The SMITH Diaries Project

Learning the Ropes

January 28th, 2007 by Mistress Y

Twenty-one years old, Ivy-league educated, and rejected from dungeon employment, I did the next best thing to joining the ranks of “Venus” and “Pandora.” I wrote my senior thesis on BDSM–the theory of hurting people. I layered on the postmodern lingo, expounding on Freud and Foucault to justify the chain (both the symbolic fetish and the very real, metal one) I wrapped around my lover’s cock. I read Bataille to understand why I yanked that chain repeatedly, not stopping even while he was thrashing against the leather cuffs and cursing me out. And Masoch’s writing explained the reasons why my lover climaxed so violently and pleasurably in blood and sweat. It also explained why, in tears, my lover thanked me after.

I gained a sense of affirmation and comprehension for my own sado-masochism through the texts of psychosexual philosophy. I also deemed myself edgy, avant-garde, and so very daring with my paper on the theory of pain and power exchange. Through the recent years, however, I’ve met over a dozen, highly-educated dominas who toss around the name “Foucault” as if he were a Au Couture designer. The literature was empowering, but I craved more.

After I graduated (A+ on the senior thesis, of course), I moved to Oakland, CA. Living right outside of San Francisco, the exploded version of New York’s Christopher Street, I found my elementary BDSM school. This was The Shadows, a house of BDSM, where women were hired, trained and taught to conduct sessions. This time when I embarked on the interview, I dressed in a suit with my hair pulled back into a secretarial bun. I carried my resume and a note pad. The Shadows was a huge, three-story mansion that stood on a corner lot, covered by dark, green foliage and ivy, I noted, crawling up the sides of the shutters. I walked up the steps to the porch and thrust my shoulders back. A+ damnit, I thought to myself, I should have brought my transcript.

I was greeted at the door by a long-legged brunette dressed in jeans and a Patti Smith t-shirt, bare foot with perfectly painted, cherry-red toenails. She smiled and led me to the waiting room, an elegant library with ornate couches and dark wood shelves lined with books.

Oh good, books, I thought, I’m in the right place.

The brunette asked me if I wanted any water and told me to have a seat while she fetched the “Master” and “Mistress” of the house. Moments later a tall, lithe woman with a soft smile appeared between the sliding doors, followed by a slightly shorter, but just as handsome, dark-haired man. The couple sat themselves in the chairs to face me and began telling me about their house, how it was run, what they expected. They then took turns asking me questions about my interests in BDSM and the profession of Domination. I began repeating my senior thesis almost verbatim.

After a few minutes into my discourse on the fetish object as a substitute for the female phallus, the man interrupted me kindly and opened another set of sliding doors to reveal a room that took my breath away. My mouth fell open as if I were in looking through closet doors onto Narnia. Paddles, whips and rope (oh my!). I stepped through the portal into the room, where candlelight gleamed off the suspended chains and a leather punishment bench was positioned in the middle. Suddenly, the pretty brunette who greeted me at the door was brought forth by the Lady of the house and instructed to shed her clothes. She kneeled in front of me, her eyes lowered, lips open, breasts rising and falling with excitement. I couldn’t help staring at her plump, pink nipples. “Show us,” the man of the house said, and handed me a thick, long leather strap.

And that is how I began my career as a professional Dominatrix. The Shadows was a magnificent house with four dungeon rooms and a medical playroom. The Mistress and Master of the house resided there with the Master’s slave girl. Besides myself, there were seven other women employed as dominatrices, submissives and switches (those who do both top and bottom roles). I don’t know whether I was hired because they didn’t have another Asian woman on their staff, but I do know that it wasn’t because of Foucault. (I dropped his name once in conversation in the Ladies’ lounge and one girl replied, “Gesundheit!”). The Bay Area’s professional BDSM community reflected the general attitude of Northern California altogether. The women were, for the most part, supportive and sisterly–feminists who reveled in liberal sexuality, not a clan of catty super models.

Starting as a baby-Dom in that safe, family-like environment was the best educational experience I could have sought out. I learned about negotiations: talking with the submissive prior to the session to determine expectations, limits and health concerns. I learned how to screen calls and detect wankers who were just looking for a free phone session. Hint: when they ask if you are wearing your leather boots at that moment, just hang up. I learned how to inflict pain and yet not cause permanent damage: stay away from impact on the spine; avoid the kidneys; make sure the submissive can breathe while gagged. Some time later, I paid for an apprenticeship with some world-distinguished experts to learn intricate skills such as piercing and rope bondage. I became a member of Janus, the leather community organization that held classes and play parties. (It’s truly not a cult, but I will say that some of the meetings do resemble the comic book conventions I used to attend as a geeky, high school chick.)

There is no question that BDSM is very much a part of me and my lifestyle, the way dance is to a professional dancer. The professional side of BDSM offered me numerous partners to dance with and a wide variety of fetishes and dark desires for me to explore and lead them through. The enjoyment of and desire to play with multiple submissives is not necessarily the same as being sexually promiscuous. In professional sessions, there is no overt, sexual contact–at least by the conventional definition of sex. The dance is highly erotic, but it is still a dance; it is sexy, but it is not sex.

The profession of BDSM has also offered me an excellent lifestyle of travel and commerce. With a suitcase of select equipment and fetish wear, I am able to move at my discretion around the world and find sincere clientele in all the major cities. London is still known for formal etiquette and preference for the cane. Germany and Japan are both known for their extreme humiliation scenes. It still amazes me that BDSM is expressed in all cultures. Every culture has a different variation of style. But the intertwining of pain, pleasure and sexual power is universal.

Professional dominatrices charge anywhere from $150-$400 per session hour. Those who work in houses usually charge less and must pay the house a substantial cut for the use of the dungeon, advertising and receptionist. Independent dominas charge more depending on their level of experience and popularity. While I do not charge the highest fee (it is actually called a “tribute” in the industry to disguise the monetary aspect with gratitude), I do demand a two-hour minimum and a commitment to a lasting and meaningful relationship.

There are professional dominatrices who claim (or are claimed) to be in the industry for the money. I am very suspicious of this alibi. For one, ours is not an easy profession in which to make a sufficient living. Strippers and escorts make more with less effort and in my estimation are not quite as condemned. I have a serious concern for the women who enter this industry without consideration for the physical and mental responsibility they have over themselves and their clients.


I am a sadist. When I strike the cane to flesh and watch the red welt appear, a thrilling pulse shoots up my arm and down my spine to my crotch and I let out a murmur of pleasure. I get wet. If the person who is striking the cane does not feel this, the action can have damaging effects on their own moral fiber. They are doing something that they don’t feel good about and that society reviles. Therein lies the real danger of self destruction and detachment in the BDSM industry. I sometimes wonder if that is the reason why houses are known to be fraught with drug and alcohol usage. SSC is another rule I learned in the San Francisco leather scene: Safe, Sane and Consensual.

But what I found in the leather scene was more than the rules and proficient practices of this extreme exploration. I found a way of connecting to myself and to others in deeply moving, intensely focused, spiritual ways. After my first year of professionally whipping, spanking and binding others, I picked up the phone and made an appointment as a client to see my very first Dominatrix: Madame C.

Up next: I visit my first Dominatrix and open another door in the magical world of BDSM. Learning the practices of ritual, reclamation and flesh hooks, I look deeper into the roots of my personal need for pain–and disagree with Freud.

The Dominatrix Next Door

January 13th, 2007 by Mistress Y

I am not your normal, everyday dominatrix. I don’t stalk into the dungeon at midnight, don thigh-high leather boots, and beat a white, middle-aged CEO to a bloody pulp while screaming, “Worthless Pig!” Nope, I am the shy neighbor next door. I could be sitting next to you on the subway smirking at the New Yorker cartoons or cycling past you in the park on my racing bike. I love dogs, swimming in the ocean, long walks on moonlit nights, and well, I happen to like to hurt people.

On a typical day, I ride my bike down to my private studio in the financial district of Manhattan by 9 in the morning. Once there, I move through a few yoga salutations and burn sage. After checking emails and voice messages, I change into a three-piece Armani suit to greet the first client, who could be a musician, a policeman, or a Yale professor. In my regular client pool, I have many female clients, some gay, some straight. I also see a lot of couples. Sometimes I teach one partner how to dominate the other. Sometimes I dominate both partners. I even have a handful of gay, male masters who come to submit to me. But the truth still remains that the majority of my clients (and all sex industry clientele) are straight men (straight men who secretly want to suck cock, that is).

I sit down with each client for 10 to 15 minutes. I offer them a glass of water and listen to them talk about their expectations and absolute limits. I ask them about health issues that I should be concerned about (such as diabetes, asthma, bad knees) and about their past experience in BDSM. I want to know what led them into the realm of Bondage, Discipline, and Sado-Masochism and also, why they are specifically seeing me. This tells me a lot about the person I am about to deal with. Many of these questions have already been discussed by email before I have agreed to see them. But I like to watch the person tell me about him or herself. They are inevitably nervous. As they should be.

