Mighty Mighty Throwdown

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On December 26th, I woke up at 3am and caught a bus to the airport. We were leaving the city and crossing the plains (Denver’s airport is east of the city) when the sun came out for the day. It didn’t seem to rise as much as shine through a place where the night sky had been rubbed thin.

After sleep-stumbling my way through security, I caught a plane to New York City. I had a four-hour layover in the City, and then I caught a Chinatown bus to Boston.* When I realized that I was going to be in NYC, I admit I purposefully timed my bus ticket so that I could a little time in Manhattan. I haven’t been back since I moved away a year and a bit ago. So I took the train in from JFK and walked from the 49th and 8th subway station to Shake Shack (which was not as good as I remember), and from there to Penn Station, where I lingered and wrote in my journal and people-watched. I was in New York for long enough to remind myself of some of the reasons why I didn’t like it–the crowds, the smelly homeless people**, the dirt generally–but also some of the reasons I liked it, and still like it, the impossibly tall buildings, the number of stories you can tell. The feeling that anything can happen here.

By the time I got on my bus to go to Boston, the sun had fallen again (it had gone down while I was camped out in Penn Station), so we drove north through Manhattan at night. The bus was completely full, and the driver had the heat on high, and everyone was uncomfortable. The guy behind me–who seemed, like most of the bus, to be a college-age kid heading back to Boston after spending Christmas in NYC–was talking to somebody on the phone, helping them process what I think was a rough Christmas with the family, and didn’t think they were doing anything worthwhile in life. I admit I listened, because he was giving good advice. “Do you have any ideas about stuff you can create that the world needs?” he asked at one point, which I think is a good thing for anyone to think about now and again.

We went uptown on Amsterdam Avenue, past all the places I knew. The store I worked at. Stores I used to shop at and places I used to run errands. Past Roosevelt Hospital, Lincoln Center. A few blocks west of Columbus Circle, but I mentally noted it as we went by. We turned east at 106th, and then resumed our northward trek on Frederick Douglass Blvd, so we didn’t really pass the Columbia neighborhood.

When it comes down to it, I always liked New York best when I’m a little bit removed from it. On a bus going through Upper West Side, or on the Q train going over the Brooklyn Bridge, or on a boat in the Hudson River looking at the Statue of Liberty on one side of me and the skyline on the other. Anything that kept me from having to face the actuality of living there.

I’ve traveled the route from New York City to Boston and back several times, though always in the winter, always past the sad spindly deciduous trees that are waiting for spring. We passed by a Metro North train making its way to New Haven. The bus driver stopped a couple times to stretch, and finally noticed how broiling we all were, and turned the heat off with an apology (and distributed bottles of water, which was lovely, though I drank sparingly of mine because I didn’t want to have to use the bus lavatory). As we drove, I started seeing snow collecting along the edges of the road. Cold in Boston, at least in the recent past.

As I got closer, I started getting text messages from friends who were already in Boston, telling me to come to the Buckminster hotel, rather than my friend’s apartment (well, I could’ve gone to my friend’s apartment, but he wouldn’t have been there, since he was at the Buck). I finally got there around 11:00pm, EST, after sixteen hours of travel. Stashed my suitcase and my backpack in someone else’s hotel room and was greeted by smiles and hugs and beer. Hung out and talked, listened while other people talked. Eventually, the friend and me (after deciding that couches at the hotel were a terrible idea) took the T back to his apartment, where I fell asleep on a couch anyway, but a larger and more comfortable one than the hotel ones. And the next morning I got to watch Doctor Who and The Daily Show while we drink coffee. And then we went back to the Buck, back to Kenmore Square, back to the madness and the hilarity. I am not always relaxed and comfortable in big crazy groups, but I spent a fair amount of time leading up to this trip reminding myself to have low expectations, and give no fucks, and loosen up, and have fun. And knowing that even if the Buck ended up being a not fun place, the concerts I was going to go to would be.

