HOW TO HELP THOSE WHO CANNOT HELP THEMSELVES

Park Slope is a very wealthy, and very liberal neighborhood. Lots of community gardens. Lots of Bring Your Own Compost parties. And it’s not uncommon to chance upon a middle-aged post-hippie wearing a t-shirt that says, “DON’T BLAME ME – I VOTED FOR WAVY GRAVY.” [if you just heard a whooping siren sound, it's because that commemorates my one millionth wavy gravy joke since the inception of this web site.]

With the neighborhood’s reputation comes an unfortunate scourge of non-profit charities canvassing the streets for cash. I have nothing against charity, primarily because I am not a tremendous asshole, but I take exception to the strategic tactics of charitable organizations. They set up a gauntlet of volunteers on both sides of the sidewalk, forcing you to pass through it like some kind of non-profit spanking machine. And it’s impossible to even perform a passive-aggressive coward’s dodge by crossing the street to avoid them because THEY SET UP ANOTHER PAIR OF VOLUNTEERS ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE STREET. I think they’ve trained their volunteers according to the teachings of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Additionally, charities have seen a dark change in the way they solicit donations. They used to give you an easy out, by asking, “Would you care to make a donation to help cure feline AIDS?” to which it was fairly easy to respond “yes” or “not today, thanks.” Today, charities do not simply ask you for money; they present you with an ethical conundrum that plays directly into your guilty conscience. You are asked more complicated questions, like, “Do you have a minute for world hunger?” or “Would you like to prevent babies from being eaten alive by Nazis?” Your rejection of their solicitation, in effect, makes you directly complicit in the problem they’re trying to solve. What are you going to say? “No. No I would not like to prevent babies from being eaten. Frankly, it sounds like a good plan to me. I can hardly hear myself thinking over all that confounded baby noise. Sir, babies are rude and, as such, deserve to be eaten. I say, good for those Nazis! I raise a glass to their noise-eliminating, baby-eating ways. To their health!”

And it does not make matters any better that the canvassers usually catch you on your way to or from spending money, talking on your cell phone, with a solid gold yoga mat hitched to your back. It takes tremendous resolve to avoid these guys – NOT THAT YOU SHOULD! – and I usually do, preferring to give my money directly to homeless people, and taking their word that the money will be spent on Trapper Keepers and low-fat GORP. However, last weekend, someone volunteering for “Save the Children” stepped in front of me on my way to the Doughnut Plant, and I stopped, intrigued. Why did I stop, you may wonder, especially when I was in a tremendous hurry – doughnuts don’t stay warm forever. Truthfully, I had not special interest in this charity. It’s just that the volunteer was a young, cool black guy named Eric and, well, I wanted him to like me.

So I treated it like we were hanging out, as pals. I tried to make small talk with Eric, saying things like, “Man, solving world hunger is the shit – wouldn’t you agree?” and tried to teach him the handshake I learned from a retarded teenager in Vancouver – grab, slide, snap-snap, pound. Then he pitches me on the organization…and I’m very interested…and he flips open a binder and asks, “So, where do you want to sponsor a kid?” The binder was filled with laminted pages outlining the world’s poorest countries, with color-coded “Starvation Zones.” At this point it occurred to me that perhaps I should ask why choosing a country even mattered at this point. Hunger is hunger, and it seems like it misses the point when you decide to be picky about your altruism. For instance, is it really OK, as someone in the position to give money to a charitable organization, for you to say, “I’d love to sponsor an impoverished child. Just no Pakis, OK? I don’t just throw my damn money around, after all.”

I just looked absent-mindedly at his starving country maps, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “I dunno. I guess just pick the country where kids are hungriest? Like, whatever country doesn’t have brunch?” I figured that was the most fair way of going about it, and the best value for my dollar. Eric, detecting my lack of preference, flips the binder forward to their starving child profiles – sort of like the all-stars of abject poverty. Then he assures me, “don’t worry. I’ll pick you out a hottie.” I was taken aback, and tried to grab the binder and pick a child at random, in order to curtail this line of thinking. I pointed to a kid with flies on her face and Eric just shook his head and said, “Nah, check it out. She’s got a flat ass. You don’t need that aggravation, son.”

I wanted less and less for Eric to like me, as black and cool as he was. In fact, I just wanted to get out of there. So I flipped a few pages forward and my finger landed on a five year-old Nicaraguan girl who looked sufficiently desperate. “How about her?” I suggested.

