Essay: On the banks of Silver Lake

Silver Lake draws people. Outsiders, mostly, who see water in this flat, landlocked town and think it suddenly has a view. In actuality, Silver Lake is a man-made lake, originally built to cool something-pipes-whatever from the electrical plant across the road. Fine in theory, but confusing to the Canada geese that live on the lake year round. It steams instead of freezing over, like real water in a real lake. Silver Lake is said to be 9-feet-deep in some places. By my estimations, there is a false-bottom of goose shitty mud, making it only about 3-feet deep.

I imagine diving into it would sound a lot like the first slurp of a milkshake.

I worked there for three years, alternating shifts between the food stand, a tin Coke trailer, and the paddle boat and canoe rentals, a warming house shack. It was one of those jobs bequeathed to Lourdes students by former Lourdes students, owned and managed by a Lourdes family. And later sold to another in the purple-and-gold lineage.

The grass around the park is teeming with squawking birds. Unfriendly little fuckers that try to eat your Big Mac and children who aren’t tall enough for roller coasters. Audacious creatures that will strut right up to your car window, and scream for something higher-grade than a whatever-cent Coke cup filled with corn. Steak, perhaps. Shrimp.

Walk through the park in a pair of Tevas — the favored footware of Silver Lake Canoe & Paddle Boat employees in the mid-1990s — and your toes would look like they had been covered in pesto, or overly ripened avacados. If Lake Superior is the largest freshwater urinal, Silver Lake Park is the largest litter box for geese.

Frequently asked question about the lake: Can we swim in there?
Frequently answered: I wouldn’t.
Wish I would have frequently answered: Please do.

These jobs required little, beyond a copy of Jane magazine, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Fear,” and sunscreen. We each had our own shoelace, which we wore around our necks, with keys to the boats. The combination to the paddle lock on the Coke stand in the brain vault.

Make hot dogs, try to sell them before they turn into something resembling ET’s finger. Make popcorn. Eat popcorn. Sell popcorn. Sell coke, Snickers bars, and Push Ups. Make googly eyes at boys who inline skate, run, or skateboard past the stand. Lock stand, leave note saying “Back in 5 minutes,” call friends from payphone and ask them to visit. Promise free popcorn. Note sales with a check mark in a box. Write your initials in popcorn salt dumped on the counter. Wipe it up. Count money. Leave change for the next day in a super secret location. Drop off profits at owner’s house.

The boats were trickier. Unlock canoes, and leave them in aesthetically pleasing formation. Put flotation devices on the paddle boats. Turn on the transistor radio in the shack and learn to like Bread and The Association and the Twins. Lie on a picnic table in the sun, eat a Brueggers bagel. Drink an Arizona Ice Tea. Lock the shed, run to the payphone, ask your mom to bring dinner.

That summer brought a lot of families from Saudi Arabia. The women and girls draped under layers of fabric, a mix of body sweat and musky perfume. A pair of Gap jeans underneath. The men with beards and light pants rolled to their knees.

There were also lonely hearts.
“Want to go out with me?”
“No.”

And there were entire family reunions, trying to cram four bodies into four paddle boats, while Grandma stood on the dock and waved. People who wanted to stray outside the buoys. People who were stranded when the chains fell off the old paddle boats.

[Protocol: Grab life jacket and rope. Lock shed. Apologize to waiting customers. Loudly hum the “Baywatch” theme song and sprint down the dock. Hop into a paddle boat, peddle to the customers, tow them to safety. No refunds.]

The first year, the other employees were all older than me. The next year, they were friends. People you could count on to roller blade down for a visit. People who agreed that creating a Ladies of Silver Lake Canoe & Paddle Boat calendar would be a good idea.

By our final summer, Dave was packing Zima in his blue cooler. We had discovered the novelty of calling Pizza Hut from a payphone by the public restrooms and ordering a stuffed crust pepperoni:

“To the paddle boats,” we would say.
“The paddle boats?”
“Yeah. You know. Down at Silver Lake? We’re in that little house.”
This felt very rebellious.

Some nights we would lock up the boats, but keep out a single canoe. Raid the tin stand for old popcorn, Cokes, and Snickers bars. We’d paddle well out of the designated area. Leave the buoys in our wake. Under a bridge and down behind the Rochester Civic Center. Pause for snacks and turn back only when we got so far we weren’t sure there wasn’t a water fall ahead.

By then, the other employees were kids we barely recognized as the malformed clay-mation, dopey-faced freshman stuttering in the halls when we were upperclassman. When the food stand got robbed, we found out one of the girls had gotten drunk at a party and blurted out the combination to the food stand paddle lock.

She was fired. Then she got pregnant. These are probably linked.

I worked one too many years at the paddle boats. An infraction like going to one to many Homecoming games as a too-recent alum.

Essay: Gazpacho

In the days after I was robbed at gunpoint, I wondered how this event would change me — or if it even would. In the Lifetime Original Movie, it would ruin my relationship. Chuck would sour on my melon-like vigilante triceps dangling awkwardly from butch tank tops. I’d lose him, but I’d gain a posse of women friends and a nonprofit organization. The realities I worried about were more broad: Fear. Agoraphobia. Racism. A skittishness toward 1990s-style Ford Tauruses. An inability to freely live the nocturnal lifestyle I’m used to.

