandatory health tests, and often this information is made public, causing stigma and sometimes violence to be heaped on the worker. Many times they are taxed outrageously, and can have their children taken from them with no recourse. Of course where sex work is prohibited, the workers have no rights at all, and can be abused by clients, employers, and the police, which sadly happens all too often. To view the issue as a labor/human rights/migration issue seemed a good start in improving the world for people who want to work in the sex industry.
In the afternoon I attended a Network Workshop. The idea is to create an international network where information of all kinds can be exchanged instantly and freely. The problems inherent are enormous and obvious: no money, no existing infrastructure, too many languages, every country with different customs and laws, so many workers underground and inaccessible, shadow players in a dark dangerous game. A sex worker who lives in French told a horror story of an African woman working in Paris in deplorable conditions. When she complained to the government, they assured her they would help. Instead they used the information to swoop down on the area and make massive arrests, deporting many many women who were working there without documentation. And nothing could be done. The French sex worker reflected that if there had been a network in place, perhaps the sex workers could have been warned.
Next was a media workshop, which I had agreed to help facilitate. It was distressingly depressing how many of my fellow sex workers had media whore horror stories. One transgendered sex worker living in Norway told about being interviewed extensively, then getting quoted in the paper in a tiny box with a huge unflattering picture above and a caption that read: “WHORE REFUSES TO PAY TAXES!” Time and again the media portays us as sadsack immoral slut dregs-of-society losers, or sex freaks in miniskirts bending into car windows. A general theme emerged: Control the interview, plan and rehearse your message, and deliver it kindly, nicely and relentlessly. And as with all whore work, it if feels weird or bad, JUST SAY NO!
On to the Manifesto. A statement of needs and desires by sex workers themselves, not policy makers, social workers, or deluded do-gooders who have no idea what it’s like to actually do the the work. The Manifesto addresses everything from working conditions, to migration, to labor practices, to securing basic human rights, respect and protection. So many of these conferences devolve into pointless theorizing and painful in-fighting. But here is a real document with real substance written by real sex workers.
Another joy of this conference: the conversations you would never ever have anywhere else. After we rehearsed for the show we were going to put on, a new stripper friend said, “Please don’t tell anyone about the buttplug, I want it to be a surprise.” I assured her that no word of the buttplug would pass my lips. And I was true to my word.
At the group meeting Sunday morning, a sex work expert reported that new German legislation doesn’t decriminalize sex work, but now it is tolerated. Sex workers are expected to sign contracts if they work in houses. But there is much mistrust, and many workers don’t want to sign them. Part of the problem is that the workers don’t know about changes in the law, so they’re in the dark about their rights. Legally, it is not against the law to run a house of prostitution in a residential neighborhood, but because of ignorance and stigmatization, many houses are being closed down. And in every sector their are small variations in law. Apparently in Germany, politicians and government officials are so ignorant about how the sex business works that they tax sex workers when they aren’t even employees. A pleasure tax is also levied on sex workers, who are not allowed to deduct legitimate expenses. So they often have outrageous tax bills. And with the change in law also comes a crackdown on migrant workers, who are deported, even though many have nowhere to go, and face horror stories when they are dumped back in the home lands. On the positive side, the law is a start towards legitimizing sex work.
Laura Agustin’s presentation on migration and trafficking followed. Apparently there’s a great discrepancy between what is actually happening in the world, and the hysteria that is presented by abolitionists and the media. Yes, of course there are slaves of all kind being trafficked in the world, but all too often the reality of migrants willingly exchanging sex for money is ignored, and the worker suffers for it. This makes it all the more difficult to track down real traffickers who are using humans as slaves. Only when governments acknowledge and respect the right to travel and trade sex for money will migrant sex workers get the rights and protection they desperately need and deserve.
An Italian sex work legend, who for many years has been studying human and sexual rights, as well as discrimination and persecution among woman and the transgendered. Sex workers, she said, are perceived as victims, and stripped of all rights and abilities to determine their own fate. Sex workers and migrants are the subject of racism, violence and abuse. The perpetrators are not pursued or punished. The message was: This must end.
A sex worker expert who now live in Swedish presented the new Swedish model of controlling sex work. Apparently, for better or worse, the Swedes believe that the whole world should adopt their social policies, so they are madly going around trying to get every country under the sun to run sex work the way they do. The only problem is: What they do doesn’t work. Their idea is to arrest and prosecute the client. Which is better than arresting and prosecuting the women certainly, but the point is, why are they arresting willing buyers or sellers at all? The feminist-driven Swedish government argues that criminalization will empower women, making them less susceptible to being talked into the business. And their theory is that trafficking will be stopped. However, the reality is much different. Sex workers can no longer afford to be choosey about picking clients, since the clients are fewer, scared and edgy. So often times only the violent, extreme buyers are left. And if something does happen, the clients, who used to be able to help police, now no longer cooperate for fear of being arrested themselves. Undocumented workers are shipped out. Police clandestinely film sex workers, trying to collect evidence against buyers. Sex workers are now loathe to carry condoms, which can be used as evidence of having sex for money. And in Sweden, the government will not listen to the sex workers themselves. But the Swedish expert said he is bound and determined to “stop the virus from spreading” and urged us to help stamp out this terrible policy, which tramples all over human rights of sex workers.
Gail Pheterson and Margo St. James then gave a presentation, complete with pictures and text, about the history of the sex worker rights movement. They have had a wonderful partnership as academic/sex worker, and this reflected in their beautiful give-and-take rapport. They said that from the beginning they didn’t back away from words used to denigrate prostitutes, which is why they called the inaugural event, The First World Whore Conference. This was in 1985-86. Twenty years ago. From the beginning, prostitute rights and women’s rights seemed to them intrinsically linked, and they’ve been working (with varying degrees of success) for years to get feminists to understand this, and have sympathetic support for sex workers. “We are all for rights of sex workers and against violence, exploitation and slavery.” Gail and Margo did a very interesting thing from the beginning: they dressed up civilian allies as whores so that no one could tell the difference. We are not who you think we are. We are not freakish amoral monsters. We are brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. We live next door, up the street, and down the hall. Looking at Margo and Gail, it was impossible to tell who was the academic and who was the ex-whore. They quoted Norma Jean Almodavar: “There’s a difference between politicians and prostitutes. There are some things prostitutes won’t do for money.” I laughed. We all laughed.
