Monday, February 26, 2007

Avoid Meaningless Confrontation

Well, it’s a good time to get the hell out of Dodge for a few days. February has been a ragged month, it’s almost over, the city’s getting to me, and I recognize a few days in the country will do me a world of good.

There’s a certain time of year I call “back cover of Peter Gabriel’s second album.” Here it is. We are here. I understood this picture even before I moved to New York (and love this album – hands down, my favorite Peter Gabriel album, later for that “world music” hoodoo). In Pennsylvania, it would be barren coal banks, bare trees and fog in late February. Slushy parking lots and filthy, crusted windshields. Looks like things weren’t much better in the city, and I can now attest to that. If I’m not mistaken, it looks like Peter was doing his Hunchback of Notre Dame impression around Grand Central Station. I’ve been doing that impression myself the past few weeks.

This time last week, I had one of those meaningless confrontations endemic to city dwellers. You probably know my golden rule of the city: avoid meaningless confrontations (and most are meaningless). I’ve found it’s easier to let pass any real or imagined slights, to let it flow like water off the proverbial duck’s back, to keep moving. Because unlike small-town life, in the city, the source of your displeasure, once this moment passes, may never cross your path again, thankfully. So why get crazy? If you picked a fight every time a fight could be picked, you’d be fighting every day. Most days, I understand this completely. But sometimes, on a bad day …

I had boxing Tuesday night, and usually the trains are fine afterwards – just after rush hour, not crowded, even if the train takes a few minutes too long to pull in, it’s not overly crowded. I’m relaxed after a truly harsh work out, want to go home, get some food in my belly, type a few emails, maybe do a little writing, and just kick back. It’s normally a clear shot home.

Well, for reasons unknown to me, the train I was on stopped, and we were informed that we all had to get off, as the train was being re-routed to go back to Brooklyn due to scheduling problems, and would not be going to Queens, as it normally did. To make this even more senseless, two trains on the same line passed through on the other side of the tracks heading to Brooklyn – it made no sense. People were flummoxed, angry and barking at any Transit Authority personnel who dared show his face. It had the potential for a very ugly scene – the platform was about four-people deep, not a comfortable feeling if you haven’t experienced it personally.

So, that train pulls out, in the wrong direction, and we all stand there stewing. Luckily enough, another train, pulled right in, and even luckier, it wasn’t that crowded. Granted, we would make it a lot more crowded by getting on, but I found that as we filed through the open doors, there was still enough room for everyone to get on and not feel sardine-packed. Could have been much worse.

As I’m going through the door, I feel a fist being pressed into the middle of my back, and then immediately hear a loud barking voice saying things, like, "Get on the car, you fucking pigs, you assholes, I need to get home, move it."

I think I could have handled the stupid shit coming out of this guy’s mouth. I can’t stand loud-mouth pricks (who can?), but usually, you leave shitbirds like that alone, they blow themselves out after a few minutes. But the fist in the back … no. You don’t touch people like that in the city. Or anywhere for that matter. I had this debate with Andy S. on the phone later that night, with him busting my balls for getting upset over this, his line of reasoning that people do shit like this all the time. Not to me they don’t. I’ve been bumped, pushed and made to feel uncomfortable many times – usually followed by the person saying “excuse me” – because it’s the city, shit happens, we all know we’re in a bad situation and trying to make it work. But you don’t lean your fist into someone’s back like that – that’s open disrespect, and not something I’ll put up with.

“Shut the fuck up,” I barked.

“No, you shut the …”

The guy couldn’t finish his line because I turned around and knocked him on his ass, out of the train. A simple move – elbowed him full-force in the chest, he went down hard. I could see he was in his 50s, scraggly-looking white guy, looked like a little cracky, gray hair, walrus mustache, couldn’t have been more than 5' 6" and 150 lbs. soaking wet.

If God was feeling nice that night, the doors would have closed, and we would have gone our merry ways. As it was, the doors popped back open, and this guy got up, carrying on like a maniac, slipping through the door just as it closed, this time for good. I had thought about putting a straight right into his face as he went for the door – and probably should have – but let the moment pass, unfortunately.

This guy proceeded to carry on like a busted chainsaw: “You don’t scare me, you big prick! Nobody pushed me around, fuck you! I been shot and stabbed! You aint gonna’ scare me, you fuck! Go ahead and hit me!”

On and on and on, at top volume, while I stood in defensive mode, gym bag at my feet, both arms loose, left foot facing him, right arm pulled back and ready to go to work. I have an overhand right that if you don’t block it and give me an unimpeded shot, will break bones in your body. Most guys who box have one punch like that. It’s my best punch, and this guy had a winter coat in one hand, nothing in the other, both hands at his waist.

Every fiber in my body wanted to beat this guy senseless. He deserved it: rude, loud and obnoxious. He was scared shitless – you could see it in his eyes. And this is why he was yelling – to see if he could raise the heat on me. (It wasn’t working. One of the byproducts of boxing is that you don’t fear physical confrontations. People get hit all the time. Bruises heal. You see how hard it is to damage people with your bare hands, at least when you square off with people who know how to defend themselves.) His little spiel about getting shot and stabbed was also a scare tactic – his unfortunate past wasn’t going to mean a god-damned thing if I dropped a clean overhand right on his head.

Then I looked around me … and realized the entire subway car was terrorized. These people were afraid, and this guy wasn’t going to stop ranting. I could see that this guy wasn’t as dumb as he made himself out to be. He managed to carry on like a mental patient, thus ensuring that these people on the car, who were normally bored out of their skulls on the train, were now a rapt audience witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime confrontation, a guy about to get his ass kicked by another much larger guy who clearly wasn’t backing down.

And I sort of realized that these folks were not going to be able to handle the spectacle of this guy getting beat on a subway train. There’d be blood. There’d be that very hard, unmistakable sound of somebody who knows how to throw a punch landing repeated blows on a person ill-prepared to handle them. There’d be a passed-out person on the train floor. There’d be screaming and crying. Most people aren’t too good with physical violence, even something as basic as a fist fight – it scares the shit out of most people.

On top of that, once this transpires, in this day and age, there will be at least 20 cellphones aimed to me to take video or pictures, and 20 more making 9-1-1 calls to report what had just happened.

In short, I had no urge to go to jail over something this stupid. The guy had me cornered. I strongly doubt by any grand design of his – if I’d have matched his game of stupidity, he’d be back on the subway platform passed out. Fear of jail is a very powerful thing. I don’t want to go there, not even to visit. The concept of going there on an aggravated assault charge, and possibly having a felony charge on my record … just because I’d blown my cool on some asshole who, frankly, has it coming from someone, if not me?

It didn’t take me long to realize I’d be an idiot to knock this guy out, as much as I wanted to do this. You envision these situations being some glorious Dirty Harry-type confrontation where you pop someone hard, they go down, and you feel vindicated. But the reality, especially in public, is a passed-out person slumped on the floor, and witnesses. It’s just not a realistic situation for people who don’t want to go to jail. You want to risk jail over shit like that? You’re a different person than I am … and probably not reading this right now.

And this guy was just not going to stop ranting until I did something. I could see he was scaring the death out of the women on the train. No guys were coming forward. They could see me coiled up like an angry snake and waiting to strike. So what did I do?

I shook my head, said, “Look, I’m sorry I pushed you. That wasn’t cool, and I’m sorry. Been a long day, and I screwed up. That wasn't right, and I shouldn't have done that.”

