Icarus On The Mend
By Tom Waters
June 16th, 2002
When youíre on top of the world, thereís only one direction to take: straight down. Plummeting, barreling, and swan diving into the gutter. Over a year ago, I endeavored to publish my first book on a large scale. And Iím just starting to recover. Iím not one of the sad stories you hear from a dark corner on a bar stool on a Wednesday night. And Iím sure as hell not going to be a Ďthat was the best time in my lifeí tale. Not without a fight. Success stories are rarely missing a few pot holes. Up close, though, those pot holes are the size of moon craters. I had it all and lost it all. And Iím ready for the second crack. This is what happened.
Life is not a progressive plot. Thereís no specifically designated moment when things go right, or horribly wrong. Life is sneaky. Events creep up in your peripheral vision, when youíre busy looking forward anyways. Enough of the metaphors. I was in a shitty job for a movie theater that Iíd gone crawling back to after a poor mistake. I was taking an anti-depressant that made me jittery, perpetually wired, and amorously...challenged. The girl I loved had no romantic attachment to me and a girl I was with out of convenience was skipping town for med school. And my car was stolen. August of 2000 was not a banner month. And September wasnít looking much better. I pulled a DUI at the end of a long night that Iím still ashamed of. Spent about a thousand dollars on a lawyer and the misdemeanor just to stay on the right side of the bars. And a silly notion hit me.
I was going to turn 25 in October. Sort of a milestone. What had I done in my life that had any meaning? That made any impact? That I could be proud of? Had I traveled to the ends of the earth and back? No. My life was boring, uneventful, and pedestrian. Between getting my car stolen and going through a pile of money related to my arrest, my nest egg was cracked, poached, and served up for the sake of my own freedom. There was a little idea bouncing around in the back of my head for a year or so. What if I gathered all of my prose together into one mammoth volume? After eight months of writerís block, it seemed like Iíd never write again, so it would be best to seal the vault in style. That, and I could give a few copies to friends as a keepsake so that it wouldnít be forgotten. I have no delusions. My work isnít on par with a Pulitzer. Iím an essayist. Weíve always been the parsley of literature. But it would be nice to have something for my children (or grandchildren) if I ever got around to having some. A record of the talent and fire I had at one time. And the thought snowballed.
Wait a minute! Maybe I could make some money off of this project! Line the coffers and all that. Build the nest egg back up. I called around to get a quote on the binding and printing of the supposed volume. Without sinking to Thoreau-esque itemization, it appeared as if I stood to make a fifteen-dollar profit on each book. And it was a soft sell. Five hundred pages for thirty-five dollars. What a deal! So I spent my days at work calling on friends, loved ones, and people I hadnít spoken with in years to see who was interested. And checks started to roll in.
It was time to get moving with the production. But while I was at it, perhaps I could market the book and make some more money! Capital idea! My work had only been published in college and high school papers before, but maybe I could use this as a stepping stone to a higher publishing bracket. What if this wasnít the end of my writing, but only the beginning? How hard could marketing be? I managed to turn a high school paper that people used as a doorstep into a year long phenomenon, Iíd just apply the same techniques to the whole town. Flyers, sensationalism, and saturation. I ran into a film critic at work who wrote for one of the smaller papers in town. One Iíd drummed myself out of two years before over a bogus threat of a lawsuit and, well, ego. He was open to the idea of taking me under his oh-so-benevolent wing. I was using my days at work to call prospective book buyers, making social plans with a lot of friends Iíd lost touch with, calling bookstores to see how feasible the idea of in-store signings were, and hounding the two big free weekly papers to see about a review and elbow my way into getting published therein.
My nights in October were a bit hazy. I was lost in grandeur and endless possibilities. I spent a lot of nights spell checking the manuscript in musty holes-in-the-wall, caught between delusions of artistic grandeur and social overtures with flings, flames, and friendships that ran deeper than absences in contact. I bought the majority of the drinks. What the hell? These were great friends I was spending time with. Truly sincere people who liked me for me. The book was scheduled to come out the same week as my birthday. Poetic. I picked up a new hobby: comic books. I spent about four hundred dollars on comics, jumping full swing into an old childhood obsession. Why not? The money was rolling in, and there was no sign of it slowing up. They were getting aggravated at work because I didnít seem to do much of anything and didnít seem to care about my quality of work. Screw the job anyhow, I was sick of it. A few close friends were worried about my behavior, being bipolar and all. Maybe I was a bit on the manic side, but what the hell? I was harnessing it for the sake of furthering my writing. It wasnít some wild, directionless force, but a bronco on speed that I hung on to and whipped into a purpose. I topped off my nights going to the strip clubs at least twice a week.
