Coffee and Tumbleweeds

Grand Central Station during morning rush hour, it’s such a calm place (insert, sarcasm). While bolting from the Times Square shuttle, I tried to cut people off. On that particularly cold morning, an everything bagel with scallion cream cheese with a coffee was much needed. Rather than starting off with a magical bagel and coffee, Instead, I had an epic fall, gliding across the marble floor of the fabled station. Dusting myself and embarrassed, I looked around.

“Gee, in just a few months, I’ll be back in California. No more subways, no more crowds, just me, turning into a proper hermit,” I thought to myself.

During my first two years back in Riverside (my hometown), I didn’t have a train station to glide across, or crowds to deal with. Instead, my hometown went from conservative bore to multicultural and liberal. Art galleries, coffee shops, scenic drives, little bookshops, mom n’ pop restaurants, and even a few gay bars littered the dusty old town. With less people, life was grand. After two years, monotony took over. I grew bored. It was the same thing over and over again. Without the proper funds for exquisite international travel, frustration loomed.

With monotony and frustration came the lack of accomplishment. I applied to graduate school for English Literature, and had still not heard back. Being accepted into graduate school was a huge factor in the cross-country move. Fearing not getting in, I thought this move might’ve been a mistake. Creativity dwindled. Depression and anxiety were inevitable; my whole future depended on getting in. My goal was to become an English Professor.

Checking my email everyday, nothing had come in. Then on my most dreaded of places, the dread mill (tread mill), there was a buzz on my phone. I was accepted into the Master’s Degree Program for English Literature. It was a milestone experienced in my least favorite place, the gym. Life began to feel less monotonous. With grad school in the horizon, life had newness to it. I appreciated my surroundings again. However, it would be amazing to live in a new country or move back to New York City. We’ll see, I’ll need my Master’s Degree first.

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Quirky Face

Tuesday and Thursday nights, I took art classes at the local community college. Naturally, it was schlep and schvitz to go up those stairs, carrying art supplies. However, once I reached class, my imagination came alive. “Hipster dinosaurs” became a staple of my portfolio. They wore black-framed glasses, Converse sneakers and really liked coffee shops. One assignment left me a bit baffled.

“Shit, fuck, shit, I have to draw my own self portrait,” I said to myself.

I thought of ways to capture my eccentric personality on paper. Also, I brainstormed how to make myself look skinnier than I actually am. Unlike most handsome men, I had a distinct look. Round rosy cheeks, big brown eyes, very thick glasses, wavy black hair and a unibrow, which would make Frida Kahlo red with envy.

Using charcoal, I drew the outline of my puppy dog cheeks. An eraser was used to distinct shadows on my face. The tortoise shell glasses were the most difficult, since they need to be equally aligned. My hands were black with charcoal. The process was extremely messy. The washing of hands became a treat. Screeching sounds of charcoal against paper, reminded me of chalk on a blackboard. That sound reminded me too much of traumatizing Catholic School years. Regardless of a little childhood trauma, the portrait began resembling me.

After completing the portrait, I had to write a paper on what was learned from the experience. Here’s a Reader’s Digest version. In a world of chiseled faces, six-pack abs, and perfectly quaffed hair, I have never fitted in. If Walter Matthau and that kid from the Wonder Years (Fred Savage) meshed faces, they would look like me. Drawing imperfections was fun. Having chubby cheeks and tortoise shell glasses gave me a distinct quirk. My quirky face is also a tribute to my multicultural heritage. Thanks to a DNA taste, I found out, que soy un Latinx con mucho sabor (Spanish, Irish, Jewish, Native American, West African, Scandinavian, English, and Italian, just to name a few). This cultural diversity is reflected in my looks, which I’m very proud of.

The self-portrait has been in my “Gayve” for many months. It will be mounted to the wall, nestled between “Dia de los Muertos “ art and (my own) “Hipster Dinosaurs.” These days, the “Gayve” will not only be a bookworm’s sanctuary, but also art lover’s dream.

Hey, is that Coffee?

“I like books, theatre, and leather” read, the Scruff profile.

This was one of the most enchanting of Scruff profiles. The world of gay dating apps has always sucked. Mostly, it’s men who have been heavily photo shopped and/or look like Elmer Fudd writing very judgmental commentary.

