Monday, August 24, 2009

Land of Wild Steeds and Miniature Men

Yesterday, Claire B. and I were told to dress-up: we were going to the races.

You see, Claire B's grandparents own three horses, which they keep and frequently race at Monmouth Park, NJ. They were heading to the Park that day (despite the fact that their horse had actually been pulled from the race) and invited us to tag along. How could we not? Horse racing is associated with so much popular imagery: binoculars, parasols, suit jackets and bow ties. There's Audrey Hepburn, sitting in the stands in her ostentatious black and white ball gown in "My Fair Lady"; there's Nicely Nicely who so famously bets on Paul Revere in "Guys and Dolls"; there's the alluring draw of the betting tables that propels the action in "The Sting"; there's the legend that was Seabiscuit and the legend that will one day be Barbaro; and, of course, there's the beautifully muscled steeds, captured mid-run by Degas and his quick-moving paintbrush. So there we were. Dressed in our Sunday best, Claire B. and I were at the races.

It was what I expected, at first: large white buildings, people in elegant straw hats, well-manicured greens and signs above the betting tables that boasted "cigars, snacks and air conditioning." The park had a very traditional feel to it.

Though, as we walked between rows of brightly colored lawn jockeys—those 12" statues featuring little white men in riding boots with fabulous posture—I couldn't help but think of an episode of "The Simpsons." It featured evil jockeys who resembled the Keebler elves... I couldn't get their chant out of my head: We are the jockeys, jockeys are we, we live underground in a fiberglass tree... The mythic prestige of going to the races was beginning to fade. By the time we sat down in our box above the crowd, it was nearly gone.

While somehow grand and illustrious, horse racing was also somewhat absurd. Each person in attendance was given a pamphlet, which detailed the ranking, age, gender, family lineage and genetic make-up of creatures with names that sounded like cheesey romance novels—"True Love," "Little Dovefeather," "Meadow Blue"—and names that were just ridiculous in nature—"Essence of Time," "Hanna Banana," "Indian War Dance." Then, of course, there were the names that were just plain obscure: "Thenputitback," "Hobbitinthehole," "Myprincesssallyson." Imagine men in panama hats, holding thick cigars, and saying in deep raspy voices, "I've got $200 on 'Little Dovefeather,'" or the announcer yelling, "'Hobbitinthehole' falls back and 'Myprincesssallyson' takes the lead!" What a mouth full. (Meanwhile, I couldn't stop the jockey anthem from replaying in my head... We live underground in a fiberglass tree...)

Oddly enough, it wasn't until I stared down into the arena that the obscurity of the whole experience really set in. When you see a Degas, you see the horse at eye-level, in the midst of intense action, and you see a fiercely determined jockey hunched over on top. When you see a horse race from up in the stands, you see the horses and jockeys in action for about two minutes, but most of the time you see the interim; you see wild, chestnut-colored beasts unsaddled, walking among little teeney men in shiny florescent uniforms. The contrast is surprising. It seems completely irrational.

I found it hard to make sense of such a strange confluence of dissimilar things: bombastic gamblers, sissy horse names, Eliza Doolittle, Keebler elves, wild steeds and miniature men... but, in the end, I think that's what's most fun about going to the races.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Walla's Week in Review

It's been some time since I last posted, almost a week, in fact.  So instead of regaling you with several long-winded accounts of my no doubt intriguing daily observations, I'll sum up the past week as such:

1.  Important realization: always have cash — you're way behind the times, New York, learn to accommodate people who only have plastic. (Haven't you heard of saving the planet?  Not wasting paper?  Sheesh.  Side note: no recycle bins on the sidewalks of NY, either... I mean, I know I went to college in hippie town, CA, but come on...)

2.  People in Hoboken are really nice! — went to a café without cash (whoops) and didn't have enough change for the $3 small coffee I ordered, but the nice woman standing next to me graciously threw down three bills (then proceeded to giggle uncomfortably while repeating this mantra: "pay it forward, right?  just pay it forward... ha ha ha, haha..."  I thanked her and promised to do the same.)

3.  People in Hoboken are also really funny — passed a guy on the street the other day whose facial complexion matched the color of his shorts: salmon.  (He also had on a muted lilac colored t-shirt, which made him look like a bruise in loafers.)

