Q&A with Milwaukee author Todd Lazarski as he romanticizes and sometimes denigrates: Chris Paul; sarcasm’s hidden kindness; self-destruction as research; necessary meanness in food writing; and thoughts of his father, dead at 39
BY JUSTIN KERN
Todd Lazarski, 33, quietly compartmentalizes his obsessions, sort of shadowboxes that he knows have to see sun, even if it’s when they’re getting tossed. Inside-turned-out, Todd found relief in the release of his first novel, “Make the Road by Walking” (June 2016, on Cleveland’s Red Giant Books), a familiar-feeling journal across the Midwest, New Orleans and California. He has realized personal space as a “fat guy” – pretend or otherwise – devouring the world 10 dinners at a time, in Rio de Janeiro, Buffalo and Milwaukee, in pieces for Paste, TimeOut, Shepherd Express and Milwaukee Record. His next exposition will be a second novel, “Spend It All”, a reckoning of idiotic youth with whatever the hell it is that compels us to trudge ahead and try into near adulthood, chicken finger sub in hand (you can read an excerpt here; he’s currently playing matchmaker with a publisher).
I met Todd a few years ago due to the Buffalo Bills, the team of our respective home fields in western New York though we had both been transplanted to Milwaukee. Along with the yeoman’s bliss from running back Fred Jackson, we shared Jim Harrison and Stanley Elkin books, and realized it’d be easier to be friends than to tough it out as isolated fans. This past December, we went on a road trip for readings at the marvelous Mac’s Books in Cleveland and a book release in Buffalo. These acts pulled Todd further from internalized roiling over writing and out into its small but not-always-wretched public aspects. The following unabashedly long-form Q&A is an extrapolation on that tangent – a dialogue of poignancy and personal jabs, edited (honestly!) for flow, from two nights in early March in Milwaukee.
Bradley Center, L.A. Clippers vs. Milwaukee Bucks. Todd had free tickets to the game from a friend in his basketball rec league, the one who put the scar over Todd’s right eye with a scrappy elbow a few months back. Todd promised not to milk that friend’s guilt over the scar that occurred in a middle-aged, nearly talented rec league game, though he gladly accepted the tickets to see star Clippers guard Chris Paul. We join Todd’s oeuvres to the very game of basketball, already in progress …
Todd: No other sport has that. Nothing else in my life has that. Basketball is the most beautiful of all physical endeavors. And it’s the most American. But more … it’s the most stylish, the most graceful.
Justin: It’s definitely the most American. Even though, I think a Canadian made it. Doctor Naismith, a basketball doctor, I guess.
Todd: You’ve said the Canadian thing before. … It’s kind of a stupid idea. Here, throw this ball into this basket. A laundry hamper, something people do every day in their house. Here [are] my dirty chonis.
Justin: Chonis? How’s that spelled? What’s AP Style?
Todd: C-H-O-N-I-S, your boxers. AP Style has a capital “C” and capital “H”.
[Unintentional pause where ‘Charge!’ plays exactly once on the stadium P.A.]
Justin: So, I mean …
Todd: You are able to express your individual style in a team context. It makes it the American ideal. It makes it like jazz – I realize that’s a cliché but it’s completely true – in that you’re doing a thing that is a team thing, but even the way you dribble the ball down the court when no one is on you is an expression of yourself. Football players don’t do shit like that.
Justin: Right. And you don’t see their face …
Todd: You don’t see their face. They execute. It’s utilitarian. I’m going to run you over or I’m not going to. In basketball, you can just dribble between your legs. There’s a usefulness to dribbling between your legs, sometimes, but not usually. Sometimes you just want to dribble between your legs. Or put [the ball] in your left hand. You try to establish a rhythm. Which is cool, the ultimate symbol of cool. Individualism, coming out of the inner city, turning into the American dream.
Justin: That you could be yourself and be famous.
