Monthly Archive: February 2010

The Dangers of Specificity

The Devil’s in the details, as the saying goes. I was recently contemplating the new saw that cell phones remove, like, 90% of plot devices from modern stories because so many plots, especially in horror/sci-fi stories, depend on characters being out of communication with the rest of humanity – not to mention that Internet connectivity on the move would make researching things on the fly frickin’ simple. Now, I don’t actually believe that cell phones and other new communication/information technology makes plotting difficult – there’s this thing called creativity, you see – but it’s an interesting game to play, taking any old movie that depends on isolation, miscommunication, or lack of information, drop a smart phone into it, and see how minutes you get into the plot before the movie just ends peacefully.

What it really got me thinking about, though, was the Dangers of Specificity when you’re writing. This is true for all writing, but especially true for SF/F writing, because when you’re writing about demons or zombies or aliens or time travel devices, you strive for complete realism and verisimilitude in the details of your story to ground the fantastic in the real. If your protagonist is fleeing demonic hordes, having them run into a Burger King for shelter instead of some fake, made-up fast food chain will instantly make the scene a little easier to accept by your readers. Of course, the details in the actual writing – what the place smells like, what kind of customers are there at 11PM, the music being played, the attitude of the workers behind the counter – will have a much larger impact. But pop-culture references and up-to-date cultural details will help, and they’re often a shorthand.

The problem with up-to-date references, of course, is that they age badly.

Ignoring pop-culture, which I’ve discussed before, let’s consider the simple fact that while details are your friend, they often turn evil and bite you in the writing ass. Consider the image I’ve got here: Gordon Gecko from 1987’s Wall Street. Not only did that movie star a pre-Cocaine bloat Charlie Sheen, it also apparently starred the World’s Largest Cell Phone. That’s a great detail: At the time, it conveyed to the audience Gecko’s wealth and power with a nifty detail, because in 1987 not everyone had a cell phone. They were icons of, well, wealth and power.

Today, of course, the universe has been cruel to Oliver Stone and Gecko’s huge, bulky cell phone is so amusing to us it’s actually a sight gag in the trailer for Wall Street 2: Wall Streeter. No, really, check it (about 27 seconds in). That’s how details kill you. Burger King might be the perfect detail today, but what about 20 years from now? Stanley Kubrick thought TWA was going to last for centuries. The more specific you are, the more danger your story is in.

On the other hand, I’ve read stories and novels from 100 years ago that still work just fine because they lack that sort of specificity. You can read a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and despite the fact that it was published in 1922 or so, it reads just fine, because his details are elastic. There are automobiles, telephones, airplanes – but no specific models or types. Yes, it’s still a bit dated, but as a whole it will work just fine. Or take a current story like Avatar: Not the greatest story ever told by a long shot, and way, wayyyy over overrated, but one thing it has going for it is a complete lack of specificity. Not within its own universe, which is realized with a great amount of detail, but concerning the world from which the story springs – namely a future-earth. We get absolutely nothing about things at home from this movie. No corporate shout-outs, no technological/cultural changes. Nothing. It’s a blank slate and thus the story lives entirely, purely within the alien landscape constructed for it, and as a result as long as we’re not sending Space Marines to fight corporate wars against blue-skinned natives on foreign planets, the movie will remain firmly science-fictional. The lack of grounding details works well for it. There’s no big TWA logo anywhere to distract future audiences from the story.

Well, the world is dumping what appears to be six hundred feet of snow on my house right now, so I have to wrap this up and go outside to move tons of crystallized water from my sidewalk. Wish me luck. The longer I live in the northeast USA the more certain I am that my demise will come after drinking four Hot Toddies and then shoveling snow for an hour.

Personal Space Wars

Hey gang: This is a little essay that appeared in my local newspaper a few years ago. I wrote a number of these for the fun of it back in the day, so I thought I’d just repost a few. This one has been lightly edited to bring it up to date in some areas.

