Today I thought about how little I know, and how I bank on a lot of unsure bets without quite enough reflection. The fact is: I used to know even less, was even more naked to chance. But I do know that sometimes life saves you, even when you are stupid, and then you must relish it.
Like: I was saved by Bernese mountain dogs in Greenwich Village when I was 19.
That September I showed up at JFK airport with two suitcases, each the size of a refrigerator, or at least they weighed that much. For three months I was to live in the coolest neighborhood in the whole world to work at one of the most successful magazines in the whole world. I’d never been to New York. I hailed my very first taxi; it smelled like cigarettes and vinyl inside, and I gave the driver my address. We talked about Pakistan where he was from and how I’d never been to New York City before, or Pakistan, and he’d never been to Buffalo, where I was from. We were bonding.
But when we got to Greenwich Ave. between sixth and seventh, I looked again at the scrap of paper where I’d written my new address. And I looked back out at the street, and then back at the piece of paper. The number I’d written didn’t exist. “I’m sure you will find,” the driver said, pulling over. “Just walk up and down the street.” He hauled my suitcases onto the sidewalk and drove away. I stood there. And stood there. In my stiff gray dress pants, black flats I’d originally bought for a college formal, and a carefully selected long-sleeved striped shirt, which now felt like a parka in the hot September sunshine. After a moment it became clear that I was in the country’s largest city with all of my worldly possessions on a public sidewalk. I had no idea where I lived, no phone, and no phone numbers anyway, for my new roommates, whom I’d never met.
So I left my suitcases on the sidewalk and tried the first door I saw. It opened, and I walked up a few stairs into a dark hallway and then into the open doorway of a gray room.
It could’ve been anywhere, the tastefully decorated personal lair of a serial killer, certainly. But instead two Bernese mountain dogs trotted out to greet me, calm and pretty as can be, with their long black fur and sweet white muzzles. And following them to the door, with a welcoming air like the dinner party was about to start, the Nicest Man Alive said hello. Mid-30s, bald in a hip way, t-shirt and jeans, quite gay, very calm. I asked to please borrow his telephone and explained what had happened. Oh, we’ll figure this out. He immediately began to brainstorm. Step one: Let’s get your suitcases off the sidewalk. Step two: Let’s call the magazine where your new roommate works. Step three: Let’s get your real address from her. Step four: Let’s messenger a key from her office to us. Step five: While you wait for the key, go ahead and sit on the front steps in the sunshine. It’s Greenwich Village. This is what we do. The dogs, who lounged around my ankles, calmed me instantly with their own peacefulness, glossy-furred incarnations of ancient yogis.
I learned that this was his artists’ studio; he was a framer. And when I asked why he was much more friendly than I’d imagined New Yorkers to be, he said he was from Maine.
We sat on the front stoop. The dogs sat with me, and the very rhythm of petting the calmest dogs slowed my heart rate. The Nicest Man Alive’s upstairs neighbors, an older couple who ran a law firm, came down and said hello. They sat with me for a bit. The mailman showed up. I asked if the Village was always like this. “This is a little chill even for the Village,” the mailman said, and petted the dogs too. The messenger showed up an hour later with the key. Turns out, I lived just down the street, on the other side of the playground.
These pockets of safety dissolve like everything, but while you have them, I say — sit in the sunshine, pet the dogs. When I rolled my suitcases out of the studio and said goodbye, it felt a little like leaving home again.
Ian Belknap has started a blog, people. Ian and I became co-workers during a time of great peril, at a nonprofit arts organization teetering and tottering towards chaos. We made things better, I like to think. At least the water glasses have stopped sloshing around so much. Coincidentally, he is one of my very favorite writers. And so I am pleased to see he has entered blogland.
When I was little, I was always at the doctor, and we were always waiting, my pretty blonde mother and me. A gray partition halved the main waiting room. One side, sick kids; one side, healthy kids. Separate toys. When we walked across the healthy side to reach the sick side I pictured my sickness beaming from my throat and chest and infecting the kids playing with the bright plastic trucks.
