Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A throng of doctors enters St. Luke’s Roosevelt every morning at 5 AM. One after the other, lab-coats resplendent under the still-illuminated streetlights and the neon-yellow glow of the parking garage, they walk into the building. There is, it seems, a shift that starts at this ungodly hour, which puts my own frustrations at being awake before dawn into perspective. Nearly. I am, as ever, entirely exhausted. From certain angles I catch glimpses of the sun rising over what I assume to be Astoria (though with my abysmal sense of geography I can’t be sure; it’s just as likely to be somewhere in Brooklyn) and walk uptown in complete silence, watching the ghosts of empty, off-duty taxicabs follow one another down otherwise un-navigated avenues. It’s a bizarre thing, this traveling through Manhattan at extreme hours, as “the city that never sleeps” emerges from a state that resembles just that. The doctors glance at me: sideways, incredulous; with looks that seem to answer my apparent, misguided self-pity saying “I’m saving lives. What the hell are you doing?” I laugh at myself. “Me, sir? Me? I’m going to serve cupcakes.”


The cigarettes start early on these mornings. I light up and watch Columbus Avenue come alive from “my spot” under the awning next to the store, stalling with impunity before my own day begins in a cloud of baked goods and people coming and going and coming and going and coming and coming and coming and coming in indefatigable waves. Most of them are faceless, nameless combatants in the fray, people to whom I’ll utter a word or two—how can I help you today? Will that be all? —but others, the occasional few, have become staples of my day, coming in at the same time every morning, ordering the same things, with a sense of routine that is at once comforting and jarring. I come to depend on their arrival, a mark of welcome consistency, stability, in an environment in which such things are few and far between. In these moments, I cannot help but feel myself a voyeur, having been given an infinitesimally small glance at the daily lives of these people who are otherwise strangers. I’ve been given names, occupations, the occasional introduction to a family member, a friend, a lover, and bits and pieces of minutia that make up ounces of their humanity.



This city, notoriously impersonal, lends itself to this particular flavor of interaction. In my own home, at night, I’m often inclined to peer outside at the building directly across from my own. From my living room I can see solipsistic windows of consciousness, bright lights that shine on people, families, living within inches of each other, never aware of the presence of The Other existing in the same manner right next door. The lights shine and I shamelessly watch as they go through their own routines, unaltered night after night after crystalline night. The city buzzes on and on below, both unaffected by and dependent on the ebb and flow of this little pocket of life. My job exists much in the same way, and when people ask me what I like about what I do, I say to them this: I love being present in the lives of others.



On my side of the counter, people come and go in equally brief flashes of light, illuminating the dark for what feels like moments. As customers enter and exit, occupying their brief stints inside this place that I’ve come to spend more time in than my own home, my coworkers—occasionally, rarely, delightfully, my friends—are also prone to rapid arrivals and departures. A refuge for the misbegotten, for the broken, this place, with its constant, purgatory-like undercurrent of the temporary, attracts those who must be there, whatever their reasons, for what seems a predetermined, predestined amount of time. They are here and then gone and here and gone again, as the seasons, ever punctuated by the decorations adorning the walls, come in and out with the wind. Having been at this place for well over a year, I’ve watched the ethos of the store change utterly as swarms of new hires flood the floor. At several points I’ve tried to get out, but the inward draw, the inertia of it all and more than anything, those who stayed, made me carry on.



Back in suburbia visiting my mother, there are no streetlights. And so my block is completely dark and desolate as I move though space, driving until I reach the house that is directly across from the one that was once my own. The man who lives there, who has lived there for my entire childhood, prepares to move across the country to Arizona to take a job coaching a professional Hockey team. He will leave his wife and five daughters, here in the land of BMW convertibles and perfectly manicured Power-moms with Donna Karan Suits. His garage is open, the neon overhead casting a light on his toned, bulky figure packing up the boxes, boxes, boxes of his life, lining them up perfectly on his driveway. In the morning I wake up, and the garage is empty.



Sometimes, often, I am moved beyond words by the absence of people who exist on the periphery of my life.



