Sunday, August 31, 2008

101 Things to Do before You Die

Last week, there was one of those “go figure” stories in the papers. “Globe-trotting author” David Freeman, known for co-authoring the book 100 Things to Do Before You Die, died unexpectedly at the age of 47 after falling in his home and suffering a head injury. I haven’t read the book (“things to do before you die” books aren’t my bag), but I’d imagine it’s stock-full of travel tips to exotic places, running with the bulls in Pamplona, shit like that. Obviously, he missed an important one, not quite as exotic, and much more mundane: watch your step.

The story I saw in the New York Daily News has a picture of him: a burly fortysomething guy wearing shades, obviously in the desert with joshua trees visible behind him. It’s an odd picture: he looks like John Elway gone to seed, a strange half smile/grimace on his face. What really floored me was one line in the article: “David Freeman was born in California but moved to New York in 1986 to work for Grey Advertising.”

When I moved to New York in the fall of 1987, I landed a very short-lived stint with Grey Advertising that saw me getting laid off just after Christmas of the same year, which was a blessing in disguise as I hated the place. If I’m not mistaken, I worked for David Freeman for a few weeks. I might be mistaken. In my mind, I’m thinking “David Friedman” … but the above-noted newspaper fact is pretty close to my time frame. (Another obituary I found in an advertising trade publication confirms that he worked in advertising all the way up to his passing … it’s probably him.)

The picture in the paper looks nothing like the guy I remember: I remember a fastidious, well-dressed little guy who was the embodiment of yuppie ambition that ran rampant in the 1980s. James Spader could have nailed him in a movie. (I understand Spader’s a good bit beefier today, too.) The one similarity is blonde hair: it could be him, 20 years on. It looks like Freeman went to the desert on a vacation, had a wild peyote experience, saw things in a different light, and came out a new man: that sort of transformation.

If it is, hats off to him. While I don’t read books like that, I do respect the ability of any writer to come up with a concept like that, and not just sell it to an editor, but sell it to an audience who will pay money and time to scour the list and gather new and interesting vacation ideas. I wouldn’t have imagined the David Freeman I worked for one day authoring a travel book – then again, I didn’t know him that well. Seemed like a nice enough guy, was friendly. I think running into him was my first exposure to that sort of corporate ambition I’m now a lot more comfortable around, simply by attrition. I’m sure at the time I thought that quality was horrible, dishonest and shallow. I was fresh out of college, an English major, and really had no idea what working in an office implied or required. I was the one out of place -- not him.

What I remember more than David was our department head, a woman I’ll call Edna. Didn’t know it at the time, but one of those real scumbags you run into routinely in offices. I recall her pitching a fit because she couldn’t find the right color of carpet to have installed in her office, which filled her with existential angst that she’d take out on her underlings and coworkers by being bitchy and sarcastic. Came from a wealthy suburb in Westchester County, had a smarmy lawyer boyfriend, just someone launched into that way of life I want no part of. The kind of person who would push hard to ensure her wedding made it into the Sunday New York Times and take some perverse pride in that. You run into these people all the time in New York – they think they run New York, and, you know, they don’t run shit. But give them a title, an office and a background of privilege, and they sometimes start thinking weird, grandiose lies about themselves. No one liked her, which is the way of the world with people so transparent. This was Edna.

I’ve since learned that there are easy rules to follow in terms of getting along with people in an office. Simply stated, if you can talk to a person like he or she’s a human being, and not engage in some form of insincere role playing with the person, that’s someone you can obviously deal with and count on. Sounds easy enough? Man, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve dealt with some megalomaniac who makes that common humanity virtually impossible, who will wrap himself in a cloak of self importance and literally turn himself into a villain from a Charles Dickens novel, all for a few dollars more in his pocket … it happens a lot, especially the higher you travel on the corporate food chain.

