The Great Escape
Here is the kind of conversation I've been having on a regular basis, for the past year, with everyone I encounter.

"So you're what, a senior? A junior?"

A junior, I guess. Yeah.

"Cool. So you'll be graduating in...2009?"

No. I'm actually leaving USC this summer.

"Ooh, you're graduating early?"

Um...you could say that, I guess.


Well, I'm not graduating, per se.

"Oh, so you're transferring."

No. I'm dropping out. I'm dropping out of USC and moving back to New York where I will live and support myself.

"...You mean you're transferring to NYU?"

No. I am dropping out. Of college.

"When will you finish college?"

I'm not going to finish college. That's why I'm dropping out.


Now you get it.


Well, a ton of reasons, really. I've thought it over very hard, and this is the decision I've made.

"But but but but wha how huh a;lskfdjaf"

Oh, where do I start? A big part of it is that I hate L.A. I never did get used to it -- to the car culture, and the squalor, and the racial segregation, and the fact that it's not New York. I couldn't stand the idea of living there for another year. Then there's USC itself. It's a retarded school, full of rich bimbos and remedial-style classes. I was getting nothing out of it.

"But then why not transfer to, like, NYU?"

Wait, I'm not done. The thing is, I've always hated school. From kindergarten onward, I've been counting the years until I could be done. I know that will probably come as a shock to you, because I seem so brainy and academic and, well...indoors...and I've always made such good grades. But the truth is that I was only just tolerating it the whole time. I hate sitting at a desk, I hate being surrounded by people my own age, I hate homework and classes. I mean, if you'll recall, I didn't even want to go to college to begin with.

"So why did you go?"

I thought L.A. and the film-school environment might mitigate it. But it didn't. I never stopped fantasizing about being free and independent, and working and writing and reading by myself, like I always wanted. Being stuck in school felt like the most infantilizing thing in the world.

"But -- what about your parents? What do THEY think of all this?"

They're fully supportive, actually. They respect my decisions, and they figure it's not that important to get a college degree anyway. My mom had a terrible time in college too, and she regrets sticking it out the way she did, so she's especially sympathetic. In fact neither of them understands why everybody else is freaking out about it.

"Well, that's all well and good, but, dude, you can't just drop out! People don't do that!"

Bill Gates did. Hell, Judd Apatow dropped out of USC film school, just like me!

"You are not Bill Gates! You're not even Judd Apatow! What are you going to DO instead of college?"

I'm going to be a millionaire. Duh.

"No, seriously."

Seriously, though, I'm going to be America's Next Top Model.

"Come on!"

Okay, okay. I'm going to be a dominatrix prostitute.

"This isn't funny anymore."

Sorry. Well, basically, I'm going to do what I've always done: write. For the past few years I've been in the slow process of getting a book published. The process is so slow that I still don't know if it's going to happen, but the very process gave me the confidence to realize that I can do this -- I can be a writer. Even if all the publishers pass on my book, I have my foot in the door, which means I can finally write that novel and not be delusional in thinking it has a chance.

[skeptically] "So that's what you're going to do? You're just going to write?"

I hear the skepticism in your voice. Don't be silly. I'll have a regular job too. It looks like I'll be working here, at that parrot store on the Upper West Side, at least for this summer.

"Wow, so you're going to be living in New York and writing and working with birds? That's like your dream!"

I know, right?!

"So when are you leaving?"


"No WAY!"


"You're not even sticking around for finals?"

Nah. Who cares? It's not like my grades matter at this point.

"When's your flight?"

I'm not flying. (Would you, at this point in airline history?) Instead I'm driving-cross country with another girl. She has a 1992 Ford Taurus. We'll go through the Petrified Forest, the Rocky Mountains, Omaha, Chicago...I can't WAIT.

"That's cool. Who is she?"

I dunno. I met her on the Internet.


Yeah, I posted an ad on Craigslist asking if anyone wanted to drive cross-country with me. I got a bunch of responses, but I like her best. She's an animation student from Emerson and she's nice. I think the whole thing is going to be amazing.



"Have you lost your mind?"

Oh, hypothetical person, you have no idea.

New blog!
I've created a new blog! Don't worry, avenueF isn't going anywhere -- but the world had such a profound need for this new blog, I decided to step up to the plate and perform this service. You can thank me later. For now, I proudly present to you:

Verlyn Klinkenborg, In Summary

A Very Short Poem about France
How lovely it would be to go to France!
I hear they don't have TV screens in their cars
or churches -- even megachurches like Notre Dame!
-- and you can get away, basically, with peeing
on the street, and they show boobs sometimes
even in commercials! Famous people maybe
go to France. If I saw one over there,
I'd text you.

Oh! am I too young
to meet Napoleon?
and if not, am I too old
to kneel?

When Sherman and I got off the plane, the first thing we saw in the Maui airport was an oyster stand.

I'd seen one of these seven months ago, at the Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco. A woman stands behind a counter, displaying a bowl of live oysters in water. Upon your request, she takes one of the oysters out, smashes it with a mallet, and pulls out a pearl for you! A real pearl! For an additional fee, she'll put it onto a piece of jewelry for you.

I was so enchanted by the San Francisco oyster stand that Sherman urged me to go up and buy my own pearl. But after agonizing over it for a few minutes, I decided I was just too cheap. I would have been happy just to watch other people get their pearls, but the stand was too crowded, so I couldn't even get a good view.

"Don't worry," Sherman told me at the time. "I've seen these in Hawaii too. You can get a better look there."

And sure enough, it was the first thing we encountered. Furthermore, it was completely empty, except for the woman selling the pearls.

"Want your pearl?" Sherman asked, and thought about it for only a moment before I decided to do it. (It would not be the last time I spent money in Hawaii -- let's just leave it at that.)

We went up to the stand. The woman was a pretty young Hawaiian, with long black hair and a big smile. "Aloha!" she greeted us cheerfully. (I thought she was just being cutesy, but it turns out that Hawaiians really do say "aloha" at every opportunity. At least to white tourists like me.)

"Do all these oysters really have pearls in them?" I asked her.

"All of them," she promised. I wanted to ask her how she knew for sure, but the next thing I knew she had pushed the big bowl of oysters in water toward me, placed a pair of wooden tongs in my hand, and instructed me, "Pick an oyster!"

I looked helplessly into the bowl, whose briny smell was surprisingly overpowering. How was I supposed to know which oyster to pick? I dipped the tongs into the water and started to pick up the biggest oyster, at the top of the pile -- then changed my mind at the last minute and chose a medium-sized oyster underneath it.

"Is that your choice?" she said. She took my oyster in her hands and placed it on a porcelain dish. "Now," she said, handing me a wooden mallet, "you tap it three times and say, 'ALOHA!'"

"Must I?"

But the mallet was in my hand before I could protest, and the lady was looking at me expectantly. Rarely have I ever felt so idiotic as I gave the oyster shell three businesslike little raps and remarked, "Aloha."

At least no one else is watching, I thought, but that thought vanished as the lady seized a metal bell and rang it vigorously -- DING DING DING DING DING DING -- while yowling along: "ALOHAAAAAAAAA!"

She cracked the oyster open with a special tool, fingered around in the vaginal gook of the innards, and pulled out a tiny pink pearl.

I forgot to be embarrassed. A pink pearl! It was so tiny and perfect! And what a color! Have you ever seen a real pink pearl before? "That's awesome--"

"Wait!" exclaimed the lady, felt around some more, and pulled out another one. "You got twins!"

There were two pink pearls inside the oyster -- one tiny, shiny, and salmon-pink, the other slightly larger, matte, and bubblegum-pink.

"Two for the price of one!" The lady was beaming. "Do you want me to mount them onto earrings for you?"

"No thanks." I don't wear earrings; I waited eagerly till my 12th birthday to have them pierced, then let the holes close up once the novelty had worn off.

"How about if I bore a hole through them, so you can make your own jewelry later if you want?"

"No!" I couldn't contain myself. "I just want them now, plain!" I had never really realized how cool pearls were. They're as beautiful as diamonds, but much more magical, because they come from a living thing at the bottom of the sea. They're almost alive themselves.

The woman rubbed salt on the pearls to make them shine, then put them in a little plastic bag and handed them to me.

"How many colors do pearls come in?" Sherman wanted to know.

"White, pink, blue, and black," she said. "White is the most common. Black is the rarest."

I clutched my pearls in my hand for the rest of the evening, completely over the moon. What was I going to do with the pearls? Who cared? I had something magical and rare and beautiful in my hands -- not one, but two. I was in Hawaii for the first time, and I really was the luckiest girl in the world.

"Don't you love my pearls?" I sighed to Sherman that night, as I placed them lovingly on the bed table.

He shrugged and said, "They look like clitorises."



They really did.

And that is how pearls were ruined for me forever.

Window Seat
I had been assigned an aisle seat, but I hadn't given up hope yet. Last May, when I flew back to New York from L.A., I agreed to trade seats with a man who wanted to sit with his wife, and my new seatmate practically begged me to take his window seat. (I like to think he was afraid of heights.) So I knew I could still get lucky.

I boarded the plane to L.A., sat down in seat 32B, and pulled out that Thomas Jefferson biography by Christopher Hitchens, a gift from my dad. "Please, take it," he had urged me when he saw me looking at it. "Read it. Pass it along, when you're done." I read it while I waited for my seatmate to arrive.

Minutes passed. I made it through the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Missouri Compromise, the shooting of Alexander Hamilton -- still my seatmate didn't show up, the window seat remained empty, and I dared to hope.

Finally the cabin seemed to have been fully boarded, with the window seat miraculously unoccupied. Sweet! Thomas Jefferson and I moved over and admired the view of the tarmac.

