The Great Pyrenees

ImageAt first, I found it odd that so many New Yorkers have dogs.  I thought little of the teacup breeds carried in purses in SoHo.  It was the bigger breeds that concerned me.  The Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds and Pointers.  Is it ethical to keep a large dog in a city where grass is scarce?

I began to notice giant dogs everywhere I went.  A pair of Great Danes tied outside a bar in the East Village. An elderly lady with a St. Bernard in Union Square.  An Irish Wolfhound who patrolled Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.

The most impressive giant I ever saw was a Great Pyrenees.  I’d never seen one before.  I had been walking up 6th Avenue and turned left on 23rd Street on a whim.  I would’ve been alone were it not for the massive white dog and his owner at the end of the block.

I was blown away by the sight of this dog.  He looked like a polar bear on a leash.  Large enough to  swallow a big-boned toddler whole.

The owner wore a tan trench coat and was seated on a ledge.  He was affectionately stroking the dog behind the ears.  Didn’t notice me approaching.

Trench Coat stuck his leg out.  The dog reared back and mounted it and started humping.  Trench Coat embraced his pet.  Pulled him closer.  Urged him on.  Sprouted a little grin.

Trench Coat’s eyes rolled back and the carrot came out.  The dog humped faster.  Then, Trench Coat saw me approaching.

Quickly pushed the dog off.  Stood up from the ledge.  Brushed himself down.  Did an about-face and walked stiff-legged in the opposite direction.

I have yet to cross paths with another Great Pyrenees.

War Games

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I made my first war movie for Mr. Hammond’s Lit class in the 11th grade.  We’d been reading O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which is about the Vietnam War.  I was inspired to direct a war movie on par with Saving Private Ryan.

The script was about an elderly veteran writing a memoir.  He recalls a moment when he’d looked into the eyes of an adversary before he killed him.  My friend Casey got his grandfather, Art, to play the part.  He was a real Vietnam War veteran.

Art cried to himself while reading portions of O’Brien’s text to the camera.  None of us understood why he was so moved.  Nobody asked if he was okay.

Later, Mr. Hammond and some of the other teachers wanted to know who’d played the narrator.  They thought his performance was stellar.

I was unhappy with the finished project.  The flashbacks were poorly executed.  Looked like a bunch of sweaty teenagers playing paintball in Florida flatwoods.

The uniforms were mismatched.  Air Force gear.  Camo fatigues.  An olive jump suit.  Oversized hand-me-down boots looking like clown shoes.  Air-pump BB guns.

I made a second war film for Mrs. Blankenbuehler’s American History class a year later.  Much effort was put into production design.  The film was to be an historically accurate portrayal of the Vietnam War.  I began my research by watching Saving Private Ryan over and over and over again.

I bought camouflage fatigues and World War II helmets from the army surplus store.  The helmets were olive and didn’t match the fatigues.  Everybody in Vietnam wore camouflage.  So I got camouflage fabric from Wal-Mart and glued it to the helmets.  They were pretty convincing when it was all said and done.

I bought several airsoft AK-47s from SuperFlea.  The muzzles were orange-tipped, like BB guns.  So people would know they were fake.  I spray-painted the orange caps black to make them look real.

Fifteen friends showed up at my house on the day of the shoot.  Everybody got into fatigues and selected their weapons for the day.  We planned to shoot in an abandoned lot on a cul-de-sac in the back of the neighborhood.  I had everybody march to location for fun.  Made sure they all looked serious.  Like real soldiers.  Soldiers on a mission.

I was vaguely aware of bystanders watching our march.  People cocking their heads at us as they mowed their lawns and washed their cars and pruned their rose bushes.  Eying us suspiciously.

We got to the empty lot and prepared to shoot.  There were some handsome dirt mounds that would look great on camera.  I mapped out all the shots.  My friends feigned masturbation with their guns.

There was a woman watering her azaleas at the house next door.  She was watching us closely.  Her toddler was playing with trucks in the driveway.

The first shot was a closeup of Ryan, who was poised behind a dirt mound.  In the viewfinder he was all helmet and rifle with palmettos in the background.  I was about to roll off the first shot when Azalea Mom screamed.

A police cruiser roared into the cul-de-sac, lights flashing and sirens wailing.  Azalea Mom grabbed her toddler and ran into her house.  The cop jumped out and pointed his gun right at me.

