Friday, December 23, 2011

Step Away from This Number

My phone’s been blowing up – with incoming calls from overseas tech-scam artists who are trying to remotely gain access to my computer and get my credit card number; and from the same person who’s been wrong-number-dialing me for at least a year.

It’s been a big week for the struggle. It looks like I’ve finally scared the tech thugs away. And after this text-message exchange (that didn’t last nearly as long as I would have liked it to), I doubt I’ll be hearing from the Maryland-based wrong number ever again:

Maryland: Aye bro how much u want for that spider ski pants

Me: $480

Maryland: U said u want 480 for tha pants only dam bro u should let me hold these down for that winter and I got 100 for u

Me: U gotta point. How much total $$ u thinkin?

Maryland: 100 nigga

Me: For pants like this? How bout a cool $160? Sale of the century

[At this point, I feverishly changed my voicemail greeting so, if he called to discuss the transaction/bargain he was getting, he wouldn’t hear my name or voice.]

Maryland: OK

Me: When u need em by?

I never got my answer.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Stairway to Havoc

I was doing some shopping and errand running in central Chelsea (one of the only below-72nd Street Manhattan neighborhoods that’s not oppressively swarming with tourists this time of year) the other night. When I first moved to New York I lived with a relative in this area for nearly 3 months, while I got my bearings and looked for a porta potty-sized apartment of my own. Now, I usually only travel down there once every 6 months or so to visit the Himalayan art museum or meet up with others at one of the district’s all-you-can-drink-mimosas-and-screwdrivers brunch bistros. It’s a very hip, chic part of town, which helps to explain why I no longer gravitate to it.

Toward the end of the night, as I rode up the escalator in one particular retail complex and glanced around at the “scenery,” I (for the first time) realized just how many rare memories have been made on it over the course of the past decade. Outside of my living quarters, I don’t believe I’ve ever had any other single, specific spot that’s served as the go-to location for across-the-board personal chaos. I’ve thrown up on this escalator; I’ve fallen down on it; it’s been the site of more than one monumental conversation and more than one epiphany. I remember exactly how blank my mind was when I rode it up to the top to return a sweater a few minutes after getting a phone call that I knew would permanently change my outlook and identity. When shit has happened, it has often happened either here or on the way here.

As I rode back down before walking out and onto the street, I expected something momentous to get underway – and was almost disappointed when it didn’t.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Courage by Cutrone

Most adults in this world are cowards.

On the flip side, there are people like straight-shooting, hard-working fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone. I just finished her latest book, Normal Gets You Nowhere – a follow-up to her 2010 bestseller, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside. Those with even a passing interest in living it up and leaving a mark should at least think about the principles she represents, particularly any young and ambitious woman who is going through an episode of frustration or fatigue. It takes years and years of extensively diversified, and painful, real-life experiences to reach her vein of wisdom.

I’ve decided that I’m wise enough to curate some of her greatest quotes:

*In order to have a balanced life, you have to do something every week for other people or your community.

*People don’t like people who rock the boat or even row the boat, let alone park it in their driveway or on the lawn. They like people who sit quietly in the boat – who have paid in advance for their ticket and don’t say fuck.

*A lot of people say they want to be special, but they don’t want to do the work [or occasionally] eat crow.

*If you want to find success outside the norm, you really have to fine-tune your skills and become incredibly good at what you do.

*I have never seen “bitch” as a bad word. Instead, I see the word for what it is: a reflection of people’s lack of creativity and inability to acknowledge and embrace a powerful woman.

*It’s the Village Girl who will change the world.

*Most of us are too quick to call people friends, too quick to say “I love you,” and too quick to write people off forever.

*Try to stay as conscious as possible - to limit the amount of apology time you have to set aside in your life.

*We are inclined to repetition, not progression.

*When you’re the most happening person at the party, it’s time to leave.

*Dear President Obama,
I’m writing you this letter because I think it’s absolutely deplorable that Eleanor Roosevelt is not on our money. In fact, why aren’t there any women on our money? I mean, with the exception of Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea – and nobody even uses silver dollars anyway. This seems like a mercy-fuck offering to the women’s movement at best. I suggest we bump off one of those troublemaker presidents like Thomas Jefferson, who impregnated his slaves, and get Eleanor on instead . . . If women make over 70 percent of the buying choices in the average home, why aren’t we on the money, even from a purely capitalistic standpoint? . . . Grover Cleveland is on the thousand-dollar bill! Who the fuck is he?

*Worldly success and divine transcendence are not mutually exclusive.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mahna Mahna

One of the things I was most thankful for this past holiday weekend was the return of the Muppets. As far as dream jobs go, many mortals would like to become Lakers players, or Lakers dancers, or pastry chefs, or Nicki Minaj. I dream of becoming a Muppeteer.

In a recent statement given to Newsweek magazine, Whoopi Goldberg laid it all out: “I don’t understand why they haven’t brought back The Muppet Show.” (Me neither.) “I think it’s such a disservice, and I’ve said that to the folks at ABC,” she movingly continued.

Until service is resumed, I’ll take what I can get, which is the occasional release of one of these big-screen Disney or Sony productions. The latest iteration isn’t as good as The Muppets Take Manhattan, but it damn sure beats Muppets from Space or The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Speaking of dream jobs, Piggy is now the plus-size editor of French Vogue. I hadn’t known she worked in publishing. Or worked at all. Of course, I may never have taken note of her employment status because I’d been way too preoccupied with the goings-on of Animal and the 2 elderly men who compulsively heckled the performers from the balcony seats. Animal and the 2 elderly hecklers are the muppets who have played the largest role in shaping who I am today.

I’ve never seen a group of kids so underwhelmed with a kids movie. Juice and bathroom breaks were demanded during some of the best parts. Not sure how anyone over the age of 28 months could have been thinking of Capri Sun pouches during the soul-wrenching “Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet?” number.

Which takes us back to why they need to bring back The Muppet Show. The generation that grew up with it is on its way out and, based on the reactions of the members of my makeshift focus group this weekend, so are any future replacement audiences. Extinction is not the responsible option.

If extra hands are needed, I can make myself available for contract negotiations. And I can do voices.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Height of the Night

Over the years, I’ve been on the receiving end of quips and commentaries (usually from those I barely know and have no interest in getting to know) about my height. The assumption is that I must long to be much taller.

I’ve never known what they’re talking about. I love being short. There’s nothing for me up there. I’ve gotten out of and away with so very many glorious things, all because nobody could see me. I’ve only ever wished I were shorter.

Pretty much up until last night.

Before going out, I had to re-tailor my new jeans (for the 3rd time that day) with the garment-cutting scissors I’ve invested in for the exclusive purpose of chopping inches off the ends of my denim pants, so they don’t fall past my toes. Since I’m rarely drawn to the styles or prices of the jeans that stores carry in their “petite” sections, I don’t own any non-capri denim pants that look completely respectable, from top to bottom. And I would like to, without having to pose and pony up for the beleaguered-looking man with the sewing machine who works for my dry cleaner. It’s too bad I never listened to my mom when she tried to teach me how to do my own seamstressing. Short people need to know how to expertly hem for themselves.

I walked to the D train in my street-urchin slacks, with a slew of little white strands lightly tapping at my ankles. Who cares? I was on my way to see Ms. Ani DiFranco and her Come-As-You-Are kind of crowd!

I had a perfectly unobstructed view of center stage until the giant who was assigned to sit in front of me was shown to her seat. A fidgeting giant. The people who later sat in front of her were even taller. I had no window.

Much like Ani, I’m mellowing out as I age. Ain’t nothin’ I could or should do about this, besides coolly stare at the back of the giant’s head - which was as boring as it could get, given that this wasn’t a typical Ani audience. No purple hair or behind-the-neck tattoos. Just a sea of split ends and the unadorned fingers that twirled them. When she lowered her head onto the shoulder of the person sitting next to her, I wanted to hold it down and keep it there.

Ani’s about my height and she mentioned her newfound love for acupuncture and shiatsu, and how those practices can alter certain aspects of your body. “The next time you see me, maybe I’ll be taller,” she joked. At least I think she was joking. I heard the inflection in her voice and the sound of other people laughing. But I couldn’t see the expression on her face, and had already stopped trying.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Sorry Séance

Scheduling tip: don’t ever meet with a medium immediately before you have to clock in at work. It will emotionally hijack the rest of your day.

I’d been advised to bring in 15-20 questions, hard-copy photos of the spirits I wanted to channel, and an object I usually carry with me that represents my energy. Ninety-nine percent of my photos of the 3 spirits I wanted to channel are stored away in my childhood bedroom. I knew my dad wouldn’t rifle through those stacks of old albums and overnight mail me an envelope full of choice pics. Especially if I told him what I’d be using them for.

I managed to find one photo of my late favorite uncle. It’s a picture of just the 2 of us, taken almost 10 years ago. It’s the worst picture I’ve ever seen of me. I look like I’m about to be dropped off at rehab (and not one of the better rehab facilities). “Your uncle’s the one on the right or on the left?,” I was asked.

As bullshit would have it, I never needed to show her this truly blackmail-caliber picture - my uncle declined to take part in the morning meeting. “As I told you on the phone, just because you invite the spirits, it doesn’t mean they’ll come,” the medium said, right before relaying that the other 2 spirits she channeled made brief appearances at the outset of the session. Then they just up and left.

I bet they were all livid (but also amused) with me for spending money this way. Some ghosts say BOO. Mine say BOO-YAH!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This Transcript Is Brought to You by the Neighborhood Watch

Not too long ago, someone busted up a section of the glass in my apartment building’s inner front door. In response, one of my neighbors has established a Tenant Patrol, and I got roped into serving on it. My first shift was last night. Here are some of the highlights (most of the times stated below are approximations):

8:59 p.m. – I step out of the elevator and into the lobby to relieve the husky, tight-lipped boy who lives on my floor. When I last spoke to him in June, he had just graduated from high school and was gearing up for his freshman year at the University of Miami this fall. This is the 3rd or 4th time I’ve run into him since late August, so something’s happened. Probably something pretty embarrassing.

