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.

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.

Hotcakes under the Maple Tree

“Dear Diner Gods, please, please, please let me have my own booth on this fine morning,” I said, huffing and puffing from the 72nd Street Station.

As steam rose from Broadway, traffic moved erratically. My stomach growled. I glanced over to see if any other pedestrians noticed, no one did. One last cab passed. Speed walking, I bolted toward the local diner.

The diner’s door flung open. Every age, race, sex, and ethnicity had my same idea. They crowded in booths, ate pancakes, and read the New York Times. Scanning the room for a patron on his/her way out, proved impossible.

“Shit, fuck, shit, at least there’s a seat at the counter,” I said to myself.

I positioned myself on the nearly empty counter. A waiter handed me a menu. My elderly waiter friend approached me.

“The lumberjack combo, buddy?” He asked with a thick Greek accent.

I nodded my head and replied, “Yes please. Today, I will do hot cakes rather than waffles, though.”

Digging through my murse, enlightening and cheerful reading material, The Complete Collection of Edgar Alan Poe” was unearthed. Flipping through the pristine pages, I sipped on coffee.

My order arrived quickly. After placing the book down, and yours truly concentrated on the more cheerful “Lumberjack Breakfast.” Syrup drowned the pancakes in gooey goodness. Bacon sizzled. Hot sauce decorated scrambled eggs in vibrant rouge.

In the middle of breakfast, a middle aged lady sat next to me. She resembled an “earth mama.” Her hair flowed grey, curly, and free-spiritedly. While her glasses steamed from the piping hot coffee, “MS. Hippy Dippy” stared over at my half-eaten plate of pancakes. The pancakes lost their luster, since the syrup evaporated.

After the check arrived. Ms. Hippy Dippy took another look at the pancakes. Then after sneaking one more glance, there was a tap on the shoulder.

““Excuse me sir, are you going to finish those pancakes?” She asked, casually.

“Actually, no, I really don’t like re-heated hotcakes.” I replied.

“Oh, thank you, sir.” She replied, gleefully.

Grabbing a white paper towel, Ms. Hippy Dippy reached for the pancakes. Rather than placing them on an empty plate, the sugary delights were placed in her purse. She zipped it up, and smiled.

“ These pancakes will be used as fertilizer. We’re (her environmental group) planting more trees. Thanks to you and your pancakes for saving the planet.” She said, completely straight faced.

Food coma kicked in, upon leaving the diner. This stuffed tamale wanted to forget the words, “lumberjack” and “breakfast. “ A red leaf fell from the heavens. It reminded me of the half eaten pancakes, which would one day become a tree.

“That’s it, that pancake fertilizer will be a mighty Maple Tree,” I proclaimed.

This has been another New York moment, brought to you by diners, hippies, and makers of maple syrup.

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.

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.

 

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.”

The Forgotten Cinema

Sandwiched between a fifties style café and gourmet bistro, stood the mighty cinema. Its tower had distinct turquoise bay windows. Its façade was pinker than a flamingo.

In fact, the whole shopping center was pink. It represented the highest in late 80’s architectural sophistication. Inside the Canyon Springs Cinema, great films of 1989 and early 90’s played.

Moviegoers stood in line for such classics as Wayne’s World, Addams Family Values, My Girl, Clueless, Too Wong Foo, The Lion King and (dare I say) Titanic. It was a gathering place for the community, which included many workers from the nearby, March Air Force Base, and students from UCR.

In the late 90’s, Riverside had a movie theatre boom. Theatres were easily found in two-mile radius. The Canyon Springs Cinema stood strong. Then pinker than a flamingo shopping center began it’s gradual decay.

Soon competition from nearby theatres finally hit Canyon Springs, like an incurable virus. The cinema and its mighty tower eventually faded away.

Once a beacon to mainstream cinema, where tears and laughter filled tacky red seats, neither emotion was ever felt again. Rather than being torn for a more modern structure, the cinema has remained abandoned. It’s interior, emptier than the Great Plains.

The shopping center did have a beacon of hope, curry. The neighborhood’s most delicious Indian restaurant livened up the bland scape. At least one can still have a spicy and delicious Chicken Tikka Masala, in the shadow of an abandoned shrine to film.