Friday, December 22, 2006

What Lies Beneath; Our Skeletal Streets

I once heard horror defined as what you feel when things that are supposed to be safely hidden away inside a living body suddenly become visible on the wrong side of its skin. When some poor girl gets sliced open by a Texas chainsaw, for instance, and her insides come spilling out all over the big screen. Even though that's what you came to see, you can't help but cringe and turn away, for just a second, until you turn right back to get an eyefull. That gush of blood, those oozing organs, they're just like yours, after all, it's only natural to be curious about them, isn't it? But then again, curiosity did kill the cat, and they are just like yours. You do want yours to stay safe inside where they belong, but how can you not look at hers, so big and shiny up there in front of you? She's looking at them too, so slow to die. That moment there, that's horror.

I've been thinking about this lately, trying to figure out why I'm so horrified, which is indeed the word for it, by the ongoing construction of the Trump Soho condo-hotel down on Spring Street. It's not just that Trump's heading downtown, bringing his gleaming modern towers with him, where they are not necessarily wanted. I thought that was bad enough, but no. In mid-December human remains were found at the construction site. The Department of buildings issued a Work Stop order, but that only lasted one week, then the work started up again, churning up more bones and bits and pieces.

I didn't think I could be shocked anymore, by anything to do with Manhattan real estate. Tell me you're planning to pave over the East River, fill that up with luxury lofts, I'll smile and nod politely, maybe wonder what the prices will be like. Or perhaps you're thinking you'd like to do a condo conversion, in the Statue of Liberty's torch? Someone's probably working on that one already, but good luck. This indifference to the dead though, has really thrown me for a loop. Something about continuing construction, right over all those dead bodies, is just horrible.

The bones are most likely remnants of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church's graveyard. The church stood on Trump's site from 1811 until 1968, though it was nearly burned down by an angry mob in 1834 because of its abolitionist activism. There's been recent speculation that it might have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. As far as I'm concerned though, it doesn't matter much whose they are, when you start digging up bones, you stop building. Someone else beat you to the space. It happens all the time.

Even before the remains were found, the building had already been controversial in the neighborhood. People are skeptical about the concept, suspicious that it's nothing but a way to get around the zoning laws, which allow a "transient hotel," but not a residential building. People can buy their hotel rooms, or suites, or whatever. They are allowed to stay there, but not to use them as permanent residences. When they aren't around, their rooms generate income, for them and for the hotel, by being rented out to guests, like any other. To me, this plan has no appeal whatsoever, buying something I'd never really quite own. The simple fact of not being able to leave my things in the closets, or in the dresser drawers, defeats the purpose of the pied a terre, if you ask me.

The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation doesn't think it's such a great idea either. Director Andrew Berman has said, "Mark my words, you will see a boom in condo-hotels in manufacturing zones as soon as the city allows this." That sounds about right to me. The developers insist it's meant to offer a "a place to stay while you're in the city; a glamorous address - you can rent it and make money." Not a permanent year round residence for anyone, they promise. I'm wondering though, for all this talk of transience, once the building's built, the condos sold, who's going to enforce those rules, and how? Once the precedent is set, the model tested and successful, Berman's boom will begin. He has suggested that "If we're going to open up manufacturing zones to luxury residences, there should be aboveboard hearings and reviews." Do we really want a neighborhood taken over altogether by residential towers, and with the people who think it's a good idea to buy condo-hotels? People who will be getting the good tables at our brunch spots, snagging all the cabs, and clogging up the sidewalks. How much investment, or even interest, will these part time residents have in our communities? I'm thinking those are not really the neighbors I'd most like to have. But of course, it isn't up to me.

If this project didn't have such neighborhood destroying potential, I might not feel so strongly about those bones. I do spend half my life in Washington Square Park, without worrying over its history as a potter's field and public hanging ground. I've walked through City Hall Park without giving a thought to the city prison that once stood there, with its attendant graves and gallows. I know perfectly well that I'm walking over bodies, or what's left of them, all the time. Those bodies though, and all their parts, are still decently covered up underground.

At the Spring St. construction site, they're bringing the bones out into the light. An archaeologist is participating in the excavation now, which, I guess, is meant to offer some assurance that they won't be destroying anything of significance. The archaeologist they've hired would never allow that,would he? The developers further assure us that the area in which the remains turned up is going to be used as an open plaza space, no part of the building will be built over it.

