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

CHAPTER II

[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 Final 2 Weeks

I’m so close I can taste it.

Specifically, it tastes like a glass of whiskey that sat overnight on my bedstand and, cut through with melted ice, has turned lukewarm. It just sort of sits on the tongue.

One last gulp.

Ever since I started this blog back in 2009 – on the verge of moving from San Francisco to Chicago (cities 4 and 5) – I’ve expressed my varying levels of panic due to financial concerns and the reality that, with any missteps, I could end up broke and homeless. Some years were more worrisome than others (Chicago and Seattle being the toughest, post-SF), but I never felt secure. You can’t plan for all eventualities.

In May of this year, I was finally able to breathe a little easier. That’s how long it took to pay off a debt that had accumulated in the wake of my move to Brooklyn and my subsequent months of less than steady income. It required considerably longer than normal to dig myself out of my annual debt and if I had needed to save up for another move in September I would have been in quite a predicament.

But I don’t have to save. Not for another move, at least.

You remember how your parents (or grandparents) would talk about how their parents were so stingy because they grew up in the Great Depression. They had frugality and the value of a dollar ingrained in them at a young age. Even in prosperity, they never fully shook off the habits of their youth.

That’s how I feel after 10 years of living to the bone. I don’t know how to not save.

Every year I’m a little chagrined when I hear co-workers – people who make roughly the same amount of money as I do – complain about being broke. Sure, some of them have expenses I don’t, like car payments and insurance, pets and cigarettes. But they don’t have the expense of relocating every year or losing a few weeks (or months) to a job search.

I wish I could offer up some tips for how to nurture a nest egg. I sincerely do, because I could make a metric shitton of cash hawking self-help guides about saving money. I don’t have any secrets, though, no hidden tricks or lessons from the ancients.

I only know 1 thing: If you want to save money, you have to have a specific reason, a purpose.

10 Cities / 10 Years has been my purpose (in so many ways) for the majority of my adult life, and to that end I have focused all of my energy and drive. I’ve sacrificed so much on that altar – the most obvious being relationships. I haven’t always enjoyed the journey. That was never the point.

It is because of single-minded dedication (a.k.a. “obsession”) that I now find myself 2 weeks out from the completion of a decade long endeavor.

I’ve been trying to process the enormity of that accomplishment, and honestly, I can’t. I suspect that when I wake up on September 1st, I’ll feel numb. It will be over, the lingering taste of whiskey still on my tongue, and, peering ahead at my unmapped future, I’ll not know what to do with myself.

Luckily, as my experiences have proven over and over again, time will eventually help me comprehend what this has all meant. Time is like that, turning heartbreak into character, pain into strength and tragedy into comedy. Time will make sense of nonsense.

And then.

I will find a new road and I will take it to its end. I will make a goal and I will attain it. Because that’s all I know how to do.

2 weeks: The bottle is almost finished.

Jameson Insta

Whiskey in Seattle

Well, I’m here.

And I’ve been walking a lot.  Even when my knee starts to hurt and I can feel the swelling inside, I keep walking.  There’s too much to see and my insatiable thirst for ‘new’ just keeps me going.  I’ve probably walked 10 to 15 miles in the past three days here, and I still know I haven’t seen even a healthy fraction of what there is to see (I’ve not even made the trek to the Space Needle).

Soon, my dwindling funds and lack of a job will start to nag at me and will send my mood into a tailspin (that is, until I inevitably find a job), but for now, I’m still electrified by the vast expanse of unexplored possibilities ahead of me.  Call it my manic mode.

Naturally, the most important aspect of the city for me to explore is the nightlife.  I mean watering holes, not night clubs (though I’ll search those out at some point).  Drinking beer at home is fine for a few days, but I can only go so long without having a refreshing glass of ice-chilled whiskey on a tragedy-stained vinyl stool.

So, last night I went out for a couple hours.  The first place I stopped into was a joint named “The Whiskey Bar.”  Like a moth to a flame.  Semi-swanky, but still fairly laidback, I had two glasses of an Irish whiskey I’d never had before, Kellan.  Do yourself a favor and try some.  Roughly in the same price range as Jameson (at least, they were charging the same price), it’s incredibly smooth and delicious.  I could have drank it all night, but I felt that it was my duty as a new settler to give at least one other bar a visit, so I reluctantly left. 

But I’ll be back Kellan, I’ll be back.

