Summary of 2015

Probably the most unsettling part of this informal retrospective of 2015, as you jot it on a notepad at Starbucks, is that you find yourself writing these exhaustively detailed notes about a departmental merge that took place at work in the middle of the year — this ostensibly temporary job that you’ve now inhabited for two years. It isn’t even interesting. Why are you writing so much about it?

So OK, here’s one last realization for 2015: it’s time to quit your job.


You go on a date with somebody you met on Tinder. Drink three whiskeys while she eats a salad (extra croutons) and recounts for you a controversy that unfolded on The Bachelor and why, on moral grounds, she refuses to watch it as even just a guilty pleasure anymore.

Later that week you delete Tinder.


On New Year’s Eve you’re at a bar as one of only seven customers. Everybody gets free champagne at midnight. You climb on the bar and then fall off, shattering a flute, and the sad-looking man three stools down smiles when you hit the floor and says, “Please do that again.”


As the year starts out you’re finishing up a book you’ve been working on for several years and you’re involved, in a complicated way, with a spindly brunette who quotes Macbeth when she’s drunk and fans her face with big saucerlike hands whenever she gets excited. The two of you drink a lot together, and fight, but it’s a good time.

Then you finish your book, and the girl moves to another city, and your drinking slows down and you quit the worse of your two jobs and go back to the gym. Life seems to reset.


After revising the book twice you start sending it out to agents; excerpting little sections that might pass for short stories and sending those bits out to magazines.

Twenty agents say no.

One says maybe. She asks for more pages, so you send her some more pages, and then two weeks later she says no.

You hold out hope for the excerpts, at least. The stories. But the magazines say no, too. They say, like the agents before them, to not take this rejection personally. “Please don’t,” etc. Because, they say, there’re a million factors and the majority of stories they turn away are rejected for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the writing. So really. Don’t feel bad.

One of these rejections begins, “Dear Aaron.”


You do get discouraged, though. How could you not?

One day over lunch your dad prompts you to explain why you’re so discouraged. And so you go on. Talk about the poor quality of the prose and the overall shoddiness of this thing you’ve written and “the fiction market” this, “the fiction market” that, fears about something you read online and so on, so on.

He listens. Tells you to lighten up. Points at your drink: “And you shouldn’t get into the habit of drinking a beer with lunch.”


For a couple weeks you can hear your own heartbeat whenever you get too idle. You start feeling it in your ears — which are constantly hot. After going to the Miami International Book Fair on its opening morning, and actually seeing the reverberation of your heartbeat in the flesh of your stomach, you freak out. Go to Urgent Care. Then Urgent Care sends you to the hospital. Electrodes are glued to you, and you panic. Blood is drawn, and you faint. An x-ray is taken and various tests are run and when finally you see a doctor she scans the results and shrugs and says you should probably just calm down.

An hour later, over Thai food, your dad nods. “Really, though,” he says, “you gotta lighten up.”


You become active on Twitter. In the wake of your book’s completion, rich with rejection, you start a new project on (and find solace in) YouTube. After a month of work on this project you feel good, busy, but find that even just reading a few lines of your book can sour your mood for a whole day.

Start writing other things. One of those things gets published, and you dedicate it to the spindly Shakespearean with the wide hands.  You start work on a new book.


At an Italian restaurant in the Gables you’re sharing a booth with a girl who doesn’t live here and she sighs a lot, looks around, and when finally she gets her menu she flips it open and tells you in a near-whisper, without looking up, “Since I know you’re not gonna kiss me I’m gonna go ahead and get something with garlic.”


Next year there’s a new Cormac McCarthy book coming out, which is exciting, and you should have a new job and should be well into the next book and you suspect, in optimistic moments, that you’ll’ve gotten a better angle on the agent thing. On publishing. Either way: you should probably lighten up.

Here’s to the best.



Summary of August, 2015

Last call and the bar tender’s telling you about this older married couple who keep coming by on weeknights and chatting her up, inviting her out, boasting of their money and of the luxuries they’ll bestow, of their yacht and two sports cars and lavish meals each night.

Manager pulls her away for a moment. Some problem with the register. While she’s over there trying to fix it the manager comes back to where you’re sitting and, after a quick and heavy pour, hands you an egregious amount of whisky and with arms folded he leans back against the liquor display. Tells you with a smirk and a hard stare to “Go on, drink it all, one gulp. Come on. Something to put on your blog.”

A girl who’s stood you up three times before gets in touch to say she’s back from out of town. She asks if you’d like to go for a drink on Saturday and, since you’ve never passed a stove you didn’t touch, plans are made.

To your surprise and delight, she shows up. The two of you meet at a bookstore and then cross the street for a drink, small talk along the way, and meanwhile, like a match dropped into oil, your anxiety ignites to something apocalyptic and vast so that, once seated, you pull down two beers in quick succession to quell it.

Conversation at that point is going pretty well, fluent as it was when the two of you first went out six months earlier. So it appears that the booze has worked, which is great, except that it’s kind of a double-edged success in that, having been soothed by the second beer, you feel emboldened to have a third. Elixir of good conversation. Have a fourth! What could go wrong?

It isn’t until you stand up for the check and the room starts doing Inception things that you realize how drunk you are. Sit back down and, keeper of necessary information, tell this to your date. “I’m a lot drunker than I thought I was.”

“Yeah,” she says, “you had seven.” Her tone is kinda dry and maybe it isn’t so judgmental as you’re thinking but you go ahead and project things on it.

Two days later you and the date exchange pleasantries through text, pledge a mutual interest to get together again later in the week, but old habits resume, the girl goes dark, and you go on to sit thinking and talking and cringing about your fuckup at various bars over the next few days, friends lending their ears. Sleep is sparse and guilt abundant and meanwhile the Earth persists undaunted in its orbit and your dog each night is here with this look to his eyes like, “Hey. Come on.”

Your brother stops over between appointments. Sits at the kitchen counter playing with shrinkwrap and doesn’t make eye contact when he says, “Hey so have you ever tried using online dating?”

This is his way of saying that he knows you’re using online dating.

You have finished the second draft of your book and now get to be that 20-something with a part time job and an unpublished book. Laying up at night and contemplating your credit score in the same bed where you once sat contemplating your first pube.

Your dog in the middle of the night starts roaming the bed. Rising and stepping and then laying and groaning. Repeating the cycle. It’s 2 a.m.

You take him outside, thinking he’s gotta pee. There on the grass with his tail pulled tight between his legs under so much moonlight, the sky strangely purple, you see his hindquarters pitch to the right and then the rest of him goes over. He’s never collapsed before.

Get down in the grass and try bribing him to his feet with promises of every sort of enticement he knows a word for. He blinks, squinting.

Pull on your jeans and shoes and head toward the all-night animal hospital a few blocks away. All through the drive you’re talking to your dog in a perky voice as if to sooth him in his final moments but really probably just so you can feel like you’re doing something, anything, that you’re not quite so helpless while this dog you’ve had for half your life dies in your lap.

Peel into the parking lot at the strip mall where the animal hospital is, throw open the car door, unsnap your seatbelt — and this fucking dog jumps out of the car like it’s his birthday. Frolics among the pavement and grass. Latenight piss fiend, raising a leg to everything.

Take him to the vet and the vet says he’s fine. Probably arthritic. It’s 2:30 in the morning.

So you head back home and take this fucking asshole dog back to bed with you and there in the dark you squeeze him to your chest until dawn and are grateful that certain things can at least be postponed if not avoided.

Your mom, not making eye contact, digs around for something in the top shelves of her closet and calls back to you, “Hey so have you ever tried using online dating?”

This is her way of saying everyone in the family knows you’re using online dating.

Two envelopes in the mailbox amid the catalogs and flyers. Both addressed to you.

Open the first. A collection agency wants $63 for a parking ticket you got almost six months ago and have neglected to pay.

You don’t have $63. Fold the bill, put it in your back pocket.

Open the second letter: A different collection agency wants $63 for a parking ticket dated from the same week as the first one.

Take the dog back inside and keep typing.

“Oh my God.”


“You have those fucking glow-in-the-dark stars on your ceiling.”

Something you’ve been telling just about everybody this month is of a guy on reddit who, after several years in prison, still can’t shake the habit, when he sits on a toilet, of taking one leg completely out of his pants. Why? If somebody attacks you in the bathroom, and you’ve got your pants accordioned down at your ankles, you’re bound. Can’t run.

That even in prison you’ve got people worried about their constraints.

What Started As a Review of Jonathan Franzen’s New Novel, “Purity,” but Turned Into an Essay About How Terrified I Am of Other People’s Talent

While it isn’t always the case that a novel will be good just because the writer took a long time with it (Norman Mailer’s once-ridiculed and now-forgotten Ancient Evenings took eleven years to write; Faulkner took a little over a month with As I Lay Dying) there’s the hope, as Jonathan Franzen suggested in a 2011 interview with Oprah Winfrey, that the reason the writer’s taking so long with a c project is because she’s making sure she has something new to say. Not to mention the labor of saying it clearly and lyrically and well.