I extended my open hand for him to shake. The guy stopped ranting. After a long pause, he shook my hand. He looked at me, and in that moment, something broke inside him. Not in a bad way. Whatever defense he had riled himself into just fell away. You could see it in his eyes. He hadn’t expected any sort of compassion in this sort of situation – maybe hadn’t received any in years, for all I knew. He had that way about him.

But when I did that, he slumped down on his haunches, I could see his eyes water. There was an open seat next to us, as most of the car had cleared out of that area, so I said, look, have a seat, I insist. And he kept saying no, probably thinking I was somehow trying to trick him. He stayed slumped against the door, clutching his coat. It was as though offering my hand had more of a profound effect than what he had envisioned happening. In effect, I had accomplished what I set out to do the moment he put his fist on my back and started ranting: I shut him up. The easy way, as opposed to the hard.

I’m an angel? Fuck, no. Like I said, fear of jail is a very strong deterrent towards seeing a situation like this through to a physical conclusion. If that guy had pulled this shit on a street with no one around, I’d have belted him straightaway, no question about it. I came within a few moments of belting him in the situation as it was, before my logical mind kicked in, and I could see how scared other people were on the train. I don’t want to scare people, and I have issues with guys who clearly manufacture some persona to do this – whether it’s how they dress, act, carry themselves. It’s bullshit. It’s fear. I’m not afraid. I feel no need to put fear into other people and don't live that way. And when I saw that I had put myself in a situation where my actions were going to somehow damage these people emotionally, I called it off, realizing all the negative implications of what I was about to do. Everyone loses in that situation.

The next stop came, and as the guy went to get off, he extended his hand again, I shook it and said, “I really am sorry. Have a good night.”

Subway doors closed, and he stood there looking at me, clearly perplexed. As the train pulled out, you could feel a sigh of relief. I sat down in that open seat. The woman next to me goes, “That guy! He was crazy! You should have kicked his ass!” But the guy next to her, middle-aged Greek guy in a fisherman’s hat, goes, “Good for you! You took the high road. Not everyone goes there! The high road is the place to be!” I couldn't tell or care what most people were thinking.

If I took the high road, it surely wasn’t my intention. I took the road that lead most clearly out of a stupid situation that, I have to admit, could have been avoided if I had just let that asshole rant and put his fist in my back. Then again … you have to draw a line somewhere. And while I drew it awkwardly, felt like a total dick afterwards, wish the whole thing had never happened, one thing you learn in the city is that sometimes you have to set boundaries and defend them. Very rarely – this has happened to me only twice in 20 years. But every now and then, shit gets strange. And I’m glad I found a sane way out of this one.

I will be ever so glad to get on that fucking bus tomorrow and ditch town for a few days. Go see slush and black snow somewhere else. Where it’s much harder to get into wacky shit like this. You learn some pretty cool things about human nature when you ride the subway, some truly rewarding things that would never occur to you otherwise. But sometimes you see people at their worst. And sometimes you find yourself in these awkward situations, and surprise yourself by how they pan out. Live and learn.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Novel Excerpt

Back in my 20s, fresh from a successful two-year collegiate stint as a weekly newspaper columnist, I had it in my head that I was going to sit down and write a novel. At that point in your life, everyone's behind you. All your friends are still voracious readers. Professors are certain you'll be the one, your talents so shining and obvious. The wind's in your sails.

The problem was I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground in terms of novel writing. I still don't. If I ever do write one, think of the fractured, all-over-the-place Kurt Vonnegut template. Which could make for a pretty good read -- the thing is, the guy got very good at that style, took him a long time, too. It's not as easy as he makes it look. Besides which ... the concept of a "successful" novelist has changed drastically, so much that you could have a book that's considered a success and still be very much in need of a solid day job to get by.

On top of all this, look at attention spans these days. One of the big reasons I unwind on this website is to keep in the habit of writing longer pieces. If I were getting regular newspaper or magazine work, this would never happen. Most writing now, especially on the web, is being geared to sound bites, individual paragraphs and one liners underneath goofy photos that communicate glibness and lack of depth. Our attention spans are shot. I can't even fathom Myspace and the idiot-speak so many people employ on it. I feel like I'm reading another language with that gibberish -- and am embarrassed for the people writing it. Are they really that stupid? It's as though our exposure to incredible new forms of media, which should allow us to branch out and develop our cognitive abilities, has had the reverse effect, like a berserk science project gone horribly wrong, and it's turning us all into a bunch of fucking idiots who can't concentrate for more than a few minutes at a shot and are encouraged to see the world in absolutes and extremes.

Personally, I had a hard time reading novels after 9/11 -- still do. That event somehow blew out my capacity for long-term imagination. I've gotten some of it back since then, but for a very long time, I didn't have any urge to put myself in a novelist's invented world. It may have something to do with 24-7 news channels, which I watched religiously for months after that event. These things have a way of stripping us of our sanity and imaginations. I've since gone back to my old way of life: read one newspaper a day (The New York Daily News) and watch the local news channel for 15 minutes every morning. Maybe the 6:00 news if I get home early enough ... and mainly because the anchorwoman on the New York ABC affiliate, Liz Cho, is such an incredible piece of ass. But that's it. I have no urge to read political blogs or columnists of any stripe. And I'm recognizing that it's helping me see my world more clearly.

But enough on that. Below is an excerpt from that first aborted novel, which was called Memory Motel. The concept was to have these bite-sized chapters of a grow man remembering his childhood in the 1970s, each chapter being a song title or famous line from a 70s song that pertained to the chapter's topic. As with any first timer, I was mixing way too much autobiographical stuff with composites and imagined scenes. It felt clunky and disjointed as hell. Like I said, I didn't know what I was doing, but some parts of it still read all right.

This was loosely based on our neighbor Frank H., who loved lawn mowing above all else. I probably wrote it after I heard about his passing, which did not go down like this, but I guess was me imagining a perfect ending for someone with that love of lawn. Frank and his wife Gertie were great neighbors -- no mind games, no bullshit, just friendly people who minded their own business. Enjoy!


**

... Wanna' go to the place that's the best

Winter means death to me in more ways than one. The first dead person I saw was in winter snow.

Our neighbor, Walter Domanski, was a lawn-mowing fiend. Actually, every man over the age of thirty in the neighborhood was a lawn-mowing fiend, but Walter was their king. Arnold Palmer could have practiced putting on his lawn. There were never any dandelions or weeds, which I still think add great warmth and character to a lawn. Walter mowed his lawn twice a week in the summer. He'd water his lawn every day and scatter fertilizer on it three times a week. He had a big John Deere riding mower with a black bag on the back to catch the clippings. Walter was a lawn-care visionary. Most of the other men in the neighborhood had push mowers -- some quite elegant, still, push mowers -- and had to rake after each mowing session. If they had riding mowers, they were like VW vans compared to Walter's Cadillac of a John Deere. It had rear-view mirrors and turn signals. Had he taken the blade off, I'm sure the Kiwanis Club would have let him drive it with the mini-convertibles in parades.

All men have their one great obsession. Had Walter been a writer, he would have been dedicated and crazed enough to write the great American novel, and then accept the Nobel Prize for Literature stone drunk and wearing no pants. But he mowed lawns instead, and that pure patch of green grass was his salvation. It was his. No one else staked any claim over his domain. I understood the man implicitly, but that didn't mean I liked him. His mowing sessions on Saturdays started at seven in the morning, and on Sundays, he'd turn the mower on again at the same time to fine tune the engine.

