First Falafel

About ten years ago, I lived in New York: rented a shithole apartment in Astoria, took the N train in to Times Square every day, and worked three floors down from Puff Daddy at a soon-to-be-irrelevant dotcom. My life consisted of TPS reports, delays on the N train, and arguing with old ladies in three different languages at the local Key Food. I guess I wrote books too, but that involved more sitting at the computer wishing I could write than actual writing.

When the soot-black snow melted away that spring and I no longer needed to wear two jackets for my ten-block walk to the subway, I started developing this stabbing toe pain. It felt like I broke my big toe, but couldn’t remember actually doing anything like stepping on a mouse trap or slamming it in a car door or whatever else you do to break a toe. At least every other month, I’d have a stupid spaz moment while walking, hypnotized by whatever album spun in my MiniDisc player to cover the sounds of the city, and trip on a ten micron high difference in the pavement. Some cable company that just spent all of the previous summer jackhammering a trench at six every morning, dropping in new fiber, and poorly sealing over the pavement — well, they either forgot where the fiber was, or lost it in some wave of mergers and acquisitions and deregulation and re-regulation. They re-dissected the pavement and left even more opportunity for me to fall on my face when one of my clunky boat shoes hit a new asphalt patch the wrong way.

And that’s what I told the doctor at the ER a week later, after a $60 cab ride to the nearest hospital on an early Saturday morning, when I could no longer put on a shoe or sleep in bed with a sheet on my foot. I spent a Friday night with every possible combination of foot-propping and elevating pillows and pieces of couch I could find, before I finally gave up and went in for a two-hour wait with some worn Sports Illustrated issues so old, I think they were talking about rumors that the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn.

My feet are naturally fucked up. Every podiatrist who has examined them says they’re the worst they’ve ever seen, even a guy I went to who had been practicing since 1946. And on that morning in Queens Hospital, while I writhed in pain after a battery of x-rays, the ER doc paged every intern and resident from orthopedics and podiatry to come down and check this shit out. As a half-dozen guys in scrubs prod my feet, one of them, this guy with an uncanny resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson says, “hey man, you ever been worked up for the gout?”

Gout — I’d heard the word before, but didn’t know what it meant. I think one of my grandparents had it. And maybe it was a running gag with various old characters on The Simpsons. But no, I’d never been tested for it or diagnosed with it or anything else. So along with a cane, a soft cast, and a handful of Vicodin, they sent me home with an appointment to see a podiatrist who could tell me more about this gout thing.

New York City is the place to be if you want to be a writer, work in advertising, enjoy high fashion, make big bucks on the stock market, or you have old money and need to be in the center of the universe. But it’s not a place to be mobility challenged, as I found out the next Monday on my long hobble to work on a new aluminum walking stick with one regular shoe and one velcroed boot. Taking the subway involved at four long flights of stairs per trip; while I sat in the slow lane, taking it a tread at a time and gripping onto the rail for dear life, an army of insufferable guido pricks swore incessantly as they tore around me. And every time I got into a packed train car for the city, not a single self-absorbed person would give up their seat for the cripple trying to balance on one foot while hanging onto the rail above. Every step on the inflamed toe, now cherry red like it was hit with a hammer in a Warner Brothers cartoon, felt like pure evil. But the embarrassment and torture of the subway ride every day was far worse.

I got in with this podiatrist in Murray Hill, this Gary Shandling-looking fucker who glanced at my foot and without a second thought said, “yeah, that’s definitely gout.” He took x-rays and talked me into a $175 pair of orthopedic inserts to correct the flat feet, and I said yes, mostly because he had a really cute receptionist who talked to me. He got me an appointment with an internist to do some blood work, but first, he gave me a steroid injection into the joint of my big toe.

I don’t normally have a problem with needles. When I was a kid, I had allergy shots for three or four years, and I could probably handle jabbing myself with a hypo better than most junkies. But when a doctor says, “look, most podiatrists won’t give you this shot because it’s really hard to do, but I think I can try it,” followed with “I’m going to give you a shot of lidocaine so I can give you the actual shot,” then produces this giant railroad spike of a needle along with a giant jar of fluid that’s going in your intra-articular area, you tend to freak the fuck out. And I did. And I kept a straight face, until he had to push around the second needle and jockey with the syringe, like he was putting the eleventh gallon of gas in a ten-gallon tank. But I walked out of there — WALKED out of there, with both shoes on, no cane, and a Barry Bonds-like amount of steroid in the knuckle of my toe.

Here’s what I found out about gout, after a weekend of frenetic web searches: gout is a form of arthritis, where excess uric acid in the blood crystallizes in the coolest extremities of your body, where there’s the most pressure. Those crystals then cause inflammation and push into your nerves, making it feel like a lobster has clamped down on your toes. Doctors and junk science folklorists go back and forth every few years, either saying it’s caused by rich diet and alcohol, or genetics and heredity. Common treatment involves strict diet, a regimen of uric acid-depleting medication, or both.

And when I got to the internist’s office and got a few tubes of blood drawn, he told me the same thing, and gave me a script for allopurinol and some scare tactics about my daily McDonald’s regimen. The next day, he called and gave me the complete rundown, that my uric acid levels were off the chart, along with my cholesterol count, triglycerides, and every other bad thing that a 30-year-old shouldn’t have coursing through their veins. He told me to come back in six months and get more blood work to figure out if I needed Lipitor. But this was in April of 2001, and his office was in the World Trade Center, so you can do the math on that one.

I called my friend Cynthia, this Venezuelan swimsuit model in LA. She started emailing me about Bukowski a year ago, then read my books and became a fan. She told me she was a Venezuelan swimsuit model, and I became a fan. We met whenever one of us was on the wrong coast, and I considered selling everything I owned and moving to LA, except I just did that a year ago with New York, and it didn’t work out well.

“Cyn, how’s the city of Angels?”

“Horrible when you’re not here,” she said. “What happened with your doctor?”

“The prick told me I needed to take more pills, lose 40 pounds, go on a diet, and lower my cholesterol.”

“You don’t need to lose weight,” she said. “You’re fine.”

“Right back at ya,” I said. “But I’m hobbling around this fucking island like Quasimodo. I think I’m going to have to become a vegetarian,” I said. “I don’t know what the hell to do.”

“I’m a vegetarian,” she said. “It’s not that hard.”

“You live in the land of fruits and nuts,” I said. “The frickin’ Burger King out there has a vegan menu. I grew up in Indiana. Even the vegetables have meat in them. How the hell am I going to live on salads?”

“What about falafel? That’s vegetarian.”

“What the fuck is a falafel?”

“It’s ground up chickpeas, fried in a ball, in a pita. You’ve never had falafel?”

“I don’t even know where the hell to get it. The most ethnic food we had as a kid was Pizza Hut.”

“I’m sure you can find a guy in a cart selling it there. I know a really good place in the East Village — we’ll go the next time I’m in town.”

“I’m starving now,” I said. “I’m going to try to catch some lunch. Catch you later Cyn.”

Times Square might be the center of the universe for tourists, but that only makes it a horrible place to grab a quick bite to eat if you work there. When you’ve only got a half-hour between meetings, going to Sardi’s and beating past the Wednesday half-off theater crowd bussed in from Iowa isn’t an option. It’s one of many reasons my diet consisted mostly of grabbing a #2 meal from the mega-McDonald’s, and maybe switching off with the Pizza Hut Express hidden in the food court underneath the Viacom ghetto across the street. The BMG building had a giant cafeteria, but it wasn’t good for much except mediocre ten-dollar hamburgers, and occasionally running into celebrities. (I kept seeing Booger from Revenge of the Nerds eating lunch there.)

I prairie-dogged over the top of my cube to talk to my neighbor Amy. “Do you know of a good place for falafel around here?”

“There’s a guy with a cart that’s always on either 48th or 49th, between 7th and 8th,” she said.

I grabbed my MiniDisc player and headphones, and headed for the elevator. Down in the lobby, a group of ghetto kids stood at the security desk, trying to convince the guards to let them through the TSA-like checkpoint to go upstairs and tell Diddy they were the next big thing. Sometimes the guards would let them audition on speakerphone for the 30th floor receptionist. I always wondered if I could start some kind of scam telling wannabe rappers in the lobby I was a producer and could get them face time with Puffy for a small cash fee. But I was too hungry to deal with that today.

I cut east on 46th street, to avoid the crowds, and walked past the American Express office where I was always making last-second thousand-dollar payoffs to keep my corporate card out of hock. I hung a left back onto 48th and saw my destination, a green cart with glass walls and a middle-eastern looking guy manning the post, shuffling ice over cans of Coke in a plastic tub.

“Hi, uh, I’ll have a falafel?” I asked.

“Just one, boss?”

“Uh, I don’t know, actually. How big are they?” I had no concept whatsoever what constituted a falafel, or an order of falafel. For all I knew, falafel was one of those words that was both singular and plural. Does several falafels constitute a bunch of the fried balls in one pita, or many pitas, each with multiple balls? I had no idea.

“You never had a falafel? Here, try this out.” He pulled out one of the spheres from a pile just out of a fryer and handed it to me. My first thought was that it looked like a dried meatball, maybe something you got in an silver astronaut food pack and then reconstituted before adding to a spaghetti dinner.

I bit into the piece and was surprised by its crunchiness. It had a texture that was tactically satisfying, like the experience of biting into a hard-shelled M&M candy and finding the soft chocolate inside. The piece came straight out of the fryer and felt like it was a thousand degrees in my mouth, but this wasn’t the soggy, reconstituted, sad falafel patty you get in the freezer section of your local Kroger; this was the real deal.

