Friday, May 29, 2009

New York Part IV - Interlude

I was a little depressed after I saw M off at the LIRR station, it was the first time in six days that I didn't have an agenda, and I wandered for a while looking for a slice of pizza at what looked like an authentic spot. I found a place, ordered a slice and a coke, and sat down at a booth across from a refuse container that had a piece of paper taped to it with the word “trash” written on it in blue crayon. The man who’d taken my order walked towards me with a bright orange tray in his hands.
“Signora,” he said as he approached me, “buon appetito.”
I ate my pizza, listened to Billy Joel’s “only the good die young” playing on the radio by the cash register, and considered my next move.

Then I wandered a bit until I happened upon a place called the Brooklyn Lyceum, which advertised free WiFi . For the price of a juice and a scone I sat for three hours, took six phone calls, and typed up notes. The café was attached to a rehearsal space, and the sounds of opera filled the air. I walked through the rehearsal in progress to get to the ladies room, overhearing the director giving notes:
“At that point Oscar makes his entrance, stage right…” the bathrooms were behind the stage, protected from view by lengths of plywood.

On the #77 bus from Smith & 9th street, I sat behind a quarreling young couple.
“Why are you looking out the window, I’m right here,” the woman said. The bus passed a store called 99 cent dreams, and a fast food place called U.S. Fried Chicken, where a man stood wearing a t-shirt with the words “Red Hook Old-Timers Day 2007.” At the Ikea stop a woman stood at the front of the bus engaged in an animated conversation with the driver. It seemed they were having a disagreement about the fare, but the conversation turned.
“Have a good night,” the driver said to her as she descended the front stairs of the bus.
“You too my love,” she said. I got off at the end of the line, and walked to Anne and Harold’s. Anne had grilled steaks in the backyard, and we ate in her kitchen, the back door open to the warm night. I told Anne that I’d seen street signs in her neighborhood for streets named Van Dyke and Beard.


The next day I visited my friends Mara and Sarah. Mara was visiting for a few months from Spain, where she now lives, and was staying at her stepmother’s house with her husband and young daughter. The house was filled with collections: books lined the walls of the living room; glass jars filled with screws, nuts and bolts took up an entire built-in shelving unit in the hall; and art was hung everywhere. There was copious handwritten signage - Mara’s stepmother took in borders and sometimes ran the house as a B&B. In the bathroom certain shelves were labeled “communal”, and a sticky note by the light switch in the hallway had the words “hall,” “stairs,” and “nothing” written with arrows pointing to the corresponding switches. At the base of the stairs a piece of paper read “no high heels or toxic chemicals on the stairs.” Hanging in the kitchen was a 1981 calendar featuring photos of whales and other marine life; Mara's stepmother had saved it, and the dates were the same as 2009. Sarah joined us, and Mara put on a pot of coffee.
“The coffee is making,” she said, “there’s chips and salsa, is anybody hungry?” We caught up with each other in the kitchen, Mara and Sarah discussing the trials and tribulations of parenthood, all of us talking about what we were doing in the world. I told Mara that I remembered a painting that used to hang in her father’s house that had the word “zaftig” in it.
"That’s a Peter Saul," she said, “he still has it.” Then I remembered one time when she had to write a paper that one of her classmates at Murrow had paid her to do for them. I was bored, so I offered to write it for her.
“I at least paid you, I hope," she said.
“I’m not sure you did. I do remember you telling me not to use too many fancy words though. You said ‘don't write things like due to the fact that, write things like because’."
“So you mean you were outsourcing papers that you were getting paid to write?" Sarah asked.

In the vegetable garden behind the house, two neighbors spoke to each other over a fence.

The hours passed, and as we got ready to part ways, Mara gave instructions to the boarder she’d hired as a babysitter for the night.
“Sometimes she takes a shit at six,” she said matter-of-factly, “you’ll smell it.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

New York, Part III - Immigrant Song


An extended remix of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blared out of a pair of computer speakers as we walked through the front door of Gabrielle’s co-op in Clinton Hill, her two kids dancing and watching their reflection in a mirrored wall. Her aging dog Basil instantly took to M; in previous visits he focused his energy on nipping at my heels for the entirety of my stay, creating a persistent drag on the back of my feet as I made my way around the apartment. Gabrielle had hired a babysitter for the evening and took us to Habana Outpost, a solar-powered restaurant that uses compostable cutlery, and features a bicycle powered smoothie machine.

I knew Gabrielle in junior high school at I.S.88, and we recently reconnected through facebook. I visited her last December to see her for the first time since 1985, and apart from the trappings of our adult lives it was as if no time had passed - she had the same mannerisms and feisty energy that she had when we were preteens, only now she has a three year old and a six year old who match her in spirit, and she runs her own kids clothing and toy resale boutique called Still Hip. I was thrilled to finally introduce her to M, and the two of them hit it off, discussing art and politics like old friends and laughing at each other’s jokes.

When we got back, she asked the babysitter how things had gone.
“Did they go to bed okay?”
“Yeah, we watched a movie and then they went to bed,” the babysitter said.
“Anything exciting happen?” Gabrielle asked as she emptied the contents of her purse onto the kitchen table.
“D told me that his penis was hot, and that it was probably because of the bone inside it.”

I removed the yellow vinyl covered cushions from the 1970’s era Castro Convertible in the living room, and pulled it out into its bed form. Gabrielle got some sheets and pillows for us, and we settled in for the night.

In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gabrielle and her children readying themselves for the day, and then headed out to the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd street. In the ladies room a grey-haired woman wearing hand tooled silver jewelry watched as I tried to pull a paper towel from the dispenser.
“He always packs them so tight,” she said as I pulled off bits and corners, “and you end up with twelve.” She watched me dry my hands, and when I opened the bathroom door said “you realize what you just did, don’t you?”
“No,” I said.
“You just washed your hands, and then touched the doorknob.” She paused for effect, looking me in the eye and waiting for me to recognize the unspoken horror of public bathroom germs. “I always take an extra paper towel to open the bathroom door,” she said as we parted ways. On the first floor as I was taking in the exhibit of Paula Nadelstern’s kaleidoscope inspired quilts, I saw her again. She smiled and said: “You won’t soon forget me.”

Our main reason for going to the museum was to see the work of Henry Darger, a self-taught Chicago artist who worked as a janitor and was a recluse; his copious works were discovered only after his death in 1973. We’d seen his work in Chicago and Switzerland, but his work is so extensive that we’ve still only seen a small portion of it. He created a fantasy world where little girls are at war with evil men, their struggle depicted in words and illustrations on reams of paper, whatever kind he could get his hands on.

Then we saw the work of Ulysses Davis, including busts of every single President of the United States from George Washington to George H.W. Bush, who was in office at the time of his death in 1990. His bust of Jimmy Carter had peanuts carved into the base; he used the 39th President as a subject five times over the course of his life. A security guard who resembled a Davis sculpture stood in a corner in his blue uniform watching me, and I couldn’t help looking back at him as if he were part of the exhibit.


Back in Brooklyn, our friends Anne and Harold picked us up in Clinton Hill and drove us to our next overnight locale in Red Hook. Harold took us on a tour of the neighborhood, driving through cobbled streets, and passing shipping containers and old buildings with nautical stars affixed to their sides. H.P. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook" was set here, and the neighborhood has a long history of longshoremen and mafia activity - Chicago's own Al Capone was born in the area. In recent years it has become a quiet outpost for those who long for affordable housing and a more relaxed neighborhood; it has also become home to a Fairway food store and an Ikea, and both bus lines that serve the neighborhood have altered their routes to stop in front of the Swedish megastore. Most city views of the Statue of Liberty are from behind, but she proudly faces Red Hook, which boasts the best city view of the statue that can be found. We stopped at a park and walked out onto a pier to get a good look at her, and watched a tugboat pass by.

Then we went to Alma, a Mexican rooftop restaurant that had a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline, and headed to the two floor brick house that Anne and Harold share with an aging Weimaraner named Nikon. They showed us the garden they’ve been cultivating in their back yard, and the box manufacturing factory across the street from them. It was so quiet it felt like we were in a small town, one with no subway and a local economy based on fishing.

The next morning we slept in, and spent a leisurely hour drinking Harold’s own roast of coffee in the kitchen with Anne. M was heading back to Chicago later that afternoon and we had plans to see the Brooklyn Museum before he got back on the LIRR to Ronkonkoma. We called a car service - Red Hook is a ways from the closest subway stop, and a van with a missing side view mirror pulled up to the house driven by a grey-haired man wearing plastic framed glasses. The heat was blasting in the backseat, although it was 85 degrees outside. M asked him to turn it off, and we rode for fifteen minutes from Red Hook to Eastern Parkway. As we pulled into the driveway of the Brooklyn Museum M put his hand in his pants pocket, turned and looked at me with a childlike blankness on his face, and said quietly:
"My wallet…" I froze, anxiety dripping from the crown of my head over my face like a cracked egg. I said nothing and opened my wallet, hoping I had enough cash to pay the driver.

