Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Elaborate Unrealized Murder Plot

This is not Thurston -- it's the closest I could get
with Google image search. Imagine a much
sadder, much mangier version of this dog.
I once plotted a murder. I never went through with it, but I spent months painstakingly imagining every detail, every eventuality. Every part of the plan had a contingency, and the contingencies had contingencies. I was certain that if I ever set the plan in motion, I could go through with it, and just as certain that I'd get away with it, if everything went to plan. But I never did it. As sure as I was that it was the best thing for both of us, I just couldn't bring myself to kill my roommate's dog.

The dog's name was Thurston -- actually Thurston Howl III -- and he had been with my roommate for many years before we went in on a 3-bedroom house in Glen Park, the (at the time) great undiscovered neighborhood at the south edge of San Francisco. My roommate and I had worked together at a restaurant, and both found ourselves in need of housing: He was being evicted from a warehouse he had helped turn into a live/work performance space/disaster area, and I was growing weary of my studio apartment in the Tenderloin, which despite many positive qualities still insisted on being in the Tenderloin.

So we joined forces, and the house we found was a bit run down but architecturally typical (garage on the bottom, three-bedroom flat on top) and an absolute palace to the 23-year-old I was at the time. My new roommate, over the five years we both lived there, would prove to be unusually flinchy about tenant-landlord relations, preferring to either fix things himself or leave them alone rather than bother her, for fear that she'd suddenly raise the rent or kick us out or something -- let's just say that the San Francisco rental market changes people in ways I did not fully understand at the time. This tendency first revealed itself in relation to Thurston: The rental application asked if we had any pets, and the ad we'd replied to said "cats ok," so he wrote a little essay in the margins, in a supplicating handwriting, in hopes that his dog would not prove to be a dealbreaker: "I have an old hound dog who sleeps a lot."

This would prove to be true. What my new roommate left out was that the dog also shed a lot (and by a lot I mean enough to change the color of the carpet), suffered from severe arthritis and hip dysplasia, and smelled like a microwaved hot dog rolled in a marathon-worn sweat sock. He whined all the time, unprompted. He would lay in the front living room all day, moving only to stay in the sunny spot on the carpet, and where that lifestyle would have suited any of the other dogs I've known just fine, Thurston would let out a sustained, impossibly quiet, incredibly high-pitched whine, all day long. (ALL. DAY. LONG.) He could not be bothered to move at any time, seemed to be completely deaf (or at least totally immune to being yelled at by his owner), and let out the most pained, miserable sound I have ever heard any other living thing make if he was in any way pushed, pulled, lifted, or otherwise manhandled. The best way I can think to describe it is as a combination of a wounded seal and a coyote being struck with a crossbow bolt.

My roommate kept a cheap little loveseat in his bedroom but I never saw anyone sit in it but Thurston, probably because it had pinstriped white-and-blue upholstery, kind of like a seersucker suit, and had a darkening, greyish-brown, Thurston-shaped stain in the middle. Every time I walked past his doorway on the way to my room my eyes fell on this loveseat, and I instinctively shifted to mouth-breathing to avoid the awful smell that his room could not quite contain. I wondered how much of that smell was coming from that loveseat, and how much from the bed and the carpet. If that loveseat disappeared, how much better would it smell in here? Could I even get that thing out of here? I'd have to buy him a new loveseat, that's fine, but I'm not sure I could get that close to the old one without gagging.

The entire house had wall-to-wall carpet in a darkish, gun-metal gray -- not what you'd call nice, but not gross or anything, at least not until we moved in. Its dark color was ideal for setting off the color of Thurston's white fur, which coated every corner of the common areas and my roommate's room. I never imagined any animal could shed as much as this dog shed. If I were given a garbage bag full of white dog hair, a bag of speed, and a weekend, I don't think I could do as thorough a job coating this carpet as Thurston did on a regular basis. I have no idea where all this hair came from, because I've never seen a dog with so thin a coat. You could see his pink skin right through it, almost like he had no coat at all.

And don't think I just sat back and let this happen. I tried, oh god I tried, to keep things tidy. I went out and spent $150 -- and we're talking 23-year-old dollars here -- on an upper mid-level vacuum cleaner, and passive-aggressively started vacuuming the house every few days, without saying anything about it to my roommate.

The house would stay hair-free for about a night, and seem okay in the morning, but after about 24 hours I would start to wonder if I had gone into a fugue state and merely imagined vacuuming the house because there was no longer any evidence that it had ever happened.

