Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Fred's Manhattan Adventures

Fred and I went to Penn State together back in the mid-80s. (Not his real name – all names have been changed to protect the guilty.) Upon graduation, I putzed around the home county for a few months, then had an ill-fated detour to Venice, California that wouldn’t pan out for me. Fred immediately moved to Manhattan upon graduation and got a low-level editing job at a major women’s magazine.

I’ve lived in New York City for over 20 years now, and am willing to call my living experience “New York City.” I spent just shy of 10 years in the Bronx, and have now surpassed that time in Astoria (Queens). Have gone to work every week day in Manhattan. I know my way around, even in parts of Brooklyn, where I’ve never lived. Some Manhattanites get peeved when 718 folks refer to themselves as New Yorkers, or living in New York City. I’ve lived in New York City; that’s how the five boroughs are defined. Frankly, my living experiences in “off” neighborhoods has greatly enhanced my view of the city in ways not possible in higher-end Manhattan neighborhoods. (By the same token, I have no experience of higher-end Manhattan life, and feel fine not having it.)

My point here? Manhattin living is not what most people think it is. A lot of people move there because they feel outcast where they were living. In some cases, that's legitimate. In others, those people cast themselves out because, frankly, they don't belong anywhere, and I don't mean that as a backhand compliment. I often refer to Manhattan as The Island of Broken Toys, copping a reference to that forsaken land in the Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer TV special, filled with broken Jack in the Boxes and such.

People move there and adopt a new set of values based on every conceivable stereotype you could have about “city folk.” The worst is the mildly antagonistic attitude. People who will put forth like they’re going to hit you, but if you actually cut to the chase and hit them, you’ve just entered the pantheon of Hitler and Genghis Kahn in their world view. I don’t find that half-assed intimidation novel or endearing – it grates on me. I’ve had the pleasant experience of meeting native Manhattanites who are very down-to-earth, rational people. But something about transplants, particularly from the immediate suburbs, and their dire need to impress upon everyone how deeply “New York” they are, has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Fred wasn’t like that, and I’m guessing he still isn’t. He married a woman from Staten Island back in the early/mid 90s (can’t recall the exact year), and they moved to the Washington DC area to continue their careers in journalism and start a family. Via Fred, I got some crucial insights into both the world of journalism and life in Manhattan, as he lived there for a few years, save the brief stint where he moved out to Staten Island. The world of journalism looked like burning hell to me. The world of Manhattan looked a little better, but still wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

I believe Fred used The Village Voice to get himself into some strange roommate situations when he first moved there circa late 1986. Living with total strangers was a very collegiate endeavor, so I guess doing so with a new job in a major city wasn’t much of a stretch. All I can remember of this time period is him telling me he lived with some snotty vegetarians down near the Holland Tunnel and didn’t get along with them. It’s troubling to think that in Manhattan, you have people living for decades, sometimes their entire adult lives, in these morose roommate situations, where they live with people they don’t know, or even like, for years on end, simply because their rent is so heinous that they have no choice but to rent out a room, generally in a small two-bedroom apartment, or more often, a one bedroom, where they’ll maintain the bedroom and rent out the living room to a stranger.

All just to live in this magical place! Yeah, I know it’s bullshit. You do, too. But that’s how people live here. Or you’ll get the six girls fresh out of college living in a three-bedroom, each paying four figures to have no privacy. You encounter living situations like this constantly in Manhattan where the quality of life for the people involved must be near zero.

I visited Fred a few times just before moving here myself in the fall of 1987. And those trips were invigorating. New York at that time still had vestiges of that punk/new wave vibe, particularly in the East Village. You could feel it – there was an excitement to being there. If you want good cultural reference points, watch Something Wild by Jonathan Demme, or put on a Ramones album. That’s how it felt. We’d wander around the Village at night, drinking cans of beers from paper bags, just seeing what would develop as we walked. I still recall wandering into Dan Lynch’s blues bar just off 14th Street, and being shocked to find the lead guitarist that night playing in a closet just off the stage.

But looking back … I don’t know how he or his roommates handled all that. The main apartment I recall Fred living in was a small two bedroom in a newer building in Hell’s Kitchen, which was still very much a shithole neighborhood at the time. (It still has rough edges near the public housing areas, but is nowhere near as ragged as it once was.) We’re talking lower 40s, west of 9th Avenue. He had two roommates: Dana, a woman who had worked with us on the college paper, and Lydia, a wealthy girl from Puerto Rico who knew Dana. They got the bedrooms. Fred slept on a futon in the living room. They had one bathroom. I recall visiting with Brother J while there were two other friends visiting Dana. It was insane. Of course, we spent nearly all our time out walking around the streets and didn’t have much time to cohabitate – we only slept on the living-room floor that night and left the next day.

