Is this a clue

Five seventeen AM. It’s appropriately fucking cold, given the hour. Too cold and too early are well-matched miseries, almost twins. I have to concentrate hard to tell them apart, to see where the discomfort of one ends and the other begins.

I sit on my suitcase at the curb. The streetlights shut off, anticipating dawn, and the trolley cable is conspicuously silent. Its grinding is so omnipresent on this street that I notice it only in absence.

A black towncar pulls up (has there ever been another color of towncar?). 5:30 on the dot. A giant, neckless, shaved-headed Eastern European gets out and tosses my heavy baggage into the trunk with disturbing ease. His double-XL black suit makes him look like a Bond villain. He was probably a bodyguard for some war criminal back in the Old Country. Probably the veteran of a hundred nameless conflicts, the scourge of some miserable snowbound place with too few vowels in its name. He’s probably witnessed some terrible things in his time. Probably participated in a few.

But now he’s in California, chauffering overpaid computer nerds to the airport at five in the morning. Ah the vagaries of life.

I want to lean over to Wes and remark on this, but he’s already nodded off, and even with the noise of the freeway I’m wary of our driver’s supersensitive commando hearing.

It’s too early for trouble and we’ve got a long way to go.

—————

We hit serious turbulence somewhere over Kansas, as soon as I get in the bathroom. Of course. A decade of capoeira the finely tuned equilibrium that comes with it are all that keep me from crashing pants-down and face-first into the toilet as the 787 bucks and shudders. Knees bent, muscles tense but not rigid. Stay focused, alert. Breathe.

I am reminded of the time Jim tried to tip over a Port-a-potty while I was in it, back in Boy Scout camp. That little fucker.

The opposite bathroom door opens as I step out of mine. An older, balding Asian guy steps out, frowning, his jeans wet. He looks like he ran through a sprinkler. Poor bastard. I try not to laugh.

One of the stewardesses, the bottle blonde, looks up at me from behind her Us Weekly. She’s sitting in the little cargo seat, strapped in back with the food carts. I smile at her. That’s right, sweetie. I hope you’re impressed with my ability to not piss all over myself.

I head back to my seat, and bash my head painfully against one of the compartments as the plane jumps again. Fuck.

Say what you want about Virgin America, but between the inflight wifi and staffing their planes exclusively with attractive girls and peppy gay guys, they’ve got my company’s business locked down. The wretched, sour hags they’ve got on United and Delta and American can make even the shortest flight into a prison sentence.

I sit back down and fall asleep watching some piece of shit Robert Downey Jr. movie on my little back-of-the-seat TV.

———-

Everything I know about New York I learned on Law and Order. What vague, disconnected sense of the place’s geography I have is defined entirely by fictional precincts, scenes of various fictional crimes. Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, they’re just names with no substance, size, or relation to each other. I resolve to look at a map.

The cab driver is throwing a fit, berating Wes for paying with credit card. They have a surcharge with credit card, he says. It takes up all the tip. As though it’s our fault his union or company or whatever the fuck has locked them in to this terrible financial arrangement. His tone is self-righteous, accusatory yet desperate, which will get him told to fuck off pretty quick. Wes seems surprisingly patient, though, and I realize moments later that this is only because he’s carsick from the hellish ride from the airport.

“Keep pestering him and he will puke on you.” I warn the cabby.

“What?” he asks.

“Puke.” I say, making the universal fingers-spraying—out-of—the-mouth handsignal. “On you. Because you drive like an asshole.”

“Hey fuckah you guys ok?”

“Yeah ok.”

“Fuckah you.”

“Glad that’s resolved.” I wave to him as he lurches off into traffic, one foot on the gas and one on the brake like some fifteen year old girl in her mom’s station wagon. “Fucking maniac.”

Wes leans over a garbage can, looking green and close to eruption. I look up at the towering buildings. Hundred-foot advertisements and electronic billboards flash on every surface. Germans and Japanese take pictures of each other staring up into the endless commercial seizure.

Times Square.

I guess we’ve got to start somewhere.

—————

The subway is great. A marvel. Anyone who says otherwise has never ridden a bus in San Francisco. Yeah there are some rats, some psychos, some hipsters, some beggars, but don’t bitch to me until you’ve gone from Cesar Chavez to Broadway on the 49 next to a multiple-felon crackhead whose burst colostomy bag is leaking on your leg. Don’t bitch to me until you find a dead body on the 27, and realize it’s been there, unnoticed, for at least two days. Don’t bitch to me until you’re on the 22 when it hops the curb on Fillmore and plows down a clump of kids because the driver was up all night spending some of his union-mandated $120k a year salary at a whorehouse in Belmont.

