Thursday, May 14, 2009

Life in Williamsburg: Alberto

His name is Alberto. Probably around 4o years old...maybe less than that, many people in this neighborhood seem to age prematurely. He works at the laundromat down the street that I go to. I had seen him there twice in the spring, and each time he was very welcoming and had a big smile on his face. Once I was there with Lucas, and they spoke in Spanish with each other...I was impressed by Lucas' hidden talent, but more importantly admired his ability to speak with this man in his native is such a beautiful sign of respect, one that Alberto probably rarely receives from hipsters in our neighborhood...

Upon my return I had laundry to do and had hoped to see Alberto, but alas he was not there. I realized that having a regular laundromat I went to, and knowing one of the workers, by face at least, helped provide me with a sense of community. Ever since coming back, each time I walk past, I look inside to see if he is working. I have seen him several times and each time we have made eye contact and waved. It always feels like a nice gift, like somebody here knows me and is acknowledging my presence...I have only come to understand the importance of this after living in such a big city where you pass thousands of people each day without the slightest form of a "hello."

Tonight as I walked home from the gym, I thought to myself, "If that man is working tonight I am going to go inside and thank him." So I peaked inside and there was his smiling face... You should know, his smile is not conventionally beautiful. He has probably never worn braces or had much dental work, but it is the kind of smile that makes his whole face glow...I walked right in and said, "Hi, we see each other all of the time, and I just wanted to know what your name is?"

He was surprised, but pleased I think, "Alberto. And what is your name?"

"My name is Mitch." I then continued to pour out a very poorly articulated "thank you for existing" speech, which sounded something like, "my family lives in California, and I've been trying to make it out here, back and forth all year, and I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate that you are always smiling, you really make me feel at home here..." blah blah was one of those cathartic moments, where you just let the dam go and see what happens...He just kept smiling, said a "thank you" and asked if I lived in the neighborhood.

I told him I lived just down the street. And we both suggested the other have a good night...

I am amazed by this man. I don't really know anything about him, but I can assume he has a family and probably doesn't see himself changing jobs any time soon. A relatively simple life, folding clothes as Spanish soap operas play on the crappy TV up in the corner...I just needed to let him know that I know he exists....and I am thankful for his smile...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tales from Times Square: You should really get a life

The following is just one example of a conversation I have had dozens of times while on the job...

"You should really get a you hear me? Take that sign down." She was maybe 16 and standing with perhaps a couple of sisters or friends and her mother, as I walked past to meet friends.

"Actually, this is my job."

"Well then you should get a real job." Her mother decided to chime in. It is amazing the anger that comes out at a stranger just walking down the street with a sign on his back reading "OBAMA CONDOMS." People have some kind of pent up anger at the world...What is amazing is that many of the people who are the most, ahem, critical of my work are usually the conservative, moral, religious type. Correct me if I am wrong, but didn't Jesus say in a fairly famous scene from the bible, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?"

I defended myself, as I always do..."Ma'am. This is a real job, in fact, I probably make more money than you do...and what kind of job would you suggest? least I'm not selling drugs."

This, by my own admittance, only stepped up the energy in the exchange, as she responded, "No you don' do you know that?"

"I just made one-hundred and fifty dollars in the last hour." Aaaand check. First round to me. Round Two...

"Well you should get a degree." I love the assumption that anyone can just get a degree if they choose to. Clearly this woman lives in her own suburban reality, with no comprehension of socio-economics. I would love to see her take the A-train up to Harlem and tell the folks there to get a real job, or to get their degree...I'm sure she would get a nice ear full...Surely they could help her understand that not everyone has the financial means to attain their degree...

Little did this woman know though, her last retort set me up perfectly for the knock-out punch, "I have my degree already ma'am."

"Oh yeah, where is it from?"

"U. C. IRVINE." I made sure to say it nice and slow so it really sunk in.

Now, as if I were making this up, she tests me with the ultimate question, "Ok, so what's your degree in?"

"Theatre." I smiled, turned around and walked towards the lottery for Hair, where I was meeting some friends. As I looked away I could see her a little dumb-founded, and mumbling something, as people often do when they want to respond, but realize that they have already lost the argument...

As I like to tell people, I have already played by the rules of society. I grew up doing my homework, playing soccer and preparing for the future like every good upper-middle class white kid. I graduated High School a well-rounded young man with good grades, pushing the boundaries a bit, but never to the point of harming anyone. I went to college, a UC, and got my degree...I've done everything just as society has asked...and now, I will play by my rules...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tales from Times Square: Mother's (and sons) Day With Minnie, Sponge Bob and Lady Liberty

It was Mother's Day, and business was slow. Of course one of the benefits of this job is that I get to people watch. All day. And on top of that, I get to watch them respond to me, to the product, to my jokes...It is like a fun, interactive social experiment in which I get different responses every day. So it never gets too boring, usually.

One of the other gifts of this job is that on a daily basis I see nearly the entire spectrum of human life. People from literally all over the planet, with different cultures. I see stock brokers and business men, I see fellow vendors and homeless folks. In every size, shape and color. When I really let this sink in, I am very thankful for it. It is a constant reminder that there is no such thing as normal. An idea that I am part of the "main stream" is merely that, a concept developed in my mind to provide my ego and conscious, an identity and a sense of belonging. It has no basis in reality. And this is where suburban life fails. I grew up around a bunch of other middle-class white people who shop at Target and drive their own cars. The problem here is subtle, but after 18 years of seeing, hearing, believing in that surrounding, it develops this "idea" in my subconscious that most people are living the same way that I am. One cannot live in New York City and still harbor this concept in their mind. You see far too many distinct species of human beings to do so...Exposed to every rung on the socio-economic ladder.

