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Story of the Day 1-23-11


Hair

Sarah and I went to see Hair today. It was the first time we’ve been out of the house on our own since Zellie was born 8 weeks ago. Hair is my favorite musical of all time and there are a million things I’d like to say about today’s performance, but I need to bust out a quick story because it’s late and I have video games to play.

I’ve only seen Hair one other time in my life. I watched the movie many times growing up, but the movie was made in the 70s and is a totally different kind of experience than the play. It’s still great in its own right, but it has that 70s disco-ness to it that was inescapable for a few years.

The other time I saw Hair was when I was in college, at the Fox Theater in Detroit. Lisi and her family were big Hair fans, so we met them there. The Fox Theater is the coolest theater in Michigan and even though we only lived about 45 minutes away from Detroit it still felt like an extra special treat going there.

On the way to the theater, there were reports that a dead body had been found in Kurt Cobain’s house. They couldn’t identify the body because its face had been blown off. For some reason, my first thought was, “oh my God, Beck killed Kurt Cobain.”

The next day, I was listening to CK105, the shitty popular radio station in Flint. The opening chords to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on the air. I turned it up, ready to have a moment of respect for the lost king. But when the verses started, it turned out it was actually Weird Al’s “Smells Like Nirvana.” I picked up the phone and called the station. 

“Too soon, man,” I told the DJ. “Too soon.”

“Fuck you,” the DJ replied.

So far, I’m 0 for 2 with CK105.

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Story of the Day: 1-22-11


To Catch a Thief

I have never stolen anything in my life. Well, that’s not true. When I was younger I would sometimes go to Perry Drugs in the Clio Plaza and stick one magazine inside another magazine, thus getting two magazines for the price of one. There’s really no reason to buy a magazine as large as Rolling Stone unless you’re going to stick a Metal Edge inside it. 

But that’s not really stealing, that’s just taking advantage of uninterested minimum wage workers. I never grabbed an item from a shelf and stuck it in my pocket, or went into someone else’s room and took one of their toys. That I never did.

I have, however, been wanted for retail fraud. 

It was my second or third week of college, and I was at Tower Records in Ann Arbor with my friend Sofia. They were having a big sale and the price gun was sitting out on top of a row of CDs. I really wanted this CD by a band called Possum Dixon, so I punched myself out a new price tag and voila! $6 markdown. I should have realized from my time spent in the retail trenches that stores do not just mark merchandise down willy-nilly. There was no way a 2 year-old CD by Possum Dixon, a CD that the record label had no reason to promote, would be on sale. Retail logic played no part in my decision, though. I was a rebel. I laughed in the face of logic.

I took the CD up to the counter and to my surprise, they let me buy it. I was feeling pretty good about myself as we left the store. Until one of the security guards stopped me at the door.

“Can we talk to you in the back?” he said.

“What’s going on?” Sofia asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I”ll handle it. Don’t wait for me … I might not return.”

The guard took me deep into the control room, where the other security guards were waiting to tear me apart. You could smell the testosterone in the room as I entered. 

“Nice job, guy,” one of the guards said. “We got the whole thing on tape.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m guilty. You saw me. What do I have to do?”

“One – pay us ten times the amount you marked the CD down. That’s $60. Two – never come back here again.”

“That’s it?” I asked. “That’s all I need to do?”

“Yep,” the guard said.

“Do I get to keep the CD?” I asked.

“I don’t see why not,” the guard answered. “You paid for it.”

Luckily, I had my checkbook with me, so I wrote them a check on the spot. I was a little bummed about not being able to go back to Tower, but  there were approximately 7 other record stores within walking distance, so it wasn’t that much of a loss. In retrospect it seems a little weird that they would have a rule where they charged ten times the amount of money I marked the CD down. That’s a pretty convoluted rule. But at the time, I didn’t care if the dude stuck the money in his pocket; I just didn’t want to have to call my parents from jail. 

