A few weeks ago I was heading into work when one of the street vendors outside my building called me over to his cart. “Hey, are you married?” he asked. This is the same question he asks me every time he calls me over to his cart, which has happened somewhat regularly for the last two years, meaning he has heard my answers go from, “No, but I have a boyfriend,” to “Well, I’m engaged,” to the answer I give him now, which is: “Yes.”
Generally this is the extent of our interaction, but that was the week of Thanksgiving, and perhaps inspired by the holiday he upped the ante by telling me he wanted to give me some pastries. I don’t like street vendor pastries, but he was very insistent, and a few minutes later he dispatched me with two bags full of danishes and muffins. What could I do? I said thank you and happy Thanksgiving and brought them upstairs to my office, where I laid them out on the table and knew they would be gone shortly. Magazine offices – you leave out any food, anything at all, and it disappears within hours. We’re like a plague of locusts.
I responded to this act of kindness by walking to work on the other side of the street for the next few weeks. I am not recommending this course of action, but it’s the truth. And things went on this way until this past Wednesday, when I decided I was being ridiculous. I was also in the midst of my umpteenth effort to fully wean myself off coffee, and was feeling confident because that morning I had succeeded in only drinking green tea. I had half a cup at home and the rest was in my travel mug, and I hoped it would at least help stave off a headache for a few more hours.
As I passed, he called me over to his cart. “Are you married?” he asked, and from there he jumped to, “Ah, but why are you married?” An awkward silence ensued, because how does one answer this question? And in the midst of it he reached out for my travel mug and I handed it over. It felt like it would be so rude to not give it to him, especially after the pastries. It also felt a bit like I was possessed, like the whole thing was just happening to me and there was nothing I could do to stop it. “Is this coffee?” he asked. “No, it’s tea,” I told him. At which point he POURED OUT MY TEA and refilled the cup with Lipton black tea, which I really don’t like. He handed it back to me, and also handed me a muffin. “It is too bad you are married,” he said. “If you weren’t, I would take such good care of you.”
A little after the storm made landfall Matt and I decided to walk down to the water to see about the surge. This was not, clearly, what the mayor had recommended—earlier in the day I had been out for a run and almost got blown into a pole—but at that point we’d been stuck inside for hours and curiosity won out over caution.
Once we got to Hicks Street we could already see the water. It had risen up over Brooklyn Bridge Park and onto Atlantic Avenue, its edges lapping at the street in little waves. We stood there, looking, with a bunch of other people who just stood there looking, too. There is nothing quite like a natural disaster to leave you feeling like a farm animal, staring out mutely at things you’re unable to understand.
A cop car, lights flashing, had parked itself horizontally across the street, we guessed to block vehicles off from the water. But why bother? The water itself seemed enough of a barrier. We stared out at the fenced-in parking lot at the end of the avenue, now fully a part of the river, and watched as a drain sporadically spurted up like a geyser. Abruptly the cop car did a U-turn and took off. And then a moment later we all turned to see a huge white suburban pull down Atlantic and take a right straight into the water. The SUV sank down, driving fast enough to leave a wake, until a block later, where it rose up and took a right into Brooklyn Heights. This seemed odd, since there were clearly ways to get there other than driving through the East River, and we were still talking about this when he pulled down Atlantic again, and took another fast right straight into the flood.
Unexpectedly, it was comforting. As long as idiots were still out doing idiotic things, it meant certain aspects of the world would remain unchanged, no matter the weather. So we went back home, turned the radio back on, had more soup and finished off our beers. What else was there to do? “A storm even more perfect than the perfect storm,” the newscaster said and we laughed. We didn’t know yet about the Rockaways, or Red Hook, or Chelsea. All that was clear was that the hurricane was so gigantic and unprecedented that it was making even newscasters lose their ability to form sentences that made any sense.
This past Saturday Matt and I were walking to our car to drive home from a party when we noticed two people who’d been there trying to hail a cab (and failing), so we gave them a ride. On the way back to Cobble Hill one of them mentioned that she’d left some sort of humane trap out in her apartment because she had a mouse and we all laughed, because, well—”a mouse.” It’s only ever mice.
