The City of Angels Part Six: Ruin

After eight months trying to eke out a life in California, I found myself back in Alaska trying to get my feet back under me. I didn’t really tell anyone what I had gone through, what my struggles were, and if I told them why I was back up, it was typically vague and one thing was clear: it was temporary. My goal was clear to me. I transferred up with Best Buy. I was living back at home with my grandparents. I was going to work hard, get a good chunk of savings under my belt, move back, get back together with the love of my life and get back on a path to a happy future.

Part One: Departure
Part Two: A Perilous Journey
Part Three: The First Month
Part Four: Love and Tribulation
Part Five: Awry

I was in Alaska a grand total of four months. The middle of May until September 19th. My interview with the front lanes manager was a grand total of five minutes and ended with her shaking my hand and welcoming me to the team. I think she and I had a grand total of four conversations in the front four months I was there, which was a stark contrast to the ever-present oversight of my manager Stephanie in El Segundo. Stephanie wanted us to know what our numbers were at, what  our goals were. She wanted to know what we needed and she also loved us all to death. My manager in Anchorage was cold and detached and impersonal. Frankly, most of the management at my store in Alaska didn’t know what they fuck they were doing, much less what they wanted out of anybody.

There was a different department up north, though, one that required sitting in the back and taking phone and online orders for deliveries by plane out to the Bush  (rural areas of Alaska). It was a steadily growing side venture that Best Buy was taking a chance on and it grew in business every day. I worked that area every chance I got, using my downtime to learn about the other departments and get certified to cover for and work in those areas every time we were short staffed. I wanted to be the most valuable, versatile member of the team. It was a lot of work.

I also brought up the idea of the Black Tie Protection competition we had down in Los Angeles. The rewards weren’t as high (a $5 gift card instead of $25), but it took our store from being absolute shit to being one of the highest BTP selling stores in the district. It was fun, sort of, in the way a competition is when you can never really lose. One girl consistently outsold the hell out of me. She was good. I vowed never to let it happen once I moved back.

My grandparents never asked me why I moved back, and I never told them anything beyond I just needed to get stable again. They knew I’d be leaving again in the fall and I think they just wanted to make the most of the time I was back with them. I had missed them. I miss them now.

I lived about an hour, hour and a half from work and it was the summer, so I walked often. I would carry a book to read as I walked, and on umbrella as well, on rainy days. I lost a lot of weight (which, in five years, I’ve regained) and looked maybe the best I had since high school.

That’s what I did that summer: I fucking walked and worked and learned. I drank a lot and ate a lot, frequenting the karaoke bar I loved so much and which is now a weird bar/sandwich hybrid shop.

Somewhere around 4th of July weekend, I think, my friend Sam took me out to his uncle’s cabin. Sam is a great guy – he and I get lunch every time we’re both in town – so I leapt at the chance to have a quiet, earnest get-away somewhere outside of the city. The cabin was beautiful and rustic and sat on a piece of land with an expansive backyard that had been turned into a 9-hole golf course. To this day, it remains the one and only time I’ve ever played golf. I lost badly, but I enjoyed myself okay.

I was set up in the guest room, which was a separate house that overlooked a lake and the sun kissed it nicely and I was removed from myself via natural beauty. I took a picture of the sunrise over the water and sent it to my ex. We weren’t talking much at the time. “Wish you were here,” I said.

“I wish I were, too,” she replied.

And I thought I was good. I thought I was on track, working hard, being a better man, a better person. I focused on the job that was waiting for me to come back to, waiting on the arms of my beautiful woman to fall into.

But dreams and life are not always the best of friends.

It was late July. I was making a sandwich in my grandparents’ kitchen when my phone buzzed on the counter top. My ex had texted me and said that after a great deal of consideration, we wouldn’t be getting back together upon my return. Our relationship was irrevocably ended. I was crushed. I thought things were slowly getting better. I thought she would be proud of me for becoming better. And of course there were so many other reasons for her decision, but I was blind to them at the time. I was just so hurt and lost. I begged. I pleaded. It didn’t change her mind.

So I kind of lost mine? I definitely went a bit mad.

I had been celibate for three months. I was technically single. I had flirted. I’d even kissed a time or two, but my heart was with my lady in Los Angeles and so I slept with no one. But now?  Definitively single, no room for argument? Alone in Alaska? Hurt and lonely? I reacted by being a little bit of a slut.

I hooked up with a friend from high school. She was working through some things and so was I, and there was sort of a desperate tinge to the night, and it was good and it was fine, and it never happened again, but I think we became closer friends for it.

I hooked up with a woman I used to work with that I always thought hated me. She picked me up from a bar to give me a ride home and argued with herself over whether or not she should sleep with me, and I calmed her down and took the pressure off and told her if she didn’t feel comfortable, we absolutely shouldn’t, but if she genuinely wanted to, we could, with no expectations or attachments or anything like that. It was an interesting not, and I think both of us felt good about having someone there to make the other feel valued. We didn’t speak much in the days after and we haven’t spoken at all in five years.

And then I fell into a steady casual relationship with a woman I met in a bar. I finally had the balls to ask her for her number, and she gave it to me, and we went on a couple dates, and I went home with her and met her mom and we all got on well and it started a thing.

