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…

So….You Have To Cook ‘Em Alive?

Hello Everybody,

Tuesday night, I met up with two dear friends of mine, Chris and Janet.  They’d gotten married earlier that afternoon at New York’s City Hall.  They’d been together over twenty years, but only until last September did they decide to take the old legal plunge.  You know, I’m thinkin’ they got a real chance at this.  Here’s to hoping it lasts!

Chris and Janet, in front of “the real life” City Hall of New York!

“It was very interesting,” Chris said.  “You go into a big room with a bunch of other couples, then a very big black man stands up front, and with a boisterous voice and big hand motions announces, ‘BY THE POWER INVESTED IN ME BY THE STATE OF NEW YORK I NOW PRONOUNCE…’ It’s pretty amazing.  There were young couples, old couples, gay couples, couples living in shelters carrying all their belongings, and Asian couples with the brides decked out in gold-lame dresses and crazy makeup and hair.  There we all were…getting married at the same time.

On my way home that night, I decided to get out of the subway in Brooklyn and walk the rest of the way.  Moving through the cold night air, I meditated on Chris and Janet and the other newlyweds – the eclectic mix of Americans tying the knot.

Celebrating Dia de Los Muertos in Sunset Park

I meditated on it as I walked through Sunset Park, past its bodegas and restaurants with Spanish marquees in bright primary colors.  On 4th Avenue the Chinese hood spills into the Latino hood.  At a Chinese joint Latinos ordered in Spanish, then the clerk shouted the order in Chinese to sweaty cooks who then commenced to prepare a totally non-Chinese dish.  “FRIED CHICKEN AND FRENCH FRIES WITH HOT SAUCE TO GO” sounds American whether it’s shouted in English, Spanish, Chinese or Jive Talk.  There are quite a few Chinese joints on 4th Ave. in Sunset Park, their marquees also in shining bright primary colors.  Similar.  The Same.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Sunset Park

I meditated clear on into Bay Ridge, where I passed my favorite Mexican food joint – operated by a Chinese guy.  Then I walked passed Frank and Eddy’s deli, a great old Italian joint where an Asian dude named Daniel hooks me up.  Next, I walked by the deli where I can get a damn good Philly cheesesteak sandwich prepared by a Yemeni short order cook.  From there, I crossed the street toward the bodega where I get a cup of coffee most mornings, served by Tommy, a Brooklyn bred Irish/Italian fellow.  He’s always on the phone, and after I thank him and he wishes me a good day, he resumes his phone call, speaking fluent Farsi with an old school Brooklyn accent.  Finally, I made it to my apartment, lay my head on the pillow and contemplated the Great Ethnic Stew that is New York City.

Then next morning I got up to meet my friend, Osha.  We were heading out to Give-the-Thanks with Tom, an old friend of hers out on Orient Point, Long Island – way out on the edge of the USofA.  As I walked to my subway stop, I passed by a road crew.  The workers were a bit pissed off, jabbering about how they have to work the day before Thanksgving.  They jabbered away in English – every Irish, Latin and Asian one of them – but they seemed to be alright with their day of toil.

China and Mexico side by side and happy.

“Hey, least it’s mothuhfu$%in’ ovuhtime!”

At the steps descending to the subway, I passed a man pacing in a little semi-circle and speaking on the phone.  He was well into middle age but had the concerned face of a little boy.

“I mean…I’m entitled to it, right?  I been working all these years so I’ve been paying into it, ain’t I.  I mean, that’s how unemployment works, right?”

On Thanksgiving afternoon, Tom drove us out to where the Long Island Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean.  As I walked about the beach I looked out as far as I could see.  3,300 miles of ocean, then Europe.  Nothing in between.  I imagined that if my eyes were stronger, I could see clear to the Old World.  I may have even squinted and tried to see, but alas, my vision isn’t strong enough to see so far.  I can’t see back into Time.

The Atlantic Ocean, with the Old World in the background…way, way in the background.

And seeing that far really would be staring into Time.  Because if I could see Europe from that beach – and the  rest of the world, for that matter (for those who still believe the world is round) – I would see the uncooked ingredients of America.  I would see every single nationality that makes up the USofA, even past the white ingredients of Europe and Britain, to the yellow, red, black ingredients…all the colors that make up America, in their natural habitat.  I would gain, instantly, a perspective that would allow me to gaze upon America with a little more clarity.  I would understand that things have to mix thoroughly before we can take The American Stew off the stove.  I would understand that it’s hot in the pot, and no cooler for anybody else, and I would be a little more understanding, a little more patient, a little gentler with the other ingredients.  But again, I can’t see across an ocean.  I can only see the ingredients up close in the great big melting pot of America. as we bump up against each other on the subway, the street, a stairway or elavator, a line at a meat truck…somewhere.  But we burn like hell together and blend – sometimes violently – together.

