Whenever i see a crosswalk sign this dialogue plays in my head.
I walked out onto the front steps of my apartment. Rain made the air syrupy. I turned when I heard a glass bottle clinking on the sidewalk across the street. A man followed it. He took it in his hand and cracked it sloppily over the curb. With the jagged stem, he made an incision down the side of an abandoned mattress slouching against a fence. All of his movements were grossly inaccurate and required immense effort. For fifteen minutes i watched him skin the mattress brutally while people passed without second glances. With one final stumbling tug, he tore the padding from the frame of springs and dropped it into a dark heap on the wet street. He hoisted the pile onto his head, tottered, adjusted it, and walked away leaving the bald metal skeleton supine like a carcass beneath the rain. Hunter/gatherer 2012?
This is a poem I wrote that was rejected by Poetry Magazine. Again.
There is a woman whom I know,
Who has no name to me.
The woman sits still in her house on a hill,
Heating a kettle for tea.
She thumbs through the ads
Folded in with the news,
Lifts her left eyebrow at
Jackets, slacks, and black shoes.
Pens a circle around her size
Though the woman never buys
What she’ll only live long enough to lose.
There is a woman whom I know,
Who has no name to me.
She wears a chill in her house on the hill;
There are few as lonesome as she.
The corners of her mouth tugged down,
They, tugged by age into a perennial frown.
Behind these lips are crowded teeth.
Behind her eyes flicker ten more Julys
In dreams of a house by the sea.
There is a woman whom I know
Who has no name to me.
Despite house and hill, she is unfulfilled;
She plucks a thread off her stockinged knee.
Never cared for music much.
Never was moved by melodies, as such.
“I cannot stand it when the orchestra tunes.”
She drips honey into her tea with a spoon.
This woman whom I know,
Whose name is irrelevant to me,
We know not each other well
Though we’ve known each other long, I and she.
We have often talked and taken walks
Despite notes she penned
We are not fond friends
Although she may disagree.
There is a woman whom I know,
Who remains nameless to me.
From the windowsill in her house on the hill,
She sees sunrise sweep the tops of trees.
Though her head is cold and skin full of folds,
She has still not settled what she believes.
She pills and plucks a piece of lint from her sleeve.
Distracted, wooden, she stood on her stoop,
“Oh how Winter makes the saplings droop.”
There is a woman whom I often see
Whose name is of no relevance to me.
She ingests a pill in her house on a hill
To abate a bout of indigestion.
As Nature tapers the gates of her life
She is more of a child and less of a wife,
Her mood is loose, sealed to suggestion,
She coughs pleasantries, plans, and pliant congestion.
This woman whom I know
Whose house is built on a hill filled with leaves,
Awaits early sleep in the early eve.
Not known to visitors by first or last name.
She weathers the wet months with chest aches and pains.
Hair lined with the chin, thin, and bleached.
“I fear the clouds are filling with rain,”
She pokes at the gutters that splutter when breached.
Cobwebs and clutter in the corners of her house
Clutter the corridor from her mind to her mouth.
The woman doesn’t know she has nothing left to teach.
There is woman whom I know
Whose name I shall withhold.
“This dump on the hill is only until
My home by the sea be blueprinted and built.
Then this old address will be dressed and sold.”
Years she has rehearsed this line,
Cleans the clock, she waits and waits.
Nature tapers its indifferent gates.
There is a woman whom I know
Whose name I will conceal.
With the electric grill in her house on the hill
She has fixed me many a meal.
The corners of her mouth slumped down,
Nested in the creases carved by her frown.
She happens to pass her reflection on the glass
Of the pane embedded in the door.
She blinks and blinks and leans on the sink,
“How strange—I could’ve sworn I’d smiled more.”
This woman whom I know
Whom I met long ago
Who will never leave her hill for the sea,
She is petty and prideful yet I protect her name
Because I love this woman, you see.
On the windowsill in her house on the hill
There sits a photo framed.
Behind the dust and behind the glass,
The boy in that photo is me.
If I accumulated all of the fiery, obsessive energy I’ve wasted comparing and contrasting myself with my peers over the past decade (which is about when this toxic habit took root), I could probably power a small rustbelt city for a few days. Trust me, I used a graphing calculator.
We squander so much time festering with envy and resentment over the accomplishments of our peers. (just me?) Has there ever once been a benefit to this petty habit? No. No, there hasn’t.
The thing we have to realize (and internalize) is that, ultimately, we are competing with no one. And even when it really seems like we are, we aren’t. How could we be? How could we all be running the same race when each of us has a different start and finish?