I screen clients rigorously. Most email requests are deleted by the time I read the first line (“goddess, can i lik ur boots”–bad grammar and spelling! DELETE!) and I am extremely discriminating regarding tone of voice and language. A client once called and passed all my tests until he closed with, “I’ll see you soon, baby.” I canceled the meeting. I may be a snob, but this is an intimate interaction I engage in—I must genuinely like the person I am binding and hurting. I have a rule: If I feel that I cannot have a respectable conversation with the client, then I shouldn’t take them on. This shuts my doors to Asian fetishists, guilty married men and inner misogynists who disguise resentment with worship. I also don’t take on foot worship or verbal humiliation scenes. I get too bored and too ticklish with hour-long foot worship; I don’t have it in me to curse someone out unless they’ve really pissed me off.

Once I’ve extracted enough information from a client and earned his trust, I bring him to “The Pit,” a small room that is painted entirely black with only one floor light illuminating the hooks and bondage rack that line the walls. I tell clients to ready themselves by placing their clothes neatly in the closet and to wait on their knees until I come to fetch them. The next two hours (minimum) of session, they are mine.

My sessions range from strict disciplinarian training and heavy bondage to shamanistic ritual work. I have a solid rep in the industry of being a severe sadist and skilled Shibari (rope bondage) expert. I want to write that I am laid-back and easy-going, but I’m not casual about my career. I love the protocol, the pain, the taboo.

The main room of my studio is called “The Dojo” and it looks like one. Clean white walls, enormous mirrors, and a steel suspension beams run along the fourteen-foot ceilings. My hemp ropes are meticulously wound, color-coordinated, and hung in a row. Red rope is 50 feet. Black rope is 25 feet. The whips hang separately from the paddles. The latex is always set apart from leather. (Leather eventually eats away at rubber—you can just imagine the symbolism here regarding primal and man-made powers). At my studio, I am a perfectionist, a control-freak. Of course.

I like to think that I push people beyond the obvious. I encourage clients to focus on the strength and honor within them to reach a mental state of openness and vulnerability. I remind the sub (submissive) to breathe deeply and steadily, teaching tantric techniques to use the endorphins from the pain to push into a state of natural high. In another kind of session, I might shove my rubber-gloved fist in the sub’s anus and call a client a slut (one of the highest terms of endearment in this industry because it implies ownership), but I would never call him or her stupid or worthless. They’d better be worthy, damn it, if I’m going to spend my time training them.

I am Mistress Y. I am hiding my identity here for obvious reasons of discretion, not so much for myself but for my clients. Most dominatrices feel the need to hide their scene-identities from their vanilla world. That is one of the reasons they take on names like “Venus” and “Pandora.” Perhaps it is to emulate a goddess mentality, to step up from being just another downtown deviant with cool tattoos to being a diva for a few hours. But another valid reason is to allot mental separation from their full personality to the role that they take on in sessions. Going into sessions for many is like playacting a part that they’ve always yearned to star in—for both clients and dominatrix. I don’t change my name for my profession (just shorten it for this diary). I am not playing a role. I have always enjoyed pain.

I’ve been a professional dominatrix for seven years. I’ve wanted to be a dominatrix since I was a 16-year-old Goth chick. I remember buying my first crop and cat-mask at The Leather Man. My high school girlfriend and I had spent a sweltering summer day reveling in the glory of the Gay Pride March. With her hair dyed purple and mine, a shaved blue, we felt like the lollipop kids dancing alongside the grand trannys of Oz. We began skipping hand-in-hand down Christopher Street, rainbow flags swirling around us, and there it was—my first Leather Daddy—a buff, hugely packed mannequin dressed in leather chaps and officer’s cap—demanding that I get on my knees and crawl into the store to find my calling. I pulled Daniella into the store with me. Suddenly all my pride drained and I was trembling in a shop that smelled like power—primal and ecstatic. Black leather gear and heavy steel instruments hung in rows. Toned, beautiful men turned their eyes on us with curiosity, then turned away, some sneering, some indifferent. But one, sweet leather-fag reached out his Glenda-esque hand and asked me if I needed help (“Sir, yes please, sir”). And that’s how I found home.

That evening, after we returned to New Jersey from the long day of stomping around the Village and trying to cop weed in Washington Square, I fastened on my mask, pulled out my crop, and proceeded to strike Daniella’s cute, teenage ass. She yelped and threw her boot at my head. I lunged at her and grabbed her throat before forcing my lips on hers. I didn’t know about negotiations or safe words then.

I soon learned a lot about safe words and other key elements of the craft in SM 101, Jay Wiseman’s great handbook for the novice. I raged through my teenage and early twenties with lots of brutal sex: slapping, spitting, choking my girlfriend or boyfriend while Perry Farrell wailed affirmation in the background, “Sex is Violence!” Somehow, my childish flirtations of biting kids on the playground turned into: If I like you, I’ll tie you down and cut you…or myself. I was also a mad cutter, slicing myself to feel the brilliant despair of teen woes. I was my own voodoo doll of bruises and scars, trying to work the magic of love.

During my college years, while I was interning at the Whitney Museum and making only enough cash to eat Cheerios three times a day, I set out to interview at several Houses of Domination in New York City. I laced myself into a corset, painted on my eyebrows, and trotted on patent heels into the office of one very well-known establishment. I instantly fell in love with the dark red, velvet walls and gold painted columns that surrounded the reception area. I refused to care that the burning incense still didn’t cover a strange, underlying, bodily-secretion smell. I admired the fancy, gilt chandelier and kept from looking at the trash can that was overflowing with used condoms and mottled paper towels. I stood with perfect posture as the icy receptionist told me in a combination of European accents that they already had a Japanese Mistress working for them (I am of Chinese descent). At the time, there were only token minorities to fill race-fetish slots. “We only need one oriental girl for now and Mistress Ju-ki,” the receptionist lowered her eyes to my waistline, “fits the style more.” I assumed that she meant that Ju-ki was waif-thin, the stereotypical, chopstick body that Asian girls are known for, but I reached to tighten my corset anyhow. As I left, she casually suggested, “You should try sniffing cocaine.”

At another New York House, where the office and dungeon area were fit into the same dark room, a tall, German Dominatrix, who claimed to be the Head Mistress, leaned over the desk, moving aside a heavy pile of chains with her even heavier hands, looked down at me from her six-inch platform stilettos, and spat, “You’re too short.”

I was devastated. I was told that I was short and fat—humiliated! And I wasn’t even a client! Regardless of the insults, I was distraught that I couldn’t get hired as a dominatrix. I was attending one of the country’s most prestigious universities. I was on the Dean’s list. I was 5’7” and 125 pounds. And I was mean, damn it, or at least I wanted to be! I craved digging my fingers into my lover’s nipples. I was thrilled by tying and tethering and feeling them struggle beneath my thighs. I had a string of lovers with my signature permanently marked somewhere on their body. My predatory ego was not dissuaded. I needed to be a Dominatrix.

I needed this job, or else I’d really hurt someone.

Up Next: Learning the Ropes

‘Nassssty Girls’ in Basic Training

January 3rd, 2007 by Tish

After I had made the decision to enlist with the US Army, the next step was to attend Basic Combat Training (BCT) at Fort Jackson, S.C. None of the experiences in my life prepared me for the vaporization of personal space and dignity that BCT and Advanced Individual Training (AIT) brings to the table.

I’ve always been a slim person, but I didn’t understand at the time just how different “slim” and “fit” are. The less fit you are, the harder BCT and AIT will be for you. If you happen to do poorly enough in Reception (the period right before BCT where you are, essentially, enrolled in the Army), you’re then on your way to a Physical Training Platoon (also known as Fat Camp or Camp Cookie) where you’ll remain until you are able to pass the Physical Training test required for BCT. Luckily, I was “fit enough” to squeak by the PT test.

Reception was a different animal than BCT or AIT. If all of the Army were like Reception, nobody would enlist. When we got off the bus at Fort Jackson, we were herded by a gaggle of angry, weary-looking Drill Sergeants into a large classroom. The Drill Sergeants circled us as we formed rows, barking gibberish nonsense all the while, such as “FRONT LEANING REST POSITION, MOVE!” We learned very quickly that it meant to get on the ground, in the starting position to do push-ups. I remember looking up at the promotional GO ARMY signs on the walls in the yellow light, on my hands and toes, as the realization that I was in the Army washed over me.

In Reception, you stand in an array of formations and scream your name when asked to scream your name. You’re forbidden to interact with members of the opposite sex or talk during meals. You wear civilian clothes until military apparel is issued, but after that, you won’t see them again until after BCT or during AIT. The Drill Sergeants at Reception struck me as people who really just wanted to go home. Here you were, preventing them from doing so, and so you didn’t deserve to be treated like a human being. I suppose I can understand how a person gets that way; most of them probably didn’t care anymore. They weren’t training us (more like training us for training); they didn’t need to earn our respect or trust. Some of them seemed downright hateful, and not in an “it’s my job” way. The fact that the whole process could have been completed in two days but dragged out over a week didn’t help anyone’s mood.

