Tobacco Was My Key to Eternal Life

Beyond my memories of The Verb, I walked through McCarren Park. One afternoon, a girl there had bitten a chunk of her apple’s core off for me to drop into my tobacco pouch in order to keep it fresh. I thought that piece of fruit had come from the Tree of Life. Thus, that tobacco was my key to eternal life.

At the corner of Manhattan Avenue and Nassau Avenue, right on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, I stood outside that old apartment building where, once upon a time inside, I’d broken Charlie’s own cellphone across his forehead my last day in Brooklyn. He’d moved out about a month after I did. While I was still convalescing in Richmond, my mom had told me that, unable to make the rent, he’d gone back to his parents’ place in New Jersey. I’ve never spoken to him since he tricked me into the ambulance that night at The Verb. It’s not out of resentment. It’s out of respect. With tattooed madness glaring from underneath my wife-beater, I narrowed my eyes. I lit a cigarette and stared up at our old window. I said, “You never thought I’d make it back here, did you? Well, here I am. I made it. Nobody thought it was possible, but I did it.”

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Back on the Brooklyn Side of the River

Once back on the Brooklyn side of the river, I walked with purpose up to Bedford Avenue, the heart of Williamsburg, my old stomping grounds. Strolling down those blocks, six years later, I could tell the neighborhood had changed. The clientele appeared to have more money. The fashion was more refined, but some things had stayed exactly the same. There was The Verb café. I remembered my last day in Brooklyn back in 2002…

When I’d thrown my phone away in a trash can at the edge of McCarren Park for some reason I don’t quite remember why… Then, at my old apartment, I’d broken Charlie’s, my roommate’s, phone across his forehead when he wouldn’t let me take it to replace my own. He’d wrestled me down to the ground, put me in a headlock before he told me to get the fuck outta there

So I walked over to an old friend of ours’ place. I knocked on her door because I believed she was Mary Magdalene. When Samantha answered, spectacularly dressed as always in a flowing black dress, she nearly sobbed, “Gabriel, what’s going on? I just got off the phone with Charlie…”

“I know who I am,” I told her, and I smiled.

“Oh my God,” she said, “What are you talking about?”

I’m Lucifer,” I said.

“Gabriel,” she slowly began, “I need you to think carefully. Is there anybody you can trust right now?”

“My mom,” I eventually responded, “I’ve always trusted my mom.”

Samantha handed me a pen and a blank piece of paper. “Write your mom’s phone number down for me,” she said. I did, but when she went away to make that phone call, I left her darkened doorway alone.

Later that same evening, as the sun was setting across New York’s battered skyline, Samantha found me again strolling up and down Bedford Avenue – right in front of where a bubble tea shop now stood when I returned to Williamsburg in 2008. By then, I didn’t know what had gone so wrong. I’d been trying to refashion this world into an image of heavenly perfection, but the angels refused to join my game. I was starting to doubt everything. “I need you to call your mom,” Samantha said to me.

She walked me over to the payphone outside the Bedford Ave L train station. I don’t know if they still have payphones there or not. I’ve never needed them again. Samantha dialed the number for me, and when my mom answered, she said to me, “Tell your mom exactly what you told me at my apartment. Tell your mom who you said you are…”

I put the phone to my ear. “Mom,” I said, “I’m Lucifer…”

There was a pause at the other end. Then, my mom asked, “Gabriel, is Samantha still with you?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Can I talk to her?”

I handed the phone back to Samantha. When she hung up, she said, “Gabriel, I need you to come with me,” and she touched my shoulder.

Everything was so wrong. I’d been misled. I wasn’t an angel. I wasn’t Lucifer. I was only Gabriel Abrams – a simple human being. This woman who had touched me, this being who called herself “Samantha,” the same witch’s name from that old TV show I’d watched all those years ago on Nick at Nite (preparing me somehow magically for this precise moment), was divine, and it was forbidden a fallen creature like me to have physical contact with that descendent of heaven. When she rested her hand on my shoulder, we’d broken the taboo, and that meant only one thing: I was to die.

