Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pocket Review of Going to the Cinema

I love going to the movies - any time of year (especially in New York summers), day or night, alone or with company- getting lost in the stories of others is one of my favorite pastimes. I spent many of my high school summers attending screenings of classic movies at my favorite theatre in the world, The Alabama, A.K.A. "The Showplace of the South." Built in the 20's at the height of the silent film era (and just prior to the The Great Crash), The Alabama features red velvet curtains and seats, a huge proscenium stage, and The Mighty Wurlitzer, a truly amazing organ.

Every June, the Alabama kicks off it's summer season with a packed showing of Gone With the Wind, the Mighty Wurlitzer rising from a trap door in the stage. General Manager, Cecil Whitmire, plays "Tara" like his life depended on it, with the flailing-elbowed intensity of the Phantom of the Opera. While seated in the mezzanine for a showing of this epic film several years ago, my friend, Weird Dave, in the hushed silence immediately following the line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," said in a loud stage whisper, "Wait a minute. I'VE seen this." This statement and the timing of it (3.9 hours into the 4-hour long movie) made me snort popcorn out of my nose.

One of the best things about the Alabama is that if one is seated on the mezzanine or balcony levels, and one excuses oneself to visit the fabulous art deco powder room, one can still hear the film clearly. This in spite of the fact that the theatre is high- ceilinged and sprawling, with faded splendor in every corner. Because of this, I always feel that I am in my own home somehow, and that the movie is playing on my personal elephanormous television. There is something very comforting about that.

That is not to say, however, that I encourage people to think of themselves as being at home when they are at the theatre. That's what the introduction of the VCR did in America - it made people feel comfortable verbalizing any thought they have while watching movies, as if they are ensconced in their own sofas. I myself do not take well to talkers at the movies.

Once in Burbank, California while watching a matinee of the dreaded "Miss Congeniality II" with my then roomie (Hey, it was Martin Luther King Day and I was off work and bored), I began to feel frustrated by a woman in the row behind me who was speaking ceaselessly to her small child. The child wasn't cooing cutely, but was screaming nonsensical observations at the top of its lungs, and its mother was encouraging this. After a half hour or so, I did a quiet "sshhh" over my left shoulder in their general direction. It's not a good film, but by God, I paid eight American dollars to see it, and I wanted to hear it as well.

In response, this woman stood up, leaned over the back of my seat and said hissingly, "Don't shush ME, bitch." I stood up, met her toe to toe in the aisle and said, "OK, let's go get an usher. You're ruining my movie experience." At this moment, she unfortunately chose to shove me, which prompted me to "rare back" as they say in the south, and slap her across the face (in the opposite direction from the child she was holding on her hip) hard. The smack of flesh against flesh was still echoing in the shocked silence that followed (no one was more shocked than me), when I heard someone from midway down the row of seats beside me say, "Let's go, Debbie. She's CRAZY." They rose and hot-footed it up the aisle, taking Debbie and her unfortunate spawn with them, and I returned to my seat, fully expecting to be drug away by the movie police at any moment. I never was, though.

I now work in the wonderful neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, (where Patty Duke saw the sights) and over the summer, my beau and I discovered Cobble Hill Cinemas there. While it is no showplace, this small, older theatre has affordable cherry coke (something I must have at the movies) and popcorn; but most endearing is the fact that all day on Tuesdays and Thursdays a ticket costs a mere $6.50. At the height of "we need to be in central air conditioning" season, we saw "Whatever Works," which I thoroughly enjoyed (having a higher than average threshold for Woody Allen and Larry David), and then, "Bruno." 

"Bruno" definitely had its moments, and many of them were filmed in Alabama (leaving me edgily anticipating that I would see someone that I personally know at any moment. My discomfort increased during the "swingers" segments. Not because I swing, but because I definitely do not want to see anyone I know putting their keys in the bowl ). 

This was followed by a matinee of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."However, it is the grainy little "Away We Go" that has stuck with me, and has returned to haunt me this week. It is not that it is a great film, or anything, though it is well directed, well acted and charming. Instead, I think it is because the theme of the film, "Where is home," is one with which I identify so strongly, especially during the holidays.

In the uber-real tradition of modern small film-making, "Away We Go" is the story of thirty-something knocked-ups, Burt and Verona, who are trying to find a real home in which to raise their pending bundle. Throughout the film, Verona avoids returning to her childhood home on the bayou, because the memory of her now dead parents is too painful. She ultimately does go back, of course, and predictably, it turns out to be the perfect place for her and her new family. Verona is still trepidatious, but gracefully puts her fears aside in the hope of giving her baby an authentic home and a real childhood (a playing -on-the-river, Huck Finn-sans-racism childhood.)
It was touching, not least because Burt asks at one point, "ARE we fuck ups?" Which is something I wonder about myself a lot lately.

The thought of confronting a painful childhood and re-settling myself in the place where that pain was inflicted is a fascinating idea to me. Though, honestly, I can't really see it happening. I have definitely confronted my pain, but as for re-settling myself in the South, it seems less and less likely. There are dear, dear persons there that I miss horribly, but I would miss New York just as much. My beau is a native New Yorker, and his family is here, and as we get more serious, it is even more doubtful that I will return to my childhood home, much as I wish I could sometimes - around the holidays, for instance.

Every year during the holiday season, I watch "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Christmas," and in recent years, "When Harry Met Sally" and "Love Actually." These films all have the ability to touch me repeatedly, and make me nostalgic, but not for Christmases past, exactly. Instead, I feel a longing for my child self - I miss her. I also feel a simultaneous longing for my future family. I think maybe this is the main reason people have children, to recapture the enthusiasm and hope they themselves used to feel. I wouldn't mind having one for that reason my own self, but somehow, in my circumstances, it seems unfair to the child.

