The Limits of Escapism

I should be laughing and shaking off the sediment. Feeling joy roiling from my rouse heart. Finding a liminal space to land. The television show I am streaming is comedic and should make me happy in theory, but it is too close to a life I once lived, one now presently impossible to live. The images are too vivid, too palpable, too recognizably amateurish, frustratingly reproducible only nine months before. I wish I could succumb to this work of art, giving myself over to it completely. I see what it is trying to do and, deep down, I commend it. In another year, I would be chortling over its clever premise and singing its praises and telling anyone who will listen to me that this is something that speaks the truth and is worth the journey. But I can’t. And I feel ashamed that I cannot give this show the attention it clearly deserves. As the ghosts of how I once lived melt across my monitor, as the images of a quotidian life that will not be possible for at least another year haunt my starved soul, I feel the tug of deep grief. And I am shocked to find myself crying.

This wasn’t the case a few months ago. Who knows how I’ll react six months from now?

These days, I can’t handle the images of New Yorkers slapping each other on the back and talking within inches of each other. The casual cigarette exchanged from one person to another just outside a bar. The hugs. All the hugs. All the physical contact. The kissing. The banter. The ability to walk into a random building and get into trouble and have an adventure. The small talk. The eccentrics and the true originals in the subway. The packed elevators. All of this is now gone. Sure, you can find bits of it here and there. There are still buskers in the Village. There are still dependable outliers shouting obscenities in the streets. There are still friends you can see if both of you take a rapid test the day before and the results are negative and you haven’t seen anyone for a week. But even then you are taking a calculated risk. You see people escaping the cold into enclosed tents with heat lamps, tempting fate as they drop their masks for a meal and the underpaid and undertipped waitstaff nervously serves them, some of them terrified out of their minds. Outdoor dining was fine when there was plenty of air and you could feel the warm sun pour onto your skin and you felt that the setup was reasonably safe for you and the servers who braved this new world. But despite many enticing invites, I can’t bring myself to take the plunge for this new “outdoor dining,” which is decidedly indoor.

We all know that existence won’t be fully restored for a while. Yet we try to live anyway, often forgetting that we are in a pandemic.

After ten minutes of watching the show, I can’t watch any more. I’ve reached my limit. Perhaps it is the documentary quality that is too real. Perhaps I recognize myself as a potential participant within the frame. What I know is that I cannot escape into a world that bears strong resemblance to what my universe used to be. If I am seeing New York from twenty years ago, it sits sufficiently enough in the past for me to enjoy it. If it is science fiction or fantasy, particularly if there are preposterous creatures, even better. But if it is true to me, if there is a strong likelihood that I could meet and know these people in my former regular life, then I find my heart pleating and retreating, tightening into a balled bundle of wistful tension. I can read books and listen to podcasts. Because I am using my imagination and using my memory on my own terms. But the stark visuals of once ubiquitous panoramas are just too much.

I am fatigued by the screens. I have grown exhausted by the Zoom meetings. If there is a potential romantic partner, I insist on voice only for that vital vetting. Because the voice is as close to human presence as we can get these days. It’s a ludicrous burden to get dressed up and tidy up everything that’s going to be within the camera’s range if you’re not even going to meet. Better to talk with a prospective paramour in your boxers. Or nothing at all if you’re spending the endless days going commando.

It goes without saying that we were never meant to live such a disembodied life. Theatre has survived for centuries because there is no better substitute for emotional intimacy other than face-to-face contact. Our best moments happen in the flesh. And that is no longer possible.

The reason so many of us have ordered so many items by mail is not merely because we need them. It is not blind consumerism. It is not merely because there’s a certain comfort in getting a new item by mail. A new item in the mail is like a present, particularly if one forgets ordering it, which is often what happens to me. If we can’t have other people, what we can have in our lives is something tangible, something we can touch. I ordered a dozen board games just so I could feel the cards and grasp the tokens and roll the dice and clomp around the splayed out board as if I had four other friends in my apartment. (I was fortunate to have a friend come by to play some of these games with me. But, for the most part, I’m carrying out imagined multiplayer scenarios on my own. This is ridiculous and possibly a little pathetic.)

