12 April 2010
In Jonathan Franzen's collection of essays, "How to be Alone," the author who gained fame for shunning Oprah with his superb novel "The Corrections" talks a lot less about being alone than his titles suggests. I already knew how to be alone, but I figured a collection of essays on the subject would be a good read anyway. Plus, I dug the his other work.
He touches on the sex-advice industry and supermax prisons, among other things. When I read this collection I was A) not alone; B) doing just fine sexually, thank you; and C) not doing anything that would land me in a supermax prison. (Regular prison, maybe.)
It was 2002 and my wife (then girlfriend) and I were living in Philadelphia. We moved there from Baltimore after a brief and passionate courtship so she could pursue graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I left behind a profitable gig tending bar, my family and most of my friends. I was in love and feared nothing. I assumed I'd find a decent bar job quickly.
That didn't happen.
The first gig I found was at an Outback Steakhouse knock-off where they train you for every front-of-the-house position before they let you behind the bar. It was the worst 3 weeks of my life. I wore a uniform and was trained by a nice kid whose mom picked him up every day. The food was lousy, the atmosphere disgusting and the cleanliness was questionable. I once worked a joint in Baltimore where every cook behind the line was on work release from prison. Those guys were spotless and worked hard. These hacks in Philly sent plates out of the kitchen with bugs in the rice and burned the bacon nearly every time.
Meanwhile, my wife spent her days walking the halls of knowledge in one of the world's greatest cities. She worked hard and made friends. An academic at heart, she loved it.
With $18 in tip money in my pocket I would hit the cheapest dive bar I could find for a few drafts before coming home, defeated. Annie was often asleep by the time I got in the door. I would either read or play a game on the Xbox. When I read, it was Franzen's collection of essays. Despite the love I had for my wife, I felt as alone as ever. Franzen offered nothing.
The Xbox, on the other hand, was just the mind-candy I needed to forget about the fact that I was a grown man with a writing career behind him who was currently upselling diners on fried onion appetizers in the world's worst chain restaurant.
This is when I turned to Jet Set Radio. Imagine a cell-shaded city in the future where odd-looking characters on Rollerblades tear through the landscape spreading counter-propaganda and graffiti of their own design. The game was beautifully rendered – the world it conjured as unique as Blade Runner and as imaginative as Oz. Easy to play, hard to master (the hallmark of gaming greatness) Jet Set Radio took me out of the hellhole for long enough for me to remember I was not defined by the place that issued me a paycheck. I was a young man in love who had the opportunity to write freely, meet new people and explore a new city. I eventually did all of those things, and have come to look back on my time in Philadelphia as a second college experience of learning and good times. (It helped that I soon got a better job in a better bar.)
Most of the entries in this blog are of fond memories of the good times in our lives and the games that helped to shape them. Jet Set Radio was a fine game that came to me in a terrible time. When I play it now, I remember everything I gave up in that time and all the wonderful blessings I've received since.
By Victor Paul Alvarez