Thursday, June 08, 2006

Born to Gamble Part V: Whipping Post

I never believed in love at first sight until my weary eyes fixated on Angela. She and her friends parked and camped out next to me at the Gorge in George, Washington. She wore purple sundress and her long light brown hair cascaded down her small frame. Her resplendent brown eyes captivated my soul the second we made eye contact with one another. She barely stood five feet tall, but her aura ran me over like a freight train. She spoke with a slight drawl which gave me goosebumps every time she opened up her mouth.

"I know you're not from around here," I said.

"I'm not. I'm from Tex-is," she said.

"Tex-is? Or Tex-as?"

"Tex-is. Cause Tex-is where it's at."

That would be one of her many Texasisms that she would lay on me. Some of my favorites included, "You can put your boots in the oven, but that don't make them biscuits." Or my all time favorite, "You keep trying to sell me that lie, and I ain't buyin'."

In the summer of 1998 I saw two Phish concerts at the Gorge Ampitheatre, and that's where I met Angela. She and her friends from college drove up from Austin and coincidentally parked next to me in the campgrounds. We hung out both nights and stayed up late talking about everything. When it was time to go she promised that we'd keep in touch. She drove back to Texas to finish her last year in college and I'd be heading back to NYC a few months later when I found out my mother got sick and I had to come home.

During our time apart, we'd speak on the phone, shoot each other emails, and IM one another. My favorite parts of our courtship were the letters we'd write one another. She was an English major and wanted to be a writer. She had no problems whipping out ten or fifteen pages of elegant prose and mailed them to me with girly doodles of flowers and happy faces on the pages or the envelopes.

(Editor's Note: When we eventually broke up, I told her that I burned all of her letters. I lied. I was angry and wanted to hurt her. She broke my heart and the only thing I knew I could say that could equally make her weep uncontrollably was to say I destroyed her love letters. To this day, I never told her the truth and I assumed that a part of her held onto a flicker of hope that I was just bluffing. They sit in a shoebox near my baseball cards in the corner of my old bedroom. I haven't opened that box in years. I still lack the courage to read her words.)

Phish played four concerts in NYC at Madison Square Garden the end of 1998, including their New Year's Eve show. I had an extra ticket to New Years and I posted a message on a Phish bulletin board that I had an extra and was looking for "interesting trades." One guy offered me $400 for the ticket when I got a call from Angela saying that she was looking for an extra ticket. I did what any guy would do... I gave her the ticket for free.

We had floor seats for New Year's Eve. Phish opened up with a cover version of Prince's 1999. Fitting, I thought, because I used to listen to that song when I was a kid and 1999 seemed so distant. But there I was, on the cusp of 1999 dancing in the middle of a sea of wasted neo-hippies.

Phish played three sets that night and took the stage for their final set at 11:45pm. When Midnight struck, millions of revelers were celebrating in Times Square nine blocks north of the Garden, and Phish played Auld Lang Syne as hundreds of various sized balloons of different colors fell from the ceiling onto the crowd (very similar to the scene in the documentary Bittersweet Motel which occurred on NYE in 1997). That's when I went in for a kiss. Our first kiss. And in the history of first kisses, it might have been number one.

When Angela graduated college in the spring of 1999, we embarked on a journey that would last almost a year and a half where we criss-crossed the country several times following Phish around on their various tours. We saw fifty or sixty Phish shows together in 30 plus states in two years along with catching dozens of other bands and visiting Jazz Fest in New Orleans. We spent weeks and months sleep deprived and jacked up on whatever party favors we could find. Lucky for me, I had two excellent runs during March Madness and my gambling bankroll helped fund our trips.

While we were on the road, we stopped off in places like Reno and Biloxi and I taught Angela how to play blackjack. She walked away with $200 one night, even though the dealer and pit boss carded her several times.

