Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Year of Living Strangely

A year ago this week, I had a close brush with death: house fire in the middle of the night.  The story I wrote shortly afterwards, and the follow-ups, do a nice job of describing all the emotions you go through with something like that.  I was under the impression that I’d be out of my apartment for X number of weeks or months, but raring to get back and start living there again …

Well, I’m still not there!  Long story short, the NYC Department of Buildings is a pretty foul organization.  The landlord had to get three separate building permits, each of which took 2-3 months to be approved, and during which time no work was allowed on the house.  More than anything, the house laid dormant for most of the past year, with weeks-long fits of construction activity, followed by two months of waiting for the next permit to be finalized.

I haven’t been back there since late March, at which time I was bagging up all my belongings as the decision was made to take down and replace the walls and ceiling in my place.  I guess it was within the budget, and I can’t get mad at anyone for that as it made sense.  The last permit was approved in early June, and I’m gathering this should all be wrapping up in the next month or so.

I wish I had known it was going to take this long!  I don’t think anyone did.  I can still recall the landlord’s daughter telling me, “We should have you and the upstairs tenant in by Christmas, and my mother by Easter.”  The original concept being they’d first fix these much-less damaged apartments and then go in for the big fix on the ground-floor apartment where the fire was.  (Mostly the back extension where the kitchen was … there was only smoke and water damage on the rest of that floor.  Admittedly, every time I’d been in the house, the stench from the completely-burned extension was hard to handle.)

But then it changed to refurbishing the whole house, floor by floor, rewiring the electrical and moving the motherboard up to my landlord’s apartment, re-doing the plumbing as they noticed it could use some work.  And that’s when it became a multiple-permit, year-long endeavor as opposed to a project occurring in stages with people moving back in as each floor became livable.  I gather the entire extension was torn down and rebuilt.

The house should be in top shape when it’s done.  The wiring, especially, was a constant worry, and what caused the fire to begin with.  Every time I plugged something into an outlet, I half-expected a popping sound and burst of smoke.  Not a good feeling!  But also new refrigerator, new walls, ceiling, maybe even flooring, essentially a rebuilt house.

Life has surely gone on, albeit strangely.  You learn a lot about yourself when you reduce your possessions to clothing, a comfy lawn chair, a wire-frame, roll-out bed, cooking utensils, a laptop with a broadband USB connection, an iPod and a Kindle.  I learned that air mattresses, while comfortable, aren’t made to use for indefinite periods of time.  The two I bought went pffft after about two months, although that might have been my fault for routinely putting in too much air.  The roll-out bed that the landlord’s daughter gave me shortly thereafter, while no frills, has worked out fine, although it makes me feel like an inmate sleeping on it.

I’ve realized that so long as I can listen to music, watch DVDs, get on the web at night, read books and exercise … life is fine.  This is pretty much what I did in Astoria!  It’s pretty much what I’d do anywhere.  And go out to eat at local eateries.  Shop at local stores.  Do a lot of walking.  As I’ve mentioned previously, most people I know in the NYC area are spread out, so it’s not a matter of being ripped from my old neighborhood … as I had originally felt.

At first it was unsettling to realize my surroundings were this inter-changeable.  But it dawned on me that this makes sense.  My life as an adult isn’t based so much on where I live as on how I choose to live it.  Once that realization sunk in , probably around Christmas, I started feeling like a normal human being again, just one thrown into a strange circumstance that he had to roll with and see where it went.  That day, I got my ass out to Bed Bath & Beyond, bought their over-priced cookware to make up some chili, and got off that asshole “college kid in a dorm room” diet of Hot Pockets, Ramen and canned soup.

Would I do it differently if I could go back?  Hell, yes.  Get one of my recliners, my mattress and my TV/cable box.  Life without TV?  I’m not here to lecture you on how much better it is.  It’s really no better or worse.  When I’m around TV now, like when I go back to PA for a routine visit, I don’t go insane watching everything for hours.  I’ve missed TV mainly for sports, but have come to realize, most times I have it on, it’s just sort of on, and I’m watching to pass the time.  A force of habit more than anything.  I’ll need to think about exactly how I want to have cable internet and TV in my life when I get back, as the internet hook-up is essential, but I’m no longer so sure about TV.  The monthly bill for both was creeping up to $120, which was grating on me something terrible before all this happened.

