Monday, October 21, 2013

Wanna Know How To Save A Whale?

Stories From The Road
October 21, 2013

How do you save a whale? Well, the answer's complicated.

I was in Richmond, Virginia October 17th as a Special Guest for the YALSA supported Teen '13. Getting there was a "lions, tigers and bears, oh my" kinda moment. Just do the substitution of car crashes, construction and D.C. gridlock. I arrived, late, but made it. Did my three minutes of who I am, what I do and why you all are cool for listening to my three minutes.

Here are some cool authors I met.

https://www.facebook.com/meg.medina.10
 
Later that night, I ate cold fried chicken with author Meg Medina (Latina Rockstar if you're sassy) at her cozy tree house of a home. Meg had offered me a spare bedroom for this Fat Angie At-Risk Summer book tour stop.

I like spare bedrooms.

Meg sat down at the breakfast bar and in all that is wonderful and direct about Meg said, "So tell me everything. How did you grow into this amazing person you are right now? You know, how did you choose this given where you started?"

Mid-chew I blurted out the immediate Amanda Cunningham story (see Meg's blog here), but it just felt off as an answer. I mean, yes, Amanda's death had a lot to do with me sitting down and cranking out Prizefighter en Mi Casa. But the who I am now. The person who came from a hard home and could've chose to quit but didn't. Instead I travel America and am coined as Wexican (whitest Mexican American), rockstar and hero by the kids I meet which has a lot to do with Fat Angie.


 And Fat Angie has a lot to do with Linda.

Linda humors me on Cinco de Mayo, 2006
I met Linda in July 2005. We both were on scholarship for the Highlights Chautaqua Writing Retreat. Prizefighter won the Delacorte Dell Yearling Award in November 2004, but I was super green to the roll with authors thing. After a fancy welcome dinner, I headed to my less than two star accommodations. Walking minus an umbrella in the pouring rain, I met Linda. Also minus an umbrella. 

Lacking a witty intro, I said, "So are you someone famous I should know?"

She said, "I don't think so. Are you?"

"I don't think so, but I think I just made an ass out of myself back there."

"How come?" she asked.

"Because I sat with a bunch of famous people who I just thought were people, but I think you're supposed to treat'em different."

She held out her hand, "I'm Linda."

"Eunice."

And so it was. Linda and Eunice. The two odd balls of the retreat.

Linda became more than my best friend. She became my family. We talked daily, and I shared everything with her. When I still resided in good 'ole Madison, WI and had to have surgery, she over nighted gormet frozen meals (minus GURD inducing red sauce) because I was alone.

She tolerated the rough years of my grieving Amanda. Let's be clear. I was a mess. She guided me to other artist in the Cincinnati, Ohio area when I moved there. She read my writing and was an excellent editor for all things that are e.E. annoying. She got me, and in time, I got the her. She was in it for the long haul. To be honest, I didn't really think I deserved long haul.

Linda worked professionally as a graphic designer and copy editor. Here are a few movie posters she did as favors for me.

film directed by Sara St. Martin-Lynne

film directed by e.E.

What her heart was invested in was writing for young people. I have never seen someone so determined to create for kids (See her blog). When Maggie's Monkeys sold to Candlewick Press, I bought her a pink monkey at an airport. She proudly used it in her school visits and book appearances.


When I had surgery in Cincinnati in 2008 and was under for six hours, she was the first person in my room. When I thought I couldn't stay on the planet, she mirrored back my better truth. That's a gift in this world. No doubt, sincerely.

quotepix.com
My birthday rolled around (December 1st if you're sassy). I was in a creative slump. I wanted to ditch Fat Angie because my agent red inked the life out of it. Not really, but I was being a brat about it.

I drop in at Linda's house, and she pulls out a large white shirt box from beneath her desk. I open the box, pull back the tissue paper and there it was. The hoodie of all hoddies. It was a navy blue beauty with a bulging bicep hornet staring back at me. It was the official logo from the Fat Angie draft.

"You know I love hoodies," I said. "That's just plain dirty."

She smiled and said, "Now finish the book. It's gonna change lives."

"I duhno. You know? Andrea doesn't get it."

"Finish it. It matters. And it is good or she wouldn't have bled all over it."

I flipped the hoodie over, and Linda had left nothing to chance. On the back was the number forty-seven. For Fat Angie fans, you'll know why having her sister's basketball jersey number on the hoodie was an icing on the cake kinda moment.

"If I ever sell it, I'm gonna dedicate it to you," I said. "You know that right?"

"I don't need that."

Hoodie seen with Fat Angie Book Tour At-Risk Summer

I finished a necessary revision of the book, and sent it to my then agent who is now managing editor and publisher at Egmont USA Andrea Cascardi. In late January 2011, Linda discovered she had Cancer.

First thought? I can't do this again. I can't lose another best friend.

Of course, I'd make it about what I was losing. What about Linda? Possibly not seeing her daughter graduate high school. Leave her partner of twenty-plus years who had faced a near death Cancer experience a few months prior. Never see another Christmas or New Years? Never and more never and more -- stop!

