29 February, 2012

A Baboon in New York, Part 3: Coney Island Blues

[Apologies for the lateness of this post. Slowed down some by this bug I caught in Norfolk and delayed by the absence of WiFi on the train. Expect my Boston update: The Beantown Massacre tomorrow. I have some catching up to do. -Mick]

“I am waiting for the war to be fought 
which will make the world safe for anarchy” 
                                       ― Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind

(My friend Steve on the pier at Coney Island.)
I couldn't end my time in New York without going to Coney Island. But except for the day I spent with my friend Susan in Lower Manhattan, the weather was rainy and on the chilly side. And yes, I KNOW it's been a mild winter, more or less -- at least, every place I've been on this leg of the trip; and I KNOW, it could be a whole lot worse.

But you also have to keep in mind that cities, other being places where a lot of people can live on top of one another in a geographic location that can really only sustain a quarter or less of the population currently existing there, are also amazing wind tunnels.

It was Friday when I went, with my friend and other host Steve, to Coney Island. I had sort of an idea what it was like, based on descriptions. It's one of those places I've always wanted to see -- at least since I first read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's  collection of poems entitled A Coney Island of the Mind. I didn't quite know what to expect off season. I knew the rides would be closed; I was sort of hoping that the freak shows and the burlesque would still be open.

I know, I know. The world is a freak show, and why go to a burlesque when there's internet porn? Because there's something a scantily clad woman hiding behind large feathers that's just Sexy Awesome.

That's right. Sexy Awesome. There's an artfulness and a playfulness, to it. A sort of intimacy that's more satisfying. And yes, it's a fake intimacy. It's a show. An act. So is going to strip club. (You do know, don't you, that the girls don't REALLY like you, right? They're being nice so you'll tip them. Like the cute bartender in the low cut blouse who talks you up. It's business. You know... like marriage.


This is Dannie Diesel, Aka Danielle Colby Cushman of American Pickers  fame. This is  what real burlesque looks like.

This is the bunnygator. One of the acts I missed because the show was closed for the season. :(

The train ride from Queens to Coney Island was a little over an hour. There's something soothing about the rocking and sounds of trains... even subway and commuter rail... so Steve and I both ended up falling asleep. Every once in a while the jolt from a stop or a start would wake me; but that never lasted long. It's nice to be able to drop off and catch a short nap; that's one the things I like about public transit. (It helps that I can sleep just about anywhere, including sitting straight up. I can also roll my tongue and bend my fingers back. Oh yes, Ladies, I am a CATCH!) And every time I opened my eyes, there were fewer and fewer people on the train with us.

Eventually, the train went from underground to on elevated tracks. We were in Brooklyn, and fast approaching Coney Island. Mythic places have always fascinated me... everything from Stonehenge to the Georgia Guide Stones, from the painted desert to that big ball of twine, from the St. Louis Basilica in New Orleans and the graveyard where Marie Laveau and Dr. John are buried to the places that are only sacred to me: Menifee County, my father's grave.

Coney Island is one of those places that, for good or bad, and probably mostly bad, has always had mythic resonance. It's magic. It's camp. It's kitsch. It's crass. It's classless. It's beautiful and gaudy and bawdy;  it's right on the Atlantic Ocean, a body of water I hope to someday cross and go to Europe. Choppy winter waves like the ones I've seen in Norfolk's Chesapeake bay, and the Hudson River in New York have seemed an appropriate metaphor for the things I'm experiencing, the changes in my life. Choppy, but steady. Consistent, but with multiple and dangerous under and cross currents I have to maneuver. And since I am, first and foremost,  a poet, I can't resist an apt metaphor.

The ocean wind was cold and it was spitting rain, which made it difficult to see. The first thing we did was go to the Nathan's Hot Dog Stand, which was one of the few things not associated with the train terminal that was actually open. Coney Island off season is on the desolate side; a few locals who came out to crowd the hot dog stand, there was no one around.

My primary reason for going to Nathan's was that I was told, quite specifically, that I need to go to Nathan's and eat a hot dog. I confess that one hot dog more or less tastes like another to me... except for veggie dogs and turkey dogs which, even buried under multiple layers of chili, onion and peppers, kraut, ketchup, mustard, and cheese, still taste like shit and should be removed from the pantheon. All beef dogs are better. Nathan's are -- technically -- kosher, which means they are prepared under the strict rules of Koshrut Law.

(Which, as far as I can tell, means nothing for hot dogs. I mean, chicken beak and rat turds are still chicken beak and rat turds  regardless of how they're prepared... right?)

All in all, it was a good hot dog. It's not something I'd write to people and tell them they HAVE to go and do... but... well... maybe the adverse weather conditions were affecting my palette. 

After I finished my chili dog, fries, and beer, Steve and I walked down so I could take a look at the Atlantic Ocean. Except for three people who were huddled under the shelter leading to the beach from the street, there was no one around. I took some pictures, stared out at the waves. A significant part of this trip has been about learning to let go, and there's something about the rhythm of ocean waves that helps me do that. I stood there, making small talk with Steve about the ocean and the water and how soothing it is to me, about how the waves of the Atlantic crashing up on the deserted beach reminded me of the waves of Chesapeake Bay behind the cheap ass motel I stayed in while visiting Stella in Norfolk.

Staring out at the waves, I thought again about how I have come to one of those places that feels like the end of the world, if only to release the stress and pain and sense of failure that had been building up in me over the years and over the weeks. 10 years, I thought. 10 years is a long time to wear on a person. 

10 years is a long time to be together, To live together. To experience life together. It's not as long as some marriages last; but I've seen a lot of people who just coast through their lives hoping they'll make it to the end as quietly as possible. But really, depending on how you live, a lot of life can happen in 10 years, depending on how you lived. And, if nothing else, I know Melissa and I lived a lot. We moved around a lot. We started over a lot. Started from almost nothing a lot. Maybe we didn't last; but we lived more than a lot of people do. It was a full decade.

