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 clich├ęs. 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.