As if an angelic spear launched from her palm straight into my heart, coldness seeped out of my stomach and through all my limbs. I began trembling. Samantha looked at me with a sort of compassion I’d never seen one being visit upon another, and in her gaze, I realized death was imminent. It wasn’t something abstract. It wasn’t something still to come in a far-off, distant time and place. The Great Nothingness edged into my consciousness. I awaited the sudden disappearance of everything – my senses, my memories, my feelings – and my reemergence into a divine “One” of undifferentiated experience.

Samantha walked me back to that café I’d just passed upon my return to New York, The Verb. She sat me down at a wooden table inside, and she stepped back out to make a phone call. I could see her through the window. I sat quietly awaiting the inevitable end of everything I’d ever known. Charlie came in and sat down at the table across from me. He was nervous. I thought he’d been sent to punish me for my sins, which were legion. Two policemen, speaking into chest-mounted walkie-talkies, stood staring from the doorway. An ambulance’s flashing lights illuminated the street.

“Gabriel, will you please go with the policemen?” Charlie asked.

I shook my head, No.

“Will you get in the ambulance, then?” he went on.

Again, I shook my head, No.

Charlie paused. He looked around. From behind the counter, the barista leaned forward. Poised to pounce, he was listening intently to how our conversation progressed. Charlie said, “Gabriel, I think I’m going to go to the hospital because I need some help. But I’m a little scared about that. Will you please come with me?”

I nodded, Yes. I never saw Brooklyn again until I returned that August of 2008.

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It’s Always Nice to Have a Paycheck

Things never happen quite like you expect them to. I was sitting patiently at my desk the other day when my supervisor stopped by and asked if I wanted to go grab some coffee with him and check in on things. Work’s been slow lately. I was relieved to have something to do. The company’s been trying to move me into a new department. Like I said, my sales copy hasn’t been pulling quite as well as some of the other writers’. But this transition hasn’t been the smoothest in terms of flow.

We stopped by Starbucks and sat down at a table in the park amid our office complex. “I might take tomorrow off,” I’d been telling my supervisor. “I have a bunch of things to take care of before Cora and I go out of town this weekend.”

“That’s cool. Where are you guys going again?” he asked.

This cabin in Southwest Virginia. Past Charlottesville, I’m not sure where. Should be pretty cool – remote, isolated. A chance just to get out and relax. Things have been pretty hectic here lately.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

This is the same man who told me two months ago I might be losing my job at the end of the summer. Not a week before this conversation, though, he’d amended that statement to say I was good for at least another month or so while the company’s higher ups decided if I was a good fit for this newest position. That was a relief even though I’d already started looking for a new job. It’s always nice to have a paycheck… especially when you aren’t sure any longer when your next one might come through.

He went on, “So I was just talking to Kat.” Kat was the manager of the team I’d been in the process of moving to.  “And she says she needs a writer with more design experience than you have.”

“Okay,” I said, “What’s that mean for me?”

“It means what we talked about,” my supervisor said. “You’re gone.”

I looked around at the sun reflecting off metal chairs, scintillating across concrete and blinding my pale eyes. I squinted. “Okay. When’s my last day, then?”

“Today,” he answered.

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When Will I Get Back to New York?

I left my dad’s old car, the one I’d driven from Southern California to New Mexico all the way back to the East Coast at my mom’s place in Richmond. My stepdad offered to give me a thousand bucks for it, which was fine with me since I’d gotten it for free, and I needed the money. Then, he offered to drive me from there all the way back up to New York City. But first, he said he’d take me to Virginia Beach so I could say I’d traversed the entire continent.

At the sandy beach’s edge, I took off my brand new motorcycle boots and my socks, rolled my jeans up and touched my right toe into the Atlantic Ocean. In the shore break, the water was so warm. I reflected back on the fact that my dad’s ashes had been scattered across the Pacific. That meant, in a sense, he was there, too. In a sense, he was a piece of this entire earth – in the oceans, the rivers, the lakes, the rain, the soil, the plants, the beasts, me and you. Before we left the Beach that day, I bought a “Virginia Is for Lovers” tee shirt at some tourist shop along the main drag. My intention was to arrive back in New York City after my six-year hiatus wearing that tee shirt completely ironically.

