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Entries in lucy morris (18)

Monday
Aug132012

In Which This Can't Be Happening At Macdonald Hall

Library Cards

by LUCY MORRIS

As children my brothers and I attended a Jewish day school. The flavor was a loose mix of denominations, prayer preceded graham cracker snack time, and the basketball team, called Judah and the Maccabees, always beat our Orthodox school rivals, who had to pause and bless their yarmulkes when they fell off during the course of a game. On Fridays we had an assembly called Shabbat Sing, where we sang the Israeli national anthem before adjourning to our classrooms to bless Dixie cups of Manischewitz grape juice.

This all took place in the not overwhelmingly Jewish state of Wisconsin, although where precisely we lived was hard to say, since we commuted between our parents’ two houses, duplexes located on opposite sides of the Milwaukee River. We had a library card for each side of the divide, separate Blockbuster memberships, different breakfast cereals. Children of divorce learn to manufacture their own forms of certainty, and for me that lay in the books I put in the black back-and-forth bag, the alternate universes to which I could depart upon demand. For years, the book I carted with me from one side of the river to the other was Gordon Korman’s This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, the first in a series set, in the way I like my books, somewhere thrillingly just beyond the world I lived in:


Kids love books about boarding school. Before you know anything about class, before you encounter the circles in which examining one’s privilege is the highest form of recreation, boarding school above all represents a world without parents and who wouldn’t want, for at least a little while, to reside in one of those? With the every-other-Wednesday and every-other-weekend custody schedule we were on, my brothers and I spent more time with parents on the brain than our single-home friends, whose parents were mere figures in the background, not acting in careful accordance with a legal mandate. Free of all that — and of daily recitations of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I found, even for its subject matter, excessively depressing — Macdonald Hall sounded great to me.

Bruno and Boots occupied a world wholly unlike mine, one of flagpoles, panty raids, practical jokes, dish duty. They had a headmaster and a Nurse Hildegard and morning calisthenics. The girls shriek, the boys shrug, and everyone strolls around the picturesque grounds, up to no good and very little actual schoolwork. The characters fit into molds that you don’t yet, as a child, know to identify as archetypes, and therefore can find comforting rather than cliché. There's Elmer Drimsdale (science nerd), George Wexford-Smyth III (rich hypochondriac), Wilbur Hackenschleimer (voracious eater), and Sydney Rampulsky (the clumsy one). No one is truly loathsome, everyone has at their core something that redeems them, which is how it should be in children’s books and—perhaps it’s the years of Yom Kippur atoning that leads me to this conclusion—also in life.

Macdonald Hall’s occupants are endlessly exonerated for their pranks and mistakes, and within my sibling structure I, too, was taught that pardons were not so hard to come by. With my brothers, cruel words could eventually be unsaid without apology, and it was a long time before I learned that this was not how things worked outside of our trio, that with other people in your orbit the damage cannot so easily be undone. But the flipside of a bond tight enough that forgiveness remained unspoken was the thrill of our assembly, what Tolstoy calls “the exceptional feeling that life was possible only in each other’s presence.” When you read about Bruno and Boots, you imagine this is how they also feel, the warmth of their mutual pleasure emanating off the page. 
 
The origins of Bruno, who spearheads the pranks, and Boots, who reluctantly goes along with them, remain a source of mystery in the first book in the series (Boots’ brother arrives in a much later book: “Were we ever that young?” Bruno asks, hilariously in the manner of Joan Didion). Kids mired in the building of their own roots — even kids who spend an hour a day in Judaica class, studying their ancestry — don’t wonder about backgrounds in the way adults do; it is not the way in which they choose to seek order. When you’re older, everything must have its source. Someone who acts out comes from a troubled home, or is seeking the attention they didn’t get when they needed it. Now, in reality, Bruno and Boots would be fuckup kids whose parents could afford to send them away, the ones we'd alternately pity and roll our eyes at in college. But then they embodied all my unrealized fantasies of childhood, a kind of boundless energy dispensed without care — something that, amid the car rides back and forth across the river and the various anxieties that accompanied them, I never seemed to possess.