Those kind of temporary living situations seem normal when you’re fresh out of college. I can’t imagine tolerating them now! But when you first move to a city, in my case I was thinking about moving there, you’re in love with it. You see the good in it, feel the excitement of simply being there. It’s enough just to walk around at night. While I don’t think that vibe has left New York, it just isn’t the same anymore. Manhattan is overflowing with the wealthy now. The music venues, at least the best ones, have funneled out to various parts of Brooklyn. That wonderful, punky vibe … gone. Gone as CBGB’s. A lot of the East Village has been bought out by NYU, to create student housing and such. You can’t be working or middle-classed and live in white Manhattan unless you luck into a very sweet deal. It didn’t happen much then – it happens even less now. The place is much more dull as a result. Critics often focus on the "disneyfication" of Midtown, but it holds true all over white Manhattan.

Fred’s apartment was just a generic, no-frills place, like many college-town apartments, that happened to be in midtown Manhattan, therefore the rent was grossly inflated. The neighbors were either like them or just weird. Some nights, Fred would be woken up by a clanking/whirring/moaning sound coming from the ceiling. It sounded like people were having sex with a vacuum cleaner while they lifted weights. It was the kind of sound that had you thinking, “Forget about two in the morning: when on earth could anyone make that kind of obnoxious racket and think it was normal?!”

I moved to New York around this time, finding a place in the Bronx very quickly and staying there for a long time due to the cheap rent. I recall Fred being one of the few white people who would visit me up there and not be freaked out by the distinct lack of other white faces. He was good like that – that sort of informality and acceptance served him well, as it has me. You have to be that low key if you want to survive in a rough neighborhood: keep a low profile, not get rattled, act like you belong, and you will belong in some strange sense. I caught bigoted verbal abuse on occasion in the Bronx, but that’s as bad as it got for me.

All the while, Fred worked at his crappy editorial assistant job at the women’s magazine. His bosses tended to be neurotic and often crazed. He worked 10-12 hour days routinely. As anyone who has worked for a major monthly magazine can tell you, closing week is a monthly hell they all go through. He told me he slept on his boss’ office sofa many a night, as it made no sense to go home for two hours and come back. Understand, he was being paid a pittance to begin with. If you factored in the hours he worked, he was probably making minimum wage.

It seemed like a thankless, shitty grind he was putting himself through, but I see now he had to go through this editorial boot camp to push himself to the next level. And in my eyes, the next levels didn’t look so hot either. Most editorial staffs of any publication are run like absolute shit: people working insane hours, generally for editors who have no business being editors, who usually get the positions due to nepotism or returned favors. Even if you get good editors by chance, the departments are often structured so that you will often get screwed with serious, unpaid overtime, as it’s considered a grand privilege to make a living by writing stuff you really don’t want to write. I don’t mean to single out or disparage Fred and his experience – I saw this happening with everyone who worked editorial in Manhattan. It made no sense to me why these people had to make their lives so miserable just to have a “creative” job, usually in places that had routine, inexplicable lay-offs.

So you had Fred going through this insane “sorority house run amok” vibe at work all day, then coming back to a living space where had no privacy, and not even a door he could close on the world and have his own little area. I don’t know how he did it. But I do know he got along well with Dana and Lydia, which helped a great deal. Some of Dana’s friends were annoying. I recall one girl, from Ohio, who was the nicest person when I first met her, but a year later, was Ms. “fuck this/fuck that/ayy/whassa matter for you” type phony-ass New Yorker that I didn't want to be around.

Another was a blonde floozy, the most insincere person I’ve met, who was always on the hunt for a Manhattan stud boyfriend. Think she worked with Fred at the harpy gulag. I still recall her purposely bending over at a party to show off her ass to a group of guys in a way that was missing only a spotlight on her. For some strange reason, I also distinctly recall her, Fred and I going to an NYU party, and when we approached (we were all about 24-25 years old), some smokers loitering in the lobby blurting, “Oh, man, here comes some old people.” Old people at 25! I recall feeling “old” at the time when those NYU twerps offered up their sage appraisals. There was a band playing that night who really, truly sucked – a situation we ran into whenever musical acquaintances extended an invite. The hardest part was being non-committal when they asked you how they were; the truth was they sucked donkey dicks and should have been banned from even handling small appliances, much less musical instruments.

