Thursday, October 23, 2008


I'm a little uncomfortable admitting this, but I like being able to see in people's homes. I've always been fascinated by how a place looks through a window. The furniture, the pictures on the walls, even what they're watching on television is far more intriguing than it would be were I actually standing within the containing walls. I have an unrelenting curiosity about the way other people live, to share in their stories in some small way. Being able to see the way they set up their home provides a basic understanding of these strangers.
Growing up I only got this view while taking long walks through a suburban neighborhood, and the occasions were rare. Most people exploit their ability to remain private, so the blinds were almost always drawn shut. This isn't true in Chicago. While riding the el to work, I get the chance to peek in several people's homes while zipping past. There's never a lasting view, of course, but a daily trip past a regularly open window gives me a unique perspective at the layout of various castles and their kings.
I've always been a little disappointed, however, that the people are never doing anything interesting. Usually they're watching TV. If I'm very, very lucky, someone might be walking to the refrigerator. I've always wished for some sort of Ebenezer Scrooge moment, watching the happy family gathered around a dinner table. Bustling activity as a group of people relates to one another, perhaps. People drinking at a party, or even sitting around a board game would be fine. Alas, none of these has occurred until recently, when the 3rd most interesting thing possible was spotted almost 30 stories up.
My office building is across the street from Marina City. This is one of the most distinctive views of the Chicago skyline, being two apartment buildings that look like eaten corn cobs. Balconies are covered in various decorations, and most people let the sunlight in freely. This provides us with a look at all the numerous ways one can decorate a wedge-shaped apartment. People step outside for a smoke, or perhaps we get to see what people watch on TV. It's also fascinating to me that given the height of the building, some people experience a sunset a full hour earlier than others.
Also there's naked aerobics.
From time to time around 10:30 all work stops, people rush to the windows, and split the use of the binoculars only one person has thought to bring to a 28th floor view (me). For half an hour, a woman in Marina City does laps around the perimeter of her apartment completely in the buff. Unable to get up to a full running speed in such a relatively small space, she half jogs, half power walks in front of her windows. There's even the occasional stretching/bending over.
The first time we noticed this was in the middle of a meeting between We the Temps and an associate media directors for one of our bigger clients. One by one, each of the men in the office would glance out the window. His eyes would squint in disbelief and attempted discovery. "What am I seeing there? It looks like . . . . But it can't be . . . ." Then his eyes would widen in surprise. "No way. No f'n way." Finally, his eyes would harden in determination, and with Galileo's own enthusiasm he'd find a way to announce the experience to everyone within the reach of his voice.
Part of me wants to believe she's completely ignorant of the fact that the obelisk-like structure across the street from her has people who can see into her living room during her routine. Part of me tries to rationalize it; "If I exercise naked, I won't have to do so much laundry!" The more rational part of me acknowledges and accepts the fact that she doesn't care that she's visible. Indeed, being watched may even be the point. If that's the case, my officemates and I are happy to oblige. I don't admit it often (and I feel I don't have to, really), but I'm an immature little child.
Naked people are awesome.

Mommy Dearest

In response to my request for good news, my mother emailed the following. I thought it deserved a broader audience.
(TM and TF is her shorthand for "The Mother" & "The Father")
1.TM & TF bought you a Christmas tree decoration.
2.I bask in happy thoughts of seeing you last July and entertain myself with thoughts of seeing you in Dec.
3.When I leave for work in the mornings, the light is just coming up in the east and by the time I arrive at school the light can be indescribably magical.
4.Obama will probably be president. Michelle will probably be first lady.
5.TF is tutoring my library aides, and they can do chemistry that they couldn't do otherwise.
6.TM & TF had dinner with Marian. She is smarter, wiser, & funnier every day.
7.I smile when I think of Lt. Dangle and Junior & their Thai restaurant delivery in the motel caper.
8.I've been eating more carefully, exercising faithfully, and my pants are getting looser.
9.I saw a booktv thing that talked about new media and web 2.0, and I thought of how clever and skilled you are with these things.
10.I love to read your writing. It paints a perfectly clear picture in my head. It puts me in the moment, in the place, in the action. I'm thinking of the bar scene from a posting before last.
11.All I want is for you to have the highest standards of ethics and service. That is exactly what you are. My life is complete.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Everything’s Catching On Fire

