Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: August 2014

Fictional Characters of New York — #32

jealousy

It’s common knowledge in the Bronx that you don’t remain friends with your ex, but Xavier ached to prove the others wrong.  His ideas always ran contrary to common wisdom.  During his childhood, he prided himself on doing the opposite –he smoked pot to diss his parents, but went to St. Nick’s for Sunday Mass, just to annoy his friends.

“How’s your new guy?” Xavier asked Pammie.

They were sitting across from each other  for their weekly early morning Wednesday breakfast at the Pop and Son Diner, where they always split the Pancake and Bacon Special.

“He’s good,” she answered.

“You sleeping with him?”

“You really want me to answer that?”

“Sure. We’re friends now. Platonic friends. Like Chandler and Ross’s sister, what’s her name.”

“Yeah, I’m sleeping with him?”

“Any good?”

“Yeah.”

“OK.”

They both sipped from their now lukewarm coffee.

“Is this getting serious?” he asked.  “You’ve been seeing him for a couple of months now, right?”

“Nah. He’s married. He has two kids.”

Xavier coughed and gulped.

“You’re screwing around with a married guy?!”

“He’s my boss.”

“But…”

“He takes me places. We do things. Places I couldn’t go with you. Expensive places.”

“Oh…”

Xavier’s face soured.

“Don’t ruin this, Xavier. You said you could handle this.”

“Yes. Yes. We’re friends.”

And that’s when they changed the conversation to the Yankees.

+++

It was a few days before a holiday weekend, and Home Depot was crowded with customers filled with illusions of finishing some half-baked renovations in the kitchen.

Xavier found it hard to concentrate on helping the customers. His mind was on Pammie.

Xavier had no anger at Pammie. He cared about her. Loved her. He was impressed with her commitment to success, of getting ahead in life.  She was the only girl he ever knew who carried about a “Goal Notebook” in which she outlined each day’s intended achievements.

If he was furious at anyone, it was her boss.   Some rich Manhattan guy, who inherited his real estate business from his father, and never had a hardship in all his life. And now he’s fucking some girl in the office for fun.  Some chick from the Bronx.

Xavier wondered what this dude would think about him if he walked into the Home Depot right now. Would he even look into his eyes? Could he imagine that someone as inconsequential as himself once shared a bed with Pammie? Does he even know Pammie’s full name?  Or is she just some little whore from the Bronx for him to use when his wife is too busy doing her charity work?

The rage spread to Xavier’s fist. He grabbed a hammer from Aisle 5 and with full force, smashed it against the wall, cracking it.

“What the fuck…?” asked Johnson, the floor supervisor, on seeing Xavier with the hammer in his hand.

“I’m taking an early lunch,” said Xavier, and left the store to take the nearest subway into midtown Manhattan.

+++

Langstein Realty was located at 350 Park Avenue.   It was noon.  Outside the office building, Pammie was chatting with Bruce Langstein, the CEO, and Edgar Wiseman, the top realtor of the firm.  They were waiting for Marvin.  They had reservations for four at Matisse on Madison.

Pammie didn’t notice Xavier walking towards them, his veins popping in his forehead.  Xavier was heading straight for Bruce, Pammie’s boss.

A second later would become the destruction of the long friendship between Xavier and Pammie, once again proving that common wisdom in the Bronx is always right.

Fictional Characters of New York — #31

family

It was a hot summer day, when lazy minds drift off into the humidity. A family sat on the bench, waiting for the bus, after a morning of shopping at the Chinese supermarket.

“How come Jen won’t let me play poker tonight?” wondered the Dad. “I married a control freak.”

“When is school starting?” wondered the first Son. “I hate my family.”

“What’s wrong with playing Minecraft all day?” wondered the second Son. “I never get to do anything I want.”

“Why did we stop using birth control?” wondered the Mom. “I don’t want another kid.”

Scottie watched the family from the steps of the library, imagining the thoughts of each person appearing over their heads, as if they were characters in a cartoon strip.  He was eating his lunch — a plastic bowl of cold noodles from the dumpling place next to Starbucks.

“What suckers!” he thought, mocking the family as the Q41 bus pulled in, and they left the scene.

Scottie tossed the plastic blue bowl, and headed into the library.  It was time for work. He promised himself to write a certain  number of words a  day and was stuck on page twelve of his novel.