I had to stop. Stop what I had made about me and what she might lose.

What you need to know is that I'm not good at the death gig. For a long time, I wasn't good at the showing up gig either. But you see, Linda's different. She's a stand-up gal if I've ever known one. She had so much room for my absolute weirdness. She had kindness. 

Bottom line: I knew I couldn't skip out.

For once, I had to show up for Linda. I had to be there. And I didn't do it perfect, but I did it. I was there when it counted. I had the hard conversations. I wanted to understand not only what it meant to be dying but what it meant to live.

Linda was the strongest, bravest and most stubborn person I have ever met. She held into the last days even when hospice came. She was going to beat her Cancer. Her mind riddled with tumors. Her body frail and thin. She was still Linda. But less than eight months after the diagnosis, Linda died.

She died on October 21, 2011.
It was approximately 6:00 pm.
I was in her bedroom with her partner Howard and daughter Abbie when she exhaled.

I promised that I wouldn't leave her ... that I would stay to the very end. She didn't think I would, but I did. I did because Linda had taught me how to show up.

I did dedicate Fat Angie to Linda.
I have had the hoodie on the Fat Angie book tour.
I share her life, sarcastic humor and kindness with others daily.


Today is October 21, 2011. For the astrology peeps, it is Mercury Retrograde. For others, it is the day Facebook fried out for a few hours. For a good friend in Texas, it is her birthday. For me, it is the day I remember the life of Linda Sanders-Wells. A woman who believed that one book could change lives. And from the trenches of this book tour, I can tell you she was right.

So you wanna know how to save a whale. The answer's complicated. It really has nothing to do with this blog, and it kinda does. I trust you'll figure it out. Just know ...

There was a woman. Her name was Linda Sanders. 
She changed my life.

I love you, Linda. Shine on!

photo by C.G. Watson









Saturday, October 12, 2013

Survivor's Poem: Teen Student Jenni Truth

Stories From The Road
October 12, 2013

This blog isn't mine but Hers. Hers is a story in the slip stream of cast-away kids. The bullied. The shamed. The kids encouraged to vanish from the planet.

She has tried.
She has failed.
I am grateful for this failure.

Because now she is a survivor and survivors who choose to live have stories. Stories that can motivate, educate and ignite the right to be heard.

I met Her on a tour stop in California. She came to me after a workshop and asked for recommendations for books on surviving rape and abuse for a classmate who was reluctant to ask. She didn't ask for anything for herself. I made an effort to come back to the school with books that dealt with these tough issues along with copies of FAT ANGIE donated by Candlewick Press. She expressed her passion for writing poetry, and I encouraged her to connect with something when she was ready.

She reached out via Facebook with the below message and poem this weekend. She said I could share her name, but I'm opting for a nickname. We'll call her Jenni Truth. Ms. Truth is a brave young woman who has seen more darkness than any young person should. But she is here. Alive. Showing up.

She wants to be counted and empower others through her story. And I say rock the heck on!

Ms. Truth said, "mind you everything i write comes from my past and im trying to help girls who have hard times with rape and suicide, so my attempts stopped when i came to the school. now i wanna let everyone know they're not alone and that anything can change and i cant make my past go away but i know i can make my future better and thanks to u i wanna make a book of poems that can help people through what i went through and help them get stronger."

UNTITLED POEM
by Jenni Truth (nick name)

A price paid 
Closed are my sunken eyes 
Tears gracefully crawl down my face 
I take another straight shot of whiskey 
As my head starts to race 
The cigarette is still burning 
And the sweet smoke tickles my nose 
My body is going numb 
I can no longer feel my toes 
I can see my black mascara tears 
As they fall onto my breast 
There are scratches and dried blood 
Pretty purpled bruised decorate my chest 
My red lipstick smeared 
And my hair in knots 
I shove more pills in my mouth 
Chasing it with three more shots 
My body is beyond broken 
My mind completely lost 
A lesson with a price 
Myself an expressive cost 
He was to strong to heavy 
I couldn’t get him off of me 
With his hand over my mouth 
I kept screaming to stop 
His cold eyes just watched me 
As I fought hard and cried 
He crushed my soul over and over again 
As he thrusted deeper inside 
The world slowly went dark 
From the fight and pain 
I woke up bloody and dirty
From the sound of the rain 
Now the bottle is empty 
And the room spins 
I put a razor to my wrist 
And rip across my skin 
The blood paints the floor 
Everything is slowing down 
The darkness is back again 
And it’s now all around 
The cigarette still burns 
As the smoke does an exotic dance 
It moves so slow and graceful 
Putting me in a trance 
There’s an empty whiskey bottle
A cigarettes burning and a note 
The blood is coloring the white paper red 
Where “I’m sorry” is faintly wrote.

http://www.youmatter.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Suicide is not an option. If you're a young person reading this, YOU MATTER. This poem is about a time when Ms. Truth thought she didn't. She is a survivor and wants you to know someone has been there and come out the other side.

It may sound lame but if you are thinking about suicide, call the hotline above. Visit their website to get an online chat. Reach out to a friend, family member, school counselor or a trusted teacher. Suicide is the real deal, and it's forever.

