Old Dogs, New Tricks

Anise Swallowtail on a Verbana bonariensis by Michael McAllister

I was puttering around in the front rock garden this weekend, adding some aeoniums that I’d picked up at Cactus Jungle, when I turned around and saw this guy on my Verbana bonariensis. I grabbed my iPhone and gloriously, improbably, he sat there for about ten seconds as I held the camera a few inches above him and snapped this pic.

Unlike Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite writers, I’m no lepidopterist, but thanks to the Google machine, Joe and I were able to narrow it down to the Anise Swallowtail, common to the West Coast. A couple of friends have confirmed our guess since then – in fact one glance at the pic and they both rattled off the name. Which made me wonder how they acquired such knowledge.

This isn’t exactly a deep thought, but as I spend the bulk of each weekend at nurseries, driving to nurseries, buying plants from nurseries, researching plants online, re-potting plants, and putting a few in the ground, I’m quietly amazed at the potential of the brain to acquire new knowledge.

I’ve been sober for nearly 12 years, but there was a time where my days all looked the same, where they felt small and dark and where the extent of my new knowledge might be figuring out the location of liquor stores that opened at 8 a.m. near the intersection of Hennepin and Lake Streets in Minneapolis.

Though still capable of elaborate forms of mental self-torture (just ask Joe), I’m generally a happier guy now, and after 12 years I no longer wake up feeling absolutely certain of what the day will hold. The potential to change, to  try new things and to acquire new knowledge, lately brings me comfort.

Even if it’s just about gardening, which, in the big picture, is probably a frivolous activity. But as I slowly transform into the cranky old man I’ve always longed to be, I get less interested in the big picture, and I seek happiness in smaller, quieter pursuits, kicking back on the couch with the husband and our pack of dogs, or standing outside in front of my plants, lost in thought, absently stroking the scruff on my chin as I measure the growth and health of things I’ve put in the ground, or admiring the color of the hydrangea in the derelict yard next door:

I could spend hours doing this, standing there, lost in thought, no doubt causing the neighbors concern for my sanity, until I snap awake and force myself to go, you know, clean the bathroom or feed the dogs. Obsession? Escapism? Sure. But as the country calls for the head of John Roberts, or rates in order of success the marriages of Tom Cruise, I find myself less willing – or able – to give portions of my finite days to those echo chambers. I’d rather watch a swallowtail land on a flower that I’ve managed not to kill.

The Girl With the Falling Beehive

Amy Winehouse via VHI BlogThe posts were pissing me off.

“She was a nut. Too bad she didn’t try harder to live.”

“Coming soon, the Michael Jackson/Amy Winehouse reunion album.”

“Boxed Winehouse.”

I realize that making fun of messy celebrities on Facebook is the new American pastime, and I run the risk of appearing way too earnest here (I pretty much always run that risk here) but there was no part of me that found anything about her death funny.

I’ve been sober nearly eleven years, with the help of other drunks and drug addicts. Stay sober long enough, and well-meaning friends who don’t have the addictive personality, or the disease, or whatever it may be that kept you from applying moderation to your life, will praise you for your strength and willpower. (We call these well-meaning friends “normies.”)

But here’s the thing that every sober drunk and drug addict knows. Strength and willpower had little to do with it. None of us can say with any certainty why we were able to “get it,” and hold on to it, when so many couldn’t. The statistics were against us, rehab or no rehab.

Listen to enough of our stories, and you’ll hear a common thread. There was nothing special about the last time we got drunk or high. It was rarely the worst day or night of our lives. Rarely did it involve the worst consequences we’d faced. Sometimes no matter how much we drank we couldn’t get drunk that night.

Maybe the right friend said the right thing at the right second, or the perfect stranger opened a new door. Maybe that afternoon we just got tired of the emptiness where our souls used to be. Every story involves luck, or coincidence, or, if you prefer, a bit of grace. It took more than five or six tries until it happened to me.

I was late to the Winehouse bandwagon. I often stubbornly resist the zeitgeist, and her “Rehab” song turned me off. But during one visit to Hawaii, the Manly Fireplug added Back to Black to our iPod. We listened to it nonstop that week. There was something about our hotel, a rather seedy, down-at-the-heels tropical outpost called the Queen Kapiolani, that fit Amy’s lyrics.

Back in San Francisco I developed a back-up singer hand gesture routine to my favorite song, “Tears Dry On Their Own,” which I’d perform in the car while the Fireplug was driving. That song contained my favorite of her lyrics:

I cannot play myself again
Should just be my own best friend
Not fuck myself
In the head
With stupid men

Here’s the thing about Amy. She knew who she was. A drunk, an addict, a cheater. She slept around behind her boyfriends’ backs. She had bad taste in men. She didn’t whitewash her sins or blame it all on the other guy, which so many pop songs seem to do.

