In January of 2004, You Learned:
HOW TO RADICALIZE YOUR OPINION ABOUT PRESCRIPTION SEROTONIN INHIBITORS.
Here is a True Tale of Medical Calamity! (swoon.) I switched physicians recently, primarily because my previous physician was so logjammed with patients that tending to my various hysterical medical conditions became sort of prohibitive. For example, the last time I visited her offices it was so overcrowded that, during my exam when she grabbed my scrotum ANOTHER PATIENT COUGHED!! People! Big kiss!! (lawsuit pending.) I also had a problem with all the donkeys in the waiting room, but I've been told this is typical of doctors who participate in HMOs.
Yesterday I had my first visit with a new physician -- a straight-talking character with little patience for procedural bullshit. Yes, my new doctor is James Caan. While filling out my very thorough new patient questionnaire in the waiting room -- do I consider myself at risk for HIV/AIDS? do I support a woman's right to suffrage? if i could pick between being born deaf or being born blind, which would i choose? would i be willing to kiss a rabbit between its ears? -- I was continuously disrupted by a crumpled elderly woman, who made very public her desire to "eat some soup!" She was practically dwarfed by the aluminum walker that supported her tiny frame, and wore a loose-fitting sweatsuit and oversized Velcro sneakers, the official uniform of a person who no longer dresses herself. And she was desperate for soup.
She kept instructing her nurse aide, Sylvia, to find a suitable location for the purchase of soups. When Sylvia explained that the doctor's office did not provide soup but could offer her a cup of tea in its place, the junior-sized senior exploded into rage. "GOD DAMNIT I DO NOT WANT TEA. TEA WILL NOT FILL ME UP! I NEED SOUP!!!" Judging by her miniature stature, I imagine tea would have filled her up just fine; honestly, a blast of fresh air would do the trick. (later, she apologized to sylvia in way that was clearly uncomfortable for everyone else within earshot. i could feel the air stiffen me as the soup lady, employing a stage whisper which was probably close to inaudible to her own deaf ears, consoled her rattled nurse aide. "now sylvia," she pleaded, "you know i love you very much. i love you with all my heart and i would not want to send you out into the terrible cold. i do, however, need soup. so what are we going to do, sylvia, my love? what are we to do?" witnessing this scene was not unlike sitting through an oscar clip from the tina turner film biography, what's love got to do with it?)
After receiving nothing more nourishing than stony silence from Sylvia, the soup lady turned (ever so slowly) on the busy receptionists behind the desk. Ignoring the headsets plugged into the receptionists’ ear sockets – or perhaps too near-sighted to see them – and, further, ignoring the telephone conversations with which the receptionists were already busied – or perhaps too impaired to hear them -- the soup lady berated the staff with soup-related questions. "Is this place clean?" "Do they employ natural-born Americans there?" "What kind of soup do you think I’d like?" Fielding this question could have meant tampering with Pandora’s box, given her prior outburst, but the receptionists handled it deftly by shrugging and returning to their calls.
Soup lady then targeted the rest of us, the real or imagined-to-be-infirm denizens of the doctor’s waiting room – people who had at least one thought on their minds more distressful than the proximity, cleanliness, and variety of local soups.
I felt her blind gaze on me, her corneas straining through a gauzy cobweb of astigmatism. Her fingers cracked and curled, and she said-shouted, "You there. Can you help me, young lady?"
Young lady? I don’t think there was ever a moment in my life past the age of six, when my parents finally trimmed my Keith Partridge tribute haircut, that anyone, young or old, ever mistook me for a woman. And if there was occasion to do so, it was not this day. My face was covered in a thick, black beard. (with handsome grey flecks around the chin, as my ASPCA adopt-a-jew advertisement would surely describe it.) And it couldn’t have been the way I was dressed; I was wearing a bulky and very concealing military-issue winter parka over my "Hooters" uniform. (i didn’t have time to change, and those nude stockings are surprisingly cozy in this adversely cold weather.) I did not look like a woman.