I hurried back to the office with the paper bag containing the warm, foil-wrapped pita, got a soda from the break room, and sat at my desk to dig in. I quickly found falafel isn’t the best thing to eat at a computer, with tahini oozing from the seams onto your hands and pieces of lettuce and tomato overflowing onto the keyboard with every bite. And a single pita-ensconced sandwich wasn’t enough — I instantly regretted not buying two. But I loved the heartiness of it, and didn’t regret not eating some meat-based lunch. I always associated bean-oriented food with the thin, massless bean burritos you get at taco joints that taste like a beef burrito minus the beef. Falafel has a satisfying quality, and when you mix that with the tang of the tahini sauce offset by the crispness of the lettuce and the sweetness of the tomatoes, it’s a perfect storm of sandwich goodness.

I’ve eaten a thousand falafels since. From the raw food place in Mar Vista to the historic Mamoun’s in the heart of Greenwich Village; from the local sandwich shop I walk to almost every day in Silicon Valley to the time I discovered you could get a falafel plate at Dodger Stadium, I’ve loved every time I could wrap a pita around some fried or baked chickpeas. I never stuck with being a vegetarian — within a week of that attempt, I was at the Times Square Chili’s, eating the ten-pounds-of-ribs meal. But I cut the fast food, lost the weight, and still love me a good falafel.


Journal mold

I keep reading John Sheppard’s tumblr, which lately has been chock full of awesome short little bits of not-fiction about his life, and it makes me wish I could spin up some yarns here, especially since I ran out of ideas for blog entries in about 2007.  One of my wise ideas was to pull out my old paper journals, and look up some of the wacky stories that happened back in like 2000 and expand those a bit here.  So I pulled out a big fat spiral, entitled “11/30/99 – 2/3/01”, cracked it open, and immediately had an allergic reaction from the dust mites.  (How should I be storing this shit?  Encased in acetate, in a room with all of the air pumped out and replaced with nitrogen?)  Then I looked at a few pages, and was somewhat dismayed at all of the entries.

I mean, it’s good I captured this stuff, especially because I lost all of my email from a big chunk of 1999-2000, when, like an idiot, I did an rsync backwards and cloned a copy of a blank laptop hard drive TO the hard drive on my PC.  (Backups?  Yes, that’s why I still have the stuff from 1999 and earlier.  I now back up every second instead of every year.)  But the problem is, so many of my days were similar back then.  Basically, pick and choose x items from the following list, and that’s my average day in 2000:

  • Work sucks.  (I worked at Juno at the time, and we were either hiring mass amounts of people from ivy league schools who had never worked in computers, or having massive layoffs, sometimes both at the same time.)
  • I skipped work today because I was up all night last night and can’t sleep for shit.  Sleeping all day today sure will fix this.
  • Ray just called and spent two hours complaining about some inconsistency in a Godzilla film that was produced on a budget of about $7.
  • I’m on my way into Manhattan to spend some money on books or DVDs that will make my empty life feel complete, except the piece of shit N train is broken and I’ve been stuck for the last 45 minutes.
  • I just finished eating 6,000 calories of cased meats and fried pirogues at Kiev.  I wonder if I should get in shape.
  • I just wrote someone on an online personals ad and she wrote back and asked to see five years of W-2 forms.
  • I should buy a drum set.
  • I should buy some land in Montana.
  • I should buy an abandoned loft.
  • I should buy a car.
  • I should buy an air conditioner.
  • I should buy more books and DVDs.
  • I need to write.
  • I need to edit what I wrote.
  • I need to go to Kiev and get some pirogues and edit/write.

One of the thing that surprised me the most about catching up with 2000 was the general level of my depression.  I know I was depressed back then, but I found some entries from that summer that were damn near suicidal, long digressive essays about trying to come to peace with myself, how to find what the fuck I should be doing with my life.  I was on the verge of 30 then, and moved across the country to be with someone, and when that didn’t work out, I couldn’t really get into the swing of dating, but also couldn’t be alone.  I’d spend long periods of time talking to nobody, except maybe to phone in a delivery order at the diner across the street.  I spent that entire year in therapy, taking various medications, seeing doctors and shrinks and buying self-help books, and the closest I came to resolution was deciding I could be happy if I bought a stereo receiver that decoded both Dolby Digital and DTS movies.  I often feel like I need to someday write a book that details these feelings, then I remember that every book I’ve written already covers it.

The other thing that I did enjoy while digging through these dead trees was the editing work on both Summer Rain and Rumored.  SR came out in 2000, and I spent most of the first half of the year doing the final edits, getting everything ready to send off to iUniverse, and it’s fun to see the daily notes about what chapters I finished or how many pages I had left to red-pen and correct.  Once that went to print, I toiled on Rumored, which took almost two more years to complete.  I was obsessed with word count at that point, and every thousand words I poured into the manuscript was a major triumph.

The one strange disconnect to this whole process is that this online journal was actually running for a good chunk of 2000, and there are some decent entries there.  Granted, what I wrote publicly and what went in the private paper edition was often very different, but there’s some good stuff there.  Check out Extreme olfactory triggers and strange nostalgia for a good example.

Okay, speaking of, gotta go write.  No Ukrainian food is on the horizon (weight watchers) but I do need to get this next book going.



New York

Usually when I fall into a deep nostalgic k-hole, I’m thousands of miles removed from the actual event.  But tonight, It’s more like a few hundred yards. I’m back in the Lower East Side, in a hotel room that’s a matter of blocks from my last home on the east coast.

I’m here for a work thing, and don’t have much time to dawdle, but staying in my old neighborhood and working in my old work building (albeit in an office on a different floor) means I’m tripping over threads back to my past constantly. I mean, the hotel I’m staying in is this hipster thing that doesn’t even look like a hotel on the street, the kind of place with a shower with the outer wall being all windows and a square sink and a toilet that’s a high-gloss black and bathroom walls that look like a zen retreat.  I don’t think it existed when I left, or maybe it was just steel beams and scaffolding, one of the million construction projects I ignored on a daily basis.  But when I go downstairs and walk outside, I’m back on the old Ludlow Street I used to traverse on a regular basis, looking at the Wholesale Candy, the Delancey McDonald’s, the Tenement Museum.

(What’s funny, and another strange irony, is that this hotel sits caddy-corner from the cover of the Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique, an album that’s been on more than a few minds lately.)

I left New York in 2007 like the American Embassy workers left South Vietnam in 1975.  After my eight year run here, I was so eager to get the fuck out of dodge.  Sarah had a job in Denver, and we went out there and bought a brand new car and got a brand new apartment and then flew back here for goodbyes and the final orchestration of getting all of our furniture into boxes and moving trucks.  I never thought I’d return to New York, let alone miss it.  And I wouldn’t say I miss it, but it’s not something to completely dismiss, either.

I’d lived in the Lower East Side since 2005, but the exact date’s hard to pin down.  I mean, I had my shithole apartment in Astoria when I met Sarah, the place with bedbugs and a collapsed bathroom ceiling and a heater that only worked well in July.  She had this huge two-bedroom place in a high-rise co-op, a building with a doorman and a balcony and a wall of windows that looked north and air conditioning.  So the occasional nights of extracurricular activities became consecutive nights, especially during the summer of 2005, and then bags of stuff went from one place to another, and by fall, I was all in.

I had a lot of fond memories of living in the neighborhood back then.  We knew our time was up in the city and talked about some west coast escape plan almost from the beginning, but part of the deal was that we’d see as much as we could before we ditched the city.  I’ll never feel like I scratched the surface of this city, especially since restaurants are like cockroaches here: every one you see means another dozen you don’t, and they’re continually dying off and being replaced.  And I wasn’t entirely happy with my work situation at that point, but I could now walk home after each day.  And after a long day of hacking at TPS reports, spending ten or fifteen minutes of strolling through Chinatown with some good music in the headphones usually meant I’d show up at the front door without any worries anymore.  While my house in Astoria was more like a constant hostage negotiation situation, the apartment in the co-op was a nice oasis in the city, a comfortable place to crash and look out at the green grass of the park four stories below us.

Now, being back here is a total mindfuck.  I walked to the office tonight, just to see the sights, and then met up with one of my California coworkers for some dinner.  We went to Spring Street Natural, one of my old favorites, and then wandered up to Times Square to descend right into the belly of the beast.  It’s always interesting for me to look at the city and see how things have changed.  The big chunks are still there, and it’s always good to see when something’s survived.  But it’s also fascinating to see what’s transformed.  The big Virgin Megastore where I used to spend hours shopping for DVDs is now a Forever 21 clothing store.  The Tower Records where I’d dump endless money into CDs is now the MLB Fan Cave.  Name a random failed business and it’s either a Duane Reade, Chipotle, or a bank.  K-Mart is still a K-Mart.  The Howard Johnson’s where I ran up a $1200 bar tab one night on a first date is now a Sunglasses Hut.  It’s all changed, but it’s the same city.

So, after a ride on the N train back to SoHo, heavy flashbacks and rumination of 2006.  It’s not that I want to return; I’m sure on Wednesday afternoon, I will be ready to get the fuck out of here again.  But it’s like seeing your old neighborhood on TV, or in the movies.  I remember when we first got to Denver, a few weeks later, when we were at the movies and saw our old home of New York for the first time, at a distance.  It reminds me of that, except I’m here, in it, jay-walking and cursing at tourists who block the sidewalk like I never left.  I’m living in the hallucination, albeit briefly.  It’s a strange feeling.


The Replay

I’ve been dreading this post for years, but it’s a band-aid I need to rip off.

I was at this acupuncturist in Berkeley a year ago, in some stupid last-ditch attempt at getting rid of my allergies.  (It did not work.)  And I remember laying on his table, with a dozen needles in my arms and feet and face, thinking, “I really should post something today, but I don’t want to regurgitate the same old shit, and it’s only the nine year anniversary.  I’ll wait for an even ten.”  And it’s now ten years, and everyone is either waving their flags and beating their chest and ringin’ them bells, or they’re talking about the folly of spending two billion dollars a day to catch a man that’s already dead.  And every show on TV this weekend is trying to get their spin on it, about how the world of cooking shows or pet rescue or hillbilly alligator hunting was forever changed on this day.

