Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 2

My family was trained to indulge and we were utterly unashamed of our abilities. Every day was a manic and relentless parade through deep-junk Americana; harrowing, psychedelic, wonderful. I had a Batman bedspread and Aquaman pajamas; I opened my dream-distracted eyes to a poster of a mounted cowboy in a rubbly valley, mesas in the distance. He wore spurs and chaps and a red shirt with a black vest and a white hat and he brandished a pistol as he rode.

I wanted that gun more than anything.

My room was strewn with toys: G.I. Joe, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and a Rubik's Cube. An Etch-A-Sketch, a skateboard. A real football and a fake one made of foam. A lime-green water pistol, Beretta-style. A Millenium Falcon, tilted like a pot lid, gradually shedding brittle fragments into the deep hairs of my purple shag. Belts of orange Hot Wheels track drooping from the windowsill, winding under chair and desk, some connected by dark green plastic tabs and others solitary, double dead ends in the wasteland.

On Saturday mornings I'd awake of my own volition, stumble through the debris, walk down the hall to the bathroom and brush my teeth with Aim. Because I was supposed to take aim against cavities.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 1

My father owned a sealant company. Industrial, commercial. I spent many numbing hours wandering the warehouse while he worked, memorizing the names and properties of products: Dynazip 25 one-part polyurethane sealant, moisture curing, effective on highways, reservoirs and sewage treatment facilities; the gun-grade, multi-component polys of the Merix series; Portex 400 ultra-low modulus silicon bridge sealant; the Spexxo line of custom sealants, including highly adhesive blended elastomer compounds, non-hardening synthetic rubbers such as Zoxit 90, paintable acrylic latex suitable for acoustic treatments, Lithik 1000 solvent-releasing high-solids seal for construction joints, and Evagica synthetic-rubber-and-resin compound gutter seal; Trumlo 67 (and Trumlo 67 Plus) low-mod, one-part, traffic-grade silicone sealants for highways and parking structures; CoZeel neutral-cure silicone for curtain window wall systems; FTW 500, FTW 550 and FTW 600 one-part, acetoxy silicone for sealing bathrooms, locker rooms and spas; and X-Alta no-mess poly foam to seal against the wind-driven rain: pre-compressed, self-expanding, self-imposing and self-aware.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Here we are day three of the great Swine Flu Contagion of 2009. Or is it day four? Many years from now, the historians among the few scattered tribes of traumatized human beings yet remaining on earth will debate the point when the time comes to write the official record of what will then be known simply as the Big Death.

It's a hell of a day outside today. Helicopters rattling across the hazy sky. The polyphony of roof birds and trucks in reverse. The clap and thud of wood and Sheetrock from behind the plywood walls of sites. Everything seems to be alive again.
I stood on a grassy median in a parking lot in Truckee thinking, This is California. I tried to gauge the space and time. The California air, the California dirt. This feeling is what every pioneer had felt before me. A gazed around the ring of unfamiliar stores and walked back to the van, its engine still pinging as it cooled.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Streak - 26

"Sean, glass of water please," said Kyle.

"Make it two, Sean," said Evan.

"You guys all right?"

"We're good, Sean. Thank you. We're very good," said Kyle.

"You motherfuckers rolling tonight or what?"

"That's correct, Sean. You're very observant. You're really a very good bartender. A good bartender needs to be observant. Watch for the little things. The periphery. Isn't that right, Evan? We don't appreciate a good bartender the way we should. In this society. We don't give Sean enough credit half the time."

"You don't have to blow me," said Sean.

"It's time to give the devil credit when it's due. Am I right, Ev?"

Evan was drying his tears on a cocktail napkin.

"Sean's the best. Kyle, give Sean cocaine."

Kyle made a weird, pained face. "Not... yet... Evan..." he whispered through clenched teeth. Sean scrutinized them with a smile.

Evan stared dumbly back at Kyle. "Whaddaya mean?"

Kyle pointed at an imaginary watch beneath his cuff. "The... time... is... not... now!"

"For Jesus's sake."

Kyle nodded vigorously.

"And don't whisper like that. You're making my trip bad."

Kyle put his arms up and turned his head.

"How many minutes?" asked Evan.

Kyle checked the time on his iPhone. "Hmmm. Twenty-three, maybe. Thirteen?"

"Fuck it, I don't want to know. It's not good to know."

"You're right," said Kyle, plunging the phone back in his jacket pocket. "It's not healthy to know. Let's sit here and drink water."

"It's like knowing when you're gonna die."

"No one wants to know. No one oughtta know."

"It's on a goddamned need-to-know basis and no one needs to know."

They sat in silence for a while, sagely sipping water as Sean beheld them smilingly, leaning on the bar with his bar towel in his hand. He then began to wipe the counter idly, whistling "Whiskey in the Jar."

"You whistle well," said Kyle.

"You're a good whistler," chimed Evan.

