notes from a man who spends too much time playing video games

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This is where you stick random tidbits of information about yourself.

A Few Points Shy of the High Score
Tuesday, November 25, 2003  
Went upstate for my grandfather's funeral last weekend.

My brother picked me up at the train station on Friday night. Mom and dad were having dinner in a nearby restaurant with some of their friends. "They want us to stop by," Sean said. He didn't want to go; he has a wife at home and wanted to get back to her. Me, I wanted to go to the restaurant, to see dad. "We'll just stop, have a quick beer, then get going," I said.

Once we got to Coalyard Charlies, mom and dad badgered us into ordering something. Fish fry--we both ordered fish. The seat next to dad was open, so I sat down next to him. I felt grateful to be sitting so close to him. His loss had made him a kind of celebrity. I looked him over, trying to see if losing his father had taken any kind of visible toll on him. He looked a thinner, a little grayer--maybe a little smaller somehow--but otherwise intact.

Later that night, dad and I sat up together watching TV, drinking beer. He enjoys a special brand of Polish beer--Okochim--so that's what we drank. I don't remember what we watched on TV, don't remember much about what we talked about during the commercials, but I do remember feeling that my dad was grateful to have me there with him.

The next morning we got dressed, drove to the funeral home in Utica. Dad with his cheap suit, same one he wore to my brother's wedding last summer. Dad is stoic, rarely ever showing any emotion, but one of his brother's, my Uncle Dennis, was sobbing openly at the funeral home.

My grandpa, in his coffin, looked fragile, thin, smaller than I'd remembered him. He wore so much makeup that he looked almost womanish, clownish--his lips a phony red, his cheeks heavily rouged.

I don't want to tell this story. Fuck it.

Suffice it to say that the day sucked. It was grueling, never-ending. I remember looking at my watch at one point, thinking hours must have gone by, then seeing that only about 20 minutes had actually elapsed.

What I remember is how cheap and small and wrong everything looked. When the priest, clearly nervous, screwed up her opening remarks during the service, I wanted to kill her. The funeral parlor was small, clogged with half-assed flower arrangements. Granpa was a war veteran, and was promised to be buried with full military honors. "Full military honors" consisted of two bored-looking cadets from Fort Dix. They made an elaborate show of folding the flag that draped the coffin into an impossibly tiny triangle shape, then played taps on a boombox hidden behind a clump of weeds.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

After the funeral, we all met at a local banquet hall called Roselawn. In order to get to our room, we had to pass through another hall where balloons were being tied to tables, crepe paper was being pinned to the walls and ceilings. It was a celebration for someone's 30th birthday party (a sign on the wall said LOOK WHO'S 30!!!!).

I kissed lots of old women. I shook a lot hands. I found myself keeping an eye on my dad all day, trying to gauge his mood.

I saw my grandmother--newly widowed--sitting alone in her wheelchair, her aide from the nursing home at her side. All day she'd been surrounded by people trying to comfort her, and this was her first brief moment alone. I sat by her side, put my arm around her shoulders. She's feeble, and her hair has almost completely fallen out, and she shakes terribly. She opened her mouth to say something to me, but no words came out. Tears welled up in her eyes, then streaked down her face.

They were married for 60 years.

In the face of that kind of unspeakable grief, what could I possibly say?

"I know, gram," I said. "I know."

3:56 PM

Friday, November 21, 2003  
My grandpa died on Wednesday morning. He was old, nearly 90, and sick for a the last two years, so it was no great shock. I'm taking the train upstate this afternoon (Friday). The service is tomorrow.

He was my dad's father. I want to be there for my dad, help him out if he needs it. Maybe dad might like it if I'm there to have a beer with him at night, sit together, watch TV, eat cheese and crackers together.

There's never been a funeral in our family before. Grandpa is the first. I really don't know what to expect, don't know how to behave.