Someone suggested she get a cat and then I suggested she get a snake, surprising even myself. I had a snake as a pet in college that ate live mice, but mostly I forget that this ever happened. It seems like such a non sequitur with the rest of everything else I’ve ever done. It was what I asked my mom for my birthday that year, a ball python that I named Salome Bean and that lived in a cage in my dorm room. I was in a particularly dark period, which maybe explains a little bit of it, but really I think what happened was that I spent some time in high school at the Meadow, this big grassy field in Central Park where kids would go at that point to get stoned and braid each other’s hair, and there were a few characters who would come around that always had these huge snakes wrapped like oversize accessories around their necks, and I somehow got it into my head that this was very cool. I don’t know. It was 1997.
I ended up spending a semester with Salome Bean, dropping little white mice into her cage every week or so. She was clearly not pleased with the whole scenario, to the point that eventually I let her out of the cage and she just lived in my room, and this worked fine until she disappeared for a few weeks and I terrifyingly came to believe she had found her way into the dorm room next door, where an intensely organized English major lived. She would not respond well to the snake, I didn’t think. Eventually, I found Salome Bean curled up behind my heater, but it made me realize the situation wasn’t really working for either of us and I sold her back to the pet store where she came from.
What is incredibly weird to me now, since that part of my life feels so unfathomably far away, is that the lifespan of ball pythons is actually 20 to 30 years. Which means Salome Bean could very well still be living out the rest of her life somewhere. Maybe her time with me was just a weird prelude to everything else she’s ever known. If that is the case, I hope she is in a much larger cage. She seemed like a very gentle snake. She didn’t even like to eat the mice I’d try to feed her. She’d let them roam around for a week sometimes before killing them. Though it is possible this was just because she was depressed.
I wrote about Poe for New York magazine’s Scandals issue and discovered that he and his friends seem to have had about the maturity level of 13-year-olds. Incidentally, that was how old his wife was when he married her. Also, she was his first cousin. All in all it made me very glad to live now and not among the catty, tuberculosis-infested New York poets of the 1840s.
And then for a travel piece on New Orleans I got to interview Bryan Batt, who plays Sal on Mad Men, and who grew up there. He was just as charming as you might expect. I was asking him about his favorite hometown places, but really what I took away from it is that I am very glad to be alive now and not in the miserable, racist, closeted 1950s.
The cobbler I go to isn’t a great cobbler, but he’s gentle and sheepish and very nice, so in spite of the fact that pretty much every pair of shoes I’ve brought to him has been returned to me fixed in superficial ways, but still fundamentally broken, I keep going. Also, the only other cobbler in the neighborhood is a complete asshole.
A few weeks ago I picked up a pair of shoes and once I got home realized he hadn’t finishing fixing them. So I took them back a few days later. “Oh yeah,” he said softly in his untraceable accent, patiently fingering the loose soles that he’d forgotten to glue down, “I remember this. I can fix it while you wait.”
A friend of his was sitting in a cracked leather chair in the corner—I’d broken up their conversation when I came in—and we talked while I waited. He was wearing a Yankees hat and a thick black overcoat and he had that Brooklyn accent full of ‘y’s and dropped ‘h’s that people always try to copy when they’re mimicking someone from New York. He’d been born down the street, he said, back before the neighborhood changed.
Along the way he’d come into a building or two for a few thousand dollars, and now he was a millionaire, on paper, at least, because he didn’t see any reason to sell. “It used to be there were lots of Eye-talians around here,” he said. “And a little further north was real Spanish.” He shook his head. “You know what that means.” In fact, I had no idea, the prejudice so outdated it was reduced to a set of hard-to-follow assumptions. “It was violent?” I asked. “Oh no,” he said. “Nothing like that.”
He’d owned bagel shops before he retired, but when he was young he’d had a gentlemen’s club of sorts where he ran card games in the back. Eventually he’d shut the club down, but since he wanted to keep the gambling going he decided to make like the space was a car service—he had three phone lines put in and advertised around the neighborhood. “I can still remember those numbers,” he said, and then he rattled them off. “People would call, and we’d just let the phones ring and ring, until this one night. We’re all sitting in the back and my friends are losing their money, losing their money and the phones are ringing off the hook. Finally one slams his fist down and yells, ‘Can you SHUT OFF the damn PHONES?” He stopped here for a moment to let this sink in. “I go home that night and I tell this to my wife. She says to me, ‘You’re crazy! You should just shut down that bad gambling business and open up a car service.’ “
The next day he hired the drivers. “I made a ton of money off that car service,” he said. “Kept it for a whole bunch of years.” He could still remember those three numbers, he said, again, and then, again, he rattled them off.
