Wednesday, May 31, 2006

House Rules and Taboos

Taboos are not the same as house rules. I’ve stumbled into that truth. What’s a house rule? Well, at my sister's house the knives must go in the dishwasher points down. At a friend's lakehouse in the distant past, there was no such rule, however, there was a blue cup that was never to be put in the dishwasher, just rinsed well in hot water and replaced on the shelf. At my best and oldest friend’s home, you must run the water in the bathroom sink for a minute or two before flushing the john and at my house in order to get out of the bathroom you pull down on the knob while simultaneously yanking the door towards you. House rules are never explained unless a guest requests an explanation and they are not always fully connected to reality.

My sister says the knives should go down to prevent the drowsy first riser from impaling a hand as he tries to find the espresso carafe, but I think it’s a holdover from when her kids were little. They are now in their mid-thirties. I violated the never put the blue cup in the dishwasher rule in the midst of doing a whatever- I- could- to- help- clean- up- this- pit- frenzy. I forgot. I had been told the no blue cup in the dishwasher rule two days earlier. The cup, I was hotly informed the next morning, was NOT dishwasher safe. I then made things worse by pointing out that the blue cup had gone through the dishwasher process just fine. Breakfast was sullen, a morning boat ride was cancelled and we left earlier than we had planned. There isn’t any connection that I know of between running water down a sink drain and “air in the pipes”. That was the explanation for the routine. There is an alarming sound made by the toilet after you flush, but it sounds to me more like a sticky intake valve than air. Maybe I should volunteer to fix it. There is a perfectly good reason for the twisting, pulling, yanking necessary to get out of our bathroom, it’s necessary. I AM TOO GOING TO FIX THAT!! It’s only been like that since we moved in four years ago.

House rules have a ritualistic feel to them. Okay, not the bathroom door one, but the others do. They are ways of bringing order and when they are properly performed the world feels in synch with those present. Ah, no dangerous pointy objects, Ah, my blue cup is right where it belongs, Ah, --wait, I can’t hear over the weird sounds---the air god has been appeased. They are some of the little touch points that bring, with some irrationality, a little rationality.

Violating house rules is seldom fatal to a friendship. There is always a little tension amongst guests and hosts, but love carries us through the rough spots. Love and the right apology, - whoops, this knife is sticking up right next to the espresso carafe. Ha-Ha.

The blue cup fiasco was forgotten by the following weekend and was never mentioned again by any of us. Ever. It had changed from a house rule to a taboo. Taboos are not only not explained by hosts, they are not mentioned, they are not spoken of, they lie about the places we inhabit waiting for us to stumble upon them. They are the unmentionable subjects, sometimes merely politics, sometimes religion, sometimes both, sometimes a recent incident, sometimes a happening so ancient and long forgotten it’s difficult to recall why it became taboo in the first place. Sometimes we forget what is taboo. Taboos simply float there, mid-air, waiting for someone to stumble. Which is how a couple of days ago, in the midst of a too loud defense of Mary Todd Lincoln, I tried to say something about how the reaction in the 1860’s to the death of children was less severe than it is these days and I crashed right into a taboo.

Having a friend who knows the right thing to say at such a moment is one of the most precious gifts I possess. Having the sense to listen to her is just something I have stumbled into and take no credit for.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Street Theatre

h Sirens were echoing down the narrowness of Sixteenth Street as I got near Seventh Avenue. I couldn't tell if they were North or South of where I was huffing along in the darkness. It's lighter now in the mornings now that summer has arrived, but there are still a lot of alleys and other hidden places along my jogging route. There was a man in a light grey suit near the corner waiting for his dog to finish taking his morning dump. He had a cigarette in one hand and the leash and his official plastic-pick-up-the-doo-doo bag in the other. Between me and the dog walker a couple walked arm in arm down the sidewalk. She had her hand tucked inside his belt and he had his hand shoved into the right rear pocket of her jeans. They had done this before, what they were doing was less like walking and more like dance. The dog was finished now and was doing a little dance of it's own. A celebration of another successful mission. As the couple passed him, the man bowed low, his plastic covered hand grasping the lumps of dog poo all the while drawing deeply on his glowing cigarette. The dog was pulling at the leash making it difficult for the grey suit to keep up with the poop gathering but he too had done this many times before.

It wasn't until the couple had gotten to the corner that all of us spotted the half-naked black man in the middle of street. He had no shirt on, and it was a little chilly, and his pants were down around his knees. The couple stopped on the corner and briefly looked his way. The grey suit said "Oh, for Chrissakes" or something and then proceeded to take his harvest to the nearby trash basket. The half-naked black man was jumping up and down on a manhole and making a sound like the distant sirens. He was facing away from all of us watching the approach of two or three cars. The couple didn't wait for the light to change, but paced right out across the avenue, the half-naked man never gave them any notice. The grey suit man and I got to the corner about the same time as the cars reached the man in the street. He did some more jumping as they cruised around him, he waved his arms above his head and made that howling siren sound. Grey suit and dog turned right and disappeared into the entrance of a building. I watched the naked man do some spins and some karate punches. He tried to do a kick but couldn't with his pants down so low.