And then, just when it looked like we were about to take off, a sweaty, panting young man in a striped soccer shirt suddenly came barrelling down the aisle and threw himself into the aisle seat next to me.

"I made it!" he gasped, in a truly exciting accent that I couldn't identify. British-related, but definitely not refined enough to be English -- more rugged and masculine. I thought maybe Australian, but then I always think everybody's Australian. "They 'eld me up at customs and I nearly missed this flight, but I got on just in time! Wiv me luggage and everything!" He sounded like somebody in a movie.

"Are you sure about your luggage?" I asked. What I wanted to ask was "Where is your accent from?" but I was hoping I could go about it with a bit more finesse than that.

"Eh, I hope so," he said. The smell of man-sweat was overpowering, but the accent gave me the illusion that it was an exotic smell. "You from New York?"

"Yes," I said, pleased, because then I could ask, "What about you?"

"Scotland," he said proudly. "I'm in the U.S. to visit a friend in L.A. I could have flown direct from Scotland, but it was cheaper to stop in New York."

"Isn't it funny how that works?" I said. "You'd think it would be the other way around. But at least you get a break -- last year I flew to Paris nonstop from L.A. and it was endless." I felt awesome uttering the phrase "I flew to Paris" so casually, except in my own ears I suddenly seemed to be talking like a cowboy. Was I exaggerating my American accent for some reason, or was it just more obvious to me at this moment?

"I don't mind flying, though," he said. "It doesn't tire me out. You like L.A., then?"

Hee! He ended questions with "then"! He really was Scottish!

"I like New York better," I told him, and didn't get further into it than that. He didn't need to know that if my plans worked out, this would be my last visit to L.A.

"I've never been to L.A.," he said. "I've been to Las Vegas, though." Seeing my face, he exclaimed, "No, it's really cool there! It isn't just casinos, they've loads of culture too -- lots of shows."

The plane began to take off, and I realized with triumph that he hadn't brought up the window seat. She shoots, she scores! I pressed my face against the window as New York disappeared beneath us, and for the first time, I wasn't sad. I knew I would be back for good soon.

"The in-flight entertainment will be The Nanny Diaries, starring Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney," the stewardess intoned on the P.A. "A flight attendant will come by presently with headphones to be purchased for two dollars. You may take them with you as a gift from American Airlines."

Soon enough, a steward distributing headphones appeared in the aisle minutes later. He was quite a handsome man, a very metrosexual black guy. I waved him away, because I'd heard that The Nanny Diaries was terrible, but my Scottish companion had other ideas.

"I'd like to buy the headphones," he told the steward, "but I don't have any American dollars, and I don't want to pay with my card because it'll cost me a pound."

The steward blinked. "Well, then, I guess you can't buy the headphones," he replied, with brutal steward logic.

The Scottish guy began to wheedle and bargain, and I tuned out, embarrassed. I alternated between reading about Thomas Jefferson and staring out the window, reflecting on how none of this land would be American if Jefferson hadn't made the Louisiana Purchase. I might be flying over a French colony now.

The next thing I knew, the steward was laughing. The Scottish guy had charmed him.

"I'll be right back," said the steward.

Minutes later, he came back and handed the Scottish guy a plastic-wrapped pair of headphones -- then tossed another pair into my lap.

"On me," he said with a smile, and he was gone before I could tell him I didn't want to watch The Nanny Diaries.

"How did you do that?" I asked the Scottish guy, amazed. He grinned cockily.

The movie was starting, and I figured I might as well watch it, since it was free. I put on the crappy headphones and placed the Thomas Jefferson book on the tray table for later.

Fortunately, the movie was so dependent on voiceover that I didn't even need to watch it; I could just look out the window while Scarlett Johansson monotonously explained to me what was going on in the story. There were the most magnificent snowy mountains beneath us, so craggy and white they made me squirm in my seat. I wanted to climb every single one of them. I wanted to live in them.

An hour or so into the movie, the Scottish guy poked me and gestured -- the steward was standing in the aisle, trying to get my attention. I took off my headphones in mid-Scarlett Johansson sentence.

The steward was pointing to the book on my tray table. "Is that Thomas Jefferson?" he asked.

"Yeah, want to see?" I handed him the book.

He read the author name. "Christopher Hitchens?" he exclaimed. "He wrote the book?"

"Yeah, but don't be scared off," I said. "It's actually pretty good."

"I don't know," said the steward. "I can take him in small doses, in Vanity Fair and the Atlantic -- but with a whole book I think I might tear my hair out."

"It's not like his political columns, though," I said. "When he's not trying to be an obnoxious contrarian, when he's just writing about history and facts, he's a really engaging writer."

The steward said, "I just read this book, The Magnificent Catastrophe -- have you heard of it? It's about the 1800 election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, like how it was the first really cutthroat American election."

"Oh, yeah!" I said. "Wasn't that the election where someone spread the rumor that Thomas Jefferson was dead?"

"Whoa!" he said. "The book didn't mention that."

"Well, this one does," I said. "It's such a nasty rumor, because you couldn't disprove it back then, before television."

"The thing about Thomas Jefferson," he said, "I mean, he was kind of a hypocrite, wasn't he?"

You don't want to get too deep into that kind of discussion with a black guy, so I agreed, and then he handed the book back and went on with his work.

As I held the book in my hands, I got lost in thought. Scarlett Johansson's voice was in my ears, but my dad's voice was in my head.

"Pass it along," he had said. "Pass it along."

I was nearly done with the book -- I had about eight pages to go. I love books and I hate getting rid of them; I can't even stand lending them to people, because they don't take good care of them and they don't read them and they never give them back. I'm not one to make grand gestures. I could think of other people, people I knew personally, who might want to borrow the book. I could think of plenty of circumstances in which I might want to return to it, for reference.

And yet. It was a new year. I was a new woman. I was starting a new life. I should be spontaneous, I should reach out. If anyone deserved a kind gift, it was a hardworking flight attendant. Especially one who was interested in the Founding Fathers.

Especially one who had just given me a free pair of headphones.

And so the movie ended, I finished the book, and then I pressed the button with the little human figure on it. I waited. I waited. He didn't come. Maybe this was a sign.

Much later, a steward did show up. Of course, it was a different guy. "Can I help you?" he asked.

Melting into a puddle of awkwardness, I stuttered, "Oh, uh, I, I, I was actually hoping to get the other guy. The other st- -- flight attendant. I, I have something for him."

"He's on the phone now," the man said, giving me a strange look. "I'll go tell him."

I cringed. I could not possibly have sounded any weirder. And now the plane was beginning its final descent, so all the flight attendants were about to get busy. I had totally missed my chance. Shit.

But a bit later, the black steward reappeared at my side, looking curious.

I handed him the book and said, "Would you like to have this?"

His jaw dropped. "Are you serious?!"

I explained about my dad, and he seemed to understand. He actually jumped with excitement when I gave him the book, but then he got serious.

"I'll take this book," he said, "on one condition: you have to give me your e-mail address, so I can write to you and tell you what I thought of the book."

"Deal," I said, pulling out a pencil. I scribbled my Gmail address into the front cover, wincing a little; I hate writing in books.

He took the book back and examined what I'd written. "AvenueF?" he said. "A Lower East Side girl!" And I didn't correct him, because for one crazy minute I thought he had seen into my soul, or my future, and identified me as a hip writer who was going to live in an apartment on the Lower East Side when she left USC. So I nodded ecstatically.

"I'm Sam," he said. "What's your name?"

"Frankie," I said.

"I'll let you know what I think of the book," he promised. "Man, this is so cool. It's like my copy of The Bridges of Madison County that's in China right now!"

"Pass this one along too," I said, "when you're done with it."

"I will," he said, "and I'll write my e-mail address in it too. Then I'll make the next person write theirs, and so on, so everyone can track where the book has traveled."

The plane was landing, so he had to leave then, and I never saw him or the book again. I never got to say goodbye, either to him or to the Scottish guy who had led him to me by pestering him for headphones.

But I don't mind, because the world suddenly seems so big and so very small all at once, nothing feels like forever. When the sun came up in L.A. the next day, I could even see those same snow-covered mountains, all craggy and white and magnificent on the horizon, looking like a distant country and yet almost close enough to touch.

The Fifth Annual avenueF Film Snob Awards, 2007
Best Movies of 2007:
1. Across the Universe -- I was fully expecting this movie to be ridiculous, and I went to see it (it was my first outing in my new car) anticipating a fascinating trainwreck. Instead, it swept me away. I don't care what anybody else says: Across the Universe was the most complete cinematic experience I had in 2007. Whoever complains about its thin plot or underdeveloped characters is missing the point -- the movie exists simply to envelop you in its blissful fantasy of color and sound and rhythm and beauty, which lingers for days after you leave the theater. As far as I care, that's what movies are for. Thus, my #2 movie of the year...
2. Hairspray. To call this the best musical-to-film adaptation of the decade would insult it with faint praise. Of all the Hollywood musicals of the current revival -- Chicago, The Producers, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd -- only Hairspray achieves the proper tone (buoyant optimism, droll without being cynically ironic), pace (swift and steady, neither frenetic like Chicago nor lugubrious like Dreamgirls), look (eye-candy gorgeous), and chemistry among its cast (a refreshing mix of newcomers and old hands). It is impossible to watch Hairspray and not have your spirits lifted by the witty jokes, candy colors, talented cast, and addictive songs. By the way, I am in the camp that believes John Travolta deserves an Oscar. If only more Hollywood movies had the nerve to make weird casting decisions like that.
3. Ratatouille -- Pretty much perfect. I chose this over Persepolis because Persepolis, while lovely, is little more than a super-accurate adaptation of a graphic novel, while Ratatouille is wholly original. Note that it is not just the first CGI-animated movie to make it onto the AFSA list -- it's the first CGI-animated movie I've ever really liked.
4. The Host -- Mind-blowing. You name it, The Host has it: horror, satire, slapstick, tragedy, family values, political allegory, and (best of all) an environmental message. It combines Hollywood conventions with Korean culture so deftly that one looks forward to see what other treasures globalization will create.
5. Atonement -- I loved the novel, but unlike Persepolis, Atonement goes beyond its source material to form a life of its own. Where the novel is a cerebral meditation on the responsibilities of authorship and creativity, the film to me is a creepy character study on Briony Tallis, an overimaginative young girl who grows up but never quite learns to distinguish fantasy from reality. The book and the movie are each thought-provoking in their own way.

