Monday, March 19, 2007

West Village Shooting Spree... Really?

One morning a few weeks ago, my dogs did something truly astonishing. They let me sleep late. It was very kind of them, really, remarkably generous for the two of them. Sasha usually starts yelling at me around sunrise. If that doesn’t work, she likes to hit me in the face with her stinky dog foot, possibly hoping to pry my eyelids open with her claws. When all else fails Sita, aka, “The Good One,” will get in on the action. They’ve got this whirling dervish routine they enjoy rehearsing all over the bed, preferably with me still in it. It’s an impressive performance in its own right, and just about impossible to sleep through. I try, believe me, I try, but I always fail. Every once in a while, though, they will decide to give me a break. This was one of those days.

There’s a problem even with those days, though. By the time I do wake up, they’ve all but leashed themselves up and headed off to the park without me. I keep hoping they’ll learn to do the whole thing by themselves sooner or later, but so far, they still require my assistance. So I have to scramble around for the coat, the shoes, the keys, and out the door. At best, it isn’t a pretty picture. At worst, I forget some crucial item. On this particular morning, for instance, I’d gone out without my gloves. It was really, really cold.

I know everyone always says hats are the magical things that let a person stay toasty warm, and endlessly oblivious to the coldest weather, but that magic’s never worked for me. For me, it’s always been all about gloves. And so, of course, I’m constantly losing and forgetting them.

Now, at this point, since I’d barely gotten past my building’s door, you might be thinking the sensible thing would have been for me to have turned around, gone back up to my apartment, and found one of the 5000 or so pairs of gloves I already owned. That probably would have been the sensible thing, but I am not a morning person, and I’ve rarely been called sensible, at any time of day or night. So I thought I’d just stop at the table full of fleecey scarves and gloves, and even hats, set up outside the jewelry store next door, and get pair number 5001.

Which would have been fine, if it hadn’t been so very, very cold out that a pigeon had decided to hang out underneath the table. Or maybe even if I’d seen it while it was still down there, before Sasha snatched it up, and dropped it, already dead and just slightly bloodied, on the sidewalk by my feet. The family of tourists who’d been chattering beside me were startled into silence. The guy who’d been working the table darted inside. I had no idea what to do, other than apologize repeatedly, and pull my huntresses away before they started trying to play with the poor dead pigeon. I couldn’t walk by that spot for days without apologizing to whoever happened to be manning the table. I was mortified. Mostly because I knew one of them had probably been stuck picking the pigeon up off the sidewalk, and figure out what to do with it next. It wasn’t a good morning for any of us.

My dogs love dead things, whether they’ve personally done the killing or not. A nice dead rat is their idea of an excellent toy. Last Thursday, when I started seeing pictures of an actual dead person, in very nearly that same spot, in front of my building and the jewelry store next door, all over the Internet, when I clearly read the address on my awning, and the tree where Sita likes to pee, I couldn't’t help wondering what they would have done if we’d stumbled out the front door and onto him. We very likely would have, if we’d been in town.

David Garvin was shot by police around ten on Wednesday night, after having killed three people himself. His body wasn’t moved, as far as I can tell, until something like five the next morning. It’s almost inconceivable that I wouldn’t have taken Sasha and Sita out for a walk somewhere in there.

I don’t have so much trouble imagining what I would have done. First, I’d have pulled them back. It really looks like he’d have been right there, as soon as we stepped out the door. And that’s what I always do first, pull them back. Then I’d have asked the police what had happened, and started trying to negotiate some way of walking the dogs without being exiled for the rest of the night. From the pictures I’ve seen, it looks like the whole block was cordoned off for the duration. I doubt I’d have had much luck with that, but I’d probably have given it a try. After all, you never know until you ask. Either way, once I’d gotten us all safely back inside, I’m guessing I’d have started making calls, and gone online to try to find out more about what had happened. That much, at least, would have been the same. Somewhere in there, of course, there would have been some freaking out. Shooting sprees just don’t happen in the West Village. Not usually anyway.