That last month, month and a half I spent primarily with her. I was still going out too much. I was drinking too much, trying to quench the pain I was feeling, and I would go home to this girl and she would make me feel handsome and funny and valued. It was incredibly selfish of me. I did care about her a lot. I care about her still, and we’re always easy around each other. That being said, that casual relationship was still birthed out of heartbreak and very much felt like a rebound solely because I felt like a piece of shit and she made me feel worthwhile.

I could feel my life sort of crumbling around me. I didn’t give a shit about anything. My dreams to be an actor/writer were a distant memory. I was still putting money away because the bartenders at the karaoke bar essentially let me drink for free. I was learning more about my job, but I stopped really giving a fuck.

And then something inside me broke.

The store in Anchorage that I worked at had one large difference from the one I worked at in El Segundo: they kept the new, popular video games up in the front lanes, where the check-out registers were, instead of back in the gaming department. The camera in the front lanes was poorly positioned as well. Sometimes the front lanes were lightly staffed. It made it incredibly easy to steal video games, and I did. I took two or three games over the course of two or three weeks. I didn’t sell them, they were for me, but they were most certainly obtained illegally.

Why? Fucking why did I take those games? I played them, but I don’t know that I even enjoyed them. I spent most of my free time with this woman. If I had to guess, it’s that I was lashing out in every unhealthy way I could just because I wanted to feel something. Or maybe I felt that I was a garbage human being, so to hell with it, why not do garbage, self-destructive things?

I didn’t got caught, though. Not then, not for that. I did get certified in every department in the store and provided coverage anytime an area was understaffed. I made myself useful. I was well-liked.

September rolled around and I was about to move back to Los Angeles. The transfer request was in and approved. I had my old room back in Jenny’s family’s place. I decided to spend my last weekend in town with my friends.

And promptly got alcohol poisoning.

I blacked out somewhere around midnight. Apparently we had a few more drinks and then I wound up at my friend Steven’s place with him and some girl. The girl I was dating lived right up the road, so despite my friend’s insistence that I stay, I left. He let me borrow a coat. Instead of going straight up the road, I walked about five miles to the right. I came out of the blackout around 4 in the morning, early September, with no coat, in the rain, in the middle of the goddamn woods with no idea how I got to where I was.

I vomited and staggered in a direction, hoping against hope that it would lead me to civilization. I slipped and fell and the battery in my cell phone – I had a flip phone at the time; this was five years ago and I was stubborn – spun into the underbrush. I sprained my right elbow trying to catch myself as I fell and I spent ten or fifteen pained, stressed, confused, drunk minutes trying to find the battery before giving up and hoping for the best.

I walked for another ten or fifteen minutes before finding a road. It was on the completely opposite side of town from where I last remembered being. I didn’t even know anyone who lived near there. With how early it was and looking the way I looked, drenched and dirty, haggard and still drunk, I couldn’t just knock on someone’s door to ask to use their phone. All the businesses had yet to open. Shit, did I even know anyone’s phone number by heart? I did, in fact, not, except for the cab company that I had no phone to call for and no money on hand to pay with.

So I set out to the house of the girl I was dating. When I found out I had walked the same distance to the woods and back, I realized I must have trekked a total of ten miles or so. My legs and feet were killing me. I felt so sick. My arm throbbed. I couldn’t stop shaking. When I got to her house, it was nearly six in the morning.

I went around back to see if the back door was open. It wasn’t uncommon for me to just show up at her place and spend the night, so I thought that was a good idea. The door was not open. I think I sob-moaned and curled up in the fetal position on the back porch, hoping to sleep until someone woke up. About twenty minutes later, her mom found me and let me in. I mumbled out an explanation and she told me to go upstairs and crawl into bed. I surprised the girl, and I really pissed her off when I crawled my damp, dirty, freezing body in next to her. She wasn’t very impressed with me. I wasn’t very impressed by myself.

It took me a few days to fully recover from that hangover. I bought a sling for my arm that I wore for almost two months. A few days later, she drove me to the airport, we kissed goodbye and I left to try and fix things in Los Angeles.

At first, everything was working out great. Everyone remarked on how great I looked. Kevin, my friend and one of the managers put me in for a full dollar raise. I moved around the store, still selling more Black Tie than anyone, still winning those  $25 gift cards. We had a new general manager and I impressed him quickly.

But my ex was still dead set on not renewing our relationship. I tried everything. Gifts. Compliments. We still hung out occasionally, I could still make her laugh, but it wasn’t enough. It was hard working with her and not having her look at me lovingly anymore. It was hard seeing others flirt with her.

I started drinking. Daily. A lot. I was still sort of broke, so I’d buy these ridiculously cheap, ridiculously huge bottles of wine and/or vodka from the CVS down the road and I’d drink most of it that night and go into work smelling like liquor the next day. Jenny told me I couldn’t be doing that. What if a customer complained. I said something about half the customers being fucking morons and that even if every customer could smell the liquor, it apparently was doing nothing to stop the sheer fucking magnitude of insurance I was selling. “There’s a reason you have all the seasonal hires train with me.”

I was a bit of a smug asshole, but Jenny still loved and worried about me, and my friends would still invite me over and try to help me get over my ex. I smiled and nodded. “You’re right. I know.” I couldn’t do it.

I tried! God help me. My friend Angie and I hung out a few times, and I think there could have been something there, but even if there was, “You dated my friend,” she told me. “I can’t do that to her. It would make things too awkward.” That’s fair. In my mindset and with my emotional instability, I don’t think I would have made much of a boyfriend for her, either.

