Thursday, July 5, 2018

Central Park (just Central Park)



I did not know Central Park was so beautiful. Especially on a 90-plus-degree day, when the heat and brightness seem to overexpose patches of the world like 35-millimeter film. The large rocks are like the backs of dinosaurs buried in the earth. The foliage is ample, and the waterway that I saw, still and green, looks primeval. And of course there are people: so many people enjoying themselves. I remember how well cars and CDs went together; let me tell you, colored t-shirts on humans amidst huge rocks, green hills, paved paths, and occasional kiosks, comfort stations, and playgrounds are just as good a fit. I’ve lived in New York for most of the past 13 years, but I’ve rarely just come and spent time here.

I realize that the park’s splendor is not a news item. But for me, it was a revelation. If you pack a lunch and a book, or visit the Strand’s open-air store near 60th Street and 5th Avenue if you forget one, you’ll have everything you need. There’s plenty of shade, and the hills are comfortable to lie on.

Browsing at the Strand three days ago, I found a copy of Sex at Dawn, which a fellow temp recommended three summers ago. I opened it, read a little about the sexual customs of the Mosuo, a people in China, and thought this is the book for me. The preface is extraordinary: it describes how one of the authors confronted a charging monkey in Malaysia by baring his teeth, extending his arms, crouching his legs, and screaming. The monkey backed off, and the author learned that he was a primate, too. I felt human while reading about it on a hillside in the park.

At some point, I thought about how for so many years I could not get past the allure of McCarren Park when I lived in Greenpoint. Discovering Central Park now is probably due to the fact that I’m fully employed as a teacher and on summer break. I’m more confident now than I was then, when I thought a lot about dreams and desires, didn’t act on them enough, and couldn’t bring myself to make the crushing and regenerative compromises that come with adulthood. I’ve also signed up for a daily French class at the Alliance Fran├žaise, also on 60th Street, that finishes at 1 every day. Monday was the first class, and it felt so right. 

Oh yeah: I even heard the chorus of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” a song that always makes me picture a scene in Central Park, in my head when I walked down the steps into the subway at Columbus Circle. Sure, I then remembered that the next line is “you’re going to reap just what you sow,” but so far, summer is a good harvest.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Immigration Song

Yesterday morning, I left my apartment uptown to attend the protest to end the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump, in his finite wisdom, signed an executive order to end these separations, but they still happened, and news reports tell us that it’s unclear how the administration is going to reunite all of the families it tore apart. If you haven’t yet heard the audio of kids crying and moaning for their parents in a detention facility in Texas, you need to. There’s no excusing it.

After I packed my sunscreen and new baseball hat (Oakland A’s) to deal with the rays, I thought I would work on an unfinished piece to focus my attention. (And, yup, stimulate a b.m. before getting onto the Brooklyn Bridge, the main stretch of the protest route.) I had started this piece in 2017, near the beginning of my first year as a middle school writing teacher in Harlem.

Sometime in autumn, something interesting had occurred to me while waiting for the A train at 145th Street after work. I was with my colleague, Priya, who also lived uptown, and we were probably there within the latter half of the evening rush. We both felt that the train was taking a while to arrive, and it felt particularly wrong to me that it was the A train that was late. I figured that any line with a Duke Ellington Orchestra song about it should live up to its legacy, and get me home.

We were standing there, and it was hot, and we were both new teachers. I was wearing wool slacks and a tucked-in shirt and carrying a backpack with a laptop and lesson plans, plus a canvas tote with leftover food. My knees hurt from standing up in the classroom. There were a good number of people on the platform, and I think Priya commented that the number proved the train was late. “Look at all the people,” she said.

Then, a new wave of people came up the stairs onto the platform, where, like gas molecules intermingling with other gas molecules, they floated into positions along the track. I remember noticing a woman who may have been of East Asian descent among this new group. She was quiet, and looked self-possessed. Some of the new arrivals kept walking toward a second flight of stairs to another platform, but plenty of them integrated into the initial—initial to me—group that had been waiting for the A.

I probably wondered if those who were just arriving would cede the way to those who were already on the platform when the train did come. I may have thought that it didn’t matter so much, maybe because we were pretty far uptown and there would probably be space once passengers disembarked. I probably also hoped that they would make way, would notice that I was there first, that some kind of tiered grouping of commuters, based on wait time, would persist despite the intermingling. And this is when it occurred to me that what I was also thinking about, or looking at, was the situation of immigrants from the perspective of someone who considers himself native-born.

