Upper West-Side Story

IMG_1291Carlos and I like to visit the Upper West Side and pretend that we live there. The pristine sidewalks are largely bereft of the tourists that crowd Times Square, or as bereft of tourists as any New York neighborhood can be. We stroll through the tree lined streets, past the Barnes and Noble, the Trader Joe’s, the chic little restaurants and cafes that we can’t afford.

A couple of of spoiled girls were selling lemonade in front of a ritzy apartment building. Their monthly allowance is probably more than our salaries. Of course I don’t know that they’re spoiled. I just can’t imagine anyone who grew up in such opulent surroundings could have a real grasp on the struggles of the proletariat. I bought a red, plastic cup full of sticky, sweet lemonade anyway. Today I’m one of the bourgeoisie.

We sat on a park bench, enjoying the cool breeze in front of a fountain and a sign advising not to feed the pigeons.

An old woman walked up to me, with a cane, and a long, dark coat, stringy, white/gray hair, and a smile right out of the British Book of Smiles. She stood in front of me and said, “Should I go throw myself off the Verrazano Bridge?”

I didn’t miss a beat as I answered, “No, that’s a horrible idea!” A brief pause before adding, “The Verrazano Bridge doesn’t have a pedestrian cross-walk. You couldn’t even get up there. You’d be better off going for the Manhattan Bridge.”

The old woman laughed, and said she’d go for the Golden Gate Bridge, but she’d have to fly there.

I said, “It’s gorgeous, though.”

She agreed.

She sat down beside me and confided that the reason she was distraught was because someone she’d spoken to on the sidewalk didn’t know who Frank Sinatra was.

“Old Blue Eyes.” I said. “Well, there really is no reason to go on.”

We sat in the park for a while, and the old woman began to talk to a lesbian beside us, who’d been intently studying a map of the city, and then she lamented the fact that she couldn’t feed the pigeons.

“I wonder what God has to say about that?” She asked of no one in particular.

I wondered which of the ritzy apartment buildings she’d come from. With her cane, I figured she hadn’t walked very far. I wonder if she owned the apartment outright, or if she had some wonderful deal on a spacious, rent controlled walk-up she’d lived in since the sixties? I imagined dusty hardwood floors, french doors, ornate crown molding, stacks of newspaper, a garbage overflowing with chinese takeout, the smell of cats.

I wondered if she knew how lucky she was to be living in such a beautiful neighborhood in such an amazing city.

Before we left, I turned to her and said, “Have a good evening. Avoid bridges.”

She smiled toothily and said, “Have a wonderful life.”

I said, “You too.”

Cats

minoucheThe little, gray kitten was a Christmas gift from my then boyfriend who gave it to me not so much as a token of affection, but more as a last ditch effort to save our failing relationship. I was a sophomore in college, still obsessed with Nirvana, Doc Martens, and dubious hygiene. The boy’s plan backfired when the kitten began to receive all of my attention, because with the kitten, unlike the boy, it was love at first sight.

I named him Minouche, after Tante Georgette’s cat in French in Action, because he came to me during that period in college when I was only watching black and white French films about death. When the boy complained that the cat was sharing the bed with us, I told him he was welcome to sleep in the living room. The boy stuck around for a few more explosive months, but the kitten remained.

Even so, the kitten wasn’t the little gray, furry bundle of joy I’d been hoping for. He was born on Halloween, and may very well have been a physical manifestation of Satan. He had a way of peering into your eyes with a malevolence that seemed to say, “I’d kill you if I could, and one day I will,” just before he’d make a bite-y lunge for your face. I started calling him the “Anti-kitten.”

He was needy, and would meow pitifully when I’d leave him alone, even if it was only to go to the bathroom. He’d claw his way up my pant legs to curl up on my warm neck. He was covered in fleas, so I got him a collar that protected him, but not us. I couldn’t bear to discipline him, so he’d just accompany me during my showers, batting at the shower curtain and crying until I was done and could hold him again.

He seemed determined to poop everywhere except inside his litter box. When my roommate, Nikki, left a post-it on the fridge that said, “Your cat shat on the mat,” I knew that I wasn’t cut out for kitten parenthood. So when I went home for the holidays that year, I took the kitten with me, and irresponsibly left him with my parents when I left to go back to school. My excuse at the time was that I couldn’t afford the pet deposit, but this wore thin years later when I was working full time, and we all knew that I just didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of another living thing.

