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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beach Read #1: Buttafuoco You

You don’t know Dana, but if you did you would know that Amy Fisher: My Story, by Amy Fisher and Sheila Weller, is exactly the kind of thing that he would give as a gift: pop cultural, bargain bin, and connected in some way to a shared experience. The first two points are apparent enough, but the third requires a little context: In the summer of 1992, Dana and I drove from San Diego to St. Louis to Seattle and then back to San Diego over the course of a five-week stretch, all the while following the Long Island Lolita’s story by reading the top half of the USA Today in the paper dispensers that were outside whatever Denny’s we were eating our Grand Slams at that morning. That’s how simple the story was: You could get all of the pertinent details by reading only the top half of a paper that was known more for its use of color than it was for its journalistic integrity.

We were obsessed with the story—obsessed with the thought of a 17-year-old girl ringing a doorbell and then shooting a woman in the face, obsessed with Jan Hooks’ impersonation of Mary Jo on Saturday Night Live, obsessed with the coverage that was over the top, even for tabloid journalism, but obsessed mostly with the last name of the young girl’s alleged lover and accomplice: Buttafuoco.  Buttafuoco. We couldn’t get enough of this word that was a proper noun but that sounded so common. We would use it when someone cut us off in Wyoming: “Hey, get a look at that Buttafuoco.” We would use it to casually refer to one another: “What are you having this morning, Buttafuoco?” We would resort to it as an exclamation in moments of frustration: “Buttafuoco!” Along with American Music Club’s Everclear, which got stuck in the tape deck of my dad’s borrowed car and was consequently the only thing we could listen to for thousands and thousands of miles, Buttafuoco, and by extension Amy Fisher, defined that trip.

Which is why I was hardly surprised when, four years later, as a birthday gift, I received the book in the mail. The inscription, dated 10/4/96: “Kirby, there’s a little Buttafuoco and a little Amy Fisher in all of us. But a lot of Buttafuoco in Amy Fisher. Prepare to meet your savior. Happy birthday, Dana. Yo, Joey!”
How much do you think she hated having her weight broadcast to the world?
This is the book that Leu is talking about when she points to the shelf and says, Do you really need them all?, if not by title then at least by kind: The kitschy novelty book that served its purpose as a gift or as a joke but that was never actually intended to be read all the way through and thus does not deserve to occupy the space that could be otherwise reserved for something that’s, you know, useful. Can we at least agree to keep only the books that you have either read or intend to read someday? is the implied question. Is that too much to ask? Nope. Not too much to ask at all. Only problem is that I plan to read them all. Someday. And as I recently discovered, even a memoir by Amy Fisher can teach us a lot about storytelling, passion, and Buttafuoco.

And now, without further ado, from the home office in Nassau County—aka, Long Island 90210—the Top 5 things I learned from Amy Fisher: My Story.

5. Don’t put out in the first 106 pages. For a young woman who, by her own account, has hardly mastered the art of self-restraint, Fisher the Narrator comes across as a bit of a tease. Oh, sure, she front loads the story with details that are just lurid enough to make you want more—on page 1 she reveals that “Joey himself never wore underwear” and on page 3 she lets us in on some of her extracurriculars when she claims “I never did tricks at night—just after school”—but the majority of the first third of the book withholds information in a way that entices the reader to continue with thirds two and three.

“I knew what I really wanted from Mary Jo, what would have made everything different that day and all the days after that,” she writes on page 6. “You won’t believe me if I tell you, now, what it was. But I think you’ll understand once you know a little bit more about my life. So I’ll save it for later in this book.” Translation: Don’t put me down just yet! Please! Pretty please!! Pretty, pretty please with some Sapphic undertones on top!!! What? The Sapphic undertones did the trick?! OK. You got it. How about this, from page 85: “I think I’m strong and tough, but then an attractive man comes along and I turn to Jell-O. (Sometimes it can be a girlfriend, as you’ll soon see.)” And, finally, if girl-on-girl action isn’t your thing, then maybe family drama is:  On page 105, she resorts to the tug of a good old-fashioned family feud: “This was the beginning of me choosing Joey over Mary Lynn [an influential aunt]: a dangerous choice. The forced rift would be complete in a few weeks. But I’ll explain that later.”

