Sunday, March 11, 2018

345. Guns and Me

Featured this week:

The Pleasuring of Men.  A young male prostitute in nineteenth-century New York falls in love with his most difficult client.  Historical fiction, gay romance.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

For more books by Clifford Browder, see below following the post.


         The day of judgment has come at last for Martin Shkreli, the “Pharma Bro” notorious for arbitrarily raising the price of a drug 5,000 percent, thus earning himself the title of the Most Hated CEO in America.  Mr. Shkreli has graced these pages many a time, the last instance being in the Small Talk section of post #344 only a week ago, for I confess to a certain fascination with this brilliant but enigmatic young rogue (he’s only 34).  It wasn’t his pharmaceutical misdeeds that got him in trouble with the Law, those misdeeds being quite legal, but his financial hanky-panky, specifically, lying to investors in one of his many enterprises.  Last August he was convicted on several counts of fraud, and when, out on bail, he offered $5,000 per hair to anyone who snipped a hair of Hillary Clinton’s hair, Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto found his “prank” unfunny and revoked his bail, confining him in Brooklyn's Durance Vile.  But last Friday, March 9, he appeared before her in court for his sentencing.

         He showed up in drab prison garb, and while sitting with his lawyers at the defense table, insisted, with tears in his eyes, “I was never motivated by money.  I wanted to grow my stature and my reputation.  I am here because of my gross, stupid and negligent mistakes I made.”  This is a new Mr. Shkreli, tearful and remorseful -- a far cry from the insolent defendant of the trial, often flashing a mocking smirk.  I don’t mean to demean him now, since the change of attitude may be sincere, and his claim about not being motivated by money may well be true.  And it now comes to light that, according to a consultant hired by his lawyers, he was physically abused by both parents as a child, suffered panic attacks, and funneled his energy into numbers.  By age 6, one of his sisters says, he was calculating square roots and knew the periodic table.  And when in high school he was hired as an intern by a Wall Street firm, a friend recalls, Mr. Shkreli saw millions of dollars being traded, yet often arrived at school without lunch money.  All of which, if true, makes him that much more fascinating.

         So what was the sentence of this first-time offender?  His lawyers argued for 12 to 18 months; the prosecutors recommended 15 years.  Noting his “egregious multitude of lies” to investors, Judge Matsumoto sentenced him to 7 years in prison and ordered him to forfeit $7.36 million to the government to cover his fraud.  Also, noting his net worth of $27.2 million, she imposed an additional fine of $75,000.  If, even so, he shouldn’t be able to pay the restitution, she authorized the government to seize his assets, including a unique Wu-Tang Clan rap album and a Picasso.  For the album he is said to have paid $2 million, but appraisers now suggest that he paid too much; it may now be worth only half that, another comedown for the once irrepressible Mr. Shkreli.  “He wants everyone to believe that he is a genius, a whiz kid,” said one of the prosecutors before sentencing.  “He can’t just be an average person who fails, like the rest of us.”  Average?  No, he certainly isn’t that.  He has failed, but failed spectacularly.  Before adjourning the session, Judge Matsumoto encouraged him to continue teaching inmates, as he has been doing in jail.  "Thank you very much, Your Honor," said Mr. Shkreli.  One does wonder what he has been teaching them; on certain subjects he certainly knows a lot.  So ends this chapter of his adventurous life.


         In the wake of the latest school shooting, there has been more than the usual debate about guns, with the students of the school in question up in vocal arms.  I have never owned a gun and know nothing about assault weapons, but it behooves us all, whether pro- or anti-gun, to know a little more about them.  So here goes.

         An article in the New York Times of March 3, 2018, entitled “Once Banned, ‘America’s Rifle’ Is Fiercely Loved and Loathed,” states that the AR-15 rifle used in the Florida school shooting is a staple of American gun culture, its silhouette easily recognized and polarizing. That silhouette is indeed impressive: a long, thin barrel with handles or accessories attached.  It looks evil to some, sleek and effective to others; I share both reactions.