Seriously, fuck all of that.

It all makes me replay the day, and I do that a lot, but I don’t really think about who I was on September 10th, 2001, and what really did change.  And I play this game a lot, with a lot of other arbitrary dates.  I pull up old pictures or dig through old emails, wondering what person I was on 9/11/01 or 7/4/92 or 1/20/97 or any other date.  And I try to reconstruct it, and I always find information I’d totally forgotten.

Here’s how it ended:  I’d been sober a year, more or less.  No meetings, no steps; I just quit drinking.  But that night, my power was out, not because I lived in lower Manhattan, but because my stupid landlord had my entire apartment on two 15-watt breakers, and I was watching the news coverage on NY1 as I was running my computer and cooking in the microwave, and I blew a fuse.  And the fuse box was in a locked box in the basement, and my landlord was in Italy for a month.  So I had no power, in half my apartment, and ConEd had bigger problems on their hands, so I walked to Rob’s and he offered me a beer, and I started slamming them away.  It wasn’t because, like usual, I needed to be the life of the party and get blotto and do stupid things to make everyone else laugh.  It was because I thought if there’s ever a time to fall off the wagon, watching thousands of people die and two skyscrapers collapse was probably that day.

What I know about the weekend before: I just switched jobs, and I thought it was a huge mistake.  I was in way over my head, working as a lone writer surrounded by people who were 18 steps ahead of me.  I think I was the only person in my section of the cube sea that didn’t have a PhD.  I’d moved to New York to be in a relationship, and that ended; I’d found this job at Juno, which started out pretty awesome, and that ended.  I forgot all about this, but I’d emailed Frankov that weekend and asked him if there was anything going on out in SF, if I should pack it in and move out there.  This was post-NASDAQ crash, and he said don’t do it unless you can line something up, and that he lost his job and his apartment, and was now couch-surfing and stringing together a bunch of scraps of contract work to keep alive.  I don’t remember why I wanted to move to San Francisco, except that I wanted to leave New York, and I wanted a lot of different things, depending on the time of day.

I finished my first book the year before, and it didn’t really sell.  I was struggling with finishing my second book, and in this weird funk where I didn’t know how it would ever end.  I was constantly printing drafts and editing them on the train and putting the pieces on index cards and rearranging them on the floor of my apartment and dumping the whole thing into spreadsheets to try and untangle this mess of a book into a cohesive 200 pages.  I’d start with a fresh printout, and read the first page, and think it was perfect, then move to the second, and by the 3rd or 7th or 12th page, I would get sick of the whole thing.  So the first page was damn near perfect, and pages 150-200 were unbearable.

The first page, the first section of the book starts with a scene where all of lower Manhattan was accidentally blown up by a nuclear bomb.

So on the 10th, it was a Monday.  I spent all weekend trying to buy a car on eBay.  I had a good lead on a 1980 Z-28 that some kid in Queens was trying to unload.  It had no exhaust, and there was no way it would pass a NYS emissions test.  He would reply to my emails in all caps, but not answer my questions.  I bid on an AMC Gremlin in Staten Island, but got outbid.  I also looked at a 1982 VW Rabbit convertible.  I owned one in ’92, the one in Summer Rain.  I bought a second one in ’98, when I was writing said book.  Why not a third?  But I figured Ray and Larry would give me unending shit if I bought a sorority chick car.  And I didn’t have a place to park a vehicle, and had no need for one, except for that desire to do what I did as a kid and hit the road when I got depressed, drive for one side of the tape, flip it over, drive back.

I wanted to go to Iceland.  No passport, too expensive.  I spent two weeks in Florida that summer, doing nothing in a motel room, trying to write, sleeping all day, taking long walks at night.  It just barely scratched the itch, and I needed more.  I talked to A about coming back to Bloomington to do a book reading, but I couldn’t get away with coming back to Indiana and not visiting my family, which I really didn’t want to do.  I thought about taking a flight to Nebraska, finding a Motel 6, locking myself in with no internet and nothing but the laptop, and finishing this damn book.

That afternoon, it poured rain.  I bought a lunch at this crap Chinese place downstairs, and it was inedible, so I went to Wendy’s, and it wasn’t much better.  I gave up on lunch, and went to the JetBlue web site, trying to find a vacation for October. For some reason, I bought a plane ticket to New Orleans.  I didn’t know where I would stay or what I would do, so I emailed Suzanne and Chuck, the two people who I knew who spent some time down there.  (I don’t know why I didn’t email Bart, who later became the face of Katrina for a lot of us.)

Chuck’s dead now.  I dug through all of his old emails when he died in 2007, and saw that he was one of the many people that emailed me on the 11th and 12th asking if I was still alive.

Everyone worked at this new place until 6, 7 at night.  Startup mode.  I stayed until 7, then walked in the rain, and took some pictures of people on the street, up by the Tower Records at Astor Place.  One of those pictures ended up being the first cover for Rumored to Exist.  I walked to Kiev, the Ukrainian greasy spoon diner, one of my favorite places to eat, and red-penned a draft of Rumored.  I got through the entire draft while eating pierogies, then set off to catch the N back to Astoria.

Right outside of Kiev, I ran into John, this guy I used to work with at Juno.  He said he was on the way to see a play, because he got a job reviewing theater for some random newspaper, and asked me to tag along.  We walked through the East Village to get to this Alphabet City theater, one of those hundred-seaters that’s probably a cupcake bakery now.  On the way, it poured rain, the standing-in-the-shower-fully-dressed kind of rain.  When we got to the theater, I took off my new dress shoes and literally poured out a half-liter of water.

The play was insanely boring, and I left after the first act.  When I got to the train, I realized that my draft of the book, filled with comments, had turned into a chunk of runny pulp, all of the precious corrections now a smear of pink nothingness.  I got home and took everything out of the bag: my digital camera, the minidisc player, all of my books and papers, and decided to straighten it all out in the morning.

For the record: Kiev is gone.  The Tower Records is gone.  The company I worked for is moving out of their office this month.

Digging through the old emails, I had a couple of online dating prospects going on.  One was a theater actress who would later go on to be Neighbor #2 in a Law and Order episode.  The other, who I really liked, was an artist and trained dogs.  We met up once, and I really did like her, but we never connected, and in all of our later emails, she kept talking about how she was trying to leave town because we were going to get hit with another attack any second now, which was always awkward.

Tuesday morning: my dress shoes were warped and damp and completely unwearable, but I put them on anyway.  I only needed to walk to the train station, then I could take them off and let them dry.  My bag was still wet. I threw out the pulpy Rumored draft, and decided to leave behind my digital camera.  I always brought it to snap pictures of New York streets, but I figured I wouldn’t miss anything if I left it home for a day.

I got on the N train.  I hated the N, and they just changed the schedule, adding this W train that skipped stops and ran express and made it more difficult to get to work.  The N crept into the city, and once we got past Lex, it kept getting held up at each station.  I figured it was this god damned schedule change, that the MTA had fucked it all over, and my commute would be forever filled with these delays.  It’s maybe ten till 9:00, and I was hoping to get to work by 9:00, but it’s obvious that’s not going to happen.

It’s about 9:00, and the train is being held at Union Square.  Someone gets on the train, a hispanic guy, and starts talking to me, but I have my headphones on.  Nobody ever talks to anybody on the train; it’s like using a urinal: you don’t talk to the person next to you.  I realized this was not a panhandling attempt, and took off my headphones.

“Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center,” he said.  “They stole a plane and crashed it.”

The train was full of murmurs and misinformation.  I remember once reading about how a B-25 crashed into the Empire State Building during World War 2.  It took out a whole floor, killed a couple of people.  I figured someone stole a little Cessna or something, broke out a bunch of windows and started a big fire. I think this happened a few years before, a kid stole a Bonanza prop plane in Florida or something and flew it into his work building in the suburbs.  I wonder how they get a plane out of a building when it’s a hundred stories up?  They can’t use a crane.  I started playing engineering scenarios in my head, how to disassemble a plane with cutting torches, when the subway doors closed and the train slowly ambled south.

The N train, the train I was on, went to the WTC.  It stopped at Cortlandt Street, and you could take a tunnel into the lower concourse, and end up at the big underground mall.  When it was cold in the winter, I used to take the train there and go to the Borders at the WTC all the time.  Rob worked there, and would get me his employee discount, so I bought many a Bukowski book in that store.  That Borders is obviously gone.  And now all Borders are gone.

Just after 9:00, the train stopped again at 8th.  I anticipated another long wait, so I got out and started walking south on Broadway, to the office.  Gary, the company’s CPA, is outside of the office frantic, red-faced, looking like he’s about ten seconds from a massive heart attack.  He tells me that a bunch of people from the company are at a meeting on the 106th floor of the North tower.  The office is just north of Houston and Broadway, and I see a huge plume of smoke in the air.

The office is chaos.  Nobody has a TV; someone is trying to find a radio; our phones are alternating between working and a fast busy signal.  Nobody knows who’s at the meeting and who is en route and who hasn’t left home yet.  Nobody knows if tower 1 is the north tower or tower 2.  Someone reports that a second plane hit the other tower.  Some people are outside watching; some are trying to get their computers to work to pull up a news page.  CNN, MSNBC, and every other news site is completely unreachable. Google still worked, and they put a one-paragraph note on their minimalist index screen. (This would end up being the birth of the Google News page.)

I realize I don’t have my camera.  I walk across the street to one of those film developing/passport photo/lotto ticket places, and buy two disposable cameras.  I start walking south on Broadway, taking pictures.  I’m still thinking, “How do they put out a fire that high up? How are they going to repair this?”  For some reason, the WTC on fire reminds me of the image of King Kong on top of the towers in that horrible 1976 remake.

