When you are saved

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.

Welcome, Ian

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.

Waiting for infinity

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

The stones in the field with your name

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.

Vertigo, the good kind

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