He told everybody to drop their weapons.  Everyone did.  Had us put our hands in the air.  And we did.  Then he told us not to stick our arms directly above our heads like they do in the movies, but straight out.  Parallel to the ground.  So we did that too.

Cop asked me if everybody in my gang was present and I said yes.  Nobody hiding in the woods?  No.  You sure ’bout that?  Yes.

He was quiet for a while, trying to register what the hell we were doing.  Then he went ahead and asked what the hell we were doing.

I said I was making a war movie and these were actors.  He asked if the rifles were real.  I said no.  Then he lowered his gun and approached.

He grabbed Ryan’s gun, looked it over.  Said that airsoft guns had orange tips to show they’re fake.  I told him I’d painted all the orange tips black to make them look real.

He said that if I wanted to shoot a war movie, I should go ahead and do it in my own backyard. I told him I would have but my yard didn’t look much like Vietnam.  The woods around the cul-de-sac were better.

Seven calls to the police about our movie.  It had been three months since Columbine.  Adults were still weary of gun-wielding teenagers.  I wrote a paper about the Vietnam War for Mrs. Blankenbuehler instead.

I reattempted the shoot seven months later.  There was a huge tract of virgin land behind the SpaceCoast Credit Union.  People went out there to ride four-wheelers and shoot real guns at washing machines.

I did more research.  Watched Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan.  Bought vintage Vietnam uniforms.  Ordered deactivated grenades.  Found a hollowed missile shell at the army-navy store.  It was four feet tall and olive green with stencil lettering on the side.

I bought five mortars and dismantled them.  They would be buried in the sand and detonated at key moments while rolling.  Figured buried mortars would look just like mines and grenades when exploded.

The actors arrived at the SpaceCoast Credit Union in street clothes.  We had about twenty people to grab all the duffel bags from my car, which contained military fatigues, guns, props, fake blood, and SunChips.  Then we marched through the woods.

I selected a scenic gully.  I asked Ryan to bury the mortars.  We’d forgotten to bring the shovel so he used his hands.  The actors were getting dressed and selecting weapons.

A potbellied guy on a four-wheeler drove right through set.  He flicked open the visor on his helmet and asked if the AK-47s were real.  I said they were airsofts.  He told me they usually had orange tips so you’d know they’re fake.  Then he wished us well and drove off.

My buddy Billy and I hiked back to the cars to grab cases of water and found a police cruiser parked right by my car.  A cop was pacing the lot, radioing for backup.  I spun on my heels to go back into the woods but he spotted me and told me to get my ass out in plain view.  So I did.

He told me to put my hands in the air.  I stuck them straight out, parallel to the ground, and he told me to put them straight up.  So I did.  He pointed at my purple Honda Civic.

This your car?

Yes.

The front passenger door was open.

The cop was sweating bullets.  Had a hand on his holster.  The radio was clattering to him.  Promising backup.

He asked me to identify an object in the passenger seat.  I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he commanded me to slowly approach my car.  As I approached he backed away from me like I was armed.

Then I saw it.

The missile shell.

I explained to him that it was a hollow shell.  Unscrewed the cap and showed him that it was filled with towels and T-shirts and stuff.

He called off backup.  Asked what the hell I was doing in the woods behind the SpaceCoast Credit Union with missile shells and such.  I said I was making a war movie for school.

Cop laughed and admitted that I’d scared him good.  Said he didn’t quite know how to deal with folks blowing up banks and such.  I reiterated that I was just making a war movie.

He said that if I wanted to play war games I should do so in the safety of my own backyard.  Otherwise I could scare some folks and get shot.  I agreed.

Cop told me that he’d let me play my war games out in the woods.  But only on the condition that there be absolutely no guns firing.  No explosions.  He said that if he heard something go boom, my ass was grass.  I promised him there would be no explosions.

We pushed farther into the woods and filmed our movie.  Three out of five mortars exploded and sent dirt ten feet in the air.  Still looked like a bunch of teenagers in fatigues shooting paintballs at each other.

The final shot was a wide view of the carnage.  Bodies strewn about.  Billowing smoke.  One blood-soaked survivor getting to his feet, surveying the aftermath.  Potbellied guy on a four-wheeler speeding through the woods in the background.