On that first job fresh out of college, encountering people like this was a pretty sobering proposition. I really didn’t like it: thought I had left high school in the rear-view mirror. But have since learned that Corporate America is one big high school, complete with bullies and cliques and senseless rules. That, if you want the money, you have to figure out how to deal with, or spend a lot of time being miserable and unhappy with your lot in life. Just aint worth it. Granted, for decades now I’ve felt like I’ve been hanging onto this way of life by my fingertips – because I’m sane – but another reality is I’ve also learned how to deal with people even more fucked-up than Edna, which is to play along so long as you’re not under their direct control, and if that ever does transpire, simply figure a way out of the situation, which becomes obvious after awhile and vastly preferable to putting up with such nonsense. In that case, lady luck did it for me and sent me and a few dozen other people packing into the January snow. (I remember the HR woman weeping as she told me the news. Shit, I felt pretty good. I gave her some tissues and told her the truth, that this was perfectly OK with me! I gather she had to break the same news to other employees who had more to lose.) But I’ve since realized, you can just bide your time and find another job: it happens all the time, at least in New York. I shudder to think being stuck in such a situation, like a rural area or a job that pays so well it would be very hard to leave. But haven’t had that problem just yet.

Grey was a pretty stuffy place for an ad agency. Again, didn’t know this at that time, but would later find out working in a few other agencies. Since it was so large, it had all those byzantine rules and forms to fill out for everything, and I’ve found that any place that isolates upper management is generally a poorly run place. By that, I mean the guys who run the place will generally be on a certain floor, by themselves with their annoying executive assistants, and visiting them is like entering a gilded palace where one must bow and kneel, preferably avoiding eye contact, unless you, a mere mortal, want to burst into flames. I’ve worked in a few places where the guy or girl who ran the joint was right down the hall, and you could easily stop in and say hello if you had a problem: these places may have had other issues, but that sort of welcome informality wasn’t one of them.

Grey was one of those little fiefdoms in terms of power structures. The creative people would huddle in their offices on their floor, grumbling about the business-side people and such. In the past I’ve laid out my take on “creative” people in corporate environments: generally, a bad mix, unless the individual grasps he’s working in a business and not viewing the job as an unfortunate imposition on his wonderful talents and time spent as a sentient being on this planet. The business people were what they were, which I’d eventually find refreshing and honest, but, man, what a shock to a kid straight out of college! Many people went to college to learn how to be business people, but all I could think after that first experience was, nothing prepares you for the politics, personalities and bullshit of doing business, you can’t teach that, and you can only learn it by experiencing it. So, if you’re going to college, feel free to major in something creative that actually gives you pleasure and purpose in life, because you’ll have plenty of time later to be more rational and responsible. Unless you’re very lucky, or very rich, life will demand you be that way, or pay the price in prescription meds and such.

I’m going to embarrass myself here, but even more than that idiot department head, and the late David, and many other things about Grey (including more than a few very hot women … don’t know what it is about advertising and women, but there’s something in the water there …), I remember one thing very clearly. That makes me feel like a flaming asshole now, even though it was an innocent thing at the time. I may have done this two or three times. Can’t recall. But I dressed up like Kevin Rowland, the lead singer from Dexy’s Midnight Runners, as portrayed in their video “Come on Eileen.”

I feel like a fucking idiot now remembering this! But I thought that was a cool look (no one else did). I had a floppy old military hat that could be worn like a beret. And a pair of bib overalls. A t-shirt. A flannel shirt I wore over the whole thing. And brogans (work boots). Hey, it was an ad agency: people were supposed to dress flamboyantly (although most people rarely did, especially in a mortuary like Grey). I would never in a million years dress like that again in an office, or anywhere for that matter, but for some reason, at that time, I felt that need to do so. I remember one of the security guards in the cafeteria getting red-faced and telling me to go home and change, and I told him to make me. Security guard? Now, if they had a fashion guard, I’d have listened. Most people just took one look at me, grinned, and thought, “Ah, youth … glad I’m older now.” But, man, for obvious reasons, the memory of me being na├»ve and dumb enough to dress like that at work … I don’t know what I was thinking. But it happened, and, boy, do I remember it, like a rash on my penis or a broken heart.

