Thursday, December 31, 2009

Baby Made Boom Boom

I’ve heard New Year’s Eve described as “amateur night” many times over, referring to partiers who can’t handle being drunk and act buffoonish as a result. But when you think about it, every night is amateur night in bars everywhere, and a lot of those amateurs are alcoholics. I’ve never walked into a bar to find "a professional": some suave, middle-aged man in a cummerbund or cravat, sipping aged whiskey and putting forth like Oscar Wilde. If I did, I’d assume I’d stumbled into a gay bar, and one that specialized in old queens.

I’m sitting here, snug and warm in my apartment, after having a ragged-ass day at work because a few people are out next week and used today to gun out whatever they could. No intentions at all of going out. I work in the western part of midtown Manhattan; they’ve had the parade iron gates lining up each avenue the past two days so that you can’t jaywalk, not quite realizing things get dangerous when you have hordes of tourists making it impossible for sane people to get around them. It’s been a bad scene all week with people who really ought to go the hell home instead of coming here, not quite realizing it still isn’t Disneyland despite Guilliani’s efforts in the 90s to make it so.

And I wasn’t spared my one amateur. Got on the train about 4:00 pm, just beating that undefined time when the cops lockdown midtown and start putting those metal gates all over the place and guiding people away from subway stations. As I did, a twentyish guy, long and lanky, got on at the Times Square stop with me. Seemed normal. Stood by the door. Train wasn't crowded at all. Two stops later, we found ourselves sitting next to each other, albeit with a long bar in the middle of the subway car between us.

He was drunk off his ass, listening to hiphop on his iPod. I could tell because he had earphones that rested on top of his ears, and I could hear the sound bleeding out. The paper bag in his hand turned out to be a beer … which was such a throwback to the “old” days of New York when it was easy to walk around in public with a can of beer and not get hassled. (You now will for breaking open container laws.) I could respect the guy for being so brazen, but that’s where it ended. Like so many dickheads listening to hiphop, he was gesturing with his arms while he listened, you know, the phony jabbing of fingers, the hand signals and swaying of shoulders, like a five-year-old emulating his take of bloated adulthood.

He was drunk, no need to bust his chops or get weird, so long as he kept it relatively under control. About all he did was rub up against me by accident a little too much, not enough to act offended and make a scene, but enough to make me think, “Get off the train, you drunken prick.” Every time the train hit a turn or quicker stop, he’d lean too far against me, like someone does when he falls asleep on the train. Again, the key to surviving in New York is quietly riding out situations like that. If it gets too weird, find some way to walk away, or act out, quickly and decisively. I surely had him in the corner of my eye.

But then, this smell … he shit his pants! I know he did. I suspect he knows I know he did. The smell just sort of came at me in a small wave, but I’ve been around enough homeless people to know – if I had kids in diapers, I could assure you, it would be the same smell. Not a full-on dump. He probably squeezed out a small turd by accident on one of those sharp turns. You couldn’t see it. Man, you could smell it. Again, not an over-powering stench, but enough to let me know baby made boom boom. I know after that smell, he stopped futzing around with his “white rapper representin’, yo” routine he had been putting on. That tends to be the case when you have a load in your pants!

He made it past Roosevelt Plaza, the first above-ground stop in Queens. But, luckily, he shuffled, and I mean shuffled, like a penguin, towards the door at 39th Avenue, the next stop and leaned off the train. He was so drunk he stumbled towards the subway wall and crouched against it, with his back to it, leaned over. I assume he was getting ready to puke to go along with his boo-boo.

But the doors shut, and the train pulled away. Man, what a New Year’s that guy must be having. Who knows, maybe his girlfriend dumped him, he lost his job, one of his parents passed on, D, all of the above, who knows. He wasn’t a happy, kazoo-blurting party drunk in a plastic hat tossing confetti. He was a drunk, lonely kid on the train who shit his pants, getting off on a train stop that’s still a bit dicey in terms of safety. Happy New Year! I hope his day got better once he got off at 39th, but who knows. He seemed harmless enough, but it’s my firm belief that anyone listening to an iPod and “acting out” the music, whatever kind of music, has to be a horse’s ass on some deep, abiding level that I don’t want to contemplate. Paths cross, assholes fade like tail lights in the dark, life goes on.

Such is life in the big city. The night before, my old friend Fred came into the city for a visit while staying with his extended family in a Jersey town this week. (This is the same guy from this post detailing our crazy “NYC in our 20s” days.) I haven’t seen Fred in years, maybe a decade? It’s been a long time. The dude hasn’t changed physically one iota since his college days. Maybe his pants size are up a notch or two (unlike six or seven like mine!), but he still looks physically healthy, hasn’t gone gray or lost his hair, and despite a high-pressure job in a major city, doesn’t have that sort of stress he must feel routinely showing at all in his face. I’ve seen this way of life age people in dog years. Fred must be a vampire, drinking blood in the dead of night to maintain this Dorian Gray personage. I don’t know what he’s doing, but it’s working.

We had some dinner and drinks down in the East Village, Alphabet City to be exact, one of Fred’s last stops before he moved out to Staten Island, met his wife and eventually left New York. If you’re unfamiliar with New York, this is an area on the Lower East Side that has changed drastically in the last 20 years, going from a rundown, anarchistic squatters paradise with burned-out buildings and a thriving drug trade … to an obscenely-expensive, highly-exclusive residential area that, I guess, must have started as geared towards the young and hip, but you can’t be too young and hip these days and still afford the sky-high rents and real-estate values down there. That goes for all of white Manhattan. Parts of it used to be a genuinely intriguing mix of people across all social strata. Now, you’re going to find smatterings of projects housing the very poor, or people with A LOT of money, with very few social classes in between. No struggling writers, artists, or poets, or musicians. Most of them have gone out to Brooklyn and are in the process of being priced out of most of those neighborhoods, too.

I don’t know who lives down there now. I do know you still have sizable projects when you get over to Avenues C and D (this area is called Alphabet City because it’s a large, rectangular block of a neighborhood intersected north/south by Avenues A through D). So things can still feel hairy down there depending on where you walk. But, man, nothing like in the 70s and 80s, surely up through the mid-90s when things changed rapidly along Avenues A and B. When Fred and I sat down for dinner at a nice “American” style restaurant (with prices better than what I find in my neighborhood in Astoria!), it was nearly empty just after six, but filled up fast, most of them a younger crowd. No way on earth could they have lived around there. They were probably like me – in the city for a night of hanging out. I neglected to mention to Fred, who had been asking what happened to all the old clubs and great places to see bands we knew and frequented, there still are a few places like that around, like The Living Room, Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge just south of where we were. But not many.

That was our main draw to hanging out downtown back then, the allure of seeing good music in a small club, which we did dozens of times, at places like the old Ritz on 11th between 3rd and 4th Avenues, and The Knitting Factory when it was on Houston Street. A bomb has gone off in Manhattan though in terms of night clubs, and most bands now, when they come to New York, head out to various small clubs in Brooklyn to make their small legends. You saw people like us wandering around downtown, most of the time we were out to see bands. Those days are just about gone in Manhattan.

It was a kick to later walk the streets of Fred’s old neighborhood and gawk in disbelief at what it had become in the past 20 years. Understand that before I moved to New York, the two or three times I visited Fred in his cramped/shared apartment just west of Times Square, whoever was up for it, we’d all get on the subway down to the East Village, get cans of beer in paper bags at the nearest bodega (much like the dude noted above on the train today!) and just walk in the night. Man, just walking around New York in the 80s, you could still feel “that vibe” – a wonderful feeling, like sparks. The place felt so alive and vibrant. Run-down as hell, sure, but that was part of it. I’m sure part of it was being a bit of a rube and feeding off the different kind of energy a major city provides after dark, but with New York, it was something else, too, something much larger. And I should point out we weren’t acting like “frat boys” or in any way kicking up a fuss. Just walking and taking it all in. Pass a bar? Man, let’s go in and have one. The night would piece itself together like that until we got back on the train, exhausted, and went back uptown to sleep fitfully on hardwood living-room floors.

I guess Fred and I did roughly the same last night, save we had our beers in the restaurant and just walked, particularly down the block that was his last living space down there, a dumpy apartment building on 13th Street between A and B. I remembered that place. Every time I went down there to see him, someone on the first floor would be wailing away on a drum set and sounding terrible. Fred noted that his most vivid memory was the night there was a fire in the building, and everyone filed in their pajamas and blankets, huddled in the water and smoke-filled street in front of the apartment building, dazed and half asleep, not being able to go back in until later the next morning and the whole place smelling like smoke.

It still looked dumpy, as some apartment building always will. But just across the street was a palace, a very nice-looking building with arty lanterns and such hanging from awnings and immaculate brickface on a building that looked like a grand old hotel that had been there for centuries. Well, Fred informed me, that was a squat back in 1989. A burned-out hulk of a building with no windows, graffiti-covered, runaway kids and older boho artist types making a stand there because whoever owned the building had let it rot, so these people moved in and made a go of it without any heat or running water. They’d tap into electricity from street lights in front of the building. This was the urban version of “off the grid” people you’ll find out west living on the edges of deserts and in the deep woods. Some good people, some crazy and lost, all trying to make lives for themselves outside the rule book.

Who knows when that particular squat shut down, but they all did down there, and there were surely dozens, as that whole neighborhood changed in the early 90s. The Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 was probably the last hurrah of the rebel side of the neighborhood, where the various forces at play in the neighborhood came to a head, and “law and order” prevailed, thus paving the way for gentrification. Surely, when Fred lived there circa 1990, it was still rough, but I’m sure signs of the impending changes were taking root right then. It blew his mind to look across the street from his old building in 2009 and see this beautiful art-deco apartment building standing where what you might call a black hole of hope once stood.

