Chasing a Dead Rabbit

I am deaf and broke and cool. Let me clarify that all three states are temporary. Sitting on a stool at a table in a corner of the Dead Rabbit in Manhattan with a DJ working his mysterious magic on a pair of turntables, the music is so loud the conversation at the table of four is limited to short bursts of yelling. Who has the energy for a debate? I am losing at least every fifth word to the noise, so I nod and grin with whatever has just been said rather than argue.

“The Nazi party was horribly misunderstood in pre-war Germany!” Nod and grin. “We should all eat nothing but meat, preferably freshly killed baby deer slaughtered with automatic assault rifles at ten paces!” Nod and grin. “It’s OK to worship Satan if you’re discreet about it!” Nod and grin. I have no clue what anyone was saying, and I hope I haven’t compromised my principles due to the fact that I went along with anything being said.

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I am peering into my drink. It’s a heavy duty dark concoction whose name starts with Blackthorn. It’s sweet and strong with a bitter aftertaste. The bartender went through many complicated and fascinating gyrations to build it. I feel I am almost not worthy to drink it because I can’t possibly suss out all the different flavors happening at once. My palette is confused and overwhelmed. If I drank more, the whole thing would make much more sense to me and I could comment in some learned way about the excess of bitters or just the right amount of barley or something.

“Look, it’s hipsters,” my wife says, gesturing to the crowd. I suppose they must be. They are here in this impossibly cool place with great music and fantastically expensive drinks that are too complicated and rich to fully absorb. I’ve never really tried to be a hipster, and I’ve often made a game of trying to spot them in their natural habitat in Brooklyn with their purposeful rustic affectations and bushy facial hair. “We’re in the in-crowd,” Robyn says, laughing. Well, I think, we’re certainly deaf and drunk and broke. But we came to the right place to be cool. The bar is a celebrated hotspot. So maybe we are, by extension, cool for the moment.

A guy comes over to the table. He’s bald and tall and dressed in black like a stage extra who moves furniture between acts at Broadway shows. He starts talking with us. Introducing himself and telling us he studied to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America. Great, I think. But then he became a sommelier. I am suddenly hoping he doesn’t want to talk about great wines because I know nothing about wine.

He has a girlfriend he took to Paris. He shared her with another man, and he was totally fine with that. His story is getting interesting and repellent all at once. Is he about to suggest a threesome or a fivesome? He is lingering at the table, and he has some kind of agenda that is impossible to figure out. “Look,” he says, “nearly everyone here is wearing plaid.” The couple Robyn and I came with are both wearing plaid, and I am wearing plaid. Robyn is not wearing plaid. Where is he going with this? Is it totally uncool to wear plaid? Is it absolutely mandatory that all stylish people must wear plaid? That seems somehow unlikely. His plaid comment goes nowhere, and like his previous comment about sharing his girlfriend it seems open to endless interpretations.

We leave. No one can quite figure out what our would-be friend’s agenda was. If we stayed there and drank long enough would we all pass out and wake up later in chains chugging away on a barge to be sold for sex slaves in a foreign country. I think maybe I will not be a hipster or in the in-crowd so much since the drinks run about $15 a pop, the music is deafening and weird people try to recruit you into human trafficking and make you feel weird about wearing plaid.

Chasing a Dead Rabbit

Sleep walking through March

imagesEvery fifth day of March is beautiful. It feels like Spring in New York City. Like things are possible again. You might want to go to Central Park and feel the sun on your face there. How long has it been since your prowled its grassy edges? You can’t remember. It’s been so long ago that Central Park might exist on another planet instead of only being a 50-minute subway ride away.

But since only every fifth day of March is beautiful, that means most days are still pretty shitty. Cold and windy. Grey and nasty. Your lips are numb. Your eyes feel dry as raisins. If you coughed too hard, your eyes might pop entirely out of your head and land in your palm. So, curl up in bed. And wait for the more dependable warmth of Spring.

