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.

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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.

Harlem

Once my train approached the 125th Street station, my weekend began. Harlem’s vibrant sidewalks sounded like jazz and smelled like lavender. Babbalucci’s Italian restaurant was a Friday night staple.

I had my own special table. The waiters knew my name. A big stack of books and wine would dazzle me, as I awaited the best pizza pie in Manhattan. Halfway into my salami pizza, the phone rang. It was dad, calling from California.

“Anthony, there’s a huge blizzard about to hit the Northeast. Did you go to the grocery store?” he asked, with panic.

“Every snow storm is the blizzard of the century, out here. I’m fine. Nothing will shut down. I love you.” I replied, quite calmly.

After hanging up, I finished my pie. Glowing after a delicious meal, I surveyed the contents of my fridge. Shit, it was just bottled water and whisky. Imagining the mad rush at the local Associates Supermarket, I stayed home. Watching stupid cat videos on YouTube had more appeal.

As food coma and sleep attempted to set. Unfortunately, the screeching sounds of snow trucks kept me from a nighttime slumber. A few hours later, grey skies reflected against my modest studio apartment’s barren walls. Morning had arrived.

“Oh, geez, let’s see what this massive snowstorm looks like, such hype,” I said to myself.

Seventh Avenue disappeared with white powder. The sky mirrored a furious sand storm. My dad might have been right. It was definitely a blizzard. As a brave New Yorker, I put on a pea coat, and headed to Lenox Coffee.

Upon opening my door, the snow had accumulated to unprecedented levels. I walked to the corner deli. To my surprise, it was closed.

Shit, the deli never closes. Whisky for breakfast would be fun. However, solid food sounds even more appetizing. I tested my luck, and decided to proceed to Lenox Coffee.

The brownstone-lined block between Seventh to Lenox Avenue was quite long. Bravely, I made the trek. The snow filled pavement made it an obstacle course. My feet grew tired. Snow blinded my eyes. However, I didn’t want to detour from a beloved Saturday morning ritual.

The block couldn’t have been longer. Like a champion hiker, I survived. Lenox Avenue was a mess. It’s jazz and lavender filled pavement had hit the snooze button. Cars splashed my pea coat with ice particles.

A corner McDonald’s provided the only bit of yellow light. Tired from the blizzard, I took a bold step for foodies, everywhere.

“I’ll take a biscuit breakfast sandwich, hash browns, and black coffee, please.” I said to the McDonald’s cashier.

After receiving my order, I sat down and ate the (surprisingly) scrumptious breakfast. It might not have been Lenox Coffee, but it was quite satisfying. After energizing meal, I crossed the overly long block, again.

Hibernating became quite thrilling. News reports announced the blizzard would become New York City’s second worst in history. Outside my window, people had snow fights and pranced merrily with snowboards. With the excitement, cabin fever eventually set in.

The next morning, New York and I woke up to blue skies. Per usual routine, I buttoned up my pea coat and marched toward Lenox Coffee. The long brownstone block was shoveled and salted. Tenement lined Lenox Avenue dazzled with snow banks.

Without tripping, I finally made it to Lenox Coffee. Harlem was resurrected, and I had survived another New York blizzard (I’ve lived through two of the biggest blizzards, February 2010 & January 2016).

Strolling back to my apartment, I battled for sidewalk space. Later that morning, I texted dad, “that was fun.” Within a few months, I moved to Southern California. These days, I still daydream of blizzards, coffee shops, brownstones, jazz-filled Lenox Avenue, and a mighty pea coat.

Vodka and the Gayve

How do I not break my neck, climbing these stairs? I asked myself.

I had reached my glorious apartment, a bit tipsy. My poison of choice was the chocolate whipped vodka. It contained seltzer, chocolate cream flavored vodka, and a lime. It tasted of the classic concoction, egg cream, the boozy version, of course.

Rather than craving General Tso’s Chicken or tasty Latino diner fare, I hungered for something more enticing. Like any good drunkard, I sifted through my beloved bookshelf.

