A Restaurant Hustle

I try to save money. I rarely drink alcohol or coffee, I hardly ever take cabs, I rarely buy clothes and when I do they’re cheap and made to last, I don’t have a gym membership, I buy generics and get bulk discounts on household goods, I prefer cheap entertainment. But I do like to occasionally spend money on a good meal: high-quality Sichuan, a hanger steak at a reasonably priced bistro, that sort of thing. The amount of joy, energy and stress relief I get from a good meal beats pretty much anything else I could use money for.

Today, I was walking down Flatbush looking for a place to get a nice lunch when I saw a french place called “Graine de Paris.” The awning had a picture of a wheat grain along with the Eiffel Tower. I had high hopes that they’d have a nice streak-frites, or something else satisfying and reasonably priced.

When I got closer, I saw that the names of some items were written on the window, and it didn’t seem like a French place at all. I don’t remember all the things, but one of them was “BBQ Chicken.”

I looked inside, and there was nobody there except for one man sitting by the window with a table full of paperwork. There was a menu board outside, with a bunch of cardboard menus underneath it. As I picked one of them up, the man who was eating inside gestured at me, and hurriedly moved to open the restaurant. At the same time, I saw that the menu had just a list of several foods, without descriptions or prices or seemingly any organizing principle, and decided it wasn’t for me. I waved him off, and he didn’t give up, gesturing at me to come inside and eat. I turned to try to make eye contact and show him that no, I really wasn’t going to eat there, and he began clearing off a counter near the front of the store.

I just kept walking down the street, figuring that I had done all I could to be polite. Or, at any rate, that I had done all I would.
I’ve been hustled into restaurants twice. The first time was when in my freshman year of college. I was going to school in New York, along with a friend I’d met at a journalism program, and two other people from the program came to visit. As out-of-towners, they wanted to go to Central Park and eat at Little Italy, and when we went to ask to see menus at one place, they quickly whisked the other two to a table and brought out water and bread. We talked at the table, and decided that none of us wanted to eat there, and so we told the waiter we were leaving and left. Nobody ate the bread. It felt a little like Persephone’s escape from Hades, except that in this case we avoided eating the pomegranate seeds.
The other time was a few years ago, when I was doing standup comedy. I walked around the block, looking for something to eat before the show, and while I was looking at a menu for an Indian restaurant when someone asked me if I wanted to eat. I told them it needed to be quick, and they rushed me into the restaurant, asking me if I wanted to eat outside, and I told them I did, and I ended up in the restaurant’s backyard under a tent. I ordered quickly and the food was reasonably priced and pretty good. I might have ended up ordering there anyway. But the fact that I might have not, and that I let them get me, bothered me.

White Men in Suits

When I got outside today there were two white men in suits standing on my neighbor’s stoop.

The one who seemed to be the leader, a short man with glasses and dark hair that was slicked back and probably would be slightly curly in its natural form. He had a face that looked like a lot of faces I’d seen before, so much that I thought there must be a name for someone with that look, or that he must look like someone whose name I knew, but I couldn’t think of the name. His suit was dark and looked expensive.

The second one was much bigger, and didn’t have his jacket on, but his pants, shoes, shirt, and tie looked expensive enough that he was clearly a guy with a suit despite not having the full suit. He moved around more and seemed to look to the short guy for the lead.

The two of them were talking to my neighbor, a black lady who’s lived in the neighborhood for a while, and who owns the building, I think. There are more and more white people in the neighborhood — I’m one — but white men of that type still stand out. I’m sure I’ve seen white people in suits before in the neighborhood, but the last time I clearly remember one was at the beginning of 2013 when a detective was asking questions about a shooting.

I don’t know what the pair was up to. There’s something ominous about people who looked like that pair, something that represents a backing of power that will be hard to oppose. If these two fellows walked into any workplace, an early thought for a lot of people would be “someone’s going to get fired.”

But I don’t know if they actually had any power, or if they just wanted to represent that look, and they could pull it off.

I went to get a bagel, and when I came back they were milling around on the sidewalk.


Today, I wrote a post on another blog about some of my comedy experiences, and, because I mention people by name, I sent an email to those people to clear it with them.

