Tag Archives: New York City

My Early Years of Apathetic Something Part 1: Getting to College

FROM MY LIFE AS A MARXIST VOL. 1: WHEREIN I WATCHED MUCH TELEVISION:

I’ve always had an incredible talent for alienating people. I feel I’ve deployed it wisely.

When I was very young I found myself able to roll my eyes rapidly. The effect on people around me was one of feigned horror. We used to play Simon Says in a circle and when my turn would come I’d frequently win by telling everyone to roll their eyes like that. At a picnic once when I was ten I rolled my eyes like this. A baby saw it from across the park and burst out crying. I felt oddly as though I’d accomplished something.

Years later, on a date with a distant relative of Chilean prime minister Salvador Allende’s director of urban planning, I described this and the spectacular failure of a rap album I’d recorded on my computer when I was 15. It had gotten one review, on a website that used to exist as a low level competitor to Pitchfork called Splendid E-zine. Their gimmick was that they would review literally anything that was sent to them. We received the worst review in the history of the website. Six months later it was shut down as the site runner said “I can’t take this anymore.” Some part of me presumed this was directly referring to the remarkable awfulness of the rap album, but I could never be sure. When she’d finished hearing the stories, she claimed I had a reversed egotism; a sense of excitement when things around me imploded; in my own eyes I had the mystical powers of a pariah. Perhaps she was correct.

I had been employed during the summers when I was in college, but had never been able to take it seriously. When the chatter at family events turned to the subject of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I would present carefully prepared deflections to any serious discussion, “I’ve been reading through every book on homelessness in the college library. They have lots of them. They’re right next to this big poster that says ‘Explore exciting careers in Library Science’.”

At a baby shower once I simply glued eyes to a sock and wore it on my hand, doing shoddy ventriloquism and deflecting all questions to the hand puppet. If memory serves, I named it Pierce. While I ate supermarket pulled pork on a paper plate, Pierce got very drunk. The evening was uneventful.

During college, when I wasn’t in class I would sit around the apartment. It was tiny and I shared it with a failed Puerto Rican classical guitarist. I took it over from a grossly overweight middle aged man who worked somewhere on the corporate ladder at an investment firm. I met him briefly once before I took over his room. When I moved in, he’d left a small number of items. A couple binders with either corporate presentations or mangled X-Men comic books in them. A half-full bottle of Frank’s Red Hot. And in the DVD player of the small television, a pornographic compilation called “Nuttin’ Honeys”. The food motif was unnerving. I quickly disposed of the items except the binders, which I repurposed for school work. There was a perpetually out of tune piano in the room which I would play into a tape recorder in the middle of the night. I recorded several albums worth of mediocre Neil Young rip-off songs that year out of boredom. I’d mumble nonsense over the guitar and craft songs haphazardly when I couldn’t sleep. An example.

My sister helped decorate the room with a giant reproduction of the logo for a strange buttered food I’d taken a liking to at the Asian markets, “Exquisite Corn Snack.” None of my friends, acquaintances or relatives found the corn snacks edible, despite their exquisiteness, and the loss of appetites upon entering my apartment and seeing them saved me a lot of grocery money.

The guitarist was a hoarder. He’d saved every free newspaper that had come out in New York City in the prior 20 years that mentioned Puerto Rico or boxing. A once good-sized living room was half filled with Village Voice back issues, dead plants, and potting soil that had fallen out of their cheap vases.

He would buy small items at the Whole Foods down the street so that he could steal handfuls of sugar packets, salt packets, pepper packets, plastic silverware, napkins, and shopping bags. He would frequently scream at my closed door that he had replenished the supply, though there were already dozens more packets and napkins than could ever be used packed into one of the kitchen cabinets. He’d keep sliced onion halves in the refrigerator. All the food smelled like onions. He lived on raw onions and large plastic containers of cottage cheese. He would do his laundry in the bathtub and I’d hear water running and stomping noises at odd hours of the day and night. He owned 34 stretched out sweaters. He had seasonal girlfriends in several impoverished South American countries. We lived on the 5th floor but he was excessively worried about the possibility of a worm infestation. “GUSANOS! GUSANOS!” he’d scream. I never saw any worms. I’m not sure what he would’ve done had there been actual worms.

For two month intervals he would leave the country to live like a king in Puerto Rico on whatever money he’d scraped together from public assistance and giving guitar lessons. I’d sit around all hours of the night playing the banjo and drawing photographs from books in the dollar bin at The Strand. I took to doing my laundry in the early afternoon so that I could watch Jerry Springer and the Steve Wilkos shows when they were on. I was sustaining myself on a steady diet of whatever Spanish language game shows I could get in on the TV rabbit ears at night, black and white and barely legible reruns of Smallville, long selections from experimental fiction, Jerry Springer and the Steve Wilkos Show. My media intake soon reflected itself in my speech. When the guitarist would scream “GUSANOS!” or that there was a stray Cheerio on the floor somewhere,and I’d say “Whatcha gonna do about it?” He’d back down. In the laundromat I’d learned to use a folding chair on the offensive. I never had to tell him this. I think he just knew.