Next the nurse let us into the exam room, my pretty blonde mother and me. By this point the journey seemed forever. We’d come from the suburbs to this brick building in the city that smelled like vinegar and grayness. Now we were in the room where the doctor would see us soon, but we still had to wait. The kids books looked dirty and smudgy and old. But each room had a green chalkboard hung on the wall, with a tiny chip of yellow chalk. We played a game. She wrote the number one followed by a string of zeroes, and it was my job to insert the commas, after every three zeroes, starting from the end. This was how big numbers worked.
And the weirdest part about it was that you could do this forever. You could always, always, add more zeroes. You could add zeroes until you filled the entire green chalkboard, until your tiny chip of yellow chalk wore down to dust, until the doctor came in and said strep throat again. This was my first taste of infinity, I guess, more zeroes, more zeroes, like skating in my new skates on the smooth part of the sidewalk, I will always know where to add commas, it’s all so simple, let’s keep going until the doctor gets here. We learned all the names for the numbers: thousand, million, billion, trillion, and when it got really crazy she said she didn’t know anymore, and then it was like we were floating in space.
“We are not about to enter the Zone again are we Dwight?”
I experienced a flashback to a childhood Thanksgiving. Probably dad did too. I’d loved cranberry sauce, the savory stuffing, and turkey itself with such equality of love that after a gabbled grace I’d been unable to begin eating, and the more ludicrous the spell of indecision became, the harder to break. I’d been salivating and paralyzed in front of my plate, plunged in what later came to be known as the Zone, until finally dad raised his fork at me saying “Eat! Eat! Dammit, eat!” So I’d shut my eyes, loaded my fork with mystery, and raised it toward the cave of my mouth. The tart surprise of the cranberries I could remember still.
— Benjamin Kunkel, Indecision
I was telling Caleb about this idea.
How last time I walked by the graveyard I thought maybe if we all just had a monument somewhere in a field, we could solve a lot of problems. That right now our stones say we were here, after we’re gone. But maybe what we need is something that says we are here, while we’re still here. All of us who feel compelled by hook or by crook to make a movie, write a book, sweep the political landscape clean, tweet your tweets and blog your blogs, be something awesome before the lights go out. Maybe really we’re afraid of being forgotten forever, and if only we could solve that drive, then we wouldn’t necessarily need to throw ourselves against walls trying to create, create, create. Maybe we wouldn’t feel so drowned out by mass culture. Maybe…
We were walking by the graveyard on Clark St., the one backgrounded by teetering robot-faced high-rises.
Caleb didn’t say anything at first, and then he looked at me and pointed out that if everyone did get a little monument, and it solved our drive to create, then we’d all just be really apathetic. And that would be pretty lame.
And also: maybe there’d be a big new kind of anxiety-producing contest. This time, we’d all worry about how many people were showing up at our monument.
I hadn’t thought of that.
Tipped sideways, what else can we figure out? Let’s sit in bed and read, or go dancing in the kitchen, bacon on the stove, carafe-less Mr. Coffee dripping into a cooking pot; or riding bikes real fast to the Shangri-la on Ravenswood; or feel compelled to sunrise; that ice cream tastes better with peanut butter; I bowled 2 million points that day — am I going to blog this? No.
“Equilibrium is voluptuous. Notre-Dame belongs to me, Paris belongs to me, the vast sky belongs to me. It makes me forget to breathe.” – Phillipe Petit, walker of very high tight-ropes
I biked home tonight, a muggy at-dusk ride in an airy sleeveless black dress, and on my fast bike — I will race you! — I felt at home with wind and speed. But as soon as I locked the bike to the fence, my brain started whirring again.
I wasn’t always so distractable. I used to be there with spit-shined shoes when the clock struck the appointed hour. Or at least, I remembered your birthday, didn’t cancel plans because I forgot to look in my planner, and mailed all my credit card payments on time. For the past few months, since I tossed my stuff in boxes (ok, since 9 of my friends tossed my stuff in boxes) and moved everything to a new apartment that I didn’t live in until three months later… I’ve been less with-it.