Later that evening, when I thought of the possibility of them reading it, I became acutely embarrassed.

It’s a feeling I’ve gotten pretty often when I’ve written things, before I know how those things have been perceived. I’ve gotten it with things I’ve done in writing classes, nonfiction writing, things I’ve posted on blogs, and personal emails I’ve sent. It’s also a feeling I’ve gotten when I ask women out, which I usually do in writing, since I do a lot of online dating, and also because I still get shy about that stuff.

Part of the feeling is the mix of self-exposure with uncertainty. I have no idea how I’m being perceived, and I have no way of telling before somebody responds. Things that have ended well have felt just like things that have ended awfully before I’ve found out which way they’ve gone.

Because I care about the result, I construct extreme scenarios about how people are thinking of me: the worst case scenarios are horrible, and I try to avoid dwelling in the best case scenarios, because I’m sure to be disappointed with any realistic resolution.

These things are weighted, because I am sure to take the result personally; it only occurs when I feel that I am exposed enough to do so.
One of my deepest fears is to be disregarded as a person, to be considered so laughable or beneath respect that people stop treating me as they would a whole person they could empathize with. I’m still not sure what embarrassment is exactly, but this seems to me to be at the root of it.
People understand a lot of reasons embarrassment hurts. You can lose “face,” you can lose the ability to relate to people as you thought you could. The more a certain relation matters, the more the potential for painful embarrassment. The more an embarrassment clashes with your image in a certain role, the more damaging it can be.
Deeper than that, though, is the collapse of self-image. Part of how you see yourself includes how people see you, and that part of it is destroyed. But worse, people know you’re destroyed; they see in your exposure your own self image, and they know that their revelation to you that they see your self differently will destroy this image, and they can watch this very internal thing happening and know your pain as it happens.

At the worst, who you “are” – your subjective experience – is up for trial — although this, of course, is up to the flawed judgment of a human who inevitably has their own embarrassing mismatches, it feels at some cases like it has legitimacy.
But there’s something in particular that’s a fear with “earnest” work: that earnestness is bullshit, that it is shot through with urges to shape your image and not to transmit it, that despite what felt like an attempt to express yourself, you were expressing a wish, or, worse, transmitting a deception. And of course, because you must make decisions about your self-image, and you do bend toward what you want, it’s impossible to really be honest, that this shell image will be seen just as a bunch of desire and delusion.

But somewhere in all this there is a self, a self that you try to capture, and really expose, and on some level that’s all you want, is for what you feel are to be seen, and the fear is that nobody cares, or nobody sees it, they just see the noise, or that if they see it they’ll be horrified, or that if they see it they’ll shrink from empathize and pretend you’re the only human there, and they’ll laugh at humans as weak because of course we are.
And there’s a fear that all that, that thinking anything is bigger than you are, is just laughable, it’s an attempt to distance everything from the very simple embarrassment, it’s a lack of humility about your smallness.
The fear, I think, is that nobody cares about a self, and everyone knows it, and those fools who try to get their self seen don’t even know what a fucking hassle it is, what a joke, and everyone else knows enough to shut the fuck up.
The fear, maybe, is wanting to shut the fuck up before someone points that out to you.

Three Quick Encounters in the Park

I like to exercise in Prospect Park, not doing anything formal but just walking around, finding hills to run up and logs and stones to carry, lift, and throw. I just do what feels natural, and I enjoy my time, and feel good afterwards.

It also involves wandering through the park, from place to place, discovering what elements there are to play with or work with, however you want to see it.

There are fields and woods in the park, and within the woods there are some small trails off the main roads, and some of these go into clearings or little hills. The little hills are usually bald or at least not densely wooded. They are usually unoccupied, although there are often signs that people have been there.

Today, I was walking up one of those trails when I saw a man pacing around at the top of the hill. I turned around and went down another little trail, and passed a man sitting in a chair. As I continued down the hill, I saw a third man walking up a trail from one of the paths. I took a different trail down than the one he was taking up.

At every encounter, we passed each other without comment or eye contact, but calmly, so that it seemed acknowledged that we did not need to acknowledge each other. It looked to me like those three were up to something, working as a team. But who knows. Who needs to know?