I swear to god I know a guy who caught Hep C riding the Richmond line BART.

Compared to MUNI the NY subway is a fucking royal palanquin carried by beautiful slavewomen.

Pedro’s at the restaurant when we arrive. There are cheers and big, clapping brohugs all around. We haven’t seen each other in a year.

The line’s out the door at this place, but Wes wants to tough it out.

“I’m half-drunk already, man.” P brags. “We’ve been sailing all day, drinking whiskey and eating some cheese.”

I give him a look. “That’s the fucking Eastcoastest thing I’ve ever heard.” I tell him. “You’ve been here too long. Gone native.”

Fucking sailing.

We shove our way in through the crowd and get to the bar. We order Sapporos and the bartender gives us Kirins, because “it’s pouring better.” Whatever the hell that means. After three thousand miles and ten hours on various modes of transport, a beer is a beer. We drink, we catch up, we wait for our table.

Mostly we talk about Life Changes. Pedro’s engaged, again, and he’s decided to go back to school. The first half-hour is purely a discussion of who’s gotten married / divorced, who’s gotten pregnant, and even a couple of who’s gotten deceased for good measure. We take turns listing out names and occurrences, like announcers reading baseball stats. No opinions or critiques, just sheer factual updates on the people we once called friends.

“What about you?” he asks me, afterward. I shake my head.

“‘The Dude Abides.'”

“No plans? No crossroads reached?”

“Not so much. Just going. Getting old, though.”

“Yeah man.”

We’re silent for a minute while we think of something else to talk about.

—————

Two and a half hours later we’re seated. Aside from the day of high school we skipped to wait in line for Episode 1 tickets, it’s the longest we’ve ever waited for anything, let alone food.

“This fucking ramen better change my life.”

“This place serves ramen?! I thought we were at least getting sushi, or something complicated. Shit.”

“Nope. Two and a half hours for noodles you can make in a microwave.”

“Fucking New York.”

We clink our glasses to that.

We talk a lot about business, now that we’re seated. Wes’ buddy is in startups, Pedro’s in consulting, and we’re IT. We talk about The Market, about bad clients and worse business models. We talk about standardization in network hardware, and bitch about having to dress up for our East Coast clients. Ties and black shoes, what a nightmare. We talk about systems integration and business cards.

It’s Important Stuff, the things we discuss. Maybe only to us, and our peers, and our sphere of influence. It’s the mechanics of the world. It’s our lives, like it or not. Fleshing out ambitions and decisions over dinner seems somehow both depressing and vital. I suspect that grown men talking business over noodles has been a core element of human progress for thousands of years.

That’s some consolation.

———————

We share a cab back north and west. “Uptown”, since apparently New Yorkers are above the traditional cardinal directions.

A few minutes into the ride, the cabbie shushes us and turns up the radio. The crackley voice tells us Osama bin Laden’s been killed in Pakistan. The President will make an announcement shortly.

“Oh shit.”

We sit there for a moment, the cabbie looking at us and we at him. Obviously this means something, but none of us are sure exactly what.

“I wonder how they got him?”

“Troops?”

“Probably a bomb. Or drones. Predator drones.”

“Probably drones. Probably Robocop.”

We pull up to the curb in front of our hotel. The cabbie turns to me, earnest and serious.

“It was not Robocop.”

I look back at him. “You don’t understand. Robocop is the best we’ve got. If anyone could get bin Laden, it’s him.”

He gives me the blankest, most uncomprehending look I’ve ever seen. We’re two mutually incomprehensible aliens, for a minute. I slam the door and we walk off.

I fully expect bin Laden’s bullet-riddled body to be paraded through the streets of New York tomorrow morning. Obama will be close behind, pulled in a golden chariot and waving to the roaring hordes as they shower shit and rotten fruit on the prostrated, emaciated corpse of our latest and greatest conquered villain. I expect a full-scale Roman Triumph.

That’s how far things have gone, here in bizarro world.

—————-

Wall St. is not what I expected. It’s older, narrower, crowded with tourists. More stone, less glass. Where are the power suits?

Where is Patrick Bateman?

There are cops with assault rifles and German shepherds, which I didn’t expect. Tasteful.

I look around for the despicable, soulless greedheads that have tanked our economy, our nation. I try to pinpoint who, exactly, took that steaming epic shit on our future, for the precise individual who impoverished our kids and grandkids, who put us on the path to the Third World. Is it that bald guy with the black briefcase? The two guys smoking on the corner of Nassau? The woman shouting into her blackberry?

