What They Call “Normcore” These Days

Luc and I are sitting out on the balcony at work again. The air is full with spring’s tranquil sensation. The day’s overcast but warm. It smells of future rain. Luc’s been telling me more about Leah, the organic hipster girl he met on OkCupid. I’m sure she wouldn’t describe herself that way either. She’s Jewish, never been married and 33, “Which is a little old for me,” Luc jokes, “But we had a great first date. We were supposed to go for a walk over to this garden a friend of hers runs. So I brought us a Frisbee. I figured it would be something fun to do. When I saw her locking up her bike outside the café we were supposed to meet at, I recognized her from her profile pic. So I said, Leah¸catch! And she did.”

But I’m not really paying attention to Luc’s story today. Instead, the intricacies of my own story are on my mind. He senses my distraction and pauses. Luc’s a pretty perceptive guy. I know it’s served him well over the years. It certainly has me. If my mind worked a little differently, Luc and I would have made great friends throughout most of our lives. I’m sure he thinks the same thing. Even though our styles are different by this point in time. Luc still wears the accoutrements of an urban rocker. Whereas I’m deciding I’ve become what my Brooklyn friends are calling “normcore” these days. But now there’s a term for my current fashion theory, I’m thinking it’s time to switch up once more. Besides, I’ve been dressing this way for over four years now. And that’s practically an eternity for me. I recently grew a beard again (something I haven’t had since the last time I was homeless) and stopped tucking in my tee shirts like I’ve been doing recently. I’m even wearing my hair a little longer once more. But that’s not enough.

Still, it’s taken a lot of work for me to make a friend like Luc, and I’m proud of that. Since he’s paused in relating this past weekend’s events, I ask, “Have you heard all this chatter on Facebook about normcore lately?”

He shakes his head, No, and he wonders, “What’s that?”

“Well, I’ve been reading about it, and it’s kinda crazy, but it’s exactly what’s been guiding my fashion choices since I got clean this last time. It’s more or less, like, trying to be completely basic in how you present yourself to others. So nobody can decide on their own what you might be like until after they meet you. The article I was reading said not to be fooled, though, these aren’t people who don’t know how to dress. This is a fashion choice. I was telling Cora about it yesterday, and she panicked. Gabriel, don’t ever let me become normcore, she pleaded. And I told her I’d try, but that, in reality, I was pretty convinced some hipster kid must have seen me walking around Brooklyn right before I left this last time and decided he wanted to adopt my style. She just rolled her eyes and told me not to flatter myself too much, I wasn’t normcore anyways.” Luc and I both laugh at this.

Then, he asks, “So what made you not want people to be able to know about you from your looks?”

“That’s the same thing Cora asked. And I’m sure I had a reason, but honestly, I can’t remember anymore.” Truthfully, though, I know.

But it hasn’t always been this easy.

When I first moved back to DC, I went out to see a coworker’s band with one of those guys ten years younger than me who I started this job with. The band was good. They reminded me a little bit of that old California skate punk sound from the eighties, something like The Descendents, but even more like The Descendents’ nineties incarnation as All. The lead singer for our coworker’s band was an Iraq War vet, wounded in 2004, at the age of 19, somewhere outside Fallujah. He’d spent nine months in Walter Reed Hospital on the edge of DC, recovering from shrapnel shattered his leg, but by the time I saw them, he’d transferred all those raw emotions into a powerful stage presence. Our coworker told us it was a shame we couldn’t understand his singer’s lyrics – they were really good.

The next band to come onstage was a roots revival band – talented kids with an authentic country twang. Talking to them afterwards, I found they’d just come from Nashville. But when Tomas, my newfound friend from the Copywriter Development Program, asked what I thought afterwards, I said, “They were good, but I heard a ton of that stuff when I was living out in Charlottesville.”

Tomas was commuting from Northern Virginia at the time. He’d just graduated college the year before and wasn’t sure whether or not city life was for him yet. So when he’d started our job, he’d settled for something in between his suburban upbringing outside Philadelphia and DC’s urban lifestyle – the bustling inner suburb of Arlington, which has an aesthetic more like his collegiate experience at that Big 10 school. I respected his decision. He had a couple drinks in him. So when he asked if I knew anywhere we could go out in the city after the show, I told him there was a place on U Street not too far from there I used to hang when I’d come in town in the late nineties. “It might not be there anymore, though. I mean, I haven’t been to this place in over ten years. But back in the day, I definitely dug the atmosphere.”

