Join me March 9, 7:00 PM, at Inkwood NJ to celebrate the release of my new novel Josephine Wins Again.
Thursday, March 9, 7:00 PM
31 Kings Hwy E, Haddonfield, New Jersey 08033
A low-key book launch event. A light reading, opportunities to buy great books and have them signed.
Sure, whomever you like.
Facebook Event Page
It is the night of the promotional party for my book, Yoga Wars, and I am frantic. The hardcover copies I ordered never arrived so there are none to give away. The laptop I’ve brought so people can download the eBook for free lies neglected. Attendance is sparse. This weekend—I learned from the regrets posted to my Facebook event page—is also that of the Philly Folk Festival. My chief consolation is that the beer is a hit. At least everyone seems to be having fun.
The party is hosted by my friend McFly, in one of the five conjoined houses he owns/manages/lives in/has some nebulous connection to. I have just moved back to the East Coast from California, and I have no place of my own in Philadelphia. I migrate nomadically between my folks’ house in New Jersey and the couches of friends. McFly is kind to host the party, a nice guy in general, and also self-righteous and shady as hell.
A mystery girl sits at the hookah bar, drinking from a huge bottle of wine with a gentleman I assume is her boyfriend. I don’t know her but I want to. She has long legs crossed in a way that suggests this is in fact her party and we have come to celebrate her legs. I am up for this notion. I am too nervous to talk to her, so I rush from guest to guest, friend to friend, until I have managed to speak to everyone except for her. We’ve listened to Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P.” about six hundred times.
McFly has found a water gun and sprayed it from an upstairs window down on the girls talking and smoking on the front steps. Hilarious fun except the water is rancid and smells like piss. The girls plunge into the house to bring McFly to justice. I tell him to apologize. He refuses. He is not sorry. He says it’s his house and his rules. I think that’s stupid.
Some friends have brought Magic: The Gathering cards and I sit on the floor to watch them duel. It’s great that we live in an age where people can dance and smoke hookah and play fantasy card games side by side. Drinking beer and watching my friends play Magic relaxes me.
“O.P.P.” plays for the seven-hundredth time.
The slow-burning fires of my intellect have fed on enough beer to flare into indignation. This is stupid, I tell myself. What am I afraid of? Rejection? I am a writer. Rejection is my goddamn life. I refuse to fear the inevitable. I approach the mystery girl and her boyfriend. We talk and I cannot recall at all what we say, though the mystery girl has an accent. The upshot is they are not boyfriend and girlfriend. They are roommates in one of the houses next door, the “nice” one that McFly owns/manages/rents out/what is his role here? Someone has made off with their bottle of wine and they are devastated.
The party is dying down to the drunken core. It is late. I have spent my social currency and I too wish to go, but it is my party, and I cannot. The stragglers and I sit on the steps. We jabber and laugh. I see the mystery girl and the roommate leaving the party house and going into their house. The roommate clutches an unopened bottle of rum, stolen, essentially, from the party. If he had asked me I would have given it to him, but the idea of him stealing from a party rankles me. I tell the gathered friends and miscellanea my plan, and disappear into the nice house in pursuit. Of course my plan is merely a pretext.
I have been in this house before, for other events put on by McFly and his boarders. My fugitives are not in the kitchen. Should I abort? No. I tiptoe upstairs and knock lightly on the first door I come to. Nothing. I move down the hall and knock on the next door—there is light and I have hope. The door opens a crack at my touch. Through the crack I see the roommate sitting naked on his bed, hands on his knees, hunched forward, eyes closed. He doesn’t move. I sneak away. The last door is down a dark hallway. It is my last chance now. I knock. The mystery girl opens the door.
My words spill out. Something about the rum—stupid. The mystery girl smiles and says something about Americans caring so much about their booze. She leads me down to the kitchen and hands me the rum. I hold it, thinking a moment. I tell her I know there is a roof deck on this house. I ask her if she would like to drink some rum on the deck with me. It is past 2:00 a.m. She considers this idea and says she needs something to cut the rum. I open the fridge and grab a bottle of Mountain Dew. Now I am the thief.
“Shall we?” I say, and we make our way up to the roof deck. There are some beat-up Adirondack chairs facing away from the city skyline for whatever reason. We pour the rum and the obviously stale Mountain Dew into glasses and sip. It is terrible. I am regretting the chair placement. We are too far away.
We talk. The mystery girl is French. Her name is Josephine. She’s too young to buy wine in the US. If I thought age was important I’d be too old for her, and the woman I had been dating in LA would have been too old for me. Josephine has been here a week. I am impressed at how good her English is. She understands my jokes and makes her own. She is so relaxed. She goes to bird school or something in France, a school for smart kids, and future politicians. I insist the bird she is trying to describe is a pelican. She disagrees. We fall silent.
