I’d been living with Jabir and his family in Bushwick for seven weeks. I was sleeping on the couch when I heard his fourteen-year-old son Ihib come in to the living room and sit beside me. He turned on the TV and slouched into the back cushion like I wasn’t even there. That’s how bad it had gotten for me. I was like part of the furniture in a Pakistani shopkeeper’s apartment. The cat had already taken to kneading me with its claws before curling up in the small of my back.
Ihib was ugly. But it wasn’t so much that he was ugly, though he very much was. It’s that he was so very down on his appearance. He focused on the features that made him look Middle-Eastern: a long, bulbous nose that curled into a smushed snarl and dark eyes shaded by a shaggy, black brow line.
I’d listened to his fears about not getting a job at the local supermarket because of his appearance, about getting beat up at school, about being rejected by girls, even the Arab-American ones.
He turned off the TV and let his head loll back. “I can’t take it anymore,” he said. “My appearance is beyond unsightly. I feel like an ogre.”
“Beauty,” I said, “is an illusion.” I shifted my weight so that I was facing him. Though he usually avoided eye contact, I wanted him to see the expression on my face, which was puffy and sleepy-looking, but still presentable. The bags under my eyes were from, if anything, too much sleep, because that’s what I did most of the day and long into the evening. What I wanted him to see was that I empathized. “We all feel unattractive sometimes,” I said. “But being attractive is all in the attitude, Ibby.”
He looked into my blue eyes, with their bright red rims and dark underbellies. “That’s easy for you to say, you’re white.”
I now all of a sudden felt tired again. I didn’t want to get emotional here; I didn’t want to have to feel. I didn’t want to get under the surface of things in any way. I wanted to do the opposite.
“You’re handsome, and your family is beautiful. Your mother is probably a movie star, like J-Lo. You can do anything you want…” he said.
No, I thought. J-Lo is Hispanic, and probably only a few years older than me. And I wasn’t handsome; at least, I didn’t feel handsome. And I couldn’t do anything I wanted. I didn’t even want to do anything I wanted.
“Ibby,” I said. “You can do whatever you want, too. You just have to believe in yourself. If you do it, then other people will also.” I said.
“You just have to trust me on this,” I said.
I wanted to remove myself from the conversation without leaving the couch. If at all possible, I wanted to be left alone on the couch. But under no circumstances was I going to get off of the couch. I figured that the money Tony owed me would come eventually.
Until then, I was going to stand my ground.
Friday, March 16, 2007
I didn’t even understand why the mailman was screaming until I looking down and noticed that my penis was, quite inappropriately, fully erect. The poor man was probably terrified of some kind of aggravated homosexual assault.
“It’s okay!” I shouted, so he could hear me over his own wailing. “Don’t be scared! It’s just morning wood!”
He stopped screaming then, but he was still quite shocked. His face was dark and deflated, and his mouth shut so tightly that his lips were nearly white. The sound of my voice probably convinced him that I was reasonably harmless.
I put a hand on my hip and scratched my bare, goose-pimpled chest with the other, looking distractedly at the mailbox. “Did my coupons from Dunkin’ Donuts come?” I asked, without a trace of irony.
But the mailman had suffered emotional distress, and he wasn’t ready to commence normal interaction. He wasted little time in reporting my indiscretion to the management company of the building. After taking a look at their accounts, they realized that I hadn’t paid my rent in six months and swiftly issued a notice for my eviction.
That’s when I called a friend of mine named Duran, who I’d done favors for in the past and I knew had the means to help. Duran helped me move my few belongings into his Washington Heights apartment, and generously allowed me to stay there for a month, rent-free. But after that, I had become a bit of a burden. Luckily, Duran’s friend Mimi was leaving town for a couple weeks and needed someone to watch her place on the Upper West Side. I was all too happy to water her plants and feed her cat in exchange for 2 weeks of cost-effective living. I managed to keep the cat alive, but the plants didn’t make it. Mimi was upset, but she let me stay on for another couple of days before pawning me off on her brother Jack, who had a week left on his lease but wasn’t using it. So I lived for a week in a very roomy artist’s loft in Chelsea while Jack moved his things out, little by little. Finally, the movers came for me.