Ana Lopes and George Martin talked about starting a sex woker union in the UK. Ana got a job in the sex industry, liked the work, but was frustrated that she was stigmatized, had no labor rights, and was treated unfairly, with no recourse. So she and fellow sex workers met in her apartment, with no money, no resources, and formed the International Union of Sex Workers. They put up a website, recruited more members, and went about making themselves into a valid union. After being rebuffed by many many organizations, they contacted the George Martin and the GMB. They found they had much common ground, and joined forces. They wanted to establish sex work as legitimate labor, thus helping with training, individual benefits, legal representation and rights, as well as better working conditions. And now they have actually made a recognized union. Forcing people to see sex work as a labor issue as opposed to a moral issue. And in giving invisible sex workers a face and a structure to be seen and heard. Ana and Martin were inspirational indeed. Sex Workers of the World Unite!
Sunday night was the party/performance, at a nightclub in Brussels. The place was packed to the rafters with sex workers and allies in all their feathery finery. Wigs, slits, tits, stilleto heels, big hair, short skirts, silk, leather and lace. By the time the show started the atmosphere was electric, like being in a cloud just before a lightning storm. After two beautiful poems by two beautiful French sex workers about activist warrior Gristeledes, Scarlot Harlot, looking like a cross between Mae West, the Statue of Liberty, and a Madame at a Brothel in Heaven, brought the house down with her unique blend of vaudevillian sloganeering.
Stop the Wars On Whores!!!
Outlaw Poverty Not Prostitutes!!!
Keep the Government Out of My Underpants!!!
Solitair has legs longer than I am, a black river of hair running down her impossibly long back, huge spotlight eyes that shine on high beam, and when she paraded onto the stage to the tune of “I Like the Way You Move” in a tiny purple see-through teddy, a hot shiver ran through the room. Lean lithe and lovely she played the crowd like it was a violin and she was Itzak Perlman in a purple teddy. And when she bent over and moved her G-string to reveal the butt plug, I was gratified that I had not revealed her secret, because the stunned pindrop silence, full of gaping mouths, stolen breath and bugged-out eyes, was priceless. To shock this crowd took some doing, but Solitair did it in spades.
I was next, and as I looked out at all those beaming sex workers faces from all over the world: the rentboys and ladyboys, the whores and the hustlers, the disenfranchised and the reviled, the hated and the desired, the objects of revulsion and lust, I was overcome by these people, who had all traveled many miles to be here, to try in some ridiculous way to make the world more fair and humane and safe.
I have done my show, or bits of it, almost a hundred times, on three continents. This was the only time I have been translated on the spot into Russian and French. Strange and amazing to say a line, then wait and hear my words in Russian. Then French. I had been a little worried that it would be too long and too weird. But for me it accentuated how we were doing something global, and yet incredibly personal. In my show I portray a client who was a tantric sex expert. My piece climaxes when she has the mother of all climaxes. I’ve always said that Orgasm is the ultimate international language, and this proved true on that Sunday night in Brussels. It felt like we all came together in a celebration of sex work and being human.
Gypsy Charms, my new Scottish stripper friend, had asked me to play a client getting a lap-dance from her. After the dance I was to yell at her, growling gruffly about what bad her body was. To me this illustrated a subtle part of sex work that I felt over and over when I was in the business, that no one had really discussed at the conference. How clients inflict their sexual pain on the sex worker. How as a whore I absorbed so much sexual illness from my clients. As a race we seem to suffer so much sexually, and sex workers are a well into which the world dumps its sex misery. In the piece, I was told to reach up and touch her, which is strictly forbidden. When I did it, she reached back and slapped me. The crowd reacted audibly, happy to see an abusive client get some of his own back. I thought of the men standing outside the booths in Amsterdam, drunk and screaming horrible degrading things at the women behind the glass, laughing like sadistic barbarians.
After the show an amazing DJ ripped some crazy mad tunes, with all manner of Afro/Latino/Eurotrashing rhythms thrown into the pot to create a tasty stew. Boys danced with boys. Girls danced with girls. Boys danced with girls. Girls danced with boys. Trannies danced with everybody. It was a slamming jamming euphoric release. A celebration.
Monday morning, blurry-eyed but bushy-tailed we loaded into buses and headed for the European Parliament. By this time I was so sleep deprived I felt sure that if my head weren’t tethered to my body, it would float away like a red balloon. As we approached the huge gleaming glass and metal structure of the European Parliament, its modern majesty made it feel like we were about to enter a center of money and influence. We had to get individuals badges and go through the metal detectors, adding to the effect that something terribly official, and potentially dangerous, was happening here. It was a fabulous contrast: all of us queer birds dressed like bureaucrats and politicians rubbing elbows with all the straight-laced button-down bureaucrats and politicians. The room where our meeting took place looked just like you see it on TV. A table with microphones on a platform in front of many long curving tables with microphones, going back 30 deep, with chairs for about 250 people. Around the perimeter, behind glass partitions, sat the translators from a dozen or so countries. Nice gig, I thought, sit around and wait for somebody to speak in your language, hope they’re not too longwinded, then hang out in the European Parliament.
Entering this room was surreal. Made everything seem more real and possible, because after all, here we were, in the very seat of social power, where laws are changed, compromises are hammered out, and policy is made. An official from the Green Party, which sponsored us, spoke about how much we have in common. We both want to stop violence and abuse, and get rights in place for all sex workers. The funny thing is, you could not have picked this Green Party politico out of a line-up of sex workers.
An Italian member of the European Parliament showed up. He was attentive, energetic and seemed like quite a sharp fellow. He talked about putting the sex work struggle in the broader historical context of the struggle for human rights by any underrepresented, oppressed, reviled, stigmatized and beaten down group. The Italian Parliament said he was going to take our Declaration to other politicians so they can study it, and make changes accordingly. He said he was on a committee that was responsible for spreading democracy and human rights all over Europe, and that he was going to push our agenda of civil rights and the fight against repressive punitive laws and regulations. Most importantly, he thought that making sex work seen as a profession would be a huge step. He suggested we hook up with other organizations to build our power base, and to find specific violations to draw attention to the larger issues.
