Nitty gritty New York City

imagesI’m hot on the trail of a paper cup. It’s being blown on the wind down an endless sidewalk that leads to the D train in Brooklyn and ultimately back to my Manhattan apartment. Plenty of other trash is blowing in the wind too, twisting in strange vortexes like leaves on spring days.

When leaves dance in upward spirals in odd drifts of wind, it’s a beautiful thing. When trash blows in crazy directions on a sidewalk in the middle of an impossibly long winter, it’s not pretty at all. There’s an impulse to grab at it. Collect it. Stuff it all somewhere. Tidy up. But you don’t. You just push on against the biting wind and through the swirling trash toward home.

You don’t see lots of trash blowing around like this in the southern tip of Manhattan where I live. It’s as if Manhattan has been properly scrubbed down and civilized. Brooklyn is one of those throw-away boys recruited as an apprentice chimney sweep 100 years ago in London with dark ash permanently smudged on his cheeks and lots of moxie but no proper manners to speak of.  Brooklyn isn’t singing songs and dancing with animated penguins like Dick Van Dyke’s talented chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. It’s just plodding along with a dirty unglamorous face, truant from school while also managing to be tuneless and unrepentant.

The paper cup skitters this way and that. It can’t quite make it off the sidewalk and onto the street because a brackish mix of snow and ice still lingers on the curb. So, it keeps caroming along from one side of the sidewalk to the next and ever forward. It’s trapped, as we all are at times, moving forward with our ungainly and uncertain gaits toward unknown destinations.

Trash has been piling up for a while in front of homes as curbside trash pickup has been impossible due to snow. One snow ends and another begins until three or four successive snows pile up on top of each other. Cars get locked in miniature icebergs where snow plows have pushed the snow out of the middle of the street and toward the curb where it melts a little and then quick-freezes up to form a hard block of ice. A chisel or a miner’s pick axe might help to free a car encased in such a wintry concoction, but a shovel is fairly useless.

It’s not as if trash doesn’t pile up in places in the South where I come from because it certainly does. It collects in odd places. Behind a short gravel road that led to a trailer, there was a large gully filled with trash on an odd two-acre plot of land in Salisbury, North Carolina my dad owned during my childhood. My sister and I tromped around in it sometimes like amateur archeologists discovering things about the people from what they threw out. Beer cans. A working E-Z bake oven my sister tried to claim. The illegal dump seemed to go down for miles as if generations of people had gotten rid of their trash in this odd place.

Trash can spread like a disease. On the side of a minor state highway in Asheville, North Carolina someone disposes of an old mattress in a random ditch. Someone else adds a broken rocking chair to that. Little unofficial dumps crop up like brush fires.  Maybe some group forms to adopt that particular stretch of highway. Then the litterbugs find somewhere else to make illegal dumps. This notion of throwing trash in a random spot spreads easily from person to person and is horribly hard to stamp out once it takes root.

Back in Florence, Alabama, I noticed a strange phenomenon. Our neighbors were very curious about our trash. If you took something out to the curb like a worn out chair or a slightly unsteady bookshelf, they would stop and look it over like museum curators considering the addition of a new painting to their gallery.

During our move to Florida from Alabama, I kept dragging stuff to the curb for hours that just couldn’t make the trip. I was shocked at how fast some of the larger stuff was hauled off. Maybe it was restored through craftsmanship to better than new and given a brand new life. Maybe it was taken as is and kept in a huge basement by a hoarder.

I never spotted the people taking away our old furniture throughout the move. Oddly, the stuff would just disappear while I was inside rummaging around and looking for the next thing to drag out. It made me feel as if maybe the house was under constant surveillance by the odd race of scavenging sand people from Star Wars. Feeling that way made it even harder to get rid of things because I knew once it was on the curb it would be gone in a matter of minutes. If it was valuable to them, why wasn’t it valuable to me? But it just wasn’t. Whatever odd purposes they imagined for the thing I was ready to toss out, I couldn’t picture.  I simply had to keep letting it go.

The paper cup jitterbugging along the Brooklyn sidewalk eventually lodges itself somewhere, and I keep moving on past toward the elevated train tracks I find both quaint and shockingly anachronistic in a way that feels wrong. I always keep moving on when the cold wind blows like this. The world is not a neat and tidy place. Trash sometimes rushes madly down sidewalks in all directions in the North when it isn’t collecting in a random gully in the South. Civilization itself seems held together by a thin string.

Trash and leaves aren’t the only thing blowing up in odd swirling vortexes. The salt used to make sidewalks walkable just outside our apartment building after a winter snow blows up ten stories to coat our windows. Upon learning it would cost $125 for a maintenance man to wash our windows, my wife and I decide we should do the job ourselves. Which is why I am leaning way out of the open window scrubbing hard as my wife holds onto my legs.