Bruno and Boots were nothing like my brothers, who had their select rebellions but not much in the way of innocent mischief — innocent mischief being something that doesn’t really exist in life, where there tend to be greater casualties than in fiction. My brothers now have an adult poise that on occasion surprises even me; it’s difficult to imagine Bruno and Boots eventually acquiring the same, although Bruno would maybe have fit in at Goldman Sachs. But to revisit Macdonald Hall now is to remember vividly a time at which two slightly older, amusing, and often frustrating boys were the center of my world off the page, too: the ones who whispered consolations to me when I couldn’t sleep at night, shared the books we hid inside our siddurs at synagogue, and taught me through example and instruction, in a way more profound than any religion could, how to be and not to be.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Iowa City. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Brighton Beach. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Drive" - Wild Cub (mp3)

"Wishing Well" - Wild Cub (mp3)

The new album from Wild Cub is entitled Youth, and it will be released tomorrow.

Thursday
Jul052012

In Which We Unveil A Mercury-Based Map

This is the conclusion of a two-part series. You can find the first part here.

Dances With Something

by LUCY MORRIS

New York was the first place I moved in with someone, and also the first place where I moved out. The moving in happened in increments, some clothing here, an extra phone charger there, until everything I owned was in a house I couldn’t recall having made a formal decision to live in. I moved out in just one afternoon. As I steeled myself for it, I thought about how people speak as though making commitments is the hard part, when actually extricating yourself from them is considerably more difficult. But once I knew I could do the latter, once I could see there would always be an out, it seemed suddenly that everything was available to me, that I could try almost anything I pleased without lasting repercussion. New York is a dangerous and ideal place to have this realization: there is no limit on what to try.

I left my boyfriend’s house in Bay Ridge on an unseasonably warm spring day. My best friend had borrowed someone’s SUV in exchange for a bottle of scotch. We drove along a straight stretch of Brooklyn we usually only passed beneath by train. I felt the weight of what had ended pushing against my lungs, making me want to cry in a terrible way that I thought would never end and, in truth, didn’t for a while. But my feet were on the dash — something so rarely experienced in New York that it seemed double the pleasure — and Catherine was next to me, her familiar freckled hand guiding the gearshift, and I could in some small way already sense the breadth of what was ahead, not just the wide avenues laid out before us, Ocean and Flatbush and beyond, but all that might happen next.

What did happen next was someone else. I showed him around my new neighborhood like I owned it, even though I knew that I didn’t, that I would, as always, soon be leaving. We walked from Crown Heights to Bushwick one outrageously hot night, and on the way home he drunkenly smashed a forty on a deserted stretch of Bedford. I had a sudden, strong impulse to run, not because I was scared of him physically but because it seemed that if he could injure these streets I loved — and I knew the cement had no nerve endings, that this was irrational — he could injure anything in his path, anything else I might care for.

I was by then starting to think I could no longer share parts of myself with another person at all, but I especially could not share my time with New York, which was already starting to run out. I wanted New York to be wholly mine and, to my surprise, the more I felt that it was indeed mine — the more familiar I became with the curving streets in different pockets of Brooklyn, the more afternoons I escaped work early to sit alone in the MoMA’s sculpture garden — the less it seemed I needed anyone else there with me. I had no desire for someone next to me on the sidewalk, slowing my pace. I didn’t care for long subway rides with someone leaning on my shoulder, intending for me to nudge them awake at our stop.

+

On an April evening four or five years in, when I found myself somewhat adrift — I then believed that spending days in an office absolved evenings idled irresponsibly — a former professor took me out for dinner in Nolita. Over a nicer meal than I had had in many months and more wine than I had had, too, she dispensed two pieces of advice. One was: “Never leave your belongings with a spurned lover.” The other was: “Young women need to learn to say fuck you with their mouths and not their bodies.”

I took the subway back to Brooklyn afterward a little tipsy and feeling better than I had been, as if equipped with these recommendations I could now start life, or at least the summer we were on the cusp of, anew. I had already violated the first piece of advice and my possessions had not been burned or dumped on the lawn, as my teacher suggested, but even that might not have been as bad as the consequences of ignoring the second piece, which I continued to do, not in great numbers but for a while longer than I should have. There was a period when I wanted to say fuck you to almost every guy I knew in New York, mainly for their failure to be the one I wanted who was at that time far away, and often I did say it with my mouth but usually only after too many drinks, and then I’d wake up the next day in their beds anyway, thinking about my professor and how I’d disappointed her. That was easier to think about than the fact of having disappointed myself. When you wake up with a thought like that, it is almost impossible to get out of bed.

My weekday commute was over an hour each way, but the Saturday and Sunday mornings when I had to climb out of someone else’s bed and go home seemed to be the longest subway rides of all. I never hated New York more than in those hours: hung over on the R train, slumped in the hard orange seats, eyes shut tightly and hands pressed to my ears, as if that resistance to the present could alone block out the morning mariachi band and whatever awaited me at the end of the line.