“Ulysses, I’ve never read, Ulysses. How can I be a future English teacher of America and not read this classic?” I asked myself.

Rather dizzily, I pulled out the bed from my sofa, for a reading session. Ulysses’ beautiful green cover was intoxicating. The literary journey began. Initially, James Joyce’s important classic had me surprisingly glued. The first few chapters went by relatively quickly.

Since New York’s temperatures had dropped below zero, I was trapped in my fifth-floor walk-up. I spent much needed time with James Joyce. After a three-day weekend, the inevitable happened.

“Ulysses you’re boring the shit out of me,” said, the future English teacher.

I placed the lengthy novel back in its rightful place, the closet. Boarding two trains, I arrived in Union Square and bolted to the Strand Bookshop. “Welcome, book lovers,” the entrance sign read.

The shop’s book display case greeted, my bookworm eyes. It has always been the most beautifully arranged book table, in literary history. Somewhere between “The Catcher & The Rye” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” A yellow sign beckoned my attention.

“Read a challenging book,” the sign said.

Beneath it, were several stacked copies of Ulysses. I opened the book, and observed how far along I was.

“Still, I can’t fathom finishing this book,” I told myself.

As I boarded the subway back to Harlem, the words, “read a challenging book,” haunted me. Then I arrived in my humble studio apartment. Ulysses came out of the literary closet.

I was back to reading the behemoth of book. Some parts grew increasingly enjoyable, while others made me want booze. Every moment not spent at work, were spent with Ulysses.

During my lunch break, I read my final sentence. After re-reading that sentence over and over, I closed the book.

“Shit, I actually finished, Ulysses.” It wasn’t my favorite book, but it ended up being quite enjoyable, and rather sexually explicit towards the end. The bookworm literary decathlon had ended.

I read more and more challenging books from then on. Ulysses fulfilled my wordy appetite. In celebration of completing, Ulysses, I did have another of those chocolate whipped vodkas. James Joyce would’ve approved.

 

1988

My first apartment in Manhattan smelled of nostalgia. The smell was similar to an old bookshop meets Katz’s deli. It did have an elevator, and was just blocks from the East Village.

When the elevator doors opened, fluorescent hallway lights and green apartment doors welcomed me to the cocoon. A special box had arrived at my door, on a freezing March evening. It was a care package from my father in California. The box weighed thirty pounds.

I dragged it into my bedroom, and opened it. “Wow, my Mickey Mouse comforter was stuffed inside.” Excitedly, I hugged the worn out comforter.

Back in 1988, it was my childhood, “blanky.” My parents had bought me a whole Mickey Mouse bed set. While all the bedding had been tossed, the comforter remained mostly intact.

The Mickey Mouse comforter provided a sense of warmth. During cold winter nights, I cuddled up to it. It was a part of my youth, which provided much need nostalgia, in the midst of neurosis.

After spending my final three years in Harlem (my favorite neighborhood), I decided to switch careers and coasts. My studio apartment became a maze of boxes. Most of my belongings made it safely to California.

However, the Mickey Mouse comforter remained (I needed some bedding during my last few weeks). Upon my last night, I decided not to stuff the comforter into my suitcase. Instead, I left it behind.

A material object from my childhood was gone forever. I wondered if it was donated to a shelter or simply burned. Regardless, it provided a sense of home and coziness, in tenement crazed, New York City.

Since my relocation to California, I opted not to buy another Mickey Mouse blanket. Instead, I now count sheep in a gorgeous mint green comforter, which perfectly matches my old apartment door in Manhattan.

Alas in Wonderland

It was my first winter back in Southern California, after years in the New York City. The skies were grey. The hills resembled the robust green of the English countryside. Pea coats, coffee cups, and steaming hot soup replaced flip-flops, iced soy mochas and gazpacho.

The grey skies were welcoming, especially as the only weirdo, who missed New York winters. Orange groves provided the only pop of color. I made the best of my more quiet surroundings.

