A Frozen Zen Garden Awaits Someone

I don’t like it when the sky dumps over two feet of snow on a city and forces it to shut down; I love it when the sky dumps that snow. It forces the inflexible to change their plans. It forces the ambitious to relax. It forces the pedestrians in the most in-a-hurry city in America to stop and let one another pass.

When the city banned cars from the road on Saturday, people on foot took to the streets, smiling and snapping photos of each other in the middle of avenues. The moon was full somewhere up in that sky, and many were inebriated – nothing was open except for bars and liquor stores, and a few bodegas and hardware stores hoping to sell a few more shovels.

The next day, I wasn’t the only person to think of going to Green-Wood Cemetery: I came across a dozen or so people, mostly in twos, but one other solo guy as well, a bat shit crazy Chinese-American ranting about a disagreement he was having in his head, who greeted my “hello” with a scared silence that lasted till he was thirty yards behind me.

IMG_5578

Come to mourn the loss of absolutely nothing.

I was looking for a spot I’d found the week before, one day when my wife and I were the only people who’d thought of going there. We’d come across a part of the cemetery I’d once known as a dumping ground for torn-out shrubs and piles of leaves, and then a construction site. Now the construction was finished.

Old cemeteries are under financial pressure to find more patches of ground within their gates to bury bodies in. Civil War vets don’t pay the bills. Green-Wood, I could see, had converted its biggest compost pile into a new mausoleum.

Why do we like cemeteries? What compels people to go think about life surrounded by other people’s ancestors? In most places they’re the only parks made for silent contemplation. Roller blading is forbidden. Lycra® is bad form. Reading the names of strangers whose place in the fabric of life is already final, you feel connected to that fabric.

Still – and I say this as someone who does U-turns on country roads in Pennsylvania when he sees that he’s missed a boneyard by an old Moravian church – you feel pangs of guilt about the voyeurism of it. This isn’t your great-grandparent, and it isn’t your faith. The beauty of this spot was cultivated to ease the grief of someone else.

This wall of empty space in Green-Wood provides all the contemplation with none of the distraction of the actual object of mourning. Very tastefully done too, I might add.

IMG_5806

Boss Tweed’s grave, worn by generations of hands.

With few actual graves in this pile of snow, it’s understandable that the crew at Green-Wood was in no hurry to dig out its paths. I would have walked right past it yesterday if I hadn’t made a mental note that it was just around the corner from Boss Tweed’s grave. I always found it curious how much corrosion Tweed’s stone has, presumably from people who’ve come to touch history. He’s not Saint Mark or Elvis Presley. He’s the symbol of something that, to those who care about it, they probably have mixed feelings about. Forgive the pun, but I guess he’s still a touchstone.

If you can find Boss Tweed’s grave, keep poking around. I’d put my rubber boots on to wade into the drifts, but only got as close as the next ridge over, about as far as it takes for a madman to feel like danger has passed so he can start ranting again. It was so pretty I didn’t want to disturb it.

This week while water trickles from underneath the drifts, one of you will break through the crust on top of the snow to find a frozen meditation garden, a place to contemplate being on this planet and what’s really important. All the things we miss while we’re doing, doing, doing.

Fair Weather Mets Fans

There’s hipster currency in the New York Mets right now, but don’t let that stop you from rooting for them this week in their playoff series against the Dodgers. Sports fanhood has all sorts of meanings to its practitioners, and your Mets may not be your neighbor’s Mets. The meaning the fans collectively give to their team, as the hero in the sports epic that’s unfolding in their respective minds, is what gives every team its personality.

The Yankees, like their fans, often have an angry air about them. “Everyone is jealous of us,” they think, “and so they underestimate our excellence, but we really are that good.” I found myself having a sandwich at a bar and grill in Milford, Pennsylvania one night this week, and three 20-something guys were huddled under the TV set rooting for the Yankees, in their final game, and an off-duty employee put “Sweet Caroline” on the juke box, and led a loud singalong. It was a big “fuck you” aimed at the Yankees (“Sweet Caroline” is the Red Sox theme song.) that was not lost on the guys at all. One of them muttered to the others, “Can you believe this shit?” in a defiantly annoyed, but supremely confident voice, wasting no time thinking any further about it.

They’re easy to hate, and yet, walk into most Latino bars in New York, and you’ll see a lot of Yankee fans among the Dominican and Puerto Rican old guard, the “Yankees” having a totally different meaning to them: pride in New York when it was down and out, and America itself, the future. How can you be against the future?

