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.

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