4.  Sometimes people actually do meet your expectations — my friend Megan and I approached a guy at a bar: "has anyone ever told you that you look like Buddy Holly?"  Sure enough, as soon as Megan had accessed the album art on her iPod, we held the palm-sized screen up to said guy's face and, yes, the resemblance was uncanny. (I mean, really: the glasses were an added bonus). 

Thus concludes Walla's Week in Review.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Claire B Weighs In

Today I'm going to get the keys to the Claire Lair. I hope.
I called Semyon, our lovely, yet incomprehensible, Russian broker for the super's phone number. Joe, the super, or Super Joe, we'll call him, is a pretty nice guy. In fact, he was the one who showed us the apartment in the first place. Even Super Joe said he'd be delighted to have us, the Claires, as tenants. Then again, who wouldn't?

So, step one: get Super Joe to call me back
Step two: get the keys from Super Joe
Step three: rejoice!

If all goes well, we'll begin moving some things in this Saturday. Mostly small stuff like decor, books, and a few big bags of clothing. Just think of it: two weeks from now, we'll be completely moved in! The thought of it thrills me to the core!

Of course once that happens, we'll be able to write about all sorts of interesting apartment-happenings. What those are remains to be seen, but rest assured that they will be riveting accounts, full of action and witty banter.

I'll be in the neighborhood after work anyway, visiting my pseudo-step-sister, Coralina, in Prospect Park South. Ditmas Park is an easy hop down from there. Anyhow, Coralina has spearheaded this arts festival called The Last Supper for the last few years, and the next festival is coming up in September for its fifth year running. It is a smorgasbord of art, music, food, and film. A cultural miasma and a feast for the senses. I've been delegated a smattering of tasks, including, but not limited to, editing press releases, finding sponsoships, compiling letters of collaboration, and really just keeping up on Coralina and helping her get things done. It's a huge effort and everyone is so passionate about what they're doing that it's hard not to love.

In any case, if all goes well, I will have the keys in hand by the end of the day to our new apartment. I'll just stand there, in sunny silence, imagining the empty space and white walls brought to life in the coming weeks by the presence of Claire and Claire.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What is sophistication, anyway?

I just got back from seeing "The Animal Collective" live in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  While this was my first time seeing the band perform, it was also my first introduction to their music, as well as this musical genre.

Wikipedia describes it as "freak folk" or "noise pop"—I think either will suffice.  The night's performance consisted of three guys: one stood behind some electronics with a headlight attached to his floppy head (it looked as though his skull was filled with sand and his neck made of cloth), another stood in a striped shirt and baseball cap hunched dramatically over a guitar or a percussion instrument while swaying evenly with the beat, and the third wore an enormously oversized white t-shirt and hummed long-winded notes while creating rhythms at the touch of a button.  The music defied norms.  With 20 min. crescendoes and endless repetition, it was two hours of sound—mostly unintelligible, and absolutely without end.

To be quite honest, it reminded me of the Teletubbies.

To those who've seen the show, perhaps you were as bothered as I was to constantly hear those space-aged, pot-bellied creatures exclaim, "Again, again!" after every single movement.  Tinky-winky picks up his frickin' man-purse and Lala's over there shouting: "Again, again!"  And he proceeds to go through these simple mechanics nearly a dozen times.  Personally, it made me want to stick my fingers in my eyes.  But little kids went absolutely bonkers every single time that damn motion got repeated.

It wasn't so dissimilar at the show tonight.

Lyrics, notes, rhythms... they're all repeated endlessly, and it seemed the crowd got even more excited the longer these sounds persisted.  I didn't want to seem square—I had just read about Stravinsky's opera, The Rite of Spring, and how on opening night its acrimonious melodies caused riots in the theatre because it sounded so unconventional (though really it was just 'progressive')—I wanted to interpret this music with an air of sophistication.  But, I found myself thinking the same thing I did when I saw the Teletubbies: "Oh my god, seriously?  Again?"  