Suddenly a lazy 85 degree afternoon in Prospect Park and a museum visit became a horrible game show in which we had three hours to figure out where M’s wallet was, retrieve it, and get him on the LIRR to MacArthur Airport in time to catch his flight back to Chicago.
"What should we do?" M asked.
"I just have to take a piss," I snapped, "and then I’ll figure it out". We walked through the entrance of the Brooklyn Museum and I found the ladies room, and considered the options as a raging torrent of urine exited my body. I found M waiting on a bench in the atrium, sitting across from a man who was making strange barking sounds. Two workers dressed in blue coveralls looked in the direction the barking man, then at each other, their bodies rocking in silent laughter.

"First, we’ll call Anne and see if you left your wallet at her house," I said, "then we’ll call Southwest and see if we can switch your flight to tomorrow." Anne was home and M’s wallet and phone were sitting on a chair in her house, but the only flight the next day left at 7:30 in the morning, connected through Baltimore, and would cost an extra $180. The next hour and a half was spent largely in taxis and car services, one of them driven by a young man wearing a New York Yankees cap that still had the sticker on it. The word “grandma” was tattooed in script on his left arm and he was eating McDonald’s when he picked us up. On the back seat a receipt for a $35 moving violation with his name and date of birth printed on it was in plain view, and two pungent air fresheners shaped like trees hung from the rear view mirror. I mouth breathed the whole time we were in the car.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

New York, Part II - Dad

After washing up in Jorge's tiny shower, I pulled a towel off its rack without even fully extending my arm from where I stood in the tub. Raising my left arm to apply deodorant I banged my hand against the shower curtain rod. As we readied ourselves to leave the apartment, dad called my cell phone to confirm our plans to meet in Chinatown for dim sum. These were well made plans; dad had sent several emails to me over the past weeks confirming and re-confirming. We had tentative plans to go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum afterwards, and I set my phone down for a moment while I went to find the paper where I’d written the museum’s address. When I picked the phone back up, dad was in full soliloquy mode; he’d been talking the entire time that I’d been looking for my piece of paper. It took me five tries before I could break in to the conversation.
“The Teneme… the Teneme…. the Teneme…. the Teneme…. The Tenement Museum is on Orchard Street,” I finally managed, “we won’t be far from there.”

We took the 1 train back to 34th street to drop off our luggage with Jorge before heading to Chinatown. A little girl with large brown eyes and long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail sat across from us on the train, her mighty cheeks drooping downwards. She fidgeted with a Metro card as her legs dangled six inches above the floor, her eyes meeting my gaze occasionally. I smiled at her, and she regarded me with a serious expression. She got off the train with her mother at 96th street.

The journey to Jorge’s office was rife with repeat experiences from the night before - the train stopped at 125th street, which was the stop before Grand Central on the Metro-North train from New Haven; we got off at 34th street, where M and I had met up the previous evening; and the same man who’d approached me with an empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup stood in almost the exact same spot as I’d first seen him, this time standing behind a card table set up for donations to something called the United Homeless Organization.

We found Jorge’s office building on 7th Avenue, which was staffed by a doorman who bore a striking resemblance to the actor Bruno Kirby and wore a bright blue jacket and black tie. In the elevator a sign reading “inspection certificate inside the super’s office” was engraved into a plaque on the elevator wall, and on the second floor Jorge greeted us wearing a bandanna that made him look like a gypsy. We dropped off our bags, and headed back out to the street. This part of 7th Avenue is known as “fashion avenue” due to its proximity to the garment district, and thin young models were everywhere. Two tall women in leather pants shook hands in front of us, then separated like parting waters as we passed between them. A few yards further, another tall, thin woman wearing small black shorts walked ahead of us.

Back on the 1 train, we listened to the garbled MTA operator announcements, which unlike the prerecorded announcements in Chicago, were live. At Times Square we transferred to the R train, and walked past a man seated on an upturned crate flipping through pages of a book, a sign reading “New York Times published poet" propped up against a stack of books in front of him.

We switched again for the B train, and exited at Grand. A fierce transsexual in white platform sandals stared at me as I got off the train, her face heavily painted.

On our way to the restaurant a woman’s voice behind us yelled:
“Jesus Christ, who do you think you are, King Tut?” Ahead of us, a man stepped close to another pedestrian and elbowed him gently. The man who’d been elbowed turned around and said:
“What - are you trying to run into me? I could take you.” Then they smiled at each other and shook hands.

When we surfaced from the subway it was 12:05, but somehow it took half an hour to find the restaurant. Dad doesn’t have a cell phone, so we just kept trudging along. I had visions of him standing on a street corner trying to pick us out of a crowd, saying over and over to whoever would listen:
“I called her this morning, I told her I’d made reservations for noon.”

“It took a long time to get here from the B train,” I managed to get out in the midst of a coughing fit once we found the restaurant and spotted dad's diminutive figure. I got a cough on Canal Street, and brought it with me all over New York and up to Boston the following week. Dad stands at five feet eight inches tall, and weighs no more than a hundred and thirty five pounds. He wears glasses, has a prominent nose, and has kept his facial hair in sideburns for as long as I can remember. There are pictures of him from the ‘70s when they grew to historic proportions, reaching a thickness of over an inch. They have become more subdued and greyer with time, and have turned white at his chin.

I needn’t have worried about him waiting for so long, dad had settled into a quiet corner of the restaurant, and being a Monday it wasn’t busy. He’d ordered a bottle of red wine, and began serving it to us as rounds of dim sum made their way to our table.
“Where are you coming from,” dad asked.
“A hundred and forty third street,” I said.
“Jesus Christ!” Dad exclaimed, “you could get raped, robbed, and murdered at high noon up there”, his voice rising on the word “noon”.

The food was delicious. The few times I've gone for dim sum the experience has been a heavily greased one, but I have to hand it to dad - he found a great spot. He's a foodie, and carries a red Michelin guide (which he calls "the geed meesh" after the French) wherever he goes. My stress dissipated as we ate, and I began to genuinely enjoy myself in dad's company.

When the bill came, M held a handful of small bills under the table as my dad worked out the tip. I motioned for him to put his money away.
“I’ll explain later,” he whispered. Our server took the credit card slip from my dad, and returned moments later, saying:
“Excuse me, sir,” and pointing to the tip line on the receipt. A three dollar tip had been left on a fifty nine dollar bill.
“Oh dad, that’s a terrible tip!” I cried, “you have to leave more, leave like... twelve dollars.” Dad pled ignorance, saying he’d been so distracted by our conversation that he’d miscalculated. He made the correction, and then apropos of nothing, began singing a 1950's era Tom Lehrer song:
“Oh the black folks hate the white folks, and the white folks hate the black folks, and the black folks hate the white folks, and everybody hates the Jews.”
At the next table a man in red spectacles and a grey ponytail looked over at us and made eye contact with me, I held his gaze.

We gathered our things, dad placing his signature blue beret on his head and grabbing his Michelin guide, and we headed outside in search of Little Italy for coffee and dessert. Dad overheard M and I discussing the fact that we needed to figure out which direction Bowery Street was in. We were halfway across a busy intersection when he approached a Chinese woman who was walking toward us, raised his finger in the air, and said:
“Bowery?” She continued on without so much as looking at him. He repeated this one word question, without providing any context around it, until we happened upon Bowery on our own. We stumbled upon Ferrara’s, where we indulged in espresso, a chocolate cannoli, and a sfogliatella.
“I think we're near Umberto's Clam House, where Crazy Joe Gallo got whacked,” dad said.
"Maybe you want to keep that to yourself dad," I said. When we left, he made a point of asking the proprietor if Umberto's was in fact the site of the Gallo murder while M and I waited for him outside.

At the Tenement Museum dad struck up a conversation with a woman behind us as we stood in line for tickets.
“This woman wants one ticket for the next tour!” he exclaimed loudly, and I whirled around, touched my hand to his shoulder, and shushed him. He shushed me back with a manic look on his face, and I left the building, the limits of my patience having been reached. M followed me, and we sat on a bench outside.
“I’m going to say something to him,” I said.
“Okay, but just calm down,”
“I’m not going to yell, I just need to say something because I can’t take any more of this.” Typically my limit with dad is about three hours; we’d made it to one hour and forty five minutes.
“Dad,” I said to him when he emerged, “I was having a nice time with you, and I want to continue to have a nice time with you, but it really embarrasses me when you talk to strangers, so I’m asking you to please just turn it down a notch,” Dad mumbled incessantly throughout my speech, saying:
“Yeeeeah, ooookaaaay, yeeeeeah, embarrassing yeeeeaah, oooookay, Iiiiiiiiii turn it down a notch.”
I wasn’t finished.
“It’s like babysitting,” I continued, “for a seventy year old.” The three of us were quiet for a moment while my catharsis passed, and then I said, more quietly: “ I just wanted to clear the air.”