Honorable Mention:
1. Hors de Prix -- I would have named this my number one movie of the year if it weren't for a pesky technicality: it wasn't released in the U.S. in 2007. In fact, it hasn't been released in the U.S. at all. It was released in France in 2006, but I saw it on a plane from Paris (and then later at the DGA) in 2007, so I count it. Anyway, I can't wait to see it a third time -- it recalls the best old Hollywood screwball comedies in its luxury fantasies and star power (Audrey Tautou), but its sophisticated story is quintessentially French (I won't spoil it). On the other hand, maybe it's a good thing it hasn't come to America yet; a Hollywood remake would almost certainly ruin its perfection.
2. Enchanted -- Essentially an extended advertisement for Disney, and too slight to make it into my top five, but Amy Adams's star-making performance and a few transcendent musical numbers (especially a showstopper in Central Park) provided a few moments of pure joy that easily rivaled anything else I saw this year.

Worst Movies of 2007:
1. Waitress -- So cloying and shallow and contrived and saccharine, I wanted to punch it in its fucking face. I especially wanted to punch Kerri Russell in her blank, inexpressive pie-face. Call me ungallant, but I strongly suspect that more critics would have expressed similar sentiments if Adrianne Shelly, the film's writer and director, hadn't been brutally murdered right before the movie opened. Good career move, I say.
2. Shoot 'Em Up -- I was literally in tears throughout the movie, thinking about all the boys across the country who were deriving pleasure from all this smug, hollow carnage and misogyny. I can't even stand to think about it.
3. Youth Without Youth -- Seeing this movie was Jon's idea. Sherman and I went with him, and the three of us sat in stony silence for the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. As soon as the words "THE END" appeared on the screen, Sherman and I got up and wordlessly walked out, while Jon followed behind us pleading "I'm so sorry, you guys, I'm so, so sorry..." We seriously contemplated asking for our money back. It was that kind of movie.

Most Pleasant Surprise:
Bratz: The Movie -- I saw this with Shapiro, Rie, and Jaya one summer night, planning to heckle and giggle our way through it. Little did we know how much fun we would actually have. The movie is absolutely crazy -- it's completely aware of how hacky and schlocky it is, and it milks its own ridiculousness to the point of being downright surreal. The integrity of its silliness was so strong, in its way, that I think it'll be just as much fun in twenty years as it was that summer night in 2007.

Biggest Disappointment:
Sweeney Todd -- Go figure that a Sondheim movie musical, of all things, would turn out so one-note. I chalk it up to the recharacterization of Mrs. Lovett from the gleefully amoral life of the party to a weepy, whispery, hyperfeminine little doll. With the fun part gone, the movie is dreary and dull, monochromatic both visually and emotionally. I would despair for the movie musical if it weren't for Across the Universe and Hairspray; happily, though, Sweeney Todd was the exception to the rule this year.

Most Overrated:
No Country for Old Men -- Maybe I would have been more impressed if it had been made by a first-time director. But, come on, it's the freaking Coen brothers! We've seen them pull out the exact same bag of tricks a dozen times. Like Tim Burton, they have ceased to impress me or interest me except on the most superficial level.

Most Underrated:
The Ten -- I had the good fortune to meet David Wain after the screening, and in my excitement I babbled out something like: "David Wain, I honestly believe that if you made plays instead of movies, your talent would get the appreciation it deserves. The Ten is art, neo-surrealist art, and if you worked in the theater it would be received that way, but in movies none of the critics take you seriously because you're too funny." He kind of blinked and said thank you, and I was instantly chagrined. However, I still feel that way.

Weirdest Main-Character Name:
Kale Brecht -- played by the equally weird-named Shia LaBoef in Disturbia.

Worst Line of Dialogue:
"Buildings sprout like chromosomes from the DNA of the streets." -- uttered by Jodie Foster in The Brave One

Knocked Up or Superbad?

Visual Aids
I'd hate it if there were no posts for the entire month of November, so at the last minute, here are some recent photos (mostly taken by Shapiro) to tide us over.


Little Edie Bouvier:

And me, driving her:

Suddenly Sebastian
When I got my car, I knew. It came to me quite naturally. The car, I realized quickly, wasn't an end in itself: it was a means to an end, and that end could be whatever I liked. What did I like? What did I want?

It was like a window had opened in my heart. Sunlight poured in and illuminated something I had known all along: I wanted a bird. I wanted a cockatiel.

I knew it even before the car was mine, actually. It first came to me in a dream, and then the signs just kept coming. The guy who sold me my car had a cockatiel in his house. A character on 30 Rock brought his pet cockatiel into his office. There was an article in the New York Times about a scientist who just redacted a paper he'd written 50 years ago, because creationists kept ignorantly citing it; in his photograph, the scientist had a cockatiel on his shoulder.

Tentatively, I sent my feelers out. I researched cockatiels on the Internet -- just out of curiosity, I told myself, just to look at the pictures. I went to the Pets section of Craigslist -- just checking it out, I told myself, just seeing what was out there. I saw an ad for a baby cockatiel, and I found myself sending the seller an e-mail -- just out of curiosity, I told myself, and I told no one else.

But to my shock, the seller actually e-mailed back, with pictures (oh, it was adorable) and a paragraph in friendly pink Comic Sans about how cute the baby bird was, so curious and playful, "almost like a puppy." Oh man. Oh, I wanted it. Secretly, I began trading e-mails. I spent class lectures making lists of possible bird names in my notebook. I doodled cockatiels on class handouts.

The longer the correspondence went on, though, the more nervous I got. I could come up with a million reasons not to get the bird. My house technically didn't allow pets (even though Al's bunny is an open secret). The seller lived too far away; I couldn't possibly drive there. I'd be so busy caring for the bird, I'd never see Sherman again. What would I do with the bird when I went home for winter break? And what on earth would people say when they found out?

The seller gave me a phone number and told me to call her, and I got into my accident at the DMV, and it was too much. I e-mailed her back and told her that the bird would be better off with someone else.

And yet I couldn't leave it alone. I kept going back to the pets section of Craigslist -- every day, then every hour, then every time I went online, then every minute. It got to the point that I no longer needed to run a search for "bird" or "cockatiel" (although, of course, I always continued to), because I saw every new ad almost as soon as it was posted.

A guy in Koreatown posted an ad for a male cockatiel that he had found in his back yard, abandoned in a cage, starving to death. Koreatown -- I could drive there! I e-mailed him. He wrote back and apologized: he had already sold it to someone else. I was so embarrassed I deleted the entire correspondence.

Weeks passed as I returned to Craigslist again and again and again. It was so compulsive that I began checking the site with Sherman in the room with me, sometimes even on his computer, although he didn't know. Nobody knew. Only my doodle-filled notebook and Firefox cache knew.

Finally, an ad was posted for "a wonderful male cockatiel, a little over a year old. I can't keep him in my apartment anymore." A description followed -- "He does squak [sic] a bit when he gets nervous or hungry" -- but I hadn't even read it before I was frantically banging out an e-mail that said, essentially, "I WANT IT I WANT IT I WANT IT PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE"

I sent it off and stared at my inbox, waiting for a response. I waited an hour. I had to go to class. I ran home from class and opened my inbox. Nothing. I returned to my inbox every minute for the rest of the day. Then the next day. Then it occurred to me that maybe I hadn't made it clear enough that I had bird experience, so I sent another email. And I waited, and waited. Had I gotten the address right? Yes, I had. Well, he hadn't taken the ad down yet, so there was hope. I waited. I waited. I could think of nothing else.

I had officially lost my mind.

When the ad finally disappeared and the e-mail address became invalid, I realized it was time to take action. Why was I just sitting and passively waiting for fate to drop a cockatiel into my lap? I was a grown woman with her own house and her own car. I could get my own damn cockatiel.

That afternoon, I composed a brief ad for Craigslist, entitled "I want a Cockatiel!" (I capitalized the word, in vague hopes that it would be an attention-grabber.)

"I'm a bird-loving young woman," it said. (I didn't specify that I was 20, or in college. What if they thought that was too young and irresponsible?) "I've previously owned lovebirds" (okay, one lovebird, and they didn't need to know how that worked out) "and budgie parakeets" (well, I'd...met some) "and now I really want a cockatiel. If you need a new owner for yours -- or if you know anyone else who does" (too desperate? well, I was desperate) "-- I'd give it a super loving home." (No question there.) "E-mail me if you can help!" (The exclamation point, I hoped, conveyed friendliness.)

What a ridiculous move, I thought as I posted the ad. One step up from posting a personal, really. Maybe even more pathetic. But I couldn't imagine that anyone would really respond to the ad (what, some random guy with an extra cockatiel just happened to be trawling Craigslist for potential buyers, without posting an ad himself?), so I figured it couldn't do any harm.

Later that day, an e-mail with the subject line "cocketiel" [sic] popped up in my inbox.
Hi there,
I have one that my sister sold me but i am unable to keep...I am asking 50.00...I paid 65.00 for him...would like him to go to a wonderful home and you said you've had previous experience with cocketiels....thx

The rest is kind of history.

