Wednesday, October 22, 2008

umbraphilia revisited

Driving in traffic is driving in traffic. It's the same wherever I've lived in the country, with only a few exceptions. Some of the best traffic I've ever been stuck in has been in California. Getting stuck in foggy morning rush hour traffic on the Golden Gate bridge is a traffic jam more tolerable than any other, even exhilarating in a top-down convertible. I'm admittedly biased toward the bridge. From the very first time I've driven under its art deco styling, I've never ceased to feel a twinge of surreal excitement moving across the bayscape. When you're stalled in traffic on its span, you have the chance to absorb its strangeness. When it's fogbanked, the bridge looks downright otherworldly, as if you've passed through time and space in Dune.

Pittsburgh doesn't offer a structure similar to GGB that lends itself to appreciating being stuck in a traffic jam. Rather it offers a traffic behavior that I will claim is Pittsburgh in nature because I've seen it happen here often and can't recall noticing it anywhere else.

While stuck in traffic, Pittsburgh drivers have a tendency to crack open their driver-side doors and spit on the road.

It's one of those occurrences that, once you become conscious of it, you see it happening all the time in Pittsburgh traffic. I can't recall having lived anywhere else where I've seen this happen, or if I did, it happened so infrequently that I can't. It's not like every other Pittsburgh driver is hocking loogies as soon as traffic stops, but it happens often enough that you do notice the next time and say, "Damn, there's another guy spitting out his door."

Why open the door? Why not spit out the window, especially since you're stopped in traffic and don't have to worry about the wind pulling your hocker along the side of your face?

These questions led me to believe it was tobacco chew. Guys chewing and spitting their chew spit out the door. And maybe a few of the roadspitters are chewers, but I've actually opened my door to examine the spittle in question on occasion, and each time I have, it's been plain ol' regular spit.

I'd like it if it were some quirky Pittsburgh commuter superstition. Open your door, spit on the road and then traffic will start moving. Or if it had some ceremonial quality to it-- spitting outside your car door before going into work-- like how Maximus rubbed a little dirt between his fingers before he'd fight in Gladiator.

I'm more inclined to believe it's nothing more than an unfortunate regional habit that's developed over generations, like Pittsburghese or voting for the guy who the union supports.

Being stuck on the Brooklyn Bridge at night is also one of those exceptional traffic stop places. I'd go so far to say that, when I think of the archetypal New York moment, I think of sitting buzzed in the back of a taxi being driving across the Brooklyn Bridge at night.

Perhaps that's cliche New York-- you watch any movie in which New York City figures prominently, and its makers will find a way to get a scene of the BB in there somewhere--but one of my most memorable experiences, after moving to New York for my first time, involved being stuck in traffic at night on that bridge. So, cliche or not, that's epitome NYC for me.

My mid-20s, I had been living in Greenpoint (on the couch chez Oakes, Wickersham & Rasmussen) and was out at a bar in Manhattan (with at least two of those three slobs) when I met the acquaintance of a woman. An older woman. Late 30s.

I recall lying to her. I said I was a visitor to the city--not a recent transplant from San Francisco--and that I was considering getting a hotel room because I couldn't bear the thought of returning to Greenpoint to stay in my friends' dump of an apartment another night.

That's all the lying I did, though. Everything else I told her was absolutely (and unfortunately) true. Abutting the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, our apartment building did shake every time a tractor-trailer drove by. It was a sixteen-block walk from the subway, featuring one block with a White Tower parking lot that was covered with the broken glass of so many empty crack vials that it glittered beneath a full moon. There was a Vietnam vet in one of the apartments who, when feeling patriotic, would climb out onto the building's roof and discharge his firearm into the air. On the ground floor, there was a bar called Mike's where I made the mistake of asking for a Corona. I was promptly asked where exactly I thought I was and, before I could reply, told to go fuck my faggot self.