No more body bags.

You are never counted out! Live.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why A.S. King Is My Long Lost Sister

Some things are a given in life. Who you are, where you're from and that you've embarrassed yourself at least once over a boy band. FYI, mine was New Kids On The Block.

Work That Tough, NKOTB!
Now when you're adopted, the details might be a little spotty. For example, I know that my mother's name is Virginia Trujillo. She lived in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1973 and my grandparents were definitely on the Catholic.

But that's where the narrative hits a crash and burn for the most. The rest is deduction.

For example, here's me in junior high.

Band Trip To Aquarena Springs
 Here's me now.


Suspicious Of Her Glasses
Not a whole lot has changed. I'm still the whitest Mexican American in America. The REACH kids in Red Bluff, CA adorned me with the nickname Wexican. Peace and love to them for one on the original scale!

I also have a lot of those annoying attributes from childhood. I beat on desks and pretend I'm the drummer from Kiss (life long aspiration). I wear backwards ball caps. My friend California Sara refers to me as the female Kevin Smith. I got respect for the Smith (holla Clerks and Red State), and I guess I dress like him sometimes minus the beard and height challenge.

The other thing is that I have a brother. See Kurt lived with my folks and me when I was in my senior year of high school. I had him imported, literally, from a group called Youth For Understanding. I thought I might land some 1980's teen comedy of a boyfriend. X-nay on that one. He comes off the plane from Belgium to Corpus Christi, Texas with his arms all wide and on the open and says, "Sister!"

Kurt First Week In U.S.
Can I tell you how not into him I was. I selfishly battled for cool points with my beyond cool new brother and my friends. The battle was futile. He spoke seven languages, sang and danced like the thin Elvis and was smart extreme. Consequently, he could date any girl I'd thought about dating since I was twelve, but I couldn't come out in 1991 small-town South Texas.

Kurt was my nemesis. Though when life hit the skids, and I ended up in a suicide watch think tank in May 1992, he was the only one who came to visit me. Not my adopted parents. Just Kurt. And even though I was a jerk supreme to him, he showed and was counted. Well sorta. I mean, I was 18 and hated the world then.

Kurt is the only family I've ever had aside from my friends, and I am grateful to have this Build Your Own Family. Sorta like Build a Bear without the awkward stuffing.

 
Seriously, this video exists.


Wait. So what does any of this have to do with multiple award-winning author (Michael Printz Honoree hollar!) A.S. King.

Yup, Cool Author Headshot Thingy
Well, I met with A.S. (Amy if you're sassy) in Pennsylvania to interview her for the FAT ANGIE book tour documentary At-Risk Summer. She opens the door and welcomes me to the chaos that is a new home, new central air and a laptop that has ants crawling on it. They're actually stickers but very much on the life like.

We immediately connect with some colorful language, her having a tripod because mine is on a UPS truck somewhere and the fact that she is, by far, one of the coolest gals I have ever met. Seriously, you gotta know this woman.

But I digress. So ... we do the interview (yes, video clip coming) and laugh and have game face and laugh again and make references to everything and nothing. As I like to say, not too shabby.

I decide after sharing the best burger I have EVER eaten in all of America and many countries in Europe (see photo of delicious below)

http://www.abcbrew.com/brewpubs/lititz/
that she is my long lost sister. Even though she has other siblings, I welcome her into my tribe. Remember I haven't formally told her this, so we'll all need to keep it on the down low. Don't want her to think I'm gonna go all Single White Female and dye my hair blonde (not comb it) and wear black long sleeve Tees all the time. Although I did go through a black wardrobe phase but that was way early 1990's.

But again, I digress. Without further ado, here are my ...

Top 10 Reasons A.S. King Is My Long Lost Sister

10. We both should've been cast members of TV series Freaks And Geeks.
9. We dig Blondie and The Knack, and it will keep us in a restaurant long after closing time.
8. We both have stellar ink on our forearms.
7. We both played some hard core hoop (nuthin' but rim, kid)!
6. Our dark sense of humor can be matched by few, as Pete the waiter at ABC Brewery can attest.
5. I can say, "Sh*! just got real in the Ford Focus," and she'll totally get it.
4. We write raw, edgy and truth filled YA lit.
3. We both get why Lynda Carter is the only Wonder Woman and the power of the Lasso of Truth.
2. We both started writing to tell a story without the intention of being published because we had to write.
1. We both get why life is hard, find humor in its darkness and embrace the possibility of empowering youth through art.

We reluctantly share the CPA Award (Coolest Person Alive) via Twitter, and I'm guessing real CPA's are super pissed. #lolcpaanger

Ultimately, with all the lessons on this tour, I'm elated that I met an author who is tenacious, tender, tough and troublemaker extraordinaire. She reminded me like Cecil Castellucci did that is is okay to be all the edges that is your weird and powerful self. Thanks for the memories, A.S. King. Here's to your book release of Reality Boy this October. And to the fact that this should've been the cast photo for Freaks And Geeks!

http://youtu.be/wdUCGiF-yaA









Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fair View High (Rock The Word)

Stories From The Road
September 18, 2013

Falcons Soar!

