I’d felt myself drifting for years. My mom became a Jehovah’s Witness when I was 10-ish, and for most of my kid-dom, I truly believed as much as any kid can “believe” in anything. But the older I got and the more I read and learned, the more I began to doubt the foundation of the whole thing, Witnesses’ interpretation of the Bible, and any interpretation of the Bible at all. I was starting to doubt the very idea that there’s any truth to life, a fairly common thought at age 17 but one that’s kind of scary when you’ve been raised in a religion that refers to itself, and only itself, as The Truth.
In 1999, I moved into my first post-college apartment, way out in the farthest reaches of Bensonhurst. It was a mere 15-minute walk from Coney Island, a walk I would take many late nights on my way home from the city and somehow avoid murder. Circa 1999, the neighborhood had barely changed since Saturday Night Fever days. When I jogged around the neighborhood, I was an exotic specimen, because people in Bensonhurst did not jog. Old ladies stared at me like I was a wild animal and rotten teens would joke-jog next to me or fake-lunge in my direction, hoping I would flinch.
I was the only one who saw her.
I was on Third Avenue in the 40s during the Lord of the Flies atmosphere that is the lunch rush when she appeared. She had curly blond hair and a giant pink bow and enormous matching sunglasses and a black tank top. She could’ve bought it all at Madonna’s yard sale circa 1987. She looked like she was eight feet tall because she was wearing rollerblades, scooting leisurely up the sidewalk. Her eyes were trained not toward her destination, but on a giant white iPhone with a gold trim case. I got a good look at the iPhone because her path aimed straight at me no matter how many sidesteps I took. Her ears were plugged up with headphones. She’d deliberately blunted her two most danger-alerting senses as she wheeled through streets full of cars, trucks, bikes, and eight million other people. Millions of years to give her perfect eyes and perfect ears to alert her to danger and she dismissed them all. She missed me by a centimeter or two as she scooted past.
I’ve written in this space about how when I was in college I used to wander through different neighborhoods in New York City, absorbing all the sights I could. Sadly, I have very little documentary evidence of my trips, unless you count my memory. However, I recently rediscovered a whole pile of old photos I took back then, and included in this pile are some pics from a walk I took through the Lower East Side and the East Village in May 1996. In my head, 1996 seems like yesterday. In reality it’s almost 18 years ago. These pictures make that time seem even longer.
In terms of pure aesthetics, these pictures are not very good. They were taken with a crummy point-and-shoot that had no zoom. This made it very difficult to get the shots I really wanted, because that would have required standing in the middle of traffic. So I’d either have to take very close shots or stand across the street and get wide-angle shots of entire blocks while cars raced in front of me. I usually chose the latter.
Picture quality is further compromised by the fact that all shots were developed at a Genovese on 8th Street. Genovese (one of many NY stores no longer with us) was a drug store that had a photo developing department that employed very few Ansel Adams.
Despite these considerable deficiencies, I want to share these pictures because most of the sights they captured no longer exist. I look at these pictures now and I can remember what the Lower East Side felt like in the mid-90s, when it hadn’t quite become hip, and certainly hadn’t become insanely expensive. If you strolled down Rivington Street on a Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t full of people stumbling their way to brunch. It had an unsettling ancient quiet that was impossible in most of Manhattan. The only sounds you heard were old signs swaying in the breeze and neglected buildings slowly crumbling.
I try not to be one of those insufferable types who longs for a city where “realness” was exemplified by nonstop murder and romantic heroin addictions. However, I look at these pics now, particularly the ones taken on Rivington Street, deep in the heart of what is now the most insanely expensive part of the Lower East Side, and I wonder what happened to the folks who got pushed out by the unstoppable wave of gentrification and development.
One of these pics shows a huge lot on Suffolk Street. You used to see many lots in the area like this, stretches of nothing that were reclaimed by local residents to be ersatz community gardens, junk yards, and flea markets. You can’t quite make it out in the photo, but there was a shack adorned with Puerto Rican flag insignia, whose occupant played a faint salsa soundtrack at all hours. The site is now occupied by a row of very ugly and very expensive condos.
