I was going to Internist Associates on Crouse for some blood work. Blood work, something that I have always heard about and never had to have before now. The things one discovers when one is ill; the things one discovers, growing older. They never did blood work when I was sick as a kid. How do you feel? OK, take this and get better. Don’t they trust me any more?
The blood work, however, was not harrowing. “I’ll close my eyes,” I told the technician. “OK,” she said. Stick, stick. “Done,” she said. “Confirm name and date of birth?” “Um,” I fumbled, disoriented. “Um. Ben Burdick. June 12, nineteen ninety… one.” “Got it,” she said, “you’re all done.” “In case I forgot?” I said, half-jokingly. I’d forgotten my doctor’s name when I had to sign in earlier. “No,” she said, kindly, “just to make sure the sticker printed right.”
“When will I get the results?” I asked. “Few days.” “Oh,” I said. “Um.” I didn’t quite know how to say it. “I mean, I guess I’ll just have to wait. I was just told not to drink alcohol until I got the results back…” She laughed. “It should be done by tomorrow,” she whispered, knowingly.
No, the blood work was pretty easy: in and out in ten minutes. It was the parking lot that ruined my morning. Ah, the parking lot: a despicable creation that three and a half years of life in New York have only caused me to hate more on those occasions when, returning to Syracuse, I am forced to enter and exit one. I could have parked on the street cheaper and easier; I parked in the lot, I imagine, out of pure habit, because that’s what you do when you go to the doctor. No spot on the first floor; no spot on the second floor. A near-scrape with a guy coming around the corner too fast. And then these two guys.
I was furious. Maybe I was already aggravated by Syracuse’s lights, which made it take ten minutes to go a mile and a half in almost zero-traffic conditions. (As I said to my father the other day, Syracuse’s lights, unlike New York’s, are timed abysmally. It’s not just that they don’t match up, so you get a few in a row; it’s that they do match up against you. It’s not a case of “no one took the time to plan this;” if the lights were totally random you’d probably do better. It took effort to make them that inefficient. But I digress.)
But this isn’t just about me having to go two floors up. I can handle a little walk, and my time isn’t so precious that I’ll throw a temper tantrum about an extra three minutes searching for a spot. This is about the other guy, the drivers of these cars, license plates EWU4441 and FTM7838. Because when you get right down to it, what is the purpose of parking in this way? It doesn’t save them time. Maybe it saves five seconds in which you don’t have to think about even a tiny bit of aptitude at coloring inside the lines, but I doubt they’re even thinking that. There is almost no direct advantage to the driver of these cars. The purpose, when you get right down to it, is nothing but to say to everyone who drives past: Fuck You. Right? Fuck You, this says, I made it harder for you to find a spot and it didn’t even help me, I did it just to say fuck you!
In New York, we have a motto. That motto is: Fuck me? No, fuck you.
Consider this: an app for smartphones, integrated with the camera. You upload a picture and the license plate of the offending car. Then you see if they’ve been uploaded before; you can search by license plate. Maybe a comment feature. That’s all. No linkage to personally identifying information, no integration with Facebook, just a standalone little app to help identify repeat offenders. Would that do anything?
Or would their response be the same as what they said in the first place? You think I’m an asshole? What do I care what you think?
Isn’t it funny how quickly the travails of a cyclist become the mundane fuck-yous of every other driver in America? The culture runs deep; it’s not a pleasant culture, but it’s here to stay. You might say it’s in our blood.
In New York, you can get a pretty good estimate of the height of the cloud base just by looking at the skyline, as long as it is under 1,454 feet above sea level. It is probably 1,100 feet or so, plus or minus four floors. My eyes are not that good, and in any case the transition from clear to cloud at the top of the Empire State Building is not a rigid line you might draw with a pen, but a penciled, shaded, white-grey blur that it is hard to tell where it starts and where it ends.
I am in Greenpoint. Scratch that: I am at Green Point, the actual point, where Newtown Creek conflows with the East River, spanned by the Pulaski Bridge to my right. A large orange piece of fabric, probably burlap for its remarkable resistance to the water, is floating fifty feet or so away. It is not bobbing up and down or moving in any particular manner: it is suspended, static, in the calm waters of the creek. A barge big enough for a hundred shipping containers is idling on my other side. The tires that form its bumper are big enough for a large tractor. I wonder how often it bumps into things.
