Random Notes on Civilization

I just completed the updated, on-line profile of me as a New York Times subscriber.  Now the algorithm crowd over there knows my approximate income and my zip code, but when it comes to what we used to call “occupation,” they got no clue.  There were boxes to check for Student and Writer/Editor, but none for Teacher or Professor.  So I checked Skilled Laborer, which somehow made me happy.

Last night on the 2 train uptown I sat down next to a tired old guy with a Baltimore Orioles cap and an overgrown grey beard, he was wearing yellow linen pants and a Yankees jacket, running shoes and brown socks, he carried nothing except the Post, which I read over his narrow, probably broken right shoulder.  I think it was broken, once upon a time, because his body tilted toward me, and not because he was leaning.  This man never sat up straight for anyone except a cop, so I knew he was on my side.

“What the fuck,” I say, pointing at the page he was reading, that’s usually all it takes to collect a story.  His name is Sal, and he drives a horse-drawn carriage in and around Central Park.  Or he did, for 31 years, until an accident last month ruined his life.  Another horse-drawn carriage crashed into his, threw him from the cab, and, upon landing, his left knee was crushed.

That’s his word. “Look at this, wouldja,” he said, gesturing toward the knee, “I’m swollen, I stand up and I wonder if I’m gonna fall down, it scares me, you know what I mean, I can’t work, what am I gonna do with this?”  How long now?  “A month.”  You got insurance?  “Yeah, I’m covered, but I gotta get back to work, this is making me nuts.”

This is a man who might as well be homeless.  His face is already covered with grey whiskers that climb toward his eyes and crowd the bridge of his nose—if he doesn’t shave soon, he will look like an aged ape, all hair and appetite.  Where you headed, I say, and he looks at me as if I just asked him about the cultural meaning of the summer solstice.

So I shift gears, Sal, I ask, are you doing physical therapy?  He droops, now he’s feeling guilty, and he goes dark.  My stop comes next.

I walk to the bodega at 123rd and Lenox.  “Get up off that stool, this is America, motherfucker, you gots to be motivated, don’t you wanna see me, why’d you come here anyway, you come here just to see me, a real American, you know what I’m sayin?”  The man talking is my neighbor, I think from 124th, I see him around a lot, the person he’s addressing is one of the Yemeni citizens who run this store, the poor man who’s trying to take a lunch break at 1:00 in the morning.

Well ain’t that America, I say, quoting John Mellencamp but twisting his meaning, I hope, and then my neighbor turns toward me.  He says, “All this way to see me, and I’m a ugly motherfucker, no Helen in Troy, he’s gotta figure that shit out, gotta look at us.”

When I pull out my wallet, I remember that I have no money.  And why not?  Yesterday I gave my last Twenty to the guy who sits outside the Starbucks at 85th and Lexington.  Why did I do such a stupid thing, you might ask.  Well, when I came out of the place juggling a biscotti and a small coffee, I looked down at him and realized that the black suitcase next to his folding chair was larger than the man himself, he could travel inside the thing if he wanted.  He asks me for change, as always, so I turn around to say I’ll be back this way, but what’s with the enormous fucking suitcase?  He looks at me incredulously and says, “I’m homeless.”   I dropped the Twenty on my way back: atonement for stupidity.

On Friday my old friend Mike Fennell was in town for a short visit, so I figure, let’s go downtown, there’s a watch to buy on Bleecker Street and some coffee to get on Christopher Street.  We ride the 2 and then the 1 to Christopher Street, we have a beer at The Duplex, then walk over to Verve on Bleecker, where they sell mainly women’s shoes, but lots of watches, too, I have needed a new one for a while and I know exactly which one I want, so it’s easy to buy.

Then we go to McNulty’s, the coffee and tea emporium at 109 Christopher, to which I was introduced by my girlfriend early on, it’s a place founded in 1895 that is so fragrant you can smell it from across the street.  It’s all warped wood floors and shelves, so every product for the last hundred and more years has left some olfactory trace: it’s overwhelming, and tranquilizing.  Inhaling becomes a conscious activity, to be sure, because you’re trying to identify what you’re smelling, but otherwise the place could put you to sleep even when it’s crowded with tourists buying mugs.  The people who run it are mostly Chinese guys with Brooklyn accents; the exception to the rule is a skinny old white guy with curly grey hair, but he’s just as cordial and gracious as everybody else.  You have to watch closely as they measure, grind, and pack your coffee.  Not because they’re trying to short you, no, because their hands move so gravely, as if they were blessing the host or performing some even more important ritual.

After that we cross the street to Goorin Brothers, Bold Hatmakers, also founded in 1895, just for the hell of it, and both of us end up buying hats, him a boater for a friend, me a white Panama, each a work of art.

