Thursday, September 3, 2009
#4 – COMMUNITY
That scene in that raw mill town where everyone was faking accents and pretending to be English and talking trash. I was back in a familiar situation of being IN a place – with that presumably formidable family in the aesthetically nurturing White Mountains – but not in my heart OF the place.
Even less of the place then when back in adolescence while in the mountains I kept quiet about crucial matters that made me an outsider. In a long winter at boarding school I had become a Socialist – something I would not give up – and a pacifist – about which I was a little less sure – and most of all a believer in fostering equality, all of which had added to my outsider status in the winters but was something apparently not known in the mountains in the summer with people from these family compounds that were in so many ways walled off from the life of ordinary people.
IN but not OF. A lifelong pattern. Like it was when I was in the army but in the midst of an exciting journalism career that meant rarely showing up for the army. Or in that journalism career though I did not believe in objective journalism. Or in my final go-round as a job holder, after writing unpublished novels and roaming Europe and Africa, when I was turning thirty and needed money because of the allure of a woman who wore the new “no bras” – and I went to work for a year at a prissy outfit called American Heritage Books, where I pretended to be enamored of sentimental, whitewashed history – and after they fired me for cause went to work for a smarter and much richer and boozier, and strangely confident, outfit called Time-Life Books, which was a great place to get laid but a terrible place for real writing. As it was when I was putting in time on a trade paper that glorified retail merchants, or when I went to Nicaragua and for the sake of getting a story pretended I had respect for the puffed up, quite psychotic dictator of that country, America’s free world ally General Anastasio Somoza.
Or pretending I saw the points made by American officials and mercenaries in Vietnam, Portuguese officials and mercenaries in Angola, or professional Englishman in America. Or when I pretended for a magazine article while in Costa Rica that I was one with the Americans who settled there for right-wing racist and/or criminal and/or tax reasons. Or in the Far or Middle East pretending respect for war-loving journalists. Or in Lebanon pretending I was in a progressive part of the world. Or at a dinner table in Atlanta in apartheid days with maternal relatives, so handsome and charming, whose restaurant table was at the edge of open floor upon which diners threw pennies at dancing “pickaninnies.”
Or in those times when I took airline tickets and lived in hotel suites given to me as non-cash bribes so that I would say in print nice things about them – a form of fakery of which I had just now done a reprise in the Bahamas.
But here in Chelsea, where I was living by accident as the darkness descended, it seemed I was outside the pattern – though so depressed when I got back from my mother’s birthday party that it might not matter.
In the months before the Bahamas and the dark time in New Hampshire I had chatted most days with Rita, who held court from a bench across 25th Street in front of her rent-controlled building where, before this apartment I was in now came free, she had rented me a room illegally. She was a boisterous, motherly, Puerto Rican woman who was curiously right-wing in her views but not her life – a fan not just of Reagan but of Bernie Goetz, a sick young white guy in the news who had decided to pump bullets into black men in a subway car. And she was also one of the warmest and kindest people I had ever met, den mother to the whole block and a genius at working government programs so that if anyone needed, for instance, government cheese or honey she would bring some right over.
Chelsea had the reputation of being a fashionable part of New York’s gay world, but I was finding my end of it more like a lost 1940s/50s America. Many people on the block had lived here all their lives, as had their parents before them. Rita’s building, which was across the street from my new building, looked more like apartment houses in the Bronx than Manhattan, which is to say it was horizontal, only three stories high but of such length that if it could have multiple entrances.
An unshaven and tiny old Hispanic man started a bicycle repair business on the sidewalk that ran by my building – my building with the curious Venetian façade on the south side of 25th Street – right across the street from Rita’s. He worked most of the day squatting on the sidewalk, pieces and parts of bicycles and screws and nuts and wrenches spread out in front of him, bicycle chains and frames and wheels chained to the sturdy post of a sign that tried to explain New York’s alternate side of the street parking rules. This tiny old man always had open whisky bottles in paper bags, but was seen as so reliable that some women on the block trusted him to watch their children.
Across the way, on the corner of Eighth and 25th, a new Korean run grocery opened, and people in the neighborhood who had not met before bought flowers and fruit there and talked to each other around the salad bar. I began to greet my neighbors, which seemed almost hopeful if strange.
A good looking woman from Brooklyn in the street-side front apartment across from my garden-side rear apartment worked at an airlines counter out at Kennedy. Her husband, a jolly dark Venezuelan, was studying for an accounting degree, for which I helped him with his term papers. Sometimes he came over happily sporting the uniform of a Central Park soft ball league. Sometimes he was in ski gear, on his way to Cortina Valley in the Catskills. A couple on the 4th floor, small, round regular people I might not have noticed in another time, talked in the elevator of how they spent time in a cottage “upstate.”
I took a bus to Atlantic city, read a book about odds bets at craps, played at the old Claridge, which was on its last legs in a desperate casino incarnation, and came away with a net of almost precisely a hundred dolls, arwhich I used to buy furniture from a delicatessen man whose notice I had seen on a supermarket billboard. I got two stools, a kitchen chair and solid butcher block table on wheels.
For a year I had been a cliché figure, a divorced man living nowhere – friends couches, a maid’s room on 87th St., a stifling condo off season in Florida on the edge of the Everglades, a fancy renovated coop loft in the popular new Flat Iron district with fancy people from my not always fancy international past, an artist friend’s dirt encrusted illegal loft on Canal Street, where I rendezvoused with a woman from 30 years back who flew in from California, and neither of us could accept who and what we had become. She noticed, as she had 30 years ago, that I had no permanent abode.
One night a naked woman, haggard face and young bouncing body, ran into the street near the Korean deli. Rather than gawk or hoot, the neighbors wrapped her in a blanket, stayed with her till hospital help arrived.
The only other brand new business near me after the Korean store was an instantly dingy Greek coffee shop. The rest of the businesses here were old ones. Across Eighth there were still stores that seemed out of my distant childhood – ice cream that was decades away from Hagan Daaz, a shoe store selling Thom McCann shoes, facing a very old store for non-designer fabric by the yard. And there was a faded, linoleum-lined place run by very old people who overcooked very thin flat hamburgers and still served Coca-Cola in original Coca-Coca glasses which otherwise could be found only in antique stores.
Behind the stores across Eighth were the massive, identical buildings of the International Ladies Garment Workers union – greenery and benches and big spacious apartments inhabited by a mixture of very old union members or their surviving spouses, and younger people who years ago had gotten on waiting lists as the old ILGWU people began to die off.
Chelsea. I am in this scene and can imagine myself of it.
Rita was always on our block as was Freddy the super, a huge round man who, like so many here, had lived on the block since birth. He was usually seen in silhouette walking down the center of 25th Street, tilting from side to side, one thick arm stretched out daintily to hold a leash attached the world’s smallest dog.
It was all so different from the more obviously colorful but unanchored places of my past. And, moreover, it was still here when I got back from New Hampshire. I still lived here. And even in the deep darkness that enclosed this time I had an idea that this was the place where, in ways I could not delineate, my life would change like night turning to day or vice versa.