The man was misunderstood. I didn't like him purely because he woke me up on weekends. But the men in the neighborhood were intensely jealous. And he was too proud to have hedges -- they would have blocked out his life's work. Walter was living on an army pension, so he didn't have to work. His wife Arlene kept to herself, a quiet mouse of a woman. They had no children. And they were friendly. I can still see Walter driving the John Deere in perfectly-defined squares on his immaculate lawn, smiling broadly and waving to me like a politician. He'd wave at total strangers driving through town, and they'd wave back.

One winter morning when I was seventeen, I saw Walter standing on his snow-covered lawn. Six inches had fallen that morning, and I was enjoying a morning cup of tea while listening to school cancellations on the radio. My school had canceled, so I was in a great mood. It wasn't unusual to see Walter standing on his lawn. In summer, he would stand there for hours, admiring his work and taking enormous pleasure in what he had done. In winter, he would still be out there, but not as long. It was almost as if he were planning his next year's campaign, waiting for that first warm day of spring. He looked more thoughtful on those winter mornings, maybe even a little morose.

Walter put his gloved hand up and started pulling himself along the clothes line cutting through the center of his lawn. His feet disappeared under the fresh snow as he trudged a few yards forward. He stopped. I remember his hat, one of those black leather jobs with a buttoned-up bill and ear flaps that connected by a strap under his chin. He took a good look around, as if he were enjoying the scenery, and then fell face down in the snow. His arms were around his face, and I saw them furiously jerking.

Still in my pajamas, I threw on a pair of boots and ran over to Walter's yard. Arlene had bolted out of their house, and we reached him together. She called out his name. No movement. No answer. I bent down and shook his shoulder. Nothing. Arlene started wailing, an ugly, frightening sound that made my hair stand up. I rolled Walter over, and his eyes were open. His face was empty. And his hands, now near his chest, were frozen in place. Arlene began moaning his name and ran back in the house. By this time, my father had seen what was happening and yelled out our door that he had called for an ambulance.

Before he ran over, I took a last good look at Walter. He died with a Mona Lisa smile on his face that reminded me of George's stoned, mellow grin. At first, I had thought the motion of his arms jerking represented some kind of seizure. Then I saw that where his face had fallen, the snow was pushed away so that the grass of his lawn had shown through. Walter's fingernails had wisps of pale winter grass and dirt underneath them.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Reluctant Townie

When I was attending Penn State back in the 80s, fellow classmates would often use the nearby town of Bellefonte as a prototype of hick towns to be avoided. We were cool kids in State College, this oasis in the middle of nowhere.

Shit. It was a college town. Packs of kids puking in hedges. Passing out on lawns. Year after year after year. I’d have a hard time living in a college town now. Frankly, I’d be more inclined to live in a town like Bellefonte. Close enough to partake of all the cool stuff a rural college town offers, without having to live in that peculiar time warp. I’ve probably referenced this before, but the movie Breaking Away has that great scene where Mike, the “retired” high-school quarterback, sits on a hill overlooking the college football team practicing, with all his other Cutter (i.e., townie) friends, and comments: “Every year, I’m going to get older, while all these guys stay the same.”

I often make fun of Bloomsburg, PA when I get back home for a visit. My brother and I are in the habit of hitting a pretty good Chinese buffet in that town, and afterwards we’ll drive through downtown Bloomsburg, a much smaller college town than State College. And we’ll see all the kids out, having their heavy conversations: “Dude, like, I can’t go home for spring break, I’m in this big thing with Marcy, and we have my dorm room to ourselves, so, tell all the guys back home I said hi, and I’ll see them in a few months.”

Fucking Bloomsburg. The guy probably comes from Danville, i.e., about a 20-minute drive away. But that’s the sort of mindset kids get in college: away from home, even if it’s only a few miles. I was about a 2-1/2 hour drive away from State College, but got home a majority of weekends, which I took endless shit for from guys who never went home. Part of it was I just loved driving at night with the tape deck blasting, but part was we were already drinking two nights a week, during the week, and I didn’t feel a burning need to do it all weekend on top of that. And I somehow understood then that I wasn’t Bob Dylan, looking to completely dump an old identity for a new one, and that I’d rather maintain a straight line to my home and not pretend those people didn’t exist.

And then you'd get these kids coming home, acting like aliens, unable to connect with old high-school friends, and feeling some strange gulf when they did, not quite realizing they were the ones solely responsible for creating it. We all had that tinge about us in college, but some kids acted like they were Prince or something. The funny thing to me now is I walk through a town like Bloomsburg, and I’m sure these kids are looking at me and thinking: “Fucking townie!” Not quite realizing I’ve lived in New York almost two decades now. Just don’t feel any urge to rub their noses in it. (Recognize after two decades that there really isn’t much about this city worth rubbing anyone’s nose in. And I can’t stand New Yorkers who do that anyway.) Would rather be myself than adopt some fucked-up attitude about where I live. Which is pretty much the temporary illness clouding their judgment. It’s no different from the attitude so many people have who move to New York, and start acting like what they think a New Yorker should act like, which is a hyperactive stereotype of self importance and bad manners.

But back then, I was placed in the new and uncomfortable role of being the “privileged” kid as opposed to the humble townie, who quietly went about his life, grumbling all the while about all these spoiled rich kids running amok in a place they had no respect for. I don’t think a lot of townies in the State College area quite grasped that a lot of us came from areas far more economically depressed than State College, which seemed like a boomtown compared to where I was from in northeast Pennsylvania.

Rich? My father never made more than low 30s, and that was after a few decades in the same factory, supporting six other people on that salary. My older brothers got lucky in that the state and federal grant systems were much more charitable in their time, allowing them to go to college almost for free. By the time I rolled in, four years later, Reagan had taken an axe to the federal college grant program, the state program wasn’t as bad, but I had to start taking out loans after my first year. (All things considered, especially with how expensive most colleges have grown, I was lucky to walk away with only $5K of debt. I think what it cost me to go to Penn State for a year in 1985 would probably cover one semester now.)

A lot of townies didn’t quite realize some of us kids were worse off than they were financially, just inclined to go to college, because it made sense. Yet, I would occasionally get attitude from clearly working-class guys on the street, or in bars, to the effect that I was some spoiled rich kid invading their turf. And I didn’t like it. Never to the point of fighting, but thinking, “What’s your problem, asshole?"

A lot of the kids I knew surely picked up on the vibe, too, and took an anti-townie vibe towards dealing with the locals. Thus, in the long tradition of Hatfields and McCoys, you can see how these sort of senseless divisions take root and spread. Frankly, if it wasn’t for the college, State College would be just another small town in the Pennsylvania woods, there’s nothing else there to suggest that it would be an industrious town thriving on its own. It would be another hick farm town. Like Bellefonte. I could understand if townies had the attitude that we were ruining their way of life, but they would have no way of life if it wasn’t for the college. And there was no "before and after" dividing line, unless you went back to the 1800s when the college came into being.

Referring back to Mike from Breaking Away, that’s about the only valid source of anger I can see for townies having against college kids. When I went back to Penn State in my mid-20s, back in the early 90s, I felt like Methuselah. The wheel had turned – I was looking at these kids, some only three or four years younger, and feeling like an old man. In my 20s! That was a shock to me, and I haven’t gone back there since. (I’d much rather watch Penn State football on TV than cram myself into a bad seat in the stadium.) College towns are an industry of youth, like MTV or denim jeans, they get wealthy off the young, or more accurately, off the parents of the young. It helps in life to get that diploma, so it’s an industry a lot of people are duty bound to support.

