or, Where Can I Get a Goddamn Falafel At 3:43 In the Morning?
or, Where Can I Get a Goddamn Falafel Period?
“Palmyra!” I exclaim. “You know Palmyra?” the bluejacket asks me. Workers here are color-coded, like parts of a machine. Light blue means ski instructor. Dark blue, lift operator, “liftie” colloquially. Red is generally ski patrol (“generally” because there seem to be exceptions, which still confuse me), and black is mountain services, including warehouse and maintenance. Fluorescent green is the photographers. We don’t get jackets at Eagle’s Nest, since we only work indoors, but everyone else’s jacket and pants are emblazoned with HELLY HANSEN H/H in at least three places, including down the side of the leg like a Madison Avenue tuxedo stripe. When I first saw the logo I thought it was Kelly misspelled, and then thought it was an odd name for a winterwear designer, but now I realize it is only Norwegian.
But I digress. “Yeah, man,” I tell my ski school teacher, “I’m from Syracuse.” “Oh,” he says dryly. “Cool.” We do not interact further while I make his Colorado Club (sourdough turkey bacon Swiss toast it serve the next customer take it out chipotle sauce “Lettuce, tomato, onion?” no onion stick itcutitchipspickleDONE) and after that it is only a parting “Have a nice day.” He nods.
I’m from Syracuse, it sticks in my head all day. My nametag says it: “Syracuse NY”. This is my defining locale. “Where are you from?” an Italian asks me. “New York,” I say. But quickly, “Upstate. I lived in the city for a few years, but I grew up about five hours away.” Why is it different now? What is different about it? But it is so different.
I’ve written here before about my relationship to places, and in particular to my two cities in New York State, Syracuse and the other one. What is the connection to a place? I am there and then I’m gone, and when I’m there I’m there, and when I’m gone it sometimes hits me that yeah, I did use to live in New York, I did use to commute four-and-a-half miles by bicycle each way and not only that I identified as a biker, more for sure than I identified as American, maybe more than I identified as a student. Yeah, remember that, I did use to live in a house called the Shtetl, yeah I did sometimes when I was bored on Thursday afternoons use to go to Apple with Nate where they had $3 drafts for happy hour, yeah I did use to eat Thai food more than hamburgers, yeah it was a lot more I sometimes didn’t have a hamburger for a couple of months.
Yeah, I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t even in a car for four, five months at a time, yeah I did use to think traveling eight miles in thirty minutes was the coolest thing ever, yeah, I was there for the hurricane. It’s all in there, it all happened, none of it’s been undone. And yeah, yeah, it’s true, I did use to say New York was my hometown, I was from there, I was born there after all at St. Vincent’s on Seventh and 11th, there was even a time when I cared that you spelled out the avenue and wrote the digits for the street, who cares about that?
This probably sounds stupid. I mean, if I’m asking why do I tell people I’m from Syracuse and not the city, the answer is obviously because it’s true, stupid. I lived in Syracuse full-time for over sixteen years, I was in the city for eight or nine months a year for four. It shouldn’t be that hard,
but remember Switzerland, remembering telling someone (I forget who) in R1 that what it seemed at the time was the most important thing I was learning at CERN was not the mass of the top quark, was not coding in ROOT, was not anything about the modern high-energy physics culture or even how to speak French to normal people, but was that I can’t stay away from the city, was that I was in love with the city, that “I do not mean love in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again,” that it was maybe a miserable, self-destructive, dependent, trapping love but good God, man, I was getting the shakes just thinking about being back. (The shakes, of course, were not actually because of thinking about being back in New York – but I suppose one can never be sure.)
So that’s what it was, then: it’s not that I’ve stopped saying “I am from New York City” even though it’s true: it’s that I’ve stopped saying “I am from New York City” because it’s a lie. No, that’s wrong, too. I’ve stopped saying it, and it’s a lie, but that’s not why I’ve stopped saying it.
What did New York do to me? I cannot be the only one asking this question.