Yes, our tracks criss-cross from time to time. We tend to clump with others whose goals we perceive to be similar. These criss-crossings make you feel like a God or like shit, but, if your not an idiot, they usually make you feel like both. There will always be someone better and someone worse than you at any one thing. Always.
The point is this. Even if someone pwns you on their battlefield, you could surely pwn them elsewhere. The notion that some battlefields are more or less venerated by the public eye shouldn’t matter. No one ever died fulfilled and content by doing what everyone else thought was important. And if you ever stacked up your entire life against someone else’s, you would learn exactly nothing (also it’s impossible). Our stories with all of their triumphs, stalemates, vicissitudes, and premature ejaculations are far too singular for comparison.
The only lesson to draw from peer success is that you must work hard. You must work even harder than before.
For every one of your peers’ successes, you have an achievement and an aspiration that they do not. No one has what you have. You don’t have so many things others do. So why squander time suffering?
Do your work.
I wish someone had pounded this into my brain ten years ago.
Journal Entry 11.23.2011. 4:30am.
I stepped out into a morning leeched of color by the wet clouds perched on rooftops. At the corner, Hasidic toddlers were being ushered off a yellow bus and into the preschool. They stumbled on tiny legs, uncalibrated like miniature stilts they were getting used to. All of the ushers were women; all of the stumblers were girls. All were stockinged and bonnetted. There is a piece of paper stuck to the glass door of the Hasidic preschool: Woman Entrance. Hasidim do not shake hands with the opposite sex.
The post-rain fog is heavy. It drags tobacco smoke down, filtering it through the rusted steps of the fire escape. Low clouds on the East River filter themselves through bolts, beams, and ribs of bridges.
Tattered plastic bags are tangled on tree limbs and flutter in the breeze as if some biblical flood had once covered this entire city. I guess there was a flood, just a human one.
The following is a three part non-fiction short story about moving to Brooklyn, NY
Hope Gardens. That’s what the placard in front of the projects reads. In Brooklyn, “Gardens” is synonymous with “projects”. And on a placard in front of the projects, “Hope” is synonymous with a city-sized middle finger. One hand feeds them, the other flips them the bird. Hope Gardens. Cute. What a name for a poverty-trampled block with no gardens and, dare I say, no hope. Somewhere in the Great Plains there is a porch-sat man with a turkey neck and belly-grease yellowed beater whose street sign reads: Seaview Terrace.
I moved to Brooklyn a month ago. Not to Hope Gardens. To the top floor of an apartment in Bed-Stuy with food-poisoning-green vinyl siding and a staircase from Alice in Wonderland. A week after I moved in, the corner was sealed with caution tape and spinning lights. The only comment I received on the matter was from a woman knocking around the neighborhood deli like a pinball. “He got shot in the head. Shit is crazy right now. I gotta call my friend, shit is crazy.”
She had a point. Shit was crazy. And in many respects, still is, and will always be. Examples of crazy shit include murder, delis, and the dismal test scores generated by Brooklyn’s public schools. That’s why a few years ago, New York City’s Department of Education flung $21 million at a company named Champion Learning and said “fix it”. Champion Learning is what happens when bureaucrats named Abraham Sultan name things. Champion Learning farms out wholesale, unqualified tutors to kids who get free school lunches. Champion Learning also gets investigated by the DOE for shoveling too much of the $21 million into Abraham Sultan’s pockets and categorically not giving a shit about the kids who get free school lunches.
I applied to be one of these wholesale, unqualified tutors. Champion Learning’s hiring process had roughly the same rigor as a ride at Six Flags. You have to be this tall to ride the Double Dragon.
The morning of my interview was warm and lucid. Fall hiccupped one last day of Summer while trying to swallow it. I strapped my helmet to my chin and pedaled to the Brooklyn Bridge. During the protracted approach, Lower Manhattan erupts into view. The rooftop terrain is thick and digitized like crude early computer graphics of hills and valleys. Manhattan’s landscape is almost too oppressively iconic to take seriously. I descended down into the Financial District. Down into the gridded canyons of metal and glass. Down into the hive.
I locked my bike to a parking meter in the shadow of the building where the interview would be held. My t-shirt was soaked through from the ride. I ducked into an alley and pulled a Clark Kent. Shirt tucked, tie straight, i smoothed my hair in a dark window and went inside.