Catch and release. Staring out at the winter ocean, that phrase echoed with the crash of the waves. Catch and release. If we treated the important moments in our lives that way -- understand that each moment, or series of moments, is only ours for a short time and that at some point, we have to learn to let go... not just for our sake, for the sake of the other people with whom we share those moments,and for the sacredness of those moments themselves, then learning how to move forward becomes less about actually moving forward and than it is understanding how to begin again. Because sometimes, there is no moving forward. 

Sometimes, you simply stand in the same place and cast out a new line. Because the universe is vast and life is as vast as we allow it to be.

After letting the ocean spit on us for a few minutes, I asked Steve, who was standing there, patient as always, if he would care to go down to the pier. He agreed. As we turned to leave, one of the three people I spied in my periphery asked me for a quarter.

Now, I'm almost always good for it if I have it. And as I've stated before, I don't really care whether people tell me the truth; whether they really need a dollar for bus fare, for whether they need it to buy a bottle or a few rocks, or some food -- doesn't matter to me. Humanity shouldn't need a reason or justification. 

But I don't like being threatened. And there was something about this guy, this kid, really, he couldn't have been older than 17 or 18, half standing in a shadow, his entire frame ready to jump. He already had one black eye. He looked like he didn't care if he got another, even if all he got out of it was a nickel. And there were his two friends, who were hiding back in the shadows, quietly. 

I'd seen this approach before. It's one that works based on fear. It's not much different than being mugged, really. And while I knew I could put up a fight if I had to, I didn't really want to. This is one of those moments when you have to DECIDE to be a pacifist. It's a conscious decision. But that also means, not giving in to the fear, either. Not allowing people to intimidate you into acting against your instincts. 

So I said no. If he had approached differently, not ready to pick a fight, I would've given him something, even though I really had very little to spare. 

"Oh." He said, and moved back into the shadow as Steve and I walked away.

"Have a blessed day!" One of the other shadows... a girl, called out.

"I'm working on it."

And then the cat calls began. The insults. Calling me selfish. Calling me fat. Calling me other things. Saying that I couldn't spare a quarter, but that I had plenty of money for McDonald's hamburgers and chicken nuggets. So easy. I thought. So easy to read wrongly into someone's life. I didn't particularly care about them calling me fat. I can lose weight. But making assumptions about my life based on the state of their lives? I felt like turning around and telling them what idiots they were; it's possible to live this life and still demonstrate a little class, a little dignity. I've seen it. They need to learn it.

But I thought better of it, and my surroundings. And Steve. And my promise to myself 15 years ago, to try and do no harm to anyone. It's the promise doctors make and some of them even keep. 

And ultimately, I wasn't going to let them destroy the peaceful mood I was in.

We walked down to the pier. Standing on the pier is like standing near the edge of the world. Further down, people were fishing, even on a lousy day like that. Standing that close to the water without being in it, hearing and feeling the crashing of the waves against the wood, you start to feel the rhythm and vibration of the world. It's peaceful and terrifying. 

It's one of those places, you need to remind yourself to breathe. Return to the basics.

[Thanks for reading. Remember, if you like what you read, you can help:

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24 February, 2012

A Baboon in New York, 2.2: A Baboon on Wall Street (Cont.)

"The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. " - G.K. Chesterton

"The observer is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes." - Charles Baudelaire

After three or four days in one place, I start to get itchy. I've noticed this since I started this trip; I intend to visit my friends and family for a week, and after 3 days I'm starting to think I need to get my shit together and go. This urge has nothing to do with being tired of the place I am; and it certainly has nothing to do with the gracious company of my hosts.

And I'm not all that surprised about the return of the itch; I've had it as long as I can remember. What surprises me is that it's kicked into hyper drive. What used to take at least a month is taking a few days.

I'm not entirely sure what it means. It may not mean anything. It may mean I'll have to do this forever. Or until the bones in my feet and ankles disintegrate into dust.

This thought isn't nearly as disturbing as it maybe ought to be.

Another thing I'm noticing is how easily I slip into that ethereal social class that has been given so many names, almost all of them derogatory, full of judgement, fear, and derision.

Because a lot of times, when people refer to other human beings as bums, it's a rooted in fear. Fear of The Other. Fear of The Truth... that Truth being that most of us are closer to being without a home and without a job than anyone wants to admit. And, yes, there are those who feel no need to help their fellow human beings, feel no responsibility to help the least of us -- and I won't get started on them here.

Since leaving Ashland, I've been called out at least once in each city by other travelers -- you may call them bums, you may call them homeless -- at this point, I prefer to think of myself as something of a conscientious malingerer -- which is to say,I'm a traveler, an observer of the human condition. A a techno-hobo. A bum.  Lately I've been lucky enough to visit friends. But I'm also aware that I can only crash on people's couches for so long before my itch to get away and their need to not have their routines permanently disturbed will get in the way of any good visit. And I also realize that I am more fortunate than many in similar states of living and most who could consider themselves better off. The universe has not seen fit to give me a temperament that would allow me to make tons of money or to be the family man my father was; but I am absolutely wealthy in regards to friends. And I hope that I'm able to return the favor, in some fashion to each and every one of them.

I wrote briefly about the first time this happened in Norfolk (Nor'fuk) -- still Number 1 in my list of Most Inhospitable and Wretched Places (which also includes the whole state of Alabama, a Denny's Restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, and every Gym and Health & Wellness Center on the Planet. So you know, I take this list very seriously.) It happened to me again in the Washington D.C. Greyhound Bus Station. That time, I was again approached by someone trying to ask for money. The man, who was black and was probably around my age, stopped short and started talking about how he knew we were alike -- called us brothers. First he talked about how cold it was outside. Then he said something like this.

