Monthly Archive for February, 2011


I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

I’m with Groucho on this one. It may be because we’re both grouchy, but I’ve never been a fan of joining clubs or organizations. Hell, I can’t bring myself commit to a quilting bee.

It all started when I was a little kid. I was reading the back pages of a comic book and decided to join the American Association of Aardvark Aficionados. The AAAA was a silly organization purported to champion all things aardvark.  I sent in one dollar and got an official membership card and a newsletter. I was thrilled about this. Not because I gave a damn about aardvarks, but because I was a member. It’s what adults do. They join organizations and become somebody. I carried that AAAA membership card everywhere.

My friends thought I was a dork, but I didn’t care because I was a member and they weren’t. They were just jealous. But after a while, I came to realize that the AAAA seemed to have gotten more from me than I from them. They got my dollar, and I got a card. They got thousands of dollars, and thousands of kids felt they had “done something cool”.

It feels good to be counted. I know why people join the Knights of Columbus or the Kiwanis Club. These organizations have their “aardvarks”, too. But mostly they are an umbrella under which men (and women) can feel important and elevated.

We're NOT just a bunch of suburban Dads! Really!

Some of these organizations do stuff. They back Little League teams and throw pancake breakfasts to benefit the food bank. Worthy causes all. And it’s pretty easy to see how this scales up to bigger organizations. From Amnesty International to OxFam to Hamas to the ACLU: they all amass members and procure capital to help worthy (and sometimes unworthy) causes. And they make their members feel important.

Since joining the AAAA, I learned a lot about clubs. I learned that a few people working together can make great changes. I learned that being a voice in the wilderness is nowhere near as effective as being a voice in the choir. And I learned that all organizations are – without exception – corrupt.

I know what you’re saying: “All organizations are corrupt? Just because XXX organization is corrupt doesn’t mean that my beloved YYY organization is corrupt!”

Well guess what, honeykins: it is.

I don’t care if we’re talking about Hamas or the local gardening club. As soon as people get together and form a group to exercise any semblance of power, corruption creeps in. It may be laughably innocuous. We all know that one power-mad asshole who has to dominate the meetings and seems to get her way when it comes to the duty roster. She may not be as bad as a Hamas leader blowing up Israeli schoolkids, but she’s still a corrupt jerkoff.

I find it amazing that organizations get corrupted so easily and so quickly. I’m equally amazed that the most squishy-wishy lovey-dovey organizations can be corrupt. I’m looking at YOU, Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Make-a-Wish and even the local hippie co-op. Every one of you has committed some act that either betrays your purpose or damages your reputation. It may have been a lie to the press or a deception intended to channel power to yourself. You may have simply silenced a whistleblower. In one way or another, you bastards all brook corruption.

I don’t care how innocent and empathetic you think your organization is. One or more members is a corrupt asshole. I guarantee it.

Another seething cauldron of naked corruption.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blithely dismissing the entirety of the human social network. I give money to charities that I deem worthy. But I’m under no illusion that they are angels. That’s why I’ll contribute but I won’t join.

There are many writers and journalists who make a living exposing corruption. More power to them! I delight in seeing corrupt bastards exposed and destroyed. But some of these writers think there’s some sort of utopian goal of “ending corruption”.  Puh-lease. You guys aren’t crusaders with victory in sight. You’re beat cops keeping the thugs in jail while all around you crime continues to swirl. So spare us your supercilious denunciations of all that is “bad”. Just expose the most egregious offenders and move on.

There will be a another offender.

Like crime, just because corruption is endemic doesn’t mean we have to embrace it. It means we have to quantify each instance of it, gauge its effects and rectify it. In doing so, we must remember that there are no angels. In each of us lurks a red light runner and a liberty taker. Deal with that, then deal with the others.

How I Turned Out a Stripper

It's a living.

Back in the late 80’s, I was stuck in Bakersfield, CA. It wasn’t all bad; when you live in a sun-baked ultra-conservative place like Bakersfield, your little group of sub-culture friends tends to be cohesive and vibrant. We had to be. No one else would come near us.