As much as my life was unstable, I found a semblance of happiness even though I was constantly on the road and lived out of my backpack for two years. We spent most of our time sleeping on couches or on the floors of friends' apartments in San Francisco, Seattle, Alabama, Ohio, and in Houston. We'd camp out when we could and spent the rest of the time in cheap motels avoiding the AIDS-ridden comforters and dried cum stains on the walls.

I got to see America again ad more of it from the highways, freeways, and backroads. Although certain parts of America started looking like one long homogenous suburban strip mall, there were still physical and geographical differences that set different areas of our vast country apart.

In two years we visited so many cities together that it's hard to keep track: NYC, Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, Phoenix, LA, Portland, Boise, Denver, Memphis, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Las Vegas, San Diego, Kansas City, Seattle, and smaller towns in between like Las Cruces, Pelham, Antioch, Columbus, and Vail. We spent the millenium in Florida seeing Phish's epic concert from when they played from 11:30pm to 6am without any breaks.

I'm shocked that we never got into any serious trouble. In Las Cruces at a traffic stop, state troopers wanted to search the mini-van that we were driving but Angela stood up to the cop wearing mirrored sunglasses at 2am, exhibiting her Texas toughness when she blurted out, "You're not searching my momma's van without a warrant. We're gonna pull over right here and wait until you get one."

Man, she would have been a great poker player. She pulled off the bluff of the decade when the hardass trooper let us go and never searched the van. You can only imagine what we were carrying.

We pushed our luck on so many nights. Life on the road is difficult and dangerous as is without encountering humorless law enforcement types. The road has killed some of the best musicans like Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix.

"It's a goddammed impossible way of life," explained musician Robbie Robertson in the documentary The Last Waltz about constantly being on the road.

Yet, once again we both came out of it without a scratch with just a couple of speeding tickets.

So what happened with the adoarble girl from Texas that I thought was the love of my life? Hippie love never lasts and when we tried to have a normal relationship and stay in one place for an extended amount of time, things didn't work out. A few months after I got back from Japan with Senor, we broke up. She went to grad school in Texas and I wanted her to move to San Francisco, New Orleans, or Portland with me. Texas women are extremely stubborn and independent, and they don't like to be told what to do. Deep down, I thought that we were meant for each other and that we were just going through a rough patch. I figured that we'd get back together in a year or so after she got her master's degree. I was wrong. Each day, we drifted farther apart and she became freakishly and fanatically religious after 9.11 which that caused a deeper rift in our friendship.

When 2001 started, I was heart broken, deep in debt, and artistically lost in New York City. Senor always had a way of cheering me up and would say things like, "Women. Fucking women. Ah, fuck 'em. Let's go to Iceland."

This is the same guy who walked into a crowded bar in Rio di Janerio during Carnival, jumped up onto a table, dropped his pants, then announced to the patrons, "Who wants to suck my dick?"

Thank God for impulsive friends with credit cards. Just like that we were in Iceland a week later in the middle of January with about ninety minutes of daylight roaming the streets of Reykjavik drunk like toothless Hooligans on Viking beer. Senor read an article in Details magazine that Icelandic women were the most beautiful in the world and the easiest to sleep with. He figured a romp in the sack with a blonde Icelandic girl would lift my spirits.

A few months earlier in the summer of 2000, we embarked on the greatest trip of my life to Japan when we followed Phish for six concerts in four cities (Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, and Osaka) where they played in small clubs and venues. One gig in Nagoya was located in a club on the sixth floor of a shopping mall which had about 300 people packed into a space limited to 200. It was a special trip because we bonded with people who we had a tough time communicating with our different languages, but we were brought together by music. That was our translator as we discovered a sub-culture of hard-core Japanese hippies who loved the same bands I loved.

We befriended a couple of guys from Tokyo who were in band called Horse. They would come to America later that year and I took them on Phish tour with me and Angela. I made them wake and bake and ride the rollercoaster at New York New York during our time in Las Vegas. They were awesome guys and amazing guitar players. I helped write a few songs for one of their albums.