I started hanging out with other friends more. Marisol and I went and donated blood at Universal Studios during a Saw marathon. We got some free swag afterwards. Thanks night or a couple nights later was Halloween. She introduced me to her friend, a pretty Mexican woman. She and I swapped numbers and had sex not long after. It was nice, and passionate, but I just didn’t have the energy to pursue anything more. I still had my heart set on my ex.

November rolled around and I went to Temple with her and her family. Her sister invited me to Thanksgiving again and I asked my ex if she would be okay with that. She was, but I think a little reluctant. The dinner was nice. We laughed a lot. We got along as easily as ever.

And it still wasn’t enough. We got into a discussion about it in the car which quickly turned into a full-blown argument. “What is it?” I asked desperately. “We have fun. We get along. We make each other laugh.”

“Because you’re not the person I thought you were.” And that broke my heart completely. And I think I just gave up on everything then.

The next day was Black Friday. Black Friday in the front lanes of Best Buy in El Segundo is a fucking nigtmare. I got given charge of the registers. My job was to direct traffic to available registers, radio back to the warehouse to bring up the correct big ticket items, unfuck any mistakes the new kids made, and sell Black Tie any time I found myself at at a register. I did this for 12 hours on two hours of sleep and a hangover, and I was fucking great at it. I was supposed to work 14 hours that day, but the general manager sent me home a couple hours early because I looked like I was going to collapse at any moment.

“You’re maybe the only reason the front lanes didn’t completely fall apart,” he told me, before giving me my second dollar raise in a month. I was on track to move from the front lanes to the computer section and expected to get promoted to a supervisor somewhere within the next 6-12 months. Professionally, I had my ducks in a row. Mentally and emotionally, I alternated between being on the verge of tears, vomiting from full blown panic attacks, or feeling absolutely nothing at all.

Christmas season comes around. I’m still winning $25 gift cards. A new promotion comes out where if you bought a video game system, you automatically also received a gift card for $50 or $75 dollars (depending on which console was purchased). The thing is, not everyone knew about those cards. So I pocketed a few. No real reason why. I thought I was just being greedy back then. Nowadays I think I just wanted to do something risky just to feel something. And it was fucked up! I know that. That’s cards those people could have used for Christmas gifts. I just didn’t… care. I was so emotionally drained and self-loathing and hurt and lost. I stole those gift cards. I felt like a scumbag. I made a poor judgment choice. And because my head was in a constant maelstrom of grief and alcohol and loneliness and self-hate, I slipped up.

Using the gift cards, that’s when I got greedy. I would use my employee code to shave off a few more dollars from whatever product (usually movies or energy drinks) I was buying. And one of those customers that didn’t know about the gift card? He sure as shit found out about it, and when he came back to ask what happened to it, a little research tracked the usage back to me. And I was done for.

I got called into the office during a busy afternoon in a tone that very much indicated I had fucked up. I thought it was a transaction or something. When I saw my general manager and a stern-looking stranger, I knew exactly what had happened.

I had a weird mix of feelings wash over me then. Relief, weirdly, at finally just coming face to face with my self-sabotage and not having this guilty weight in the pit of my stomach. Resounding shame. Embarrassment. I didn’t want the people I had grown close with to know I was a thief on top of being an emotional wreck and a drunk.

This guy was the loss prevention manager for the entire west coast, and a former cop. He told me the easy was just to admit everything because they had tape, which may or may not have been true. The hard way would be to cuff me, parade me through the store and take me to jail. So I came clean immediately. I came clean on the gift cards, all of them, and the video games in Alaska.

“But there’s still something you’re not telling us. We know there’s more, just say it.” Oh, he was good. I knew another employee who got caught for stealing and then, when pressured, copped to taking money as well, sonething they hadn’t known. But I had admitted it all. I denied stealing anything else, like ipods. I didn’t need anything else. I didn’t even need the shit I actually took, but I warned them about how easy it would have been and suggested more thorough checks before leaving. I denied using my discount on behalf of friends except one time for a birthday (which was allowed). “I don’t know anyone in Los Angeles. All my other friends are Best Buy employees.” My manager told the guy he believed me. I had been a stellar, model employee other than this incident.

We tallied up the cost of the games and the gift cards. It came out to $350, I think. I agreed to pay it immediately. I had just paid rent, and I had been blowing money on booze, so I had to use what remained on my credit card to take care of it. I went on the floor to do it, and I looked at my direct manager and friend and said, “I’m sorry I let you down. Please don’t think I’m a bad person.” She told me she didn’t.

The LP manager still wanted to cuff and parade me. My general manager convinced him not to. “He’s been honest and upfront, he’s been a great employee, and he paid his restitution without any problem. Just let him leave.” I had only known the guy for four months and he cut me a break he had every right to shit all over. He walked me back to get my stuff, walked me to the front door and shook my hand. “I’ve had to do a lot of these walks over the years. This is one of the few I truly regret. Take care of yourself.”

I walked out in a bit of a daze. I barely had any money. I had no job. I couldn’t stay in Los Angeles. I called up RJ in Seattle and told him I was probably going to move up there with him. “What’s changed?” he asked.
“I got fired.”
“What? For what?” To the side, he told our friend Isaac, “He got fired.”
“Uh… theft. And embezzlement, they said.”
RJ cackled. “Embezzlement?!” Isaac cackled in the background. “What the fuck can you even embezzle from Best Buy?”
“Uh…gift cards?”
Gift cards? You couldn’t embezzle actual fucking currency? You went with gift cards?”
“Look, can I move up or what?”
“Hahaha yeah, man. See you soon.”

