Going Home

Going home, to the apartment my parents still live in which I grew up, in New York City, in Chelsea, always feels like worlds colliding for me. The person I was vs the person I am vs the person I thought I’d be.

The New York that isn’t like New York anymore, just like I’m not like I was anymore.

My parents were out of town so I took six of my friends there. I did this a couple of years ago with two friends. Both times I learned to appreciate something new about the city.

It’s not easy hosting six other people, when they consider you the tour guide, and of course I haven’t lived there in twenty-five years. Then they don’t want to do what I suggest because they have their own ideas, and they all have different ideas, then we do what they want and they ask me all kinds of questions.

“I don’t know, this was your idea.”

It wasn’t like I was getting paid. So at times I thought it might have been more fun if we had been on neutral ground.

Some of the things they wanted to do, I didn’t want to do. Some of the things I wanted to do, they didn’t. I pushed them into something that turned out great. They did things I wanted that weren’t as good as I expected. They pushed me into things that I didn’t want to do that also turned out great.

Like citibikes.

When I was growing up, there were no bike lanes in the city. I used to ride my bike in the streets, like bike messengers, right in the middle of the road, to avoid double parked cars, and pretty much matched the speed of traffic. It was hairy, and I wouldn’t have taken a bunch of tourists on such a ride.

My family was not for Mayor Bloomberg’s push to take away car lanes and create bike lanes. We said, “this isn’t Europe, we can’t retrofit NYC, there already isn’t enough room for cars,” etc.

But my friends had done the bike thing in other cities, and they wanted to do it here, so, ok, whatever.

It turned out pretty damned easy and pretty damned good. I’m converted. And as far as cars are concerned, you really shouldn’t drive in New York anyway. So, as we say in New York, “fuck ’em.” 

One of my guests did get yelled at. “Watch out, citibike.” Part of the experience.

Also, I grew up in Manhattan. People who grow up in Brooklyn know Manhattan. People who grew up in Manhattan don’t know Brooklyn.  Goes for the other boroughs too.

Brooklyn, like Manhattan, isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t really know what it used to be, so we went to Brooklyn.  Walked the Brooklyn Bridge, found a good pub, picked up some more citibikes and even rode to Adam Yauch Park to pay my respects to the late founder of the Beastie boys, who I knew, and jammed with, even though I never particularly liked the Beastie Boys.

I love Brooklyn. 

Gotta move forward, I guess.

But still, lots of memories. It’s almost as if I didn’t want to be myself then, I wanted to move away, pretend I was someone else. And when I go back I’m sometimes mad that things have changed, and I wonder what happened to New York. I wonder what happened to me.

You know what I discovered? The best way to find out is to show others where you came from.

Let’s write about something important today.

I left Atlanta to visit my daughter in Pittsburgh last weekend. Actually we went there together to move her into her new house for her last year, and then I came home. I left from work and met her at the airport. We checked her three heavy bags, just under the limit, and ate at the sky club. I had jambalaya and a Sweetwater IPA with pineapple. The jambalaya was good. She had some mac and cheese and a little salad.

Our Lyft driver in Pittsburgh was less than a year younger than me. I know because he graduated high school in ‘83, and I was always one of the youngest in my class. He also told us that Pittsburgh was as upset when the Falcon’s lost the superbowl as if it had been the Steelers. They hate Tom Brady that much.

The new house had personality, and a great location. I got to meet one of her best friends who had already moved in. She made her room choice which was up another flight of narrow switchbacking stairs. Then we walked up “the hill” to her old place where we stayed the night. Her old place was nice, I had never been. It was well kept and clean, it had multiple bathrooms and a nice well stocked kitchen (there were many containers of gum in the drawer underneath the microwave). She showed me the bed and the chest of drawers that had to be moved, and the desk and the containers in the basement, and I decided to explore what it cost to get help. I found Big James through the U-haul website that I had rented our truck from, and decided to go for it. Best decision I ever made in my life.

We went out to dinner that night, took Lyft downtown to a thai restaurant she really liked, had dumplings and soup and shared a shrimp curry dish. Then we went to Hemingway’s, a bar back near the university where she once tried to get in with a fake ID which they pocketed telling her to, get out.  “Ok” she had said, and then called her friends who were already in there. This time they examined her out of state license for a long time before finally giving it back and letting us in. Despite being named after Hemingway it wasn’t at all like the Twains, or Steinbeck’s or James Joyce bars we have in her home town. We looked for homage to the writer but the closest thing we found was a picture of the guy that does the commercials for Dos Equis. The most interesting man in the world. They had a DJ and it was loud, but I wasn’t the oldest person in the place.  We had two Bell’s two hearted IPA’s which were on special, and yelled at each other for awhile. Then we walked up the hill to her old place. It was 1:30AM. We weren’t sure if anyone else was there (there wasn’t) so we were quiet. I slept on the floor on her sleeping bag. In the middle of the night I realized I needed a pillow and grabbed one from nearby that wasn’t hers (she was just storing it for a friend).