Todd: Not even be famous. Be cool because you’re playing basketball. You’re a baller. Also, it’s the only sport you can play by yourself. Completely by yourself. You can’t do that with football –
Justin: What if you’re a kicker? What about [just-about-to-be-released Buffalo Bills kicker] Dan Carpenter? He’s going to be playing by himself, kicking in the backyard a lot soon.
Todd: You do have that argument. [Pauses] Shooting hoops by myself is my favorite thing that I’ve ever done in my life. If I could only do one thing for the rest of my life, it would be that. When I’m doing that, I’m actually playing basketball. I’m doing the thing that [points to the Clippers/Bucks game on the court] they’re doing now. It’s an actual representation of the sport and of myself. You could do that with soccer, I guess. But with basketball, you’re not playing against anyone else. Like with horseshoes, what you talk about with horseshoes. It’s an embodiment of the sport and yourself.
Justin: I remember being in Rollerblades, in a parking lot with a … cheap stick and an orange ball, shooting against the fence of a parking lot … I’m telling myself I’m playing hockey but there’s not a single part of that [which] is like real hockey. … When it comes down to it, LeBron in Game 7 of the Finals last year made the game happen. He was himself and made them win, after he broke his wrist or whatever, and that block … with his own will and personality.
Todd: It couldn’t happen in any other sport. You talk about [Patrick] Kane and the way he moves, you talk about grace or his step ahead of other players. Like he knows where to go and how to create space in a limited –
Justin: Yes, yes. I guess Gretzky did that in a way, in a specific way in the frame of the game, behind the net. But Kane makes the place to go, the space, which seems bizarre, like it shouldn’t be able to happen. They’re all on the same ice, the players. But [with Kane] it happens every night, a few times every night.
Todd: That’s how I feel about Chris Paul. When he was young, he was explosive athletically. Then he had knee shit … he lost lateral quickness. But he’s extremely impressive and cerebral, even more so now, at least to me and people who are basketball nerds. His ability – when Derrick Rose’s knees went, he was shot. It’ll be interesting to see LeBron because when his athleticism goes … Paul still has the ability to go from here to there on the court, without the athleticism of his youth. He’s so smooth and graceful, it’s the height of sports. Grace in physical –
Justin: It sounds like you’re explaining gymnastics.
Todd: It is, in a way. But there’s a cool – to watch him direct, be a quarterback, put the ball through his legs and look cool but also lead a team. Do that and you’re the fucking man. For three-and-a-half quarters, all [Paul] is worried about is making the pass, setting up everyone else. What John Stockton did. Almost to a fault. To get the team in rhythm where the team can fire on all cylinders even if it doesn’t seem like it could.
Justin: Well, you talk about Paul, you talk about Stockton. The ultimate benchmark of sports is – as much as people want to make everything in life a black and white decision – winning or losing. That’s what it comes down to. For real, not like how people make imaginary scenarios where you have to rank bands or artists. In sports you’re supposed to win. You can enjoy it no matter what, but, when I’m kicking your ass in NBA Jam [for Sega Genesis], and you pick Stockton, and you’re losing, it doesn’t matter much if it’s pretty. [Pauses, back to the present momentarily] The Bucks are turning this into a beatdown. Your boy Paul has one foul and five points …
Todd: Yeah, yeah … he needs them to chill out. When he was on New Orleans, he was maybe the greatest guard. But that’s bullshit. The ultimate benchmark isn’t winning. It shouldn’t be.
Justin: As Bills fans, I know we try to rationalize everything like that.
[We’re at the stadium for overly expensive Miller High Lifes – High Lives? – until the Bucks win by double-digits and Chris Paul maybe reinjures his thumb. We leave for a few bars, one where Katy Perry played just louder than the Spurs/Pelicans game, then another …]
Urban is a new-ish bar that replaced an old drywaller’s hangout in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, where both live, separately, with our wives and cats, like some sophisticated dandies. At the bar, we laughed off the guilt of cheering on the Bills highlight portions of the stupendous “O.J.: Made in America” documentary on a corner TV. As we talked shit to each other, needlessly, we rejoin the conversation already overwhelmingly in progress …
Justin: You said a great thing on our trip [in December] about the value of western New York sarcasm. Where people just bust your balls and that’s how you know they give a shit. It’s one of the few things that really ties Buffalo to the East Coast, to places like Boston and especially, definitely Philadelphia. Here in Milwaukee, people just don’t come at you like that. The first thing you hear from people you’re close to in western New York –
Todd: The people are mean.