When I took these pictures, the gentrification of the Lower East Side and East Village had already begun in earnest. It was confined to very specific blocks, but a sharp eye could see that it would soon creep everywhere.
Sometimes, you didn’t even need to look very hard. It was right there in front of you. In one photo, a repair shop on West 4th and the Bowery is being converted into the Bowery Bar. The mural on the wall of the building next door is being painted over to mark the occasion, an artsy non sequitur replaced by an enormous advertisement. You can literally see both the working class and bohemia replaced by luxury.
I realize that if you didn’t live in New York back then or don’t live here now, none of this means anything to you. In an effort to display just how much has changed, I’ve paired the old photos with new ones I took recently at the same spots. I did my best to recreate the perspective of the original pics, though in many cases changes in the landscape made precision impossible. And of course, there are the differences in lighting that result from May sky vs. November sky, and the differences in overall look between cheap point-and-shoot and fancy digital camera.
Some sites changed little, synagogues and churches mostly. At St. Patrick’s on Mulberry (the original St. Patrick’s), even the road work sawhorses look the same. Most of these spots have changed, though, enormously. It almost doesn’t matter if that is a good or bad thing, because the change has happened and cannot be unchanged regardless.
While taking the new pictures, I stumbled on a bunch of storefronts that had the look of turn-of-the-20th-century, florid serifed lettering and striped awnings. I thought it was an affectation adopted by boutiques, but then remembered that a TV series was being filmed down here, one set in the early 1900s.
The bustling squalor of that time seems quaint to us now, though life was tough and cheap for the people who lived in the Lower East Side back then. Few shed tears when the residents of the 90s were slowly pushed out for luxury condos and bars. Perhaps one day we’ll see them as picturesque enough to tell their stories. Continue reading Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996
I’m on my way home. I read a book for a while, one I can’t decide if I like or not. Then I tire of trying to figure what side of the fence I’m on and clamp headphones to my ears. The book is replaced with a Jean Shepherd radio show from 1966. I know where I stand on Shep.
In this episode, Shep talked (among other things) about one of his first radio gigs: hosting a remote from a funeral parlor on the south side of Chicago. One of the funeral parlor’s employees would play hymns on a Wurlitzer organ, with Shep occasionally interjecting a pitch for the sponsor’s services. In his retelling, he promised his audience the tale was the god’s honest truth, even raising his right hand as if swearing on a Bible. It was the radio, of course. The audience had to take his word on that gesture as much as they had to on the truthfulness of his story.
I’m standing near a door. A young man seated in front of me gestures, trying to get my attention. He might have been doing it for a while. I was so wrapped up in Shep’s funeral parlor tale I wouldn’t have noticed. I yank out one headphone, but don’t quite catch what he’s saying. So I yank out the other headphone, but his words are no clearer. I ask him to repeat himself.
“Elmhurst?” he says, pointing a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the station we’re about to leave. It is in fact Elmhurst Avenue. I don’t know why he won’t turn around and take a look for himself out the window to his back, but I confirm that yes, this is Elmhurst. The doors have already closed. If Elmhurst was his stop, he’s too late to catch it.
But it seems it’s not his stop. He says something that I can’t quite make out. It unsettles me because I can’t understand why I can’t understand him. He has no thick accent and he speaks clearly. And yet, something about the way he talks interferes with understanding. His words are slow to register in my brain. I ask him to repeat himself.
“[BLANK] got shot here on Saturday,” he says. “He was killed.”
I can think of nothing to say except, “I hadn’t heard about that.”
“It was on the news,” the young man says. His voice remains flat and distant. The look on his face matches. He’s not trying stir up sympathy. He’s disseminating cold, raw information that he feels I should know. He could be telling me when this station was built, or how many people live in this Congressional district.
I paraphrase myself, “I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard about it.”
“It was in the papers,” he says. “In the metro.” He adds corroborating evidence, but maintains the same level of emotion: zero.
My stop arrives. I line myself at the door, anxious to leave. The young man speaks again. “Woodhaven?” he asks, investing the street name with only the slightest hint of a question mark as he jabs a thumb toward the platform behind him. He says Woodhaven like it stands for a complete phrase all the world should know how to respond to.
“No, this is Grand,” I say. The doors should be open by now, but they’re not.
