The Postal Service

ImageJeffrey took an interest in the mailman when he was seven years old.  It was summertime and so he was free to sit by the bay window at one o’clock each day to wait for the truck, refusing to return to his toys until the mailman had visited our mailbox.  He waited for three hours one Sunday before Dad told him the mailman wouldn’t be coming.

Jeffrey claimed his fascination for the mailman stemmed from a social studies lesson about the United States Postal Service.  He was carefully observing the mailman each day because he was considering a career in the mail business.  We told him he’d have to wait a couple years before he could career-shadow a mailman.

I happened to come home at a quarter to one on a Tuesday and saw Jeffrey marching to the mailbox with what looked like a letter in hand.  We made eye contact as I pulled my bike into the driveway.  He spun on his heels and walked back inside.

I found him pouring over an episode of SpongeBob like nothing had happened.  Asked him about the letter.  He didn’t hear me the first time, so I asked again.  He said he didn’t know what I was talking about.  And, could I please be quiet so that he could pay attention to SpongeBob?  He didn’t observe the mailman from the bay window that day.

I found him at his post the next day.  Sitting on the loveseat.  Staring expectantly, through the bay window, at the mailbox.

The mail truck crept into view.  A mailman with a bushy grey mustache sifted through envelopes, grabbed a few, and opened the door to the mailbox.  He furrowed his brow when he looked inside.  He pulled out a sheet of paper and read it.  Then he looked at our house and considered it for a moment.  His face was forlorn.

Jeffrey chuckled and left the room.

The next day, I announced that I would be running some errands.  I could feel Jeffrey’s eyes boring into my back as I marched out the front door.  It was a quarter to one and I had nowhere to go.  So I rode my bike around the block.

When I came back, Jeffrey was visible through the bay window.  He jumped to his feet as I approached the mailbox.  I found a folded sheet of unlined paper inside.  In the erratic penmanship of a second grader, Jeffrey had written:

dear maleman,

i hate you and nobody ever loved you

yours truly, jeffrey

Jeffrey had fled his perch by the window and before I could walk the driveway the mail truck pulled up beside me.  The mailman opened his mouth to say something but shut it again when he saw Jeffrey’s letter in my hand.

He said, got more hate mail for me?  Well I got mail for you, too.  Then, he shoved our mail in my face and drove away.

Jeffrey stopped writing him.

On Mr. Thicke

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I met Alan Thicke while working on my first real movie in 2006.  It was a low-budget comedy and he was starring.  I’d never heard of him before.

I was hired to be a producer’s assistant.  Which really meant that I was an unpaid intern.  The executive producer told me that he had absolutely nothing for me to do.  He’d only hired me for tax purposes.

We were shooting on an empty floor in a Daytona Beach hospital.  The set was crawling with leathery grips, who were indistinguishable from plumbers.  All of the camera technicians looked like the walking dead with oysters under their eyes.  The AD ran amuck like a headless chicken.  The entire crew seemed perpetually stressed and miserable and haggard.

But talent were glamorously pampered.  Each had his and her own trailer and enjoyed television and air conditioning and praise.  The crew bowed and curtseyed and rolled out the red carpet each time an actor descended on set.  They made out like bandits.

The only thing I ever had to do was help Alan Thicke troubleshoot his television remote.  I was aimlessly wandering the hall when he stuck his head out and said, hey guy, can you help me out here?  I stepped into his room and he pointed the remote at the television and shrugged.  It didn’t work.

I vaguely recognized him.  He had familiar features.  A square-nose below a pronounced forehead below a thick silver mane.  I fiddled with the remote, trying to place his face.

He was familiar like the neighbor with whom you’ve never spoken but always wave to.  Like a grocery store manager you pass in the frozen section and nod to.  Or like an old pediatrician I’d long forgotten.  Namely because he was wearing scrubs for his upcoming scene.

They later told me that Alan Thicke was the dad on Growing Pains.  I’d never seen Growing Pains before.  Had to google it to figure out what it was.

No matter how many times I pointed the remote at the television, it wouldn’t work.  Pressed the buttons as hard as I could and still it wouldn’t turn on.  I began to sweat.

All the while, Mr. Thicke observed me with a sense of detachment, like he was in another room watching from a security monitor.  I didn’t want to fail the only task of my internship.  I didn’t want to let him down.