She made me feel less alone with my own sordid past. With the part of me that is still, to this day, less than virtuous.

I don’t know Amy’s story. I know she did, despite her song, attend rehab, more than once. I don’t know what it was like for her to wake up in the morning, to want to write her next record but find it impossible. I only know the smallest slices of her life, fed to me through headlines and grainy photos.

I don’t know how badly she wanted to get sober. All I know is that her time ran out before grace found her.

18th Street Aria

Last week I had dinner with the God of Biscuits at the Delfina Pizzeria on 18th Street. I’d never been there, never been to a lot of the new places that had sprung up since the time I used to walk that block every day. Back in 2001 I broke up with my boyfriend and moved from the Upper Haight into a flat on South Van Ness, a stone’s throw from Whiz Burger, a place that looked like it should have been on the side of some lonesome desert highway, not that piss-stained block of the Mission neighborhood.

I’d moved in there out of desperation, the first place to take both me and my dog. A co-worker whom I had disliked on sight was the master tenant, and he took me in with an equal lack of enthusiasm. He moved through work, and the new flat, like a black hole, sucking up all the surrounding energy. He practiced for his role in an amateur opera company (emphasis on “amateur”) in his little bedroom across the hall, then would sit down in the living room, on the other side of the pocket doors from my room, and catch up on reruns of the Golden Girls. He rarely spoke to me, but every day he would cackle in front of that television.

He’d adopted two cats and two dogs from the animal shelter where we worked. His dogs were skittish and annoying, so the cats spent all their time in my room. My roommate rented out the third bedroom to a couple who also adopted a dog, this one with severe separation anxiety, who would howl and chew through their bedroom door every time they left it alone. The cats were old, and one night while the dog chewed on the door down the hall, one of the cats up and died while lying in my lap.

Sober all of six months, I was one raw boy. My mom was dying and in a couple of months I’d test positive. In the past three years I’d burned a lot of bridges and had little to show for my thirty years besides my dog and a case of undertreated depression. I didn’t have a car back then, and after work I’d walk the stretch of 18th Street, from the Mission to the Castro, South Van Ness Avenue to Diamond Street, eleven blocks, to the 12 step meetings I attended every single night. I went there as much to escape the apartment as I did for the solace of sobriety. To clear for a minute or two my cluttered head. Eleven blocks, from Spanish language billboards to billboards for Stop Meth campaigns. From check cashing stores to lube-and-porn joints, from Mexicans to white boys.

After the meetings I’d walk home, slower this time. Around Guerrero Street my mood would darken again. I’d pass Linda, a tiny side-street where my meth dealer had once lived, always with my breath held, my dread building until I hit South Van Ness again, slid my key home, and opened the door into my little corner of hell. (I was a tad melodramatic back then.)

A few months after I moved in I started this blog. Two months later my mom died. I lived there for a year and three months, when a room opened in a friend’s place in Corona Heights, on the hill above the Castro, a room I still rent. My 12 step sponsor said that I started beaming the day I moved in, and didn’t stop beaming for another six weeks. When my opera star roommate found out that I was moving, he left a note for me demanding that I vacate his place within 30 days. Kind of a you-can’t-quit-I-fire-you situation.

This month marks nine years that I first moved into that little nightmare on South Van Ness, a fact I only just realized, writing this. Since then I got the depression treated, worked a few different jobs, went to grad school, got a degree, wrote a book, fell in love with two very different men.

In those nine years 18th Street changed too, as most city blocks do. In 2002 the Tartine bakery opened on Guerrero. Delfina opened their pizzeria in 2005, a couple of doors down from their main restaurant. In 2007 the Farina restaurant opened after gutting the old danish bakery. Bi-Rite opened their ice cream shop and the weekend crowds at Dolores Park increased tenfold. Bread shops and tea shops and nail salons opened around Sanchez.

Sometimes the Manly Fireplug and I would ruin a good work-out by hitting Whiz Burger after the gym for their damn good hot dogs. We’d sit at one of the picnic tables out front, and I’d look down the street, to the auto shop across from my old apartment, with hub caps hanging from its chain link fence. As we ate I’d tell him the story of when, nine years ago, I’d been sitting on the back steps when a young Latino boy poked his head over the neighboring fence and scanned our yard. When he spotted me he said, “Hey mister, have you seen a chicken?”

I told the Fireplug that story every time because it made us both laugh, and I guess I wanted to dispel the ghosts. I didn’t like sitting there for very long. Some streets, no mater how much they change, stick in your blood. The ghosts linger but weaken. They help me measure the distance I put down between me and that time.  I moved in there a scared kid but after a while I’d grown up, walking those eleven blocks.