Low expectations, keeping it simple, and playing it by ear turned out to be the key. Deciding that nobody will mess with me and my ability to enjoy the Mighty Mighty Mighty Bosstones. This, for me, is the recipe to knowing how to party.

*Turns out that traveling this way, while it takes about 16 hours, saves about $250.
**I understand that this makes me a total judgmental asshole. And not all of the homeless in NYC are smelly. But homeless people in NYC reach a level of decrepitude that I’ve never seen in any other homeless population in any other city. This probably says more about NYC than it does about the homeless.

The Best That I Can Do.

bartcrying.jpg I don’t know if you watch The Simpsons, but there’s an episode from either the first or second season where Bart is in danger of failing the 4th grade. He has to pass a history test, or he won’t go on to 5th grade (irony being, of course, that Bart has continued on in the 4th grade for the past 25 years). And for once, he studies as hard as he can—actually falls asleep over his books—but only gets a 59/100. Mrs. Krabappel drops the graded test on his desk, and what is one of the sadder moments in all of Simpsons history, his face crumples, and he puts his head down on his desk and starts to sob.

“But Bart,” says Mrs. Krabappel, “I’d think you would be used to failing by now.”

“You don’t understand,” cries Bart, banging his head on his desk, “I tried this time. I mean, I really tried. This is the best that I can do!” And in that moment, the audience understands. Of course Bart is a troublemaker. Of course he doesn’t try. It’s so much easier to not try—it’s so much easier to handle that kind of failure—than it is to try, and not be able to do it. In the first, you may have suspicions, but you can tell yourself that of course you failed, because you didn’t try. In the second, there’s no way to protect yourself. There’s nothing to say besides this is the best that I can do. And it’s not good enough. And you have to look at your real self, not your potential self, not the self you want to be. You have to look at the self that couldn’t get it done.

I know how Bart feels, though I come at it from the other direction. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me to do well in school. I never got rewards for good grades, or even very effusive praise. It was accepted and expected that I would do well. My parents knew I was smart enough. I knew I was smart enough. So we never discussed whether I would do well. And I never really learned how to handle it when things were academically hard, because it never was (and when it was, even when I was a little kid, I knew the difference between trying and failing and not applying myself).

One of the worst things about failing at Columbia was that my ability to fulfill that expectation completely disintegrated in spite of my intelligence, not my lack of it. I was, and am, smart enough to do the academic work at Columbia. I can do the work. But it all fell to pieces anyway. My ability to think critically collapsed. My ability to read something and then recall what I’d read crumbled. My ability to assimilate information from multiple sources floundered. My ability to remember things—even completely simple things like buying food—deflated.

I choked. That’s all there is to it.

The first and most obvious sign was probably the lens essay assignment. I knew the assignment. I know what my teacher wanted. I knew I had a decent idea, the topics I wanted to address, and where I wanted the essay to end up.

And I could.
Not.
Make.
It.
Happen.

It wasn’t writer’s block. Writer’s block is when you don’t know what to do, don’t know what to write. Writer’s block is when you’re out of ideas.

What do you call it when you’re full of ideas, but all that comes out on the page is a muddle?

Usually I can at least write something, and if it’s crap, I can clean it up later. This time, I could not.

Writing is the one thing I can do. The one thing I can do, the one thing I’ve always been able to do, and do well, and now I couldn’t. I stared at my computer screen. Spread my rough draft out over a table in the library and just stared at it. I muddled with it all night. I couldn’t get it clear in my head and because of that, I could never get it clear on the page. Never before had I really understood what David McCullough had said: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” When your thinking processes break down entirely, of course you can’t write a paper on historical revisionism and photographs of lynchings.

The paper was due in twelve hours. I couldn’t start over. I couldn’t hand in this thing that wasn’t even a rough draft. And so I stared. And I fumbled. And I cried.

