by JOE HALSTEAD
There’s a place in the East Village called Holiday Cocktail Lounge. I went in there one night a few years ago and saw James Franco. This was summer. He wasn’t tall and handsome like everyone said he was, but average height and sort of old-looking, like he’d been laughing for about a hundred years. We were sitting opposite each other on these old stools around the bar and the moulding above us was decorated with cheap Christmas lights. He asked questions, like, What do you think of these Republicans, and I answered them, nervously sipping my beer, saying, I don’t know, yeah, oh fuck yeah, of course. This went on for about half an hour and I was polite even though I’d always sort of hated James Franco because he was a rich guy who probably had it easy his whole life. He bought me a beer and then asked me what I was doing in the city and I said I’d gone to school for a while and that I was a writer from the food stamp hollers of West Virginia. I said, “Let me tell you, that place is hell,” and then went into a rant about how most of the population is illiterate and 64% of its citizens get disability and it’s ugly and nobody’s happy, which is why I came to the city in the first place, so I got good grades and got accepted to NYU and filled out all the financial aid forms and used Mom’s tax forms for the information I needed and I forged Mom’s name, trying to make an honest grab for something.
James Franco didn’t bat an eye, just smiled in this sarcastic way and blew out a line of smoke, real slow, and said, “Overwhelmingly rich in all kinds of unfortunate ways.” Just like that. He said it in a way that was impossible for me to tell if he thought I was lying or just naïve.
Two weeks after that, I was walking down St. Marks, halfway back to the apartment, when a man emerged from behind a car. He was homeless and begging, hunched over, his face covered with sores that looked like burns, holding out a misshapen hand. He said something like, Hey man, my kids need some toilet paper, and then I gave him all the cash I had, which was all the money I had, and the man just got on his knees and thanked me over and over and there was something in his eyes, some pain, that hadn’t been there before, and I tried to think of something to say—a question, something—but nothing came to me and I stood there. Sometimes, I’ll think about how much one life is worth, and how no one life is worth more than others, and I’ll think of that guy. I’d trade my life for his.
JOE HALSTEAD is a writer living and working in West Virginia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five Quarterly, Cheat River Review, People Holding, Sundog Lit, The Stockholm Review, Sheepshead Review, and others. He just finished a novel. Find him @joehalstead.