On a cool, Sunday afternoon in November, buses came to take us to our training battalions. Our Reception Drill Sergeants had been adamant that we not embarrass them in front of the BCT Drill Sergeants; our performance was a direct reflection on them. They warned us that if we made even the tiniest mistake, these gods would come down on us like it was the Armageddon. To everyone’s surprise, the BCT Drill Sergeants were mostly calm, said very little and watched. As BCT progressed I came to realize that the new Drill Sergeants’ primary concern was to train us to the best of their ability. It turns out that the reason they were so “kind” (I put this in quotations because they are, after all, Drill Sergeants and have a tendency to scream) was because we were the first cycle to be classed as “Low Stress.” “Low Stress” cycles came about when TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) decided that unnecessary levels of stress were the cause of unacceptably high attrition rates amongst new BCT soldiers. It was a relief for us, but a pain in the ass for them. The Drill Sergeants had not yet learned how to discipline less obedient trainees while still following the new regulations. Drill Sergeants were no longer able to discipline individual soldiers as expertly as in the past. They had always been fond of group punishments, and so I got smoked all the time. After all, there was always one person fucking up.

“Smoking,” or disciplinary physical punishments meted out by non-commissioned officers (NCOs), is a very important part of Army culture. It’s also very common—as much as seven times a day if you’ve pissed off someone badly enough. Being smoked is not much fun, even less so if you are out of shape. The first few smoke sessions were like torture for me, both physically and emotionally. I have a tendency to take disciplinary measures directed to a group personally, and so it felt as if I was being insulted all day long. I eventually realized that I usually wasn’t the reason everybody was being smoked, which allowed me to take it less personally, if more angry at whoever committed the infraction at the group’s expense.

The barracks were brand new, and the Drill Sergeants were fairly obsessive with keeping them clean. Female Drill Sergeants have a petty habit of calling every female soldier “Nassssty,” for good reason or not. Sometimes it made me wonder what kind of houses they lived in, or whether they wore latex gloves to avoid touching doorknobs with bare hands, like an OCD patient. One girl who went AWOL over Christmas Exodus got the “Nassssty” label. After the holidays, we came back to find pairs of bloody underwear in her locker.

She wasn’t the worst case. The worst was a girl I’ll call Date. Date was about 25 and had dirty hair that clung to her face and eyebrows that looked like scared caterpillars. Her cheeks were covered with what looked like pubic hairs, and she had an overbite and buckteeth, in addition to nonexistent dental hygiene habits. Date was not an attractive person to begin with, but her refusal to shower was a real issue for our all-female bay. Every training company has a Date, and everybody always wonders how she got into the Army.

Date’s physical shortcomings were compounded by her character flaws: incredibly pathetic, scared of everything and wanted everybody to do her training for her. I suspected Date knew this wasn’t possible and so decided to help her and abandon the “Treat her like a baby” or “Be really bitchy to her” camp for the “Treat her like an adult” club. But about three-fourths of the way through BCT, I was ready to smash her skull with the butt of my M16, and so I abandoned that cause, too. Date managed to graduate under the same new regulations that kept us from really being wrung dry in BCT (after all, keeping the attrition rate low was the main objective). She went on to AIT at Fort Leonard Wood to be a 25V (Combat Documentation, which is essentially a Combat Photographer). Other than that, nobody I know has any idea what happened to her.

About two months later, BCT graduation took place on a cold and gray day. I was ready to get out of there and hoped that maybe at AIT I wouldn’t pass out from dehydration or get strep throat from sleeping on the ground in 10-degree weather. I was satisfied with my performance at BCT. I thought I’d done a good job.

I thought wrong. BCT did not prepare me for AIT. Granted, I was in a shitty company with shitty Drill Sergeants, but it would be unfair to blame all my problems on them. The problems with AIT were manyfold. For starters, BCT had changed to “low stress,” and AIT had not, so we were inadequately prepared. What’s more, instructors were chronically unable to agree with each other on basic Combat Medic fundamentals. Do you put a patient on his injured side or on the other? Can you leave the needle in when you perform a needle decompression, and if so, for how long? Some things were outlined for us in the Combat Medic handbook we were given near the beginning of the cycle, but for things that weren’t in that book (or were not elaborated on), most of my peers picked and chose what they believed and did not believe based on which instructor they liked the best. Thankfully, the first part of the course was for civilian qualification (EMT-Basic), which has a standardized test. That was not something where the facts could be decided by personality loyalties.

Initially, I hated AIT so much that I thought that I couldn’t make it through. Scratch that—it wasn’t that I couldn’t make it through, but that I had no desire to do so. I attempted to fail my second test (you have to fail something twice to “double-tap,” as they call it), but came up with a 76 instead. Had I actually double-tapped, I would have ended up recycled to another training company, or perhaps retrained in an “easier” MOS (Military Occupational Specialty)—but still one of the top 25 most necessary, which means it probably would have been a shitty MOS nobody wanted. It was unfortunate that once I had accepted AIT for what it was, that grade was on my permanent record. It came back to haunt me later. As much as I hated AIT and thought the Drill Sergeants were incapable of doing much other than yelling, marching, and doing paperwork, I just sort of…accepted it. It’s okay to die a little inside if it helps you through. I didn’t stop taking attacks personally, I just stopped caring if somebody attacked me. Mutual respect was clearly not a rule anybody played by in AIT, and I tried to keep the disgust in the back of my mind where it wouldn’t betray me to the Drill Sergeants. The Army does a pretty good job of teaching you to take the heat and do nothing.

AIT for 68W Healthcare Specialist did have its high points. Our two-day clinical rotation at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas, for instance, was incredible. Most of the instructors were knowledgeable, and many of us got to see fascinating medical procedures, like cardiac catheterizations. I was originally assigned to the Medical Surgery ward, but I ended up working in the Outpatient Burn Clinic. BAMC specializes in dealing with severe burns. You would not believe the things you witness in a burn ward, especially when most of those patients are Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) victims. Those were the best two days of my life, and I will never forget what it was like to work in a real hospital with impressive credentials. It’s too bad that a lot of my peers never got to the point that they could see the light at the end of the tunnel: at least 50 soldiers out of our class of about 350 double-tapped and were recycled to another company, or reclassed to another MOS entirely.

I graduated from the four-month long 68W AIT with just .11 below a 90 GPA, the cutoff for Honor Grad. Three friends and my boyfriend attended the ceremony, which was more cheerful than that of BCT, and I returned to Houston. A few weeks earlier, I had received my orders for Fort Benning, GA. Upon showing two Drill Sergeants my duty assignment, both of them said, “That’s not the one you want.”

I should have known.

Up Next: Deep inside the burn ward

Tears From a Honey-Soy Emulsion Clown

December 20th, 2006 by Tim Riley

If upstate New York was my Egypt, then Delaware, I thought, was to be my milk-and-honey filled Promised Land. That was my first mistake. Delaware is no one’s promised land. If I was Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt and what I encountered was Delaware, I’d have turned right back around and explained to the Pharaoh it was all a big misunderstanding.

I exaggerate, but only a little.

Delaware is essentially one enormous stretch of strip malls, a repeated pattern of cheap dry cleaners, Red Lobster restaurants, pawnshops, Home Depots, and office supply stores. Yet unlike other suburban areas, Delaware is haplessly devoid of anything new or interesting. There are few electronics stores, trendy burrito spots, or nightclubs—though no shortage of Arby’s. People in Delaware seem to live their lives floating between a wistful melancholy and a slightly blissful ignorance, as if they weren’t quite aware there was more to the world than used clothes shops and cut-rate nail salons.

It was next to an unfinished nail salon in a yet-to-be-filled strip mall that my saving grace of a restaurant lay. The idea really wasn’t all that ill-conceived: combine fine dining Asian-fusion style food with a stylish sushi bar, and upscale but not fancy surroundings and plop the whole thing down in a middle class area near a big university. The plan was to hire hip, attractive servers, have a partly open kitchen, a bar right in the center of the joint serving modern, creative cocktails. It all seemed doable.

At least that’s the portrait my friend and C.I.A. compatriot Ryan painted. Ryan never impressed me much at school. He certainly wasn’t a great chef. But he was older, more experienced, very nice, and quite convinced that this restaurant was the real deal. He was to be the executive chef, I his sous chef.

I have to admit that when he made this offer I was desperate. It was like Last Call, and I was that morose frat boy looking desperately around when he realizes he’s confronted with the possibility of yet another weekend night alone.

By early summer I’d come to loathe the hotel. Gianni left for New York in the late spring; without him I felt overwhelmed and, frankly, quite lonely. The hotel was a union house and the cooks there were overpaid and impossible to discipline, fire or motivate. Very few of them had a passion for food. I spent most of my days alone, making the sauces for the hotel and little else. It was in this mindset I agreed to go to Delaware. What can I say? The lights were very dim.