One time when we were first dating, Chuck asked me if I was a person who was affected by pills. We were probably trying to figure out my dosage of over-the-counter sleep aids. Would an entire Wal-Sleep II knock me into a coma? Or could I take four and still be trusted to run a Cuisinart? I had no idea. I always think of this conversation when I wonder about that 30 seconds last summer. You can’t know until you take two pills, sleep 16 hours straight, then seemingly operate in an underwater montage for the next three days. You can’t know you will change you when a young kid holds a pistol no bigger than his hand up to your left ear.

It was after midnight. I was talking to Chuck on my phone as I parked. I lingered in the car, finishing our conversation, even though he was waiting in the house. Dropped my cigarette. Closed the window. Opened the door, left leg dangling in the street. Reached across my body for my backpack and my reusable grocery bag. Still talking.

Someone runs up on the side of the car. I look up, expecting it to be a friend. A surprise. It’s a kid. He has a gun so small it can’t be real. He’s short — shorter than me. Thin. His face is round. Possibly a teen, more likely in his 20s. A dark hooded sweatshirt. White baseball cap, or did I add that? American Indian, I think. I scream, fumble, drop the phone. He tells me to give him my purse. Maybe he even called me a bitch. Throw him my back pack. Looking for more things to give him. He reaches behind me for the grocery bag. I watch him run off to a car waiting for him 30 feet away, the door still open. They slowly drive away. I slam my door. Try to dial 911. Fail. Try again. Wonder if I should chase them? Call 911. By then Chuck is standing in the middle of the street screaming my name. This is captured on my voice mail. I listen to it once, and its as scary as the actual robbery. Delete.

My purse had been slung across my body. He hadn’t seen it, and I’d forgotten it in the rush to give him things. In fact, as he ran away, I almost yelled “Hey! Here’s my purse!” True story.

Twice, when talking to my mom about this, she said “Well, hopefully you learned a lesson.” A lesson? What kind of lesson? Not to be out after dark? Not to park in front of my house? Not to give subtle cues to strangers that I have leftover soup in the passenger seat, but that it will have to be taken from me with force? Any kind of lesson this would teach me was a lesson I didn’t want to learn: To be fearful. To not trust people. To see every 20-year-old boy in a hooded sweatshirt as someone who is going to hold a gun to my head.

My immediate response was maniac hilarity. I kept thinking of how lucky I’d gotten. I pictured the boys in the car, rifling through a stinky backpack in the dark, looking for some sort of treasure. Realizing they had been stiffed. Maybe not even realizing the risk they had gone through for Champion’s 2007 fall collection, petrified with sweat. Maybe it all ended with that backpack. “Screw this,” the passenger says, chucking the bag out the window. “I think I will go to Harvard.”

But no amount of fan fiction made driving home easier. For a week, maybe two, Chuck waited for me on the front steps every night. First I’d circle the block to make sure I wasn’t being followed. If a car slowed near the house, we would both hold our breath. “That car was being weird,” I’d say into the phone, even though I could see him. “It was,” Chuck would agree. The first time I came home without needing him on the steps, I thought “I’m the kind of person who gets over getting robbed at gun point pretty easily.”

It has been nearly a year, and that is a lie. I think about getting robbed at gunpoint every single day. At least once. I still have trouble getting out of the car in front of the house. I am still suspicious of men who walk down our street. I jump at loud noises. If someone runs up behind me, my heart races. Sometimes when I am at the mall, I imagine the feel of a gun held to the back of my head and I have to literally shake myself to make it stop. Every day I wonder if tomorrow is the day I finally stop thinking about it.

It feels very selfish to talk about the time I was robbed at gunpoint. When it comes to the creative crime scenarios available to the average human being, mine was Sandals Cancun. I wasn’t raped or maimed and while he got my stuff, he didn’t get any of the stuff that requires paper work and phone calls and cancellations. He got a dirty sports bra, dirty tube socks, dirty running pants and a dirty tank top. Asics running shoes — frequently worn without socks, a straightening iron, and an impossibly outdated collection of makeup. Some Sarah Jessica Parker perfume, some leftover gazpacho and a water bottle that smelled like the inside of a fish tank. One yellow Edie Bauer backpack I’d had forever.

Sometimes I think: So that was it. My crime story. No big whoop. What are the odds of getting robbed at gunpoint once? Now divide that by a kajillion. Those are the odds of getting robbed at gunpoint twice. Then I think I’m just being naive. Getting robbed at gunpoint could be like finding a 4-leaf clover. Once you find one, you easily find more.

Essay: The miracle on Fourth St.

Ruby was the kind of girl who got in bitch fights and never lost. She was round with a slack face and a thin slimy pony tail, hair the color of snow on a muddy trail. When she moved into the lower level of the duplex I was living in about five years ago, it was with a much older man with a name like Walter or Glenn. A few days later he disappeared, leaving behind a gold sedan with a broken back window and two flat tires, and his check book. A few days after that, Jam had moved in with Ruby. They continued to use Walter or Glenn’s checks to buy meals from China Dynasty.

