SNEAKERS

SNEAKERS

I hate buying sneakers. Every time you go into Foot Locker, about a million guys in black-and-white striped shirts swarm down on you within seconds, saying things like, “How’s it goin’, buddy?” and “Hey, big guy, lookin’ for anything in particular?”. They’re always really jocky-looking, the kind of guys who used to make fun of me in high school for being a total wimp. Now I’m their “buddy” and “big guy”? Shut up, you phony referee. Don’t pretend like you care how my shoes fit. If we were in the cafeteria, you’d be flinging mashed potatoes at the back of my head, and don’t pretend otherwise just because you’re on commission.

On the other hand, the thing I like best about Big 5 Sporting Goods is that when you walk in there, the employees don’t pay any attention to you at all. Instead of being like the high school cafeteria, Big 5 is more like a school dance, where the jocks are too busy scoping out girls — or in this case, standing around looking bored — to pay much attention to a dork like me. So when I decided it was time for a new pair of sneakers, the choice was easy. Even without the Thompson Twins and Duran Duran, I’ll take a school dance over the cafeteria anyday. But as it turned out, my trip to Big 5 was more like high school than I ever imagined.

When Drew and I first walked in, a very angry man was asking to see the store manager. As I started scanning the shoe racks, I realized things were on the verge of getting out of hand. Soon, there was shouting. It took a few moments of listening in (and it was impossible not to hear what was going on) before I pieced the story together, but this is what seems to have happened before we walked in:

Two store employees were standing around talking, as the employees at Big 5 seem trained to do whenever there are customers in need of assistance. The angry man and his companion were trying on shoes. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t take a very strong gaydar to lead one to assume that these two particular men were homosexual. One of the chatting employees says to the other, “What a fag”, and the presumably gay men overhear. That’s about where my boyfriend and I walked in.

The employee insisted his comment wasn’t directed toward the customer. He claimed he was talking about “a friend” of his. The customer felt that this point was irrelevant and that the “fag” comment made him feel unwelcome in the store. The employee’s response, which I quote verbatim: “What do you want? It’s freedom of speech.”

This did not sit well with the customers.

Nonetheless, the employee repeated the “freedom of speech” line as his sole defense, over and over. Every counter-argument the customers made was refuted with, “It’s freedom of speech. Freedom of speech!” At some point during this, the assistant manager stepped into the conversation. A very young-looking African-American man who appeared as if he was probably wearing a tie for the first time in his life, he seemed to be in way over his head.

The customers tried to educate the Big 5 workers. First, they directed their arguments at the employee, who seemed to be of Asian descent. “What if someone said the word ‘Ch–k’ in here?” Then, customer’s friend turned to the African-American manager: “What if instead of ‘What a fag’ someone said ‘What a n—er’?”

Suddenly offended, the manager stepped right in. “Whoa, whoa! You can’t say that in my store!” No one seemed to realize that the customer had just made his point. The customers finally gave up and stormed out. I just stood there with a pair of sneakers in my hand, wondering what to do. The 8 1/2’s were a little tight. Should I try to find them in a 9?

Okay, I wasn’t really thinking about the shoes at that point. I was mostly wondering if I, as a bystander, should step in. Well, that didn’t stop Loudmouth Lady. “I saw the whole thing!” a voice called out from the clearance racks. “And I’ll defend you!”

The employee shrugged, still clinging to his memories of high school civics. “It’s freedom of speech,” he explained.

Loudmouth Lady concurred. “It’s not like you were going to lynch him or something!” Having heard this woman ranting, I now take back anything I may have said about the average person on the street being as qualified to be president as George W.

People are crazy.

The customers’ exit had made things more, rather than less, disturbing, so Drew and I decided it was time to leave. On the way out, Drew stopped to talk to the assistant manager. We waited a minute while the scared kid was busy with a phone call (Drew says he was relating the incident, probably to his boss), then decided to let it go. Maybe we’d write a letter about it tomorrow if we were still angry.