It was in June that I finally packed up and left the hotel. Before I left I dropped into the kitchen one last time to say my goodbyes. Chef was in a Food and Beverage meeting in one of the conference rooms I was told. After some looking I found the room and slowly opened the door. Chef stood up, smiled, shook my hand and said in his thick accent, “I am loooosing a great saucier.” I smiled back. Other members of the Food and Beverage team had shocked looks on their faces when they saw me, as if behind my back I had a cache of automatic weapons and was looking for retribution. On the drive south I had morbid Charles Bronson-style daydreams about how everything would have ended better if I’d just gone in with weapons blazing.

At Ryan’s urging I developed a sample menu. I filled it with what I thought was interesting, innovative, yet easily marketable food. There was no foie gras or veal cheeks or obscure Asian ingredients. There were, instead, simple dishes like five-spiced cured salmon, crispy soft shell crab with ponzu brown butter, and jasmine tea smoked chicken. Ryan seemed very pleased with my menu; so did the owners of the restaurant.

In reality, it was all lip service. The restaurant’s owner, with minimal influence from Ryan, had already constructed a menu that was essentially filled with fancied up take out fare. Instead of tea smoking the chicken like I suggested, thin breasts were to be coated with a macadamia nut crust and served with “savory pineapple bread pudding” and a sickeningly sweet, vomit-colored “port-coconut cream.” Nearly every single dish seemed to call for large quantities of sugar. Beef with broccoli and chicken lo mein played prominent roles on the menu.

Ryan assured me that this was all just pretense—a nervous restaurant owner attempting to assert his authority. Soon the food and the menu would be all ours, he promised. Meanwhile, I was to be developing recipes with the other sous chef, Brandon. It was hard to take the process seriously. We developed—I kid you not—separate recipes for ginger-soy vinaigrette, ginger-soy sauce, honey-soy emulsion, sesame-soy sauce, citrus-ginger dressing, sesame-ginger dressing, honey-teriyaki vinaigrette, honey-teriyaki sauce, and mustard-soy sauce, among countless other hyphenated horrors. Our most difficult task was remembering which of our plethora of identically flavored sauces we were working on at the current moment.

The restaurant was still under construction at this point so Brandon and I conducted our work in a tiny single family home in a nondescript residential neighborhood about a mile away. Brandon commuted from Philadelphia, but I lived in this house (which was owned by the restaurant’s owner) with Suzanne, an old and close friend from the C.I.A. who had been recruited by Ryan to manage the sushi side of things. While we developed recipes, Suzanne trained at the owner’s other restaurant—a fast-food Chinese place located in a mall that also happened to serve shoddy, too-old sushi. Her experience was a combined set of food crimes worse than anything I had previously imagined. January’s tomato tartare paled in comparison. Not only did the owner use frozen fish that he illegally marketed as fresh, he served aging, nearly inedible product and instructed her to cover up the off flavors with slices of raw ginger, insisting that “people don’t like the flavor of raw fish anyway.” One day Suzanne walked in and found the other cooks washing vegetables in the mop bucket. She told me she nearly quit on the spot. I should have quit the minute I heard it. I didn’t. That was my second mistake.

My third mistake was when I found out the owners of the restaurant obtained the necessary capital by selling off the Taco Bell franchises that they owned. That really should have been my cue to exit. Inexplicably, I did not.

Up Next: What I witness—and fall victim to—is worse than anything I’d seen before, and sends me flying out of Delaware.

A Chanukah Song

December 15th, 2006 by Ben Kaplan

“Excuse me,” the waiter in the fancy Italian restaurant said as I waited for my wife to arrive. I was just getting into my first Beefeater martini on the coldest day of the year, eavesdropping on a mother dining with her teenage girl.

“No disrespect,” he said, with a hard-to-place accent, a black guy with green eyes, “but when is Chanukah?”

“What tipped you off?” I said. “Look or disposition?”

“Both,” he said. “No disrespect, but my lady friend is Jewish, and she actually doesn’t know. I’m an atheist myself so the holiday season kind of drifts by in a blur.”

I actually did know when Chanukah was. It seems like since the moment I got baptized into the Greek-Orthodox church I’ve had aspirations of becoming the Super Jew. Of course, that hadn’t amounted into actually doing anything Super Jew-like. In fact, the night before my wife asked me if I’d rather be the ghost of Christmas past or the ghost of Christmas present in a family production she wants to stage with her five-year-old nephews for her sister, homebound with MS.

“I want to be the Chanukah King,” I said. “The Hebrew super hero, with lights and fire—I’ll kick Christmas’ ass.

I told the waiter Chanukah was December 16. Last Chanukah someone on the street was passing out free menorahs and candles and I got one and lit it in Julie’s parent’s basement where I lived at the time. I wasn’t baptized yet, or married, but I could see the writing on the wall. It was the first time a menorah was lit in the home of the president of the Greek Orthodox church.

My cheap ass, I never did buy a new one. But I’d made a mental note to take out that cheap hunk of tin on December 16.

The holidays are a weird time in the mixed home of the newly wed. Standing on the street today listening to a couple arguing while shopping, I wonder if maybe it’s just a tough time for everyone. But I want Julie to have a good Christmas. A tree. Stockings. Carols. The whole thing. But at the same time, secretly, and then sometimes not so much, it’s like: fuck Christmas. It still has the tarnish of making me switch. In fact, I’m leaving to visit my parents in Maryland on Christmas Day. My wife is joining me a few days later. Now we made these arrangements because of work schedules but somehow that seems a little too pat.

She’s spending Christmas at a church in Canada with her sister’s kids and I’ll be in America with my Jewish parents, eating Chinese food and probably seeing that Mel Gibson flick. I wish Julie and I had been married for longer and could talk about these things and have them be fine. But we haven’t and we don’t, and sometimes we get mad about other things because it’s easier, if far from ideal. I wish that black waiter with the green eyes didn’t see my new wife get up from the table in tears and later me, so drunk in a dive bar that, well…

Last year we went to midnight Mass. This year I’m not sure what we’ll do. I love seeing my wife light up when I do something good. But they’ve already somehow broken me. I went to church when I was giving it to them. But now that they’ve taken my bigger thing, I no longer want to go.

Not sure where that leaves my wife and I.

But the waiter returns and another martini appears and it’s cold outside, freezing actually. And it’s the holidays.

Who Am I Here? Welcome to The Army Diary

November 28th, 2006 by Tish

Realistically speaking, right about now I should be combing gel through my crimped hair and drawing on my eyebrows while two babies scream in the next room, and an equally loud man cranks up the wrestling on TV to block it out. Fortunately (and unfortunately, depending on the day), I was gifted with some degree of intellect as a child, combined with the kind of naiveté that allows a person to ignore the reality of their surroundings in favor of a crank fantasy world where everybody gets a fair shot. And why not: that is America, right?

I guess you could think of the Army as a facet of that “fair shot,” though most people never even consider enlisting unless they already feel they have been failed by “the system” in one way or another. So, here I am, in Columbus, Georgia, a small town with very little to offer aside from drugs and proximity to Atlanta. I am stationed at Fort Benning, on Kelley Hill, in a mechanized infantry brigade. Don’t believe that shit they tell you about women never going into combat zones. It’s (mostly) untrue; support personnel may not technically be in an Infantry position, but we pull guard and do combat patrols and hide from mortar rounds all the same, in the same neighborhoods, against the same people. I’ve been here since sometime in June, though I am nearing my one-year mark being in my life in the Army so far.

My MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) is 68W (”W” is “whiskey”, from the phonetic alphabet). My day-to-day consists almost entirely of “moving boxes” and “mowing lawns.” There is a reason we call ourselves “Landscaper Medics.”

68W is on the list of top 25 most-wanted MOS. If you fail out of your original school, you will be directed to that list of 25 to choose an MOS “at the needs of the Army”—a phrase we hear a lot. It strikes me as illogical that we are apparently filling a very necessary position with many more slots to be filled, and yet many of us only approach carrying out the duties of aforementioned MOS while we are deployed. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the situation seems to be that the only place they really do need us is in Iraq. While in garrison, we are essentially useless bodies taking up valuable real estate, which is why we as a support company are saddled with every pointless tasking known to man. The situation is pathetic enough that a startling (and depressing) number of girls get pregnant in order to get assigned to the TMC (Troop Medical Clinic), where they will be carrying out medical duties every day, or to leave the military completely. I’d say about, oh, near a fifth of our company is working at the TMC right now only because they got pregnant. Only the lucky ones are assigned to a hospital or clinic from the beginning.

