Category Archives: pesonal essay

Living with Strangers: Crown Heights Revisited, Part I

Vikki was a hot mess when I met her. She probably still is. I don’t blame her. After all, she only had a couple days to find a schmuck desperate enough to pay $900, plus utilities, to live in a closet marketed as a bedroom.

Had I known how the room was I would not have come, but in the Craigslist ad it was described as an “amazing space” complete with hardwood floors, molding, and a large window. The apartment itself was a two-floor affair, something I’d never heard of or had even thought possible in a normal New York City.

As soon as I got to the neighborhood Vikki texted and told me she would be late, so I found a choice spot on the stoop and sat down. The apartment was only a few blocks away from Charlene’s place. An older black man came out of the building and nodded at me as he brought out some trash. A younger white guy walked up, hauling a bass up the stairs.

I knew Vikki had arrived when a red car tore down the street, came to a screeching halt, and turned a three-point turn into a ten-point turn as she wedged into a no-parking zone. The door flung open and out she stepped, every frazzled fiber of her being. Vikki had forest green eyes and dark hair that was scooped up into a thick ponytail. Flyaways reached skyward, as if trying to flag down some help. She introduced herself with a handshake, transferring a can of Coca-Cola into her other hand, which also gripped a cigarette. Her newly freed hand was cold and trembling despite the summer heat.

She told me she had just come all the way from Long Island, where she was staying with family, to sign the lease prior to showing me the place. Before that she was living in a room share in East Harlem.

“It was awful.” She shook her head and left it at that.

Vikki’s uncle had to sign as her guarantor for the apartment since none of the occupants were very gainfully employed. Vikki did freelance film production. In her Craigslist ad she had mentioned that two of the roommates were cartoonists. The cartoonists were brothers from Turkey whom she lived with in East Harlem. She described the brothers and herself as “comic book nerds” who were gearing up to go to ComiCon. When I wrote to her I told her I was not a comic book nerd, but definitely some sort of nerd.

Vikki led me to a first floor apartment. The keys were still new to her and the door put up a fight when she tried to unlock it. I held her soda as she did battle. Vikki’s shaky hands belied a strong will, and the door finally yielded.

Every stray hair, bead of sweat and deep drag of the cigarette gave Vikki the air of a general who had just come from battle. The skirmish with the door was nothing compared to the warfare involved in getting a lease in New York City. She had gathered the troops, paid the mercenary brokers, crossed the Rubicon and now she had the keys to her kingdom. But her kingdom turned out to be a wasteland that no one wanted to live in despite several aspirational garnishes that tried to distract from the overall offering.

While it’s good and well to lower your standards of living if there’s some sort of economic sense in it, this was not the case in Vikki’s apartment, or much of New York City in general. The pressures of time also make people less discerning. In a fix they will throw in the towel at the first available apartment, even if it lands in a bathroom with missing tiles and mold growing on the walls.

I actually do not remember the bathroom at Vikki’s place, but there were other things that stuck out, the first of many being the bedroom.

disappointment

It was not a room with a view; it was barely a room with a window. The window was rammed against the left wall—actually, the wall was rammed against the window. The window preceded the wall by at least a few decades, and must have been part of a large and stately room once. The room was adjacent to the kitchen, so perhaps it was a dining room. Whatever it has been, the room had been ruthlessly bisected by an overzealous landlord who knew that the best way to increase rent was to also increase the number of millennials who would live together. Right below the window there was molding—but it too was cut in half, and now it was nothing more than an incomplete rectangle that hovered below the unhappy window, which looked upon an unhappy collection of trashcans right outside.

Vikki showed me the other two bedrooms on the floor. One was slightly bigger than mine, but was priced the same.

“Sandy, our other roommate is taking this room. She’s awesome. She’s such a sweetheart,” said Vikki, using the hackneyed marketing vernacular of Craigslist, which was apropos because that’s were she found Sandy. The other bedroom on the floor was Vikki’s room, which was much larger and had double doors that opened to the courtyard.

“Isn’t this great? I was thinking we could have barbecues here.”

“What if someone wanted to read back here, or something, and you weren’t home?”

