Once Upon A Time

rose

I had a brief conversation with a gentleman on the subway stairs this morning. I was walking down to the lower level platform where the D, N and R trains stop. He was walking up to the 9th Avenue Bridge platform where the F and G trains stop. He wanted to know what train I had just gotten off of; the one he had just missed.

“G?”

“Yeah, G.”

I guess I could have just said “G” and been done with it but I must have been feeling chatty. I had the same question for him.

“R?”

“No, D.”

I could tell things were really warming up between us. But the fact is, I knew the relationship had no future. We were simply heading in different directions.

If you are not from here you may think that this was an exchange between two people, in a city of millions, who will never see each other again. But that isn’t really the case. Traveling very early in the morning, well before dawn, catching the same train every day, you do tend to see the same faces. Actually you rarely notice the faces but you know these are the same people, day to day.

Down on the platform I take a seat on a bench. Same seat, same bench, every day. I sit on that bench for about five minutes before the R train comes and during that time, most mornings, a not unattractive middle aged Hispanic woman walks by. She’s heading to the other end of the platform because that’s where her stairway will be when she exits the train at her stop. It’s a subway thing and if you don’t live in a city with a subway it may not have occurred to you but there you have it.

I don’t know the Hispanic woman’s name and I never will but she always smiles at me and silently mouths, “Good Morning.” I smile and nod back. It’s our little ritual. We’ve been doing it for about 3 years; maybe 4.

One time, on the ride home in the afternoon, I realized I was standing right next to her. We were sharing a pole; the train was crowded. The situation fairly demanded an acknowledgement. It was awkward but ignoring people on the subway is a skill learned early and practiced often.

I thought for a moment that I might say, “So, how was your day?” but we haven’t been formally introduced. In the subway, as in the supermarket, formal introductions are not strictly de rigueur but still, one has to properly read the situation. There are some people who will just break the ice and say “Hello.” Sometimes I’m that person; sometimes not.

But the fact is, I don’t know this lady and I don’t want to know this lady. I’m sure she’s perfectly nice, she’s got a pleasing little something going on in her walk and I know she likes to smile. But I don’t care what’s going on in her life and I don’t want to pretend to care what’s going on in her life. We already have a fully formed relationship. Perfect as a glass marble. Why ruin it with an introduction?

The R train comes; the doors open; I step in. It is the last car on the train; third door from the rear. When I exit I will be at the stairway that takes me to the escalator that puts me in front of the Staten Island Ferry. I sit in the seat by the door that has just been vacated by an overweight Hispanic man. Same as every day.

Across from me is a man who wears pre-washed jeans, a wine colored shirt and work boots that have never seen a day of what I would call work. If it’s cold out he will be wearing a jean jacket that matches his pants. A few stops later a tall woman will get on and she will sit with him and hold his hand. They don’t talk but they are contented in each others company. She is taller than he is and unattractively built but he adores her. He’s a little simple. She likes it that way. She wears a mix of blacks and grays. The colors of their outfits never vary. Season to season the clothes change but not the color scheme. I would guess they shop at Sears.

We will get off at the same stop, Whitehall Street. She will get on the escalator first. He will be one step back and therefore one step down, accentuating their difference in height. He will drum his fingers a few times on her lower back. Every single day. They are creatures of habit, as are we all. We are all headed to Lower Manhattan and I assume they work in the same building; a corporate cafeteria I’m thinking. They are both in their middle fifties. I think they probably met later in life; perhaps each is living with and caring for an elderly parent. It’s just a story I tell myself but it fits the evidence, scanty as it is. They recognize me because all of us that exit together recognize each other. I don’t know why they aren’t coming from the same place. I could easily ask them, but why? My explanation is as meaningful as theirs because I don’t have a pony in their race. And while truth is often stranger than fiction, sure knowledge lacks mystery.

And mystery is the dark matter that propels it all.

I used to have this girlfriend. We were in college together in New Hampshire. Back then, she was the love of my life because she was my first love. Her name was Carole and she was excellent in every way and through the good fortune of youth and my own inadequacies I was spared a life with her. We lived in a divided up old Victorian with 16 bedrooms. One person per room, except at night when a room might be empty and another room might have double occupancy. I’m still friend’s with one of our housemates, Dave. I think it’s my friendship with Dave that reminds me of Carole.

After I left college, Carole and I drifted without direction; further apart and further away until the distance was just too great to bother with. I was 19 and working in a factory. I quit and went traveling around the country. I did that a lot in my youth. I would just get in the car and go. My car or someone else’s, it didn’t matter. Backpack, sleeping bag, camp-stove. Sleep in state parks, bath in town pools, see my country, keep an eye out for local pies.

Heading east, I woke up one morning in a town park on the outskirts of Kansas City, Kansas. I was making my way towards Philadelphia to begin art school; my wanderings having run out of time. I sat over my camp-stove, boiling water for hot chocolate and instant oatmeal, studying the map and considering my options; fast and boring interstates or slow and interesting back roads? It was a Saturday morning. I needed to be in school first thing Tuesday. I only had 3 days but my search for the best route kept pulling me north.

I think detours begin somewhere in the chest. The heart, the lungs, the throat. That’s where you feel detours developing. Then up into the brain for calculating purposes; back down into the chest; double check with the brain. Decide.

Fueled only by beer, sandwiches and desire I drove straight through to Durham, New Hampshire; about 1500 miles. It took something like 28 hours but I wanted to see Carole. I missed her. I stayed for a day and then I left for school. I never saw her again  but I never forgot her either.

Years later, I moved to New York City and eventually, through Dave, I found out that Carole had also moved to New York. Carole is a redhead and every now and then, when I would see a redhead, I would think of her and look for her face in the crowd. I found her name in the phone book and it felt strange. Something we’d started had, to my mind, never been properly completed.