To my fellow gays, “hey, we’re still marginalized group, get your head out of your asses.” This is a side note.

Not surprisingly, Riverside has never attracted the gays quite like (nearby) Palm Springs. Even with two gays bars in the Riverside city limits, Riverside remained very straight and highly lesbian oriented (lesbians just love to u-haul to Riverside). Bored with the five gay men, who call Riverside, home, I ventured into further depths of the Inland Empire (the region in which Riverside is located in).

His t-shirt read, “I like dick.” Enthralled, I messaged him. He didn’t have bathroom selfies or annoying profile summaries, emphasizing the need for an athletic guy, with a big ego (this is a reference to the male anatomy). Witty banter exchanged. We agreed to meet at that the 90’s style coffee house, “Back 2 the Grind.”

Upon arriving at the coffee shop, T-shirt (as I would like to call him) sat under a disco ball. He had a beer and see-through thermos of cold brew coffee. He was quirky, very quirky. In typical thirty-something talk, we complained about bed bugs, gentrification and bitchy millennial gays. (As I always told my therapist, if I stopped complaining, I’d be down a hobby). The coffee at “Back 2 the Grind” was most unappetizing. Rather than enduring a bland cappuccino, I suggested we head to the other hipster haven, “ Augie’s.”

After ordering a more appetizing cappuccino at Augie’s (New York City still does coffee better), something unusual caught my attention. The clear thermos of cold brewed coffee turned purple. It looked more like a fine Malbec than anything made with beans. T-shirt kept talking.

“Hey, is that wine? I asked bluntly.

“Yup, I just love walking around with wine everywhere,” he said, with a giggle.

“I thought I was a lush,” I told him.

We laughed. Nervously, I hoped nobody noticed. He had it prominently displayed on the communal table. The boozy thermos became second nature. I had more pressing first world problems on the cranium.

“Hey, come with me to Trader Joe’s. I need to get my grocery shopping done.” I told him.

He shook his head, yes. We traveled the 2.5 miles up Magnolia Avenue. We hit a fast changing yellow light. The red wine spilled on the passenger’s seat. My car smelled like a wine bar. Awkwardness followed. He didn’t think much of it. Fearing getting pulled-over, the drive to Trader Joe’s was nerve wracking. The windows were open wide to let out the sweet fumes of alcoholic grapes. Once, I reached the parking lot, fear diminished.

“Put that wine away, or else we’ll all go to jail, I told him.

He agreed. We were finally in the air-conditioned heaven of a super market. Trader Joes became symbolic. It was my first date at a supermarket. After my grocery shopping finished, T-Shirt and his thermos of wine were dropped off in Downtown. Naturally, he gave me an after Trader Joe’s kiss.

We never hung out again. Scruff bored the shit out of me. It was deleted. Instead of crying over being single, I am braced my title, “single, childfree, and loving it.” Oddly, Mr. “I love books, theatre and leather” still fascinates me. He’s probably in a dungeon with a whip, and stack of LGBT friendly novels.

The Flying Broomstick

Like most California natives turned New Yorkers and replanted as Californians, I have always enjoyed complaining about the weather. Los Angeles in October experienced an unprecedented heat wave. In the grand tradition of L.A. earthiness, nowhere had air conditioning. The whole town felt like Satan’s butthole. A most uncomfortable place to experience this phenomenon was a mausoleum, where we were saying, adios to abuelita.

My sassy abuelita, Juanita had died peacefully at ninety-two. She was a spitfire, and her burial had a fiery theme, without air conditioning. (The whole masouleun was stifling and one could easily experience heat exhaustion.) In a less than charming way, I sat through the service, schvitizing to death. I flashbacked to happier times shoveling snow and falling face first in snow banks. Unfortunately, I was still melting away like a Wicked Witch, if only I had a flying broomstick to whisk me away to an actual cold climate.

In the grand tradition of Latino family funerals, everyone stood around until grandma’s coffin was in the wall, macabre much? Afterwards I happily removed my cardigan, but still couldn’t get any relief from the heat. The burial ended. We drove to abuelita’s house. The best part of a Latino wake, taco trucks and booze. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any cool spots to relieve myself from the heat. I just sat there, melting. I just continued to melt. Nobody wanted to hug me. Everyone was just as miserable.

Dios mio!

