I got back from a week in New York City yesterday. In case you were interested, here is what I saw and did:
On the way from the airport to the East Village where I was staying, my subway broke down. It was already midnight, I'd been in transit since 3:30 Texas time, and I was leaning heavily and exhaustedly against my suitcase on the seat. Apparently someone was injured on the tracks, but amidst multiple sirens and "an ongoing police investigation," we were finally allowed to go.
The Puerto Rican Day parade. I'll never again forget what the flag of Puerto Rico looks like, as it is burned now into my brain -- I saw it waving, accessorizing, being worn as a cape, eaten as a snow cone, and driven up Fifth Avenue as a stage for girls in flag bikinis and flag ball gowns. I decided to leave when a scuffle broke out, involving a man who had hit his girlfriend, and 15 or 30 of their friends.
The World Trade Center site. Last time I was in New York, I drank sake at a restaurant at the top of one of the towers. Three weeks after it was destroyed, I moved to Japan for four years, and watched most of the proceedings via spottily-subtitled foreign news. I wanted to go see it to try to get my head around it, to grasp it and let it sink in that it is gone. I had no idea how I might react. For the first ten minutes, I just felt nauseous. For the 20 minutes following that, I wanted to cry. Seeing the way people just walk around it, this enormous bare scar in the ground, on their way to work, on their way to lunch, acceptingly and determined, made me feel better.
Tthe Statue of Liberty. She is big and green. At the ticket booth, a woman lost it when the booth attendant told her she couldn't have the military discount. "But my husband is in the military, I'm his spouse," calmly at first. Then, "Even if he's in Afghanistan?!" and increasingly shrill, "but he's in AfghanisTAN!! AFGHANISTAAAAN!! WHO MAKES THESE RULES?!?!?!?!!!!!" I thought security was going to have to drag her off, but she finally stomped away. When our ferry passed the Statue of Liberty, the copper and iron iconic embodiment of our nation's supposed values, a couple of anorexic model wannabe-types said only, "God, she's so fat! Like, look at her arm!"
Ellis Island. The museum at Ellis was amazing. I'm not sure most Americans realize what so many of our ancestors went through to get here, or what their lives were like. Studying Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine photographs is a good start, a visit to Ellis Island makes it much more personal. I think everyone even considering the anti-immigration nonsense currently being discussed should have to go there. If they actually sign anything, they should have to sign it there, in the Great Hall, where their own ancestors checked in just within fairly recent memory. They should have to look their own carpetbagging relatives in the eyes before they tell anyone else they can't come in. Sure, things are different, but they're also the same.
Central Park. I've been there three or four times, each time for three or hours, and each time I find a new part I'd never seen before, each time the new part was the size of a park. Central Park is like 600 parks strung together in a sequence. Tthis part was my favorite yet, called "The Ravine." I sat for an hour on a rock next to a waterfall watching birds take baths and get all up in each other's bird-faces. Birds are a lot more territorial than I'd realized. But they're so cute when they're mad.
On the way to the Guggenheim, the train broke down again, and we had to evacuate. A friend told me of all the time he's been in new york, of all the people he knows, he's never heard of anyone actually having to do that. Apparently our station flooded, on a perfect, cloudless day, and we had to walk through all the cars to the front of the train and onto the platform. I got to migrate from the car with the crazy guy on PCP, who kept yelling and swinging on the pole and gesticulating like he was covered with cat-sized flies. The doors of our car wouldn't open at first, and the lights went out a couple times, but luckily PCP-Guy wasn't Random-Stabbing Guy they had caught on some uptown line the day before. What was incredible to me was the way people didn't freak out. On both broken-train occasions, people took it all in stride, they were patient and understanding, and no one took it as a personal strike of inconvenience against their busy schedules, the way i've seen people in smaller cities like my hometown do under similar circumstances. People calmly waited through delays and vague explanatory announcements, and when we finally had to evacuate, no one left a car without holding the doors open for the person behind them. Anyone who had trouble bridging the gap between cars found help doing so without even asking. And all of this, this huge shift in pace between impersonal city-rush and neighborly helping-hand, happened smoothly, instantly, and without perceptible effort. I was impressed.
The Guggenheim. The outside was swathed in netting and scaffolding, which was pretty disappointing, as it's one of the coolest-looking buildings in the world. Tthe exhibit inside though was incredible. The main show was Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi female architect who designs the most insane and incredible structures i've ever seen, most of which people are too timid to actually build. She also designed a really cool car.
Lots of interesting people in New York. My favorite was the woman on St. Mark's, a tall, done-up, sassy, strutting black woman, pushing a baby stroller, who when I passed her, said to me, "I. Am a diva." The award in the men's category goes to the Barry White impersonator near Rrockefeller Center who had his own table, rotating light ball, and backup music.
