Where Sleeping Giants Wander

Hello Everybody,

Thursday morning, I had to jump on the R-train into Manhattan. It was rush-hour, but I was lucky, I didn’t have a full day’s work ahead of me. I just had to paint a single wall in a friend’s apartment. He’s a good friend and a generous fellow, so I knew he would pay well and I could take the labor at my leasure, though I was sure it wouldn’t take me too long. So, there was a spring in my step as I boarded the subway car. I felt removed from sleepy, 9-to-5 America. I even found a seat. Lucky me.

Sleeping giant, on a break from banging out the shape of the dreams of the aristocrats' children, at the bottom.

Sleeping giant, on a break from banging out the shape of the dreams of the aristocrats’ children, at the bottom.

Naturally, as the subway flowed like a bead of mercury toward the drain of Manhattan, more of 9-to-5 America boarded. Just about everyone in the multi-ethnic mix – ranging from busboys to data enterers – carried the same expression. From my fortunate, easy going, sitting position, I saw many vacant stares. Tired, sure, but more so, resigned, as if they had just thought, Ok, step one, complete. Now the train. A little…more…time. Between the time that thought left them and the next thought came, they floated in the vacuum of an empty mind, one hand on the rail, moving to and fro at the subway’s whim. Subway rails are a curious thing. No one really uses them for support. Some barely have a finger on the rail. A subway rail offers the traveler an illusion of security. More so, affirmation. I am touching the rail, I am plugged in. I really am here. Please, let this not be a dream about workWhatever this is, don’t let my job be my dream. From my low angle, 9-to 5 America looked like a herd giants, corraled, fastened to the rail much like circus elephants tied to a stake in the ground by a piece of yarn behind a rickety old big top. Like the elephants, the giants could easily break free, before they reached their fate in Manhattan, which is perform Le Ballet de Gargantuan en le Teatre du American Dream. But they don’t break free, because it’s Thursday – payday – which will make the day go by faster, and tomorrow’s Friday, which is basically the weekend, when all the giants are let out of the pen and free to climb the beanstalks til their heart’s content until Monday.

Just before Manhattan, the herd of giants and I transfer to the Q-train, which runs express through lower Manhattan. Again – this must be my lucky day – I find a seat. Things is nothing but roses, I think to my self. But the Q certainly didn’t smell like roses that morning. A homeless man had set up camp in the car, and carried upon his being a very strong odor – hence the easilly attainable seat. All the giants smelled it too, but again – vacant eyes – they just held the rail. Actually, the smell wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t the standard, moist, warm smell of dirty clothes and uncleaned flesh that can easily turn the stomach. This homeless person smelled like a stockyard – a blend of ammonia soaked earth and the smell of feces after it has dried out into light carbon. This disturbed me a bit. We all stink, we all get the moist, warm funk from time to time. But no human being should smell the way that fellow did that morning. There but for the grace go I, I thought as I sat among the swaying giants. I was very lucky.

About half of the giants got off at the 34th Street stop, the other half at 42nd Street. Just like that, the subway car was almost empty. I turned to look at the homeless man. He sat, hunched over on an old suitcase held together with tape. His head and torso were covered with black trash bag, as if he had fallen asleep while trying to crawl into a body bag. He lay there, half packaged for the Great Beyond, as the only other person in the car – an androgenous Latin man or woman wearing a jogging suit – sat across from him, moving to the beat of whatever song it was that flowed through his or her pink headphones. His or her eyes were closed, but he or she didn’t seem to mind the smelly fellow. He or she just grooved, tapping his or her painted purple finger nails on his or her seat.

A wise sage, who knew?

Shhhh, he just spotted something money can’t buy.