Someone give me some good news, please.
My own situation was made worse this morning by the fact that I overdrew my account. As a beer vendor I pay up front for cases to sell to the crowd; a case is $192, plus I need extra for making change. I made a withdrawal for this on Sunday, but I didn't put the money back into my account yesterday, so I didn't have it when my credit card payments and check to the IRS went through.
But now that the IRS has my first "good faith" payment and the first whomp from my last check, I called them again tonight to see if I can get put on that payment plan we'd previously discussed. I sat on hold for ten minutes before a person came on the line to tell me their computers are down and I should call back tomorrow.
But that's not all.
One friend of mine lost a family member yesterday.
Another friend got fired today. Not laid off—fired. They wanted to get rid of him but didn't have a real reason, so they made one up ("We're going in a new direction.").
My father is still in a jam over something that happened this summer.
Someone I know back home got promised a big break, but now a naysayer is trying to cut him off at the knees.
And finally, I know someone whose car was stolen a week before she had to move across the country, the movers showed up with her stuff two weeks late and charged her an extra $350, and she's too busy in school twelve hours a day to put up a fight during business hours.
I don't know anyone right now who has good news to report, and it's stressing me out. Dealing with my own problems is enough for just me to handle, but c'mon. Does anyone out there have any good news? And by news, I mean something that's happened recently. Most people can be happy that nothing bad has happened lately, and everyone is usually okay when we realize how many things in life we still have (health, family, a roof, a bed, etc.) What I need to hear is something new in your life that's good.
Did someone get a new job? Has anyone started a new relationship? Anybody buy a new car? Find $20 on the street? Somebody, please give me something. I need to know that I know somebody who's better off this week than they were last week.
Before I go insane.