I took a weekend trip to DC while I was still living in Boston in 1999. My ex-AA sponsor came in town from Annapolis, Maryland to visit me and another friend of ours from collegiate Alcoholics Anonymous who’d relapsed along with me a couple months after I’d graduated. Pete, our mutual friend, had called me up right after I’d moved up to Boston. He said he’d heard through the grapevine I’d started drinking again, and he was wondering how it was going. I told him, “Cool, man. No problems so far.” Pete was teaching English somewhere in the District back then, and he was very unhappy about that. My last memory of Pete is at a bar in New York’s East Village, an empty baggy of cocaine stuck to the tip of his tongue while he’s screaming at me in this streetlight’s glare about how he told me just to take a bump and I snorted the whole fucking thing. Last I heard Pete suffered a vicious drunk driving accident somewhere in Australia. I don’t even know what he was doing down there. Before that, I’d heard he was trying to clean up from heroin once again. I hope he’s still breathing, still walking, but I don’t know. I never have discovered him on Facebook. Pete was the one first took me to that bar I was heading off to with my new colleague, Tomas, on that night after we watched our coworker’s band for the very first time.

It was summertime the night Tomas and I walked over to that bar, and I was wearing a white, V-neck tee shirt tucked into blue jeans, canvas sneakers and a paper boy’s flat cap. My belt was thick, black leather. “What’s that on your neck, Gabriel?” Tomas wondered as we swerved in and out of U Street’s multi-racial crowd, “A tattoo?”

My tee shirt’s neckline must have fallen in the back. In Charlottesville, during my second psychosis, I’d gotten that tattoo placed on me in such a way it should have only been visible above a wife-beater. So I shook my head, and I answered, “Yes. It is.”

“What is it?”

“The name ‘Michael.’ In Hebrew.”

“Really? Why’d you get ‘Michael’ tattooed on you. In Hebrew nonetheless?”

“Long story.”

“Do you have any other tattoos?”

“I do.”

“Where are they?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

The dense, dark bar was exactly as I remembered. A solitary light illuminated the two cramped bartenders handing out the patrons’ poison. No television. In the window up front, the DJ was even still playing the same 1950s rockabilly my dad had played for me during childhood drives from where I lived in Houston back then to where he was at in Dallas. A hectic crowd in jeans and tee shirts were swinging solitary around the dance floor. I don’t know what kind of beer Tomas had to drink, but he grabbed me a ginger ale. That was awfully thoughtful of him. But it was too loud inside to talk. So we headed back to the graffiti encrusted patio where I lit a smoke.

In shorts and flip flops, Tomas cut a different pattern from the rest of the patrons, and he was aware of it. He asked for a cigarette, but it didn’t fit between his fingers. Holding it at a skewed angle, his lips curled too much when taking a drag, and his inhale was forced. “Guess this place must have changed,” he said. “What is it with all these fucking hipsters?”

I looked around. “Actually, it’s exactly the same. Maybe a little more crowded, but that’s about it.”

“So you’re comfortable in a bar like this?”

“Sure. It reminds me of my old neighborhood in New York.”

“I don’t get it.” Tomas said. He mocked, “Look at me… I’m so fucking cool. I’m so fucking different. I’m so fucking special. Let’s ‘occupy’ something… Shut the fuck up.”

I shrugged, “I don’t know. I mean, when we all showed up in Williamsburg…”

“Wait a second. Did you just say ‘we’?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Are you saying you’re a hipster?”

“I wouldn’t really describe myself that way, but I was in Williamsburg in the early 2000s…”

“Wow… never thought I’d be hanging out with a hipster. Oh well, cheers!” His beer can clinked my ginger ale, and as Tomas wiped the suds from his lips, he asked, “So tell me, hipster, do you shower?”

I smiled.

Tomas and I continued talking as the evening wore down and the sky above our patio turned into a humid summer’s late night darkness. Two women in their early thirties sat down on the bench beside us. One was blonde, the other brunette, but there was nothing particularly striking about either of them. I don’t remember what prompted Tomas’ interruption of their conversation. It was probably alcohol.

