Letting It Ride: Remembering (and forgetting) what mattered in Music City

Chapter VI

[I’ve changed names when I felt like it]

I came to on an elevator, floating somewhere between the first and fifth floor. At my feet, half-conscious but laughing all the same, was my friend, Ariel. Abruptly, the elevator stopped – had it been going up or down? – and the doors opened to reveal a parking garage.

“Where did you park?” I asked  her, not entirely certain where I was or how I got there, but apparently fully cognizant of our mission to find Ariel’s car. From her position splayed out on the ground, she pressed the button on her key fob. No horn. The vehicle, it seemed, was not on this floor, whichever floor that was. The doors closed and we progressed to the next.

This continued for a few more minutes – or was it half an hour – with Ariel losing the fight to regain her footing and I determinedly stepping out of the elevator on each floor and trying to spy the missing car. Eventually, either through exhaustion or the miraculous return of some sense, I realized that even if we found her car, Ariel was in no state to drive. I sent the elevator back to the ground floor.

Exiting the parking garage, I half carried, half dragged my friend to the street and waved down a taxi, sliding her into the backseat.

“Tell him your address,” I commanded Ariel, which she dutifully did. I gave the driver a twenty-dollar bill and they were off.

With each passing minute in the late March night air, my senses were gradually returning to me. I walked to clear my head a bit before waving down a taxi for myself. Slouched in the backseat, I gave the driver my address and held loosely onto my fleeting consciousness until I arrived home. My neighborhood: Fisk-Meharry, Nashville.

5 No's

Safe and Secure

I arrived in Nashville defeated. I had crawled through San Francisco and Chicago amidst the worst of the Great Recession and come out the other side, officially in the latter half of 10 Cities/10 Years; I was drained, bitter, and ready to give up. Just a few weeks prior to my move, I briefly contemplated scrapping my plans and moving into an apartment with my brother in Austin. It would’ve been a terrible idea (for both of us).

I finally settled on a dirt cheap two-bedroom apartment in the predominantly black neighborhood between two historically African-American colleges, Fisk University and Meharry Medical College. And by “predominantly,” I mean, the only white people I saw were driving through with their windows securely rolled up.

Like my time in West Philly, I heard frequently that Fisk-Meharry was a dangerous neighborhood, including from my white landlord and my black neighbors. Taxi drivers regularly refused to drive me back home after work or to pick me up when I called for a ride. The recession had hit Nashville, too, leaving city projects in my area, intended to usher in new growth and development, incomplete or abandoned altogether. I walked the neighborhood every day without being accosted, but its reputation was fixed.

I lived on an island set upon a sea of liquor.

Every month, I went through a handle each of bargain bin whiskey and vodka – the kind that comes in plastic jugs and doesn’t even pretend to have a pedigree – on top of drinking with coworkers after nearly every shift and any other occasion I could find for “exploring” Nashville. When I couldn’t work up the energy to go out in public, I hid inside my apartment, a sparsely furnished grotto for my isolation.

My one lifeline to humanity those first months in Nashville was Ashley, the woman I’d left in Charlotte. After having spent four years far apart, only one state divided us now and we still had a crackling electricity in our flirtations. She’d endured the separation and my relationship with Selene – the Facebook posts, the pictures, the public display of romance that we’ve masochistically made a part of our societal norm – under the pretense that we were “just friends.” But we were never just friends. Or, more accurately, we were never good at being friends.

As long as the possibility of a future romance remained on the table – and with Ashley, it always did – she tolerated the distance, both physical and emotional.

In my post-Chicago malaise, I gifted Ashley with the fractured pieces of my psyche. She helped me put them back together. We used the word “love” – we never had during the nascent, Charlotte period of our relationship. I started making concessions: I could end my project a year early, count my hometown as Year 1, and move back to North Carolina once I finished so we could live near her family. That’s all that mattered to her.

Now a nurse, Ashley looked into travel nursing so she could spend a few months in whichever city I lived. I supported the idea, but it meant giving her a vote in my next cities. She wanted to live in Arizona, but I was adamant against it: the state had recently passed Arizona SB 1070, the draconian anti-immigration law, and I suppose I felt I was making some political point with my stance. Mostly, I just didn’t want to be back in the Southwest again.