Hold on there, mister! Why not use my up and coming status as a local celebrity to negotiate an in with the strip club? Done and done. I fast talked my way behind the scenes at a local exotic establishment and made friends with the DJ, one of the managers, and eventually, dated one of the dancers. We went out on a few dates and either she was too flighty or I was too flighty because the relationship folded. Weíre still friends to this day, though. I traded up the article that I wrote based on my experiences into a working relationship with Night Life magazine, a local newsweekly that sort of describes itself. But Iím getting ahead of myself.
And some time between October and November, I had it out with Michael Calleri. He was nice enough in his divine and never ending compassion to give me an assignment and print it in The Buffalo Alternative Press. After one assignment, Mike said he would start using my stuff on a regular basis. I gave him another assignment completed and he let it twist in the wind. Welcome to the real wide world of go fuck yourself publishing. I went off on him and he gave me some drama queen treatment as to how he was the first to publish me in this town and he didnít appreciate a total lack of loyalty. How I was supposed to get full exposure with a politics-only publication that only came out twice a month was beyond me. I started a crusade against him and set the net maniacs at his heels. One bridge napalmed, next paper.
Come November, Iíd become fed up at work and, rather than waiting to get fired, I put in a monthís notice. They let me go at the end of the first week, those bastards. More free time to make buckets of cash by my watch. I put up flyers for my readings from here to Niagara Falls in coffee houses, bookstores, and through fax machines to the local media. In November, I gave upwards of fifteen readings. About three or four a week. And I was riding out on a wing and a prayer. A lot of times, I barely had enough gas and cigarettes to get me where I was going. But by hook or by crook I usually sold a copy of ďSoup To NutsĒ and made it home without having to walk. Then I met Val. And got another job with Verizon after a week or so.
Valerie was a handful. She read some of her poetry at all the hip spots in town, and bounced in and out of the scene because she could afford to. DJ-ing for a local rock station afforded her that luxury. After reading at two venues, we hit it off and ended up getting together. The job was a handful. I had to commute out to Orchard Park, learn to be broken into the whole corporate soul sucking structure, and the readings were wearing me down. On top of this, I was raging against the local press to get a decent review, interview, or related article in on the book. I threw a bunch of free criticís copies around and got nothing from anyone. By thanksgiving, Buffalo Beat, another paper, finally decided to print an interview that my friend Ken had conducted some time before that. ArtVoice was a tougher nut to crack. I threw on a suit and tie and drove down to the offices to talk to the editor. He was a giant of a man, Geoff Kelly, and we hit it off after he saw that there was a method to my madness, and that I wasnít some unfocused, frenetic maniac storming the local literary scene.
December and I was busting my hump to make enough copies of the book to cover the pre-orders. A lot of people had been waiting for their copies for over two months, and I felt awful, but I truly was living hand to mouth. Or beer to mouth. Cash was drying up painfully, and I was throwing whole paychecks towards production on the book because satisfying my customers was more important than a savings account. My binding person was always asking ďWhen are you going to order more copies?Ē Soon was my answer. My arrangement with him was killing me, and I didnít understand why he couldnít cut me more of a break. My slate of December readings was even more demanding. More personal appearances and less open mics. I was hitting a groove but getting restless in the back of my mind.
Iíd started up a newsletter online that was doubling in subscribers every week. People were starting to recognize me out in public. I was walking out of a shopping center one day and a complete stranger yelled ďHey Waters!Ē out the window. Val was completely blown over with me because of my magnetism with a crowd. So this was what fame tasted like, even just a little slice of it. I was making connections. I felt like my ship was coming in and it was just a matter of keeping at it. By Christmas, Val was tired with me. Iíd become too demanding emotionally and she said she didnít want to see me anymore. I was crushed. The relationship lasted two weeks. I got to know Jeff Miers, the editor at Buffalo Beat, and we were talking weekly column. He was a nice guy, but there was something about him I didnít trust.