The wine flowed. Wintry New York daydreams danced around my head. Eating tacos distracted me from the misery. The sun went down. Family left. An abundance of wine had just been cooling off. I stuffed the remaining bottles of wine and Coronas in my Strand tote bag/murse. It was a prize from abuelita above for enduring a heat wave for a love one.

Daddy and I returned to Riverside. Our house was barren, no booze. Grinning from cheek to cheek. I took out the bottles of white wine and beer. He was most grateful. We ordered a pizza. I also became increasingly grateful to live in Riverside, where we have air-conditioning.

The Grumpy Californian

The Grumpy Californian

132nd Street and Seventh Avenue, New York City, (Central Harlem to be exact) this was my original “Gayve” (gay man cave). From my fifth floor apartment, with its iconic fire escape, I daydreamed, came up with stories, and people watched. Harlem contributed greatly to my artistic life. Like Billie Holliday, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes, my soul was both enchanted and enriched by the historic Manhattan neighborhood. It shocked many when my fifth-floor walk up studio was traded for a track home in Riverside, Ca.

“Uh-oh, am I going to lose my creative streak?” I thought to myself.

As a professor in training, I lived a lived a surprisingly rich literary life. Taking classes from African-American to LGBT literature, academia exposed me to an even worldlier side of life. Reading novels became an important part of my new career. These novels influenced my writing. It improved it.

During long breaks in between semesters, my stories were written. Soon, I sent my stories to publishers. Every morning, there was a different rejection email. “Unfortunately” became my least favorite word. Every rejection email featured the word.

“Fuck this shit,” I thought to myself.

The rejection letters were a let down. Being published obviously validated one’s status as “legitimate writer.” For months, rejection letters soured mornings. Sometimes, they came in before dinner. Lovingly, these were referred to as appetizers. While strolling Downtown Riverside on a cardigan friendly afternoon, my phone buzzed. The email read as follows.

“Congratulations, we’ve decided to publish your short story, “Norman is Grumpy.”

Trying to hold back screams of elation, I practically pranced down Main Street in happiness. “Norman is Grumpy,” set in Harlem, followed the life of an eccentric Latinx teenager. It was a valentine to my old neighborhood, which still fueled inspiration. For months, I waited for the story’s release.  Three months later, Norman made his grand debut in the world. As a writer, I finally made it.

These days, I’m still struggling to have more stories published. However, if you want to read “Norman is Grumpy” here is the link. It’s starts on pg. 35.  It’s the 2018 edition, which is prominently featured.

https://class.uafs.edu/languages/azahares

 

 

Those Dinosaurs are Hipsters

Hipster dinosaurs, hipster dinosaurs, hipster dinosaurs! The archeological phenomenon represented one of my greatest creative streaks in years. I like to coin this time (no, shit), “the hipster dinosaur era.” From February until June, short stories were written, literature was analyzed and hipster dinosaur drawings sprang to life. Unfortunately, the cruel heat of Riverside aimed its villainous sunrays at my right brain.

“Shit, fuck, shit, my brain is fried, my brain is fried,” I said to myself.

“Kentucky Fried Brain Cell” led to the clogging of artistic thoughts. Hipster dinosaurs hibernated. Angry New Yorkers took an Ambien. The little gay elves, which churned out stories, went on strike. The sunny summer of grey bleakness commenced. Tumbleweeds, blank Microsoft word documents, and too much TV plagued a typically intellectual existence. Along with writer’s block came rejection letters, ninety-one to be exact. I was dying an artistic death.

Sitting at the local coffee shop (because, duh, this is Coffee & Cardigans), I would start writing a story, then watch it die a miserable death. Long drives with music blasting were attempts to ignite creativity, yet they failed. Eventually, hipster dinosaurs rose from slumber. New Yorkers wanted kawffee. The sleepy elves returned from their strike. My writer’s block had burst in a glittery spectacle. An idea came to me and it worked. “The Great artistic draught of 2018” had come to an end. The villagers (who resided in my head) just needed a holiday.

Mr. Bookworm climbs a hill

Hills are a nightmare for cubs (chubby, hairy, thirty to twenty-something gay men). One hill served this bookworm, well. Located in New York City’s Morningside Park, the stairs led to a pot of gold. This pot of gold smelled like old paperbacks (if they could only bottle that smell). It motivated yours truly to actually climb an actual hill.