I don’t want to leave you with that song in your head. So, in honor of David, and probably because he may have missed this city in his book, a song from the late Warren Zevon, "Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead." Really, sorry to hear of David’s passing, and no disrespect meant. If anything, I’m glad to see the guy did something cool in his life beyond the world of advertising. It's a good message to leave behind.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Westerberg High

I recall when seeing the movie Heathers in a Manhattan theater in 1989, aside from an odd incident with one audience member getting harangued and booted for smoking, the nod-and-wink “in” joke of naming the school in the movie Westerberg High. This was a not-so-subtle salute by screenwriter Daniel Walters to the legendarily under-performing 80s band, The Replacements, and lead singer Paul Westerberg.

You have to understand, The Replacements were my band in the 80s. Have never felt so closely aligned with a band, agreed with Westerberg completely in terms of his talent and style, loved their ambivalence towards success. Westerberg and The Replacements took the place of The Kinks in terms of that one band I could relate to on every level, and even better, they were happening while I was in my late teens/early 20s, a time when most people start fading out on music. It was perfect timing for me, the only time I’ve felt so in-step with a band.

When the band broke up a few years later, it didn’t bother me that much, because I knew Westerberg was the driving force, and that he would go on recording. What I didn’t know was that each album he put out would present a mildly troubling listening experience: his albums never lived up to his promise. I shouldn’t have been too shocked – looking back, I felt the same way towards his Replacements albums, save that the classic songs from those albums (like “Bastards of Young,” “I Will Dare” and “Never Mind”) were him hitting home runs, setting milestones for which he'll always be remembered. The good songs on his solo albums were doubles or triples for the most part. And there was just as much filler as ever. The high’s didn’t feel anywhere near as high.

I felt myself backing away from that previously tight bond with his band and their legacy. I wouldn’t call it shame – I’d call it growing up and recognizing that was one band indelibly tied into that late teen/early 20s sense of dislocation – the easy cynicism, the disdain at even the faintest hints of ambition or normalcy. I did an earlier post on that awkward time when I realized I no longer fit into thrift-store clothes, literally or figuratively, signified by the hard truth that there’s a broad gulf between ironically wearing a work shirt for an air-conditioner company with the name “Gus” stenciled on the left breast … and wearing the same shirt 10 years on, and people assuming your name is Gus, and that’s where you work. It’s the hammer of adulthood that comes down in one’s late 20s/early 30s, if not sooner.

The Replacements didn’t “fit” me anymore, surely not in that same, intense, passionate way I felt about them when we were in perfect lock-step circa 1986. And Westerberg solo albums did little to bridge that gap. I should note that I have all of them, and still buy everything the man does. He’s still good. I sat down a few months ago and put together a compilation of his solo material, which made me realize, sure, you cherry pick songs from each album, and he’s still got it. Just not in the same way. He grew up, too. Stopped drinking. Got married. Had a kid. A lot of his songs followed him along the path. One of my favorite songs of his is “It’s a Wonderful Lie,” a basic acoustic number in which he admits that he still gets by on those things, wonderful lies, and that he still feels as dislocated as ever from the music business, just something he does because he doesn’t know what else to do. Feeling that way at 40 is a lot different than feeling that way at 20. When you’re 40, you tap into feelings of failure and some sense of lost direction that you can’t possibly have at 20. The thing is, obviously, you’re not a failure – you’re doing what you should be doing. But when what you’re should be doing finds you in the same place you were in circa your 20s – still struggling – you sometimes feel like an asshole. In moments of clarity, you recognize that you should still keep moving, because that’s what you do. And other times … you just feel like a horse’s ass who never grew up properly.

I note all this, because I’m starting to have problems with Westerberg as a recording artist. Not necessarily him alone – his fan base is grating on me, too. As all fan bases do for recording artists. I can rarely stand to be around hard-core fans of anyone – these people tend to be nuts, and clearly never in any mental state to grasp or understand any sort of valid criticism of their favorite artist. Everything the guy does is gold, the best thing he’s ever done, so that his artistic life is a glowing yellow brick road of success, one gold brick after another, he never “lost it” or sold out in any sense. If the rest of the world hasn't recognized this, it only underlines their superior sense of taste that transcends all the dreck the masses eat like enormous shit sandwiches.