Also, there was so much hair that the vacuum cleaner would clog up within a couple of minutes; I'd have to turn it off, take the thing apart, pull a golf ball-sized wad out with my fingers, and resume vacuuming, only to have it clog again within five minutes.

I guess Thurston also had fleas or something, because one of my roommate's favorite pastimes was to comb the dog's back with a very small, pink-handled, super-finetoothed comb while he watched TV, examining the hair that would come off in the comb, then dropping it in a glass (or sometimes a bowl) of water.

I know I already mentioned the noises, but oh Jesus god were those noises terrible. Whenever my roommate would take Thurston out for a walk, which he diligently did, like the good dog owner he believed himself to be, the dog's arthritis and hip dysplasia would cause him to resist and make horrible, tortured noises every step of the way. It being San Francisco, our house was on a steep hill, and my roommate would walk Thurston down the hill to the nearby park (Glen Canyon, for those of you scoring at home), but when they came back and Thurston had to come back up the hill, the dog would stop cold in his tracks and my roommate would literally get behind him and push, like you'd push a stalled-out car. Of course, this wasn't always the case: sometimes he'd get in front of him and pull his leash, like a miner pulling a sled of whimpering, smelly gold.

Closer, but still not quite miserable enough.
This all makes it sound like my roommate was sadistic, or didn't care about the dog, but that wasn't it. He seemed to really like the dog, and be very attached to him. He told me he'd found him in an alley behind his loft/performace space warehouse, and that he'd been abused by his prior owner. The couple of times I probed for more information, I never got any more details than that his penis was pierced, which I agree constitutes abuse, but didn't quite explain the endless, pointless mewling.

In any case, my roommate was in many ways a good owner to Thurston. He took him almost everywhere (though he'd then leave him in the car), and when he left him at home, would come home early to make sure he got fed at his regular hour, and was totally on top of his flea medicine. It's just that he also seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the animal was completely miserable, lived with excruciating pain, and got no apparent pleasure from anything or anyone. It would seem that the dog was making himself clear with his miserable noises, and both I and our third roommate would hint around that maybe the dog would rather not go on, but my roommate would just shrug it off and call him "a whiner." While technically true, it seemed an understatement akin to calling Charles Manson "a bad egg."

Thurston's raw, unleavened existential misery seemed screamingly, face-slappingly clear to me, our third roommate, and everyone who ever came over -- clear enough that I began to notice that despite all the talk about hip dysplasia and arthritis, my roommate never mentioned the vet, and I figured that had to be because any vet would see immediately exactly what I'd believed since about six weeks after moving in with Thurston: that his every move and every sound, that every fiber of his being right down to that awful smell coming off him so strong you could see it like heat coming off a road, was begging for the sweet release of death.

This may strike you as cruel. When I would tell people about it at the time, a few of them certainly seemed to feel that I was being insensitive (at best). I felt like it was the opposite, that it was my roommate who was being insensitive, that nobody else would prolong the obvious misery of this poor creature a moment longer than needed. That keeping Thurston alive, dragging him up that hill and pushing his feeble, creaking bones down those steps every day -- as my roommate was wont to do when the noises got too annoying -- was the real cruelty.

I can't remember when the thought first occurred to me, but before long it was nearly all I could think about: I needed to put Thurston out of his misery. Whatever horror my roommate had saved him from could not have been much worse than what the poor thing was going through now, and if my roommate didn't have the stomach for what needed to be done, I would just have to do it for him. I'd just have to make sure he didn't know I did it, or even that it had been done: I had to make it look like an accident.

Maybe I'd leave some chocolate out. Dogs can't eat chocolate because it'll kill them, right? I'm sure I heard that somewhere. So I'll just get like 12 Toblerones and leave them on the kitchen floor while my roommate's at work. Maybe I'll even go down to Ghirardelli Square and set him up with the good stuff -- it is his last meal, after all.

Another option: we'd had to train ourselves to make sure never to leave the front door open for more than a couple of seconds, or else Thurston would invariably make an otherwise uncharacteristically spry move out to the street, down the hill, and into the sunset. My theory was that he was trying to get to the highway a couple blocks away (280 South for you scoring at home) and throw himself into traffic. Whatever his motives, this happened quite a few times, enough that Animal Control had to get involved more than once. After the second or third time, they told my roommate if they found him again, they'd keep him. What could be easier than leaving the door open?

Both the chocolate and the open door seemed too risky, though, too easy to bungle. How much chocolate does it take to kill a dog? How serious is Animal Control when they make a threat like that? These were known unknowns, and I didn't feel good about either of them -- not to mention I would be blamed and held accountable even if he believed whichever plan I went with was an accident.