I cried more later, talking to my teacher, trying to explain why my essay sucked so much, and tell him that I knew it sucked, and that I was really sorry, that I wasn’t just turning in something sucky just to finish an assignment and get a grade, but that I really, truly did not know what had happened.

It was the best that I could do. And it was nowhere near good enough.

My teacher did an extraordinary and compassionate thing. He gave me an extension—all the way to the end of the semester. He worked with me on that essay. And I finished it, and even I knew it was good. (You can read the whole thing here—trigger warning for graphic images and disturbing content.) Not the best ever, maybe, but I said what I’d set out to say, and figured out some stuff about myself in the process. And by contrast, the second essay I did for that class, in spite of being longer and more complex, came stupidly easy (and it looks like I never posted that here. I should fix that).

That wasn’t the end of me falling to pieces. And while I had this one teacher who was willing to work with me, nobody else was. To be fair, I wasn’t willing to ask. I mean, what do you say? What previous experience could I draw upon that could have taught me what to do? And what professor at an Ivy League university is prepared to hold hands with an undergrad who should be old enough to handle her shit even though she has a sad?

I don’t know what I could have done different. I did my best, and it wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t something I could just push through. I know my dad just wanted me to ride it out and survive it and get it done so it wouldn’t feel like I’d wasted two years, without truly understanding just how bad it had gotten, inside my head.

I don’t really have a conclusion or universal truth to acknowledge. Sometimes you fail, that’s all. Sometimes you fail.

The Sounds of the City, Sometimes They Comfort Me…

IMG_0129.JPGThis is an excerpt of a piece I wrote about New York this semester, about why I moved here. I really like this one part so I thought I’d share.

When I was a kid, New York was NYPD Blue, the title sequence with fireworks and the Chinese dragon and percussive subways. Andy Sipowicz’s violent bluntness and Donna Abondando’s flattened vowels.

New York was gardens in fire escapes and trees growing in Brooklyn.

New York was Broadway musicals like Cats. Bright lights and businesses open 24 hours. Where I grew up, the only thing open 24 hours was the grocery store and the gas station.

New York was where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lived. Spider-Man, Batman, the Gargoyles. The X-Men live up the road in Westchester. “11th and Bleecker? (sniff, sniff)…Nope, this is only 9th St! Get it?” (I didn’t get it, but I loved it.) Everybody (except maybe Batman) made use of the sewers and the subways. Before I knew about the actual homeless people who live down there, there were the Morlocks, unsightly mutants in the X-Men universe who live in the sewers because they’ll be lynched if they venture aboveground.

A little bit later, as a teenager, New York was punk. Cigarette smoke and graffiti. Mutilated subway cars. Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.

New York was black and white photos of skinny, shaggy-haired men in sunglasses looking unimpressed. Rock rock, Rockaway Beach. Rock rock, Rockaway Beach.

The Wetlands had all-ages punk and ska matinees every week. I didn’t know “Take the A Train,” but “Underground Town” by the Toasters was in pretty constant rotation. Nervous nun with a heavy bag shakes her head at the man in drag, in the underground town, riding on the subway in New York City.

Maybe England gave punk its fashion sense, but New York gave it a soul. Six years ago, a very hot summer night. Avenue A, with my friends, hanging tight…The air was tense, muggy as fuck, Lower East Side, running amok!

The Bouncing Souls are actually from New Jersey, but I didn’t discriminate. Punkers should be pale and pasty. The pizza here is fierce and tasty. East Coast! Fuck you! (“Fuck you” here said in a self-congratulatory way, as in, “I dismiss everywhere that is not the northeastern seaboard”.)

New York was about making your own rules and carving out your own space. New York was self-sufficiency and exploration, where only the resourceful survive.

What I didn’t see then was that with self-sufficiency comes loneliness. And while stories get written about people who have survived, who’ve become legendary, below them are layers and layers of people who came here with dreams bright in their hearts and who left with nothing but ashes. Or who didn’t escape at all.

You never read stories about them.