The sun woke us early, though we lied around for a bit. Our plan was to pick up the U haul at 12:30 run around and pick up a desk chair, end table and air conditioner that were for sale, and then meet Big James at 2. We took the bed apart and packed any loose items and were ready for the next step around 10:30. So we called the U-haul, moved our pick up time to 11, got there and waited in line for half an hour, took the truck, bought the used items made it back to the old place, backed ourselves perpendicular to the street into a spot that wasn’t big enough for the van and drove it up onto the sidewalk, and figured we still had time to make a first run, if we hurried and only took the easy stuff.

We loaded quickly, drove to the new place, and moved the stuff only to the first floor living room. We still hadn’t eaten lunch, but we were going to be late, when Big James called to say they were running late, we grabbed a couple of tacos from the stand across the street from her new place. Then headed back to the old place.

I was having trouble parking the van. I had to move a cinderblock while I was struggling to get the van up on the sidewalk. The owner of the house came out to ask me what I was doing.

“I don’t want to get a flat. I can put it back where it was when I’m done, if you want.”

“I’d appreciate it if you put it back when  you’re done.”

“So it’s there for a reason?”

“Yeah, so people don’t do what you’re doing.”

“Ah.”

Then we collided with a car that tried to scoot around me while I was trying to park. I told him it was his fault, he asked me about insurance and whether I had any damage, muttered something about Maaco and seemed relieved that I didn’t want to go to insurance, and left.

That’s when James appeared outside the window. It was a good thing we made a trip because the rest of my daughter’s stuff barely fit.

Within two hours we had loaded everything into the new place, even arranged the room a bit and most importantly, got the air conditioner in the window. Then I built the bed while she put things away. Then we went to eat again. We ate at a place I had been before that had perogies and $5 Mules, my 21 year old had the dark and stormy, and I had a long island mule.  Had soup, again, and shared a french dip sandwich.

Then we took the bus downtown and walked across a bridge to the incline, which we took up to the top of Mount Washington for a couple of selfies.

In the morning we ate at a local diner, had some “hotcakes,” that one reviewer gave only one star because they were, in his view, crepes, not hotcakes. But they were good, so who cares what you call them? We also had eggs, and toast and coffee and potatoes. All good.

Had some keys made, and I just had enough time to make it to the airport for my flight.

Everything was going my way. I was the last one on the flight, it was first in line to take off and I even got my pretzels and a club soda before things went south.

So now a flight attendant started looking out the window one row in front of me and across the aisle. Another flight attendant came and they all seemed like they were trying to look out the window. Then they pulled the cart back. I asked the guy sitting there what he saw. He said he didn’t see anything. Then the pilot comes on and says that they have some indication of a mechanical problem with the plane and will be diverting to Knoxville, and the next thing you know we are descending fast. We landed hard and there were fire trucks outside. They told us to stay put while the fire personnel did a once around, found nothing and we pulled up to the gate. A mechanic came on board and this is when we found out that the flight attendants weren’t looking out the window but they were leaning in because they thought they smelled smoke.

The woman in the row blamed it on her husband’s new french cologne. He asked her to stop saying that.

We deplaned and were told they would check out the plane and either we’d leave on the same plane, or they’d send us a “rescue” plane.

After a couple of  hours we got on the same plane and headed home. The couple that had been sitting in that row had apparently rented a car and finished their trip that way. Meanwhile I found out that they had examined the plane top to bottom, had removed all of the panels for multiple rows, found nothing, but had talked to the couple that sat in the only row where anyone thought they smelled anything and the couple admitted that they had been to a bonfire the night before, and had “changed their clothes,” (I guess that implies that they had not showered), but that everything they had still smelled like smoke.

How about that?

So, good weekend, and an exciting finish.

The Fame School

I auditioned for the fame school. I’ve always told people that I actually went to the fame school.  That’s because, at the time, there were two divisions of the same school, and I went to the other one, the one that wasn’t in the movie. But we had the same principal. And they used our students as extras. That was just maybe a year or two before I got there. My older brother was in the movie, and on the soundtrack, in one particular scene in the lunchroom where, like, a thousand musicians are playing at once. For awhile there he would receive royalty checks for, like,19 cents.