The seller turned out to be a mother who lived in Long Beach, so I went on Google Maps and arranged to meet her at the halfway point on Saturday afternoon. It was in Compton, but I could get there using only side streets. She told me that she had three parakeets too and practically begged me to take them, but I declined politely.

All week, I was so excited I couldn't sleep. I stocked up on bird treats and read up on bird care. I watched countless YouTube videos that demonstrated how to clip wings. I was like an expectant mother, catching myself thinking: "I hope it's a boy, but if it turns out to be a girl, I'll love it just as much." I finally confessed to Sherman what had been going on. He was a little taken aback.

On Friday night, he and I drove up to Studio City to fill my car with vegetable oil. We bought it from an incredibly nice suburban dad who sold filtered waste vegetable oil out of his garage for $1.75 a gallon. He was the platonic ideal of a green-living citizen, with two veggie-converted Mercedes cars (covered with environmental-slogan bumper stickers) in the driveway, fluorescent light bulbs in the house, egg-laying chickens in the back yard, plans to convert to solar, a dog, a cat, a hamster, and the ecologically correct one rambunctious young son, who bounced around from a skateboard to a pogo stick to a tandem bicycle until he had exhausted all wholesome outdoor activities and returned inside to play with the animals. We filled the tank and stashed about eight extra gallons in the trunk, all for $35, and we drove off in a heavenly cloud of tempura smell.

The next day, I got into my car and drove down through Compton, into Gardena, up to South Gardena Park...I pulled up, looking for the woman...

And then I saw a woman in shorts pull a birdcage out of a black Ford Expedition, and in a daze I leaped out of my car and ran toward it and saw the slim little yellow-headed bird crouched at the bottom of the cage and fell madly, madly in love at first sight.

"Thanks so much for taking him!" the woman said. She was friendly but frazzled. Kids were absolutely pouring out of her car, cute Hispanic kids, all grade-school age -- I quickly counted five, but there seemed to be even more behind the tinted windows, plus a little chihuahua running around yapping at their ankles. "I wish I could keep him," she said, "but what with the kids, and the dog, plus I'm looking for a job -- it just isn't fair to the bird. Kids, will you help put the cage in her car?"

And in that moment, the cockatiel became mine.


It was obvious to me right away that the woman, as nice as she was, had been a terrible bird owner. For one thing, the cage was way too small -- the bird's tail was all mangled from where it scraped against the bottom. For another thing, the woman had never even let him out of the cage, let alone tried to handle him, so he arrived completely unused to human contact. Worst of all, he came with four different feeders, and they were all full of seeds. The cardinal sin! I'd been through this with Sadie, and I knew that converting a parrot from seeds to pellets is one of the most difficult challenges a human can face. (Imagine a kid who has grown up eating nothing but French fries, and trying to switch him to spinach.)

And yet, in spite of all that...the cockatiel was wonderful. I could already tell.

I sang to him during the whole drive home, whatever popped into my head -- old songs from chorus like the madrigal "Fair Phyllis" and Randall Thompson's "Allelulia," Rodgers & Hart's "Sing For Your Supper," showtunes like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady and "Ten Minutes Ago" from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella.

"What's your name?" I asked him. I had considered the name Arthur on the way over, but now that I had met him, he didn't look like an Arthur (though he was a male). "Is your name Stanley?" I asked him. "Or Clarence?" He just looked at me with frightened, beady black eyes.

"Don't be scared," I told him. "I love you. We're going to be friends."

As I drove, I realized why getting a bird had meant so much to me -- and why I had kept it a secret. I wanted to fix everything that had gone wrong when I was thirteen. This time, nothing would spoil it: no divorce, no schlepping the cage to comply with joint custody, no female territorial instincts, no biting, no crushing disappointment when it became clear how profoundly I had failed, no haunting guilt that I had ruined a sentient creature's life. This time, the bond between me and my bird would be pure. Nothing was going to come between us. There would only be love.

"Is your name Sebastian?" I asked him, but he just looked at me.

"Well, I'll call you Chester for now," I said. "Who's a pretty bird? Chester's a pretty bird!"


I brought Sherman over to meet the bird.

"When can we take him out of the cage?" Sherman demanded. "I want to play with him!"

I laughed. "We have to let him sit for a few days," I said. "He's still getting used to his new surroundings. Besides, he's never been played with before."

Sherman pouted, but we flopped onto my bed to admire the bird from across the room.

"Why don't you name him Sebastian?" Sherman asked suddenly. "He looks like a Sebastian."

That settled it for me. If two people thought of it independently, it must be true. His name was Sebastian. If anyone asked, I had named him after the saint.


Sebastian and I have been living together for three days now. He still won't come out of the cage, and he won't eat my delicious Concord grapes or even the bird treats I bought -- he just wants his seeds. He doesn't recognize a bath when I put one in his cage. He barely makes any noise, and he shies away whenever I put my hand near him, although he let me touch him tonight for one magical second. My housemates, and Sherman, keep asking me impatiently when they can play with him, and it's hard to make them understand.

I had a huge scare yesterday: I had opened the window to let in the breeze, and a cat jumped into my bedroom to attack Sebastian! I was busy reading at the time, and if I hadn't heard those paws banging against the cage, God knows what would have happened. Now I have one more reason to hate cats.

Still, there's a sweetness. My mom was ecstatic when I called her to tell her. Sherman is so in love with Sebastian that he's been talking about getting a pet of his own (a hedgehog? a ferret? something that's not illegal in California?). When Sebastian sleeps, or eats, or preens, he is the most beautiful creature in the world. And when I sing "Moon River" to him, it hypnotizes him.

And today, I think I actually taught him a trick. Or, rather, I created a Pavlovian association in his mind and backed it up with positive reinforcement. The trick is this: I whistle, he bobs his head like he's trying to shake off a fly, and I praise him ("Good bird!"). It won't get us into any circus, but it's definitely not a coincidence -- he does it now whenever I whistle. Sadie, for her part, never learned any tricks. And unlike Sadie, he doesn't bite.

My goal is to get him out of the cage by the end of the week. I have faith that if I can just get him out of the cage, and clip his wings, the rest will be cake. He has such wonderful potential, and I'm rather glad I wound up with him instead of an easy handfed baby from a breeder or a pet store. If nothing else, I can say I'm giving him the life he deserves.

Only once did I feel a pang of regret, when today an e-mail popped up in my inbox:
Ma'am I have a very tamed cockatiel who needs loving home, im just asking
for a small adoption fee of $60 please let me know if you are interested.
Thank you.
"Very tamed." Fuck!

I can't get too upset, though. Sebastian is magical. All birds are magical.

A Fish Flashback
I don't know why, but I recently remembered this.

I was about fifteen or sixteen; my cousin Anya must have been about three or four -- at that stage where we could have a conversation as I pushed her around in her stroller. We were at the fair, in Connecticut. Her parents must have been there too, but for some reason, there was an interval during which Anya and I were left alone together. It was just the two of us, me pushing her in the stroller, across the grass, in the spring sunshine, past the booths and games and screaming children and loud rickety rides. I think she was wearing a little hat, to protect her from the sun.

As we passed by a booth, Anya cried out, "Oh, look! Fishies!"

It was a game where you had to throw a baseball into an empty fishbowl. If the ball landed in the bowl three times in a row, you won a prize. The prize was...a live goldfish, in a little plastic bag of water. You could see them all suspended in rows on a shelf, like glittering orange jewels.

Anya didn't even have to ask: her eyes were the size of the fishbowls, and a goldfish was reflected in each one. I asked her, "Want me to win you a fish?"

Her face lit up like she hadn't dared to hope for such a thing. She bounced up and down with excitement in her stroller as I wheeled her over to the booth and said imperiously, "Four balls, please." I felt so cool. I was going to win my cousin a pet, and she would remember the gesture for the rest of her life.

The girl working at the booth was black, sullen, and huge. Wordlessly, she held out her palm, and I handed her three dollars. Anya watched as I threw the baseballs.

The first one missed. Damn it. "Bad throw," I said to Anya. "I'll get the next one."

I threw again, and of course, it missed. The next one bounced off the rim of the fishbowl, but didn't get in. But the fourth one made it in!

"I think I've got the hang of it!" I said. "I'll play again, and this time I promise I'll win you that fish, Anya."

She watched hopefully as I dug the last three bills out of my wallet and handed them to the unsmiling black girl, who handed me four more balls.

I threw the first one clear into the bowl, and then the second one. "See, I've got it!" I told Anya. She clapped her hands.

The third and fourth balls missed.

I deflated. "I guess it's no use," I said. "Come on, let's go."

She pouted. "Nooo!" she cried. "Please try again! Please please please!"

"But I don't have any more money," I tried to explain, and then I had a thought. I stuck my hand into my pocket. "Wait..."

Miraculously, I pulled out three crumpled dollar bills. I'd had no idea they existed, and God knows how long they'd been in there.

"It's a sign," I whispered.

We got four more baseballs. "Go, Frankie!" cheered Anya. "Win the fish! Win the fish!"

I threw the first ball. It missed.

I gritted my teeth. Never in my life had I ever been so determined to accomplish something. It wasn't even about the fish anymore. This would be the most important symbolic feat since the destruction of the Berlin Wall. It would be remembered and talked about for generations to come. I would be a hero.

The windup, and the pitch...

The ball landed in the bowl.

Anya shrieked. "Just two more!" she calculated.

My hand was shaking as I took the third ball in my hand and clumsily threw it.

The ball landed in the bowl.

Anya was squirming with joy, squealing: "One more! I'm gonna get a fish! I'm gonna get a fish!"

I took the last ball into my hand. This was the big moment. Underhand or overhand? I hadn't tried underhand as much, but the bowls were close and underhand seemed like a better bet. I tossed the ball...

