It’s raining pretty hard right now on the other side of the window of this small West Village coffee shop.
The vanilla latte is of a perfect temperature – neither scalding nor tepid. The milky vanilla is well-balanced, tinged with the barely bitter blackness of espresso. The grinder purrs away merrily, but I can still hear the light jazz that has followed early Michael Jackson.
And then there’s the discussion between a man who resembles the Cat Daddy and a lanky, bearded be-capped barista involving how they both ended up as writers.
Cat Daddy’s a journalist, he makes it clear, and has with him a baby carriage in which a passed-out infant rests, tacitly drunk.
Bearded, be-capped barista is rapidly conjuring up the former’s coffee drink while never taking his eyes off said new friend.
The barista writes “epic fantasy,” it turns out. He finishes making the drink and the discussion, Cat Daddy steps away with filled paper cup in hand and the next customer approaches the budding Tolkien for a small cappuccino.
Believe it or not, the Terminator was with me when I first realized I too would take on the cursed blessing that is the writer’s life.
Burroughs reminds us that there are those such as his old compadre Kerouac who write … and then there are others – the beret-wearing, foppish phonies who haunt cafes such as this one who, well, don’t. (Burroughs had put it more in leagues of a bullfighter who fights bulls versus a bullshitter who makes passes with the flag whilst there’s no bull present.)
I’d, meanwhile, like to think of myself as a bullshitter who fights bulls with no flags at all. In case you were wondering.
The jazz in this West Village coffee shop is still playing – speaking of Kerouac and berets – and a customer who walks in is surprised. The place, apparently, traditionally plays nineties indie rock and the like.
There were the few hints of being a writer early on. Too early, perhaps, as the Terminator would sometimes remind me.
There was the time he wasn’t there when I got in trouble at my after-school day program, after which the counselor told me I’d have to write a full … PAGE before I could leave when my mom came to pick me up.
Well, she was right outside and it was already late and I was very hungry, so I whipped up something lickety-split (that full fucking page) and shoved it into the hairy hands of the flabbergasted counselor.
I still recall his glassy eyes bulging out in disbelief that a six-year-old could write with such celerity.
To me, it was nothing. I hadn’t given it a second thought. Story structure and character development have always come naturally. Thanks largely to my mom having raised me proper on The Twilight Zone and the Terminator having done his part by recounting full corpuses of the great authors before bedtime.
The Terminator may have thought it more conventional for a young boy to be passionate about balls as opposed to books (how conservative was his programming!), but he knew a few chapters from B. Traven’s immortal The Treasure of Sierra Madre would be just the ticket I needed to kick start my journey into slumber. (I was a rather wound-up kid, as you can imagine, and even a cybernetic soldier from the future required the occasional break from me.)
There was also the time when I was about to read a short story about an anthropomorphic pig in front of my Sixth Grade class.
The Terminator, of course, was not permitted inside the actual classroom by this point in my elementary school career. It may have been both pre-Columbine and pre-9/11, but the PTA had nevertheless had their way after that unfortunate incident with the girl who tripped over me on her way to her desk on that fateful Tuesday the Fourth of one particular April.
Funny, I haven’t thought of her in twenty years or more, though I do remember something about her recently having regained her eyesight (and she is still, yes, confined to a wheelchair even now).
Had the Terminator been in the classroom on the day of the anthropomorphic pig reading, he surely would have kept his firearms to himself, as Steven Thomas turned to a nearby classmate and smilingly said, “Oh, this is gonna be a good one!”
I don’t think there was any sarcasm in the statement.
But, the “Tale of the Pig” and the thunderstruck counselor are merely paltry pieces of loose ephemera in the scattered remnants of my mind.
Thee moment when I knew I would (at least try to) be a writer sprouted out of some rather shallow soil.
It happened when I at long last defeated Super Mario Land on the (at the time) new Super Nintendo.
The Terminator was right there next to me, standing as ever statuesque and stalwart. If he’d had the capacity for feeling emotion, he would have been proud of my triumph over Super Mario Land.
As it stood, he could only feign any real interest, knowing that gaming up until now was my life (along with way too much TV).
The Terminator had been there when I shook and gyrated, cheering victoriously after making it to the thirtieth level of Dragon Warrior.
Of course, he was also there with me when I’d gone with my dad to all of his comic book and Magic: The Gathering mini-cons where I would have to embarrassingly stand there waiting with the Terminator stately, somber and seemingly proud of himself now, at least in comparison to my dad who would was less than the picture of good health or grooming.
Even when we weren’t at those silly mini-con’s, my dad would be there in the house playing video games in his boxer shorts and revealing his pale-white flab (he tended to go shirtless in the house).
Times like these, with the strong and, yes, proud (at least in my childish mind’s eye) Terminator on one side of the couch and my shirtless, sloppy bear of a father on the other fiercely engaged in ToeJam & Earl or Earthworm Jim, led me to start considering that maybe video games were not the way to go, after all.
Then there was that infernal day in which I beat Super Mario Land.