What must this woman see, if anything? She was obviously aware of my presence, since she knew enough to single me out from all of the other young ladies in the waiting room. Perhaps her vision, like that of a timber wolf, affords her only the faint detection of heat-producing masses. In any case, I told her I couldn’t help her, and that I was sorry. And then I finished eating my bowl of minestrone – my appetite was so weakened by all the commotion this woman caused that I wound up discarding half the bowl in disgust – and eagerly counted down the minutes until my physician would place a gloved hand on my scrotum.*
*As I sat down to write this, I had originally intended to create a very scrotum-centric story, concerning my current panoply of self-initiated, genital related health scares. However, I soon discovered that my scrotum, though of great interest to me and the 35,622 individuals and families who subscribe to my Webcam service, it is quite possibly not as intriguing to the other people who happen upon my site whenever their top reading choices haven’t bothered to update. In short, I listed several concerns to my new doctor, all of them directly related to my body’s ability to produce clean, effective sperm. I provided substantial supporting evidence, researched from WebMD. After I completed my laundry list and put down my clipboard, the doctor peered at me over the top of his eyeglasses, and asked, "Todd, would you consider yourself an anxious person?" I had hoped to leave his office with a great supply of Cipro and a referral to fertility clinics and holistic penis medicine specialists. Instead, I barely avoided a prescription for anti-anxiety medicine.
At one point, the doctor asked me if my therapist – he correctly assumed I was seeing one – was a woman. When I replied, "yes, why?" He simply laughed and said, "I guess that’s just the way the world is going." His assurances were a great comfort to me, but I still made him hold my scrotum briefly before he turned me away. I wasn’t going to let him off scot-free.
HOW TO FORSAKE THE NEXT GENERATION.
After days of prancing gingerly, even in combat boots, I noticed that by yesterday much of the ice had finally been scraped or salted from the sidewalk. In fact, as I marched to the gym (brag), the only place I encountered a dangerously icy sidewalk was directly in front of the daycare center on my block. That's nice.
[addendum: today I took a walk in my neighborhood and noticed there was also a bit of ice left on the sidewalk in front of The Levinson Center for Blind, Crippled Old Gays in Slippers. bad luck for those guys.]
HOW TO RUIN A TERRIBLE FILM.
I'm going to let you in on a secret: white people think black movie audiences talk too much and too loudly. I realize this subject is controversial, but if I didn't stir the pot every once in a while I wouldn't have been named "Baltimore's Raunchiest Drive-Time Shock Jock (AM frequency)" three years in a row.
Personally, I like loud black audiences. (that was really brave of me to say, wasn't it?) They've got ideas, suggestions. They're contributing to the art form. If a black audience member feels a character shouldn't check on a noise in the tool shed without first loading an automatic weapon, he or she will kindly let you know. If a black audience member worries a charactization is too "gay", rest assured you will be apprised of that opinion by way of raucous laughter and hi-top sneakers thrown at the screen in celebration. And if a black audience member enjoys a film, he or she will stand up, raise a glass of Chenin Blanc (on ice) to the heavens and declare, "Author! Author!" I think it would be nice if each new DVD release featured an extra audio commentary documenting the real-time reactions of an exclusively black audience in a packed theatre* in Times Square on the film's opening night. The entertainment inherent in the experience could do for white-black relations what Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has done for heterosexual-Keihl's relations.
Truthfully, I think black people unfairly absorb all the blame for being stereotypically unruly during movies - blame that should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the elderly. For instance, earlier this week I attended a film in an audience composed almost entirely of the over-60 set. I usually don't see that many older people in one place, because I don't attend synagogue and I don't really ride the bus, but my friend, Neille, scored tickets for a screening of Japanese Story, basically a horrible romantic comedy about wacky mismatched cultures, filtered through the dour lens of arthouse dread. The tickets for the screening were made possible by a giveaway at NYC's public radio station, WNYC, which explained the abundant presence of senior citizens, as well as faint odor of lilacs and aged tote bag canvas.
When viewing films with the elderly - something I haven't done since I was unemployed and made matinee appointments - one should attend with certain minimum expectations:
- First, you should realize that no one over the age of 55 has purchased food or drink from a theater concession stand since before the Hays Code. This doesn't mean old people never get hungry. In fact, if you're attending a 1:30pm showing, Old Person Dinner Time will fall somewhere toward the middle of the film.
- Old people do not eat normal foods at the movies. The reason movie theatre snacks are served in boxes rather than cellophane bags is that boxes are silent and bags are not. The same golden rule is responsible for the shortage of movie theatre concessions selling potato chips, Pop Rocks, and sizzling Wo Bar. OLD PEOPLE CARE LITTLE FOR THIS RULE. So expect to hear the sound of cellophane crinkling as butterscotch candies are unwrapped. Do not be alarmed when you hear the rustling of a paper bag or aluminum foil; that is just one of your neighbors retrieving a liverwurst sandwich. And prepare yourself for the extraordinarily unpleasant smells and sounds of a slow-moving mouth masticating 8 ounces of wet tuna fish salad. Movies!
