The List and the Story: My Aughts
I moved in January of the new millennium, with my thousands of books and CDs, to a small 4-room apartment in Sunnyside, Queens which I shared with my friend Julia from grad school. We split the $750 rent and I slept on the floor for the first three months, until I took home a stray mattress I found on the corner of 41st Street and Skillman. Our landlords were a Greek couple with two young children. They fought loudly at least three times a week about how to raise their kids, but were tolerant when I was chronically two to three weeks late with my half of the rent. I moved to Brooklyn that August, but Julia still lives in that apartment with her wife, as the State of New York has finally caught up with them. The landlords are now divorced.
The Aughts were the first decade of my life I spent entirely in one place. By “place,” I mean “city,” but also “place” in a metaphysical sense. I knew Brooklyn was my home, because sometime late in my undergraduate studies in Kentucky I read an anthology of writing about Brooklyn and decided, after reading Truman Capote’s and Carson McCullers’ transplanted narratives, the liquid verse of Hart Crane and Walt Whitman in awe of the magical Brooklyn Bridge, and two paragraphs by Woody Allen, that Brooklyn was my home. This was a good three years before I’d been there.
When I arrived in the city, I had two hundred dollars and a list of temp agencies to consult. My first job was handing out flyers for a language-learning website outside Grand Central in the 20-degree cold. Standing next to the newspaper stand and trying to get the attention of thousands of people on their ways to do important things, I learned quickly how unimportant I was. I got to know the layout of Manhattan through the myriad short-term jobs I took. I worked on Park Avenue, at Carnegie Hall, in PR offices, newsrooms, record labels, doing pretty much the same thing everywhere—stuffing envelopes and cold calling. My CD collection shrunk as I sold them on eBay to subsidize my rent.
The subway was as much my home as my empty rooms in various apartments I shared with various people in various Brooklyn neighborhoods. I read more there than I did in my post-graduate studies. I would look up between pages, and the world on the train somehow reflected Matthiessen’s everglades, or Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County—teeming with characters I thought I remembered reading in books, families I wished were mine. On the 7 train on the way to and from my first job I read a photocopy of Joan Didion's “Goodbye to All That." A former professor had given it to me when she found out I was moving to New York. Didion’s Goodbye was my Hello, and her That was my This.
Eventually I started writing about living in New York City. I wrote about the skyline swallowing the moon at Queensboro Plaza, and a dream about falling off the Triboro Bridge I had while asleep on the N train, and the old, blind Brazilian accordionist who played Argentinean tangos on the 7 train. I recited my verse at every open mic I could find. I made most of my friends at those open mic's. We met every Sunday afternoon for beers at Local 138, a bar in the Lower East Side, and called ourselves The Locals. These were my best friends, my people. We were all wounded, none of us could tell by what. One of us once said, “A poet is a fugitive no one is after.”
I used, still use, the terms “family” and “best friend” loosely. Family became to me a set of literary tropes, no more or less real to me than John Proctor in The Crucible or the Talking Asshole in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
I dated more people than I had in my entire life up to then. I had sex regularly with my roommate’s friend from the Les Miserables concession stand, who always brought pot and didn’t mind sleeping on the floor with me. I went out with a lesbian poet who blogged about her experiment in heterosexuality. While temping at Carnegie Hall I met a flautist who gave me a seashell in a matchbox after I told her I’d never swum in the sea.
In exchange for a steady income, I temporarily lost my soul to consecutive fulltime jobs in public relations, advertising, and corporate barter. I still don’t know what corporate barter is.
On the day I was fired from my final job in public relations, I went to a poetry reading. Galway Kinnell and Bill Murray were headlining a “Poets’ Walk” across the Brooklyn Bridge that ended on a pier across from the River Walk Café, yet another place where I could not afford to eat. When Kinnell was introduced, a promoter of the event predicted poetry would soon eclipse advertising as the primary source of our national symbology. As Kinnell was reading, a grey shroud completely engulfed the Manhattan skyline, and a darkness swept across the East River toward us. “Rain!” someone shouted, but the whole crowd was drenched before anyone had time to duck for cover. That was the end of that reading.
My friend Marc Desmond spent his days editing for a law media conglomerate and his evenings writing and reading poetry for homeless girls he met on the street. He copyrighted each poem in the name of the girl for whom he wrote it. In the dead of winter 2001, he had a heart attack and died in the Strand Bookstore. I read a poem at a tribute to Marc that he wrote for a homeless girl named Dawn, his last written work. I was paid fifty dollars for that reading, so I went out on the streets looking for Dawn. When I found her and told her, she didn’t cry. But she took the money.
