Sunday, December 19, 2010

Please Refer to My Corpse as “Jane Do-Re-Mi”

A couple of years ago, when I started running my mouth about how desperately I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, I was given a pimped-out acoustic one as a gift. It’s become a decoration in my home, part of my interior design, propped up against a wall in my living room. I usually forget it’s there until someone comes into my apartment for the first time, points to it, and asks: “you play?” And all I can say is: “huh?”

Today, I had my first one-on-one lesson. I wiped some of the dust off my latest musical instrument before walking it (without any kind of carrying case) across the park. “Good luck - hope you turn the place out,” a bursting-with-pride panhandler sang out as I passed.

The place almost turned me out. Since the caseless guitar and my coat were so heavy, I didn’t feel like adding a purse or my bulging wallet to the mix. The only small items I stuffed into my pockets were a wad of cash, my phone, and my keys. The music-lesson building’s front-desk security guard scolded me for not carrying any forms of ID. “What if you were in a serious accident? We wouldn’t have any idea who you were and would have to call you Jane Doe.” This was one of the only times in my adult life that I didn’t argue or talk back when provoked. I’d been looking forward to my session for a damn long time and needed this police-academy prodigy to let me through.

When I finally met my teacher, I told him I wanted to play an Ani DiFranco song. He was all: “Uh, I don’t think so,” because she uses an atypical tuning style that’s not fit for beginners. That’s about when I lost most of my interest in this mission. The whole reason I ever signed up for guitar lessons was so I could learn an Ani song – immediately. (And the instructor later pronounced Ani’s name as “Annie.”)

I regained my composure and was shown the standard way of tuning the strings. By the time we finished this drill, I was ready to pack up my ID-free belongings and call it a wrap. But we had 50 minutes left to go.

I'm not supposed to have this much trouble mastering the basics. I had repeatedly been told that it’s usually pretty easy for people with formal musical backgrounds to pick up the guitar. I do have a formal musical background. It may have been 15-20 years ago – but it’s there.

When I got back home, I started practicing within 3 minutes of walking through the door so I wouldn’t forget any of my new skills. After successfully tuning the top few strings, I tried working on one of the lower ones, twisting and turning its tuning knob. There was a mini-explosion and a sharp sting against my hand. The string had dramatically popped off from one of its ends and is now lopsidedly dangling by a thread. So’s my future in the music-making business. Again.

For a full hour after my only “serious accident” of the day, I was taunted by the sound of my upstairs neighbor expertly strumming his own unbroken, exquisitely-tuned acoustic guitar. I sat on my couch, listening, resting my head on one of my hands. The other hand was busy tapping my old tambourine as back-up. I’m better at percussion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bravo, Jigga!

I’m halfway through Jay-Z’s brilliant new memoir (Decoded), and I already have the pages of this masterpiece marked up like my dog-eared copies of The Bluest Eye and The Brothers Karamazov. It’s that good. The men/boys of the mainstream hip-hop industry generally don’t impress me, and it’s not only because of the hyper-machismo and sexist lyrics. I’m genuinely revolted by many of their core personalities. I wouldn’t ever be able to get along with Kanye West or the woman-hating, animal-hating DMX. But Jay-Z has always seemed like one of the sane, likable ones. If he had been in my freshman dorm, we could have been great drinking buddies. I've known someone who has run into him at his 40/40 club downtown and she confirmed that there’s something deep and different about him. The Jigga-man has been a writer since the tender age of 9. In Decoded, he describes how he’d be walking down the street with his friends and suddenly come up with the perfect rhyme or phrase in his head. He carried a notebook with him to get the words down on paper before he forgot them. I do that too. He took up his brand of songwriting to explain the psychology behind urban hustling/street life/the underworld - and to be “honest about that experience.” We should be “approaching rap like literature, like art” and viewing hip-hop music as anthropological reportage. As if all this conceptual enlightenment weren’t enough, he’s teaching me new words and terms such as “leaning nodder,” “subwoofer,” and “raising green up.” (The verdict is still out on what exactly a leaning nodder is. I looked it up and it could be anything from a condom to a drug reference.) Growing up in the Bed-Stuy housing projects, where he met a few other visionaries, he read the dictionary to build his vocabulary. I live about 10 minutes away from a set of housing projects and when I sometimes take shortcuts through them, I’ve seen and overheard groups of their residents gathered around a bench, passionately philosophizing away. If they had been born into even slightly different circumstances, they just as easily could be having these discussions around a bench on the campuses of Brown or MIT. But the Jay-Zs of the world (and there aren’t too many people who are gifted with this preternatural level of stubborn, confident, and thoughtful entrepreneurial ambition) don’t necessarily need formal higher education and all of its prescriptions and restrictions. They have what it takes to figure out how to reshape and enhance a cultural narrative on their own terms.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Now All We Need Up Here Is a Dave and Buster’s

Thanks to big-box retail, living in Upper Manhattan has recently become more affordable/bearable. Since the last thing I want is to risk losing my born-again bohemian street cred, I buy locally as often as I can. But I’m on a budget and can’t afford to get the bulk of my produce, fish, and pre-made baked goods from farmers’ markets, nor can I bring myself to pay $45 for a lamp at the family-owned neighborhood housewares store when I can now trot across town to get a comparable-quality one from Target for $24.99. Out of all these glorious new uptown chain stores, the apple of my eye is Costco (which one of my Upper East Side friends once said has “transformed [her] life”). It saves me some cash-money and reminds me of the merry bulk-shopping trips to Sam’s Club I used to take with my parents when I was coming of age. Being inside of a Costco (or its equivalent) is like being inside of a casino – you’re surrounded by every walk of life. Women and men (of every race and color) from every age bracket, education level, and nearly every socioeconomic status are represented. Suburban soccer moms, blue-collar workers, prep-school jocks, the tattooed and body pierced, immigrants who don’t speak English, immigrants who are English. It’s what America is supposed to look like. Women with Chanel purses respectfully debate the merits of competing brands of detergent with women wearing glasses held together with scotch tape. You can bump into a couple with matching cable-knit “Yale Alumni” sweaters joshing around with men in bandanas and gold chains, as they all come together to sample paper cups of red lentils or chunks of whole-grain bread. I haven’t seen a melting pot (all at once) this deep in a mom-and-pop store or at the average local strip mall.  Whenever I’m in my new Costco I don’t end up buying all that much. Whenever I’m in a casino I end up hardly gambling at all. Somehow, subconsciously, I’m in it for the atmosphere.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

May the Cheese Be Cubed, and the Turkey Slow Cooked Rotisserie-Style

The enterprising young brother from Burkina Faso who used to work at the 99-cent store around the corner from me has just unveiled a 99-cent store of his own, across the street. He once offered to help me do my laundry back when I wandered into his/our old stomping grounds as often as possible to play with the big, black cat that lived in the aisles. But the store eventually outsourced the cat, and then it got rid of its New York Times stand, so I’ve been forced to move on.

It’s lovely to see that this guy has moved on, too. However, thus far, all his new joint has going for it is the owner’s dynamic personality and winsome smile. It’s only slightly more spacious than my bathroom and I’m getting weird excuses about why the man in charge can’t be bothered to carry Mountain Dew or extension cords. He’s revealed that his ultimate goal is to be in a position to sell “cheeses and turkey” one day. I can picture and taste it already – clearly so can he, based on the faraway look that overtook his eyes the instant he brought up the idea (in the mid-1990s, a guidance counselor at my high school advised that a personal dream is more likely to come true if you regularly envision exactly how you’d want it to play out in your head).

Since there are many other, virtually identical shops in the neighborhood, an uninitiated outsider might think this latest fledgling small business owner is setting himself up for failure. But the West African immigrant community in this several-block radius goes out of its way to take care of its own, and would never let him go down without dignity. Even the non-immigrant locals take care of good people who establish any sincere roots in the area. I see customers jovially coming in and out of his small space all the time. I stop by a couple times a week to check in about how much longer it’ll be before the cheese-and-turkey operation gets off the ground or to buy a roll of paper towels that I could get cheaper farther down the street. I’ve also volunteered to help him set up a speakeasy in the back room.

A dynamic personality and winsome smile can be the only business plan some people ever need.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Stage Flight

This past Wednesday night, I made my spoken-word debut at a coffeehouse in Brooklyn, reading aloud from an excerpted version of the first formal memoir essay I ever wrote. Even though I’ve always done it when asked, I’ve never loved public speaking. Or speaking in general – that’s why I write.

Before Wednesday, all of my public speaking experiences had involved the presentation of boring work/professional-related information. This was the first time I’ve ever recited my creative writing, which is more of a risk, particularly when it’s non-fiction material of the personal pain variety.

I haven’t been to many live performing arts events that started right on time - it caught me off guard when this one did. And I was reader #2 so (thanks to all of the subway delays that got me there later than planned) there wasn’t enough time to get buzzed up before taking the mike.

I also didn’t have any reading glasses with me. A few nights earlier (and two hours after my last posting about how I bought a pair of drug-store reading glasses that did me wrong), my real, prescription glasses irretrievably broke when they fell from the top of my head while I was dancing to the new Pink song. And I wasn’t able to get the new frames and lenses in time for the big premiere.

When it was my turn, I could feel my hands shaking for the first several minutes, but I gradually started to have a damn good time. It’s empowering (especially in front of the right audience) to deliver a proclamation, announcing who you are and why; what you’ve been through and how you’ve coped and conquered. One thing’s for sure - I’m not afraid to do this kind of thing anymore.