The only other person in the car was a black construction worker, sitting to the other side of me. He was reading some kind of self-help book. Of course, I leaned closer to get a better look. The book was old – the pages were yellow and curled at their ends – and the page he was reading had several quotes on it, highlighted in yellow. One quote was by Garth Brooks – you know, Garth Brooks – which read, You get wealthy by going out there and finding something money can’t buy. Another quote was from Benjamin Franklyn, which read, America offers you the pursuit of hapiness, it doesn’t give it to you. The construction worker’s steel toes were bulging out from his boots, and his pants contained a permanent layer of sheetrock dust. His hands were rough with cracked callous, but he held the book as if it were sacred text on 3,000 year old parchment. He held it so close to his face, not to miss out on any of its wisdom. I stood up and went to the door as the train approached my stop. I stared straight ahead and caught my reflection in the window on the door. Uh, oh. I saw someone – vacant eyes, drooping mouth, gently rocking to the subway, a hand barely touching the rail. Could I possibily be a sleepy giant, too, unaware he’d been broken, tamed and trained? I shuttered to think such a thought, but subway windows don’t lie.

The painting went easy like I thought it would. After a nice Thai lunch special in Hell’s Kitchen, I walked down to the 42nd Street stop to hop on the train. The train platform was bustling with workers heading back to work from lunch. Now, their eyes were alert. They stared straight at their destination – the R, N, or Q train – as if their ship was shoving off the dock. All were determined to make it, to jump from dock to deck, clock back in to duty and punch in letters and numbers into a computer until next shore leave.

The price of searching for The Name.

The price of defining The Image.

In the middle of the platform, a busker played the banjo. People pushed about, rushed passed him as he picked his instrument with his eyes closed, smiling and belting out haunted, driving mountain tunes. His raw voice filled the tunnel as if it were a coal mine. When a train would arrive, he’d stop playing and cradle his banjo – eyes still closed, still smiling. His coat was carelessly bundled on the dirty platform. His boots were really a series of holes connected by strips of leather. He had holes in his pants, too, and vinyl was sewn onto the thighs where the banjo rested. After a train would depart, the busker resumed – his voice penetrating my flesh, one boot tapping a tambourine, the other foot pounding a kick drum that punched base notes against the old worn out suitcase on which he sat, and his arms moving so fast he looked like some kind of trailer trash Krishna. The faded tattoes on his forearms blended into some unknown image and I was certain that if I could only figure out what that image was, I would never need The Dollar again. I tried to define The Image, believe me I did. Then I caught a glimpse of his banjo case, laying out in front of him – a few dollar bills laying in it. My train arrived, and I left the busker alone to find a name for it. Practice does make perfect.

Description of current retirement plan for the sleeping giant.

Description of current retirement plan for the sleeping giant.

On Friday night, I hopped the R train and headed into Manhattan for a dinner party at my friend’s place- the same friend for whom I painted the wall. People were headed home from work. Again, I was lucky, I didn’t have to work Friday. So my eyes were wide as I observed the herd. So many people were coming home from the long workday. Their eyes weren’t vacant this time – though they did look tired. There was something else in their eyes, like an expression borne out of a slight relief. Something like, It is ok to be tired and a little relaxed on this subway because everybody else is. Soon, I will be home. Home. I didn’t see, in any of them, a pride that they helped keep America strong for one more week, or anything like it. What I saw was something better, a simple pride in their selves. They’d done it another day. I was capable – held body, heart and mind together – another day.

My friend’s wall looked great. I’d done a good job, don’t mind sayin’ it. There was a large window in the middle of the wall, and combined with the fresh paint job, it looked like a giant, live-action shadow box of The Big Apple, in which 8 million grand epics were being played out. 8 million capable giants. I did my best to partake in the fellowship of the evening – as my friends laughed and ate between me and the shadow box – because it wasn’t polite to daydream while around such good company. I was lucky to be with them. But every now and then, I gazed at shadow box and thought, Damn, what a good paint job.

Our patriotic, wise Prometheus...and don't who the other guy is or what the hell he is doing.

Our patriotic, wise Prometheus. I don’t know who the other guy is, or what the hell he is doing.

It’ll probably be a while before I see that group of friends all in one place again. Earlier in the week, I gave notice to my landlord that I’ll be letting my apartment go in April. I’m leaving New York City. First, I’ll probably head to North Carolina to do some work on a friends house in the mountains. Then to Texas for a month. Then probably to LA to work for some other friends. After that, maybe Texas again. Maybe New York. Who knows where sleepy giants will wander? Whether we’re staked to the ground or floating in space, no one really knows what’s going to happen. All I know is I’m pretty lucky. Maybe I’ll follow Garth Brooks’ lead and rope the wind, or pull a Ben Franklyn and go out into the storm and touch the lightening. After all, it’s all waiting out there for me. I just have to go get it.