“Hell no!” Eric shouted back. “Are you crazy, man? You can tell just by looking at her, she’s gonna be fat when she grows up.” And I explained I was pretty confident that, even with my generous assistance, none of these starving kids was in any danger of growing up to be morbidly obese, though that would certainly be a bittersweet outcome.

For the next few minutes, Eric and I went back and forth like this. I would arbitrarily choose a child and he would shoot them down, making assessments like, “too cross-eyed,” “gold digger,” and “straight-up skeezer.” Finally, exasperated, I pulled out my wallet and said, “Look, E. (he said I could call him “E” when I asked a bit earlier) I’ve got fifty dollars in cash. Just show me the hottest starving kid I can sponsor for that kind of money.” And that’s how I met your mother.

HOW TO GET WHAT YOU WANT

There’s a storefront in my neighborhood that’s been “Under Renovation” for a long time. The windows are papered-up. Aside from the occasional eye rolls and tongue-clucks of Park Slope’s self-appointed Neighborhood Aesthetic Congeniality Committee, most people would walk by a papered-up storefront and pay it little to no mind.

However, this storefront is really distracting because, in addition to the newspaper collage designed to keep out all sunlight and retain all privacy, the owners (or owners-to-be) have hung all these posters advertising the impending arrival of “HOT FRATS.” It’s all over the windows. HOT FRATS. I’m not sure what Hot Frats are; the poster says something about fried ravioli but has a photograph of something that looks like cream puffs covered in blood.

This morning I thought it would be fun to camp outside the store with a sleeping bag and picnic basket and a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Trilogy, and insist to any passer-by, “I’m getting the first Hot Frat. Me! Hot Frat #1!!” Then every couple of hours I’d bang on the windows of the store and demand to know when my Hot Frats would be ready. “COME ON!! From whence will these delicious Hot Frats come, if not from within that storefront yon? I’m getting hungry out here! I want a Hot Frat in my mouth, anon, and a matching pair in my stomach. I want to feel a Hot Frat being broken down in my digestive system. Good Sirs, I will not rest until I’ve tasted your finest Hot Frat!! Please summon your exchequer, for I must know what financial straits are causing my Hot Frats to tarry so!” (here’s a peek behind the curtain of hilarious: ridiculous demands are made that much more ridiculous when phrased in the parlance of the society for creative anachronism.)

Then I stopped thinking about Hot Frats and started thinking about this. Funny how the mind works.

HOW TO GET CLOSER TO CRAZY

The weather last Saturday night – does anyone remember back that far anymore? – was at once insulting and gorgeous. To celebrate the first day of spring and the first day of her menstrual cycle at the same time, Mother Nature chilled the sidewalk just above freezing and twisted the precipitation knob to “hostile, unrelenting spray.” As I made my way to the subway, I chose Joy Division’s Permanent on my iPod because I have a great weakness for the dramatic, and the weather was art directed perfectly for a dramatic evening; it just needed the right soundtrack.

I’ve been making an effort to travel late at night by subway more often. It is a symbolic gesture in my largely failing plan to become fiscally responsible, particularly on evenings when I won’t have to pay for an extra 45 minutes of waiting and MTA travel the next day for lack of sleep. It’s also very quiet on the subway platforms at the hours between midnight and six a.m. (and this was one of those hours) so I had extra time to think…to think about how horrible it was waiting for a subway when I could have been home, on my couch, chasing an oil tanker with a speeding motorcycle and a flame thrower.

When a suitable train finally did arrive, it was about half-empty (which is, ironically, the optimist’s take on subway car occupancy) and I settled into one of those rare two-seaters that face the exits instead of facing the ends of the car. Because of the hand-hold on my left side and a wall on my right, it already felt like a tight fit just by myself. So, when we reached the next stop and a giant of a man decided to ignore the bounty of open seats and squeeze in alongside me instead, it seemed to me an odd choice.

His hands were filthy and tremendous – each one nearly the size of the CRACK’D magazine I was reading. Every time he shifted in his seat, which was constantly, his quilted down jacket sighed great dusty clouds of stale smoke from down-market brand cigarettes. I couldn’t see his face, since he had a sweatshirt hood pulled over his head and its sides acted as blinders, but it wasn’t long before I did the mathematics and realized his size, nervousness, mystery, and smells added up to only one thing: HE WAS SUPER-CRAZY.