"I know," he said. "I know you and me, we're alike. You know... you're like me. You... uh... travel around. Yeah. The blue eyes," he said. "The blue eyes, they don't lie."

He then stood up to approach someone else who might actually have money; but before he left, he shook my hand.

When I was down in Lower Manhattan with my friend and very kind host, Susan, I was approached yet again. The subway ride from Queens to the World Trade Center took about an hour, and it was early afternoon by the time we got there. Susan took to the place where she participated in an Occupy Meditation Circle. It was this circular space created with the bricks and some cement benches to surround a tree that, when it was planted, was meant to be a memorial for the victims of the 9/11 WTC attacks. She explained that during the first Occupation of Zuccotti Park, there had been an altar of sorts.

Altar in Zuccotti Park
From Flickr, by Michael J. Nolan. The altar was  also cleared  along with the rest of the encampment by NYC Cops in the dead of night. I knew Dorm RA's in college like that. They'd "test" the fire alarm at 6 in morning to catch girls in the shower. Classy.

Being there... at Zuccotti Park, in the shadow of the World Trade Center Site, close enough to Wall Street to make the city barricade it like something truly important goes on there ... gave me reason to pause. When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, my initial impression was skepticism. But as I watched, and as I learned more about it through the eyes of my friend Susan, I wanted to leave Mount Carroll and see it for myself'. That didn't happen, for a variety of reasons. Sitting there, in what was for Susan still sacred -- though changed -- space, I tried to come to terms with the fact that it's entirely possible that I missed out on the beginning of something that could come to have more significance once Spring arrives. And in some ways, even though the space was "clean" -- the only remaining evidence there was a couple of guys at the other end of the plaza -- one flashing a homemade Pro-Union sign and the other -- according to the words written in white marker on the black sheet he used as a cape -- was a "OWS Black Knight Til Death."  They were both engaging people in an apparently polite way, since no one -- including the jackbooted private security guard -- did anything against them.

The wind was on the chilly side. Even though it was in the mid-50's, skyscrapers and city streets make great wind tunnels; so it felt a bit cooler than the actual temperature. I had also forgotten to eat something. I also didn't have any cash on me; but I asked Susan if she could spot me for a hot dog or something, which she graciously did.

Based on recommendations -- or exhortations, depending on your point of view -- from friends, I was looking for both  a Nathan's Hot Dog Stand or a Sabrett Hot Dog Stand. But there weren't any, that I could see. The nearest vendor was a Halal guy, selling everything from kabobs to chili dogs to hot sausages. I ordered a hot sausage and a bottle of water, and Susan got one of those giant salted pretzels -- it was the only vegetarian food he had.

While we were standing there, a man approached me. (I wrote a short poem about him.) He asked if I could  "buy a brother a hot dog." I turned to face him. He was a bit older than me. His skin was dry from exposure; I could tell from the grayness of his skin.( Sometimes, when Blacks have dry skin, their skin tone goes a little gray.) I told him, quite honestly, that I didn't have any cash and that I was, in fact, bumming off of someone else. He laughed and said it was okay. We shook hands and chatted for a bit. He told me he'd just come in from the South; didn't say how far south, but I could tell from his drawl that maybe he was North Carolina... not that he had just come from there necessarily. He looked around and up at the buildings. Then he laughed and smiled and said,

"I like it here."

"You do?" I asked. I figured it was at least warmer down south; but I've also learned that there are things that are more important than the weather. Just because it's warm doesn't mean you want to sleep out in it. "You be sure to stay warm," I told him.

Then I turned because the vendor was handing my lunch. I looked down at it and thought about sharing it the guy; after all, who knew when the last time he ate was, or when he'd eat again.

But when I turned around again, he was gone.

Susan and I talked about the interaction later, after she had read the poem. She said she was getting ready to buy him a hot dog when he disappeared. And seriously, it was like he evaporated. He's been on my mind ever since. And I hope he's okay and that the city's being kind to him. I wish I had been able to be a little kinder, or that he had stuck around so I could share my food and talk to him about where he was from.

But that's how it goes sometimes. You meet other travelers, and then they're gone.

A BIG thanks to SCOTT "Funny Man" MCNULTY for a gracious donation to the re:visionary fund. Every little bit helps. And I appreciate it mightily.

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
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  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. When I go to Boston, I'm riding a Bolt Bus... which is owned, or is in partnership with Greyhound. Any single guy will tell you... if you can't get the girl you want, go for the cute friend. You just never know.

23 February, 2012

Worth Waiting For

Hauling ass out of the Appalachian foothills,
I wasn't sure the car would make the trip.
Two rusted off back quarter panels, exhaust pipe
gone, primer orange and beaten ugly
from drug running through West Virginia,
from that summer driving across country
from Norfolk to Chapel Hill to Cincinnati,
(where the axle broke) all the way
to Northwest Illinois corn fields where
later, we thought we might grow dreams....

though that was for another life, nearly a decade
away. We had so much more desperation to go through
before life would find us there.

                                              Knoxville –

it wasn't a pretty place, but you were there
and that was enough to call it home... hauling ass
out of Eastern Kentucky, you and I


though there was nothing to run from
and (we would find out years later)
nothing to run to.

We ran from there, too, you and I,
to Cincinnati, close to hearth and family,
away from the toxic waste in Tennessee water.
Cincinnati, where we watched a Christmas Eve
riot out on the street
while my daughter was asleep on the futon,
watched the cops take down children
with rubber bullets
while somewhere, in a richer, Caucasian part of town
dreams of sugar plums and gaming systems
did the trick...
                      … where you were robbed
and afraid to go downtown, and we ate
dumplings without chicken, potatoes and carrots,
dreaming of some other place, some destination
where it was safe, and the winter
was not so cold, and our dreams would unfold.

