Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mowing Lawns

On my last trip back to Pennsylvania, I was worried when Mom told me my sister had mowed the lawn two days earlier. I’m never quite sure why people carp about mowing lawns – I love doing it, and do it every chance I get. The sound of the mower, the physical exertion, time spent in the sun, the visible sight of a finite job being completed – all these things make me enjoy the experience.

Luckily, my sister must have set the wheels way too high, because it became clear a few days later that the grass needed to be mowed again. So I did, and had a rough time as I had the wheels on their lowest setting and the grass was still a little wet from rain the day before. The mower kept conking out on huge chunks of wet grass stuck in the exhaust vent, but after awhile, it got done.

Ultimately, something like mowing a lawn is a direct connection to nature. The grass grows, with or without you, and if you want a nice clean field to walk on, you have to make it that way. With snow or leaves, you have to clean up after nature. Doing these seemingly minute things reminds you of the constant motion of the world – and your small place in it, and that you have to do something to exert control over it. But I think my true pleasure with mowing lawns is tied into the fact that I made a lot of money as a kid doing this.

I can’t remember how we got roped into mowing other people’s lawns, but I’m glad my brothers and I did. The first big client came with Dr. Heber, who lived out the road on a few acres of land – a humungous front and back lawn. Brother M. started doing this, but after awhile realized he was on an eight-hour slog every time he mowed, thus Brother .J and I were enlisted to help with old lawn mowers Dad had tinkered back into (sporadically) working order.

It would take the three of us about three hours to do the whole lawn, with Brother M. stuck with the literally shit job of mowing over the septic tank. The 70s were a weird time for septic tanks. When I visit Pennsylvania now, everyone has a septic tank, as the municipality switched over to this system a few years ago. (And that was pretty onerous and unfair. Every property owner had to pay out of his own pocket to have the tank and a well installed simultaneously – an unwelcome four-figure sum for most people.)

The only way you’d know everyone has a septic tank now is that you can see the pipe tops jutting a few inches out from the grass in each yard. Back in the 70s, the few people who had septic tanks all had the desperately cheap habit of letting the tank overflow, thus creating small shit swamps in their yards, and toxic run-off into near-by gutters. Our neighbors, the Hanlons, got on everybody’s bad side by pumping their septic tank one summer night. I’ll never forget that. We were all sitting around watching TV, probably Chico and the Man, when the most overpowering stench of fresh shit filled the air. This was like Dad, who took the most astoundingly “my god, what did he eat” dumps, taking 10 in a row and lighting them on fire.

We ran out in the streets – everyone on the block did – to realize that Mr. Hanlon had run a hose into his tank and was pumping into the street. A few of the neighbors, my dad included, called the cops, and that was the end of that. Mr. Hanlon alienated a lot of people with that stunt, as well he should have. After that, he still left the tank overflow on the lawn. It should be noted their house was next to a school where dozens of us played baseball all summer. Many of us had sneakers suctioned off our feet when we had to romp through their lawn to retrieve a rubber ball.

With the Heber’s lawn, Brother M. would find himself ankle-deep or worse in sewage sludge and clods of floating grass. It was virtually impossible to mow. All you could do was hack it down a few inches with scythe and sickle. (This was before weed eaters came into vogue.) He’d often find dead or dying copperhead snakes stuck in the sewage, craning their heads while the rest of their bodies baked in shit. He’d usually put them out of their misery with a whack of the scythe. If that sounds harsh, try picking up an agitated, shit-covered, poisonous snake by the tail and walking it a hundred yards to the nearest woods without getting bit.