I don’t know if this is true or not anymore. The memory might have been morphed by time, but I remember sitting at a diner in Richmond back in 2002 – the same diner where I’d first recited that poem to James that drove him so crazy when he was going mad about the Occupy movement. I didn’t have enough money to pay for the fried eggs and toast I was eating. My last unemployment check had been spent outlining the still-fresh demon wings tattoo stretching across my back. When I was done, the waitress had me sweep up and roll some napkins to pay her back for the food I’d more or less stolen. But before I finished my meal, while I was sitting in that diner’s wooden booth, I begged the universe, “When will I get back to New York…” where I’d just left, driven down 95 South by my father and stepfather in a rented van from a psych ward in Brooklyn to a psych ward in Richmond. That voice that always comes to me in psychosis simply said – Six years, Gabriel, in six years, you’ll return to New York. That night, I wanted to cry. It seemed like such a long time. Now, like I said, I don’t know if that’s true or not anymore, but I’ve never been able to shake the notion that, all the way back then, that voice knew exactly how long I’d be away from New York City.

Tears of joy welled in my eyes as Downtown Manhattan’s skyline loomed across the horizon out my passenger side window in the distance. A triumphant sense of pride built in my chest as I contemplated all I had endured since I’d last been graced with that magnificent vision. That was when I made up my mind what the first thing I’d do once I set foot back in New York City would be.

After helping me carry some suitcases up, my stepdad left me alone in the overpriced student-housing apartment I was to share with two other grad students in New York’s Stuyvesant Town – one of the original middle income housing projects, built for native New Yorkers returning from World War II but priced out of the market during the intervening years. Today, that massive complex, a town inside a city at the edge of the East Village, has been turned into a high-priced world of luxury condos, but every once in a while, you might still meet an elderly widow, one of the original residents, living there for practically nothing.

I slipped out of that “Virginia Is for Lovers” tee shirt I’d bought at the beach. Irony didn’t fit my mood anymore. In black jeans tattered at their ankles and motorcycle boots, I pulled a wife-beater over my tattooed back. My hair was long and shaggy again just like it had been when I’d left New York the first time. That Hebrew name, “Michael”, stood out above the neckline exactly as it was supposed to. The black demon wings gracing my shoulder blades poked out from underneath. I still remembered the way. Walking over to Avenue A, I crossed all the way down to Houston Street, through the Lower East Side and made my way towards the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn.

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There Are Higher and Lower Planes of Existence from Here

Cora and I got into bed last night to watch a video about past lives on YouTube. Some kid was convinced he had a previously existent family on an island off the coast of Scotland. He even knew their names, but we turned off the video before we got a chance to discover if that previous family of this apparently reincarnated child had ever actually existed. It was after 11:00. I sat down on the hardwood floor to set the alarm on my phone so we could wake up in time for work today, and I hesitantly said to Cora, “I know this sounds strange, but do you think I might have been in hell in a previous life?”

“Why would you say that, Gabriel?” Cora asked from where she lay in bed, a concerned lilt in her question’s tone.

“I was just thinking about it. Remember when I told you how during my first ever psychotic break, I believed all the souls in hell had broken free, and it was my job to find them and bring them back to their prisons? Well, it just struck me – What if I’m not supposed to be looking for other souls? What if it was me who broke out of hell this whole time?”

“Gabriel, even if you were in hell, I don’t think you’d be able to get out. I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“I don’t know. I mean… in a lot of reincarnation theories there are higher and lower planes of existence from here. What if I was stuck in some lower plane for a really long time, and that’s why it seems like I’m brand new to this plane? That would explain why my visions of hell are so clear in psychosis…”

“Gabriel, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“I’m more than happy to talk to you about all this like it’s real. Because you know I wonder sometimes whether or not it is. But do you think it’s healthy for you if I help you think even deeper than you already do about these sorts of things?”