Jenny was on maternity leave at the time, so she hadn’t heard the news. She was visiting her family for Christmas and I dreaded telling her. But I sucked it up. “I have something I need to tell you. I’m moving this week. I got fired.” And I told her why and I told her I felt terrible about it, and she was disappointed, but she was so supportive and understanding. And her family gave me unexpected Christmas gifts because they are lovely people.

The fallout was interesting. I became a bit of a pariah, and I was somewhat flabbergasted by who stayed and who didn’t. Kevin, one of my best friends in the store, never spoke to me again. I didn’t blame him. He stuck his neck out for me multiple times and I betrayed him. Stephanie wishes me a Merry Christmas every year. Jason and Angie didn’t really give a shit. Some people I wasn’t that close with at all stayed friends with me for years. Others that I had been extremely close with, people I helped through hard times, people who could tell me anything because I wouldn’t say shit, pretended I never existed. I guess they felt like I betrayed them. The real me was a criminal and a fuck-up.

The loss of those friendships hurt; I didn’t take the gift cards from them. I paid back every cent I took. I lost my job. I lost my home. I had to move out of the fucking state! And California’s shoplifting laws allows for an additional restitution charge of  $50-$500. They got me for another $450, more than the original amount I took, and I paid that, too. I went into debt. And I didn’t complain about any of it because I broke the law. I took my punishment. But how much more did I have to give up? I lost everything, had to start from scratch all over again after everything I went through to get to where I was, and I fucked my own life up. The loss of those friendships hurt because I knew, knew that nobody hated me more I hated myself.

Brittni, one of my closest friends, took me out for milkshakes a day or two before I was set to fly out. We talked about what happened. She told me how hurt she was that I could betray her trust. She drove me home. She hugged me. She never spoke to me again.

And of course, my ex. Her words about never being anybody rang in my fucking soul. Her words about not being the man she thought I was were hooks in my heart. And now I knew this woman who loved me once, who I still loved so fiercely, would always view me as this tainted fuck-up. It killed me to think she would regret me. She didn’t speak to me for five years. Only recently did we reconnect and become friends again, and it brought closure to a demon weight that had been breaking me down for years.

I flew out of the city of angels a few days before the new year began to kick off most of a year in Seattle and Redmond, and some pretty life-defining things happened there. But Los Angeles changed me. It opened my eyes to so many amazing and terrible things. I met so many incredible people. I fell in love. I broke my heart. I built something good. I burned it all down.

Los Angeles changed me, for better and for worse. I’ll always love it, for better and for worse.

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Jessica Michelle Singleton

Usually I try to come up with some snazzy, artsy, punny title for my posts. You know, something that has a vague allusion to the subject I’m writing about, something a “Writer” *hair flip* would do. Not for this one. It’s important to me that right off the bat, we know what we’re dealing with.

Jessica – or JMS, as I (never) call her, when I want to make her sound like a battleship – is so many things to me. I told her at…let’s check….11 PM last night, when I wasn’t quite drunk but was starting neatly into my cups, that I had to write about her, that it would kill me not to. That wasn’t the alcohol talking. It’s the fact that she’s phenomenal.

I went to school with Jessica. She was a year ahead of me, and I had transferred from a different high school after my sophomore year, so we only got a school year together. I’m not sure exactly how or why we crossed paths, but we got along immediately and became friends quickly.  We’ve kept in touch since.

She had a dream, and it was… well, to be honest, a daunting one. She wanted to make a career as a comedian, one of the hardest artistic professions to not only break into but do well at. It’s a profession that very often doesn’t take women seriously, and Los Angeles is a city that I absolutely love but fucking eats the souls of those not ready for it. I know. I moved there when I wasn’t ready for it.

When I turned 21, I moved to L.A. with two friends and no plan. I was going to be an actor/writer, I thought to myself, with six middling theatrical performances and a handful of questionable short stories under my belt. I even got headshots done. Did it matter that they were taken in a mostly abandoned warehouse by a man with half a dozen cats, arranged by a guy who ran a softcore pornography website as a side business? Not to me. I didn’t even see it when my friend said that one of my pictures looked like someone had just told me my pet had been run over by a car.

I was going for, I don’t know, pensive? It doesn’t matter. I didn’t become an actor/writer and my sheer unpreparedness for the city left me chewed down to gristle. The distance from the only home I had known, financial concerns, an unsupportive woman and, ultimately, myself left me broken. I moved away, defeated.

Jessica didn’t give a flying shit. Or maybe she gave all the flying shits. Either way, she moved down with an idea of how difficult things would be, discovered first hand the reality that it was so much more difficult than she could have imagined, and she endured it. With the storm that raged inside her continuing to roil and churn, she pushed it back and let sheer force of will keep her there, keep her fighting for every minute she could get on stage, every single person she could tell a joke in front of.

And she made it work. She has been making it work. She’s made a full-blown career out of it, doing a mind-boggling amount of shows each year, a cross-country tour, an international tour, radio shows, television pilots, YouTube sketches. She’s partying with Brian Regan in Las Vegas.

She came home for her high school reunion and did a couple surprise performances. I caught the latter of the two, the fourth time I’ve been fortunate enough to see her perform live, and she absolutely slaughtered the crowd. Just killed it. In a scarce three years, she has gone from doing fifteen-minute spots for nobody headliners to headlining shows with an hour and a half of solid material and hosting tours.