File:1973 Colt AR15 SP1.jpg

         The AR-15 re-entered the gun market when the ten-year federal assault weapons ban ended in 2004, and was popularized by the rise of a video game culture that made shooting a form of mass entertainment.  Post-9/11 patriotism heightened interest in our Middle Eastern wars and the guns used there by the military.  Also, the government ban had, as usual, the opposite effect intended: it made the forbidden AR-15 enticing – something that gun lovers simply had to have.  Its ownership is valued by many as proof of their independence, self-sufficiency, and Second Amendment freedom.  Buyers view it as a new thing, the very latest; it’s “in.”  Some owners keep it in the house for recreation (“It’s fun to shoot”), and some want it handy for self-defense.  Returning vets respect it, parents pass their love of it on to their children, friends share and esteem it at the rifle range.  A civilian version of the military’s M16 rifle, it is light and accurate, with little recoil.  Promoted by the National Rifle Association as “America’s rifle,” it exists in many forms, and competition among the various makers has kept the weapon affordable.  Online it can be had for anywhere from $768 to well over $3,000.

         Still, it is a formidable weapon meant to kill, and it can fire and reload rapidly.  Though most shooting crimes involve small handguns, the AR-15 has been used in a series of spectacular mass shootings, the most recent being the shooting in Florida.  Anti-gun advocates see the marketing of it as hypermasculine and inflammatory; the power associated with it is the ability to fire rapidly and kill many victims with a few quick blasts. Where a handgun can kill two or three, an AR-15 can kill fifteen or twenty … and has.  So the current debate pits passionate defenders of the AR-15 against passionate advocates of gun control.  Which side am I on?

         As a New Yorker and a resident of the Northeast, you might expect me to be an ardent advocate of gun control, which I am … up to a point.  But as a child of the Midwest, I learned to shoot a shotgun at age sixteen.  Yes, me, a bookworm who loathed sports, a wimp, a nerd who wore glasses from an early age – the first in my grade-school class to do so, prompting a beefy coach to once address me as “Glasses” (for which I instantly loathed him) – yes, there I was with a shotgun.  Having been the last of my peers to learn to swim or ride a bike, at sixteen I was determined to be the first to learn to drive.  And who should teach me but my father?  He was a an excellent driver, but the toughest of teachers.  My mother had learned from a neighbor, and my brother never learned until, years later, I taught him.  But I wanted to learn to drive, and my father agreed to teach me, if I went out with him on Saturdays to shoot.

         My father was an outdoors enthusiast, a dedicated hunter and fisherman.  Among my most vivid childhood memories are Saturday morning trips with him to a distant gun club, a small frame house in the country, where he communed with other gun owners and shot trap.  Trap shooting involved going with a small group of shooters to various locations and, from each, shouting “Ho!” or some such cry, prompting some invisible employee in a low wooden tower to send a clay pigeon flying through the air so you could shoot at it.  There were three possible results.  The shooter might nick the clay pigeon and send it, mostly intact, to the ground.  Or he (almost always a “he”) might hit it dead on and blast it to smithereens, to the congrats of his fellow shooters.  Or he might miss it completely, letting the target fly merrily on to land intact in some distant weeds.  Scores were kept, and if a shooter hit every target, his name was added to a list posted conspicuously on the wall of the club.  Though he was a good shooter, it was several years before my father’s name was added to the list.

          Such was my first introduction to guns and their owners.  Children were allowed in the clubhouse, if well behaved, but my brother and I were usually the only ones there, our only entertainment, when a round of shooting ended, to go out and scavenge the discarded empty shells of the shooters, whose bright red and green colors (the shells, not the shooters) attracted us.  It was definitely a man’s world, with talk of guns and hunting over coffee, and occasionally a risqué joke not fit for ladies’ ears.  Usually told in a hushed voice so my brother and I couldn’t hear, those jokes were climaxed by a loud burst of laughter, my father’s the loudest of all.  My mother often went with us for the ride, but sat in our parked car for two hours or so, reading quietly.  Yet there was one woman in the club, the wife of a member, who loved to shoot and held her own among the male participants.  She was welcome, and my father, who loved to coin nicknames, greeted her warmly as “Pistol-packin’ mama.”

