Go East Young Man

Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Ma...
Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Manhattan at Night, NYC (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

 New York Taxi Rules:
1. Driver speaks no English.
2. Driver just got here two days ago from someplace like Senegal.
3. Driver hates you.

– Dave Barry

My first trip to New York City was in 1987.  I was 26 years old and had only known the Big Apple from gritty 1970s R rated movies like Shaft, Serpico, Death Wish and The French Connection.  (The fact I was able to see these movies with my father when I was still in elementary school is the subject of another story.) The urban citadel of New York was depicted in the flickering darkness of antiseptic California cinemas as a playground for misanthropes, heroin addicts, the criminally insane and corrupt financiers that sat firmly latched like ticks to the neck of the American economy.

Woody Allen and a few urbanized aesthetes attempted to reintroduce the perfumed notion of New York urban romance in films like Annie Hall but as far as I was concerned, the five boroughs comprised one giant petri dish overflowing with the germs spawned from an unscrupulous and unwashed humanity.  I had met kids from New York that had travelled West to attend my college.  They were infinitely more sophisticated having emerged from an entirely different elementary education.  I recall my first New York City roommate showing up with his strange music, turned up Izod collar, pink pants and penny loafers.  One spring afternoon I noticed him wearing a suit and tie one and asked him if someone important had died.  In California, neckties were only worn to church and funerals for heads of state.  He informed me that he was interviewing with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship.  I asked him why he would want to work at a department store.  I only now recognize the withering look of distain that I received.  It is a vintage eastern look that is both an intellectual rebuke and a simultaneous entreaty to God that he cull his human herd of another cripple.

My flight to New York was a seminal event to attend my older brother’s wedding.  He was, ironically, working at Goldman Sachs – presumably selling men’s clothing.  This made sense to me as he did seem to dress well.  I was alone as I lugged my massive garment bag out of Baggage to be assaulted by a gauntlet of gyspy cab and ronin limo drivers. I felt only slightly more confident than a third grader at his first sleep away camp.  I stood in a queue long enough in Los Angeles to qualify for a movie premiere. A half hour later, I was in a suspicious looking cab with a North African driver with blood-red qat eyes. Having mastered the annoying California habit of excessive friendliness, I peppered the poor cabbie with personal details and a stream of nervous questions.

“This is my first trip to NY.”

“How far is it to West 79th Street?”

“My brother’s getting married.”

I glanced at his license, a jumble of vowels interspersed between the letters “k” and “w”.  He appeared to have just walked off the set of The Naked Prey as a co-star with Cornell Wilde. I assumed his “home” must be some obscure nation in Africa.  I had been brought up in the provincial Eden of Los Angeles where Mexico was Tijuana, Canada was viewed like an unused garage apartment and the rest of the world was organized like the board game of Risk.

“So what country are you from?”

“Queens”

The cab swerved across three lanes of Van Wyck expressway brake lights moving on to Rockaway Blvd and a peristalsis of lurching commuters.  I surveyed the gated yards, orange glow of cigarettes and shadowy people tucked in among dilapidated homes and barred windows.  We were moving slowly.  I could easily be pulled from the cab and savaged by an angry mob. I felt my head retracting into my neck as I slumped down below the window.

The driver skirted a traffic jam, honked his horn and swore in a foreign language as he ran a red light.  He turned right away from Rockaway Blvd. and moved slowly down a chain linked side road.  I muttered a silent Rosary.  So this was it.  While my brother’s friends would be inquiring, “Tom, where’s your little brother?”  I would be in a garage in Queens being cut into small pieces and fed to pit bulls.  I briefly contemplated diving out of the taxi to hide in one of the canyon-sized potholes that the vehicle kept pounding across.

“Are we? I mean, is this the best way to the City?”

“Traffic’s bad.”

The lights of New York suddenly appeared to the West shimmering in the haze of the August summer night.  An hour later, I was sitting in my brother’s air condition-less Upper West Side co-op that was only slightly larger than a microwave oven.  He was exhilarated by his Lilliputian lifestyle.  I sat terrified as he described our need to take the subway to meet friends in the Village. The last movie I had seen that involved riding on the NY subway resulted in Charles Bronson shooting a car full of street thugs.

We walked down a stuffy hallway to wait for a coffin disguised as an elevator.  The lift could comfortably accommodate one person.  I hesitated as the door opened to two people.  My brother vacantly smiled and wedged in between the man and woman.  I followed, apologizing as I pressed against the young mother. She seemed nonplussed by the fact that we were practically conjoined.  I was certain when we exited the lift I would be wearing her blouse.