Neither Ruby nor Jam had a legitimate job. One that didn’t involve the doorbell ringing at 3 a.m. and secret handshakes. They did have a huge black SUV protected with elaborate alarm system with a hair trigger. Whoop-whoop. It must be raining. Whooop. A firetruck drove past. They also had two vicious dogs that looked less like pets, and more like something that wanted to play tug-of-war with your lower intestine.

I liked Ruby about as much as you can like anyone who might stab you, which is with the big fake smile of the terrified. She had stopped paying rent about two months after she moved in, and seemed fearless in the face of eviction. She may not have known how to spell Jerry Springer’s name, but she was MENSA when it came to rental laws.

Ruby would stop me on the steps and tell me something like this:

“Yeah, I was just in jail for three days.”
“Oh?”
“Yeah. I got pulled over in Minneapolis.”
“For what?”
“No reason. They just pulled me over. Then they threw me in jail because some girl stole my ID and got a DUI and used my name and there was a warrant for my arrest.”
“Oh …”
“Yeah, so they impounded my car.”
“How did you get back here?”
“Some guy … Jam’s still in jail.”

About this point of the conversation, a man would limp up the front steps — a friend of Ruby’s — carrying speakers and ask us if either of us wanted to buy a stereo for 20 bucks. You could practically see the steam coming off of it. The owner probably didn’t even know it was missing yet.

“Um, no thanks.”

Jam, on the other hand, looked harmless. A wimpy version of lanky skinny that made him seem like he had at least six elbows. One time I saw him get into a fight in the front yard. His frantic flailing and the strip of underwear hanging out of his pants gave the whole scene an elementary school playground vibe. He was probably worse than Ruby, though. Three times a day he would tap on the door and ask to borrow a cell phone. Ask for cigarettes. A couple bucks. When we weren’t home, he stopped strangers as they walked down Fourth Street.

My former landlord tried to evict them. But this process involves more than just putting a note on their door and taking their TV, which he didn’t realize. It involved court dates and documentation. It takes weeks. Ruby and Jam sat on the front steps smoking Marb Lites while they’re housing tab went up every day. People would come over, Ruby would lead them to the Denali parked in front of the house. They would get inside, and play the same heavy-bass song on repeat for about 15 minutes. The visitors would leave. Ruby would go back to her spot on the porch. This went on all day every day. Sometimes my doorbell would ring at 3 a.m., and a man who looked like Mr. Miagi would be standing there blinking.

“Bottom doorbell,” I’d tell him. Again and again and again.
Sometimes men in hooded sweatshirts would come inside, clomp up to the second floor and rat-tat-tat on my door.

“Gotanyweed?” they would mumble.
“Wrong apartment,” I’d say, watching them through the peep hole.

One night I came home late on the day that Ruby and Jam had been given 24-hour notice to get out. There were three police cars parked in front of the duplex, cops lined up on the steps like they were part of an a capella choir. A few were scattered through the yard.

“I live here,” I said. “What’s going on?”

Ruby’s mom was in the entry way and I got a version of the story. Jam had beaten the shit out of Ruby with a baseball bat. She had been whisked away by ambulance. Both jaws were broken. Jam was missing. I handed them a key to the apartment, and the lead cops recoiled in horror when the door swung open. There was dog shit everywhere. Ground into the carpeting. Large piss stains. Two hungry dogs growling and drooling.

Ruby’s mom searched for her daughter’s purse, one hand cupped over her nose and mouth. Policemen gagged. There was no sign of Jam anywhere. Later I would find out that Jam had been hiding in the unfinished basement. He’d burrowed into a concrete and dirt cubby in his storage area. This would give me nightmares for weeks.

“Call us if you see him,” they told me, and left.
Ruby’s mom promised to come back in the morning and clean out the apartment. When I saw Ruby again, her face was the color of sherbert and her jaw was wired shut. Then I never saw her again.

***

A few weeks later I woke up on a Sunday morning to a half-dozen men dressed in camouflage skulking around the yard. They were bounty hunters, hungry to kick down doors, and they were looking for Ruby. I sat on my steps and told them everything I knew about her: The Denali, the dogs, the baseball bat. They told me she was going to be locked up for a very long time.

As for Jam, he showed up late one night looking for my then-roommate. While my roommate talked to him through the open window, I called 911, like I’d been advised. When I called back to tell them that he’d headed East in an SUV, the dispatcher told me that Jam had been cleared of all charges. There were no warrants, nothing. I saw him again, walking downtown.

“What happened that night?” I asked him.
“Ruby had a knife,” he said. “She was trying to kill me.”

Anyway. I saw Ruby at the grocery store yesterday.

Essay: The awesome blossom

I met Teemo in the fall of 1998. We were part timers at a job we for which were both, according to the classified ad, overqualified. Must be 18 years old, have a valid drivers’ license, and be able to work nights. We were rich in all of the above.

Teemo was probably one of the most normal looking people I’ve ever seen in my life. Brown hair, with the sharp, straight bangs found in yearbook photos of senior boys from small towns who take sophomore girls to prom. Muddy eyes. Average height, small hands. The heels of his tube socks hung out of the back of his standard-issue black restaurant shoes like dirty gray fanny packs. He looked like the kind of person who would probably spill clam chowder on his pants, shrug, and just walk around with clam chowder on his pants until some day, very much in the future, when he would chisel it off with his thumb. Then chew the dried soup out of his thumb nail.