I am rereading this post and it has only a little left to do with its original intention and title. The part of me that wants to “work on my writing,” whatever that means, thinks I should spend some time revising it and reworking it and making it make sense, but that’s never been how this blog worked, that’s never been the point. What did New York do to me? When you get out of an intense live-in relationship there is this little period where you are readjusting, reorganizing, re-imagining, re-understanding, or should I say understanding for the first time, and for a little bit at least nothing at all makes sense. “I don’t even know how to make an omelet anymore,” I wrote once, that might have been in high school but the feeling is familiar. If there is anything I have learned so far, it is that that little period, that little bit, is never as short as you think it is going to be, even after it is over.
I picked out this house. I chose it myself. It has been almost eighteen years now since we moved from the rental on Greenwood, next to the Belchers with their blackberries and ice cream, my parents’ first house in Syracuse. Eighteen years ago we were driving around the neighborhood – I may or may not have been in a car seat – and they told me to look for houses with For Sale signs, we were going to buy a house. It was like shopping. How about that one, I said, pointing to the tan-and-red-outlined box directly in front of us. It’s got a sign. We went in, and we liked it, and we bought it. Because I pointed it out.
That is my memory, anyway. It is one of my oldest, junior only perhaps to Mrs. Belcher’s blackberries, to which I was always welcome, and that is not really event-memory but just existence-memory – but that is another story. The fact that the previous owner of the house was a colleague of my father’s, whom we’d known since moving to Syracuse two years prior, and that my parents quite certainly knew that the house was for sale, and that it was no coincidence that they told me to look for “for sale” signs on just that block that there was, in fact, a house for sale – this does not change the memory. The memory is an entity unto itself. It may bear some relationship to the truth, but that is not the point.
What I undoubtedly did choose was my room. I want this one, I said, the one with the door in the wall leading into the… the room that is attached to my bedroom has gone by many names over the years. First the play room. Then the sun room. For a while in high school I called it my office. It is technically an enclosed porch, but it has never been called that. It is an addendum, and afterthought to the house. One wall is shingled, a reminder that this was once a spot of open air on the exterior of the building. The other three walls are windows all around.
The sun room – but how often is it sunny? The room can in fact be unpleasantly bright when it is sunny, so it is a good thing I grew up in Syracuse, where the sun drops in only to pay its cordial respects so as not to be considered rude. Far more often, in high school, I would sit in the chair in here, sipping a cup of hot tea, breathing enough incense that my parents thought I was smoking pot even though I wasn’t, watching snow fly around me on three sides so dense that I couldn’t see the house next to mine, twenty, thirty feet away. In the interior corner – not inside the house, I mean, but the crook of the elbow as opposed to the cap – an icicle a foot across would form, first a stalactite but not uncommonly a column all the way down to the roof of the kitchen. The room itself is terribly insulated, having windows on three sides, and is the only room in the house not served by the central furnace in the basement, being, as I said, an architectural afterthought, walls too thin to support a heating duct. It is warmed by an electric radiator that runs along the floor to my right, and as long as I can remember, there was a Post-It note stuck to the door saying “TURN OFF ELECTRIC HEAT!” in my mother’s paranoid but well-meaning hand. “Did you turn off the heater?” she’d say. “I think so,” I’d joke, prompting her to rush upstairs and double-triple check that the house was not going to burn down today.
Wisps of incense smoke rising up from the burner I felt so rebellious for buying at sixteen: in high school, I’d focus on the two strands floating and curling and dancing in the imperceptible breeze caused by the tiny temperature differential from the heater to the window, and try to divine the future. I had no training, but I did it anyway.
That is not why I called this post “wisps.” Eskimos, they say, have a hundred words for snow, but I don’t know a one of them. Syracusans speak English and call it all snow, but we know without saying the difference between the whiteout blizzard I described before and what is happening today. The sky is a uniform dull gray, the air dry, the trees brown, even the pines look brown in this air. You would not think it was snowing, but we know. Sitting in the room every so often you see a stray flake, not falling, but floating like pollen. It is not going to accumulate; it may never hit the ground. It is like a bird. It is thirty feet up now, outside my window; maybe a minute ago it was inspecting the road, maybe in a minute it will tangle with the tops of trees. It is there. It will still be there later.
