Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The One That Got Away

I narrowly escaped a severe beating today.

I was biking home down Atlantic avenue, in between traffic on the left and parked cars on the right. A large man in a yellow shirt was standing in the street outside his car, about to get in. To avoid being hit by his opening door I said, "Sir, sir!"

He replied, "The word is excuse me."

I hate to editorialize but I really should not have said, "Fuck you!"

He shouted after me, "Come back here and say that to my face!"

I hate to further editorialize, but I really, really should not have shouted back, "Your fat ass face!"

I rode fast down Atlantic, up Columbia, up Congress, and down Hicks, around gridlock traffic and through red lights—maybe a mile past the original kerfuffle. He had to have driven like a maniac to trail me, anticipate my continuing route, park, and hide in advance of my arrival.

I heard him before I saw him—if he'd not shouted, "Come here motherfucker!" as he leapt from his hiding place, I would surely have been tackled to the asphalt and held to account for my mouth. He burst out of nowhere, his face swollen with rage and expectation, lips tight and eyes wide. I was biking fast and he was sprinting toward me at a right angle. I swerved left and his fingertips pinched at my arm—he just missed me. In a fraction of a second I was past him, and I looked over my shoulder to behold my would-be attacker. His feet beat a decelerating tempo as he slowed to a defeated walk. The yellow shirt was really more gold, and the fabric was the athletic, sheer kind with lots of little perforations. His shoulders dropped and he let out the breathy "Damn!" of a linebacker who barely missed a crucial tackle.

I was wide fucking open. I raced the wrong way down several one-way streets and whipped into the parking lot of a riverside warehouse. I hid behind an empty eighteen-wheeler and paced in disbelief, trying to catch my breath—my legs were a throbbing, electric jelly. I turned my t-shirt inside out and put my sunglasses and my telltale red helmet inside my backpack. Someone leaving the warehouse began to approach me, paused, turned, and went on his way. When I judged that only maleficent coincidence could put me in harm's way again this afternoon, I biked the rest of the way home on back streets, keeping a careful inventory of all surrounding traffic at any given time. 

Monday, May 11, 2009


I was biking to work this morning when a gray-haired fifty-something male driving a black luxury SUV kept pace with me for a moment, rolled down his window, shook his head and shouted, "That's soooooo dangerous, man!"

I said, "Shut up!" in an elongated, sarcastic tone.

He yelled, "Fuck you!" and floored it, only to stop immediately at the light. I wound around the other cars and came up on his passenger side. When he looked over I planted a big kiss on his window and rode on.

In 2007 there were 37,248 traffic fatalities in the United States. Of that number, 30,401 people were killed in their cars, 4,654 were pedestrians, and 698 were bikers. For the rest of the numbers, look here. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I was abandoned in a dark tunnel in Turkey.

Emre and I traveled from Istanbul to Göreme by bus. The land there is high arid desert with deep canyons and diverse conical land-forms. The rock is porous but has high tensile strength—many of Göreme's residents have carved functional, multi-level homes from these strange cones. We met a wire-thin man there named Ahmed—in exchange for some hashish he let us stay in his cone, fed us, and gave us his car for two days. The old Celica was missing a gear—high, whining third gave way to a stuttering, laboring fifth.

We drove down to Derinkuyu, where in the fifth century BC ancient Turks built a massive underground city. No one's sure why it was originally built, but much later it came in handy for troglodyte Christians escaping first the persecution of the Roman, and then the Ottoman Empires. At one time 50,000 people lived there, crawling through a system of tunnels that goes 11 levels deep and stretches as many as 100km out into the subterrennean desert. There's no actual record of just how vast or complex the city is; the Turkish Department of Culture has excavated only a tiny portion, which has been open to tourism since the 60's.

Emre would not be joining me underground because he'd already been there and it made him feel claustrophobic. As we approached the entrance he said, "Wait, I will get you the Turkish price."

He walked partway to the lone ticket stall, turned and came back. "Stop grinning—you look so American."

He returned to the booth, completed the transaction, and I was inside. The ancients ventilated the crepuscular city so they could breathe, keep livestock, cook—survive. As you start down the main entrance, a cool, ferric wind buoys you to prove it.

