Friday, May 13, 2005

99 true stories about New York (Part I of III)

I've lived in New York for a tube and a half of toothpaste. That's how I measure time best, since my toothpaste consumption habit is the most constant thing in my life. My tube is almost empty now, and I’m getting ready to leave this great city for law school in Michigan.

When I moved here, with my half-empty tube of toothpaste, I wasn’t quite sure how New York my New York experience would be. One of the great things about this ever moving, never resting city, is that everyone’s New York is different. My New York manages to dart between the clichés, never quite getting trapped by them and etching out its own, relatively unbeaten path.


New York – the melting pot. Only, the term melting pot is too mundane. It sounds like something on a kitchen stove. In reality, New York is a crucible, a furnace, the fiery pit of Mount Doom, squelching humanity of all sorts into a tapestry (frayed and bloody in places) that runs both above ground and underground. At the same time, New York is a tossed salad, only again, the metaphor fails. Tossed salad implies all different species cohabiting under the same salad dressing. New York is more of a giant jar of jelly beans, with all different flavors, the beans protected from losing their flavor by their hard sugary shell, until the furnace melts them down into a big, sticky lump. We’re all people, after all.

The crucible of New York is most visible underground. Hot, smelly, dirty, throbbing—people lose class, ethnic, religious and racial differences when they’re all experiencing the same thing, taking the subway from wherever it is they’re at, to wherever it is they’re going. I love the subway system. I also use it a lot. It’s the most New York thing about New York.


Subways lend themselves well to internal soundtracks. I’ve always been attached to my portable music, but on the subways it becomes a religion. I carefully select what I listen to based on what I want to see in the faces of the people around me.


I take a subway home one night. It’s a Friday or a Saturday night, after 1. Most of the people are drunk. After we pull out of 59th St., someone lights up a cigarette in the subway car and starts smoking. No one says anything. I smile and bop my head to my music.


I take a subway out to Brighton Beach with my parents on Saturday afternoon. The subway runs above ground in Brooklyn. We get on the subway at U street. “Smells like skunk,” my mom says, wrinkling her nose. “That ain’t skunk. It’s the finest government-issued, government-approved chronic,” says a man in the corner of the car, taking a toke off his joint. We move to the other end of the car. He rants and raves about the Russian mafia, and how they’re pushing everyone else out of Brooklyn. “The Russian mob,” he says fervently, “they’ll kill you three times before you even hit the ground.” Then he starts trying to kick out the doors and windows of the subway car.


I’m taking the subway home, dressed all in black, with a spiked leather collar and big black platform boots. A similarly dressed twentysomething man sits down across from me. He has some pitchfork-looking sign tattooed on his chin, and an ugly skull with a spider web around it tattooed all over his left hand. His bottom lip has two lip rings in it. He’s overweight, pasty, and clearly very serious about his appearance. I listen to music. We get to the 59th St. stop. The man in black gets up, and as he’s walking out, hands me a card. It’s a tattoo parlor card, and on the back he’s written his name and number. I’ve been hit on, entirely based on my dress. The shallowness makes me giggle.


I will forever associate New York’s subway system with Che Guevara and the soundtrack of the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. For a period of several weeks, I read Che on the subway and listen to the soundtrack, over and over again. There is something soothing about David Bowie sung in Portuguese when you’re reading about guerilla campaigns.


The first rat I see in New York is either at 125th St. or 34th St. – I don’t remember which now. It’s a fairly large rat. I don’t mind rodents. No one else in New York really seems to mind them either. The rat scuttles across and under the tracks and disappears.


The first raccoon I see in New York is in Central Park, right across from the Natural History museum. It sits in a tree, peering at people, trying desperately to look like a koala. People stop, stare and take pictures. It might as well be a koala.


It’s January or February, I think. It’s supposed to snow all day. Already, the snow falls constantly and regularly. I’ve decided to walk from 125th St. to 3rd St. In the snow. I bundle up until I look like the kid brother from A Christmas Story and head out armed with my mp3 player and headphones. Charles Mingus escorts me through the soft, white snow, a perfect wintery accompaniment. Ice and snow encrust my eyebrows, eyelashes and exposed hair. I begin to garner stares. Everything is magical when white, coated with a temporary radiantly ethereal beauty. Every moment seems frozen, every scene a tableau. I always dreamt of New York like this. This afternoon, it is perfect. A scene from Fisher King enters my head as I feel like humming “I love New York in June,” only it’s not June and I’m thankfully not naked in Central Park.