Like most bachelors in their 20’s,  I didn’t have much money and in order to make ends meet I moved into a cheap but clean apartment complex near a shopping mall. The place was depressing, but we had solar hot water and working air conditioning.

We also had  a youthful group of residents. Among them was my neighbor, who I shall call Laura.  Laura was a tall, shy brunette who had two or three good friends but no family and no job. I liked her – she was beautiful and unassuming. But she was also kinda straight-laced; if I was a long-haired, dope-smoking, artist-writer Yang, she was a quiet, incurious, unremarkable Yin.

Laura was the girl next door, literally and figuratively.

Actress Mandy Moore, the archetypical Girl Next Door.

Laura was sweet, but she was also a bit flakey. She had a hard time finding and keeping jobs. The whole time I knew her, this pretty girl had no boyfriend, either. I tried to remedy that, but Laura was standoffish and had the good sense not to get involved with me.

One day, I was in the complex office paying my rent. Laura came in and I overheard her begging to get an extension on her late rent. She got the extension, but exited the office upset and in tears. I followed her out and offered to buy her lunch. She let her cheeseburger go cold as she poured out her tale of woe.

She was estranged from her religious nutcase family and had no money and nobody to rely on. She couldn’t find work and saw only darkness on the horizon. I know how she felt; I was also distant from my family and knew how it felt to scrape the penny jar in a vain attempt to make the rent.

But I was flush at the time. I told her it was OK to wallow for a while, but that she had to eventually sit down and work out a plan. I advised her to take pencil to paper and create three or four game plans to right her ship. As we left the diner, I gave her a couple hundred bucks to help her meet rent. She needed to know it was not hopeless and that sometimes people actually care about your plight.

I asked for nothing in return. I just wanted to help. She was a nice person.

Another day at the office.

A few days later, I visited my my best pal Dale. We were working on a kung-fu comic book together and we both enjoyed getting stoned and watching B-movies on the VCR. Dale had two part-time jobs: he worked the graveyard shift at a classic rock radio station and he also deejayed at a local strip club.

As we loaded up the bong and pressed “play” on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, I told Dale about my neighbor Laura. His response was instant: bring her by the club. He had enough sway to get her a job dancing.

I explained that Laura was a shy creature not likely to leap at the chance to strip naked and gyrate in front of a crowd of slathering strangers.

“Ted,” he said, “strippers are made, not born. They all start out that way. Believe me.”

What he was saying made sense. I wasn’t a big fan of strip clubs, but I had visited Dale at his day job a few times. The place was luxurious and clean and the girls all seemed happy. There was a lot of cynical camaraderie among the dancers and they all drove new cars. When they weren’t stripping in front a bunch of morons, the girls were actually quite normal people. I’m sure a few of them were quite Laura-like at one time.

Citizen Ted swings into action!

He was right. In the big scheme of things, Laura was a perfect candidate for a stripper. She was tall and pretty and unable to maintain employment in the straight market. To her advantage (and my relief), she was also a teetotaler and abhorred drugs. She’d be very unlikely to become a coke-addled hooker anytime soon.

When we next met, I broached the subject with her. I got exactly the response I expected: laughing incredulity. There was no way she’d consider stripping. No. Fucking. Way. Period.

Oh, well. I was just bringing it up. I told her that Dale was a very kind and non-threatening dude, that the place was really swank and the girls were a working team, not a bunch of sluts. I also told her that I felt similarly about strip clubs. I didn’t patronize them. Not because of moral indignation, but because I didn’t find strip clubs to be worth my time and money. I let the subject drop.

Weeks passed. I’d see Laura now and again. We’d chat and get a bite to eat and hang out together. I didn’t bring up the stripper thing at all. No point in beating a dead horse.

Then, one day, Laura came knocking on my door. She wasn’t all smiles and light like usual. She sat down and started grilling me about Dale and the strip club. What was it like? What do the girls actually do? How much money are we talking about?

I couldn’t really answer her questions accurately. But I assured her the place was swank and clean, the music was loud and the girls seemed to make a lot of money. And as far as I knew, they weren’t whores. There was only one way for her to assess the place properly: she had to drop by and see Dale.

I made the arrangements.

