In July of 2006, You Learned:
HOW TO KICK PEOPLE - TONIGHT.
This evening's How to Kick People features, to our great pleasure, four writers from Saturday Night Live, each reading original pieces. SNL is on break for the summer, and we got lucky enough to snag some free time from these writers before they go back to their Dickensian 19-hour working days, trying to please the fickle comic tastes of guest hosts like Felicity Huffman and John Elway.
I usually don't link to press notices for the show, but I have to make an exception. Check out the write-up in The NY Observer, notable for its almost unilateral nastiness. I think it's such a weird tactic, to sift through the hundreds of press releases they receive each week, and then pick out a choice few to recommend/shit all over. Nonetheless, we know they tease us out of love.
HOW TO KICK PEOPLE STAYS UP LATE
with Bob Powers & Todd Levin
and featuring readings by the writers of SNL:
Charlie Grandy (head writer for Weekend Update)
Bryan Tucker (has also written for Chappelle's Show & The Chris Rock Show)
Liz Cackowski (regular at Upright Citizen Brigade's Asssscat)
Colin Jost (also performs in sketch group, The War Dogs)
Wednesday, July 26th at 7:30pm
at Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction
34 Avenue A between 2nd and 3rd Streets
HOW TO MAKE THUNDER.
Just over the Pennsylvania border in Shohola, where displaced New Yorkers marvel a bit too loudly over the price of beer ("Only six dollars for a pitcher of Yeungling? SUCKERS!!"), there is a bar called Rohman's. The bar has stood in this spot since 1849, and smells like it. It's that aromatic mixture of cigarette smoke, traces of domestic beer, and the dust that settles on antique furniture.
Upstairs, impossibly, are four bowling lanes. The bowling alley looks like a church where people worship strikes and beer. It was constructed in 1941, before the invention of automatic ball returns and machine-operated pinsetting. Here, the pins are set using a hidden foot lever behind the lane. When the foot lever is depressed it engages a pyramid of twelve dull spikes set into the floor. The pins rest on the spikes and, when you've set all ten, you release the lever and the spikes disappear into the floorboards again. After a player rolls, the ball drops to the floor behind the pins and the pinsetter sends it back along thin wooden rollercoaster rails that drop off quickly enough to give the ball a decent amount of momentum on its return.
Bowling is by reservation, and the bar hires its own freelance pinsetting staff—in our case a pair of small boys, one no more than seven years old. I'm not sure what the child labor laws in Pennsylvania are, and if they're suspended for certain industries like recreation, but those kids worked harder than the average advertising executive. (We compensated them in Laffy Taffy and centipedes we'd caught in mayonnaise jars.)
Since we had such a large group of bowlers, we needed to commandeer three lanes. That left us one toddler short for pinsetting, so while one of person supplied the kids with pitchers of Coke, a few of us took turns pinsetting for our extra lane. I was happy to volunteer because I was curious about the mechanics of it. The mechanics were, of course, pretty rudimentary and easily absorbed, but I continued to volunteer just to eavesdrop on the kids' patter and keep myself occupied in a large group of friends where I was one of the only people un-coupled.
(I have to confess it was also kind of mesmerizing to watch the pins explode on impact from such a close distance. There seemed to be no law governing how pins would react. Some would topple over like drunks, while others would cartwheel across the entire lane, taking out a pin or two behind it on its way. I tried to follow them and see if individual pins exhibited any kind of pattern of behavior, but it just became too difficult to single out pins by a smudge or chip. After a while I just enjoyed the quick smash of chaos.)
The older, more experienced pinsetter—he was probably twelve or thirteen—really rode the new kid. (Who could very well have been a younger brother, as they both had matching blonde brush cuts.) The seven year-old had never done this before and couldn't work fast enough for his boss. "You gotta move faster. Faster. Faster," the twelve year-old repeated as his co-worker struggled to keep the spikes engaged with his foot while fully extending his back leg, and stretching forward to set the one-pin. At one point I heard the older boy say, "Man, you gotta stop sweating. You can't lose any more weight." I sweat all the time, and was probably sweating while perched over lane three, waiting for the pins to fall, but didn't even realize children that small even perspired. There's something particularly sad about a kid working so hard he's breaking a sweat. You know he'd rather be outdoors poking toads or throwing dirtbombs at school buses. But he was a good sport, and very polite—both pinsetters were—and after the game we pooled our money together to give our indentured servants a generous tip. I expect a seven year-old rarely gets his hands on that kind of money, particularly in a town filled with suckers who only charge two dollars for a pint of beer.