It bounced off the rim of the bowl.

It bounced onto the rim of the bowl next to it.

It seemed to hover...

It bounced onto the floor.

I braced myself as I turned to look at Anya, ready to accept a tantrum, an accolade of accusations, whatever she felt I deserved for my failure as an older cousin.

But she didn't react that way. She managed a tight, sad little nod of acceptance. Her lower lip trembled, and her eyes filled with tears, but she didn't say a word. She was showing me, silently, that she understood. She was such a good girl.

I didn't know what to say. "I'm so sorry..." I murmured. "I tried..." But of course she knew I'd tried my best. "I wish I could...but I'm all out of..."

We turned to leave, a picture of heartbreak -- and then, wordlessly, the huge sullen black girl took something out of a box, something small and orange, and held it out to us in the palm of her hand.

A rubber goldfish.

I took it from her, confused -- "How much do I pay for--?" -- but the girl wouldn't even look me in the eye. She had returned, scowling, to her post at the back of the booth.

I presented the fish to Anya, who lit up like New York on Christmas. I've never seen a face transform so suddenly from grief into such pure, surprised joy. She held out her hands and took the fish, her eyes wide, her mouth open, like she couldn't believe it was really hers.

"My fishie!" she was exclaiming. "I got my fishie!"

It didn't matter that the fish was lost within a matter of days, or that the girl at the booth wouldn't respond to my thanks, or that I had blown all my money on that game, or that I've still never won a game at a fair, because, of course, they are all totally rigged.

I don't mind any of that. All I really remember is wheeling that stroller across the grass, in the spring sunshine, past the booths and games and screaming children and loud rickety rides, with Anya in her little hat to protect her from the sun, cupping the rubber fish in adoring hands and looking up at me with big brown eyes and a huge grin as she tells me, "I'm gonna name him George!"

Curb My Enthusiasm
As people never cease to remind me, it's illegal to drive a car without insurance, at least in L.A. I knew it was an urgent matter, but I figured it wouldn't be smart to buy car insurance before my car was properly registered -- heck, the damn thing didn't even have license plates yet! But because of Columbus day, and then because of a busy class schedule, it was a few days before I could make the trip to the DMV. Today was the day.

My first mistake, I realized as I pulled into the parking lot, was not having made an appointment. I cringed in anticipation of the worst as I walked through the automatic doors -- but the line wasn't too long. It moved fairly quickly, and within a few minutes it was my turn. I was given a number and told to wait.

My number was B160. I consulted the video monitor: they were currently on B133, as well as various numbers in the C, G, H, and J family.

My second mistake, I knew then, was not having brought a book.

I did what I do best and entertained myself. First I decided to pretend I was in another country. That wasn't too difficult, as I was the only white person there, and almost everyone around me was speaking Spanish; plus, the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit, humanity-packed DMV put me in mind of a Soviet bread line or embassy.

When that stopped being fun, I tried to read a Spanish newspaper, La Opinión, that someone had left on the seat next to me. The California-politics section was incomprehensible to me, but I had much better luck with the Entertainment section. I slogged my way through a Spanish-language interview with America Ferrara. How did she feel about having won the title of Hispanic Woman of the Year? She was very honored to be in the company of so many other influential women who had paved the road for her, and she was proud to set a positive role model for the Latino community. Did she ever get mistaken for Mexican? Yes, but it didn't bother her.

I had just finished an article entitled "Lindsay Lohan aprende la lección" when they called out my number.

I gave my paperwork to the DMV worker, a light-skinned middle-aged black man who wore glasses and a spring-green T-shirt. "And you are?" he asked me, in a magnificently resonant middle-aged-black-man voice.


"Your name," he said shortly.

I was embarrassed; I was afraid that if I revealed what an idiot I was, he would refuse to register my car. I told him.


I started to show him my driver's license; that was a mistake too. "You need to get your vehicle verified," he explained. "Just drive it around to the side of the building, and when they're done verifying it, come back to this window and I'll finish your registration. It shouldn't take too long."

He had been kind to me, despite my Terri-Schiavo-ness, and I thanked him very sincerely as I went back out to the parking lot.

I spent a few tedious minutes in a long line of cars before I realized I had made another mistake: I was in line for a driving test. No need for that anymore! Pleased, I drove into the Verification lane, whose line was much shorter.

My car was inspected by a pretty but no-nonsense black woman named Tiffany. As she looked under the hood and peered at the dashboard, I stood outside the car and noticed some faint graffiti that appeared to have been keyed into the yellow paint. It was two words, but I couldn't make them out -- they seemed to begin with a K and an S. Had they been there when I bought the car? Had someone keyed my car since then?

"You're free to go," said Tiffany.

"Thanks," I said vaguely and got back into the car, still worried about the graffiti. Preoccupied, I drove out of the lane, made a sharp right turn, and realized a few yards later that I had made a mistake. I must have gone the wrong way somehow -- I had reached a dead end, and the only way out of it was onto a one-way street that went the opposite way I needed to go. How did I get back to the DMV parking lot?

Puzzled, I did a careful U-turn, praying that no one else would make the same sharp right and crash into me. As I drove slowly back the way I had come, my cell phone began to ring.

This was no time to answer my phone, and I didn't want to risk taking my eyes off the road to silence it, either. I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore its insistent tri-tone shrilling as I searched for a way out, or even a parking space so I could just walk back into the DMV from here...

Ring ring ring ring (Who had keyed my car?) ring ring ring (I had an hour left before my class started -- would I make it?) ring ring ring (Who the hell was calling me?!)

There seemed to be a bunch of cars parked to the left of the verification lane, under the I-10 overpass. Maybe I could park there. I drove toward it.

It was quite dark under the overpass, but even as my eyes adjusted I could see a space between two parked cars, big enough for mine. I decided to give it a try, and I switched into reverse, beginning the excruciating parallel-parking process...

Then I noticed a sign that said "AUTHORIZED PARKING ONLY." Was I authorized? Well, I was a DMV customer, wasn't I? And even if I wasn't authorized, I was only going to be here for a few minutes...

And then I noticed a line of cars behind me; it looked like they couldn't get past me and I was creating a traffic jam. Another mistake! Totally confused and lost by this time, I switched out of reverse and drove forward...


I winced at having bumped the parked car in front of me -- and then I saw all the shards of orange plastic exploding out from where I'd hit it. I'd shattered something.

For a minute I was too freaked out to move. I'd never been in an accident before. I was always so careful, I never thought I could. Gasping for breath, my heart pounding, I opened the door and ran to the front of my car to see what had happened.

My first reaction was intense relief: the shattered headlight was mine, not the other car's. In fact, the other car -- a little silver Toyota -- seemed to be pretty much okay, as far as I could tell. Thank God! Maybe I could just drive away and pretend nothing had happened...

But that possibility vanished as a small crowd of black women, all apparently DMV workers, rushed to form a circle around me. "Oh my god!" they were yelling.

"Is this your car?" I cried, to every woman I saw. "I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry! Is this your car?"

"No," one of them finally said to me, "it's our coworker's car. One of us is running to get him and he should be here soon."

I got back into my car and wanted to curl up and hide in it, but the women were bossing me around, directing me how to get out of the lane and parallel-park in the original spot. "Back up!" they yelled, waving their arms like air-traffic controllers. "Back up, back up! Little more! Little more! No, too much! Okay, now go forward!"

I began to sniffle, and several tears dropped onto my shirt. Nothing, nothing could possibly be so humiliating as this...

"He's here!" they yelled.

And the car's owner ran up past my car, knelt down to inspect the back of the little silver Toyota...

My sniffles caught in my throat.

When I was a little girl, I remember, I once asked my mom: "What does horrified mean? Like, when would a person be horrified?" She thought for a moment, and then she answered, "Bambi was horrified when he saw his mother get shot."

Well, Bambi had nothing on me right now.

It could not be, I thought frantically. It could not be. This was a dream. I would close my eyes, and when I opened them, the car's owner would not be a light-skinned middle-aged black man wearing glasses and a spring-green T-shirt...

With my eyes closed, I heard a magnificently resonant middle-aged-black-man voice in my ear: "Ma'am?"

I opened my eyes, and all I could do was sob: "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm so sorry I'll pay for everything I promise I'm so sorry..."

Naturally, he seemed pretty surprised to see me, but the next thing out of his mouth was: "Do you have insurance?"

And that's when I fell apart.


Once again, he was kind to me. He told me his name was Joe and assured me that the damage wasn't too bad, just a scratch or a dent ("I'LL PAY WHATEVER IT COSTS TO FIX IT" I wailed), and wouldn't cost too much to fix. He already had my personal information, of course, and there wasn't much more we could do at the moment -- except go back to the DMV and finish the registration process.

He filled out the final paperwork and I sniffled all the while, murmuring apologies like a Hare Krishna chant.

He handed me the registration sheet. The last words out of his mouth were stern and resonant: "You HAVE to get insurance."


I barely trusted myself to drive home, but I didn't have a choice. It was a short trip, but as it was, I fucked up a left turn and, in my panic, nearly hit a Hispanic mother pushing her baby in a stroller. Okay, I didn't come that close, but it was wrong not to have stopped and waited, and she gave me an extremely dirty look. A bus driver honked at me, and when I made eye contact with him, gave me a look of extreme reproach, gesturing to the mother and child -- how could I?

A bus driver! Honking at me! But I love bus drivers!

I parked in front of my house and walked to class. As I walked, I reflected. Walking in L.A., you don't run into many people, but when you do, they usually tend to be nice. They'll smile at you, maybe; they'll get out of your way uncomplainingly if you're walking fast. Maybe you'll laugh at something their kids are doing, and they'll give you a wry look.