- Old people pee a lot. Whether it's at home, in a crowded theatre, or on your couch, old people have a compulsive - some would say uncontrollable - need to urinate. If possible, give them the aisle seats. And unless the theatre is absolutely crowded - if you're attending City Slickers 3: Oy Vey It's Crazy Out Here, for example - try not to get boxed in. You will spend a lot of time standing up, and you will miss Billy Crystal's wonderful rejoinders.
- Old people cannot understand most international accents, as well as many regional American dialects. Expect many unanswered inquiries into dialogue.
- Old people rarely comprehend the mechanics of any technology invented after the comb. If you want to endure a very special torture, try attending a screen adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story in a theatre full of senior citizens.
- Old people do not have indoor voices.
- And, perhaps most importantly, if you see old people seated at the back of the theatre, do not sit in front of them. They came there to fuck.
At Japanese Story, I had the rare pleasure of being flanked by two pairs of different, but equally aggravating senior citizens. Two elderly women were seated behind my right shoulder, and each one spent the majority of the film asking the other what had just happened. This would be followed by silence, as the other woman would never know herself. "What happened" was asked no less than a dozen times, alternated with "what did she/he just say?" (i should point out that the two main characters, featured in nearly every frame of the movie, had an australian and japanese accent, respectively. the seniors should have been warned that this movie should was rated a 7.0 in dialect difficulty, somewhere between Goodfellas and Nil by Mouth.)
Behind my left shoulder were two older gentlemen who somehow believed they were watching Notting Hill, except funny. They seized upon every opportunity to burst into smug laughter, particularly when the leading Japanese character presented his business card with two hands or spoke with an accent. When the two leads fucked, they laughed. When they talked about freezing to death in the desert, they laughed. When the film took a very sudden and dark turn, one of them laughed and the other chided him for it, saying, "that's not funny." Then he considered it for a moment and corrected, "Oh wait. Yes. Yes it is." (it wasn't.) I would have shut them up right there, if they hadn't just shared their Tupperware container of boiled, skinless chicken with me a few minutes earlier.
Reading over what I just wrote - well, imagining reading it over, anyway - I can imagine some people would arrive at the conclusion that I do not like senior citizens. Absolutely not true. I think they're adorable, like Chinese babies. Actually, I love older people, when they're on park benches or dressed up like Santa Claus or eating soup alone or playing rock guitar and giving people the finger and screaming, "piss off, dick-hole!" in David Spade films. I just think there's a time and a place for everything and everyone. And the time for older people is "before noon", and the place is "Boca Raton".
[Addendum: a gypsy just crossed my path and put a curse on me. now i'm an old man! And i've got only 48 hours to find the amulet that can lift the curse. Oh, but how can I, and old man, do it alone??? I wonder if those nice old people I met on the bus - Kirk Douglass, Maureen Stapleton, and Robert Duvall - can help me? Or maybe Robert Duvall's beautiful grand-daughter, Jennifer Aniston, who is exactly my pre-curse age, can help. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but I do know this: someone is going to get the finger.]
*For a change, I decided to use the British spelling of "theater", to appeal to homesick European readers and pretentious American jerk-faces.
HOW TO MAKE PLATO RETREAT.
The cover story in today's Style section of the New York Times was about the new private party swingers scene in New York City. (i rarely read the paper, but was hoping it would contain a sale circular for Best Buy. mission: possible!) Actually, the swinging sex renaissance isn't really that new - when reading about burgeoning trends in the NY Times it is necessary to back-date the actual trend start-date about 18-24 months. (a similar arithmetic can be applied to the canadian hairstyles vs. the u.s. hairstyles on which they're based. the dry look is still king in ottawa.) Lifestyle magazines have been covering the "female sexual empowerment through anonymous finger-boning" parties thrown by Cake for several years now, and other instances pop up here and there. The burlesque revival has been germinating for a while. Sex™ has been the hot new denial for post-millennial anxiety since before the towers fell.