So when you look at Jonathan Franzen’s own track record and see that his last two novels, The Corrections (released on September 11, 2001) and Freedom (2011), each took about a decade to produce, and that both were hailed as masterpieces and Great American Novels, it’s fair, I think, to be a little wary of the fact that his new novel Purity (to be released on September 1) is just as long as those previous novels, just as complex and ambitious, but was written in only four years (during which he released two books of non-fiction: Farther Away (2012) and The Kraus Project (2014)).

But the book is good. Very good. Compulsively readable and insightful, funny and sad, and — a first for Franzen — genuinely exciting in one sub-plot about murder and another about a “misplaced” nuclear weapon.

Very very good as it is, and emphatically as I’d recommend it to almost everybody, Purity isn’t quite so Great as the last two novels. Though its scope is larger, geographically, and it manages some remarkable feats of pacing and plot-juggling that a younger Franzen might not have pulled off and stands, overall, as the work of a stronger writer than the one who wrote Freedom, and The Corrections, the story in Purity doesn’t seem as emotionally immersive as its predecessors’. Like this one maybe came more from the brain than the heart. Perhaps it’s because the gaps, in space and time, between its characters are too broad? Going from modern-day U.S. to 1980s Berlin to modern-day South America and then back to the U.S., again in the 1980s. Compare that to Freedom where, although the book goes off and spends roughly a hundred pages at a time in the company of a certain character, and the settings change and we jump around in time, you never get a sense that the characters are too far removed from each other. It feels like we’re in the same world throughout. And the feeling is intimate.

Seems to be necessary of book reviews that a summary be provided; but since, like Franzen’s last two novels, this book is comprised of several novellas that track the intertwining affairs of several characters’ lives, a summary’s hard to do. And harder, here, than it is with those previous novels because of the mystery and intrigue and plot-twisting elements in Purity that I don’t want to risk spoiling (because it’s seriously a really good book and you should definitely read it).

But the broadstrokes are these: a 24-year-old woman named Pip, to escape both a disastrously unrequited love for one of her middle-aged housemates as well as the needs of a painfully neurotic and emotionally fragile mother, joins a group of whistle-blowers in South America. The group is led by a cunnilingus-crazed, Oedipal, Dostoevskian Cassanova named Andreas, whose backstory in the German Democratic Republic is as engaging a section as anything Franzen’s ever written. Maybe the best.

Usual Franzen themes abound of family and love, the tricky relationships between people and their country, young people with strange relationships to their mothers.

Also there’s a subplot concerning a nonprofit newspaper’s efforts to get a lead on the story of a missing nuclear weapon. Not even sure how to talk about this part of the story, and Pip’s involvement, without blotting out certain surprises in the novel.

Which I really don’t wanna do because the book is terrific, I’m not kidding.

But my issue here, as somebody who reads a lot of fiction and cares a lot about it and wants/tries to write it, is that it’s hard to know exactly what to expect from Franzen at this point in his career. And I know it’s probably wrong to expect anything of an artist, that expectations are usually a hope that they’ll please you rather than just be true to themselves and do their own thing, but Franzen is a particularly interesting figure in the book scene today and so, I think, commands a bit of attention himself. This attention being merited, first, by his throne-like perch in the ranks of serious contemporary novelists and but also his great commercial success. The Corrections has sold over three million copies and Freedom probably the same.

In 1996, several years before The Corrections came out, Franzen published an essay in Harper’s (originally titled “Perchance to Dream”, later reprinted with the title “Why Bother”, but which is still mostly just referred to as “the Harper’s essay”) wherein he explores the novel’s dwindling cultural significance, the novel(ist)’s duty, and also the line between commercial and literary fiction. He talks demographics and sales figures and what seems like the hopeless fight for Americans’ attention among film and TV and literature, but he also talks about how an artist forges and preserves the integrity of her self and work, and of the idea that, if these bits of integrity are to be preserved, the artist isn’t allowed to really pay attention to the business side of things (demographics and so forth) lest she be tempted to forego her honest vision and go, instead, for the bigger payday by slaking the mass-market’s thirst for something generic and vapid and predictable (not that there’s any sort of moral component here, like an artist is suddenly a bad person to be producing stuff that’s mean to just placate a big audience, but it doesn’t do much for the culture when the only media that’s consumed is that which poses no challenge, intellectual or emotional or moral, and it certainly doesn’t help the overall discourse within the medium). That great art — if I’m reading him correctly — is usually, and perhaps necessarily, born of honest expression and that it’s risky to be totally honest when you consciously want people to buy your book because honesty is volatile, and usually less-than-sympathetic, and so runs the risk of offending or depressing or repelling your audience and thereby hurting your sales, your career, self-esteem and so on.

That there’s more integrity in honest obscurity than vapid popularity.

And yet Franzen, for The Corrections and Freedom and soon for Purity, embarks upon these huge international book tours to promote his novels and, in the process, he talks to readers. Which he says he enjoys, to an extent, and that these interactions are an influence on what he writes thereafter. Or at least how he writes it.

Not slavishly, of course; the subject matter of his novels often goes to weirder (a session of phone sex in which a woman’s clitoris stretches out and spaghettifies so as to slip down her partner’s urethra) and more esoteric places (Franzen’s general interest in science leads him into expounding on geology, or the economics of war, or the jargon-laden assessments of Alzheimer’s and depression) than any novelist who wrote solely for the purpose of entertaining a massive audience would bother/risk exploring.

What’s remarkable about Franzen though is his discipline; whereby, for all of his linguistic and syntactical savvy, a reader of these three recently novels will almost never come across a sentence that feels senseless or purple or lazy. His interest is communication, storytelling, efficiency.

And that this is fine, is what I’m basically starting to tell myself.

I work at a high school and at a college and so for the entire month of August I basically have nobody expecting anything of me and I’m free to float around as I please. So this August, alone for the entire month in the house where I grew up, I decided, after reading Purity, to go back and re-read The Corrections and Freedom.

Although I like to read, have always liked to read, and often devour articles where people explain why they too have always liked to read, the explanations I tend to hear other readers give for why they love literature often sound foreign. Particularly the idea of “escape.” That if the reader feels stressed about something in their personal life, or if they’re heartbroken or angry, they’ll just crack a book and feel suddenly “transported.” Distracted and soothed if not healed.

And yet I know that, in my own life, anything I do when I’m angry or sad tends to get caught up and mishandled in the petulant little dustspouts of that anger or sadness. I don’t read or write very well, I’m unpleasant to talk with, and apparently emanate something disagreeable such that my dog sleeps at my feet as opposed to my hip. My experiences of book effectively transporting me from a bad place of mind, or guiding me toward some real type of inner peace, have been so rare and exemplary that I have a hard time understanding what these other readers are talking about when they say that all of literature, every book, is hypnotic and magical and lifting.

What it is for me, if the writing is good and I’m interested in the subject, is engaging. Particularly in the past couple months, as all my reading has been somewhat sidelined by efforts to finish up the second draft of a really long writing project. A project that by now is legitimately horrifying and keeps me awake at night and vacant-eyed in traffic because the manuscript has basically reached a point where, to put it casually, it is what it is. Maybe it’s good, maybe it sucks. I really don’t know, and I’m scared about it. All of this time and effort and disclosure I’ve put down and it’s very likely that nobody will want to read it. And not even necessarily because it’s bad. Or so I tell myself. But just that it’s not the sort of thing people wanna read. So it goes.

I send slivers of the thing out to various magazines and websites for publications and get rejection after rejection. So many rejections; all of them generic, impersonal, passionately uninterested. I got a rejection letter that began, “Dear Aaron.” (My name’s not Aaron.)

In the wake of so much rejection, all this fog clearing to reveal the enormous likelihood of failure, my relationship with books, particularly fiction, is becoming way more complicated.

Take Vonnegut, for example. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I feel a serious affection for him and his work as one feels toward any heartfelt high school mentor. But then I’ll read one of the several collections of his awful, early, pot-boiling short stories that’ve been collected and published in the wake of his death and I get irrationally angry. Livid that the publisher used up thousands of pounds of material printing these asinine books that could otherwise have been put toward publishing something worthwhile from somebody more obscure.

Like my book, basically. I seldom put it that way, but that’s pretty much what I’m feeling. It’s selfish and stupid but really severe. Like it impedes my driving if I think about it too much.

Or I’ll read any odd passage out of Suttree and feel an ineptitude that transcends writing. Like I’m not just an awful writer by comparison to Cormac McCarthy but stupid, too; weird-looking.

Or even worse is the experience of browsing blogs and online literary journals and seeing how many brilliant, talented, funny and compassionate writers are floundering in obscurity.

Every good piece of fiction I read lately makes me look over at my own manuscript with a new and visceral kind of worry, like some blind tourettic centaur I have to bring to a wedding. I’m restless about getting the whole thing done and out the door but also terrified about the feedback I’ll receive when that happens — to say nothing about the whole hangup concerning good fiction v. commercial fiction and what distinguishes one from the other and how they might both go together so that I could be not only published and revered but also enjoy the sort of appallingly lavish wealth whereby I can afford to buy a house and a Pac-Man machine and maybe a surgery if I should ever need it.