What’s strange to me since that time is recognizing that I’ve somehow straddled that fence, and got off it on both sides at times, whenever it suited my purpose to do so. Where I live now, in Astoria, the past five years have seen a housing market boom, with rents and real estate values shooting through the roof. Non-descript row houses that went for $150K a decade ago are now going for $700K. Two-bedroom apartments that went for $800 a month are now going for $1,700. In short, college-educated white folk have moved here in droves – the only reason rents go up in inner-city neighborhoods.

When I moved here in 1997, it was simply to escape the Bronx, where I’d done my time as the token crazy white guy living in the ghetto. It surely wasn’t to hop a trend, although as it turns out, I was on the unrecognizable cusp of a very large wave about to take form. I’m still paying that cheap sort of rent, thankfully, but I can’t even bear to look in the windows of real-estate offices and see the depressing, outrageously high rates they’re charging for apartments these days. I’d have to move if my deal falls through now, probably to another marginal neighborhood in Queens, of which there are a few.

In some strange way now, I’m the townie. Although the real townies in Astoria, the people born and raised here, take one look at me and recognize I’m no townie … and therefore, they’ll lump me in with all these other rich white kids willing to pay $1,000 a month for a marginal apartment. I think for me to pass as a townie in Astoria, I’d have to gain about 30 more pounds, approach people as if I meant to physically attack them, talk in that truly awful Queens accent, grow a handlebar mustache, and wear sweat suits and gold chains all the time. Yet, I’ve also learned how to carry myself in a 718 environment that people new to the neighborhood are going to mistake me for a local.

So, I find myself getting simultaneously pissed off at the townies and the rich kids. I find myself barking: “You have to be sick in the head to spend $1,000 a month on rent … to live in a shithole neighborhood like this.” On one hand, I’m tickled to death that cool new businesses – a Thai restaurant, a good bakery – move into the neighborhood, yet also recognize that these are the first steps towards the neighborhood turning into Park Slope, i.e., a neighborhood in Brooklyn that was slum-like in the 70s, but in the 80s rapidly transformed into a ritzy (and now unaffordable, save for the rich) neighborhood by anyone’s standards.

Whom do I side with? In my heart of hearts, I’m a townie. I come from a small town. From a working-class background. I understand that mindset far more than I understand any other. By the same token, after a small financial boost from my parents in my first year, I put myself through college, I’m clearly learned, could easily assimilate into the higher echelons of the corporate world (if I wanted to … and I don’t want to). For the simple reason that I can’t fathom why anyone would spend four figures on a monthly rent, I’d have to side with the townies … knowing damn well that if my life was reduced to hanging out with the townies in Astoria, I’d be murderous within a week. (I’d have a much easier time hanging out with townies where I’m from, and I recognize that as the huge difference between the rural and urban working class, which is another story.) It would be a moot point if real-estate agents didn’t blow up the rents every time well-to-do white folks moved into a neighborhood. And why this hasn’t become a civil-rights issues, with folks like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton noticing this inexplicable rent discrepancy and its ties to racism, I have no idea. The first people to go in a situation like this are the people of color who are just getting by, and I have no idea where they're going. Push comes to shove, I’m a reluctant townie, with the only reasons being economic rather than cultural.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Not to Be a Wise Ass, T.S., but How about February?

In his brilliant poem “The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot wrote the famous lines: “April is the cruelest month/Breeding lilacs out of the dead land/Mixing memory and desire/Stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

I get it. Most people think April is a great month, spring renewal and everything, but as we get older, it also reminds us of things that aren’t renewing themselves – people, relationships, burned-out dreams. And there is something bittersweet about those memories mixed in with nature’s annual rebirth.

But, hands down, February is the cruelest month. Ass end of winter. April may be the cruelest month for poets, but, man, unless you live in a warm-weather climate, February eats shit. February is the most fucked-up month? Would that make a better invitation to poetic justice? I can still remember sitting in English class, after pondering that line, and thinking, “Ah, yes, good, someone with a different point of view on life, excellent.” Meanwhile, the kid next to me, who’s probably working a snow plough right now, was thinking, “Yeah, bullshit. Can’t wait for shop class, so I can make a fucking napkin holder, which makes sense.”

The past few Februaries have been pretty rank for me. The past few days, I’ve heard nothing but cars gunning their engines and spinning their wheels. Why? Because I live on a small hill, and all the cars parked on the street by the side of the house have been stuck in a four-inch mix of snow, sleet and ice that came down Wednesday night. With temperatures plunging well below freezing the past few days, if you didn’t get your ass out there and shovel or move by sundown on Wednesday, you were screwed. On top of ploughs coming through and erecting a frozen 12-inch wall of slush on the street side of the parked cars.

Mayor Bloomberg has been showing his billionaire roots by mocking these people … and having meter maids ticket them for being parked on the wrong side of the street on given street-sweeper days. I don’t quite see how a street sweeper could work in this frozen mix of slush, ice and snow, but so be it. Bloomberg is making the same mistake my landlord did, who didn’t lay a $20 on me for shoveling her out … since the snow “really wasn’t that bad” and she assumed this was a walk in the park for me.

I got news for her – this was one of the hardest shovels I ever had. (I basically shovel about 60 feet of sidewalk, usually takes me around two hours going full gun, a great work-out.) I enjoy shoveling snow, but this was one was rough. A thin layer of ice, coated with sleet, with snow on top that was already hardening with the dropping temperatures. You have to jam your shovel in hard on each swing to break up that potent mix, and it weighs a lot more than a shovel full of pure snow.

We’ve had blizzards over the past few years that have dumped upwards of 10 inches of snow each time, and she’d gaze out the window, probably thinking, “Oh, Billy, look at him out there, working away like a madman.” The reality: each time, it was like shoveling confetti. Light snow. Sure, a lot of it, but easy as hell to move around, the only problem being where to put it. Luckily, I broke her of the habit of trying to instruct me while I shoveled. (Hint: never talk to a guy doing hard physical labor unless it’s an emergency.) She’s got a nice little front garden that makes an excellent holding pen for snow piles – much better than the street, which was what she was suggesting. (Another hint: it’s a real scumbag move to shovel large amounts of snow into the street.)

On top of all this, on Monday I gave walking papers to my temp agency, which I’ve been unhappy with for a long time. My pimp (can’t think of a better word to describe my contact there) just wasn’t getting me tolerable jobs, and she was taking too long (2-3 weeks) between jobs to get me them. I’m assuming it’s just her agency (I followed her to this one from another one, because we really have clicked in the past) and a lack of solid corporate contacts across all areas of work.

She was either getting me cruddy entry-level spots that I could have done in 1987 much less now, or trying to shoe-horn me into “executive assistant” spots. Whereas my skills are skewed to ongoing/emergency projects requiring solid MS Office chops. (And if there’s one constant I see in most offices, it’s a lack of workers with these sort of higher computer skills to do these jobs. Don’t get me going on writing skills. These two solid skills alone should have me swimming in work.) She just doesn’t seem to have those spots. “Executive assistant,” next to the mailroom, tends to be the worst job in most companies. Often working for childish, nasty people, even the most basic tasks weighted down with a senseless and false gravity of “importance,” and usually being chained to a phone, so one even has to get it cleared to go take a piss. Not for me. I know these things pay upwards of $80K if you can convince a company that you’re good at it. (And I can easily do this.) But most of these spots have revolving doors on them despite the pay … because they really and truly are not good jobs.