The model room: how old was I, Dad, when we would wake up at seven in the morning on Saturdays and cut and paint and glue the die cast plastic pieces of cars, of ships? Rockets and planes came later, the functional fun, the things with buttons to press and throttles to push. At first it was just plastic, no electronics, the enamel paints probably getting me high for the first time, the thinner for the brushes. The blue car, our first completed work, is still there, between the Titanic and the Saturn V; the Bounty, unfinished, we never had the patience to rig.
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.
It is… some time in the morning. Afternoon? Is it noon yet? I had a fever of 102.4 when I got to the Northeast Medical Center in Fayetteville. That is before noon, right? Noon is 12 and 102.4 is… after 12? So it must be, no, that doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense. A physician’s assistant comes in with an IV. She tells me all of the things she is going to put in my body. Saline. This is because I am dangerously dehydrated.
I have been able, but not very able, to swallow water for about forty-eight hours. After The People left — I ran a sort of commune at my house this New Year’s, with people crowded in so tight the wood floor was a necessary sleeping space, which I would have written about had I had even twenty minutes of free time, which I did not — after The People left, what I thought was an extended hangover turned into Something Else. My fever from before their arrival, which I had been told by the NYU Health Center was a UVI (Unidentified Viral Infection), which had receded, came back in full force. The night sweats returned and I had to wash my sheets. Have you ever had a night sweat? It is exactly what it sounds like. It is not warm in your room — it may even, like my room, be a little cooler than you’d like — but you wake up wetter than after a 40-mile bike ride in summer. I had to wash my sheets along with everyone else’s though I’d washed them not a week prior. But along with it this time came a sore throat, barely noticeable except when I swallowed, when the pain level shot up to maybe a 7 out of 10, prompting an involuntary “urrrrrgh” I knew I would have to restrain on the Greyhound to avoid sounding like a pervert. Instead I drank limited water. And woke up with a mouthful of sand.
Back to the bed at Northeast Medical. There is the big bag of saline, maybe a liter of it to replenish my fluids. There is also a smaller bag of saline, this one, she tells me, containing an antibiotic called Rocephin, which I hear but do not register. I found the name just now by going to Wikipedia’s “List of antibiotics” and looking for one that started with “R.” There is also a steroid that comes in a plunger-vial; this is for the inflammation in my throat so, I assume, it does not close up, causing, I assume, death.
A side note: According to Grammarist, I have mistakenly switched the usage of “assume” and “presume” for much of my life. “Presume” connotes a little more usage of evidence and therefore a higher degree of certainty than “assume.” I always assumed, I guess, that it was the other way around, based on the highly unscientific and unreasonable evidence that “pre” meant “before looking at the evidence,” which in this context it does not. The usage above is correct, because as I mentioned before, I am in no state to consider evidence. I have a fever of 102.4. For all I know the steroid is to make me better at baseball.
I watch the IV line going in and become nauseous. “You don’t have to look,” my mom assures me, “you can close your eyes. “Take this Tylenol,” the physician’s assistant says, “for your fever.” I take the two Tylenol and vomit within seconds. She goes to get me a liquid version. I close my eyes and cry silently, involuntarily. How did I get here?
As the fluids drip into my arm I turn to my mom. “Mom,” I raspily say. “Mom.”
“It feels like I’m in the desert and I’m drinking from an oasis but not through my mouth.”
“I know, honey. You can nap.”
I do. The PA comes back. I am brought out for a chest X-ray and then back. I nap some more and then stare at the posters in the room. One is red. It says in white: “TELL us. It’s the LAW.” Below, in smaller letters: “If you’re taking a controlled substance prescribed by a doctor, you must tell every other doctor you see. It’s the law.” I read this sign approximately seventy-five times. It becomes more boring for the first fifteen or so readings, then there is a spike in my interest. Why only if it’s prescribed by a doctor? It comes down, I realize after a few more readings, to the Constitution: I have a Fifth Amendment right not to be forced to tell anyone I’m using heroin. Satisfied with this conclusion, I continue reading, and it becomes boring again. I consider asking my mom to pass me the book I brought (Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey), or maybe my journal, but the prospect of writing tires me out so much I don’t even ask for the book and just read the sign another fifty times.
