Friday, August 28, 2009

Opening and closing doors

June 14, 2009

Wandering alone through the zoo; observing an odd moment on the subway; getting soaked at the Mississippi picnic in Central Park; envisioning an animated movie of Sultana; and meeting both the dwarf bartender of the Mini Bar and the formerly loathsome Technoboy of Sultana-page lore.

Those are a few highlights of my first few days back in New York, post Sultana-release.

For the moment Sultana has faded into the background. The book is holding its own, and there are a few events scheduled in late June, but for the most part I’ve been focused on other writing gigs and, tangentially, trying to figure out how to position the book for film – both of which pose challenges in “the current economic climate.”

As discussed previously in these notes, the newspaper, magazine and book-publishing businesses are all in free-fall, which greatly limits opportunities for freelance writing, and the movie industry is tightening its purse strings, too, which has made it difficult to sell what seemed a natural book-to-film project. One contact in the film industry who had previously expressed an interest subsequently went MIA, and a screenwriter who has a family link to the Sultana story told me that studios are skittish about expensive movies that aren’t guaranteed blockbusters, a category that includes anything involving water, with a cast of thousands, that does not include a great love story (i.e., Sultana). My friend Lindi suggested that Sultana could be made into a great animated movie, and cited as a model the indy Israeli animated-flick “A Waltz with Bashir”, and I agree: It could be a very cool animated movie, done on the cheap. But I haven’t a clue how to undertake such a project.

So, in lieu of actual moneymaking endeavors, I’ve decided to just let Sultana do its thing in the marketplace. In the meantime I’ve been trolling for stories, the commodity I traffic in. I’ve got some ideas, and as always happens when I return to New York City, I get barraged with new stimuli. It’s all a form of professional reconnaissance. The recon work also includes networking, which can likewise be fun. For example, I went to a margarita party at the Bronx Zoo on Thursday night. It was held by the Wildlife Conservation Society to celebrate the launching of their new website (, for which I wrote the copy for 45 pages about countries in which the organization works. The Wildlife Conservation Society also manages the Bronx Zoo and has its administrative offices there.

To get the to party was a long haul by subway from my place in Red Hook – it took almost two hours even though I was within New York City the whole time – and once I got there I had to cross the expanse of the zoo on foot. Neither was a problem for me because I love the subway and there are far worse things than a long walk through a zoo, particularly this one, which is verdant and includes trees that are in some cases hundreds of years old – the latter being something unexpected in a city.

The party was fun, and I made a couple of new friends, but one of the best parts came after, when I had to make my way through the by-then closed zoo to the subway station just outside its perimeter. It was around dusk and I did not see another person during a walk that lasted about half an hour. It was just me and the empty zoo. Many of the animals had been moved into their night quarters. The giraffes were gone from their meadow, as were the zebras and the wild dogs, but there were a few rats skittering across the walkways and black squirrels chirping from the woods, and all sorts of strange catcalls and indeterminate African-sounding wildlife hoots coming from the darkened trees. The sea lions seemed to be particularly disturbed by my passage, and barked up a ruckus. They’d be good watchdogs. The same goes for the peacocks, which sent loud tattles through the empty zoo.

It was a fun, but also a little eerie, being alone in a zoo after hours, and when I got to the gate through which I’d entered I found it locked. No one was around. For a moment it looked like I might be wandering the zoo all night (the fences were very high and, while I had no doubt I could scale them, I wasn’t sure I wanted to). Being stuck in the zoo alone overnight actually seemed like a kind of cool idea, though I’m sure that after a few hours it would have gotten old. At any rate, I eventually found a turnstile that allowed people to go out but not come in, and exited to the human world of the Bronx, and thence, the subway station. 

No matter how much time I spend in New York City, I never tire of riding the subway. It’s the best people-watching I’ve found anywhere, and that includes sitting beside a sandy street in Timbuktu where the parade of humanity included Arab families on donkeys, blue men on camels, Africans pushing carts and a beautiful black girl in a J-Lo t-shirt riding a smoking moped. To ride a distance in a subway car is to sample the world. Imagine sitting in a room full of people you don’t know, and every three or four minutes the doors open and a few of them get up and leave and a few more come in, then the doors close. This goes on for an hour, during which the room goes from being populated (in this case) primarily by black people who are slowly replaced by Latinos, who are themselves slowly replaced by white people, who become very touristy for a few moments, then become very hip, then are augmented by elderly Asians, until, by the time you exit yourself, the room is comprised of young hipsters of all races and ethnic backgrounds, a few elderly people, some gangsta-wannabes, a security guard, a painter, a South American family, and a guy hauling an upright bass. The constant transformation is absolutely addictive 