I don’t think Vikki though of this, but I had because of all the times I would have used my own yard if access hadn’t depended on Vlad being home and in a magnanimous mood. I eventually figured out that I could climb over the railing of the front stairs and drop down into the walkway abutting the side of the house. But it was often overgrown, or blocked with furniture from Vlad’s restaurant.

Soon after moving in I learned that he started a successful Basque restaurant, complete with mosaics designed by Goran. Vlad sold this restaurant and started an upscale hamburger joint, which was not doing well.

Even when the walkway was not blocked I used the yard sparingly, wanting to minimize the times I peered from my coffee mug, mid-sip, to see a shocked Bob standing only in his boxers, with unkempt morning hair, holding his own morning coffee, or maybe a beer.

Vikki’s flyaways fluttered gently as she held herself still enough to respond.

“Oh, um, I’ll just keep my bedroom door open. No problem. This is one of the draws of the place and we want people to use it. I’ll definitely use it to smoke—I definitely don’t smoke inside. Neither do the brothers. I don’t think Sandy smokes.”

Vikki seemed to try to hide her anxiety behind a veil of copious words. She kept her hand on the handle of the doors as she spoke and flung them open when she was done. Stepping outside, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if she had been drowning in the apartment.

The back patio was an enclosed cement area, perhaps five feet wide and the length of the building. Only two first-floor apartments had access to it. It had no particular aesthetic, but it was an outdoor space, which is an anomaly here. Even more anomalous were the two musicians, who were using the space now for an impromptu jam session. I recognized the bassist from earlier. The other musician was playing a fiddle.

Vikki smiled for the first time–and I might have too.

“Hey! We’ll get live music too!”

“That’s pretty awesome.”

They were the only truly awesome thing about the apartment.

********

Stay tuned for Part II of Crown Heights Revisited! I really did not want to chop up this segment like this, but I also know that reading over a thousand words is a lot to ask an Internet-based audience. Be sure to catch up on the previous installment: Living with Strangers: Washington Heights

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Living with Strangers: Washington Heights

Four years ago, during the last rendition of where-the-heck-am-I-going-to-live I went to various shitholes and met various shitheads, including one woman who didn’t allow cooking in her apartment. There were also many nice people, including one woman who had a pole-dancing stage in the living room.

I visited 670 West 170th Street because there was an open house and I was already running errands nearby. There were not many details in the Craigslist ad, except that there was a yard, and rent was $720.

When I arrived there was a cluster of men arranged on the porch. They seemed to be gathered as some sort of welcoming committee. One was an elderly man whose lanky body was folded into a wheelchair. A grey-haired man with wild curly hair smoked a cigarette by a gate. Behind him a flight of stairs led up to a porch. A tall wiry man with glacial blue eyes, a weathered face, shoulder length grey hair and a long, bulbous nose stood at the landing, wearing a shirt depicting a surfboard. Venice Beach, it read. This guy, who I would later know as Goran, actually looked like he had been abducted by aliens from Venice Beach and spat out in Washington Heights after they decided he was too much to handle. He had a beer in his had that his gripped like a lifeline, and nodded and smiled at me as I passed.

The door at the top of the stairs was open. A calico cat darted out from some crevice, and several tall tropical plants stood sentry in the entry. And to my great confusion, the men all spoke to each other in some Eastern European language. It mingled with Spanish, the lingua franca of the Heights that emanated from every other square inch of the neighborhood.

It was a late afternoon in early May, and the light was a veil of honey that reflected off the mirror in the entrance. The men directed me inside.

“Look for Vlad,” they told me.

Vlad was one of the tallest people I’d seen in New York City, but had the slightly stooped posture of someone who has spent their life interacting with people much shorter than he. He could have been anywhere between 35 and 50, and had a crease between his squinty eyes, which made him look like he lived a life of perpetual confusion. Vlad sounded relaxed and noncommittal as he spoke to me in perfect English, but his voice became deep and commanding when he addressed the men in their Eastern European tongue. I soon found out they were from Serbia.

I trailed Vlad as we entered the foyer, which had two doors. The one on the right led to Vlad’s own apartment, and the one on the left up a flight of stairs to the second unit. Vlad’s tall frame blocked everything from view as we as ascended. The top of the stairs gave way to a light-filled common space and a hallway with three doors. Vlad opened the first door. The room behind it had nice hardwood floors, but they were barely visible beneath all the furniture that occupied it. There was a desk, a bureau, a bed, a shelf, a drum kit. It all belonged to the man who was smoking the cigarette downstairs. Vlad explained that he was some kind of music instructor and the school he was working at was closing—and that he and all his things would be out by the end of the month.