New York has a Communist bookstore. It’s one of the first places I go by myself in New York. It’s called Revolution, and the man behind the counter is grizzled and paunchy, and a fervent Communist. I’m just looking for some Che Guevara. I’ve searched everywhere else. He doesn’t seem to like Che much. He’s more of a Sovietist – a Leninist-Marxist-Stalinist. I chat with him for a while, then I leave. I can’t help but think that he would have very different views on the Soviet system if he’d ever actually been there.


Bobby Burns night I get belligerently drunk. What do you expect? It’s a celebration of a Scottish poet, and everyone knows about Scots and their drink. I also read several poems in a drunk Scottish accent, until I am bodily removed from the center of attention, or so they say. I don’t quite remember. I’m no timorous, cowering beastie, though! So I pick a fight with one of my best friends. Seems like a really good idea at the time.


I get drunk enough at the Russian Vodka Room that I’m shoveling salmon caviar down my throat. I like caviar about as much as my cat likes going to the vet. Which is to say, I really don’t like caviar. But by this point I’ve consumed enough vodka to thoroughly numb my mouth and throat, and my liver has begun exuding vodka fumes through my skin. The caviar is salty. That’s about all I can tell. I then apparently engage in lively conversation with the young men at the table next to me about folk music and Russian music in general. Oddly enough, I have no recollection of this the next morning.


“Are you sure you don’t have any amphetamines?” my boss asks. For the hundredth time I shake my head and say “no, I don’t,” and smile.


We watch Kontroll, a Hungarian movie about the Budapest subway system. We are at the Angelika, and every now and then the floor grumbles ominously as a subway passes underneath. On screen, the Budapest metro hurtles through dark tunnels. It’s almost a sensory overload.


The documentary is about deep sea life, and we don’t realize until we get to the IMAX theater that it is in 3D. The strange looking ribbon-like creatures swim towards us, almost close enough to touch. Looking around, we’re a bunch of dorks, stoners, kids, and parents, with silly-looking glasses perched on our noses.


Although my headphones are on and I’m reading Mao’s book on guerilla warfare, the young man next to me on the subway begins to talk to me. I take my headphones off. He looks at my book and tells me that he likes Mao. He is Chinese and his English is accented, but he has clearly been in the U.S. a while. “Mao had a great sense of humor,” he tells me. “He was also a brilliant leader – do you know the story of how he crossed the river several times to throw the enemy off his tracks?” I smile and nod and try desperately not to mention the Cultural Revolution as a clear manifestation of Mao’s humor.


We’re at dim sum at the Golden Unicorn in Chinatown. My mom has never had good dim sum before, and I’ve managed to recruit my friends to bask in the weirdness that is my parents. We eat and eat and eat – my mom insists on ordering just about everything in sight, and multiple plates of it. But still, she wants duck. There is no duck to be found. Just as I’m suggesting that we get the check since we’re all stuffed, she dives out of her chair, and reemerges with a plate of duck. How she knew that the cart behind her had, among its other things, a single plate of duck, I will never know, but at long last, she is content.


“Do you like to be dominated?” he asks me in the bar. “You look like you like to be dominated.” He’s wearing an argyle sweater and his eyes have a cold, dead edge to them. I disengage and tactically maneuver myself so that I am surrounded by larger males. Luckily this is a Fark party, and I receive plenty of backup. The sleaze eventually leaves, ignored by everyone and blocked out of conversations.


A young black man gets on the subway as I’m riding home late one night. I have my headphones on, but he seems to be addressing the tired crowd. I pause the music. He’s reciting a poem. About being black, about the Harlem Renaissance, about Orpheus, about literature in general. Unlike the clichéd break-dancers, he offers a snippet of culture to the passengers. I’d give him money as he comes through looking for donations but it’s my stop and I’m broke.


Subway cars often have warning signs – don’t stand too close to the edge, report all suspicious objects, etc. This is one I haven’t seen before. It shows a muscular, tall young black man holding on to the outside of the subway car. “This may be his last ride,” it says, or something to that effect. I am mesmerized and suddenly want to seek out these joy-riders. I wonder how many young people are inspired rather than discouraged by this particular warning. Personally, I’d think showing a mangled corpse on the sign would be more effective.


I used to work in a lab where I killed and dissected mice on a regular basis. Rodents simply don’t bother me. So when we discover that we have a mouse problem in our apartment, I shrug it off. Until I go to brush my teeth one Saturday night at 2:30 am, somewhat drunk. There, on the corner of the sink counter is a little tiny brown mouse. At this point I am wearing a towel. Nothing else. But this is too good of an opportunity to let go. So I grab the mouse by the tail and pick it up.