I locked the bike to the fence and approached my front door, thinking about this, thinking how do I explain what happened to my spit-shined shoes, my ability to appear at our appointed hour? when I thought: where the hell is my front door key? I flipped through my eight keys (work keys, Kate and Joe’s key, bike key, car keys….) until I realized that the shiny brass key with the straight section in the center was the key to my old apartment, and a different key would open this door.
Vanessa and I are friends the way that peanut butter tastes better straight from the jar on a spoon — that is to say, discovered accidentally, enjoyed rarely and at random times, but indulgently. She’s another experimental theater gal, devoted to craft and quirk.
Last week she pulled her car over while I was walking my bike down Foster Ave. and said we should get dinner. I walked home, bought a bottle of whiskey at the grungey liquor store on the corner, and joined her on her porch at dusk. I hadn’t thought to bring a mixer, so we mixed it with whatever she had, which was lemon seltzer and ginger ale. And as we talked, it came to light that we both thought, at any moment, someone was going to come knocking at the door.
Someone in a uniform. Someone with a summons, printed on nice paper in a stiff, formal font (I’m picturing Courier New). KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.
(Door opens) –Yes?
–I hereby serve you with this official summons to appear before the court and explain WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE.
I can see it all very plain, the man in the gray uniform with the cream-colored letter. When will someone knock down my door and ask me to justify how I’m about to turn 30, have saved exactly zero dollars, and want to spend my days making art.
Buster left us. This was a scene.
The man from Wisconsin came to adopt Buster and we kept our cool at first, tight-lipped, holding Buster’s leash and patting Buster’s head.
The man from Wisconsin came with treats that were very good. Buster sniffed them in his jacket and tried to eat through the pocket, and the man from Wisconsin was pleased as punch that Buster liked him so much. The man from Wisconsin said they were the cheapest treats you can buy at the Jewel, and he ripped open the package and Buster ate them up.
Then the man from Wisconsin took Buster for a walk, with the very nice woman from the foster-pup nonprofit, and Lisa and I sat in the apartment and quietly freaked out.
He was leaving. Today. Buster was leaving.
When Buster returned from the walk with the man from Wisconsin and the nice woman, I went into the kitchen to get his food bowl. The tears started pouring, without my thinking. We’d only had him six days. How could I be so attached? We were so attached. I came back into the living room puffy and red, and the nice woman said: “We’ll do the paperwork outside.”
Buster was not always a perfect pup. Buster ate the blinds off the living room window. Buster ate through his dog food bag, from the bottom, and ate half a bag of dog food. Buster peed in at least three places. But we loved Buster. Make that present-tense. We love Buster, and Buster hates trains. The man who came to adopt Buster lives near a train.
Lisa especially thinks that Buster came to us as a reincarnation of someone in our spiritual tribe. I am just sure that he came to us to show us how it’s ok to be shy, bad, goofy, sleepy, hungry, crazy, skinny, confused, daydreamy — and a lover of the cheapest treats you can get at the Jewel.
Dean told me about the Aikido class.
(Sometimes I feel like parts of me broke off somewhere and started orbiting in space, and I know they’re there, but I can’t remember how to talk to these broken satellite bits. Dean reminds me how.)
Aikido. A martial art that’s about energy transfer, using peoples’ strength against them, and — as far as I can tell — rolling forward and backward over one shoulder from a standing position, like a total bad ass.
The main benefit of Aikido is that it makes me feel like a fool. You dress in white, with a uniform that I can never tie. (Like: the teacher sent another student into the dressing room to tie my belt because I was taking so long.) You bow at twenty million appointed times (entering the dojo, leaving the dojo, after a critique from the teacher, at the end of class, more — and to two different portraits). I can never remember these times. You sweep the dojo at the end, starting at the back of the room and proceeding to the front, working in columns next to all of your classmates. (This took me, no joke, three class periods to learn.)
You fall, in Aikido. It’s part of it. You step towards someone, and they take your arm and twist it over their shoulder and they step forward and suddenly there’s the ground, you are in a (controlled? crazy?) fall toward the mat, and there goes your wrist behind your head and…
I need this. There’s an art to falling, good ukemi. I need this.
I also need the part where I kick some ass.