About the only thing that makes me feel strange living out where NYC fades into Long Island is walking … and how alien that simple function is to the vast majority of people who live out there.  Nobody walks out there.  Anywhere.  Walking three miles back from the gym on a Sunday afternoon?  Or a few miles home after getting off the bus early on the Union Turnpike so I can get in a workout?  You’d have to be a lunatic to do these things to judge by how people react when I tell them this.  Or a Sikh!  Those are the only people I see walking for exercise, old Sikh couples who nod and say hello whenever we cross paths.  (For the uninitiated, Long Island and the far edges of Queens have seen a tremendous influx of Indian immigrants over the past few decades.)

The suburbs of NYC are heavy car cultures, as everything is more spread out.  As a result, the concept of pedestrians walking to the laundromat or supermarket – things that are normal in any NYC neighborhood – are viewed as laughable anomalies by most people with that suburban mindset.  The pain of it being their communities are perfectly geared to handle this.  You’ll find mile after mile of sidewalks that are wide, unbroken and immaculate.  That walk from the gym, between towns, is along a rural/suburban four-lane highway with a paved walking path recessed about 10 yards from the road.  My weekend five-mile run skirts a major roadway, then a few huge hospital parking lots, then two industrial parks with no traffic so that I’m essentially running without stopping the same way I would in the country.

Yet people in cars gaze at me as if I’m in a Satan costume when they see me walking by the side of the road.  I’ve made that afternoon walk without seeing another soul, a few dozen times, in perfect weather.  There are more people riding bikes, but seeing them is almost as rare as seeing pedestrians.  You need a Texas-sized set of balls to ride a bike in the suburbs of New York.  So many car drivers have no respect for anyone else on the road.  Bikers?  The smart ones I’ve seen travel in small groups, so they’re less likely to be hit-and-run.  If I’m not mistaken, most highways in that part of New York, be it the city or surrounding suburbs, have speed limits of 35 mph, surely no more than 45.  Yet I’m constantly seeing cars doing well over 55 mph.  And walking over glittering pools of broken car window glass in so many intersections.

It’s a ramped-up way of life out there that extends beyond how people drive.  With no hope of ever ramping back down.  The odd thing is people are ramped up so they can try to relax: a self-defeating way of life.  You can’t relax when a good part of your day is spent seeing other people as necessary evils you need to dominate in some sense, whether we’re talking some guy in an SUV on the Northern Parkway, or your neighbor turning his humble bungalow into a grotesque three-story fortress that takes up every inch of his property.  Which is not my problem.  I can’t relax if I’m overly concerned with all this extraneous bullshit, so I’ve learned to let it go as much as I can.  Can’t single out Long Island for that – it’s all over, not just New York City, pretty much everywhere I go these days.

That’s the main thing I’ve learned living out there.  My way of life is no better or worse … simply geared towards less consumption, less material wealth, more mental and physical well being.  No sense of false superiority … just an urge to simplify my life as much as possible.  Which is wildly out of place with the general consensus, but I’m sure everyone out there has something in their lives that’s just as out of step with everyone else.  I do get a sense of the city falling away when I get on that Union Turnpike bus and take it a few miles farther out to the edge of Queens.  It’s much more quiet at night, a little cooler.  Less people along the road?  Shit, NO people along the road!  They’re all in their houses or driving like lunatics to get from local retail establishments back to their houses.  Where they bolt the door and fire up the cable TV.

Neighbors don’t talk to each other as much I’d think they would.  Again, same story in Astoria.  Same story in rural Pennsylvania.  There are certain neighbors you really get along with and make a point of saying hello to when you see them.  But it seem like the whole point of living in a house is to separate yourself from everyone else, to have this calm little oasis you can call your own, hell, even if you’re only renting.  I can’t bemoan any “loss of community” because I haven’t really felt that since I was a kid in the 70s.  When I go back to PA, I don’t talk to most of the neighbors unless I see them on the street. 