Now I only make character dramas.

The Food Baron vs. Mister Horne

ImageI was a shift supervisor at the Java Shack in college.  We served sandwiches, salads, artisan coffee, and baked goods.  My job consisted of counting tills, writing schedules, hiring associates, firing associates, customer service, and supervising.

Matt the GM was usually there when I started my shift, so I made myself busy.  Counted the safe, did the checklists and the pan up, arranged the baked goods.  Refilled the coffee and called in people to replace call outs.

Matt always left at 6, at which point I’d retire to the office to make art on Microsoft Paint.  Fire-breathing dragons, velociraptors, motorcycle gangs, volcanoes, zombies, hummingbirds.

Around 7 I’d walk to the front of the store for the dinner rush.  Afterward I’d give all the associates free food.  My friends regularly stopped by for smörgåsbords.  Paninis, salads, pastries, cappuccinos, soups.  All they could eat and then some for the road.

My reputation for generosity preceded me.  I became known as The Food Baron.  If upper-management had gotten wind of my antics, they would have fired me for theft.

One day the district manager, Dawn Davis, dropped in for an impromptu meeting with Matt.  She was red-faced.  Matt was sweating.  They were flipping through paperwork.  When she left he took me into the office and interrogated me.

Food cost was through the roof.  70% above projections.  Matt figured associates were stealing. Told me to fire anyone caught sneaking food.  I was to make an example of any thieves.

I went from being The Food Baron to Scrooge in a day.  From Caesar Augustus to Nero overnight.  Started swimming the store like a shark looking for thieves.

If I found a chewing employee, I’d ask for a receipt.  Caught our sandwich guy munching on an illegal Artisan Turkey Cheddar Chipotle Panini in the walk-in freezer.  I barged in and he tried to hide the sandwich in his pocket but I’d already seen it.  Fired him on the spot.

Food cost dropped dramatically.  Matt complimented my vigilance.  Even phoned Dawn to let her know how well I was performing.  Gave me a 25 cent raise.

Then I caught old Mr. Horne stealing.

We were in Melbourne, Florida, which was one of the world’s premiere retirement destinations.  God’s Waiting Room.  Old people loved to stop by to read the paper and sip coffee and play bridge.  Our dining room was slacks and bifocals and velcro tennis shoes.

Mr. Horne was maybe 80 years old and just over five feet tall.  He had coke-bottle glasses and stringy white hair.  Looked like a barn owl in pastels and knee-socks.  Mr. Horne was a permanent installation in the dining room.

He’d order a cup of coffee and sit by the window and stare off into space.  At first I had the impression that Mr. Horne was beyond conversation, but after a while he took to chatting Matt’s ear off.  Mr. Horne never talked to me, though he watched me closely while I worked.

The first time I rang up Mr. Horne he ordered a small cup of coffee.  I handed him a cup and he gave me a five.  The till popped open and while my eyes were fixed on the cash, Mr. Horne’s arm snatched an extra cup from the stack next to my register.  Fast as a striking snake.

Mr. Horne stared at me blankly, like nothing was amiss.  He’d stacked the second coffee cup underneath the first.

I considered apprehending him on the spot.  But, it occurred to me that Mr. Horne was very old and his papery skin was probably sensitive.  More than likely, Mr. Horne wanted an extra cup to shield his withered fingers from the heat.

After the dinner rush I noticed that Mr. Horne was using both cups.  One cup for coffee.  Another for hot tea.  A liver-spotted paw wrapped around each cup like they were Oscars.  He wasn’t even using sleeves.

When I arrived at work the next afternoon, I found Matt glazing cinnamon buns in the bakery.  I informed him of Mr. Horne’s thievery and he told me to keep an eye on him.  Shoplifting was illegal, regardless of age and background.

A few hours later I spotted Mr. Horne in the dining room.  He was sipping a cup of coffee and a cup of hot tea, simultaneously.  I started wiping tables in the dining room.  I noticed him watching me from behind his coke-bottle bifocals and decided to make small talk.

How are you today, Mr. Horne?  Oh I’m quite alright.  Beautiful night, isn’t it?  Oh it certainly is, certainly is.  Say, you sure do like coffee, dontcha Mr. Horne?  Oh don’t I!  And you seem to like tea, too.  Sure do.  Not often you meet a man likes to drink coffee and tea at the same time, eh?