Since our apartment looks out on a bunch of other people’s windows, I often get this weird feeling that I’m being watched. SOMETIMES IT IS TRUE.
What on earth is going on? I googled “squirrels looking through windows” and after about the fifth image like this:
I started to get freaked out. It could just be from having rewatched Twin Peaks recently, but it felt sinister. Like maybe they’re all reporting back to someone. But then I found this, which put me at ease:
Since our apartment looks out on a bunch of other people’s windows, I often get this weird feeling that I’m being watched. SOMETIMES IT IS TRUE.
After work I met a friend at a bar and we caught up until, in the middle of a story, this guy came over and asked if he could buy us drinks and talk to us while he waited to go meet his cousin.
I’m not sure why we said yes, but for me at least, I was curious. He had said the whole thing in such a funny way, staring off into the middle distance, talking in this flat tone. Like he was reporting for duty.
He got us drinks and then started showing us pictures on his iPhone. He was from Australia, he said, but had been in Atlanta recording some hip hop tracks at Stankonia Studios (sure, we thought). He’d come up to New York for his cousin’s book party. And he was in “business,” by which he meant drugs. “Molly,” he’d pointed out after I told him my name. “Like MDMA.” Which was the first time someone has pointed that out since about 1997.
The first few pictures were of people milling around at the book party but then, abruptly, came a long string of photos of topless women. His cousin’s book, it turned out, was a 3D book about breasts, meaning that it came with 3D glasses so that “that girl’s humongous tittles actually look like they’re sticking out into the room!” I focused on nodding and not looking at my friend, because otherwise I would have laughed too hard, the whole situation so ridiculous. Who pulls out their phone at a bar and shows girls pictures of other girls’ breasts, pointing them out like they’re family pets? And besides, “titties”?
Then, even more abruptly, there was a bunch of pictures of him and a man screwing around in a recording studio. Wait, my friend said, is that Big Boi? It was. He even played us the track he said he’d put down at Stankonia, which was hard to hear over the U2 blasting in the bar, but we tried.
Was it possible that this guy was not entirely full of shit? That he actually had just gotten out of drug dealing because he knew if he stayed in he would have ended up with broken legs? Numerous people’s legs had been broken because of him, he said, but he never did the breaking himself, and also he never had the Colombians who did his leg breaking cut people. “I always get my money,” he said. “And I always say, no cutting, just break their legs.” Now he had a supply company, a legit one, transporting goods from China—he slid his new business card across the table.
I didn’t really believe him. If it was true, wouldn’t he keep it to himself? But when I asked about this he just leaned back and looked at us with this blank stare. “You’re never going to see me again,” he said, “cause I’m not from around here.” And then he coolly reached for the card he’d left sitting on the table and slipped it back in his pocket.
For some reason, maybe it was his still coldness, or that he really did have photos of Big Boi on his phone, or just the time of night, but all of a sudden I believed all of it. That he kept his extra money in gold and diamonds buried in his backyard. That after his sister had committed suicide he’d melted down the ring she’d been wearing into the one he had on his finger. That he’d gotten into a terrible car wreck and slid across the highway on his face. That the worst thing he’d ever done (I asked) was burn a guy’s feet. “They made me do it,” he said, “when I was 14. And after that I didn’t have to do stuff like that anymore.”
We did not go back to the room he was renting to “sex him down,” as he suggested. But I did Google the shit out of him. Sure enough, I found videos of him online rapping with Big Boi. I found the book of the 3D breasts. I even found his twitter account. As he was walking out he had turned back to us. “I really appreciated talking to you guys,” he said. “Just, you know, getting all that shit off my chest.”
It says something negative about my state of mind, I think, that today I mistook the humongous shiny Christmas tree ornaments decorating the lobby of the building where I work for gigantic, larger-than-life grenades.
It was weird, because the day after I wrote about my silent cab ride home, I took a cab to LaGuardia, and about one minute into the ride, my cab driver told me that his favorite part of his job was talking to customers. And from there, without much prompting, he started in on a discussion of how it could be hard to tell if customers were rich are not—for example, one time this guy in a long overcoat and regular sneakers ended up owning a Netflix-like company, maybe even Netflix, and after getting dropped off at the Plaza he left Tenzin (the cabbie) a $300 tip. Whereas Joe Jonas (here Tenzin passed me his phone to show me a picture of the two of them together) was only a regular tipper. There was also the time he picked up Susan Sarandon, who asked him a lot of questions about his home country, Tibet, but I’m not sure how she tipped.