It was Christmas, but I couldnít buy anything for my family because I was so broke. I was miserable. I had a plan for January, though. More readings than Iíd ever done before. About thirty in a month, an insane agenda at a lot of great locations. By the end of January, I hated it. I hated the cheap literary bastards who never gave up money for anything let alone supporting my book, I hated the cheap college kids who never had more than ten bucks in their pockets at the coffee houses, and I couldnít stand the housewives who took offense with my readings so easily. They were cracking down on me at work because I didnít fit the corporate whore mode they were looking for. Strain, thy name is tom. But after three months, I finally made some headway with the papers. In one fell swoop, I was everywhere. I had an article in the Saturday Buffalo News, a column in the Buffalo Beat, and essay in Night Life, and something in Boyís Night Out, another local menís paper. You couldnít read one paper in town without some blurb or another. Things were starting to pay off.
In February, I decided to go with quality, not quantity in terms of the readings. The plan had formed. I would do one more month, disappear, and start my own open mics on Mondays, one of the days when there were really only two other venues that hosted them. I did only the places that I enjoyed. Where they lavished affection on me. I killed in Lockport. I went back to my roots and did a reading at the high school for three English classes. My Valentineís Day reading made the buzz section in the Buffalo News. And nobody showed up. Bad day to pick a comedy reading. But things were going well. I was running out of steam. And there was no money left to run out of.
By March, after four weeks, the Buffalo Beat column was dead. Another company was buying them out and they were breathing down Jeff Miers neck to streamline his content for more non-offensive fare. We had it out with each other and I put my eggs in the ArtVoice basket. Geoff Kelly was talking profile for his paper. I loved everybody at the offices. It just felt right. A good fit. We started hitting the bars mid-afternoons and taking Ďpre-interviewsí. Weíd share literary anecdotes about all the greats, gossip about local big shots, and smoke entire packs of cigarettes over pints. I was heading for a really big fall. I started dating another girl who read poetry at the literary readings and we broke up in less than a month. She had an attitude, I had an attitude. It didnít quite take.
Mid March was the pinnacle. Or the implosion. Depends on your point of view. I went to the Bob Dylan contest at Neitscheís and hung out in the press box. Geoff sprang for some pitchers and my friend Chuck played a few tunes in the hopes of winning an award. We stayed out until three in the morning. When I came into work the next day, I got fired. It totally took my by surprise, and it couldnít have come at a worse time. I had nothing. No nest egg, no pocket change, and I was in debt to my eyeballs. In addition to this, I was into my binder for another hundred some copies. And all this while I was arranging to start an open mic night downtown with Spot Coffee. They agreed to give me three months on a ďweíll seeĒ basis. The deal was signed and locked up. Turns out I needed a lot less time than three months.
I had to pawn some DVDs just to get gas and cigarettes for a week. All the powerful movers and shakers who were my best friends when I was buying the drinks were nowhere to be found when I needed help seeking gainful employment. I was starting to panic. And at the beginning of April, I went to South Carolina to spend a week with my friend Scott. Luckily, and gratefully, he bankrolled the entire trip. And it wasnít cheap either. We went out every night, spent three days at a hotel in Myrtle Beach, and had the time of our lives. While I was there, the ArtVoice profile came out. I was a pioneer, blazing a spoken word trail across Western New York, doing something that no one else had done before.
It felt good. I couldnít wait to get home. The first Spoken Mic did okay, and now, with the added exposure, perhaps it would snowball. When I got home there were twenty thousand messages on the machine. I got back together with Traci, the poet. Valerie, never one to miss a beat when power was concerned, was sniffing around to find out if things were still cool with us and if she could come up and read that Monday. I decided to let it slide and told her to come up.
Then the bottom line hit before my second Monday at the helm. I had a chance to become a financial advisor, but I needed to borrow five hundred dollars for the schooling. My father said no, flat out. Iíd killed the golden goose. He said, plain and simple, that Iíd spent far too much money and that Iíd been an ingrate. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I left for the show. It felt as if he didnít appreciate any of my accomplishments and that, unless it was profitable, my flair for words meant absolutely nothing to him. My mother had been encouraging throughout, but concerned. I didnít have a leg to stand on and no one was there to help me. Or so it felt.