Check Out Any Time You Like

When I was living in New York I dated a guy from Staten Island. I’m from Minnesota so I liked the way he talked. We were eating together once. “You know, people outside New York don’t fold their pizza slices in half when they eat,” I told him. He looked at me like I had just told him that people outside New York don’t speak English.

I was thinking about him today when I grabbed a slice of pepperoni and mushroom at Cybelle’s at 14th and Church, the Eagles on the radio. I was on my way to meet a friend who had racked up nearly 60 days sober when he happened across a meth pipe. Now he’s got five days. I told him that with over nine years sober I can be around alcohol, but if I see meth in the room I have to leave. I’m not the biggest fan of unvarnished life and will always prefer it slanted or tinted or lit with red lights.

Out here in paradise there are still boys scraping by in the parallel city, the one you visit but sometimes can’t escape, the dumpy apartments with the closed blinds and the porn on a loop. The phone lines and the chat rooms and the threadbare couches where someone crashes just for the night, man, I promise you. In that other city I got by on Kettle chips and Captain Crunch. I got skinny and itchy and mean.

That other city was oblivion, and oblivion can look like fun.

I try not to ponder, very often, the irrelevance of a MFA in creative writing. I try not to picture myself emerging at the end of my schooling in my mid-thirties, qualified only for the same soul-suffocating jobs I’ve worked my entire life. I try not to dwell on the fact that, like a PhD, a MFA is considered a “terminal” degree, a hopeless disease for which I’ll spend a few years studying.

Many years ago a MFA may have helped the writer land a college-level teaching position. But those days are long gone. More and more schools are discovering that a graduate writing program can be a dependable source of revenue, and like the algae that spread over my neglected childhood aquarium these programs have proliferated. I counted twenty-six ads for MFA programs in the most recent issue of “Poets and Writers” magazine, each ad promising that aspiring writers such as myself will “find your voice”. And with each new program more over-educated writers are let loose upon the choked marketplace.

Publication, along with education, has become the new minimum qualification for college-level teaching jobs. A well-regarded book or two will get you a job faster than any degree.

I don’t even know if I’d like teaching. I haven’t had the experience. But since teaching is one of the few career paths available to the writer, I often wonder lately if I’d make a helpful presence at the front of a classroom, or if my anxieties about everything I don’t know would cause me to jerk about like a demented puppet before the bewildered students.

The other night I dreamt, for the first time, that I was a teacher. Or that I was trying to teach. There’s a difference. I dreamt that I was teaching writing to a group of young boys. There were only ten students, proof that it was just a fantasy. About five of them were actually paying attention to me. This seemed like good odds for the situation, so I was working it to the best of my ability.

My agenda for the class was to teach them about adverbs and adjectives. One of the most common pieces of writing advice given out is that strong sentences contain as few of each as possible. A little websurfing brought me to a decent example. First, the bad sentence:

“Making a strange high-pitched noise, the small figure moved very awkwardly away from the dead body of his master.”

Then the better sentence: “Squealing, the dwarf stumbled from his master’s corpse.”

There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but for beginning students it’s a pretty safe concept to introduce. In the dream I passed around copies of a book review written by a former student.

“Now what I want you to do,” I said, walking among the desks, ” is to cut out all of the superfluous words.” The few boys who were paying attention to me furrowed their brows. I kept repeating these directions, over-pronouncing “superfluous” as if through careful diction I could impart the meaning. “Cross out all of the words that aren’t necessary. Cross out the adjectives and the adverbs.” I was warming up, determined to mold this motley gang into a disciplined group of young Hemingways. “We’re pruning each sentence like a tree, down to its essence. So if the sentence reads ‘The brown dog barked crazily,’ then we edit till it reads, simply, ‘The dog barked’.”

Meanwhile strange events were unfolding. As I wandered among the desks I noticed that the class was changing behind my back. I’d turn to find that more students and desks had sprouted up behind me. And the students themselves were growing older, bit by bit, till the class was comprised almost entirely of adults, some of whom I knew in real life. One second there’d be a half-empty row of fidgeting preadolescents. The next second I’d turn to find the row full of friends and co-workers. Bearbait, dressed smartly in a black shirt, was bent over his desk, pencil in hand, staring at the sheet of paper and its paragraph.

I circled the class like a seasoned pro. But anxieties were devouring me from within. Who was I to teach anything? I was walking a tightrope; with each uncertain step my arms pinwheeled for balance. I paced about with a queasy smile frozen around my words, convinced that if I just kept moving nobody could pin me down as a fraud.