The doors opened and we spilled out into the hot breath of a foyer.  The doorman had his back to us watching a homeless man berate a four foot mountain of trash that was accumulating from a recent garbage strike.  August heaved up from the subway grills.  It seemed even the air had left the City for the Hamptons.

The night was an endless bachelor’s party blur of crowded nightclubs, silk dresses, shot glasses, kaleidoscope lights, superficiality and a wad of AMEX receipts.  I do remember being asked by every woman what I did for a living.  As I soon as I shared “insurance”, it was if someone had pulled a fire alarm. With each cocktail, my apprehension of New York City melted.  The mean streets slowly morphed into a neon adult playground of temptations.  I was Pinocchio running with a gang of financial Lampwicks on Pleasure Island.

The following morning, I awoke in the fetal position on floor of my brother’s dressing room apartment clothed only in underwear and dress shoes.  Aside from the roto-tiller grinding through my medulla, I noted the constant thrum of motor vehicles.  On my run through Central Park, I seemed to fixate on the mentally ill and a breed of elite, skeletal mannequins who jogged as if they were starring in an exercise video.  At that moment, I made a life pact that if I survived this dystopian weekend, I would never again cast my shadow east of the Mississippi.

God and life love making lemonade out of sour pledges.  One’s best thinking always becomes fodder for irony.  27 years later, I would find myself living in CT and commuting into New York City.  I was now jostling in the belly of an iron beast ready to be disgorged into the stale underground of Grand Central Station.  It seemed a lifetime ago that I could drive fifteen minutes from work to Newport Beach, run along the strand and then body surf for an hour before returning home to my young family.  It had been months since I had actually seen the ocean, the sky and or a star in a night now awash with light pollution.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself walking happily up Madison Avenue passing a mélange of restaurants, shops and businesses.  The streets teem with diversity, a giant Masai Mara of heterogeneous souls coursing across a concrete veldt.  It is early fall and a perfect ambient temperature. Everything is bathed in a soft, sequined light.  The City prefers to walk on a day like today.  A car is a burdensome utility in a place like this.  It is a racehorse or vacation property – an impulsive and underutilized possession that must be housed and boarded.  Unlike the love affair we enjoyed with our four-wheeled deities in my native California, there is no value in driving.  To park anywhere is to squeeze into a postage stamp stall deep in the bowels of a urine fragranced car park, or hand $55.00 and one’s keys to a Tunisian parking attendant who has not smiled since he immigrated to the US in 1997.

There is no place to hide from life in the City.  It finds you. Everything is shared.  I often return to the City after dark to attend a dinner, a concert or social event.  Coming down the Hudson or FDR, the city lights are strung like pearls and as with most great works of impressionism, it reveals aspects of itself only when you step back to appreciate it in its entirety.

I visit an organic juice bar for a drink that has more vitamins than five heads of raw broccoli but tastes like battery acid.  A giant rat is inflated in front of an adjacent building that is clearly engaged in behavior that a local union does not find acceptable. A poor demented soul stops to rebuke an invisible demon then attempts to make eye contact with a jet stream of bowed heads and averted glances.  In one block, I pass a lifetime of humanity – all moving with urban determination to a destination that rests like a Hobbit’s hovel somewhere tucked inside a concrete mountain.

The City will change with the seasons.  No day is guaranteed.  The weather and unforeseen disruptions will alter our routines and push us into cabs and underground.  NY is no longer a Broadway beauty or a faded actress, it is a million faces and places hiding in plain sight.  It is a midnight piano bar, a Soho nightclub or the sad saxophone of the Blue Note.  It’s a Central Park autumn jog around the reservoir and a post theatre cappuccino at the Monkey Bar.   It moves and swirls like a holiday dreidel that will not stop.

As I approach my office, I overhear a familiar conversation as a New Yorker offers directions to JFK to a man and woman.

“Now forget everything I just said. You can avoid all dat garbage by taking the downtown and Far Rockaway-bound A train. Don ‘t get on duh god damn Lefferts-bound train.  Go to the Ozone Park-Airtrain station that connects you to JFK.  It leaves da same station as da E train, but youse gotta use a different subway platform. The E and A trains have da dark blue soy-culls. Same price, the freaking A train never runs to Rockaway as much as the E to Jamaica, but it’s always good to have dat as an option.” I smile, grateful for my simple suburban commute, the NY Times crossword and the Whitestone Bridge.

