Given that I’m going to be producing shows on cable access soon, I feel like I should be writing more here. Because I’m meeting people, with an intensity I haven’t in years, and the quality of the interactions are just of the kind of barely-contained hysterical that I always feel like I ought to capture in this blog. If its project still is, or ever was, some sort of chronicle of the human condition. Or of encounters across borders, as it often was in its early years.
I have a nagging feeling that being a young urbanite in New York has allowed me to skate across the face of life, avoiding the big questions. That the choices I make allow me to live without obligations in a way neither of my sisters can, living as close to the family as they do. Having kids. Taking care of our parents and grandparents. I’m not personally close to birth, or death. I hang out with gay men and childless friends a lot, and younger people.
Today I put out a sign in the gentrifying-neighborhood café, while I stood at the tall table and had my tea and hustled on my laptop for our fundraising campaign. “SUPPORT LOCALLY-GROWN PUPPETS,” it said. The campaign had some $2000 left to go at the time, with three days left, and I figured I’d try anything. At the very least I’d have some good conversations with the bohemian locals who are very definitely in attendance there, working from their laptops.
This stunt was, no doubt, inspired by John Waters. I just finished reading his book on hitchhiking, where he meticulously chronicles the things he writes on the torn-cardboard-box signs he uses to get people to stop, and which ones he thinks will work when. (He also meticulously details the factors in his decisions to pick one freeway on-ramp or another for hitching. There’s a wealth of information in there, some of which you may want to keep out of reach of teenagers.) Despite the seeming moral abandon of the characters in some of his movies, Waters has immense faith in and love for humanity; it is evident both in proclamations and in the way he writes about the many totally normal Americans who picked him up as he made his way across the country.
For an hour or two, nobody came to talk to me. I guess I didn’t make eye contact or smile at people enough. I’m still pretty nerdy that way; I’ve never good at inviting people in. But then, I’m not good at standing around being idle, either. I was obsessing over the fund drive. I’m like a rat terrier with a job like that, unable to tear myself away until I’m sure I’ve hounded it out and shaken it to pieces.
So I tried to make more eye contact. To my chagrin, a wiry, weatherbeaten red-haired man at the next table caught my eye, and I realized I was face to face with a guy I’d been screaming at from my fire escape. He comes by like clockwork every day, one massive white cockatoo on each shoulder, looking like photo-negative heavy-metal epaulets with spikes taller that his head. He always dumps a massive bag of birdseed on a tree stump right outside my window. This makes my life literally much shittier: between him and the harridan upstairs who not only dumps seed out her window, but also allows wild pigeons to come and go by leaving it open, the area on the level with my kitchen window is like a massive pigeon toilet, swirling with feathers which end up blowing in my own windows somehow and I am positive bringing in West Nile Virus and infecting my cats and lord knows what else.
I then tried assiduously to avoid eye contact with him. But if you put out a cardboard sign, the crazy will come to you.
“Is that your sign?” I looked up from composing a Facebook post. It wasn’t the bird man, but a round man in a Hawaiian shirt, with long thinning hair and glasses. Yes, I told him, and told him about the campaign and our production plans. Turns out he’s also a producer on local cable access. He does a poetry show, for which he also uses footage from the botanical gardens.
But then, it ALSO turned out he knew the redheaded man, He Of Bird Shit, who came over and greeted the round man with a flyer for an ecological event he’s running in the park. It turned out they both had the same name. (I’m going to call them both Donny, as this is partly an old Irish neighborhood and I feel like everyone around here who’s white and over 50 has got to be named Donny.) I stiffly turned back to my computer, now very deliberately using body language to try to communicate HEY, I KNOW YOU, YOU’RE THE ASSHOLE WITH THE BIRDS. If he got it, he didn’t let on. Now both Red Bird Donny and Round Poetry Donny were both inquiring about my show, interrupting each other, kindly mansplaining to me how useful my show would be for STEM education.
I may be a brash champion for public causes, picking fights on stage, but when it comes to anything that is somehow related to my home life — anything involving some deep personal admission or emotion involved — I tend to shy away from anything that bears even a vague odor of conflict. I’m aware it’s a family habit. It was no doubt central to my parents’ divorce. There were no open fights, no yelling, nothing thrown. One sister remembers putting her ear to a door and catching a whisper of a warning. But aside from that, the divorce suddenly arrived one day, unannounced. (Except for a family meeting that would give me something close to PTSD about surprise meetings in the office.)
So I have few tools for managing interpersonal conflict. I stayed polite with Red Bird Donny, falling into the nearly naïve-seeming openness I can muster when I’m explaining something to someone who very definitely is not on my side.
But I did say “I think I’ve seen you around.” And the Donnies explained how Red Bird Donny is a wildlife rescuer and goes around the neighborhood wearing cockatoos and feeding pigeons. And I kept a sweet politeness in my voice, but managed to say beneath a deep frown, “I think we have something to talk about, Red Bird Donny.”
“You don’t like how I feed the birds?” he asked. I told him about how he compounds the problem we already have with the lady upstairs. “I can’t help with her,” he said.
