Tuesday, June 19, 2012

All Morning in a Chelsea Elevator


The door is streaked with scratch marks, clearly some have tried to claw their way out. Nine silvery buttons, with tiny holes that blink red like drugged eyes. Eight naked bulbs, illuminating the cubizoid space in perfect light. But silvery walls distort images, my reflection is emaciated and bowed, like a bean pod, at times I cannot even find it. I hallucinate, I gasp, I rant. I pace dizzy squares on the floor, which is marble and sketched with sand and dust, detritus of those who have come before. And in a bead of water, I finally catch a clear glimpse of my reflection. What horror! Up, up, forever up, zooming up, to a vast honeycombed orb, the mother ship, where await the alien surgeons. 

Others join me. A girl in yoga shoes with wet hair. A man in a cream colored coat with a brochure about Art Basel. A man in a shirt camouflaged for war and baby blue Nikes. A man in a thick black suit made of sweatpants material. He has a leather backpack slung over his right shoulder and a bushel of salt and pepper hair tied in a ponytail that is more like a knot. The way the colors of his hair blend together reminds me of those dirty melting glaciers in Alaska. The man has a calm Buddha nature but is steeped in great sadness, a professor who has lost his way and now eats out of cans.

Many are relieved. “Phew,” says a black man with a pink collared shirt and pot belly. “Phew, phew, phew.” “Phew,” says an Asian woman with mousey shoes and a backpack the color of gum. “Phew, phew, phew.”

Many complain. “He has the air conditioning going full blast,” says a woman in a beret and high heels with faces printed on her umbrella. Her body is ravaged by old age but her face looks 40. The man she is speaking to has an opposite face, thick-skinned and rubbery, with a large fleshy nose.

Many don’t show their faces. A woman with hair like a witch and bright blue umbrella turns towards the door and never turns back. A platinum blonde with saggy trench coat and large rigid purple purse, ragged on the bottom as if chewed by a cat looks down and never looks back up.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mother’s Day at the Mall

Staten Island is shaped like a human heart, the Staten Island Mall is shaped like a Klingon warship. In the busy center, where the battle bridge would be, are an array of kiosks, many primped for Mother’s Day. They sell bonsai trees, stuffed animals, handmade Ragamuffin Dolls, custom made piggy banks, ankle bracelets, old timey signs and exotic insects preserved in glass: lustrous blue butterflies, Morpho menelaus; black and teal ones, Papilio ulysses and splotched brown moths the size of dinner plates, Attacus edwardsii. There are also stick bugs, Sipyloidea meneptolemus. “It’s a very rare one,” the Asian proprietor tells me. “Not even the entomology book has it.”

This man resembles a bowling pin and has a squeaky voice, like bowling shoes on a well-oiled alley floor. “The female can regenerate 35 times without a male,” he tells me. A strange and exciting factoid. “How much?” I ask. “$110,” he says. A bit steep for an emaciated insect. Stick bugs are expensive, says the proprietor, because bringing them through customs entails paying a large fee. The way he says it suggests he didn’t bring them through customs at all, and I imagine the squeaky-voiced Asian in the scorching Sonoran with a terrarium filled with humungous stick bugs, alongside a cadre of drug mules and body traffickers. “Also the antennae,” he says. “It’s not easy to preserve the antennae after they die.”

When Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed through the narrow passage that separates Staten Island from Brooklyn in 1524 there were three tribes of Algonquin Indians living on the island; the Tappans, the Hackensacks, the Raritans. “We found a very pleasant situation among some steep hills,” wrote Verrazano. “The inhabitants not differing much from the others, being dressed out with the feathers of birds of various colors. They came towards us with evident delight, raising loud shouts of admiration, and showing us where we could most securely land with our boat.” But a strong wind rose, and Verrazano never landed.