I miss California the way I long to be eighteen again.  I recall the West the way a person gets nostalgic for all the firsts that come with adolescence.

Soon, it will be cold.  I am content to see each season come and am always grateful to see it go.  I endure winter to get to summer.  Spring is a myth and autumn is a joy. It is the East and it is home.

 

Fear and Footsie on Metro North

I don’t have a fear of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

– Woody Allen

Every time I board the Metro North, I ritualistically choose the window in the two passenger aisle.   Inevitably, a Talmadge Hill or Glenbrook commuter crosses my 38th Parallel invading my personal space. We sit, silent sardines packed in the belly of an iron beast rattling toward the city.

As I drift between my blackberry and a depressing NY Times, his leg shifts and brushes mine.  He mumbles “sorry”, not wanting me to think he did this on purpose. I retract my leg quickly as if electrocuted.  Later,  he falls asleep and his foot is touching mine.  I must shift my shoe but not so quickly that he wakes and thinks I have some sort of “problem”.  So I wait for the proper moment and then, ever-so-slightly, break contact off with his interloping foot.  My new window seat position has my back slightly turned to the aisle and my legs are now bent to the window.   By the time we arrive in Grand Central, I am hunched over like Golem protecting his “precious” ring.  Yes, it’s just another exhausting morning for this mild neurotic.

I am certain I am not alone in my garden of odd peccadilloes. In fact, it is every psychotherapist’s raison d’etri to crawl like entomologists through the jungles of our minds catching and examining the strange paramecium that wriggle in the darkness of our subconscious.  The Metro North seat mate contact thing is just one of the many odd little habits that I carry around with me like a tattered blankie. The root cause of my personal defects may never be diagnosed.  Did my mother inhale too much foot powder during her pregnancy.  Perhaps it is a more deeply metastasized problem arising out of my childhood. Perhaps it was the infamous 1971 Brussels Sprout Affair where my no-nonsense father made my brother eat dog-saliva coated sprouts after he caught Tom shoving them into the maw of our normally dependable canine disposal.  Was it having a Democrat and a Republican for parents?  Whatever the reason, each of us occasionally dredges our dark mental swamp where weird little ideas and notions swim in seclusion.

Things get interesting when peccadilloes morph into phobias. It is also the DNA of human comedy.  Some irrational fears that I have encountered among friends and relatives include: an anxiety over hot liquids, distress about drains, dread of dark windows, concern over clowns (it is real and called coulrophobia), or just a freaking strange obsession when someone with socks touches your feet when you are also wearing socks. There are others I can personally relate to:  a fear of the basement, fear of elevators, aversions to taking one’s pulse or even so much as having a vein under surveillance.

My father has lived for years with Bolshephobia ( fear of Bolsheviks ).  The aversion resulted in an intense dislike of Democrats, or anyone who ever uses the terms ” redistribution”, “fair” or “equal”. He is terrified of politicians from Northern California.  Growing up, we oftened accused my mother of having intensely irrational fears.  She had a visceral aversion to sleep overs at friend’s homes when only a teenaged sibling was babysitting.  She had hives over our attending rock concerts, riding motorcycles, hitchhiking or coming home with a girl with body tats and an ex-boyfriend who had the mailing address – Prisoner No. 95435, San Quentin, CA. How paranoid can a parent be ?

Phobias often plague the rich and famous.  Most are familiar with the chronically misophobic billionaire Howard Hughes who spent the last several years of his life locked naked in a Las Vegas penthouse apartment that was sanitized hourly and meticulously monitored. Less known, is the famous hexakosioihexekontahexaphobic – artist Marc Chagall who feared goats until, on the advice of his therapist, he confronted his demons by painting his horned tormentors floating harmlessly while being subdued by cherubs.

Yes, many suffer from a strange brew of irrational fears:  Soceraphobia : the fear of parent in laws.  The fear of Germans?Teutophobia.  Tuetophobes tend to also fear personal trainers and engineers.  Pogonophobes have a great fear of people with beards.  Bearded ladies are often used to treat this condition as this mental double negative can snap someone out of their anxieties or in a few rare cases, make them jump out of a third story window.   Lachanophobics are normally under the age of 12 and fear vegetables.  Selenophobics possess a deep fear of the moon.  I do recall a selenophobic event after a college frat party where I was absolutely certain the moon was following me.  No matter which way I turned, it was after me.

