He opened up Mug Thug in the East Village in 1988. Ahead of his time when it came to apprehending just how much Gen Xers in the 90s would love a kitsch mug. He himself had only become obsessed with them as a result of his sterile suburban existence growing up in Stony Brook. His mother filled the kitchen cabinets solely with white mugs, and if ever he somehow managed to stain or break one, she would beat the shit out of him until he could barely remember his name. Unfortunately, he could still always remember that she was his mother. He didn’t like to talk about his time in Stony Brook, though he knew many adults aspired one day to have property in the town. To live a quiet existence and to only come to the city when absolutely necessary–that is to say, when the usual operating hours of making money necessitated it. As for Roland, he would do anything it took to never leave Lower Manhattan. To become a city rat in the spirit of Andy Warhol, who had only just died a year ago. It was, indeed, his death that galvanized Roland to open the shop and capitalize upon the city’s increased nostalgia for Warhol’s brand of camp and reverence for pop culture.
In addition to pop art mugs, Roland, of course, had many others, a large portion that he created the designs for himself. From images of Madonna performing in her wedding dress at the VMAs to the Arby’s lady screaming “Where’s the Beef?,” Roland had something for everyone. And a wide array of customers did come into the shop, whether intentionally or just happening to wander in (often, the wanderers were junkies and drunks, and the sight of novelty mugs only disoriented them all the more). Of all the customers who had ever walked into his store, however, it was Lola he loved the most. Lola, who never made a snide comment about the selection or asked him snarlingly how he could make a living peddling such wares. She was the only person he knew more ardent than he was about mugs. And she was attractive. His kind of attractive. Dressed every day in all black with fishnets and Doc Martens, thick eyeliner and dark crimson lipstick. She was somewhere between not pale and not tan on the complexion spectrum. In short, she was his wet dream.
He could never bring himself to make an attempt at flirting with her. Not just because he knew she was out of his league, but because he had never been given the opportunity to be schooled in such an art. He also couldn’t take the rejection that was sure to be inevitable. Granted, she might be “nice” to him about it, but it still didn’t change the fact that there was nothing “nice” about not having your feelings reciprocated. No matter how politely that message was delivered. So instead, he admired her from afar, entertaining her in all her questions and non sequitur anecdotes, her expressions of passion for a specific fandom. She was particularly into Golden Girls by 1989, and at this point one of the extreme regulars of Mug Thug.
The merchandise for the show was still sorely lacking, what with it being an era when no one saw the goldmine of fathoming old ladies as an age group to be revered rather than shunned, so Roland took it upon himself to create a variety of different mugs, some featuring all four of them, some featuring them individually. Naturally, Lola’s favorite was Sophia, so he made one with her on it, and the line, “Wake up and smell the coffee, you fossil.” When he presented it to her the next time she came, she was absolutely floored. “You see?” she said. “This is why I love this place. No one has what you have.”
Roland smiled, feeling himself getting an erection and awkwardly fidgeting in the hope that it would go away. It didn’t, and he had to stand behind the counter praying she wouldn’t, for some reason, ask him to show her where a specific item was on one of the shelves. “This is just so thoughtful, Roland. I really would like to thank you somehow. Can I take you for a coffee at Yaffa for your lunch break?”
This was it. It was finally happening. Something good was finally happening to him. He couldn’t fuck this up, loss of potential revenue be damned–he was going to close the shop, claiming it was his “lunch break” anyway. He didn’t feel obliged to tell her that his so-called lunch break typically consisted of eating a Snickers at the counter while people glared at him for having the gall to be so openly uncouth. What did they want? It was the East Village.
Which is why Yaffa was the appropriate choice for Lola to make. It was only a few blocks from the store, and the prices were cheap. He was going to figure out a way to secretly pay for her. Some overt show of his affection that couldn’t be ignored so that the ball would be in her court to act on expressing whether or not there was anything more than a platonic sentiment toward him. Or simply a respect for his pop cultural taste in liquid-containing entities. As she sipped her coffee from the plain white mug she was presented, she noticed Roland shuddered, as though triggered by something. He couldn’t possibly tell her the story about his mother and her fixation on immaculate white mugs, so instead he said, “I just got a chill. Don’t mind me.” He buried his head into his own cup, hoping the sandwiches they ordered would arrive soon so that he would have more props to take away the attention from how uncomfortable he was in her presence.
“So Roland, what made you decide to open up a mug shop?”
This was the very question that cut to the core of his whole maternal issues thing, so he came up with some version of the truth that sounder quainter and less Mommie Dearest. “Well, I had always taken an interest in things that were, I guess, collectible as a child, and there was this gift shop in my town–”
“Which town is that?”
“Uh, Stony Brook…”
“No way! You grew up in that Stepford place?”
