Thursday, August 30, 2007

Common Courtesy and The Law

Disclaimer: I realize that I'm focusing on a very narrow aspect of society and indirectly ignoring other aspects.

Oppression is served in a variety of ways: it's doled out like street flyers, it startles you like a friend tapping your shoulder in a grocery store, it's unloaded on you from a dump truck, it's unpleasantly discovered like a hair in your ravioli, it's suggested by an authority figure . . . the list goes on.

I've lived in a few environments where oppression dominated me, though the oppressors had good intentions for their constructs. And, granted, if one has a decent head on her shoulders, she can ignore the laws that can potentially oppress; and she can simply live a happy life.

I find that many rules and laws that are legislated for the good of the community are unnecessary when common courtesy is prevalent. The article, "Welcome, Students. Now Watch It." from the New York Times, that provoked my musings is currently on my blog under the "Interesting" section. One example is the no-sleeping-in-the-subway law. Really, I shouldn't sleep in the subway? I shouldn't expose myself to possible unlawful actions performed at my expense? This is common sense. (Although, I don't mind the vagrants sleeping on the subway. If I were homeless and needed a decent rest, I would scrounge up four bucks to take a round trip from Inwood to Rockaway. And I wouldn't be bothering anyone, asking for money--I'd be getting my beauty rest). We should have laws against stealing, but not laws that help prevent one from being exposed to theft.

Another obvious solicitation of advice from The Man is the pooper-scooper-street-signs you see everywhere. "It's the law." That's why we shouldn't let our dogs shit all over the sidewalk? How about, I don't want to step in shit the next time I take my dog out for a walk.

I realize I'm picking on a few mundane laws and there are many laws that aren't mundane and are necessary to prosecute offenders in order to control crime. They don't have much theft in Singapore because they chop off a hand for punishment. I'm not saying that is a good or bad form of punishment, I'm simply saying that it's effective. But I'm talking about laws against dog shit and napping and using the lever brace on gas pump handles and walking on the grass, etc. A person feels as if he is being condescended to if he takes the laws personally. I don't, but have in the past. Now, I just think they're stupid. People who don't take the time to think about the stupidity of these laws are even more likely to get upset about them, especially if they are fined for violating one.

Oklahoma has a law that says you can't drive through a yellow light unless you are presently in the intersection when the light turns yellow. What?! So now we aren't only worried about running an orange light, but a blue light as well. How do they prosecute this? It's a subjective law. Civilian: "My windshield was past the crosswalk when the light turned yellow." Police Officer: "No, your fender hadn't even reached the crosswalk before the light changed."

I'm not coming down on The Man and I'm not for anarchy. I just think we could thin the books by removing a few of these frivolous laws.

Where is the dividing line between frivolous laws and necessary laws? That is the headache of all concerned parents. Do I give her a little breathing room or do I drop the hammer this time? Because oppression breeds rebellion, but a hands-off approach can be equally dangerous.

What is the answer to this quandary? Am I talking in circles? Yes.

But this is what I do know: the government prosecuting subway sleepers is the same as Daddy grounding his son for not putting his toothbrush in the holder.

Maybe I'm just a liberal hippie, but I don't think so.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Monastic Oath (Part 2)

But I didn't go back to the monastery. Instead, the drunk guy, we'll call him Joe, asked me to come over to his place to share a couple beers and listen to some music. I thought: "I don't know this guy, but . . . what the hell?"

This guy, with his beat up Aretha and Johnny Cash records, lives in a million dollar town house. He owns four stories on the Upper West Side. I saw him wearing a t-shirt and shorts and slapping around some vinyl records, how was I to know that he was so wealthy? Well, as it turns out, he is not wealthy. And no, we didn't break into the place. It is his parents' place.

The man is a divorcee and lives in his parent's house, though he is leasing it from them. So I sat in a spacious living room, sipped on a Rolling Rock and listened to a variety of music.

This is an anticlimactic ending to the previous blog, but it all transpired after spending a mere 10 bucks on a Long Island in a no-name bar on a week night in the city after coming down from my Fortress of Solitude.

