We bob like corks in the sea. Forever and forever. Time passes slower between waves as a single deranged seagull circles overhead. So. Maybe only an hour passes. The pier is in the distance to the left – a long finger poking into the ocean. Grizzled fishermen with poles and lines stand sweating in the sun along the rails. The most grizzled fishermen with faces withered by the sun and burnt brown arms are arranged at the end of the pier as always, trying to pull in big fish with confidence and high test fishing line. You can’t make out a single fisherman from where we bob and rise. But I feel them over there. My wife Robyn steps on a fish. What kind of fish was it? I ask. I don’t know, she says. What kind of fish did it feel like? I ask. She can’t tell. It felt fishy. I bet it felt slimy, says my 16-year-old son Avery. We all bob gently. The swells are mostly low and manageable. A few rogue waves threaten to wash over our heads, but they don’t.
This was our beach once. A place we were sunburnt and sand-coated. Freckles formed here. Primitive sandcastles erected. Messages scrawled in the sand. Shells meticulously gathered. The shells sat in a big, sandy plastic bag on a counter. We should make an art project from those shells, we told ourselves. But we never did. We shook sand from our hair after we finished burying each other in the sand. Fine grains flew everywhere. We tasted gritty bits of sand in our mouths and spit them out. We blasted each other with ice cold water from garden hoses and stood in outdoor showers to come clean again. But this is not our beach anymore. Now we are visitors.
I had a dumpster-diving artist friend once who was roughly 7-feet tall and laughed harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She gave herself over to mirth, committed to it in a way that is rare and fine. It was contagious, and I would often start laughing hysterically at the jokes we made. This was back in the days I lived in Chapel Hill, NC. When I walked through her house and looked at all the beautiful things she made out of compact discs and broken appliances, she would point at this or that object and note the object’s humble origins as trash. Recycling at its finest. In addition to being an artist, she taught an art class. One day, she asked me to model for her.
I thought that was hilarious. No, Jane said. For real. In the nude? I asked. No, fully clothed, she replied. Then I couldn’t possibly, I said. We laughed like idiots for a long time. I may have rolled on the floor. I did that back then sometimes. I don’t know why I don’t roll on the floor laughing anymore. It’s great. Everyone should. Then she explained she was serious. And I would be paid money to do it.
In those days, I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. I sold a ton of old books I had collected through the years to a local used bookstore in exchange for a few bucks to buy a hamburger. I was not an artist like my friend Jane, but I nearly had the starving part down. Well, I was on thin rations, let’s say. So, I said sure.
Being a model for an art class is not as glamorous as you might think. You sit on a stool. Very still. And maintain whatever expression you have settled into the moment the session began. You nose itches immediately. Then you think you might develop a nervous tic in your left cheek. Your butt starts to get sore from sitting. You desperately want a glass of water. You want to laugh at the ridiculousness of other people looking very earnestly at you and taking in all your contours. You look at your 7-foot-tall artist friend moving around the room peering over shoulders, and you want to start laughing even more. But you manage not to do any of that. About five and a half years of your life pass as you sit. Then another season – a long winter – goes by. Then it’s over.
The room is filled with images of you. It’s kind of mesmerizing. It’s like looking in a fun house mirror, except the mirrors are all a little different. Your features all reflected in various ways in the eyes of the artists and their particular mediums. There I was in charcoal. In paint. Maybe twenty easels of me. I can be quite critical of how I look, but the artists’ eyes and hands seemed more generous. It was really a healthy thing.
You have to forgive yourself for not looking perfect. Just get over it. Let it go. My first month in Manhattan, I walked around struck by the youth and beauty around me. How am I ever going to fit in here? I thought. All these perfect people marching past me on the way to their perfect jobs. I belong in an uglier town. I would never say that the Pittsburgh area, where I once lived, is full of ugly people. But I think it just has a rougher blue-collar quality to it where less beautiful people might be more appreciated. So, I thought, maybe I should be living in Pittsburgh instead.
You can’t let New York City intimidate you like that. If you are feeling particularly ugly, tell yourself you have a ton of character that more than makes up for the ugly. You probably do. And it probably does. That’s what I told myself. I have a ton of character. I even believed it.
Over time, it was easy to see that not everyone in New York City looked like they came off a conveyer belt of perfect youthful attractiveness. People who were capable of embracing their own imperfect bodies at any of the nude or near-nude events held in New York City surely demonstrated that. New Yorkers love to get naked. They might have let it hang out at the recent Clothing Optional Bike Ride in Brooklyn or the Naked Subway Day. An artist was doing nude body painting in Times Square one weekend. Or they could dress up like a mermaid in the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island last weekend where many a mermaid went topless down the boardwalk.
Some mermaids were older than you might expect a mermaid to be. It’s impossible to know the average life expectancy of a mermaid. But if you had an expectation of only 18- to 25-year-old mermaids being allowed in the parade or a state of half-nudity being relegated to a certain age group, you’d be wrong. Some of the mermaids were generously proportioned. My friend Alicia said she heard some men booing these mermaids from where she watched. I heard none of that. The men had come to the parade hoping to see half-nude young models parading past, but they got a true mix of body types.
I love that the mermaids and mermen embraced their bodies in whatever state they were, whatever age or dimension their bodies took. I found that truly beautiful.