Sometimes a subway car can get weird, of course, either incrementally or rather suddenly, but there’s something about the fact that it’s constantly changing and confined that creates a consistently interesting dynamic. I have friends who have been in New York City for a long time who also never tire of it. It helps if you’re something of a voyeur’s voyeur, as I am. By that I mean that I like to watch people watching people, something there’s no better place to do than on the subway. The nature of the subway is that people tend to remain aloof from each other while, paradoxically, remaining acutely aware of each other. The result is that people watch when they can, then avert their eyes. A lot of people listen to ipods and/or read, and they’re all halfway watching each other without (usually) making eye contact. For example, I watched one woman watching other people in a way that I have discovered to be quite common on the train. She first looked at whatever book or magazine they were reading – always a fascinating exercise, and after she had gleaned what information she wanted from that she moved on to their respective faces. I watched her going down the line: She read the headlines on the tabloid, then looked up at the reading face; she read the title of the book, then glanced at the reading face; etc., etc. I’ve also seen people do this with shoes. They scan the floor, looking at everyone’s shoes, and when they find a pair that seem noteworthy, they glance up at the corresponding face. I once watched a guy doing this who was not only wearing the same shoes as me, but was otherwise dressed remarkably similarly. He seemed a little stunned when he made his way from my shoes to my face and saw me watching him. There was a brief recognition, then it was back to subway mode.

How could you ever tire of this?

Musicians often travel the subways collecting tips, and some of them are quite good. There are two Mexican guys in cowboy hats who sing songs like “La Bamba” accompanied by a guitar and upright bass whom I particularly like. They’re good. Then there are the guys hawking pirated movies. No one is there for long. Now and then there’s someone hostile, but they don’t last long either. One night a guy came on with a guitar case, and I assumed he was going to play for tips, but he didn’t. He sat in the corner playing one song to himself while reading from a single sheet of paper. When he got to his stop he handed the sheet of paper to a young guy who did not know him. I had been watching the young guy watching the guitar guy, and was surprised by the random connection, as was the young guy, who seemed a little embarrassed and bemused over having been singled out. He read the paper sort of reluctantly, then folded it up and looked around to see if anyone was watching (he didn’t catch me). A few minutes later he unfolded the paper, read it again, then refolded it. This was repeated several times over the next 15 minutes or so, and each time I thought he would throw the paper away, but something about it kept drawing him back, though he folded it smaller each time. I was dying to ask what it said, but I didn’t, not even when I recognized him again on the subway the following night. It remains a mystery to me, and probably (though to a lesser extent) to him. I keep looking for someone reading Sultana on the subway but haven’t seen it yet 

In my first note on this page I mentioned a strange episode in which I wandered into an undercover drug bust in Brooklyn, after which the extremely short bartender at a tiny bar called the Mini Bar came out and asked me what had happened. I hesitate to call him a dwarf, though I did, for expediency, in the first paragraph of this note, because it sounds derogatory, and because he is proportioned well. But whatever he is, he is under five feet tall, and it seems sort of perfect that he presides over the tiny Mini Bar and, during our follow-up conversation there a few nights ago, informed me that he is originally from Milwaukee, which he described as “a sort of mini-Chicago.” Of course. He turned out to be an engaging, charming fellow named Nick, and I now intend to become a Mini Bar habituĂ©.

Technoboy, also chronicled previously in these notes, is perhaps not as loathsome as originally envisioned, but I don’t see us becoming friends. After having been awakened about 20 times too many by his pulsating techno trance music, played at loud volume in the apartment above us, at all hours of the night, and having briefly silenced him with a passive-aggressive poem called “Loud House” that I posted in the foyer, yet having listened, disheartened, as the volume slowly crept higher again over time, until it became intolerable again, I resolved to make Technoboy’s acquaintance and try to work out a compromise when I was not experiencing high midnight dudgeon. The opportunity presented itself when we passed in the hall this afternoon. We spoke briefly and as I entered my door I watched him make his way to the offending apartment. An hour or so later, with the music throbbing at high volume, I climbed the stairs and knocked on his door.

It took a few knocks to make myself heard over the din, but he eventually answered. He has waist-length dreads and is perennially high, and seemed quite stunned to hear that his music was bothering anyone. He apologized. At that moment the music was reverberating through the building, yet he had no idea that anyone might mind. We’ll see if things get better. If nothing else, I won’t be hating on him with quite the same level of intensity.

Also this week I attended my first Mississippi picnic in Central Park, which coincided with heavy rains. I have never wanted to go to the picnic because it seemed kind of forced, and kind of hokey, to me, but I had friends who were going this year so I invited another friend, Venera, who’s from Kosovo, and who I was sure would find it interesting, and headed up to the park. It was a mess on account of the rain but I saw a lot of people I know (including several who are fans of this page, and Malcolm White, head of the Mississippi Arts Commission, for whom I’m writing the text for a book on the history of the arts in the state). We had a good time, and afterward Venera and I hung out at a South African place where she knew the woman tending bar. Venera is a bartender at a champagne bar called the Bubble Lounge, in Tribeca, where she’s trying to arrange a Sultana reading.

We’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I gather my little stories and sort through them for the next opportunity to sell. 

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