She’s a woman who had a dream, a horrendously difficult one, and spat in the face of adversity, wrestled that dream into something that not only supported her but brought genuine joy to others, and continues to make it work for her. The opportunities continue to flow her way, due to her hard work and her talent.

Professionally and artistically, I respect and admire her a great deal. She is doing what I meekly tried to do and continues to pursue her dream ravenously, with a fervor and talent that leaves me dazzled. It was a pleasure and a privilege to see her give an audience so much, so gleefully, striding across her element with a confidence I haven’t felt in over half a decade. She’s a hero to me.

And if it was just that, it would be enough, but she’s still so much more.

Jessica has been an invaluable friend. She’s that rare breed that won’t bullshit you, but also understands exactly what you’re going through and empathizes. Empathizes, which is much more difficult to do than sympathize and is typically much more emotionally taxing for both parties involved.

There is parental resentment. There are creative struggles. Most critically, there is trouble with mental instability, something I’ve come to learn recently is shockingly more prevalent than people are comfortable discussing. She talks about depression and bipolarism in her sets. She mentioned it in the first (and only, so far) guest post I’ve had written for my blog, which you can read here. Fun fact: That was written exactly one year and two weeks from yesterday.

I have texted her drunk, and not, at 3AM or 3 PM, wracked with angst and insecurity and desperation, and she has walked me through some storms. She is patient and guiding, despite the distance, despite anything else, because she gets it. She has been supportive and encouraging, and I will always, always be grateful for that.

Three days ago, I caught her warm-up set at an open mic comedy show. Afterwards, we had an opportunity to catch up some, and I expressed how proud I was of all that she had accomplished and was continuing to accomplish going into her high school reunion.

“Mine’s next year,” I said. “I’m 27 years old, and all I’ve done is write three books that don’t sell for shit.”

“But you’ve written three books,” she said. “Do you have any idea how crazy that is? What you’ve actually done?”

It’s so easy to discount every aspect of my life and get into a rut where I feel like a failure. Like I haven’t done anything. Like I’m not doing anything. At several critical moments since I’ve met her, Jessica has been there to gently pull my head from my ass. She has reminded me of the positive things that I have, that I’ve done, that I am. She’s been there, a thousand miles away, while I’ve wept and railed against the world, and she’s made me feel okay and normal when I was anything but.

I love her to death. That my first novel is on her bookshelf is a deep moment of pride for me. That we are friends is a shining diamond in my life.

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Jessica Michelle Singleton. Beautiful. Loyal. Intelligent. Raunchy. Wild. Hilarious. True.

You can follow her on Facebook here, check her site out here, and follow her on Twitter at @JMSComedy. Also, just Google or YouTube her or some shit. She’s funny. You won’t regret it.

Wanderlust

“Why do you insist on ruining your own life?”

I had a friend ask me that at a bar one weekend when I went to say goodbye to her cousin, who was visiting. It struck me as…a fair question, if strangely timed. I certainly have been self-destructive at times in my life, including relatively recently. The last few months, though, I feel like I’ve been in a pretty solid place in most regards. I’m more self-aware, more productive, more patient in so much as it regards to my relationships with people.

She meant it present-tense, I think, though I didn’t ask. That’s not the kind of conversation I like to have when drinks are involved, and it’s definitely not the type of conversation I want to have in public. It has bothered me, though, and I’ve had time to think about it.

I don’t think Alaska is conducive to my health. Mentally or physically, I’ve become a shut-in who misses the places I’ve been and dreams of the places I haven’t. I want life, and adventure, and love, fleeting and otherwise. This state is harsh. It’s tight-knit and bitter and blunt. The unparalleled beauty of this state in any season belies a darkness that creeps into you if you’re not careful. It’s hard for a lot of people without emotional issues. It’s even worse with those constantly wrestling with their sense of self.

My mind is full of fantasies of crashing waves and sunsets, people-watching in a crowd of strangers, dive bars I’ve never heard of and hole in the wall cafés with local bands playing for tips. I dream of kisses that happen in the heat of the moment, amidst the heat of bodies crammed together in a club, for fleeting glances and those first, free conversations when something ridiculous has brought two people together to comment on it.

Alaska is a cage. It’s home to me, but I’ve got both eyes on the door. I just don’t know how to be self-sufficient enough to leave. I could probably find a willing roommate, and I know how to get around without a vehicle, but it’s the occupation bit that holds me back. I like my current job and it pays me well but to transfer, I would need to learn several new markets that we simply don’t sell in Alaska, and I don’t know how well I would perform in that capacity. At the same token, I don’t know what else I would do.

I find myself writing more in general and more or less excited for the future. I like myself more? Most days? But I wake up some days just feeling crushed and anxious and trapped. I would gnaw my fucking ankle off and go buy a new foot from IKEA if it meant I found a new, stable place to be. I don’t think I’m being particularly self-destructive at this point in time, but at the same time, I’m not doing myself any favors by simply accepting where I’m at, despite the familiar faces, despite that I know this (increasingly violent) city because it has been most of my life.

As I finish up this book and get it ready for sale, I find myself jittery and tense. There are nerves involved, of course, in waiting for the reactions to my finishing this trilogy, but there’s also this spectre hanging over my shoulder, constantly reminding me that I’m grinding this shit out in a place where my dream career has no real place to go.