My walk this morning was pleasant enough. I decided that for the first time in recent memory I should wander quite aimlessly, with a general direction and nothing more in mind. That direction was north, and so here I am. In Monsignor McGolrick Park I imagined I was in a different city, an unnamed foreign city, a city that still had things left to discover, and all of a sudden there were. You will no doubt think that a silly thing to say: New York has eight million people, five boroughs, hundreds of neighborhoods I have never seen, and this one less than an hour’s walk from my house. Things left to discover? What are you thinking? But familiarity breeds, if not contempt, indifference.
How often do I travel over the bridge to class, watching the skyline, and fail to see the majesty of the buildings below me? How often do I ride through Chinatown and fail to remember the tens of thousands of lives, each unique, each worth learning about? An answer comes to me now as I write this: because there is just too much, because there is no way to meet them all, and so I prefer to ignore them. Can that possibly be right? Does that even make sense?
In McGolrick there is a memorial to the young men of Greenpoint who gave their lives in the Great War so that our government might not perish from the earth. It is majestic, thankful, glorious and without irony. I have always noticed — I have probably remarked on it before, here — the contrast between the exaltation of the valor of combat in World War I memorials, and the subdued, somber, reflection on death and inhumanity that is more common to the stones of World War II and later. Something inside me briefly wonders why they did not, in 1945, tear down these columns and replace them with trees.
I make my way up through the industrial section, the lumber exchange, the water-treatment plant. The plant looks most of all like a giant lemon juicer, which I think is funny. I do not, at the time, consider that the lemon juicer is probably the reason I can drink the water in my house at all, despite living just a few blocks from a waterway that rivals Onondaga Creek for toxicity. I know it is poisonous because the sign at the entry to the Nature Walk says so. Do not swim in this water, it says, or eat fish caught here. It is not a suggestion.
The Nature Walk is a bizarre little place, concrete-walled at the beginning, a fence dividing you from the shore later. There are supposedly egrets here. That is what makes it nature. Otherwise, you would think you were walking through an industrial park opposite a garbage dump, which is exactly what you are doing.
I think I have walked enough and take the B43 bus home. I have been wandering for about three hours, not all of it a beeline walk, but it is nice to use my new unlimited card. The trip is one and three-quarters miles. I get out at Metropolitan and cross the street. I reflexively check to see if I have left anything on the bus. Keys, yes, phone, yes, wallet, yes, journal. Journal. Journal. Journal. My reflexes are too slow. Why am I doing this now and not ten seconds ago. Journal. I need that. My head begins to spin. My body spins. The bus is two blocks away. I break into a sprint, not a run, arms flying up and down in rhythm, my feet only barely touching the ground, my lungs doing quadruple overtime. The bus is still moving. People are turning to look at me. I try to go faster. I am catching up. Past Devoe, past Ainslie, past Powers. The run is 300 meters, three-quarters of a lap, and it is probably my fastest time ever: but it is not enough. The bus makes it through Grand before a red light and I am still half a block behind when the cars begin to move, tons of steel and aluminum moving at twenty miles an hour between me and where I need to be. I helplessly watch the bus continue down Graham and only now consciously realize that I have never run that fast in my life. I sit down in the middle of the sidewalk and catch my breath. It is far away, like the bus. It takes a long time.
When I feel physically able to, I walk home dejectedly. I file a claim with the MTA Lost and Found, more as a matter of course than out of any real sense of hope. I try not to let myself think that the whole walk has been ruined, but of course it has been. I want to clear my head by writing and my anguish is redoubled.
I will have to buy a new one: but those entries are gone, gone, gone: what were they for? It is still cloudy, it is raining a little, what were they for?
It is Tuesday morning. My alarm is going off. It is the now-famous iPhone marimba tune, the one that almost caused a murder at the New York Philharmonic when somebody’s went off during the best part of the symphony, the Default. I do not want to get out of bed. I have hit snooze twice. It is now 9:15 and I have class in an hour and forty-five minutes and it is too nice out to justify not biking and we have nothing for breakfast. We have nothing for breakfast except bagels. We are out of cream cheese, we are out of jam. We are not out of butter, but what kind of a breakfast is that?
Neither breakfast nor the lack thereof is the reason I do not want to get out of bed. Yesterday I interviewed for Teach For America. It went well. It went quite well, I think. I was nervous for my five-minute lesson and stumbled a bit; I was nervous for my personal interview, and stumbled a bit. But that is normal. I made a good impression, I think. I do not now, Tuesday morning, know if I will get in; but I think I might.
And that scares me.