I’d bet Westerberg doesn’t see himself this way, but his fans sure do. They’re fanatics. I don’t like them. These weren’t the same people I’d attended numerous Replacements shows with in the 80s, where the object was drunken revelry and fun, a real wild night out. Not the fucking bizarre form of church his shows have turned into, where the assembled gather and shout every lyric to every song and gaze reverently at Westerberg, who always seems to play alone these days, whether it’s because money’s grown that tight, or he simply can’t stand playing with other musicians, I don’t know.

Part of the problem I have with him is his recordings, since abandoning the major-label system at the turn of the century, just seem to grow worse with every album in terms of production … because he records the whole album by himself in his basement. Sometimes this works to great effect on his more rocking songs, but his vocals almost always sound like shit, and I can’t help but think he’d be better served working with a solid producer and musicians he can get along with. As ever, each album has a few good-to-great songs – this never changes – but it feels like he’s losing the thread in terms of progressing in any sense as a recording artist. Whether he’s playing to himself in his basement, or this asshole breed of cult fanatics who worship his every move, I have no idea. But every time I hear another claustrophobic sounding album coming over the speakers, I can’t help but think something's off.

He just put out an album a few weeks ago called 49:00. You can’t buy it. For awhile, you could buy it – as one huge MP3 file from But about two weeks after its release, in which it was selling like hotcakes probably due to good buzz and the cheap price (49 cents for the whole thing), the file was yanked from the site with no explanation, and still none from Westerberg. Although he has released a coda to the album, a song called “5:05” that represents the missing amount of time that would make the actual album 49 minutes long, and the song is a “fuck you” of sorts that fans have come to take as an explanation of why the 49:00 album was removed from Amazon. (One of the songs towards the end is a medley of various cover versions of 60s and 70s pop hits – the assumption being that he never got permission to use them, and was thus legally required to stop selling the file.)

Fucking whatever. Even before it was yanked … the album is a collection of demos. Some showing real promise, others the usual so-so material. You would not know this to judge by the fan reaction. Paul Westerberg just put out Exile on Main Street to judge by their estimation. He always puts out Exile on Main Street. That’s probably the main difference between me and current Westerberg fans. I realize, rightly, that he’s continually putting out Goat’s Head Soup: a much-maligned Rolling Stones album that actually has a few good songs, but isn’t one of their best offerings. Westerberg is like a baseball player who bats .260 and has a good glove on the field. He does all right … but he’s capable of doing a lot better. And rarely does.

None of which would bother me, save for a few things. Westerberg is closing in on 50. (“49” also represents his age.) These sort of bizarre head games he’s playing recently only serve to obscure and bury his career even more than it’s buried now. How buried is it? Four legendary Replacements albums were reissued earlier this year on the Rhino label with the full treatment: remastered and bonus tracks, nice packaging, a huge press push. (The final four are set to be reissued in September.) I don’t have the exact sales figures for those albums, but I’ve read in a few places that the total sales for all four albums is well under 30,000.

That’s what you call a radical failure – it was shocking for me to read that. And if The Replacements, i.e., Westerberg in his prime, can only generate sales like that now, it makes me wonder just how many albums Westerberg has been selling over the past few releases on indie labels. I’d wager it’s a case of diminishing returns all along the way. It doesn’t help that he created an alter-ego, Grandpaboy, under which he sometimes puts out material. The guy seems to be barely getting by using his own name … a side project isn’t such a good idea in that circumstance. (Besides which, the Grandpaboy material is not recognizably different from the material he releases under his own name.)

I gather no one is guiding his career at this point in his life. If Westerberg has a manager, he’s obviously telling the guy what to do, as opposed to the manager trying to guide him in a direction that will get the word out and make him more visible and relevant as a solo artist. The exact opposite seems to be happening. Westerberg, and The Replacements’ legacy by extension, is shrinking into cult status. An entire album of material disappears. Hey, whatever, fuck it. I’ve been hoping all along that Westerberg put out the album as a preview of songs he’s going to actually record and release properly, but I suspect this may not be the case, and that these tracks on 49:00 may just sink without a trace, now that they’re no longer commercially available, and whatever heat was generated by two weeks kicking ass on will surely dissipate in a hurry – it feels like it already has. There's been no hue-and-cry over the disappearing Westerberg album: no one gives a fuck.