The world is different at Fair View High. The kids there are a community or working toward one. There, the so-called couldn't-cut-it/high school rejects congregate to elevate each others connection to education ... to life. The focus isn't on cliques or sports or social standing. At least not by any measure I witnessed during my time there. It's about a human experience. An honest experience. It's about being real. Not to mention they get to use language, well, let's say with fluidity from time to time.

And this is what you need to know right off the rip. My life is now changed from meeting these students.
Yes, my life. And that's a selfish statement, but I'm down with some selfish given that I also changed some lives at Fair View High School.

I had two periods of something like 65-75 kids in total. English classes. Kids who don't always like to write. Kids who don't choose to engage much. Kids who have been counted out.

I said to the students, "I've been counted out more than I've been counted in. I get it. I get how that happens. I'm traveling America meeting with kids like you because I don't think you should be counted out. You matter. You have something to say. And that's what we're gonna do today."

And we did!

Wait.

Moment of digression.

Not Actual Hoodie

There's a kid in an orange hoodie, we'll call him Mr. Mic because he volunteered to help run Sound for me. And trust me, I needed the help. I'm down to a $147 dollars in my bank account and a few hundred on my credit card. A film crew is a luxury I can't afford, but documenting the process is non-negotiable. These stories have to be seen as well as heard. Especially if I have any hopes of this becoming something bigger.

So back to Mr. Mic. The guy's terrific. Seriously. He's funny and engaged and makes me sound good (wink on the latter). He's also got a story like all the kids at Fair View do. The not so cozy story. Inked into his right forearm is cursive, tattooed lettering. He recounts during our "get to know you" moment how an English teacher at a traditional school reacted when she saw the ink. You know, the book and cover judge thing. But Mr. Mic is solid, you know. I'm sure he's made his mistakes. But he's trying.

Not Mr. Mic's Actual Arm
As for the class, we do an exercise/activity/word fun thingy on the dry erase board. It begins with a series of words. Words generated by the students. Any words. The idea is to excite them into creating writing as a community of storytellers. Words like these in black:


Screen Grab From Actual Clas

Then I take those words and "spit" them back with a narrative I spin on the spot.

 SELECT 1080P from Quality Icon For Best Quality


Without going to far into the logistics of what we do next, the educational components and so on, just know that by the end, we all rock the word!

credit to Shirley Maya

The other thing I need you to get about these teens at Fair View High School is their vocabulary roars at college level. Their curiosity for knowledge is raw and rich and deep. They've got heart when life has most likely tried to stomp, kick and punch it the hell outta them.

They are survivors learning how to live.

They are the reason there is FAT ANGIE. They are the reason for FEELS LIKE HOME and PRIZEFIGHTER EN MI CASA. They are the reason this tour continues.

By the end of the first class, I throw up a prompt on the dry erase. I then tell them, "Writing is freedom. You can do anything -- be anything -- say anything on the page. You are not restricted to someone's idea of what you are/should/must be. You are free."

Unlike traditional high school's, all of these kids take out paper and a pen or pencil.
All of these kids try.
So do I.

A guy in the back of the room, we'll call him Mr. Quiet, catches my eye. He shapes into his over sized baggy white tee in the shoulders and finishes with starched khaki pants. The sparkle of his diamond ear rings catch a glint off the florescent lights. He's a Mexican American I knew growing up. Seen too much and not heard he was special enough.

"Mr. Quiet," I say to him. "I think you have something to say today."

It takes him a beat to realize he's Mr. Quiet.

His eyes drop. His head shakes. I don't push it.

"It's all good, no worries."

I move toward another part of the classroom when I see a hand go up out of my peripheral. It's Mr. Quiet.

"Yes?" I say.

"I'll go. I'll read."

His voice is soft not scary. There's a heart inside that baggy white tee. It's bigger than I can describe and that's kinda my job. Guess you have to see him on video to know.

Mr. Mic and I make our way to the absolute back of the classroom. I set the camera in place and Mr. Mic kneels. Mr. Quiet works hard to read aloud. This is not his comfort zone, but he does it.

When he's done, I grin and ask if I can shake his hand. He takes a moment to test the temperature on my offer and realizes I'm serious. I respect Mr. Quiet more than you know. The guy took a risk. He talked hard and let his voice be heard. And his classmates applauded and it was a fantastic day to be alive!

Through out my time there, I engaged with a variety of races, gender (and gender identified), ages and backgrounds. They all have their own story that exceeds the time for this post. However, their personal stories and creative ones are distinct, necessary, moving and ever emerging.


The world is a hard place for these kids. All of them. The transgendered kids or pregnant teens or social inept or incarcerated -- the misfits and rejects as it has been written. But I would tell you that these are the kids we should never count out. To believe in them, gives us an outside the box perspective of what the face of change can be. While they've got a lot stacked against them, they've got so much going for them.

They are, after all, survivors learning to live.

Thanks for the creativity, laughter and truth, Fair View High School. Your teachers love what you are and want to see you be your own version of your very best. Because you ABSOLUTELY matter!