It took me a few minutes to discover that the television was unplugged.  So I plugged it in.  Then the television and remote worked flawlessly.

Mr. Thicke thanked me and asked how long before he would be needed on set.  He wanted to take a nap.  I said I didn’t know.  He made a pffffft sound and scanned me from head to toe like I was defending a geocentric view of the universe.  Then he asked if I wanted to be an actor.

I said that I wanted to be a filmmaker.

He raised his caterpillar eyebrows and nodded in slow motion.  He settled on The Price is Right and stopped flipping through the channels and crossed his legs in the British style.  Then he turned his full attention to me.

He said that he had a son about my age named Robin.  Maybe a little older.  But roughly the same age.  Anyway, somehow, at some point, Robin had gotten it into his head that he was going to be a musician.

Mr. Thicke said that he’d spent years and years trying to deter Robin from pursuing a career in entertainment.  He’d warned his son that it would be a long, arduous struggle and that there was absolutely no guarantee that he’d ever amount to anything.

My heart sank.  Mr. Thicke looked me over and smiled.  He said that filmmaking was a hard path, too.  Even people with connections in Hollywood fail to break in.

What’s Robin’s backup plan?  Mr. Thicke shrugged and said that he was a stubborn kid.  He didn’t have one.  And the unfortunate thing was, Robin’s career was slow going.

Very, very slow.

Mom’s Catfight

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We were visiting Grandma in Orlando.  The last time I’d seen her was when my brother Jeffrey was born.  Four years prior.

We’d gone out to Denny’s so that Dad could rest his patience.  Mom was talking about how much of a dump Texas was.  She hated it there because it was a cultural backwater.  And also poorly manicured and dry.  The only reason we were there was because Dad was working his dream job at NASA.

She wanted Dad to transfer to Florida, post haste.  Cape Canaveral or Titusville or Orlando.  Anywhere, so long as it was peninsular Florida.  Because Florida was paradise.  And Grandma agreed.

During the discussion, Jeffrey was making faces through the window.  He was a gifted facial contortionist.  Spent hours making faces in front of the mirror, everyday.  At four years of age he was already on par with Jim Carrey.

Took me ten minutes to realize that he was actually mocking a pair of Denny’s employees on a smoke break right outside.  I egged him on.  The smokers noticed him and laughed and made faces back.

Somebody behind us cleared her throat loudly.  Like she was hocking a loogie.  Or trying to get our attention.

Mom, Grandma, and I turned around.  There was a mountainous woman in an Orlando Magic shirt glaring at us.  She put on her glasses to get a better look at Jeffrey.  Her twenty-something daughter sneered.

I found the girl’s appearance frightening.  Namely because she was wearing a leather jacket and not at all because she was cockeyed.  Jeremiah Palmberg had told me that the Hell’s Angels wore leather jackets at all times.  I should always mind my Ps and Qs around leather jackets.

I’m not sure who fired the first shot.  Grandma said something like, why don’t you ladies mind your own business?  Which enraged them.

Magic Lady said Mom should learn how to parent.  Mom retorted with, I do know how to parent, thank you very much!  Magic Lady chortled.  Hell’s Angel flexed her muscle.

All the while, Jeffrey continued making faces at bystanders through the window.  Puffing out his cheeks.  Pulling the skin under his lids to make his eyes bulge.  Baring his buck teeth.

I begged them to disengage but they didn’t hear me.  Grandma was too busy telling them about Dad’s brawn.  Mom said she wouldn’t hesitate to call him.  Magic Lady kicked her head back and guffawed.

The waitress came to check on us but nobody paid her any attention and she left.

When it became clear that there would be no resolution to the discussion, Mom announced our departure.  Pulled Jeffrey away from the window.  Paid at the front.

We got out unscathed and made our way to the parking lot.  Magic Lady glared at us through the window.  Mom stopped in her tracks.  Kissed her fingers.  Planted them on her rear end.  And cackled whilst wiggling her butt, back and forth and back and forth.

Grandma laughed.  I was horrified.  Jeffrey was oblivious.

Hell’s Angel shook her fist, leaped to attention, and made her way out of Denny’s.  Magic Lady squeezed her way out of the booth and ambled after her daughter.  We about-faced.  Mom told me to take Jeffrey by the hand and lock ourselves in the car.

