Monday, May 16, 2005

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


The cavepeople are naked. The cavewoman has hairy breasts. I giggle. The caveman looks spectacularly dense. In another display, a hairy naked cavewoman chews on a piece of raw animal skin. I feel like breaking through the glass, capturing them and placing them in a real forest. They seem constricted, claustrophobic under that glass. I know how they feel. Sometimes New York gets to me too.


I buy a large Spanish-English/English-Spanish dictionary, a copy of Motorcycle Diaries in Spanish, and two Gabriel Garcia Marquez books in Spanish. Spanish is the language of the future for America. I must learn it. I make it through the introduction of Motorcycle Diaries before I abandon my linguistic studies for a less hectic time. Patria o muerte, I say. Hasta la victoria siempre. But right now, I’m too focused on New York.


Most of the time I don’t notice that I stick out in my neighborhood. Some days, though, particularly during the week when the weather is nicer and everyone is out on the streets, I suddenly feel very blonde and realize that I’m the only white person around. This elicits a sense of elation. I love being different.


One thing that makes New York less livable than DC is the lack of squares/circles. Logan Circle, Thomas Circle, Dupont Circle – DC is full of circles. Columbia Circle, Union Square – sure, there are such things in Manhattan, but for a city the size of New York, there is a definite dearth of circles/squares. Freud would probably accuse me of wanting to return to the womb with my desire to be surrounded by things in a comforting, spacious environment. I just think I’m a tad bit claustrophobic.


I agree with my boss who says that the Gates look like a huge series of Home Depot advertisements. Same color. Ugly. But while I am at the Metropolitan Museum one afternoon, I realize what this project is about. It isn’t art in the conventional sense – it’s social art – in a city where money determines your eligibility to the snobby art circles, the Gates deconstruct all class, race and social boundaries. Poor people have opinions on the Gates just as much as art snobs, and their opinions are just as good. I watch the people milling around in Central Park and see an incredibly successful social experiment, where public art has captivated the attention of a jaded city and set everyone to talking. Flocks of people are meandering Central Park in the dead of winter. I suddenly see a flicker of genius in Christo’s project.


They are tearing down the building across from my boss’s office. Gradually, brick by brick, they expose more of Central Park and the buildings beyond it. With that exposure, however, comes the knowledge that they will build it back up, into a newer, bigger, better building, brick by brick, until the view is gone again.


I convince my parents to buy me a beautiful giant white fox hat in Brighton Beach. I wear it all the way home on the subway, a ridiculously absurd figure in jeans, an orange jacket and a big white fur hat.


Most of the time the West Village annoys me, with its trendy hipsters, expensive restaurants, and feeling of forced revelry. Tonight, however, I like the Village, as we sit in a spacious and uncrowded Spanish restaurant, with heaping piles of food, multiple bottles of wine, and none of that rushed feeling that accompanies so many New York dining experiences. We’ve got time. The waiters have time. And there are plenty of empty tables.


On the weekend, 125th St. becomes a jumble of street vendors hawking incense, pirated DVDs, fresh fruit and books. The Nation of Islam folks are always out in full force too, selling their own books and haranguing against whitey. I love weekends in my neighborhood. By Monday, most of the vendors have packed up for the week. Next to our building, however, a tiny stall is manned by a lone figure, seemingly oblivious to the people walking by, who makes no effort to distribute his Lyndon La Rouche material. His dejection is palpable. Clearly, he realizes the futility of his cause.


New York is a great social lesson. It’s hard to live where I do and not gain a new appreciation for the working poor. It’s hard to see people forced out of neighborhoods as they get ‘gentrified’ and have to find lodging farther and farther away from Manhattan. It’s hard to see the projects right by you and not feel like something should be changed. Social justice stops sounding like aimless liberal drivel and begins to take on real meaning, particularly when juxtaposed with the hyper-rich folks elsewhere in Manhattan who walk their tiny dogs and dress them in little Burberry coats, because $100 is meaningless to them. I read Che and the subway and get angry. I realize I am part of the problem.