“Superfluous,” I repeated.

A few minutes passed like this, the students slashing away at the paragraph before them, the desks filling behind my back with older students. When I had decided that enough time had passed, I asked Bearbait to read his edited paragraph. He reddened slightly and glared at me. I pleaded silently with him. I needed to make him an example. He glanced down at his page and began to read aloud hesitantly. And as he read I realized, with regret, that he had succeeded at the task. He had crossed out all of the adverbs and adjectives. He was not helping. I needed a mistake to demonstrate the principle, but he was giving me none. Until the end, when he read aloud the last sentence; “I enjoyed this excellent book.”

“A ha!” I cried out in spite of myself. I took his mistake and ran for it. “What word needs to be cut in that last sentence, class?” Bearbait blushed again and I turned away from his reproach. The class was quiet, but I felt a palpable energy from them, a hunger of sorts. Each of them toed the line of their uncertainty. I turned slowly, scanning the class. And now every desk was occupied. It was standing room only. They watched me expectantly, their numbers increasing with each of my deliberate steps. And I realized, with a start, that underneath my nerves something thrummed, something threadbare yet alive. I turned, withholding the answer for another second, pride tearing through my desperate disguise.

Man, I was so ready for some good news.

I feel about twenty pounds lighter now, having carried around those anxieties for so long. I checked my archives. It was a year ago this month that I made the decision to apply to grad school.

And I also feel like the deer caught in headlights. I’m sure that any moment I will get the call…”there was a terrible mistake…”

I’ll just hang up.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the overwhelming congratulations, it’s truly a gift to be able to share a little joy around here. I’m not sure if I would have had the material, let alone the courage to apply, if I didn’t have dogpoet. Various posts made their way into the more polished manuscript which I submitted (cum-on-the-tank-top, anyone?). And so many of you encouraged me along the way. You know who you are, and you have my gratitude. Looking back, there have been people along the way, ever since the fourth grade, who told me to keep writing. It’s always been on the wall. The only thing that consistently got in the way was myself. I’m still learning.

A huge, sloppy thank you to Brian and Jennie for writing two of my letters of recommendation, which were so much better than the one I got from my last workshop instructor. (She basically had me write my own letter, then signed her name to it. I think I’ve learned all I can from her).

Four years ago my life was so, so small. It fit within the tiny bag of crystal meth I’d buy from my dealer every few days. Everything’s different. I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been blessed.

God, I miss my mother. I wanted to call her up and tell her the good news. I thought about her when I was standing at the urinal at work after the phone call from Columbia, and I just started laughing out loud. And then I finally cried a little, from relief and gratitude. And then I started laughing again.

Not long ago I was at a restaurant with a friend of mine when he interrupted our conversation. “My mother would never let you eat at our dinner table. Not with the way you hold your silverware.” I stopped mid-bite and looked at him. He was only half-joking. I knew that his mother was a former Miss Rochester, New York. Undoubtedly she’d place high premium on decent table manners. It’s true – I held my fork like a barbarian, but nobody had ever commented on this.

“How are you supposed to hold it?” I asked. He demonstrated by lifting the fork to his mouth, his palm facing upwards. I mimicked him a few times. “Like this?” He nodded. My fingers looked graceful resting against the handle, though it felt awkward.

Later that week I had dinner with Bearbait. “Have you ever noticed the way I hold my fork?” I asked. He nodded, his eyes downcast as though he had always been ashamed to tell me. “Gee, thanks for telling me,” I said.

I hold my pen the “wrong way”, as well; my fingers scrunched down around the tip. My hand cramps easily, which is why I prefer the computer. But it’s too late; I’m not changing the way I write.

Following that dinner, however, I started holding my fork the right way, palm facing upwards, my fingers cradling it rather than wrapped around it like a four-year old’s fist.

A couple of weeks ago I brought a couple of pairs of jeans into Lee Loy Cleaners on 18th St in the Castro. One pair’s zipper was broken. The other pair’s zipper would never stay closed, always sliding open as I walked around, which meant I spent the entire day doing little zipper checks, pressing my fingertip against the zipper like a nervous tic. The man at the counter took this latter pair and played around a bit with the zipper, then showed me that, in fact, the jeans were fine. He zipped them up and then turned the tab back downwards, pointing towards the ground. He showed me that there was a little groove on the back of the tab that locked with the zipper. All I had to do was turn the tab downwards after zipping up. He handed the pair back and gave me a claim ticket for the other pair. “Thursday?” he said.

“Sure.” I said, grateful not only for his generosity (he could have taken both pairs and made a little more money replacing each zipper) but excited from learning one of those little facts of life that you can go 32 years without knowing.