Archaeologists and open plaza spaces sound lovely, don't they? But they are still pulling out all those bones, and no one's talking about putting them back, or putting them somewhere, anywhere. I can't help thinking they're going to end up in dumpsters, on dusty office shelves, maybe a few in a museum. A soft, familiar, muddy grave sounds so much more appealing than those options.

It's easy enough, necessary even, to ignore what's all around us, most of the time. Not just the bodies underfoot, but those still above, sleeping on our sidewalks, asking for our change. The guy on the subway, ranting to himself, or perhaps to an imaginary audience, about who nature is a whore, and the end of days is nigh. The old friends too, who serve as such good reminders of out old selves, and our old aspirations, who's calls we almost never answer or return. Everyone's got one or two of those. Old loves and longings, opportunities dismissed, chances wrongly taken or not, so many things not to think about. We don't have time for all of that. We have too much to do. It takes a lot of work to keep our city running smoothly as it does.

Buddhism teaches us that attachment to our physical selves, to the very idea of a self at all, is nothing but a distraction. A delusion to be shattered, if we hope to come to any understanding of reality's true nature, to liberate ourselves from the endless karmic cycle of rebirth, and the suffering it entails. Letting go of that attachment creates a space in which the world's endless possibilities can begin to open up, to give you a glimpse of the unimaginable.

Legend has it that, once upon a time, Tibetan practitioners could sometimes be found meditating in charnel grounds. Surrounded by the rotting flesh and dusty bones, they sought to realize their own impermanence, the inevitability of death and decay, the uselessness of the self, in the face of death. Death isn't going anywhere, no matter how many towers we build over it.

Maybe it doesn't matter what happens to those unearthed bones on Spring St. What use are they now, without the flesh, that fat and muscle they upheld, the hearts and lungs they enclosed, the eyes staring out of their sockets? Not much , if you think of it that way.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Is Flying really Necessary?

After five years of bickering, stalling, making themselves look ridiculous, and frustrating the rest of us, the powers that be have finally started doing something about rebuilding at Ground Zero. There's been another ground breaking, but this one looks like it's going to take. Columns going up, Bloomberg and Pataki making speeches, things are happening. I am sincerely happy for the families who have been waiting all this time to memorialize those they loved and lost. All of us downtown, and those families espescially, for whom bringing life back to that site will offer some sense of resolution, a reminder of inevitable renewal,in the face of unimaginable destruction. I hope those who were able to inscribe the various columns that will become the new building's strong skeleton felt they had honored themselves, the lost, and the endlsess unknown future in so doing. I look forward to walking by that site and seeing activity, forward motion, anything but the bleak, empty space I go out of my way to avoid whenever I find myself in that part of town. I think it's important, in ways both real and symbolic, that this happen, and cannot fathom why it's taken so long to get it started. Part of me can't help wishing though, that having waited this long, they could have given it just another week or two. Part of me can't help wishing, that this wasn't all happening in the few days before I have to get on an airplane.

I'm told some people enjoy airplanes. That, once upon a time, air travel was an exciting and even glamorous thing. One friend explained to me how she loved dressing up and going to the airport, hearing the high heels she almost never wore clicking their way across the tiles.I thought that was sweet. I thought it was adorable, in some Grace Kelly kind of way. But I wasn't sold. I've never liked the whole thing much. Even before 9/11, I just didn't trust the plane to hold together. At any moment, it seemed to me, it could just dissolve into thin air, spin apart into its separate pieces, and leave me to drift down to a destiny uncertain, at best. I could do it though. I knew I wasn't being reasonable. I could get past that, get myself onto the airplane, and go wherever it was I had to go. But I didn't like it. Not one bit.

That, among many other things, all changed on 9/11. A new, much clearer vision replaced my vague worries about airplane dissolution.I couldn’t then, and still cannot, imagine anything worse than being on one of those planes. Those moments of knowing what's about to happen, not just to you, but to everyone you can see, and to lots of people you can't, never have and never will, but you know they're there. Watching the city's beautiful skyline get closer and closer, and entirely too close. Seeing that wall of glass you're about to glide into, and realizing a fast disintegration's become bet. Moments of knowing, of waiting, of powerlessness. So much terror in those moments. Terror for yourself, terror for the people behind that sleek and opaque glass, who have no idea what's coming their way. The terror of your impossible, and simultaneous desires to warn them, and to be one of them in their terribly lucky ignorance. To pound a warning to them on the glass and steel that's just about to pull you under. To smash through from your side onto theirs. To shatter it all before it shatters you.