Like my teenage years, I’d drive the old Honda around Riverside. K-ROQ (local alternative music station) blasted. Cappuccinos fueled energy levels. As the ghettos of University Avenue became ornate Downtown, I felt strangely stimulated.

One condition crippled the brain waves. Writer’s block became a constant enemy. Everyday, I promised myself, “Hey, I’ll write a story. Instead, I looked at a most depressing blank page, and proclaimed, “fuck.”

Did the move out west kill my creativity? Many of my stories were New York-centric. They revolved around Harlem, the subway, East Village, bookshops, dive bars, and snarky Tri-State humor.

New York was in my past. However, I needed its anxiety filled lifestyle in order to function. Comfortably, I had settled into the suburbs. It was too comfortable. I needed to a certain level of misery to write.

It had been a month, since I had written anything. Depressed, I was constantly brainstorming story ideas. No luck, I just kept staring at a blank page. It was the white canvass of death.

The birds chirped. Coffee flowed through the veins. Stimulation was becoming drier than the Santa Ana winds. In the tradition of a well-read intellect, I made a bold move. I flipped on the TV and watched the “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

A tear ran down my cheek. “Shit, this can’t be my existence.” As brain cells diminished, gradually, I feared for my sanity. Then I turned off the television. I walked over to my laptop and just started writing.

I didn’t need to be in a specific geographical location. My brain just needed to relax. With a more mellow brain, I completed a story. It was grand. My writer’s block had been cured (for the time being). Now, I could watch shit television, sans the guilty conscious.

Homesick

“Shit, I think I like stress. It’s my friend. I hate meditation and happy thoughts. I can only function when pressure rides high.” Cue the depressing 90’s alternative rock.

When I blew the candles on my thirty-three year old birthday cake, the pursuit of happiness stopped. Ironically, it made me a much more fulfilled person. Initially, it was fueled with my move back to California.

New York encompassed all things, which made me very grumpy. Crowds, bugs, perpetual noise, stairs (oh, god, so many stairs), a shrinking middle class, and superficiality morphed Gotham into my worst nightmare.

I’d sit out form my fire escape, bored with the constant sea of tenements. I longed to see mountains and hear chirping crickets. I decided to trade Manhattan for Riverside, CA (my hometown).

When my plane took off at LaGuardia Airport, traffic flowed below. People were going to work. Someone new would call my Harlem studio, home. Some lucky gal or fellow would take over my old job, with great benefits. My life now belonged to the rolling hills, coffee shops, and orange groves of the Inland Empire.

As I crossed the Hudson, the world was still held together. The flight across the nation reminded me of prosperity. Obama care, gay marriage, and a society slightly more united had its influence from rural prairies to Los Angeles.

Within the first six months in Southern California, the Orlando massacre shook the nation. Donald Trump was elected president. (On a more personal note) I had failed both my teaching exams, and returned to college, to obtain a second bachelor’s degree.

My New York neurosis didn’t depart, even in laid-back California. With the state of the world and professional setbacks, I became quite agitated. I longed to return to my very own “age of innocence” (thank you, Edith Wharton).

The last few years in New York had its turbulent moments. It was also a time of stability. Steady apartment, job, routine and familiarity provided a safety net. However, I needed a professional change. Teaching was more ideal.

In California, more challenges, reinventions, and unexpected failures appeared. It remained a risk. As I glared at the mountains from my bedroom, it made me miss Harlem.

The old tenements, jazz music roaring through Lenox Avenue, little bookshops, brownstones, and coffee shops they dazzled my life. Officially, I was homesick for New York City. (Thanks to circumstances, California remained home.)

Books, walks, and writing became a source of extreme distraction. It didn’t make happier, but certainly distracted me. During the last six months in California, I had read several books and written many stories. It served as therapy, since I couldn’t afford an actual shrink.

When I moved across the country, I thought, California would become a permanent home. Now, I realized grass is yellow and dry, everywhere. New York with it’s many downfalls, will probably become home again. I’ll accept it for every flaw, since perfection is the death of stimulation.