In all my years living here I’ve been in the approximate company of many, many crazy people. However, I think this was the closest I’d ever actually been to one – at least to my knowledge. Think about it: how close do you usually let yourself get to insane, twitchy giants? Sometimes I’ll see a commuter reading his paper or correcting students’ papers, seated right next to a sleeping, creeping homeless guy and I’ll think, Now there is a commuter deeply entrenched in his own denial. I realize they’re sitting next to madness out of necessity, but it’s strange how they always pretend everything is cool – “What? Oh ha ha. No, I was not aware that there was a mean seated next to me, good sir. And what’s that you say? He is shouting to everyone on the train that he is under attack by invisible draculas and the only way to defeat them is to expose his scrotum through his zipper? Well, I’ll be. You could have fooled me! What a colorful city. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

I, however, had a choice. There were plenty of other seats available. If I were to move seats out of discomfort, I could just choose one of them. And, of course, if I wanted to change seats out of pure cowardice – something I’ve done many times – I could just pretend to get off at the next stop and then slip low into the car directly behind this one.

But here’s where a funny thing happened. I decided I wanted to ride it out, just to see what would happen. His face was inches from mine, his hands even closer. At one point, one of his hands loomed extremely large in my peripheral vision and I could see all the areas an orange stick might lend assistance. He was mumbling and fiddling and while I didn’t ignore it, I certainly recorded it. I actually remember thinking – and this will, again, sound very dramatic I’m sure – it would be interesting to know how it felt to be so close to being crazy.

HOW TO GET REGULAR

For all the many years I’ve lived in my neighborhood, I’ve never been able to establish “regular” status. This has been one of my constant complaints. My inability to stick is owed, in part, to a general aversion to routine. I don’t like to eat at the same restaurants all the time, nor do I like to order the same thing on successive visits. My bar orders fluctuate between whisky, beer (domestic), beer (not domestic), Stoli with soda (because grown-ups i.e. drunks call their liquors and i call mine “mid-range priced”) and, on occasion, a Slippery Nipple with a Jimmy Juice Secret Money Shot. (which is, essentially, Harvey’s Bristol Cream and vodka shaken vigorously, and sprayed on the patron’s face.) They can’t nail my order down. And sometimes, instead of purchasing my morning latte/chai/green tea from the Starbucks on the corner of my block, I will buy it across the street, at the other Starbucks. (jokes!)

Another reason it’s been so hard to establish myself as a regular is that I never make eye contact, I mumble my orders, I awkwardly slide my money across the counter, and I do about five hundred other conscious and unconscious things to ensure I’ve avoided any type of pyschic connection between myself and the person on the other side. For example, after five years of patronizing the video store in my neighborhood, I am still asked my last and first name every single time I rent a film. Even my mailman leaves my mail on the floor.

So it was with pleasant shock that I was treated royally at a coffee shop in a completely foreign neighborhood over the weekend. I helped a friend move into his new place in Chelsea, and out of his old refugee camp on the Upper West Side. (a 90s-block neighborhood whose chief virtue is its proximity to better neighborhoods) His new neighborhood is Chelsea, far west, bordering on the best parts of the gallery district. Within seconds of pulling up to his building in a U-Haul van, I learned more about his close neighbors than I’ve gleaned from my own building-mates over the last five years. (who is that guy with the shaved head???) Total strangers were making conversation, conjuring up coincidences, and letting us touch their dogs without a formal introduction. As much as I love my own neighborhood, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of envy, as this was the kind of block young idealists imagine themselves strolling as they plan their pilgrimage to New York City. Sunday mornings probably smell like the hot ink of The New York Times. And this being a very gay neighborhood, its denizens are fastidious to a fault. People not only discard their trash in public waste receptacles; they make sure to fold it neatly before throwing it out.

At some point I wandered over to the coffee shop near my friend’s new apartment, thinking a to-go cup with a sip lid and java sleeve would be the perfect accessory for this block. While there, I guess I was so enamored with the neighborhood that I indulged in something I try to avoid at all costs – small talk with the counter-person.

I know other people take great pride in their interactions with cashiers, taxi cab drivers, waitstaff, etc., detailing the conversations lovingly as a way of promoting their own cosmopolitan status. These stories are told or written as infomercials for The New York Experience™ and many of the people who tell them go on to make short, independent films in which a recently-single girl is mentored by a caustic but magically wise homeless person. (the homeless person is usually brimming with great quirks, like carrying a doll’s head around in her lunchbox, or by being very smelly.) But this is not me.