I was riding with the movers to Jack’s new place, simply because I had nowhere else to go, when the driver of the truck, an Israeli named Gideon, mentioned that he was remodeling his guest room. At this point a professional guest, I offered to help him fix it up. He agreed, and I spent four months sleeping in the room, thanks to the typical New York construction delays from contractors and legal permits. When the room was finished, I was a bit worried until Gideon introduced me to Hakim, a compulsive gambler who had won a van in a game of dominos. I slept in the van for 3 days, until Hakim lost it to a pizza delivery guy named Venuzio during the regular game of craps he played on the stoop of his brownstone in the Bronx. Venuzio took the van with him to Gowanus, and naturally I came along for the ride.
The whole time I was traveling, from couch to couch, apartment to apartment, I was thinking about what I would do if I ever saw Tony again. And did I even want to see him again? What was the difference, in the grand scheme of things, between getting the money and getting nothing? It’s funny to think that I even cared about a few thousand bucks, when my life seemed to be just drifting by, without any purpose.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
My boss Tony owed me quite a bit of money, and while I was waiting for him to pay me I was evicted from my apartment. I’d stopped working for him long before that.
It started with this: Tony told me one day that he didn’t have my pay for the week. “Not a big deal,” I told him, because I’d been experimenting with a minimalist lifestyle. I had my food expenses down to one dollar a day, mostly rice with frozen vegetables, and occasionally those crunchy marshmallows picked out of Lucky Charms cereal.
The odd jobs I did for Tony weren’t very strenuous. One time it was a few days rat-proofing an office in the Jewelry district. Another time I just had to watch over a vacant parking lot for 6 weeks. For that job I had a small 4x4 foot shed and a space heater, and a realistic-looking replica of a .357 Magnum that I guess I was supposed to use to scare away thugs and lurkers. My favorite of Tony’s jobs was the time he had me working in his brother’s hotel as a lifeguard. I wielded my authority over the pool with a benevolence that some might mistake for irresponsibility. Watching the wealthy ladies slip their tanned, Pilates-toned limbs in to the heated water, I often slipped into a daydream. Never mind that I had no experience lifeguarding and wasn’t certified in any of the accepted first aid techniques… the thing that made me most unqualified for the job was that I have been deathly afraid of water since I was eight years old, when I was traumatized by a very rough white water rafting experience. Still, lifeguarding was a blissfully relaxing pastime for me.
Well, following that week when Tony wouldn’t pay me was another week of unpaid work, and then another after that. Finally, after a couple of months, I just told him that I wouldn’t continue without payment in full. It was quite a bit of money.
It took a while, but my savings eventually ran out. Working for Tony had soured me on working in general, and not working had led me to a general dislike of going outdoors. So mostly I just stayed home, cooked rice, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of interminably lying around the house. With a lush feeling of inertia, I followed the days as they ran on and on, off there in the distance.
The problems started when I picked up the strange habit of going out to pick up the mail naked. At first it was just an absent-minded oversight. Subconsciously, I suppose I was just looking to trim the loose ends from my everyday chores. Getting the mail was the first thing I did in the morning. Of course, the mail was delivered in the late afternoon every day, which meant that I was always a day behind, mail-wise. That wasn’t terribly important to me. I rarely knew what day of the week it was anyway. In fact, I hadn’t been out and about in quite a while, and my level of social awareness had deteriorated. So, I continued to walk, naked, down three flights of stairs and to the shared lobby of my apartment building in order to retrieve my mail, every day, until I was spotted.
The mailman was opening the front door to the lobby as I bopped cheerfully, to the rhythm of a tune that only I could hear, over to the mailbox area. I don’t know why he was there in the morning, he may have been a substitute or just new to the route.
He was short, middle aged, and had one of those thick, broom-like, salt and pepper moustaches. When our eyes met, I’m sure that mine were completely blank. I was operating mechanically, and wouldn’t have displayed the slightest self-consciousness. But his face registered all the alarm that mine was lacking. He had no reason to be afraid, but his stark terror was such that he let out a high-pitched scream, like “AAAuugghhhh!!!” A sound similar to the one Charlie Brown makes when Lucy pulls away the football and he goes tumbling through the air, shedding his pride and landing painfully on his back.