We got as far as the parking lot before I stopped and rethought our decision to leave. There was no denying that Drew and I were both pretty shaken up by the whole thing. Sure, I didn’t witness the initial incident, but if the employee had simply apologized instead of citing the Bill of Rights, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. The customers probably shouldn’t have brought out the “n” word, but if the assistant manager was so troubled by that epithet, he should’ve been able to recognize that “fag” was equally offensive to some people and therefore, it also had no place in his store. Furthermore, all of this happened in West Hollywood, LA’s gay neighborhood and my home. The employee’s behavior would’ve been inappropriate anywhere, of course, but I especially don’t want to feel unwelcome on my turf.

Drew and I did have a role here. We could make these points intelligently and, since we weren’t directly involved in the argument, without being ruled by passion. I decided we should go back into the store.

Unfortunately, the assistant manager was still on the phone. So we left again. And went back again. And left again. And went back again. (Standing up for myself isn’t my forte. Again, I blame high school.) But we kept going back, and eventually the assistant manager got off the phone and we got up the nerve, and we told him how we felt. For me, it all came down to one thing: “I just don’t need all of this when I’m trying to buy shoes.”

The manager, who looked like he desperately wished he had called out sick that day, said he was sorry. Actually, what he said was, “I apologize for the inconvenience.” Inconvenience? Witnessing a callous indifference to homophobia is a lot of things, but I wouldn’t call it an “inconvenience”. It was a generic apology, like some way of avoiding any admission of guilt. It sounded like something he had been trained to say. And I couldn’t help thinking that the whole situation could’ve been avoided if only, instead of training their employees to say, “I apologize for the inconvenience”, Big 5 trained them not to say “fag”.

Drew, who’s slightly better at standing up for himself than I am, called the store the next day and spoke to a real manager. He got a real apology and learned that the employee had been suspended. Drew told the manager he didn’t want anyone to be fired, but I don’t have much sympathy for the guy. Maybe now this Defender of the First Amendment can find work with the ACLU. At the very least, he’ll learn a lesson. According to the manager, the suspendee had been transferred from a store in the Valley and may not have been sensitive to the community he was serving. (Apparently, there are no gay people in the Valley.) It was comforting to know that somebody at least gave a shit. But still, I have a suggestion for Big 5. Maybe a little employee sensitivity training would be in order.

It may not be my place to advise Big 5 on its company policy. But hey, it’s freedom of speech.

WHY "QUEER AS FOLK" IS GOOD FOR THE GAYS

WHY “QUEER AS FOLK” IS GOOD FOR THE GAYS

I remember signing up for Showtime the day that “Queer as Folk” premiered. Since I live in West Hollywood, a city that actually seceded from Los Angeles because L.A. wasn’t gay enough, I wasn’t the only one bugging my cable company for the last-minute hookup. I was placed on hold for what felt like an hour, then a guy with a thick Texas accent came on the line. He knew right away what I wanted. “Everybody’s callin’ fer Showtahhhm today,” he said. “You’re wantin’ to watch that new show, are ya?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Yer out in California, huh?”

“Yeah, where are you?”

“Ah’m out in Houston. Yeah, thurr sayin’ that’s a good show, Ah guess. What’s it called agin?” He asked as if he knew the title perfectly well but didn’t want to offend me by saying the word “queer”.

“Queer as Folk.”

“Oh, rahhht.” He continued barraging me with questions, which, if the phones were really that busy, he probably shouldn’t have been doing. He was perfectly polite, but extremely curious. I wondered whether I was the first gay person he had ever spoken to. He seemed fascinated by me. Sure, it’s possible that he was a closeted homosexual, but I got the feeling he was just a friendly, sheltered-but-open-minded Southern gentleman who wanted to be nice to the gays.