As Fred noted last night, what the hell, you can piss on gentrification all you want, and for good reason, but by the same token, drugs, squalor, shootings and general mayhem going on all up and down the block at all hours is hardly an ideal living situation, even for a young guy looking for a grittier alternative to wherever he’d just been. I don’t like gentrification at all – in fact, find it horrifying in some senses now that I’m actually living in a neighborhood where I can see how insidiously it works – but when you see the end results, years later, you do get that deep “what the fuck” moment and realize you, as a small person in a set place and time, are more like a cork bobbing on a wave in the ocean than anything else. Shit happens in place and time, and you move along with it, sometimes rolling along nicely for years, other times being swept away for various reasons, in best cases, of your own choice.

And I guess that applies to our lives, too, which is I what I got from walking around with Fred last night. You just roll with the waves and see where they take you. At least that’s how I’ve lived my life. Which must sound like a nightmare to a go-getter with everything that’s going to happen in his life laid out in outline format. Well, outline formats always come up with unanticipated sub-numbers that tend to spread out the broadly-stroked Roman Numerals of Big Shit Happening. You roll with things. And as I told Fred, last night, like a grumpy old man laying out the mystery of life while I clutched my newspaper and harrumphed: sane, healthy and solvent … the rest takes care of itself. You just take whatever shit rolls your way – good, bad or indifferent – and improvise to the best of your abilities. I think I realized this walking around last night, and the vibe was virtually no different from the one we had back in 198X roaming around as kids looking for sparks, as opposed to middle-aged guys who had found them in some sense, and watched some of them die, others go on glowing in the night.

I think the key to life is to simply not shit your pants on a subway train in New York!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Ball

The trip back to PA last week was pretty tolerable, especially considering it was two days before Christmas, and the bus was full of the usual suspects who make that once-a-year trip. What made it nice was the sun was out, and it looked like they got a lot less snow than we did in NYC – a few inches as opposed to a foot. The fields and farms between Easton and Lehighton were coated a perfect white and put me in the right frame of mind. And my morning run on Christmas Eve was the same: sunny, brisk and unbroken white fields everywhere I went along the backroads.

Of course, it pissed a cold, cold rain the next two days, I ate like a hog, and the cat hair drove me so nuts in the dead of winter that I had to leave a day early. Of course, it’s all gravy compared to the Christmas of 2004 when Dad passed on. But a real mixed bag nonetheless. One thing that struck me, with that small patch of nice weather, and the sight of so many unattended basketball rims in schoolyards and driveways, was how much I used to play basketball as a kid.

Basketball came in on the tail end of football in our neighborhood sports world, which meant early December. We’d all just put down the football and spend more time getting into basketball games in the local schoolyard next to our house. Football, after a certain point, would only occur if it snowed, and we could indulge in those much-loved “snow games” which were fun. (I really didn’t enjoy playing football after awhile – I could see we were all getting too big to be doing this shit without supervision or protection, and didn’t see the point of getting my head kicked in to prove what a bad-ass I was in the neighborhood.)

I loved basketball simply because I was good at it. Football and baseball, I’d usually get picked just above or middle of the pack. We were all reasonably good players. If a kid wasn’t, he simply stopped playing after awhile. Thus, there wasn’t that “last guy picked” vibe so many disgruntled adults complain about regarding their youth. Basketball, I was the one. I either picked the team or was the first picked. For one reason only: my set shot was literally about 80% accurate, some days closer to 90%. Sounds outrageous? It was. I could score from anywhere on the court – the farther away, the better. Put two guys on me, and I’d still score. It was a rare game where I’d screw the pooch and make my team lose by errant hot-dogging. And we’d normally play to 50 or 100, by ones, depending on how much time we had. These games would get nutty, like a board game that drags on for hours and finds the fortune of the players changing dramatically over time. One team would be down 75-40 and end up winning 100-97. Just crazy shit sometimes.

Did this prowess on the court transfer to high-school ball? No, despite the fact that the coaches I had in junior high and freshman year saw I could put the ball in from all over the court. We’d have free-throw practice at the end of each practice, the object being keep going until you miss a shot. I’d normally go through 30 shots or so before missing. When I got into games, again, I could hit from anywhere.

The problems? Defensively, I was a pretty average player, surely nothing special. And I didn’t understand plays, as we never used them in neighborhood ball. Plus, the plays always seemed designed to get the ball as close to the rim as possible – I wasn’t nearly as good inside as I was out. Still, my specialty was swishing the ball from the side court just outside the three-point line. Another thing I had to realize was there were other guys in the school who were just better than I was, this guy Nick in particular, a great guy who’s now a state cop, just a great all-around player who was an even better long shooter than I was, too. I would back him up after the coach toyed with starting me, but put me down when he saw I wasn’t fitting into the other roles – too short to be a center, not quick enough for guard, and the other forward was a great defender, if nothing special offensively.

So, I said fuck it after freshman year and stopped playing for the high-school team. What do I remember most about that season? This time of year. Steamed-up school buses driving through the snow, to cramped rural gyms, wearing our uniforms under our clothes, so we could strip off like Superman and be ready for the court. And Billy Joel’s album The Stranger. One of the kids had it on eight-track and played it incessantly. (Think it came out in the fall of 1977, but rest assured, it was still being played to death a year later.) The album is burned into my mind for that reason. Every time I hear the title track, I feel like it’s the winter of ’78 and I’m on my way to a game in Tamaqua or Mahanoy City. We even nicknamed the cute cheerleader/starting guard couple “Brenda and Eddie” after the characters in “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

Another thing that occurred to me later: I was simply more geared towards the rim, type and height, of the backboard in the schoolyard, which was a rusting old hunk of metal on an uphill incline. It was probably about three inches or so shorter than a regulation rim, and bent down in front. Understand that I’d spend hundreds of hours practicing on this rim. So my touch was geared towards that very specific type of shooting, which does make a difference when playing on a regulation-length basket on a flat wood surface. I was still a pretty good shot, but not the dead-eye I was on that shitty schoolyard court.

When I say I played day and night, I’m not joking. Many times, I’d be up there alone, sometimes in the dark, shooting by the light of the moon, and making it. I learned to judge my shots by the feel of the ball leaving my fingers, not what I was seeing, and I’d be just as accurate at night. That wasn’t such an abnormal thing in winter. We wouldn’t play after dark, meaning after 5:00 or so in December and January, but there was nothing wrong with shooting baskets after dark, and it wasn’t like I was out there until midnight. Most nights, I’d wrap it up and 7:00. My neighbor, Pat S., who was also a pretty good player who did well on the local Catholic-school team, would come down and join me some nights.

If it snowed, I was the first one out there to shovel out the court after clearing out our cars and walkways. This is what I was thinking about most on that drive home a few days ago. None of the kids along the way loved the game enough to shovel out the court, which I did routinely back then. Just enough to have a foot or two outside the normal lines of play. And we found that the concept of showing up dressed for the tundra was ludicrous. We had rubber balls for days like this, as opposed to leather, so they’d bounce in cold weather, and we’d start playing, and surely be sweating our asses off after about 20 points on either side. The play along the lines could be intense and often ended up with guys splayed out in the snow along the sides, which was a kick if one wasn’t too embarrassed over how he ended up there.

The best nights, though, were me alone out there, shooting under a full moon, court freshly shoveled, I could see my breath in the dark, feel the cold air in my lungs, and pumping in shot after shot from way outside. I’m not sure what I was thinking. Before high-school ball, I surely thought I was going to be a star, as we all do with various sports when we were kids. I’d get the same vibe playing tennis a few years later, and would become a good player, but nothing like a professional, or even great amateur. After I gave up on the high-school version, it occurred to me that I simply liked playing the game, this way, with no designed plays and no player set to be the star of each play. Whoever had the hot hand, feed him the ball and let him do his thing – and that was usually me in the schoolyard. When I was by myself, it was simply a good way to get out of the house, get some fresh air and do something constructive, even if it had no net effect that I could use in the “real world.” A waste of time? Sure, but I wasn’t hurting anybody, and my “alone” time as a kid was severely curtailed by seven people in a house meant for four. And a neighborhood full of howling, tail-end baby boomers who were always up to some kind of semi-evil shit or another. It was a pleasure to be able to do something I was good at, by myself, on a winter’s night.

That rusty, old, cast-iron backboard came down years ago … I can’t even recall. Maybe in the late 80s or early 90s? There’s a day-care center in that old school now next door to the house back there, and that whole area where we once played all our neighborhood sports has been replaced with a playground for toddlers. In warmer months when I go back there, those kids come out every hour on the hour, running around doing their kid things, teasing each other, laughing, weeping, stirring up shit, making friends and enemies. So not much has really changed back there. I haven't touched a basketball in years and have no inclination to do so. Adult leagues seem a bit half-assed to me, and from what I've seen, most of the guys play like apes anyway, all bad fouls and mediocre hot-dogging.

Still, I can’t help but think on some winter’s night, the ghost of my teenage self is back there, in his ragged hand-me-down clothes, hooded sweatshirt and kelly-green Philadelphia Eagles knit cap, bouncing the ball, throwing it in the air, satisfying swoosh and snap of ball hitting nothing but net, ball bounces, repeat about 150 times, maybe humming an Alan Parsons Project song every now and then, coming in for some hot chocolate and a night of bad TV. I guess anything seemed possible on those nights in the middle of nowhere, even if nothing ever happened.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Snowy Weekend before Christmas

Well, New York got pounded with a blizzard this past weekend. Woke up Sunday to find about a 12 inch base with drifts up to 20 inches on the landlord’s sidewalk. I know most adults are supposed to hate the snow. But, man, I love shoveling it: a great workout. Nothing like pushing yourself hard with that cold, clean air and silence.

Of course, if I had a car, I’d be pissed, as every one I’ve seen on the streets has been ploughed in on one side or the other. Not everything to do with a snow storm is pleasant. Like the supermarket on Saturday. I normally grocery shop in between laundry loads at the laundromat on the end of my block ... on Saturday morning. A block north and west, there’s a big, nice suburban-style supermarket that, I’ve found, allows me to hustle over there, get all my groceries and get back in time for the 40-minute dryer load coming out. I know where everything’s at in there, so I can always make a quick sweep. And the music fucking rocks … they had Otis Redding playing this time.

