Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Thomas Wolfe was better at titles, etc. Part 2

#7 Sheets

Friday morning, Greg's mom--his adoptive mom, not his birth mother, so keep up--was headed to a bandage change, a stitches removal, and some physical therapy. I'd called Greg Thursday night and offered to help out Friday morning. I'd done this because I love Greg, and because I felt bad about the conversation we'd had Thursday morning, where-in I blamed his entire family for planning his mom's surgery so Greg would be home to take care of her. And for saying his mom had decided to get the surgery specifically to prevent Greg from meeting his birth mother.

When I arrived at Greg's mom's house Friday morning, and her house was in a pre-fab, rules-are-rules, cookie-cutter subdivision beside a golf course so it was difficult to work out which house was actually hers, I saw that Greg was shirtless, sweating, slightly dirty, and that the ladder to the crawl space above the garage was down.

There were boxes stacked waist-high in the middle of the two-car garage (there was also a car in the two-car garage). There were shelves against a wall, and on the shelves were golf shoes, cleaning products, strange figurines, buckets, potting soil, etc.

I arrived, assessed, kissed, then asked: "What the fuck are you doing?"

"Mom wants the attic cleaned out." Greg flipped hair out of his face. "This needs to go there. I need to get this from there to there."

"Now?"

ANYway. The sheets. I'll skip forward, to the sheets.

Greg took a shower while I sat with his mother--only I didn't sit with her. I got her water, I tried to encourage her to forget about putting on a wig to see the doctor, I tried to wrangle Waffles, who was in a new place and still not sure of his safety (golf carts flew past the windows every few minutes, and Waffles didn't like that). Greg's mom, her left arm in a sling because of the surgery, spent a lot of time gesturing with her right hand, then explained that the sheets on her bed were making her feel itchy. Understandable. Who wants to be stuck in bed for a few days with the same sheets?

Except these were no ordinary sheets.

"I'll wash them for you while you're gone," I told her. "Where are more sheets? I'll put them on the bed before you get back."

"These are the sheets," Greg's mom said with a straight face. "I don't have more."

No ordinary sheets. These sheets were the only sheets Greg's mom owned. Right.

"Well then I'll wash them and put them back on the bed."

Greg's mom thanked me for the offer, then added, "It's a two man job."

"What is?"

"Putting those sheets on the bed. It's a two man job. You'll need help." The sheets, btw, were the type which had a loop at each corner, to hook under the mattress, in addition to the elastic of standard sheets. I suppose the hooking loop might defeat even the most determined man.

"I'll manage," I told Greg's pain-medication-addled mother. "They're sheets. You're not wearing them out on the town or anything."

[silence]

#8 Waffles

We're back home now, and Waffles still hasn't eaten anything. He didn't eat much for the four days in AL, and he hasn't eaten anything since we got back. During our time in AL, I was constantly embarrassed for the concern and attention Greg and I pay to this dog, and the caution we have for both his safety and his comfort.

Example: Thursday night, the night Dad had Alex's graduation party. Waffles was overwhelmed with new people, new places, new smells. He was barky and bitey. Anxious. He'd just spent a day in a bag flying over a thousand miles while drugged up on sedatives, then a night in a house with a woman who'd just had surgery and lived by a golf course with golf carts flying past her window. G and I spent a good portion of the evening handing Waf off to one another, or squeaking toys, or sitting with him in empty rooms.


#9 Florence Library (cont'd)

Saturday. Top kill was killed. I devoured my ice coffee and then explained to the young woman behind the counter that March of Dimes continues to collect money in May. "March is more of an action here than a month," I said.

(cont'd perhaps 9 more times)

Thomas Wolfe was better at titles than I am

#1 Bags

We arrived at LaGuardia early, checked a suitcase containing our future dirty clothes, tip-toed past the guys in camo and armed with impressive weaponry, then through security, then killed an hour watching CNN on one of the many televisions sprouting like stalactites from the grimy tiled ceiling of the gate lobby.

"Top kill" came up quite a bit. "Success" didn't.

