Kissing the single life goodbye at Hershey tonight with Bruce

Tonight marks my 39th Bruce Springsteen show.

I actually bought tickets to numbers 39 and 40 during the most recent onsale, then the fiancé and I decided that we couldn’t miss that much school and gave the Hershey Park tickets to my parents.

Then a bit of a family emergency struck and we realized we weren’t going to make it to the Mohegan Sun show, and my parents, knowing what Bruce has meant to me, offered us the Hershey tickets back. The fiancé now couldn’t make it on a weeknight, so it’s me and my dad making the drive tonight.

Which I think serves as a great bookend to a certain era of my life.

My journey with Bruce shows began eleven years ago in Richmond on the Rising tour. My brother had suggested that we get my dad Bruce tickets for Father’s Day the year before, but we never managed to get our acts together on that. And his birthday was in February, so the following year, I found excessively over-priced secondary market tickets (I didn’t know any better yet!) for behind the stage in Richmond. My brother couldn’t go, my mother didn’t want to on a school night, and so dad and I went alone.

I was still in school. We left after my last class of the day, driving down in my father’s car, joking that as we arrived in his BMW convertible, I looked like his midlife crisis wife or girlfriend, not his daughter. We listened to a compilation of songs I had put together based on recent setlists and I remember my father joking that we were passing “the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop.” And I asked him what song he most wanted to hear that night. He named “For You,” which we knew was a long shot.

I was in one of many rough patches that year.  I had fallen out with my entire crew when my best friend of the last six years and I stopped talking. It was that relationship, not a boyfriend, that inspired Beyond the Palace a few years later. That’s the one relationship in my life that left a permanent scar. And even now, it aches to remember that loss. It was necessary to cut each other loose, but I was lost after that for a very long time.

But something in me clicked that night when the lights went down. For the first time, I felt something that fed that “hunger you can’t resist” that Bruce sings about. I know the people who haven’t felt that are shaking their heads at me, but the ones who have are nodding. And I know they’re out there because I’ve met them over the last eleven years. I’ve made some amazing friends because I discovered that there were other people who felt the same loneliness that I was engulfed in and who felt it lessened with each show. They are the rabid fans who can pick themselves out in the videos, who were there when I danced on stage in Charlottesville, who read Beyond the Palace and who wanted desperately for me to be Laura, not understanding that the reason they connected with the book wasn’t because I was Laura, but because I was Ben.

At first, it was me and my dad because it was our thing. My brother had annual ski trips with him, but the concerts were mine. My Uncle Mike joined us from time to time and started being my date to shows dad couldn’t make it to. He was the “real fan” in the family, with more than 200 shows under his belt, and I remember his friends quizzing me on lyrics and classic shows on the drive up to Shea Stadium in 2003 before deeming me worthy of the ticket my uncle shared with me. I treasure the memories of my shows with him as much as those with my dad. It created a bond between us that is unshakeable, and he is responsible for some of my favorite concert memories and a few key scenes in Beyond the Palace as well. And he claims that it’s in his will that I inherit his Bruce collection, because I’ll appreciate it more than my cousins could.

Uncle Mike in his “Born to Run” shirt, holding me as a baby

In 2008, I was in another of those impossibly rough patches. I was drowning at school, and it was just months after we lost my Uncle Jules, to whom Beyond the Palace is dedicated. He gave me a typewriter when I was eight years old and told me I should be a writer. And losing him hit the whole family with the destructive force of a hurricane. I did a double header of shows that August, going back to Richmond with some friends and then skipping the first day back at school for teachers to go to Hershey Park with my dad. And as was now our tradition, we picked the song we most wanted to hear. We had luck with “For You” at that first show, and even “Santa Ana” in 2005, which will be the song my dad and I will dance to at my wedding, as the “giants of science” line has always reminded me of him. But that night was my 20th show, dad’s 10th, and somehow we hadn’t seen “Jungleland” yet. And at the opening notes that night, I began to cry. It was one of the most cathartic moments of my life. It was the first time in a long time that I could believe things would again be okay. And my dad put his arm around me without saying a word; without needing to, because he understood.

As this most recent tour began, for the first time since March 6, 2003, I don’t feel that deep-seated need to be at as many shows as possible. Maybe I’ve grown up a bit. Maybe it’s because I finally have found that connection that Bruce has always said the characters in his songs are seeking.

Or maybe it’s just been too long since my last show and I’ll come home tonight and cry because my Mohegan Sun tickets are gone. I’ve warned the fiancé that that is a distinct possibility.

Thank you to my mother, for giving up your ticket to let me go with dad tonight. It’s my last show that I’ll attend with him while I still bear his last name. And while I’m sure there are more shows in our future, there’s something magical to me in getting to go to this show with him.

And Bruce, if you’re reading (hey, a girl can dream, right?), the song I want to hear most is “Sandy.” It’s what my parents will walk me down the aisle to next month as I begin this next chapter of my life.

Thank you everyone who has been a part of this ride, and I can’t wait to start the next stage, where I can introduce you to my new husband at shows!  And I’ll see you all further on up the road.

August 11, 2003–my third Bruce show

I know, I know, I’ve been slacking big time on the blog front!  (Not really, it’s been a conscious break because I’m hard at work on the next novel and trying to make a major dent in it before I go back to work in a week and a half…waaaaahhhhh!)

But it’s August 11.  And eight years ago today was a spectacular day, so it deserves to be discussed.

Bruce fans already know exactly what I’m talking about.  And the rest of you are now like, aw crap, it’s a Springsteen post.  But you’re already reading, so you might as well keep going.

Long story short, I was about to start my first year of teaching and had all of the new teacher orientation stuff on August 11.  But my uncle Mike (the BIG Springsteen fan in my family–although to be fair, he got a HUGE head start on me considering that I wasn’t even born yet when he started going to shows), had offered me two tickets to the final night in Philly on the Rising tour, and I was bringing my dad as my date for his father’s day present.

My uncle wearing a “Born to Run” shirt, holding me as a baby (with my grandma)

 I told everyone at the new teacher orientation that I had a “doctor’s appointment” that I couldn’t get out of (hey Uncle Mike is a doctor, it works… kinda…) and bailed early, went to my parents’ house, and my dad and I left for Philly.

It was only my third Bruce show ever at that point, and now that I’m thirty shows in, I can still say that it was one of the very best I’ve seen, if not THE best.  And it was just such a special night overall.  I was there with three of my favorite men (my dad, Uncle Mike, and Bruce), for an incredible show, but I think my favorite part of it was how happy my dad and uncle were to see how excited I was to experience that show.  I remember having no idea what he was playing when he opened with “From Small Things,” singing along with them to Incident and the look of sheer glee on my uncle’s face when Bruce went into Pretty Flamingo (which I had never even heard of at the time), and the excitement of the band trying to figure out how to play “I’m Goin’ Down” after so many years for the guys with “those fabulous homemade signs.”

Because it was such a special night, when I was writing my first novel, Beyond the Palace, I knew I had to put that show in there and it became a really pivotal chapter in the book.  Which was only fitting because it was the sense of magic and community that I felt at the August 11, 2003 show and the last show on the Rising tour at Shea stadium that really got me thinking about writing the book in the first place.

So here is the excerpt from Beyond the Palace that takes place eight years ago today.  If you were there, I hope this helps you recapture how great it was.  And if you weren’t, well, learn from that mistake and never, EVER miss a Philadelphia Bruce show.

(Just be aware that it’s a middle chapter, so if you haven’t read the whole book, you may not get some of the references.  And I cut the end off the chapter so as not to spoil anything!)

Enjoy!

