Archive for the 'The People in Your Neighborhood' Category


Hot August night

A familiar face peered out from the shelter of an open trunk. He was fussing with something inside, and he was trying to get my attention.

“Hey hey hey!” I shouted.

“Alex!” he called back. He knew my face but not my name. I didn’t remember his, either, so it seemed hypocritical to correct him. Continue reading ‘Hot August night’


Bottle job

The free hooch continues to roll in like manna from heaven.

I was out back watering the garden this morning when I heard my neighbor call out to me.

“Jeffrey,” she called from the other side of the fence. “Jeffrey,” she said again.

“Yeah?” I answered.

“Oh—hi, Eric,” she said.

She must be in her 70s, and I know her eyesight isn’t so great, but her hearing is just fine.

Continue reading ‘Bottle job’


No plastic to go

My vegan wrap was something of a mess that day.

I’m not vegan. Nor am I remotely a vegetarian. I just occasionally take advantage of other people’s dietary principles to find something light and low-calorie, but filling and delicious, for lunch.

I would have taken it cold, but the girl at the cafe had thrown it on the panini grill so resolutely, so automatically and with no room for questioning or debate, that it seemed unthinkable to say anything against it. Anyway, once something has started heating, you don’t want it to take it half-heated. You might as well go all the way.

When I unwrapped it at my office and took the first bite, a dried-up chickpea fall onto my desk. It left behind an indentation in the tortilla, so I guessed it had been stuck to the outside and likely had cooked on the grill that way. Probably the order directly before mine had come undone or lost a few bits and pieces as it was removed.

I picked up the chickpea and ate it.

Then I was surprised by a dried cranberry. It was stuck to the tortilla like a jewel. I took it with a bite as if it belonged there. Could I really say it didn’t belong there? No big deal.

I don’t like to be particular, but I amused myself with fantasies of a different me — one who might be bothered by a stray chickpea in his lunch and an errant dried cranberry encrusted on his tortilla. Continue reading ‘No plastic to go’


Hung up on rudeness

An old Asian man talking on a cell phone—I think he was speaking Chinese—entered the 23 bus heading north into Center City. He sat behind a black woman.

The second his cheeks hit the seat, she half-turned, never quite looking at him, and yelled to … I don’t know, the opposite wall, maybe, “I know you ain’t gonna sit behind me yapping into that thing at me!” Her eyes were wide, her lips stern.

Continue reading ‘Hung up on rudeness’


Movin’ Out

It’s always amusing to me when someone else tells me how gay people behave. I can never decide if I should congratulate them on their acute powers of observation, or if I should point out that, being gay myself, I have some familiarity with the subject.

I was fussing with the window boxes in front of our house on a recent Saturday, when a neighbor approached me on the sidewalk.

“Hey, I gotta ask you something,” she said.

I rolled my eyes, dropped my moss roses and turned to her attention.

Several times a week, we can hear this woman slamming doors and yelling at her teenage son from five houses down. She calls him a piece of shit. She threatens to throw him out of the house. She curses like a sailor and carries on like she’s on the edge of a mental breakdown. Continue reading ‘Movin’ Out’


Here, kitty, kitty…

Thursday afternoon, on my way to the post office, I passed the fenced-in front grounds of a Catholic school in my neighborhood. The school day was over, so I was surprised to hear a woman’s voice inside the fence over the sound of my headphones.

She held the leashes of two dogs with one hand and her phone with the other. The dogs seemed agitated and restless, but she ignored them, carrying on as if she were talking to a girlfriend about her date last weekend or a sale at the Acme.

Ten paces further I saw a group of people clustered around a tree, each of them looking upward. None of them was wearing a coat, despite the snow and the cold. Glancing upward myself, I saw a cat, totally exposed in the leafless upper branches.

Two teenage girls were calling up to the cat, who seemed to be in no mood to come down. They held something up to it. It was white. It looked like a snowball, but I assumed it must be something else. Surely they were trying to coax it down with with something that would actually attract it.

“She’s scared. She senses the dogs nearby,” someone said.

No kidding. The dogs are as plain as day, and no more than 30 feet away. I guess it’s good that the woman is holding her dogs back, I thought, but as long as they’re there, whining and yipping, that cat is going to stay put. Doesn’t anyone watch cartoons?