Every spring I took a bus to Louisville, then drove with my friends Andrew and Todd from Louisville to New Orleans, starting with the Kentucky Derby and ending at Jazz Fest. We’d sit on the banks of the Mississippi, hop railroad cars, listen to Robert Belfour at the Circle Bar or Anders Osborne at the Rock 'n' Bowl, and stay in hostels for $25 a night. Every year at least one of us was broke.
I was working in market research on 25th Street. I arrived at work at 9:01. Co-workers were already gathered at the rear picture window, watching the first tower burn from the top down. I called my mom. “Do you think it’s terrorists?” she asked. I told her not to jump to any—and watched the shadow of the second plane collide with the other tower. One woman collapsed screaming while everyone else just stood there frozen, like those people in Kansas on The Day After right before the nuclear explosion turned them all to skeletons. I walked to the Upper West Side with my friend and co-worker Meagan, found a Tower Records open, and bought Bob Dylan’s new album, Love & Theft. I then walked all the way back to Sunset Park, through roadblocks and makeshift water stations, past bars full to capacity, then home over the Manhattan Bridge. I looked back over my shoulder at the orange sky over the cloud of dust where the two towers used to be. Somehow, at least for that day, it seemed less real than the nuclear disaster I’d seen on TV when I was nine.
The night of September 11, 2001, I was supposed to go straight from my day job to the New York City College of Technology on Jay Street, where I would start my first semester teaching English to new immigrants. I’d found the job from a guy I’d met at the poetry reading under the Brooklyn Bridge. He published my poem about the skyline swallowing the moon in his zine, and introduced me to his boss at CityTech. I started that job a week late, but worked there for four years, forever acquitting myself of market research, public relations, and corporate barter. I taught a little bit of writing while serving as INS liaison, counselor, and surrogate brother for a group of 25 immigrants I saw for 25 classroom hours a week each semester. I was needed.
Sometime in the months after 9/11 I began compulsively planning every hour of my day, making an Excel file with a cell for every hour. Every empty cell was a step closer to a panic attack. I got at least one of these a day. Wherever I was, I would find the nearest bathroom and run cold water over my wrists until my pulse returned to normal. I rarely get panic attacks anymore but I still obsess over time, and the importance of every hour.
I went into business as an independent online bookseller. This sprouted from selling off my own books, CDs, and videos, but was rooted just as much in a wish to get back at Borders, Barnes & Noble, and every other corporate bookseller that put my favorite independent bookstores out of business in the Nineties. I took out a DBA, got a tax ID, and started itemizing space in my room for tax purposes. I picked up books from the street and the trash, bought collections from teachers, museums, libraries, a radio/TV personality, and one former hit man. I called Wayne Martin at his furniture store, and finally had something to talk about—he told me what to write off, expounded on the importance of customer service, and asked me if I’d started an IRA. I didn’t quit my day job.
My first relationship that lasted more than a year was with a girl I met on Lavalife. For three years, she refused to laugh at any of my jokes. I got her pregnant the first year we were together, and she broke up with me. But I paid for the abortion, and she asked me if I would take her back. I remember that day at the Planned Parenthood off Bleecker Street more clearly than any other day of our relationship. She was wearing a beige knitted sweater that made her look like a mom. We held hands on the train all the way there. One solitary protester outside the building told her not to make a decision she’d regret for the rest of her life, and she almost fainted. I held her up, and palmed the guy in the face. That day was the closest I ever felt to her.
While I was teaching English to new immigrants, one of my fellow teachers got cancer. He was like a father to his students, and to me. He fought through his treatment in front of his class, his family, and me, not missing a day of work until a month before he died, saying he was like Scheherazade: as long as he kept talking, telling his stories, he couldn’t die. He died anyway. After that, I dreamed of conversations he had with the unborn child I’d had aborted two years earlier. I wrote them down when I woke up, eventually titling them “The Ghost-Child Speaks with the Dying Man.” I never finished writing that piece.
My last trip to New Orleans was in June of 2005. Three months later, the city was underwater. That September I took a week off from work, found an ad hoc rescue group on Craigslist, and went looking for my lost city. I couldn’t get into New Orleans, and ended up at a camp for reformed convicts outside Slidell. I stayed in a Winnebago where the rooting of a pen full of wild hogs kept me up at night, and emptied trucks with donations from New Jersey for two days. Then I was sent to a Christian summer camp where I cut and burned felled trees for another four days. I still haven’t been back to New Orleans, but I wake up at 3am to the rumble of boxcars, the smell of beignets, or the sound of rooting hogs at least once a month.