Our long distance relationship lasted nearly four months, a mix of highs and lows. The week of Thanksgiving, we spent a few days in a secluded cabin up in the Great Smoky Mountains, the border between her state and mine. The picturesque, revitalizing backdrop offered all the promises and pleasures of what a simple life together could be.

So, of course, I broke up with her. The distance – the continued separation – required too much energy, too much focus, and the thought of stitching together a relationship over the next four to five uncertain years apart was unthinkable. Once again, I had a choice between Ashley and my project, and I chose 10 Cities/10 Years.

Nash Vegas

After a fruitless and demoralizing stint at a phone bank calling up dissatisfied and very angry customers, I found a gig waiting tables in downtown Nashville. The restaurant, Demos’, is a regional institution with its steaks and spaghetti varieties, positioned in that niche between fine dining and generic family fare. All of Nashville came through those doors, whether to eat or to serve.

The staff at Demos’ was your usual mix of students, burn outs, lifers, and strivers. Like Los Angeles for actors, screenwriters, and directors, Nashville’s official status as Music City means seemingly everyone in the service industry has (or had) a dream of making it in the music business.

It was the one city where, when I told people I was a writer, they immediately assumed songwriter.

As I gradually climbed out of my depression, the Demos’ crew was always around to provide at least one drinking buddy. In an industry with massive turnover, some servers came and went in a matter of months or even weeks. From shift to shift, I could repeat the exact same day – serve lunch, go for midday drinks and pool at Buffalo’s Billiards, serve dinner (partially in the bag), and then get more drinks – with a whole new group of coworkers. Server life is a bit like Groundhog Day.

Not everyone vanished. There were a core group of Demos’ servers who regularly went out together, including the high spirited Ariel, a favorite drinking companion.

That black out night in the elevator had begun commonly enough at the Beer Seller, where our group was playing pool and watching March Madness. A couple hours into the night, we were joined by one of our usual creepy hangers-on.

There is a type of older man who hovers in bars where groups of young friends regularly gather. These men ingratiate themselves into the group with the hopes of getting a shot at one of the attractive, young girls, which, as servers, we had no shortage of. Everyone knows their intentions and no one trusts them, but they buy drinks and other substances, so the group usually tolerates their presence.

That night, our creep – John? Sure, let’s go with John – had supplied the usual rounds when he offered to up the ante. Retrieving his wallet, he slipped out tabs of what, at the time, I assumed were Xanax. I suppose they could have been almost anything, but I wasn’t really in a questioning mood. Four of us – John, Ariel, myself, and Will, another coworker – put the tabs on our tongues and washed them back with beer.

And then I woke up on the elevator.

A few days later, when Ariel and I had a shift together, she beelined straight to me.

“How did I get home?” She asked, a mix of confusion and concern in her tone.

I told her about the cab. Thanking me profusely, she explained that she could remember most of the night, but not what happened after we had been kicked out of the last bar. As she recounted, after splitting from John and Will, we had bounced from bar to bar, dancing at one, hogging the jukebox at another, generally being young and obnoxious as you do when your mind is erased.

She could recall up until the point that we left the bar, well after closing time, and then, like something out of science fiction, we swapped consciousness: the moment she blacked out, I came back online and filled in the rest of the memory. She remembered the partying, I remembered our egress, and together, we completed the night.


As the year in Nashville progressed and each day pushed Chicago further into memory, I regained my sense of purpose. For the better part of a year, when I thought of 10 Cities/10 Years, all I saw was everything I had lost, everything I had given up for this quixotic venture.

The friends I made at Demos’, the strangers I met in bars and the stories they told, even the failed attempts at romantic flings, these were all a reminder of why I had set out on this path half a decade prior, and why I had to keep going. In the process of falling in and out of love, I had lost sight of what mattered: the people on the road.

That year, my sixth, I made a vow to myself: I would complete this project no matter what came my way, even it if killed me. So what if I was throwing good money after bad, I had come this far, and I was going to let it ride.

Ironically, after resisting Ashley’s direction of my future, for Year 7, I created an online poll to let friends and strangers determine my next city: Austin, Denver, Portland, or Seattle. When the voting closed, Seattle claimed the victory by one vote.

Let It Ride

One of my last nights in Nashville, I ascended the towering grassy hill known as Love Circle, joined by Dustin and Jacky, two close friends from Demos’. As its name implies, the spot is a popular, shall we say, “make out” spot, but at a nearly 800 feet elevation, it also offers one of the best views of the entire city. We climbed up to the hill with a bottle of Eagle Rare and sat on top of the world, recounting our shared times and envisioning our separate futures.

