Boots, contd. (and: Causing Stress for Others)

Went to buy boots. Liked, in theory, the Frye style (no, I’m not talking about the English actor / comedian); in practice, I didn’t like the narrow toe, the leather soles, the “styled” aspect of them: the way it felt like they were walking me, and would take an age to break in. So I went back to Shoe Mania on Broadway, near Lafayette, and tried on a pair of brown oxblood leather mid-calf length slip-on Doc Martens engineer boots, and bought them. Rubber soles. Going back to my ’80s roots, when the Central Bank forecourt in pre-gentrified Temple Bar in Dublin was a gaggle of goths, punks, skin heads, New Wave mod-spin offs: different tribes, all wearing variations on the single European currency of the Doctor Marten air cushioned sole.

Out onto the street again. Five o’clock. (Emm, why am I shopping during rush hour?) Funny how everyone in Manhattan dresses as if they’ve been styled: as if they’ve pre-thought every eventuality. (Even the guy selling the equivalent of the Big Issues has big aviator sunglasses on, transforming him into potential cyborg pimp / porn star, gang leader from The Warriors, or messianic character from Blade Runner; Buddhist technologist.) It’s actually slightly tiresome, even though it immediately makes me want to go out and “shop!” – as I have been doing. (There must be just one more accessory out there that’s essential to my latent identity, that will transform me into my future self.)

A car is right in the “cross walk”. People flow around it (truly, here, the pedestrian is prince, queen and king). Passive aggression and mischief dictate what I do next: I stop in front of the car, point to the walking man (which replaced the “Walk / Don’t Walk” some time ago), while I look in at the driver, a business man in a silver Lexus fighting his way uptown in 5 pm rush hour traffic. He immediately starts throwing himself around inside the cockpit, thrashing with Jewish / Italian-influenced New Yorker arms waving violently into the air. I throw up my arms in, “what are you going to do?” fashion, and cross, my heart rate raised by mutual venting. It feels disturbingly good. Maybe after he’s gone a few blocks he’ll think, “that asshole,” and smile to himself. Though, the smile isn’t all that likely.

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I Own It With My Eyes

Late September, 2010

Brooklyn Heights. Such a strange lull. I’ve walked all the way from Red Hook’s decomposing, rusting, Captain Hook sea-going charm, to above the Brooklyn Bridge. Some beautiful red brick 19th Century houses in their own grounds, with mature trees. Today’s one of the first days that feels like autumn, accentuated by an orange sun going down in the Hudson, or is it the East River? – The Jersey side, over there; today, leaves, not many, lie in the monied gardens of Brooklyn Heights like gold coins. That is what the houses are, must be: monied, though that isn’t primarily what I think of when I look at them.

But you see, I own them too, with my eyes, for a second or two (“that’ll be 250$, please!”). These houses with their gardens remind me of aspects of London: West Hampstead, the same red brick churches with old gardens, and those cast-iron benches overlooking the sky scrapers of lower Manhattan. With their night lights coming on, the lines of the black buildings are stirring, but leave me cold, like a Blade Runner tableaux. I turn back to the houses, where you can see people preparing dinner in kitchens the size of whole studio apartments. But it isn’t economics, primarily, that it’s about, even though I am a snob. It’s what we all aspire to – the idylls, if not of a king, then of – a squire? Knight of the Realm? – or a Man at Arms: to belong somewhere concrete, have a measure of peace somewhere, “Un Lugar en el Mundo”, as the classic Argentinian film put it, “a place in the world”.

But I possess that right now, in this little promenade among trees and benches that remind me of my French and Spanish Europe, and houses matured through generations of money. Well, they’re still here, bougie though they may be. Peaceful, though. That’s the main thing: as valuable in this city as a quadruple-distilled drop of a precious liquor, or restorative cordial.

There’s the sound of kids playing, and footsteps passing, as the sun sets and silhouettes the people against the always-on skyscrapers’ electricity bill.

*

What a fool! I was in a nook of Brooklyn Bridge park, saw a black helicopter come in to land on some heliport pad across the bay, walked towards the view, and the whole thing opened up, as far north as the Empire State with white light consuming the top 6th of it,  the Chrysler Building, the Bridge lit white, yachts like Junks in the water, and, is that Ellis Island? The Statue of Liberty’s red torch, and the rusting blue-grey gantries of Red Hook to the left.

