Marlene Lee

I'm tired of nice. Nice manners. Nice writing that no one publishes. I'm even tired of goodness. I'm not good, you understand. I'm tired of trying to be good. That's why I've moved to New York City. At age sixty I'm going to learn "bad" from Manhattan. My goal is not only to write bad, but to be bad. I've already taken a step in the right direction with three divorces. In one of those divorces I was bad. I won't tell you which one. And I've been living in sin with Vincent for eight years. I'm just sorry it's no longer considered a sin.

Since I've been here I've spent a lot of time on Broadway. My favorite theatrical bad scene may be rather tame, but it's a start. It's a scene in the musical play The Dead. Christopher Waalken, frequently "bad" or at least weird in the movies, portrays a sensitive Dubliner who loves his wife and sings nice songs at his aunt's Christmas party -- but that's not the scene I mean. In the one that's bad, three elderly spinsters standing in their parlor dare to hold their Edwardian dresses above their ankles and sing, "I'm a naughty girl." The fact that this behavior hardly verges on bad illustrates how far I have to go.

I've turned to several sources for inspiration and instruction on how to be bad and write about it. One is a Japanese woman of the tenth century, Sei Shonsgone, who wrote an essay called "Hateful Things" which I found in Phillip Lopate's anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, a rich source for learning about annoyance, resentment, hate, and how to express them.

Here, for instance, I find her to be, if not bad, at least excessively irritable: "An admirer has come on a clandestine visit, but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking. One feels like killing the beast." Or, "I cannot stand people who leave without closing the panel behind them."

Sei Shonsgone doesn't like children, either. "Some children have called at one's house. . . and start to come regularly, forcing their way into one's inner room and scattering one's furnishings and possessions. Hateful!"

I could agree with that, but I probably wouldn't write it. It's not nice.

In the New York Times today I read that an official, generally considered to be a very nice man, has surprised everyone and been indicted for embezzlement. We are not talking about the deranged man who hit the Texas woman over the head with a concrete block at the corner of Madison Avenue and 42nd Street. That was very bad indeed -- and incidentally, it must be said that hardened New Yorkers were very, very nice. Letters and cards poured in to the girl's family. The Mayor visited her in the hospital and the City paid for the medical costs -- nevertheless it wasn't as subtly malevolent, certainly not as sustainedly evil as a very nice man who for years has been stealing from his fellow citizens. Being nice carries tremendous risks. If you are really not nice, it is better not to pretend to be so.

In my search for the opposite of nice, I've come tonight to see Shakespeare in the Park. We have perfect weather for Julius Caesar, for the Ides of March. A fitful wind blows paper about city streets and runs moaning through Central Park. A giant, bronzed papier mache head of Caesar hangs from a crane extended high above the outdoor stage and sways in the threatening storm. At stage right an immense bronzed hand, hacked off at the wrist, mutilated to ensure that no warrior will use his weapon against Rome, reminds us of Caesar's past mayhem against 6,000 Gauls.

As if things aren't bad enough just visually, we are soon deep into Brutus' troubled mind, wives' nightmares, fickle moods of the mob, foul conspiracy, Cassius' "lean and hungry look" (if you haven't read Shakespeare since high school, "lean and hungry" is not nice), and finally, the murder of Caesar and his terrible, bloody robe.

I sink low in my seat. I have definitely been a goody-two-shoes all my life.

Still, I have been bad once since I arrived in Manhattan. I had finished eating breakfast in -- of course -- a nice restaurant on the Upper West Side but no one would take my money. I tried to catch the attention of the waiter, but he avoided eye contact. I got to my feet and stood in place. As a last resort I strolled to the cash register. But even there, money in hand, I was invisible. And so I walked out. Slowly. So they could catch me. But they never even tried.

I think we can all see that I have potential.

Henceforth I will not pay bills in restaurants where food servers don't notice me. And if I should find myself behaving or writing nicely, I shall do something drastic. I'll donate half of my royalties to the Society for Those Who Aspire To Be Bad. With inflation and deferred success, the penalty will eventually hurt. Metaphorically speaking. And in the distant future.

© Marlene Lee

Marlene is a writer in New York City who subsidizes her habit by working as a court reporter. She has written several novels and is currently working on another. She is an optimist.

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