You’ll notice I’m assuming we wouldn’t have ventured out while any of the shooting was happening. Partly because it’s hard to imagine even me having such spectacularly bad luck, and partly because it’s a little too easy to imagine what Mr. Garvin’s reaction to us might have been, and he was right outside our door. Lots of people think my sweet Siberian Huskies look like big scary wolves. Fortunately, most of them aren’t running around with guns. .

So I keep coming back to this question of what my dogs would have done, if they’d seen a dead person on their sidewalk. My first thought is that they’d have been much more interested in all of the living people crowding around. The sights and sounds of the police officers and paramedics might have kept them occupied. They have seen people sleeping in the park, and walked on by.

They might have passed by the body itself. That’s possible. But what about the blood? There must have been blood, and maybe worse things, coming from David Garvin by that point. And this is where I start to freak out, even from so far away. Dogs like dead things, especially their odd bits and pieces. Dogs like blood. They’re predators. That’s just the way it is.

Whenever I leave the city for longer than a long weekend, I start getting antsy, wondering what big things are happening back in civilization. Usually, of course, there’s nothing much happening. At least nothing I wouldn’t have missed even if I’d been in town. I tend not to leave my neighborhood, if I can possibly avoid it.

By the time I get back, odds are it’ll look like nothing ever happened. The body is already long gone, probably the blood is too. I just hope those nice people from the jewelry store didn’t have to clean it up this time.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Is Substance Necessary? Naptime for Maureen Dowd...

For over a year now people have been asking me what I thought of Maureen Dowd’s book, “Are Men Necessary?” Mostly, I thought I didn’t much want to read it. Certainly not enough to spend thirty bucks on a hard cover copy. I finally broke down and picked it up last week though, when I noticed it was out in paperback,

Before I write about a book, I usually read it twice, at least. It seems only fair, to make sure my first impression wasn’t more about my having snagged the cozy corner table at the coffee shop the day I started it, or having finished it on the subway, sandwiched between two huge, stinky guys. It rarely changes much, but still, it’s what I’d want someone to do for me. So, for the sake of full disclosure, I think I should tell you up front that, in this case, I couldn’t put myself through it a second time.

People tend to assume I like Maureen Dowd’s writing. Maybe because she’s so successfully marketed herself as both a liberal and a feminist, despite in fact being, so far as I can tell, neither. Maybe just because she’s a woman. While the later is reason enough for me to really want to like her work, sadly, I don’t always get what I want.

I’d never given her much thought, until the 2000 presidential campaign season, when she made such a fuss over Al Gore’s having hired Naomi Wolf as a campaign consultant, and having talked to her about what he ought to wear, among other things. After eight years spent in the role of the supportive vice president, he was looking for advice from all quarters on how best to communicate to voters that he was ready to step out of the background and into the oval office. Even at the time, I thought that was one of the stupidest non-stories ever to emerge from a presidential campaign. In retrospect, it seems only more so. Does anyone really believe Giuliani doesn’t have a wardrobe consultant on the payroll, or that Hillary’s picking out all of those black pantsuits herself? I’m finding it incredibly difficult to resist the urge to be equally silly and petty, by wondering if Dowd’s real problem wasn’t that a member of the feminist punditocracy other than herself had made her way onto Gore’s staff.

My biggest problem with that story, and with much of Dowd’s writing for her column in New York Ties Op-Ed pages, is just how intellectually lazy it is. She’s got this amazing forum for her writing, and the best she can come up with is Al Gore’s earth tones, or more recently, Barak Obama’s “prettiness”? Seriously?

In an uncharacteristic burst of optimism, I had an idea that Dowd’s silliness might not be so annoying in this book as it is in her columns. After all, the title and introduction both led me to believe I was going to be getting her take on the conversation I’ve been having about men with my female friends for, oh, the last decade or so. It begins with someone asking, “What’s WRONG with him?” and quickly, seamlessly, transitions into “What’s wrong with THEM?” At this very moment, women are having this conversation all around you. On their cell phones, walking through Union Square, over lattes in the Starbucks at Astor Place, or via email in their cubicles at work. If you listen closely, you can probably hear it. Sometimes this conversation is boring as can be, sometimes sad, most often, far more interesting than the defective man in question. Certainly more interesting than trying to have it with the man in question. Ask a man, “What’s WRONG with you?” and he’ll answer, “What do you mean?” with an expression so sincerely, yet idiotically, blank, as to be your answer. So we talk amongst ourselves instead.