“Yeah, well, I got out as soon as I could. I’ve been working since I was thirteen, saving up money all with this goal I couldn’t fully see yet until I came to the city. I was walking along St. Mark’s one day, this street that was supposed to have everything when it came to weird tchotchkes or whatever, and there was no mug shop. That’s when Mug Thug was born.”
“How… kismet.” She brushed a strand of hair away from her face as she said this, then continued, “You know I grew up in the second closest thing to a Long Island suburb: the Upper West Side. Right by the Natural History Museum. Central Park was my backyard. Of course, I know every kid thinks that–that the park was made just for them, but yeah… I guess I’m trying to say, I do know what it’s like to want to escape. To carve your own path, even if everyone thinks you’re crazy.” She placed her hand over his. What the hell is happening? he wondered. She couldn’t possibly be interested in him in the way he was praying she was. This was all just a friendly show of solidarity. An encouragement for him to keep making her custom mugs and not charging her for them. Well, he would do that regardless of whether she paraded any such grand gestures as this. He suddenly remembered his hand was sweatier than a baseball player’s jockstrap, yet she still kept her own there, touching his. Was she just being discreet about it so as not to make him feel like the complete oaf he was? Then, she really went in for the jugular, asking, “Would you like to come back to my place? I know you probably have to work, but I’d really like to show you where I live. You can see all the mugs I’ve bought from you in the cabinet.”
At this point, he still couldn’t believe that she was truly angling to do anything sexual with him. Maybe she found him so harmless that she didn’t understand just how much of a wolf she was inviting into her Little Red Riding Hood abode. Oh Lola, how can you not understand the manner in which you’re torturing me? He sighed imperceptibly before agreeing to come over. The shop could burn for all he cared, if it meant a chance to explore how far he might be able to go with her.
Lola’s apartment was just how he imagined it. A bit grimy, but somehow charming. Dishes in the sink, clutter on the floor and couch, records strewn near the phonograph, with The Cure’s Disintegration on the turntable. How delightfully predictable she was. “You want something a little stronger than coffee?” she inquired as she placed the needle at the beginning of the record. The swelling opening notes to “Plainsong” flooded the apartment. “Uh, sure,” he said. “How about an Irish coffee?” She smiled and went to the kitchen to make him his request. She herself would take a plain whiskey in her Pretty in Pink mug, which featured only Steff on it with the quote, “You’re a bitch.” While she waited for Roland’s coffee to brew, she sauntered back toward the couch where he was sitting with his hands folded like a little boy waiting for his punishment. She giggled as she took a swig of her beverage. “I want you to be comfortable, you know. You don’t have to feel weird. Unless my apartment is really grossing you out.”
He tittered. “No, of course not, I just… I guess I’d rather skip to the part where I make a fool of myself and you tell me you’re only interested in me as a friend.” He averted his eyes from her gaze, not wanting to see the pity in them. He braced himself for the genteel way she would try to rebuff him, but instead, all of the sudden, he felt her hand unzipping his pants and taking his cock out. This was way more than he ever could have dreamed of even in his most hopeful fantasies of her. He started to breathe heavily, losing all sense of control as she stroked him like he had an udder. In fact, that’s how she had always seen the male appendage: as a mutant udder. She didn’t get a chance to tell him, but she spent plenty of time in Massachusetts during the summers of her youth, where her grandparents had a farm and expected her to help them with the various chores, cow milking included. But if she had told him this, then he wouldn’t believe she was just inherently gifted at hand jobs and it was better to keep the mystery alive. He splooged in under a minute, moaning in conjunction with the final hissing spurts of the coffee maker finishing its cycle.
Things moved pretty quickly from that point forward, with Roland questioning none of it, lest he be faced with the unwanted reality that it was somehow all a dream. But no, there she was, moving into his apartment on 7th between A and 1st. It was slightly larger than Lola’s, but not by much (every East Village domicile had the curse of being little more than the size of a generously portioned butter pat). Still, his was in a more desirable location, closer to the park (in case they wanted to shoot up) and generally cleaner. Lola’s apartment would, instead, always have the unshakeable dingy look of a former tenement. Roland’s newer four-story walk-up was better suited to both of them. And every day, while Roland readied himself to go to work, Lola stayed in bed, presumably until noon, when the fancy struck her to “create.” She was pursuing a career in illustration, with a specialty in the comic book arts, but there was little job opportunity to be found at the moment, least of all any financial boon. So Roland was, all at once, saddled with supporting both of them.