The Terminator was, as-ever, there beside me as I watched the plump, mustachioed Mario and his lanky, mustachioed brother Luigi together in their festive combination Christmas colors dancing stupidly and thanking me for having seen them to their end of their treacherous quest.
I stopped for a moment.
I was transfixed by what I saw on the screen – an abysmal blank void but for the cartoonish characters prancing around in front of balloon-lettering that read THANK YOU!
The Terminator turned to me, clearly discerning that something was amiss.
“Mathew,” he asked me, pausing for dramatic effect it seems in my memory, despite that notion making no particular sense (seeing as he was, of course, nothing more than an insensate robot).
“You appear to be in a state of tension or discomfort,” the Terminator continued.
I remained sitting there, mesmerized by the vapid THANK YOU! end screen of Super Mario Land.
I had just spent two months on this game. We’re talking early mornings before school. We’re talking nights. We’re talking weekends. The game had consumed my life, had become my life.
A Peggy Lee song I’d recently heard flashed through my mind and I turned at last to the Terminator, then declared more than asked, “Is that all there is?”
The Terminator’s facial recognition software and spontaneous full-body analytics must have registered in him the question whose answer would define the rest of my life, “Mathew,” the Terminator inquired, turning to me and craning his neck downward where I was sitting Indian Style beneath him in my green sweatpants on the blue shag carpet, still clutching the gray Super Nintendo controller.
“It’s summer,” the Terminator went on to say. “How else will you spend your time if not playing video games?”
The Terminator was right. What would I do if I was going to quit gaming cold turkey?
I would not be my dad.
I would no longer invest my time, energy, soul or mom’s money into such a vacant pastime whose only palpable consequence was a couple of dancing dingle-berries saying THANK YOU!
I was – what? – maybe twelve at the time.
So, aside from video games and a little light reading, the only other thing I had that I could do during those awkwardly husky junior high school years of mine was: watch television.
Lots and lots of television.
The Terminator had even rewired our cable box so that we received not only an unscrambled transmission of the Spice Channel (Mom either never knew this or just chose to say nothing about it), but also every other channel under the ozone-shrinking sun.
Understand, I watched a lot of television. Next to video games, it had been the most important thing in my life. My mom being a distant third. (Hey, TV spent way more time with me than she did; though I should note that this was due namely to our dire financial situation which kept her working at all hours.)
I loved TV. I think (or at least I did in those days of bottomless Cool Ranch Doritos and Barq’s Root beer) that the feeing was mutual.
Why wouldn’t TV love me? I was its most loyal supplicant.
So, I wouldn’t play video games anymore. I’d now watch a whole bunch more TV. Before, I may have been hooked. Now, I was cleaned and gutted, too.
I watched so much crappy TV that I’m almost one-hundred percent certain I saw the Terminator roll his eyes when his glasses were off. He may not have been programmed for that kind of display of aggressive disinterest, but – looking back on it now – one too many episodes of Under the Umbrella Tree and Charles in Charge would probably do that to anyone.
And then a few weeks after my video game apostasy, I did something-or-other to render myself horribly, horribly punished.
Mom said I was grounded from TV for an entire night!
Grounded? From TV? Why not say no more air or food, Mom? This on a night when Beverly Hills, 90210 was premiering a new episode! I was twelve! Dylan and Kelly and Brenda and Brandon were real people in my life, and I had to be apprised of every little thing going on in their maudlin world, damn it!
What would they say and do that night that I would now not know about? (Until a re-run at least a month later.)
“Mom!” I cried out like I had been branded on the butt. “What am I supposed to do all night?”
“Why don’t you write a story?” she suggested.
I looked to the Terminator who was washing dishes in the sink next to her. He turned his head to look at me and nodded laconically.
So that night I wrote.
And by night’s end, I’d written seventeen pages of a new sci-fi short story.
I labored over it for the next few nights. The story built up in my mind, on the computer and in its own universe I myself was devising.
School soon started back up again, and I began turning in chapters of the story in class. I was getting praised by classmates and teachers alike. This was not a hokey THANK YOU! end screen. This was true approbation. Based on something that I had actually created.
I quickly realized that I didn’t need to watch 90210 anymore. I was free!
I was liberated from its cathode ray shackles. Dylan McKay wasn’t some 16-year-old high school student. He was twenty-five. He was a twenty-five year-old actor, at that, with an uncannily prodigious forehead and prognathous chin.
He wasn’t real. None of them were.
The show wasn’t real. No more than the games I’d played all those wasted years. It had all been bullshit, just as Burroughs had foretold.
I kept writing, and I finished One Among Us – all three hundred and fifty pages of it – by the time I hit high school, still only thirteen years old.
My first novel. I was so proud.
I may have only received impersonal rejection form letters from the handful of publishers I sent it to (it was wholly unreadable, three hundred plus pages written by a thirteen-year-old or not), but I knew then I’d be a writer.
And even the Terminator squeezed my right shoulder with some true paternal pride upon completion of the tome.
I can still feel how much that actually hurt, even today. I’ll never forget it.