Unfortunately, the Tower police weren’t very concerned about what my parents thought. About two months later, I got an irate call from my dad.

“What the fuck?” he screamed. “You just got a letter from the Ann Arbor police saying you’re wanted for retail fraud! What the fuck?”

I explained the situation to my dad, and he managed to cool down somewhat. Retail fraud certainly made it sound a lot worse than it actually was. He gave me the number of a police officer in charge of the case and I assured him I would take care of it. 

I hung up and immediately called Ann Arbor police.

“Well, you’ve got two options,” the cop in charge of dealing with price fixers told me. “Number one, you can plead not guilty, and we’ll take you to court. Number two, you can plead guilty and we’ll put you in the first offender program.”

“What happens in the first offender program?” I asked.

“First offender program is a $300 fine, 90 hours of community service, and 6 months of probation.”

That sounded like kind of a rotten deal, especially since I’d already paid the guys at Tower $60 for nothing. But I was torn, because I knew I was guilty. I decided to call a campus lawyer to get some advice.

“Always plead not guilty,” the lawyer told me.

“But I’m guilty,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” he answered. “The courts are so backed up that they’ll stick you at the bottom of the pile and you’ll probably never have to deal with it again.”

So I followed his advice. I pled not guilty. And the lawyer was right; I was never contacted again. I felt a little strange about it, because I knew I was guilty and I have a life rule that I will never lie under oath. I have not been able to demonstrate that rule yet, but if I ever end up on Judge Judy, be assured that the other guy is the one lying. 

There are two postscripts to this story. The first postscript is that I wrote a fan letter to the band, Possum Dixon, telling them the lengths I had gone to to get their CD. One night when I was home from college, the lead singer of the band, Rob Zabrecky called me on the phone.

“Hey man,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know that we thought your letter was hilarious.” It was probably the only letter Possum Dixon ever received. 

We talked for a few minutes. He told me the band was on tour with Frank Black, who used to go by the name Black Francis when he was a member of the Pixies. 

“Do you call him Frank, or Black?” I asked. 

“We call him Charles,” he told me.

Before we hung up, I made some really embarrassing comment about how we were now friends. Rob sort of half-chuckled and hung up, never to call again.

The post-postscript is that just last year, I was at the Magic Castle with my friend Ryan, a magician. The Magic Castle is a somewhat mysterious and exclusive LA club where  magicians perform magic for other magicians. You can’t get in without an invite from a member of the club and you have to wear a suit and tie. 

We were waiting at the bar for one of the shows to begin, when Ryan saw another magician he knew.

“Hey,” he said, introducing me, “this is Rob Zabrecky.”

“Rob Zabrecky?” I asked. “You didn’t use to be in a band called Possum Dixon, did you?”

Turned out: yes, he did. Same fucking guy. 16 years later, the guy who’d called me from across the country after I wrote him a letter about how I was wanted for retail fraud for marking down his band’s CD was now a working magician who just happened to be at the same weird magician bar as me and my friend who just happened to know him. I told Rob the story of our coincidental early encounter, but he didn’t appear to remember any of it. It’s possible he immediately remembered my weird comment about how he was my friend and he was feeling embarrassed for both of us. I maybe shouldn’t have ended the conversation by telling him we were clearly destined to be together.

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Story of the Day: 1-21-11


The Night the Lights Went Out in the City

In 2003 I was working at a horrible company in Manhattan that produced entertainment websites but was really just a front for fucking people over. What they did was collect email addresses through various web campaigns in which they’d promise to help you win an iPod or whatever and then sell those email addresses to spammers. My job was to manage two “entertainment” websites that mostly consisted of pictures of scantily-clad women that had been stolen from other websites. I tried my best to include actual content, but I realized after about two weeks that it was a losing battle and that the only reason the websites existed was to steal people’s email addresses. 