I only watched a few episodes of the show. I could go into all the reasons why, but they all center around its terribleness. (Is “terribleness” a real word? I can’t believe it’s not coming up in my spell check. Hey, it is!) Once I got Tivo, I stopped trying to follow the boneheaded storylines and just fast-forwarded for the gratuitous nudity. Eventually, even that got boring, and I deleted the show from my season passes altogether. I should’ve canceled my Showtime, but that would’ve meant calling the cable company again, and laziness won out over frugality. I can just picture the call I would’ve had with Tex. “Yeah, lotsa people are cancelin’ Showtahhhm. I hear that gay show ain’t no good.”

Soon after I lost interest in the show, I got a call from the brother of a friend of mine. He worked at Showtime, and they gave him a free copy of the Queer as Folk Season 1 DVD box set. Clearly, I was the #1 homosexual in his address book, as he was giving me first dibs. Just like my Texan friend, he just wanted to be nice to the gays. “I don’t watch it myself,” he said. “I hear it’s good, though.”

The next day, the package arrived by FedEx. I felt guilty accepting a gift I didn’t really want, but it made him feel good to give it to me, and I’m really bad at saying no. It sat on my shelf for about a year, and the next time I heard from my friend’s brother was when the Season 2 DVD was released. He asked me if I enjoyed the first season he’d sent me. “Oh, yeah,” I lied. The next day, another FedEx arrived.

Both seasons sat unopened on my shelf until, several months ago, I learned that they retailed for about $120 each. I didn’t know who would be crazy enough to pay that much money for a “Queer as Folk” box set, but whoever they were, I wanted to get in touch with them ASAP. I considered eBay, but although I’ve bought plenty of things there, I have a fear of becoming an eBay seller. I can’t help feeling like once you’ve sold something on eBay, you’ve crossed some kind of line and rewired yourself to start scouring thrift shops for discarded treasures you can mark up and unload on strangers.

Drew said I was crazy to sell them on eBay, where I’d only get 75% of their value, tops. He suggested waiting until the week after Christmas, when, according to him at least, stores are happy to take returns without receipts. It seemed far-fetched to me, but I agreed to wait it out. Then, a couple days after Christmas, I took those generous but misguided gifts to Best Buy.

When I walked in, the alarm sounded. Oops. I hadn’t suspected that Showtime armed the complimentary copies they gave to their employees with shoplift-protection. A security guard rushed right up to me. “Yeah, I’d like to return these,” I said, guiltily, “but I don’t have a receipt.” Not surprisingly given that I’d just tripped an alarm, he was a bit skeptical. I got turned away.

Drew scoffed at my amateurishness, and a couple of days later, he went to Best Buy and returned both sets for full value. Thanks to my favorite master of deception, I ended up with a store credit of about $225.

All of this poses an interesting moral quandary, I guess. Yes, I feel a tinge of terribleness in my heart. But I’m enjoying my new digital camera, which I bought for almost nothing.

And I think that everyone involved would be glad to know they did something nice for the gays.

A WRITER WRITES, ALWAYS… GETS PAID, RARELY

A WRITER WRITES, ALWAYS… GETS PAID, RARELY

So who’s going to be the next head of the Writer’s Guild now that the president was forced to step down over eligibility concerns? Well, don’t look at me.

WGA eligibility rules are more convoluted than the script for “Chinatown” (I figured a screenwriting analogy was appropriate here), and with my nonexistent writing income lately, every year I’m afraid it’ll be the year I finally get kicked out. Okay, so getting kicked out wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. WGA membership costs a minimum of $100 a year, on top of the $3,500 I had to pay to join. In return, the guild provides a variety of protections and benefits to its members who are currently employed in the industry. The majority of members, who, like me, aren’t currently employed in the industry, get complimentary movie tickets, screeners and miscellaneous marketing materials during award season from studios who want their films to get nominated for WGA awards, and that’s about it.

Since I joined, I’ve paid the guild over $4,000 and probably seen about $500 in free movies. Still, there’s a moral boost in getting that new annual membership card in the mail every year. The card always comes at the butt-end of December, and every year, as New Year’s Day approaches, I start to panic, convinced I’ve been assed out of the one and only labor union I’ve ever been a part of. Then, just when I’ve given up hope, usually around December 29th or so, the card arrives, and I can go on enjoying free movies on an uninterrupted basis.