It is all, for a not-so-brief moment, too real. It is all too soon. It was only yesterday, it was only this morning, it was only five minutes ago, it is only now a fresh-out-of-college, fresh-faced, optimistic teacher might be teaching me seventh-grade algebra. Where has it all gone? Where has Nepal (or New Jersey) gone?
“They are the best years of your life,” Andrew tells me today at Dojo.
I do not write all this to bore you, or to drop my existential crises on you, or even because the purpose of this blog post is to record the thoughts involuntarily racing through my head when I went to bed Monday and awoke on Tuesday; I wrote long ago that the purpose of this blog is for me, and for me alone, and I write this only because if I ever look back and try to figure out why it was I went to Harriman, that is why. You do not really need to know about this; you need to know about Harriman.
I call Brandon and ask if I could borrow his car. I need to get out of the city, I say; I need a personal day, a day to think. Where will you go, he asks. I don’t know, I say, maybe Long Island. Okay. I am at the car when he calls me back. I fear he has reconsidered. You need to relax, I think he will say, you need not to be behind the wheel, you need to calm down. Can you pick me up? he asks.
It takes almost forty minutes in traffic to get to the West Side, where Brandon is, and I listen to a whole Streetlight album, something that I only do now in the car. For some reason it goes well with the movement of the wheel, even when the wheel is not moving, as it is not on the bridge where I sit, moving a few feet every so often, for the bulk of the time. Another twenty minutes to get to 57th Street, where the Henry Hudson Parkway whisks us the next hundred and thirty blocks in a blink to the GWB. Through Jersey, past Brandon’s house, to the park, where rocks come from nowhere and no one is around.
There is something about leaving New York that isn’t like anything else. We discuss this in the car ride. Translation is impossible. A transcendent experience is something that is of necessity indescribable: you can talk about it only really to say that you can’t talk about it. “Watching my grandmother die was like that,” I say to Brandon: “it’s not like anything else.”
“Can you describe it at all?”
I hesitate. Of course, I can say things about it: it was cold in the room, and not; it took about five hours, I think, or maybe five minutes, or maybe five years. “No,” I say, “no.” I know that in fact I was in the room about five hours. What does that mean? The physicists will tell you there is nothing but clock time, that subjective time is an illusion, that while clocks may differ and while time may be relative from place to place it is a perfectly measurable and exact thing as long as the motions of your measuring device are taken into account. There was no clock in that room and it may well have taken fifty years.
We arrive at the park and walk into the woods. Within a minute I have to stop. “The water,” I say. “I have only been walking in here a minute and already I notice: I can hear the water.” A creek flows down the side of the hill (mountain?), bubbling and murmuring and sliding over the rocks in its way. It seems bright, somehow, surreal.
We walk off trail, up a hill, and sit on a log. We survey our climb: it has been several hundred feet already. The rocks were deposited here so long ago no one knows. The geologists will tell you the Catskills are young, only a few million years or so: that does not change the fact that they have been here forever. This is what I think about: that the Catskills have been here since the last Ice Age deposited them here, and also that they have been here forever, and that there is no contradiction.
The hill culminates in a flat plateau maybe an acre in area, with a few large boulders here and there that looked like God’s chess pieces. We explore them, and we wonder about them. There is a hole that looks as if it might have once been the seat of a boulder about ten feet away. The boulder must weigh fifty tons. We wonder how it got there. I realize that no one in the world knows the answer to this simple question: where did that boulder come from? Someone might be able to tell you: that boulder is part of a glacial deposit, and it came from the north. But where was it before? The North is not enough: that boulder is a fifty-ton piece of Earth and it must have come from somewhere specific. And no one knows where. It is not just that I do not know: no one else knows either, and no one ever will.
Somehow this is enough for me.
We walk back to the car and spend the night at Brandon’s mom’s house in Jersey. The dog, Champ, welcomes us. Sheila (his mom) cooks us dinner. We build a fire in the fireplace. I feel less tense. Even when I am in the city I will always know that boulder is there, that moss is there, that stream is there.
The snow was about an inch and a half deep in the middle of the road. An inch and a half: for an inch and a half in Syracuse we didn’t even bother to shrug. An inch and a half: that’s all? we would not even bother to think, because everyone knows how to drive in the snow, and everyone has thick-treaded boots, and an inch and a half is not enough to make a snow man, or to close the schools, or do much of anything besides make it take an hour and forty-five minutes to get back from the school play in the Town of Onondaga late on a Saturday night in 2009 — but that is another story.