Now.  I’ve been sized up before.  One time I was sized up outside a club on A1A.  Another time the cable guy gave me a good once over when I told him off for being late.  A thousand times in the locker room in high school.

But there’s nothing like getting sized up by an 80 year old man with coke-bottle glasses and velcro tennis shoes.  He jutted out his stubbly lower jaw and scanned me with yellow eyes.  Then he shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose and coughed dismissively.

I was vexed.

The next day I deployed all associates to the food line.  Normally we had one person making sandwiches, one for salads, one for soups.  Tonight I had ten employees crammed into the line.  I was gong to ring up every single customer.

As a result, we had a line to the door all night.  Customers were griping.  All of my cashiers were asking why they couldn’t help me out.  I kept telling them I was trying to apprehend a criminal.  Told them to leave me alone and do as they were told.

Mr. Horne came in around 8.  He stood near the doors, surveying the scene.  He knew I had him.  He shuffled over.

Oh good evening Mr. Horne so good to see you again.  Say it’s kinda chilly outside might be nice to have a hot cup of coffee.  Or would it be better to have tea?  Sheesh I dunno what I’d choose if I were in your shoes.  If I had to pay for it… Ya know?

He ordered a small cup of coffee without comment.  I avoided eye contact like a shy toddler.  Urging him to steal a cup.  Kept my eyes on the register long after his receipt had printed.  Long after he left.  The next customer asked if I was okay.

After the rush Nate, our salad guy, flipped out over chicken.  He was prone to tantrums about this and that, as salad guys tend to be.  Wanted to know why the chicken was always improperly portioned.  The corporate checklist said chicken was supposed to be prepped into 1.75 ounce portions.  But our chicken was always weighing in at 1.25 ounces.

Mr. Horne moved like a Russian gymnast.  He somersaulted to the register.  Grabbed a second coffee cup.  Back at his table.  All in a matter of seconds.

I excused myself from the chicken conversation and stormed over to Mr. Horne.  Said I’d caught him red-handed.  Had security cameras to back me up.

Other customers were staring.  I snatched his hot tea and threw it away.  Told him to get out and never come back or he’d be arrested.  He nodded.

Mr. Horne had no defense.  He said he understood the consequences of his actions and that he’d never return.  Then he asked if he could use the store phone to have his son pick him up.

A woman got up from her table and handed him her cell.  She told me she wouldn’t be returning to the Java Shack.  Said I should go back to manager school.

I told her that I wasn’t in manager school at all.  I was studying history.

I went back behind the sandwich line.  Nate picked up where he left off.  The corporate checklist said to weigh chicken portions at the start of every shift, and those portions should be 1.75 ounces.  He said that our portions had been 1.25 ounces for several weeks.  Asked me to reprimand our prepper.

I took Nate aside and explained to him that Dawn wanted us to keep chicken portions at 1.25 ounces or smaller.  She felt that the corporate rule of portioning at 1.75 ounces was absurd.  So, the prepper was doing as he was told.  This franchise portioned chicken at 1.25 ounces.

Nate grumbled about that being bullshit as he walked out of the office.  I turned to the security monitor and watched him stock his station.  Then I noticed Mr. Horne shuffling out the front door.  I smiled.

I’d done my part for the greater good.

Snake Food

ImageMy first job was at Incredible Pets, an exotic pet store owned and operated by Pete Sherman.  The store was nestled between Cici’s Pizza and Winn-Dixie in a shopping center off Wickham Road.  The managers of neighboring operations hated Pete and Incredible Pets, because some feeder mice got out a few years back and bred a colony in the walls of the building.  The vermin lived off pizza and Winn-Dixie baked goods. 

There was a ten foot tall Tyrannosaurus rex statue in front of the store.  It was teal with purple polka dots.  I assumed Pete kept it out there to attract attention from passersby.  He was very proud of that statue and claimed he got it for some kind of bargain at a herpetological convention.  Pete petitioned shopping center management to let him screw it right into the concrete, but they shot him down.  So, it became my responsibility to move the statue outside in the morning and inside at night because Pete was afraid it would be stolen if left unattended after hours.

The statue was hollow plastic and light, but its height made it hard as hell to finagle through the narrow glass storefront.  To get the Tyrannosaur through the door I had to lay it on its back and pull it headfirst over the threshold. 