Yeah, I guess I never mentioned this, but years before I was an internet celerity, I was a well respected songwriter in the Tokyo underground music scene. I wrote the lyrics for Horse and they wrote the music. I was limited to using certain words and arranged them in a way that they could sing smoothly without too many pronunciation difficulties. It's odd to think, but right now a bunch of Japanese long hairs are playing songs that I wrote somewhere on the mezzanine of the Tokyo Subway.

(Editor's Note: Just a warning, the next several thousand words should not be considered light reading. I'm going to back that dark place inside of me to describe a three year period of my life that was equivalent to Dante's version of hell. If you are not able to handle that difficult material, then I suggest you stop reading this post.)

The break up with Angela set me on relationship tilt so badly that when I got back from Iceland I suffered the worse afflication that any writer could attract... I couldn't write. I didn't have writer's block. I don't believe in it. "Writer's block" is a pussy-ass passive-aggressive device that amateur scribes use to try to get sympathy from non-artistic types. My problem was that it just hurt too much to write because whenever I sat down to write, all I could talk about was Angela and how miserable I was without her and how happy we were when we were together. The one thing in life, writing, that gave me relentless pleasure, was also the source of intense pain.

I discovered painting around that time. I was going crazy and I needed some way to express myself. Senor and I saw these trippy apocalyptic landscapes in Iceland that were formed by volcanic activity. I still had those vivid images in my head after my trip and ended up painting a series inspired by what we saw. The ground was black. The sky was purple and the mountains were green.

I began painting without one art lesson and locked myself in my studio for several days at a time working on different projects. I made sculptures out of all these used lighters that I collected. I made paintings with used Metrocards. Whatever materials I could find, I incorporated into my art. There was a six or seventh month period where I was in a depressed state of mind and rarely left my studio. I never watched TV. I sat in the dark and listened to old jazz records and other depressing music like certain Johnny Cash ballads, Elliot Smith, and Radiohead. I read Dostoevsky constantly and visited museums where I would study paintings for hours at a time.

I also met a neurotic California blonde named Betty around the same time and we started dating after she successfully stalked me for several months. I slowly started coming out of my shell. By the end of the summer, I felt somewhat normal and healthy again. I spent more time with Betty hanging out in hipster coffee houses and trenoid bars in her posh Brooklyn neighborhood. Football season started and I was gambling on the pro games and ran pools and fantasy leagues with Derek and my friends.

Just when things started to go back to normal, 9.11 kicked me in the side of the head. I woke up early that day on a brisk and cool morning for early September with high blue skies. I was in the middle of writing something when I got an IM from one of my friends in Japan. He wanted to know if I was OK because a bomb exploded (that's what the Japanese press originally said happened) in the World Trade Center.

You know the rest of that story.

Betty freaked out and went back to California about a week after 9.11 on my birthday of all days. Alone again and lost, I was forced to attend several funerals and memorial services by myself. Several guys I worked on Wall Street were missing along with seven of my prep school classmates. By the fourth or fifth funeral, you get numb to it all. If you didn't live in NYC, you got to see some footage on TV of people weeping at vigils. But what you didn't get to see was the aftermath that infected New Yorkers weeks and months later when families realized that there were no bodies being pulled out of Ground Zero, just body parts and fragments. And the front page of the paper would be a picture of another brave and courageous cop or firefighter who had a funeral that day.

I watched mothers faint during their sons' funerals. I also burst into tears when a four year old girl ran up during one service and clutched her father's empty coffin. To me, that image was as much 9.11 as the planes crashing into the towers. All those solemn eyes and desperate souls crammed into a church consumed with rage and hate, and somewhere trying to make sense of why some of us live and others of us died. For a while, those would be the last tears I'd shed.