The library stank with children on summer vacation.  Scottie didn’t the library at all.  He disliked the shuffling of nervous students, the clicks of the keyboards, and the bad breath of the sweaty men reading the Chinese newspapers. But Scottie’s apartment wasn’t air-conditioned, and the library kept things a cool sixty-nine degrees. He even checked that with the woman at the circulation desk.  Sixty-nine degrees, exactly.

Scottie liked saying hello to this librarian at the circulation desk.   Her name was Margaret, a plain-looking librarian who wore the same blue nylon dress every day. She was even homely, with bags under her eyes and thinning hair, but he would ask her out for a date, that is if he could build up the nerve.   He had lost all confidence in himself and his work.   Ever since the divorce, the losing of custody of his two children, Max and Ellie, and Cheryl’s move to Austin, Scottie felt alone and needing of family.

Fictional Characters of New York — #30

bus

Lily felt depressed and didn’t know why. She avoided the news and the internet.  Her friends fought constantly on Facebook over the news of the day, and the tension made her body feel heavy, like a ship’s anchor falling deeper into the dark water.

At 6PM on Friday, Lily was on the bus, coming home from a long day as a cashier at Walgreen’s.  Her eyes stared down at the dirty floor of the Q64 bus and she thought about the laundry to do this weekend; she had no other plans.

The bus approached the stop directly across from Lily’s small house, the one she inherited from her parents.  Lily looked up, out the window.   The front lawn was brown and uneven. Lily thought about her late father, a gardening perfectionist, and how he would be disappointed in her. It’s no wonder she felt depressed. She would never be good enough.

But then, through the window, she noticed Eddie on the front porch, waiting for her.  He wore a newly-pressed uniform and his dufflebag was at his side.

He was back from Iraq.   And Lily was depressed no more.

Internet Thoughts #1 — How to Respond to Stupidity

We all are apt to say stupid or contentious things at some part of our internet lives. What should be the best policy for dealing with it? What makes the internet a better place?

Let’s come up an example.

I come home from a bad date, drunk and angry, and I write some insulting message on Facebook, “All women care about is money. Especially Canadian women. They’re the worst.”

Don’t worry. I didn’t really say that. Whether I believe it or not about our friends to the North — you will never know. But pretend I DID write this on Facebook. And this pisses you off. A lot. How would you respond, and which method makes for a better internet?

1) You immediately unfriend me.

2) You make the public comment, “Neil, are you drunk?”

3) You make the public comment, “Neil, as a Canadian woman I can assure you that this is false, and I am insulted by your comment.”

4) You DM me and ask, “Neil, are you drunk?”

5) You DM me and ask, “”Neil, as a Canadian woman I can assure you that this is false, and I am insulted by your comment.”

6) You write a public vaguebooking message of you own, some “The hatred of all things Canadian is alive and well tonight on the airwaves. I wish I could shove some poutine up this guy’s scrawny ass!”

7) You write a public blogpost, calling the person out, “Neil Kramer is a blogger in New York. He has a small brain and a small dick. He also knows nothing about women. Or Canada. Here’s why and here is his blog…”

8) You ignore it.

Which would be your approach? Which approach is best for the internet?   Does it all depend on our level of friendship with the writer?

We Are the Camera

glass
photo courtesy of Wikipedia

When I was growing up in Queens, people were afraid of walking the streets at night, fearful of “muggings.”  It became a cliche to hear about an elderly neighbor pushed onto the ground to have her purse stolen, or some old man held up by gun point.  If you see old movies from the 1970s-1980s, you will see these events as a frequent story plot.

Crime continues today, especially violent crime, but how often do you hear about muggings in the street? Very rarely.  Do we have a new respect for the weak and elderly? Has police enforcement become more efficient?

I think the most obvious answer has nothing to do with any of these things, but technology — the growth of the credit card since the 1990s.

The desperate know that the average citizen walks around the city with paltry amounts of cash in their pockets; instead, we have a multitude of credit cards.   Credit card fraud is a whole lot more complex and time-consuming that stealing $100 from an old lady.  In 2014,  you are more likely to have your iPhone stolen in the subway than your wallet.   And as technology better protects our phones, that will become less frequent as well.