Arizona let us down, too -- though to be fair
it tried. But the state could not contain my anger
and you could not be contained with it
and with me simultaneously.

So the Midwestern cornfields called to us. Finally.
We went. The house was old and the roof leaked.
And the yard was too big. But the rent was cheap
and there were no drunken arguing neighbors
on the other side of thin walls. We could see the stars.
We traded sand drifts for snow,
palm trees for orange poppies
someone planted in front,
and a magnolia tree that reminded me
of New Orleans every Spring.

Yet my thoughts of late
are not about the poppies
or the magnolia tree. I do not
ruminate about the leaky roof
or the yard I didn't like cutting.
Home is not a house, because a house
is an easy thing to lose and to replace.

Even so –
                   my home is not my home anymore.

Snap Shot: Ash Wednesday, Lower Manahatta

He asked me if I could buy him a hot dog.
But I was already bumming off a friend
and had no money, and told him so.
His pants were rolled up, too long
from the bottom of the clothing barrel.
The soles were splitting from his shoes.
His flannel jacket worn thin. He smiled, his
charcoal skin dry with shade of gray
from exposure, and shook my hand. Then
he told me he had just come up from the South.
He told me he liked it so much he might stay.

A Baboon In New York, Part 2.1: A Baboon on Wall Street

“Let Wall Street have a nightmare and the whole country has to help get them back in bed again.” -Will Rogers

"The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good." -Gordon Gekko

Big Brother: Police Tower over looking Zuccotti Park.
There's a spot, when you're at the Staten Island Ferry Station, where you can see the Statue of Liberty. It's at a distance, in relief against the western sky and the choppy waves of the Hudson River. I don't know if I'll actually take the ferry out to see it and Ellis Island up close; it's one of Those Things That Tourists Do. I have no interest in being a tourist and I'm entirely too cynical about the condition of our country to get all touchy-feely about it.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

When Susan asked me what I wanted to see, I told her one of the things I wanted to see was Zuccotti Park, and that I wanted to go Wall Street, and maybe Time Square. Zuccotti Park was and is the location for the Occupy Wall Street Movement that has spread across the country. When it started in October, I was itchy to be here... but life intervened and I wasn't able to get here. Luckily, my very hospitable friend, Susan, was here to give me a sense of what was really going on -- because I sure as shit wasn't getting it in any of the media coverage.

The first thing I learned... something I don't remember being much discussed... is that the Zuccotti Park, in addition to being close to Wall Street, is located in the shadow of New World Trade Center.

The memorial for the 3000 people who died in the two towers is in the process of being constructed BEHIND two new towers. The construction of One World Trade Center (1 WTC) and another tower were delayed because of disagreements about design, planning, etc.

Sitting in Zuccotti Park, aka Liberty Plaza Park, staring up at the rising skyscraper, it struck me yet again.

We haven't learned a god damn thing.

3000 people die for no good reason, and the absolute best that we can come up with, other than a war in Iraq that made no sense -- in which the official number of American deaths is estimated to be 33,186 (antiwar.com)-- is a symbol that the business of America is and will always be BUSINESS.

(The actual death toll is probably higher. And if you take into account allies and civilian "collateral damage, the number is staggering.)

Since the encampment was destroyed by the city under the pretense of "cleaning it", most of the occupiers are finding ways to wait out the winter. Another interesting tidbit that was left out nearly all the ridiculously ineffective media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street Encampment -- technically, Zuccotti Park is joint Public/Private property.

In order to build a really tall building to house a Brooks Brothers store and a couple thousand anonymous offices no one gives a shit about, Brookfield Office Properties entered into an agreement with the city to make the Park into Public Space. And because it's Public/Private Property, unlike the other parks in New York City, it's open 24 hours. Thus, Liberty Plaza Park -- a place that was considered part of a 9/11 memorial --  was renamed for Brookfield Chairman John Zuccotti.

I guess you know you've arrived and conquered New York when you can put your name on stuff. And whoever has the most stuff wins.

Then again... there's always a bigger hair piece. Sorry Johnny boy.

40 Wall Street. Right down from the New York Stock Exchange
There's never a Magic Marker around when you need one...

This was as close as I could get. The whole area is blockaded and protected like Buckingham Palace.
... no paint filled balloons, either.

My initial impressions of Lower Manhattan were claustrophobic. Especially Wall Street. The labyrinth of skyscrapers and alley width streets block out the sun. The wheezing mechanical money heart of America thumps and bumps in the dark, hidden by long shadows. Light and air are expelled by the very nature of the place -- which probably explains why so many stupid things happen there.

           It's common knowledge that denying your brain oxygen kills you brain.
           It's common knowledge that an absence of sunlight causes sadness.
          It's not commonly known, however, that over time, the absence of air and light
          will strangle your soul. 

         And then, they name a park after you.

Being in Lower Manhattan on Ash Wednesday was an interesting experience. I'm not Catholic, and except for the fact that my name is probably still on a list buried in an ancient file cabinet at the Bethel Church of Christ in Bethel, Ohio, I'm not listed anywhere as a Christian -- Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise. 

I've made up my own label, primarily for reductive and Facebook related reasons: Zen Transcendentalism. All it means, Dear Readers, is that I believe we are more than what we are. I also believe that experience is its own sacred text -- more sacred than any text that's been handed down and re-translated through cultures and generations.

There's a great quote by Lenny Bruce that goes something like this:

"When you live in New York, even if you're Catholic, you're Jewish."

With all respect to Lenny Bruce, this may not necessarily be the case in Lower Manhattan on the first day of Lent. I saw so many men in tailored business suits and women wearing business couture with ash crosses on their foreheads that it seemed almost like part of the uniform.

Then again, it is derived from the ancient Jewish tradition of placing ashes on one's forehead to indicate mourning. So maybe Lenny Bruce had a point, after all.