Ethiopian food at Awash. Mmmmm. And Japanese yakitori, just like I miss so much from Japan -- okonomiyaki, yaki onigiri, tonkatsu ramen why do Japanese restaurants in my town only serve flash-frozen sushi and miso soup? There is so much more to Japanese cuisine!
PS1, the most awesome art museum ever. Tthe building
itself is amazing, a labyrinthine, stripped-down, old brick schoolhouse
where you can wander for hours up and down stairways and halls, never
sure you've seen all the rooms. There was an exhibit of John Lurie drawings there, I wrote down a lot of the titles because they were so brilliant:
-Bird has absolutely no face
-Your life is meaningless. Why don't you masturbate?
-Horse with mullet
-Self-portrait as a weed
-Obscure presidents and Sally Fields on the water
-Monks' last day of earthly pleasures (shows monks in line at a hot dog stand)
-I will not sodomize the teacher on Fridays (shows a naughty duck writing sentences on a blackboard)
-The sultan loved his BVD's
-The crow will scratch your bottom now
-I am a bear. You are an asshole. God is God.
-The image above: friendly fascist bird. The image below: Bassho is goofy.
-I was a coyote, then I died, then I came back as a coyote.
-Jesus was in my garden once
-Audrey Hepburn as the Lone Ranger
-Man's hands have turned into forks. Don't trust him.
-Bunny -- I'll kill you
-Marge moved to the country and she was not happy about it, and she was particularly pissed that Harry painted the door orange
-My clown's on fire
-My assistant Jeremy is gay, now I paint like a fag
-Women liked the wizard because of his hat (shows a wizard with an enormous erection)
-Three dentists think of the same squirrel
From PS1, I walked to Socrates Sculpture Park, a free and fantastic art park near the water at the end of Broadway in Queens. To get there, I walked through the infamous Ravenswood projects. I didn't pick up the hint when they guy at the museum answered my every question regarding the park's whereabouts and walking distance from PS1 with, "... but you could also take a cab."
I saw the Bell-Rays. Most amazing show I've ever seen in my life. And Ive seen a lot of shows.
Two drinks at Joe's Pub = $21. If I ever pay that much for a drink again, it had damn well better come with at least two straws and be served in a smoking volcano the size of my head.
At a gorgeous velvet-wallpapered speakeasy, supposedly owned by Susan Sarandon, i drank a teacup of Jamison's whiskey on ice.
I ate a bagel every single morning. I don't know that I'll ever be able to eat a Texas bagel again.
On Fridays from 4-8 pm, Target picks up the tab for everyone who wants to go the MOMA. Which is great, since it's usually $20, as long as you're willing to deal with all the jackasses crowding in to take their pictures standing next to Starry Night. The place is incredible, six stories of amazing art, photography, sculpture, design, and a bunch of that crap people jokingly donate to the art-world, but which the art-world doesn't understand isn't meant to be serious. Slab of marble on a bed of rice? Painted length of thick rope coming out of a concrete block? C'mon, you thought they were serious? Don't you people get a joke when you see one?
Art galleries' open night in Chelsea. The art was okay, but the free wine was better.
A few spontaneous games of H-O-R-S-E on a basketball court with a view of the Empire State Building. I haven't played since 5th grade when we had no girls' team and I had to play with the boys, and I'm better at basketball than I'd thought. And I'm much better at basketball in a skirt and three-inch heeled boots than I would have thought.
I am so moving to New York.
People must like to feel small sometimes. We seek out our own smallness deliberately, we go to the ocean, the mountains, the Grand Canyon, we travel to space. Our smallness must be sometimes comforting to us, a relief to our confused monkey psyches. It's a lot of pressure being the biggest, and we humans occupy a particularly strange place in the natural hierarchy. We've invented our way to the top of so much, so many things nature didn't create us to conquer, and yet, of all the creatures, when stripped of our inventions and devices and armor, we're among the most vulnerable. It must do odd things to our psyche, to be aware of our place as the tiny driver in the mighty robot control center, the impotent puppeteer behind the great Oz curtain. We're not naturally nearly as big as we've contrived ourselves to be, and some part of us must feel relieved to let ourselves feel occasionally small again. I doubt any man has ever become so strong or so powerful that it wouldn't be of some solace to him to lie his head meekly in a lover's lap. How small our lives feel when standing face-to-face with the ocean, a thought both fearful and vindicating all at once.