Even now, after everything that’s happened, if you asked me to make a list of the best days ever in my whole life, I would put August 11, 2003 at the top.  It was one of those perfect days, in which nothing can go wrong.  Maybe it wasn’t as good at the time as it seems looking back on it now, but in the end, it’s the memory, not the reality that stays with you.  And my memory of that day is that it was exquisite. 
Of course, you don’t know that you’re going to have one of those days when you wake up.  I woke up pretty miserable.  It was a Monday morning, which is never good for anyone, and it was the night of the third show in Philadelphia.  But I woke up in my apartment, not in Philly.
Laura and I had gone to the Friday and Saturday night shows, but I reluctantly told her that I couldn’t afford to miss another day of work to stay over for Monday’s show.  I had an important staff meeting Monday afternoon and it just wasn’t going to work.  I told her to go without me, praying she would say that no, it wouldn’t be the same without me.  Eventually, she relented and, realizing that I was serious about not being able to go, she said we could watch the setlist at my apartment to try to recapture some of the excitement of the show we were missing.  It was a poor substitute, but it was better than sitting at home alone, drinking beer and watching TV.
So, despondent at the prospect of a new week at work and having to miss a show that was within driving distance, I trudged off to the office. 
And I’ve never spent a longer day there.  Every second that ticked by felt like an hour.  And even though I was busy, this little voice in the back of my head kept nagging me that maybe I really could have taken the day off and gone to the show.  I can’t explain it.  I had been to more than forty already in less than a year, but with each subsequent concert, I felt like I had to be at the next one or else I would be missing the experience of my lifetime.
But at 1:53, just as I had finished the PowerPoint presentation for that afternoon’s meeting, I heard the most beautiful sound drifting in from the outer office.  It was Laura laughing.  It couldn’t be, and I knew it wasn’t really her, but I went to my office door to look anyway.  And there she was. 
She was sitting on the low wall that separated the reception area from the offices, impossibly cool in denim capris and a black tank top, with the requisite summer day sunglasses perched on her head.  Not remotely appropriate office attire.  But Laura could blend in at a black tie affair in sweats.  It was always all about attitude with her.
Two of the senior partners from my office were standing near her, Bill leaning against the wall, Scott opposite her, and she was laughing at something one of them had said.  Coral, our nosier-than-nosy receptionist was still at her seat, but was peering around her computer in a way that said she had clearly given up on even trying to pretend that she wasn’t listening to every word that was being said.  Phil and Grace, two of my coworkers, had left their offices and were standing in the space between their two doorways observing the conversation as well.  You would have thought that we had never had a client here before.  But then again, Laura didn’t fit the mold of our usual clientele.  Nor had I ever seen anyone sit on that wall.  Or both Bill and Scott come out to talk to anyone who wasn’t wearing a suit.
“There he is!” Laura cried with delight when she saw me and she hopped off the wall, with a hand on Bill’s shoulder to steady her descent.  She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me lightly on the lips in greeting.  I was too surprised to move.  It was just a peck.  But it was on the lips.  I had no idea what was going on.  Then she turned back to Bill and Scott, who were smiling indulgently.  “You’re sure it’s alright?” she asked, looking a little worried.  I was floored.  Laura never asked permission for anything.  Ever.
Bill nodded but Scott spoke.  “Of course, sweetheart, go and enjoy.” 
I turned to Laura.  “Go where?”  She smiled and pulled two tickets out of her back pocket.
I was amazed.  We had sold our tickets on Saturday night when we decided we weren’t going to the Monday show.  And somehow she had gotten two more GAs.  And not only that, she had gotten my bosses to tell me to leave work early to go.
“How—?” I started, but she cut me off.
“Ticket drop.  Now come on, we’re going to have to speed to get there in time to get in line for the lottery!”  She had to be lying.  If she had gotten the tickets through a drop on Ticketmaster, she would have had to pick up the tickets at will-call at the venue.  That was how tickets worked on the day of the show.  There wasn’t any way to get tickets the same day except at the venue, which meant that she had clearly gotten them somewhere else.  But I didn’t ask her.  Accusing her of lying would have seemed fishy to my bosses.  And she wouldn’t have answered me anyway. 
I looked questioningly at Bill and Scott.  “I’ll do your presentation if the PowerPoint is done,” Bill said.  I told him it was, and he told us to leave so we could make it in time.
I emailed the presentation to Bill and got my keys and briefcase.  Laura took my hand as we started to leave, but Bill stopped us as we walked out.  “That’s some girl, you’ve got there.”  Laura beamed up at him and he smiled back.  “You kids have a good time tonight!”  And somehow, it didn’t even sound patronizing when he said that.  I normally would have been pissed to be called a kid at the office, where I tried as hard as I could to act like a professional.  But he sounded like he could have been her dad telling us to have fun on a date.
In the elevator, I asked how she had done it. 
“Easy,” she said, pulling her hair up into a ponytail.  “I just asked to speak to the partners and I told them that I was your girlfriend and it’s our six month anniversary today and I’d gotten tickets to tonight’s show as a present for you.  They actually seemed thrilled to get rid of you,” she said, with that wicked smile I loved.
I couldn’t help it; I pulled her to me and hugged her.  I half-expected her to squirm out of it.  But she didn’t.
Because I took the Metro to work most mornings, we didn’t have to deal with having two cars, and it was such a beautiful day that there was no question about whose car we would have taken anyway.  It was a convertible day if I had ever seen one.   But crossing the garage to her car, I realized we would have a timing problem anyway.
I checked my watch.  It was 2:14.  We really needed to be in the parking lot by 4:30 to have a shot to be in the pit, because of the lottery system, which had replaced the fan-run list the earlier shows on the tour, and it would take us two-and-a-half hours to get there from my office in DC.  Maybe, if we drove like demons right now we would have the smallest chance of making it in time.  But even that was unlikely.  And I was dressed for work.
“Shit,” I said finally.
“What’s wrong?”
“We’re not going to make it in time.”
“Sure we will.  As long as we hurry.”
“I’ve got to change; I can’t go like this and I don’t have clothes with me.”
Laura smiled.  “It’s a good thing I’m a genius,” she said, batting her eyelashes at me.  She pushed the button on her keys to open the trunk and she pulled out a small pink Adidas duffel bag, which she tossed at me.
“What’s this?” I asked, opening it.  In the bag were my shorts, which she had mentioned the week before that she had grabbed by accident when we stayed in Jersey after one of the Giants Stadium shows; my favorite Rolling Stones t-shirt, which she had stolen months ago to sleep in; and the old sneakers that I had forgotten in her trunk, when we changed to dry shoes after one of the rain shows.  For the second time in fifteen minutes, I didn’t know what to say.
“I washed the shorts,” she said.  “They smelled like smoke.”
“You?” I asked with a smile.  “You did laundry?”
“What’s wrong with that?” she asked.  “I’m quite domestic.”  Then she started laughing.  “Whatever, okay, fine, I’m not domestic at all.  But I do know how to do laundry!” 
I didn’t thank her.  It’s one of those tricks I had learned in the past nine months.   She could be ridiculously sweet and thoughtful.  That was, in fact, the real Laura.  But she hated being called on it.  And thanking her made her realize that she wasn’t keeping up the act.  She would pull back when I did that, which was, of course, a setback in whatever our odd relationship was.  And as odd as it sounds, I liked the duality of her.  It kept me on my toes.  It had taken me a long time to decide which parts of her were real and which weren’t, and I still screwed it up frequently.  But not that day.
I changed in the car while Laura drove, and a bootleg from the third Giants Stadium show saw us the whole way there.  We had made the same drive on Friday night, but this was better because it was so completely unexpected.  Better because it was such a beautiful day.  Better because we were playing hooky from work.  It felt like we were kids skipping school.  Laura, in fact, pointed out that that was exactly what we were doing when we got to the line about it in “Rosalita.”
When I think about Laura, I think about her that day.  It’s how I want to remember her.  Never the fighting that would come later, or the loss, or the pain.  Not even kissing her or waking up next to her.  But only as she was on that one perfect day.  She was so completely alive.  The sun hitting her shoulders and the gold in her hair, bleached there by her refusal to put the top of her car up when it wasn’t raining that summer.  And maybe a little un-discussed help from her hair stylist.  I want to remember her laughing and singing, loudly and badly with the music.  Throwing her fist into the air during “Badlands” and “Born to Run,” and insisting that I do the same, which prompted odd looks from the other drivers around us, which turned into knowing smiles from other drivers as we got closer to the venue.  Maybe she really was that beautiful that day.  Maybe I just thought she was because I loved her.  Maybe I just think she was now, looking back.  But it doesn’t matter, because it’s how I remember her. 
The clouds started threatening us once we crossed into Delaware.  They had been chasing us since Baltimore.  But around Wilmington, the first drops of rain started to fall.
“Should we pull over and put the top up?” I asked, finally, as Laura eventually turned on the windshield wipers.  A look of concentration crossed her face as she studied the horizon.
“No,” she said.  “If we keep moving at this speed, we won’t get wet,” which was true, as the wind resistance keeps rain from falling into the car until you stop.  “And I think we can get past the clouds first.”  I smiled.  She looked over and smiled back at me and the speedometer crept past 80 miles per hour.  And as always, she was right. 
We beat the clouds around the Pennsylvania state line.  Of course, they would catch up to us later, but there was a certain thrill even in just outrunning the rain.  Nothing could stop us.  And we not only beat the rain, but we made it in plenty of time for the pit line.  And our luck held with the ticket lottery because we wound up in the front, right near Little Steven and Patti.  Laura’s favorite side if we couldn’t be dead center.  We stuck with Jeff and Ellen as we walked in and wound up next to them in the pit.
We had all huddled for shelter in the parking lot when the rain started, but it had stopped by the time we were filing into the stadium.  No real tailgating on pit nights, because you could get out of the pit if you had to go to the bathroom, especially during “Mary’s Place,” when Bruce extended the song to twenty minutes and did the band introductions; but if you gave up a spot at the front, you were never getting it back.  We had entered, what Laura called, “Camel Mode” before we even got to Pennsylvania.  We would take bottles of water into the pit, because we would need them desperately by the end of the night, but no drinking until we started sweating.  Laura’s rules.  We even figured out a system for the water bottles, because at Giants Stadium, and a few other venues, they only let you bring water bottles in with you if you didn’t bring the top, and they took the tops off the bottles they sold there as well.  Laura kept extra caps in her purse, which we would put on our open bottles as soon as we were inside. 
But unlike Friday and Saturday nights, which were swelteringly hot, the rain had cooled the temperature down to a comfortable seventy-four degrees, according to the new Eagles stadium’s scoreboard, by the time the show started.  The sun was still out when Bruce followed the band to the stage.
Laura grabbed my hand and squeezed it as Bruce came out and said into my ear, “Here we go.”  I loved the excitement level.  We had done this a million times.  But every time was as exciting as the first.  For me as well.  I cheered and yelled “Bruuuuuuuce” with the rest of them like my life depended on it.  And I waited for the opening notes of whichever song Bruce would play to start the show.  While it was sometimes predictable, such as “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” when it was raining, waiting to recognize the first notes of that first song was intense and exhilarating.  And Laura and I played a game of seeing who recognized the song he opened with first.     