The plan I settled on was simple and (I hoped) undetectable: I'd inject a big air bubble into a blood vessel while he slept. I felt confident that I could find an injection point -- between his toes was the spot I tended to envision -- that would never be noticed, unless my roommate insisted on an autopsy.

For months I fantasized about the crime, with a frequency rivaling the way I fantasized about 1992 Cindy Crawford, but I never saw an opening where I could do it without fear of discovery. Obviously, I just didn't want to go through with murdering -- does anyone have a problem with me downgrading that to "euthanizing"? -- my roommate's dog, no matter how miserable they were both making me, because in his weird way, my roommate loved that dog.

And anyway, a solution eventually presented itself when I had the good fortune to meet the young lady who would become my wife and provide me with two things: reassurance that I was not insane to feel that this dog was utterly miserable and that his being kept alive was a peculiar strain of sadism; and an escape route from the situation, when we got an apartment together just around the corner (Glen Park, it was like Hobbiton then, I miss it even now) and I moved out of the house after four years.

Did I miss Thurston, or my roommate? Although he and I never had a single argument or raised-voice discussion in all the time we lived together, and had a generally affable relationship, I think I spoke to him less than five times after I moved out, and they were all when I bumped into him around the neighborhood (dragging a whimpering Thurston behind him, naturally), and I've had no contact of any kind with him since.

As for Thurston, I took the most vivid memento of him I can think of with me to my new apartment: the vacuum cleaner. I'd paid for it, after all.  But once we got it to the new place it became clear that it was so thoroughly imbued with the hot, retching smell of Thurston's coat that we did what my roommate never could: we put it out of its misery, took it to the dump, and got a new vacuum cleaner.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Brooklyn's New Team Drops The Ball

It's just about this time every year that I get interested in pro basketball, when the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, bringing with them the stakes needed to make both me and the players interested in the outcome of the games. (Unfortunately, my adopted New York Knicks just got knocked out, so my interest may waver until later rounds.)

Here in Brooklyn, though, pro basketball is generating a whole different set of intrigues: with the end of the regular season, the so-far-from-making-the-playoffs-they-may-not-even be-allowed-to-watch-them-on-TV New Jersey Nets have officially become the Brooklyn Nets, and will soon take up residence in the $487 trillion Barclays Center, which has been under construction for the last 19 years.

It has been very interesting to watch this stadium being built, a day at a time, as I ride my bike past it heading to and from work. There was a whole lot of controversy surrounding its construction, to put it mildly: some shady eminent-domain land seizure was needed to accommodate the proposed stadium/low-income housing/shopping complex, displacing more than a few people from their homes, and they did not go without a very loud five-year legal battle to obstruct the project.

Once the courts found in favor of the developers (can you believe it?), they apparently felt free to drop some of the pretenses they'd used to sell the thing in the first place: It would not in fact be designed by rockstar architect Frank Gehry. The shopping complex was put on hold. The low-income housing was first turned into 16 luxury condo towers, then reduced to eight (construction start date yet to be announced), leaving the only thing the consortium presumably ever wanted: the Barclays Center, which would have been far less likely to get through the gauntlet of protest and zoning laws and ethical concerns and god knows what else is required to build a stadium not accompanied by promises of housing and job creation. 

(Interestingly, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1957 because the team's owner was unable to persuade City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses to seize the exact same patch of land and build a new baseball stadium there [which incidentally he would have paid for himself] to replace the deteriorating Ebbets Field -- now a deteriorating low-income housing project a block away from my house.)

It all seems a little shady and feels a little icky, what with the displacing of people from their homes and all, but the dust has pretty much settled and whatever you or I may think about it, the stadium is here and it's not going anywhere, so it's time to make friends with our new team, the first Brooklyn pro sports team since the Dodgers left.

The Nets made it official the other day when the team unveiled its new logo and colors, supposedly designed and chosen by minority team owner Jay-Z. Whether that's true or not, the new logos are a bit underwhelming; if Jay did indeed design them, he probably did so by dictating his ideas over the phone while getting a manicure and choosing between an array of crushed-velvet black tuxedos in the back of his limo, or at best, scribbled it on a napkin in the champagne room on a break from making it rain. It doesn't look like a lot of thought went into it is what I'm saying. I don't hate the idea of a team wearing black and white, because amazingly no other team is already doing that and we are fresh out of primary colors, and black and white is cool and kinda badass.

