Thursday, July 23, 2015

Wish You Were Here

Everyone has the power to call your whole life into question here. Too many people have access to your state of mind. 
- Renata Adler, Speedboat

My friends had left for work early.  From their front porch, I googled coffee Echo Park and decided to walk down the hill to a place with well reviewed single origin pour over cups.  As I walked down their front steps my eye absently scanned the tree in their front yard.  Sometime in the night a swarm of bees had gathered under one of the branches. My eyes stayed on the mass of bees and I stumbled down the steps. I stopped myself from falling and stood and watched the bees. The mass appeared still and I wondered how they had gathered there, how they stayed linked, how they hung from an apparent chain of bees. The coolness of the morning had made me think that the bees had gathered together in the night for warmth. I pictured them arriving at the tree one by one in the dark, each a stray from some near-by colony too late to show up with their day's pollen, each picking up another's scent, each clinging to the other as more and more arrive until the whole mass dropped from the branch and dangled from its chain of bees.       

Early in my career as a city-dweller, I became fixated on the idea of meeting people so I could see their apartments.  A type of luxury vacation, I would fantasize about walking up to total strangers and asking them where they lived.  It had taken a year or two for the question of numbers to inculcate itself to the level of quiet private mania.  How does the city hold so many people and how do they all live?  Do they live like me? Do they live better?  I imagined something like the scene after the failed wedding in Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, mixing a pitcher of Tom Collins for a mute old man sitting with his hat in his lap while his niece complained about my presence. It became a mental game for me, a style of analysis, based on dress, cleanliness and general demeanor, I'd match people to apartment buildings as I passed. Then for a little while I was filled with the notion for a project. The project would entail my contacting rental brokers with the idea that I needed an apartment.  I could do this all over town.  I could dress in different clothes and play different parts.  I could ask questions about each place or I could say nothing.  I could take pictures with my phone of the places half-packed, still inhabited, or empty. I could do this in East New York.  I could do this Yorkville.  I could do this in Flushing.  I could find out.

With all of my friendships I have had to first put aside the fact that my friends were no longer strangers.  This is difficult because I have always been more interested in strangers.  It was a thing I had to forgive in my friends, their familiarity. My tendency, if left unchecked, is to defer to the person I know the least, to allow the unknown person the floor. It grew from a good place, an abbreviation of the golden rule, unto others...unto others. Like Elias Canetti, I wait to be touched in a crowd. 

Like "smoke" stranger carries the implication of danger. The distance we provide people that we don't know speaks to our understanding of the possibilities of human behavior. In each person the glowing coil of an unnamed resistance.  Like Canetti, my greatest fear is to be touched in a crowd.   

I drink black coffee.  Most often it is a concoction of 12 parts coffee to 1 part espresso that I brew at night then set in the fridge to chill.  The following morning I drop one large ice cube in my to go mug then fill it to the brim with coffee.  Occasionally when I have leftover coffee, I'll pour it into an ice tray then I'll use two coffee ice cubes with my chilled coffee.  But the coffee ice cubes tend to have a heavy effect.  The coffee oils condense in the cubes and when they disperse they make the rest of the coffee a bit more acidic.  I got the idea for the coffee ice cubes from my wife's uncles, who use everything but an Erlenmeyer Flask and Tesla coil in their coffee prep.  I had made it through college without coffee.  It was my first office job that necessitated the caffeine.  I would nod off at my desk and could not bring myself to focus.  So it began in New York, my coffee drinking, and it began with cream and sugar so the coffee tasted like a confection.    

Being away from New York at times comes with a terrifying lightness, a perfect quiet, a sparseness of population. My soul expands like a marshmallow in a vacuum. My tongue becomes thick, my thinking fuzzy, my movements more clumsy. This place slakes that omnivorous deferral, that painful self-consciousness.  It is an open noise.    