Eighty-five years later another European did, Henry Hudson. “The people of the country came aboard of us, seeming very glad of our coming, and brought green tobacco, and gave us of it for knives and beads,” wrote first mate Robert Juet. “They go in deer skins loose, well dressed. They have yellow copper. They desire clothes, and are very civil. They have great store of maize or Indian wheat, whereof, they make good bread. The country is full of great and tall oaks…pleasant with grass and flowers…and very sweet smells came from them.” The stage seemed set for everything to go swimmingly. It didn’t, of course. On a sunny September Sunday, Hudson’s boat was visited by a pair of canoes. A skirmish broke out, and a man named John Coleman was shot through the throat with an arrow and killed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

All Night in the ER Waiting Room


“Tell the triage nurse if you are having chest pain,” says a red sign. There are grimy green chairs, a row of check-in windows and framed pictures of a park in autumn and a meadow in winter. Lights are bright coiled tubes, yellow vomit is splattered in the corner. I’m in Bellevue Hospital’s ER waiting room. Last year, I spent several hours here as doctors ran tests on a friend who had mysteriously lost vision in one eye. We are equal, I realized, in the face of waiting. And what is waiting?

5:57 p.m. “This is my brother, my mother!” hollers a wiry man with long wet hair plastered to his forehead. A woman in a cocktail dress is led into the ER. “Mom!” cries a kid penciling in a Mead journal. “Let me check your vitals,” a man in scrubs tells an old woman who has walked in alone. “Are you weak?” he asks. “How’d you get here?”

“That little kid is full of energy,” a guard says into a wall phone planted beneath a bug lamp. “That kid is like three kids in one.” He hangs up and approaches me. “You can’t ride the wave. I’ll let you do what you gotta do and I’ll do what I gotta do but you can’t stay here all night, that’s loitering.”

“Why you talking to me like that!?” the wiry man yells at a check-in woman with bright yellow hair and extraordinary nails. She wears a sassy striped suit and has a giant gold purse.

“Why you have more than one name!?” she shouts back.

“I can’t say,” he says.

“What’s your birthday?” she asks.

“8 5 19.”

“Why do you use this guy Tony Montana,” she says, “Who dat?”

“Why nooot..”

Attention all visitors, visiting hour is now over

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Day Under the Blue Whale


Beneath a cerulean ceiling in the Hall of Ocean Life hangs a replica of a blue whale the size of 24 African elephants.

Born just blocks from the American Museum of Natural History, I dreamt of a career digging bones or probing galaxies. As a summer intern, I roamed the empty halls after-hours. Without people, I realized, the museum is incomplete. One Saturday in November, I sit under the blue whale and observe.

11 a.m. The museum is mobbed with kids, slicked up for the day, hair clipped and carroty. In front of a video screen is a father in trail shoes, cradling a child. The purse of a pregnant woman is wide-open, inside is a crescent moon. A woman with cucumbers sits on the floor and unfolds a map. A girl runs by with pigtails going “ooochooowww” and a youth in flannel walks aimlessly, examining his world.

“Imagine a fish that long,” says a father in a gold necklace to a daughter in baby blue. “And what they eat are tiny, tiny.” They leaf through a lunch cooler. Another daughter joins, wearing a pink beret. She takes an apple from the cooler and crunches.

“Krill dad, sardines,” says the blue daughter, “millions and millions of them.”

With an underbelly grooved and speckled, more sleek than bulky, the blue whale is like a Buddha on its side. The ceiling is arched like a great train stations’ and cobalt shapes drift across, creating the illusion you are beneath waves. From monitors, sea birds squawk, whales bellow and bubbles grumble to the surface. A large screen on the lower floor plays an endlessly looping video: turtles swim through a sunlit column of water, wave’s pound a beach, jelly fish swarm beneath a glacier. The light in the room is grainy, like the light before dozing.

At the edge of the hall, scenes of the sea: dolphins glide against a pink sky stenciled with long-winged birds, elephant seals cavort in icy waters, seals nose-kiss on blanched rocks, corals reach jaggedly for the sun. On the wall is a monstrous crab with legs the size of human limbs.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” shouts a security guard from the floor above, “if you left strollers on the balcony you need to get your stroller.”

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sunup to Sundown on the Bow Bridge


Winter parts from New York City in drips and dribs until one day the last slush pile melts and not only are days longer and the sun stronger, but perfume is sweeter, stories more believable, and true love more conceivable. It’s undeniable that some new thing has arrived: spring. Those who have stalked underground passages to avoid snow and wind re-greet the street, ice cream sales increase, cafes canvas sidewalks, evening-goers take an extra cup of coffee and handholding, pensive kisses and naps in lover’s laps all flourish.