Then he did something amazing. He actually signed our Declaration. Right there in front of all of us. Out in the open. In the European Parliament. When our Chairperson asked him, he said he would sigh it, “Very happily.”
When ten basic demands were read by sashed sex workers, a chill went through me, and a feeling of triumph spread through the room. Stop criminalization, prejudice, violence, ignorance, cruelty and abuse, to ensure that people can work and move free and easy, proudly and with dignity.
Afterwards I thought what we really should do is film our members having sex with all the major leaders of Parliament, then blackmail them into giving us what we need. Hey, by whatever means necessary.
WARNING: If you ever eat in the European Parliament, DO NOT have the salad. The green beans were wilted, the corn tasteless, and the shredded carrots a disaster.
So now we had to load into a bus and go to the Street Demonstration. If you’ve ever tried to move 150 sex workers through the European Parliament you know how difficult that can be. Somehow we succeeded. Then suddenly there we were on the steps of the Brussels Stock Exchange. I thought ruefully of all the bankers who rent us, then revile us.
We were all given red umbrellas, and as we assembled with them on the steps, it was a beautiful sight, like a field of blooming poppies with sex worker flowers growing under them. A huge banner read:
SEX WORKER RIGHTS = HUMAN RIGHTS!!!
Instantly it was a mob scene, as onlookers gawked and gaped, glued to the spectacle of the whistle-blowing whores dancing and chanting: “VOUS COUCHEZ AVEC NOUS, VOUS VOTEZ CONTRA NOUS!!!” You sleep with us, you vote against us!!!
Journalists hungrily buzzed about with notepads, microphones, movie and still camera, hunting for the nectar of the right angle to make the news.
Suddenly there were sirens, and the police showed up. My first impulse as an American was that they were going to arrest us. Great! I thought, this is the best thing that could possibly happen. I saw us on the front pages of the London, New York, Los Angeles Times, on the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera:
150 SEX WORKERS ARRESTED IN BRUSSLES!!!
Alas, sadly, they were only there to keep the peace. After about 45 minutes, we took off through the streets of Brussels, a police car clearing the road for us. It was a joyous celebration, and a challenge to the public: we’re here, we’re not who you think we are, and we’re not going away. Globally and locally. As we moved through the streets of Brussels singing and chanting with our red umbrellas and our banners, we were cheered and waved at by walkers, drivers and passersby. I also heard that a couple of Belgians saw us and said, “They should all be killed.” They should all be killed. They should all be killed. We passed a group of boys, 8-10 year olds, on bicycles. They started cheering and shouting sweetly with boyish enthusiasm, staying with us for quite a while, having a fine old time. I smiled as I thought that maybe when they grow up they’ll have an image of sex workers as fun, smart and political, instead of uneducated, drug addicted wretches of society.
On the march, one of the member of our contingency was passing out cards for our organization. She gave one to an onlooker, who looked at the card, then looked at us, and asked what the card said. Our member translated: “These are sex workers.” Onlooker looked at the card, looked at us, and asked, “What’s a sex worker?” Our member explained, “People who work in the sex business, like prostitutes and strippers.” Onlooker’s eyes went wide: “Ï am a stripper and a prostitute. And and transsexual. May I join you?” Our member said we would love to have her. She introduced Onlooker to one of our own transsexual sex workers, and they walked arm-in-arm through the streets, telling each other their life stories.
Yes, of course, there is much to do, the situation is dire, but I for one, left excited, encouraged and inspired. From the streets of Brussels to the European Parliament, our voices are being heard.
TOP TEN LIST FROM THE EUROPEAN CONFREENCE 2005
1. European Parliament member signs official sex worker demand document
2. Whore Manifesto created and ratified
3. Margo St. James and Gail Pheterson stroll us down hooker activist Memory Lane
4. 10 sex workers read our needs in European Parliament
5. Hearing whore stories from around the world
6. Demonstrating on the steps of the Stock Exchange then dancing in the streets
7. Meeting sex workers from Greece, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Scotland, England, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and God knows where else
8. UK strippers
9. Sharing a room with tantric massage expert
10. Getting my ass squeezed by a lesbian, a gay man, a straight man, a straight woman, and a transsexual all in one day
As an added bonus, I have included a list of things I think every activist should know. Enjoy!
10 COMMANDMENTS OF ACTIVISM
1. If thou marcheth in the streets, weareth comfortable shoes
2. Talketh not for more than three minutes if thou hast nothing to say
3. Putteth the needs of the group before thine own
4. Forgeth not thine business cards
5. Getteth contact information from everyone thou meeteth
6. Eateth apples instead of candy
7. If thou hast a roommate, tryeth not to snoreth
8. Listeneth more than thou talketh
9. Findeth solutions instead of bitchething about how bad everything is
10. Smelleth good
David Henry Sterry
To view pictures: http://www.espacep.be/
Here is the Manifesto:
SEX WORKERS IN EUROPE
We come from many different countries and many different backgrounds, but we have discovered that we face many of same problems in our work and in our lives.
Within this document we explore the current inequalities and injustices within our lives and the sex industry; question their origin; confront and challenge them and put forward our vision of changes that are needed to create a more equitable society in which sex workers, their rights and labour are acknowledged and valued.
This manifesto was elaborated and endorsed by 120 sex workers from 26 countries at the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration 15 – 17 October 2005, Brussels, Belgium.
BEYOND TOLERANCE AND COMPASSION
FOR THE RECOGNITION OF RIGHTS
We live in a society where services are bought and sold. Sex work is one of these services. Providing sexual services should not be criminalised.
Sacrificing sex workers for religious or sexual morals is unacceptable. All people have the right to hold their own personal religious and sexual morals, but such morals should not be imposed on any individual or determine any political decision.
We wish to see a society in which sex workers are not denied social power.
We condemn the hypocrisy within our societies where our services are used but our profession or businesses are made illegal. This legislation results in abuse and lack of control over our work and lives.
We oppose the criminalisation of sex workers, their partners, clients, managers, and everyone else working in sex work. Such criminalisation denies sex workers of equal protection of the law.
Migration plays an important role in meeting the demands of the labour market. We demand our governments acknowledge and apply fundamental human, labour and civil rights for migrants.
