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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.