I was 17 and self-conscious.  Pulling an enormous plastic dinosaur through a tiny door was bad enough without being watched.  But this task happened to coincide with the routine smoke break of the haggard woman who ran Cici’s. 

She’d stand there smoking and watching me.  I’d throw open the door with a grunt, grab the dinosaur by the head, and pull it with all my might.  Sweat dripping from my ill-defined chin and pooling under my pits.  Baking under her glare.  Turning darker shades of maroon.  Sometimes she’d finish her cigarette before the Tyrannosaur was completely out the door and then she’d light another.  She never offered a hand. 

Incredible Pets had lovebirds, scarlett macaws, cockatoos, cockatiels, parakeets, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, chinchillas, ferrets, saltwater and freshwater fish (including seahorses, anemones, and piranhas), sugar gliders, a toucan, a pygmy marmoset, a ring-tailed lemur, a sloth.  I worked in the reptile department, which had sixty terrariums stacked six feet high, containing all the world’s interesting reptiles.  Veiled chameleons, panther chameleons, king snakes, corn snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, ball pythons, boa constrictors, emerald tree boas, Burmese pythons, green iguanas, day geckos, snapping turtles, and basilisks.  The store stunk of feces and pet dander and citrus air freshener.

Sonny the bird guy was my only friend at Incredible Pets.  He was in his forties and had been working there for ten years.  Wore faded Rolling Stones shirts, khaki shorts, knee socks and combat boots.  He got to work about an hour before me each morning because he had to tend to the baby birds.  Bottle-feeding them and talking to them and such.  He loved the birds and the other animals and Janis Joplin.  He played her music each morning before open. 

Sonny confided in the birds, was always talking about the past, about the things he did and didn’t do.  It was hard for me not to eavesdrop, not to hear him confess his darkest secrets to African Greys and blue-crowned conures and lovebirds.  Every now and again he’d notice me listening and stop talking. 

On my first day a guy came in and asked for a feeder rat.  Rats, mice, and rabbits of various sizes were kept in drawers in the back of the reptile department.  I opened the rat drawer, snatched a feisty one by the tail, and dropped him into a paper bag.  The customer shook his head and said he wanted the rat terminated.

Sonny had to show me how to do it.  He grabbed the rat by the tail and opened a drawer.  Then he swung it in a big arc and brought it down against the edge, snapping its back instantly.  Dead rat.  Happy customer.  Before long I was snapping backs left and right.

My first sale was an impressive bearded dragon that was going for a couple of hundred bucks.  Pete marked up the price a lot because the lizard was neon orange due to amelanism.  He was on display in the window and passersby would stop to watch him gobble up crickets.  I convinced a young woman to let her kid handle the docile creature.  Didn’t take the boy long to realize he wanted the lizard.  Mom capitulated and spent a couple of hundred bucks on bearded dragon and accessories.  I was pretty proud of myself.  

Then Pete showed up with a guy decked out from head to toe in camouflage.  Asked me what had happened to the lizard.  Turned out camo guy had put that particular bearded dragon on layaway two weeks prior.  There was a giant red sticker on the now-empty tank that said SOLD – LAYAWAY.  Somehow, in all of my excitement, I didn’t notice the sign.  Pete decided to move me to maintenance, full-time.

My first maintenance project was cleaning the cricket enclosure.  I had to relocate all three hundred crickets to a 40 gallon tank.  Then, I dragged their permanent enclosure outside and doused it in bleach.  Had to crawl inside it to scrub away the grime.  

It was pretty obvious nobody had ever cleaned it before.  There were several inches of cricket poop caked all over the bottom and sides.  Crickets are small and their shits are smaller so accumulating that much poop meant years of cricket traffic and no cleaning.  It was a nauseous blend of shit and bleach.  But the cage gleamed when I was done with it.  Pete was impressed with my performance.  Said he knew I’d excel at maintenance. 

One time I was doing my rounds and felt a crunch under my foot.  Like I’d stepped on a Dorito.  But it was actually a leopard gecko.  He was writhing in his own blood and viscera.  Every bone in his body crushed.  An eye dangling from a socket.  Brains oozing out of his gaping maw. 