Be well…

One More Layer Of Paint

Hello Everybody,

Sunset Park - Working class view of Manhattan.

Sunset Park – Working class view of Manhattan.

The other day, I was waiting for the R-train at the 36th Street stop in Brooklyn. The public schools had just let out, so the train platform was packed with kids. They would most certainly be getting off on the 45th, 53rd and 59th Street stops – I’ve witnessed this scholastic migration before. They are the children of the Latino-Asian neighborhood of Sunset Park. Many were 1st generation Americans – and many were a mix of both Chinese and Mexican ethnicity – two peoples, very far away in distance and cultural ideology, but somehow the union of the two seems to make perfect sense within the skin of one person.

But I will not refer to these kids as Chinese-Mexican Americans. I shall refer to them as Americans. It’s simpler. Besides, they were all wearing the skinny yet sagging jeans, wearing the Nike Air Jordans that are for some reason popular again. Hollister. Lucky Brand, etc. In fact, you can hardly see the Mexican and Chinese under all the American brands they were wearing, which were pobably made – ironically – in China or Mexico (To be fair, Hollister is made in Taiwan, but Luck Brand is, indeed, made in Mexico). Of course, each kid had an iphone plugged into their head. And just like other herds of afterschool kids all over the country, they were straight up hormone-frenzied and loud. Their voices echoed off the tunnel walls and into my ears. It’d been a long day and I was tired, so I stared off across the tunnel and tried to go somewhere far off in my mind.

As I attempted to escape, I noticed – across the tracks – what appeared to be many thick shards of broken pottery. At first, I thought someone had thrown a pot or vase across the tunnel. But then I looked up to see exposed concrete on the tower ceiling. Turns out a huge section of paint had peeled off and fallen to the tracks. The ceiling had been painted over so many times that the peelings were almost an inch thick. One layer after another was added to the ceiling. I thought, Gee, the ideal thing to do would’ve been to strip the ceiling, then add another layer. But that would be an undertaking too large to attempt in the subway tunnels of a city that never sleeps. Slap a coat on and move it down the line. New York City moves much too fast to stop and strip.

Teenage mating game, many layers of paint back.

Teenage mating game, many layers of paint back. Like, all the way back to the ’90s.

Behind me, one of the boys on the platform said something to one of the girls, causing her pack of bff’s to shreek loud enough to crack glass. I stared harder into the paint shards – pretended I could see each layer of paint. One layer, then another layer. One era, then another. Soon I was surrounded by Irish, Norwegian and Italian teenagers that were not just Irish, Italian, or Norwegian, but a mix of the three. Great Scott! I’d gone back in time, to when it was the kids of the Irish, Italian and Norwegian immigrants (working in the shipyards back in the early 20th century, when business was booming on Brooklyn’s side of New York Harbor) who played the New York subterranean afterschool mating game. Of course, it was only my imagination, so when the R-train arrived, I entered it completely sane and with the new horny American teenagers of Sunset park. Different era, different ethinic mix, but the same America – the boys will always say something to make the girls scream in Sunset Park.

I got home to my apartment in Bay Ridge – the neighborhood just south of Sunset Park. I picked up my guitar but ended up staring at the wall. My apartment is over 100 years old. It was one of the many apartment buildings built to house those Italian, Irish and Norwegian shipbuilders and their families.

My door, painted with years.

My door, painted with years.

It’s a great apartment, though the doorways lean one way, the floors lean another, sloppy plaster jobs are everywhere and if you poured a bottle of drano down the sink you’d probably annoint your downstairs neighbor with rusty water, destroying their confidence to ever drink from the faucet again. And, of course, layer upon layer of paint has been applied to the cielings and the walls. I thought, Gee, why don’t the owners just sand the apartments down at some point – take the time and do it right, so they don’t have to keep painting over it? Because, I answered myself – in a slightly castigating tone – this is New York. Time is money. When one goes out, another goes in. Truth was, when an owner takes the time and strips and renovates an apartment, the owner is doing so as to rent it out at market value. When that happens, it’s not as if one working class demographic moves out and another moves in. It’s more like the working class moves out to make room for the young white professional class. That is the only kind of renovation New York slows down for.

