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.

once there was a boy who had a vibrant glow

sad.jpgborn to lose, i live my life in vain
all my dreams have only caused me pain
all my life i’ve always been so bluuuuuuuuuuuue
born to lose and now i’m losing yooouuuuuuuuuuu
–The Bouncing Souls

The world is so full of stories of happily-ever-after. Our current culture really doesn’t tolerate stories of despair; Shakespeare would never get into the Writer’s Guild of America if he was alive today. I was listening to Radiolab the other day (I’ve been re-listening to a lot of old episodes, in my general efforts to keep myself around things quiet and nurturing), the episode on Space, which includes the story of the sound recording sent up on the Voyager spacecraft and (tangentially) a story that Ann Druyan tells about falling in love with Carl Sagan and marrying him during that process of putting the Voyager together. They got married practically before they ever even kissed each other. How bewitching, how enticing is a story like this? Everyone wants to have that, and it’s so easy to convince yourself that this is what you have. You don’t want to be the person that drives across the southeastern United States in adult diapers to chase after someone who doesn’t love you, no, you want to be the person who professes her love and accepts a marriage proposal all in one breath. We tell ourselves all of these stories, and because we know that they are true, we forget that they are not the only stories out there. You craft fairy tales out of nothing. You forget that most of the time, it doesn’t work like that, that the world is littered with the dust of billions of broken hearts. The world doesn’t owe you any fairy tales.

I’ve been struggling with this, lately. I’ve wanted to move to New York since I was 14, and I think I thought that when I move here, I’d be happy. I thought that if I got a boyfriend, I’d be happy. It’s been hard on several levels, to move here and be so unhappy. I forgot that New York doesn’t owe me happy (not that I expected happy to show up at my apartment door with a welcome gift basket, I know that you have to create your own happiness, or at least create opportunities for happiness to happen, but you know what I mean). Having this idyll of New York in my head doesn’t obligate New York to adhere to that conception. And having the drought of romance that I had doesn’t mean that the universe owes me a boyfriend. Just because I really liked this guy doesn’t mean he’s under any sort of karmic obligation to like me back.

I know all these things, and yet I don’t know them. I have to keep learning them.

facebook-dislike-button.pngI deactivated my Facebook account, and I haven’t been posting on Twitter. Or I’ll post, and then delete it. Recent events have rendered me uncommunicative. And Facebook makes me uncomfortable.

Do I want my mom (FB friend) to know how depressed I am? Do I want Marilyn to know? Do I want random people I only know from shows, classmates, aunts and uncles?

What is this supposed benefit, this advantage, to being “out” and “complete” on the internet? To not withholding pieces of myself? What do I get, besides exposure and violation of my own personal privacy? Not any guarantee that others will accept me or treat me compassionately, that’s for damn sure. Mark Zuckerburg’s argument that we should post our entire lives online, under our own names, presupposes a just and compassionate universe that I just don’t think I see.

I’m writing more now that I’m not reading Facebook.

Facebook is predicated on this idea that our whole lives, attached to our real names, should be open books. How profound can Facebook really get, in that situation? How far are we willing to risk our true selves on a website?

Open and honest Facebooking is predicated on the assumption of an open and honest (and compassionate) society. Why should teachers be honest, when they could be fired for admitting they drink beer? Why should public officials? Why should husbands, knowing their wives will read what they post? Children, in the view of their parents, and parents in view of their children? How much are our relationships really built on honesty, and how much are they built on discretion? Does Facebook make society more tolerant, or less?

Is this why so many people do nothing but post pictures of lolcats and articles from cracked.com? What would they say, if they knew people were really listening? (Or maybe they know people are really listening, and that’s why they keep quiet about everything except the new Twilight movie.)

I am so much more open here, where nobody reads what I write.

In order to be honest with others, I have to first be honest with myself. And really, this fall, I’m just not there.

stories on top of stories on top of stories on top of a rock off the coast of a continent

I have wanted to live in New York since I was 14. I don’t know why, really, something about the busyness and the skyscrapers, the fact that so many people here have character and story, its landmarks and fame and history. The music scene and Broadway and the museums and the thrift stores and music shops all over. The never-ending exploring.

The first place I lived here was an apartment owned by Columbia University. Technically a one bedroom, but really just two rooms. Nice, quiet. Wood floors. Walking distance from campus. Very lonely.