Friday, October 17, 2008

...and Stay Out

In the interest of being interesting, I have another story to tell.
It happened a couple of months ago that I was bouncing one Saturday night. There were three of us working security at 10:00—I remember because I had just sent one of the other guys home for the night. By this hour on a summer night, we had three areas of the bar open Walking through the front door is what we wisely call the front bar, which is an elongated section with our front door on the short end. To walk straight back and take a sharp right turn puts one in the back bar, a square-ish room with lots of doors and windows. To enter the back bar from the front bar and continue onward will deposit you onto our patio. Bouncers who like to smoke like to work the patio because you can step over the low fence (only if you're employed there) and smoke on the sidewalk while keeping an eye on things. To do so creates a bit of awkwardness when telling a customer to stop smoking on the business side of the fence, but only if you care what a drunken smoker thinks of you. Most of us don't, but we appreciate the irony.
I had just stepped into the back bar when the bartender got my attention and pointed, urgently saying, "Blue hat, blue hat!" Bartenders urgently communicate to bouncers solely a physical description in exactly two circumstances. The first is a moderate-to-highly attractive woman calling attention to herself in ways that would cause her parents and pastor to disapprove. The second is a patron who's overstayed his welcome by a factor of 1+ drink or 1+ impolite comment to the staff. I turned to look. Wearing a blue hat (not an uncommon site in Wrigleyville, mind you) was a man in the 40-50 range.
Because he was facing away from me, I put my hand on his shoulder to get his attention. He turned, and he and his buddies all groaned. Good, at least he knew he'd done something wrong. I didn't know what it was, but I didn't have to. This guy was being asked to leave, and he and his friends all knew it. There was a token protest, but it was half-hearted. I escorted the man to the door, made sure to point him out to the guy checking IDs, and went back to my post in the center of the bar.
After half an hour I stepped out to the fence for a smoke to find the fence guy had switched places with the door guy since Blue Hat had left. Thinking nothing of it, I sent him inside to take my place so I could light up. Five minutes later (less than the time it takes to smoke, mind you) one of the waitresses stepped outside and told me the bartender needed me.
Sure enough there was Blue Hat. Making the most of the changing of the guard, he'd come back past a bouncer who didn't know he wasn't supposed to come back. Standing at the bar he looked for all the world like he couldn't understand why he didn't have a drink in his hand. I grabbed his shoulder again and said, "No, see—you were asked to leave. That means you don't get to come back." He tried an argument with me this time, and started asking me what he had done. "You got asked to leave," I told him, made sure he went out again, and relit my smoke when I got back to watching the fence. Blue hat followed me.
He tried to continue his argument and proclaim his innocence, saying he didn't know what he'd done to get himself ejected. "I don't know either," I told him, "but when you're asked to leave I don't ask questions. You just leave."
"So I mouthed off to the guy, so what?" he said. "The guy's a fucking asshole," he said with such a slur I didn't understand him at first. I shrugged and tried to ignore him, but there are two certainties when someone gets booted. The first is that he'll always try to negotiate his way back into the bar, especially if his friends are still in there. The second is that a booted person's friends always stay to finish their drinks, proving there is no honor among inebriates. He spent the next 20 minutes making small talk, his speech so distorted that several times I had to ask him to repeat himself. With a hint of drool escaping the corner of what I'm sure was an attempt at a coy smile, he'd only say, "Yeah, you heard me," and nod a few times.
After a few minutes of this, he'd make his case. "Com'mon. Hey. Hey. I'm notta bad guy. Cancha jus' lemme back in? I'm harmless, I'm harmless." Short of wetting his jeans, there is no drunk stereotype this man had failed to fulfill.
"No," I'd say. Then he'd try getting angry.
"Fuck you. You're a fuckin' idiot. Asshole."
"See that?" I asked him. "That right there, that's why you don't get to come back." I indicated the 20-30 people enjoying themselves on the patio. "See all these people? There are a very few rules you have to follow, and all these people follow them. That's why they get to stay. You didn't follow the rules, so you don't get to stay." Not for the first time, I found a similarity between bouncing and they year I spent as a pre-school teacher.
My attention was needed at the opposite end of the patio for a moment, so I walked down. By the time I came back he was gone. I hoped he had moved on, but I hadn't in my heart accepted it was true. Full of hope I lit a cigarette anyway—and was on my second drag before the bartender stepped out and waved me in.
Sure enough, Blue Hat hopped the low fence and tried to rejoin his friends in the least sneaky way possible. It seems he rushed in, waved wildly to the bartender, and called out, "I'm Baaack!"
Not for long he wasn't, goddammit.
I admired his tenacity, but only a little. I don't know at what point he thought I was simply going to shrug and let him stay, and I let my anger at his audacity build in order to fuel the verbal torrent I was about to spew. Once we got outside, I channeled every wild-eyed, spittle-spraying high school football coach who'd ever given me a verbal thrashing, and I unleashed.
"You don't seem to understand. You were told to leave. That means you don't get to stay. You don't get to come back. You don't get to come in the front door, you don't get to come in the back door. You don't get to come in the side door. You don't get to come in at all. You are not welcome here. You have to go away. You have to be gone. You have to stay gone. If you don't understand that I will get the police here to explain it to you."
At the last minute I realized my mistake by threatening the police—never make a threat you aren't prepared to back up. Not that I wouldn't have done so if the circumstances warranted it, but I didn't want the police to make a special trip over this guy; they have more important things to do on a Saturday night in Chicago. Besides, every drunk thinks calling the police is a bluff no one is prepared to back up. My heart sank a bit as the fight drained from me; I had just played my King and promised an Ace, but had none up my sleeve. Worse, he called me out. "Go ahead," he said gaining confidence, "get the police." Shit. "There's their car," he said pointing to the street corner.
Eh? Sure enough, there was indeed a Chicago Police Car parked right on our corner. Rejuvenated, I instantly regained the ground I thought I'd lost. I wouldn't have to wait for them to show up, and—best news yet—this idiot is the one who pointed them out. Huzzah!
I approached the police with momentum and fervor. "Excuse me, Gentlemen," I said. "Would you please explain to this man that he isn't allowed back in my bar?" They looked annoyed, but it no longer mattered; one who had witnessed my tirade ran up and informed me that Blue Hat had jumped into a cab while I wasn't looking.
I admit I was a little disappointed at the flat ending to such a huge build, but that was okay. I've been involved in a few fights this year, and one of them included a $1,700 medical bill. All things considered, this ended as well as it should have.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Man Stank