But I should have know, through previous experience and all the cars in the strip-mall parking lot, that the place would be a madhouse. Most of the actual aisles weren’t bad, save the last … which featured a long line of people, I’m talking at least 30 deep, waiting their turn at the registers. I don’t know what’s with people, supermarkets and snowstorms. Your average American at any given moment has more food in his house than most third-world people will eat in a month. He has enough food to last a few weeks, probably, unless he’s living like a college kid on ramen. He surely has enough food to last the day or two a major snow storm might inconvenience his travel.

So why do these obnoxious jackasses ALWAYS flood into supermarkets on the eve of major snow storms? I know the answer … they’re shitheads … but why the overbearing bad manners and sense of panic? They’re in the supermarket. The food is in their carts. They have the money to pay for their food. So, the line is a little longer this time. They will be served. They will take their food and go home, self-satisfied that they have all the meat, bread and milk they could possibly need for the next 12 hours of snow fall. Knowing, in their heart of hearts, that the Dark Lord of Blizzards will, within minutes, sweep down on that particular supermarket and turn everyone inside into ice statues, laughing maniacally all the while at all these people who would have survived His Frigid Wrath had they just gotten there and bought all their shit 15 minutes earlier.

The problem in the supermarket came when it became clear that all these people waiting in that huge serpentine line were getting screwed by your usual suspects … the tunnel-vision pigs who jump lines. There was no store manager or employee ensuring this wouldn’t happen. So you had all these patient, relatively sane people on this huge line to the left slowly noticing that monstrous pricks were wheeling right up to the cash registers and completing ignoring this clear-as-day/a-blind-man-could-see huge line. After a few minutes, people started cursing, shouting and breaking line. An Italian guy and his girlfriend wheeled in front of everybody and explained what was happening, and that we should all free-for-all mad dash to the registers. God bless the Queens douche bag two people in front of me, in her fake fur coat and spray-on tan who, up to that point, had been annoying the hell out of me with her cellphone brayings. She barked out, in that thick, horrible accent: “Look, you sweet-talking dago, if you really feel that way, why don’t you get the fuck behind us and let us go first to the other registers?”

The guy just stood there sort of slack-jawed and didn’t move. But he eventually pretended he never heard her and hustled in front of everyone with his embarrassed girlfriend and their cart. Assholes, like so many of the others. It was at that point where I calmly took my cart, which had about 15 items, and put them back in their places on the shelves, and I later ditched my empty cart in a corner of the supermarket. While I could hear screaming and “fuck yous” and such in that garbage Long Island accent at the front of the store while I quietly slipped out through the in door.

The next day, I went back at 11:00 am after shoveling snow and found myself the only person in the whole place with the aisles perfectly stocked with all the food I could ever want.

Saturday was a weird day like that, with all the gray, cold, humid anticipation of an impending blizzard. Like a low-humming electricity. After the supermarket fiasco, I had some lunch, took a nap, then headed south to the gym, and to get a haircut before Christmas as I was getting shaggy. I was also hoping to snag a free bottle of wine, which the Russian barber I go to down near 30th Avenue has given me the past two years when I’ve gone there just before the holidays. No wine this time … guess things are tight for the old barber. But he was glad to see me, as he always is, calling out “Hello, ult friendt” and waving. He has a younger Asian guy working with him now on Saturdays in place of his son, he of the 80s metal mullet. But I always let the old man cut my hair if no one else is there, and the place was empty.

I’ve never owned a small business in a city, so I guess this happens all time, but a guy walked in off the street selling shit. Previously, I’ve seen two different guys come in with a suitcase filled with porn DVDs, which the mulleted son waded through and came out with a handful each time. This guy was selling scissors – barber’s scissors in particular, which are a lot more expensive than I thought. The guy was asking $90.00 for a particular pair, with the old man barking out, “Eh, I can get those for $50 from my normal guy, go on, get out.” The younger Asian guy seemed more open to this guy’s wares, as the salesman was Asian, too, but not much of a salesman. After about 15 minutes, the old guy told him he’d go as high as $55 or nothing, so the guy said, $70 is as low as I can go, and the barber just waved his hands and said, “Be gone.” He had tried those $90 clippers on me and said, “Not bad, but no better than what I already got for $50.”

So, the old guy finished me off. I always feel his belly pressing against my shoulder, a rotund older guy who likes being rotund, and laughing. I could somehow sense that small sadness that he couldn’t give me a free bottle of wine after the cut – I didn’t ask because I knew it could be embarrassing for him. So I said, see you in February, which I will, and left him to wait out the day while everyone hid because of the flurries just then starting. Man, that place is just a good-sized room with three barber chairs, a full-length wall mirror, a sink to wash hair, and a bathroom for the workers and patrons. The guy’s made his living there! Years, kids, grandkids … all made possible by this little room he’s had going since the 70s.

I had a sick iPod all weekend. Don’t even ask. When those things fuck up, they make your life a living hell. I won’t get into specifics, but let’s just say it’s another instance of “never take the advice of internet nerds who make out that Methodology X is easy as pie and the obvious solution to all your problems.” My bad. I basically had to wipe my iPod clean, take it back to factory settings (i.e., going from nearly 18,000 tracks to none) and rebuild it from the iTunes library on my hard drive. Losing the Playlists, too, which I use constantly, but I’ve had a surprisingly easy time rebuilding those, so all was not lost. Just made hellish for a good few hours Friday through Sunday. As I tried to finish off the last vestiges of a very bad sinus problem that had me stoned on Dayquil the whole time, feeling like a methadone addict. Shit, what a weekend.

About the only good part was shoveling snow, which, like mowing lawn, raking leaves or just sweeping up, I take some simple, deep pleasure in that I can’t fully explain. Enjoyed the hell out of it, even with my landlord banging on the window and instructing me to only cut a foot-wide path on the sidewalk for people to pass. I do a lot of walking in New York. The only thing worse than those lazy pricks who cut the foot-wide path on their sidewalks after a snowstorm are the pricks who don’t shovel at all. I just can’t do that. I knew all she was going to do was bang on the window and carp. That she wouldn’t rush out and stop me, wouldn’t even open up the door and yell, so I just did what I always do, the right thing, which was to shovel out as much of the sidewalk as I could, including the long path down the side, which she was motioning not to do at all. Christ … makes me wonder what went on before I moved here, and how much people must have cursed her after a snowstorm if this is how her property was handled.

You got to put out for people after a storm. No two ways around it. I know I feel good when I go down a sidewalk when someone has done what I do, which is wipe it clean and make it seem like nothing ever happened here, and the hour or two of work was something you need not worry about. You won’t win any medals, but sane people will remember.

Of course, I say all this knowing some bastard let his dog shit on the clean sidewalk this morning, and another bastard shoveled a few feet of snow onto the sidewalk along the side of the house while cleaning out his four-wheel drive piece of shit that technically shouldn’t need any sort of shoveling done around it. But such is life in Queens, in New York City in general. The bastards will always be here, and you do what you can to negate their influence.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Letter Excerpts

Well, caught with my pants down again! End of the month crept up on me, away for a few days, eating like a horse in the country, and before you know it, it's November 30th.

Here's what I'll do to round out this one. I stumbled upon a folder of old letters I've written to various people. By "old" I mean early to mid-9os, when I had access to a computer and was probably just getting used to MS Word, thus I managed to salvage some of these from various floppy discs. Before that, we're talking handwritten letters, and I photocopied none of them, which is good, because most of them were some of the most half-assed, embarrassing love notes anyone's ever written, some of the most truly desperate shit you would ever be bound to read. If I could go back in a time machine, I would seriously kick my own ass from the age of, say, 21 to 28.

But, here's some snippets of stuff that caught my eye. Makes no sense, may be a silly read, but could be some fun stuff along the way, too.

I must say, out of all the tapes I make for people, 70's one-hit wonders or pop tapes are always my favorites. I think people make the mistake of looking at their deep teenage years as a time to remember "their" music. Nah -- for me it was my childhood leading into my early teens. That's the music that sticks with me, that haunts me, that uncovers certain emotions and situations that go a long way to describing who I am. As a "deep" teenager, i.e. the late 70's early 80's, I'd be hung up on stuff like Cheap Trick and The Clash. Not bad stuff, but it doesn't seem to mean as much to me. I find myself buying 80's collections every few months, but that's more for a kick. Rhino hit the bull's eye with their mammoth 70's pop collection -- a milestone, and I've also partaken of many of their "Soul Hits of the 70's" series, although not nearly as much. Stuff like this does represent a tremendous service to the listener. Until this stuff came out, the only connection I had to these songs were dusty and broken 45s in the basement. My brother M was a singles man -- he had hundreds -- literally every song on this tape, and an amazing majority of the songs listed in the "Have a Nice Day" series. With each one, he'd get out his special "M Repsher" address sticker he had sent away for and put it on the label, thus making it worthless for collectors. (He had more than a few early 70's Beatles solo records that fall into this category, with the split and full apples on the label -- oh well.) Unfortunately, 45s being what they were, and kids being who they were, these records were scratched and beat to shit within a matter of months. We took shitty care of them, and almost as bad care of our albums.


Greetings from the ghost of Christmas past, yeh cancerous little gobshite.

It’s me, Bill Repsher, back from the dead, or should I say back from the living, to rain bad tidings and gloom upon that netherworld of lost and doomed souls otherwise known as P____ & S______. To save you from professional embarrassment, I’ve refrained from placing my name anywhere on the outside of this envelope. I thought about putting “Ted Kozinsky, c/o Montana Federal Correctional Facility” on the outside, but that’s not a very wise idea, especially considering that P_______ is really ripe for this sort of thing.

I’d imagine I’m persona non grata around that joint, that if I showed up unexpectedly for a unscheduled lunch appointment with our man B_____, I’d have a few of those guys with walkie talkies in the lobby looking to practice their Tiger Schulman karate moves on me. And I dig that – for once in my life, I had the chance to nail a total bastard in public, and I took it. My only regret is that they couldn’t have published my five-page, single-spaced diatribe I sent to B_____ privately the same day, and that it couldn’t have been The New York Times instead. For what it’s worth, and I know it’s very little, I hope the man looks out a rain-streaked window on a particularly bad day, and some of the issues I dredged up in that letter play on the fringes of his warped mind. That’s all I ask. Even Satan wept when he saw Jesus walking alone through the fires of hell.