I’m a compulsive list-maker. I draft lists about everything – weekly tasks to complete, groceries to buy, favorite books and musicians, possible first and middle names for my future daughter. Years ago, I meticulously composed a list of things I want to do/experiences I want to have before I’m cremated. Midway down, there’s a line about wanting to give a literary reading in New York City. Being able to cross things off these lists is turning out to be so much more fun and interesting than it was to cobble them together in the first place.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Farcical Farsightedness

Although we had a good long run at the mildly-impaired stage, my vision degeneration has entered into Phase 3. My reading-glasses prescription has become a little too under-par and I’ve been avoiding making an optometry appointment for more than a year. To be sure, paying a visit to an optometrist is less stressful than going to the gynecologist or getting an annual physical, but I’m pretty sure that an out-of-pocket payment of more than $25 will be involved, and I’ve always had sketchy experiences with eye doctors. When I first needed glasses, I was treated by the harmlessly creepy father of someone I casually knew. When I first moved to New York, I went to an eye doctor who (I later learned) has had a battery of A-list celebrities under his care. This lecherous little man was one of the driving forces behind my recent policy of only seeking basic health care services from female doctors. I also got a weird vibe from the chain optical center I went to a couple of years ago, and I had been fixing to make the pair of spectacles they sold me last forever.

Per the counsel of a random acquaintance, I just bought me some $16 non-prescription reading glasses at Rite Aid. In addition to being fugly, they’re unusable - I can’t see in them. They’ve turned out to be way too strong and I wonder how much longer I have with this bloody headache. I need to take the glasses off in order to read, write, or think straight. Although taking them off initially felt like sweet freedom, they’ve been off for at least 30 minutes and I’m still heavy-headed and somewhat cross-eyed. My vision has moved into Phase 4 and now I really need to get my ass to an eye doctor - even if it’s one of the freakshow ones.

Shortcuts have never worked for me. I should have known not to take advice from someone who hasn’t been to a dentist in a decade because she thinks the radiation from the X-ray machines might kill her.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

For Colored Girls Who Support and Admire Those Who Go the Distance

I don’t care much for movies. The last one I saw in an actual theater was Slumdog Millionaire, which had to have been about 2 years ago. But every now and then, there’s a movie that looks compelling enough to spend my time and money on – like For Colored Girls. I’ve been waiting for this one for awhile and I strode into my local cineplex at 12:50 p.m. today, bursting with anticipation.

Since I’m so out of practice, when I bought my ticket from the machine, I accidentally signed up for the 2 p.m. time slot, instead of 1 p.m. Which left me with about an hour to kill before showtime. A few minutes later, as I was exiting a nearby Starbucks, I ran into one of my favorite co-workers on 125th St. She suggested that I walk down to 5th Avenue to “watch the runners.”

I forgot that it was Marathon Day in New York, and that I don’t live too far away from a section of its course. I walked over to 126th St. and 5th Avenue to stand on the sidelines and cheer the runners on until it was time to leave for the movie. Except that when it was time to leave for the movie, I wasn’t ready to go yet. This was the first time I’d ever watched people run a marathon so up close and personally, and I got into it. I spent the entire afternoon out there, never more than two feet away from the competitors. My hands are sore from clapping and my face feels numb from smiling. This year, I only knew one person who had enough guts and discipline to run this thing and, at 2:46 p.m., I had the privilege of seeing her speed by, in all her determined glory.

By the time they reached my spot, the runners had already finished at least 20 miles. Although many of them were visibly in pain, many more were in great spirits, existentially taking everything in and keeping their eyes on that prize. When I thought about what these soldiers must have gone through to reach this milestone, I started crying. But then I became too angrily distracted by the steady stream of assholic bystanders who had the audacity to fuck with these athletes’ momentum. On the 5th Avenue stretch of the marathon’s course, there are no barricades to separate the runners from the watchers. The people standing on either side of the street are virtually right up in the runners’ faces. And every few minutes, some of the watchers would suddenly sprint across 5th Avenue – AS IN DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE PACKS OF ONCOMING RUNNERS - to get to the other side of the street. Some wouldn’t even bother to sprint as they interfered - they would just mosey across the road, letting the exhausted, blindsided marathoners trip over them. One woman leisurely walked a stroller (that contained a live infant) in front of a massive herd of runners, and it’s miraculous that no one seemed to get seriously injured in the pile-up that ensued – although it did cause one of the runners (who had been cheerfully plodding along, in his zone) to fall to the ground and almost get trampled by the racers behind him. Most, if not all, of this wanton disrespect could have been prevented. But the NYPD was as useless as usual, enabling everything – there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts a few avenues away from where we stood, so the officers’ hearts and minds were elsewhere.

If I ever run a marathon, it can’t be in New York – it would have to be in a more civilized city. But I’ve got nothing to worry about - the only kind of marathons I’m cut out for are the ones involving hot dogs or shot glasses.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I Live Around the Corner from a Bike Shop

Through a very attenuated grapevine, I heard that someone from my past recently took a solo cross-country bike trip. She averaged about 100 miles a day and kept a blog about the experience. A few nights ago, I read most of her travelogue until the wee hours of the morning, thoroughly enthralled.

I would never stay up past bedtime just to read through the “Older Posts” section of my blog. Here I am, often taking weekly shots at people I barely know, while this fearless adventurer is describing what it’s like to pedal across 4 time zones with not much more than a cell phone and a debit card.

She shacked up with any friends or relatives who lived in towns along her route, and otherwise bunked at a new motel every night. She stayed in close touch with her parents (who are huge right-wingers – I can’t believe they supported something this cool) who helped her book the motels along the way and advised her of which roads to take or avoid.

Since I usually encourage any form of unconventional risk-taking, I spent about 24 hours thinking that maybe this was something I, too, should do before I get too old or tied down. First, I would have to buy a souped-up bicycle and a helmet. Then I would have to soup myself up, to get used to riding a bike for more than a few miles at a stretch. And then there would be the tragedy of having to go on leave from my job for at least a month.

But once I finally caught up on sleep, I remembered the last time I tried using my two legs to cross state lines by myself. When I tried walking from Northern Vermont to the Canadian border (in flip-flops), following what I thought was a clearly-marked trail map, I ended up on the front lawn of a house in a suburban residential neighborhood, much like the one I grew up in.

The blog postings about my own coast-to-coast bike romp would be heartbreaking. They would be all about losing my phone somewhere in Montana or getting dysfunctionally dehydrated on a dirt road in Durango, Colorado. I would have my first asthma attack in years and/or be bitten by a snake. All of the stories I’d get out of the experience would be at my extreme emotional and financial expense, and this is not a cause worth sacrificing myself for.

I dare not cycle cross-country – or cross-town – without a crisis-management-certified chaperone in close tow.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


This past week, I learned (via e-mail) that I’ve been awarded an Honorable Mention in a humor writing competition – and it was for the April 12, 2010 blog posting about my super, entitled Pandemics, Pigs, and Peasants. Although I was sent a “free, easy-to use publicity kit” that will allow me to “announce [my] achievement to [my] favorite news and entertainment media,” I didn’t win any money, and it looks like there were at least 22 people ahead of me – so I’ve essentially come in 23rd place. I just finished reading several of the higher-ranked essays, all of which I found about as humorous as how it felt to 3rd-degree burn my foot last year. And the judges thought every single one of those people was funnier than me.

For all I know, some kind of honorary acknowledgment label was bestowed upon every entrant. It’s probably just like the horseback riding camp I went to as a teenager where, at the end of the two weeks, each camper was presented with an (unlaminated) certificate that had a different arbitrary superlative scribbled onto it in barely-legible cursive handwriting – “Best Curry-Comb Groomer,” “Quickest Dismounter,” “Least Likely to Get Thrown.” My best friend walked away with the “Best Bather” award.

Nevertheless, an honorable mention is a welcome change of pace from all of the dishonorable ones I’ve managed to rack up over the course of my checkered past. You don’t hear enough about honor these days.

Most importantly, this online humor website has now (for a limited time only) published something of mine - to the left of a blue, “Honorable Mention” cyber-ribbon - so I can add this clip to my published writing portfolio (I think). Most creative writers spend years pulling 3-sentence rejection letters out of the mailbox, so I’ll take all the congratulations and atta-girls I can get – even the bullshit ones. Bullshit and I are old, dear friends who will grow old together.

I would like to honorably mention that I won’t let this tribute go to waste. This Awards Committee has created a monster - I’m taking my new publicity kit and running with it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Who Needs a JPEG?

I just had to send someone an electronic picture of me that will be used on a promotional flyer. I wasn’t able to deliver as quickly as most people might have been, as I still don’t own a digital camera and have never used the picture-taking feature on my (non-BlackBerry) cell phone. All of the digital photos I have are ones that people have e-mailed me from past get-togethers, and I had to go through a staggering number of them to find a few mugs that weren’t too silly or scandalous.

Believe it or not, after all of this, I’m now even less inclined to join the tech-savvy masses anytime soon. What do I want a digital camera for when nearly everyone I know has one? I don’t have kids or pets of my own to feverishly document. These e-albums from the parties, weddings, dinners, and reunions of yore are all I need, and I’m assuming there’ll be more to come. I had forgotten how many treasurable memories are in these e-mail–folder archives. I even found a candid shot of me from someone’s engagement party years ago that looks like it could come close to passing for a headshot. Since I was also thinner back then, this is one of the jpegs I’m now going to be peddling out for whoever wants a piece. As far as I’m concerned, it’s good enough for a future book jacket (or a memorial service program).

Sunday, October 10, 2010


On my last day of vacation, the day before yesterday, I sat on a ledge overlooking San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Condado Beach, with the intent of deepening my tan before heading to the airport. The sun didn’t come out that morning, but an overzealous tourist did. She slowly walked down the makeshift boardwalk toward me, having to use both of her hands to carry a paparazzi-style camera. I tried ignoring her, but she would have none of it. After snapping some photos of waves lapping against a bed of rocks, she sidled up to me and asked if I was meditating. In addition to that outrageous camera (and leading off with a question like that), she had a thick Southern accent and was dolled up in cabana wear. I knew I was stuck with a real talker.

After telling me all about the flight she had just taken from Charlotte (by way of Miami), she revealed that she was looking for fun things to do in the San Juan area. She asked if I lived there and could give her some recommendations.

I had been getting this all week, from all fronts. I’ve always been mistaken for Hispanic, but never to this extent. Everyone thought I was a native Puerto Rican or at least a native of some other, nearby Spanish-speaking island, including the joker who made himself comfortable at my sidewalk-café table one afternoon. Once I finally convinced him that I really don’t speak Spanish and am not one of his neighbors, he reluctantly switched to all broken English. At first, I thought he was offering to buy me a beer. But, instead, he was explaining why he thought I should buy him a beer.