I didn't fly at all for four years. I took trains. I discovered I love long train rides. They're very peaceful, a kind of time outside of time. Pretty things pass by your windows, people quiet down after the first few hours, and you get to experience the distance you are travelling in a whole new way. You have no obligations, no real control over any of it. Your only responsibility is to stay put on your train, and to let it pull you on through.

There's weird food, that you'd never normally eat. But while you're on the train it becomes a kind of guilty pleasure. Microwaved pizzas with that soft, sweet kind of crust, shiny bagels with packets of cream cheese or butter on the side, crumbly and enormous cookies. The walks up and down the train to get another soda, check out the people in the other cars, be glad you aren't in the one with all those babies, or the other with the pack of 15 year old girls on their way to cheerleading camp. Or maybe it's Jesus camp, who can say?

There's something amazing about spending the time it takes to get from point a to point b, in this world so completely transient and temporary it barely exists. It allows me to appreciate both sides of my trip for their own solid specificity, and to summon more of the fluidity I need in navigating each.

The thing I love about trains, though, the requirement of all that lovely empty time, is, of course, the problem with them as well. You can't go much of anywhere for a long weekend on a train. Unless you maybe stay on the train the entire time, which might not be so bad, all things considered. But realistically, sooner or later, something will make you get back on an airplane.

My first post 9/11 plane trip was to a wedding in Chicago, with my boyfriend at the time. It was a weekend trip. Both of our schedules made flying the only option. And so I did. That one wasn't so bad. His presence kept my panic level down, and gave me some incentive to at least pretend I wasn't about to die. It was kind of ok.

The second was a disaster. The flight to Florida was fine. Plans had been made in too much of a hurry, for reasons too important, to give me much opportunity to terrorize myself. Packing to do, arrangements to make, all in about a day. No time to visualize my doom. On my way back to Manhattan, however, I was a mess. I'd already stayed one day longer than I'd planned, largely to avoid the flight. Between the time I got to the airport, and onto the plane, my anxiety spiralled beyond the reach of the ativan I nonetheless kept taking. I somehow missed one plane, despite being in the airport well before it's departure time. There was one nearly incoherent conversation with a client, an unnecessarily nasty email to a colleague I barely remembered having written, until I saw it in her admirably restrained response. When I got home, I was sick for two days, maybe from all that ativan, maybe all that fear had just done me in. Suffice to say, a really bad time was had by all.

Now, the holidays are here . I haven't been to see my parents in two years, haven't seen my grandparents in longer still. I really have no choice, but to fly down there. Since the last time, I've been therapized, medidated, switched the ativan for klonopin, and felt almost ok about doing it again. As ok as is possible for me. Telling myself it would be efficient and easy, travelling on a sleek, modern airplane. Progress is good, regression is bad. Then, these last few days before I have to leave, they've broken ground, again, at Ground Zero. So it's been all over the news, the papers, the radio, and my mind. That worst of worst case scenarios. But it's too late now. The plans are made, the tickets bought and nonrefundable. Too many parents and grandparents to be disappointed by my anxious self indulgence if I cancel. My fate is sealed.

Walking through Washington Square yesterday, I ran into an eminently reasonable friend. As I was telling her about my trip, and my certain doom, she said, as reasonable people will, "There've been how many thousands of flights since 9/11? And they've all been fine. Why would yours, out of all of those, be the one to have a problem?" Without thinking I answered, "Because I am just that special." We both laughed, and went on about our days. But I'm not sure I was entirely kidding, in that thoughtless slip. Narcissists Anonymous, anyone?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Automated Regret Machines and Miracles of Modern Medicine; There might be worse things than a successful friend or two...

By any standard, Matthew Zapruder is that rare creature, an MFA success story. For all the promising young things flooding graduate English departments from California to Alabama, every fall, visions of book deals and New Yorker publications dancing through their heads, there are only so many book deals, only so many pages of the New Yorker to go around. Only so much success, in other words, to be divvied up. While it doesn’t always go to those who most deserve it, in this case, happily, it has. Mathew’s first collection of poems, “American Linden,” was published to critical acclaim in 2002. His second, “The Pajamaist,” appeared this fall. In between, he’s been busy teaching at the New School, publishing in everything from the Alaska Quarterly Review, to the New Yorker, and co-curating the KGB Monday night poetry reading series with Deborah Landau. And, best of all, his poetry has only gotten better in the time I’ve known him.

