Since the event started at 7:30, I decided to be hip and show up casually late. When I arrived at 7:35 people were already mingling and I walked over to the author and gave her a hug. Hiding my jealousy of her success behind my smoke-stained smile, we caught up on the last two years. She asked me why I had not submitted anything to her paper in so long and I told her that I had left behind the literary lifestyle, or rather, it had left me, like a jilted lover fed up with neglect. From then on she did most of the talking, and it's not because she's a wordy person. I could only tell her in so many different ways about how I had shred my manuscripts months ago in disgust. (I shred one sheet at a time. Then I tried putting the whole 23-page story in at once but the damn thing got jammed.) Seriously, though, I was proud of her - a Hoboken girl with two books out in one year! I mean, who the hell does that besides Danielle Steele? But Steele, much like Grisham and Clancy, only has to change the names of her characters and the scenes where the book takes place, so it's more like fill-in-the-blanks puzzle than any thing else.
As the crowd began to pour in, more and more of her friends began to circle her and say hello, so I gave her her space and decided to "mingle" with the others in the bookstore. Now, in the old days, which is to say when I was still young lad, to mingle meant to tap a keg, break out a shot glass and play quarters until someone finally threw up, at which time we would then play speed quarters. If anyone became inebriated enough, that person would climb up to the roof and pour down beer down a funnel as the recipient below gulped down fire hose quantities of beer. It was Animal House without the fat funny guy. No wait, we had one of those. It was Animal House without the dead horse. Well, wait. Anyway, the horse is not important. The point is our bodies (mainly our ever-expanding stomachs) were hard at work, while our brains were being left to rust like a single man's baking dish. Sometimes we would stop partying and our discussions would go like this: "Is there beer still left in the keg?" "Bro, you wanna make another beer run?" "That chick over there is totally looking at me." "Dude, that's because your pants are down to your ankles." And finally, it would always come down to someone saying, "Whose house are we in again?"
As I began to speak to more and more people I found myself engaged in conversations that were intriguing. It's not like literary exchanges were all that new to me. I had, after all, been enrolled in a Master's level Creative Writing program. But there was something different about the way these people spoke and, more importantly, the way they listened. At the MFA program, every conversation was a duel; who could one-up the other with some brainy comment that was meant to make the other student crawl into a corner and publicly declare to all that his or her IQ was indeed below 150.
One woman, noticing I was eying a 1st edition Ernest Hemingway book (which Symposia's manager later gave me for a very fair price, hence the book store's name being dropped every other paragraph) began to speak with me. She just happened to have a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby in her hands and she asked me if I knew that Hemingway had been friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"More like friendly rivals," I said.
She mentioned that Ezra Pound was her favorite poet, and noted the coincidence of all three being friends and ex-patriots who lived in Europe. A very young, tall girl turned to us and began comparing those writers to the Post-Modernists like Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody. "What would Hemingway and Fitzgerald have to say today in this world of commercialism, MTV, remote control wars?"
And suddenly everything seemed right. It was like I had come home after being away for so long. The hundreds upon hundreds of books surrounding me. That fine wood scent of the pages, the plastic aroma of the dust jackets. That ever-lasting search for that one book you've been looking for forever.
The fact that all these people were gathered in one spot just to hear one girl read from her new novel, a girl I know, no less. And the varieties in generations - the Frank Sinatra era, The Bob Dylan era, the Kurt Cobain era, all gathered together as one literary commune. The tall girl who had just entered the conversation may have even represented the Brittany era. All of us under one roof, together, representing the future of literature; man at the height of evolution.
As the this young girl was saying something about the new trend of young writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz publishing short story collections as their first books, I blanked out, if only for a few seconds, and everything in the room went quiet, except for one, faint sound.
It was the sound of a doorknob slowly turning. It was the closet door of a nerd opening wide, and I was coming out, baby!