“Is there anything I should do besides looking fierce?” I ask.

“Huh-huh,” he insincerely titters. He’s never found me funny.

“Are there any instructions?”

“No,” he says. He walks to the front door and out into the night.

I take my place at the rickety table. A big TENANT PATROL poster is taped to its front. The chair is comfortable as hell.

9:05 – The teenager who’s rumored to have smashed the front-door glass walks in. He’s one of my favorite neighbors and I think I’m one of his.

9:15 – Another neighbor arrives with his girlfriend. They’re both in their early twenties. I’m very friendly with the building’s teens and early twentysomethings, and I’d been hoping that none of them would catch me doing this. Now they’ll think I’m a loser who has defected to the other side. But I most likely hate the other side more than they do. This is more of a Special Ops gig than a law enforcement role. They should think of me as that kid from Home Alone – this is my house and I have to defend it.

9:35 – I never knew that a lot of these people coming in and out even lived in the building. Maybe they don’t.

9:40 – The Patrol organizer comes downstairs in her slippers, holding a dish of hot food and a large beverage. She’s not scheduled to relieve me until 10, but for some reason she was worried about the table being unstaffed. I tell her to go on back upstairs and take her time with the meal.

9:45 – An argument (in Russian), between a man and a woman, erupts from an apartment that borders the front door. I’ve long suspected that an Eastern European prostitution ring or escort service is run out of this unit.

9:48 – The man from the argument is now loudly talking on the phone (in English), asking someone if s/he would be available to come in for an interview. “What should you bring?” he asks. “Just bring your smile.”

9:50 - One of the building’s drunks walks off the elevator. He says he’s going to the store to pick up some water.

9:55 – The current head of the household in the sex-trade den emerges, decked out in Diesel, to throw out an oddly-shaped bag of trash. He doesn’t say hello or make eye contact.

10:05 – Here comes the drunk, back from his water run. He’s carrying a black plastic bag filled with at least two bottles. He ambles toward my table, reaching into his bag to pull something out for me. Yay! Maybe he’ll pour some Patron for my patrol!

False alarm – he takes out a bottle of fruit punch-flavored vitamin water and a straw, and sets it all down on the table. “That’s in case you get thirsty,” he says.

10:10 – What’s taking the organizer so long? I told her to take her time, but not like this. My shift was slated to end at 10.

10:15 – The sex-trader heads out of the building wearing a red leather jacket, possibly setting off on a recruiting trip.

10:25 – The organizer reappears, with a troubled look on her face. “I’m going to pack everything up and call it a night,” she says. “I ate too fast and now I’ve got gas.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Oh Mon Dieu, Zut Alors - Ou Est la Croix du Mont-Royal?!

At the tippy top of Montreal’s Mount Royal, there’s supposed to be a massive cross, quite possibly impressive enough to temporarily wipe the sneer off the most diehard non-believer’s face. I hazily recall marching up toward it when I was eight or nine years old, and I wanted to recreate that trek when I was back in town, as an adult, this past weekend.

Never did. Just walked around in circles for 90 minutes, following signs (about the cross always being a mere .8 km or 1.3 km away) that led to nowhere. I know it’s still there, because I saw it from the car, while driving around another part of the city.

The smug and dismissive security guards or park rangers, or whatever it’s politically correct to call them, vaguely pointed in the cross’s general direction. I was getting more riled up by the second. I told them that none of the signs and arrows made any sense.

“Ignore the signs and arrows,” they said. “They’re wrong.”

Wow, damn! Never heard that one before.

It felt like being in one of the dreams I sometimes get after having had a few too many glasses of red wine on an insufficiently full stomach. The hot pursuit of an illusion.

When I got back home last night, I called my dad and asked if he remembers approaching that cross on foot with the rest of our family in the late 1980s. He didn’t know what I was talking about. His chief memory of our time spent on that “mountain” is of getting pulled over and being ticketed after making an illegal left turn. And I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The After-Show

At the end of any Broadway show, I usually try to get out of the theater district as quickly as possible. But the other night, I was determined to wait around outside for the cast members to make their grand exits, no matter how long it took.

First, Samuel L. Jackson strutted out into the night, smirking and snatching playbills out of the outstretched hands. After I snatched mine back (and he didn’t acknowledge my “thank you”), I kind of forgot about him, as I began texting people and thinking about the apple-picking I was going to be doing out in the country the next day.

A few minutes later, someone yelled out: “When are you doing your next movie?”

“Around January 15th,” Jackson said.

“What’s it called?”

“Around January 15th,” he said, still snatching and smirking.

What was he still doing there? I had assumed he and his driver had already sped off to see if the Kangol cap store was still open. The SUV he had yet to get into was blocking Angela Bassett’s, and she’s the one I was really waiting for.

When Bassett came out, there was no strutting or smirking. She looked me in the eye and warmly smiled when she took my playbill and when she handed it back, as we small-talked. Not too long after she moved a bit farther down the barricaded line, she suddenly turned back and studied me, as if there was a lot more we had to discuss.

There was.

If those other groupies hadn’t been distracting us, we could have exchanged contact info and she could have helped me land a new job - as her bodyguard. The little guy in charge of protecting her looked like he needed some physical-safety protection himself. I doubt I’d have that hard of a time picking him up and doing 5 reps of bicep curls. She needs fearless ferocity, not frailty - someone who’s not afraid to start slapping people who say or do something too stupid, the way my family’s cat used to bitch-slap the dog when he came too close to her for comfort.

Nothing that happens on stage is ever as interesting as what goes on off stage.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Aliyyah

While rushing uptown this morning, I flew into my neighborhood’s most popular bakery to get a spot of coffee. The line was three times longer than I thought it would be. Everyone was ordering bagfuls of overpriced cupcakes that taste as dry and flavorless as something I would bake.

On the weekends, I’m not usually awake and out in public this early. I’ve been known to boycott brunches that are scheduled before noon. Whenever I do have to walk the streets at this hour on a Saturday or Sunday, it’s alarming to see how many young people are doing the same, only looking as though they’ve happily been fucking around town since the sun came up.

When you’re inching through a line like this, you have oodles of time to look around. It wasn’t long before I spied the displays of coffee mugs, lunchboxes, and other paraphernalia featuring the bakery’s trademark logo - a drawing of a cleavage-baring, bowling-ball-breasted, huge-caboosed black woman with big lips, fake eyelashes, an apron with “Aliyyah” written in at the bottom, and a droopy chef’s hat that reads: “I Love Cake.” The candle I think she’s trying to blow out (atop the jumbo-sized cake she loves) looks like a flask. This work of fine art also appears on all the pink plastic bags that the customers’ baked goods are packed into. Pink is my second-favorite color, and the first time I bought cupcakes there I was more excited about the color of the bag than the Red Velvet violence that lurked inside of it. Before I saw exactly what was on it, I planned to reuse that bag for weeks to come. When I used it as a trash bag later that night, I kept it turned around and on the side of my body that was farthest away from the neighbor I passed on the way to the garbage chute.

Aliyyah’s probably a real person who’s either an owner of the bakery or the inspiration behind it, but I know she doesn’t look like the lady on the logo – nobody does. I’m the only one who seems to find this image offensive. Not offensive enough to stop making emergency coffee runs there, but enough to gape at the gimmick whenever it’s nearby. Everyone else in line this morning only gaped at the cupcakes and my henna tattoo.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Elocution Evolution

Yesterday afternoon, I was in a meeting with someone who’s never lived outside of the Los Angeles area. She kicked it off by telling me I have a New York accent.

I don’t have a poker face. Neither did she – I saw her see that she said something she shouldn’t have.

Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism. I had to stay cool.

“You think so?” I asked.

“That’s what it sounds like to me,” she said. (Remember, all she knows is L.A. It was a humid 70 degrees outside and she had been wearing a coat.)

To keep things light, and to drive home that I’m not from these parts, I let her know that my freshman hallmates made fun of me and another hallmate (who hailed from suburban Chicago) because of our Midwestern accents. They had field days with the way the Chicagoan and I used to pronounce “Kathy” and “college,” and say “pop” instead of “soda.”

She smiled politely, but wasn’t buying it. Can you blame her? She can only ever picture me talking like Renee Graziano from Mob Wives.

This is how it all begins. First, everyone insists you have the attitude. Then it starts in with the speech patterns. At the rate it's going, I’ll never make it out of here. I’m becoming re-branded.

I did this to myself. For years, I’ve been imitating the New York and New Jersey accents and mannerisms that surround me. Too many years. I’m morphing into what I’ve mocked.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Laughter and Medicine

My primary-care physician now does her thing out of a new office. A few days ago, I dealt with these digs for the first time. While waiting for my routine physical to get underway, I was summoned to the reception desk and was notified that the check-up wouldn’t be covered by my insurance because I already had a physical on January 14th.

Nice try, but I have an alibi for where I was on the 14th day of this year. It’s not an airtight one, but it’s credible enough.

Ten minutes and $15 later I was steered into a side room and onto a scale, 2 feet away from a nurse who was silently drawing another woman’s blood. Although I’m farsighted, I’m not blind or dumb. I know how to read a scale and have no trouble making out its numbered notches when they’re directly in front of me. My nurse saw that I was following along without any visible confusion, so I assumed she would just write down my weight on the chart she was holding. She did - right after she broadcast it to the group. And then she repeated it! Is this a doctor’s appointment or an audition for the Bolshoi Ballet?

Should a patient’s blood pressure be taken immediately after a mistaken-identity fiasco and a public weigh-in?

I’ve always put this doctor on a pedestal, and it remains unclear how a clinician of her caliber could have gotten mixed up with an operation like this. When she walked into the examining room, it was tantamount to reuniting with a cousin you hardly ever get to see; one of the cousins you really like - not one of the ones you’re planning to quietly leave off your future wedding’s guest list.

