Monday, February 21, 2011

A Madame Sousatzka Moment

The other night coming home from boxing, I got a seat on the subway train when it pulled into Times Square, and the usual tourist riff-raff and people who just didn't look like they rode my train got off. (You ride the same train long enough, you can spot people who are going to get off in Manhattan before the train hits the neighborhood. And the people who are going to get off on the first stop in Queens to grab the 7 train connection.)

Of course, this concept has been turned on its head in the past few years. People I had once pegged as tourists turn out to be moneyed nudges who now live in my neighborhood, and still carry themselves like tourists.

I'm not going to get into a prolonged bashing of the type, much as I love to. It's always college-educated white folks in their 20s who carry themselves with a seemingly unintended arrogance, despite the glaring fact that there's little physically striking or notable about them. And the insult "tourist" doesn't do justice -- it's more like tourists on safari. Like driving around in an armored jeep taking pictures of animals in the bush makes you one with the land. Meanwhile, the guides can tell what kind of animals are moving around a few hundred yards away in pitch darkness just by the sound of their paws on the grass.

Anyway, I’m sitting next to a hipster couple who, for years, I would have assumed were going to get off at 57th Street to go back to their hotel. At the latest, 59th and Lex, as people like this, once upon a time, would have turned into pumpkins on a subway train exiting Manhattan. But, endless articles get pumped out in magazines and newspapers, rents and real-estate prices sky-rocket over the course of years, and wouldn’t you know it, that air of exclusivity you can only get from paying too much for too little draws in nowhere nudges like this. People who base their lives on magazine articles. A different breed from those of us who moved here because it once was an affordable place to live. We moved here it because it was unhip … now the Converse Hi-Top is on the other foot.

The woman next to me was nothing special. I wouldn’t call her a dog, because that would be unkind, and even if she was technically a dog, she thought she was hot stuff. Just that sort of mousy, sandy-haired, glasses, designer bag, featureless girl who moves here from (insert mid-sized city from Midwest) and now thinks she has the world by the tail because she’s in New York. Again, I feel no need to call her a “dog.” Just an average-looking woman riding the train, nothing wrong with that.

What was deeply annoying about her, aside from her boyfriend whom I’ll describe shortly, was that giggly “sideways glance/whisper into boyfriend’s ear” affectation she had. You just don’t pull that shit on a subway train. Sooner or later, the person next to you is going to be a Cro Magnon who takes umbrage at the frilliness and drops a well-deserved elbow into a rib cage. How many dozens of times have I sat next to assholes like this on a subway train? I used to think, “Is she laughing at me?” when I was a lot less secure. Now, I just see life more clearly: “Asshole.” Not just an asshole – an asshole who will not be part of my life in 15 minutes, so just let it roll. Dozens of times, at least. Although, for the record, it’s usually teenage girls who pull shit like this, not women who appear to be mid-20s.

The boyfriend had a purple/orange mohawk. And white-framed Vuarnet sunglasses. The End.

Honestly, he didn’t seem like a horrible guy. A typical guy whose “hipness” meter has been set to the numbingly low standard of his home suburb, where guys like this are “wild” because of “that hair” and “the attitude” … but in NYC, dicks like this are a dime a dozen. They come here to “belong” … when they don’t seem to realize they’ll always have a spiritual home anywhere with that guy who put a lampshade on his head at a party. Or endlessly quotes lines from movies for “comic” effect. To me, a mohawk seems like a punk version of a comb-over. You’re trying to hide just how ordinary you are with a hair affectation.

He wasn’t throwing off angry or negative vibes – just the same annoying “above it all” vibe as his mousy girlfriend. I’m not sure how you’re above it all with a purple orange mohawk. Riding a subway train. To a neighborhood you never knew existed as little as two years ago. Where you now live on your parents’ dime. Because it’s too damn expensive to afford on your own. And you can’t get any real work. Because it’s so damn hard to find real work with a purple orange mohawk. Why does the world have to be so cruel, man?

But even if you strip away all my disdain and snap judgments… these people annoyed the shit out of me. Would have been the same had they been dressed in corporate garb, or as rednecks, or hiphoppers, or whatever. I can live with the hipster vibe. That same guy, sitting next to me, quietly reading a book, or acting like a normal human being, I got zero issue with him. That’s how subways work. If people act like normal, reasonably-caring human beings, they can be whatever they want, and no one is going to take issue with them.

It was the cute couple vibe that grated on me. Always does. Being in love is not synonymous with being a shithead. Granted, they often appear to be one in the same, but they are not. I’ve been there. When you’re with someone, you feel like you’re traveling around in your own little world. And, in effect, you are – like a rock star with his or her one-person entourage. You have this bubble that the rest of the world will not understand, and defends you from their slings and arrows.