Homo-Neurotic Art

What am I sitting on? My mother yelled. She made a most campy discovery, while sitting on our old striped couch. This is a gay comic book isn’t it? Her fury was elevating within seconds.

Mother had this ideal vision of a clean-cut son, who acted masculine and aimed for business school. Instead, the Goddess above handed mom, an eccentric, quirky looking gay son, who loved theatre and books (in other shocking news). Finding the gay comic book tore into her conformists hopes for my mannerisms.

“Shit, fuck, shit, I should’ve been more careful with my gay goods.” She handed me the comic. It was tossed in the trash. When mom went upstairs to read her bible. I fished the comic out from the garbage. Its adorable new home became my Catholic high school locker.

2016, present day

Not surprisingly, I didn’t end up with a husband, finance job, or  test tube babies. My mother’s worst fear became an artful reality. In a friend’s artist loft in New York’s NoHo neighborhood, funky and serene art surrounded me.

Painted scenes from the French and Irish countryside, disco balls, paint splatters, squeaky old wooden loft, canvases filled with pastel colors; it was an arty outcast’s pinnacle moment. “Gee, I want some art..”

I was due to move back to my native California in a few weeks. Colorful art would go fittingly in the Gay-ve (gay man cave). “Here’s some art for your new home.” My artist friend handed me some divine prints. They featured naked men kissing.

Wow, original art by the original artist, and there were naked guys. I was harkened back to the sofa incident. Since I was in my thirties, there was no need to hide my gay art. Hours later, I attended a party on the Upper East Side and showed off the prints. Everyone was thoroughly impressed.

A week later, the art was shipped to dad’s house in Riverside, CA, along with cardigans, books, and records. As I walked back from the UPS store, alongside Harlem brownstones, I thought of my father’s face opening the suitcase filled with the gay erotic art.

Although, he could be more open minded than myself, I didn’t want him to have a heart attack. “Daddy my suitcase is on its way, don’t open it. There’s valuable art in there.” He could’ve sounded less interested.

Within weeks, I traded Manhattan for Riverside. Upon my arrival, the suitcase remained unopened. Unearthing the gay art, I laughed. “Where do I put this? My gayve is already much too distracting and this art is raunchy.”

“Uh-oh, was yours truly turning into a prude.” Rebelling like any good gay boy, I decided to bring a bit of edge to my track home. In a rare confessional moment, I told daddy, “The art in my suitcase is naked gay male art.” He shrugged his shoulders, “son, I would be more surprised if you didn’t have naked gay male art in your suitcase.”

We went back to watching Daria. In the same room, where mom found the gay comic and freaked, dad came to accept my outlandish artful tastes. This “freak of nature” officially felt acceptance.

An Insomniac’s Solitude

A dusty old bookshop is my solitude. Sifting through titles, finding unexpected used gems (at a discount) lifts dark clouds of depression. Stepping into a curious little literary shop, I was met with a fire-breathing dragon.

Shit, fuck, shit, it’s the Fox News Channel Bookshop. Every shelf was littered with Donald Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal.” Like any well-adjusted Democrat, I dashed out of the peculiar bookshop.

Eventually, I woke up in own darkened room. Dashing to the Gay-ve, I turned on the light. Smiling back at me were books by Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Hunter S. Thompson, Jane Austen, and many more.

The Fox News Bookshop was just a nightmare. Unfortunately, I had eccentric dreams every night. Sometimes they boarded on avant-garde madness. Other times, fluffy dreams soothed the brain’s intertwined wrinkles.

Surprisingly, sleep anxiety didn’t quite build. Feeling increasingly comfortable, I found myself wandering New York City. Short of subway fare, I purchased a one-way ticket to Harlem, via the Seventh Avenue line.

A well air-conditioned train pulled into the 14th Street Station. Taking a seat on the orange seat, I glanced out the window. Dying animals appeared in between the Uptown and Downtown tracks, as the train sped, uptown.