Before I begin, it's apparent that I've become depressed lately. Hmm, I suppose not so much depressed as terrified. The bad decisions I've made are crushing my present and casting a dreadful pall over my future. I hate it, but mostly I hate who it's made me become. I had already reached the point of being unable to talk about my life without mentioning my career or financial goals. As important as these are to accomplish, it makes me feel incredibly dull. There's just nothing worth talking about that isn't a measurement of where I've been, where I am, and where I'm trying to go. It's getting to the point that I don't want to write anymore, because I'm sick and tired of writing about the same thing over and over. I never wanted to be so one dimensional.
Thus, a new beginning has dawned. Stories float about my head all the time; interesting things do happen to me that have nothing to do with getting from point A to point B on a scale of career or money. They're usually unimportant, but they're fun, and they tend to impact my day one way or another.

As the title says, this one's about Man Stank.

The dojo I began attending last week teaches two martial arts. The first is Aikido, which is largely comprised of purely defensive manipulations of an attacker's body. It's about how to throw off an opponent using leverage and subtle manipulations instead of strength and opposite forces.

The other art this place teaches is Systema, which in concept couldn't be further from Aikido than a jigsaw band from performing at the Chinese Opera. Systema was taught solely to the Russian Special Forces until the fall of communism in the early 90's. It's as offensive as Aikido is defensive. There are no tournaments, and you do not score points. What you do is learn the fastest possible ways to force another human to pain and submission, and it's just important to learn to take a hit as it is to give one.

Strangely, these two disciplines create a strange sort of synergy when combined. I imagine anyone who masters both will always be the last man standing in any macho-movie-style backroom/barroom brawl. Probably this would occur right in between deflowering a princess and devouring a raw steak, in no particular order. But I digress.

Systema has a wrestling/grappling component to it, which includes striking an opponent several times while hurtling his body toward the nearest, most solid object (hopefully another opponent, but usually it's the floor). In class, we take turns being the dummy.

If I said tonight my partner had a body odor problem, that would be polite. If I said my tonight my partner had an Oh Dear God and All That is Holy STANK, that would be closer to the truth. In the moment, I didn't really notice. Much as the action hero seems immune to injury during a fight, I was too concerned with one of two things; either trying to find new and interesting ways to plant my joints in his tender parts before, during, and after sending his broken shell into a crumpled pile; or wincing when he realized my ponytail makes a wonderful handlebar when it was my turn to be the broken shell in a crumpled pile.

But when class was over, I made an interesting discovery as I waited on the train to take me home. The memory of the smell was a little too vivid for comfort. Before long I realized it wasn't just a memory—the stank had stuck! It transferred its putrid essence onto me and was following me home like a diseased puppy. I was convinced that from a distance, I looked like Pig Pen from Peanuts. Worse, I had no distraction. I was praying for someone to mug me so the fight would take my mind off it, and take the Odour of Profanity with him instead of my wallet. Hell, even if he TOOK my wallet, as long as the offending smell was gone.

I couldn't bear to be near myself. I decided I was performing a penance, and started making mental apologies to every girlfriend I ever had for every shower I had never taken before coming to bed. When I got home I burned my clothes, spread my body wash onto a Brillo pad and scrubbed my flesh raw and bleeding. Maybe I got it all. Maybe like a horror movie the Stank Beast will rise again from some eggs it hatched before I killed it (already I see the words "THE END . . . . ?" rising across the screen projecting the closing credits of my day). One way or the other, there is a certainty.

That stank will haunt my dreams.