They had to scramble to get a microphone as I had neither the funds or the equipment to run the open mic at the coffee house. It was in a great location and about a hundred people filled in. Everything was perfect, and I was falling apart inside. We killed. The laughs echoed out into the streets and for once, it all worked. The next week, the manager I was working with said that they couldnít get a microphone, and I was pissed. I had to yell over the crowd, the people who came up to read swore constantly and the people who did want to listen couldnít hear us. It was like fighting uphill. Iíd gotten my ass handed to me, and I still didnít have a job or any cash to speak of. Iíd read at open mics in a sixty mile radius. Iíd read in comedy clubs, full houses at downtown bars, and coffee houses of every shape and size. If they didnít want to help me out or meet me halfway, they could go to hell. Iíd had it.
All that momentum, all that pushing and striving and it still felt like Iíd only gained a foot in the door. Iíd come such a long way in six months, farther than most of the people involved in any of the scenes I took part in. And a lot of them resented me for that. Iíd over-exposed myself. I spread myself too thin. Most of the regulars were sick of seeing my face out everywhere, and looked down upon me, as if it was cheap to self promote yourself. Far better to read pretentious poetry, look down on the world, and wait for publishers to come crashing at your gates when you were fifty.
The fourth Monday of the Spoken Mics, they didnít have a microphone. Again. Drew, the manager, had copped a serious attitude, and said that I would have to find it by my own means. After the last week, I really wasnít in the mood to scramble and shuck and jive to scare up sound equipment. Valerie was sniffing around to see if she could steal the concept from me. Rather than helping, she wanted to sweep it out from under my feet and run with it. That advantageous bitch. I drove up and set everything up for the night. The place was filling up. Then I went out to my car, smoked two cigarettes, and thought. Thought long and hard. Is it worth all this effort? All the ass kissing and grandstanding and showboating just to convince a town to love me? All this trying and pushing and effort for what? Iíd gathered some fans in my time, and Iíd never let them down. But as for the rest of Western New York? I couldnít drive away fast enough.
I had it and threw it away, and the rest sort of came crashing down with it. I had a plan for a regular column with Blue Dog Press, the paper that Buffalo Beat had transmogrified into. Jeff Miers gave me a new column assignment for television commentary. And either because he was still pissed at me or because he was under such strain from his new corporate superiors, he didnít have much time to shoot the bull with me. And lo and behold, my ire came back to bite me in the ass. One day I came in and who should be the new associate editor but Michael Calleri! Proud as a peacock that heíd be there to kick me in the ass when I was down. I wrote four test columns for Jeff that heíd ignored. Mike wanted me to cease and desist all dealings with ArtVoice (whom I was also tooling a column with) and commit to Blue Dog. He wanted me to call up television studios, find the numbers on my own through what means I have no idea, and get promotional materials. I would take assignments from him at his discretion and at his word requirements. You can guess how that worked out. I told him Iíd take the deal and never stepped foot in Blue Dogís offices again.
Meanwhile, I was scraping by and got a job in carpet sales. My new boss was very pleasant and patient, but I wasnít well suited for it. I had no math skills, I was miserable, and all manner of people skills had been sucked out of my marrow like bone cancer. I had a deal to write a column with ArtVoice for bar reviews. Wrote a test column and it didnít get published. Something weird was going on with Geoff. I told him about the Blue Dog offer and how much that chapped my ass and he said heíd go out of his way to work something out with me. I was also writing a column for Boyís Night Out and strip club reviews for Night Life, so in retrospect, things were not that bad. Suffice it to say, they got a lot worse.
I quit the carpet job after a month. Giving up on things was getting to be a habit. Running away from my responsibilities was getting to be a habit. By about May, something dry and brittle and fragile snapped inside of me and I just didnít care anymore. I couldnít do it. Hello depression. I stopped emailing, I stopped faxing, and I stopped calling the papers and venues. I felt ashamed that my largest endeavor had folded after three weeks, cornered into picking one weekly paper over another, and blackballed over aggravating every other editor and club owner in town. For all intents and purposes, I dropped off the face of the earth for seven months.
I got a job working nights as a security dispatcher and died a little bit inside. I threw entire pay checks towards my debts as I was never awake when the rest of civilization was. My opinions had shriveled up and I only spoke when spoken to. My personality, my optimism, and my hope in a writing career were crushed under the wheels of normalcy. The newsletter was still going, but I was going through the motions, and everyone could tell it. The poseurs were dropping off the subscription list in pairs every week, which didnít help my self esteem. I spent the summer, the fall, and the majority of my winter downtrodden, suicidal, and apathetic.