I can’t help but obsess about the PATH train, since I have now spent more time riding the PATH train than I’ve spent doing anything else over my entire lifetime. When I pass on, pantsless and forgotten behind some convenience store, a bottle of antifreeze my only comfort, I’ll probably see nothing but the interiors of PATH trains when my life flashes before my eyes. That might sound depressing, but it isn’t so bad; I’ve had plenty of high times and grand adventures during the half hour ride from Erie Lackawana to Penn Station. What I’ll mainly remember from the PATH rides, of course, are the humongous backpacks that people have battered me with on crowded trains.

I think from time to time we’ve all found ourselves jammed onto a train that seems to be holding more human bodies than the laws of physics would allow. Then again, my own understanding of physics is drawn mainly from old Twilight Zone reruns, and informs me that the universe is run by Oompah Loompahs, so perhaps my understanding of how many people can fit inside a train car is a little off. But we’ve all found ourselves pressed up against the car doors, closer to other human beings than we’ve ever wanted to be, unable to move. Invariably, there are a few people on the train who are wearing huge backpacks about twice as large as they are, and invariably they don’t take these backpacks off when they get on the train, and invariably they end up beating me about the face and neck with these backpacks.

The only conclusion you can draw is that most people have no idea how much space they take up, and that they’re largely unaware of how much they bludgeon the people around them. These are the same people who make walking through the streets of Hoboken and Manhattan a contact sport, and they’re probably the same people who walk around during rainstorms with umbrellas the size of hot air balloons. In short, morons.

Walking the city streets during a rainstorm is hard enough because everyone has an umbrella up and they knock into each other—basically, an umbrella increases the space you take up, and you have to compensate in order to keep civilization moving smoothly down the sidewalks. When someone shows up with one of those circus-ring umbrellas you could fit sixteen midget clowns under, presumably so that not a single drop of terrible rain falls on their tender persons, it clogs up the whole system and invades my personal space.

Why do some people feel that their royal status requires that no rain ever get close to them despite the fact that it interferes with the smooth operation of civilization itself? The same reason they get on crowded trains with comically outsized backpacks: They have absolutely no idea how their actions impact other people. And, of course, when I say “other people”, I mean me. Now, I’m not advocating that people should dispense with their umbrellas and get soaked, or get rid of their comically oversized backpacks—or, lord forbid, actually take the backpack from their backs and hold them, since that would interfere with their idle Ipod-fondling—which they apparently use to carry every single thing they own from place to place. I’m just advocating that we all pause for a moment and remember that we’re all part of a society, that there’s supposed to be some consideration for your fellow man. Without consideration for your fellow man—especially in crowded, damp train cars filled with humid humanity—things can quickly devolve into a Lord of the Flies situation. All because of your umbrella, large enough to catch an updraft and pluck you off the street like a stray leaf. Which would, now that I think about it, amuse me greatly.

Space is part of it, too, of course. As the tri-state area slowly begins to resemble Tokyo in its allotment of living space to individual citizens, you start to get a little jealous of your personal space. The urge to assert yourself via an umbrella that forces everyone to stay three feet away from you in every direction—creating, if you will, a stranger-free zone, a bubble of transient personal territory—might be irresistible, albeit still inexcusable. The final result of this line of thinking, of course, is obvious, at least to me: Everyone inside their own hard plastic bubble, serenely rolling down the sidewalks with three feet of personal space all around, guaranteed, even on sunny days. Granted, you’d have the new worries over being accidentally bank-shotted into traffic and killed, but there are so many ways to be accidentally killed in this world, what’s one more?

Of course, once that happens I’ll probably just start complaining about people who install themselves in huge bubbles that take up the whole sidewalk, knocking everyone else out of the way as they rampage through the city. Which actually might be fun, come to think of it—or at least more fun than an umbrella spoke in the eye.

Books Giveaway Contest

It’s been a while since I gave away some signed books, but thanks to our friends across the pond, that time has come again. The UK side of my publisher has just sent me a packets of the UK mass market editions of The Digital Plague and The Eternal Prison. The differences between the US and the UK editions are subtle, but if you’re a collector it’s always nice to have every version, so I’ll give away 5 pairs (one of each) to five people. There are two ways you can get yourself a signed, personalized set:

1. Send me a screenshot via email (to of the winning screen from the Text Adventure I set up over at And yes, you can win the game.

