Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rest Ushered

I began working as a theater usher recently. The job requires that I wear a black shirt, black shoes, black trousers and a black tie. I have long wanted to buy a black tie, but the risk of being mistaken for an Avril Lavigne fan was, prior to now, far too great.

On my first day of work, my co-workers were all either new and excited or seasoned and content: always encouraging. The enthusiastic, librarian-voiced veterans strongly suggested that I examine the seating lay-out of my assigned section before the patrons began flooding in. Unfortunately, the pre-show usher meeting ran long, and I did not have time to best determine how the seats were arranged.

The crowd entered in, hurriedly but dignified: the American noblesse and their radical opposites, theater critics with tall foreheads, various other associated individuals. A sagely, older usher noticed the look of apprehension on my face as I was at a loss to direct people to their proper places. She ran over to me and gave me a tip about the seating lay-out: "note the numbers in the corners," she advised. Seats on the left go above a certain number, and seats on the right go below that number. This tip proved extremely helpful. Essentially, she was that first-day-of-work savior who shows newcomers “the ropes," lest first-timers accidentally hang themselves, I guess.

Two of the people I seated were anarchists, judging by their all-black clothing, printed with left-wing slogans. One was wearing an anti-stop-and-frisk pin. I examined their tickets. “Just down and to the left,” said I, quite happy to seat activist-types.

“To the left! That’s our life,” quipped one in response, thereby winning my heart.

Another patron was quite unpleasant. After I rather clumsily directed one woman to her seat, correcting myself twice, this patron put her hand on my shoulder and said, with mock-sympathy: “you’re directionally-challenged, aren’t you.” I laughed it off. However, my corrected directions turned out to be faulty, and she returned to tell me so, sarcastically adding “but you’re doing a great job!”

“It’s my first day,” I apologized, and with eyes downcast, I tried to keep my convivial, customer service smile from becoming a “fuck you” smile. Well, I’m sorry to have offended your middle-class sensibilities, making you walk a little bit more than you’re comfortable with. Do you realize that you went out of your way to walk even more, just to tell me I was wrong? Of course you didn’t.

The performance started. In the unfortunate event of having to deal with this rude patron a second time, I spent the first half of the show thinking up a comeback:

  • “Yeah? Directionally-challenged? What a great joke! I hear some people are empathetically-challenged; ever hear of such a thing?”

Alas, wit was risky, and should this haughty gorgon complain, dismissal was the likeliest outcome. Jewish roots intact, evoking guilt was certainly a possibility:

  • “That’s really hurtful, but perhaps you’re having a bad day. Are you enjoying the show?”

Happily, that mock-empathetic response eventually began to make sense to me. Maybe she really was having a bad day. The bitter feelings began to dissipate.

During the intermission, a different audience member with kind eyes and an accent I couldn’t place (perhaps somewhere between Italy and Argentina?) told me that she was enjoying the show and asked if I was as well. We conversed for a bit. She reminded me that I was lucky to work at this theater and get paid to see critically-acclaimed, sold-out performances like this one. She was quite right. I spent intermission chatting with a few other pleasant patrons about the show, and eventually, I forgot about the snark attack altogether. When intermission ended and the stage darkened again, I returned to my position and let myself get pulled-in by the wonderful performance. Lucky I am indeed.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Haircuts: An Intimate Portrait

When very young, my haircuts were managed by a gentleman named Albertucci: a man with a Super Mario Brothers mustache. My elder brother once asked him for a surfboard-shaped head of hair. Although Albertucci gave him the usual mushroom haircut (that dismal standard for 90s children), our youthful, imaginative minds could unmistakably visualize the surfboard surfing atop my brother’s forehead. “I want mine to look like lightning!” I chirped.

“It’ll look like lightening when you wash it out,” he said, and a part of me believed him. As always, he would lean his wrist on that sensitive, nervy part on the back of my neck, I would scrunch-up, and then he would have to reposition me to see what he was doing. These exchanges would continue until everyone besides me affirmed how “cute as a button” I looked. Then, my brother and I would grab a handful of oval-shaped lollipops and visit the grandparents, sporting stunning new dos.

