Saturday, December 5, 2009

Part 4: NYDC Blues

After having returned to Washington I found myself watching television all the time. I’d watch Late Night with David Letterman every night, waiting for him to do one of those bits where he turns on the remote camera outside the Ed Sullivan Theater to check the goings-on there at 53d and Broadway. I’d seen him send a guy wearing a bear suit into Flashdancers, the strip joint down the street. I’d seen him call the phone booth on the corner to talk to some tourist who wasn’t able to get in to see the show, then bring him inside to give him ear muffs to help keep the poor soul warm in the cold New York air. I’d seen him bring the entire cast of Miss Saigon, all dressed to the nines in their red satin decadence, out onto the catwalk of the Broadway Theater to blow a collective kiss to the camera. After moving back to Washington I’d been watching the show faithfully in order to get even the tiniest dose of New York. Because after having lived there New York had become, for me, a habit as bad as that of the junkies on the corner of Avenue B and 4th St., which was where I lived during my tenure there. All I could think about was New York. And although in the past I had always been able to write despite whatever obsession or addiction afflicted me, for some reason I found that for me to write with this particular monkey on my back—a monkey with a Big Apple in its mouth—was impossible.

My friend Jim suggested that to solve this problem I should just lay on the sofa all day reading. He figured that reading the work of other writers would inspire me to pick up a pen or start hitting the keys on the typewriter. My friend Leah thought I should consider how old I was—that a person in his mid-thirties like myself should be much further along in his career, and that to have a case of writer’s block at this early phase was totally absurd. She figured that, if I were to concentrate on these pathetic truths, the guilt emanating from my superego would put words in my head and, subsequently, down on the page. Finally, my friend Eddie advised me to do the local poetry slam. “Because you have to go as low as you can possibly imagine,” he said, “and that poetry slam shit is about the lowest thing I can think of. And when you clean house there at the bottom of the dung heap—and you will clean house—you’ll be inspired.”

It seemed that everyone I knew in Washington had suggestions on how I could get myself started again. Everyone except Neal.

“I have no advice for you,” he told me over dinner at Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.

He picked up a spoonful of macaroni and cheese, but instead of putting it in his mouth he gestured with it.

“Your not being able to write is just laziness,” he said, pointing the macaroni and cheese at my nose. Pulling back the spoon he added, “And this whole concept of writer’s block is just bullshit.” He paused, then quickly brought the spoonful of macaroni and cheese into his mouth and swallowed.

I went home that night and sat in front of the typewriter. I sat there for what seemed like hours and still nothing was happening in my mind save for a lengthy series of ruminations on New York, none of which I could translate into even the simplest poem or short story. So I turned on the television. And as I watched I took inventory, in my mind, of the differences between New York and Washington. By noting the differences I thought I might find, if not the solution, then at least a clue as to why my obsession with New York was preventing me from writing here in Washington.

The first and most obvious difference between the two cities was that compared to New York, Washington was slow, very slow. Rush hour in D.C is like 4am in Manhattan. As for 4am in Washington—well, there’s no equivalent of that in New York, nothing quite as scary, nothing that will make the adrenalin rush so quickly through your body that you feel your veins will burst. And although New York may have it over D.C. as far as the speed of life goes, when it comes to the danger one feels being out on the street late at night, Washington is the clear winner. This is a fact New Yorkers are beginning to be aware of, and when I went to rent a truck to move my belongings back to Washington, the guy behind the bullet proof glass at the U-Haul office in East Harlem asked me, “Is it as bad down there in Washington as they say?”

“Worse,” I answered, even though at the time I had changed my mind about the difficulties of living in Washington. “And it won’t be enough to call in the National Guard. Mayor Kelly should bring in the Marines at the very least. And if they call in the Army, Navy, and Air Force too, then so much the better.”

“Man,” he said, his mouth agape, “and I thought things were tough in this neighborhood.”

“No, things up here are fine. In fact I moved up to New York so I could relax and take it easy. I wanted to live in a place where I could walk the streets at dawn and not have to watch my back. But with the situation in Washington being what it is I have no choice but to go back. I’ve got family down there, you know.”

“I hear you, man. Things are really tough down there.”

Which, upon my homecoming, turned out to be the truth; because when you get down to it New York, despite its reputation for being a cold and crazy town—and despite one of the fastest paces of life in the Western world—is perhaps one of the easiest places in which to live. If you don’t mind the pace in New York, which I didn’t, you’ve got it made. And even though Frank Sinatra sings, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,” the ability to make it in New York doesn’t mean a thing once you get past the city limits. Because despite what people may say, success in New York isn’t all that difficult to come by.