It was a room of eternal dusk. Scarcely any light was able to creep through the window, which was about a foot and a half away from the side of the neighbor’s house.

The rest of the apartment compensated for any lack of appeal the room presented. Vlad showed me the kitchen, where a young woman was emptying the recycling bin. Vlad introduced me to her as Holly.

“I’m Molly.” She blushed as she quietly corrected him.

“Okay, right. This is Molly,” said Vlad breezily before she scurried down the hall. Her long, blond ponytail trailed down her back and almost reached her waist.

The common space adjacent to the kitchen was uncommonly commodious—bigger than some studio apartments I’ve been in. It had a fireplace whose mantle was coronated with plants whose vines nearly tapered all the way to the floor. A table was against the south-facing wall, which had two large windows that looked out onto the yard and welcomed copious sunlight that poured onto the wood floors. On the other side of the room were three armchairs.

“This is really nice.”

“Thanks, we did it ourselves.”

Ourselves were Vlad, his brother Igor, a collection of their friends, and to some extent his mother and father.  I found out later that the family got a loan and bought the place together before Vlad’s parents got divorced.

I could have stayed in that room all day, but Vlad wanted to hurry things along.

“Alright, well, that’s that.”

Before turning back down the stairs I looked out the window and saw the yard, which had been featured prominently in the ad, but had been barely mentioned by Vlad.

“Can I see the yard?”

“Sure,” said Vlad, as if it just occurred to him he had one.

We went back downstairs and entered the first floor apartment, where Vlad apparently lived, to get to the yard. Its long hallway opened out to an airy living room, with plants and a print of Andy Warhol’s Elvis that hung on the wall over a long wooden table. The older man in the wheelchair who had been on the porch was now in the living room, reclined on a bed that was tucked in the corner. The man turned out to be Vlad’s dad, who would soon be sent to live in a nearby nursing home.

The door in the living room opened directly to the backyard. A blanket of green spread out before me, with brick tenements providing a backdrop beyond the yard’s wooden fence. To the left, tall lilac bushes blocked the view of the parking lot next door, and along the right side of the fence was a raised flower bed. It was empty, but full of potential.

“Vlad, would I be able to plant stuff here? I mean, if I rented the room?”

Vlad blinked and hesitated to respond. “What do you want to grow?”

“Tomatoes, maybe beans? Stuff like that.”

Vlad shrugged. “Oh, okay. Sure, that’s not a problem.”

Besides the lawn and the flower beds, there was a patio with tables and chairs and a tulip tree that provided shade.

Now that we were in the yard Vlad was suddenly indulgent with his time, and let me sample the tender grass—it is hard to find tender, untrampled grass in New York City, and sit in one of the patio chairs.

Heading back inside I noticed a grey and white kitten flopping around in a patch of sunlight on the living room floor. I had not seen this kitten before—or its mother, who was staring at me staring at her offspring. Vlad told me she was a few weeks old. Neither of the cats had collars.

“Are they yours?”

Vlad smiled for the first time.

“No, they just live here.”

The kitten clumsily crawled towards her mother, who stared at me with her claws unsheathed. She let herself relax once the kitten found a teat buried under black and white fur. The kitten nursed, and the mother licked invisible dirt from her head.

I decided that this was where I wanted to live. The kitten, the patch of sun, the grass, the delicate, the light, the plants, and even weird Goran all drew me to that place. But it was the kitten that told me this would be a good, safe place.

And it has been—mostly.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment. Until then, enjoy some cat pictures. Also, be sure to read last week’s installment: Living with Strangers: Crown Heights.