Well, at least it usually isn’t me, but Saturday I was on fire. And, after a few minutes of what I would conservatively describe as “scintillating” conversation, I was presented with a handwritten IOU for a free coffee on my next visit, officially besting the current champion of personally preferential treatment in my own neighborhood. (that prize belonged to my dry cleaner, who let me slide on a tab for one visit because i am “long time customer.”)

This unexpected acceptance begs the question: is it ethically wrong to start patrolling a foreign neighborhood, and behaving as if it is my own? I mean, I still intend to sleep in my own bed and feed the cats in the morning, but can’t I carry Whole Foods shopping bags around someone else’s neighborhood, or haunt their coffee shops all day? I could be so happy there, during visiting hours. I really think I could establish myself as a neighborhood regular, as long as no one asks me where I live.

HOW TO PUT THE SHINE BACK IN ROMANCE

A couple of nights ago, I ran into a friend of mine at a bar. This is usually where I do my running-into lately, and I’m not sure yet if this is cause for alarm. (i’ve also noticed that i’m drinking whiskey with startling regularity lately — at least for me. i keep thinking all the blood vessels in my nose are on the verge of bursting at once, in one horrible symphony. somehow this seems more significant to me than the very real possibility of bottoming out at the bottom of an alcoholic tailspin, with blackouts and incontinence and herpes and bad poetry and all the other trappings of problem drinking.)

Since this friend is not someone with whom I am very close, we warmed up to conversation by recounting the last time we’d seen each other. It was outside a comedy club, where she was barking. (that’s industry lingo for “begging people to come inside and see a comedy show they had no intention of seeing, instead of heading over to The Slaughtered Lamb for a ‘Dr. Sauza and Mr. Cointreau’ drink special, which is what they’ve been planning since exiting the Grey Line Bus Tour.”) As she was describing that evening, she managed to say the least sentimental thing I’ve ever heard come out of a woman’s mouth. This is no small feat, but here it is:

“Yeah, so I was standing on the street and some douche gave me a rose.”

I’ve heard a lot of cynicism in my post-adolescent years, much of it on my own outgoing voicemail messages, but this had to be the greatest. There’s something perfectly disgusting in the juxtaposition of the words “rose” and “douche.” They just rub up against each other so uncomfortably. I was sort of impressed.

Then I got to thinking: that actually might make a really nice greeting card for Valentine’s Day. For instance, the outside of the card could be written in those swoopy Edwardian script letters favored by greetings card companies. It would just read, “I was standing on the street, and some douche gave me a rose…” Then, when you open it up, the thought is completed with great gentleness: “…and today I wish that douche were you.” Pretty, right?

I have a good friend who was reared on Midwestern soil, and she specializes in stretching a silver lining around anything, no matter how impossible the fit. (sometimes it’s fun to watch her think, her mind almost straining at the task.) I guess this is just a little bit of me trying to do the same.

HOW TO WARM YOURSELF TO ANOTHER SPECIES

Today, on my way to Gorilla Coffee, where I intended to force myself at gunpoint to write, my eyes fixed on a tiny Pomeranian puppy swaddled in a knit jumper, prancing across the street in my direction. I stopped everything, so I could observe the puppy without distraction. Lately my undivided attention is reserved only for dogs in sweaters, children dressed as super-heroes, frogs in the wild, and homeless people with hand-made signs.

*****

I’ve noticed my affection for dogs has increased dramatically since I moved to Brooklyn eight-plus years ago. Most of my early experiences with dogs were not positive. When I was about three or four years old my parents briefly adopted a beautiful Siberian Husky named Samantha. That dog’s role in our family became complicated almost immediately as I found myself regularly competing with Samantha for my parents’ love. I performed tricks to divert attention from the dog, interrupting her grooming by making my father count off jumping jacks, or somersaulting across our living room carpet until I vomited. Behind closed doors I would antagonize Samantha by over-petting her or blowing in her ears, hoping to sabotage her scores in the “congeniality” portion of our unspoken contest.