Sometime later I became unable to ride the Brooklyn-bound R at all, went dramatically out of my way to avoid its crackly announcements — Next stop Union — that filled me with a disproportionate sense of doom. I developed many of these fastidious avoidances in New York, of entire avenues and certain bars or restaurants and several different movie theaters. I found that these self-imposed restrictions were not limiting but instead enriching: making certain places off limits to myself not only created urban obstacle courses I secretly found satisfying but also made the places I deemed available that much better, that much more mine.

+

I could make these road maps of places to avoid and places yet to go, but they were constantly changing. The restaurant on Avenue A where Catherine and I often ate lunch one summer mystifyingly moved a single block south without announcement. Bodegas stopped carrying the right ice cream so you had to find another; library and café hours changed; my own place in the city kept rotating and, accordingly, so did the plot of private markers radiating out from where I lived.

The years, whatever new homes and relationships and routines they each contained, began to stack up and I became increasingly aware that for those whose nostalgia is primarily rooted in personal geographies, New York is a complicated place to make your home. You want, selfishly, for a neighborhood, a landmark, a street to stay static as a background to your memories: you may have changed, but you’d like the place to remain as a monument to the person you were there. Twice I moved out of neighborhoods just before many of my friends moved in, and this meant I was often returning to places I had once lived and confronting what had changed (to consider if I had) and to see what had stayed the same (to wonder if I had, too).

I noticed one night on my way home from a party in Brooklyn that my old bodega on Nostrand had acquired a neon sign that flashed “GOURMET.” I thought of all the sandwiches I’d bought there to take home to my dank basement apartment nearby, and also of the produce store down the street where a guy I was seeing bought me a pineapple I later proceeded to vomit on his lap, and the many nights I padded home past the Key Foods, the smoothie joint, the check cashing-turned-pizza place. I had been so finely attuned to my surroundings without even trying that it seemed not inconceivable that it was mutual, that the streets — Sterling and President, Franklin and New York — would still hold some of the mistakes I’d been trying to forget. But everyone knows streets are just streets and after a while they ceased to remind me of anything, were merely courses I followed to barbecues, bars, and readings, not to deeply nested parts of my memory.

This ability to detach on demand, familiar to people who move frequently as children, is superbly freeing. It’s also hard not to imagine that it is in some way deeply damaging, that after a while it starts to ruin you for a more fixed, a more definite type of life.

+

I know that eventually I will force myself to forget these things — erasure being the simplest way to reconcile the past with the present — which is why I make note of them now:

There was a Thai restaurant on Second Avenue that I thought resembled a spaceship where I ate immediately before and immediately after the dissolution of my most significant relationship. In the midst of an early July heatwave my brother came to visit and we walked from 23rd Street down to Chinatown and back up, stopping for two movies and three meals along the way, all the while groaning and blaming each other for our discomfort. We had large parties in our narrow St. Marks Place apartment, with cases of $5 champagne and 5 lb. boxes of pastries, and there was always a moment when I sank into the couch in my party dress as things wound down around 3 or 4 AM, resting my head in my hands, listening to the late night chatter of those who had stayed. There was the birthday I spent at the Russian baths on 10th street and this one Ethiopian restaurant on 6th Street I took boyfriends to, while keeping a different one on 4th Street to myself. Once in a rainstorm I was walking down Broadway when a stranger offered me an umbrella for free: “It’s janky but it works,” he said. There was the time Catherine and I ended up at the North 3rd Street sublet of two 30-something men new to the city, whose financial limitations meant they shared bunk beds, although their budget did seem to afford them the sprouted wheat bread, the Irish butter, the artisan jam they offered us late that night — this being the kind of mildly insane New York contradiction that you can’t get bogged down in if you want to survive.

And then there were the days — in fact, the vast majority — that were totally un-extraordinary, were just going to work and coming home and cooking dinner. But those days were also New York in their own small ways that won’t exist where I’m going next: the exasperating struggle for a seat on the subway, the vegetables picked up at the corner produce store where exotic fruits loomed in crated pyramids, the disturbingly proximate sound of the neighbors’ TV as we turned on our own.

I remember all this and one day I won’t, which is maybe the most New York thing of all, because for a while you can still note that this nail salon used to be a record store you liked, but then the nail salon becomes a trendy bar, and eventually there are only so many incarnations you can hold onto. At some point you move to a different neighborhood, you get busy acclimating to its own distinct features, and you can no longer be bothered with some memory-based map of what was, somewhere you no longer are.