The phone went off.

"It's time!" declared Kyle.

"It is now. The fucking time is now," said Evan, clapping once.

Kyle handed Sean the bullet. Sean snorted copiously from it and passed it back. Kyle and Evan took their turns. Evan swiveled on his stool to offer some to Bill but the old man had disappeared without a word or sound, spirited back into his shadow world.

"Thanks guys."

"You're the best bartender in the world," said Kyle.

Sean did a brief, ludicrous hat-doffing pantomime consisting of twirling his hand in a descending spiral from head to chest.

"Let's go," Evan told Kyle.

They settled up, tipping Sean extravagantly, and said their goodbyes. When Kyle and Evan stepped outside they were suddenly surrounded by an insistent, rattling roar.

"What the fuck is that?" cried Evan in alarm.

Kyle pointed up. "Helicopter."

They gravitated downtown on Lex, waving to the street for a cab.

Illustration by Louise Asherson

My Assassin

Everyone has an assassin. Most of us never cross paths with ours is all. My assassin crept through the Great North Woods for days. All he knew was where the sun vanished and where it reappeared: over the mountains that way, from the forest over there. He countered its path through the sky with a daylong journey of his own, slashing through brush and bramble in as straight an eastward line as he could. Then the dark would come and then the cold. He never seemed closer to his goal; each new day promised nothing but night. When he awoke, the sun was there to mock him. He would eat what he could from trees and bushes. Drink from a brook. And soon set off again.

I was walking up the stairs to my apartment with a bag of wine. Hoping to avoid chance encounters with my neighbors; the requisite, awkward hellos and eye contact. I did not know that my assassin was mere days away. It was possible I might never know.

He emerged in a field and saw a highway in the distance. He followed it south, not on the shoulder where the cops would pick him up but beyond the fence, among the trees, up and down the dynamited hills. Finally he saw a rest stop: a squat, stone building with cars behind it, picnic tables, children running in the grass. He cleaned himself in the men's room as best he could and stood guard at the building's door.

"Have you heard the news?" he asked the first people to walk by, a paunchy couple in their forties with two boys in tow. No reply.

"Have you heard the good news?" he asked a slender, middle-aged woman. She walked past in disgust, chin tucked to her chest.

"Have you welcomed Jesus in your heart?" he asked a young man, who eyed him tauntingly but did not say a word.

He questioned every passerby this way, receiving nothing but mute stares, oblivious disregard or sneering nos. Finally, on the 78th try, a genial, obese man with a blond crew cut smiled back.

"You bet I've heard the good news! What's your name?"

"Uh... Jim," he croaked. He hadn't spoken a word in weeks.

"Jim! I'm Jim too! Isn't that a riot?" Jim held out his hand and shook Jim's hand.

"I guess."

Jim laughed heartily. "Hey, that's OK. You look like you could use something to eat. Can I give you a ride somewhere, buddy?"

"I need to go to New York City."

"New York City! That's a tall order. What are you doin' down there?"

"Spreadin' the word, I guess. And the deeds."

Jim nodded quickly, like he didn't specially wanna hear. "God bless you Jim. God bless you and God love you. Hey, I can take you down to Portland and then we can see if we can maybe find you a bus or something, OK?"

"Uh. That'd be great."

Jim and Jim rode together in Jim's Consolidated Christian Youth Ministries of Maine van. He ran the ministry out of Portland and had just done some evangelizing up in New Brunswick, he was saying. He was on the road a lot. Saving souls. Jim didn't much like Jim. He briefly considered killing him, but thought better of it when he thought about that ticket to the city. Jim talked and talked and talked and Jim mostly shut up and before he knew it he had a Greyhound ticket in his hand for New York City and he was standing in the bus depot on Congress Street staring at a vending machine full of pretzels, chips and candy. Jim bought a Kit Kat with the pocket money Jim had left him.

I walked down Amsterdam Avenue, fumblingly sticking my earbuds in my ear, cursing it all inside my head. It was a beautiful day, but then again it was like any other day. I had absolutely no idea that I'd soon encounter my assassin.

Jim walked the underground path from Port Authority to the Times Square station and got on the downtown 2. It was late afternoon by now, pretty empty train. He saw me sitting across the way.

"You know it's coming, dontcha?" he said.

I lifted my head warily. "Oh yeah? What's coming?"

"The end time."

"The end time for what?"

"For you, brother."

"Well, I hope not."

"Jesus doesn't give you a choice."

"That doesn't seem too Christian."

"There is a time for everything under heaven."

"So they say."

"A time to kill and a time to die."

"This is my stop," I said.

His eyes widened. "This is your stop. It's your last stop, sinner."

"I mean on the train. This is my stop on the train."

"Oh," he said. "Yeah. OK. Well..."

"Good talking to you."

"Turn your back on me, you get the evil eye."

I stood up and walked toward the door.