I walk over and lean down to kiss her. Josephine leans up to meet my lips. We fold our bodies into one another as we kiss—as gracefully as we can around the obstructing architecture of the Adirondacks. We fall to the floor and she is on top of me. We kiss for maybe hours. There is a sound and we snap apart, sitting casually, no big deal. The deck door/hatch opens and McFly pops his head up. He sees us and maybe says something, but I think his words don’t make it out. He disappears. Josephine leads me down to her room and we spend the night in each other’s arms.
Josephine is beautiful. I mean beautiful. Dark hair, dark eyes, eyes you can drown in, twin suicide lagoons of drunken night swimmers. A face, sharp, refined, elegant, with a knowing smile perched upon the lips, a smile tied to my own face, provoking my own lips to twitch up in mimicry, and who knows how long we stay this way, each with our own ill-defined contented thoughts, smiling upon one another like two suns sharing life and warmth and nourishment. I don’t know if I believe in love, but certainly human affection, and that we possess in abundance.
I happily stride through the house in a towel on my way to shower. Josephine advises me to use the one on the third floor because the second-floor shower doesn’t work. I greet her roommates as I pass. There is no greater joy than being a stranger in a towel in another person’s house.
Josephine has a house meeting today. About a week before today, McFly had called me and we had had a way-too-long conversation about his business partner, Dave. The words illegal, stupid, and unscrupulous were used. Josephine’s house, the party house, and the dilapidated shells in between all used to be a halfway house. Dave bought them in 2009 for a steal. Apparently he has never paid taxes. McFly is getting ready to jump ship. I’m still not clear what role he has in these properties—he’s the manager?
McFly wears a purple PLA navy hat as the crown of his hipster ensemble, which is something else I fail to understand. Does he think the People’s Liberation Army is a cool thing for cool people? It makes me mistrust him just a little.
In the daylight, it’s clear that five hundred dollars per month is way too much to be charging Josephine for the room she has in the area of the city this house is in. This makes me furious. Josephine is young and foreign. Either Dave or McFly or both of them are taking advantage of her. McFly has tried to get me to live in his houses at various points, and I’ve heard he has offered different people different rents based on what he thinks he can get.
After the meeting, Josephine reports she has never heard people talk so much. Dave brought wine so he might be trustworthy. The renters ask Dave to fix some things (like the second-floor shower, and all the faucets everywhere) and to add fire alarms before they pay rent. There are a lot of people living in the house, I think. I’ve seen at least seven besides Josephine, but it’s hard to tell sometimes because they come and go. It’s a big house. Dave assures them everything will be taken care of.
Josephine invites me to attend a show in Rittenhouse Park that one of her ten million roommates is participating in. I am delighted.
We meet at the corner of someplace or another and kiss. It feels natural and easy, our heads bobbing forward, lips suctioning together like docking starships, coordinated, flawless, awards and medals all around, really excellent job, chaps. We walk to the park swinging our held hands, or with my hand steering on her waist. Josephine can match my death’s-around-the-corner strides.
This show is a music event, of the variety known as “World,” which is great because it confirms the duality of America and the “World.” The music is energetic and loud. There is also a crowd. I wonder why I agreed to this. People are dancing. I am afraid Josephine will want to dance, and I haven’t had anything to drink. I stand there next to her. People are bumping me with their hips. I kind of sway back and forth to show that I could dance, but she’s going to have to ask.
Josephine points out her roommate. He’s the DJ. He’s pumping his fist in the air and yelling for everyone to “turn it up.” I recognize the bassist. I point him out to Josephine.
“I know that guy,” I say. “We were on a show together.”
“The bassist—the guy who just took his shirt off.”
“You know him?”
“Yes. We were on a cooking show together.”
Josephine looks at me, incredulous. “You’re a cook?”
“No, it was—”
More people are bumping into me. A group of people has started dancing Salsa. They fling each other around, swinging and twirling and spraying us all with sweat.
“You want to get out of here?” I ask. “Want to get a drink?”
“Okay,” Josephine says.
I think I love her.
* * *
We make our way to a dive bar and order a pair of stouts. Josephine’s eyes shine with excitement when they come, tall, thirty-two-ounce swimming pools. She tilts back her glass and drinks.
“Ah, that is nice,” she says. “You said you were on a cooking show? But you’re not a cook?”