Home used to be something you returned to. Now it is a place you stay. For living. For work. And no matter how comfortable or ideal your home may be, no matter how much you have, there comes a point for anyone in which escapism has its limits. How many of us will crack permanently before we have a nationally distributed vaccine?

Work Ethic

We tell ourselves that there is virtue in hard work. That if we push ourselves beyond our limits, it will somehow pay off. But there’s always some con man out there who can get you: a villian who is willing to punch lower than his colleagues, who knows no bottom level of cruelty, and who defies the baseline of what any decent human being should never do.

It happened to me. And I hate myself for it. I was fleeced. Of my pride. Of my confidence. Of my identity. I fell victim to an identity thief because I wanted to believe that I was worth something. Because I wanted to believe that I was good. Because I try to have faith in people. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a work ethic that rivals a Victorian sweathouse. Well, that work ethic is gone. And I don’t know when I’ll find it again. I feel raped. Listless. Unemployable. My future gone. My potential extinguished.

It wasn’t always like this.

I’d started the year with such promise. I had turned my life around. I was in demand. People were hiring me. Recognizing my talent. Seeing that I was a fun and decent man. And they were employing me at what I was best at doing. What I loved doing. What I’d be doing anyway even if there wasn’t a paycheck attached. Audio production. Writing. What I lived and breathed. What I poured all my heart and soul into.

After six years of toiling without complaint at office jobs, I’d finally summoned the courage to freelance again, stumbling onto the magic formula that allowed me to pay my rent. I was cleaning up copy for a television network. I was serving as a story consultant for a podcast in development. I was writing voiceover scripts. It all happened so fast. February now seems so long ago, but it’s important to remember that, before wearing a mask became part of the social contract, it felt like a time in which you could do anything. The editors I spoke with over the phone loved me. I felt like the luckiest man alive. Not only was I immensely grateful for all of these opportunities, but this work gave me pride. Meaning. Purpose. Hope. Faith. Friends noticed I was so much calmer and more pleasant to be around. I honored the universe’s generosity by working myself to the bone. By being the kindest and most thoughtful man I could be. By being the guy you really wanted to have on your team.

Then the pandemic hit. And all the gigs evaporated.

I had some savings. So I decided to ride my way through the pandemic. It would only last a few months, right? I worked twelve hour days. I didn’t want a pandemic, much less anything, to stop me. I edited and released thirteen episodes of my audio drama, sometimes summoning my then girlfriend (now friend) to record some goofy background characters. She was more of a natural ham than she knew. And I wanted her to be included in my creative life.

A writer friend -– bless her soul for her mischievous machinations –- egged me on to write fiction. So I wrote a 75,000 word draft of a wild comedic novel in three months. I would spring from bed at 5 AM and write, accompanied by my girlfriend’s cat, who would often lay at my feet as I typed. The cat had become one of my biggest fans. When I finished another 1,000 word installment, I would read the latest chapter of my book-in-progress to my girlfriend, often offering a breakfast in bed option, watching her smile and observing the points where she laughed, which was often, for later revision. Then I would edit my audio drama for another eight hours or so before cutting myself off from my creative labor to make dinner and spend quality time with my girlfriend. She was a savvy news junkie who was good enough to fill me in on the latest developments. We looked after each other for weeks. Beta readers – including a number of published authors who are not easy to impress — told me how much my writing had improved and how this novel was going to be the skeleton key for people to finally understand my oddball empathy-driven soul. Beta listeners offered similar feedback on my dramatizations for the ear. So I stayed busy. I worked. I made things. I found peace in making things. There were a few nights in which I drank too much wine. But who didn’t buckle a little bit under the pressure? I kept at it.

But I had a finite amount of savings. I needed a job. I couldn’t keep at this forever.

It turned out that my girlfriend and I worked better as friends than lovers. It was nobody’s fault. I returned to Brooklyn in late April, feeling ashamed for fleeing my beloved neighborhood. This was my city. This was the place that turned me into a workhorse. This was the city that made me. It was also the city that had nearly ruined me. But I found the resilience and the humility to bounce back. And the city rewarded me for my pluck. Because that is the covenant of living in New York. If you work your ass off here, you will make it.

