Hunger

Mother’s Day brunch at the tasteful but casual Mediterranean place on MacDougal is simmering nicely, even if we’re without our mothers today. Obscenely beautiful and diverse downtown crews show off their mod hats, chat amiably, and laugh. Young couples drunk with Sunday leisure bask in the mid-morning sunshine spilling in from outside, waking only occasionally to usher their runaway tots back into the restaurant. A heavyset Iberian fellow and his late-teen daughters file in and occupy a corner table, lustily eyeballing the menu while a Semitic waiter explains the day’s specials. The café au lait is slowly cooling on our reclaimed wood table, topped by a perfectly symmetrical heart shape that makes it such a shame to drink.

Outside, the sun is beaming down on the quiet SoHo side street, generously ladling joy and tranquility to passersby. In a hectic city life that rarely affords such moments, it seems nothing could possibly burst the bubble of the endless Sunday. The egg shells on our entrees have hardly been cracked and the slow savor of our coffee feels bottomless. Between idle chats and sidelong glances at other patrons, we look out onto the sidewalk and let thoughts wander in and linger, or leave, just as randomly, just as suddenly as they come.

When the crotchety croaking of an angry man first sound, they’re slow to pierce our gentle reveries, like waking life first intruding on peaceful dreams in the early hours of the morning. Collectively, we stir slowly, turning our faces, one at a time, toward the culprit. He’s a black man who looks older than his years, sweaty, emaciated, his clothes clean but wrinkled.  And he seems familiar to the staff. One of the busboys from the kitchen hands him a paper bag. The man looks inside, makes a face, looks upset. “Bread?…That what you’re giving me?” Whatever they gave him clearly won’t do. His voice rises, hitting a different cadence with each sentence. Now we’re divided: some of us are looking, rapt, others turned away in the unmistakably deliberate way of subway riders faced with crazies.

The large Spaniard is annoyed as all the action is nearest his family’s perch by the window. He makes a slow but menacing movement toward the hungry man who’s now intimidating the busboy. The next moment, a more senior member of the staff flits out the kitchen and gets between the man and his customers. He negotiates, calmly, with a thick Israeli accent. Somehow, he talks the man down without upping the offer, or resorting to violence or cops. The threat is gone as suddenly as it came. We go back to our Mediterranean breakfasts and brunch conversations, though the afternoon feels a little less slow now.

My shakshuka arrives, and it is delicious.

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Halal Turnover

“White sauce, Sir?”

“Not too much.”

“Hot?”

“Just a bit.”

It’s a familiar exchange and, granted, one I used to have much more often when, with my devil-may-care attitude toward nutrition, I bee-lined over to King Tut Halal twice, thrice, sometimes four times a week. It’s not that I don’t care about my health, you see, it’s just…when the delicious taste of those chopped-up chicken thighs beckons, it’s damn near impossible to resist the urge. It doesn’t care if life is good or bad. The craving always comes, and when it does, you must have it.

It’s not that I didn’t know that chicken-and-rice (or worse and more devilishly delicious, lamb) is not at the top of Michelle Obama’s food pyramid, it’s that I was not aware of the scope of the damage. So when I started looking up calorie counts online for some of my favorite foods, the numbers, though all over the map, were shocking. Several websites listed a standard chicken platter at 1800 calories or higher. The most conservative estimates had it at 1200. That was it–I had gone too far behind the scenes. I wished that I had never looked up this stupid fact, that I could put this message back in the bottle and chuck it back out to sea. But I had to face reality. As things stood, there was no way I could continue to patronize the Halal stand at the same frequency. Not without feeling guilty every time I tried to hold my loved ones’ gaze.

Still, I hadn’t forsaken my neighborhood protein-and-rice dispensary altogether. Every once in a while I would allow myself a treat. I was much chagrined to discover that my Halal guy, a fixture on the scene for months, if not years, was replaced by another whose face I’d never seen before. Another man with another mustache and other mannerisms. And then another, and another. The tasty constant that had anchored my workaday existence was gone. For me, it was like losing a really special math teacher in the 8th grade for improprieties. (Sure, he might have cursed at the kids and flaunted a few rules, but man, did he run one hell of an after-school math club!)

Suddenly there was no choice of yellow rice vs. basmati. No one inquired about my onion preferences. I couldn’t even muster enthusiasm to ask about a bonus falafel anymore. What’s worse, I ceased to much care about it, one way or the other. Only one question still linked up one nameless vendor with the next: “White sauce?…Hot?”

