A Return to NYC

I came into NYC for a quick hit and run.  I’m taking an all day class with the Gotham Writers Workshop, which I bought from Groupon at a great discount.

I work for an airline, so I get to fly for free, and my parents still live here so I’ve got a place to stay.  I take public transportation from Laguardia to the apartment I grew up in to maintain this great budget.

My parents are out of town so I have the place to myself, which hasn’t happened for awhile and I’ve been looking forward to it.  My best man, Aaron, is already in the city, waiting, but I still want to take the bus.  We met in college, and immediately bonded even though he was from New Jersey and shared his name with someone I knew in first grade and didn’t like (because he could read).

There’s not just one bus from Laguardia, but the one that gets me closest to home, is the Q33 to the E train.  The M60 can also get you there, but it’s not as direct, it leaves you uptown in Manhattan on 125th street, Harlem, where you have to catch the A train downtown.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Harlem, I used to go there every day when the High School of Music and Art was on 135th street, and I would go even further uptown after to play in the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s percussion ensemble on 152nd street.  I was their token white drummer (they had one white dancer too), so returning to Harlem has its appeal, but I decide to stick with what I know and let an M60 go by.  Also, the Q33 connects for the subway while still in Queens. The M60 has to contend with traffic into Manhattan. It’s rush hour on Friday night.  Is traffic into Manhattan bad on Friday night?  I don’t know. I grew up in Manhattan, and didn’t ever have to get there, but I let the three more M60s go by only because I let the first one go. I can’t admit that I made a mistake. When the fifth M60 comes without a Q33, and after a half hour of waiting, I get on.  Of course what do you think I see when I look out the back window?  No matter, I really would like to see Harlem again.

It’s not the first time I’ve been on the M60.  Years ago I took a cab to Randall Island to play softball, and couldn’t find my team.  Randall Island is technically part of Manhattan but in between Manhattan island, Queens and the Bronx and mostly just one big park.  I ended up there alone at night with no idea how to get off until I spotted the M60 bus which I took to 125th street and switched for the A train.

There’s a lot of traffic and I can’t help obsessing over the extra two hours it’s probably going to take me over cabbing it, while my friend is waiting, and I start getting mad at myself for doing things the hard way.  Then I remember something I learned in a previous Gotham class, about “distance,” which can turn frustration into humor.  Doing things the hard way has value to a writer.  Another exercise had us going someplace to observe and describe people’s physical characteristics in a way that tells you something about who they are.  I had gone to a coffee shop before work.  I remember seeing a man sigh before he got back into his car with his coffee and an overweight woman, wearing a dress that was too tight, walking with difficulty in high heals.  So here I am sitting on a bus full of people, with nothing to do but observe.  If I took a cab, I would have missed out on this opportunity.

I notice a couple of MTA workers, young black guys, standing in the middle of the bus in an animated conversation. Returning to NYC always reminds me of growing up here in the 70s and it occurs to me that for them, these days will someday seem like the 1970s seem to me.

To my left there are two white guys, at least one of whom looks gay (and so I guess, rightly or wrongly, that they both are), also heading to Harlem, talking about transferring there for the A.  In front of me, I listen to a conversation between strangers, one of whom is a clean cut, athletic 20 something from LA, here to see his girlfriend.  His family was originally from New York, so he’s been many times before, but he doesn’t look it.  He’s California.  The other guy is heavier, a Midwesterner, and looks it too, but he knows where to connect if you want to go to Grand Central.  “You can connect for the N,” he tells California, “at the next stop.”

“Did you say you can connect for the N?” I ask.

So, as much as I was beginning to think my return to Harlem was fate, my friend would be waiting for me and I really should get out of this traffic and into the city, that is, Manhattan, as soon as I can.  The N will leave me a little further from home than the E, but not by much.

So me and California Boy get off.  I lose track of him when I swipe my metro card and it doesn’t take my transfer.  Insufficient funds it says, when it’s supposed to transfer for free.  This happened to my entire family the last time we all flew into Laguardia.  It pisses me off because it means that if there was money on the card it would just charge me, when it shouldn’t.  The last time the clerk said he could see we came from the bus and he let us all in.  I explain the situation this time and the clerk won’t help.  “You need money on the card,”  he says.