It makes you wonder what sophistication truly means.  Is "The Animal Collective" really a genre-defying breakthrough, and am I just a square?  Or, does the music just tap into the same impulses that made us happy when we were children?  I don't know.  But, it's funny to think that maybe the only thing dividing the Teletubbies from "The Animal Collective" is the pungent smell of quality bud.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Crowds: What Luck

Today on the subway I was reading about 'the man who mistook his wife for a hat,' a.k.a. Dr. P (this man's neurological condition was first discovered and documented by neurologist Oliver Sacks, but I read about it in Jonah Lehrer's book Proust was a Neuroscientist).  

Anyway, in the chapter that explains the phenomenon of sight, Lehrer explains that light enters the retina in a series of lines and then gets processed through the visual cortex of the brain, which ends up producing what most people know to be a clearly identifiable image.  But, due to a cortical lesion, "Dr. P's eyes received virtually no input from his brain.  He saw the world solely in its unprocessed form, as labyrinths of light and masses of color," (108).  This is why, when reaching out for his hat, Dr. P made the mistake of grabbing his wife's face.

I was thinking about this strange condition after getting off the subway in Union Square, while pushing through crowds as thick as Porterhouse steak trimmings.  Making my way through this blockage was challenging enough, but then I thought: what if everything around me just suddenly turned into blobs of light and color?

It would be impossible for me to live in New York.  

I think the next time I'm cursing the inconsiderate masses under my breath while fighting for my own little piece of the sidewalk, I'll remember Dr. P and remind myself that I should feel so lucky to even see a piece of sidewalk worth fighting for.  In the long run, I'd much rather be in a position to dodge annoying people than to inadvertently reach out and grab their faces.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Claire Lair Lives!

Just hours ago, Claire and I got word from our Russian broker, Seymon (pronounced Sí-mon), that our credit has been approved: as of Thursday, Aug. 14 our little 2-bedroom dream in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn will be a reality!  

It's perfect: the walking path from the Courtelyou subway stop to our little hide-a-way includes several very important features, like a bar/flowershop (yes, the two are connected... novel idea, huh?), a health food store / restaurant (for when we're feeling particularly vegan), and a coffee shop... a real coffee shop!!  These damn places were my sanctuaries in California and you have no idea how hard they are to find in New York.  (Well, at least in the neighborhoods we've been able to afford living in.)  Ah, internet and a hot cup of Joe... here I come.

And yet, while it does evoke undertones of perfection, this recent event in our NY lives does prompt some very important questions:

1. Was it necessary to go through a broker?

2. How will Claire W. pay rent if she doesn't yet have a job?

3. If we had waited, would we have found something better?

Not sure on any of these just yet... but I'm pretty certain that this is one of the most exciting things that's happened to us since I stepped off the plane.  And I'm not exactly sure how Claire B. feels about this particular part of the plan—in fact, I'm pretty sure she doesn't share my enthusiasm for this bit—but I am so psyched to finally have the chance to invite people over to the "Claire Lair"!


The Things I See When I Jog

I've been here nearly three weeks, but I already have a regular jogging route through the streets of Hoboken.  Although, today it was anything but.  

On Sunday a small commuter plane and a helicopter crashed in mid-air over the Hudson River, just next to my seaside jogging path.  It reminded me of US Airways Flight 1549, which had flown into the Hudson back in January; that incident I had only read about in the LA Times—this I got to see first-hand.  (I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't excited to be a part of the action.)  As I jogged, I passed cop cars, NJ emergency medical vehicles, fire engines and white news vans with space-aged satellites perched on top; I also passed docks that jetted out into the river—one in particular rested behind yellow police tape and flocks of cops because it held what looked like remnants from the collision that had been recovered by divers and tow-boats.  Embarrassingly enough, I had the gall to connect this visual to my secret television obsession: "Dexter."  This is the show that chronicles the life of a Miami Metro homicide dept. blood analyst who moonlights as a murderer... it's so annoyingly intriguing it makes me want to be a blood analyst, too.  (But not a murderer, thank god.)  I wanted to be Dexter Morgan, to walk out onto that jetty and investigate all the bits and pieces that lay there as evidence of what had happened.