I have to say thanks for that naiveté; it’s the only thing that kept me going throughout a childhood spent in flooded apartments and houses with tarps for roofs. Par for the course, I was a pretty weird kid. I didn’t know how to make friends, so I drew some for myself instead. I hardly had a father; he disappeared when I was three and only appeared in my youth to make idle threats of kidnapping. My mother seemed to lack whatever tolerance for other people is required to work at even the easiest job, and so she could not support me on her own. I slept in a dining room with three other people while the living room was lights on, TV up until three or four in the morning, creating a ridiculous span of time in high school where I slept about an hour a night. You’d be surprised what that does to a person, without you even realizing it’s happening. You just don’t fathom the degree of utterly fucked up shit you’ve gotten yourself into until long after, when your sleep cycle has recovered for long enough for your sanity to start creeping back.

So maybe it’s not such a shock that I somehow got it into my head that I didn’t need high school. I knew I didn’t need my house, it wasn’t very good, anyway. I certainly didn’t need what sad shamble of a family I had. I thought I would have an easier time getting better jobs and making my own way if I dropped out of high school and got my GED. I applied for financial aid two years in a row, but a funny fine combination of clerical errors on the part of FAFSA and my mother’s inability to give accurate tax information kept simple, widespread government grants out of my reach. Yeah, I felt stupid. I always felt that if I was so smart, I should have more control over these circumstances, and that luck, while seeming like the obvious perpetrator, shouldn’t be blamed for situations that surely a smart person could get under their control. Being “young and stupid” has always seemed like an excuse in bad taste to me.

I spent a few years trying to make money any way I could. Getting entry-level jobs in Houston when you aren’t bilingual and don’t have any connections is nigh impossible; even spending six months down at the Texas State WorkSource office couldn’t do the trick. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself at that point, but there was still an option — I could move to another part of the country, where being bilingual wasn’t so vital to getting even a minimum wage job. With that in mind, I moved to Sarasota, Florida, and lived (illegally) with my boyfriend in his tiny one-man dorm room while I worked at Walgreens (full time) and Movie Gallery (part time). I was able to move out into a room for rent, but there was a Catch-22 — if you do not work, you do not have enough money to go to college or to even afford cheap rent; work, and you only make enough money to cover rent and no longer have the time to go to school. Even as I climbed the ladder of dead-end jobs to one that paid $8.75 an hour (!), I was riding my flat-prone bike to work down the side of a freeway, stopping at every gas station I came across to put air back in the tires. It was all I could manage not to throw myself into oncoming traffic in frustration with the black hole of wasted potential I was convinced my life had become. It had gotten to a point where the only way I could make any real money was to take off my clothes and dance around for horny frat boys and desperate men with sad home lives.

So, naturally, the best decision I could have made was to join the Army. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that even something as lowest-common-denominator as that was a hassle. The Air Force would not take me because I have a bum eye and a GED; I can’t swim well enough for the Navy; I haven’t the physical stamina or even the vaguest desire to become a Marine.

Recruiters are a pain in the ass. They have what has got to be one of the worst jobs in the whole military, no matter what your recruiter tells you with a straight face. They constantly have their superiors breathing down their necks, threatening to extend their hours (which are already very long) or end their careers over not meeting recruitment quotas. Is anybody surprised that recruiters have a bad reputation for being dishonest? Thing is, they’re just regular people like you and I, and regular people will do whatever it takes in most situations to lift that kind of constant pressure. Lying, or more accurately, “strategically omitting things you will really wish you had known,” is just about the only way you can get most people who don’t have insane criminal records to enlist in the Army. Or at least it often feels that way.

I was desperate and burning for college money, for that opportunity that all my friends were enjoying and unknowingly dangling in front of my nose. I had become obsessed with all things medical in the previous few years. Burn patients, maxillofacial tumors that will grow back forever no matter how many times you remove them, plastic surgery, angioplasty, disgusting rare skin conditions — you name it, if somebody finds it disturbing, I like it, I love it. It seems as if the masochist in me chose to love a profession that is not only intellectually very challenging, but not a field known for its rags-to riches success stories. What I’m hoping is that even though I don’t like the Army at all and don’t identify with anybody here, I can use what I’ve learned here (and most obviously, the money) to become a dermatologist later.

But right here, right now, I’m exactly where socioeconomics wants me. The Army is the domain of the Working Class American, but my mind is far away dreaming of art kids and hack sociology, dermal cysts, and indie rock music.

Up Next: Basic combat training and advanced individual training. Disillusionment to the max! A sheeple is you!

This Is Not a Food Blog

November 28th, 2006 by Tim Riley

I repeat: this is not a food blog.

When it comes to food, blogs are the domain of the fanatical restaurant groupies, the gourmet jetsetters, the gastronomic literati and the occasional Julia Child obsessed secretary. Blogs are home to boring recipes, long debates about overpriced cookware, and gossip about whether Rachel Ray looks chubby in her most recent episodes or not.

Professional cooks don’t write blogs. We write powerful vignettes about the rigor and stress of our jobs. We write how-to guides so the people who write blogs can better emulate our mastery. Sometimes, if we’re feeling introspective, we even write autobiographical accounts of our outrageous personal lives.

Or, if we’re Anthony Bourdain, we do all of the above. Writing about professional cooking in the Bourdain era is difficult—much more difficult than I ever imagined. Bourdain—for those not familiar with him—is a professional chef, a product of the gastronomic reaches of Reagan era excesses and now a widely celebrated author and television host. In 1995 he turned a New Yorker article into a book deal and published the wildly successful Kitchen Confidential. Never before had the world of haute cuisine been so thoroughly and totally exposed. The book left few stones unturned, few feathers unruffled. Between infamous bashings of television super-chef Emeril Lagasse, Bourdain sketched an accurate, if somewhat exaggerated, picture of what life is like in an upscale restaurant kitchen.

If it weren’t for Bourdain—from here on out, I’m calling him Tony—I’d probably have to spend the next several paragraphs going over just what its like to work in a professional kitchen. But because of Kitchen Confidential, Tony’s subsequent writings and the works of his many imitators, you probably have at least a vague idea.

If you don’t, you’ll find out. That’s the point here, after all, right?

I am supposed to be writing this from Delaware. That was the plan. When this diary was first proposed I was unhappily employed at a hotel in a small but wealthy city in upstate New York. You’ve been to towns like this before. Hopefully you haven’t had to stay in hotels like ours. Our guests were worse than pretentious; they were stupid, too. While their interests would have probably been better served at the Holiday Inn down the street, these were the sorts of folks who wouldn’t be caught dead at any roadside establishment run by immigrants. They were happy to pay four or five times the Holiday Inn rate for rooms, food and service that merely pretended to be better than the Holiday Inn.

This hotel was my first job after graduating from culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in 2005, when I was 23. The contrast between school and the hotel couldn’t have been greater. The C.I.A. was the training ground of some of our nation’s best chefs. Tony went there. So did chefs like Todd English, Roy Yamaguchi and Harold, that guy who won the first season of the reality show Top Chef. Leaving the pearly gates of the C.I.A. and descending into the mess that was this hotel was somewhat like climbing the wrong direction over the Berlin Wall.

The executive chef who headed up our kitchens was the definition of a restaurant industry burnout. Content spending his days forwarding funny or pornographic emails, Chef avoided cooking at all costs. His resume positively gleamed; in past decades he’d headed up some of Europe’s best hotel kitchens, but by the time I first encountered him he was nothing but a shell of his former self.

The first time we met—I had actually been hired by one of Chef’s secretarial assistants—I found Chef in his office picking his nose and staring blankly at his computer. I knocked gently on the frame of the door. Chef turned around on his swivel chair and examining the dried mucus under his fingernail, shrugged, flicked it onto the ground, and reached out to shake my hand.

I set to work that morning on what was perhaps the most absurd, most out of place, most poorly thought out dish I have ever been a part of. In the middle of a cold winter in the depths of upstate New York I was putting all of the knowledge and skills that had been developed in me at the C.I.A. into making tomato tartare.

Tartare is a raw dish, a preparation most often associated with Steak Tartare, a classic French bistro item made with raw beef and flavored with Dijon mustard, capers and lemon juice. The dish is all about freshness, about bright and vibrant flavors. Tomato tartare would be a creative chef’s play on the classic steak version. In an ideal situation it would be a gazpacho like mix of late summer vegetables featuring the brightest, ripest tomatoes available. It is a dish you can imagine eating among grape vines and lavender fields in Provence or in a café on a hot summer day during the California summer.

It is not a dish that is appropriate to the chilly winters of New York State. The tomatoes you get during the winter are awful. They are picked green and then gassed with chemicals that turn them a weak, sad shade of red. Their flavor and texture, at its best, resembles wet cardboard. In fact, most chefs only use fresh tomatoes during the months of August and September. During the rest of the year any tomato product is coming right out of the can. Sure, its undergone pasteurization, but at least it was ripe when it was picked.