HOW TO BEAR DOWN AND DIG IN.
I've been toting a lunch to work for the last few days, at the risk of my co-workers thinking I'm poverty-stricken. (I don't know why I make that association, or assume others do. I have a lot to answer for, I suspect.) But today I ran out of supplies so I had to hit the streets. I joined a co-worker at one of NYC's many "let us toss your salad" places where you hand a Hispanic man a bucket of lettuce and then point to things like a baby while he adds them to the bucket, and mixes in dressing. It's one of those weird acts of adult infantilism that New York provides in no short supply.
I was very impressed with my co-worker, for whom ordering salad was a relatively crisis-free activity. She explained that she looks at the ingredients in front of her, rather than examining the pricing board hanging above the salad bar.* I, on the other hand, regarded the ordering process as a Sphinxian riddle issued by the proprietors of Café Europa. I was juggling the wealth of choices with a desire to avoid getting gouged by the establishment, because I believed the odds were skillfully stacked against me in getting out of there with change from a $10 bill. I suspect these salad places are part of a long legacy of rube-baiting, handed down from snake oil salesmen, carnival barkers, and casino magnates.
But today I decided to step right up and put all of that unnecessary conflict behind me. I ordered what I wanted, without regret. If I paid a little extra and didn't "win" this game of lunch, at least I'd be sated in other, more important ways. It was a big switch for me, personally, eating without regret. Here's what I ordered with my bucket of baby spinach:
- cherry tomatoes
- sliced carrots
- hearts of palm
- feta cheese
- monterey jack cheese
- cheddar cheese
- soy cheese
- cookie dough
- red onions
- big red gum crumbles
- dry vermouth
- fiddlehead ferns
- cut-up hotdog
- corn on the cob
- bleu cheese
- three pages from the May 2006 issue of McCall's magazine
- false eyelashes
- artichoke hearts
- rhino tusk (ground)
- bread 'n' spread
- agar jelly
- hot wings
- croutons (they're free)
tossed in a primeval vinagrette consisting of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen in the presence of electricity.
The salad cost $386.41, and I threw half of it away to make room for Sour Patch Kids.
*If you're unfamiliar with this type of salad arrangement—I'm not sure how far West salad has made its way yet—the ingredients are divided into three separate pricing columns, ranging from budget items (carrots, celery, dust) to premium items like fresh mozzarella and sliced chicken with grill lines painted on it. And yes, ladies, the croutons are free.
HOW TO FLY INTO AN INEFFECTUAL RAGE.
On Friday night, after drinking several thousand frozen margaritas—a very lady-like drink, by the way, for ladies who are sloppy, mean-spirited drunks—I joined an old, close friend for one last cocktail at a new, local bar. It was nice to be out and, after a while, we found ourselves engaged in a fairly intense conversation. (I've been having a lot of those lately. I am fairly intense and I make no apologies about it. I'm like Tom Sizemore. At the top of the conversation, before things approach the deadly point of no return, I usually allow people to prepare for the intensity of dialogue that is to follow by warning them to "buckle up!" Then I wait quietly while they fasten their various buckles. I hang out with a lot of Quakers.)
Suddenly, a young gentleman nuzzled up to the bar, standing within intimate range of my female friend. I watched him for a moment, and detected that he was alternating between eavesdropping on our conversation and trying to catch my friend's eye. Finally, after he paid for his drink order—a pint of Sexual Predator's Punch—he turned toward my friend and greeted her. It was friendly enough but it was clear he was making his "first contact." He was establishing dialogue. I honestly found it incredibly rude, in the way I think it's rude when someone at a funeral asks, "So, what are you doing later?" He had no idea what our relationship was, saw we were pretty intensely engaged in conversation—I was grabbing her shoulders and shaking her very hard, so hard in fact that she might have passed out were she not so thoroughly buckled in—and thought it would be cool to direct her attention from our conversation by flirting with her.