Enclosed please find a load of Irish Sounding Shite I threw together recently. Knowing you are a connoisseur of music from the isles, and that you may have known more than a few of these musicians personally, I figured you’d enjoy having a copy sent your way. It may well be preaching to the converted, but it sure beats preaching to a bunch of mean-spirited pricks throwing eggs and tomatoes at you.

Keep on smoking, poster boy for electronic voice boxes. Allow me to say that of all the people I have worked with, from ex-cons and white supremacist in various factory stints to blue blood Wasps from Westchester County who couldn’t get electrons shot through their anuses, that among this sad troop of misguided souls known as my lifelong coworkers, you were definitely one of my favorites, a true character, like some updated pervert from a Dickens novel. I can picture you giving lung cancer to Tiny Tim as he sat in the corner piping, “God bless us one and all.” You’d smoke that gimpy little bastard to death. Frankly, I’d have spent more time around you, but I’d probably be in an oxygen tent right now gasping, “That bald-headed prick Yul Brenner was right.”

I’ll be thinking of you when I’m vomiting in my green plastic derby on St. Patrick’s Day. Long may you run.

Oh – and fuck Bob Geldof.


I wouldn't say I think what you do is a waste of time. What I do at work is a waste of time -- but I'm getting paid well for it, and I'm supporting myself on it. I'd say the things you're doing for free are a lot more honorable than what I'm getting paid for. But, damn, A____, what are you doing? I'd understand if you had sugar daddies back home bank-rolling your existence, but how are you living? How do you do it? What I'm questioning -- because I'm honestly at a loss -- is how you seem to be getting by with no visible means of support. I'd be jealous, if I weren't under the impression that you must be near broke 100% of the time. I've been there -- a few times, the last being when I decided to temp right in the middle of one of the worst recessions to hit this country. I was down to about $300, with no work coming in, and I didn't feel like working anymore, period. It didn't feel good. A few weeks later, the jobs started picking up, and then I landed the job at the ad agency that kept me in the green for the following three years. That's as close as I got to going under, and with a college education and a fair amount of street smarts, I felt like a fool for letting myself go that far.


You look like a fucking gangster! The black leather coat, the shorter hair – your face has grown more character, you look real Italian now. When I first saw you, I didn’t know if I should say hello or reach for my wallet. Which is good, if you ask me – I’ve learned that having the power to physically intimidate people in some way is an effective tool in staying alive, especially in the city. I’ve had people tell me I’ve spooked them just by the way I walk up to them, but I’m sure not aware of it.


So I find it’s good not to get too hung up on one’s life direction. I live in a town filled with neurotic people who let such things blow their minds and either turn them into freakish trolls, or send them to psychoanalysts who get rich for basically being bartenders without alcohol and a loud jukebox to contend with. Everyone I know seems to have some grievous life crisis going on. Some for real (a friend back home going through an ugly divorce that involves kids), some imagined (another friend in California who’ll call at three in the morning to tell me he’s going bald). My only crisis is that I’m not doing exactly what I want to do, and I haven’t whipped myself into the proper state of righteous indignation to draw lines and make it happen. I’ve grown old enough to know that life rolls along no matter what you do, whether you appreciate every second or try to throw it all away, it goes on. And when you go, it goes on without you. (All right, so I stole those last two lines from a coffee cup.) I like the way I’m turning out -- most days I feel I can handle anything. If there’s one thing I’m acutely aware of, it’s that I’ve made a promise to myself to always live like I did as a child -- not to take things too seriously, and to treat everyone with the respect they deserve. And New York has taught me not to panic -- you live here, and you either learn that implicitly, or you never learn it at all. For most people, this is panic central, and I don’t know why these people just don’t up and move.

I’ve thought of doing that myself. I’ve been in the Bronx too long. It’s not a terrible place -- I’ve lived there around seven years and have no scars, war stories or police reports to show for it. But in a lot of ways, it’s very isolating, because people are afraid to visit me there, and I can’t blame them. I think people see me as somebody who wants to be an outsider. No -- I just want reasonable rent. I may move just because I’m getting the urge to have a relatively normal life living around white people again. (The only way my life is abnormal now is that I live in a place where no one else is white. If a black man who lived around white people told me he was sick of white people, I’d know exactly what he was talking about and wouldn’t take it personally.) I think every New Yorker spends half his day thinking, “Man, it’s time I left.” We’ll see what develops -- I haven’t gotten myself tied down yet, although I did have a pretty strange date last Friday which I won’t comment on.


I don’t know what you’ve gathered of my childhood from that big story and things I’ve told you about. It was a strange time. When I was, say, eight years old, there were probably around 15 kids between one and four years older than me, around 10 the same age, and around 10 more kids four years or younger. Right around 40 kids all told -- this was in a small town of 500 people -- an outrageous number of kids. We ran around like wild dogs -- adults couldn’t wield too much control over us. Luckily, they didn’t really have to, because most of us were raised by fairly strong-handed parents, but there were also a few wild dog kids, like LC, who served a few years in jail a while back for drunk driving and running down two small children one Sunday morning, and Tommy One-Nut, a member of the Warlocks who recently died when he ran his Harley over the high side of a rail one Friday night back in July. We played sports constantly in the schoolyard right next door to our house. Every single day -- all day during the summer. And at night we played this game called Jailbreak, an off shoot of Hide and Seek.

Basically, we were the tail end of the Baby Boom, and we were all over the place. There just aren’t too many kids back there these days, and the ones who are seem strange -- they don’t indulge in team sports, maybe because there aren’t enough kids to get good games going. I was raised in a totally different place from these kids, although the physical environment hasn’t changed much. Not many of my “kids” showed up at the block party -- I put kids in quotes, because I’m 31, and everyone else is either in his mid-30’s or late 20’s -- not exactly kids anymore.

Those guys still live around town -- J, our neighbor JB, GB, a goat-like human who will eat anything -- he’s responsible for some of the most foul, eye-watering farts I’ve ever smelled. His worst was after an all-night drunk with J and JB. G was in the back seat, and he made a strange sound. After a moment or two, J noticed a rotten egg smell. JB smelled it and vomited out the window -- he had to bolt from the car, as did J, at a red light. When they got back, GB was laughing his ass off. J asked G if he had burped or farted, and G mumbled, “I don’t know.”

We managed to have a great time talking about the vicious, bloody football games we used to have back then. (Once, a kid from a neighboring town had his ear ripped off, and I can clearly recall DT doing a full, unintentional split on wet grass, me getting a bloody nose and going home with a white shirt turned completely red down the front, and Z getting his nose broken and having two black eyes for weeks afterwards -- weird, nasty stuff.)

But the real kicker was running into JC, LC’s kid brother. JC is three years older than me, LC is around six years older, and the oldest brother MC is eight years older. MC’s famous because he turned down a minor league pitching contract to marry his girlfriend. LC’s famous because he was psychotic -- the kid scared everyone. He was about six feet tall and probably weighed around 160 lbs. -- a skinny, wiry guy, but muscled like a greyhound. The guy never worked out, and he had a body like an olympic athlete. Actually, he did heavy amounts of drugs, smoke, drank and abused his body in every way possible and had a body like an olympic athlete. Top this with a truly maniacal, criminal attitude, and you have one scary motherfucker. He had a weird, nasty look in his eye, even if he liked you.

While JC inherited some of LC’s rough edges, he was always a very effeminate kid. So it should have been no surprise to me that he’s out-of-the-closet gay and brought his partner to the picnic. Mindblowing, Daniel in the Lion’s Den stuff -- this took real guts. He was smart enough not to camp it up -- basically, if you didn’t know JC’s history, you’d say there goes two guys who must be related. JC does have a slight effeminate lisp and one of those “not an ounce of fat, sunshine” perfectly-toned bodies many gay guys seem to favor. But he still puts out those spooky LC vibes.

I remember when we were growing up, girls in town would practice to be cheerleaders while we played baseball. JC would start out playing baseball, but sooner or later, he’d break away and start leading the girls in their cheers. If anyone would make fun of him, he’d come over and kick the shit out of him -- I know, he did it to me once and beat me until I didn’t want to get up.

My childhood is filled with all kinds of incidents like that. It would have been a kick to go over some of them with the guys. I know everyone at the block party had as good a time as I did -- hopefully that will spur someone on back there to arrange some kind of reunion. I realize now that those kids I grew up with were just as, if not more, influential on me as my high school and college friends. I can’t lie to those guys, or pretend I’m something I’m not -- we go all the way back to our very beginnings. I think high school and definitely college presented an escape from the people we thought we were. We could go somewhere else, make new friends, act differently, pick up new interests. But the guys I grew up with -- they’ll be able to point out good and bad things about my character that may not be obvious to people who’ve met me down the road. I think it was absolutely necessary to leave them behind -- there were a lot of bad things going on back then, too, kids getting caught up in drugs, and just a general “Lord of the Flies” type attitude that was spooky and mean-spirited at times. But to go back and be able to see these people again in a totally new light, yet still the same in so many ways -- it’s a mind-blowing experience.


I’m sitting here tonight, Ms. G, listening to pop music and tossing around ideas on the laptop. When I got home tonight, I could smell my laundry on the drying rack I put over the radiator – a wonderful smell, clean and boyish. It’s good to know the things I wear smell like that – makes me want to toe that hard, fragrant line. Now that’s discipline! I’ve been told I still smell like a boy – and I know that smell, I catch it sometimes, a weird, clean smell, like a kid who’s just worked up a light sweat playing baseball, but his clothes are clean, so both sides come together and make this boy smell. So long as I don’t smell like shit, B.O. or heavy cologne, I’m doing all right. I tend to be an extremely clean person.