That sense of “stoop sitting because no one has air conditioning” that so many older New Yorkers are fond of recollecting … man, long before my time.  About the only situation I’ve had like this out there was the time the landlord inadvertently turned off the sewage pump to the house, thus causing a minor shit-water flood in my place, that surely provided for an angst-ridden few hours.  But when I got home from work that night, she had contacted a coworker who was also the super of his building in Astoria.  He had immediately diagnosed the problem, helped with the minor clean-up, and we sat around the backyard afterwards having a few Coronas while he regaled us with “building super” stories of finding days-old corpses and being left with valuable antiques and such because relative never came by to pick up possessions left behind by dead and missing tenants.  That was nice and reminded me what it’s like to have a few beers in the backyard in the summer, as opposed to scurrying home and closing the door on the world.

This is why people go to bars.  This is why I go to bars!  Or restaurants, to catch up with old friends on occasion.  It used to be my life was filled with these sort of engagements, but I noticed this in my 30s, everyone gets so spread out, and involved with their own lives, that these meetings spread themselves out accordingly as opposed to happening all the time.  I guess I could force these things, but they’d feel just like that, forced.

Whatever I’ve learned the past year in that regard, I’ve been learning all along, and the lessons really had little to do with the fire.  What I learned from the fire?  Simply that the possibility of you being here one moment and gone the next is ever present.  And this doesn’t compel you to jump from air planes or visit Tibet or call up old flames and read them the riot act.  You just sort of quietly grasp this quality of life and go on living, knowing that you could wake up one night to a wall of smoke and flames, and that might be all she wrote.  What can you do in the face of that, but go on living, not with any sort of vengeance or new-found knowledge, but with the understanding that we’re all living on borrowed time.

I don’t think that should be depressing or have any more depth than the same way you notice a bird outside your window, or how much cooler the mornings are come late August.  The defining characteristic of adulthood is an understanding of death.  What we have now is too many people who cling to their youths and that mind-set for decades into their adulthood, rather than moving with the tide and knowing that every wave expires on the shore.  Horror movies are effective because they play on a childlike/teenage fear of death, and it only makes sense to be afraid when you’re that age, because it’s all laid out in front of you, waiting to happen.

But halfway through?  You had better come to terms with this thing.  Because you will see it happening to your parents, your relatives, and even a few friends as you go along.  Nearly happened to me one night this time last year!  It makes you hard in ways that you were meant to be hard.  And it opens you up in a strange way because you realize that ultimately you have no defense, you can only fight so much, because in the end, everyone goes.  That might be the only thing I learned from the fire, and it’s an ongoing lesson that first truly registered with Dad’s passing a few years ago.  I’ve always appreciated life, but sooner or later, you need to appreciate death.  And see it clearly sometimes, like your shadow.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rock and Roll High School

Not going to be writing about the bad movie that so many Ramones fans claim to be a cult classic.  I’m thinking more of the odd memories I have when rock and roll crept into our routine high-school lives back around the turn of the 1980s.  When teachers caught wind of the sub-culture and realized: we really were a bunch of assholes.  I’m sure nothing has changed.  But here are a few situations I still recall.