Screecher in Washington Heights

Screecher in Washington Heights

Cat in Federico Garcia Lorca's garden, Spain

Cat in Federico Garcia Lorca’s garden, Spain

Cats in Cinqueterre, Italy

Cats in Cinqueterre, Italy

Cat in the Bronx

Cat in the Bronx

Kitty in Inwood

Kitty in Inwood

Cat in the Medici's garden, in Florence

Cat in the Medici’s garden, in Florence

Cat in Cinqueterre, Italy

Cat in Cinqueterre, Italy

Gracie in Kansas City

Gracie in Kansas City

Albus in Chicago

Albus in Chicago

At the Alhambra, Spain

At the Alhambra, Spain

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The Last Days of Big Nick

I was digging through my files over the weekend and found this article I did in February of 2012 on the 50th Anniversary of Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint, formerly at West 77th Street and Broadway. The first time I went to the place was back in 2005 when I was visiting the city over the weekend, and a friend and I were hungry after a late movie. Big Nick greeted my friend–who frequented the place when he went to high school at La Guardia.

The tight labyrinthine place conveyed a cozy sense of claustrophobia. The decades-old tables and chairs did not expand concurrently with America’s waistline, and instead of paint, nearly every square inch of space was colored by signs vaunting menu items–special or standard, signs with declaratives (Big Nick’s is not a library, or a place for open laptops. It is just a SMALL STORE and a good place to eat! SINCE 1962) and signs with imperatives (PAY YOUR CHECK AT THE REGISTER ONLY.). There were enough neon lights to garnish Times Square and a jukebox that played only oldies.

I wrote this thinking I could get it into the local community paper. I was wrong, but now I like to think of it as a primary source that can be used to learn about a vanishing city. After over 50 years of being open 24/7 at 77th and Broadway, Big Nick’s closed in 2013 due to a rent hike. Its loss was mourned near and far, and left many an Upper West Sider wondering where the heck to eat at three in the morning–definitely a legitimate question in a city that never sleeps.  

Big Nick’s Turns 50

While time travel remains impossible for most, patrons of Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint were able to step into the past on Wednesday, when the restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering its renowned fare at 1962 prices. Patrons enjoyed quarter-pound hamburgers and a side of fries for less than a dollar. Most people expect to receive gifts on their birthday, but Big Nick’s birthday was a present to the people.

“I wanted to return a favor to the people who came to my place for so many years. I wanted to use this day to say thank you to them,” explained Big Nick, the restaurant’s namesake and founder. In response, people came from near and far to help celebrate.

Cristian Duarte of Washington Heights sat contentedly in front of three recently emptied plates. “I waited a half an hour to get here. I used to come here at least once a week.”

For his loyalty and patience he was awarded a bargain dinner. “Today I had a cheeseburger, fries and coleslaw. I usually spend ten to twelve bucks. Today I spent a dollar and some change.”

Dozens of people stood outside waiting to take his place.

“There was a two block line from 11 o’clock in the morning until now,” said Big Nick himself as the clock approached midnight. He had already been there for over twelve hours, but that man showed no sign of fatigue.

The usual din and bustle of a busy diner swirled about him, but Big Nick was never too busy to offer a warm salutation to his customers. “I never get tired when I talk about restaurants, you know? It’s part of my life. That’s why I succeeded so far for so many years. I’m never tired of it. It’s in my blood after all these years.”

Big Nick’s is now also part of the genetic makeup of its Upper West Side home. Longtime resident Zack Hample, a baseball writer and collector, was indoctrinated at a very young age. “I remember having my sixth birthday party here with my entire first grade class. I’ve definitely been to Big Nick’s more than 1,000 times over the years. There was a time when I was going there so often that Nick gave me a free dessert whenever he saw me.”

Big Nick’s renown is not restricted to the Upper West Side, or even this side of the Atlantic.

“I came all the way from Germany for this,” joked a tall middle-aged German national who divides his time between Munich and New York City. “I have been here many times, the first time in 2007. I ordered a cheeseburger with cheddar.”

Now he comes in every morning for coffee and a croissant.

“I feel at home when I come here, because Nick and all the guys say ‘Hi, great to see you again.’ I was away for two years and when I come back they said, ‘Hey, where have you been for so long?’ The guys here remember you. I send all my friends here. This is, in New York, a unique place. As a European guy, this place to me is like American Graffiti.

American Graffiti takes place in 1962, the same year that Big Nick’s opened. The interior has not changed since then. If the walls could talk, they would have many stories to tell after all these years.

But Big Nick likes to tell his story himself. He came to New York fifty-one years ago from the island of Stamos in Greece, starting as a dishwasher.