In my experience, the holidays are all about awkwardness and loneliness, and I guess it will always feel odd to me to be without a cohesive family. I do have some kick-ass friends, however, and many of them have included me in their Christmas festivities over the years. I am so grateful for this and have always had a lovely time, but it feels a bit pathetic to always be the outsider.

Since my new fella is Jewish, I don't know what my future holiday traditions will include. This year, we attempted to have Chinese food and go to the movies (which is what good Jews traditionally do, I am told) on Christmas Eve, but he worked late, and so we ended up having a quickie chow mein and heading to my place, which is fully decorated with a 7.5 foot Christmas tree, door swags, candy cane candles, and snowman throw rugs. The important thing is that we were together, of course, though I wish we'd had time to go to the movies. I want to see the new Sherlock Holmes film, and I probably wouldn't have even struck anyone since it was Christmas Eve, and all.

Mostly, I am curious to see where I will be this time next year. I find myself wishing I could slit open the edges of the new year with a razor blade, take a peek inside, tape it back together and restore it to the shelf, the way I used to do with the Christmas gifts that my mother would hide in her closet every year. I just had to know what Santa was bringing. I was an absolute MacGyver when it came to gift snooping in my elementary school years. Later, in high school, I finally learned that the anticipation was the nucleus of the fun.

2009 has been the crappiest financial/career year on record for me and MILLIONS of others, and I am not that sorry to see it go. I am grateful to have discovered and enjoyed my wonderful relationship this year, though. I am aggressively pursuing my own happiness, which actually isn't a new course of action for me, but I have taken a few risks: I liberated myself from a job that was sucking my soul out, and I began dating someone who is visibly younger than I am. (Charles came to meet me for lunch at the W here today, and a bellman that I previously thought was cool said, "How old is your boyfriend, cradle-robber?" To which I replied, "None of your fuckin' business." I guess people will be commenting on our age difference for the length of our relationship. No wonder Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins split after 23 years of hearing that kind of crap). The good things is, that since there is really nowhere to go but up, I am feeling a slight tingling of excitement about the coming year. Not the night- before- Christmas- excited- tingling -of -the- young, and not the lights-just-went-down-in-the- theatre-the movie's-about-to-begin-tingling-of-the-slightly-older, but a tingling nonetheless. And tingling is good. You can make out with it, if not have actual sex with it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pocket Review of Life in the Bike Lane

I got my first bike at age 5. My mother very shrewdly waited a few years after I cut my heel off in the spokes of her bike to present me with one of my own. It was mint green, equipped with training wheels, had a banana seat, and chrome fenders on both wheels. I remember the first time I climbed aboard it in my granny's front yard. I felt very grown up, as I wobbled down her sidewalk between the holly bushes, and took to it quickly. In no time at all, my Uncle Don was removing the training wheels and I was taking such risks as riding with no hands, and propping my feet up on the handlebars while I cruised down the cul de sac. Amazingly, I harbored no residual fear from the great heel-slicing of '73.

When I was 7 or so, I got a new bike that suited my increasingly long-legged frame better. It was electric blue, and its white vinyl banana seat was imprinted with blue and yellow flowers. While riding this bike down the gravel strewn alley behind the duplex we shared with my stepfather, the neighborhood bullies (two sisters whose father was a cop - obviously, he taught them well), emerged from behind the blackberry bushes and persimmon trees flanking the alleyway and ambushed me. I pedaled faster, but they had the element of surprise on their side, and rapidly caught up with me, grabbing the curved chrome handle that protruded from the seat of my bike, and shaking it hard until I fell to the asphalt, embedding small rocks in my palms and bare knees. The devil girls (who were aged 8 and 10) purloined my lovely bike, which led to my mother marching me to the front door of their home to retrieve it.

While Mother confronted the fully uniformed officer about his daughters' unacceptable behavior, gesturing periodically to my purpled and bleeding knees and hands, I stood behind her feeling confused and humiliated, and wondered why these people's house smelled so strongly of burnt onions. (I mean it wafted all the way out there on the porch. An embedded odor, you know?) I can only assume that my mother felt her case would be stronger if the evidence of my injuries was clearly visible. Nonetheless, I remember this man as swaggering and combative, obviously feeling that he and his children could do whatever they wished. While he made statements like, "We don't have your damn bike. Are you implying that I can't afford to buy my daughters bikes of their own?" the oldest daughter, whom I believe was named Dana, intervened with, "I just wanted to play. Let's color!" All I wanted was to get the hell out of there, which is exactly what we did when my bike magically appeared from their backyard. As we walked down the twilit sidewalk towards home, the wheels of my bike making a gentle clicking and whirring between us, I continued to feel embarrassed and pathetic, when my mom suddenly broke the silence by hissing, "What an asshole."

Despite these negative experiences, I was thrilled several months ago when a friend gifted me a used purple mountain bike with the words, "Ol' Rock Hopper" emblazoned on the side in yellow. I decided to be greener and save money by biking to work everyday. Never having ridden a bike in a city as traffic-heavy as Brooklyn, it took me a few days to get the hang of what is legal to do, and what is not. I am a responsible and excellent driver of cars, and vaguely remembered that bikes are required to obey the same laws as motor vehicles. However, having witnessed multiple delivery guys biking down the middle of the sidewalk, with their plastic bags of Chinese food dangling from the handlebars and glancing off the heads of every small child/vertically challenged person in their path, I became convinced that bikers enjoyed some leniency in the eyes of the law.