12:17 PM

Tuesday, November 18, 2003  
Sunday morning I got dressed and went downstairs to the deli for the NY Times. I hadn't bought it in over a year--it's so goddamn large and intimidating that I wind up reading just a section or two from it, then it sits there all week long, making me feel guilty for not reading more of it. Sure enough, Sunday's paper was about the size of a compact car. The plastic sack that the cashier had squeezed it into was already splitting at the seams by the time I got back to my apartment.

With my January deadline for leaving the office fast approaching, I figured the wise thing to do would be to read the classifieds. After studying the listings for a few minutes, my eyes felt tired from squinting at all the tiny type. I was a little discouraged by the bleak offerings (Blimpie Manager Wanted), so I comforted myself by leafing through sales ads for the local electronics stores--Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA, etc. There's something soothing about those ads, something comforting to me. I could look at them for hours, inspecting all the various computers and TVs and gadgets, wondering how they work exactly, whether or not I can afford them, how dramatically those machines might improve my life.

The ad for Circuit City listed the deluxe DVD of The Two Towers, along with the caption IN STORES TUESDAY! I decided that Tuesday morning I would go to the Circuit City on 14th Street and treat myself to the DVD. I can't afford it naturally, now now, not with unemployment on the horizon, but it always seems that I suffer these sorts of impulses (BUY!) during moments when my pockets are nearly empty.

The store opens at 10 a.m., so this morning around 10:30, I informed the secretary that I needed to run an errand, then took the 6 train down to 14th Street.

Inside the store, there was a bit of a line, maybe 10-11 people long. Skittish-looking people, all of them, who had, like me, obviously abandoned their posts mid-morning to make certain they secured their sale-priced copy of The Two Towers ($24.99--bargain!).

A salesman led me to The Two Towers rack, which was located right next to the line of people at the cashier. "Here it is," the saleman said, picking a copy up and handing it to me. For some bizarre reason, I suddenly didn't want the copy he'd touched; I wanted to select my own. (Believe me, I don't understand this anymore than you do.) I waited for the salesman to go away, then proceeded to choose another copy. And no, there were no discernible differences between the two.

Satisfied with my choice, I got in line. A few places in front of me was a man with unkempt blond hair, tiny glasses, thick sideburns, and a plaid scarf around his neck. He seemed nervous about something, uneasy. He kept shifting his weight from foot to foot.

Just before it was his turn to cash out, he quickly stepped out of line and nonchalantly swapped the DVD copy of The Two Towers that he'd been holding for another copy.

No, there were no discernible differences between the two copies.

Once his transaction was complete, he clutched his purchase (I got a prize!) to his chest, pure happiness in his eyes. This moment was obviously the highlight of his day. And it was the highlight of my day, too, sorry-ass as that sounds.

He and I, we're kindred spirits. We might not always understand our bizarre consumer rituals, but they must be honored nonetheless.

3:55 PM

Friday, November 14, 2003  
Thursday morning I got to the office around 8 a.m. I was the first to arrive, which always feels like a small victory to me. I made my way through the hallways switching on lights, enjoying the quietness, the solitude. The offices were still cold; the radiators hadn't come on yet. I was sitting at my desk, staring absent-mindedly at my computer, when a voice suddenly boomed out a few feet away from me.


It was R., the company president. He's the rarely seen/rarely heard from half of the two brothers who own the company. He spends much of his time in Florida, or in his house up in Canada. He's a golf-player; a steak-eater. His absentee status somehow makes him more powerful and terrible than his often-seen (and slightly shorter) brother. With his paunch and booming voice--honestly, considering the volume at which he speaks, I sometimes wonder if the man has a bona fide hearing problem--R. has the ability to put fear in my heart for reasons I've never quite understand. I think in some primal way I recognize him as an uneducated, egotistical sociopath, and my every instinct is to get as far away from this man as possible.

In six years of working here, I've rarely ever seen R. outside of his own office. Most days the only evidence that he's even been here is the cloud of cigar smoke that originates in his office, then slowly travels the hallways like some kind of terrible fog. And not once--ever--has R. deigned to enter my office.