"Repent!" he cried.

I felt his glare between my shoulders as I stepped off the train. From the platform I looked for him through the window. He was masked by a clutch of deadpan, harried Manhattanites, newly boarded. If he was there at all. Relieved, I joined the bottleneck at the base of the stairs. Two Hispanic women labored up the steps with a stroller.

When I reached the top, my assassin was standing there waiting. I wondered whether to double back or try to run past him. Instead, I found myself standing still, open to whatever may yet come.

He lifted his right hand and made a gun with his finger.

"Pow! Pow! Pow!" he shouted, pantomiming the hammer's action with his thumb.

There was only one thing I could do. Because we live in a civilization. Because we adhere to the social contract. Because ritual actions and their requisite counteractions are at the heart of all meaningful social life.

I slapped my right hand to my heart and said, "Got me."

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I left the convention at a little past noon and rode the elevators down and down. The hotel featured vast expanses of carpeted floor in various configurations: mezzanine, foyer, ballroom, auditorium. Signs on easels advertised the rooftop bar. You would not know that there were any rooms.

I emerged into Times Square, the vexing tangle of barkers, vendors and distracted tourists. I drifted out onto the island in the confluence of Broadway and Seventh, the calm eye of the storm. It was there I saw one of those things you hardly give a second thought unless you decide to. A brawny man wearing nothing but cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and skintight briefs held two slightly prepubescent girls in backwards headlocks. Their smiling faces peered out at their delighted parents from beneath his armpits. Daddy got the camera ready while mommy looked on approvingly. The cowboy widened his stance, staring south, a grim and purposeful expression on his face. The girl on his right had rested her left hand on his haunch. He took her by the wrist and lowered her open hand onto his right ass cheek with the judicious deliberation of a bomb squad technician. The girl squealed with glee as daddy snapped away. A garish, red-white-and-blue guitar dangled from the cowboy's neck and bounced lightly on his groin. On it was written "Naked Cowboy."

It's funny the things we accept, the things we do, if they seem sanctioned in some kind of way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I drove the rental car gingerly over a glaze of wet snow. Heaters ablaze. We were on an anonymous patch of sprawl in the Pacific Northwest, heading towards a given sector of the corporate campus at the prescribed time. Coworkers in a car. We pulled in to a driveway that wound between parking lots and schoolish buildings and searched for signs indicating the alphabetical and numerical designation of our destination. We finally parked in a multistory covered garage and walked up the little hill to the main building. Purple banners hung from lamp poles celebrating our product's umbrella product, itself a minor fiefdom in the company's Platform Products and Services division.

We had a meeting with Crawford Quick, the lead Program Manager for our work group. We found him alone at the head of a conference room table, right leg fidgeting spasmodically. Crawford was a tall and powerful man, broad-shouldered, borderline gigantic. He had a Frankenstein jaw, enormous hands. Crawford came from the other side of the world.

"Sit dan, gah-eeze," he commanded. A vast spreadsheet was projected on the screen. The image must have been six or seven feet wide, yet the cells in the table were vexingly small, each containing a datapoint whose near illegibility contributed to an impression of dubious plausibility. Large sections of the sheet were painted green, yellow or red.

"Thee-iss," he explained, "is a proh-ject plen!"

We followed his cursor dutifully as he described the ins and outs. He told us he sets aside an hour every Friday morning to compile the plan into a report for his boss and ours, the elusive Alan Jones.

"Ah-ee till pay-pull, den't boh-ther mah-ee. Ah-ee tun uff the phen. Nah mah-tings. Nah nithing," he said. I could imagine Alan every Friday at about 11 am. Closing his eyes.

He showed us a PowerPoint presentation on the functions and duties of the Program Manager. One slide featured the letters "PM" inside a circle in the middle, with arrows radiating out of it to Sales Account Managers, Development Leads, Test Leads, Consulting Services and the Product Unit Manager. Crawford stirred his cursor over the P and M.

"Thee-iss," he declared, "is mah-ee."

When it was over, Crawford led us down the hall to show us something. He smiled at us over his enormous shoulder as we walked. The rhythm of drab white wall and office door was suddenly interrupted by a brass plaque and a regal entrance of dark wood: double doors inset within an elegant, decorative molding and beneath an ostentatious lintel, guarded on either side by potted trees. Crawford stopped short, seemingly afraid to break the threshold's scope.

He turned to us with a mad smile. "Thet's Jah-eeh Wah-zee's oh-fiss, gah-eeze!" he whispered.