Technology. We hate how invasive it has become, but we love it anyway, especially when it serves our needs.

We all have seen the outcries on social media about Facebook Messenger and how it spies on our data.   But welcome to 2014.  Technology continues to change how we live our lives.

Much has been said about the growth of citizen journalism. During the marches and police activity in Ferguson last night, it was ordinary citizens who presented the images and videos to the world via their cellphones, not the mainstream media.  For everyone who has ever complained about the ubiquity of selfies online or me taking street photos of women crossing Fifth Avenue, we now see the positive power of amateur photography. We have become the media.

Yes, we have become the directors of our movies, but it also means knowing we are the subjects of the films of others.  Look at London.  There are video cameras on every corner.   Does it reduce crime?   Yes.   But at what cost?   We appear as character actors on camera seen picking our noses as we walk the street.

Because of our distrust of our own police forces, there are some cities that now require police officers to wear video cameras while on duty.   This will force them to not abuse their power.   I think we can all see the future. In fact, we already have it — in Google Glass.

Once we all become walking and talking video cameras, forcing transparency on what used to be done in dark corners, the world will completely change. Crime will drop, as will police abuse.  Sexual harassment will disappear because we will always be on camera in our offices.  Productivity will rise because we will have no choice.   Cameras will be required  to be ON during interviews and important board meetings.  No one will trust parent-teacher conferences that are not recorded, used as protection against lawsuits.

There will be so much good coming from this world where “We Are the Camera.”   People will act better because Big Brother will be watching.   But our urge to control the world will also control us.  Google Glass type devices can be our own personal video security system, making us feel safe as we walk home from the subway at night, but it will also destroy our careers when we are recorded telling that dirty joke while drunk.

“1984” is here, for good and bad, creating a more equitable, safe, but invasive and angry world where we watch each other, controlling each other’s every step. The amateur videos from St. Louis. The “selfies” from BlogHer. Google Glass. Policemen required to wear video cameras. And, of course, running it all from behind the scenes – Facebook Messenger.

Fictional Characters of New York — #29

Russians

Dimitri’s favorite story was about the size of his dick.  Here it goes —

“When God was handing out dicks, the Creator, being fair-minded, presented equal size penises to every man. But he made a mistake in the shipping process.  He hung the penises on a clothesline for the taking, but immediately noticed that the shorter men had trouble reaching so high.   God didn’t want to start creating man all over again, so instead, he went the easier route — he extended some of the penises to make it easier for the shorter men to grab from the clothesline.  And THAT is why many of the shortest men have the biggest cocks.”

Yan found this story ridiculous, as he did most of Dimitri’s  stories, and Yan didn’t shy away from telling him so.   Dimitri was Yan’s best friend of seventy years; they had known each other since their days in the red wooden grade school in Kiev.

Dimitri liked a good tale, but he wasn’t a liar.   He DID have the biggest dick that Yan had ever seen, noticing it first when they skipped school to go skinny-dipping in the watering hole by Vartan’s farm.   It hung from his friend’s small frame like one of those giant cucumbers his mother used to buy at the Odessa Privoz Market.

Perhaps it was that extra testosterone of having such a big dick that made Dimitri so combative.  Dimitri and Yan could argue about anything.   And Yan loved the joy of their daily debates.   The topic was irrelevant.   Which wife made the best borscht?   Is Obama a communist? Brooklyn or Queens? Best soccer team — Germany or Brazil? Who owned the more luxurious car? Who would have made more money if they remained back in the old Soviet Union? Most talented singer — Frank Sinatra or Anna Netrebko?

These debates could last for hours, sometimes into the night, and the spouses of Dimitri and Yan accepted their husbands as more married to each other, if not by law, then by time spent together.

On Sunday, Yan woke up early, and letting Lubov, his wife, sleep, he walked over to Dunkin’ Donuts on Main Street.  He was hoping to find Dimitri waiting for him.  Their weekend arguments were a sacred tradition, like going to church.   He was ready to argue his dear friend about anything, anything at all.

It was Dae, the Korean owner of the store (and sometimes bookie) who told Yan the bad news.   Dimitiri had a heart attack in the street early that day.   His kind and argumentative best friend, the man of owned a thousand stories and the biggest dick that Yan had ever seen, was no more.  Yan cried for the first time in seventy years.