A woman in tracksuit and baseball cap passes talking on her phone, afraid of loneliness, maybe; maybe afraid of being in the moment. A well-dressed middle-aged couple is getting their photo taken by a passer-by. The woman’s New Yorker-ness struggles to break through: “are you done?” No, the kind girl will take another. “‘Kay. Okay.” The woman repositions herself, shakes herself off, smiles, breaking free of Pavlov, realises that there’s no rush. Her tall, patrician escort with the yellow button hole and grey suit elegantly thanks the photographer. He has a better grasp on time. I almost have a stress-by-association heart attack watching the transaction. Back, as quickly as possible, back to that nook where there’s only the view of au pairs, or maybe the women and men of their own houses, preparing dinner. The view, maybe, of an illusion. In Spanish, “ilusión” also means hope.

PEN’s Evening in Solidarity with Mexican Journalists

Last night, I covered the PEN organisation‘s “Evening in Solidarity with Mexican Journalists” for Electric Literature’s Blog. The evening was held at The Great Hall at Cooper Union, and writers like Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Laura Esquivel were present. It was a sombre occasion, a great deal of urgency underlying every aspect of the event. There was a large Latin American and Spanish presence in the big crowd, as you would expect, and I bumped into a gang from NYU’s MFA in Creative Writing in Spanish. As one of them said, “we’re primos hermanos (first cousins), but there isn’t much linking up between the two groups, we need to get together more.” Before the event, I knew almost nothing more than rumour about what Mexican journalists, and the population at large, are facing. Click on the Electric Literature link at the top of this post, read up on it, and if you have a bit of time, look into what the Committee to Protect Journalists, and PEN, have to say about what is happening in places like Juarez, to journalists and the general population. It’s awful, but awareness, at the very least, needs to be spread.

An Evening in Solidarity with Mexican Journalists

The Continent the Shape of an Ailing Heart *

There are red leaves on the grass in Washington Square Park now. Squirrels run across the path, and climb the trees. Asian women – from the Philippines, I suspect – walk children that aren’t their own, in buggies; some kids are wheeled by their own parents. I don’t know if it was last night that I first smelled something like wood smoke in the air, and maybe it was only a wood-fired pizza oven, but it brought me back to Segovia, in 2001, when I went up to that retreat with Abel and Carmen (just some of the many people I’ve lost touch with) in a Carmelite Monastery in the mountains in the outskirts of town, sunlight flickering through the yellow sycamores along the river in the Castilian autumn, and I had the irrational urge to disappear into that sunlight, or that autumn, and stay there forever. (If to disappear means to live a “provincial” life).

Sometimes you have to leave the city, if only in your mind. I haven’t left the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan in six weeks (“will I ever?” It’s already sucked me in). But I find my mind turning south across the latitudes, as I receive blog posts from Carsten, the New Zealander biker – ex air-force, who did a tour of duty in “the ‘ghan” as a liaison officer, and left it to travel, and potentially go into further studies in psychology – who I met in a hostel in Salta in the north-western Argentinian autumn (spring, in the northern hemisphere) as red leaves were falling, with a faint smell of wood smoke from all the Sunday afternoon barbecues…

I’ve been following his progress through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, up as far as Colombia, through Venezuela, the Guianas – described by one of their tourist boards as “Conradian”. Sounds amazing, and tropically dodgy. That was the time I’d come to the end of that particular road, dead-ending up against the Bolivian border at 15,000 feet, where cocoa leaves are chewed with bicarbonate of soda, bulging in men’s cheeks, and there are singing clubs where they sing ultra-romantic and macho lyrics like: “amor, I spread my poncho on your bed while you’re sleeping so that you’ll remember me.” Salta is a proud region where people have smooth, strong raven-black hair, and beautiful Andean features, twinned with Argentinian confidence. (Salta and Jujuy contribute disproportionately to the national police force, too, for whatever reason. Brings back “the king’s shilling”…)

Oh, I could have continued, but would have needed another kind of provisioning – to have rested, or been outwardly stronger, ready for more privations and altitude. Bolivia, with its salt flats, ochre and pink mountain colours was hard to resist, but I had to go home a month early to prepare for New York: there was a visa to get, an interview in the embassy fortress; there were family and friends to spend time with. It was the right decision. So, I stayed put in the hostel near the park by the bus station, and didn’t do much: slept a lot, walked a lot and read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish, ate well with my new friend, the wonderful Lola from Paris, who works between Buenos Aires and France producing films and fashion shoots. We went out for local beef and too much local red every night, then she left for BA again. I followed a week later, on one of those twenty-hour bus journeys that grant you the space and the time to think, and to settle again. The space of Argentina can itself feel like an inner territory. 