How did it come to this? This witless shambling through where we once took joy in every small step in Manhattan. Remember when your body twitched over some strange new urban art work you stumbled upon that you only dimly appreciated. Do you even recall the electric sense of excitement over the endless possibilities of going to bizarre art shows and exotic museum exhibits? How did we go from a sense of wonder to a half-life of scurrying into warm places and pulling hard against the strong bitter wind to shut the door of a Starbucks? How did we trade a sense of big city magic for the cheap pleasure of a warm chocolate croissant and hot chocolate?

We have become a brute horde of urban winter zombies, sleep walking through our lives in a great grey city. It happened without our knowing it. We got slow and bloated, layered with bagel-fat like the dirty snowmen that decayed slowly and forever in the weak winter sun in Brooklyn.

We started packing ungracefully into subways. Sort of rudely thrusting our bodies into places they wouldn’t naturally fit in order to get somewhere we had to go. Trying to turn away from people so we weren’t breathing in so much stranger-breath. Who knows what kinds of exotic illnesses these people have? They didn’t give you their medical history before boarding the subway. Share with you their strange nocturnal habits and recent travel to foreign countries with a history of rapidly spread airborne illnesses that smack of the plague.

The city once seemed to have a certain natural rhythm that accommodated you, allowing you to walk down a set of stairs into the subway, run your card through the scanner and board a subway car that had just ground to a stop in front of you. Now you come down the steps of the subway tunnel just as a horde of people are exiting the subway car. You can’t get the scanner to recognize your card after several swipes. Then it’s too late because the horde is coming through the two-way stile and there’s no way to fight your way through them to get on the train even if the scanner started to work.

We started wearing so many layers of clothing this winter that we slogged around town like Marley wearing the chains he forged in a long misspent life. You are either way too hot or way too cold. You can never seem to get it right. Hence the layers you can remove or put back on again until the temperature feels momentarily perfect. But every once in a while you see somebody who is wearing fashionable clothing. Someone not bundled up. His or her head is uncovered. And you think to yourself in an ungracious moment: Idiot. Fashionista with anti-freeze in his veins. Frost-bit poseur.

You know it’s almost over. Spring is coming. It must be. It cannot be winter in the city forever. Every fifth day of March your hope rises. You walk outside just to be outside. There’s the sun. That round thing in the sky you’ve been missing. Then it snows, as it is supposed to do here again tomorrow. And you think you were just the victim of a cruel mirage. It’s always going to be winter, and you should just suck it up and get better snow boots so you don’t slip on the black ice anymore and get up feeling yourself carefully for broken bones like an old person. Maybe these boots should have spikes on the bottom for better traction.

Spring has almost sprung. Almost. Four more days. I want to believe in Spring. I really do. I want to wake up and stop sleep walking.

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Sleep walking through March

Freeze frame

imagesPictures were tangible once. Solid somethings as I recall. The developing process was messy and murky back in the darkroom for the black and whites shot by holdout artsy photogs. It was clean and antiseptic in the front of the shop where a machine whirred and clanged and spat out 5x10s and 4x6s in a never-ending chain of bright splashes of color. For some indeterminate season and for no particular reason except to be doing something, I once worked at a small photo shop in Durham.

The effort that it took to produce the photographs was tangible in that place. I only went back in the darkroom a few times to visit, but I marveled at the mystical chemical process that changed the drying vines of hanging negatives into pictures. Black and white photography was on the way out even then, blowing a long slow kiss on a summer’s day that lingers like a bittersweet memory on a breeze carrying a chemical scent.

In a way, I was frozen too. Like the pictures. Not moving forward or back. Just static and still in a small retail photo shop with a quick turnaround time. (We could actually develop photos faster than an hour if we really liked you. If you were impatient and unlovely about your order, unhappy glitches in the machine were known to develop. The technician had a way of delivering instant karma as he color-balanced snapshots).