The problem with having a reputation for being a joker is that people constantly think you’re trying to be funny when you’re not. That’s why my internist was cracking up with impunity as I caught her up to speed on what’s been happening with my body this year. The only point in the monologue where the snickering might have been warranted was when I started doing (spot-on) impersonations of people.

She called with my blood test results earlier tonight, and was still laughing. We both were – I had accurately diagnosed myself. One of the first things I said at the exam was: “I think I have a thyroid problem.” And I do.

She also said I have the healthiest cholesterol level she’s EVER SEEN. I (an English major) accurately diagnosed that in advance too. Medical school is for suckers.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Little Engine That Could Use a Big Overhaul

The only disadvantage of having an uncommon name is that it’s very easy to be tracked down. With the advent of Google and all the other free Internet search engines, everyone’s moonlighting as a private investigator these days. People are so idle and nosy.

Evidently, the first thing people do once they get ahold of my name is take it straight to the search engines. Since Googling is no longer something that’s done in the shadows, many of them think nothing of confronting me about what they’ve sleuthed up. Then I have to defend myself against the lies and manipulations:

“No, I am NOT 41 years old. I don’t know where they got that from.”

“I sure did sign a petition to keep that allegedly adulterous Iranian woman from being stoned to death. Why didn’t you?”

“Dammit, I don’t know if I’m going to my next high school reunion. Stay out of it.”


At a job interview in early 2008, the hiring manager declared that he Googled me the night before (note that he did this at night – not during regular business hours) and proceeded to probe me about articles I wrote in 1997. Ever since then, I started Googling myself once a week, to stay on top of what’s out there and get a sense of how much of it I can control. So far, I’ve gotten a couple of inaccuracies and unnecessary pieces of information completely removed. But I’m not always so lucky. Last summer, I noticed an outrageous typo in the text of a header link that might always be a part of my search results. I went right to the source, e-mailing someone at the magazine (under the pretext of asking about something else) to alert her of the defect that hovers above my name. It’s still there.

I last Googled myself this morning. So much can happen in a week. There’s a brand-new search result that I don’t like one bit, and I can’t even fathom how something like this could have made it up there. I’ve added it to my Must-Go list.

I’ll never forget a chilling line I once read in a poem: “Daughter:/looks like laughter,/rhymes with slaughter.”

Google: /looks like Giggle, /rhymes with Bugle (which I consider to be the most aggravating of all the brass instruments).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Cotton Candy

After 48 hours of deep thought, I decided to send flowers to someone.

Sending flowers had been the initial, instinctive plan - until I saw how much the full and decent-looking arrangements cost. In this age of austerity, it seemed like a tasteful, top-of-the-Hallmark-line greeting card would do just as well. But even though we’ve been out of meaningful touch for years, and I suspect they now belong to the Tea Party, this person and her husband once spent a week driving me around New England to visit colleges, dropping hundreds of dollars on sweatshirts and water bottles at campus bookstores. (Not to mention footing the bills for those evenings out at the Olive Garden.)

I don’t usually send people flowers. I send baskets filled with snack foods, because that’s what I’d want people to send to me. But they don’t. They send me flowers in vases that are out of harmony with my rental décor. I’ve put the vases to work in other ways, reusing them as oversized candy dishes or storage bins for the salt, pepper, and sugar packets I unload from low-end eateries. There’s one vase I use as a pail to collect the stream of water that occasionally leaks from my bathroom ceiling.

Sending food wasn’t a sensitive option this time around.

I ordered over the phone. A few seconds into the call I made a promise to myself that, from here on out, I will only buy special deliveries directly online.

“What a beautiful choice!!!! Is it for a young girl?!”

“No, it’s for a really old woman,” I said.

“Oh.” The enthusiasm evaporated and we segued right into the billing-information portion of the conversation. We both so desperately wanted to get off the phone that I forgot to ask for the card message to be read back to me. There’s no telling how many typos will turn up in that small space.

This is a Get Well situation. I needed an arrangement that would strengthen the recipient on sight, wowing her into recovery. If it’s possible for any non-edible special delivery to do so, it’s this long-stemmed, “sweet as cotton candy” bouquet (tightly packed into a vase big enough to have some serious pail potential).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Alarmageddon

Six months ago, I sent an e-mail to a local yarn store asking for details about its crocheting classes. No one ever got back to me, and I completely forgot about both the existence of this store and my interest in crocheting until Friday afternoon when I got this e-mail:

Impromptu Hurricane SALE!!!!!
Wouldn't waiting out the hurricane be so much more fun with a new project?
Just come in Friday or Saturday and sing a few bars of "Come on Irene"
(sung to the tune of "Come on Eileen") and you will get 10% off of all of your yarn!


I take meteorologists about as seriously as I took the Bush administration. Whenever I need a reliable weather update, I study the sky, sniff the air, and make my own experience-based judgment calls. But this week’s Doppler Radar-driven pre-hurricane coverage managed to catch even my attention, from the astronauts weighing in on how horrific the storm looked from outer space to last night’s panic-stricken, poncho-flapping, southern Queens-stationed newscasters carrying on as though they were reporting live from Benghazi.

This weekend’s grocery store lines were longer than the ones outside of most downtown clubs. I made a long list of sale-priced items to buy, but half of what I wanted was gone by the time I arrived on the scene. I had to quickly grab boxes of generic-brand seasoned cornbread stuffing mix and whatever else was left.

The line at the wine shop looked even worse. So I went around the corner to a liquor store, which hosts an entirely different clientele. I was one of the only customers wearing something other than a threadbare white undershirt. Someone stumbling around behind me genuinely didn’t know a hurricane was coming. When I apologized to the white undershirt I bumped into on the way out, I was slowly and hoarsely told that I could rub up against him anytime.

After I was all stocked and shaken up, my main concerns were: a power outage that would interfere with tonight’s Real Housewives of New Jersey episode; and just the very idea of a sudden evacuation order. I’m not public-shelter material.

When I woke up this morning, the sun was shining and the rain was gone. That’s not what the Accu Track Radar experts said I would wake up to.

In any event, I have 3 days worth of food and filtered water. Although it’s a little too salty, the seasoned cornbread stuffing isn’t half bad. It feels like the day after Thanksgiving.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

From Downpour to Downfall

A last-minute change in Friday-night plans found me walking uptown in the drizzly aftermath of a thunderstorm that I overheard no fewer than 4 people describe as “biblical.” In the warm-weather months, I now wear the kind of foam-padded, well-tractioned flip-flops that don’t fall apart or make squeaking noises when they get wet. Even so, after a solid hour of jog-walking across soaked surfaces, I marveled at how remarkable it was that I hadn’t fallen down yet. I darted onto the grass to avoid a sidewalk puddle (and to sidestep the couple whose 2 dogs were dressed in raincoats) and broke into a swagger after computing that it’s been 6 months (nothing short of a record) since my last fall.

Next thing I knew, I was on my back, with one leg folded underneath me.

When I fall, it’s usually on concrete and with no dignity. But this one had some flair and there was an element of pleasure in it. Like a figure skater in the heat of competition, when I go down I always bounce right back up and keep going as if nothing happened. This time, however, I didn’t feel like doing anything of the sort. It was relaxing down there. There was no more drizzle and it had turned into an achingly beautiful night. I wanted to continue lying on the cool, plush grass in that yoga pose and gaze up at the distant etchings of lightning in the sky before treating myself to a moonlit catnap.

I could have and would have done just that if it hadn’t been for those raincoat-dog owners.

It’s a foregone conclusion that people who parade a pair of poodles around in day-glo, waterproof outerwear are going to be all about the drama, and I could hear the histrionics from yards away as they shuffle-rushed toward me. You’d have thought they witnessed someone getting shot at close range. I knew they wouldn’t shut up and leave me alone until I bounced right back up and kept going as if nothing happened.

Two days later, I’m still using a bag of frozen vegetables to ice the foot that’s become injured on account of having to bounce back up sooner than I had been ready to.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Telling Twos

Before it started raining yesterday, a friend’s 2-year-old son and I took turns going down a pimped-out tunnel slide at a lakeside playground. One of us wouldn’t stop saying “Me first,” and it wasn’t him.

A few days ago, I filled out an Inside the Actors Studio-esque personal questionnaire, and one of the queries was “Who are your favorite living people?” As usual, I typed in “my dad” before quickly moving on to the next question about what 3 adjectives best describe me. A few minutes ago, I re-opened the questionnaire and updated the content of the “favorite living people” answer to also include the name of this 2-year-old. I’ve kept an eye on his development since he was a newborn, and spending time with him gives me more concrete hope that this world isn’t on the brink of going bootleg.

By all accounts, I was a real prick at his age. So were all of the 2-year-olds I babysat for in high school and so are most of the 2-year-olds I’ve come into contact with since then. That’s why I know how newsworthy it is for a toddler to be this much of a thinker, a charismatic leader, an athlete, a comedian, and an empathizer. He has more social sophistication than many adults I know, and it’s only going to ripen over time because he has the kind of parents who withhold treats until he unambiguously says “please” and who still send gratuitous thank-you cards in the mail.

Thirty years from now, when a reporter writing a profile about something uncommonly admirable he’s done contacts me for an inside scoop, I’m going to bring up how his diapered ass seamlessly approached, entertained, and disarmed every single member of the other family on that playground yesterday; and the way the adults of that family locked eyes with each other, then with me, and finally with the boy’s mother as she rounded one of the jungle gyms pushing his 3-month-old brother in a stroller. And how, after we reached the top of another slide at the same time, he looked up at me with twinkling eyes and an ear-to-ear toothy grin to say, “Now I’m gonna go down first.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Coffee Klash

Whenever my non-profit organization’s tech guy steps into my office in response to the latest help-desk “work ticket” I’ve filed, I always know we’re about to dive into another conversation for the books. Since we share an allergy to senseless, censored chatter, when we delve we delve deep. We’re only interested in the kinds of discussions that many people are too repressed to take up.