So it goes. I hold on tight with one hand as I lean out into the abyss to scrub my grimy window. I hunch into the bitter wind in a light hail of trash in Brooklyn and inch forward toward home.

An abundance of random trash isn’t all bad. When I find I have run out of doggie bags to scoop up my dog’s poop off the sidewalk, I retrieve a toddler’s sock and a dry cleaning receipt from the sidewalk. I ponder both. The dry cleaning receipt suits my purposes perfectly. So, I use that.

As she’s doing laundry a few days later, my wife plucks the toddler’s sock from my pants pocket. “Is there something you want to tell me?” she asks. I explain I have conceived a tiny child without her in my spare time who likes to run around with one bare foot.

Nitty gritty New York City

When humming is not enough

imagesI know the weight of your unsung songs. The crushing voices of doubt that threaten to drown them out. The dark shadows milling about around the edges. The full deep forward force inside that propels you out and about and toward the things that must be done every day. The hard cost. The terrible toll it takes as you grind against other forces that try to blunt your dreams, your own sharp vision of the world.
Sometimes you feel light as a feather, and I can see that your song is forming on your lips. Your brave noise about to break on the world. A clear sound that cracks open closed minds. It’s right there on the tip of your tongue. But you choke back and think twice.
Sing your song. We are listening hard. All ears. Let the crazy noise loose. The world is full of critics who hate. Let them. They are deaf to anything but the noise of their own despair and out of tune with the universe entirely.
It’s really OK to unlock everything and sing your songs before they build up into a hard ball in your throat and crush your soul with their unspent fury. Inside your head is an ancient librarian with a finger to a pair of pursed lips shushing your sound. But I say let it out.

When humming is not enough

Life underground

Second Toronto After Dark Film Festival, October 2007.I’m on the wrong subway train. Or maybe it’s the right train going the wrong way. It doesn’t matter. I need to backtrack. Get off at the next stop and cross the platform where I will take the right train going the right way. I’m very nearly always on the right train these days, but in my early days in New York City chances were roughly even I was on the wrong train headed the wrong way. This was before I got an app for that. If smartphone apps suddenly vanished, I might still frequently go the wrong way on trains.
Sometimes you get on the right train going the right way and someone begins to address the assembled riders in a dramatic fashion. You realize you’re about to hear bad performance poetry and be expected to compensate the amateur vagabond poet for his efforts. So that’s really a case of being on the wrong train even though you’re traveling in the right direction.

I don’t want to be on a train listening to a stranger’s bad poetry. I can barely stand my own bad poetry and would only expect to be beaten severely if I dared perform it in public while asking strangers for money in an unconventional venue. The most I could honestly hope for if I were to perform my bad poetry in an entire roomful of bad poets where negative feedback was expressly forbidden would be some kind soul patting my hand gently and patronizingly while saying, “That’ll do.” So, I admire the bravery of vagabond subway poets even as I deplore their poetry.

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Life underground

Groundhog day

imagesI’m cold. Frigid. Shivering. Frozen. Blue-lipped. Frost-bit. Chap-lipped. Dry-eyed. Over-exposed. Stiff-limbed. Triple-layered. I’m a long-john-wearing, mouth breathing, permanent snowman with numb toes and tiny ice crystals churning thickly through my circulatory system where warm blood used to flow. Winter, I surrender. It’s an unconditional defeat as I am categorically undone by the cold.

Bad news. More winter is on the way according to weather experts. Both Punxsutawney Phil and local product Staten Island Chuck saw their shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. “Are you going to take your meteorological advice from buck-toothed rodents?” Robyn asked. Sure. The groundhogs’ gloomy forecasts make sense in this near-permanent state of winter we’ve been living in here in New York City.

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Groundhog day

Comfort zone

imagesWe are jammed and crammed. Two objects can’t occupy the same space, but this law of physics is proving to be more of a guideline at the moment. I don’t mean to bump and grind the guy in front of me. That’s the last thing I want to do, actually. But I’m being relentlessly shoved forward through a too-narrow space on Broadway near Times Square which has been converted into Super Bowl Boulevard in New York City the night before the Super Bowl.

Fans are kicking footballs through a goalpost to my left. A beefy man in a Denver Broncos shirt has just nailed a field goal. He pushes out his chest and thumps himself hard in celebration. I notice as I shuffle past him, but I’m too busy helplessly buggering my way forward in half-steps to care.

Robyn knew this was going to happen. She tried to warn me. She didn’t really want to come here. But she did. I can feel her behind me. She’s merely a domino in a long chain of dominoes like me. I am laughing at the absurdity of it all. I can feel her rolling her eyes at my back. Robyn tells me later that the woman behind her is the one actively propelling us all forward by shoving her through the mass of people like a human wedge. So, we are in wedge formation moving through Super Bowl Boulevard, which seems appropriate. Uncomfortable and weird, yet appropriate.

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Comfort zone