Habitually, I keep odd hours. Waiting for the D train at Columbus Circle at a time when most of the world sleeps, I cannot help but stick my head out over the tracks, ever impatiently, waiting for the light of the first subway car to reach my gaze, to take me home. The train station is abandoned with the exception of a man playing Clapton on his guitar on the other side of the platform. I walk the hundred yards over to where he is sitting, give him a dollar and asks if he takes requests. He laughs at me, all disdain and grit, and says no. The tracks are illuminated and shining fluorescent as a starkly empty ghost train bolts by the station. It is meant, now, to discard the unwanted rubble from the ground. It paves the way for newer trains to come though, to take people away to wherever they will go, and hurtles through station after station, as reminder, to those of us on the periphery, of what once was. In a different place, in a different time, its cars were packed and hot as people pushed one another aside to get on.



Eventually, my own train comes. I am alone in my car, which strikes me as devastating. But on this island of the perverse and driven, in a city whose face changes at the speed of light, in a job that ushers us in an out, in an age group that thrives on the ephemeral, on the transient, the sentimentality that overflows from me is a hindrance. I try to train myself to feel less. To let the men I sleep with leave before the sun comes up; to not recoil as I realize that nearly all of the people that enter my life, even the ones whose drunken confessions hit so close to home, are more transient than the night. And I am relatively successful. Still, though, there are times when I am riding up Central Park West in a cab in the wee hours of the morning, smelling like nicotine and whiskey, listening to a new friend spill his guts out to me, when it becomes rather hard. When I realize that, in spite of the fact that people leave as the night turns to morning, in spite of the mendacity of the every day, in spite of the frustrations, in spite of  myself,  I am moved. And I love it all



As I walk home, I see the lights of the hospital shine on with abandon.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Revision--Future 86

The signs on the road, here
Say “Future 86.”
Like the road doesn’t even exist.
Like we’re driving to a place
That we want to go
But can’t.
Because it’s not ready.
Because we’re not ready.

It was winter,
The first time I looked over
At the black letters that shined
Against white,
And I listened to my father talk about plans
For construction that would
(Eventually)
Turn the road into an interstate.

Whatever the hell that entails.

He said they’d be finished by the time I was done here,
Squinting his eyes and rubbing the fog off
Of the windshield so that he could see through the night. 
He said that by the time I was out,
By the time I was grown,
The road would be done
And I, of course, would go on.

I asked him what he meant by “finished.”
I asked him what he meant by “grown.”
He shrugged his shoulders and said that
He didn’t quite know. 

As he talked
I sat in the passengers seat, rubbing my hands together to fight off the cold,
Thinking about where I would be
When this was all over.
I knew, of course.
Definitely.

Five years later, and they’re still not done.
The “Future 86” sign still looms,
Somewhere out in the darkness:
A reminder of unfinished business.
Of unfulfilled goals,
Missed opportunities,
Work still to be done.

And I,
I am not nearly done, either.
I find myself back in a place
With streets that are haunted
By people I have loved,
Mistakes I have made
And shadows of the person I was. 

It seems like decades have passed in six months.

I search the streets—
Up and and down
                            And down
                                   And   down
Hills.

These streets that I have walked, here
These towns that I have driven through countless
And countless times and times
And times and times
And time stops,
Here on these streets.

On the road to Wisconsin, 
The snow falls, against the odds, in an early September sky.
And we are running
As fast as we can.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Future 86.

There are signs on the side of this treacherously dark road
That read “Future I-86.”

As if the road doesn’t yet exist.
As if we’re driving to a place that we want to get to
But can’t.
Because it’s not ready.
Because we’re not ready.

The first time I looked over,
Across two lanes of empty, snowy road,
To the black letters that shined
Against white,
It was the middle of winter.
And I listened to my father talk about plans
That whatever powers-that-be had
To make the road an interstate.

Whatever the hell that entails.

By the time you’re done here,
They’ll be finished,” he said,
Squinting his eyes and rubbing the fog of
Of the windshield so that he could see through the night.