As a child I’d never been allowed to have a pet in the house because my mother said my dad and I were bad enough. But with me in college, my parents’ empty nest syndrome was in full swing, so the cat became a surrogate child for them. At one point my mom asked me if she should get the cat’s birthstone put on a ring with the rest of our birthstones. I had to explain to her that he was a cat and didn’t have a birthstone. For a while he was even sleeping with them until he started biting their elbows every time they’d roll over, and then he was banished to sleep in a cat bed in the utility room. He seemed happier with them too, and never once pooped anywhere except for in his litter box.

Being rural Texans, my parents refused to call him by his given name, Minouche, and instead called him Mutt, and his full name, Mutt Brister when they were yelling at him for being up to something he shouldn’t, which was frequently.

He was still evil. He’d “hide” behind the French doors and wait for someone to walk from the kitchen to the dining room before leaping out to bite their ankles, not quite smart enough to realize that the doors were glass, and we could see him hunched over and ready to pounce from the other side. He’d curl up in your lap, and lull you into a false sense of security, before latching onto your wrist and sinking his fangs into your arms while scratching you with his hind legs. When my dad would walk into the kitchen for a late night snack, he’d sneak from the shadows to attack his feet. The last straw for my mother happened when she came out of the shower one morning, and the cat leapt from atop a bookshelf onto her naked back…and stuck there.

The next day she took him to be fixed and declawed. For any other cat I’d say that declawing is horrible and inhumane and should never be done, but Minouche couldn’t live with people had he not been. He was just too violent. For a while my mom threatened to drive him out into the forest and leave him there. But as the years went by, they settled into an uneasy cohabitation.

Nearly fifteen years passed. I’d visit twice a year, and, even though I’d abandoned him, Minouche always seemed to know that he was really my cat. He preferred my attention to everyone else’s, and would curl up in my lap to have his belly rubbed (before grabbing my arm with his clawless feet and sinking his teeth into it.) He’d rub his back against my legs and purr, and my mom would call him a traitor. “I’m the one who feeds you!” She’d tell him. “I’m the one who cleans your litter box!” He’d stare at her blankly for a moment, before turning back to me with an exaggerated, fishy yawn.

Every time we talked on the phone, she’d complain about having to take care of my cat, and would threaten to ship him to wherever I was living at the time.

For my first month in New York City, Carlos and I stayed with his friend who had two cats of his own. Dainty June, who he doted on to a degree that bordered on obscene, and Truffaut, her sweet, but timid brother.

“Cat people are crazy.” Carlos said, and, having known too many of them, I could not disagree, even though I sort of am one. The benefit of cats, to me, is that they come to you for attention when they want it, and then ignore you the rest of the time, a pattern of behavior that I can at least relate to. They don’t require all the maintenance of a dog, and are mostly quiet. And you don’t have to walk them.

But cats can be demanding, like Dainty June, who would stand on my chest at the crack of dawn, meowing insistently for me to feed her, then ignoring the food once I dragged myself up, content with the fact that I was her puppet. She’d race from the bedroom to the living room any time she psychically sensed that I was petting Truffaut instead of her. She’d flop down across my keyboard as I sat on the couch, scouring the internet for jobs.

When her master was home, he’d say he was going to the bathroom before Carlos or I could go shower, then he’d spend the next twenty minutes cooing, “Dainty June, Lance needs to shower, I have to get up,” and would wait for the cat to leave his lap of her own accord instead of just setting her down, or shooing her away. Carlos was constantly attacking me with a lint roller, and complaining about the cat hair that would relentlessly attach itself to every item of clothing we owned.  So when we found a place in Brooklyn with a woman who had a “no pet” policy, we were both relieved.

The past few weeks, when I phoned home to my mom, she’d tell me that Minouche was no longer eating. She’d buy every kind of cat food, would buy cans of tuna or salmon meant for people, would cook chicken or ham and pinch it up for him, to no avail. He’d lick it a few times, then walk away, bored. For a while our conversations seemed to consist entirely of a growing list of items that Minouche was refusing to eat. Being practical she told me, calmly, “I bought Mutt a coffin.”