After another week in Buenos Aires with Lola and other friends, I was on my own way home, too. Our mutual Uruguayan friend, Martín, from Montevideo, in scarf, corduroy blazer, runners, shaved head and huge sunglasses, smoking an inevitable Marlboro red, saw me to my taxi while a waiter in a white jacket crossed traffic carrying a tray of café con leche to a favoured customer in a Hairdressers across the street. Martín kissed me on both cheeks, hugged me: “adios, Nene.” (“See you, kid.”) We’d known each other a week, and were already friends.

By the end, after three months, after conversations in Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay with taxi drivers, artists, poets, journalists, house wives, back packers, bar men, prostitutes, beggars, old lefties who’d been exiled to Spain, Brazil, France, during the bad ’70s and ’80s, conversations with indigenous people on rickety buses, friends of friends who then became my friends, I felt I had a home at the end of the world. And, now, South America looms large: real, but still romantic in its gutsy reality. And, two seasons later, Carsten is still circling the continent on his motor bike: through Lima, Bogotá and, more dangerously, now, the lunacy of Caracas. I think of him when I’m in the crush of days that don’t always give much time for lateral thought, and of Lola, now on her way back to Buenos Aires. New York, they say, doesn’t lend itself to nostalgia. I don’t think that’s always true.

God speed, man. The mattress in the spare room (spare room in New York? Amazing, but true) is ready for you, when you’re passing through on your way to the next leg of your journey.

(* Title: quotation from Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America.)

Intrepid Blogging for Electric Literature

Click HERE for my first assignment for Electric Literature‘s blog, The Outlet / Dish. Apart from getting soaked while leaving the bar, almost getting caught in a dangerous hail storm, taking the wrong subway train and having to walk 20 blocks after getting off at the wrong station, it was a lot of fun. I must say, being there on an “official capacity” gives a lot of leeway for talking to people, particularly people you fancy. And, writers love the attention.

 

P.s. If you’re too lazy to click on the link, here is “HERE”:

Ok, so writers may have moved enmasse to Brooklyn “for more space and less rent when Manhattan dropped the ball” (said Nicole Brydson of Brooklyn The Borough), and Brett E. Ellis might still complain that Jay McInerney is the only writer still living in Manhattan – boo fucking hoo – (and he’s tucked up with his cocoa and animal crackers by 9 o’clock at night), but I hate getting to events in Brooklyn (n.b.: I live there). Streets are as confusing as the Dublin or London suburbs, and I’m not being nostalgic here. After getting on an express A train, which then started roaring towards the Far Rockaways like psilocybin taken by mistake, I finally found my way back to Franklin Ave.

Two Coney Island Lagers and three cigarettes later, I was human enough to start rubber necking. The crowd was settling into its red wine and beers in a relaxed, “we might as well, it’s Monday,” fashion. With its pleasant terrace, brick interior and various nook-like bars, Franklin Park Bar is semi-reminiscent of Union Pool, but with a blessedly lower quota of check shirts, fake prescription vintage glasses and ridiculously large Grizzly Adams beards. (Perhaps it’s Union Pool’s Daddy?) Here, beards are trimmed, and people are in “I came straight from work” clothes, albeit: “I work in publishing, wear a corduroy blazer, skinny jeans, slim ‘60s tie and dirty white sneakers (and, by the way: I’m cool).” Demographically closer to 35 than 22 (thank God!), it was a youthfully mature Brooklyn bouquet, and a half-decent racial mix for reading events so well-attended by whitey.
While waiting, lurking at the bar, jobbing writers compare notes:

“It’s this anthology called Best of the Web – looks pretty legit.”
“Is that like Best American Short Stories? We should nominate each other.”
“So, what have you been up to? Teaching going ok?”
“Pretty fucking overworked.”

The evening’s theme was “identity crises.” Alyson Gerber (calm, and beautifully Jewish on her Brooklyn debut) opened the proceedings, reading from her novel, Gracie Garber Loves Goys, a comic exploration of the adolescent Jewish female psyche (there’s still territory to be mined that hasn’t been annexed by Philip Roth-landia). The pathos/comedy revolves around the collision between Lr. East Side, Yiddish Gracie, and her WASP boarding school of flat-chested trust-fund blondes. Gerber was reading, “Please help me, Daddy! I need to get rid of my enormous breasts,” (paraphrase), when she was drowned out by a hail storm of the kind of proportions my friends in Lawrence, Kansas, pray for, so that they can replace their car with insurance money for hail damage. The audience rushed to the glass door to gape. Gerber admirably displayed no authorial ego-tantrum at the interruption, quipping: “Please don’t blame the Jews for this one.” A break was called.