But mainly, this feels like a huge missed opportunity, because they kept "Nets." Why didn't they change the name of the team? Recent history shows how well this can work out: the Seattle Supersonics were abducted by a cabal of Oklahoma-based businesspersons a few years ago and relocated to Oklahoma City, over the strenuous objections of Seattle fans, so rather than rub salt in their wounds (and rather than keep a name that made no regional sense -- apologies to the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Arizona Cardinals, and Memphis Grizzlies), they changed the team colors and redubbed it the Oklahoma City Thunder. The results speak for themselves: the Thunder is now 13th of 30 in attendance (quite understandably behind the Lakers, Knicks, Celtics, Heat, Spurs, Mavericks, and Bulls -- you know, the major-market and/or winningest teams of the last decade) and after a couple years' growing pains are among the elite teams in the league -- they just knocked last years' champ (Dallas) out of this year's playoffs. 

By contrast, the Nets ranked dead last in attendance this past season and finished with a dismal 22-44 record, losing their last six in a row. If the idea of keeping the Nets name is to keep continuity with the team's existing fans -- in hopes that they will perhaps make the short trip into Brooklyn to see the team, or more importantly, retain their season tickets -- that ship appears to have sailed. Whatever loyalty New Jerseyans may once have had for the Nets has been negated by A) the fact that they're leaving in the first place, and tripling ticket prices in the process, and B) their unbroken ten-year streak of sub-.500 seasons.

Also, "Nets" is a pretty terrible name for a team, no matter what the sport. Did they just stand at the center of the arena, cover their eyes, and then uncover them and name the team after the first thing they saw? They may as well have been the New Jersey Rims or the New Jersey Benches or the New Jersey Hot Dog Vendors for all the awe/intimidation/excitement their name inspires.

And badass black and white color scheme or no, two weeks after it hit the market, I have yet to see anybody wearing any Brooklyn Nets gear -- and Brooklyn is a place where people are quite enthusiastic about their Officially Licensed Team Apparel.

That's because no matter what, the Nets are always going to feel like someone else's sloppy seconds. They're not our team. Renaming them, ideally renaming them in a way that would resonate with the locals, would make them our team.

They could have called them the Brooklyn Dodgers. I imagine Magic Johnson et al would have something to say about that, which may be why it didn't happen, but that would have made a lot of people happy.

They could have called them the Brooklyn Brownstones -- not exactly terrifying, but very appropriate to the neighborhood.

They could have gone with the Brooklyn Bullets, but then they would have had the same image problem the team in Washington had (handgun murder rates being what they are). But that's still better than the Nets.

What about the Brooklyn Bombers? The Brooklyn Bears? The Brooklyn Bouncers? The Brooklyn Bees? The Brooklyn Blast? The Brooklyn Bodegas? Why not change the name to go with their new colors and be the Brooklyn Black? (This one feels oddly politically incorrect, even though it's totally innocent.)

Really, those all just came off the top of my head (though I do like a couple of them -- the Brooklyn Black is growing on me fast), and I seem to be attached to alliteration, but if I could drop that I bet I could come up with a hundred more. Brooklyn Hipsters leaps to mind. Brooklyn White Belts! Brooklyn Ironic Ts!

But there are two I've been hoping for for months, even though I know neither will never happen.

I really love the Brooklyn Zoo. It also feels oddly politically incorrect, even though every pro sports team in the world is named after an animal.

But you know who would really sell some jerseys? The Brooklyn Ballers! THE BROOKLYN BALLERS!! Could that name be any more perfect? It's full of braggadoccio (in the best Jay-Z boast-rap tradition), it actually applies to the sport in question, and it sounds a little dirty even though it's not. I don't even wear basketball jerseys, but I can't say I wouldn't be tempted to pick one up with BALLERS across the chest. I'd probably resist the temptation, but it would be catnip wrapped in awesome and rolled in badass jimmies to all those guys that love their Officially Licensed Team Apparel.

If they had gone with the Brooklyn Ballers, I guarantee you there would already be a multimillion dollar budgeted rap video on YouTube with its star wearing a BALLERS jersey while standing on the hood of an Escalade and pouring champagne on some underdressed young ladies who never met their dads. Don't bother arguing, you and I both know it to be true.

