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.