2. Send me an email (again, to telling me where the phrase “In me the wonders of my hand like Lazarus” appears in the Avery Cates books.

That’s it. Note I am only accepting entries via email; any answers posted in the comments or my Facebook wall or whatever will be deleted to keep some semblance of order here. What we need is more order. Have at it, and good luck!

It’s the Cabbie’s World, We Just Live In It

Hey gang: This is a little essay that appeared in my local newspaper a few years ago. I wrote a number of these for the fun of it back in the day, so I thought I’d just repost a few. This one has been lightly edited to bring it up to date in some areas.

Like a lot of people who live in the Northeastern United States, I’m obsessed with public transportation. IT dominates my existence in a way that few other places can equal. Sure, there are cars and highways here, but most of us end up taking alternative transportation some time, if only out of simple necessity. And sometimes that transportation comes in the form of a car service or taxi cab. And that’s when it usually hits me: I live my life at the mercy of madmen.

Cabbies and car drivers of all sorts work hard and are, for the most part, honest and sincere people who want nothing more than to do their job well enough and get paid fairly for it, which sets them immediately above me, a man who wants to do as little as possible and get startlingly overpaid for it. But I cannot be the only one who feels like he’s being inspected by a superior officer when I’m standing in line for a cab at the Hoboken bus depot. I step off the train and I’m a (possibly slightly inebriated) man of means, happy in his work and contributing to society. Get on the end of that cab line, and I’m a supplicant. The cabbies roll forward slowly, inspecting the line of people, and demand to know where you are going. If they don’t like the answer, they keep moving. I’ve seen people launch into complex negotiations involving the cabbie, themselves, strangers around them, and compromise intersections so elaborate I’m amazed anyone gets home at all.

Once you do actually convince one of the cabbies to accept you as temporary freight, you slide into the seat and you’re in their little spot in the world. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; if I had to spend hours and hours driving strangers around—strangers who can probably be often rude and inconsiderate—I’d want the cab to be pretty much an extension of my home as well. But it’s a little unsettling, after spending five minutes negotiating the ten-minute cab ride, to find yourself sitting in the back seat of what feels like the cabbie’s living room, listening to their music or talk-radio choices and staring at their decorations. The worst is when they have to move and rearrange sixty pounds of personal possessions in order to surrender the front seat to you, as if the front seat were a customer demand so unexpected it stuns them momentarily with its originality.

Once on the move, most cabbies will then treat you as if you temporarily ceased to exist, as if riding in their cab was an experiment in teleportation or astral projection. They’ll talk on the phone, talk to themselves, hum tunelessly or drive in grim, frightening silence that makes me keep one hand on the door release in case I have to ditch at high speed. The message seems to be that they would much prefer their job as cabdriver not include any actual passengers, that the only real impediment to them really enjoying their job is you, so rudely taking up space in their car.

That’s preferable, of course, to friendly, chatty cabdrivers. There’s nothing wrong with some friendly human interaction with the person driving you home or to the airport, but sometimes you wonder if you’re on some sort of reality show. There are certain subjects I hesitate to discuss with my own family that have been raised, seconds into the ride, by cheerfully loud cabdrivers. Once in Seattle a genial cabby tried to pick up my three female friends and ended a fascinating ride by suggesting that they ditch me and stay in the cab with him, and just the other day while riding to the airport I learned more than I wanted to know about one cabdriver’s finances as he raged against the ridiculous prices of a Condo in Hoboken. Harmless, for the most part, and yet disturbing: After all, for the time you’re in the car, you’re pretty much in the cabby’s hands. He can drive you where he wishes and release you from the car when he chooses, and I can’t possibly be the only one who occasionally imagines I’m about to be sold into slavery to a fat South American crime lord who will force me to wear a thong swimsuit while I serve him drinks by the pool and who will call me Tuco. Or perhaps I am, but I’m used to it.