Fred had some odd friends, too. We all did. When you’re in your 20s and fresh out of college in a new city, you tend to band together with whoever will have you, and that’s generally like-minded individuals and their friends, a floating web of old college friends and their new friends. I can’t even recall their real names, so I won’t use fake ones, but there were two guys who lived down in Alphabet City in a crappy building … that probably now is a luxury apartment. But back then, man, what a dive, in a part of town that felt like Mars to any sane person, and one of the guys was a painter from suburban Philly. Great guy in general, but had a large blind spot about his art, still recall him going into some soliloquy about “Icarus, flying too close to the sun, his wings, melting” over some painting that looked like Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song record label on the side of a van. Fred and I just gave each other a “what the fuck” look and let it go. We were all over-estimating our talents back then.

The guy’s roommate was a very sweet Buddhist. Religion warning: when you meet white Americans who claim to Buddhist, you can assume they’ve been to college. May well be vegans, too. Probably from the suburbs. I never met any Buddhists in rural Pennsylvania. Would probably meet them in rural Oregon. I’m leery of Buddhists as a result – tend to pick up on a patina of bullshit around their beliefs, the same way I would around many Born Again Christians. You live in an urban area, it gets mildly tiresome to run into what amount to Born Again Buddhists, people who weren’t raised in that culture or with that belief, but came to it later in the life, generally after reading Kerouac or having a revelation at a campus beans-and-rice social. I recall this guy being a fellow volunteer coach in Fred’s gritty Chinatown Little League baseball group (they played on an over-crowded asphalt playground often covered in broken glass), and chanting when his team got ahead, because he didn’t want to openly express a desire for his team to win. (Buddhists should not be coaches.)

Another friend of Fred’s was Nancy, a mousey girl who had the lease on a huge apartment on 96th and Broadway and was also famous for playing some odd instrument, something like the contrabassoon. She was always having a breakdown over her lot in life, or errant boyfriends, or insert twentysomething girl problem here. She encapsulated the archetypal Manhattanite to me. Someone who had the lease on an incredibly cheap, huge apartment, probably on the wrong side of Broadway at that time, but still a great piece of real estate, and she was about as in control as a dog chasing its tail. I can’t recall how she got that place, inheritance or what. But what I recall most is Fred telling me of various tear-filled lunches and phone calls where this woman was on the verge of falling apart or pondering suicide. She was basically a nice person – I remember humming a Paul Simon song to her, her grabbing my arm and breathlessly exclaiming, “you have perfect pitch” – but she seemed as fragile as an egg in the middle of Broadway.

Then there was the troubled gay anarchist who drove like a maniac and seemed like “axe murderer” might be a viable career option. Next. (If I implied Buddhists are full of shit, don’t even get me going on Anarchists. Let’s just say the association of belief systems like these with college is never wrong. You won’t find anarchists and Buddhists in a factory, unless we’re talking Ben & Jerry’s.)

When Fred, Dana and Lydia moved out of that place in Hell’s Kitchen, they teamed up with one of Dana’s friends, Arthur, and got a small two-bedroom place in Chelsea, right on 23rd Street if I remember correctly. Arthur was a strange guy – sorry to be oxymoronic when describing any Manhattan male. Apparently, he was openly gay, with his friends and family, but still was incredibly uptight. He’d always be in some bitchy mood that seemed to be unrelated to any form of reality – just the way he was.

And horrible taste in music. I recall one party, trying to slip on a mix tape Fred and I had put together, we’re talking 2-3 hours into a party, everybody flying. Within seconds of hearing a note of music that wasn’t programmed by him, Arthur flew over to the cassette deck in a rage, pulled out our cassette and jammed his own back in. I can’t recall his exact tastes, but he might have been the only gay Huey Lewis fan in America. His taste was pedestrian, at best. (I don't recall Arthur liking or disliking me -- he probably thought I was a bland straight white guy. As I may have noted in the past -- I am more than comfortable being portrayed this way by people I don't like!)

The guy was constantly depressed. I have no idea what was wrong with him – would be novel to pin it all on his sexuality, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. All Fred knew was he had to be in the same room with him constantly; they had bunk beds, with Arthur taking the top bunk.