I had always wondered what ever happened to her. I don’t know why but isn’t that always the case? Don’t we always wonder what ever happened to the people who inspired so much emotion? Especially those relationships that  have no clear ending.

More years passed but eventually we did meet up though I don’t recall how that happened. I credit Dave but he calls it blame and doesn’t want any part of it. Carole and I met at a bar and she told me about herself. She asked if I was seeing anyone and I said that I was seeing Heather. She asked if I thought I would marry Heather and I said yes, I thought I probably would. That was only slightly dishonest because, although we were not yet engaged, I have always known that, given the chance, I would marry Heather. I would marry her yesterday; I would marry her tomorrow.

At length, I realized that Carole and I shared nothing in common but our history.

I want to say that this meeting with Carole satisfied the question of what ever happened to her, but in a way it really didn’t. I realized that the reason I hadn’t known, was the very reason that we hadn’t stayed together. I simply hadn’t cared enough and neither had she. The question of what had become of her was so much more interesting than any possible answer that it ended my curiosity about pretty much everyone I ever lost touch with. In a way it was a gift because it freed me to move forward without regret or regard for the past.

In retrospect, I guess the real question wasn’t, What ever happened to her? The real question was, What ever happened to us? but the same answers apply. People like to assign blame for this sort of thing but assigning blame is a pointless exercise. It didn’t work out. That’s all. We were simply heading in different directions.

These days I only think of Carole when I see Dave and only by force of habit. It’s the dried flower of memory. The softness is gone. The scent, with all its associations is gone. Its fertility and promise are gone. But still, it is a flower, worthy of a moments recognition; a reminder that once upon a time, something innocent held an impossible mystery.

 

Duct Tape

 mousey

A man, A mouse, A dog, A house

 

About a week ago I saw a mouse in the kitchen. Actually, the dog and I both saw it. The mouse ran out from under the stove, zipped across the floor and under the dish washer. The dog looked up from her food dish and tracked the intruder with her eyes. Then she looked up at me to confirm that we had seen something. Satisfied with whatever she saw in my face she put her head back down in her bowl.

 

I got out a bunch of glue traps and figured I’d have it all wrapped up by morning. Morning came; nothing. And the next and the next. Ok, so these critters come in from the garden now and then; it’s been another unusually warm winter so maybe it slipped back under the door and returned to the wilds of Brooklyn. Having mentally set the mouse outside for the moment, I am left to wonder: How long do we call something unusual that seems to happen every year?

 

Days pass and last night my little guy and I are in the living room, sitting on the couch, working on his math homework. He takes a break to get a snack which is something he does about every twenty minutes, pretty much ’round the clock. He returns from the kitchen and says:

 

“Dad, there’s a lizard in the kitchen.”

 

My little guy is kind of known for attaching the wrong word to things but I suppose it is in the realm of possibility that someone’s lizard has wandered in. Still, it seems like an unlikely coincidence. I ask him where he saw it, just to confirm what I already know.

 

“It’s right under the thing with the numbers.”

 

There is only one thing with numbers in the kitchen and it’s the stove clock. Uh oh! That doesn’t confirm what I know. I’m still thinking floor. I can feel the paradigm shifting; it’s making me a little bit queasy. The laissez-faire approach isn’t going to work. I’m going to have to kill something.

 

“There’s a lizard in the kitchen? Is it possible he saw a lizard?”

 

Oop, it’s The Wife. Her paradigm is shifting all over the place.

 

This needs to be handled gingerly. She hates rodents of any kind. She also hates lizards. And amphibians. She’s not altogether too fond of birds either. Or fish. Insects, of course. Come to think of it, she’s shown a diminishing interest in children and the vast majority of adults too. She likes me and the dog. The dog and I are about on an even footing; we are locked in a battle for her affection. If I’m the bearer of bad news the wife is gonna freak and the dog is gonna rule, at least for a minute. Thankfully I can pretty much count on the dog to soil the rug at regular intervals but let’s face it, this is also a test of my manliness. And while ordinarily I am an excellent test taker, manliness may not be my strongest subject. Forced to choose sides along the hunter-gatherer divide, I would much rather gather. You don’t even need to force me; I like it better there. It’s like treasure hunting for snacks. Sure I could hunt for my meat if I had to but the fact is, I prefer to do my hunting with a fork. At Peter Luger’s or Spark’s; Smith & Wollensky or The Capital Grille; Five Guys Burgers & Fries or even a nice, store bought pemmican. The only thing I’m really able to kill with any efficiency is time. But that’s not gonna put Chateaubriand on the table or rid me of Stuart Little here.

 

I’m a product of urban civilization; highly evolved with a specialized skill-set but subject to bouts of the heebie-jeebies. Now it’s time to bring that skill-set to bear on this mouse. My specialty is heavy construction and I’m not sure how cranes, gas powered tools and concrete are going to help me sort this out but I feel certain they will.

 

“Okay pal, show me where you saw the lizard.”

 

Off to the kitchen and …… look at that; there’s a mouse on the stove top. We make eye contact and he’s into the heat vent for the oven, directly below the clock. Oh, this is gonna be a snap. Out with the glue traps again, I surround the vents and fire up the oven. In a few minutes the heat will drive the mouse out of the vents onto the traps and voila, mouse on the half shell. Until then I get back to parsing word problems with my young Einstein.

 

Okay, so let’s see:

 

Sheena needs to bake 55 cookies for her sleepover. She has already baked 21 cookies.

How long before Sheena realizes that cookies are loaded with refined sugar

and saturated fats and that diabetes is epidemic in her demographic?

 

It’s the new, New Math. I’m just here for moral support.