Love Circle

Jacky was a singer in a band, Dustin was in school, and I had four long, unknowable years ahead of me. But for a short time, our paths had merged.

Maybe I’m just projecting, but that night on Love Circle had the feel of a transitional moment for all of us. High above the city that had brought together three dreamers from different hometowns, we could see for miles. Other than a few clouds, we had clear skies. I felt something I hadn’t in a very long time: contentment.

And that was reason enough to keep going.

Keep reading: Chapter VII – Seattle

Sound & Vision or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Whiskey


[Some names are real, some are changed, and some are made up because I don’t remember their real ones. You can guess which is which.]

I was leaving work when my phone buzzed: a text. It was Megan.

“You want to get drinks?” It read.


Two months prior to this evening, I was employed at Sound & Vision, a used CD/DVD store with two locations in downtown Philadelphia, one on 2nd Street and the other on South Street. Separated by less than a mile, when I needed to bounce from one store to the other, I frequently took a scenic stroll past Penn’s Landing.

I began working there in June, only a few weeks after departing Charlotte. The job involved sifting through stacks of mostly unlistenable CDs while blasting Neutral Milk Hotel over the stores speakers or staving off boredom by watching movies on a 13″ television. For a 23-year-old new to the city, it was almost the perfect job. Steve, the owner, played the role of Almost.

A man more horizontal than vertical, Steve had spent his entire 50 years in Philadelphia but looked no less road worn for it. He rhapsodized frequently about his past accomplishments and justified his current, not-quite-estimable status by blaming any number of villains: Past employees, city officials, his baby mama.

I suspected, however, that his decline in fortunes might fairly be attributed to his crack addiction. That, and his weakness for companionship. Prostitutes aren’t cheap; although, his did appear to be on the, shall we say, more economical side.

As Steve’s extracurricular activities took precedence over managing his stores (and paying his employees, and bathing), he charged me with finding someone to cover the shifts he was no longer interested in working himself.

One of those interviewees was Megan. She was a petite, mousy girl with an almost perfectly round face and hair so thin and matted down, she gave the impression of someone just a couple months out from finishing chemo treatment. Other than the aforementioned baby mama, Donna, the staff was all male, so I recommended Megan to Steve who, with all the vehemence he could muster, said, “Fine.”

After that, I rarely saw Megan unless there was a problem. The stores could operate with one employee at a time, and as the de facto manager (a role I had essentially forced Steve to bestow upon me), I took all the hours I could get.

When I did cross paths with the other staff, we shared our latest stories on Steve’s erratic behavior.

“He came into the store with a hooker and emptied the till.”

“He called me up, yelled at me, and then started sobbing.”

“He smells like a homeless man, if that homeless man ran back-to-back marathons.”

With Steve growing increasingly unhinged, the responsibility of running the stores fell to me, even as I knew no employees were being paid. Some of the newest hires – including Megan – still hadn’t received a single paycheck. I received promises almost daily that we would be paid “the next time I come in.” But one afternoon, I noticed an ominous bill in the pile of mail. Holding the unopened envelope to the light, I could make out the words “Past Due” and a number with five digits before the decimal.

On what would turn out to be my last day working for Steve, I arrived before noon at the South Street location. Megan was to work at 2nd Street that afternoon; it was a normal Sunday.

A few minutes after I opened South Street, Megan called in a frenzy.

“My purse was stolen.” She had opened the store, set her bag down on the counter and gone to the back for a moment. When she came back out, someone had absconded with her possessions. Frazzled and upset, she wanted to go immediately to the police station to make a report. I told her I’d have Steve come down and cover the store. That didn’t seem unreasonable. Apparently, I was mistaken.

Steve arrived at 2nd Street in a sour mood, his 4-year-old son and Donna, the child’s mother, in tow. Immediately after relieving Megan, he called me on the store phone and launched into a lengthy diatribe, complaining about our overstock and any number of other grievances. This haranguing continued for a half hour, until eventually his voice began to drop out and his words jumbled together. Then silence.

He fell asleep. Poor guy, apparently all those hookers and blow had plum tuckered him out.

An hour later, I received a call from Megan.

“They’re both passed out.”

“Excuse me?”