I’d do this, too, eventually. In fact, I remember Brother J and I taking over the business and doing the Heber lawn ourselves, 4-5 hour mowing marathons that would find us drinking a gallon jug of water a piece and still dying of thirst by the end. The lawn was an easy mow; it’s just that doing a few acres with a push mower is a time-consuming ordeal. I looked at it as a strenuous vertical sun-bathing session that I got paid to do. The worst aspect, beyond the horrible metallic sound of a blade violently scraping on an unseen rock or chunk of wood, was the mowers running out of gas, which would entail at least 15 minutes of fruitless chord-pulling in extreme heat. Once those mowers got that hot, restarting them was a bitch. We learned the trick of unscrewing the carburetor cover and jamming a screwdriver into the gas-flow valve.

Many times, I’d be there in my skimpy 70s shorts, my balls nearly hanging out, white tube socks pulled up to my knees, pair of chlorophyll-stained sneakers, tan as any surfer, cursing over a dead mower that wouldn’t start. But you know what? To get through that, drive back home, unload the mowers, sit in the backyard in the cool of the evening, sipping Kool Aid, with $10 in my pocket (the job went for $20, which seemed like a lot of money to kids back then), and the knowledge that I’d be driving to the local mall in an hour or two to buy a few albums – a nice feeling.

There were other lawns. The next worse was a woman just up the road from the Hebers who had a pretty non-descript, shady lawn, save that it had a “rock garden.” This meant a bunch of decoratively-painted rocks placed into a ridge on her lawn – it was about 15 feet long, four feet wide. The problem we had with the rock garden was that we had to get down on our hands and knees to pick out grass and weeds from between the rocks, making sure to leave any colorful flowers or heather untouched. What a pain in this ass this was. It would take an hour to mow the lawn, then three more hours to clean out the rock garden. On our hands and knees, or leaning on rocks for leverage. Couldn’t use gloves either as they’d make our fingers too clumsy to grab the small weeds. Thus, we’d leave the place with sore knees and backs, small scrapes and cuts on our fingers. The rock garden only happened once a month, but we dreaded it.

Even our own lawn had its problems, namely dogshit. God bless cats for having that internal radar to know to shit in a box. I prefer dogs for their personalities, but if only they knew how to shit like cats. Running over dogshit with a lawnmower is not a sweet proposition. The terds are cut and flung over the lawn, leaving the mower, and maybe you, smelling like dogshit. So, before every mowing session at home, I’d have to shovel the numerous mounds of dogshit from the lawn, and, man, that was no fun. We kept the stuff in an old tar bucket, then once it was full, bury the contents in the backyard. It was sort of a dogshit stew in that tar bucket – the contents somehow liquefied over time. A real nightmare would have been one of my older brothers chasing me down with that bucket and dumping it on me.

What I remember most about lawn mowing is that deep-summer zen, the same feeling I’d get distance running. The heat would add to it. Anyone who’s done any prolonged cardio workout knows the feeling – your body is under duress, but it’s also working at peak form, pumping out sweat to cool down, the repetitive action lulling the mind into a sense of calm. People would never believe me when I’d tell them how relaxing it was to run seven miles in 85-degree heat, but it was. The same went for lawn-mowing, along with that sense of isolation the sound of the motor would bring. The outside world existed only in passing, a wave to a friend passing by on a 10-speed bike. Even now, if someone starts up a piece of equipment like a lawn mower, I can sleep straight through it, so long as the sound remains steady. You couldn’t hear anything outside it, you had to concern yourself only with what was directly in front of you, and that was a visible square that shrunk to a smaller box with every passing lap, until there was nothing but a freshly-mown lawn, and the smell of it mingled with hints of gasoline. A perfect little world.

And a pocket-full of dough afterwards. I can trace back my relationship to money and work to allowances (believe it or not, a quarter a week ... how in the hell I did anything with that amount of money is beyond me now), but it wasn't until lawn mowing that I got the first taste of comparatively big money. A strange thing about me, work and money -- maybe good, maybe bad. I've found that so long as I feel productive and useful, money's not a burning issue in my life. Sure, I could use more -- most of us could. But I'm not driven by money -- I'm driven by the concept of work. You better believe, when people work with me, they're pretty happy that there's one person around who is more interested in getting shit done than in fucking with them in some sense. I enjoy working, and it's surely a detriment to me that I don't insist on climbing a money ladder to ensure my self worth. That may not seem like much of a distinction, but from what I've seen, it's a huge one in terms of the difference between ambition and work itself. This all goes back to mowing lawns, and the simple pleasure I got, and still get, from being able to take stock in a job well done, and knowing the whole process will need to be done again, and again, and again.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Riverside Shakespeare