The thing is, if a bus driver goes nuts and decides it’s his time to ruin your afternoon, you’ve at least got a busload of people ready to assist you in mutiny. On a train, there’s at least a bunch of people who will share your horror when the train grinds to a halt and the lights go out. If your cab driver turns out to be taking a holiday from his meds, it’s just you and them, mano a driver. This wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t end up feeling like I was intruding on the free time of a crazy person half the time I’m in a cab.

Of course, sometimes you get to the bus station and not only are there no buses, but the cab line wraps around the block as everyone presents themselves and their destinations for inspection, and your only option for getting home in a timely fashion is to walk. But walking in Hoboken is a whole other essay.

See Me…Hear Me…Feel Me

When you’re sitting at home writing your novel long before anyone offers you money to publish it, you don’t think about your eventual multimedia empire. or at least I didn’t. Now that the books are out there and people are buying them, all sorts of things I’d never considered are happening: Foreign translations, movie rights. . .and now, audio books!

That’s right; you can soon purchase the Avery Cates books in audio format. Right now, it looks like just The Electric Church is available for pre-order.

I offered to do the voice work myself, and pointed everyone towards my “batman” voice in the lo-rent trailer for The Eternal Prison I made. Somehow they turned me down and decided to go with a “professional” instead. Bastards.

The Future is Frame Rates

It’s not easy being as lazy and unfocused as I am and still get things done. I mean, if you were to install a high-speed camera in my office in order to make one of those time-lapse videos of me writing a book, you would think something had gone terribly wrong with the experiment when it showed me sitting at a desk, dozing, for sixteen hours. You’d wonder how in the world I ever get books written. The answer, as with everything else Jeff, is booze, but I’ll leave the actual details of that ancient Somers secret to the imagination. Let’s just say my body can’t take much more of this, so they better make that Avery Cates movie soon so’s I can retire and get some rest.

Anyways, one of the ways I waste valuable time is by playing video games. Specifically, First Person Shooters. You can blame my old friend Ken for this; back in 1991 he installed Wolfenstein 3D on his old 386 PC and I was addicted instantly, and in 1998 he bought me Half Life as an Xmas gift and that ruined me for life. It’s been downhill for my attention span ever since.

Even today, when I work on a Linux platform and thus can only play games that are about 5 years old, I still lust after the new FPS titles that come out, and I note that Bioshock 2 has just been released. I played the first Bioshock (despite it’s loathsome anti-pirating bullshit) and really enjoyed it, and if I had a Windows PC and less disdain for SecuROM and its ilk, I’d be happy to play the sequel. This makes me think, again, that the obvious future for a lot of entertainment is going to be the First Person Shooter.

For those who have never played an FPS: A First Person Shooter is a game where the “camera” of the game is from your character’s point of view; you move the mouse or the controller and you see only what you would see if you were actually there in the game world. The potential for immersion is huge, and as graphics cards and video drivers like OpenGL or DirectX get more and more powerful, the detail and animations in these games is getting more and more realistic and movie-like. I mean, look at this screen shot from Bioshock:



Anyway, the first-person shooter is a visceral, immerssive way to tell a story, and the stories in these games tend to be very complex and novel-like in a lot of ways, except that you as the “reader” have some limited ability to choose your own path. You can, for example, linger in a particular “chapter” of the story and poke around, seeking Easter Eggs or secrets, or just looking at the details the creators of the game have placed there simply for your entertainment or your immersion. The fact that FPS titles are dominated by Science Fiction stories (and War scenarios, like Call of Duty) makes sense: They aren’t limited by what you can physically film and believably act – you can make the game about anything, make anything happen within them. Hell, you’re actually creating the physics of the entire damn universe. If that isn’t a technical ability that screams for SF/F writing, I don’t know what is.