Because while I usually ascribe to this somewhat pissy idea that the artist of real merit is almost always condemned to obscurity, I just spent three weeks reading about 1,500 pages of Franzen’s recent fiction, genius books of enormous literary merit, and had the experience while reading these books of honestly forgetting where I was. 1,500 transporting, entertaining, enlightening pages. A reading experience where, routinely, I’d look up after seventy pages to see that there’d been a full and untouched — now lukewarm and inedible — drink beside me the whole time. Or that the sun had gone down. Or come up. Or that it’s actually way louder in this bar than I’d’ve normally found conducive to reading.

And it wasn’t depressing, seeing the writer’s talent. I didn’t have the experience with these books, as I’ve recently had with other great books, of closing its cover and setting it down and then eyeing it suspiciously, like I just realized I’m half-naked in the bed of somebody I’m supposed to hate. I wanted to celebrate these books. Celebrate them for capturing the vicissitudes of their subjects in an honest, smart, compassionate way. I put down a Franzen novel and find that I like my family a little more (particularly after The Corrections). I feel smarter for his having distilled enormously complicated stuff into the most clear and straightforward prose. To think, “Hm, that’s how everyday people were able to capitalize on the war in Iraq,” (Freedom) or even just getting a sense of what life was like under the Stasi or how a pharmaceutical company works its way around patent laws. Not epiphanies, necessarily, but windows into parts of life that you’d maybe never considered before. Or that you’d once glanced at but gotten sullen about, and then turned away from, because you were sure it was too complicated for somebody like you to understand (which is something I experience almost daily: whether it’s my reluctance to embark upon William T. Vollmann’s voluminous and beloved Seven Dreams series, or my total agitated unwillingness to hear you even try to explain to me how to make a lasagna).

For all of its flaws, and for all of the rocks that’ll be thrown at this book simply because it comes from the pen of a commercially successful writer, the greatest praise I can give to Purity, and to Franzen’s skill, is that it elicits, for me, the excitement and enthusiasm reserved for that one-in-a-thousand novel. Makes clearer to me why a novel can matter. Reminds me of the community of readers to which I belong, of writers to which I aspire, and overall makes me feel a good deal less lonely.

Which is something.

Wherein a Pregnant Woman Orders a Drink

“Give you an example: a pregnant lady came in here two weeks ago, was at least seven months pregnant –”

“You’re sure.

“Yeah because she was tall and she was skinny and she had like this perfect fucking orb sort of — like she was skin and bone everywhere but for her stomach. And she walked like she was pregnant. She comes in with her husband, her boyfriend or whatever, and she orders a shot of whisky.”

“What’d you do?”

Shrug. “Can’t say no.

“You served whiskey to a pregnant woman?”

“It’s her body. Not my place. What happened, though, is she threw the one back, the first one, and then she ordered another, drank it, and then she wanted a beer. And at that point I was like, ‘Ma’am…'”

“You cut her off?”

“Yeah but then the guy she was with tried to get in my face like, ‘The fuck you not gonna serve her for?'”

Old guy, short and almost perfectly spherical, climbs onto a stool with some difficulty, orders a Miller, looks around. The bar’s quiet. A hole in the wall with a chatty bar tender and almost everybody who sits at the counter is over sixty. Regulars go all around the bar before taking a seat, shaking hands, trading hellos.

This old guy seems a little too feeble for such rigors and so, rather than going around to dish greetings, he stays put, posted on a stool by the door, and receives them. Folks all stop on their way out the door to shake his hand, say hello.

Brief exchanges.

He purses his lips and is always the first one to turn away after saying goodbye. Looks around at people he might talk to. You’re not one of them.

Eventually its just you and the mostly-toothless septuagenarian. Both just looking around. Drinking.

You start conversation by asking about the tattoo on his forearm. He tells you he was in the Marine Corp back in the fifties. Fought in Korea. Really cold, he says. Nobody talks about how cold it was. That he got frostbite in his foot. Still hurts now and then but not so bad.

“Do you think it was easier or harder to be a Marine back then than it is today?”

Oh,” he says, dismissing the question with a wave. Stupid question. “I coudn’a done what they do today. It was s lot easier. Even just the equipment they have to carry around now. A hundred pounds on your back during combat?” He shakes his head and looks into his beer. “I can’t even imagine.”

And the weapons, he says.

“Now they got these fully-automatic rifles — we had the M1. You know what the M1 is? Semi-automatic, eight rounds, and they put a bayonet on the end of it.”

You can’t decipher his attitude here.

He sips his drink. Shrugs and sets it down. “It was dependable, though. The M1. It might seem inferior today but…it hit what you were aiming for.”

“What’d you do after the war?”

He smiles. “Got married. I was twenty. Got married, had a kid, started working at X.”

“What’s X?”

“Auto company. Big one. Worked there for 30 years.”

“Doing what?”

“Building cars. Did that in the Marines, too. Little bit.”

“Did they treat you well?”

“The Marines?”

“The auto company.”

“No.” He lifts his beer for another sip. Dour punctuation. “They went bankrupt in the early ’90s. Kept it a secret from all of us. Lost my pension. Didn’t even get my last paycheck.”

Today You Are 24

Today you are 24, which is good.

You were 23 for a long time.

It was a good year. Productive, educational. Humbling. You worked a lot and you went out fairly often, made new friends, read a bunch. Had so many drinks and so many chats with so many strangers but remember very little when trying to note the highlights. Lessons learned. Epiphanies. What you mostly get are images. Looping film reels. The moments that hushed your thoughts for some sweet moment.

Johnny Walker Black in a Gables hotel room where your companion, whose black eye can only be seen when you pull the floor lamp right up to her face, sits crosslegged on the bed eating a crepe, plucking away the slices of banana and letting the Nutella drip, and while sitting like this she tells you the story of how she got that shiner. It’s a long story with lots of characters, none of whom you know. This calls for backstory. But you listen. An armchair pulled up across from her. Sip your drink and listen. When she’s done with the story, done with the crepe, she puts the whole mess of it on a bedside table, the box and its wrappings and the bones of the wings she ate before it, wipes her hands on a napkin and scoots back against the headboard. Looks at you with a smile. Pats the mattress twice and reaches again for the lamp.

You’re writing at a patio bar when an elderly man on the stool beside you, accompanied by his daughter, compliments your handwriting. “Cursive,” he says, smiling, trailing off.

When his daughter steps away, seeking more wine from the indoor service counter, he turns on his stool to confront you more directly. His hands are quaking and his bottom lip sags. The whites of his eyes are yellow, and webbed with blood, and he tells you in a whisper, “My wife of nearly seventy years died last week.”

You sit on this experience for a year. Can’t figure out how to write about it.

Paying with your debit card at a parking meter when your phone buzzes with a Facebook message. It’s from a person you haven’t seen in a while.

Your favorite professor from college is dead. Yesterday, 11:57 pm, pancreas.

Finish paying.

Walk three blocks to a bar. Jameson shot, held up halfway as though in a toast, and there in your mind’s eye sits a memory of the man in question and how he sat across from you, two years earlier,  with two espressos steaming between you. In this memory he’s dishing praise, encouragement, telling you that you’re a good deal better than you allow yourself to believe.

Two weeks later you write his obituary. Your alma mater prints it in their newspaper. Posts it online.

In a white blouse and black boots she twirls on her doorstep, and the breeze fans her skirt almost up to the waist. At the bar that night she pulls her hair into a ponytail, drinks three gin & tonics, and in a booth at the back recites Macbeth from memory.

“What beast was’t, then…”

Kisses you in an alley by the parking lot.

Best of David Bowie in her CD collection. She pours you some gin, first glass you’ve had of it, and later on, shortly before dawn, she follows your gaze to the bedroom wall and recounts the origin of each rifle mounted there.

For long silences you guys stare at each other and smile in a way that, were this a movie, anybody could probably tell you it wasn’t gonna end well.

Write the last sentence of a three-year project. Stand up, red-eyed, whiskey in hand, your glass uplifted for a moment. Remember the mentor with his manicured hands.

He once told you a story about a woman he loved who believed, in her 50s, that the only reason she’d survived a terminal heart condition that had plagued her most of her life is because an omniscient race of fourth-dimensional beings had ordained that it should be so.

“You get older,” the mentor told you, “and you realize you’re gonna have to live with other people’s baggage if you’re gonna expect them to live with yours.”

After a quarter bottle of whiskey and three slices of pizza she decides she wants to run. So she does. It’s 2 a.m. and she’s sprinting down the block while you walk after her, telling yourself jokes and laughing, streets all glazed with streetlamp yellow. Traffic lights way in the distance blink a latenight redness that can’t exist under sun.

An hour later, after she’s vomited, the companion curls away from the toilet and goes fetal on the bathroom floor. Falls asleep with her head on the bathmat, murmuring. You bring pillows from the bedroom, a blanket from the couch, lay down beside her on the tile and put her head on a pillow, drape the blanket over yourself.

When she wakes an hour later she’s confused. Looks around, assesses where she is, inspects the blanket and then studies you. She sighs. “You’re fucking ridiculous.” She rises and rinses and a few moments later it’s she who’s leading you.

A date is planned with a woman from college. Set for a Monday night. She gets in touch on Saturday, excited, says her night opened up. Asks if you’d like to get together tonight, two days early, and you say that you would. Plans are made. You dress and you shower and you show up at the place you’d planned. She does not. Nor does she answer your calls. She says nothing to you for a month.