Gossamer and Bugs in sharing a rare, civil moment.

Gossamer and Bugs sharing a rare, civil moment.

I continued to stare at my wall with a kind of ex-ray vision – through the many layers of paint. Suddenly, I sat up and thought, again, Gee, is everything – the wall, the ceiling, you, me, Planet Earth, made of paint? Wait, was everything always only made paint? At that point, two things came to mind. One, was Gossamer, the hair monster in the old Looney Tunes cartoons. In one cartoon – after chasing Bugs Bunny around relentlessly – Bugs tricks Gossamer into getting a hair cut. After cutting and cutting and more cutting, all that remains of Gossamer are his white shoes. He was only hair to begin with. The second thought was of the Doobie Brothers. The Doobies started out cool, playing that slow-and-easy-on-the-8-track-get-in-the-back-seat-of-my-Dodge-Charger-and-love-the-one-you’re-with kind of blues. But a few short years go by and one day some half gray, half black haired dude is crooning – while fingering out a melody that he must’ve stolen from Captain and Tenille, on an electric organ – something about takin’ it to the streets?!?! It sounds nothing like them, but the dj says it’s the Doobie Brothers. Can that be? I guess so. The Doobie’s kept adding layer over layer to their sound, so many over a period of time that no one even noticed – until the metal hair bands came along and shinier, glitzier rockers wheeled the Doobies to the classic rock station. Just like the Doobies, New York changed. Like Gossamer, some of New York has disappeared. But when, exactly, did it go down? Just like anything else: It took a long time and then happened over night.

The Doobie Brothers. Typical, like all American mysteries - baffling at first, only realizing later that we saw it coming all along.

The Doobie Brothers. Typical, like all American mysteries – baffling at first, only realizing later that we saw it coming all along.

On Friday, I did some repair work to the bathroom of my dear friends’ – Janet and Chris – studio apartment in the East Village. Janet and Chris lived in the one room studio together for 20 years. Janet lived there for 10 years before that. They moved to a bigger place a few years ago, but they keep renewing the lease to the studio because it’s so cheap. They lend it to people now and then – they let me use it for a couple of weeks two years ago, when I needed a place. Every other apartment in the building has been renovated and rented at a much higher price to the 21st Century Work-From Home Or From A Hipster Cafe-Force. When Janet lets the lease go to her apartment, it will follow the same fate. But for now, they just needed a quick fix to make way for a fellow who will be visiting from Germany soon.

It was an easy gig, I just had to re-caulk around the bath tub, then slap a hot mix of plaster onto the ceiling. On one part of the ceiling, the paint had begun to peel, and there I was again, staring at more layers of paint. I cut away the peeled portion of the paint from the ceiling, and continued to look at it as I held it. I was holding decades of America in my hand – the two decades Chris and Janet lived there, then there was the layers of the tenants before them, during the 70’s, when the East Village was a herion infested and crime ridden dark shadow of Manhattan.

We, The People...

We, The People…

Then I looked up at the ceiling. It was so old I could easily press my hand through it, and reach into the time of the hippies who smoked mary-jane while they painted day-glo signs for whatever there was to protest. I could reach further back to the beatniks who played the bongos and took long drags off hop cigarettes, man, and and hid their reddening eyes behind cool black sunglasses, daddy-o. I could even – I was certain – go so far back and see a tired working man looking out the window with his daugher. He would be speaking Yiddish or Russian or German or Polish or wait, is it Ukranian?…to his little daughter who was crying, pointing out the window. The father smiled as he consoled her, and said, Oh no, my little malyshka, that is called an auto-mobile. I promise you it is not a dragon. Me? Oh no, I take the subway.