Instead, we're stuck with the Nets. But look on the bright side: at least it rhymes with "Jets" and "Mets"! Ooh! That gives me another idea: The Brooklyn Pets! The Brooklyn Vets? Wait, I got it: The Brooklyn Regrets.
How about the Brooklyn Tags?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Rest In Peace, MC Adam Yauch

This was supposed to be a good day. I took an extra-long lunch break so I could take in The Avengers, a movie I've been looking forward to for the last 28 years or so. It was great, it met all my expectations and then some, and I left the theater euphoric and certain that the air outside the theater smelled just like the comic book shop I used to haunt when I was 12. I had a lovely bike ride up the west side bike path back to the office. It was a really nice day. And within a minute of sitting down at my desk, I'm in tears.

I don't cry when celebrities die. Or, I never have before. Why should I? It's not like they're gonna cry for me. It's not like I really know them. But this is hitting me hard. The death of Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys is sad -- he was young, he has a young daughter, by all accounts he was a great guy in every way. He absolutely made an impact on my life: His music is literally the soundtrack to my high school and college years. But I never knew him, I never met him. It's not like if a friend died.

I may not know the guy, but I do know the band. Everybody knows the band, especially those of us born in the 1970's.

I think I saw the Beastie Boys more times than any other Big Famous Band. I saw them with Sonic Youth opening for them in some crappy little place, a wedding reception hall in Baltimore in 1992, right after Check Your Head was released, right before it broke and put them back on top -- all four guys from Fugazi watched the show from the side of the stage. I saw them with The Roots and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion opening for them in 1995 -- they brought out three full drum kits and all three played at once (which was awesome). I saw them at Lollapalooza in 1994 -- they had Q-Tip join them on "Get It Together." I saw them at the Tibetan Freedom Concert -- Yauch's baby -- in 1996, in Golden Gate Park. That was a benefit show with two stages side by side and seemingly every great act around at that time. I couldn't get in when they played a punk rock set under the name Quasar at the Bottom of the Hill in 1997, but I saw them in the round at the Oakland Coliseum in 1998 on the Hello Nasty tour -- my brother flew out to go to that one with me. And after a long gap, I saw them one last time at Summer Stage in Central Park, front and center, in the summer of 2009, and it was probably the best I'd ever seen them. 

They were always great -- I never saw them have a bad show. I never left anything but sweaty, exhausted, and happy. And this has to be said: if you like cute girls, in particular the kind that don't wear a lot of makeup, took a lot of art classes, and aren't scared to get sweaty at a rock show, the Beastie Boys drew the cream of that particular crop.

I remember watching their video compilation circa 1993, The Skills To Pay The Bills, on VHS at my friend's apartment over and over and over and marveling at how effortlessly they combined music and humor, never bending one to suit the other and both coming out perfect. That tape was the blueprint for the next ten years' worth of music videos in every genre, and Adam Yauch directed those video under his pseudonym Nathaniel Hornblower.

I sit here trying to think of how to explain how it feels to hear that the Beastie Boys are over, and worse, that they're over because they lost their social conscience, their best rapper, their bass player, and their video director to cancer, all in the same day. But if you know this band, I don't have to explain how it feels, because you're feeling it too. Because the thing about the Beastie Boys is that everybody liked them. I was living in a dorm at the University of Maryland when Check Your Head came out. Like everybody else, I'd loved Licensed to Ill and like everybody else, I missed Paul's Boutique when it came out. I thought the Beastie Boys were a novelty act, that they'd had their 15 minutes, that they were done. Check Your Head was immediately coming out of every window and every doorway in that dorm. Everybody loved it, and they loved it because it sounded like a mixtape. Anybody remember mixtapes? A straight-up hip-hop song followed by a punk rock song followed by a funk jam followed by an instrumental. Literally everyone I knew was listening to this record (and before long, going back to Paul's Boutique), from sorority girls to Deadheads. It was a little of everything, but more than anything it was itself. It was unique. It pushed boundaries. Who says white kids can't rap? Who says rap can't have live instruments? Who says we can't put a 90-second punk jam on a rap record? Who says we can't sample 480 different songs to make one? Who says we can't rap about Buddhism, over a backing track of Gregorian monks? Who says we can't be nice to women?
But more than any of that, their music had a spirit. It communicated a feeling that, clearly, those of us at the right age to receive it at the time, all responded to.  Listening to this band you felt like your best self. The most creative. The most open. The most positive. Closer to peace. I mourn Adam Yauch, and I mourn the Beastie Boys, because the band has obviously died with him. Because if there was ever an all-for-one-and-one-for-all kind of band, if there was ever a band that would never go on without one of its members, it's this one, and that's exactly as it should be. This is the first celebrity death that's ever made me cry. I'm going to stop thinking about MCA, and the Beastie Boys, and start listening to them, before I start crying again.