“So how do you two know each other?” the blonde one leaned forward and asked us.

“We work together,” I quickly pointed out.

“Oh,” she went on, “That’s why you look so normal. While you… Why are you wearing that hat anyways? Are you going bald?”

“No,” I said. “It’s just a hat.”

The blonde girl laughed while her friend said, “Figures. DC hipster. Should have known… You probably live on H Street, don’t you?”

I was surprised, but I shook my head, “No. Columbia Heights.”

The two women made fun of my outfit for a little while. They laughed about what they assumed my lifestyle to be. I discovered one of them worked in construction. I told her I used to do the same, but she didn’t believe me. Eventually, they decided they wanted to head back inside and dance now that Prince was on. They were bored making fun of me.

One of Cora’s and my first dates was to a midnight showing of Prince’s Purple Rain. They’re screening it a lot this year at E Street Cinema since 2014 is the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. I’d never actually seen the movie before, but it’s a classic from Cora’s household. Prince is her mother’s favorite artist. My mother’s favorite artists are The Beatles. That’s a definite generation gap between us. I’ve certainly seen A Hard Day’s Night. My dad made sure I saw it when I was still in middle school.

I remember staying up late one night in secondgrade to watch a special on Prince. I didn’t know who he was at the time. Instead, I thought the television was telling me a story about Michael Jackson, my favorite artist of the era. I was a child. Once I figured out my mistake, I raved about Prince to all my classmates as if I were the one in the know about something they had never heard about.

When I finally saw Purple Rain, I loved the control Prince exerted over it. I loved how he took a semi-autobiographical story and turned it into semi-religious art. That was the second midnight movie of Cora’s and my relationship. Our first was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Cora had never seen it before. I didn’t think it was actually all that important to me. Even though, I remembered watching it a lot in high school. For a few months during junior year, every day after school, I went with the rest of the punk rockers over to a friend of ours place to watch it. I wanted to be Frank N. Furter.

After seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show again this year, I realized it was one of the most influential pieces of cinematographic art I’ve ever experienced. Its lyrics consistently ring through my mind. I remember one night in New York… Its rose-tinted vision colored so much of my world. I refuse to agree with the commentary the actors from this production made at the beginning. Where they listed it as the second worst film ever made. Plan 9 from Outer Space being the absolute worst. Even though that’s an outdated ranking. The contemporary consensus seems to be the worst movie ever made is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

That was the last midnight movie Cora and I went to see. Cora loved it so much she ordered a copy on DVD. That’s when I realized she was the girl for me. Now, I won’t deny The Room is horribly executed. But at the same time, it’s a masterpiece of personal vision. Tremendously flawed, but stupendous in its expression of one individual’s conceptual suffering. Tommy Wiseau is a true auteur acting outside the movie industry’s usual constraints of plotline, character building and story arc. Now, that may not sound like a positive experience to you, but to me, it’s the only way an art form can grow. Maybe The Room is something like what this project you’re reading right now will turn out to be. I don’t know. I’d prefer to create Purple Rain.

As soon as those girls were gone, Tomas said, “Man, those girls sure didn’t like you.” I shrugged and stood up. He asked me, “Where are you going?”

“To dance with those girls,” I said.

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I’ve Been Living Like This Too Long

Right now, I work as a copywriter in the marketing department of a financial newsletter. Luc’s one of our designers. I don’t know how this happened. That’s what I want to figure out.

I left Brooklyn the last time in April 2012 to move back in with my mom and stepdad in Richmond, Virginia. I was 35 years old, out of money and unemployed. Yet again, I had absolutely no idea what was happening in my life. I’d just completed my second master’s degree, this time in philosophy, and I’d been applying to law schools while simultaneously trying to get a copywriting gig. I figured I’d take the first thing popped up, but I don’t think I really wanted to do either. I didn’t have any ideas anymore.

I’d never really finished studying for the LSAT. It was a half-hearted attempt, brought about by an argument I’d had with Fox News over the Constitution while sitting in my mom’s living room during Christmas the year before. Back in New York, my therapist kept asking me what the hell I was doing. Once upon a time, a PhD had sounded like a good idea. Because people always tell me I’d make a good professor, but a lot had happened since 2008. Four years later, all I really wanted to do was finally finish the novel I already told you I’d been working on for seven years. I needed to do something practical for a change. I was in serious debt from all that education.