But that night, that recognition didn’t come.  I had never heard the song that Bruce opened with.  And based on the look of mixed confusion and elation on Laura’s face, she had never heard it before either.  She turned to me finally.  She wasn’t going to ask what it was, so I asked her.  But she didn’t know.
I turned to my right and saw that Jeff has his arms around Ellen and they were singing along.  How on earth was there a song that even Laura didn’t know?  I caught Jeff’s eye.  I wouldn’t have asked him what it was during the song, as that would be a breach of concert etiquette.  But he volunteered the answer anyway.  “’From Small Things,’” he shouted.  River outtakes.  Dave Edmunds covered it.”  I yelled back my thanks and turned to tell Laura what I had learned.
“Has he ever played it before?” she asked.  I relayed her question to Jeff, but Ellen answered.
“Just in clubs a couple of times.  Never on tour.”
A huge grin spread across Laura’s face.  “History in the making,” she said and turned her full attention back to Bruce.
He jumped from “Lonesome Day” into “Night,” a moderately rare song off Born to Run, which I loved.  It was about how you force yourself to survive your days in a job that you don’t like because your real life starts at night.  It reminded me of the life I had with Laura, even though it wasn’t one of her favorite songs. 
Next came another new one to us.  “Be True,” which he hadn’t played in the US on this tour yet.  If you’ve never been to a Bruce show, I’m not sure I can really explain what came over us at the beginning of that song.  We danced, we sang along, we threw ourselves into it like he was playing it just for us.  Yes, we knew he was playing it because he wanted to and he was playing it for Philadelphia, just like he played “Atlantic City” next because it mentions Philly.  But when you’re there at one of his shows, no matter how many other people are around you, be it a thousand or a hundred thousand, he’s playing for you.  And when you’re in the front of the pit, he’s less than ten feet from you, playing a song he almost never plays, just for you.  So when he tells you to show some faith because “there’s magic in the night,” you know what he means because it’s true.  You’re seeing that magic right then.
As if to prove my point, after some of the requisite songs from The Rising, Bruce heard people yelling for “Thunder Road” and he played it, even though he had already played it there Friday night.  And we screamed as he pulled out his harmonica and we sang the song right back to him, just like every audience has since 1975 when he started telling us to.
The band retreated off stage as the main set ended.  We weren’t worried; they were coming right back.  The norm was two encores, and for the last show in Philly, there was no doubt that those encores would be incredible.  I wrapped my arm around Laura’s waist during this and pulled her closer to me.  She was damp with sweat and I was too.  It may have been a cool night, but the pit is always hot.  “If you could hear anything in the world next, what would it be?” I asked into her ear.  She leaned into me and closed her eyes, deep in thought.  Then she twisted her neck up to say it into my ear.
“Incident.”
He had played it a handful of times, but never at a show we had been at.  But when Bruce and the band came back to the stage, Bruce asked for requests, which I had been pretty sure he would do after seeing him listen to the requests for “Thunder Road.”  I yelled “Incident” as loud as I could.  He heard someone else first, but didn’t catch what they had said and joked with them, asking for “something we know.”  Jeff had heard me and he and Ellen joined in requesting the same song, as did several other people who had heard me and agreed.
And Bruce nodded, then told Roy, the piano player, to start.  At the opening notes, Laura tore her eyes away from Bruce and turned to me.  She didn’t say thank you, but then again she never did.  And she didn’t have to.  It was in her eyes.  She turned back to the stage, but she took my arms and pulled them tighter around her waist.  I glanced to my right, at Jeff and Ellen, who had seen that.  Ellen smiled at me and I grinned broadly back. 
I could have held her like that forever.  The smell of her perfume coming off her hair, Bruce a few feet in front of us, one of the most beautiful love songs ever written being sung for us, at our request.  Remember in Field of Dreams, when the kid asks if he’s in heaven and Kevin Costner says, “No, it’s Iowa”?  It was like that.  We were at the Linc!  I hate the Eagles and I was standing on their field.  But heaven is where you find it.  And we had found it.
We broke apart to dance when Bruce played “I’m Goin’ Down” for the guys holding up request signs about twenty feet behind us.  We had seen the signs earlier in the night, and Jeff had warned us before the show started that he would be shocked if Bruce played that, even in Philadelphia, because he hadn’t played it since the Born in the USA tour.  And when he started it, Bruce confirmed Jeff’s position as more of an expert than Laura, by saying that the band hadn’t played the song since 1986.  Jeff laughed and shook his head.  The E Street band wasn’t on tour in 1986, and Jeff knew that.  We laughed when he said that he didn’t even know which guitar to play it on.  And we danced and sang along. And cheered Little Steven on, even though he clearly got a little lost in the middle.  And our faith was rewarded, because Steve kissed his guitar pick and tossed it to Laura when the song ended.  She blew him a kiss and he blew one back at her.
“Think he recognizes us yet?” Laura asked.  I told her he had to, as she pocketed the pick. 
It was the most incredible show we had been to on the tour. 
But instead of going straight into “Rosalita” after “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Bruce started something else.  We heard Ellen and Jeff screaming, and Ellen jumped up and down like Laura, a girl half her age, had at “Be True.”  Jeff saw us watching and smiled.  “He used to play this as an intro to ‘Rosie’ in the seventies,” he explained as he held Ellen and swayed with her.  “Hasn’t played it since the Darkness tour.”
Laura smiled and closed her eyes.  She leaned back into me and I put my arm around her waist again.  We had heard versions of Bruce covering Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” on bootlegs, but never live, as he hadn’t played it since the year after we were born.  Then again, my parents had gone to a couple of shows when my mother was pregnant with me.  Maybe I had heard it before after all.
As the last note hung on the air and the first note to “Rosalita” clung to it, opening the song, Laura turned and kissed me. 
In real time, I know that it must have been less than thirty seconds, because the kiss had ended by the time Bruce started singing.  But if I didn’t have the bootleg of the show to prove that it was that short of a time, I would believe it could have been forever. 
I had never decided that I loved someone before having kissed them before.  Well, okay, excluding my fourth grade teacher.  But you know what I mean.  To be honest, before it happened, I couldn’t really imagine how it could.  We had come so far past the point where I could have plausibly made a move that I figured that if it was ever going to happen, it would be because we were ridiculously drunk.  Although nothing had happened yet while ridiculously drunk.  And even if it did, we would have probably ignored it the next day.  Because she didn’t feel the way I did.  I’m not stupid.  Once you’re in the friend zone, it’s up to the girl to make a move if she wants something to happen.  Very few guys have girl friends who they wouldn’t sleep with if the occasion arose.  So if a girl, who really is a friend, wants more from a relationship, she’s the one to take it there.  And if she doesn’t want to, she keeps you at arms length for the sake of the friendship.  And while Laura could be affectionate, she was like a cat.  It was when she wanted it, and only when she wanted it.  If I tried to pet her when she wasn’t in the mood, there was no chance of it happening.  While I had spent months aching to make a move, I never found the right time when she would have allowed it.  And I knew her well enough to know that if I did it too soon, I would lose her altogether.  And that wasn’t a risk that was worth taking.  Even if we could never be more than friends, having her in my life at all made my life better.  And I would have done anything that it took to keep her in my life.
But she kissed me.
I think.
I know I didn’t start it consciously.  So it must have been her. 
But that didn’t matter.
Girls make a bigger deal about kissing than guys do.  There’s that awful Cher song about how you can tell everything you need to know from a kiss.  I don’t believe that’s true.  But for the first time ever really, I started to believe that there was a chance for us.  Somewhere in her, she wanted to be with me too.  And that night, I believed I could wait forever if that was what it took.
By the time Bruce started singing, she had turned back to the stage.  She was watching Bruce and dancing to the music, but Little Steven had seen the kiss and winked at me.  It’s stupid, I know, but I treasured that wink as Laura would treasure the guitar pick he had thrown her and the kiss he had blown to her.  Bruce’s guitar player and right—er, left-hand man as it were, approved of my choice of girl.  And I didn’t question what would happen next, because I knew it wouldn’t be anything else that night.  And that night, it didn’t need to be.  It was perfect as it was.
We weren’t planning to stay over in Philadelphia, and I had to be at work the next morning, although Laura’s appearance at my office would mean if I came in late, no one would question it.  But we didn’t rush to leave the sports complex’s parking lot.  It had been cool right after the rain, but the night had turned warm and muggy.  The air was so thick and heavy that the sweat we had worked up refused to evaporate, and Laura’s hair along the hairline was damp.  We walked slowly off the field and out into the parking lot, unwilling to let the night end.
Most of the crowd seemed to be doing the same thing.  We had parked deep in the lot, which meant that we weren’t getting our car out for a good half hour anyway, so we walked down the steps of the Linc with Jeff and Ellen, discussing the show.
Laura was glowing.  She kept dancing a few feet in front of us and spinning around and coming back to me.  Every few seconds, she would recount another favorite moment of the show.  “And I can’t believe he played ‘I’m Goin’ Down!’” she would yell suddenly.  Or just “‘Incident!’  He played ‘Incident!’  Full band and everything!”  She started singing “Be True” as we walked toward the parking lot.  Jeff and Ellen were as amused by her as I was.  This was one of my favorite times with Laura, after a great show, when she was happy.  After some shows, she became quiet or sullen, because she knew there wouldn’t be another one for a little while.  But when she was like this, there was no one in the world like her.
We reached her car and Laura hit the remote button to put the top down before we got there, but tossed me the keys.  She never asked me if I wanted to drive home, or if I was tired, or if I minded driving her car (although no one in their right mind would turn down the chance to drive that car).  It was one of those things between us that was so special.  She might not let me touch her camera, but she always let me drive her car.  If I made a list of reasons to believe she loved me, that would be on the list.  Of course, the reasons not to believe it list would be longer.  But, no matter what the circumstances, as Bruce would say, “people find some reason to believe.”
I started to get in the car, but Laura stayed by the trunk.  “Pop it, will you?” she asked and I obliged.  She pulled out a small cooler, shut the trunk, and climbed on top of it.  “Wanna put on some tunes and have a beer?”
I put the same Giants Stadium bootleg that we had been listening to on the way up to the show back into the cd player and climbed onto the trunk next to Laura.  We had done this a few times after being in the pit.  Post-show tailgating.
We didn’t talk for a while.  We just sat there, soaking up the night and watching the crowd.  Adam and Jen, a couple we had met at the Meadowlands, were walking a few rows over and Laura called to them.  They were about our age and we had hung out with them for the first two Philly shows, but then told them we weren’t coming to this one.  They sat with us and helped us lighten our beer load a bit.  Eventually, we realized that it was just the post-gamers like us in the parking lot because it was past midnight.  Adam and Jen were driving home to New Jersey, and we decided that it was time for us to leave as well.  I realized, as we pulled out of the now nearly deserted parking lot, that this would be our last Philly show on this tour.  It could be the last Philly show for years.  The first time we had talked to each other had been in this very parking lot.  Everything had changed since then.  And I was sure that so much more would change before we would be there again.  But that was ahead of us, and that night, I wasn’t thinking all that much about the past or the future.

