Monday, May 7, 2012

A few of my favorite things

For someone who wants to have the word 'writer' tattooed in typewriter font across his belly, a la Tupac, I sure haven't been doing much writing over the past year. I don't know why. Usually, while living a new adventure, the words gush from my fingertips and ooze from my ears and drip in splotchy, sticky puddles onto paper. While walking in Japan, for example, I would sometimes scurry off the road and crouch against a wall with pen and leather-bound notebook because I had to write, simply had to, right then and there. And when as a child I went to a new summer camp, I suddenly started writing screenplays, and they all had Beach Boys soundtracks. New York is arguably one of the most interesting places on the planet, so why am I not composing riveting prose here? Beats me. The voice just hasn't been speaking to me. I'll come home with funny anecdotes, relay them to Sherry. She'll say, "You should write about that." I'll say, "But what's the point?" She'll say, "It's funny." And I'll say, "Yeah, but what's the point?"

It all comes at me in kernels. No beginnings, no middles, no ends. No grandiose revelations. Anything beamed at me lately from the mothership is just fragments of shit that happens. It's all just an unorganized box full of Polaroid pictures.

But as of today, we've lived in New York for a full year. Today is our New York anniversary. A year ago today, Sherry and I arrived at our new apartment to find our Super squatting in our kitchen, ass crack exposed like some sad stereotype, installing our stove. The apartment unfinished. Walls unpainted. Washer and dryer, along with stove, uninstalled. Sawdust on our floors. Sherry was livid. I pulled her aside and I said, "We have a choice here. We can let this ruin the first day of our new adventure, or we can go get a decent buzz." And so we took Zealand out for bloody marys.

Anyway, I've gotten off track. Today is our New York anniversary. It would be remiss of me today not to share some of the things I've failed to share over the past year, however random and unorganized.

Like I haven't told you about the Chinese wholesaler down the street and around the corner. He has his live ducks delivered every morning at 6 a.m., hours from being plucked, bronzed and hung in China Town windows. Their hysterical quacking pours from their crates as I pass by on my early morning jogs. The smell, god almighty, the smell. Picture a wet and muddy stray dog. Now picture a wet and muddy stray dog fighting a bear. Fearful fowl, they wreak of wet and terrified feathers. I didn't know until we moved here, that's the worst smell in the world.

I haven't told you about our 1st floor neighbor, who has a 1st floor garden and planted a gigantic sunflower that grew so terrifically tall it went all the way up up up to the 2nd floor, until it grew too tall for itself and drooped and bobbed like a sleeping businessman on a Tokyo subway.

Or about how on my New York subway one morning, a cantaloupe rolled down the subway car and thudded to a stop against my foot. I looked at the woman sitting next to me. She looked at me. We each said, "that's strange," and I picked the cantaloupe up and put it in my lap in case someone wanted to claim it. And several minutes later a man tapped my shoulder and said, "I think it's hers," and pointed to a woman at the end of the car who had a grocery bag at her feet. "Excuse me, ma'am," he called, and everyone on the crowded morning train looked up from their books and nooks. "Did you lose a cantaloupe?"

Or I haven't told you how New York has made me aggressive, and a cab driver said late one night, "Fuck you". And I retorted, "Fuck me? No fuck you." And I actually shook my fist in the air as he drove away.

Or while the city has taught me to stand up for myself and instantly conjure my rage, it's also taught me to access my Zen with the same immediacy - a skill I reckon all city inhabitants must acquire lest the constant frenzy and push and pull eat you from the inside out. I ride my little yellow bicycle, Beatrix, along the East River. Zealand and I sit at the sidewalk tables of Sal's Pizzeria, eating a slice and drinking a pint while watching the passersby. I climb over our fire escape to the roof of the adjoining building and just watch the traffic on the BQE. These moments, I'm as at one with the universe as a Zen Buddhist monk.

I haven't told you about the crazy man who howled like Taz, the Tasmanian Devil, "Ooga booga blah flurr!" directly into the face of an Asian man one morning near Bryant Park. The Asian man was so perplexed and confused he couldn't help but grin. The crazy stranger yelled - spittle flinging from his lips, he was ferocious - "You think that's funny, mother fucker!?!" You won't be laughing when I smear your nose across your face!" And the Asian man stopped grinning.

And later that very same day, I saw a man walking with a cat atop his head, right atop his head!

This doesn't even chronicle the number of break dancers, violinists, erhu players, mariachi bands, Shakespearean actors, cypherists or hobo banjoists who make the metro system so enjoyable to ride. Christ, these people should be making more money than me, they're so goddamned talented.

