Traffic Hero / The Kick

13th December, 2010

By all the auto shops with cut up cars spilling out onto the pavement, and spilling purple oil into the gutter, and all the Latin dudes leaning against the cars with such unconscious grace, never wearing coats in the cold, just layer upon motley layer, by the shops with “Food Stamps Now Accepted Here”, near the Kosher pharmacy and the tailor from Pakistan who’s sitting in the window of his shop with his long white beard and a black, old-fashioned sewing machine, his sign up in Arabic script, crossing Coney Island Avenue to get to the other section of Cortelyou Road to the subway station of same name, I’m almost about to cross when a dark-grey Lincoln-esque town car turns left on my green and doesn’t cede (as mentioned, in New York when it’s green for pedestrians, it’s also green for traffic. Who thought up that such a great way of creating stress and conflict?). A Mexican man, fairly well-built, in a black sleeveless puffed up jacket, well-bundled in variegated hoodie-esque layers (classic construction worker style), stands placidly in the middle of the zebra crossing. He lets the car pass, then gives it a good kick near the bumper with a pair of size 10 Caterpillar boots. The car slows. The pedestrian stays standing in the centre of the road like a gun fighter, turns to face the car. The driver wavers, leaves the engine ambling for what seems a long time, then guns the engine, and leaves. Wise move. The Mexican dude, post-kick, in no post-haste at all, then crosses the road and enters the shop on the corner.

I admire the way he doesn’t look back, even though the car could have stopped and the driver could now be coming for him, gunning for him: verbally, or literally. I admire his obvious ability to find an appropriate response to the moment. Beginner’s Mind. Samurai-style. Indeed, surely much of the stress of “modern” life is due to holding back when unleashing (in any of many appropriate ways) would best serve us and protect us, and aid in setting the appropriate limits of cosmos (cosmos being the opposite of chaos). Surely, too, stress comes from allowing our frustration out at the wrong / innocent person and in the wrong / inappropriate situation. I admire the way – I can see it in his walk, the energy-sense of him – that he’s already a duck, shaking the situation off his back. I know that if it had been me, Mr. Stress-Ball, “Mr. Over-think-it”, who’d kicked the car, or failed to kick the car, either way I would have sullied my mind with adrenalin for at least an hour about the first possibility, or self-directed anger for at least another hour about the latter, about having failed to kick the car ( – let’s be honest here!).

I know that if it had been done at a busy intersection like 6th avenue and 14th street in Manhattan, the crowds of pedestrians at the cross-streets would have instantly orgasmed at the sight of someone doing the right thing, in the right moment, so simply, so well.

So, anonymous Traffic Warrior – let me just say: Represent!

The Multifarious Array

The reading series of the same name at Pete’s Candy Store, the Williamsburg bar, gave me the idea for this post. Actually, it was the man in sunglasses, with pockish cheeks and pale Latin features, rapping along to whatever he was listening to, very loudly mouthing various expletives, and I looked around and thought, “not this again.” Not rap, per say. Though, it isn’t usually people listening to Opera on their i-pods who start yodelling arias in show-off fashion for all to hear. I looked around for confirmation, but the only other person on the platform at Cortelyou road was on her Ipod, too.

The Multifarious Array. A space station that is varied and just too – well, multifarious, at times, full of space cadets all doing their crazy niche things, all hunkered down on their island within an island, their archipelago, because only the Bronx is on mainline US soil. New York doesn’t embody the United States, it’s an anomaly – just as London isn’t England, though it is, too. What am I talking about?