 

I return to the kitchen a little while later to collect my prey and there he is scampering across the counter seeking cover behind the fruit bowl. How is that possible? Really, it isn’t. It’s Inconceivable! He was completely surrounded by space age adhesive. I don’t have time to figure it out. He’s cornered and cowering and therefore at his most dangerous. His lightening speed, his barely discernible claws and somewhat bucked teeth are nothing to mess around with. I know! I saw that first Alien movie. Ferocious things come in small packages that come blasting out of your chest cavity. He’s capable of anything and I need to carefully guard my internal organs and major arteries as well as be ready for a screaming retreat if he turns and attacks.

 

And that’s the problem. What I want to do is stand up on a chair and shriek like a little girl. Mice give me the willies. I think it’s the hairless tail. But I’m gonna be no ones hero up on that chair. So what I’m gonna do is release the inner predator. Ok, I’ve released the inner predator and he doesn’t want to come out. Mice give him the willies too. I’m gonna have to go in there and drag his sorry predatory ass out and apply a little shame and encouragement. That done, I am now ready for battle. In his corner, a half ounce of mouse. Possibly ferocious. You can never tell, you know? In my corner, 155 pounds of Hebrew National Bologna. Unquestionably loyal. Questionably brave. Ferocious? I guess you never know until you’re cornered but all the evidence points somewhere west of fearsome; closer I think, to squeamish and reckless. You work with what you’ve got.

 

I rearrange the glue traps at the end of the counter, blocking his way back to the stove. I rustle the fruit bowl and he’s off again and…. I don’t believe it! He has somehow made it tiptoeing at high speed (my goodness they’re fast) across the traps on their plastic rims? Is that what I saw? Unbelievable! Inconceivable!

 

He crosses the stove to the counter on the far side and squeezes into the alcove that holds the microwave. I remember when microwaves first came out. If I had one of those beauties, before the shielding was more or less perfected, I could have turned the microwave to high and nuked him like one of those little pink potatoes. Just another drawback of man’s mastery over nature I suppose. 

 

The important thing is, he’s cornered. The problem is I can’t get at him. Once again I surround the area with glue traps but I’m losing confidence. I need to flush him out and force him onto a trap. But if I walk away I know he will somehow make good his escape. Time to call in my helpmate. By now she’s upstairs in bed with the dog warming her feet. I call her cell phone from my cell phone so as not to arouse suspicion or curiosity from the kids. I don’t need them to see either possible outcome. The one where I waste the City Mouse of storybook fame or the one where the helpless little creature kicks my ass.

 

Hi Honey. Are you two cozy up there?

That’s nice.

Could you please bring me

 

The Duct Tape and Some Bleach

 

Oh Yeah!

 

Gonna bring down some Trench Warfare on his furry little ass!

 

In my one hand, I am armed with Duct Tape; the indispensable tool of homeowners, jerry-riggers and paranoid survivalists (is there any other kind?) the world over.

 

In my other hand, household bleach. Sodium Hypochlorite (NaClO) 5.25%, the A-list antimicrobial pesticide and corrosive. Gas Attack! Cruel but effective.

 

I tape the sides of the microwave to the wall, I tape the bottom to the counter, I cover the top. There is a single opening, with a large glue trap in front of it. Pop the top on the bleach, a half cup down behind the microwave and there he is dancing across the glue trap on his extended little claws. He’s on the counter, clear of the trap. He sees me and jets right back the way he came, picking ninja style, like he’s walking on water. Worse yet, like he’s walking on pavement. It’s Inconceivable. If I so much as look at one of those traps it sticks to my elbow.

 

On reflection, these many days later, it occurs to me that this little creature, with its awesome will to survive and its Fred Astaire like dance moves, might have made a fine little pet. But that is today. Last week my course was set. I was determined to follow it through to its hopefully bloodless conclusion.

 

For House & Family!

 

To paraphrase an old saying, if you can’t bring the mouse to the trap, you must bring the trap to the mouse. I seal the entire microwave to the surrounding wall and counter after dumping more bleach. It’s unconditional warfare now. People used to do this to each other so there’s a lot of historical evidence as to its efficaciousness.

 

Ok so that’s a wrap. I wash up and go to bed figuring to dispose of the mortal remains before I go to work and before anyone gets up tomorrow morning.

 

~O~

 

Rise and shine and let’s go see the carnage. Pull the tape, slowly pull the microwave out of its niche; it’s creepy, you know. Dead things are creepy. And mice give me the willies. I am facing down a case of the creeping willies here.

 

What is this? No mouse? Just an empty bag of Gummi-bears? You know, I was wondering where those got off to. So this is where the kids hide the evidence. Only the evidence isn’t so empty. Theres a live tail sticking out. It’s Inconceivable!

 

Thats it! I’ve had enough! I cover the bag with a bleach soaked dish cloth and an oven mitt to prevent escape and I start punching. This is maddening! It’s an outrage! I’m all juiced up with disgust and regret but the inner predator is out and he’s pissed.

 

I want it to be over but nothing is going to be easy about this one. No tidy package to slip into a bag and forget about. This will be a killing. In cold blood. Blunt force trauma. I’m shooting for the stars. Infinity and beyond.

 

I’d like to tell you it ended there but it didn’t. I went for the broom stick. Like an overhand pool cue I jab at the offending mass with the handle. One mouse in the corner pocket.

 

I read somewhere that mice have no bones. The whole thing is built on cartilage. But nowhere have I read that they have no internal organs. I pull back the dish cloth and I’m detecting life. It’s Inconceivable! I’m beginning to think that word does not mean what I think it means.

 

With my bare hands, I wrap the whole thing up in the bleach soaked dishcloth and pick up where I started off. Duct tape. I wrap the whole thing up like a homemade baseball and I am done. That was brutal. I kicked a rat to death at work not long ago but this was more hand to hand. More intimate.

 

Later, from work, I texted my wife:

 

The Mousey has left the Housey

 

 She wrote back:

 

Thanks!

 

Somehow “Thanks” does not seem like thanks enough. I think I have Post Traumatic Mouse Disorder. I’m still a little amped up.