I see an unmarked cop car, black tinted windows, speed up Broadway the wrong way, sirens blazing, lights on.  It’s covered in about three inches of powdery grey dust.  It looks like the dust you used to see in Mt. St. Helen’s footage in the 80s.

I walked south, took pictures.  Some people were walking away from the scene, walking north.  Some police were trying to block roads, but there was so much disorganization, nobody knew what was happening.  I saw an F-15 fly over the Hudson river, at a ridiculously low altitude, maybe a few hundred feet, on its side, probably approaching Mach.  I’d never seen a fighter jet fly that low, that fast, even at air shows.

Almost ten years later, I’d see that same exact jet, same serial number, same markings, now retired and at an air museum here in California.  I touched its grey camouflage paint, the metal skin on the side by the cockpit, and instantly remembered all of this.

I went south, past Canal, snaking down West Broadway, and reached Finn Square.  By that time, the cops had completely blocked off the streets.  The towers had just collapsed.  I didn’t actually see it happen; I just saw this giant grey cloud where the towers used to be.  I walked back to the office, and I remember sitting in my cube for about an hour, trying to send off emails.  This is the email I sent to a bunch of people:

I’m OK.  The World Trade Center isn’t.  I think two or three hijacked planes hit it, and it’s gone.  The WTC is maybe a mile? south of where I work.  I was in the subway when the planes hit.
The news makes it look like it’s mt st helens with all of the raining ash, but it’s not that bad unless you are right on wall street.  I just bought two disposable cameras and walked to maybe 10 blocks north.  I saw the second tower on fire, and it was one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in my life.  Right after I took pictures, it collapsed, but I didn’t see it happen because of the smoke.
The subways are closed, and I think the bridges are too.  I will probably sit here at work for a while, or maybe just fill my backpack with bottled water and walk home.  (it’s only like 3 miles, so it’s not horrific).
As far as the people from work, it wasn’t the CEO, but it was three others.  They had a meeting on the 106th floor of the second tower that went, so nobody knows what happened.  To say that things are freaked out here in the office would be a major understatement.
The phones are sporadic so calls are timing out or getting a fast busy.  You can try me at 212 842 8848 but don’t be alarmed if that doesn’t work.  Pass on the word that I’m OK, and I’ll let you know more when I know more.

There was nothing anyone could do, so I started walking home.  I realized my feet were completely mangled from walking a few miles in these wet dress shoes, and I hadn’t eaten anything since that Kiev the night before.  I walked to the Astor Place K-Mart, dropped off the film at the one-hour counter to get it developed, then went to the second floor to buy a cheap pair of tennis shoes.  Fifty women in dress clothes were doing the same exact thing.  I sat in the Big K Cafe with a couple of corn dogs and fries, and tried to get my cell phone to work.  Then I realized the closest cell tower was probably on the roof of one of the two buildings.

I got my film, and the woman working at the counter was all pissed off that they were in a mad rush of film processing, and everyone had tried to get pictures of the people jumping off the towers.  I hadn’t heard about that until then.  They were saying 6,000 people probably died.

I walked to 34th Street, and the trains started running out of the city.  I got home, contemplated taking a nap.  I went to and checked if was taken, and it wasn’t.  I don’t know how I knew already that it was him, if the news was saying it or if I made the connection myself, or what.

I had to get rubbing alcohol to clean my scanner to scan the pictures.  The closest drug store was in this part of Astoria that’s basically an Arab neighborhood.  There’s a mosque there, all of the hookah places, and a bunch of Pakistani and Egyptian restaurants.  I remember looking at all of the people, and seeing the nervousness on their faces, that this white guy was going to show up and start shit.  I imagined all of the store windows broken within 24 hours, people beaten up by local kids wearing American flag muscle shirts.  I thought there’s probably going to be a lot more of this in the near future.

Inside the drug store, they had on an AM radio to the news.  They were interviewing some guy at a flight school in Florida, who was saying a bunch of Saudis took classes that summer, wanting to learn how to take off and not land.  I realized that this flight school was almost exactly where I was staying that summer.  It was the same exact time.  I even looked at taking some flight lessons when I was there.  I probably ate lunch at the same Denny’s as one of the hijackers and didn’t know it.

I scanned the pictures, fielded some frantic phone calls, but could not call anyone because my phone was all messed up.  I couldn’t make outgoing calls, but sometimes a random incoming call would make it. Every time I started to take a nap, another call would come in from a worried relative.  I stayed glued to CNN.  I blew out the fuse and lost my power.  I went to Rob’s, drank beer, came home.  I wrote a lot of emails, including an email to someone I dated earlier that summer that probably said a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have said, and was pretty much akin to playing a game of poker and laying every card you had face-up.  The next day, my DSL internet went out, because of course the closest colo was in the Verizon building in lower Manhattan, which had no power, and all of their generators ran out of gas.

I didn’t go back to work for a week.  Four people died.  I didn’t know how to feel about any of this, because I just started the job, and didn’t really know anybody at the company.  We had to go to grief counseling, but it was a joke. I became this weird conduit for all of these people in the Midwest, because I was their link to the tragedies.  New York became a ghost town; the city I wanted to leave really became a place to abandon.  I cancelled my trip to New Orleans, because I didn’t even know if there was going to be an airline industry anymore.  I went to a shrink and told him to give me whatever he could, and I started taking Effexor.  That gave me something else to focus on: crippling headaches and nausea.  Within a few weeks, that went away, the drugs took over, and I got back to work, back to writing, back to bitching about my lack of a dating situation.  I’d survive.

I just realized I started by saying I didn’t want to write about this, and I’ve now written about 3500 words about it.  I have no nice ending or message to wrap this up with, except the uneasy feeling that there will never be any real closure on this, because the event will forever be fetishized.  I’m constantly told what I should think about this, and it never is what I think.  I guess that’s the big takeaway, that it’s not something that can be pigeonholed into a nice, succinct bumper sticker-sized motto or slogan.

Okay, time to turn off the TV for the weekend and go on with life.


Small Fish Big Pond

I was listening to Mark Maron’s podcast the other day – specifically, an interview with Aubrey Plaza – and they started talking about how they both used to live in Queens.  But then Maron said where he lived, which was at 37th Street and 30th Avenue, and it completely blew my mind, because I lived about a block from there, at 36th and 28th.  And we both lived there at the same time, which means we shared the same subway stop, and the same restaurants and bodegas and fruit stands and drunken assholes sitting outside of cafes, blocking the god damned sidewalk.  And I’m sure my day job and his life as a late-night comedian probably didn’t place us on the platform for the N train at the same times, but I’m sure there must have been at least a couple of occasions when we were up there, looking down the tracks and wondering where the hell the next train was.

That’s a reminder that the world is much bigger than I imagine.  Or maybe I mean more dense.  I came from a life where you knew every single person in your neighborhood.  Our subdivision had a homeowner’s association – not like a condo HOA where you were required to be a member, but rather a group of do-gooder PTA motherfuckers that liked to be overbearing and have a Christmas decoration contest and post crimestopper signs that did no good and that sort of crap.  And they used to put out an annual directory, a photocopied thing that listed every damn person in the subdivision, along with their kids’ names and if any of them did chores like babysitting or snow plowing or whatever.  I think the whole purpose of the thing was to shame people into giving twenty bucks to the group, or maybe because people were so god damned proud of their kids, they needed to show everyone how many of them they had.  I don’t know, but I know in my infinite boredom stemming from a life of only five TV channels, I pretty much memorized that book and knew the names of every person in every house of our neighborhood.

The entire city of Elkhart – not just my little subdivision – had a population just under what Astoria’s population was, except Elkhart is about 25 square miles, where the 11103 is maybe three-quarters of a square mile.  So you’re talking about a serious number of people piled on top of each other; nobody’s got a giant ranch house or a backyard or even a place to park a car, let alone a collection of cars, like pretty much everyone in Elkhart has on their front lawn.  And at first, this was overwhelming to me.  When I first visited New York, I was amazed that it wasn’t just one single main arterial street had clusters of stores and shops, like every town in the Midwest.  Every time you turned off of one street and onto another, that would be a main drag too, with wall-to-wall storefronts.

But at some point, I got desensitized to all of this, and had this mental picture of my neighborhood as having vast amounts of nothing.  I mean, I’d have this internal diagram that would say “my house, five blocks of nothing, the Key Foods, two blocks of nothing, the subway stop, and then ten blocks of nothing until the tunnel and the city.”  In reality, every one of those blocks of nothing had thousands of people living there.  And even though half of the storefronts in Astoria are abandoned and boarded up and probably used as illegal gambling halls, and of the other 50%, a certain plurality were these stores with maybe $17 of merchandise on all of the shelves, probably because the place was a mafia front. But there were all of these places where you could get lost forever, that were their own worlds within one street address.  I’d duck into that horrible Rite-Aid on 30th, and it was not the world’s biggest drug store, but it was its own universe, once you got in there and got stuck waiting an hour while the only cashier finished her cell phone call and rang up your purchases.

I still feel like that now.  I mean, there really is nothing in my neighborhood – we’re like on the edge of the ghetto, patiently waiting for gentrification to happen, maybe the next big earthquake to suck under a mass of old Victorian crackhouses and leave room for a new Trader Joe’s. But then when I go back to Indiana, everything truly looks abandoned.  It always amazes me when I go back there, because it looks like some post-apocalyptic movie, where the whole population has vanished.  And when I did go back to New York, I felt overwhelmed again, which means my sense of scale has reset itself.  But the moral of the story is I should be taking a closer look at what’s around me.

Anyway.  I spent far too long looking at the picture above, then looking at Google Maps, to see if that is indeed 37th Street and 30th Ave, and I think it is, but you can’t tell because so much of the stuff has changed hands.  Someone said you’re officially a New Yorker when you say “do you remember when this used to be a ______”?  Yeah, something like that.