I felt as if I could pull the entire ceiling down – strip America down to its studs – with my bare hands. Then I could see where it was sagging, and shift things around a little so every part of the structure had equal support. Then I’d knock out all those internal walls we hide behind far too often and too easily and the only doors I’d install would be swinging doors. I’d give it a higher ceiling. It’d be an airy structure, with lots of room, lots of windows and sunlight. But if I did all that, I would then be a renovator, not a simple handy man.  That would mean I would have to buy insurance, which would mean I would have to incorporate myself as a company, which would mean the taxman would come knockin’ for more. All that red tape would take time and my plaster was hardening fast.  So I just spread it on the ceiling and let it dry. Then after sanding it, I – you guessed it – slapped a coat of paint on it, added yet another layer. There just wasn’t any time to fix it all.

Painted, strong.

Painted, strong.

Be well…

Forgetting, Hiking, Remembering.

Hello Everybody,

map_get.aspOn Saturday, I went hiking at Lake Awosting with my friends, Dan and Matt.  Lake Awosting is another mountain lake on the Shawangunk Ridge, along with Lake Minnewaska, which I wrote about in a previous Jamberoo (The Fading of the Ancient Screams http://wp.me/p2O8u6-5E).  Awosting’s at a lower altitude than the other lakes, and due to a recent snowstorm, the only lake open for hiking.  So, easy decision.  Lake Awosting it was.

Dan was tasked with making the decisions for the trip – it was his idea in the first place.  His wife, Wren, was out of town and he wanted to get out of the city.  Matt’s girlfriend, Molly, went with Wren, so he was free to come along, too.  Dan rented a Zipcar, printed out the directions, plugged in the ipod.  Then we set out for the Great White North, into the clean air for a day of hiking and good old-fashioned gettin’ back to the land, man-in-the-wild kinda stuff.  Maybe even wrestle a bear.

I looked forward to the trip all week.  I’m at the point of jumping on  any opportunity I can to break free of the gravity of New York City, which has such an affect on a person that it – should one embed themselves in its caverns long enough – compresses them to a size so tiny where the only perspective attainable is:  everything’s close to me and closing in on me, everything’s fast and faster than me, everything revolves around me and I am the center of the Universe, where are my pills?  Being on a mountain – or anywhere out in the open – gives me the understanding that I’m but a tiny piece in a puzzle of incomprehensible proportions.  Not a border or corner piece or a piece with any wierd curvature, just a piece that looks like most of the others.

Matt and I on Saturday, befrore setting out into the wilderness.  Dan is parking the car.

Matt and I on Saturday, befrore setting out into the wilderness. Dan is parking the car.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of that, however, in the days leading up to the hike.  I was thinking about a fellow named Oscar Koch.  I met Oscar in 2010. He was in his 60’s.  When he was younger he wrote a little, did some acting.  Then somewhere along the way, he suffered a sever injury, leaving him partially disabled.  Sometime after that, he became morbidly obese.  Then he was homeless.  Fortunately, he ended up in supportive housing through Housing Services Inc, where Matt worked.  Matt had read a few plays of Oscar’s and asked me if I would direct a reading of one of them – one he’d been working on since 1979 – and said it would be a big deal to the big guy to see his play on the stage, even if it was just a reading.  I said yes.  I figured it would be a nice way to sweeten my karma, no big deal.  But of course, it turned out to be bigger deal than I could imagine…

All I could think about was Oscar one the way to Lake Awosting, with Matt right behind me in the backseat.  But we didn’t talk about Oscar, and after we parked the car and began our ascent to the lake on the snow covered trail, the beautiful scenery – along with my mental preparations for a bear attack – pushed the thoughts of Oscar further from my mind.  Onward we marched, playing the role of Man as the trail narrowed and the parking lot and civilization disappeared.  It was a grand time.  But the snow on the trail got deeper and deeper as we forged on – knee deep in some places.  Soon the hike had become a genuine bitch of a thing.  But we weren’t about to turn back.  Dan, Matt and I grew silent as the time between the slushing of our got longer and longer.  Sometime around then Oscar came back to my mind with gusto…

We went on this path, just add a foot of snow to your imagination.

We went on this path, just add a foot of snow to your imagination.