There was one English language show the Spanish language station would show late on saturday nights called Ms. Charity’s Diner. A Christian woman ran a truck stop style diner with puppet employees where young children would come in, drink apple juice out of comically oversized coffee mugs, and tell Ms. Charity and her fry cook their problems with their parents and ask questions about their budding Christian faith. The fry cook and the mail man were both puppets. Their eyes had large dark circles around them as though they hadn’t slept in a long time. It would be on after the Spanish language game show where the men in fat suits make their way through a ball pit for points.

Once when the guitarist was out of town, a mouse got into the apartment. I set up the paper glue traps that my parents had sent me out of the house with. The apartment was exceptionally quiet that night. My bed was situated near a window overlooking an alley where the trash and recycling was taken. The guy before me had taken his cheap mattress and thrown it out the window near the bins before I’d moved in. It sat there for several months. I’d be in bed, open the window, and look down on this discarded filthy mattress as it got filthier. A raccoon run out from under it once. It had a particularly striking large stain that resembled a bulls eye. I’d toss stray cheerios down at it when I was bored. I was a rebel.

I set up the glue traps. I ate spaghetti with sauce I’d dumped on it unheated from the jar. I ate the lukewarm spaghetti and struggled with the poor signal on the internet I was pirating from my neighbors downstairs. Eventually the mouse stumbled into the trap. I heard shuffling and high pitched squeaks.

I’d thrown out the package for the glue traps but remembered it said “No Kill” on the box. I picked up the blue slip of paper with the attached trapped mouse. The mouse was extremely small and very stuck. I wasn’t sure how to extricate the mouse from the trap so I could take it outside.

It looked scared, but also like it wanted to negotiate. But I was several dozen times its size and not in a glue trap. I was the United States. The mouse was Palestine. I remembered I had specifically gone to college to have experiences with other cultures that would expand my horizons. I took a mental note.

I looked around the apartment for scissors but could only find a pair meant for wedge-cutting construction paper. They had a safety on them. They were meant for children. The guitarist must have stolen them from somewhere in the late 1980s-the plastic grips were discolored green like dried mucous. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get the mouse off the trap and outside without killing it.

So for 30 minutes I sat, trying to cut the paper from the mouse. It had a heart attack. I rolled up what was left of the trap like a cigar and threw it and the mouse at the discarded mattress.

It hit the bull’s eye.

The next mouse I killed quickly with the blunt end of a tool kit.

(Tomorrow: My secondary ties to the New Jersey mafia and excursions in the world of Chess.)

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Dave Van Ronk, folk revival legend and at least partial inspiration for the most recent Coen brothers film, used to come in to the book store I work at. His visits were frequent and fondly remembered. This was many years ago when Lena Spencer was still alive and running Caffe Lena, and if Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger, ever did claim a permanent address it was likely “Caffe Lena, Couch, c/o Lena Spencer.” The owner of the store remembers Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger a devout socialist, even if he never took it onstage with him, complaining “Those Leninists and the Trotskyites are still bitching at each other in the park all the time.”

Llewyn Davis however, never seems to take on any sort of political stance. Sure, he’s disdainful toward a fellow folk singer who happens to be in the National Guard, but the Coen’s can only come to an understanding of his disdain for the soldier as a sort of aesthetic disgust at the grotesque blandness of his person, the loud way he eats cereal and his dumb eyes, the dumb eyes of a wild animal wandering at the edges of the free way. The Coens, if they have a political side, have never adequately expressed it; my suspicion is that they haven’t one.

And besides, the connection to Van Ronk is tenuous at best, because in Llewyn Davis we have just another archetypal Coen cypher meant to wander about a shifting landscape of grotesques. One might as well call him Llewyn Davis-Fink-Lebowski. This is standard operating procedure in Coen brothers films, and if you like them as many people seem to, then you’ll love this. If like me, you aren’t especially impressed by a general hatred of everything redeemed only by a dry sense of humor and some indication of a specter of anxiety at being a failed artist, then you’ll likely be mildly entertained, mildly impressed at the same confident control of the medium they’ve always had, but walk away thinking “Ok, so what was the point?” Which is exactly what I did.

The film ends with a scene of meaningless repetition underscoring the meaningless repetition of the protagonist’s life; he’s trapped in a floating existence. In some circles this could pass for meaning something. The early 1960s folk revival, interesting for other reasons, mostly involving race politics and class privilege, is here merely a convenient backdrop and a set-piece to inspire subtle visual gags. A running one involving Davis taking care of two cats and carrying them around with him everywhere scores periodically, though it eventually becomes another way to underline the theme; though he’s killed one cat with his car, Davis, upon returning to New York after a failed sojourn to Chicago, encounters the first cat again. The folk cafe where he was playing in the beginning of the film takes him back after he fails to get work on a merchant marine. The cycle repeats finally shot for shot. We get it.

I will give the Coens credit for their location shooting; New York City looks like New York City, when people go from one place to another they do so in a time frame that makes sense given the distance between the two locations, and the characters have a relationship to each space that suggests they live in the city and are familiar with it. Perpetually broke people’s apartments are in buildings that look like they’re buildings where people would live if they were perpetually broke, and they pass the Don McKellar test-the couch is against the wall. Woody Allen would do well to take note of this.

Shout-out to earlier blog supporter and fan Yvonne Davenport! She gave us our first nudge to embark on this endeavor. All the best.