When you bring up the Greenpoint days with Oakes, Wickersham & Rasmussen, each will wax nostalgic. Those days are up there with their Skidmore college remembrances. It was a time in each of their lives before things fell into place--the job, the girlfriend-then-the-wife, the kids. Those days were the bohemian pioneer time of their lives before they settled into the responsibility of family. They were silly and slapdash and depraved and unglamorous--how disgustingly pleasurable it was to sit on that couch, in that dilapidated building, unemployed, smoking cigarettes, drinking Bud in cans, eating cold KFC out of the bucket and watching reruns of 21 Jumpstreet with Bill on weekday afternoons.

Those days weren't meant to last, and what always marvelled me about OW&R was that you got the sense they knew this, that they had already caught a fast-forward glimpse of how settled their lives would become, and they were appreciating the here-and-now, hyperconscious of its temporality . A similar spirit must govern the umbraphiles who travel the globe to snatch those fleeting moments of totality. Just like the solar eclipse geeks, OW&R behaved as if they knew they were experiencing something wondrous and fleeting in their lives, and they were going to appreciate those moments to the fullest.

Unlike them, I never possessed such wisdom or foresight. I woke up one too many mornings with my face pressed against one of their stained sofa cushions. I couldn't look beyond that immediacy. I just blew in whatever direction the wind bent me.

The night I met the older woman in the bar, the wind was my friend. It wanted to see me get laid. After telling this woman all the foul details about the apartment I was staying in, and how I didn't want to spend the money but just had to sleep somewhere else so I was planning on getting a hotel room, she said no. Save your money. I have a place for you to stay the night.

She insisted that I come home with her to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn.

We took a cab to her place, and we made out in its backseat like we had been thrown into a particle accelerator. Our faces were mashed together, all teeth lip and tongue, our booze breath holding them together like a grilled cheese sandwich.

Nowhere else in the world is such behavior more appropriate than the backseat of a New York City taxi cab.

We pulled our sandwich halves apart for a breath of fresh air, just as the cab started its way through a nighttime traffic snarl on Brooklyn Bridge. Though I'd been living in Greenpoint for a few weeks by then, I realized it was the first time I'd ever been on the BB. I remember how expansive and unforgiving the skyline of Manhattan looked on its side of the river, the pale glow of the pearl lights slung across the bridge and the graffito-ravaged rooftops that came into view on the Brooklyn side.

I could see my reflection in the window, projected out upon this scene and the dark river, and my thoughts were being pulled existentially from the cab. I was experiencing one of those moments of naked solitude before the uncaring city when I felt her hand find mine on the cab seat. I turned back to her and sought more than simply a drunken hook-up, more than companionship, more than even love-- I sought desperately just to embrace warmth. My need was necessity, animal. I would have crawled under her skin if I could've.

When we got close to her block, she began adjusting her hair and clothes, and I followed suit. The cab driver was completely unfazed by our behavior. We could have been lighting firecrackers in each other's pants the whole time, and I doubt it would have even twitched-- let alone lifted-- one of his dark, hairy eyebrows in the rearview mirror.

Once behind the door of her brownstone, where I had been anticipating another impassioned collision, the woman was surprisingly subdued. She put a finger to her lips, pointing upstairs, and initially I thought she was concerned about making noise and the neighbors. Then she showed me to what was obviously a guest bedroom and said, "Here you are. I'll be right back."

Then I began to wonder if she might be a single mother, and she had shushed me coming in the door because there was a babysitter, because she didn't want the kid(s) woken up. I had myself convinced this was the case when she re-appeared in my doorway moments later.

She handed me a clean towel from behind her back, pointed down the hall to where the bathroom was, and wished me a goodnight. When I asked if she was joining me, she said she couldn't. She had to sleep upstairs. "Please, understand," she said.

And that was it until morning.

She woke me up early, panicked, not even bothering to knock on my door before she came in.

"You're my cousin, okay? My cousin,...was it Todd?"

"Yes, Todd. What the hell are you talking about?"

Only then did I find out it was not neighbors or kids she had upstairs, but a husband, who was going to be down any minute for breakfast, and it would look suspicious if I left now.

So I had to sit there, pretend I was the wife's 2nd cousin visiting from out-of-town and eat breakfast with the married couple.

I think we had waffles.

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