In the great interest of total honesty, I need to provide two caveats to the reliability of my narration. First, ordinarily I would have noticed this interaction the way I notice most human behavior—silently, passively, and probably too analytically—and let it go. But my emotions have been a bit high lately so this gentleman's decision to interrupt our conversation so he could hit on my friend seemed like a tremendous affront to me at the time. Also, my friend later confessed she had been staring at him earlier in the evening. It was because she neglected to wear her glasses and was just trying to bring the room into focus. She had no idea what he looked like until he got very close, but it's likely that he had decided she was somehow signalling him to approach. So there's that.
Their exchange at the bar was brief, then we resumed our conversation. Unfortuantely, a small part of me was secretly smoldering now. I had transformed into Adam Goldberg's character in the film Dazed and Confused, obsessing over his brief and humiliating confrontation with a townie/bully named Clint: "Dominant male monkey motherfucker!!" (His words, not mine.)
My consternation eventually subsided and, later, when we were readying ourselves to exit, I decided to take a quick stroll and survey the bar's great expanse. (It is a new bar, and a cavernous one, with separate upstairs-downstairs bars, indoor bocce courts, a brand-new livery and its own district court for the civil settling of disputes.) I left my friend on her stool and, as I made my way around the bar I thought, "I'll bet that fucker saw an opening and sidled right up the moment I walked away."
When I returned, there he was, leaning in close, his back to my stool, and a couple of his buddies standing off to the side, awaiting his return. I kind of snapped, shoving my way back into my stool. He apologized for being in my way, and I used the opportunity to consider his polite words and reply, "No you're not. You're a dick. You have no idea what our relationship is right now. We could be dating as far as you know. All you saw was two people, pretty seriously engaged in a conversation, and you assumed it would be totally cool to break in and hit on my friend."
He placed his face very close to mine, and I held, unblinking and seething. Then he began lecturing me on "assumptions," assuring me he had not assumed anything, and that he doesn't make assumptions. I hated his face, so close to mine. My eyes were darkening and I seriously thought, "even though this is a small misunderstanding I hate this person so much right now, and I can't tell whether it's because of his obvious insincerity or his repeated use of the word 'assume'."
Again, it's probably necessary for me to zoom out and disclose a few more significant details. The new shit. The shit you weren't privy to. First, I am not a physically imposing man. The only physical advantage I have is a naturally saddened and bearded face. That particular combination is often enough to keep people from messing with me because, at rest, my face telegraphs a pathological fatalism that could translate to reacting unpredictably if cornered. Also, I wear plastic dracula teeth everywhere I go.
And my adversary? Let me just say it's very rare when I think to myself, with complete confidence, "I could thrash this gentleman, handily." I could have thrashed this gentleman. Skinny and soft-bellied, with the an oversized head of a Peanuts character tottering on a pipe cleaner neck. Swollen cheeks framing a small mouth with an unfortunate overbite, and manner of speech that likely draws a lot of suspicion about his sexual orientation. There's a certain way of speaking that is very unintimidating. I think I have it, a bit. I hear it come out, with great shame, during stressful situations. He had it, too, and much worse. If you heard him scream the word, "motherfucker!!," you'd probably start giggling.
I am not easily moved to hostility or anger, though I think it quickly became obvious that this was an exception. My friend interceded by announcing, "let's go," grabbed my hand and led me out of the bar. But all I could think about then was how much I would have enjoyed cracking my forehead hard down against the bridge of his nose. I imagined that very specific scenario, in all its visceral detail. In the few days that have followed, I've continued to think about it here and there, though it's taken a distant back seat to other more significant thoughts.
The problem is when I play the dust-up out, beyond the initial head-butt, the fantasy mutates into a sad little reality. Because I have no frame of reference for successful street fighting, every time I picture myself fighting it's just an awkward and humiliating mess. So I saw us grappling at each other, pulling off very short, ineffectual punches at a very close range. No wind-ups or helicopter kicks. Just a couple of rhythmless jerks, crab wrestling on a bar room floor while the rest of the patrons laugh. I pictured myself pulling his shirt up over his head, hockey style, and exposing the furry pot belly hanging like an udder from his slight frame. I saw myself twisting him, and him twisting against me. Me trying to get a foot inside and sweep out one of his legs, then bringing him to the ground, losing my own balance, and toppling over with him. Suddenly, large, stronger hands pull me off him—a bartender? a bored patron?—and us restrained and divided, squirming, red-faced, scratched-up, torn shirts and screaming expletives at each other without even a trace of finesse: "Fuck you, you fucking asshole!" "I hate you so much you fucking bitch!" "I don't ASSUME!!!" And then being sent home separately, at five minute intervals, because it wasn't worth calling the cops.
