Saturday, December 31, 2011

Holding Patterns

It occurred to me earlier today, drinking bubble tea in the little shop by the laundromat, that more than likely, I’m going to be leaving all this in a few weeks. Not like leaving paradise. Leaving a place I’ve been living temporarily while the place in Astoria undergoes restoration after the fire (which is going full gun right now).

As you could guess, drinking bubble tea, reading a book about The Faces and Rod Stewart on the Kindle, between laundry loads, I’ve learned to relax and make-do with the situation. You live in any place long enough, you get used to it. And it’s not hard to get used to a place people aspire to live in, the suburbs basically. I’ll never get used to the insane commute, or the shitheel driving styles around here (just no need for anyone to drive as selfishly and recklessly as people do around here, ever, for any reason). But people around here know me now. Say hello to the guy down the block walking his bulldog. On first-name bases with the people in the tea shop and diner. Joke around with the Chinese children whose parents run the laundromat, fun kids. Banter with the people waiting for the bus in the morning. Even see the same familiar faces on the way home.

I looked at this whole endeavor as a holding pattern in my life, but have since realized it’s just life, going on as it always does, until it stops. The people who live and work around here will go on doing so, while I go back to my neighborhood and take my rightful place in the apartment I’d been living in for nigh on 12 years. It occurs to me that my life back there isn’t much different from what it is here, save I have more furniture back there, and internet/TV access with my cable!

I don’t know if that’s a troubling or comforting thought – probably a little of both. The reality of living in a city for most people is that they get set in routines, between work and whatever else they have going on, that, believe me, is easy to replicate just by picking it up and moving it five miles in any direction. You feel weird and alien at first. Then you adjust. Then your mind attaches feelings of “home” – however faint or temporary they may be – to the place, and you create a bond to it. There weren’t 10,000 family members and friends I was leaving behind in Astoria. Hell, most people I know in the NYC area, we’re so spread out and busy with our own shit that even if we lived two blocks apart, it would be an ordeal trying to pull something together. I used to think that was some sort of travesty or failing on my part, but have experienced it enough times to know, it’s just how things are here. I try to make myself available as possible, but even I’ll close ranks sometimes and get too zeroed in on my own shit.

What a crazy year. Some years, it’s like being on an amusement park ride, where all you can do is hold on, convinced that what you’re experiencing is not real, but is somehow, because you’ve chosen to get on the ride, and the belts and buckles probably aren’t going to snap, but you’re still being safely whipped around at high velocity in ways that suggest danger, but are fairly controlled. I resigned from my job back in June due to a luke-warm review (after busting my ass for a few months solid leading up to that point) … and am still working there after management turned up a few dead ends on various candidates. Believe me, after the fire in August, I was grateful to have steady work anywhere. But I go on there, knowing that sooner or later, they’ll land someone for that spot, and I’ll move on. At that time, I had visions of taking the summer off, relaxing for a month or two, and then trying to feel my way into something else. I just didn’t want to haul off and get the same job in a different place. Still don’t. Which is why I’ve never been one of these “planning my escape” people. I’d rather cut something off cold, go through a few weeks of laziness, and then come up with something else. Not a formula for latter climbing! But I’m not worried about that.

I’m not worried about much of anything, to be honest. Lived through a fire, rendered temporarily homeless, set up in a temporary apartment, which has been a blessing, as otherwise I’d probably have bounced from one high-priced sublet to another over the course of the past few months. Picked up my usual routines. About all I haven’t done is cook, opting for a steady diet of Hot Pockets, pasta and canned soup, rather than getting into my usual winter rituals of chili and various soups, which would take up a Sunday afternoon in preparation. And I’d rather let that go for now, gives me something to look forward to when I get back to my place and feel more at home.

Some of the changes I’ve gone through in the past few months have been good. I was watching way too much TV with cable, and who knows, maybe I will again when I get it back. But I’ve been reading more, writing a lot, too, listening to much more music, even listening to local college radio, which has been surprisingly good at times. I always appreciated the routines I had back there and will gladly get back into them. I’m left with the realization that you could lose it all in a minute, and when you've lost it all, all you can do is simply gather your resources and start over again. Feel like an asshole for awhile. Feel wounded. Feel like the world owes you something. But sooner or later, you align yourself with the hardness of the world, and jump back into the freezing cold stream of life where, ultimately, the only person who’s going to keep you treading water is you.

Not to say I haven’t appreciated the support over the past few months. Friends have been good, landlord’s family has been very helpful, crucial in terms of getting me set up with a new place to stay, and I suspect most people have either forgotten what happened to me, or quietly filed it away in the “shit that happened to Bill in the near past” file. I don’t dwell on it much now these few months later, so I sure as hell don’t want to make other people dwell on it. Everyone always asks when I’m getting back there, a few minutes of bitching and moaning about how long it’s taking, but rest assured, wheels are turning now, and I can see I will be back there soon.

I don’t picture any huge emotional revelations. I’ve gone back there a few times to gather things, winter clothes, some DVDs I was thinking about, and the place has been forlorn, dirty as the windows were knocked out for so long, the yard a mess with unraked leaves, all my furniture and belongings packed into one part of the floor so plumbers could tear out a small part of the ceiling to get at the pipes, little off-kilter things like that, as we all waited for work to begin.

My landlord, I suspect, will be weeping when she gets back, tears of joy, probably pain, too, over things she lost in the fire, as she lost a lot more than I or the upstairs tenant did. She’s lived there since the early 60s, started a family and made a life there, so I know the emotional attachment she has to the place is much larger than mine. I can only hope she spends the rest of her days there in peace, never going through anything this harrowing again, as it’s a shit experience at any age, much less in your 70s at a point where you think life is going to even out and let you take it all in before darkness falls.

And I can see, one day I’ll have to move on, a proposition that scared the hell out of me before all this. But I’ve seen – living a few months in another neighborhood – it’s not such a bad deal. You move somewhere else, pick up a few new tricks, learn a little more about the world, and go on doing whatever you do. World doesn’t end. I hope to stay in that apartment a few more years, at least, but I’ve seen with my own eyes, there are other neighborhoods I could handle in Queens (Manhattan and Brooklyn, forget it, too expensive, Bronx I’ve done and not going back, Staten Island, another country). I’d hardly call it a sense of freedom, more like being exposed, against my will, to other neighborhoods, and realizing people live there, too, just as I do in mine!

So, it was a strange, unsettling year that, I guess, should have left me rattled and battle-scarred. But in reality I feel a little more weightless, surely a little harder, which is what happens when bad shit like this gets thrown your way. There’s the famous saying, “That which cannot kill you makes you stronger.” But I’ve learned this year, that’s bullshit. You expose yourself routinely to things that have the capacity to kill you, sooner or later, they will sap your strength and take your life. You get these things in small doses, a house fire, once in a lifetime, you can pound your chest and bellow, “I’m stronger for all I’ve been through!”

But, man, if that shit happened to me routinely, I’d be a wreck right now. We can’t pick and choose some of our crises. They pick and choose us. As noted, one at a time, once in a blue moon, you can ruminate on them, take strength in the fact that you lived through them and have found your way back to normalcy of some sort. But if this shit happened every other day, like bombs dropping, it would destroy my life. Yours, too, no matter how old or young, how weak or strong you really are.

Things to think about for the new year! Things to think about as you get older. I hope I’m sitting in my apartment, this day next year, and thinking, “Shit, nothing happened this year.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Balling on Campus

A situation occurred a few days ago at my old Penn State branch campus that sounds depressingly familiar to city life, but somewhat new to the locals. Basically, a bunch of students who had played basketball together (one group from New York, the other from Philly) later ended up in an apartment brawl resulting in serious injuries.

It’s really not much of a story, save that if you read the avalanche of comments, the locals are understandably getting fed-up with these kind of incidents, generally revolving around urban students (their home addresses are always NYC or Philly-based) being admitted to that local campus and then committing these type of crimes which always make for front-page news back there, regardless of the perpetrators’ home town. (A follow-up article noted that the campus is second only to University Park as having the highest crime rate of all the university’s campuses.) The locals are also making the mistake of using words like “trash,” “animals” and “you people” when expressing their anger, and that will automatically push buttons with those kids attending the campus who have nothing to do with this sort of violence.

I can understand both sides of this. I agree with locals getting upset over urban nonsense like this spilling into their community – it’s frightening. It’s frightening when it happens in the city, too, save people who live there are conditioned to think horseshit like this is normal, and to be expected and tolerated. That doesn’t hold true for most towns in rural Pennsylvania, which is a good thing. It doesn’t hold true for most small towns anywhere. You get a bunch of kids squaring off and assaulting each other over something as stupid as comments during a basketball game, pulling up just short of murder, and most people in a small town are going to have a profoundly negative reaction.

And the students from out of town commenting on the site are upset because they see themselves being lumped in with these sort of jackasses who indulge in that sort of violence, thus making themselves targets of bigotry to the locals. Or at least I hope that’s the case. I read through the comments, and not once did I see any of those students state anything to that effect (although I read it between the lines in every comment).