That night, Yan was in the mood to argue with someone.  He though of facing against Lubov, but she was too mild-mannered and would agree too easily.  With Dimitri gone, he lost his opponent.

So, Yan argued with God.   He told God that He had made another mistake much worse than building a clothesline too high for the shorter men to get their penises.

God had taken away Dimitri from his life.

Fictional Characters of New York — #28

trevor

When you’re childhood friends such as Bree and Kathy, roommates in college, keeper of secrets, nothing should come between you, especially a man.

But Tyler became that man.

In Bree’s opinion, Tyler was sexy as hell and great in bed, but an irresponsible child, not worthy of someone like herself, an up-and-coming new media executive with a Fortune 500 company.  Yes, there was chemistry, but she assumed it merely the result of a common background from similar families in the Bronx.   No, he was not Mr. Right.  It was a step backwards, not forward.

So, after Bree broke it off , she had no problem giving Kathy her approval, her blessing even, to see Tyler on a casual basis, knowing Kathy’s loneliness and lack of success in the dating world.

Bree never expected any real chemistry between the two, the athletic and intense Tyler and the pretty, but bookish Kathy, or that she would soon feel the jealousy and torment of imagining the pale and blushing Kathy riding the naked body of this awful and selfish man with wild abandon, and enjoying it tremendously.   This was not the Kathy that she knew.

“Do you want me to stop seeing him?” asked Kathy at Chipotle a few weeks later, sensing Bree’s frustration. She was good at reading the moods of people, something Bree lacked.

“No,” said Bree.

“Bree, your friendship is more important to me. I’ll ask you again. Do you want me to stop seeing him?”

“Yes.” she said.

Kathy paused, expecting the answer she didn’t want to hear.

“Fuck you, Bree. I’ll do it for you. But fuck you. I was happy.”

It was the first time Bree ever heard the proper-bred Kathy curse.

Kathy kept her promise, but didn’t return any of Bree’s phone calls.  Kathy also quit any activities that might bring the two in contact, such as their book club, or attending concerts at the Y. For three years, the two women — once best friends — cut off all contact.

In April, as spring arrived in the city, and the flowers bloomed in Central Park, Bree and Kathy crossed paths again, in the produce section of Whole Foods on 57th Street. They both started to cry, tears of happiness and guilt, and retreated to the upstairs coffee bar to reconnect and embrace. They had committed the worst sin possible — they had let a man break them apart.

“I love you, Bree. I’m sorry I cut things off. I thought about you every day. You’re my best friend. Forever.”

“It was my fault,” said Kathy, blowing her nose with a Whole Foods napkin. “I discussed it all with my therapist. I was too co-dependent. I’ve always been that way with men. The most important thing in life is friendship. The most important thing in life is… YOU.”

Bree put her hand on Kathy’s. The two women stood, and reaching over the table, they hugged strongly, as if the power of the hold could make up for three years lost time.

“I’ve moved to a new condo,” said Kathy, as they left Whole Foods. “I live around the corner on Third. Come walk with me. I’ll show you the place.”

“Of course,” said Bree. “I want to hear about everything that’s happened with you over the last three years, best friend.”

“Same here, best friend,” replied Kathy.

They two of them walked down 57th Street, together, into the sunset. And then, as they crossed the street, they saw him, wearing a blue and white checkered shirt and his hair combed neatly.  It was Tyler.  He looked better than ever.

Find Your Tribes

venn1

Last weekend’s blogging conference was colored by the Gaza conflict that played out on my hotel TV at night.   It put me on edge.   The social media lingo used at the conference suddenly seemed more militaristic than intended.  Words like”Followers” and “Following,” gave me images of soldiers and commanders.  Even the expression “ally” (Feminist Allies, LGBT Allies) had the unfortunate association with the first and second World Wars (Allies and Axis).

But I had the most discomfort with the oft-repeated mantra of “Find Your Tribe.”

At first glance, “Find Your Tribe,” is good advice for a blogger or writer, especially for a newbie searching for a niche, but this year, I was unable to hear this word without also hearing “tribalism.”  Why were we telling others to find their tribe, when the very concept involves exclusion?  Aren’t 98% of all wars about disagreeing tribes bumping heads?

