New York Magic

I bow down to New York at this very moment. Maybe that’s why they call this season “spring”—because suddenly, overnight, flowers have sprung everywhere, and new green leaves, and masses of pretty people on the sidewalks and in outdoor cafes. Children fly all around and people seem happy. Even people who are sick or lonely can’t avoid it—this fleeting reprieve.

I’m looking outside of the city for a place to live, probably in a town by the water. I know that as soon as I leave it, I’ll miss this city. I’ve lived here on and off for thirty years, and it amazes me how, though the city continues to change, it remains as familiar to me as my own body. Because the connection runs so deep, it is filled with magic.

Like one time, when Geoff and I were in our second year in college, we spent the day walking around the city (a typical date for us, since we were broke), and at the end of the day we decided to stop at a cafe on Prince Street for a coffee. (We lived on Sullivan Street, just around the corner, in a $200 studio that overlooked a garden.) The year was 1975, the cafe was Borgia. We’d never been there.

When we pushed through the storefront door, though, we found a boy from one of my writing classes at school sitting there—Danny Jacobs, a kid from Staten Island who was in major rebellion against his orthodox Jewish parents. We weren’t friends, and, in fact, I’d thought he was a little weird. He was hunched over a cup of cold coffee, but when we walked in he straightened up and smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. “I knew you’d come sooner or later.”

This was New York in the old days. Danny didn’t know where we lived, only that we lived in Soho. Of course he’d find us, and in finding us we’d find him. The three of us spent the evening together at the table he’d been sitting at all day. And for the next several years, we were inseparable.

Danny was the person who eventually got me my first job at The New Yorker. After he graduated from college, he became a messenger there. And then a mail clerk. Here’s the one poem he published in the magazine in 1977. He died of complications from AIDS when I was living in L.A. in the early nineties.

Time Warner Cable Conspiracy Theory

The Cable Guy is Might Be Watching You, or Porn, or Cartoons. Or Maybe He's Making a Phone Call
Today I was in the Time Warner Cable office on 23rd Street between Madison and Park—it’s a dark, first-floor cavern with a long, snaking line of unhappy young slaves at computers, overseen by fat people with ID cards on ribbons around their necks—and while a bored, curly-headed young man with intentionally thick glasses was helping me return my modems and close my account, another client sat down beside me.

He pulled out his bill, flattened it out on the counter in front of him (he had a lot of bling on his fingers, and bling in his teeth), and pointed at the long list of porn films he’d been charged for.

“I did’ent watch these,” he said to the very young Puerto Rican woman helping him.

“O.K.,” she said, not taking her eyes off her computer.

“I don’t need to watch these,” he said, and stabbed the paper with his index finger. “I got my own woman. I don’t need to look at uh’tha women.”

The young woman flicked her eyes at him, and flicked them back to her computer. “I understand, sir,” she said. “We’ll look into the matter.”

“Good,” he said, “because I have a nephew. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

What she understood and didn’t understand got me thinking about the sneaky utility companies, and how I wouldn’t put it past them to have that “If you like that, you’ll like this” program in their billing apparatus, so that when they scam you for money you don’t owe, the things they charge you for that you didn’t buy, are things you might have bought, had you cared to. This guy might have bought “Superfly” or “Nine-and-a-Half Weeks” or “Bonnie and Clyde,” or something, and so they falsely charged him for “Bunny Batting Cage,” “Vampire Bunnies,” and Humpalumpas: Charlie and His Giant Chocolate Factory,” knowing that even he might be confused.

If I got charged for, say, “E.T.” I might pay for it, even though I didn’t buy it—what if I pushed the button wrong when I was ordering all fifteen seasons of “E.R.”? I have Alzheimer’s—how would I know? And if they charged me for any foreign movies concerning once literary women now with Altzheimer’s or debilitating mental illness, I’d have to pay that too. And what if they charged me for a movie about someone who gets unfairly fired by a gigantic, paranoid bastard who reads his employees emails way after they’re gone? I’d surely have to pay then, because, well, how could they know?

Memoir: Ian's Influence

I found my old gray I Ching this morning while I was packing up my books. I first fell in love with that book, not as literature, but as a physical object, when I was thirteen, and saw it on my brother Ian‘s bookshelf. My mother and stepfather had moved into a new house while we were away at summer camp—it was a huge, white-brick, white-pillared mansion, with an indoor squash court and a swimming pool overlooking the Long Island Sound (it would remain empty of furniture for the two years we lived there, my stepfather clearly having it in his mind that he would be bolting any minute now)—and when Ian and I arrived there in late August, we had both changed.

Being fifteen, he had grown several inches, and morphed from an unhappy little boy into a gentle young man. I had resigned myself to being me (i.e., not a laugh riot and not like the other kids), and had resolved to henceforth stop trying to fit in. I hung an American flag upside down on my wall, and Ian made a shelf for his I Ching and a few books of poetry. Suddenly, we were friends.

I always knew that I looked up to Ian, but I didn’t realize how much I was influenced by him until today. Apart from the I Ching, I also found, today, the copy of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal that Ian gave me for my eleventh birthday, in 1967, exactly a year after our father died. I remember being astonished by that gift, and with the other one that came along with it: a small bouquet of dried, colorless flowers. The book and the dried flowers were the first presents I’d ever received that were not age appropriate. I got the message immediately, though I didn’t know how to act on it. Ian’s gift to me said, Wake up. But wake up to what?

A year later, Ian dragged me into the living room the moment I came home from school one day—Miss Baron’s sixth-grade class—and played me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Before he put it on the record player, though, he held the black disc between his hands and showed me how the vinyl they’d used to make it was different from before: it bent, rather than broke.

The next year, in 1969 (this is the year before we became friends), in yet another house, Ian played Traffic’s song “Dear Mr. Fantasy” over and over again for days from behind his bedroom door. The music, slightly dissonant and sad and otherwordly, was like a drug wafting out from under the door and through the house: I breathed it in. The particular perfume of that song, that time, my brother, did it. I got it: The journey was not going to be an outward one; we were going inward.

Apology #3

I’m sorry, Blogkateers: I seem to have lost my whimsy. I’m hoping to get it back starting tomorrow, when Julia comes home from India and takes over the job of petting Fat Dave at four in the morning to keep him from screaming for no reason. Unfortunately, I am going to be packing up my Brooklyn blog bubble in the next few days, and moving all my junk into storage,* so that might create a delay in getting my sense of humor back. But it might not: It might mean a few good sessions of Dude Dad watching and hipster bashing, and inspire me to come up with some lies that at least make me laugh. I’m hoping the guy next door doesn’t have sex while I’m boxing up my dharma books (for my sake, obviously, not his), but if he does, I promise to report on it. And if my poor Scout takes another crap in the elevator, you’ll be the first to know.

*Thanks again, James!

In Praise of Losing Your Job

Today I was walking by a tree on 97th Street, between Columbus and Central Park West—is it a dogwood? A short tree, with an afro of white flowers? There was no one around but me, and suddenly the wind came up and hundreds of brand-new little flower petals blew into the air and drifted, like snowflakes, to the ground. It was just a quiet, natural occurrence—so very beautiful—not meant for anyone, and I was lucky enough to have been there. Afterwards, I thought to myself, about my ex-boss, “Thank you for firing me, you gigantic jerk.” Had I still have been working at that magazine, I would have missed the little flower blizzard.

And that got me thinking about my job (which I can’t really talk about since I signed an agreement, in order to get a pretty pitiful severance, not to give them bad publicity), and how I never really liked it. I kept saying this to the people closest to me and to myself, back in the day, and I think we all felt that that was just me, Deitch, being my usual pain-in-the-ass, not-liking-my-job self: It was a good job, after all.

So I got fired, and, after the initial shock, I felt really happy. I mean, I felt liberated. I was even liberated from my New Yorker job, which I never would have quit had I known I was going to lose this job. So I guess this is about intuition, and how you can really trust it.

Because the truth is, writing has always made me happy, and I haven’t been able to do it, holding down these other jobs. The years that I was freelance writer were really hard financially, but they were the best. What made me think I couldn’t do that again? What made me doubt my intuition? (Could it have been dwindling self-confidence and paralyzing fear?) Thank goodness for being fired!

It turns out you don’t die when you lose your job; people don’t turn their backs on you, or tell you you deserve it. You cry a little bit, you start getting familiar with uncertainty, and you come up with something else. If you’re lucky, and you try really hard, you love what you come up with, and it gives you time to smell the dogwoods.

The Freedom of Not Knowing

Why did the grass smell so much fresher, and the dirt so much more loamy when we were children? Was it that we were closer to the ground? You could feel the heat coming up off the sidewalk in dry waves, and really study the hummingbird as it floated in the air in front of you. I want that back.

I went to see Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyal at the New York Shambhala Center this weekend, and she talked about how she doesn’t want to be a knower; she just wants to chill in the uncertainty, hanging back, as much as she can, from right or wrong, good or bad, like or dislike, the blue one or the red one, meat or vegetables, chocolate or vanilla. If you relax and don’t decide, the world opens up.

I think these two things are related, the sensuality our immediate experience, and not knowing. But I don’t know. Or at least I’m going to try not to know.

Hallucinating The Enemy

I was really thrown by this video (I’m most of you have seen it; I’m posting it late). For days, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Even as a kid, when I began to understand how hateful war was, I appreciated the situation our soldiers were in: in the trenches, in the jungle, fighting for their lives. But this—flying around in helicopters, picking off innocent people in the street, not out of malice, but out of lack of self-awareness—this is something to ponder. How quickly we are devolving toward apehood. Apekind.

I’ll post again today on a subject I might know more about, or with a lighter heart. But I wanted to share this: it’s for anyone who feels they could use to be woken up (you don’t have to watch the whole thing). I don’t know much about politics, really. But I know a little bit about ordinary delusion, just from watching my own mind. If there were any reason to learn to meditate, if you haven’t already, it would be this. If there were any time to practice, once you learn how, it would be now.

Community

I was having dinner by myself tonight at Community, on Broadway and 112th Street. I was trying to contemplate karma while eating a trout salad and sauteed greens, but I was distracted by the mother and daughter at the table next to me. The girl was probably a sophomore at Barnard—a pretty brunette with thick glasses and a mouth so sour it looked like she’d need a face lift to smile. And the mom, well, I couldn’t see her because she was beside me, but she was from out of town. What got me was that the mom ordered the beet salad, saying she’d eat with “daddy” later on, but when the daughter’s chicken dinner arrived, the mom dove into it like a doctor doing exploratory surgery on a fat man. I mean, rhonestly: she was working her fork and knife so hard that I worried I’d end up with a shiner. I think it got to the daughter, too, because she began texting while she ate, and answering her mother’s questions in monosyllables.

And then a wave of deep sadness came over me, from missing the days when I would sit across the table from Maud and be an annoying and pathetic mom, thinking that because the chicken was hers, it was mine too. How lucky I was to have had that experience!

I was pulled out of this reverie, though, suddenly, when I heard the daughter singing. It turns out she was waving her hand in the air, too, conducting, just for her mom.

“I got the sheet music in Barnes and Noble,” the girl said.

“Really?” the mother said, her mouth still full of chicken, “They have sheet music at Barnes and Noble?”

“Yeah,” said the daughter. “I got that Chopin that you used to play, remember?” She softly sang that tune, and it was beautiful. “And I got the Rachmaninoff, too—that one you like?” And she sang that too.

I wanted to stay longer and hear more, but I had to leave. I was wrong about them. I hope the daughter ordered the coconut cream pie. I think the mom would like it.

Stay, Dogs, Stay

Scout in Brooklyn in the old days
Dolly is so small, that when she stands in front of Scout, he doesn’t have to lift his aching head to see her—she’s just there, panting, with her terrible crooked teeth and weepy button eyes. So when the two of them know that I’m about to take them for a walk, Dolly jumps up in Scout’s face, and says to him, in shih tzu language (which spaniel’s understand), “Dude, get with it: we’re leaving!” and Scout smacks her on her head with his paw, and pretends to bite her little head off. This happened today, in fact, even after the email came in from the vet, saying she doesn’t think Scout has canine dementia, after all, but instead something so much worse, that it’s ridiculous and I’m not going to say it.

Dolly
It’s like that passage from Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter,” when someone asks Buddy why his older brother Seymour threw a rock from his bedroom window at a girl he liked below, scarring her for life, and Buddy says, “He threw it at her because she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway…. Everybody knew that, for God’s sake.” So I guess you can’t have the wonder without the horror, the good without the bad. Tonight, though, I’m not seeing the charm in that.

Rhona: An Introduction

I fell in love with Rhona at first sight. I was sitting by myself in the lunchroom in seventh grade. It was a month or two into the school year, but my mother and stepfather had decided to move from the city to Great Neck suddenly, on a whim, over a weekend, so here I was: twelve, taller than everyone in the room but the fifteen-year-old basketball players, and mortified.

Then, out of nowhere, this girl sat down next to me. She was small and thin and dark and had straight brown hair down to her waist. She wore beat up Levis and a white cotton V-neck sweater. The thing that got me about her, apart from the fact that she was beautiful, was the way she threw her leg over the bench to sit down: it was like someone who knew how to ride. In fact, she was a dancer—although, no, wait: that would come later. On this day, she was still a kid. She said hello and she looked at me with brilliant, ancient eyes. I have to tell you, and I’m not lying, that I knew right then that Rhona would be the best friend I would ever have.

It’s so funny that these are the secret things: the magical things that are true. Why did she sit down next to me?

Today, Rhona’s ex-husband called after twelve years, and asked if I’d talk to their fifteen-year-old son, Alex. Alex is starting to ask questions about his mother, who died two years ago, of cancer. I only discovered this terrible fact—the fact of Rhona’s death—a year ago, when I was trying to find her through the Internet, and discovered her obituary in the Times. This is the story I haven’t known how to tell, because it is so painful. It starts: “I fell in love with Rhona at first sight. I was sitting by myself in the lunchroom in seventh grade.”