“Yeah, you didn’t know that?” my friend asked as I joined him outside on the sidewalk.


He admitted he had done wardrobe for his college theater department. Later that week I asked two other friends and neither knew the zipper trick, which made me feel better.

In each circumstance, especially with the silverware, I had initially felt that old insecurity of being somehow less equipped to deal with the world than most others. How come my parents never taught me how to hold a fork, I wondered. It was a knee-jerk reaction; reducing me instantly to the scrawny twelve-year old who only owned one Ocean Pacific hooded sweatshirt and who could never get his permission slips signed on time.

Over the last few years I’ve had to confront and manage many activities that I knew nothing about. Paying taxes. Renting an apartment. Buying a car. Activities that nearly paralyzed me with fear. Maybe everyone feels this way the first time they take on such challenges. But I’ve always suspected that other people’s parents held their hands through the initial stages, and it’s this suspicion that has fueled my twelve-year old self’s resentment at always being different, less able to move through this world as though he had the right to occupy it.

When I was writing my grad school admissions essays, I mentioned my love of learning for its own sake. I invoked feelings of passion, of “waking up” from the stupor that envelopes me working at a job I dislike. I spoke of classrooms and lecture halls as places that energize me. Which is true, for the most part.

But learning, true learning, can be painful. How could it be otherwise, waking up to the fact that what you thought you knew doesn’t work anymore? Whether it’s learning how to hold my fork or how to stop using crystal meth, each lesson hurt. The pain of the silverware lesson was far briefer and less intense than the lesson in addiction. But I had a moment of red-faced shame, followed quickly by self-deprecating laughter.

It’s foolish of me to look for the lessons of the past year, this soon after the game of love and prizes. Any attempt to pick apart this experience leads to self-help type conclusions, which aren’t good enough. It’ll take awhile before the lessons are fully illuminated. I can only say that I would have to be incredibly stupid not to learn something from this, even if it’s just the realization that the only promises that matter anymore are the ones I make to myself.

Learning is like that one time when you were walking to dinner through the Castro in the early evening, hordes of commuters emerging from the MUNI underground and political aides handing out flyers on the corners and it seemed like every great looking guy was totally checking you out and giving you a smile and you’re thinking you must look really hot and then you get to the restaurant and your friend points out that your zipper is down.

And then you zip up and you sit down to dinner and you pick up your silverware the right way, and then you eat.

“I have decided that photography is a sort of private sin of mine. As a virtue I find it really hard to sustain.”

The Arbus catalogue is full of quotes that I dutifully scribble in my own notebook after waking to rain on Monday morning. The laundry is spinning upstairs and I have a scant three hours to myself before hitting the dentist’s chair for one of my weekly three-hour sessions. Of course I am bitter and resentful about losing my Mondays to the student dentist, but the only target worthy of my bitterness is myself. One of the least sexy parts of being sober is the whole cleaning-up-the-wreckage-of-my-past project. And there’s no sense in complaining about my student dentist Adrian, who looks an awful lot like the guy in the commercial who has barbeque sauce smeared all over his face. There’s no point in complaining, because although Adrian is slow and has no dental hygienists to assist him, the dental school has a program that pays for all the work done on its clients with HIV. It’s a trade-off made almost bearable by my iPod.

I’m beginning to ask my father lots of questions, about their marriage and my early childhood. I’m not interested anymore in assigning blame for all the pain of those years. I just want to understand them. I want to understand the pressures of that time. I’m beginning to see each of them within myself; my father’s quiet, his need of order, his confusion when confronted with other people’s anger. My mother’s need for affection, her addictions, her desire to please.

My mother was raised Catholic, and hated it so much that she left the Church when she married my father, who was raised a Methodist. But she felt (of course) guilty for having done so, and lied to her parents. Each time they visited from Kansas we’d take them to the local Catholic church, pretending to be members.

I was the one who broke open the whole scam, when I was about nine. I made the mistake of mentioning Sunday school to my grandparents. How was I supposed to know that Catholics don’t do Sunday school? That was a fun day in the McAllister household.

I’m grateful to my mother for many things, including leaving the Church, as it saved me the likely prospect of more guilt than I’d know what to do with. I still inherited a fair amount of residual guilt from her. She was guilty for having abandoned the Church, for being a lesbian, for trying to be someone happier than the culture would allow at that point.