Jay Wizey was the Chief Software Architect of the entire company. Crawford turned on his heels, satisfied, and we walked back up the hall.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lonely in America

Atul Gawande's disturbing article about solitary confinement in the New Yorker got me thinking. Our tendency to fling prisoners into the hole is like our health care system or our gun violence or our pitiable public transportation - it's one of the many things that distinguish us from countries with which we ought to have a lot more in common. It's tempting to trace these characteristics to some innate aspect of our national identity, some dubious tendency in our nature. These conclusions are sometimes facile and reductionistic, but they often have the ring of truth: We value greed on the personal and corporate level. We distrust government. We've internalized Manifest Destiny; we view big cars, big houses and Big Macs as our due. We have rebel souls and pioneer hearts, blah blah blah. All the familiar claptrap, sure, but it's hard to dismiss when you're honest about it.

Here's what I think about solitary confinement: it's the perverse underside of American individualism. Throughout our history we've celebrated self-reliance, self-determination, and indeed selfishness. The self-made man. But just as there are self-made men there must be self-destroyed men, for America is a zero-sum game. Every winner demands a mirror loser; every gain is someone else's loss. And as we exalt the individual, so must we debase him. This is American hell: not a hot, dark pit where you toil with your fellow damned but a cold, fluorescent-lit cell where you spend eternity idle and alone.

Solitary confinement is a parody of American values, an ironic punishment. Inherent in our application of it is an unconscious rebuke of the culture that promotes it–that's why it's perverse. If solitude is such exquisite torture for someone behind bars, what is it for someone in a gilded cage? Add this to our list of selfish traits: self-destructive.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Streak - 25

Evan's tongue felt funny. He was sweating a bit, and he could feel himself breathe. He could feel his pulse throughout his body. With every breath he sensed the welling of a tremendous, glowing energy within his chest, a force that extended out his arms and down his legs and up his head. His scotch was melty now and it tasted of aluminum and maple syrup. He turned to Kyle, whose pupils were dilated nearly to the whites of his eyes. Wispy filigrees of cologne rose cartoonishly into the air between them.

"Jesus fucking Christ, dude. You look high as hell," said Kyle.

Evan peered at himself in the mirror, above the Bushmills and the Black Bush. It occurred to him that he could not remember a particular, very famous, beloved and prematurely deceased actor of American film, a stuntman-turned-star, a tough and a heartthrob. Actually, it was the name he could not remember, not the man. He remembered every line on his face; the perpetual, wry scowl; the acid gaze. He could play back scenes in his head from The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno, Papillon. In fact, he remembered him particularly well during this odd spell. Forgetting the name seemed to allow him momentary, accidental insight into the absolute identity of the person it designated. It was like forgetting how to read and suddenly seeing what letters really were: curly glyphs methodically arrayed on a contrasting surface. Names are mere totems, idols; they're the guardians at the gates of truth. This one was absent from its post. Evan crept in, fearful but exhilarated, a trespassing child. Beyond the threshold lay the universe as it really was, unfiltered and unmediated.

Evan willfully let go of his desire to know the man's name, opening his right fist to mark the fact. He gazed at his lightly trembling fingers and felt the world disappear beneath him. He then experienced a powerful identification with the man, an absolute empathic understanding of the strain and pathos and virtue that defined his life and death. It was ridiculous yet unassailably true. Evan realized that the man with no name was every man. His trials, his hopes, his fears, his ambitions both mundane and spiritual, his victories and his failures, these were everyone's.

Evan emitted a halting sigh.

"What's up, kid?" said Kyle.

"I... I... I..."

"Jesus, you're crying."

"Am I? I am."

"What's the word?"

"Whew, OK. It's alright."

"It's alright?"

"I just saw something. I just felt something."

Kyle scrutinized him with his huge, black eyes and a measure of dutiful concern.

"What did you see, one-seven?"

"I dunno. Something, nothing." Evan shook his neck and shoulders to cast away the coils of his reverie. "Whew. It's OK. It's good."



"Don't ask me to do anything queer."

"Kyle. Car chase."

"Steve McQueen.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thin, middle-aged woman on the uptown A, suitcase crowding her knees. She must've got on at JFK. Virgin tags. Shoulders slumped. Legs crossed and the top one fidgeting. She yawns. The body memory of landing unconsciously expressed.

Medical Equipment I Have Seen

The Canon RK-3 Auto Refractor Keratometer.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Streak - 24

"Bill. Looking sharp as usual," said Kyle.

"Looking fine. Looking clean, Bill," said Evan.

"Stop kissing my ass, boys." Bill and Sean exchanged a momentary, knowing glance. "I've got a job for youse guys."

"A what?" said Kyle.

"A job?" said Evan.

Big Bill reached into his right jacket pocket and retrieved a thick, rubber-banded roll of bills, which he tossed onto the bar. It bounced around a little and rolled to a halt in front of Kyle. It was hundreds. There must have been five, ten thousand there.

"Yeah," said Bill. He leaned forward and put on an expression of utmost gravity.

"I wantcha to throw the game tomorrow."