Hell’s Angel ran up to us with Magic Lady in tow.  Mom spun around on her heels and told her to back the fuck up.  Her keys were nestled between her fingers like claws.  Hell’s Angel noticed the weapon and hesitated.

I got Jeffrey safely inside the car.  Tried to distract him by commenting on the humidity.  He ignored me.  Plastered his face to the glass and blew raspberries and puffed out his cheeks and flicked the bird.

Grandma was screaming at the women.  Pointing and screaming.  Spraying saliva.  Eyes red with rage.

Mom tried to get into the car.  Hell’s Angel grabbed the door and slammed it shut, right onto Mom’s hand.  She howled in pain.  Grandma grabbed Hell’s Angel by the hair and yanked her head back.

Magic Lady, who’d maintained a safe distance, called off the assault.  Hell’s Angel walked back to her mother, gingerly pulling torn hair from her scalp.  They paced the parking lot as we drove away.

Jeffrey was awestruck by the fight.  He went on and on about how exciting Orlando was.  I told him that I found it to be a cultural backwater, albeit well-manicured and humid.

We moved there three years later.

Melissa on the Q

ImageIn the beginning I was most enamored with riding the subway.  It was a haven for people-watching.  Folks fat and slim and rich and poor.  Eyes kind and eyes shifty and beady ones too.

Every ride was pure novelty.  Pure magic.  Like riding an escalator for the first time.  Or boarding the monorail at Disney.

All the colors of the rainbow forced together.  Perfectly acceptable to lock eyes with strangers.  Most of the time they avoided my gaze.

It took me just a few weeks to notice the stink.  I began to miss privacy.  The freedom of owning a car.  Other commuters became obstacles.  I stopped observing them and started staring at the floor or the wall or my phone.

One time I noticed a girl with Down Syndrome on the Q.  She whispered things to the man next to her and he nodded and whispered back.  He didn’t resist when she locked arms with him.  I assumed they knew each other.

It was around eight on a Tuesday night.  We were deep in Brooklyn and so the train was mostly empty.  I chose to stand because I was anxious.

I was about to see my estranged girlfriend.  We’d been fighting over inconsequential things that had become consequential.  I was staring at the floor of the car, working a dozen arguments over and over and over again.

And the handicapped girl appeared in front of me, her arm outstretched like she was going to pull me up from a ledge.  Like she was going to rescue me from some great catastrophe.

She must’ve been in her late twenties or early thirties.  Unruly blonde hair.  Slightly overweight and wearing a dirty sweater two sizes too small.  There were little scratches all around her mouth.  Like she’d had a cactus for lunch.

Her eyes were trained on mine.  They were liquid.  She looked right through me.  Didn’t say a word.

I thought she was asking me to steady her.  I told her to grab the pole.  She shook her head and thrust her hand in my face.

I shrugged and said I didn’t know what she wanted.  She said it looked like I needed a hug.  And then she hugged me.

I held on to the pole as she buried her face in my chest.  She looked up at me and smiled and told me her name was Melissa.  She said she’d seen me in a dream the night before.

I patted her on the shoulder, politely encouraging her to let go.  But she just buried her face deeper into my chest.  We hugged throughout the rest of my ride.

The train reached my stop and I told her so.  She let go.  Said she hoped to see me again.

I realized everyone was staring.  An elderly woman in a big hat was scowling.  A couple of teenagers were gawking and laughing.  A man in a suit stole glances from behind his newspaper.  All of these people united by disgust.

I never saw Melissa again.

On the L Train

ImageThe L train serves millions and runs from 8th Avenue to Canarsie.  I used to live off the Halsey Stop.  It was crowded at all hours of the day.  Filled with glassy-eyed commuters in the morning and inebriated hipsters at night.  Took me thirty minutes to get to work on a good day.

I rarely got a seat.  I didn’t like to stand in the morning because I was tired and dreaded work.  And, I didn’t like to stand in the evening because I was tired and dreaded my shitty apartment.

Every once in a while I’d get a seat.  And then some elderly lady would hobble on and and I’d feel obligated to surrender it.

One time an empty train car rolled to a stop right in front of me.  Not a soul on it.  The other cars were packed.  I strolled into the empty car and planted my ass right in the center.  Felt pretty proud of myself.  Like I was getting away with something.

When the doors closed I caught the stench of rancid vomit.  We accelerated and left Halsey and I considered walking between train cars to escape.  But the MTA says not to do that.  I was afraid I’d fall to my demise.  So I stayed in my seat and endured the scent of upchuck.