When a bee colony expands to a size that the worker bees can no longer sense the presence of the queen, they go about making a new queen.  The colony divides.  A portion of the bees depart with the old queen and a portion stays with the new queen.  The portion that departs moves in a swarm.  The swarm surrounds the queen. They swarm to trees when the queen needs to rest. The drones cover the queen while scouts find food and still other scouts search for a suitable place to build a new hive. It may be that there's a metaphor for a traveller, for the sweetness of hospitality, for the growth of certain friendships in the naked clump of bees dangling from a tree branch.  Or it may be that was simply what I felt looking at it, having crossed the country in the air and slept in a bed with fresh sheets that had been made for me, when I used my phone to find some coffee  and walked down the hill to find it and it was good.   

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Pigeons possess a remarkable sense of direction.  There are stories of pigeons that had been bound in bags, blindfolded and carried overseas still finding their ways home.  Nikola Tesla, the inventor, became obsessed with them in his late life, perhaps because of this trait.  Their beaks contain a small amount of iron.  It's believed that this helps them navigate by using the Earth's magnetic poles.   This pigeon remained on its perch for nearly forty portraits.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The City is a Wonder Town


With a concussion the light upon impact, I am told, is the result of the back of brain bumping against the skull.  I once got a slight concussion by running down a dark hallway at night. I ran directly into another boy. We couldn't see an inch ahead and so we had no idea the other was there. It was a game, a short lived game, but even with the intention of running full speed at each other in the dark we did not have a sense of the space and we did not know how close we were to each other and we thought somehow we would miss one another so we didn't even run with our arms out in front to brace off potential impact. We ran dead on and our heads collided. It hurt. The light was there streaked inside my eyes.  I cried but I was also laughing because it was so dumb, it was such a dumb reason for my head to be hurting so bad, but I laughed and cried so hard that I almost puked. I sobbed and moaned a little and wheezed between laughs. The other boy was fine, at least he hadn't seen stars and he wasn't crying. He was laughing. The hallway lights turned on and he helped me to my feet and walked me to the playroom. I laid down on the antique bed in the playroom and the white of the bedspread floated up around the pinpoints of  small pastel flowers that seemed to ground me within the blinding rest of it.

 Still the word concussion has a different phonetic meaning for me. The sense I get from the word is at odds with its meaning, even though I have had several strong personal interactions with word.  The word has more to do with waves for me, with the sense of being pulled from within, by my own stomach, drawn down in the current and wound under the force of the water. Being engulfed, ducking wave by wave those white tracers flash inside my eyes.  The root, I am told, is latin, concussionem: a shaking. The flights that cross the Atlantic break low below the cloud cover on their path to JFK. The waves back off.  They break a little further. I am surrounded only by the roll of their foam as white as the white bellies of the jumbo jets.  I wade out further to meet the growing waves until the horizon is invisible behind the jumble of surf.  A wave surges and I drop below rising in the foam, addled, dizzy, shaken.  The softness of the water is something apart, my fingers sweep through it. I am alone out here.  The day is grey and the water is cold.  Wallowing, while the lifeguard huddles on her stand underneath her umbrella, tucked inside her sweatshirt waiting out the drizzle.


Still the light.  I arrive each morning in lower Manhattan and walk up the subway stairs. I have observed since April what seem to be the rarest traces of light.  There are locations I can count on as long as the sun is out. But it changes with the seasons and with the smallest bit of cloud passing through the sky. The light makes these improbable momentary leaps, cutting from the East or the West and bouncing off each of the high office windows until it bends so low it scrapes the ground and people move through it in waves.  Unaware of the momentary bath of shadow, the coin of light, or homing to it, like I do, finding some deep ventral imprint pulling them along the lines of it.  The overcast days and the days without my camera make the crowds harder to bear.  There's the hope that the next day the sun will return, my batteries will be charged and I can to stop myself from hustling forward in the crowd waiting to cross West St.  I can stop and look all I want.