Things are different here, and when I say things are different I mean that my primary means of transport is a bicycle. An inch and a half may be nothing to a car, but it is potentially deadly to a cyclist with smooth tires, meant for asphalt, not for ice. This morning, it was raining, and I rode to the Hewes M — the L still, still out of service. After last weekend I understand how and why it may take some time to return, but it doesn’t make it easier. When I left Meyer it was snowing, and I walked to Broadway-Lafayette, slipping and sliding, listening to This American Life on the podcast.
Winter is New York is the most romantic time — everywhere else, the snow is like a blanket for the ground, but here it’s like a blanket for the sky too. You are alone with the buildings and it is the only time it is quiet.
Over the bridge, I watched the pedestrian path (the south side, people, is the pedestrian path) rise and fall as we made our way east. No one was on it. I was not looking forward to my ride back. I got off at Hewes, found my bike and set out, but soon realized the futility of my Iditarod home. Slipping on feet is a nuisance; slipping on a bike is much worse. Even in first gear my tires simply would not hug the road. After a few painstaking blocks I gave up and started to walk, but with my hands not-so-slowly petrifying around the handlebars I had no choice but to lock up the bike to a pole and walk the rest of the way home, hands in pocket. I looked at the street sign so I could find the place tomorrow. Manhattan and… it was covered, white, illegible. I thought about checking my phone but it was too cold. I was sure I could find it later. The walk home was brutal. I put on pajamas when I got indoors.
Having gone to bed early, I awoke at 3 a.m. in an oddly warm sweat. My radiator has been deadweight since I moved in, not responding no matter how many times I idly twist its knob, but that was not a problem until this week, when, it appears, the hurricane brought winter. I called the landlord and he turned on whatever he needed to turn on, and then we had heat, and life was good. But something wasn’t right. There was a loud, very loud squealing sound of exactly the sort not usually produced by radiators. Knocks and pings and white noise I have heard, but this was like a kettle on to boil. I walked over to the radiator and it was venting steam. Fuck, I thought, I’m going to have to call George; but for the moment, I was able to fix it by shutting off the valve. No heat, but no steam. I went back to sleep.
I awoke and Ricky was here all too soon. Brandon and I jumped in the car, picked up bagels and Diego and some supplies from friends who wanted to help but couldn’t make it out, and we set out down Bushwick Avenue. Past Myrtle, past Gates, past the end of Eastern Parkway, the end of Eastern Parkway, and we were just getting started. At Broadway Junction there is a five-way, well, junction, though if you count the trains to the west (the L, the A, and the LIRR at East New York) there are eleven directions you can go. Bushwick bears right onto Pennsylvania (is there a 1600? I mused out loud — the answer is yes, in Starrett City). “Direct me, GPS-holder,” Ricky said; “stay on here till you can’t anymore,” was my answer. When we couldn’t we got on the Belt Parkway, that ring dividing the city from the ocean, until it couldn’t anymore. We passed Brandon’s old house in Marine Park. We passed an abandoned airfield, bombed-out hangars, and this is still New York, even over the bridge where at the far end we saw the dump, with a line of garbage trucks ten, twelve deep waiting to drop off their refuse, and my first thought was why would they have a dump at the landing of such a majestic bridge, on such a beautiful island, and my second thought was “oh.”
We arrived at the church and had all of our food, our bagels and tea and bread and jam and beans and corn, placed into piles immediately. Residents picked through the piles and took what they wanted. The bagels were gone in literally one minute. We were told to divide into one of three groups: men, women and people with boots. We went to the boot crowd, but weren’t quite sure why they were splitting up men and women. Neither, apparently did one of the organizers: “No sense in splitting up people who came together,” he shouted, and directed us to a woman with a clipboard who apparently knew what was up. She quickly dispatched us to a house on her list, on “Beach One-Two-Six.” “Is that the apartment number?” Ricky asked. No, out here, all the streets just have “beach” in front of the number, in case you forget where you are.
And you were on the beach. If I needed any reminder — no, that’s silly, because I did need a reminder, of how devastating a storm can be. For a week I had lingered and loitered in my apartment, with lights, with water, with gas, with heat — well, some heat — and the worst I had seen was the dried-off, pumped-out, darkened East Village. No, here the storm had brought the beach up into the streets. Sand inches deep covered the road, many feet deep where people had shoveled it up like snowdrifts, impossibly persistent snowdrifts in November. If I just leave it here, will it melt?
