The (Mid)Week That Was

It was a manic-depressive week of extreme highs and lows. Days of impressive productivity and pleasant megalomania alternated with hazes of mundane erranda, creeping despair. The middle of the week, that dubious stretch from Tuesday to Thursday, was particularly action-packed, garnished in the center with a perfect soupcon of Wednesday ennui.


Tuesday I interviewed an indie rock star in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. For the first time in my brief rock journalism career, I had a digital recording device in hand and could concentrate on steering the ship of our conversation rather than writing every word of it down in my own peculiar shorthand. The indie rock star was so smart and kind and insightful and witty and filled me with hope, even as he described the experience of losing hope. There was a large pot of free coffee on our table in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, and by the end of the interview, the combination of hope and caffeine and the excitement of having captured it all in high-quality digital audio catapulted me into a state of such hyperstimulation that I took off running and ran around the city for the rest of the day.

Upon leaving the Algonquin Hotel at a near sprint, I wandered into the newly opened HBO store on Sixth Avenue. This is made for some interesting contrasts, between DIY indie rock and high-quality but ultimately corporate-owned television programming, between the ornate, old-fashioned lobby of the Algonquin Hotel and the pristine interior of this emporium of pure concept. The HBO store was designed like the Mac store, all white surfaces and relentless minimalism. Enormous screens of some new kind of technology formed a series of narrow alleyways. In each alleyway was a carefully merchandised version of an HBO television show. There were handbags for each Sex and the City character, a Sopranos cigar humidor, a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the fictitious movie from Entourage. The screens were designed in such a way that you disappeared into the alleys of merchandise, so the store, no matter how many shoppers there were, appeared an unbroken series of white surfaces.

I was disappointed. Having wanted for years to simply disappear into HBO television, I found disappearing into HBO television merchandise to be a distant second to this fantasy. I rematerialized from behind the huge white television screens and rejoined Sixth Avenue. Feeling dirty with corporate sleaze, I jumped on a downtown F train and rode it to Second Avenue. Inspired by the indie rocker, who had mentioned that he offsets the vices of touring with a “balanced vegan diet,” I decided to purify myself with vegan food.

On Second Avenue I ate a meal so well-balanced and nutrient-rich I actually felt strange afterward. I came to the conclusion that I was too healthy. You need a little bit of death in you to know you’re alive.

The workday turned out to be unusually challenging. The teenagers of New York were doing some serious, weighty projects–writing mock grants to improve infrastructure in Haiti, designing presentations to educate children about emphysema, advocating for the residents of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, parsing the pros and cons of building a pipeline to Namibia.

I felt bad. Yes, it was only by brute force that these kids were halfheartedly considering these questions, but when was the last time I tried to solve the world’s problems? My latest aspiration in life is to spend an entire weekend getting stoned and watching Vietnam war movies.

I helped a fifteen-year-old find the choice quotes from a man’s plea not to destroy his riverside community with the pipeline to Namibia. I encouraged her to consider the point of view of the Namibians, who suffer long droughts.

The day ended with Thai food, as so many of our days do.


Wednesday was laundry day, all day, sorting, schlepping, spinning, folding, wringing, laying flat to dry. Owning sixty pairs of underwear makes those days few and far between, but long and unforgiving. I do like my laundromat, where they play selections from a vast collection of action movies on a big TV. It helps if you are doing unfathomable amounts of laundry to look up and see The Bourne Identity.

I was in a terrible funk, doing my laundry. What was the point? Life was so repetitive. We wear things, we wash them, shrink them, stretch them, rip them, we get ripped, we shrink, we stretch, until one day we get rid of our old clothes and they are sent to Africa, to the riverside communities, to the drought-parched lands in need of pipelines. T-shirts given away at fundraising walks for various diseases, worn until they’ve stretched or shrank or never worn at all, are sent to Africa. Often these walks are sponsored by corporations. Often these corporations are investing in the continued impoverishment and destruction of the continent of Africa, so someone in Africa ends up wearing the t-shirt with the name of the corporation that’s profiting from the destruction of their continent, a t-shirt with the name of a disease they’d be lucky to live long enough to die of.

The vertigo of knowing that this was a reality that existed in the world as much as in my wandering mind was depressing. I checked in with an action sequence The Bourne Identity to calm my nerves and escape my feelings of helpless culpability. When lost in despair about real violence, fake, choreographed Hollywood violence can be reassuring.

“Hey,” says Fake, Choreographed Hollywood Violence, “Cheer up! Violence isn’t only a deadly cycle of force and suffering enacted on a global scale through a series of channels too complicated to contemplate! It’s also a series of interesting sights and sounds, some of them very satisfying, like shattering glass and landing fists!”

At that moment in The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon was krav maga-ing that guy who crashes through the window of the apartment where he and the German chick are having much sexual tension (to be later consummated in a quiet moment at a cheap hotel). “Who sent you?” asked Matt Damon, banging the intruder’s head against the floor. “Who sent you?” he said, beating the man to death in front of the shattered, louvred windows.