The Death of Palm

In a serious WTF move yesterday, HP announced they were ditching their hardware manufacturing business, and abandoning their work on WebOS devices.  HP just bought Palm a little over a year ago for 1.2 billion dollars.  Their big splash was the iPad killer tablet, the HP TouchPad, which sold roughly as well as the Edsel in the year before its demise. It’s a sad end to Palm, and evidence that doubling down doesn’t always pay off.

I have a long history with Palm, mostly because I’ve always wanted some kind of little portable machine to store my “brain” of vital info and capture little bits of writing ideas as I’m away from my desk.  I remember first hearing about Palm back in 1996, when I was still at my first job in Seattle.  At that time, the gold standard of portables was the Apple Newton, which were nice, but cost somewhere around a grand.  US Robotics rolled out their new device for only $300 for the low-end model, and they were way smaller and lighter than the Newton.  When I first stumbled across this new product on the web, they had a little Palm Pilot simulator you could download, which let you walk through the various screens of the PDA, albeit without the touch-screen area for a pen stylus.  I was 90% sold on this initial model, but 10% of me had serious doubts.  (And 100% of me didn’t have $300 burning a hole in my pocket.)

The thing that was most offputting to me was that the Newton was essentially a shrunk-down computer. You could put cards in it and it had its own file system that you could fill with apps and documents and whatever else.  But PalmOS was based on this alien concept that you carried a mirror of your important data, a copy, that got synced when you plugged the device back into the mothership of your home PC.  It was a sort of parasite, like one of those little helicopters on the decks of huge yachts, and wasn’t a “real” computer.  I don’t know why that bothered me, but it was new at the time, and I didn’t like it.  (It’s the same stumbling block a lot of Windows people have about the iPad, and why you see tons of people in message boards yelling “IT DOESNT HAVE A PCMCIA SLOT!  I CANT RUN VISUAL STUDIO ON IT!  HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CUT BROADCAST-QUALITY HD VIDEO ON THAT THING?”)

So I didn’t get one. In the meantime, a bunch of people I worked with at my next job bought into a lot of bleeding-edge PDAs that have since left our collective consciousness.  Some of them were Newton or MessagePad die-hards, and a couple bought into the Magic Cap platform.  Windows CE devices also started appearing, which I thought was absolutely ridiculous at the time.  I spent my cash elsewhere, mostly on this other portable reading system better known as paper books, and patiently waited until Moore’s Law kicked in.

After I moved to New York, though, I foresaw a future of sitting on subway trains for a good chunk of my day. So I went down to J&R’s Music World, which is like the East-coast version of Fry’s electronics stores crowded with off-brands and flashy bright pricetags. I bought a Palm IIIx, which I think set me back $200 or so, and then figured out all of the cryptic mumbo-jumbo I needed to get it to talk to a linux machine.  (It probably involved recompiling the kernel five times.)

My use of the Palm fluctuated, and went through phases.  I’d go through periods when I downloaded a ton of ebooks, tried to keep a journal, and jotted down everything I saw or thought of, in hopes of eventually rolling it into my own writing.  I’d play dope wars forever (“you found two hits of acid on a dead dude in the subway!”) and remember reading that Bruce Sterling book The Hacker Crackdown and a good chunk of the Unabomber manifesto on that little 160×160 greenish LCD.  I never got the hang of writing in graffiti, the shorthand system of scratching on the little input area; I can barely print in Latin letters, let alone a system I haven’t been using for decades.

Everyone had a Palm back then.  When I worked at Juno, I think every single person on my team had a Palm III or V, except for one dude that had a Handspring Visor.  (I think one of the Directors also had the ultra-expensive Palm VII, which had an antenna hanging off of it, and could pull down the amount of web traffic you’d consume in about 60 seconds now over the course of a month, all for $14.95.) One of the project managers on my team found a hangman game you could play wirelessly over the IR ports, and our meeting productivity suddenly dropped 100%.  I’d get on the train and see dozens of people clicking with their little styluses on the charcoal or silver boxes, all of them drowning in crazy NASDAQ money as the tech bubble continued to expand like a huge zit on a teenager’s face.

I never fully sunk into the system, though.  Part of it was that it wasn’t 100% of what I needed to do with the damn thing.  I couldn’t really write on it; I couldn’t run totally kick-ass games with it.  There was no camera, no web browser, no way to send emails on the go.  I couldn’t write my own programs for it.  I could barely get the damn thing to sync with my PC, and would only plug it in maybe once or twice a month.  There was also the issue that I had a cell phone that could do about 23% of what I wanted, and this Palm that could do maybe 41%, and then I carried around a MiniDisc player, which totally solved the music issue, but only for the discs I remembered to shove in my pocket that morning.  I really needed some device that would do all of this and more, but that would be almost a decade away.  In the meantime, I assembled this mess of cables and adaptors to plug the Palm into the ass-end of this Samsung feature phone I had back then, so I could use the phone as a modem and dial in to a modem when I was on vacation, which almost worked.

Around 2001 or 2002, I took a half-step in that general direction, and upgraded to a Handspring Visor Prism, and got the Visorphone. The Visors had this cartridge port on them called the Springboard port, and the Visorphone was this sick attachment that  snapped on the back and essentially turned it into a cell phone.  And the Visor could use the phone for data, so you could fire it up and get SMS messages on your phone, or send out an email.  The Visorphone sounded like the coolest thing since the Boba Fett action figure with the shooting rocket pack that some stupid fucking kid shot down his throat and got the whole thing banned, but it was a total piece of shit.  It had its own battery in it, and you had to charge it separately from the main unit.  The software was barely integrated correctly, so it almost worked as well as one of those piece of shit Jitterbug phones.  And your monthly bill of 40 or 50 bucks came with just enough minutes to download and delete about four of your spam email messages.  Plus it got me locked into a T-Mobile contract, which was absolutely craptastic.  I did use the Prism for a while, and it was a nice step up from the IIIx, but I did miss the sleekness of the old Palm, the little fliptop case that reminded me of a Star Trek communicator, and the fact that it ran forever on AAA batteries.

I also owned Palm stock briefly.  I probably don’t need to explain how that went.

I sold the Handspring to a coworker, and jumped to a Sidekick, which, despite the fact that it was designed for emo 14-year-olds, had its shit together as far as data integration.  It was essentially useless as a phone, but I don’t like talking on the phone, and preferred getting the data-only unlimited plan and spending all day in AIM or browsing the web.  I did briefly consider getting a Treo when everyone else got Treo fever, but talked myself out of it.  Years later, when I was at the big S, we got a couple of Palm Pre units when they came out, and I spent twenty minutes screwing with one, long enough to lock it up two or three times.  I’d already moved to the iPhone by then, and it was the perfect solution I’d waited ten years for, so I was pretty nonplussed.  The WebOS UI had some nice features, but in a world where everyone had Ataris and Commodores, I didn’t want to buy a Coleco Adam because it had a neat keyboard.

I was thinking about all of this, and what happened to all of my old Palm files, and I remembered I used a program called jpilot on linux to sync my old devices.  It made a .jpilot directory, and it turns out I have two full backups of my old Palm’s filesystem, one from 2000 and another from 2001.  It is a total mindfuck to see what I carried on the thing back then.  I’ve got a list of DVDs I wanted to buy; a list of books to research later; and there’s an attempt at a journal that’s mostly a list sorted by date of when I was having panic attacks.  There’s an itinerary from a February 2000 trip to San Diego, and a copy of an early draft of my second book in PDB format.  I have all of the applications that were installed too, from a universal remote app to an R2D2 sound generator to some app that takes a Manhattan street address and tells you the cross streets.

Sometimes I wish I never kept things like this, because now I’m going to spend the next two hours digging through these files.


Thoughts on a random picture: the N

This is the N:

I took this picture just over ten years ago.  I was on the way home from my second date with Kelly.  We went to Jackson Heights, and then to Target.  It doesn’t sound that exciting, but when you live in New York in 2001 and you spent a good chunk of your life in Indiana, and suddenly, there’s no Target, the idea of taking two trains and a bus to the middle of nowhere in Queens to see a real Target is pretty enticing.

That picture was taken on Queensborough Plaza, which is the first stop in Queens after the N train goes through the Steinway tunnel and under the East River.  It’s the start of a new borough, a transition to a different land, and the point where the normally-underground subway train suddenly appears up on an elevated platform that snakes above the rooftops in Long Island City and Astoria.

I hated the N train.  The N and R trains ran into Queens, and they stood for Never and Rarely, because you could wait forever for one of the damn things to show up.  And while you were up on that elevated platform, freezing your ass off in January as the wind tunnel effect made the extreme weather even worse, they’d run twice as slow.  And while those A trains or F trains ran every 2 minutes for the last century in “The City”, the MTA had this habit of randomly shutting down the N trains all weekend, which started roughly around two weeks after I moved to Astoria, and went on until about the time I left.  They said it was for “station work”, but I was almost certain that some Sopranos wannabe motherfuckers paid off the MTA to force all of us to spend our money in their craptastic shops and restaurants all weekend.

Queensborough plaza was in a sketchy neighborhood, a part of Long Island City where everything around was either taxi repair shops, scrapyards, or the kind of strip clubs you go to if you have a c-section scar fetish.  There was also a “bootleg” Dunkin Donuts there; it had a sign with the same font and same colors as the real place, but it just said “fresh donuts” or “fresh coffee” or something.  I was waiting for the whole thing to get painted over after a cease/desist, but there were a lot of blatant trademark violations in Queens, and nobody gave a shit.  There was this place on 30th Ave called Pinocchio Restaurant, and I swear they had a pixel-for-pixel copy of the genuine Disney artwork on their sign.  I don’t know if a lawyer from Walt’s parent company woke up with a horse’s head in his bed one morning, but the damn thing’s still there today.  I desperately wanted the Olympics to come to New York, just to see all of those IOC lawyers try to shut down every business in Astoria with the word “Olympic” in their names, which is about 70% of them.