Used to be people knew what I was talking about when I said the fame school. But the movie may not be in the common domain of cultural literacy anymore. I’m dating myself. Young people never heard of this movie.  They made it before I was even there. That was over 35 years ago. I know there’s been a television series and a remake that was a flop and nothing like the original, which wasn’t ever my favorite movie anyway. I didn’t think it was really like that, but then again, I wasn’t really there, was I?

They both had music. But that was the only art they had in common. The one that was in the movie also had drama and dance, and ours had Art.

I went to Music and Art, for music. I also auditioned at Performing Arts for drama. It was competitive, like only 10% got in. And I got in.

I really should have gone. I’ve done well making the best of life after regrets, we all make mistakes, and I wouldn’t change anything, because I don’t want to give back what I have earned. But I loved it, acting. I didn’t choose it because I guess I didn’t fully realize how much it was the thing that engaged me. I truly believe that I would be a completely different person if I had gone there. It would have been the difference between being drawn out of my shell, or driven into it. That stark.

I didn’t trust myself. Maybe if I had a therapist then, I’d have been self aware enough to know what was good for me. I always wanted one. I still do. If I were rich, I’d go to therapy, like, a few times a week. If he/she were good, or even not. It helps just to have an excuse to say what you think out loud (that’s also what this is for). I don’t want to be sexist. In most cases, I’m not like this, but I think I’d need a he. I doubt I could  be completely honest with a stherapist.  She’d have to be particularly good. What I mean by that is non-judgmental. And I would have to be able to see it.

The audition was great. My Jr High school had a drama program, but I was in music. I acted in a community theatre outside of school.  I worked privately with one of my acting instructors to prepare for the audition. I was late, because I also had an audition for the music department, which I botched, and then I showed up, like, 4 hours late for the drama audition.

“Are you A. Lawrence?” Some girl asked.  A student volunteer. Most everyone there was a student in the acting department. They had been looking for me. I explained the other audition. She said, “yeah, I play the drums too,” and she air drummed. I didn’t believe her at the time, but it was probably true. Everyone has played the drums at some point in their lives.

They took me to a room, where I waited. They wanted me to write an essay about some shit, sounded made up.. Another student came in and did a spontaneous skit with the proctor. I was getting the feeling that this was part of the audition, so I got up and complained about my pencil.

“Huh?” the guy said. The girl helped me out.

“You heard the man,” she said.. “Get him a new pencil.”

I went back to my desk and another girl came in and asked if this was the place to audition for the drama department.

“Yes it is, surely is. You’ve come to the right place. Now we’re going to need you to do a bedroom scene with, um, that fellow over there.” he pointed at me. I smiled.

Shit like that kept happening.

I auditioned, with two solo scenes. One was an adaptation of something old into something new, and I don’t know. It was a long time ago.

Then they wanted to do something else, but it was late and they needed more students, so they asked me if I could come back the next day, Sunday. I still thought that everything they said was an act, and a test, and so I told them I had to go to Church. If you knew me and my family, you’d think that was really funny. Well, my mom actually went to this school, and this teacher knew my mom, and was like, “Church?”

“No, not really. I’m just kidding,” I said.

So I came back and they filmed us, a bunch of us, acting like animals. I wish I could see that film. I had just seen some performers on a variety show of sorts, can’t remember their names, acting like apes and I thought it was cool, so I chose an ape. I had some good play with this other kid who was a monkey. I bet he went there. We could have been friends. We could have remembered the audition together forever.

You know what else? I told them no, but they thought I said yes, somehow. I went to M&A and a friend of mine who went to PA told me they called my name in his homeroom.

I could have changed my mind, even after school started. But that would have taken guts I didn’t have.

I actually flipped a coin, I’ve always told people that’s how I decided, and it may be true. Seriously, I was leaning towards Drama, and I flipped a coin on a fluke, not expecting to take it seriously, but when it came up drums, I felt strangely compelled. I liked the drums too. And my brother was at Music and Art, and I wanted that to be the answer in some ways because of that. The coin toss allowed me to consider it, and I thought it felt like maybe I should to it. I felt a little relieved with the idea. But really, I think it was just the path of least resistance. I had my own thing.

Oh, this is such a sad story.

Wasn’t it Grand?

Trying something new. Happiness in the morning.

