Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Summoning the Lamest Most Useful Excuse

So I made a lot of promises on my old blog that I didn't exactly, uh, keep. Stuff like I'd finish posting entries through the end of my service last July. Well, six months later, it doesn't look like that will ever happen. If it does, maybe I'll invite everyone over for a party.

Then, in August, I decided to start a new blog - this one. Except the lamest, most useful excuse for not having to keep any promises happened: grad school. Since then I've spent every minute studying studying studying, except for those times when I didn't, which was a lot of the time. Now, three unwritten papers and two finals are staring me in the face from next week. How many ways can I procrastinate?

Way number one: Revive that blog.

Just ignore the large gaps in posting dates and we'll still be friends.

Freeze Tag

I was walking home from campus tonight, Paul Simon style. You know, slip sliding away, because the city doesn't throw salt on icy sidewalks in working-class neighborhoods.

It's just begun to snow this year. Tonight I made the observation that snow is not only a great way to cover up all the street bum piss and dog crap and rat drool coating the sidewalks, but it's also a beacon for half-hearted graffiti artists: People in my neighborhood tag the layer of new snow on cars.

In general I don't really appreciate the artistic value that graffiti may have. I don't see it as somehow beautiful yet edgy, as an insightful expression of a thriving urban youth culture. It may be all those things. But I'm just a grumpy old lady. In my day, we inhaled paint; we didn't spray things with it.

Either way, I feel like tagging isn't even graffiti. It's just cliche. Everyone does it. How is that a form of self-expression? And tagging in a thin layer of snow? Even lamer.

So "ACE" tagged the hood of a blue Oldsmobile. And when I rounded the corner, someone had tagged a minivan window with the words "death note." I mean, if you're trying to be bad ass, don't sound like you're in your kitchen labeling jars with Post-Its.

"Wheat germ."

This is one of those posts that's going to reveal me as idiotically middle class.

Monday, September 3, 2007

From the Roach Motel

Well, orientation is over and classes start tomorrow. Overall assessment so far: I chose the right program. I chose the wrong neighborhood.

I'm cranky. So far nearly everything has failed to happen in any remotely simple or straightforward way. My stuff still hasn't arrived from San Francisco, so I'm wearing the same jeans every day. I don't have any clothes to workout in, or shoes to run in, and my beloved bike may or may not be intact once it arrives. Renovations on my new apartment were supposed to be finished three weeks ago, but the hallway and corners are still lined with large buckets of various adhesives and paints, floorboards, siding, shelves, toolboxes, and stacks of tiles, all waiting to be pasted or nailed into their proper resting place.

Also, we have a roach problem. This is nothing new in New York, of course, but I didn't expect "having a roach problem" to mean:

Roaches crawl into the fridge for us to discover after they've died of frostbite.

Roaches crawl out of my laptop keyboard.

Roaches crawl out of my garbage can where there wasn't even any food.

Roaches crawl out of the drain.

Roaches crawl across my arm while I'm lying in bed at night.

New Yorkers always say the same thing when I say I think I have a roach problem: "Are you sure it's not a water bug?"

Why make a distinction? I'm told water bugs look exactly like giant cockroaches and make rude appearances in places where they're not supposed to.

"Oh, you're right, they're water bugs. I guess I don't have a problem after all."

I Left Kenya To Come To Kenya. I'm not the only person who's had this reaction to the male attention we get in the neighborhood. A friend who lived in southern Africa for four years said, "I feel like I'm back in southern Africa." Another friend who lived in the Mission in San Francisco said, "I thought I escaped the Mission when I moved to New York, but I moved to this neighborhood." Yet another friend said, in a dreamy voice, "I feel like I'm somewhere in Latin America."

Everywhere I go, unemployed men stare and emit a broad spectrum of caveman noises. People beg me for money. Men sneer "Chinita" when they pass me. I was so eager to leave Kenya and the infantile taunting perpetrated by grown adults, only to return to the States and experience the exact same harrassment, but in a new language. The up side: I recently discovered that I do understand one Spanish word: pendejo.