In preparing to leave now for several years, my worry is not that things will have changed when I get back — because inevitably they will — but rather my concern is that I will have changed, that it will all mean and be something different, something lesser when I return. The potential of this loss is overwhelming for me to consider, certainly greater than the loss of boyfriends, friends, belongings along the way. The simplest way to describe it is as the loss of a place where I was very young and where then, in tiny, painful increments, I became a little older. And in leaving the place where I came of age — and the apartments, parks, offices, and avenues therein — it is unavoidable that all the ages I was before will slowly start to fade away.

I believed at the start that the purpose of these paragraphs was to say, in the tradition of many before me, goodbye to a place. But it turns out that these paragraphs instead exist to say goodbye to a certain time. And already things are not what they were when it began for me. For one thing, I ride the R again without second thought; my list of avoidances has, overall, gotten shorter and the list of places I love longer. I see now that there are consequences, but this doesn’t bother me as I might have expected. That skyline-induced rush of good feeling, which comes to me now more frequently than it once did, does not curdle as it did before. It seems I’ve finally found the formula to make it last. That this occurred only shortly before departing is not lost on me, but that’s just it: the great certainty of New York is its uncertainty, the turnover and changes and late-coming revelations being the only guarantees there are. And this is what I fear I will miss the most.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find the first part of Dances With Something here. She is a writer leaving New York. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Brighton Beach. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"This Is The Kiss" - Gareth Dickson (mp3)

"Get Together" - Gareth Dickson (mp3)

The latest album from Gareth Dickson is entitled Quite A Ways Away.


Tuesday
Jul032012

In Which She Has Begun To Leave New York

This is the first in a two part series. You can read the second part here.

Dances With Something

by LUCY MORRIS

For a long time I had a theory that if the three central components of your daily life are your job, friends, and romantic preoccupations, you are allowed to fuck up at one of the three at a time. If you are happy with your community and how you spend your days, it’s okay to act impulsively in love. If your relationships of all kinds are fairly stable, you are permitted some imprudence with work.

I am not by nature a reckless person. But I found that recklessness can be learned, and it’s useful to experiment with it from time to time, to see what it’s like, to see what might happen.

If you’re interested in parting with some portion of your sense of responsibility, there is no better place to do so than this. The trains run forever; you can stay out all night. If you are low on money, you can eat Trader Joe’s samples for dinner. I went with a friend to an absinthe tasting-combo-singles event to get buzzed for free one summer evening, although neither of us was actually single and we were also underage. I plus-oned to open bar parties and wandered into Chelsea gallery openings to snack on hors d'oeuvres and to feel, however briefly, a thrilling proximity to prosperity. But if the opposite of consumption is what you’re after, that’s also possible: it’s amazingly easy to seamlessly disappear from someone’s life here, and this, too, was something I saw fit to try, vanishing off other people’s personal grids, vacating any common ground we might have once shared — coffee shops, subway stations, whole neighborhoods — leaving behind no evidence that I had ever been there at all.

I did this for the reason I did many things in New York: to see if I could. Has there ever been worse reasoning? But when you find yourself, for instance, at a hotel rooftop party you’ve snuck into, leaning over the railing, your face looming out over the city with the sense that all eight million inhabitants are in your field of vision, and there is a drink in your hand and a friend by your side, it is difficult to see any kind of consequences. You think that if a city can belong to you — and in moments like this, that’s how it appears — then anything, any wish or ambition or person, can also be yours.

+

Each time I moved to a new neighborhood here, the first thing I did was extricate my sneakers and shorts from their boxes and go running. I didn’t run particularly fast, nor for any duration — just enough to stake out the pieces of Brooklyn and then Manhattan that I could identify as mine, even though the unacknowledged end of that thought was always for now. Although I always left, the routes of those runs remain indelible, occupying space in my memory I’d rather reserve for the Russian vocabulary my job requires, some real knowledge of American history, or my myriad Internet passwords.

These paths — up and down 86th Street and later Eastern Parkway, around Alphabet City and along the East River — are emblematic of all the time I have spent in New York, busily accumulating an array of urban knowledge that will be entirely useless anywhere else: mental maps of cafes and library branches in the event of a Wi-Fi emergency, express versus local train stops, tiny triangular city parks ideal for spontaneous sit-downs to call your parents, recalibrate. The legend in my mind denotes the grocery stores with the cheapest canned beans and pasta, the streets most pleasant to walk down at different hours of the day, the bars with the very best happy hour deals. Somewhere up there, too, I keep a mental schedule of regular free museum hours, monthly dance parties and a variety of other events that, more often than not, I didn’t actually attend.