“Woodhaven?” he asks once more, as if he hadn’t heard me.
“Woodhaven’s the next stop,” I tell him. But he keeps staring at me. He doesn’t want to know where he is. He wants to tell me more about what Woodhaven signifies to his mind, what information it conveys to him that he must share with this train, and he says something. I hear words and I see his lips move, but none of it makes an impression. I’m sure what he says makes sense, but not to me.
“Woodhaven’s next,” I say as I rush out of the train, though I know it’s not what he wanted to hear. And then I add, “Sorry,” as the doors close. I couldn’t leave without saying that I could not help him.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been working out for a couple of months, with a consistency and determination I haven’t shown in many moons. I’ve also been trying to eat better, or at least not eat such enormous portions of things. My problem has never been snacking or eating much junk food. For the most part, I eat what you might call “good food,” it’s just that I have no real sense of proportion when I do. You know the saying “live every moment like it’s your last”? That’s what I do, except exclusively for meals.
By the end of last year, I was feeling truly horrible about my appearance and general well being. Stress plus lack of exercise conspired to make feel like absolute garbage. Making changes to my lifestyle was difficult, but I accepted that I’d reached an age where taking care of yourself means something different than it did when I was younger. Now that means, “eat salad for lunch every day” whereas ten years ago that meant “guess I won’t have that ninth taco.”
I’ve been pleased with the results thus far. My general energy levels and ability to not eat like a monster are much improved. As for my appearance, I think I look marginally better. But I also realize that there is a rigid ceiling to what I can achieve, appearance-wise. I could go on the Insanity regimen and I would still look like a Dad.
For the rest of my days I will look like someone whose every spoken word is greeted with a vigorous rolling of the eyes. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. After all, I am a dad and I like to think I’m as good at that as anything else I do. And maybe I’m finally growing into what I am. I’ve never known quite what to do with this thing that stumbles around below my brain, and every time I thought I might have half a clue, genetics have intervened.
I also have this odd condition I like to call anachronistic dysmorphia, wherein I can see pictures of myself from five years ago and think I look okay but can’t be happy with what I see in the mirror. “Why did I think I looked like crap then? I looked fine! But today, Jesus, I look like a bridge troll.”
In other words, the bar for what I expect from myself in the Looks Department is very low. And maybe looking Dad-Like is what I was meant to be all along. I should be okay with that. I would be okay with that, I think, if I didn’t live in New York City. Because there is a class of parent found in NYC that makes me feel powerfully inferior. I look like a normal dad, but I feel at times that I live in a city full of Style Dads.
At Christmastime 2001, I’d been out of work for over a year. When I was first laid off, I got a number of interviews. I even turned down a job offer for a position that sounded painfully uninteresting, foolishly thinking it wouldn’t be my last opportunity for full time work. But it was, for a very, very long time. To this point, I didn’t conceive of the idea that times could get tough for me, because apparently I’d blocked out my entire childhood.
Belt tightening followed. I gave my car to my dad because the insurance was killing me, even though I loved that car and knew giving it my dad was tantamount to a vehicular death sentence. I was forced to pay utilities only; student loans and credit card bills would have to wait. Except that student loan and credit card people didn’t see it that way, and so began the relentless, harassing calls and a mailbox stuffed with envelopes that screamed FINAL NOTICE.
Unemployment insurance helped keep my head above water while I scrounged for what I could. I worked temp jobs here and there, mostly proofreading for ad agencies. I conducted airline surveys at JFK and LaGuardia. On the creative side, I was doing some commentaries for NPR2, an embryonic satellite radio version of NPR, fun and easy work that, of course, dried up before long. I channeled most of my energy into online writing, pitching anything and anyone I could think of, and working on a novel, in the hopes that any one of these things would rescue me from predicament. They didn’t.
I did three full interviews with a financial publishing company, then was given a two-week “tryout,” copy editing, writing headlines, and doing light layout work in Quark. I got paid for my time, with the promise that if they liked my work the position would become full time. After the “tryout,” I never heard from them again, and later suspected this was really just a roundabout way of wresting temporary work out of someone without having to deal with an agency. Their offices were a few short blocks from what would soon be known as Ground Zero.