When she eventually gets in touch it’s with a long text at 3 a.m., apologizing, asking if you’re free that night. Which you are, and tend to be.

So you get to the place and this time she’s there waiting. You’re both nervous. Conversation hobbles at first but after a couple beers it’s riverrun and you find that you both hate many of the same people and things and that you each took a shot of Jameson before meeting here tonight. An effort to curb your respective nerves.

The odds of that. Her anxiety is gorgeous.

At the second bar she has two whiskey sours and preaches her love for a polymathic grandmother in Russia, a writer of books; politics, mostly. She tells you then of a cousin she adores, five years her junior, and of sacrifices that she’s made for this cousin (sacrifices that she doesn’t seem to see as sacrifices). Tells you of her time working retail at a clothing store and of the executive who came by now and then for evaluations, a fat little man with a clipboard and lots of money, and how this man had a habit of placing his hands on the bare shoulders of young women in his employ, and of discouraging them from wearing bras.

Her goal, she tells me, is to go to law school. Ivy League.

She springs from her stool at one point, brown hair explosive, and kisses you. Twice. A girl has never gone to you for the first kiss. What a feeling. To not kiss but to be kissed. Makes a man feel pretty.

Walk around the neighborhood for an hour. Arm in arm. Confess a shared affection. An interest in going on another date.

But you don’t ever really speak again.

So it goes.

These are things you want to remember. The things you didn’t write about. The 23rd year was eventful.

And now: the 24th. Your big romance, the brunette reciting Macbeth and feeding you gin and turning you on to Game of Thrones, is gone. Another city. Hundreds of miles. Business, business.

The mentor you hadn’t seen in almost two years, but who once played so formative a role, is dead. As much the loss of a friend as it is the end of something larger, it seems.

The book, that three-year project that persisted through so much, is done.

So now’s a time for things to begin. Here’s hoping for the best.


Interviews at the Bar: Speakea5y, Arsi Ahmed


Photo by Alee Gleiberman

It’s our first interview at an Ale House in Miami and Arsi tells me that his life is slowing down somewhat (though it often feels like time’s evaporating, too; that the days, for all their tedium, are gone too quickly), given that he’s got a new job teaching a SAT prep class, a job which he enjoys but that calls for an hour-long commute in both directions and, consequently, a proper sleep regimen that sort of interferes with his creative routines, such as they are, and but that his life seems slowed, as well, on account of having separated recently from his girlfriend of three years while she pursues her master’s degree in Chicago. There’s a bit more structure than there’s been in the past. Solitude; things are quieter. And so when I ask him about the contrast between one persona and the next, namely the Sedate Arsi v. Boisterous Speakea5y situation, he tells me that while he does go out now and then to take part in the sort of lifestyle he writes and raps about, what matters to him more than anything right now is his work, fine-tuning these songs he’s about to release and, more so, working on a debut album called Circles, which he’s been laboring over for about a year now, and of which he speaks with the sort of eager reverence of a new father, saying that the album has given him a feeling of purpose at a time when he needs it, that it feels bigger (the album does) than he is, and that honestly the whole thing has made him just a way-more-careful person for fear of fucking his life up or dying before he can finish it.

The latter concern being way more poignant than he lets on outside of the music.


And while he’s very sincere and persuasive in all of his talk about taking things slowly, and leading this life of like monastic introspection and egregious caution, it turns out, when he picks me up one morning to attend the aforementioned photo shoot he’s doing in Wynwood, that Arsi’s confidence as a driver is evidently so through-the-roof as to vanquish all mortal concerns. We rarely move below 50 mph. I don’t wanna ask him to slow down because I’m afraid it’ll make me sound like I’m afraid but when we hit the Palmetto Expressway going north and the speedometer begins its unflinching ascent I start vying for control of my sphincter because it’s raining, and the surrounding cars’ tires are casting up this road-obscuring mist as they cut through puddles, and so I just ask him, instead, to play some music, please, his own music perhaps, which I haven’t heard yet.

So he plays it. We listen to pretty much the entire set of songs he’s got slated for release. He chimes in occasionally with commentary about one thing or another, clears up some of the references, enumerates upon the sorts of technical feats that sound simple and obvious but turn out to be enormously complex. There’s a lot of this.


Domingo Castillo lives with his girlfriend in an efficiency by Florida International University and while he isn’t exactly a manager, per se, he’s got a bevy of professional experience, a degree in criminal justice, and what seems like a pretty thorough feel for the music industry. Fast-talking, opinionated, assertive and versed in an impossible array of subjects, relentlessly vulgar, confident, and carrying into conversation a perspective on life that’s been thoroughly tempered by 28 years of oscillation between mountainous highs (financial, professional, philosophical) and cavernous lows. Tall and broad-shouldered in his t-shirt and shorts, he greets me with a handshake, mistakes me for somebody else, apologizes for the mistake, and then goes graciously into the backseat, allowing me the front.

It’s quiet in the car at first, none of us really accustomed to such an encounter, until Domingo mentions his past as a bar tender and I make a remark about how often I heckle bar tenders for stories. “Bar tenders and paramedics all seem to have the greatest stories.”

Domingo then breaks into a story not about his experience as a bar tender but about a friend of his who’s an EMT and who, on one of his first calls, arrived at an accident scene where he approached one of the cars involved. He asked the young woman in the driver’s seat, who gave him some dazed look through the shattered window’s frame, if she was OK, if she could move or not, whereupon the young woman parted her lips as though to respond but only spilled from her mouth and into her cleavage a torrent of blood, lips moving wordlessly around the stream, before her head dipped down and she died. “Internal bleeding,” Domingo says. “I guess. Ahdunno. But no,” he says, pace unchanged, “you wanna know which bar I worked at first?”

Tracking the correlations that carry Domingo from one topic to the next quickly proves futile.


When Arsi stops to pick up a t-shirt at Mall of the Americas I go with Domingo for a beer at the mall’s farther end. He tells me, along the way, about how he used to frequent this mall when he was growing up. “Little Dominican kid didn’t speak a licka English,” and how, while he was here at the mall, he would go and hang out at this arcade here – right up here, by the exit – and he’d watch these tournaments wherein like the best players from miles and miles would meet up and compete against each other in Street Fighter or Pac-Man or Donkey Kong and there was this one kid, he remembers, had blisters all over his hands, fuckin second degree burns and shit, on account of he was standing at the machine in one of these Street Fighter tournaments for like hours hours hours and he was sweeping his hands over the button panel so fast and so long he had to go to the hospital and but tells me also that he himself, Domingo himself, he used to play Counterstrike professionally – “remember Counterstrike? I used to fuck people up in Counterstrike” – and he’d go to tournaments and shit, play for money, it was great. He was great. Tells me then about a friend of his who bought one of those old-fashioned arcade games for $1,000 and had to do some repairs on it. Had to take the whole thing apart.

“You know how those old arcade machines work?”

He tells me how they work.

Domingo will stop now and then, self-conscious, and ask how long he’s been talking, or what we were originally discussing. Tells me, at one point, that “the brakes on this thing are broken,” pointing at his jaw, acknowledging that he talks a lot and is perfectly amenable to being hushed. It prompts us, on more than one occasion that day, to talk about talking. About how rappers speak of themselves and each other.


Photo by Alee Gleiberman


Arsi mentions at Ale House one night that “rappers are more competitive than probably anyone else in music. Constantly taking shots at the people above and deflecting shots from people below.” He suggests that, for example, while nay two country music celebrities might be openly competitive in that they’re constant rivals in the arena of sales, or awards, they generally don’t call each other out in their songs or talk shit about each other in public. Hence, he says, the importance of safeguarding a persona. It’s part of the craft. The persona is sculpted as much by the people you call out, the people you associate with or emulate, as it is by the content of your actual work. Your talent. So Arsi, as Speakea5y, does this. Calls people out, offers praise. Sometimes blatantly, sometimes now. There isn’t very much of it, since his motives aren’t to perpetuate this sort of thing but rather to demonstrate some of the sincerity he’d like to see more of in rap, but there’s a good deal of boasting and shit-talking that, while not entirely insincere, is in there in the music because it’s what he feels the genre demands. Whole songs, in fact, written and produced from a sense that they need to be there.

Domingo touches upon this at one point. Addresses the issue of artists who are unwilling to compromise on anything and who want to just pursue their craft how they want to pursue it, to never make a concession on anything, without giving serious thought to the fact that, as the artist, you’re gonna want people to buy this stuff, to like it and find it fun, which means you have to make it familiar. Or parts of it, at least. That people don’t take easily to new things.

Those songs that he felt needed to be there, one about Miami and one about picking up a woman at a club, are products more of the persona, Speakea5y, than of the artist, and might in that sense be called more commercial than the other stuff. The tracks that’re maybe more artful or considered, “Poof” in particular, are basically all about uncertainty, doubt, introspection, the evasiveness of meaning; full of questions and conflicting points, philosophical quandaries, epiphanies and pledges. Puns, too. Jokes, word games. The aforementioned insults and praises. A layering of meanings that unveil themselves over several plays.