Book Culture (on 112th and Broadway) had the distinct bookshop smell. Along with being a refuge for fellow bookworms, the shop features shelves filled with used books. Murakami, Morrison, and Didion, my hands would sweat the poundage of great literary works. The used bookshop (along with the Strand) inspired a very important career move.

Surrounded by used books, I became motivated to switch careers, from advertising to education. “I wanted to become a school teacher and inspire young minds to read the classics.” My proclamations oozed with cheesiness. However, cheese has always been a friend.

A year later, this bookworm climbed a very different hill. This one led to a classroom. After relocating to (my native) Riverside, I began studying literature. On a painfully warm day, this professional student (me) climbed a steep hill to he American literature class.

Sitting in class, I anticipated the return of (The) Invisible Man research paper (Mr. Ralph Ellison’s version). As the professor handed back the paper, my hands shook in terror. Flipping to the last page (where the grade is), I shut my eyes. I should’ve left them shut.

My eyes opened, shockingly. In blazing red stood the letter D, with a minus at the end. Shit, fuck, shit, it’s been years, since I received a “D” in anything. I’m a “Dean’s List” student, sans that first semester in college.
“Why did I leave Manhattan and advertising? This whole school experience wasn’t working out.” I continued to sit in class. Afterwards, I climbed down the hill, and sped home.

Hiding out in the gayve (gay man cave), teardrops fell. Staring at books, records, and decorations (synonymous with my New York years), relief became a temporary state. Soon, depression took over. Netflix and wine provided escapism.
A whole weekend went by, recovery didn’t seem realistic. Monday, the depression bubble began to deflate. “Fuck, the Charles Dickens research paper was due in three days.” Like any good student, I went back to work (I finished the research paper in a day).

The following day, I climbed up “Cardiac” hill and returned to class. Surprisingly, I sat in the American literature class, nearly recovered from the D- trauma. In a surprising twist, my professor handed back another paper. Rolling my eyes, I flipped to the back page.

“Fuck, shit, fuck, in the best way.” I got a “B” on the Harlem Renaissance paper. Hope restored. Weeks later, while hibernating from the desert sun, Spring semester grades were posted. I passed everything.

Thinking about the steep hill, leading to class, I made a wish. “Book Culture, please open a shop at my college. It would serve as a wonderful community gathering space. There’s also a huge, steep hill to schlep up.

The Secret Bookshelf

Before the world turned into a (virtual) “Zombie Apocalypse,” there was a bookshelf. Used and deeply discounted copies of classics like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings competed for literary affection.

The old shelf could be found at New York’s Strand Bookshop. With a sea of beautifully curated book tables, the shelf suffered from anonymity. However, it meant, I could stock up on the classics, without competition.

While braving the bookshop’s tropical heat, in winter, I made a discovery. It was a $3.00 copy of 1984. Elated, I bought the copy. Immediately, I re-read, the George Orwell classic.

Everyday after work, I’d head to Café Grumpy at Grand Central Station, and immersed myself in Orwell’s disturbing Dystopia fantasy. It was a most splendid way to avoid rush hour. I re-read it in three days.

My used copy of “1984” joined other novels for the move to California. The box arrived at my father’s house. He took pictures of the inventory, since I was still wrapping up life in Manhattan. Scrolling through the pictures, 1984 had been missing from the pictures.

“Daddy, where’s my copy of 1984?” I asked.

“I don’t see it, “ he replied.

“Oh my God, please look for it,” I told him.

Nervous, I tried to figure out how my precious $3.00 copy went missing. A few minutes later, my father texted me.

“Is this the stupid book?” he wrote.

1984 had arrived safely, via camera phone evidence. It was now sandwiched between “Giovanni’s Room” and “A Confederacy of Dunces.” No Prozac for me, everything was swell. I looked forward to being reunited with my well-traveled books, in the Gayve (the gay man cave).

Five months later, Trump became President elect. (According to several news sources) 1984 hit the best sellers chart, again. The old cliché rang true, “life imitates art.” The Zombie Apocalypse dawned upon us. My very own Gayve has served as a refuge for art, literature, and cool records.

That Poet Dude

Dude, You’re reading “Infinite Jest.” Like, David Foster Wallace is a genius. I’ve gotten all the way to page 400, said, Skylar (that’s his alias).