Truth is I was tired. By the time I left Brooklyn that last time, I wasn’t hipstered out any longer. I was truly beat. Friends had been offering to let me crash on their couches for as long as I needed until something finally opened up, but all I could think was, Man, I’m 35 years old. I’ve been living like this too damn long. So I decided to head back south and see what I could scrounge up.

My last night in Brooklyn, I went on a solitary walk through Williamsburg, that neighborhood that defined so much of my adult life. I put an Anthrax playlist on my then-ancient iPod, and I walked up Lorimer to Bedford Ave, all the way over to Greenpoint, by my old place at the corner of Manhattan and Nassau (where I’d truly lost my mind for the very first time) and back down to the Broadway G train stop. As I walked, thrash metal deafening me like I’d always hoped it would, I started praying. Something I never do. Thinking about my time in New Mexico, I spoke to the ancestors, to my family that had already passed on. My father, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, even dogs rose to the forefront of my consciousness. Then, I was conversing with ancestors I’d never even met, people I’d only heard about, some of whom I’d maybe seen faded photographs of… a Native American grandmother in Texas, a German Jew traversing the ocean from Germany, a Swedish family who gave their daughter up to the Lutheran orphanage. I saw them all so clearly, and I asked all of them, every last one, to watch over my journey as this next phase began.

But I managed to get into law school. The only thing was the school I got into in Chicago didn’t give me enough funding. I was excited about the prospect of finally moving to one of the American cities my family had branched out from. But once I did the calculations one afternoon in my mother’s kitchen, it looked like by the time I started working again, at the age of 38, I’d be nearly $300,000 in the hole. There was no way I was going to be able to practice human rights law with a load like that hanging over my head. I’d be doing corporate law, working 80 hour weeks and trying to make partner at some firm, which I was probably already too old to do anyway. No. If I was going to be in the corporate world, why not hustle a little bit more and try to do something might leave my nights and weekends free enough to do what I really want, which is this.

I’d given up hope, accepted that law school offer I couldn’t afford, when I heard back about the job I have now. They offered me a position in their Copywriter Development Program with three other aspiring writers. Only thing was, I’d be the oldest entrant by more than ten years, and I’d be living in Washington, DC because I certainly wasn’t about to make my home in Northern Virginia. DC was one city I always said I’d never return to. There were ghosts haunting me there I didn’t even know I had. It was the city I’d gotten clean in for the third time back in 2005. But I didn’t mind. I needed a job.

That day I got the job offer, I put the Anthrax playlist back on my iPod (in honor of the ancestors), and I headed out for a walk beneath the trees, around the suburban streets and down to the lake in that same neighborhood my mom’s lived in since my junior year of high school. I felt like a cat on, at least, its eighth life. For the first time in nearly three years, there was a slight strut to my gait again, and I thanked the universe for the experiences I’ve received. When I got to that lake where the neighborhood kids go fishing for fish I don’t think are there, I bowed to the watery depths alone. I envisioned the madness of H.P. Lovecraft’s demonic Cthulu rising off its surface. In my mind’s solitary eye, I saw the ancient one in all its formless glory, an essence defying the laws of our world’s Euclidean geometry. And I told the devil, “We’ve battled a long time, my friend. You’re a worthy opponent, but let’s call a truce.”

Gabriel,” only I heard the devil whisper to me, “If that’s even your name. You are free to go. For now, but I’ll meet you again. Either in this life or the next.

Out of respect for such a worthy adversary, I switched the thrash metal playlist over to Slayer, and I wound my way back up to my mom’s house on the hill.

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What Makes Any One Thing Better than Anything Else?

By the time I got to work, this smoldering idea had burst into a full-fledged flame. The whole train ride in – rumbling beneath DC’s monuments, staring through the window at the Pentagon, out past National Airport – it scorched my mind, licked my soul and kindled deep inside my guts. I couldn’t settle into my chair, much less focus on the computer screen’s emptiness before me. There was a marketing message I was to write, but the blank page would have to wait. I emailed Luc on the 4th floor to ask him if it was too late yet to step out and grab some breakfast. He said he’d meet me in the lobby.

