Friday, December 15, 2017

Crude Affinity with Extraordinary Timing (or, How to be Best Frenemies for Life) - Part 1

The series finale of Seinfeld aired in two parts back in the late nineties, and on that night the phone wouldn't stop ringing. The characters who taught me most of what I knew by then about all of life's lessons were being sent to prison in these last episodes, so I was glued to the set while my dad was answering the phone.   
   "Why does she keep calling every five minutes? I already told her you'll call her back." 
He was trying to assess the situation but in reality, there was no situation: this invasive tenacity was her signature. She ensconced herself in my family so quickly that my parents had been asking me about her whereabouts ever since. 

We first ran into each other in high school -- I was a freshman, and she, a sophomore. She'd wait for me outside of my class until the bell rang, and walk with me to my next one. One time she was waiting for me outside of chemistry, watching me stroll out, and made a remark about the "swagger" in my walk. 

   "Looks like you must think highly of yourself." 
She'd wait for me to react, suppressing a smile that bubbled up her face and glistened through her eyes -- an expression that made her look like someone who very well knew she had said something infuriating. She frequently won the honor of being the most annoying person I ever met, but this particular remark (like many she would make after it) had me in a headlock of self reflection. 

Another time she said something notable about my gate, we were cutting through the East Village, headed toward Japantown. I never tried tokayaki before, so she was leading me to a hole-in-the-wall vendor who she claimed made it better than anyone else. With my hands in my pockets and her arm wrapped around mine, locked at the elbows, jackets buttoned, we marched in sync through the cold air of early spring. She abruptly interrupted [whatever we were talking about] with, 

   "Do you hate me?!"  
Mildly aloof, I gave her a puzzled shrug as I slowed down, throwing off our synchronicity.      
   "You walk fast, so I pick up my pace to keep up with you. But then you walk even faster. It's like you don't want to be seen with me!"    
The idea she had of me was always somewhat unclear, which was fine -- I wasn't trying to understand it. She rarely criticized me with direct blows, but even when she did, she still had a gentleness about her that I was undoubtedly missing.   

*   *   *

Born in the state of Texas, she was adopted at a very young age by an interracial family of unlikely personalities in Park Slope. I would visit them at their classic three story brownstone, purchased by her grandmother at the memorable cost of fifty thousand dollars, thirty something years earlier. Similar to my own family, her's had a cast of characters consisting of routinely neglectful parents, curiously eccentric aunts and uncles, and grandparents who were fiercely progressive (at least, for their generation). 

Among the most unforgettable of her family members is her uncle, Harrington. I met him and his son, Harrington Jr., at their residence one afternoon -- Jr. was around seven or eight. Standing together, speaking to her grandmother who sat by the large fireplace, our voices drifted softly back and forth in their cavernous livingroom. Suddenly a booming command spoken in a Brooklyn accent swept across the spacious kitchen in the adjacent room, bouncing off the high ceilings. 
   "Boy, you better un-fuck yourself before I come over there and do it for you!" 
   Leaning into my ear, she explained, "That's what Harrington says anytime Jr gets himself in trouble." 
This was the foghorn of our introduction. 

Not long after, I'd run into Harrington at the central library in Brooklyn -- the big one with the monumental columns embedded with gold hermetic symbols framing the entrance. Faced down in a reference book and taking notes frantically, I heard my name called in a loud whisper from across the bench where I was sitting. I looked up to see the uncommon interracial facial features of Harrington, peering at me from a diagonal through his steel framed glasses and smiling. Happy to see each other, we both moved down our respective sides of the bench to sit closer, keeping our voices down as we talked. He asked me about my research and to [whatever my answer was], he responded, 

   "That reminds me of my time in Vietnam." 
Intrigued, I put my pen down and gave in to this opportunity. His horrific war adventures were everything that a bored sixteen year old stuck at a library after school would want to hear. After his first tour in Vietnam, he explained how he did four more tours voluntarily. He was clearly a proud nationalist, fighting to protect capitalism in some of the most savage conditions of modern history. 