 

I text her back:

 

It was a mighty battle

 

Her return text:

 

My Hero!

 

Ah, sweet victory!

 

Move over Rover.

The man of the house is coming home. 

Day #2 – Cross Examination

It is apparent from the moment we enter the courtroom that I will be denied my opportunity to correct the unsightly behavior of the Spiky Haired Lawyer with the buttoning compulsion; the one representing the Van’s Passenger. He has, in the overnight hours, come to his senses and decided that any amount settled on out of court is better than going up against The Angry Fat Girl. Given the quality of his client and the exceeding unlikelyhood of her actually having sustained any injuries at all, I have to think that this caused him no loss of sleep whatsoever, except perhaps in those hours when he was busy spending his contingency fee.

 

The Angry Fat Girl must see Out of Court Settlement possibilities dancing before her like so many french fries. She has not changed her outfit, except for her blouse, since yesterday and I have to think this is a bold tactic designed to throw off the other attorneys. I let my eyes settle on her so as to take in the whole picture and I realize that her dress is not black like her jacket but rather a deep blue so very near to black that I wage a small debate with myself about it before giving in to the truth; she’s colorblind. Perhaps not in the medical sense but for all practical purposes. This is borne out by the fact of her blouse. It is a hot turquoise. So is her barrette. And the bauble hanging from her jacket that appears to be in the cephalopod family. Also her notebook. It is told of the great attorney Clarence Darrow that he would insert a wire in his cigar and light it at the beginning of the court session. The ash, thus suspended, would grow ever longer without falling, grabbing all the attention in the room for himself even as others were speaking. I’m not saying this is The Angry Fat Girl’s intent but I am not saying otherwise.

 

The two remaining plaintiffs, the Van Driver and the Young Asian Woman, take the witness stand and say their piece. They are drab and rehearsed.

 

One comes away without anything but a sense that something small has happened in their lives and they have been encouraged to pick at the scab until someone pays them not to pick it anymore. The Young Asian Woman has clearly had some kind of suffering but the extent is impossible to determine. She is not entirely unpleasant in stature or demeanor so I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was hurt. It caused a disruption in her life and studies. She was an architecture student at Pratt during this time and since architecture is hot right now I think she’ll come out of this lawsuit with something in her pocket.

 

As I mentioned, this plaintiff was in another accident; a three car pileup only ten days earlier. Does this complicate things at all? Under a withering barrage of objections and against every promise not to do so the Angry Fat Girl pressed this point. She would begin a sentence and continue while an objection was made and on through the objection being sustained until she was complete. She is angry and feels like people don’t hear her. It got to the point where The Judge told her she had to stop talking or they were going to have to take it outside. Which they did. Along with the other lawyers and The Court Reporter.

 

I am somewhat fascinated by The Scrivener and have even found myself not paying attention to the goings on in favor of watching her endlessly flaccid demeanor.        

 

I am sitting in the front row of the jury box, on the third base line, right at third base. I can see her, The Court Reporter, the true object of my interest, from the side. I am at a good enough angle to see her yawn but not enough so as to see her blouse. What color is her blouse? It becomes important because, except for her skin and hair she is a study in grey. I know her blouse is grey. It must be! It would be a failure of mythology if it were anything but grey. An unacceptable fracture in the perfection of her stereotype. I check the cuffs of her knit sweater repeatedly but nothing creeps past them. It dawns on me that she is Irish. Yes, even obviously so. I don’t know how this escaped me but then she is like wine, revealing herself slowly and only to those paying close, no not close, strict, attention. I adjust myself in my chair but really I am trying to get a look at the whole of her over the edge of the jury box. She is wearing dark sensible shoes. Grey capri pants and a grey knit sweater. They are of the same tone. It is implausible that her blouse would not be grey and I am left only to hope that it is the same grey. Lunchtime arrives and we adjourn. She remains at an oblique angle and I am left to hang.

 

Later in the afternoon, as the lawyers are taking a side bar and we are able to take a brief recess The Court Reporter stands and turns her back to me. She is talking to the Court Secretary but it is a torture. She has no idea of my interest of course but it seems that every move is deliberately designed to keep my interest and keep me from final knowledge. Finally, she stretches and turns and there it is. The blouse. It is grey. The same tone as her capri pants and knit sweater and also of her stenography machine. They are all identical. Her hand bag is there. It is grey though slightly darker. Her chair, slightly lighter. She is perfect. Then she speaks and the spell is broken. She sounds exactly like my Aunt Sheila.

 

There is a blue vase sitting next to The Judge. It has dried flowers, robbed of their color, surrounding a red silk rose. There is also a real rose; it’s head bent down poking over the lip. It was cut short and has been dead for days.

 

 

Day #1 – Opening Arguments

Today is the first day of the trial. I am Juror #5. The Judge is a dyed redhead. Under her frock, a silk or nylon leopard print blouse is clearly visible. No wedding band but a huge ring of emerald and gold on her right middle finger. I can only hope it’s costume. It’s as big as a man’s watch, which she also wears. She is in her late fifties and must have been pretty good looking in her youth. I recognize her type as a feather, sprouted from one of the more eccentric wings of my tribe.

The Court Reporter is female. I can tell because of the skirt and fingernails. There are no other indicators. She wears no makeup and no expression on her face. She is as pale as death. As soon as I saw her I thought of Bartleby the Scrivener.

In God We Trust signs, made of engraved brown plastic, are hung outside the courtroom door and over the head of The Judge. The eagle on top of the flagpole behind The Judge has its wing tips jammed up into the acoustic tile ceiling. By the time we get into the courtroom, it has already been decided that The Cab Driver was at fault. All that is left to us, The Jury, is to determine the amount, if any, of compensation for the supposedly injured parties.