Then in February I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. Whenever I heard some other sad sack in the past, Iíd say ďWhat makes you think your life is so much harder than anyone elseís? Snap out of it!Ē Itís so easy to dispense advice, and a lot harder to live it. Life does suck. Frequently. And the world kicks you when youíre down every chance it gets. But thatís no reason to stick your ass up in the air and help. Buffalo could kiss my white ass. I was going to do things on my terms, and if they liked it, great. If not, Iíd keep doing them anyways.
As for the first book, Iíve got some loose ends to sort out, but I will start publishing it again at my own pace, not my binders. I landed a great new job with fantastic pay and hours that are very conducive to taking in the night life, socializing, and yes, giving readings again, which Iíll get back into sometime soon. Iím in no hurry. You can set the world on fire without running around lighting a whole box of matches in a short amount of time. Patience and calculation go a longer way than buckshot public relations. Iíve made a lot of mistakes. More than I can remember. But Iíve learned from them. I wouldnít trade any of them for the world.
In the downtime that Iíd spent away from the glitterati scene, Blue Dog had sunk. Jeff Miers, who was always sharp and talented, got out while the getting was good and landed a job working for the Buffalo News. ArtVoice had bought Blue Dog while their holding company was looking to get rid of them and buried them. And who was at the head of the ship when it went down? Michael Calleri was the interim editor when Blue Dog shit the bed. It couldnít have happened to a worse guy. Heís back at the Alt where he belongs, trolling away on fifteen page long film sections that nobody reads for peanuts in a paper that only has a circulation of about 10,000 copies. Just a distant blip on the map. Geoff Kelly went on to greener pastures to work out of state, but heís still a contributing editor for ArtVoice. And what about me?
I called Ed (my old editor at Night Life) up out of the blue two months ago and we talked. And it was like we never missed a beat. We had a really good rapport, so writing for him again wasnít a problem. Iím currently taking assignments for Night Life and Iím covering strip clubs, interviews, and bar reviews. Itís a full plate, and theyíve got a circulation of 75,000. Thereís not a bar or business downtown that doesnít distribute their paper, and while they donít pay, I get a lot more than that. Free drinks. Full comp. Whenever I cover an assignment for Ed, everything is on the house: food, drinks, cover charge, etc. He takes care of his own, and in turn I crank out the best damned reviews I can. And he introduces me to the hundreds of movers and shakers that pull strings in this town (whether the public knows them by face, by name, or by ballot). My newsletter got cut back to once a month, but lately, Iíve been tossing in another Ďupdateí two weeks in. It appears as if I have something to say lately. Thereís over 600 people on that list, and they all seem to keep up with reading it too. Thank god for them. Theyíre all either close friends or people who went to the readings, or important people in the local press. They send me an email when I get out of line, tell me if a piece disagreed with them, and they let me know when something makes them laugh. They make my world go round.
And last week, I called over to ArtVoice to introduce myself to the new editor, Lauren Maynard. She was very open to suggestions and I offered to pitch a few assignments and see if she wanted me to cover any for her. Itíll probably take two months to get in the door again there, but I can be patient. And very, very persistent. I wonít be happy until I have a front page feature story, but itís a long road to that. Thatís fine. I can earn my wings all over again without stepping on toes and shooting my mouth off.
Sometime over the summer, one of the regular readers of my column in Night Life called me up just to tell me that he thought my work was great. I thanked him profusely, and that little kernel of gratitude sort of grew in the back of my mind and kept me going until the day I write this. I donít need billions of people to read my work, and I donít even care about the money. I just need to know that thereís someone else out there who enjoys what Iím putting down to paper, week in and week out.
And what of the second book? Itíll be off the presses and ready to order in bookstores in two months. The design team just sent me the front cover art and it looks beautiful. I guess Iíll be hitting the open mics again. Giving the interviews, signing books, shaking the hands and kissing the babies. Itís an exhausting, thankless, diligent life, but itís a beautiful one. This brotherhood of writers in town takes a while to work your way into, but once youíre there? Look at Michael Calleri. No matter how many people he pissed off, heíll always have a job in this town. Because heís been published. Because his writing, while long winded (like Iím not) is excellent. And because heís a professional. If that bonehead can make it in this town alive, then why canít some 26 year old punk with a chip on his shoulder and a proclivity for impulse gratification? Why not indeed.