“No. It was like a reality TV show and they were letting anyone do it. I was at this party where a bunch of people descend on someone’s kitchen and everyone cooks a different dish, and it’s like a crazy cooking party. People made corndog tacos and pickled eggs and fried cotton candy—it’s hard to remember. There was a lot of wine. And a camera crew. They were there filming our auditions with us and our dishes. I made beans and jalapeños and coconut. I auditioned and I made it, but then I found out they were taking basically everyone. I did it to promote myself but it was a total disaster.”
“Oh? Why? It sounds fun.”
“First of all, the filming was in Harlem. That’s in New York City.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I took a bus up and slept on a friend’s floor, but I couldn’t sleep because her cat kept sneaking up and rubbing its asshole in my face.”
Josephine laughs. I continue:
“And when I got to the studio I saw how exploitative reality TV was. They weren’t paying us, and I didn’t have many expectations—but you know when you’re your own business you gotta take every shot you’ve got. Some people were cooks that wanted to start their own restaurant and were seriously trying to win the prize of ten thousand dollars. They brought their families up, and a weekend for four people in New York City has to cost at least a million dollars. The producers were so disrespectful with everyone’s time, and they got a bunch of the wrong ingredients, like regular onions instead of sweet, and they ruined dishes because of that. I saw some guy just sitting in the big waiting room we were in with his head in his hands and his wife comforting him, and I felt really bad. The whole situation was uncomfortable. Is this boring?”
“I really embarrassed myself. They took us all outside into the freezing cold weather to film the opening and yell out that we were here in Philadelphia. I took my shirt off because I thought, hey, if I’m going to do this really dumb thing I might as well do it all the way. It worked—how dumb is that? The producers came and got me and put me in front with the bass player in your roommate’s band, who was also trying to start his own food truck. He sang the song he wrote about food and we yelled in each other’s faces because the producers told us to. That’s the thing about Philly, it’s so small you can’t walk down the street without seeing ten people you’ve embarrassed yourself with.”
I shake my head to shake away the memory.
“What was the food you made for the show?” Josephine asks.
“The point of the show was to find weird dishes that also tasted good. So I made a tuna sundae.”
“Yeah. It was gross. It was like a blob of tuna salad on a pretzel, with whipped cream on top and an olive instead of a cherry.”
“That is so disgusting.” Josephine’s eyes dance with mirth. She takes a long pull from her stout and sets it down. “You’re so right. You are not a cook.”
“That’s not even the worst part. When I finally went in front of the judges I messed up everything. The producers are always telling you to do things with a lot of energy, do it with a lot of energy! First they film you walking through a set of fake doors. When they told me to go, I kicked the doors open, you know, a lot of energy! I didn’t know the door was made of fake wood too, so my foot went right through and I broke the doors. Then I went out in front of the judges and there are all these lights shining in your face and all these people watching you from the sidelines and cameras. The food is covered and then you uncover it so it’s more dramatic. I did it too fast and I wound up throwing my cover across the goddamn room. I had to run over and get it. I was panicking. The judges were all looking at me, and one of them was apparently this famous cheesesteak guy in Philly. He asked me what I did for a living and I said I was a ghost.”
“Yeah, a ghost. I said I was a ghost and it was like the whole room froze for a second and everyone was thinking, wait, what just happened?”
“Why did you say you were a ghost?”
“It was an accident. I meant to say that I was a ghost writer.”
“A ghost writer?”
“Yes. It means I help other people write their books.”
“Oh. Yes I know now.”
“But I froze and didn’t finish the sentence. So I just said I was a ghost. Then cheesesteak guy was like, ‘Wait, you’re a ghost?’ and I was thinking to myself, oh you fucking asshole, but it was too late. I had to spend ten minutes explaining how I was a ghost in physical form so I could be on their show. They probably put that on the screen under my name: ‘Ghost, Corporeal Form.’ Seriously, I was arguing with this guy about how ghost magic worked. The only satisfaction I got was that the judges had to eat my disgusting dish. The looks on their faces afterwards were priceless. They all looked like they were going to be sick. One of them got a pit in his olive because, again, the producers never bothered to get the right ingredients.”
“Too bad. You should have won.”
“No, it was a relief. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. They kept trying to get me to say mean things about the other contestants the whole time too.”
“You’re so famous.”
“No. I’m the opposite. But there is a lesson in all this. If someone asks you to be on a cooking show and the judges are total jerks, then make something really disgusting and they’ll still have to eat it.”
Josephine has had a friend visiting from France. We are conversing through SMS:
“How was your friend’s visit?” I ask.
“Nice! He thought my neighborhood has ‘great potential.’ How are you?”