His play was about a community theatre troup rehearsing a play about life in the great depression.  It was one of those plays where the line between reality and make-believe gets blurry and before you know it, the actors believe they are the characters.  A young engenue really thinks she is the young sickly girl she is portraying.  A young shy actor really believes he can take her away, heal her and make her happy.  The actress playing the engenue’s wilder, older sister really believes she can run off to the city and become a star.  And an old over-acting actor really believes he is the drunk tortured Everyman of the play, the symbol of the decline of the country, a martyr.  Things get whacky and the director hopelessly tries to hold onto his sanity.  Oscar’s play wasn’t an untold story, but certain lines grabbed me, like this one from the older sister:

“It’s a great big world out there!  I can’t wait to go out in it and make myself sick.”

This wasn’t a play written by a 25 year-old ivy league graduate student at a series of cushy writer’s retreats on the shores of various lakes throughout New England over the period of two years.  What made Oscar’s play great was that it was written by a man who ventured out into that great big world, then before he knew it he was crippled, fat, homeless, and later spending his life in a tiny room in a big city solving crossword puzzles and rewriting a play he’d begun as a young man, before any of it happened to him.  What made his play better than anything a trained writer could think up and write it down to create an intellectual statement was the fact that it was exactly not that.  It wasn’t trained writing, it wasn’t thought up, it wasn’t intellectual – it was simply lived life.

One day, Oscar tried to tell me about his life and how things ended up the way they did.  But as he tried he became inarticulate, as if everything about his life was foggy except the present moment.  Finally, he gave up trying and shrugged his shoulders – which were permanently lospided due to the injury he suffered years ago – and smiled.  Of course he smiled, he had every reason to.  His play was going to be read in New York City.  I didn’t need to know the details of Oscar’s life, anyway.  I knew who he was through his play.

Explanation of Oscar's life, anyone's life.

Explanation of Oscar’s life, anyone’s life.

Toward the end of the play, the drunk father storms onto the stage and rambles out a monologue about his broken manhood in a broken country and that death is the only choice for him now.  His sweet, sickly daughter cries at his feet, begging him to stop speaking of such things.  Then suddenly, the drunk father morphs back into the actor – confusing the sick daughter.  He tells her the rehearsal is over.  She doesn’t understand and grows distressed.  Then he smiles, empathetically, and tells her it’ll all be ok – that life blows around like a storm with great triumphs and deep lows and more losses than wins, but at the end, you’re gonna look at the few people around you and tell them, you know, it wasn’t all that bad.  Then he leaves the stage, not the tragic alcoholic father caught in a social whirlwind, just the tired actor who has to get up early the next morning and go to work.  However, the young actress remains convinced she is really the sick daughter.  As the lights begin to go down, she asks where everybody is, that she’s scared and lonely.  Gradually, she grows more distressed, and panics.

“Keep the lights on!  I am not ready yet!  I’m young!  I still have so much more to do!”

Lights down, the play ends.

I cast some of my fellow actor friends in the roles and we did the reading at a theatre on 42nd street – my friend, Erika, ran the theatre and let us do the whole thing for free.  We invited some people to come and most of them did.  Just before we began, Oscar was very nervous.  He was also a bit embarrassed because he was so large he had to sit on two chairs on the edge of the stage, where the audience could see him.  But I’m sure that was fate.  I’m sure all of us in that theatre were meant to see Oscar clearly as we listened to the words of his life’s masterpiece.  The man was the play, the play was the man.  We were meant to see that the only training for storytelling is living, and writing without living is nothing more than hollow intellectualism, i.e. lies.

After the reading, Matt, Oscar and I talked in the lobby about what parts of the play could be worked on.  We made plans to meet in two weeks.

“Well, I guess I got work to do,” he said, very happily.

Matt called me two days later to tell me that Oscar was dead.  It was apparently a peaceful passing.  Matt found him in his room sitting on his bed – a crossword puzzle on his chest, pencil in his hand, as if the next word could only be found in a dream.  Don’t tell, Matt, but I could hear him crying over the phone.

“The last thing Oscar said to me,” Matt said, “was, ‘Gee, I guess I’m a playwright now.'”

Then that was it.  I hadn’t seen or spoken to Matt until this past Saturday.  Almost 3 years.  Just like that.

Example of the truth being much less dramatic.

Example of truth being much less dramatic than fear.