Over the past year, these have been a few of my favorite things. My kernels. My box full of Polaroid pictures.

But as a 'writer', I still don't know what to make of it all. Maybe I'm still figuring it all out. Perhaps New York is a giant jigsaw puzzle. I've got the edge pieces in place, but I have no idea what the actual image is. Maybe that's my problem. Or, maybe that's the point.

Sherry and I just renewed our lease for another two years. So I have at least two years to finish this puzzle. Something tells me, though, two years just ain't gonna be enough time.

The stars. My, oh my, the stars.

Sherry and I recently returned from our first proper vacation in about a year and a half. As someone who already, at much too young an age, has the unbridled daydreams of a retiree, a year and a half is much, much much much (much much) too long to go without squirming my toes in wet sands, bathing under isolated tropical waterfalls or sinking my teeth directly into a still live salmon plucked from an icy Alaskan riverbed. We have left the city since moving here last May. We went back home for Christmas. That was our only trip (save for that Mandarin bus tour we took to Niagara Falls), and I quickly learned that a brief trip home after being away is anything but relaxing. Sugary, spicy, everything nicey, yes. Relaxing, no sir. I've never been so tired in my life. Everyone wanted us to eat. Everyone wanted us to drink. No one wanted us to sleep. I boarded the plane back to New York feeling like I had been trampled by bulls in Pamplona. So this next trip had to be all about following the fleeting impulses of our hearts.

I like to do dumb shit when I travel, and I have this somewhat irksome habit - I've been told - of doing things simply because other people haven't or won't. And when, for that very reason, I suggested we go to Cuba, Sherry just about punched me in the neck. Seriously. That conversation ruined our Valentine's Day dinner. But we settled on Vieques, a place that appealed to both our sensibilities. It's a small island off the Puerto Rican mainland. A former US Navy bombing range and testing grounds, it's now a wildlife refuge and eco-tourist destination. It's a place known for its free-roaming horses and pristine, untouched beaches. Off the beaten path, but safe. Still in our same time zone, it would scratch that travel itch until we're able to unplug for long enough to take that spiritual pilgrimage through India.

There's very little to actually do in Vieques, which made it perfect. It was relaxing and safe. Certainly much safer than, while on our honeymoon, the madams of Bangkok brothels hungrily eyed my South East Asian wife with dollar signs in their eyes. Yet, there was just enough risk involved to be fun. I had a brush with death when the pop-eyed man behind our rental car counter referred us to a bodega up the street where we could pick up some cold cervezas for the hotel. It was clear this was not a tourists' bodega, but it wasn't clear until I entered and walked past a heavily tattooed young fellow dressed in all red, sipping a Medalla. Inside, Puerto Rican eyes fell upon me. Seething, unwelcoming eyes. Predatory eyes. Convict eyes. And I - un gringo poquito in slim jeans, Toms and a porkpie - wanted to haul ass back into the sunlight, throwing frantic glances back as if I were being chased by the Chupacabra.

Once back in our jeep where awaited my bride, Sherry tells me she watched two men approach the jeep from behind, walking down the middle of the street. They looked like Somalians, she said, she thought she was in Somalia, and she thought they had AK-47s.

We didn't go back to that neighborhood, but two days later I almost backed over Sherry with our rental jeep. So there was danger.

But the rest of the trip was nothing but blissful horas upon horas of pure zen. I spoke each morning to the horses freely wandering the grounds of our mom-and-pop-run inn. I absorbed book after book. I drank my volume in Medalla - a terrible piss-tasting light beer, Puerto Rico's pride and joy, and the only beer to be had on the island. I chain smoked cigarillos, got lobster-skinned on secluded beaches, fought waves. The waves won and stole my shades.

But mostly, I just looked. When the sun was out, I just looked and pondered the horizon, the flat flat blue horizon. And at night, the stars. My, oh my, the stars. At night I would lie in the grass and simply look. Who knew there were so many? And think what our most ancient ancestors must've thought of them. Water, grass, dirt, these things are tangible and kind of make sense. Me drink water. Me eat grass. Me sleep dirt. But the stars, my oh my. No matter how tall a tree our Serengeti brethren climbed, they were always just out of reach. The homosapiens must've looked to them, opened their arms wide and in their limited lingual capacities, exclaimed what the fuck? This is where god came from. The stars are religion.

But while Vieques may have god, we have better beer. Plus, New York has it's own holiness among its vast dizzying twinkling windows, and Zen comes in many different shapes, sizes and colors. In fact, I'll tell you something. Opening the window onto our fire escape at night, the cars whizzing to and fro along the BQE, it's just like being lulled to sleep by the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Brooklyn, my own private beach.