I saw them get angry at the locals for making veiled racist comments. I saw them defending themselves against what they perceived as racist smears. But not once did I see any one of them acknowledge that what happened between those two groups of kids was awful and totally unacceptable. Nor did they apologize for this happening. As well they shouldn’t have. But they can’t seem to recognize that their inability to acknowledge that what happened (and apparently is happening routinely) in that situation was a terrible affront to the community, in the minds of the locals, and honestly in my mind, too. And infers that they relate more closely to a bunch of jackasses who would threaten each other’s lives over a basketball game, rather than be upset that felony crimes are being committed in their midst.

And that’s city people! Having now spent roughly half my life in a rural area and the other half in New York City, I know that mindset. If you talk to these people and point out to them this quiet refusal to place blame on the real problem here (kids willing to kill each other over stupid comments), they would be shocked and tell you, obviously, I detest violence, I hate that this sort of thing happens anywhere.

Yet … if that was your true emotion in all of this, if that’s what really upset you, that would be the first thing out of your mouth. And then you’d lay into the locals for making such typically racist comments. To me, that lack of self realization is crucial and telling as some local starting in with “you people” and going downhill from there.

People should obviously think before they write, but they don’t, especially anonymously on internet message boards. The locals can be just as bad, sometimes even worse, but at least I understand the fear underlying the occasionally stupid comments. Nobody wants to live around bullshit like that. And maybe the university should be doing a better job of screening students if things like this are happening to the extent that a relatively small campus has such an unusually high crime rate. Allowing this to go on hurts everyone. It makes the locals distrustful of any person of color, even if he came from, say, Pottsville, just a few miles away, even if the kid was an honors student at his high school. And it makes the kids who go there from various urban areas extremely uncomfortable when they sense the locals are vaguely hostile towards them, despite the fact that many of them are there to do something honorable, get an education and push themselves forward in life.

All I know is that if I had to choose sides here, I wouldn’t. But I relate more to people who are afraid of felony crime being thrust into their community than people who are willing to kill each other over nothing. And people who don’t recognize that as the core issue. It’s not a racial issue. Or a rural/urban issue. It’s a sanity issue. You would have to be insane to want to live in a place where people try to kill each other over emotions aroused during a fucking basketball game.

Would you have to be insane to live around people who hated you for the color of your skin? No … hell, I did it for a decade in the Bronx! Was perfectly sane the whole time. Foolishly wore it like a badge of honor, as if it made me tough to be the only white guy on the block. Was exposed to verbal abuse routinely, but never physical. Reached my breaking point with the whole “spitting” thing that I started noticing in 1997, people spitting as I passed as a sign of disrespect because I was white. Wasn’t the kind of thing I’d see every now and then. I would see this dozens of times over the course of a week, all week, every week, until I hit that "last straw" milestone and decided to leave that spring. “Hundreds” would not be an exaggeration. Got to the point where I could walk down the street and accurately predict who would spit as I passed! (Generally thugs-in-training teenage males and grown male buffoons who were still dressed and carrying on like teenage males.) Still see this now, too, although not nearly as much. Then again, I don’t live in the Bronx anymore.

For the most part, people were either respectful to me (as I was to them), or they left me alone. Some of them hated me? That wasn’t my problem. My attitude was, unless you make this real, unless you physically confront me, to me you’re just like a baby shitting itself. And that should be a lesson these kids at the campus learn now, because I gather from their commentary that they’ve never really been exposed to actual, real people throwing them bad vibes for the color of their skin. They’ve had this concept drilled into their heads all their lives, but had previously lived all their lives in urban areas where they were not minorities.

It sucks to have your belief in humanity tested as mine was, but it will be tested, over and over again. The trick is to not let anyone control your actions. That’s what’s really going on when someone throws racial shit in front of you: they want your attention, a reaction, why, I don’t know. If you’re wise, you’ll walk on and realize most people don’t give a shit about you one way or the other and are too caught up in their own problems. And that’s a good thing once you get over the concept that the world isn’t spinning around you.

I keep coming back to the issue of recognizing other people’s humanity, but that’s all this is, too. I know for me the race issue got a lot less problematic when I moved here and realized everyone had the same problems. One of the big things for me was seeing how many kids in the Bronx were asthmatic because of their lousy building ventilation and locations near major roadways. Barriers got broken down constantly in my first decade in New York. I could see people caring for their elderly parents. Relying on older brothers and sisters. Struggling through shitty, low-paying jobs. Basically, the same things I’d always seen working-class white people do where I grew up. It occurred me these people had a lot more in common than they knew with white people in small towns, who were equally encouraged to look at black people in the city and feel nothing but fear and disdain.

Incidents like this one that just occurred make that sort of understanding much harder to accomplish. Because you have the incident, in an of itself, which is a lousy thing. And then you have the fallout, people saying stupid shit because they feel threatened, be it locals defending their turf in some sense, or visiting students who want to feel simple respect in a situation (moving to a rural area to get an education) that more than likely has them feeling intimidated and insecure, too.

I can remember feeling deeply upset the first few hundred times with the spitting nonsense, as if I was doing something wrong to incite this kind of reaction. It had to be me, as this kept happening to me with random kids on the street. What was I doing wrong? Was it something I was wearing? Was it the way I looked? The way I walked? After awhile, I realized, I wasn’t dealing with geniuses. The exact opposite was true. Cowards, to boot. Who had picked up on some lousy cultural trend that served as a nice litmus test for their souls. I look back now and laugh at how naïve I was, and quietly mourn that state of innocence, when I assumed that all people were essentially good. I also learned that in any given situation, how I saw things was just that … not how other people were seeing things. It took me out of my perspective and forced me to acknowledge other people are going to see the world, and me in particular, differently, in ways that I might find instructive, but just as likely in ways that are radically wrong and offensive. And there was nothing I could do about that, save walk on if they were going to make fools of themselves.

Don’t you think this kind of knowledge, employed in basketball game where the trash talk must have reached epic levels, might have amounted to the realization that it was just that, trash talk, and no reason to escalate things to a level where someone is willing to take another person’s life?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Penn State Follow-Up

I don’t want to focus too much on the recent Jerry Sandusky/child molestation case as noted in the last post, which finally seems to have quieted down as the “burning issue we all must confront” media blast. But I do want to write about the experience many of us have had as Penn State graduates and football fans over the past few weeks.

Because it has sucked. In so many ways. The obvious way, of course, is feeling yourself associated to any of this because you have a degree from the university, enjoyed yourself while you were there, still feel good about having gone there, spend a few hours every fall Saturday watching the football team on TV, etc. I can’t tell you how many people at work in NYC anointed me the unofficial expert on this news story … just because I went there. As if I had any sort of inside scoop.

As Brother M pointed out to me over Thanksgiving, Penn State is a learning factory. A LOT of people went there. A lot never had anything to do with the football program, directly or indirectly. I’ve been a Penn State football fan all my life and will go on being one. Sorry if anyone finds that offensive, but I’d be lying if I wrote otherwise. As would millions of other fans. Believe me, for a week or two there, even mentioning that you went to Penn State would elicit vague “pitchforks and torches” vibe from some folks, with you as the Frankenstein monster being stalked through the woods by the howling, straw-hatted mob. If you didn’t support a full shut-down of the football program and demand the immediate imprisonment of all involved, you, by extension, were just as guilty as Sandusky in all this.

The sense of “guilt by association” has been overwhelming at times. Especially concerning Joe Paterno, who was fired over his role in all this, even though we have no idea exactly what that was, save to say at a bare minimum, he dropped the ball in terms of living up to his legend. College administrators tend not to be legendary, and in the cold, black-and-white print of the grand jury indictment, that’s all he was in this situation. Which we have to reconcile with his all-encompassing power as someone who controls everything not just within the football program, but on campus, in that town and in that part of the state.

And I really don’t know how much power the guy has or had wielded beyond his football program, now that we’re equipped with this 20/20 hindsight and superior morality. Would he have known that Sandusky was being investigated by the local police in 1998? Sandusky himself apparently didn’t even know. Who from the police department would have quietly told Paterno this off the record? The media didn’t know about this at the time, otherwise we surely would have heard about it. These are the kind of details we need to know. Did Paterno have any inkling that Sandusky was a pedophile? We’re all assuming this was some sort of quiet common knowledge shared not just by all involved, but by everyone involved with Division I-A college football coaching … and I just don’t know if that’s true or not. If it is, I’ll feel like a horse’s ass for cutting Paterno any slack in this situation. But if it isn’t …

In any event, there are multiple investigations going on now, a trial soon to follow, so we will be inundated with the case again, although we got the media full monty, a legendary college coach falling from grace, this time, and the rest will be anti-climactic. The usual suspects will bloviate, we will be sternly prompted to “think first of the children” … when I can assure you, as a fellow writer, those are the last people on the minds of anyone selling papers or ad space. The first thing will be having the name spelled right in the byline, and then on the check.

I saw a full range of emotions from fellow Penn State grads. One totally disowned Paterno and said he was ashamed to have gone there. That was the extreme. I don’t know any “apologists” … whatever that’s supposed to mean. I see what people mean by that, anonymous commenters on websites bending over backwards to preserve Paterno’s god-like status, but I honestly don’t know anyone who was carrying on like that … or those asshole kids on campus who rioted over this nonsense. Everyone I’ve been in contact with had grave doubts, serious questions and was almost as put off and angered by the out-pouring of hatred towards the university and Paterno as I was.