The secret bane of college life, as I remember it, was having to buy over-priced text books for classes. It had to be the biggest racket on campus – books that should have gone for no more than $20 being sold for $120. And you had to buy them. Luckily, the campus had a pretty good used store, so I could buy these shit-bag, never-to-be-used-again books for $50. Of course, the worst aspect of used text books, and even worse for novels: passages highlighted in yellow that made no sense to highlight, and scribbled notes in the margins that suggested the previous owner was a complete moron on acid.

I now own only one book purchased for classes from that time: The Riverside Shakespeare. I’m not really sure why I still own it, as I haven’t read any Shakespeare in years. If you’re not familiar with this edition, the thing is twice the size of a New York City phone book. I’m trying to remember how I carried this thing to class – in a wheelbarrow? I think it’s a lot like the poetry books I bought so many of in my 20s; I can’t seem to part with them even though I rarely read them. (I just don’t have the time more than anything.) They’re status symbols of past ideals, so I can show people I really gave a shit about such things, once upon a time.

Hell, since discovering the joys of the New York City Public Library, I may never buy another book again. I’m looking at my life and recognizing time is an issue in terms of re-reading books … so why buy them? I say this knowing full well that if I had a few lucky breaks, I’d be begging people to buy my books. When the reality is I can’t be bothered to buy them myself. And I can’t stand the atmosphere at bookstores. I like the atmosphere in my boxing classes. I wish I could merge both and beat the shit out of various art snobs and such who make small indie bookstores such a stale experience.

But let’s get back to The Riverside Shakespeare. I was lucky enough to have two professors who worshipped him, so I actually pulled something from their classes, as opposed to the millions of kids who take similar classes and feel like they’re sleepwalking in hell. Charlie, my English professor/mentor at the branch campus I attended for two years, specialized in Shakespeare, to the extent that he’d insist when we read in class, we’d need to re-enact everything. Ergo, if there was a thundering storm, he’d enlist a few kids to bang the shit out of close-top desks and wail. It was great fun. And since Charlie was such a hip guy, at least as far as English professors went, he knew how to connect the writing to contemporary issues. Not in that shithead “let’s re-do Hamlet with helicopters and a hiphop soundtrack” way – just in making the emotional connection between those characters and how people are now.

My second professor, at the main Penn State campus, christ, I can’t remember his name, an older man, but this guy was excellent, as good as Charlie in terms of his knowledge and passion, and just as engaging. For the quality of instructors I had teaching me Shakespeare, I should be a lot more enamored of his writing than I am now. I guess the problem was/is I can’t stand stage acting and plays. I hate seeing actors act. I can handle movies, but when I see people on a stage, over-emoting and carrying on like mental patients, I just turn off. I’d rather watch American Gladiator reruns than any Sam Shephard play. One-man shows? Forget it. Hideously bad over-acting in my book. No one ever acts like that, unless they’re high and/or deranged – which is the case some of the times with the characters portrayed, but just as often not.

And directors have a way of mangling Shakespeare to “update” his style, which always comes off terribly. I know a lot of actors eat this shit up, a chance to tap into the classics, throw in Ibsen and such, but it’s just an art that I don’t appreciate, and lord knows, I tried. My response to "let's go see play"? It's "let's just fuck instead, and save $20 a piece and bad plastic cup of warm white wine at intermission, ok?".

But The Riverside Shakespeare, this haunting doorstop, goes on sitting in my apartment. I keep telling myself, “it’s good to have that as a reference,” but god-damn, the last time I referred to it was probably about 1991 or so. Why do I keep this fucking thing?