Day after day, night after night, the tourists asked me for detailed walking directions and bus-route information. The locals thought I was one of theirs, and many of them cornered me to complain about the tourists, and to air other grievances that I couldn't decode. I’ve never wished I knew Spanish more in my life – I could tell by some of these people’s confessional tones, facial expressions, and emotionally-rendered gesticulations that they were giving me the down-low about something juicy, or at least hilarious, and I would have loved nothing more than to have actively taken part in the snarky griping.

In total, I know about 11 words of Spanish, almost all of which I learned from Maria and Luis on Sesame Street. All 11 of them came in handy on the streets of San Juan, and it became thrilling to utter them. I’ve been back in New York for about 48 hours, but not in spirit. At Starbucks this morning, I said gracias to the cashier who handed me my change. She loved it. Minutes later, I buenos dias’ed someone who smiled at me on the street. And she buenos dias’ed me right back. Why shouldn’t she have? It’s a beautiful language – so much better than English. I look forward to touching down in the Dominican Republic, and eventually Cuba (without having to go through a “3rd country”), in the near future, so now’s the time to start expanding my repertoire. At the very least, I need to be able to tell a few off-color jokes in Spanish by the time I pack for Santo Domingo.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

So Much Talking, So Little Walking

Yesterday morning I participated in a Health & Peace Walk in and around one of my neighborhood parks. October 2nd is Gandhi’s (and my brother’s) birthday, as well as the International Day of Non-Violence. I had a night of what was sure to be heavy eating and drinking ahead of me, thus it was in my best interests to get as much exercise as I could beforehand.

The event (tardily) kicked off with speeches from random local leaders of color. The formal, “non-competitive” walk itself couldn’t have been more than a mile, and it was excruciatingly slow-paced. I suppose it was physically healthier than sleeping in until noon or sprawling out on my couch drinking coffee and Googling people all morning, but this wasn’t my idea of exercise. I was at the head of the pack, desperately wanting to surge past the small cluster of people in front of me - but they were the crusade’s organizers and at least one foreign dignitary. I knew not to get mixed up with the politics of overtaking them.

At the end of the stroll, we all reconvened to sit in the middle of the park for a hella-nightmarish meditation session, led by a representative from the Art of Living Foundation. It went on forever, and if it hadn’t been Gandhi’s birthday, I might have snuck away and walked (this time, blissfully briskly) back home while everyone’s eyes were closed.

While my own eyes were closed, I kept hearing footsteps crunching around me on the weedy, ill-landscaped grass. I couldn’t tell if this was just an officious apprentice of our maharishi or someone trying to steal my wallet. When I opened one eye, I spied two men skulking around with professional video cameras (the same videographers who fiendishly documented the "walk" earlier in the day).

“As you breathe deeply, be mindful of your surroundings,” the Art of Living lady slowly murmured into her microphone. “Put your hands on your lap and be aware of your left arm, and your right arm, and listen to all the sounds and noises you hear.” At the time, the near-distant sounds and noises ranged from: “You son of a bitch, I said gimmee my money!” and “My nigga, don’t play me like that!” to horns honking and tires screeching. I didn’t want to be mindful of my surroundings, I wanted to find a way to successfully block them out. This drill was only reminding me where I was.

“Peacefulness is contagious,” we were later spiritually advised. “People are more likely to find themselves at peace when they’re in the presence of other peaceful people.” True that.

Peace or no peace, I like a good cardiovascular work-out. If I ever organize a group walk, it’s going to be a competitive one. It will start right on time, the complimentary Gatorade will not be lukewarm, and (most importantly) the locomotion will not be televised.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Have You Ever Seen a Really Pissed-Off German Shepherd?

The other morning, I witnessed one of those yappy, prancy, little kitten-sized dogs come close to being eaten alive by a German Shepherd.

I was on the Shepherd’s side – it had been completely minding its own business, as its owner walked it along on a leash. It was just another, run-of-the-mill stroll in the park for them - and for me - until an obscene, unleashed terrier (spottily attended by two snotty, let’s-take-up-the-whole-sidewalk, idle-housewives-seeming women, who reminded me of larger, gourmet-coffee-drinking incarnations of their microscopic dog - I sized them up as the types who would fork over thousands of dollars for the creation of a purebred, trophy dog instead of adopting one of the millions of homeless ones) ran over to quite antagonistically get right up in the Shepherd’s face.

The Shepherd went apeshit, flogging the terrier around with the sides of its bared-teeth open jaw. The high-volume snarling and barking had to have echoed for blocks. I know dogs, and if this Goliath wanted to make this dim-witted David disappear forever, it would have happened – s/he was just trying to teach Toto a memorable lesson. When class was over, the toy-soldier terrier finally managed to gimp away in full-on victim mode, self-righteously chirping and looking up to marshal support from all the gape-mouthed spectators.

That German Shepherd is exactly the kind of dog I want with me whenever I move into my little house in the big woods. The kind whose guiding instinct is: “Don’t you come at me and my beloved caretaker like that if you know what’s good for you, you silly punk.”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Voyaging for Vino

I can now say that I’ve been on a wine-tasting bus tour of the Hudson River Valley region – which was maybe one negligible step up from the last bus tour I’d been on (the Not Your Mama’s Bus Tour of Chicago).

Going into this day trip, I had pictured something low-key, peopled by stuffy, older married couples with sweaters wrapped around their shoulders who just saw this wine bus as an alternative to driving back to the city or Westchester after a day of upstate, upscale drinking. It turned out to be Spring Break on wheels, without the warm weather, swimsuit parades, or college-aged youths. Within the first hour of boarding, the hostesses went up and down the aisles, pouring mimosas into the passengers’ outreached plastic cups.

After we left the 1st winery on the itinerary, one of the hostesses came around with a microphone so each passenger could introduce herself/himself to the rest of the bus. The presentations went a little something like: “Hello, my name is Consuela. I’m Cuban-American and my hobbies include drinking and having a good time, and we’re here to celebrate Wanda’s birthday!” On cue, a group of fiftysomething Wanda-loving women, all wearing big, bright yellow flowers in their lapels, woot-wooted and put their hands up. Wanda would later get up to dance like no one was watching in the aisle.

A smug, Kangol-capped man of about the same age, who was there with an equally disagreeable (also capped) lady friend, smirkingly announced: “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings.” The whole cabin exploded into laughter. The way this particular drunk delivered (and the crowed received) the bit, you would think this joke (that’s now even printed on T-shirts) had been his brainchild.

Then there was that married couple whose 4 kids have supposedly driven them to the bottle(s) – a much weaker excuse for frequent substance use there could not be.

Immediately after pulling out of winery #2, the karaoke started up – everything from UB40’s “Red Red Wine” to Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” the harrowing lyrics of which I had never before really listened to or seen written out. Are they based on a true story or did Team Manilow dream this shit up? The unfazed party-bus patrons still belted out those rhymes as if this were a national anthem or a college fight song.

As we drove toward the 3rd and final winery, our black bus driver was pulled over by the Pine Bush P.D. for “running a red light.” The head hostess suggested that one of the bus’s passengers had tipped the cops off, via cell phone. An accusation that made no sense, but by this time everyone was either too buzzed or tired to raise a challenge.

On the rain-soaked, back-to-back-traffic drive down to the city that night, we watched The Hangover.

Earlier in the epic-long day, there was a brief, and largely inaudible, video on the genesis of winemaking that I doubt anyone paid any attention to. “This is a great History Channel documentary - you all should learn something during this trip,” a hostess said with a straight face. The only thing I learned is that there’s a boatload (and busload) of live-and-let-live, carpe diem-driven middle-agers in these parts. I’m now wondering if I have what it takes to become one of their successors in 20-25 years. Hope so.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It’s My Favorite Day of September, Again

Today is the birthday of one of my A-list friends – one of the only still-living people I would ever unflinchingly take a bullet for. This blog site was originally his idea.

The first time I ever stumbled upon him was in a computer cluster in the basement of our college campus’s main library, in the middle of the night. He was sitting a few monitors over, irritating the shit out of me with his loud imitations of the noises his computer was making. That same month, when our paths ended up crossing more frequently, it didn’t take me very long to graduate from glaring to caring.

He’s chock full of all the main qualities anyone would want in a friend: sense of humor; reliability; intelligence; reliability; the willingness and ability to both patiently listen and sensibly advise; reliability; a car. He’s seen and accepted me at my best and at my worst. There’s a lot we don’t agree about – religion, politics, music, how many spaces should appear between word-processed sentences. But I can always count on him to be present and accounted for both when the shit is thrashing against that fan and when it’s not.

He’s about to become a first-time father and I expect my latest surrogate niece or nephew to understand how lucky s/he is. If s/he doesn’t, Auntie Roving Retorter will be getting involved, taking her non-biological brother’s PR campaign up a notch.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What’s a Mural? Is It Similar to a Camel?

Does anyone know exactly where any of those big, colorful, semi-famed murals are located in Spanish Harlem? I’ve seen a couple of slideshows of them and was inspired enough to want to see them live. I brought some coffee with me and had been looking forward to sipping away while strolling from decadently decorative building wall to decadently decorative building wall. Trouble was that when I went over to the 106th and Lexington area (per the guidance of 2 different written sources), there was nothing there.

When I sought directions from an older and sure-footed neighborhood resident, she looked at me like I had just asked whether she could hand-feed me some of the groceries in the bags she was carrying. During our 3- to 5-minute Abbot and Costello routine of a dialogue, I had to repeatedly define what a mural was. The next person I accosted thought I was crazy, too. I even ended up approaching a group of cops (and anyone who knows me knows how I feel about cops) sitting in a van after they had just picked someone up. Out of all the parties I stopped, they were probably the most flabbergasted. “Murals?,” they all mused to themselves. The hand-cuffed man in the far-back seat looked like he wanted to get in on the question, but the driver/leader cop suddenly authoritatively directed me to 105th and 5th – which turned out to just be the Barrio Museum, which I’ve already been to and didn’t need at the time. It’s so hard to believe that a cop didn’t know what he was doing or talking about.