So there’s that, I guess. I’ll keep you posted, and I’ll keep it honest.

No Place Like Home

I’m a fan of a good homecoming story, the idea, of course, being someone who has left home for a while, years, only to find there way back for whatever reason, to the place they grew up in. There are a lot of options in how to tell them, for one: they can be heartwarming or sad, they can be a return to the past or a displacement story about someone returning to a place that has moved on without them. They can be comedies, dramas or romances. The best are some combination of these things.

Now, there are a couple things that have to be there for it to work. First off, it’s got to be a long period of time. This isn’t a case of someone moving away for a semester at college and then coming home and meeting up with their high school buddies. This isn’t someone showing up to visit family once or twice a year. I’m talking eyes-forward, home in the exhaust, build a life away from past-me until a death or an unemployment or something drags me back to my roots.

There has to be little to no contact with the people back home. A good homecoming story needs surprises on both sides. Who got married? Who had kids? Who has died, and how? Are you divorced? What do you do? Oh, she inherited her dad’s bakery. Oh, he opened a little bookstore. There needs to be high school loves that have moved on, though there will always be a little spark. There needs to be a resentment that either stays as fresh as if it were yesterday, or one that has softened over time so that now all that’s wanted is an explanation over a beer. Was it because I was fat? Did I offend you so much? You know, it was always you she loved, deep down I knew that.

The other thing about a solid homecoming story is it’s almost always a small town. There are exceptions, of course. There is a film called A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints that I love and recommend all the time because it seems nobody I know has seen it. It’s set in New York, sure, but focuses exclusively in a neighborhood in Astoria. The film alternates between the past (with stellar performances by both Shia LaBeouf and Channing Tatum, and I don’t say that lightly) and the future,  when Robert Downey Jr. returns home to see his ailing father. Rosario Dawson is also in it.

There’s another film that plays on a different homecoming trope: that of a reunion. You’ve seen reunion films before (10 Years, which is sad, beautiful in parts, and a little funny; American Reunion; Grown Ups; The Judge – RDJ again – which I want to see), but indie flick Beside Still Waters might be one of the best. I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet, but I helped fund the Kickstarter and it got so much buzz that it went from a small independent venture to an upcoming theatrical release. You can find out more about it here, as well as see the trailer.

Why do I like that so much? It just seems so earnest and so honest. The chemistry feels natural, the relationships awkward and complex. It focuses on the simple things and the inside jokes and the layered relationships and past hurts and lingering loves. It looks like a goddamn beautiful film.

There is an inherent humanity in a homecoming story, whether it’s happy or sad or dramatic or hilarious. That’s because it’s about a person’s relationships with others and all of the history therein. These stories echo our feelings. Our fears, our dreams, our hopes, our loves and our failures. We relate because we, too, said the wrong thing once, or we didn’t say anything at all. We relate because we’ve wanted to escape, because we’ve had to watch people we love love someone else,  because we have had some action that we’ve taken torment us on long, rainy nights.

These are things we’ve experienced even if we’ve never had a homecoming. Many of us grew up in large cities or with a big group of friends, with a close family or no family. We haven’t necessarily needed to move out of state or to a “bigger” place to escape. All the same, those relationships that have been strained or forgotten or pushed aside in the name of a career, those mistakes made and loves lost, those are all things that happen anyway, because we’re human.

Setting it in a small town strips away the busyness, pares down the clutter of a cityscape and focuses on intimacy. It takes the time to explore all the thoughts and feelings that we don’t give ourselves time and energy to do the same with in our own lives. That’s why, no pun intended, those kinds of stories hit home so clearly.

Though Anchorage, Alaska isn’t exactly a small town with its 300,000 residents, it feels that way sometimes. Having been born, raised and lived here for over 20 years, I can find someone I know at just about any given time in any particular place. It’s not difficult to get around the city, either. It’s small, but not too small. It’s big enough to lose yourself in if you want to. But man, it’s easy to fall into a routine. The familiarity of the city is a comfort, but if you make yourself known enough, it’s easy to develop a rep. The funny thing about a reputation is that, for most people, twenty percent truth is enough. Whichever version is the most exciting can fill in the other eighty.

I had aspirations of being an actor rooted in a brief stint on theater during which I performed adequately and no better. I moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and lived there for eight months before having a mental breakdown. I moved back to Alaska for four months almost to the day, then back to L.A. for three more months. After I lost my job, I moved to Washington and lived there for nine months.

20 months gone away from home with a brief break in the middle. I lost a lot of friends for a lot of reasons during that time, and I grew distant from several more. While it’s not really like the pattern I described for the stories I like so much, it felt as such to me. By the end of my time in Washington, I missed those people. I missed hanging out with them and partying with them. I had just finished my first novel and I wasn’t really sure what to do with my life or where I was going, so I decided to move home for six months or so.

That six months turned into three years and counting. At the start, though, it felt weird to be back. I had that homecoming feeling. The four months I had spent trying to get my head in gear was largely spent drinking, reading and sleeping around Anchorage. I didn’t really pay attention to much else. When I came back for good (for now), I opened my eyes up a bit more. I wasn’t going anywhere for a while, might as well see what’s up.

A lot of construction had gone on in two years. There were some marriages,  some babies, a divorce or two. Some people were in jail. I didn’t let people know I was back for a while;  I just kind of wandered around being introspective and mysterious and shit. It was nice, honestly.