Viva La Vie Boheme! I guess I don't have to be a monk to be frugal. The city offers many interesting alternatives to what most envision as a typical night on the town -- and they're virtually free.

Friday, August 24, 2007

It's Friday and I Shall not Go Out: The Monastic Oath (Part 1)

I'm trying to embrace the monastic lifestyle in the city that lacks no temptation. And it's not that bad.

To say that I'm a monk is incorrect. I'm married--there goes chastity. I rarely leave the house--that knocks out charity but for my gracious internet gestures. So, when I refer to the monastic life, I'm really saying, "I'm poor." I'm between jobs at the moment and doing some temp work, but other than that I'm diligently trying to make peace with the city and my wallet.

I survived a week and a half with no frivolous expenditures and couldn't take it anymore . . . . Thus begins our lengthy saga.

I went to The Ding Dong Lounge on Columbus and 105th for a drink. I ordered a Long Island. Hey! it's only one glass. The bartender informed me with raised eyebrows and inflection rising: "it's ten bucks." I paused. Why did he tell me that? Do I look like a die hard beer drinker that decided to take a walk on the wild side? Do I look like an out-of-towner (I kinda am) that wanted to drink a beverage that was named after a certain region of the city? Do I look young and therefore unaware of the higher price of a Long Island in comparison to other cocktails (In my defense, I do have a fairly manly beard--good coverage, no major patches)? Or has this everyday bartender--middle aged man with longish hair and a black t-shirt that reads "F*** the Movement" stencilled in white letters on the back--tuned in to a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality reserved for monastic individuals and is signalling to me that I should refrain from this oath breaking substance.

I said, "no problem."

He brought me my drink and I tipped him nicely (to say, "Thank you," but not too nicely, which would say, "I'm an out-of-towner trying to fit in"). Then my night began. And I didn't finish my first drink until three hours later.

This is what happened:

The bartender was running his ipod through the sound system; his battery went dead, which immediately put the twelve clients into a disorienting rage. He ran over to the DJ stand where two turntables, a mess of dust, CDs, disheveled LPs and wires were all jumbled together helter-skelter. He couldn't figure out the system before he had to run over and make another drink. I asked him if I could help. He gave permission. I got the system going with one of the horrible LPs that was strewn across the shelf. I, then, ran home to get my one vinyl record (this will be explained in some distant future blog), that I had recently purchased on Bleecker, Wilco's Sky Blue Sky (this is chronologically before my previous blog in which I purchased Smile--yeah, I know, that's why I'm working on the monastic life now).

When I returned, another client had the same idea--had gone home to grab some LPs--and we cordially fought over the DJ position. Luckily, he was soused and I had barely started my single drink of the night. I proceeded to amaze the eight remaining clients with my subtle transitions and my sensitivity to their needs and moods. The crazy drunk that thought he could DJ had brought Aretha Franklin's Live at the Fillmore (which was very cool, and I had never heard), Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison, some Mos Def album and some obscure jazz album. The man had taste. I interwove these sounds very nicely with the cross-fader and my slight of hand.

About an hour after my DJ career began, the tardy professional DJ appeared and took control (with CDs! amateur). And back to the Monastery I went.

To be continued . . .

The Universe. Brian Wilson. And a Theremin?

"Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aide." -Goethe

I know that is one of the most quoted quotations of all time, especially over the last seven years since Cameron Crowe put it into the mouth of his fictional mother in Almost Famous. But there is another reason why: because it's true and encouraging. We all need encouraging truths.

In my case the mighty forces are simply a force, which happens to be Brian Wilson. I know that Wilson said that "music is the voice of God" in his Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame induction, but seriously . . . my recent experience is a bit strange -- and apparently a bit "New York."