This afternoon was no exception. Then we reprised a longstanding rant about our outfit’s failure to provide employees with complimentary coffee. With the exceptions of my campus jobs in college, maybe one non-profit school-sponsored internship, and an unorthodox temp gig in the East Village, I don’t remember ever having to pay for coffee while on the clock. The unlimited free coffee is the whole reason why I decided to stick around in the traditional white-collar workforce. I know people who began drinking coffee only because it was constantly in their faces from 9 to 5.

I told Tech Guy that I’ve been spending approximately $2.50 a day on caffeine during the workweek. As soon as I started throwing out hard numbers, he put down the equipment he’d been rewiring to whip out his cell-phone calculator so we could get a tally going.

$650 a year.

If we knock that down to $600 (to take paid leave time into account), I’ve spent $1,800 on workweek coffee over the past 3 years. I could have gone to Epcot Center for a week with those benjamins.

Sometimes it rains while I’m bringing in the caffeine from the outside. I have to hold the scalding container in one hand and an unfurled umbrella in hand #2. I don’t have a third hand, so when I finally reach my building’s heavy, non-revolving doors, how do I close the dripping-wet umbrella and pull open the door without burning myself?

Why don’t I brew my own coffee at home in the mornings before leaving for work? Because I don’t want to – it’s a slap to my senses.

I used to voice my outrage to management. They would chuckle and/or shrug it off. Their eyes glazed over at any allusion to organizational psychology or the importance of incentives. “If we put out a coffee pot,” I was asked (twice), “somebody’s going to have to clean it every day, and who will that be?” What kind of a question is that? What do you think receptionists and interns are for?

When I briefly worked as a receptionist in an office smaller than my current one, I was the captain of the coffeemaker – and wielded more power than anyone else on staff.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Getting Bad News in the Hospital

I spent most of yesterday afternoon at an event held in a building I’m quite familiar with. When I used to do research for a former professor in there, I took 30-minute lunch breaks across the street in the Harlem Hospital cafeteria. As a teenage candy striper, the highlight of each already-rewarding shift was the complimentary meal I shared with the other pink ladies in our hospital’s state-of-the-art cafeteria. Harlem Hospital’s eatery is more of a sleepy diner than a cafeteria, the waiter isn’t one of my favorite people, and I doubt I would have liked candy striping there. But its short-order cook makes the best spinach pie I’ve had in Manhattan, and whenever I’m back on this block I have to go in for another taste fest.

That’s where I was and what I was doing when I heard that Amy Winehouse was found dead at 27. “Who was she?” the waiter asked after another customer gasped at the announcement that came over whatever radio station blared from above. “A singer,” the gasper said. “She was a white girl from England, but when she sang she sounded black.”

A few weeks before I turned 27, someone felt the need to tell me that that’s the age when rock stars kill themselves. It used to seem like such an arbitrary breakdown age, but now that I’ve made it to the other side of 27, I can see why 27-year-olds who peaked early and have a stubborn set of “pre-existing conditions” might super-snap. It’s a turning-point year when a lot of young people more intensely feel the pressure to start making some game-changing decisions and become a real adult. And not everyone is equipped enough to put up with the pressure’s punches.

The quarter-life crisis still doesn’t get the attention and respect it deserves.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Hazards of Hindsight

At a public reading last night, I read from a short story I wrote that’s based on an experience I had in a crowded D.C. subway car almost 10 years ago. I had been accosted by a Middle Eastern journalist who somehow easily pegged me as a writer. He quasi-offered me a job to write for a newspaper he was about to launch in Beirut, and I would have had to pick up and move out there. I never followed up with him or checked out the legitimacy of any of this.

I only recently remembered the incident while thinking about how much I miss a former friend of mine, who happened to have been with me at the time. As my future boss and I were getting into the logistics of my possible relocation to Lebanon, I remember looking over at her, her boyfriend, and their floored expressions. I had met this friend a year earlier in a different city and could often tell she thought there was heavy exaggeration involved with some of my personal storytelling. That summer in D.C., the more time she spent with me, the more of these encounters she witnessed for herself, and I remember the elation I felt when I saw the look on her face in that subway car because I knew she would never doubt me again.

When I delivered some of the dialogue from the pop interview into a microphone last night, I flashbacked to the conversation itself and found myself sickened by how blasé I had been during and afterwards. As my dad always told me, most jobs are found through personal contacts, and this had all the makings of a potentially golden one.

I wish I had been half as much of the risk taker I am today back then.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Nuisance Nurturing

As soon as my plane taxied away from the gate a few mornings ago, I started to hear a sucking, smacking noise every 15-20 seconds. I assumed something was wrong with the plane. I had just spent several minutes trying to get the fan above my seat to stop spewing bits of water crystals onto my head - who knew what other halfhearted health and safety inspections this Express Jet had recently sailed its way through? I turned around expecting to see the bathroom door about to fall off its hinges, only to discover that the racket was created by the passenger sitting behind me who was kissing her infant lap child’s head.

She’s the first to have taught me that nonsexual kissing can be this loud and last for so long - in public and in close quarters. Would the baby – who slept through most of the flight - have felt less unconditionally loved if the kisses coming at him several times a minute were a decibel level lower? Most of the other passengers around us were fast asleep too. I was completely on my own and still uncaffeinated.

The third time I turned around, the eye contact we made was so meaningful that I thought an understanding had been wordlessly brokered. But the moment I turned back to face forward, the kisses became louder and more frequent.

All the noise she was making eventually woke the baby up. The sound of his scream-crying was far preferable to the sound of the scream-kissing, and I finally had some peace.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Parking It

I idle away as many summer afternoons as possible in the park across the street from where I live, basking in the shade and keeping my ears open for the ice cream truck. Since those park benches are too hard on my ass, I (long ago) upgraded to a portable lounging chair.

Everyone who waltzes by wants this chair – bad. But instead of enviously ogling it, they’d be better off strolling into their preferred Rite Aid location and handing over the $10 it takes to secure their own sweet seat (which needn’t be limited to outdoor use).

I went out for a portable lounge a few afternoons ago, setting up my canvas throne on a weedy knoll, underneath a tree. When I reached into one of the chair’s mesh cup holders to take a sip of cold water, I cussed myself out for not having had the foresight to fill another temperature-controlled water bottle with chardonnay. This was chilled-white-wine weather if there ever was any. These thoughts were interrupted by a rustling in the wooded area behind me. A young man wearing an American flag as a strapless dress aimlessly tore through the brush, maniacally splitting the narrow trunks of still-growing trees in half with his bare hands.

In the memoir essay I was reading at the time, Chelsea Handler recounted an unconventional incident at a London restaurant and wondered how she got herself into one bizarre scenario after another. Every now and then I ask myself the same question, even when the out-of-the-ordinary situation is as minor as an extremely unexpected close encounter with a patriotic, cross-dressing tree-mugger. I don’t know how she ends up falling into her shitpits, but I’m now starting to understand the anatomy of how I swan dive into some of mine. I set up the chair in one of the more seemingly private sections of the park, in keeping with my usual strategy of going out of my way to avoid crowds or main drags or formally organized hoopla. And it’s these off-the-well-beaten-path patches that are more likely to breed the silly scenes. The fewer the people, the fewer the inhibitions, the funnier the follies.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Schadenfreuder Central

I’ve seen the word “schadenfreude” in books, magazines, and newspapers since at least junior high (which they’re now calling middle school?). As good of a memory as I’ve always had, whenever I used to look this term up I would soon forget what it meant. It might have been hard to retain because the concept was once so foreign and incomprehensible.

While walking uptown tonight, I suddenly heard the sound of screeching tires, followed by a thud. A car up ahead got mildly rear-ended. (I was mixed up in a similar fender-bender coming out of a parking lot after a Backstreet Boys concert in the spring of 2000. Our biggest concern was how to make all of the open containers disappear before any cops came poking around.)

When I first heard the thud and neared the scene, I dreaded what I was about to see and hoped it was nothing serious. I thought back to how scared and embarrassed I was when I once crashed a car – and this had been in my own driveway, not on a major thoroughfare.

There were 3 people in front of me at the time of tonight’s thud. Two of them jumped off their benches and ran closer to the curb to get a better look; the other one glided out of his parked car while talking into a cell phone – all of their eyes lit up, and their mouths curled into quarter-smiles. They were visibly disappointed when everything ended so quickly and civilly.

The last vehicular accident I walked past, farther downtown, involved a car hitting a biker. I still remember the entertained expression on the face of the man who ran out of a store, pushing through all of the onlookers and cell-phone-camera flashes, yelling: “Damn, this guy just got fucked up!”

“Schadenfreude” can always be found in a dictionary, but it can be hard to find in a traditional thesaurus. How do you sum up an instinct like this in one word?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Favorite Favor

Toward the end of a wedding reception in North Carolina this past weekend, the shuttle bus going back to the hotel was ready to leave sooner than I was. I madly grabbed everything around my place at the table - purse, phone, program from the ceremony. About 5 minutes after we hit the road, I realized two things: (1) I forgot to pick up one of the attractively-boxed wedding-favor cupcakes; and (2) my cloth dinner-table napkin was still in my hand.

I’m someone who needs alot of napkins. They’re like band-aids or tubes of Neosporin – I can never have enough. This is the most useful wedding favor I’ve landed to date. I just used it as a bib while eating a bowl of noodles and catching up on the semi-tawdry reality TV programming I missed while I was away.

My apartment’s first piece of fine-dining linen has already classed up the crib. During the unpacking process, I folded it up into a plush bed for the assortment of matchbooks I’ve collected from lounges and restaurants over the years. And now it’s spread across my lap to protect my eyes from all the mosquito-bite marks that still dot my bare knees.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Great Outdoors

My arms are still sore from kayaking earlier this week – but not from the paddle-steering. Immediately upon returning to shore, New Hampshire’s most ferocious mosquitoes swarmed out to greet us. We were harmed and unarmed (aside from the paddles) and they’ve transformed my arms, hands, legs, and ankles into ravaged regions. One of them took a bite out of my bosom.

Yesterday morning when I took my friend’s new bike out for a spin around her neighborhood, I half-fell off while trying to negotiate a high-speed turn. My spanking-new black-and-blue mark lies atop a patch of mid-leg bug bites from the previous day’s ambush. It looks like an amateur body-art project.

