Category Archives: NYC

Seizures

As the subway doors unlatch, someone shoves me in the back, hard. This is more than the usual L train jostle. It is especially aggressive even for the Union Square stop, where the “I’m ignoring your humanity to make my commute slightly easier” brush-by is standard operating procedure. This move must have sinister purpose behind it, I assume. And so I pivot from my 7:30 am perch on the overhead bar and turn to face my aggressor. I have nothing planned other than a dirty look. I do this all the time even though it’s a move with no upside whatsoever. At best, I will get to see the face of someone who regards me as little more than an insect. At worst, I will find myself in a fistfight.

When I turn, I see the man who shoved me. Shaved head, black windbreaker scuffed with sheetrock dust and eggshell paint. He has the lumbering gait of a drunk launching himself from one parking meter to the next on the long walk home. He may very well be drunk, for all I can tell. This wouldn’t be the first guy I’ve seen stewed to the gills at this early hour on the subway. Then he careens into a woman much smaller than him, his shoulder stooping to her height. It doesn’t look intentional. He’s fighting something, and losing. His knees buckle beneath him, and his head begins to twitch and jerk.

“He’s having a seizure!” a woman yells. It sounds like dialogue from a script that doesn’t trust its director to explain things visually. I almost laugh, and yet I understand the urge to yell out something the second it hits your brain at a weird moment like this one. The crowd parts around the man, and the sudden lack of bodies speeds his descent. However, he has enough control of his facilities to lower himself, first sitting, then prone as he continues to shake.

The train remains paused. Not to address the man’s condition, but to let out the large crowd of people who depart at Union Square. Some of those who remain stare, while others look away, embarrassed. No one is quite sure what to do. We’re all spooked, myself included. But I’m spooked for a different reason. This all feels too familiar to me.

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The Lost Art of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

It’s always okay to say nothing. That’s a concept we’ve lost in the internet age, where we rush to project our thoughts as soon as they flit across our brains. But really, it’s perfectly acceptable to keep your mouth shut once in a while.

I say this because last night, while Hurricane Sandy was unleashing its worst on the tri-state area, Jack Shafer of Slate saw fit to take to Twitter and unleash this (reverse chronology from top to bottom):

Normally, I assume most people outside the tri-state area don’t like New Yorkers, and I could care less. Provincial hatred of other cities might be the saddest, most ineffectual prejudice there is (think Springfield vs. Shelbyville) and it says more about the practitioner than his target.

However, I truly don’t understand the psyche of a person who would see what was happening to New York and choose that moment to express snide, impotent rage against the people living there. And not specific people, either, but a vague idea of those people crafted in a badly compartmentalized brain.

Fine, Shafer, you hate some mental image of New Yorkers. Congratulations. I have zero interest in changing your mind, but is it too much to ask that you wait a day to express this thought? At the exact same moment I read his first dismissive tweet, I saw a news report about two children who were killed by a falling tree up in Westchester. Excellent timing, professional journalist.

As I write this, houses are still burning out in Breezy Point. Neighborhoods in southern Queens and Brooklyn are still under 6 feet of water. Parts of Staten Island and the Bronx were hit just as bad. People have lost homes, and for the most part they’re not the kind of people who have the means to just shrug and rebuild. If that does nothing for Shafer, I can assure him the storm also hit New Jersey and Connecticut hard. Houses destroyed, whole towns flooded and possibly more if levees don’t hold out, power out for who knows how long. I don’t know if those states have been too polluted by their proximity to New York to earn his sympathy.

Tragedy isn’t a contest. When something bad happens, there’s zero point in trying to determine if this Bad Thing is better or worse than the last Bad Thing. There’s no award given out for Best Reaction to Horror to the people involved. In any disaster, there are heroes and there are crappy people, because there are humans. Actual humans. Try to remember that when you’re sitting at a keyboard.

A tweet Shafer wrote later (the last one he wrote, at this moment) indicated he was without power in the DC suburbs. So maybe he didn’t see all the images of destruction that I’ve seen in the last 24 hours. That’s still no excuse for his reaction. As a journalist, Shafer should know that if you don’t have all the facts, you can always keep your stupid mouth shut. The internet will manage to go on without your uninformed, hateful garbage, I promise you.

Different people react to tragedy differently. Some feel compelled to help, others joke to deal with their terror. If your reaction is to sneer at the people who are in harm’s way, I feel sorry for you, and anyone who may be in your life.

Respect the Baritone

I live in a Bus Neighborhood. All subway lines are too far away to make walking an option, so if you want to get anywhere and you don’t want the trip to last 3 hours, the bus is mandatory. The buses that serve the neighborhood are always overcrowded at rush hour, because they’re the only ticket in and out. When a bus arrives at a stop, no matter how packed it is already, people claw their way on as if it’s the last helicopter out of Saigon, because there’s something both terrifying and humiliating about getting left behind by a bus. Watching it chug away from the curb, engulfing you in its exhaust, telling you that you’re not good enough for the bus.