Apparently they were able to determine the guilt of the defendant, The Cab Driver, by the fact that he plowed his still accelerating vehicle into a 15 passenger van, sitting at a full stop in traffic, on the Brooklyn Bridge. His cab had to be towed away. The passenger in the back of his cab, a young woman, is claiming lots of pain and suffering based on this accident and not at all on the three car pileup in which she was involved the previous week. I believe her because she’s Asian and they don’t lie about this sort of thing.

The Driver and Passenger of the van are claiming neck and back pain. MRI’s supposedly tell of degenerative conditions in the two of them. There will doubtless be lots of medical testimony. They both work for a city run homeless organization. They have both been under the care of the same Chiropractor for two years. I hope they don’t think they’re going to be getting any money out of this. I hope they’re in it just for the civic pride of lynching an Arab Cabby. This is my hope.

Each of the four upstanding citizens involved in this debacle, the three plaintiffs and the defendant, are represented by different lawyers. In essence, this is three lawsuits being tried simultaneously. The lawyer for the Injured Van Driver is the handsomest and knows it. He looks kind of like JFK Jr. His description of the enormity of the impact and the pain suffered by his client are utterly unconvincing but it isn’t unpleasant to watch him try. The lawyer for the Young Asian Woman is bearded and somewhat limp although he would seem to have the most to work with.

The Van’s Passenger, who’s pain is not an improbable byproduct of her weight and age, has a lawyer with rather scruffy hair. At first I thought he had a slightly punkish thing going on because the hair was a little too studied looking, but after seeing him several times over the last few days I am surprised that this is actually the case. It’s odd to be surprised when you’re right about something but there you have it. He has an annoying habit of buttoning the top two buttons of his suit every single time he stands up. It’s like watching one of those preachers who puts their glasses on for the sole purpose of having a prop to take off when it’s time to make a point, which is just about constantly. I have vowed to myself to tell him my feelings on the matter at the conclusion of the trial. All this is made worse by his chubbiness, which is not pronounced but is exaggerated by his hunched shoulders. His shoulders are not stooped so much as drawn up to minimize the opinion that he may have a neck. He is hopeless and should settle out of court for bus fare.

They all pale before the lawyer for the defendant. She is short, round and angry. We only had the opening arguments today and she objected constantly. The Judge, who is paying a little bit of attention, finds her course and annoying. I believe it is probable that many people feel this way about her. She is a bulldog in cheap black business dress that is screaming at the seams. Her accent would make any girl from South Philly proud. She is so distressing that I have not dared to mentally undress her. She’s just right for the job.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I dropped my 15 year old off at the airport this morning. He’s on his way to summer camp. I did the same thing yesterday but this time he actually got on the plane.

I had it set in my mind, erroneously as it turns out, that the flight was at 8:45. We were about 150 feet away from the gate at Newark, having a piece of crumb cake, with plenty of time to spare. There are no site lines to the gates. Concessions block everything. I’m not saying this as an excuse, it just so happens to be the case. We didn’t hear the boarding announcement because, with all these obstacles blocking sound, unless you are reading the lips of the person making the announcement, all your going to get is what sounds like a muffled trumpet. It’s the wah, wah, wah, of Charlie Brown’s elementary school teacher. Again, I’m not trying to shift any blame here, it just so happens to be the case.

Clay was hungry, as always, so we stopped at one of the concessions for the snack. It’s relaxed between us. I adore him but he drives me crazy. I’m sure he would say the same thing. Camp will be a nice break for him from my constant corrections. Corrections I don’t want to give, corrections I don’t want to have to give, but I just can’t seem to help myself. It must be some kind of developmental peculiarity of parenting. Camp will also be a nice break for me from his self-centered self and his own developmental idiosyncrasies. Beyond being a teen there is nothing wrong with him, but that is enough. Beyond being a parent there is nothing wrong with me, but that too is enough.

While we’re waiting, I’m trying to decode the ticket for information about his arrival time in Minnesota; after all, I already know everything I need to know about his departure time. The stub is printed in the same font size they used to use for microfilm. In other airports, there are TV monitors every 50 feet with arrival and departure information. Someone here determined that “information” was not a worthwhile use of a screen when that same screen could be used for non-stop advertising lightly peppered with celebrity gossip and inspirational stories about overcoming adversity. I’m not making any value judgements here, it just so happens to be the case.

Finally, I make out 825. That’s it. No : break, just 825 and it dawns on me that this might be the departure time. I check my watch. It’s 8:21. I grab the kid, we turn the corner and step in front of the gate desk just in the nick of time. It’s still 8:21. There are no less than 5 attendants trying to figure out seat 18A because it isn’t checked off even though everyone has boarded. I say to them, pointing at my 18A, that no he isn’t on board, he’s standing right here and can he get on the plane?

“Well, no.” says the lady at the desk. “The plane has left the gate.” which is a lie. I can tell it’s a lie because there is an eight foot tall window, a hundred feet long, directly behind her and through that very window I am looking at the plane.

“What are you talking about?” I say. “It isn’t 8:25!”  I hold up my phone showing the time.  It is now 8:22 and the plane is backing away from the building.

“Well, yes, but 8:25 is the departure time. The plane is gone.”

“Departure time from where? The gate? The ground? The State of New Jersey?” This conversation may or may not be turning relativistic but it is definitely passed the point of being academic.

I’m cursing up a storm because of my own idiocy but it isn’t made any better by the idiots I’m talking with. The senior guy comes over and immediately tells them to rebook me a ticket at no charge. It’s all pretty clear. They let the plane leave a couple minutes early because it was fully loaded. Fully loaded except for one of the passengers. An unescorted minor, who had already checked his bag, got his boarding pass and was supposed to be in the care of the gate. Whoopsy Daisy.

I’m calling my wife to explain this minor catastrophe, complete with my own culpability and the departure time details. The gate lady, listening in on my side of the conversation, is now trying to correct me that the time the plane leaves is somehow different than the departure time. I’m trying to figure out why this woman is tampering with my diminishing good nature as well as my understanding of my native language. I want to ignore her but her unsolicited comments, and something about her hair, are begging for confrontation.