Photo by Alee Gleiberman

Photo by Alee Gleiberman

When asked if rap is the best medium for his talent he says with conviction that it is. Skilled as he is with words, devoted as he is to shaping verse, he’s quick to say that rap is all about the beat and that the words serve only as a supplement to that beat, are forever a secondary concern, but clarifies that this is not to demean the significance of what’s spoken, or to undermine the capacity of those lyrics to move or inspire their audience.

There’s this stigma around rap, he says, whereby people think that its artistic potential begins and ends with the sort of stuff they hear in clubs, or on the radio, and that when listeners go around being exposed only to the sort of rap whose lyrics are simple, or repetitive, or that are so consumed by the beat that they seem to actually discourage attentive listening, well, the audience isn’t gonna listen. Or they’ll listen with half an ear while bobing their head. Says that you can write the most brilliant, revelatory, insightful lyrics, stuff that might qualify as poetry anywhere else, but that if you then set those lyrics to a beat they’re likely to be ignored. Dismissed as something less than art. That the public doesn’t esteem rap in the way that it esteems jazz or other genres.

And that this is bullshit, basically.


But so getting back to the mall: Arsi buys his shirt, joins us for a beer, and on our way to Wynwood they talk in the car, he and Domingo, about his persona, Speakea5y. Agreeing that all success in rap is a matter of smoke and mirrors with the audience, about blurring the lines between your persona and self, convincing them that what you’re doing is new even if it isn’t.

0 IMG_1691

Photo by Alee Gleiberman



“It’s about having good-ass smoke,” says Domingo, “and good-ass mirrors.”


Domingo’s never had experience managing talent before but he’s studying up on it, reading about marketing strategies and negotiations, the delicate diplomacy of trying to marry the musician’s interests with the demands of the market to which they belong.

And for all that he’s said so far, for all the trivia he’s espoused about music and business and nutrition and bar tending and video gaming and human anatomy and electrical engineering and women (“I’m fulla facts”), Domingo doesn’t really start talking until we meet with the photographer in front of the Gregg Sheinbaum Fine Art museum in Wynwood and from there go across the street into an empty corner lot where the grass is thin, and patched with yellow, and the wall of one building is latticed with runny red paint, fashioned like a chain-link fence, the other building painted black. There’s one squat single tree offering a glimpse of shade against that black wall. It’s in this lot that Arsi wants to quickly take the first few photos (he’s got the photographer for a half hour today and a half hour next week).

Soon as the photographer joins us, Domingo goes quiet. He stands there holding Arsi’s shirt on its hanger, the hanger held up casually at his side in a way that would probably look servile were it not for the shifty-eyed, brow-pinched, shoulder-tensed posture that affords Domingo, in equal measure and all at once, the look of butler and bouncer alike.

Photo by Alee Gleiberman

Photo by Alee Gleiberman

He walks beside me, the two of us a few paces behind Arsi and Alee Gleiberman, the photographer, another friend from high school. When the shoot begins, with Arsi posing against the red wall, Domingo and I go to sit against the adjacent black one, beside the little tree. Domingo hangs Arsi’s other t-shirt on one of the tree’s branches. He claps his hands on his hips with a sort of Fred Sanford satisfaction and watches for a moment as it hangs there. “This is nature’s closet.”

Domingo graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s in criminal justice (“Nobody goes for a master’s in criminal justice. It’s like, ‘What’re you tryna be? Supercop?’”) and worked thereafter at a legals processing firm. Then another one, a rival of the first. Then he got laid off from the second one when he had to spend eight months recovering from a basketball injury (torn ACL, MCL, LCL, PCL, and meniscus). Then he moved to California for a while, where he worked selling solar panels, made some money and came back to Miami to help a friend open a pizza parlor. Didn’t work out. He met Arsi just a few months ago, the two of them working as servers in the same restaurant.

“I guess I’m trying to find myself. Professionally. All I know is I wanna do something where I’m happy. And at this point I basically have to find something I’m happy with because I know now that, if I’m not happy where I’m working, I’ll sabotage myself in order to get out. I’m thinking at this point that I’ll never stay with a regular job. Ever. Sit at a desk, same challenges every day, over and over again…” he shakes his head. “This all stopped being about money a while ago.”


With the first round of photos finished, Domingo and Arsi walk off together to find the next location, the next work of graffiti to use as a backdrop, while I look over Alee’s shoulder as she scrolls through the 100+ pictures she’s taken in these ten or fifteen minutes. We walk on together at Arsi’s heel, she and I, talking. Her camera looks forbiddingly expensive but she’s holding it casually, a tight grip at the end of a precariously limp-looking wrist. Isn’t even wearing the strap around her neck. Her eyes on the pavement as she walks and talks and she wields her camera as more an appendage than a tool. I ask if she has a preference as to the sorts of events she shoots, if photographers in general maybe tend to have a universal preference, and she says that no, everybody’s different, but that for her it’s weddings and engagements. By far. I ask about bar mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, things of the like and she says that she hasn’t shot those events yet and that while she isn’t averse to them,  per se, she does feel, frankly, that she’s pretty much found her niche. That she doesn’t see herself straying. The thing that makes photographing weddings and engagements so enjoyable, she says, is how much the client appreciates not only the photographer and her craft but also the product of that craft. That the photos she’s taking at these weddings, or directly before these weddings, are things that the buyers keep and cherish for the rest of their lives and she says that the atmosphere at these shoots is celebratory, convivial, gracious. Contagiously so. That the hosts are solicitous, offering champagne and food, are sociable, friendly. Whereas with a teenager, or a kid’s party, she suspects there might be some element of drudgery on the kid’s behalf. That the kid’ll probably wanna enjoy their party or whatever and that if they’re distracted all through the shoot, eager to get it over with, they might be less than cooperative.

Which, for all his youth, isn’t the case with Arsi. He complies with her few directives, hears and considers suggestions, asks for opinions. Seems actually to bear something of that newlyweds’ aforementioned respect for the photographer and for her craft and skill and but also, it would seem, an honest respect for the fact that Alee, like Arsi and myself and even Domingo, are all of us amateurs with varying degrees of confidence in our respective talents and who are probably constantly aware – dauntingly and at times miserably aware – of how competitive are the fields in which we aspire to establish ourselves. I can’t attest to whether Alee feels the sense of solidarity and of shared humility and eagerness and troubled dedication as I suspect the three of us are experiencing, nor do I feel comfortable asking, but the feeling is here, I think, rampant among this migratory quartet, scouting under stormclouds the most artful walls of Wynwood, and looking, undoubtedly, very much like children.


But so the photo shoot continues and I’m again standing to the side of things with Domingo, idling beside an auto shop, and he tells me that his financial situation has always been up and down and that he got through college with a lot of help from Bright Futures, among other things, and he speaks then with conviction about the politics of Bright Futures, and of similar scholarships, and of how he believes that such bundles of money should be granted only to students who not only want to go to college but also want to learn, who like to learn, and that he knew dudes in college who got Bright Futures and didn’t really need it, or deserve it, while at the same time he knew kids who were smart, driven, but who couldn’t go to school or couldn’t take all the classes they needed because they didn’t get the scholarship, or because the scholarship wasn’t enough. Says there’s something infuriating about seeing people get great things who don’t deserve great things, and vice-versa. Says that it’s like George Bush, y’know, Bush Jr. He says with a cringe, “I voted for Bush back in ’04, honestly, because I was used to the name,” and but tells me that if you’re gonna talk about people getting short-changed you have to mention John McCain, “John Motherfucking McCain,” on whom he elaborates for a bit, talking in particular about McCain’s bravery as a young man and contrasting that bravery to characteristics of Domingo’s own younger self, whom he insists was an asshole. Domingo speculates that if he had a time machine and if the scientist who gave him that time machine was like, “You can only use this shit once,” that he might use it for the sole purpose of going back and slapping his eighteen-year-old self in the face and saying, “Look at what you did to me.”

We start talking then about time travel, a subject on which we’re mutually oblivious but discuss with no less fervor, eventually changing the subject once we’ve confused each other.

Alee and Arsi take their final photos in front of another museum. We’re starting to feel rain.


The photo shoot ends. Arsi and Domingo study the last ream of photos. Arsi has a curious favorite. “I don’t know if this is lame,” he says to Domingo, “or fucking awesome.” Domingo looks, makes a face like it’s something in between.

Arsi pays Alee half of her rate, holding the other half until she can come to his house on some subsequent Wednesday and do candids of him in the studio.

In the car, Arsi’s thrilled. Says that the shoot turned out well. Feels that he got his money’s worth, which is a particularly good thing because Arsi’s basically funding this whole project out of his own pocket.

Photo by Alee Gleiberman

“My attitude,” he tells me while discussing the upcoming cost of a twelve-hour recording session, “is to spare no expense. To do everything right, not cut any corners.” This, he says, is because he knows that now is the only time to do this. He’s young and he’s got the energy for it, the freedom, and if he doesn’t go all into it now that he’ll get comfortable, will end up securing for himself a lifestyle that he doesn’t really want, and that the years will trickle past until it’s too late. And there’s the urgency, too, of trying to accomplish something substantial before he dies.