My first morning astride Ol' Rock Hopper found me whizzing down Flatbush Avenue and loving my new-found freedom. I had to be at work at seven AM, and at 6:15, the traffic was light, the sun was shining, and the ability to control when I reached work (vs. spending lots of negative time waiting for trains and buses everyday) was intoxicating. I zipped through a green light, then zipped through a red light (after ensuring there was no oncoming traffic). At the next light, which was also red, a biker was already waiting. Noting that he was actually obeying the law, I slowed to a stop beside him.
"Didn't want to risk it, huh?" he asked me.
"Excuse me?" I replied.
"I saw you run the light back there, but figured you didn't want to tempt the cop on this one."
I tore my gaze from his full on uniform of spandex biker shorts with padded rear, neon yellow, fully reflective, safety patrol vest, light-reflective ankle strap, and aero-dynamic helmet complete with tiny rearview dental mirror mounted on the side, to glance in the direction he was thrusting his chin. I saw two cops parked in a patrol car at the curb facing the other direction, and figured they had bigger doughnuts to fry.
"Oh. Yeah," I said.
The light turned green, and dental mirror cut in front of me while vigorously making a ferociously correct turn signal with his left arm. As we sped down the bike lane of my dream street, Bergen, (a quiet, beautiful lane that is all brick homes and brownstones, and old gorgeous trees), I reflected on the fact that if one has to obey the same laws as other vehicles while biking, then the same road etiquette should be observed as well. In other words, don't talk to me just because I am not surrounded by the metal body of a car. Cut to me breaking the chin strap on my thirty dollar bike helmet within the first week of owning it. Then, insert several frames of me with the wind whipping my hair, feeling smug and healthy due to greenly (if sweatily) conveying myself to work. And then cut to a few months ago.

After zipping down my favorite stretch of my daily commute (the aforementioned Bergen Street), I hung a right on Smith and encountered some road construction which necessitated me biking the wrong way on a one way street for a block or so. Though I tempt fate by riding helmet-less and dental mirror-less, I do not flagrantly disobey laws in this manner, though I see other cyclists do it constantly. I slowly proceeded up the slight incline of Dean Street, until I encountered a parked van in the bike lane. I stopped in front of it, and peered cautiously around it to assess if there was any oncoming traffic. Seeing none, I nosed out into the street, intending to quickly whip around the van back to the relative safety of the bike lane. No sooner had I eased into the street than a black sedan came racing around the corner, showing no intention of stopping. I heard a faint roar of panic in my ears as I jerked my handlebars to the right trying to get out of the path of the oncoming car. As I did so, the front wheel locked up and I went flying over the handlebars, landing with a thud on the pavement. I eased myself to a standing position, and picked up my bike, my primary concern still evacuating the street. As I did so, I saw a brown hand with brightly colored nails emerge from the driver side window of the black sedan which had stopped a few feet from me. The hand made an impatient and repetitive "come here" motion, while the driver honked her horn several times. I realized belatedly that she was telling me to get out of her way, and was extremely irritated at being held up.

I was shocked by this. A kind lady on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street stopped the stroller she was pushing to call to me, "Are you alright?" As I limped to the shoulder with my bike, I replied, "I think so. Is she for real?" Nice lady said, "She's crazy. Ignore her." Meanwhile, a native Brooklynite pulled up behind the black sedan and as fingernails continued to berate me, he yelled to her in his thick New York accent, "What the fuck is wrong with you? She fell off her bike. Give her a fuckin' break, already. Jesus. Shut the fuck up!" I finally succeeded in reaching the sidewalk with my bedraggled self, and as she finally drove past me, fingernails paused long enough to say, "Fuck you, white girl. Fuck, you white bitch," with venomous hatred.

I was stunned. Not that white folks don't have some racism comin' their way, but this woman acted as if I had deliberately fallen and hurt myself in order to hold her up. Furthermore, she was the one in the nice car with time for a manicure, while I was the one on a second-hand bike with ragged cuticles on my way to my fifty hour work week. Also, I know I am a klutz, but what does that have to do with me being caucasian? I truly don't see the connection.

I walked the rest of my route to work, a broken spoke on my front wheel sproinging in the breeze. I met up with a co-worker outside Starbucks, and he helped me ferry my bike the rest of the way. I felt very grateful for him and his kindness, as I was in pain, covered in chain grease and street dirt, and feeling genuinely baffled about fingernails.

By the time I reached work and clocked in, everyone had heard about my mishap. I was very sore, but went ahead and worked an 11 hour shift, anyway, then woke up the next morning unable to move. When I returned to work the following day, a co-worker who had already heard the story of my fall, asked me to repeat it, and I did, as we were alone in a back room of the store. Unbeknownst to me, my boss was sequestered in what is jokingly referred to as the "super secret office," which is a small, windowless room inside the room we were occupying. A few hours later, he took me aside, and informed me that he had overheard me talking to my co-worker, and that I was not to repeat the story, because I could get in trouble with HR if another employee heard me, as I would sound racist. I was gobsmacked. As far I was concerned, what happened was a fact, and since it happened to me, I could tell any damn body I chose. I felt unnecessarily censored, and very much like I felt standing on the cop's front porch all those years ago. To whit, "I am the victim, here, Goddammit!" It was at precisely that moment that I realized without a doubt that being a supervisor in a grocery store is not the right career for me.