Last night at the Brandi Carlile/Ray LaMontagne concert on the Boston waterfront, Ray’s set was delayed as all 5,000 of us stood under a tent to wait out a thunder-and-lightning storm. Good thing I was able to dash back from the concession stand with my Heineken before the worst of it hit. When I took my last sip, as some of the rain splashing into the tent landed on my phone while I texted and the sounds of all the shrieking swelled, the skin on my left wrist started to itch again. When I looked down to go in for the scratch, I was transfixed - the bite marks on that hand had all come together to form a rash shaped like the state of New Jersey.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Federal Offense

One of the letters I pulled out of my mailbox yesterday had already been opened. It’s possible that it was a cheap envelope with weak glue. It’s also possible that the envelope and its contents had been tampered with by a prying, preying postal worker.

At least I was allowed to see this letter. The USPS selectively delivers my mail. I get the bills, greeting cards, wedding invitations, and junk. But forget about any reliable receipt of even slightly oversized regular-mail packages. And, more than once, I’ve gone for weeks without getting my Newsweek magazines. My senders, the Newsweek subscription office, and I blame the federal postal system. The federal postal system blames my neighbors. “Maybe someone in your building took them,” a postal employee proposed over the phone, while chewing on something crunchy. I know the people in my building and none of them are the stealing kind. Nor can I envision any of them reading Newsweek.

When I first realized I wasn’t always getting all my mail, I launched a two-week, one-woman investigation. Most of those two weeks were spent trying to get a relevant person on the phone. When I finally got ahold of someone at my local station office, after getting hung up on a few times, there was a series of heated, early-morning phone conversations with multiple mail carriers, who all turned things around and accused me of improperly accusing them of mail theft (I never accused, I implied). They mocked me - I heard them in the background. And I still never got those packages.

The USPS is an above-ground, federally-mollycoddled, less charismatic version of the underworld. The Gambinos without the guns and gusto.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Blitz and Glitz

On the way into a reception at an art gallery a few nights ago, I tripped up the stairs. As I grabbed onto a railing to keep from falling down, something about the railing, this set of stairs, and the front lobby area felt familiar. It quickly all came back to me - I’ve probably hit this place up before.

When we were younger and didn’t have much disposable income, a couple of my allies and I occasionally went on art-gallery-opening crawls in Chelsea. After (easily) tracking down the locations of that week’s opening-exhibit receptions, we would appear at one gallery on a Friday night and have a few plastic cups of wine while taking in some art for about 10 minutes. Then it would be off to the next opening in the neighborhood to run the same game.

Almost everyone at the other night’s quasi-gala was around the same age I had been during those heady high-culture hustling nights. But they’re having markedly different twentysomething experiences. When I was in my early to mid twenties, I didn’t theatrically click-clack into informal after-work cocktail parties in Christian Louboutin heels looking as if I were about to present the “Best Original Song in a Motion Picture” award at the Golden Globes. If you’re an entry-level-job-holding 24-year-old who lives alone in the West Village and/or talks about going on a weeklong “theater blitz” before leaving for a 2-month trip abroad, I’m onto you. Stop calling that Soho loft yours when it really belongs to your parents or whoever else is funding your blitzing.

This might have been my first Chelsea gallery reception where the wine was served in glass instead of plastic. It didn’t taste any better.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Archives

This week’s down time has been spent going through and pulling tidbits out of the very personal and detailed journal I’ve kept since 2001/2002. So far, the entries from 2006 and 2007 have become my little darlings. Below, I’m pasting the most recent one I’ve read, only slightly edited for length, clarity, and particularly inappropriate language/tangents.

March 5, 2007
This morning, I walked to the Chinese consulate to pick up a document before work. As I walked past Fairway, a gust of wind blew a mass of plastic sheeting straight into my head at dozens of miles/hour, nearly knocking me over. The left side of my face was a little sore, but I wasn’t incapacitated so I kept going (and came within centimeters of getting hit by a sedan that was speeding down the street I crossed in a daze).

I stood in line at the consulate office for at least 30 minutes, and then walked 12 avenues to work. As soon as I walked into the building, I ran into sexual-tension boy in the kitchen as we were getting coffee. He was at the next machine, but nobody spoke. He looked at me while I was looking away, and I looked at him while he was looking away. He might have wondered why I was wearing what amounted to a sweatshirt on a day when everyone else was bundled up in parkas and face masks. He walked off before I did, glancing at my profile before leaving. We ended up in the same elevator. Another woman was in there with us and it was she who held the closing door open for me as I ambled in. He slurped and smacked at his coffee the whole ride up. The woman and I walked out together, leaving his obnoxious ass behind.

It wasn’t until I went into the bathroom that I saw the blood. It was like Nicole Brown Simpson after an evening alone with O.J. Swelling, a black-and-blue mark, dried bloody scrapes.

Other people in the office didn’t seem to care or even really notice. Nobody’s asked about or mentioned it, and I’ve only volunteered the details to a couple of chosen ones, who all seemed more amused than anything else.

Can I sue Fairway? I love that fucking store and don’t want to be on bad terms with it. If they would just give me 3-5 complimentary quarts of vanilla yogurt, a few pounds of chocolate covered pretzels, and a variety of hearty cheeses, I’d be willing to put the past behind us.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The List That Keeps on Living

My zaniest neighbor won’t stop talking up the freebies he’s recently scored via Craigslist ads. I was the one who got to hold our building’s front door open for him one night last week, as he bounded up the stairs and into our elevator, wheeling around a huge used TV with a vivacity I don’t think I’ve ever had. When I ran into him earlier tonight, he was still chattering about the TV and encouraging me to drop by Craigslist to enhance my own life.

Craigslist was a staple of my drifting days. It’s responsible for a couple of my bizarre freelance gigs, a horrific roommate situation, and a subletter who evidently transformed one of my apartments into a den of iniquity while I was away. According to rumor, it’s also a favorite Internet breeding ground for perverts.

When I finally reached a certain income bracket, I swore the site off. But there’s a part of me that looks up to this particular neighbor and his similarly eccentric boyfriend. Any endorsement from either of them intrigues me. And I need new bookcases.

I just Craigslisted for the first time in years, very quickly forgetting about the bookcases to occupy myself with other sections of the board. It’s all so entertaining now that I don’t have to rely on it anymore. The apartment listings are still as embellished as ever. And these days there’s a “barter” option. As in: “Hi, I would like either free dirt or yard work in exchange for my hardly used electric maytag dryer.” Or “Handyman for a good massage by a sexy female.”

Stuff I found on Craigslist kept me afloat when I was sinking. It’s probably the most hassle-free way for people without much money or many connections to find housing or temp jobs or furniture or S&M partners. The most valuable thing it’s given me is material. It’s led to some unforgettable people and experiences that have become treasured aspects of my biography, and its reign is cause for applause.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Commoners Represent

I just booked some travel arrangements for another wedding – with the muted flicker of ongoing TV commentary about the other day’s royal wedding in the background. I’ve never been able to get impressed with monarchies – in early elementary school, even King Friday and Queen Sara on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood seemed nuts. Could there be a group of more pretentiously purposeless people?

The only thing I find interesting about any of this week’s festivities is the family that’s marrying into the mayhem. William’s wife and in-laws are the non-traditional types who have the potential to serve up some seriously stirring scenes – there’ll be no run-of-the-mill marital infidelities or DUIs with this middle-class consortium. Kate the Great (who refused to utter the word “obey” during her vows) has what it takes to go out and get a job during her reign, or publicly call out the queen during a state dinner after a few too many glasses of sherry. From what I’ve heard and read so far, she’s the best thing to ever happen to that heinous palace (which once canceled its “Changing of the Guard” ceremony the morning I showed up ready for it). In addition to the crazy cokehead uncle, Pippa - the provocative, party-planning younger sister - wore a white dress to a wedding that was not her own, which is something even I’ve never had the nerve to do. With so public of a move like that, she might now be responsible for single-handedly bringing down an out-of-date taboo that should never have been established.

A couple of months ago, Newsweek ran an article about young American women who have all but put their lives on hold to cross the pond and borderline stalk Prince Harry in the hopes of becoming the next princess bride. At first, I thought it was a joke (Newsweek has gone downhill recently) – but it was for real. Fascination with the ways of the leisure class - and the fantasy of breaking into it - is a timeless diversion that’s clung to like a flotation device.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Resurrections Galore

After stepping off a commuter train this morning, I was astonished to lay eyes on someone I once briefly knew on another part of the platform. I hadn’t seen him in more than 10 years, and whenever I run into people I haven’t seen since Y2K, there’s usually something a little different about them, even if it’s just a hairstyle, or wardrobe trend, or energy level. But he’s still the spitting image of who and what he was, strutting around in full prick regalia – on a suburban train platform at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday. The only prop missing was the half-empty Perrier bottle he used to entertainingly clutch. I’ve read reviews and excerpts of the book he published not too long ago, and it sounds like his decadent life and times have changed as little as his physical front.

The rest of the day triggered a much different remembrance of things past. At an Easter celebration that was a lot like the kind of extended-family holiday gatherings my own family once hosted, I began to understand why so many people choose to stay or relocate near their original home base.

Whenever something or someone worthwhile has come into your life, every reasonable attempt should be made to hold onto that experience or presence for as long as possible; most influences and situations that don’t feel legit should be weeded out as swiftly and firmly as possible. The problem is not always being able to appreciate how good you’ve had it until long after it’s no more; or how bad you have it until you’re already in, knee deep.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Trident and Triptychs

If dreams really can come true, I’m not always going to be living in NYC. But there’s no other city in this country that offers so many world-class art museums and galleries. As long as I’m here, I might as well take full advantage of more of them.

I’ve now checked out (and ruled out) the Cloisters – an institution that will never see me again unless it hosts an open-bar event or a demanding out-of-town guest badgers me to return. It‘s nestled away in a huge Upper Manhattan park – this wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten lost in there; but at least this time I didn’t wind up standing at the edge of an expressway at twilight.