 

Roman Glass: An interview with the author, by the author

As you probably know by now, my second novel, Roman Glass, came out this week.

But I still don’t have a publishing contract. Meaning that, among other publicity problems, no one is beating down my door for an interview with the author yet, so I figured I’d do my own interview for my readers. You can just print this out and glue it into the back of the book like one of those book club guides when your copy arrives from Amazon.

Q:  Roman Glass is set in Israel, which is kind of an odd choice, considering that you live in the DC area. What inspired the novel?

A:  What a great question! I’ve been to Israel three times now and the most recent trip, in December 2007 for my cousin’s bar mitzvah. It was kind of horrific timing as my uncle on my dad’s side of the family was dying at the time, but my mother, uncle and I were already committed to go and everyone on both sides of the family told us we should go.

My mom, my uncle Mike, and me in Israel, December 2007

It was an interesting trip, to say the least. I won’t go into too many details to avoid being axe murdered by angry relatives (which yes, is likely to happen. Especially when some of them read the acknowledgments). But the idea for the story hit me as we were sitting in the airport, New Year’s Day 2008, waiting for our flight home. We were in the terminal and there was this super hot guy, who was clearly orthodox (meaning he wouldn’t have given me the time of day), putting on tfillen. (If you don’t know what that is, don’t ask me because I can’t explain it. That’s why we have Google.) And I remember asking myself, “What would it take to get me to stay here? What would have had to have happened this week to make me wonder if I should be getting on the plane today?”

I started scribbling in a notebook then and there and began creating my characters/the scenario of Danielle going to Israel for a family event that she wasn’t thrilled about. Then, on the flight, I pulled out my laptop and wrote the final chapter. Just as I was finishing it, my mother turned to me and said, “You know, there’s a book in this trip somewhere.”  And I started laughing and told her I’d just written the ending for it. She asked what it was about and even though I usually avoid those conversations until the book is close to done, I started discussing the idea and fleshing it out verbally with her.

And Roman Glass was born. (Although it was called Reason to Believe at the time and for a long time after. Then Beshert. Then Random Untitled Novel about Israel Because I Can’t Come Up with a Goddamned Title. Then Roman Glass. It was a REALLY tough call between the last two—I’m still not positive I made the right choice.)


Q: Your first book, Beyond the Palace, was pretty Springsteen-heavy. Is this one the same way?

A: Nope! TOTALLY different concept in this one.  I mean, the characters in Beyond the Palace meet following Bruce because they say to write what you know. I branched out from that in Roman Glass. This one actually required a LOT of research. I lived with Israeli tour books and books on Israeli history on my coffee table for about a year. There’s one direct Bruce reference in it, which is more of a joke than anything else. And a couple of indirect references that only the hardcore fans will spot (For example, Eyal does what Spanish Johnny does in one scene—if that means anything to you, you’ll spot it. If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it.)

Q: How much of you is there in Danielle? Is she a similar character to Laura from Beyond the Palace?

A: I’d argue that there’s a lot of me in ALL of my characters, not just Danielle. But Danielle is probably the most like me out of any of the characters I’ve written. Except that she doesn’t believe in anything she can’t see or touch and I believe in plenty of things that I have no proof of (especially after watching horror movies when I’m home alone… then I’m 100 percent convinced that everything evil from the movie is living in my house and waiting to kill and eat me. Danielle would never believe in any of that!). She and Laura share some of my characteristics—for example, they’re both insomniacs and they’re both runners. But overall, Laura and Danielle would HATE each other. Like if they were real and you put them in a room together, only one would survive. And my money is on Danielle.

Part of my motivation in creating her though was that I wanted to branch out from Laura. Laura is utterly screwed up as a result of other people. When it came to writing Danielle, it was very important to me to write a character who was screwed up on her own. I didn’t want anyone to have done anything horrible to her. I just wanted her to have a sense of disconnect about who she felt everyone wanted her to be. And because of that, I feel that she has more room to grow than Laura does, which, at least to me, made her a more satisfying character.

Q: Israel is kind of a touchy subject. How did you handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the novel?

A: CAREFULLY! I wanted to show the extreme distrust on both sides, because that IS a huge part of life in Israel, but I also didn’t want to make the novel a huge political statement. And while, as a Jew, I’m obviously pro-Israel, I really wanted to show that the extremists on BOTH sides are wrong. Eyal points out in the novel that his mother believes that “The only good Arab is a dead Arab.” I’ve actually heard Israelis say that! And while I’m in no way ever going to condone any of the acts of terrorism perpetrated by Palestinian extremist groups, I also cannot condone the idea that every Palestinian is evil and needs to be destroyed. Danielle’s cab driver in the beginning of the novel goes off on an anti-Arab rant to illustrate the attitude that you can find running rampant in Israel, but I think I make it pretty clear in the novel that it’s the extremists who are in the wrong, not the entirety of any group of people.