A few weeks ago I went with them to look at apartments in Brooklyn. They were talking about buying. Now they don’t even know if they’re getting married. Kurt Vonnegut said it best – And so it goes.


Carl Sandburg could write a poem that captured the essence of Chicago. No one could say it better. He defined the city. Hog Butcher for the World. Tool Maker. Stacker of Wheat. New York defies definition. I find myself unable to encapsulate my own experiences of New York into a briefly definable list of terms. That’s because New York is everything and anything you want it to be. Standing on my roof, I take a last drag off my cigarette and look out towards the lighted windows of the projects across the street.


We’re working on emails when my boss turns to me. “Maybe you should get married, in Arkansas or something, the Arkansas way, with the flowery skirt, barefoot, have six kids and work for me. How does that sound?” I’ve only been working there a month and I’m still wary of this Christian gig.

”Somehow that's not what I envisioned as my future career,” I say.

”What do you envision?” he asks. “I can see you as one of those lady swimmers - the ones who swim all together, in a group, and kick their legs in the air like this” (he gestures at this point, making scissoring motions with his fingers), “with the swim caps. You know what I mean?”

”Yeah, no,” I say flatly. “I'm not a very good swimmer, so I don't think so.”


I’ve never paid much attention to religious things. All at once, though, I am swamped by a barrage of religious imagery on my subway rides – homeless men preaching, gospel singers singing at the subway stop, people praying and crossing themselves on the subway. When you’re not looking, it’s not there. When you are it’s everywhere.


I stand at the 34th St. subway station, waiting for the D train. An effeminate black man dances, shaking every part of his body. He has no headphones. There is no music playing. He has a wild look in his eyes. He’s on something. Or just crazy. Some kids throw their trash at him and taunt him. His look of desperation and sadness deepens. He keeps dancing.


He buys me a beer. Goes back to talking with his friends. He buys me another one. They keep coming. Finally, I approach him and ask him what his name is. We start talking, him in his broken English, me in my slightly hyper tone. We talk for hours. I remind myself that he is a person, not just an anthropological study. Sometimes I lose track of that and am reminded of something someone once said about girls who seek out a variety of different men. He called them anthropologists. I don’t want to be one of them.


It’s my last day at work. Over the past few months I’ve grown from mockery of my job and the people at it to a certain respect. I get a call from my boss to come to his office. They usher me into the conference room. The entire floor has gathered for my surprise farewell party, and I receive presents. I do not expect this. My boss praises me effusively. I ask to say a few words.

“As some of you have probably figured out,” I say, “I’m not a particularly religious person. I was a bit worried when I took this job, through the temp agency. I didn’t know what to expect. What was a Christian organization going to be like? But everyone has been so immensely nice to me here, and so opening and welcoming, that I have had a wonderful few months. You have all been wonderful to work with and have restored some of my faith in Christianity. Thank you for this experience and for being such great people.”

And as I say it, I realize that I truly mean it. That is the most shocking moment of my stay in New York.


January 1, 2005 doesn’t dawn. Dawn is a soft, delicate word, associated with happy, fuzzy things, and puppies. January 1, 2005 steamrolls over me. It whips me. It buffets me. It catches me up in a tidal wave of nausea and lets me crashing down on jagged rocks of anguished pain. I know for sure now that mixing cheap champagne and vodka in the same glass was a horrible idea.


My boss tells me about his past. He tells me about smoking pot. About getting an older gay friend stoned for the first time. About a girl who was really into him and who swore she had never really had sex, even though she was pregnant. He tells me about his bad acid trip, and how he was eating licorice and it stuck in his throat like a giant pulsating worm, and how the people at the convenience store he went to turned into playing cards. Then we get back to working on emails.


I try to order the pastries by name, but although the pastries at the Hungarian Pastry Shop are authentically Hungarian, the clerks aren’t. Eventually I resort to pointing. They place the pastries in a white box. I watch them tie up my box of pastries with lengths of string, pulled from an old-fashioned metal dispenser that hangs from the ceiling.