Justin: It’s a daisycutter. You’re being warned to not waste your fucking time with people. Which isn’t mean, in a way. Explain that to me, what does that mean to you.
Todd: I don’t know anything other than the way that my uncle talks to me.
Justin: Which is …
Todd: I wouldn’t know how else to talk to people if it wasn’t a ‘Fuck You’ attitude. And if I wouldn’t feel like saying ‘Fuck You’, then I wouldn’t want to talk to them to begin with.
Justin: But you’re not a mean person.
Todd: I hate being mean. I don’t want to be mean to anyone. I try to take people as they come. It doesn’t matter how or who you are.
Justin: But there’s something appreciated …
Todd: My first inkling from my uncle when I step off the plane in Buffalo is sarcasm. “Why are you wearing that?” A constant need to explain yourself. No idea where it’s going to come from. “Why do you have that same face?”
Justin: To me, and I agree … but it taps into a constant sense of self doubt that we both share. Like I’ve already got this internal doubt, nonstop. So the sarcasm works [in the opposite way]. It helps me understand how the outside world functions. I can verbalize my doubt and get somewhere with it outside of my own head.
Todd: Yes, you can get through the day. You’re saying ‘Fuck You’ to yourself more than anyone else. Your little existence is complete bullshit. You couldn’t matter less. There’s no doubt to that. So why would you take yourself so seriously, take the things around you so seriously? This is all for nothing. We don’t amount to anything. And politeness won’t get you anywhere else. [Pauses] You’re going to pretend to be nice, for what?
Justin: You are a nice person.
Todd: Don’t be phony. People I’m not nice to are generally the people I love. I’m never nice to my mother. I’m rarely nice to my mom.
Justin: My closest friends are terrible.
Todd: I don’t even like them. They fucking piss me off! And fuck you, don’t buy me another beer. Just saying ‘Fuck You’, all the time.
Justin: In defiance of the world.
Todd: Why would the world be like this? Why am I like this? This is all useless and so is everything we do. So be nice. [Pauses] Fuck you.
[At some point, we outlined a contract for a bet: will the United States experience a terrorist attack worse (in terms of body count, at least) than 9/11 within our lifetimes? Borne of anxious talk on the state of the world, we backed away from the maladaptive request of a stranger at the bar to sign this contract as our formal witness. We, in turn, backed away from signing it. (He was more assured the attack wouldn’t happen, for what it’s worth.) To my house around the corner for cool-down beers that lasted six hours. During, he explained George Saunders’s views of empathy and Greg Popovich’s importance as a vocal American. Separately, I argued that America had substantial contributions to global cuisine, then came up with only regional barbecues and variations on Mexican food. I beat him at NHL ’94 for Sega Genesis in a rousing nine-game series, highlighted by the speed of Nelson Emerson and the glove of Grant Fuhr. As he left at dawn, he became mildly convinced this had turned into a takedown Q&A. I assured him no one cared that much.]
At Vanguard restaurant and bar. After a day to nurse hangovers – his much worse than mine, no doubt connected to the NHL ’94 loses – we reconvened for dinner, drinks and eventually/finally discussions on writing.
Justin: I wanted to start by saying ‘Fuck you.’
Todd: That’s good. Is that an actual quote?
Justin: Yeah, dude! That’s how good I am.
Todd: [Groans, understandably]
Justin: I also wanted to wish you happy Lobsterfest.
Todd: What the fuck are we doing here? That’s Red Lobster? Today only? Let’s go.
Justin: I know. Now … you write with a deepness and a passion for food. You can write about tamales for 8,000 words, or beef on weck, or everything you ate in Brazil. What’s exciting to you right now in food? What are you absorbed with, reading about or writing [about], even if you’ve eaten it 1,000 times?