Monday, October 13, 2008


So the IRS finally caught me by the sensitive spot. I owe them a bucket of money, but I haven't been paying. The reason why is simple; in their letters of warning, they threaten a maximum fine of 25% over the past due balance; Visa charges me 20% a month, and I owed them five times what I owed the IRS. It was pretty simple math. One of my credit cards has a $3,600 balance for which I've been paying $100 a month for the last three years. It was $3,600 three years ago, and it's $3,600 today. I've paid $3,600 already, and if I gave them the full balance tomorrow, I'd still be paying $7,200 for a $3,600 bill. And I won't be paying them tomorrow. Truth be told, I wasn't ignoring the IRS. I triaged my debts, found out who was hitting me hardest, and made the decision to pay them off first.
On Friday, I got a phone call from the temp company telling me THEY got a letter from the IRS for a lien on my paycheck. Fine, I figured, they'll take an additional percentage and get them off my back once and for all. Actually, it's much worse than that. For a lien, they look at a chart which shows my total exemptions on one axis and the frequency of my paycheck on another. Where the two meet determines how much money they leave me with. In my case, I'll get $239.42 from each check, and they get the rest until the lien is gone. Considering what I currently owe, if I work 60 hours a week, they'll be paid off in two and a half months. In the meantime, I have to learn to live off $239.42 a week.
Okay, fine, so they got my attention.
I called to get the lien removed and work out a payment plan, and the first man I spoke with informed me I never filed last year's return. I had tried to e-file, went through all the steps, but apparently never hit the "submit" button. They won't remove the lien until that's done. He tried to tell me I should hurry, because if I file by October 15th, I still get that $600 economic stimulus check! "Stimulus" my ass. I owe them almost ten times that amount, not to mention my credit card debt; the only thing $600 will stimulate is a $600 payment right back to them, less the cost of a stamp.
So I got off the phone, found my e-file status, submitted it, and got my next piece of bad news. I owe an additional $2,000 for last year. Fine, whatever, that's a drop in the bucket. I called them back. I spoke this time with a woman who told me to fax the 1040 form so we could get started the process of removing the lien, which I did. She told me the IRS needs 5 to 7 business days to process the form, but in the meantime we could get started with what the payment plan might detail. She asked me a few questions.
"Are you able to pay the balance in full right now?" Are you kidding me? Logically, if I could pay the balance in full right now, would we be having this conversation about a payment plan?
"Do you have a rich friend or relative you could ask to pay this bill for you?" I won't even begin to describe the stomach-churning sensation I felt as I breathed the word no.
"If we gave you a sixty day extension, could you pay the bill by that time?" This was asked by a woman who had, not five minutes earlier, told me how much money I made last year. I'm sure she was reading down a list of questions she's required to ask, but she still asked me if I could come up with 25% of my annual salary in 16% of a year.
"Can you get a loan, or put the balance owed onto a credit card?" I explained why I was paying off the credit card debts first, that they interest they charge is much more than the penalty the IRS charges. She told me that's true until you get put on a payment plan—credit cards charge you interest once a month, but the IRS charges interest compounded daily. Well, one of the cards I consolidated almost four years ago is almost paid off, which leaves enough room for this balance. Frustrating thing to have a card go from paid off to maxed out, but what else can I do? I told her I'd call the credit card company and see if this would be possible.
Before I could go, she hit me again—she told me this is the 4th year in a row that I've owed taxes; this means they're not taking enough out of my paychecks, so clearly, they need to take out more. I explained that my previous job only paid about $2 hourly, and the rest of my income was from tips. The $2 hourly wasn't enough to cover what I owed in taxes, so I ended up owing more at the end of the year. I told them that I now no longer have that job, that I'm getting paid a much higher wage from which there's money left over after taxes are taken out, so surely I'm paying enough this year. Do you really need to take out MORE taxes?
"Yes," she told me. Yes they do. It was time to hang up and call the credit card company.
When I put the credit account into the debt management program, they blocked the account from further purchases against it. If I removed it from the program, maybe I could then charge my IRS debt, so I called them to find out if it was possible. The woman I spoke to told me this credit account was closed—get this—August 19th, 2008. I asked if I could get it re-opened, and was told I have to wait until "business hours", which just happen to be MY business hours. So now I have to wait until Tuesday (Monday being a federal holiday) to find out if paying by credit card is even possible. If it isn't, my options are running out fast.
Finally, the latest blow in the saga hit my email account this afternoon. "Your e-filed return has been REJECTED by the IRS.". It seems I filled out a form incorrectly, so now I have to go back and try again. When I signed on there were two errors reported.
"The Primary Prior Year Adjusted Gross Income (or the Primary Prior Year PIN) used to e-sign the return must match the corresponding data in IRS records." When I spoke to the first man about this he TOLD me my primary prior year adjusted gross income, which is what I typed in—but maybe I typed it wrong. I can go back and fix that, but there was another error waiting for me.
"Form 1040 - When Filing Status equals 4 at least one of the following fields must be significant Qualifying Name for H of Household and SSN for Qual Name Number of Children Who Lived with You Number of Other Dependents Listed. When Qualifying Name for H of Household is significant SSN for Qual Name must be significant and within the valid ranges of SSNITINATINs and cannot equal Primary SSN or Secondary SSN." Um . . . . what? The syntax of the message alone is why lawyers—even federal lawyers—get paid so much money. Not only can they understand this type of message, they're capable of composing this type of message.
I recently came across and old journal from 2001. I had just graduated college, and was swearing I could pay off my $6,500 debt in less than one year. Far from paying it off, my debt has only increased. I wish I could be focusing on a career and family. I wish that I could include aspirations of what I want to become as a part of who I am today. Instead, who I am today is defined by making up for the mistakes of my past. It is defined by how much longer it will take to clear the path for the future I should have stared seven years ago. It is defined more frequently and more significantly by my failures than my successes.
Is that true for everyone?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