I see a future where these games get merged with movies. After I’ve played a game, I like to go into God Mode (a cheat mode left in by the developers that makes you impervious to damage) and just wander around the levels, trying things. When enemies appear, I just get rid of them and then go back to my business, and i really enjoy this secondary walkthrough of most games. When you’re actually playing, you’re usually too amped up fighting off enemies to notice a lot of grace notes. Going through a second time is really fun, and I think that you could make an entire game – similar, in ways, to MYST – that had no action elements, so fighting, but was just you engaged in a story as the main character, experiencing everything as the character does, and – most importantly – able to linger in scenes when you wanted to, extend interaction with other characters if you wished, try different things just for fun. Of course, a natural extension of this would be to allow the “audience” to affect the plot of the game/film. Their choices would branch off into different storylines, and there would be multiple possible endings. This has already been done to some extent in games, where choices are presented that determine what ending you’ll see.

This would be some time off, of course. Right now, though, you can see the merging of your home computer with your entertainment system, and I don’t think the time is far off when you no longer have a separate PC and a cable box – you’ll have a merged system, and your TV shows and movies will be run through your Internet connection to your ginormous television. When that happens, why wouldn’t they put out, say, Lost as an interactive game/film, where you played the role of a survivor and you got to make choices that determined the story? You could be as involved and experimental as you wished: Just go along for the ride if you wanted, with a preset story, or jump in and start playing with everything, trying to see what you could make happen.

Since these games share a lot with the novel – the plots for some (say, Half Life) are epically huge – this would be a place where novelists get merged into the whole thing. Screenplay writing is very different from novel-writing, obviously, but the lines blur in these FPS games. Sure, there is a visual and voice-acting element just as in television and film. But the stories are usually very novel-like, rich in detail, backstory, and allusion. So this might be a conversion point where it all becomes one new kind of category. And I think that would be kind of cool.

Then again, there is my aforementioned laziness and booziness, so I might simply be in the throes of yet another unfortunate depantsing event here in Hoboken. Cheers!

The Curse of the Little Dogs

Hey gang: This is a little essay that appeared in my local newspaper a few years ago. I wrote a number of these for the fun of it back in the day, so I thought I’d just repost a few. This one has been lightly edited to bring it up to date in some areas.

A few years ago, my wife was hit with a serious case of Puppy Madness. All day, every day, all I heard was her sincere desire to adopt a puppy. While grateful that her maternal instinct was manifesting in a way that wouldn’t require me to come to grips with my own mortality, I resisted this with every fiber of my being. I ignored her for as long as seemed safe—which isn’t very long—and prepared careful arguments against the idea using logic, reason, and incessant begging, occasionally augmented by that old standby, feigned unconsciousness. No one can argue about adopting a puppy when you’ve just collapsed on the floor, my friends.

I have nothing against puppies, or the idea of caring for a small furry animal. In fact, after I exhausted the wife on the puppy issue we ended up getting a kitten instead, which we named Pierre. Pierre has grown large and strong under our care and I have trained him to fetch bottles of beer from the kitchen, so all is well here in Hoboken. We subsequently acquired three more cats, meaning I have the same muscle mass as a Doberman running about the house. Cats are far superior to dogs because they are a) self-cleaning and require no walks and b) very quiet, requiring no effort to ignore completely, although care must be taken when walking to the bathroom late at night, lest you fall into the sitcom cliché of trying to purchase an identical cat before your wife wakes up in the morning. So, yes, cats are the low-maintenance choice, but the real reason I resisted the whole puppy issue is simple: I didn’t want to become one of those poor men you see around town. You know: Men with Little Dogs.

You see these poor guys on the street every morning or evening and you know the story instantly: Some woman in their lives, bursting with Puppy Madness, wanted or had a tiny little dog—the sort of dog you can stuff into a handbag for hours at a time, the sort of dog that shivers for no reason and which has to be carried most of the time because its tiny little legs can’t go very far, or very fast. Women with Puppy Madness tend to go for these tiny dogs because the dogs will resemble puppies pretty much their entire lives—it’s a Peter Pan syndrome afflicting dog owners. Despite declarations and promises to the contrary, it often—if not always—falls to the man in the relationship to walk the family dog, and the poor men, through no decision of their own, find themselves out in the rain at six in the morning with the tiniest rat-like dog possible on the other end of a leash.