A brief pause: the woman, Jaime, with a voice that sounded unbelievably calm for unbelievable stress, the woman with the list of houses, the list compiled from people posting on the Rockaway Emergency Plan Facebook page, posting their name and address and that they needed help, not what help they needed because all anyone needed was hands — nobody asked her for credentials. Nobody asked if she worked with the church. Nobody seemed to need anything official. Tell me where to go and I’ll go. Tell me what you need and I’ll get it. That was how this operated. NYPD stood by, not directing, not interfering. There was a huge Occupy-affiliated presence here, but as far as I know there were no incidents with the cops. Who is going to arrest us for carrying shovels?
The first house we tried we were turned away from. “There’s nothing you can do,” the man, Jimmy (I think), shouted to me over the growl of the generator. “The place is flooded floor to ceiling in the basement. I’m running the pump now. See if you can come back in the afternoon.” The second on our list was a place on Beach 133rd and when we arrived I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A few adults and three little kids, all wearing face masks, in the driveway, moving around, shoveling out a driveway that was a foot deep in sand. Next door, two cars were wrapped around a pole; the side of one looked as if it had been dragged over gravel for a couple of miles. We introduced ourselves and were welcomed with open arms. Their family situation was complicated. Patti, who I originally took to be the house’s owner, told us to help get stuff out of the basement. It was grimy, moldy, with half an inch of water still on the ground and no light to come by. The windows were smashed. We spent a few minutes carrying up small items assembly line style. Then Patti’s sister, Tara, who seemed like she had come in from out of town and was less shell-shocked, handed me a shovel.
The next few hours were repetitive manual labor: my favorite way to spend a Sunday: no, really. Fill a wheelbarrow. Dump the wheelbarrow. Fill the other wheelbarrow. Dump the other wheelbarrow. The sand grew higher in the roadside and shallower in the garage. Diego made friends with the five-year-old twins as he took the lonesome job of keeping the pile from spilling back into the sidewalk as it grew. Meanwhile, Brandon and Ricky carried things up from the basement, smashed up waterlogged cabinets and tables and sorted it into “keep,” on the lawn, and “trash,” on the curb. Almost everything was trash. This painting? Frame’s moldy. Trash. This table? Moldy. Trash. These pictures? Covered in sand. Soggy trash. This fridge? Electrical plus was under water for two days. Trash. The truck came and we threw in doorframes, mattresses, everything. I found a childish fascination with the awesome power of the truck’s compactor. “Throw it in,” the driver told me when I tried to break a piece of siding in half to fit. “This truck eats everything.” Everything. I noticed at the side of the trash pile a bag, filled with sand, but with a ceramic piece poking out of it. I investigated: it was a small, inexpertly made ceramic box, the kind you get to do for an art project in elementary school. I wondered if everyone had a different idea than my parents about what should be kept. I decided to put it back on the lawn on the off chance that Patti or someone had accidentally just “thrown that bag of goddamn sand in the trash pile.”
Other volunteers came by and offered us coffee and donuts, which we accepted with gusto. A few went around back to help with another part of the house. There was just so much to do. And this was one house. Tara came around shouting. “Ice cold beer!” she said, “I found some ice cold Bud Lights!” I wondered how there could be ice cold Bud Lights when all of the power lines were waterlogged. I didn’t wonder too hard to drink it. Brandon later informed me that when they had prised open one of the refrigerators, the Bud Lights had fallen out of it, surrounded by fifty gallons of seawater.
The day wore on; the sun got lower. The driveway showed its face and we finally managed to sweep out the garage and put the “keep” stuff back in. We finally decided it was time to go. The drive was clear; the basement was utterly transformed. I didn’t get a picture of the basement “before.” But imagine your basement and how messy it is if you are a normal person. These were normal people and then their basement got four feet of water in it. It was quite a change. As I left the front door the last time, grabbing my coat, I noticed someone had put the little ceramic box on the porch, next to the door. It was a “keep” after all.
We bid our farewells. The twins, Erin and Sean, hugged Diego goodbye. “Bye, Diego,” they said in high-pitched little-kid voices and I about shit myself for cuteness. “Come back this summer,” Patti told us, “we’re going to have a party.” Bruce Springsteen played in my head on the walk back to the car. Tell me, how do we get this thing started?