I have actually invented a few clinical terms for my own private peeves: kareokaphobia – the fear of singing in public.  Teshaphobia – fear of John Tesh music and purgaphobia – the fear of shopping with one’s spouse.  Many men suffer from Stamaphobia  – the fear of being asked to carpool to a birthday party in Stamford.

Angst, paranoia, needling fear — are all merely symptoms of being human.  Psychotherapists and psychologists have financed many a ski trip to San Moritz mining the diamonds of anxiety that are littered across the acres of our subconscious minds. In the end, Woody Allen, Monk, Jack Nicholson and a more open society have made it ok to be a tad neurotic.  Everyone sees the world through their own unique looking glass.  My kaleidoscope sees beautiful colors, odd shapes and the occasional shadow created by fractured perspective.

The aperture of the guy now seated next to me on the Metro North? I am not sure what he sees.  I only wish his foot would stop touching mine.

Trains, Planes and New Year Resolutions

New York City skyline from Continental Terminal C
Image via Wikipedia

Trains, Planes and New Year Resolutions

Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath.  Today, we are a pious and exemplary community.  Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.  ~Mark Twain

I am standing, no, sleep walking in Penn station at an ungodly morning hour staring at the rattling tote board of arrivals, departures and assigned track numbers.  A heroin addict has just scampered out in front of me like a giant subway rat clutching a handful of C&H sugar packets – presumably to temporarily mollify the beast of addiction stirring within her.  The dank corridors, low light and my bleak midwinter Vitamin D deficiency make me feel as if I am transforming into a vampire.  Perhaps sun deprivation is causing Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I consider the year that awaits me as I carry on to Newark airport and a business trip to Ohio – – another 365 days of yo-yoing stock markets, political uncertainty and twice-as-hard-to-be-half-as-good work environments. I know I am not in a good place when an elderly woman walking by with cup of coffee makes me despondent.  Am I losing my mind in this neon and halogen habitrail underworld of planes, trains and cheap hotels?

During thirty years of laboring in the vineyards of America Inc and Europe SSA, I do occasionally experience episodes of self-pity. I refer to them as my “Talking Heads Moments.”  Somewhere off in the distance, David Byrne is jerking his shoulders and crooning:

“And You May Find Yourself Living In A Shotgun Shack

And You May Find Yourself In Another Part Of The World

And You May Find Yourself Behind The Wheel Of A Large Automobile

And You May Find Yourself In A Beautiful House, With A Beautiful Wife

And You May Ask Yourself-Well…How Did I Get Here? ”

My descent into the limbo of self-assessment is predictable.  It appears like a noon-day demon every first few weeks of a new year – brought on by post holiday blues, back to work doldrums and the frenetic pace of travel that always precedes budgets and a fresh year of earnings expectations.

The dark thoughts scratch at my mind’s door on a snowy January morning in an economy hotel outside of Toledo where I am giving a speech. The Toledo Comfort Inn is the depressing vortex of my self-reflection.  My room resembles that old couch that you purchased from a second hand store for your college dorm room or first apartment. If one were to use a black light in this den of drab, it would most likely resemble a Manson Family crime scene. My wake up call through paper thin walls is the muffled hacking and unearthly sounds of a heaving travelling salesman as he takes his first cell call of the morning.  Against a backdrop of his bellicose cursing, I step under a showerhead the size of a thimble.  The hot water is a stinging stream of pins that push me against the tiled wall like a bystander in some riot. I am not amused. In these nadir moments of life, it is best not to write a memo to your boss, make major decisions or operate heavy machinery. On these days, life just seems to be one endlessly existential, nihilistic rut.

At breakfast, I remember why I hate staying in commuter hotels as I make eye contact with an elderly man from a tour group.  He has been staring at me for over 15 minutes.  His is not one of those, ” don’t I know you? Or ” didn’t we meet at…” kinds of stares.  This is an ” I wonder what your head would look like in my sweater drawer” stare. I move to a new seat in the waiting area.  The temperature in this overheated corral is around 100 degrees.  It’s like an Indian Sweat Lodge and I am about to see my spirit animal in a dehydrated state of blue-collar delirium. I remember that someone once told me when feeling low that I should “ move a muscle and change a thought”.  I decide to write down my goals for the year.

Ah yes, the New Year resolutions. Perhaps this simple act of planning will prove cognitively therapeutic – breaking me out of my mental doldrums and distracting me from the octogenarian serial killer who is day-dreaming about holding me hostage in his basement. I gaze across this lumpy ocean of Middle America grazing on glazed donuts and coca puffs in the breakfast lounge,  and wonder what happened to my grand goals and resolutions?  Where did the upstart populist Senator go ? What became of the college literature and history professor? Was it me or my goals ?