The next tour at the museum wasn’t for another hour, and we had to get back to Jorge’s office before 7 p.m. to pick up our things. We decided to head to the west village to shop, and perhaps find a GAP store for M to exchange the pants and button down shirt I’d bought him the day before in Times Square. M is extraordinarily particular about his clothing, and I’d picked a shirt that was “too preppy”, and pants that didn’t match his shoes. We located a subway entrance, swiped our Metro cards through the electronic card readers, and walked through the turnstile.
“Where’s your dad?” M asked, and I turned around. He was nowhere to be seen. I stood with my arms extended outwards from my body, my mouth hanging open, and my brow furrowed for a long moment.
“Could he have walked down to the platform already?” I wondered aloud, “is he that fast?” We walked down to the platform and looked for him in vain, then walked back up to the turnstiles. We waited a moment and descended the stairs again.
“There he is, he’s on the other side of the tracks,“ M said, and I looked where he pointed. It took a moment for me see his beret-hatted form walking in quick, short strides on the opposite platform.
“DAD!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
“You can’t call him dad,” M said, “you have to use his name!”
“BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!” I screamed, but he continued on his trajectory. “BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!” I screamed again, with M accompanying me. We screamed his name a third time before he finally stopped, his body startled into recognition of his name as if from a dream. He raised his hand and waved.
“Hiya,” he said, and made his way to the staircase connecting the uptown and downtown trains.
“Where did you go?” I asked when he rejoined us, my adrenaline subsiding.
“Oh, I have to go to a station agent to get my senior citizen’s discount,” he began, “and only certain subway entrances have the personnel who let you pay the senior fare, and I have to show my ID…” He paid for each subway fare individually instead of buying a pre-loaded card, and did this each time he rode the subway.

We exited at West 4th Street, and found a GAP. M picked out some clothes and tried them on in the dressing room while dad deconstructed a display made from a jacket and button down shirt, and held a jacket sleeve over his arm for comparison. M made the exchanges that he wanted, and we headed out of the store, M’s goal of finding wearable clothes having been accomplished.
“What do you want to do now?”, dad asked.
“I don’t know, how about we explore the West Village?” I suggested. We walked for three minutes when M became suddenly incapacitated by a piece of debris that had flown into his eye. I handed him my compact mirror, but he was unable to locate or dislodge the debris. I walked into a Gristede’s food store and paid eight dollars for a bottle of Visine, which my dad pronounced “vee seen.”
“Maybe you should go back to where your headquarters and lie down,” dad suggested.
“I’ll be fine, I just need to put some drops in my eye,” M said.
“Yeah…” dad trailed off. “I know when these things happen to me it’s good to just go back home and lie down.”
“He’ll be fine,” I said. M sat on top of a newspaper vending machine by the sidewalk, tilted his head back, and began administering drops into his eyes.
“Once or twice a year I get an eyelid that flips up, completely,” dad said, his voice rising at the word “completely”. “Ooof,” he said, his face pinching into an expression of pain. “Yeah, what you want to do now is just go lie down”.
“I don’t need to lie down!” M said sharply from his perch, his left hand covering his eye, his right arm extended outwards with the palm facing up, and I suddenly laughed at the absurdity of the situation. M joined in the laughter, but dad stood firm.

We had to collect our bags from Jorge before moving on to Brooklyn where we had dinner plans with my friend Gabrielle, so we decided to call it an afternoon.
“Well, it was short but sweet,” dad said to me as we parted ways underground before M and I headed back to 34th street.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “you’re here ‘till Wednesday, right?”
“There’s simply no time!” Dad said, his voice rising, “tomorrow I’m going to MOMA, and Wednesday I have lunch plans with Richard.” I froze, dumbfounded.
“Um…. okay,” I finally managed, and watched as he toddled off to the other side of the subway platform. He turned briefly before disappearing and waved. I waved back.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

New York, Part I - Arrival

Just before boarding the Metro-North train in New Haven, M called me from Midway Airport in Chicago. He’d missed the deadline for checking his bag, and now the airline couldn’t guarantee that it would get loaded onto the plane with him. This was just one in a series of phone calls I’d received from him, beginning that morning when he called in a panic over the details of how to get to Midway Airport from our home on the northwest side. I talked him through his options and he’d texted twice to update me on his progress on the CTA. I was on the commuter train to New York when I got the next phone call. M had landed but the bag didn’t make it, and the airline wanted to know the address of where we’d be staying so they could deliver it to us. I doubted that Southwest would make the trip all the way from MacArthur Airport in Long Island to 143rd street in Sugar Hill, but I gave M the address. As expected, delivery wasn’t an option, and arrangements were made to have the bag held at the airport for the duration of M’s visit.

I felt responsible for the situation; if it hadn’t been for the extra clothes I’d asked M to pack for me with his things, he’d have been able to travel using only a carry on bag. This meant M had no clothes other than what he was wearing. I got off the train at Grand Central, and boarded the subway shuttle to Times Square, where a grey haired man wearing a baseball hat with the words “Springfield Armory Trap Door” printed on it unwrapped a stick of gum, and after putting it in his mouth, crumpled up the aluminum wrapper and flicked it across the subway car with his thumb and forefinger, seemingly at someone seated across the aisle from him. Above ground at 42nd street, graduates in caps and gowns kept appearing before me like an internet meme, some carrying flowers, some wearing their caps on their heads, and some carrying their caps by their sides like briefcases.

I walked past the biggest Dave & Busters in the country, an Applebee’s restaurant, and negotiated through crowds so thick I found myself thinking “oh for Pete’s sake” in a Minnesota accent, although I’ve never set foot in the state. A girl in faded blue pixie haircut spoke to her companion, saying “just get like, a little thing of coconut rum,” and I walked past a poster of three men on a desert island wearing nothing but Speedos. The man in the center of the photo stared into the camera, his right hand down the front of his bathing suit. The words “Man Island” were printed at the top of the poster; a play on words, I supposed, on “Manhattan Island.”

I had an hour before M’s train arrived from Ronkonkoma, and I hoped to buy him a change of clothes during that time. I pictured myself picking through piles of sweatpants and "I heart NY" shirts set up on vendor tables along the sidewalk, but found a GAP store in Times Square - score one for ubiquity. I texted M for his pants size, but didn’t hear back. I felt like I was on a game show - I’ve lived with the man for ten years, could I remember his pants size unprompted? I grabbed a pair of 32 waist jeans, and 34 waist khakis, and hoped one of them would fit. I picked up a t-shirt, a button down shirt, three pairs of socks and two boxers, and paid for them at the register, which was manned by an uninterested hipster.

The last time I was pick pocketed in New York, George Bush the elder was in office, but out of habit I rearranged the contents of my purse before leaving the store, placing my wallet under my glasses case and makeup bag.

I was standing across the street from a red neon sign reading “Green Papaya” when my phone rang again.
“The train is in Hicksville,” M said.
“Isn’t it fabulous that there’s an actual town called Hicksville?” I asked.

As I approached Madison Square Garden I suddenly lost my bearings, and asked a street vender selling halal meat what direction Penn Station was in. He silently lifted his right arm and pointed - Penn Station was in the same building as Madison Square Garden, how could I have forgotten this? I walked towards 7th Avenue and tried to make out the honorary street name ahead of me. Did it say Jay Leno Plaza? No. John Lennon Plaza? Wrong again, Joe Louis Plaza. My eyes were failing me.

I ventured underground into the labyrinth of Penn Station, and tried to find the track that M’s train would be pulling into. A man wearing glasses that were duct taped together at the bridge of his nose, a dollar bill in his hand, asked if I had change.
“What for?” I asked, thinking that he needed change of a dollar.
“I’m short a dollar for my train fare, and I was wondering if you could help me out,” he said. I thought for a long moment; I’ve actually fallen for this scam before, and the strangest part is that I knew I was being scammed even in the moment that I volunteered my spare change to the last man who‘d told me this story at the Irving Park blue line stop in Chicago, under the Kennedy Expressway overpass. There’s something about committing to the scammer’s story that keeps hold of me until I’ve parted with my money, and I was dangerously close to becoming ensnared once again.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t do that.” My eyes had become weary with the strain of trying to find M in the streams of people coming up from the LIRR train gates, so I turned and went back up the escalator to the street. As if on cue, a muzak version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” played overhead.