On Witnesses

My sketch team performed today for the New York Sketch festival, for 30 minutes. It was our strongest, most polished show so far.

The audience was small. There were eight people I knew – my parents, the couple that owns the house where I live, two friends from college, one friend from high school, and one friend from my last job. There were also six people my teammates knew. There was one person we didn’t know, and a few theater employees, and the sketch team that played before us. And there were some people we never saw who moved in to the back of the theater after the show had started.

Everyone I knew who saw it enjoyed it, and that mattered a lot to me, and I feel great about the show. The dark side is that the feedback can create a kind of greed for witnesses. Already, I find myself wanting more people to see the show. The need for witnesses in performance and other creative expressions is terrifying to me, because it seems like something that just doesn’t happen in normal life. I like to be immersed in moments, try to do the best thing of things that appear, explore what interests me, focus on what I’m creating without looking around to see who’s looking. I like this small focused, world; I like focusing on the quality of an experience or action rather than its centrality, size, or importance.

But I do enjoy attention, too. And the pursuit of that joy seems dangerous, like something that might take me away from what I really love, or cause me to take from people and not to give, or throw off my balance. Or that it may make it harder for me to adjust to the smallness of any individual existence, and the difficulty of expressing anything, really. Or that it might keep growing, and require more feedback for the same effect.

My intuition is that the answer is always to maintain the focus on things I care about, and to enjoy the attention, especially when it is earned and reflects a real connection, but not to get caught up in it. But it sometimes is hard for me to maintain confidence in my intuition, or maintain focus on things I care more deeply about in the face of quicker and more accessible pleasures.

It’s something to think about.

Got a Show Tomorrow

Tomorrow I have show for my sketch comedy team that we’ve been working on for a while. We’ve got a slot at the New York City Sketch Festival, and it’s the first time we’ve ever had a full half-hour at a real theater. We’re only three people, and I’m acting in every sketch. I know all the lines, and have had good performances of each one before, but the fact that we just have one shot, and have had a chance to practice for it, makes the pressure pretty high. I’ve had hard performances before, but most shows I’ve been in have either been part of a run (so each individual performance has less weight) or have been thrown together at the last minute (so expectations aren’t that high).

I like a lot of things about it, but it’s a little weird waiting for it to happen. I did not get much done today, just gave myself a relaxing day. But now that I’m looking forward to something, anticipating it, I find it intrudes on the meantime. I never liked waiting, in general, anticipating. It’s much better to be engaged in something. Waiting is such a nothing activity. In small doses, and at the right times, anticipation can be fun, and can add weight to experiences, but I don’t like to spend my time looking forward too much. I also don’t like saving my energy for too long – I like feeling like there’s no reason to hold back. I didn’t work out today because I didn’t want to be tired, I didn’t get too much into any kind of work because I didn’t want to get caught up and miss something I needed to do for the show.
I suppose this is part of what’s meant by “preoccupied” – my mind is already occupied with the idea of the show, without much room for anything else.
It was easy when I was building, practicing. There was something to focus on in the moment. Now, it’s just the passage of time, which I’m always wary of. You don’t want to get in favor of the passage of time, because it ain’t your friend. It will kill you in the long run, and in the short run it will take away your opportunity to do other things.
Sometimes I feel like an idiot if I ever have time to do something and don’t end up spending all my time working on that thing.

It’s always the case that I could have thought of something better if I’d focused more, and the flaws in the final product don’t feel like simple flaws, but like moral failings, things I allowed to happen through neglect.

But really, it’s not so different. We always have chances to make things better, and our time is always limited. It’s not just deadlines that make it so. It’s just a difference of degree, not of type. But feelings can be stupid.
I’m at a point where I could run the show a few more times in my head before going to bed, but it’s partly out of guilt that I didn’t do so more times during the day. I need to figure out if it’s actually being productive, or if I’d just be digging myself into a deeper hole trying to redeem myself. Many times I feel guilty at having failed to work, and try to make a mad rush of whatever it was I didn’t do to erase the failure. It’s not really a plan for future improvement, it’s an attempt at denial of the past. I’d love to describe this type of foolishness more precisely; it’s something I do a lot.
Sometimes it’s very hard to figure out what to do. Sometimes it’s hard to accept the drawbacks of any course of action.
I’ll have to figure out something to do until this damned show.