Well, I began by thinking about how the space cadets “all doin’ their own thing, man,” can make it not the easiest place to live. Exciting, yes; as a pal said to me once, “there’s many worlds in New York, and you can go from one to the other in a very short time.” The night that I heard that, I had been at a performance by Patti Smith at the Metropolitan Museum, at which, when she said she was “just a girl from South Joysea,” in that elegant auditorium of blond wood and classical acoustics, half the audience jumped to their feet, clapped and started shouting, “we love you!” It had all been about Kublai Khan and Coleridge, the world of dreams. A xylophone played dreamily behind her, and her incantatory, vulnerable voice took us away – it was enchanting, and special to finally see her perform, she who was listened to through adolescent days, and adult adolescent days… (“boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea. From the other end of the hallway, a rhythm was generating…”)

At the end of the evening, I left through elegant and cool, monied and not so monied crowds, through the Egyptian collection, down the steps of the museum, and walked thirty blocks south along Central Park, weather beginning to crisp a little, the park on my right all in stillness, very few people out walking at that time of night. It seemed I was in Paris, New York’s version of it, but I also knew I was at the heart of Empire, and my own privilege played its part in that, too. I took a 4, 5 or 6 south from Lexington Avenue and 53rd street to Union Square, and jumped onto an L train to Lorimer Street. The Williamsburg-bound train is always a menagerie on a weekend night, so many carefully-studied expressions and too hip white looks, among the Latino population that’s going further east where the rent’s cheaper.

Within half an hour, I was in a Williamsburg apartment beside the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, eating a taco takeway, real soft tacos with beef, coriander and raw onion, drinking red wine with Bryan and Laura and their varied friends from Paraguay, from Japan, from the US – photographers, teachers, and teachers of photography, makers and artists, ex-drummers from indie bands from Kansas, Panel Donor, to be exact; one day I’ll write up a web of the connections that brought me to that moment, it would be interesting. There’s many mansions.

I mentioned to someone my Mr. Multi-tasker, and he said, “he was probably chasing the buck, was probably late for a meeting that’s worth millions.” Pet peeves, though, that’s what this is about. Pet peeves, or, what makes it stressful to live here.

The fact that cars, including vans, Mack trucks, taxis, taxis especially, have the green when pedestrians do, so often a car will cut in front of you, or crawl behind you, clipping at your heels while you’re crossing (once, near south central park, I deliberately crossed very slowly, and a taxi driver rolled down his window and shouted, “fuck you, asshole!” I gave him a very big juicy finger, and an Italian elbow sandwich). – People. Ah, people. They walk at you, here. I’m not just talking about when you’re faced with a mass of people coming at you like a tsunami, and none of them cedes; I’m talking strollers that bump your shin as you meet at a cross street at the same time, the white mother tight-lipped behind sunglasses, not cedeing an inch; or the man who walks right at you, and just before collision, eels his way sideways through the tiny gap between you and the person beside you like some weird cyborg out of The Matrix.

Even when you’re  “in the neighbourhood”, Big Bird and all of Sesamé Street will try and possess the pavement, walk at you on your line, until you wonder, what do I have to do to survive psychically, here? Go somewhere quiet? – Ha! There’s already someone else there! It’s as if New York, in the form of everyone else, New York, possessing its subjects, is cranking the volume, blowing its horn, pushing you on the pavement (try pushing back, and you’ll in fact find that you actually get to repossess your own space), giving you routine annoying passive-aggressive – and aggressive – service at IKEA (oh, that’s another story), at Best Buy (one time, I asked this guy in the “Geek Squad” “can you help me?” “Probably not,” he answered. If you have high blood pressure, I do not advise going to any of these places.). Trader Joe’s, the cheapest supermarket, is a place I’ve heard that’s likely to induce a little bit of stress, especially if you work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, because, God help you, you’ll have to go there when everyone else is there…

Which is why people wear ear phones constantly, now I get it, because at least then they can choose their soundtrack – which is usually hard-hitting hip hop and annoying techno. On the L and the F trains, an automated voice tells you what’s what, and doesn’t invade your aural space too much. On the B and the G, and probably most other lines, the train driver’s crazy voice booms out announcing stops with squeaks and crackles, and if you haven’t lived here for very long, and are lost, the admonitions, “…here for the F to Jamaica 179 street…” delivered as in a garbled rap aren’t much help. Put on your head phones, close your eyes. Listen to your own intereference like everyone else running interference for you.