Tug McGraw's 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

Tug McGraw’s 1966 Topps card, when he was a Met.

To understand the absolutely unique identity of the Mets, check out the fascinating map of American baseball fans that Facebook and The New York Times published last year. Using Facebook “likes” as an indicator, which is admittedly imperfect but must mean at least a little something, it lists the few favorite teams of every zipcode, and by how much. The Mets aren’t even the favorite around their own stadium! They have no homeland. Their fans are a diaspora, a smallish minority of a relatively small, but densely populated area.

Muslims in India are only 14% of the population, but out of 1.2 billion, that’s 168 million people, more than Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia combined, and that says something Mets fans can understand. To everyone else they’re an anomaly. Only they comprehend just how vast their numbers are.

And then there’s the team history, so consistently beaten, their fans have a fellowship of hope in the face of constant suffering. About once a generation they put together a winning team. Don’t tell the Cubs fans, but that’s just barely enough to sustain them through their long droughts. All the while they endure constant comparisons to the dominant Yankees.

The Yankees are the team of “New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind,” the fantasy of New York as the perfect background to one’s own terribly impressive biography, the city that thrills you, that you love because it gratifies you in return, and that makes you swagger a little just because you know your way around it. The Mets are the team of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Why do you love it? “I don’t have any reasons/ I’ve left them all behind.” It’s the fondness an old, bickering couple still has for one another.

Enter the hipsters, the huddled masses who washed ashore clutching iPhones and wrapped in duvet covers. Remaking the fabric of many places in Brooklyn and Queens since the last time the Mets won it all, they chose the outer boroughs instead of “the city,” so naturally they’re choosing the Mets. To them the Mets are the team of the grinding hunt for rent in the city that makes you weary. You see them at Citi Field: groups of three or four soft-spoken guys with beards and Mets caps, having some guy time while their girlfriends are elsewhere watching Dance. Even if a part of their hearts will always be loyal to the team they grew up with, and even if they dreamed of a loft in Tribeca before they realized that a one-bedroom in Crown Heights was actually “a better fit,” they can’t help falling for the Mets, or they have no substance at all.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map.

A detail of the New York Times/Facebook baseball map

How do I know? True confessions, don’t judge me. I grew up loving the Philadelphia Phillies. My fondest childhood memories are of the team of Schmidt and Carlton, Bowa and Boone, Maddox and especially Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. My mother’s half-Polish, and my father was fond of Polish jokes; he was prone to gruff comments, any time someone hit a double to left-center, about how anyone but Luzinski would have caught that ball, and how the Phillies would never win with “that polack” in left field. I don’t know what the Freudian term is for the satisfaction you get from your mother’s people being redeemed every time a lifetime .276 hitter smacks a homerun, but I had a persistent case of it.

Then there was Tug McGraw, a screwball-thrower who was on the Mets championship team in ’69, before moving to the Phillies mid-’70s, who must have been bitter about the breakup, because his hatred of the Mets was well-known. Tug was so lovable – He famously answered the question of whether he preferred astroturf or real grass by saying, “I don’t know, I never smoked astroturf,” and who doesn’t love an intoxicated baseball player?* – you rooted for him to get his revenge.

More importantly, I only realized when the Facebook map came out, I grew up in a very particular baseball microclimate, a suburb of Trenton. We were in the outer ring of people who read The Inquirer and watched Philadelphia news, and were divided between Yankees and Phillies, with the Mets a distant third. Yankee fans were either Italian-Americans or people who’d moved south from New York or North Jersey, and I found them intolerably arrogant. Mets fans I had a cause to dislike in an active way since we were division rivals, but I saw something of myself in them: Teams who a. resented the Yankees, b. had chips on our shoulders about the unglamorous geographical center of gravity we each revolved around, and c. were more than a bit surprised when we did win. Phillies and Mets fans are just a chromosome apart. Like Serbs and Croats, how could we possibly not get along?

Citi Field during Mets game has the best vibes of any big crowd in New York. Chill, well-informed, and generous, but with just a hint of that impatient Long Island attitude. It’s rather white, but that’s who’s still watching baseball, as Mets fan Chris Rock explains. I know there’s a hint of disdain, in the diehard Mets fans’ hearts, for the fair weather friends who tune in for the post-season on those rare years when they’re in the running. It’s natural, like the usher at a church exasperated by the bad manners of a swollen congregation on Christmas, but I hope they’ll save a little of the happiness for us too.