Stand up and be counted!


YouTube Link of e.E. : http://youtu.be/qZTv_VPQS4s
Should The Above Video Not Play


Monday, September 16, 2013

inside the flight (or why i killed myself)

Stories From The Road
September 16, 2013
** Click Here For Song/Poem Read By Author **

You wanna know what I am?
I'm the kid that flies through the air like Superman
Only I land
And it hurts

Quick! 

Spin back.

The shit in my head gets worse
Every day I went to school and didn't fit
And everyday my phone blew up with shit
All the things They told me to do
"Kill yourself -- die girl -- Yeah, that's you."

And my mom did what she could
She told the principal too
And when nothin' changed like things don't
She pulled me outta that school
And said, "We're through."

She took my phone and dumped that number 

Gave me a new one
(She had the best of intentions you gotta remember)
She didn't want those girls in my face anymore
And I get it
I do, Mom.
You're doing your best, but this shit is raw.
It gets loud in my head
And dark in my heart
And sometimes I cut myself just to feel a spark.
And the doctors in the hospital tell me I'm smart

And they check me out, and I seem good
And maybe I thought I was too
But I go back to my new school
And download Apps on my new phone 'cause I wanna fit and belong.

Just when I think it's all cool
The mean girls do what mean girls do.
And the problems elevate
And I don't know what to say
Because I know you been through a lot, Mom.
You changed me out of school and paid to get me hospitalized so I'd be fine
And you're right, life gets better
For everyone else but me and I'm sadder.
And I don't go to my teachers or my friends or the school counselor
Most of them are whack or just don't care

And the noise rips apart my grey parts
The Apps on my phone keep blowing up
And the last year has been so damn hard
I retreat in myself and decide to call it all off!

Just know as I climb this tower
I love you and you did your best, but I cower.
It's all so much and it didn't get better
Like they say in them ads to just wait and be patient
But that ain't effective and it makes me
c r a z y!

So here I am like Superman
Crying
and calm
I wish it didn't have to happen
And I'm sorry I disappointed you, and I know this is gonna hurt
Please forgive me
But I don't matter.

And soaring through the air
For a moment it's quiet, and I think I feel better ...
Wait!


I made a mistake




** Thinking of you, Rebecca Ann Sedwick

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sad Days, Long Nights & Graduation Day

Stories From The Road
September 11, 2013



Things go wrong. The best friends you've ever had die. One tragically at 23. Driving, windshield, snap. The other? Quick, Cancer, cremation.

People say what people say because silence is an uncomfortable filler. "They're in a better place ... God has His plan. They didn't suffer, I'm sure."

These comments garner a nod and a half-hearted smile followed by an impulse to

S C R E A M


I haven't yet.

September 11, 2001. Both friends were still alive. The latter I hadn't even met yet. The first, Amanda, was an undergraduate class leader, brilliant academic and aside from me, the whitest looking Mexican at Ohio University. On the day in history not soon to become background noise, I was on the phone with my then girlfriend (let's call her Ally Sheedy). Back then, a land line actually got used more than my Sprint Samsung flip phone with long black antennae.

My girlfriend couldn't find her lipstick or rouge or something of significant make-up necessity. I flipped on the T.V. and there it was.


"Turn on the T.V.," I said. "Some kind of weird is happening ..."

The first tower had been hit.

I got quiet.

She continued to look for her make-up while complaining about her remote control.

And then she saw what I saw and we saw that this was not some make-believe whatever. It wasn't an action film. This was real. Very, very, unspeakably happening.

I drew my legs up on the Big Lots $399 green couch in my apartment above Premiere Video. I turned up the volume to a deafening proportion and for a moment Ally Sheedy didn't exist on the other end of the line.

Billowing smoke.

Fire.

C H A O S

 

We sat together alone watching the America as we knew it end.

***

I spent most of the day channel surfing. All of the classes had been canceled at O.U. Police were cruising the empty streets. Airplanes, trains -- the transit of the US locked down. There was no way I was going to get to my girlfriend in Texas from Ohio anytime soon. To be honest, I had never been much for flying. After watching nearly eight hours of the Towers, the Pentagon and then the forced crash, getting in the air was the last thing I felt brave enough to do, and it wasn't an option.

I popped a Tombstone pizza in the oven. Cracked open a can of Pepsi and thumbed through a text book on experimental film. But I couldn't get the shattering windows -- the smell of ash and --

The apartment filled with smoke. I knocked over the Pepsi in route to the kitchen. I dropped the scorched pie on the floor. The charred remains scattered into divisible parts.

After declaring the expected obscenities for such mindlessness, I munched on a combo of candy corns and celery. This was a terrible idea.

***

It wasn't quite midnight when my girlfriend called back. She was worried about me. I asked her why and she said, "Because you don't deal well with bad things."

I told her I needed to use the bathroom.

We hung up.

I stared into the darkness of my ceiling and my throat constricted.

Don't panic, I thought.

I paced the wooden floors of the hallway.

Don't panic, I muttered.

I eased onto the couch. The television in full marathon report of the day's events.