The right to be free from discrimination
We demand the end of discrimination and abuse of power by the police and other public authorities. Offering sexual services is not an invitation to any kind of violence. The lack of credibility of sex workers must end.
We demand that crimes against us and our testimonies are taken seriously by the justice system. Sex workers should, to the same extent as anyone else, be presumed innocent until guilt is proven.
Defamation of sex workers incites discrimination and hatred. We demand that sex workers be protected by anti-discrimination legislation.
The right to our bodies
Sex work is by definition consensual sex. Non consensual sex is not sex work; it is sexual violence or slavery.
We demand our right as human beings to use our bodies in any way we do not find harmful; including the right to establish consensual sexual relations, no matter the gender or ethnicity of our partners; regardless of whether they are paying or not.
The right to be heard
We assert our right to participate in public forums and policy debates where our working and living conditions are being discussed and determined.
We demand our voices are heard, listened to and respected. Our experiences are diverse, but all are valid, and we condemn those who steal our voice and say that we do not have the capacity to make decisions or articulate our needs.
The right to associate and gather
We assert our right to form and join professional associations and unions.
We assert our right to demonstrate publicly.
We demand the right to form business partnerships, both formal and informal, and to participate in social projects.
The right to mobility
We assert our right to be in all public spaces.
We assert the right of all persons to move within and between countries for personal and financial reasons, including seeking gainful employment and residence in the area of their choice.
The trafficking discourse obscures the issues of migrants’ rights. Such a simplistic approach to such a complex issue reinforces the discrimination, violence and exploitation against migrants, sex workers and migrant sex workers in particular.
Violence, coercion and exploitation related to migration and sex work must be understood and tackled within a framework of recognising the worth and fundamental rights of migrants.
Restrictive migration legislation and anti-prostitution policies must be identified as contributing factors to the violation of migrants’ rights.
Forced labour and slavery-like practices are possible in many trades. But where trades are legal and the labour of its workers recognised, it is more possible to denounce and put an end to the violations of rights and prevent abuse.
We demand our governments prioritise and protect the human rights of victims of forced labour and slavery-like practices, regardless of how they arrived in their situation and regardless of their ability or willingness to cooperate or testify in criminal justice proceedings.
We call upon our governments to give asylum to victims of forced labour and slavery-like practices, and to provide support to their families and friends. Failure to do so perpetuates their exploitation and further violates their fundamental human rights.
Abuse in sex work
Abuse happens in sex work, but does not define sex work.
Any discourse that defines sex work as violence is a simplistic approach that denies our diversity and experience and reduces us to helpless victims. It undermines our autonomy and right to self-determination.
Restrictive legislation contributes to discrimination, stigma and abuse of sex workers.
We demand our governments decriminalise sex work and end legislation that discriminates against us and stigmatises us. We demand the right to report abuses against us without risking prosecution.
Granting rights for sex workers would allow them to report infringements of their human rights.
We demand protection from those who threaten us and our families for exposing them.
We demand methods that allow us to remain anonymous when reporting grievances and crimes against us.
Abuse of young people in sex work
It is essential that education focuses on empowering young people to have sexual autonomy. We demand that support, services and outreach be provided to young people to give them real choice and the possibilities of alternatives.
Young people should have a voice in legislation and policies that affect them.
Being a sex worker
Society imposes an ‘identity’ and ‘social role’ on sex workers that goes beyond the recognition that we use our bodies and minds as an economic individual resource to earn money.
The ‘identity’ and ‘social role’ imposed on us defines us as intrinsically unworthy and a threat to moral, public and social order; labelling us sinners, criminals, or victims – stigma separates us from ‘good’ and ‘decent’ citizens and the rest of society.
This stigma leads to people seeing us only as ‘whores’ in a negative and stereotyped way – the rest of our lives, and the differences amongst us, become invisible. It denies us a place in society. To protect ourselves and to ensure we have a place within society most sex workers hide their involvement in sex work, many absorb the societal stigma of shame and unworthiness, and live in fear of being exposed. For this reason many sex workers accept the abuses inflicted upon them. The social exclusion that results from the stigmatisation of sex workers leads to denial of access to health, to housing, to alternative work, separation from our children and isolation.
Societal perceptions impose a moral hierarchy within the sex industry – based on migrant status, race, ethnic origin, gender, age, sexuality, drug use, work sector and the services provided – adding to the stigma and social exclusion of certain groups of sex workers. Amongst sex workers themselves there are those who agree with such views. We assert that all sex workers and all forms of sex work are equally valid and valuable and condemn such moral and prejudiced divisions.
We recognise stigma as being the commonality that links all of us as sex workers, forming us into a community of interest – despite the enormous diversity in our realities at work and in our lives. We have come together to confront and challenge this stigma and the injustices it leads to.
We assert that sex work is a sexual-economic activity and does not imply anything about our identity or value and participation as part of society.
Sex workers should not be perceived purely as victims to be assisted, criminals to be arrested or targets for public health interventions – we are part of society, with needs and aspirations, who have the potential to make a real and valuable contribution to our communities.
We demand that current mechanisms of representation and consultation are opened up to sex workers.
Privacy & family
We assert our right to be free from arbitrary interference with our privacy and family and to marry and/or found a family.
We are capable human beings, who have the ability to love and care for other human beings – as any human being does. Our work sometimes gives us more financial security and time for a child or partner than other more time consuming and lesser paid work.
The labelling of our partners as pimps and exploiters/abusers simply because they are our partners, presupposes we have no autonomy and implies we are not worthy of love or relationships denying us the possibility of a private life.
We assert our right to establish personal relationships and have self-determination within those relationships without judgement.
We demand an end to discriminatory legislation that prohibits us from being with and/or marrying the partner of our choice and criminalises our partners and children for associating with us and living off our earnings.
The labelling of us by social services and courts as unfit parents and the removal of our children, simply because we provide sexual services, is unjustifiable and unacceptable. Such stigmatisation removes our ability to seek support and assistance if we need it in relation to parenting or abusive relationships for fear of losing our children.
We demand an end to such discrimination.
Media and education
Our voices and experiences are often manipulated by the media and we are seldom given the right to reply and our complaints are dismissed.
