back to the Black Table

 My birthday is next week. Tuesday, October 10, to be exact. Most of my friends, many of them reclusive sorts who emerge from their dank, squalid apartments only to grab groceries, score weed and report for jury duty, arenít really into their birthdays that much. You hang out with them one day, doing very little of consequence, and you find out a week later, by accident, that it was their birthday, and all you did to celebrate it was watch some court show on television.

Honestly, I donít understand these people. If you canít celebrate your birthday, Christ, what can you celebrate? On my birthday, I revel in my own self-indulgence. I organize and announce my own birthday party, usually at a spacious bar with plenty of cheap drinks, invite any friend within a 100-mile radius and then kick back and enjoy a drunken evening with my closest associates. Thatís what a birthday is supposed to be about - your most beloved cronies, gathered around a large table, talking shit and enjoying one anotherís company.

This is a yearly ritual for me, inviting all my pals in my chosen area and begging them to come hang out with me. Birthdays are our checkpoints, the times we can sit back and reflect on how much has changed in a year, discover whether weíve moved forward, or backwards, or whether we were running to stand still for all those months.

It started with my 21st birthday, in Champaign, Illinois. It was a crazy time; I was managing editor of the Daily Illini, so my job was to keep the newsroom a happy, friendly place that could still stick it to people when we needed to. One of our writers, the token wispy gay columnist, had written a piece trashing the Greek system at the U of I, not a wise idea, considering about 40 percent of the campus belonged to a fraternity or sorority. I found the piece hysterical, not being Greek myself, and we ran it, even though it basically accused every frat guy of being a closeted homosexual.

Well, the campus exploded, the Greeks threatened to pull all their ads and the entire staff of the paper was a house divided, particularly when our editor-in-chief, my close friend Mike, decided to run an apology letter. It ran the day of my birthday, and our columnists all revolted. As managing editor, I had to face the brunt of the protests, so I spent from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. of my 21st birthday - my 21st birthday! - being yelled at. I finally escaped to meet everyone at the bar - missing Gary Gaettiís historic grand slam off Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series - with only an hour left in my precious day. I made up for it though, downing 18 1/2 shots of Three Wise Men (Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker) in an hour-and-a-half. Actually, I made it through 18 shots; the half was the one I sucked off the table. At the end of the evening, Mike and Mattoon friend Andy were helping the ex-fiancee carry me home, pausing to pull up my pants, which for some reason kept falling down as we traipsed down Green Street

I was in Los Angeles for my 22nd birthday, only a month-and-a-half after the ex-fiancee had left. An odd circumstance arose. A woman named Angela, who had gone to the U of I and had read my sports and movie columns without us ever having met, e-mailed me and said she was going to be in L.A. that weekend. We met at C&O Trattoria, a wonderful Italian restaurant right next to the ocean, and we reveled with all my friends before spending most of the rest of the weekend in bed. That sounds like a nice story, but she came out again a month later, presumably for more shenanigans; except this time, she brought some big hunky dude named Gavin, who had little use for me, preferring to spend his late nights with her, in our guest room. Sigh.

My 23rd was surreal. It was in St. Louis, with some newly minted friends from The Sporting News. Everyone doused the new guy with shots at OíConnellís Pub in suburban St. Louis, and I met this almost preternaturally attractive blond student from the University of Missouri at Columbia who won my heart by buying me kamikazes all evening. At the end of the night, she came over to me, gave me a hug, told me it was great to meet me, then took my right hand and put it on her left breast. I didnít see this woman again for about a year, when I learned she was a nurse named Mandie that I had quite a connection with, and we dated, and she denied the whole birthday thing, but I knew she was full of shit and I liked her anyway.

On my 24th, I drank, heavily, then drove home, stupidly.

And that leads us to this one, the big 2-5, a quarter century of little significant accomplishment. I will spend this birthday unemployed and uninspired, unmotivated, undisciplined, unworthy, at a karaoke bar in Chinatown, scrounging together what few friends I have in New York willing to come out on a Tuesday night. And I will drink and smile and laugh, do my best to let everyone know all is well, nothing to see here, please disperse. I will attempt not to think about this crazed period of transition, this sojourn of nothing, this sitting at home all day waiting for fate to make up its mind, this fear that I am heading in no discernible direction, this growing realization that, my optimism to the contrary, sometimes things donít turn out for the better, no matter how hard you try and wish and hope and pray.

But no, I will not allow myself to be one of those birthday people, the ones who get all freaked out about their age, ohmigod Iím almost 30, Iím not married, I have done nothing with my life, Iím wasting everyoneís time, boo fucking hoo. That will not be me. I will drink and I will smile and I will laugh, and all will be well, oh yes, it sure as shit better be. I will not wallow, become depressed, wonder how in the world I ended up here, ended up doing this, ended up acting this way, ended up thinking this.

I will cover it all up, I will sing stupid songs out of tune, songs I donít even know the words to, I will make a fool of myself in the name of amusing those few friends I have, so that they will think that nothing is wrong, I am not questioning everything, I am not feeling worthless, I am not isolating myself from everyone who once might have cared. No, friends, Iím perfectly comfortable writing aimless, rambling, uneven columns that start out one way and end up another just because Iím too scatterbrained and fucked up these days to have one continuous thought that adds up to anything consequential. That doesnít bother me at all. Everything is well here, thanks for not asking, donít you dare ask.

Because it is my birthday. Goddamn it, Iím going to celebrate on my birthday, even if there really isnít anything to celebrate. I am not going to let the lack of direction in life and career and love (and love and love and love) get in the way of a drunken birthday. If Iím going to earn any kind of small victory, it will be that.



Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: