Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two Ghosts

There are two ghosts that hang out under the Triboro Bridge. Well, one of them is a ghost, and the other is from the future, so it's hard to say exactly what he is. Also, the bridge is now called Robert F. Kennedy.

Some people say the one that's definitely a ghost is RFK himself, but it's not that simple. Contrary to popular opinion, ghosts are very rarely the reincarnation or representation of just one person. Usually they represent whole groups of the former living, and in very special cases an entire generation.

The mistaken-for-RFK ghost definitely shares the young politician's idealism, his desire for equality and justice for all citizens. On several occasions homeless people sleeping on the stretch between Randalls Island and Manhattan have reported inexplicable occurances. Frank Hemer curled up under a tarp on a December night when it was snowing lightly, and when he woke up he found himself covered in a fleece blanket, a clean fleece blanket with no tags or labels to identify it. The next day Frank showed up at a shelter near his old house in Mount Vernon, and after two months of rehab, he found a Section Eight apartment and a job as a street sweeper.

The other ghost (who is not a ghost) spends most of his time playing jokes. On sunny afternoons he floats over to the driving range on the island. He sneaks onto the field and taps on the glass of the cart that collects the balls, making the driver panic and swerve and think about the rumors of ghosts that he and the other employees joke about over drinks after work on the patio under an umbrella where you can see the elevated highway and the track stadium and the same high-rise apartment building repeated over and over on the upper East side.

Other times the ghost (who is not a ghost) throws garbage into the river, or puts tacks on the road and waits for flat tires. And sometimes he just sits by the Cirque du Soleil tent and reads the program, awed by the power and beauty of the performers' feats of contortion and grace.

The RFK ghost makes a point of recognizing this reverence that the ghost (who is not a ghost) has for this one thing and this one thing alone. It's enough of a scrap of decency for the RFK ghost to believe in the ghost (who is not a ghost), to believe that he must have had a bad upbringing or that something unexpected and tragic happened to him, that he isn't really as bad as he likes to make himself seem.

"We can go in if you want."

"In what?"

"There." RFK Ghost pointed a transparent finger at the blue and yellow tent, the light poles near the top glowing like stars against the red and purple sunset to the west.

"I already went."

"What did you think?"

The ghost (who was not a ghost) looked down at the brown sludge of the dirt road and then at the RFK ghost. "I think the dancers are fooling themselves and everyone who watches them. I think they practice so hard to get their routines and their bodies to a state of absolute perfection, and I think that when they perform people think that what they are seeing is perfect, that the laws of physics and human anatomy are being broken and finally we have proof that it's possible to achieve anything you set your mind to. But this flawless spectacle rides on the back of friends and family left behind, innate desires squelched, injuries ignored, until one day the body ages and the dancers are used up and they're cast back to the life they've left behind and there's nothing left to do but wait for the end."

"I think you're taking it all too seriously."

"Probably." He lay down on the grass and listened to the low rumble of the music in the tent. The performers were preparing for another sold-out show.

Monday, August 17, 2009

124th Street

He used to be on my block. He used to sit on a blue milk crate in front of the parking garage, crumbs and lice in his beard, making bird calls. Once on my way back from the airport, from the new terminal in Detroit, he asked me for money. I gave him two quarters and he God blessed me and we never talked again.

Now he has that nail gun and it's like he's a new man. He carries it over his right shoulder and smokes a cigarette with his left hand, smiling through splotchy tooth enamel. I see him in the lot down the street, tromping through the weeds and stopping to rest on a cooler full of soda. He throws the empty cans at rats and picks up his nail gun and gets back to work. What's he building in there?

He's found a new spot and a paint-splattered tarp to cover himself. Sometimes at night I walk by and see eyes among the weeds. I think about raccoons and rats and ghosts.

The thing is, he's a Veteran. He went to Vietnam and watched whole villages torched in minutes. He was here during the crack epidemic, saw whole families go missing and turn up in the vacants, alive but without teeth and wearing vomit like a badge.

We think that history is on our side, that progress progresses. He counts less and less stars in the sky, and waits for us to suffocate.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jay Leno

Jay Leno called show business a hooker on channel thirteen.
"Go out, have a good time, don't fall in love with the hooker!"
He pointed to Tavis Smiley's backdrop and said "that's not a real city!"
"If I get up and run towards it I'll hit my head!!"

He sees NBC as the provider of all things
Like the Hudson plane landing
News in the afternoon
Human interest in the evening
Jokes about it in late-night

And that concludes our broadcast day.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Democracy in America, Part Five

I remember my dad and I driving to New York City from New Jersey. After passing Newark on I-78, we crossed a bridge over the port of Newark, gleaming new cars and oil tanks to the right. As we came over the crest of a hill, the whole of New York City lay before us; gleaming towers (which, of course, included the awe-inspiring World Trade Center at the time) greeted us with their sun-grazed glass. My dad once told me that sometimes he regretted raising me so close to the greatest city on earth. He said, "the first time I really saw New York, in the 70s, it was the most exciting thing I could imagine. I was twenty-three years old and life suddenly seemed full of so many possibilities. But you've grown up with this. It's no longer impressive. You will feel underwhelmed by other cities, jaded by the greatness that you grew up a short car ride away from."

After passing through the Holland Tunnel, where I stared at the path with a railing on the side, wished I could see someone walking on it, wondered if they would need a gas mask to survive the fumes, we came around a bend onto Hudson Street. Tribeca had already started becoming a hot spot - Robert DeNiro had a loft nearby - but to a kid it was empty, restored masonry on stone towers with no stores on street level. It was when we cut east on Clarkson and then on Bleecker that it all came to life, the restaurants with outdoor tables and the records stores and sex shops and people who moved slower than anywhere else in the city because where else could you want to get to? On the east side we found a place to park and went to Little Ricky's.

Little Ricky's had a black-and-white photo booth, a typewriter with dirty words punched on the paper scroll, lunch boxes with nude photos of 60s pinup Betty Page in black lace stockings, PeeWee Herman dolls with a pullstring that repeated five phrases over and over, fuzzy dice in any color, trading cards from monster movies like The Blob and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, hula girl lamp shades, pink flamingo Christmas lights, Mexican jumping beans, cap guns, a hand-crank cash register.

Later the spot became a coffee shop proud to get its beans from New Jersey. Now it's another coffee shop that charges for WiFi.


The imagination is not extinct; but its chief function is to devise what may be useful, and to represent what is real. -179

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Democracy in America, Part Four

School was clocks. Ms. Johnson had a huge clock above the blackboard, the kind where the secondhand didn't tick but smoothly whirled around the dial. Mr. Nevins' clock looked like he stole it from his kitchen; tiny numbers, a ticking sound when the kids copied the "Do Now" off the board. Mr. Grant didn't have a clock at all, and Damon had to lean over his desk to peek at Herman's watch. He caught him one time and called him a fucking queer. Five minutes killed before the class got quiet again.

When the last ball rang, Damon met Raymond and Martel by the metal detector and went for pizza. They didn't eat that cafeteria shit, so they got a whole pie and six garlic knots.
They tore one up for a bird on the sidewalk, but when the old man with the crusted beard and red ski cap came stumbling down the block they closed the bag.

-Check out that skid mark on his pants!
-Yo, you wear pants worse than that on picture day.

Damon was on his own for dinner. His dad worked in Jersey and sometimes didn't get home till midnight, sometimes later. Ray's mom had that boy on lockdown, called his cell and you could hear her screaming through the earpiece if he wasn't in the door by four o'clock. Martel never said anything about his parents, and nobody ever asked.

Dinner was fried fish or chicken slid through a bulletproof window. Damon and Martel took it to the median strip on Lenox Ave. and ate facing south, licked their fingers while staring at the Empire State building. Martel said he heard that somebody dropped a penny off the top and it killed someone on the sidewalk.

-For real. They took the guy to Sing Sing. He told the cops it slipped out of his hand.
-I hope he don't have the same problem with soap.

At dark they went looking for the next vacant to mark. The trick was to spread it out enough that the cops weren't waiting for you, but have them close enough together that everyone knew who ran these blocks. Damon felt most proud when he walked around the neighborhood and saw his "Day-Lite" tag on vacants from Morris Park to Morningside.

But new targets were getting harder to find. It seemed like every day another construction truck sat double-parked outside an old mark. One time he actually saw a guy in paint-smeared overalls blasting his tag with a hose, the blue letters running onto the drop cloth. The next week a white family moved in. The week after, they put an Obama sign in the window.


I do not mean that there is any lack of wealthy individuals in the United States; I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men, and where a profounder contempt is expressed for the theory of the permanent equality of property.

Democracy in America, Part Three

On the corner there is a drug store, brightly lit with an automatic door and a blast of air conditioning and gleaming white floors and smiling pictures of women and children, even in the incontinence and foot odor aisles.

Next is the pizza place, the two flavors of cherry and mystery blue Icee continuously rotating in a case near the window, crumbs on the tables, the menu written with smudgy magic marker on paper plates taped to the wall. Somewhere between four and six garlic knots for a dollar.

Then there's a bank, a scratched glass counter top and a black pen attached to a metal string. Side compartments stuffed with deposit slips and withdrawal slips and credit card payment forms and new account offers. A security guard watches the door and doesn't smile.

The door to the laundromat is propped open with a mail crate. Sometimes the TV is on and overweight mothers watch soap operas and fold underwear while their kids push carts around the floor or beg for change for the arcade games in the back.

The cell phone store is crowded. They don't let you browse; you have to type your name on a touch screen, figure out that you need to mash the letter to the left of the one you want for it to work right. A young man in a vest and tie and expensive watch tells you about the song downloading and mobile TV and unlimited web browsing and texting you'll need to sign up for.

On the end of the block is a Subway. The bread smell drifts all the way to the crosswalk on the next block. The meats are terrible.

It's quiet and safe, but there's plenty of nightlife.

You'll need a guarantor.


All the passions which are most fatal to republican institutions increase with an increasing territory, whilst the virtues which favor them do not augment in the same proportion.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Democracy in America, Part Two

Mr. Wilson fired Martin Williams in front of ten guests in his private box. Martin had brought martinis for everyone in the group, and after taking a few sips Ms. Bailey, the childhood friend and secret lover of Mr. Wilson, found a fly on one of her olives. She mentioned it casually, as if it were a joke that they could all remember at next week's party for Mr. Gunderson's retirement, or the cancer benefit the week after, or Ms. Bailey's daughter's confirmation next month. -Hey, remember when I found that fly on my olive out in Jersey? -Jersey? You're lucky that's all you found out there! Mr. Wilson looked in her drink and soundlessly summoned Martin over with his pointer finger.

-What is this? -Oh, I'm sorry sir, wow, I'm sorry. -This is unacceptable. -Yes yes, of course sir, ma'am, let me get you another. -You can do that and then you can leave. -Sir? -You heard me. -Oh please, sir, an honest mistake. Please. -I'm sorry. You had a chance. It didn't work out. It's over.

The rest of the guests sat silently. Ms. Bailey looked at Mr. Wilson, who looked out at the action on the floor.

Martin went out exit B and looked for his car; even after five years, it always took him at least fifteen minutes. Every direction was the same.

He found it alone, up against a fence with tall marsh grasses pushing through the links. He got in and took a joint out of the glove compartment, turned on the radio. It was a Chris Brown song, the singer who'd later beat up his girlfriend and then apologize and remain successful in spite of it.

Mr. Anderson was the boss before Mr. Wilson bought the team. One time he brought in a magazine article he'd read about the number of black men in prison over petty drug or theft or assault charges. He asked Martin what it was like growing up poor, and Martin told him that he and his mom and sister used to play checkers on the sidewalk on hot summer nights after spending the day splashing in the fire hydrants. He praised Martin for his strength and dedication coming from that kind of environment.

Martin drove out of the parking lot and stopped in a traffic jam on I-95. The rows of red brake lights went up the hill and out of view.


Almost all Americans are in easy circumstances, and can, therefore, obtain the first elements of human knowledge.