My interviewer was a six foot tie rack named Ben or Brad or Chad or whichever one his boss happened to pick that day. He shook my hand. “You can step into conference room A, please”. There was only one conference room. “Have a seat, please.” One hundred swivel chairs lined the long table. “Anywhere is fine.” Bradchad scribbled a note on his pad and conducted the interview the way everything is done at Champion Learning, which is to say, wholesale. “Let’s go around and say why we want to be tutors,” he said, panning across the superfluous table. His script did not accommodate a one-on-one situation. For an almost imperceptible moment, he paused. Perhaps he realized that his pre-programmed speeches were unseemly. Or perhaps he was just thinking about how on Sunday mornings, he likes to take his girlfriend to BestBuy.
Days later, I was assigned to three high school students in Bushwick. Two boys, one girl. Siblings. Three kids bound to be disenchanted when they discovered that their tutor was hired by two cardboard dragons holding a tape measure.
The afternoon of my first lesson, I rode through Bed-Stuy into Bushwick. The brownstones in Bed-Stuy are stacked tightly like layers of sedimentary rock. They only come in colors of mud: black pine forest mud, brown bald meadow mud, milk khaki desert mud, burnt russet African mud. Trees shook brittle leaves onto the sidewalk where the wind raked them into piles under rows of glittering cars. Eyes followed me from the tops of chipped steps. Groups of hunched men huddled by corners and storefronts. They itched their heads through itchy black beanies and inspected the sidewalk population.
I stopped in front of a cardboard box building with barred windows. Hope Gardens. That’s what the placard in front of the projects read. I wrenched open a dented metal door and went in. I was out of place according to every face I passed. Eyebrows in the elevator were curved like questions marks that asked: so whose kid are you here to take away? I followed the apartment numbers down dim hallways until I saw it. There written in sharpie: 6A. Muted yelling crept out from under the door. I placed three knocks on the yellow paint.
To be continued…
Why do companies spend time making dog toys look like things?
When i went to China, trying to describe stand-up comedy to locals was a communication meltdown.
“Ok, so there are a lot of people sitting and watching me and I tell jokes.”
Blank stares. Blinking. I try a different angle.
“Ok, I have a microphone, you know, a microphone? It makes my voice very loud. I hold the microphone, then I talk and all the people laugh.”
Horrified looks. A woman takes my hand and leans in close. “I so sorry.”
It is perplexing that despite the lengthy and pervasive legacy of expletives, certain populations or environments prohibit their utterances. At this point, it is almost inconceivable that an individual could actually take offense to such a generic, ubiquitous word as “fuck”. It is obvious that those who take offense are foolish, as they are partaking in a delusional exercise of superficial superiority. Any utterance of the word is an excuse to be offended by their brutish company, as the refined literati have no use for such vile speech. This is one of the many, many telltale signifiers of ignorance, and is apt to incite much frustration.
Often overlooked, however, is the symbiotic necessity both parties have for one another. Without the snub-nosed, rigid-spined people to take offense, expletives are stripped of their potency. And without the swearers, there is one less thing to savor being offended by.
I ran deep into Bedstuy. Eight miles in the grayness and cold rain. With each block east, with each block south, you follow the degradation and abandonment. Elevated subway lines are veins that breathe life onto the sidewalks in their shadow. Away from the veins, things rot and rust. Fried chicken stands and cell phone accessory shops are supplanted by vacant lots with tall grass tangled in chain-link fence. Grocery stores are supplanted by food charities with lines out the door, down the steps, and to the corner. The throng wedge their metal carts through the door. Frantic and fragile, they snatch and pile cans in their baskets. I ran down Fulton past two teenage girls who looked like they had been poured into their jeans. “Woooo! Slow down suga!”
Fulton is a main drag. The side streets are all residential. The hunched brownstones alternate the colors of dark and milk chocolate. I leapt over a curb puddle sparkling from drizzle. Three terse explosions popped forty feet to my right. Up the side street between apartment steps and parked cars, six young black guys dispersed and ran. When I saw them sprint, it forced the uncertainty of the explosive pops (firecrackers? engine backfire?) to congeal immediately into the shriek of some demonic machine. One is well-acquainted with the crack of gunfire from the modern lore of television, but there is a murderous difference between war and a painting of it. Body.
Me, I might as well have been fired down the block by that very gun. My legs pumped until a deep negligible nausea appeared in my thighs. One of the six rounded the corner and sprinted with me in stride. Both of us gasped and clawed desperately at the air ahead of us, trying to propel ourselves forward. We dodged the sidewalk gauntlet of terrified faces, all examining us as heralds freeing them from the limbo between what they heard and what they fear they heard. After two blocks, the kid fell behind and stopped running. I turned back and we exchanged a look. In that fraction of an instant, I asked him if what i think happened, happened, and he told me with watery eyes and a countenance still reverberating with the last image he saw before he ran: yes.