Bill paused to let his words work. Kyle and Evan stared back at him, slack-jawed and dumbfounded. Then he erupted in uproarious, gleeful laughter, his belly shaking and shoulders heaving. Sean doubled over, hands on knees. Two off-duty cops at the far end of the bar joined in the mirth. The barback, a short, young Ecuadorian named Enrique, stopped rinsing glasses and started laughing, too. Hilarity reverberated off the walls and mirrors and pressed upon the marks from every side. They stared grimly straight ahead and tried to ride it out in silence.

"Didja see the looks on these cocksuckers' faces?" Bill asked Sean, barely able to get the words out between convulsions. Sean's hysteria intensified and he pounded the bar with his fist, like a man at wit's end. Enrique began to applaud. The cops whooped and whistled and banged their shot glasses in appreciation.

"Aaaahhh, fuckin' cocksuckers! C'mon, I love youse guys," exclaimed Bill, coughing now as he neared the end of his jag. "Ah, Jesus Christ... Motherfucker, that was good." His face had turned a richer shade of red and tears had welled up in his eyes. "Mother of Christ. Fellas. Aahh..."

"Good one, Bill," said Kyle, looking poisoned. He took a small sip of his drink, a mundane act intended to signify stoic dignity.

"Touché, Bill," said Evan.

"You fucking, fucking cocksuckers. If I live another day. Oh my fucking God," said Bill. He turned to Sean. "Thought I was going to have a fuckin' heart attack, Seanie. Thought I was a goner."

"Good thing I'm trained in CPR," said Sean, suddenly straight-faced. Both men burst into laughter again, as though this were part of the joke, as though this were a joke at all. Evan and Kyle observed them gloomily.

"Ah, Christ fuck. I needed that, my friend, I needed that," said Bill.

"Lemme get you a glass of water. You alright?"

"Jesus, fuck water. Fuck me. Get these guys a drink, Seanie."

Bill patted Kyle on the back as Sean filled up a water glass anyway. Evan permitted himself a look around the room. The faces of their deriders, once contorted in monstrous spasms, now bore the warm glow of satiety.

One of the cops raised his beer bottle. "Here's to you, my friend," he said graciously, as though the previous five minutes' entertainment were the players' voluntary gift. Evan raised his scotch and nodded gamely.

Bill snatched his money off the bar and placed it back in his pocket, a magical gesture that officially established the end of the joke. Everything now was as it was before.

"Big night tonight, fellas? Night off," said Bill.

"Yeah, you know the rout—"

Kyle was interrupted by the percussive chime of his phone alarm.

"One of your girlfriends?"

"Uh, no, it's, uh..." Kyle fumbled with the phone to turn it off.

Evan smiled. "It's his alarm, Bill."

"Alarm? What? Time to make the fuckin' donuts?"

"Time to eat the fuckin' donuts," said Evan. Kyle glanced at him darkly.

"I swear to God I don't understand youse cocksuckers half the time."

"Isn't that right, Kyle?"

"Uh, yeah," Kyle sighed.

"C'mon Kyle, tell Old Bill what the fucking alarm is for."

"Three alarm fire over here," said Bill.

"You fuckin' tell him."

"OK. Bill, Kyle has set his alarm to ring at precious intervals so that he knows the time to do coke."

Bill looked perplexed. "What kind of girl needs to know what time it is to do coke?"

"Not what time it is, but when."

"Why did you say that?" Kyle asked Evan.

"Say what?"

"Precious intervals."


"You said I had to do coke at precious intervals. What the fuck does that mean?"

"I did not fucking say that. There's no way I said that."

"Bill, did you hear Evan say 'precious intervals'?"

Bill nodded solemnly. "You said 'precious.' I was wondering as a matter of fact what the fuck that meant."

"It's not the intervals that are precious, Ev," said Kyle, pressing the point. "It's the events."

"Whatever. It's his fucking coke alarm," said Evan, irritated. He realized he had meant to say "precise." Why did he do that?

Bill chortled at it all. Kyle turned to him with a put-on, clenched-teeth smile. He took out the bullet and displayed it in his palm.

"Care for a bump, anyway?"

"Don't mind if I do," said Bill. He took the bullet in his big hand and discreetly opened up the valve. He placed it to his nose and snorted softly, then gave it back to Kyle.

"Thanks, kid."


Kyle and Evan did theirs too, and turned to their drinks in silence for some time. Something was growing in their minds. A creeping thing that had been stayed by the distractions of the past half hour. Now it was raging back and could not be deflected. They were very, very high.

Illustrations by Louise Asherson

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Streak - 23

You wouldn't really know it was a different kind of bar. It was an Irish bar, to be sure, but lower-key than most. It didn't have any of the usual stupid shit you'd see in a bar like this: the garlands of paper shamrocks tacked up on the walls; the Big Buck Hunter game with its garish, safety-orange gun; the strings of Coors Light pennants trembling in the AC breeze, prayer flags of the unenlightened. This bar was sober, if it could be said. Its only concession to idle, drunken diversion—not counting the staggered rows of bottles behind the bar—was the dartboard in the back, shut up in its mahogany doors.