I had the degree in English, but I could see no point in it at the moment. Jobs were easy to find. Almost disposable back then, like the cheapest disposable point-and-shoot cameras good for only one roll of film. You actually had to destroy the camera in order to get the roll of film out to develop it. Insidious, right? People commonly asked if there was any way to use the camera again. We would let them watch us retrieve the film so they understood that you had to crack open the camera like the shell of a walnut that can never be uncracked. It was a static environment for a place that took rush photos orders. There was only one time of the month when everyone in the photo shop sprang into furious motion – payday.

The business was perched forever on the verge of bankruptcy. This was due in large part to huge Research Triangle Park firms that had accounts at the store they didn’t pay for months at a time. Seasons would pass with no money coming back into the shop for hundreds or thousands of industrial slides we developed. I naively asked once why we kept letting the huge businesses get away with such delinquency. We couldn’t afford to lose their business, came the reply. But what kind of business were we getting when bills languished unpaid while we processed yet more film for them?

So, when payday rolled around we raced over to a nearby bank because we knew from sad experience that if you were not among the first few to cash the check at the bank where the shop’s account was held, you were probably holding a worthless check. Sometimes I was one of the lucky few. Sometimes I wasn’t. So, the huge computer and medical businesses held us all hostage.

One of my co-workers in the photo shop left to work in some new huge grocery store called a Costco. She explained it was a giant store with low prices that sold things in bulk. You paid an annual fee to shop there. Did I want to join Costco? she asked. I subsisted on frozen microwave meals and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I wasn’t eating dirt cheap takeout food. Why would I pay to go shop somewhere? The idea sounded ludicrous. It just didn’t add up. She’s probably a vice president of Costco at this moment earning millions. What did I know?

The pictures rolled off the line in a never-ending stream. Family photos. Beach photos. People only took pictures of the good times. It was a little like living in an artificial reality, seeing so many smiling faces all day long, so much happiness being manufactured. And it was a little depressing because you thought about your own life in comparison to those people in those pictures who looked like they really knew how to live when all you knew how to do was process pictures in a machine and race to the bank for a check that might not even be worth the paper it was printed on.

It was a really good thing when the business stopped coughing and sputtering and finally just died. I didn’t know it then. Sometimes you are lucky without knowing the luck you are having. This was one of those times. You pick up and move on to better things because there is nothing else to do when the store is suddenly closed one day for good. Unfrozen by the magic of unpaid bills.

The good people who worked at the small photo shop scattered to the winds, hopefully finding jobs with more dependable paychecks.

I’ve taken many thousands of photos since I worked in the photo shop using smart phones. Since we moved to New York City a year and a half ago, I’ve snapped pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge at night, the sun going down on the Hudson and the Statue of Liberty as I rode by in a boat or a ferry. But they’re all just pixels sitting in storage on a hard drive like unrealized plans.

I still miss the feel of a photo in my hand, which feels very real and tangible. I even miss the rush of excitement of picking up a roll of film mystically turned into a stack of photos. Would anything develop at all? How many people in the photos would have their eyes shut? How many would have an odd, dazed expression on their faces and would beg me to give them the photo so they could burn it.

I must have been hungover that morning, you’d say. Just look at my hair. No, you were just startled, I’d reply. Not ready for your closeup.

This is you, I’d explain, in a natural light before the magic happens and you become that other you, super smooth and polished and bright for everyone to see. But I always let you have that photo so you could destroy it, perpetuating one more artificial reality.

Amid all these rich images we drown in daily, sometimes I wish I had kept just one photo of you in a morning fog stunned by the sudden flash of a camera. Something gritty and real and slightly off kilter in a natural light.

A picture of you as you actually were in one frozen moment and not as you intended to be. Everything askew and unkempt and beautiful beyond words. I probably do have such a picture, and it’s sitting undeveloped on a roll of film in a large box in storage like a present waiting to be opened one day.

Freeze frame