A colleague at work generously fixed Ol' Rock Hopper, and I was back in business, though a bit more jaded now. For instance, I was riding home in the bike lane on Union Street when an older man in a huge white van decided I wasn't far enough over and honked at me repeatedly. I let the road rage that has been in my bloodline for generations bubble to the surface as I screamed, "I'M NOT IN YOUR LANE, YOU STUPID OLD BASTARD!" And it felt right.

About a week after being back in the bike lane, my beau and I were getting ready for bed when we heard an odd pop and hissing sound near the front of the apartment. Upon investigation, my beloved found my youngest kitty, Madeline, seated beside Ol' Rock Hopper with her eyes wide and her ears flat on her head. Apparently, the rear tire threatened her in the night, and she responded by viciously attacking it. Somehow, she managed to flatten the nubby, all-terrain tire.

I know I should fix it. It's just taking up valuable space in my foyer, since it is no longer my primary conveyance. But, I have started to consider the possibility that maybe God himself doesn't want me to have a bike. And believe me, in New York in the dead of winter, an unlimited Metro Card is definitely something to have sex with.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pocket Review of an Off Day in the Life

So, yesterday was my off day, my “Saturday” if you will, since I work Saturday through Wednesday every week. I got up at 8ish (having opened at work for 5 days in a row, and therefore awakened at 4AM everyday, this was sleeping in for me) and dressed quickly to head into the city to attend my friend, Giverny's, yoga class. She is a dear friend and a wonderful instructor, and most generously, she comped me the class, since she is aware of my current financial situation.
As my feet hit the sidewalk outside my building, I noted the tiny bluster in the air, and the slightly steely skies, and thought, “It’s coming on autumn here in NYC.” I am thrilled, as this is my very favorite season. It always brings me memories of the best parts of my childhood as well as memories of a childhood that I didn’t actually get to experience. (Not to mention the fact that I like to be able to stand still without actively sweating. I’m spoiled, I know.)

While maneuvering the busy staircase at the Lafayette stop of the B train (my yoga mat thumping my hip with every step), I noticed multiple posters for a new Courteney Cox show reading, “Cougar Town! Forty is the new 20!” And I was forced to wonder, “What then, does that make 20? The new fetus?” I am skidding towards 40 at a rate that I prefer not to think about, (and starting to contemplate creating a fetus of my own) and perhaps that is why this term, “cougar” is so very offensive to me.

At the beginning of my relationship with Charles, he tried to desensitize me to our age difference by jokingly referring to me as a cougar. It was only after I HEATEDLY explained (multiple times) my definition of a cougar (a skinny, overly tanned woman in her mid-late 50’s who chain smokes Capri cigarettes and wears lots of animal prints and gold jewelry, and is invariably named “Sharon” or “Mitzi”) that he respected my ban of this word from our relationship lexicon. I’m not forty yet, and I don’t look like I will be anytime soon, but still, cougar just isn’t a funny or complimentary term to me. I have enough problems (back rent, around-the-clock calls from creditors, and a job that is not a good fit for me) as it is without being classified as a past-her-prime predator who is so desperate for attention that she will pursue anything with a pee pee.

All of this and more cart-wheeled through my brain as I lay on my back holding two palmsful of my own ass in yoga class. “Breathe, Brooke. Concentrate. Pick a focal point,” I admonished myself, and then realized there was a mirrored disco ball hanging directly above me. I simultaneously noticed that I could see a kaleidoscopic version of myself winking down on me. In this sliver there is a tiny slice of my black tank, and over here a snippet of bright orange toenail peeking from beneath the charcoal hem of my yoga pants, and in several tiny triangles of reflectivity, my own eyes gazing and blinking and gazing and blinking at me. Seeing myself in pieces was very appropriate and interesting. It reminded me of the description of the dragon in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door: “…a sea of eyes (merry eyes, wise eyes, ferocious eyes, kitten eyes, dragon eyes, opening and closing) and wings (in constant motion)."

I most definitely feel fractured just now. I don’t seem to have any of my former anchors. For example, I am no longer pursuing an acting career, and performing in play after play was something I could rely on as a touchstone for years. The women who play the parts of my parents are so overwhelmed by their own lives and circumstances, that they no longer have time for me, nor any visible inclination to guide me. I am still unable to support myself financially (in spite of a second raise and promotion with Trader Joe’s), and no one in my immediate circle, including my beau, seems able to empathize with what I am going through. I am grateful for this, because I wouldn’t want anyone I care about to be facing these challenges (I am exhausted like I have never been in my life), but it is still a bit lonely.

To combat the loneliness, I am revisiting some of my favorite things. I took a micro-break from reading books on curing my debt and elevating my self-esteem, and read a biography on Nancy Drew and the women who created her (this book was given to me by a friend for my birthday last year, and I FINALLY made time to actually read it.) This made me want to re-read some of the Nancy Drew Mystery stories from my youth, as this was my favorite childhood pastime, so I grabbed a few at the library. I have also been reveling in re-watching my “Absolutely Fabulous” DVD’s, and reviewing some old Hitchcock films that I forgot I had copies of (he is still unrivaled in his film-making genius).

Charles is in Italy on vacation, and I am thrilled for him. However, I am also so jealous that he is strolling in Tuscany and Florence while I am here toiling at work for 11 and 12 hours a day that I could just vomit. That makes me feel a bit disgusted with myself, because, really, how petty can I be? And then, the whole cycle of crap self-esteem begins anew.
After yoga class, I joined Giverny for lunch at the Moonstruck Diner, and though I felt a bit guilty about spending ten bucks on myself for lunch instead of coming home and making a sandwich, it was lovely to see her. Having ample time for my friends, and for socializing in general, is a thing of the past with my current job. 