I have mixed feelings about this city. I don’t think it’s healthy for me in long stints, especially during the winter. I think other places might afford me better opportunities concerning my writing, and I like the busyness of a place like Los Angeles, and the weather,  and the sounds the waves make crashing against the sand while I write on the pier. I don’t like seeing the people I graduate with pity me, because I already feel disappointed in myself.

But I also love this city. I’m proud to be Alaskan. I like knowing my way around town and the best places to eat and having a bar I can walk into where everyone knows my name and my drink is ready for me. I get to have my best friend drop by with my little nephew out of nowhere and have the kid give me a big hug.

Long term goal? To have a place in a city better suited for my personality and my craft, where I can go as long as I want without seeing someone who knows my history. I’d live there for 8-9 months out of the year. The other 3-4 months of spring/summer, I want a place in Alaska to come back to. As much as this place drains me, I do have a fond spot for it somewhere in me.

That doesn’t fit the homecoming narrative, but it works for me. After all, that’s what stories are for.

Santa Wears a Black Hat

Terry Stahlman was born in Seattle Washington. As a young man he bore a striking resemblance to James Dean. He carried that look with him into his twenties,  even following a stint in prison following a string of robberies. He tried to escape when he was 17. It didn’t go well.

After he served his time, he moved up to Alaska, some twenty plus years into its statehood and still in that period of time where the law was, you know, whatever. He made friends with biker gangs. In the 70s, he opened what was, for many years, the biggest strip club in Anchorage. He operated a gambling distribution. He was director of a halfway house for a while, which was darkly hilarious in that he would consume three times a day the amount of narcotics it would take to normally kill a man.

Terry has been in and out of jail and rehab centers and courtrooms for years. He once put up bail money for Mechele Linehan before retracting it for medical reasons. Maybe you heard about her.

The man has died and come back. He clings to life like a Terminator. He has an overpowering voice and a laugh that terrifies. It’s always his way or no way. When sober, he was one of the shrewdest businessmen I’ve ever met, a self-made millionaire time and again, remaking his fortune every time he kicked the drugs that made him lose it. He was frightening.

Now in his 70s, he is a frail old man laying in a hotel he no longer owns, high more often than not and ostracized by his children. His legacy is a tarnished record, a footnote for an era that no longer is. He is publicly regarded with scorn and disgust and raucous laughter.

He was my stepfather.

My mother danced at his club for many years and, as such, I grew up accustomed to the exotic dancing industry. When she and my adopted father split up, she married Terry not long after. When I was 4, my half-brother was born.

I grew up not knowing for a long time that things were different or wrong. I spent most of my childhood living with my adopted grandparents. My adopted father was drunk on the couch. So staying with my mom and Terry was…interesting. Exciting. As terrified as I was of the man’s booming voice and the yelling he would do at my mother when he had had too much to drink, we also went on a lot of vacations. Disneyland, Hawaii, Texas, Seattle. My grandparents were lower middle-class. We had our trips to Montana every summer, within a budget, but as a child it was the trips to hot places around tons of people that blew my mind.

I remember being three or four, peering out of my bedroom door in the early hours of the morning, awoken by arguing. My mother was walking down the hall to me. Terry hurled his briefcase and caught her between the shoulder blades. She went down hard. He bought me a lot of Christmas presents that year.

Beaches! Palm trees! Toys and money! Disney characters and live shows and expensive restaurants. When my brother was an infant and I was four, my stepdad left us in a room at a casino in Las Vegas to go have lunch with a friend. He told me to call 911 if there was an emergency. When he returned to the room,  the police were there.

I had called 911. I had had a bad dream. They almost arrested him. For a long time, I told that story because I thought it was hilarious. I still think it’s hilarious, but you should never leave a 4 year old and an infant unattended, least of all in a Vegas hotel room.

My step-dad and my mother divorced but stayed close. My brother stayed with Terry because my mom was incapable of taking care of him. She went to Texas and California and came back pregnant. When my sister was born, Terry took care of her and my mother. My sister’s drug dealer father paid attention for a hot second before disappearing completely. When my mother went back to rehab, Terry took it upon himself to adopt her and raise her as his own.

He took to the news to talk about the struggles of raising a mixed-race child because her mother was in rehab and biological father dead or in prison. The news.

The title of this post comes from a news article back in 1999 or 2000 for the Anchorage Press. I tried to find it, I swear. There is nothing I can say about it that gives the actual article justice.

See, Terry fancied himself a cowboy. He loved country music. He loved horses. For all the fur coats and gold nugget jewelry he wore, he also had himself some goddamn gorgeous cowboy hats and boots. He owned and rode horses. He chewed tobacco (fun fact: when I was three, I told him I wanted chew, insisted on it and he packed a little bit in my lip. I’ve never taken chew again and seldom smoke. Alternately, I asked him what breasts were when I was three and he gave me a Playboy to peruse while he went to an AA meeting. I have actually enjoyed breasts since. Nicotine < the feminine form).

For many, many years Terry would spend thousands of dollars to give toys to a local organization that helped abandoned, abused and impoverished children. Terry is gruff, he is an addict, he's often a misogynist, but he can also be incredibly generous and there is nothing on this world he loves more than my brother, my sister and the sister I gained through his third failed marriage (the one after my mom).

Santa came for these kids every year. Sometimes more if there was an event being held or if the organization was struggling. Santa was a 'baccy chewing, swear word spewing, loud and proud man in a black hat.