*I guess I’m a fair weather fan myself, since I’ve honestly spent more time this summer talking about this animated documentary by James Blagden about Doc Ellis than I have talking about any one Mets game. “High as a Georgia pine,” that guy was when he pitched a no-hitter, on LSD!

“What happened to yesterday?!”

Good Plants, Bad Plants, and “Bad Plants”

Seeing that it’s futile to grow grass in my tiny back yard in Brooklyn, I’ve decided to break it up into autonomous zones for various weeds. I slowly made the decision over the summer, and finalized it yesterday by printing labels for the most common ones, giving the tactical retreat an “I meant to do that” patina.

Labels say, "I meant to do that."

Labels say, “I meant to do that.”

 

If God intended to endow all humans with “certain inalienable Rights,” as the saying goes, then He certainly intended for every patch of dirt on the western tip of Long Island to be covered in dandelions, broadleaf plantain, clover, and lady’s thumbs, and who am I to resist His holy intentions?

It started in the neglected, odd places that aren’t quite “garden” and aren’t quite “lawn” in the American use of those words. The “taint” in a brand new sense. When I saw how hardy and goofily pretty the lady’s thumbs growing by the compost pile were, I privileged these “weeds” with a few patches, and within weeks they became a border around most of our garden. Meanwhile I was waging war against the plantain, which killed any grass I tried planting in the dirt patches. Back-to-nature sorts kept telling me the plantains were edible, but if you saw how many batteries and shards of glass I find in this soil you wouldn’t eat anything that grows in it either.

My inspiration was Stephen Dunn’s poem “Bad Plants,” one of a handful I’ve been memorizing while gardening this year. “Bad Plants” questions the absoluteness of the distinction gardeners make between good plants and invasive species, comparing them to human relationships, with “the beautiful and the dangerous/ in one package.” After talking knowledgably about a few of them, Dunn lays out his case:

“All of them are inclined

to choke out what’s native.

Bad plants? Nature of course would say, Careful now,

watch your language, let’s just see

what survives.”

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

 

Dunn ultimately concludes that, despite his soft spot for them, you can’t really afford to give them a foothold in your garden. “Never make a deal,/
 I’d say, with kudzu,/ or become purple loosestrife’s Neville Chamberlain.”

So I guess it’s against the master’s greater judgment, but I’m giving broadleaf plantain its autonomous zone, common moss its homeland, and clover its nation-state. Let’s just see what survives. I can always soak them and rip them out in the spring.

Falling In and Out of Love With Brooklyn

Soon after moving to Brooklyn from Los Angeles (by way of a brief stop in Washington Heights) almost ten years ago, I was on the #2 Train, and a mariachi trio got on and started belting out a Mexican song.

Most train lines conjure images in New Yorkers’ heads, often ethnic in nature, and we all know that the 2 in Brooklyn is mostly Black, and much of that Caribbean, with a little Hasid and Hipster mixed in – the difference between the last two getting blurrier. Fascinating to a newcomer that the mariachi guys would choose this audience to raise a little cash.

Accordions are loud, and as soon as its wind filled the car an enchanted smile covered my face, and I turned to the woman sitting next to me, who looked around 70 years old. She just frowned and said, “Not these motherfuckers again.”

Within a few years I found myself muttering such things too. That’s part of love: brutal honesty. I love my neighbors, but when I see one dropping a diaper or styrofoam food box in front of my house, I holler out the window, “You gonna pick that up?!” We all piss and moan about one another, so I find it helps to say so when we get that fuzzy feeling of brother- and sisterhood.

The Danes apparently have a specialized concept something like “deliberate coziness,” hygge, that they credit with making them extraordinarily happy people despite their sunlight-deficient environment. New Yorkers have a kindred kind of tenderness for one another that people from everywhere else are prone to mis-reading completely. It rarely expresses itself via anything more than a raised eyebrow or an exasperated hunch of the shoulders, but occasionally crosses the line into a camaraderie-building shrug while keeping eye contact with a stranger: We acknowledge the effort it takes one another to stifle the R-rated politically incorrect broadsides we compose while we’re simply inconvenienced at times by the presence of eight million other people with multiple ideas about social constructs such as personal space, vocal volume, and the pedestrian speed limit. (Denmark, by comparison, has under six million.)

I was overcome by it while waiting in line to vote on Tuesday. The Giuliani-Bloomberg era was ending with a whimper, and the line was just a few persons, but taking longer than it felt like it should. My local bartender was in front of me. He turned around with his eyebrows high, then interrupted himself with some small talk to distract us. “You’re voting No on Question 5, right?” “Yup.”

The signs were like this:

Image

I love this city.