Harry Chapin.  This one isn’t so much rock and roll, but it sticks in my mind.  Ms. M was one of my favorite English teachers, a former model who came back home after her time in NYC must have not agreed with her.  She became a teacher and was known for having a big, horsey laugh, which seemed out of place on such an attractive woman.  It wasn’t unusual for teachers to bring rock records into class for a certain theme or lesson, always English class, anything to stimulate kids into writing a tolerable 500-word essay.
I still remember how hard it was for so many kids to write anything.  They just couldn’t formulate their thoughts into even the most basic themes.  It’s strange to me because I took to this like a duck to water, one of those rare kids who longed for essay questions, because I knew even if I didn’t know what the hell I was writing about, I could make the teacher see I was a smart kid trying to grasp the concept, and thus get a better grade. 
But your average kid in high school, despite reading plenty of books along the way, newspapers every day, magazines routinely … couldn’t put together a single, readable paragraph.  There would be kids in high school writing these short pieces that read like a second grader describing the sky.  All because they froze up and viewed this as something they never tried before, and would be judged harshly because they didn’t know what they were doing.  And that rigid sense of impending failure is something that would freeze up any writer.  If you think you’re going to suck, you will suck.  That goes for a lot more than writing.
Thus, some music to help open up the kids creatively.  I can’t remember why, but for one writing class, she brought in some Harry Chapin albums.  Chapin had passed away that summer, in an automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway.  We all knew “Cats in the Cradle,” a massive 70s hit absorbed into everyone’s musical DNA.  But not much else.  So she started playing his hit album Verities and Balderdash on the turntable.  (I remember this album because Brother M freaked out over it upon its release in the mid-70s; he zoned in on “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” as the song mentioned a banana truck having an accident just outside Scranton, PA.)
Some kids started to snicker.  Folk music.  This is the guy who did “Cats in the Cradle”?  Oh, man, what next, John Denver?  That’s how kids are, they laugh at new things they don’t understand, and most kids surely weren’t on the aging folk-singer bandwagon.  Hell, most of them thought Styx was better than The Beatles.
I don’t think she dragged the needle across the record to make that horrible scratching sound, but everything stopped cold.  And Ms. M freaked out.  Tears in her eyes.  Raised voice, nearly screaming, words along the lines of, “Harry Chapin was one of the best folk singers who ever lived, and I will not have you laugh at him like this when he just died a few months ago.  I try to broaden your horizons, and this is what I get in return?”
Most kids were shamed enough to stop snickering and avoid eye contact.  We sat there in silence while she quietly wept at her desk, clearly having one of those “what am I doing with my life” moments.  Honestly?  I thought Harry Chapin sucked!  I’ve since become more of a fan, have about a dozen of his tracks on the iPod, and like the pop-folky story/song vibe he had going.  But his image had that “overly serious, hairy-chested, pseudo-macho, pop/folk singer wearing boots and being taken way too seriously for his own good” vibe about him.  Started in the 60s by Barry McGuire with his silly song, “Eve of Destruction.”  We’d all seen too many variety shows on TV that would always feature a singer like this, like Neil Diamond or Gordon Lightfoot, gazing off in the middle distance, gold medallion gleaming on hairy chest, because his leisure suit with ruffled sleeves was open to his navel,  while an orchestra swelled behind him … and the whole thing felt like a 10-ton bag of shit falling from the sky.
Ms. M, while not considered hip by the kids, actually was pretty hip.  We had another project where we had to go through old yearbooks and note changing trends among kids over the course of years, and we found her graduation yearbook around the turn of the 70s, with her stunning picture … and the notation that she loved Jimi Hendrix!  This would have been a much hipper personal tidbit to spring on the kids, but she kept it hidden.  Kids regarded her as a strict disciplinarian, but I always got along with her because I could see this side of her.  And understand how someone born and raised when she was would be a huge Harry Chapin fan and hold that music dear to her heart.  But kids are pricks!