I’ve known this woman since the early 90s, really connected with her, so it’s a bit like a break-up, but if I stay with her and that agency, I’m going to slowly go broke. Luckily, when I was working at the investment bank, I saved a good chunk of change, and I’ve slowly eaten a few thousand off that over the past two years and don’t want to lose any more. (Saving money is a sacred thing for me – one of those things Dad taught me that didn’t kick in until well into my 20s.) With the down time between jobs and choppy pay rate (which hasn’t gone up one penny since the early 90s, nor has gone up with increased experience and skill levels), it operates as a slow money drain. Time to go. She can get as angry as she wants, but I’ve choked down quite a bit of anger over the past two years being sent on near-impossible spots and then sitting around two weeks afterwards waiting for the next fiasco.

What to do? I guess float a few ads on local websites to see what happens, and push comes to shove, just go back to full-time work, which is always an option. I can get occasional freelance gigs on my own, but they're surely not steady work. I really like the idea of temp/freelance work, like that sense of freedom and movement, but if it aint working, it aint working.

(And I don’t want another pimp. The worst forms of corporate humiliation I’ve ever tolerated have been applying to temp agencies. They treat you like an asshole and make it clear that you’re just another name on a list, even after you prove yourself to them. It’s not a good industry in general. It’s an industry where you become a liability the better you get, because the expectations of you on the job are close to zero. In the agency’s eyes, how good you are is generally determined by how much shit you’re willing to eat, not by how skilled you are. And I’m assuming bells are ringing right now with people reading this from all areas of the working world.)

That’s this February. Last February, Mom had a major operation to remove a grapefruit-sized cyst from next to her kidneys. Any time a person over 70 gets any kind of operation, it’s bad news, and luckily this thing wasn’t cancerous. Again, surgery at that age is a life-threatening proposition. It was a lot to deal with, really knocked Mom sideways for a good few months afterwards, but she pretty much came back from it. All that wasn’t clear at first. Luckily, I got let go early from a spot at a fashion company (I’ll describe that lunacy one day, but not now) and got back there two days after she got out of the hospital, and, boy, on top of Dad’s passing the previous year, that was quite a jolt. This is what’s going to happen in your life if it already hasn’t! It doesn’t get easier as you go along.

February of 2005, my boss got let go at the investment bank. I still remember her walking by the desk, pale as a ghost, shaking, and whispering, “Bill, they just let me go. I’m going to get all my stuff and get out of here. Call me at home tomorrow.” Bang, the end of a well-paying era for me. Then again, she’d been calling her number for the last two years in the place, certain that this day was going to happen. (I’ve learned that in a work place, you had better act like you’re a quiet force of nature, like you should be there, otherwise you may very well call your own shot and get ousted. You may get ousted anyway, but if you act like you belong, most times you will belong.)

With Dad’s recent passing, and me still numb (much less hurting) over this, I was in no mood, and could see that whatever was going to transpire wasn’t going to be good. They had already called in a “consultant” to “help out” – and I can remember my boss sensing something fishy was going on here. (She was right. The guy had snake-oil salesman written all over him, which both of us could see, but everyone else was pretending he was a savior. He didn’t know shit about the product we were selling and was spouting cookie-cutter marketing concepts that were going down like honey with everyone else, but sounded like utter dogshit to me. My opinion didn't seem to mean shit although I had daily contact with customers for three years and knew the product like the back of my hand.)

So I gave them about two weeks to come up with Plan B, realized there didn’t seem to be one and handed in my walking papers with a healthy two-month’s notice. Hated doing it, because I liked working there. But I could see that things were left vague after that first harsh decision, and I couldn’t handle vagueness on top of the horrible emotional shit that accompanies the death of a parent. Had enough. Some folks suggest burying yourself in work after the death of a loved one, but I call that denial. I could see that wasn’t going to work for me and made a tough call.

So, that’s been my past three Februaries! T.S. Eliot, nice try, but April can’t hold a candle to February.

As a coda, let me detail another February one-off, this was probably about five years ago. We had just had a bad weekend snow storm, a lot of snow, and after doing my laundry, I had got out there and did a typically good job of shoveling. It’s a tradition for me after a good shovel to hit one of the local supermarkets and treat myself, usually something like a carton of chocolate soy milk and some of those soft-baked Pepperidge Farms cookies. Come back, dry myself off, put on a good DVD, and kick back for the rest of the day in my nice warm apartment.

As with all snow storms and as described above, there was the constant sound of spinning wheels, cars gunning it in vain to break out of their snow tombs. This time, I heard a guy yelling in the street, carrying on like a maniac. Whatever. I’d be glad to help my neighbors if they didn’t put out the 718 prick vibe 24-7 … which most of them do, so I’m not going to bust my ass on people who treat me like I’m invisible. I heard a banging on a door, and my landlord’s voice. Next thing I know, I see a shadow pass my window, then hear a banging on my door and a man’s voice crying out, “Please, help me, I need help! For the love of God, help me!”

I don’t know what this is, so I tell the guy to get away from the door. He keeps yelling. I say, buddy, if you want my help, go back up the stairs, stand there, and I’ll open the door to see if I can help you. I hear footsteps moving away. I open the door to see a dumpy, balding middle-aged guy, out of breath, and he says, “Please, my car is stuck, and no one will help me get it out. I desperately need someone to help me.”

Fuck it, I’m not going to get any peace if I don’t help this guy, and at least he’s making himself clear. When I get out there with my shovel, he says, “What’s wrong with the people in this neighborhood? I’ve been out here 15 minutes crying for help, and no one helps me. No one even answers the door.”

I answer, “Buddy, you’re carrying on like a mental patient. That’s why I asked you to step away from my door. Because you were scaring me. No one may help you anyway, but I can guarantee you no one’s going to help you when you carry on like that.”

This seemed to calm him down. He had a Mercedes parked by the school next door. It was then I noticed his fur coat. And gaudy gold necklace. The guy was rich, which probably explained his sense of entitlement in getting HIS car out of the snow. It didn’t matter to me. I had committed to helping this guy, against my better instincts, so I helped him.

And it was a ballbuster. It took about 20 minutes of constant shoveling of snow from around his back tires and rocking the car to get him loose. But, after that time, I got that one good push, his car spun loose and he was free. Now, if that was a good human being, he’d put the car in park, run back, shake my hand, and at the very least, say thank you. If I was in his shoes, I’d pull out a $10 or a $20 and hand it over in gratitude – someone who had no cause or reason to help me had just helped me in a bad situation. What did this guy do?

He spun out, fishtailing down the block, and that was the last I saw of him. If I could get in a time machine and go back to the moment he was banging on my door, I’d have opened the door and belted him straight in the face with my snow shovel. (If I ever see him again, this will happen.) I get back to my place, my landlord starts yelling down the stairs, “Ah-Billy, why you spend so much-ah time helping that crazy man, he was ah-no good!” And I said, “Look, you told him I was in back here, please don’t lecture me after I’ve just wasted half an hour of time on that worthless piece of shit. It wasn’t my idea to help him, you shouldn’t have answered your door, and you shouldn’t have told him I was here.” That seemed to break through the fog and make it clear how pissed off I was, and she left me alone.

February!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

She Took A Lot of Pills (and Died)

While I’m not sure I’d call the recent passing of Anna Nicole Smith a media frenzy, it’s good to see that all the “tasteful” people out there are disjointed over the story receiving a sizable share of coverage. Yeah – we need more shit stories about Iraq on top of the half dozen we’re already hearing every day. And global warming … that’s one you never hear about it.

