Not My Friends

The kid pinged me in the middle of the day — a fan of “The Gray Zone.” Sure, he got the title of my audio drama wrong. We corresponded over social media for about a month. He insisted I made great radio. He told me one of his family members had died. I reached out and I wished him well and I said that he could get in touch with me directly if he needed to. Then he blocked me.

That’s usually the way it happens. It’s been like this for over fifteen years. Some reader stumbles upon an old essay I wrote or an interview I did and thinks I’m brilliant. For about a month, I’m “a genius.” (I am honored by the praise, but I assure you that I am anything but this and have the middling track record to prove this.) I ask about the reader. Because I’m interested in people and I try to be polite. Then the fan backtracks and drops me, sometimes with a curt and nasty goodbye.

I won’t name the person who was inspired to start an entire literary operation from scratch, the person who looked up to me in person and elsewhere, and then declared that he was better than me and stopped talking. He may very well be better than me. That’s not for me to judge. I’m too busy being competitive with myself. But abandonment does hurt. Especially after you go out of your way to help someone.

A few months ago, I had to end a friendship of many years after the friend, who borrowed one of the microphones I used for The Bat Segundo Show to make a podcast, completely disrespected me as a person. When did the disrespect start? You guessed it. The minute that he started making podcasts. I patiently listened to him in a bar as he denigrated my craft and insulted the very art I made. He demeaned my love of genre as “Rick and Morty shit.” I made the mistake of thinking that this was loving derision. Maybe he was going through a stage where he needed to denigrate me in order to live. I try to be patient with people. But I soon saw the truth after many months of this, confronted him about this, received a condescending response back, and then dropped him.

By contrast, I informed another friend how I felt about the way she diminished a painful experience in my life. And she was nothing but kind and apologetic, while still holding her ground and telling me the truth and pointing out how I overreacted. (She was right.) This is what real friends do.

The people who read your work are not your friends. Even when they think you are.

Yesterday, I received twenty-three death threats because of a pugilistic piece I wrote. A new record of hate. Many of these came from journalists. Apparently, my piece had made the rounds in a few private circles. These people have read me for years and continue to keep tabs, despite vowing “never to read Ed again. ” I’ve never met any of them, but they seem to think that they know everything about me when there’s a lot that I do and that I haven’t actually found the stones to write about. They seem to think that the man on the other end of the screen is running around Brooklyn with an axe, shouting obscenities at the top of his lungs. In the past, I’ve telephoned these people and put on a performance so they could leave me alone. The regular version of me is quiet and kind, when he’s not passionate and exuberant. And if they’re going to get me wrong, they may as well get me more wrong.

Besides I’m a novelty act anyway. I’m that man you’re so dazzled with at the party but who you never get to know. I was talking with a friend just the other night about the dreadful phrase “You’re a snack” and how I’ve never liked it because it denigrates people. (I dated a woman who said “You’re a snack.” I replied, “Well, baby, you’re a three-course dinner!” We weren’t dating two weeks later.) The point I’m trying to make here is that most writers are seen as snacks. It never occurs to the reader that there is a soul beyond the words. You write a vituperative essay and you’re declared nothing but vituperative. You sing a song about loneliness and the audience remarks upon how the guitar player is always sad. This superficial impression is, incidentally, what allows so many sociopathic writers to be hailed as nice guys. Some of them have even won the Pulitzer Prize.

But something else happens when a fan starts making art and knows you. It is almost always held in comparison to yours — much in the way, I suppose, that young men used to retype pages of Hemingway — and used as a yardstick. Suddenly, something you spent so much time putting together so that it would read or sound seamless is “easy.” And you end up being denigrated or dumped.

And the illusion still holds with these people.

I’ve had people who went out of their way to spread hate and misinformation about me send me fan letters years later. As if I don’t have a record and a memory of how they hurt me. As if I couldn’t possibly have feelings. As if I couldn’t possibly be human.

I’m not here to argue my case for being human. You’ve already made up your mind. But if you and I aren’t true friends, I can guarantee that you’re very wrong about me. And that’s fine. As the old saying goes, it’s your loss, not mine.

Just a Poker Game

On the evening of December 4, 2008, I came to realize that the next day would be December 5, 2008. This date, in and of itself, did not puzzle me, although it bears some minor importance to me for personal reasons I won’t bore you with. I began to recognize that the day would drift into another a little more than two hours before the stroke of midnight. The recognition of this change came after a long day of work, in which I had fallen fast asleep after I had committed approximately eleven hours (perhaps more) of creative labor. It also came after I watched, for the first time, an episode of The Office on an actual television, as opposed to some illicit download with the advertisements stripped. Now I had not watched an episode of anything on television for quite some time, and there seemed to me more commercials than were absolutely necessary. Whether the strange amalgam of television comedy and commercials caused me to dwell upon the shifting day, I do not know. I only know that I was trying to zone out and that I was trying to do so in a way that was similar to how other people who worked nine-to-five jobs lived their lives.

A friend from another nation whom I had not seen in two and a half years had been staying with us, and he was a bit stunned by how I had changed. He decided to leave at the last moment for a bed and breakfast, but never offered me a specific reason or a goodbye. His wife had ordered him away. I have not yet met my friend’s wife, and I would like to. But I do know that he had come on a plane before her, stayed with us, and the two of us had imbibed quite a bit of Jim Beam. I knew what I was getting into, but I felt the crushing hangover from this crazed carousing the next morning and it nearly killed me, but I pressed on with my labor. It’s what I do. I had two interviews to conduct. This type of labor was foreign to my friend. He was shocked to see me up at 6:00 AM, and stood at attention when I made coffee and secured bagels to ensure that everyone would have some breakfast to get through the day. But he didn’t understand that I had to work, and that I was committed to my strange job, as low-paying (and often non-paying) as it is.

More than a decade ago, I thought my friend was helping me. He encouraged a shy kid to be true to himself. He was kind to me, and I tried to be as kind as I could right back. I got a late start, but I got a start nonetheless, and I am grateful to him. But now that I have become truer to who I am, I’m wondering if I was actually helping him. Did he see something in me, even in a prototypical form, that might have been a clue to his own identity? In all these years, has he been hiding behind something that is not what he is, but that, in a great twist of irony, helped me to become who I am? This unexpected understanding has made me feel treacherous in some way, but I know that it’s not my fault.

The late John Leonard once said that it takes a long time to grow new friends, but what he didn’t observe was that it sometimes takes a much longer time for older friends to come to terms with how they’ve changed, and that sometimes the divide can’t be crossed. We become lost and occupied in our baroque lives, reuniting with longtime pals after many years and regularly hanging out with the current friends within our circles. Sometimes, the gaps between years are negligible, and it’s easy to pick up where things left off. It’s like a pleasant game of poker in which all the hands have remained face-down on the table, and the players have had the decency not to look at the cards. Despite the thick film of dust that has settled upon the green felt, all the participants play the game through. But there are other times in which the moment has passed, and some don’t wish to marvel at the great changes in others. It’s just an old card game that can’t be reinvented, rethought, or improved upon. And the cards languish until they are reshuffled by other parties. But it’s still a great pity that the people before never finished their game. As old as poker is, it can still conclude any number of ways. And even if you lose the current hand, you might win on the next one. It’s only a pleasant card game. Nothing competitive. Just a good way of getting to know another person. Even the ones you thought you understood.