It might as well have been like this.

We had turkey, clams and lobsters for thanksgiving dinner.  It was my job to plop the still living lobsters into the boiling pot.  It was a much more difficult task than I thought.  One of the lobsters spread out its claws and tale, bracing itself against the rim of the pot and refusing its fate.  I didn’t know what to do.  I glanced over at Osha and Tom, both shucking clams as if it were second nature.  They said nothing, but gave me a look that said, clearly, “Quit bein’ a sissy and shove ’em in the water.”  So I did and I’m still rather disturbed by it.  But that evening I found solace in the wonderful aroma of so many things cooking in the kitchen.  So many ingredients being chemically broken down by heat, then fusing together to form something fine and tasty.

I inhaled the beautiful aroma, closed my eyes, and on the backs of my eyelids I saw all us Americanos swirling around in the great big pot of boiling water called America.  I saw us breaking down chemically, ceasing to be what we were, and fusing together to become something new and delicious – never before tasted.  And it was ok for us to change into something new…it wasn’t like America was dying.  It was merely change.  America is the pot of boiling water, and will stay America, no matter what ingredients are put into the pot.

Charlie Chaplin starring as the “Little Tramp” in the movie, THE IMMIGRANT.

I kept my eyes closed and witnessed a sudden history of the United States.  Not of wars and God given Imperialist undertakings, but a more accurate history of the States:  The History of the Immigrant.  I saw an immigrant who came over here and worked from sun up to sun down at a very hard job for very little pay so that his or her children would have a better life in America.  The Immigrant somehow found time to fall in love – maybe get married at the city hall – and have first, second, third generations, all the way to you and me.  Others spat on our relative, cursed our relative, and shouted out to our relative that they were stealing their jobs.  Our relative cleaned off the spit and abuse at the end of a very long workday of building a railroad or a brick building, toiling in a sewing shop, cleaning trash of the street, working somebody else’s cattle, farming somebody else’s fields, serving breakfast lunch and dinner all day long to somebody else, or toiled in some other version of hard labor.   Our relavtive lay his or her head on a pillow at night and the next the next thing they knew it was morning.  No dreams – they just got up and lived the same day again.  Dreams were for their children.  The Asian immigrant cooking in the Mexican food joint stands on his feet from sun up to sun down for his children to dream.

Or does he?  Is he doing it for the his children’s future, or simply go through the motions and accepts a life of toil, soaked in grease, as one bill comes in after another, and he skips one payment to make another?  Is he only making payments now, with never any cash left over to put away for a college tuition for his daughter who works the cash register after school?    Does he lay his head on the pillow at night, after a few hours of stupid idiocy on the TV?  Does he toss and turn in bed, unable to understand why he’s so unhappy?  Does he spit back at the assholes who bark their food orders at him – those who also hate their own lives but also can’t quite tell you why?  Does he bark at his daughter every time he sees her?  Does she hate her father, perhaps embarrassed by him, even ashamed of his hideous backwardness?  Is the daughter ashamed to dream?  Can anybody dream anymore?  Will his daughter have to get meningitis, or get hit by a car, for him to remember why he works so hard?  Will the daughter have to drift into a coma just to dream?

I open my eyes and I’m back in the kitchen.  Tom and Osha have shucked the clams and moved on to other things.  The aroma was even richer, palpable in the kitchen’s atmosphere.  I smelled so many things, but I couldn’t smell one single thing.  That excited me, because that meant it was almost time to eat.  My stomach growled as we set the table.

Great recipe, but it has to be cooked at high, high heat.

When all of the ingredients in the Great American Boiling Pot finally dissolve, we will fuse together and will make one fine tasty meal.  It will be so nourishing.  No one will be able to single out one nationality – it will be a new and exciting dish.  The Child called Our Future will sit down at the Great Table, where the American Meal awaits to be devoured.  As The Child sticks the fork in, it will say, “I am thankful for this meal, prepared by those who loved me.  Amen.”

Later that evening, with a full belly, The Child will lay its head on a pillow.  And The Child will dream.

Until then, it’s on us to take the heat together.

Adios, zai jian, bedrood, ciao, so long blood and take it easy, my fellow ingredients…