What these “tasteful” people aren’t realizing is that the Anna Nicole Smith story goes much deeper than the tawdry face value, somehow tapping into that age-old American myth of the crossroads. Only this time, when a scrawny, flat-chested teenage Anna Nicole met Satan on some dusty rural road late one night near the Texas/Louisiana border, she gave him head, and Satan came silicone, blowing her breasts up to Triple D’s, turning her brown hair blonde. A personal stylist magically appeared by the Stop sign. An aged billionaire’s wheelchair creaked in the distant night, a siren song to the now voluptuous but still fairly innocent girl from Texas. A shit stream flowing by the side of road sounded like a thousand cameras clicking. She thanked Satan, whose tail smacked her perfect ass as she ran down the road, to make a collect call at the nearest all-night convenience store to her agent, getting a lap-dance back at her Houston strip club, instructing him to call back that field rep from Playboy about getting a new set of test shots to Christie Hefner.

Years later, after numerous rises and falls, an ongoing battle for millions from the dead billionaire’s understandably pissed-off family, her son dies mysteriously in her hospital room after she gives birth to a child whose father is still in question. Probably a potent mix of chemicals and bad timing. She follows suit a few months later in a hotel room at the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Hollywood, Florida, despondent despite being thin and sexy again. In the ambulance crew that takes her body away, a small red tail protrudes from the pants leg of one of the attendants, and Satan quietly honors the contract, as he always does, whether it’s a dusty road at two in the morning, or a press conference with national coverage in front of a hospital.

There will always be room in our cultural spotlight for beautiful blondes with big tits – at least, I hope there always will be. Anna Nicole was the kind of girl you’d see painted on the side of a B-52 bomber in World War II. Winking slyly from a movie screen. Showing you the full monty in a magazine spread. It helped that she was a nymphomaniac. You liked the idea that she was getting laid constantly. You pictured her hotel room having a foyer with a guy dressed like a chef, another guy in a sombrero, and a hot chick in a French maid’s outfit, all waiting patiently for the fun to begin.

The male masturbatory mind isn’t such an unfathomable place to be: it makes brutal sense. I certainly spanked the monkey a few times over Anna Nicole – if you’re a straight guy or a lesbian, I’m willing to bet you have, too. And I’d wager that unless you’re completely physically unappealing, someone out there has probably ravished you in that forbidden mental place a few times, too. An OK-looking woman at work bends over the right way: that’s new material for the sub-conscious libido. It happens all the time, with obtainable and unobtainable images. It’s an honest place, a lot more honest than we tend to be when our mouths move, and senses of shame and decorum kick in.

And you better believe this woman was a queen in that deeply personal place men have in their minds. Some guys resent that and call her white trash, or poke fun over how fat she let herself get on that dumb reality show. Some guys get her image tattooed on their biceps. My brother told me one guy at work was despondent to the point of tears, the guy worshipped her. Most of us are smarter than that; we don’t fall in love with unobtainable spank material. That may be one of those odd American things. People watch car racing on TV, they think they can drive their SUVs at 70 MPH in a 45 MPH zone, and the rest of the world will be fine with that. They go to a movie, they talk out loud, because they can’t differentiate between their living room and a public theater. And sometimes they can’t tell the difference between a masturbatory fantasy and a train wreck they should get down on their knees and thank God they are no way involved with. Some of us make ourselves a little too “at home.” Still, I have a begrudging respect for that guy who works with my brother – to weep over the death of a woman you only masturbated to is going way out on a limb on a tree most of us can’t even admit to climbing.

If I was musically-inclined, I’d write a song about her. A bouncing rockabilly sounding number, none of this “Candle in the Wind” bullshit. Robbie Fulks gets very close with his great song “She Took A Lot of Pills (and Died).” He wrote the song in 1996, it gets some of the facts wrong in this recent scenario, but otherwise the song nicely details the shooting-star myth, the passing of Anna Nicole being only the most recent chapter. There will surely be more beautiful women in the future rising from poverty to fame in roughly the same way, living a rollercoaster life thereafter, and checking out way too soon. Beautiful men, too – the song could have just as easily been about Elvis.

So, all the tasteful folks can go back to their self-importance, crank up the NPR, with its wind chimes, subtle whimsy and muffled red-wine farts. But there’s something more quintessentially American in the passing of a simple country girl who blew up her body so big that the whole world took notice, then blew away on strong winds she lost control over. If it makes you feel any smarter, think Gatsby gazing at the green light at the end of the dock. To quote old F. Scott from the book: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further ... and one fine morning. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

(Just in case shit like this doesn’t cross your mind while watching the E Channel.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Thrift-Store Days

Whatever happened to those thrift-store days? I can tell you two things that happened with me: 1. I stopped having the sort of body that would magically fit any goofy outfit; 2. the act of wearing short-sleeved dressed shirts with company names on the right breast and silly first names on the left became untenable when people started thinking that was my name and where I worked … as opposed to being some ironic twentysomething twist on uniforms.

I didn’t really get into thrift stores until college, and that started with a teenage fascination with navy peacoats, which could be found in Army/Navy stores. I don’t even know if Army/Navy stores still even exist in that traditional sense of a dimly-lit, slightly seedy store run by a crusty Korean War vet that specialized in selling surplus/used armed forces equipment and clothing. All the cool kids in high school wore ratty Army field jackets, and some wore Navy peacoats. I went the peacoat route, and could buy these things new in an Army/Navy store for under $50. I’d also buy cool badges and buttons to throw in the mix. A lot of kids did this – army pants, camouflage wear, knit hats. I guess with Vietnam recently over, there was a ton of this stuff floating around, so why not sell it to weird and stoner kids, none of whom looked like army material and weren't wearing the clothes out of any national pride.

In State College, PA, I found an Army/Navy store that also seemed to be part thrift store, which was a pleasant surprise to me, as I’d never go into thrift or Salvation Army stores back home. But I became a steady customer at the Penn State store, my main acquisition, and staple of my college days, being a knee-length, khaki army field coat which I wore through most of my 20s. But I was buying all kinds of shit, including the used civilian clothing the store must have been making a killing on with college kids.

When I got out of school in the late 80s, it was just as much a financial necessity as a hip thing to shop at thrift stores. There was a strange thing about that time, and well into the 90s, in that the timing was just right for a lot of widows to bring their recently-deceased husbands’ clothes into Salvation Army stores as donations. These guys were in their 70s and 80s, and happened to wear some pretty cool shit back when they were young men in the 1920s. Even in rural Pennsylvania, specifically the Salvation Army stores in Pottsville and Shenandoah, I would find the most amazing suits and blazers going for under $20.

People remember me as a clothes horse in my 20s, but I was simply poaching vintage threads from these ratty little stores, often surrounded by welfare folks and the strange assortment of garage-sale types drawn to these kind of places. I owned about five suits back then and looked great in them. Only problem was they often smelled like mothballs, even after having them dry cleaned. I could live with it.

My body was the perfect size to fit many of these suits, sort of an adult-male template: a waist size that hovered between 32 and 34, and a coat size that was around 38 or 40. I have short legs (30 inches), so that could be a bit of a drag with longer pants legs, but my mom didn’t mind hemming these things, as she’d been doing the same thing for years with all the hand-me-down clothes I had worn.

These days, I don’t even own a suit. I got one average looking black blazer that I can wear for any sort of minor formalities. I wear ties all the time due to work and have a pretty solid collection of those (most from that great “Save the Children” campaign in the 90s … ties featuring children’s drawings … cool shit that wins compliments when I wear them). Pants are always khakis of varying colors – don’t own any jeans. (I never liked denim as a fabric – too heavy. Never quite understood why it’s the designated fabric for teenagers to wear. The only teen fashion constant for the past four decades.)