The woman who actually owned the house, Patti and Tara’s mother, is 96 years old and ignored the order to evacuate Zone A (and being one house from the actual beach, she was prime Zone A.) She slept Monday night while her aide anxiously watched the neighbor’s cars wash up and down the street. When she left her house Tuesday morning, she saw the beach in her front yard and fainted. Family rushed in from all around the region. But when I saw the job that awaited them, when I first got there, I was stunned. Family is not enough. It would have taken them days if not weeks just to dig out and salvage what was left of the basement. All I could think was: why didn’t I go sooner?
The cemeteries in New York are not much older than those in the farms around Meyrin, but they are a little older. They are just as orderly, though not quite so rigorously polished as Beth Moses out in Pinelawn. Calvary is an Irish cemetery near Woodside that I biked past on the way home from a friend’s house in Queens, and could not help but wander in. All of the graves are In Loving Memory and cost tens of thousands of dollars, I am sure. I wondered who picks up the stones that are knocked over by the storm, surely a job requiring power equipment. Will the Carrolls be on the hook for labor and materials? What if they are all dead and gone? Will the cemetery do it pro bono? Or will the Carrolls’ cross become like the Sweeneys’, gone, remembered only by a marquee subtitle?
I am sitting on the bus flying through the Delaware Water Gap, a mountain pass carved out by Washington’s river in its urge to get to the lowest ground possible across the ridge. The rain is coming down hard. I hear it on the roof of the bus like a shower. When I wake up in the mornings, I take a shower, even if I took one the night before; if I am in a rush I might just rinse off without soap, but unless I am in a real hurry I need that shower to open my eyes and wash the crust of sleep away. And now too the rain has awakened me from a nap. It is refreshing, even though it is gray. It is cold and wet and real.
The driver is not slowing down despite the rain and I remember that hailstorm in Interlaken. This rain is nothing special; it is the same shower I take every day, the same earthly water that is in the New York Bay or Onondaga Lake. It is slowing down now; it has served its purpose, alerted me we are in New Jersey, told me not to have a fire tonight.
Why do we go upstate? What is it about the house that seems to make everything okay, even if only for an afternoon and a morning?
The Big K Motel, I learned, has only been called that since the eighties, but that is before I was born, so it is functionally a part of the landscape. Brandon’s grandfather bought the house in Rock Hill and named it the Big K Motel: a place for Knopps of all generations and branches to escape the city, later to escape New Jersey. It is no rustic cabin, like Hunter’s grandparents’ place on Seneca Lake: that pile of logs on top of a pile of logs, with its wood stove and compost toilet, and the addition out back. Hunter’s grandparents’ place is behind a vineyard. You take a right off of 414 and the Prius can barely handle the bumps in the gravel-and-dirt path designed for tractors, or whatever it is they use for viticulture, and you drive all the way to the end of the path and park next to some grapes. Then you take your beer and your backpack out of the car and walk down a trail, unpaved, no steps, just a clearing of trees on the hillside, and go down, down to the cabin. You pass a few other cabins on the way: they are connected by a system of wooden bridges hacked together years ago by the older Andrews and his family and friends with some nails and and axe. And you finally get there and drop your things and you are surrounded by trees, on all sides: the sun barely shows through the canopy, and you cannot see your neighbors. And then you take the stairs the last hundred feet, the stairs built into the side of the cliff, and you go to the kayaks and you are alone.
The Big K Motel is not like that: you can drive up to the front door, and there are other houses next to it, including the one where the Car Guy lives, who has bought the house next door to rent out, and wants to buy some land off of Brandon’s family to park his fourth (fifth?) car. There is a town center a five-minute drive away, with a grocery store, a pizza place, and an excellent diner. Five minutes would get you back to the car from Hunter’s place; the nearest grocery store is probably twenty-five minutes. You are not alone, not really: but it is enough, almost, it is enough to sit on the back porch and look at the lake and watch the ripples coming in from across and to take deep breaths and know you are not in the city.