I had earlier accosted Michele Carlo, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, at the bar, asking: “So, do you know any of the readers?” “I am one of the readers!” she said. A frequent contributor to NYC’s storytelling community, Carlo performed–rather than read–a section from her recently published memoir Fish Out of Agua (Citadel Press Books). For me, this description of falling between the races on “Kill Whitey” day in a Bronx High School in the 1980s (simply because she was a Puerto Rican girl with red hair) represented some of the most accurate, and humorous, racial acumen that I’ve heard in writing in a long time. At times, people were nervous, and nervous while laughing their asses off, and that’s how you know it’s good.

Shelly Oria (who curates the Sweet! Actors Reading Writers series in the East Village, and has a list of publishing credits as long as my arm) read three beguiling shorts. Her take on identity crisis was mediated via “carrying bags of purchased happiness,” and a boyfriend called JoJo who comes home one day as Dora. Our waitress, with long, red hair and Cleopatra bangs, enjoyed the performance; I noticed her laughing to herself as she passed, burdened with a stack of empty pint glasses, which tells you: (1) this is a literary joint; (2) the waitress is intelligent, and cool; (3) the writer is good; (4) the waitress is hot.

James Hannaham, of McSweeneys and Michener Center fame (oh, money of UT Austin, how we love to hate you!) read from his new novel, God Says No. His performance was polished, but the three ladies were a hard act to follow. That said, we always like pieces that involve a penis sucking machine, semi-expired tranquilizers, a blowjob in a waffle house loo, and lines like, “I love chocolate chubbies” and, “slabs of fat.” I don’t know if it was because I preferred the earlier readers, or was too plain lazy by the end, but I didn’t ask Hannaham (decidedly non-corpulent) for a sound bite.

Anyway, this isn’t that kind of dish.

P.S. Nicole Brydson, editor and publisher of Brooklyn the Borough, was spotted, but could not be photographed, as my flash died after ten minutes.

All these writers have a shit-load of publishing credits.

Penina Roth (ably and warmly) curates Franklin Park Reading Series since March 2009. (For more information and submission guidelines, email franklinparkreadingseries@yahoo.com)

Leitrim / Ditmas Avenue / Mexico City

An Orthodox man comes out of “Laundry Mania” with a white shirt draped in plastic, freshly-laundered and ready for tomorrow. A thin, young Hassidic man in a brown, furred hat like a lamp shade has his crying daughter firmly clasped in his arms. He’s marching ahead, wheeling a suitcase. It’s the eve of Sabbath, much work still remains to be done before the sun goes down, to prepare for when work must cease. There’s no mitigating circumstances when it comes to the Law. Auburn-wigged young wife walks behind in black, registering the argument in her demeanour, registering the husband’s stress in the downward-looking gaze and gait of her wife’s body.

Seriousness struggles with another kind of vigil: Friday night, and cheesy, sweet Latin American music pipes out of the shops, floating on the air. Clutches of Uzbek men in plastic leather jackets and 70s ‘taches, smoking rancid fags, eye the young women, who shun them with a self-turning shoulder. Some of the men feel like mafia, probably because they’re always around, doing nothing specific. They’ve claimed this pavement; you have to walk around them. Same with the Poles. (Hipsters, beware. Locals Rule here enough to resist gentrification. Ah… but gentrification is like Manifest Destiny. An inevitability in the U.S., and its empire abroad.)

A Mayan boy on the pavement in three-quarter-length khaki shorts is blowing bubbles upward into the Indian Summer evening sky, and I cross into Latin America. Passing the barber shop, Abel the barber from Mexico gets up from his ruminations to greet me: perfect grey flat top like a 50 year old punk, he wears a bone necklace, and has features like Quetzalcoatl. His wife is Irish. “David? si. Yo estaba pensando. el nombre de mi suegro es Mc…Dermott: y es de una ciudad que se llama Leitrim. Si, Leitrim.” (“David? Yes. I was thinking. My father-in-law’s name is Mc…Dermott, and he’s from a city called Leitrim.”) I go up the rickety wooden steps to the subway, laughing to myself and, in fact, some tears of connection squeeze their way out with the laughter: about how only New York, perhaps, can connect the watery fields of Leitrim (otters and loneliness), to Mexico via Brooklyn.