“Its supposed to be free,” I say.

“I can tell you took the bus last, but I can’t tell when,” he says.

Maybe because this is not the advertised route from LaGuardia he doesn’t believe me.  Or maybe he’s just a dick.

I show him my boarding pass, I tell him I just came in from Atlanta (not knowing if that will hurt or help), that I got on the bus a half hour ago, that this happened to me before, that the cards are unreliable that he must know that, and that he should just let me in.  I tell him that I wish we could go back to tokens and that I miss New York.  I keep arguing with him, while my friend waits for me in Manhattan, beyond the point at which I care about paying another $2.25, because it feels like home to me.

I finally give up and pull out my spare Metro cards from the last time I came.  I had a few (thankfully I don’t have to give the clerk any money), and try them all until one works.

Only after I’m on the platform do I think that I could have jumped the turnstile.  In the old days, I would never have gotten caught for that.  They probably have cameras and face recognition technology now, linked into some central database and would either catch me right away or send me a ticket in the mail and I’d have to come back to fight it and would undoubtedly lose, but oh what a story that would have made.  I make a mental note to remember to do things the hard way.

Aaron would understand even if I got arrested and couldn’t show, because something similar once happened to him, and for this he actually blames me.  See, my father worked for the American Civil Liberties Union for 25 years, and I always prided myself in knowing my rights.

So one weekend Aaron and I were visiting the city from school and were heading out to a club.  We were on 26th street between 7th and 8th when a pack of screamers went off, you know the firecrackers that fly into the air?  It was some kind of box of them sending a dozen or so in quick succession, bouncing off buildings.  We stopped, to watch, actually we couldn’t pass, and when they were done, we continued on our way.  Then a police car pulled up .  The officer at the  wheel rolled down his window , said “having fun boys?” and motioned to us to come towards him.  As we complied, his partner, as if considering our approach a threat, jumped out of the car.

“Take it easy,” Aaron said, “we had nothing to do with those firecrackers.”

“Then who did?” he said.

We were detained on the street for questioning.  One cop shined his flashlight right into my eyes and I could see nothing but the light. I I asked him if this was an interrogation.  They wanted to see ID, and I said that this wasn’t South Africa and we weren’t required to carry ID.  The one talking to Aaron was telling him that I was messing with the wrong cop, while the “wrong cop” was asking me to open my winter coat so he could search me.  I said that I would not resist if he wanted to search me, but I wanted to make it clear to everyone here that I don’t give my permission.

“Would you rather come to the station?” He asked.

“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t. We’re heading out to see some Jazz.”

They let us go, without searching us, probably because despite macho cop’s annoyance with me, they figured they’d find nothing, and at best, be embarrassed in front of their colleagues and at worst get sued.

So years later, when Aaron had his own legal practice, he was taking a recruit out to a Knicks game, and sent the guy in while he got rid of two extra tickets.  He asked a security guard whether it was legal to sell the tickets and the guard told him it was ok beyond a certain perimeter.  So it surprised him when an undercover police officer asked him if he had any tickets, never even talked price and then showed his badge and asked him for ID.  Aaron, and this is the part he blames me for, said, “I’d be glad to comply if you can cite the statute or law that specifically gives you the authority to ask for it.”

The police officer manhandled him, handcuffed him and charged him with scalping, as well as resisting arrest and impeding the flow of foot traffic. The recruit, to his credit, came out looking for him, found out what happened and showed up at the police station to try to get him out, but the police were determined to teach him a lesson.  He had been handcuffed to a bench, next to a prostitute that wasn’t handcuffed.  And then he spent the night in jail.  He hired a lawyer to defend the charges because to represent yourself is to have a fool for a client, but all this guy wanted to do was plea, so Aaron did represent himself and eventually got all the charges dropped, though it took awhile.  That was doing things the hard way, and it does make for a good story.  He didn’t hire the recruit, though, and I never understood that.