“My son wanted to join the marines,” the chief mover tells me as he works his way through my inventory. “My father talked him out of it. He was in the marines. I was in the marines. At first I said sure, enlist, it’s not a bad thing. But my father said no way – talked my son out of it. It used to be a good thing. Isn’t anymore. If we didn’t have a bird-brain for a president it could still be a good thing. Hell, we wouldn’t even be in Iraq.”


The puppy stares out of the bag. This is no pampered pedigree bitch. It’s a dark mottled mutt. The puppy is wide-eyed but patient as the subway rattles and shakes.


I sometimes feel as if I spend most of my time underground. I’m developing a hallmark trait of the consummate New Yorker – the ability and willingness to discuss and weigh the merits and disadvantages of all of the possible subway routes to get to a certain destination.


Advertisement on the subway: Say what you will about wage slavery thwarting your self-actualization. You had a damn good health insurance plan. Health insurance and other benefits for today’s mobile workforce. Join now. – It’s time for a new “New Deal”


My boss tells me about his evening in the bar and a young lady there with friends who had a high-pitched, loud irritating voice. “I said to her, as I was leaving the bar: ‘Young woman, you have a voice that could drive a witch to suicide.’”


Spring has sprung in New York. I can no longer see through Central Park across to the other side through the naked branches. Instead, there is an explosion of bright green, only slightly mitigated by the ever-present black grime of New York. In a few weeks the colors will fade, but for now, the new leaves express their exuberant photosynthesis in bright, new colors.


A big ugly fly sits next to me on the couch. It’s the sort of fly that lives on farms, feeding on cow and horse dung. It’s the sort of fly that belongs in a zoo. I’m not sure where it came from. I watch it rub its front two legs together, then rub its face with them, in a universal fly ritualistic washing action. Then it rubs its back two legs together. It seems lost.


Brunch is the cornerstone of New York weekend life. Everyone does brunch. It’s the thing to do. We do brunch at a Belgian place. Everyone else orders omelets and waffles. I order the mussels cooked in white wine with french fries and beer. Long after everyone is done eating, I am still picking the tiny fragrant mussels out of their shells.


Some people have heroin. I have Strand. I fall in love with Strand when I discover a book by Trotsky about Lenin, in English in a 1920something edition for $10. I probably will never read it but it is unusual and has a place on my shelf. On a later visit, I find books by Nazarbaev and Karimov, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan respectively. I add to my ever-growing collection of used books, mesmerized by the never-ending, ever-changing selection. It’s an addiction.


Row upon row of gleaming chunks of meat glisten in the chill air of the cold room. It’s enormous, a vision of bloody butchery. Most grocery stores have a refrigerator section. Fairway has a cold room, with large, swinging doors that open into a seemingly never-ending vista of all types of meats, fish, and cold cuts. I buy ten pounds of beef and resist the urge to buy smoked pig trotters, smoked turkey necks, and beautiful big porterhouse steaks.


The girl at the laundromat knows me now. I’m the lone blonde girl. I also always have close to twenty pounds of laundry. I know the girl at the Laundromat. She has a dark pigmentation stain on the side of her face, marring an otherwise lovely complexion. She also often lacks change. I run across the street to the grocery store and buy a drink. She waits with my receipt, ready to write PAID on the top and send me on the way while she washes, dries, folds and carefully places my laundry in my laundry bag.


It’s the first beautiful day of pre-spring, and I walk home through Central Park. Unfortunately, so does the rest of New York. Or more precisely, the rest of the city seems to be out in full-force, mostly jogging, but also rollerblading, power-walking, and bicycling. There is very little meandering, and I wonder if this is the problem with New York. Even in Central Park, where people clearly are less focused on getting from point A to point B, no one takes time to ramble with leisure and most eyes are focused not on the trees and rocks, but on the ground beneath their feet.


I stand in line for White Castle behind an assortment of old toothless men, women with screaming children, and the occasional bum. The smell of steamed burgers permeates the air. I’m up. “Sack of ten cheeseburgers, large fries and large chicken rings,” I say. Life is perfect.

(To be continued...)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the only interesting blog I've ever read.

I don't read alot of them, but you've inspired me to read on...


11:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home