The thing is, when you consider the mess that the Financial sector has made of this country -- spare me, please, from that tired adage about the business of America being the systematic rape and pillage of people's life savings or that other one about boot straps and S&M masks -- maybe they ought to be asking someone for forgiveness.

I mean, it can't hurt. Right?

(Cont. in Part 2.2)

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen, or by going to paypal.com and donating to mickp@gmx.com. THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT. If you DO decide to donate, I will mention you in the blog. Promise. 
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. When I go to Boston, I'm riding a Bolt Bus... which owned, or is in partnership with Greyhound. Any single guy will tell you... if you can't get the girl you want, go for the friend. You just never know.

21 February, 2012

A Baboon in New York, Part 1.2: The Chaotic Columna Ceruluia (Cont.)

New York has a trip-hammer vitality which drives you insane with restlessness if you have no inner stabilizer.
-- Henry Miller 

The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme:  -- Walt Whitman

When I found Steve, he was standing right in front of the gate, facing it with his back toward me, waiting. It had been a few years since I'd seen him,  but I recognized him instantly. In his winter coat and pointy winter beanie, at a distance he looks something like an elf;  his small bearded features lend dimension to the description, but so too does his general demeanor. He is neither nervous, nor impatient. He is just standing there, waiting, watching, expecting. Standing, like I said in my previous post, "as if he has always been standing there primordial, separate from the passage of time, as if the Earth and the whole of  The Port Authority had risen up around and engulfed him without his even noticing" .  

I called his name three times, but he didn't turn until I was nearly up on him. If it were anyone else, I would say he was simply conditioned against the noise of city life (Which is Considerable); but I really think that, owing to the way he simply lives in his own space, regardless of where his, and quietly mediates his way through the world like a permanent visitor, trying to harm no one, hoping that no one harms him. 

He was glad to see me, and Susan was glad we found one another. He asked whether I wanted to see some of the city or go home; but I was tired from traveling and a little hungry. So I said I'd rather go back to his and Susan's place, if that was okay.  So we headed for the subway.

Now: to understand New York, you must understand the subway. And to understand the subway, you must appreciate that it is a system based almost entirely on chaos and absolute democracy.

I took my lead from Steve, being as I was in his city; I assumed he knew his way around -- or at least, how to get home from The Port Authority. Of course, I wasn't taking certain things into consideration:

  1. No one who lives in New York goes to The Port Authority unless they're taking a bus out of town, buying drugs, or trolling the restrooms for anonymous sex on the down low; and
  2. The only possible reason Steve would have to be there is waiting for a country bumpkin techno-hobo, who, like him, has a sometimes questionable sense of direction and is easily lost in his own thoughts.

First things, first, though. Before I could slink around under the city streets first I had to buy a Metro Pass. Travel and the cheap ass motel in Norfolk and spending a bit too much at an Irish Pub in D.C. with my friend Eric had diminished my funds substantially.

My travel plans through back through the Midwest have been plotted and paid for, however, and I have already announced the date of my imminent return to see friends, tie up loose ends and plan for more travel. My plans are to go south and west eventually going to the West Coast to check out life on the Left Coast a bit more closely.

I knew I had about $17 left, so when I approached the Metro Card Vending Machine I looked for the lowest amount I could put on the card that would still be useful, at least for a day. [Note about New York City Subway Metro Card Vending Machines: I'm sure they all start out any given 24 hour period in perfect working and vending condition. BUT THEY DON'T STAY THAT WAY.]  The machine I approached would no longer sell single ride passes. Each time you walk through the gate to enter the subway platform, it costs you $2.25. Now it's possible to catch multiple lines once you've entered, so it's not necessarily $2.25 every time you ride. And according to Steve's wife, Susan, the New York City Subway is so well organized that it puts most other public transit systems in the country to shame... particularly Chicago, a place for which she has little affection.

Probably has something to do with the fact that she grew up around there.

NYC Subway System Map
I put 10 bucks on a metro card. I figured that while some walking would be involved, that Steve and Susan probably lived near a subway entrance. I knew they didn't have a car anymore, having fully embraced the New York urban lifestyle. 

Steve checked his Metro Card twice because he didn't have enough on there to ride. Then he approached the same machine I purchased my card from. Standing back and watching Steve interact with the world is, in many ways, a cultural anthropologist's dream.  And for some reason, it reminded me of the movie Brazil.

After a few minutes of standing in front of the machine, trying to feed it actual money, he walked over and told me it wasn't taking his money. He wanted to find an attendant -- which, he said, were there the last time he was at the Port Authority. So we went back into the station to the information booth. The woman in the booth was busy trying to communicate in English with a tiny Far Eastern girl who's English was probably as bad as the woman's was, only for different reasons. One of them was from another country. The other was probably a survivor of the New York City Public School System. After a couple of minutes of waiting, Steve asked the policeman wearing a riot vest where the nearest metro card attendant was, since the machine would not take his money.

The guard looked perplexed. I could only assume that underground air was affecting him, or maybe he was dreaming of pepper spraying attractive Wall Street Occupiers as a way to heat up his sex life. Then he said there weren't any attendants and told Steve he had to purchase his Metro Card through one of the machines.

So we went back and I suggested that he try another machine. That one seemed to work. Then we entered the turnstiles that led to the subway platform, and he stopped dead in his tracks.

"Let me think," he said. "I know how to get home, but I'm not quite sure."

While we wait, a few notes about New York City Subway platforms.

The first thing I noticed is that the general ambiance of the MTA subway platform is actually... surprisingly... much grimier than on television. It wasn't horrible. No disgusting smells, no bums urinating on the third track, no pickpockets. No one was especially rude, either. As a matter of fact, it was almost the opposite. No one was friendly. But no one was an asshole. Now, it could be because it was a weekend. 