While scanning the Times article, and reading about the parties' essay applications; Zalman King-esque passwords; pseudonymous hosts licking their lips behind feathered masks purchased at the Halloween Warehouse; invitation lists culled from Nerve.com personal ads; and what appears to be genuinely upper-middle class core revelers, my brain started to slip into neutral. And by paragraph seven (the one just to the left of one of the event organizers, a bald, goateed man wearing sunglasses indoors, at night, who owns a "love loft" in brooklyn) all the words in the article began to merge, and became raw fuel to feed the creature inside me who likes to rear his head every time I catch two appalling, erection-flattening minutes of HBO's "Real Sex". I usually snap right in the middle of that one particular segment - you know, the one where a catering company called "Garden of Eatin'" provides a service in which they'll arrange crudité along a woman's reclining nude body so a bunch of Scientologist from Marin County can eat cornichons off a stranger's pubic bone. Just as a former concert promoter slides a grape tomato into a puddle of artichoke dip collected in the centerpiece's navel, my creature likes to stand up and announce, "THIS IS WHY I HATE WHITE PEOPLE." And that is precisely what happened while I was reading the article. If the headline were something like, "Why White People are Getting Lamer Every Day," it would have saved me valuable time.
I realize this will sound like the beginning of my set at the Best Little Ha-House In Texas comedy club but, seriously, what is it with white people? Can't you just have some sex and be done with it? Why do you have to dress like Charlotte Rampling in Night Porter and throw goddess parties and make up fake Greek aliases and lick pvc boots and jack off while your best friend's girlfriend pees on herself in an inflatable kiddie pool and hold your orgasm until someone in Chinese silks bangs a ceremonial gong behind the bar and a giant chandelier prop descends from the ceiling at a west side warehouse night club? Perhaps I'm old-fashioned or uncomfortably efficient, but I always thought sex was a little more immediately satisfying. I grew up believing all you needed for sex was a wiener, a hole, and the good sense to never announce, "the time to place my wiener within your hole is nigh. Present your hole!"
Why is it that you rarely see black or hispanic couples on "Real Sex" or featured in these stylish, upwardly mobile swinger pieces in Vanity Fair? And, with the exception of that one reptilian guy who tries far too hard in The Lifestyle, Asian-American men and women are surprisingly exempt from these modern practices as well. I used to have a theory, which was that the fetish-swinger lifestyle was not directly related to race, but to economics. And that it's not minorities who are shut out of or immune to this scene, but working-class people in general. People who need to hold on to their cash for other distractions, like rent or vaccines. It's sort of the Eyes Wide Shut theory of economics. Aggregating all of that disposable income grows boring, and wealthy people begin to look for creative ways to spend it, like purchasing sex costumes and fuck swings and paying for dwarves to dress up like the members of Kiss to help break the ice of power-flirting in your underpants.
I think that theory is limited, though. Maybe it is deeper than economics, though I'm sort of loathe to admit as much. But who do you think is keeping Frederick's of Hollywood in business? Who is making the most (and best!) amateur porn? Who is filling issue after issue of TV (transvestite) Guide with personal ads and cheap snapshots taken on motor inn beds? Who is supervising the construction of an adult-sized playpen right now? Broke-ass white people, that's who. Give them just a few dollars, and they'll go right out and spend it on a synthetic blonde wig and a Rubbermaid® dildo, and drop the change on a lottery ticket. So, against my better judgment, maybe a lot of this does fall along racial, or at least cultural lines. For me, this is all speculation but I'm sure someone is conducting a post-graduate sociological study about white people's need to make sex as complicated as an off-broadway production, and the password to volunteer for the study is "rip my bodice."
HOW TO MAKE ME WANNA.
I received a reprint permissions letter today from Glamour UK, which reminded me that I have a small (300 words or so) piece in the February 2004 issue of Glamour. It's there if you want to read, as part of a multi-author feature titled, "What he's thinking when..."
My piece is about women who cry. I'd originally been assigned a second piece, about women who make the first move, but an editor called several weeks after I handed it in and she had some bad news. My "first move" piece had been cut from the feature. The magazine liked it but it seems the same list of story assignments were circulated among the male super-huge-celebrity crowd, giving them the option to contribute to the article. And, unfortunately, Usher was very adamant about submitting a piece on women who make the first move. Naturally, I was sad to see my contribution cut in half (though, in fair play, i was paid for both pieces), but I have to say it's really just an honor to be bumped by Usher. I've always loved his writing. And his contribution to Glamour - the story of how he met Chili from TLC - finally answers the question millions of R&B listeners have pondered, and many poets have interpreted over the centuries. Apparently, Chili made the first move.