Todd: I’m excited to try the new menu here. Bigger picture-wise … given everything that’s going on, especially … we should always feel like this – it’s very important to spend your going-out-to-eat money on ethnic restaurants. It seems like a little thing but it is huge. There’s nothing that makes me happier than going to a new, random taqueria, off the beaten path, eating chips and salsa, drinking Jarritos and ordering either an entrée and two tacos or at least four tacos. … The more salsas the better. Having the whole basket [of chips] to myself is exciting, especially if the chips are warm and I haven’t eaten all day, maybe it’s a Saturday. Maybe I went to the grocery store and I’m rewarding myself.
Justin: Constantly rewarding ourselves. I read that in your book [“Make the Road by Walking”] … and we’ve talked about this before, where every single day, I’m finding some excuse to treat myself for even marginal endeavors.
Todd: I use food as a reward, which is super healthy, according to my doctor.
Justin: You’re not a fat guy. You’re a pretend fat guy.
Todd: I have okay metabolism and I … try to play basketball. But food is the ultimate reward. I eat lunch late and I eat dinner super-late. [Pauses] Looking forward to something is a key to happiness in life, one of them at least. The work day goes that much better … if I’m going to eat lunch at 3 o’clock, I’ll be super-fucking hungry, then I’ll only have that little of a work day left. Then I come home, and I’m able to do a work-out thing, play guitar, write, something meaningful. With food to look forward to at the end of the night, I can watch TV and turn my brain off for a little while. It feels like I’ve earned it.
Justin: You’ve always been like that? As a kid?
Todd: No, as an adult … I’ve always been into routines.
Justin: Back to the writing side of food, just a bit. It’s not a style I’m drawn to. I like TV personalities who show and share with food. It feels like a more visceral experience on TV. I get that more and can maybe learn. But you are someone who writes about food all the time, and you write well. It’s in this unlucky space – there’s some of this in music writing – where I could see someone writing about food is up against Yelp reviews, hundreds of them, or that little old lady who writes the Olive Garden reviews at the paper in North Dakota. What makes food writing … artistic? Stand out in the damn din?
Todd: Most of it is not artistic whatsoever. It’s what I’d like to try to do. Absolutely I don’t consider myself a food critic. Those are people who know more about food, know how to cook and study history shit more than I ever will. On the flip side of that is Yelp, which is the problem with everything on the Internet. Everyone throws their opinion out there. Yelp is awful because it tells you nothing. It gives you – you look for reviews of a restaurant and there are hundreds of Yelp reviews where the more you read, the less you know.
Justin: The opinion without the, I don’t know, veracity or validation.
Todd: You don’t have any authority and we don’t know who they are, the attitude they brought to the restaurant, if they were hungry or just got into a fight with their wife …
Justin: Do you sometimes do that, do you go to the restaurant and start a fight with someone? Spice up the experience?
Todd: [Sarcastically] Absolutely. Really, going out to eat is the whole experience, an experience in and of itself. I will do my research and I like to learn, but I consider myself a writer, first and foremost, and I consider myself a fat guy at heart who has always appreciated food on a poetic level. I’ve told Paloma [Chavez, a stellar graphic designer and his wife] that I’m someone who appreciates chicken wings on a deeper level than most, what I would consider a poetic level. That’s the opposite of Yelp and it’s counter to a lot of know-it-all foodies. In our small-ass city, how is it that every single restaurant review now is good? It invalidates everything. What’s the point of … just being positive?
Justin: This reminds me of … bigger problems I had with the loss of small and mid-sized newspapers and the First Amendment over the last 10 years. The inability to have critical thinking everywhere … I mean, I lost my job [at a newspaper], so I’m biased … but I guess this would trickle out, without the system for independent writing –
Todd: If you go to a big city like Chicago, and the Chicago Reader, one of if not the best independent weekly newspapers around, the guy, Mike Sula, is so fucking critical and then he gets ecstatic about other places. I plan where I go in Chicago because when he gets excited, I know it’s going to be fucking good. It’s going to be worthwhile.