Yet, there I was—a devotee of Alice Waters, a young cook thoroughly awash in the dogma of seasonal cooking—cutting shameful January tomatoes into neat piles of brunoise (1/16 of an inch squares). My tomatoes were combined with awkwardly cut zucchini and squash, then showered with low-grade, fake balsamic vinegar (red wine vinegar colored with caramel, I presume), and cheaply plated in ring molds. The tartare was topped with some cheerless arugula and the whole plate then doused with so much second-rate truffle oil the whole kitchen was enveloped with its painfully noxious aroma. In a moment of pitiful melodrama, I began to picture myself on a World War I battlefield gasping for air amid clouds of vaguely truffle smelling mustard gas.

This was the first of many food crimes I would witness at this hotel. On the bright side, I did quickly befriend one of the hotel’s sous chefs, Gianni, a fellow C.I.A. alumni, and he and I spent the next six months fighting an uphill battle against the out of season, cheap, carelessly prepared crap we saw around us. Ultimately, we both gave up. Gianni headed to New York, I to Delaware, both looking for the culinary greatness that had missed us so far.

Up Next: In Delaware, bad duck, tough luck, and an awful restaurant.

He Got Skunked Down, But He Got Up Again (Finalé)

November 21st, 2006 by Brad Wieners

“We can’t make it without stopping. We need to stop.”

“I know,” I replied.

M knows when I’m replying to acknowledge I’ve heard her, but I’m not really listening. So she followed up: “We need to stop before we get onto the bridge.”

This time I didn’t reply. I hadn’t made up my mind on that yet. I was driving like a bat out of Boston (where they drive scarier than Hell), and I was being stubborn and resisting M’s completely reasonable request to refuel and maybe find a way to keep the mystery license plate from falling off our car before heading out onto the span of the George Washington Bridge.

In fact, I was briefly beyond all reason, and, as if to prove it, I downshifted, then accelerated parallel with a tanker truck as the traffic on the expressway forked and threaded a sine wave through a construction zone, two tires on pavement, two on raked and fractured concrete, bits of gravel spitting up and against the inside of the fender as if we driving a vacuum over a filthy floor. Georgette, who been caring for Gus while M was working, gasped at the nearness of the tanker; Gus, in the car seat next to her, looked around baffled, but not unhappy; and my sister Megann starred out the window behind me. I couldn’t tell if she was beyond tears or not. M was clearly on the verge of fresh tears when I stole a look at her.

“Don’t take it out on the car,” she pleaded.

“I’m not,” I lied.

“We need to pull over and get gas,” she said, her jaw tightening. “Or I’m…Going. To. Lose. It.”

Moving days are always stressful, but in all my life, and in all the moves I can recall, some more vividly than others—Baltimore to Chicago, Chicago to Boston, Boston times-two before cross-country to Palo Alto, Palo Alto to Los Angeles (five addresses there, plus in with a college sweetheart (and back out) then up the coast to San Francisco (at least four apartments), S.F. to Santa Fe, New Mexico (while helping M move to Seattle, too) to New York City (three apartments in four-plus years)—in all of that, our moving day from Greenpoint to Nyack, not 20 miles as the crow flies, blows them all away.

In the hour previous to pulling even with the tanker on the BQE, my sister had become hysterical, tearfully explaining that she felt under-appreciated for all she’d done that morning, and in the weeks previous, to help us. The trigger for this outburst was our offer of a cheap tool set to our downstairs neighbor (a white elephant for our erstwhile super), but it soon came out she’d read an email I’d sent our mother giving my opinion that she hadn’t done enough to get herself situated in New York, and she was upset by it, as well as offended when M offered her $50 for her trouble that morning (though not so offended she returned the money)—all of which left M steamed in a I-really-don’t-need-this-shit
-right-now kind of way. Which was understandable.

This had all gone down an hour after the movers had taken off in an unmarked, stripped-down version of a medium-sized U-Haul truck. We were supposed to meet them and let them into our house, or pay for the time they waited on us, and so we felt pressed to get rolling and had hit the road without eating lunch.

To find budget movers, we’d done a reverse auction online, and the ones we selected, though inexpensive, were neither bonded nor insured, and this played on our nerves as well. (For one of the movers, Paco, it was his first day. He’d become exhausted even before the drive to Nyack, and so the others teased him by handing him sofa cushions and pillows to carry one at a time—welcome comedy for all of us.) Not so funny: that our belongings had not fit entirely in their truck, and no matter what happened, I’d have to return later that night for the last of it…maybe two trips, if I couldn’t fit the remains of the day in our Subaru. (Going back the following day was out the question. We were moving on March 15, a Wednesday, so I’d taken off work. I couldn’t swing two days off in a row with all I had going at the office.)

The night before, Tuesday, I’d taken the subway out to a part of Brooklyn I’d never been to, and alone, with $4,400 in crisp hundreds in the breast pocket of a sport jacket in order to purchase a 1999 Subaru Forester off the street for cash. I was the kind of fool who didn’t deserve sympathy if I got jacked, a mark in a Coen Brothers noir, but I’d promised M we’d have a car before we moved, and, as it happens, I made the deadline by two and a half hours.

The seller of Subaru, Brian, a contract dealer who worked out of his apartment, met me at the bottom of the stairs to an elevated subway stop. I’d met him in the dark a few nights before and test-driven the car, and I thought I’d sorted out why a car that had been sold to its original owner in New York had out-of-date, out-of-state plates with unpaid parking tickets on them. However, when M pressed me as to why I had to take the plates off the car before leaving it parked on the street overnight (that same evening), I wasn’t 100 percent sure it wasn’t because there was something less than legit about Brian’s employer. In any case, I hadn’t had much success getting the plates back on the morning of our move, either. The Florida plate could be heard rattling as we drove; it dangled from a single screw.

Now add the fact that M had left her day job the day before and not yet succeeded in communicating clearly to Georgette that we couldn’t keep her on as Gus’s caregiver after the move, and that we had camped out in our new home exactly one night but were now fully committed to our new life in a town where we knew a couple people to say hello to and no one well…and now the scenario for Most Stressful Moving Day Ever is almost complete.

But not quite. 72 hours earlier, before I bought the car, before the movers showed up, or Megann flipped, M’s brother Michael, her original life support in New York City, had very nearly died. When he’d checked into ER at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Manhattan that Sunday night, he learned his appendix had already burst. And apparently when your appendix bursts, they can’t just take it out, but instead have to drain your guts of the infection like medieval barbers. This was the state M left Michael in at the hospital as she packed boxes: stabilized on intense antibiotics and hallucinogenic levels of painkillers with tubes sticking out his abdomen.

So now the picture’s more or less complete: we’re late to meet the uninsured movers, my sister’s in the car, too, because we couldn’t leave things as raw as they’d been, M is feeling guilty, even heartsick, about her brother Michael in the hospital, as well as letting our nanny go, and so Georgette’s in the car, too, and out of all of us, only Gus has had lunch (thanks to Georgette), and the car we’re all in might be re-possessed or stolen, but in any event the license plate is falling off, and the fuel gauge is on empty. Hey, but at least the fuel light (which may or may not work) is not illuminated.

Maybe it was M’s tremulous voice or Georgette’s gasp, but soon after we drew even with the tanker truck, I had a chilling thought: this is how people end up dead. An asshole motorist (that’d be me) in a car he’s driven for less than an hour in his whole life, pushes too hard and challenges a 80-ton tanker on a curve…and…and I let my foot off the gas, gave the tanker some room, and soon pointed our over-wrought wagon up an exit ramp and into a service station.

As I pumped the gas, a livery limo driver walked up to me. His gestures were exaggerated because he didn’t speak English, and assumed I did. I didn’t make out what he said, but I nodded as if I understood him—counterproductive politeness. I soon worked out that he wanted to hand me something, and held out my hand. Into my hand fell a screw. For our license plate. He showed me how it was loose, in case I’d failed to notice. I remain quite confident he understood and was maybe even a little embarrassed by my gratitude.

Later that night, after I’d driven Georgette and Megann back to Jamaica and Brooklyn and loaded the last of our worldly goods into the Subaru, and swept and vacuumed one last time, I pulled into our driveway in Nyack, and entered our new home in a daze. It was only about ten, but we’d been going steady since 5.30 a.m., and it might as well have been 3 a.m. G was asleep in his new room, and M and I poured each other very full glasses of red wine, though I was so wrecked I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish mine. I had just raised my glass to her when a not-shy-at-all knock reminded us that our new front door was basically a tall, latticed window.

We both startled. And I jumped again when, through the door, I made out the uniform of an EMT. Actually, jumped isn’t quite right—the sensation was more like falling, a sudden, neuro-electical dread that holds you in place more than dizzies you. Who could be hurt? Gus is upstairs…

“I was just driving by and noticed you’d left a door open on your car,” the EMT dude said once I had the door open.

I looked at the Subaru. The light was on inside the car, and a side door was open, with a blanket I’d used to protect a frame spilling out. I must have brought the frame in, and forgotten to go back to lock it up.

“We just moved in,” I said, as if that should explain everything.

