Hack Wars

I just got into a screaming fight with Scheinbaum. A huge, several block long, multi-act, mouthy street brawl with Scheinbaum, my fellow tenant, who told me as we were walking from our building to the bank together that my brand of mediocre, success-chasing yuppie-wannabe worthlessness was responsible for the ass-raping of the Bill of Rights by the Office of Homeland Security. That all I cared about was money and being spoon-fed mindless entertainment like a pate goose.

"Why are you baiting me, Scheinbaum. You're not making any sense."

"Sense or no sense. It's your brand of money-grubbing and whoring that leads to the world as we now see it: Fucked!"

"What about you!?!" I shoot back, a bucking bass at the end of Scheinbaum's line. "What about you? You're stealing cable so you can watch the Food Channel! What about you, chasing Jimmy Woods around trying to cast him in your stupid cop picture! What's worthwhile about your lifestyle? WHAT?! You armchair socialist hypocrite!"

"Get away from me, you talentless piece of shit!" he yells. Then, on a softer note, he adds, "I thought it might sell to support my art."

"Well, news flash. It didn't."

"I had an offer. I turned down the offer. That doesn't mean it didn't sell. That means I didn't sell it. And it doesn't mean I'm not capable and eager to write things that matter. I'm not just a hack. Like you."

"Look who's calling me talentless! A HACK! Will the ironies ever cease!?!"

By this time, we're at the bank. I'm standing near the door, and he's walked over to the cash machine.

"Get outta here," he yells.

"Put your card in the machine!" I volley back, demanding he do what he's doing anyway, forcing a de facto concession.

"GET AWAY!" He screams, his voice weakening with an ascending awareness of the inevitable.

"PUT YOUR CARD IN THE MACHINE!" I demand confidently.

After a brief pause, he turns around and puts his card in the machine.

Satisfied I've won the round, I go inside the bank to see if the check has cleared. The first installment of the money I'm getting for reworking a rock opera some poor producer optioned and has bags of his personal money sunk into.

Here's a quick run down on the plot: An aging rock star is down on his luck. His benders and drug abuse have ruined his career and driven his wife into heroin addiction and prostitution. The timeless yarn takes a turn into more obscure territory when the rock star's only son, a high school drop out, degenerates into an alienated trench coat Mafioso, grabs an AK-47, and picks off Christmas shoppers at a gigantic mall/amusement park. From here things go down the rabbit hole as Hitler is discovered to be co-producing clone soldiers with the help of an alien staff in the basement of the Pentagon. Ninety-seven hits of acid later, we're in a no-holds-barred bench-clearer between the rock star, his clone, a bunch of school girls, and a Satanic priest who holds the key to time travel. A few shenanigans later, the aging rock star returns to the present and has a nervous breakdown in a parking lot. All of this, naturally, has been observed by a shape-shifting narrator, here manifested as a reflection in a puddle of oil on the surface of the parking lot floor.

Turns out the check hasn't cleared yet.

I head back to the neighborhood deli for a cup of coffee, and who's already inside but Scheinbaum, who sees me coming, opens the door and yells: "GET AWAY FROM HERE!"

I stride right past him to the counter. "I want a cup of coffee, and you can't stop me!"

"Small blek coffee, double da cup?" Sam the Palestinian deli worker asks.

"Thanks, Sam."

Sam knows the daily routines of at least 350 people.

Meanwhile, Scheinbaum starts telling Sam and anyone else who would listen that I'm the hack responsible for the ass-raping of the Bill of Rights.

To which I respond, pointing a thumb at Scheinbaum, "this hack spent all last year changing the world by writing an alien movie."

And it's on again. A couple of Jewish writers screaming at the top of our lungs about who's the bigger hack in front of our neighborhood Palestinian deli workers.

After reaching a natural break in this psychotic debate, Scheinbaum leaves the deli, but not before warning me, with a hefty edge of menace: "You'd better stay away from me! I won't be accountable for what I do."

To which I respond, "You want me to get away from you? Okay. THEN GO AWAY!"

"You guys gotta make peace," Sam advises sagely, as I linger by the counter, watching Scheinbaum stomping across West Fourth Street, past Gwyneth Paltrow's and Lili Taylor's brownstones.

"That ain't so easy when you're neighbors," I say to Sam.

"You're telling me," Sam says with no shortage of irony in his voice, bidding me a pleasant Salaam Alechem as I go.

"Shalom, chief." I offer back with a friendly nod. Then I walk back toward my building, past the Paltrow and Taylor mansions and stop at the corner of Eleventh Street to take in the construction progress on Liv Tyler's twenty-five-thousand square foot pied-a-terre, entertaining the idea that if my rock opera project actually takes off, I can cast it on the way to my local deli.