Continue reading ‘Here, kitty, kitty…’


Of Coffee and Donuts and Half-Eaten Hoagies

On Election Day, I always have a soft spot in my heart for the volunteers working the polls. Every polling station has some variation of the same thing: a half dozen retirees, sitting on folding chairs, stationed at folding tables, a box of a dozen donuts on one side, a slowly cooling polystyrene cup of coffee on the other. They look over the rims of their glasses at you. They squint in the dull fluorescent, sometimes gently flickering, light.

Whatcha last name, hon?

Continue reading ‘Of Coffee and Donuts and Half-Eaten Hoagies’


Shave and a Haircut

MR. VANDERGELDER: I’ve got special reasons for looking my best today. Is there something a little extra you can do? A little special?

JOE: What?

MR. VANDERGELDER: You know, do some of those things you do to the young fellas. Smarten me up a little bit. Face massage. A little perfume water.

JOE: [shocked] All I know is fifteen cents’ worth, like usual. And that includes everything that’s decent to do to a man!

Hello Dolly!, 1964

At my last haircut, my barber made me an offer I regret turning down. He swiveled me to face the mirror, and held a hand mirror to the back of my head to show me the neat shape he’d made at the base of my skull. “Anything else?” he asked.

“Nope. That’ll do it,” I said.

He poked my chin suggestively. “A shave, maybe?”

I noticed earlier that day how scruffy I was looking. I was a little embarrassed, like my careless grooming was an affront to his professional sensibilities. I was curious about what it would be like to get a professional job, but it always seems like an extravagance. My mom always said she could never hire a maid, even if she could afford one, because she’d be too embarrassed to let a stranger into an untidy house. A haircut — sure I’ll pay someone to do that for me. I’d just make a mess of it by myself. But a shave I should be able to handle without help.

“Uh, no. No,” I said.

“Have you ever had a barber’s shave?”

“No. Actually, never,” I said.

“Oh, you should try it!”

But I was in a hurry. I didn’t have the time — even if he’d offered a freebie. And, I noted, he wasn’t offering.

I pretended to consider it. “Maybe next time,” I said.

“Definitely,” he said. It was emphatic. Like we had made an ice skating date or he had invited me over for stuffed cabbage. Like he was looking forward to it. “You should treat yourself every once in a while,” he continued. “And it’s very good for the skin. Opens up your pores.”

A man’s relationship with his barber is a solemn, sacred thing — intimate like a secret, as masculine as pissing your name in the snow. Sometimes it’s friendly, sometimes it’s just business. But it’s not merely a service. It’s a transaction of trust. It takes some letting go to sit back and allow another man to stroke a blade so close to a major artery. It makes that thin line between life and death much more appreciable.

But I admit to having a little bit of a crush on my barber, which can play tricks on the mind. My barber makes a living by laying his hands all over my scalp, my face, my chin and neck. My friends don’t even touch me so much.

Make no mistake, he’s straight. He opened a barber shop, he told me once, because he didn’t want the temptation of a ladies’ hair salon. And thank God, frankly. A gay barber would totally intimidate me, but to daydream about someone off limits is perfectly safe.

He’s not even what I would call handsome. But he has a dark, serious confidence that’s undeniably sexy. He’ll lean in and accidentally brush his chest against my ear. I can feel him breathing close. Sometimes I can catch an improper glimpse up his shirt sleeve at the hair under his arm. The thought of his hands on my chin, my eyes closed, my face steaming and tingling, his quick but gentle hand running that steady razor against my neck, is maybe a little too thrilling.


Without the Brown Bag

As often as I am at my local bar, which is, shall we say, not infrequently, he must be there even more often. I see him whenever I am there.

He’s one of those old timers. Been going there forever. I imagine he’s seen the place change owners over the years. And he rocks that same barstool day by day and year by year. He owns that stool. Should he leave it for a minute to take a leak and come back to find it occupied, he spares no one’s feelings to get it back, and he’ll hover and wait patiently, though almost indignantly, until he is reinstalled to his rightful place.

The bartenders indulge him. I don’t know what his limit is. And I can’t say what condition he arrives in, but by the time I get there, he is sitting propped up on a stool at the bar. Usually he’s sleeping, despite the loud Latin music. Or he seems to be sleeping, his head cocked to the side and chin thrust downward onto his chest. In front of him is a bundle of newspaper, a glass of red wine, and a glass mug of something resembling water. Someone once told me it was something stronger.