You have to hand it to someone at Pocket Books who might not have had a corner office then but surely does now. The only people who are going to pick up this book are the people who are already familiar with the story, and this is a tabloid- rather than a book-length tale, so you have to give the casual browsers some reason to keep reading, especially when they have heard it all before. What better way to do so than by promising that the really juicy stuff is just up ahead?

The kicker: I still don’t have any idea what Amy wanted from Mary Jo—my best guess, seriously, is a hug—and if there was any lesbian action that may or may not have included Jell-O, I must have missed it. And don’t think I didn’t double back. Repeatedly.
If I ever cut a record, this will be the cover.
4. The auto part of a celebrity autobiography writes even less than I thought, and I thought they wrote jack fucking shit. Amy Fisher: My Story claims to be “by Amy Fisher with Sheila Weller,” though a more accurate billing might be “by Sheila Weller, with Amy Fisher somewhere in the room stretching her gum and twirling her hair while Weller clacked away at the keyboard,” a credit that, admittedly, would have struggled to fit on the front cover. Fisher might have related the story to Weller, but if she actually wrote five words of it I’ll eat Joey Buttafuoco’s tracksuit.

Weller smartly gives herself a little room to maneuver by delineating between Fisher’s (allegedly) first-person account and Weller’s more objectively journalistic sections, but even the parts that belong to Fisher are owned by Weller. “The two men, Joey and my father, were doing this little dance with each other, and I was almost the conduit, the link,” writes, um, Amy. Uh-huh. Riiiight. Or: “As I walked through the cool sand next to my supportive mom—both of us hugging our chests in our big sweatshirts—it actually seemed that my messed-up life was a piece of deadwood I could toss out to see till it sank to the bottom of the ocean.” Or…. You know what? Never mind. You get the idea.

Look, it’s not that I don’t think Fisher is capable of telling her own story. After all, Weller includes an anonymous, “authoritative” source that says, “Amy Fisher is a very bright girl. If two or three things had been different in her life, she could be on her way to becoming a doctor now,” and who am I to argue with an anonymous, authoritative source? No, it’s not that I don’t think she’s capable of telling her own story. It’s just that I know she didn’t.

3. Nothing dates a story like a reference to a technology that was once cutting edge but that is now passé. Beepers are to the Amy Fisher story as cell phones were to The X Files, which is to say that neither Fisher/Buttafuoco nor Mulder/Scully could have existed without their respective enabling devices.

On the morning that Mary Jo was shot—well, technically pistolwhipped then shot—Joey “beeped” Amy three times while she was in class (hello!), and she had to excuse herself to call him back from a pay phone in the hall. How great is that? Beepers. Pay phones. Can you picture Amy asking the girl who sits in front of her for some change. “PSST! Do you have a quarter? I’m conspiring with sleazebag boyfriend to kill his wife, and he wants me to check in.” Then, 20 minutes later, five minutes after she has returned from the first call. “PSST! Sorry. This is so embarrassing, but….”

What’s even funnier than the technology itself is that Weller felt a need to justify teenagers carrying portable gadgets that would make them accessible at all times. She writes, “A teenager having a beeper was not the big deal the media made it out to be. Although the beeper’s origins as a device to help crack dealers wheel and deal gave it an outlaw cache, it and the car phone were becoming teen communication fads.” Footnote after “fads”: “Beepers were not allowed at John F. Kennedy High. Amy’s ability to use hers surreptitiously in the school relied on her habit of setting it on Vibrate [cap hers], which made its beeping noiseless—and undetectable by her teachers.” Insert Dramatic Chipmunk music here.

This tendency to over-explain bogs Weller down throughout the book. Take, for example, her need to translate guido culture’s slang. She sensitively glosses a code that is as rich as the Navajo language that baffled the Axis forces in World War II when she identifies “What’s up?” as the translation for the otherwise impenetrable “‘Sup?,” though she does think her readers savvy enough to keep the “s” contracted.
Honestly, I don't know if this is Mary Jo or Jan Hooks.
2. I’ve got a lot to learn about the sex-trade industry. First of all, I didn’t even know that Amy Fisher was a prostitute. Somehow this piece of the story slipped right by (must have been below the fold of the USA Today, though it sure feels above to me). In any case, the marketers at Pocket make sure that anyone who picks up the book doesn’t stay similarly uninformed. This, from the back of the dust jacket, under the heading “Amy, on her entry into prostitution”: “So here I was by the fall of ’91: After trying, unsuccessfully, to convince me to have sex with his friend while he watched, to have lesbian sex, to be a stripper, and to be erotically massaged at a Korean massage parlor, Joey had succeeded in getting me into prostitution.”