I proceed on toward my building, and who's sitting on the stoop, but Scheinbaum, ready for the final round. "GET AWAY!" he squeals imperiously.

"I LIVE HERE YOU FUCKING MORON!" I snap back, resolving to rise above this idiocy and go upstairs. There's a war going on, for Chrissakes. Human beings are dying in the streets of Baghdad. If ever there were a time to take the high road with Scheinbaum, my favorite person in the world to fight with, it's now. But Scheinbaum's got other plans. He puts a friendly hand on my shoulder, stopping me as I enter the building and says, kindly: "You know you don't have any talent as a writer. You don't have any talent and you never will. All you've ever done with your life as a writer is lay on your back with your legs in the air. Turning tricks. Like a fucking whore. But that's not writing. And it certainly is not talent. So I suggest you give it up now, while there's still time to do something else with your life. I say this as a concerned friend."

"Who are you to talk about success as a writer?" I ask. "Just what do you have to show for all your efforts, oh genius scribe of the ages?"

"I've written plays. Several very good plays."

"Yeah? Sell em?" I ask rhetorically. "At least I've sold something."

"All you've ever done is shovel shit at the circus and suck dick for scraps."

"Fuck you, you commie hypocrite wannabe hack bastard!"

We go back and forth and back and forth like this, like tennis. A small crowd forms and watches on in amusement. I tell him his most recent play, which didn't go anywhere, naturally, was completely derivative of John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. The character choices; the arc of the love story; even stuff like the spelling of "inna" for "in" and "kinna" for "kind"--down to the Goddamned hand props!

At which point, he charges me, but this has happened before. He charged me and we almost came to blows a few months ago after I told him I thought Eugene O'Neill's Iceman Cometh is a better play than his admittedly well-considered Marxist intellectual rage piece, Donkey Work. I know he's bluffing and I stand my ground. But he's all up in my face and I can feel his breath in my eyes and I don't like the feel of it at all and so I say, stepping back, ready to swing, channeling a thousand hackneyed movies: "YOU WANNA DANCE, SCHEINBAUM?!? YOU WANNA FUCK'N DANCE?!? WELL THEN LET'S DANCE!!!"

He reconsiders like I know he will, but I'm so close to blows here, I have to channel my rage. So I pound the fuck out of the community bulletin board. I actually shock myself, because it feels so good. I punch it again. Scheinbaum watches, obviously impressed by the show of animalistic bravado. A monkey beating his chest. Or in this case, a writer beating the community bulletin board.

"Look at you!" Scheinbaum says with a giddy chortle. "You're turning all red. You look like an electrified rabbit!"

"Well congratulations," I say. "You brought me here. I hope you're satisfied!"

"I am."

"I'll bet you are."

I go back upstairs and there's my girl in the hallway, thinking there's gotta be some sort of construction worker brawl going on in the lobby of the building. I bid her good morning, then go to my desk and start writing all this down for future reference.

Moments later, there's a loud banging knock on the door, and of course it's Scheinbaum. Now it's my turn to yell go away.

"Come out here," Scheinbaum yells. "I gotta talk to you. It's important."

So I grab my jacket, put it on and go out into the hallway. Scheinbaum's standing there, suddenly looking flushed and ashen faced.

"I forgot. We can't fight like this any more."

"Why?" I ask.

"On accountta my health."

I know he's been worried about his health lately. He called me in a panic two months ago when I was out whoring in Hollywood. He had a big scare after his long-lost brother Howie called him from Indiana to tell him he was going under the knife--to take care of a heart related disease that runs inna Scheinbaum family. Scheinbaum just rounded sixty and now: "These fights between us, they gotta stop. It's just too upsetting for my heart."

I say, "Yeah? Well people die at forty of heart attacks too, you know. I ain't exactly calmed by our exchanges. And me wanting to make it as a screenwriter don't have dick to do with that asshole, John Ashcroft. Or Halliburton's contract to rebuild Iraq either, for that matter."

"Let's move on. And don't worry, you're not gonna die of a heart attack. Forty's a kid. Me, I got issues."

"Oh shut up! Your X-rays didn't show a fuck'n thing wrong with you. You're robust as a man of fifty-three. You got more hair than I do."

"It's too upsetting for my heart."

"Well then stop picking fights, Scheinbaum."

"Sometimes I can't help myself. You gotta help me."

"You need some serious meds."

"I'd get those little blue pills, but like most Americans, I don't have health insurance. As if you care."

"Scheinbaum! You're doing it again."

"You're right. Sorry. Shake my hand," Scheinbaum says.

"No, you shake my hand," I say.

Scheinbaum sticks out his hand and we shake on a deal I know he will never keep.