Pete and Sonny were examining the waterfall in the koi pond and hadn’t noticed the accident.  So I circled the store like nothing had happened and came to stand next to them.  They were talking about pipes.  I pretended to listen and then exclaimed Oh my GOD! and pointed at the dying lizard.

Pete told us to check our shoes and mine were blood free.  We concluded that the gecko had escaped from its terrarium and some oblivious customer had squished it.  Pete told me to put the carcass in a ziplock and stick it in the freezer.

On my last day, a man in a Nascar shirt asked for a couple of rabbits.  Incredible Pets sold all sorts of rabbits as pets.  Lop-ears and Angoras and dwarf bunnies.

And we had feeder rabbits too.  I opened the drawer and the bunnies stood on their hind legs, all liquid eyes and wiggly pink noses and big ears that turned this way and that.  Indistinguishable from the rabbits being sold as pets not a hundred feet away. 

Nascar guy said he wanted the fattest rabbits available since he was feeding a 17 foot reticulated python.  They were all pretty plump, so I selected one black rabbit and a white one with rolls.  Then, Nascar asked me to terminate the rabbits.  He was afraid they were going to injure his snake. 

It was easy to kill rats and mice because they were vermin.  But killing a pair of bunnies was harder to rationalize.  And I didn’t know where to start.  I couldn’t swing them around by their tails.  Rabbits aren’t born with handles or grips.  No kill button or off switch or plug. 

So I went to Sonny for assistance.  And he said Oh GOD no!  Not again!  Please no!  Sonny was on the verge of tears.  Had a tantrum right in front of Nascar guy, who pretended to be reading the foreword in a book about chinchillas. 

Sonny composed himself and agreed to help just this once.  Not ever, ever again.  If Nascar guy ever wanted somebody to kill rabbits again, it would be my job. 

We went out back next to the turtle pond.  There were several crates with ailing animals.  Listless rock iguanas.  A cockatiel who’d plucked himself bald.  A ferret with eye discharge.

Sonny grabbed the white bunny by the spine and twisted him the way you’d wring out a wet towel.  The bunny screamed at the top of his lungs.  An ear-piercing whistle with vibrato.  More twisting and it squirted piss six feet.  The bunny was still alive after that, albeit paralyzed. So, Sonny whacked him against the wall until he was limp.  Then he dropped him into a sack and repeated the process with the black bunny.

When it was done, Sonny lit a cigarette and handed me the bloody sack, which I took to Nascar.  Told him to pay at the front.   

Later, I found Sonny feeding a hatchling lorikeet in the nursery.  It was a wrinkly little chick, all head and eyes and stubby wings.  Sonny was feeding her with a baby bottle, rocking her back and forth.  He was so wrapped up with his little bird that he failed to notice me watching.  I apologized and said I’d take care of the rabbits next time.  He told me not to worry about it.

I passed Pete on my way out.  He mentioned something about repainting the Tyrannosaurus.  Burnt sienna, he said.  Asked if I could pick up some spray paint and I agreed.

So I got in my car and drove away.  Didn’t return with paint.  Didn’t finish my shift.  Never stepped foot inside Incredible Pets again.

Two weeks later I was bagging groceries at Publix.   

Gentrification

ImageThe first time I heard of gentrification was when I told a coworker that I was apartment hunting in Brooklyn’s Bushwick, shortly after I moved to New York.  Bushwick is an affordable, working class neighborhood in northern Brooklyn.  It’s an attractive destination for new transplants. 

My coworker frowned when I told him I was aiming for Bushwick.  He said that my money would drive locals farther east.  Landlords would hike rent, trendy shops and restaurants and bars would pop up, and the neighborhood would become unaffordable for people who’d been living there for generations. 

I told him I had no money and that’s why I was looking for apartments in Bushwick.  But he maintained that white suburban kids like me were driving local people out of their neighborhoods.  Gentrification was imperialism on the microcosm.

And, indeed, western tracts of Bushwick were getting trendier.  Old warehouses converted into loft apartments.  Vegan restaurants in garages.  Coffee bars made out of old bodegas.  West Bushwick was starting to look a lot like Williamsburg.  In fact, people living in West Bushwick liked to call their neighborhood “East Williamsburg.” 

