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.

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