I see them every day, and they are uniformly miserable. Ashamed, even. No self-respecting man wants a dog he can stuff into his pocket by accident. There’s nothing evil about toy dogs, and if the women want them they should certainly be allowed to have them—but put a grown man on the other end of those yelping, shivering beasts straining ineffectively against their leash and piddling every three feet, and you have a recipe for suicidal tendencies.

My wife tried to convince me this would not happen, that she’d happily walk the dog and take full responsibility for it, but I wisely didn’t believe her. I’m not indicating that she was lying to me, only that she was engaging in the traditional level of self-delusion when desire for a pet is involved. I remember when I was a kid and my brother and I wanted a pet—the lengths of self-deception we engaged in, all to convince our parents that we would care for that imagined pet as if it had been formed from one of our own ribs. The key to any deception, of course, is that you believe it. And I know my wife believed she would, indeed, walk that dog constantly. But I knew she wouldn’t. I knew I would end up walking it. And then I’d be yet another miserable grown man being led around Hoboken by some tiny dog—for about a block, at which point the genetically-inferior toy dog would give up, exhausted, and I’d end up having to carry it from tree to hydrant to other dogs, placing it gently on the ground so it could go to the bathroom. Not even giving the dog an ironic name like Bruiser or Sasquatch would save the situation.

So next time you see some guy hunched down in a raincoat one drizzly morning, attached by a leash to a yelping little rodent of a dog, don’t make eye contact. Have some pity and let him wallow in anonymity. As much as Men with Little Dogs are a part of the landscape and atmosphere of Hoboken, they should be pitied, and treated gently. Certainly pointing and laughing, like I do, is wrong.

Skyline Books R.I.P.

I’ve gone on about my love for used books before. It’s always awkward, as someone who wants you to buy his new books, to talk about how much I love used books. In reality, though, I’ve bought plenty of new books because of a used book. Used Books are like gateway drugs: Buy one Elmore Leonard or Patrick O’Brian for $1 each in Skyline books, next thing you know you’re ordering every book they ever wrote from Amazon.

For me, at least, Used Books were never primarily about saving a few bucks. Sure, when Bleecker Street Books sold paperbacks for $1 each I’d sometimes buy 15 books at a pop, but really it was all about the thrill of discovery. Because Used Book Stores are just goddamn treasure chests of bizarre random stuff. Because their wholesale cost is usually low – and sometimes zero – for uninspiring paperbacks from bygone eras, they just pile them up everywhere on the off chance someone will pay them a few bucks for it. I’ve bought books I’d never heard of once in my life and gone home to discover they were huge bestsellers in their day. I’ve bought books no one else has ever heard of that have become some of my favorites. I’m going to miss Skyline Books, because they’re closed.

The point is, when I walked into Skyline, I never knew what I’d find. You get somewhat the same experience in a retail store like Barnes and Nobel, sure – there’s always the unknown waiting for you in a B&N, just like everywhere else. But in the big chain stores everything’s relatively new or a classic – there’s no uncanny valley of books that were once new and now are not, but which never made it into classic status. My bookshelves are filled with tasty books I’d never have found in a big chain store, and I like that. No online source will ever be the same, even if you someday can buy $1 used books via the Internets, because when you walk into a Used Book store, you don’t actually know what you’re looking for. You just go in with a spirit of adventure and see what you find, and the investment is so low you don’t mind taking a chance. Whereas when I’m staring at a $26 hardcover in Barnes and Noble, believe me, I’m going to do goddamn research before I plunk down for that book.

Let’s face it, the Internet is not good for browsing. Aside from the loss of the smell and feel of old books – a delight in and of itself to us old codgers – there’s just the time factor; In Skyline, for example, I could stroll down an aisle and glance at 500 book spines in a minute, just waiting for something to jump out at me. To glance at 500 books on the Internet would take about 3 hours, I think.

Oh well, the world changes and this is neither bad nor good, it simply is. The post-Skyline world is just as fine as it was last week, just different, and I think we’ll all find the strength to carry on. Still, I can’t help but wonder how I’ll ever discover tattered old paperbacks out of print since 1970 now – although some might wonder why I’d care about books so mediocre they’ve been out of print for 40 years. It’s either the drinking or a vision of my own future – take your pick.