This happened a few more times over the next couple of weeks. I hadn't run into her during this time, and when I finally did, I slammed her with a ton of questions about what she knew about her uncle's time in combat.  

   "You know none of that's true, right? He never went to Vietnam." 
I must've had an appalled look on my face because before I could say a word, she mirrored my sentiment and shrieked,  
   "Come on! Who goes to Vietnam voluntarily?! He's been telling those stories for as long as I've known him -- don't believe any of it!" 
Maybe I should've been upset, but this bombshell only made things all the more fascinating. I would see him again many times over, never confronting him about any of it. 

*   *   *

Our communication was spotty while I attended college in the city of Boston, and by the time I returned to New York, she was living in a cozy downtown apartment with Harrington and his kids on Washington Ave. From their livingroom, a narrow spiral staircase descended down into Harrington's den, which had walls covered by books shelves to the ceiling. Among his books, I was delighted to find a [then] recently published copy of Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, by Alan Greenspan. The warnings Greenspan claims to have made throughout the book never saved us from the financial quicksand that engulfed the American economy by 2008. This book was also going to be the bane of the unusually shaped rapport Harrington and I had been developing.    

I found a job in a laboratory in the Bronx, and with it, an apartment on the top floor of a noisy building on Gun Hill Rd which had bullet holes through the main door out front. Whenever I ran into other tenants in the lobby while carrying bags or luggage, they'd always offer to help but never appeared as though they were capable. (The only way to respond of course, was to politely decline and ask them about their day and how they were doing.) My roommate was a middle aged Dutch woman with a heavy accent, a chain smoking habit, and a serious addiction to the tv gameshow, Jeopardy. I'd watch it with her sometimes but if ever I wanted to watch anything on a different channel that collided with that time slot, I would have to go to the corner pizza shop down the block. 

That gig fell into my lap unexpectedly so I got lucky, although these living arrangements were rushed. The Greenspan book accidentally wound up in storage with a lot of my possessions, becoming temporarily out of reach. Not believing he'd ever see it again, the disgruntled Harrington replaced it with another purchased copy. It was an awful inconvenience. For the next several times I would visit her at their place on Washington, Harrington was very vocal about this oversight. Anytime after that, when I would ask her how he was doing, she'd shoot me a sharp look and say,  
   "He still goes on about you losing his book. You know he'll never forgive you for that". 
Then her face would radiate that timeless, bright eyed, suppressed smile expression of amusement. 

*   *   *

She and I fell out and reunited countless times over the years. Both high energy personalities, we'd burn each other's patience and turn our backs to slam each other out, each time not knowing if we would ever talk again. We'd run into each other unexpectedly in different places around the city, over and over -- call it fate or whatever you will. One afternoon we ran into each other by Wall St., and popped into a bar a few steps below street level, to throw off a couple of shots. (This was back when I still drank.) Another time, I found her walking through the underground tunnels that connect subway platforms at 14th and Union Sq. around 11pm on a weeknight. Astounded to see her there, I insisted she come with me to my third apartment in the Bronx, as that's where I was headed.   

She accompanied me to my place that night, where I lived alone in the furnished basement of an enormous private house on Rhinelander Ave. Far from the notorious violence of the South Bronx, this was a residential district composed of German style houses in an area known as Morris Park. It was a quiet place at all hours, nestled in the safety of organized crime. The commercial roads were dotted with cafes that stayed in business but never appeared to be open, leaving one to wonder if they were venues for secret meetings. These suspicions would later be confirmed by stories I would hear from my landlord, Sylvester -- stories about his run-ins with the Mafia and their reservations against the fire insurance company he was running out of that basement. He relocated that office to somewhere outside of their territory and turned it into an apartment where I was then living. She and I talked into the listless hours of that morning like we did every time we reconvened.  