I followed him up the four cement stairs to the driveway to lock the car and put away the blanket, continuing to narrate our day, being out-of-our-minds tired, etc. He was nice and sympathetic.

“Someone thought the blanket was maybe a body hanging out of the car,” he said.

Someone? But I thought you had been driving by? (I thought this. I did not say this.) He really was trying to help. “Yikes. I guess I could see where they might,” I said. “Well, it’s great to know people here notice things.”

“Yep, they do.” And he said good night, closed himself in his ambulance, and was gone.

Four nights later, we still hadn’t quite recovered our equilibrium when M came to me with a concerned look on her face.

“Do you smell that?” I thought I did. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. But it seems like it’s getting stronger.” I opened the lightweight door to the cellar stairs and descended part way.

“I think it’s coming from where the furnace is,” M insisted, her voice now charged with real concern. “Do you think it’s gas?” And before I could answer: “I’m taking Gus out of here.”

While I went down the stairs and made a futile search (what was I looking for? Isn’t natural gas invisible?), M called Orange & Rockland, the gas company, and conveyed that there was an odor from where the gas main entered our house, and that it smelled vaguely of skunk, but didn’t have that pungent, sweet-sour finish of skunk, and that we’d been in the house for less than a week, and though we’d had it inspected, we couldn’t be sure it was safe. By the time she was off the phone, I had G bundled up, and she took him out to the curb across the street to wait for the gas man.

It being March, it was not warm out, and when I joined M and G out on the curb a few minutes later, I wished I’d pulled on something warmer. We were, right then, resigned that our new home might explode right before our eyes—that was the kind of week we were having, and we’ve seen enough movies—when out from under the porch came a very dusty, bedraggled, almost orange-yellow and black skunk.

Too astonished to laugh for real in the moment, we sat there stunned for several no-fucking-way! long seconds, and then practiced what would say to the gas guy. When he arrived, he listened patiently to our assurances that we’d encountered plenty of skunks in our past, just not this close, or potent. He shortly thereafter summed us up for what we were: “city people.” To hear him tell it, there were a lot of us descending on the region, and some of us were alright, but others thought they knew all there was to know, and they could be a real pain in the ass. We’d do alright, he said before packing up to leave. We just had a lot to learn.


Several months later, a Sunday.

Yesterday, G and I had a swim lesson at the Y, met mommy for a show at the Nyack town hall—featuring Bill Irwin, the baggypants clown—and then dressed Gus for the Nyack Halloween Parade. I carried a banner for the Rockland Parent-Child Center in front of G in the parade, while M pushed him in his stroller (as Sam I am, from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham). More people in the crowd knew Gus than me, which I took as a good sign. Afterwards, when I’d put him to bed, M and I had another of our delayed shocks that this is our life now: swim lessons, community fundraisers, our weekend days “off” built around events and parties for children. To top off our big Saturday night, we ate a couple of home-baked chocolate chip cookies (with those sick 60 percent cocoa chips from Ghirardelli), and watched a couple of episodes of LOST on DVD. From the vantage of our own selves not five years ago, we were complete and utter dorks. But you know what else? It was ok. And not a resigned, ok-fine, but a really OK.

Nyack has turned out to be the town we hoped—a little bit less convenient to get to from the city, and a bit more distinctive because of it. A terminus for the underground railroad (by which African Americans gained their freedom) in the mid-1800s, a major launching point for service men leaving the U.S. for the Europe during WWII, and a magnet for artists and various utopians in the years after the war, Nyack and the surrounding villages, depending on the light and the way the river reflects it, appear haunted—or blessed. It’s not a community of repressed careerists, but scores of people who are still openly seeking who they really are. Students, especially: Nyack’s surrounded by religious and international schools; on the trail that runs along the banks of Hudson north of town, I’ve heard as many or more languages spoken as I ever did on the F, B, or D trains in the city. (And though the Halloween parade wasn’t as hip as Williamsburg, it served just fine.)

It’s not as if the move and adjustment have all gone smoothly. The contractor who sold us our house ended up suing us over money set aside in escrow for landscaping. We countersued to defend our decision to hold him to the terms of contract and ended up having to try the case, M and I taking turns interviewing each other on the stand (another story altogether). We recently had a part-time nanny Gus loved poached by another couple we’d introduced her to, and spent $2,600 we don’t have adding insulation to the walls of the house—the first insulation of any kind they’d ever seen.

But we’ve discovered that the gas guy was right: there a lot of us city people moving up this way, including a lot of young families—”young” families with first-time parents in their 30s, or even late 30s, like us. When we first met these fellow transplants, fear-and-loathing of the mall and burbs was always among the first things we talked about. Yet these months later, we don’t like the mall much better (though the open spaces under a roof can really save your ass with a restless toddler on a rainy day). We still confide cravings for the city (mostly food, art house movies, not having to make plans to have an amazing evening). And yet I’ve noticed that, by and large, dread of the burbs has dropped from conversation and I think the reason is quite simple: it’s because, as the parents of small children, the advantages of living here make what we miss seem trivial. Suburban parents may get ridiculed as being the ones who overschedule their kids, drive everywhere in minivans, and consume, as a household, enough energy and food to rival the GNP of a small island nation. But I’ve begun to think the recent epidemic of overparenting is actually an urban phenomenon—a response to the anxiety that one’s kid doesn’t have the advantages of burbs. And it is a relief, frankly, not to be swept up in the competitive parenting of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Everyday, when Gus hits the parks, the river walk, the library, the green market, or child center, and hangs out with other little ones without an express playdate, we worry less that we’re not doing enough, or that he’d should really be at the pre-pre-school in Tribeca that gets its kids into the kindergarten that fast-tracks to Exeter and Harvard. or going to the Montessori on Mercer with the Mozart and Pollock toddler seminars. When we leave the house, walk to the Hudson, and feed the ducks, or kick up a piles of leaves, collect acorns and chase after things—to judge by the look on Gus’s face, nothing could be better. Which isn’t to say we, or other Nyack parents we’ve met, don’t want our kids to have a chance to make it into top schools, it’s just that we seem to be coming around to the idea that the best thing for a kid might be…a childhood.

It would be fatuous to say that as long as Gus is happy, so are we. We have vowed to take further advantage of the Lower Hudson for ourselves, too, and to plan our lives so that once Gus is in day school, M doesn’t feel trapped. But the greatest surprise so far being out of the city is that Gus being happy really does make us happy most of the time. we’re not in opposition with our old life; we miss it, but we wouldn’t go back, either.

Probably, it’s just an obvious transition for new parents—but it wasn’t obvious to us, not having known we wanted to be parents in the first place, or even after being together more than a decade. having only been a parent 21 months, it’s already as core to my identity as the 17 years I’ve spent in my so-called career. (Good thing, too, as our adventures in unplanned parenthood continue—we’re now expecting a sib for Gus. If you want my advice, do not buy a house and have a second child in the same year. ) You may hear some complaints from us yet, it won’t be at the good fortune of having a home in Nyack.

The Biggest Surprise of the Night (Finalé)

November 14th, 2006 by Tate Hausman

You should have been there.

About 500 jubilant supporters crowded the room, cheering on my victorious candidate, John Hall, after we learned that he had won a seat in Congress by the thinnest of razor thin margins. (Watch the video highlights on the Times Herald Record video page.)

John Hall Victory Speech

The John Hall campaign was the race that shocked the nation. Nobody took it seriously. No one saw it coming. Until 10:30 pm on election day, we were still considered “leans Republican” by all the experts. The New York Times called our win “the biggest surprise of the night.” AP called it “stunning.” Our pollster, Mark Watts, who has worked on scores of tight elections, told me that “John Hall is the #1 upset in the country.”

How did we do it? With people power. With thousands of small donations. With thousands of volunteer hours. With a grassroots base that believed, that had faith, that knew this seat was worth fighting for, even when the DCCC and the money machine and no one else could see it. We did it with people. Patriots. Democrats, with a small d.

Could you ask for a better victory? Could you ask for a better confirmation that democracy actually works?

In the past week, my role shifted away from tech and into the fray of organizing. Instead of just being the Home Team captain, I stepped up to run the entire phone program. (If you believe the Kelly camp’s hilariously desperate attempt at a blog, the Hall Monitor, I was promoted to Get Out the Vote Director.) I know I’m biased, but in my opinion, it was phones that put us over the top. Commanding a grassroots army of about 450 volunteers, my program made 120,000 calls in four days. The scale was almost absurd. The results were obvious — high turnout in Dem districts, and high break of independents to Hall. The program worked.

Moving from Tech Director to “Field Organizer: Phones” was a perfect metaphor for my vision of Democracy 2.0. I made the jump from online to offline organizing. My “virtual” activists turned into real people, making real voter contacts that really won an election. Technology supported a vibrant, kick-ass field program.

Tremendous credit goes to all my 22 phone bank captains who worked so hard for me, mustering our army of over 450 phone bankers. Likewise the Home Teamers, the canvassers, the drivers, the logisticians, the sign distributor … the list of volunteers is too long to recount.