And Yet, It's So Unlike Kenya. Friday and Saturday nights in my neighborhood are for pulling your sagging couch onto the sidewalk, blasting the car stereo, and drinking 40s with the neighbors while watching the kids fight with each other. Every other night of the week is for kids in their 20s to inexplicably choose to gather right in front of my building at 3am, scream at volume ten, fight at at volume ten, scream abusive monologues at boyfriends or children at volume ten, or throw cardboard boxes at passing cars while laughing at volume ten.

Anyway, all of this means one thing: readjustment is going to take awhile. I haven't even had a chance to process the last two years in Kenya, and I'm already building a hefty collection of disorders after two weeks in New York.

More On The Expensive Thing. I'm discovering that New Yorkers have quite a talent for finding cheap or free stuff, which I suppose you'd have to develop to survive here. My student ID gets me into tons of museums for free, including the Met and Cloisters. I can also get $12 rush tickets to the symphony and $25 tickets to Broadway shows.

I've had a few moments when New York has started to strike me as an amazing place - when I was wandering through the maze of galleries at the Met the other day, when I stepped out of the Columbus Circle subway station one evening not expecting to see the lights of the buildings and Trump Tower reflecting off the Lincoln Center globe, when I walked across Bryant Park at night, when I sat in the spectacular cavernous reading rooms at the New York Public Library.

I've also learned some valuable lessons in my fortnight here. Most importantly, I'm never going to pay for drinks at a bar or restaurant again. The average poorly-made drink at a bar is $8-$10, but it's not unusual to pay $15, and when you reach the bottom of the glass, you're still sober. Only a moron would fall for that for more than two weeks. From now on this clever one is investing in a flask and an overcoat with an inside breast pocket for nights on the town.

If you buy a 7-day unlimited Metro Card, you have to ride at least 15 times ($1.60 per ride) to make it cheaper than buying a 6-ride card for $10 ($1.66 per ride).

Monday, August 27, 2007

Readjustment Begins

For the last few months people have been assuring me that I’m going to love it here. Most of those people get really excited and jealous for me.

“You’re so lucky. I loooove New York. You’re going to love it, too.”

So I’m still waiting for the love to hit. I don’t think it’s just that I’m constantly comparing it to San Francisco, either. Even if I weren’t in love with San Francisco, I doubt I’d be falling in love with New York City instead.

I still don’t understand how so many people love it here. I think people who say this are rich, single, hyperactive insomniacs. I don’t understand how so many people who aren’t rich manage to survive here. Everything is ridiculously expensive. I live in a neighborhood with no shortage of 99 cent stores, tiny bodegas crammed with low-end brands of basic household items and unhealthy foods, street vendors selling seasonal fruit for “cheap,” and plenty of poor people. I’m told that what I pay here is cheaper than what I’d pay in most other parts of Manhattan. And yet a pint of strawberries is $2. The cheapest avocado I’ve found is $1.19, but normally they’re $2. A slice of pineapple on a stick is $1. I realize that these prices aren’t outrageous, but when people say “cheap” I’d expect them to be lower than what I’d pay at Safeway.

So far my days have been not unlike my time in Kenya. Mood swings are common. I thought that I’d come back to the States and never have to deal with being harassed again. I’m realizing that before Kenya, I somehow managed to live my entire life surrounded only by the 0.001% of men in the world who don’t leer, whistle, drool and mutter rude comments at every woman who crosses their unemployed line of sight.

I walked to campus this morning to get my student ID and it felt a lot like ten blocks of Kenya. By the time arrived and I got in line for the photo, I was seething and gritting my teeth, imagining what it would be like to squeeze someone’s neck tightly in my fingers, not unlike many walks to the market in Kenya.

My ID photo, by the way, is hideous. I didn’t even crack a smile. I look like I’m visualizing choking a man, which I think I was.

Later I decided to go to Koreatown to see if the sticker shock would be any better. Chinatown is on the far end of the island from me, but I wanted to stock up on some basic Asian groceries. I brought my iPod for the subway, and realized that it’s a great way to block out all the idiot men drooling and staring on the street. With headphones stuffed into my ears, I’d meet their gaze and see their mouths moving, revealing rotting teeth, but to me, they sounded exactly like Tina Turner singing, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it?” Mood=happy.