Outside, I settled into a corner away from the main foot traffic when a man with an empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup approached me asking if I had any spare change that he could have to buy some dinner with.
“I can’t do that,” I said, emboldened by my experience with the underground duct-taped man, “I’m waiting here for my husband so he can feed me.” The man with the empty cup looked at me, unsmiling, for a long moment before retreating to the crosswalk where a friend was waiting for him.

I was exhausted. I’d been in the city for exactly ninety minutes.

M called me from underground and I talked him through the escalator to the street. We made our way to the number 1 train, and then realized that we had boarded the southbound train, so we got off at 28th street. There was no way to cross over to the northbound trains until 14th street, so we boarded the next one heading south. Like it’s number, it smelled strongly of urine. A man wearing a filthy white jacket, black pants, and sneakers lay sprawled across five seats, his right foot touching the floor, his left leg bent at the knee with his foot resting on a seat. His right hand rested near his head, and with his left he grabbed his crotch, moving his fingers across his groin periodically. As we pulled into 14th street a nickel fell out of his jacket pocket and hit the seat near his head, causing him to open his eyes momentarily before falling back into a fog. We switched to the northbound train, and M asked how far we were going.
“We get off at 145th street,” I said.
“Is it safe?” He asked,
“It’s fine.” I said.
“I just, it’s getting kind of dark, and we’re carrying bags and…”
“It’s fine, we’ll be fine,” I said. M started reciting lines from a scene in the movie The Brother from Another Planet in which a card sharp tells the Brother that as a magic trick he can make all the white people disappear from the subway train, and in 1984 at about 110th street, that’s exactly what would have happened.

At 145th, we walked two blocks south and found Jorge’s apartment building. I called him on my cell phone and got his voicemail.
“He must be in the laundry room,” I said to M, in my most reassuring tone of voice. He called back a few minutes later, and came to the door wearing a tan cap, jeans, and a t-shirt with the word “minority” printed in block letters. His apartment was on the 4th floor of a walk-up, and although there was a buzzer system in the building, there was no buzzer to Jorge’s apartment. He greeted us warmly, and looked at our pile of belongings.
“Is this all your luggage?” he asked.
“Well, there’s a story,” I said.
“What do you pay in rent for this place?” M asked as we negotiated the narrow stairway. I was mortified, there are two things I never ask New Yorkers: how much they pay in rent, and what they earn in salary.
“Eighteen,” Jorge said, leaving off the word “hundred”.

Jorge’s housing situation has been in limbo since last summer, when he made a down payment on a condo, and is currently living in a month-to-month lease while he waits for the details of his purchase to finalize. This is the third transitional apartment he’s moved into, and most of his belongings are in a locker at Big Apple Mini-Storage. I set my bags down and headed for the bathroom, which was so small that when I sat on the toilet my left leg pressed up against the bathtub, my right leg was pressed up against the wall, and I had to stand up to wipe properly.

I’ve visited Jorge in New York many times over the years, including one time in 2000 when he lived in a storefront building on Avenue C on the lower east side. My flight had been delayed, I didn’t have a cell phone, and I didn’t get to his neighborhood until two in the morning. In my travel weary state I’d forgotten that he lived in a storefront, and stood in front of an apartment building searching for his name on the buzzers. I didn’t see his name on any of them, so I pressed them all and someone buzzed me in. I was carting a large hard-shelled suitcase with me, and I dragged it up the stairs one at a time, the sound echoing off the walls as I climbed the staircase calling his name.
“Jorge?” I called out every few seconds. A door opened a crack. “Jorge?” I whispered. SLAM! Finally I remembered that this wasn’t the building I should be in, went back outside, and found the storefront that Jorge actually lived in.

We sat in the central room of Jorge’s apartment and caught up with each other for a few minutes. I heard the sound of someone coughing, but it wasn’t coming from any of us.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you - I have a roommate,” Jorge said. I looked around but couldn’t figure out where a fourth person might be hidden. “You probably won’t even see him. He stays up all night writing code or whatever it is that he does, and sleeps all day.”

A silent black and white cat made her way to M, and he scratched her on the head.
“That’s Kitty,” Jorge said. She looked exactly like a Kit-Kat wall clock, and had eyes that were wide open in an expression of permanent surprise.

We left the apartment and went around the corner to a Mexican restaurant that had ten tables, and waitresses in short white skirts. Fifteen minutes into our visit a large Latin man in a Hawaiian shirt started singing loudly into a microphone, while music blared from a sound system. It wasn’t quite karaoke, since he was the only one singing. It was too loud for conversation, so while we ate I watched a TV that was bolted to a wall. An ad for weight loss medication came across the screen, the word “Gorditos” flashing across it, and the same footage of three overweight men was shown twice with the word “Antes” above them. Then a camera shot from below a large man’s belly showed him squeezing his rolls for the camera. The singer finished his song, which I understood one word of - mujer. He then began speaking to his audience, and, spotting Jorge’s shirt, said in English: “I like your shirt man, minority rules!" And then: "Do any of you speak Spanish?”
“Un poquito,” I said.

When we left, a large man seated on a stool by the front door wished us a good evening, somehow I hadn’t noticed him on the way in.
“He’s a bouncer,” M said later, “in a restaurant with ten tables. Something else is going on in that place.” That may well have been true, but the food was delicious.

Back upstairs, we began making arrangements for the hand off of Jorge’s keys the next day once we made the subway trip downtown and dropped off our bags with Jorge at his office, a task that seemed hopelessly complicated. Then we talked about our respective workplace situations, M telling Jorge how strange it felt to tattoo people who were born after he’d graduated from high school.
“You have to be born in 1991 or earlier to get a tattoo,” M began, “In 1991 I was…”
“A hot mess,” Jorge interjected.

My words stopped making sense.
“I’m too tired for these details”, I said to M as he began dressing the air mattress that Jorge had blown up for us.
“It seemed like you were both having trouble”, M said. Three brand new packages containing flat sheets and pillow covers sat on top of the air mattress, and M set about opening them.
“There’s some kind of a blood stain or something on this pillow case,” he said, showing me the offending spot, “so don’t turn the pillow over.”

M turned on our laptop and became so absorbed that he didn’t even notice that I was changing into my pajamas in full view of the undressed window, with the bedroom door wide open just moments after having been introduced to Jorge’s roommate. I went to Jorge’s bedroom to say goodnight.

“You can stop by any time before I leave work to get your bags and to give me the keys,” he said, “usually I’m done by seven; then I come home and cry.”

M and I slept under a single sheet wearing our sweatshirts for warmth, visions of Latin singers and gorditos in my head, and Kitty asleep on M’s legs. I woke up at 4 a.m. with a pain in my side like I’d been punched in the kidney. I got up and squeezed myself onto the toilet to pee, and then came back to bed, disturbing Kitty’s perch on M's shins.

Monday, May 18, 2009

20 Years

We drove through Southbury, CT., stopping into a storefront simply called The Bakery, but the name was misleading. Two glass cases held a measly selection of bagels: one rye, three salt, and one that was marked "day old". We put in an order for two lattes, and bought a scone and a blondie. Leaving the establishment we realized we’d made a mistake - we’d patronized something called the European Shoppe, located one door over from The Bakery. This was not a good omen. With much trepidation, Cori and I were on our way to our 20 year high school reunion at a small Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, NY. Before the bakery, we’d stopped for gas in Meriden at a station where a dreadlocked man with a death wish sat smoking a cigarette next to a gas pump while I went into the station's convenience store and bought two sleeves of Nutter Butters. This also was not a good omen, and it took all of Cori’s resolve not to say something to him about it.

"I almost said to him, 'are you smoking right next to a gas pump?’" She explained that she'd lost her self-censoring filter, although it wasn't that outrageous of a thing to say to a man smoking in a gas station. "It’s like something takes over and words come right out of my mouth before I even realize it.” The first time this happened to Cori was when she was pregnant with her eldest child, and she was at a county fair in Connecticut when a man cut in front of her in a food line. “I was waiting in line to buy steak and cheese, or maybe it was sausage and pepper. Who knows, all I know is that it was damn important to me, and I wasn’t going to be wronged.”
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
“I just said ‘excuse me, I was next'. And I could feel the Lou Ferrigno green rising in me.”
Last week Cori’s filter failed when a car full of teenage boys pulled into her apartment complex, and one of them threw an empty soda bottle out of a car window.
Cori rolled the window of her car down and said “you know you’re going to pick that up, right?”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“They picked it up.”
“Teenage boys are like dogs Cori, they just need discipline,” I said.