“Depart means leave, right?”

Oh boy! I can feel the potential energy of this situation developing into kinetic energy. I don’t want that to happen in front of my son and while I am not totally averse to being arrested and strip searched by an overzealous TSA employee, this just doesn’t seem like the most opportune moment. Nevertheless:

“If not; if I have somehow misunderstood what is meant by depart; if that is the case, then “Departure Time” isn’t really all that useful a term is it!?! Maybe someone in authority should consider doing away with it altogether; replace it with a term and a time that match in a meaningful way. How about “Leave Taking” or “Decamping” or “Exiting” or, dare I say it, “DEPARTING!” What a perfect god damn word! Somebody should consider using that word to describe when the plane leaves the gate and then attach a hard and fast time to it. Holy Jumping Jesus Christ, wouldn’t that be a great idea?”

“And here’s another one. When people have checked in with their bags and all, make sure they’re on the plane. And if they’re not, get this, if  they  are  not, if there is a large checked in bag and nobody attached to it, maybe that should set off some kind of alarm; some kind of bells and whistles. At least a sparkler, right? Because, you know, there are people out there who like to blow things up! For some of them, it’s their actual job description.”

Great Caesar’s Ghost, I hope it’s a high paying job because these folks are working overtime trying to cut all the curves off this wheel.

None of this, of course, is in any way depriving me of my own dumbshit lapse. I’m just tossing out some ideas here; kind of opening up a conversation.

Well, there’s nothing to do but take tomorrow’s plane. There is only one seat available and it is on the last flight and unaccompanied minors are not allowed to fly the last flight. I guess the thinking is that if things are a little quirky in the morning, they must be an absolute shit-storm by the end of the day and we reserve shit-storms for people who are actually on urgent business or desperately trying to get home.

The shame of it all, is that we made it from Brooklyn to the so called Departure Gate in about 30 minutes flat. No traffic in Brooklyn, no traffic in Manhattan, no traffic at the tunnel, the bridge, the highway, nothing! Even the parking lot is damn near empty. We were the only ones in the baggage check line and when we go through security there are only a hand full of people ahead of us. I’ve always liked Mondays and this just seems like one more validation.

On the drive home we sit in rush-hour traffic at the Holland Tunnel and make small talk. I can not wait for tomorrow. It cannot come soon enough to erase this error. Clay seems fine but I have already given this some thought. He is going to miss the introductory events that make for a smooth transition into camp life and he has always been a person who is troubled by transitions. I have 23 hours of self torture ahead. Clay will figure it all out by this evening and get a healthy 18 hours of self torture in before arriving at camp. Still, he is adaptable and makes friends easily. Another one of the many things that I admire about him. Also, by the time we get home, my wife has called the camp and they have reassured her, and therefore him, that it happens all the time and, in fact, Clay will be flying in to camp from Minneapolis with another camper who missed their flight. Ok, so I’m not alone in my misery and stupidity but I am alone with this child who I have let down and to whom I have exposed my imperfection. Alas.

As a small consolation, he and his mom have a night out together and go to the movies. They decide to see

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

Good plan. Now he’s too scared to worry about camp. He spends a sleepless night with the lights on. One more thing he shares with me. We don’t like scary movies. Or sad movies. Or chick flicks, naturally. Or anything with tension or romance. No tear jerkers either. No thrillers, dramas or low brow comedies. What can I say, we’re a tough audience.

Naturally enough, tomorrow comes. He’s starting to worry about camp and what he’s missed. He’s a very smart kid; he’ll adjust, but now he’s got me worrying. He’s a teenager and teen intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers. I guess all kinds of intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers but, as with everything else, those qualities are exaggerated in teens. I try to take comfort from the fact that he seems capable of learning anything they throw at him in school. On the other hand, he’s utterly incapable of learning to put the cap back on the toothpaste, or taking his phone and wallet out of his pants before putting them in the washing machine. Also, he is maddeningly disorganized but I think the blame for that may rest at my feet. We’ve tried to help him. We’ve tried in a hundred ways but it’s just no use. Heredity is just too strong a force. In fact, it is so strong a force that I think I can plausibly lay blame with my own father for the rampant disorganization around here. I can, but it doesn’t help. I still need to pick up Clay’s clothes if I hope to avoid a meltdown every morning because his only shirt, the “only” shirt he can wear “today” is missing.

Although he owns thirty shirts, the only one he wants to wear is, inevitably, the one he can’t find and, invariably, it is bundled up on the floor next to his dirty clothes basket.

He talks incessantly and while I’m grateful that he’s still speaking to me I dearly wish he had something to say that didn’t involve television, fashion or the petty squabbles and verbal assassinations of kids I’ve never met.

The girls I’m interested in. Everything else is filler.

The girl struggles are endlessly fascinating because, let’s face it, girls are fascinating and figuring out girls is a life long diversion. It’s interesting and challenging but ultimately pointless. The target is too highly evasive and too highly evolved. The target is constantly moving and changing shape. The bait that works in the morning is poison by late afternoon; and I’m a seasoned veteran. It doesn’t help that teens are so hopelessly inept. They seem to make sense to one another but that’s about as far as it goes and probably not even that far. If you are not of their tribe you are as good as a separate species. An alien. And a stupid alien at that.

My wife says “Teens should only be allowed to share the company of other teens.” I understand that viewpoint and agree with it about 96% of the time but it’s important not to forget the entertainment value of their struggles.

Often times I will see a boy and girl on the subway debating the fine points of some unbelievably witless question. They’re shifting around and smiling, the fluorescent lights gleaming off their braces and the conversation ebbs and it’s all awkward, the air is twisting around them and I want to scream:

“Kiss her you moron. She wants you to kiss her.”