Greg and I were carrying onto the plane three bags: one each for our on-board entertainment, and one shared bag containing Waffles. The bag containing Waffles huffed a lot, sighed, occasionally barked or whined, but mostly just sat there on a seat between Greg and me. Sometimes, one of us would unzip it, and a long wet nose would poke out. Nostrils expanding and contracting. A curious tongue lapping up the diseased LaGuardia air.

Waffles was riding the white tiger. He was our very own canine Patty Duke. Sedated, thanks to the vet, with "a light sedative lasting 8 hours, for dogs weighing 10 lbs. or less." His left eye was much droopier than his right, and both eyes were glassed over. I wondered what he was seeing through the glass and the droop. I hoped he was hallucinating.

When I glanced up at the TV screen at CNN, I hoped I was hallucinating as well.

#2 Relative

Before leaving NYC, Greg told me his mother was going in for a surgical procedure. "She's having two spurs removed from her shoulder," Greg said. "I don't know the details. The surgery is the day we fly in, so I'll probably have to go there right after we land."

"'There' where? Hospital? Home?"

"I don't know. She doesn't know."

"She's having surgery on the day we come home for the first time in two years?"

"Yeah."

"Oy."

#3 A Few Drinks the Day Before Graduation

The main reason Greg and I went back to Alabama was to see my brother, Alex, get a diploma. We arrived on Wednesday, there was a family party (Dad's side) for Alex on Thursday night, and graduation was on Friday, followed by a party with my mom's family.

Right. So. Wednesday night, after dropping Greg and Waffles off at his mom's house, I hang with Dad, who is in so-so health, a bit heavier than he was last time I saw him. He downed a glass of wine, poured himself another. He and I went out onto the second-storey deck, which overlooked a small hill and tall trees, not many houses visible, a wide blue sky, and a pile of brush and dead tree limbs slated for incineration just as soon as the family of rabbits currently living in it decided to relocate.

New York quiet is similar to Alabama quiet. Don't let the metropolitan or the proud red necks tell you differently.

#4 Lunch

Thursday morning, I called Greg.

"Hey, how's Waffles?"

"Hey. He's okay."

[pause]

"So. Okay, good. How's your mom?"

[pause]

"I'm gonna have to stay here for a while. She's [pause] not doing so good."

"I thought it was just minor outpatient stuff. What's wrong?"

"I'm just gonna need to stay here. She can't move her arm, she can't... I have to help her get to the bathroom, and I'll need to help feed her for a while."

"But we planned."

"Yeah, I might have to cancel."

"Are you still gonna get to meet your birth mom?"

"I don't know, Marc. Mom's really... she's not..."

"Did they know it was gonna be this bad? I mean, maybe she should still be in the hospital."

"She's in a lot of pain. Yes, she should be in the hospital."

"But, you were gonna meet your birth family." I kept coming back to that. For years, Greg had been in contact with his birth grandmother and uncle, but his mother, his biological mother, had never agreed to meet with him. Until this trip. This trip, this Thursday, Greg's biological grandmother had finally convinced her daughter--Greg's biological mother and the mother of Greg's biological younger brother--to meet him for lunch. It's what he's wanted since I've known him.

"I have to cancel the lunch with [bio-gram]. I can't go."

"You have to. I'll take care of your mom. You go."

"You don't want to do this."

Probably right. "Then can't her sister--"

"She has to put a kid through school. She's at work. That's what she told me."

A few exchanges later, Greg said to me: "You don't get to be mad at my family," and hung up.

Fair point.

#5 Drinks before Graduation, cont'd

Dad and I were on the deck. He leaned against the railing, glass of wine resting beside him. The air in Alabama was thick, wet, but the sky was clear though dimming, and the clouds few and far between. Later that night, I'd sneak out onto the deck like a 15 year old just to stare at the fat moon, which was blindingly bright.

"He's only 18," Dad said. He said this as we were talking about rabbits in funeral pyres, but I knew who he was talking about. My brother.

"Right." The whole thing about Alabama quiet and New York quiet is that both places have cars passing--it's just that in NYC you hear them immediately, while in AL, you hear them pass as the sound bounces off of trees and grass and distant houses. In NYC, the sound of traffic is direct and immediate. In AL, the sound comes at you indirectly.

"So just keep that in mind. All of his friends will be there at the party tomorrow night." Thursday night.

"Yeah, I assumed."