I kept one hand on the ridged wall as I descended alone, keeping to the lit areas because I had no flashlight—Emre kept our only lighter so he could continue smoking constantly.

I saw the underground granary. I saw the underground stables. I looked up in wonderment at the stark square of light at the top of a long, vertical ventilation shaft. I was quietly joined by a Turkish father-and-son with a flashlight. We said nothing, but ventured on together, a silent search party looking for we knew not what. The father directed his light down an unlit shaft and we stooped to enter and explore. The more he shone the light into the dark, the more the tunnel continued before us. After we'd been crawling for several minutes, I realized I knew nothing about my companions. I turned to them smiling, gave my name and asked, 

"What are your names?"

The silence was total. I extended my hand and repeated my question. The father's furrows deepened. He shot me a disapproving glare, said something to his son, and they rushed from the shaft. The departing light flickered on the corrugated walls and disappeared. What had I said? How could I mean one thing and effect entirely another?

The darkness loomed with shapes and forms. My mind leapt to the pale thousands who'd burrowed and populated this crypt, who'd borne the burden of their years in these shafts. An ice shudder convulsed me and I forgot for an instant which way was out. I could feel the lines of the city surging beyond the earth, into frozen walls of mortifying isolation. 

My racing heart brought me to my senses (relatively speaking). I moved as fast as I could up the low shaft, past the stables, past the granary, and came running out of the entrance into the cool, balanced light of the late-spring Cappadocian afternoon. The father-and-son were nowhere to be seen. Emre was sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette and drinking tea from a very small paper cup. He looked at me and emitted one crackling, bronchial chuckle.

"Told you—claustrophobic."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Boilerplate Reportage

X to me
1:32 PM (10 hours ago)

trying my man...to show him the right way.

me to X
1:54 PM (9 hours ago)

yeah, btwn me n you I was like

so this is a branding project

and he's like

nah, just a sticker, like, you know, a label

and I was like

well, this is your opportunity to get the brand out beyond the community, you know?

and he was like

I don't know. I probably won't even make money on this project.

X to me
10:26 PM (1 hour ago)

thats because hes a fucking moron.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

College Point

I once had my car repaired by the people who stole it.

I was living with my girlfriend and her family in Jamaica Estates, Queens, at the convenient confluence of the Grand Central Parkway and the Long Island Expressway. I naively thought nothing of packing my car the night before my trip home and leaving it parked on the street, mere blocks from two major escape routes.

She and I slept together in the furnished attic. I woke to find her stooped at one of the tiny windows, hands cupped parenthetically around her eyes. "Um." 

"Um what?"

"Um, wasn't your car parked on the street last night?"

My throat thickened and my breath became short. All my work-clothes. All my regular clothes. My books. My stuff. My car. 

The police have a knack for making these freak incidents seem quotidian: "Fifth one today. Oh a Nissan? It's probably on a boat already—I wouldn't hold out any hope." By the time I'd itemized my losses, I was resigned to never seeing the car again. My girlfriend's father kept pressing his hands into his thighs and saying, "If I'd just let you park it in the garage! Damnit! They just come with the flatbed and poof! It's gone!" 

But the very next day we got a call. Who exactly discovered the car (and under what circumstances) was never disclosed, but somehow it was waiting for me in College Point, Queens.

College Point is one vast chop shop, composed entirely of wrought-iron and concertina wire, boasting improbable towers of junked cars, and perfumed with the strangely sweet aroma of exhaust and petroleum distillates. My destination was identical to both adjacent lots and the place across the street. I waited there in a light, toxic mist until I was ushered into a low sedan by a well-greased boy wearing numerous earrings. 

He said, "We just gotta go a few blocks to the junkyard," and we did.

The junkyard was dominated by an enormous McMansion—a sea of cars and car parts surrounding a beige island of post-ironic neoclassical stucco and Tyvek. It looked like a wormhole had opened in South Florida and spat its passenger here.

My driver noted my wonderment: "The boss' house."


"Nice, right?"

We pulled up to my car—there were dents and dimples everywhere. A jagged key-streak ran the length of the right side. The headlights were smashed. The windows were gone and sheets of tattered plastic billowed in their stead. The cover was missing from the steering column, and where the stereo had been an ugly hole gagged forth a few derelict wires. In the passenger's seat there was an unopened box of Virginia Slims 120's mentholated cigarettes and a screwdriver. He sat behind the wheel and I got in the passenger side, out of the rain.