“But I’m trying to be a better person lately,” he said, with a gentle earnestness. “Have you noticed I’ve only been feeding them a quarter of an eighty-pound bag?” I hadn’t.
“I’ve been a jerk to a lot of people,” he said, “and I’m trying to be a better person lately.” I looked at his tight, worn face, beaten so hard by the elements and lord knows what else that every purple vein stands out on his cheeks.
Red Bird Donny worked for Goldman Sachs, the other Donny told me. He was a mathematician. At some point he gave it up. He didn’t say it, but suddenly the looming bulk of 9/11 cast a shadow over the room. “I wanted to live a meaningful, good life,” said Red Bird Donny. “We’re destroying our environment so fast there won’t be anything left for our grandchildren.” An almost-unnoticeable pause. Did Red Bird Donny have grandchildren? What else did I not know about him yet?
Both Donnies chased back and forth between conversational rabbit holes, diving down them and getting lost: what techniques was I using on my show, what did they both do with mathematics — oh, there was a party tonight for cable access producers, Round Poetry Donny had to leave for it in a minute — what about the birds? And Red Bird Donny apologized again for being a jerk.
“I just got diagnosed with lung cancer,” he told us. He’d had bronchitis and then they looked on the x-rays and found a spot — he mimed a silver-dollar-sized circle by his lower sternum, on the left. He never smoked. He’s fatally allergic to feathers, though (what?!), and then he inhaled a lot of garbage cleaning up the marsh down at the park.
9/11, I thought. You were downtown around 9/11. You inhaled atomized buildings and computers and people. The remains of your job reaping the whirlwind.
“Well, you never know,” I told him, trying to grasp at something kind to give him. “My dad was diagnosed with cancer fifteen years ago, and he’s still with us.”
“I’m sorry,” he told me, holding my gaze with his glassy blue eyes. “I’m trying to be a better person. Are you the one who’s one window from the corner?” Yep, that’s me; I was the one yelling at him. He suddenly looked much clearer on who I was. “Have you noticed I haven’t come by for the past few days?” he asked, trying to make amends. I hadn’t noticed. Come to think of it, though, every time I heard a rush of wings I was cursing him.
“I’ll find another place to feed them. I run the wildlife center in the park.”
“That sounds fine,” I said, humbled. I’d been a jerk too, not even coming down to the street to talk to him, just yelling at him about how he was spreading disease. I know I’m a terrible neighbor. I’ll talk to anyone on the stoop if I’m walking down the street in Harlem, but in my own neighborhood I’m constantly half-consciously aware that I’m sinking into NIMBYism, banging on walls to stop noise, shouting at the delivery guys who ride their scooters on the sidewalk. I can’t even cope with negotiating with our unwanted roommate about cleaning the house, to the point where I don’t speak to her when she comes in the front door or I pass her in the hall. There’s a lot more vulnerability involved in trying to reason with the people who live closest to you. They know where you sleep.
Did I have a card for my show? Certainly, I did; that’s why I was in the cafe, hustling with my puppet. The three of us exchanged information, and I asked Round Poetry Donny if I could tag along to the cable access party with him. Sure, he said. He was going to meet another show producer over at the Dunkin’ Donuts. They had agreed to head to the party from there.
COME TO THE DUNKIN DONUTS, I texted Rob, then texted him again, then eventually called him in enthusiastic hysteria. A high density of cable access producers was some kind of promise.
The Donnies were talking about Round Poetry Donny’s degree. They were both named Donny, and they had both done math for Wall Street. And now they mostly wanted to talk about poetry and ecology, but math still offered an enticing rabbit hole. “You have a PhD?” asked Red Bird Donny. “No, I said I did the equivalent of a PhD, studying by myself,” replied Round Poetry Donny. “I just have an MBA. I was working on models based on chaos theory–”
“My model is based on topology!” Red Bird Donny cut in.
“Topology is very valuable!” enthused Round Poetry Donny, and they were off to the races in some sort of quant-land I hoped never to visit, and hoped would never invade any of the people-lands I like to hang out in.
After a half-dozen false starts (that ended up down more rabbit holes) we managed to say goodbye for real. Red Bird Donny and I shook hands warmly, looking into each other’s eyes.
“I won’t feed the birds by your place.”
“Thank you. And I’ll say hi when you come by. What are your birds’ names?”
I forget one, but “the other one says her name is Angie, but it’s Angel,” he said.
“She says her own name?”
“She says it’s Angie.”
* * *
He peeled off. Round Poetry Donny began to obsess over Red Bird Donnie’s cancer as we headed around to the Dunkin’ Donuts. “I need to find out how much he weighs. I think I have an answer for him. If we figure out his body mass I can give him the right formula of methionine he should be taking to starve the cancer. I’ve been looking into this.”
“How do you know?” I asked. I was skeptically wondering if I should ask if he was getting his information from the quack doctor on the local radio. But then, there’s a fun game to be played in guess-how-long-it-will-take-before-the-wackadoo-rears-its-head. (Turns out methionine does seem to figure in actual scientific theories. Whether the popular adoption of their thinking makes any goddamn sense is another question. Regardless, I don’t think Round Poetry Donny is the one to suggest the dosage.)