Teemo had another part time job at a Greek restaurant, and a girlfriend leftover from college. I never met the girl. She was one of those women who would be described as “having her shit together,” according to rumors and speculation. She lived in Minneapolis. Teemo rented an efficiency basement in Rochester. When he went to visit the girlfriend for a weekend, he returned smelling one apron shy of becoming an associate from Bath & Body Works.

Anyway, the gyros at his restaurant were mediocre.

Teemo and I were a textbook case of sanity compared to the other two men who were hired at the same time. One was a very serious literalist. It goes without saying: He was no fun at all. The other was sweet and deliberate. Too sweet. Too deliberate. The kind of sweet and deliberate that eventually pops off when trying to read a blurry fax, and gets sent to a special camp where he spends afternoons playing balloon volleyball and talking about feelings in the sun room with the other campers. He returned a little bit fragile, but ultimately more likable. So I stopped goading him.

Teemo was droll, hapless, did terrible impersonations, save for his sports-announcer voice, and was so laid back that if you saw him sleeping, you would think: “Finally. Some enthusiasm.” We had a mutual appreciation for the vending machine in our lunch room. He was that guy at work, where you would walk in, see him, and sigh with relief. Five minutes later you would be honing an inside joke that would last the next six hours.

***

One of the first street lessons an 80s child in Rochester learned was that The North Star Bar was the best place to catch hepatitis or a shiv to the kidney. [Side note: urban legend says this is where my grandparents Pista met. I can’t remember if that is true or not, but hot damn I hope it is.]

This was a huge one-level bar, oddly bright, and filled with cafeteria-style tables and mismatched chairs. Getting a beer meant wading through a three inch layer of losing pull tabs. Getting to the bathroom meant wading through six feet of black leather and active pool cues. On Tuesdays, the North Star Bar had $2 pitcher night. While my friends and I were at the Smiling Moose a few miles away, eating spicy popcorn chicken in an aesthetically appealing blue bar glow and listening to Big Head Todd on the jukebox, Teemo was sitting alone at what he had nicknamed The N-Star, trading in his tips for Schlitz. Not even bothering to try not to get stabbed.

Eventually Teemo’s girlfriend broke up with him, as girls “with their shit together” are bound to do to boys with clam chowder pants, and his car died, as cars do, instinctively, when other areas of one’s life shift south. Around this time we all started hanging out at the N-Star on Tuesday nights. I stole a pretty nice pool cue once. Just walked out with it, laid in its very nice case. I’m told.

Teemo spent the next year on foot. Traipsing through rain, snow, sleet and hail in his restaurant shoes. At least the N-Star was on his way home.

***

It was the night before Princess Linda’s wedding, Halloween weekend, 1999. After the groom’s dinner, a few of her more beer-curious bridesmaids, including Fannie and I, went to the Smiling Moose. Fannie’s crush, a tiny cute bartender named PT, was dressed in drag — a red wig and a blue dress — and dancing on the bar. I cheated my way to a prize in a pie-eating contest. We invited a few people over for an afterbar. Teemo and I were the last party people standing at the end of the night.

The well had run dry, except for a bottle of tequila I’d gotten from brother Pista, who was at that time a liquor distributor. This bottle of tequila came with rules: Use it for margaritas, or don’t use it for margaritas. Don’t drink it after midnight or get it wet. It’s hard to remember. We ignored the instructions and twisted off the top. I poured us large glasses, equal parts tequila and some of Fannie’s fresh orange juice.

Teemo poured the next round.

“Whatever you do,” I slurred to Teemo. “Don’t dump the tequila into the orange juice container. Just make them one at a time.”

Spiking Fannie’s orange juice would be a punishable crime. She’s one of those people who doesn’t like it when people fuck with her stuff.

When I went in for our third round, the tequila bottle was empty, and the pitcher of orange juice smelled like Lemon Pledge. I slurred some insults at Teemo, then we both passed out: Teemo on the round cushion from a papasan chair. Me in my bed.

The next day Fannie got up to get her hair done. I slept in. I had terribly short hair, and “getting it done” would only mean making it bigger and stiffer. I met up with her at the church, and she was remarkably bright-eyed for a woman who had put her liver through an Ironman Triathlon the previous night, then gotten up at an hour usually reserved for people who try to catch nightcrawlers.

“I feel fine,” she said. “I just had some orange juice and totally felt better.”
“That orange juice was spiked with tequila,” I told her. “You’re probably just still drunk.”
“Huh,” she said. “I thought it tasted funny.”

***

The last time I hung out with Teemo was in the spring of 2007. I was in St. Paul for the weekend, and summoned the different factions of my world — my cousin Drewcifer, Fannie, Teemo — to meet up at the Happy Gnome. Teemo couldn’t find the bar, and a very drunk and very aggressive woman with dagger nails ripped my cell phone out of my hand, screamed all sorts or “rights” and “lefts” into the phone, then, satisfied, charged me $5 for the information.

I handed it over. Not happily, but with an eye toward making sure that at the end of the night there was more of my blood in my body than staining Selby Avenue. Teemo rolled up in a clunker and we got busy making fun.

Another night, another afterbar. This one in a hotel room, the supplies from a battered paper sack Teemo had in his trunk. The beer had undergone a string of menopausal temperature changes in its short life.