It’s hard to tell. They just look like people, these monsters. They’ve disguised themselves so well, masked their malevolent awfulness with such aplomb that even I can’t tell them apart from normal, godfearing humans.

No wonder none have been brought to justice. If the Bad Guys all wore convenient black uniforms with snake symbols, or cackled maniacally as they stroked their wispy moustaches, or were led by some brain in a jar in a secret volcano lab, things would be so much easier.

As it is, I scowl at everybody just to be safe. I am rather free with my scorn on Wall St. Nobody seems to notice; in fact, it makes me look more like a New Yorker.

Wes and I are led down back alleys and ancient hallways to the various server rooms we need to visit, and are quickly lost in the wiring racks and the roar of climate control.

—————-

We meet Stephanie and her friend at a restaurant in the East Village. There’s an old Chinese man playing Free Bird on the fiddle in the subway, and a guy on the corner playing a banjo. The banjo guy is good, really good. Too good for the street, that’s for sure. I toss a quarter in his overturned grey hipster hat.

He’s probably a professional posing here for his gritty album cover photo, some studio rat trying to build up his street cred by slumming it.

Wes is on the phone with our west coast clients. The time difference is a pain in the ass, and we’ve been working 8 AM Eastern to 6 PM Pacific. I listen to him explaining domain controller reboot procedures over the phone. Boring.

People have told me that this is the “Mission of Manhattan”, but the comparison seems pretty flat so far. I haven’t been stabbed yet, or stepped in human shit, and I haven’t seen even one skinny-jeaned asshole asking to get jumpkicked off his fixie. The people here seem generally normal, almost friendly. For a city with such a bad rep, everyone seems pretty fucking approachable.

The hostess, whose miniskirt is offset by her giant 1940’s bugeye grandma glasses, seats us after a few minutes. Stephanie was ready to bolt after having to put a name in. Screw waiting for food, she says.

She laughs when I tell her about our previous restaurant experience.

Two hours for noodles. She shakes her head, astonished by our stupidity.

Her friend, Belinda, asks a waitress if the pan-fried trout comes with the head. No, it doesn’t. She special-orders it with the head still attached.

It’s weird to eat a fish with no head, she tells me.

New York.

While we eat, the girls talk mostly about dating. They’re both ostensibly single, and it’s a primary concern. They want to know what it’s like in SF, and they complain about the ratio.

I’ve heard this from other people too, that NY has more women than men. No wonder people move here. That kind of advantage is probably worth a dirty, snow-smothered winter.

“There are so many more girls than guys.”

“Good.”

“Good for you, maybe.”

“No, good for humanity, and humility. It’s about time you ladies got a taste of what our lives are like.”

“What?”

“Dating is a perpetual uphill battle, from the male point of view. It’s tedious, strenuous, rarely satisfying labor. Like digging ditches.”

“Oh whatever, SF isn’t that bad.”

“You’re right, it’s not. But I went to engineering school. Even the most snaggle-toothed halitosis-ridden trollbeast had four dudes a day asking her out. Your ratio complaints do not move me.”

I make sure to speak with the cultivated air of superiority and contempt that a person in a Long Term Relationship is required to use when dropping knowledge on the single. Despite me, we have a good dinner, although I almost choke on a brussel sprout.

That’d be a fucked up way to go.

————

The 6AM train to Washington is more what I was expecting. Old white guys in expensive suits, yelling in to phones and pouring over spreadsheets. Everyone on this train is a certifiable asshole and has the cufflinks to prove it.

We speed down through Jersey and Philly and Baltimore, accumulating more and more lowlife politicos until the train is at capacity. Everyone is in a rush, everyone has places to be. I find myself hoping for derailment. The world would be a better place.

The train disgorges us at Union Station, and the various lobbyists and middle-managers and parasites and sycophants rush to their taxis and cars, shoving and glaring.

Now we’re in DC, the sickly poisoned heart of it all.

Of course there’s traffic.

I look out at the monuments and statues. It starts to rain.

—————

We have dinner with Wes’ friend, a professor at GWU, in some old restaurant across from the Whitehouse. A couple of uniformed generals sit at the booth behind us, and there’s apparently a Senator at the end of the row, though I don’t recognize him.

“So Wes tells me it’s your first time in DC?”

“Yep, first time on the East Coast really. I went to Boston once for a wedding, but only for a day.”