Unless some of those terrible establishment types have recently scrubbed them away, those murals have got to be there somewhere, and I’ll more extensively check back in if I ever get a free afternoon this autumn. But I can’t get over how many people who clearly live and work around there don’t know and appreciate the pieces of beautiful public art that (or so I read) they’re so privy to. I had almost been expecting the first person I asked for directions to broadly smile as she said: “Come. I will take you to our murals,” as she proudly ran down the history of the local resistance art movement. Instead, I walked back home through Central Park, visibly disillusioned, drinking my coffee on a bench across from a little boy who was trying to catch a fish in a man-made pond.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

I Forget How to Say “I Don’t Think This Is Going to Work” in French

I have a new aspiring suitor - who just barely speaks English. He picked me up outside of my/our neighborhood grocery store a couple of weeks ago. I first ran into him when he had been standing immediately in front of me in the check-out line. When I later exited the store, there were a couple of tied-up dogs waiting for their owner outside and I’ve never met an animal I didn’t want to pet.

While I was messing around with my mixed-breed darlings, the check-out line guy re-emerged out of nowhere - he suddenly appeared in front of me and asked why so many American women like to approach dogs that don’t belong to them. I’ve never been able to understand people who aren’t gaga over dogs and cats and, as we stood out in the rain, I explained why nothing beats the love and energy of household pets, whether they’re in or outside of a household at the time you happen to greet them.

What started off as my stirring monologue turned into quite a dialogue – the kind of conversation where you just seamlessly (but opinionatedly) segue from topic to unrelated topic, and then you happen to look at your watch to see that 20 minutes have passed. At the end of the banter, he asked whether we could get together sometime so I could help him with his English. In general, he was so decent that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to the effect of: “Hells no. You don’t pet dogs and I can only reliably piece together approximately 60% of what you say,” so I gave him my business card, thinking that he might accidentally drop it in one of the puddles that this light cloudburst was producing. But the next morning there was a large-fonted, two-sentence e-mail from him waiting in my inbox.

Excluding the language barrier and what sounds like his financial volatility, he has the faint makings of being a catch. He’s bright, good-looking, tech-savvy, and has boundless reserves of energy. But he’s not an animal-lover and I have a feeling that he doesn’t drink (and I can’t decide which of the two deficiencies is worse).

Last week, he touched base with my cell phone more times than is socially acceptable, especially considering that I wasn’t calling him back after each call. When I did finally return the string of outreaches, he was given the “I’m so damn busy” drill; he then understandingly reminded me that we still have to meet back up, at which point I brought out the “busy” card again. The next morning, he text-wished me a good day. There’s a tenacity about this fellow, suggesting that it could take weeks, possibly even months, for him to get the hint.

Tunneling myself out of this one should be a blast. He’s got potential – for someone. I’m on the prowl for a good match for him. Please hit me up at if you have any (French-speaking, New York- or New Jersey-based, indifferent-to-animals) leads.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Would I Get Locked Up for (Gently) Washing Someone Else’s Kid’s Mouth Out with Soap?

I just overheard a[nother] little boy say “fuck” – and he really said it like it was nothing. “What the fuck am I supposed to do about it?” he loudly wondered. I couldn’t make out most of his companion’s response, but it included a couple of his own contributions to the cursing. They looked to be about 8 or 9 years old. I think I was still regularly tuning into Sesame Street when I was 8 and 9 (that is, when my grandmother and I weren’t at the edges of our seats, watching Days of Our Lives).

Swearing children depress me – I’ve heard too much out of them. They seem to parade themselves in front of me wherever I go. I love to swear too, almost as much as I like to eat, drink, and go hiking. But I’m old, worldly, and unlucky enough to have faced irritations and monstrosities that are really worth swearing about. It’s a little chilling to keep coming across elementary-school-aged kids who act as if they’re in the same leaky, dollar-store boat as I am.

Although I’ve more than made up for it now, I didn’t even take up swearing until the very end of high school; and even then, I kept my bad words underground. In 5th grade, I heard my math teacher tell a classmate’s mother that she needed to get her son to stop using the “F-word.” I didn’t know what she meant. Since she was such a stern woman, for years afterward, I thought the “F-word” was “fun.”

I don’t want my future kids swearing while they’re still kids. I’ve seen what kinds of adults child-cursers can grow into, and they suck. To the full extent possible, my munchkins will be shielded from the sound and sight of foul language during their K-12 periods. The world has officially gone to shit (I mean, to a terrible place) when the K-12 period isn’t treated as something sacred.

Friday, August 20, 2010

This Is Not Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood (Oh, That It Were)

My next-door neighbor was just holding court in our shared hallway. I wasn’t in the hall with him, but I might as well have been. He likes it out there. For a while, he’s taken to treating that hallway as a place where he can peacefully smoke by the window or talk on the phone; lately, he’s been doing it more often. It’s almost like having a roommate; this floor of the building is our house. I’m now compelled to pull on more flesh-covering clothing when I head out into the hall to throw my trash out at night, just in case he’s futzing around out there, with or without a lit cigarette.

Earlier tonight he had a soft, impassioned, and lengthy hallway conversation with a woman who was not his wife. But not too soft because their insistent whispering eventually came close to interfering with my behind-closed-doors quiet time. They finally went back into his unit and now a big shouting match is underway between him and the wife herself. I’ve decided that the hallway woman was someone who had come over to mediate a grave dispute – or to try to, anyways. It sounds like it didn’t work.

This neighbor has always been beyond-the-call-of-duty nice to me. Over the course of our 3 years together, he’s offered to help me out of more than a couple of binds. He’s never remembered my name, so he always addresses me as “neighbor.” “Hi there neighbor,” he’ll say, somehow managing to make a term that’s technically so anonymous feel warm and welcoming. So how do I tell him I hate that he’s slowly turning our corridor into his lair? How do I know (especially now that I can hear what he’s like when he’s really pissed off about something) that he won’t misreact? Not only does he know precisely where I live - he’s also familiar with the step-by-step layout of my apartment, because he and the wife evidently once lived in my unit at one point in their past. Even if he doesn’t react violently or psychotically to a voiced complaint from me, what if his feelings get hurt? Who knows what kinds of cards he’s been dealt - those regular forays into the foyer could be the only joy he’s got.

He’s not alone. A few of the teenagers on our floor like to congregate in our level’s grimy stairwell every now and then. A lot of these middle- to lower-income, lifelong urban apartment dwellers are just so hard up for any extra space on their allotted premises. I don’t get how anyone could view that dark, cramped, dirty stairwell as some kind of tranquil oasis; or that narrow, barren hallway as a head-clearing retreat. But that’s only because I grew up with the luxury of unlimited breathing room. Whereas they don’t take things like a front yard, or a back yard, or a porch, or even just a few back-to-back spacious rooms of their own, for granted.

So, as long as they’re not really hurting anyone, why shouldn’t they be able to take whatever they can get?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Seizure of More Leisure

Today was another summer Friday off from work, and it’s been a superb one (again). When you’re used to the 9-to-5 office grind, there’s something liberating about being able to unhurriedly take care of errands and swing by a bookstore and the wine shop at 1:30 p.m. on a weekday, in between curbside chats with the neighborhood teenagers who walk, bike, or drive by. It seems like a lot of offices in NYC have some sort of official summer-hours schedule, and my heart goes out to the employees whose offices do not.

These temporary three-day weekends have done wonders for my mind and mood. I’ve been gifted with more time to sleep, read, write, cook, clean, return personal phone calls and e-mails, plan near-future vacations, take stock of things. On the traditional productivity front, this extra day off has allowed me to get more tasks done (and done more calmly and rationally, since I’m better-rested than usual) inside and outside of the office. At work, when I know that I only have 4 (instead of 5) days to get all my professional ducks in a row, I take the hour-to-hour workday more seriously – which is something I know (from both personal experience and published research findings) that many of today’s full-time office employees don’t consistently do.

But all good things sure do come to an end; “nothing is permanent” (Buddha). Today was my last summer-hours Friday of the year - but I’m not the only one who doesn’t think it should end here. At a recent conference I was sent to, a renowned sociologist promoted the notion of having a shorter work week (resurrecting an old FDR/New Deal-era idea), in the interest of building time wealth (while also lowering the unemployment numbers). She argued that reducing the number of weekly hours worked (i.e., changing the standard work week from 40 hours to 30 hours) will lead people to become more constructively innovative and creative as their time is freed up, for the greater good.

She’s onto something. I was once only marginally employed for about a year – and that was exactly when I finally started turning my attention to a number of different creative projects that I had been putting off for most of my adulthood. Going down this path is gradually changing my life for the much, much better, and I know I could have accomplished more with that extra free time on my hands if I hadn’t had to deal with the constant distraction of worrying about how and when my next paycheck would come. And this is just an illustrative snapshot of me and my designs – imagine the kind of output the significantly smarter and more talented people would be able to yield.

The U.S. has now become a country that’s packed to the gills with uncommonly brilliant people. I predict that this place will get even more functional, interesting, and bearable as soon as a greater number of them have more financially-secure quality time to freely and independently think and create. We’re probably not going to end up stumbling onto life-enhancing breakthroughs, like the cure for cancer, until they do.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When “How May I Help You?” Turns Into “How May I Harm You?”