Susan later explained to me that post 9/11 New York was a different place in many ways; Steve agreed, saying it was very different than when he lived here in the 1970's.  People, they told me, were just a little bit more aware, a bit more polite. People didn't generally rush the subway train doors when they opened anymore; Susan said people had offered her their seats more than once and that she had seen numerous examples of basic kindness while riding the subway. Steve agreed, half-joking that the whiteness of his hair helped as well.

Steve said he THOUGHT we were on the correct platform, and that the subway was going the right direction. We stood there for a few minutes, waiting for the E Train to Queens. When it stopped, the conductor stuck his head out the narrow window to look behind and make sure they're not going to be in the way of the next train and to make sure no one was blocking the doors. Steve spoke to him briefly, probably asking if we were boarding the right train. The conductor nodded noncommittally; so we boarded and found a place to stand and hold on.

It's important to either hold on to something, lean against the side, or sit. The ride is smooth, for rail, but it's bumpy because of the rail and because of the slight turns it has to make, and the stops and starts do require some balance ... which I was having trouble with because of my satchel. [NOTE TO SELF: GET A BACKPACK.] 

So we rode along for a bit. Before the first stop, though, he started looking around; I could tell he wan't sure we were going the correct direction. Right before the first stop, he asked another passenger if the train was going to Queens. The passenger, who was not at all sure he wanted to talk to anyone... but who was unwilling to be rude... told Steve the train we were on was headed towards The World Trade Center.

(That he called it The World Trade Center struck me as odd. Was it habit? Some grief/denial strategy?)

We got off at the next stop. We stood there for a few minutes, Steve trying to decide whether the train was indeed going the wrong direction, or whether we needed to make our way to the platform going the opposite direction. On the other side of the turnstiles, there was a booth with a MTA Attendant inside. Steve was going to go ask her about which train we needed to be on. He asked if I wanted to wait in case we really were heading the right direction; but I still had faith in Steve's sense of the place he lived and exited the turnstiles with him.

Turns out we were going the wrong direction, which meant going up a few flights of stairs to the next platform.

More on subway platforms: the subway feels like a world unto itself. Music... sometimes piped in, sometimes by live musicians trying to earn a few bucks... could be heard in between the rhythm of the rattling trains. Kiosks selling newspapers, magazines, and cold drinks were open. People milling around, nearly all of them on the way to somewhere. There are scads of beautiful women here, by the way. Lots of walking, and a smoke-free city (which I object to on principle)... not to mention where I was, I'm sure, was an entry exit location for people who work/live/play in Manhattan.

After making our way upstairs and waiting for the E train -- this one REALLY going the right direction -- we  got on the train and rode to the correct station in Queens, where we exited and walked to his and Susan's apartment.

As someone who rides a lot of public transportation, and has ridden it in enough places to be able to compare, I have to admit, the New York City subway isn't that bad... at least... in my limited experience. One of the things you notice very quickly is that the subway absolutely egalitarian. I'm sure the very wealthy folks and those who are claustrophobic or who are formerly obsessed fans of that miserable show, Sex in the City (link omitted deliberately) and believe you have take a taxi everywhere in order to be cool don't ride the subway often; but the mixture of people, ranging from tailored and fashion forward to dirt poor, from post-millennial mod to goth to hipster to hippie-go-lucky to conservative casual makes for a good cross section view of one part of the city... the area between downtown and Queens. It's all public space and everyone has to mediate it, one way or the other.

Or get ripped off by cab. Or be dumb enough to drive a car.

As someone who, as I mentioned, has no real context for understanding New York, the subway was a better introduction than most. 

And my pass assures me I will ride it again... at least two more times.

At this point, I need to thank Noah S. Kaplowitz and Rebecca Fitkin Jones doe their generous donation. Although Kap wanted me to make sure and paint him as an asshole, I cannot, in good conscience. The good news is, I don't have to, since he does quite a fine job on his own, without my assistance.

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen, or by going to paypal.com and donating to mickp@gmx.com. THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT. If you DO decide to donate, I will mention you in the blog. Promise. 
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. When I go to Boston, I'm riding a Bolt Bus... which owned, or is in partnership with Greyhound. Any single guy will tell you... if you can't get the girl you want, go for the friend. You just never know.

20 February, 2012

A Baboon in New York, Intermezzo (RE: 39 Years Around The Same Sun)

Christ, I'm feeling dizzy today.

And no. I'm not hungover. Really.

I'm working on a new post -- describing for you, in precipitously close and agonizing detail, my first experience on a New York City Subway. But I thought I'd take the opportunity, on this, the anniversary of my 39th year around the sun, to point out that nn addition to being my birthday, February 20th is also the anniversary of the death of one of the few iconic 20th century heroes I will ever admit to having:

Hunter S. Thompson

He is not just one of the few journalists whose work I never tire of reading; he's the only one, except for maybe Ambrose Bierce, who really understood the function of a journalist in society.

And don't give me crap about Royko or Woodward and Bernstein; Royko was able to do his job because curried favor with the Chicago political machine; and The Watergate boys were just at the right place at the right time, and it was Bernstein who did most of the dirty work, anyway.

In addition to being one of the few journalists in the sordid, torrid media business who had any real balls, he's also one of the few American Literary Giants that came out of the last half of the 20th Century who was really worth all the noise. (There were others; but some never got the noise they deserved and some got it too late.)

And no... I don't try and live like he did. I'm fairly certain it's impossible.
And no... I don't aspire to be like him. I think it's challenging enough to be myself.

But on the anniversary of his death and in a celebration of my lingering -- quite against the laws of common sense and a short list of truly horrible excuses for human trash -- on this planet called Earth Corp., I wanted to spend some time this morning over coffee on the subject of necropsy and the American Dream.

