The Corner

It was my nephew’s birthday and we were going to Sahara. We got out on the Avenue U stop, me pinpointing the transfer from express to local on Kings Highway as the trains crossed for a brief moment at the station. Ah, yeah, back in my element. The Avenue U station got a nice makeover sometime in the past decade. Everything but the poorly oiled high-exit cage turnstiles, which turned every three seconds with a death-throe screech that really got under our skins.

Wandering through the familiar row of Chinese dim sum joints, food markets, and value stores (single tear), I passed by the somewhat unlikely awning for “Vlada’s Dog Grooming.” I slowed down my walk on cuteanimal alert. A leathery middle-aged guy ambled out whistling to a cat left pressing its whiskers to the window.

We kept walking stopping at the crosswalk. One guy yelped at another in greeting at the corner bodega. I turned around instinctively, not to much out of alarm as curiosity. “Uh oh, uh oh,” a meek voice rattled from somewhere on our left flank. Something compelled me to turn back again.

“Uh oh. Time go get worried!” It was pretty clear the man from Vlada’s was taunting us. I don’t know what he thought, or what he was after, but I imagined it might have to do with his assumptions about us, inasmuch as I was now making assumptions about him. It might have had to do with him being black and my being white, or his being messed up or unmedicated and my being sober and relatively adjusted. Maybe he just had a shitty day. Maybe the cat bit him. Maybe his wife had just left him. Maybe he didn’t have a wife. Maybe he was homeless. Maybe he didn’t want to be at home. Maybe I was just swimming too far from the shores of practical reality.

“Yeah, you heard me,” he resumed, this time louder and bolder. The SO could feel that I wanted to turn around and get the last word on it, and I shook off the faux-provocation. I tilted my head slightly in his direction but we had started to cross. I don’t know why it mattered, but I wanted him to know that I wasn’t worried, that I had lived in this neighborhood and all around it for 20 years. But it wasn’t even a hard neighborhood, it was Avenue U! And I wasn’t hard either, but the man probably was, or harder than me anyway. And what the hell would I do? Throw down with this guy for teasing me as an alleged yuppie on the street corner? Come to my nephew’s party in tattered clothes, with a black eye, explaining to my familythat I had to stand up for my Brooklyn pride?

It was all silly, and ridiculous, and not worth another thought. But I couldn’t deny it. I wanted to punch this stranger whom I don’t know, punch him very hard, or at least whip him with a good quip.

“I’m not worried!” I would have retorted. Yeah, that’s the ticket. That’s it. Glad I thought about it. Now I’m ready for the next vagrant, come hell or high water.

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Play Ball

Tuesday was not an auspicious day for a baseball game. The forecast called for rain to start in the later afternoon and progress after 6 pm. Granted, it was set for biblical floods the following day, when any outdoor activity would almost certainly be cancelled. So we braved the weather and pushed on. Things started rocky when the my university club (the meeting spot near Grand Central) refused to serve my girlfriend and me. They were just doing their jobs, really–it was a sadly rude awakening that all the other times that I was able to get spirits and victuals was thanks to my friend K., who was always a paying member. I felt a little like a little kid whose dad has been hanging already caught fish unto his hook when he turns around, just to make him feel good. Bah! Our spirits were lifted by my friend’s arrival; we got seats, beers, and burgers. All the while checking our phones to see if the game would be postponed. But it looked like old Hal Steinbrenner was going to play ball.

By the time we got to the stadium and sat down in the right field bleachers, the game was one or two innings in, and we caught the Yanks scoring 2 consecutive runs (the high point of the game, which they went on to lose 6-3). The sky was overcast with gray clouds but it wasn’t pouring yet. But it was starting to dribble a little, so we unfurled our 2 ponchos (thank you, SO!). One of the Bleacher Creatures behind us even helped us smooth the poncho over the seat. Wow, New Yorkers sure are nicer than everyone says they are! After watching the Yanks send a couple of runners home, I went for a beer (yes, one beer, because you can’t get more than one per person) and returned to my seat only to feel a slight touch on the back of my head. I didn’t think much of it, but soon another touch followed. I figured the guy behind us, who was the poncho helper, was just being playful, so I let it go. But another brush or two signaled that this was something else, so I turned around to face an early 20s, puckish young guy who was visibly drunk.