The real sirens were closer now and, as I watched, an ambulance turned onto the avenue and headed towards us. "Ah, they are coming to get him." I thought as I crossed the street. I turned to watch, I couldn't help myself. The ambulance came roaring down the avenue straight for the man with his pants down, the lights, even in the brightening morning light, were brilliant and glaring and the siren suddenly was very loud. The man was doing a kind of jumping jacks with little leg movement while windmilling his arms like one of those old-timey tap dancers. At the last second possible, the ambulance swerved to the right, missing the jumping man by maybe a foot and then it proceeded on down the street and in a moment was gone.

It was quiet. The man stood still for a moment, he still had his back to me. He heaved a big sigh and bent over a little to get his pants up. He shook himself like a wet dog would after getting out of a lake, then he walked to the other side of the street and headed west.

The next show is on the next block.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The ghost train and other entertainments

H The city is a completely different experience in the early morning. It's a completely different experience every morning, but The Committee for Keeping Things Interesting down at the offices of the MTA must been reading Stephen King this past weekend. Twice since Monday morning (more on that in a moment) a completely empty train has arrived at my stop . Now at five in the morning you would expect a lot of emptiness, but this was a different empty. This train had it's lights off. You couldn't see into the cars. It was as if the longest stretch limo in the universe had just pulled up to the curb,

''Is that who I think it is?'' said a woman to her male friend one night in front of the Booth Theatre. There was a white limo in front of them at the curb, it's windows deeply blacked out.
"That's the good thing about black windows, "he replied,"You can imagine it to be anyone."

Meanwhile, back at my stop I was imagining that it was the Chinese army. I was alone on the platform, they could take it, but I would make it a fight. What a perfect way to invade the city. You get your troops to Yonkers and then march down to 207th street for the A, maybe put the rest on the number 1, it's just a couple of blocks over. You keep the lights shut off so nobody sees the Chinese Army invading the city until they get off at Penn Station. The problem is there are a lot of stairs to maneuver through at Penn Station. You've got to go down a set to get to the passageway and then climb a set to get to the actual station or out onto Eighth Ave. They should have gotten off at 42th Street and taken a cab to Times Square. That's where they'd want to go in the early morning, weary few pedestrians and beautiful lights.

The lights came on revealing it was nobody. No one at all. The train sat there, it gave a little wheeze, and sat there some more, then someone found it's asthma inhaler and it moved on south sounding a bit hollow. That was amusing said someone down at the Committee to Keep Things Interesting.

So was Monday's train. They usually just screw with the trains on the weekends in order to confuse the tourists. "All A trains will be running express to 207th Street, {unintelligible inaudible sounds}is no C local service, for local service take the Express A which will be running local. Or Loco. For local service between 59th and 125th Street, take the B train. (which hasn't been spotted since Jimmy Hoffa disappeared.) or the D which will {unintelligible inaudible sounds} until 5AM." Screwing with the trains during the Monday is dangerous for the MTA because, well, because there are so many of us and fewer of them and we can be the Chinese Army if we have to be.

So when the train pulled into the station on Monday, empty, and did I mention that the platform was loaded with lots of people who had been waiting and waiting for a train,(During rush hour, waiting and waiting is defined as anything longer than one song on your Ipod.)and it stopped but the doors did not open, were they just trying to mess with us? Yes. So several people discussed the matter with the conductor who had lowered his window like a dope. And he opened the doors. We all got on. The doors stayed open. The train did not move.

There was a crackle and a voice, probably the dope, said "Sorry, folks this train has to go directly to 14th Street. This train was not supposed to take on passengers here. Please get off. This train is going directly to 14th Street." Nobody moved. I didn't move I was GOING to 14th Street.

I wasn't in the conductor's car, but I imagine there was some more discussion. We waited and waited, about half a song or more. The doors stayed open. "This train is out of service" the dope tried, "No passengers. All passengers must exit the train."
I didn't move but a lot of more obedient people did. They got off. Soon there was only me and about six others. "Everyone going to 14th Street?" I asked. "Oh yeah,"they said. We sat there. I read the New York Times Dear Diary.

The doors shut and the train started going. It was like your best dream, friends, there was plenty of room and the train was skipping every stop along the way. As a special treat, it went through the stations just slow enough so we could see the looks on people's faces as we zoomed by.

At 14th Street, we stopped. All of us got out of our private limo and went to work.

That's not what really happened. What really happened was that the trains were cancelled due to a power outage and I had to run up St. Nicholas Ave at 126th Street to catch a gypsy cab which took me and another abandoned passenger all the way to 23rd and Third for about Thirty-Five Bucks. It was a lovely ride through Central Park and the environs of Lexington Ave which is where I am going now for my Sunday run.