We found an apartment in outer Bushwick, on Hancock Street off the Halsey Stop on the L train.  Almost everyone on my block was from the Caribbean.  From Haiti and Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  People who hung out on their stoops together when the weather was tolerable.  Kids and old people and blue-collars.  Out of the ten units in our building, my roommate Ryan and I were the only white people. 

Everybody knew each other.  And they all knew me by sight.  Knew my building and knew that I lived with Ryan.  After a couple of weeks I would get three or four nods from strangers en route to the subway.  Hancock Street made me realize how isolating the ‘burbs can be.  People don’t talk to each other back home. 

At first, our building was filled with immigrant families and one couple.  Most of the people were quiet.  But, our next door neighbor used to scream at his daughter all the time.  JASMINE!  EAT YOUR CEREAL, JASMINE!  JAAAASMIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNEEEE!

He’d yell over and over and over again, until Jasmine cried.  This little girl who didn’t like cereal was expected to eat it at all hours of the day and night.  That’s all I learned about my neighbors. 

Aesthetically, Bushwick felt like the frontier.  There were no shops.  No cafes.  Only one little Associated grocery store about fifteen minutes away.  One bar called Caribe.  And two convenient bodegas on either end of Hancock Street.     

Usually, I did my shopping at Discount Deli, which was on the way to the subway.  I was only familiar with the sliver of Bushwick I encountered on my way to the train.  I would turn left out of my building, stop at Discount Deli, and descended the stairs to the L. 

But one night Discount Deli closed early and I was forced to turn right, away from the subway.  This was a direction I avoided for no good reason.  Just had a strange vibe about making a right on Hancock Street.  Turning right on Hancock was like sailing to the part of the map populated by sea serpents. 

I walked into Royal Deli and waited in line to purchase a bag of french onion SunChips and a caramel Drumstick.  Royal Deli looked and smelled just like Discount Deli.  Rows of junk food and beer.  A resident fat cat.  A pair of old men standing near the entrance, chattering in Spanish.  Then there were gunshots outside.  And screaming.

A middle-aged man limped inside, blood gushing out of an open wound in his temple.  Asked to use the phone.  A woman stumbled in a few moments later, screaming about her son being a maniac.  Said he had a gun and was going to shoot up the whole block.  The shots I’d heard were warnings he’d fired from the rooftop.  

Meanwhile, I was still waiting to pay for my french onion SunChips and caramel Drumstick.  I considered putting the chips and ice cream down.  But I was a little high and very hungry and figured it would be safer inside, anyway.  It was another thousand years before I paid the clerk. 

Then I sprinted down Hancock Street like a frightened hare.  Right past all the people hanging out on their stoops.  Newcomer white guy zipping by with SunChips and ice cream.  From that moment on I avoided making a right out of my building.   

A month later I was invited to meet some friends in the Lower East Side.  It was late at night but there was a pretty girl involved so I chose to join.  Problem was I was going to have to take the J train, which involved making a right out of my building.  I decided not to psyche myself out.

Threw on a coat.  Popped in my headphones to listen to NPR.  Stepped out of my building, made a right, and power-walked down Hancock Street. 

It was a particularly cold night, which meant Bushwick was empty.  Not a soul out.  Just rats scampering between brownstones.  Garbage tumbleweeds rolling down the streets.  I was at once comforted and disturbed by how alone I was. 

I saw a pair of guys on a stoop, lurking in the shadows.  Decked out in black clothing.  Smoking cigarettes or joints. 

One of them turned to look at me.  He was wearing a bandana and sunglasses and so I couldn’t make out his expression.  He elbowed his friend, who was wearing a Knicks cap. 

Then they were both staring.  Went from a passing glance to hawk eyes.  From rude to threatening in ten seconds.  A long, unbroken stare from two dudes who had suddenly developed an acute interest in me.   

As I passed the stoop one of them took a step closer to me.  Time slowed down.  He pointed at me.  Then he yelled something to his friend, but I couldn’t hear it over All Things Considered.  

My heart was about to burst.  I was on the verge of pissing myself.  I was so ready to run I knew I could fly.   

It occurred to me that it was time to pause NPR. 

Then I heard them.  They were laughing hysterically.  They were laughing at the Super Mario Brothers theme song. 

My phone was ringing and the ringtone happened to be Super Mario Brothers.  I’d been blasting the iconic melody the whole time they were staring.  Some white guy showed up on their block at one in the morning, bee-bopping to the Mario theme.  