Just in the past few weeks alone, I’ve dithered away so much time (work time, play time, what was meant to be nap time) on the phone with customer service representatives, airing my vividly-detailed grievances to anyone who will listen, from minions to managers. I’ve been telling my stories and pleading my cases to Chase Bank, a couple of different departments within Dell, Time Warner, some kind of a shifty and shiftless parent company (or maybe it’s a child company?) of Time Warner, the company that manufactures my paper shredder, a non-profit organization that owes (but has been trying to get out of sending) me a canvas bag as a special gift. The kicker is that so little (aside from that bag finally having arrived at my doorstep three nights ago, almost one year late) has come out of it. Every single call has resulted in my obligation to continue doing mad follow-up. Hardly anything has come close to being officially resolved and I’m at the point where I can’t even imagine these people being out of my life. And then I just tried to call someone to wish her a happy birthday but she didn’t answer and I couldn’t leave a message because her mailbox was full. Which I’m reacting to as another, lighter iteration of a frustrating customer service call. I feel like having a cigarette, and I don’t even really smoke. When did these institutional hotlines stop automatically serenading you with music when they put you on hold? I mean real down-time music. George Michael, Sade, old-school Madonna and Whitney Houston ballads, the Judds – stuff that will help take my mind off how disgusted I am with the underlying substance of the call. I don’t remember any of the places on my recent call-out list trying to move me with song while their reps treat themselves to long pauses from our semi-heated conversations to chuckle and roll their eyes about me to the person seated next to or across from them in [what I picture as] their very open, communal work space. During my waits, I’ve more memorably been stuck with a pre-recorded voice cheerfully offering to manipulate me with another company promotional arrangement. Despite the voice’s faux-enthusiasm, being talked at (without a meaningful opportunity to talk back) during these breaks is off-puttingly cold. At times like these, I just want to be sung to. I would write more but, dammit, there’s no time – I’ve got to get back on the phone with the Time Warner-ish place. I had been instructed to renew contact with them 7 to 10 days after my initial call, after they‘ve had a chance to roll the audio-tape of a phone conversation I had with them 2 months back, to confirm that I did not in fact request that my checking account be charged $10/month for a “Support Squad” that (as far as I know) has done nothing for me and that may or may not actually exist. Owning too many pieces of hyper-advanced technology has become a beast, a burden, and everything in between.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rooting for the Overdog

At the Cleveland Indians vs. New York Yankees game a few nights ago (in Cleveland’s stunningly comfortable and picturesque Progressive Field), something weird was happening. A critical mass of ticket-holders was pro-Yankees (and not shy about it). In and around our section, at the concession stands, in the bathrooms – it was a sea of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez shirts and jerseys. I thought I had successfully fled New York for a few days, yet here I was, in a cleaner, cheaper, and more civilized version of the Bronx.

What was all that about? When did supporting the home team become passé? This is the first regular-season sporting event I’ve been to where the away-team fans managed to almost really stick it to the home crowd. The delightful couple sitting next to us had trekked to Cleveland from Paterson, New Jersey for this game (and hopefully for something else, too), so they had a good excuse for their Yankee fanaticism. And there had to have been other New York-area natives or visitors in the mix. But what about all of the others who sided with the boys from out of town? Those “Here We Go, Yankees” and “De-rek Je-ter” crowd cheers were largely intoned with distinctly Midwestern twangs.

From what I’ve heard, the Cleveland Indians aren’t considered to be all that this year. Is that what drives this many locals to vociferously betray their own for another team that already has so much? The Indians seriously can’t be that bad if they only lost to the Yankees (last year’s World Series champs, featuring powerhouses like Rodriguez who’s just one big swing away from a history-making 600th homerun) by one run, and then beat the Yankees by three runs the following night; but they don’t currently have a Jeter or an A-Rod to boast of. In the coming seasons, if the Indians eventually become the hot team with a couple of major star players added to their starting lineup, will these Yankees-yodeling Clevelanders change chants? My money’s majorly on it.

Fair-weather fans can’t be trusted. What happens inside the gates of the ballpark doesn’t necessarily stay there – disloyalty is transferable as hell and could be coming to an arena near you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Revisiting the Rubric of Road Rage

There’s a fresh black-and-blue mark on one of my legs. I’ve had worse, but this one’s still pretty dark, deep, and disappointing. The kind of bruise people get after they’ve been beaten.

No doubt, I have been kicked and slapped around. But I don’t have just one abuser - I’m up against a whole town of them. It’s so much harder to fend off a hulking, densely-knit posse than just one, isolated aggressor.

One of the many urban legends about New York is that its people walk fast. Where in New York is this? Can I be taken there? Was this a pre-gentrification phenomenon? Because I’ve lived around and can attest that people in other cities can and do habitually walk faster. I would bet my tambourine that my best friend (who’s never lived outside of Northern Ohio) could easily out-walk any supposed fastest walker on the island of Manhattan.

I walk often, usually fast and furiously. Hardly anyone else in the New York metropolitan area seems interested in keeping up. I’m a helmetless American football player walking down these mean streets, with the scrapes and bruises to show for it – it’s like a scrimmage out there, darting around trying to get past and squeeze through. I must have gotten this latest war wound when I banged up against that heavy, steel guard railing as I melodramatically escaped a sidewalk traffic jam to walk alongside the cars and buses in the relative serenity of the street.

I’m not against the act of walking slowly – those keen on stopping and smelling the roses should go for it. I don’t want to interfere with someone else’s pace or space –but, in the name of reciprocity (among other principles), I don’t appreciate someone else interfering with mine. Please don’t force me to smell the roses with you, at the place and hour of your choosing. If you decide to walk slowly, you don’t belong in the main line of traffic. Step out of the way, move off to the fringes, let others do their thing.

The socially-unconcerned slow walkers are out-disgraced only by the erratic walkers. Here’s a public service announcement for this crowd: please glance around before coming to a sudden, inexplicable stop – that way, the person trying to respectably get through her day directly behind you won’t crash into you and the sharp buckle on your questionably authentic handbag. If you want to text or try to play Mafia Wars on your BlackBerry or thumb through the free newspaper they hand out in subway stations while you walk, do remove your ass from the main stream and at least occasionally keep your eyes on the road, instead of zigzagging your way through center court.

It’s not just the tourists who traipse about so mindlessly, although they’re chief contributors to the epidemic (as well as convenient scapegoats). The people who live here year-round are just as much to blame, if not more so, as you’d think they’d know better. I’m talking about the people who aren’t runway models, but they would like to be, and this is the only shot they’ve got. Sixth Avenue is the sole stage they’ll ever work and they cling to it. They pseudo-imperiously strut about, often ostentatiously dressed, solo or in small groups, blocking everything and everyone, looking around every now and then to confirm they’re being noticed. Their sashaying has gotten me late for meetings, appointments, and bachelorette parties. Slow walkers have made me narrowly miss trains, stop lights, elevators, and potential opportunities.

On an island this small, that’s filled with this many people, all forms of gridlock are inevitable. But there doesn’t have to be nearly this much of it. When you’re in a major city, during rush hour, on a street filled with office buildings, and there are a shitload of people to every side of you and not too much available physical space to play with, think of yourself as a car and the sidewalk as a high-stakes turnpike – walk defensively, not offensively. I beg of you.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Step Off, Gideons - Now and Ever Unto Ages of Ages

When I was in a hotel room over 4th of July weekend, I opened a bedside drawer looking for a local phone book, so I could check whether there was a T.J. Maxx anywhere nearby. I found the phone book, but that wasn’t all that was waiting, lurking, for me in there. I gasped as I stared down at the front cover of the Holy Bible.

What was it doing in there? I never asked for one. Taking out a room in a chain hotel is an inherently secular act. I come to these hotels to sleep and hopefully eat an unlimited complimentary continental breakfast – not to be “saved” via someone else’s markedly different interpretation of salvation.

Fourth of July weekend 2010 wasn’t the first time I’d been subjected to this. I vaguely remember being on a couple of childhood family vacations, idly messing around in our hotel room’s drawers, and stumbling upon the same scene. I let it roll off my back much more easily back then but, even as a child, I recognized the violation. I also remember being struck by the way these texts were just quietly snuck into the drawers – as if they know they’re doing something wrong.

Who is “they”? The masterminds behind this set-up are the Gideons International – a “nondenominational evangelical group run by businessmen.” My Google search revealed that they’ve been running this game since 1908. A 2008 article about them in the Knoxville News Sentinel reports that: “The group only allows for evangelical business and professional men to hand out Scripture to its targeted groups, although Gideons allow their wives to hand out Scripture as well in health care settings and in prisons for women.” These are the people who are supposed to be my saviors?

How and why is the hotel industry getting away with this? It’s just because they don’t get any public funding? Even if they’re playing the privatization card, what compels them to continue lying down and taking it? What’s in it for Best Western – are they getting paid to submit? There’s really not one progressive, independent thinker at the helm of any of these hotels/motels?

Know this: the Gideon cabal wouldn’t be able to pull any similar fast ones on me. If one of these businessmen asked me to post a psalm on this blog (or would they dispatch one of their wives for such a gig, since it’s a female-owned site?), they’d be kindly dismissed, and none of their prayers to get me to change my mind would ever fly. I wouldn’t care if all of the other bloggers were doing it.

Percentage-wise, how many guests curl up with these drawer Bibles during their stays? Wouldn’t the really hard-core Christians bring their own? Or shouldn’t they have the bulk of the Good Book’s content internalized by now? Or is it that these Gideons are just praying (or preying) upon the uber-vulnerable heathens who are passing through these rooms? Are these emotionally at-risk people one of their pet “targeted groups”? I think and care about these “lost” populations, too – namely, within the context of improving some of the social conditions that have contributed to their straits. I might publicly air my views on the way I think this world should be, but I don’t know that I would ever resort to rank, guerilla proselytization.

There’s some hope for me and my kind, as I’ve also learned (thanks, Google! You’re the one that keeps saving me) that it’s possible to request a Bible-free room. I’m all over it. It’s now going to be all: “Hi Best Western, please hook me up with a king-sized bed and some religious freedom.”

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Word from the Front

Every summer, the Public Theater of NYC puts on 2 free plays in Central Park’s glorious, outdoor Delacorte Theater, as part of the Shakespeare in the Park extravaganza. Scoring the tickets can be a bitch – but one that’s always worth it.

This past weekend, I was seated in the front row for The Merchant of Venice, featuring Al Pacino and Jesse Martin. In my long history as a patron of the arts, this was the first time I’ve ever sat in the front row for anything. It’s nice up there. I felt like I owned the place. I could (and did) do leg lifts, there were no giants sitting in front of me to contend with, and I could see the saliva spray out of the actors’ mouths as they emphatically intoned their way through this literary classic. In other words, the front row is where it’s at and, the next time I walk into a theater or auditorium or baseball game, it’s anyone’s guess how I’ll be able to ungrudgingly park myself elsewhere. It’ll be just like when I used to get unexpectedly upgraded to first class when I flew home for holidays in college – and then, a few days later, they would send me back to coach for the return trip back to school. Once you’ve been bumped up, the bump back down has a way of becoming the more memorable of the two experiences.