Then a walk up 7th Avenue, trying to find a bar.  We settle on Agave, not much of a bar, but it’s got a distressed aluminum countertop, unlike the Lenox Lounge, where we wind up hours later.  I leave my credit card at Agave, not knowing it until Saturday night, when I realize that my cell phone has also disappeared.  Meanwhile, on Saturday morning, Mike and I have walked into Central Park, watching the Pampers motorcycle rally on Lenox all the way down.  When the heat got to us at 97th, we hailed a cab on Fifth Ave and went to 53rd, MoMA’s neighborhood, I wanted him to see the Cindy Sherman exhibit, but it’s already absconded, like the artist.  Three indispensable tools of life as such have departed in 24 hours.

Happy endings, though, the phone fell out of my pocket in that cab, and was delivered to me on Sunday afternoon by the Yellow Cab Company; the credit card is at the bottom drawer of the cash register at Agave; Cindy Sherman is forever embalmed on the pages of the MoMA catalog.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Random Notes on Civilization

  1. Paul

    What “they” said is true, isn’t, Jim: “There are eight million stories in The Naked City.” This is one well and pungently told.

    On another note, I’m off with the S.O. for a few days’ camping jaunt around the Olympic Peninsula, including Cape Flattery, the nortwesternmost point in the 48. She’s kayaked around there quite a bit, but I haven’t been in those precincts in some years. No kayaking on this trip. Hikes and beach walks, a long way from 125th Street, and that’s no lie.

    • Well, Paul, that sounds like a lot more fun than going to a high school reunion, which is what I do on Friday. What was I thinking? And when do I get to see you on the 125? Which reminds me, Mike was able to meet the Rat Man on Saturday morning!

  2. By coincidence, Jim, I too will be attending my high school reunion beginning today (Friday and raging through the weekend). What do we make of these things? What do you say to someone who have seen or spoken to in decades, perhaps since high school graduation, avoiding at all times the impulse to narrative your entire life from then and to this instant. In his advice to the perplexed (me), a friend of mine, who teaches the history of American religion at one of your Ivy League institutions, suggests that one needs to go to the high school reunions in the role of a social anthropologist, knowing that I (we) am the subject of the inquiry. But, certainly go not as historians with all our narrative manias.

    At this event, I expect heavy drinking in this unusually hot and humid northern Minnesota July – “High on the borderline” and “North Country fair” – and can only hope for the blessing of air conditioning.

  3. Mike

    There’s a weird connection here between Greenwich Village and High School reunions. Jim says that every time he mentioned to someone that he was attending his 45th High School reunion their reaction was some variation on “What are you crazy?” (In my case it was “What’s wrong with you?”)
    So, apparently like most people he knows, I don’t get it. When it comes to old friends — and to be honest, family as well — I figure the people I meant to keep up with I have, and the ones who meant to keep up with me have as well. So, if we haven’t done any keeping up isn’t that kind of the definition of “meant to be”? And what’s wrong with that?

    But I also have the impression that people who were happy in High School go to these things, and people like me who were miserable don’t. Is that how it is? In either case though, isn’t there still a problem with going? Whether it’s a do-over or a re-do, the recapturing itself is impossible. Or, are we supposed to be all big minded about it and just accept that the past is the past and we are whoever we are now and it’s all cool, and isn’t it fun to see how everyone turned out and the whole thing is judgement/embarrassment/guilt free?
    If that’s what it’s supposed to be I’m calling bullshit.

    On the other hand I saw Greenwich Village for the first time the other day, and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a rope around it to keep the tourists from touching. I know it’s childish but I was a little disappointed there weren’t bronze plaques all over the place: “Bob Dylan and Joan Baez broke up on this corner in 1963”, “Jim Morrison OD’d in this Hotel”, ” Neil Cassidy punched Jack Kerouac in this bar”. Something! But no, you can walk around Washington Square Park and buy a pre-paid phone on Bleeker St. The Stonewall Inn has a musty little bar around the side called The Duplex (where the wide screen TV’s have “Designing Women” on – how perfect is that?). Jim plays Open Mic Night there in a “Cabaret” which is smaller than my driveway.
    Wait a minute! This is a fucking National Monument!
    No, really It’s a bar. That’s pretty much all it ever was and it went out of business more than once at that.
    That over there is a street and that’s a building – this is what they call a neighborhood. Deal with it kid.
    Man do I feel used! Well, not “used” exactly . . . more like stupid.

    See I know very well there’s no “Tobacco Road” around here anymore. Phizer and Glaxo Welcome built an industrial park on it. I also know very well there was a Harlem before The Renaissance and there’s one still. I knew there was a Lower East Side and a Chelsea Hotel and a big old park and all that shit before there was a Village, and it’s all still there — it must be. Where the hell did I think it went? But imagination is crazy: It makes you think the past isn’t past, or if it is it isn’t as plain or painful or stupid as you remember it. I’ve spent a long time imagining Greenwich Village and trying to make High School go away. I can’t believe anyone would want to attend a sad reminder, so reunions sound pretty grim to me. But it turns out I’m as good at pretending as anyone else, so what do I know?
    Sometimes a street sign is just a street sign – even if it’s a song.

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