The portrayal of sex workers in the mass media all too often perpetuates the stereotypical image of sex workers as unworthy, victims and/or a threat to moral, public and social order. In particular the xenophobic portrayal of migrant sex workers adds an additional level of stigma and increases their vulnerability. Such portrayals of sex workers give legitimacy to those within our society who seek to harm us and violate our rights.
Alongside the misleading images of sex workers, our clients are represented in the media as being violent, perverted or psycologically disturbed. Paying for sexual services is not an intrinsically violent or problematic behaviour. Such stereotyping silences discussion about the reality of the sex industry – it perpetuates our isolation and obscures the actual violent and problematic behaviour of a small but significant number of clients.
Prejudice and discrimination against sex workers runs throughout our society. To overcome this we require our governments to recognise the actual harm that is being done to us, and the value of our work, and support us and our clients in educating and informing not only those in public authorities but also the general public to enable us to participate fully in our society.
Combatting Violence against sex workers
Sex workers experience disproportionate levels of violence and crime. The stigmatisation of sex workers has led to society and public authorities condoning violence and crime against us because it is seen as inherent to our work.
We demand that our governments recognise that violence against sex workers is a crime, whether it be perpetrated by our clients, our managers, our partners, local residents or members of the public authorities.
We require our governments to publicly condemn those who perpetrate actual violence against us.
We demand our governments take action in combating the actual violence we experience, rather than the perceived violence of prostitution put forward by abolitionists who are seeking to eradicate all forms of sex work.
– Time and resources now spent arresting and prosecuting sex workers and non-violent clients should be redirected towards dealing with rape and other violent crimes against us.
– Mechanisms must be developed to encourage and support sex workers in reporting crimes, including early warning systems amongst sex workers themselves about potentially violent clients.
Health and well being
No-one, least of all sex workers, denies there are health risks attached to sex work, however, it is a myth that we are ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’. In reality we are more knowledgeable about our sexual health and practice safe sex more than the general populace and we act as sexual health educators for our clients.
We call for our role within society as a valuable resource for sexual well being and health promotion to be recognised.
Stigma remains a barrier to health care for sex workers. Prejudice and discrimination occur within healthcare settings where sex workers experience degrading and humiliating treatment from some health care workers.
We demand that all health care workers treat us with respect and dignity and that our complaints of discriminatory treatment are taken seriously.
In furtherance of the health and well-being of all sex workers we demand our governments provide:
– access to health services for all migrant sex workers
– access to needle exchange and drug treatment options for dependent drug users
– access to treatment options for all people living with HIV, without which many may die unnecessarily.
– access to transitional treatment options for transgender persons
Registration and mandatory testing
Registration and mandatory testing of sex workers has no preventative value, particularly while there is no requirement for clients to be tested. Where mandatory testing still exists one of the consequences is that clients assume sex workers are ‘healthy’ and resist the need to use condoms as they do not see themselves as a threat to the sex worker.
Registration and mandatory sexual health and HIV testing are a violation of sex workers human rights and reinforce the stigmatisation of sex workers as a threat to public health and promotes the stereotypical view that only they can transmit infections to clients.
We demand an end to registration and mandatory testing.
Entitlement to travel, migration, asylum
The lack of possibilities to migrate put our integrity and health in danger. We demand that sex workers be free to travel within and across countries and to migrate, without discrimination based on our work.
We demand the right to asylum for sex workers who are subjected to state and/or community violence on the basis of selling sexual services
We demand the right to asylum for anyone denied human rights on the basis of a “crime of status,” be it sex work, health status, gender or sexual orientation.
Our bodies and minds are an individual economic resource for many people in many different forms. All forms of sex work are equally valid, including dancing, stripping, street or indoor prostitution, escorting, phone sex or performing in pornography.
For some remunerated sex remains part of their private sphere, as such they operate out side the labour market.
For many others sex becomes work, while some work independently, others work collectively and many are ‘employed’ by third parties. For them it is an income generating activity and must be recognised as labour.
Alienation, exploitation, abuse and coercion do exist in the sex industry, as in any other industry sector, but it does not define us or our industry. However limits are placed when the labour within an industry is formally recognised, accepted by society at large and supported by trade unions. When labour rights are extended it enables workers to use labour regulations to report abuses and organise against unacceptable working conditions and excessive exploitation.
The lack of recognition of sex work as labour and the criminalisation of activities within and around the sex industry results in sex workers being treated like criminals, even if they do not break any laws. Such treatments alienate us from the rest of society and reduce our ability to control our work and our lives. It creates greater possibilities for uncontrolled exploitation, abuse and coercion – unacceptable working hours, unsanitary working conditions, unfair division of income and unreasonable restrictions on freedom of movement – certain groups of sex workers such as migrants are disproportionately affected by unacceptable working conditions.
We demand the recognition of our right to the protection of legislation that ensures just and favourable conditions of work, remuneration and protection against unemployment.
We demand that sex work is recognised as gainful employment, enabling migrants to apply for work and residence permits and that both documented and undocumented migrants be entitled to full labour rights.
We demand the creation of a European Commission Ombudsman to oversee national legislation on the sex industry. This can be a newly created post or be made part of an existing role.
Professional and personal development
We assert our right to join and form unions.
We as sex workers require the same possibilities for professional development as other workers. We demand the right to be able to develop vocational training and advice services, including support to establish our own business and work independently.
We assert our right to travel and work in other countries. Access to information about working in the sex industry and its different sectors should be available.
We demand that foreign education and qualification be recognised appropriately.
We demand that anti-discrimination legislation is applied both within the sex industry and for sex workers seeking alternative employment given the specific difficulties sex workers face as a consequence of stigma.
We call for support to be provided to sex workers who wish to further their education or look for alternative employment.
Taxes and welfare
We acknowledge every citizens obligation to financially support the society in which they live. However, when sex workers do not receive the same benefits as other citizens and while our right to equal protection of the law is denied, some sex workers do not feel this obligation.
We demand that we have access to social insurance which gives the right to unemployment and sickness benefits, pensions and health care.
Sex workers should pay regular taxes on the same basis as other employees and independent contractors and should receive the same benefits. Taxation schemes should not be used as a means of registering sex workers and issues related to stigma and confidentiality must be prioritised.