Justin: It matters.
Todd: I believe him because he doesn’t like shit. Like every human being.
[We go on a vastly unentertaining tangent on his non-existent beer gut and to reference moments from TV shows. Then … sausage and chili fries for me, sausage and a patty melt for him. After food …]
Justin: I want some amygdala, lizard brain responses –
Todd: Amygdala? Is that … in the front?
Justin: – in the middle, the part connected to storytelling, and tied to emotional reactions, decision-making. It’s why we’re at where we’re at because people make gut reactions and don’t think rationally about anything. I don’t. Um …
Todd: Okay. I don’t operate that well under quick-fire –
Justin: You can answer slowly but I’ll ask them quickly. If you answer at high speed it’ll sound strange. Use a normal cadence …
Todd: [Laughs] Okay, okay …
Justin: Worst job you’ve ever worked?
Todd: Data entry at a hospital.
Justin: What is the shortest friendship you’ve ever maintained?
Todd: Shortest ever maintained … hmmm … this guy I met at a Tom Petty show. His name was John. He was about my mom’s age and he sat next to me and he disappeared in the middle of the show. Maybe 45 minutes to an hour … we had multiple moments.
Justin: Longest meal?
Todd: Longest? …
Justin: Based on what you can recall. This isn’t Watergate [or] Iran-Contra. You consider a meal more than eating. So …
Todd: [Half-heartedly] Some Thanksgiving around my parent’s table … Fuck, I don’t know.
[Two mutual friends interrupted to berate us. Everyone goes on a tangent about dolphins, wherein the dolphins attempt to give helicopter tours of that volcano lava spout in Hawaii to bypass viewing restrictions. After they leave …]
Justin: I’ll ask again.
Todd: Start at the very beginning. The whole thing. We have to start over.
Justin: Let’s see if there are different answers!
Todd: Nah …
Justin: Start and end locales of worst road trip?
Todd: I didn’t answer the meal one. I want to change it.
Justin: You can’t want to change it. I’m asking for a real response. Is there a longer one?
Todd: Yes. Pretty much every time we go to Chicago, me and my buddy Wes do a Louis C.K. “bang-bang”. Eat at a restaurant and go to another restaurant.
Justin: How can you physically do that?
Todd: I’m a fat guy.
Justin: It’s off-putting. It’s a Roman gorging.
Todd: What do you mean?
Justin: You should go to a vomitorium afterward.
Todd: That’s exactly what it is. You get to have multiple restaurants. You’ll kind of pace yourself … you’ll split a pizza at one restaurant and then split a pizza at another. You’ll have a sandwich and won’t order fries, then you’ll go have tacos.
Justin: So it takes hours?
Todd: Chicago lunches, where you want –
Justin: Can we call it the ‘Chicago Lunch’?
Todd: Yeah … It sounds gangster-ish, or a guy with a typewriter –
Justin: Chicago has [pause] … a bigness. Big shoulders. Big hot dogs. Okay – start and end locales of the worst trip you’ve ever been on? The start and end, even if it’s within the same city.
Todd: Chicago to Omaha.
Justin: Favorite bus rider archetype?
Todd: My most liked? Favorite? Or the most character?
Justin: Your favorite. The one – let me say this – the one when they come on the bus and in your head you’re like, ‘Alright.’ You know they’re going to –
Todd: Bring something to the environment. [Pauses] I don’t like any of those people. I sit there. I say ‘Hi’ to the bus driver.
Justin: You are a type of person on the bus. Don’t deny that. Distinctly. You might be the majority of the type of people on the bus, the person who just sits there and tries to mind their own damned business and looks at their phone too much.
Todd: I try not to look at my phone. Look out the window, look at the world going by. That’s what people used to do.
Justin: Bring a book?
Todd: I like people who bring a book because it’s old school and it takes a certain amount of discipline, to hold [onto] and it’s not that comfortable.