We approached the state line, where we were greeted by a highway sign reading “Welcome to New York, the Empire State”. We took the Taconic state parkway to 84 to route 9, passing through towns with names like Newburgh, Fishkill, Peekskill, and Wappingers Falls. As we were closing in on Poughkeepsie Cori suddenly opened the driver’s side door at a red light.
“Cori, don’t do it,” I joked, “it’s not that bad, we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
“I was just brushing the crumbs from the scone off my lap,” she said.

I was running on three hours of sleep; Bruce and Robert had picked me up at the Hartford airport at 9 p.m. the previous night. The last time I’d seen them they had dropped me off at that same airport after a visit, and watched as I underwent the humiliation of being subjected to The No Touch Pat-Down, a device that blows 37 separate jets of air onto your body simultaneously, and sent my hair flying. Robert and Bruce watched from outside the security perimeter, all of us laughing as I made my way to the boarding gate.

“What does that do anyway?” I asked.
“It detects trace amounts of materials you might be able to make bombs with", Robert said.
"It detects trace amounts of Summer’s Eve", Bruce added. Bruce has a wit as sharp as a blade, and not everyone appreciates it. He recently hurt his foot, and when a nurse in his doctor’s office asked him to remove his shirt before being examined he looked straight at her and said “my tits aren’t broken, my foot is.” On another occasion at Pearl Vision, the woman behind the counter brought out his new spectacles and told him to try them on. He put them on his face and turned to Robert, who is half Chinese and half Jamaican, and said: “oh my god you’re black!”

We pulled out of the airport parking lot, and began the drive to their home in Middletown. I told them of my travel plans; from here I was visiting New York, and then on to Boston. There were a number of ways to make this connection: Amtrak could get me there for $62, Greyhound could do the same for $35, and something called the Fung Wah bus makes the four hour journey from New York's Chinatown to Boston's Chinatown for $15.

“You can’t get cheaper than the Chinese,” Robert said, “if you want to know about the cheapest anything, ask the Chinks.”

We pulled into the driveway of their saltbox house that was built in 1725 by the Atkins family, and that they have restored over the years, discovering treasures along the way such as a hidden fireplace and a beehive stove. The property includes a small pond and a few acres of land, which Robert has cultivated into a vegetable garden. One summer before they had the pond dredged, Bruce made the mistake of wading in it, and before he knew it was up to his chest in mud.

“I thought that was going to be the last day of my life,” he said, “I wiggled my feet around in the mud until I broke free of my boots, and then fell face first into the mud. When I managed to get out, all my clothes got sucked off except my shirt, and I walked back to the house naked and covered in mud. My pants and boots are still in there somewhere.”

Being consummate hosts, the moment we set foot in the door Bruce set about making me a burger consisting of two grilled patties, three quarters of a pound of bacon, provolone cheese, three pickle spears on the side, and a basket of potato chips. I don’t usually speak of myself in the third person, but after taking a bite I said:

“It’s nice to know that whether or not a Lady is employed, she can always fly to Connecticut for a burger.” Robert has been calling me Lady J since we first met in New Haven the summer I turned 20. When I emailed him that I’d been laid off, he called me within minutes and yelled “what the fuck!” into the phone before I’d even said hello, followed by “that is no way to treat a Lady!”

As quiet as their part of the state is, I was awakened at 3:45 a.m. by a passing car, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I hadn’t given much thought to my employment situation since being cut three days earlier, and the additional strangeness of sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings kept me from falling back to sleep. I turned my computer on, checked email, checked facebook, and applied for a job online. To top everything off, as of midnight it was officially my birthday. When I finally clambered downstairs at 7 a.m., I caught Bruce on his way out of the bathroom.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said, and after collecting himself: “that was close.”
“Well, it is my birthday, I should at least see someone in their birthday suit,” I replied.
“It’s your birthday?! Well happy birthday!” he said.
“Thanks’” I said, and went into the bathroom.

In the medicine cabinet mirror I surveyed my weary face and took stock of the situation: I was thirty eight years old, I was unemployed, and I was on my way to my 20 year high school reunion. This was not how I’d envisioned this weekend unfolding. I took a shower and got dressed, stuffing myself into a shaping undergarment that covered me from just above the knee to my bra line before putting on a dress. I've put on a respectable 20 pounds since high school, but I'm not above trying to slim my appearance for a reunion.

"I'm wearing a fat sucker," I said to Cori by way of a greeting when she came by to pick me up from Robert and Bruce's.
"I am too," she said.

Back in the car, Cori and I drove past things that looked familiar - a water park called Splashdown, Estelle and Alfanso Fitness/Dance, and a pub called Greenbaum and Gilhooley’s. We took a right on Kingwood and drove up the back entrance to Oakwood, where the reunion was in full swing.

There were 12 of us representing the class of ‘89, which is better than it sounds considering our graduating class was only 67 students. We hugged each other wildly in a rush of giddiness and nostalgia.

“I love how we’re all hugging each other,” Karla, who has three little girls now, said. “We never would have hugged when we were actually in high school.”
“I’d hug you just for having survived the last 20 years,” I said. We settled under a tent that had been erected for the occasion where a buffet was being served on the same cafeteria dishes I’d eaten off of twenty years ago. A current student, emboldened by a bull horn, passed by our table and began issuing directives.

“Would the classes of ‘79 and ‘89 please gather at the auditorium, classes of ‘79 and ‘89, please gather at the auditorium for your class photos.” We did as we were told and abandoned our plates. A woman wearing white sandals with nude stockings arranged us on the steps of the auditorium, and a photographer took a few pictures. Once we were finished, we began milling around. I stepped into the gym to use the ladies room and paused in front of the school team symbol, a hand-painted blue paw print in a white circle and the words: "Lion’s Den, Go Lions” above it.

We gathered again outside the auditorium and began an impromptu walking tour of campus, pausing every so often to reminisce. We stepped into the dorms, which had the same smell of fabric softener and ramen noodles they'd always had, and Mike Thomas told me about the elaborate exhaust system that Andrew Yates and Jeff Crowe had set up in their room to elude detection of their marijuana smoking by the authorities. He also said that apparently we’d raised $1,000 that was to be used as a gift from our class to the school; we were going to buy a fax machine (can you believe fax machines once cost that much?) but instead the funds were misappropriated and used to fund a post-graduation loft party in Manhattan.

On the drive back, Cori looked perplexed.
“The class of ‘84 looked so much older than us, but they’re only five years older,” she said. "That's going to be us soon."
“That’s because they all let their hair go grey,” I assured her, “the class of ‘89 is way too hip for that shit.”

We walked through the front door of Bruce and Robert’s house to find a bundle of balloons tied to a chair, and a large pink box on the kitchen table. I wasn’t expecting this but was glad for the attention; I needed a little recognition after the week I’d had at work.

“Happy Birthday Lady,” Robert said.
“Have you ever had a Barbie?” Bruce asked,
“No, I haven’t” I said.
“Open the box,” Robert said. I did as I was told, and inside was a large pink mound with a plastic doll set in the center. I had never seen such a thing. Since I’d left that morning with Cori, Bruce and Robert had set about planning a surprise party for me, and Robert had called up the cake department at Stew Leonard’s, a local specialty grocery store, to see if they had any Barbie cakes available.
“I’m sorry’” the woman in the bakery department said to Robert, “We really need 48 hours notice for those cakes.”
“Okay,” Robert said, “what about those cakes that you can send a digital image of a person and it gets transferred onto the top of a sheet cake?”
“Well, I don’t know, I’m the only one here today and we’re pretty busy. I’d have to talk to my manager. I’ll take your information and call you back and let you know what we can do.” When Robert gave her his contact information, she paused at the sound of his last name.
“Chang, that sounds Chinese.”
“It is,” he said, “I am Chinese.”
“Really? I’m Chinese too!” she said, “I have to get you that cake now!" When he got off the phone Robert approached Bruce and said:
“I have some good news and some bad news; the good news is we got the Barbie cake, the bad news is I have to be Chinese to get it so you can’t come with me to pick it up.”
"Do you mean to tell me that you played the yellow card?" I asked Robert once he was done explaining the Barbie cake saga.
"Absolutely!" He said, "fortunately I had just shaved my head that morning, or I might not have looked Chinese enough. The best part was when she asked 'and how old is your little girl?'”
"What did you say to her?"
"I kind of dodged that question. It’s a layer cake,” Robert said as I admired the confection, “half yellow cake, half chocolate.“
“Just like you honey,” Bruce said.