I left Giv and returned to my beloved Brooklyn. I was strolling down 8th Avenue in lovely Park Slope (on my way to see the therapist who is helping me keep my breakdown at bay, and who is paid for courtesy of Trader Joe’s insurance), when I listened to a message from my friend, Bryan, that made me laugh out loud. His boyfriend, Raoul, teaches 8th grade in Los Angeles, and Bryan said, “Just had to share, my favorite names in Raoul’s new class are Adonis and Hustler. Yes, someone named their child Hustler.”

Charles wants a child at some point, and I have been actually giving the idea some thought because I care for him so deeply. However, I am not sure that I am ever going to want to be a parent, nor am I sure that if I do want to be one, I’ll be able to physically conceive. This has been on my mind a lot lately, because Charles brings up children often, I have many friends who are getting married this year, and I just had a physical for the first time in two years. My doctor (whom I love) said if I want to have a baby, I better get down on it, because only 10% of women over 40 are able to conceive the old-fashioned way. This was a disheartening statistic, but I am not too worried, as I don’t really hear anything ticking, I am just trying the idea on to see if it is at all a possibility for me in the next three or four years.

Post-therapy, I passed a woman with a stroller that held two children comfortably, and I tried to imagine myself calling Bryan and saying, “Sorry I missed you, but I was at the park with little Aphrodite and Playboy!” Or, “I’m sorry I couldn’t pick up, but you know how fussy Xerxes and Barely Legal get when they don’t have their snacks!” I couldn’t picture it, somehow. Instead, I felt the cool silvery weight of my cell phone in my pocket, and suddenly wished I could whip it out and use it like a laser from the future to freeze everyone on my block – the black men in dreadlocks who never seem to work, but merely hang out in the street all day smoking weed and playing dominoes. The island women tossing phrases back and forth at one another across the street in their deafeningly loud Jamaican drawls. The children on their skateboards. The men on the stoop who said, “Look at that booty. I like that. I’d bite that booty,” as I walked by. Or the Dominican delivery boy riding his bicycle on the sidewalk and saying, “Mmmmm, you’re sexy, Mami,” in my ear at the precise moment he rode past me. Just freeze them all and make them be quiet for a minute. A full minute of quiet. Another full minute of off day.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pocket Review of Totally Freaking Out

So, I read a great book this week called, "Fear and Other Uninvited Guests" by Harriet Lerner, a well-known, Brooklyn-born, Topeka-dwelling psychiatrist. She states that the three uninvited guests that have the most significant impact on the lives of us all are: fear (obviously), anxiety, and shame - a sort of crap triumvirate. I am forced to agree with her. Most of us do, I think, walk around with an ass-ton of anxiety because we live in fear that we will be revealed as talentless charlatans, and thus be shamed in front of all humanity. 

Other than offering the comfort that we all feel these dark emotions on some level, Dr. Lerner posits that giving voice to them is extremely helpful; as the more you internalize your shame and anxiety, the greater the power those emotions have over you. Apparently, the only thing worse than feeling afraid, anxious and ashamed, is feeling afraid, anxious, ashamed and isolated. These words resonated with me (as did the whole book. Lerner has a refreshing and approachable style. Following is one of my favorite passages: "Thumbing through my sixth grade diary, the record of a thoroughly miserable year, I found this quote I had typed and pasted on the page. 'I used to cry because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.' Obviously, this gave me some comfort. But comparing our suffering to that of others offers temporary relief at best. Maybe it helped me on some days to think about footless people, but on other days, I'd think about the girls in my class who had all their body parts plus boyfriends, and I'd feel worse.") So, to that end, let me say that I am aware that there are others who are in the same or much worse boats than I. Still, I am going to over-share, blog-style, in an effort to stunt the tumorous growth of my own shame.

Here's the deal: I am 38 years old, and I have accrued an insane amount of debt in the last 12 years while "pursuing my dream," (which was acting, but is now writing, though I would LOVE to act again) particularly in the last 2 plus years of living in New York. I feel like an utter failure, because it is somewhat easy for me to give myself a break regarding finances if I am engaged in creative pursuits, but much less so if I am supervising a grocery store. I am two months behind on my rent, and when I walked into the lobby of my building three days ago, I noticed that 1A, on the ground floor, had a notice taped to the door from the Marshall's office, reading that the apartment was now in the legal possession of the landlord. This has become my biggest fear, that I will see one of those notices on my door, and that I will be unable to get to and feed my two kittens. Also, one of my credit cards was sent to collections this week. Representatives from the collections agency call literally around the clock (as they are located in India), so I leave my phone on silent most of the time these days. It is very difficult to feel that one is a worthwhile human being when one is constantly harassed by creditors.

Here's how I got into this mess:
I fell and broke my rib and injured my face at the end of November, which meant I was unable to work either my part time job at Trader Joe's, or my freelance, well-paying job as a corporate meeting facilitator for nearly the entire month of December. I had no savings, and while I qualified for compensation for all of my medical bills, I did not qualify to be paid for time missed from work. Did I mention I had no savings (something I am not great at, anyway, and something which is doubly difficult in New York City)? Therefore, I charged many of my living expenses for that month. As of January, it became immediately clear that due to the state of the economy, my freelance work was at an all time low, and that enough jobs would not be coming in to sustain me. I made the choice to pursue a management position with Trader Joe's (one of the few corporations that has not been disastrously affected by the recession), thinking that a regular pay check every two weeks was better than no pay check at all. In the intervening period of three months that it took to make the definitive choice about "going full time," make my desires known to my boss at the store, and then train and succeed in getting promoted, I was making roughly 1/4 of my former income, and I responded by accruing still more debt. The promotion certainly helped, but I am now making around half of what I did when I had my freelance career.