Or

“Take his hand! Would you please just take his hand! Can’t you see he’s in agony?”

I know they’ll get to it eventually but meanwhile the rest of us are suffering, replaying our own teen insecurities and failures; our own struggles and self-doubts. I know this because I’m also watching the young woman standing in the corner pretending to read her book but she is mesmerized by their incompetence. As the teens exit the train this woman catches me looking at her looking at them and we both crack up.

Her smile says: “God that was painful.”

My smile says: “That used to be us.”

The camp my teen is going to is a language immersion camp. Yeah, I never heard of that either and I think it is reasonable to ask; “Who sends their kid to language immersion camp for summer vacation?” In our case, the answer to that question would be “Him.” This was his idea. We never heard of this place before. He heard about it through a teacher and he wanted to go. He really is the greatest.

The way it works is, each language has its own village complete with style, architecture, culture and cuisine. The villages include French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, English, Russian and a bunch of others.

The villages are separate but in fairly close proximity. I guess the idea is that the campers are immersed in the language and culture of their region of choice. It’s the next best thing to being there. Ideally they develop a certain pride in their group, they identify with their adopted culture and, ultimately, become xenophobic. Thus having become fully enculturated, when the time comes they can rise up, Lord of the Flies like, and reenact the Second World War. That last part might be my spin but, given the players, I think it’s a plausible scenario.

Today’s trip to the airport is the same as yesterday’s except in all the details. Going on the assumption that the same flight, same time, same circumstances rule should be in effect, we leave Brooklyn with two hours to spare. You can’t be too careful after a fuckup, you know what I mean? And I can’t wait to put this one behind me. Get him on the flight and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen.

We leave home and turn right into traffic. I dodge around and take a back way to the tunnel. Ok, we’re good. Up onto the highway; more traffic. We make it to the airport where the parking lot is already filling up. We grab a distant spot and hurry into the terminal. His bag is already in Minnesota but I need to get a pass to get through security so that I can escort him out to the departure gate. Again. Of course, there is a line. We get everything squared away and head to security. There are fully 200 people ahead of us. It’s starting to feel like a conspiracy but I am on a mission here, totally focused. Not however, so focused that I don’t notice a half dozen soldiers who are not five years older than my son; young men and women, children really, saying goodbye to their grim faced families. My problems are petty and ridiculous; just the way I like them.

Finally we get to the gate and we check in with the staff. The nice thing is that we have not run into a single person from yesterday’s debacle. No explaining to do. Maybe they all got fired. The not so nice thing is that this new staff is easily as clueless as yesterday’s staff. My son’s ticket needs an unescorted minor stub which, somehow, did not get issued yesterday and nobody here quite knows how to do it. They give it their all and figure it out and immediately tell him to board. He hugs me and I hug him, “I love you”, and he’s gone.

Wait a minute! I’m not prepared for this. I’m upset. I don’t know how but I’ve been caught by surprise. How can that be? We’ve had so much practice! I have to call my wife. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for him and for me but now he’s gone and I miss him terribly. Immediately, I want him back. I’m all choked up when I realize they’ve boarded him a half hour early. I sit in the long window, looking at his plane, and we text until they tell him phone off. The last text I get off to him is that I slipped an iPod into his carry-on bag. His last text is “Haha great!” He’s happy and now I’m ok. I did something right.

The Art Opening

Sculpture: Tom Butter

I went to a friend’s art opening the other night. I entered the building, stopped to check the directory to locate the gallery and turned to find my pal Tom standing right behind me. That’s a good sign since a trip to a gallery where I don’t know anyone is usually brief and depressing. Brief because I don’t much care for looking at new art and depressing because artists are, as a rule, terrible conversationalists. Artists don’t talk so much as they give a point by point recitation of their resume. It’s a transparently self-centered exercise and unforgivably dull. The only upside is that invariably these people’s egos are as fragile as the thin film of burnt sugar on a creme brûlée. It’s a combination that fairly demands a little soft tissue probing. Torturing artists can be fun but it’s so easy it barely qualifies as sporting.

Tom thinks that I’m macho because I’m in heavy construction as well as the fine arts. In fact, a lot of people seem to think I get a lot done for someone with three kids, a full time job and a so called career in the arts but Tom genuinely seems to be impressed by it. Maybe he’s just shy and it gives him something to talk about. We are friendly now and there is a real warmth, but that was not always the case.

Tom is a sculptor I met back in my Philly days. I worked in art galleries as a preparator, which sounds like a salad position in a restaurant but is more like a salad position in a gallery. You know, hang the work, paint the walls, date the receptionist, that sort of thing. Back then, Tom was one of the few artists whose work I could really identify with. He lived in New York and was in a good gallery and he taught and was good looking and super talented and he has a great last name; Butter. Tom Butter. How can a name like that not shine? It’s inevitable. Like an unfair advantage. Tom was also mysterious and ultra-smart. For me, he was an artist to be like. Not that I wanted to make his work, or have his life, but I wanted to be a respected artist with important things to say, a good gallery in Manhattan, an exotic girlfriend and a great name. Man, then I would have it all. Back then it didn’t seem like too much to ask, it just seemed so far away. Except the name. That! That was too much to ask.

I felt back then that a good first step would be to befriend this guy. It wasn’t a strategic move, it was simply that I wanted his approval. Like many young people and not so young people for that matter, I sought the approval of those I respected who were in a position of authority. I guess that’s normal and certainly beats seeking the approval of those whom no one respects and have no authority at all. Better to aim a little higher, I say.

Well naturally I didn’t get his approval which should come as no surprise. I, and almost everyone else, always look for approval from those who won’t give it. Which is probably just as well. Where is the value of something that is given away for free? I was forced to admit that, unfortunately, this was going to require some work. If I wanted respect, I was going to have to earn it. In fact, I was never able to find a way to talk to Tom at all. I’m sure I was awkward but I also think he was a bit tightly wound.