In a city where Halal guys come and go, where does a man look for comfort?

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The Gospel of Thirties

Transitioning from your 20s to your 30s, at least as a middle-class single white dude in the U.S., is an event marked by fear, loathing, and eventual acceptance. Even in your first year of being 30, you look around and realize things really aren’t so bad, age is just a number. Sure, if your life truly sucks or you haven’t reached certain arbitrary milestones, the going can get mentally tough, but really, the grass is still green, Rice Krispies taste much the same as they did a year ago, and sales clerks and waiters still regard you very much like they always have. Soon, you forget you’re 30 and resume drowning in everyday anxieties and exulting in occasional triumphs, like you always did.

By the second or third year of the fourth decade of your life, you actually start to get the swing of this 30s business. Maybe people are taking you more seriously, maybe you’ve stepped up your social and professional games. One day, you might even find you’re not so obsessed with where you stand in that class you’re taking, where your coworkers see you in the pecking order, or whether you followed protocol correctly on that first-second-third date. Well, maybe you still do, but not as much. In fact, a lot of the things you used to obsess over seem silly, frivolous, nonessential. You wonder why you wasted so much time and energy on these trifles.

Then, as you cruise into your early-mid 30s, you almost start to celebrate this serendipitous, zen-like liberation from the blurry dread of your mid-20s. Sure the girl you really like not calling you back still stings…sure, the zombie pedestrians in the street still haven’t learned how to walk…and sure, you still don’t know your exact place in history and the universe, even if you did get a 10% raise last month. But HEY–hey–it’s cool, right? I mean, tomorrow is another day, and you’ve got more pocket money for better coffee. You can finally export that hike up the Inca trail from the bucket list of your online dating profile into a booked-and-paid-for reality. You’ve even got a gray hair it two, and you’re not sure if that’s the reason your boss is starting to regard you with more respect, but you’ll take it.

And then, at some point between 30 and that next signpost, 35, you get it in your head that, much like the president of the Hair Club for Men, you not only want to be a client, but also the president of the thirtysomething club. Suddenly, like a weirdo inspired by their visit to the Holy Land who now thinks they’re a Messiah, you want to preach the gospel of thirty.

Man, oh man, look at these kids today. Sitting there, fretting over their roommate situation…worrying about their rent, their looks, their talent. Don’t they KNOW?

Suddenly, you want to volunteer to save every anxious twentysomething soul that flits through your life on the way to dates, auditions, and job interviews, biting their fingernails, shifting their gaze nervously from side to side, sizing up the room, drinking away the night with exaggerated cheer.

“Chill, don’t worry. It gets better…it gets easier. Why are you shilling out hundreds of dollars for this comedy class? You’ve already got the talent.”

“Wait a couple more years, you’ll see how silly it all is.”

“You’ll find the right person, but you’ve got to look in the right places. Join a club, a class, what’s your passion?”

Even as you realize your self-serving sermons are a just a loud whimper through an impossible wormhole from a still uncertain future into a past long washed away, you try. You’re Cooper, banging against the back of the bookshelf, screaming across time at your old self, but you’re really talking to someone else, a real person with real thoughts and dreams and aspirations. Millennial, trillennial, whatever. They need to live their own life, their way, with their mistakes, and their own lessons. Don’t waste your breath, spend it on yourself. Reset the focus, figure out what’s driving you now, what mountains you’ve still to conquer.

You’re 34, and people live unbearably long these days. So stop being the village elder, Grandpa. Go learn a few new lessons, and maybe take advice from a few fourtysomethings. Sure, they’re strange, frightful creatures burdened with the weight of responsibilities and resignations, but maybe they have a thing or two to teach you yet. After all, you’re thirtysomething now, you’ve learned to listen. Right?

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Area 51, Sheepshead Bay Road

IMG_8268On a Mother’s Day otherwise unremarkable save for a spring day already febrile with summer fever, I was running my eyes across the familiar row of awnings and storefronts lining the path from the Sheepshead Bay subway stop to Emmons Avenue. Countless nail, hair, and tanning salons, and generic “Law Offices,” broken up by the occasional sushi restaurant and small surprises such as Arbuz (think Russian Pinkberry/Red Mango) and Coney Island Vinny’s Tattoo parlor (at press time, Vinny’s Coney Island bonafides can be neither confirmed nor denied). Not too much has changed in the neighborhood since the time I was a member of Bally’s, other than that very Bally’s being renamed 24 Hour Fitness.