There came a point in early summer in which I knew I would need to look for work. I had once pulled myself out of homelessness and into a marvelous one bedroom apartment through sheer tenacity and indefatigable resilience. My life could be summed up as a historical record of overcoming countless challenges. Surely, I could emerge victorious over this one.

And so I applied to jobs.

330 jobs, according to my spreadsheet.

Mostly nothing back. Sometimes a form rejection letter.

The toughest job hunt of my life.

In October, I came very close to landing a dream job as an audio producer. It was down to me and another person. I busted my ass to show that I was the best. I sent endless show notes and ideas and audio cuts and guest lists. I carried on as if I had the job already. The executive producer – a very kind and talented journalist — was impressed. But he went with the other person. To come so close to something I was so right for and to not get it. Well, it was crushing. But I was greatly honored to have been considered and to have made it as far as I did.

Still, I was demoralized. Back to square one.

Enter the scammer one week after I learned that I didn’t get the producer job. He had enough information for me to corroborate against the company’s website. The COO’s name was Ed Sople. “Ed Sople” was also the name of the scammer. The company was Dellbrook JKS. The address he used matched up. The logo he used matched up. The names he used matched up. It seemed curious to me that he never wanted to talk on the phone. I actually left a voicemail for the real Ed Sople, pleasantly introducing myself as his new data wrangler, but he never called me back. I figured that the guy was just some weird eccentric in Massachusetts who didn’t like to use the phone.

The con man promised me a job. A job that would pay my rent and carry me through 2021. It turned out to be a lie and a scam. I learned later that the guy had bamboozled three other people. He used a Gmail and a Telegram account. I reported the account to both. But, of course, I never received an acknowledgment from either company. And there is, of course, no phone number at either Google or Telegram that I can call. No person I can speak to. That’s how these scammers operate. They find the services in which they can’t be shut down because these libertarian techbros believe they know best and extirpate all customer service options. And the scammers steal from victims with impunity.

The racket was this. You get an offer letter that you sign so that the scammer has your signature. You give out your address and phone number, as well as a copy of your driver’s license – which is natural, because you generally need to submit two forms of identification for a job anyway. You are told that you’re going to get a check in the mail to set up a home office for a remote position. You receive a list of equipment. But the check in the mail doesn’t arrive. The scammer says that the department is going to send along a debit card. That never arrives. You ask about direct deposit. But that somehow isn’t an option. Then the scammer asks if you have a credit card and says that he wants to wire you $5,000 into your account. Could you send the front and the back of the credit card?

I needed the job. But this was a huge red flag. So I sent him the front and back of the card and called my credit card company to cancel it. Once, the scammer had my card, he then asked me for the last four digits of my social security number. I asked if this was something I could give him over the phone.

I called Dellbroook. Heard back from the real Sople and the human resources person. It was a scam. A scam they knew about. A scam that they haven’t reported on their website to help protect other victims.

I was smart enough to catch on to the scammer before he had too many of my details. But I still feel so incredibly stupid to have been suckered along as long as I was. He had enough of my details to do some damage if he wanted to. I’ve spent the last 24 hours cancelling credit cards and talking with the authorities when not drowning myself in Maker’s Mark. Because I’m too hurt, too wounded right now to go through the terrible process of applying to jobs I’m highly overqualified for and hearing nothing back. But I have no other choice. I need a job. But then so does everyone. I can’t get through to the New York unemployment people through the telephone or the website. In a world in which scammers have no shame and a deadly virus is unstoppable because too many maskless yahoos believe they are immune, you’d think that there would be reliable resources to provide for the people. But there isn’t. Because the new way of life is government leaving people in the cold. Letting them starve. Letting them die.

And I’m angry. This scammer stole weeks of my life that I could have spent job hunting. Vital weeks before the holidays. Weeks that count that are now gone.

I am debt-free right now. Next month, I won’t be. I weep knowing that I may be facing a significant financial hole through no fault of my own. I’m a hard worker. I don’t want to owe anyone a thing. When I got a job after a nervous breakdown, the first thing I did was pay back anyone who had ever given any money to me during my tough times. I worked hard to pull myself out of debt over two years after losing everything I had. I lived like a starving grad student. Skimped out on anything really to get the balance to zero as swiftly as possible.