Justin: I’m less nervous about dropping the book than I am the phone.
Todd: No one seems worried about dropping their phone. Nobody cares about that, they’ve got it out all the time.
Justin: Favorite bus rider archetype?
Todd: I don’t have a favorite bus rider archetype.
Todd: There’s this guy who’s been on my 15 morning bus in a wheelchair and he thinks he’s being a smart ass, but he’s not funny at all. He’s got comments for everyone getting on or off. Comments to the rider about traffic. It’s just bullshit. It’s not entertaining, it’s not funny and he does it in an unapologetic way.
Justin: This is the vapid version of the ‘Fuck You’. There’s importance … in sarcasm, like we had talked [about] before, to be self-effacing and to laugh. It’s not to be mean.
Todd: You’re laughing at the absurdity of the world. It’s someone you bring into a circle. You don’t really make fun of someone you don’t care about. This person on the bus – he’s so not-funny and un-clever. People roll their eyes.
[We continued on a string about the vileness of Jimmy Fallon – “look at me, aren’t I being cute” – that unfurls near the reason Alejandro Jodorowsky put the second-to-last scene in “The Holy Mountain” in a Mexican restaurant. Fifteen minutes later, we are off for final beers amid the careless music of a public Sunday night.]
Burnheart’s bar in Milwaukee, for the finish. Central topics included the status of his forthcoming second novel, “Spend It All”, as well as compulsion; a character named Smoke; and Todd’s father, gone during his youth from a drowned liver.
Justin: Okay, the book. The book?
Todd: The book is done.
Justin: Book is done.
Todd: The book is done. Polished. I finished it in August of ’15 and this second-slash-third draft was done about six months later. So, almost a year.
Justin: In thinking about how you put together the first novel, what were a substantive difference or two in the collection and finishing of this [second] one.
Todd: I didn’t have any idea what I was doing with the first one. I had slightly more idea with the second one.
Justin: I mean … I think I’d be right in saying there was a relief in finishing the first one? That you had this hanging out there and you had to finish it, not just that it was a first novel?
Todd: Totally. The first one was definitely a feeling that I had to absolutely do this for the sake of my own being, my own mental state, my own spiritual fulfilment. There was a feeling as I was getting close to the end where, no matter what, [I] have to stay alive until it’s done. It becomes such an obsession – they both had this, but the first one especially – where I’d think ‘I don’t know if I can take this trip and then the plane goes down but the book’s not done yet’ –
Justin: It was an act of consideration throughout your [daily] life?
Todd: ‘What if this plane goes down?’
Justin: You’d get in a car. That’s kind of short-sighted.
Todd: It’s not logical whatsoever.
Justin: You’d eat so much in Chicago that you choke on your own tongue, but –
Todd: I’ve had a lot of practice. I’m not going to choke on my tongue. … The second book felt more like I had gotten the first one out of the way and now I can make one that’s actually kind of good. [Pauses] You hope you’re moving forward as an artist. You never want to get comfortable or get in a place where your best work is behind you. It’s got to feel better or else you’re not doing it right. Moving forward, it was the thought, I can take what I built in the first one and I can make this one … more outlined and more of an actual novel. Thought through, not as – the first one was completely on the fucking fly. … I didn’t even know how it started and then I didn’t know where it’d go next. It just kept happening. This second one, I had an idea, a beginning and an end, some type of arc. That’s the type of thing novelists think, right?
Justin: [Pauses] There was some part of the first book where I thought it was strong … innocent, almost journal quality, where the main character [points at Todd] didn’t know where they fuck he was going.
Todd: I appreciate that.
Justin: I’m not trying to forsake you with the new book. But you have more of an arc – what’s your brand at this point? [laughs at self, ugh] – no, uh … what would you say to introduce someone to what happens in this [second] book?