While I was thinking about what a decent visit I was having, even though I’ve never been enthralled with the medieval era, a security guard followed me into an empty corridor to reprimand me for chewing gum. “Are you kidding?” I asked. It wasn’t like I was blowing bubbles or making popping noises. And older, male security guards can be hard to read. A lot of them could do stand-up at the Laugh Factory if they had slightly better delivery and personal contacts. I thought he was trying to be funny, just like the one who once saw me stretched out on a Riverside Park bench and came over to say he’d have to give me a ticket for taking it easy.

This one was no comedian. But he said he’d let me continue chewing since it was the end of the day.

What does that mean? I would have spent the same amount of time touring the premises, sullying the scene with my boorish chewing, whether it was 3 p.m. or 10 a.m. All of those innocent international tourists and babies in strollers at 3:15 on a Saturday would still have their day at the museum tarnished by their exposure to the uncouthness. Now they’ll go back to Brussels or Tribeca with memories of my jittery jaw instead of the Mary Magdalene sculpture or Annunciation triptych.

I wonder what kind of policy this place has about smoking. Or joking. Or curtsying. The tourists taking all those pictures of the triptychs were more tawdry than my silent chewing. And I can only imagine how their breaths must have smelled after their long, leisurely lunches at the lower-level café.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Springtime in NYC

One of the reasons I love cold weather is that it keeps a lot of people indoors, leaving me with most of the outside to myself. Once it gets warmer, they all start coming out and staying out. Case in point: the elderly white man who sits on a park bench and always tells me how much he loves black people.

The third or fourth time I passed him, he called me over to give me his 5-page typewritten autobiography and a local obituary about his late wife. I read everything that night, while on hold with customer service, and found his background intriguing in that he and I graduated from the same law school, his brother was a big shot in the industry in which I now work, and both he and his wife have worked on behalf of the same types of public interest causes that I have. The next time I saw him, I made the mistake of thanking him for his materials and revealing that we have lots in common. That’s how we got to where we are today.

I’m hardly ever able to pass him without being lured into an epic monologue about how impressively color blind and well raised he is - the kind of monologues that are impossible to politely cut off. After about 20 minutes, I usually interrupt to tell him that I have to go to the bathroom or that I’m about to pass out from dehydration, starvation, or heat exhaustion.

When I’m walking toward him and see him on the bench from afar, I’ve learned how to speed walk by as if I’m tragically late for something, as I turn around to wave hello. But I sometimes only first notice him when he’s beamingly strolling straight toward me - when he’s mobile, he’s in more of a position to manipulate the terms of the interaction.

He ambushed me on foot like this one night last week, this time to ask for my advice. He “feels [he] should be recognized for all the things [he] did during the civil rights movement” - getting King out of jail, introducing Thurgood Marshall at “the Convention,” going to high school with the founder of Essence magazine, and unsuccessfully trying to get a soccer coach to stop favoring white players. He wants someone to “cover” and then publish a glowing tribute to him.

I know and know of many progressive figures who have done great things – and none have ever actively lobbied for any official celebration of those courageously excellent acts. If anything, they tend to err on the side of deflecting attention away from themselves. Good people usually do good just for the sake of doing the right thing, and people who take their work seriously are very different from people who take themselves seriously.

The next time I’m cornered, I’ll tell him to write a memoir or take his tales to StoryCorps. This will invite another 15-minute explanation about why he won’t go that route. If his contributions really were as pivotal as he suggests, by now you’d think at least one person would have given him props. But no one has. In fact, based on some of what’s slipped out during his self-shout outs, it sounds like he annoyed the civil rights activists the same way he’s been annoying me in the park this past year.

Seven more months until winter-coat season.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Palm Saturday

While running a few atypical errands in Queens yesterday, I saw an arresting advertisement for an astrologer. I’ve been to two astrologers in the past decade, my last reading was almost two years ago, and I was due for an update.

I followed the arrows through a door and down a flight of creaky stairs, ending up in the basement of a fabric store. There was a family of four hanging out on some couches. The matriarch asked if I needed some tailoring. “No thanks,” I said. “Where’s the psychic?”

I was hoping that she or one of the smiling daughters would be the psychic. But the astrologer turned out to be the dad, and he led me into a small, ostentatiously-decorated back room. After draping himself with a shawl and lighting some incense, he used some old newspapers to slowly clear off a large pile of uncooked rice from the middle of the table. He asked me how much Hindi I spoke.

The vibe in the room wasn’t one that I wanted. I was terrified that he was going to tell me something really bad about what was in store for me. I’ve been told that no psychic would scare a customer with anything too shockingly distressing, but this guy seemed like a rebel who didn’t believe in standard practices or sugarcoating the truth. He seemed way too much like me, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle it.

There were a couple of fuzzy allusions to God: “God’s around.” Or it could have been: “God’s coming.” Or maybe it was: “God has left the building, but will be back real soon.” He told me to place something on a neighboring table. I thought he was asking for my fist; but he was saying “fees.”

I wrote my name and date of birth on a piece of already-used scratch paper, and he started scribbling underneath the information. He gave me a handful of ceramic cowrie shells and asked me to throw them down on the table. “Again,” he said, after I did. “Again,” he said again. In between throw-downs, he continued scribbling away on the scratch paper. He asked for my left palm. When I showed it to him, his eyes lit up as he half-gasped/half-chuckled before giving me the thumbs-up sign.

That reaction was more animated than what I’m used to, but I wasn’t moved. All fortune-tellers are impressed with my palm – I’ve got good lines. And this one didn’t tell me anything interesting or that I haven’t already heard from the others. One of his first pearls of insight was that I lead a very independent life. Holy crystal ball, we have a Prophet Laureate - his powers really are special. I had just sauntered into his sketchy basement with an unsilenceable American accent, carrying an oversized “THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE” bag (with the top of a 10-pound burlap sack of basmati rice sticking out of it) over my shoulder in a neighborhood that views the English language as an afterthought. It took the incense, palm lines, and shell-throwing drill to conclude that nobody owns me?

Less than 15 minutes later, I was unceremoniously dismissed. No “thank you for coming” or “have a nice day” or “keep that million-dollar palm clean.” He suddenly lowered his eyes and became uncommunicative. When I turned around to say goodbye, he had come out of his pseudo-trance, graduating to contemplative humming.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cut

The film crew that’s been shooting a TV pilot in my neighborhood has overstayed its welcome. This isn’t the first production team that’s ever set up shop on my street, but all of the others stuck around for hours or days – not weeks. I’m living in an occupied zone – will the shooting never end?

Earlier this month, there was an extensive(yet evasive) notice on my apartment building’s front door, courtesy of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting, announcing what was about to happen, and encouraging residents to remain patient and cooperative. Years ago, I interviewed for a publicity job within that office, which very likely would have entailed the drafting of comparable memos - I came that close to being part of the problem.

It’s possible that they’re shooting some of their scenes in the middle of the night, while I’m tucked in my bed, dreaming about living in the woods. But from what I’ve witnessed, the occupiers’ favorite times to intensively shoot are during weekday rush hours. When you’re already running late for something important and your mind is elsewhere, there are few scenarios that will catch you more off guard than having a snotty production assistant glide out toward you from nowhere to curtly send you off on an alternative, more roundabout route. One of my neighbors just told me that there’ve been times in the past week when she wasn’t even given the option of an alternative route – she was imperiously instructed to stand in place and wait for a segment to conclude. When the crews aren’t around, they’ll leave their lines of plastic orange cones along the side streets, to remind us that they’ll be back.

As of about 3 years ago, whenever I watch a TV show or a movie that flashes to an outdoor scene that takes place in a densely-populated urban setting, I instantly wonder how many innocent civilian lives were temporarily disrupted by the process. And it’s such an obnoxious temporary disruption. By way of comparison, there’ve been construction crews that have worked in my neighborhood for long periods of time and, in spite of the noise, they were never any trouble. Those crew members were friendly and hardworking, as they performed a service that eventually produced materially beneficial results. But the people of the mainstream entertainment industry consider themselves part of a singularly elite class – their presence is our privilege. We give them our patient cooperation and they give us . . . yet another network-TV police drama (that I predict will be canceled within 14 months of its debut).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

April 5th

My dad is one of the biggest women’s sports enthusiasts I know. When I was back home last December, he demanded that I say goodbye to my Real Housewives of Beverly Hills rerun (right in the middle of the now-infamous dinner-party episode), so he could watch the UConn-Stanford women’s basketball rematch (the two powerhouse teams hadn’t faced each other since the 2010 National Championship game). My favorite childhood memory is of playing backyard-hoop basketball with him when I was 8 and 9 years old, and one of my biggest regrets is not having stuck with the sport much past that age. Another regret is not having gone to more women’s home basketball games during college, to more consistently support my school’s nationally-renowned lineup.

It’s March again and the real Madness is the media’s ongoing devaluation of the female ballers, which has led to the general public’s devaluation of the whole scene. The 2011 Women’s NCAA basketball tournament kicked off yesterday, and I had to get onto Google to track down the schedule since all of the mass e-mails I’m getting about brackets, and all of the televised coverage I’ve seen, are about the men’s match-ups. I’m bored. Thus far, the New York Times’s treatment of the 2011 Women’s Roundup has been deplorable, and this morning’s ESPN SportsCenter report was just as lacking.

Research has continually revealed that girls and women who play sports tend to be more self-empowered than the ones who don’t, as they’re more likely to view their bodies as functional instead of purely decorative. The more athletically-oriented girls and women I’ve ever spent time with have been palpably more take-no-shit confident, emotionally secure, and happier than the ones who aren’t. The media likes to seasonally promote individual women’s sports like tennis, figure skating, and gymnastics – the ones where young ladies wear short skirts or leotards, and artistry/the aura of traditional femininity is usually more of the allure than raw athleticism.