For a while, the parents treated my pre-teenage self to a barbershop run by two tall, young, blond twins; they dressed like 1987, blasted 90s club music and always wore stilettos. My attendance here abruptly ended when, presumably, my parents decided that this too closely resembled the sexual fantasies of many a teenage boy. Thus, up until the end of High School, the stiletto-heeled twins were replaced by a woman who owned an ottoman-sized pet bunny. She would entertain me with stories about her sensitive, lettuce-loving pet while her rabidly-Republican coworker railed incessantly about those evil, anti-American liberals, who wrecked America worse than she would wreck her clients’ hair. My barber's Republican colleague must have believed a little too firmly in cuts.

I avoided haircuts throughout most of university. As a result, my hair blossomed into a giant Jew-fro, which a friend later dreadlocked for me. Alas, as hairballs began shedding from my increasingly unhealthy scalp, in order to keep baldness at bay, I eventually lopped the locks from my head and began patronizing barbers again.

Glasgow offered some interesting haircut experiences. Before an interview for a PhD program, I went to a salon instead of a barber shop, where a stoic Scotswoman shampooed my hair and massaged my scalp. It was, quite frankly, an erotic experience; as her soapy fingers went in and out and in and out of my hair, I had to bite my lip. The PhD interview, incidentally, went worse than a flamethrower party aboard the Hindenburg, but on the bright side, I did learn something about sex that day.
These days, in Brooklyn, my local barber is a youthful, burly guy with tattoos twisting up his arm. Most recently, he cut the front too short but left the top too long, giving me the appearance of permanent hat hair. A flirty Brooklyn gal saved me from the usual, awkward small-talk by winning most (or all) of my barber’s attention.

Nevertheless, we did have to speak business after he had finished cutting. He asked my name after I paid. I told him and, in line with that formality, I asked for his. Obviously, I misheard him:


The Brooklynite lady laughed. “Laser,” he corrected: genially but without humor. “Areyougonnacomeback nextime?”

I assured him I would.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gift Economics

Apparently, the whole idea that we bartered for goods and services before the advent of currency is a myth, traceable back to Adam Smith. We instead gave gifts, expecting reciprocity somewhere down the line, whenever we next need a favor. Each economy essentially ran on the inevitability of future need, similar to the way circles of smokers rely on one another for the occasional bummed cigarette.

Pleasant as this arrangement may sound, during the age of gift economies, rules were complex, and overstepping one’s expectations risked humiliating others. The Icelandic tale about Egil, the aging Viking warrior, and Einar, his young, spear-wielding friend, speaks to these risks. The two were best buds, quite fond of writing poetry together: especially after a long, exhausting evening of mass-slaughter. One day, when Egil is not home, Einar gifts his elder friend a particularly beautiful Norwegian shield. Egil returns shortly after Einar’s departure and, upon beholding the shield, and presumably feeling a bit vanquished by the splendor of the gift, Egil attempts to avenge his lost honor by finding and killing his young friend. Unable to do so, Egil instead takes a deep breath and writes a poem about the shield, as the social mores impel.


Popping-out of a trash bag in a neighbor’s yard, I spotted Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I must have jolted a bit with name recognition. The elderly Chinese woman who lived there noticed my double-take and beckoned me into her yard.

And thus, like an overeager, erudite raccoon, I dug through the bag, finding several paperbacks on Eastern religion, a copy of On the Road and a few other treasures. “Take! Take!” the kindly woman implored. Gifts.