The owner who I worked with most closely — we’ll call him Terry — fancied himself a graphic designer and he designed the sites himself and they were incredibly tacky-looking and I was pretty embarrassed to be a part of the entire venture. Terry was one of those guys who was always just a few inches off in conversations. Everything I said to him would go into a hamster wheel in his brain and get twisted around ever-so-slightly, until we were having two completely different conversations. Like, I would say, “where’s the bathroom?” and he would answer, “I think we need soap.” He was always almost there … you could sort of see how the connections had become jumbled … but you never quite got to where you wanted to be.

On August 14th at around 4:00 in the afternoon the lights went out and the computers shut down, making it impossible for us to do any of our important spamming work. We looked out the window. None of the surrounding buildings had lights, either. As we tried to puzzle out what was happening, we began to notice an eerie stillness. The thick blanket of noise that usually swaddled the city had disappeared. We never even noticed the noise when it was there, but the minute it went away, something felt desperately wrong.

This was two years after September 11th, and the wounds still felt fresh. At any minute, everyone in New York was prepared to leap into panic mode. My coworkers and I waited around for the power to come back on, feeling increasingly unsettled. After about 5 minutes, Terry came down from his top-floor office to join us. 

“It’s gotta be an attack,” he said. “They’ve taken down the grid.”

We were all in agreement that we were in the midst of another catastrophic terrorist event. New York does not go black by accident. Terry happened to live down the street, so we decided to leave the office and walk to his apartment. Only five of us went with him, even though there were about 20 people working there at the time. I guess we must have decided to let the others fend for themselves.

Taking to the street did nothing to alleviate our fears. Radios didn’t work because the radio stations were down. Cell phones got no signals. No one seemed to know what was going on.

When we got to Terry’s building, we had to walk up 25 flights of stairs to get to his apartment. We sat in his apartment and drank whiskey.

“If they’re smart they’re probably taking out the stock exchange right now,” Terry said. I wasn’t sure what good that would do them, but it sounded as plausible a tactic as any.

After about an hour spent in mounting terror, we finally managed to get a radio signal. To our relief, we learned the blackout had nothing to do with terrorism and everything to do with the crumbling infrastructure that will one day turn our country into a fetid swamp filled with sewage and potholes. Thank god. 

Terry had a friend who owned a bar in the East Village, so he suggested we walk down there and see if they were giving away their beer. It was the smartest idea he’d ever had … when we got there, that was indeed what they were doing. Everyone was in a good mood, on account of getting to leave work early and having free alcohol. I had my guitar with me because I was supposed to play a show later that night. I busted it out at the bar and performed a few numbers, and then I handed it around the bar and we all had an old-fashioned singalong. 

It was a magical, candlelit night. You might think New York would devolve into anarchy and looting under those kinds of circumstances, but you would be wrong. For one night, we were all free from the trappings of modern civilization. It felt as if the entire city had breathed a collective sigh of relief. 

After the bar, I took a bus uptown to my girlfriend’s apartment. She lived in Spanish Harlem. I had to walk about ten blocks from the bus to her apartment, which was a pretty creepy experience in the pitch dark. Along the way, I passed a shadowy figure on the sidewalk. “Better watch out, white man,” the figure said. I kid you not. That’s the only time I’ve ever been called “white man.” This guy didn’t seem to want to harm me, so maybe he was just trying to be helpful. Or he was alerting others that there was a white man coming, like “Watch out! White man!” Luckily, I made it to my girlfriend’s apartment free of incident. She had been sleeping and didn’t even realize there was a blackout.

The lights remained out in parts of the city for 3 more days. After about 24 hours the lack of electricity lost its magic and just became another thing preventing us from doing what we needed to do. 

The morning after the blackout I had to wait for 2 hours to catch a bus over the Williamsburg Bridge so I could return home. I could have walked home in about 1/2 an hour. But that’s what you do in New York: you wait. It’s far better to wait 2 hours to go 1 mile than to be walking that mile and have the bus pass you.