But I paid for my fare, wasn’t likely to get arrested, and I’m not too disappointed about that actually.  At this stop it’s an EL (not a subway, but an elevated train) and the view from the Astoria Blvd platform in Queens where the M60 meets the N train is awesome.  Worth the money and the inconvenience.  I took a picture for Aaron to make it worth his wait.

I get an email saying he beat me to my parents building.  I start replying that I am on a New York City adventure waiting for the N.  Then the N comes, so I change it to say I’m on the N, twelve stops away, but by the time I finish the email, in which I tell him about the M60 and the booth clerk, and how I miss tokens, and how the N train is nicer than it used to be, I have to change it to nine stops, and I send it quickly before it becomes eight.  He says he’ll meet me where the N let’s out on 28th and Broadway.

I’m traveling light, so no need to drop anything off at my parent’s apartment.  Besides tokens, I often lament that it isn’t easy to find the kind of New York pizza I grew up with. But I recently read an article about how the famous Ray’s of Greenwich village, which was never typical New York Pizza, but definitely a landmark New York City institution, had reopened under a new name, after getting sued for using the name they made famous (they never claimed to be “the original,” just “the famous” Ray’s).  Due, I always thought, to the popularity of Famous Ray’s, other Ray’s mulitiplied like body snatchers throughout the years of my youth until they were everywhere and now Famous Ray’s, has to change its name.  Seems ridiculous, but except for what looked like a different spelling or a similar name that I don’t even know how to pronounce, ROIO’s, the place looks exactly like it always did, inside and out, and tastes like happiness.  I can almost hear Chuck Mangioni’s Feel So Good as I eat it.

We leave Rays after trying unsuccessfully to get a couple of photos outside in the dark

and walk back to my parent’s Chelsea apartment.  We drink some of their beer, and reminisce about old college colleagues with whom I’ve recently reacquainted myself on facebook (Aaron doesn’t do facebook).

One of them is his old girlfriend.  She friended me awhile back for reasons I don’t really understand.  Shortly after they had broken up, she had asked me for my honest opinion about whether Aaron would take her back.  She just wanted to know, and I appreciated that, so I gave her an honest answer.  “WHY NOT!” she screamed at me.  I send her a message that I’m here with Aaron.  She replies, “tell him fuck you in Hebrew.”  Thirty years later.  I don’t know why she’s so mad.  She has a new boyfriend.  I know this because she sent a message to all of her facebook friends that she had changed her status to “in a relationship” and was disappointed that no one had commented yet.  And then I had to suffer through all of the congratulatory replies.  I wanted to say, “I don’t really give a shit.”  I must have gotten fifty notifications. Not one person said they didn’t give a shit.

Full disclosure:  I learn in my class the next day that I really shouldn’t lie in a personal essay, but I think that if it helps the humor then it’s ok to stretch the truth a bit.  However, the fact is, I sent that message to Jill and received her response on a different trip into New York City and before she changed her status, though I’m sure it wasn’t her first relationship in thirty years.

I enjoy the class Saturday and spend Saturday night all alone in my parent’s house. I waited to hear back from another friend, who didn’t call, so I have no other plans.  I feel like a child again, alone in the apartment of my youth, especially when I hear the same ice cream truck music from the street below that I remember from the old days (where I live now, they play different music). I look out the window but I can’t see the truck.  Makes me wonder whether it really is the ice cream truck or just the pimped up car of someone with the same nostalgia I’m feeling right now.

Teachable Moments

We, enlightened parents, often talk about teachable moments, when our kids become aware of bad things in the world, or do something that gives us the opportunity to talk to them about the risks.  It’s when we teach rather than rule, or so we think.  For example, my sixteen year old daughter recently participated in a ruse in which she and her friends lied about where they were staying overnight in order to go to an unsupervised party at a boys house whose parents were out of town. They all arrived home the next morning with their parents none the wiser, or so they thought.

Teachable moment.