Every alumni I know was profoundly upset. Some had trouble sleeping. Some got physically ill: headaches, upset stomachs, general malaise. It was like learning that a cherished relative had been accused of a grievous crime, and responding accordingly. I spent two weeks googling “Paterno,” “Sandusky” and “McQueary” every morning to see what had transpired overnight, most of it pure editorial junk. I was obsessed with learning everything I possibly could about the matter. After a week, I realized 99% of what I was reading was utter dogshit, tree-stump pontificating from writers and anonymous, self-appointed super-heroes I wouldn’t buy a used car from, and gave up.

Going back to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving helped a lot. I could see the prevailing attitude back there was, “None of the people hyping this thing care about the kids, or Paterno, or Penn State, so let them blow themselves out and move on to their next conquest.” I could see that this will all end, maybe not soon, but it will end. And the people who follow Penn State football will go on following it, without Joe, with whatever stain this leaves on his legacy and the program. We’ll all go on recognizing that Paterno was a legendary coach, whatever horrible revelations this situation may bring. And we’ll all have to absorb that as it comes along, if it comes along, and reconcile it with his much less tarnished past. His legend is now tarnished? That’s how it works with mere mortals, and we’ve all blown a gasket over the numerous women JFK and Martin Luther King had affairs with while married. They’re still cultural icons, with whatever values you personally attach to them. If those values aren’t complicated, you’re not paying attention or just don’t care. Which is no skin off my nose.

As we’ve seen, other people will be caught up in child sex abuse scandals (your turn now, Syracuse), and the hype machine will kick into overdrive on them. Powerless, angry people will vent righteously on the internet. The hype machine will then give them another topic (take your pick: Kardashian divorce, pepper-sprayed Black Friday shoppers, Herman Cain’s love life, etc.), and they’ll spew Twitter-sized bile all over again, over things they feel no personal connection to and don’t really care about. A subtle message I get from all this: one of the reasons people are so angry is because they sense they just don’t care about anything real, and things like this make them feel like they do, or should. The response rate on stories like this is downright Pavlovian. Ring a bell, and substitute raging impotently for salivating. Chances are if you’re machine-gunning off mini-tirades about every current topic you’re a self-appointed expert on, there’s an emptiness in your life that no amount of time spent on the computer will ever fill.

Personally, it all underlines a seismic shift I felt the day Dad passed on a few Christmas seasons ago. Which was realizing I had just one father figure in my life and felt lost without him for a long time afterwards. I wrote a tribute to Joe Paterno about a decade ago for (and the link doesn’t appear to work right now, unfortunately). Re-reading it now, I can strongly sense that my father was still alive, because I had not experienced the above-noted shift and was attaching father-like qualities to someone (Paterno) who was in no way my father … who the one time I had crossed paths with him, acted like a bit of a nut. Some realizations, you get only the hard way, by experiencing unimaginable and unforeseeable pain and loss. The article I wrote back then feels extremely naïve to me now, but I didn’t know any better at the time.

I can’t tell you how many bad stories and posts I came across on the web attacking Penn State fans for being like children the way they looked up to Joe Paterno, this impossibly clean father figure to millions. The day we put my father in the ground, that fantasy stopped. A lot of fantasies stopped. The world turned black and white, and I can assure you, the last thing on my mind was Penn State football. These bad writers used their massively broad brushes to paint all Penn State fans this way, and I’m just one example of someone with his own much larger, quiet, less obvious personal history, who’d get in their faces and put the fear of God into them if they pulled that little bon mot on me in a social situation.

The amount of sanctimonious, preachy, wrong-headed, simplistic writing I’ve read on this topic has been mind-bending. Like crayon scrawl on wallpaper. Forget about the automatic assumptions of guilt and all the personal baggage (most clearly regarding a disdain for sports of any kind and a burning need to position one self as a font of true, brave morality we must all aspire to). As noted in this article, heroes are not the norm in any extreme situation. Yet … the internet was suddenly crawling with caped crusaders, forces of good who had all the right answers to this moral dilemma and knew every hidden detail about the case. Anonymously. On the internet. Right.

Paterno became an all-purpose piñata for anyone who once believed in a hero and later found the hero to be human. That’s everyone, sooner or later. And once we learn they’re human, the only logical thing to do is to make them bleed, just like we do. I’m having a hard time with people who insinuate that if you don’t personally damn Paterno to burning hell, immediately, you, sir, are suspect, too. This is the sort of sickening nonsense one associates with the Salem witch trials, or any other grotesquely puritanical undertaking. Not everyone in my life is pure and unblemished. Hell, no one is, myself included. I know people who’ve been in prison. Who’ve had serious drug and alcohol problems. Who’ve done “bad things” … anything from petty theft to aggravated assault. You shouldn’t picture me hanging out with a bunch of comic-book villains – most people I know are fairly normal, law-abiding citizens – but sometimes shit happens with people you grew up with and know, and life gets weird.

I haven’t dumped any of those troubled people from my life. Why should I? Because they fucked up? We all fuck up on varying levels. If your life doesn’t contain anyone who’s made these kind of radical errors, goody for you, and I can guess that sanctimony hovers around you like a halo of stale flatulence.

Look at our culture. Our TV shows. Our movies. We are constantly fed characters who are morally ambiguous, or flat-out evil, but then guided in a way that suggests we see these characters as human beings, with feelings, and pasts that explain the roots of their evil, and plenty of other things we all have in common. Think Tony Soprano. Any hiphop artist who portrays himself as a badass with a heart of gold. There are countless thousands of characters and images like this in our society that we are instructed to show some type of human respect or sympathy towards.

Yet … when real-life things like this situation with Paterno come along, we are forcefully instructed to burn this man in effigy and forsake any valuable lessons we learned from him, toss away decades of experience and memory? It just doesn’t work that way. At least for me. If it is found that Joe knew all along about Sandusky’s pedophilia, that he protected and shielded him from the authorities, you better believe I’m going to be furious and about as let down as a fan can be with a major sports figure. But at this point, now that everyone is lawyered up (and don’t flatter yourself, you would be, too, if the media hammer that was dropped on Joe came down on your head), I’m really not sure how close we’re going to get to the truth of this situation, unless people quietly come forward and do some genuinely heroic things that shed light on the situation.

I don’t kid myself. Maybe it’s a New York thing? In the past year or two, thanks to youtube and the explosion of street cams, I’ve been made privy to people filming friends beating up innocent bystanders on the subway and in fast-food joints, or laughing hysterically while providing ironic commentary to a drunken man trying to get back into the burning SUV he just crashed, or a homeless man who’s been stabbed and is now dying on the sidewalk while people passing by ignore him, with one person even pausing to take pictures of him with his phone camera.

The wonders of the internet? It’s all part of the stew of our society, things we don’t like to admit, people we don’t like to acknowledge. Forgive me if I recognize this Penn State situation as a subset of personal dislocation that runs like life blood through so much of what I see today, whether on the internet or street, people who are just incapable of recognizing other people’s humanity. In this case, it comes out as extreme moral posturing, putting on that brave face for the world to see. On the surface, that impulse is a positive thing, but when you think about it … the most moral people I’ve known in my life have never once had to tell me they were moral people, or make any kind of impassioned, grandiose testaments to that effect. And what I learned from them is that you’re only as good as your last act of compassion, that you will fail, and make mistakes, mistreat people on occasion, in effect, be human.

And you could argue that the reason Paterno got himself into this situation is because he, too, didn’t recognize other people’s humanity, in this case that poor kid whom Sandusky was “horsing around with.” And so it goes. He’s paid dearly for it. We all have in some sense, if we’ve taken time to ponder all the obvious and less obvious intangibles. But feel free to skip the less obvious ones. Why trouble yourself with complicated moral questions when the easy ones make for better headlines?

Friday, November 11, 2011

So Long, Joe

This has been an awful week for Penn State alumni and football fans. In brief, former longstanding defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been indicted on various charges regarding acts of pedophilia he committed on campus after his coaching career ended (while he still maintained an office there and used the facilities with children from a youth program he had been running for years).

But the lightning rod in all this has been Joe Paterno, who was eventually ousted as head coach, a job he’s held since 1966, due to his inability to take action when a grad student/assistant coach informed him in 2002 that he had seen Sandusky with a boy in a locker room shower on campus. (In the indictment, it's unclear exactly what the assistant told Paterno.) According to the indictment, Paterno simply followed orders as a university employee and informed his supervisors of what he had been told … who in turn did not inform the police of what had happened, i.e., treat the incident as a criminal matter.

But let’s face it. Even if this had gone according to perfect morality – the grad student, seeing what was happening, physically assaulted Sandusky in the shower, incapacitated him, then immediately called the police to get them involved – the results would have been the same in 2002 as they are now. The incident took place not just on university grounds, but in a locker room reserved for football coaches that Sandusky still had access to (and, according to the indictment, felt comfortable enough with to routinely use as a staging area for his pedophilia). This alone would have been enough to blow up the situation the same way it has now and result in Paterno’s removal.

