Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Old Neighborhood

New York is not really my home anymore, more like a hometown or a homebase. When I walk around the neighborhood I grew up in, I feel like a stranger and more like visitor on powerful LSD. With every step around the old neighborhood, my brain is fried with another colorful and vivid flashback. Wild flashbacks of memories that happened decade ago bombard me at every turn, with every street, and feel as though they occurred right there in the spot instead of years ago.

Some of the stores and places have been the same for thirty years while other spaces are brand new. Older houses and dwellings are being torn down and replaced by gaudy five and eight story condos. What used to be a beauty salon is a pet store. What used to be a bar is a beauty salon. What used to be travel agency is now a Subway. And the corner deli? Originally run by a Jewish family, they sold the business to a Chinese couple, who in turn sold it to an unknown Middle Eastern man who hires guys right off the boat from Yemen. The ciggies you buy may go to fund terrorist evil-doing. Who knows, but as Derek aptly put things in perspective, "I would never buy a sandwich from the Al Qaeda deli."

I walk around the streets with the same feeling I had 15 years ago when I was a student in college. For four years, I pretty much lived in Atlanta only to come home for short visits at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I'd notice the subtle differences then and I can recognize them now.

The faces of the neighbors are getting older while a new wave of unknowns replace the vaguely familiar. The old folks have gotten older and now require the use of canes, walkers, and wheelchairs to get around. I rode the elevator with one elderly woman in my mother's building. She had not see me in years and commented, "I remember when you were this high," as she held out her right hand and measured out to a couple of inches below her waist.

I wanted to say, "I remember when you used to be a mean racist cunt and complained when we used to make too much noise in the hallways."

While walking to the post office, I bumped into an old catholic school classmate. She was a year or two older than me and her brother and I played on the basketball team together. She pushed a stroller with a sleeping baby inside, and held a six year old kid by the hand. She looked like I remember, except that she was also about eight months pregnant. I had not seen her in several years and I had not spoken to her brother since I graduated college. She mentioned that he was a cop in the Westchester suburbs. Their dad helped get him the job. Most of the kids I went to school with were Irish and many of their fathers were policemen. She happened to be married to cop who worked with the anti-terrorism task force downtown. I told her she should have him keep an eye on the Al Qaeda deli.

She asked the typical New Yorker questions like where do you live and what do you do. I told her that I was a writer and lived in Las Vegas for a couple of months a year and the rest of the time I'm on the road... traveling for work and pleasure while I split time between New York (family) and LA (girlfriend).

"Las Vegas? Is that in Arizona?" she asked.

"Actually it's in Nevada, right across the border from Arizona."

"Didn't you use to work on Wall Street?"

"Used to."

She asked where I had been working this year and I mentioned Australia, LA, Las Vegas, and Monte Carlo including the upcoming trips to Barcelona, London, and Australia (for a second time).

"Australia and Europe? In the same year? Most people don't get to see those places once in their lifetime. You've going to both twice this year. Lucky dog."

"Didn't you and (your brother) go to Ireland when we were in school?"

She made a face as though she just remembered the punchline to a joke, but then shrugged her shoulders.

"Ireland?" she said. "Yeah we went twice when we were kids. But that doesn't count as Europe. It was Ireland and we went to see our relatives."

By then her oldest kid started to get bored and tried to pull her away. Thank god for restless children. I said a quick good bye before she could ask me where I wrote for.

When I went into the Greek diner, the guy behind the counter said he hadn't seen me in a while. He didn't even ask me for my order. He knows that if I'm in there in the morning, that I want a breakfast sandwich (bacon, egg, and cheese on a kaiser roll with salt, pepper, and ketchup). I sat at the counter and read the NY Times while construction workers ate the $4.99 breakfast specials and talked about the Yankees' playoff chances while a group of old Jewish ladies sat in a booth and complained about the heat.

I noticed that there was more graffiti around. Since it's summer, the bad seeds don't have anything to do except tag up on various walls a few blocks from Derek's apartment. Usually, the local neighborhood association gets free paint and brushes from the local hardware store and volunteers chip in and paint over the tainted walls. It's nothing more than a staged photo op by the local politicians who try to put up the appearance that they are "cleaning up the neighborhood." But their crooked used car salesmen smiles are not enough of a deterrent. The fresh white walls are invitations for punks who use private property as a canvas for their scratchwork. Pre-9.11, the NYPD had a graffiti task force than went around arresting the kids. Now they are more focused on catching Al Qaeda than maintaining a clean neighborhood.

Derek's apartment building is an interesting mix of three types of people; Manhattan college students, ethnic working-class families (Eastern European, Black, and Hispanic), and old white people. The building is OK, but the owners don't spend any money on upkeep. The super is barely around and his wife and kids usually do most of the general maintenance around the building.... if they feel like working. In the winters, the sidewalks are rarely shoveled in a timely matter. Most of the time, you're trudging through slush. The hallways are dirty and the stairwell is completely filthy. It was not uncommon to find pools of dried urine in the corners (from residents with dogs that couldn't wait to get outside so they pissed in the stairs), stepped-on cigarette butts, empty beer cans, half-eaten containers of Chinese food, and any other random garbage you expect to find on the streets on NYC.

I was shocked to see that over the summer, the powers to be cleaned up the stairway and put a fresh coat of paint on the floors and steps. The old yellow urine stains are gone. The stairway was spotless except for a pair of ripped boxer shorts that sat on one landing in between the 6th and 7th floors.

I got a haircut with Vinny the barber. During the summers, he takes off Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. I saw him on Saturday at 3pm. I was his last appointment of the day... before he had a three-day weekend ahead of him. About five minutes in my haircut, an old lady walked in. She had just finished up getting her hair done when I arrived. She went to the bodega next door and bought two bottles of Guinness. Both were in brown paper bags. She handed one to Vinny and she kept the other one. They toasted and took a big swig. She left and Vinny finished my haircut pausing to have a sip of beer every few minutes.

I had conflicting emotions about that incident. I'm the last guy who is going to call some one out for having a pop or two on the job. However, there are certain occupations that I don't think they should be consuming alcohol... that would be airline pilots and barbers.

Vinny did a good job, as usual, and one beer wasn't enough to get him drunk that he'd snip off my ear by accident. Usually I tell him about my last trip and about my next one coming up. Our discussions during the haircut also revolve around local sports and gambling. He touched briefly on A-Rod's 500th homerun, Barry Bonds and the legalization of steroids in sports, the non-smoking rules at the Borgata in Atlantic City, playing golf in Westchester, and his favorite topic... the buffet at the Wynn.

I had been getting up early to jog a couple of miles before I start writing. The jogging is good for both the body and mind. While my body gets the physical wok out, I'm also taking time to mentally prepare what I will be working on that day. I might not always writer better after I work out, but I do find myself writing and working more efficiently after a morning run which I call jogging meditation.

I've done all of my favorite local places to eat like the diner, the bagel store, the pizza place, and the Chinese restaurant down the street that gives you a free can of soda for any delivery over $10. I still haven't been to the Jewish deli and had a knish... but I'll get to that eventually.

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