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Story of the Day: 1-20-11


The Ultimate Sweet Revenge: Part 3

My cool guy act lasted approximately 3 hours. That’s how long it took me to get through my first class of the day and realize I’d just made a terrible, terrible mistake. The chances that I would ever get another girlfriend, let alone a girlfriend as cool and gorgeous as Denise, were slim. If she was sleeping with another guy, I would just have to learn how to work around it.

I called her around noon to retract my breakup.

“I think I was a little rash,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, “but it’s for the best.”

“Or is it?” I countered.

“I think so.”

“No!” I wailed. “You can’t do this to me!”

And so forth.

It did not take long for Denise and I to become friends again. We had to go through the necessary cooling-off period. But I realized after a few weeks of sulking that in my two years of pining away, I had created an image of her that was impossible for anyone to live up to. I also think my fear of losing her became a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that I was so eager to please her I buried the part of me that was attractive in the first place. I’m talking, of course, about my giant cock. I buried my giant cock.

About a month later, Denise began officially dating Tom, as we all sort of assumed the case would be. I had never met him, but I hated his guts. Which, normally I don’t endorse hating the person your ex- leaves you for, because the ex- was the one who made the decision, not the other dude. But when your ex- leaves you for a slickster in a rockabilly band who looks like Leo from Twin Peaks, you may hate him at will.

Back when Denise and I were madly in love, we had chosen our entire class schedule together. Not a day went by that we didn’t see each other, even during the tense few weeks following the breakup. The best of these classes was our film class, which had a screening every Wednesday night. One Wednesday shortly after we split up, Denise called me to tell me that Tom was visiting and he was coming to the movie with her that night.

“So I understand if you don’t want to sit together,” she said.

It was the perfect setup for me to regain a shred of my tattered dignity. This joker might have stolen my girl, but I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of thinking that I was avoiding him. 

“I’d love to meet him,” I said. “How would you and Tom like to come over before the movie and smoke a bowl with me?”

“Um, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Denise asked.

“Totally,” I said. “It is a totally good idea.”

And so it came to pass that I smoked a bowl with my ex-girlfriend and the man she left me for. Tom seemed like a nice guy, but he was no match for my superior intellect and impressive weed-smoking abilities. I was on my A-game, cracking jokes and appearing for all the world to be the hostess with the mostest. (Sidenote: Autocorrect just changed that to “moistest,” which I kinda prefer.) 1/2 an hour into the encounter, Tom and I were the best of friends. So skilled was my performance that he barely even blinked as I pulled out a knife and thrust it into his trachea.

Not quite. But I did get my revenge. Once we were well-stoned, my eyes wandered over to a tiny cowboy hat that was hanging on the living-room door handle. I rose from the couch and grabbed the hat.

“Look at this tiny hat,” I said.

“Huh huh huh,” said Tom.

“You would look awesome in this tiny hat,” I said.

“Hell yeah!” Tom agreed. “Gimme that thing.”

I handed him the hat. He put it on. 

“That is hilarious,” I said. “You know what would be even more hilarious? It would be even more hilarious f you wore that tiny hat to the movie.”

“Huh huh huh,” he said. “That would be even more hilarious.”

And he totally did it! He did it. He may have been sleeping with the love of my life. He may have been a rockabilly rockster with cool hair who probably went on to have a far more successful career than I have had. But I made him wear a fucking tiny cowboy hat in public.

And that, my friends, is the Ultimate Sweet Revenge.

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Story of the Day: 1-19-11


The Ultimate Sweet Revenge: Part 2

It quickly became clear to everyone but me that this relationship was not going to last. Any relationship with that much of a power imbalance is not going to be healthy. I worshipped the ground Denise walked on; to her, I was good enough for the time being if a little out of shape and sort of annoyingly clingy. It was only a matter of time before things got weird. About three months, to be precise.