Drewcifer, Teemo and I sat at the desk in the hotel room, pouring beer in our throats and telling stories about spiked tequila and the N-Star Bar. Eventually the young cousin yelled uncle, and stumbled into one of the Queen-sized beds. Teemo and I propped ourselves against some pillows and continued to drink, watching an E! True Hollywood Story on Drew Berrymore, shouting MST2000-like comments at the screen until we were dizzy. Then stopping. We were enthralled.

“I kind of love her,” I admitted.
“Me, too,” Teemo slurred.

It segued into an E! True Hollywood Story on Chris Rock. Teemo and I cheered.

“Would you two shut the hell up?” My cousin groaned.

When I woke up, Teemo was gone.

***

I talked to Teemo about a year and a half ago. He was working at a restaurant and had tenuous ties to something that could be considered an international incident if he had followed through with it. He didn’t. And he asked me not to write about it on my blog. He lives in his parent’s house, I think, while his parents live in their other house.

I’m not exactly sure where he is now, or what he does. I’ve always suspected that he has a trust fund, but a shitty trust fund that allows him a sub-modest lifestyle that suits him better than the alternative: Commuting by bus to a career set in a cubicle, wearing a shirt void of stains.

If he were to call me right now, we would probably talk about the N-Star bar and the tequila incident. We would try to outdo the other one by remembering the names of high school mascots from Southeastern Minnesota. [Plainview Gophers. Lewiston Altura Cardinals. And our personal favorites: Blooming Prairie Awesome Blossoms.]

Essay: The day the cat’s balls grew back

We wanted a free cat. One that was excess, part of a mewling litter of rejects. One that the owners would hand over like he was a piece of Big Red pulled from a fresh pack. An ad boasting kittens! took us to one of Rochester’s treeless neighborhoods, where a gigantic man with a gnarly red mop of hair and a fucked up face showed us the goods: The cats, definitely not kittens, skulking around angrily. That new cat smell wiped clean. These were hissers, surly teens from a broken home. “Three months old,” he croaked, obviously lying. More like 6 years old. I didn’t even like cats — this was Oneniner’s idea — and I planned to ween myself toward the possibility of not hating one by starting with something cute and furry and pocket-sized. Something more like a balled up wool sock with eyeballs, than a python with peach fuzz.

Next stop was a place with acreage near the outskirts of town. An ancient red stripped tiger rested in a patch of light from the window. A retiree accustomed to lazy afternoons in Naples, punctuating each sentence with a yawn, disregarding SPF as a fad, mice served on a tray with a straw wedged into its gaping neck hole. We took her son. She didn’t seem to mind.

***

I wanted to name him Perro. At 3 months old, he already looked like a dog. The big-pawed hero in a picture book prancing grandly and checking his appearance in shop windows. Oneniner thought that was mean, that it would confuse the cat. The kitten hadn’t yet learned that the sandbox under the bathroom sink was his toilet, but he was fluent in Spanish. “Una pescada, por favor,” he said, his eyes shaded beneath a sombrero.

***

By the time I scheduled Toonses’ vasectomy and manicure surgeries, Oneniner and I had broken up. I understood that he was special — not everyone has the fortitude to get expelled from community college — I eavesdropped on myself telling people about him and understood that I’d been  duped:

“… Wants to work in forestry. He’s a great fisherman and has a natural way with animals. He’s a great hunter because he thinks like a grouse and isn’t afraid to smear his pulse points with deer urine.”

“… Pool is his hobby. So, no. I don’t think it’s weird that he is at CJ’s at 11 a.m. drinking bloody Mary’s and working on jump shots. Plugging the juke box with enough loose change to make the bar echo with Randy Travis’s Greatest Hits.”

“… Yeah, the new waitress is pretty hot. But he hates that long hair, full lips, toned body look. And he wouldn’t lie to me.”

“There is a lot of pressure on him. He’s the youngest of eight, so, like, everyone is always harping on him about finding a job and not drinking so much. They need to just be a little more hands off with him. Just let him play softball and figure it all out. And pay for his softball league fees.”

***

Fannie and I went to the vet’s office to pick Toonses up. The doctor worked out of his home, his basement had a steel table and jars and cabinets filled with sharp utensils, and gauze to undo what the sharp utensils did. Toonses was out cold, and the vet whooshed him around the table like a dust mop, showing off the kitten’s neutered zone. His front paws were wrapped like boxing gloves. We drove him home, his lifeless body in Fannie’s lap like a fur stole.

***

A few months later, Toonses and I moved into Fannie’s apartment. This was a reason for celebration, kind of like Tuesdays were a reason for celebration. We bought beer. We bought tequila. We had friends. Things were getting ramped up when we decided to examine Toonses’ intimate areas — more a scientific curiosity than stone cold animal perverts. There, beneath his squinched cat anus was a soft round area. Twin round puffs, like fuzzy dice.

His balls had grown back, we decided. Or rather, the tequila decided.

“Call the vet,” Fannie urged.

So I did. I called the man’s home and left a rambling message about how Toonses’ surgery didn’t take. Through some feat of feline testosterone, little nubbins of procreation had sprouted. Never mind the fact that Toonses never went outside — Greatest fear: Grass — we were going to have a roving man whore on our hands, trying to plant his seed in the arm of the couch or Steve Madden footware. By the time the doctor called back, it was well after 10 p.m. and even more tequila had been consumed. He must have explained cat genitalia to me in the compassionate, albeit uncomfortable way of a single father who is charged with telling his daughter that those flecks of muddy red in her Rainbow Brite drawers do not mean that she has leukemia.