The PA returns. “Mono,” she announces unceremoniously.
“Blood work says mono.”
“God-fucking-damn it,” I say, maybe louder than I intended.
“That’s most people’s reaction.”
I am told to rest, to drink water until I turn into a fish, and to rest more. I am prescribed cephalexin and prednisone, more antibiotics and steroids, as well as told to take Tylenol. The cephalexin, I am told, will not kill the mono, but I might have strep, and the prednisone will lower my immune response so best to kick it into high gear.
“I have travel plans for Thursday,” I croak out, already knowing the answer to my unasked question. She looks at me sympathetically but sternly. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly. She talks to my mom for a bit but I don’t say anything else until she leaves. When she does I start to cry.
“I’m sorry, Ben,” Mom says.
“Why is this happening to me?”
“I’m sorry.” She drives me home. I watch two hours of West Wing. I eat dinner. I don’t remember what it was. I watch Brazil with Mom and Dad. I sleep. I wake up at 2 am and my sheets are again soaked as if it has rained indoors. I feel like a 12-year-old discovering wet dreams except there is nothing fun preceding the awful discovery that you have to do laundry. Nothing fun at all.
A couple of weeks into my freshman year, I got a phone call while walking home. “Come to Waverly and Mercer,” Brandon told me. “I found us a rug.” “What store is there?” I asked. He laughed. Clearly I was green to the delicacies of life in New York.
I was taking a class then, mandatory for all freshmen, called Writing The Essay. Our trash-carpet was perfect fodder for a piece in response to Richard Rodriguez’ “Late Victorians,” about the appropriation of things, the collecting and repackaging and remembering that turned old San Francisco houses into homes for thousands of gentrifying gay men. My rug is not my rug, I wrote: it is only my rug for now. But it is a part of my home. My home.
Sometimes I resisted using the word to talk about the dorm on Third Ave and 11th Street; other times I reveled in it. “I don’t live in Syracuse any more,” I thought to myself, I told people: “this is where I live now.” A man without a history, that was me. But then I went back: first Parisa’s funeral, which I wasn’t going to go to, told Ray on the phone I couldn’t go to, lived too far for, couldn’t miss my first Halloween in New York for, didn’t want to go to, but of course went because in the end I still had the concepts of duty and right and also because in the end I was scared to spend a whole semester without seeing Allen Street.
I went back a lot that first year, every six weeks or so, I seem to remember. The primary reason was that Claire was in Syracuse. I know this because sophomore year, when she moved to Poughkeepsie just a Metro North ride “up the river,” I stopped going to Syracuse as much. I still said I was going home for the weekend, though. I called the dorm on 23rd “home,” and I called the house on Allen “home,” and I didn’t see much of a contradiction.
But things were fading. I knew it. I broke up with Claire in February of sophomore year and it suddenly became brutally apparent that there was not much else left for me in Syracuse. I had lost touch entirely with friends that were once closer than close. Most of who remained were great friends, worth the world to me, but were nonetheless mutually satisfied with a phone call every couple of months or coffee on the rare occasions I did happen to be wandering Westcott. And there was my family. But how long is your parents’ home your home?
Answering this question prematurely with a “no longer” became my hobby. Every time I came home it was a little shorter. I justified it to myself because I didn’t live there any more: but I did, didn’t I? I still had clothes there, books there. I still had the car keys on my chain, not just the house keys, my mom had the house keys to Valley Stream when we moved Zayda out, maybe she still has them even now that the locks have surely been changed, but the car keys? Who was I fooling?
There was, probably, some level of pretense, some level of hoping that by renouncing my past I could make a fresh start where no one would judge me on my middle school insecurities, of hoping I might be seen as an adult instead of a kid, far from home and without much of a clue.
I don’t know if I’ve got a clue now, but something has changed, which is that I have an apartment the walls of which I can mount a TV to with an electric drill. “Home:” home means one place now. It is where my bed is. It is where my fridge is, it is where my roommates are. I am on a bus now, going home not north but south.