I guess it’s like the baseball glove I keep in one of my drawers, which dates all the way back to the late 70s when I bought it at the tail end of my Little League stint, to use in neighborhood ball, which went on a few years more. I used it, too, in the short-lived publishing/advertising softball league days of my mid-late 20s, which I enjoyed at the time, but more for the rambunctious bar scene afterwards, getting really hammered and flirting with those nutty/beautiful advertising chicks who never knew what they wanted. And I do have nice memories of being out on Ward’s Island as the sun set on a mid-summer evening, cool breezes coming off the East River, playing softball, catching a look at Manhattan between pitches, as our team usually lost 26-7 or so, but no one gave a shit. When the game ended, we’d take a yellow school bus back to a dive bar on the upper east side. I distinctly recall pissing on the streets of the Bronx like a dog marking his trail, because I just couldn’t make it home in time to unload about six pints of Guinness I’d had in the previous two hours.

The glove isn’t so much a reminder as a physical extension of a memory – something that seems so elemental and tied into who I was that it makes sense to keep it. I have baseball hats like this, too, that I’ll probably never wear again. Sentimental things, when you get down to it. Throw in The Riverside Shakespeare. With college stuff? There are damn few physical reminders of my time there – a few pictures, some yellowed newspaper columns (that make me cringe the few times I’ve looked at them), a diploma. Everything else is carried in emails and conversations I’ve had and continue to have with a handful of old college classmates over the years.

And none of us are nostalgic for those college days, even though most of us had a blast at Penn State. The Riverside Shakespeare makes me think of this girl Ann from South Dakota who was in my second class at the main campus. A beautiful girl with long black hair – looked a lot like the actress Jordana Brewster. I was dying to fuck her, but we never quite clicked. I’ll never forget the night I snuck into her dorm, so we could play Chuck Berry’s “Great 28” album I had just bought ("Bill, you bought the album? Get over here, now!"), and she went nuts doing the twist for about an hour – I should have went for it then, dude. But it didn’t happen, and we went on, carrying our gigantic copies of The Riverside Shakespeare to class three times a week. We both got A’s, and I guess she went back to the Badlands to live out her days.

Why is it that I think just as much about her, or Charlie, as I do anything I actually learned while reading The Riverside Shakespeare, when I look at that book on the shelf?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

When Michael Stipe Had Hair

I’ve been doing one of those huge MP3 projects again. This time, I’m wading through all my 90s pop CDs that came out pre-MP3 boom in the late 90s, and transferring the cream of the crop to MP3. It’s a lot of stuff – adding 400 some tracks to a general Pop folder that already had 800 or so songs.

The same thing happens every time I do these projects: it occurs to me that I no longer want to own certain CDs, and in some cases, jettison entire phases of certain artists’ careers. All in utter astonishment at why I bought this shit in the first place. Sometimes, the bands do it for me in real time. I couldn’t stand Radiohead’s change of pace with Kid A, made the bad mistake of buying the electronic blip/blop follow-up, threw both out and swore to never again buy Radiohead product unless it featured two guitarists. The shock for me is that Kid A is their most popular album; it’s a piece of shit.

(Sidenote: I can't use the excuse that I "was high, man." The only time I've ever purchased music while in any state of inebration was a strange Friday night shortly after I had just been dumped by a girl I can't even remember. I went out and got drunk with a few friends. Afterwards, since I was near the Tower on 4th and Broadway, I inexplicably headed over there and plunked down what was then a good chunk of change on the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons box set -- on vinyl at the time. The next morning I woke up and thought this was totally nuts. But you know what? After playing the thing a few times, I realized it was a sound purchase, made under emotional duress.)

I now have a stack of about 30 CDs I’m going to junk. In the old days, I’d try to sell these, but now, I’d rather just throw them out then go through the whole process, which is a lot of work, to clear less than $100 over a few-month period. There are a few multiple-album dumpings. The White Stripes: after the first two albums, aside from a few songs I handily saved, the rest of their stuff sounds so bad to me. Boring, repetitive, wildly over-rated. Jack needs to stop dressing like a rodeo clown on acid and get back to business.