"Is there any serious damage?"

"Not really."

"Can it be driven?"

"Sure!" His reply was unreasonably chipper."You just gotta jam this in here like this," the engine roared to life, "but you gotta hold it in there the whole time while you drive." He withdrew the screwdriver with a grin and the car went still.

I hope my expression did not betray my instantaneous total realization that this was the guy who stole my car. I consciously waited a beat and asked him how they found it.

"We get a lot of cars in here."

*    *    *

I got a call at work a few weeks later saying it was going to cost my insurance company $6,000 to make the necessary repairs. Of course there was the matter of replacing the stereo. I said, "I had a Sony CD player, a 250 watt Alpine..." the voice on the other end of the line cut me off:

"Yeah, we already got one in there. An Aiwa."

"Aiwa? No way!"

No answer.

"Is it new?"

There was a long pause, then an unconvincing "Yyyyyyeah... yeah. Sure—it's new."

The next Saturday I took the 7 train out to College Point and was retrieved at the subway station in a souped-up Honda Accord with jet-black windows and a stereo blaring incessant, thumping techno. This new driver had a strong affection for the gas and wore lots of product in his hair. We squealed into the lot and I saw my car—it looked okay from the outside. When I tried the ignition the stereo made me jump; it was evident to everyone within earshot the speakers were ruined. 

"Yeah, I guess they blew 'em out."

Back at the office it was lunchtime. Four immense young men were methodically unfolding the utile origami surrounding their meatball subs. The largest of them gestured without speaking at the pen and triplicate forms I was to sign. The hypnotic regularity of their protosimian chewing was interrupted when he remarked, "I hear you're in the market for a car stereo."

Monday, May 4, 2009

Greater Good

I was watching Sadie this weekend—a very good dog who used to be my dog. It cost me $100.

Sadie is a water dog with an insatiable appetite for aquatic games, so we visited a park in Red Hook with a brief sandy beach. She plunged into the East River to retrieve her ball for the better part of an hour, braving the wakes of passing ferries, masses of tangled of kelp, and a rich variety of sea-borne detritus. Each time the ball was thrown, she let out one deep, annunciatory bark before taking the plunge: "Woof!" Splash. (Sadie's favorite naughty pleasure is eating the solid chemical waste jettisoned from boat toilets—a substance which, though toxic, apparently has the same taste and consistency of very stinky cheese. She pretends to nose her ball along the sand while furtively trawling for half-buried chunks.)

The park was empty except for a few neighborhood kids in various attitudes of indolence. As we emerged from the beach one of them staggered up:

"Officer Rodriguez, Parks Department—can I see some identification?" The two other undercovers straightened up and flashed badges. 

I knew what this was about. I was going to be handed a $100 citation for having Sadie off-leash. I lied, "I don't have any ID—what's this about?"

He rattled off robotically: "You can't have your dog off-leash in the park. It's against the posted regulations, and it's a danger to your dog and others." Then he assumed a more human tone: "What, you walked out of your house with no ID, no nothing?"

Sadie was dripping black and lolling in the smutty grass.

"Yeah," I replied, "I live two blocks away. I'm walking a friend's dog and I'm not really familiar with the rules... I mean, there's no one else here but us, right?"

"The rules are posted right there, " he countered, gesturing to a distant green sign with about 200 words of white type in 14-point Helvetica, "and we have a policy of zero tolerance. We gotta give you a citation." I laughed inwardly at his undercover get-up: Tims, baggy work jeans, gigantic t-shirt, twill jacket, ear-bling, ballcap low over the eyes, chinstrap beard. I wondered if the parks department had a manual, or if this costume came naturally.

It occurred to me to be defiant about this shameless act of misdirected revenue-generation, but I was chary. I gave my accurate name and address, and waited for the officer to fill out the citation in his halting script of random capitals. He handed it over, saying, "You can fight if you want to."

I made the joke, "I don't know officer, you're bigger than me, and there's three of you..."

He laughed, "No, I mean fight the ticket—fight it in court. You never know, you might win."

I thanked him and started toward the exit with Sadie, thinking I'd rather just pay and forget about it.

He called after me, "It's always good to fight!"