I can’t accept that philosophy. I think that’s why I’ve fallen out with AS, although I used the smoke screen of her getting all weird back in January about that time I called up late to go out for lunch. Regardless of how smart she is, she’s got herself into the mindset. I’ve never met her parents, but I can tell you they must be decent people from the suburbs, working towards some defined goal, a nice house and kids, the whole deal. She wants those things, which I understand and appreciate, but she also wants to blaze her own trail in business. Those two worlds aren’t going to peacefully coexist. I think she knows that, and the kind of guys she sets herself up with have to fit into that neat little picture. Sometimes I get the impression she wants to trash the whole business thing and just walk around some big house, giving her kids weird names and trying to live some way of life that doesn’t exist.

What a turnaround from the sorority girl who cut loose five nights a week and must have done her weight in guys. I see too many weird conflicts in her. We’ve all got them (I call them paradoxes when I want to be nice), but hers expose a little too much of a conniving mind. Conniving towards positive goals, but conniving nonetheless. I think she’s a good-hearted person, but I also think she’s going to have some sort of breakdown before she’s 40, where all these things come to a head, and she sees what everyone sees sooner or later -- there’s no way out. Every action will have positive and negative effects. There’s always a certain amount of shit to take. You may not get what you want, and if you actually get what you want, it won’t be what you thought it was. I don’t trust people who don’t understand that, and it seems that as people get older, they pick up on it real quick, or never pick up on it at all.

There’s no way out -- I like that concept. It makes you take responsibility for the way things are, and makes you realize it’s pointless to sit around pining for someone else’s apparently “better life.” We have no better lives than the ones we live. There’s no way out -- make what you have work. And if it doesn’t work, fuck it -- park it on the side of the road and walk away. I wish I could go back to high school and give that as a speech -- hey, kids, if you’re thinking high school’s over, you’ve just walked out of prison and now you’re free, I’ve got some news you might want to hear ...

But I do recall the end of high school as being a major relief. College was another story -- I recognized that was it for that way of life -- having friends around all the time, getting bombed in the middle of the week, having days where you only had one class and all kinds of time to play around with. College was a kick -- I have good memories of it, and I don’t ever want to go back (Dewey Beach, Dewey Beach). I guess it would still be possible to have that lifestyle, a lot of people I know have no qualms about hanging out until two in the morning on a work night. But that shit just wipes me out anymore, I can’t do it. Give me a good night’s sleep instead. Good bowel movements, a good night’s sleep and an occasional roll in the hay -- the rest is only window dressing.


I think I ended our situation because it felt like a job to me. We weren’t going anywhere. Maybe I filled some small role in your life, but I never had the feeling it was anything more than that. That gets tiresome, especially when you see possibilities in someone. And as you know, we let that cat drag from the bumper for more than a few blocks. It wasn’t easy drawing a line and saying, “This has to end.” But I think that moment was when I finally started to concern myself with the things I wanted, and to act accordingly. Call me a little boy for cancelling the whole party, but what else was I supposed to do? In terms of patience, I ran that well dry a few times. I did learn a lot about what it means to love someone, and I learned that I was willing to stick to my guns and see people for what they are (as opposed to what I want them to be). And I learned to walk away.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

9/11: Songs That Got "Us" Through

Back when large CDs stores existed, there was a certain kind of “various artists” CD I’d always notice in the Jazz section. Who knows, maybe this held true when vinyl albums ruled, but I just never noticed (because I never bought any records that were even remotely associated with jazz). This type of music was related more to Big Band, which most stores recognized as a subset of Jazz.

But I’d notice, and eventually buy a few of, these CDs that were entitled something like Songs that Got Us Through World War II. Or World War I. Sometimes even The Korean War. The concept was to note Big Band songs that pertained specifically to the war: “White Cliffs of Dover,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “G.I. Jive,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company C,” etc. And there would be songs that weren’t specifcally about the war, but had a connotation of linking the song to the experience: “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” come to mind. Millions of people were away from home, thus a lot of songs got written about what that felt like, with the very real understanding that they may never come home again.

I noticed in the Pop/Rock section, the few CDs I saw about the Vietnam War weren’t positioned that way – the title would usually include reference to Vietnam, but no mention of “getting us through.” That war wasn’t viewed sentimentally. Glen Miller and The Andrew Sisters, or their 60s equivalents (were there any?) did not write songs specifically about the war experience. Songs that were specifically written about the war experience back then were generally by younger artists, who clearly were not feeling sentimental over friends and family sent overseas, but whose main message seemed to be: “Let’s get the fuck out of there.”

Now, most large stores have very small CD sections, and behemoths like Tower and HMV, where I’d find these CDs in their huge aisles, are long gone. I haven’t been in an indie CD store in eons either, although a handful still exist in NYC. But it got me thinking, forget about Vietnam, there were no Songs That Got Us Through 9/11 collections either.

And that was for a number of reasons. Personally, my biggest one was simple: no songs got me through 9/11. I was emotionally numb on 9/11 as I walked home over the 59th Street Bridge and watched hours of the horrible TV footage like the rest of the world did, even though I saw everything but the first plane go in from the 35th floor of an office building about six miles north of there that morning. Fucking numb. Followed shortly by enraged … a feeling that has surely let up since then, but that’s the one that still sticks with me the most.

No, a few days later, as I’d ride the subway with my MP3 player (pre-iPod, using the sturdy Creative Nomad 30 GB Zen Jukebox, I could feel certain songs cutting through the haze. You have to realize, it wasn’t a situation of everything snapping back to normal once we could all go back to work later that week. It took months for the lower part of Manhattan to open up again. The smell of what happened, burning debris of all sorts, hung over the city like a pall for weeks afterwards. People were constantly on edge, expecting a second wave of attacks at any time, particularly on the subway. Everywhere you walked in Manhattan, there were mimeographed and color-copied photos of the missing. Less than two months later, a plane crashed in the Far Rockaways, on its way to Puerto Rico, killing dozens, and I recall the sickly feeling of “here we go again” that morning. (That was determined an accident, but I still have my doubts.)

Once music started making sense to me again, probably by about 9/18 or so, it really helped me along. I’d like to note a few of those songs here now, and figure out why they worked. There are no “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” type songs here. There are no songs that were even remotely traditional hits of any sort. I was heavily into the indie scene at the time, thus was listening to that music the most, and that music was and is like a secret handshake. And I’ve never warmed up to the secret handshake method of music appreciation, i.e., I’m no hipster. I was raised with huge bands playing arenas and everyone knowing the hits. But there came a point in the late 80s into the 90s where the kind of music I liked was only happening with indie bands, and I was getting older, thus found myself truly repulsed by Top 40, which makes sense. I’ve listened to a lot of great indie music over the years, but it’s not the music of grand gestures. These people are not rock stars. They don’t shape generations. Which is good and bad. But most of the time, most people won’t know who in the hell I’m writing about! Nevertheless, these songs got me through that horrible time period when very little else could reach me.

(And for the record, at the time, I was extremely leery of any talk of “the new sincerity” and “how this has changed us” – leery to the point of derision. And I was right. Nothing changed after that, that much I can see clearly almost a decade later. If anything, New Yorkers tend to be even more vacuous, empty and insincere. It’s just the way a lot of people are here, which was true long before 9/11 and will be true long after. Skyrocketing real estate values since then, too, have done wonders in terms of injecting the city with new waves of greedy vampires totally lacking in any senses of soul or empathy. You need to live around people like this to understand how genuinely unappealing a lot of these folks are.)


“Under the Western Freeway” by Grandaddy. This was the first piece of music that got through to me after 9/11; in my mind, it sounded exactly like 9/11. Or at least touched on that feeling I had of that stark footage of the streets down there just after the second building collapse, where all was silence, save for the gentle beeping of firefighter’s emergency signal devices. That gray cloud of dust covering everything. Unnatural silence for a city– it only gets that quiet with snow falling late at night. In the song, you can hear a metallic grinding in the background. That’s pretty much how I felt for days afterwards.

“Protected from the Rain” by Grandaddy. Grandaddy made a lot of sense to me that fall. I had liked them before, but so much of the band’s feel was geared directly towards that feeling of mild suffering most people were going through. (I’ve since realized these sort of enormous cultural events are just that, unless you know/knew someone directly involved. Took it much harder at the time, but it was mild compared to my Dad passing on three years later.) Lyrics sound absolutely senseless, but again, that rolling, electronic sound these guys had was perfect, like a lullaby for adults.

“Don’t Be Crushed” by Hawksley Workman. If there’s one theme that I can see with most of the songs that registered with me then, it was that quiet, healing quality. Which is odd, because I was about as angry as I’ve ever been in my life: a low, steady rage that I felt for months afterwards. I had to find a way to counter-balance that with something, so music seemed to be it. Beautiful song by Hawksley Workman. Lyrics get a bit disingenuous in places, and a little too close to home with the airplane imagery, but the message driven home in the title was something I could relate to at the time. Most older rock fans will point to a song like this as a reason for not liking indie music. The music is there – it sounds expansive, the work of a talented artist. But the lyrics are so idiosyncratic, and the singer not fitting into that traditional “rock star” voice, that they can’t help but reject it. They rightly recognize a song like this could never be a hit, despite having the potential to be one. And that’s probably why I like indie music. You lose that huge generational appeal kids were raised with in the 60s and 70s, but you still gain something worthwhile.

“I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” by Antony & the Johnsons. Antony is one strange guy – looks like an alien, assume he’s gay, and wrapped in a cloak of gentility akin to Bryan Ferry’s bigger ballads. It’s a bit of a shtick, but it works because the guy is a genuinely talented singer and songwriter. “Dead Boy” is one of his better songs, and touched on that theme of constant death floating around the city at the time. I saw Antony perform at a local PS on the Lower East Side that December, and this song brought the house down, as he sang with these odd images on a large screen behind him that looked like a city in foggy ruins … which is exactly how NYC felt at the time. (My audience experience was greatly decreased by the gay couple openly making out in front of me. Audience was mostly gay, which was fine by me, but these guys were going at it like two virgins pulling their moves from an Idiots Guide to Gross Public Displays of Affection. Don’t think that scenario is an issue many places in the world! Besides, what kind of people would make out to a song like this ... vampires?)