But the real revelation, which shouldn’t have been much of one at all, was REM’s output from the 90s on. Thus, the title of this posting … because the only REM I will now own harkens back to days of yore when Michael Stipe still had hair. And I’m not recognizing those days as being quite so golden. A few months earlier, I noted how surprised I was that a recent listening to REM’s 80s material left me feeling that a lot of their music was overly precious college rock, mainly because of Stipe’s murky poet image. The music was fine. Some of the songs are legitimately great: “So. Central Rain,” “I Believe,” “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” “Talk About the Passion,” “Good Advices,” “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” etc. The consistent weak point is the lead singer – not his voice, which is actually fine for the material. I’m talking lyrics and image more than anything.

They had enough great material that I could see why I was a huge fan at the time. The general vibe back then was that REM was akin to The Beatles, as The Replacements were to The Rolling Stones. And both were in a friendly competition to be the best indie band around. Then REM really took off with “The One I Love” and things escalated from there, to the point where they became something far from the cool indie band they once were. The last song I recall falling for was “Losing My Religion” – the video of which imparts where they were going wrong. Indulging in all sorts of artsy imagery, pompous in a "college sophomore on his first Camus jag" way, vague hints of Stipes’ politics seeping into the music, etc. Sort of like U2, who followed a similar trajectory. Save you knew that was going to happen with U2 – REM should have never got that big. They were meant to be shaggy bohemians, not shaved-skull rock stars dressed like Johnny Bravo.

Luckily, The Replacements didn’t become rock stars, and sucked when they tried. Paul Westerberg found his niche as a tasteful cult artist, but even that’s been problematic. His albums are uniformly mediocre – just not enough good songs, plenty of songs that sound right, but aren’t quite there. To read critics’ reviews, you’d think he’s doing Exile on Main Street every time out; he’s not even doing Goat’s Head Soup. The fan base seems to be filled with very odd people who treat Westerberg like a god and maniacally shout every lyric of every song at every show. (I don’t remember Replacements shows ever being this way. They were fun. Not a church service for a bunch of people who never got past 20 in their emotional development. I don’t mind 20-year-olds with this kind of mindset, although, again, Replacements fans back in the 80s seemed like a tough, cynical lot not prone to singalongs. But when you’re 35?) As ambivalent as I feel towards Westerberg these days, his fate has been vastly preferable to that of REM.

Getting back to REM, I also recently bought the video collection of their early IRS material, and that was a fun watch. I see a lot of myself and how I was in the vibe of those videos, those college days of the mid-80s, when we were all making it up as we went along. I remember staying up late to watch the episodes the band did on the MTV show, The Cutting Edge, and thinking that’s how it should be: a bunch of skinny kids on a shoestring budget, gallivanting all over the country in a van, sleeping on the living-room floors of fans when money got too tight for a hotel, jamming in big empty rooms, not taking it all too seriously. They lived in an abandoned church, man. A fucking abandoned church! Did I mention my friends and I once chatted with Michael Stipe in a graveyard on the campus of Bucknell University on a pre-Fables of the Reconstruction mini-tour? On campus at midnight after the show. A fucking graveyard, man!

But the 90s version of REM is just so awful. Michael Stipe, of course, is the key, but the rest of the band seems to have lost its ability to write good songs. “Man on the Moon”? This song is so bland and inoffensive – hardly a fitting tribute to Andy Kaufman. “Shiny Happy People”? Even if it’s being ironic, it’s still a deeply foul song. “Everybody Hurts”? I don’t like Sean “Puffy” Combs, but I’ll give him credit for lampooning this song in his "All About the Benjamins" video for being the hack pussy-work it is. “Nightswimming”? A song about skinny-dipping late at night. Written by a guy in his mid-30s. Who the fuck, in his mid-30s, still goes skinny-dipping? This is the kind of thing ROCK STARS do, as they rarely have to get up at 6:30 the next morning -- John Cougar could have written this song. “What’s the Frequency Kenneth”? I guess this is the guys getting back to their “rock” roots. But it’s boring as shit: a neat summation of REM’s 90s output.