To hear Amy tell it, though, she wasn’t a prostitute prostitute. She would prance around the room in the lingerie that Joey bought for her while her clients took care of themselves. Basically, Amy would be in the room while someone else did all the work. Come to think of it, Amy the Prostitute wasn’t too dissimilar from Amy the Writer.

The book actually sheds a lot of light on the escort industry, including the way in which they launder their money (they pay to use the credit card machine of legitimate businesses such as florists, laundries, and car services) and the role of the driver, who is not only the driver but also the bodyguard and the collector. Joey was kind of a driver and kind of a cocaine dealer—he was known in those circles as “Joey Coco-Pops”—but in Joey’s typically classy way, he was also the poacher, as he would hang around the parking lot where the working girls would be waiting for their next call and he would pass out the card of the competing Madame for whom he worked, essentially trying to lure them into free agency. Leave it to Joey to solicit the solicitors. Times like this, I swear, I find it damn hard not to love this man.

Weller doesn’t focus exclusively on Joey’s involvement in the prostitution ring, however. One story illustrates an inventive way in which the girls make sure they get paid: “Often they [the prostitutes] just roll their johns; get them into motel rooms, even doorways, grab their wallets out of the pockets when their pants are down, and split.”

Note to self: going forward, keep your wallet in the glovebox.

1. Joey is soooooo Buttafuoco. And finally, I leave you with this image, which requires no setup or subsequent elucidation and which garnered a “Whoa!” from yours truly in the margin, and if you are underage or even the least bit squeamish just stop reading now. No, I’m serious. OK, but don’t say I didn’t try to warn you. Here it goes, brace yourself. Amy writes, “Joey was so sexual, he could go much longer than I. When I was exhausted and couldn’t do it anymore, he would jerk himself off and, like a kid with a squirt gun, spray his semen around the room.”

I think the only thing left to say after that is “You’re welcome!”

Buttafuoco.

Number 764,961 on Amazon's list of bestselling books. Prices range from one penny used to $223.18 new.  Seriously.  Maybe I shouldn't have marked it all to hell.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

No Success Like Failure: UNLIMITED POWER, by Anthony Robbins (Conclusion)

“No, seriously, today’s the motherfucking day. I mean it this time.”

*****

The final piece of the puzzle that is my relationship with Tony Robbins and Unlimited Power stems from something my friend Kevin said when we met for coffee. Kevin and I sometimes go long stretches without actually seeing one another, but when we do finally reconvene it doesn’t take more than 20 minutes of idle chitchat before one of us asks the other, What are you reading? Often the question doesn’t need to be asked, as whoever arrived at the rendezvous point first is finishing up a paragraph when the other arrives. In such instances, a nod of the head and a That any good? suffices.

On this particular day, however, I had been reading Robbins rather than any of the other authors who typically dominate our conversations—authors like Virginia Woolf, Jonathan Franzen, or Richard Dawkins—and, I don’t know, maybe shame played a bigger factor than I’m willing to admit, but mostly I just didn’t feel like going into the whole reason of why I was reading Tony Robbins, so I hid the book as best as I could hide it in plain view: I turned it upside down and made sure the spine was facing out.

Kevin must have sensed that strange things were afoot at the Astor Place Starbuck’s because he immediately asked, in his way, Watcha reading?

“Oh, this….” I shook my head, as if to say “nothing, a trifle, next question.” But he was undeterred.

“Come on, what is it?”

Realizing that things had already gotten bigger than they needed to be, I turned the book over and waited for his worst.

“Oh, my.”

“I thought you might like that.”

I proceeded to explain why I was reading Robbins, the project, how it fit into the larger whole. By the time I was finished, he was warming up to the idea, though he still had his reservations.