Before I started this east bound leg of my travels, I sent out a post entitled The Third Thing. In it, I talked about the number three, and the idea that everyone needs three things in order to be happy.  I also wrote that one of the problems with needing just three things is that every person needs a different three things -- which obligates everyone to go about the business of finding them.

One of the other problems, though, is that most people accept reality limited by dualities. Republican/ Democrat. Right/Wrong. Left/Right. Weak/Strong. Rich/Poor. Success/Failure. Society raises us up to see only these combinations and to live out our lives based on decisions made with these dualities a priori.

What I've come to realize, though, is that while I was unsure of what my 3rd thing was when I left Mount Carroll, it was there all along:

  1. Writing
  2. Mobility
  3. Hermitage

I'm a writer -- poet, novelist, short story scribbler, journalist, essayist, blogger. I write. I like words. I sometimes like big words, so buy a thesarus. According to the OED  (that's the Oxford English Dictionary). there's more than ONE MILLION Words in the English Language. 


Wrap your head around that for a second. 



Mobility -- I've always liked traveling. Not being a tourist... TRAVELING. And it's not because I think any place I go will be intrinsically better than where I've been, or that I need to meet more interesting people, since I am blessed with amazing friends; I just like to be able to pick up and go.

This has always created problems. Ours is not a nomadic culture, and we don't trust people without identifiable roots. This has little to do with stranger danger as it has to do with categorizing and dismissal. Society preaches that we must categorize and dismiss... other people, other places, other things. ( You know... NOUNS.)  We must be willing to allow ourselves to be categorized and dismissed, and this is considered perfectly normal. Happy. Healthy.


The third thing -- my third thing -- is Hermitage. Not home. Not roots. But a place that is silent where I can work when that's what I need to do. This doesn't necessarily have to be a specific place. It could be one or two or twenty different place. But I know it's something I need because, in looking back over my my adult life, it's something I have always insisted upon having. And when I don't have it... things go to shit.

Which, by the way, is how I define the parameters of my three things. When I don't write, my life goes to shit. When I'm not mobile... or when I can't be... I am miserable and I make the people I love miserable too.  And when I haven't had a quiet place to work, read, listen to my music, and draw energy and solace from the solitude, I get plain bat shit crazy.

What this also means is that some things will probably end up falling by the wayside. It's entirely probable -- in fact, I'm certain it is -- that I inadvertently pushed my wife away. Because, in spite of my intentions... which were genuine, deep, and grew out of the very core of my being... being married has meant having to mediate and compromise on things that I might be incapable of compromising on. And, even in a mobile life, no one can escape their own culpability. and that's something I have to live with. All of it.

And yes, I know that sounds selfish. It is. But it's honest. And honest counts for more.

And somewhere, in that combination of non-compromise, culpability, and grace -- because there is a certain grace that comes upon you when you see another part of yourself for Who You Are rather than What You Are "Supposed" To Be -- there's still more truth left to explore. More places to go. More poems and stories to write. More. And as I meditate on this and on the fact that one of my true and genuine heroes decided to blow his head off  7 years ago today, I am thinking about something he said in a BBC interview once from his Colorado Compound:

"Sometimes you have to kill off a life to find a new one."

Rest in Peace Dr Thompson. Sorry I never really knew ye, but thanks for the gift just the same.

Drink and be merry and wish me well, Dear Readers. This finding a new life stuff isn't always easy. But it isn't dull. And it sure is fun.

Earth Corp. sized Magnetic tornadoes on the sun. Not bad.

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen, or by going to paypal.com and donating to mickp@gmx.com. THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT. If you DO decide to donate, I will mention you in the blog. Promise. 
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. At this rate, they really ARE losing my love to Amtrak. But I'm no easy whore. No. Really.

19 February, 2012

Scant Minutes Til The End of a Long Distance Romance

Bus Station flowers
still cold from refrigeration
hands wrapped around
tightly. Red knuckled.
Eye out for a bottle of wine.

Bus will arrive any minute, he thinks.
Does she like white roses?
Are they even real?
Do roses come in white?

Lover Boy believes he was short-changed.
But what is a few dollars,
in the name of love? Besides,
he was in a rush. He forgot.
Meant to buy mums;
but he didn't know
what they look like. That
he thought that she never mentioned.

Sometimes, you just get stuck no matter what.

Remembered she mentioned
mums were her favorite flowers.
Once in passing. Pillow talk.
Early on. When the sex was still good,
and he didn't mind the way
she hogged the sheets
and farted in her sleep.

One eye on the clock.
The other on his surroundings.
Gets hit up by a bum,
shoos him off with the flowers.
Another approaches. He gives a dollar
to avoid the conversation. The flowers
look like they were starting to wilt
seeming more yellow
under a different light.

Do roses come in yellow?

Eyes a crusty old man
holding a plastic shopping bag
full of smelly clothes
and a key to a padlock.
The man holds these things
as if they are his most precious possessions.
Lover Boy despises and envies him;
but the stench made it impossible
to ponder further, as Lover Boy posited
that the smell is bad for the flowers.

A Baboon in New York, Part 1.1: The Chaotic Columna Ceruluia

"It couldn't have happened anywhere but in little old New York." - O. Henry

City of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city, it is the fullest expression of our modern age. -- Leon Trotsky   

[This blog is dedicated to Ashley Vedder and Stephanie Stobaugh. To Ashley because I'm visiting her home turf while she slings beer back in corn and god country, and whose hugs I miss ; and to Stephanie because listening to her talk about New York is almost as exciting as experiencing it for the first time.]

Riding through the Lincoln Tunnel on a bus stuffed to the shell with people is probably as close to remembering the experience of being born as I will ever achieve, and as close to that buried memory as I want to get on this side of mortality.