Which is nice when you’re a kid, but sooner or later? You realize, as we all do, the world is not spinning around you. That would be the one thing I’d impart to these two knuckleheads if provoked. Not just to them, but to anyone walking around with a false sense of privilege, which seems like a national past time these days. The world is not spinning around you.

Was I ever like this? Not as a rule or way of life. But I do recall minor incidents of displaying this same kind of arrogance. The one that sticks in my mind was hanging out with college friend Eileen and her roommate Joyce, who had gone to the same college as us, but I did not know her then. They had both moved to the city a few years after I had and got an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Those were the days of drunken 2:00 am subway rides home on a work night. We had yet to be beaten down by the realization that going to work the next day hungover and on three hours of sleep was a very bad idea. I wish I could sit back now and say it was all worth it, but it wasn’t. Nothing magical happened those nights. Just people getting drunk. As they have done for centuries and will do forever. It was part of our images to live it out, until it slowly dawned on us that walking around like a zombie the next day was a drag.

We were at the infamous east-side bar, P.J. Clark’s. The kind of bar I wouldn’t be caught dead in now. Because people hang out there for the name of the bar – it’s not a local for many people. I guess every night is a different mix of characters, but there’s no character to the place. The people running it will surely tell you otherwise, but it’s no different from a generic concept like Hogs and Heffers, which may be a thousand times more obvious and canned, but just as touristy in its own way. Most Manhattan bars suffer from this in one way or another. I’ve found the only way to make them work is to hit happy hour early and get out when it starts getting SRO.

I was flirting around with Joyce, although that didn’t end up going anywhere. And how I got away with this … the bar was so packed that we were wedged in tightly, so I took the liberty of rubbing her lower back and keeping my hand there as we got progressively more drunk. She didn’t seem to mind. I recall working that number a few times back then, which just strikes me as being sleazy and manipulative now, but I guess made a lot more sense with a semi-erection, a belly full of beer and little to no shame.

But that one night, there was a middle-aged woman there by herself. Probably no older than I am now, but one of those people who went to a bar alone to wander around and see what developed. I could never do that – still can’t today. I’m OK with meeting a friend or two at a bar (not a ton of people – as noted, I find myself offended when groups of people try to take over a bar), but drinking alone has just never suited me. Some people love doing that – rolling the dice to see what happens.

Right around that time, Shirley Maclaine was starring in a movie called Madame Sousatzka, in which she played a middle-aged Russian immigrant piano teacher in London who served as a zesty and “wise in the ways of the world” guide to a young Indian boy under her tutelage. Maclaine really did it up: the clipped English accent, the imperious glances, the shawls, the sense of deep culture her students will never fully grasp. (I haven’t seen this movie in years and am not even sure if it made it to DVD.)

Anyway, this woman at the bar, I don’t know if she was drunk or just plain weird, but she spent most of the night walking through the crowded bar, eye ablaze with mascara, clutching a brandy glass she never seemed to drink from, making eye contact with everyone she came across, not saying anything, but either smiling warmly or tossing her head aside, I’d imagine when she came across a face she found undesirable. It was strange. She was done up in shawls, like Stevie Nicks, and was a bit round, not enormous, but heavy. I wouldn’t say people were afraid to talk to her so much as she put out the vibe that one wouldn’t know what to say to her, unless it was to ask her to read a palm or break out the Tarot cards.

As you could imagine, a 24-year-old guy, drunk, with his hand just about on the ass of a beautiful girl … we spent the whole night calling her Madame Sousatzka and giggling under our breath whenever she passed. I recall thinking how pathetic this woman was, wandering around alone in a bar, making eyes at strangers. I don’t know if she heard us, but she had to know we were goofing on her.

And I can see now, this was just a woman feeling lonely, wanting to go out in the night and be around people, but made the mistake of going to the bar that was filled mostly with people half her age. We probably weren’t the only ones making fun of her. But I put it in the context now of my own life and feel bad about that night. Because I can look at how I was then and know I was sincerely full of shit, really had nothing better going on than that woman, no better grasp of life, save I thought I did because I was younger. And I know now being younger means nothing, is no excuse for anything, no reason to feel superior, save physically, which is where so many of us make the mistake of extending that false belief to every aspect of our being.

I couldn’t help but thinking, sitting next to these giggly douchebag hipsters, that they somehow must have been having a Madame Sousatzka moment with me. Who knows. The girl may have been saying, “Doesn’t that guy look like my father?” But I got more the vibe that these two were sharing some secret joke on the world, may not even have involved me, but if I had wanted to be really rude, could have taken off my headphones and got into her face with a “what the fuck is your problem” moment that would have escalated to these two having a moment they’d never forget. I was doing nothing unusual. Looked no different than I do any night of the week, heading home after work or working out, not drawing attention to myself, if anything, as usual, striving to be left alone while I relaxed after another day of running around.