Todd: Originally, I had the notion of writing a novel that was “Leaving Las Vegas” based on the food of Buffalo. I wanted to write a Buffalo book and a book about the Bills. And every time I go back to Buffalo, eating … the food of your hometown … the home cooking nostalgia people have but now you only have one, maybe two weekends a year to eat like that. And death, being my other major obsession, it just seemed like it fit. In Buffalo, every time, I just eat like a total asshole. It doesn’t make any sense. I’m never hungry when I’m in Buffalo but I’ll definitely have more food. Regardless of appetite, it’s illogical.
Justin: I was astounded when you went to Jim’s SteakOut after dinner [during a December trip]. During a snowstorm.
Todd: Ah, the snowstorm. It was magical.
Justin: The snow warning sign that’s covered in snow so you don’t know where to park.
Justin: You sent the chapter link … for “Spend It All”. There’s the swearing at your grandma, there are the tangents, lots of tangents, which I always appreciate. Because directness is bullshit.
Todd: Tangents are the point. Why would you stop explaining shit? Always go on tangents … it seems out of style. Everything is texting, tweets, very direct. ‘Isn’t there an acronym for that?’ … ‘I don’t have time to hit the shift button and capitalize the start of this sentence.’
Justin: Well, you’re not moving to the fucking woods. There’s more communication, those are just shitty forms for some things.
[We go on a lame tangent that misses the even more lame point of email. More than three minutes later …]
Justin: The term ‘Smoke’ in that excerpt, I liked. It’s capitalized and mysterious. Smoke, of course, you smoke, so it could mean endless Marlboros, but few things exemplify ambiguity better. Smoke comes from somewhere but you don’t know where or [from] what, immediately. It obscures. It’s natural. It has a morning equivalent in fog, when the morning doesn’t want you to see reality, which we already have a tenuous grasp on. … Could you talk about that term and more on the importance of ambiguity – writing to write and figuring out the rest later?
Todd: Ummm … Smoke is a character. He smokes a lot.
Justin: Makes sense.
Todd: I had not thought a lot about –
Justin: You use it in that excerpt where it seems like it could be part of other things, a character or something you put in your pocket.
Todd: Quite vague. Smoke and smoking is so tied up, to me, in being stupid, my early-to-mid 20s. Still is, a problem that has to be gotten over. Much like the character named Smoke, it’s got an inability to live on [its] own. You romanticize smoke [Smoke?] because you’re not mature or successful enough to live on your own. So there has to be this other person in your life. … Smoking is contemplative, meditative, and it seems to indicate a time in your life. For me, it was when I was in my early 20s – I knew I was going to quit [at some point] – when there was a time to about the end of my life or serious matters …
Justin: It would seem, if I can interrupt again, counter to the obsession with death.
Todd: It’s a reconciliation between those two things. Death being there, but needing to live for today that much more. Completely clichéd, but that’s what we’re dealing with, if you’re cognizant at all. From the time you’re an adult through your 20s. [Pauses] I don’t know if I’m answering your question.
Justin: You are. I’m asking you to clarify ambiguity, which is a bullshit question to begin with. To me it was important to acknowledge that [ambiguity] exists. That writing exists as a way to flesh out your idea of the world, to … find yourself and if you’re writing, someone else finds out about you.
Todd: The duality of finding yourself and also losing yourself. Self destruction being a huge part of self-actualization, whatever term you want to use when you become yourself in the best possible sense. So much of the late teens/early 20s, is research. Destroying yourself, in a way, and maybe not going all the way, maybe wanting to.
[Onto a dueling rant on the lesser recognized heroism of busting your ass in a kitchen so that you can be a musician. Then, a tangent on whether or not animals other than humans understand their own mortality. Another lap around the reasons Styx and Journey blow. Eventually, back to something resembling an interview …]
Justin: On the compulsion thing … James Baldwin – “Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent – which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.” I brought this up … what is it that compels you to continue to write and document?
Todd: Jeez … What am I doing with my life?
Justin: And why aren’t you as good as James Baldwin?
Todd: ‘Shouldn’t you be better by now?’