I was reclining in a plush chair beneath the high ceiling, reading today’s tech news off my phone. Silicon Valley had a “youth” problem. People were too focused on apps and IPOs. The story took me back to my dot-com days in Boston in 1999, and I remembered my longing. Luc came down the spiral staircase. His shoes tapped across the floor. I knew he hated that. “Took you long enough,” I said.

“You just got here,” he laughed. “I heard you get off the elevator.”

“That wasn’t me.”

Luc and I used to live in the same neighborhood here in DC. Now, he owns a home in Anacostia, out by the ballpark, in the city’s Southeast quadrant. He purchased it right after finalizing the sale of an old house in Alexandria he and his ex-wife shared over four years ago. They have a son together who Luc gets on Monday and Friday nights. When his son was born, Luc had been the same age my dad was when my parents had me – 30. Luc remembers when he could hold Seamus in the palm of his hand and rest him on his leg while he worked all night at his desk. Luc’s theory was Southeast is the best investment he can afford in the District today. I remember getting lost in Southeast DC back in high school. Back then, I never would have imagined anybody would ever choose to live there. But then again, back then, I was incredibly naïve. Luc and I used to sit on our company’s balcony, beneath the afternoon sun, smoking cigarettes together. He’d put on his shades, and I would squint my eyes. Nowadays, I chew nicotine gum while he puffs off his vaporizer. We both started at this company within a month of each other, nearly two years ago. Shortly after Luc’s first day, he gave me a ride home. We were on the same work team back then, and our company’s algorithms said we should be friends. Thus far, they’ve been right.

We were in his car – a mini Toyota SUV he’d bought from his ex-brother-in-law years before – cruising with the windows rolled down up Rock Creek Parkway when he first started telling me about his newest music project. Luc had started school at Berklee College of Music in Boston in ‘93, finished at UT Austin and spent his twenties in touring bands across the United States. We’re roughly the same age. He’d played guitar for everything from math rock to garage rock revival. Today, he says he quit that last band when he realized he was making music for other people’s kids while his own kid was back home in Washington, DC without his father. This newest project was Luc’s first foray back into music in over four years. It was a pop/rock project inspired by the emotions he was going through from his most recent break-up – a grad student in her mid-twenties he’d met while he was tending bar. But he had no intentions of ever taking it on tour. He wanted it to be solely an internet project.

I could understand that, but still, I said, “Sounds cool. I’m probably not the best person to ask about it right now, though. I really don’t know what makes any one thing better than anything else anymore.”

Luc’s an attractive man. He thinks he resembles Indiana Jones, and I can see it. I’ve always been told I look like Bob Dylan, but recently I’ve been getting John Lennon a lot. I don’t mind. Maybe it’s because I started wearing glasses four years ago. I like my glasses, though. They make me feel softer than I’ve ever felt in my life. That day in the car, as we were first getting to know each other, Luc responded in that measured way people have when they’re still sizing each other up, “Oh, I don’t know if anything’s really better than anything else either. I still remember this old guitar teacher of mine, when I asked him who the best guitarist in the world was, telling me the best guitarist in the world is probably just some guy sitting in his basement who nobody’s ever heard of.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true,” I said, thinking of my own basement apartment and the novel I’d been chiseling out for seven years then.

On the day this story started, though, Luc and I were walking together over to the Einstein’s Bagel shop around the corner from our building. He was telling me about this girl he’d just met on OkCupid. She sounded interesting – worked in organic farming, grew up on a commune outside San Francisco. I thought of the turn of the century and Annie back in Brooklyn. I asked, “It wasn’t some sort of Buddhist commune, was it?”

“Maybe. I don’t know yet. Why?”

“No reason. Just wondering.”

Luc and I grabbed our orange juices – his fresh squeezed, mine Minute Maid. As we waited in line for our sesame bagels with hummus on them, I said, “So I think I finally figured out what my next writing project’s gonna be.”

“Nice. What is it?”

“Well, it’s based on a conversation I had with Cora this morning. It’s a memoir. Only the main character’s gonna have my name, but I’ll publish it as Israfel Sivad, my penname. So it’ll be a novel. The working title is Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster.”