Years later, after I moved to New York, I would run into Tom every so often at his art openings or at Parsons School of Design where I worked as a technician at night and he taught during the day. It was always the same. A simple hello; totally ungratifying. Even more so because he was so animated with his students. Eventually it dawned on me that he was comfortable in a position of authority like the student teacher relationship. All I needed was to put myself in that position. In other words, all I really needed was a question.

By this point I was more grown up and beyond caring about the approval of others. Age and the daily abuses of heavy construction had pretty much cured me of that, but Tom was a loose end from my youth. My desire to connect with him had lost its sense of urgency and need; it was now more like a hobby.

Around this time, it so happens, I was working on my own show. It was my third solo exhibition and I was trying hard to grow the work around a tightly focused idea. I always underpin my work with a ton of research and in this instance I was meddling in art history. History is a place I have an interest in but I probably shouldn’t be allowed to go. I have a terrible memory and I’m not a stickler for facts, even when I know them. I had been doing research on the mathematics of Postwar American Art. There has never been a period of such raw experimentation with such astounding successes and yet that aesthetic passed away like all the others before it.

To me it was a mystery and I thought if I revisited some of the more formal tactics used by the greats I might learn something. Maybe some of that greatness would rub off on me.

I was using everything from John Cage’s chance operations and Myron Stout’s handmade, obsessive precision to Barnett Newman’s personal preferences for canvas size. From the standard intervals of Donald Judd to the variable intervals of subway stops on the A Train between West 4th and 125th street, I used it all.

I couldn’t see it then but I realize now that these names were the superheroes of my youth. I did not read comic books until I was in my twenties when I stopped watching television. But as a kid I would always look through the picture books in our house and, my father being an artist, all the picture books were contemporary art books; all the magazines were art magazines.

I was trying to tether my work to this most explosive period of American Art when I ran into Tom at school. I cornered him, if it can be said that someone can be cornered in the middle of a hallway, and shot him the question that I’d been rolling over in my mind and which doesn’t seem to be answered in any book. It is also the question which I had formulated for just this occasion. The only other question on my mind was: “Will he take the bait?”

As any fisherman will tell you; when you go fishing it is important to know your prey and to use the right bait. The right bait on the wrong hook will not get you dinner. The wrong lure in the right place will leave you hungry. But if the lure is convincing and the fish is provoked and you are quiet, all that remains is patience. I am a patient man.

Hey Tom,

What was the failure of modernism?

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Jackpot!

This Old House

Good morning deviants. This post is going to be a short one. I’m having house problems.

Last week I noticed that my porch roof looked rather….soft. A slight gap here, a small twist there and all of it leading to a sense of unease. I decide to take a day off from work, tear down a few boards and look to see what the problem was. In an old house like ours, that’s how this stuff starts. You pick at a crack in the wall and suddenly, so it seems, there is a gaping hole and a pile of plaster at your feet. There are no small jobs in old houses.

You always hear the lament that things aren’t built the way they used to be. That’s true. There is no horse hair embedded in the plaster, over the rough coat, over the wooden lath, past the uninsulated gap to the brick. But once I removed the porch ceiling I could see that this house was built before building codes or basic common sense. There is a general sense of know how with a strong sense of “Git ‘er done!”

My 90% deaf friend Vinnie was doing some work in his old house. He was shouting the details of his discovery at me even though I was standing right next to him. He was redoing some plumbing and found that there were no pipes in the walls. All the water was being moved around the house through garden hoses. I think the sense that craftsmanship has slipped away is mostly based on a reduced amount of building ornamentation. Buildings just don’t look so grand anymore. Houses are startlingly efficient but not visually impressive. And unless your wealthy, I guess that’s always going to be the trade off. Me? Two weeks into it and I’m just trying to finish this damn thing.

Now, I could describe the problems that I found when I took down the ceiling and I could lay out my plan of action because, after all, I am a man of action. I could do a “This Old House” point by point reconstruction complete with product endorsements but no. First off, there are people better equipped to do that than I. Lots and lots of people. And, in fact, they already do. And while I may bring a certain slant to the writing end of this project I don’t bring any actual skill on the construction end. Yes, I am a Dockbuilder. A tradesmen in heavy timber, concrete form work, pile driving and all the other gentlemanly arts. But house carpentry? No. Dockbuilders refer to carpenters as “termites”.

There is no “wood” where I work. Where I work, there is only timber. No 2″ x 4″s. No plywood. The smallest piece of wood I work with is a 4″ x 12″ and, except for tying a patch into the middle of a repair, we use the timber full length; 20 feet is our shortest. The larger stuff, the backbone of our work, is 12″ x 12″ x 24′. All our timber is Greenheart (clorocardium rodiei) an extremely dense, strong, weather and pest resistant hardwood from the rainforests of Guyana.  All the timber is handled with the crane.

At my job, there are no nails or screws or adhesives. No paint. No table saw. No chop saw. No dinky claw hammers.

At my job, timber is cut with a chainsaw, pounded in place with a sledge hammer, drilled with a pneumatic drill, and bolted together. The shorter bolts weigh about 8 pounds each.

I have a mind that can wrap itself around the problems of large projects, because large projects are fundamentally about tearing out bad and bolting in good, in a pattern that will resist the piloting errors of ship’s captains. But there is something small and precious about house carpentry that kind of eludes me. For instance “fit” seems to be important. I’m going to have to pay attention to that. In Dockbuilding fit is less important than overall mass.

And all these little tools and screws and plastic widgets and batteries. Everywhere I look I have rechargers winking their lights at me accusatorially. And every year there are hundreds of improved products. It’s like being a doctor. You have to keep up with every development.

Or not. That’s what I’ve decided to do. Well, not decided. I’m doing it the only way I know how.

Git ‘er done!

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