“Everything alright, pard’nah?” I inquired.

Maybe it was the way I said it, but the kid was not happy with the question. “You got a prahblem?” he slurred, close-talking into my ear the way assholes used to do in middle school (some things never change).

For a split-second, my id, egged on by those sucky middle-school years of taking shit from people, fought against my super-ego, which was telling me to turn around until the guy calmed a bit.

“I don’t have a problem.”

He challenged me again, clearly to drunk to come up with new wording.

“Do you want to get removed?” I found myself asking. Oh, brother, I really am an adult now. The elusive satisfaction of punching a jerk in the face was now slipping away from me.

The kid got up all the way now, putting up the dukes and going through all the false bluster and bravado. Luckily, his friends, who were clearly amused, had the mental clarity to pull him down. I sat stewing, my manhood feeling deprived but also secretly happy that I probably wouldn’t have to absorb a drunken blow for the one I would have thrown.

The friend restraint did not last for long. Suddenly, two women in staff uniforms were next to me asking if I was OK and if this dude was doing something to me. I looked over at the kid, who for a moment seemed under control.

“I think we’re OK now.”

The kid, not smart or sober enough to stay down and let things blow over, got up to challenge the two minders, approximating the same question and gestures he had used on me a minute earlier. No sooner had he gotten in their faces than a meaty representative of the NYPD swooped in to execute his removal. It was an impressively quick and decisive response. A couple of his friends, shocked and annoyed, were taken with him, while the rest followed, presumably in solidarity or because he was their ride.

“It wasn’t even my Mets jersey, bro, he was just being an idiot,” the last guy explained excitedly to someone on the phone before chasing after the rest of the group. The Spanish kids around us discussed and debated the measure of the response for another inning or two. The rain picked up and I opened my umbrella over the SO, who, fully fluent in Spanish, was eavesdropping on the nearby conversations. The row behind us was almost fully empty now, but the Bleacher Creatures closed ranks. They lost a few soldiers, but the war would go on.

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There’s a Man Outside My Building

There’s a man outside my building. Every day. Well, almost every day. He lives there. I don’t know his name because we’re long past the point where it would be polite to ask. His shopping cart, loaded with pots, pans, and various bagatelles, is perpetually chained to the fence at Laguardia Corner Gardens like a steed to a hitching post. The man has knee-length braided dreads he somehow manages to pack into an impossibly long beanie that looks like a dragon’s tail. Every day he can be seen reading the newspaper, listing to Spanish-language news, and smoking his pipe–our very own Greenwich Village Gandalf–though something tells me he wouldn’t appreciate the comparison.

What’s his story? Why’s he out here? What little rumors I’ve been able to collate form a sketchy portrait: unreconstructed hippie living here for many years; has a rent-controlled apartment somewhere in the city but chooses to live out there, in the little alley formed by the lovely community garden and the pigeon poop-stained grimy back windows left facade of our 24-hour Morton Williams. He might be an artist. Or just a derelict living off the tax payers’ dime. Storm Sandy is about the only time that I recall him not being there. His entire encampment was gone for several days. Sometimes he leaves for a day or two, in bad weather, whereto I know not. He never asks for money–or food.

When I see his familiar bearded face, the creases of experience in his sun-burnt face, I kind of like thinking of him as a sage and mysterious vagabond smoking rare tobacco and meditating on matters beyond the comprehension. Unhindered by workaday routine and the mundane preoccupations of New Yorkers he watches over us, protecting us with his watchful gaze. But that illusion was sadly broken on occasions when he was clearly wasted, one time even flirting lamely with my girlfriend in mumbled Spanish. Even Gandalf likes to tie one on. Maybe he’s more like us than I know. Life is hard, apartments are small. Every one of us finds their own way of getting through the day. Our watcher has found his. I still wish I knew the full story, and maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to ask. For now, I’ll enjoy that comfort of confirming his presence there as I walk home from work, grocery bags in hand, and nod at him every once in a while. After all, some mysteries are worth preserving.