The guy in the shades gave me a thumbs up.  I returned the favor.  His buddy said that I was so white for listening to Super Mario Brothers on blast on the streets at night.  And Shades said, no dude, you fucking idiot, that’s his ringtone.  He was wearing headphones and probably listening to some other white shit. 

Two weeks later they put a Dunkin Donuts by the Halsey Stop.  That was the first sign that my stretch of Bushwick was gentrifying.  By the end of the year, seven out of the ten units in my building were occupied by white college kids.   

Confessions from Penn Station

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I had been living in New York for about two weeks when I first went to Penn Station.  I was going to take the Long Island Railroad to Hicksville to visit some extended family.  I hadn’t seen them yet and they were really worried about me braving the big city.

I bought a ticket and had about twenty minutes before departure, so I walked into Starbucks to buy an Iced Venti Skinny Vanilla Latte.  Then I waded through the crowd, rode the escalator to the surface, and walked to this enclave next-door to smoke a cigarette.  There were several homeless people having an animated discussion about something or other.  An odorous woman with baked bean teeth shuffled over to me.  Asked for a smoke.

I shot her down.  She asked why I was shooting her down.  I told her I didn’t have any more cigarettes.  A blatant lie.

Then she asked if she could “bus it down.”  I wasn’t sure what “bussing down” was.  I discovered, some months later, that “bussing down” means smoking the last part of somebody else’s cigarette.

I told her no.  Then her ears went back and she bared jagged teeth and hissed at me like a jungle cat.  I pretended to be tough.  Like it didn’t bother me.  But it was a little scary.

I felt dumb indulging in my cigarette under the glare of a bunch of homeless meth addicts.  The lady was hissing about me and gathering support.  They were all staring at me.  I decided I had to move or risk getting my eyes scratched out.

So I took a few steps away from them.  Slowly, so as not to admit defeat.  But quickly enough to create space between us.

I sipped my latte and farted.  A long bellow with vibrato.  Nobody heard it because of the traffic noise.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.

Then I took a step and felt a squish.  Right below my left cheek.  Buried in the seat of my pants.

Frozen like a deer in headlights.  I considered that, perhaps the squish was only a false alarm.  But I took another step and felt another squish and knew that this needed tending.  I stubbed out my cigarette and tossed my latte and the meth lady screamed at me.  Called me a fucking prick.

The escalator was teaming with people and I was sweating like a pig.  I smelled shit, which is not unusual in New York.  It’s common knowledge that the choice fragrance of Penn Station is feces.  But on that day the source of that shit smell was yours truly.

At the bottom of the elevator I spotted two cops.  Squished my way over to them and asked about the bathroom.  One of them nodded toward the enormous sign that read RESTROOMS.

I nodded in thanks and then realized that they would notice the enormous wet stain spreading across the seat of my pants if I simply turned around.  I would not be the one to give them such a story to share at bars and birthday parties and holidays for the rest of their lives.

So I backed away from them.  First, nodding in thanks and feigning interest in the neon McDonald’s sign behind them.  I scratched my chin and ooed and aahed until they turned around.  Then I disappeared into the crowd.

The bathroom at Penn Station is the bowels of the world.  Where homeless old men and rich suits and six year olds come to mingle and defecate together.  I lucked out and got the handicapped stall.

I dropped my trousers and found a thick lump of shit caught in the center of my boxers.  I lucked out though.  The shit hadn’t touched the pants.

There was piss all over the toilet seat and so I was forced to stand while removing my shoes.  I removed one foot and then stood on my loafer to guard my socks from the wet tile.  Then I removed the other.  And then, leaning on the wall, I pulled my legs out of the pants.  Five minutes of surgery and the soiled boxers were free from the khakis.  But there wasn’t a trashcan in the stall.

I considered myself in the mirror.  Hair awry, sweaty forehead, ruddy cheeks.  Great pit stains spreading under my jacket, ruining my plaid button-down.  At least the feeling of imminent diarrhea was gone.

I recognized the proverbial line before me.  The line that we all must cross from time to time.

Carefully, so as not to touch my own shit, I balled up the boxers and tossed them behind the toilet.  I put on my pants.  Carefully slid into my loafers.  Grabbed my shoulder bag from the hook.  Used my foot to flush for good measure, and then left.