Evan and Kyle walked in and nodded to Sean, the bartender.

"Guys," said Sean.

They sat while Sean poured their usuals: Johnnie Black on the rocks for Evan, Makers and Coke for Kyle. Beside them sat Big Bill, also known as Old Bill, resplendent as always in a three-piece gray herringbone suit; pocket square, navy tie and silver tie clip; cuff links and shiny, shiny shoes. Big Bill was a man of significant height and girth, ruddy-faced, with an impeccable shock of white hair and a thin, white mustache. He was exquisitely groomed: manicured, barbered, professionally shaven. He exuded deep, old New York, that fading world of fraternal honor, whiskey and cigars, handshake deals and backroom machinations. Few people knew what he does or what he did. There were rumors that he was a disgraced former assistant deputy police commissioner, sent to pasture by the IAD. Others thought he was high up in the Westies, and managed to stay alive and out of jail by force of charisma and the judicious dispensation of favors. The sentiment existed that he could have you killed, but that he could have you resurrected, too. In fact he was a union man. A Teamster. Much lay behind this deceptively prosaic title; he held the keys to every door and floated through the city like a ghost. To shake his hand was to be granted probational entry to everywhere.

Big Bill swiveled toward them slowly and placed his left foot on the floor.

"Fellas," he said.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

I stood in the corner of the Yankee Tavern, where the locals sit; there was a spacious pocket of calm there, by the window. The drunks going to the game seem to know not to invade it. I decided I didn't know any better.

I put my beer on the counter and scrutinized the scene outside. An older man with dark hair and a mustache, well dressed, lighting a cigarette. Brylcreemed, Billy Martin-looking guy. Could be a livery driver. Could be the King of the Bronx. Most of the passersby were the game crowd: families, old timers, Manhattanites and Jersey guys. Mixed up with them were the locals trying to go about their business: harried Dominican women with their kids, odd-job guys and b-boys. I watched a tired black man in a lime-green suit, a matching fedora and two-tone shoes in beige and white. He carried a plastic bag of groceries. Everybody's gotta take the groceries home.

An older black man in glasses and a cap turned from the bar to interrupt my reverie.

"Lotta commotion today. Lotta fuss," he said, putting his red wine on the counter.

"It's a big day!" I said. It was the first game at the new stadium, an exhibition with the Cubs.

"Yeah," he said warily. He launched into an ornery rant about the team: Tickets are too expensive; families have been priced out. The new luxury boxes are half-empty because of the recession so now they're gouging regular people to make it back. The Steinbrenners are making one last, big push for a championship so they can sell the team in the next two years, "while the gettin's still good." That's why we have these great new players.

"But we always picked up great players. Clemens, Johnson," I pointed out.

"Those guys were at the end of their careers," he said. "We're picking these guys up at the peak of their careers. Teixeira."

"Sabathia," I added. He was a hard man to disagree with.

He was dressed middle class and seemed well on his feet but he was missing most of his bottom front teeth. His tongue wriggled behind his lone remaining incisor as he spoke and it was difficult to look elsewhere. I'll not soon forget that tooth.

He moved on to the neighborhood, the burrough and the city as a whole. This Metro North station they're putting in, what do you think that's about? The South Bronx is turning into Westchester, that's what.

"New York City is fucked," he said.

We looked out the window for a little while.

"Listen. My wife has an iPhone that has 10 times the computational power of the computer that sent Apollo to the moon."

Ten times seemed to me to be an underestimation but it was enough to serve his point.

"She can get her e-mail anywhere she goes. Do you think Wall Street matters now? You don't need Wall Street. You could be in Peoria, Illinois."

"Business can be done anywhere now," I added helpfully.

"New York City is fucked."

He digressed further: the economy, politics, the environment. He bemoaned the coal and oil lobbies.

"If we don't do something about global warming right now, we're gonna be fucked, and we might still be fucked."

"We won't really be fucked for a while, though, right? Forty, fifty years?"

"How long?"

"Forty years?"

"I'm 72 years old," he said. "Within my lifetime, we're gonna see disasters from this thing. I work in energy. I know. Flooding of coastal regions. Manhattan? Battery Park? Forget about it."


"Manhattan will be totally fucked."

"I'm still relieved that Obama is in office," I offered. "As bad as things are, he seems to be the right person to—"

The man made a faint grimace.

"Obama has a chance. As long as he picks the right people. His Energy Secretary is very good. His Agriculture Secretary is good. But why you would want Larry Summers and Tim Geithner in charge of anything I can't understand. They're the ones who caused these fucking problems in the first place."

I cited Obama's talent for promoting consensus, for accomodating differing points of view. Again, the man's face soured.

"Accomodation isn't good," he said.