Don't --

The phone rang. It was my brother. He lived in Belgium and was checking in.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"I wasn't in New York, Kurt."

"Are you okay?" he said again.

"I don't think I know what to do," I said. "There's just so much sadness."

"Yeah," he said.

I imagined him exhaling from a Lucky Strike though I thought he'd given up smoking in the last year.

"Turn off the T.V.," he said.

"Why would someone do this?" I asked.

"I duhno."

I turned off the television, brushed my teeth and crawled into bed. In that moment, I was afraid to go to sleep. Afraid to be awake. Mostly, I felt such an emptiness for everyone who was in that building that didn't make it out. And everyone who was waiting for them to make it out. I had no idea what to do with that.

***

The death threats started almost immediately. Muslim students on campus were the target. Though they had not participated in the actions on 9/11, they were being treated as such. Amanda and I spoke (best friend who died in May 2003). She was distressed by the tension, the threats and fear. She organized a vigil and coordinated with the university and other organizations to thread together acceptance and not isolation. During the event, she spoke with elegance, tenacity and grace. She was kindness times pi.

Later I told her how I wouldn't have thought to do a vigil. She said, "We do what we can when we can. You can, you know? Do."

I shrugged my shoulders or looked away or something that was dismissive. My focus was to rule the world of cinema and climb the Hollywood sign doing it. And while I felt a massive pang of sadness, I had to stay on track. No distractions.

"I know you care," she said.

"It was wrong, you know? I can't get passed the wrong."

Amanda got pulled into a series of other conversations, and I faded into the background of hushed chatter and teary eyed students. I climbed the stairs of Lindley Hall (my grad film program building), and sat in the Editing Bay.

Aside from a few mouse clicks, the place was quiet.

***

I moved to New York City the following year two weeks before the anniversary. Alley Sheedy and I broke up over the summer, so I worked 24/7 to make myself indispensable at Killer Films. On the anniversary of the 9/11, military in fatigues shouldering machine guns patrolled the subways and Penn Station where I boarded Amtrak for the first time. I was in route to Washington, DC. There had hardly been anyone on the subway. The train car was empty. For a moment, I wondered if this was one of those b&w Twilight Zone episodes where I'm the only one left in the world.

The conductor entered between cars, eyed my ticket and grinned.

"Good day?" he asked.

"I guess."

Then he was gone.


***

In 2003, Amanda was struck by a teenager who blazed through a stop sign. Her car swerved into another lane and she just ... flew.

I'd later meet future best friend #2 in 2005, and she died of breast Cancer in 2011.

And while the details of these events weigh heavy on the morbid, I'm no longer in that place of selfishness. I guess in the sad days and long nights after 9/11 and the loses in my life, I'm on the other side most days and grateful.










Gender Skewed & Drug Dealer Blues

Stories From The Road
September 9, 2013


Shuttle, bus, train.
  Bus, car,
pillow.

Now The Story ...

We met in line to board the Amtrak bus in Los Angeles. He was wiry, buzz cut and could have been mistaken for a seventeen-year-old sweetheart if there wasn't something more distinct in his smirk. We're gonna call him Miguel because that is the name he gave me later for a fake ID his friend lifted. Miguel is Caucasian, smokes Marlboro Red and totes a soft dusty black gym-size duffel.

"You look like somebody, man," he says, smoke unfurling from his lips. "I keep thinking it."

The Hispanic guy between us thinks Miguel is talking to him but he quickly corrects, "Nah, nah. Not you, man. This guy."

This guy is me by the way.

This is not new occurrence. It's just the usual in a series of unfortunate gender bending events such as women who re-enter the bathroom to tell me I'm in the wrong one. There is the long standing, "Sir, Mr., Dude, Man" gender identifiers that follow me all black and cloud like. Raining on my androgynous female parade. 

So, what Miguel has done is not surprising to me though it is to those close to me in my life.

"I don't know how people can't see you're a girl," says my friend Watson.

I follow with a grin or a smirk or something that should resemble a smile and say, "My Dear Watson, I look like a man."

"Um, that would be no bueno on the man look, Trujillo."

"Seriously, bro," and Miguel's voice snaps me out of my head and back to the Amtrak bus line. "You look like someone famous."

The famous intrigues me, so I bite.

"Yeah?" I say.

"Oh, yeah, man," Miguel says. "You look like Andy Milonakis."

Okay, so someone just cued the crickets because I've got nothing for this comparison.

"You don't know Milonakis? He cracks me and my homies UP!"

The word "homies" sounds all kinds of wrong coming from Miguel.

"Milonakis is the funniest guy ever," Miguel says.

So, I not only look like a man but look like the funniest man ever? Hmm.

"Seriously, bro," says Miguel, keeping his black duffel away from the underneath bus storage. "Look him up. You're him. His videos are funny as sh*t."

Meet My Famous Twin (According to Miguel):


Andy Milonakis

e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Amoeba Music
Andy with his glasses.

I'm texting Josh Flowers to share I've been mistaken for someone famous. He quickly replies with a comeback that assures me I look like no one of notoriety.