Two train lines butted against each other at that station: the BMT’s N/R and the IRT’s 7.  The 7 was the line built to run up to the World’s Fair, and they ran those famous red subway cars, which have since been stripped and dumped in the Atlantic to form an artificial reef.  I’m guessing this is the train John Rocker took out to Shea Stadium described in his infamous rant that got him all kinds of love and adoration from New Yorkers.  On the day I took this picture, we returned from Target on the 7 train, and then I switched to the N to go home, while Kelly got on a different train to head back to Brooklyn.

I spent so damn much time on the N train.  A rough order-of-magnitude guess is 2 times a day x 5 days a week x 50 weeks a year x 5 years = 2500 trips.  Each trip took about 45 minutes, so that’s roughly 78 days of my life.  Yeah, I invested that time into reading, and I probably read a book or two a week, but that’s still a lot of strap-hanging.

The whole idea of the subway seems a lifetime away for me.  I can’t even fathom any part of my existence back then: being single, living in such a big city, living in such a fucked up neighborhood.  I think about it a lot, because I’m at the same job as back then, and I’m working on docs for the same product (among others), so I often play dumb games like “what was I doing around the time I first started working on this?”  I think back to when I was struggling to get Rumored out the door, when I was trying to date, when I would take any free time I had and scrape up enough dough to get on a plane to Vegas, just so I could rent a car and drive again, and be in an open area that didn’t have a fifty thousand people per square mile.

And I think about life now sometimes – like I was in the parking lot of Target the other day (honestly, Target isn’t paying me to mention them in every damn post I put up here) and I was just thinking “fuck, I’m living in California.”  I get so busy with the day-to-day that I don’t even think about it, about how 25 years ago, California was this far off, distant land only seen in movies, and it may as well have been the planet Vulcan.  And now I’ve lived here for three and a half years, and I still don’t even realize it until I’m outside on a nice sunny day, and I realize it’s something like -60 degrees in Elkhart and I haven’t had to dig a car out of a snowbank for decades, and I really do live within a stone’s throw of the Pacific Ocean, a body of water I never even saw until I was 26 years old.

So looking back at pictures like this, the old rolling stock of the MTA, that look of soot and skyscrapers and brick project houses and a view of Queens so vivid, I can practically hear the car alarms and jackhammers at five in the morning and the taxis laying on their horns continually, and it’s a huge time machine for me.  It’s not that I want to go back or that I miss any of it, but it’s a huge reminder that even though I feel like the same person and the same old crap is going on every day, so much time has passed between now and then, and things have changed so radically.


The Other Cairo and Internet Archaeology

I took the standard drive-to-Florida Disney vacation when I was twelve, and I’d been to a bunch of the plains states by then: Missouri, Iowa, the Dakotas, Wisconsin.  But in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, my dad took us on our first big trip out of the Midwest, this two-week journey to upstate New York.  And at the time, I was bored out of my mind, depressed about being away from my car for so long, obsessively reading the JC Whitney catalog in the hundred degree heat.  But we did a lot, saw a lot, and it’s one of those things I always plug into my mental wayback machine, trying to remember the little details or uncover something on the web that connects back to it.  I didn’t have a camera back then, and I never wrote anything, so it all seemed lost to me.  But thanks to the magic of google maps, I did manage to dig up some of that past.

We visited upstate New York because my stepmom’s family vacationed there.  It was the typical Italian-in-The-City migratory thing, where you rented out one of those little camps for a couple of weeks and sat around and played bocce ball and ate a lot and slept in little cabins.  We didn’t stay in the same compound as the rest of her family though; we rented basically like a motel room with an efficiency kitchen near the city of Cairo.  I remember Cairo as being just like all of those other little thousand-person Catskill hamlets, with a single main street and a general store and some other mom and pop places, like a pie store and an IGA grocery.  I drove around there in 2000, when I rented a jeep to bug out of the city for the weekend, but I couldn’t remember where anything was, and I think one of the main state roads running east-west got rerouted and widened, which threw off my mental landmarks even more.

I recently took a look on google maps, because Randy wrote about camping in Cairo.  Last I checked, the resolution on their upstate NY maps was roughly Commodore-64-grade, which wasn’t helpful.  But when nosing around, I found a little clue that zeroed me in to exactly where we stayed.

So, it’s July 1988, and I spent two days in the back of a pickup truck, sleeping on a mattress with all of our luggage, reading all of the Hitchhiker’s Guide books in one pass while watching Ohio and Pennsylvania scroll past me outside the truck cap’s plastic windows.  We got to Cairo, unloaded in this Bates-style motel, and spent a lot of time swimming, because it was always a hundred degrees and you could see the humidity.  The complex was a cluster of small buildings, each one with two units, on a horseshoe drive curved around a main house and an in-ground swimming pool.  Most of upstate New York like this is not in cities or towns, but just the occasional house off to the side of a heavily wooded road, which isn’t conducive to a teenager with no car who just wants to wander around parent-free.  On the first day, I hiked down the highway, my jambox on my shoulder, listening to Back in Black, and I walked about a mile to a gas station to buy a single Coke, which I then drank on the way home.  Of course, the whole voyage was a push, considering how much I sweated on that walk, but it was one of those journey-is-not-the-destination kind of walks.

The next day, I went to this restaurant to get a coke, and that’s my big clue on this search: the Stone Castle.  It’s now called The Stone Castle Inn, and it’s a, well, stone castle; a turret sitting off of this sleepy little road.  I walked over there one day and ordered a coke, but they had no to-go cups, so I sat in this heavy wood restaurant that I think used to serve German food, the prototypical German restaurant with high ceilings and a huge stone hearth and dark wood everywhere.  I guess the place has since been restored and is now an Irish pub, but more importantly, it is on Google Maps, and our place was right next door, so it zeroed me in and showed me I had been searching up and down state road 23, when I was supposed to be looking on state road 145.  If you go here, you can see that horseshoe drive, and the swimming pool to the northwest.  It’s even got a street view picture, although none of this is as high quality as if you aimed google maps at, say, Palo Alto.

If you go northwest on 145, you come to Hitchcock road.  We used to load into the pickup truck, and drive up that road to 32, which crossed Catskill Creek here.  When the motel pool got old, we’d swim in the river. It was blocked partially by a dam to the northwest, which formed this nice little pool with some falls that were perfect for inner tubes.  The water was always cool, crystal-clear, like swimming in bottled water.  I remember sitting on the beach by that water, talking to some older kids who wanted to know where we were from, and when I mentioned Indiana, they said “Bobby Knight, right?”  The one thing I learned on this trip was that Indiana, which was my entire universe at that point, only held a fraction of a fraction of a percent of peoples’ collective consciousness outside of that state.  I always – and still – marvel at what one or two random factoids people do know about the Hoosier state.  Back then it was Bobby Knight, David Letterman, and maybe band instruments like Selmer.  This was pre-Shawn Kemp, pre-kid stuck in a vending machine, pre-meth lab Indiana.  And those “older kids” were probably all of 19 or 20, which seemed like adults to me at the time.

The first time I ever flew was here too, at the Freehold Airport.  (here, here.)  We drove by here, and they had some deal where you could fly for 15 minutes for ten or twenty bucks, so me and my two sisters piled into this little Cessna and took off.  (It was probably this blue and white Cessna 150 shown on this page.) I loved airplanes, but had never been in one.  I got to sit in the front of the little VW-sized cockpit, and the pilot told me not to touch anything, because I had a yoke and a set of rudder pedals right in front of me. I remember so distinctly when those tricycle gear wheels pulled off the ground, watching the ground fall below us, and flying at a few thousand feet around the area.  The pilot asked where we were staying, and we flew over the motel, looked down at the creek and the bridge and the dam, saw little tiny people swimming and tubing in the water below.  It would be seven years until I got on a plane again, not out of any fear of flying, but just because I never had the money or reason for air travel.  But being in that little Cessna made me want to fly, made me spend way too much time kicking tires at airshows and screwing with crappy flight simulators on outdated Windows machines, wishing I could jump in a tiny plane and cruise around at two thousand feet, looking at the scenery.

I’ll have to do more digging to find out more about this place.  I remember we also went to Woodstock, the Zoom Flume water park, and Hunter Mountain.  But what I remember most is how those daytime activities, the little field trips to see old bridges or small towns, were punctuated by these longer periods of boredom and late-night depression.  I thought all of my melancholy feelings had to do with being in Indiana, being around the people in my school, but when I was a thousand miles away, I still felt them, and knew something was wrong.  I didn’t fully realize any of this until a few months later, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office, trying to unravel all of the depression and confusion.  At the time, I just wondered about the strangeness around me, taking in all of this alien scenery of small town New York, listening to people talk about the muggings and rapes and crime of The City, not knowing that in just over a decade, I’d be living there, too.

Anyway, bottom line, google maps is a huge time suck, and take more digital pictures, while you have the chance.


City that never sleeps (because of those stupid reverse-gear backup warning beepers)

Good to be back.  I spent all day Friday in airports and on airplanes, immersed in the world of roller suitcases and $9 bottles of water in newsstands filled with every single tabloid featuring pictures of a recently-adultified Miley Cyrus and rumors of tattoos and nipple slips and not a single piece of readable material outside of maybe a moldy Baseball Insider hot stove report with 48 pages of circle-jerking over Jeter’s next big payday, and maybe a 4-point type mention of Tulo’s big $160-million dollar deal somewhere under the mandatory required notice of circulation numbers and where to contact the publisher on page 96.