In short, I don’t know what the guy is doing with his life. Again, at 20, this is some real cool shit to pull. Pushing 50? It just seems incredibly stupid to me. I don’t get it. I guess The Replacements’ original ethos, to be a bunch of fuck-ups at any and all costs, is something he might still believe in. Again, this shit just seems old, trite and wrong at this point in his life (and mine), especially when all along with his solo material, you could hear the wheels clicking in Westerberg’s head as he aged, the understanding of who he was, that he was good, and that life was moving along, and he was moving with it. The antics of the past month or two have me thinking he’s going through some bizarre mid-life crisis which will only serve to bury his name even deeper in the recording industry, the one place where he has fans all over the place willing to give him a chance that he rarely takes.

What especially grates on me is his fans seems to view this regrettable scenario as “cool.” Fucking A. When I see people my age and older fucking up in life, I don’t pat them on the back and tell them they’re cool. I tell them they’re fucking up. Sorry to be so coarse, but I’ve seen enough people throw their lives away over stupid teenage obsessions they never grow out of that I no longer humor that sort of bullshit. If there’s one ugly, bizarre form of cancer I see flourishing in our society, it’s the inability and/or refusal of people to grow up. I see it in myself in small ways – believe me, nowhere near as badly as I see it in millions of other people. Who never learned how to save or spend money. Or be responsible in any sense. Or stop getting stoned and drunk so much. Or take care of themselves. Or just basically give a shit about other people.

I get the feeling a lot of Westerberg’s fans are locked-in emotionally at 19, that same place I was when I was a huge fan of the band, and this sort of senseless, self-destructive stuff Westerberg pulls occasionally in his solo career is, again, still somehow “cool” to them. I give up. Not on Westerberg himself – I’ll never give up on him, and I’ll never forget how much the guy’s work has touched me. But I give up on trying to figure out what in the hell he’s trying to do with his life, and why so many people who supposedly enjoy his work seem to have their heads implanted so firmly in their own asses.

The truth isn’t that he’s some legendary recording artist routinely tossing off masterpieces that the rest of the world, sadly, seems immune to, poor lost souls. The truth is he’s a deeply talented artist who must be surrounded by yes-men and assholes who can’t tell him the truth, that he’s slowly burying himself in irrelevancy by making wrong choices in his career, putting out too much sub-standard material and isolating himself as a recording artist. Again, I can see the roots of that, way back in the 80s, when that attitude was cool, and served a recognizable purpose. Those days are gone, for all of us past a certain age, and I can only hope the guys snaps out of this stage he’s in, whatever it is, wherever it’s going. Purposely burying an entire album seems like commercial suicide to me – then again, putting out demos in the first place and calling it an album – if that’s what he’s doing (no one seems to know, and he’s apparently not talking) - didn't seem like such a bright idea either.

As a coda, and an example of why Westerberg is grating on me, here’s my favorite track from 49:00, “Goodnight Sweet Prince” – an astonishing song about the passing of his father. Which sounds like a rough demo, and has another song cut into it towards the end, like an eight-track tape bleeding into another track. Cool? If you think that sort of forced sloppiness is cool, I think you’re an asshole. Westerberg, wake up! Record great songs like this the way they should be. Stop playing games. We're not the fuck-ups we pretended to be way back when.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Flop House

My near-decade in the Bronx, spanning the fall of 1987 through the spring of 1997, was spent in a boarding house. I recall while working in advertising in the early 90s, one of the guys in the office who knew my set-up, asking me about my life up there, with the introductory question: “So, how are things going back at the flop house?”

I’m not even sure how much boarding houses even exist now, but that was the image of many of them: big old mansions that had seen better days, an elderly owner who rented out rooms to drunks, traveling workmen, shady characters who paid in cash and lurked in shadows. The guys at work could have thought whatever they wanted. My rent, at first was $180/month. By the time I left, after living about three years in the largest room, was $320/month. I was saving money there hand over fist. My last two years there, I was making over $50K a year … do the math on how much money I was banking.

(Of course, I’d burn through nearly all of it a few years later when I ditched the ragged corporate job I was at and took an entire summer off to get my head on straight. Money flies out the door when your rent goes from $320 to $640/month plus utilities. It’s just now that I’m starting to surpass the amount of money I had saved up by the spring of 1997, which is a good feeling.)