Why is it so important to escape? How does it make everything okay? It doesn’t, really, but it makes it okay for a little. I read Philip Roth. I got no work done. But I read American Pastoral, and I dissolved for a minute into that story, just as Nathan Zuckerman dissolves for a book into that story. He is at his high school reunion, his forty-fifth, maybe, I forget. He has become old. And there is a girl– a woman there– he can’t help calling everyone girls and boys– and the girl is remembering a hayride they took together when they were kids, when they kissed but she wouldn’t let him undo her bra, and she is regretting it and starts to cry, and you never really find out exactly why she is crying. You can make assumptions, of course, you can read into it, but Nathan doesn’t, because right then is when he starts thinking about the Swede and the Swede’s bomber daughter and how it would be great to write a book about that and what happened all those years ago, not on that hayride but in a house in western Jersey he has never been to, and right then, eighty pages in, that is when the book starts. I have read another eighty pages and we have not popped out of his thoughts, we have not heard from Nathan, for all we know we are in the Swede’s head and only his. And somewhere far away, the aged girl is still crying about not letting Nathan Zuckerman get to second base forty-five years ago, and Nathan doesn’t care, and somehow despite how interesting is the story with the bomber daughter and the Communists and the glove factory, I do, and I guess that is why Philip Roth won a Pulitzer.
We went apple picking on Sunday, somewhere around exit 123, and now we have lots of apples. My European friends would be appalled at the amount of pesticides we found on these apples: enough that gravity pulled it to the bottom of each, forming a Signs-like symbol, a surreal, alien marker, warning the bugs to stay away. When you shined these apples it was like dusting an unlived-in house. We washed them and made apples and honey for the New Year. Making apples and honey is easy: you just put them next to each other. If only it were all so easy.
I never really decided to grow my hair long; like so many other major and minor life changes, it just sort of happened without any active input on my part. As it turns out, continued growth is sort of the default state for hair. People really have asked me: “What did you have to do to it?” Nothing, identically nothing: if you don’t cut it, this is the result. The last time I was in a barber shop was May of 2011. It was at the Supercuts on the North Side of Syracuse, near Denny’s house; it was on Memorial Day, and the place on Westcott I had wanted to go to was closed. But the corporate world knows no holidays when there are profits to be extracted.
I got my hair cut quite short, shorter than I was planning, and didn’t much like it. And that was that. I just didn’t go back to a barber.
When the fall came, some people started to suggest to me that it might be time to get a cut. “Why?” I thought. “What’s wrong with this?” It grew past my eyebrows, then past my eyes. I began to slick it back with gel to maintain my vision. It was some work, but I assure you, very little thought went into the use of gel to maintain an appearance; it was all functional, really. I just couldn’t be bothered to cut it.
The spring came. At some point, my hair surpassed its record length, which was probably sometime in early high school. Every night before going to bed, I’d look in the mirror and notice its change. Could that really be me? I looked so different from my self-image. And where did this beard come from, I thought. The beard was more of a conscious decision; I’ve said I’d rather shave my head than my chin. I haven’t actually shaved my own chin since January 20, 2009, when scraggly senior me thought it was appropriate to go to a black-tie inauguration dinner at which we saw no identifiable famous people but did eat lots of free oysters intended for more important people than us. But somehow, combined with the wild hair, the beard looked a little foreign, a little– dare I say it?– old. When did I turn twenty, I thought.
At some point Maya cut my hair while I sat backwards on a chair on Greenwich Street, staring at the refrigerator. There was no mirror. I can’t see myself, I thought. I can never see myself, I reminded myself: I always take my glasses off at the barber’s and am blind as a bat. I trusted her with my hair as I would a barber. The scissors came close to my eye and I did not move. I don’t consider it a Hair Cut, just a trim, just to keep it out of my eyes, just to keep it off my neck.
I put it in a pony tail. I looked a little like a girl from behind. I grew the beard longer to compensate. My friends at CERN have probably never seen me without a pony tail, and it is strange to think that to them it is probably as integral a part of my appearance– as much a marker that I am me and not someone else– as my beard, or my glasses. And yet it is not so weird, after all, I am the one that’s been doing it: waking up every morning and grabbing first for my glasses, second for my hair tie.
I looked in the mirror last night and suddenly it no longer felt right. “I am getting a haircut tomorrow,” I declared to Gabe. “Cool,” he replied, evidently missing the gravity of my statement. In some ways, I was like a child going for his first haircut. Will it hurt? How can you just cut it off like that– you can’t do that to an arm.
I sat in the barbershop for 45 minutes, reading the Post. Only a single, older man was cutting. He had pictures of his grandkids on the counter. Finally he came to me. “Been a long time?” he asked, draping me in a yellow plastic robe. “Long time,” I answered.