Dale was excited to meet my girl next door. We came by on a dead afternoon. The place was loud and empty. Dale marched us all around to every corner of the club. He showed us how the lights and DJ gear worked. We talked to a couple of the girls and they explained how dances are staggered throughout the night so shifts of girls can maintain flexible schedules. The girls cleared more in a week than I made in a month.

And then came the clincher: nearly all the girls have some kind of shtick that was theirs and theirs alone. Some were rock stars, some were animals, some were fictional characters – pirates, princesses, athletes, etc. The girls built personnas that meant something to them.

Cher. Just Cher.

Laura loved Cher. Adored her. Wouldn’t shut up about her. Her eyes got wide when Dale said a Cher act would go over big. A perfect choice.

On the ride home, Laura was now fully committed. She chattered endlessly about how she had three outfits already fixed in her head. How to build a giant headdress made out of feathers, etc. She even sang me a few lines from Cher songs. This was going to be so COOL!

I reminded her that this was more than a talent show. In the end, she had to take her clothes off. This put a damper on the plan, but she said she’d tough it out. After all, the girls at the club seemed normal enough.

That night, I worried that I had made a mistake. Laura was a really nice person. She seemed way too shy to pull this off. I was sure she’d panic and refuse to strip and run off in tears and it would be all my fault. This would also make Dale look bad, since he was her champion. I could slink away, but Dale would be the failed field general.

Laura came by my place and showed me her outfits and headdress. It actually looked pretty good. She couldn’t hold a job, but she could certainly sew. She told me the date of her maiden show and insisted I be there. She wanted my moral support. I wanted to see her naked, so it was agreed.

Cher, the best Cher impersonator ever.

I showed up on time and chatted with Dale at the DJ booth. After a few dancers came and went, Dale bellowed into his microphone and announced the newest addition to the club roster. As a Cher song blasted over the PA, Laura stepped out in her sexy black outfit and huge black feather headdress. The girls had taught her a few moves and although she wasn’t a world-class pole flipper, the sheer audacity of her presence carried the performance.

I do think my mouth hung agape the whole time.  The men assembled went wild with hoots and howls. Laura, half-blinded by the spotlight, did her thing and slowly peeled off the outfit. As she finished the show wearing nothing but the headdress and a pair of black heels, I was awed. The girl next door with the flowsy tops and beat-up jeans had a STUNNING body.

Dale kept up the applause by repeatedly enjoining the crowd to “give it up” for Laura. She absolutely beamed. As the music ended, she gathered up her stuff  and dashed off the stage.

I re-joined Dale and asked him what he really thought. He was effusive in his praise. It was exactly what the place needed: someone new with a passion for her character and a bod that couldn’t be beat. He thanked me for turning her out.

The world, like a stripper, just keeps going round and round.

In the intervening weeks, I’d see Laura but she’d keep it short. She was happy in her new gig, but I reminded her of her “secret” job and wanted to compartmentalize her private life. Dale told me she worked regular shifts and bonded well with the other girls. Everything was good.

Laura eventually left the shitty apartment complex for greener pastures, as did I. We fell out of touch. Dale would give me occasional reports. She was still dancing, she got a boyfriend who appeared not to be an asshole and she wasn’t doing any drugs.

Whether this held and where Laura ended up, I have no idea. I moved to Washington state and left California behind. Once in a great while I think about her. She must be 40 by now. I really hope I did the right thing and helped a friend find a bridge in her life. If not, I’m a right fucking bastard.

I Was a Teenage Gravedigger

The last person you'll ever see.

They lay in their graves, eternally contemplating their situation, worms and maggots slithering effortlessly twixt bone and putrefied flesh. . . they were the Dead, and I was their Keeper.

I was seventeen and this was my first full-time job after high school. I was a long-haired pothead with a different pair of shades for every day of the week. My buddy and mentor was Ron, a six-foot-three Ramones punk from a local kegger group. Our boss was Ship, son of the church rector and a calm, steady hand at the shovel. The year was 1982, and most of our clients had been deceased for many, many years in that South Amboy, NJ graveyard.

But the nature of Death being what it is, we were always busy interring the newly Dead. They had names like Dadovic and Maliszewski, good eastern European Christian stock with nothing to lose in their blue-collar world but their lives.