For a couple of months after 9.11, I wandered around with senses of hopelessness and helplessness. Senor felt even worse. He wasn't even in America during the attacks. He was on vacation, sitting in a bar in Vietnam brushing off the advances of several teenaged hookers when he looked up and saw the carnage on CNN.

I was already near rock bottom and 9.11 left me wondering, "What the hell am I doing here?"

And that's when the phone rang. Sometimes you get lucky in life when you need it the most. Mack, my former mentor and Wall Street jungle guide called to offer me a job. He started up his own firm and wanted people he could trust on his team. He said that despite walking off the job several years earlier, he still had a lot of respect for me and I was his favorite trainee and assistant that he ever had.

I was broke and directionless, so a second job on Wall Street seemed the right thing to do. Afterall, if we didn't get the economy back on track, then the terrorists win right? I finally had a feeling of accomplishment, like I was pitching in to do my share to help heal my city and my country. I became another spoke in the wheel of capitalism.

I was still had long hair at the time and I made a deal with my mentor that I'd cut my hair he waived the drug test. He agreed and I dusted off the Brooks Brothers suits and headed back downtown.

If you worked in Lower Manhattan after 9.11, then you know about the smell. That's what you didn't get from TV and internet images. The foul smell of death was omnipresent. Derek worked on Water Street a few blocks away from Ground Zero and would often call me up and say, "They must have digged up something really bad today."

These days, when I'm having a really bad day and start feeling sorry for myself, I remind myself of that smell and I'm jolted back into reality. If there's one thing I could wish for, it would be that no one, especially your children and your children's children, should never again have to experience the stench of destruction and seared flesh.

Some New Yorkers avoided walking by Ground Zero and chose different ways to get to work. I had to see it because it helped inspire me to work hard everyday. It was difficult enough walking into the trenches and seeing the first desk in the row blocked off as a memorial to one of Mack's friends (and a former co-worker of ours) who jumped to his death on 9.11. Every few days, new flowers would be set up and during certain holidays, his memorial was decorated accordingly. On St. Patrick's Day, I opened up a bottle of Guinness and left it in front of his picture. It was there for two days until one of the cleaning ladies threw it out because it began to smell.

As the days flowed into weeks and weeks flowed into months, I discovered that I was more depressed than ever before. The last place I wanted to be was stuck in an office on Wall Street. I got into a huge fight with Mack and ended up getting fired. I found a job later that afternoon when an old prep school alumni pulled a few strings for me at JP Morgan. We had been doing volunteer work together teaching inner city kids how to play chess. We'd go into the ghetto on the weekends for a few hours and play chess with kids. He was a few years older than me and worked at JP Morgan. One of his golf buddies was looking for a few new brokers and he hired me after a five minute interview.

JP Morgan was like working for the NY Yankees of Wall Street brokerage houses. I hoped that working for one of the big boys would lift my spirits. But it didn't last. I fell back into a deep funk. But at least I was a stock broker instead of trading bonds. And the irony of it all was that I was pitching pharmaceutical stocks to suburban dentists and widows.

I started a blog called the Tao of Pauly in May of 2002. My old college roommate was a journalist in Tampa and had a blog called The Daily Dave. He suggested that I start one too because it would be an excellent scratch pad for me while I worked. A month later I began Truckin' which would be a forum for my friends to share and post their travel stories. Senor had just quit his job and moved to Southeast Asia and had a ton of stories to tell. Plus I wanted to take some time and write my travel stories and since every magazine I ever submitted my work to rejected me, I wanted to publish my own work. Although starting to write again helped get me through my bitter days, I still hadn't found my voice and was miserable at work. Then things took a turn for the worse.

On the eve of my 30th birthday I had sunk to the lowest point of my life. It was a rainy day and water seeped through the sidewalk grates and sprayed the entire subway platform. The train was late and I stood in a wet suit after not having slept well in days. The end of the month was nearing and I was nowhere close to filling my quota. With the Enron scandal, consumer confidence was at an all time low and the Europeans pulled all their money out of the American financial markets. We were all struggling and I was caught in a heavy spin. I hated my life. Every ounce of it. I had such an amazing time in my 20s that life in my 30s seemed futile.