There were no surprises, really… That is, until my brother and I both zoomed our lenses into an odd sign over a an empty space resembling a driveway or small alley, between “Beatiful Q” nail salon and “Dental Clinic.” SPACECRAFT, the sign announced in a wide font. That itself was enough for a minor double take, but it was the words Research and Development in a smaller font below that held our attention. This is not the first time my heart stirred ever so slightly at the promise of unexpected delight on Sheepsheadbay Road. Indeed, a few years ago, I spotted the words Bay Improv Group painted unto the wall of the Subway station across from Dunkin Donuts. Is it possible, I wondered, that edgy New York culture has reached the timid shores of south Brooklyn at last? Would the next Bobby Moynihan or Tina Fey emerge from the intersection of Voorhees and Ocean Avenue? Alas, it was not to be. When I looked at the phone pic I had snapped as proof for others, the real sign, previously obscured by my excitement, revealed itself: “Bay Improvement Group.” Sigh…

So it was with a healthy dose of skepticism that I beheld the latest anomaly. What was this mysterious Spacecraft, and what was it researching and developing? Is it possible that the next Space-X or Virgin Galactic is being forged right here? Not in some garage of two middle class Ivy League dropouts in some Pacific Northwest Hamlet but in a community drive behind a dumpster full of old cuticles and errant dental molds? Why not? Why not us? Russian Brooklyn dreams too, and looks into the skies no less than any other citizen of this great nation. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the cynical voice that whispers in my ear, It’s a heavy-handed name for some contractor or a front for something more nefarious, maybe it’s right. But I until I know for sure, beyond a doubt, or even once I do, I can close my eyes and see a rocket launching into the skies from the humble asphalt of Shore Parkway into the heavens above and the galaxies beyond.

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Posted in improv, Real Estate, Sheepshead Bay

The Thaw

Eddies of melting snow curve around discolored mounds of snow tainted with weeks of pet pee and soot. As the last patches of black ice melt away into the concrete, assorted rubbish loses its snowy veil. Bottle caps, pigeon fodder, and loose articles of winter clothing wash up with little hope for claim or cleaning. The city doesn’t springs back to life so much as rise slowly up, one piece at a time, like a pop-up book.

Children, awakened from their hibernation, appear on the plaza, kicking balls around the Bust of Sylvette, the Picasso sculpture, just been a funny stone in the middle of the grass. SoHo fashionistas, tourists, strollers, and wannabes fill the streets with foot traffic, human bodies flung back into motion. Little dogs no longer having to suffer the indignities of precious doggie clothes and footwear forced upon them by their doting owners. Larger dogs tied up outside a coffee shop while their masters rejuvenate with rare roasts of shade-grown South American beans.

Taxi cabs, Ubers, Lyfts, gypsy cabs, and stretch limos fill the streets, honking their way through messed of oblivious walkers, smug cyclists, and exhausted drivers. The thump of the truck rolling over the Houston pothole sounds every five to ten seconds, on the dot. Soon, the birds will return. Soon, the corner fruit stand will reappear, the kind and tired face of its licensed vendor smiling faintly at passersby while the antenna on his handheld radio tethers him to news from the rest of the world. Soon, the homeless guys who hang around the West 3rd stop will reclaim their positions along Bleecker, waiting for cheery visitors and buzzed post-grads to drop some beer money into their hats.

Spring is in the air.

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2015 Bad Language Language Update

I’d like to kick off 2015 on a positive note by listing the lazy neologisms, nonsensical verbal memes, and plain bad language that I’ve found irksome in recent times–and so should you:

  1. “What did/does <important personal experience or realization> look like for you?”

    This is one of those seeming harmless conversational constructions that has snuck up on our society in recent years and has been slipping into celebrity interviews, therapy sessions, and other question-and-answer transactions both public and private. Apparently, you now have to draw someone a picture with words when they’re asking you about the time your guinea pig ran away or you were caught with your pants down. What does it look like? I’ll tell you what it looks like. It looks like my fist in your face for not asking “what was that like?” instead.

