The Daily

First Person

Odysseus in the Yard

June 16, 2014 | by

Celebrating Bloomsday in prison.

Poldy

An illustration of Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s notes, ca. 1941.

The man I affectionately termed Odysseus, though never to his face, was sixty-five and ailing. He was Philip Rubinitz, a onetime actor who had served about twenty years by then for the crime of stabbing his best friend through the heart with an antique SS dagger. Nevertheless, he was the facility rabbi’s clerk. His liver was failing and his back hurt, but he took laps with me around the yard of Green Haven Correctional Facility, observing our simulated Dublin through cataracts in his eyes. It must have been hard for him to keep up with my much younger legs, but he tottered around our Nightown seeking out a way home to his long-lost wife with the same fervor that Leopold Bloom had. His parole date was still five years away. I followed around full of the overconfidence and energy of youth and insecurity, much like Stephen Dedalus. It was June 16, several years ago now, and little did Rubinitz know that he was helping me celebrate Bloomsday in the yard.

After I’d been convicted, my father had said, “Good. You’ll finally read Joyce.” But it took a few years inside to finally come to it. Having initially avoided Ulysses, my mind was blown when I finally gathered the fortitude to read it—the scales fell from my eyes, and from then on I decided I had to celebrate Bloomsday with the rest of the converts.

None of whom, it seemed, were anywhere near me. Working as a prison librarian, I had seen a few men attempt A Portrait of the Artist, but our edition of Ulysses always stood on the shelf gathering dust. Grim, thick, and foreboding, it was too imposing in reputation for even the most ambitious of convicts. Finnegans Wake wasn’t available at all. The civilian librarians knew better. Read More »

5 COMMENTS

Contaminated

June 6, 2014 | by

Getting back on the skateboard.

nc skate 2

Not long ago I went to lunch with a gracious, well-intentioned editor who was not, I quickly realized, interested in publishing my book, the worst possible pitch for which is: “It’s a middle-grade novel about peak oil.” Having tabled my hopes like a used napkin, somewhere between the Lebanese tea and the shaved fennel, the editor asked what I’d rather be doing with my days, “in an ideal world.” I was surrounded by sandwich-eating professionals and suffocating, psychically, at the thought of being one: that’s when I remembered kickflips.

I’d given up skateboarding when I was fifteen, after breaking my wrist—I hadn’t been on a board since. When, shortly after graduating high school, an acquaintance of mine went pro, the specter of his early success strengthened my resolve not to skate: Why confront my talentlessness when it was more easily avoided? But at lunch that day I realized I was thirty years old and viscerally hating myself for matching the workaday worst of Lower Manhattan in my light-blue button-up and tan oxfords.

So I started to skate again, taking mostly to a ten-block loop in Brooklyn that I call the Greenpoint Skate Lab, a toxic hat-tip to the ecological impact tours that roll through the Lab while I’m there most Saturdays. It’s a deeply unhappy spot, physically and psychically—haunted by the same oil spill (“three times worse than Exxon Valdez”) that, at home, a few blocks away, I only ever remember after having drunk from the bathroom faucet. As a reflective-vested guide explained to a small, inexplicable crowd on one of my first days out, a drunk driver once crashed through the barricade on Apollo Street where it dead ends next to the BP oil refinery. The car dove nose-first into the shallows of Newtown Creek. The water was so contaminated with oil that it was on fire for days. Read More »

7 COMMENTS

Chasing Away the Big Black Bird

May 21, 2014 | by

Common_Raven_From_The_Crossley_ID_Guide_Eastern_Birds

Image: Richard Crossley

My buddy at work—I call him my buddy, but really he’s just the guy I hate the least—turned to me and asked which would be better: having one testicle or having three. I rolled my eyes and gave him the same answer I gave him every time he asks: three. I’d rather be creepy than a little sad.

Then one night in the shower I discovered that my left testicle was the size and density of a small Cadbury Creme Egg. The doctor told me my testicle needed to come out immediately; it was malignant as hell. He probably did not actually say the words “malignant as hell,” but I went into shock almost immediately, and can only reconstruct events based on what happened next.

Twenty-four hours later, I was entering emergency surgery. The nurse asked if I’d like a prosthetic. “Would I!” I said. “Can I get two?” I was thinking of how awesome would it be to really double down and commit to this joke, surprising my work friend in the men’s room.

I also have a difficult relationship with my Virginian heritage—it would be perfect if I could have an actual Civil War–era musket ball put in there instead, to literally carry a heavy, awkward, and slowly poisonous reminder of our nation’s tragic past that I only talk openly about with my black friends when I am drunk.