Justin: Okay, to clarify, there is a compulsion … to do something that will be seen and judged by other people, but that is one of the things that you can’t stand or understand. What is it to you, then, that you make something that other people, hopefully, will see and judge and doubt? If you’re a person who appreciates someone who comes back to you and says ‘Fuck You’ and laughs with you, what is it to have a compulsion where you want other people to stare at your craziness?
Todd: There’s a dichotomy of writers wanting to be the person left alone in a library, in a quiet corner, to write down their thoughts, combined with wanting to be the center of attention and recognized for their smartness and greatness.
Justin: You took the steps to want to be published.
Todd: Well, yeah, my buddy Ron, after the [first] book came out, he said ‘You’ve got a lotta balls to hang yourself out there like that.’ It’s not anything I even think about because it’s so hard, but that’s the entire point. You have to take that route. Much of my being reserved and being a quiet observer – definitely not the center of attention – means you can’t think about [the attention] or getting wrapped up in that part. You have to fucking try and try to be honest, honestly try. No matter what and get over it. When my shit gets published, I never look at it again because I can’t bear the sight of it. I hate it. Riddled with insecurity. … It’s a Sisyphus thing because I am compelled to know that I tried. I’m driven by the sense of my mortality and wanting to rebel against it in every way possible. It comes from having an obsession with death, ingrained throughout my entire life. That my father died when I was 6-years old. It’s always been a huge part of me and a greater part of me than I can understand. But it’s in the back, I’ve always known and … accepted it in a way? Or always thought about it.
Justin: I don’t want to stab into an open, removed tooth, but there’s some sins of the father thing here. You’re a bit of a glutton, you’re a bit of a drinker and your dad, it’s understood, was a historic drinker.
Todd: He died when he was 39-years old from complications from alcoholism, more or less. To die that young from drinking you’d have to have a serious drinking problem. There’s also a thing from dying of alcoholism at a super-young age, it’s romanticized, something rock star about it. Which is bullshit, but there’s something cool about it.
Justin: He looked cool in the pictures you had at your wedding.
Todd: So does Jimi Hendrix. When you’re the son of someone like that and you’ve romanticized your father, as most young men or boys do – as much as you hate your dad – he’s what you want to become or not want to become. He’s heroic … I assume. Right?
Justin: I don’t know.
Todd: There have to be ways you’re proud of your dad that you can’t even begin to put into words.
Justin: No, without question … yes. I was someone that was – my parents were crazy young when they had me. I never had a Superman thing with my father and I never had a nonstop obsession with personal death. I have had a thought of the end of the world, everyone dying. I think about that all the time, even before the recent [presidential] election. Destroyed in a bomb, natural disaster, everybody dies. … Back to the dad thing, my parents were young, I was around, watching my sisters when I was 12. [My parents] were around me and drinking, younger than my age now. They’re my parents but they were kids. I’ve been terribly fascinated to ask you more about [your dad].
Todd: I like talking about it … People find out about my dad and they assume out of respect or to protect themselves that I don’t want to talk about it. Nobody brings it up. The last thing they want to do is be the guy who brings up [my] dead father. Even more present in the front of my mind is my best friend died when we were both 25. That was the thing that really drove it home. ‘You have to fucking do this and you have to do it now.’ It’s something that pushes me every day. It snowballed – ‘You’re going to be hit by a bus tomorrow and be dead, motherfucker, what is your last thought going to be?’ At least I had my dream, had that dream fulfilled. Even if it wasn’t good. Those lines [in the books], that’s everything. It’s done. Sisyphus, in the most romantic way possible and it’s all I know how to do.
[Pretty soon, the night concluded with one more beer but not one more after that. Todd described Tom Waits describing a Charles Bukowski poem. It’s Sunday night and it’s time to separate and walk home by yourself even if this time you’re not so alone.]
Justin Kern is a nonprofit marketing manager and freelance writer. He’s had recent words published in Utne Reader, Milwaukee Record, Longshot Island and Belt Publishing’s, “Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology”. His favorite bus rider archetype is the knock-off Curtis Sliwa type who is repeatedly apoplectic when he can’t get the bus pass reader to work in the first 65 swipes.