Miguel and I board the bus. There are two tables mid-way for computers to jack in. This is a luxury on a bus, and I sit across from a guy wearing a red shirt with white letters that reads:

I Serve One King


He's a nice enough guy, and doesn't seem too interested in anything I'm doing with the coordination of my book bag. Ear buds in, a business call and I'm ready to get back to life on the road.

"Andy ... !" I look to my left. Miguel. "Hey, bro."

Miguel has two twenty-something young women doting on him. They too have mistaken me for a guy. When one of them flirts with me, I flash to Boys Don't Cry and squirm awkwardly in my seat.

Dilemma #8,298.56: Reveal I'm a woman, and end the whole Tom on the Foolery right then and there and hope not to get bashed or ... play along and be done with all this at the next stop.

I option for Plan B.

Always option for Plan A.

After a few exchanges about music, I drift off to Miguel bragging about getting baked on a series of shrooms and pot at an amusement park somewhere near LA.

***

I ask the attendant in Bakersfield, CA if the train to my right is the correct one.

"Only one a day," he says.

I apologize.

"Wouldn't expect you to know that," his grin feels less warm the more I look at it.

I hop on and drag my carry-on up the narrow stairway to the top car.

Minus Miguel + Flirting Twenty-Something = #smile

The storage rack is full, so my luggage becomes my new imaginary body pillow in the seat beside me.

Trust that this is a stretch of the imagination.




As we pull away from the train station, the deafening sound of a child screetching bears down on my ear drums.

This child has something to say ... to every single person on Earth.

It just so happens I am in close proximity, and consequently could be deafened more quickly than some. A Hispanic older couple in front of me stretch their necks around, making eye contact with the mother. Let me tell you something.

This. Does not. Faze her.

She throws them a glance and continues to text on her phone while adjusting her bra.

I know better than to do what the couple had just done. Getting up and finding another car seems viable as I attempt a conversation with someone on my cell. I ease up out of my seat when I hear, "Milonakis!"

Miguel.

"You pull up those videos yet?"

"Uh, no," I reply. "My signal (yes, I was lying) is crap out here."

"You should seriously watch one, Andy. They're hilarious. You going this way?"

To exit seems futile.

"Nah," I say. "I dropped my pen. That's all."

Miguel grins and walks off, "Milonakis! Yeah ... !"

For a few hours, my friends and girlfriend endure the on again off again sounds of the three-year-old girl. Might I add that she seemed pretty bored with nothing to even play with. I'd cry and scream too.

***

We arrive at our next stop to do our final change over by bus. I watch a woman in weightlifter pants that 1995 would envy wrestle with a series of bags and luggage while trying to smoke a cigarette. Her life seems much harder than mine. She looks worn out. In so many ways.

I toss my carry-on beneath the bus and launch up the steps. The nauseating smell of perfume and cologne spikes a growing migraine. I have an aversion to such smells and make my t-shirt into a mock mask. An Asian couple stares at me which is on par for the course of making one's t-shirt into a mask.



No sooner do I think we are moments from lurching forward do I hear, "ANDY!"

Miguel.

He slaps my shoulder in that "we're buddies" way, and I half-halfheartedly grin.

"You watch one of those videos yet?" he asks.

"Not yet," I say through my t-shirt mask.

"Dude, you're being funny, man. The shirt."

I'm really not trying to be funny but apparently I'm channeling Miguel's comic idol.

"Dude, you should come sit back here," he says motioning to the back of the bus.

"I'm good, thanks."

The bus pulls away from the station. Chico, CA now seems to be in sight. A stop in Sacramento (known as The SAC), and we empty out a few seats. That's when Miguel comes up and gives me a "bro" slug in the arm.

"Milonakis," he says."Dude, you should come sit back here man. Seriously."

"I'm good, man," I say.

The Asian couple has moved to the handicap seating in front of me. They look over their shoulders as Miguel rattles on with no sense of curbing his volume.

"No worries, I'll come sit up here," he says.

Miguel returns with his duffel and plops in the seat beside me. There's no escaping it. We're gonna have to interact which would be fine had I not pretended to be all "dude" the entire trip.

What begins with a series of strained bromance conversation topics evolves quickly into Miguel sharing details that add up on the strange. How he had left Chico, CA the day before and was zipping back in less that twenty-four on the hours. He talks about expensive cars, getting blacked out and tormenting his friends who waste out by drawing penis and other unrefined images on their face. He recounts stories a little too seasoned for the average traveler.

Miguel is a drug dealer.
I am the new best friend, at least for the ride, of Miguel The Drug Dealer.
This does not make for an easy ride.

His cell phone begins to blow up with text messages and phone calls. All the while he grins that absolute mischievous grin. His eyes catch glints of the sunset as he tries to steady the flow of his rambling thoughts. Everything he shares is about humiliation, revenge or a cocktail of JD + Drugs. He raves about his destruction of people's things and says, "faggot and b*^ch" frequently. Miguel is playfully dangerous. 

He asks me direct questions: Who are you staying with? What's his name? All in the suggestion of maybe knowing him.

After revealing a wad of cash loaded in hundred dollar bills, I decide to man it up.