"I wanted to talk to you about this. Why I just killed a few glasses of wine. Talk to you about this."

"About what?"

So much sky. It's not like I don't see sky in New York, usually in designated places as if the city zoning board marks out the places we New Yorkers are allowed to look up and the places we're not. An ambulance siren bounced around the landscape and the houses and reached us on the deck and Dad said, "Hear that a lot more down here."

"About what? Talk to me about what?"

"All of his friends know about you. And, look, Alex loves Greg like a, a brother. Loves the shit out of him. But he's 18, you know, and it's not like being up there, you're here and it's different. So just, just keep that in mind."

I stared at the railing of the deck. "It's not like I'm gonna hump Greg in the middle of the floor."

"He's just, I think he's just nervous about having you and Greg here tomorrow night. It's his graduation party. He's still concerned, you know, about what people think of him."

"You needed two bottles of wine to talk to me about this?"

"Glasses. Two glasses."

"Right."

#6 Florence Library

On Saturday, I pulled into the parking lot of the Florence Public Library, which is a relatively new building--Florence's old public library was relocated some years back. The old building, a block away from the new, impressive building, is now an annex for some Baptist church. I can't help but wonder what the fate of this new building will be once the town moves the library out of it, if they ever do. Perhaps Mormons will need a place to hang up their magic underwear for drying.

The library, the NEW library, is across the street from one of Florence's more popular parks, which is Wilson Park, which is a park made up of a lot of green and a single fountain. Before I left Florence, Wilson Park was known for its gay activities--teh gheys would drive around its four sides, looking for ass or a blow job (while the fountain in the center of the park ejaculated over and over again, even at night). Wilson Park was, for years, the center of the gay Florentine universe, as well as Renaissance Faires, art festivals, high school prom pictures, etc. For me, what I most remember Wilson Park for is this: I once got drunk during an ice storm, walked to the park, and passed out in the frozen-over fountain. Woke up the next morning, cold as hell, staring at the bruised clouds and the bottom of one of the fountain's bowls. I remember being surprised to discover that even in freezing winter, moss still managed to grow underneath that bowl.

So. Saturday. Sitting in the library's coffee shop, taking advantage of the library's free wireless as I sipped on an ice coffee and devoured a blueberry muffin, waiting on a friend to arrive. I checked out news sites on my laptop. Top kill wasn't. Obama's press conference was painful. Speidi were getting divorced.

I was alone in the coffee shop, except for the young woman behind the counter. She was on the phone, talking to her boss about how the March of Dimes people seemed to want her to do something she didn't know how to do (namely, the March of Dimes people wanted her to set out a donation box next to the tip box).

I knew a guy who used to work behind that counter. When I used to come here, my ice coffee was served with ice MADE from coffee. Now, the ice is just water, frozen.

While waiting for my friend, I txt'd Greg. "How are you?"

Later, while walking around with said friend, I received a txt from Greg: "aaaaargh"

(cont'd)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Yes, fine, I cried over the ending of Lost


There will be spoilers.

Some time ago, watching later-season X-Files, I realized the show sucked.

It was a tough realization for me because I'm not really a TV person; never did ER or Law and Order, never really kept up with a sit-com. The shows I've dedicated time--actual time, like, scheduling parts of my life around type time--are very few (tho, admittedly, with increased viewing options, I've managed to catch up on a few shows I passed up the first time around, such as[motherfucking cocksucking] Deadwood and The Wire). Most TV shows don't really require dedicated viewing. For a while, to me, X-Files did require it. The show's internal logic and the constructed mythology seemed to warrant obsessive repeated viewings, Internet forum scanning, discussions both virtual and IRL; the nature of the Black Oil, the significance of bees, the clones and the many races of aliens; the kidnapping of Mulder's sister Samantha, the murder of Scully's sister Melissa; the Well-Manicured Man and the Smoking Man. How did all these things fit together to form a cohesive, grand unified theory of X-Files?