This was an occasion.

"MORNING," R. said, standing in my doorway.

"Morning," I said, startled from my daze.

"What are we working on today?" he asked.

"Little bit of this, little bit of that," I said.

"WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?" R. asked, clearly irritated.

Truth is, I wasn't working on anything at the moment. I surveyed my desk, my mind scrambling to think of something to tell him. "Girl sets," I said. "February girl sets. I'm writing them."

"And when are they going to be DONE?"

"This morning," I said. "I hope."

"Good..." he said. "I LIKE to know what's going on around HERE."

Then he turned and walked down the hall. A few minutes later, I could smell cigar smoke.

I felt a flash of anger--for fuckssakes, I was the only person in the entire office at that hour; most people don't even roll in until 9:15 or 9:30. I felt I deserved a bit of credit--not criticism--if only for getting here early. And if I didn't feel paranoid before--remember, my harddrive is full of drafts of resumes and cover letters at the moment--I certainly feel paranoid now.

One other fact about R.: He has a lousy memory. He gets distracted easily, loses his train of thought. I knew I could probably bank on R. forgetting the entire incident within the hour.

I pressed on with my day, tried to put it behind me. A few hours later, Chris stopped by my office, shut the door. Chris is technically my supervisor. "I don't know what's going on around here," he said, "but R. just called me in and said, 'Is Scott working up to speed?' I assured him you were. He said, 'Funny, I came by his office this morning and he was just sitting a daze. Staring off into space.' " Chris explained to R. that writing this stuff, doing creative work, sometimes requires moments of staring off into space. "I covered for you," Chris said, whispering, "but he's got it in for you for some reason. He's watching you. Something is going on around here. Bad things are happening, and someone is trying to blame you."

I felt a tightening in my chest. Sure, I've made the decision to quit--which makes me essentially bullet-proof--but I assumed I'd leave on my own terms, and of my own volition. I thought I'd leave gracefully, with dignity. Now it looks like there's the potential for things to turn ugly.

Crazy as it sounds, part of me had hoped there would be a little office-wide mourning when I left. That people would say, "We really appreciate your efforts for the past six years." R. included. I know it's not realistic of me to expect this, but it's what I was privately hoping would happen. If anything, this incident reveals that nobody really knows--or appreciates--what anyone else is doing around here. Doesn't matter if I get here early or late--if R. decides to find fault with me, then he's going to find fault.

I have to get the fuck out of here.

Have to.

4:08 PM

Tuesday, November 11, 2003  
In an effort to feel productive on Saturday afternoon--and with job interviews (hopefully) in the offing--I dug what can only be described as my formal wear out of the closet. Old pieces of suits. Dress shirts. Ugly ties. Slacks. Thank Christ I rarely have to wear this stuff.

Since the heat in my building is already turned up to Inferno, I was wearing what I call my weekend shorts at the time. Shorts--that's likely all I'll wear inside my apartment until the boiler goes off in the spring.

Wearing the shorts made it easy for me to try my formal wear on. Feeling playful, I put on a sport coat, the one I once wore to formals in college, only to discover that the sleeves were too short. (Did my arms grow?) I tried on a canary yellow dress shirt that I bought in 1997 at a store called Today's Man. I found a stained tie with paisleys on it. I wondered if I could recall how to tie the tie, so I practiced and discovered that I could. I shoehorned my way into a pair of Italian dress shoes, the ones I wore to my brother's wedding last summer.

I admired myself in the bathroom mirror. Dressed in the tie, jacket, dress shoes and shorts, I looked like a derelict, an escaped mental patient. I was in the process of taking the jacket off, when it occurred to me that it might be sort of fun to just kind of wear my outift around the apartment for little awhile.

With the afternoon on the wane, and the shadows in the living room growing long, I sat on my couch wearing my formal wear and shorts and watched the fourth quarter of the Miami game on TV. It was an exciting game, with Miami (for the second straight week) losing in the final moments.