“I am good. How was your latest house meeting?”
“Still a lot of talking for few things done, but they got champagne so that’s fine by me.”
“You’re too funny. What are you up to this week?”
“I have a friend who’s coming tomorrow. She’s staying until Tuesday.”
“You are very popular.”
“Not really. In fact I only have two friends.”
“I was thinking you’re here two weeks and already people are hanging out at your place again.”
“I know. I’m probably cursed or something. I try to escape them by coming all the way here but they keep pursuing me.”
“You speak so well. Have you been showing them around?”
“Yes, well, mostly I’m pretending that I know the city like my pocket (not sure that’s an expression here but you’ll get the idea) and that I now have a great sense of direction.”
“We say: like the back of my hand. Pretty sure you know more about Philly than I do at this point.”
“I used to know a bus stop, but now you do too so I’m not so sure about that.”
I pace the sidewalk in front of Josephine’s workplace, a building not quite a skyscraper in center city. The company she works for is French, and I can never tell from her explanations exactly what they do—imports, maybe? She comes out and takes my hand and we head to the bar.
“How many millions did you make today?” I ask.
“Not very many,” Josephine says. “It is an internship and so they do not pay.”
“That’s criminal. I think I used to work in the building next to yours. I can’t be sure. It was years ago.”
“What did you do?”
“I was a translator, Spanish to English, and an admin for a company that dealt with all things language. Funny how just seeing a building brings out so many memories. I remember sweating in my too-big pants and itchy dress shirt, watching the boss write out and sign my checks. It seemed to take forever and he was so begrudging about my measly few bucks. I quit on the same day he happened to fire the two secretaries, and they were his only full-time employees—all the teachers and translators like me were contractors. He tried to replace us all with one woman who looked like a Barbie. It’s awful to say, but I feel like, given the boss’s overall level of creepiness, that was a major reason for her being hired. The guy looked like a pile of old mashed potatoes.”
“You didn’t like him?”
“No. He’d come in and stand next to me and just breathe these heavy breaths like the air was taking an escalator up from his lungs to his mouth. And he’d begin all his orders with a story about how things were done in the past: ‘In the past we sent out brochures to people and that brought us a lot of customers.’ Then he’d show me the brochure and tell me to design one just like it. So I’d do my best and then he’d hold up the old brochure, which I considered a stinky relic, and my dazzling new brochure, and tell me to redo it like the old one.”
“It’s the same word?”
“Oh, je m’appelle Josephine, je suis de Paris. Oh je suis so sophisticated.”
“Oh I am Sam. I am from Philly. I am a writer. I think I am so cool.”
This is a game we play. I think you get the gist: I impersonate Josephine in my horrendous non-French and she impersonates me in her perfectly good English. The game continues, and, as usual, ends in a bout of playful shoving and then kisses.
“I didn’t get hired the first time,” I say, still dazed from the kisses. “They hired a girl who happened to live in my dorm. She said she spoke Polish, but when they looked at her translations they were really bad, like a child had done them. People complained and she quit for personal reasons and stole a bunch of stuff before they could fire her. Still, I was impressed she told them outright she spoke Polish.”
“I don’t think it’s good that she said that. She couldn’t speak the language after all.”
“No, you’re right. It was a lie.” I fall silent a moment, pondering. “It was a good job, for being in college, at least. I got forty dollars a page—God knows what he was charging—and sometimes the fax would come through with, like, three words on the second page and that was still another forty dollars.”
“Why did you quit?”
“No work. It was around 2009 and companies cut back on translation services. Then bilingual people who had lost their jobs and were looking for work started doing translation. So it was hard to get jobs. What is your work? What do you do in there?”
“Well. When my boss is not there, mostly I watch MTV.”
“And when she is there?”
“Do you like your boss?”
“Yes, she is very nice.”
“I like your space jacket.” I give her arm a pinch. “You going to space? Going to free the Martians? Gonna go on a little space adventure?”
Josephine smiles at my teasing and leans in for a kiss. Of course she looks amazing—Josephine is Parisian. I had thought that there was no real difference in style aptitude across cultures. I had thought that anyone who invested the time could look as snazzy as they fancied. But I see in Josephine’s ensembles a degree of boldness and fantasy that makes the passersby here in Philly look drab. I look at my own clothes and realize I am camouflaged as an Old Navy catalogue. Josephine looks like she could be a space queen, striding out of a sci-fi novel, yet it feels natural and unassuming. Just like Josephine, so casual. Of course I’m sexy. Of course I dress well. It simply is so.