This is a subject that lends itself to silliness, one that doesn’t require the same kind of intellectual rigor as, say, covering a presidential campaign. My optimism wasn’t completely unfounded. Ask a man, “What’s WRONG with you?” and he’ll answer, “What do you mean?” with an expression so sincerely, yet idiotically, blank, as to be your answer. So we talk amongst ourselves instead.

She chooses, oddly enough, to begin her book by telling us just how politically lazy she was in seventies. She was all for the principles of feminism, but the aesthetics didn’t work for her. “I hated the dirty, unisex jeans and no-makeup look,” she tells us. And since she “thought the struggle for egalitarianism was a cinch,” she decided she might as well, “leave it to my earnest sisters in black turtlenecks and Birkenstocks. I figured there was plenty of time for me to get serious later.” I should have stopped reading right there, on page seven. Is there anything easier, less interesting, or less in line with feminist principles, than dismissing other women based on their fashion choices?

The book continues in a similar vein. There is a chapter about the Y chromosome, which has fallen upon some hard times, and another about the presidential candidates of 2000 and 2004, who were, of course, men. For the most part, though, it’s a disapproving and superficial dissection of modern American womanhood. From Dowd’s perspective, we’re lazy, we get too much plastic surgery, and we take too many anti-depressants. Clearly, that “struggle for egalitarianism” didn’t turn out quite as she’d expected.

Along the way Dowd repeatedly reminds us that feminism was supposed to mean or lead to something else entirely. But she doesn’t do much in the way of exploring how we got from there to here. The question the book kept calling to my mind was not, “Are Men Necessary?”, but that of whether feminism failed women, or women failed feminism. I kept expecting Dowd to go there, to allow her rants about paxil, botox, and marriage fantasies to gather some kind of cumulative weight, to go below the surface, and make a point. But she never did. Unless the point was to get to the nastiness with which she writes about Hillary Clinton at the end. I think that’s unlikely, but, unfortunately, I can’t honestly say it’s impossible.

After a chapter in which she characterizes both John Kerry and Al Gore as being somehow too feminine, Dowd ends her book with a Paris Hilton style attack on Hillary Clinton. She gossips, telling us that, “As one of her oldest confidantes put it, when asked if Hillary would ever hire back her nemesis Dick Morris to help with a presidential run: ‘Hillary would hire Hitler if she thought it could get her elected,’” to make sure we know Hillary’s too ambitious. But then she was, “strangely silent on poor Terry Schiavo… she meekly allowed Tom DeLay and Bill Frist to push for the shamefull and hypocritical legislation…” so we should know she’s too submissive, because, of course, Hillary could have singlehandedly kept the GOP majority out of Terry Schiavo’s hospital bed. Right. She operates with “a most manly kind of narcissistic survival skill,” yet would never have gotten anywhere without her husband. She’s “jangly,” whatever exactly that means, and of course, she didn’t learn how to dress herself until about 2000. It must be exhausting for Maureen Dowd, carrying such cognitive dissonance around in her head all the time.

So maybe the problem’s not that she’s too lazy to offer a substantial critique of Hillary Clinton, or anyone, or anything else. Maybe she’s just too tired. Maybe Maureen just needs a nice long nap.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Rats Gone Wild! The only good rat is... ?

I’ve been known to go whole years without once leaving the five boroughs, or particularly wanting to. When I see my neighborhood on a movie screen, I miss it, even if I’m sitting right there in the Angelica. Lately though, I’ve been skipping town at the drop of a hat, and finding myself wondering what it might be like to live in all sorts of unlikely places.

One of the things I find myself noticing, when I’m anyplace but home, is all the colors, especially the moving ones. The jewel toned jays and cardinals, the soft pastels robins.

Even the rich, earthy browns of the chipmunks to whom I never gave a second thought before, and the occasional red foxes, still on the side of a road somewhere.