My body got bigger! Partially because I just got heavier in my 30s, but also boxing had a noticeable impact on my body, giving me a much broader back and shoulders, a bigger frame in general – my coat size now is up around 50-52. I don’t have fat on my shoulders – all these years of hitting heavy bags and working out hard have simply made me bigger. People who knew me in my 20s, when they see me now, remember that skinny kid and are a bit shocked that I could now pass for a bouncer. (I’d like to be a bit thinner, but also recognize that being bigger has its benefits, i.e., less goons messing with you on the street and such. There’s a certain quiet confidence you get when you’re not a skinny little rail.)

I’d imagine I could still get lucky with some clothes in thrift stores, but the reality is most of the clothes are geared towards that earlier size I had. Even if I was that size again, I’ve still out-grown those clothes in some sense. As noted in the first paragraph, you can only pull off that irony thing with certain kinds of clothes when you’re a gawky 21-year-old who doesn’t give a shit about anything. To pull a reverse sort of irony would be bad news. In other words, for a grown man to dress like a teenager, as some type of sly commentary on their condition, would be a joke no one would get. People would think “what’s wrong with that guy” as opposed to “oh, I get it.”

I’m trying to think about what all of this says. As I recall, I thought wearing stuff like bowling shirts, Japanese baseball jerseys and fake company shirts was pretty cool. I can even recall wearing a rope for a belt, a la Jethro Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies. (Mojo Nixon once saw me wearing this at one of his shows at the old Ritz on 11th Street and worked it into one of his songs that night.) The idea was to both send up and pay tribute to some form of American life – the concept of middle-aged men in bowling leagues, or some guy named Gus working at an air-conditioning company. You didn’t hate these people, but by the same token, in a way you were sneering at them, because you weren’t them and perceived yourself as being much more young, wild and unable to pin down like that in some sense.

The problem, of course, is that you have nothing worthwhile to pin down, haven’t really established a solid identity of your own, particularly one that isn’t based on mimicking or goofing on the set image of older people. You’re a smart-ass kid. And nothing against smart-ass kids – I surely was one, and still am one now, at heart. Another aspect of the whole thrift-store way of life was to take things that people had thrown away and make them useful again. So, on top of the irony, there’d be this half-assed cultural archeology going on, sorting through clothing thought to be garbage by most people and creating your own identity out of it.

I wouldn’t call it noble, because I know it wasn’t, but it was some type of attempt at individuality. The problem came when you recognized you weren’t the only twentysomething smartass rooting through the bins, and you’d go see a band in a club, only to be met by other similarly-aged, skinny-rail guys in postal worker shirts and ancient cardigans. I’m not sure if they still exist downtown, but in the 90s, dozens of vintage clothing stores sprung up, selling for top-dollar what many of us were finding for less than $10 in Salvation Army stores. That’s probably also the point where I checked out mentally, because I could see there was something really wrong with that, with stores designing their own retro bowling shirts and selling them for $150 a piece.

The concept, free of irony, would be a bowling league in 1950 contacting a uniform company, choosing what was then a flashy design, getting the first names of all the guys on a team, and ordering a dozen shirts, so when these guys showed up at the alley, they’d have snazzy team shirts, complete with their names on them. And that somehow seems more cool to me than the concept of a kid in 1989 pulling one of these shirts from the $5 rack at a Salvation Army store and thinking, “Fuckin’ A, nobody’s going to believe me in this shirt!”

I think, in some strange way, if you peeled away the layers of hipness, you’d find a person who would love to be on a bowling team, free of irony, or at least belong to something that inclusive and bonding, with no bullshit, no fronts, just the pure enjoyment of whatever the task at hand is. At that point in life, the person, me for instance, would be incapable of admitting that desire, much less even understanding what it is, or knowing that with passing time, the facades would slowly fade, and it would simply make sense one day to actually be part of a bowling league, or work at a beer distributorship, or any number of adult issues that kids have no concept of, therefore they sneer at the very idea of it. I’m not sneering at the kids here – just trying to see if there’s some unbroken line that leads from one place to the other. From a rebellious kid who doesn’t see himself as being part of anything, to a more experienced adult who has no problem showing his allegiance to a given group, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Does all that make any sense? Or do kids just wear goofy shit because they think it looks cool?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What Happened to All the Irish?

When I first moved to New York in the late 80s, it seemed like you couldn’t walk five feet without running into an Irish immigrant: a bartender, nanny or construction worker, usually. Then again, it may have been that I was living in the Bronx, a place that had a small Irish immigrant community up around Bainbridge Avenue, and I went to bars a lot more often, which often serve as meeting points for immigrants in a given neighborhood.

But it’s one of those quiet realizations that I hardly ever over-hear Irish accents on the street or in a bar or restaurant much these days. I’m living in an apartment that previously had two Irish immigrant tenants before I moved in. The first was in the early 90s, a guy whose name I can’t recall, but he lived here with girlfriend, whom he eventually married, and they moved to London for restaurant work. The guy’s famous with my landlord for passing out one Saturday morning, and his fall breaking the bathroom sink in half. Apparently, he was quite a charmer, and she got over it.

Then again, a few years ago, his now-wife turned up in the neighborhood to visit an old friend, a New Zealand girl in the neighborhood who did nanny work. She was visiting for good reason – their marriage had entered a strange, volatile zone and was in deep trouble. It blew her mind that I was now living in the apartment they once shared. Last time I saw her was at O’Hanlon’s Bar, the local dive under the N train station, having drinks with our New Zealand friend, when some guy who looked like a dumpy Sean Connery (old Sean), came in, saw her talking to me, positioning himself between us, and said, “So, luv, why are you talking to strange men in America?”

It turned out to be a friend of her husband’s, and if I had any sense, I would have knocked him out right there for his lack of manners. Go ahead, call the cops, we’ll have a long talk about expiration dates on work visas, asshole. The guy really threw a wet blanket on the evening, putting her in a foul, crying mood and pretty much alienating the handful of people at the bar – not an unusual thing from what I learned, the guy was a notorious shitbird. I understand she went back to her husband, eventually back to Ireland, and who knows from there on. Made sure to change the locks on my place after that strange visitation.

It’s through that bar, O’Hanlon’s, and the girl from New Zealand, that I came across a fair number of Irish immigrants in the neighborhood. I just couldn't keep pace with those folks when it came to drinking. Back then, a big night out for me was to hit the bar around eight or so, and build up to that "buy three/get on free" drink special the bar had. I'd do that twice: eight pints. And I would be hammered to the point of sickness. That's a lot of alcohol for anybody, and my propensity for going that far didn't last more than a few years. Most of these folks would filter in around 10:00, and when I left around 1:30 or 2:00, they'd just be getting their motors running. My friend often told me stories of bolting the door at 4:00 am, and getting wild with the remaining people and the bartender. Or drinking literally until 9:00 or 10:00 the next morning. I may have done that once in my life: these folks did it every weekend.

Most of those Irish immigrants, I’m assuming, are long gone if they didn’t have a solid relationship with the landlord, as the two-bedroom apartments they were renting for $800 a month at the time are now going for over twice as much. It was through that scene that I met John, another Irish immigrant, who had taken over the apartment from the previously mentioned troubled guy and his fiancĂ©, and who happened to be moving out to buy a house just as I was looking for a new apartment back in 1999 or so. It was perfect timing, and my rent dropped about $150 a month. I was just glad to get out of my old apartment, in which the noise level was just too much: front apartment at street level, upstairs neighbor who I once described as Orson Welles jumping around on a pogo stick, and my landlord living behind me with his two teenage daughters, who drew loud-assed, obnoxious teenage boys to their house like honey bees.