It was the worst thing I’ve ever smelled.  It was as though the perpetrator had collected the spew and cooked it in a wok.  Or baked it in an oven.  Or swallowed it only to shit it out again.  Like rotten eggs and curdled milk and hot orange juice and other people’s cooking and feet.  A stink so putrid it was visible.  Hung frozen in the air like dragon’s breath.

I buried my nose in my sweater and found puke there too.  My olfactory receptors were singed.  Corneas burnt.

I changed cars at Myrtle-Wyckoff.  It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder.  I didn’t get a seat.

But I did have a view of the empty car.  A man in a suit noticed all the space and goose-stepped right in.  Sat center-car, grinning stupidly, like he was getting away with something.

Then the doors closed and his eyes bulged and he grabbed his throat.  Opening and closing his maw like a bass gasping for oxygen.  Stood up and paced around urgently on stiff-legs, looking for an out.  The doors opened at DeKalb and he ran into my car.

He was green and dripping sweat and on the verge of tears.  People inched away from him, eying him like he was a crazy man.  He smelled like puke.

I surfaced at Union Square.  Threw out my sweater for good measure, then went to work.

A Katie Holmes Christmas

ImageI was waiting for my friend on a corner in Chelsea.  She was hunting for a power bar in a bodega.  A lanky man passed me.  

He was all arms and legs and Adam’s Apple.  There was a parakeet in a vest perched on his finger.  He walked very slowly because he was admiring his bird.  

People watched him with curiosity and contempt.  A lady in a leotard tried to pass him but it was crowded and he had his elbows out. 

Suddenly Leotard Lady screamed and dropped her bags and startled everyone. 

She threw her arms wide as if to bear-hug somebody.  The Bird Man stopped and turned around and glared at her.  Then Katie Holmes leaped into Leotard Lady’s open arms.

Katie swung her purse in a great arc and smacked the parakeet right off The Bird Man’s finger.   He shouted, my bird, my bird!  Katie was too busy hugging the lady in the suit to notice.  

The parakeet fluttered around and screeched.  The Bird Man plucked him out of the air and put him back on his finger.  He yelled, watch where you’re going!

Katie Holmes paid no attention.  She locked arms with Leotard Lady and they paraded down 7th Avenue like schoolgirls.  The Bird Man continued walking north.    

My friend came out of the bodega.  I told her I’d just seen Katie Holmes.  She said she’d just seen a man with a parakeet in a vest.   

Craigslist

ImageI lived with Owen Katz for eleven weeks.  He was sixty years-old.  I’d found his room ad on Craigslist.    

He owned a three-bedroom on 110th and 8th.  The apartment was dark and smelled like curdled milk.  Antique nightstands were stacked floor-to-ceiling in the hallway, making it difficult to get around.   

But the building had amenities like an elevator and a laundry room.  It faced Central Park too.  I wanted to live in a nice neighborhood.    

Owen showed me the vacant room.  It had a mini-fridge and a yellow lamp and black hardwood floors.  There was a tall bookcase built into the wall.  Owen kept his books there even though he’d been renting the room out for years.  There was no lock on the door.   

The room’s centerpiece was an oil painting of a red-headed woman.  Her expression was constipated aggression.  Her eyes followed me.

It was a portrait of Owen’s mother, painted by the room’s previous tenant, Javier.  Owen said the painting looked nothing like her.  He showed me a photograph to prove his point.  Javier’s style was Impressionistic, but he’d managed to capture Mrs. Katz’ scowl.    

Javier killed himself two years prior by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.  All because of some temptress.  Owen told me he thought Javier would’ve become his lover had he lived.  

Owen introduced me to his current tenant, Keith.  He occupied the room adjacent to mine.  Keith was twenty-one and short and had a regal beard.  Reminded me of a Tolkein dwarf.  He worked in reality television as a production assistant.  

I said I was checking out the vacant room.  Keith nodded and smiled.  Then he closed his door and locked it.  The next and last time I saw him was three weeks later.  He was buying Cheetos and Gatorade at the BP on the corner.    

The living room would have been spacious were it not for the array of coffee, end, and side tables that lined the walls.  I asked Owen if he was in the furniture business.  He said no, I’m an aspiring novelist.  