Actually, Friday was a marathon day, mostly because I could not sleep at all in New York, even with the help of all of the various pharmacological cures my Doctor Feelgoods give me.  (One advantage to a full-bore PPO plan in the hot potato days of plausible deniability-seeking doctors who pass you off to every specialist known to the medical profession any time you have a complaint even slightly off from their knowledge core is that opportunities abound for you to drug-seek elsewhere.  Not that I doctor-surf for Oxy like a right-wing hillbilly talk show host with an itch to scratch, but every time I go to see a new specialist, he or she will immediately rattle off a script to some new wonder-drug that may or may not help my ails but will surely get them another step closer to that Aruba junket with their pharmacy sales rep.)  I forgot that sleep in New York is a careful balancing act of drugs, white noise generators, and the learned ability to tune out the sounds of a garbage truck’s BEEP BEEP BEEP backup alarm at three in the morning, punctuated with the occasional siren bouncing off the buildings.  A decade of guidos, gunshots, and garbage trucks outside my first-floor window always made sleeping an annoyance, but when I’d leave and end up in the middle of nowhere, in a hotel where there wasn’t a shouting match ten feet from my head every hour, I found myself tossing and turning like it was the day before some big event (audit, wedding, presentation, sale on some Apple product I didn’t need, etc.)

My hotel suite cost roughly what I paid for a car back in college, per night, and had the two-bed setup, each bed just big enough for me to roll over once before I fell on the floor.  I remember decades of having a twin bed like this, even on occasion sharing it with someone for various acts of fun, and I never had issues.  Now, even a queen bed is a tight fit for the mountain of pillows and blankets I encase myself in every night.  Was this trip damned to be one of those “the more that things change” reminders?  I don’t know, but I did enjoy the iPod/iPhone dock built into the clock radio.  I had some fears because most of our team was on the same floor, and I didn’t want everyone to hear me at three in the morning, singing along to some Venom song about Satanic sacrifice at top volume while playing Angry Birds in a fit of insomnia and checking my facebook hourly on my $34.95 per day WiFi connection.  The room was barely bigger than the two beds, and when I got there, I thought it didn’t even have a bathroom like one of those cold-water shooting pads you’d rent out in Spanish Harlem in the 70s when you needed to kill a prostitute, but then I saw it hidden around a corner, a low-flow den of sample-sized soaps and a toilet that took around 45 minutes to flush each time.  At least the place had a standard bible AND a Mormon bible, which made it that much easier to smash allergy pills into snortable chunks of powder.  (I took the copy of the Mormon bible, with some vague idea to either read it and write a parody, or use it in some sort of art project, although I’m sure I will forget all about this and in two years, when I’m digging around for books to dump on Amazon (probably every “get over writer’s block in 56 seconds or less” book I bought in a tirade in the last year) and wonder why the hell I had a copy of the LDS book in my collection.)

So yes, New York.  I didn’t do as much walking around as I wanted, mostly because it was December, which meant the time of year I usually spent every waking moment trying to find a heated astronaut suit on some Russian eBay ripoff so I could make the ten-block walk to the subway every day without further aggravating my constant upper respiratory infection with that wind that whipped through every seam and zipper of every coat I ever owned.  I wondered if the city grew or my memory of the city shrunk, but then I realized as I wandered up and down Lexington in the middle of the night, I realized that I never looked UP when I lived in the big smear.

That sounds stupid, but it’s true – when it’s your daily penance to hustle up and down the sidewalk from subway to work to lunch to work to subway, you keep your head down and barrel forward at top speed, cursing every mouth-breather and inbred from a flyover state that stops on the sidewalk to look at a massive foldout map and see how far they are from the statue of liberty or ground zero or whatever the hell tourist spot they are ambling toward.  Even zen pacifists that never step on ants will, within fifteen minutes on a New York sidewalk with stuff to do and places to be, turn into a bloodthirsty offensive tackle of NFL caliber and look to plow down every single person not sprinting at top speed in front of them.  This aptitude came back to me quickly, as I knocked over nuns and old ladies on the way to the subway, but I noticed this look up/look down thing when I pulled out my camera for a quick picture to prove I actually was in the city and not on some Vegas strip club junket (you need as much evidence as possible with these new expense report systems – receipts are never enough; I’ve been bringing a pro HDV broadcast camera and taking video of waiters and hotel desk clerks holding up a copy of that day’s newspaper just to make sure I don’t get burned on reimbursement checks.)

And when I looked up, I saw this massive city, buildings climbing in every direction, and not a hint of economic downturn.  I mean, you look in almost every other American city, and it’s nothing but boarded up stores, closed restaurants, vacant lots for sale that will always remain barren.  The last time I went to Elkhart, I started playing this game while driving around where I would take a shot of tequila every time I passed some retail location of my youth that was either shuttered or turned into a Mexican grocery, and within fifteen minutes, I was blackout drunk.  But in New York, there’s stores opening inside stores, every corner of office building lobbies and subway tunnel filled with people selling wares.  The only thing I saw closed were the subway token booths, which were apparently shut down so they could afford to raise prices again.  (Wait, what?)

I went back to my old office for a half-day; most of my work stuff involved training-type meetings in the hotel convention center, but on Thursday, I had a morning of open time, so I got on the 6 and headed down to NoHo to work at the old digs.  First, taking the subway brought back so many strange memories.  Just the feel of that yellow plastic card going through the stainless steel slider on the turnstile (and of course, 1 in 2 times saying “please swipe your card again at this turnstile” at the exact point you push your entire body weight against the still-locked metal bar preventing you from advancing in the rat race) – that reminded me so much of my daily trip in the germ tube to the office.  I did remember to grab onto something when the car started so I didn’t get launched across the car, but I did keep forgetting which side the doors opened on and how you needed to get the fuck out of people’s way when they needed to exit at their stop.  When I got to 632 Broadway, I was too early and locked out of the elevator, so I got to hang out in the lobby and talk to the doorman about how many tens of millions Jeter would need to get.  I also went to the deli across the street for a Diet Coke and balance bar, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the mass of office workers getting their caffeine and bagel fix.  I always forget how personal space is a premium in the low-10000 ZIP codes.  In most other cities, you’d end up in a domestic partnership if you stood this close to other people for this long.  Here, it was standard operating procedure.

Stepping into the old office felt so — weird.  I mean, I spent every weekday of 2001 to 2007 in this place, hunched in a cube in the back corner, typing away at user manuals consuming mass amounts of Coke while downing heavy doses of DayQuil during the cold season.  (This was, thankfully, before the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 stifled everyone’s creative juices and prevented us true artists from buying Sudafed by the case.)  My old cube was still open, so I crashed there with my laptop and entered this strange time travel vortex, my muscle memory relaxing straight into the position I assumed for so many years.  And then I opened the filing cabinet under the desk, and found damn near every printout I made in those six years, carefully filed in my haphazard organizational system (files like “MIR space junk,” “fake celebrity porn,” “government conspiracies,” “failed Microsoft projects attempting to topple Java,” “standards documents I will never use,” etc.)  Talk about a mindfuck – it was like that insane recurring dream where you’re back in high school, except there’s no chance of hooking up with that cheerleader you may have secretly been into back in the eighties, before she had nine kids.

But yeah, that lack of sleep really killed me.  Thursday night, after a trip up to the Bronx to visit a guy who used to machine lower receivers for M-16s at his cousin’s bowling alley (he’s making a lot more cash now turning out bootleg $60 iPad stands), I think I went to bed around 2:00 and woke up at 4:30, unable to sleep but unable to stay awake, doing nothing but cruising various photo sites on the iPad, looking for some good Kim Jong Il snaps for an art project in the event that the shit does indeed go down in Han-Bando.  I went outside early, hoping to scare up a danish cart or cold bagel, and ran into a contingent of EMEA sales and service guys, who informed me that there were no good diners in all of the UK, so we went to one of these gastro-hipster places that probably used to be a Thai-French fusion restaurant three years ago but was now a fake greasy spoon with some of the appeal but none of the grime of its 80s counterparts you used to find littered all over the city.  We bitched about work and ordered rich food that promised diabetic comas in short order; I got 5000 calories of corned beef hash that must have contained an entire pound of butter (i.e. perfect) and got all nice and lethargic for a morning of training.

And yeah, a day of airports and airplanes.  I didn’t get the TSA Operation Grab-Ass everyone’s been talking about, but then again, I didn’t get Ebola when every 24-hour news alarmist said all five billion of us were going to get it back in the 90s, either.  I did enjoy the new (newly redone) terminal at JFK, and spent an hour perusing the used DVDs at some electronics store and almost considered dropping $60 on some super ultra 3-disc Apocalypse Now box set before I realized that the only machine I had with me with a DVD drive was my work Windows laptop, and I wasn’t even sure if Windows 7 plays DVDs out of the box without 200 hours of studying every aspect of DVD authoring and toggling a million registry settings and downloading several $100 versions of all of the crippled “lite” drivers and programs bundled with the computer.  Instead, I stuck to the kindle and got cover-to-cover on another fine book during my trip west.  I then bailed out the Toyota from its short stay at the long-term parking lot, and bumbled home the ten miles on the 880, driving like you’d expect someone to drive after being awake for 24 hours with only the good parts of a CPK Cobb salad (i.e. the meat, bacon and cheese and not the lettuce) from the Phoenix airport and two rolls of Certs to eat in the last ten hours.  I then gave the missus a $25 box of chocolates from the airport gift shop, said my hellos to the four-legged terrors, and slept a solid eight in the confines of my queen-sized cocoon.  Good to be back.


Back in the big smear

I’m in a hotel at 49th and Lex in the Big Smear, the island I could not escape for eight years but finally did. And now I’m back, for the first time since I bolted Westward to Denver and points beyond in 2007, holed up in a way-too-much-to mention-per-night suite with all the amenities except square footage. And in the city that never sleeps, I arrived an hour after everything shut down, and went to a nearby bodega to buy some days-old sushi shrink-wrapped by Chinese forced labor in a work camp in some shitbag Queens neighborhood that has smelled like rotting fish since 1927. Mahalo!