Information on taxes must be accessible and easy to understand, and provided in many languages for migrant workers. Tax collection schemes should be transparent and easily understood for workers to avoid exploitation and abuse by employers.
The purchase of appropriate goods and services, including health services, where paid for, should be considered tax deductible.
Health and safety at work
Our bodies are our business. In order to maintain our health we require free or affordable safe sex products and access to health services.
We demand our governments prohibit the confiscation of condoms and other safe sex products from sex workers and sex work establishments.
We demand our governments provide free or affordable access to sexual health care for all sex workers, including vaccinations for preventable diseases.
We demand the health care needs of sex workers be included in all health insurance schemes and that sick pay be available for work related illness as with other occupations.
Violence within any workplace is a health and safety issue. Our employers have an obligation to protect us and to take action against those who violate our right to be safe within our work.
We demand that our governments take our health and safety seriously and promote safe working environments in which violence and abuse will not be tolerated. To this end we urge governments to establish emergency telephone advice lines through which sex workers can seek advice and report abuses anonymously.
The fact that sex becomes work does not remove our right to have control over who we have sex with or the sexual services we provide or the condition under which we provide those services.
We demand the right to engage in sex work without coercion, to move within the sex industry and to leave it if we choose.
We demand the right to say no to any client or any service requested. Managers must not be allowed to determine the services we provide or the conditions under which we provide them – whether we are employees or ‘self-employed’.
We demand the right to fair conditions of work – such as entitlement to the minimum wage, breaks, minimum rest periods and annual leave. Such conditions should also apply to those who are nominally ‘self-employed’ within a collective workplace.
We demand an end to unacceptable practices such as requiring sex workers to consume alcohol and/or drugs at work, to pay excessive costs for food, drink, services and clothing in the workplace.
We demand that health and safety be prioritised in our workplaces and that for those who work independently in public places their health and safety also be protected.
We demand that employers comply with data protection legislation and that our personal details are treated confidentially and that any abuse of our personal details be taken seriously by the authorities.
Legislation regulating working hours and conditions is complex, it is important that clear and accurate information be provided to sex workers and displayed within workplaces about their rights, such information must be provided in many different languages to ensure that all migrants have access to this information.
To improve our working conditions it is important that we have opportunities to self organise and advocate for our rights. We call upon trade unions to support us in our self organisation and in our struggle for fair working conditions.
We call for the establishment of designated areas for street prostitution, in consultation and agreement with sex workers, to enable those who work in public places to do so safely, without compromising an individual’s choice to work wherever they choose; such areas will enable us to work collectively and facilitate appropriate services, while the police can ensure we are free from the interference of criminals and other undesirables.
Decriminalisation of sex work
Selling sexual services and being a sex worker is often definined in our societies as criminal, even when neither is an actual criminal offense. The hypocrisy of current legislation is that it criminalises many of the activities within the sex industry that enable us to work collectively and safely. Such legislation – which governments tell us is to protect us from exploitation – actually increases our alienation and gives greater possibilities for exploitation, abuse and coercion within our industry. It treats us as legal ‘minors’ as though we are unable to make informed decisions.
We demand an end to legislation that criminalises us, those we work with and for, organisers and managers who follow good practice, our clients and our families.
We demand an end to legislation that denies our freedom of association, and restricts our ability to self organise.
We demand an end to legislation that denies our right to freedom of movement within and between countries
We demand the right to be able to work individually or collectively; as either independent workers or as employees with the full protection of labour rights.
We demand the right to be able to rent premises from which to work, to advertise our services and to pay those who carry out services for us.
We demand the right to use our earnings in any way we choose. We demand the right to be able use our earnings to support our family and loved ones.
We demand that sex work businesses be regulated by standard business codes, under such codes businesses would be registered not sex workers.
We demand the right to spend time in public places and support the call for designated public areas for street sex work, in consultation and agreement with sex workers, whilst not removing an individual’s right to work wherever they choose
We defend the right of non-violent and non-abusive clients to purchase sexual services.
In order to make sex work safe for all we demand that criminal laws be enforced against fraud, coercion, child sexual abuse, child labour, violence, rape and murder within the sex industry.
Get the money up front
Don’t ever be too full for dessert
People with happy pets live longer
The only way around is through
Never underestimate the power of a great apology
Trust in a kind universe, but hide your valuables in a very safe place
Bitter failure, brutal rejection, and relentless misery are fantastic fertilizer for comedy, and laughter is the shortest distance between two people
Listening is easier to do with your mouth shut
Learning the rules is the best to understand how to break them and get away with it
Don’t keep swinging when a fight’s all over
Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter
Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching
Sincerity is the most important thing in life, and once you’ve learned to fake that, you’ve got it made
The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about
Fool me once, I’m an idiot, fool me twice I’m twice as big an idiot
The bigger they are, the harder they can hit you
Killing time turns you into the living dead
Outside of a dog a book is man’s best. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read
Don’t mistake a short memory for a clear conscience
Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath
If you think that something small cannot make a difference, try going to sleep with a hungry mosquito in the room
A human without passion is like apple pie without the apples
Never make a decision when you’re angry, or shop for food when you’re hungry
A friend is someone who tells you when you’ve got a piece of stray food on your lip
You can’t stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them from building nests in your hair
People are like teabags… you never know how strong they are until you drop them in hot water
If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. If you haven’t worn it in a year, throw it away
Use your body for more than carrying your brain around
When you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, you prove you are smarter than they are
Never trust a dog to watch your food, and never try to baptize a cat
One cannot change the past, but one can ruin the present by living in the future
People are divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move
One good father is worth more than 100 star athletes
An ounce of mother is worth a pound of preachers
Never spit when you’re on a roller coaster
Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups
Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things
Your character is your destiny, and your refrigerator is not the place for science projects
Never interrupt when you are being flattered
In disagreements with loved ones, deal with the current situation, rather than everything that’s wrong with everyone except you
Read between the lines, think outside the box, and be nice to old people, cuz with a little luck you may be one some day
Memorize your favorite poem
Don’t judge people by their relatives
When you lose, don’t lose the lesson, and when you win, be nice to the loser learning the lesson, cuz sooner or later that loser will be you.