I tried to backtrack. "That might be the wrong word. But he listens to all sides. He can compromise—"

"There's always a wrong side. You don't want to listen to the wrong side."

It occurred to me that I'd assumed he was an Obama supporter—not just because he was black, not just because we were in New York City, but because in the past year I'm not quite sure if I've so much as been in the presence of a single person who did not support Obama.

"Listen, I'm a patriot. I love my country. I think we should bring back mandatory service."

"Military service or some kind of national service?" I asked.

He winced. "Any kind of service would be OK, I guess," he allowed. "I graduated high school in 1955 and then I went into the Army. The Army's the only place in the world that teaches you to get along with people who are not like you. When you're in the Army, no matter who you are, you only want one thing. Do you know what that is?"

"What's that?"

"To go home. All you want to do is go home. And the people you're with are the only people who can help you do that, and you've gotta help them too. If your commanding officer tells you to carry this and that to somewhere by tomorrow morning, you're not going to be the asshole who doesn't do it. If you don't do it, everyone is fucked. You have to find a way to work with people to get it done."

We were interrupted as one of the regulars, an older black woman, creaked off her barstool to say her goodbyes. I stood deferentially apart, giving ample berth to her ceremonious exit. After she was gone I approached again, nonchalantly, not sure if the conversation would resume. The man acknowledged me with a nod.

"Now McCain, the only reason I didn't vote for him was nuclear power. He wants to build all these nuclear power plants. Where you gonna put the waste? Nuclear power is like asking people to store their garbage in their homes. We'd all be fucked."

It struck me that he felt more kinship with McCain as a military man than with Obama as a black man.

"The other thing about McCain," he added, "is that he was tortured for six years. You can't have an experience like that without your brain being addled."

Finally, he put his empty glass up on the bar and gave hugs and handshakes to those remaining in his circle. He shook my hand: Great talking to you. Great talking to you, too. He walked out the door and past the cops and smokers and crossed 161st Street and went on down Gerard Avenue, past the stadium.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Things You Come Across

The last guy who owed me from the football pool made good, and promptly too, sending me a $700 check stuck in a folded-up page of scrap. It was printed from the Wikipedia article about religious symbolism; the specific page was part of the table of religions and their symbols and it began at the end of the entry for gnosticism and its sun cross; it contained the Jain swastika and Ahimsa Hand, the Star of David, the Satanic Cross and the Sigils of LaVeyan and Theistic Satanism.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Shoelace

Joey wore his pants long, in the fashion of the day, and this meant a bit of frayed, damp fabric would sometimes catch on either heel. It happened again on the corner of 84th Street and York while he was walking around the block for the seventh time, estimating the time it might take for Kim to simmer down. That faint but nagging tug. He grabbed his belt and hitched his pants up again, pulling a little too hard in nihilistic irritation, annoyed at having it arrive at that. When his right cuff lifted to reveal his shoe he found the laces untied and dragging, too.

He looked around for a place to tie his shoe and wondered, Why can't you ever find a place to tie your shoe? When you want to? and through the veil of his unhappy agitation he could not help but note the rhyme and he told himself he was a fool. After darting abortively in this direction or that, toward a useless wall, toward a fire hydrant (what if it's covered in dog piss?), he spied the rain-slicked diagonal bar of a scaffold; scaffolding: the half-perceived exoskeleton of the City, forever molting; the structure upon the structure, grid upon the grid.

Joey approached the bar and lifted up his foot. He placed it on the silver tube's slippery surface and struggled for a moment to get grip. Once his foot was still, something else was not: he felt a terrible looseness crying through the vast, high network of pipes and joints and planks and ropes and ladders. The pipe below his foot gave way. At first, it seemed the event might possibly remain contained. The diagonal pipe took down a supporting one to the left and detached from the base of the one to the right; it leaned and fell awkwardly toward the street, clipping the side of a 2005 Nissan Altima and cutting a shooting-star scratch down its mystic emerald paint. The vertical pipe to the left buckled and bent a little, bereft, valiantly bearing more than it was meant to bear. It stood a moment that way, as though it wondered what to do. Then it fell forward, in front of Joey, who drew back reflexively and looked up to see what might yet lie ahead in this awful causality. The scaffold platform was bowing ominously, like a membrane, like the belly of a birthing beast. There was a Bank of America ATM vestibule right behind him. He stood in its doorway and pulled out his card and stabbed it tremblingly in the slot, backwards with his right hand as he faced the street and looked up. Finally the little light turned green and he entered the bright, white room with the slots of deposit tickets in the counter, the chained pens and the certificate of deposit posters.

The first floor of the scaffold hit the sidewalk with stunning violence. Joey thought he saw it coming down, the moment or two before it landed, but that might just have been his mind. The strange and empty time of pending impact. It struck the ground with an emphatic whomp that spoke of umpteen layers of burden. Then another story fell, and another, and another, cruelly unrelenting in the frenzy of dust and motion beyond the trembling window, which emitted a moan with each concussion.