I spent one year of the Aughts outside the city. I quit my teaching job, took out a business loan, bought my ex-girlfriend’s car and the inventory of a bookstore in rural Pennsylvania for a total of $14,000, and moved with those 40,000 books and the rest of my belongings into my mother’s basement. For the next year, I sorted through all those books, sang lots of karaoke at the local townie bar, and wondered how I could bring 40,000 books back home to Brooklyn.
It was my old open mic friends who brought me back home. My old poet friend Frank, now in his 50s, had had six heart attacks in the previous year, had stopped working, and was waiting for his SSID to be approved, so he needed help with the rent at his apartment in Sugar Hill. And my friend Meagan, a poet who before the end of the Aughts would have a long-term book deal in the young adult market, got her boyfriend, the chair of the English Department at a local liberal arts college, to give me a couple of classes teaching writing as an adjunct. I moved in with Frank for six months and never bought a mattress.
After a semester of teaching, I’d begun having drinks regularly with the chair of my department. One night, a new professor at the college joined us at Vol de Nuit in the Village. She sank into the couch luxuriantly, and I immediately wanted to sink into it with her. I asked her out later that week, and four dates later I was in her apartment in Astoria. She introduced me to her Chihuahua, and turned on her stereo to a Bill Callahan song. No matter how far wrong you’ve gone/You can always turn around. I slept that night in her bed. It was softer, kinder than any I’d ever slept on. Turn around, turn around, turn around/And you may come full circle/And be new here again.
I brought my new girlfriend out to rural Pennsylvania to meet my mother and my 40,000 books. Our first morning after arriving, lying on my mother’s couch, I asked her if she’d want to move in together. “I would,” she said. I then asked her, hesitantly, what she’d think about a factory loft in Brooklyn, with bookshelves for walls. Her eyes widened. “I’d love it,” she said.
I became a Visiting Professor at that little liberal arts college. For the first time in years, I had a regular monthly income. I used it to buy an engagement ring. Later that year we got married under the Brooklyn Bridge of which Whitman and Crane sang, on the same pier where I’d seen Galway Kinnell and Bill Murray read at the beginning of the Aughts.
By the end of the Aughts, a death was coming for which I felt no empathy or remorse: the bankruptcy of Borders. After spending most of the Nineties modeling its franchises on local independent book and record stores and then systematically putting them out of business, the global K-Mart affiliate was out-Bordered by an even more ravenous market structure—Amazon. The block-long, nearly identical carcasses of its many stores still litter the landscapes of many downtown areas, including the 700 block of New Hampshire Street in Lawrence, Kansas. Both as an independent bookseller whose retail channels include Amazon and as a product of nearly forty years of reading, I like to think quixotically that my Lilliputian arrow protrudes along with millions of others from the hide of the fallen giant.
Sometime in the course of writing about the Aughts, I had a thought. I started writing about them as a list, much like my To Do list, only backwards since I was doing the things first, then writing them down. But somewhere along the line my list became a narrative, a series of events became a story, my past became my present, an invention became a life.
A mere two weeks after we were married, we found out my wife was pregnant. The following January, I started writing letters to my unborn child. Then, less than a month before the due date, I began having a series of dreams, in which terrible things happened to both my wife and child in the course of the delivery. My panic attacks returned. I made a mistake and told my wife about these dreams, and she told me to leave our apartment until I’d talked about my dreams with someone besides her. So I called a few people, and when they didn’t answer I called Wayne Martin. My brother J.P., his son, hanged himself at age ten in 1999, and my brother Brian’s first son had died in childbirth just two years earlier. I thought, even though I hadn’t even met Wayne Martin until I was 15, and even after running away from home and making a home of my own, maybe I was finally subject to some sort of family curse. I told him that I just needed him to be a father for 20 minutes. And then, despite my expectations, he was. He told me about being on anti-depressants for seven years after J.P.’s death, about his fears for my sister Brianne, who was two years old when J.P. died, about missing even getting to be my father. “I think you learned how to be a good father from a bunch of bad ones. Now the only worries you got are the ones in your head.”
My fears were only partially unfounded. My wife’s water broke before she had any contractions, and when we went to the hospital the nurses were concerned that the other, smaller heart rate dropped about 40 beats per minute every time the contractions started. The contractions weren’t getting any stronger, and the cervix wasn’t dilating. Two hours came and went, and the next hour I was in scrubs and getting sanitized, my wife was on an operating table with a curtain up below her shoulders so I couldn’t see the rest of her, a roomful of doctors and nurses were coaching my wife while cutting through layers of skin, muscle, and finally uterus, I was wiping her brow, and then I saw a baby come up, heard “It’s a girl!” and ran over to see her and describe her to my wife while she tried to remain conscious. And that was how, in the last year of the Aughts, I became the thing I feared the most—a father.