This year, I waited and waited, and the card never came. I hoped I’d find it in the stack of mail that I picked up from the post office when I got back from vacation, but all I got were about a thousand Christmas cards from people I’d neglected to send cards to, the kind of people who send their cards at the last minute just to make me feel guilty. This past weekend, I went to see “Cold Mountain”, and I tried to get in with my 2003 membership card. I mean, it was only January 3. I tried hard to plead my case. “I just got back from vacation, and I haven’t gone through my mail yet. The new card’s probably in there.” The manager was called, people behind me in line were getting annoyed, and I gave up and forked over the cash. I paid money for tickets to a Miramax movie in January, which is as sure a sign as any that my professional writer status had just officially ended.

Then, just to be sure, I called the guild membership office. The guy on the phone asked for my name and social security number, and I braced myself for official confirmation of the bad news. “I’m sorry, Jerry,” he said. “You should’ve received the new card by now. I’ll go ahead and mail one out today.”

It was even more suspenseful than usual, but amazingly, I survived. And now I have that 2004 membership card in my hand. I’ve managed to squeak out another year of credibility in the eyes of my peers. The DVD screener of “Seabiscuit” and Xeroxed screenplay of “Calendar Girls” will not be the last of my bounty. And now, to thank the guild for their generosity, I am about to begin my next writing project. It’s not a novel or a script or a TV spec.

It’s a check I’ll be writing… for $100.

OFF THE CHARTS

OFF THE CHARTS

In my obsessive-compulsive youth, one of my most shameful secrets was The Notebook. Sometime in my early teens, I began using the notebook — an ordinary green-cover 5-subject spiral notebook — to chronicle my favorite songs of the moment. It started out as a top ten list, which I’d compose whenever I felt like it or whenever I had the time or whenever Howard Jones put out something new. But within a few months, I was producing a weekly chart roundup that comprised a full five pages, front and back. My singles list gradually grew into a Top 50, along with a Top 25 albums chart (and I was always aware of the irony that I didn’t even own many of them), an R&B chart, Top 10 Recurrent, Top Album Tracks and even Jerry’s Top Adult Contemporary (I was never aware of the irony of this).

As closely as possible, I modeled my notebook after Billboard Magazine. I structured all the charts with ruler-drawn columns giving current and previous chart positions, weeks on chart, peak position and, my personal favorite, a “predicted peak” (because I always knew ahead of time how much I’d eventually grow to like a song). I even had hot shot debuts, greatest gainers and biggest droppers, all of which were gently shaded in with pencil. And at the end of December, I used a complicated labor-intensive formula to tabulate the biggest hits of the year, which were listed, of course, in an expanded special edition.

Yeah, I was a weird kid.

Eventually, obsession gave way to fatigue, as I just couldn’t keep up with the demands of constantly updating my many, many charts. Sometimes, I’d fall behind and do two or three weeks at once, which soiled the integrity of the entire process. Coupled with the constant shame of what I knew was the ultimate in geekiness (I hid that notebook the way most kids hide porn, and NOBODY knew about it), one day I closed my notebook for good. It sat in my desk for a while, tucked carefully away and neglected. But I worried constantly that it would one day be discovered. What if I died an untimely death in some horribly tragic accident? Somebody would come by to pack up my things, and they would flip through every humiliating page of that notebook, mocking it not only for what it represented in a broader sense but for the myriad eccentricities of mine it would reveal. (“Man, I had no idea Jerry liked a-ha so much!”) My unending paranoia led me to destroy the thing I had once loved so dearly by tearing the entire two-inch-thick notebook into pieces no more than a half-inch square. I then buried the confetti of my loserhood, a few pieces at a time (nothing anyone could paste back together), at the bottom of the kitchen trash can, until eventually my whole notebook was gone.