Already, six years after graduation, one of our high school classmates has died in a boating accident, another of an overdose, a third of a jet ski accident and a fourth from cancer. A student one year younger, an athlete known schoolwide, was killed in a car accident as soon as he got to college and another, older than us by a year, in that same aforementioned boating accident.

The subject of these deaths arises routinely when we run into classmates we haven’t seen in a while. At supermarkets, malls, bars. We’ll run into somebody from that same graduating class and no matter how tenuous the relationship was, however peripherally you knew each other, what happens is you talk first about yourselves, about the things you’ve been up to, and then you talk about those who have died. It seems at times as though this acute and constant awareness of mortality is our class’s unifying characteristic.

Just a matter of temperament, I guess, whether it motivates or depresses you.


Both Arsi and Domingo are excitable when the shoot is over, espousing ideas and telling jokes all through our drive to a bar on 8th street, on through lunch and drinks. Arsi’s talking with an enthusiasm I haven’t seen before and lapsing occasionally into some buoyant-seeming introspection while Domingo, for about fifteen minutes in the car, tells a story about a night he spent tending the needs of a weeping prostitute who’s pimp had beaten her up for tardiness. Domingo talks, actually, more or less without cease.

Domingo Castillo, c. 1990

Domingo Castillo, c. 1990

  1. Domingo on turning 30: “I can’t use my age as an excuse anymore. I’m gonna have responsibilities and shit. I can’t be 30-years-old and slapping $2,000 into some stripper’s lap. I’m not Joe Pesci.”
  2. Domingo on Native American women: “Native American women have asses, though. It’s like their ancestors did their squats for em.”
  3. Domingo upon the three of us meeting a 50-year-old bodybuilder: “Bro, I think we just met the Stairmaster.”
  4. Domingo on helicopters: “They’re the cornflakes of the vehicle world. They fucking made that shit by accident.”
  5. On cocktails: “I got this friend, we were at a bar, he wanted to try some weird-ass drink and I’m like, ‘Why’re you gonna try that?’ He says, ‘Oh, I wanna experiment.’ I said, ‘Y’know who does experiments? Scientists. Are you a fucking scientist? No.’”

Domingo goes seamlessly between rising from his stool to demonstrate, in the middle of the bar, the torsional intricacies of Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch (“The power comes from your feet, from how you twist”) to discussing Arsi’s future and his own with a straight face, with conviction and solemnity. He takes their whole enterprise way more seriously than he might appear to in casual conversation. Same with Arsi. An hour of chatting can easily be passed without a single mention of music or of marketing or anything else having to do with the project, with their goal, and when the subject does get broached (as it often does that day) it’s explored with humor and with confidence and with optimism and casual tones. They never voice doubt. They’ll address with candor their doubts concerning everything else: family stuff, work stuff, romantic stuff. Not that they aren’t confident in these other arenas. They are. How they come across is as two people so aware of the odds against them that it doesn’t need to be discussed; who have thought so much about failure as to be able now to ignore it, or to at least give a convincing impression of people who can look away from it, focus on other things, because in enterprises such as these, wherein commercial success is predicated on the million-to-one alignment of so many factors, the the concept of failure – commercial or artistic – is probably never actually removed from a person’s mind so much as made quiet after a while, or banal, or just less interesting or worthwhile than thoughts of, if not success, the road toward success. Because how, after all, are thoughts of success all that different from thoughts of failure? Nightmares about failure can be just as motivating or paralyzing or distorting as daydreams of success, with their respective spells of dread and reverie.


Photo by Alee Gleiberman


How Arsi appears to see this project is as a pursuit whose purpose and virtue and value are the pursuit itself. The outcome, commercially, is up in the air. But when it comes to reward and the sort of spiritual satiety that comes from knowing you pursued what you wanted and pursued it aggressively, exhaustively – that sort of reward seems to be here already. IT comes in the shape of a belief in the work, a loyalty to the work, that is honest and personal and little to do with the opinions of others. It isn’t something to be celebrated, this fulfillment, only sustained. Working for the love of the work. It sounds cliché, I know, and the sorts of sacrifices entailed in such a pursuit probably make it seems like something that can only be sustained in one’s twenties, odds being what they are. That the feasibility of success passes with time and takes with it (along with God knows how much money and how many opportunities) the most formative, energetic, and able-bodied years of your life. But whatever Arsi’s chances are for success, whatever the extent of his talent, he’s given purpose by his pursuit. And in that sense we could maybe argue that the goal’s been reached. In a way.


alex thanks


Alexander Sorondo is the founding editor of View from the Bar. His fiction has appeared in Jai-Alai and First Inkling Magazine.


alee gleiberman


Alee Gleiberman is a Miami-based photographer. See her work and get in touch with her on her website.



arsi alex domingoSpecial thanks to Arsi Ahmed and Domingo Castillo for their participation and candor.

Noel Kassewitz: Interviews at the Bar

Photo by Zara Castany

Photo by Zara Castany

She’ll say later that she didn’t realize it was the third tallboy she’d ordered in the course of our conversation but it’s just as she pulls the tab and snaps it open that Noel tells me, laughing, that she thinks “being an artist is an acceptable form of hoarding,” which prompts me to laugh and bring up a pen from my pocket and jot the quote down on a cocktail napkin, which gets her laughing too and some more words are exchanged on the subject before she goes off to the bathroom. While she’s gone I go ahead and write underneath that first quote of hers another one, something about like “fuck you I will not immortalize you,” paraphrasing something she said earlier in the evening when we were talking about her work, the paintings in particular, and about her process, her aesthetic, any guiding principles or ethics she may have about the whole thing, and she mentioned, on that subject, that she really doesn’t like paintings that are too abstruse and personal for the viewer to get anything out of it, where it’s like two dildos rendered in oil with the name of the artist’s landlord scrawled in blood across the canvas, but tells me that, while such work is often crafted by the hands of talented, smart, creative people, the trouble is that such works are usually forged out of emotion; just all emotion; which is sort of — because it’s not that she has anything against showing one’s emotions in art. Emotion is fine and good. Just that a work should also be comprised of thoughts, is what she’s saying, not just feelings. That an artist needs ideas. And so one of the ways that she keeps herself from falling into this trap of having her work (which dabbles in themes like animal rights and quantum physics) saturated with — and made impenetrable by — too much emotional weight is she just keeps her personal life completely out of it.

Tries to.

Over the past couple years, for example, there’ve been two serious relationships and two breakups that each took their toll, as well as other triumphs and losses that together have probably changed her to some degree, certainly given her a lot to think about, but about which she’s neither painted a drop nor drawn a line. Sometimes she writes about it but the writing is private.

And so the germ of this second quote, the thing about immortalizing someone, comes from her acknowledging that of course certain elements of her personal life will creep into the work whether she likes it or not, and that she probably won’t even realize when it’s happening until somebody points it out to her, but that she nonetheless, despite its inevitable appearance, does her best to keep her personal life out of her work because of (1) the aforementioned issue of making the work too abstruse and personal for the viewer but also (2) because, as concerns an issue of heartbreak or insult or anything of the like, there’s an element of — and she suggests this laughingly — I’m not gonna aggrandize or give merit to your bullshit by consecrating its influence in my work.

Which, as we’ll come to show, is maybe timeless.

This is sort of a joke at first but it expands, upon her return from the bathroom, into something more serious: which is that, yeah, when something’s upsetting you and you choose to use those feelings as both the subject and fuel for a big art piece, or for a series, then you are sort of affirming its credibility as something that warrants your attention. Or something that has power over you. Which isn’t healthy, she suggests. Even making art of something that most people would agree is a legitimate hangup or concern. Like take for example the two recent deaths in her family: an aunt (52) and grandmother (85). The grief is the grief, and the grief is severe, but it isn’t art; though it’s easy to fall for thinking that it is. She’s adamant about this. When asked if her response to grief, her way of dealing, is to seek distraction or to ruminate and reflect she says that it’s 50/50 because while she appreciates the need for reflection, its value, she knows at the same time that if she does too much thinking — as she’s maybe wont to do — that she’ll get depressed and then suddenly her view of everything is darkened, distorted, and that this, too, is probably no real benefit to the work.

Noel note


She presses her lips into a small tight line that curves against her will into a bashful third-beer smile and she confesses to spitting into her paintings. Somewhere in the process. Wherever. Nothing globular or gross but just like a little th’p.


So that there’ll be traces of her DNA in every painting. Collectors will be able to run a test against forgeries.


This, incidentally, is what we talk about in our first interview. This one’s at an Ale House in Miami. We meet here at 9 pm for what’s supposed to be a quick drink but ends up lasting nearly four hours. We talk first about work and about our respective romances, past and present, and then about a contribution she was going to make to the blog and then suddenly our plans change and we’ve embarked on what becomes the first of several informal interviews. Sipping and sipping all night. She’s wearing a black dress and blackrimmed glasses that she refers to as her “nightdrive glasses”. Hair brushed and posture perfect with hands folded mannerly in her lap as she goes on to talk about the prospective longevity of her work, the idea of immortality in art — a topic that sounds, as I’m recounting it, more pretentious than it does when she talks about it.