When I arrived at JFK on Monday,  there was a giant TV at the American Airlines gate.   CNN was reporting on the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt. I sighed with a relief, not only sickened by the violence, but also the nastiness that I saw online.

It was midnight and the taxi line was short.   Within five minutes, I was on my way.   My taxi driver was a bearded young man with hair as black as shoe polish. His steering wheel bore the colors of the Palestinian flag.  His first name was Mohammed.

“Where you heading?” he asked.

I told him the address.

“By that KOSHER supermarket, right?” he asked.

“Uh, yes.” I mumbled.

The cab was dark inside.  I was in the back seat, my computer bag at my feet.  A pungent air freshener was hanging from the rear view mirror, swaying to the bumps on the Van Wyck Expressway.   I heard a faint speaking from the front, some Arabic, but mostly English.   At first, I thought it was the radio, but as I leaned in, I could see Mohammed speaking into a headset.   He glanced at me in the rear view mirror, but was too involved in his conversation to notice me eavesdropping.  I bent over to look into my computer bag, but the real intention was to listen more closely.

“Is he there with you now?  Will you see him again?” whispered Mohammed into his headset. “No, I’m not jealous. Are you jealous of me? Will you tell me if you do it with him? I just did it that once. I told you about it. But she was nothing like you. You turn me into an animal. Come visit. OK, tomorrow. Will you think about me tonight? I will think about you, all night. When I am in bed. I have to go. I have a customer.”

Mohammed stopped talking. There was silence as the cab moved onto the Grand Central. I’m normally shy and never speak to strangers, but I had an insatiable need to talk to this driver, to learn more about his story. I took the risk.

“There used to be this TV show called Taxicab Confessions,” I told him.  “On the show, cabbies would listen in to their customers as they talk about their personal lives, but I think this is the first time a customer has ever listened in on the taxi driver.”

Mohammed laughed.

“Oh, you heard me speaking to Abal.  Sweet Abal.”

Mohammed proceeded to tell me the story of Abal, his lover in Germany, and their “open relationship.”   The trouble began when Mohammed started seeing a woman in Brooklyn on Friday nights, who was smart, and had a good job, be she couldn’t compare to the”wild cat moves” of sweet sweet Abal.

“Where did you fly in from?” he asked, changing the conversation, as if it wasn’t polite for a driver to talk so much without reciprocating the interest.

“California,” I said.

“Was there a woman there?” he asked, grinning

“Women.”

I’m not going to reveal the rest of the conversation, but let’s just say that straight men of all color, creeds, and religions have more in common than previously thought, with similar passions and frustrations with the opposite sex.

The fighting in the Middle East never came up, nothing about religious or national tribalism, nothing about Israel or the Arab world, Muslims or Jews.   Instead, we focused on a common Tribe between us — “Single Guys Dealing with Women.”   Why do we always go for our differences rather than our similarities.   I’m sure if I continued my conversation with Mohammed we would have discovered more common tribes — “New Yorkers,” “iPhone owners, “Men who Put Air Freshener in their Cars.”

Telling others to “find your tribe” — as if we each have only one tribe that becomes our identity — is bad advice.   It is simplistic.   It breeds isolation and zealotry.    It’s better to say, “Find Your TRIBES (in the plural).”

We live in an overlapping Venn Diagram of tribes, where one person can be Christian, an American, A Kansan, a Writer, a Father, A Democrat, a Juggler, and a Stamp Collector.   By suggesting that people find their TRIBES, rather than their TRIBE, we are sending the positive message to our friends to focus on the concentric circles of connection, which builds compassion and empathy,  rather than the myopic view of tribalism.

I doubt Mohammed and I are ever going to be friends, or if I will ever see him again. I’m sure we have tribes in common, and many that disagree.  But by acknowledging that we are ALL a multitude of Tribes, interlocking circles on the Venn diagram of life, we remind ourselves that the only true Tribe is everyone.

Singing Cabaret

I’m not big on crowds.  My experiences with conferences tend to revolve around hanging with one or two people who I strongly connect with for one reason or another.   This year, at BlogHer, that person was JC, the Animated Woman.  Besides driving with her to San Jose from Los Angeles, we did a little sightseeing in LA after the conference, including a visit to this weird Hollywood store filled with old Hollywood props.  Last night, I made this appropriately weird little slideshow movie for her to watch on her flight back to Montreal.