Denise’s best friend from high school went to college in Kalamazoo, and Denise would visit her there every few weeks. A few weeks into our senior year, I started hearing about these two guys in a rockabilly band. “You’d love them,” she’d say. “They’re so funny.” I was pretty sure I would not love them and they were not that funny. Still, I kept my opinions to myself, knowing that Denise was a delicate flower and all I had to do was act a little wacky for her to fly out of my hand and into the pompadoured hair of some rockabilly asshole.

One weekend, the guys were coming to Ann Arbor to visit. I wanted to be cool about the whole thing, so I called Denise early on Friday evening. “Hey,” I said. “I know Bill and Tom [maybe their real names; I don’t really remember] are coming into town tonight. I’d love to meet them! I think we’d really get along well. So, let me know what you’re doing and I can come meet up with you!” 

Denise did not call me all evening. This was before the age of cell phones. It was even before the age of pagers. My only option was to leave messages on her home phone, which I did repeatedly, in a manner that became increasingly more frantic and desperate as the night wore on. 

I barely slept that night, knowing these two other guys had come into town to poach my girlfriend and didn’t even have the decency to meet me and shake my hand before they did so. At about 8:00 in the morning, I couldn’t take it any longer. I drove my beat up Toyota Tercel over to Denise’s house and let myself in.

Everyone was still asleep when I arrived. It was 8:00 in the morning and we were in college. I crept up the stairs to her bedroom, my heart pounding in my chest. I don’t know where else my heart would pound. That is where it’s located. 

I swung open the door to her bedroom and my heart leapt out of my chest and dropped to the ground with a nasty, bloody splat. Denise was lying in her bed, and she was not alone. One of the two hilarious rockabilly bastards — I wasn’t sure which one — was curled up next to my girlfriend, looking awful cozy. 

Denise’s eyes fluttered open and caught mine. I closed the door and walked down to the kitchen. Keeping my nerves in check as best as I could, I stepped over to the refrigerator and calmly poured myself a glass of orange juice. 

A moment later, Denise ran down the stairs after me.

“It’s not what it looks like,” she said. “I wasn’t about to make him sleep on the couch.”

Of course! Why would she?

After a long night of desperation and heart-vomiting, I knew what I had to do. I would be calm, cool, and collected. I would be mature and nonchalant. I only had one chance to play the situation exactly right, to grab hold of the reins of power and show her that I could step up and be a man when the situation called for it. 

“Denise,” I said. “I think we should break up.”

And with that, I slammed the rest of my orange juice and walked out of the house.

— to be continued —

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Story of the Day: 1-18-11


The Ultimate Sweet Revenge: Part 1

I was so in love with Denise I couldn’t stand it. I was still dating my high school girlfriend when I met her, my sophomore year of college. My high school girlfriend assumed I was in love with her, because Denise was beautiful and fun and liked to smoke pot and pretty much everyone was in love with her. I always insisted that I had no interest in her, but I was lying. I continued to date the high school girlfriend all that year and the next, secretly pining away for Denise the entire time.

I lived down the hall from Denise sophomore year. Junior year, I lived in a house with her. It was pretty obvious how I felt about her, but she was polite enough to pretend that we were just really good friends. I was just biding my time, though, waiting for the moment when I could pounce.

The perfect window never seemed to arise. When I met her, she was dating a guy from her high school, who was cute and had long hair and I wanted to hate him but he was such a nice guy that I really liked him but also secretly I hated him. Then when we moved in together she started dating another guy with dreadlocks who sold weed and I think his whole appeal was that he always had weed. It was a pretty compelling character trait at that stage of our lives. For every occasion when one is supposed to give his girlfriend a romantic present, he would give her weed. Only he’d put it in a really fancy box.

Senior year, Denise and I moved into different houses. She lived with five other girls in a house about a mile away. I stayed in the same house with Josh and four of our other close guy friends moved in.