Big Nick’s the restaurant also had humble beginnings. “We were here during a bad time on the west side, when the west side was a jungle all around. They used to throw people out of hotel windows. Seventy-second Street was a needle park, with all kinds of junkies.”

Despite the gritty backdrop, Big Nick’s has flourished long enough to enjoy a more Apollonian West side. Since 1962 Nick started six more restaurants in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. As Big Nick’s businesses grew, so did the menu. What started out as a two-page menu offering standard diner fare is now a 25-page tome.

“It’s one of the biggest menus in New York City. We cater to all different kinds of people. We have breakfast, we have late snacks, we are open twenty-four hours a day. We don’t even have a key for the door,” said Big Nick. “The main thing is to keep people happy, you know?”

And that is just what Big Nick has been doing for fifty years.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. It is also in the burgers, the pizza, and the line of customers that spilled out the door and around the corner ten minutes before midnight.

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The Mayors of East Harlem: Part 1

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s hard to quantify the value of this picture in words, but here’s the story.

The day after the explosion

The day after the explosion

“You got it? You good?” asked Jean.

“I think so—I just wanna get a few from this angle,” I said as I scampered about the roof.

Even if time were not limited, I don’t think I could have taken more pictures. My fingers were rendered immobile by the cold and it felt like I was taking pictures in slow motion. The scene below looked like something Godzilla would have left in his wake. The two buildings were nothing but a pile or rubble that continued to belch smoke up several stories. The fire department directed several hoses at the smoldering pile with a zeal that suggested the Godzilla’s progeny might actually be somewhere hidden in the ruins.

After the blast the police cordoned off a four-block area and were not letting any press in, but I had to get a picture of the rubble. The only way to do that was to infiltrate one of the surrounding apartments after somehow getting through the barricades. Some residents in the barricaded zone weren’t even allowed to go home. Their apartments were too close to the blast site and had been evacuated. One woman tried to get past the police who were guarding the zone, saying she had to go to her apartment and get medication for her son. The police remained unmoved by her plight.

From the barricade you could smell the devastation, but could see nothing but clouds of smoke still billowing from the last vestiges of the fire. A Jamaican guy who was standing nearby griped that East Harlem felt like a military occupation. Jean later introduced the man to me as his friend, Patrick, who was the super of the building that housed the local council member’s office—which was also inside the barricaded zone. Jean’s apartment was on the opposite side of Park Avenue from where the blast occurred. His apartment had not been evacuated, and he promised me I’d get some good pictures from his roof and he also promised me he’d get me through the barricade.

“You can see everything from my roof,” he said.

I wondered how many people would sneak a complete stranger through police barricades and into their building to take a picture for which they would get no credit, no money, no nothing. Maybe Jean did it because he felt like it was his civic duty to conspire with the press, or maybe the disaster had elevated people’s sense of generosity. Maybe that’s just the way Jean is. Maybe the world is divided between people who let random people come into their apartment to take pictures and those who don’t.

When Jean, Patrick and I felt like we had stared at the smoke long enough, we walked down Lexington Avenue from 117th Street. At least ten people greeted Jean and Patrick as we walked down the street. Jean gave each of the doñas a kiss on the cheek, and greeted the men with a hug and a pat on the back. Patrick, who was tall and lanky, gave loose handshakes.

“See! We’re da mayors of East Harlem,” he said.

“We’re just the mayors of these blocks,” clarified Jean.

TO BE CONTINUED!

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OH MY GOD, YOU’RE THAT GUY: The Inconceivable Time I Disturbed an Innocent Man’s Peace

I ruined his day

I ruined his day

So I was on 116th Street crossing Broadway with my friend and we’re deep in conversation. Not sure what we were talking about. Maybe her job, or my job, or oxford commas, or the meaning of life, or the meaning of chocolate.

But it didn’t really matter, for in the corner of my eye I saw an older man, sporting one of those crumply wide-brimmed hats senior citizens and fishermen are wont to wear. The man was sitting on a bench on the median, like many perfectly respectable people do on Broadway.

It was hard to discern what he was doing; it seemed like he was innocuously staring at the sky, listening to the birds, perhaps stealing glances at passerby. At any rate, he had achieved perfect normalcy in his sitting.