“My problem is that I’d be embarrassed for people to see me reading that on the train,” he admitted. (This from the guy who had recently read, in public, Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir, by Pat Benatar.) “I’d need a sign that said, ‘I’m being ironic.’”

I won’t act as if I hadn’t wondered how I might be perceived on the train—I’m self-conscious enough that this was one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind—but I had settled on an outside perspective that was more comical than anything else: Hey, get a load of the clearly unemployed, full bearded man in tattered jeans and red sneakers reading Tony Robbins. Does he really think he’s a page away from turning it all around? Shut up and read your Stieg Larsson, I would reply. And, oh, and by the way, Frankie says he loves that cover.

Hopefully Frankie is getting paid enough to make a...
...video with more lasers this time.

No, I was OK with whatever image I projected as I read. What I wondered about for the first time in response to Kevin’s statement was the bigger question of irony. As unbelievable as it sounds, given some of the fun I’ve had with Robbins’ book, I honesty never thought that I was being ironic. Sure, I could certainly stand accused of approaching the text in a less-than-reverential manner, but I don’t revere anything, and, besides, what thinking person wouldn’t? That’s the point of testing ideas in the world, isn’t it? Those that withstand the scrutiny stick. I would hope that, in the spirit of shoring up the soundness of his argument, Robbins would want his readers to think critically, to ask questions, to raise their hands when somehow something didn’t sound quite right. This is called “reading responsibly,” not “reading ironically.”

Still, a questioning mind is not always a receptive mind, and Robbins doesn’t seem like the kind of a guy who enjoys fielding questions that deviate from the FAQ. As I countered his every move, I could hear his rebuttal, as carefully packaged as all the rest: “This book will not help you because you will not let this book help you. When you are ready to listen, only then will you hear.” Like so many platitudes, this sounds like it means something, but it really doesn’t. I can’t help you unless you want to help yourself, says the counselor to the addict. Not a bad gig, since all of the heavy lifting falls to the addict.

Without a doubt, the ironic reading tempts, but so too does it cheapen. The truth is that I would never have reached for Unlimited Power had I not lost my job and had every decision I had ever made not consequently been called into question. One day, this book, out of all of the hundreds of books on my shelf, called to me when for all of the thousands of days previous it had remained mute. There’s no irony there, no knowing wink. I needed this book. I, who had absolutely nothing figured out, wanted to be in the presence of someone who claimed that he knew it all.

I was certainly not the first person to do so, and, in fact, I was not even the first person to do so with this specific copy of Unlimited Power. I knew the book was used—I purchased it for 50 cents at a library book sale in Lawrence, Kansas, remember?—but much to my delight, the previous owner left behind a number of clues as to what drove him to the text. (For the sake of the scene that follows, I will refer to the imagined previous owner as “he.”) Unfortunately, the more interesting story—why he gave it up—remains in the ether, but the hints he left behind tantalize too much to ignore.

He read with a yellow highlighter, so we are kindred spirits in that regard, anyway. (I prefer pencil, but the principle is the same.) Sometimes he highlighted whole passages, but just as often he highlighted the odd line or phrase. “Today is the day.” “W.I.T. – Whatever It Takes.” “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” All of the brief quotations that separate the larger passages in this essay—those are all lifted from what the previous owner deemed important. They include no more and no less than the precise language that he highlighted.

The highlights themselves rarely deviate from their intended lines—no sudden, seismograph-like peaks or valleys—which suggests not only a steady hand but more importantly a steady surface. This guy is not reading on a train, where too often a lurch turns a page into an Etch-a-Sketch. Neither is he on a plane, which rarely goes 10 pages without at least an air pocket or two. He’s not the guy who travels. He’s the guy who wants to be the guy who travels. Some of the notes lead me to believe that he wants to be a salesman—the sections that reference sales are inevitably noted—but would he be brazen enough to read on the job? Probably not. That would risk exposure, possible ridicule. Instead, I picture him hunched over the kitchen table in his apartment that he shares with no one. It’s after hours, after the TV shows that he watches dispassionately. He doesn’t have any other books on his shelf—as he flipped through this one at a friend’s house the friend said You want that? Go ahead and take it, so he did—and this lack of experience is why he has a hard time reading more than 12 pages in a single sitting. The highlighter is supposed to keep him focused—he remembers the same technique working for the smart girls at the community college, which all of his friends who went to a four-year program referred to as “13th grade”—but the long stretches between highlighted sections betray his lapses.