Anyways, back to the good stuff: while I was up there, Pacino and I locked eyes more than once. I wanted Martin to follow suit, but he was in the zone (big time) and I couldn’t will those eyes of his to wander.

The last time I was in this very theater, I was literally sitting in the last row of the joint, with my back to the uppermost wall. The official weather conditions were about the same as this time around (and I was wearing the same amount of layering) – only last time, I was shivering the whole night. No shivers this time - I was comfortable from start to finish. It must have been the heat from all of those nearby stage lights.

That last, back-row experience in the Delacorte was in 2006. Back then, I was living a no-good, back-row kind of life, squinting at all that was decent from way out in the nosebleed section. I was going through a particularly rough spell of decline and defeat, and most of my attempts to turn things around didn’t work. My permanent address was shaping up to be a foul (but reliable) little place called up shit’s creek. It’s not easy to read some of my personal journal entries from that era.

Now it’s 4 years later, and I’ve advanced to the front line - in more ways than one. My life doesn’t suck nearly as much as it did back in that day. I’ve been methodically taking care of business in such a force-to-be-reckoned-with manner that the notion of invincibility no longer strikes me as all that unthinkable.

Methinks this choo-choo train is finally chugging down the right track.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Seniority Rules

At one of my nearest and dearest’s baby shower last weekend, I hung out with a 93-year-old Ontario resident who doesn’t look a day over 74. She’s eloquent, exceptionally beautiful (clearly without any artificial intervention), and of unquestionably sounder mind than I am. (It should be noted that she also has exquisite posture.)

There’s nothing like the elderly. I mix well with and instinctively flock toward them - especially the old women. It might have something to do with the idyllic childhood bonds I forged with my grandmother and a great-aunt; it could be that the hardship I’ve already faced has led me to identify more readily with those who have lived twice or thrice as long as I have; or maybe, back at the outset, I was just naturally implanted with an old soul. All’s I know is that I want to align myself with the oldest souls I can find. Whenever one of my friends has a wedding or some other multigenerationally-attended milestone gathering, you can count on me to ignore the people in my crowd and head straight for the grandmothers – and it’s with them I’ll usually prefer to stay for the duration of the event. That’s where the real conversation and insight tends to be. Too many insight-free conversations aren’t good for you.

As far as I’m concerned, elderly women = safety. I become more free around them. The guard comes down because they get me, or at least make me feel as though they do. I view even the very high-strung ones as agents of calm. They’ve beaten any raging insecurity they once had into the ground, and what’s left is a brand of self-comfort and a lack of self-consciousness that’s re-hydrating – and in the desert I constantly find myself slogging through, I’ll take all the water I can get. It’s too bad and too weird that this country’s culture so often chooses to marginalize (instead of magnify) the senior league.

As I continue along the ongoing coming-of-age pipeline, I’m already looking forward to giving back and mentoring any of my junior journeywomen who care to listen. They better get ready - I’m in merely the early stages of building what damn sure promises to be a well-stocked wisdom arsenal. The wisdom-cobbling process hasn’t been a joyride. What helps is that I’m continually inspired and influenced by the counsel of and the example set by a lot of glimmering golden girls who help make my ride a little smoother.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Can I Get Some Popcorn to Go with These Shows?

For reasons I shan’t get into right here or right now, I’ve been bamboozled into buying cable TV. As an adult, I haven’t been much of a TV watcher. In fact, I’ve all but shunned the practice. So cable has never felt like a valid addition to my bulging budget. But it’s suddenly become an official part of my household (although it took Time Warner long enough to send someone over to finally seal the deal).

Last Saturday morning, my Time Warner installation maven finished puttering around my apartment a little before 11 a.m. I had alot of grocery shopping and errand running to take care of but right after Time Warner finally took off, I curiously flipped through my new stations with the help of the intimidatingly more complicated remote control that had just been passed off onto me. At 11:33 a.m., I was right about to turn it all off and head out the door – until I stumbled onto the TV-guide listing and was like: “Oh my God, the Real Housewives of New York City is coming on at noon – and, oh shit, it’s the one where Jill and Bethenny meet up for lunch to discuss their failed friendship!”

Even though I haven’t clocked as many TV-viewing hours as most people in this country, I know alot about what the kids are watching via my friends and various print-based publications such as Newsweek. I can’t remember at whose house I was when I first came across this Housewives series – all I remember is how good it felt. I most recently caught a pivotal NYC Housewives episode in a hotel room, while on a brief Memorial-Day-weekend vacation. Thus, I was trembling with delight at the prospect of being less than 30 minutes away from my next sure-to-be-fascinating brush with this charmingly flawed troupe of Upper East Side provocateurs.

The only niggling problem was the groceries matter – there was hardly any solid food left in my home at the time and I was starting to feel hunger pangs. But Housewives was coming on in T-minus 20 minutes and I doubted I could make it to the store and back by go-time. And I saw that this 12 p.m. airing would be immediately followed by Part I of the three-part Housewives reunion special – so it was a given that I’d be in the throes of Bravoland for a full two hours. I leaned back into my couch and resigned myself to wait it out and just enjoy the show. Then I was like: “Man, imagine how much better the viewing would be if I had a wide range of satisfying snacks at my beck and call.” As if on cue, my stomach started growling and I began to feel faint. That settled it. I grabbed my wallet and ran out the door. I will not starve myself for Bravo.

But I will, evidently, fly into a frantic fit for Bravo. I hate Races Against Time – they can spawn so much bad energy. After trotting the 5 blocks to the grocery store, snubbing neighbors and dashing in front of oncoming buses along the way, I manically zoomed up and down the frustratingly crowded aisles, grabbing bags and boxes off the shelves and fruits and vegetables out of bins, cradling everything in my arms, underneath my armpits, and in between my right cheek and shoulder. When I got to the check-out area, there were a number of people milling around in front of me with unclear intentions/absolutely no direction. Exorcising the native Midwesterner out of me, I pushed past all of them to insert myself at the head of the line. I helped my slow-moving, well-meaning cashier with the bagging process, encouraging her to follow my lead and just throw everything in wherever it would fit. Afterwards, I tried to haul ass back home before High Noon, but I was seven minutes late for mini-marathon episode #1, and it seemed like I had missed the meat of Jill and Bethenny’s emotional tete-a-tete. But Bravo likes to constantly re-air this shit – which now makes me question what the earlier tizzy was all for.

I had been under the impression that I was above these kinds of impulses when it came to something like a television reality show. But it looks like Time Warner has made a fool out of me and I’m not as high-rent as I thought. It was relaxing to spend two hours with these back-to-back segments. It gave my over-taxed mind a little rest, and watching these petty socialites in action made me re-appreciate the long-term importance of distinguishing between authentic friends vs. the more surface-level relationships we all have. As the Housewives are re-teaching me, the surface-level people won’t ever really get you through the night.

I’m very critical of contemporary pop culture and the entertainment industry. But in order to most effectively and responsibly criticize something, it’s best to know exactly what you’re bitching about, to the full extent possible. So thanks, Time Warner, for foisting this costly service more squarely into my purview and for potentially providing me with more pointed padding to my material and retorts. It’s you who very well might make a better, more well-rounded judgment-passer and writer out of me.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fervently Favoring Fela

Something grand happened the other night – I got to see Fela! on Broadway. Ever since The Lion King, I’ve been completely turned off to the idea of the Great White Way ever re-taking up any representation of Africa. But Fela! completely exceeded my expectations. I was annoyed when it ended and am already jonesing to see it again. Even my dad liked it, and he’s someone who’s even less easily impressed than I am.

There’s so much unmemorable, unoriginal crap on and off Broadway these days, so it was nice to be reminded of what going to the theater in a cultural epicenter like New York was meant (I’m assuming) to be. Everything in Fela! was so top-shelf – the acting, the music, the dancing, the message. The whole experience renewed my already sky-high African pride as well as my lifelong conviction that the arts are central to the propagation of any legitimate civilization. Hell, I might even watch the Tony Awards this year (or, rather, keep it on in the background for a couple of hours), just for Fela!-rooting purposes (it’s nominated for 11 Tonys, including Best Musical).

For those of you who live in NYC, but hardly ever go to shows – budget the time and the funds for this one. And really plan on getting into it once you’re there. For those of you who will be passing through NYC anytime soon, even if it’s just for a couple of days on business, here’s something worthwhile to do during your off-time. (Don’t wait for it to come to your city via a national touring company – there’s no way it’s going to be as good as with this original, Broadway-based cast.)

If I ever have a son, I’m now thinking of naming him Fela. I can’t remember what they said it means, but it was something good. I also might sign up for African dance classes this fall, instead of opting for the long-postponed tap dancing lessons toward which I’ve been tentatively earmarking my dolla bills.

The only displeasure was the temperature in the theater. I don’t know if it was just that the AC was down that particular night – or if they were deliberately trying to recreate the on-the-ground conditions of a 1970s Lagos nightclub (or of Nigeria, in general). No, I don’t care so much about the rationale, I’m only interested in the results – which were that I was sweating almost as much as the constantly-moving members of the ensemble cast. There were two times when my view of the stage became obstructed by a person in front of me aggressively fanning herself with her playbill.

Yet the feat was worth the heat, and my buzz still hasn’t worn off.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Whither My Charmed Life?

I was recently riding up in an elevator with a group of likably rowdy teenagers (the kind of teens that make you remember the incomparably exhilarating aspects of the puberty years instead of the really creepy ones). One of them suddenly noticed that the clock had just struck 11:11. “It’s 11:11 – everyone make a wish,” she instructed. When asked to explain herself, she reported that 11:11 is a lucky time of the day, prime for wishing, hoping, and dreaming.

I later took this information straight to Google, and her story checked out. 11:11 is supposed to be pretty golden.