I just moved to a house in Brooklyn, on a street with huge trees. More wood floors. Roommates this time, still quiet, house 100 years old, fluffy dog. The neighborhood has Bangladeshis and Orthodox Jews, along with white folks and black folks and Hispanics and other assorted NYC diversity. I’m an hour away from Manhattan now, which is annoying in some ways, but the trees and the quiet and the roommates will, I think, be good for me.

But I realized last night that what I haven’t done is lived in a place with a fire escape, one that I could grow things in window boxes in, and sit on to read and watch the street below.

I can’t get past the story-ness of this city. The grandness of it. Even while possibilities seem to be closing around me, I blame myself, not the city. Even in all its dirt and poverty and pollution and old angry buildings, this city sings with poetry. There are moments when, looking at buildings silhouetted against the sky, looking down the long urban canyon that is Broadway or Amsterdam Avenue, it’s beautiful enough to take my breath away. Part of me wants to live the poem that is a tiny LES apartment with a cat and a fire escape and bums sleeping on the steps.

And then I remember, me chasing after place is a big part of what’s gotten me so depressed in the first place. Me chasing experience instead of surrounding myself with people. Why do people describe the places they’ve lived? Why don’t they describe the people they live with? Isn’t that a more important part of the environment? Why can’t I remember that?

selling the spirit (orig. posted May 15, 2011)

a few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that to celebrate the release of the first season of the HBO series Treme on DVD, HBO had sponsored a New Orleans-themed food truck and brass band to stop at certain areas around the city and give stuff away. cast members were signing autographs. what a perfect reason to not do homework.

i assumed–and my friend who told me about it assumed–that “New Orleans treats” mean, well, New Orleans food. i reached that assumption based on the tradition of NY food trucks and the meals you can get from them; or even the food trucks at the New Orleans Jazz Fest (it’s outside, so everything is moveable, one way or another), or the nuns who sell jambalaya in the church parking lots at mardi gras. new orleans food is street food. it’s community food. you can dress it up and charge $30 a plate for it in some swanky french quarter restaurant if you want, but as far as i’m concerned, new orleans food is meant to feed everybody. at jazz fest, you pay $3 or $4 for a plate full of sloppy deliciousness, a couple of bucks for a cold beer, and you sit on the grass next to whatever stage you feel like, listening to music and eating hot food.

everybody but me can see the disappointment coming from a mile away, right? everybody but me has learned to not trust a corporation to be faithful to idyllic childhood memories, right? i should know that corporate america is not about plates of red beans and rice or foil trays full of fried chicken. corporate america is about flourescent nachos and microwaved pizza. warped tour and baseball parks. but still, i can’t entirely articulate the disappointment i felt upon being handed a single praline cookie and something that was called a king cake but sort of looked and tasted like a frosted pretzel. that is not new orleans food. that’s barely an approximation of new orleans food. a broadway props department could’ve done better than that. i wonder how wendell pierce (wonderful actor who played Bunk in The Wire, and who is also from new orleans) copes with it. he must have found some balance between the actual city he loves, david simon’s portrayal of it, and then HBO’s bastardization of it through the publicity process. publicity has to be the dirtiest part about being any kind of artist who makes things for public consumption (music, movies, TV), something that every artist has to somehow make peace with, but i honestly don’t have the first idea how they pull it off.

i know that no one sees new orleans (or new york or denver, for that matter) as i do. and i know that my conception of new orleans is sort of mythical and incomplete, since so much of it is informed by visiting it regularly, rather than living there. when i was a kid in suburban littleton, having family in new orleans was one of the things that made me different. i think it was one of the cooler differences i had (as opposed to the rest of them, which primarily just served to make me awkward and unpopular). as i’ve gotten older, my family history doesn’t make me unique any more. and often, i’m not the person in the conversation who knows the most about new orleans. there are a lot of people from new orleans, after all.

still, though, i think i’ve got a pretty good handle on the difference between Real new orleans and Tourist new orleans. and seeing a second line band wearing marching uniforms with “HBO” and “Treme” on them suddenly transported me to Bastardized new orleans, the new orleans that i’ve been afraid of ever since katrina, because i dont want new orleans to rebuild its buildings but lose its soul. it’s not just about whether or not the band is there. i don’t know what it IS about, but just having a brass band and king cake isn’t enough.