My mom and me, outside the Old City of Jerusalem, December 2007

Q: Are readers going to be able to relate to this book if they’re not Jewish?

A: I definitely think so!  It’s less of a book about being Jewish than a book about a character figuring out how she fits into her own family and her culture and I think a lot of people have felt a disconnect from who everyone else wanted them to be at some point in their lives.

I also had my characters spend a lot of time at sites that were holy to other religions as well as non-religious historical sites. Because it doesn’t matter what you believe in, Israel is one of the places where the world has changed for everyone quite a few times. And that’s what one of the most crucial scenes in the book is about—that we’re all connected and we’re all part of something bigger. Even if we can’t see what it is from where we’re currently standing.

Q: Beshert seems to be a big concept in the book. What is your definition it?

A: There are a couple of definitions actually. The literal translation is “fate,” “destiny,” or “meant to be.” But a lot of people use it as a noun describing a soulmate. I kind of use both versions in Roman Glass. And it’s a concept that I find extremely comforting. If you can believe that life is going to work out the way that it’s meant to, then it means that even when it feels like you screwed up big time, you’re just taking another step on the path you’re meant to take.

But I don’t think it’s ALL beshert in life. Which is why I started with the quote “Somehow we choose our own destiny” (and thank you Jesse Malin for letting me use that—That line was the first thing that I wrote in that notebook in Ben Gurion airport when I came up with the idea for the book, so it’s kind of cool that I later met him and actually got permission to use it). I think that at least some of the choices you make DO matter. I’m not sure that we’re all part of some master plan, and there are a lot of days when I’m pretty sure we’re not. But as Eyal explains to Danielle in the novel, that’s the definition of faith: being able to believe something without definite proof of it. And I have faith that things ARE going to work out in the end, which is my definition of the word beshert.

On top of Masada, with the Dead Sea in the background

Q: What’s on the agenda for the next book?

A: Geez, I just put this one out! Give it a rest already!

I’m mapping out ideas for the next one now. I’ve spent the last couple of years kind of mulling over the idea of the Arthurian love triangle. Guinevere usually gets blamed (TH White is kind of the exception, but she still came across as a whiney shrew in The Once and Future King), and I’ve been toying with the idea of three characters who ALL genuinely love each other (no, not like THAT—not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s not going to be an actual King Arthur story, but I’m working on that relationship angle.

But my mother keeps telling me to write a funny book, so I don’t know. I’ll bring a notebook to the pool with me once school ends and see what inspiration strikes me. Either way, when I’m NOT laying by the pool this summer, I plan to be working.

Q: Do you have a contract yet?

A: NO! PLEASE tell your friends if you like Roman Glass. I need all the new readers I can get!

If you have any other questions you’d like answered, post them in the comments section and I’ll be happy to answer them. Just no spoilers for the book please!

Peace, love, and rock and roll,

-Sara

Teaching teenagers what makes Gatsby so Great is a tough job. But it shouldn’t be.

There are days when being an English teacher feels like the worst fate known to mankind.

Yesterday was one of those days. I was literally jealous of the guy who wears a chicken suit on Rockville Pike to advertise for a tire store (still haven’t figured out the connection on that one. But I kind of want to go check out the tire store just to see why their mascot is a tuxedo-wearing chicken. So maybe their ad campaign works after all). And when you’d rather be standing on a corner in a chicken suit in 30-degree weather, you know you’ve hit a low point in your career.

The problem? I’m teaching The Great Gatsby. Which I love. A lot. My copy looks like it’s been through the wars because I’ve read it so many times. The margins are covered in notes and half the lines are underlined or highlighted. And this is only my second year teaching it.

I was actually very excited to teach eleventh grade because I love The Great Gatsby so much. And A Streetcar Named Desire, which is also in the eleventh grade curriculum. I’d taught ninth grade for years, and was ready to scream if I had to deal with Romeo’s whining again. Like I was getting WAY too excited when he kills himself by the end. I still love To Kill a Mockingbird, but I was kind of rooting for George to hurry up and kill Lennie so Of Mice and Men could be over. Which meant that it was time for a change.

So I was looking forward to the opportunity to share one of my all-time favorite books with kids and instill that same love of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece that I have in their young, impressionable minds.

Except they hate it. Like the way I hate the Cowboys, Delaware, and people who ride their bikes into oncoming traffic.

Okay, that’s misleading. The ones who are actually READING it hate it. But they’re in the minority. Because a huge percentage of them admitted yesterday to not even having read the SparkNotes, let alone the book itself. And I teach honors classes.

I don’t understand that. Granted, I’ve had my nose in a book for as long as I can remember. And I keep reminding myself of Nick’s father’s advice to remember that others haven’t had the same advantages that I’ve had (namely, in this case, parents who instilled a love of reading in me from early childhood). But to be honest, I prefer my favorite literary characters over most of the real people I know. No offense, but if I had to choose between Rhett Butler or Mr. Darcy and you, you’d probably lose.

Then again, I have a theory that the best men in all of history were written by women—I’m starting to feel like there’s no one out there who can live up to the men that Margaret Mitchell, Jane Austen, and Charlaine Harris have created. Yes, I’m lumping the author of the Sookie Stackhouse books along with those literary giants. Because I love Eric Northman. I’d marry that fictional vampire in a heartbeat. Sorry Edward Cullen—I don’t like my fictional vampires all emo and sparkly.

This might be why I’m still single.

But I digress.

Back to Gatsby.

I had a college professor who said you needed to read The Great Gatsby every five years. Okay, that professor was the biggest tree-hugging hippie I’d ever seen, and I’m pretty sure he came to class high every week. And he taught film studies. And I think he lived in his mom’s basement. And he used to go off on hour-long rants about how Walt Disney was just as bad as Hitler. Actually, I wasn’t a big fan of that professor.

But he was right about Gatsby.

I describe my first novel as being about the quarter-life crisis. When you’re in your mid-twenties and are suddenly one of the “adults,” but aren’t quite ready for all of the social responsibilities that that title entails.

And that’s what Gatsby is about. Nick basically, at thirty, leaves home to go live at the beach for a summer, rather than marry the girl his family and friends all expect him to marry. He’s jaded, and he feels a disconnect with most of the people he meets. And he gets wrapped up in a party culture, of people who drink illegally to avoid reality and who think they’re immortal because they’re young and they don’t understand that the choices they make now are going to affect them for the rest of their lives.

How could any teenager NOT love that book?

One of my favorite parts is when Jordan Baker describes to Nick why she doesn’t have to be a good driver. She shrugs when he tells her she’s an awful driver after almost hitting a pedestrian, and she tells him that she doesn’t have to pay attention, because other people are good drivers and they’ll stay out of her way. Nick asks what will happen when she meets another bad driver, and her answer is merely that she hopes that doesn’t happen.

That attitude is why teenagers get into so many accidents. It’s why they think it’s okay to text and drive (okay, I’ll admit it, it’s why I still text and drive more than I should). It’s why they think they’ll be okay when they drive too fast. And it’s why the final tragedy of the book is inevitable. How different is that from all the little celebutantes like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan driving when they’re smacked out of their minds?

It amazes me every time I read Gatsby that Fitzgerald so perfectly captured the emotions and logical fallacies that define my generation in a novel that was written nearly ninety years ago. And every time I read it, I’m both inspired to write more, and I’m a little discouraged because I know that I will never be able to so beautifully define the fragility and mistaken bravado of the human condition.

Hopefully the new movie version will help. I think Baz Luhrmann (of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge fame) will do an amazing job at capturing the wasteful opulence of the 1920s. And Leonardo DiCaprio will be great as Gatsby, not just because I love him (and I do. A lot), but because I think he’ll be able to portray that element of Gatsby’s character trying too hard to be someone that he’s not far better than Robert Redford did in the definitive movie version from 1974.

But a small part of me kind of hopes that the new movie isn’t THAT good. I mean, I want it to be great and do justice to this incredible book. But I don’t want teenagers to think that seeing the new movie is an acceptable substitute for reading the book.

Until it comes out, however, I’ll continue beating my head against the brick wall of teenagers who think they’ll live forever and who see reading as a waste of time. But I’ll keep trying because, as Fitzgerald put it, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald may have never been a teacher, but that line alone tells me that at least one other person out there understood the feeling of futility that I’m experiencing right now. And the reason why I’ll keep trying and vainly hoping to instill my students with an appreciation for this amazing novel, even when it feels like I’m accomplishing nothing more lasting than Nick does when he erases the obscenity from Gatsby’s steps.