By then we were out of the Delancey Street gridlock and halfway up the FDR drive, which was a serpentine way to get to LaGuardia, but let us avoid the traffic. And Tenzin was turning out to be a fabulous conversationalist, able to keep things going with only occasional affirmative noises on my part. Among the things I learned: that he loved his job, even though he still dreamed of opening his own bar, that his mother was upset that he was not a practicing Buddhist, that people frequently had sex in the back of cabs (“it’s cheaper than a hotel”), and that he had been a runner up to appear in Taxicab Confessions, cut in the last round because, the producers told him, he looked so young that no one would believe he was old enough to be driving a cab (“I used to be really skinny,” he said, by way of explanation, “now, not so much”).
At this point hadn’t even yet alighted on what would turn out to be his most recurrent subject—the numerous attractive female riders who had attempted to seduce him. There was the flirtatious woman who cheated him out of a fare by calling three big men to meet her at her destination, and the Penthouse stripper whom he’d pick up after work, three mornings in a row, like it was meant to be (or like he knew what time she got off). There was also the 40-something woman who got in his cab and started crying. She had just found out her husband, who was some sort of finance type, was sleeping with an intern in his office. “Is there something wrong with me?” she asked, “I work out every day.” Suddenly I felt so overwhelmingly sad for this woman, all the things she thought would protect her no longer working the way she thought they would. “She had a six-pack,” Tenzin told me. “She pulled up her shirt to show me.” She had no destination, just wanted him to drive around, but after a while she asked him to take her somewhere secluded, somewhere she could think. He took her to the park under the Brooklyn Bridge. She thought for a little while. Then she climbed into the front seat. (“You will think I’m a bad person,” Tenzin told me.) “Have you ever thought of being with an older woman?” she asked. And that was that.
I paid him double the fare, because about a zillion cabs had refused to pick me up before he stopped, and because I promised I’d make it worth his while. And also because I was left filled with the details of his life, having been asked, for a good thirty minutes, to offer none of my own, and at that exact moment, at the end of three very exhausting days, this was a huge relief.
I finally left the office at 1am, my scarf wet and smelling musty still from when I’d gotten stuck in the rain a few hours earlier—the first time I’d made it outside all day. My brain felt like it had been shaken up, turned upside down and emptied out onto the sidewalk. Which is a strange way to feel after you’ve spent over 14 hours cramming your head with information.
On the taxi ride home I started listening to the messages on my phone and then, abruptly stopped. We flew across the Manhattan Bridge, the wheels making the rushing noise cars make on wet cement, and my cab driver draped his incredibly long, slender fingers around the top of the passenger side seat, stretching out his arm. A friend told me recently he had a long conversation with his cab driver on the way to the airport and the man had appreciated being engaged. “No one ever talks to us,” he said. If I could have thought of one thing to say to the person driving me home I would have said it, but I had nothing. And besides maybe he, like me, appreciates it when strangers do him the favor of ignoring him.
At home, I did not pack for my trip to Georgia, and I did not do the dishes, and I did not even turn out the light in the kitchen. I just sat at the table and did more of what I’d already done for 14 hours at work—stared at my computer screen and read various things on the Internet. Which says something, I think, about the magnetism of the things you’re accustomed to, even if they bring you little to no satisfaction.
After going over some of my older clips a few days ago (they covered, among other things, the closing of a porn theater, an ex-con MMA fighter, a day in the life of a bunch of gutter punks, and a pervy doll repairman on the Upper East Side) I think I finally came up with a satisfactory answer for people who ask me what my beat is.
Mirabelle, who came home from Massachusetts this week with a defiant blue streak in her hair, seems to have finally hit those awkward teenage years. I’d like to say we didn’t wash it out because we’re cool like that, and happy to let the animal who lives with us express herself however she pleases. But the truth is that we’ve just been busy with other things. Which makes me wonder, now that I’m much closer to being a parent than a child and regularly wonder about how on earth one manages to launch even just an only somewhat sane person into this world, if this is actually a pretty good explanation for why a lot of parents do(n’t do) a lot of different things.