“Oh, wow!”

Everyone here reacts when they learn that someone my age has never been east of Montana. They’re surprised, but condescendingly kind, like I’ve told them I just recently learned how to read.

Part of me wants to be vengefully elitist, to explain how SF and the West are the actual center of the world, but I can’t. We might have most of the population and innovation and industry, but let’s be honest – California is pretty much a corrupt shithole.

Instead I nod, and say how impressed I am with whatever East Coast thing we’re talking about. Sometimes it’s true.

Wes’ friend, though friendly, is obviously interested in him. As dinner progresses, I quickly become more of a chaperone than a participant, though I don’t mind. One learns to be tolerant of single women in their thirties.

Four gray-haired men drinking highballs at the bar burst into laughter, one bumping into a busboy and making him spill dishes. No one gives it a second look.

I ask the Russian waitress for another overpriced beer. I find I dislike DC immensely. I’m sick of wearing dress shoes.

Later, we walk around the Whitehouse, which is lit up at night. Fifty Southern highschool kids wander by, all in matching outfits, following an impatient tourguide. There’s a candlelight vigil in front of the gates, though I can’t recognize what nation’s flag they’re holding up or figure out what they’re protesting / celebrating / mourning.

——

After an hour or so of map consultation, I take a couple trains and a bus up into Maryland to meet Amos, another long-lost college buddy.

Maryland’s green, all unkempt lawns and tall hedges. The houses have big yards and wrap-around porches. Amos’ place has a distinctly collegiate feel – five bikes are locked to the porch railing, and he opens his bedroom door with a key. One of those places.

There’s bad rock blasting from a backyard across the street. A couple of girls walk by with giant Chevy’s sombreros, and I realize it’s Cinco de Mayo. Good old drinko de mayo.

The first place we head to has a long line, and a couple of drunk undergrads are already fighting in the street in front of it. The bouncers yank them apart, kicking savagely at their shins and knees until they collapse onto the pavement.

We duck into another bar, also crowded with fake-ID wielding girls and drunk dudes named Jeff and Mike. We eat shitty burgers and drink Stella out of plastic cups. We shout to each other over the din. It’s good to go to places like this on occasion; it tarnishes one’s idealized memories of youth and college with a little reality. Locked in a cubicle watching your hair turn grey, it’s easy to forget how obnoxious 20 year olds really are.

Amos is getting ready to go to Israel to do some work with medical device companies there, an extension of his MBA program. We talk about that, mostly. I haven’t seen him in three years, but he seems mostly unchanged. Hair’s a little longer, I guess, and he speaks almost entirely in acronyms and technical terms, his vocabulary having been completely overrun with MBA jargon. He’s not the first MBA I’ve encountered like this, and I don’t think it’s an affectation. More likely business school is 10% substance and 90% terminology. A sure sign of a worthwhile subject.

A hammered, overweight blond next to us slips out of her plastic chair and falls onto the dirty wooden floor, laughing. Her friends help her up. Christy you’re such a klutz! I know right! I know! Oh my god!

“You’ve really found another SLO here, man.” I tell Amos. I realize, briefly, how old we look in our dress shirts, and how startlingly out of place. Amos sighs.

“You don’t even know.”

“I didn’t realize College Park was such a kid’s town.”

“This area is; most of the grad students live on the other side, farther from campus.”

We finish our bad food and order a couple more of the beers in plastic cups, watching the rowdy, stumbling youths around us. A skinny guy pukes in a garbage can, and gets thrown out onto the sidewalk head-first by a bouncer.

“I can’t fucking wait to graduate.” Amos tells me.

——————-

I drag my grey rolling suitcase down the streets, click click click on the sidewalk, pushing my way through the crowds of commuters. Laptop, suitcase, grey suit, blue tie, phone, sunglasses, tickets. A couple of older black women in blazers and skirts are in front of me, chatting conspiratorially about a coworker. They don’t like her, it seems.

I drag my hand along the tiled wall as the escalator carries me down deep into the metro tunnels. The wall’s cold, and my fingers tap lightly over each grout seam.

There’s noise around me, the commerce of the morning. A hazy smell of cigarettes and coffee.

I wonder how I got here.

——————

More buses, more subways, more crowds and distances.

I’m back in New York. Two orthodox Jews in their black costumes argue with a Vietnamese pretzel vendor in front of me, and I have to go into the street to get around them.

Hmmm hmmm hmm I hum. There’s a Beck song, Hollow Log, stuck in my head. I check my phone map for the hundredth time, to make sure I’m going the right way. I would be righteously fucked in this maze without a smartphone.