Horses, dogs, and cats were tied to IV machines, clinging to life. The scene was terrifying and the animal hospice continued to line the tracks, all the way to 125th Street. Once again, I woke up with fear. Turning on the television, I was reminded of my safety zone in sleepy California.

The animal hospice dream finally triggered sleepy anxiety. Having nightmares became a frightening nightly occurrence. Each night, I dreaded sleep, not even sleeping pills could deter a mischievous brain.

I battled my own self-conscious by taking imitative. Sleeping next to a journal, I wrote down the nightly dreams, which stirred up panic. Eventually, the panic was turned to art. It was the equivalent of watching art house cinema, at it’s most raw.

From hamburger eating gold fish to being stranded on islands, every night had a different theme. It added to the crazy mosaic fabric of the dream journal. In the meantime, I continue to embrace stories from the subconscious. Yet, I really hope to never end up at the Fox News Bookshop. My liberal self would not approve.

The Introvert Sips Espresso

Which asshole am I going to tell off today? Asked the eccentric man on the subway platform (I am being nice by using the word, eccentric). In the grand tradition of subway riders, everyone was unshaken, including me.

Public transportation can make the sane go insane. Man spreading, break dancers, sweat dripping from unknown sources, germs, germs, more germs, body odor, the possibility of contracting bed bugs, this ideally described the daily subway riding experience.

During my New York years, anxiety levels were raised high. In case of entrapment in a subway tunnel, I carried a Murse (man purse) full of distractions. Books, a sketchpad, sketching pencils, Batman notebook, and an iPOD filled with catchy tunes.

“Oh, geez, it would be swell to drive a car. No germs, no spreading, no surprise street performers!” After a nose wiggle, my quirky-self ended up in Riverside, CA. Strolling from coffee shop to coffee shop, driving a car through freshly scented orange groves, and reading on a bench, it was a perfect distraction from the chaos of New York City.

Within a month of returning to Riverside, I took the CBEST test (for my teaching credentials). Anxiety levels were at an all time-low. Yet all the Prozac in the world couldn’t rid the anxious clogging my head, upon taking the test.

A few weeks later, an email was sent. “Your test results are available, next day.” Smirking, I played it calm, “oh, well, there’s still fresh air and coffee in abundance.” Unfortunately, this New York/Riverside hybrid really proclaimed, “Shit, we’re all going to die. If I didn’t pass my test, everything is over.”

More riveting than electroshock therapy, anxiety levels rose, and rose, and rose. Even a relaxing drive through the beloved orange groves wouldn’t smash crazy in the nose.

Glancing at the passenger seat, the murse smiled back. It had an eyeglass-wearing cat plastered on the bag. “ The caption read, “Don’t bother me now, I am reading right meow.” Feeling nostalgic for the days of artistic therapy on the train, I took charge of my anxiety.

Heading to the coffee shop in the strip mall, breathing exercises followed. I drew gay cowboys, with tortoise shell glasses. It distracted anxious feelings for a bit. After an afternoon of cowboys and lattes, it was back to my humble track home.

Unexpectedly, anxiety, my old friend returned. “What happens if I didn’t pass the test?” The test results were emailed. The file opened. In (huge) bold letters the PDF read, “You did not pass the CBEST.”

My hours of studying were flushed down the grand toilet of life. However, being Mr. Optimistic, depression didn’t loom over me. For an hour, everything remained normal. The next day, anxiety turned into depression.

Failure and disappointment, it happened. Hiding in the Gay-ve (the gay man cave), depression wouldn’t subside. Great literature and pretty pictures couldn’t boost up morale.

After a day of licking wounds and dying of failure, I made a comeback. Carrying my murse, I marched to Wallgreen’s, bought notecards, and found an open table at Augie’s Coffee.

Taking a different approach to studying, plans to retake the test were cemented. No giving up for this future teacher of America. Life’s great villains (Algebra and multiple-choice tests) would receive a kick on the tuckus. Thank you, note cards, I’m ready for a test taking comeback.