People who know me well, can you spot my house in this picture? Look carefully!

Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey–the REAL Jersey Shore

A couple of times a year, I hop in the car and take the three-and-a-half hour drive to my own personal Mecca.

No, I don’t mean the DSW headquarters or the Stila cosmetics factory (both of which I would LOVE to go to though… road trip anyone?). I mean Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Now I know that when I say any destination on the Jersey Shore is my version of Mecca, you’re immediately picturing steroid-filled, spiky-haired, Ed Hardy-wearing, drunken guidos and their silicone-filled, hair extentioned, whore-y female counterparts. But none of those stereotypes are actually FROM the Jersey Shore. They just migrate there in the summer like really obnoxious birds that you can’t dislodge from your trees no matter how hard you try.

So Saturday night, I took “that drive, cross the river to the Jersey side” to see Jesse Malin perform at the Stone Pony. I’d seen him Wednesday night in the DC area and when I talked to him after, he told me that I should try to make it to the Asbury show. He did tell me that Bruce wasn’t a definite, but that didn’t matter, nor did it matter that in the end, Bruce didn’t show up. Because that’s not why I wanted to go. The truth is that you don’t have to work very hard to convince me to go to a concert (especially when it’s Bruce, the Gaslight Anthem, or Jesse Malin, who are my three favorite live performers), and it takes even less convincing to get me to Asbury Park.

Before you misunderstand me, I feel the need to point out that Asbury Park is still pretty shady. It’s kind of the polar opposite of my other Jersey Shore destination (my uncle’s shore house in Avalon), which is like the Disney version of the Jersey Shore (very clean, very safe, a pain in the ass to get to, and WAY overpriced in every possible way). In fact, if Avalon is Disney World, Asbury Park is Chuck E. Cheese. (Which would make Seaside Heights, where Jersey Shore is filmed the equivalent of the old Wild World Water Park in Prince Georges County, before it became the Six Flags, when it was dirty and disgusting and always had an alarming vomit-to-water ratio in all of the water rides.) It’s gritty, and you’re far more likely to encounter a giant rat than Mickey Mouse (because I don’t care what anyone says, Chuck E. Cheese is a rat).

But to a diehard Springsteen fan, it’s home.

Asbury Park, in fact, despite being a little scary at night (and sometimes during the day), is the ONLY place (other than my uncle’s house), where I can feel like I’m NOT a freak for how much I love Bruce. In Asbury, even on a non-concert day, I’m a lightweight. So part of why I love it is probably because it makes me feel more normal than any place in the DC area ever could.

But that’s not why I go there so often.

And no, it’s not because there’s always the off-chance that Bruce could pop up wherever you are there (which has only happened to me once in the six years that I’ve been going there. I have terrible Bruce-spotting luck. Although he DID stop his car and say hi to me the one time he WAS there at the same time as me—because he CLEARLY loves me too). It’s because everywhere you look, everything you see is straight out of one of his songs.

Granted, it was a little more fun from that perspective back before they started revitalizing the town, but even with many of the major landmarks gone, Asbury Park still holds a special place in the heart of all of the “tramps like us” who were “born to run.”

The funny thing for me is that Asbury Park’s “Glory Days” were long over by the time I was born (nevermind when that was. It was decades after Asbury Park’s heyday, let’s leave it at that). I never got to see the Palace when it was open (although I was there the week before they tore it down, which is when I got the photos that would later become the front and back covers of my first novel, Beyond the Palace).

The Palace, after the back was already demolished, May 2004

By the time I got to the Circuit, the northern end of it had already been closed off by the water plant. Madam Marie was no longer telling fortunes in her shack on the boardwalk (although a year ago, her granddaughter DID do a tarot card reading for me there, which was ridiculously cool, even though I don’t believe in that stuff).

Kids busking outside Madam Marie’s, May 2004

There was no joint underneath the boardwalk where girls could promise to unsnap their jeans (although before the town turned around in the last couple of years, there WAS an abundance of prostitutes who would probably have been willing to act out any Bruce-related fantasy for the right price). And that “giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light” was a poorly paved asphalt lot by the time I got there.

The Casino, May 2004

I described the scene that first greeted me in Asbury Park in a chapter of Beyond the Palace, through the eyes of my two main characters:

Asbury Avenue brought us into the city itself. I had taken over driving after we stopped at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, but Laura told me to pull over as soon as we saw the Palace Amusement complex looming on the horizon, its cracked and peeling green façade rising abruptly out of the flat seaside landscape. Commanded is a little closer to what she actually did. I thought she wanted to get out and walk around, so I looked for a parking lot, but she told me that the side of the road was fine. We had only seen a couple of cars on the road since coming into town, so I obliged. Laura hopped out of the car practically before I brought it to a complete stop. She ran around to the driver’s side and opened my door before I could open it. “I want to drive the circuit,” she said, excitement showing in every curve of her body. The circuit was no longer really a circuit by the time we got there in 2003, as the water purification plant at 8th Avenue effectively closed that end of it, but we had heard Bruce’s stories from concert bootlegs. In the 1970s, four one-way streets formed a sort of hangout/racetrack through town, where girls would “comb their hair in rearview mirrors” and the boys tried “to look so hard.” The Palace was a crumbling landmark from Bruce’s songs, a testament to his city of ruins. But the circuit was where you could still find the Bruce from Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Driving it was something that we knew he had done. And I knew that Laura would want to give me a chance to drive it too, so I had no problem letting her take her turn first.

She pulled the car into drive and took us slowly down Asbury to Ocean Avenue, where we passed the Casino. She had timed her mix almost perfectly. The next song was “Sandy,” which was about the attractions on the circuit and the beach. We made our way past the rotting hulk of the Casino, which had been an arcade with an arm that jutted out onto a pier in better days, but that part had long since washed away. We could see the boardwalk to our right, and the legendary Stone Pony to our left. Past a bizarre, rusted, half-finished high-rise, past Lance and Debbie’s Wonder Bar, which Clarence once owned, past the Howard Johnson’s, orange and space-age looking in its un-maintained 1960s splendor. Convention Hall rose up on our right, by far the nicest building in town, which wasn’t saying much. Facing the end of the circuit, we turned down 7th Avenue to Kingsley Avenue, and again Laura’s mix proved perfect, as the opening line of the next song was about driving down Kingsley and deciding to stop for a drink. Laura looked around in wide-eyed wonder. She drove us down to where we had started and then we switched seats and went back around the same course, this time with me driving. After a full lap, I looped back to park near the Stone Pony so that we could walk around and explore the town.

Laura usually left the top of her car down with the windows up on nice days, and this certainly qualified. Her car had a strong alarm system, and no one could really reach anything with the windows up. But Laura started putting the top up before I could even suggest it. This didn’t look like the kind of town where it was smart to leave anything remotely accessible if you ever wanted to see it again. Not that there was anyone around to steal anything. We got out of the car and I walked immediately around to Laura’s side. It was creepy. We hadn’t seen a living soul yet. It looked like no one had lived there for about twenty years. The only signs of life were a few old, dilapidated cars parked near the Pony.

Laura dug into her purse for quarters to feed the meter and I fished two out of my pockets. Laura inserted one with a dull clink, then peered at it.

“Shit,” she said idly. “Broken.” She looked at me and shrugged. “I’ll move the car.” I looked around. There was a sea of empty spaces and the meters looked older than us. No flashing red lights to show which had expired here. Laura started to climb back into the car, but I stopped her.

“Let’s find a working meter first,” I said. I went to the one next to the one Laura had tried. It was expired. I put a quarter in, but nothing happened. I tried the one next to that, and again, nothing. Laura started to look amused. She tried the one on the other side of the car. Looked at it curiously. Then tried one more.

“They’re all broken!” she exclaimed. “Does that mean we can just park here?” I looked around. Even the asphalt of the parking lot looked older than dirt. Stringy grass sprouted up in large clumps all around and a rainbow of brown and green broken bottles glittered in the sunlight.

“Yeah,” I said finally. “If we get a ticket, I feel like this place needs the money more than we do.” Laura smiled weakly and nodded. I don’t think she had expected it to be quite this bad. We knew it would be fairly rundown, or else Bruce couldn’t have written a song about it that would later be used to describe New York after September 11. But we hadn’t imagined the level of devastation that we actually found there. We didn’t know how dead a place could feel.

I felt disappointed too, but I wanted Laura happy again. “Let’s go exploring.” She nodded again and hooked her camera strap across her body as we set off toward the Palace of “Born to Run” fame. An exceptionally seedy-looking motel stood on the corner of Kingsley and 2nd Avenue. Laura stopped and stared at it. I turned and looked at her while she worked out whatever she was thinking. Finally, a huge smile spread across her face. I turned and looked where she was looking. A battered sign read “The Flamingo Motel.”