And what makes New York an easy place to succeed is that, unlike Washington, it grants a certain amount of space for failure, and leaves room for even the most ill conceived decisions. In Washington, if you fail, you’re through; and if you make a bad decision, they hold it over your head for the rest of your life: there are no second chances here. In New York, however, they give you time to heal—and time to forget. So if, after some catastrophic event, you find yourself being little more than a shadow, New York gives you the opportunity to develop that shadow, to give it color and depth. There’s no reason there, when looking down at your shadow on the day after losing your job or your girlfriend, to feel distraught and powerless. New York is a city where dreams and the chance to realize them never cease. It’s a city that allows you to dream the most fantastic dreams imaginable—dreams that cross the line from the whimsical to the absurd. But most importantly it’s a city where it’s safe to do so. And among the many reckless things one can do in one’s lifetime, one of the most reckless is to take a New York dream out of New York and attempt to keep it alive. Which is exactly what I had attempted to do.

Exile from Mayberry

In addition to watching David Letterman, I’d also watch Conan O’Brien, NYPD Blue, Law And Order—anything that came out of or dealt with New York. But what was most significant for me were reruns of the old Andy Griffith Show; because, as ludicrous as it may seem, Andy Griffith’s Mayberry had become—for me and only for me—the fictional equivalent of New York. In Sheriff Andy Taylor I saw a bearing similar to that of my landlord in New York. Barney Fife seemed like a rural translation of the man who ran the Bodega around the corner from me. And of course there was the lovely Helen Crump, whose real life counterpart was constantly in my thoughts.

But I had made the move, and to go back to my Mayberry so soon would be admitting that I’d made a mistake and, worst of all, that Washington—my Mt. Pilot—had defeated me. So whenever I got a call from my publisher in New York asking how the novel was coming, I’d lie.

“It’s going like clockwork,” I’d tell him, turning the sound off on the television. “It’s just that Washington is one horny fucking town to write in, which means that more and more horny scenes keep coming to mind... Yeah, it’s taking a little longer than I thought it would, but when it’s done it’ll make you shit.”

But I wasn’t getting any work done on it at all, and in the meantime the money I had made from my job on Wall Street had run out. I was living off my credit cards but now my creditors were after me. I was getting phone calls from various banks asking for their money. “I mailed it a month ago,” I’d say, “maybe it got lost.” But they weren’t buying my lies the way the publisher in New York was. My creditors weren’t from there—they were from other places around the country and weren’t as easily charmed. What was happening was a failure to communicate, because I was speaking a language no one but a New Yorker could understand. And furthermore I was trying to lead a life no one but a New Yorker—a New Yorker in New York—could lead.

But I went on this way, stubbornly clinging to strategies that worked in New York and accomplishing nothing... Until one night when, after having been unable to do so in weeks, I got drunk.

I was at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, a bar in my Washington neighborhood. Because I was broke, Eddie and Jim had been buying me drinks—a lot of drinks. Knowing that I was desperate for money, and needed to get some sort of momentum going as far as making money, Eddie suggested that I do a reading in Washington. “It wouldn’t be much money,” he said, “but at least it’s a start.”

“What reading can I do here?” I asked.

He paused a moment then mumbled, “The poetry slam.”


“The poetry slam!”

“No fucking way,” I said, shaking my head. “I quit reading poetry over a year ago.”

“Shit, man,” he said. “You need to get back on track making money with your writing. All you need is that start. And the place to start is at the bottom.”

“The slam is the bottom, all right. But, still, this is D.C. My stuff will never go over here.”

“It did at Neal’s party,” Jim said. “You had everyone in the palm of your hand.”

“But that was a fluke, something that was totally Neal’s creation. I’ve seen readings here, and what people go for are poets who know the names of a hundred different kinds of flowers, poets who reminisce about growing up in the country, shit like that. They want poetry that will take them away from this hellhole they live in.”

“No,” Eddie interrupted, “there are people here who know what’s going on—well, up to a point. But that’s enough. You’ll win, and it’ll get you going.”

By this time I was already very drunk and in no condition to argue. They took me to my place to pick up some of my poems, then down to the 15 Minutes Club, which was where the poetry slam was held in Washington.

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