But for all is effort to disguise himself as a normal senior citizen, it dawned on me as suddenly as a smack in the face that beneath that hat was the unmistakable visage of Wallace Shawn, who was Vizzini from The Princess Bride.

Inconceivable.

I never actually knew the man’s actual name or that of his character until I had to look it up for this post—his name being overshadowed by others more demanding of attention, like Inigo Montoya, Princess Buttercup and Prince Humperdink—I always identified him as the inconceivable guy who died laughing.

At any rate,  in my excitement I was hit with amnesia and totally forgot the name of the damn movie, on top of not knowing this man’s real name, or even his character’s real name.

But I had to say something.

“OH MY GOD, ARE YOU THAT GUY?” was what I managed to blurt out.

His blue eyes widened behind is round spectacles, his mouth opened slightly as if he would say, No. You have the wrong man. I am innocent. This is not the guy you’re looking for. He certainly emanated innocence: an older gentleman enjoying a public bench until this crazed youth came along to disturb the peace.

My friend was confused by my behavior and rapture.

“What guy?”

She looked beyond the median, far past Wallace Shawn, to where collegiates from Columbia University were streaming up and down Broadway.

“THAT guy,” I said, tilting my head at his general direction. He was literally two feet in front of us. “You know, that guy from that movie.”

It was the best I could do to clarify. While unable at the moment to conjure the movie’s name, I wanted to specify him as the man who introduced “inconceivable” to the lexicon of generations of American youth, the man with the malicious laugh who spat when he was angry. You know, not Inigo Montoya, but the bad bald man who died at the hands of a rare Australian poison, I would have pointed out, only it seemed mean, for sitting before me was not a bad bald man, but a harmless citizen devoid of evil machinations, whose only wish was to enjoy an afternoon on a bench.

Ultimately I hoped my friend would feel my intended message, but she was not being telepathic enough for my purposes.

“What movie?”

I turned to the man, who looked at me, with his eyes still wide. Would he tell me the name of the damn movie he was in? Only there are lots and even if he did want to help me, he probably wouldn’t know where to start. But I felt my cerebral capacities becoming more anchored in the wide blue pools of his eyes.

“You know, The Princess Bride!” I was finally able to blurt out.

“Oh, yes I saw that movie–” started my friend, who seemed to be missing the point.

“You’re that guy from The Princess Bride,” I said, addressing Shawn again.

He had yet to say a single word, and really that’s all I needed him to do to confirm if it was really him, the inconceivable guy. How to describe that voice…like an angry, urban relation of Winnie the Pooh?

“Yes, I’m that guy,” he said, in that voice.

“Oh my God you ARE that guy!”

I’m not sure why he just sat there and tolerated such ridiculousness, but he stayed planted on the bench. His eyes remained wide, and his face seemed on the verge of smiling or grimacing. I half expected him to say “inconceivable,” and was slightly disappointed when he didn’t.

I mean, it is pretty inconceivable that I couldn’t just let the man be. I mean, this is New York City. There’s a celebrity on every corner. Okay, there’s not, but New Yorkers are expected to act like there are. And just nonchalantly walk by. Oh, it’s the guy from The Princess Bride, only my favorite movie when was a kid (before I discovered Star Wars). Pshhh. No biggie.

I apologized profusely for not acting like more of a New Yorker. I mean, I’ve met famous people before and I was totally able to act like a New Yorker (actually, when I was a nanny I met Michael Douglas at his and Catherine Zeta-Jones’s apartment and I was so nonchalant I spilled orange juice on their white rug—okay I didn’t, but the two year old I was taking care of did, so I’m guilty by association), but I guess this goes to show I haven’t been fully assimilated.

Because there was no undoing the embarrassment I figured I might as well go the whole nine yards.

“I’m really sorry. This is embarrassing, but…can I get a picture with you?”

He looked  at his feet, then looked up at me and shrugged.

“Sure, okay.”

He still had that bemused look on his face, but maybe that’s just what his face looks like when he’s being himself, and not Vizzini.

“Really?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said with a shrug and a smile.

I handed my camera to my friend and that was that. I hope I was the last person to disturb Wallace Shawn’s peace that afternoon.