Cheap Bananas

I’ve mentioned Mr. Melon, the Korean 24-hour grocery store in my neighborhood, before. Today I went there to buy some scallions to marinate a steak. I got two bunches for a dollar. While I was there, I saw a stack of bananas selling at eight for a dollar, and $2.99 for a box which looked like it had about 40 bananas in it.

Clearly, there’s some kind of evil behind such cheap bananas. You can’t pay that little for fruit that comes so far away without short-changing someone along the line. Of course, Mr. Melon is a secondary market – from what I understand, they buy the fruits and vegetables from bigger places that haven’t moved their inventory fast enough, and need to sell it before it expires. So they dump it off for cheap to savvy buyers like the folks who run Mr. Melon.

We’ve got a system that produces so much surplus that produce is getting scrapped like old cars, and whole business can run on selling the scraps. I don’t know what this means about buying from the junkyard. A small amount of what you pay is helping the big buyers recover loss on their waste, but part of it goes to a group of vendors who take food bound for the garbage and bring it to the neighborhood at affordable prices.

I haven’t reformed my buying habits yet. I bought eight bananas. I still have space in the freezer.

EDIT: This was posted on Friday, October 17th, but is showing up as October 11th. What strange sorcery is this?

Bad Raspberries

There’s a convenience store down the street for me that often has fruit at steep discounts, and sometimes I feel I can’t pass up the deals, but am not ready to eat the fruit, so I freeze it. It works very well with blueberries. Tonight I was trying to save money and ate some frozen raspberries that had been in there for awhile.

As I was eating them, I did not feel good, but I kept eating a little more, and then put the rest back.

Soon my stomach felt terrible, and I hoped it was just gas that I could burp out, but after continued stomach pain for a couple hours I gave up and vomited. All the other food I ate was gone, and just the chewed up berries came out.

I’ve had bad raspberries at least one time before, and I felt pretty similar to how I felt this time. But it’s not really the unpleasant feeling that’s the worst, it’s the fact that it may cost me sleep and cost me energy. I’ve got a sketch show coming up Sunday that I need to rehearse for, and I want to get a lot of writing work done as well.
When I was little I used to somewhat enjoy being sick; I didn’t like school, because it was tedious and full of rules, and I enjoyed missing it. I enjoyed the feeling of recovery.
When I grew up, I hated being sick. My time was my own, more, and I hated being sick on my own time. And I take pride in working and being reliable, and hate being able to meet my obligations.
I had a terrible day job last year, and the times I was sick and decided to stay in for work, I enjoyed. Even the days I was sick at work, I took some pleasure in relaxing a little, because it was necessary. I liked a break from the tedium and stress of the job. I still wanted to be productive, to pull my weight, but I did not want them, for this job, deeply enough to still want them if I felt release from them.
It’s a kind of sickness, on another level, to want to be sick. We need recovery; when we need it, we should have the will to give ourselves recovery without an excuse.

I don’t know to what degree these “should”s are meaningful.
This time, and most times these days, I do not want to be sick. I wonder whether my desire to not be sick will make me more likely to be sick, or will duplicate the effects of sickness.
When I think of malingering, I think of Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, and Yossarian, of Catch-22. In both cases, the malingerers wanted to escape a world, a mentality that did not suit them.
In a shallow reading, it’s good to feel bad when you’re sick. It shows you’re on the right path. If you want your health, you must be using it well.

But I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes you’re just not able to weather it. Sometimes you’re at a boring normal, and are just too weak for any disruptions. Sometimes you’re in a terrible trap where the effects of sickness are amplified.

I think I’m doing well right now. But it’s best not to be too cocky.
I’m going to try to sleep. My stomach feels a little better. I hope it holds up.

Compounding Stress

Today a lots of things happened to cause me stress; it’s manifesting physically in a pain on my left back and neck. Or maybe the pain has physical causes, and it coincides with and exacerbates my mental stress. Either way, when these things happen, I start worrying about the inconvenience, and that compounds them.
Sometimes I have the following cycle: it may happen tonight:

1. I need to get to sleep early.
2. I worry about getting to sleep early, then this prevents me from sleeping.
3. I worry that my worry will cause me to fail to fall asleep, and this continues to happen.
4. I feel trapped in a cycle, and the feeling of being trapped makes it harder to sleep.