“How did I get here?

Goals and planning were compulsory in my family. Each January, we were asked to record our goals for the year.  My father insisted at age ten that we charted our “stars to steer by”.  We were expected to focus on personal, academic, financial and community goals. We thought it was a bit odd that we were the only kids in our class with a balanced scorecard and performance appraisals.  It was bad enough that we would receive a day planner every Christmas as a stocking stuffer.  What I was going to do with a calendar when I did not even have a secretary?  I do recall attempting entries for the first few days of January only to eventually orphan the calendar and finally condemn it to the garbage. Dad’s theory was that boys were like cars with no GPS device. Goals were important touchstones and fundamental DNA for any worthwhile life journey. “For God’s sake.  You would not drive to New York from Los Angeles, without a roadmap. Would you, son?”  This query was usually followed by my best stupid face as I incredulously pondered,” Why would I ever drive to New York?”

Our family patriarch promulgated goals.  Acceptable submissions included: Get good grades, don’t hit your brother, do not be rude, pick up your clothes, set aside $ 100 to your college fund and do not steal my (father’s) underwear. My dad would smile and clap me on the back, as I tendered and posted my public objectives. He would faithfully staple my manifesto to the breakfast room bulletin board along with my brothers’ best intentions.  These lists would remain like public health inspector assessments for the entire year. They were constant reminders of our commitment to self improvement.

As we moved into high school, we created two sets of goals.  Like any worthwhile double agent, we had public goals and private agendas. Under threat of death, we would share our goals and attempt to outdo one another with wild boasts about our prowess as men. Life was not about the future but about the venal here and now. Forget next year.   Quality of life was measured in three-month increments.   Carnal knowledge, sporting accomplishments, plausible hyperbole and bouts with acne impacted your social standing greater than any grade point average, religious denomination or economic trend. My 17th year was a critical transition year and I was determined to exploit my new driver’s license and fourteen hairs flourishing like palm trees on my upper lip.  My confidential aim for the stars aspirations included:

Goal 1 – Ask the majestic Kerry K on a date (I had adored this girl since the fifth grade but would experience a mild form of verbal constipation when I so much as laid eyes on her. For several years she believed I was mildly retarded)

Goal 2 – Attend 4 Dead concerts (I was not sure how I would get the money or transportation but becoming a frequent flyer at Grateful Dead concerts was the social equivalent of being a Platinum card holder)

Goal 3 – Do not drink and drive (we all saw the film “Red Asphalt” in driver’s ed), do not drink beer on weeknights or the night before any baseball games  (In the socially liberal 70’s, boys did indeed buy pony kegs and parents were not hauled off to jail for being ignorant of this fact. Moms sometimes returned the kegs to the liquor store to get the deposit back)

My resolutions would fluctuate from ambitious to aimless with each New Year but I never failed to put pen to paper. I was always focused, like Catholics at Lent, on striving to cure my defects of character and mastering suboptimal parts of my life. As I got older, resolutions became like spiritual deductibles that instantly reset each January 1.  My goals became mountaintops that I sought to conquer to test and define my character. I did not complete many resolutions.  Like any good baseball player, I considered a .300 average as worthy of being an all-star. In some cases, I did not complete a resolution for years.

I think of my goals and resolutions.  I still have not tracked a snow leopard up the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, published a book, battled with a massive sailfish in the Gulf Stream or studied the great religions of the world.  I have not left footprints on every continent.  However, there is still time. As I sit in the warmth of the Comfort Inn, I realize there is time. There are mountains to be climbed, books to be read, children to be educated and a world to be changed.  William Thomas said it best when he remarked, “it would not be New Years, if I did not have something to regret.”  To which FM Knowles would glibly reply, “ He who breaks a resolution is a weakling.  He who makes one is a fool.” Personally, I think Benjamin Franklin said it best, “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each New Year find you a better person. “

As for the resolutions of 1978, I finally asked Kerry K out but not until I was 22.  By then, the bloom was off the rose for both of us.  I did make those Grateful Dead concerts but all I can remember is some twirling girl named Golden Blossom.   I did not exactly master self-imposed prohibition but years later, I discovered my own boundaries and learned to appreciate a Saturday morning sunrise.

The snow has stopped and the Comfort Inn breakfast lounge has emptied.  It is time to get moving – into a new day and a new year.  I have miles to go before I sleep.

Who knows, perhaps this will be the best year ever.