Q Line adventures

IMG_0786.JPGI’ve seen the same woman on the Q a couple times now, mostly in the early morning. She sits in one of the end seats, the ones that are only big enough for two people. She piles stuff next to her, as well as on both seats across the aisle, then falls asleep. She either genuinely sleeps through or else ignores the people who try to wake her up to move her stuff so that they can sit down.

Usually, she wakes up at some point and thinks some of her bags have gone missing, and starts accusing the black folks nearby (never white folk, only folk of color) of stealing her bags. I’m not sure why she doesn’t fall asleep with her bags closer to her (or not fall asleep on the train), or what’s even in her bags that she needs to keep such close track of them. Usually everyone on the train ignores her.

Interesting how mental illness plays out. I don’t know how valid it is to compare my experience to hers (probably not at all), but if I was going to run away, be homeless, I’d be the sort of homeless person that thinks she’s invisible–not the sort that thinks everyone cares what’s in her plastic bags (that seem to be full of other plastic bags).

I wonder what homeless people accumulated before our society started throwing out so much half-used stuff.

One morning, a woman got into the traincar, sat down, and in a dejected voice announced that she and her husband were unemployed and homeless and asked (again, dejected) if anyone could help them out. She didn’t look at anyone; she stared at a spot on the floor of the car and spoke in a monotone.

Nobody moved. In New York cattle car fashion, nobody even looked at her.

“Ladies and gentlemen I know this is difficult times but ladies and gentlemen my husband and I is homeless and can’t work and it’s hard being homeless and asking people for charity, for example ladies and gentlemen I’ve been on five trains so far this morning and we don’t have enough money yet for a place to stay tonight.”

In the ensuing silence, everyone avoided eye contact. I caught a few people who, like me, were scanning the car to see other peoples’ reactions.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she started again, and I wanted to say no, please, you’re passing the point of pathetic-but-tolerable and into the hinterlands of “annoying blubberer who is disrupting my train ride.” “Ladies and gentlemen I don’t think you know how hard it is to be homeless in this city and to ask for help and have people look at you like you’re nothing I hope you all know you’re coldhearted bastards with no compassion and that this is a very unChristian nation. Ladies and gentlemen I hope you have a very nice day but you’re all coldhearted bastards.” And with this pronouncement, the train slid into the station and she left, head held high.

Not as entertaining as the drunk homeless guy who started yelling that we all hated black people and that’s why we wouldn’t give him money, and continued ranting even after a (black) passenger told him that race was a false construct that didn’t even exist and he was just using his race as an excuse, and only got louder when another (black) passenger started scolding him for being “a drunkass nigger who needed to sit down and shut up.”

Quiet Afternoon

DSC01787.jpgIt’s snowing in New York City today.

Sometimes, there are these little moments when I’m in awe that I live here. Mostly those moments come when the Q train is going over the Manhattan Bridge and it’s 7:00 in the morning and the sunlight is all gold and orange, and you can see the skyline, up close and yet far enough away to seem magisterial. Or when I’m walking somewhere historical, and I start to think about all the other people who walked this pavement before me fifty years ago, one hundred years ago, or earlier that same morning.

But I think that doesn’t say much other than I still like the idea of living here, but not necessarily actually living here. The actual logistics of living here are hard and make me feel unstable. I don’t have a community. I don’t have a job that’s leading anywhere. I don’t have any money. I miss my family.

I’m sure that somewhere down the line, I’ll feel grateful for this experience. It’s definitely exposed me to people and experiences that I would never have had in Denver. But it’s also reminded me of some cruel lessons, like: just because you’ve waited patiently for years for something that you’ve wanted to happen, that doesn’t mean that when you get it, it’s going to last very long or even be what you asked for. And I would rather have regrets about experiences I never had than regrets about not spending enough time with the people I love.