I know others have it much worse off than I do. And I feel ashamed to complain. But if I don’t say anything, I’ll never be able to discover some shred of self-respect. Other people have invented lies about me online, even weaponizing these fictions on social media to strip me of any dignity and to belittle my work. But this scammer went one step beyond the cyberbullies. He made me believe that I was worth something. And now I don’t know if I’m worth anything at all. What’s the point of having a work ethic if the people who hold the purse strings tell you that you have no value? In 2020, a work ethic is no better than an empty whiskey bottle.

“I Have Friends” — The Trump Must Leave Remix

I’m a huge fan of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Rachel Bloom. I’m also a huge fan of anything that will get the now gray-haired monster from 1600 Pennyslvania Avenue.

So with apologies to Ms. Bloom, here is a remix/parody of “I Have Friends” — a song that seems peculiarly applicable in this epoch of contending with a raging narcissist who can’t leave the White House gracefully.

The Pool

It is an onyx pit fluttering with the choppy crashes of ice cold hurt. Crisp currents forged from happenstance and happiness and past decisions and mistakes you can’t take back or atone for. For all its apparent fluidity, the pool is hard and dark and unforgiving and it will drag you into its eddies and maelstroms like a stranger with bad motives if you’re not careful. The sick thing about the pool is that it is always familiar. It was, after all, you who made the pool first splash. The water arrived the moment you first began to live. But you can never see the edges. The pool has no discernible dimensions. Land? An optical illusion as phony as time, but it does crop up every so often. You do your best to swim through the muck, to evade the stings of jellyfish, to dodge the barnacles that can pull you under the water. As the years pass and your limbs atrophy, it becomes less easy to negotiate the pool, although, as a French chemist once pointed out, chance favors the prepared mind. The swimmer becomes more invisible and less loved and can sink to the bottom if he is not careful. The opportunities to build a boat likewise dry up. Because too many people want to horde the wood found on sylvan archipelagos. What keeps you swimming in the pool is anything that remains of your energy and your vitality and your character, which sometimes translates into love and resilience and connection but not always. It’s often very lonely to swim. It really is. But you swim. Because it’s either that or drowning. The pool knows damn well that it was forged from all of your earlier wades and breaststrokes. It knows that there were friends and lovers who once swam with you, friends and lovers who now swim in their own pools. The pool knows that it’s luck that matters above choice. The pool taunts you at night with loud laughs from the waves and whirls. Eidolons. Spectres. But you swim. And you’re amazed that you’re still able to do so. Because there are some days in which you’re so close to drowning.

The Nightmare is Over

Today was the first day in which I felt proud to be an American since 2016. Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States. With his sweeping victories in Georgia, Pennyslvania, Nevada, and Arizona, Biden won several states that seemed beyond him — often by a razor-thin margin — and defeated the menace that had threatened to permanently destroy democracy.

The mood here in Brooklyn was one of jubilation. Cars honked for hours. People danced in the street. As I did my laundry, an exuberant Jamaican woman offered hilarious commentary to accompany what came from the television. It was the same television in which I had witnessed Hillary Clinton concede while folding my shirts in hopeless tears. Grand Army Plaza was thronged with jumping bystanders feeling a wave of possibility that I haven’t witnessed since Obama took office in 2008.

There still remains much that is uncertain. Namely, whether the Democrats will take the Senate. Two Georgia seats are heading into a twin runoff race. There have been whispers from Alaska about Dr. Al Gross having a mail-in shot. Even Cal Cunningham in North Carolina is behind now by only 95,739 votes, with 2% of the ballots left to count.

But somehow the hard details don’t matter today. Today, we restored dignity and empathy to the Presidency. And this was no small battle. As an American, I feel that we have a strong shot at regaining democracy again and maybe even listening to each other. And I know that everybody I talked to in the streets of Brooklyn felt the same way.

I don’t feel any desire to punch at or mention the man who Biden is replacing. Frankly, that man is digging his own grave by refusing to concede or to even leave the White House with dignity. One feels that a giant marshmallow has deflated and melted. And it’s a strange feeling given how much of a threat he was only last week. He’ll probably pull a few shenanigans in the next 75 days. But what we can confidently say is this: The system held. The republic endured. People made compromises and knew who they needed to stand behind. Let us hope that this spirit of unity holds into the new year and the new presidential administration.