My parents finally had to let the dog go when they discovered me on the kitchen floor, on all fours, eating dried kibble directly from Samantha’s bowl. I was told Samantha was sent to a “dog ranch” where she was allowed to run free with other dogs and unicorns and fairies, though I know of no such ranch in Albany County. That was the party line and my brother, sister and I were young enough to follow it sans contretemps. Were I willing to be more realistic about her fate, I would say Samantha was probably sent to the showers, where she was gassed by two low-ranking German Shepherd officers.

After Samantha was neatly disposed, the Levin household became an exclusive haven for neurotic and overweight cats, and I’ve extended that tradition to my own home. Cat owners are taught to follow their cats’ wishes and hate dogs, which I did dutifully throughout my youth. In fact, before moving to New York City, the only other serious run-in I had with a dog was my grandmother’s Irish Setter, Rusty, who nearly took my left eye as a souvenir. Technically, I shouldn’t have been trying to ride him bareback, but I was acting under the influence. I was seven years old, I think, and visiting my grandmother after Sunday school. It was Purim and I was pretty hopped-up on grape juice and prunes, so I couldn’t be held entirely responsible for my behavior. While my mother and sister visited inside with my grandparents, I stayed in the yard and tried to saddle up. Rusty’s response was far from demonstrative; he was like my grandfather in that way. Instead, without as much as a bark, he shook me from his back, knocking my newspaper hat from my head. Then, while I was momentarily incapacitated, he leaned in and bit me, hard, right below my left temple.

The doctor at the emergency room explained that if Rusty’s bite had fallen about 1/8th of an inch to the right I would have lost that eye. It was another in a series of small miracles I’d survived in spite of my own insistent stupidity. Rusty was not so lucky. Less than a year later, he died mysteriously, still tethered to the maple tree in my grandparents’ yard. The unofficial story was that my grandfather suspected foul play – there was talk of Rusty’s Kal-Ken being poisoned. I would be lying if I said there was no small measure of suspicion directed toward me following Rusty’s demise. And, though I was too young and too inexperienced to coordinate a professional hit on a dog I still felt partially responsible. Was someone acting in my place? Or were my grandparents’ neighbors cold-blooded killers? They were known to hide inside with the curtains drawn and lights out on Halloween, and they were the first family on their block with an aluminum-sided gun tower, so I suppose the evidence is on the table.

*****

If you live in New York, particularly in the outer boroughs where apartments are spacious enough to allow for large pets without requiring they be stored upright like Murphy beds, you simply can’t hate dogs. It would be unhealthy to harbor all of that hatred, since you’re as good as surrounded. (i’ve used a similar argument against racism in this city. how can you expend all that energy hating the people who are likely going to be pressed, nose to ass, against you on the subway every single day? you’d explode.) As I began warming up to the idea of canines, my fondness was initially restricted to large dogs of indiscernible breeds; the kind you usually find sleeping on pub floors, stretched out amongst discarded peanut shells. These dogs wear old bandanas that have been softened by years of napping in direct sunlight. While they rest, their front paws grow heavier, and drop back to the floor with a satisfying thud as soon as you let them slip from your hand. In fact, you can molest these dogs all you like while they’re passed out, and nothing will wake them except for the subtle movements of their owner. It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch, and I’ve seen it many times. A man or woman will walk into a bar, with his unleashed beast ambling behind him. The owner pulls up a bar stool and the dog slumps to the floor with a sigh. Hours pass and the dog remains still, no matter how many strangers stoop next to him to pat his head or playfully smack his flanks. Then, as soon as the owner kills the last wet taste of his final pint, and pushes away from the bar, the dog will slowly rise to its feet and follow him out exactly as he’d followed him in. I love holding this kind of dog’s face and staring directly into its naturally sullen eyes, letting its thick jowls spill off the edges of my palms.

(a few nights ago, i actually saw the feline approximation of these dogs. a man was walking along Houston street with a tremendous cat draped around his shoulders. the cat bounced in time to its owner’s strut, and appeared permanently sated. it wore a faded red bandana tied beneath its chin.)

I was initially resistant to smaller dogs, thinking them high-strung and a little bit stuck-up – the aloof jerks of the dog world. My opinion has changed over time, as I’ve known many upstanding small dogs. More importantly, though, I’ve begun to understand their capacity to make people laugh. Small dogs are insane, and antic. Due to scale, the slightest misstep of a tiny dog provides an exaggerated pleasure. Have you ever seen a Whippet from behind? Amazingly graceless. There is a Russian man in my neighborhood, a great bear of a person, who I sometimes see walking Kokoshka, his tiny Pomeranian. The dog, small enough to fit on a bagel, is extremely sensitive to weather and sometimes performs a rhythmless dance on the sidewalk, as it tries to avoid making four-on-the-floor contact with the chilled asphalt. If one were to film this dance for an hour, even on a shaky, inexpensive camera, the resultant footage would surely be the highest grossing film in the history of moving images. Once, as scores of people crowded around the achingly sweet Kokoshka in mid-dance, his owner announced loudly to the assembled audience, “Do you see? Do you see what cuteness can do in this world?!”