It was very good to see Matt again.  It was good to see Dan, too.  It’s good to see friends, anytime.  Our hike was like most hikes I’ve done.  It was hard going up, easy going down, and reaching the destination didn’t feel like the big deal I thought It’d be – just three friends sitting by a frozen lake, eating snow, speaking every now and then.  Towards the end of the hike the three of us goofed off like kids, chased each other, stumbled, laughed at ourselves.  We made it back from the wild in one piece – lived to tell the tale.  Turns out the bears were still hibernating.

We huffed and puffed in the parking lot, which lead to more laughter over the fact that damn, we’re are getting older.  We were so tired we had to drink coffee to stay awake on the way home.  But we made in to the city without passing out or slipping into dimentia.  No, we are alive and healthy, each of us possessing an abundant potential to thrive.   As Dan drove me to my place, I stared into the dashboard light, bewildered over the richness of memory – how real my memory of a guy named Oscar Koch was – sewed into my life, my story.  I was also a bit ashamed to realize that I’d forgotten about him until now.

There's Oscar,  the older fella standing in the back.  Matt is standing at the far left.  The rest are damn good  friends.

There’s Oscar, the older fella standing in the back. Matt is standing next to him on the left. The rest are more damn good friends.

Be well…

Illusions and Delusions at the Dead End

Hello Everybody,

Performing in the play "Trousers" (with Marty Brown in his boxers) in one of the city's many black box theatres.

That’s me on the left, performing in the play “Trousers” (with Marty Brown in his boxers) at iRT Theatre, one of the city’s many black box theaters.

Last Monday, I helped Fran – a theatre director – transport an old refrigerator from a storage unit to a theatre on the city’s west side.  It was a rediculously easy task –  $40 bucks to load, wheel, unload.  The only wrinkle in the job was that Fran and I had to wait about 30 minutes outside the theatre for the next break in rehearsal before we could load in.  But that wasn’t a drag at all, because Fran was very pleasant, very appreciative, and an easy one with which to shoot the bull – although she looked very tired from running around, her curly hair sprawling out in every direction.  It was another supreme effort on top of decades of piecing together one low budget theatre production after another.

“As you can tell,” said Fran, pointing to the fridge, her hair springing with the movements of her body, “it’s just a fridge.  But I just don’t have the upper-body strength anymore.  Oy, I’ve been doing this so long, this avant-guarde black box theatre stuff.  When I was young, it’s all I wanted to do.  I mean, I still love it, but now, I don’t know what else I could do.  You just think it’s gonna end up differently, you know?  But to the world out there,” she points out to the city, “I’m just the old lady that works at Trader Joe’s.”

At the rehearsal break, I wheeled the fridge down a narrow hallway, then another, then another, then into a little room that was painted black, with a jerry-rigged light grid over a small stage, and a handful of cushioned seats that barely qualified the room as a theater.  I’d been in many of these theaters across the city.  I’ve performed in many and had my owned plays produced in them.  I took a look at Fran and saw the millions of things she had to take care of – fluttering about her wild, curly hair – before the curtain went up.  There was so much to do before she could sit back and appreciate the creativity she spearheaded, and see in front of her everything that makes the loud chatter and long lines and long hours of Trader Joe’s bareable.  Then the play will close as quickly as it opened, and the hunt for another reason to make it all worth it would begin again.

Trader Joes...8 hours a day of this for Fran.

Trader Joes…8 hours a day of this for Fran.

Fran gave me the $40.  First, I adamantly refused to take the money, but Fran insisted.  Then, I half-heartedly refused it, but she insisted again.  Then I pocketed it quickly, said good-bye, swiftly made my way down one, two and three narrow hallways – out of the darkness and onto the street before I tried to refuse the money again.  What can I say, I needed $40.