Months flew by and Roland found himself working additional hours at other places in the East Village, picking up a shift at St. Mark’s Bookshop or McSorley’s whenever he could. He didn’t understand how his expenses seemed to augment so noticeably the moment Lola moved in with him. But ordering takeout for two (she, of course, didn’t cook), buying any little trinket her heart desired and agreeing to front her some money to take a few art classes had landed him much deeper in the hole than he ever would have liked to have been. To the point where he knew that during his next scheduled visit to Stony Brook, he was going to have to do the unthinkable: ask his mother for money. Of course, he never let on his sense of desperation to Lola. He didn’t want to make her feel bad, nor put any kind of wrench in the steady flow of hand jobs he was getting (that seemed to be the extent of what they did, truth be told). So he kept his worries to himself.
At dinner with his mother on Sunday, she was more clipped with him than usual. More repelled than ever by the son she saw as no better than Comic Book Guy a.k.a. Jeff on The Simpsons. Not that his mother had ever even heard of The Simpsons to make the correlation. “So…how is the, um…mug ‘business,’” she offered grudgingly. This was the worst and the best possible time to mention his financial woes, so he simply ripped off the Band-Aid instead of bothering to tell her that he had recently branched out into selling tiki mugs as well. He confessed, “Well, funny you should ask, but I could really use a bit of extra capital if you’re able to help.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Your shamelessness really knows no bounds, does it?”
He quietly chewed the lamb chop the cook had prepared and the maid had served, hoping she would give her usual verbal lashing and just agree to give him the cash afterward. But it was different this time. She did not feel obliged to help him. And she said as much quite bluntly as she daintily wiped the corners of her mouth with the cloth napkin she lifted from her lap. “I am not giving you another dime. I know that you only still come here in the hope that by pretending to be a doting son, you might one day get your hands on my money. You won’t. I’m leaving it all to the country club, and I hope your little mug shop is forced to close so you can finally understand what it means to get real work.”
He practically choked on the lamb. “And what kind of ‘real work’ have you ever done, Mother? Apart from sucking the right dick that you probably lopped off when you were finished. Maybe that’s the real reason Dad killed himself.”
“You shut your foul mouth, Roland. It’s time for you to leave.”
He rolled his eyes. “What a good WASP you are, never raising your voice, never succumbing to an obscenity. You really should open up a school to help others learn to be so robotic.”
“Unlike you Roland, I don’t need the money. There’s no incentive for me to start any enterprise.”
“The incentive could be that you’re actually fucking passionate about something.”
She chortled. “Like what? Mugs?”
“Yeah. Fucking mugs! You fucking cunt!” And with that, he pushed his chair out forcefully, in a manner that mimicked the sound of an enraged elephant, and stormed to the front door to get the hell out of there as fast as he could.
She wasn’t wrong. He really only had been continuing the pretense of these damned dinners in the eventual hope that he would at least profit from them financially. Perhaps it was better that she cut the cord now then continuing to allow him to waste any more of his precious time. Time during which he could either be making money or getting stroked by Lola.
When he arrived home that night, it was still early. He figured she would be there. That’s the annoying thing about New York, he reckoned. There were things to do on a Sunday night. That’s why it was the prime place for promoting the temptations of infidelity, and he had no doubt that Lola had been subjected to her fair share of advances whenever she went out. For he was starting to recognize that they were rarely seen in public together. He couldn’t decide now whether that was coincidence or somehow by her design. No, surely not, he told himself. Lola is a pure soul. She hasn’t got a mean bone in her body. Maybe she has no bones in her body, another voice retorted. Maybe you’re the only one with bones, if you take my meaning. “Shut up!” he screamed, at no one in particular. It still managed to invoke the reciprocated rage of a neighbor across the way, himself looking for any reason to yell as he shouted back, “Fuck you!”
He started pacing the room frantically. Where the hell is she? Hours passed and there was no sign of her. It was the 90s, anything could have happened to her out there. Oh stop being such a chauvinist, she can take care of herself, the voice who said she had no bones assured. Roland finally decided to take a sleeping pill and go to bed. She would probably just be coming home very late, partying hard at some club somewhere. She was still young, she had the right. It was still America and it’s not like they were bound by the legal implications of marriage. She was her own woman.
When he awoke the following morning, he saw that she had not returned. The phone rang, but he didn’t answer. He knew whoever it was, it wasn’t her. It was only some ominous news he did not yet want to hear. In the end, he realized, he was being used. They would never wake up together in their shared apartment and he would never go to the kitchen and choose from one of the vast array of mugs to suit her mood for the day before proceeding to make them their pot of coffee. It was she who turned out to be the real mug thug. The phone call was to inform him that his shop had been robbed. Someone found the door wide open when they were walking their dog early that morning, around six a.m. The entire joint had been stripped of its inventory. He didn’t need the police to do an investigation to know who it was. There was no bigger enthusiast for mugs in town than the one person he was foolish enough to believe could actually give a damn about his grotesque ass. That’s “love” in New York though, isn’t it? A long con.