         Time passed, the gun club came to an end, the clubhouse was rented to a family of limited means.  My father did his shooting elsewhere, and I spent my Saturdays researching this or that obscure subject in the great massive structure of the Chicago Public Library in the Loop.  So it was until, at age sixteen, I conceived this desperate urge to learn to drive, and I learned to shoot a shotgun as well.  My father and I went out to the site of the gun club, where my gregarious father struck up an acquaintance with the resident family, and was allowed to go into a nearby weedy field to shoot.  It was my job to hurl out clay pigeons with a hand device, which I did ineptly, sending the targets skimming low over the ground, when they should have been sailing high in the air.  Then it was my turn to shoot.

         The first thing my father taught me was safety: always carry your gun pointed at the ground, except when actually shooting, and carry it open at the breech, so it can’t possibly go off.  And then he hurled a clay pigeon and I, as instructed, tried to sweep the sights past it and, as I did so, to fire.  Needless to say, the target usually sailed on, mockingly intact, to land in the distant weeds.  And the recoil hit my shoulder hard, confirming my hunch that shooting was not, and never would be, for me. 

         After an hour or so of shooting, and with no flock of blackbirds offering us a real live target, we collected the undamaged clay pigeons in the grass and headed home.  It was on the trip home that my father gave me my first driving lessons on some deserted country lane, only in time allowing me to drive on the busy highways.  He was a tough teacher, at times harshly critical, but I stuck with it and finally learned to drive.  In my circle of high school friends, I was indeed the first to get a license.  And so, after a few further forays with my father into weedy fields in search of rabbits I had no desire to slaughter, I ended my adventures with the gun.  Those adventures were eliminated by various high school activities, foremost among them a wartime military training corps (with only fake guns, not real ones) where, unbelievably, I ended up a cadet major.  And in that same busy senior year I went steady with a girl and learned to neck like crazy.

         So in the fiery gun debates of today, where do I end up?  First of all, I am not hostile to gun ownership.  My father owned shotguns meant for recreation, had no handgun or semiautomatic rifle.  He tended to his guns diligently, cleaning them at intervals, and to test them, fired at big sheets of paper, so he could check the pattern of the shot.  (Me, alas, he coerced into counting the bullet holes, paying me a trivial sum per hole – the most tedious of tasks.)  Otherwise the guns lay in their cases under his bed in his bedroom, nor did it ever occur to me or my brother to even go near them.  They were his property, not to be meddled with. 

         Years later, when he died, my father’s will left the guns to his sons, neither of whom chose to retain them; they were quickly sold.  I’m glad he never knew how little we valued them.  But once, when my English teacher deplored hunters’ shooting such beautiful creatures as deer, I had asked him about hunting.  Instead of a tirade against old maid schoolteachers who know nothing about such matters, my father gave a thoughtful answer.  “Hunting,” he said, “is an instinct.  It’s stronger in some people than in others.”  It surely disappointed him that neither of his sons, and least of all me, shared that instinct.

         But what about the AR-15, a gun that in my father’s time didn’t even exist?  Though a gun lover, he would never have craved it, since the targets he hoped for were blackbirds and rabbits, and failing that, clay pigeons.  Many today want to ban the AR-15 outright, but experience has taught us that banning something only increases the desire for it, makes it “sexy.”  It has become a vital part of the life of some of us, a symbol of their freedom.  Like it or not, to get some kind of law through a very polarized Congress, compromise is necessary.  So tougher background checks are called for, to keep the mentally unbalanced, and those convicted of a serious crime, from getting guns.  As a child of the Midwest, I say let responsible people have their guns, but with the understanding that, if someone else gains access to them and misuses them in any way, the owner is liable.

         Do I think this will stop mass shootings?  Probably not.  It will make them less likely, but it won’t stop them altogether.  Nothing will.  No matter what we do by way of prevention, sooner or later someone will manage to get hold of a gun and start shooting.  Such are the dark desires lurking in the depths of our psyche.  We can, and must, lessen the chances of such shootings, but I doubt if we can stop thm altogether.  So it goes in the Land of the Free and the Brave.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Coming soon:  As usual, no idea.

©   2018   Clifford Browder