Terry once told me that my mother, free spirit that she was, had been engaging in flirtation – maybe more – with a man who reciprocated despite knowing who her husband was. Terry had some people put the man in the hospital and then paid all of the hospital bills. Just to prove a point.

The man loved drinking, drugging and having women (make no mistake, he often considered women "things to have"). He liked to gamble and he liked to fight. One thing more than any ever, though, is he liked to throw his money around. Money was power for him.

The strip club that Terry owned in Anchorage (he had another in Fairbanks) was built on property that belonged to a bar right next to it. When the lease came up, the bar refused to renew it. Terry sued unsuccessfully and the bar tore the club down and built an expansion in its place.

Terry went on to buy an absolutely skeevy motel from a drug-dealing pimp named – I shit you not – Muhammed Ali. I worked there on the weekends when I was 14 years old, mostly alone. It was my first job. I worked ten hour days at $7 an hour under the table as the desk manager and occasional house-cleaner. There was plenty of clientele left over from Ali's day who would try to offer me pot or cocaine for rent money or who would ask what our hourly rates were.

Do you know how many adults will try to fight a 14 year old boy when they're being asked to vacate the premises they can't pay for? In certain parts of Anchorage,  the answer is "a lot".

Terry built a new club out of the back of this motel because of course he did. It was nice, too. Small, but fantastic carpeting, leather seating, exciting lighting, a new sound system and beautiful, talented women. When I turned 19 I dated one of the girls from there briefly and I was friends with many of them. I would drive them home, pick up their drink quotas on slow nights and get the worst of the customers away from them.

Then I disappeared for a bit. Terry got back on heroin. The girls left for better clubs, the people who knew how to run the club got fired for arguing and Terry replaced them with the cheapest,  shadiest, most addicted criminal pieces of shit he could because he didn't have to pay them much. This was a trend that continued for many years as most of his fortune went towards medical expenses and drugs and he found it harder and harder to quit and come back.

Terry always gave my mother a place to live when she needed it. He gave my adopted father a job. He gave me a car and clothes and helped my grandparents out constantly.

When I was 15, I found out I was adopted. Not long after, I got suspended from school for three days for telling a teacher to go to hell. These two things were not related, but when I went to my step-dad's house to spend the night with my siblings, he sure thought they were.

He went off on me. He said truly terrible things that cut deeper than any bullying I had ever gone through. I left the room and stewed for twenty minutes. I went back in and closed the door behind me and I gave it right back. I chastised him for treating me like one of his workers instead of like family, the brother of his son, someone he had known since birth. I ridiculed him for lambasting me over what I said considering how he treated people, especially women.

He came in close to my face. My hands went up defensively. The tip of my right index finger brushed his chest. His eyes went dark. He dropped into a crouch. He screamed at me for coming at him,  for daring to touch him. His forehead snapped into the bridge of my nose and broke the cartilage on the right side. My back hit the wall, my ass hit the nightstand.

“I’m out of here,” I said. I opened the door and my 11 year old brother was standing there, terrified. I convinced him I was okay and to go downstairs and I apologized because something came up and I needed to go home.

I got tissue to stem the blood from my nose and stood at the door waiting for the cab to arrive and take me home. Terry spent half an hour standing there trying to justify it. When the cab arrived,  he pulled out $200 in twenties.

“You can take this and tell the cab you don’t need them anymore. You can take it, go for a ride and get a burger, come back and keep the rest. Or you can go home and at least you’ll have some money in your pocket.”

“I don’t need your fucking money.”

I walked out. I went home. I paid for the cab. I ignored his phone calls. A week later I got a letter from him, apologizing, telling me that he was wrong. I was finally a man. He couldn’t believe I had refused his money. It changed our relationship from then on.

I haven’t spoken to him in a few years now. I don’t recall why. An argument of some sort, I’m sure. He gave me employment, my family a home, gifts. As difficult as it was growing up in that house, he has given my siblings profound determination and strength and conviction not to end up like him. He provided limos for my proms and paid for my birthday parties.

He degraded me, hurt me, hurt my mother, hurt others. I’ve seen the seediest parts of this city. The worst gamblers, the most violent biker gangs, the failing strip clubs, the underbellies of addiction groups.

“He’s going to be dead soon. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with bad people. You die alone.”

My brother said that. About his father, who he also hasn’t seen in a year or more. He asked me this last weekend to go with him to see him soon, though, and get closure before that moment happens. It’s a poignant statement and a harsh one. It is also true.

Terry Stahlman is one of the hardest, softest, scariest, most boisterous, cruelest, most generous, smartest, most foolish, most industrious, laziest, strongest, weakest people I have ever met.

He taught me a lot about myself and about life. He removed in me the fear of man. He taught me the dangers of addiction. He introduced me to the beauty of women. Because he was two men vying for control of the same body, I learned many things about how not to act, how not to treat people. I learned how to be stubborn and the danger in being unyielding. I learned how to be strong from him and that there are greater powers than wealth.

Terry is not a good man. He has done terrible things to many people.

Terry is not a bad man. He has done incredible things for many people.

Terry Stahlman is a flawed man with horrendous demons. They have cost him his businesses, his wealth, his homes and his family. Before long, it will cost him his life. There are few who know him better than I and even fewer who will know him for more than his discretions.

It isn’t necessarily right that he should only be remembered for misdeeds. It probably isn’t fair. It’s just what happens when you surround yourself with bad people.