But as it is, Paterno takes his place in line as an ineffective college administrator, another link in the chain of command who did nothing concrete to stop what appears to be a serial pedophile in his tracks, or at the very least have police investigate him to determine if the allegation was true. Not to excuse his lack of action in any way, but anyone who’s ever worked at a university knows how insular, byzantine and often dislocated from reality their procedures are. They are small fiefdoms, with their own set of codes and regulations, and they like to exercise that authority on a completely internal basis as much as possible. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that world exists as I have worked in that sort of unreality. It explains how something like this could be treated as an “internal matter” to be dealt with rather than doing what any normal human being would do: call the cops. It does not explain why they did not recognize this was a matter of criminal nature and not an isolated campus issue.

And in all honesty, nearly every workplace in my adult life has exercised similar patterns of insularity and questionable morality. Nothing this shocking, thankfully. But in just about every place, I’ve seen workers forfeit their basic human rights, the simple rights of self respect, to keep their jobs, far more often than not when they have reached some type of “tenure” in their positions, have weeks of vacation earned over the years and other larger perks that go along with company loyalty. I’ve seen key employees granted so much power in that isolated work environment that they lose sight of their humanity and become monsters in a sense. Go one floor up or one floor down, and they’re nobody. But in that small space, they rule the world. They know it and act accordingly, with dozens, maybe even hundreds or thousands, of willing accomplices to enable this illusion.

It’s not just the places I’ve worked. You’ve worked there, too, no doubt. And have dealt with this “must avert eyes in the presence of the lord” mentality that goes along with encountering top executives. Think of actors or singers who demand that no one on set makes eye contact with them or speaks to them unless spoken to -- there are countless stories of this sort of arrogance that seem more like France before the Bastille was stormed as opposed to most people’s every-day work reality.

This goes on because that counterfeit authoritarianism has become institutionalized, and people have fear. Fear of losing their jobs, of becoming destitute, of having no future. Realistically, losing your job usually results in weeks or months of discomfort and mild depression, not the wasteland of lost hope most people envision when they encounter a situation at work they know is wrong, but do nothing about. The larger fear is this inexplicable power granted to certain authority figures in isolated environments that far supercedes whatever their professional worth truly is. You got me. I don’t understand it at all: never have, never will.

But hopefully I’m explaining the sort of environment that allows a grad student, and earlier a janitor according to the indictment, see this monster sexually assault young boys, report it only to coworkers and immediate supervisors, and then sit back as nothing happens. I’m not leaving anyone off the hook, but that stifling, amoral fear most people feel at one time or another in their workplaces is the kernel of this sort of cowardice displayed in these events.

I’ve been a Penn State football fan all my life. In the early 70s, as a small child, I purposely had Mom sew the number “22” onto the sleeves of my t-shirts and sweatshirts because I worshipped John Cappelletti, the only Penn State running back to win the Heisman Trophy. There were dozens of other Penn State players I worshipped as a kid, and the fandom extended all through my adulthood, the only constant being Joe Paterno, and that no-frills, “education first” winning way he’s espoused that I’ve admired so much.

Now? I don’t know. I’d rather let this whole thing play out before I come to any conclusions. There’s a few hundred miles of dark road to travel down before this thing is over. Best-case scenario is what I noted above: Joe took the information the grad assistant passed on to him, informed his supervisors, who then essentially did nothing. He did what he was supposed to do as a school administrator, and the administrators above him failed to take appropriate action, as did he.

If that’s the case, I can feel reasonably comfortable with Joe Paterno and his legacy. This is an awful way to end things, but honestly, I was hoping he would step down for the past five years. A situation like this at least forces him to leave, as it seemed like he was never going to leave under his own free volition. I gather part of that was going after various win records, first the I-A record that was an ongoing competition with Florida State’s head coach, Bobby Bowden. And this past year, the overall college win record that he just won from Grambling’s Eddie Robinson.

While this “overall win” issue was great entertainment over the years, it now seems like small change compared to what’s happening now. Even if the best-case scenario pans out, Joe leaves with a dark stain on his record, one that will invariably creep into everybody’s mind when talking or thinking about him, even years from now. For me, it would be like having an uncle you love dearly, despite something morally troubling he's done in his life. (And if everyone in your life has never done anything morally troubling, that's a gold star by your name.)

Worst-case scenario, Joe knew what was going on, had protected Sandusky for years from authorities, purposely told the administrators to handle this internally, didn’t recognize the scope of the situation, and quietly enabled a monster to roam free, and damage and taint no doubt dozens of young lives.

I don’t know. Unlike countless anonymous internet prognosticators and genuinely hack sports columnists and editorialists, who seem to envision themselves as wearing capes with their first-name initials emblazoned on their chests, I just don’t know. I don’t know what happened here. Very few people do right now. We need to know. Or at least I do as a lifelong fan and someone who wants to go on believing that someone I’ve always admired, at the very best, just lost the thread in terms of asserting his authority and doing something decisive in a situation that required the sort of moral turpitude he’s espoused daily. If that truly is the case, I’ll feel bad, but nowhere near as bad if something more damning transpires here.

And if it isn’t, then I just have to make a seismic shift in how I deal with the issue of Penn State football in the future. I’ll always be a fan, but would prefer being one with some semblance of respect for the man who built the program over the course of a lifetime. As it is, I’m a grown man. I watched my father pass away a few years ago. Nearly lost my life in a house fire a few months ago. We all go through these genuinely hard situations in our lives, that are about us, and our lives directly … not things we view from afar, like sports. I’ve got my own set of problems and moral issues to deal with, which keep me more than occupied, and my own life to live that goes on whatever happens with this situation. When this blows over, the media and angry rabble will find another piece of meat to gnaw away at. And life will go on, with many more dark days and small victories to come, all of which will be dealt with in their time.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reunion Mix

My next class reunion is coming up in July of next year, and the woman organizing it has given me the assignment of coordinating the music. The concept is we’ll save a ton of money by not hiring a professional DJ, and I can pull together a gigantic mix of 70s/80s/beyond favorites that’s bound to be just as if not more accurate than what any paid DJ could come up with. Either her husband or son will man the laptop that night and throw the mix of tunes together, as I don’t want to, simply because it’s my reunion, and I’m there to see people again, not work the board.

We did the same thing for our 20th reunion a decade ago, just as MP3s were ascending into the acceptable media format, and it went a bit rocky at times. The laptop would skip/freeze up occasionally, and one of the issues with someone not "of that era" running it is they have no idea what key songs will register with the crowd. I can still recall the hostess pulling me aside and saying, “No one’s dancing. We need a good slow-dance song to get more guys on the floor.” I suggested “Love Hurts” by Nazareth – a ballad, but heavy metal-leaning, so all those guy who normally wouldn’t dance, would dance to something like this. And sure enough, they did. Most of the night was more modern dance/party music, which wasn't my bag, but plenty of other people surely enjoyed it.

I went all out back then, and I’ve gone all out now, too, and surely have a much larger/more complex collection than last time. It’s been 10 years of digital music since then, and to give you an idea, back then I was worried about filling up a 16 GB MP3 player, and now I’m on the cusp of filling up a 160 GB iPod. That’s why I love these massively hard-drived players and am disappointed as hell that Apple seems bent on never again making a player this large or larger. That extra space encouraged me to branch out and really fill in all my musical blanks, which is an ongoing project for the rest of my days.

They seem to think “the cloud” and “streaming” is the answer … but I’ve used streaming the past few months on my laptop due to my living situation (no cable, using a Virgin Mobile Broadband USB plug), and I can assure you, streaming is not the answer (data caps, too many drop outs and freezes, unusable in areas where reception is choppy). It’s an addendum, and some enterprising/large media company would be doing themselves a favor to come out with larger hard and flash-drived players instead of forcing “the cloud” down our throats. I like the cloud, but it’s no substitute for having your own, hand-picked, cherished tunes at your disposal at all times.

It’s an odd process, because I can’t visualize any one type of person and go with that, as I recall certain kids liked certain kind of music back then, and wouldn’t be caught dead listening to any other kind. What do these people listen to three decades on? I’m assuming hardly anything, for most. But I’m also assuming that when they go to something like a reunion, they’ll want to hear music from that time period, mixed in with newer popular songs that they’ll occasionally grab onto via their kids and such.

The quibbling aspect of all this is I have a very large, detailed collection of digital music, but I’ll often skip the most obvious hits by an artist for more obscure album cuts. Why? Because the originals were played to death and I never had any urge to buy them again digitally. But, given this context, I found it prudent to double back and get these huge tracks. Even more painful is that I’ll have either greatest hits packages or the actual albums/CDs these songs were on … save they’re back in my apartment, still waiting for me to move back in after the fire! It makes sense to do this now as I have more time on my hands, so I’ve simply re-downloaded about two dozen tracks like this. (All told, I’m just under 2,000 tracks for the whole project.)

Two great examples are “Dancing Queen” by ABBA and “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Rhapsody is one of my all-time favorite songs, and I was shocked that I didn’t have it in my digital collection. Whereas most ABBA has now been done to death over the past two decades. I can still recall not being able to find one ABBA CD, greatest hits or catalog album, back in the early 90s when not everything was making the jump from vinyl to CD. There was rumored to be a 3-disc Italian import floating around, but I never saw it. A year later, ABBA Gold, the first CD compilation came out in the UK, and I scarfed it up, later getting all their back catalog, despite the fact that I’d never owned one ABBA album in my youth. (This was way before the Mamma Mia musical or any of the Australian, ABBA-based movies; ABBA was essentially dead in the early 90s, which was why I was looking for them.)