“Donna is asleep on the ground behind the counter, and Steve is passed out in the back. He doesn’t have clothes on.”

I had unfortunately had the inauspicious experience of walking in on a sleeping Steve before, so I knew what she was witnessing: A gray-haired, whale of a man, undressed to his skivvies, his gelatin hindquarters squeezed to the point of bursting inside tighty (off-)whities. It was a sight meant for neither man nor woman.

“You have to get out of there,” I insisted.

“I can’t,” she protested. “The boy’s here. There’s a homeless guy in here with him.” Where was Norman Rockwell when you needed him?

Megan did leave, after Donna had stirred, and she came straight to South Street. I was sitting there with another employee who Steve had fired the night before (the employee claimed he quit). He was looking to get paid, and come to think of it, Megan wouldn’t mind the same.

I gave the former employee about $200 out of the till, figuring that was the least Steve could do. I told Megan she should just go home for the day. There was no way she could be expected to work around her half-naked boss (no sexual harassment policy on earth would let that fly). I told them that if Steve contacted them, tell them I gave them permission and they could blame me.

They did. And he did.

When Steve awoke from his power nap, he called again, apoplectic. He upbraided me for giving away his money. For an hour, we yelled at each other, I laying out his numerous sins, he venting all the ways I had earned his disdain. Then, with his anger boiling over, he abruptly hung up.

Stewing for half an hour, I paced back and forth behind the counter while the few customers the store had stared at me with concern apparent in their eyes. They’d heard everything.

I called Steve again and quit. Immediately, he turned apologetic and conciliatory. He offered to pay me (most of) what he still owed me. He offered to drive me home. He offered to buy me dinner. I took him up on all of it; then I still quit.

My triumphant exit was slightly undercut by the fact that I had already agreed to cover Megan’s shift the next day. But then that was it.

A few days later, I started working at Penn Book Center and I put Steve and his insanity behind me.


Megan and I had remained in touch, but this was our first excuse to hang out.

“They’re running a crazy promotion. Free vodka from 6-7.”

In those days, I wasn’t yet on the whiskey train. As an inexperienced drinker in Charlotte, I initiated my journey towards noble alcoholism with rum. However, after a few too many nights that resulted in my evening’s drinks reincarnated as vomit, I was looking for a less sweet drink. Vodka, why not?

The bar was somewhere downtown, and that’s about as specific as I can hope to get. When I arrived, Megan was there with a friend I didn’t know. The promotion, – sponsored by Smirnoff, or Skyy, or Absolut, as if it made a difference – was as advertised: From 6 to 7, the bar was slinging free vodka. The three of us immediately lined up and downed a round. And then we did it again. And again.

In between drinks, Megan and I caught up. She had stayed on at Sound & Vision for a month after I left. With the crew diminished, she was catapulted into the managerial role I had vacated. Whereas I had convinced Steve to allow me to take cash from the register when I needed to pay bills and whatnot, Megan lasted nearly two months at the store and never received a red cent. “I quit last week,” she said.

By the time the hour had passed, we had managed four or five shots each, and I, being a vodka-newbie and drinking on an empty stomach, was feeling the warm, Russian comfort in my gut. My drinking companions, being prudent with their finances, packed it in when the free booze dried up.

I, on the other hand, had a full time job that actually provided an income. I said goodbye to my companions and saddled back up to the bar.

All I remember after that was stumbling out of the bar, maybe ten minutes later, just as possibly three hours. Crowds of well-heeled couples were gathered on the sidewalk, waiting for taxis. I circumvented the line and threw myself into the back seat of an unsuspecting cab.

“Where you going?”

“50th Street and Spruce,” I sputtered.

The cab was swirling. The planet was shaking. As the taxi pulled away from the curb, I felt a familiar churn in my core. I rolled down the windows and – well, I’d like to say that I managed to evacuate everything outside the window, but I suspect that was not the case.

“Here you are,” the cabbie said curtly after only a few minutes. Even wasted, I knew he couldn’t have possibly gotten all the way across town.

“Where are we?” I asked, as much a question of location as a metaphorical pondering from death’s door.

“15th Street.”

“No, 50th Street. Five-Oh.”

“I don’t go that far,” he stated in such a way as to preclude debate. Drunk, sick, and wobbly, I paid the protracted tab and stepped out of the cab and into darkness. I was just on the outskirts of Center City, but it might as well have been the woods by Camp Crystal Lake for all I knew.