The Clash.  We’re in that same class, later in the school year.  Once again, Ms. M turns to music, but this time, it’s our turn.  We should bring a copy of the one song we love the most, write an essay about why we love it so much, and read it while the song plays in the background.  I’m sure I picked a Beatles or Kinks song at the time.  “Lola” was my favorite song in the high-school yearbook, a choice I’m still comfortable with.  Most kids picked the usual dreck floating around at the time: Journey, Styx, Boston, some disco, Barry Manilow.  Man, high-school girls, especially Catholic girls, loved Barry Manilow.  The metal kids would bring in Sabbath or AC-DC … it was pretty predictable.  A metal kid wouldn’t bring in “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian, even if the song nailed that teenage sense of dislocation he knew intimately as a stoner.  Most kids simply weren’t that generous or smart enough to recognize different people going through the same shit.
But there was one girl in that class who freaked out everyone.  She was a pretty girl, not a knockout, but I remember her being attractive, a grade behind me.  I always liked her, but never acted on it, which was my mistake, because I recall us making eyes at each other a few times.  And I would learn why in this class.  The day it was her turn to read her essay, she came in “dressed like a punk.”
That wasn’t true.  She was more a new-wave, slightly pre-Go-Go’s chick, but close enough to punk for everyone to think she was punk.  I think she had a neon blue headband, a very sexy short leather skirt with black stockings, and some sort of black/gold striped top that showed off her cleavage.  She looked great – all the guys were looking at her differently that day.  It occurs to me that she must have looked a lot like Pat Benatar … without the buck teeth!
Her composition was on The Clash, the song “Lost in the Supermarket” from the London Calling album.  You have to understand something about rural America, the early 80s and punk music.  Which is to say most of those kids thought “punk” sucked.  Punk meant anything from The Sex Pistols, to The Ramones, to Elvis Costello, to The Clash, to The Talking Heads … even to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Punk was really rock and roll and new wave, but had been marketed as such to be the next step in rock.  And most kids were entirely comfortable with their older siblings’ taste in Classic Rock (Floyd, Led Zep, Beatles, Stones, etc.), Heavy Metal (Sabbath, AC-DC, Deep Purple, etc., a long list) and their own taste in current big rock bands (Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Boston, etc.).
Punk was for faggots and weirdoes.  I know … because I was one of about five people in the high school who owned any “punk” albums, and at that point, we’re talking the most cursory, plain collection: Elvis Costello, The Talking Heads, etc.  I’d hear a song like “Mirror Star” by The Fabulous Poodles on WZZO, the classic-rock station out of Allentown, recognize it as a good pop-rock song, rush out and buy it, which wasn’t a mistake, that was a good album.  But most kids would have viewed a relatively harmless, tasteful rock band like this as “punk” because they were British and being marketed that way.
I really didn’t like the driving, chainsaw sort of punk that The Ramones helped create … still don’t, it’s boring as hell.  The Ramones were different in that they were actually a rock-and-roll band.  But a lot of what sprung from them, the mohawked bands who would play underage shows, barking out their unintelligible lyrics and slam-dancing … I hated that shit.  That was punk to me, as opposed to the new wave I grew to love.  Green Day was probably the last big band to break out … starting as this bratty, loud punk band … only to realize their lead singer had some raw talent and could grow … which immediately meant all the punks hated him.  It seemed like a shit proposition to me, like wanting to be 15 years old forever.  Man, I was more than glad to leave 15 in the rearview mirror.
But this pretty girl brings in London Calling and starts expounding on how much she connects to “Lost in the Supermarket” (which I did, too, the song on the album that initially grabbed me), which is really a disco song done by former punks.  Even worse! 
Kids just sat there stone-faced.  If this was on a stage, you’d have seen a huge hook extend from the side curtain and pull her off.  The vast majority of kids at that time hated punk/new-wave music.  The sales numbers bear this out, too, from that time period.  Older fans, people in college and their early 20s, were buying this music in droves.  But that huge driving market for pop music, teenagers, simply were not buying this kind of music.  They would shortly.  The Clash would have a huge hit two albums down the road with Combat Rock, but it took that long, a few years into the 80s, to slowly turn things around.  At which point, MTV and synth pop took over, and things got  very strange and hollow.
But I’ll never forget that pretty girl in her headband, standing there about as alone as she could be, and listening to “Lost in the Supermarket” with her.  When the song ended and it was commentary time, most kids were too embarrassed to say anything.  But I immediately chipped in and started a dialogue with her about the album, saying how much I liked “Train in Vain,” too, and had just bought the first two albums as a two-fer set up at Record Town in the mall.  The look on her face – she just opened up and smiled, thank Christ, one person out there gets me!  We should have left that class, arm in arm, and started a relationship right there, heavy petting and hand jobs while listening to Give 'Em Enough Rope on the stereo console in her parents’ rec room.  But I surely had my head completely up my ass at the time not to recognize this perfect opportunity.