I just remember the sound of my own slurred voice asking the kind of questions that I now recognize as Yahoo Answers fodder. And his ultimate diagnosis: Toonses’ balls had not grown back.

Essay: LA-LA-LA

I guess the processed food that most-resembles my brain right now would be a pink and mangled brick of Velveeta that has been melting in the back window of a Pontiac. In 1985. Doing this trip — 12 days of a Pink Floyd laser show-like sensory extravaganza in Los Angeles — any justice would require more words than I know how to spell. And not doing it justice would be a crime against my soul.

This morning I woke up and every thought and feeling was already fading. Like satisfying muscle pain, but two days later. I’m back home, wondering what in the refrigerator is edible, and what is on the fast-track to the science fair. Ticking off a back log on TiVo. Hasta la pasta to the memory of the mortification I experienced when I realized I’d sent Hilton Als, theater critic for the New Yorker, a writing sample from the time Gallagher performed at Grandma’s Sports Garden. Embarrassing.

The gist is this: Every day for 11 days, starting at hours I didn’t know existed on modern time-keeping devices, our group of about two dozen people went to writing workshops, tutorial sessions, and had one-on-one meet ups with biggies in the biz. We toured LA in a huge, roving pack. Shuttled here and there. Lunches, dinners, more of this and that. Then every night we went to a theater performance. Some gut-wrenching: I’ll never look at mustard the same again; Some hokey: I’ve had the song “From a Distance” stuck in my head for days. Twice we had college-like cram writing assignments that went into the wee hours of the night; More often we had booze fests that went into the wee hours of the night. The two times I strung together six hours of sleep, I felt like She Ra. I slept with the shades open in my hotel room so that my singed eyeballs would wake me if my alarm did not. That did the trick.

I learned some important things about functioning on about two hours a sleep. I have two notebooks full of other stuff I learned — the stuff I went there to learn and more — but I can’t bring myself to open them yet. Too much wisdom from too many smart people to revisit right now. It’s like going back for seconds on dessert at Old Country Buffet.

And the people. Oh, lo, the people. I have a new appreciation for The Real World, and the way you can quietly lose your mind, laugh until inertia makes it impossible for your diaphragm to stop bouncing, and then spend an entire plane-ride across country looking for something — a song, a word, a phrase, a brand of pretzels — to explain why you are dripping snot all over a tray table. I’m having a hard time reconciling that I will never have that exact same experience with those exact same people. I guess that happens every time you experience anything. But this time it’s especially heavy.

When it came to the final hug session on the final day, I looked at almost everyone in that group and thought: Oh my gosh. I like you all so much.
You have the craziest laugh or
the best stories or
Cigar smoke smells delicious, put it in my hair or
I love that you conduct interviews out of a trailer, or
you are the person who I hope to be in six years or
I wish we’d talked more, or
I wish I had one more day with you or
you are so brave, or
you remind me of my friends back home.

My amigo favorito was a film-freaking, American Spirits-smoking, map-reading, screen-play writing, math-doing, online contributing, beer drinking, whipped cream in his coffee, barefoot running “Buffy” fan from DC. We’ll call him Dawson. I lucked into sitting next to him on the bus the day we picked the person we were charged with making sure did not get stabbed, kidnapped, or recruited by the Manson family. We were also next-door neighbors, which was helpful because I could never find my room. He’s the kind of friend that I felt comfortable enough to turn to and say: “So-and-so made me cry today.” But mostly we just drank just north of moderation and tried to out-funny the other person.

My second favorito amigo was a young lad from Buffalo, No. 9, who would send me text messages that said things like “Watch her hair when she claps.” We became friends the day that I watched him Google “donkeys wearing costumes” and then upload the images to Tumblr. He made me laugh so hard every single day that there was the threat of choking on my own bobbing uvula.

So, instead of doing a daily download dump of what happened, I’ll list some of my favorite memories from this trip. Grab a quick nap before jumping in. This will take awhile:

SOLIDARITY
We had a body movement session with Kay Cole, an original cast member of “A Chorus Line,” in a mirrored studio on the USC campus. A man sat in the corner providing a dance soundtrack on a medium-sized keyboard. (I really wanted him to bust out some Erasure. Perhaps “Chains of Love”). We were all still strangers then, and Cole got us to leave our inhibitions in the shoe pile, and dance.

One woman, a wonderfully animated, hard-working, question-asking and self-controlled (until she smelled wine) Wisconsinite was struggling with dancing in front of the group. We were asked to do a solo: A 10 second improv dance and end it by shouting out our name. Wisconsin did her dance reluctantly, then fled the room. But she came back a few minutes later to give it another shot. And as soon as she did, Cole asked her to do another solo. The entire group groaned in unison. Like, “Oh, Kay. No. Please. Can’t you tell she is uncomfortable?”

But Wisconsin did it. And we all cheered. That’s when I realized: “Shit, dawg. This group already really cares about each other.” And then I thought: “You go, Wisconsin. I’m so proud of you.” And then I thought: “Wow. Kay Cole has a pretty amazing way with people.”

