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…

Slow and Easy Above the Hustle

Hello Everyone,

It's a pretty snazzy place, I must say.

It’s a pretty snazzy place, I must say.

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.

Of course, I paint barefooted.

Of course, I paint barefooted.

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.

Somewhere somebody is alone and it is too late.

Somewhere down there somebody is alone and it is too late.

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.

Good Flick.

Good flick.

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.

Comin' at the chil'ren fast and furious.

Comin’ at the chil’ren fast and furious.

“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.”

Be well…