I never see him sipping the wine, but it goes by and by. He gets refills a couple of times a night, speaking only to the bartender.

He was thin as a younger man but is now filling out in his middle age, with short neat hair and round glasses. I once imagined he was an accountant or a lawyer. But his voice, deep and gruff like a truck driver’s, doesn’t seem to match his frame. Someone once told me he’s a doorman in one of the more posh buildings nearby, but the only uniform I’ve seen him wear is an oversize gray sweatshirt and some baggy khaki pants.

He is harmless and inert. He inhabits his own world, and he occupies it grandly, passing an entire night without interacting with a soul, but he is as undeniable a presence as the pool table. He is a complete stranger, but as familiar as the cashier at the grocery store.

And for all his apparent alcoholism, who among us is better than he is? Our only advantage is that we are more animated, and we’re not there alone. But how often have I see that cash register inexplicably flash “Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning…” over and over and over, ad infinitum? How many times have I seen that single LED clock above the door click over past 3 a.m.? How often have I sat at that bar and not said a word?

So we don’t judge him, because it’s too much like looking at ourselves. Why do you think there are so many mirrors in a bar? We just leave him be. Who knows the circumstance and the moment of weakness that could deliver any one of us to where he is now. I don’t know his name. And I feel no need to sentimentally “give” him one. We just wonder out loud about him like we’re observing a passive zoo animal or objectively analyzing a piece of art. I don’t think he hears us.


Dancing Lessons

Considering the years I’ve lived in the very South American section of Jackson Heights, it is embarrassing to admit that I still cannot comprehend the difference between salsa, meringue, mambo, rumba… you name it. But whatever it is I hear at any given moment, there is a lot of it. It is blasted from cars stopped at traffic lights. It pours out of the multitude of bars and clubs peppering Roosevelt Avenue. It comes in pops and beeps from cell phone ring tones in the line at Rite Aid.

It is not an occasional indulgence; it is blended into the fabric of every day life.

Walking home from the subway one night last week, I heard familiar tones and felt familiar beats — even if I can’t name it, it is familiar — coming from … somewhere. A parked car? A stereo speaker in someone’s kitchen window? Looking for the source, I saw families gathered on the sidewalk a block ahead. It was like church had just let out, but it was after 10 p.m.

Kids ran among cars parked at meters. Adults stood around smoking and chatting and laughing. As I neared them, I saw that they were standing outside a beauty shop. And why should I be surprised? Usually when I arrive in my neighborhood after work, most of the shops are locked down and shuttered, but this place was the quintessence of street life.

A flashy LED sign made a sequence of optimistic declarations about fingernails and makeovers and French hairstyles, punctuated by blocky images of blinking eyes and vibrating telephones. The place can’t have been more than 10 feet wide, but it was very deep. The walls were painted a bright orange in sharp contrast to the dull linoleum of the floor, and across the ceiling were scattered bouquets of pink helium balloons tied with white ribbons. It was a beauty shop block party, and it was hopping! People grouped in pairs spun and bobbed, butting up against each other, bouncing literally off of the wall. Others sat in a row of chairs against the other longs walls, old, uncoordinated, or just catching their breath.

Where was the equipment? The chairs, the vanities, the nail tech stations. Where, in other words, was the beauty shop? It didn’t strike me until after I had rounded the corner that the place hadn’t been there the day before. This must have been a grand opening. In my part of town, a grand opening can last a month.

I wondered how keen the neighbors were to have their local hairdressers and a hundred of their best friends livin’ la vida loca outside their bedroom windows. But for all I knew, their windows were closed, because they were down here bumping and grinding with everyone else.

My family is one of those for whom dancing is something that happens after you hit the bar at a wedding. Maybe. Occasionally, it seems appropriate for someone else to do — up on a stage — if someone’s paying them to do it. Dancing for us is not a way of life. It does not happen spontaneously. It is not necessary for social interaction. Indeed, it is not even wanted in most cases. It does not bubble beneath the surface of our skin and jerk us into sudden, joyful animation when three sounds in sequence (a tapping pencil, a squeaky brake pad, a palm against the side of a garbage can) form a rhythm. We are not a people of gyrating hips and deep shoulders and clapping palms. And at times like this, when a neighborhood is brought together in a beauty shop not by a 10% discount on manicures or highlights or hair extensions but by salsa and pink balloons, I desperately wish that we were.

the untallied hours