I remarked at the army of circus chotchkies that covered every surface of the room.  He ignored the comment and asked if I was partial to marijuana.  I said yes.  

He lit a joint and told me that he was born and educated in New York City.  Studied journalism.  Worked as a freelancer then moved to Germany to be a documentary programmer at the Berlin Film Festival.  He called it The Berlinale.  

Owen loved everything about Berlin.  Wrote his first novel on the steps of the Reichstag.  He admitted to being a teutophile and was adamant that I relocate to Berlin should I ever get the chance.  Berlin’s a great artist town.

He asked if I spoke any other languages.  I said no.  He put out the joint and crossed his arms and legs and furrowed his brow.  Then he said the room was mine if I agreed that I would never ever ever smoke cigarettes inside of it.  I agreed.

It was only after I moved in that he mentioned he slept in the living room.  Said I was welcome to hang out in there any time, though.  I asked why he didn’t sleep in the third bedroom.  He said he used it for storage.  

Owen went to bed at two and woke before sunrise each day.  The whistling kettle sounded his morning routine.  After a breakfast of toast and tea, Owen would pry open the door to the spare room, stomp in, and slam it shut again.  Then he’d bang things around in there for a few hours.  

Sometimes his voice came muffled through the walls.  Usually sounded like he was talking to somebody.  Occasionally sounded like he was weeping.  I never asked him what he did in there.  

One afternoon I found a peculiar grapefruit in the freezer.  It had a face made of cowrie shells.  It was sitting right in front of the meatballs.  Staring at me.  Later, Google told me that it was an effigy to the god EleguáEleguá is one of the gods in Santería.

Owen left town at the end of each month.  He’d travel upstate to dwell in his cabin in the woods.  He said most of his best writing came out of those weekends of seclusion.  

I made full use of the apartment the first time he left.  I overcooked pasta in the kitchen and watched television in the living room.  Even had a couple of friends over.  They didn’t stay very long.  

Owen returned early Monday morning.  He woke me by banging on my bedroom door.  I found him standing motionless in the hallway, clad in a trench coat, glaring at me like I’d shot somebody.  

He licked his lips and chewed on some words then finally asked if I’d deliberately burned his tea kettle.  I said I didn’t know what he was talking about.  He led me to the kitchen and thrust the kettle in my face and pointed to an inch-long burn mark.   

There, he said, that one.  Did you do this?

I hadn’t done that and said so.  His jaw gaped in disbelief.  I went back to my room.  Owen pried open the door to the third bedroom and slammed it shut again.  Started throwing things all over the place.  

I listened to him chatter and hum and cry for a few hours.  Then I went to work.  

That night I was home alone.  I decided to check out the third bedroom.  I pried open the door and crossed the threshold.   

Inside, there were dozens of homemade cloth dolls hanging from the ceiling.  Big ones and small ones and medium ones.  Fat and skinny and deformed.  Most were tattered and stained but a few looked clean and new.  

They all had buttons for eyes.  All dangling like lynched bodies.  All staring at me.  

I closed the door to my bedroom and opened the window and smoked a cigarette.  I considered contacting Keith but didn’t have his information.  

I came down with the flu a day later.  Threw up my guts until I had nothing left.  At one point I passed Owen in the hallway on my way to the bathroom.  

He asked if I was unwell.  I nodded.  He had circles under his eyes.    

I called out of work and had hours of hot, dreamless sleep.  When I finally woke up I rolled over and checked my phone for messages and saw Owen standing at the foot of my bed.  I sprung to my feet and startled him.    

He ran out the door.  I followed him to the living room.  Asked him what he was doing in my room.    

He apologized.  Thought I would be at work.  Asked if I’d been smoking in the room.  

I said I’d be moving out at the end of the month.  

I didn’t own much so it was an easy move.  Managed to get my clothes and computer and hard drives to my new place in Brooklyn before the lease started.  Couch-surfed for a couple weeks to avoid Owen.  

I went back to his place on the 31st to clean the room and get my security deposit back.  Owen watched me change the AC filter and dust and sweep the floor.  Then I asked if he was satisfied.   

He nodded, said the room was clean enough to show.  Then he mentioned, matter-of-factly, that his birthday was tomorrow.  He would be sixty-one.  I wished him a happy birthday.

Owen handed me my security deposit.  I wish it would’ve worked out, he said.  I was hoping you’d stay for at least a year.  

I thanked him and showed myself out.