The Politics of The Daily Commute

Hey gang: This is a little essay that appeared in my local newspaper a few years ago. I wrote a number of these for the fun of it back in the day, so I thought I’d just repost a few.

Whenever friends visit me here in the Northeast United States, they usually treat public transportation as some sort of bizarre tourist attraction. While there are certainly other areas of the country that have well-developed public transit systems, few have achieved the penetration, saturation, and necessity that is the New York City area. While my hick visitors treat buses and subways like some sort of crazy ride devised to entertain them (“Look! Real graffiti! Ooh—do you think that guy has a gun?”) you and I regard them as absolute necessities. Most of us ride the bus and PATH trains every week, if not every day. Some of us, in a shocking situation people from, say, Texas will simply never be able to comprehend, don’t even have cars.

So, while visitors from places where you have to drive an hour just to pick up a pizza can act like riding the D train to Yankee Stadium is some sort of an amusement park ride, for me, public transit is how I get around, period. The trains of this area are my legs. Buses, too, of course. Which is unfortunate, since so many bus drivers are obviously insane.

The subways and the PATH train aren’t so bad, since the people operating them—if indeed there are people, since there are a lot of robot trains operating in Manhattan these days—are usually hidden away from public view, only rarely snuffling out of their little control rooms like the Phantom of the Opera, and sticking to the shadows. You can ride the PATH train for days on end and have almost no human contact at all, unless you count being jowl-to-cheek with complete strangers with questionable-at-best bathing habits—which I do not.

The buses, however, are driven by real live people, and most of them are crazy. You’re completely reliant on them to even get on the bus—who hasn’t stood there in the pouring rain as a devilish bus driver speeds past your stop, bus apparently empty, for no known reason? Or run a block and a half screaming for the bus only to have it pull away when you’re within feet of the front door, the driver gleefully ignoring your screams, your irate pounding, and even the shouts of protest from luckier commuters already on-board? Oh, the bus drivers are evil, that’s for sure. That would be bad enough—that would simply require guerrilla warfare, which I am prepared to wage for the right reasons. Or, to be totally honest, for no reason at all. The salt in the wounds is that if you do manage to gain admittance to a bus, going, say, from tenth and Washington in Hoboken to the PATH station, you have a good chance of being driven there by someone who has given up the struggle for coherency.

There is, for example, one jolly fellow who will offer the entire bus a running commentary about his opinions and impressions of Hoboken and the people who live there, as compared to his beloved Queens. Queens, apparently, is a paradise of bus drivers who know how to drive and citizens who know enough to fear the bus drivers. He complains that people cross the street in front of his bus and that traffic is terrible and that people don’t know how to drive—the monologue tends to repeat a bit at this point. I’m never sure who, exactly, he is talking to. I suppose someone could politely ask him to shut up, or at least to stop insulting us, but personally I’d be afraid to find out what kind of reaction that would elicit. I’m too young to die.

At least that guy speaks. I firmly believe in obeying the Rules of Polite Society, which form the basis for any civilized discourse, and one of those rules is that you don’t treat people performing paid services for you like they’re invisible. So I usually greet the driver when I get on the bus and I generally wish them a good day/night when I get off. Most of them at least grunt in my general direction, but there are a couple of zombie-like drivers who say nothing, and generally don’t even look at you. These cheerful souls are more than just rude: They’re disturbing. I have to wonder what kind of marvelous interior world they see as they drive their route with mechanical, memorized efficiency. It’s easy to imagine that there are no other people in this interior world, and that someday they might decide to take a bold step towards making that paradise reality. Whenever I get one of these unfriendly drivers I pick a seat near the emergency exit, just in case my evening ends with a thrilling escape from a burning bus.

The lessons are clear: You must always be ready to be in the power of an insane person, and prepared to fight them in hand-to-hand combat just to get home from work. Why would anyone live anywhere else?