What was the point of living if I had nothing to look forward to?

I was working on Wall Street, yet still broke and deep in debt. Most of my friends were out of touch, dead, or joined the rank and file of suburban drudgery. I committed artistic suicide months earlier when I took a desk job and gave up writing. Plus I had just discovered that my lover was pregnant. How could we have been so stupid? I was almost 30, gaining weight, losing my hair, totally broke, and on the edge of hurling myself into the abyss. I wanted to jump in but was too afraid.

I reached a moment of desperation and prayed to God. I asked him to send a deranged homeless man to rescue me by pushing me to my death in front of the next subway. I wanted to die and was too chicken shit to kill myself, so I had to ask God to do it for me. I was a gutless prick and I deserved to be mangled beneath an uptown No. 1 train.

I don't think God was listening to me that day because the train arrived in the station and I got on and went home. Or maybe he was listening and decided that my life was worth sparing. That's for you to debate.

If there is a God, he saved me by not answering my plea for help. If there is no God, then I reached the tipping point where I thought that death was a better alternate to life. That's how serial killers turn to the dark side. That's how suicide bombers think before they strap on the bomb vest. That's what goes through people's minds before they jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.

If I honestly thought death was a better option than life, then I needed to make changes in my life to make it more meaningful. The next day during my birthday dinner, Derek saved my life when he threw me a life preserver. He asked me if I saw the last episode of Project Greenlight, the screenwriter contest where you get your script made into a film by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. He joked that I was a better writer than any of those hacks and that I should enter. In fact for my birthday present, he offered to pay for the entry fee. I went home and looked on their website. I had ten days until the deadline and no idea for a script.

I cranked out something called Charlie's Goldfish about a guy from New York who worked in Hollywood and came home after his father's death and found out that the bar his father owned was going to be sold and made into a Starbucks. Since I only slept two or three hours a night anyway, it took me less than 10 days to write (while I worked at JP Morgan) and it was the first major writing project that I had ever finished. It got a couple of good reviews in the screening process but it ended up getting rejected. I had confidence with writing for the first time in years and felt as though I had something to live for again.

A month later, I started NaNoWriMo which is an online literary project for wanna-be writers when you write a 50,000 word novel inside of a month. It took me nine days to write Jack Tripper Stole My Dog. And to this day, close friends of mine say that's the best thing I have ever written.

Here's the tagline:
Jack Tripper Stole My Dog is an odd family story, of sorts, about a man and the women in his life: his wife, his daughter, and his lover. His life is filled with a long history of lying, cheating, gossiping, infidelity, hijinks, rape, incest, war, turmoil, some reflection and eventually unfolding into torture, murder, revenge and redemption. Add to the mix a half of dozen scorned lovers, psycho stalkers, several literate and pugnacious lesbians, George Bush, interstate serial killers, the KGB, canine tossing, taxi driving hitmen, one horny Ecstasy popping Hollywood Director, a drug peddling Mossad Agent, Chicks with Dicks porn, Bill Gates, suicide, date rapists, the Russian mafia, bad hippie bands, a bizarre and sick love triangle, junkies and drunks, trick turning Catholic high school girls, broken hearts, Jesus Freaks, swinging Upper East Siders, Internet lies and disinformation, a transvestite hotdog vendor, John Lennon murder conspiracy, the impending Russian-Chinese War, drunken frat boys and spoiled sorority girls, a corrupt heroin smuggling Reverend, Julia Stiles movies, and of course the CIA. That makes for a comedic and existentialist journey called Jack Tripper Stole My Dog.
I was writing again and in 2003 I decided to get back together with Betty. The sun was shining in my world for the first time in two years. Sure my job sucked but I started writing on the weekends and during my free time and started gambling with the stock market. We were on the verge of invading Iraq and I took advantage of my position as a broker and ended up taking a nice profit off the table during that short period when the stock market boomed. War is good for Wall Street. Coupled with an excellent run of gambling on the March Madness tournament, I was ecstatic. It felt good to gamble and write again.