The Vo-Tech Guitar Hero.  There were a few kids like this.  My friend Jim R was one of them.  Guys who got stoned.  A lot.  Smokey vans in parking lots.  Clandestine meetings in the woods where the peace pipe went around the circle.  These guys didn’t smell like cigarettes.  They smelled like pot.  And it didn’t seem like fun.  It seemed like a job, like a three-piece suit they had to wear every day as part of the stoner routine.  Drugs were meant to be fun, relaxation, blowing off reality for a few hours.  These guys wanted to blow off reality forever.
Vo-Tech is short for “vocational technical,” and back then, kids who were interested in acquiring skills for a trade, like carpentry, farming or bricklaying, would go to the vo-tech school for part or all of the school year.  They got to take a lot of these construction-type classes, or also food preparation and things like that.  It was a strange sort of academic defeat to go to Vo-Tech, a mild copout, because if you went to Vo-Tech, you weren’t going to college.  You were probably going into your father’s construction company or farm or something along those lines.  Or you were just a kid who got high a lot and wanted out of the more academically-inclined high school.
But I’m sure some of those guys are having the last laugh now, with their own construction companies, possibly making six figures and taking some satisfaction in barely getting through high school, yet coming out so well decades down the road.  Or at least I hope that’s the case for a lot of them!
Jim wasn’t a Vo-Tech kid, but he would sit in the cafeteria sometimes with those guys, and they all had acoustic guitars.  And they weren’t bad!  Jim was a huge Neil Young fan, and we’d have constant debates over which was better, After the Gold Rush or Rust Never Sleeps.  He really could play, just about any Neil Young song, and that wasn’t easy.  But he’d sit with these guys, future plumbers and welders, often playing “Hotel California” … and they’d be note perfect.  If not that, then “Pinball Wizard.”  Which sounded fantastic with three guys blasting away on acoustic guitars.
At one of the big auditorium presentations we had periodically, one of these guys served as a guitar tech and roadie for the band that had played.  I can’t even remember what they played, but high school feeling like prison, it could have been a hand puppet version of Waiting for Godot, and we would have been overjoyed just to get out of class and do something different.
Well, the show ended, and this kid, with his long, straggly hair and nicotine-stained fingers, got hold of the guitar he had set-up and started wailing.  It had to be “Stairway to Heaven.”  When he started playing, everyone stopped leaving the auditorium, went back to their seats and started applauding wildly.  It was spontaneous, and the teachers didn’t know what to do.  So they let him play.  And play he did, even handling that 12-string guitar break where the song then speeds off into a faster solo.  He had obviously played this song a thousand times in his bedroom – his eyes were closed the whole time.  And the kids went nuts the six or seven minutes he was up there playing.  Those few minutes were as exciting as any professional show I’d see as an adult.
But like a warden who knew when to reel in the inmates, the principal waited for the song to end, and pulled the plug, escorting the kid off the stage.  He was raising his clasped hands over his head like the heavyweight champ of the world.  Standing ovation.  I often wonder what happened to him.  Not then.  I’m sure he got some after-school detentions for his impromptu performance.  But I gather he never turned into that Joe Perry-type rock star, who was an outcast in high school, but turned that confusion and rage into rock-and-roll superstardom.  Most guys weren’t Joe Perry.  They were just guys who liked to get high and play guitar with their friends.  I would hope they still do!
And I noticed something weird on the recent tour I took of the high school as part of my high-school reunion.  This is the music room.  Check out that back wall.  There must be a dozen acoustic guitars hanging there.  I can assure you, they weren’t there when I was a kid.  All we had was a few boxes of percussion instruments and a moog synthesizer, which we could only play on special occasions.  Do you know how overjoyed I would have been to have a music class where I could have learned basic chords on a guitar?
So I have to believe, that lonely stoner kid on the stage, taking a chance and letting everyone know who he really was, moments like that, led to all these guitars on the music room wall in 2012.  It was a good thing to see.