  2. “That _______ where/when/you _______” web meme. Apparently, more people still watch SNL (including twenty-somethings) than will cop to it. Yes, Seth Meyers is a funny guy. So is Bill Hader. You are neither of them, so stop fronting and make your own jokes.
  3. (Optional hashtag # preceding) “Because <Internet or insert equally retarded nonsensical noun or verb, doesn’t matter because there’s no grammar in Internet memes>.” No, that’s not the reason why. Also, why are you opposed to prepositions and articles? Was there a harrowing experience from your public school past? Did a preposition hold you down while an article slapped you silly and throw down an atomic wedgie?
  4. “Bestie.” More fit as a quirky name for your unusual pet, this diminution is certainly not fit for the honorable title of “best friend,” even if you’re 10 years old or less. Marginally better than “bff,” it is nonetheless more annoying due to its overbearing cutesiness. Being a free country is great, but it doesn’t mean we have to nickname everything, including common nouns. (Tie on same grounds: “selfie”)
  5. “Breaking the Internet.” Despite some ingenue’s racy pics being leaked by nerds, kids saying the darndest things, and celebrity couples fighting on CCTV, the Internet remained intact. Yep, I just checked. The servers are up, the network settings are correct, and the protocols are working. (Tie: the incorrigible #winning…nope, we’re all slowly losing)
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Fishing

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The captain is a lean, healthy man in his mid-40s with a slightly sunburnt face. His baseball cap, wraparound sunglasses and polo shirt make him look more like a mid-board golfer on the PGA tour than the captain of a Sheepshead Bay fishing boat.

He makes his rounds about the boat, greeting everyone on board, Groupon or not, introducing himself and making sure we all know how to cast the rod without tangling the line. He asks if I know what I’m doing and I balk. “More or less.” Then I make it clear it’s “less” and he does a quick demo. The captain shows me how to tie up the sinker to the gunwale while the boat is moving so the hook is bouncing against the outside rim without flying into someone’s eye. It’s a neat trick and I tell him so.

Besides the captain the crew consists of a haggard black man, a friendly paisano giant, and a little guy who seems assured of his ability to spot flukes just from the strain on someone’s rod. The black man welcomed us aboard when we first got on, holding our hands to make sure we landlubbers didn’t hurt ourselves from the get-go. Throughout the trip, he walks around with a fancy DSLR snapping shots of giddy fishermen, including a little kid going nuts over a huge flounder, then squealing in terror when a baby sand shark is dumped on the bench next to him to his parents’ amusement.

The short-haired Italian stallion wears a tee-shirt with the sleeves cut off. It reads something like, “Eat, Sleep, Fish, Repeat.” He’s a friendly fellow and fixes our tangles time and time again without losing his cool. This is the hazard of booking a full fishing charter.

I threw in $2 each into the ship’s pool for my dad and me. Our first stop is pretty fruitless but the next couple of spots yield flounders and sea bass for some. Dad looks over at the guy next to us, who tied a dirty bandana around the gunwale to clip his pliers onto and keep them handy — clearly not his first rodeo. He makes a few lighthearted sarcastic remarks alluding to the guy’s apparent expertise. He also insists the guy is Jewish, like us, while I explain that the tattoo of a cross on his calf, wrapped in a flag that says “Greece,” indicates otherwise. Dad waves this off as insufficient evidence…

It’s nearly noon and we’re about to head back toward Sheepshead Bay. Most people have caught a fish or two, some even a keeper. We’re still empty-handed. Dad has now repeated his joke about pulling his $2 from the pool to others, including our Jewish neighbor with the Greek cross on his leg. After several tangles and line crosses, I’m resigned to an uneventful finale and a quiet trip home. Suddenly, Dad manages to pull a baby sea bass out of the ocean. The captain doesn’t even bother to check his length with the long metal rulers provided. The fish is puny.

Then, minutes later, I get lucky and pull out a good-sized flounder just as the motor starts, signaling “Rods up!” and a sail set for home. The captain walks over, this time dressed more casually. He slaps the fish against the ruler. It shows about 16, 16.5 inches. Nope, it needs to be 18. The flounder finds itself flung back into its home even more rudely and abruptly than it was yanked from it. My dad is comically enraged by this malfeasance, but our more experienced neighbor explains there’s a $500 fine attached to keeping such fish, and it won’t be paid by my dad.

Our $4 is going home with someone else, along with another $120 and a fish of gargantuan proportions–one of the massive flounders, I guess. We’re going home with a cooler full of scrunched foil wrappers from the chicken cutlets and cheese sandwiches we ate earlier. Luckily, the boat has beer on it. “Two Sam Adams, please.” That’ll do, Captain. That’ll do. 

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