Abel’s daughter cut my hair the other day: “Blade 1? Easy haircut.” And yet, she dedicated a plethora of blades, scissors and talc, a wealth of pleasant attention to my pate, my beard, my neck. She taped old style, elasticated tissue around my throat; a sharp, pleasant, wet straight razor gliding down the back of my neck. Her hand adjusted my head with a firm, woman’s touch. She was wearing a water-based cologne that opened a wound of nostalgia for Spain. In the background, heroes and heroines swooned on soap operas piped in via satellite from “el D.F.” (Say it Day F-Aay, bud.) I get a chill when Mexicans say, “Soy del D.F.”, in response to my inevitable, “¿de dónde eres?” / “where are you from?” The sound values of those sibilants contain something of the day-to-day heroism and chaotic aliveness of Latin America: it’s Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Cuzco, it’s Asunción; it’s Sao Paolo, and of course it’s the Distrito Federal. New York may be the shit, but the true motherlode, the big hearted Mother City, is “el D.F.“, homes. Mexico City, baby.

Like Something out of The Warriors, Paranoid Version

Not For Tourists says: “if you’re bored in New York, you have only yourself to blame.” I’m sure that’s true. While having lunch yesterday with the poet Philip Fried in Edgar’s Café, right beside the site of Edgar Allen Poe’s farmhouse on the Upper West Side where the streetscape, elegant, sunlit, airy, reminded me with a “keen nostalgia” of autumn in Madrid eight years ago, he said: “where else in the world can you go out your door and, within half an hour, be looking at Rembrant?” I asked him how he dealt with all the possibilities, and he mentioned the flip side: getting sucked into one’s daily routine, and how you might, out of all the ways to walk to work, always take the same route. (Surely, though, that’s the antidote to possibility-madness: carving out a village in the city.) He also admitted to “New York guilt”, something most likely shared by many: that you really should be out there, attending the latest opening, restaurant, or bar, or whatever…

It’s Saturday night, and I’m not out. I’m lying on my bed, watching the quirky French documentary The Gleaners and I, while I take my time writing this. Staying in and “not giving a damn” (a phrase in quotation marks ever since Gone with the Wind), is surely assisted by having a hangover: oh… because I went out last night with the MFA kids and got rat-arsed in the East Village, after the NYU reading at KGB, and ended up somewhere in the West Village with a Southern, Floridian writer who has lived everywhere, is a perfect raconteur, who regaled us with tales of Southern literary mischief, as well as the perfect wing man, who possesses a leg as hollow as mine but is probably better able to take the morning-after consequences. By 1 a.m., we were the last ones standing, and washed up like storm debris at a bar full of stockbrokers and thin blondes in miniskirts. Before getting in, we alienated the tank-like African American bouncer by smoking in the wrong place (“I told you to smoke by the ash tray”, and then he proceeded to let other people in ahead of us for 5 minutes).

Having gone outside with a cute black girl, she and I were immediately surrounded by smooth-talking, cock-blocking Swiss and Brit Euro trash. We made up, however, by smoking a communal roll-your-own “cigarette” that induced what the posse calls a “whitener”, which apart from pale nausea and head-spins, created the urgent need to sit on an adjacent stoop for half an hour, and whispered the fear that I would never find my way home – “ah, Existential Angst, my old friend! Sshho, you’re still working for Largo” (forgive the Sean Connery-esque, James Bond interjection). I was also afraid that if I stood up, I’d immediately fall down, and that if I stopped a taxi, I wouldn’t be able to make myself understood.

Luckily, I finally left the stoop, stopped hypnotically watching high heels and leather loafers pass by (so this is what it feels like to be homeless: invisible), made for the nearest “boulevard”, and realised (a) that I could walk and (b) that West 4th Street station was only 10 minutes walk away. What bliss! The city was finally comprehensible. After buying a 1$ bottle of water from a tender, white-haired Indian man, and being buttonholed by a hustler to whom I paid 5$ for the privilege of listening to a series of racist and homophobic jokes, and after being accosted by a lunatic woman in the subway, who turned aggressive when I foolishly answered one of her rants (she was booted out by 5 of NYPD’s subway division who appeared out of nowhere – “GO! I’m tellin’ you! Get outta here!”) – after it all, I found my platform, feeling like something out of The Warriors, paranoid version.

Twenty minutes later, the F came slowly round the corner of the tunnel – oh, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home! – and me and the Seven Sleepers were on the train to Stillwell Avenue and Coney, nodding in our respective corners. Coming down the old wooden steps of the elevated station, I stopped off at the local all-night bodega (corner-shop) to buy crusty bread, humus and milk, which I proceeded to eat in bed while watching a cheesy rom-com on Netflix. And then, at 5 a.m.: sleep. So, no: tonight I’m not tempted. And, I’m not guilty.