Cindy Sheehan spoke on the campus where I work today. I packed a sandwich and went to hear her on my lunch break. I didn't think to count the number of people there with me, but I could have without stressing a third digit, and barely stressing two; there were generously maybe 60 of us counting both supporters and opposition. Sure, it's Texas, and it's 100 degrees in April, and she spoke from a raised place on an unshaded lawn, in a bus circle, but I still found the lack of audience unsettling. Two yawning cops stood by dutifully, half-heartedly, it must have been penciled in on their schedule this morning, but they weren't necessary. A few entitled Young Republican-types and a blonde girl from the Army ROTC fell into barely-heated argument with a hippie and a body-modification enthusiast, but that was about the extent of passionate display. The blonde girl wore a camouflage T-shirt with the university logo worked into the pattern, and the hippie guy wore a camouflage jacket with the logos all conspicuously torn off. Her camouflage was neat and ironed and tucked in and worn proudly, his was faded and dirty and frayed and worn ironically, both yelled things they might have read off the event flier at each other, and both gave up easily when the Radio-TV-Film sequence student with the camera finally wandered off.
Cindy Sheehan spoke for maybe ten minutes. She said smart things, important things, things we already knew but probably needed to hear again, but nothing that hasn't been said before. Mostly she yelled comebacks at the few who had bothered to show up to oppose her or support the war. A few hastily-written block letter slogans on neon poster board, a couple canned pro-Bush/anti-Cindy sound bites yelled above the small gathering. Her comebacks were good, no doubt she's had practice with countless unimaginative hecklers before today, and in person she is still the impassioned, quietly charismatic woman she was on TV. But it felt like passion in a void. The only other sweat worked up in that crowd came directly from the sun. Everyone else just struck me as obligatory token characters from some over-rehearsed play. Where was the passion? I'd been to a protest in Austin just a year ago, the first I'd been in the country for during this war, and there had certainly been passion there. Streets had been blocked off, news helicopters summoned, people cried and screamed and discussed and argued unselfconsciously, and stayed until it was nearly too dark to see. Where did that go?
Cindy spoke for a few minutes and called for a march to the campus recruiting station. I had to go back to work, and walked back with the little procession behind me. So few voices chanted, that I could hear each individual one. Their slogans weren't catchy or thought-provoking, they weren't together, they kept changing the words in hopes of sparking something that wasn't going to happen. Someone would cry thinly, "No blood for oil!" a few others would join in for a few rounds, and I would just think about how they must have all driven their cars there, past good bus routes and bike trails so they could park in a multi-storied garage a few miles from their homes. They picked up with, "Bush lies, sisters die! Bush lies, brothers die!" and I thought about how all these privileged healthy mostly white kids were here, on a college campus with ice-cold air-conditioning and a co-ed yacht club and well-trained landscapers, because they were fortunate enough to be born into families with extra money to fund college, and not there in Iraq, like someone else's brothers and sisters, trying not to die.
On my lunch break at the Institute of Higher Learning where I work, I heard this terrifying snippet of conversaton:
"Oh my god! I didn't know 'Taiwanese' was like, a real thing."
"Yeah, they have, like, their own language and stuff."
Meanwhile, I am volunteering now with a program that matches up students/alumni with a foreign counterpart, and I met my new adopted pre-arranged friend tonight. She's Japanese, per my request, and we spent hours tonight ruminating on the merits of okonimayaki and sharing nostalgia for good udon, and discussing the best way to describe nabe to an American: something between stew and fondue, was the best we could come up with. I had forgotten how most of my conversations with Japanese people have always eventually come back around to food, and I'm wondering just how hard it would be to scrape together a decent nabe from the ingredients available at my neighborhood HEB.
It was also the first time I've had a conversation with a Japanese person who could truly empathize with and laugh at certain aspects of my daily trials in Japan, having seen Japan from a distance and having been through similar trials in a foreign place herself. We laughed and connected over my stories about the first time I went grocery shopping in my semi-rural market, the five mistaken purchases I made before I discovered what a bottle of hand cream looks like, being the only white person in a Japanese school, buying a daikon and having no idea what to do with it, asking my 34-year old Japanese friend to have "kyuu shoku" with me, a word for a lunch no one seems to use past the age of about 7, and so on. I keep realizing that my experience in Japan was so great and so deeply affecting that it may take the rest of my life to really sort out what happened to me there. That's something I had deeply hoped would happen, long before I even got my first Japanese passport stamp, and I'm grateful and elated that it seems to really be true.
