I spent most of this past week painting an apartment on the 42nd floor of a building on the Upper East Side of New York City. The apartment belonged to a bona-fide British Lord – his crash pad in the city. But I didn’t have to bow in his presence, or worry about losing my head with the slightest hint of disloyalty. The Lord was very nice and unpretentious. In no way did he present himself like a nobleman. He didn’t even have an accent. He’s lived in the U.S. since he was a young man and sounds like a little more relaxed version of Cary Grant. A nice guy – paid me in dollars, not potatoes.
But the fellow has good taste and the money to satisfy it. The view out the huge windows was breathtaking – a god’s eye view of Manhattan. Looking down at so many rooftop gardens and patios on the shorter yet still damn tall buildings, the homes of the less rich but still way damn rich – does something to the mind. It slows things down. From upon high, the traffic on the street moves slower, people down below move along the side walks like tiny bugs – a millionaire’s view of the millions below. When you can see so much of the city in one view, the city looks like a machine, all lubed up, running smoothly and on schedule. That high up, what’s there to worry about? I’ll tell you what. Finishing the huge paint job on schedule, that’s what. I had four days to complete the job, even though the Lord told me to take my time. He seemed absolutely certain I’d finish the job.
Around 2pm each day I’d pause for about fifteen minutes to eat a sandwich. I’d sit at the windows and gaze down below. Above the ceaseless ambient roar of the city, only the stray car horn or siren would find its way to me. The square blocks of brick building after brick building made the city look so organized, as if everything happening down below was planned perfectly, or more so, pre-ordained. The people-dots looked programmed to walk in the direction they were walking – their future already determined. But – also, from so high up – I felt like I was secretly let in on a cruel joke, because I could see what’s around the corner for all the little dots down below. They had no clue, however. To them a mystery awaits at the next turn. The little dots were deep down in The Hustle – helpless, at the whim of the city. I was happy I couldn’t see any of their faces. It would’ve been somewhat depressing to see any hope in their expressions.
On the 59th Street Bridge, the traffic moved across moved slowly – so slow, suggesting in whispers that – Getting hit by a little slow car like me on a bridge like this would only give you a little scratch. Come on over, painter man, and run out in front of me. But my ancestry of indentured servitude and share cropping told me different – the faster carriages and heavy machinery kill, at best cripple. Off in the distance, I watched jet after jet take off from LaGuardia Airport. They looked so slow upon take off, suggesting speed is not a requirement of flight. The jets whispered to me, too – Flight is easy. Look, if a big junky plane like me can do it, surely you can. Give it a shot, painter man, you’re just a window pane away. But the planes were rushing at speeds I could never achieve on my own. If I tried, I would fall to my death. I suddenly realized I was gaining wisdom at a fascinating pace, way up in the thin air. I knew the nature of speed and mass, flight and death, and everything else.
Everytime I heard a siren, I knew it was an abulance rushing to the apartment of an old lady who fell and broke her hip, to a young kid shot on the corner of 112th street and 1st avenue, to an apartment on the Upper West Side that was on fire. That apartment had a cat trapped inside. The cat would not make it out alive, just as the kid on 112th would bleed out before the paramedics arrived, just as the old lady couldn’t hold on to the ghost a few more moments as the EMT’s tried to stabilize her. I knew the fates of 8 million people below me. All around I saw so much pain laced with loneliness. Everyone down below was trapped and alone – no exceptions. If I barely raised my head, I could see clear to the horizon – tree covered hills, not buildings. From the millionaire’s view, I could see the edge of the city, and with the view came the wisdom that the city doesn’t go on forever. But with a slight twitch of the neck downward, my gaze was back to the city streets, where so many people were lost and knew no way out.