“Cybercar” by East River Pipe. East River Pipe is really a one-man band named Fred Cornog who’s put out album after album of home-made recordings heavy on keyboards and synthesizers. As noted in an interview I did with him for in 1999, the guy had been through a lot and had found a way to make his life work through music. “Cybercar” had that sound of emptiness and hurt following 9/11. I’m noticing with all these songs, they’re not just simple rock ballads in that traditional Carpenters/Bread way, but close. In this case, there’s that flurry of electric guitar that works through the song. These are more like disjointed ballads where something has been knocked off its axis … again, this is how the world felt for a few months the fall and winter of 2001.

“Mellow (Part 1)” by Mellow. Mellow was (is?) a French pop band with a real yen for 60s style Britpop. I lost track of them after this album, save to note they did the soundtrack for the indie flick, CQ. I must have been coming out of the funk when this track hit me because it’s a fairly happy sounding song. I didn’t have much need for happy-sounding music in the immediate aftermath … wasn’t exactly walking on sunshine.

“Suffering” by Satchel. Painful to admit I was turned onto this song from the awful movie, Beautiful Girls, featuring a barely teenage Natalie Portman and a bunch of then twentysomething name actors stumbling through a bad script. I take it “Suffering” is about suffering, but really can’t tell from the lyrics, which sound mostly nonsensical. But what a melody and singer, like something from the Stones late 60s heyday. When you can put out a song that gets into the vibe of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," you're in a good place. It surely felt right in that dark time.

“Last Night on Earth” by The Mekons. One of my favorite bands, The Mekons, have always struck me as a bunch of well-meaning assholes. I recall Jon Langford, the band’s leader, making some truly stupid statements about the state of America as the Iraq War started. (He called it the worst time ever in American history … he wasn’t an American … has lived in the Chicago area for roughly a decade … and seemed to have no knowledge of little things like slavery, numerous plagues, a fucking Civil War, radical mistreatment and genocide of Indians, working conditions before unions and child labor laws, two World Wars that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans, centuries under British rule, but never mind all that.)

I forgave Langford because he has a great band, and “Last Night on Earth” was archetypal Mekons: “Life is a debt/That must someday be paid/Born when we were born/Left us helpless and self obsessed.” Amen to that. The song had nothing to do with 9/11 directly, but seemed to address that more real sense of people getting back to the less dramatic emptiness of their lives as compared to what had just passed. This was also a “life is getting better” song from that time, although better in that Mekons “world is fucked” sort of way. You have to love The Mekons for grasping humor from the darkness of life.

Seanchai – Gates of Hell. This was the only song specifically written about 9/11 that I can handle. I took a lot of heat at the time for noting in print what an awful song “Let’s Roll” by Neil Young was. It still is! His heart was in the right place … but, dear Lord, what an awful song. The small handful of those big-name artist songs related to 9/11 were. (“Into the Fire” by Springsteen does work, give him credit.) Seanchai was a NYC celtic band led by a former member of Black 47, and also, I gather, a former NYC policeman. Thus, he had insight to what was going on in the weeks after 9/11 in terms of endless funerals for cops and firemen featuring empty coffins, as there was often no body left to bury. I’d wager anyone living near a cemetery in the tristate area must have been hearing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes a few times a week through early November. This song captures it all beautifully, particularly noting how many Americans of Irish lineage died that day, just by doing their jobs. If there’s one song you pull out of this piece, make it this one.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

These Are the Days

Well, the Philadelphia Phillies came a long way this year, all the way to the World Series, only to be out-played by the New York Yankees. Never going to be a Yankees fan, nor a Mets fan, nor a fan of any New York sports team. I firmly believe the teams you follow as a kid are the ones you stick with as an adult. (I really tried being a Yankess fan when I lived in the Bronx, but these were the Deion Sanders years of the early 90s, i.e., they were pretty bad, and my heart just wasn't in it, although there was plenty of leg room in the upper decks of Yankee Stadium back then.)

They had a ticker-tape parade for the Yankees on Friday in the Canyon of Heroes down by City Hall. For one day, it became the Canyon of Guidos. I could see them on NY1 when I woke up in the morning, already tipsy at seven in the morning, grown men wearing baseball jerseys and gold chains, Yankees hats set slightly askew in that dickhead style made popular by hiphop artists in the 90s, baying into the camera like senseless hounds at a full moon. I saw them on the subway train, too, going to and from work. Butch-looking guys in Yankees jerseys and sweatshirts. A lot of mustaches. Surprisingly, a lot of teenage kids, many with that surly “Uncle Vinny has a union job lined up for me when I flunk out of high school” look: a real strange, unfriendly vibe. People who normally don’t ride a subway train. You could tell by their pose.

But who am I kidding? If they were to throw a parade in downtown Philadelphia, I’m convinced the participants would be exactly the same, save the South Philly contingent of guys whose lives appear to be unironic glorification of Italian-American stereotypes. All that would change would be the team jerseys. Yankees fans strike me as being no more or less boorish than any grown man who would go around in a team jersey carrying on like a mental patient in the streets when his team wins. Fun, to a point, but, buddy, it gets strange and tired after awhile.

There used to be a white kid who lived in the apartment house across the street from me here, actually the kid and his mother: Fat Johnny and his White Trash Mother. At least that’s how I referred to them. Astoria used to be much more gritty; we’re talking less than a decade ago. That building now houses nearly all affluent white folks paying what I’d guess are outrageous rents – the only things that remain the same are the Mexican super and his gigantic family living in the ground-floor apartment, and the decrepit state of the building.

Johnny was a chunky little white kid with blonde hair, a real loudmouth, too, you could always hear him in the street. I note his skin color because he was caught in that unfortunate wave of 90s kids who were convinced they were ghetto gangstas, when they were just creepy white kids with no identity and a repulsively moronic view of what it meant to black. I don’t like using words like “white trash” (because I don’t call downtrodden black folks “niggers”), but, boy, his Mom had it written all over her. She was permanently stuck in the second-floor window of one of those apartments, calling down to Johnny to tell him to shut up. You could often hear her phone conversations from the street, most of which concerned her hassling with the Duane Read pharmacy to have welfare cover payments for various medications. She never seemed to move from that spot – you could see her bulbous face, hovering behind the screen, like a priest in a confessional booth.

She seemed like a nice person in general, but then again, she gave the world Fat Johnny. Fat Johnny’s Dad would come around once or twice a year – please see above references to Italian-American stereotypes. Just this roly-poly loudmouth of a guy, you could tell he was no good, yelling at his ex-wife while he picked Johnny up and dropped him off. And he’d always yell when he left in that thick Queens accent: “Yo, Johnny, hang tough! Hang tough, Johnny! Yo, Johhhnnnyyyy! Hang tough, Johnny!” This would go on for a good five minutes. And he’d finally leave. Not every weekend like a good father with visitation rights would demand. I can recall that guy showing up maybe a handful times in the roughly five years they lived over there. Thus, Johnny’s anger with the world, or at least the roots of it.

What’s notable about all this? Every time the Yankees would play, and they won, Fat Johnny would hang his gigantic head out their second-floor apartment window and bay out the “Let’s go, Yankees!” chant, for minutes on end. Every single time. If you recall, the Yankees were pretty damn good in the late 90s, thus Johnny had many opportunities to serenade the neighborhood. It was like the “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” scene in Network … replaced with an angry 11-year-old kid with a voice like a braying jackass.

Have you already read between the lines that I couldn’t stand Fat Johnny? I’ve always had a hard time with trashy white folks: I take it personally. Come from roughly the same socio-economic class. Feel a radical difference between working class white folks raised in rural and urban areas … notice a much worse edge on the urban variety. Or maybe it’s just New York and the 718 vibe … although I suspect I’d be catching the same vibe in Philly, or Baltimore, or Boston. Then again, these days, I go home, and it seems like the bar keeps dropping lower on the white working class and how they carry themselves, all those 90s kids raised on grunge and Limp Bizkit coming into their 20s, and man, they’re not changing or growing one iota, just like all those hair metal assholes from the late 80s who still seem to be hair-metal assholes in their early 40s now. People have just developed this innate, sickly desire to go through life with their teenage predilections and tastes, which seems like a radical error to me.

Don’t know when it happened, but one day, Fat Johnny and his White Trash Mother simply weren’t there anymore. I imagine their lease rolled over, and they got the “make way for the enlightened white folks with college degrees and money to burn” bumrush that so many people have gotten over the past decade. (Hell, I’ve got a college degree, and I’ll get this, sooner or later, too!) Johnny did seem to blossoming into a more normal teenager. He grew a few inches and seemed a lot less brash the last few months they were over there, so who knows, maybe that kindness I could sense fleetingly in his mother was starting to shine through on him.

Your average Yankees fan? Hardly. Most fans of a team, you don’t see them in the stadiums. Think about it. It costs a fortune to see any pro sport on a regular basis these days. You will find working-class guys, especially in construction, getting season tickets and such to their favorite football teams. But most people in those stadiums are burning serious money to be there routinely. Obviously, the crowd grows more gritty the farther away you get from the playing field, but even those nosebleed seats don’t come cheap.

No. Most sports fans, you never seem them on TV. They’re on the other end, watching the TV. A stadium at its largest for, say, college football, will hold just over 100,000 people. There are millions of people watching those games. Frankly, I would never pay to see a pro football or baseball game. Every now and then, I luck into a free ticket to a baseball game, but never football, nor basketball or hockey, which seem even more expensive. It just aint worth it, and if I’m really watching the game, you can’t beat the TV at home, not in a bar or restaurant.

Guys like Fat Johnny, or those vaguely creepy guys I was seeing on the subway and streets all day Friday during that parade, while I wouldn’t call them the “real fans” they do represent a sort of silent majority of sports fans, the guys who either can’t afford to go to too many games, if any, and spend all their spare time in bars and family rooms tying one on while their team hopefully does them proud. The Yankees make them feel like winners by extension … and I can’t fault them for seeking out that sort of positive emotional identification in their lives.