I’m sad again, in a year and a half that’s been full of back-to-back sad. The same doomed conversations too many times this year, with the same empty cornhusk feelings after. The same strained rock-pushing up the same Sisyphus hill, again and again and again. The same stubborn refusal of Random Luck and Well-Deserved Payoff to give me even an inch. And what feels like it betrays me most, is my own hope, as unrelenting as a stalker. All the things life seems to be trying so hard to drill into me with all this – don’t trust people, don’t love people, don’t want things, don’t expect justice or for things to be fair, don’t hope for the best, don’t assume hard work or kindness pay off, don’t expect good karma to actually work, all of these I keep refusing to accept. Life takes 100 good swings at me, and I keep staggering back up and positioning myself for more. Sometimes I feel like it wants me to stay down, but I know that I won’t until it K.O.’s me, and I won't go down easy. Foolish? It’s starting to feel that way.
It occurred to me today that if I just stay put at the bottom of the hole I’m in, that at least maybe I can’t fall much deeper. Whenever I’ve tried to get up before, as soon as I’ve found my footing, I just get knocked down again. If only I would learn my lessons. I don’t want to learn any of those lessons though. No matter how many more times I get knocked back into my hole, a life that’s learned not to trust or love or hope or want or try doesn’t seem like a life at all. Giving up on life is to me the same as dying, even when it feels sometimes like life has given up on me. I still can’t help but wonder if I’m foolish, but if I am, I also don’t really care.
From Prof. Cab Calloway's Swingformation Bureau, 1939:
Cab Calloway, M.J. (master of jive), stresses the fact that no matter what language you speak, it is necessary to maintain a high standard of manners and customs. There are a number of situations that arise and require statisfactory replies - all, of course, in our new language of jive [see The New Cab Calloway's Hepsters Dictionary, 1944]. Instructor Calloway has taken a series of situations and solutions. Before you turn to the answer page, try your hand at deciphering them, and then compare your results to the correct ones.
1. If you meet a fellow hepster at a bar, what is the proper greeting?
2. What is the proper way to ask a young lady to go to the movies with you?
3. If you are invited to someone's home for a visit, what is the proper manner in which to accept?
4. How would you compliment a young lady on her new and pretty dress?
5. What is the best way to ask a friend for some money?
6. How can you tell someone to stop annoying the young lady you are escorting?
7. If someone offers you a proposition you do not like, what is the proper way to refuse him?
8. How should you invite some one to a chicken dinner at a respectable restaurant in Harlem?
1. "Greetings, gate, let's dissipate."
2. "Wouldst like to con a glimmer with me this early black?"
3. "Solid, Jack, I'll dig you in your den gradually."
4. "My solid pigeon, that drape is a killer-killer, an E-flat Dillinger, a bit of a fly thing all on one page."
5. "Closest to my ticker, could you send a little cabbage my way until my garden starts growing a little."
6. "Take it slow, loud and wrong, you come on like Gangbusters but you're going out like Wayne King. That chick is locked up in this direction, so just cut out while your conk is all in one portion."
7. "I ain't comin' on that tab."
8. "Would you like to collar some ready chicken at a dicty hash house in the land o' darkness?"
I've been poring over the site I Used to Believe: the childhood beliefs site. Here are a few childhood beliefs of my own:
I used to draw small wheels on the bottoms of all my letters. In my kindergarten classroom, there was a wall border poster of the alphabet, with all the letters drawn as the connected cars of a friendly, technicolored train. I believed letters were supposed to have wheels, and continued to believe so until my first-grade teacher finally acknowledged my strange penmanship quirk, got to the bottom of it, and instructed me otherwise.
I believed I could control stoplights with my mind. I don't think that's a particularly unusual childhood belief though, unless my adult friends have just been humoring me all these years. I used to worry sometimes about my mom getting to work on time after she dropped me off at school, without me in the car to speed up the lights for her.
I distrusted my dolls, but knew my stuffed animals were on my side. I would kiss the stuffed animals every night before going to sleep, so that they would protect me from my dolls while I slept. I still hate dolls.
When my dad said he was going to move to Mississippi, I asked him whether she was a nice lady.
In my first poem, written when I was six, I rhymed the words "song" and "New Mexikong."
I was certain that the monster under my bed looked like Rod Stewart.
Two homeless guys on the bus:
A: "I can't stand to be around myself. I hate myself. I'm insane."
B: "Maaaan,... that's why you sleep."
Jan. 20: It had never occurred to me that sleep is a vacation from yourself, until I had heard these two men talking. I'm a lifelong insomniac, so I tend to badmouth sleep as a waste of time, simply because I'm not very good at it. As it turns out, sleep is actually the only natural exception to that annoying "whereever you go, there you are" rule. This conversation was the wisest thing I had heard in weeks, and actually made me rethink the value of sleep.