I took a knife to the cake, and cut slices off it. The Barbie doll emerged from it in a protective sleeve that kept it from getting covered in cake and frosting, and was just the beginning of my loot. Bruce had stopped in at Wal-Mart, and a paisley print gift bag full of presents awaited discovery: a sun hat, a leopard print umbrella, a box of dried papaya, chocolates, and a jump rope with bubbles on the handles, among other treasures.

Cori’s husband Leighton joined us, and the four of us stayed up late talking. Cori and I were both tired, and retreated into the living room to check facebook. After a few minutes Bruce appeared in the doorway and said:

“What is this, the Vagina Monologues?”

I went to bed at 12:30, and slept the whole night through.

The next day after a brunch hosted by Cori’s parents, and watching a TV show called Yo Gabba Gabba with Cori's kids, Leighton drove me to New Haven’s Union station for the next leg of my journey. I paid fourteen dollars for a one way ticket to Grand Central, and a dollar for a banana from Sbarro. I walked to the track information board where automated tiles flipped over to show updated train destinations, whirring like a flock of pigeons flapping their wings in unison. I made my way to gate fourteen and boarded the train, ready to begin the next leg of my east coast adventure.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009



Yesterday began like any other; I woke up late, fed Oblio, Mignonne and Mama Kitty, showered, picked out something to wear, ate a bowl of cereal, drank some coffee, and checked the online bus tracker for the #82 Kimball-Homan. On the blue line, a man sitting behind me argued on his cell phone in what sounded like a lover’s spat. He kept repeating:

“Because I’m more of a man than that. Because I’m more of a man than that. Because I’m more of a man than that. Because I’m more of a man than that.”

When I got above ground there was a text message on my phone from A: FYI, just found out there will be a security guard here today, it’s protocol. I texted back: thanks for the heads up. Today, after two agonizing weeks of waiting, we were finally going to find out whether we’d remain employed. Representatives from management and HR had flown in from headquarters, and we all had to meet with them individually, along with our direct supervisor. I was fixing myself a cup of coffee when the management rep found me in the kitchen.

“Oh hi,” she said, “whenever you’re ready come on in.”
“OK,” I said, and in that moment time slowed. I’d already poured hot water over the coffee grounds in my one-cup coffee press, I slowly opened the cupboard for my bag of turbinado sugar marked with my initials, and the fridge where I keep a similarly marked soy milk container. I fitted the plunger onto the press pot and pushed the handle down, poured the dark, fragrant brew into a mug, added soy milk,sugar, and stirred. I went back to my office to get a pad of paper and pen (I didn’t end up taking any notes), got my coffee from the kitchen, and walked into the room where the HR and management reps were waiting. It was 9:08 am. My supervisor was on the phone from headquarters, and in the space of three minutes I was let go from my job at a humanitarian aid organization where I've worked for three years. I’d been preparing for this moment, but tears came. As my supervisor read from a script (everyone was read to from a script, regardless) an open box of tissues was passed across the conference room table and set in front of me.

“I’m sorry,” my supervisor said at the end.
“I’m sorry too,” I said.

I went back to my office and called my husband, and in the next hour a steady stream of colleagues came in and out of my door; some who’d been let go, others who weren’t, all of them in tears. In the end, three of eleven had been let go in our office, and organization-wide the number was somewhere close to 70.

After I’d made some phone calls and sent some emails, all but one of us went across the street to Elephant and Castle for drinks. The La's There She Goes was playing on the sound system. Q went to the bar and returned to our table with two shots of whiskey. I’m not a whiskey drinker, but I lifted the diminutive glass to my lips, and took a sip.

“You can’t drink it like that,” K, who was sitting across the table from me, said, “You have to toss it back”. I picked it up again and tossed it back, the liquid ran over my tongue and down my throat, leaving a warm trail. Over the next few hours we sat, we talked, we drank, and we laughed. At one point K’s finger was bleeding and I told her that she shouldn’t take staff cuts so literally. By the time I left it was almost eight o’clock. I went back to the office to get things out of the fridge and check my email before heading home. On my way out, Flora the night guard asked what we’d been doing across the street for so long – we’d passed her on the sidewalk on our way over. I told her there’d been layoffs.

“Oh,” she said, “who all got let go?”
“G,” I started.
“I saw her, I knew she didn’t look right.”
“S,” I continued, “and me.”

Flora is nothing if not talkative, and she launched into a story about a bank she’d worked in once where the entire third shift security team was let go, herself included, and how her supervisor, “a real mean girl named Angie,” had made life difficult during that time. She told me about other companies in the building who’d had layoffs, employees who’d stepped off the elevator in the lobby carrying boxes of personal effects and weeping. I was tired, but I listened. On the days that I bike to work, Flora hands me the key to the bike closet on the loading dock, and we’ve developed a rapport over the years. Finally I told her I was going home. She hugged me, told me she knew everything was going to be all right, and walked outside with me, where she hugged me again. A man carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag approached us, asking:

“Can I have a hug? Can I get in on a group hug?” Flora released me from her embrace and said:
“No, no you cannot,” and chuckled softly. “All right,” she said to me, “I’ll see you tomorrow, right? Don’t leave without saying goodbye to me.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow Flora.”


I descended the stairs to the red line and sat on the train with my eyes closed, listening to the rustle of people around me, and the recorded voice announcing what stop we were approaching. At Belmont, I got off the red line and stood on the platform to transfer to the brown. The evening air was warm, and it felt good on my face. I rode the brown line to Kedzie where a fellow commuter, a man in wire-rimmed glasses, held the exit door open for me.

“Thank you,” I said quietly, and he nodded. We walked on opposite sides of the street, both heading south for several blocks until he turned and headed west at Montrose; I continued on. The light from the sky made the colors on my street pop, the bright yellow green of recently fallen buds lighting up the sidewalk like emergency lights on the floor of a darkened airplane. As I walked up my front steps Oblio stared through the window at me from his perch on the loveseat, and watched me as I turned my key in the front lock. Once inside, my husband embraced me, and the tears came again.

“You and G and S should open your own international humanitarian aid organization down the street and steal donors, like they did on ‘The Office’” he said, and I laughed.

I ate a banana and fell asleep on the couch watching a documentary about the Crips and the Bloods.


The next morning I slept in, and got to the office at around 11:30. The day security guard, James, greeted me as I came in. He said he’d miss me with my bike this summer. James used to help me put my bike up in the storage closet back when I rode a Schwinn Cruiser that was too heavy for me to lift. In the first months that I biked to work, every morning he’d hoist the front end of it onto a hook while I held up the back wheel, and every day he’d say: “Oh J, I sure hope your husband buys you a new bike for Christmas.” When I upgraded to a Marin Belvedere that winter I was able to put the bike up myself, and every day James would say: “Your husband should buy you a scooter for Christmas.”

When I got upstairs I met with a job loss counselor who looked remarkably like Al Delvecchio, circa his stint as spokesman for En-Cor Salisbury Steaks. He wore a tan corduroy jacket over a blue button down shirt, and sat directly in front of an oversized wall photo of a Guatemalan woman holding a baby, his head obscuring the baby in such a way that it appeared as though he was wearing the blue knit cap pictured on the infant’s head.

“So, what can I do for you in the short time that we have together?” he asked. I told him I wanted to know about the logistics of applying for unemployment. “It’s very complicated,” he explained, leaning back in his chair and intertwining the fingers of his hands, “if you earn any money while you’re unemployed, you have to deduct that from what they give you. I did it once for about two weeks and then stopped because it was too much of a hassle.” Then he started talking about other companies who'd hired him for his job loss counseling services. “I was out in Rockford the other day, talking to single mothers who’d just lost their jobs. They sat right where you are now, in tears, asking me what they should do. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ they asked me, ‘work as a waitress in a diner?’” He paused for effect. “Do you think you’ll become depressed?” he asked, as casually as if he were asking if I take milk with my coffee, “are you the kind of person who becomes depressed in situations like this?”

Tomorrow M and I will come downtown with the car for my personal effects:
• A 1924 Underwood typewriter, with a matching print advertisement from Popular Mechanics that reads: Own a Typewriter! A bargain You Can’t Ignore! Try it Free, and See! $3;
• Four mold injected dinosaurs from the Museum of Science and Industry;
• Two empty glass jars of Sanford’s washable fountain pen ink;
• An empty Codo Super-fiber typewriter ribbon case;
• A box of antique gummed labels;
• An old wood block used for advertising typist jobs in newspapers that shows the profile of two women sitting in front of typewriters, their hands raised in mid key strike;
• A reproduction vintage poster for Spa-Citron;
• Miniature Barbapapa dolls;
• A wall hanging from Benin;
• A toy camel from India;
• A Moroccan scarf;
• Carved wooden cows from Switzerland;
• Photos of Cape Cod;
• A wedding photo of me and M;
• A tin Chicago Tribune front page cover showing Obama on November 5th, 2008 with the headline: “Obama, Our next president”;
• A Swiss flag wall lamp;
• A miniature Swiss flag;
• An antique brass doorknob with the words: “PUBLIC SCHOOL CITY OF NEW YORK” imprinted on it;
• An iPod docking station;
• Antique NYC subway operator badges;
• Pictures of my nieces and nephews;
• A Peters projection world map;
• A printout of my ticket to Grant Park on election night;
• A Shepard Fairey “Yes We Did” poster; and
• A Nikki McClure “Vote” poster, to name a few.