Also, I took two trips (one in December, and one in June) to Los Angeles. One was to meet the baby of two of my dearest friends, and one trip was to attend the wedding of another of my dearest friends. In both cases, I used miles to purchase the plane tickets. In both cases, I had free places to stay. In both cases, because I am so rich in friendship, I was required to spend almost nothing, as everyone wished to take me out to eat. However, attending the wedding in June did necessitate me missing a few days of work for which I was not paid, which contributed to me being behind on my bills.

Here are the actions I have taken thus far to get out of this mess:
I entered "hardship" programs with all of my credit cards, thus negotiating a lower interest rate (in one case, for the life of the loan, in the other cases for one year), and am paying a significantly lower monthly minimum. The catch is that if I miss one payment, I will be removed from the hardship programs, and be required to pay the original minimums plus insane interest, which is why my money has been going to creditors instead of to rent. The one exception to this is the credit card that has recently gone to collections, because they refused to work with me. There are assistance programs available, but only for those with no feet - i.e. no jobs at all. No one cares if you are merely unshod.

Let me be clear that I haven't purchased things on credit like champagne and hookers. What I did purchase were things like a mattress and box spring, a window unit air conditioner, and the services of a green moving company to bring all of my belongings from L.A. Certainly, there were things I bought that I didn't need. However, in my former career, the client I worked for the most, required me to pay for all of my hotel rooms and cabs up front, and be reimbursed later. Sometimes, the timing of the reimbursement was off, and I was unable to pay off my credit card balances. I have no regrets about my former career, as I loved every second of it. I saw the world, which is something I am itching to continue to do (every day, on my way to work, I ride past an old blue sign that has faded, running ink, and reads, "Lady Barrow's Tours to Europe", and I think how badly I want to be her) and most importantly, I forged friendships that I expect to have for life. However, it is amazing how quickly debt accumulates.

I changed my phone plan, and started to utilize the "friends and family" offer, so that it is half as expensive as it was. I cancelled cable (which truly bums me out, as I like to unwind after work by watching a few episodes of "Family Guy" or "Seinfeld").

I am eating cereal everyday for breakfast and PB and J everyday for lunch.

My dear friend, Niambi, was kind enough to give me a bike that had been abandoned at her house by a former tenant. I invested the $300 necessary to get the bike safe and rideable, as well as purchase a helmet and a New York City-strength lock. I am biking to work everyday, which means that I do not have to purchase an unlimited monthly Metro card (a one way ride is now $2.25 - an absurd increase, even in the few years that I've lived here).

I recognized that, much as I wanted to, I would be unable to attend my 20 year high school reunions (one for Gardendale High School, which I attended through my sophomore year, and one for my magnet school, Shades Valley RLC, from which I actually graduated.)

I have given serious thought to moving, and trying to find a roommate. However, I am in my current lease until May of 2010, and I love my ghetto adjacent apartment. I have no idea where I would come up with the first/last and security deposits required to move, let alone all the penalties I would incur for breaking my lease (subletting is not allowed, and as my building manager is a friend, and lives on the first floor, I would not be able to sublet on the sly). Also, according to what's available on Craig's List, I would be saving only around $300 a month, to go from renting a one bedroom apartment, to renting a room in someone else's apartment, which is something, to be sure, but not nearly enough. (I could move to a less safe neighborhood that is much further from work and save money on rent, but then biking would no longer be an option.)

I would save around the same amount, it turns out, by doing something drastic like moving back to Birmingham. This is because rent is not as cheap there as I believed (an apartment in a safe neighborhood is $600-$700 per month, according to The Birmingham News, and my surrogate relatives there), and the expense of purchasing a car, insurance, and gas, pretty much takes care of the $400 per month that I would be saving in rent. Also, I love New York, and want to stay here. I love my boyfriend, and want to stay in my relationship, as it is one of the best things in my life. Finally, living alone contributes directly to my mental health. Ask any native New Yorker, including my boyfriend, and they will label living alone "a luxury." Ask me, and I will label it a necessity. Here's why: I work in retail, serving thousands of customers and hundreds of employees per day. I work a ten-hour shift. I have a minimum of one hour in commute time. If everything goes well, my day is only 13 hours long. If things go wrong, it is 15 plus hours long.

The other action I am taking, now, finally, is putting the word out. I need help. I brainstormed with a friend two days ago, about ideas for making extra cash. As I work around 50 hours a week already, the thought of getting a job on my two off days makes me want to burst into tears, but I did ask a former "joeworker" and friend if she needed help in the bar/restaurant she recently purchased with her husband. I am meeting with them this week. I thought of making bracelets on the same line "as live strong Lance Armstrong" except with fabric, and selling them on Facebook. I thought of writing witty phrases (such as, "I saved Brooke from bankruptcy!") for Pieces of Flair on Facebook, as well, but don't know if there is a way to make them purchasable. I don't have anything that I can sell off, though I have racked my brain.

What do you think? A psychic friend recently told me that I am afraid of my own success, which was news to me, as I thought I was afraid of being evicted and going bankrupt. Does anyone out there have any idea what I would be successful at (other than ending sentences with prepositions)? Does anyone have any money-making ideas, or know of any job opportunities that I could totally have sex with? Is anyone else in this situation? I have never been sent to collections in my life, or until recently even been late on my rent, so I don't know what to do. I have had a few full-blown panic attacks in the last few months, which are also new for me. I am trying to calm down, think positively, and invite more productive guests into my life, so any information would be so greatly appreciated.

