Every Tuesday, Gene publishes weekly updates to his chats.
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On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything. Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.
Greetings, update readers.
I am 61 years old, and feeling .... old.
Today's update is something I wrote when I was 37 years old ... and feeling old.
This ran in Tropic Magazine at the Miami Herald in November 1988, under the headline "The Sting."
Gas station, Miami Beach, 7 p.m. Sunday.
The man in front of me shuffles forward, opens his wallet, opens the two-way drawer, puts money in, slides it home.
The clerk behind the bulletproof glass looks down, then up. The two men's eyes meet and hold.
"Dos cocaine," says the customer.
Clear. Crystal clear.
I catch a glimpse of a single bill disappearing into the cash register.
Was that a 50?
The clerk reaches down, fishes under the counter, out of sight, and comes up with a small brown bag, penny-candy size. The contents seem square, a packet.
Holy . . .
The drawer slides back, with the bag and change.
Two singles and some pennies.
The customer takes the money and his package, grunts something and leaves, head down, elbowing past me.
A simple business transaction.
Where you been, Paco?
Texaco. We were running low on toot.
Now I am first in line.
I look up and I am confronting a stubbled man in motorman's overalls, and I am confronting myself.
When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. . . .
Dylan said it. He might have been talking about me at 21, or any young journalist. In this business, when you are young you are dumb, unspeakably dumb, you have no judgment, you have no skill to speak of, you have no contacts. You make up for this with raw energy and nerve, a cocky confidence that is blind to risk, denies danger, denies your own mortality. At 21, I dropped out of college to join a Puerto Rican street gang in the South Bronx, for a magazine article. It was stupid and dangerous. The article made the cover of a national magazine.
You get older and smarter. Your writing matures; your judgment gets sounder. The work gets easier. You add a spouse and children and a few pounds around the middle, and pretty soon you've really got something. To lose.
And sooner or later you start to wonder about yourself.
Would I still wade headlong into a great story, if there was risk?
Sure, you tell yourself. You kind of actually sort of believe it.
A drug-dealing gas station. A complimentary coke with every $47.89 lube job. The guy in the overalls is looking at me impatiently.
I could come back later, with a witness. That would be the prudent thing. But it's happening now, right now. . . . I go for my wallet. I have just been to the bank. I have cash.
What if the clerk is a cop? What if this is a "reverse sting" the police are so fond of? What if they just pinched the last guy around the corner? How would I explain this one to The Herald?
I pull out three 20s.
What if he's not a cop but he thinks I'm a cop? What if he panics?
I put the money into the drawer and slide it home.
This is ridiculous. I can't pass for a Puerto Rican any more.
I do my best to imitate the last fellow's accent. Just a hint of a sibilance and a nasal trail off at the end.
"Do' co-caignn," I say.
The guy in the overalls looks down, then up. His eyes meet mine, and hold. He looks uncertain.
"?Algo mas?" He asks.
"No." Nothing else. Just the cocaine, please.
He hesitates, then reaches in, takes my money, fishes under the counter, out of sight, and comes up with a small brown bag, penny-candy size, and puts it in the drawer. Then he slides it to me.
Wait. He has left two of my 20s in the tray, and replaced the third with a 10, a five, a couple of ones and some pennies.
I scoop it all up, jam it into a pocket, take the paper bag. It is very light. I feel a pulse in my neck.
As I walk out, I steal a peek inside.
Two packs of cigarettes. Kool Kings.
Dos Kool King.
And so I'm standing there with this dumb look on my face, unspeakably dumb, and the man in the overalls asks, in English: "Everything OK?"
"Yeah," I say.
Actually, everything was just great.
Not long after writing this, I left Miami for Washington. I needed a change.
Now that I have found this story again, it is acting on me like the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Look for major personal evolution, soon.
Please submit questions below to the next chat, which is January 29.