I found a Korean grocery store on 32nd Street with everything I was looking for, and more: Japanese rice, vacuum-packed tofu, soy sauce, bonito. Mood=very happy. Then I noticed the prices. Vacuum-packed tofu is $1.50?? I used to buy it for 79 cents in the Bay Area, not the world’s cheapest place to live. Mood=cranky.

Last night I went over to my brother’s place for dinner. I was, of course, complaining about how expensive groceries are here. I mean, food is a basic necessity, and healthy food is a basic human right. It should not be priced as if only rich people have the right to eat well. I wonder if I qualify for food stamps?

“Fairway probably has the best produce and selection,” my brother said. “And it’s cheaper than most other grocery stores.”

“What?” I said, exasperated at food prices for the 500th time. “The first time I went there I thought it was one of those upscale gourmet places with matching gourmet prices.”

“Yeah I don’t know how so many students afford to live in New York City,” he said. “If you find out, let me know.”

I called Kumiko when I got home, hoping she’d tell me that I was experiencing reverse culture shock after Africa. I was really hating this place so far.

“Oh my God,” I said. “Tofu is $1.50 in Koreatown!! That’s ridiculous.”

“Uh, if you keep thinking like that, nothing’s ever going to seem cheap here,” she said.

Ah. The key to being able to afford to live in New York is to reprogram your concept of affordable. Two dollars for a pint of fruit is cheap! Four dollars for a pound of chicken is cheap! $1,000 a month to live in a shoebox with two other people is cheap!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Snooping Around On Someone Else’s iPod

It’s amazing how music taps into a part of your emotional memory that few other things can. I’m staying at Christine’s place while I pack up my stuff and visit friends before moving to NYC. This morning I saw her iPod and decided to poke around her music collection. She has a massive selection of cheesy 80s music! I love it! Remember that song “I’ll Be There” by Escape Club?

Don’t be afraid,
Oh my love,
I’ll be watching you from above,
I’d give all the world tonight to be with you,
Cause I’m on your side,
I still care,
I may have died but I’ve gone nowhere.
Just think of me,
And I’ll be there.

What a tear-jerker. It conjures up all the feelings of loss that I’ve ever had in recent and not-so-recent memory, the losses in life that are permanent and irreversible. Not necessarily people who’ve died, but people, places and ways of life that only exist in my memory. Like childhood – the comfort and predictability of going to school, being taken care of by my parents, my biggest worries whether I’d pass chemistry or miss the bus or be ready for my piano recital.

I think I’m feeling an impending sense of loss from leaving San Francisco, on Friday, for the third time in my life, and this makes the song particularly relevant. I’ve just arrived in the one place that always feels like home, and now I’m leaving it for New York City, a town that I think I outgrew in my early 20s. It’s too fast, too loud, too intense, too crowded, too stinky, too dirty. And I’m too old.

[Rewind a little.] What really opens the floodgates about this song is the idea that loss is never complete. “Just think of me, and I’ll be there.” There’s comfort in being told that this person, this place, this part of your life, will always be a part of you even if there’s no evidence of it anymore. Human memory gives life to things when nothing in our physical world can.

There’s something both hopeful and tragic about this to me. Memories are powerful. They make you who you are, and who other people are to you. They give emotional significance to what you know. That’s why I’m an expert at manipulating my own memories to make certain things less painful. But when things change in our lives, when people move in and out of it, when we leave or return to places, our memories – not photos, letters, or other artifacts – are what preserve the things that physical loss can’t take away from us. And memories live more strongly when other people share them with us. But if a memory fades, the loss becomes complete.

And then I found “YMCA” on Christine’s iPod, and I thought of the time I was in an internet cafĂ© in Kenya. Charles, another Peace Corps volunteer, and I were killing time waiting for a bus to Eldoret. I was pre-occupied with an email when this song came on the radio, but as the chorus came up Charles poked his head over his monitor and said, “Are you ready?” Without missing a beat, and still in our chairs, we both started singing and spelling with our arms in time to the music.

“It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A!”

“It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A!”

The guy working there didn’t even crack a smile or stare. That’s when you know you’ve really crossed a line in the host culture, when you’ve done something so shocking that a Kenyan completely suppresses any reaction so as not to appear distraught by you.

Young man, there's no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, 'cause you're in a new town
There's no need to be unhappy.