The answer to that question is, infamously, 'They didn't fit together at all.' The point wasn't the mythos. The point was the character study, week after week, of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Turns out, when people talk about the decline of the show, they're not talking about the very obvious step away from the conspiracy myth plot-lines, but instead about the shifting away from Mulder and Scully's relationship, which happened around season 7 or so. Viewers responded to the characters, not the story-arc. When Mulder left the show (kidnapped!) and Scully was pushed into an advisory role for two new agents played by actors with the chemistry of frozen water, no cohesive alien mythology plot-line could've saved interest in the show.

Twin Peaks, another show over which I obsessed, had a similar problem: the murder mystery at the heart of the first season and a half, about a dead high school prom queen, provided a nice skeleton over which to layer a story of a strange town peopled by complex, compelling characters. Originally David Lynch, the show's co-creator, never intended to reveal who killed Laura Palmer, insisting the identity of the murderer was secondary to the mystery of the town and the nature of its characters. He was right of course. ABC, upset about the show's sagging ratings, forced Lynch to reveal the murderer early in the second season, upsetting the once tantalizing balance between the show's hyper-reality and surreality and leaving writers without the show's skeleton--suddenly Twin Peaks was merely a TV show with a bunch of eccentrics running around holding creamed corn and getting themselves imprisoned in end tables (yes, that happened, but the link is unrelated because I couldn't find a clip of Josie stuck in a wooden knob).

The difference between X-Files and Twin Peaks is minor but important: X-Files suffered in the end because writers felt the show's central mythos was hurting viewership, when in fact it was the shift away from consistent and careful character development, not the shift from the myth, which doomed the show. Twin Peaks suffered because the network felt the Laura Palmer storyline was losing steam and demanded a resolution to the show's myth even though it was the Laura Palmer storyline which gave the show its structure. One show decided to abandon answering questions, the other decided to answer all questions. Neither show got the ending it deserved.

So. Lost.

The writers of Lost learned the lessons from these two earlier shows, and have admitted as much in interviews. Both Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof mention X-Files and Twin Peaks during their endless interviews, and stress that Lost has never been about the mysteries--and there remain many mysteries on Lost--but about the journey of each character, the transformation of those characters. Critics point out this assertion is a cheap way of avoiding the Herculean task of Answering the Mysteries presented weekly on Lost--what was the deal with Walt? Why are there polar bears on a tropical island? Why does turning the donkey wheel send the wheel-turner to Tunisia?--and that's a fair point. It's also an unimaginative point (why are there polar bears on the island? Well, they were used to turn the damn donkey wheel when the island's inhabitants realized that any person turning the wheel would be shot into the Tunisian desert. There. There's your answer. Need more info? Use your fucking imagination).

Writers of Lost used the mysteries of the Island as a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of several real, interesting, changing characters, and to give those characters the ability to evolve. That's it. That's all. Ultimately, it didn't matter if they spent three years in an underground bunker pressing buttons or if they managed to explode a hydrogen bomb. Each time a mystery was resolved, the resolution came at a price--characters either were forced to lose an assumption, or gain a new experience. The unraveling of a mystery meant, invariably, that an idea was shattered or confidence was gained.

Not gonna say that Lost was a profound and brilliant thing, but then I didn't expect it to be and didn't expect it to pretend it was an absolute, immutable, All-Knowing TV show (unlike, say, Battlestar Galactica, a show so weighted with dogma and absolutism that it imploded during its last hours like Starbuck's black hole). Lost was flawed. It used some of the lazier writing techniques to maintain viewer interested week to week, like MacGuffins and red herrings and, during seasons two and three, a habitual dependence on sudden plot twists over logical progression of narrative. But the final episode, to me, was elegantly simple. In the end, it wasn't the mystery, but the characters, which mattered most. And that's how it is in life. We can contemplate the questions--How did we get here? What's the point of all this? Why do bad things happen to good people?--but when we come to die, those questions are beside the point.

It isn't profound, but it's (probably) true: In the end, what matters are the relationships we've had, the connections we've made, and the importance in our lives of the people we love. It's not about the buttons we've pushed, the jobs we've done, the weird glow-in-the-dark maps appearing on the back of blast doors we've managed to decode. Everything, from birth to death, is about caring for others, and being cared for in return. It's about pushing ourselves, growing, evolving, and having a rich intellectual and emotional life. Ultimately, the important thing in life is to have one, and to be a human being while having it.