Man It Up is defined as: A moment by which e.E. dials up the masculine factor for self-preservation.

And then I wimp it down a notch and text the person I'm dating.

Call Now. Can't Explain. Call. Please

 

While waiting for the call, Miguel offers to share some of his "good times" that I suspect are in his bag. I pass with what has become a cross between Dumb and Dumber in the joke factor.

"Dude, pull up Andy on your phone," he says.

I oblige knowing I'm now only 45 miles from Chico, CA.

The video is not high brow and that's being generous.

"Turn it up, man," he says.

"I think maybe that's not such a good idea, yo," I say and yes, I said "yo."

He looks at me confused.

"Like those people," I say referring to the Asian couple. "They're gonna get pissed."

"Dude, they don't even speak English."

The more I know about Miguel the more I wanna open up a can of feminist whoop-a*s. The truth is, I feel held hostage in a narrative I created.

I'm Andy Milonkis' twin.
I am a 23 year-old guy who lives in Los Angeles.
I have a friend named Screwball with crazy eyes (thank you Orange Is The New Black).



These are the things he knows about me.

I am not a woman.
I am not bi-sexual.
I am not anyone real to him.

The Asian couple look over their shoulder. I interpret it as uncomfortable, and suspect they think I'm as narrow as Miguel.

I don't like that feeling.

My language has all but gone monosyllabic. Fearing for the most part that Miguel might catch on that I'm in fact, not a guy and will go all "gay bash" on me. Remember, I don't really know what is in that black duffel, and it's become clear that he is at the very least running drugs.

"I like you, Andy," he says.

And under any other circumstance I might have liked Miguel liking me. Even if he thought I was a guy. But given the wealth of potential bad in all that should be good, I keep up the act. Especially given it has now gotten dark, the bus driver is not what I would call "in sync" and the only thing I've got going for me is a flat chest, a background in acting and an ability to spin a narrative on demand.

My cell rings. It's the woman I'm dating. She assesses the situation in three questions over a period of 30 seconds. I text her between pauses to say:


Being on the phone with her slows down the energy of Miguel. It also doesn't make me feel like the epic loser that I had begun to feel like. You know, not confessing to the whole "I'm Just A Girl" and playing into the gender skew. I text my friend Watson who plans to pick me up. She's going to bring her husband Tom. This seems like some of the smartest thinking of the day.



When we arrive in Chico, CA, Miguel presses me for what part of town I'm staying in. I play it dumb which isn't difficult to believe since I've gone along with this whole charade.

I say, "My friend's such an ass, yo."

"How so, Andy?"

Yes, I am now Andy.

"He's sending his parents to pick me up. Sucks, man."

"Yeah."

Then like a tour guide Miguel points out places he's been fired from, places he's eaten "tasty melted grilled" something and the bars I'd really like.

"The girls there are smokin', yo. Me and my homies are always pickin' up skanks there."

Yes, he said homies again.
Yes, he said skanks in reference to easy women.
Yes, he is an ass.

We pull up to the stop in Chico outside a boxcar diner. Miguel stands with cigarette lingering from between his lips. He holds out his hand, "Andy."

I play along with this final action and do some form of semi-cool handshake.

"Miguel," I say.

He grins.

"You're funny, Andy. Shit, man. See ya," Miguel steps off the bus and vanishes behind a stream of cars and college kids. I saddle my backpack and small sound bag. I'm off the bus for a mere second when Tom and Watson almost magically appear. Tom herds me away from the bus and the baggage being off loaded.

"I gotta get my carry-on," I say.

Tom makes the whole move like the President being taken into isolation. Maybe I shouldn't have been as colorful about my threatening bus passenger. Once Watson and I are at the car, Tom slips a can of mace in my hand and returns for my baggage.

"You okay?" asks Watson.

"Yeah, I'm just ... it sucks being a guy," I say.

"You mean when you're not?"

"Yeah," I say.

As we pull away from the bus, I'm in high spill-it mode and recount details that don't even make their way into this blog. Like the woman who tried to pick me up on the first bus ride. Or the conversation the guy in the

I Serve One King


has with his father about the religious zealot he follows. Or about the grandmother who spent most of the bus ride to Sacramento shaming the hell out of her eleven year-old grand kid. And the habitual snorer, the shifty-eyed guy with homemade tattoos or even the woman who sat alone and she was clearly somewhere else with someone else who I think she needed quite desperately.

And of course, I relay the play-by-play action of Miguel + Me. Two guys in route to Chico, CA from Los Angeles, CA only one of us wasn't a guy.

I recall the story to Watson's kids.
I recall the story to my girlfriend via FaceTime.
I recall the story to my friend Margaret.

And that night in the safety of Watson's son's borrowed bedroom, I recall the details just to myself. Reviewing the events, I remember Miguel's eyes. How something was missing there. I sat on the edge of the bed, knowing this wiry, buzz cut young man had the distinct potential to kill someone for fun on a smashed and blazed high. To be honest, he might stone sober.

Why had I pretended to be someone that I wasn't?
Preservation?
Was it worth it?