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A Moment of Sanity

It’s my least favorite part of the week, requiring me to take the red line down to FiDi at rush hour. In the past couple of years, I’ve made significant problem with rageaholism—both real and imagined. For one thing, I’ve radically cut down the number of times I shout at people on the West 4th stop stairs, and I barely ever deploy my elbows as a passive-aggressive cowcatcher in the bowels of Penn Station on the way home from work, anymore. One terrible reality, though, continues to test the limits of my equipoise: the 32nd Street red line. That’s right, I said 32nd Street, not 34th. (For all I know, 34th is just as bad, but it’s not where I get on, and that’s the reality I live with.)

What’s so bad about it? Oh-ho-ho, where do I begin? You basically have three options to enter—bad, worse, and terrible. If you’re a total rube, you’ll get sucked into the black hole of the Penn Station entrance under MSG marquee. That will be the last anyone hears of you, because finding the 1/2/3 train from here is, though promised by the periodic signage, is not actually possible. Eventually you will lose hope and enter a fugue from which only the lucky few will emerge somehow findings themselves at their destination—a row of red line turnstyles. The shrewder souls will cut their losses and track their way back to daylight (if they can).

On the northwest corner of 33rd Street, next to the Halal/hot dog/roasted peanut carts, a more realistic, though in equal measure more absurd, option exists: a single revolving cage turnstyle through which clueless tourists cram and jam their way off the downtown 1 with oversized rolling suitcases, ignoring the exit door subjecting the opposing crowd of hopeful card swipers to an endless wait. When the family of tourists finally clears out, you will discover the incompetent swipers who have been standing in front of you the whole time, waiting their turn to put the card through equally slowly five times before you rip it out of their hands and swipe them in with the slightly faster speed required by MTA readers. If you’re taking the downtown 1, you’re in luck—your journey ends here. But not everyone is so lucky…

Oh, then of course there is the simply “bad” option. For those who brave the stretch of 32nd Street that lies between 6th and 7th avenues on their way to and from work, panhandling, or whatever penal assignment they suffer through to have landed here, the little entrance on 32nd Street can, at times, be tolerable. You know what you’re dealing with, so you can prepare accordingly—the overwhelming crowd of Long Island commuters pooling on the northeastern corner of 32nd and 7th, kicking their hoofs as they stare you down, getting ready to charge as soon as the light turns. You’re no novice, so you flank or dodge them with bullet-time Matrix moves. You even know how to make that left diagonal, pierce the thread of reserves coming up behind them, and dive into the surprisingly spacious entrance tucked in across from a mediocre pizzeria.

Your troubles are over! Salvation is near! Think again…If you’re taking the 2 or 3 (regardless of direction), you have yet to endure the toughest test of all—the fires of Mordor itself—in the walk up that staircase. No strategizing will help you here—much like the final level of the video game, supreme skill will do nothing for you compared to sheer luck. If you happened to come at that perfect moment when the trains just passed and the next arriving trains afford a five-minute respite, you have won the lottery. But if you’re the rest of us, the other 364 days a year, you will round the corner into a bilateral wave of catastrophic, running from a Godzilla-panicked crowd descending like a 10-storey wave, engulfing you and everything that stands in its path. No cow-catcher will help you here. No amount of reasoning or bargaining with the individual members of this mob will help you—for they seized to function as individuals the moment they left that train—the same moment they lost their souls. (They will regain their humanity once more when they reach their homes, hearths, or connecting trains, the color returning to their cheeks, the memories expunged and their consciences cleansed—for such is the curse that haunts the heart of a New York City commuter.)