After the game, I noticed that the sunset outside my window was spectacular--all reds and purples, fingers of clouds streaking the sky. The past few weekends I've gotten in the habit of going up to the rooftop in my building to watch the sunset from there.

I didn't have much time--the sunset wouldn't last more than another minute or two--so wearing my derelict formal wear and shorts, I grabbed my keys and headed out into the hallway, then up the stairs to the roof.

You're not supposed to be on the roof. House rules. The roof has several cell phone towers on it and expensive cables snaking everywhere, and Verizon has posted an intimidating sign on the rooftop door stating that radio waves from the cell phone towers might be hazardous to human health.

No matter. I go up there anyway, radio waves be damned. The view is too beautiful--I can see all the way to Coney Island, and on clear days, I can see the ocean. And last Saturday, the sunset certainly didn't disappoint. With a final slow explosion of glorious oranges and reds, the sun sank into the horizon. On the opposite horizon, in the east, a full moon was coming up. I stood there between the sunset and the moonrise, the cold November wind goosebumping the skin on my bare knees, still wearing my threadbare formal wear, amidst the quiet hum of the cell phone towers--and I felt blessed, and humbled, and marvelously lonely.

I don't know what's going to happen to me in the coming days and weeks, but I feel like that moment, there on the rooftop, was a clue of some kind.

3:44 PM

Friday, November 07, 2003  
I phoned my mother at her office this morning. She works as a nurse for an orthopedic surgeon in upstate New York. "Mrs. Jones...retired," the receptionist said. I've been calling her at that office, at that number, for the past 15 years. I asked her what she meant by "retired." "She left the office last week," the receptionist said. "Try calling her at home."

I dialed the house. Mom laughed when she picked up the phone. "I'm an old woman now," she said. "Old women retire, you know." She was packing, clearing out the house. "Everything is such a mess around here. You know how much I hate it when everything is a mess," she said.

My parents have sold the house, and have to be out by the end of the month. Hard for me to accept the reality that perfect strangers will be living there as of December 1. The house my dad built. The house I grew up in. Perfect strangers.

Guess I really haven't prepared myself properly for this. Haven't even begun to prepare. My mother sounded fine for the most part, maybe a little harried, but fine. I still can't believe they're doing this. That they're finally going to Florida, after all the years of talking about going, they're really going.

Can't believe how brave they're being, both of them. Can't be easy, especially for my mother. She loves the house. There's so much change right now--my brother moving into his house, my parents moving to Florida, my 88-year-old grandfather hanging on day to day. Everything is changing.

I told my mother about my decision to leave the magazine, to leave porn. I thought she'd be happy. "What about your health insurance?" she asked.

"I'll have to do without for a few months," I said.

She was quiet. According to my mother, only a fool walks away from health insurance. I tried to make a case for myself.

"Mom, this place is making me sick," I said. "It's killing me. I can't do this anymore. I feel sick all the time. And if the place where you work is unhealthy...then what's the point of staying there just to hang onto the health insurance? Besides, the health insurance here isn't even very good. It's just Aetna, the worst insurance of all."

"You know what's best," she said. "You've always managed in the past, so why should I start worrying now?" Translated, this means, You've been promoted to the very top of my worry list.

"I've got some money in the bank," I said, trying to comfort her, trying to bring her around to my way of thinking, "and I'll use it if I have to. I can't take the office any longer, Mom. If I stay here much longer, I don't know what I'll do. I'm really losing it over here."

"Well, you have to do what you have to do, I guess," she said.

I felt the old anger flare up. Just once I wish the woman would get behind me, support me at a time when I needed it. Her ambiguous comments don't build my confidence. Hell, I should know better than to look to her for this stuff, but what else am I supposed to do? I can't help but look to her for support during times when I feel vulnerable. She's my mother.