When we were looking for apartments we ran into a record shop on Bleecker Street (obviously we had already found our apartment and were goofing around, because we can't afford an apartment on Bleecker -- I'm a former English teacher from Oklahoma!). Rebel Rebel is the name of the shop. I don't know the guy's name that has been running it the last three times we were there, but he's cool and nice and doesn't at all resemble any of the dorks in High Fidelity. I grabbed a copy of Smile by Brian Wilson from this same shop on Monday. I had never heard it before and had the opportunity to have my initial listening experience on vinyl.

It's beautiful, strange and spiritual -- all characteristics of Brian Wilson's virtuosity. I simply wanted an album that I could listen to without wanting to skip every other song, and I found one of the best albums I've ever heard. I never read any of the reviews when it came out in 2004, and I'm glad I didn't -- now I can have this blind-sided crash into it. I love Pet Sounds, but this is simply in a different category (notice that I didn't say higher or better category. And for those of you that don't like the album, Smile, for it's lyrics: I understand. But you're missing the point).

This all leads to what happened yesterday. My wife had been eager to see Williamsburg the Musical but had forgotten to reserve tickets. So we walked down to The Village Theater and were informed that the show was sold out. An old guy dressed in black with some weird carrying cases strewn across the sidewalk beside him stopped us and handed us a flyer advertising Theremin. I can be a geek at times, but I'm apparently not a big enough geek to know what and who Theremin is (maybe I'm stereotyping this whole concept and everyone else in the world knows who Theremin is and I'm a fool for even considering otherwise. Okay, I'll accept that.). I once saw a long-haired weirdo playing a theremin on a Billy Joel concert DVD, but I didn't know what he was doing.

In a nut, Leon Theremin was the Ruskie who invented the theremin around the beginning of the 20th Century. The theremin is the first electric instrument and is played without the musician making any contact with it. He invented this thing, demonstrated it to the American public, and disappeared off the face of the planet.

What the hell does this have to do with Brian Wilson? Well, Brian Wilson started going crazy, due to his massive consumption of narcotics and his trying to deal with his own "musical genius." According to the play, Wilson believed that his destiny would be complete if he could uncover the mystery of what happened to this Russian inventor.

The play was fantastic. I'm not going to write a review about this, either, but will say that it encompassed everything I enjoy in theatre. A bizarre or unusual concept is brought to the public through a medium that is best suited for it. For example, there is no other medium that could tell a humorous, odd, and intelligent story through live performers consisting of four actors and a weird gray haired man in the orchestra pit, playing the only instrument in the pit -- a theremin. No other medium could produce the same ethos. I thought the weird guy and the concept of the play would make the production campy, but it didn't. Everything was entertaining and enlightening.

My main point: I've had two great experiences with art in the same week, both are accidental, and both involve Brian Wilson. What does this mean?

I don't know or care. I am simply delighting in the fact that this experience would be virtually impossible in Tulsa. Not impossible, virtually impossible. Is synchronicity limited to NYC? No! But this is eccentric, even for synchronicity. We're talking about vinyl and live theatre; both are, arguably, dying art forms, and, therefore, have very few compatible comparisons. It'd be like an accordionist stopping outside your window to play you and your wife's wedding song directly after you returned home from your honeymoon -- and your song is "Enter Sandman" by Metallica. This may be a stretch, but not buy much. I mean, come on, there is only one dying art form in this synchronous analogy, the accordionist, and he's only an outcast of pop culture; he is still in high demand in almost every state of the Union due to the not-so-subversive mariachi movement.

So, I give New York credit, even if it doesn't entirely deserve it. If you've had a similar experience in Quapaw, Oklahoma, excellent! But I'm going to continue to ride my displaced-person's high while listening to Mr. Wilson sing about his excitement over grocery shopping: "I'd jump up and down and hope you'd toss me a carrot." Genius!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Dr Robert and His Similarities to the Potted Plant on E.T.

My bamboo plant is the barometer of my overall well being.

My wife, Mrs. Okie, and I got a bamboo plant, along with a few other plants, while she was going through a nurturing phase. All the rest of the plants died because we are egocentric and not nurturing, but Dr. Robert survived. (She named our pseudo-cacti-plant, "Chubbs," and I named our bamboo after the Beatles song. Chubbs fell off a shelf and never recovered from the trauma while Dr. Robert danced by the hand of Mrs. Okie to the song he was named after.)