There are a number of women’s games today on ESPN2 – a station that has also brought jump-roping competitions into our lives. This year’s Women’s NCAA Final Championship game is on April 5th – the night after the men’s business is officially squared away.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Suitability

I own a grand total of two business suits. Putting one on allows me to play a rousing game of dress-up. About 4 times a year, I become an actress, posing as someone who’s eminently concerned with rules, decorum, and color-coordinated camisoles.

I had to wear one of the suits all day on Friday, and haven’t had a day like that since the last time I wore one. People receive you differently when you clean up nice; the VIP treatment can have entertainment value. When I walked into an early-morning subway car, I was put in charge. I could do no wrong, and had everyone minding their p’s and q’s. People who weren’t in my way acted as though they were, nervously “excuse me, miss”-ing me. I was heading toward the Wall Street area, and looked forward to getting off the train, so I could blend in with all the rush-hour, business-clad pricks on the Lower Manhattan sidewalks. But since all the suits on those sidewalks were worn by men, a suited-up young woman turned out to be even more of a novelty than it had been underground.

I’ve always instinctively treated everyone (until they start acting up) as equals, no matter what they’re wearing, or how they look, or what they might be able to do for me. (In fact, I have a history of not getting along very well with the regular suit-wearers, as they’re often the ones who are up to the most mischief.) But most people aren’t like me. Authority figures, or those who look like they could be authority figures, are generally afforded more respect and better results.

Right now, there are a lot of mass protests and public demonstrations against organized bullshit, and I’ve sized up a lot of the footage. When you want something from someone, when you want someone to listen to you, presentation can matter as much as your underlying principles. Looking good will always be a form of power and there’s a way to leverage that power into something productively progressive. It doesn’t have to mean wearing a business suit or a party dress or paying lots of money or selling out. But it does mean understanding that presentation is a secret weapon that shouldn’t be discounted as a means of supplementing substance.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Freedom from Fishbowls

At my awesome day job, I’m lucky to have my own office with huge windows. I usually keep my door closed, in order to quietly plug away or blast good music.

Most of this closed door’s surface area is dominated by yet another window – one through which I’m carefully watched by all who meander around the outside hallway. The meanderers are rarely shy about venturing into my inner sanctum (with many feeling free to burst in without knocking) to talk about work, keep me abreast of the goings-on in their personal lives, or interrogate me about something they saw me do during their hallway surveillance. The door-window’s glass is perpetually smudged with the remnants of grubby fingertips. A former employee once pressed her upturned nose to the glass, while breathing heavily, to get my attention; if I look closely enough, I can still see traces of her legacy.

Whenever I desperately need a breather from the cage, I take a meal break at a drab deli a few blocks away, where no one I know would ever think to come looking for me. The food isn’t great, but I’ve had worse – like in my own kitchen. But I’m there to hide well, not eat well.

Everyone else who goes there is clearly doing the same thing, and the only business people mind is their own. There’ll be the occasional pair of friends loudly whisper-arguing about whose life is more hellish, but most people sit solo, slowly chewing in deep thought. Some look driven – you can visualize the wheels turning in their heads as they silently chart out possible next steps that could turn their circumstances around. Others seem more resigned to the under-satisfying cards they’ve been dealt.

This must be what the dining halls looked like in Soviet-era Eastern Europe. Your food is thrown onto a big, red plastic tray that’s not as cute or as sturdy as the ones I remember from my junior high school’s cafeteria. Uncovered wires peek out from the paint-chipped walls, all under dim lighting. This time of year, the premises are so drafty that diners often sit on the wooden-bench seats eating their soup and sandwiches without ever taking off their bulky parkas and winter hats. There’s only one window, and I’m usually the only one who opts to sit near it.

A few afternoons ago, I returned to my beloved bunker after having been away for months, and was relieved to see that nothing has changed. In between plastic spoonfuls of an edible paper bowl of spicy tofu stew and reading the latest issue of Newsweek, I was taking notes on everything going on around me – the pleasant loner seated two tables to my right looked like she was too.

I’ve always had a knack for finding unobvious oases in the middle of chaos. They’re usually outdoors, amid lots of grass, trees, and chirping birds. But in this town, even in Central Park (the entire west-side length of which I walk through 5 days a week), it can be hard to find public space that feels private and keep other people’s smudges off your glass.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Ghetto Air Era

During our early teenage years, my best friend and I fantasized about hanging out at our local airport as soon as we got our driver’s licenses. Our plans included making appearances at the soft pretzel stand, joyriding up and down the moving walkways, and supervising the taxiing planes from our window perches.

Since then, I’ve done time in a lot of airports and on a lot of aircrafts and have stopped taking this whole industry too seriously. My dad has told me about the heyday of commercial air travel, back when “flying used to be a pleasure.” Even I can remember what it was like to jet-set in the mid-‘90s through the mid-2000s and not have to pay for checked-in luggage or tote around my own bag of nuts to stave off in-flight hunger pangs. If I ever fall into money, my second or third large-scale luxury purchase will have to be a very private jet that can accommodate backyard pickups.

I couldn’t afford a non-stop flight to Seattle last week, which meant another borderline ordealish round-trip cross-country journey. At an overpriced lunch at O’Hare during a 4-hour layover, a chilly Chili’s waitress judgmentally carded me for a midday margarita. A series of gruff flight attendants (whose airline can’t be bothered to gate-check larger carry-on items) busted up my once-beautiful TJ Maxx rolling suitcase by re-jamming it into the overhead bins in ways that would “make it work.” Right before one connecting flight’s take-off, a medium-grade passenger riot erupted immediately behind me, due to the outrage surrounding the aging swinger in 15B’s use of an entire overhead compartment to daintily lay out his tuxedo. There was a special pre-landing announcement: “If we need to make an emergency evacuation, please don’t bring your carry-ons with you.” That had to have been directed at Monsieur 15B – we all knew he would hold up any harrowing emergency exiting procedures by bumbling around for and maniacally safeguarding his trifling tux during a potentially fatal water landing.

Every single connecting flight was packed to full capacity with the dazed and disgruntled, and I can’t tell if the seats in coach are getting smaller or if I’m getting bigger. On one connecting flight, my seatmate spent the better part of our 4-hour union unsubtly craning his neck to read the pages of my opened book. The words at the very top of the last page he scanned were: “MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER! I can yell. MOTHERFUCKERMOTHERFUCK! It’s a kidney stone. I wake up and am drugged.”

After returning to Laguardia, there was an unstable-sounding woman sitting behind me on the city bus that goes into Upper Manhattan. A Rihanna song blasted from her headphones, and she unselfconsciously sang along to most of it, all off-key. I looked up when she later passed by - it was one of the flight attendants from my final connecting flight.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Enumerating the Real Priorities

Two people in my midst brought up their “bucket lists” last week. Bucket lists are personal lists of things to do before you’ve got the Grim Reaper on your ass, and I’m sick of hearing about them. That’s the line of thinking that spawned the compilation of my “Fuck-It List.”

Unfortunately, I’m not the first rhyming pisser to have come up with this term. Go ahead and Google “Fuck-It List” to catch a glimpse of just how many have beaten me to the creditably caustic punch. Since beating them is no longer an option, I’m honored to join them - what follows is a non-exhaustive list of things I will NOT do before I die:

1. Stop eating meat
2. Have a blessed day
3. Wear high heels
4. Set foot in the state of Arizona without a bulletproof vest, a bulletproof hat, and a licensed civil rights attorney at my side
5. Cut back on the cursing
6. Remain neutral
7. Snorkel
8. Suck up to management
9. Pay someone to clean my house or do my laundry
10. Quit while I’m ahead

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Life as a Brainwashee

As an on-again, off-again recreational runner, I’m more likely to keep the habit going if I have something to “train for.” A few weeks ago I registered for a 5K in Central Park, scheduled for yesterday morning, and sponsored by a group that supposedly puts entry-fee proceeds toward ballroom dancing lessons for inner-city schoolchildren.

Shorty got her jaded ass up at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday for this. I ran a couple of road races in 2007, neither of which involved rising with the sun, and both of which delivered some exciting paraphernalia, such as official scoring chips to tie into my shoelaces, unlimited bagels and fruit at the finish line, and T-shirts (one of them long-sleeved).

The ballroom dancers look down on such frivolous fanfare. According to their website, in the interest of carbon-footprint reduction, no welcome bags or T-shirts would be on hand at this 5K because “people have been brainwashed by our society to take home a tangible item [from] every event they attend. This is asinine . . .”

I’ve never thought of myself as even gullible, so the cult leaders must have quite a hold on me - I get off from collecting at least one tangible souvenir from every function that has been at least partially funded by my hard-earned money. I still wear my T-shirts from the 2007 road races - not in public; but they’re comfortable to lounge in while awaiting my next set of mind-control directives.

Yesterday’s run was slated to begin at 8 a.m. When I arrived at the starting point at 7:41, no one else was there. There was no tent or sign-in table; no banners or balloons. By 7:55 about 10 other registrants were milling about in full-on “What the Fuck?” mode. It was troubling that, if this thing ever took off, there would be so few participants. With most NYC road races, you’re one of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of other runners, so it’s easy (and part of the fun) to get lost in the crowd. Whereas an 11-person road race would be more like a road chase. The two fitness guru-looking dudes (“wanna go to the gym after this?” one of them asked the other after they had jogged up to the meeting place together) would lead the pack in an effortless sprint, while the rest of us would frantically hustle to avoid being the last person to cross the finish line. But, in the end, there was no need to worry about pulling up this caravan’s rear, as the show did not go on.

At 8:05, after saying my goodbyes to the person I’d been standing around bitching with since 7:46, I rolled into Dunkin’ Donuts, drank a large coffee, and went back to bed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Surreal Housewives of Westchester County

I break out of NYC every chance I get and spent this past weekend in the suburbs, visiting one of my married-with-children friends. On Saturday afternoon, we went to a two-year-old’s birthday party at a Gymboree-style merriment center that features a big room full of things to safely bounce around on. I couldn’t wait – there’s no better place to get an above-average-quality piece of cake than a rich toddler’s birthday bash. If you know how to work it, 1 mouth-watering piece can seamlessly turn into 2, and then 3. But on the drive over, my friend solemnly warned me that we were about to spend the next couple of hours with some serious assholes.