The difference, of course, is back then I was just a guy in a bar, dressed in a relatively normal fashion, whereas this more recent experience, the young guy may as well have been dressed as a giant penis in terms of drawing attention to himself. It was my attitude back then that I didn’t have to draw attention to myself. I was a reasonably good looking guy at the peak of my youth and knew I didn’t have to do anything to make people look at me.

And it never would have occurred to me to carry around that same arrogance on a subway train. Which would have got me killed or severely beaten at the time as one of the few white people in the train, and drawing any more attention to myself, particularly in a way that insinuated making fun of the locals, would have been a bad idea.

I guess I should put it all in context. That same subway train in Queens, heading out of the neighborhood around 3:15 in the afternoon will be packed with gangs of ghetto kids heading back to their grubby neighborhoods from the local Catholic school, many of them carrying on like mental patients and exuding an arrogance that makes anything mohawk boy could come up with seem mild. Would I feel any more reflective tolerating a bunch of jackasses like that? Probably not, and that’s a post you wouldn’t want to read!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Holy Grail

It’s shameful to admit that most of my knowledge of the holy grail myth comes from repeated childhood viewings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Excalibur. Both movies, aside from being a comedy classic and featuring Helen Mirren in her prime (respectively), do a nice job of imparting the myth: King Arthur setting himself and his knights on individual quests to find the holy grail in hopes of recapturing the glory of his kingdom. The grail, of course, is the golden chalice that Christ used during the last supper, thus the mystical connection to a higher power.

What does one do when he finds the grail? In the Monty Python version, while storming the castle that held the grail, King Arthur got arrested by modern-day English bobbies for earlier lancing a TV documentarian who had crossed into the time-space vacuum created by good comedy. The gist is you find the grail and sail off into a golden eternity of permanent grace … sort of like suicide bombers getting X number of virgins in paradise. (I’m not sure why having sex with virgins is considered paradise … reality would be a lot of crying, belly-aching teenage girls asking is it over yet? in pained tones and then cat-fighting while you set about relentlessly jack-hammering the rest. 80 porn stars, I understand. Not 80 virgins.)

I’ve since come to understand that most people are living their lives by the holy grail method. Instead of a golden bowl that held Christ’s blood, they’re thinking wealth and fame more than anything else. Find these things, and you’ll be happy forever. Or someone to marry. Kids. Big house. Not much else fits the bill. Usually a small handful of archetypes that make people feel secure in their lives.

Well, funny things happen on the way to the grail. And even funnier things happen when you get the grail. Sooner or later, it dawns on you that the grail is made of plastic with “Made in China” stenciled on the bottom. Christ’s blood is Cherry Kool-Aid. The myth of the grail fades to the reality of your life, whether you’re fruitlessly chasing it the rest of your days, or have found “it” ten-fold. If you’re married and have kids, it all just sort of fades into who you are. Ditto, fame and fortune. You can surely enjoy the fruits of these labors, but you’re still whoever you are, whoever you were before you set out on this mythical quest.

I’ve never understood the concept of transformation in our lives which, in essence, is the Holy Grail myth. You will be transformed from something lesser to something greater by obtaining this magical thing. Unhappy girlfriends carry on about “personal growth” when all they really want is boyfriends getting new hobbies that cater more to their interests. A vice president strives to become senior vice president so he can move into a more expensive house in a more expensive neighborhood that ratchets up the pressure from coal-shoveling in a boiler room to tightrope-walking level. An actor works his ass off to become famous, only to realize this way of life prevents him from ever walking down the street unaccosted and finds people with cameras chasing him his every waking hour.

I seem to get into these themes of ambition on here regularly – probably because I’m in my 40s and find myself, especially living in New York, puzzled over why people do the things they do. I’m trying to understand the roots of this blind ambition I see in so many people here – and wondering whether I should recognize it as an enlightened state of being or a character flaw. I don’t believe either extreme is entirely true, but having spent enough time around people who have “made it” in some sense, I believe their lives are no better than anyone else’s, save it would pain them to acknowledge that. Way too much time, money and hard work has been spent to ever ponder that.

Value seem to be what all this comes down to. What do you value in your life, and what are you willing to do to obtain what you value? I’ve learned that I value sanity, physical health, reasonable financial security and minor creature comforts. Earlier in life, I thought I would want or need a big house with property to live on. I wouldn’t mind getting a house, but not for the obscene price tag you’ll find in the immediate NYC vicinity. In the back of my head is that concept of a nice house with property – sure, I’d like to have that – but it’s not a burning priority. I’m shocked that I can live in a small apartment, but I’ve learned that having a ton of physical space to roam around in isn’t a necessity. I would value that sense of privacy – I feel like I’m missing that in my life – but I can make-do with what I have. Living anywhere in an urban area, save for the highest-end real estate, you will have to put up with other people’s bullshit.