Just when I thought I turned the corner, I had to deal with another tragic event in my life. It happened three years ago this month and only my friends and a handful of bloggers know what went down. I won't discuss the morbid details here, but I lost someone who was very close to me. And it hurt so much that all the drugs, liquor, and religion in the world couldn't make the pain go away.

I went on mega tilt. I got fired from JP Morgan and I started drinking in bars in the mornings. I was 190 pounds of walking misery and I did everything to numb my feelings. I spiraled and spun out of control. I had writing to help cushion some of the pain, but the rest of the time was unbearable.

I'm 100% sure I would have never made it if I didn't discover a way out of that depression. After drinking too much at the Cedar Tavern on morning, I boarded a bus to Foxwoods Casino. A couple hours later, I had sobered up and found myself sitting down at a $2-$4 Limit Texas Hold'em table. For the rest of that day, I felt somewhat normal. I was relaxed. Calm. And focused on playing my hands spending more time thinking about what cards the old guy in the Red Sox t-shirt held in his hand than thinking about how sad I was or the fact I was unemployed and never told anyone except Derek. For a few hours, the weight of the world and my depression had been lifted off my shoulders.

I went home after that trip and ended up writing Sweet Nothing (a.k.a. The Baby & Winky Novel) in less than ten days. It was a fucked up story about two fucked up characters that my friends loved reading about in short stories. I decided they deserved a full novel and some of my friends think that's some of my best writing. It features one of the best passages I have ever written:
There were a couple of seconds after she stabbed me and before the blood started squirting out where Baby and I calmly stared at each other. Our glances lovingly locked onto one another and we had a tranquil moment. Our symbiotic original connection only lasted for a second maybe two, but it was one of those eternal seconds that seem to last forever and you never want to end. It's those eclectic moments you come across while thinking about life's odd idiosyncrasies, while stuck in a sullen slouch at the end of a bar, drinking away the roughness of the day's grind. Or perhaps that treasured moment comes to mind while staring out the window of an airplane, your eyes bouncing back and forth between the clouds and the endless horizon and your shared memories burn a hole in your pants pocket, like a firecracker with a slow fuse that you lit years ago and simply forgot it was there until one day, POP! It goes off. And as our still bodies breathed together and our moment ended, all serenity vanished and I saw panic, fear, desperation, anger, and redemption jump on top of each other in a scrum and hide behind the pupils in her sky blue eyes. Simultaneously, heavy drops of tears rained from her swollen eyes as intense globs of menacing red blood bubbled out of the two inch cut on my bicep, forming an oval pool on our Salvation Army bought $18 couch.
The Baby and Winky book could not have been written at any other time of my life. And I'm glad I did it. After writing two novels and a screenplay in less than a year, I felt like a had a purpose again.

Aside from writing or getting wasted, I discovered something that I enjoyed doing immensely... poker. The more poker that I played, the less time I had to worry about my life and allow those negative feelings to haunt me. I switched vices. Poker took priority over drugs and alcohol. I played in clubs in the city and headed to Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun (when they still had a poker room), or to Atlantic City.

I began to write more frequently especially about poker. My friends got pissed that the Tao of Pauly was cluttered with too much poker content and they begged me to start a new site... the Tao of Poker. That was in August of 2003. And since then you pretty much know my story.

... to be continued

Editor's Note: If you have not read the first four installments, then visit...
Born to Gamble Part 1: Where It All Begins
Born to Gamble Part 2: Southbound
Born to Gamble Part 3: Midnight Rambler
Born to Gamble Part 4: Ramblin' Man
The sixth installment will be published in a few days.

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