The other day at the store, a woman came in looking for long underwear. She was older, had an accent, was missing teeth, and in spite of the twenty degree weather was wearing sandals and socks. She said she’d loaned $10,000 to somebody who promised her a million in return, and he (predictably) absconded with her money. She also said that she refused to use laundry detergent because it soaks through your skin and gives you cancer. These are the people, the lonely people, that I think I’ll remember when I leave. In a city with so many millions, it amazes me that there can be so much loneliness.

IMG_0333.JPGI wrote this in my notebook back in August (8/19 to be exact), and then it got lost and not posted. I don’t know if it’s worth posting, but here it is.

I’m sitting in the quiet backwoods of the Met. Watching people browse through, and art students sketching. Since I’m a student, I can get in for free, and it’s kind of awesome that I can just come and hang out here for an hour or two while I’m in the neighborhood. After I graduate, maybe that would make membership worth it, if I graduate, if I stick around.

Also, I’m writing with a pencil for the first time in I don’t know how long, because I forgot writing implements and I figured a pencil would be cheaper than a pen (though at $3, apparently not. Holy crap, Met Gift Shop, what’s up with you?)

For some reason, today, I feel like a tourist. Maybe it’s hanging out with Shayla and doing semi-touristy things, maybe it’s just getting out of my neighborhood. For some reason, today, I really want to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Which, now that I think about it, was probably one of the first books I read that took place in New York. All those stories I’ve read, people I know who’ve been been here, spent time here, and contribute to my storybook notion of the place. There are moments when NYC lives up to its poetic picture inside my head. When I think about all the lives and all the stories that are piled on top of each other here. But most of the time, I don’t think it does. Most of the time, grimy NY overshadows glittery NY. Cheap branding overshadows glamor. I’m glad I moved here, but today at least, I don’t want to live here. Not in the long term. Maybe go to the south next. Or the Pacific Northwest. Or back to Denver. Maybe try New Orleans again. This week, at least, I know myself and what I want. But we all know that won’t last long.

I wish I’d had the time and the energy to really devote myself to my Bible Lit class this summer. To reading more of the stories and discovering more of the people. Some of the people really are alive. Some of the people I wish I knew better. I’m sitting here looking at a painting of Delilah and Samson and wishing I knew both of them better. There’s so much more to their story than what shows up in Judges.

Looking at these old Renaissance paintings, of Samson and Tobit and Moses, it’s funny how they seem to think the Bible took place in Europe. The period dress and the peoples’ complexions are all wrong. But on the other hand, what other frame of reference did they have? There was no National Geographic, no Flickr, and not a whole lot of explorers writing memoirs about their travels. How would they know what Moses wore? Why wouldn’t they picture him looking a lot like themselves?

7:20pm and I hear thunder.

Christmas miracle

bikehelmetmiracle.jpgBack before Christmas, I met up with my friend Shayla to eat waffles from the Wafles and Dinges food truck and go Christmas shopping. I took the subway most of the way there, but I had my bike, and when I met up with her at 59th and 3rd (where the food truck was), in the confusion of saying hi to her and parking my bike and adjusting my clothing from biking-fresh to walking-around-the-city style, pulling my bike lights, and craving waffles and coffee, I left my (brand spankin’ new) bike helmet hanging from my handlebars, completely unsecured.

In the middle of the day.

Right on the street.

In New York City.

And I didn’t realize it for like four hours, until I was walking back to my bike. We wandered Bryant Park, then went down to Macy’s and looked at their windows, and I left her at Old Navy because I had to get to work. I texted her when I realized, and started walking faster, resigning myself to the fact that my helmet was gone, yanked by an opportunistic New Yorkers. I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was the slimmest chance that I had left it somewhere where the waffle people saw it and possibly they took custody of it, but really, that was my only glimmer of hope. There’s no way that anyone can leave a bike helmet hanging from their handlebars in New York City and have it still be there four hours later.

Except there can be, because I got back to my bike….and there was my helmet, waiting for me. Christmas miracle. One that I don’t expect will ever happen again, because that has to have used up pretty much all of my backlogged karma.