Once I got off the phone, I sat here at my desk stewing for a few minutes. Then I let it all go--like water drained from a bathtub, I let it all go. I'll be fine, with or without Ma's support. I've managed fine in the past without it, and I'll manage now.

Yes, I'm leaving the magazine. A series of events on Wednesday and Thursday convinced me that it's time for me to move on. I dropped my suit at the dry cleaners this morning. I've sent out a few resumes.

I'm trying hard not to be terrified.

4:06 PM

Tuesday, November 04, 2003  
Took a sick day last Friday. Over the years, I've come up with a little system regarding sick days. 1. I always talk to Siohban when I call in; Siohban is so distracted and depressed that she usually forgets to inform the receptionist at the front desk that I'm out. 2. Since the receptionist has no idea I'm out, she doesn't mark anything down for me on the sign-in sheet (normally she'll write SICK in red marker). 3. If I get to the office early enough on Monday morning, the previous week's sign-in sheet will still be sitting up front. I make some illegible scratchings underneath the IN and OUT boxes (so it looks like I was actually here) and voila--I'm magically not charged for the sick day.

Genius, right? It's little things like this--things that took me years to figure out--that have unfortunately worked to keep me at this job long past its expiration date.

Enjoyed the day for the most part. Did some laundry, made some phone calls. Sick-day stuff. In the afternoon I decided to walk over to this bar/restaurant in my neighborhood to have a cheeseburger. The place is called Circles. Sounds like a gay bar, but trust me, it couldn't be more straight. A guy from the office once met me there for a beer, and after taking in the rather banal decor, he said, "I feel like we're sitting in a lounge in the Cleveland airport." He was exactly right--the place does have a distinct Cleveland-airport sort of feel to it.

It was around two in the afternoon. The lunch rush--if there even was a lunch rush--is clearly over. The place was empty except for an old guy sitting at the far end of the bar.

I tell the bartender I want a cheeseburger. "You want bacon on that?" he asks

"Why not?" I tell him. Live a little.

A few minutes later, the cheeseburger arrives. It's fucking great. Perfectly cooked, the cheese melted just so, the fries perfect, bacon perfect. The bun is an English muffin, which is great, too.

I felt somewhat conspicuous while sitting there, a little paranoid, same way I always do when I eat in public. Some laughter went up at the far end of the bar. The old man had said something to the bartender and the waitress that I couldn't hear.

A few minutes later, the old man gets off his stool, tucks his paper under his arm, says goodbye to the bartender, and walks out the door.

Now the place is completely empty. Music is playing over the bar sound system. That Bette Midler song comes on, the "Wind Beneath My Wings" song. Now I'm sitting there eating my cheeseburger and listening to this song. "Did you ever know that you're my heeeeero...."

And I suddenly realize that I'm crying. Tears are welling up in my eyes, running down my face. "You're everything I would like to beeee...."

"Food OK?" It's the bartender. I'm dabbing at my eyes with a napkin, keeping my face down close to my plate so he can't see me crying.

"Fine," I say into my plate. "Everything is fine."

He goes away, and I feel grateful, almost happy in an odd way, to be left alone to cry and eat my cheeseburger.

Who or what was I crying for? Hard to say. My parents, maybe. My brother. John. Joelle. Myself. My wasted life. My big, wasted life. The years are piling up, years spent calling in sick and eating cheeseburgers in empty bars. Loneliness--that's part of it. I get so goddamn lonely sometimes it makes me crazy, but I never know what to fucking do about it. I try being around people, try being social, tried last week going to a reading for a new literary magazine in Soho with my friend Sarah. I took two Xanaxes beforehand, hoping that would make things more bearable, but I still ended up leaving after just twenty minutes.

I see people on the street, people who seem to have themselves sorted, and I can't help but wonder when I'm going to be able to join them.

In the short-term, the lesson is: combine sick-days, empty bars, cheeseburgers, and Bette Midler songs at your own risk.

4:08 PM

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