Many is the time that I have snapped when faced with this scorched-earth raiding party. And, on occasion, I’ve done better than most—shoved, punched, slapped, cut, and bitten (OK, not yet) my way through this human net to catch that downtown 2 or 3 that I really need to get where I’m going on time. When you master the art of being a temporary jerk, you can jostle your way through without repercussion—the train itself is holding its arms out to you, the promise of lukewarm shelter and standing room occupancy ringing out at you with the closing doors. I’ve done what I’ve had to in order to make that train. I’m not ashamed of it, and I don’t regret it. The silent horrors are between me, my conscience, and the darkness of the night.

But there comes a time when the terror of this human blob is too much—and you cross the line of small crimes into the no-man’s land of unspeakable atrocities. This past Tuesday I was on the brink. It was the perfect storm—clueless tourists tooling around the 33rd Street entrance, an oblivious Korean man standing in front of the single turnstyle without any intention of entering, and, of course, the human lava gushing down at me out of the mouth of the 2/3 platform. I could see my train even though I couldn’t—there, in the distance, just behind the 45 people coming determined to crush and trample everyone in their path to get off that platform 5 seconds faster than their neighbor.

I pulled out all the stops—charging up the right side, stiff-arming these linebackers like a desperate halfback looking for the Promised Land, my phone and man purse tucked into my belly. I knew I’d left a couple of victims behind me, but the train door was within reach now. I howled with the anticipated triumph, but it was premature—I ran into a wall of tired officer workers who, like all natural formations, are devoid of sympathy and morals. It was impenetrable and my howl turned into a wail. I was ready to turn back to these assholes and lecture them condescendingly about two-way staircase traffic when I realized that I suddenly weighed a few ounces lighter—one iPhone lighter, to be exact. One foot on the platform, I smacked my empty coat pockets and looked back hopelessly. What I saw amazed me—the unholy horde of barbarians had suddenly parted, standing silent, their eyes cast downward toward an object powerful enough to break the curse—at least for a minute. This amulet, universal and sacrosanct to one and all, lay there, inert, awaiting retrieval from my hands—like King Arthur’s sword in the rock.

Quickly I collected my iPhone from beneath a lady’s heel, suspended in the still air just inches above the surface of the black 4S. And then it was back in my pocket, and time resumed, the mass of zombies resuming their perpetual assault on the ascending fools and on good manners and humanity. The train was missed, but another one would be there in two minutes, and my phone, now past the 2-year contract, was intact. I marveled at this display of organized humanity and felt my commuter rage evaporate into the sweet air of a downtown express.

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Hedged Opinions

I’m noting something happening in the online realm—both with others and with myself. Perhaps you’ve seen a post in this format, on FB or elsewhere:

  1. Strong claim made or opinion expressed, possibly ad hoc or unsupported. “I hate apples” or “I don’t understand why apples are not oranges!” Or something along those lines.
  2. Someone challenges this claim or opinion.
  3. If the response is strong, the original opinionator backs off, gently rationalizing or “clarifying” their original statement.
  4. The respondent, perhaps to show their appreciation for this accommodation, also moderates their original response with a conciliatory remarks.

These exchanges are often harmless and fluffy, and probably makes many of our workdays more tolerable. But are we ever really engaging in interesting debate anymore? We live in an interesting age when opportunities for ubiquitous, 24/7 public exposure and expression are expanding, but so are the possibilities of embarrassing ourselves, offending someone, or generally losing face (or “shī miàn zi ,” as the Chinese refer to it). We are simultaneously emboldened by technological empowerment, restrained by the dictates of proper etiquette, and wary of reprisal on our reputations.

Thus we crowd-source our jokes and opinions while simultaneously homogenizing discourse. Anyone with a provocative, contrarian, or unexpected remark is quickly admonished, and to perpetuate the thread would be bad form. This encourages POV-based segregation, with people congregating in smaller, more accepting communities.  In the echo chamber of the pea pod, self-expression garners near-guaranteed acceptance. Gratification and approval are traded in for a “marketplace of ideas.”