Hokey, I grant you. The first time I sat thru the finale of Lost, I rolled my eyes more than once. But the second time, knowing how the show would end, I surrendered to the narrative, put aside my pet theories and assumptions, and accepted the mystery for what it was. No solutions, just a resolution. No answers, just the ideas. And acceptance is the skeleton, the idea, we hang our flesh upon.

Lost learned from X-Files and Twin Peaks. The only mystery that matters is the mystery of human relationships. The only resolution is when we close our eyes the last time. Hopefully, we'll never quit trying to work out the various mysteries of our lives, but the point isn't finding solutions. The point is finding as many human connections as you can to give you a bit more clues to life, and when you have your finale, you have a life, not a mere air-date.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Continuing my terrible neighbor streak

So tonite, I was sitting in the living room next to the window three flights above the entrance to our building. Whenever people approach the building's entrance, I can hear them thru the living room window. I can hear when their feet crunch on the dirty cement as they approach, I can hear when they burp or sneeze as they approach, I can hear them shouting into their cell phones as they approach.... basically, whatever's going on three storeys down, I can hear. Which is why I don't spend much time in the living room.

Over the years, I've heard a lot. One memorable over-hear was the time the crazy crackhead lady in 1B got angry at her air conditioner and argued so violently with it that she shoved it out the window, followed by a towel (perhaps the AC was supposed to clean itself up).

Crazy crack lady, by the way, is a very nice woman most of the time. She can be a bit manic--she used to mop the lobby floor while naked, and with the mop turned upside down, 'smoking' a cigarette filter-first, for instance. Furiously scrubbing the floor, the wooden handle gouging the tile, the yarn of the mop slapping her in the back of her head. Breasts swinging, backwards cigarette dangling, her carefully unkempt hair drifting back and forth. And sometimes, when I pass her in the stairwell (she climbs the stairs to scratch paint chips off the walls to smoke, no lie), she smiles at me and laughs, delighted as if greeting an old friend. Crackheads sometimes have the most melodious laugh, like a well-tuned piano being played by a lemur.

Crack lady isn't always pleasant tho, and has in fact been evicted. But she's still around anyway, because she has friends in the building--she disappears for a while, then I'll come home to find her scraping paint or mopping. She was evicted for being too violent--the AC she threw out the window is the least of the damage she's done to the building and to the people who live here.

Anyway. So. Sitting in the living room, reading. Greg's out--gaming or something--and I'm alone with Waf, who is snoozing on the futon.

Outside, I hear a very loud woman screaming in Spanish. I can tell she's turning the corner from the street to our building's entrance, and that she's very agitated about something police-related. Always interesting. So I listen for a bit, realize there's some English mixing in with the Spanish. "The police are coming!" she screams. "You came to my house," she counters, apparently to herself. "You came to my house so now I'm coming to your's."

Then the buzzer in my hall goes off, which means she's pressing the button for our apartment. The button activating said buzzer for our apartment is located next to the front door of our building. It has our apartment number on it. Essentially, that button is a question buzzing, "Can I come in?"

Usually, I ignore the buzzer unless I'm expecting company or deliveries because people mistakenly press the various CLEARLY LABELED buttons all the time--someone means to buzz 5D, say, and thinks 2F is close enough. Since I'm both bad at math and dyslexic, I don't fault the mistaken button-press. I just ignore it.

I try to ignore this errant button press as well, but Waf isn't ignoring. He jumps from the futon, barking frantically, and runs to our apartment door (he's learned that the buzz from the hall means activity at our door).

"Waffles. Shh." I cross to him, pick him up, put him on my lap.

More buzzing. More screaming from the building's entrance coming in through the window. "What do you want me to do? The police, oh my god [Spanish Spanish] stop it, just fucking stop it!"

The woman at the building entrance now has her finger permanently pressed to our apartment's buzzer, and the buzzing makes Waf abandon the barking for cowering and whimpering in my lap. So, to save Waf's sanity--because he's now clearly broken--I go into the hall to the source of the buzzing sounds: a tiny box with a speaker and three buttons marked Talk, Listen and Open. It's kinda like 'Alice in Wonderland' to get into most apartment buildings.

The buzzing wants me to press the open button, which'll open the building's entrance. I gamble, and press 'Talk.'