We go to a dive on Pine Street that has become our bar of choice. The barroom is long and narrow, with booths and tables and drop-ceiling tiles. There are Christmas lights up year-round. It is a place where I feel comfortable, not too clean, not too nice, and not too many people of any one type or another. Someone has invested about three hundred dollars in the jukebox. We are treated to Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P.”
“The song is following us,” I say. Josephine isn’t paying attention.
“Is it a word?” she asks me. “Woatershod? Wetashed?”
“Yes. Can you say it to mean…” Josephine waves her hand in a circle to aid her thinking. She bobs her head and smiles at the ceiling. She is very pretty when she smiles. “It is like a very important event.”
“Yes,” I say, but I look it up on my phone anyway. “Why? Did you have a watershed? Is this a watershed?” I sweep my hand to indicate the bar, the rough-looking character slumped over his whiskey, me, and the experience as a whole.
“No. I am going to a conference tomorrow for work.”
“And it’s a watershed.”
“No…I want to be able to explain myself. It is very frustrating when you are right about something but you cannot explain your idea because of language. There is a trade agreement between the US and Europe.”
“Free trade?” I have heard something about this from National Public Radio. The US and Europe are negotiating a free trade agreement.
“Yes. I think it’s bad.”
“Oh?” I arch an eyebrow.
“Yes. You dip your chickens in arsenic. I don’t think you should be able to sell your chickens in Europe.”
“Why not? Arsenic improves the taste. It’s good for the body.”
“Our chickens are better.”
I reach over and take Josephine’s hand. I say, very solemnly, “Josephine, I absolutely agree that if you Europeans want to eat chickens that have not been dipped in arsenic, then you should be able to.”
* * *
We pay and walk to the bus stop. An older gentleman is tottering towards us with the shakiest, most worrisome steps I have ever seen. I try not to stare. I grab Josephine and pull her closer. There is a clatter behind us and a shout. The old man has fallen.
“Are you alright?” I ask him.
The old man mumbles something.
“Can I help you up?” I ask. I hold out a hand, fighting my fear of scabs and hepatitis. He grabs my hand but I’m afraid to pull him up in case he falls again or his arm comes off. I hand him his cane. It has a baby shoe on the tip. Josephine watches. The man reeks of beer.
A woman in a BMW pulls up in front of the bus stop.
“Is he okay?” the woman asks me.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “He fell.”
“I’m a nurse,” the woman says. “Do I need to look at him?”
I don’t consider myself qualified to make this judgment. The nurse flicks on her flashers and gets out. I let go of the man’s hand. He tries to scrabble to his feet but cannot. The nurse comes over.
“Sir,” the nurse says, “did you hit your head?”
“Leave me alone,” he says. “I want to go.”
Two cops come over and take charge of the situation, to my great relief. I wipe my hand on my pants.
“He needs to go to the hospital,” the one cop says. “We saw what happened. He fell.”
“You know he needs to go?” the nurse says. She crouches in front of the man, trying to examine him, trying to get him to talk, asking him how he feels.
“Yeah,” the other cop says, talking into his radio, “he’s a regular.”
“Fuck you, bitch!” the old man yells at the nurse, trying to swat her with his cane and missing pathetically, stuck on his ass.
“Sir,” the nurse says, “I’m just trying to help.” She doesn’t bat an eye, doesn’t lose her cool. I’m impressed with all of their professionalism.
“Fuck you, fucking bitch! I’ll beat your ass!” the old man says. He has started to cry, tears are streaming down his face.
“Why are you crying?” the nurse asks.
“I want to go!” the old man yells. “Let me go!”
One of the cops puts a hand on his shoulder, keeping him from moving. The bus comes and Josephine and I get on.
“I could never be a cop,” I say. “I couldn’t tell people what to do. I’d say, ‘Okay, if you want to go, then go, not my problem.’ I’d just let him get up and fall down the subway stairs and die. Who am I to tell people what to do?”
“Was that man homeless?” Josephine asks.
“Probably. The cop says he’s a regular. He’s probably in the emergency room every week, driving up insurance rates.”
This devolves into a conversation about healthcare in the US versus France. The upshot is we in the US are getting fucked.
Later, much later, I think of the old man and I feel sorry for him. It is the tears. I see him crying, aware of himself, angry too—how did I get this way? There are so many sad things that if you think too much about them you’ll wind up insane. I wonder if maybe he saw sad things his whole life and couldn’t bear it, and so he drank and drank and became a sad thing himself. Then sadness is a disease, an outbreak, spreading, turning people into sad things like zombies, subhuman, to be observed, and studied, and cured, and sometimes to claim you as one of their own.