That is, I did until I hit the swarm of media personnel, all standing with their faces affixed to eye pieces and lenses that were tightly focused on that empty space in the water between all of the police boats.  It was just a wall made up of the backs of people's heads, with the intermittent glowing face of a bright-eyed newscaster holding a microphone, there to narrate the story.  I couldn't hear what any of them were saying, but the man standing next to me had a radio with him: "Two bodies have been found."  And with that, I didn't want to listen anymore.  This was not like reading about it in the Times, or watching it on TV, and it certainly wasn't like watching "Dexter."  I was 100 feet away from the wreckage of a crash that killed nine people; I saw the police boats swaying in the water, I heard the water lapping against the shore, and I realized that beneath those subtle waves, just 100 feet away from me, there were two people—not just bodies, but people.  From behind the stoic wall of print and broadcast news affiliates who wouldn't take their eyes off of the site for a moment, I felt kind of sad.

And I felt bad for stopping, for being intrigued by this kind of event, and waiting along with everyone else for something to just happen.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Apartment Hunting

We've set our sights on Brooklyn: yes, because we have very little money and thus have no choice, but also because we come from Santa Cruz, the land of hipsters, coffee shops, grungy neighborhood bars and bicycles... Claire B's current digs (Hoboken: land of joggers, strollers, high heels and men with briefcases chugging beer) offers very little of that.  

After a depressing Sunday stroll through Bushwick—which, despite its geography, is about the furthest thing from hip, happening Williamsburg on the planet—we discovered Ditmas Park, an affordable neighborhood off the Q train with a left-leaning coffee shop and only a mere fraction of the misery that permeates Bushwick.  So we ransacked Craigslist with as much gusto as we could muster and made appointments to view some of the apartments in the area.  

Six days, 12 apartments and one rejection later, it was Friday.  Claire B. had the day off so we decided to hit the streets.  In the day and age of websites, e-mails and text messages, we walked the concrete grid of Ditmas Park and rang doorbells to inquire about vacancies.  After four hours, several inquiries and about 40 blocks, we were apt to call it a day.  

But on our way to the subway, something caught our eyes: a large, gothic, fortress-like apartment complex with the sculpted faces of biblical figures (or pompous nobles?) nestled into the walls of the building.  We had to check it out.  As we searched for the super's call button, the front door slowly began to open.  Behind it stood a tall black man with thick-rimmed glasses, a bow-tie, a white collared tuxedo shirt beneath a patched leather vest, salmon colored pants and white oxford shoes: he was dapper in a bohemian sort of way.  Instead of a cane, he held a single crutch beneath his left arm.  If I were to give him a name it would be Chauncey or Percy, because he spoke with the most fine-tuned British accent I've ever heard outside of a Monty Python comedy routine.

"Hellooo?  May I help you sort out some matter?"

We explained that we were just in the neighborhood searching for two-bedroom apartments and wondered if there was anything in this building.  He let us in.  The lobby had a fireplace in the center and dark hardwood floors; it was very dim, which made it seem even more like we had just stepped into his fictional world of wilted British aristocracy.

"Yes, you'll want to speak with 'Mare-io' about this, he's just downstairs.  There."

Mario, apparently, was the super.  Claire B. spoke with him briefly, but was told that the building did not have vacancies.  We returned the the lobby and proceeded to tell Chauncey/Percy about our day, and the harrows finding a decent apartment for a decent penny.

"I don't know why in the name of heaven prices have gone so high," Chauncy/Percy said with a look of distain on his face.  But then he grinned, letting his front teeth rest on his bottom lip.  

"Just don't be despondent,"  he told us.  [Note: I've never ever heard someone use this word in a sentence before.]  "Yes.  You'll find something.  It's really quite simple."  He grinned.  We thanked Chauncey/Percy for his sage wisdom, then went on our way.

We left Ditmas Park without an apartment, but we also left with even more of a reason to return... we had just met a man with a bow-tie and white oxfords, who relied on a single crutch and and a fake British accent to get through his day... This is why I left that quiet mountain town in the peaks of California and came to New York, and this is why Claire B. and I are so keen to move to Brooklyn—to increase the chance that our days might be peppered with character, and our ears treated to the old fashioned sounds of words like "despondent."

(Our apartment hunt resumes on Monday.)