The other bar I stopped into was a recommendation from the new roommate, a place called “Lava Lounge.”  Grungy and dark, this place is a bar for hard rockers and metalheads, presumably, with a “DJ” playing deep cuts from some Scandanavian Black Metal™ group.  But really it was pretty chill.  There were some couples playing shuffleboard in the back and groups of people talking and laughing around tables.  It could have been any other yuppie bar if not for the music and the abundance of full-sleeve tattoos.  That isn’t an insult, just saying that bars are pretty much all the same when it comes to their purpose:  A gathering spot for like-minded drunks to meet or ignore strangers.

I sat at the bar because I’m a writer and that’s what we do.  I switched over to well whiskey, which was fine but a marked decline from my previous drink.

After finishing off my first glass and ordering a second, the gentlemen on the stool next to me started up a conversation.  He was a black guy, and I bring that up only because he made a point of stating that his friends didn’t understand why he hung at a ‘rocker bar’.  For the women, he explained.  He loves the tattoos (I’m in full agreement there).

“I want to take her home and play her some rap,” he said about one particular target.  The “If you know what I mean” was implied.

The dude was cool and we chatted a bit.  When he asked me what I do I told him I’m a writer.  I’ve noticed that over the last year or so, I’ve felt less and less inhibited about saying such.  I am a writer.  I might not be making a living at it, but I don’t think there is anyone out there who has made more of a life commitment to their craft than I have.  The 10 Cities Project is about a lot of things, but when it comes to the basic foundation of it, it’s a writing project first and foremost.

So, I’m a writer.

And for my troubles, my new friend bought me a shot of whiskey.  We parted ways and I walked back down the hill to my apartment.  Overall, a successful night.

And more to come…

A Critical Comparison of Gymnasts, One-Legged and One-Eyed: An Eisegesis

She was a pretty little chick, living on his arm, blonde and brunette in the same breath.
He accused her of believing in God and silenced the room
like blasphemy
and this was the woman
he kissed.
But she was just a woman and still a viable target for his scorn.

“Do you know what happens when your liver fails?” He demanded of her, or us, as he drank whiskey from a diamond. “You bloat like a bitch. You shit albino mice and grow an itch on the inside of your skin, so bad you can’t sleep.”
He met eyes.
“So don’t tell me I’ve had enough,
“I’m still alive.”
Spoken like a challenge he was all too happy to lose.

He turns on us
tells us we’re all ambitionless drunks or narcissistic assholes dwelling in our fatuous pasts.
And he would know, a leader of men, past his prime.

This occurs two hours after he demonstrated why it was possible for a gymnast to have only one leg, whereas “there will never be a one-eyed gymnast.”
No matter how good she once was.

No balance.
Which reminded him of a joke he couldn’t remember.
Back then, she smoked Marlboros and he cupped her buttock through a hedonistic pair of strained denims.

“Love is rotted teeth,” someone said, but we accredited it to Shakespeare.

In this bar, we write sad-syllabled odes with indecipherable titles to the careers we once had,
the fame we never did.
Perhaps that’s the meaning of ‘family’:
A room of people who have all failed to escape each other.

But, God
I hope not.

The Spilt Milk Blues

This coming of age story lacks for maturity
and protagonists

We are you and not I
We are I and bottom shelf whiskey, kissing slovenly like young lovers
Sickly romantic, I’m depressing my fellow drunks

In my solitude
If there is safety in numbers, you must be secure as Fort Knox
Almost got away with it, too
If not for your voracious appetite for crumbs
and telling stories

I’m not without sympathy, but you’re a pity and I’ve a pittance for your crocodile tears

It’s a sorry state of affairs when apologizes are the Ladies Night special
and I have to cut you off

Familiarity breeds contempt and you’re saying nothing new

Nor I
What’s done is done, but I’m living in exhaustion
Exhuming an argument that has no life but keeps breathing in my head
I’m not going to fix my mistakes now,
If you want to forget about me, well, you already did

In the wake of our godly act, the builders have rebuilt, the waters have receded, the animals have returned
Like a pretty face
Time forgets
Somebody loves me, even it if isn’t me
So our arc can come full circle

Now the facts are a matter of broken record
and each time I tell your story, I get a little better at it.


What we feel is more real than the words we use to express it

I have to wonder, how many boys get to view your tattoos,
how many colors does your ink come in?
If the corner of your lips quivers, will there be an earthquake in India
or a child born out of wedlock?

The game’s been played and all we have left are the rules

One don’t speak
Two
don’t think
Three
don’t feel

In the end, don’t look back, for these pillars of salt are all that’s holding us up
And should you crumble
You’ll take the entire goddamn house with you