And then there’s bands I didn’t much care for at the time, but recognize most kids did. I’ve already dealt with this as a fan throughout the 90s and 00s, realizing I had nothing against these bands, save they were constantly in my face as a teenager while I was scouting out more rarified new-wave and indie music, thus feeling obliged to shun this more popular stuff like the plague. Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Def Leppard. I always begrudgingly liked a lot of this stuff, but as time went on, I doubled back and made sure I had at least one solid hits compilation, while digitally cherry-picking album tracks around the web that I remembered from the radio.

Ditto, 80s bands that came into play when I was already into young adulthood and in no way had any interest in these bands. Think hair metal. Bon Jovi, Poison. I absolutely hated this stuff at the time. But can see now it was simply well-structured if extremely surface pop, with an image thrown on top of it to sell to kids. And I’d wager a lot of my classmates unironically liked hair metal and still do today. Nothing wrong with that, and there are a handful of songs for each artist I’ll gladly throw in the mix.

My “80s Pop Rock” folder on the iPod has become a bit of a mess, because that’s where most of these “hated them at the time/have since made space for them” discrepancies are in my collection. There are times when a track comes up for this time period where I’ll just zap right by it. But I got it in there for just such a circumstance as a class reunion mix, knowing some people out there could like it. Think Whitney Houston, or any slick 80s R&B act. Lionel Richie. Stuff it’s not even fair to say I hated at the time … I simply ignored it all together, as much as I could when it was on MTV 10 times a day. Ditto newer stuff like Lady GaGa. Just not my cup of tea. For these, I’ll relegate them to that one hit track everybody knows them for. Period. If a fortysomething classmate approaches me at this reunion and castigates me for not having more Lady GaGa, I’ll have to ask them what they’re doing even listening to music aimed squarely at prepubescent girls.

Country music? Here’s the thing. It was a rare kid who liked country music in high school back in the early 80s. I wasn’t that kid. I fucking hated country music back then, as did most of my classmates. Of course, times change, and I’ve written about the doors slowly opening for me as time went on, as there is so much great country music out there. But in the context of a reunion, would anyone but me really want to sit and listen to half a dozen Hank Sr. or George Jones tracks in a row? I doubt it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of my classmates now like country, especially the women, as so much of what came out in the 90s was geared towards an adult female audience. I relegated a few dozen tracks to country, nearly all of it more poppy material, think 70s Glen Campbell, Kenny Rogers, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, The Dixie Chicks. And only a song or two for each. That’s my least favorite kind of country, but recognize a song or two does register with me. A vast majority of the off-the-beaten path country I listen to, think The Gourds or any other longstanding alt country band, would be totally lost in a reunion situation.

Jazz? Classical? Man, forget it. NOBODY in my class back then was into either. I’m sure you’ll find a few now. I’ve surely listened to a lot more jazz and classical in the past few years. But that’s not the stuff of reunions. No one’s going to pound beers and high five to Glenn Gould’s interpretation of Bach’s Sinfonia No 9 in F Minor. Or snap their fingers to an old Charlie Parker track.

The 70s? The 60s? The 50s? As kids in the 70s, we were raised in the shadow of the 60s, thus listening to a lot of what was popular then, via the radio or older siblings. And a lot of 70s music is “our music” as our teen years bridged the gap between the 70s and 80s. (When younger folks ask me what it was like to be a teenager in the 70s, I tell them to put on “Rebel Rebel” by Bowie or “Surrender” by Cheap Trick. Although my reality was more like “Telephone Line” by Electric Light Orchestra.) We had “disco dancing” classes in gym class. I still remember the metal kids standing off to the side, muttering, “This is so fucking gay.” It was a painful thing to watch them do half-hearted disco moves with the rest of us. It was even worse than square dancing, which we did every year, too. That’s what “country music” amounted to for most of us back then: square dancing in gym class.

The 60s were almost as second nature as the 70s in terms of music. At least for the most popular stuff, like The Beatles, Stones and Who, all of whom were still cultural icons when we were teenagers. AOR radio served as a sort of rock school for us, playing all the classic 60s and 70s rock, heavy rotation, in big rock blocks of four songs, and King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts, so that we all knew this stuff like biblical passages. 60s soul music, not so much – it just wasn’t passed on to white kids in the same way rock was, although many of us later developed strong appreciations for it.

Even the 50s had a minor presence. Remember that we were raised watching Happy Days, thus feeling nostalgia for an era when we weren’t even alive. Fifties music was all over 70s pop culture, particularly on oldies radio, which I’d love listening to while driving around at night – just as much an education for me. Fifties music for us then was as country probably is to a lot of us now: a music that wasn’t “ours” in any sense but we learned to enjoy on its own terms anyway.

And that’s the big distinction to make for me as a compiler: the difference between music that was intrinsically “ours” at the time, as opposed to music that wasn’t “ours” and we assimilated along the way. It’s about an 80/20 split for something like a reunion, although the reality in my life has those proportions reversed. Most of what I listen to has very little to do with my teen years, and is an ongoing exploration to hear new sounds, figure out what I like, develop some kind of taste for all these different kinds of music, and bring it into my life in some sense. I can lay this out for people my life in terms of gift mixes (like the kind I do for Christmas every year), but a lot of times, I gather I’m giving music to people to have little or no interest in what I’m giving them, which is why I shoot for the best/most appealing music when I do something like that in hopes of opening a door for somebody, or at least entertaining them when they put on the disc.

No opening doors for a reunion mix! I’m sure these people know what they like and know what they want to hear in a situation like this. I’ll surely be “stumped” more than a few times with song requests. And I’ll surely have some people wonder why I don’t have a certain album track from Sammy Hagar or some 80s metal band that even metal fans are vaguely aware of. But that’s part of the deal. If I can have at least one track for an artist that someone requests, mission accomplished.

I realize that what I listened to at the time wouldn’t go over so well: mainly 60s rock and new wave. I do have quite a bit of new-wave in the reunion mix, but am aiming more for the “greatest hits” effect than a catalog exploration. Because most kids didn’t like new wave in my class at the time! That seems to be a shock for following generations to grasp, but new wave just didn’t sell all that well teenagers in the early 80s. When they first hit, these bands would play colleges when they got into the hinterlands, and it would take a few years of heavy MTV exposure and solid albums to break through to that larger teen audience. I knew two other kids who liked Elvis Costello and The Clash, and we were weirdos. And even with The Clash, I don’t have “Rock the Casbah” in this collection, because I never liked that song and never will. Some songs, I just can’t fathom why they were hits, and that’s one of them.

In a way, this project makes me feel like a ghost, floating down the hallways of our old school, noting who was on the fold-out posters on the insides of lockers, over-hearing stoners in the boys room talking about their favorite tracks on The Wall, girls in the cafeteria explaining how they knew the boyfriend fast-forwarding the cassette to “Keep on Loving You” meant he wanted to make out.

And that world is gone. A few weeks ago when I was back in PA, I went out to the high school to pick up some tickets for that weekend’s football game, which was against old rival Mount Carmel, a huge game as both teams were undefeated, thus the ticket pre-sale at the school. It was the first time I had gone back there since the fall of 1982 (then to pick up my yearbook). Looked the same. Walked up to the front door. First one I tried was locked. Next one, too. And the next one. I glanced over to my left. There was a camera looking at me. And a wall plaque stating I had to hit the buzzer at the far left door, announce my name and intention, then be let in.

It was all a bit unnerving. Back in ’82, we’d just walk into and out of the school, unencumbered by prison-style nonsense like this. But I guess with the advent of kids shooting up their schools over the past few decades, this was now reality. When I got in, it looked the same, but some officious type guy, probably not the principal, immediately told me they were sold out of tickets when I asked. I took one look around then got the hell out of there.

I don’t doubt kids are still going through the same things we once did and will one day feel just as sentimental on occasion, and just as snake-bitten for the bad memories. But that sort of cold, 1984ish reception I got set me straight on nostalgia and any urge to “go back” in time to that place, now that it was in lockdown in anticipation of someone going nuts with an automatic weapon. At least there weren’t metal detectors and security guards, which are standard procedure in most city schools.

Still, doesn’t mean we can’t all get together once a decade and see how we’re all doing, which isn’t the chore or negative experience I had expected it would be before I went to the first one two decades ago. If there’s on thing I learned at both previous reunions, it’s that the music was secondary, not the main attraction at all, just something playing in the background while we all chatted amicably, occasionally ran into old friends, and just as often found ourselves laughing and having a good time with people we never though we would have back then. That’s the attitude I’m taking towards the music and like to think I’ve accomplished. Getting re-acquainted with old friends, meeting some new ones, and discovering I like some people I thought I’d never like at all.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Positively Union Turnpike

Well, by this point, I thought I’d be back in my old apartment. Insurance company did its thing. Architect filed building permits. Contractors came in and took the one/two days to fix my place. But two months later, and I’m still waiting!

I’ve since learned it takes an inordinately long time for building permits to go through in NYC. Weeks, often a month or two. I don’t know when they were filed, but I gather it’s the usual runaround. At first I thought it was insurance company hijinx, but they really stand nothing to gain by letting the process get drawn out. The longer people wait, the more they find wrong/needing to fix. Of course, it’s killing me because I know my place is so minorly damaged and will be ready to go in a matter of days once they start working.