As his inevitable death approached, it took an unexpected toll on her.  When I spoke to her last week, she was crying hysterically. I’d never heard her cry so much, even when my Grandfather died, and we stood, holding hands at his funeral. “He just looks at me like he wants me to do something, and I don’t know what to do!” She’d sobbed. And hearing my mom cry made me cry. But she didn’t want to take him to the vet because she was afraid they’d just put him to sleep, and she didn’t want that either. She still hoped he’d come around and start eating again.

But he didn’t. When I pointed out that she’d spent the past 15 years complaining about him, she said, “I know, but I’ve gotten attached.”

She was the one who fed him. Who took care of him. And she was the one who had to watch him die. I wished that I could be there. To hold him one last time. To pet him, or comfort him, to just be there when it happened. Because he was, no matter what, my cat. But I was miles away, with cities, roads, and years between us.

Carlos and I visited a beautiful, Catholic church yesterday, and I joked about lighting a candle for Minouche. But I was sort of serious. I wanted to do something, even if it was only a symbolic effort. “You can’t,” Carlos told me, “because cats don’t have souls.”

“Neither do people.” I’d pointed out, unsure what bothered me the most, the fact that somewhere my cat was dying, or that a part of me was dying too, a young man in ripped jeans with Trent Reznor posters and a world view untarnished by cynicism, or the ridiculousness of life and death in general.

“I’m just saying what Catholics believe.” Carlos said, but I could tell he was against me lighting the candle, so I left it at that. I just thought of Minouche, quietly throughout the day. A needy, playful kitten, running around the living room, attacking mens’ hats and women’s hair with his little paws. The older, more sedate Minouche, stretched out on the dryer while my mom did laundry, attacking the towels as she folded them.

My mom sounded better when I spoke to her today. “Mutt passed away on Friday night.” She said. In the end they’d talked to a vet who was going to come by on Saturday and put him to sleep, but he passed away on his own, naturally and peacefully in his sleep. He’d spent the days leading up to it lying outside in a patch of sunshine for hours at a time. He hadn’t seemed to suffer. That was comforting.

“It’s better this way.” She said, and I didn’t disagree. I’m glad that my parents were there to handle everything. To bury him in a little, cat coffin in the backyard in a patch of sunshine. I don’t think I’m quite grown up enough to handle that much reality yet.

R.I.P. Old Friend.

 

A Room of One’s Own

Before she rented us the room, Satyama asked us our astrological signs. Uncertainly I answered, “Cancer?” While Carlos confidently said, “Sagittarius.”  Apparently this answer was satisfactory because she smiled and nodded, and said “I’m an Aries, so we’ll get along fine.” Carlos and I smiled too, eager to appease her.   Having unsuccessfully attempted to rent two apartments in Manhattan, we were desperate enough to agree with nearly anything, including paying $1,000 a month to rent a room in the cheaper, but slightly less desirable borough of Brooklyn.

“This is a meat-free kitchen,” she said to us as she gave us a brief tour of the apartment. I try to imagine what my mother back in Iola, Texas would think about me renting a room from an older, African American, lesbian vegetarian, but find it impossible to do so. New York in general is far beyond her ability to comprehend. It’s all I can do not to trip over my own jaw 99% of the time.

We agree to her terms, though not without some reservations on my part. It makes me uneasy that we didn’t sign anything, so that if anything goes wrong, we have no recourse, and she has our $2,000, first and last month’s rent. It makes me uneasy that she seems very particular about the cleanliness of the bathroom and kitchen to the point where I don’t feel comfortable venturing into either. Carlos doesn’t seem to share my concern, so I put on a brave front, for his sake.

Carlos believes in staying positive and optimistic, because what you put out into the universe is what you get back from it. While I like this thought, and try my best to think in terms of the affirmative, my pessimistic (nihilistic) nature can’t help formulating a Plan B.  A “What will we do if she kicks us out and doesn’t give our money back?” A “What happens if I can’t get a job before the three months we’ve agreed to sublet the room is up?”  I try not to think about it, but in the back of my mind, I’m somewhat comforted to know that I have enough funds on my emergency credit card for a ticket back to Texas, if need be.