I’ve taken a couple empty banker’s boxes out of the storage room across from my office; hopefully everything will fit.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Triathlon, Part III -or- Sci-Fi Spectacular at the Music Box

At 9:45 a.m. for the past three Saturday mornings, I’ve gone to a swim class at the Y. I keep thinking that I’ll wake up early enough to bike to the Green City Market to buy bacon and eggs from TJ’s Free Range Poultry and back home again, then get back on the bike and head over to the Y for my swim class, and come home to a delicious breakfast of authentic bacon and eggs. Since patronizing the market, it’s the only bacon we eat, but so far I haven’t been able to wake up in time to do both.

It’s a small class, four or five students show up each week, and we share the pool with an infants' swim class that takes place at the same time. While I do laps and drills on the right side of the pool, parents sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and the Hokey Pokey to their babies on the left.

This morning a young woman staffing the front desk greeted me with:

“This is going to sound strange, but you wouldn’t happen to be a mother, would you?”
“No,” I replied.
“Okay, it’s just we’re giving something away for Mother’s Day.”
“My upstairs neighbor is a mother, does that count?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not,” she said.
“I have cats, I’m a mother to cats.”
“I wish that counted,” she said, swiping my YMCA identification card through an electronic reader.

I went downstairs to the women's locker room and suited up. Since beginning this venture, I’ve accumulated a lot of gear: goggles, earplugs, special shampoo and conditioner to keep the chlorine out of my hair and skin, and a lock and swim cap that I bought at the front desk of the Y. The cap is thin, red, and uncomfortably tight. You can see my dark hair under it, and it leaves a mark on my forehead for about an hour after I’ve removed it. It looks more like a dental dam than a swim cap, but I’m to cheap and lazy to buy a new one, at least for now.

I used ear plugs for the first time, and it was strange to hear nothing but my own heartbeat and exhalations under water. With my goggles, ear plugs, and swim cap I felt like an astronaut exploring another planet. After my class I came home and stretched for almost an hour. Between running and biking, I've gotten very tight in the legs and hips, and at my last chiropractic appointment the physical therapy staff assigned me a whole new stretching routine. Then I got ready for the Sci-Fi Spectacular at the Music Box, where seven films were being screened starting at noon with The Incredible Shrinking Man, and ending with a 1:45 a.m. screening of the 1986 remake of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum.

I got there in time for the end of the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. Tom Cruise has nothing on Gene Barry. At the end of the film, the earth is saved by microscopic germs that humans are immune to, but kill the alien invaders. After a ten minute break during which an enthusiastic moviegoer dressed in a monkey suit initiated something called “the ape dance”, I watched the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes in its entirety for the first time.

Visions of the future that were created in the past are almost always unintentionally hilarious, and this was no exception. In the opening scene Charlton Heston delivers a monologue while sitting at the helm of a spaceship, smoking a cigarette that he stubs out on the console, and tucks into a pocket of his coveralls before going into a deep sleep for the next couple thousand years. He goes to sleep in 1972, and when he wakes he pulls the 2,006-year-old cigarette butt from his pocket, and lights up.

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, got applause and hoots from the audience, and there were other moments that got loud laughs. While crossing the forbidden zone with his crew, a landscape that looked suspiciously like Arizona, one of Heston’s crew mates declares his willingness to die for the mission.

“He’s prepared to die,” Heston says in a mocking tone, “doesn’t that make you misty?” and then breaks in to an evil, head-tossing laugh. As he walked away from the camera, visible panty line was clearly discernible on Heston’s rear end through his space coveralls.

Later, while trapped in a steel cage across from a female human that he named Nova (played by Linda Harrison, who has no speaking lines), he soliloquized about the only female on board his ship, Lieutenant Stewart - portrayed by Dainne Stanley who went unaccredited in the film, probably because she also had no speaking lines, and her character died in the opening sequences of the film.

“Did I tell you about Stewart?” Heston asks, “Now there was a lovely girl. The most precious cargo we’d brought along. She was… to be the new Eve. With our hot and eager help, of course.” Hoots and whistles soared up from the audience at this. I couldn’t help but think about the folly of this plan: going into space with one woman and three men, not a midwife or doctor among them, with the hopes of repopulating an entire planet.

Hints of Heston’s NRA spokesmanship peeked through when he escaped to the forbidden zone with the help of Cornelius and Zira:

“Do you have any weapons? Any guns?” he asked,
“The best. But we won’t need them.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I want one anyway.”

After the credits rolled, a presenter announced that the next film would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the audience responded with shouts and applause.

"That’s right, we’ll be watching 'eight years ago'," he said, and then asked if anyone in the audience would be seeing the film for the first time. A few hands went up. “If anybody has acid," he said, “now is the time.”

Nobody can touch 2001. Captivated by its slow, saturated, visual drama, I took note of the things Stanley Kubrick got right when he pictured the future in 1968, this being one of the few films that projected into a future that has already passed.

Here’s what held up:
• Most receptionists in 2001 were women, as were most airline hosts;
• Bell is still in existence, in the form of AT&T;
• Both the Hilton and Howard Johnson’s existed in 2001 on earth, if not in space;
• Visible panty line, which afflicted most of the airline hostesses in the film, was still a problem in 2001 (this is the only thing Planet of the Apes got right);
• People drank coffee and ate ham sandwiches in 2001;
• There were flat screen TVs in 2001; and
• Somewhat unrelated to predictions of the future, HAL’s “face” looked remarkably like the front of an iPod.

I didn’t catch much in the way of unintentional humor, but the visual jokes that were inserted on purpose were great. Aboard the Aries spacecraft, Dr. Heywood Floyd paused to read the instructions on a zero gravity toilet, the only film reference to taking a shit in space that I can think of. A plaque on the wall read: PASSENGERS ARE ADVISED TO READ INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE USE, followed by at least ten paragraphs of information.

I’m not sure if the space pods with the warning “CAUTION: EXPLOSIVE BOLTS” was meant to be funny, or what Kubrick intended the letters ATM to stand for, but they both kept showing up, and there were lines that got a laugh from the audience, like:

Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

Dr. Floyd’s breathing when he goes out of the ship to do repairs reminded me of my own underwater breathing earlier in the day; and my friend Christina joined me in the last moments of the film, as Dr. Bowman watched himself age, and finally turn into a fetus. Gary Lockwood, who portrayed Dr. Floyd in the movie (he's the one who gets jettisoned into outer space by HAL), clambered up after the screening and rambled on about a number of topics ranging from eating cold cuts in London to LBJ’s reaction to the film. None of the audience questions were directly answered, and they all involved namedropping and the use of foul language.

“Do you remember the time HAL reads lips?” Gary asked the audience, “that was my idea.”
“Do we remember?” Christina whispered to me, "we just saw the movie.”
“What would you do if I asked him what year the movie was released?” I whispered back.
“Oh do it, do it!” she said, both of us practically in tears restraining ourselves from laughter. After a particularly circuitous tale that ended with the phrase “a snake’s ass in a wagon rut”, Christina threatened to stand up and ask Gary if that last story was really worth repeating.

Finally, Gary left the theater to sign autographs in the lobby. I got in line, but left before my turn because The Brother From Another Planet had already started. In the opening scene Joe Morton, as the alien, lands his spacecraft at Ellis Island in 1984, before it was restored to its current museum condition. It was amazing to see shots of New York from 25 years ago, and the film was just as captivating for its time capsule quality as it was for the story it conveyed.

The Midwest made cameo appearances throughout the evening: George Taylor in Planet of the Apes was from Ft. Wayne, IN; HAL was made in Urbana, IL on January 12th, 1992; and in Brother From Another Planet, two lost Midwesterners stop into Odell’s bar looking for Columbia University, and end up drinking and talking to Joe Morton until they convince themselves that they’ve made a friend.

