Friday, June 29, 2007

Up River

It’s been about a year since I last wrote about riding my bike to work. I still do it occasionally (the gym at school seems to give me a more focused exercise, but it doesn’t smell as nice and it certainly doesn’t look as appealing). Not much has changed. I’ve lost ten pounds. The pavements have been repaved. The sounds are the same: still female cardinals in their beautiful shade of burnt orange evoking red like the fire fighting helicopter skimming along above me, they look and sound nice against the hypnotic green reflected all around which is definitely one of God’s best colors.

Today as I was sniffing at the sea breeze along the Hudson which was flowing backwards with the tide, I noticed that there are a lot more driftwood sculptures sprouting along the banks. Smooth branches tied with twine into strange trees, like Japanese etchings brought into the third dimension, aching for the blue sky. I saw a lot more old men this time too: a leathery European in a royal blue Speedo worshiping the Sun god, a Chinese who made even his bicycle look crooked with his twisted awkward stance, a Black man who made fishing look like a good way to go. There were people from the parks department in blue t-shirts spread out like ants with nice ankle-length grabbers picking at the trash from last weekends picnics and baby showers. I saw two other men walking side by side each with a leather-bound book in their hands helping each other to grow in their Christian lives.

There were two people stretched out under a tree taking in the view at around West Harlem, the female part of them still under the blanket. They made me nostalgic for the invisibility they seemed to possess like Ralph Ellison – but I know that is a false dream: camping on the Hudson with no where to go like Huckleberry Finn. The tower of Riverside Church has not changed, it is still standing sentry, a witness, to the Hess-ian barges and the Nigerian oil they pour passing slowly by. But I know that steeple better now that I’ve sat silent as a Quaker a few times in its very top listening to it groan like a gothic submarine pointing straight up.

There were only two urine-soaked men with all their belongings carefully stacked on wheels of different sounds in the Bat Cave at 128rd street – there used to be more. But the man who sleeps under the bridge at Dyckman Street was still there, cautiously preparing his shopping cart for a run across traffic toward the refuge he shares with the pigeons which can if one is startled make you think of Edgar Allen Poe.

My bike was humming or the world was humming; either way I heard the noise.
Photo by BJ Ramsay

Friday, June 22, 2007


Over the past few months our incoming wealth has suddenly tripled (Jennifer got a job), making us lower middle class at least. This undeserved influx has brought with it diverse yuppification temptations much of which we have inexplicably been able to withstand despite our best efforts to quietly concede.

Take for example our aborted attempt to move to Park Slope, Brooklyn, (one of the newest hot neighborhoods in the city, next to Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, etc.) into an enormous two bedroom apartment with a grandmotherly, gardening, landlord. With our current lease rapidly expiring, the rabid dogs next door barking furiously and Jennifer’s tedious hour-long commute sapping our energy resistance was low. After sniffing the air a few times, Jennifer and I silently agreed to ignore the crummy kitchen and stained bathroom saying such sweet nothings as “We can get Harlan to put carpet over those crappy tiles.” After commenting verbosely on the spacious and quiet aspects of the rooms and neighbors, I scribbled out a non-refundable $50 credit check. “We’re interested,” we said – which was understood as “we’ll take it!”

On our victorious ride home we happily mused on the endless possibilities in our future home among upper-crust black folks on the edge of hipster-land where lemonade is served with fresh basil and Haitians go to Harvard. Then we stepped into our old apartment and realized we were sacrificing shiny hardwood floors under 12-foot ceilings surrounded by carefully decorated walls, the Saturday greenmarket down the street, the coinless laundry and library less than a block away and a 24 hour “super”market just a few steps farther.

Jennifer went back to the “new place” to give our “new” landlord copies of our driver’s licenses and to see it again – but she already knew she was no longer excited about moving. A day later she called our new grandmother and told her our current landlord had offered us a great deal on a two-bedroom in our own building when we told him we were thinking of moving (which is true, and we will move into that great deal when it opens up). So we were staying in our student loan financed apartment, and it only cost us $50.

Then we decided since we were staying we should get a car so we can go to Brooklyn and Flushing whenever our heartless little schedules desire. And that we should get it right now because we have a trip planned to Pennsylvania as the end of the month and renting a car costs hundreds of dollars. So I bought a Dodge Neon (hiding from Jennifer that Dodge is little more than a Chevrolet derivative) on E-Bay for $1,595. Thirty minutes later rejoicing in our two-door low-gas-using victory Jennifer called Kevin and Valerie and asked them what kind of insurance we should get for our new wheels. Valerie said, “Oh, were you guys looking for a car, cause we’re selling ours.” And I said, “Oh, No!” in falling tones full of dread, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Denying my Mennonite sensibilities I reneged on my contract with Jose the Neon-seller. I told him to keep the $200 down payment (which made him reasonably happy) and we decided to wait until Kev and Val were ready to sell us their car (for much cheaper) in the fall (they said they’ll loan us to us when if we want it for a weekend before then). So far in order to stay in our apartment and remain without a car we spent only $250.

Pretty good deal considering we are lower middle class now (although we still have 17 times as much debt as we have savings). The $1800 I spent for the half a class I didn’t attend a few weeks ago makes me feel even better about that too.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

In “Real” Life

Last Thursday as I was going through my normal get-ready-for-bed routine at around 12:43 pm – sleeping pills, ear plugs, stomach not-too-empty, not-too-full (I need to feed my ulcers right) – a sudden noise broke through the normal hippity-hoppity soundtrack which our neighbors across the street so graciously provides us with via their blasting Aiwa stereo system on the top floor (speakers propped up on the window sill facing out toward people like me that need to sleep during the day). They usually turn it on at about 9 am and leave it on till they goes to sleep every evening during the summer -- a seasonal all-day, every-day affair. The songs I suppose are different and specially selected for each special day but they sound all the same to me.