Back when I was just a perpetual passenger in other people's cars, I used to think that driving in L.A. made you isolated from other people -- turned you into the one sentient being in a sea of faceless machines. But now I know that isn't the whole truth. Drivers in L.A. do interact with each other, when they're angry. And they're always angry. And who can blame them? As far as any driver is concerned, other drivers are an inconvenience at best and a severe hazard at worst. There's never any reason not to wish that all other drivers would disappear.

No wonder L.A. is so mean. I want to go home.

My First Car: A Craigslist Adventure
I'm not sure when it occurred to me that I should get a car. Maybe it was that afternoon I spent lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, experimenting with scratching out a freckle on my arm using nail clippers, the minutes turning to hours as day turned to night. Maybe it was that Saturday I decided to take an invigorating walk around the neighborhood -- five minutes into it, as I trudged through South Central's hot stinking swamp of rotting garbage and car exhaust and homeless people, I was in tears; trying to escape a dirty and strange-smelling man who kept following me and urging me to join his church and wouldn't leave me alone even when I told him to, I ran to the Rose Garden on Exposition Boulevard and lay on a stone bench and sobbed until I felt sick. Or maybe it started in Bakersfield all those weeks ago, as Sherman and I sat in the Volvo dealership like people receiving bad news in a hospital waiting room, struggling to comprehend the loss of his car. That was quite a while ago, but it was, I believe, the seed.

At any rate, I started looking on Craigslist.

By this point I'd been living carless in L.A. for over two years, and as much as I complained about how difficult this situation was, I had in this time amassed quite a compelling list of reasons not to change it. There were the practical concerns: I really couldn't drive! (It was a pure fluke that I somehow passed the test the second time. I think my teacher was senile, or maybe he just wanted to humor me, knowing that my license would get revoked the next time I got behind the wheel.) Where would I put a car? (My current house has a lovely Indonesian-themed back garden instead of a parking lot.) And how would I pay for it? (Never mind that I had certainly earned enough money over the summer to buy a cheapo car -- what if I needed that money for something important?)

But I had moral and ethical compunctions, too, and unlike the practical ones, they weren't just sour grapes. No one is more passionate than I am about the environment. No one gets as frantic as I do at news reports of shrinking Arctic ice, or scientific line charts that begin to spike terrifyingly around 1950, or even an exceptionally warm day. I couldn't even bring myself to see An Inconvenient Truth. And when I think of all the L.A. residents who can't fulfill a single basic need without driving several miles and spewing toxic emissions into the already-palpably-smog-choked-and-visibly-brown Los Angeles air, until they run out of gasoline and buy more and thus indirectly support the Iraq war, the U.S.'s sucking up to Saudi Arabia all like "Wait, what happened on September 11th?", the whole military-industrial complex, the oil drilling in irreplaceable and magnificent wild parts of the Arctic, OH MY GOD THE FUCKING WORLD IS ENDING BECAUSE OF AMERICANS AND THEIR CARS!!!!!

Those were my feelings on the matter. And so, tentatively, I began to search Craigslist for alternatives.

And I found this:

A 1979 diesel Mercedes, converted to run on vegetable oil -- normal cooking vegetable oil that you could buy from a grocery store, or waste vegetable oil recycled from local restaurants (which are happy to give it away for free, since they have no use for it themselves), or biodiesel, which basically is vegetable oil only not technically illegal; or, in a pinch, even regular diesel. Burning vegetable oil releases carbon emissions, yes -- but only the carbon that was absorbed by the plant while it was growing, so ultimately the process is quite literally carbon-neutral. And, I'd heard, it smells so good -- "like you're cooking," "like French fries," "like Chinese food," or "like a clam shack," depending on whom I asked.

Also, the car cost $3500.

Also, it was bright yellow!

Tentatively, over the Internet, I broached the subject with my mom, in such a way that she would believe it was her own idea.

"I'll start looking, and let you know," she declared. "I'll e-mail around and find out from my LA pals what the ways are to find a good cheap car."

"If I find one that looks like a good candidate," I asked her, "can I go for it?"

"Sure," she said.

"So, for example," I said, "can I call this guy?" And I sent her the Craigslist link.

"OMG!!!" she said. "But this will cost a BUNDLE, won't it?"

She was not used to Craigslist. I patiently pointed out to her that the price was listed at the top of the ad.

"WHOA," she said. "GRAB IT."

And so it was practically on a whim that I picked up the phone and called the number in the ad -- but the next thing I knew, a soft-voiced guy had offered to drive the car to my house the next morning so that I could take it for a spin.

All night, my intestines twisted themselves into knots of anticipation. I hadn't driven since last Christmas, the day I got my license; and before that, I hadn't even been behind the wheel since last August -- over a year ago! There was no way I would remember how to drive. There was no way this guy would sell his car to me. I couldn't even remember, off the top of my head, which was the accelerator and which was the brake...

I called Sherman. "You have to be there to help me!" I whined.

"Of course I will," he said. "Just call me before he gets there and I'll come over."

I was changing my clothes the next morning when my phone rang. I happened to be stark naked, but I answered it anyway. It was the dude: he was on his way. Still naked, hopping up and down with excitement, I called Sherman.

"Whaaa?" a ghost of a voice answered on the other end. He was clearly still sleeping, and I hung up without another word, knowing he wouldn't even remember the call later. I was on my own.

And in just a few minutes my phone rang again -- the car was outside. I ran out.

It was love at first sight. I had never seen another car like it, and never, it seemed to me, another car so beautiful -- that friendly rounded 1970s look, that cheerful 1970s lemonade color, and, oh, the interior was green!

I nodded and tried to look attentive as the seller walked me around the car, pointing out its various dents and scratches and areas where it appeared to have been repainted over the years. I didn't care about the dents. I didn't care that it had no air conditioner or right-hand side-view mirror. All I could think was "MINE MINE MINE MINE MINE"

"So, wanna take it for a test drive?" the dude asked. He was fat, with long greasy black hair in a ponytail, and a scruffy goatee. I couldn't tell if he was sincere or a snake. I couldn't even tell what ethnicity he was; my first thought was Native American, but Sherman and I later guessed Filipino, with Hispanic as my second guess.

I gulped and got into the driver's seat. I was shaking so hard that when I pressed my foot onto the accelerator, it pushed the car forward in anxious little jerks. But as I drove, things began to come back to me, and after a few blocks I didn't want to stop. I knew how to do this. I could do this.

"So what do you think?" the dude asked when I had pulled up beside my house again.

I hesitated. I didn't want to say anything that would make me look naïve, though I knew it was no use; when it comes to cars, my naïveté can be detected from outer space. In my haughtiest and most knowing voice, I said, "Well, I think I like it, but I don't know too much about cars, so before I commit any further I'd like to have my boyfriend take a look at it. He knows a lot about cars."

I was bluffing, on the theory that if this dude's car was really a lemon, the threat of an expert would scare the truth out of him, Perry-Mason-style. But he just nodded agreeably and asked if tomorrow would be good.

He drove off; I went into my house and did a little ecstasy dance.


Sherman nodded and tried to look attentive as the seller, whose name I still hadn't caught, walked him around the car and pointed out its dents and scratches and paint job. Sherman asked smart questions, using words like "torque" and "transmission" and "gear shift" and other man-isms that were all Greek to me. I was glad he was there -- now the guy must know I meant business.

"So what do you think?" I asked Sherman excitedly, once we were alone.

"It looks okay to me," he said. "But, I mean, I really don't know that much about cars..."


It was time for Phase Three: have the car taken to a real, objective mechanic. On a friend's recommendation, I made an appointment with a guy in Culver City who had an Indian accent and an unpronounceable name. I couldn't wait to have him look at the car and tell me that everything was super. I had a real optimistic feeling about the whole thing -- after all, Sherman had said it seemed "okay"! And Sherman really seemed to know what he was talking about! After all, he knew about torque!

The seller picked me up at my house again, and I admired the beautiful sunny day as we sped down the freeway (I had requested that he do the driving), though I wished slightly for air conditioning. We chatted amiably, if a little awkwardly; he mentioned that he had recently spotted Penn, of Penn and Teller, in a restaurant, and he told me about his side business renting out old classic cars to movie sets.

We pulled up at the garage next to another, peach-colored diesel Mercedes -- a good sign. The mechanic was neatly dressed, especially for a mechanic; he wore a trim white mustache and a stern, unsmiling expression. Sourly, he loaded the car onto one of those metal machines and levitated it high above our heads. I was beside myself; I thought that was the coolest thing ever.

The seller and I stood by while the mechanic inspected the underside of the car. "I filled it with vegetable oil this morning," said the seller to me. "Can you smell it?"

Now that he mentioned it, I could. To my nose, it smelled like Chinese food. I couldn't wait to tell people: "My car's exhaust smells like Chinese food!" My car, I thought. My car my car, my lovely lady car...Inspiration struck me: I decided to name it Little Edie Bouvier. Because it was old and eccentric and from the 1970s -- and because it was staunch.

"The transmission leaks," announced the mechanic, snapping me out of my thoughts.

"What?!" said the seller. "I just had that looked at!" He went up to investigate.

"The oil filter leaks too," said the mechanic.

"Can that be fixed?" I asked.

"Everything can be fixed," he answered, vaguely and philosophically. He walked around to the other side. "The sharks need to be replaced."


"The sharks," he seemed to say, and I was too embarrassed to ask him to clarify.

"Just the front ones, though, right?" asked the seller.

"No," said the mechanic. "The back ones. Especially the back ones. And the alignment."

"I just had the car realigned," protested the seller.

"You need to have it realigned again after you replace the sharks," the mechanic shot back. I had no idea what he was saying, but I felt like my heart needed to be realigned.