Subway rule number 1: stay within your own space. I.e., do not behave normally human. By this is meant, if you’re sitting beside someone, and start wiggling out of your coat, they are going to immediately start getting nervous, because while most New Yorkers do not respect your space or rights on the pavement, you’d better, god-dammit, respect theirs. Thus, the neurotics walking round as worlds and republics independent to themselves on the multifarious array (I’m only now realising why, back in my UCD days, they called a course on civil disobedience during Thoreau and Emerson’s time A Majority of One – they’re all doing it! It’s the 1st amendment gone mad! Everyone is her or his own republic, now. Then again, so are psychotics.).

Wriggle – sidelong glances. Don’t look at people either, because they get stressed, and upset. At heart, they’re very sen-sit-ive. (Yesterday, I saw a woman with an African accent trying to give her cab to an old white lady, who kept saying, after trying to steal it, “I don’t want it,” and who then started jumping up and down, crying hysterically, “I DON’T want it!” As the Spaniards say to the selfish, the self-absorbed and the arrogant, “no tienes abuela”, loosely translated as “you didn’t have a grandmother (to spoil you).”) You’d be forgiven for thinking that looking is ok, because, at the same time, a lunatic is praising Jesus, someone’s saying, “I jus’ got out of prison, spare a dime on your beautiful day,” a Mariachi band is performing in the next carriage; a guy with facial studs is sitting next to you, the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen are arrayed in your subway car as if fresh off a fashion shoot, and they’re hard as nails, too; and sprinkled among them are rapper-esque dudes from Jay Street/ Borough Hall in priceless hoodies, and designer sneakers. A gent in bow tie and black and white spats is on his way to the opera; a homeless man is asleep in the corner, someone is reading Foucault; an orthodox jew is nodding to the Torah open on his lap; a junkie is nodding off to the fake warmth of heroin. And on, and on and on.

But, don’t forget the moments that shine up through all this – the person behind you in the queue who answers the question you’ve just asked your friend; the person who doesn’t even wait for you to ask directions, the people at the Patti Smith concert who talked to her from the audience. She immediately said right back, “you talkin’ to me?” and struck a tough pose. They loved it. Cold, hostile, monolithic, funny, funky, crazy, hilarious, warm, sexy, loving, intimate, open, insane, ugly, insanely beautiful, intense, chilled – these words are all available, on sale, and free, too.

I thought I’d better write these things before I become too much a part of the organism to notice.

Fragments From 6th Avenue around Greenwich Village

Friday, 10th December.

West 4th Street subway, at the Waverley exit. Delta slide guitar starts up, and goes, starts to really go. It starts to soundtrack you. You walk with it in your stride.

In my favourite stationery shop on 6th Ave., where I buy my pens (I won’t give them a plug, but they do have sexy Chatwin and Hemingway-esque notebooks in this shop), a harried middle-aged woman tells the Middle Eastern sales clerk, who’s handing her what look like 10 Christmas cards: “95 dolla’s? How’d that happen?” Darling, we ask ourselves that every Saturday morning.

“Is Sarah there? She called me real late last night, and I was like…” Young man with whiney Californian last syllable uplift, in leather jacket with hoodie under it, hood up, ear phones on, gold aviator sunglasses on, everything on, talking via his ear phones or whatever his technology is. He’s locked and loaded, at one nice remove from his environment, the same as if he’d taken a pill – the nice, warm and fuzzy kind.

“Yo, that bitch is a junkie. She has a liver failure at 26 years old. I asked her if she was sniffin’ coke. No! I ain’t with that shit, I ain’t with that, who you think I am?” a black dude in a bizarre leather jacket covered in fur is saying into his phone.

“I’ll see you back in the city,” a New Yorker had said to me in Lawrence, Kansas. “Oh, right, so I’ll see you in Kansas City, then,” I reply mischievously. He looks at me blankly, as if I were in a gorilla suit, wearing a pink bra and g-string. Damn, sorry, lad. I forgot: there’s only ONE city, and the rest of creation is hinterland. Sue me.