I’m all shook up because I was born at 11:11 a.m. This has to mean something earth-shattering. I should get to be a witch or have other dormant special powers. And you’d think I’d at least have the lock on luck, birthright-wise.

So when is this luck going to kick in? Other than a Starbucks gift card that I won in a raffle last year, nothing even close to pure, traditional luck has ever graced me with its presence. I’ve only bled, sweat, and teared for everything I wanted. But ever since I learned that I actually belong to this VIP caste, I’ve been paying much more attention to digital clocks and wishing it up, come 11:11. I wish big, I wish small – and nothing’s happening. It’s still like it’s always been. A few 11:11s ago, I wished that I would stop spilling things on my light-colored clothes. Two nights later, I spilled more red wine on another white shirt. Which could be my cue to start upgrading to gin.

I guess I’ll still keep at it for the time being. This kind of regular, organized wishing can’t hurt. But it always feels like it’s 11:12 and I’ve just missed the boat.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Mountains of Green (and Not the Bling Kind)

I'm in Vermont right now. And Vermont's in me. Ever since I got here, it's been all skipping and smiling. This is the first time I've been in the state of Vermont since childhood - and it's just the way I left it. I dig being surrounded by the decent people - I want to smuggle one of them back to the city with me.

This has been a negativity-free trip, aside from the bumblebee that ruthlessly antagonized me for a good 15 minutes during a 4-hour hike earlier today. Mofo spent so much quality time in my hair that he may have planted some of his seeds in there. And then one of his blood-sucking brethren took a bite out of my left arm - twice.

In better news, I liked the inspirational, life-validating conversation I had with a jewelry-maker/semi-precious-stone metaphysicist. She's another unapologetic member of the free-spirit world.

There's so much medicinally lush and open space up here. It's good for the head. Physical space yields emotional space. Which is why such a disturbing number of New Yorkers are perennially out of their gourds, vacillating between hysteria and melancholia. It's not healthy to be crammed up against each other, in grime-tainted air, for years on end. Spending huge sums of disposable income on therapists and/or bottles or baggies full of toxins is just settling for a Band-Aid instead of the Big Picture.

I'm just about ready to buy myself a bicycle and some cross-country skis, and upwardly move. All I really need is the water, the mountains, and the cold. I would complain so much less up here (at least I'm pretty sure I would)....

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Benchwarmer of My Dreams

As many members of my social orbit already know, I have a longstanding crush on a homeless man. I usually cross his path twice a day, most days each week. He’s devastatingly handsome and has a varsity athlete’s physique. At times, he looks slightly preppy or bohemian-chic. So much so that when I first saw him, I didn’t realize he was homeless – I thought he was just resting. He was serenely sitting on a bench, with his bicycle and oversized knapsack propped up close-by. I initially took his bag of bottles and cans for a progressively-minded recycling effort.

I don’t know this hottie’s name, but he looks like a “Hal.” I can tell that he likes me too, but we’re both still sane enough to understand that the two of us could never work out. Nonetheless, I’ll always remember the night he slowly rode his bike alongside me for a couple of blocks as we joked around about our days and the weather conditions, giggling; and the genuine concern he displayed the day I told him that I had recently been hit by somebody else’s bike.

He’s such a loner. Whenever a small band of tourists comes into and sticks around his area for too long, he usually goes for a little walk, presumably staying away until they’ve left. I once saw another homeless fellow (a real crazy-acting motherfucker) plop down on a neighboring bench. At which point, Hal (with a nobly put-out expression on his proud, cherubic face) summarily picked up all of his shit and booked it straight out of there. Which is totally something I would do.

For a homeless person, his grooming is impeccable. He clearly has somewhere to go (a shelter or the like) where he semi-regularly showers and shaves and changes his clothes. But he doesn’t stay there for long. In the dead of winter, he’ll be pensively sitting out in the post-blizzard snow. Or lying sound asleep, stretched out on a bench, beneath one or two ratty comforters, trusting passersby to not abscond with his bike or plastic bags full of glass and aluminum. I’ve often wondered why, especially in the bitter cold, he chooses to stay outside so often. I bet it’s at least partially because of the way he looks. I’ve heard that homeless shelters aren’t the safest of places and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that young pretty boys face the same lot in there as they do in the general prison population.

I don’t know anything about his educational or professional background; but, as a default plan, he could be a formidable catalog model if he just caught a break. I see him working it for J. Crew. Or L.L. Bean or REI, since he’s such an outdoors enthusiast. I’ve thought about snapping a candid shot of him with my CVS-brand disposable camera and sending it to one of these retailers. But would he have to move to Maine or a state of its ilk? Would he want to? Would all of his relocation expenses be covered?

A lot of the homeless men in NYC are first-rate assholes. Especially the homeless men of color who interact with non-homeless women of color - the men in this abuse-inflicting subset seem to be under the impression that we have an especial obligation to take care of them and empty out our wallets every time we come across their roosts. I’m not sure where they got that idea, but I don’t think much of it. I’ve contributed some of my pocket change to more than a few of them – and, in response, several have all but scoffed that it simply wasn’t enough. Hal doesn’t behave like this. Always respectfully unassuming, he’s never once asked me for money (or for anything else).

The point worth driving home is how ordinary he looks and acts. He’s attractive and articulate and self-possessed and comes off as eminently well-raised. It’s like dealing with someone I would have gone to school with. Maybe it’s all a façade and he’s out on the streets because he’s a bad guy who’s betrayed his loved ones via too many drugs or raging psychopathology or something worse. But maybe it’s his loved ones who have betrayed him. Maybe his immediate family members are dead, his relatives unaccounted for, and his once-supposed close friends have all sold him out.

Maybe none of us are quite as immune from rock-bottom as we may wishfully think.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

To Mind My Own, or Not to Mind My Own

I was strolling along the other day, daydreaming about how much better life’s going to be once I finally pick up and move into the mountains. Right when I was particularly lost in thought about whether I’m better suited for a small cottage or a bona fide log cabin, I was interrupted by some commotion up ahead. (This is precisely why I belong in the mountains or some kind of wooded area - I’m so over commotion, and there’s way too much of it outside of the woods.)

This time, it was a domestic spat, exported from the indoor arena and landing onto an extremely public sidewalk — the very sidewalk I needed to walk down in order to buy my big bags of drug-store candy. A young couple had reached a major ideological impasse. After having hysterically screamed at the top of her lungs for a long bit, the woman grabbed her man’s BlackBerry and hurled it against a neighboring brick wall with the aim and focused intensity of a former state-ranked fast-pitch softball star. The look on his face, as we all watched the device explode into several different pieces, was unforgettable.

I quickly walked by them, avoiding eye contact. Moments after I passed, there was more yelling from each of them and I soon heard the distinct sound of an open hand swiftly and repeatedly slapping against bare human flesh. “You’re going to hit me again, even in public?!” she yelled. A few other people ambled out of the surrounding buildings to stand watch. One of the onlookers revealed how much he wished he had a camera.

I’m the type who would normally (somehow) intervene in a situation like this – and probably get into a fair amount of trouble for it. But I’ve recently launched a self-enhancement campaign, whereby I’m studiously training myself to become less impulsively mouthy, just to see where the shutting up and staying out of others’ affairs will get me. So far, I’m hating this new me and I don’t know how much longer this imposter act can go on. Ten minutes after having passed this couple, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I should have said or done something. I should have offered to help her. It was so unlike me not to have acted; and it always feels uncomfortable to venture out of character. I remembered sitting in one of my college psychology classes and learning about the Kitty Genovese tragedy — in the 1960s, a Queens, NY woman was brutally stabbed outside of her home. She screamed out for help for the better part of an hour. And a lot of people apparently either heard or saw her. But nobody ended up doing anything in response, largely because they assumed that somebody else would and/or they didn’t want to get involved. So then Kitty died that night.

After about 15 minutes of this on my already heavy conscience, I turned around and retraced my steps, heading back in their direction. Fuck my pledge to mind my own business more often. I was going to kick this guy’s ass. Fling some of my bottled water at the both of them. Call 911. Whatever it took to diffuse.

When I reached the corner where I had left them, they were still there. But things had changed. There were no bystanders milling around and there was no more yelling. The woman was leaning against a parked car calmly talking to the man; and he was patiently listening to her, earnestly nodding his head and asking what she would like him to do about something from now on.

I guess I’m glad I stayed quiet. But I’m not innocent enough to think that there’s not going to be another, much worse, noisy flare-up at some point in this couple’s future — this time behind closed doors. And when that happens, I hope at least one person on the other side of the wall decides to pick up the phone and take a loud-mouthed risk.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Crash of 2010

My computer crashed circa two weeks ago. It chose quite a quitting time. I was just about to fire off a furious, pre-bedtime condemnation (of someone I can’t stand who had just pissed me off earlier that day) in my very personal journal. Midway through sentence #2, all of my system’s programs shut down, which was followed by an infernal beeping sound every time I tried to turn the machine back on. I had to finish composing my latest statement of disapproval by hand on some nearby scratch paper - which wasn’t the same.

This computer (the Dell from Hell) had always been a weakling and it started acting up with a particular vengeance a few months ago, so I figured the end was near. But I thought I had at least another six months or so. For weeks, it had suddenly been performing beautifully – better than ever. This is supposed to be the M.O. of many suicides – they tend to be on their best behavior and outwardly show signs of improvement right before they know they’re about to take their final bow.

When most people’s computers crash, there are sob/horror stories about losing files and years of work. No stranger to worst-case scenarios, I always back up my material. So the only real hardship that came with not having a home computer for a couple of weeks was dealing with Fed Ex.

I ordered a new computer soon after the crash and Fed Ex initially attempted to deliver it in the middle of a work day when I wasn’t home. I don’t have a doorman and the only reason I would ever want one is for situations like these. I called Fed Ex to schedule a later-in-the-day time frame for the next delivery attempt (and they assured me that this could easily be arranged and readily honored). Long story short, Fed Ex spent the next two days continuing to show up during business hours, culminating in the package being sent to and stored at a facility in Brooklyn.