On page 14, he highlights “rejected 1,009 times.” On page 43, “no matter how terrible a situation is, you can represent it in a way that empowers you.” On page 49, “hit a golf ball perfectly.” Strangely, on page 87, some checkmarks and an asterisk with a pen. Page 89, a handwritten note in pencil, cursive, an effeminate hand: “John Chezick dealership—Gordon + Al Gottard.” John Chezick Honda is in Kansas City. On page 90, another handwritten note: “me in the picture.” The strength of the highlighter fades until, finally, on page 147 of 418 it disappears completely.

Thinking about him led me to wonder what people would think about me. Not the “me” with the book in his hands—I’ve already said that they can snicker all they want—but, rather, I wondered what people think of the “me” I left in the margins. The previous owner had offered some morsels of an existence that I had used to piece together a—let’s face it—a pretty flimsy life. I, on the other hand, had left behind a full meal. I corrected Robbins’ errors (“When you find the specific triggers [submodalities] that cause you to go into a desirable state, than you can link these triggers….”). I wrote things like “But how much room does that take up?” and “Is this true?” and “X’d an unfortunate abbreviation” and “beer.” “How do you prove this?” “How to breathe.” I referred to my previous place of employment by name. I put a “?” next to passages that confused, an “!” next to parts that excited. Few books on my shelf so clearly capture within their covers my mental state as I was reading them.

Dylan, again: “You can learn everything there is to learn about me from the songs, if you just know where to look.”  
A clue....
*****

The dirty little secret about Unlimited Power is that it’s hard to read it all the way through without getting something out of it. This pains me to say, but it’s true. That 14-year-old version of myself was wise to resist. Robbins isn’t still going strong a quarter of a century later because he’s unintentionally hilarious, even if he is. He’s still going strong because he’s good. I don’t suddenly have a desire to start a fast-food franchise, nor do I want to run for office or own a fleet of jets, but I can’t deny that Robbins has introduced me to a number of powerful tools that will help me better cope with situations of great adversity.

For example: One of the really underrated parts about being unemployed is that people heap pity upon you. They offer to babysit, they give you old Metro cards, and occasionally they take you to Knicks games. My friend Jim did just that. He’s in the medical profession, and a rep of some kind offered him two tickets to the Knicks-Hawks game, the last before the All-Start break, a game that will forever go down in Knicks lore as the Last Day of the Gallinari Era. Somehow I’ve made it this far in my life without attending a professional basketball game, and I actually count myself a fan of the Knickerbockers, so I leapt at the chance to go to the game.

This despite the fact that the game was on a Wednesday night and on Thursday morning I had (a) to get Jonah to day care and (b) a phone interview for a job that I really, really wanted.

To say that Jim is a bad influence is unfair because I know damn well what I’m signing up for when I agree to a night with him: hard drinking, passionate arguments about sports, and stories we’ve told each other a thousand times before. But mostly hard drinking. I don’t know that I’ve ever outlasted him—on more than one occasion I’ve called it a night only to see him signaling for another while I’m on the way out the door—but on good nights (bad nights?) I can keep up, which is exactly what I did for the hour at the bar before the game, the two and a half hours during the game, and the two hours back at the bar after. The play-by-play is a little blurry, but at one point during the game I remember Jim turning to me and saying, Does it look like they’re playing defense to you? Because it doesn’t look like they’re playing defense to me. Then, a quarter/drink later: Did I ever tell you about the time I scored 60 for Donora High? Did I say stories we told each other a thousand times before? Make that a thousand and one. We stayed until the last dribble, even though the game was over long before. When we returned to the same bar we started at, I expected the bartender to greet us as if we were the ones who had secured the victory. “We’re back!” I bellowed when we swung open the door. No one as much as shifted in their seats. We ordered another beer and shot and got down to the serious business of arguing about Barry Bonds.
Jim and I were there for the end of an era.
At the end of the night, the Knicks had won their last game before Carmelo hit town, we had discovered a great bar with three-dollar pints of Harps just an avenue block away from the Garden, and I had consumed far, far more alcohol than any man should on the eve of a big job interview.