For a few magical early spring days the city is steeped in love, some spots completely soaked, and none more so than the Bow Bridge in Central Park. It links the Ramble to Cherry Hill and was crafted from cast iron just before the Civil War. Thin wood planks surface the bridge and the feminine slope invites pondering. Joggers, birders and dog walkers are common. As are weddings, newly befallen lovers and crestfallen ones too. One nippy April morning I arrived at sunup, intending to stay the day, my only objective to observe.

6:17 a.m. A fire alarm sounds, traffic echoes and a woman in water shoes passes with a poodle. She’s smoking a cigarette and coughs going up the bridge.

“What’s his name?” I ask.

“Bach,” she says. “He’s the meeter and greeter of the park.”

A woman ruffles through a recycling bin while a bald man videotapes.

Beige gutters are sketched with sand, cigarette butts, Cheerios, a reddened popsicle stick and the rim of a baby stroller’s wheel. An alabaster railing cool to the touch speckles with pigeon poop and grit and gaps in a floral balustrade reveal droopy willows and the Ramble beyond. Canadian geese flock northwest and a large snowy bird swoops to the pond and wades to shore—egret. From under the bridge comes ruffling and every so often a pigeon. A mallard with a glossy green head paddles by. The building tops on Central Park West go gold.

An old man pulls doggy treats from a fanny pack to feed two goldens, one has a horrible wound on his face. “Perfect day,” he says.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Overnight on the One

As the sun sets behind the Palisades on a frigid January Sunday I go underground at Times Square, board an uptown 1 train and stand by the door, not planning to get off until sunrise.

In New York, to be hemmed in is to be lonely, and one is always hemmed in. New York loneliness is seeing a poster for a film you will never see or walking past a crowded cafe you will never eat at or passing a park filled with lovers you will never love. New York loneliness comes from a fear of forgottenness, that you can never do it all, that even you if did the city would still move on around you, without you. Nowhere are we more hemmed in than the subway. And nowhere are we more lonely.

The subway cannot be summed up in a routine ride or even a lifetime of rides. But perhaps, I thought, a continuous ride without destination in which I recorded everything that I experienced can reveal something significant. Here is what I saw:

At 145th a homeless woman with a puffy parka and puckered face walks through the car. “Good afternoon, I’m homeless,” she says, in a raspy voice through shattered teeth. “Good afternoon, I’m homeless,” she repeats, leaving the way she has come.

At 191st a kid in sweatpants with a beige scarf wrapped tight around his neck runs to the middle of the car and climbs onto the orange seats, presses his forehead to the window, cups his hands against the glass and stares at the subway tunnel blackness.

After 215th the 1 crosses the East River into the Bronx, goes through a short tunnel and runs above ground.

At 225th a black man with bright blue shoes and a blue bubble coat hurries onto the train carrying two black plastic garbage bags, speaking rapidly into his cell phone.

“Yo, where are you?” he says. “Okay, I see that. That’s why you never tell no one.”

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Sunrise Bridge Run

I left my apartment on West 44th at 4:45 a.m., jogging north up Broadway, 134 blocks, six and a half miles, aiming to cross the George Washington Bridge at sunrise. In the wee hours of Sunday morning the city is a secret, something you’re not supposed to be watching, an R movie as a kid you’ve snuck back into the den to see. Those who borrow the street, the tourists, the commuters, the suits, the slackers, the gazers, the bar-hoppers, the shoppers, the diners, they are all gone. What’s left is the resin, the always present film at the bottom of the coffee pot. This is the city after darkest night has settled and 'the city' has gone home.

At 45th St. three cop cars surrounded a red sports car. Behind it was a scrappier sedan. The owner of the sports car opened his wallet and passed several bills to the owner of the sedan. The cops watched.

At 49th one of a group of five shadowy men called out, “that’s good calisthenics you.”

At 57th a man whose face was hidden under a cape’s hood stumbled across the street looking like a deranged prophet.