The last time I told Fred about this, he claimed not to have remembered. But I distinctly remember him telling me of an incident where he woke up in the middle of the night, only to see Fred’s doleful face gazing at him, leaned over the edge of the top bunk, apparently staring at him for what must have been hours. It wasn’t a gay thing – it was more likely a “locate best spot in Fred’s skull for drill bit” thing. Fred asked him if anything was wrong, and got a monotone “no” in response. It has to be an unnerving experience to know a deeply troubled person is staring at you in your sleep.

Fred’s life with Arthur and crew at the 23rd Street location was filled with moments like that. It’s one thing to live in Manhattan with relative strangers, but to live with one who turns into a huge pain in the ass has to be another circle of hell. I can’t recall how long they lived there – not long. I think after that Fred did a brief stint at a dumpy, very small two bedroom apartment in the East Village with a stranger, and then he moved out to Staten Island to work, and thus met his future wife.

I do recall both of us seeing Arthur one time after that. He and Dana had moved into a small one bedroom on Sullivan Street (West Village) with a bathtub in the kitchen. That’s something you see a good bit in older Manhattan apartments – former tenement buildings with the bathroom in what would later become the kitchen. Guess the old adage “don’t shit where you eat” didn’t apply to Manhattan real-estate mavens.

Anyway, one New Year’s Eve, Fred and I were at loose ends and took up an invitation for a party at Dana and Arthur’s place. We must have been 28 at the time – on the cusp of leaving our 20s, literally and figuratively. New Year’s Eve, we figured, look out, big party, lots of people, here we come!

It was one of the more miserable experiences of my 20s, and one of the key reasons I rarely go to New Year’s Eve parties anymore. Fred and I showed up. I think three other people did. Just a flop of a party, that wouldn’t have mattered if we all could have admitted it, broke open a bottle of wine, and just had fun hanging out. But that seemed like a physical impossibility with Arthur, who stalked around in a blank, dark mood denoting the failure of the event. Arthur was blasting some crappy 90s dance music that made everything feel even more hollow. I recall one of the women who showed up turning on the TV for some reason, and Arthur flipped out on her that she’d do something like that at one of his parties. I recall getting the fuck out of there before midnight, which was a huge insult, but at that point, man, I didn’t care. A subway ride back to the Bronx on the 1 Train was preferable to the vibe in that apartment. I recall a hispanic woman vomiting on that train ride, and her two male companions laughing at her as she struggled to wipe down her pants and shoes. It was that kind of night.

I don’t know what that was. Whether it was an ugly demarcation point where previously partying people suddenly had it shoved in their faces that they weren’t quite that popular anymore. Or a bad night to attempt gathering the tribes as most people had previous plans. All I know is it was the last time I saw Arthur. Not to mention Dana and Lydia. But whatever New Year that was, must have been 1992 or 1993, it rang in a change, a sort of kiss-off to that “must hang out in Manhattan all the time” routine I had going for the past six years.

Since then, I’ve really ditched the “circle of friends” thing. That’s something that will hold true through your 20s and into your early 30s. But right around then, people start splitting up, either naturally or forcefully. Some get married, or have kids, or move, or all three. Some just check themselves out of your life, either a slow fade or a geronimo-jump from your plane. And you do the same in return. The people who have kids scarcely have time for themselves, much less that sort of extended hang-loose time that was a staple of our 20s.

Hell, I’m single, and I choose not to have that kind of spare time. Weekends, I’d much rather do the requisite yard work around the landlord’s property, my laundry, groceries, gym each day, big Sunday meal that will feed me through the next few days. In olden times circa 1990, Saturday or Sunday would be spent oozing ever so slowly out of a mild-to-terrible hangover. I never could stand that feeling of a wasted day to get over the previous night’s drunken revelry – it just never seemed worth the trouble. I surely don’t mind going out for a few drinks. But the concept of being on a 2:30 am subway train, on one hand drunk off my ass, on the other wary and cautious as I know I’m a prime target to get robbed, just doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve done it enough times to know there’s nothing out there at 3:00 am. I used to think there was some magical, late-night world that would open up and show me all its charms, but there never was.

So, life goes on in New York City, those strange days of my first few years here seem like a very distant memory. I often have the same disconnect with my Penn State days, but with college, it's mostly because I'm never physically there, haven't been there in years. With New York City, I'm still there, and it's still there, but the city changes so fast, and sometimes slowly over the course of years and shifting real-estate sands, that you can live here the whole time and quietly lose that sense of physical connection to memories. It's a strange phenomenon, but I surely feel it now. All I know is I had a hell of a time recalling some of the above people and episodes.

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