THE INS AND OUTS
While the majority of the group went to a Lebanese restaurant, four of us — including a vegetarian — went rogue and found an In & Out Burger. “You can eat hummus any time, but cheeseburgers are a novelty” No. 9 said. … “There it is,” No. 9 said. “That red and yellow building. The one that looks like ketchup and mustard.” After some serious elbow flailing, we found a table and ate this amazing delicacy moaning and groaning and giddy. Special sauce bled from my cheeseburger, down my hands.

HOO-RAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
It took more than a week for me to get into a position where the Hollywood sign would be visible. Then, there it was, but I couldn’t see it. “See that tower? Look just down from that,” Dawson said pointing out the shuttle window. Nada. “See that tower? Look down!” Nada. “SEE THAT TOWER! LOOK DOWN!” he said. Nope. I thought he was snorting goldfish crackers until I saw it for real two days later. By the tower, but down.

CHIPS THE MUSICAL
The Troubadours are this clever troupe based out of Burbank, and we got to watch them rehearse for an upcoming original production: “CHiPs the Musical.” Sexy girls with Farrah hair, and songs about sexual tension. Numbers performed on makeshift motorcycles, and a van wheeling out of control down a California highway. Ponch, of course, and John.

They were a total riot, and during the Q&A session afterward one of the group’s founders ticked off a list of other original performances they had done: “Alice in One Hit Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Ozzy Osbourne,” “As U2 Like It.” Known-plays-turned-musicals. For the rest of our time in LA, I vied with Dawson, to come up with the best title for a show using this template. His best: “Jesus Christ and Mary Chain Superstar.” And my best (a much longer list): “Whamlet.” “The 2 Live Crucible.” “The Laramie Alan Parson’s Project.” There’s more where that came from.

MUSTARD
No. 9 and I were in the front row for “The Arsonist,” at Odyssey Theatre — this space that resembles a bowling alley. In the play’s greatest moments, the character Schmitz drowns his plate with a soup of mustard. He mows down on a sandwich, food falling from his face, squeezes a tomato. He wags a pickle, drenched mustard. It’s all over his fingers. He dips into a gooey 3-minute egg the consistency of a loogie. Chicken skin hangs, like a goatee across his chin. I’m surprised I got out of there without getting food-flavored spit in my hair. It was such gooey goodness, so utterly revolting.

As you know, in my happiest moments, I’m gagging on a visual.

DRUNKEN AMNESIAC
Nearly every single night we went to this bar near the hotel, where the patio area was set in a narrow alley. There was always a DJ, usually playing Smiths-caliber songs while something like Animal Planet or a Japanese horror flick played on a large screen. Heat lamps and pints of Sapporo.

Afterward, Dawson and I would sometimes go for a smoke in the hotel’s Japanese garden — which, if I could remember it, was probably a very stunning place. I’d point to an area and say: “Let’s stand over there!” and he’d say: “That’s where we stood last night.”

Of course, I couldn’t remember this night to night. Heck, I couldn’t find the place in the light of day. And always on our way back upstairs, I’d fill my palm with a wad of hand sanitizer (which was kept near the elevator) and whip it at him, forgetting I did that, too, the night before.

THE PLAYBOY MANSION
Our leader held a dinner party in her beautiful Pasadena home filled with wide open spaces and original art and fascinating people. We drank gin & tonics in the backyard, and she played conversation matchmaker, directing us toward strangers who we should meet. I, of course, was socially awkward and went blank when paired with the books editor from a major newspaper. (“I like books.” Crickets.)

After dinner, we converged on her living room and were given an intimate tutorial on musical theater by Jack Viertel. Nice light, wine. There was a private concert with Georgia Stitt on the keys, and solos by the likes of Shoshana Bean. It was stunning. Surreal. When it was over, we were standing around in the backyard near her pool — more of a landscape piece than place to train for the Olympics. “The only way this could be better,” I mused, “would be if there were Playboy bunnies making out in that jacuzzi.” A man from Oklahoma took a second to picture it, then drawled “That’s kinky.” But it was more like “Thahht’s kinkaaay.”

MIDNIGHT SHOW
A bunch of us went to see “The Tomorrow Show” a variety show that started at midnight in Hollywood. But first we went to a frou-frou club-club, where I got tripped up by a bartender who wanted to know what kind of whiskey I was angling for. (“The kind old men in Westerns drink?”) Our group had been on the go since early in the morning, and didn’t blend well with the little black dress sect. We were cas, in jeans and sweatshirts and camping hair. “We’re the ugliest people to ever set foot in this bar,” I told Ari. (True story. They made us come in the back door). “They’re probably thinking: Those are the longest shorts I’ve ever seen,” she said. I made a few jokes about HPV, and we headed to the show.

This group frequently features Brendan Smalls, and when he came out on the stage I gasped like a groupie. Of all the funny in the world, his “Home Movies” is among those I find funniest. I sat there with a goofy grin, detecting vocal nuances from the 9-year-old film geek voice he uses on the cartoon. And then I started wondering what life is like for Brendan Smalls’ girlfriend: his “Oh baby” sounding suspiciously like something animated.