[i had considered posting my unpublished story here, but i'm not sure of the legal complications that could potentially ensue, and i would hate to be sued by Glamour or the house of Usher.]
HOW TO BE AN ADULT CHILD OF A NARCISSISTIC PARENT.
I took a bath last night. (brag) I rarely take baths because they require sitting still and relaxing with one's thoughts, and that's just not a game I like to play. Leave that to the beatniks, I say. But last night I had a crushing headache that was so intense I felt like my brain was being passed around at an out-of-hand bachelor party, and I needed to clear it away to get some work done, so I determined a bath was the only decent, holistic solution to my immediate problem.
[ladies, this is the part where i get all nakeded up. commence lighting scented candles now. i recommend "banana nut bread" from the yankee candle company.]
The bath was very hot, but once I got over my very real fear of disfiguring my scrotum in the steaming depths the still water slowly ameliorated my headache. Unfortunately, after I exhausted all of the baking soda in my bathtub submarine I was left alone in the dark, and this sort of forced me to think.
I was thinking about how, on top of the many other partner-specific problems I've had with relationships over the last several years, one of my most consisten problems is rooted in my difficulty with administering or accepting sweet compliments. If you are my friend, you know how deftly I will bat down any compliment making its way toward me. And it's not that I don't see the good in others. In fact, it would be very easy for me to make a blushing list of qualities I've appreciated, or even found myself awed by, for just about every single woman I've ever dated or friend I've known. My belief in others has probably forced me to hold on to many people even after the relationship has ended, much longer than might be considered healthy.
I think I've already digressed. Bath. Bubbles. Thinking. Compliments. Yes. Anyway, I am pretty sure I know the source of this compliment giving-and-taking problem. This is a very therapy-style revelation, but growing up with a parent who was maybe not a fully formed adult when she got married might be partially responsible for some of this undesirable behavior. My mother is stuck in an arrested state of adolescence, I think. As a result, she demands constant positive attention. She also asks me to drive her to the mall all the time, and makes me park 50 feet away from the entrance because she is too embarrassed to be seen with me. And I'm too ashamed to talk about all the strange teenage boys she brought home, or the time I had to drop her off at the free clinic. (yes, crabs.)
Compliments and positive reinforcement have always been extracted like molars from my siblings and me. Maintaining an endless stream of accolades was never requested; it was required. We've had to tell her how great her new permanent looked, how nicely her Weight Watchers program was paying off (my mother, though she'd never believe this herself, was never in need of a weight loss program. she's been trim as long as i can remember, but that's just not what she sees.), or what a nice figure she cut in her Shop-Rite "Scrunchy the Bear" sweatshirt and stirrup pants. It is exhausting.
This compulsive need for affirmation for everyone around her works in other ways, too. Rue the day that you are sick in my home because, within 12 hours of your diagnosis, my mother will inevitably become afflicted with something more grave, or at least more noisy. I can remember being a child, lying in bed with a chest cold, the Vicks Vap-O-Rub wobbling the atmosphere around me, when my mother made her entrance, usually carrying a laundry basket. (a pretense for invading my privacy.) She would then go about her business, while producing the kinds of dramatic lung-rattling sounds you'd expect to hear from a Dickens character moments before his well-composed last words. In order to make the horrible noises stop, I had to acknowledge them.
"Mom, are you all right?" I'd sigh, turning my head away from her to hide my eyes, which were performing sardonic rolls in their sockets.
"Oh, me? I think I might have come down with a touch of what you've got. I feel - "
This is where my mother would collapse to the floor in a heap, stricken by "the vapors".
When I was very young, these fainting spells were alarming. I would cry out to my father, who was specially trained for moments like this. Instead of administering medical care, he would slowly rub circles into my mother's back and offer to finish sorting the laundry for her so she could get off her feet and into bed. My father was well-trained at ignoring the obvious text, and tending to the subtext, which is why my mother loves him. And because my mother loves him, he loves her back, unconditionally.