“Yeah, I am plugging away. I am on page 200,” I said.

We smiled at each. It was thrilling to meet another bookworm, especially a cute one. His style did scream, “Pacific Northwest Reject.” With sandals, ragged jeans, and a hoodie, he stood as that rare creature unique to the gay (the muscle bound/fashion conscious) mainstream.

After an intellectually stimulating conversation, we parted ways. I tried my best to preserve remnants of cynicism. Naively, I kept thinking about my Skylar.

“Gee, I bet he has a huge, huge, huge book collection. We could swap books. We could read James Baldwin, Joan Didion and James Joyce under a grand Sycamore tree. Heck, we could even get into lengthy debates about Dystopia novels vs. the current political climate.

The following week, I arrived promptly at art class. Skylar strolled in a bit late. He traded the hoodie for a “Nirvana” band t-shirt. Rather than have a serious expression, I decided to make eye contact with him. He returned the eye contact, with a smile.

After an hour of studying Post-Impressionists, I needed to tinkle. Miraculously, Skylar appeared.

“Hey, dude, can I read you a poem I wrote? It’s about some dude who committed suicide, he said.

I shook my head. He read with emotion. The men’s room entrance became a little poet’s den. Rather than a tinkle, Skylar and strolled around the campus. Throughout the walk, I wanted to find out if he were gay. The sexuality question was never brought up.

The following week in class, I brainstormed ways to ask him out. Unlike the previous week, he seemed more rush.

“Hey, where are you parked?” I asked.

“Oh, I am walking home,” He said.

He then left the classroom. I went home, regretting not being more up-front.

Skylar grew more and more distant, each week. We said, hi, to each other. He didn’t make much conversation. A month after meeting, I hit a literary milestone. I conquered reading, “Infinite Jest,” with Its 1,000 + pages.

As for my love life, I predictably lost interest in Skylar. After ending the semester, I still wondered if he was gay. It would’ve been great to date a fellow bookworm. My (future) bookworm boyfriend has been probably hiding under a rock (or the Strand Bookstore’s rows of shelves).

Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to hear his depressing poetry. The art class didn’t bring romance. However, I did receive an “A” on my report card (from that class) & a G.P.A. boost.

The Geriatrics Crowd

In a pleasant ranch home in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista section, stereotypes had come to die. It was my family’s Fourth of July reunion. Nobody ate healthy salads, worried about dieting, or drank anything with Kale.

Instead, a chubby pig roasted over an open fire. Initially, we all noshed on Cuban appetizers (Croquettes and little sandwiches). It helped quench hunger for an hour. However, the seductive air of roast pork awoke taste buds.

In a corner table sat, the “Metamucil Mafia” (old people, not an actual mafia). Rather than gambling and trading dirty jokes, the “Metamucil Mafia” had eyeballs bulging in despair. Concerned, I sat at the geriatric’s table.

“Are you starving, Anthony,” asked Auntie Melba.

“My stomach is growling in pangs of hunger,” I replied.

“Nephew, I love how straightforward you are,” said, Auntie Melba.

The geriatrics table grew increasingly gloomy. Everyone just stared at each, depressed. Mr. Piggy over the fire just kept on cooking and cooking and cooking.

Hours dragged on. I went from calm to hangry (when hunger meets anger). I leaped from the table. The startled seniors stared on.

“Why don’t we smuggle in a Domino’s Pizza?” I asked.

Their eyes lit up.

“What happens if someone catches us, “ asked Aunt Amarilis.

“We’ll eat out in the driveway. I’ll order it. My treat, “ I said.

At first, everyone was skeptical. When hunger took over, they shook their heads in agreement.

I pulled out my phone and designed our pork friendly pie. Sausage, pepperoni, bacon, it was a clogged artery’s wet dream. The seniors looked joyful again.

By the time I was about to push “order,” something miraculous happened.

“The pig is ready,” shouted my cousin.

The seniors forgot about their arthritis and rushed to the front of the roast pork line. They avoided greens and just went for the meat and potatoes. After returning to our senior friendly round table, we feasted on the pork.

Everyone stared at each other. We could read our minds. The pork had the consistency of a rubber band. Although, we would usually complain, hunger made the rubber bands taste scrumptious. Eventually, everyone regretted not ordering a pie. It would’ve made the Metamucil Mafia a bit more “bad ass.”