Never running out of topics, we would talk nonstop. The things we talked least about, however, were the things we got ourselves into in each other's absence. When we did talk about some of that, we'd lightly summarize without going into much detail, and only on an as-needed basis. (Perhaps we both assumed the other person couldn't handle it.) Having spent a lot of our growing years on the streets of different neighborhoods, we both had our share of risky tendencies, but the kinds of risks we took were very different. From roles she played in the vast New York underground scenes, to barters she facilitated between strangers in the alleyways of Chinatown, the mere glimpses of her ordeals would leave me speechless. She went down South through a church organization to explore her options one year, and found herself trapped in a farming cult which she had to figure out how to escape. To explain the things she witnessed and the relationships she devised to maneuver her way out of there is something outside of my abilities: I still needed her help to envision the kinds of adventures that she survived, despite having a rampant imagination. 

*   *   *

After one of our rifts, she came over for dinner one night and said a few things that shocked me as usual. (This was toward the end of my time living on Rhinelander as I was preparing to move out and head up to Boston again, this time for grad school.) We stopped talking about a year or so before that, over a heated exchange about the delicate subject of animal cruelty. She's a fanatic lover of animals her whole life, common knowledge to anyone who knew her for five minutes. 

That argument was about how animals are treated in research protocols, and by this time, I'd been working in pharmacological research conducted on animal models for a few years (corporate, as well as academic). I was trying to explain the strict regulations enforced by the government through organizations like IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) which ensure that all animals are treated with care through a system of certifications and mandatory trainingI tried telling her the harsh penalties for violating the rules included a loss of funding. We stayed up all night, digging ourselves deeper and deeper into this. No matter what I tried to explain, she wasn't having it: confident that we were torturing animals in laboratories with impunity, she was unconsolably angry. There was nothing we could do by daybreak, but walk away from each other as we had already done so many times before.  

So that night she materialized for dinner and I made a mushroom-chicken-asparagus dish in a lemon butter reduction. Half way into the meal she steered the conversation with some of the rarest words any of us will ever hear uttered by another person, 
   "I just want to say that you were right..."  
She had ventured into the world of veterinary sciences and underwent extensive training in animal husbandry since our last conversation, and this  brought her up to speed on the sensitivity around the practice. It was one of a few defining moments that reminded me of what set her apart from everyone else I knew. I might've taunted her with an "I told you so" if I wasn't so consumed by an appreciation for her personal development.   

*   *   *

The last summer before grad school, I tried cramming in as much recreation as humanly possible (because I was expecting graduate studies in Industrial Engineering to be rough). I spent most of that time hanging around Brighton Beach with some friends I met at a 4th of July party earlier that season. These were a rowdy bunch of party loving Russians who lived life like side characters from Clockwork Orange. To sincerely match their groove, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet and started reading things in Russian as my competence for interpretation was racing to catch up. Kodiak was the alpha of this group, and his favorite closing statement to cultural conversations was
   "The Russian culture attached itself to the wrong end of the America dream." 
Many of those evenings we'd end up on the jagged rocks of the beach, sitting silently and observing the sound of crashing waves against the faint laughter of drunken girls trying to skinny dip in the nearby distance. 

Toward the end, Kodiak decided he liked me more than normal, and started calling around the time I moved away. Keeping it friendly became impossible: I'd be sitting in class and he'd be blowing up my phone, leaving long rants that were getting progressively more inebriated and threatening as I wasn't returning his calls. The time for talk was over. I went to the nearest police station and met with a detective to create a record of the incessant calls that boarded on harassment. In the midst of all this, I noticed one of those calls was from her. I called her back. She was just calling to see what was up -- it was impeccable timing.       
   "This a stalker? Is it your first? I've had two..."  
Her experience made her the perfect sounding board through all the tricky procedures necessary for me to close this case across state lines. That was the last group of party friends I ever entertained, and altogether, I'd soon realize that my days of prodigal partying were coming to an end. 

*   *   *

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