As I write this morning, I'm sitting on the train on my way to work. A three-month temp position has now lasted a full year, and a couple of weeks ago I got promoted to Supervisor. I'm now one of two people in charge of a staff of thirty, taking the busy work off the hands of the permanent employees and making sure it gets done by my team. I evaluate what needs doing, who on the staff can do it best, train them in the task, and take it back ensuring their accuracy before I pass it on. It's odd, because I'm so used to doing work that I feel like I'm not actually getting anything done during the day. It's odd because I haven't worked less than 60 hours per week for the last month, but I can't point to a task I've personally accomplished.
My hours at the bar have been significantly cut because of this position, but now that the Cubs are out of the playoffs again, it won't much matter until next season. In the meantime I'm still a beer vendor at Soldier Field during Bears home games, and I may or may not pick up my winter bartending position I had last year.
I'm finally making enough money that I feel comfortable doing some things for myself—I can go out for a few drinks, out to dinner, and not sweat over making rent. I have to remember to buy my tickets for Video Games Live coming to the Chicago Theatre in November, and I just this week signed up at a dojo that teaches Aikido, Systema, and sword-fighting.
My hair has grown past my shoulders (someday I'll update some pictures), so I need a trim before finding someone to take new headshots before I begin to apply for graduate school once more. As much as I love living here and the opportunities this town has provided me, a year from now the template that provides a backdrop for my life may look as different by contrast as it does from now to a year ago, or from then to the year before that.
Nonetheless, the more I get ahead, the more I feel like I'm behind. Finally moving toward my life and my goals has served to show me exactly how far away they are. Fortunately, I'm past the part where I'm walking on flat ground and I'm past the part where I'm sprinting up a steep slope. Now I'm to the part of the climb where I have to use my hands, be more diligent than ever as I strive for the top. A slip now could cost me more than I've gained, and reclaiming the difference won't be as satisfying the second time around. The handholds are smaller, but my grip is stronger. The risks are greater, but the rewards are immeasurable. Best of all, the peak has never been so close, and the sky is beginning to fill my vision.
Also, I apparently miss rock climbing.
It occurred to me recently that I've completely given up wishing for things. I used to wish all the time; at 11:11, while knocking on wood, or upon finding a penny on the ground. Finally, I grew to acknowledge and accept that the life I want isn't going to find me. The world is too big for that, too full of people ferociously grabbing up opportunities for me to catch one that happens to be floating by.
The world needs my help to get me what I want.
I've got to stretch out my arms and extend my legs, lift myself off the couch and push out into the street, run and jump and make my presence known to everyone who has what I want. I have to become the obvious to the oblivious. Only then will it find me. And it will find me not merely waiting and hoping, but standing victorious at the end of a cord of accomplishments, ready to cross the threshold into a realm of challenges both great and imperceptible.
One day at a time. All is well, and all is well, and all manner of things will be well.