I press 'Talk' because, if it's the crazy crack lady, I see no reason to let her into the building. And frankly, most of what's been drifting in through the living room window sounds pretty damn nuts.

"Yes?" I say into the microphone/speaker box. And I can hear my voice coming out of a similar speaker downstairs by the entrance door.

"I need to get in. Can I get in? I need to see my friend."

Perhaps her friend, I think for a moment, is not answering his own damn buzzer because he's attempted suicide, and she's rushed over to save him? He's overdosed, maybe? Not likely. Maybe he just doesn't want her to come in. Maybe he's not home, in which case why would she want in to the building? To sit on the stairs and wait for him? Perhaps peeling paint chips from the stairwell walls, saving them for later?

"Who is your friend?" I ask.

Incidentally, the way our magic talking box works is that I press the 'talk' button to talk, and the 'listen' button to listen. The magic talking box by the entrance door works the same way. The woman at the entrance door hasn't mastered this concept, because while I'm trying to get more info before letting her into the building--this is NYC, not a 'Seinfeld' episode, and there's been a few muggings in the building next to our's--she keeps her finger on her 'talk' button. I can hear her rattling off a Hamlet-sized monologue, but because I'm now in the hall, I can only hear the quantity of her voice, but not the quality of it. Muffled. So I press 'listen' again, and from my magic talking box I hear: "... lives in 3E, just let me in."

So I press my 'talk' button and ask, "Who is your friend?" again. Press 'listen'.

"Cedric."

Waf, meanwhile, is now at my feet, still whimpering, nearly catatonic. Never seen him like this before. I stroke his back with my toes. The poor dog is traumatized by the incessant buzzing.

Cedric, I think. Cedric is a pretty cool name.

Before pressing the 'open' button, which allows the entrance door to, you know, 'open', I scoop up Waf--the poor dog is shivering and whimpering and unresponsive--and return to the living room window, just to make sure it's not crazy crack lady. I part the blinds, look down, and see two young women. One rather heavy, one rather thin, both pushing against the front door as if hoping to force it open. One is talking into a cell phone, and I can hear her clearly. "You've got to let me in. The POLICE, Cedric, they're coming. Don't give me that shit, you came to my house and I didn't say nothing."

The buzzer in the hall goes nuts again. Constant, needling 'Can I come in?' sounds bursting from the speaker. Waf shudders, sticks his nose into my arm pit.

I return to the magic talking box in the hall. Press 'talk'. "Stop it. I don't know who you are so I'm not gonna let you in."

Again I hear screaming, but I don't bother to press 'listen' so I don't hear what she says. A few more buzzes, and then the hallway is silent.

Here's the thing: The police never came. The girls got into the building--Cedric apparently decided to be a gentleman and buzz them up. I could hear the front door buzzing them in a few minutes after I hung up on G's voicemail.

Waf's still recovering--seriously, I don't understand the mind of dogs very well, so I have no idea if there is long-term damage from being exposed to repeated hallway buzzings, but he's whimpering in his sleep.

The terror in the girl's voice, coming thru my magic voice box speaker, that bothers me, tho. She sounded both profoundly guilty of something, and also profoundly scared of police--her declaration that 'the police were coming' carried the same mythic weight as the faux-Mother Goose rhyme about Freddy Krueger. A horror of some kind was approaching, two girls standing at the front door of salvation, and all they needed to survive was a simple button-push. That's it. The horror was coming, safety just inside a door, and the only thing these two girls could do was beg someone--anyone--to press a button, open a door, let them in.

I didn't press the button. Didn't save them. Someone else--I presume Cedric, but who knows?--saved the girls from certain or imagined doom. Or maybe someone else--not Cedric--let the girls into the building and ruined Cedric's life.

Next time, I'll just press the 'open' button for whomever, and whatever happens happens. It'll save Waf the stress. Might cause a murder or save a life. But at least Waf won't be assaulted by buzzing noises.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The 'Arizona' Model is My Choice

When we first moved into our current apartment, which is in a building dominated by non-english speaking immigrants from the Dominican Republic, I put up my two framed posters of the covers of art speigelman's Maus graphic novels. Hung them together on the wall of our living room, across from the lone window in the room. And over that lone window I hung up a knitted blanket that looked like an American flag--as a practical measure, since we didn't yet have curtains large enough for the unusually large window, and it was the only thing we owned large enough to give us some privacy since we'd already used the thicker Simpsons-themed blanket for the bedroom window.