I can’t even recall what the song was, but REM did a video where they showed up at a New York City high school to play for the kids. And the kids looked perplexed. I’m assuming most of them had no idea who REM was, and didn’t care. So you have the visage of these increasingly haggard looking guys wearing these manufactured Chess King rock-star duds, jamming out on some tuneless song, for a bunch of kids who think they’re a joke. All I could think was, “Once you make a few million dollars through a bogus record contract that the label wishes it could rescind in light of greatly diminished sales, reality becomes a distraction.”

After wading through their 90s discs this past weekend, and salvaging four tracks from all of them, all I could think was, don’t blame the band, blame me. I was an asshole for buying all these CDs long after it had been made clear to me that the band was phoning it in shortly after their first stadium tour.

Why did I do it? Partially out of loyalty, because the band genuinely meant something to me in the 80s, and I had faith enough in them that they’d somehow “find the magic” again, a false hope bolstered by critics who tend to make really bland albums by previously-indie bands like this sound like they’re worth purchasing. (And they rarely are.)

I think a greater reason is cultural inertia. Which is to say, when something that was once good and right in our culture hangs around, despite the fact that it has seen better days, there’s a strange cultural force that compels people to stick with it, full well knowing they’ll be disappointed. I believe this force has kept the music industry afloat for decades. It’s surely kept dozens of long-in-the-tooth bands around long, long past their prime. Part of that is nostalgia. You want to go on being the relatively innocent kid you were, plugged into a genuinely heartfelt and exciting experience. By buying that band’s now-shitty albums, you go on having faith that they’re still somehow the same people, as you are, too, by extension.

But part of it is just business. The album comes out, it garners anything from favorable to rave reviews, and after awhile you realize that when a record company throws seven and eight figure sums into signing a band (which is what inexplicably happened to REM in the early 90s), they want some ROI (Return on Investment) and are going to do everything they can to make this happen. I know REM’s albums have sold like shit-flavored ice cream since the mid 90s. (And rightfully so!) But to gather by the tour support they routinely get (I hope they recoup some of that money on the road), the publicity for each album, and the critics in their back pocket, you can suss out that it would be in their best financial interest if you bought the album, even when you sense it’s going to be a dog. (The last album I bought had a song called “Imitation of Life” which was a fantastic return to form the band – the rest of the album was so fucking bland and pointless, just not something I’d ever listen to again.)

For me, REM is the Alt 80s version of Rod Stewart, someone who plummeted from respectable creative heights (his first few solo and Faces albums are still incredible) to what we thought was horseshit (“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” … followed by his 80s synth-pop period), but wasn’t that bad compared to the absolute horseshit of Stewart singing standards. (Whoever’s buying these albums, and someone is because they’re sizable hits … fuck you. There’s something really wrong with you. Allow me to reiterate: fuck you. If you want to hear standards sung a few thousand times better, drop me an email.)

The thing is, not many people are willing to bust REM on sucking at that same level. But they are. I’m sure they’re still a bunch of nice guys. That Stipe can look you in the eye and have an earnest conversation that makes you think he’s a wizened southern nut. And that Buck still has that cool record-store clerk countenance about him. And in Mills you can still see that gawky kid playing bass in a Georgia high-school marching band. But for the life of me, something died a long time ago, it started reeking like roadkill skunk on the Dixie Highway in late August, and it wasn’t until a week ago that I finally came to my senses and buried it. My bad!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Crazy Old Lady Shit: The Bird Edition

Old women often do things that aren’t so much strange as idiosyncratic – the sort of things geniuses do inadvertently, or the idiot next door does as a matter of habit. With my Mom, she has a bizarre obsession with the sight of records or CDs. When vinyl was king, through the 70s and 80s, brother J and I built quite a collection – hundreds of albums, which were stored nicely in basic black metal shelves that didn’t looks bad at all, a major step-up from the old cardboard boxes and milk crates we had them in.