I didn’t say anything for a little while. Not because I was angry. I simply had to think about what Cora had just asked me.

Today, I was thinking about it all again as I walked up the block from the Metro to my apartment after work, and the craziest thought infiltrated my mind. For a minute there, I believed maybe I actually was Jesus in a previous life. Not metaphorically speaking, but rather that I was the risen Christ, that I had been beaten and crucified, and the memories still remained latent in my soul. Then, it seemed to me that as Jesus I might have been condemned to hell – either as an avatar of God sent to conquer the nether regions or else as a false prophet who’d sown schismatic seeds. Either way, for that brief second, I believed I had to get this life right. Because I was certain I didn’t want to have to go through any of that ever again.

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I Don’t Mind Being Homeless… I Just Don’t Want to Look Homeless

In August of 2008, I decided to drive back to the East Coast from Santa Fe where I had just completed what would become my first master’s. That was the one in Asian Classics. The seeds of this trip had been planted a year earlier, when I’d first flown out to California to pick up my dad’s old car from my step-mom and drive it to New Mexico in the first place. I wanted to complete the cross-country trip. I had virtually no money when I left the Southwest. By the time I puttered into Charlottesville, Virginia and took a stroll across their Downtown Mall that I’d been arrested on more than once, my bank account was even drier than my gas tank. Classes were starting for me in New York in less than two weeks.

At my mom’s in Richmond, she helped me add a new pair of black motorcycle boots to my wardrobe. My last pair had been lost at the end of my time in Charlottesville before my dad had passed away back in 2004. I’d been living in a dead-end room with no lock on either my door or the door outside. Back then, I was so paranoid, I booby trapped my own door with a can of pink paint, thinking if somebody tried opening it, they’d knock over the paint can, and that would wake me up. Apparently, one night while I was passed out, this girl who eventually got away with my Flannery O’Connor books tried getting into my room to tell me something. She panicked when the can crashed, but in all fairness to her, she taught me a Buddhist chant one day out in the mountains. That chant kept me still through many moments of madness.

The paint spilled, but I didn’t wake up, which was probably for the best. Back then, I slept with a knife under my pillow. As out of my mind as I was in those days, who knows what I would have done… The next morning, my two shirts, my one pair of jeans and the motorcycle boots I owned were all pink. I’d bought that pair of motorcycle boots in New York for my 25th birthday right after September 11, 2001. They were a feel-good gift from me to myself. They’d carried me through my last year in that city, brought me back to the streets of Richmond and dumped me out into the mountains of Charlottesville. Now that I was returning to New York, the city I’d always wanted so badly to be my home, I hoped to return the same as I’d originally left. That’s why those boots my mom bought me in Richmond during August of 2008 were symbolic.

Eventually, though, I lost those boots, too. I wore through their heels a year later stalking the streets of Richmond that same summer I was homeless. I wound up trading their holey soles in for a pair of cowboy boots at this second-hand clothing store. The owner of that shop let me pick through her newest clothes each and every day. Because like I told my brethren on the streets, “I don’t mind being homeless. I just don’t want to look homeless.”

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The Real Goal Was Enslavement

I made it ten days clean and sober on the streets of Richmond back in 2009. Then, the vampires took over the city again. I believed the whole metro area was a massive sex slave factory. The women I saw on the streets, their brains were infected by some zombifying concoction. They unwittingly waited only to be shipped off into the possession of the wealthy masters who’d come in town that very weekend to choose their respective prizes, who walked side by side with their future possessions at that precise moment, pretending to be interested in courtship, but it was all a twisted game. The real goal was enslavement.

Not knowing what I was supposed to do, I strolled down the street wanting to scream out against the horror I was witnessing. I beat my fists against my head. Only those of us who were homeless weren’t part of this sick charade. Some guy I didn’t know shuffled up to where I meandered along. He said, “Hey man, you wanna split this rock with me?” In his palm a plastic-wrapped crack flake lay revealed.