Joey stood in the vestibule and wondered when it all might end. How could it still be going on? he thought. It was darkly funny that it did not end, a bad joke repeated till you had to laugh. A creeping exhilaration soon displaced his horror: he wanted it to go on and on and on and on. He felt an urgent impulse, long forgotten but instantly familiar, aroused from deep within him and from far into the past. The young boy's wonder at destruction. Wicked eyes drawn to mayhem. If a thing has fallen, what else might there be to drop? If a thing is broken, what else might there be to strike? Might this not finally be, after all these dreary years, the fulfillment of everything? Joey watched as the racket and commotion did not cease.

The scaffolding had nearly completely collapsed. It had peeled off with it the deteriorated facade of the building, a utilitarian brick co-op, between the 24th and 47th stories, tearing out living room furniture and televisions and collapsing several load-bearing walls; this in turn had made the top of the building double over like a man shot in the gut. The roof and top twenty stories or so slammed into the concrete-and-glass condominium high-rise across the way. Enormous, jagged panes of glass broke off and fell to the street below, plunging through awnings, severing traffic light cables, raining shards on cars and people.

An exposed floor of the glass building collapsed from the impact of the brick and mortar. It fell on the floor below, fracturing some columns on which it sat and causing it to fall in turn, whereupon the combined weight of these two collapsing floors proved too much for the floor below them to bear, and so on, and so on, and the so building eroded from within and finally succumbed with an awful shudder, collapsing into itself but tilting just enough to strike a hundred-and-thirty-foot crane which spun and teetered in theatrical fashion before picking its final resting place southwest toward 83rd and First, slamming across the tarred and silvered rooftops, crushing penthouses and sending a water tank off its perch to roll off the roof and explode on the parked cars below.

The crane's jib came down hard on First Avenue, its nose puncturing the tarmac and pinching the steam main below it against its bed of rock like a drinking straw. Immediately, the pressure built up in the main. The 24-inch steel pipe buckled and shuddered from the strain for two terrible minutes, chafing against the dirt and rubble in which it lay. Bolts popped off the joints like bullets, exploding in every direction, some burrowing into the ground and others shooting up into the street, smashing windows of buildings and cars and denting street signs. The pipe emitted a curious whine, all along a length of a hundred feet or so, and began to shake and tremble. Finally it blew with a monstrous boom that shook the streets and sidewalks, rattled every floor and wall and terrified each soul from Harlem down to Midtown, from the river to the park. Dirt and rocks and wires and steel shrapnel exploded all around, tearing through the walls of the low buildings on the avenue, heaving cars twenty feet into the air and leaving a crater that went up and down the block.

The blast also sent a convulsion downward, through a rare gap in the hundred and fifty feet or so of mica schist that ordinarily insulated New York City Water Tunnel Number 1 from what infernal commotions may take place above. It caused a massive expanse of rock to shift slightly and to make unsound an already weakened segment of the tunnel, which led from the southern part of the Central Park Reservoir out below the East River, to collapse. The rock itself severed the tunnel and whatever water did not seep around it and harmlessly into the ground was trapped west of the breach. Hundreds of millions of gallons water followed gravity to the impasse, building an immense strain that tore through the tunnel walls in various places; more rock was dislodged above and below in chain reactions of seismic upheaval, causing a minute shift in a mile-deep seam that had been pressing along the 125th Street fault line. The fault gave and in the merest fraction of a second the southern plate moved three centimeters north, above the lip of the northern plate, which moved the same distance south, causing a tremor to radiate downtown.

The earthquake rippled through Spanish Harlem to the Upper East Side, bowing and snapping streets and subway tunnels, bringing buildings down upon each other, shattering every pane of glass, bursting water pipes and fire hydrants. Across the park and through the Upper West, down through Midtown, Chelsea, Greenwich Village. People ran but there was nowhere safe to flee. Everything came down around them: bricks and glass and steel and asbestos. Plaster, marble, wood and granite. Everything that things are made of. A great storm of dust and toxic debris blew down the avenues and billowed into every street. Things exploded beneath the ground and fires fed on everything that burned. The shock wave reverberated down through the southern tip of the island, uprooting everything that man had made along the way. The Chrysler Building's concrete foundation was mangled to the tip of its roots; it loosened like a tooth. It swayed and heaved from side to side—slowly at first, like it might settle after all, but then more and more, appearing to consume the malevolence around it. Finally it fell, the silvery surface of its crown shrieking as it ricocheted off buildings and into 42nd Street. Several aftershocks followed, bringing much of what still stood to rubble.

Joey stood on his shoelace and watched it all. Behind him the ATMs were all alight, all dumbly at the ready for some customer to come. To insert his card, to type his secret code. To withdraw from checking or from savings. To request a receipt, or maybe not. To remove his cash and walk back out into the world.