So, in the meantime, as last posted, cooling my heels in suburbia on the far edge of Queens. Doesn’t feel like far edge of Queens. Feels like Long Island. Walk in any direction, save west, and you’re in Long Island. And, man, have I been doing a lot of walking. Just in terms of getting around – essentials like grocery store and laundromat are spread out – but it’s also a good way to burn a few hours on a weekend afternoon, just go for a long walk.

Later today, I plan to head back to the apartment, pick up a travel bag (headed to PA for a few days later this week), a comforter (this place retains cold like a freezer), and a few DVDs (mainly fall-type horror movies). And on the way back, take the bus to Main Street in Kew Gardens, get off, and walk the seven miles back here, as that will constitute my workout for the day. It’s a straight shot up the beautiful Union Turnpike, which I’m learning like the back of my hand as I peer out the bus window on my daily commutes.

It’s a strange feeling seeing the apartment now. The few times I’ve been there since the fire, virtually nothing has been done, and I can’t stand the abandoned feel of the place, the strong whiffs of smoke that are still emanating from the landlord’s apartment. I’m sincerely hoping no one breaks in as we go along here, with all my stuff is still in there, just waiting to be useful again. If this goes on long enough, into early November, I’ll have to get back there on Sundays just to get leaves off the sidewalk; the sanitation department will most likely ticket the house, regardless of the fact that no one’s living there. Not unlike the time they ticketed the landlord because I forgot to peel off the mailing label from a UPS cardboard box set out for recycling.

The one thing I’ve dealt with since then is the usual conversation with someone who has never been through a house fire: they would have put the fire out when they had the chance. In pitch blackness. At 3:00 in the morning. With fire burning in the wall. Even if that was all I had to contend with, I probably could have figured it out somehow. What they’re not getting is the amount of smoke generated in a house fire. Literally could not see more than a foot in front of me, even in the lit hallway leading into the kitchen Movies and television shows do not convey this properly. This is why firemen have enclosed helmets with strong searchlights on the crowns and breathing apparatuses on their backs. When they walk into a fire, it’s a pure wall of black smoke.

This is what I walked into. And got the immediate vibe this would have knocked me out in less than a minute or two without proper protection. (And I would have fallen down, into that bar of clean air beneath the wall of smoke, and presumably been able to crawl out of there, assuming the carbon monoxide effects didn’t kick in too hard.) If I had walked in and seen an open flame, great, let’s run back downstairs, get a bucket, and try to douse it out. But you have to realize, even if the fire wasn’t behind the refrigerator and in that wall, I still would have had to wander around in that smoke until the fire was a foot away to identify it. It’s not like these Hollywood scenes of someone dashing through clear, open air to pick up a passed-out child. Maybe in the first minute or two of the actual fire. But after that, the smoke billows and intensifies … to the point where a fire will not be seen until it’s more than likely too late to put out without the right equipment.

Hindsight being 20/20, first thing I’d do now, upon the landlord yelling down the stairs that there was a fire, would be immediately dial 9-1-1 to report it, THEN run upstairs and see if I could put it out. I probably could have cut off 2-3 minutes from the fire department’s arrival time and isolated the fire completely to the kitchen extension, as opposed to creeping through the hallway and touching into the rest of the house.

The ordeal now is passing time, and how fucking long this thing will take to play itself out. I gather my landlord won’t live in her place for at least a few months. Since her apartment received the most damage and will require serious construction, it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to get things right there. And it would be to her advantage to get her tenants back in and paying rent as soon as possible, which will not be long once the permits come through. Just the whole, obscene process of waiting for these things to come through! You’d figure there’d be a special division just for emergencies like this: fires, floods, situations where a homeowner has been rendered homeless. But it seems like they get thrown in the same bin as some guy who wants to McMansionize his two-story rowhouse … chances are his request could go through faster if he knows someone on the inside. Just tiresome stuff.

About the one thing I’ve grabbed onto in this time is the Union Turnpike, that long stretch of beat-down, strip-malled, auxiliary to major roadways that cuts straight through Queens like so many of those other miles-long boulevards. It’s my lifeline straight back to the subway system, which in turn takes me to Manhattan. I gather people out here don’t care at all about Manhattan. Even in Astoria, you’ll find people who never set foot there, whether out of intimidation or disdain. Hell, I tend not to go in there on weekends unless I have to (which I do for boxing on Sunday mornings).

But it seems to me like the farther you get away from Manhattan around here, the stranger life gets, at least for someone like me who works there every day and has that sense of “New York City” in his head. The suburbs don’t cut it for me: surprise! It just seems like a disjointed way of life I’ll never warm up to. I understand small towns and major cities. There’s an underlying obnoxiousness to a lot of people out here that I just can’t get around. Related to money and status, and the total emptiness that each entails when that’s all people have to distinguish themselves. God knows, you get it in spades in Manhattan. But there, you can always walk around it. Here, it’s everywhere you go, all the time. Which is why I have such disdain for spoiled brats moving into Astoria: they’re bringing that awful sense of the suburbs and entitlement with them, to a neighborhood that was middle to working-class for years. They would have shunned my neighborhood like the plague as little as a decade ago.

I can even sense, waiting for the bus that takes me down the Union Turnpike, the turned-up noses and smirks in the passing cars, you know, the millions of cars packed in the eternal traffic jams around here, filled with miserable, honking bastards having breakdowns as their meaningless urge to do 75 mph down the road to nowhere is impeded. They’d never be caught dead taking the bus! And down the Union Turnpike? Man, just get I-whatever and you’ll be there in no time. (Thing is, when I catch glimpses of the interstates through the trees, they’re usually bumper-to-bumper half the time.)

The bus surely leaves a lot to be desired – it gets unbearably crowded the closer it gets to Kew Gardens. But I’m lucky enough to be on the first stop and always wrangle a window seat, which allows me to listen to music and take in this blemished roadway, the King Yum Chinese restaurant, The Sly Fox Inn, the frat-boy bars down by St. John’s University, the Indian Palaces with $9.99 buffet, the ubiquitous 99-cent stores, the crazy Irish-Peruvian pub down by Springfield Boulevard.

It’s not so much the land that time forgot, as the land that people don’t like to admit is just around the corner and just as much a part of their lives as the perfectly-manicured lawn. That’s what I see as I gaze down the sidestreets along the turnpike. Very much the vibe that you have these ugly, strip-mallish arteries extended all through Queens, but between each, these safe havens of severely over-priced houses, each with lawns of varying sizes, some houses full-blown mansions, others humble bungalows. And I can’t knock that at all. If anything, it’s a relaxing vibe to know that such sedate living environments are so relatively close to Manhattan. The kind of places people go to “raise their kids.” Although I’m not sure I’d want to raise a kid with the kind of monetary values people have drilled into their heads around here … it’s pretty depraved in that sense.

Still, you look at the faces on the bus – mostly Indian and Asian, mostly women – and get the sense that these are the people who are pushing Queens forward, the ones who quietly get on the bus every morning and take that hellishly long ride into Manhattan to earn their daily bread. It’s a whole different vibe from the subway lines, which are rougher in some senses, but as noted recently in Astoria, also filled with too many spoiled white jackasses who bear the vibe of tourists more than neighborhood people. I can see it on the bus, too. The closer you get to Kew Gardens, the more you get that privileged twat vibe from people getting on the bus. I’m just as guilty in a sense – I was totally unaware of what people who lived beyond the end of subway lines did to get to work in New York City – but I’ve been at it a lot longer, have lived in much harder places, than most of these folks, and have the gravitas to back it up. New York City used to be a place where you earned your stripes: now it’s like instant jello.

I can’t help but feel at home on the Union Turnpike. These kind of no-frill roads exist everywhere in America. You can latch on to the Dunkin Donuts, or Subways, or McDonalds, that invariably line these roadways in-between the smaller local businesses, but it’s the road itself. It will take you longer to get where you’re going, stopping at every other red light. But at least for me, it opened the door to another side of Queens I knew existed, but had never experienced. When I think back years from now on these crazy few months following that horrible house fire I survived, I can guarantee you the one crucial piece of real estate that will come to me then, the lay of the land, will be the Union Turnpike and what I saw looking out the bus window every work morning.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Exile on Main Street

The airport hotel started wearing thin when the local Chinese place forgot to pack a plastic fork with my chicken lo mein, and I had to use two airport-logo pens as chopsticks. The morning I left, last Saturday, instead of the telltale whiffs of cigarette smoke that had been wafting from the grate in the bathroom ceiling, someone had sparked up a joint in his room, leaving the shower smelling vaguely of ganja. It was time to check out.

I had quickly grown used to the set-up. Free cable, free wifi, air-conditioning, no cleaning up, no bed to make. The gist was I was heading to a place where none of these options would be available, albeit the surrounding environment would be a typical suburban neighborhood as opposed to living in a strip mall.

On top of that, I had to take the bus into the old neighborhood, drop off my bags at my apartment, then go to the dentist to get two last crowns put in. All this on top of moving to a strange place I’d never been anywhere near before. The dentist part of it went easy. Since this was my last visit, and the crowns already fitted, all I had to do was go in, get them hammered/glued into my head, get a quick cleaning, drop a grand on the credit card, then leave. The cleaning was brutal, as it was the first time I went there. But I gather that’s how these things are supposed to be. It was good to find a dentist in the neighborhood who seemed to have his head on straight and wasn’t looking at me as a dollar sign.