When I was growing up in New York City, there were unsupervised parties.  Or people would just go out.  The drinking age was eighteen, but there were places one could go for underage drinking. If you went to hear Jazz at the Village Vanguard or some other historic club, a two drink minimum was required.  You could order a coke, but if you couldn’t bear paying $3 for a coke (in 1979 that was a lot), you ordered a beer or something stronger and they served it, even to me at thirteen.  My brother and I would go to the third set, which started at 1AM, because Cliff, who worked the door and played basketball with my Dad, would let us in for free.  We’d light up a joint in what was already a cigarette smoke filled room, and then I’d be so tired that I couldn’t enjoy myself.

Cliff didn’t tell our parents any of these details, as far as I ever knew, and we liked, at least the idea, that we had freedom. In New York City you didn’t drive home, so we could later claim that we never did anything that stupid, but it wasn’t necessarily because we wouldn’t have.

There were those, as early as Jr. High School, who got into harder stuff and who didn’t turn out all right.  We could see it happening, and I wonder now why we allowed them to ruin their lives without telling anyone.  Maybe we thought it was obvious.  Maybe we didn’t think they would ruin their lives. Or maybe we thought of ourselves as adults and we didn’t like to be treated like children, as if we feared that if we didn’t grow up right then, we never would.

My dad knew, though. He knew we were out late, certainly.  He even knew we smoked pot, and drank.  He figured, rightly or wrongly, that we would do it anyway, and so he would allow it, though not without a guilt trip, or at least I felt guilty.  He wanted to know, so he could give us wise advice, like that we shouldn’t expect it to solve our problems.  He wanted to know so he could guide us, influence us and love us.  Yes, we can’t really love anyone we don’t know.  Parent’s want, or should want, to know their children, regardless.

So I’m not against knowing all about this party. I like knowing; it makes me feel closer to my daughter. And I suppose that’s a good enough reason to tell all the other parents too, and maybe in the end it’s better this way, but here’s why I wouldn’t have told.

It’s not because I don’t think they were drinking. I assume they were. I don’t assume the worst, and I don’t assume the best, but I’m not naive.  I’ll give them credit, actually, for staying overnight.  That was the responsible thing to do, rather than driving home, or even wandering around town in the middle of the night drunk and vulnerable.

And it’s not because I don’t think it was wrong to host a party while your parents are “at the lake.”

And it’s not because I’m on the kids side and think they have, like my old friend, Adam Yauck of the Beastie Boys, might have said,  “the right to party.”

I’m not so sympathetic that I care if they get busted and punished, they’ll get over it and will tell the story in years to come.

The reason is solely because of the means in which we obtained the information, which was that one of the parents employed covert surveillance on her daughter’s iphone.  Is this why so many parents buy their kids iphones?  And here I just thought the kids were being spoiled.  Well, maybe some of them are, I’ll give their parents the benefit of the doubt.  I admit I was once tempted to employ such GPS surveillance myself, but it was because I was worried about abduction.

This is indeed, to me, a very teachable moment, an opportunity to teach the kids that they have rights. It is an opportunity to teach them about what they should expect from their country, their school too, and even their parents.  Do we teach them, instead, that they have no expectation of privacy, that it’s ok to track their whereabouts without their knowledge? That would be unconstitutional if the government did it, and it should be.

These are tomorrow’s citizens, almost literally.  In a year and a half most of them will be voting (even if not legally drinking). We need them to know what they should stand up for and that the rights we purport to value, that define us as patriots, are meaningful.

Whether parents are using iphones. or the British are searching colonists houses looking for violations of the stamp act or whatever it was that inspired our founding fathers to write the 4th Amendment, it feels about the same. Parents, of course, are not bound by the constitution, but if we profess to believe in it, we should adhere to it’s principles.

If they aren’t “keeping it in the road” so to speak, there will be other evidence.  Someone will throw up at a party, and their parents will smell it. If a child is doing hard drugs and/or troubled in a serious way, there will be signs, and we should look for them. We don’t need to violate their rights, and the rights of all their friends as it turns out,  without a good reason for concern.