The reading was over, and there was a Q & A session. Ironically enough, a man in the crowd asked the author what she thought about the new conviction that nerd is hip, and hip is nerd. The author agreed and said that she believed that being a nerd had never before been so in. She said the tables had finally turned, and I couldn't agree more. "Cool" girls like Paris Hilton make more money in one day than all of us in the bookstore will in our lifetime, but none of us will ever be publicly scorned and laughed at, or have a video porn tape on the internet (author excluded). The same is true of cool girl Jessica Simpson, whose mother confessed, "She was so popular in high school. Everyone just loved her." Maybe I wasn't the high school darling, but I never used the word "mices," asked what part of the buffalo Buffalo Wings were made of since they don't have wings? And we all know about the Chicken of the Sea debacle. I'm not even sure they realize the rest of us are laughing at them and not with them. But hey, they're bringing in the digits and I'm not, so they must be doing something wrong that's somehow right in this mixed up world. My only concern is for Nick Lachea, Jessica Simpson's husband. My concern is not so much for him but for the money I have riding on his inevitable suicide. My bookie's got me three to one he does it on the road rather than in their mansion. And have you ever seen these reality dating shows that are on late at night? You get to see what former high school football players and cheerleaders look like when they're all grown up. It's sad yet invigorating, sort of like Cher's last concert tours.
Now let's look at the nerds. The Lord of the Rings swept the Oscars, a huge victory for nerds across the world. Suddenly Dungeons and Dragons was cool again. And aside from Aragon, who were the heroes of The Lord of the Rings? Two little hobbits, one goofier than the other. On the "cool scale" of make-believe creatures, the only thing lower than a hobbit is a sock puppet. And yet they won the hearts of the public. And while we're on movies, Toby Mcguire, who could play Woody Allen in a biographical film with the help of a little make-up, won the role of Spider Man. What's next, Seth Green as Aqua Man? Nerds have come a long way, indeed. It goes to show that revolutions are not won with guns and violence, but with pocket protectors and thick glasses.
I had mentioned Kurt Cobain earlier as the representative artist of my generation. I had once read a magazine after his death which heralded him as a "Geek and a God." I never did forget that comparison, because I thought the contrast was genius. It had made me rethink what it meant to be cool and what it meant to be a nerd. I had read interviews about Cobain and heard him talk about the "meatheads" and jocks who showed up to his shows because he had become hip and famous, and he would sometimes look out in the crowd and say to himself, "that's the football player who used to beat me up everyday."
As we all know, it was not just Cobain's high school where the nerds were bullied up by the jocks and the cool kids. In fact, I used to sit at the "cool" table during lunch and free periods, and we would throw various food items at the nerd-occupied tables like we were at Normandy-mashed potato flung from a spork, a piece of mystery meat, a hash brown. Then one day, while witnessing an orange bounce off one geek's head and then hit another, it came to me like a revelation: the kids with the mystery meat in their hair were the ones who were going to make it big in this world. (Imagine how many cafeteria meats Bill Gates took to the cranium for God's sake!) I don't know exactly what made me realize this. Maybe it was because the kids doing the all the food throwing had maintained grade point averages lower than the number of points earned for putting a ball through a basket (that's 2 for my fellow nerds). We spent our lunch breaks speaking about football spreads and what the radio sports guys Mike and the Mad Dog had to say earlier that morning. But mostly, we passed our uneventful breaks by someone pointing out the "uncool" kids as if they were oddities in a zoo. Then someone would make a funny remark about that kid and everyone would laugh. And then they'd go back to Mike and the Mad Dog and quote their words like scripture.
Even though I sat with this group, I never really felt comfortable there. I went to St. Peter's Prep, a prestigious high school in Jersey City where kids from all over Jersey and New York came to attend, and I ate at that table mainly because it had been taken over by the other boys from Hoboken whom I knew. At the time, though I never let on, I didn't even know who Mike and the Mad Dog were. I couldn't care less if the Giants won the previous Sunday. And though I say it with regret and embarrassment now, many of those kids who my friends would bombard with food products happened to be my friends. I admired these boys for being different, for reading books on the stairwell during our breaks though the books were not for school. Here were a small group of boys learning things when they didn't have to, and the rest of us seemed to be making such a concerted effort to avoid learning the things we had to.
So I had always been caught up in this dichotomy of worlds. In the technical sense, I was a jock. But I played soccer, so it wasn't like swarms of girls came to see us kick a ball around. And speaking of girls, I was always torn over whom to approach and get rejected by: the girl with the horn rimmed glasses and the Jansport nap sack, or the girl with the high perm and the Gucci bag.
Later on in life I subscribed to Harper's and Poets & Writers while the guys I knew got Playboy and its illegitimate younger half-brother who gets locked in the basement when guests are over-Penthouse. While watching Revenge of the Nerds with my friends, I secretly rooted for Booger, while my friends saw Oger as a sort of demigod.