It wasn’t until 11:00 pm last Sunday that I remembered that it was February 1st, and that it had been two years since my mother died. I guess that’s progress, of a sort, though I didn’t feel particularly good about forgetting the anniversary. My subconscious brought her in for a guest appearance in my dreams that night. In the dream my stepsister and I were driving someplace and we stopped off at a 7-11 for a slushee, or Red Vines. And there was my mother, working the counter of the 7-11. I saw her as we were walking up to the front door and I broke down sobbing, wracked with guilt over the fact that my mother had to work at a convenience store. It was a little melodramatic, but my dreams aren’t exactly exercises in subtlety. In my dream she was still alive, but she was sick, which only made it worse. I was probably unemployed as well, making the contrast between her martyrdom and my failings as a dutiful son that much starker. When my mother saw us walk in, she retreated from the counter and asked a co-worker to help us, because she was ashamed we had seen her. She glanced at me quickly as she walked away, her smile an apology. In all of my dreams about her, I can never talk to her. She is always across the room. We can see each other, and she’ll smile at me, but I can never hear her voice.

On Tuesday I woke at 7. The world outside my window was shrouded in white fog, thicker than I had ever seen. I could barely make out the shape of the house next door. The trees were dripping onto the back deck. Drops of condensation fell onto the glass surface of the garden table. I was tired and reluctant, as always, to go into work. I wanted the fog to justify my desire to bury back into my bed. I wanted to call in sick. I wanted the fog to be so thick that the world would shut down. But I poured myself coffee and stumbled into the shower, because like my mother I never call in sick. And that’s why, as I drove down Roosevelt Way, around the curves that twist down the side of the hill, that I saw the fog did not shroud the entire city. As I descended it cleared away, and as I continued the cloud that lay over my house receded behind me.

I had a hell of a time falling asleep when I got sober three years ago. I blame it on all the GHB. Yes, I used to give myself the date-rape drug in order to pass out every night. Unfortunately nobody ever took advantage of me. At least not that I remember. In fact, I’ve always been a little incredulous at the date-rape stories, since GHB has such a nasty, putrid, abhorrent taste that I wonder how even a cocktail could mask the flavor. But I’ve never tried it, you see, because I was a smart drug addict; I never mixed GHB and alcohol. That would be dangerous. But I was willing to gulp it down nightly for a few months. Unfortunately it would wear off a few hours later, necessitating another dose. I even went so far as to keep a small cup on my bedside table, thereby allowing me to stay in bed while I swigged away. Normal people keep a glass of water at bedside, but let’s face it, that’s just boring.

Then I got sober, and lay awake for hours each night. My body’s chemistry was anxious and frustrated, and I wanted to be such a good boy that I swore off Tylenol P.M., which I had used often in the past to come down from crystal meth. That first year also featured a long, tedious journey through the cycles of three or four anti-depressants, each of which further upset the balance.

I tried warm milk. I tried calcium and zinc at bedtime. I refrained from reading in bed, heeding experts’ advice to keep the bed all about sleeping. I listened to my boyfriend’s peaceful snoring as he slumbered away. I thrashed about, forever twisting my pillow one way or another, searching for a cool spot I could press against my cheek. Staying asleep was never the problem, unfortunately. You see, once I did finally fall asleep my body wouldn’t settle for less than eight hours, and so each fitful, passing minute meant another minute I’d lose in the morning before work.

It took awhile, but eventually I found the right combination of anti-depressant and melatonin that would reliably bring me sleep. I even discovered that one 3mg tablet of melatonin left me too groggy the next day, so every few days I’d cut a handful of tablets in half, as if I was making lunch for the rest of the week. And like a child clutching his teddy bear I’ve stayed true to this combination, if only to ward off the memories of my insomnia.

Maybe it was the New Year, or just curiosity, but for the past week I stopped taking the melantonin. And now, all of a sudden, my dreams have returned. I didn’t even realize that they were missing, or muted, as the case may be. I just forgot that I was someone who used to remember his dreams.

I don’t know if I’ve always dreamed like this, or if my subconscious is throwing an after-hours party in celebration of melatonin’s departure. But my dreams are big, colorful, Fellini excursions into love, violence, and high anxiety. I dreamed that I fell madly in love, that we moved in together, and that I promptly lost the keys to the house. I dreamed that a very threatening man was dedicating his life to killing me, and that he tried numerous methods, each attempt more intense and destructive than the last. And like Lara Croft I kept coming back to life and trying increasingly desperate measures to escape, only to cross yet another tripwire connected to explosives. I dreamed of the main character of a novel I’m constructing in my head, following him on the subway, noting the loneliness he wore like a thin coat. I dreamed I sat on the shore of an enormous lake, and the sky was filled with brightly-colored aircraft of man-made design, each of them a wild sculpture of unlikely flight. And throughout each dream was a common atmosphere of fate; a life-or-death seriousness, where my emotions ran to extremes that feel unfamiliar when I’m awake.

