Tuesday, November 11, 2008

to spit or not to spit on sarah jessica parker's head

My current apartment in Pittsburgh is nice. The neighborhood is safe, affluent and youthful. The cost of living is affordable. The proximity to my family is convenient. On paper, it's all good.

Off paper, it's maddening.

A lot of it is personal. I grew up here. I can't drive familiar roads here (and they're all familiar) without thinking about how I drove the same roads in my high school days. I can't shake the feeling, as I'm driving, that I should be chain-smoking out a cracked window and bullshitting with friends about which of the shy girls in our class is most likely to be a wild animal in bed.

So, in part, it's my fault. This city will always be backward to me because I can't help reliving my past here. In this sense, I can't live in Pittsburgh in the present tense. However, it's not all my fault. The city kinda sucks on its own, too.

I remember seeing how the city had been portrayed in the movie Wonder Boys while I was living in San Francisco and wondering why the hell I had ever decided to move across country. I convinced myself that Pittsburgh was a hip, artsy haven that I had simply not explored enough in order to find my niche. When the tech bubble burst in 2000, and I couldn't find a Bay Area job, I moved home with a knavish excitement.

Shortly after returning, the illusory cinematic vision of the city was dispelled. In less than 2 years, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I moved to New York City once again.

My first apartment of my own in NYC was little better than the apartment I had occupied several years earlier in Greenpoint. Instead of being in a rundown building abutting the BQE, this apartment was located in the Gray's Papaya building in Manhattan's West Village.

The corner apartment on the 2nd floor (pictured here) was still FOR RENT when I moved into my studio on the 4th floor in 2002. This apartment was still vacant when I moved out in 2004, and I would be surprised if it isn't still vacant today.

Gray's sells the city's cheapest hot dogs and is open 24 hours a day. The pervasive smell of hot dogs in the building was undercut by the smell of nail polish remover from the beauty salon on the 2nd floor. In this photo, notice the wall slots for A/C units in each apartment. The waft of hot dog/acetone found its way in, year-round, even up on the 4th floor, even with an A/C unit installed and packed with insulation like the one in my apartment was.

What also got in was a tremendous amount of noise. Both day and night, Gray's was mobbed by locals, NYU students, shoppers at the Barnes & Noble across the street, tourists on foot and by the busload and the beggars who subsisted off their spare change. Even late night (early a.m.) you'd find a line outside its door, mostly loud and drunken college students and club goers. The club goers particularly vexed me. They inspired this early poem:

Swear Eggs

Club closes 4 a.m.
Its horde disgorges
four floors below.

Vampires suck last drops
before a long return home
to slum coffin silence.

Moonroof open howling
hip-hop subwoofer
shakes the panes.

An empty forty
vacuum pops, skyhook
shot from the sidewalk.

Awake my bloodshot
eye pried from sleep
watches on

four floors above
through drawn curtains.

An egg cools in my palm;
a word written
in black upon its shell.

I’ve got a dozen
ready to hurl from a
styrofoam carton mouth.

Four floors below
car doors close, engine revs
trails off.

Eggs intact
until morning, until I make
a hateful omelet.

The traffic added to the noise, as well. Not only was there the honking thoroughfare of Sixth Ave. to deal with, but W. 8th itself was noisy, too. It was an uneven brick street over which any car with any undercarriage issue-- e.g. a problem with its shocks, a low-hanging muffler or oil pan-- banged and clattered, echoing all the way down the block. Now that I think about it, this could not have been much different than the cacophony I put my mother through, playing with the pots and pans as a tot.

I remember the day that the city, as if answering the solemn curses from inside my studio, decided to pave W. 8th Street. You'd think the smell of wet asphalt blending with hot dogs and nail polish remover would be an intolerable, trifecta stank. However I embraced the stench, even during a hot hot summer, knowing it was temporary, that it would provide a smooth surface over which cars would motor silently, and I would soon be able to sleep blissfully throughout the night, not waking up with each passing beater of a car, each time thinking there was a stranger banging around in my kitchen.

Once the paving job was finished, I had about two weeks of the most pleasurable sleep imaginable until a local motorcycle gang took a fancy to its smooth surface. It became their 4 a.m. drag-racing spot, three or four nights a week.

The solemn curses resumed inside my studio.

My time there sounds awful now, as I've written here, but that apartment was the launchpad for my poetry writing. I hadn't written a poem since Vassar until then.

Also, despite the noise and smells, I came to love New York City there.

I loved the Italian barbers I went to on Christopher Avenue who kept an up-to-date stack of Playboys and Hustlers as reading material for their customers. And how they cleared out one barber's station during the holidays every year to keep a complementary full-bar for its customers. (I learned the hard way that a certain barber there hit the Amaretto pretty hard while on duty.)

I loved playing pool at the Crow Bar with its signed sixties rock n' roll memorabilia in the bathrooms and wooden crows perching in the rafters over the pool tables. And how its ghoulish female owner apparently had a story behind each piece of memorabilia that invariably ended with her giving a rockstar blowjob.

I loved the microbrew bar/restaurant around the corner with the NFL package where I could watch the Steelers play with sound on the TV in the corner. And how bizarre it was watching a game there one weekend with a group of a dozen or so deaf Steelers fans, how ironically loud were the finger-cracking and palm-smacking of their gesticulations in conversation.

Most surprisingly I found myself in love with the city the day they filmed a segment of Sex In The City on my block.

I say "most surprisingly" because with the popularity of the show, there was a horde of people roped off along West 8th Street, and I had to show some guy ID with my address on it just to walk down my block. And I am allergic to hordes of people, especially the kind of people who would tolerate being herded together to get a glimpse of the making of a show like Sex In The City, which you would literally have to strap me in, Clockwork Orange-style, to watch.

Apparently, in this episode, the girls go slumming for a hot dog at Gray's Papaya. The director's chairs for the actresses were set up along the wall outside Gray's Papaya, and as it turns out, Sarah Jessica Parker's chair was placed directly below my studio window. (This is a picture of her attending the premiere of the cinematic rendering of the show. However, she could have just as easily been walking off the set as a witch in one of the Narnia movies in this dress.)

From inside my apartment, I heard the crowd cheer, and when I went to my window to look outside, I could see that Sarah Jessica Parker had arrived at the scene.

As I leaned out the window and saw her seated directly beneath me, I was overcome with the urge to spit on her head.

I paused to deliberate whether or not I was the kind of person who spits on celebrities' heads, and I concluded I was not, but I could easily be one, and would perhaps never better have an opportunity than now, so why not?

By the time I decided to spit, though, I was being addressed by a film crew member from the street.

"I'm sorry," the crew member said through a bullhorn. "Is this light bothering you?"

There was a floodlight aimed at my side of the building from across the street, but it didn't quite reach my window. It was close enough that it might have annoyed me, though.

"If it is, we'll move it for you," she said through the bullhorn.

The crowd hushed, and the shoot seemed to stop as the crew waited for my response.

"No, no, it's fine," I yelled out my window, loud enough to be heard, and the production crew resumed its work.

Because of the little bit of consideration shown by this crew member, I am not a celebrity spitter today.

Such politeness, reaching up to my studio apartment window, after so much noise and vulgarity had wafted through its pane, totally disarmed me. No longer did I despise the crowd outside, the crew and stars of the show; I sat back down on my couch to watch television, feeling like I'd just spoken with next-door neighbors I'd known for ages. For the first time in New York, I felt like I belonged in the city. I felt at home. At home without a past, only the present and future.

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