“New York City will eat you alive!” a friend and co-worker told me when she learned we were leaving Wilmington, North Carolina two years ago. She had grown up in New York. She knew me. I’m quiet, calm and low-key. She knew the city, which is none of those things. She was sort of right. New York City has had me in its jaws and has been chewing me absently for some time like some large distracted mastiff that really has no true malice in its heart. It just has to eat. Everything.
But even as the city has slowly chomped me, I’ve tasted all the good stuff here. And I’ve learned something. The “good stuff” when you live here is mostly not the same as the good stuff when you don’t live here. It’s pretty much a whole different set of stuff.
My good stuff is not The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or Times Square. I can see the statue every day from where I live. I went to the Statue of Liberty once when I was about ten years old on a visit to the city. The torch was closed that day, but we were plenty high enough on top of the pedestal. I inched around the pedestal worried that a stiff wind would blow me off. There was a railing, but it didn’t feel particularly sturdy. The wind in New York City can be brutal, and I felt light as a leaf that day. So, I simply hugged the base of the statue until I could get back in to begin the long trek down. I’ve felt no great urge to go back to the statue since I’ve lived here. Continue reading “Bite the Big Apple”→
I baked in Hell’s Kitchen yesterday. Felt my skin seared in the summer sun as I trudged up the long Big City blocks along 42nd Street from 12th Avenue to Fifth Avenue. City blocks are short where I live Downtown, but as you move further uptown in Manhattan the blocks running east to west gradually grow to impossible lengths. When I could manage it, I dipped under the shadows cast by tall buildings or walked under awnings. I was pushing a blind man in a wheelchair. When he felt a jolt shudder through the frame of the wheelchair from a familiar rut on a certain street corner he said suddenly, “That’s the street I work on.” I was simultaneously impressed by his ability to locate himself and depressed that the sidewalk could remain so inhospitable that its pockmarks had become a familiar fixture in his world.
You want to bathe yourself in sunlight in this land of tall buildings. See the sun as a redeemer. We live in a corner apartment in a 22-story building with a sliver of a view of the Hudson River to the west. You can see the river from every room in the apartment. You have to crane your neck a bit to see it from some windows. But it can be done. The tall building we live in and others behind it cast a shadow on the city streetscape below. So the first evidence of morning we get is the light reflected off the Hudson River two short blocks away. During the long dark winter, I got crabby and moody like a rat in a crowded cave on the days when the sun just failed to materialize some days or made only a very faint impression inside the apartment. An embittered ingrate, I asked unhelpful questions with obvious answers. Why is our apartment so small? Who stole the sun? When is it coming back? Answers: It’s actually large by Manhattan standards. No one. In a few months.
I am trying not to stare at the elf girl. I know for sure she is not a real elf. That’s a given. But she has these very prominent elf ears. So, you can’t help noticing them. You are supposed to notice them, really. But I don’t think you’re supposed to stare. I’m wondering if she had herself surgically altered to have elf ears. Surely not. Surely at some point she leaves the game store in Brooklyn where we’re all about to play Dungeons and Dragons, and she goes home to feed her cat. She takes the elf ears off and leaves them in a dish or something by the bed like you might a retainer. Then she drifts off to sleep and dreams sweet elfin dreams.
My 16-year-old son Avery and I have never played this game before. He is all about video games and U-tube videos of people playing video games and anime. He watches a lot of movie reviews. Sometimes, he talks about movies he’s never seen before, giving you detailed critiques of them. But he’s just repeating what he’s seen in a video. So, you try telling him that the experience of watching a review of a bad movie is nowhere near as fulfilling as watching a movie and deciding for yourself that the movie was bad and knowing and being able to explain why it was so bad. And reviewers can even be wrong about movies. And sometimes you can enjoy watching a bad movie even while knowing it’s bad. Give bad movies a chance, I say. Does that make any sense?
What lies on the other side? Where do ducks go in winter? Are some vocalizations universal in any language- like yelling “Oww” when you cut your finger or “kachoo” when you sneeze? Is it possible to arrive before you left by traveling in a very fast plane through different time zones? Is it possible humans now inhabit some places we were not meant to live – all states north of Maryland maybe?
If you were colonizing a new planet, what system of government would you institute? Would the robots have their freedom, or would your new society be morally bankrupt from the start due to robot enslavement? How would you keep the robots from taking over? Are you a robot? Have you already taken over?
When can we have jet packs and flying cars like we were promised? Why does the retro vision of the future so clearly drawn in 1950s comics seem somehow cooler than the actual future we’re living in? When can we have robot butlers than know how to mix drinks, clean a house and cook some basic meals?
What are dogs thinking? Are they simple basic thoughts, or does your dog make moral judgements about your behavior and sit around contemplating your demise? Isn’t it more likely that cats would hatch complicated plans to get rid of you? What would a world run by cats look like if they somehow managed to take over? Would all humans have to wear bells so our cat overlords could hear us coming?
Will it ever be possible to safely graft wings on to the human body in an inexpensive surgical procedure so that we can simply fly to work? Would people expect you to fight crime just because you could fly – because that would be kind of tiresome and even dangerous? Would you need special goggles to keep bugs out of your teeth?
Do you have any answers? Any questions of your own?