I wake frequently between snatches of dreams, sometimes returning to the same story in my sleep, sometimes falling into an unrelated tale. I wake later each morning, not quite rested. And yet I don’t want to go back to the muted, heavy sleep. I never gave much weight to dreams, and I’m still unsure about their meaning, but lately I’m fascinated by them. It may be my friendship with Prometheus, who has introduced me to some of Jung’s work. It may just be that I am bored and looking for meaning in every available subconscious image. But it’s amazing, to me, that my head puts on such a show every night, all by itself. Now if I can just find those housekeys.

New York City affects me like a fever, or a viral flu. It wipes me out, knocks me on my ass for a few days afterwards, it makes me a little delirious and cranky and yet it’s hard to shake. This is partly due to my planning; my latest visits only a couple of days in length. There’s no acclimation, no “getting used” to the city’s noise and demands. I’m in and out, spending more time in airports and on planes than in Manhattan itself. I stay on a friend’s couch and I eat too little and I walk too much, and after two hours I’m saturated with sound and flickering movement. My pace quickens, if only to move with the crowd instead of against.

On Thursday I wandered from the Upper West Side down to Rockefeller Center, where I met my friend Jay, who coincidentally was also in town. They were hoisting up the Christmas tree and the wind was whipping down those narrow skyscraper corridors at 50 mph and I hadn’t dressed warmly enough. It felt like Minnesota, where I grew up and left as soon as I could, and when I saw Jay waiting for me, sitting against a lamppost, I warmed up a bit; a friend clad in Polar Fleece a wonderful thing to embrace amid the chaos. We wandered past the Today Show’s windows, where crewmen were wrapping up electrical cords, dismantling the exterior set. We found one of the thousands of Starbuck’s in the city and I had a Tazo tea, since I was already over-caffeinated. We sat in the last open table, alone near the door, through which scores of business people literally blew in.

Later I kept wandering downtown, I had in mind visiting an AA meeting on Perry Street in the West Village, as a friend had gotten sober there and always spoke fondly of it. I had less than an hour and I kept walking. A cab or the subway would have gotten me there quicker, but I was suffering tunnel vision, and I was determined to make it there on foot. I walked down Seventh Avenue, through Times Square, past the swirling spectacle of the Coke billboard, where even the law firms have wild neon signs marking their entrance. On every corner there were people bundled up in winter clothing, handing out flyers for discount sales in the garment district, and I kept my cold hands deep in my pockets, my elbows brushing past their extended hands. Past Penn Station, a cold drizzle falling now on the line of tourists waiting for a cab. Past hot dog vendors and deliverymen wheeling cases of soda down the sidewalk. And like everyone else I stepped two feet into the intersection at each red-light, scanning for traffic and then crossing, thinking that nobody could take me for a tourist, which I was, or am.

Perry Street was lined with trees whose leaves were golden even in the drizzle, and there was the smell of something, fresh bread? And a few solitary souls ducking through an unmarked door just across the street and I followed them inside, where I nearly laughed out loud at the tiny room, having imagined, all this time, something much larger, something befitting my friend’s nostalgia. It was cramped and there were no windows and the chairs were all pushed tight together and the walls were a dour shade of blue and the walls were covered with AA banners written in calligraphy. I pushed my way into an open chair, and when they asked for visitors I raised my hand and then the speaker began and I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, resting my chin against my fists because I was tired and my feet hurt and I still hadn’t eaten anything and my blood sugar level was plummeting. The speaker was a women who used to be a man, and she was bitter and defensive and perhaps justifiably so, but they had turned out the lights and my eyes were closing and this was becoming one of those rare meetings in which I wanted a drink afterwards. And it seemed that everyone who spoke had just come back from a spectacular relapse, and everyone was afraid of the holidays and their families and the bottles of whiskey and vodka and brandy that would be gleaming on the sideboards of houses in Connecticut and Vermont. And I was cranky and impatient and getting more and more claustrophobic, and when the meeting ended I pushed past everyone who was smoking on the sidewalk. And I wandered down Christopher Street, past the store that’s not there any longer, where I bought a stocking cap during my first trip to New York, in 1990. And I passed the restaurant where we had gone this last summer during Gay Pride, the restaurant where they hated us and took away one of our tables and brought us lukewarm platters of buffalo wings. And I passed Stonewall and the deli on the corner that had carnations and roses and paperwhites out on the sidewalk. And there was a Barnes and Noble on the block where in 1990 I had wandered into some funky little store, was it Patricia Field’s, that had rows of technicolor wigs and I had almost bought a vinyl vest with racing stripes but instead I bought a black and white vest later from some tacky chain store and that night when I went to the Sound Factory, which was still open in 1990, I saw another guy in the same vest and wished that I had bought the vinyl one instead. But on Thursday Patricia Field’s wasn’t there anymore and by now the tunnel vision had narrowed to a pinprick and I let the wind blow me through the door of Gray’s Papaya, where I asked for the recession special, two hotdogs and a drink for $2.50, and I ate standing up at the counter along the window.