The next morning, I had to pry my eyelids open like a character from anime. Everything looked sideways until I realized that I was the one who was sideways. And that was just the start. That idyllic morning with Jonah that I painted before? Hungover, that exact same morning is a hellish procession of torture. I sacrifice the quiet lap time that I had so treasured for 15 more minutes of sleep, which means that nothing is quiet, everything rushed. I know there are stripes on the banana, buddy, now will you please just take a bite please? Where’s your other shoe? We don’t need your gloves. Just pull your hands into your sleeves. On the walk, I cheat by taking advantage of the elevator at the subway. I shave off two minutes. The cold air should be invigorating, but it’s not. It’s just cold. I count it a victory just getting to Nana G’s, then remember that I have to get back. Can I just lie down for a minute? You have a cot or something for nap time, right? Just point me in the right direction. I’ll be fine. I promise Jonah who knows what when I come pick him up and begin the long trek home.

It’s nine o’clock now. My phone interview is at eleven. I can sleep for an hour and a half, mainline some coffee, and I’ll be fine. Only I can’t sleep. I’m afraid my alarm won’t wake me and I’ll miss the interview completely. A shower would feel good, but I can’t stand up long enough. Worst of all, my stomach feels heavy, like it’s full of cornmeal. Time advances at a pace that’s simply unfair for someone who counts the seconds based on the throbs in his temples. It can’t be that late already. I just laid down. It’s 10:30 now, 10:40. I hear the kids at the school next door yelling at recess. If I could just be sick, release this heaviness, I would feel better. I decide better to do so now than in the middle of the interview. Yes, sir, well that’s an excellent bluuuch. I stagger to the bathroom, drop to my knees, hug the toilet like it’s a buoy and I’m adrift at sea. It’s 10:50. Nothing. 10:55.

The cornmeal stubbornly lodged, I resign myself to my fate: I’m morally weak, and, as a result, my family and I are going to be destitute on the street. We’re standing on the sidewalk in our robes, clinging to what few possessions we can carry in our hands as they change the locks to the building. I look down at the key in my hand, let it fall to the cold concrete. Jonah clutches his favorite car to his chest. Leu is too despondent to even cry. Her stomach bulges, a communiqué from within, not even language, just from his still-developing mind to mine: What the fuck, Dad? You call this being a responsible adult?  But you don’t understand, I….  You were what?  I was…I don’t know.

And then, cutting through my worst-case, another voice. This one deeper, resonant, as thick as Andre the Giant’s. Is it…? Could it be…God?

No. But close. It’s Anthony Robbins. “You can create your own world,” he intones. “Nothing is or is not, only what you make it. Only you can prevent forest fires.”

I’m here, Tony. I’m here.

Do you want this job?

Yes.

Do you want to turn your life around?

Yes.

I can’t hear you!

I said, Yes! Yes!

Then you know what to do.

I don’t.

You do.

I can’t.

You can.

I can’t.

You can, you can.

It’s 10:58. I picture myself as I am, as viewed from an omniscient eye: huddled over the toilet, a sorry, pathetic, pitiful excuse for a man. Then, in the background, as if pulled back in the pocket of a slingshot, I picture how I want to be: upright, confident. I talk on the phone in a tone that communicates professional ease. That’s a really capital question, old boy. Let me address it first on a granular level. Just tell me if you’re looking for something more robust. At his desk in a skyscraper in Midtown, the interviewer stamps “HIRED” in big red letters across the front of my résumé. My teeth are as straight as piano keys. They gleam as brightly as something bright that gleams. I release the image. It gets brighter and more overwhelming the closer it gets. It lands right between my eyes, pinches them awake. My old self in shambles, mercury scurrying across the bathroom floor.

I’m bare-chested, wearing nothing but boxer shorts. I’m paunchy. My arms without definition. I’m an underwhelming physical specimen in every possible way. My beard is mangy. I sweat. I smell sour. The phone rings. I put my hands on the toilet and push.

I stand up like a man.

Whoosh. 

Number 8,282 on Amazon's list of best-selling books; number 16 in Business and Investing/Business Life/Motivation & Self-Improvement.