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 na├»ve 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?