The mouse squirms. I feel elation, and a feline sense of pride. The logical thing to do is to exit the bathroom, clinging to the towel with one hand and the mouse with the other and shout. I yell at my housemates to come see. We have visitors sleeping on the couch. They’re quickly woken up. I must seem like a mad apparition, dangling this mouse while wearing a towel and yelling. One housemate finally emerges. I ask him for chopsticks. At this point he hesitates, and I wonder if he’s torn between calling the psychiatric hotline or handing me the chopsticks.

Curiosity prevails. I am given the chopsticks. Still clinging to my towel, I place the mouse on the floor, take a chopstick, put it behind its neck, and pull the tail. The swiftest, most humane way to kill a mouse. Unfortunately, since I am a tad bit intoxicated, I doubt my killing skills – after all, the mouse is still reflexively twitching. So I repeat the process, a number of times, until the fur begins to rub off the poor mouse’s neck. At this point I put it in the trash and get ready for bed, feeling invisible whiskers twitching on my face.


I am not a morning person. I stand blearily in the shower, unwilling to admit that I have to get ready for work. That’s when I notice the cockroach sharing the tub with me. I watch it scuttle off behind a shampoo bottle. I finish showering, get out, and get dressed. It’s too early to be annoyed by roaches.


I finally understand what my alcoholic deceased great-aunt’s ‘stomach flu’ was all about. Aunt Betty’s stomach flu, we call it in my family. She frequently complained of mysterious stomach ailments, usually after a long night of drinking. That last mojito was probably one too many, I think, and promptly vomit into the toilet again.


I stare at people on the subway a lot. One time, I stare at this guy who is reading Dostoevsky’s Brother Karamazov. He is almost done. I want to start talking to him, but then I notice the wedding ring.


Much of the time, I think. I think about religion, politics, philosophy, life. I think about abstracts in concrete terms and concretes in abstract terms. The sprawling network of life that is New York is a mere shadow compared to the sprawl of the internet. Home is where the computer is. Nothing more.


I’m on my roof smoking when the oppressive feeling hits me for the first time – that feeling of narrowing space and endless buzzing. It hits me out of the blue, just as I take a drag off my smoke. There are buildings everywhere. And in each of those buildings, there are people. Everywhere I turn. Smelly, ugly, dirty people. I go to a peaceful place in my mind, a childhood spot of tranquility and nature. And by focusing on that spot, I am able to move beyond the oppression, although the crushing weight of a headache slowly descend on me.


The middle aged gay couple behind me complains throughout the concert about the dissonance of Ronnefeld. Every time instruments tune, they make the same tired quip about it sounding like a continuation of Ronnefeld’s pieces. I want them to hear themselves, but they are engrossed in their supposed witticisms.


I dream that I’m at Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor where Bob Dylan is signing his autobiography. In my dream, we start making out. The alarm wakes me up over and over again, but unwilling to let go, I postpone it and slip back into his embrace.


I don’t take photographs in New York. It’s all been captured a thousand times before. The image will be a stilted, artificial mockery of New York. New York moves constantly. There are always people, cars, trains, neon signs – my photography cannot capture this. Only my mind can.


There is a moment in every transplant to New York’s life when they realize they have stopped being tourists and suddenly feel like New Yorkers. It’s an epiphany when it happens. Hits you like a ton of bricks, and forever after you can point to that one specific moment and say ‘THAT – that instant is the moment when I first felt like a New Yorker.” For me that instant comes when I realize that I know what Dumbo is.


I’ve always wanted to see the Chinese New Year parade. And here I am, in Chinatown, stuffed with dim sum, the multi-legged dragon dancing down the street in front of me. Scruffy floats with bored looking passengers make their way behind the dragon. Kids set off confetti cannons in the crowded streets. We get caught in a maelstrom of people and are literally turned around and around, not going forward or backward, the eye of an exuberant storm. The motion becomes a blur as I suddenly feel like a motionless whirling dervish.


“See that,” my boss says, pointing at a picture of a young man in a motocross race. “That’s me. Would you believe it? Look at that long hair. And the motorcycle.” He chuckles. I believe it. That’s why we get along, my boss and I. He’s seen the world – the ups, the downs, the sinful and the wicked. He’s found the road to redemption, but his past is a large part of who he is and he has opted to embrace it rather than deny it. He’s a true Christian. We get along well.

(To be continued...)


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