What gives The Bourne Identity it’s considerable gravitas is the fact that Matt Damon’s character is capable of incredibly efficient and systematic violence and he’s not even sure why. He’s dangerous but lost, predator but prey. At the end, he finds out he’s an assassin the CIA has invested $30,000,000 in training and maintaining, but due to an upsurge of humanity at a crucial moment, he was unable to complete a recent mission and has now gone “off the reservation.” As the leader of his black-ops project tells him, he’s a malfunctioning machine. Until this point, his most recent clue to his identity is the collection of fake passports and currency he finds in a safe-deposit box in Zurich.

Watching my incomplete, deteriorating wardrobe spin in the dryer, I wondered if maybe I, too, was a $30,000,000 amnesiac killing machine, now off the reservation and malfunctioning at the laundromat. I was just in Zurich, and yet forgot to check the banks for a safe-deposit box full of money and fake passports. Then I got all confused by that fence in Berlin, when I was in fact capable of hoisting myself over it in a single gymnastic motion. I wondered what else I was capable of. Possibly, I spoke several languages. Possibly, I had a general almost primal awareness of the world around me, a sense of when someone was about to come up behind me and try to crush my windpipe. Possibly, I knew how to overpower them and crush their windpipe instead. I just hadn’t been using all of these fantastic skills, so deeply were they buried by my amnesia. Of course, if I was a secret agent gone off the reservation, wouldn’t the number of the safe deposit box in Zurich be in a little laser capsule buried in my forearm? Wouldn’t I have mysterious graze wounds from advanced heat-seeking bullets? The evidence to the contrary was mounting. What had seemed likely moments ago now seemed like just another impossible fantasy.

I was sad again, but at least the laundry was done.


Thursday dawned unseasonably warm and undeniably optimistic. I ate lunch with my grandparents and discovered cheese souffle. What a marvelous invention, cheese souffle. It has been a month of great discoveries. Just a few weeks ago I discovered Jagermeister, another wonderful substance I’d somehow never ingested.

My grandparents were very curious about my trip to Europe to research the touring habits of the punk rock band. I obliged them, though I did not tell them about my exponentially increasing daily intake of Jagermeister and excised certain other details I thought unfit for their elderly Jewish consumption. In truth, it was my prudishness I was indulging, not theirs. They are two elderly Jewish people who know no limits nor inhibitions when it comes to swearing or vulgarity. They’ve seen and lived it all, from the Great Depression to adultery to the entire Allied Advance, and now they’re just trying to make sense of it. They have completely different approaches to making sense of the world, which might explain the undercurrent of strife in their 61-year marriage. My grandmother is interested only in the most intimate details of human emotion, and my grandfather enters the world entirely through facts.

“What’s the name of this band again?” asked my grandfather.

“The World/Inferno Friendship Society,” I said.

“What?” said my grandfather. He’s very hard of hearing.

“The WORLD/InFERno FRIENDship SoCIety!” I shouted, noticing that enunciating the band’s name for the hard of hearing made it sound just like the battle cry/greeting that starts every show.

“Spell it,” said my grandfather. “Or write it down.” The slash proved difficult to explain, so I wrote it down.

When we established the genealogy of the name of the band, we moved on to classifying them. “What kind of music do they play?” asked my grandfather.

“They call it punk-ska-cabaret,” I said.



“What’s punk?” asked my grandfather.

“That’s a complicated question, Grandpa,” I replied, and did my best to explain.

Once I satisfied my grandfather’s thirst for factual knowledge, I answered my grandmother’s questions, an entirely different set of curiosities. Who’s in the band, and what are they like, and what are their names, and what kind of name is that, and how did they get it or make it up, and does anyone in the band date each other, and do they get along, and does ethnicity or religion come into play. My grandmother is curious bordering on nosy, insightful bordering on delusional, frank bordering on profane. She really liked hearing about my travels with the punk rock band, the kinds of things I’m writing about them.

“That sounds so stimulating!” she said. “So alive!”

“That’s one way of putting it,” I said. “It was definitely very stimulating and alive.” With those words, a set of stimulating, alive memories came flooding back to me, six hours ahead and soaked in Jagermeister.

“This is a life…for a person…with a mind,” said my grandmother. She often speaks in the third person, or the infinitive. “To have experiences…to go, to see, to open yourself UP…in this life, to be stimulated…to be alive.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “To be stimulated, to be alive.”

After lunch, I wandered in Central Park, killing time until it was time to go to work. The park was misty, as if it were the early morning, though it was early afternoon. There were many construction projects diverting the paths. I felt as if I were in a beautiful, partially constructed dream.