That boarding house was hardly a flop house by traditional standards. It was run by Eddie, a Puerto Rican guy in his mid-30s at the time who had lived in one of the rooms himself and bought the house from the old Irish woman who had owned it before him. He lived there on the ground floor with his sister and son, gather he was divorced although I never saw his ex-wife. He had two floors of rooms above him he rented out, four on the second floor, two on the top, bathroom on each floor, a kitchen on the top.

You’d be surprised how little a kitchen and bathroom mean to you when you live in a situation like that. I’m sure a kid in a dorm room or sharing with roommates could tell you the same. That seemed to be the sticking point with people when I told them how I was living: but you don’t have your own bathroom and kitchen. Well, you take a few minute to shit every day, a few to shower, and probably no more than half an hour in a kitchen, unless you’re into cooking. It wasn’t that big a deal.

The house was high on a hill overlooking the Harlem River and northern tip of Manhattan, of which there was a great view from the kitchen window. Eddie also had a backyard, although we never used it as it had fallen into a sort of storage area for various tools Eddie used for his job working for the parks. That part of the Bronx, the northern part of Sedgwick Avenue, was once a ritzy Jewish neighborhood in the 20s and 30s, mansions and apartment buildings, that had fallen into disrepair over the years, particularly after the white flight from the Bronx of the 60s and 70s. Physically speaking, the lay of the land in that area was beautiful: rolling hills, wide streets, a lot of vegetation. It grated on me to see it covered in graffiti and junk, just a real negative sign of what was allowed to go on there. Broken glass and dogshit was the norm, and through the early 90s, crack vials were all over the sidewalks. They were harder to see, but you’d often hear them crunch under your feet as you walked.

Despite not being a flop house, the boarding house had its fair share of characters. There was Mikey, who lived in the big room upstairs, a Dominican cab driver with puffy eyes and a butterfly tattooed on his chest. You could see the tattoo because he’d often walk around in a red silk bathrobe opened just enough to show it off. I was never quite sure what Mikey’s story was, but he seemed reasonably responsible and had a slew of girlfriends he worked his way through before moving out.

Next door to him was Manny, who I wrote about years ago in this piece. Manny Upstairs. Old Irish guy working for decades in various subway token booths. (For those who can’t recall, this used to be a very dangerous job, with a very bad spate of incidents of token-booth workers either being set on fire or shot in various robbery attempts. This sort of brazen crap hasn’t happened in a very long time in NYC, or at least I haven’t been aware.) As the story referenced notes, Manny was prone to drinking too much and becoming an oddly-annoying drunk as opposed to abusive and weird. A gentle, old soul who valued his privacy and seemed, to me at least, to be pretty happy with his life despite any number of negative readings one might be tempted to apply to him. I learned a lot from Manny about personal happiness: that it’s yours to define, not anyone else’s. And if someone’s trying to define yours for you … that’s someone who needs a new hobby. I’ll always remember him striding down the sidewalk early in the morning as the sun rose, coming off his graveyard shift in some godforsaken subway station in the Bronx, smiling, whistling, carrying a copy of The Daily News and tipping his cap, an old white guy walking alone without fear in a place where no one would have expected it.

Annie lived across the hall from me for a long time, a woman from Trinidad who was milking her student VISA for as long as possible, doing nanny work, and hoping to find a real job that would allow her to stay (she eventually did) and bring her son over. We had a minor fling – she looked a bit like the singer Sade – but probably thought better of it since her situation was up in the air. A good person – kind-hearted, friendly, from what I’ve gathered a very Caribbean vibe about her in a good way.

The room next to me at first was a young white guy who smoked a few packs a day: I had to have Eddie put on an extra wood barrier through a boarded-up space between our apartments that cigarette smoke would sometimes creep through. Not a bad guy, save for the incessant cancer haze around him. Thankfully, he simply disappeared one day. His girlfriend somehow got my phone number and called me a few weeks later, asking if I knew what had happened to him, and I surely didn’t. Either he met with a bad fate, which should have produced a body, or he just skipped out on his life, maybe the one guy in the place who had the true boarding house spirit.