We don’t get much in the way of songbirds here in the village, east or west. The grungy grey pigeons and mousy sparrows are pretty much it. I’ve never spotted a chipmunk, or heard about a fox, though I wouldn’t be all that surprised if one turned up in Washington or Tompkins Squares one of these days. What we do have though, in spades, are rats. And what fine rats they are!

I first moved to New York in 2000. That summer, the lower east side was overrun by the biggest, most fearless, rats I’d ever seen. If you were here then, I bet you remember them. They were everywhere, and they didn’t scamper away at the sounds and sites of approaching human beings. Oh no, not these rats. They’d walk right up to you, as though you were their long lost, dearest friend. Or possibly, a delicious looking lunch, thoughtfully delivered right to them. I never found out which, and didn’t so much want to.

Over the next year or so, the rats dwindled back down to their usual numbers, and regained their scampering skills. As far as I know, no one ever really figured out where they had all come from, or how they’d grown to such gargantuan proportions. I do remember some speculation, at the time, about their having been forced out onto the street when the buildings whose nooks and crannies had housed them for untold decades were torn down to create some space for brand new luxury lofts. It seems a little too easy though, isn’t it, to blame the real estate developers for all our problems? Of course, if the shoe fits, then what’s a girl to do?

For the last six and a half years, I’ve been trying to tell people who didn’t see them about those lower east side rats. I’ve never gotten anyone to take me seriously though. Maybe because it was my first year in the city, they’ve assumed I was still adjusting to sharing my sidewalks with any rats at all. Or maybe because we’d all so much rather believe rats like those only exist in urban legends, with the ones who eat cats, after having been brought back from Mexico by clueless tourists. And it’s not like I had any evidence any such creatures had ever existed anywhere at all, let alone on Avenue A.

That all changed last week, though. Suddenly those rats, or their descendents at any rate, I’ll admit my utter ignorance on the subject of rodent life expectancies, were on TV. Better still, they were all over the internet, like the rock star rats they’d were always meant to be. If you haven’t seen the video yet, of the rat party inside the KFC on 6th avenue, right across the street from the West 4th stop, you should. Really. It’s like something out of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, minus Marlon Perkins, and the exotic locale.

The KFC rats could easily pass for some kind of woodland creatures. They are enormous. The voiceover accompaniment estimates their weights as ranging from 11/2-2lbs. That would be around twice the size of your ordinary, everyday rat. But it’s not just their size that sets these rats apart. They practically glow with good health, and happiness. Their coats are thick and glossy, and big as they are, they’re in fantastic shape. Honestly, these rats look better than a lot of the people I know. We’ve got that wintry, pudgy, pasty thing going on. They don’t.

And did I mention how happy the rats are. They’re scampering around, using chairs as jungle gyms, turning trays into their see-saws and slides. That must be how they stay in such great shape. Who knows, maybe it’s all an act, but if it is, it’s certainly a good one. Do rats know how to lie? People do, of course, and some of our fellow primates, I think. Dogs I’m convinced are masters of deceit. My cat, on the other hand, is a pretty straightforward kind of guy. I’m not sure where rats would fall on the spectrum of mammalian honesty.

They could pass for woodland creatures, except, of course, they’re nowhere near any woods. They’re in a KFC. At least that’s what the news reports said at first. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite such a moment of self-righteous vegetarianism as I did when I saw that. I thought,” not my problem, rats in a KFC, take that, all you carnivores!” Or something like that. Fortunately, I kept it to myself, because I quickly realized this wasn’t just a KFC. It was one of those weird, hybrid, KFC/Taco Bells. And for this vegetarian, there’s nothing quite like a bean burrito from Taco Bell, when I’m on my way home from some kind of foolishness or other, at some ungodly hour, and nothing else is open. Those days are over though. I think it’s over between me and Taco Bell. At the very least, we need to take a break. A long one.

Given my tendency to look for signs and omens everywhere, I’m tempted to wonder if it doesn’t mean something, these rats from my first days in the city reappearing, when I’m starting to ask myself if this is still where I want to be. It probably doesn’t work so well though, to go looking to rats for answers to life’s big questions, no matter how happy they look. And odds are, by the time I’m asking a question like that out loud, I already know the answer, even if I’m not quite able to hear it yet.