After the credits for Brother had rolled, Christina headed home. It was 11:45 p.m., and Aliens was just starting. The audience had thinned considerably, but what they lacked in representation they made up for with enthusiastic applause as the actors names came across the screen. I watched for about ten minutes, and then decided that eight and a half hours in a movie theater was probably enough for one day. As I biked home on near-empty streets, I felt as if I were in my own sci-fi movie; one in which permanent midnight had settled across the city, and apart from a few cars on Western Avenue, I was the only human being alive. I listened to the soft whir of my bike tires on asphalt, and the clicking of chain moving across sprocket. When I walked into my kitchen, the three small creatures that know me as their mother but are unable to speak gathered around me as much for sustenance as for company, and after feeding them I retreated into my capsule of a bedroom, where I slept for an extended period.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hell's Belles

Our next door neighbor was sitting in his kitchen, naked to the waist, as was his custom. The sound of a vacuum cleaner emanated from the interior of his house, with the occasional radio station popping through in the moments when the vacuum was turned off. It was Sunday, and the first day in recent memory that could truly be described as beautiful. Earlier, M and I had done some yard work; he pulled weeds around the Illinois prairie grass that he’d started cultivating when we first moved here, and I uprooted dandelions with a garden tool, a never ending task that can only be approached with Zen patience. Muggy had just visited, and although I was exhausted from her whirlwind three day tour of Chicago, I missed her, and wished she could have seen this sunny day from a vantage other than the car ride back to Cape Cod with her traveling companion, Mark.

I was processing a lot of bad work-related news; there was the death of a colleague’s friend who had just succumbed to cancer, another colleague had totaled her car on the expressway the same day - she walked away uninjured, and the countdown to layoffs was in full swing. Two weeks from now we’ll all know where we stand with regard to employment, and the need for distraction has ramped up considerably. Last night after a visit to the Chicago History Museum with Muggy, we went to see a roller derby at the UIC Pavilion on the near south side. I was apprehensive - all I knew about roller derbies was that participation could lead to serious injury, and I was concerned that without a pre-screening on my part, it would turn out to be a lowlight for Muggy, that she’d return to Cape Cod filled with visions of injured skaters in her head, and resolve never to visit me again. A coworker had suggested the outing, she’d been to a “bout", as they’re called, about a month ago. Another colleague of mine had gone to one a couple years ago with unfortunate results - a skater fell to the floor, and as she struggled to get up another skater accidentally stepped on her neck, paralyzing her.

I knew one of the skaters, although admittedly not very well. #1980 on the Hell’s Belles team, who goes by the name Megan Formor (pronounced “For More”), is my husband’s first cousin once removed - at least I think that’s how they’re related. She’s my husband’s father’s brother’s wife’s brother’s daughter; they share no blood, and are 13 years apart in age. I’ve spent some time in the same room with her at the annual Christmas eve party held in a near west suburb where empty milk cartons lit up from the inside with colored lights pass for holiday decorations; there was a wedding that we both attended a couple summers ago, although we sat at different tables and managed not to interact; and there’s the occasional barbecue in Michigan at the vacation home of M’s uncle on the fourth of July.

The first time I set eyes on Megan, I despised her. I was visiting Michigan with M and my in-laws at their island summer house on Magician Lake, and she had arrived by pontoon boat from the mainland, where Uncle Doug kept house. Where my in-laws consider one extra person at the table company, Uncle Doug entertains a nonstop litany of visitors who walk in and out of his summer house, which has been named “Dougie World”. There’s no such thing as a quiet morning in Dougie World. My in-law’s island cottage is named “Frog Alley” after the first date they ever went on, when my father in-law took my mother in-law to observe some frogs in a nearby marsh. He was a biology major, and my mother in-law appreciated the fact that he didn’t "try any funny stuff", as she puts it. At my in-laws lake house, I can spend entire days doing nothing but reading and sunning on the dock. Megan walked from the pontoon boat into this island paradise clad only in attitude and an American flag bikini. I’ve never been much of a flag waver myself, but I found it repulsive, if amusing, that someone who considered herself to be patriotic would wear Old Glory on her tits and ass in front of mom and God and apple pie. She had bleached blonde hair, dark eyebrows, and the voice of a much older, much more jaded woman. She had no problem expressing her opinions loudly, which contrasted sharply with my favored style of getting to know extended family members, which generally consists of remaining mute in their presence for the first three to five years, observing and absorbing, then surprising everyone in year six with the fact that I own a larynx.

M wore a t-shirt printed with the word “pants” that he bought from Mujibar and Sirajul's gift shop next to the Ed Sullivan Theater.
“Why does your t-shirt say pants?” she asked, as if he were wearing a shirt made of dog shit and beach whistles.
“It’s David Letterman’s company,” I offered. Megan stared at me as if I’d just spoken Chinese.
“I don’t get it,” she said flatly, her hands clenched in fists at her waist, elbows sticking out, feet planted apart in a superhero pose.
“It’s kind of an in-joke from the show,” I started,
“I don’t get it,” Megan said again. I let it drop.

I’d emailed the Hell’s Belles to track Megan down, just to let her know I’d be there - it would have been rude not to, and sent a quick note letting her know our group would be there rooting for her. She responded warmly, saying that this was an important bout for her team, they’d be up against their arch rivals, the Double Crossers, and could use all the support they could get.

Once inside the pavilion, I spotted my colleagues several rows away, and found two seats for me and Muggy. We’d missed the pre-bout show, which I’m told was quite entertaining, and involved a belly dancing troupe called Read My Hips. An announcer took the stage and introduced the players one by one, and when Megan was introduced, I was struck by how fearless she looked. She wore a red helmet flecked with sparkles, mismatched striped leggings, and a red uniform with her skating name and number emblazoned on the back. She played fiercely, blocking the skaters behind her, getting right up when she was knocked down, and going after whoever had tripped her up to deliver payback.

I was impressed. I was an ice skater in my youth, but never took to roller skates. I tried on a pair in Anna’s kitchen on President Street, and fell backwards onto my tailbone so hard that I closed my eyes and kept them squeezed tight for a few seconds, feeling as though I’d been sent into another dimension. The only time I’ve worn roller skates as an adult was at the Rainbo Roller Rink in Uptown with Mimi, a couple years before it got town down and turned into Rainbo Village Condos. I had more success at Rainbo than in Anna’s kitchen, but I eventually fell there too, and a fellow skater who’d witnessed the fall gave me some pointers - I was leaning back too far, and showed me a practice space on the second floor where I could go at my own speed. I got a pretty nasty bruise afterwards.

I thought about what it was about Megan that bothered me so much. It wasn’t generational - we’re almost a decade apart, but I have plenty of friends and colleagues around her age who I can relate to. It was something about her brassy attitude, which grated on me, but made her such a good skater. She was unsinkable, courageous, fierce - everything I wish I could be in the face of aggression.

At halftime the Belles and the Crossers sat on the sidelines, and while the Manics and the Fury duked it out on the floor, I walked up the stairs to the gallery, over to where Megan sat with her team. I got close enough to shout her name, but not close enough to tap her on the shoulder, we were separated by a metal guard rail.

“Megan,” I yelled once, and then a second time when she didn't respond. Someone joined me in shouting her name, and I looked up to see Denise and Mike, Megan’s sixty-something parents, a few feet away. They weren’t the only parents in the crowd, in our section a silver-haired man in a red t-shirt with the words “Deb’s Dad” rang a cowbell every time the Belles scored, and a husband and wife team of medics - Mama Vendetta and Papa Doc Vendetta, watched their daughter, Varla Vendetta, skate across the floor. There was gray hair scattered throughout the pavilion in concentrations I wouldn’t have expected.

Megan looked up and saw me, rose from her seat and rolled over to where I stood. We embraced over the guard rail, and she thanked me for coming out.

“You guys are kicking ass,” I said, which is probably the most I've ever said to her. Denise came down from her seat and hugged me, and after a moment of small talk we all returned to our seats. On my way back I passed a merchandise booth, and my eyes lit on a red cap-sleeved t-shirt with the Hell’s Belles logo printed on it - a woman's ankle and foot in a roller skate, the point of a devil’s tail winding around it, the entire image surrounded by a heart. There was one left in my size. I had to have it.

I sent Megan an email when I got home:

That was so much fun! I had to cut out early with my friend who’s visiting from out of town to meet up with her friends, so I only caught a little of the second half, but I have a feeling there’s a bunch of us who’ll be coming back for more and now I know not to schedule anything else on a bout night!

I didn’t even realize I’d referenced her skating name saying we’d be coming back “for more”.

She replied with:

I am so glad you could make it! Next time we will have to hang out after. You missed a great second half - we ended up winning by almost 100 points and I won player of the game!

I know it sounds cheesy, but I left the pavilion hoping to hang on to some of Megan’s attitude over the coming weeks. Whether on not I remain employed things will be tough, colleagues will be eliminated, and if I get to keep my job I’ll have to pick myself up off the floor and start skating in circles, regardless of the obstacles.