I asked him what he meant by “finished.”
He shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn’t quite know.

As he talked
I sat in the passengers seat, rubbing my hands together to fight off the cold,
Thinking about where I would be
When this was all over.
I knew, of course.
Definitely.

(At 18, one –of course—knows just about everything. Definitely)

Five years later and they’re still not done.
The “Future 86” sign still looms
Somewhere out in the darkness:
A reminder of unfinished business.
Of unfulfilled goals,
Missed opportunities,
Work still to be done.

And I,
I am not nearly done, either.
I find myself back in a place
With streets that are haunted
By people I have loved,
Mistakes I have made
And shadows of the person I was.

It seems like decades have passed in six months.

I search the streets—
Up and down
And down
And down
Hills.

These streets that I have walked, here
These towns that I have driven through
Counteless and countless times and times
And times and times
And time stops,
Here on these streets.

On the road to Wisconsin,
The snow falls, against the odds, in an early September sky.
And we are running
As fast as we can.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Things I have learned living in New York (installment 2)

No matter the ungodly hour at which one walks around, there are always harder-working, better people up and about as well.

Often, I'll get on the first train into Grand Centrnal (the 5:22)...or will stay at the Library until 2 or so; and generally when I do, I'll feel good and sorry for myself (Why am I awakeeeeeeeeeeeeee? This suckkkkks. Etc.). But then I'll catch the eye of one of the Doctors walking out of Roosevelt, or some suit-type sitting next to me on the train. And invariably their look will say "what the *hell* is the matter with *you?* You have no reason to have that look on your face--man up."

It's hard, then, not to realize that if one wants to do anything remotely meaningful in the world, one has to sweat every once in awhile--which is a good lesson if there ever was one.

This tends to be helpful in mustering up ambition, and curtailing pity-parties.
Good stuff, all around.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Things I have learned living in New York

1a) It is deceptively (and unnecessarily) hard to eat a bagel and walk at the same time. Invariably, one ends up with cream-cheese all over their faces.
At best.
It's often not a pretty sight.

1b) Bagels, in spite of their messiness, bring out the best in people. Once at Hot and Crusty (facial mess abounding) I was approached by a lovely young man with the coolest fucking journal I'd ever seen in my life--it was yellow and ornate, an was clearly handmade.

We had a conversation that went like this:

Me: Oh my God that Journal's amazing.
Him: Thanks! I got it in India over the summer. Check it--the pages are made out of leaves!
Me: Oh my GOD that's incredible. I'm so jealous.
Him: Do you write?
Me: Not well, but yes.
Him: Oh, well then. I actually happen to have an extra one in my bag. Take it.
Me: No that's ridiculous I absolutely...
Him: Just take it, and have a nice day.

...and the son of a bitch just walked the fuck away.

Sometimes, I have hope.

Not as good.

Grace

The newborn baby in your arms
Cries quietly as the subway car rattles
Back and forth,
Purposed and unyielding.

As the door shuts closed
You see a rat: black with
Anger and perseverance
Pick up a half eaten egg roll and scamper away.

The train begins again
To shake and screech
Deep underneath centuries and centuries of
Ebbing and flowing, shaking and screeching.

You check your watch,
And stroke your daughter’s head.

She’s crying into your still-tender breasts--
You lean into her baby-soft head, and sigh.
As the train pulls up to 191st street
You close your eyes and begin to hum.

From the next car a man walks in with a guitar
And plays an old Clapton song that’s always brought you to tears.
Misty eyed and dizzy, you give him a dollar
And ask him if he takes requests.

“This is New York, Lady. Of course not.”

You pick up your phone,
Dial the numbers that you have had etched into your memory
Since you were 26,
Let it ring two and a half times
--just like you’ve done three times this week--
and snap the screen shut
like a thin beak grasping for worms.

You turn your head to the man with the guitar
Now singing Lenard Cohen
Now opening the subway door
And lean your lips down
To your baby’s glistening head.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I shouldn't.