Luc nodded. He asked, “You couldn’t try publishing this one under your own name, though? Can’t you let the world know you’re Gabriel Abrams for once?”

I shook my head, No. “That would defeat the whole purpose,” I told him. “Besides, Israfel Sivad has such a singular mythology.”

“What’s that again?”

I explained, “Israfel is the name of the angel who holds the trumpet of the Revelation to his lips throughout all eternity. While Sivad, which is Davis spelled backwards, is the first track on Miles Davis’ album Live Evil, and Miles Davis played, what? The trumpet. So, you see where I’m going with all this, right?”

Either I couldn’t read Luc’s expression, or he wasn’t making one. I went on, “What I’m thinking now is I want to tell the story of my life, only backwards. I mean, like, starting from right now and going back as far as I can remember.”

Luc looked to warm a little to the idea. He asked, “Okay, but why does Israfel Sivad get to tell this story? Why can’t Gabriel Abrams tell the story of your life?”

“Because Israfel Sivad is the story of my life. Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster is just another piece of that whole fable… You know how I call Israfel’s writings Andrew’s Songs, right? And you know that’s because the root for Andrew is the Greek word for ‘human being.’ Well, Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster will be Andrew’s Songs, Volume 15. For more reasons than I can elaborate on right here.”

“All right. Fair enough,” Luc said. “Why the title, though? I don’t like it.”

“Like I said, it’s just a working title. Maybe I’ll change it. But think about it, for people like you and me, being a hipster was always at the periphery. Back in the day, though, none of us wanted to admit we were one. Why was that? See, what I’m thinking now is – why couldn’t we just be hipsters? Why couldn’t we accept that was what was happening? I think it has something to do with the alienation of our culture, the way we grew up, everything we were a part of – punk rock, heavy metal. So I want to write a memoir of my life, but I really want it to be a memoir of our culture, of the counterculture. What do you think?”

“That sounds kind of interesting. I still don’t like the title, and I think you should ditch the penname. But remember, if you want to write about culture, you need to write about relationships.”

To say I never admitted I was a hipster is a bit of an overstatement. Last night, I sat up on the arm of Cora’s couch while she reclined across my bare feet, and before we watched Game of Thrones, I read to her the same thing you’ve read so far. She said she liked it, but there needed to be more of her in it. We both laughed at her feigned conceit. She also reminded me of our first date, when we were crossing the street away from the National Mall and the Smithsonian.

That day, we’d gone to see an exhibit at the Hirshhorn on violence as art. It opened with photos of nuclear explosions and ended with a video of a guitar tied to a truck being dragged down country roads. The noise it made reminded me of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Cora had never heard the album. So I told her about when I’d listened to that whole double record of feedback in one sitting and eventually wound up taking off all my clothes and dancing figure-8s in the nude around my tiny bedroom.

Afterwards, we sat down on a bench. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and a group of five or six very European looking men walked past. We guessed they were German. I slowly draped my arm behind Cora’s back, and I surprised her with our first kiss. Once our lips parted from one another’s, she said, “I wasn’t expecting that.” I told her, “I wasn’t either.” But maybe I was. I’d been so nervous. I asked her if I could see her artwork from high school since neither of us were interested in watching the game. She said, “Sure.” But that meant we had to head back to her apartment.

It was my father’s birthday, and I wanted to get in touch with my grandmother sometime that evening as I had every day on that day since he had passed away on Halloween of 2004. But I still had plenty of time. I was planning on using the Super Bowl as a pretext for the call. I didn’t want to upset my grandmother by bringing up the greatest heartbreak of her life from out the blue, and my entire family are historically big sports fans. When I did call my grandmother later that night since she’s on California time, she said she was watching the game and drinking a Jack Daniel’s in honor of my dad. I told her I’d been out on a great date that afternoon. She wanted to hear more about it. I didn’t really know what to say. When Cora and I left the National Mall, I don’t think the game had even started yet.

For some reason, while we were crossing the street in our leather jackets, beneath the gray, January sky, Cora asked me if I was a hipster. I said, “Well, I lived in Williamsburg in the early 2000s. So in a way, I helped create that scene.”