I’d sneezed off and on that afternoon, and by nighttime my throat was scratchy.  By Tuesday morning I could barely hold my head up.  I had a raging cold.  No big deal, but it included shuttering chills and shortness of breath. My head felt like it was floating in some inland sea, tied to an old, unused pier, beating against the soggy algea-covered wood – softly, yet consistently.  I couldn’t focus or eat much.  I just lay in bed mostly, noting the patterns of barking by all the dogs of neighbors.  The tenent below me would jam to heavy metal at 10am every morning.  Every afternoon, the super of the apartment building next door from mine would venture out to the trash cans (my window opened toward the airshaft that my building and his shared) and separate the trash from the recycling.  Of course he had recepticals specifically for trash and for recycling, but his tenents never paid much attention.  So every afternoon the super cursed to high heaven over the fact that he worked hard to keep things in order but everybody f$%^ing sh!ts on him.  EVERYDAY F$%^ING DAY!  Sometimes his wife would help him and she would bare the brunt of his dissapointment.  But after she’d had enough of his hideous and juvenile screaming, she would quietly leave him to pick up the trash, alone.  When he finally stopped shouting, the silence would pound in my ears.  But the motor of my fridge would eventually kick on and solved that little issue.

Media-induced hypochondria.

Media-induced hypochondria.

It’s not good for me to be alone too long, especially when I’m sick.  The internet calls to me like a siren, and the helpless sailor in me can’t resist the urge to google all my symptoms.  After a few moments, I’d officially diagnosed myself with the new SARS.  I’m not a hypochondriac by nature – just by media – but it’s hard not to feel an itch if you’re reading about fleas.  To get my mind off dying alone from the newest deady epidemic, I would try to read…but when did, I though about Fran.  I tried to write…but I thought about Fran.  I tried to mindlessly bang out chords on my guitar…but I thought about Fran.  I realized I’d had Fran on my mind since Monday.  Then I thought about being fifty and working at Trader Joe’s.  You’re just sick, I said to myself, your emotions are playing tricks on you.  I felt better, but then I reminded myself, Oh, that’s right, you have the new SARS.  There is no hope, you will die, and die alone.  They won’t even find you until you’re a ripe compost heap.  But hey, you won’t live to work at Trader Joe’s!  There simply was no way out, I was going to die from the new SARS, alone – but I’d chosen this path, I chose for it all to end this way.

Friday I started feeling better.  I decided to move my bones a little.  I took a short walk, got groceries.  Then I met up with a few friends in the afternoon.  The little bit of human interaction brought out of death’s grasp and soon I made the revelation that I was on the mend.  My friend’s laughed at me after I told them about my near death from the new SARS.  I didn’t mind, their laughter told me I was ok.  Their laughter also told me they were just like me.  Later on the afternoon, I not only felt better, but started feeling good.  I had a spring in my step and I bounced home in a better world – a world where Fran wans’t just an old lady working at Trader Joe’s, but was rightfully one of the real artists of the city – doing it no matter what, telling stories in the dark spaces of the jungle, resisting the urge to follow the rumors of untold riches uptown in El Dorado.

When I got back to my place, my nieghbor James was already home.  James worked at the Brooklyn Navy shipyards.  He was out the door most mornings by 5am and got home around 4pm.  He’s not an especially big man but he has a booming voice.  I could hear him through the wall.  He was just beginning his nightly drunk – shouting gaily at his son, who I could also hear beyond the paper thin walls.

Dead end at 76th street, behind my apt.

Dead end at 76th street, behind my apt.

“My son’s a smart f$%^ing kid, man,” James told me once, out by the back entrance of our building.  He and I always enter through the back, at the dead end of 76th street in Brooklyn.  “I’m real proud of him.  He’s gonna do really well, better than me, anyway.”

Friday night was like most.  His jovial shouting transformed into spiteful yelling.  His son yelled back for a bit, then slammed the door and left.  Then James descended to the regular bull-in-a-China-shop babbling rage.  Finally, he mumbled belligerently to himself until he passed out.  Then he did it all again on Saturday.

James is a good guy.  Every now and then he comes knocking on my door to offer me booze or a joint.  After I decline both, he fakes surprise, then fake remembers that…

“Oh, that’s right, you don’t drink, do you?  Smoke either?  Me, I gotta do somethin’ to unwind.  Hey listen, I just wanna thank you for being a good neighbor.”

Brooklyn Navy Shipyard.  Some jobs require drinking.

Brooklyn Navy Shipyard. Some jobs require drinking.

I don’t hold James’ drunken tirades against him.  He works hard day in and day out, at a hard job.  Shipyards are tough places, you gotta do what you gotta do to cope.  I’m sure he’ll knock on my door again, sooner or later.  Things tend to happen over and over at dead ends.

Be well…