I guess I’m one of them, too, although you’d have to pay me to wear a team jersey. (That seems like such a fucking childish thing to me … honestly, kids wear that sort of shit, not grown men.) I’m just as informed as any slightly above average fan and have a sense of team history going back to the early 70s (which was much stronger then thanks to baseball cards and the tons of information noted on the back of each card). I’m not one of these Ken Burns/George Will baseball fans … waiting for Morgan Freeman’s melodious voice to say something profound about Babe Ruth over a George Winston piano solo while the camera slow pans a stock black-and-white photo … fuck that shit. Guys who feel that way about baseball tend to have never played the game at all. I’m not a historian or uber-fan. I just enjoy watching the games and feel some sense of connection in my life to trace this minor passion back to my childhood.

And one thing I realized, even watching the Phillies lose this past week: these are the days for Phillies fans. Think about it. When I was a kid, the Phils truly sucked in the early part of the 70s, they got Steve Carlton, guys like Mike Schmidt, Greg "The Bull" Luzinski and Larry Bowa came up through the farm system, and they slowly changed, so that by 1976, they were a very good team. Went all the way in 1980. Lost in the World Series like they did this year in 1983. And that stretch from 1976 to 1983, in my mind, are The Golden Years (of my life) for the Phillies, filled with legendary players, back when life was good, things were easier, made more sense, etc.

But I was a kid in a small town, and it was the 70s. The Phils have been playing on a playoff-quality level since 2007, and if all goes well, should do the same next year, and a few more years to come if they can keep their core group of good players (Utley, Howard, Rollins, Victorino, Werth) intact and pick up some good pitching. They apparently have a pretty good farm system with some new names that will probably be on the team next year to hopefully add to the long list of solid regulars. It feels pretty good to be a Phillies fan right now.

And, in my mind, these are the days, now, just like they were back then. Save the players are now almost half my age. I don’t look up to them – in fact, a lot of them seem a bit weird. Jayson Werth looks like he should be wearing a sheepskin vest and screwing a girl on a rock in some heathen ceremony in the woods. Shane Victorino, the Flyin’ Hawaiian, looks like he’s about to jump out of his skin every second of the game. Cole Hamels, last year’s ace and this year’s goat, has a permanent southern Cal surfer dude smirk on his face that works real well when he’s winning, but turned sour this year. I don't know what Chase Utley has in his hair each game, but it looks like a handful of Crisco.

But they’re not the bunch of miscreants who stumbled through a losing effort in the 1993 World Series. That team seemed like a 75 Pinto shot into space like a freak comet. Guys like John Kruk at first, who hit well, but looked like he should have been playing the field with a can of Pabst in his throwing hand. And Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams on the mound, working a serious mullet, as many of the guys on that team did. From Wikipedia, a great quote from John Kruk about that team: “The previous year, noting the presence of the clean-cut Dale Murphy, Kruk himself described the team as ‘24 morons and one Mormon.’” They were in last place in 1992 and would sink back into a long malaise after that season -- which was nothing new for long-time Phillies fans.

No, right now, things are pretty good, and it’s worthwhile for me to note that. The “good old days” are never the good old days when you’re living them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Real Fear

At least once a year, usually around this time, I’ll watch The Exorcist. Along with Jaws, this movie was responsible for many childhood nightmares and fears. Jaws scared me out of the ocean the summer I saw it, when our family made its annual trip to Point Pleasant, NJ. With The Exorcist, I made the mistake of staying up late one night and watching it by myself on HBO. (Yes, HBO was around back then, in a radically different format. Showing hit movies like that, but also a lot of 70s dross, repeatedly, most of which I now own on DVD because the movies are so burned into my mind.)

I watch now not just for the scare tactics, but the actual stories that go along with the movie. I love the side story of Father Damien Karras, who has his own shit going on besides dealing with this demon. He’s a trained psychiatrist, who went into the priesthood and finds himself middle-aged, burned-out at his job (counseling other priests), questioning his own faith and racked with guilt because he’s living away from his aging/ailing mother, who lives alone in a rundown New York City neighborhood. (It looks like Hells Kitchen when he goes to visit her … brilliant, gritty display of how far New York had slipped in the 1970s). She falls deathly ill, he goes to visit, she rebuffs him because he wasn’t there to help her in any sense, his uncle makes him feel like an asshole because he didn’t use his psychiatric background to make more money and ensure his mother wouldn’t wind up in a grubby city hospital ward …

This is great stuff! Father Damien is one of my favorite 70s movies characters, someone I take inspiration from, a role model of sorts. I love the scene where he confesses his lack of faith to a fellow priest … in a Georgetown bar, over beers and cigarettes, listening to the Allman Brothers on the jukebox! (Once on a messageboard, I noted how cool I though this was, only to have some Catholic nut jump on me for degrading the church. Bullshit. If anything, showing priests in that light only makes them more human and easier to understand. I had enough of that “priests are sacrosanct” nonsense from my grandmother … and we both went to a parish where our priest in the mid-late 70s was later nailed for pedophilia. Horrifying to think that if my grandmother had her way and pushed us down the altar-boy path that we would have been more open to an attack from this monster.)

But being older, something occurs to me about The Exorcist that hadn’t before. So, this demon comes along and takes over the body of this little girl. What’s the logic? Why? Let’s say this happens, everyone knows it’s happened, and everyone in her life just throws up their hands and says, “OK, let’s accept the demon, life goes on.” No locking him up in a bedroom to rattle off a vast array of special effects. Talking backwards in latin? That’s cool. Nice trick. Let’s put him on The Dinah Shore Show.

Let the demon to school. Ride the bus. Go bowling. Interact with other people. Go to McDonalds. Demon’s got to eat, too! Have a birthday party for the demon. Cake, ice cream, projectile vomiting and head spinning. Hooray!

I’d say the demon in the movie suffers from poor social skills because he’s locked up in a dark bedroom in a little girl’s body. Let him circulate. Let evil walk among us. The demon’s not such a bad guy. He just felt the need to pop into a little girl’s body for a few days to remind us all that the devil is real, as opposed to us sensing true evil exists in various “world gone wrong” scenarios that are very real, but not self evident that they are the work of a dark spiritual force. Sooner or later, the demon will get bored and go away. If a demon can do something wild like that, inhabit a person’s body, why not shoot big and go after heads of state, thus causing real evil with some surely horrific decisions? Why some powerless little girl? People are people. There is no “demon shield” around presidents and generals. It’s always struck me that true evil is ambitious, wants everyone to know how truly awful and terrifying it is. Not something we have to shake our heads about and wonder if it really exists.

The axis of fear that movie creates is based on that sense of isolation and claustrophobia, being stuck in a small, dark room with this awful thing. Let it out. Isn’t evil all around us? It would blow my mind to be on a subway train, and a little girl with yellow cat eyes would turn her head completely around and start telling me weird family secrets in my dead grandmother’s voice. Why not? Why reserve that sort of mind-bending shit for a dark bedroom?

I remember as a kid, my main fear with The Exorcist was going to bed at night (because the story took place in a child’s bedroom), rolling over, and seeing that horrible demon face inches from mine. Or raising myself up and looking out the window over my bed to see that face. I was immobile many nights because of that fear. But sooner or later, I realized, a greater fear would be to roll over and see a real person there, someone breaking into the house, you know, real shit that happens all the time, as opposed to something from a movie screen. A home intruder is a very real fear … so now I have to worry about this other-worldly shit, too, that never seems to happen to anyone I know?

Lately, I’ve been catching the show Ghost Adventurers on the Travel Channel (seems to be the same show as Ghost Hunters on Scy Fy Channel). (Edit: I've looked it up, and both shows have different teams, but it's hard to tell them apart as they're so physically similar.) It’s about a paranormal research group from Rhode Island who go around “testing” various sites infamous for paranormal activity. You know, abandoned asylums, old prisons, mansions, Indian burial grounds that are now more traditional suburban sprawl, etc.

I got no problems with the guys themselves, despite their “we’re serious, man!” demeanor that comes off like unironic Ghostbusters. Some of the shows I’ve watched, genuinely weird shit happens – unexplained noises, doors shutting by themselves, what could be voices … a few even had members of the team being visibly scratched by unseen forces.

Or at least it looked that way. At two in the morning. Filming each other in pitch blackness with final product that was clearly edited to include numerous camera shots.

And THAT’S my problem with the show. From what I understand, all the equipment these guys use – the normal video cameras, infrared cameras, heat-sensitive cameras (to pickup any type of physical warmth that an apparition might leave behind), the audio recording equipment, the electro-magnetic field sensors (to sense what could be unseen presences) – probably WORKS BETTER in broad daylight, with lots of lighting for the cameras.

They’re wandering around abandoned insane asylums at two in the morning, filming each other in less than optimal circumstances to capture any image that may appear to them, much less an other-worldly apparition. I don’t think ghosts, demons, poltergeists, or whatever, would subscribe to the concept that they can only come out and scare people at two in the morning. You hear a strange sound in that kind of environment, it might just be rats scurrying around the next empty room over. Or some stray sound that carries from a few miles away. Most of what they film and claim to be paranormal seems like questionable bullshit – whether it’s staged, or just something I’d much rather see filmed in broad daylight with real lighting so there’s no mistaking it. If they seriously wanted to film this stuff as evidence, they wouldn’t be going about it this way. Fucking high-school kids work this way – like Scoobie Doo! These guys should be riding around in a '75 Chevy Van with a talking dog.

Of course you’re going to be on-edge wandering around places like that in the middle of night. If you were a genuine scientist looking to validate or invalidate paranormal activity, you wouldn’t be going about it in such a half-assed, purposely vague manner. (I know … they’re playing up the fear factor for TV.) Try walking down a stone staircase you’ve never seen before in the middle of the night with 20 lbs. of equipment on your back and only a small camera light to guide your way … you are not going to be in a relaxed, lucid state of mind. You’re going to panic at every sound, every glint of light, every cold draft of air, etc. Regardless of whether that was a staircase where a fiend raped and strangled a five-year-old girl in 1898, or just some staircase.