Horizons (orginally published Nov. 13, 2010)

I lived in New Orleans for six months awhile back (and actually, I was born there, but we moved away before I developed any substantial memories of the place).  In Colorado, the primary trees on the Front Range and the plains are lodgepole pines and cottonwoods, tall skinny trees that reach upward.  In New Orleans, the dominant trees are oaks, which grow more or less at right angles–straight out and sprawling.  I love New Orleans for a lot of things, but the city really doesn’t have a horizon to speak of, unless you get to the rim of the bowl (on the shores of the Mississippi or Lake Pontchartrain, or to the top of the Industrial Canal bridge or the Huey Long).  It started to make me claustrophobic after awhile, to always have these trees looming over me.  The fact that this was six months after Katrina didn’t help at all.  It aggravated the feeling that there was no way to get out from under in case of disaster.

Colorado has the same wide horizons and big sky that Montana is famous for.  It has 350 days of sunshine a year.  It has, as the Dixie Chicks say, “wide open spaces.”  You can take deep breaths there.

I was worried about moving to New York.  New York doesn’t have trees, but it has buildings.  Buildings that block out the sun.  Buildings that form wind canyons.  Would I go crazy from never seeing a horizon?  From vitamin D deficiency?  Where would I go if I needed to see some sky?

One of my classes is in the Union Theological Seminary on Broadway and 122nd; to get there I walk by the northern end of the Columbia campus on 120th.  They’re building a new building at the corner of 120th and Broadway, since I’ve gotten here, there’s been scaffolding up over the sidewalk, and cranes and trucks and dozens of men in hardhats milling around, and those portable construction offices, and the noise of construction.  It’s a pretty congested pedestrian area.

And then one day, I’m walking down 120th to class, and I realize something is different.  I look around.

The sky!  The sky!  The scaffolding is gone, I can see the sky.  The blue construction walls are gone, I can see the building they built.  The dump trucks are gone, I can see the street they were parked on.  But the sky!  Check out that sky!

Sherlock & Me (orig. posted Oct. 18, 2010)

“Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.  It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine…”

    –The Problem of Thor Bridge     

    (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

 

I think when I was in high school, we read the “Speckled Band” in class, and other than that my impressions of Holmes and Watson were the usual cultural constants of deerstalker cap, meerschaum pipe, late middle aged proper Victorians.  Hounds and speckled bands and Bohemian scandals.  That’s about it.

My grandfather, who was a professor of biology, loved Sherlock Holmes.  He was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars for over 40 years, he had this leather bound set that I remember from my grandparents’ house in New Orleans.  My grandfather died when I was in middle school, and because he was in New Orleans and I was in Littleton, I wouldn’t say I knew him well.  I know these things: his name was Dr. Walter G. Moore.  He always read the newspaper, cover to cover, in the morning, reacting to the stories with quiet exclamations like “Oh, mercy,” and “Hoo hah!”  (I’ve never heard anyone else say “Hooha!”, but it was a general all-purpose exclamation of surprise or dismay.)  He was quiet and didn’t talk much.  I don’t remember us ever having a drawn out conversation.  But I used to sit at his feet and play with toys while he read a book or the paper, in perfect co-existence with each other.  He was a gentle soul.  He loved all six of his children and treated them with respect (as evidenced, I think, by the fact that all of his children turned around and treated all of their own children with love and respect that, as I grow older, I realize I’m lucky to have received).  He was handy around the house.  He loved dogs and jazz music.  He loved my grandmother.

My family lucked out in the aftermath of Katrina.  We lost no family members.  By far the biggest blow was the loss of my grandparents’ house and the 65 years worth of family history embedded there.  It took my aunts and uncles several months to go through all the refuse, pulling out what they could to salvage, and when they were done, the remnants of my grandparents’ lives together could fit into a 10’x10′ storage unit.  For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, we all gathered in New Orleans, and one of the things we did was split up all the stuff (my grandmother didn’t want the vast majority of it, or thought it was time to let it go.  She’s been living with one of my aunts since the storm).  Except for the big double bed, none of it was monetarily valuable.  (And as an aside, I have to say, that six kids, 14 grandkids, and an assortment of in-laws could split up what amounts to an inheritance with not a single squabble is, I think, a tribute to the kind of parents my grandparents were.)

Things I got: A couple of the specimen bottles my grandfather used to use to collect water samples from the bayous.  One of my grandmother’s window ornaments.  The cuckoo clock.  And about twenty years’ worth of The Baker Street Journals, which is a quarterly newsletter devoted to all things Sherlock.