He was replaced by an old guy who wandered everywhere during daylight hours. Another salty old Irishman like Manny, save he never drank and was living on some sort of military pension. I’d occasionally see him walking miles from the house in places like Inwood and parts of Harlem, where I’d be riding my bike. Like most old people, and the sane, he avoided sundown in the Bronx like a Transylvanian villager, making sure he was safe at home by this time. I generally found it a good idea to get home before 10 or 11 at night. At which time, the Bronx became populated with kids who were either up to no good or simply should have had better parents.
The sundown rule wasn’t a bad one to follow.

A few strays passed through the house, too. Like the Indian cab driver who seemed like a nice enough guy, but when Eddie kicked him out due to his inability to make rent for a few months, he found three pots filled with rotting/decaying rice under his bed that were just about to enter “where’s the corpse” levels of odor emission.

The oddest by far was a white guy from Boston in his 20s who hit New York to make it big as a comedian. He looked and acted a lot like Keith Moon, a basically friendly person, but he seemed desperately irresponsible. Much like a real rock star, he had a staggeringly beautiful, ethereal girlfriend who visited him every other week, generally to fight tempestuously and make-up via long-distance phone calls. When I say fight, I mean to the point of him bolting off an exiting subway train and leaving his Snow White-style girlfriend to fend for herself in terms of finding her way back to the house, which was a cruel, stupid thing to do. Don’t think this guy realized how foul the Bronx can get circa two in the morning for someone lost, especially a white girl who looked like she just walked off the screen of an animated Disney flick. I recall him being despondent one night as he listened to Al Green’s version of “Unchained Melody” on the radio. Like most comedians, the guy was morose when not engaged in the act of being funny. He ended up living in the back cab of his pick-up truck for a few weeks on the lonely, crack-whore stretch of highway behind the house, which was another dumb/dangerous thing to do. I was grateful when I was saw his pick-up finally gone a few weeks later.

I look back on those years as one big learning experience. I learned a lot about race relations, the kind of things you can’t learn until you’ve lived as a minority in a given place. Most white people won’t ever forfeit their unspoken/unacknowledged "safety in numbers" vibe and do that – I did it simply by chance. Bragged about it at the time, but I can see now that you peel away the layers, and it’s mostly learning how to read people and situations and respond accordingly, whatever the racial set-up, often with race used as a mask to inspire or hide fear. And living smartly, i.e., recognizing opportunities for stupidity and avoiding them. (And recognizing street trash, who are legion and every color of the rainbow in the 718s of New York, and avoiding them as well.) Call it “street smarts” – you can’t live that long in a place like the Bronx without developing them. (I see white folks new to Astoria all the time who don't have an ounce of street sense and make me cringe with their stupidity, despite the college degrees.) After awhile the “cool” factor of being a solitary white face in a rough inner-city neighborhood wore thin. I’d say that was by about year 5. At which time, I was still saving money hand over fist. It took another five years or so to finally unhinge myself from the desperately cheap rent and realize I wasn' t learning anything worthwhile and had to go.

But I never tired of the boarding house, just the draggy neighborhood around it. I tell myself all the time, yeah, let’s go back, some weekend morning early, before everyone gets up, like it was for my morning runs when I’d do a few miles around the neighboring reservoir and hardly see anybody along the way. But I’ve only been back once since then, and that was within the first year of leaving. I just have no urge to go back there. Which is odd, because much like my college years, there are certain large chunks of my life that are growing increasingly vague in memory because I no longer have a physical connection to the place. With the Bronx, we’re talking almost a decade, most of my 20s, into my 30s.

But I can tell you something about New York, at least for expatriate rural Americans: you rarely get that nostalgic sense of home for neighborhoods you’ve lived in, probably because they’re always such a mixed bag of positives and negatives. I also can’t stand being given the redneck vibe from the locals when I come from a place that blows their moronic faux redneck vibes out of the water in terms of bullshit territoriality. Tom Waits has a song called “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that pretty much sums up the feeling of calling New York “home.” In a lot of ways, it just will never be. Not a bad thing, just different, and takes some getting used to, if you ever do.