“Do you see it?” Laura asked. I looked more carefully. It looked like the sign had fluorescent lights along the looping words once, but if they had been there, they were long gone now. Pink, fluorescent lights, I would assume, to go with the Flamingo part. She watched me expectantly, but I shrugged. I didn’t know what she wanted me to see.

“What if I said ‘Flamingo Lane’?” she asked, hinting. Flamingo Lane? A line from “Jungleland.” Off Born to Run. The two lovers “take a stab at romance” and vanish “down Flamingo Lane.”

“Oh!” I said as I realized what she was getting at. Flamingo Lane wasn’t a street. Disappearing there meant getting a room at this motel. It was one of the many things that both of us loved about Bruce. His songs were poetry. If you didn’t look deeper, Flamingo Lane could be a street somewhere. If you did, the story became a love affair, with the sax solo acting as the un-vocalized verse that represents the culmination of that passion in this little dive motel. But it doesn’t matter that it’s a dump, because to them, it’s beautiful; it’s not a motel anymore, it’s a whole world that they can disappear into.

Laura beamed at me. “That is just the coolest thing ever.” She took my hand and pulled me across the street. “We have to check this out!” But the Flamingo, like just about everything else in town, was closed. Laura’s smile faded quickly.

I did have an ace up my sleeve, even though I hadn’t expected to have to play it that soon. I leaned down to whisper into her ear. “We’re less than a couple hundred feet from where Bruce will probably be tonight.” She smiled again and turned back to face me. She looked at me for just a second too long, her face a little too close to mine. I hesitated. She pulled back, kissed me noisily on the cheek, then turned away to walk down Kingsley toward the Palace. If she had stayed a second longer, would I have had the nerve to kiss her? Would she have let me? Doubtful, but I couldn’t help but wonder. She was halfway down the block before I realized I had better catch up. Maybe she would have let me kiss her. But there were still no guarantees that she would wait for me when anything involving Bruce was at stake.

The Palace, once one of the largest arcades in the country, was hardly more inviting than the Flamingo had been, as it was closed down in 1988. It was hard to believe, but it had gone way downhill since Bruce shot his video for “Tunnel of Love” there. A chain link fence surrounded the building, keeping vandals and teenagers out. There was barely even any graffiti on the peeling, faded paint; almost as if Asbury Park was so deserted that there weren’t even enough people there to vandalize an abandoned building. Instead, only the weather desecrated this once unmistakable landmark of the Jersey shore. Even the words on the street sign at the corner were faded and missing a letter. We walked around the side of the long-since empty building, reading the attractions advertised on the side in reverent silence. Laura stood in the middle of the road to take pictures without even needing to worry about traffic. The only moving car that we saw since arriving in town passed us as we walked down Kingsley toward the lake that separated Asbury Park from Ocean Grove, which was an entirely different universe. Ocean Grove was populated. Booming. Rich. Alive. Yet one block away, Asbury Park was as decimated as if a bomb had been dropped on it. We both turned to look at the car as it passed. It was the first sign of life that we had seen.

I personally thought that would have to be the worst of it. But the Casino had trees growing inside of it. Literally. Trees. The roof was torn off in some storm in the 1980s and never replaced. The carousel, which had once been world-famous, was sold off piece by piece and the space around it turned into a skate park before the entire building was shut down. By the time we got there, it was completely boarded up, and the only windows that weren’t broken were too high to reach with rocks or even BB guns. The remains of the pier hung perilously over the edge of the beach, guarded by a lone “No Trespassing” sign, which I doubted would have been enforced if people who wanted to trespass ever showed up. Nearer to the edge of the pier, only the frame of the roof remained, with big patches of blue sky visible through the broken windows. Plant life was clearly thriving in that end of the building, but the windows were higher there and there wasn’t a chance of getting a peek inside without a tall ladder.

An empty paint bucket stood near some of the lower windows and I turned it over. “What are you doing?” Laura asked. I climbed onto the bucket.

“Seeing if there’s anything inside.” I grabbed the ledge and pulled myself up enough to see inside. She watched me expectantly as I looked in. But there wasn’t anything exciting to report back. I climbed down and shrugged at her. “Do you want to see?”

She nodded and climbed up onto the bucket, but wasn’t quite tall enough to see, so I picked her up. I held her while she snapped a few shots of the inside through the broken window, and when I put her down, we wandered around to the boardwalk side, where an entire panel of windows was missing and the foliage inside was clearly visible.

Turning away from the Casino on the boardwalk, a ramp to our left led up to nowhere. It just ended about ten feet off the ground. I looked from there to the beach and touched Laura’s arm to get her attention. “There are some people, at least,” I said, pointing toward the beach. Laura looked relieved. The beach was pretty deserted, but a handful of people had also played hooky from work (or maybe in a town like this, they didn’t have jobs to skip out of) and were scattered along the shore, enjoying the beautiful day.

Laura had started down the boardwalk and when I looked at her, her jaw dropped open. “Look! It’s really there!” she almost shouted, pointing toward the Convention Center. She was pointing at a tiny white shack, which was barely noticeable, but a serious attraction for a Bruce fan. It was Madame Marie’s Temple of Knowledge. Madame Marie was a fortune teller who supposedly told Bruce that he was going to become famous. Although, according to Bruce, all musicians in Asbury Park received the same fortune, just not always with the same level of accuracy. She was mentioned in “Sandy” as being arrested for telling fortunes better than the police. Her shack, of course, was not open, nor was there any trace of Madame Marie herself, other than the faded lettering on the white walls of the building, which couldn’t have been more than about eight feet by eight feet. But we had once seen a picture of Bruce standing right in front of that spot. Laura traced a finger over the lettering on the side. She looked disappointed. I think she had expected Madame Marie to be sitting inside, waiting to tell our fortunes.

Today, it’s infinitely better. For starters, there’s a working parking system (wait, that’s not actually a better thing for me on a teacher’s salary!). It’s safer, it’s cleaner, there are cute little stores, and it no longer looks like a third-world country by the sea.

And even though the Palace and most of the Casino are now long gone, and Madam Marie has finally gone to a better place, where the cops can’t bust her for telling fortunes better than they do, Asbury Park remains one of the few places that I’ve ever been to where there still IS “magic in the night.” Whether it’s catching a show at the legendary Stone Pony (which I’ve done often enough at this point that some of the bouncers know me—I feel like that’s NOT a good thing when I live three-and-a-half hours away!), spending a summer day down the shore, or even just “driving down Kingsley, figuring [you’ll] get a drink,” it’s a special town. And even if Bruce never DOES show up while you’re there, he doesn’t need to. Because to anyone who’s ever felt a strong connection to his lyrics, just being there provides you with that “moment when the world seems right.”

Which is why I’m going back in a month for the annual Light of Day show. If I find a ticket. (Hint hint, if you’ve got extras!)

Me after Madam Marie’s granddaughter Sabrina read my tarot carts, just before the 2010 Light of Day show.

My favorite Tweeters (or are they called twits?): Lord Voldemort and Batman

While enjoying my day off yesterday, I spent a little while looking at Twitter.

I’m still a Twitter newbie and therefore don’t use it as well as I probably should to promote my blog/book, and I have a bunch of my students following me, so I have to keep it clean or risk being hauled into my principal’s office to explain whatever mildly off-color joke I made or re-tweeted.

I have a couple of favorite people who I follow on Twitter. For example, I follow most of the cast of Jersey Shore. Because they’re ridiculous. And I follow Jessica Simpson. Because she’s an idiot (but I love her shoes).

And Steve Martin. Because he’s hilarious. But there are two Twitter users (twits?) that stand out as so far and away above everyone else on Twitter.

And no, Bruce Springsteen isn’t one of them. (Shocking, I know. If he was actually the one tweeting from his account, he probably would be. But it’s one of his lackeys instead.)

My two favorites are Lord Voldemort and Batman.

I know, I know, these seem like odd choices. I’m not obsessed with Harry Potter and I didn’t even see The Dark Knight until it was on cable (not even on-demand. Like regular premium cable). But whoever the people are that are running these two pages, they’re geniuses.

Don’t believe me? Check out these tweets:

 
Miley Cyrus’ mom had an affair with Bret Michaels. I think I can speak for both the Death Eaters & the world when I say: ew.
Demi Lovato’s in rehab. Why hasn’t Disney caught on that they suck? Lindsay, Britney, Demi etc. I bet Mickey Mouse is a closet crack addict.

Lord_Voldemort7: BREAKING NEWS: the vast number of Katy Perry, Ke$ha & Twilight vampire costumes has created a world shortage of glitter & excess of shame!