I’m going to tell you a story about a time when I was happy.

I’ve written before, here, there, somewhere, about trying to revisit the narrative of my past to remember more of the good times, even if they didn’t happen. In other words, to spin those days of lore as better than I ever thought they were. Because if I was always happy, then I’d have no reason to be unhappy now, which I don’t. It’s all about how you think about your life. And whether you think life is worth it. And whether you’re proud of who you are. And whether you can or do recall, at any moment, a memory that will make you smile.

I grew up in New York City. It was diverse in my neighborhood then. Not just black and white, but various denominations of Hispanic: Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican (not so many Mexicans). And Chinese, and Japanese. Also Catholic and Protestant and Jewish and Muslim and Atheist.

And the weather was great then. That’s how I remember it, a spring or fall day every day. I remember the distinctive smell of those Tamarind looking things (except flat) that fell from the trees and you could shake them, like Maracas. Speaking of Maracas, shaved ice! And Sabrett hotdogs. And Pizza. The Pizza was so good. Get it with extra cheese if you ever go back in time.

I remember how wonderfully dirty it was in the subways and on the streets. There was dog shit everywhere.This was before pooper scooper laws. The law was that you were supposed to “curb your dog,” which meant to let it shit in the street, where the street cleaners, that never came anymore because the city was practically bankrupt, would clean it up. But people didn’t curb their dogs anyway. The police would never enforce something like that, or jaywalking, or hardly anything those days, they left you alone. There was one street, 29th, between 8th and 9th which had buildings only on one side. The other side bordered a small green space, but there was a fence in front of the grass, so you couldn’t take your dogs in there. The residents of the buildings would cross the street and let their dogs shit on the sidewalk. To watch kids traverse this particular street was like watching them play hopscotch. I don’t know why we ever went down that side of the street, but we did. I guess because it was so much fun.

There’s this smell I remember, like it’s still in my nose. It is the smell of hot garbage piled up on the street near I.S.70, my jr. high school. Let me tell you what it smelled like. It smelled like home. And who wouldn’t want trains that were colorful and painted with Graffiti? When they solved that problem in NYC, they ruined my life. After that it was all downhill… well, just kidding. I’m still the happiest guy I know of. Seriously.

I never knew who painted the trains, but I knew guys in 9th grade who would tag everything with their own “handles” so to speak, the walls of the school, mailboxes, and the insides of train cars. Mace and Strider and Saki were some of their tags. Saki’s actual name was Sasaki, Brian Sasaki. He tagged the music room of our school with “Saki”, and the teacher asked us to rat him out.

“Was that Brian?”

“I don’t know.”

There was this rectangular blacktop playground near my apartment building. We played pickup softball there. There was no right field so we would play that if you hit to right field it was an out.

Second base was first base, so you had to run there first. Old ladies walking on the path out in (the) right field (that wasn’t) would yell at us, scared they would be hit, but those old ladies could run when they had to. Just kidding. I don’t ever remember almost hitting any old ladies. We also got yelled at for walking on the grass, making paths where there already should have been some. We built those paths, and now they are paved. Now adults walk on them too. Well, we’re adults. We helped design the cityscape, And I’m proud of that, even if we never got any credit.

Here’s a thought that makes me happy, water keys. There were faucets attached to the buildings but they required a certain kind of key to turn them on, so that only the building maintenance staff could use them. But you could buy a key, it was really just a tool, and we all had one. It made me so happy to have a water key in my pocket. You know what else made me happy? Drinking water when I was thirsty and not because I should stay hydrated.

Was it dangerous in New York City? Well, we grew up there, so no, we didn’t think so. I got mugged a few times, but you got mad and then went on with your life. We were feral. We were free. We kids would meet at the playgrounds, and play freeze tag, or tag no touching the sand, or we would wander around, climbing fences, taking the subway at all hours with our school train passes that were only supposed to be used to get to school and back, or we would jump the turnstiles, or when we had to, we would pop a token into the turnstile. I miss tokens. 

We would climb on top of elevators and have our friends operate the elevators from inside. We would go to the roof of our apartment building and survey our domain. We would head down past the warehouses on the west side, past the hookers that hung out there, and play on the elevated and abandoned (after a truck fell through it) west side highway and light firecrackers. We would go to central park and ride our skateboards, or play in a pickup softball game there on a real field. We would take the train out to Coney Island and “pay one price” for all of the rides and go to the Mets games day of, and get great seats.

This is what it was like to be a kid in NYC.