Of course, this may be preferable to the now standard experience of the race-to-the-bottom comment thread, where human beings troll content with lazy and aggressive statements, debasing public discourse in every online forum from YouTube and newspaper websites to social media.

FB, Twitter, and other social media forums are often not the best platform for debate, but the reality is, for the average person it’s a quick and easy way to disseminate information to the most people possible. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Maximizing hits/views/eyeballs? We are all of us pundits these days, and we will be heard!

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On Tequila Island

ImagePatiently, Celso stands and looks at crowd of well-mannered gawkers who have decided to invade his island for a brief afternoon jaunt. In front of them, several Taquileños dance traditional jigs of courtship and celebration with skill and practiced grace, their shortage of spirit failing to dampen the well-rested tourists’ optimistic curiosity. Celso’s face is serious and intelligent, though he’s capable of sideward smiles. He whisks us away as soon as the dancers finish

He takes me and my current travel partner, a Scotsman, for lunch (quinoa soup and grilled lake trout). We brought our own beers to pass the time, the bottles clinking in our bags, where they sit next to rice and sugar (typical gifts for Taquile) and some notebooks and pencils for the child of the house. His name is Wilfredo and he nearly chokes us with his hugs. They feel sincere. We hand out the meager gifts and Celso shows us to the little guesthouse attached to his well-sized house.

After our siesta we walk the island, ascending to Pachamama. Incas revered the mountains as gods, and summits are important to the Quechuas. It’s a beautiful near-sunset. Celso tells me some folktales about curses and cripples. I understand roughly a third of what he says but enough to weave together a story. Some kid forgot to bring in a stone to school. He went to an Inca ruin and took a stone from a room I and the Scotsman are now looking at, a room the locals fear entering. The story of this boy, who was paralyzed after bringing back the forbidden stone, is told to us only after we snap photos of the musty interior.

When we take a break, I look more closely at Celso. He wears a traditional knitted hat with a small pompom crown.“I have a personal question,” I say in mangled Spanish. “Why do you wear this hat if you are married?” The tour guide explained that red hats are warn by men who are spoken for, but Celso wears the red/white split pattern of the soltero.

It turns out that Celso is unmarried. He’s been living with his wife, Juana, for nine years. Together they have an irresistibly cute son, Wilfredo. “Conviviendo,” he tells me, they’ve been cohabiting but remain unmarried. Patiently, he explains that 45 sheep are required to put on a 5-day wedding feast. Celso’s up to 28. 17 sheep to go. I wonder how long that will take. But pride and tradition have clearly conspired to postpone the wedding. Or is Celso just holding out on Juana, using his sheep shortfall to postpone further commitment? Seems unlikely. But he is a man, after all.

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TSA

Noticing things I never noticed before must be some function of getting older. Or maybe it’s just a way of seeing a slight erosion of egotism through a different lens. Whatever the case, when I was standing at JFK 2 weeks ago, going through all those silly screenings, such as required by our DHS, I couldn’t help but notice that the TSA workers nearest me were a bunch of assholes.

There was the Pakistani granny confused by the apathetic instructions delivered in poorly enunciated English. There was the family smiling in benign bewilderment at the government workers pushing them around, getting progressively louder and ruder with each miscomprehension.

Between the rows of x-ray conveyer belts and endless security lines there’s a poster proclaiming that TSA employees are often the first cultural ambassadors to our visitors from around the world, serving proudly to represent city and nation in a courteous and professional manner. There was little of that on display at Terminal 8.

Flight screeners, no doubt socially impaired in part by the daily stream of droning drudgery and seemingly idiotic passengers, always seem one minor aggravation away from snapping and choking a foreign salesman with the leather belt it took him five prompts to remove, or bonking someone on the head with his shoe.

Their brothers and sisters in the immigration and passport control booths, as I learned on the way back, were not much better at welcoming our international guests. They muttered, barked, and beckoned dismissively and, at times, passive-aggressively, at people, with no sense of cheer, curiosity, or assurance. They might as well have been price-scanning baby clothes at a Kmart.

 

 

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