And lose them they did.

One by one they came to my workplace, and the last thing their still ears would hear was me and Ron’s jabbering voices as we tossed shovelfuls of dirt onto their expensive, graceful coffins. Admittedly, this was a strange job for a kid right out of high school, but it was a truly memorable time of my life. I reflected daily on my mortality and contemplated the philosophical questions of Forever.

The customer is always right.

Ask any gravedigger what they think of their job and they’ll probably reply, “It’s a living, but I wouldn’t want to die there.”

We’ve seen the modern cultural approach to Death. The sorrowful survivors, the penny-pinching funeral directors and the ambivalent clergy. We’ve recoiled at the waxen faces of the embalmed and shook our heads at executive caskets. We’ve watched tombstones age and wither, long-forgotten markers of a family who have moved on and left the dead alone in their graves.

No one wants to ruminate about Death. It’s too painful. Many of us have lost people close to us; I certainly have. I’ve even witnessed someone die an agonizing, violent death. I’ve smelled the ether of Death in the air around me; the stillness and silence which mutes every mouth and casts nervous eyes about the scene.

It’s very, very powerful.

I still fear Death, but I have grown rather analytical and fascinated with it. What else was a young gravedigger to do?

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

I know it’s surprising, but being a gravedigger isn’t very glamorous. Most of your day is spent mowing lawns, trimming grass, keeping up with flowers and compost and generally working your ass off. Then, when a new customer is scheduled to arrive, you really kick into high gear: plotting the grave, digging and setting the headstone, coordinating with the vault service and church, etc etc.

It was hard, visceral work.

One day, I was advised by our boss Ship that we were going to have an “Eleanor Rigby” at 2:00 pm. I didn’t dare ask what “Eleanor Rigby” meant, so I just set about moodily preparing the gravesite. The backhoe showed up around 9:00 and Ron and I hastily plotted the site. It was a cheap site and the tombstone was small and plain. Ron began plunging a long steel rod into the earth to find out who (or what) was next to the grave site so the backhoe could dig without disturbing a neighboring coffin.

I set about digging a hole for the tombstone. I went down about two feet and filled the hole with rocks and then covered them with cement. I mashed it all down as hard as I could and smoothed it over, checking the evenness with a level.

Ron, still working the vault probe,  plunged deep several times till we heard a clink! noise. It was the tell-tale clink of a burial vault – Eleanor’s new neighbor. Ron shifted over a few inches and plunged deep, this time finding nothing but soil. The neighboring burial vault ended right there. Eureka!

He plotted the site along the edge of the neighbor’s vault. The backhoe moved in and Ron and I smoked some weed while John Deere did all the work. The vault company arrived and we scraped the edges of the new grave with flat shovels while the vault guy, Gregg, set up the lowering equipment and astroturf. This was our first all-in-one-day job, and I was proud. It was noon. Time for lunch.

Another satisfied client!

We got some pizza and Ship gave us a six-pack of Budweiser. We drank greedily in the hot New Jersey sun. But from atop Boot Hill, coming in around Raritan Bay, were ominous, black clouds. In the humid Jersey summer, this meant “thunderstorm”. We were pissed. We hated burying stiffs in the rain. It was wet, muddy and…depressing. Ship waved his arms around at the clouds, yammering some meteorological weirdness while Ron casually popped another beer.

“Well, it ain’t all bad,” Ron said, “at least it’s an Eleanor.”

Ship stared skyward. I pensively peeled the label from my beer.

By 1:30, the sky was a wall of black and steel gray. The clouds hung low and had puffy white underbellies. Not a good sign. We went back to the site on the tractor, Ron riding in back with some dirt and faded flowers. Gregg had the site ready and my tombstone was standing proudly against the breeze. Ron unloaded the tractor and started placing shovels and tamping blocks against a tree at the site.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled to him. (It’s really bad form to leave grave digging equipment at a funeral site. It freaks out the Bereaved. I learned this important lesson at my first dig…)

Ron cast a “You idiot!” stare and me and said: “It’s an Eleanor, man! Ain’t nobody gonna show!”

“What?” I said.