But none of that happened. As it turned out, I wasn’t going to be creepy. I was going to be sad. Read More »

7 COMMENTS

Hey, That’s My Snare Drum!

May 15, 2014 | by

snare

This drum is mine.

Last week, the Times recognized a new trend in vigilantism: do-it-yourself iPhone recovery. When someone finds his phone stolen, he uses the phone’s GPS to locate the thief; the resulting confrontations usually end peacefully, with the phone restored to its rightful owner and the thief shuffling off into the night, cowed and shamed. In one especially rousing case, a man rustled up the thief using OkCupid:

He lured the thief to his Brooklyn apartment building by posing as a woman and flirting with him on the dating service.

When the thief arrived with a bottle of wine, expecting to meet “Jennifer,” Mr. Nirenberg went up behind him, hammer at his side. He slapped a $20 bill on the thief, to mollify him and compensate him for his time and wine, and demanded the phone. The thief handed it over and slunk away.

Instead of giving that man the key to the city, the fuzz have advised against this kind of justice. Of course they have: no one likes to feel redundant. In the supercilious words of an LAPD spokesman, “It’s just a phone … Let police officers take care of it. We have backup, guns, radio, jackets—all that stuff civilians don’t have.” As if LA’s finest would, in their eminent wisdom, break out the flak jackets and heavy artillery to liberate your telephone.

I’m here to tell you: you can be your own authority. Read More »

5 COMMENTS

Maude

May 6, 2014 | by

Feline as memento mori.
Franz_Marc_013

Franz Marc, Kater auf gelbem Kissen, 1912

I was in New York for a book talk, staying at a friend’s house in an industrial area of Brooklyn, when I awoke to a sound somewhere between a teakettle’s whistle and the creak of an ancient floorboard: my friend’s cat, Maude, meowing piteously at the edge of the bed. She was tiny, the color of ivory, with half crescent moons for claws and bright green, bloodshot eyes.

I’d been warned that Maude meowed in the mornings when she wanted the faucet turned on—she drank from the tub—so I walked to the bathroom and twisted the spout until cold water trickled down. Maude leapt into the tub and began lapping away, her tongue bright as chewing gum. I went about my slow morning routine: coffee, Twitter, fussing with hair, scrutiny of encroaching crow’s-feet, etc.

It was noon by the time I was ready to leave, and I returned to the bedroom for my laptop. There, in the middle of the white room, on the white bedspread, was the white cat, covered in blood. It seeped out from her in clouds, watery and pale red like a nightmare sky. But when I bent over and touched her she was still breathing, alert, looking at me with those science-fiction eyes. Read More »

NO COMMENTS

Chevrolet Caprice

April 21, 2014 | by

1987_chevrolet_caprice-pic-40041

A 1987 Chevrolet Caprice.

On a Tuesday in late August, on my way to the ferry landing at Thirty-Fourth Street, I saw a huge, white, rusted-out Chevy Caprice make an illegal turn off FDR Drive, nearly skidding onto just two wheels. The Caprice barreled up Thirty-Fourth Street. When it blew by me I got a quick look at its occupants: three old ladies, all elaborately coiffed: the driver, another riding shotgun, and the third leaning forward in the backseat to better converse with the other two. I imagined they had just come from a group outing to the beauty parlor. Each of them probably had a rain bonnet tucked away in their purses, in case it rained later. The driver was wearing Gloria Vanderbilt–style sunglasses and a smashing shade of coral lipstick that was probably really popular in the seventies. I was quite taken with her. When I’m an old lady I want to drive around with my girl gang in a huge rusted-out white Caprice Classic and piss off cab drivers everywhere, I thought.

The image of the three ladies stayed with me well into the next day, which was also, randomly, Tori Amos’s fiftieth birthday. In observation, a pop-culture site compiled and ranked her 100 best songs. I dumped the top fifteen or so into a playlist and listened to it for most of the day. I felt sad but not depressed, an odd combination for me. One of the reasons I don’t listen to Tori anymore is that I am old. The other is that listening to Tori Amos reminds me of Tracy, my best friend from high school. Emma Straub wrote a piece for the Daily a few years ago called “My Rayannes,” which, in reference to Rayanne Graff from the nineties TV drama My So-Called Life, posits that all teenage girls are half lesbian. Less outrageously, it outlines an adolescent phenomenon in which one seeks a darker, more daring, more risk-taking counterpart—an accomplice in DIY piercings, home dye jobs, and, in Straub’s words, “tempestuous, obsessive friendship.” Read More »

5 COMMENTS