Almost my entire context for the City of New York rests entirely on unreliable sources; mainly television and movies. I can think of countless fictive versions of the city, from Law and Order and Seinfeld  to When Harry Met Sally and The Devi's Advocate.  Of course, each of these versions is rooted entirely in someone else's vision... the camera, and behind that, a director. The city then becomes at ones a set and an actor at the same time; sets tone, mood, and contributes in the way an unnamed but unmistakable extra contributes to the frame. Cinema and television, boiled down, really is a frame by frame proposition; much in the same way that a poem is always about the single word. One bad frame can throw off an entire scene, and a bad scene can destroy an otherwise good movie. One misplaced word in a poem can do the same thing.

Thank the gods for prose -- at least here, we have a little slop room. Though not much.

The bus was expelled at a traffic snail's pace from the tunnel and into the underground garage of The Port Authority. Then, after squeezing myself out of the confines of the bus -- which, at this point, makes me consider the train a far superior and gentile form of mass transportation -- I found myself in a massive underground garage that led into the bottom level of station. 

[NOTE: Having at least a casual understanding of Dante's Inferno is helpful understanding the City of New York. And I mean this not as a negative, merely as map key.]

My first thought was to look for my friends, Susan and Steve, who had graciously agreed to put me up for a week at their place in Queens. Unfortunately, that was washed away by two other immediately prevailing impulses. For one, I had the strong desire to piss. (As I have explained... most eloquently, I believe, in The Greyhound Quarto, I try to avoid a lot of food intake while in the process of traveling, but do work at staying hydrated. The body is, after all, 70% water. (For me, maybe a quarter of that is beer, and other quarter bourbon and gin, and another quarter is coffee... but still, all liquid.)

The other impulse was far less of an impulse as it was the immediate sensation that, if I stood still too long, I might get run over by one or all of the hundreds of people around me who seemed to know exactly where they were going.

Luckily, the people who run the Port Authority realized that unless there was clear signage pointing out where people could piss that they would, in all likelihood, piss anywhere; I spied the restroom sign and made for it immediately.

With that weight off my mind, I looked around for my friends; not knowing whether one or both of them were going to meet me and not being sure where, I decided to take the escalator I noticed to my left to the next level; my thought was that maybe there was an actual waiting space up there, or that there was some restriction on non-ticketed people by the gates. 

There isn't. Traveling by bus, and by train, lacks a fundamental paranoia that has been embraced by the air travel industry. And maybe with good reason. As the bus rolled towards the city and I got my first glimpse of the skyline, I was struck by two things: that New York is far more immense than ever portrayed in any movie or television show; and that something is missing.  I thought about a conversation I had with my friend George, who grew up in Long Island, about New York after 9/11. He said one of the things that was difficult for him to grasp was having to look at the skyline and have it look so different. There was sorrow, he said, in knowing it will never be same. 

Riding up the escalator and into another artificially lit level, I paid heed to the repetitive recorded feminine voice, telling me not to stop at the top and to keep walking. I found a column to stand near, in front of the Greyhound ticket office. Still no sign of Susan or Steve. I checked my cell phone -- the battery was near dead -- but realized I didn't have a corresponding cell phone number for either of them. I decided to message Susan -- who I talked to most frequently over Facebook -- and see if maybe she was online, or maybe had a way to access those messages over the phone.

She messaged back, thankfully. Steve was there to meet me, and she recommended that I stay put and she would try to reach him on his cell. Of course, I had trouble imaging Steve with a cell phone... much in the same way I had trouble imaging my friend George with a cell phone. They're symbolic of a sort of frenetic narcissism that runs contrary to both their natures. 

Waiting there, near the column in the front of the Greyhound Ticket office, I was nearly run over by two little girls, no more than 8 years old, playing tag; they were using the column as a defensive/offensive structure to catch each other. Twice the same man came up and asked if I had any change. 

You know I'm good for a little if I have it; but when I KNOW it's just a hustle... which I knew it was from the fact that 1) he looked a bit too appropriately dirty and 2) he kept going back and talking to another person, who was clearly his friend and who didn't look appropriately dirty at all... and when I have to watch my pennies ... which I do at this point because the cost of laying out my travel plans back through the Midwest has left me nearly broke, and I knew I'd need money for mass transit... I do hesitate, just a bit. I hope the universe forgives my still present worry for self-preservation.)

I hadn't seen Steve since leaving Cincinnati, but I remembered him as a quiet and gentle soul who was much engaged with his own thoughts, his own teaching and writing process.  But I also thought that maybe he had one -- maybe at Susan's insistence -- just to be able to keep track of one another in a place as large as New York. (The only reason I ever got a cell phone was at Melissa's insistence, because our schedules were so at odds and because she wanted to be able to find me in Cincinnati without having to run down a list of phone numbers of various coffee shops, bars, libraries, and friends.)

After having no luck and after Susan suggested maybe having him paged (I wondered at the horror of that... not only the process of trying to find an actual PERSON to do that and the terror of hearing one's name over the loudspeaker, like being beckoned from the depths of Hell.), I decided to go back down to the lower level in case I had walked past him in my rush to not get squashed and to empty my bladder.

The buses were more or less empty and the throng of people that had pushed me, spermatozoa like, through the doorway. And there, standing as if he has always been standing there primordial, separate from the passage of time, as if the Earth and the whole of  The Port Authority had risen up around and engulfed him without his even noticing -- was Steve.

[If you like what you read here, you can help by:
  1. Passing the link around.
  2. Graciously donating to the cause using the button on the right hand side of the screen, or by going to paypal.com and donating to mickp@gmx.com. THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT. If you DO decide to donate, I will mention you in the blog. Promise. 
  3. Contact Catherine Sellers at Greyhound, 415-331-6049. Tell them you are asking about a sponsorship when the operator picks up. At this rate, they really ARE losing my love to Amtrak. But I'm no easy whore. No. Really.