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It Had Something to Do with Axl Rose

It’s the first day of spring, and I’m still trying to quit smoking… since the first day of last spring. I don’t know why I can’t give this up, but I know why I started. It had something to do with Axl Rose.

I’m sitting on my girlfriend’s couch, drinking a cup of coffee from out a French press. She’s played by Beyoncé in the movie version of my life. I’m certain of this because a coworker recently showed me a picture of the pop star on Instagram the other day. Muted morning light shines through multi-colored drapes. A shadow of the windowsill’s lone plant is cast on hardwood flooring. Cora’s younger than me by 12 years. But neither of us minds. We already discussed that. She just started letting me call her my girlfriend last Saturday.

It’s her French press with the red top brewed this coffee. She brought it to me in a wide-lipped, purple mug, hand-thrown somewhere in Baltimore. I used to own a purple car, but I haven’t owned a car in over four years. In fact, the last car I drove I didn’t even own. I’d already sold it to my stepdad a few years before upon my return from Santa Fe. Cora and I woke up early today to the sound of Cat Stevens coming off her iPhone. It was earlier than I would have liked it to be. And I realized maybe if I opened my own blinds in my basement apartment, let the sun stream across me on days I was alone, it may not always be so hard to get up. But we both have to go to work. That’s something I didn’t always do.

For some reason, there’s a Beastie Boys tune worming through my mind, something off of Check Your Head. I remember discovering that record in the midst of a store’s fully stocked shelves somewhere off the 5 freeway in San Clemente, California. The same store where I first discovered Rage Against The Machine. This song goes, “Now Ad-rock and MCA, let’s rock this joint in the old school way…” which I say quietly to myself.

Cora laughs. I love her light sound. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t know if it’s the words or my phrasing brought her humor on. The caffeine must have already hit our brains. When I said it, I wasn’t sure whether or not she would know the line. But even if she doesn’t, I’m certain she knows Ad-rock and MCA. A 12-year gap isn’t that big a cultural difference. Or so I’ve learned since my mid-thirties – despite technological advances.

“You know, the Beastie Boys weren’t great rappers,” I say, “By any stretch of the imagination. But they had amazing production…”

Cora agrees, nodding through the cloud above her cup. Her curls spill over bare shoulders. Her mouth is pursed, blowing the steam from her lips.

Recalling collegiate discussions on the merits of the Dust Brothers’ work with The Beastie Boys on Paul’s Boutique, I remember I didn’t like that album when it first came out. I’d loved License to Ill, but in fifth grade, the video for Hey Ladies was beyond my tastes. I’d just discovered heavy metal. By the time I got to high school, though, it was a whole different story. “And a great sense of aesthetics,” I go on.

I first discovered I wasn’t a hipster in the fall of 2001. I was 25 years old, the same age Cora is now, and the Twin Towers had just gone down a couple months before. The scent from their immolation still lingered in my nostrils, and the sight of their smoke still burned my retinas. There I was, two months after 9/11, a poet in my girlfriend’s painting studio, somewhere near the campus of Pratt University in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I had on a pair of dark blue jeans, flared out at the calves to cover the buckles on my motorcycle boots. My shaggy hair hung over my ears and in front of my eyes. I wore a black tee shirt emblazoned with an orange AK-47. The tee shirt said – Defend Brooklyn. It was one size too small for me. The only size the traveling, California street artists had left when I bought it from them on the main-drag of my own Brooklyn neighborhood. “It’s cool. Kinda heroin chic,” they’d said to me as I slipped it over my emaciated torso.

Annie, my then girlfriend, had on a ripped up, sleeveless tee shirt with glitter encrusted paint smears streaking her legs and dotting her Chuck Taylor’s falling apart at the seams. She’d just invited me over to see her artwork for the very first time.

We’d met at a bar. The buzz saw slice of late-70s punk rock blared from out the heavily-stickered juke box. I’d been shooting pool and just lost another game. I was sitting at a table in the corner, drinking my Bass Ale, when a tall girl with bleached blonde hair slammed a pitcher of beer down on the table, slid into place across from me and said, “I want to talk to you about politics and philosophy.”

“Okay,” I said. “Anything specific?”

“Marx and Nietzsche,” she answered.