The seller's phone rang; he walked off to answer it, and for a moment, I was alone with the mechanic. He showed me a list he'd written of everything that was wrong with the car -- it seemed to go on forever. I squinted at the list, hoping to understand what he'd meant by "sharks," but his handwriting was messy and the word appeared to my eyes as "sharks."

"All these repairs," he concluded, "they will come to maybe $750, is my estimate." He looked me straight in the eye. "You want my opinion?" he said. "Honest to God, is not good car." He shrugged. "But now, it is between you and him."


On the ride home, I could barely speak.

"I can get those repairs done for much less than the mechanic estimated," the seller assured me. "I know people. I can get good deals. But if you want to go through with all the repairs, we're going to have to talk about how much you're willing to contribute to them, financially. You don't have to cover it all -- but, like, how much are you willing?"

"I'll have to think about it," I said in a small voice.


I thought about it. I slept on it. I tried to be reasonable and sensible and cold and calculating and ruthless.

But in the end, my heart won.

I called the guy back. He told me that the repairs would cost $600, and suggested I pay half. I agreed, and offered to pay a $100 deposit straight up.

"Should I write you a check?" I asked.

"Cash would be better," he said. "I don't have a bank account."

I closed my eyes and ground my teeth and strained against every cell in my brain that was screaming at me This is sketchy and wrong and you are an idiot, Frankie. "Okay," I said.

He drove up to my door in the middle of the night. It was dark, but I could tell it was my car by the Chinese food smell. I pulled the cash out of my wallet and handed it to him. It felt just like a drug deal, except I didn't get any drugs. I didn't get anything, except a sense of foreboding.

I am not a complete idiot -- I did make him sign a piece of paper on which I had scrawled: "I accept this depost for $100 on the understanding that if the mechanic deems the repairs to the car unsatisfactory, or if Frankie Thomas is in any other way unsatisfied with them, the deposit is to be returned to her."

It was only when I examined his signature that I learned his name.


Part of me really never expected to hear from him again. But he called me regularly over the next few days, keeping me up to date on the repair process. After a week or so, he was ready to show the car to the mechanic again.

I couldn't go on Friday; I had a class. I asked if we could wait till Monday.

"I'd really like to have this done by Saturday morning," he said. "After that I'm going out of town."

"The mechanic doesn't work on weekends," I said.

"How about I go to him by myself?" he suggested.

So he did, and when I got out of class, he called me and put the mechanic on the line.

"Is the car fixed?" I asked him anxiously.

"I can tell you it is fixed today," he answered grumpily. "Whether it breaks tomorrow, I do not know. But the leaks are sealed. The sharks are replaced. The alignment is better. That is all I can tell you for now."

I got back on the phone with the seller and agreed to buy the car from him early the next morning.

I went to bed happy that night and had the most wonderful dream. I dreamed I owned a pet cockatiel -- a bright yellow one.


He was an hour late the next morning, and by the time he showed up I was nearly ill with anxiety.

"So how do you want to do this?" I asked him.

"Well," he said, "we'll go to your bank, and you'll have them give you the cash."

I was highly skeptical that this would work, but as I had no other option, I directed him to the First Republic bank downtown. He said he'd wait in the car while I went inside and, as he put it, did what I needed to do.

It was one of those stupid moments in which I had walked right up to the door and my hand had been tugging the door handle for several seconds before I realized that it was locked and the bank was empty and then I saw the sign: "FIRST REPUBLIC BANK WILL BE CLOSED ON SATURDAY AND MONDAY, IN OBSERVANCE OF COLUMBUS DAY WEEKEND."

I went back to the car and told the dude the bad news.

"Maybe my girlfriend can help," he said. He called her at work; she did some Internet research and told him that the First Republic bank in Beverly Hills was open, for some reason.

Off to Beverly Hills we went. Once we got there I realized I'd never been in that neighborhood before -- the richness surrounding me was mind-blowing. Every store was either a nice bank or a fashion boutique, and even the cars around us were glitzy and shiny and new.

We found my bank; I got out of the car, and once again, I tugged at the door handle for an embarrassingly long moment before I noticed the sign, with a cute Clipart picture of a merchant ship in honor of Columbus day. Closed.

I dreaded going back to the car, but the dude was unfazed. He spent a minute on the phone and then informed me that "Robert" would help. We'd meet Robert at the Wells Fargo bank in Santa Monica; I'd fill out the check to Robert, and Robert would cash it right then and there, giving the cash to the seller. "I'd have you fill it out to my girlfriend," he said, "except she lives paycheck to paycheck, so they'd put a hold on it, and I really need to cash it today, since I'm going out of town."

"Is Wells Fargo open?" I wondered.

"All the banks are open today, apparently," he said, "except your fucked-up bank."

He turned out to be right. We parked in the Wells Fargo parking lot and went into the bank, where Robert was waiting for us, sitting on a sofa and doing the crossword in the Santa Monica Times.

I hadn't known what to expect, but it certainly wasn't this: Robert was very, very old. He had a fluffy white Santa Claus beard and thick owlish glasses that perched on the bridge of his nose above a mysterious, fresh-looking puncture wound. He wore a floppy hat with big decaying feathers sticking out of the back, and his pants were pulled up almost to his armpits, the way old people's pants are required to be.

"Hi, Robert," said the seller. "This is Frankie."

"What?" croaked the old man. "What's this? What are we doing here?"

"The plan is," the seller explained, "Frankie's going to write a check out to you, and you're going to cash it right here."

"What?" said Robert. "Oh, no, I can't do that. That's just not possible."

My face fell. The seller tried to explain again, but Robert was staunch.

"I can't afford to get involved in something so risky, not nowadays," he said, shaking his head so the feathers in his hat rustled. "You know I have no income to speak of these days -- just the monthly pensions -- and everything I have goes to Rita. I must be thinking of Rita all the time, you know. They've put her in a home now -- Alzheimer's."

"But it's not risky," said the seller.

"What? I can't hear you!"

"It's not risky! This is Frankie, and all she's going to do is write you a check for the amount she owes me."

"But I can't guarantee it," said Robert, rocking back and forth anxiously. "I can't guarantee the amount. What if I end up with a bad check? I can't afford to deal with a bad check right now -- I have to think of Rita!"

"Oh, but the check won't be bad," I assured him. "I'm very conscientious about my money. I promise it's all there." Even as I spoke, though, I felt myself getting paranoid. What if the check was bad?

"What?" said Robert. "What did she say?"

Eventually, we managed to persuade him. Very skeptically, Robert rose to his feet, groaning and creaking, as I wrote out the check. "Don't touch my crossword," he growled as he shuffled to the teller window. "That's my crossword. I don't like it when other people fill in my crossword."

"Don't worry, Robert, I won't go near it," said the seller pleasantly.

"Um...how do you know him?" I asked delicately, once Robert was out of earshot.

"He's my girlfriend's stepdad," he said, and then, by way of explanation: "He's old."

I glanced at the Santa Monica Times. Next to the crossword was the horoscope. Mine advised me, "Tonight, be the big cheese in your life." Sherman's said, "Spend tonight indulging the needs of your loved one." I made a mental note to tell him.

Robert came shuffling back with a fat envelope. "I can't vouch for the money in here," he said. "I didn't count it all. They might have stiffed you. It's not my fault if they did."

The seller counted out the bills, and I did too, under my breath. They were all there.

We thanked Robert and bade him farewell.

"Hey, are you hungry?" the seller asked me as we got back into the car. "I haven't eaten all day. I know a great burger place around here."

That was how I had an excellent lunch at a very trendy establishment where I could have sworn I saw Sandra Bullock sitting in the corner. As we waited for our food, we shared stories about our lives -- he described growing up in Brentwood, observing the citywide curfew during the Rodney King riots, seeing the O.J. Simpson car chase, and his adventures working as a truck driver for Frito-Lay. We shared an order of curly fries; he had a teriyaki burger, and I had a burger with Monterey Jack, guacamole, and sour cream. He didn't believe I could eat the whole thing, but I finished even before he did. And on top of all that, he insisted on paying for everything.

Our final stop was his house, where we would complete the paperwork for the transaction.

"Can I use your bathroom?" I asked as we pulled up. I had to go so badly that as we entered his apartment I didn't even notice anything about it, aside from how messy it was. I hightailed it to the bathroom.

When I came out, I didn't see him right away. Then I saw that he was sitting on the couch. And then I saw something that made me gawk. At first I thought I was hallucinating -- but it was real.

"You have a macaw!" I gasped.

Sure enough, the giant multicolored parrot was sitting on his arm, stretching out its enormous, unclipped wings to reveal the spectacular yellow flight feathers beneath the shimmering blue-green surface feathers. With its ferociously sharp black beak, it was gently preening its owner's hair, beard, eyebrows, eyelashes, and making soft little vocalizations...

"This is Scooter," he said. "I've had her for twelve years. She's my daughter. You like birds?"

Mesmerized, without thinking, I reached out my hand toward her.

"She'll bite," he warned me.

Duh. I pulled my hand back. "What kind of macaw is she?" I asked. I thought I knew everything there was to know about parrots, but this kind -- blue and green and yellow and orange -- was unfamiliar to me.

"She's a miligold," he said. "Cross between a military macaw and a blue-and-gold macaw."

"Does she talk?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, and as he listed the words Scooter knew, I looked around the room. There was Scooter's gigantic, shit-splattered mess of a cage, and on top of that cage...

...there was another cage, a smaller cage, with another, smaller bird in it.

It was a bright yellow cockatiel. Exactly like the one from my dream.

At that moment, the seller could have said to me, "Oh, by the way, I'm going to have to ask you for another hundred thousand dollars," and I would have forked it over unquestioningly. That was the kind of state I was in.

