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!

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