I was once a promising young thing. Really, I was. The kind of girl about, and to, whom lots of phrases using the word, “potential,” are used. Always with the clear implication being that, well, potential’s not a guarantee of anything, now is it? For a little while, though, when I started working on my own MFA, even I thought things just might be looking up. I remember obsessing over words, single words, stretching them out as far as their endlessness allowed, before they’d collapse back in upon themselves, and their own inevitable limitations. I remember keeping my sentences tucked away for safekeeping in the darker recesses of my mind. Relishing each one as it enfolded what had come before and blazed the trail for whatever was on its way. The feeling of pen in hand, or keyboard underneath, the sound of my own creations, the sensation of reading them, then reading them aloud. I fell in love with all of it, all over, every day.

I remember that ecstatic energy, the staying up, night after night, reveling in my own words. I remember feeling so full of language, of talent, of all that much vaunted potential finally coming to some kind of fruition, it seemed I might just be getting something right, and I might never get enough. I thought everyone around me must be feeling more or less that way. Until I said some such thing to a friend at the time, and her blank look told me otherwise. I was a promising young thing then though, so all I could see was how much more that left for me. And that was just exactly what I wanted. More, of everything, already and always. More.

But more is never quite enough, and yet somehow, it always turns into to much. All that energy lost its ecstasy and turned itself against me. I can’t say when, or how it happened. There wasn’t one particular moment, but then again, it didn’t take so very long. I became insatiable, irascible, and endlessly inconsolable. Overwhelmed and overwhelming, especially to myself. This went on for years, during which I produced nothing but destruction, for myself, and anyone unlucky enough to get caught up in my wake. Whatever romantic clich├ęs there may be about artists or writers needing to be a little on the crazy side, to get anything done, I can tell you they’re all wrong. Being crazy, even just a little, relatively speaking, is a full time job. It requires hours of dealing with doctors and drugs, experimenting with different, newer, bigger, better versions of each. And of course, the prodigious energy required to pretend you’re fit to be out amongst the normal people. All this leaves you with none of what you need to write so much as one single word. Nothing even close to what you’d need to make a whole life for yourself.

If I’d ever been a “glass half full,” kind of girl, I’d probably see the extent to which the miracles of modern medicine have settled my internal storms the last few months as nothing short of miraculous. I’d be full of visions for the future to come, the work to do, the life to lead. And it’s true, I do have some of that going on. More often though, I think of all that wasted time. All the harm I did to myself and others, all those others, and then that one in particular. Nonetheless, things are, once again, looking up, it seems.

As I walked over to Mathew’s reading at KGB Bar last Monday night, I couldn’t get that Morrissey song, “we hate it when our friends become successful,” out of my head. Wondering if I’d be happy for him, jealous, or a bit of both. We’d never been the best of friends in grad school, but were in the same circles, and shared a lot of that kind of silly, boozy fun that involves things like empty bottles of blackberry brandy. You may not know this, but as a rule, writers like to drink. We’d even read together once. My very first reading, I think.

Unsurprisingly, I was late, and I’ve always found it hard to really get a handle on poetry read aloud anyway. I was assured by those who know more than I about such things that the reading was, “fabulous,” “life changing,” and, indeed, “so life changing, it changed everyone’s lives once, then changed them back to what they’d been before.” I hadn’t been to KGB in ages, and had forgotten how much I liked it. All that red, those steep stairs and nooks and crannies. The last time I’d been there, though, I’m not sure any of the people I was with were entirely capable of reading, let alone writing anything.

If I were generally a nicer person, I might not have been so surprised to find myself only genuinely pleased for Matthew, and that all is so well with him. Even after reading some of his new poems myself – they are, indeed, fabulous – the jealousy doesn’t seem to be popping up. They’re very different from what I remember of Mathew’s poetry. Less formal, differently, though still tightly structured, and maybe less afraid of leaving meaning unresolved. I seem to just be glad these poems are out there in the world now, even if it hadn’t realized how much it missed them, before.

And really, who could resist titles like, “Automated Regret Machine,”? Or its final lines,

“One could say I am cruel. Once late at night after getting a drink of water I waited behind a door to jump out at whoever came first, my brother or sister. Until now I had chosen to think they were too thirstily waiting in bed to fear any longer, but fear was what pushed them to rise and clear the room they knew I did not know my stories had filled with actual vampires or ghosts.”

I couldn’t have put it any better myself.