You’re tired, your knees hurt, you’ve been working all day, and you haven’t done anything to make the train late, but it is. You’ve been waiting for a while, and then another group of people comes to wait as well. You feel like you have a claim on any spots that are available on the train when it does come, but there’s no system in place to insure you do. And you don’t even know if the train is coming, or if there will be any spots; you just know that you were on the platform, waiting, before this second wave of folks arrived.

How you think about this second wave could be an indication of how you think of immigrants who arrived in your community after you or your family. You might feel like you should have first crack at getting a job or finding a home, but there’s no way you can guarantee either. All you can control is how hard you work and how well you treat yourself and others. And treating other people well, whatever your opinion on immigration policy, requires understanding one of the messages I saw at the march: “IMMIGRANTS are not dangerous. They ARE just PEOPLE looking for a better life.”

It’s also important to remember that unless you’re descended from an indigenous people, someone was here before your forebears arrived. One thing I don’t remember from that evening on the platform, when I was wondering how the newcomers would accommodate my presence, is who had already been standing there before me.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Thing and the Ring

When I went back to Greenpoint in August, I visited The Thing, the local second-hand store whose industrious staff create assemblages of furniture, luggage, old machines, books, records, and curios on the sidewalk every day. Sometime in 2017, those miniature bazaars started to include leftover stock from a cycling shop that had closed. I had just moved to Washington Heights to be closer to work, and a high-end Fuji, marked down from $2060 to $480, had recently caught my eye. Twice, the guys had offered to take $30 off the price.

As I neared the store, I saw a former neighbor walk out. Tall and stout, with wispy blond hair, Bruce was wearing a blue Obama/Biden t-shirt with the sunrise logo flecking off. I had once seen Bruce in front of me at the post office wearing a Ramones jacket with their self-descriptive term "Cretin Hop" on the back, and in true Ramones style, the political tee just reached the bottom of his belly. It was neat to see such a rocker show love for Obama, whose enlightened pragmatism seemed, in the first summer of Trump, like a phenomenon that disappeared after a brief emergence.

Bruce was at The Thing to drop off copies of his band’s new album. Well, not so new: 14 tracks off Ring 13’s Nothing New, Nothing Learned were recorded in 1984, when Bruce and his bandmates lived in the Midwest. Five songs, including a cover of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right,” were new recordings, and the album came out on 180-gram vinyl, Spotify, and iTunes. Bruce wanted the shop to charge $12 a copy, and he didn’t plan to leave any at Record Grouch, the trove of new and used vinyl across Manhattan Avenue, because he didn’t think they would sell there.

I told Bruce I had moved to Inwood, a statement that felt like it whooshed out of my mouth. It was like all of a sudden I lived in Iowa, or I had become a ghost. But then I explained that I'm a teacher, I got a job in Harlem, and the morning commute is better from up there. Like everyone else I had told in Greenpoint, Bruce had my back. 

“Makes sense,” he said. “Can’t be late for the kids.”

We kept chatting. A store employee with long black hair who usually wears a blue Mets cap and a customer who looked like Sammy Hagar were outside, too, rappin’ about Bruce’s record and the various detritus the shop had for sale.

“I had a teacher named Angela Dust,” Bruce said.

“That’s like a punk rock girl’s name!” I replied.

“The kids called her Angel,” he said.

I wonder where Ms. Dust is today. Bruce also said that Beer City Records, Ring 13's label, pressed 1,000 copies of the album, and you had to buy the vinyl to hear the Joel cover, which the label feared would cause legal trouble if released online.

But if the album sold, he said, the label might change its mind. As of today, you still can't hear a Midwestern garage-rock take on one of Joel's peppier songs unless you visit Beer City's website, or, depending on inventory, bring 12 bucks to The Thing. If you wear a Mets cap, you'll fit right in.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Love you 'Til Tuesday

Through dozens of cursory listens, I always thought ‘Til Tuesday’s “Everything’s Different Now,” the title track from the Boston band’s last album, was a bummer trip. Maybe that’s because Aimee Mann, who once had the best pop star hair this side of Robert Smith, consistently sings about failed relationships on the band’s three LPs, so I assumed that everything that was different had to be worse. But lo and behold, the song’s lyrics are actually about discovering that things are different because two people are in love. A-ha. But Mann doesn’t sound happy, or free from apprehension, at least.