Now, on top of my inebriation and general wooziness, I was lost in a city I had only lived in for three months. My dark haze had me turned around and unable to figure out which direction I needed to head. Looking about me, I picked a direction and…

Woke up on my lumpy futon the next morning.

This wouldn’t be the last night I would find myself in an unknown Philly neighborhood and somehow will myself home. It was also the initiation of a brief affair with vodka that would last roughly until I moved to southern California and began courting a burly gentleman named Jack.

I hung out with Megan two or three more times after that night and then she just slipped out of my life, like so many other two-month friends I’ve had. Philadelphia, more than anywhere else I lived, was a city I merely passed through, sometimes stumbling. Much of that year set the pattern for the next decade of my life, but when Year 2 ended, there were no tearful goodbyes, no farewell parties.

I was stronger for it: the struggles, the isolation, the city’s coarse touch. I chose Philadelphia for my second year specifically so I could push myself, test my mettle. In that sense, it fulfilled every expectation. It’s why I’ll always have a fondness for that dirty town; even a slight appreciation for Steve.

Still, a month before I packed up all my stuff and moved to Southern California, I trekked down to 2nd Street and saw something that made me smile:

The End of Sound and Vision

The end of Sound & Vision. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Keep reading: Chapter III

The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Innocent

The remnants of a two dollar ale splattered Aaron’s Tom’s hoodie with the red kiss of Margot Susan messy and regretful on his cheek.

We had spent a week preparing him for this, and then, seeing her with Skip Mark, plans went to shit, he lost his temper and all sense of proportion.  He’s lucky it was her pitying lips and not Skip’s Mark’s fist.

Her brother, Nick Sam, looked on, phased on lithium and depressed despite it, miserable but docile.  He didn’t care if we killed each other, and we might have, if not for the piss drunk histrionics of Elisa Laura, attention-starved and guilt-tripping like a bitch Kerouac, not even pretty.

So we ran away left –  Aaron Tom, Elisa Laura and me I – and David Stew tagged along because no one liked him much and he didn’t have a place with anyone, so why not us?

The point was to get Aaron Tom fucked up, even though that had been our only recourse for the past month and it still wasn’t getting us him anywhere.

“You’re better off without her,” was the common refrain, but there wasn’t anyone who believed he was better off, or better than her, or not just better off dead.

I We made David Stew swipe his brother’s codeine, because what else was he good for, and we mixed it with ten dollar vodka and gave Aaron Tom as much as he wanted, because, fuck.

We stormed Ocean Beach at two in the morning and startled a wino who was drinking better shit than us.

We shoplifted candy bars we didn’t even eat while David Stew bought a porno mag from a chink shop owner who would have paid us just to leave his shop.

We pushed ourselves in our debauchery because we were motivated in nothing else.

Then we returned to Elisa’s Laura’s basement and made use of her parent’s abdication of responsibility.  We She was a lost cause.

Two hours into our boredom revelry, Elisa Laura and I apathetically, tragically, vaguely silently screwed again, while Aaron Tom dissolved into the couch and David Stew ineptly migrated home, unable to help his being straight as a narc.

Alone, Aaron Tom finished the bottle.

And the next morning, we he woke up, for better or worse.

The Best of the Worst: The Television Anti-Hero


Needless to say I have some unusual habits, yet all these socially acceptable people can’t wait to pick up hammers and smash their food to bits. Normal people are so hostile.” ~ Dexter Morgan

Dexter Morgan.  Nancy Botwin.  Walter White.  Dr. Gregory House.

Television right now is a wonderful place for terrible people.

Has there ever been a more despicable class of heroes in our weekly lives?  Serial killers and drug dealers and utter narcissists and psychopaths (in the true, textbook definition of the word).  Movies are still mostly the realm of shining heroes, though so-often flawed in their very human ways.  If the hero of a movie is an unlikeable person nowadays, it’s usually just because they’re an overgrown Manchild (see: any male lead in a comedy) or a plastic-molded succubus (looking at you Sex in the City ladies).  The anti-hero exists in movies, to be sure, but they don’t make ’em like they do on the ol’ idiot box (at least, in the U.S.  The foreign film market is a larger, harder to define beast, and I won’t try to lump it in with Hollywood).