(Pictures: Before, before, after, obviously)
I arrived in Bern from Interlaken still a little shaken by the hail. I got on a train to Zurich, hoping it might be the same one my friends Brandyn, Lydia, Olli and Heberto were on. They were coming from Geneva to Zurich as well, but couldn’t hike. No luck. There is a train between Bern and Zurich every four or five minutes at rush hour, really, and finding theirs would be impossible. It isn’t a long ride so I prepared myself for sleep. The sun was in my eyes, though, and the train kept going through tunnels and the pressure changes, it seemed, repeatedly brought my ears in and out of existence. So it was a pleasant surprise when Cameron called. “What car are you in?” he asked. “Um,” I answered. “I think I’m on your train,” he said. As we pulled into the station I saw him on the platform and I waved to him.
One time in New York, I was at Penn Station, dropping off my girlfriend at the time, before heading out to Brooklyn for a party. I was meeting a largeish group from the dorm and expected I would just call from the stop out there. I took the 2/3 to 14th Street and transferred to the L. Pulling into Union, I saw my friends on the platform, near the back of the train. I walked in between cars to find them. It took a few minutes and we were under the river when I finally reached their car. They looked at me like I was a subway monster, then we all laughed about how good the timing was. The party ended up being an absolutely fantastic time; we didn’t know anyone, but they had good liquor and music and I met a guy named Lex who was into physics and socialism and gave me a Noam Chomsky book I read and never returned. Clearly, meeting people in the middle of train rides is a good omen.
On the train, Brandon called me; the apartment was really shaping up, and he needed some information from me to secure the application. I stood between cars on the phone for most of the ride. (Note: Brandyn is from CERN, Brandon is from NYU.) When I was done we were almost in Zurich. When we debarked, Cameron and I found the rest of the crew– they arrived seconds after us on a parallel train, fancy that– and we immediately headed to a roof party Raphi had invited us to. It was fun, and beautiful. Roofs in Zurich are small, not like Brooklyn. There was a table with a spread on it, and a canopy over the table to block the rain, and an old elementary-school-style transparency projector shining a picture of sausage on the canopy’s underside.
We stayed there and drank and met people for a while, though it was a little hard because everyone was speaking Swiss German. Not that it mattered that it was Swiss German, or German German, or any other language– it just wasn’t one I knew. Of course, everyone spoke English, and I could introduce myself. But the prime way to meet people at parties, usually, is to walk up to people having a conversation and see if it’s interesting, or if you have anything to add, and that avenue was shut off. I ended up going to Raphi’s early, dead from lack of sleep and a full day walking.
The next morning everyone arose synchronously, unplanned, around ten o’clock and we went to go buy groceries for breakfast. We made a ten egg frittata with potatoes and tomatoes, and bought bread and cheese and orange juice and coffee. It made me miss cooking breakfast, Sunday mornings in Crown Heights, coffee flowing like tap water. I thought of my new kitchen in Williamsburg, of my own fridge, and felt a little better. Eventually we left for a walk around the city. It was raining sporadically, but not hard, and we muscled it out.
We climbed a ridiculous number of stairs. The very first thing we went to was a bag store in which none of the bags were actually on display, but were in pull-out drawers with a code and picture on them, like nails in a hardware store. The store was made of standard containers and had an observation deck on the 9th floor. It was surreal. I still do not understand how it exists. Then we went to an old viaduct that had been renovated with stores in between the arches. Each one had identically designed marquee at the top with the number larger than the name. Above, trains still ran, one every couple of minutes. I thought about the identical lettering; I realized that all the stores probably paid rent to one and the same entity owning the entire viaduct. I wondered if it was SBB or a real estate developer. I decided it wasn’t the time to think about capitalism.
The rest of Zurich was great: cathedrals, walking, currywurst, walking, beer, walking, walking. At night everyone got rather drunk and it was impossible to get anyone to move from place to place since everyone wanted to see what the rest of the group was doing; never drink in a group of more than four, I tell you, if you want to get up from your seat. I could go through a list of things we did, but it would be only mildly more interesting than what I’ve said, and I’d like to go to dinner. Let me say this one bit: at the train station yesterday, getting on board, I shook Cameron’s hand. “Come to the city sometime,” I said. “I’ll try,” he said.
“In case, by some twist of fate, I never see you again… I don’t know, man. Have a good life.” What are you supposed to say? It is of course possible that I’ll never see Cameron again, though I hope I do: he’s one of the better friends I’ve made this summer. But he lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, far from New York or Colorado or anywhere else I will probably spend significant time. Are travel friends destined to end up like this? Are all the people I meet on this trip eventually going to be distant memories? I hope not. History is the best teacher, but also the most easily shown wrong.