joe oestreich

I walked out of a brownstone and onto the stoop, buttoning my flannel against the breeze that blew down the side streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Graffiti-tagged panel vans clanged over potholes and steam grates. A garbage truck beeped backwards from a rusty dumpster. A man worked a jackhammer into the pavement. I’d told the blonde who lived here that I needed a cigarette, but that was a lie. I don’t smoke. Never have. It just seemed a good enough excuse to put some distance between her and me, so I could absorb the fact that we’d spent a drunken night together. Now I was standing in front of her building, with the taste of exhaust and stale beer on my tongue, in my throat, from deep in the cellar of my insides.

This was 1993, and I was an Ohio boy, twenty-four and hungover in a city that smelled like piss and day-old fish. When I arrived in New York the day before, I’d thought of myself as regular old Joe Oestreich, from regular old Columbus, Ohio. Joe Oestreich, the Honor Roller, who at fifteen bought a hundred-dollar bass from a strip-mall music store. Joe Oestreich, the Bald Guy,who started a band called Watershed with his high school buddies.  Joe Oestreich, the Political Science Major, who, along with said buddies, dropped out of Ohio State dreaming of a fat record contract. On this morning the dream was unfolding just like I’d scripted it.

Twelve hours earlier, Watershed played a Midtown bar mobbed with A&R types. The president of Epic Records had flown the Concorde from London to be there.  As I played bass and sang, I saw MTV’s Kurt Loder in the audience. Everybodysaw Kurt Loder in the audience. The entire room buzzed with the certainty that something big was happening.  After the show I stood sweating on the 30th Street sidewalk as our manager walked out, flashing a thousand-dollar smile. With the twilight traffic reflecting in his sunglasses, he spread his arms wide and said, “Congratulations, motherfuckers. You’ve got yourselves a record deal.” 

Now on the stoop, a woman in her twenties, pretty and put-together in a smart suit, leaned into the glass door. She held a stainless steel thermos in her hand and a copy of The Times under her arm. I pulled the door open for her and nodded good morning. She smiled and lifted her thermos to say thanks. Her heels clacked down the steps, and I stood there holding the door like I was waiting for her to come back for something she’d forgotten.

I watched her walk toward 10th Avenue, where she flagged the cab that would drop her off at Morgan Stanley or Condé Nast or a big six ad agency. Soon those heels would walk into the tastefully appointed lobby of a Park Avenue tower.  Or through the shadowy-even-at-noon streets downtown.  She was probably not from New York. Maybe she was a Midwestern kid. Land-grant diploma. And like me and so many others from Provincial America, she’d come to Manhattan wanting to wake up to find herself king of the hill. Top of the list.

And now more people my age appeared on the stoops and stairs of their apartment buildings. The men wore Brooks Brothers, and the women wore Ann Taylor. They straightened their ties, fixed their hair and lipstick, and admired their reflections in the lobby doors.  Then they hustled off, the wind catching the tails of their suit jackets and the hems of their skirts as they ducked into the cabs that would take them to their high-rise jobs. They looked gym-built and sophisticated. Catalog-worthy. They were young, and they were, as their hometown friends surely said when raising glasses to them, kicking ass. I was momentarily hit with the same jealousy that had spiked over the last three years as the struggling members of Watershed watched our friends graduate from college to adult-sized paychecks. My insides tightened. My mental defenses stiffened, constricting to a reptilian armor that shielded my ego from the sight of other peoples’ successes. I wanted to fire back at those Brothers Brooks, at those Taylors Ann—to shout into the Manhattan morning, Listen up, you Nouveau-Yorker yuppie fucks. You should all be jealous of me.

I turned and caught myreflection in the glass. Still dressed in the black jeans and ball cap I’d worn on stage, I looked the same as I had last night and every night since I dropped out of school and into the van: suburban skinny and prematurely bald. But I felt different. I was strangely happy. But not just happy. Elated. Or something like the opposite of frustrated. Heartened, maybe. My chest seemed to expand with five boroughs worth of sweetness and light. My head funneled the swirling goodwill of the Eastern Seaboard into my brain. I wondered if this was how it felt to do a pile of cocaine: like a hundred-year flood of serotonin let loose in my veins. My jealousy no longer had teeth.

I sat on the top step and leaned back on my palms. Heartened. Everything—the street, the city, everything—was exactly as it was supposed to be. There was a pattern to the world. A grand design. This must be how James Bond saw walking into a casino: every infinitesimal thing that was happening, from the croupier flicking the steel ball round the roulette wheel to the bombshell sucking a gin-soaked ice cube at the baccarat table, was happening for him alone. Manhattan, I now understood, was just waiting for me to tell it what to do.

Here in Hell’s Kitchen, panel vans had always clanged, garbage trucks had always beeped. But on that day, all that clanging and beeping was mine. Because somewhere in the Sony Building on Madison Avenue, attorneys were drafting the contract that would make me Joe Oestreich, Epic Recording Artist. And more immediately, in an apartment on the third floor of that brownstone, the blonde was naked and wrapped in a sheet, waiting for me to come back upstairs.

As daylight broke between Midtown skyscrapers, we’d stumbled up to her flat. Soon my black jeans and ball cap were a pile in the corner. My Fruit of the Looms were lost in the bed sheets. A used condom was buried in the wastebasket. This had never before happened to me, this rock-and-roll coup. I’d never just met a girl at one of Watershed’s shows and then had sex with her. Until that morning the only person I’d ever had sex with was my long-time girlfriend Kate, who I’d recently broken up with specifically so that I might take just this sort of Jaggerian bite of the Big Apple. The sun leaked through the blonde’s flannel curtains, and she slid from the covers and called in sick to her job at Bear Stearns. I followed the sweep of her back, her ass, her StairMastered calves, feeling like a mailroom kid who’d shanghaied his way into the boardroom.

Now I hit the call button for her apartment. And in the jackhammering and dumpster-banging of Manhattan, even my hangover felt like something I won. I took the stairs two-at-a-time, swearing I’d remember that day forever.  Because that was the day when everything was perfect. The day before, I’d been regular old Joe Oestreich, from regular old Columbus, Ohio. But on that day, on that stoop, I was Joe Motherfucking Oestreich. Rockstar.


Joe Oestreich's essays have been shortlisted in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, The Best American Essays 2008 and 2009, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses 2010. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University, where he is Nonfiction Editor of Waccamaw. He recently finished writing a memoir called Hitless Wonder: My Life in Minor League Rock and Roll.