I would argue that Dexter, Nancy, Walter and Gregory are truly some of the worst people to ever make us root for them.  The anti-hero on television has traditionally been a curmudgeon (e.g Archie Bunker) or a charming rouge (e.g. Sam Malone), somebody that does or says unlikeable things frequently, but is always shown to be well-meaning and genuinely good.

Not the Four Kings, though (alright, Three Kings and a Queen).

These are rotten people through and through.  Because we do ‘root’ for them, we might start to convince ourselves that these are good people just forced into extraordinary situations, but if we knew these people in real life there would be no qualms about it:  These folks suck.

We witness Dexter commit atrocious murders and fake his way through relationships, but because we get flashbacks of his sad childhood, we forgive the sins.  Yeah, he makes Rita and the kids feel good, but this mf-er chops people into pieces and dumps their bodies into the ocean.  If that scale seems even to you, I suspect there might be a severed thumb on one side.

We see Nancy make selfish decision after selfish decision, all the while benefiting from drug-trafficking (and not just marijuana as the title would imply), but we keep coming back to her wretched life.  And, let’s face it, even though we’re all getting a little tired of the deeper hole she keeps digging, I think we can all agree (SPOILER ALERT), watching Shane wack Pilar with a mallet was the most satisfying scene of season 5.  Like mother like son.

We watch Walter go from cancer-stricken father to absolutely deplorable drug kingpin, and that’s just in the first season.  Dude goes off the rails, and it’s awesome (I’m behind on season 3, but I’m looking forward to catching up).  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can tell you exactly when I knew I was going to keep watching this show: The pilot episode when Walter goes all Joe Pesci on some teenage kids in the store because they’re making fun of his son.  Yeah, we’re sympathetic to his plight and he certainly has an admirable motivation (helping his family), but on the list of responsible/reasonable solutions to medical debt, becoming a murderous drug-producer isn’t even in the top 10.

Does Greg deserve a place on this list?  I mean, he doesn’t deal drugs (just takes them), he doesn’t murder people (in fact, he heals them) and he’s even been known to comfort rape victims.  Yeah, he’s a jerk, but c’mon, he’s saving people.  Why include him on this list?

First off, because House doesn’t give a wit about his patients (or anyone, really).  With a few exceptions throughout the 6 seasons so far, House shows no personal interest in his patients (and for the few he has cared about, it’s been people he saw himself in, thus reinforcing his self-interest).  Dexter kills other killers.  Nancy and Walter are trying to provide for their families (albeit, in ill-conceived ways).  But House?  There is no hidden golden reason.  Even his desire to save people is based on his wholly selfish love of puzzles.  If a patient isn’t interesting, he doesn’t care if they die.

But, that’s not the reason I think the good doctor deserves a spot on this list.  I think the true proof of his villainy is his most interesting character trait:  He’s an atheist.  Now, as an atheist myself, I don’t think that makes House a bad person (obviously).  If anything, I think it proves he’s intellectually consistent, and that’s certainly a positive trait.  But we’re talking about a television show that is not only one of the most watched scripted dramas in America, but is also the most popular show in the world.*  Considering that one well-circulated survey a few years back found that Atheists were the least-trusted minority group in America, it’s pretty impressive that so many people still flock to their televisions once a week to see an atheist spit on their religious belief.  When I watch House, I see someone I can relate to, but what about the other millions of churchgoers who apparently have no problem loving (maybe begrudgingly so) someone who represents the complete antithesis of their worldview?

Why do we love television characters we should hate?  Well, that gets to the root of the whole anti-hero archetype, and that’s more of an academic question.  It’s worth contemplating.  I think there is something to the idea that we enjoy watching these people because it lets us surreptitiously live out our darkest impulses.  We get our weekly, cathartic release of our demons and then go back to nodding, smiling and shaking hands at the office the next day.  All the while wondering what it’d be like to stuff Johnson in a hefty garbage bag.

But that might be an unnecessarily dark reading of the human psyche.  I’m not really sure it matters why we enjoy our heroes to be so despicable, but it’s clear today that we do.  Artistically, the most praised shows, whether dramas or comedies (think Arrested Development and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), of the past decade have all focused on truly scummy people.

Great, isn’t it?

I bet you have your opinion on who you think is truly the worst human being on television.  Go ahead and let me know.  I’m always in the market for a new dirtbag to root for.