There were lovely posters explaining the construction hanging prominently on the chain-link fencing, detailing the nature of the projects, the time frames, the expected results. I found this very satisfying and read the posters carefully. I approved of all the projects and was so glad someone had thought of them, hired the necessary crews, ordered the necessary supplies and made these informative posters.

I walked most of the length of the park and came out onto 60th Street, where there were a lot of rich people deciding which incredibly expensive store to visit next. “We could go to Bergdorf’s,” said one. “No, let’s go to Tiffany’s,” said another. I was so disgusted to find these rich people milling around just outside my beautiful partially constructed dream that I jumped into a hole in the ground and didn’t come out for twenty minutes.

I emerged downtown and made my way to a tutoring job in a brand-new condominium right on the Hudson. There’s no smell quite like the smell of new condominium, a mix of floor wax and granite countertops and chlorine from the health club, and a laundry smell entirely different from the laundry smells of tenements. The cologne of the doormen, the perfume of the stay-at-home mothers, the smell of their fat expensively burning as they melt away the baby weight from their in-vitro twins. The healthy sweat of their high-finance husbands, jogging impossible distances along refurbished riverside promenades. Sometimes I swear I can smell the wall sconces in new condominiums, smell the glass and metal, the halogen lightbulbs, the mines and the ovens where they were dug and forged.

The student, like the condominium, is new and this was the day the doorman learned my name. Once they learn my name, the doormen always announce me as “Miss Emily.” “Miss Emily is here,” they say to the children awaiting my arrival on the upper floors, sometimes with river view, sometimes not.

Miss Emily was here, she encouraged the use of the active voice, she encouraged the sharp focusing of thesis statements, she assisted in the researching of Ben Franklin. There were two big biographies on Ben Franklin on the table and they each read one for a while. While Miss Emily was reading about Ben Franklin’s sexual escapades in France, the kid was reading about how Franklin electrocuted himself many times during his experiments. “That’s good stuff,” said Miss Emily. “Make a note of that and put it in your report. And don’t use the goddamn passive voice! See you next week.” Miss Emily descended to the lobby and raided the building’s holiday cupcake table.

Then it was time for my time trial along the Hudson. I had two hours to get from Tribeca to 108th and Broadway and I wanted to see just how far I could get on foot before I’d be forced to ride the subway. I’d been planning this all day and brought a pair of legwarmers to wear over my tights so I would not be cold during my walk. I pulled on my legwarmers and started up the river, listening to the music of the indie rocker in preparation for the piece I would write about him and all the hope he inspired. Like all the subjects of my rock journalism, this rocker is from New Jersey. I would listen to his music and look at New Jersey and come to some deeper understanding, I hoped, and I would not be cold because I had remembered to bring these thigh-high wool legwarmers, and I would not be hungry because I had found a table full of unattended cupcakes. Sometimes, with minimal but careful planning and a few odd strokes of luck, things really do work out.

During my walk along the river I encountered many sets of in-vitro twins in high-end strollers, nannies of all nationalities, a semi-naked trapeze artist, a flock of birds all facing the same way, an only mildly deranged man who wanted to discuss the birds with me, a lot of serious joggers. Hungry for dinner, I veered east around Chelsea to get some food before the long haul north. Once across the West Side Highway, I encountered a tiny gallery on the edge of the art world featuring an installation called Church. The info sheet on the door promised the “viewer/participant a new spirituality, a new approach to the transcendental.”

“In this alternate universe,” the info sheet went on, “the viewer is given the opportunity for redemption. He/she can take action. The profane can become sacred. Unlimitedness can be found in the ordinary.”

I stepped inside. As promised by the info sheet, the gallery was full of “a medley of painted artifacts, poems, ramblings, trash, notebooks, paintings, club invites and random unwanted items left behind by party goers.” A lot of it had been flung or dripped with neon paint.

A white-haired man was pointing at a lamp in the corner, telling a dreadlocked girl, “I want to levitate that lamp. I want it to rise with all its beauty and greatness.”

“If you can get the funding,” she said, “you can do it.”

The dreadlocked girl began an unsolicited monologue. “Making an installation like this isn’t an intellectual process. It’s more organic than that. It’s the other side of the brain. It’s starting a dialogue, between yourself and the viewer, and yourself and yourself. It’s putting things together without thinking about where they go, so they can go where they want to go.”

The press release outside promised a confessional. I asked to confess, but apparently the priest was outside, having a smoke. At just that moment, the phone rang. I could see from the caller ID that it was a friend I’d been trying to take up on her invitation to come over for Shabbat dinner. It seemed rude to answer the phone in someone else’s installation, so I let it go into voicemail. I felt strangely guilty. Here was someone calling to invite me to Shabbat dinner, and here I was trying to confess to a priest in an art gallery in Chelsea.

I left without a new spirituality, a new approach to the transcendental, without the redemption I’d been promised. The profane was still only intermittently sacred, but I was willing to concede that unlimitedness could be found in the ordinary.

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