It was tough living in a building full of people who didn't speak my language. Took a while to adjust, but adjustment wasn't helped by the way my neighbors glared at me whenever I smiled at them as we passed on the staircase or in the lobby. A few times I tried a 'Hola!' or two, got only stony silence in return. Once, our then-super, Jorge, came up to fix something, entered the apartment, took a look around, and then made an excuse to leave. "I cannot," he said simply. "Not right now. Maybe later." (Jorge spoke perfect english, which would later get him into a lot of trouble, but that's another story involving a sweat-shop he was running out of an apartment on the fifth floor and a few illegal immigrants stuffed into an apartment he was supposed to be renovating and the prostitution ring he was running out of the basement. Jorge, it seems, really took to the American Dream concept, with gusto.)

It took me four or five months to realize the entire building thought I was a neo-Nazi. Our building, see, is shaped like a Lego-inspired horseshoe. There's the east wing, which is where our living room is, and a west wing which faces our living room. Between, there's empty space (except on the first floor, where there's naturally a sidewalk and front door). All the people living in the west wing had a wonderful view of our American flag blanket, or on hot days when the window was open, our living room walls. Casual observers who didn't speak english--and therefore probably weren't too terribly familiar with the covers of art spiegelman's Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novels portraying the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats--saw, alternately, an American flag or these pictures hanging on the wall:



Greg made me take them down the instant I said, "Hm. You know, from a distance, I bet all you can see on our wall is two swastickas."

I told that story to give this one more context.

Saturday, I went, alone, to Harry's Shoes to pick up a pair of Birks, for whatever reasons. No, I know the reason: I'm a Southern boy, I hate shoes, I'm tired of flip-flops, and Birks are generally more acceptable than going places barefoot. The fact that I went alone is important. Whenever I go out in public unescorted, I manage to accidentally violate most laws of polite society.

Harry's Shoes is on the Upper West Side, and is a sort of institution, either genuinely or as a matter of branding, I'm not sure. They think they're an institution, at any rate. While browsing thru the selection, I heard more than one footwear specialist tell his or her customers, "We do look like a small store, but as anyone in New York will tell you, we have the most display shoe-to-stock ratio in the city. For every shoe you see out here, we have hundreds in the stock room." And there were a lot of display shoes.

Not a lot of display Birks, tho. I found one I sort of liked--wasn't in love with the style, but it was simple and versatile enough. I searched around for someone to assist me, and as I looked, I took off my glasses to wipe them off. I shoved the display Birk into an arm pit, pulled up my shirt tail slightly, and was wiping at the lenses when a (god help me for this one) person with brown skin tone and grey hair approached me.

Without my glasses, I can't see. Period. That's my only real defense here, but I think it's a good one, given just how awful my eyesight is. If a Nordic god had walked up to me, all I would've seen would be a white splotch with golden hair (and perhaps I might've made out a hammer or cane or something, depending, but not likely). If a Smurf had walked up to me? Blue splotch and white hat. I wouldn't've been able to tell Jokey from Vanity.

The guy--and I knew he was male from his voice, which was accented heavily with Brooklyn--asked if I needed help. I told him yes, and handed him the Birk, then, and only then, put on my glasses. He was already stooped over my foot, slipping off a flip-flop and shoving one of those mysterious, abacus-looking foot sizers under my sole. The top of his head was bald, a brown bald-spot ringed by curly grey hair. I was staring at my foot--I'd never actually had it properly sized, so was curious--and was about to put my full weight down on the metal thing when I realized my bare skin was currently touching an item almost certainly covered with the germs of hundreds of other sweaty feet. There is no Barbersol for foot-sizers. They don't come out of a jar filled with blue disinfectant; those metal things just hang out on well-trod floors all day, having foot after foot pressed against them like a fetish-whore in Amsterdam.

So I did not press my foot down. Or, rather, I hesitated. Stared at the diseased metal slab beneath my foot.