John ran his own business out of the apartment – not quite sure what it was, but I threw out a huge fax machine after he left. He was also a bit of a ladies man, had what was basically pornography on the walls, bare-assed woman throwing spreads, those faux-art shots photo galleries sell that are really sort of high-class porn, which is fine. John also liked the drink, told me of passing out on the steps a few times here because he couldn’t find his keys. I know his girlfriend and son spent a lot of time here just before he moved out.

So, I guess my landlord should be fairly happy with me, beyond all the shit I do for her on a regular basis (most of her bills, reading all her mail as she doesn’t read English, yard and sidewalk cleaning, snow shoveling, any sort of physical labor that needs to be done, etc.). The days of me getting plastered (as opposed to pleasantly warm) are down to about one or two a year (can’t afford to have a shitty, wasted Saturday or Sunday … don’t want to after doing so plenty of times in my 20s and early 30s). And when I do, I sure as hell won’t be coming home and smashing a sink or in any other way damaging the apartment. I don’t smoke either – both of those guys did, like chimneys. My landlord’s husband did, too, and he passed on from lung cancer back around 2000. You rent an apartment in a house, someone smokes, chances are you’ll catch whiffs of that in the entire house.

So, the apartment has gone from one Irishman to another, and then to an American with Irish lineage. And if my landlord ever decides to hike the rent to market standards, I suspect whoever would move in here would not be Irish in any sense. Astoria was never known as an Irish stronghold, but you’d be surprised how many immigrants lived around here until that point a few years ago when the rents sky-rocketed. Most of the immigrants lived a few miles to the south east, in Sunnyside, which still has a healthy stretch of Irish pubs, and probably more immigrants still over there.

O’Hanlon’s was the one place to go for Irish immigrants in the neighborhood. With Kathy, the friendly bartender from Donegal, and her amazing set of tits that all the guys either ogled or appreciated. The other bartender, Veronica, many thought she was a lesbian, despite her claims otherwise and the occasional boyfriend, who didn’t seem quite like a boyfriend. That was one tough bitch. She was always getting into fights with men and women. I understand their darts team had a rough go because she would get nuts on occasion during a match. But I liked her – everyone did. One of those scrappy Irish chicks with a good heart. All of the Irish folks at the bar tended to be younger, in their 20s and 30s, as they were literally off the boat or plane just a few years and doing any sort of cash labor they could find.

For me, it’s always been a kick to run into Irish immigrants in New York. We usually get along like gangbusters. I don’t try to pretend I’m Irish, they don’t try to pretend they’re American, and we both sense a common bond in our senses of humor. It’s strange for me to realize that while I come from a place, the Pennsylvania Coal Region, that was partially built by Irish immigrants and has always had a strong Irish thread running through it, there was never any overwhelming sense of Irishness in my upbringing. I know it was there in so many things – the way we spoke, simply how we looked in the face, the hair, the eyes – things I’ve recognized since in people not just from Ireland, but Scotland, too.

But we never had any sense of Irish culture or customs, unless they were already absorbed into the larger American culture. There were towns in the Coal Region, particularly Girardville, that were overwhelmingly Irish in lineage. Still, even with that, basic tenants of Irish culture, like going down to a pub for a few pints of Guinness after work, just never happened. For one, Guinness, as an import, was just too expensive and no competition with Bud, Miller or Yuengling on tap for less than half the price. (Even now, if a rare bar back there has Guinness on tap, I don’t get it, because I know that Guinness has been sitting in its keg a long time with so few people willing to pay $3.00 for a pint with Bud on tap for $1.50.)

Unfortunately, the one Irish tradition that did pass down through the years was bad food, boiled cabbage in particular, and you’d have to drag me into an Irish-themed restaurant to eat. Back when I was a kid, we were raised in that strange, smiley 70s culture, mixed with that gritty, rural working-class take on life, and I can see that’s my spiritual home more than some smoky little village along the River Shannon or something.

I would like for that imaginary vision of Ireland to be my culture, but it just isn’t so. I suspect it just isn’t so for the people living in such a place now. We all have that vision of a white mortar house with a blue-painted wood window sills, the thatched roof, smoke coming from the chimney, a family warming itself by the fire while a girl with long red hair plays an old song on the fiddle.

Or something like that. These days, it’s probably the same cultural static so many of us have always known, a too-loud TV on 16 hours a day, angry kids who don’t give a rat’s ass about culture or heritage, parents too worried about making a meager living to indulge in any sentimentality.

I understand that the reason there are so few Irish immigrants now in New York is simply that the economy really picked up in Ireland, Dublin in particular, around the turn of the century, and there may well be real work for these people closer to home. I’m sure coming to America and trying to make it was quite an adventure, and some loved it enough to stay, but I’d also bet plenty of people thought, “fuck it, this isn’t home, and I really miss my family, as much as I claim to hate them.” In my early 30s, I thought of trying to move to Ireland or Scotland, not quite sure how this would have happened without any real prospects for tolerable work over there. But that was all before my father passed on, and the realization that I’d rather be able to see my mother a lot more before her time comes. Living on another continent and having that happen maybe once a year just doesn’t sit well with me.

So, I sit here in 2007, not just wondering where all the Irish went in New York, but also wondering where all the Irish went in me. I know it’s still there. I’m not going through those cultural revelations I went though upon first moving here, reading all the J.P. Donleavy novels I could find (most of them suck, same story told many times over), worshipping W.B. Yeats and all sorts of older Irish poetry and literature, fleshing out my Pogues collection, getting a much more in-depth take on celtic music, history and culture. That was a good time of learning, although I was probably laying on the “begorrah and fiddlesticks” bullshit a little too thick. What the hell, though. I still think The Quiet Man is a great fucking movie, and the Irish folks I've met who claim to hate it are taking their "Irishness" a little too seriously.

That brings to mind the Blarney Star, the old bar that used to be just north of the World Trade Center, but was wiped out not by the building collapses on 9/11, but by the months of area restrictions and total lack of foot traffic for a good year afterwards – along with so many other businesses around there. Like most good Irish pubs, the place had shitty food, hamburgers like hockey pucks, and the Guinness was nothing to write home about.

But downstairs, they had music every Friday night, and I mean solid, traditional Irish music played well by the best musicians in the world, most a few hours off a plane from Dublin. The place looked like a bingo hall in a church basement, probably couldn’t hold more than 200 people. At each show, there was this big blind Irish girl with that sort of Dylan Thomas mop of wirey red hair on her head, who would sit at the middle table and bob back and forth to the rhythms. This gentle hippie guy who promoted the shows would take admission and sell CDs during the intermissions – I probably bought at least a dozen CDs at various shows. Dave from New Jersey would always get me going to these shows, on his suggestions that such-and-such a fiddler from County Claire was playing the Blarney Star next Friday, and it would be wise to be there.

And Dave was always right about Irish music – he really knew his shit, still does, I’m sure. The intensity of celtic music being played live by masters is something worth experiencing – unlike rock, it’s much more quiet, but also more intense and emotional. If there’s one thing I wish I still had from those days of Irish cultural immersion, it would be a place like the Blarney Star, with traditional Irish musicians doing their thing every Friday night. The crowd would be dead silent during a number and wildly appreciative once it ended. And I got the sense that if you went to see the same players in a small town hall over there, it would be much the same.

Now, I’m not quite sure if that sort of place even exists in New York, which seems a shame and borderline criminal given this town’s Irish roots. Or if it does, I’ve just drifted so far from that sense of knowing these things that I’m totally unaware of it. Who knows. But I can't help but think there's been some sort of silent mass exodus of Irish from New York over the past few years, and I guess it's only those of us living in the margins who knew them that recognize the space left behind.