Instead, he told me, "My dad's from Syria, where it's not part of the culture to have furry animals in the house -- it would be like, in this country, having a pet bear. So when I was growing up we were only allowed to have birds and reptiles and fish -- and, well, reptiles and fish are boring."

Then he filled out the paperwork, adding an extra form that slightly bent the truth to ease my tax burden. He took me around back to show me his vegetable-oil-pumping contraption; and then, with Scooter still perched on his shoulder, he took me out front to the car. He gave me a few last-minute tips on how to deal with any potential problems. He gave me directions back to my house using only side streets.

Then he handed me the keys.

I watched him and Scooter go; I didn't want to drive until they couldn't see me. I'd never driven alone before and I didn't want to embarrass myself.

When they were gone I got into the driver's seat, adjusted it to fit my tiny self, buckled my seat belt, and put the key in the ignition. I shifted into Drive and floored the accelerator.

And then, in my very own bright-yellow 1979 Mercedes that ran on vegetable oil, I was off.

I'm in the New York Times!
Now that the essays are posted, I guess I can finally make it public: I'm one of four runners-up in the New York Times College Essay Contest.

Here's mine.

“Can you,” I asked, all half-asleep, “do you,
like, ever find yourself in—not a dream,
but can you close your eyes and sort of seem
to travel to a place you want to go?
Someplace you’ve been before—” He answered, “No.”
He said, “I figure problems out, instead.”
“Big problems?” “No—like puzzles in my head.”
And then he rambled on about how glass,
when shatterproofed, forms interlocking squares,
and how, when gazing at them during class,
he saw them interlock in blocks and pairs—
a simple game, “Pachinko” was the word
I think he used—in truth, I barely heard,
because somehow I wasn’t even there:
I’d closed my eyes and whoosh, Washington Square,
as if I’d hailed a magic cab that night
whose driver ran a space-and-time red light.

For real, though, I was breathing New York air!
I saw, I knew each brick, leaf, everywhere,
and all around me N.Y.U. kids shrieked,
skateboarding, necking, laughing, pierced and streaked;
the dogs ran in the dog run, flanked by chess;
autumnal breezes blew the New York Press
in smudgy flapping fragments (like a flock
of interrupted pigeons) down the block—
and like a ghost, I didn’t have to walk,
or even float, so much as kind of flow,
and when I tried, I even made it snow!
It clung, lit up from inside by the lights
inside it, to the Arch—glowed blue and gold,
and like New Yorkers storming New York nights
in crowds, flakes fell too fast to feel the cold.

Spooned up behind me, Sherman didn’t know
that I was gone and couldn’t if I tried
come back—instead, I realized, I could go
around forever on the Lower West Side
and not get lost, though often turned around,
surprised to have forgotten things I found
(what street, what store, displayed those Barbie dolls
dressed head to toe in custom dyed-fur shawls?)
—his arms around me, Sherman couldn’t tell
I couldn’t hear him and I might as well
have been submerged in faraway aquaria
(the silver scales of New York fish swish past,
its crabs and bubbles lurk the coral area,
its eels brush past my skin), soundproof and glassed.

And since last night I’ve been around the world—
to Amsterdam, for cool and faded stone;
to Switzerland, for quiv’ring branches pearled
with snow I haven’t seen in years; alone
I wander Paris, murmuring French words;
Miami’s Parrot Jungle, stormed by birds;
New England’s rocky beaches and its smells
of squirting clams slurped out of shattered shells
and I don’t hear what my professors say
and I don’t care about my G.P.A.
because already I’ve escaped away
to where the world is cold or old or gay
or gray or anywhere that’s not L.A.
and now or then or time that’s not today—

The moon is full tonight. A yellow car
came to my door. I paid, it left, and soon
it will be mine, and then I’ll say Au revoir
and then…
who knows?
I have the moon.

Car troubles
It feels funny to say that I'm in crisis right now. I always expected that any personal crisis of mine would be a big showy affair (The Weltschmerz Follies of 2007), weepy and violent and terrifying, brought on by one of those life events too dreadful to contemplate specifically (death, disease, heartbreak) -- or, worse yet, by a purely chemical fluke in my brain. And I thought it would happen much later.

But here it is now, no question about it. The surprise is how okay it's been so far. At any point in the day, if you ask me how I am, I'll tell you brightly that I'm fine and generally I'll mean it. My room is beautiful. The weather has been perfect. I recently discovered Dawn Powell and spend my days enraptured by her novels (I finished A Time to be Born and currently don't want The Wicked Pavilion to end). I have a lifetime's supply of good expensive Whittard of Chelsea tea from London (a present from Sherman). Everything is the way I like it and if I don't think too hard I can skim along on the lovely surface.

And yet I'm in crisis, and people can tell. It's embarrassing: I've become one of those people into whose faces concerned friends peer, asking gently, "Do you have any hobbies? Do you have, like, friends?" How the tables have turned -- I used to ask those very same questions to them!

It's not tragic and it's not chemical. The reason is quite banal: I just hate it here. I hate L.A. and I hate USC and I hate college and I hate the people in it and I hate myself when I am one of them. I kick myself because I knew I would hate college, I knew it from the very beginning, and I kicked and screamed my way through the whole application process until I landed reluctantly at the university of my dreams, where of course the prophecy self-fulfilled. It's not even worth listing what I hate about this place. I hate everything. Where would I rather be? Anywhere. What would I rather be doing? Anything. Just get me the hell out of here.

That's how I feel when I allow myself to think about it. Naturally, that's paralyzing, so I try not to dwell on it. When the thought enters my head I clamp down hard on it and chant to myself: One more year. One more year, that's all, and then you're free. You don't need to graduate. You don't even need to do well. You just have to make it one more year. I can't afford to be aware, except on the most intellectual level, that this is a disaster.

Still, last weekend provided an uncomfortably perfect metaphor for it. Car troubles usually do; I guess that's why the road trip is such an enduring genre. Sherman and I had wanted so badly to go to San Francisco, we'd been so looking forward to it, planning the weekend trip all summer long. "This semester will be okay," he'd promised me. "You won't be stuck in L.A. We'll have my car, and we can go to San Francisco."

When his car broke down in Bakersfield it was horrible, yes, but it was also gradual, creeping up on us slowly -- "Do you feel that vibration?" becoming "Do you hear that rattling?" -- so that it was more grim than shocking when the engine died, the car screeched to a stop on the highway, the hood popped open and hot gray smoke billowed nastily out of its sizzling, oil-bubbling innards.

In real life you can't just cut to the next part. Real life has so much waiting -- so much being put on hold by AAA, and so much glancing hopefully at every potential towing vehicle coming up behind you, and so much sitting in the dead car watching the sky go from blue to pink to black as you begin to panic because panic is less scary than wondering what will happen next.

And in real life you don't find out right away that your car is broken, that you have no car. The real process is drawn-out and agonizing -- you get towed to an auto-parts shop, you try to fix the car yourself, you drive off again and the car dies a second death; you get towed to a squalid Motel 6, spend the night there (and that takes eight hours too, of course, you can't just skip past it in a one-sentence "spend the night there" at the time), have them tow you in the morning to a garage that can't help you so you call AAA a fifth time and have them tow you to the local automall that will charge you hundreds of dollars so you can sit in their lobby and be told two hours later that your car is dead.

The whole time it's never under 110 degrees (usual for Bakersfield) and humid (unusual for Bakersfield), and there's nothing around to eat but fast food and junk, and you can feel your unshoweredness coating your body like sticky paint. And you can't leave. This is where you are, and you can't make it go any faster or be any less nightmarishly awful.

We did end up renting a car, and we eventually made it to San Francisco and back. But -- here's thing -- the ordeal is ongoing. Sherman's car is still dead; there's no car in my life anymore. A quick eulogy for Sherman's car: He picked me up in it for our first date. He drove me around in it every day after that, from my house to his and back to mine, to campus, to the airport, back from the airport, to Malibu, to Griffith Park, down Skid Row, to the Grove, to the Arclight, to Amoeba Records, to Canter's, up the Pacific Coast Highway all night long....Now that he's lost the car, it's like I've lost L.A. I didn't realize L.A. was mine at all to begin with, until suddenly it wasn't at all anymore.

So now I spend my days pacing from one part of South Central to another part of South Central, killing time, waiting, maintaining. I can't make this part go any faster. It's not hell, but no one ever said purgatory was fun.

Yesterday, though, I cracked for the first time. I'd been experimenting with being part of the USC choir, since I missed chorus so much from high school, but the USC one wasn't the same at all -- it was all-girl, for one thing, and being surrounded by so many dozens of girls made my skin crawl. One was so anorexic that I could have snapped her collarbone by poking it; another smelled like coconut. And the director wasn't nearly as warm or wise as Linda.

But I was giving the class one more chance. And yesterday, we sang an e.e. cummings poem, set to music. I hate poems set to music; it ruins the poem for me forever, so I can never enjoy it on my own terms. It's already too late for this one -- for the rest of my life I'll associate the words with the music, but when my eyes first skimmed the words, for some reason, they filled with tears. I can't explain it. The poem hit me in the heart and my throat choked up, I couldn't sing, I couldn't even focus on the notes. The second class was over, I bolted out of the building and let myself weep for real as I walked all the way back to my house. I withdrew from the class the next day.

One day soon I'll be out of L.A. Until then, this poem makes me feel alive.

dominic has

a doll wired
to the radiator of his

icecoalwood truck a

wistful little
whom somebody buried

upsidedown in an ashbarrel so

of course dominic
took him

& mrs dominic washed his sweet

face & mended
his bright torn trousers (quite

as if he were really her &

but)& so

's how dominic has a doll

& every now & then my
friend dominic depaola

gives me a most tremendous hug

i feel

we & worlds

less alive
than dolls &


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