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Twerk and Werk

The working stiff's Friday night drink: coffee

The working stiff’s Friday night drink: coffee

I am a writer, and I have Saturday morning deadlines, which means my Friday nights are spent hermetically sealed off from the world,  typing away and staring at my computer screen. If I get sick of my office, I go to a cafe near my apartment. It is open 24 hours, mostly serving the employees of New York Presbyterian Hospital, which is right across the street.

Dre holds the place down from 9 pm to 6 am. Dre is from Brooklyn, by way of Jamaica. It takes him an hour and a half to commute to Washington Heights, and he has at least five other jobs–he’s a bartender, a freelance photographer, a DJ, and a student.

Here, at the cafe, Dre is a one-man show, making wraps, slinging sandwiches, being the barista, and providing the music.

Amazingly, Dre doesn’t drink coffee. Instead, he stays awake on a blend of Jamaican tunes. Indeed, if it weren’t for the steady stream of vigorous dance hall and reggae music streaming from overhead, and a latte at my side, my mind would have drifted into a catatonic oblivion, and deep pools of saliva would have gathered on my keyboard a long time ago. Lobotomy by pixilation is what I like to call it.

Most of the patrons look like they have gone through hell in a hand basket. They come in wearing wrinkled scrubs and blank stares, like zombie extras on Walking Dead–or like they’ve just beaten back a zombie attack, and are looking for fortification to stave off the next one. That’s what a night in a city hospital will do to you.

Dre has compassion for these folks, these working stiffs who clean out bedpans, peel dying junkies off the street, or who might have just finished a triple bypass surgery at four in the morning.

“It is my job to keep them awake. I tell them to feel free to come in here and scream,” he once told me.

Some of the Working Dead visibly come back to life and shuffle about discreetly to Sean John as they wait for their midnight sandwiches to be made. The music gets raunchier as the minutes turn to hours. I know I wouldn’t possibly be able to meet any of my deadlines if I knew how to twerk, but I still can’t think of a better place to work on a Friday night.

A fraction of the patrons are the homeless people who live at a shelter right next door. And there are some people, like me, who bring a computer, a charger, order a coffee, and spend the night, or “pitch a tent,” as Dre puts it.

With the shelter and the hospital both in close proximity–and the EMS bay station directly across the street, there’s so many different situations and people that a 24-hour cafe can witness at 4 or 5 in the morning.

But Dre does his best to make the most of his own situation, and with his music, does his best to create a festive atmosphere. When he doesn’t think anyone is looking he breaks out in dance, waving his arms about, pointing to no one in particular and mouthing the words to his favorite songs.

I don’t feel so bad about being here, finishing articles on a Friday night. Misery loves company, and I’ve got plenty of it. Dre clearly would rather be elsewhere, and I’m sure these hospital workers can think of 5,001 things they would prefer to do instead of dealing with the flesh, blood and bodily fluids of New York City.

But as I listen to Sister Nancy, I realize things are never so bad as they seem. At least I’m not having a triple bypass surgery.

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Riding the Paranoia Train

Sometimes it's okay to talk to your fellow rider.

Sometimes it’s okay to talk to strangers on the train.

I got on the train, my toes needing a good thaw, and my nose a good wipe. I wedged myself between two women. The one on my left was reading a letter printed out in Spanish; I caught fragments of the content, which seemed to be a 40th birthday message. The woman to the right of me was minding her own business.

I took stock of everyone else in the car. It was so cold that most hair was hidden beneath hats, and hands were kept safely tucked into pockets and sleeves, unless they were being used to turn the pages of a book.

The man across from me was engrossed in a magazine. Because I’m not good a minding my own business I tried to guess which publication he was reading. I determined that it was not the New Yorker, or Harpers, or a glossy.

Earlier that day I had to stand outside in the freezing cold for work until my toes were so cold they were hot—like they had been stuck in the jaws of a waffle iron. When I got onto the subway the first thing I did was take my boots off and cradle them in my hands to make the burning sensation go away and to de-thaw my nerve-endings. I was glad for the subway break-dancers, the homeless people, the tourette syndrome yellers, and the drunks who made my foot-groping seem normal.

It seemed to take a while and I felt that my toes would be hot and numb forever, but I knew that eventually the sensation would be but a memory.