Last week, on one brutally hot afternoon, I emerged from a subway station and jogged toward my usual bus stop. The bus stop isn’t immediately visible when I get above ground, and it’s also on the other side of a very busy street, which always presents the infuriating possibility of arriving just in time to see my bus leaving me behind. That did not happen this time, but what did happen was almost as enraging. As I neared the queue for the bus, a guy chugging toward it in the opposite direction cut into the line a split second before I could assert my I-Am-Here-ness.

Of course, I had the fear that this guy would be The Cutoff, that one last passenger after which the bus driver slams the door shut and moves on. How many passengers can get onto a bus is left to the driver’s discretion. Some drivers let people occupy every molecule of available space, while others rigidly enforce the “stay behind the white line rule,” and this guy arriving just ahead of me made me worry the next bus to arrive would fall into the latter category. But getting beaten to the punch in the bus line was more galling because the man who did it to me was lugging a baritone.

You’re probably familiar with the baritone if you ever played in school band. They’re like tubas that were blasted with a shrink ray. They’re made primarily for marching bands or kids who can’t make the full tuba commitment. Baritones are technically portable, but this man was planning on bringing this thing onto a crowded bus, where sardine-can conditions make handbags deadly weapons. Adding further desperation to his overall mien, the baritone was beaten up, dinged and tarnished, with several sizable dents in the bell. This was a baritone that had been down a few dirt roads.

Initially, I was furious. How inconsiderate was this guy? He didn’t even have a case for the thing, just cradled it against his chest like a huge, brassy child, the enormous, injured bell barely clearing his head. Given a jam-packed bus, crappy road conditions, and the typical skills and safety of an MTA bus driver, he could actually kill someone with this thing.

But then, I began to soften a little, because it occurred to me that no one in their right mind would bring a baritone onto a bus if they had any choice in the matter. I realized that I probably hadn’t seen a baritone since high school, and had a wave of Band Geek nostalgia. And I wondered, where had he been playing this thing, and why? It’s gotta be rough trying to make a living as a working baritone player these days.

The bus pulled up and was, of course, already well full. The line slowly pushed its way inside. The Baritone Man somehow managed to fish a Metrocard out of a pocket, then turned to see the bus’s standing room already completely occupied. By now, I’d done a complete 180 with my feelings. I pitied him. Here it was, a scorching, muggy summer day, and this man was trying to bring an enormous blunt brass instrument onto a jam-packed bus where the AC is being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of sweaty, angry humanity on it. This, I figured, will not end well.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The aisle between the seats is usually an impenetrable thicket of shopping bags and hate, but for Baritone Man, it parted like the Red Sea. The passengers willingly–gladly, even–moved to allow him to move toward the back. Not only that, but once he reached the back of the bus, someone offered him a seat. And there he sat, comfortable and unperturbed, for at least the duration of my trip. When my stop arrived, there he still was, baritone nestled in his lap, happy as a clam. It was one of the most endearing, yet weird, things I’ve ever seen in my life.

In all my years living in New York, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone offer a bus seat to anyone else, no matter how elderly, infirm, or feeble they were. When my wife was pregnant, you couldn’t have made someone give up their seat for her with a million dollars and a shotgun. There is a certain mentality that takes over when you ride the bus, which essentially boils down to This is horrible, so we’re all gonna be horrible to each other here.

I used to think nothing could pierce the flinty Darwinian shell of the New York bus passenger. Now I know better. If you want to melt the collective heart of an angry, sweaty MTA bus, bring your baritone.

Baby’s First Brooklyn Moment

On Sunday morning, me and the family took a brief trip into Greenpoint to pick up some gardening supplies and to stroll. I lived in Greenpoint for six pre-kid years and I still love it there, though I don’t find many chances to make it back to ye olde neighborhood.

When I called it home, Greenpoint struck me as having the exact amount of artsy-ness that Williamsburg aspired to while being a tad more real, for lack of a better word. For one thing, Greenpoint never needed to “recover” in the way that Williamsburg did, since it had a well-entrenched middle class that never left in bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. On top of that, it seemed like the artists in Greenpoint actually had jobs and weren’t being held aloft by trust funds. This was provincial prejudice I’m sure, because it still wasn’t hard to find a wealthy dilettante among the populace, someone who seemed to be dabbling in bohemia until Dad’s Law Firm came calling. These folks tended to be the ones most into juvenalia like kickball tournaments and organized games of manhunt, since they had the idle time and total lack of worries necessary to waste in such pointless pursuits.