Which, I’ve learned, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I’d prefer not dealing with pricks on a routine basis, but doing so gives you more worthwhile experience on how to get by in life. Of course, live here long enough, and it’s hard not to try on the “prick” hat occasionally and find it fits very nicely. It’s impossible to spend decades here and walk around in that sanctified state where you forgive every transgression and have eternal patience in every situation. I was that way for about five minutes in 1987.

I don’t’ know exactly how or when I stopped worrying over all those things I once desired – to be famous, married, tastefully wealthy, benevolent lord of the manor. I wouldn’t say no to any of these things, but again, I’m noticing how life works more than what I desire. Living in New York tends to make people strip down their lives to core essentials. How much money do I need to live. How much time and space to stay sane. How many people to feel loved. The answer tends to be “not a lot” to most questions. But in having that reductionist way of seeing the world, that sense of closing ranks also sinks in emotionally.

I think when we’re younger, we sense all these possibilities swirling around us and feel like we have to spread our arms out wide to pull them all in, whether or not we ever pursue them. As times goes on, our arms are occupied only with what we can carry. And carrying things is harder than thinking about things you want to carry. As with so many other things, if you think you’re failing or doing something wrong, the simple ability to stop and question yourself means you’re doing better than you think you are. But we’ve been trained to think anyone who doesn’t make himself highly visible as an archetype of power and success must have failed in some sense.

The quest for the grail! I don’t know where it goes for some people … the quest for the morning can of Old Milwaukee, and anything good that happens after that, icing on the cake. I sometimes think all of the things I noted above are just rationalizations and bullshit I tell myself to get by. But even if that is the case, that’s how life goes, you go along, things happen or don’t happen, and you learn from each turn in the road. When I write things like this, I sometimes think, “Christ, this sounds stupid, like it should be written in crayon, it’s so easy to understand.” But it’s not that easy to understand and often takes years of getting it wrong before getting it right – and I mean living it, not writing it down and thinking that makes it real.

For me, it feels like a sort of muted epiphany, the slow transition from possibility to reality. Our childhood and teenage lives are all about imaging possibilities for ourselves, but the rest is dealing with reality, and finding out what we desired may not have been what it appeared to be. Maybe it was exactly what it appeared to be, and passing time made us see it differently. As a kid who wanted to be a writer and loved rock and roll, so much of life back then was lived inside my head. I distinctly remember doing this constantly – imaging myself as the rock star creating the music I was listening to. I did this for years and listened to a lot of music this way. Again, I can’t pinpoint when I moved away from that fantasy. But now I just listen to music and get as much pleasure from it. Maybe not that lightning bolt of recognition I felt as a teenager, but growth and understanding like I never new at that time.

I think Dad passing along a few years back wiped out that fantasy world. Even before that, 9/11. I can’t explain it, but before that I enjoyed reading, and writing, fiction. Afterward, some aspect of my nature just closed down on fiction. I had no urge to read or write it. To this day, I’ll rarely read a work of fiction, or write any. I guess when you feel your life directly threatened in some sense, it makes the mind shift gears into survival mode, for me at least. And when Dad passed on, that sense of no longer being a kid really sank in. Even at the time it happened, on the cusp of turning 40, I still felt that fantastical sense of being child inside. I came away with much more of a sense of fending for myself in the world, which is exactly what happens when you lose a parent. I wouldn’t even call it losing Dad as a guide – just the reality of one of the few people in the world I knew I could absolutely count on in any situation, no matter what, no longer being there. God bless you if you’re cracked the code and feel that sense of security with a lot of people, because I surely haven’t.

Would Dad be proud of me now?Hell , yeah. He’d be annoyed that I wasn’t making more money and didn’t have a wife and kids. But he’d roll with it. I suspect he always thought “the writing thing” was a load of BS and was over-joyed when I started making more money in NYC offices than he did as a factory worker … in his mind, that was why he sent me to college. Of course, I’ve never been all that happy with this turn of events, but not miserable either, and able to live my life with certain levels of self respect and security that surely made no sense to me through my 20s. Obviously, I think I should incorporate professional writing more into my life, but if you take a good look around the writing world over the past decade, paid writing positions have been disappearing like the rain forest. So I'm not holding my breath on that one.

I think the grail for me was simply being able to write, like this, however I wanted. If you went back to the garden of Gethsemane, chances are Christ wasn’t passing around a golden chalice to the apostles. It was probably a grubby wooden bowl. These guys were on the run, outlaws, about to get the hammer dropped on them by the Romans, not working in any traditional sense, wandering around in dirty robes, just trying to survive the crazy path they had set themselves on against all sanity and reason. I relate to that more than I do golden chalices, and blood, and kings and knights wandering the land, thinking having that thing is going to make everything hunky dory. I always had the grail. Something tells me you always had it, too, in whatever sense the world felt right to you. The trick is not to lose it.