During the evenings, I would start to get tired and would feel the urge to speed the painting along. It took discipline to maintain slow and steady pace. I would also feel the pressure of the deadline and get frustrated at my progress. On Tuesday evening, a norther blew into the city and the windows creeked and pulsed with each gust of wind. Just a pane of glass away were the forces of nature – those forces I cannot control. I thought about that for a while, as I ate my evening sandwich. Was I just as helpless up here in the sky, as were the minions down below? Is everything programmed and pre-ordained here too? Are the millionaires part of the machine too, not running it, as I had assumed? Was this paint job already finished on time, or had I already failed at making the deadline? Was Shakespeare and the Hindus right, was the great drama already written and all I had to do was roll the paint? That was a lot of questions to ask in a row, so I stopped there. Truth was, even if I did have the magic power to see around corners, I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. The view from up here was a ruse, I said to myself. And knowledge of the future is a useless tool. Paint job be damned, I said to myself – again, for I got so tired at night I would talk to myself. Yes, be damned. Whether this paint job is already painted or not, I will paint on. A painter paints. I managed to calm down, and when I did I gained a truly usefull tool – better than a crystal ball. I gained the knowledge that The Hustle resides in the same place as Good and Evil. Not in the world beyond the window, but in one’s self. Therefore, The Hustle was a force I could control. Finally, around 10:30pm or so, I would leave the apartment. I always took one more look out the windows. Every night, the headlights of cars on the streets looked like the firey eyes of racehorses as they feverishly raced to the next redlight. Hurrying up just to stop again, over and over. New York City.
Well, I almost came in at deadline. I’d finished the painting, Thursday night, but still needed to clean up Friday morning. The Lord was ok with that – didn’t chain me to the castle wall to instill fear into the other peasants. On the subway ride home, an old black busker hopped on somewhere in lower Manhattan and sang “Stand By Me”, shaking his hatful of loose change to keep time. There were only a few of passengers on the train, and it felt like he sang to each and every one of us. “Stand By Me” is one of the finest songs ever written, and in my totally unhumble opinion, the only song I’ve ever heard about real love, for it captures the simplicity of real love. A love free from romance and sex, or dark poetic torturous co-dependent clinginess that we praise in the dog eat dog reality we’ve created for ourselves, where we’ve convinced ourselves love is something we fight for, convinced ourselves that love is a quest, something bigger than it is. “Stand By Me” isn’t about love that lasts forever or love that cuts like a knife or hurts so good or anything like that. Ben E. King – the song’s author – knew love wasn’t a battlefield. He knew there wasn’t a book of love, because there’s not that much to write about. In fact, he doesn’t even use the word “love” in the song because Mr. King was given an oh, so small moment of clarity when he saw it’s humankind’s folly to even put a name on it. When I sing “Stand By Me,” I’m not asking for your soul forever, to be one with you forever. I’m just asking will you be with me, when…
…the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall Or the mountain should crumble to the sea…
Not to save me, or complete me, just asking if you will be with me when the forces of nature collapse. And they will collapse. For the Lords on high and the lost down below.
On Friday morning, I cleaned up the drops and smears of paint here and there and officially finished the job. I had so much paint stuck in my hair I figured I might as well get a haircut. I went to my neighborhood barber, Adam, who spends more time talking than cutting but I don’t mind. He’s got a great personality and I get a kick out of his Russian-Brooklyn accent.
“But I moved to Turkey when I was young man, you know,” he said. “I speak Turkish very well, too, my friend. English? Is hard language to learn. If you are over 40, forgettaboutit. Not gonna learn it well. But you know, I hadn’t been to Turkey in 12 years. But I go, and just like that, I speak it fluently.”
I looked at Adam through the mirror. He was standing by me, smiling, waving his comb and scissors around, enjoying telling me about himself. His wife was next us, speaking in Russian to the person whose hair she was cutting. She was smiling, too. There was another person waiting for a haircut. They were busier than usual, but they weren’t in a hurry. Down from the tower and back with all the other little people-dots, I realized there was always time to stand by each other in The Hustle.
“But I was 35 when I left Turkey” Adam continued. “So I did not forget the language. My little girls were 9 and 11, very young. They forgot it just like that. They only speak English now. They look like, sound like American girls. Everything is so much faster for them.”