Get yourself a pistol, get yourself a dog…

I cut through a small park. It’s full of tulips and bronze statues of dead guys on horses.

Stay up all night getting drunk, sleeping on a hollow log…

A French couple with four kids argues over a map, pointing at various street signs and glaring at each other while their little brood plays around a rusty fire hydrant.

Walk til you’re restless, sleep til you’re tired…

I’m hungry, having been stuck on the road for the better part of a day. I duck into a Thai cafe, and duck right back out when I see the Pad Kee Mao is $17. Fuck your bullshit food prices, NY.

Wake up without thinking, you’re the one that I desire…

I make my way to the hotel and sit on my bed, watching the street below through my window. It’s Friday. It’s warm outside, and I try to open the window. It only slides four inches up before some hidden safety device jams it. I reach my hands out through the thin gap to feel the warm breeze. I hear voices from below, but they blur together, and become indistinguishable.

Walk around with a broken leg and a hundred dollar bill…

Tomorrow’s our last day in New York.

———————-

Eight of us go to a modernized Korean restaurant to celebrate. Our reservation’s for 11:30, but everyone’s late so we don’t sit until after midnight.

We eat oysters, kim-chee, and a huge slab of roast pig. All except the token vegan, who picks at some lettuce and a bowl of rice, looking at each of us in turn to make sure we take note of her noble suffering. Pedro and I drink beer while the girls sip weird-colored soju cocktails, some of which look like Drano. Somebody’s talking about Sundance Film Festival, somebody else about a ski trip in Patagonia.

The pork’s good, slow-cooked for a day according to some arcane Korean culinary mysticism. Worth the expense. Hell, it’s Friday.

…I heard on NPR the other day…

…she said ‘That’s not the reason I took this job.’, right to his face…

…Law school always seemed like kind of a waste to me…

…probably have the reception at the Signet, on 37th…

…ordered the Lemon Drop? Kathy?…

…the same purple Adidas I’ve got, but in men’s…

…lunch tomorrow, on the set. Producers only, except for us…

I work to stay interested in the back-and-forth around me, to participate. There’s some excitement as a cripplingly drunk / high person stumbles into the restaurant off the street, shouting about the end of the world. A waitress quickly herds him back out.

The food takes quite a bit of construction and concentration – take your piece of lettuce, put some pork and rice and various pickled things into it like a fajita, pour some hotsauce, etc. It helps to have something to do with my hands.

Around two thirty we emerge, back into the cold streets. Various parties drift off, and there’s discussion of where to go next. What scene everyone’s interested in. Where there’s no cover, where the band is playing, where who went last night.

The arguments lead nowhere, and eventually we wander back to the subway.

Back in the hotel I read for a while, some scifi book about robots.

———-

I had prepared myself to hate the East. SF is veritably infested with Easterners, many of whom are horrid, insufferable people. They come here in droves for their late twenties, doing some kind of extended-adolescence tour of duty in Beautiful And Culturally Significant San Francisco before drifting elsewhere to breed and age. They go to shows and get really in to sustainable food and snowboarding. They take pictures of goddamn everything, and reminisce vocally about how much they Brooklyn / Boston / Vermont / Whereverthefuck.

I want to choke them with their own dumbass knitted scarves.

NY itself, though, was quite bearable. The sheer scale of it, the density, maybe the age, has given it something SF doesn’t have. Maybe it’s just the sheer crush of people on people – you’re forced to behave differently to those around you when you’re shoulder to shoulder with them every hour of the day. It’s crossed some threshold that we haven’t, for better or worse.

There are more people in the streets. Things happen outside. People hang out on their stoops in groups. They don’t just huddle out there to smoke a hurried cigarette before rushing back upstairs, they stand around, they bullshit, they yell to each other across the street.

The bars stay open late, the cops ignore you, the subway’s open 24 hours. There’s no desperate rush to catch that last fucking train back to the burbs at midnight.

I don’t know.

Maybe it’s the spring. Warm weather after a solid six months of brittle fog and damp wind is like a fucking miracle. Maybe it’s the novelty.

I know, deep down, that there’s plenty to hate about it. But for a week in the spring, a week without having to run the junkie panhandler gauntlet on Polk, a week without endless abyssal 50 degree overcast stupid bullshit SF weather, a week without Mission hipsters and their horrible god damn chatter on the bus, a week without Bay Bridge traffic… for a week in the spring NY is quite a place.

But don’t tell them I said it.

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