As I said, we were strolling through Greenpoint, on Nassau Street near Lorimer, where McCarren Park ends. Ahead of us, I saw a twenty-something swinging from scaffolding like it was a jungle gym. At a certain age and in a certain mood, I could have found this kind of thing is cute. In fact, I’m sure I’ve done the same at some point in my life, though I’m also sure I haven’t done so since college. To mid-30s Dad Me, it just struck me as juvenile, embodying the worst aspect of all the dumb infantile things people think of when they now think of Brooklyn. My mind voiced a judgmental Really?, but I said nothing out loud.

My daughter was less guarded. Our corner of Queens holds very few hipsters, and this was not a specimen she’d encountered before. “Why is that GROWN UP swinging like that?” she asked, very loudly. I saw this guy as a kid, because that’s how he was behaving, but to my child, everyone over the age of 10 is a Grown Up, and this was conduct unbecoming a Grown Up. The Swinger abruptly stopped, somewhat embarrassed, and continued on his way, as did we.

“Grown ups shouldn’t be acting like that,” my daughter said, again very loudly and slightly annoyed, as we passed by The Swinger.

“I agree,” I said, and I felt confident that I’d already given her enough information to tell the Real Grown Ups from the fake ones.

Tales of Suspense From Pre-Dawn Running!

I’ve been working out very early in the morning lately. My schedule and my waistline necessitates it. In the past few weeks, as the weather’s warmed up, my cardio workouts have been mostly running. I’ve been running off and on for 13 years now, and I know it’s good for me because I hate it.

Thanks to Daylight Savings Time, it’s usually still pitch black when I go out for my run, which is always unsettling. When you go out to run at dawn, you feel energized and accomplished. When you go out to run pre-dawn, you feel creepy. Especially if you’re doing the routine I currently am, which is to sprint very hard, then jog, then repeat. So to the casual observer, it looks like I’m running from some terrible crime, but I keep getting winded. “I really need to get away from the scene of this jewel heist I just pulled off, but…man, just gimme a second…”

So I get a weird vibe on any given morning I run, but this morning in particular felt more odd than usual. I can’t explain to you why, exactly. It was just a feeling I had, a sense that something was off or something was in the air that things weren’t quite right. I went off on my run regardless, feeling uneasy but knowing I’d feel worse if I didn’t go.

To combat the feeling, I decide to take a route through some more residential streets, thinking this would feel safer than my usual route around a local park. But the feeling persisted, possibly because it was pitch black, and possibly because it feels even weirder to sprint past people’s houses while they’re fast asleep. Especially the quaint little Tudor-esque houses that can can be found in my neighborhood, which look very charming during the day but gnarled and sinister in the dark of night. And when the occasional person did show their head, stumbling toward their car hanging onto a coffee mug for dear life, they looked as nervous and suspicious as I felt.

So I changed my route, heading toward the more industrial parts of my neighborhood, where trucks were already loading and gassing up for the day. This was more familiar to me, and yet I still felt that something was wrong, and I realized there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to get rid of that feeling.

However, it didn’t become much more than a feeling until I neared the end of my run. I was jogging an overpass that fords the LIE, which was already jammed to the gills with traffic in both directions. I reached a sprinting portion of my routine. And as I did, I got the sense that something else was running behind me. Gaining on me. I didn’t hear anything apart from my own footsteps, but I was certain of it.

So I ran faster, but this thing, whatever it was, kept pace with me. I craned my neck to see what it was, and it turned out to be my own shadow, cast by one of the huge lamps that lines the overpass. As I continued to run, it caught up with me, loomed over my head, then overtook me and disappeared as I neared the end of the overpass exit ramp.

This was when I thought to myself, “Wow, this movie about my life is terrible.”

Rifle Vodka and the Awesomeness Corollary

I enter the liquor store and immediately see a small boy, maybe eight years old. This does not alarm me in and of itself, nor do I judge his parent(s) for bringing him there. I’ve dragged my kid into a liquor store before while out and about trying to conduct 12 errands at once, cuz hey, daddy needs his medicine. My neighborhood is about equal parts Irish and Polish, so kids in a liquor store = not a big deal, as long as they’re not indulging in samples, and at least 90 percent of the time they’re not.

What does catch my eye is the fact that the boy is enraptured by an elaborate display. It is a large box that looks like an old timey suitcase or a trumpet case, lid open. Inside, a life-size glass Kalashnikov, full of vodka. In the case’s extra space, 10 neatly arranged shot glasses, each sitting in its own little nook.

It looks a lot like the example you see here, except 100 times more opulent. Having lived the last decade-plus of my life in neighborhoods with sizable Eastern European populations, I am very familiar with the firearm-shaped vodka container. Still, this was by far the biggest one I’d ever seen. It even had a strap to sling over your shoulder, in case you decided to take it hiking. And the case it was in, a thing of beauty! It was lined in a faint green vinyl, the color of an old portable turntable. Its exquisite leather straps had shiny brass studs,and the lock was the kind you’d see on a steamer trunk. The inside: crushed red velvet.