Which, I have learned, makes sense.

Two people in love: that’s wicked special, as we from Beantown might say, and wicked hard, too. To get a grip (two Aerosmith points, please), I’ve been reading Dr. Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want, a book about what we look for when we look for life partners, and how we can make living with them work. The thing that rocked my world is Hendrix’s claim that we’re looking for partners who will help us meet childhood needs that our caregivers did not. For that to occur, we need partners who possess our caregivers’ (most often our parents’) positive and negative traits, which makes for a fackin’ (c’mon, try it: faaackin) challenging situation, or, simulation of some of our early life experiences.

Back to the song. In “Everything’s Different Now,” Mann conveys the disorientation that comes with love:

Well, soon I’ll say your name
and then I’ll go insane
I won’t understand what I’m thinking

And then the fear of love’s exit:

I’ll look down at my shoes
I’ll wonder what I’ll lose
If I feel this consciousness sinking
And we both know what that means
Returning to what we knew before

Those last two lines are important. In chapter four of his book, Hendrix mentions Plato’s idea that we’re half-beings searching for our other halves. He writes about the feeling of wholeness that results from finding a complementary person, a feeling he calls the “phenomenon of reunification” that’s expressed in the sentiment “I love you so much, I can’t live without you.” And he writes about what happens when we contemplate the loss of our complements, our other halves:

On a deeper level, this sentence [I love you so much, I can’t live without you] reveals the fear that, if the lovers were to part, they would....once again be fractured, half-whole creatures, separated from the fullness of existence. Loneliness and anxiety would well up inside them, and they would no longer feel connected to the world around them. Ultimately, to lose each other would be to lose their new sense of self. (53)

The loneliness and anxiety I always got, but the fear of regression was something I never understood. Hendrix prefaces the above with this sentence:

By attending to their unmet childhood needs, their partners...become allies in their struggle for survival. (52)

And he also explains that it can feel like you’re going to lose that struggle after a break-up. Which is why no one ever really wants to go through one. Mann, it turns out, didn’t write “Everything’s Different Now”: Jules Shear, her boyfriend at the time, and Matthew Sweet wrote the music, and Shear wrote the lyrics. But like Cyndi Lauper’s cri de coeur, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” the tonal opposite of Mann’s almost lavishly disappointed sound, you’d never know.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Cider Press in Greenpoint

Let's start with a simple question, in the category of sights from your kitchen window: can you get more perfect than a man standing in a pear tree, holding up a painter’s pole with a tin can tied to the end, enclosing and pulling pears off the branches like a fisherman pulling catch out of a stream?
Not when it’s sunny, and the tree stands within a verdant Greenpoint backyard, surrounded by more backyards, weathered wooden fences, and old brick and stucco walls. Not a chance.
As the fruit fisher plucked away, the tree’s burden was incrementally relieved. Lots of pears hung out of his reach near my fire escape, where I watched the operation. My neighbor, Joe, passed me the pole to remove a few.

“I’m just so happy for the tree,” he said. “It can relax.”
The harvesting was a revelation, because we in the neighborhood are wary of the soil. In 1979, an oil spill along the nearby Newtown Creek contaminated the ground, and toxic ash from a waste treatment facility also poisoned locally grown fruits and vegetables.

But Joe and Elissa, who own the yard where the tree stands, hired an expert to test the dirt. Nothing wrong, the man said. Eat away.

And soon, drink. The couple's friends, Chris and Marty—Chris stood in the tree, and Marty fished from the ground—spent part of the following weekend in their own backyard on Java Street, grinding and pressing the brown and green fruit with some friends to make cider.
On the morning of the People’s Climate March, Chris invited me into his basement and showed me three glass bottles, or carboys, filled with yellow-green liquid. Tiny bubbles floated to the tops of each, the carbon dioxide excretions of cider yeast eating the sugar in the juice, he explained.
And then he showed me a fruit grinder with a screw-studded wheel, powered by a washing machine motor.
“It’s medieval, isn’t it?” he asked.

The press itself was partially disassembled, but Chris shared the funky name of its intended object, a stack of rectangular, cloth parcels of ground fruit pulp called a cheese. The hybrid brew--Concord grapes from Chris and Marty's backyard also tasted the screws--will be ready in spring, “when the first cuckoo sings,” Chris told me.

A bottle for a blogger and cuckoo, please.