I initially thought it was a good idea to have living things that you didn't have to potty-train in the house. But instead we had dying things. And it was very depressing. We'd come home to see all these brown wilting creatures that looked like the vegetation of the Bog of Eternal Stench. I eventually had to cart them all off to the dumpster while Mrs. Okie was out running an errand (she knew her darlings were in pain, but she couldn't put them to sleep).

But Bob made it (we rarely address him informally, not because we have intimacy issues, but because we have a Sponge Bob Square Pants stool. So when we say, "hand me Bob," we are talking about the stool and not Dr. Robert.) Dr. Robert stuck around for reasons that could only be described as spiteful. In plant speech he said, "Get bent! I'm not going anywhere!" And he became family.

Well, as stated in my profile, we moved here three weeks ago. We were concerned and didn't think Doc was going to survive the transition.

We had our neighbor and dear friend baby-sit him while we spent a week, prior to the move, apartment hunting. I think our neighbor had a rough week, because Dr. Robert didn't get much attention and began to look like the late, traumatized Chubbs who took the dumpster dive.

But he pulled through. Even after the 30 hour Penske-truck-ride. In fact, we set the Doc outside on the fire-escape to get some sun, and I accidentally knocked him over and broke his vase while stepping out for a cigarette. Pieces of the vase and the pebbles that supported him rained-down five stories, ringing and bouncing off the lower levels of the fire escape, but Dr. Robert only fell a couple of steps. Now he happily resides in a red plastic cup on top of our CD tower, and has never looked better.

I'm telling you The Doctor's biography because his phases in life directly correlate to my own. Like E.T.'s potted plant that mirrored his and Eliot's well being, Dr. Robert mirrors mine.

It was hell looking for an apartment in the city (Doc felt our pain).

We were exhausted but excited during the physically demanding move (though his leaves remained wilted, his color returned).

Everyday life in New York is a huge change from Tulsa (the vase to the plastic cup).

But we are happier than ever, now that we live in the City (he's taller, greener, and has more leaves than ever before).

I believe that he is a barometer and not a crystal ball. If our plumber, who is currently working on our toilet, has a fit of rage, becomes homicidal, and snaps The Doctor's spine over his knee, I don't think we will suffer a similar fate.

But it's actually nice to have a living friend in the house, who can empathize with my wife and I, but never rants about his fledgling relationships, drunkenly whines about his job frustrations, argues over politics, or does any other annoying thing that human friends inevitably do when you maintain a close relationship with them.

So we're a tad less ego-centric, and though I still don't want a pet, I think I'll put Revolver on and give my buddy a fresh cup of water.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Scents of New York

New York has a multitude of fragrances that bombard you everyday on the street.

In Oklahoma, you don't experience a variety of aromas while walking down the street. Because you never walk down the street. You drive everywhere you want to go. I lived in Tulsa (the second largest "city" in OK) for eight years, and the longest distance I walked was from a no-door-ding-parking-spot to the front doors of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. While driving, you do get an occasional whiff of a water treatment plant and inevitably ask the person in the passenger seat if she farted. Or you catch the scent of a skunk or a chicken farm on the outskirts of town and try to hold your breath for a mile (unless you use my great-grandfather's advice, "Breathe it in deeply and get the worst over with, right off the bat). But that's it.

In NYC, however, I'd be insane, for reasons that don't need to be explained, to own a car. And I walk through a cornucopia of scents everyday. I feel like I'm in a twisted version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but instead of tasting "cherry," "strawberry" and "schnauzberry" flavored wallpaper, I smell things that are pungent and often indefinable as I cruise down the sidewalk. But there are a few scents, good and bad, that all New Yorkers must know like the back of their hand, because they don't wince, lose their balance and scream "whoa" like I do when they come across them. Here are the major ones.