Today was quite the travel day, starting with the double-strike of the usual klaxons sounding at five AM, plus two feline monsters desperate for their morning carnage delivered in their bowls chop chop. Shave, shit, shower, pack, and into the Yaris for the quick zip to the Oakland airport, where the fun started. I got to the OAK with time to spare, fired up the iPad, and found the free wifi functioning without a hitch. You never can trust these free networks, not because of the hacker script kiddies stealing your packets and transcribing your Bank of America PIN numbers, but the more insidious corporate entities that hype of “free” wireless either as a bait-and-switch for some $29 a minute access plan that only works in 7 of the 9000 worldwide airports, and is fully incompatible with the other hucksters offering the same deal. Either that, or they have some horrid web portal that pumps ads at you at a rate causing seizure in most epileptics, in pop-ups and pop-overs and pop-unders and roll-overs and frames and banners and trays, all of them only working if you’re running Windows ME and a copy of Internet Explorer 6, otherwise it fails with some horrible Engrish error message and forever damages two dozen registry keys on your system, requiring three successive clean installs and the purchase of two new Windows full licenses. But it all magically worked on the iPad, and it even skipped the stupid Flash commercial you are required to watch, probably for some nameless corporate monster that offers business-to-business integration solutions in this modern world – you know, the kind of stuff nobody can buy or name or explain, but it’s damn important for the company to shell out six or seven figures’ worth of ad imprints so we can identify their logo in a lineup.

So I get on the plane and get headed to Phoenix, fully aware of the fact that Amelia Earhart took off from this same airfield however many years before, never to be seen again. And of course there’s some deaf-mute aging fucker spilling over halfway into my seat. He’s covered in liver spots and technically died five years ago, but he’s still alive because he’s gotta eat twelve thousand-calorie meals a day or he won’t be able to roll into High-Fructose Heaven. He’s downing homemade lard and white bread sandwiches the whole flight, Just Like Mom Used To Make, and I’m trying to read, or trying to scribble into notebooks my various ideas on how I can build my serial killer themed putt-putt course on my fortified compound in Colorado.

Here’s where the fun begins, in Phoenix. Unbeknownst to me, there was a slight drizzle off of Long Island, but it’s enough that all of the flights are stacked up and pushed out, and air traffic control is giving vague and irrational estimates to the droids at the front counter. They come online every fifteen minutes to tell everyone the flight to Newark is five minutes late, or pushed back four hours, or wait – no, an hour, and so on. It’s in that indecipherable, scratchy, and somewhat demeaning tone, the kind of announcements they play at Abu Ghraib to sleep-deprived prisoners to break their will. Only those prisoners didn’t pay $1047 for a one-way non-refundable ticket that they’ll have to eat if the plane doesn’t show, because that common perception that “oh, the airlines will put you in a hotel and feed you and give you free tickets and get you on another flight, because they HAVE TO – it’s A LAW” is of course just as big of an urban legend as the various rodentia that Richard Gere and/or John Wayne had impacted in their colons. The only legally binding clause in the ticket agreement these days is that they can charge you for any damn thing they want with nothing in return, and Never Forget 9/11, or the terrorists win. Read the fine print, although you now have to print it out yourself on your own dime with your inkjet at home, or they charge you an extra $75 documentation fee, so be careful.

I walk over to CPK and order a pizza for roughly twice the cost of a ballpark mini-pizza (I hope I can expense this crap) and wait for #32 to get magically called. A bright blonde woman who first looked twenty and then looked forty smiled at me, while juggling a small child. I noticed a lot of this phenomenon – these women who were 19 going on 37, or maybe the other way around. It could be all of the various strains of high-test melanoma from the two-barreled punch of higher altitude and unrelenting sunshine. Maybe all of the people under eighty in Arizona who weren’t trucked in by the burros to mow lawns and build crappy tract houses by the dozen are this same sort of creature, the down-and-out woman who either has their looks to go on, or knows how to brew up a mean batch of speed in her bathtub, because there’s no other way to make money out in these parts unless you’ve got fifty years of 401K and pension sending you annuity checks out of your fixed income every month. Arizona’s a place you end up, not a place you aspire to, and aside from the obviously out-of-place strangers transferring from one plane to another, you could tell on the faces of these people what the deal was. It was like looking into the eyes of a South Vietnamese mother who is trying cling to the skids of your Huey helicopter as you leave the Saigon embassy rooftop in 1975. There is no noble escape from this hellhole.

And on that day, my escape was not guaranteed, regardless of the prepaid papers e-given to me by the corporate travel agency. As I sat in the concourse, tapping away at this iPad, the flight to JFK right in front of mine boarded, got ready to push out, and then the flight crew railroaded everyone back off the flight, like the eleventh hijacker was in the back row waving a pair of mini-Uzis with extended clips and praising Allah. After everyone poured back out of the AirBus, they cancelled the flight, and I got to listen to a full load of human intolerance bitch out the ticket agents, each one blue in the face screaming about what they were going to do, every one doubting the legitimacy of any pretense that said agent’s parents were legally married at the time of their conception.

And here’s the deal: everyone’s heard an endless tirade on how the TSA is groping and prodding and touching and juggling and scanning and detaining this holiday season. But the only hostility I saw were the passengers, taking down the airline employees like a late-eighties Mike Tyson in some tune-up fight against a no-name amateur that owed their booking agent too many favors. I cleared the security area in record time, probably faster than I’d get in and out of the average Taco Bell during a light lunch hour. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t trying to carry on a fully decorated christmas tree, a 14-piece ginsu knife set, and a completely stocked 500-gallon saltwater aquarium without taking off my shoes first. People need to own up to the fact that they may be the broken gear in this machine that fails them.

But yes, I panicked a bit, wondering if my flight would likewise get shafted. And the worst of it was not the vague attempts at clarifying the situation, or the inaccuracy of the weather channel’s maps, which are generally good with a +/- 50 degree tolerance. It was the CNN loop playing above my head. I could not pop in the earbuds and launch some Slayer at max volume to drown out the propaganda channel, so I got something like this every five minutes:


[Tip: if you pair a bluetooth keyboard to your iPad, either unpair it or shut off the bluetooth before you pack it all back in your bag. I locked the machine and stuffed everything in my messenger bag, and ten seconds later, the buttons on the keyboard depressed and launched the iPad. Of course the first track in my iTunes listing is an Anal Cunt song that’s about eight minutes of feedback and verbal destruction, and of course it started playing at maximum volume. Good stuff, unless the idea of being marched off by TSA air marshals and thrown into some kind of military tribunal as a terror suspect isn’t your idea of good, in which it’s not good stuff. End of tip.]

The flight times vacillated endlessly, and finally two hours after our original departure, they told everyone to cut the shit and line up and act like human beings so they could get all passengers on the damn plane and get in the air before ATC changed their minds again, which was 100% likely. I was, of course, in group 5, the last group to board. And all of my gear was in a carry-on, which meant that right before I boarded, the flight attendants announced all overhead bins were filled and “anyone with track boards would have to check them at the gate”. At that point, me and the 47 people behind me all said “what the fuck is a track board?”, except it was a completely asynchronous event, with one person asking, no clear answer, the same thing repeated, another person asking, etc. Then a woman with a roller bag (track board, whatever) zipped past me, at which point I said “there’s no more room overhead”, at which point she snapped and said “THIS IS GOING UNDER MY SEAT” with the same level of contempt a Rockefellar heir would give a Pakistani street urchin attempting to shoot homemade crank into his unwashed scrotum.

I checked my bag, fought my way to 15C, and of course there was an empty space in the overhead above my seat. Not only that, but my winter coat, my various medications I use to sleep or not sleep at any given point of the day, four Armani suits, and a small deep-sea diving harpoon pistol were in the roller bag/track board (unloaded, of course – I read their stupid web site before leaving) and I almost knew I would never see it again, or this would doom us all into being loaded and then unloaded, to be forced to sleep in the airport for days until we got routed to Ann Arbor, Michigan on propellor planes like the ones used to kill Buddy Holly and so on. This seat was next to a somewhat less morbidly obese woman and husband, both flipping through the Sky Sausage catalog of extruded meat products and gifts, not a single one containing less than fifty grams of fat per serving. After taking off, they ordered two reubens and two cheese plates each, which were the last edible items on the “you now have to pay for your damn meal, and we’re talking Yankee Stadium prices” food cart. I managed to pay $16 for two packs of saltines and a small can of what appeared to be a cranberry/tuna flavored cat food.

Not much to report on this five hour jump, except that I have been obsessed with this Catan game on the iPad, and I finally figured out why I’ve been having the piss beaten out of me by the robot players on a regular basis. I had no understanding how harbors worked, and building a good harbor is like being an arms salesman who happens to also have been in a college fraternity with the State Department employees responsible for handing out no-bid contracts. I crushed the robot players twice, and finished my paperback book with time to spare. I did get some shit for spending too long in the head, trying to put in some new eyedrops my opthomologist gave me. (She promised me they were way better than the stepped-on codeine pills I bought in the Bahamas, from a recreational point of view. I’m sure my insurance won’t pay for a script, but what the hell.) Another tip for today: never try to put in eyedrops while on a plane that’s plummeting through high-turbulence wind updrafts on a choppy December day.

I got to JFK in record time (plus three hours), my bag was the first one off the conveyor, and I got a cabbie that realized that a flat-rate fare to Manhattan is essentially a license to speed and dodge through traffic like you’re on one of those stupid level-up missions in Grand Theft Auto and you need to get the AK and kill the Hatians in 60 seconds or it’s game over. He dropped me off at the hotel, I checked in, then I promptly ran into an old coworker I hadn’t seen in years, who was drunk off his ass and adamant to explain to some newer members of the team that I was the REAL Konrath and not that other Konrath on Amazon, and that all the real tech writing at our gig ceased when I left for the Rockies back in 07. So as much as I hate the “energy” (read: noise pollution) of the big city, in many ways, it’s good to be back.