Giving and receiving love makes humans happy, therefore it’s the hardest thing to do
It’s very important to smell good
The wise person is the one who knows how little they know – when I finally realized I didn’t know anything people started telling me how smart I was
Before the show I was hanging out all alone, rehearsing, in the upstairs back room where they normally have readings, when I met another of the evening”s performers, Ed Rosenthal, one of America’s most famous marijuana advocates and a writer and publsiher. He asked me if this was the place to smoke weed. I said I thought this was as good a place as any. He kindly asked me if I would like to join him. I thanked him, and explained that I can’t perform as well when I’m stoned, it throws me off my game. Funny to be performing a drug story in a night full of drug stories, and not be able to be on drugs because it would make my performance suffer. At one time in my life I would have said yes, got stoned, and agonized about it, got all FREAKED OUT, and been all tight and weird and destroy my own self, then fall deep into a funk and go engage in some Behavior, as my AA friends call it, that stuff you do to destroy yourself. I was happy to have evolved enough to recognize what was in my own best instance, and to act accordingly. That made me happy. But when Ed pulled out his pipe and happily lit up, getting quite lit up in the process, I was suddenyl sad. Imagine how great Ed Rosenthal’s weed must be. Later when he went out to perform he confessed in a tiedied stoner voice that he didn’t really remember anything of his life up to about a week ago. He got a big laugh. I was struck by how he had evolved enough to make comedy out of his life. And I thought, ahhhh, yes, that’s why I moved to San Francisco. Ed did a mad rant about how insane it is that the government is sinking all this time and money into fighting the war on drugs when so much else is mucked up in the world, and thanked San Franciscans for helping him make legal history in fighting the evil bastards of the Dark Side. Jayson Galloway, Professor of English author of Viagra Fiend, deconstructed his six favorite drugs, from acid (worst) to ecstacy (favorite), elborating on the pluses and minuses of each. Favorite line: Cocaine is a dillatante drug. Quite right. Fascinating that meth (#4 on his list I believe) got booed. Meth apparently is no longer sexy. Unless you’re on it. Before you crash and just want MORE METH. R.U. Serius, looking deliciously Hobbitty and puckish, read a hysterical story about growing up and doing drugs. Favorite scene: He’s listening to some local dude talk about eating some girl out, and he has no idea what that means, so he assumes it’s about cannibalism and wonders why there were no arrests afterwards. Favorite line: Something he learned that has stayed with him the entire rest of his life: When you’re in a group experimenting with drugs, NEVER GO FIRST.
Then came the break, and I was disturbingly nervous as I did my warm-ups and stretches. They’re going to hate me. I could see it so clearly. Kept flashing on this time I was performing in a nightclub in Edinburgh and they turned on me, I was so bad, I sucked so hard, I bombed, I died, I crashed and burned. It kept recurring, that flashback of the sick cold failure clamming all over me, wrapping its icy fingers around my neck with an ever-tightening chokehold. I fought the image as best I could, using Jedi mind control techniques: I countered the failure flashbacks with memories of when I had fun, when I flowed sweet and easy. At the Assembly Room at the Fringe Festival. Last year at Litquake when Furlinghetti opened (yeah right!)for me. Doing a sketch for HBO where I was a leach lover. Emceeing at Chippendales one Saturday night when I was whipping the Ladies into a frenzied froth. Every time I did, the failure flashback faded. Still, it was exhausting.
So after the break, the music finally gets turned off, and Alan makes the crowd shut up. He’s like a great dominatrix, he just demands respect. So naturally he gets it. They shut up. He’s giving me a great intro, and I take a moment to look out at the crowd, all baited with anticipation, so much human energy waiting to have fun, and I have a profound sense of well being, like where in the world would I rather be? 200 humans just waiting be to entertainment, desperatley wanting to be entertained, and I didn’t have to lift a finger to get them there. I had a deep feeling of gratitude to the universe, so lucky to be there in the now of that moment, and I felt a sense of accomplishment, like I worked so hard to get there, the years of stand-up and the years of writing and writing of writing, and the hours and hours I spent working on this story I was about to read,the revising, the re-writing, the tinkering, the buffing the polishing, it all lead me there. As I looked at the crowd, all those faces, eyes shining, souls hungy for something to wrap themselves around, to transport them, make them laugh and feel and be alive with all these other humans, I felt like part of a long line of history, of people gathering to share their stories, to rejoice in the beauty and terror of being alive on the planet with all the other humans.
I was gonna do some sort of introductory remarks, some witty chitchatty small talk, but feeling the crowd, I sensed that I should just dive right into the telling of the story. It felt like they wanted to be told a story, so I gave it to them. Right from the very beginning I could feel the room come with me. It’s hard to describe how you know that, you can’t quantify or measure it, but my God you can feel it. When a crowd is bored or resistant, or turned off, it’s like when a date goes bad. You can just feel it, and if you’re not careful you panic and work harder to make it better, only that just makes it worse. But when you feel them with you, that crowd, it’s electric, and you feel you can do no wrong. So, at the beginning I was getting laughs from lines that I never got laughs on before in that story, which is always a great sign, but not abnormal, when you have a large jacked up crowd crammed into a small intimate space. But then when I came to the part in the story where a character makes an impassioned plea for everyone to all take acid together before the big hockey game against the hoity toits at Andover, I really let loose, and shouted out the lines with all my mojo flowing, amd the crowd roared eruptingly, man what a krazee rush that was. The best drug of all, I thought, this is the best drug of all, being up here and getting all that laugh love and riotous crowd happiness, riding through my veins finer than the finest China White. I’m getting goose bumpies just stting here typing this, it was so overwhelmingly purely joyful. Addictive? Perhaps. Hangover? Never.