The sight of them drove Mom nuts, despite the fact that she had a houseful of knick-knacks, silly ceramic things that served no purpose other than to show that someone in the house had weird taste that was in no way ironic. She muddled through the vinyl years, only to find that the vinyl would eventually be ditched for CDs – again, all of which fit easily into those black metal shelves. They’re neat, orderly, nothing wrong with them at all. In fact, the shelving space was cut in half due to the smaller size of CDs, so there was less to irk Mom.

Still, some time in the early 90s, she came up with her solution: take an old vinyl shower curtain, cut it down to size, and velcro it to the top of the black metal shelves so the shower curtain would cover the sight of the CDs. Now, I’m of a mind that people can do whatever they want in their homes, but there’s only one place a shower curtain looks right: in a motherfucking shower! As “tasteful” decoration in a bedroom? No!

It must have been one of those things Mom read in “Hints from Heloise” or something – she was always reading those nutty “home improvement methods using household products not designated for that purpose” books, you know, get vomit stains out of a rug by using vinegar and Clorox … so your now-spotless rug can smell like vinegar and Clorox, with faint whiffs of stomach acid. I remember washing my hair in beer and using mayonnaise to get rid of zits. What the fuck was I thinking. With the CDs, she should have bought a tasteful curtain and hung a rail on top of those CD shelves, and that would have worked. Although, again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the sight of those CDs placed neatly on a shelf.

Crazy old lady shit! I got a small jolt of it yesterday with my landlord. Not in a bad way – crazy old lady shit rarely comes in a deeply offensive form. Her thing in general is lawn gnomes and such – she has a few dozen plastic elves and swan planters. A life-sized statue of a fawn with a lot of paint chipped off the head, like someone was shooting at it with a BB gun (the Queens version of the Sphinx?).

It doesn’t bother me at all. I can tell it’s the kind of thing that kids home in on as being so far outside their little outlaw world that it’s worthy of their derision. A few years ago, some of the douche bags from the public school across the street would routinely sneak into her yard before classes and move the fawn around. Those kids got busted in a matter of days – by me. Never confronted them head on – bunch of black kids, who seemed to have problems with authority figures, much less male, much less white. I don’t need that sort of shit first thing in the morning. Simply walked across the street, got hold of the first security guard (security guards for seventh graders … welcome to New York City), explained the problem, demanded to talk to the principal or “my attorney” would, and from that next day onward to this day, kids are not allowed to be anywhere near the yard – as enforced by the beefy shaved-headed gym teacher in a sweatsuit who stands out there every school morning.

But in terms of my landlord’s yard decorating tastes, she really made a statement about two years ago. In the back corner of her patio she has a storage shed, filled mostly with gardening tools, but also some emotionally charged items: the wheelchair her now-deceased husband used in his last few years of physical decline, a tricycle and a wagon for her grandkids who come over sporadically (whenever she's not squabbling with her daughters). But the weird one was this gigantic plaster bald eagle. The thing was huge with a wing span of about three feet, was just about as high. I kept wondering, why is this beautiful-but-cheesy bird of prey sitting in her shed?

Well, I guess she was just waiting for the right time to have one of her Greek neighbors get in touch with a landscaping nephew to have the thing bolted on the front of her cinderblock wall facing the street. It happened one weekend while I was away. When I came back, there it was, this giant plaster eagle, positioned just a few feet away from a pair of plaster white owls she has on the edge of her little front garden. It looked like the eagle was getting ready to eat the owls.