Except now, this train conductor seemed to want to remind everyone how cold it was.

The most the conductors ever tell us is to stand clear of the closing doors, and perhaps again to stand clear of the closing doors, and for the last time to stand clear of the goddamn closing doors. But I soon found out that this conductor was into soliloquizing.

“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s very cold outside,” his urgent and concerned voice began.

“I urge you to use the rail when walking up or down the stairs. You do not know what kind of ice could be on the stairs. You do not want to slip down the stairs and fall onto the tracks.”

The man across from me was momentarily distracted from his magazine, and others were dragged out of their subway-induced stupor by this touching manifestation of concern.

The train stopped at 14th Street and kept moving. As soon as people drifted back into their mindspaces, the voice came again from overhead.

“It is very cold outside. The tracks may be slippery. As you may have noticed, the cars are a bit shaky.”

The man across from me smirked incredulously as he looked up from his magazine. I take note of the train; it is rocking as gently, subtly, and loud as usual.  Maybe the conductor was drunk?

“So, please don’t walk between the cars,” he persevered . “You could fall and end up on the tracks. Not to mention, it’s illegal.”

“Wow, something must have happened,” said the woman to my right.

It was possible. Apparently every week someone is killed by the trains. Maybe today someone had slipped onto the tracks. Or maybe their feet were so numbed by the cold that they lost control of their footing and fell. Most of the time it’s not the conductor’s fault, but they’re probably mentally scarred by the experience. As part of the MTA contract, conductors who witness someone getting hit by the train get three days paid time off.

Did this man need an extra day off?

“I know, right? What is going on?” said the man across from me, who had given up on his magazine by now.

The woman with the birthday letter shrugged.

“We’re riding the paranoia train,” I said.

I usually don’t engage with strangers on the train, but I felt like I had to say something. This was a special moment, a rare, collective moment that we as riders were experiencing.

My fellow riders laughed.

The train came to a stop again, belched out some riders, and sucked others in. A woman with a stroller barely wedged her way into the car.

The crackle came again from the speakers overhead. We smiled, giddy to hear what would come next.

“Please, I urge you to hold onto your children when you are standing on the platform and entering the train. If you are standing behind the yellow line, make sure your children are standing behind you. And make sure you are holding their hands at all times. Children are impulsive and you never know what they will do next. Not to mention the fact that they are fascinated by trains. So please, hold onto your children.”

By this point, most people in the car who were not plugged into their portable electronic devices were now laughing, staring up at the speakers, wondering what new gems would flow forth, or they furrowed their brow—either in concern for the conductor, or with a newfound concern for their life now that it was apparent that their chances of falling into the tracks increased tenfold for every minute they spent on the train.

The train halted again at 42th Street and there was a new shift of riders. The train was getting more crowded and I could no longer see the man across from me, but I knew he was eagerly expecting a new message.

I knew it would be a good one, because the conductor tried to close the doors at least four times because some latecomer tried to pry their way into the car as the doors closed after sprinting down the stairs.

This angers most conductors and you know they would love to smack someone in the face if they weren’t stuck in their booth. But this conductor continued to express nothing but a dogged concern for the city’s ridership.

“Everyone’s running for something in New York City,” he began.

Yes, this was going to be the best one yet.

“Whether they’re running for mayor, or running to catch the subway. There’s such a thing as the domino effect. It begins when you have ten people packed behind you,” spoke the conductor, now with the measured but patronizing elocution of a kindergarten teacher who is explaining fire drill procedures, or at least an actor who knows how to play one. Is that it? Is he a retired actor?

“One person falls and ten people fall, including you,” he continued. “Only, by the time the first person who fell stands up and is wiping themselves off, you have fallen onto the track. Please appeal to your higher intellect and stand behind the yellow line.”

The woman to my right, who had been tight-lipped and concerned, let out a chuckle and shook her head.

“Wow,” she said.

She got off the train at the next stop. Before she did, she turned to me.

“Get home safe,” she said, and smiled.

“You too.”

Don't fall onto the tracks.

Don’t fall onto the tracks.

Was this the serial announcer?

Was this the serial announcer?

Kids are fascinated with trains.

Kids are fascinated with trains.

Stranger on the train.

Stranger on the train.

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