After that, got out my laundry list of things to take to this new place, mostly kitchen and bathroom stuff and packed. Once again, the place was virtually untouched. I could see that someone had come in and bunched my furniture away from what would be the work area under the torn-away ceiling. The windows had been left open all this time, and that was the only way I could still smell the fire, as all those charred objects were still there upstairs. I smelled my bed and clothes: still nothing, smelled normal. In theory, I could move right in, and everything would be working, the electricity, water, gas, even cable. But I knew I couldn’t do this.

Landlord’s daughter came by, and we loaded up her car with my clothes and sundry items. We lit out for the rest of Long Island, a place I sort of dread. I think Long Island, I think cars. Everyone in cars. All the time. Driving from moderately-sized, profoundly over-priced house to various shopping and pleasure centers. But the thing is to be in your car most of the time. And vaguely angry. And always wound up. At least that’s the vibe I often catch from Long Island people in office work. A mild sort of aggression that’s as much a trademark of their surroundings as a Southern accent would be to someone from Georgia. And that Long Island accent … don’t get me started.

We got out to Glen Oaks. We had originally been told New Hyde Park. But that’s Nassau County … 50 yards across the street. The bus that services the neighborhood calls it Lake Success. I’ve since learned Lake Success is the area directly north of here, named after a lake that seems inaccessible to the public and part of some country club type set up. The name itself reaks of suburban wrongness. Lake Success … as opposed to Lake Failure? Mediocre River?

The house looked fine. Not too big, small yard around it, near a huge hospital. As a result, there was virtually no parking on the street, as visitors coming to the hospital would be endlessly circling the neighborhood looking for spaces. And I saw them on the streets, carrying silver-foiled “Get Well Soon” balloons. Grim-faced families walking to the visitor’s entrance, to do that dance of the sick and dying, visiting someone who at least has experienced misfortune, but could just as likely be on his deathbed.

We met my new temporary landlord on the street, an older Greek woman, smaller, very lively and vibrant, glad to see us. I later learned she works at the Steinway piano factory just down the block from where I live in Astoria. For a day job. And has about three or four other jobs she works at night and on weekends. An extremely busy person. She doesn’t like renting out the basement because she’s been burned by bad tenants in the past, but since my landlord’s daughter is a good friend and this is an emergency, she’s up for it.

The place is fine. No furniture. Just bare floors, but a kitchen, small bathroom, small living room and small bedroom, laid out railroad-flat style. We found the refrigerator was broken, that musty freon smell, warm bottles of Pepsi she had stored there. And we walked in on a plumber running his snake through the main drainage pipe as the toilet wouldn’t flush earlier in the day. At this point, problems like this were getting to be old hat with me, as everything about this process since waking up to a fire a few weeks earlier had built-in problems.

The landlord’s daughter and I loaded out all my stuff, then went out shopping for lawn furniture. I had a (deeply uncomfortable) cot to sleep on, but nothing else. All I found that afternoon was a small fold-out pillow chair at Marshalls, which I’ve since found very comfortable, but doesn’t look like much … and waiting in line was excruciating, behind the mothers with 50-60 items of baby clothes and meaningless junk that you always get at discount places like this.

By the time we got back to the apartment, the plumber was gone, and all was reasonably well. I still felt stressed out, just a twilight zone of a day, but that Friday at work, had found that a branch of my gym was a few miles north of us. So I asked the landlord’s daughter to give me a ride up there, let me work out, and she could get back to Astoria in the mean time and let me settle in. This turned out to be the only normal part of my day. A good workout, followed by a long shower, and then a long walk back to the empty apartment. Turns out the distance is three miles. Yesterday, I walked it both ways and found the workout to be fantastic, despite walking along a typically traffic-crazed, leafy suburban road that very few people seem to walk along despite having a perfectly good walking trail.

The next day, I found a really good, comfortable lawn chair at a Bed Bath & Beyond at a strip mall a few miles down the road. That’s how this area is set up. Patches of suburban homes with strip malls every mile or so to service the people who live there.

When I walked north to that health club, I got into the more swanky, country-club style areas, and this is where I have issues with suburbia. I’ve always pictured suburban people as being halfway in/halfway out of a deeply confused life, as opposed to how they see themselves, as “having the best of both worlds” of rural and urban life. They don’t. The patches of rural greenery are illusory. From what I saw, nearly all those vast expanses of countryside were either owned by schools or country clubs, or otherwise off limits to the public, save for a small portion that was doled out as parks. Everything of value in terms of open space was owned by rich entities or people.

The reality is most people live in their allotted space in their moderately-sized houses and spend a good chunk of time driving like maniacs and feeling frustrated in automobiles … because if you were to do a percentage breakdown on lifestyle, we’re talking 80% urban and 20% rural in terms of how these people live. I’ll give it to them that they can get a nice house and stake a claim on a nice small property. But everything else about how they live is predicated on dealing with cars, driving fast in heavy traffic and invariably dealing with crowds of some sort … just like I do in the city. Bursts of tension followed by calm when they pull up in the driveway and close the door on what they have to do to live there. The quality of life doesn’t strike me as being profoundly better. Or worse, for that matter. It just seems like an awful lot of money being spent to avoid people with less money and whatever lifestyle baggage they bring.

And the McMansions. Most of the houses around here are basic, two-story brick houses, some with siding, all looking modest and reasonable, the kind of places hosting families with two working spouses and kids. Except for the occasional homeowner who has blasted out a 2-3 story monstrosity of tan stucco (always, same color, same finish) with two-story front windows, the borders of the house pushing up to the edge of the property line. Just the most garish, out-of-place, vomitous looking houses. These people seem to picture themselves as lords of the manor, when they have some guy named Gus who’s a retired firefighter living there for decades with his wife on one side, and an Indian family making a go with a Dunkin Donuts franchise on the other.

I’ve been here a week now and have acclimated as much as I can. Find myself more drawn to the older Long Islanders, who clearly have a more relaxed, rural vibe about them, probably remembering this place when it had open farmland and no interstates. The commute to work is awful, and hour and a half, taking a local bus down Union Turnpike, then catching an F Train at Kew Gardens in the middle of Queens into Manhattan. The longish part is the bus, depending on the whims of traffic that day, or simple luck, as there are a few branches of the same bus line servicing the turnpike, and very often, my bus will pull into one stop to find it empty, as another bus had already picked up a long line of passengers, only for my bus to hopscotch that loading bus and find 30 people standing at the next stop, where we’ll be stopped for five minutes as they load in. Do this 20 times, and you can see how a trip that normally takes 25 minutes stretches out to nearly an hour. The F Train has actually been pretty dependable with a half hour shot into midtown, albeit very crowded most days. It’s not a comfortable trip at all, the only good parts of which are my stop being near the beginning/I can get a seat, and I can listen to the iPod that much longer.

Most nights, I don’t get back here until 8:00 or later, so the concept of having no TV or internet isn’t so bad (although I can play DVDs on my laptop, which I’ve been doing nightly). Kudos to old friend JS who showed me how set up my smartphone as an informal wifi hotspot so that I have had web access here, although I suspect I’m nearing my data cap and will probably have to breakdown and buy a small wifi modem, which will set me back over $100 after all is said and done for the actual device and one month’s use. Still … much better than nothing. The prospect of no TV (especially during football season) and no web access had me feeling like I was stepping back into the stone age, but having at least a semblance of these two things has made me feel halfway normal.

I feel a bit like Citizen Kane in reverse, that scene were he’s sitting in the dark in his huge mansion, in front of the enormous fire place, and you get that sense of a wealthy man who has become profoundly isolated in his wealth. I guess it’s because this apartment is empty, has marble floors and echoes, that I can tap into that vibe of being alone in a strange place. A much smaller place. A basement apartment on the far edge of Queens. With pretty much every necessity I could pack into a suitcase and gym bag. And some lawn furniture. Living a temporarily nutty existence due to a house fire that blazed away one night a few weeks ago. Taking away my comfort, but sparing my life, a lesson that’s slowly beginning to resonate and sink into my being.

Surely, I could not have predicted a situation like this occurring some time in the near or far future. But I’ve found when something like this happens, the best thing to do is treat it like a wave and let it carry you along, a sort of half-assed adventure you didn’t ask for, but since you have it, just roll with it. Talked to the landlord’s daughter last night, very little progress with the insurance company and architect last week, but she thinks this week the ball will start rolling. Which means someone coming in and fixing up my ceiling in a day or two, popping in a few new window slats the fireman had knocked out, and then a general cleaning. I’m hoping to be back there by October. If only to watch the Phillies in the playoffs! But also because it will be a month since all this happened, and I’d really like to get back where I belong, where I’ve lived since 1999, and get about the life I was living.

Whatever I thought was doubtful or wrong about that way of life, I can tell you, get it pulled out from under you, and it all doesn’t seem so bad from afar. I had a lot of healthy routine: making good, healthy dinners for myself, working out a few times a week, listening to music constantly, probably had the TV on too much, but oh well. I guess if your way of life is such that you spend zero time in your house or apartment, losing it temporarily wouldn’t be such a big deal. But I think if you’re in that boat, you have to ask yourself why you spend so little time there. We’re meant to live in places, create feelings of home and safety, have some place where we can close the door and feel perfectly all right with whatever world we’ve created there. It’s not something you should ever take too lightly, and something you should acclimate yourself to as you get older, because at the end of the day, we were all meant to create a home in some sense and spend time there.