Back then, Annie’s most recent paintings were composed of cellular shapes undulating across dark canvasses. She said the lights polka-dotting her cells were inspired by the cityscapes of her most recent cross-country flight back home to San Francisco. After spending her childhood in a Buddhist commune outside the city proper, she grew up in the Haight-Ashbury District. Her mom had made millions by marketing the dot-com boom. I was reminded of brain synapses. We were smoking pot from out her one-hitter and taking pulls off the gin in my flask as I rolled cigarettes tight with dark, French tobacco. She and I lived in a pair of conjoined neighborhoods, little-known at that time outside New York, just north of there called Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

“You know what the hipster kids back in Williamsburg don’t realize,” I said to Annie.

She shook her head, No. She smoked so much pot, she never really got stoned.

“Is the history of that word. You see, Norman Mailer, all the way back in the 1950s wrote an essay about it. He said hipsters were basically educated kids who moved into the city to drop out of society… by embracing drugs and poverty. It’s not a fashion statement, you see. It’s not a way to gentrify New York by turning all of Brooklyn into the suburbs… a place where all these college kids can feel safe and at home. Just like they never left their dorm rooms. It’s a philosophy, a rejection of all the middle-class values we grew up with. See, you and me, Annie, we’re hipsters in the sense Norman Mailer was talking about. Not the way people use that word today…”

As I tell this story to Cora right now over our cups of morning coffee, she laughs. “You do see the irony in that, don’t you?”

I nod and smile. Cora and I met in the darkness outside an AA meeting. Wearing all black – black dress, black motorcycle boots, black leather jacket – she had long, curly hair streaked blonde, high cheekbones and a rich complexion. But I was dating somebody else at the time. I never would have approached her. Instead, she approached me. Through the thin, cotton shirt I was wearing, she could apparently see the outline of ϕ tattooed on my left deltoid.

“Do you actually have phi tattooed on you?” was the first thing she ever said to me.

I was standing alone, chewing a piece of nicotine gum. I was in awe this beautiful woman who I’d admired from afar since the very first time I’d ever seen her had chosen to approach me. There’d already been many a night I was so embarrassed she might have noticed me staring at her throughout the meeting. Maybe she had noticed. Maybe I hadn’t needed to be embarrassed. “Yes,” I responded shyly. “I do have a tattoo of phi.”

“Is it for the golden ratio?” she went on.

“Yes. In fact, it is,” I said. “I’m surprised you got the reference. Most people don’t.”

“I majored in math in college,” she told me. I smiled awkwardly and nodded. We proceeded to go out for dinner with a small group of folks from the meeting. Cora sat down next to me, and I promptly ignored her for the rest of the night. Like I said, I was dating somebody else at the time. I was terrified of how attracted to Cora I actually was. Our connection has been palpably electric ever since.

Cora grew up outside Baltimore. She went to an artists’ high school there in the city that, once upon a time, rewrote my entire life’s trajectory. It was the same high school Tupac had attended when I’d been in elementary school. He’d majored in theater, though. Cora had studied visual arts. “It’s funny, though,” she’s going on right now, “When I was in high school, me and my friends, we all wanted to be hipsters. They were the Wham City kids we thought were so cool…” She’ll be starting law school at Georgetown this fall, but she’s been talking about wanting to do some new paintings again recently.

“I know. That’s the crazy thing. Back in the day, being a hipster meant you could never say you were a hipster. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because we all showed up in Brooklyn thinking we were so special. We read these books. We listened to that music. We liked this artist. We watched those movies. And then, suddenly, we were all in the same place surrounded by people who were just like us. And that meant we weren’t so special anymore. All while the rest of the city kept saying we were just a bunch of hipsters, like Williamsburg was some sort of new wave fashion show. So we rejected the title and tried to show everybody how different we each were. It probably has something to do with how my generation grew up. The music we listened to, the movies we watched, the courses we took in college…”

After leaving Cora’s, as I was walking to the Metro, that’s when this idea first hit me. But I didn’t start writing it until tonight, on a new pad of paper I bought to jot down notes for the meeting about this film I’m to help write. It didn’t come to me fully formed. It was just the title striking my brain like it was thrown straight from Zeus’ clenched fist – Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster.

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