So, what do we do, now that we know? There’s only one choice, in my mind: we exclude the evidence.  In the legal venue this is called “the exclusionary rule,” and it means that if evidence is obtained illegally, it can’t be used. Without it, the right is meaningless.  We should not have had this evidence, and so simply put, we shouldn’t spread it around, and in any case, the kids shouldn’t get in trouble.

Of course, We can’t un-know something that we now know, but we can choose how we act on it.

Busted

I feel bad for my daughter.  Busted for being at a party without adult supervision while pretending to be at a sleepover with a girlfriend.  She wants to know how we found out but we won’t tell.  The poor girl says they just wanted to hang out.   “We played wii” she says.  She doesn’t show any signs of hangover.  They are 16 and if she tells me there wasn’t any alcohol, I don’t necessarily believe that.  I am not so much concerned that she disobeyed me as I am that she might be putting herself at risk with choices she makes.  In less than 2 years she will be an adult and mistakes will be hers to make, so if anything I want to guide her rather than to punish her.  But she, a nervous nellie to some degree already, a rule follower and someone who cares very much about being trusted (I do trust her), looked mortified and close to tears after we very calmly told her what the consequences had to be.  Then she went into her room, where she is probably letting people know that the cat is out of the bag and worrying that people will think that she was the one who spilled the beans.  We wouldn’t tell her how we knew, but suffice it to say that this isn’t the world we grew up in.

Funny

I have this idea of trying to write each day about something funny that happened.  So here’s something that’s really funny, but I need to be quick because I don’t have much time.  See I didn’t wake up early today like I usually try to do in order to write and do yoga and sometimes pushups and lifting of barbells because I was up during the night.  I was up during the night because my 13 year old daughter kept us all up.  She’s gotten into the habit of playing soothing sounds on her ipod to go to sleep, waves of the ocean, birds chirping, chimes jingling in the wind, or a combination of all three.  If her brother hears it from his room he gets mad, because it keeps him up.  It all started for me when he knocked on out bedroom door and woke us up  to complain.  So I come out and tell her to turn it down enough so that he can’t hear it and she starts screaming at met that he can’t hear it. I get angry at her and  she says she’ll turn it down when I GET OUT of her room.  So I do, and I tell my son to let me know if she doesn’t turn it down and she screams back that she already has.  I go back to bed.  Next think I know she is screaming “OPEN MY DOOR” over and over again at the top of her lungs because my son, who could still hear takes what I consider a very reasonable approach by closing her door.  My wife and I intervene and she won’t shut up no matter what we say, so we threaten to beat the living shit out of her, hold her down after she attacks her mother, finally ground her for a month and take her ipod away.  Now she’s screaming GIVE IT BACK at the top of her lungs over and over again, while her mother and I are looking at each other outside her room at a loss as to what to do.  This goes on for an indeterminate amount of time before we decide that the only thing we can do is to video record it.  I get the camera and stand in her room videotaping her for 25 minutes before she winds down softly enough that I decline my wifes offer to let me take the kids to a hotel.  During this time she has ended up on the floor, where I assume she slept all night.  Did I mention she’s gifted?

Sunday

Woke up late.  Did some pushups and barbell lifting.  Went for a bikeride.  Felt weak.  Came home, showered.  Made steak and eggs with a piece of filet mignon that was left over from the belated birthday dinner my wife made me, having left me on my actual birthday to take the kids somewhere for September break.  Watched tv.  Read a little of the Maltese Falcon.  Went to Best Buy to replace a headset that actually wasn’t the problem so daughter could do her rosetta stone on her windows XP.  Went to T-mobile and upgraded the wife’s phone, then found the same phone for less at Target.  Came home had apple pie and ice cream for dinner.  Watched extremely loud and incredibly close, which wasn’t a bad movie.  Looked at pictures from my wife and kid’s trip. Cleaned the kitchen, waited for the rain to stop, then let the dog out and took out the composting. Braided my daughter’s hair. Turned out the lights. Went to bed.