Thank you for listening.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pocket Review of Dating Younger

In August of 2007, after living in New York for the better part of a year, I found myself between travel jobs, bored out of my gourd, and in need of extra income. I was shopping in my favorite market, Trader Joe's, when, on a whim, I asked for an application. It included questions that required a working knowledge of multiplication, long division, and fractions in order to provide the correct answers. This is knowledge that I possess, though barely. I have always cusped on retardation where mathematics is concerned. In any case, within three days, I was screened, interviewed, and hired. When David, one of the supervisors, called to tell me when to report for duty, I said, "Great! What do I bring? Just myself and my remedial math skills?" he laughed and disconnected.

I had shopped at Trader Joe's for all of my tenure in Los Angeles, after being introduced to it by my friend, Niambi, and the employees there always seemed happy to be at work. Still, having spent years cobbling an income out of this or that acting, decorating, catering, floral design, or travel gig, I was nervous about taking anything resembling a real job. I mean, there's a time clock, for God's sake.

My third day on the job, I was lunching in the break room when a beautiful girl in dreadlocks and multiple tattoos sat down at my table. Her name tag identified her as "Kim C."

Me: "How's it going?"
Kim C.: "So, what's your deal? Are you into guys or girls, or what?"
Me: "Ummmmmm....."
Kim C.: "Both?"
Me: "Ummmmm...."
Kim C.: "It's cool, either way."
Me (thinking she was trying, albeit clumsily, to pick me up): "I skew towards straight."
Kim C.: "That's cool."
Me: "Yeah."
Kim C. :"I have to ask, I mean it's Trader Joe's."
Me: "Umkay."

This was my first indicator that the Joe is an incestuous sex pool. I decided in that moment that dating at work was a loser move. I also decided that, being a bit older than the average employee, the chances of me meeting someone there with whom I shared any interests were pretty slim. (I was wrong, though. Dead wrong. Two of my dearest friends in life are former Joeworkers.) I later learned that Kim also skews straight, and was undercover in an attempt to gather info about me for some of the male employees, (these days, though, she assures me she is no longer a double agent, but only works for me).

One such employee, Chuck, was kind of a mystery to me. He was really nice, and as he had been working there for over a year, seemed to know all the ins and outs of the Joe. He was always willing to share this knowledge, and always in a good mood. Still, I didn't quite know what to make of this big white kid in his giant pants, XXL T-shirts, and Yankees caps. His constant hip hop references also threw me. I mean, was this just the way native Manhattanites dressed and behaved, or what? I was forced to rely on "Urban Dictionary" and other similar websites in order to decipher phrases like, "Good lookin' out," and "What's good?" or, "Fall back a little."

I was further confused when, towards the end of my first week of work, I was ringing up a customer on register one, and Chuck walked up and grabbed my cheek saying, "Look at that face. If I weren't so broke, I'd take you out for a drink after work." I said something along the lines of, "I don't think so, Jr. In Arkansas, where they start in the tweens, I'm almost old enough to be your mother." He didn't give up easily though, and proceeded to tell me all about himself while we were stocking chips together a few nights later. Mostly, his stories were of his checkered youth, (his "youth" transpiring maybe two years prior to this conversation). As his diatribe continued, I also learned that he was adopted, had Jewish parents, and became obsessed with hip hop music and culture after discovering the Wu-tang Clan at the ripe old age of ten. The whole time, I kept thinking, "I am not attracted to this person." And, "Why is he telling me this? We have nothing in common."

Later in the week, I went out for a few drinks with some of my new co-workers, Chuck among them. He spent most of the evening trying unsuccessfully to convince me that he wasn't too young for me. I had purchased toilet tissue and a few other necessities before leaving work, and had these items with me in a paper shopping bag (this would mark the beginning of a long tradition of my never going out after work without being saddled like a burro with groceries I had purchased prior to closing). One drink led to another, and me being a lightweight, I ended up on the street outside a bar called Finnerty's, having been ushered out at closing time with my comrades. Though many of the details are fuzzy to me, I do remember seeing my six-pack of toilet tissue lying on the sidewalk like roadkill, and then slowly realizing that I was holding the handle - just the handle - to my paper shopping bag in my left hand. Somewhere in the midst of this, Chuck asked me for a good night kiss. I refused, slurringly telling him that I wasn't really interested in him, or in being the office skank. He suggested we walk around the corner, out of eyeshot of our colleagues, and apparently, I did kiss him, though I have no memory of it. That evening ended with me illegally packed into a yellow cab with six other people (Chuck not among them), sitting on the lap of a man named Dwayne (who had the actual black power pick with the clenched fist handle protruding from his hair), and racing uptown to 57th street, A.K.A. the opposite direction of where I live. (Note to self: Do NOT go out drinking with the crew from the Joe).

Chuck asked me out several more times, and I turned him down several more times. My reasons were varied: he asked me out via text message instead of calling, we had nothing in common, he was far too young for me, I didn't want to date someone from work, etc, etc. In the midst of this flirtation, Chuck got promoted to supervisor, which means he is not allowed to date anyone who works in the same store with him, and he stopped asking for dates. I chalked it up to all for the best, since I couldn't even decide if I was attracted to him or not.