*Like Weeds, House has suffered a bit from the dreaded “Past its prime” syndrome.  No show can maintain the high of its earlier, best seasons forever, and unfortunately, in America we tend to run shows into the ground until they’re nigh unwatchable (*cough* X-Files *cough*).  That said, I feel that part of why both shows have lost some of their shine is because the main characters have gone so far into the darkside, the writers have flinched.
Season 6 of House seemed like an attempt to humanize House after seasons 4 and 5 took him into very dark territory.  It didn’t work, and I’m afraid the whole House/Cuddy storyline is going to kill the best part of the show.  As for Weeds, Nancy was always introspective and filled with self-doubt about her actions, but now she just seems mopey and helpless, completely out of control of her own life.  Fingers crossed that the new season will restore order, or just focus more on Shane.  And here is hoping Dexter and Breaking Bad resist the curse and go out strong.

John The Cop

Let me tell you a story.

You will recall that back in my first few months in Philadelphia, I landed a fantastic job at a Used CD/DVD store right downtown.  If you haven’t read my account of crackheads, bums and Bob the Builder, you really should.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

When you have a central figure as dynamic as my unshowered, overweight, prostitute-frequenting, drug-addicted boss who didn’t pay his employees, well, sometimes other characters get glossed over, or left out altogether.  For instance, there was the homeless couple I mentioned briefly who disappeared unexpectedly one day, after about a week of acting jittery.  Or, another example, I remember one night when a nervous-looking deaf man was attempting to converse with me and my high school level sign language, at the same time as a flamboyantly gay teenager overtly ogled me (and my ass) every time I stood (he would ask me where certain CDs were just so he could leer at me as I walked from section to section).

Additionally, I left out the night I was waiting for the bus home at midnight and ended up in a congenial conversation with a sweet, hefty black woman who turned out to be a phone sex operator (she didn’t like leaving the job at night because sometimes customers found out where their operation was based and would wait outside for particular operators).

Hell, even some of my co-workers were quirky in their own right.

But one particular fellow deserves his own entry:  John the Cop.  Now, this is usually the part where I say, “Let’s call him…” and give a fake name.  But I never knew this guy’s full name.  I only knew him as John the Cop, and I like the ring of that title, so I’m sticking with it.

John the Cop, like all good cops, was a chubby bastard (there seems to be a theme of fat-ness running through my Philly stories; unsurprising for a city that routinely puts squeeze cheese on their cheese-steak sandwiches).  This was a man who, in an action movie, would be the fairly dimwitted fat cop who loses the perp in a foot chase and then gets chewed out by the hero of the film, only to be revealed in the climax as a crony for the main villain.  That is to say, when he entered the store, I was not filled with an overwhelming sense of personal security.

The first night I met the protagonist of this particular entry, he was in full uniform.  This was not unusual, as my store was in a somewhat seedy part of downtown and cops routinely strolled in and out of the store.  If you know me, you know that cops make me a bit uneasy.  I’ve never had a serious run-in with the law, but my few experiences dealing with individual cops have been mostly unpleasant.  Other than maybe one exception, every cop I’ve dealt with has been particularly douche-y.

Cue: John the Cop.

He came up to the counter with a fat stack of DVD boxsets (think seasons of The Sopranos, The Simpsons, etc.) and CDs.  The way my store worked, all the actual discs were in the back organized by numbers, so I would take the cases and have to search through old, flimsy, 30-count cardboard boxes for the right discs.  With one title, this could take a minute.  With a stack of 15 or 20 different titles, this could be quite the ordeal.  But okay, that’s cool, the store is about to make a lot of money, so I’m happy to do it (this was back in my first few weeks when I still wanted the store to succeed).

After maybe 12 to 15 minutes, I’ve found all the discs and I set the stack back on the counter in front of John the Cop.  With a pen and paper, I start to make out a receipt in order to give the cop his total.

“Oh, no.”  John the Cop says (at this point, I don’t know his name).  “I don’t pay for these.  I have a deal arranged with Greg.”  Greg isn’t the guy’s real name.  The cop meant another employee at the store who worked mostly days and had been with the store longer than anyone (other than the crackhead boss and his crackhead baby’s mama).  So, yeah, let’s call him ‘Greg’.

“Greg lets me borrow this stuff and I make copies of all of them.  Then I bring them back in the morning.”  Already, you’re getting the sense of what kind of person this John the Cop is, aren’t you?