I hate that fantasizing about rage is so tempered by a depressingly naturalistic likelihood, but it's probably healthier for me that way. The last time I felt hypnotically possessed by strength I was eleven years old and had just seen Rocky III. My brother and I shared a bedroom and, hours after seeing the movie, with the last flames of vicarious adrenaline coursing through my body, I insisted on demonstrating a pile driver administered to Rocky by Hulk "Thunderlips" Hogan during their charity exhibition match. I stood on my bed, bent at the knees, digging hard into the bedsprings, and launched myself toward the ceiling. At the crest of my leap, I kicked up my legs in front of me, looking more like a froglet than a trained athlete, then dropped down hard, an imaginary and upside-down Rocky Balboa cradled in my arms. When I hit the bed again I heard the crack of timber and realized, to my horror and my brother's delight, that I'd splintered one of the support beams beneath my mattress. My brother was lying in his bed, whispering, "oooh...I'm telling." I made him swear that he wouldn't—that we had to keep this a secret, no matter how difficult it made sleeping—and crawled into my broken bed with my first real taste of the man I was to become.
HOW TO PASS ALONG A GENETIC PREDISPOSITION.
My nephew is a bit like me. I guess everyone tries to take credit for the looks or behavior of small children, but I'm pretty sure about this one. He doesn't look like me; he's hideous. (kidding) But he shares my childhood predispostions, most notably an almost obsessive and singular interest in anything that makes you laugh. While other boys buried themselves in books on dinosaurs or World War II military vehicles and weapons or sci-fi and fantasy, I cared only for Garfield treasuries, Peanuts paperbacks, Al Jaffee's Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, and Syd Hoff's "how to" comic drawing books.
At only six years old, Oliver is alarmingly similar. When my sister and her family arrived for dinner, Oliver had a plastic shopping bad tucked under his arm. Inside it were two large paperback collections of the Foxtrot comic strip, from which he spent most of dinner reading aloud. I didn't find the comics especially funny, partly due to his enthusiastic but sloppy delivery, but he punctuated each one with awestruck laughter. Just losing his shit over references he didn't even understand. (I am pretty sure Oliver knows nothing about Klingon language or Martin Scorcese or Doc Martens, even though each of those things served as punchlines in a Foxtrot strip, but he laughed like he was pretty intimate with the references. When I was around his age, I was the same way with Garfield. I laughed and laughed, despite possessing absolutely no knowledge of lasagna.) Oliver also appreciates jokebooks (he's already got the "interrupting cow" knock-knock joke down perfectly), drawing cartoons and listening to fart SFX audio files on my computer. (Shh.)
His younger brother Avery, who is only four years old, has a slightly less sophisticated sense of humor. Last night he was pacing between the living room and dining room, endlessly droning the following phrase: "I Pooted." (I learned much later that this is a catchphrase from a cartoon called "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends." ) It was more ominous than silly. Like Village of the Damned, but with farts. When I asked him why he kept saying that, he replied: "It means I pooped in my pants. But I was only faking it to make people laugh." This kind of candor and deconstruction, while appreciated, is a telltale sign that Avery will not grow up to be a very funny person.
But where Avery lacks in humor, he excels in compassion and patriotism. Last night, while Oliver and I were busting a gut and high-fiving each other over an audio file on my computer called "hit_with_frying_pan.wav" Avery walked in cradling a ceramic music box. The music box pictured Tevya, from Fiddler on the Roof. He was, true to form, perched on a rooftop, fiddling. As Avery handled the music box with extra care, he told us: "I have to be careful with this because it belonged to pop-op's [my father, his grandfather] brother, Jerry, and he's dead so this has special meaning to him. FOURTH OF JULY!!!!" Childhood permits the best segues.*
*This has been my entry in the "Are You The Web's Next Erma Bombeck?" contest, sponsored by Parenting Magazine.