As the sunlight burned my sweaty neck, I knew it was the will of God for me to smoke that rock. Maybe, I needed the strength of crack cocaine to do what came next. Maybe, I needed to be fucked up to set this crazy world straight. I said, “Sure, man. I guess it’s about that time.” In two months, I would have had four years clean.

We wandered off the beaten path and settled down in a little clearing not too far from where an occasional car whirred up the toll road. There were dirty clothes, broken bottles and fiery remnants scattered around. It might have been his sleep spot. He broke that flake into a stem, sparked a cheap lighter and damn, man, did we smoke that rock.

“You good?” he asked me.

I came zooming out of the bushes back onto the sidewalk. My eyes popping out of my skull, my veins breaking through my neck, my teeth chewing through one another as if their enamel were cud, I found a street party going on down at the old 19th century slave block turned 21st century farmer’s market. Somehow, I scammed myself a wrist bracelet for the all-you-can-drink Budweiser.

The sky grew dark over Richmond’s bar district. The stars were revealed more so than in Manhattan. I swerved back up Main Street. The sidewalk newspaper dispensers were driving me insane. They sold nothing but lies. I turned to some city kids laughing and sharing cigarettes on the corner. “Watch this,” I told them.

From a running start, growling something unintelligible, I shoved every single one of those dispensers in front of me right into the street. A horn honked. Somebody wanted my attention. I walked into the middle of the traffic and started yelling at all the cars to “go the fuck around me.” Horns blared. People yelled. One driver eventually decided to call my bluff. We stared each other down as if in some sort of Hollywood showdown – my forehead to his bumper like the bull facing a matador. I hopped on top of his hood and ran the entire length of his car laughing and stomping as hard as I could.

“When I woke up the next morning in jail, the sheriff told me I sure as hell was a lot nicer when I wasn’t drunk.”

“I’d say so,” Luc laughs. We’re sitting out on a picnic table behind our office. They’ve banned smoking on the building’s balconies. Luc’s still vaping, but I’m back on cigarettes pretty much full time, except when I’m with Cora. She knows I smoke. It’s hard not to smell the sweetly scorched leaves staining my fingers and lips. But I don’t want to smoke around her. The only shot I’ve got at ever quitting for good is if I keep at least one part of my life completely tobacco-free.

It started about three weeks ago, when my manager told me the company might have to let me go at the end of the summer. My writing simply isn’t converting enough paying customers. They’re giving me one last chance¸ but it’s already July. I’ve had a hard time being at the office. Thoughts of the many trajectories my life could have taken consume me. I smoke to forget. It’s all I’ve got left.

“I can’t even believe you remember all that,” Luc adds. “You must have been pretty messed up.”

“I don’t really remember it. I have vague recollections of being surrounded by the police that night, but I was in a blackout by the time it all started. Those kids on the corner found me out on an island in the James River a couple weeks later and told these guys I was sharing a bottle of whiskey with that story. ‘Man, you’d never believe what we saw this crazy motherfucker do. He ain’t scared of nothing…’ they said.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get hurt,” Luc mentions.

“Not that night,” I say, “But I got the shit beaten out of me a bunch of times that summer. I didn’t mind though. I’d seen this lecture on Tantra during my first master’s degree, the one in Asian Classics. The professor who gave that lecture talked about these Tantric yogis who’d welcome being beaten. They believed they could steal somebody’s merit if they could make that person lash out at them. Then, whatever creative power the other person had harnessed throughout their lives would be released and transferred into the object of their aggression – the yogi himself. It turned the yogis into gods. That’s what I thought I was doing that summer, becoming a god. So I never fought back. Anytime anybody attacked me that summer, I just covered myself as best I could and took the beating. I remember thinking, though, back in Santa Fe, after I heard that lecture, that if the yogis were right, if getting mocked and beaten gave them more creative power, then what happened to Jesus when they crucified him? Maybe the suffering of his passion actually turned him into God.

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