Sherlock fans are notoriously obsessive.  Entire books have been written trying to figure out what order the stories in the canon go in, and how many wives Watson had.  Trying to uncover details of cases that Watson never wrote about.  Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.  Holmes and Irene Adler.  Floor plans of the Baker Street rooms.  And on and on and on.  One hundred years hasn’t exhausted their need to know more, hasn’t filled in all the gaps.  I think Holmes appealed to my grandfather’s precise, scientific mind.  Almost a year ago, I also received some money from the sale of my grandmother’s house–she sold it to the Road Home Initiative and split the money up amongst her children and grandchildren.  I was going to use it to go to Europe, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile.  Instead, I was stupid, and ended up having to use it to pay off credit cards.  Which is such a waste and disrespect of what my grandmother gave to me, and I’m fucking ashamed of myself for it.  Thankfully, I do better with literary inheritances.

But in order to appreciate these quarterly journals, I have to be conversant in the stories.  So I started reading the stories, and discovered that I knew Holmes pretty well, but I didn’t know Watson at all.  And as I read them over and over, paradoxically, Watson is the reason I read them.  Not Holmes.  As I think about it now, I think Watson has a lot in common with my grandfather.

I read Holmes because it is, in a very real way, my grandfather’s legacy to me.  It may be the only thing I share with him.  Reading these stories connects me not only to Victorian England, but to mid-century New Orleans, and a smart, quiet man living his life the best way he knew how.

One of Watson’s stories starts out with the statement that, “Somewhere in the vaults of the bank Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box with my name, John H. Watson MD, Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid.  It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious cases which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine.”  This battered tin dispatch box is one of the more enduring pieces of Holmesian folklore, and many Holmes pastiches or fan fic purport to have been found in the mythical tin box.

The idea of this tin box has great allure for me.  I received my inheritance out of the wreckage of a wooden house, in the wake of realizing just how fragile and temporary our lives and possessions are.  To see 65 years of your family’s history blown apart like it that is incredibly jarring.  For me, to think that somewhere there is a battered tin dispatch box, waiting patiently, containing all this history…it’s like having an anchor to hold on to that keeps the chaos at bay.  To think that somewhere there’s a little pocket of time that I can slip through and find Holmes and Watson smoking pipes and putting their feet up by the fire…who wouldn’t want that?  Who wouldn’t want to feel like these things can last forever?

It’s fiction, of course.  Of all the millions and millions of dinosaurs, we only have a few hundred skeletons left to tell us that they ruled the earth.  Of the many millions of humans who have walked the earth, we know details of a far few.  Not even a fraction of 1%–most people live and die and are entirely forgotten within two or three generations.  And so many of those we only have by accident–we wouldn’t know anything of Plato or Aristotle if their libraries hadn’t been looted by the Romans, brought back to Rome, and somehow found their way into the possession of (I think) Cicero, who read the books and was so taken by them that he started writing about them himself and getting other people interested.  The Gospel of Q was discovered in an ancient Egyptian trash heap.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were forgotten in clay pots in a cave.  How many ancient works of wisdom were burned for fuel?  How many secrets were lost because the people who knew them were murdered, or just didn’t have kids to pass them on to?  How many sunk to the bottom of the ocean, or just decayed?  Humankind has forgotten far more than we can ever comprehend.  And yet we tell ourselves that we can know all there is to know about the past, if we just keep looking.

What would an archeologist conclude about my family, digging through that 10×10 storage unit?

Arthur Conan Doyle is aware of the transiency of life, of course.  One of Watson’s unwritten cases concerns “the strange case of James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.”  But in Holmes, everything leaves a trace, everything has a reason, and if only you can both see and observe you can puzzle it out.  Chaos has no place in Holmes.  Giant fuck-off storms that destroy entire swaths of landscape and lives have no place.  Not even Jack the Ripper has a place in Holmes, and he actually existed.  You could write the history of humanity as that of a species fighting off encroaching chaos with all that they can, and in Holmes, the fight has been won.  Holmes survived Hurricane Katrina when most of the rest of my grandmother’s house died.  How can I not hold on to all of that, with all that I can?  What else can I learn from my grandfather’s inheritance?

So, other than my generally obsessive personality, I think that’s why Holmes has such pull for me, why I’m so defensive of him.  He’s what my grandfather left me.  More than God, Holmes convinces me that everything in the world happens for a reason, and that chaos is not chaos, but merely our inability to perceive pattern.

I hope he’s right.