Now, my incredulity must have shown on my face, because John says, “You can call Greg if you want.”  I didn’t know Greg’s number, but I might have been able to scrounge around and find it.  Of course, the thought of me saying to the cop, “Yeah, one second, I’ve got to verify your story” and then turning the store upside down searching for the phone number seemed a bit, shall we say, stupid.  I was new in the city and not too keen on having a cop being on my bad side.  On the other hand, what the cop was doing was legally (and morally) suspect and not good for business.  It was a real ethical quandary.

So, I summoned up my moral courage and I said, “Nah, it’s cool.  Go ahead and take them.”  John the Cop smiled his big, smarmy-cop smile and did just that.  Greg worked the next morning, so I figured John the Cop would just return the stuff to Greg the next day and the boss would never know, everything would be square.

Over the next few weeks, John the Cop would show up from time to time, gather up a buttload of CDs and DVDs and I would let him walk out with $300 to $400 worth of a merchandise.  John the Cop even gave me his personal phone number and said, “Give me a call if you need anything.”  This seemed like a pretty good trade off.  John the Cop got all the burned media he wanted, and I had a cop in my pocket if I needed something (I wasn’t thinking like bribery; I was more concerned with possibly getting a public intoxication ticket that I would need expunged).  I didn’t particularly look forward to John the Cop’s visits, but at least I understood the routine.

He would even call me up sometimes and say he was on his way.  Once, he asked me if I wanted him to bring me a drink.

“Oh, sure, whatever you want to bring,”

“What kind of beer do you like?”  Um.

“Um, whatever is fine.”  If you’re wondering about the ethical questions of drinking on the job… fob off.  It was just a beer, I wasn’t going to get drunk and even if I got plastered, I think I could manage to sit on my ass in an empty store.  My main hesitation was simply that a cop was offering to bring me a beer (he didn’t even know my age, though I was over 21).  This guy wasn’t lining up for any Medals of Merit.

Naturally, he brought me PBR.  I think I’ve made it clear my feelings towards Pabst.  I didn’t end up drinking the beer and it ended up in my fridge back home for the rest of my year in Philly.  But still, it’s the thought that counts, or something.

Now, Greg and I didn’t regularly cross paths.  We were both essentially managers and so we had opposite schedules to take care of the store operations.  That is to say, from the time I first met John the Cop, I didn’t actually get an opportunity to discuss any of the happenings with Greg for a few weeks.

One Friday morning, probably a month and a half or so into my total of 2 months working at the store, Greg and I crossed paths at one of the stores and started chatting about whatever (probably bitching about how shitty our crackhead boss is).  Something about John the Cop had been bugging me for awhile, so I casually brought him up.

“I’ve had a few run-ins with John the Cop,” I said to Greg.

“Oh, yeah,” Greg replied, knowingly.

“So, he usually brings the DVDs back to you?”  I asked, rhetorically (so I thought).  Greg laughed.

“Nah, man, he doesn’t bring them back.  He just takes them.”  Shit.  “Yeah, that guy hates Steve” (the crackhead boss), “they got in some big fight awhile back.  So he just takes whatever he wants.”

“Shit!  He told me he was bringing them back to you.”

“Nope.  Don’t worry about it.  I figure it’s just  better to stay out of it.”

I was an accessory to some pretty pricey theft.  But Greg was right, there was really nothing to do but stay out of it.  By this point, the crackhead boss had stopped paying his employees, was taking money from the till nightly and showing up to the store with prostitutes.  Neither he or John the Cop were really on the right side of the law, and I frankly didn’t care if they both went down.

Of course, within the next couple weeks, my crackhead boss would be busted by the police with a prostitute and a trunk full of drugs (apparently the prostitute took the fall for the drugs), and then one of the stores would be shutdown due to lack of payment on rent.  This would all lead up to that fateful Sunday when the crackhead and I had an all out yelling match where I decided to quit on the spot.

Quitting led to better things, so I was happy to leave that store behind.

Plus, I never saw John the Cop again.  And I hope I never will.  Or any cops for that matter.  Yeah, yeah, not all cops are crooked assholes, I’m aware of that.  But there are John the Cops out there, and I’d gladly avoid all police just to make sure I never have another run-in with his type.

Oh, and by the way, I still have his phone number in my cell address book, under the name, “John the Cop.”