And this boy is just staring at it, like Ralphie gaping lovingly through the department store window at his Red Ryder BB gun. I could understand why; hell, I wanted to take this thing home.

It reminded me of my first trip to New Orleans, making an obligatory trip down Bourbon Street, and seeing soused, beaded tourists stumbling down the block carrying enormous “grenades” full of booze, giant plastic containers topped off with a straw. Sometimes they were actually shaped like grenades, sometimes footballs. It struck me as a very childish thing, putting booze into what is essentially a sippy cup.

It also struck me as a very American thing to do. I love Thing A. I love Thing B. If I put them together to make Uber-Thing A-B, it can only be better! Hence, turducken and cheese-injected pretzels.

Of course, when I first saw a rifle-shaped glass vodka delivery system, I realized that maybe this is more of a universal impulse than I first suspected. Perhaps all of us, regardless of origin, want all the things we love in one place. It is, after all, a very infantile, pure-id imperative. How else to explain the sight of an eight year old, staring lovingly at an impeccable designed, marvelously appointed Kalashnikov filled with vodka?

Documenting the Unworthy

Yesterday, while walking up Sixth Avenue near 8th Street, I chanced upon a specimen I thought had been left behind in the 1990s: Summer Homeless. It was a girl who appeared to be in her early 20s, with crunchy hair, slumped on a sidewalk elevator door while playing the accordion. A helpful sign scribbled on a piece of corrugated cardboard told passers-by what she was most in need of. (Sharpies were high on the list, for some reason.) On her wrist, a leash attached to the neck of a very large dog.

Once upon a time, these youngsters could be found everywhere from May to September, almost exclusively in the Village (East and West) and the Lower East Side. Ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-20s, they’d beg for change near Tompkins Square Park or Union Square, usually handing you an elaborate BS backstory that assured you the money would go no further than some dealer’s pocket. You could tell they were Summer Homeless and not For-Real Homeless by the large amount of sidewalk real estate they’d take up when begging, and the plaintive whine they’d adopt while giving their sales pitch. (For-Real Homeless folk are generally compact and subdued; at least the non-performing kind are.) If that didn’t tip you off, the fact that they were white and no older than 27 might.

If you ever went to a hardcore matinee at ABC No Rio, you probably bumped into a few of them on your way in as they indiscreetly chugged the cheapest, grossest tallboys imaginable (Crazy Horse or Laser, usually). Or if you took summer courses at/near NYU, you may have had to negotiate around their pleading carcasses on your way to class. You’d often see the same kids day after day, although occasionally one would admit defeat and tell you they needed dough to catch the next train back home to Long Island/Westchester/Connecticut. Once the autumn arrived, they’d all be gone, drifting back to the big plastic hassles of moms and schools.

I’m not sure if these folks ever truly disappeared. I may have just found myself in their favored haunts less and less over the last 10 years. I do know that until yesterday, it had been quite a long time since I’d seen someone begging on the street and immediately said to myself You live in Trumbull, don’t you?

Even so, I thought little of seeing this Summer Homeless once I’d seen her and recognized her for what she was, no more so than seeing an unusual car on the street (“Hey, a Citroen!”), before I reached my destination. But when I left said destination a short while later, I saw the same Summer Homeless girl being earnestly interviewed by a film crew of two, a cameraperson and a man with a mike.

To be fair, I didn’t hear their line of questioning. For all I know, they could have been asking her why she just didn’t go back Bryn Mawr like her parents wanted. Even so, I found this scene infuriating. After all, this city has thousands of legitimately homeless people in it–more so every day, I fear, given the economy. But rather than get the stories of any people experiencing actual hardship, these filmmakers decided to document the struggles of someone who can opt out of privation any time she wants to.

Do I know everything about this Summer Homeless person’s background, her story, what brought her to this corner? Of course not. But since she’s white and young and in America, she has it better than 99.9% of the planet right off the bat. Is it possible she has issues of some kind? Certainly. But in all likelihood, these issues pale in comparison to the actual problems of people who’ve been out on the street for years, who are genuinely mentally ill, and for whom hope is in short supply.

Having said all this, if someone decides she’s gonna spend a summer begging for change with her accordion and dog, fine. This doesn’t negatively impact my life in any way. But I do find it rage-inducing that some film crew is raptly capturing her every word while there was a real homeless man desperately looking for shade from a brutal summer sun at the Gray’s Papaya across the street. I mean, literally across the street. They could have seen this poor soul in their peripheral vision, if they had any.

If getting mad about this makes me a crabby old man, well…I became a crabby old man a long time ago, so screw it. Get off my lawn, Summer Homeless.