1. The Subway. It's a warm sunny day and you begin your descent into the subway. On the second tier of steps that leads down to the platform, it hits you: rank B.O. But that's not all! It is always mixed with the musty, dank, thick-as-chunky-mustard smell of the subway itself. And there is a difference between the two scents, even if the sour subway aroma resembles that of the smell of a few of my relatives after a day in the fields. The two scents some how meander along the walls, tracks and platform, but never quite blend together.

2. Foyers. The inside of every foyer in every apartment building in New York smells identical. Okay, obviously I haven't been in every single one, but I've been in at least half a dozen buildings in each of the Burroughs (except the Bronx, I don't know anyone there but may have to venture up there to validate my observation). The scent is hard to define because, after living here for only three weeks, it's already as familiar as my clean bodily scent. I can't smell myself unless I have just finished running three miles, which is my dirty bodily scent (B.O.) and the first of the two key ingredients to the aforementioned "subway" smell. Only your spouse or girl/boyfriend knows your clean bodily scent. They smell it on your shirt or after you get out of the shower. When I get out of the shower, my wife says she likes my smell; I think I smell like Suave: Ocean Breeze body wash. So, maybe I'll go back to Oklahoma for a couple of weeks and return, better equipped, to describe this allusive scent.

3. Food. I don't really need to describe this one. But it's amazing how many different kinds of food I can smell at different times of the day while I sit on my fire-escape and smoke a cigarette. I live on the fifth floor and my fire-escape is above a poor excuse for a courtyard that is surrounded by the walls and windows of my building and another that sits on the other side of the courtyard. These two buildings and 40 (approximately) windows serve up fragrances from a smorgasbord of ethnic dishes. Even with my dulled smoker's sense of smell, I can enjoy Indian, Mexican, Soul-Food, American, and Ethiopian (I think it's Ethiopian. It's the only one I'm not completely sure about) wafts of delight--all before 2 p.m. (I know I need to get a job. I'm working on it. I just moved here! Jeez!) And unless I'm really hungry, this is one of the scents I enjoy most.

4. Women. I don't need to describe this one either. But I will say it is nice to walk up out of a subway, or B.O.-chunky-mustard hell, and enter into the light of day as a woman walks by (Yes, I know that all women don't smell great, but most smell better than men.) A soft citrus breeze. A cool floral wave. A sexy perfume. A nice ________ (fill in the blank). You know what I'm talking about. And it's never arousing, you don't have the opportunity to get aroused while hoofing it down the busy streets of New York. It's just a pleasant surprise and momentary escape from the multitude of other scents that bombard you.

5 - 100. I could tell you about dog vomit and shit, human vomit and shit, car exhaust, Starbucks, retail stores, wet cement, hot asphalt, cigarette smoke (which obviously doesn't bother me), wet grass, fresh rain . . . and a multitude of others, but you know most of them or wouldn't want to hear about the others. And how many pseudonyms can one think of for scent? I tip my hat to food critics.

6. or 101. Vomit. I know I said I wasn't going to talk about the above, but I am curious if many other New Yorkers have had this same experience. I've been here three weeks and have come accross vomit three times. I know it was human vomit at least once, because it was on the subway and an attempt had been made to conceal it--it was partially enclosed in a plastic bag and covered with newspaper. On second thought, it could could have been a doggy bag, I don't know. But three times in three weeks? The other times were on the sidewalk and on a running trail in Central Park. The only time I actually smelled it was in the subway--it wasn't horrible, but there is no air circulation on the subway. A faintly putrid aroma just sat in the car and was given an extra dose of oxygen everytime the doors opened, but the air always comes in. Is this normal? Should I expect to see a puddle of vomit every week for the rest of my future in New York?

This is all still novel for me and I'm interested in discovering more. Hopefully I won't be cursing these smells before the year is out. We'll see. Oh, fall! No matter where you live, the fall season always brings a different spin on everything, especially smells. But don't worry. I won't wait two months just to write and tell you, again, about my olfactory adventures in The City.