The highlight of the night was a sword swallower who ate sharp until the tip touched his stomach lining. You could see the movement of the weapon in his throat. I almost barfed so hard.

PLAY ON, PLAYA
Dawson wrote a short play, a scene from a horror flick, that included a sassy quick-witted Veronica Mars-style female lead. He cast me in the role — apparently he thought I could handle sarcasm, and wouldn’t mangle his zippy dialogue — oblivious to the fact that I am where acting goes to die. I panicked a bit, worried that I’d stumble on my lines and break his play. And in all of that anxiety, I missed that he was having one of those super stellar life moments, his words acted out for an audience. God, I’m a dick. Afterward, I read on Twitter about how stoked he was. Awesome that I got to have front-row seats for a friend’s big phat moment.

ISLANDS IN THE STREAM
We spent part of an afternoon skulking the perimeter of Balboa Island, with its toy houses and chocolate covered frozen whatevers. When I saw the Newport Beach Club, I couldn’t help but think of the time Chino got in a fist fight at cotillion, and then of Marisa Cooper’s tragic death. There wasn’t enough time for me to lay in the sand and see what shade of blue the sun could turn my pasty flesh. Regret, numero uno.

THE CONVOS
I talked to Jeff Weinstein about food writing, and food making, a conversation with interruptions to give me some Pasadena history; I told Texas about the time I was robbed at gunpoint, which oddly enough ended with her trying to convince me to try stand-up comedy; I had a moment with TT and Liz, where I confessed that I was really uncomfortable during a performance art workshop where we were asked to act like we were walking on glass and having an orgasm at the same time, and it reminded me of what it was like to have a good group of girl friends;

I told three stories about times I’ve wet the bed after drinking too much, and HipHop convinced me to write a series of essays called “The Urine Trilogy”; A group of us went to the bar, and left with a catch phrase: “Hot dog down a hallway.” I knew one guy for almost three days before he finally said to me: “You know, I’m from Minnesota, too”; We made up variations of the joke: “Show me on the doll where (blank) touched you”;

No. 9 and I took jokes too far, and invented scenes where we would arrive at a dinner party, realize it was being held in a hut, that Cloris Leachman was taking a bath in the middle of the living room, and the host would sacrifice a goat for dinner and make a cream sauce out of breast milk.

WHAT I THINK OF WHEN I THINK ABOUT THIS TRIP
Sitting at a massive table of at least 30 people at an Italian Restaurant in Pasadena, poking at cheesy pillows of gnocchi and talking food with Dawson (Me: “Mushrooms suck, too bad about this risotto”) while my bottomless wine glass magically filled.

I looked across the table to No. 9 who was having this intense conversation, something that bore a resemblance to flirty, and sent him a text: “Baum chicka baum baum.” Half an hour later at the theater, Dawson looked at me and said: “You are drunk.”

This is what I think about when I think about moments I’ll never have again.

So now I’m back. And fragile. And inspired. And weepy. And stirred. And itching to write, learn, read, travel, think, meet people, do more things that make me sad that I’ll never get to do them again. I wasn’t prepared for the mental exhaustion, or the missing of these people who were in the bubble with me. I’m a little lonely, and finding that “And then No. 9 said …” stories don’t translate to my real life. I’m also super freaked out, and super foggy.

And I don’t know if I want to feel normal, because normal means going back to coasting along, never taking any risks. (“Risk” being a big word at this particular summer camp).

I think I lost my mind in LA.

Review: ‘The House of Tomorrow’ by Peter Bognanni

This isn’t the most eloquent thing I’ve ever said about a book, but holy schmoly The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni is just so freakin’ cool.

Little orphan Sebastian lives with his Grandma, a Bucky Fuller groupie, in a geodesic dome in Iowa — a House of Tomorrow slash tourist destination complete with a gift shop and a sales quota. When Nana has a stroke in front of half of the visiting Whitcomb family, Sebastian gets scooped up by the broken would-be soccer mom and adopted as a friend for her son Jared, an emo social misfit with a heart transplant scar on his chest.

Nana returns to the dome a bit wonky, and her attention toward Sebastian lapses to the point that he is able to receive abusive emails from Jared and research the punk rock music Jared listens to. He can even use the phone, in an otherwise tightly monitored living situation. Sebastian plays the role of an inquisitive and socially awkward puppy who doesn’t have enough non-Bucky Fuller knowledge to be turned off by Jared’s insult-laced friendship. He soaks up the Whitcomb family’s real life — the grape soda and absentee father, the boozy experimentation and the Misfits.

Jared invites Sebastian to be in his punk band, and The Rash is born. Jared is a surprisingly good singer and decent with lyrics — including the song “Stupid School;” Sebastian struggles with the yelps, but can play a chord. They plan to rock the church talent show. Meanwhile, Jared’s sister Meredith is giving Sebastian hot pants.

I love the quirky premise and the personalities and the relationships between these characters, but it was the dialog that made me wish I’d had a more colorful childhood filled with clever insults.

Consider this moment when the comer-of-age Sebastian meets that fruity-smelling temptress Meredith:

She looked from Jared to me. “You two make the perfect little pair, don’t you,” she said. “Two little wieners.”
“Meredith,” said Jared, “could you please have your period somewhere else in this house where it won’t bother anyone?”

Review originally posted at Minnesota Reads.