Knowing this neighborhood, I thought it would be a matter of weeks before some 15-year-old shithead, on some lazy 2:00 am in deep summer when he couldn’t get his flunky guido nephew to buy him some spray paint, would take a baseball bat to it. But no such thing happened – her eagle is still there, forever spreading its enormous wings and grimacing at all who pass on the street.

And just this weekend, the bald eagle got company. Right next to it, two golden eagles, a good bit smaller, probably about 18 inches high, both very regal looking with wings pulled in, painted a dull yellow, and both facing each other on the cinderblock wall. Please understand, I’m the wrong guy to talk to about this stuff. I once had a fascination with ceramic lawn donkeys and the often dozy, sombreroed figure leading them on a plastic chain. This stuff has always seemed silly to me. Even in the context of this silliness, the birds of prey are pretty strange stuff. But you see this sort of thing all the time in the 718s: life-size figures of saints in front gardens, ornate wooden doors on ramshackle rowhouses. A block down, there’s a row house with this gigantic cage built over the front of the house, with a buzzer on it and a security camera over the door. What goes on there? Probably nothing – just some guy with money to burn who always wanted a cage on the front of his rowhouse.

What to make of this? Here’s my take. At first, I thought this sort of display was a giant fuck-you to the world – the old lady equivalent of sporting a purple mohawk. Some kid wants to take an aluminum bat to it? Go right ahead – she’ll buy another and have it replaced within a week. I used to fret that I’d come home one night to find her weeping, the bald eagle in various pieces on the ground in front of her house. Who knows, that day could still come to pass.

After awhile, it occurred to me that this was just her taste, and it comforted her to have these odd knick-knacks displayed on her property. It’s her thing. Not a statement of purpose, or a confrontation with the world. She thinks it looks nice … much like the giant macramé picture of a stagecoach barreling through the woods at night she took out of my place when I first moved in. I got plenty of Jesus paraphernalia in my place (although I’ve really cut down over the years). A Kit Kat clock. One of those cool ceramic asian cats with his right paw raised in the air. A snowglobe Elvis. Various pictures of dogs playing poker.

But other than that, it’s stuff that means something to me directly. Various snapshots of my hometown. A picture of Dad and me from my college graduation (a great day for both of us, although I was still puking drunk), along with his funeral card and a picture of him studying at school as a young guy. Pictures I took in Scotland when I was over there in the late 90s.

I’d rather have stuff that means something to me on my walls than what I had previously, which was a smattering of the ironic stuff noted above and posters of various rock bands and movies. It occurred to me in my early 30s that this was a holdover from college. Not bad to have some of that stuff around, but that was my whole M.O. for years.

I guess as you get older, you want to let people know who you are, or what you appreciate, as opposed to appearing cool as an unspoken defense against the world. And thus, you get to the heart of cool: not caring what anyone else thinks about you. I can assure you, an old woman with these batty plaster birds all over her yard couldn’t give a flying fuck what anyone thinks about this. And when you look at people lives, you see what they’ve gone through – in her case the prolonged death of a spouse, off-and-on tiffs with her kids, a serious health problem for herself when her digestive system nearly conked out.

When you go through all that shit, if it gives you pleasure to look at tacky plaster birds and plastic lawn trolls in your yard, so be it. It takes a long time to come around to that way of thinking, and I am miles away from the kid who would point at a ceramic lawn donkey and laugh hysterically. You roll with this shit in life. Reminds me of the time Eddie, my landlord in the Bronx, asked me to help move an old couch to a neighbor’s house. Eddie was Puerto Rican, the neighbors were black, and I’m white, maybe the first white guy they ever had in their house. Every piece of furniture in the house was clear plastic-coated, which I’ve since learned is a staple with a lot of working-class black folk. I could tell when I came in, the hostess was eyeing me up to see if I rolled my eyes when I sat down on the couch and made it squeak. But you know what? They paid good money for that sofa, and if they wanted to make sure no one got stains on it by coating it in plastic, that was none of my business. Reminded me of the car seats from my mom’s old Skylark station wagon.