What has really changed, I think, is three years’ remove from permanence. Rodriguez’ Victorians were older than he, but changed owners, changed meanings, changed lives: and my rug, too, was a temporary installment, faithfully serving us until the infamous pool party. The aftermath of that party: bringing the rug to a dumpster on 12th Street that said “NO UNAUTHORIZED DUMPING” at one a.m. That couldn’t be my home: a home is supposed to be there forever, a place that you can go back to no matter what intervenes. You do not throw out a rug after one year. Maybe after a hundred.
What has changed is that Zayda sold the house in Valley Stream, and then he died; what has changed is that the permanence has shown its face as an illusion. I am on my way home, not because I will be there forever, but because I will be there tonight, and tomorrow night.
A post scriptum: yesterday I went over to Patrick’s place, an old house on Seeley that he grew up in until he was maybe ten, when his parents bought a bigger place on Concord and rented the old one out. Now, in college, they rent it to him. “You have a reasonable shot at inheriting this place eventually,” I said to him; “this could be your nest.” I wasn’t encouraging him that he should do that; I was spellbound that he could. “I could have kids here,” he said, shocked at the words coming from his own mouth. How crazy is that?
So once again I find myself in the blogging world. It’s a strange world, like our own and yet not like it, a world where the private becomes public, where my innermost thoughts are spread out on the Internet for all to read, at least ostensibly. Of course, the truth is that the vast majority of blogs are read primarily by the author, the author’s mother (hi, Mom) and two to three of the author’s acquaintances who have nothing better to do than to refresh their RSS every thirty seconds. So who is a blog for? I suppose the truth is, as is probably obvious, that a blog is for me, the author. After all, it takes me longer to write than it takes you to read, and time is everything, blah blah blah etcetera.
I’ve been attempting, with varying but usually low degrees of success, to keep a journal for years. I have been through pocket moleskines, paperback and hardcover, and a fair bit of a larger one, but I always run across the same problem, which is that it’s hard to make (as it is to break) a habit when the only person to whom you’re accountable is yourself. So perhaps this will give me the impetus to leave some sort of regular record. A record of travel, a record of things seen, of people met and mountains climbed and foods eaten, isn’t a record of those things at all. Remember what it was like to be me– it all comes back– Didion was right, wasn’t she, that records of crepe-de-Chine dresses on strangers in bars will mean nothing except to the one who wrote them. The handwriting is helpful, the scrawls; when I reread my journals from senior year of high school there’s nothing quite so evocative as the way the U in FUCK is more of a V, because that reminds me of– well, you wouldn’t know, would you?
My impetus this time for starting a blog is that I’m traveling, and I suppose starting a major new chapter in my life, but that will come later. For now know this: I’ve through an amazing stroke of luck and letters managed to acquire a research position (internship, as it were) at CERN, the Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, working on top quarks, which are fundamental particles that exist only for fractions of a second in incredibly high energy situations– that is to say, not in normal atoms; there are no top quarks in your body. Why are they interesting? Well, we’ll talk about that later, but trust me, they’re important. Anyway, this CERN place happens to be in Switzerland, a land that I’ve been attracted to for years, primarily because I love mountains, and secondarily because I love cheese, and so things are pretty damn awesome.
I envision this blog being a way to keep my friends at home apprised of my situation and any cool stuff I happen to do along the way. Periodically I’ll also post philosophical or physical or philosophysical thoughts I have, which I suppose is preferable to my normal modus operandi of talking about them to the extent of boring everyone around me to sleep or to video games. Hopefully there will be pictures, for after all, a picture is worth a thousand words, unless you’re illiterate (hi Ray), in which case the exchange rate is somewhat less meaningful.
I hope you check back soon; I’ll probably post a few things prior to leaving, what exactly I can’t say. The real trip starts on Friday. Yes, Friday, June, 8, four days before my 21st birthday, an emphatically meaningless milestone in the civilized Continent where alcohol is served to ten-year-olds and you get youth discounts on the train till 25, but so it goes. It has sort of snuck up on me. Life is funny like that.