My brother, sister, and I never had my father's patience. I grew frustrated by my mother's attempts to undermine everyone else's troubles with her hysterical needs. If you had a cold, she had bronchitis. If you had a flu, she had cholera. If you had mono, she had duo. If you had herpes simplex 1, she had herpes simplex 3 with a side of chilblains. There was no end to it.
Eventually, I toughened up and taught myself to ignore her fainting spells and blackouts, as a lesson in apathy. I would leave her on the floor for several minutes, pretending I hadn't noticed her curled up beneath an upturned basket full of dirty clothes. I ignored her when she clutched her chest from an imagined stroke, brought on by ending up on the losing side of a quarrel. I ignored her coughs, her tears, her loud, wet, sobbing pleas for attention. I became a shitty, detached teenager, not out of being shitty and detached, but out of some kind of imagined necessity.
Soon, platitudes of any kind, directed anywhere, made me feel uncomfortable. After spending so much time having them wrung out of me, I started to regard certain verbal acts of positive reinforcement as phony, or commodified. They seemed formalized to the point of being inherently disingenuous. I was less willing to give, and to receive. In short, I became a 75 year-old Eastern European widower. Stoic, withholding, unsentimental on the surface, and tubercular. (stoic and witholding, anyway)
That meant a lot of people got emotionally ripped off by me, including my own mother, whose attention-getting techniques were sort of a product of her own upbringing, anyway. (she had a stoic, withholding father. psychology is a rich medium!) This year, I finally resolved that it's OK - even necessary - to tell people who much I like them, and it's OK to listen to people who tell me they like me. It's not necessarily enough to presume someone knows how I feel just because I squeeze her hand really hard while we're watching television, or because I write "nice haircut" backwards on his forehead when he's passed out, drunk.
Now I feel like a 95 year-old Eastern European widower. Reflective and sentimental to a fault. I guess I wish I could go back and remind some people how impressed I was by them but I can't do that. The only thing worse than being regretful is being undesirably apologetic. I'll try to stay on top of it going forward, though. Let me begin by reminding you that you look very cute when you're reading. That little squiggly valley that snits its way into in your brow when you're concentrating quietly? - I wish I could sleep there tonight.
HOW TO WARM YOURSELF TO ANOTHER SPECIES.
Today, on my way to Gorilla Coffee, where I intended to force myself at gunpoint to write, my eyes fixed on a tiny Pomeranian puppy swaddled in a knit jumper, prancing across the street in my direction. I stopped everything, so I could observe the puppy without distraction. Lately my undivided attention is reserved only for dogs in sweaters, children dressed as super-heroes, frogs in the wild, and homeless people with hand-made signs.
I've noticed my affection for dogs has increased dramatically since I moved to Brooklyn eight-plus years ago. Most of my early experiences with dogs were not positive. When I was about three or four years old my parents briefly adopted a beautiful Siberian Husky named Samantha. That dog's role in our family became complicated almost immediately as I found myself regularly competing with Samantha for my parents' love. I performed tricks to divert attention from the dog, interrupting her grooming by making my father count off jumping jacks, or somersaulting across our living room carpet until I vomited. Behind closed doors I would antagonize Samantha by over-petting her or blowing in her ears, hoping to sabotage her scores in the "congeniality" portion of our unspoken contest.
My parents finally had to let the dog go when they discovered me on the kitchen floor, on all fours, eating dried kibble directly from Samantha's bowl. I was told Samantha was sent to a "dog ranch" where she was allowed to run free with other dogs and unicorns and fairies, though I know of no such ranch in Albany County. That was the party line and my brother, sister and I were young enough to follow it sans contretemps. Were I willing to be more realistic about her fate, I would say Samantha was probably sent to the showers, where she was gassed by two low-ranking German Shepherd officers.
After Samantha was neatly disposed, the Levin household became an exclusive haven for neurotic and overweight cats, and I've extended that tradition to my own home. Cat owners are taught to follow their cats' wishes and hate dogs, which I did dutifully throughout my youth. In fact, before moving to New York City, the only other serious run-in I had with a dog was my grandmother's Irish Setter, Rusty, who nearly took my left eye as a souvenir. Technically, I shouldn't have been trying to ride him bareback, but I was acting under the influence. I was seven years old, I think, and visiting my grandmother after Sunday school. It was Purim and I was pretty hopped-up on grape juice and prunes, so I couldn't be held entirely responsible for my behavior. While my mother and sister visited inside with my grandparents, I stayed in the yard and tried to saddle up. Rusty's response was far from demonstrative; he was like my grandfather in that way. Instead, without as much as a bark, he shook me from his back, knocking my newspaper hat from my head. Then, while I was momentarily incapacitated, he leaned in and bit me, hard, right below my left temple.