The next part will sound like a lie, but Greg will confirm it's true, because he's lived with me for 10 years and knows exactly how neurotic/insane I truly am. For the next fifteen minutes, rather than focusing on shoe-purchasing or my surroundings, all I could think about was that damn metal slab, and how many bacteria must now be crawling all over the ball of my foot and my heel (nothing else of me got near that thing). Not much else registered. So when my shoe salesman finally stood, and I had the chance to take a good look at him, I wasn't actually seeing him. A few features registered: he was indeed brown, he did indeed have grey hair. He, too, was preoccupied in that he was much more interested in taking care of an older woman beside me, probably because she would gain him a larger commission.

He asked me a question I didn't hear, so I said 'Yes,' because for some reason that's my automatic response to any question I didn't pay attention to (I find it makes life with Greg much easier to simply agree). He disappeared into a stock room. I sat in a chair, contemplating the many fungi and infections I had just been exposed to. I heard the older woman next to me tell her husband, "I think I should get these in black, and these in blue. But what about these?"

The salesman returned with a box, shoved a Birk onto my foot, did some stuff with a strap, and that was that. He turned to the old woman and began talking to her. I had my box. I had my pair of shoes. I waited a beat, then proceeded to the check out so I could, you know, check out and get the fuck home to boil my foot in water.

The concept of commission, by the way, is sacred to me. Relatives of mine have lived or died on it. And it's important to me: the person who helped me should be rewarded. In line at the counter, I searched around with my eyes, but didn't see my (oh god) brown splotch with grey hair. And when the young woman behind the counter rang up my purchase, she asked, "So who helped you? Was it Nathan?"

I shrugged, dazed, anxious. "I. I don't know." I looked over my shoulder again. "I don't see him." I moved back, intended to return to the Birks section and find him, but the young woman intervened.

"Well," she asked, chewing a piece of gum while talking, which is a mesmerizing thing, incidentally, people who can chew and talk at the same time. She wasn't comprehensible, but she still gave the impression of word-formation. "Was he an African-American with grey hair?" she asked. But I didn't understand her. The only words coming thru clearly were 'grey' and 'hair.'

So I did what I do when I don't understand the question [see above]. I answered, "Yes." And I was thinking, 'Oh my god, I bet that fat woman with the bunions used the same foot-sizer. Are those bunions or some sort of contagious growth? Are bunions contagious?'

"So Nathan," the young woman smacked.

"I guess," I replied. "He had grey hair."

"Was he African-American with grey hair?"

I just wanted out at this point, and the line behind me was growing restless. I didn't blame them. Probably everyone in the store just wanted to get home and disinfect their feet. "Yes. Must've been Nathan. He had grey hair, that's right."

She swiped my card, and as I was signing the receipt, my shoe salesman came up to the counter. I recognized him. And again, my only defense on this is that he was exceptionally brown, and that is the only thing I could say about him. In my defense, I don't think all brown people look alike, which is to say that individuals are not shoe-styles--there's no giant stock room of people with a race-sample-to-stock ratio. He could've been Turkish-American, or he could've been African-American, or Indian-American. He could've come from fucking France for all I know. I'm very bad at guessing nations of origin based on appearance because, christ, everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere at once, you know?

I smiled at Nathan, and said, "I told her who helped me. Thanks!" I turned to leave.

"You gave me the Birk commission?" Nathan asked in his Brooklyn accent. And for some reason, I knew what was coming. I knew what the young woman would say before she said it.

The young woman said, "No, Ahmet. I gave it to Nathan."

I bolted, ashamed, horrified.

The punchline, if you want to call it a punchline, is that I have to exchange the Birks, which are too small by at least one size. Because I didn't put my weight on the metal disease chart/foot-sizer. Which means probably meeting up with Ahmet, who thinks I couldn't tell the difference between a Turkish- and African-American, because I'm an American imperialist who sees all brown people as indistinguishable splotches. Which is true, but not true at all.

I see all people as indistinguishable splotches, no matter the color.

If it's any consolation to Ahmet, the Birks he sold me caused me a lot of torture during the one day I wore them. I think I got what I deserved. Also, the style of Birkenstock I ended up with is the 'Arizona' style, which I also think I deserve.

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