“I have a theory about blind spots,” said Round Poetry Donny. “They say that genius is identifying your blind spots and then filling them in. I’m aware I have a blind spot about cancer, so I’ve been looking into it…”
“How do you know that the information you’re getting is valid and reliable?” I queried, baiting the wackadoo as I got tired of waiting for it to emerge from its den. “How do you know you’ve got a good view of the whole field?” To my surprise, Round Poetry Donny name-dropped a basic logic pattern I’d heard of at Teachers College. (I got excited. Maybe we could nerd out over epistemology! Now I was really looking forward to an evening with Donny and the cable access producers.)
We reached the Dunkin’ Donuts. “I really think your method of teaching is valuable,” Round Poetry Donny told me. “Here’s something else you could teach.” From the flat bag he was carrying, he pulled a children’s book. “It’s about tapping,” he told me.
Ah, there it was! The magnificent wackadoo, resplendent in its iridescent new-age-hippie feather-scales! Tapping was something I’d seen another cable access producer teaching about as we waited in the studio lobby. It involves tapping a couple of fingers gently on different parts of your body, to cure ADD or what-have-you. Round Poetry Donny looked up at me and confidently told me that schools were adopting it to help kids with behavior problems.
“Also,” he said, “there’s this,” and pulled out some sort of yoga nonsense qi gong or was it kundalini, here were some chakras or centers maybe they were called. On the cover there was someone who was actively Being Radiant and inside there was an exercise that kids could do which involved grabbing your earlobe with your opposite hand and then doing the same with the other and squatting and standing, and surely this would improve their concentration, which is really what we need in the class room, isn’t it?
Rob joined us and I hoped the rather generic run-of-the-mill yoga wackadoo-ness would be successfully interrupted. It… kind of wasn’t. It went on, Rob nodding mechanically at every insistence about the healing power of poking yourself obsessively. Rob raised his eyebrows behind his huge black round sunglasses. This was what we were getting into an evening of? “I have some things I need to take care of,” he said by way of an exit line, but of course that didn’t work.
The other producer showed up, a beatific little old lady from Ecuador who Round Poetry Donny praised as having the most beautiful singing voice. She also had a worrisome-looking bruise on her right cheek. “She does the alphabet for kids, every letter,” Donny enthused, trying to connect us. “Gus also does education.”
“You were a teacher?” I asked. “For thirty years,” she said. Donny noted she cut a CD that was all educational stuff. It was all in Spanish, except the alphabet song. “The whole K curriculum,” she noted.
We agreed that Rob and I would love to help her out in producing more. As newly-minted producers, but with the training on the new equipment which many older producers lack, we’re looking to apprentice and build up our chops on the control-room boards.
“There’s a TV studio around here someplace, too” she noted.
“That might be the one I found on Google maps!” I exclaimed. “It’s a typical Inwood-style mixed business.” I had looked at the Tenth Avenue place on Google Street View and was mystified: the building at that address said “Restaurant Supply.” Maybe it closed?
Curious, I went over anyway. In the middle of the very industrial block: Restaurant Supply. To the right: Wholesale Dairy. On the other side, I think more wholesale grocery. But I was undeterred. Your typical Dominican business in Inwood is a barber shop which doubles as a bootleg DVD store which also sells shapewear for women, hookahs, and velvet paintings of Scarface.
I walked straight in. “¿Dondé esta el studio televisor?” The first person I saw absorbed my terrible Spanish and went to look for someone else to help me. “Where’s the television studio?” I asked this guy. “Upstairs,” he said.
And indeed, it was! Tucked away in a corner of the cavernous building, a young guy named Eddie (maybe the son of the restaurant-supply owner?) has set up a lightweight control room and a very professional-looking trio of sound stages where they shoot — what else? — a cooking show. It gets broadcast on the Dominican cable channel.
There was an awkward pause after my digression, and some noises making it clear that the cable access producer party was at someone’s house, really by-invite-only. Rob nudged me to be polite. So we exchanged contact information with the singer/teacher. Her card was an odd-sized printed label, on a chip of something stiff with an HP-logo watermark. We saw her and Round Poetry Donny off at the A train.
* * *
The fundraising campaign pulled in about $900 today. I’m seeing the light at the end of that tunnel. Some of our friends were bouncing around riotously on Twitter, chirping energetically for us, selling the campaign on its best merits: “Q: What happens when this Kickstarter gets funded? I GET A PUPPET. And you could, too!” Somehow Weev got dragged into that discussion at some point.
* * *
Before finishing this post I checked in with my sister, the one who’s been obsessively worried about ebola. The one who everyone else in the family is worried about, because of it. “Hospice care” was mentioned in relation to my dad and his cancer. Nobody tells me anything. My sister sees the family a few days a week, so she gets the bad news. For me, they put a good face on things. Or there’s no communication at all. There never really was, for any of us.
* * *
I’ll probably see Red Bird Donny around the neighborhood. He’s always out wandering, with Angel on one shoulder. I know why he does what he does now. I can’t really scream at him anymore. It’s hard to hate someone for the bird shit, to want them out of your neighborhood, when you know their story.