Where I come from, the hosts of a party are supposed to warmly (or at least fakely) greet, and go through the motions of catching up with, all of their guests. Especially at an event that’s for the children. This birthday boy’s parents marched to the beat of a drum that shouldn’t ever be available on the market. The dad whiled away the time talking shop with the handful of other dads who showed up, as the mom was talking shit with her fellow Stepford Wives-in-training.

My friend was the only working mom in the room and probably one of the only working moms at her son’s preschool. Moms who have held onto their careers are still viewed suspiciously in this community. I grew up in a suburb that’s similar to this one and, although my townsfolk had significantly stronger social skills than these former Manhattanites, there was the same flavor of unspoken tension between the moms who worked full-time and the moms who didn’t. There are members of each group who second-guess the choices they’ve made to the point of developing an inferiority complex that’s publicly projected as a superiority complex in an attempt to save face. Now that there are finally more stay-at-home dads in the picture, it’ll be interesting to see if and how this dynamic shifts. But if the dads who were at this party represent any indication of what’s to come, the future is sure to be as comical as the horrified expression on one of their wives’ faces as she watched her giggling daughter fall onto a well-cushioned mat from no higher than two feet up.

These kids’ moms sequestered themselves from us workers at their own loss. There’s a lot we could have contributed to their loud, impassioned, wild-eyed conversations, particularly the one about multigrain tortilla chips. The consensus was that Whole Foods is the most respectable place to buy a bag. I’ve been boycotting Whole Foods for about 11 months, and it made me smile to imagine how much wilder all of their eyes would have become if I had explained the reasoning behind my resistance.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Tech Independence Movement

Ever since the late spring of 2005, many of my acquaintances between the ages of 16 and 45 have mocked me for maintaining an old-school, fake leather-bound day planner/address book that I carry with me almost everywhere I go. Members of the cool crowd tend to be comfortable with exclusive reliance on their portable electronic devices for the storage of certain data. I generally regard people in the conventionally cool crowd the way I regard their pieces of up-to-date technology – they look good, but I don’t completely trust them.

When the salesman at Sprint (the only large, publicly-traded company that’s never once let me down) handed me my new multimedia phone yesterday, he suggested that I would have to inconvenience myself by visiting an out-of-the-way repair center in order to have my old phone’s contact log transferred into the new phone. I wasn’t surprised by how surprised he looked when I told him about my system - I have the current numbers of everyone I care about backed up in the 1990s-style address book that’s been the subject of so much ridicule. When I was traveling for work last year and stayed with a friend, after she dropped me off at the place where my conference was being held, I realized that I left my phone at her house. If her cell number hadn’t been written down in my special place, I wouldn’t have been able to quickly get ahold of her so she could bring me the phone later that morning - and if I hadn’t had that phone with me during this conference, my day would have been unforgettably derailed.

My computer’s less-than-one-year-old hard drive crashed last week and the great minds at Dell have yet to send the correct replacement equipment. For the past 8 days, I haven’t been able to work on my writing projects or access the Internet from home, and I don’t really care that much anymore. I’ve been writing down and organizing my creative thoughts on paper and 75% of what I use the Internet for is bullshit that I can easily resume from my office computer or the multimedia phone. And with this unexpected free time that’s opened up, I’ve spent the past week taking care of tasks I’ve been putting off for months like shopping for corduroy pants and sports bras, getting a modern-day cell phone, and reading The Vagina Monologues.

As inept as Dell is, I’m pretty confident that this vacation from one of my routines is going to come to an end within the next few days. It was relaxing while it lasted.

Monday, January 24, 2011

One-On-One, One by One

I wish I could turn the clock back to college. I never wanted it to end. I’m infatuated with my alma mater and, when the time comes, I want my ashes scattered across a certain spot of my campus’s botanical gardens, where I used to nap, eat burritos, and daydream about moving to the English countryside in between classes.

I sometimes send the university’s Annual Fund committee a check for $50, but I mainly give back to the school that has given so much to me by serving as an alumni admissions interviewer. Every admissions season, I interview a few of the local high school seniors who have applied to my second home. I’ve been stuck with my fair share of unimpressive clowns, who don’t know what state the school’s located in or who respond to my open-ended questions with one-sentence answers. But I usually end up meeting 17- and 18-year-olds who kind of blow my mind – the two young women I spent Saturday morning with fall into this category.

When I arrived at the café 10 minutes early, I saw another person on the other side of the room who also looked like she was waiting for someone. I initially ruled her out as even possibly being a high schooler waiting for a college interview because she looked too pulled together and mature - she was more likely to be one of the Columbia grad students who live in the neighborhood. When we finally got down to business, she turned out to be smarter and more interesting than any of the neighborhood Columbia grad students that I’ve dealt with – at age 16. After the interview officially ended, we sat around for another 30 minutes, idly chatting about the recent gentrification of West Harlem (and about a little fix I got myself into on the island of Puerto Rico last fall), until my second interviewee showed up.

The next kid looked and sounded exactly like the actress who played the lead role in Juno. She was much less calm, cool, and collected than the first interviewee, in a way that was refreshingly charming. She’s already been served a heavy dose of suffering, the magnitude of which I didn’t have any experience with myself until my mid-20s. So she now has that cynically optimistic bent toward self-assured risk-taking that usually only takes root in those who feel like they have nothing left to lose.

Hardly any of the kids I interview end up getting in. But the ones I like know that those rejection or waitlist letters aren’t my fault. I always tell my favorites just how special I think they are. And then I save their names and e-mail addresses in a carefully labeled folder, because I might need one of them for a job one day.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Finding Faith in Something

As I was teetering across a sheet of unshoveled ice on Central Park West one morning last week, a young foreign tourist jumped up from her bench to ask me if I knew where the nearest church was. I know my way all around the Upper West Side, but there’s never been a time when I’ve paid attention to its places of worship. “What kind of a church?” I asked, to buy time. “Any kind,” she said, distressfully staring me down as though she might kill herself if she didn’t get situated in a pew within the next hour or so. Behind us, her man stayed put on the bench, unconcerned as hell.

After I skated away, I tried putting myself in her shoes, imagining how a church visit might ever possibly be able to help me through a particularly bad or sad time. I eventually figured out where she was coming from, without having to dig too deep. Whenever I was taken to a church service as a chronically skeptical child, the candles, the lighting, the stained-glass windows, and the sounds of the organ kept me calm. Freshman year of college, I almost auditioned for my university’s Chapel Choir (which seemed to have much lower selection standards than the other campus singing troupes) to prolong my tenure as a low-level amateur vocalist. Over the years, I’ve sat in churches for weddings, baccalaureates, and speeches, and I’ve hidden out in a couple of them when I’ve been umbrellalessly caught in the rain. Earlier today, I ended up in a church for a Martin Luther King, Jr. remembrance service (the same church where King once delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” address). On none of these occasions was I ever in a big hurry to leave. So being on the inside of a church must be that much more soothing for the people who actually believe in most of what those buildings stand for.

The Central Park West tourist looks at churches the way I look at my books, my music, and a couple of other outlets. It’s the same void, filled via a different venue. We’re both lucky to dependably have somewhere to turn when our hours get dangerously dark.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

D.D.S. Now Stands for “Dentistry’s Downward Spiral”

Unlike most people, I used to love going to the dentist. My family’s dentist is the cream of the crop and I respect him the way practicing Catholics respect the Pope.

He kept critically-acclaimed children’s books and magazines in his waiting room, and one of my most vivid childhood memories is of trying to teach someone how to read while waiting for one of my parents to come out of the examination room. As end-of-appointment freebies, all patients were given the good, small-headed toothbrushes and packs of Trident gum. Classical or opera music always played in the background and while scraping away at my teeth, he would unpretentiously talk about something compelling he had just read or watched on PBS the night before. On top of the intellect, he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever known.

Thoroughly spoiled by the relationship, I thought all dentists (and trips to the dentist) were like this. Having to find a new dentist in New York Shitty set me straight real fast. Instead of Oral-B toothbrushes and Trident, my first NYC dentist gave out cookies. A big Tupperware container of them sat on a table in the waiting room, along with a note reading: “Please Take One.” I usually took 4 or 5, and wrapped them up for the road. He once offered me a cup of coffee while I was reclining in an examination chair with a bib around my neck. Other inappropriate, unprofessional behavior followed in due course.

NYC Dentist #2 was better than the cookie monster, but that’s like comparing a deadbeat dad to a child molester. After confirming that NYC Dentist #1 was quackish, she gave me a root canal to correct a problem with a filling she claimed he had mishandled. She kept bankers’ hours and, with my full-time work schedule, setting up an appointment with her free clinic-style office became close to impossible. One morning, when I came in early, I overheard her joking around with her assistants about “black people’s” dental hygiene. And none of them are black. That appointment was our last.

I spent yesterday morning with NYC Dentist #3. Just as with #2’s office, it’s the kind of place that schedules about 5 people for the same time slot, so you end up sitting in the waiting room for an hour before you’re summoned. By the time I made it into the hot seat, I was starving and dozing off. I wanted some cookies and coffee. The hygienist bibbed me up and then turned a chairside television onto a startlingly strange cartoon show before taking off. If I’m going to be forced to watch TV, at least let me have something interesting like the Real Housewives or 16 and Pregnant. Or give me the remote.

When NYC Dentist #3 finally made her grand entrance, she was worth the wait. She appreciates the fine art of sarcasm and, aside from her telling me that I need to do a better job with my flossing, we had a very nice time together.

The whole ordeal took 2.5 hours – for a check-up and a cleaning. For something this simple, my family’s dentist would have had me in and out in less than an hour, during the course of which he may have softly recited lines from an obscure Alfred Tennyson poem. But, to paraphrase Tennyson, it’s better to have lost something great than to have never experienced that greatness at all.