POLICE! “PUT YOUR *bleeping* HANDS UP!” barked the lead cop.

I ran over to the window in time to see the stocky Hispanic man-in-black leap onto the roofs of the parked cars below our apartment building, making nice foot-sized dents complete with detailed footprints, his gun drawn braced in both hands.

Around the back of our building an 18 year-old boy in a white t-shirt, mid-calf dark denim shorts, and an ill-fitting fitted all-black Yankee’s baseball cap over a red doo-rag, leapt over our fence under our fire escape and started scaling the next fence (where the # 1 annoying dog is normally kept) seemingly in slow motion.

The female cop who arrived second on the scene after calling for back up yelled to the fugitive-from-justice, “You haven’t done anything yet!”

“Then why are you chasing me? I live here,” the young thug replied.

“We just want to talk to you.” She said, in her most mothering-while-yelling voice.

“Why are you running?” Yelled the self-righteous stocky head cop.

The guy wasn’t buying it,

The cops already on the “scene” ran around the block to cut off the escape routes (except they forgot that the kid could go back the way he came). The lawbreaker kept running until he saw that the west side was cut off then he doubled back accidentally tripping himself up with the kiddie pool the #1 annoying dog owners had recently set up for all-day squealing parties. The boy asked the dog owner if he could escape through her apartment in a plaintive Spanish voice, saying it is an emergency the police were chasing him. Then he saw the police were already in front of that apartment (he didn’t hear my muffled coaching, because my window was still closed) and other anti-hip-hop-thug people in the next building were tracking his location with their fingers for the cops.

The stocky head cop came running from the west side his gun out again screaming. “GET DOWN ON THE GROUND! I’M GONNA SHOOT YOU!”

The evildoer ignored this advice and calmly climbed back over our fence into the parking lot filled with dented cars and escaped.

Two minutes later our street was filled with cop cars, and cops nosing around looking for the muchacho as my Cuban neighbor remarked. Dino, our superintendent told the cops we don’t have any trouble makers in our building. A lie that contradicts what he had just told me seconds earlier -- that you have to be careful around druggies.

The hibbity-hoppity soundtrack never stopped and now it seemed less annoying, more indicative of the violence that is constantly seething under the crusty surface in the most densely populated neighborhood in Manhattan: my place seems to be a stage for a bad play about reckless cops and bad guys, not really a good place to sleep anyway.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


This week I started using the little “daytimer” I keep in my moldering backpack.

I did this after I showed up for my summer class two weeks late. Excited about the breadth and depth of the Chinese history I would be studying I sauntered into 424 Kent hall 10 minutes before class started. The dread and disbelief that proceeds full-fledged embarrassment (which of course is one of the channels one uses to enter into the cycle of deep-seeded anxiety) began when the two other “early-birds” started talking about their papers which were due that day. They said this was the fifth class in the course. The professor after listening to the story of my non-appearance said, “That’s a problem.”

Things got worse. After checking the computer downstairs I saw that the last day to drop the course and get your money back was several days ago. Meaning I wouldn’t be getting a refund if I dropped it. The professor said I should talk to the dean about that and if I couldn’t get my money back maybe I could try to stay in the course.

After reading madly all night attempting to catch up with 1895 Peking I spoke to the dean She said, “I don’t think the registrar will want to give you your money back because you forgot the right dates.” That made me feel nice. So I spoke to the professor again and he said if I stay in the course and get perfect scores on the tests and papers the best I can hope to get a “D” because I missed four three hour classes. I can’t do that.

In the end, they gave me half of my money back.

I don’t know how I managed to confuse the beginning of this session with the next one (which does start at the beginning of the month – the next month) but it makes me feel about as inane as a fly dropping on a grape. Even more absurd than I feel now checking my daytimes every few hours.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


I’m sitting on the variegated marble floor waiting for the enactment of Steve Reich’s music for 18 musicians at the Bang on a Can all night music marathon surrounded by bearded David Lynch fans from the looks of things at the World Financial Center in Lower Manhattan short steps away from where bodies of people thudded down onto the pavements not long ago. I’m sitting in my best Om position and my ankle is starting to hurt but not in an unwelcome way. The nervous insomniac in front of me keeps twisting around – his thick convex glasses weirdly capturing the ambient light from nearby commercial advertisements for chocolate and jewelry. I feel a bit like a guy I heard on This American Life who went to a conference full of geeks and found himself feeling strangely comfortable. So these are the sort of people who stay up till 4:30 am to hear avante garde minimalism: bearded geeks who twitch convulsively behind plastic eyewear.

Odd to be here in this glass cosset next to a mature palm tree. I stuff the core of my apple into the twitchy man’s discarded Odwalla fruit shake container. The 18 musicians are dressed all in black and look normal and awake. Maybe I’m normal too despite being wide awake? It looks like dawn is breaking on the outside of this glassed in world of the weird. A hush falls among us as the lights on the stage ignite – only the hum of the air-conditioning remains. The band from Grand Valley State looks poised. One of the high water marks of Western civilization begins. It’s beautiful. Beautiful like the sound a bottle makes when it shatters.

The music cycles and repeats, evolves, twisting up through the silent palm trees reflecting off the windows protecting us from outer space and bouncing around us – the weirdoes always already awake at the dawn of light.

A couple people snore behind me open bottles of mysterious substances still in hand.