For now, we have two more months, at least, with a roof over our heads. The room itself is big, and bright, and comes furnished with a a small bed, that, though springy, is better than the floor I’ve become accustomed to sleeping on. There is a window that lets in a cool breeze, and harbors a view of the Manhattan skyline that is enviable. We have a door that shuts, and for the first time in over a month we have something I’d taken for granted in Seattle, privacy. We’re only a couple of subway stops away from Manhattan, and centrally located so that we’re close to everything. A few blocks away there is a park and a farmer’s market.

The building itself is a tall, brick one in a historic district full of beautiful, old buildings.  The streets are tree-lined and full of families with strollers. The building has a security guard on staff at all times, so I feel safe. The building itself is very quiet, but the same can’t be said for the street below. In the place we left, out in Queens, all we could hear, most of the time, was the sound of the ocean, of water and waves, occasionally broken by the shrill screeching of the woman next door. Now we hear sirens, people yelling, dogs barking. City sounds.

“We’re going to have to get used to it.” Carlos says, and I agree.

We’ve only been there a couple of days, and things are working out as well as can be expected. It’s a three bedroom apartment, but the other tenant, a gay man in his late twenties, has been absent since we’ve been there, and our host, is scarcely seen. She said when we rented the place that she’s very private, and even her friends rarely visit her. She mostly stays in her rooms which are closed off, with only the faint smell of incense indicating a richer life beyond the curtained walls.

For the most part we stay out until it’s time to unwind and go to bed.

“We didn’t come to New York to stay inside!” Carlos says. Instead we explore the neighborhood. Last night we walked across the Manhattan bridge (that has a better view than it’s more famous Brooklyn cousin) and walked down to Hell’s Kitchen where we had dinner at a trendy eatery called Vynl. The restaurant had four bathrooms, each dedicated to a famous musician, Elvis, Dolly Parten, Cher, and for reasons unknown, Nelly. Rather than use the bathroom in our apartment, I utilized the “Dolly” bathroom and took a picture of the Dolly mosaic inside as “9 to 5” played overhead. When the check came I checked my own anxiety that we’re just hemorrhaging money.

Today Carlos is at work, and, because I didn’t feel comfortable in the room without him, I came along too. I walk through Battery Park where women push babies on strollers, and shirtless men throw a football back and forth, and joggers heave, red faced and breathless on the path as they pass me. I get an unnecessary ice cream and pretend, for the moment, that I’m only on vacation, that tomorrow I’ll go back to work, to a real life. Maybe Carlos is right, and if I keep thinking that tomorrow I’m going to get  a job, and that the two of us will get an apartment of our own in the city, then maybe it will become true.

For now I’m content to enjoy the unaccustomed sunshine, an unnecessary ice cream, and a room of our own.

 

The Subway

IMG_1193Every day I ride the subway. Descend the worn steps down into the bowels of the city. The carved out antiquated tunnels that have never seen sunlight. Past the more modern turnstiles with their automated ticket readers, down more steps to wait on platforms. To squeeze into crowded cars, packed tightly, hip to shoulder with a bunch of strangers. Eyes focused diligently on books, cell phones or e-readers. Old women with bags of groceries, tired tourists with overstuffed suitcases headed to the airport, fashionable young men with scruffy beards, eyeing every stranger who gets on.

When Carlos points out that the subway is over 100 years old, I am amazed. In places like Grand Central or Penn Station you can see the decaying grandeur and imagine how splendid it must have been when it was new. Even in it’s current, crumbling sprawl it is amazing. A modern marvel of ingenuity funneling millions of locals and tourists all over the metropolis every day. I’ve never lived in a city where traveling was so convenient and reliable.

I cling, ape-like, with one hand on the overhead bar, going to shops, museums, or more lately job interviews. Shouldering my messenger bag with a portfolio containing copies of my resume. I dutifully put on a tie and fake a smile and firm handshake for temp agencies. Selling myself as a “people person” and “outgoing” to get some entry level job that pays half of what I was making in Seattle.

I’ve applied with every staffing agency listed online. Most recently I found myself at a staffing agency that was designed to help people with disabilities “live and work with dignity.” When I submitted my resume, I didn’t notice their mission statement, so I had an awkward interview with a woman who no doubt wondered what an able bodied person like me was doing there. For me it was another demoralizing blow in an already humiliating search for a source of income.