So today, as the Pomeranian approached, I held my ground. When it reached me, something amazing happened. A woman exited the corner bodega with her nervous Chihuahua mutt. Then, from my opposite side, a man was being pulled along by his squat English bulldog. The three dogs met silently and fearlessly – the dainty Pom, the shivering Chihuahua, and the snorting, drooling Bulldog – and pecked each other with wet snouts. I was standing in the middle of the intersection of cute, crazy, and sweet, and I stayed there forever. In fact, I’m still there now.

HOW TO REVERSE THE EFFECTS OF INVISIBLE JUICE

I used to work with a woman who troubled me deeply. I don’t think she ever understood how much she troubled me, unless she could feel the breeze pick up each time I strode past her cubicle. This is the only way I could bear passing her workstation on my way to the office kitchen, by quickening my pace as if trying to motor past an old, haunted cemetery and escape its phantom grip.

I had to speed along that way. I couldn’t make eye contact, because to look at her was to stare in the face of every error in judgment, and every reservation, I’ve ever made based on some a just-below-the-surface but not-quite-articulated lapse in self-esteem. Her cubicle was her permanent home, an office right on the floor, in plain view. She could be at her company for 25 more years and she will never be moved into a more desirable space – an interior office-crate – unless she became miraculously grandfathered in during a deadly viral outbreak. She will never ask for a raise, I thought, and she will never interview competitively; she might not even know how. She never imagined herself there, taking up space like she was ordered through a STAPLES catalog, but somehow here she is and she isn’t going anywhere else. In my mind she had always been a living (and possibly breathing, though i’ve never heard any) monument to permanence through defeat.

And each time I caught a glimpse of her, I went momentarily cold. If you have friends who read only the parts of scientific articles they find interesting – the first paragraph and pull quotes – they’ve probably spoken to you at some point about how humans will eventually just become machines that get worn down, and replaced with new parts. Combine genetic engineering with highly specialized mood altering drugs and you’ve got a great headstart on a fleshy robot race of administrative automatons. Well, my co-worker was like an alpha version of that. Her hair style looked a bit like a wig stolen from a Lane Bryant mannequin. Her features seemed airbrushed on, barely making an impression in the skin of her face. She never speak unless spoken to and even then it was basic artificial intelligence; all reaction, little action. She never moved unless interrupted. I’m sure she could count sixty perfect seconds out loud, without ever looking at a clock. I expect her genitals smell like the inside of new Tupperware.

She became a dangerous source of fascination for me, and eventually I decided I wanted to understand her, and put a human face on her to make her less mythic, frightening. I began quizzing many other employees about her. I would inquire about her official position within the company, or her general role as an employee, but no one could provide a straight answer – not even people who shared a fabric-covered cubicle wall with her. She was a mystery, like that abandoned desk that sits on the office floor for many months, or the door in your company that remained closed for so long you dismissed the idea that it could be concealing anything, until one day you walk by it and notice it’s open AND someone has been working behind it all along. She was like that.

Finally I started making a very conscious effort to make eye contact with her. I would give her a wink and a nod and, later, a short “hello” each time I encountered her in her cube home. When I would do this, she’d avert her eyes, and instead of returning my greetings, she would just lower her head and spread her fingers out over her keyboard lightly, as if feeling it out in darkness. I understood this anti-social behavior immediately. She liked being invisible, and I was blowing her cover, drawing heat.

HOW TO PUT A FINGER ON MOTHERHOOD

With one small bump, we are off. In line at the JFK security gate, waiting to remove her shoes for the crackerjack staff, a woman briefly forgets where her personal space ends and everyone else’s begins. In this moment she lets her massive, SUV-stroller get away from her, and it lurches forward a bit, love-tapping another woman in line. In the cosmic scheme of things, this would appear to be insignificant; it’s one saliva bubble gone free. But it is significant, and it sets off a chain of events illuminating a classic New York struggle.