On this particular day, there were a few beings that struck a chord with my soul. Not because I interacted with them. In fact it was for no other reason than that my glimpse into their existence immediately made me grateful for the gift of a life I lead. Reality check. My life is blessed.

First I should set the scene. Mother's day. 47th and Broadway in front of Starbucks. On my left is Minnie Mouse. On my right, the Statue of Liberty. Further down on the right is Sponge Bob Squarepants. And there I stood in the middle of these characters selling my condoms. We together formed some kind of sight from a distorted theme park, a bastardized Disneyland, if you will. Kids and families walked by this sight, which could only be found in New York City.

A young man who looked to be anywhere from age 9-12 walked by with his mother and an older sister. He was fairly tall, and wore glasses. He seemed happy to be in the city, but a little apprehensive. Totally understandable. His sister and mother encouraged him to take a picture with the Statue of Liberty. He obliged, walking over and following her gestured direction to take the torch and wear the cap...and then started talking, I was tuning it out a bit at first, but as he finished with the picture and his family was moving on he continued to talk to Lady Liberty, I heard him say, "You'd be surprised by what the french have accomplished. They made a painting of Napoleon on his horse that is so realistic..." At this point his mother hurried him along as he continued to spout out information about the french. This scene was very funny to me. This young man, who by now in my mind had some kind of a learning disorder or slight autism or something, was spouting off information about the french, just this little human being who probably knew more about France's accomplishments then 90% of our nation. But beyond this, I was amused by his uninhibited way of speaking to this person in costume as if it were a real person, with whom he was having a casual conversation with over a cup of coffee. All the while, unbeknownst to him, the human being inside the costume was a small older asian woman who hardly speaks a lick of language. (I know this because just prior to this I tried to engage her in conversation about dealing with the cops.)

Another son walking hand in hand with his mother. Only this man was clearly at least in his late 30's. He had the typical look of someone with Down syndrome. As he and his mother walked past towards Minnie, she urged him to shake Minnie's hand. He approached this character the way I approached the plate in little league: to be only as close as is necessary. (I stood on the far outside of the box for fear of being hit by a ball, this fear was completely justified because I was hit on nearly 75% of my at-bats.) As he extended his hand and the four fingered white glove reached toward him, his eyes lit up and with excitement he pulled back and turned right back into his mother. Off they walked into the magical, overwhelming world of Times Square. I tried to see myself relating to this man. The fear he battled as he went to connect with Minnie, I can look back proudly and say I conquered that fear at age 5 at Disneyland. Done. It is hard not to feel some sadness for this man. Confusing, a child's spirit in a grown man's body. Perhaps it is just a matter of expectations, and he does not expect that same things out of life that I do. And that's just fine for him.

Keeping with the theme of mothers and sons, I had moved spots, to the island in between Broadway and 7th on 47th, in front of the Olive Garden right at the top of Times Square. A young man sitting in an electric wheelchair, the kind that lean back a bit. Usually the people in them have no control of their movement. This 12-13 year old young latino boy did, he could move very easily, but maybe just couldn't walk...He and his mother seemed to be looking around kind of frantically. Eventually she had an empty soda bottle in her hand and I saw her pulling up the boy's shorts. At first I was alarmed, uncomfortable...then I realized he needed to go to the bathroom, and they probably couldn't find anyplace that would accommodate his wheelchair. So right there in the middle of everything, she fished his penis out of his pants, put it in the bottle and he urinated...When nature calls, I guess...I found myself trying not to stare, but my mind was being blown...And most fascinating was the fact that very few people even noticed, most just walked right past, without a second glance...He sat there and looked around, but with such comfort, with a look that said, "yeah, this is my reality. ok."

These thoughts swam through my mind: I can go to the bathroom whenever I want with very little difficulty. How does a young man relate to anyone, when his mother often has to help him go to the bathroom in such an intimate way? Surely no one can understand what that is like. I feel lonely? I don't know what lonely is...this guy, he understands lonely, he understands being "different." I have been given every possible gift...Everyday I take, what I consider to be such basic functions, for granted. There is no reason for me not to be living my dream...I have been given virtually no limitations. And there is nothing fair about that. I must only remember to be grateful. And thoughtful towards people with less...they surely don't want me to feel guilty, but only to acknowledge their challenged existence...Good God I am blessed...

Each one of these little scenes, seemed to kind of hit me in the chest...Nothing other than more observations, more food for I continue to shape the way I want to live my life. Informing my decisions and outlook on the planet, shaping my belief system....and the great thing is each day I get more of these...constantly changing my point of veiw, my seemingly solid thoughts on what is right or wrong, or true or false, all out the window the next day as some new experience or scene unfolds before my eyes...and I am thankful for these little gems from the universe...

...though I will admit sometimes I like to listen to pop punk music and remember what it was like to be in high school before my thoughts were so wide spread, and all of the sudden I am driving in my first car, a 1985 Buick SkyLark Limited, with the vinyl top which had been shreded by some cat's claws...and I am driving in the summer Sacramento Valley sun with the windows down and my thrift-store-t-shirt off, over to folsom to see my first real girlfriend...Christina Day...and I am simply happy to be driving a car, on my own, making decisions...God, just driving a car was exciting, and that thing was a real piece of work...but I was happy to wonder about our next sexual explorations, and fantasize about some fairytale summer romance that could last a life time...and I played through my mind the last water polo game I played in, how I scored that one goal...Who was that kid, so damn sure of himself? Just playing...freedom...God that was a beautiful time...