There’s a divide in Noel whereby she somehow seems to take her work way more seriously than she takes herself. She’s jovial, self-deprecating, laughs at and commends herself where either seems fit; and but when she speaks of her relationship to any particular art piece that she’s working on it sounds like she’s recounting the marital problems of hardheaded soulmates. Like suddenly the only thing more stubborn than Noel the Artist is the actual art that comes from her hand. There are frustrations and doubts and disappointments abounding, but never a moment’s thought to leave.


She invites me, the following week, to the house of her aforementioned grandmother, the heavydrinking octogenarian of recent departure, which is empty, the house is, void of its furniture and stripped of its carpet, its decor; its everything; though the light fixtures remain intact, functional, and buzz as they burn in rooms that echo every footstep, syllable, cough. She and some relatives have been clearing the place out for days, cleaning it, purging it slowly of its wall-seeped perfume (Marlboro was the brand, she thinks).

Noel has stocked the bathrooms with toilet paper.

Noel oils 2

Photo by Zara Castany

What she’s doing here now, alone in the garage, is she’s working on a dense wooden workbench built by her grandfather fifty years earlier and used in the house ever since, stationed under the garage’s corner window. She had to replace some of the boards because of termites. She thinks she got them all but still might use a bug bomb. Hasn’t decided.


She’s done with the bench’s woodwork and she’s painting it white now. The garage door is open, leading into the driveway, and she steps out to greet me as I pull up. She’s spattered with paint but it’s camouflaged on a white longsleeve shirt. Her hair isn’t up in a bun, exactly, but folded into a tower. Curiously skyward.


This is the first time I’ve seen Noel in her working clothes. Specked with paint, faded by wash, figure-concealing. She’s sweaty and her hair is piled in a skybound bundle and although she smiles when she greets me, is effusively grateful for the coffee I’ve brought (“Black,” she requests over the phone while I’m in line at the coffee shop, “like my sooouuul”), and even though she invited me over and speaks twice as cordially as ever — playing host — she’s preoccupied. There’s no forward lean in the conversation. My being here is, I suspect, a digression from the task at hand. She’s the same as ever. Friendly, candid. A bit less bubbly, maybe; distracted. Focused.

Noel hand 2

Photo by Zara Castany


She’s on the floor as we talk, painting the legs of her grandfather’s workbench.

But if we can just come back to this “immortality” thing for a moment: it seems in part to be this interest in longevity and the notion of legacy that motivates Noel to labor now over her grandfather’s bench, this familial artifact, a sort of artpiece — however utilitarian its intent — crafted by a man with whom she’s barred from conversation save for what they might communicate, artisans alike, through a shared project.

One creates, the other sustains. Call and response. Conversation in the void.

And yet of the four long planks that comprise the bench’s table, Noel has had to replace the outer two. (Termites.) She speaks with a modest sort of aw-shucks smile about her hope that the bench might run through the family for generations to come. I ask her whether it’ll still be a family artifact if each successive generation has to replace another few pieces of wood so that, after a few decades, none of the original parts remain and her grandfather’s personal project has evolved into the collagework of a dozen different craftsmen.

She thinks about this in the way that she thinks about any serious question somebody asks. Patient, invested, thoughtful. She stops what she’s doing, puts her wrists on her knees (mindful of the paint on her hands), looks at the floor. Thinks. Smiles again. “I think it will.” She resumes her work.


I have to go to the bathroom and she tells me I can go ahead into the house and that I’m free to look around while I’m at it, that she’ll be done out here shortly, and when, a few minutes later, she follows me inside, it’s very discreet. She sorta hangs back, slinking patiently along just a few paces behind me, coffee uncapped and held in both hands at her chest. Small sips. She leans against doorframes looking comfortable and a bit more present than she did in the garage, while she was working. Makes no bones about my snooping through rooms.

We go through the empty master bedroom. The empty master bathroom. A corner-flaked orange sticker, roughly the size of a movie ticket stub and torn from some unknown product, is pasted to the medicine cabinet and warns of a November 1967 expiration date. We start talking, a bit whimsically, about the lingering presence of the past. About standing in a room that feels as though it belongs to that past, or the past to it, and feeling a bit like a voyeur in doing so. Even just standing in the driveway. How weight and time feel suspended and the silence in the rooms feels watchful and tense like the sound of walls in thought. How it’s both enchanting and terrifying — this notion of the past as some vast and ever-expanding place housing every great and awful thing before us and to which we too will someday belong; to which parts of us already do.


Noel, for the first time in her life, is in a fallow period. No big ideas. No big projects. There was the art academy she belonged to in high school wherein the work was unending, same as in college (perhaps more so), and whether she was inspired or not by those projects, satisfied or interested or not, there was always a task at hand, an outlet, a job over which to exhaust herself each day and to feel thereafter productive, sated, pleased by her dedication if not always its product. But now school is over and there are no assignments to be doled out, no strict deadlines to spark her mind into anxious action, and there’s only so much satiety to be reaped from a daily doodle or sketch. There are freelance jobs, if she needs them, but what she’s looking and hoping for is the next big idea that will bring to life a series of paintings, of anything, and what she’s enduring now, viscerally, is the silence between those ideas. A silence wherein, without the distraction of a project or even some slowly percolating idea, she has to confront the daily grind, all of its disgrace and misfortune and tedium, with an abrupt and near-abject attentiveness that probably feels like when you come up from under the water and instead of that milky murmur of above-level noise it’s now this clear cantankerous blast. And what a time this is to be mercilessly attentive. In the past 18 months she’s seen varieties of loss and begun acclimating herself to the new life situation of post-collegiate semi-adulthood wherein structure is all but gone, worry is constant, the future uncertain.

Noel artpieces 1

Photo by Zara Castany

If there’s a consolation to be had, one could argue, it’s that the drudgery to which the artist is exposed with such hypersensitivity between her big ideas is invariably the stuff from which those ideas are born. The clash of boredom and curiosity. Dread. When dread blossoms into fear and your schedule’s freedom allows for — condemns you to — hours and hours of awful aimless thought. Good stuff can come from that.


Noel is inconspicuous. Always a smile, chatting with ease about any odd thing, addressing her work only in passing and speaking of every project, however innovative or strenuous or ambitious it is, as though bringing it to life were no nobler a task than stocking shelves, or tending a bar, or waiting tables or studying for an exam. Which maybe it isn’t. Probably it isn’t. But she believes this. It’s not the sort of false modesty you might expect of somebody who’s accomplished as much as she has by this age. A number of gallery shows, four-figure sales. A resume to envy. A prodigiously talented and infernally bright artist with a relentless work ethic who indulges no posturing, no boisterous pride. Who creates her art for herself, loses herself in it the way that adamant runners, after two hours in motion, feel their stomach sink as they come to a stumbling stop and realize they don’t know where they are.

The devotion is such that you’d be compelled to believe that if she were maybe wholly without talent she would work at her craft nonetheless and would produce at each turn a piece at once poignant and peculiar, each thing earnest and bright, the bottling of a self and of so many hopes and concerns. An obsessive attentiveness to the project’s every facet and scathing self-assessment to belie whatever laxity she sports over a beer. Or three.

Photo by Noel Kassewitz

Photo by Noel Kassewitz

There’s this yarn store in the warehouse area across from The Falls. It has some backroom space that a person can rent out, use as a studio, and this is where she takes me one night at about 12:30 after another last-minute meeting at the Ale House. It’s about four blocks away. We walk. A homeless man stands shirtless in front of T.J. Maxx and caresses his stomach while staring at the moon and crooning what sounds like a children’s song about the days of the week.

She has a key to the yarn store — which makes me feel like no less a vandal to be standing at its doorstep after midnight — and lets us in. Lights are off. Ghostly outlines of shelves and their contents. The lights come on. The store’s aglow and looks like it’s open for business but it’s not. We’re unsupervised. There’s a weird feeling of responsibility. The trust that the storeowners have given to Noel now weighs on me and even though its only real request is Don’t steal our shit I feel nervous, like something’s expected of me. But Noel is calm and cool and her attitude, as ever, is contagious. I loosen up. She leads us through the store, the back half of which remains unlit, to a door that opens into her new studio.

The first thing I notice is her grandfather’s workbench. Full white. Painted, restored.

Photo by Zara Castany

Photo by Zara Castany

Paintings large and small from the past few years lean vulnerable against various walls

(“Being an artist is an acceptable form of hoarding”)

and seeing these paintings like this in the back room of a yarn store as opposed to her storage room at home, where she can look over and protect them constantly, reminds me of a particular piece she made a few years ago called “An Erosive Discourse”. It’s a painting, a self-portrait of sorts, and the painting is placed into a wall-mounted drawer, enclosed in a wooden box, with a handle on its right-hand side. Viewers are to approach the box on the wall, grab the handle, and pull it open to reveal the painting. Thing is, there’s a sheet of sandpaper inside the drawer as well, touching the canvas. Each time the painting is pulled out for a look, the sandpaper rubs away a little more of it. The more it’s looked at, the more it’s exposed and appreciated, the closer it gets to extinction. The artist has engineered her piece’s creation and destruction side by side.

She talks, too, about immortality.