“Could you please not bump me with your stroller. I have a cat in my bag.” The offended sawed off each word expertly, letting them fall in a perfect configuration that pointed blame, suggested intent, and exalted cat ownership to a religious duty. It turned heads, including mine. Will this pass, we all wondered. Should this pass? Of course not but yes, probably. The stroller mom assessed her accessories – baby, waterproof bags, stroller snow tires, Keds – and, deciding she was too good for this kind of abuse and probably possessed the Universal Right of Way, searched her personal menu of suitable responses. She dismissed “controlled silence” or “absent-minded apology” as options and went straight for “establish dominance.”

“Excuse me. If I knew you had a cat in your bag, I wouldn’t have bumped you!” She then turned to others in line, bugging her eyes, which is semafore for, “am I right or am I fucking right?” We all turned away, finding other things to occupy our attention. I read and re-read an advertisement about irritable bowel syndrome (it wasn’t offering a cure; it was merely promoting the disease), while another man rightly pretended to faint.

Within seconds, the two women were at each other, volleying words like “hostile” and “unnecessary” with increasing impropriety, given the petty grounds for argument. I quickly realized, however, these women were not arguing about errant strollers and offended cats and appropriateness of tone; they were arguing about who had made a more noble choice in her life. This is a question that probably assuages and occasionally troubles the consciences of women across North America, but is a great violent schism dividing New York Women into two distinct types: Baby Mom for Life and Feline Mom for Life.

The Feline Mom struck first, naturally, her instinct for self-defense built up from wedding after wedding filled with friends and relatives asking if she’d “met anyone” yet. She always claimed her job came first, that she was neither lonely nor alone. (As the wedding guests imagined a series of clandestine affairs, hopefully with men, she imagined her cat licking salmon oil from her fingers.) Two years ago, she dressed her cat like a baby for Christmas. In the cab on the way to the airport she spoke to it in hushed tones, preparing it for the scary flight, and said, “I love you” in a voice strong and deliberate enough to make herself momentarily uncomfortable. Today, bumping her was an act of immeasurable disrespect, particularly from…a Breeder.

The Biological Mom was much, much worse, in my opinion, if only for her very clear sense of superiority. With each swipe she took at the Feline Mom she seemed to be making a transparently veiled assertion that having babies is what makes us better people. Having babies means winning. Having cats means shitting it up. “Look at this baby!” she broadcast through her snide remarks. “This came right out of me – I made this! There is no finer use of the human vessel. I am holding a future President of The United States, made from semen and glue and God’s twinkly tears and hatched right from between my blessed legs. And look at your cat, you selfish woman. If I had a stroller big enough, I’d drive it right over your pet caddy like the main event at a Monster Truck Rally, just to show you how great this work called ‘man’ is.” Of course, she said none of this but it was all there in her haircut.

The great thing about this altercation, besides discovering the cat was a giant, pink-eyed Persian, and that the baby had a bad, squashed face, was that these two extremes of motherhood are both totally legitimate choices in New York City, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. I don’t know who was right and who was wrong – this was a complicated argument – but I do know this: a baby with whiskers drawn on its face is about one-zillionth as precious as a full-grown cat in a diaper. Case closed.

PACKED IN, UP (MAY CONTAIN BRAGS)

Just before splitting, I’ve been trying to stuff myself with New York City. A few shows, then Wigfield last saturday night, with Steven Colbert, Paul Dinello and my only persevering celebrity crush, Amy Sedaris. (i am generally a pretty even-tempered person when i encounter art or entertainment that rubs up against my personal pursuits. i refrain from jealousy quite easily, and i have been glad to find only inspiration in both excellent and excremental plays/movies/films/books. however, wigfield made me genuinely envious. it’s at once very smart and distasteful. i was really caught up in the way characters toyed with language. for example, “if there’s one thing i love about wigfield, it’s two things…” it was like watching some unrealized, never-conceived personal project executed more precisely than my current skill set would allow. it was great, even though i bled a little.)

Last night I lucked out with one of the best meals I’ve had in this city for months. (i will not press my luck by eating out again, at least until i return.) Each bite was better than the last, and at one point dancing broke out in the restaurant. Individuals from two separate, unrelated tables rose suddenly and joined for salsa steps. That’s quality dining.