And I’m having a hard time figuring why abandoned insane asylums are such horrible places, aside from kids and horror movies romanticizing their plight. I thought the gist of this whole paranormal thing was people dying/leaving the earth violently, and their troubled spirits hanging around afterwards. Of course, if this was true, lower Manhattan, after 9/11, would be wall-to-wall ghosts, day and night, thousands of them … but have there been any reported sightings down there? I’ve read of a few incidents of construction crews in Manhattans uncovering slave graveyards in their excavations … shouldn’t the spirits of those same slaves have been wandering around those apartments and office buildings scaring people for centuries afterwards, since their resting place was defiled, as we’ve seen in so many horror movies?

People have surely been abused horribly at insane asylums, but there’s a huge difference between electro-shock therapy and lobotomies, and violent death. I guess the image of crazy people in straightjackets plays on another irrational fear with people (especially younger people, at whom most of this stuff seems aimed) – loss of sanity – thus when one of these places closes down and becomes abandoned industrial zone decades later, ooga-booga, here comes the crazy ice-pick killer ghost at two in the morning, making sure to dodge the stray gangs of kids having beer bashes in the basement because it’s so fucking cool, man. An abandoned insane asylum, dude!

Whatever. You know what real horror is? Watching a loved one waste away and die. Learning someone you know has died violently. Being diagnosed with a debilitating disease. Losing huge sums of money. Child abuse. Violent crime. War. You know … real things that happen to real people every day. We have enough bad shit to ponder without silly shit like ghosts, demons and vampires entering the picture after darkness falls. If those things are real? I sure as hell haven’t seen them – then again, I’m not looking for them either. And the guys who are seem like a bunch of manipulative ass clowns, at least based on what’s shown on TV. It would seem to me evil spirits would have bigger fish to fry than making a chair move to mess with some paranormal activity expert’s head. Maniacs are stockpiling automatic weapons and ammunition to take out innocent people in schools and shopping malls … yet we still need to pump ourselves full of rollercoaster-ride fear to convince us that true evil exists?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The McDonald’s Syndrome

I drink a lot of water at work. It’s a health thing, on top of which my body heat is way up when I rush to the office every morning. A cup of hot tea? I don’t know how people do it. Even on the coldest days of winter, I feel my body running hot when I get into work. Need water. Will drink two or three 20-oz. cups at work, along with a can of soda after lunch.

I like ice with my water. Not a lot, a cube or two. Some places I’ve worked have had ice machines, the one I’m at now doesn’t. We depend on ice trays in the freezer, and the mercy of fellow coworkers filling them up when necessary. I care about the issue enough that I went out to Bed, Bath and Beyond one weekend and bought two solid Rubbermaid ice trays, as the ones we had at work were cracked and leaking. I like ice!

It’s recently come to my attention, via the ice-tray issue, that I have to deal with another crackpot coworker. Every place I’ve ever worked has had crackpot coworkers. People who aren’t necessarily bad or evil; they’re just crazy. No other way to put it. Something wrong with them. Those graceless peasants in the Transylvania night, the ones with pitchforks and torches chasing down a werewolf or Frankenstein monster? They’ve been my coworkers in so many NYC offices. Not very intelligent, easily misled, fearful … but ultimately not evil people. Wandering around the woods at two in the morning in lederhosen and straw hats, under a full moon, with faces as blank as the orb they gaze up at.

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but New York City has some of the best tap water in the world. I can vouch for this. One of the few under-rated and genuine things about living here. This is obviously because the water flows down an intricate pipeline system from much more pure reservoirs 100 miles upstate. It’s clean and tastes great. Read this report if you need any convincing.

I’m a good guy with filling up ice trays – obviously, I use a lot of ice, therefore it’s only fair that I should fill the trays when I see them empty. I’ll do this in the morning if I see a tray running low, and at night before I leave, I’ll go to the lunch room and fill up trays on my way out of the office to ensure that there’ll be fresh ice when I get in the next morning.

But lately, something weird has been happening. I’ll go into the lunch room in the morning, and the trays will be relatively full. Fine. After lunch, when I go back with my water cup, looking to get a few cubes for my daily can of soda, each of the three trays will be filled with water and nowhere near frozen: not once ice cube to be had for anyone for the rest of the work day. (Sidenote: let’s not get into the nutcases who leave bags of food in the refrigerator for weeks, sometimes to the point where the rotting stink of whatever they have in there permeates the taste of the ice cubes. Sometimes it seems like they’re leaving rotten, maggot-ridden goat’s heads in brown paper bags.)

For weeks, I was perplexed: were people really using this much ice? How could they … 36 ice cubes, gone in two hours? It didn’t make any sense. From what I’ve seen, only a handful of people use the ice trays in this place – and the state of the two trays they had was awful before I went out and bought two new ones.

This was a mystery until earlier this week. There’s a group of women who sit at the main table in the lunch room every day around 1:00 in the afternoon. Like clockwork: they’re always there, all from the same department (not mine, thankfully), usually carping and gossiping about coworkers in a way I find depressingly familiar. The vibe they put out is like head bulls in a maximum security women’s prison. It’s THEIR table and they’re going to SIT THERE and TALK SHIT on their LUNCH HOUR. All that’s missing are orange jumpsuits and a big butch girl with a mullet and spider web tattoo on her neck.

Well, the other day, I went back in shortly after 1:00 to get ice for my soda. When I did, I noticed something odd. One of the women from that group had two ice trays out on the counter. One was in the freezer, and it was full, so I cracked out two cubes, dropped them in my cup, got my soda and left. As I was leaving, I noticed this woman was cracking out the ice cubes into the sink, and then walking over to the drinking fountain on the other side of the lunch room to refill the tray with that water.

I didn’t confront her, but mystery solved. This crackpot was/is under the impression that the water from the drinking fountain is somehow better than the water coming from the tap. (Again, refer to that handy PDF file I provided above re: NYC tap water. There are actually people selling this stuff for $1.50 a bottle!) I’m wondering how she could even tell the difference! (Of course, she can’t: she’s insane.) I have noticed one difference, because I’ve had to re-fill the trays a few times from the drinking fountain when the sink was clogged. The water from the fountain tends to make for more brittle/crackable ice cubes, possibly because of whatever filter is installed on it? I don’t know, but it really makes no difference to me. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the ice cubes created from the tap. (I’ll use water from the fountain to drink only because it comes out so cold – tap never gets near as cold. They even have a water cooler next to the fountain – I guess to assuage the next level of neurotic nutcases who can’t drink from a public fountain.)

Such a minor thing, but when you’re having a ragged day at work, is it too much to ask that some mental patient doesn’t spend her time cracking out trays of perfectly good ice cubes into a sink, thus fucking over her coworkers for the rest of the day (and when it’s 90 degrees and humid in NYC …), thus ensuring that no one has ice because she has some weird, unfounded and completely idiotic phobia about NYC tap water? Lord help me if this woman ever sees me using tap water for ice cubes and makes an issue out of it – I’ll try to be civil. Some conversations in New York, the best way to end them would be to slam a butterfly net down over the other person’s head and break out the straight jacket: this is such a case.

The kicker to all this: this is an employee of the month! That’s another oddity about the work place that a few of us have noticed. The committee that chooses the employee of the month, who is honored in the monthly email newsletter, almost always chooses the most prickly, annoying, pompous, hard-to-deal-with workers as the winner. Not just that … the motherfuckers often choose themselves! Nearly each person on that committee has been employee of the month at one time or another. They nominate each other, slap each other on the back, and their strange little world spins on its crooked axis.

I’ve never had to deal with this woman directly, but the few times I have indirectly, I’ve caught vague whiffs of self importance and bad manners (both of which run rampant in my work place). The people I’ve noticed winning employee of the month the past few months, dear lord, getting help from them, in my experience, has been like pulling teeth. Granted, a lot of them have awful jobs (Accounting Dept. staff, legal assistants, I.T. drones, etc.), and they’re suffering from what I call The McDonald’s Syndrome. Simply stated, the McDonald’s Syndrome, named after the fast-food chain and its teenage employees, is when a worker who deals with awful and abusive people all day then becomes awful and abusive himself. I’d never thought of it, but the Stockholm Syndrome referred to with terrorists and their kidnapped prisoners often comes into play at work, too. Many people I’ve worked with suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, substituting upper management for terrorists and themselves for the prisoners. Sooner or later, they start thinking the same warped way, even though it in no way benefits them and they are, in fact, wage slaves afraid to leave a given position, lest they never find another. They're like Patty Hearst packing a machine gun in a bank.

But I think I need to be more concerned with McDonald’s Syndrome because, truth be told, I can see that I, too, will be suffering from it if I keep letting people like the queen of the ice-cube trays get under my skin. There are a lot of bad workers where I work. Newsflash: there always have been wherever I’ve worked! There must be some well-run, fair-minded companies out there, but I gather they must also be very small and not advertising their enlightened state of being. As with terrorist cells, you’d need numerous federal agencies working in tandem to track down these companies. Or, you could just fall into them by chance. But I’m convinced it’s virtually impossible to have a sane, well-run, fair company with anything more than 20 employees, and even then, you’re more than likely to have a few bad eggs throw in the mix to keep things interesting. This is what happens with money. When there are opportunities to make it, and lots of it, you will always attract unsavory characters, in whatever role they’re cast. It’s a given, and simple common sense to recognize as much.

You know what they didn’t tell you in high school? And surely didn’t tell you in college? That the rest of your adult work life will be exactly like high school! You don’t like high school? Bad news … most companies I’ve worked for have been just like high school. Cliques, big men on campus, weirdoes, people who pick on and humiliate others for no clear reason, geeks, jocks, cheerleaders, counterfeit authority figures … motherfucker, they’re in every place I work! College was like an oasis in comparison, and not indicative of how adult life would go in terms of working for any company. That was a highly idealized view of the world, that cost money to visualize, and I strongly suspect actually working at a college would represent an endless sea of red tape, bullshit politics and head games just as bad as you’d find in any major corporation. Still, it was nice to be pampered like that for a few years, on our little Mount Olympuses, thinking the world would spin around our philosophical musings and whimsical delights of the mind.

That shit doesn’t work in the real world. I wish it did. But just like high school, you have to figure out how you’re going to deal with ice-cube tray queens. They’re not responsible for your sense of well being, and you know if they were, they’d be pissing on it like a cow on a flat rock.