That first work night in this new neighborhood, I naturally took the wrong bus back. Right number, wrong extension. I learned you have to carefully read the flashing neon directions on the front of the bus, as the one I take goes ALL the way out and the other two lines don’t. But as it was, it left me off 10 blocks from the apartment, really not a bad walk at all. So I walked, falling in behind a young couple pushing a baby carriage.

As we walked, a small dog, seemed like a cross between a terrier and a spaniel, kept running circles around us excitedly. I figured it was the couples’ dog, and they weren’t using a leash. After two blocks, the guy turned to me and said, “Is that your dog?” No, I responded, I thought it was yours. Turns out the dog had escaped, and I mistook his excitement as crazed attachment to his masters. We kept walking, trying to collar the dog as we walked, but he was fast and didn’t want to be touched. After a few blocks, he ran into the backyard of about the only dumpy-looking place I’d seen in the neighborhood, a modified double-wide with long grass and a chain link fence. The dog ran right in there and started sauntering around as if he was home. Maybe he was home, and this was some nightly adventure he partook to keep his life interesting. In any event, I no longer had to worry about him being squashed by a maniac driver on the turnpike. As usual with lost dogs, I admired how he carried himself and made a vow to be more like him.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

After the Fire

Well, last report, I was wandering around in front of the burned house in a bit of a daze, two weeks or so back. I spent those weeks leading up to Labor Day back in Pennsylvania, cooling out as much as I could, getting my bearings, trying to relax.

It’s hard to relax after something like that. You try to relax, which means you can’t. “Relaxing” is not something you try to do … it just happens. And it happened, as much as it will at a time like this. Running six miles along the backroads every morning. Having dinner with old friends every few days. Going to a high-school football game.

Of special note was helping old friend T chop wood on the 100-acre property his family owns, half open fields, half forest. After the hurricane, the gist was drive along the trails on the property and remove/chop down any fallen trees, of which there were a few, and then take that wood back to the hydraulic log splitter by the barn and split it into sellable fire wood. A lot of work! But it was a good antidote after having my nerves badly jangled. Sunset, we could see a dozen deer grazing in the tall grass on the horizon. The kind of thing that brings you back in a good way.

Had a strange encounter with a deer while I was out running one morning. I was coming up on an open field along the back road when I saw a fawn standing by the side of the road. It saw me. Stood there. I kept getting closer. Still stood there. Ran by it, about five feet away, and it started to run after me. I stopped. It came up to me. I extended my hand. Maybe doing that finally spooked it, and it bolted. But I was about a foot away from petting a fawn in the wild. One of those very odd, vaguely cinematic experiences we sometimes have in life. I was waiting for the fawn to say, “Everything’s going to be all right, Bill” … but I’m not on any medication.

Labor Day, I caught the bus back to New York and saw the house for the first time since that day. Not much had changed. Windows had been boarded up to fend off the hurricane. Same trash bags were along the side of the house that I had filled with broken glass and other debris. There were a few small branches down in the backyard from the hurricane. But otherwise, it looked much the same.

Went down into my apartment and more of the ceiling had been taken out, due to water damage, but I could see that whenever construction started on that part of the house, it would be over in a day or two. Electricity was on. Everything smelled fine/no smoky residue or anything awful. All in all, everything was in pretty good condition. The gist was I would pick up a few things there, work clothes and such, and then the landlord’s daughter would take me out to a hotel by the airport to stay the next few days while she lined up a sublet farther out on Long Island. I was hoping for something in the neighborhood so I could have that familiarity, but I gather the insane real estate market there now makes that nigh on impossible, so I better be thankful for anything reasonable she could turn up in the past two weeks.

Hotel living is a strange way of life. It’s taught me a lot about routine, how relatively easy it is to establish this, even in the most troubling circumstances. All you need to do is repeat what you’re doing on a daily basis … and this magically provides your mind with some sense of comfort. I know this, because I’ve felt it the past few days in this hotel. Sheets and pillows smell vaguely of cigarette smoke. Any given night, you could be living next door to someone quiet as a mouse, or like the other night, European tourists attending the U.S. Open with loud, hyperactive kids carrying on at 11:00 at night. The streets around the place have that bummy, transient feel you get around any major transportation hub. Popeye’s Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s a nearby Italian Restaurant that’s like something out of Goodfellas. Anyone living in Astoria who wants to escape the yuppies, man, I can guarantee you, no yuppies living in this weird neighborhood out by the airport!

But you know what? Even with all the negatives, I feel pretty comfortable there. Got cable TV, wireless internet access, sense of solitude that isn’t much different from what I have in my apartment. Obviously, I don’t have that sense of home you get in the place you live, but I’ve found that if you’re allowed to do these routine things, life goes on. What worries me about the sublet is that it probably won’t have cable TV or internet access, so I’d have to pop out to sports bar to watch baseball or football, or go to some public place with wireless access to get on the web. May not seem like much, may have you thinking “woe is Bill/eyes rolling” … but, again, any scrap of normalcy comes in handy after a shitty experience like a house fire. I’m sure the sense of living in a house in a normal neighborhood will compensate for a lot, but I’ll have to stock up on DVDs to play on the laptop for nightly entertainment.

I find that the busier I stay, moving around, figuring out how to get to work via bus/train, going to work, these have been good things for the time being. My work situation is such that I may be out of work in a few weeks, based on a decision I made back in early June to leave the spot I’ve been working for the past few years … believe me, for legitimate reasons, a longer post I probably won’t write because there’d be too much bitching, and I’m tired of hearing people bitch about work, me included. I should put an addendum to the earlier notes about routine, that routine becomes bad when you fall into it and stay there simply for financial reasons. I’ve hardly been miserable the past few years, but have put up with a good bit of nonsense for the money. (I know, we all do, but that doesn’t make it right.)

If work does wrap up, I’d probably head back to PA and ride out however long it would take to get back into the apartment. Or if work goes into October, just keep at it. I have money saved up and am not overly concerned about all this. Timing could be better, but I handed in my walking papers for good reason back in June and had no way of knowing something this jarring was going to coincide with the agreed-upon departure time.

Either way, I’m fine with things. It’s hard to explain to people, when you’re standing in front of them and presenting yourself as being totally together, that you nearly lost your life. I’ve explained this to some people at work, and I can tell by their response (lackadaisical), that they just don’t get it. (Or just don’t care?) I guess I’d need to have second and third degree burns or broken limbs to physically show this? I’m not sure if the issue is self absorption, lack of concern, lack of similar personal experience, or all of the above. But I can generally tell when someone “gets” what I’m telling them about this experience and when they’re just phoning it in with the usual clichés. While I’d probably be just as uncomfortable with people falling all over themselves with this, it’s been mildly annoying to grasp just how little some people care.

If my landlord hadn’t woken up that night, for whatever reason, all of us probably would have perished in the fire. I wouldn’t have called 911 two minutes later. She wouldn’t have run out into the street, alerted a neighbor to call 911, too, or pulled down on the fire alarm on the corner (not even sure if that thing worked in this situation). The fire would have quickly and quietly burned its way through the house – we’re talking minutes – to the point where I’d have been trapped in my basement apartment, waking up in the dark to a very bad smoke condition, and rolling the dice to see if I could crawl my way to the door, assuming that and my staircase leading up to the backyard weren’t engulfed in flames, and crawling my way to some type of safety.

Thankfully, she woke up, got me up and none of the above happened. It haunts me that I couldn’t put the damn thing out, but as noted in the previous post, I think I got there a few minutes late. In retrospect, I wish I’d called 911 immediately upon waking up instead of running upstairs and vainly trying to put the fire out. But I had no way of knowing how big or small the fire was at that point. That few minutes could have isolated the damage even less to just the kitchen extension as opposed to burning into the actual house, but I did what I could, and calling when I did surely helped. After the fact, I realized the landlord has a garden hose on the side of the house leading up to the front, where she waters her plants. But I have no idea how I could have used that to put out the fire in the house. She has bars over her windows, and it would have been nigh on impossible to put the fire out with a garden hose in that circumstance.

The period of second guessing has pretty much ended for me, and I’m in the “moving forward” phase. As much as you can move forward when you’re waiting around for your place to be repaired and getting green-lighted to move back in.

Last night, I went to get my hair cut at my usual Russian place. (With the hotel, I take the train back to my neighborhood then catch a bus that goes all the way out by the airport.) Old man wasn’t there, but a younger guy was who was actually very pleasant and gave me a good cut. It was raining the whole time. It’s been raining all week, like the movie Se7en. For whatever reason, I don’t mind, although it’s hard to figure out unfamiliar bus stops by the airport when it’s night-dark with rain pissing down like a cow on a flat rock, which has happened last two evenings. Saturday, I got to go to the neighborhood dentist and get my last crown put in, finishing off a summer of dental work, reclaiming my teeth after years of letting them go. Normal things. It’s good to do them, no matter how boring they are. Boredom has its moments.