Then today I taped something for an upcoming show on [A MAJOR CABLE NETWORK THAT WILL PROBABLY NOT SUE ME FOR USING ITS NAME BUT I CANNOT HELP MYSELF ANYWAY]. I’m still not sure how or why I was recommended but the experience was odd, fun. I showed up in a wool blazer and glasses – my NY JEW disguise – but had to remove the jacket since I was sweating like a child molestor. I was buffed (and rebuffed!) with powder by a camera operator named “biz” (of course) and then, once the gleam was cut from my tremendous forehead, I talked my ass off for a full hour. A producer fed me questions about famous television commercial jingles and I stammered pleasantly until something kind of funny came out. Here’s an example…

On SLINKYs: “Can I have some more water?”
On the DIET PEPSI commercial with Ray Charles: “BLIND! BLIND! BLIND GUY!!! OK, was that funny?”
On MY BUDDY: “Don’t they make those for adults now?”
On the MENTOS commercials: “These are instructional. They show us what life is really like in Norway. Or Denmark. Or Iceland. Or Weirdville.”
On ‘COKE IS IT’: “Can Biz buff me again?”

And so on. I’m certain, when it airs later this summer, my hour will be cut down to a quick shot of me wiping sweat from my upper lip as “The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup” plays in the background. Then they’ll cut to Hal Sparks doing an impression of the Oscar Mayer Bologna kid and the day will officially be saved.

A lot of fun before I sleep, but right now: CAT FOOD. And lots of it.*

*this is why i don’t discuss my personal life online. it would be mostly talk of cats, baldness and upset stomachs. right now, everyone i know who reads tremble.com is nodding a head, possibly even their own.

THANK GOD FOR NICE PEOPLE LIKE TODD LEVIN

In a cab tonight, after a junk food bender so humiliating it should be recorded on some eating disorder web ring for teenage girls, I had an out of body experience. I was retrieving messages from my cell phone – my mom, two wrong numbers, and Fudge Castle telling me my order is cooling – and suddenly I felt a very familiar vibration in my ass. It was the same vibration my phone gives off in my pocket, but how could it be! I am sort of embarrassed to admit that I did a “phone take” where I pulled my own phone away from my ear, wondering how it could be vibrating while in use, though knowing full there was no “how”; it just couldn’t be.

Finally I realized the buzz was coming from another phone I’d sat on when I entered the cab. If it hadn’t been in my ass I probably wouldn’t have known it was there but, upon discovering it, it seemed a good idea to answer it. I wound up speaking with a nice girl named Helen, who was waiting somewhere for the phone’s owner – a man with a bit of a problem being on time. Helen and I are to be married in the fall, and you’re all invited, but that is not my story. Not now.

I did what I thought was most appropriate. I gave Helen my mobile number and instructed her to have her friend call me there so he could retrieve his phone. The succeeding turn of events is not worth report, except for two details:

When Phil (i think that was his name but couldn’t be trusted with this information; names drop out of my memory just as soon as they enter it. i’m excellent with fingerprints, however.) dropped by to retrieve his phone, I greeted him at my building’s stoop. He was a young guy – asian, slight – and he grabbed my hand and said, with alarming earnestness, “THANK GOD FOR NICE PEOPLE LIKE YOU.” It was actually kind of moving. Thank god for nice people like me? As he held tight on my hand, I feared he’d experience the same super-powers Bruce Willis had in Unbreakable. Through his touch, I wondered if he would be able to feel all the horrible things I’d done with my life, especially since some of them had occurred earlier that day. Would his expression change from gratitude to spiritual pain, and finally slacken into grim disgust as he backed away from me? Still, the very idea that he would thank God for people like me made me want to do something nice, like destroy my eugenics laboratory.

Earlier, when I was trying to find Phil’s information in his cell phone, I discovered that this model doubled as a digital camera. Curious, I selected a menu called “photo album”. There were only two photos in there. The first was Phil making a crazy face into the camera. The second was Phil making a less crazy face into the camera. I’ve a feeling there won’t be many more pictures than that during this phone’s lifetime, which is probably not so uncommon. On television commercials advertising camera-phones, there is always some scenario in which the phone’s owner sees the Grand Wizard of the KKK kissing a Mexican baby or something, and thank God for nice phones! In reality, 99% of the photos on those phones capture its owner making a crazy face. The other 1% are blurry shots of my penis head poking through the opening of my boxers. (sorry, phil. there’s no god in the history of religion you’ll want to thank for that.)

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