Monday, April 14, 2008


She tells me she lives for pleasure. Sitting with the late-lunch crowd in a midtown Manhattan sushi bar, the only one drinking a martini, Ashley watches the Japanese chefs peel cucumbers methodically with excellent knife technique. The top layer of sound is ambient lounge music; the layer beneath that, the anxious buzz of corporate employees talking about their jobs as they tuck into their bento boxes.

"I love to see them work," she says.

Ashley is eating slowly and living for pleasure these days. She knows there's a war on, and we're all plummeting toward recession, yet she feels unexpectedly serene ever since she lost her job as a real estate broker just before Christmas. She carries her laptop and briefcase around town and goes to the occasional job interview, but she's in no hurry to be employed again. She still has plenty of severance and unemployment payments coming in.

"I feel like I'm still washing the stink of corporate America off me," Ashley says with a laugh. "I've learned that it's possible to be out of work and extremely happy."

Her biggest worry today is finding a solid pair of Harley boots that she can wear on her long walks around town. She has stopped buying whatever she likes--those days are over--but a good pair of boots is essential.She repeats that she knows there's a war on and this country is plummeting toward recession, but she can't help feeling that she's simply lucky to be alive.

Ashley's vodka-tinged haze of pleasure in the middle of a Manhattan work day and her simple quest for a good pair of boots put me in mind of one of my bad girls, Isabelle Eberhardt, a rat race drop-out if ever there was one.

Born in Switzerland in 1877 to Russian parents and raised in a community of anarchist-nihilist émigrés, Isabelle traveled at the age of twenty to Algeria and converted to Islam. She renamed herself Si Mahmoud, dressed as an Arab man and spent her days with the Kadriya brotherhood of Sufis when she wasn’t riding the Sahara dunes on horseback. It was her ambition to be a great writer, and she kept journals and served as a war correspondent for El Akhbar, a newspaper in the Sud Oranais. She never got very far with her ambitions because she preferred camping in the desert among the soldiers of the Foreign Legion and sleeping with hot young Arab boys. Although she married a soldier, Slimène, who tried to make a home for them, Isabelle liked to go on the prowl at night, smoking kif (a form of hashish) and drinking absinthe, kummel, chartreuse and cognac until she passed out on the floor of whatever random café she happened to be in.

"There are women who will do anything for beautiful clothes," Isabelle wrote, "while there are others who grow old and gray poring over books to earn degrees and status. As for myself, all I want is a good horse as a mute and loyal companion, a handful of servants hardly more complex than my mount, and a life as far away as possible from the hustle and bustle I happen to find so sterile in the civilized world."Isabelle felt that she lived in the presence of a mystery that held the key to the entire meaning of her life. "As long as I do not fathom that enigma—and will I ever! God alone can tell—I shall not know who I am, nor the reason for my curious life," she said in a state of semi-exaltation, her dreams nourished on the narcotic smoke of kif.

I wish Ashley well as she seeks the answer to her own enigmatic mystery in the vodka-nourished haze of her urban reverie, drinking in the pleasure of watching the Japanese sushi chefs of Manhattan attack a massive heap of fresh salmon ahead of the dinner crowd.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


This just arrived via email:

Hi dear!!

My letter will surprise you!!

My name - Elena. My age-26 years. I live in Russia!!

Private life didn\'t turn out well. I decided to find a foreign man. I dream to meet a decent, kind and clever man!! It is difficult to tell about myself. If this is of any interest to you, write to me.

My address - I\'ll wait!!

Kisses Elena

Now I'm worried, and I hope Elena isn't waiting for me personally. She sounds desperate, sad and beautiful. I've never met her, but now I'm feeling pressured to help her find a foreign man, a decent, kind and clever foreign man.

I don't know the details of how Elena's private life didn't turn out well, but I do want to tell her that finding a man won't necessarily solve the problems of her private life. What went wrong? Why is it difficult to tell? Elena, you are a mystery.

I'm in no position to help--Dave and I and our two cats live in less than 1,000 square feet of space, and it would be tight with Elena sleeping in our second bedroom, which is also an office, and anyway Dave is my foreign man--but if anyone out there can help, please contact her at Elena will wait for your answer.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Linda S. was the first bad girl I ever met. We were in grade school together, age eleven, and got breasts and periods before most of the other girls. It was our physical maturity that drew us to each other.

What fascinated me about Linda was that she knew exactly what to do about her maturity, while I was a clueless geek. She shaved her legs, used tampons, had boyfriends and smoked Marlboros. And she had style, wearing tight t-shirts, low-slung jeans and wide belts. She had beautiful long blond hair, a broad Slavic face and a big confident laugh. I could't understand why she wanted to be my friend.

Her Italian mother was divorced from her Polish father--the only "broken home" on our street at the time. The rest of the divorces didn't come until at least five years later in our Chicago suburb, including my parents'. Linda's mom, Carmella, always seemed to be cooking big pots of tomato sauce, and she scared me. Carmella was the only person who could wipe the smile off Linda's face, and she did it with shouts and hitting. Thank god I didn't see Carmella often; she had a 9-to-5 office job, so Linda and I could run around the house freely.

When I was in fifth grade, I was in a brief love triangle with Linda and my kindergarten best friend Wendy, but I eventually dropped Wendy for Linda. She was the only friend I wanted to be with. We liked to dance in the rain together, listen to pop music and put on glamorous shows for each other in the basement. I especially enjoyed lip-synching to one of Carmella's records, "Goodbye Charlie," by some singer like Dory Previn or Patti Page or whoever it was.

Anyway, Linda was seriously involved in all of my first kissing experiences: 1) She pinned her boyfriend Mike in the schoolyard one Saturday afternoon and forced him to make out with her to prove to me how long she could hold a kiss without taking a breath; 2) She instructed me and a neighborhood boy, Greg, to kiss each other on the lips because neither of us had ever done it before and it was time to learn; 3) We were bored one weekend night with no boys around and decided to practice French kissing with each other, which we did on my bed.

I haven't seen Linda in years, but I thought about her the other day after watching Madonna's 1991 documentary, Truth or Dare. While performing in Detroit, she gets a visit from an old schoolfriend, and Madonna describes her as a bad girl from a broken home who was a bad influence--she showed Madonna how to insert a Tampax, ran around with boys, smoked...

Basically, Madonna--one of our era's biggest bad girls of all--had a wild bad-girl friend in childhood just like my very own Linda. It seems like no matter who you are when you're a kid, it helps to have a bad girl around to guide you through tough times.

"Can I just say that I find it really irritating that everyone beats up on Britney Spears?" Madonna told Elle magazine in February 2001. "I want to do nothing but support her and praise her and wish her the best. I mean, she's 18 years old! It's just shocking. I was so gawky and geeky and awkward and unsure of myself."