Over a year went by, during which we would periodically text or chat for a few days here and there. Or, we would go on break together occasionally. I always found him easy to talk to, though I could also find him extremely irritating. More than once, I deleted him from my phone. All of this culminated in Chuck being the one to take me to the emergency room when I fell at work at Thanksgiving, and since then, I have looked at him in a new way. I realized I was attracted to him, and even worse, that I actually liked him. After more than a month of negotiations (with him about our relationship potential), I transferred to the Brooklyn store in January, and we started to date in earnest.

Though I would definitely not classify myself as a high school teacher from Florida, or anything, this is not the first time I have dated someone younger. My senior year of high school, I dated a sophomore, which at a magnet school full of nerds is not as socially suicidal as it sounds. Also, my long term beau, Ryan, was four years younger than me. I never gave our age difference much thought until we went to see Prince in concert at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. He was performing for five nights, and every night, he had a different opening act, which was not posted or announced prior to show time. As the usher directed us to our seats, I asked who that night's opening act was and was thrilled when he said, "Morris Day and the Time." I turned excitedly to Ryan and said, "Did you hear that, Buddy? Morris Day and the Time!!!" He replied, "Morris who and the what now?" Other than that incident, though, there were few times when our slight age difference occurred to either of us, and our relationship lasted for nearly eight years. Our common desire not to reproduce was a significant contributing factor to the longevity of our relationship.

However, with Chuck, (or Charles, as I prefer to call him) the child issue has reared its ugly, baby-powder-smelling little head again. Not once, but several times. Chuck would really like to have a child, and I have long thought that I really wouldn't. Though having seen baby pictures of Chuck, I am willing to at least consider it (he was EXCEPTIONALLY adorable). But, this is a deal-breaker issue after all, and to that end, I have initiated a few serious discussions about it. After the last time we talked about parenthood, I had the following dream:

I was in labor, but rather than taking a taxi or ambulance, I was making the entire journey to the hospital in a wheelchair. Chuck was pushing me, and as we finally crossed the threshold of the emergency room, a nurse at a huge circular desk said, "Oh. Hello there, Ms. Wood. We were expecting you. Can I get you anything?" I said, "Yes. I want this exact CD (and I held up and shook a copy of a mixed disc that Chuck made me in real life), and some PLAN B, Goddammit!" The nurse responded, "Oh, I'm afraid it's a little late for that. You see, you're already in labor." I replied, "You asked me what you could get me, and I told you. I WANT the morning after pill, NOW!!!" The nurse insisted in an infuriatingly cheerful, singsong voice that it simply wasn't an option, and furthermore, that they had no CD's. I said, "Well, I guess I just won't get ANYTHING I want today!" Chuck started to push me towards the operating theatre (A big one, surrounded by stadium seats, and huge plexiglass windows - reminiscent of the Junior Mint episode of "Seinfeld", or a hockey rink), but to get there, we were required to descend endless cases of M.C. Escheresque stairs. It was a bumpy and disconcerting ride. A white coat-clad doctor was waiting at the bottom of the last flight of steps, and after merely glancing at me, he told me that my appendix was going to burst, and that we would have to take the baby out immediately, even though my labor had not progressed to the point of birth naturally. In the same, irritable voice I had used with the nurse, I yelled, "My baby should get to come out when SHE wants to, and not when YOU say she should!" "She should only come out when SHE'S ready!!!" Then, I woke up.

I'm no psychologist, but it seems pretty clear that I have some deep and conflicted emotions about becoming a parent. I know that those emotions are rooted in my experiences with my own parents, and that makes sense to me. I also know that I don't believe it is necessary to become a parent to be truly fulfilled in life. Even though this is by no means a decision I have to make right now, I do feel that it is a decision I need to ponder as I am not inclined to invest a lot of time in something that is doomed to fail because we know at the outset that we want different things.

Chuck is a truly wonderful person, and I have an attachment to him that is always surprising to me. We are constantly told how cute we are together. I would like to believe that age doesn't matter, but it probably does. We are in radically different places in our lives. He is juggling two careers - supervising at Trader Joe's, and being a hip hop producer (he has his own studio). We spend very little time together, especially now that I am also a supervisor at Trader Joe's (our average shift is ten hours, and usually a bit longer, not including commutes). And very often, lately, I feel like the me in my dream: a petulant child having a tantrum because she can't control things that are already WAY beyond her control.

My mood is no doubt influenced by the fact that I never expected to be managing a grocery store for a living, especially at this point in my life. There is zero shame in this occupation - it is a wonderful company to work for, and filled with great folks. It's just a different destination than I had envisioned for myself. A few days ago, when a customer came up to me and asked where she could find the "vanilla abstract," it gave me pause. I am not gonna lie. I took a minute to reflect on exactly what I want my life to look like.

Here's what I came up with:
I want to own a home (preferably a brownstone).
I want to write for a living.
I want to have a long term relationship with someone whose core values are in line with mine. Marriage is OK, but not necessary, as long as this partner and I are committed to sharing our lives together. (I am over the long separation bullshit, and the no time for the things that really matter crap. I have done those themes to death.) And, a single child is up for discussion, though I am making no promises.

I always believe that things happen as they should, so I am certain that reconsidering what I truly want in life is a big part of why I am in this particular job at this particular time, and in this particular relationship at this particular time. However, more and more recently, it seems that Chuck and I do not want the same things, and that saddens me. I genuinely love this guy, but I wonder: how do you know when something is irresolvable? At what point do you call it? How does anyone do a good job of caring for themselves and also caring for a partner? Everything seems a bit indecipherable to me just now. It seems that everyone I know is at some sort of crossroads, and struggling mightily. My big wish is for it to get MUCH easier for us all. Easy is something I could definitely have sex with, right now. Definitely.