Sometimes, after these interviews, after taking tests to prove that I can file, or type, or use a web browser, I don’t want to get back on the subway right away. To go back to the coastal neighborhood with the thick, Queens accents and weathered boardwalk. Sometimes I find myself sitting in a park, watching the hustle and bustle of the city. The people in newer, more stylish clothing walking with purpose from high rise office buildings to wait in line at Starbucks or a hot dog cart. Sometimes I find myself reluctant to walk down those steps again, and join the other runners in the race.

At first the well mannered, southern man in me felt compelled to relinquish my seat to every woman standing. But this sentiment quickly faded to cynical feminism after a few weeks of being on my feet all day and having an hour and a half commute out to Rockaway Park where we are staying. Now pregnant women and the elderly are the only people I’d even consider giving up a seat for.

Some of the subway platforms are well lit, spotless. Most are dank, trash strewn, and crawling with rats who scurry through the debris oblivious to, or completely unafraid of, their human observers. Carlos, who has a misplaced fondness for rats, will inevitably exclaim, “Oh look, a baby!”  I’ll turn, to see a mouse scurrying between the tracks.  All I can think about are germs, and I find myself holding my breath and hesitant to touch anything.

Sometimes it is hot and humid, the air heavy and hard to breathe. The musky stench of sweat and stale breathing. Sometimes it’s freezing, and people huddle together or shiver in winter coats. Sometimes we’ll walk into an auspiciously empty car, amazed at our luck in finding a place to sit when the other cars are full, only to be confronted with a homeless person reeking of a year old sour milk smell, or a schizophrenic prostitute pacing the length of the car swearing that she’s going to have the President impeached. We sit, not making eye contact, and quickly change cars at the next stop.

Often people are selling things. A kid who calls himself “The Candyman” sells cookies and candy for $1. A pair of gentleman have a whole, polished comedy routine as they sell pirated DVDs of movies that aren’t even out in theaters yet. Other times musicians, a family who plays the accordion, a man in a wheelchair who plays the electric guitar, or pan flute players will get on, play some tune in varying degrees of incompetence, then walk (or roll) through to collect change. There is a group of women (at least three distinct ones) that get on carrying a toddler with a sign saying they are homeless, and asking for money. But they all have the same accent, nice clothes, and the exact same sign that makes me think that it’s a scam and they’re going back to some nice apartment with their plunder.

Occasionally the person next to me will speak about the weather, or the delays when they happen. Once a signal problem held up all the trains going through one station for over an hour and it took us three hours to get home. But most of the time the trains are running on schedule. I’ll answer politely, pleased with the unexpected human interaction, and then look at my hands again.

We usually ride the A train because it’s the only one that goes to Rockaway Park. For reasons unknown to me, there are two A trains, and a couple of times I’ve gotten on the wrong one, and had to transfer to get back to where I was going. Sometimes I look up to realize that I’m the only white person on the A train, which is an odd sensation, especially moving from Seattle where the lack of diversity sometimes made it feel like a city of Aryans. As odd as that situation seems at time, I’ve never felt uncomfortable on the train. Sometimes I find myself riding just to ride. To go somewhere. Anywhere.

Tomorrow we’re moving to Brooklyn. The A train will be replaced with a hub, a slew of options. There is a new neighborhood to explore in our second-choice borough, having been denied the apartment we were applying for in Manhattan.

Right now Carlos is at work, and I’m sitting in a coffeehouse in TriBeCa with free wifi. I’m wearing a shirt and tie and my nice shoes on the off chance that a temp agency wants me to come in for a last minute assignment in midtown. But as the day wears on, even this hope fades, and I look at my overpriced cup of hot chocolate, thinking better of having spent the money on something nonessential.

He gets off at 10:30, and we’ll go, one last time to the old haunt in Queens, to pack up our things and take it to our new room in Brooklyn. We’ll sit side by side on the orange, or yellow seats that haven’t been refurbished since the 70s it seems. I’ll hold the bag of groceries for him. His knee will press my knee, and I’ll look at him and smile. This familiarity in a strange city, a bit of warmth as we take the long subway ride home.