(Please see my last posting about why I didn’t leave a note on my building’s front door, asking Fed Ex to leave the package with my Super. This guy has already lost my spare apartment key and one of my spare mailbox keys. I wasn’t taking any chances of my valuables entering into his temporary custody.)

A couple of days later, I took the subway out to the Fed Ex Ground Center in Brooklyn. It was pouring rain, as it usually is whenever I have something important to do on the outside that I can’t get out of. The person on the phone told me that this outfit was located in the Williamsburg neighborhood. But this wasn’t Williamsburg – not the Williamsburg I know. Just the subway stop was in Williamsburg. This was the kind of place that just had an address – not a neighborhood.

The person on the phone had also persuasively told me that this center wasn’t that long of a walk from the subway stop. When I exited the train station, I asked someone where the Fed Ex center was. He pointed out which direction I should head toward. “You’re going to walk?” he asked, in a tone I hadn’t been expecting. What choice did I have? I had given my limo driver the evening off and there wasn’t a cab in sight.

I’ve never trekked out to visit someone in a medium-security prison complex before, but that’s a little what the walk to Fed Ex felt like. Guarded like an inner-city high school, this was no post office, and I soon understood why there were no cabs around. After I was let in, they all looked at me as if I was the only non-Fed Ex employee to have ever entered the building.

While I waited for one of the wardens to bring me my box, I busied myself with some of the literature on their walls. My favorite poster read something like: “Fed Ex Ground Won’t Put Up with Thieves (small print: whether it’s a pair of shoes or a computer system, stealing is forbidden)”. There was an action shot of one thief who hadn’t been put up with being handcuffed and slowly led away, probably to one of the back rooms of this very facility. I liked knowing that my computer’s safety had been taken seriously wherever they were bringing it out from. They even expertly wrapped my box in a jumbo plastic bag to protect it from the rain on the walk back to Williamsburg.

My new Dell is a doll. The honeymoon period is well underway. Now the post-roving retorts can comfortably resume.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Pandemics, Pigs, and Peasants

My Super — ain’t nothin’ super about him. Never mind, yes there is. There’s the super-tardiness and the super-tawdriness. The super-incompetence. The super-chicanery. And I’m long past super-outraged. Whenever I run into this guy on the street and I unsmilingly remind him of the outstanding repairs that are waiting for him in my apartment, he’s all glibness and grins. “OK, mami — you got it,” he likes to say. And then he still won’t do it. When I first moved in, I showed him about 3 sets of urgent repairs he needed to make. With gaping eyes and melodramatic sighs, he said he’d come back the next morning. I thought he meant he was going to come back to physically make the repairs. But the next morning he showed up with a representative from the Bronx-based landlord’s office. I have every reason to believe that he described me to her as a demanding little bully and solicited her escort services with the expectation that she would fiercely put me in my place. Let’s just say his plan backfired. This Super isn’t used to me or my kind. About half the people in the building have lived there for at least a decade and have some kind of rent-stabilized arrangement. By and large, they’re the agreeable, non-confrontational types who are grateful for whatever they have and go through life with the attitude that the world owes them nothing. Whereas I’m nothing like that. Superman picked up on this very early on in my tenancy. I make him work and he resents it. Which is too bad (for him)— I spend way too much of my hard-earned money to live in my mediocre building and, as far as he’s concerned, I don’t want to hear it. I like the Super’s son who once lived with him. He was a pleasant and hard-working young man/old boy who could have been anywhere between 16 and 35 years old. I never heard him say anything bright, interesting, or 100% coherent — but he always struck me as an undiscovered working-class poet. He oozes soul. But he recently moved to Texas and he took his soul with him. So now it’s just me and his awesome dad. The other day, I had another repair (involving my bathroom sink) that needed to be made. The landlord’s office told me the Super would come by between 7 and 8 o’clock that night. I rushed home from work so I wouldn’t miss him. By 7:40, I was hit with an unshakable feeling that I was en route to being stood up. I continued to semi-patiently wait, flipping through the Spring 2010 issue of World Ark magazine (“the magazine of Heifer International”) that had just arrived in the mail, the cover of which featured a full-page photo of a self-assured-seeming middle-aged woman clutching a live goat to her bosom. A few years ago, I became a card-carrying member of a national feminist organization. As a result, I’ve been unwittingly placed on the mailing lists of about a dozen obscure left-wing organizations. I didn’t mind this Heifer publication. Especially after having a few drinks. One of the articles I skimmed was entitled: “Pandemics, Pigs, and Peasants.” There are worse ways I could have killed my time. At 8:01, there was a knock at my door. I jumped up, raring to go. Much to my amazement, it wasn’t at all who I thought it was going to be. It was a young woman carrying a clipboard. She was from NYC Communities for Change and was going door to door in support of several NYC public schools that Governor Paterson was trying to shut down. I consider David Paterson to be right on par with my Super. Eager to go on record as denouncing him, I signed her petition and gave her $5 for the cause. While I was signing, I casually told her that I had thought she was going to be my Super. “Is your Super black?” she asked. I told her he wasn’t. “Oh,” she said, “because I just saw a black guy on this floor and he looked like he could have been a Super.” Still can’t believe she said that. Particularly since she herself was black. And a member of an organization that called itself NYC Communities for Change. At 8:15, it became clear that my non-black Super wasn’t going to come up on his own. So I went down to go get him. He answered the door wearing his trademark wife-beater shirt and talking on a cordless phone. “Hi mami,” he said. “Give me 5 minutes.” Fifteen minutes later, he arrived and lackadaisically surveyed my faucet situation. He went back down to his miniature urban workshop to retrieve another piece or a tool he needed. He didn’t end up actually getting down to business until after 9 p.m. I don’t like having strange men in my home at this hour of the night — and he was as strange as they come. His prompt and humble son would never ever have pulled a stunt like this. (Rumor has it that the Super who came before this guy wasn’t that much better. In fact, he got himself fired after the landlord’s office learned that he had been organizing regular cock fights in the building’s basement.) This isn’t the first shady, shitty Super I’ve ever had in this city. And many of my friends who have lived in NYC have had similar experiences. What’s the hiring process for non-swanky NYC residential building Supers? It’s gotta be something like the first person who walks through the door (and has a working knowledge of how to use a screwdriver) gets the big gig. Perhaps the good people of Heifer International would be interested in this gripping human-interest story. I’ve got a few heart-wrenching tales of pandemics, pigs, and peasants of my own.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Basic Training, Here I Come — Although My Stay Promises To Be Brief (and Memorable)

I was once a semi-serious distance runner. Nothing at the marathon level, but I could (and regularly did) comfortably run about 8 miles at a time. I used to look forward to it beforehand and feel incomparably empowered during and immediately afterwards. There was one year in my past when the running was all I really had going for me.

Then it rained on one of the days I was planning to hit the trail, so I didn’t go. The next week, I was too tired. The next week, I had people in town and I convinced myself (beyond a seemingly reasonable doubt) that I couldn’t be an absentee hostess - so the running shoes stayed in the closet. The next week I got my period. The next week I had a headache.

After about 2 years of these brilliant excuses, I’ve recently pulled the running shoes out from the back of the closet and back onto my feet. I’m not in the same kind of shape I once was, so my old ways and means have been taken down a few notches. But, once a week, I’ve been purposefully running 3 miles around the track in my neighborhood park.

The other day I was back in business, cruising along. When I was on my 8th or 9th lap, I heard some yelling interspersed with loud singing (a halfway decent rendition of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”) coming from across the way. The source of the commotion was a down-and-out-looking woman, stumbling across the field that was in the middle of the track. We fist-bumped each other when I ran by her for the first time. “You go, girl,” she said with a solemn conviction.

Every time I approached her side of the track, she leapt up from her bench and enthusiastically clapped, while shouting out a stream of encouraging comments. The second time I passed her station, it got better: “Great job. You could have been in the Marines, like I was.” I started laughing. “No, I’m serious,” she fervently maintained.

This Marines thing pleased me. I don’t know if she could have said anything more flattering than that. Not that I have any interest in enlisting – my attitude and I wouldn’t last an hour in the military. And at the end of that hour, it would be a dishonorable discharge for the books. But there I was, privately feeling like a loser because all I can handle anymore is 3 miles on a flat, boring track instead of the 6-mile, hilly, and challenging path around Central Park that I used to dominate – and I’ve got the best sidelines fan on the planet insisting that I’m all warrior, nothing but. Flo Jo never had it so good.

“That’s a lot of laps,” she kept saying, with a genuinely amazed expression on her face. “Really, it’s been a lot. I’ve been watching you.” Was she kidding? From where had she been watching, and for how long? She only formally entered this section of the park not even 5 minutes earlier, when I had already been running for about 20 minutes.

In spite of the beautiful compliments, I nearly sprinted the final few laps, just so I could finish my 3 miles and get the hell away from her and whatever she might have been capable of doing as soon as possible. Although she repeatedly told me that she “had [my] back,” I wasn’t going to count on it. For all I knew, she was suddenly going to whip out a paring knife and show me the really dark side of Marines hazing culture – the kind of stuff that the Defense Department and even the alternative media are blissfully ignorant of. She was also toting around a kickball – an object I hadn’t seen up close since my miserable 8th grade gym class. At one point, she implied that the two of us should strike up a game.

At first I was thoroughly annoyed with her, then a little scared, and then more than a little appreciative. She was clearly unbalanced and probably laced up on some seriously illicit shit. But so are a lot of people who loiter on public benches in this town. And she chose to yell out words of kindness and support instead of the vitriol or lewdness that many others in her straits have been known to spew. She made me feel as though I was accomplishing something. Which I was. I’ve been away from running for more than 2 years, and getting back into this high-intensity routine is a struggle that’s not nearly as easy as getting back onto a bike.

“Happy Palm Sunday and Happy Easter. God bless you and your family,” she said the last time I passed her. I absolutely hate when complete strangers automatically assume that I’m a practicing Christian or any kind of a God-fearer. But, after our time together, I didn’t mind it so much coming from her - this one-woman cheering section no longer felt like just any stranger. I also thought it was very nice of her to include my non-present family in the benediction.