And I thought about going over to Washington Square or wandering the East Village in the hopes that somewhere there were still funky little stores full of clothing that nobody in San Francisco would have, but it was cold and the wind still strong and I needed, more than anything, a nap. So I turned and wandered back up Eighth Avenue, the soles of my feet burning and flattened, past another deli where a gust of wind shook its awning and a flood of cold water fell at my side, drops running down the back of my neck. And a cloud of pigeons rose and twisted in the wind and I watched their arc with envy. And the tunnel vision widened a bit and I convinced myself to take the subway at Penn Station, where I should have taken a B or a C and instead I took an E which swung away from Eight Avenue and would have taken me to Queens had I not realized that we were now going east. So I got off at 5th Avenue and turned around and eventually found a C and figured that since I had just gotten lost on the subway it wouldn’t have to happen again.

That night we returned to Big Nick’s on West 71st St. The night before, when I opened the menu and gaped at the hundreds of choices, Jennie told me, “This is what’s called a New York Bible.” Big Nick’s had low ceilings and red vinyl booths, decorated with signs like “This Booth for 3 or More Only!”, where the two of us sat both nights. Jennie finished her onion rings before I did, because I was talking so much. She rested her elbows on the varnished wood table and listened patiently. Later, as we set our shoulders against the cold she told me she had never seen a woman waiting tables in there. The wind was whipping down Columbus Avenue and we stopped for cigarettes and half and half. I’m still thinking about those onion rings.

I caught the subway like an old pro at the 72nd Street Station, and rode the six stops to Columbia. It was dark and colder now, and the sidewalk outside Dodge Hall was full of students streaming towards the station after class, and I wandered onto the campus and stared at the enormous library and felt like I was on a real university campus, compared to the Florida campus where I was an undergraduate. And later, on the fourth floor of Dodge, the wind was crying in the trees outside the dark windows and there were fifty insecure writers asking a lot of questions from the Writing Program’s administrators and students. And as I rode the 1 back to 72nd St I paged through their catalogue. And later I showed the catalogue to Jennie as we sat on her couch while “True Life: I’m a Clubber” played on MTV in the background, and we felt that peculiar combination of envy and inspiration that university catalogues are designed to elicit in potential students. And I lay back on the couch and spoke about the future until Jennie flicked off the TV. And then, as the hour grew later, we spoke about the drudgery of day jobs and I told her about all of the well-dressed business people I had passed near Rockefeller Center, and how I felt a little insignificant, and how the lives we’ve chosen fall outside of something, some way of living that people in suits on Seventh Avenue know all about. And then I remembered an essay I had read on the plane, “Lost Cities” by Rachel Cohen, who examined the lives of two poets, Fernando Pessoa and Constantine Cavafy, who were clerks during the day and who wrote in the evenings. And I opened the book and read this aloud:

Many of the fragments begin with the mundane: the account books, Pessoa’s boss Vasques, his occasionally foolish colleague Moreira, the delivery boy, the clock and the calendar on the wall. Then there is the feeling of the office when the sky outside darkens in a storm. Anxiety comes with the storm, a sense of menace, and Pessoa is glad for the company of the office, the joke of the delivery boy, the protection and comfort of this undemanding company. This is the shape of his world in the day and it frees him for the night. In the evening, he walks the streets of Lisbon and returns home to write perfect crystalline meditations on depression, insomnia, nostalgia, memory, the city’s geography, anonymity, and mortality. It seems that this work is possible only in his straitened conditions. The city wanderings must have their dusty contrast, must play in relief.

I read to find those writers who have tried to make sense of their cities, their solitude; writers who have found, in a particular arrangement of words, a world worth describing. I read to recognize this shared endeavor, because by reading I feel less alone, here along the margins of my own making. And I read for the romantic notion of the poet and the clerk. And I read this aloud to my friend, because I wanted to offer something, some proof or evidence of a tradition; as though by reading it aloud we could belong to the shared history of writers. And I read it aloud because I wanted to keep alive the possible; the diverging paths that I choose to believe lie ahead. And I read it aloud to extend and inhabit this tradition; each of us tied to the other through words; from Cavafy and Pessoa to Rachel Cohen; her words tying my friend and I together to that city, on that cold night, the sound of the wind outside her window a comfort before bed.