The summer in-between junior year and senior year, I lived with a family in France on a student exchange program. Before I left, I explained to my high school girlfriend that things were different in Europe and I needed to be free to experience the French lifestyle and everything it had to offer, like making out with sorority girls who were on the exchange program with me. My girlfriend reluctantly gave me a pass for the summer, which must have been really hard for her. It was a total dick request. I should have just broken up with her. But we’d been together for five years and I had no idea how to break up with someone. So I pushed the breakup into the future and went on my European adventure with the full intention of ending it for good once I came back.

I was not as popular in France as I’d presumed I would be. There was a sophomore who I kissed at the bar some nights, but it was obvious to both of us that we would not have had anything in common had fate not tossed us together in a town where only 15 other people who spoke our language. 

So when I returned to Michigan, I got together with the high school girlfriend right away and slept with her that night. I knew I didn’t want to be with her any longer at the time, but she was the only person in the world who was willing to sleep with me and so I took advantage of her kindness. It was not my proudest moment, and when I broke up with her a week later, she was understandably crushed. She spent the summer suffering alone in Michigan while I pursued loose French women, and then I returned, had sex with her, and dumped her a week later. She hated me after that, and for all I know, she still hates me to this day. I wouldn’t blame her. I would hate me, too.

For my part, I moved on pretty quickly. A few weeks after I returned, I visited Denise at her mom’s house in Port Huron and we finally hooked up. Years of hard work and patience and being a weasel to my girlfriend had paid off. I had returned from my France trip a suave, sophisticated man of the world, the kind of guy who knew how to get anything his heart desired. I was finally worthy of the longstanding object of my affections, and I was convinced we were destined to be together forever.

—to be continued —

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Story of the Day: 1-17-11


Bring Out the Freaks

My first long-term girlfriend in New York was a woman named Bethann. I met her through my friends who worked with her. She made videos and listened to cool music and had dyed hair and talked like a real New Yawker and all of these things I found immensely appealing. 

Bethann hung out with a group of people known collectively as the Vic Thrill Salon. Their leader was a gentleman named Billy Campion, who went by the stage name Vic Thrill. A few years before I met him, Billy had been the frontman for a band called the Bogmen that gained a huge cult following in New York and were signed to Epic for some ungodly amount of money during the 90s alternative boom and recorded a few albums that didn’t meet the label’s expectations and partied a little too hard and were bought out of their contract by their label for another ungodly sum. Billy took his portion of the payoff and sobered up and built a recording studio in a used gas station in the (then) mostly-Hasidic part of Williamsburg. He lived almost entirely off the grid for several years and showered with a garden hose because he both lived and worked in the gas station which lacked the proper bathing facilities.

Billy was (and is … I don’t mean to talk about him like he’s dead … he’s still performing and has a kid and is doing very well by all accounts) a very charismatic and talented figure and he managed to assemble a crack team of misfits to help him execute his never-ending supply of grandiose ideas. Bethann was one of these misfits, and so through her, I met a number of strange characters who became a regular part of my social life for the rest of my time in New York.

The Vic Thrill crew were not hipsters, although there are those who might credit them with helping to usher in the hipster era. They were freaks. Honest-to-goodness 1969 Merry Prankster freaks who dressed in weird clothes and built their own instruments out of garbage and ate like birds and threw strange parties in strange places that should have terrified me but somehow seemed like exactly where I needed to be at the time. It sounds incredibly decadent, but there was an unexpected sort of wholesomeness to the scene. They weren’t all on drugs, as one might expect … most of the people were sober, in fact. They got high by being weird.

I was always on the periphery of the scene, because I was never able to commit to freakdom full-tilt. I’m more of a vicarious freak. I like knowing people who are willing to commit to being on the outskirts of society, but given the choice between artistic integrity and dinner, I’m doing whatever it takes to get that spaghetti.

I suppose this doesn’t really count as a story, but it’s good background info for later stories involving the denizens of the Vic Thrill Salon which I’m sure I will share in the future. You may have heard one of the stories already on This American Life. If you haven’t, I highly encourage you head over there and listen to it, because they tell it much better than I do. Also, it took place before I knew any of these people. I always miss out on the cool stuff.

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