So then I got to the part where we’re on the bus going to the game, as everybody waits for the acid to kick in, and in the story it gets quiet. Scary quiet. I hadn’t planned to, but I lowered my voice to a whisper, and then just stopped talking to let it sink in. Pindrop eery silence fell night over the room. In a club so crowded that kind of silence is stunning, and for me, pure gold, mana from heaven, mother’s milk, possibly better than an orgasm. No, better than an orgasm for sure, cuz you can have an orgasm in your room all alone. It takes 200 other humans to create this spooky silence, where no one is breathing, and even the machines seem to be holding their breath. Again I hadn’t planned this, but I just stopped talking. Let it sit there and sink in. Early in my career I could never have done that. You have to have absolute trust and faith to stop talking like that. To give the moment its full due takes a kind of blind faith. But I felt it. And I just let it be. Trusted myself and my instincts. Trusted the crowd. Trusted the story. It was like a comedy time bomb. After a few stunned seconds of stunning silence, the reality of the moment in the story, where everyone is waiting to feel the acid come on, sinks in to the audience there in that room. And they get it. They are one with me and I with them, and that is when I feel God in that moment of union and communion transcendent and holy in the very best sense of the word. I scanned the room with wide eyes, feeling that feeling from the story fully and truly, of waiting to feel the acid and watching the faces of my teamamtes to see if they were feeling it too. And the more I looked, the more they laughed. It’s just the coolest thing to get that huge a laugh from NOT saying anything. This is when Einstein is revealed to be a genius. Time for me becomes palpably relative. This moment just keeps going on and on and on, the laughter washing over my shores all warm and wet and tall and tan and young and lovely. When I die and my life flashes before my eyes, I hope this is one of the moments I relive. As the laughter faded, I dove right back, and I felt myself riding that crowd like a dragon I trained and made my own, flying through the air, with the greatest of ease, swooping and diving, spitting fire at will. It was just so easy. Effortless ecstacy. The crescendo happened right where it should, we all climaxed together just like it’s supposed to be. To the golden sounds of the crowd giving it up, I floated off the stage and up the stairs, the high on all the love I’m getting.
The rest of the show was a blur to me, but Kate Braverman, transplendent and noirish in black, and Michelle Tea were amazing. Michelle read from Rent Girl. I was reminded again what a great reader and writer she is, which is rarer than hen’s teeth, (as my poor dead mom used to say) and she’s so styly to boot.
As we were leaving the club Arielle turned to me and said, “Boy you coulda gotta lotta pussy tonight.” I smiled at her and said, “Honey, I’ve got all the pussy I want right here with me. ” And I gave her a big wet sexy kiss. I guess we’re just a coupla knuckleheaded romantics. The one sad note of the evening was that I invited a writer who I’m working with to come and talk and network. She’s got, irony rearing its fat head, a terrible drug problem. She showed up wacked out of her skull. Didn’t even stay to watch my part of the show, never mind let me introduce her around afterwards. She called my cel phone while I was actually on stage. In her message she said she had a headache. Headache, my eye. The fact that she had to self-medicate herself to the point of stupification made my heart sink like a sad loadstone. She couldn’t do what was in her own best interest. And she’s such a talented writer. I want so much to help her, but then I wonder why should I bother if she can’t show up. It’s not enough to be talented and to to want it. You gotta show up. It’s nearly 4am now and I should be sleepy but I’m still so high and wired from my performance. I guess I’ll go read Crime and Punishment. I started it about a week ago, and man, that bastard can really write. Thanks San Francisco, you made my night.
My mom loved National Public Radio. Lived for it. Died with it. She was always calling me to tell me about some fabulous story she’d heard on This American Life, or some new Peruvian musical group she thought I’d love, or some unbelievable new writer Terry Gross interviewed. That was my mom all over. She loved getting all excited about things, and sharing her joie de vivre with those near and dear to her. It wasn’t enough that she got jazzed, she wanted you to be jazzed, too. It is a terrible thing that the world has been deprived of the excitement she generated on a daily basis.
So when I got an e-mail from a producer at NPR asking if I’d like to read a piece I wrote about my mom’s sudden, gut thumping death and the resulting grief, I was overjoyed. Then plunged into yet more grief, as I imagined how excited she would have been, how she would have told all her friends, how proud she would have been, how she would have spread all the love around thickly. That night I had a dream in which we were all sitting around playing cards, which was one of her favorite things to do. And she was her usual self, concentrating so hard on the cards that her lower lip curled up over her upper, giggling like a kid, smiling and laughing and telling everyone about me and NPR. What a happy dream. Up to that point I had been unable to shake the image of her on her death bed, head on fire from radiation, unable to speak, scared and wracked, gasping for air when her spirit was barely even there anymore but that sturdy Geordie body just not giving up the ghost. I was horrified to think that this would be the image I would have of my mother for the rest of my life. It was a depressed prospect, and seemed the opposite of honoring the laughing, joyful, fierce, thoughtful, fearless person she was. But that dream seemed to break the ice, and after I awoke with a smile, my images of my mom changed to happy ones.
When I went into the studio, the lovely and talented producer, Mark Trautwig, was so nice and generous. He too has suffered. Sharing our stories made me feel so much better. So not alone in me in my pain, a solo freak drowning in my agony. The recording itself was so easy. I did what I thought was a warm-up take, then saw the technician wrapping things up. I wanted another take. Before I could ask, they discovered I was 6 seconds long. So I got my second take, and as I did it I could really feel my mom with me, filling up the room, flowing through me, into the mic, and into the giant recording device. I was all lit up from the inside, the words flowed with no effort, and by the time I was done, I was floating in ecstasy. The second take was exactly the right amount of time. I’m including it here if you wanna take a listen. It’s only 2 minutes. Exacty 2 minutes.
One of my mother’s goals when she got sick was to go to New York and see “Spamalot” on Broadway. She was a great theater and Monty Python lover, both of which she passed on to me and my sibles. She just loved the Python’s wacky brand of saucy, sassy, silly highbrow lowbrow comedy. In fact, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” became her theme song. Sadly, she died before she could see it. But we all decided, what the hell, we’ll trek to New York and see it in her honor. So me and Arielle, brother Craig, his wife Steph, their kids Ruth and Sam, and her life partner Judy went to watch King Arthur battle rude Frenchmen and a killer bunny. My mom loved to laugh, and this show was hysterical, in the best sense of the word. As the audience tittered, snickered, chuckled, guffawed, bellowed, and roared in laughter, I could hear my mom laughing with them, with me, with us.
And during the grand finale, when the whole cast comes out and sings “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, while the rest of the audience applauded, I burst into tears of sorrow and joy. And when I looked down our row, my whole family was crying, while the rest of the packed theater was clapping and laughing. I think my mom, would have liked that.