There’s a lot of praise to throw around in a victory like this [Ed note: apologies to the list of people I just cut, like Alex Zwerdling, Emily Arsenault and Daren Berringer], but the unsung hero of this campaign was our campaign director, Amy Little. She architected the grassroots wave that John rode to victory. Her strategic vision of a bottom-up, people-powered campaign bucked the conventional wisdom, and she got a lot of flack for it. But her strategy worked, and I don’t think any other strategy would have. It’s an honor to be on her team.

But the real question for a campaignster like me is, does the Internet deserve credit? The pundits are already saying a resounding YES. In an effort to wrap our story into a tight media packages, the New York Times ran a short piece that credited YouTube and Dem bloggers for undercutting Kelly. Others point to John’s high-profile Colbert Report interview, stressing that every incumbent who Colbert interviewed won re-election (Sue Kelly refused to appear, and when John appeared in her place and delivered a brilliant performance, the netroots went bananas.)

Even before Colbert and the “Run, Sue, Run” video we had a strong netroots base. Our local Take19 crew tirelessly pounded on Kelly. Howie Klein (Down With Tyranny) and John Amato (Crooks & Liars) were pushing money and supporters towards John since before I arrived on the campaign. Matt at MyDD paid us a good visit and bumped us. We got our share of Kos posts (129 “John Hall” tags as of right now, the same as Rahm Emanuel and Mike DeWine). Talking Points Memo blew up the NRCC robocall story on our behalf, and helped make their dirty trick into national news.

All this netroots support makes sense, because John was a natural netroots candidate — a straight shooter, very progressive, smart as a whip and not afraid to engage on the issues.

But in the end, it was down-home, strategic, grassroots field campaigning that put us over the top. The web helped us organize, helped us pull the operations together on a shoestring, and drew in hundreds of volunteers. But the technology supported the strategy, not vice versa. The web helped us make better, stronger, more real world connections with a larger group of people, who won this race with their passion and participation.

If that’s not Democracy 2.0, I don’t know what is.

Father Peter, Bob Seger and Me

November 8th, 2006 by Ben Kaplan

Father Peter is on the dance floor with Charlotte Cohen. The priest has a salt-and-pepper beard, a decade lighter than the high shocked ‘fro of my mom’s best friend. They both do a tight speedy waltz to the up-tempo rock the DJ roll s with at our wedding. The Big Day was last month in an Italian banquet hall outside of Toronto. I’m a reformed Jew. I’m a reformed Jew now sitting on the raised stage between my new wife and long-haired best man, watching the priest and the Yenta cut a rug to Sinatra, realizing how few eyes are actually on me.

We sweated bullets to make it this far. Even literally getting here prompted tears.

“What do you mean you don’t have the money?” Julie, my wife of 12 minutes said in the limousine from the church to the ceremony.

“I mean, and please don’t get upset because we are going to be fine, but the money I withdrew from the ATM to pay for the limousines and party buses I, unfortunately — fuck! — is in my desk drawer at home.”

The priest is trim, kind, athletic. Mrs. Cohen actually is too. Except maybe more loyal than kind. They’re handsome. Draw approving looks on the dance floor. A few months ago Father Peter poured oil over my head in a small baby pool on the same large stage where I stand now and converted me into the Greek-Orthodox church where my father-in-law presides.

I stood at the altar in the church behind Staples and held back tears on the dais and choked on Amens, like hot gobstoppers lodged in my throat. And now he’s waltzing, or doing the foxtrot, one of those slick partner dances that people do on cruise ships and couples take lessons in before the Most Important Day Of Their Lives.

Our first dance was to Nina Simone. “I dreamed of this all my life,” Julie said in my ear. “My Baby Just Cares For Me” is the song, which, on record, sounds like a good thing but, in practice, is selfish. I love Julie, the only decision I wanted to make: a cop out, for sure.

I had my first kiss in Mrs. Cohen’s basement, standing on a lunchbox to “Take My Breathe Away” to reach Amy Schuyler’s fat lips. They had a jukebox down there. One of her sons now is engaged to a woman from Spain; they have a restraining order against the other one. Father Peter and Charlotte are spinning and turning and my uncle Chet, who himself got married two years ago after a lifetime of bachelorhood, he used to take salsa lessons “to meet Oriental chicks,” and his bowtie is loosened; he’s had enough to drink. When the cocktail portion of the evening started running long, Uncle Chet was about to overthrow formalities and lead guests into the dining room, but he gave Julie and I $1,150; now, well fed, he Salsas.

I see events unfold as if in a strange movie. Julie sees them as a real-time stage show she has to direct. There was a thing with the cake, she has words for the DJ. She wants us to say something, we do, then she wants to go back up to the microphone and say something again. The impetus on me now is to not drink too much: the Big Day is here, and my job is poorly defined. I’ve done my work — the melding of two religions, two people, two countries — all of that has been signed upon in the court of law. Twice, for anyone counting.

Standing in the church before Father Peter with Julie – with everyone I love and who loves me, most of whom have picked something off our Pottery Barn registry or signed over a check — and those who didn’t both families know who they are — in the wooden pews, I no longer had a problem with the service. I felt nervous, proud, anxious, afraid of fucking up, bashful about some of the rituals, but not gagging… not gagging at all.

I thought my father looked smug during the service, bemused; my Aunt Linda was winking. Afterwards my mom, perhaps surprising herself said, “That actually wasn’t so bad.” In the pictures, though, they just look proud. I do too. Julie and I both look exalted.

On the stage we’re under Father Peter’s spell. There is no more to be done, nothing we can do. I like the feel of Julie’s small hand in my hand. I’m rolling circles against her knuckles, feeling the bones. It’s calm up here, it’s quiet: there’s no more planning, no commotion — me, the idiot, I stop doing everything wrong. Father Peter puts crowns on our heads. We walk around the altar under Jesus, armies and troops and battalions of Jesus, tons and tons of Jesus, shellacked, painted, sculpted, scripted. And it’s all fine.

“I need you to be a husband,” Julie said to me in the limo after church on our way to the party. I remember the last vision I have of a husband: one of my groomsmen, timed and dazed, he had his cell phone hooked up to an earpiece like a pilot awaiting instructions from his Wife, air control. When the limousine arrives at the banquet hall, after cell phone conversations, arguments, silence, tears, we’re greeted by her mother and a problem with the cake. First it’s late. Then it’s melting. And now we need to line-up – right now! – for our receiving line.

“Ben, where is your family?” I don’t know, but with manners, and urgency, I say, “Mom! Please! We need everyone over here right now!”

And then, even then, even always, nobody notices what’s going on. What is going on? Charlotte Cohen holds a glass of champagne. Uncle Chet’s hungry. Father Peter’s wife — an American not Greek-Orthodox from Massachusetts — gives me a kiss. Julie does too. What’s changed? We’re introduced into the party and my dad says a prayer. In Hebrew.

Maybe he gives me a look like, “they’re buying this but fuck you,” or maybe he plays it straight. The Hebrew was Julie’s idea. Father Peter says a Greek prayer, something. So does Julie’s dad. Then he gives me a kiss. Julie is teary. We both are.

I lived with Julie’s parents in their daughter’s high school bedroom for a year outside Toronto. I didn’t have a Visa or a job. I worked for her father sometimes to make cash, making sales calls for his janitorial company or else cleaning office buildings myself. The drunkest I got during those 12 months — and not the only time I got very drunk, not hardly, but the drunkest on a mission — was at the wedding of Julie’s cousin.

“I can’t do this,” I kept saying. “I can’t carry this whole thing on my shoulders.” I’m not rich enough. I’m not smart enough. I love Julie. I’ve always loved Julie. But I can’t fix a sink or build a sundeck and I don’t want to buy a house. “You’ll be fine,” Julie’s mom told me, and just now, after I make my little speech my best man greets me. “Man, you were great up there, like a politician.” I hit my lines.

And after the salad, which came mistakenly after the soup (or the other way around), we had Greek dancing and Father Peter and Mrs. Cohen shimmy in a line. I shook hands and had a laugh with a friend from New York while “I Just Called To Say I Love You” played. I wanted to dance with my new wife but she was still kind of mad at me. I couldn’t push, but she danced with her folks and I got in a few licks. We did the hora and her parents and mine and Uncle Chet all went up in the chair. People said it was great. Around 11pm the first bus was leaving. My mother and I hit the dance floor: Bob Seger, Queen, the Rolling Stones. We did them all. And finally Julie got the DJ to pay the songs we wanted: Kanye West, Modest Mouse, Radiohead … then my parents were saying goodnight. The second bus disappeared. I successfully kept track of my jacket. Julie collected the vases.

Father Peter and Charlotte Cohen went their separate ways.

Up Next: Adapting to married life and a new set of expectations and rules, the now-married couple tries on their new skin — and takes a trip to the adult novelty store in preparation for the honeymoon.

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