But none of that mattered now, because my life's path had been made clear for me on this night. It was as if the seas had parted and Moses Himself had pointed his mighty Staff in the direction I was to take. I would dedicate myself and get back to writing, at least two hours every day. I would stop watching Sportscenter for basketball highlights; I'd quit cold turkey if I had to.
I figured it would be a good time to go outside and grab a cigarette, since I could always call the author later that night and ask her a question if I had one. But just as Jesus had been tempted by Satan when he journeyed into the mountains, no sooner than I walked outside did I see an old friend who had just been dropped off in front of the bookstore. Let's call him Joe, since that's his real name (it's much too common for a lawsuit). Don't get me wrong, it was great to see him; it had been years. But the problem was, this guy's cooler than Coolwhip, and I foresaw old habits coming back.
"What are you doing here?" Joe asked, shaking my hand in the way that cool people do-lots of twists and turns and finger snapping at the end. I was still playing the role.
"I'm right next door at the bookstore. My friend's reading from her novel."
Joe looked at me for a second or two, laughed out loud then punched me in the arm.
"No, seriously bro, every one's next door at East L.A. Chris is there. Even Moe Rivers. We're getting tanked tonight!"
I was having serious flashbacks by this point. I'm talking like war flashbacks-grenades going off, digging foxholes and cleaning out latrines like Charlie Sheen had to do in the movie Platoon, which took me back to my worst memories. I was suddenly back to those late nights calamities spent heaved over the toilet bowl from a kneeled position.
Like most war veterans, I tend not to speak of these things too often. It brings back too many painful memories. The excess splatter on the toilet rim which needed to be cleaned up the next morning with Ajax, the only reminder that you had even driven the Porcelin Bus the night before. In the case of projectile vomiting, one always ran the risk of toilet bowl backlash. This is when the vomit hit the water with such force and intensity that it would come back up and hit you square in the face like pepper spray if you were bent down to low. Many a good friend lost an eye or two that way. Finally, there was always the possibility of waking up the next morning with sore, scraped knees from being hunched over the toilet bowel after vomiting and dry heaving for hours. I'd wake up the next morning, take one look at my busted knees, and try to remember if I had turned gay for the night. Just in case, I would often prepare statements for my friends such as "dude, I was just experimenting," or "he looked like a chick."
Some of us try to forget. Some of us try to remember.
I was in a serious crisis here. To be tragically hip or to be tragically nerdy, that was the question. I knew I once I walked into the place Chris would begin to work me over like meatloaf. "Come on, man, it's only two", I could hear him saying, "the party's just starting." And Moe, that guy was so cool his nickname in high school was The Polar Bear. I wouldn't stand a chance with the corroborative efforts of the three of them.
"I don't know," I said. "I missed her last reading, and-"
"You getting with that?" He smiled and nudged my shoulder.
"No, it's not like that at all, it's just that..." Suddenly I had nothing to say. I mean the reading was over, right? I had said hello to her and met some very nice people. Perhaps just one or two drinks...
"Just come on," Joe said. "We'll only have a few."
There it was, right in front of me. On the sinister side (that means left, not that the restaurant/bar is evil-once again, trying to avoid lawsuits here) East L.A., with their margaritas so potent they needed to put a 3-drink limit on them lest people start taking their clothes off and dancing on bar stools. And to the right, yes, the very hand you use to make the sign of the cross, there was Symposia, the non-profit bookstore where one could walk away with three books for ten bucks, where one could learn how to better manage your money through daily yoga meditations.
Now understand this: my dilemma was NOT about drinking or parting. I still drink, sometimes even after breakfast. This was about finally defining my role as a person. Was I a nerd or was I hip? The battle lines had been drawn in the dirt.
"Maybe I'll stop in after the reading," I told Joe, knowing full well I wouldn't, or rather, that I couldn't. I had to get home right after the reading. I had a story to write for the author's paper (I wonder if I just gave away who the author was by now). She had wrote on my copy of her book what an inspiration my writing had been to her, and even if it was just her way of being nice, it worked, because after I rejoined my fellow nerds and the author had finished signing copies of her book, I did come straight home and decided to do exactly what she had asked of me, which was to write something for her paper.
And this morning I have finished, free of the sidesplitting hangover I most certainly would have had if I had I joined my friends last night.
I AM NERD, HEAR ME TYPE!