I wanted to give my gift-giver a gift in return, so the following day, I visited my local florist and bought her a festive, purple flower. Too awkward to know whether my gesture was weird or otherwise inappropriate, I decided to simply leave it on her doorstep, with a note thanking her for the books, lest she wonder what the flower was for. As I approached her yard, it suddenly occurred to me that, unlike the Viking warrior the Icelandic folktale, my own biblio-benefactor might, in fact, be home. Indeed, outside her door, there she was, slowly sorting her mail. She stood there for a long time, even after I rounded the block twice, in the light rain, holding that big, ridiculous flower: I must have resembled a failed poet in a hippie flick.

Finally, she went inside, leaving the screen door shut but the main door ajar. I hurriedly entered her yard, placed the note and flower gently on her doorstep and dashed away.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Life Says "No" to Caffeine

My productivity is only assured after cup after cup of tea, or coffee, or both. In Glasgow, I developed the habit of walking back and forth, between kitchen and bedroom, for tea refills; this repetitious behavior provided caffeination, a break from essay writing, light exercise and something warm to hold in my lap (weird, I know, but any bit of warmth to combat those chill winter winds of Scotland helps). Eventually, I began to think of caffeine as necessary – as something I could not live without. Today, life decided to test that theory.

My roommate has an electric kettle: a standard kitchen appliance in Britain but somewhat rare in the United States. The switch on it had been loose for the entirety of my time in Brooklyn. Today it finally snapped-off. I boiled the water on the stove instead. When I tried to pour the water into my roommate’s French Press, the beaker cracked. I procured a cup of coffee anyway and drank at the risk of drinking glass shards. Unfortunately, the effects of this coffee began to wear off, and I tried to make some tea with my roommate’s tea diffuser. The glass lid slipped out of my hand and exploded on the floor like some malicious domestic cluster bomb.

I am not happy. Neither is my roommate.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I can confirm that the late-night D train is a perfectly fun-filled place to spend the night.

After knocking-back a few beers with the buds, I began my hazy, heavy-footed journey home, during which, at some random interval, I drunkenly dozed-off on the D. When I snorted myself awake, I found myself sharing a non-moving subway car with a handful of men asleep in their seats. They appeared homeless, or so I surmised from their bristly, matted beards and their garments – mottled yet paled to a gray. Not a bad place to get some shut-eye, I thought. In how many other indoor places can the homeless let their guard down and restore themselves?

I assessed the situation: the lights were on, the air-conditioning was running and the sign outside informed me that I had ended-up at the Coney Island terminus. We should be rolling-along again shortly.

“Do you have the time?” One man was suddenly conscious. I did not want to know for how long I had been sleeping, but I owed my fellow passenger an answer.

“4:15,” and something inside me winced. How late it was, how late. As the train whirred back towards Manhattan, I resolved never to let myself fall asleep on a subway car again.

When I boarded another D train a few nights ago, happily intoxicated, I felt determined to hold-back sleep, as if sleep were some insistent door-to-door salesman that I was attempting to shunt out of my house. Success seemed imminent as the first series of above-ground stops flew by. Then, after glancing away from the window for just a minute, I looked outside again and, to my alarm, saw the sign “50th Bay Street” appear: one stop away from Coney Island. I passed my stop again! Worse, the train headed back in the other direction was arriving on the opposite platform. Oh, bother!

With all the grace of a kidney stone, I leaped off my train, scrambled through the station and reached the doors of the other train, just as they were closing. Thankfully, the tenderhearted conductor, noting my distress, kindly reopened the doors for me. When I sat down, that sudden sprint through the station suddenly caught-up with me; it initiated the very first pangs of a really bad hangover: one that felt as though someone were wringing-out my brain like a washcloth, over and over again, as if attempting to squeeze-out every infinitesimal drop of alcohol from every single synapse. My brain would bang mercilessly until I went to sleep the following night.

Hilariously, the next stop on this newly-boarded train was Coney Island. I was asleep at Coney Island long enough on the first train for it to reverse its direction back homewards. I shook my head, rubbed my temples and attempted a smile; even in that pained state, I strongly sensed the absurdity of my situation.

I cannot remember how long it took for that docked train to take me home.