Monday 13th December.

After the past few days, when the cold had slackened a bit, I was wondering why the heating had come on so strong again. Inside since 5 o’clock or so tonight, I’d “blown off” (in that unfortunate American term) the second-last class of the semester, and was feeling the old childhood pleasure of stealing solitude — like the opposite of being spread too thin under too many eyes. At first, I pottered around (the body clock humming down to reset itself towards a proper circadian rhythm after a weekend of sleeping in); then I went out onto the balcony. The curtains were closed. I’d been wondering why it was so quiet. The zinc table-top and mismatched chairs were coated with snow, and there was broken glass on the tiles. Wind yesterday had knocked something over. Snow covered it. East 7th Street – Kensington, in Brooklyn – had a black, icy look under the quarter-inch of snow. A yellow taxi passed, and tiny flakes were whirling, whorling, around a lamp. Last night, the black branches of the tree to the left were lit by the same street lamp, and covered in crystalline droplets, none of them falling, all of them glistening. A premonition of snow. Tonight, I palmed off a chair (it felt granular, almost like sand, but beginning to be wet), put up my fake fur hood, lit a cigarette and sat, not really thinking, starting to get lost in the snow.

Dancers in Washington Square Park

On my way to the KGB reading, I’ve come into Bobst library – the red-ochre, Uluru-coloured behemoth that menaces the older residents of Greenwich Village – to break my blog fast, or, blog silence, which is due, perhaps, to having been off in a siding of the New York City digestive tract for several weeks – not that it hasn’t been fun, it’s just that, sometimes, you get too absorbed to observe consciously. Sometimes, that part of you called “living” has to be given free rein, and that part called “writer” has to take a back seat.

Kerouac didn’t advertise the fact that he would come back from his epic Benzedrine-driven road trips to his mother’s house, and spend months in quiet, writing. For me, thankfully, it isn’t as pronounced. I’m happy to follow a busy week with a quiet one (and be busy with writing). For a while back there, during a besotted, “lonely-in-New York month”, half the nights I couldn’t get home before 3, because I was in love with the elbows I rubbed up against in the East and West Village dives, not there so much for the contents of the multifarious seduction of the back-lit bottles (though, that too), as for the company. As Hell says: “pull up a stool, there’s always room for one more. ” And, it was fun to wash out of taxis with people I’d only just met, in places I wouldn’t know how to get to the next day.

But, to tell the truth, how else would you spend your first three months in New York? (It’s like what a friend said to me, whose exciting new business is about to be boarded by venture capitalist pirates, and he’s still living in a kip in south Brooklyn – I don’t think he’ll mind me saying it, because I live in the same kip. Late one night we decided to get a taxi home from a bizarre karaoke in Korea Town with white leather booths. I enjoyed his “New York moment perspective.” He said: “tomorrow, you could be broke, and couldn’t do this anyway, and one day you’ll be old, so you may as well do it now.” The taxi was barreling down the East River drive. If it were a quai in Paris, it would have been beautiful. Here it was gritty and dirty, but the grandeur came from the energy that was crackling through everything. And then, of course, the meta-moment came, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at 3 a.m., came with a pocking rush, like the tyres of the taxi driven by the Haitian driver, when you realise, “shit – I’m here. I’m HERE!”)

Tonight reminds me that, just recently, I’ve come back to a sense of perspective. I’ve been reminded of that walking through Washington Square, where Black and White and Asian kids in white hoodies are dancing like the cheesy Fat Boy Slim dancers in the video Praise You – they’re dancing hip hop to a boom box under the red lights of the Christmas tree, under Washington Square’s white arch, with the Empire State behind it, lit white. One of the kids hugs me as I pass; I laugh, and he moves on: “let me see you clap your hands, I know you can,” he says to two little girls sitting nearby. In the Village, at least, off 6th Avenue, there’s an exhaling, as rush hour loosens its grip, before Friday night’s carnage begins.

It’s a time for quiet in Washington Square, if you have quiet inside you. And I do.