I miss that notebook. I think about it the way some people think about the first boy they kissed on a cool, moonlit night at summer camp. I really wish I could dig it out and peek through all the memories inside. But a few years ago, around the time I started wishing I could get my notebook back, I got my first CD-RW drive. Suddenly, I had a new way to embrace my inner obsessive-compulsive music freak weirdo. I’ll probably never again have a weekly Top 50, but in the days when everyone’s burning CDs, an annual Top 20 seems perfectly socially acceptable (and almost obligatory).

When I started this up again, I thought a lot about issues like whether I should only include singles, or whether album tracks were acceptable, or what specifically comprised the eligibility dates for my best-of-year countdown. Then I decided not to take the fun out of it by turning it into something I’d want to tear up and bury at the bottom of my parents’ trash can. So here then, without any further explanation, is Jerry’s Official Top 20 Countdown for 2003. Keep your feet in the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.

20. Jerk It Out – Caesars

19. You Know So Well – Sondre Lerche

18. Let’s Push Things Forward – The Streets

17. Don’t Steal Our Sun – The Thrills

16. Nothing Precious At All – Stereophonics

15. Why Can’t I? – Liz Phair

14. Dreaming of You – The Coral

13. Dinner at Eight – Rufus Wainwright

12. Mexican Wine – Fountains of Wayne

11. The Way We Get By – Spoon

10. Fidelity – Starsailor

9. Picture – Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow

8. I Need More Love – Robert Randolph & The Family Band

7. Deckchairs and Cigarettes – The Thrills

6. Crazy in Love – Beyonce featuring Jay-Z

5. Danger! High Voltage – Electric Six

4. God Put a Smile Upon Your Face – Coldplay

3. 14th Street – Rufus Wainwright

2. Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone? – Ted Leo & The Pharmacists

1. Hey Ya! – Outkast

WHY MY NEXT GAMES NIGHT WILL BE INVITATION ONLY

WHY MY NEXT GAMES NIGHT WILL BE INVITATION ONLY (PART ONE)

During a game of ‘Celebrities’…

PLAYER #1: Uh… I don’t know this one…

Puts the slip back in the hat.

JERRY: You can’t put it back once you’ve seen it!

PLAYER #1: I don’t know this one either!

Puts it back in the hat.

JERRY: If you don’t know it, you have to break it down and do a sound-alike!

PLAYER #1: I don’t know this one either! This game is hard!!!

Puts it back in the hat.

JERRY: (sigh)

WHY MY NEXT GAMES NIGHT WILL BE INVITATION ONLY (PART TWO)

PLAYER #2: Okay… I don’t know this person.

Shows the slip to another player.

PLAYER #2: Is this a president or something?

JERRY: Do a sound-alike.

PLAYER #2: Okay, his first name sounds like “light”.

JERRY: You can’t really do rhymes.

PLAYER #3: Why not?

OTHER HELPFUL PLAYER: Because then every clue becomes “Sounds like Schmitney Schmears.”

PLAYER #2: Um… okay… well then… uh…

JERRY: (sigh) Is it Dwight?

PLAYER #2: Yes!

JERRY: Dwight Eisenhower?

PLAYER #2: That’s it!

JERRY: Uh, yeah, that’s a president.

WHY MY NEXT GAMES NIGHT WILL BE INVITATION ONLY (PART THREE)

A subsequent round…

PLAYER #1: I don’t know this one either!

JERRY: (slowly preparing to slit wrists…) Break it down… sound it out… life is futile…

PLAYER #1: Her name sounds like “chocolate”.

Silence.

PLAYER #1: Um… I think she’s an actress. Chocolate brownie. Sounds like “chocolate brownie”.

PLAYER #4: Charlotte Bronte?

PLAYER #1: Yeah!

Time runs out.

PLAYER #4: Good job! That was awesome!

PLAYER #1: Jesus Christ! Who keeps putting in all these obscure people?