If I need to get up early – really need to – it’s almost a guarantee that I won’t be able to sleep the night before. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote that flying could only be achieved by throwing yourself at the ground and missing. It cannot be done through intention.

Part of it is impatience; by trying to sleep earlier, I attempt to steal a few extra minutes instead of making all my preparations, because I find the delay unacceptable. But the delay, of course, is not avoided, and will end up happen, whether or not I find it acceptable. It is, in a sense, acceptable only because it must be accepted.
There are some people for whom sleep is easy; I’m sure they have interesting lives, but it’s hard for me not to intuitively consider them boring.

Farewell to the Nationals Season

I watched the Washington Nationals season end today, on a shitty livecast streaming on my computer.

I like baseball a lot. I enjoy playing it, and watching it. It’s an aesthetically beautiful game, where some parts of the field are precisely defined and others are understood to be irregular; the same is true for other elements of the game. It’s a game of abstractions, where things move between states. Advantage is gained by tiny shifts, but only across a long enough run through a volatile field of probability. Roles are largely isolated, but subtly influence each other, and can work in conjunction. Like all sports, it has that element of objective truth; no matter who you are, whether anyone likes you, or how you market yourself, when you hit the ball over the fence you hit the ball over the fence.

Because baseball moves quickly from state to state, and is static in between, and is so observable, it’s a great thing to enjoy with other people, to experience emotional swings together and align your observations. I watch it with my family; we go to Spring Training now, and watch games together during the season. I follow it with my close friends from home; we used to watch games together, but now we mostly live in different cities, and we’re starting long email chains; they often pass 100 replies in the course of a week or so, less if it’s a big game. When I started working at The Onion, my co-workers would make fun of me for being a fan of the Nationals (who were terrible at the time), so I aimed to convert them by sending e-mail updates about the team.

I used to be very emotionally affected by sports. It faded over the years, as I started to care about other things, but I get back into it whenever something exciting happens. I can’t stay just an observer, and wouldn’t want to. I like to care, to some degree. And baseball never gets me into harmful degrees of caring. I’ve experienced maximal levels of baseball heartbreak, and they didn’t make me vomit pure stomach acid or hate people I liked, or send me into clinical depression. I just got mad for a while and wished things had gone differently for a little bit, and I had a whole bunch of people around me who felt the same way.

Two years ago, in 2012, I had the happiest romantic experience of my life and the most exciting job experience of my life at the same time; the first fell apart in devastating fashion, and the second ended on schedule but was followed up by a void. That same season, The Washington Nationals were the best team in the league, and lost in the first round of the playoffs after being one out away from winning the divisional series. Here’s something I wrote during the regular season, and sent around to my co-workers: (“Nationals Update” is the name for my “publication” – the tone of the emails overall is tongue-in-cheek pro-Nationals propaganda mixed with commitment to weird tangents and peppered with nerdy baseball analysis, but this one was themed particularly to address, by proxy, the problem of heartbreak in general. All members of the “panel” are me, with a different number of initials.)

“Is the 2012 Washington Nationals Season an Elaborate Trap to Destroy
and Disappoint Us?”

Recently, the intuition that this is true has been growing around the
Nationals Update offices.

The most convincing argument for the “trap” theory is that the
Nationals season is a thing, and that things in general are elaborate
traps to destroy and disappoint us (or, more precisely, to destroy us
by way [of] disappointment). In particular, the fact that the Nationals
season is something that the Nationals Update staff cares about has
been taken as a strong sign in support of the theory, with special
concern given to the fact that it ranks increasingly higher among
positive things in the lives of NU community (almost solely because of
higher-ranking things vacating those spots) and thus is moving into
the succession of things that will collapse into ruin. An elaborate
trap would not be planned for something trivial; so as the season
becomes increasingly non-trivial, the chances of it being a trap
increase significantly.