Little by little, the painting erodes; just as, little by little, the workbench disappears: to the bugs, the elements; the successors who trade its parts. The lovers leave. The elders die. The homes in which we’re raised are emptied and stripped and occupied thereafter by ghosts, spectral or other, whose inhabitancy affords its survivors no warmth. No meaning. And she goes ahead and she paints. Noel at 23. Noel out of college and working. Waiting for an idea. She builds her wall and she colors it blue and in the back half of a yarn store, entering through the alley, she takes off her shoes and she puts up her hair.


Noel Back Alley Studio

Photo by Zara Castany

A few weeks pass before I visit her studio again. The alleyway behind the yarn store in which she’s taken up residence isn’t terribly dark, the lighting’s actually pretty decent, but you’d almost wish it was darker because the lighting afforded by streetlights and buzzing fluorescent tubes creates a distinctive sort of clutch-your-purse atmosphere and even folks of stony-looking dispositions are walking quickly, few that there are. The vast and strangely silent parking lot that precedes the alleyway — the latter of which is itself about as broad as three men standing shoulder-to-shoulder — is creepy; the tunnel that precedes that parking lot is creepy. This is all so phenomenally unsettling that it feels almost dreamlike, fake, and the darkness beyond streetlight’s reach is so flat and opaque as to almost make you feel trapped in open space.

Her studio, fittingly called Back Alley Studio, is carpeted and lamplit and, tonight, made doubly ambient with a recorded thunderstorm playing on a portable stereo. She has wine. The work of two artists, Noel and a friend, are lying out and standing and hanging and propped up along the floor, on her grandfather’s table, against and upon the walls. Noel is barefoot, dressed for disaster in paintsmeared everything, hair down and spirits high and keeping herein the company of a tall, bearded, curly-haired 20-something, a student of civil engineering, before whom, in order to make eye contact, my head is inclined as though toward God, shoulders slouched accordingly, such is his height and the command that’s born of it. But he’s friendly. Smile broad and cartoonishly happy. He’s holding a glass of whiskey, sips it subtly and without ice or pucker, and quickly establishes himself as a man of no few charms.

Before showing me what she wants to show me, Noel gives me a look like I’m about to be appalled and says, with a something went wrong-flavored groan, “OK. So…”

The painting in question has crimson backing and depicts, stacked, several different renderings of whales, each whale painted in the spirit of a different time period’s artwork. It’s amazing. The canvas has been sanded down in places to provide texture and murk-up the shading and each whale is terrifically evocative of the period it’s supposed to represent. Each one different. The details minute and scrutinously attended.

“I fucked this up so bad,” she says.


A few weeks after that and the painting she’s working on now is enormous. 4×6. As large and complicated and surreal as a bunch of the pieces she’s done prior to this one but, standing before it now as it takes its shape, the canvas almost seems larger for being incomplete. In it, a man lays supine in a grassy field amid so many animals and a pell-mell blossoming of lush-lipped mouths all over, obscuring things, consuming things. She talks about the process by which, in a quick stretch of time, she realized not only what she wanted to communicate with this particular painting, as well as the tricky issue of how to communicate it, but elucidates for me some of the ways in which her private life has worked its way into the series at hand without her realizing it; things that were pointed out to her by others. This painting in particular. Tells me about the personal significance of certain animals, their sentimental associations, and suggests no coincidence about the the positions in which she has rendered those animals, their colorings and tones.

And it’s a good painting. A work in progress, of course, made enormous and more powerful by merit of its incompleteness, by its potential, by the likelihood that all of the talent and labor and feeling and thought that went into shaping it as such might yet be obscured by subsequent edits, changes of mind and heart. The notion that it might be abandoned entirely and deemed garbage by a creator whose expectations forever meet, if not surpass, the considerable talent by which it renders its work.

Photo by Zara Castany

Photo by Zara Castany

If it isn’t saying too much, I’ll suggest that this is one of the points at which a viewer might get a vibe of something religious. It’s a feeling that comes from the confrontation of a great piece of art, or a really good piece of art, or even maybe just something forged of real strain and dedication. And it prompts this idea that maybe, in the creation of beautiful things whose truths come from our hands without our even knowing it, we are channeling something constant, universal, lovely, awful, fearful, revelatory and phenomenally solitary. That the artist, getting in touch with her unconscious and exploring her most personal and intimate passions, is — by that very route of self-exploration — encountering something infinitely more vast and relatable and universal than one could ever hope to reap by looking outward. That we the viewers can experience this with no less significance and, indeed, perhaps more significance when we confront it and search for those meanings, whether they exist there or not. And when we find those truths, whether they exist there or not.

This’ll start sounding over-the-top now, I know, attributing grand powers to the skillset of an artist in her mid-twenties who, though irrefutably talented (prodigiously so, I think most would agree), is almost not even out the door yet in terms of her craft’s evolution. She’s young and not a full two years out of college and so there’s no telling what the change of environment will do to influence her ideas, her aesthetic. But what comes through in this, her first series out of the college milieu, is that her ideas and hangups and concerns are all pretty much the same. She tells me, in going over this new piece, that she tried, at first, to keep animals out of it, or to at least not focus on animals too much, but that ultimately the temptation became too much and so she talks to me now about having to just surrender to herself on such things and say, This is what I care about, this is what I love, let me not fight it. So there are animals now. Animals whose presence in this particular painting elucidate its ideas and imbue it with pathos and make it ever more distinctly a work from her hand. So goes the process by which a developing artist comes to terms with herself, communicates with and confronts herself, all by accident, mostly against her will, but inevitably, and wonderfully, and endlessly.

Noel studying

Photo by Zara Castany

A summary of August

August being a month made memorable and worthy of commemoration, ultimately, for its time spent in bars among friends. Friends from work and friends from the past and date-ish excursions and friends from out of town. A highlight reel on loop in my head. Screenshots from a night in a family restaurant with several friends and a newcomer named R. who bought everybody’s drinks all through the night while drinking Smirnoff after Smirnoff himself and I remember that this night ended with somebody standing still and quiet in a swimming pool, maybe two or three hours before dawn, with fingers scraped and bleeding and trembling around a cigarette held so delicately between forefinger and middle while their companion, a rigid twist of nerves, sat poolside, smoking, knees at their chest with toes curled around the pool’s edge. Felt like the only sound in town was the smoke.

Asking a cab driver if he’s ever known other cab drivers to drink on the job. “No,” he says, “lots of them do cocaine, though. The ones who work at night. It is difficult.”

Another afternoon at a patio bar where the three women with whom I sit are curling into their own discussion about the criterion by which a penis is judged as adequate and saying that yes size is a factor but that so too are shape, coloration, curvature and vascularity. Elderly patrons pass us at intervals, glancing.

Again at the restaurant, this time with a friend from the past, and we’re talking about Robin Williams and then gender, somehow, with an occasional remark about the unconscionable enormity of the nachos we’ve just ordered. At one point, digressing from our conversation about the burdens of this social thing and that social thing, she reels with a smile, swivelling on her stool, and she gives my knee a quick slap and says, “You’re OK, though. You’re a good guy.” I dwell on this with a smile for the rest of the night.

Another night at the same restaurant with a group of friends. One of them was, for a time, the closest in my life. The two of us behaving now like strangers. I dwell on that too.

Running after a bottle of Jameson as it rolls down the slope of a roof.

Pulling back my comforter to see on the white bedsheet beneath it a calligraphy of long black hairs, scattered, looped, twisted, curled.

The person about whom I’ve just written a navel-gazing and less-than-professional profile drinks water while I drink beer and she tells me gently, in reference to that profile, that I make her sound like she has bladder problems. We look at the passage in question. I see her point. Laugh, wince, apologize.

Visiting a psychic and then meeting a colleague for drinks afterward and the colleague debriefing me, asking me why I went to see a psychic in the first place, balking at how much money I spent; agreeing, ultimately, that it’s probably worth doing at least once.

Drunk, he proceeds to tell me stories of things that he later confesses didn’t really happen that way.

A wiry brunette shares a frozen pizza and several PBRs and talks a polyphony of accents, melodies, dialects. She breaks spontaneously into song and quotation. She introduces me to Game of Thrones, and gin.

Jameson and quesadillas at a restaurant/bar before seeing a movie, Philip Seymore Hoffman’s last performance, at the end of which my companion cries. She happens to be dressed in black.

Visiting my alma mater; my friends, two years younger and still students, live in an apartment complex across the street. Crown Royale. We have some drinks and I join a friend on the balcony while he chainsmokes and tells me about his recent DUI. He finishes his story and tosses his cigarette over the railing, onto the roof of a duplex ten stories below us. “The cop was cool as fuck, though.”

Sitting at the outdoor counter of a Cuban restaurant at 4 am. Corona and eggs, scrambled, with ketchup.

A toothless panhandler sipping coffee behind me, seated on the curb, singing. Only cars on the road are semis and all the women at the counter are wearing heels and lots of makeup and dresses whose hems they tug at.

Alone at a bar before a movie, Thursday night, bartender sets down a beer and a plate of quesadillas: “You look pensive as fuck.”

“Do I?”

“Got that meaning-of-life-look on your face.”

Laughing, “Maybe.”

“What’re you thinking about?”