“It’s an Eleanor Rigby, man! It’s just you, me, Ship, Gregg, the funeral director and the Reverend. Oh, and the client, of course.”

Elenor Rigby
Died in the Church
And was buried
Alone with her name…
Nobody came.

Ah, look at all the lonely people...

It had never occurred to me that anyone would be buried alone. After witnessing so many parades of grieving survivors, I never thought anyone died alone nowadays. As was usual at the graveyard, I had to do some job before ruminating long about the situation. A hearse and a limo pulled in past the spiked iron gates and rolled slowly up the winding dirt road around Boot Hill. Thunder peeled across Raritan Bay. Rain had begun to fall.


The Rev and funeral director (some fat guy I never liked) came out, bracing against the rain. “Let’s do it!” Ron yelled to Ship, who by now was looking greedily toward his warm, dry office. The rain began to pour. We unloaded grandma from the hearse (I can’t recall her name; I often imagine I should have, but it still escapes me. I’ve remembered others, but not hers…rather strange…) and placed her coffin onto the straps, suspended above her last resting place.

The rain began to pound down onto our heads. The skies had opened up on our hard-earned site, and my reserve dirt was becoming a muddy swamp. Lightning flashed and lit the site like a strobe, causing the funeral director to mutter to the Reverend, “Let’s move this along, shall we?”  The Rev immediately did his thing.

“And so, on this day, as we gather at so solemn a place on so solemn a day, blah-blah-blah.”

Gregg the Vault Guy sat in his truck, smoking a Lucky Strike. Ship was slowly backing off toward his office. The director clutched his collar against the rain, arms in close to his enormous sides. Ron glowered into empty space. Ron hated God, especially when God was making him stand in the rain while our dirt pile got soaked. I looked at the director, and knew he would be pushing us to dig real fast. It’s common practice for funeral directors to remain with the deceased until they are fully interred, and none of them liked doing it.

All in a day's work.

I alone thought about Eleanor and strangely, I smiled. She was really old (ninety-something) and her scumbag relatives didn’t bother to show. Those fuckers! At least she was free now, free to sew doilies in heaven with Vishnu and Ghandi, free to sip wine with Moses and Christ, free to play hearts with Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and Sharon Tate. Then again, maybe she was a bitch and was twittering down into a fiery hell. . .

Who knows? As an atheist, I wasn’t vested in which scenario might hold sway, but even atheists can’t deny the occasional tug to ruminate about the afterlife. Yet still, here on Earth Eleanor was still just a corpse. Nothing more, nothing less…

“And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil…”

Those words were music to my ears. Our small funeral party was utterly drenched, and Ron and I would be the last ones to leave and find shelter. The Rev finished his little sermon and immediately dashed off to his limo. The director barely had time to yell at us to finish the job when Gregg the Vault Guy appeared and quickly lowered the casket into its burial vault. Her coffin fit beautifully into the vault, and we hurriedly lowered the heavy vault lid over the top.

Father McKenzie
Wiping the dirt from his hands
As he walks from the grave
No one was saved

Then Ron and I began to dig furiously into our dirt pile, covering the vault with goopy piles of muddy earth. We saved some of the muddier stuff for the top. Then we tamped it all down with heavy iron tampers to mash down the dirt. We overfilled the grave with more dirt and tamped down again. Finally, we tossed the director’s feeble pile of flowers onto the grave. The whole operation took about ten minutes. We were sweaty, wet and filthy. The director tipped us the usual $5 apiece, ran into his hearse and sped off through the gates.

Off they went, a tiny entourage, back to their well-appointed offices. Ron and I picked up our tools and rode the tractor back to Ship’s office. Thunder still rolled across the bay, but the rain had let up. Ship gave us the day off, and Ron snuck me into his favorite watering hole where we spent the balance of the afternoon drinking beer and playing pool. Our friend Quaalude showed up. He used to be a gravedigger but got fired for being an asshole.

“So you guys had an Eleanor today, huh?” Quaalude asked.

“Yeah,” Ron replied, “it rained like crazy. I usually like Elenors. But this one sucked, man.”

He was right. It did suck. But it sucked even more for Eleanor.

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?