Of course, such theories grind against two common parts of the
Nationals Update culture: Nationals optimism, and rational baseball
understanding. It has been argued that the Nationals, ever rising,
will never disappoint us, and will in any case provide us
unquantifiable entertainment, win or lose; indeed, the losing years
are remembered fondly. With increased stakes, however, there has been
some disillusionment with the party line, and concern about whether
Nationals optimism is still necessary, and, indeed, whether it is
safe. The rationalist argument is that baseball is a game naturally
involving lots of chance-dependent aberrations, and that forming any
sort of mystical, superstitious, or determinist narrative is natural
human tendency but does not accurately describe or predict baseball
events. Some of the rationalists even argue that the same line of
reasoning can be applied to life in general.

The question was tested recently with regard to the (trivially,
because it is a sports event being played by other people) traumatic
event of the Nationals being swept by the Atlanta Braves in three
games. The Nats entered the series with a chance to reduce their magic
number to 5; instead it remains at 11, with 16 games to go.

It would seem a favorable situation if not for these fundamental laws
on the working of the world:

“If it concievably could go wrong, but conceivably could go right, it
will go wrong and will be devastating because you will be unable to
properly prepare for it going wrong due the possibility of it going
“If it could not conceivably go wrong, it will go wrong and it will be
completely devastating because you did not even conceive of it going
“If it cannot conceivably go right, it obviously will not go right,
and if it does, you will be completely unprepared to take advantage of

It is with this background in mind that you should read the following
panel discussion.

Nationals Update Panel: “Is The 2012 Washington Nationals an Elaborate
Trap Designed to Destroy Us With Disappointment?”

DI: It’s clear that it is. I think the fact that it appears to have
the potential to go well is sufficient evidence that it is a trap, and
I think we all have the gut feeling that it is. The question is, what
can be done about it? If we have the appearance of an enjoyable
season, and there is no duality between appearance and essence,
there’s no compelling reason not to enjoy the season. Granting that it
is a trap, the best possible result it to put the trap out of our mind
to increase our enjoyment of the present, so that we will have a
positive baseball experience and a positive baseball memory to look
back on.

DHI: I think the concern that some people have is that wholehearted
enjoyment would intensify the letdown.

I: Exactly. Exactly. And there’s the sense in which it’s a memory trap
too. If the memory of the season becomes something you want to access
when you’re feeling good, but then you inevitably remember how it
ended, it becomes a device for quickly transforming any good mood into

DHI: I really doubt the Nationals have that kind of power over any of us.

DI: But why not let them? Can you imagine a better team to put your trust in?

I: Well let’s consider this; if we can avoid caring about the
Nationals, then do their chances revert back to their natural chances
of winning in baseball terms, which is, what, 80%?

DI: 88% chance of winning NLCS, 82% chance of winning the World Series.

DHI: You’d put the chances of losing in the Series that low?

I: The Nats slaughter the AL. Just destroy them.

DHI: We got swept by the Yankees.

I: Never again. If the Nats play the Yankees, Nats in 5. I think we
lose Jackson’s first start.

DI: Who plays DH?

I: Tyler Moore.

DHI: Tyler Moore against lefties, for sure. Probably Chad Tracy
against righties.

DI: Not Lombardozzi?

I: God I hope not.

DHI: How do you explain the Braves series?

DI: Small sample size, on the road, Lannan didn’t pitch. ’nuff said.
They’ll be fine.

I: Well, back to my point, can we avoid caring about the Nationals for
their own good? Isn’t that the right thing to do?

DHI: The issue’s been raised before, but it doesn’t have a lot of
merit. The two options are: the Nationals win, in which case we end up
having abandoned the team at the moment of triumph after years of
unsuccessful fandom, and end up feeling guilty and foolish. Or the
Nationals lose, and prove themselves unworthy of our altruistic
gesture, so that we’re not only disappointed by the loss, but we
realize that we’ve missed out on some deluded happiness that we could
have just taken. So there are two unsatisfactory outcomes.

I: But do the satisfactory outcomes really exist as possibilities?

DI: We’re assigning nonzero probability to them, so yeah.

DHI: Fuck it all.

DI: Shit.

I: We are all doomed.

DI: Only when we truly believe we are doomed can we be free.

DHI: Let’s just keep saying we are doomed until we truly internalize it.