Lord_Voldemort7: Couple names are stupid as hell. Really tweens? “Jashley”? It’s not even combing names, it’s Ashley with a j. You “fsuck”. Guess that combo.

Lord_Voldemort7: #thingswomenshouldstopdoing Tiger Woods.

Lord_Voldemort7: Jessica Rabbit proves people will only like Gingers if they’re hot girls. Sucks for you, Weasleys.

Lord_Voldemort7:”All that glitters is not gold” True. Sometimes it’s morons pretending to be vampires.

Lord_Voldemort7: People are always asking me to kill their friends. Listen, if you want them murdered, you’re not really friends.

Granted, a few of those only make sense if you’ve read the Harry Potter books and/or the Twilight books (which it turns out Lord Voldemort hates more than Harry Potter. Go figure). But having read all of those books (and kinda agreeing with Voldemort about Twilight being ridiculous), I love all of his tweets. I sort of wonder if it’s ACTUALLY JK Rowling who owns that page. I feel like that would be the only thing that would make it MORE hilarious.

Whoever is running Batman’s page branches out further though. He and Voldemort BOTH hate Justin Bieber with a passion. I don’t REALLY have anything against the kid except that I don’t love his music. But I do enjoy Batman hating on him. And on Robin. Who is clearly the worst sidekick ever with the POSSIBLE exception of George W. Bush (who was Cheney’s sidekick, not the other way around. The more evil one is ALWAYS the primary and the dumber one is ALWAYS the sidekick… duh).

I just discovered @God_Damn_Batman on Twitter the other day, but he’s already become my absolute favorite. Here’s why:

God_Damn_Batman: Tomorrow you will vote. The symbol you need right now isn’t a Donkey. Or an Elephant. It’s a Bat. Wearing body armor.

God_Damn_Batman: Going to spend Halloween the way I do every year. Beating the crap out of kids dressed as Joker. They learn a life lesson. I get candy.

God_Damn_Batman: Disappeared while Gordon was still talking. And left behind a flaming bag of poo. Happy Halloween, Commissioner.

God_Damn_Batman: Jersey Shore finale tonight. THANK GOD. So sick of hearing Alfred complain about scrubbing spray tan out of Robin’s uniform.

God_Damn_Batman: Gotham has more gargoyles per capita than any other city in the world. But not a single Chipotle? FAIL.

God_Damn_Batman: Robin has mysteriously started skipping patrols Tuesday nights. Either he’s working a contact for intel or Glee is back on.

God_Damn_Batman: My sensei once taught me the forbidden “Dim-Mak Death Touch.” I never considered using it. Until I saw The Situation.

God_Damn_Batman: Thinking of replacing Robin with a grizzly bear in spandex. Sure it would be a tactical disaster but Riddler’s expression would be worth it.

God_Damn_Batman: New idea for a TV show. It’s called “Gotham Shore.” Basically the same as Jersey Shore except I shatter the cast’s kneecaps.

God_Damn_Batman: I have two recurring nightmares. 1. My parents’ murder. 2. Being trapped in Arkham, forced to watch Jersey Shore.

God_Damn_Batman Caught Robin lifting his shirt and pointing at his abs in the mirror. Not sure what he meant by “The Situation”, but I’m canceling cable.

I want Batman and Voldemort to have a Twitter fight. I’m pretty sure Batman would win because Voldemort got defeated by a 17-year-old wizard with glasses (and was defeated by the same kid the first time when Harry was a baby). But the sarcastic exchanges would be awesome.  So Batman and Voldemort, if you’re reading this (and I do plan to tweet it to them), please follow each other and fight. Because I could really use some cheering up right now.

Why?

Because according to Twitter, the Situation now has a book deal.

Yes. This guy.

He’s such a jerk that he even has the shape of a dick between his abs.  I didn’t photoshop that.  It’s real. 

I’m not even sure he can read. And HE has a book deal.

And I don’t.

If that doesn’t belong on Fmylife.com, I don’t know what does.

I don’t have a joke to go with that.  But please go tell everyone you know to buy my book so that I can hopefully get a real book deal before the Situation’s book comes out.  Because like the Fail Whale, this is just super depressing.

Confessions of a self-published drama queen

Self-publishing a book has been an interesting experience for me all around.

And by interesting, I mean a nerve-wracking, panic-attack inducing, keeping-me-up-at-night-in-fear-of-it-failing ordeal.

To be fair, I’m not exactly a person whom anyone who knows me would call calm. I’ve been known to be a drama queen and I’ve never needed an excuse to freak out about things.

But the book situation is scarier than I expected it to be.

I decided to self-publish Beyond the Palace because nothing was happening with it and friends and family were nagging me to do it. I’d written literally hundreds of query letters to agents and never even got an agent to read it. I’d heard that for every twelve letters you send out, you’ll usually get one hit. By that logic, I should have dozens of agents beating down my door. Maybe I suck at query letters. Or maybe the publishing industry is a front for a massive drug ring and I’m the only one who didn’t get the memo that agents don’t actually read books. I’m not sure which it is.

So after a couple years of nothing happening, I did my research and decided on amazon.com’s self-publishing options.

And call me naïve if you will, but I secretly thought it would be an overnight sensation.

Not because I believe in myself, but because I actually thought people I knew would rush to buy the book.

Hah.

I learned the hard way that that just wasn’t going to happen.

That’s right. If you’re reading this and haven’t bought my book yet, you’re a terrible friend/coworker/student/total stranger, etc. In fact, if you’re a frequent reader and you’re not supporting me by getting my book, you’re practically stealing from me.

I thought that my coworkers would want to read it. Well, okay, not all of them, but I figured that English teachers at least must LOVE to read.

Apparently that’s not the case.

Or else they all secretly hate me. I’m not sure which it is.

And I was positive that every student I’d ever taught would buy it.

Not because I instilled them all with a deep love of reading, but because I figured they would all want to see if I wrote a sex scene.

Nope.

Several of them flipped through it LOOKING for a sex scene. But when they realized that there were no pictures and that my writing style wouldn’t double for a letter to Penthouse (are those actually real?), they lost interest quickly. Although if I drew a pair of boobs in the margin, I’d probably have had a much wider teenage audience.

And I figured that my friends who had read it in a rough draft in a binder would all buy it, because that was the deal I made with them when I let them read it in a binder.

Didn’t happen.

The first day, I sold eight copies. I have over four hundred Facebook friends, not even counting family, school friends, etc. who AREN’T on my Facebook page. Eight copies.

To say I was devastated would be like saying I’m a LITTLE excited when I’m at a Bruce show. Or that Lady Gaga is slightly odd.

MASSIVE understatement.

My parents tried to comfort me by saying that if I sold eight copies a day for the rest of my life, I’d be a millionaire.

Good thing they’re not math teachers. Eight copies sold gives me about $25.  At that rate, they’re right.  I WOULD be a millionaire.  It would just take approximately 110 years.  Of course, I’d still only be in my late twenties in 110 years, because I will NEVER be turning 30.  But that’s an awful long time to wait.

So I began nagging everyone to buy it. Which annoyed the crap out of everyone who knows me, but helped sales somewhat. And I ventured into the world of Facebook advertising.

Sales are better now, but I’m still spending more money on ads than I’m making off the book. But I’ve started to pick up fans on Facebook who I don’t know, meaning that people other than the people who I’m forcing to buy the book are reading it.

The problem is that because I self-published it, I can check my sales in real time online. Which means that I no longer have a life, I just sit in front of my computer waiting for the next copy to sell. And when I absolutely HAVE to leave the house, like to walk Rosie or go to work, I check the sales from my phone. I’m driving myself, and everyone else I know, completely insane.

I figured out why it’s so scary though: before I self-published it, I wasn’t succeeding because the book wasn’t out there yet. Now, if I fail, it’s because I’m just not good enough. And when I might not be good enough at the one thing that I want to spend the rest of my life doing, that’s a REALLY scary concept.

Luckily, people seem to be loving the book. My lowest review on amazon.com is three stars, and all of the others are four and five star reviews (at least half of which were written by people I don’t know and didn’t force to write reviews, which is encouraging).

So if you haven’t bought my book yet, check it out. You’ll probably like it and it’ll keep my future therapy bills lower. And if you HAVE already bought it, you’re awesome. Thank you. Now go tell all your friends to buy it too.

And whatever you do, don’t leave me a negative review. Because I plan to take a cue from Jay and Silent Bob and go after anyone who does that.
(NSFW)

Literally. I have the song that played during that part on my iPod, ready to go. It’s called “Kick Some Ass” by Stroke 9. I’m not kidding.

Ooh, someone just bought a copy! Yay! Thank you, whoever you are.