The doctor at the emergency room explained that if Rusty's bite had fallen about 1/8th of an inch to the right I would have lost that eye. It was another in a series of small miracles I'd survived in spite of my own insistent stupidity. Rusty was not so lucky. Less than a year later, he died mysteriously, still tethered to the maple tree in my grandparents' yard. The unofficial story was that my grandfather suspected foul play – there was talk of Rusty's Kal-Ken being poisoned. I would be lying if I said there was no small measure of suspicion directed toward me following Rusty's demise. And, though I was too young and too inexperienced to coordinate a professional hit on a dog I still felt partially responsible. Was someone acting in my place? Or were my grandparents' neighbors cold-blooded killers? They were known to hide inside with the curtains drawn and lights out on Halloween, and they were the first family on their block with an aluminum-sided gun tower, so I suppose the evidence is on the table.
If you live in New York, particularly in the outer boroughs where apartments are spacious enough to allow for large pets without requiring they be stored upright like Murphy beds, you simply can't hate dogs. It would be unhealthy to harbor all of that hatred, since you're as good as surrounded. (i've used a similar argument against racism in this city. how can you expend all that energy hating the people who are likely going to be pressed, nose to ass, against you on the subway every single day? you'd explode.) As I began warming up to the idea of canines, my fondness was initially restricted to large dogs of indiscernible breeds; the kind you usually find sleeping on pub floors, stretched out amongst discarded peanut shells. These dogs wear old bandanas that have been softened by years of napping in direct sunlight. While they rest, their front paws grow heavier, and drop back to the floor with a satisfying thud as soon as you let them slip from your hand. In fact, you can molest these dogs all you like while they're passed out, and nothing will wake them except for the subtle movements of their owner. It's a pretty amazing thing to watch, and I've seen it many times. A man or woman will walk into a bar, with his unleashed beast ambling behind him. The owner pulls up a bar stool and the dog slumps to the floor with a sigh. Hours pass and the dog remains still, no matter how many strangers stoop next to him to pat his head or playfully smack his flanks. Then, as soon as the owner kills the last wet taste of his final pint, and pushes away from the bar, the dog will slowly rise to its feet and follow him out exactly as he'd followed him in. I love holding this kind of dog's face and staring directly into its naturally sullen eyes, letting its thick jowls spill off the edges of my palms.
(a few nights ago, i actually saw the feline approximation of these dogs. a man was walking along Houston street with a tremendous cat draped around his shoulders. the cat bounced in time to its owner's strut, and appeared permanently sated. it wore a faded red bandana tied beneath its chin.)
I was initially resistant to smaller dogs, thinking them high-strung and a little bit stuck-up – the aloof jerks of the dog world. My opinion has changed over time, as I've known many upstanding small dogs. More importantly, though, I've begun to understand their capacity to make people laugh. Small dogs are insane, and antic. Due to scale, the slightest misstep of a tiny dog provides an exaggerated pleasure. Have you ever seen a Whippet from behind? Amazingly graceless. There is a Russian man in my neighborhood, a great bear of a person, who I sometimes see walking Kokoshka, his tiny Pomeranian. The dog, small enough to fit on a bagel, is extremely sensitive to weather and sometimes performs a rhythmless dance on the sidewalk, as it tries to avoid making four-on-the-floor contact with the chilled asphalt. If one were to film this dance for an hour, even on a shaky, inexpensive camera, the resultant footage would surely be the highest grossing film in the history of moving images. Once, as scores of people crowded around the achingly sweet Kokoshka in mid-dance, his owner announced loudly to the assembled audience, "Do you see? Do you see what cuteness can do in this world?!"
So today, as the Pomeranian approached, I held my ground. When it reached me, something amazing happened. A woman exited the corner bodega with her nervous Chihuahua mutt. Then, from my opposite side, a man was being pulled along by his squat English bulldog. The three dogs met silently and fearlessly – the dainty Pom, the shivering Chihuahua, and the snorting, drooling Bulldog – and pecked each other with wet snouts. I was standing in the middle of the intersection of cute, crazy, and sweet, and I stayed there forever. In fact, I'm still there now.