+

During my first several summers here, I went frequently to the Forever 21 in Union Square, both because it was heavily air-conditioned and to try to superficially recreate myself. This was a practice I continued for years, accruing a range of unwearable rompers and crop tops and earrings so long they got caught in my hair. I stopped doing this at around the same time that I started going to bars, which I soon found offer another venue for camping beneath an air vent and temporarily reinventing yourself. The problems with this latter practice are well established but they are also less tangible — at the very least, they take up no space in your closet.

As I pack now, dumping drawers onto my bed for sifting, culling a crate of shoes, I see a collection not of things I necessarily loved but rather of trends that were: skinny jeans, pointy-toed flats, off-the-shoulder jersey dresses, above-the-knee boots, lace tops, high-waisted skirts, neon blouses, boat shoes. In these garments — a dress I recall being impatiently unzipped by someone else’s hands, a torn t-shirt advertising some once beloved band, a necklace I nervously fastened in advance of a job interview — I see vague glimpses of the person I was when I wore them.

For the most part that person was very young. By that I mean the kind of young where it is possible to be so happy — say, on speedy late night train rides over the Manhattan Bridge with the city shining before or ahead — that you suddenly find yourself in the realm of the sad, the good feeling flushing over you unexpectedly beginning to curdle.

+

The currency of much of this period was whatever we could trade in: discounted meals at the Greenwich Village restaurant where someone worked, free drinks at the Brooklyn bar someone else presided over, a spare desk at a Soho office when a boss was out of town. We cut each other's bangs, passed around clothes we no longer wanted, shared prescription pills, proofread each other’s cover letters. I cooked many dinners in exchange for company, and appeared on just as many other doorsteps with bottles of cheap wine for friends taking their turn at the stove.

Friends now seems entirely too insufficient a word for the people with whom I’ve spent these years. Catherine and I met often for dinner, wandering around Manhattan hunting for the right restaurant, the search mainly a pretext for prolonging the pleasure of each other’s company. Sarah had a spare set of my keys and came to stay a few nights during a period when I was re-learning how to sleep alone. One long spring, I had Jeanne over for dinner every Monday, and after we ate we’d linger for hours in my living room, facing each other from opposite ends of the big purple couch, evading whatever it was we were then evading. I met Zara at Botanica many Tuesdays after work; at some point when my employer became erratic about paying, she offered to lend me money, and I didn’t take it but the gesture sat with me for a long time. On a January evening in the middle of a breakup I took a taxi I couldn’t afford to Williamsburg, because I couldn’t bear to cry on the L, but I also couldn’t afford, I felt, not to be sitting in Jen and Tag’s living room eating pizza, waiting for what was wrong to right itself.

We hand-delivered pints of soup for throats that hurt and handles of gin for hearts that did. These were the people I listed as emergency contacts, to whom I was connected by constant phone calls and emails, offering and receiving advice when it was merited, consolation when it was called for, and a host of other forms of help and encouragement along the way.

Some nights we danced for hours. “Do you like zees?” a Turkish marine asked me on the roof of Brass Monkey one memorable night as we all turned our twisting bodies to watch a couple having cinematic sex in a window of The Standard. I locked eyes with the friend I’d come with. There was already someone whose bed I could stumble into at the end of the night if I wanted, but half the reason we were out was to stall the fact of that, to instead be around people with whom all gestures were insignificant, to lose ourselves, together, in crowds of those entirely unlike us. “Not really,” I told the marine, and a few hours later the bed I stumbled into was my own, my friend safely asleep on the floor next to me.

Some afternoons following those sorts of nights we’d get sleepily stoned in Prospect Park and lay out on blankets, mindlessly chewing on chives and other plants I insisted I could identify from a foraging tour I’d once taken there. There was no shortage of things to do together: forays to the Met, afternoons at cafes, outdoor movies. But, in truth, the very best times I had in New York were at kitchen tables in apartments across the boroughs, scarfing down pasta and greens with my friends.

+

The most worthwhile things I did here were always the ones I was unaware of even participating in. I barely remember the concerts or parties I declared were going to be “incredible,” the art exhibits or author readings I proclaimed “life-changing,” or even the minor triumphs of early adulthood — locating a good doctor, deciphering tax documents, learning when and how to quit a job. In the end, these achievements all paled in comparison to establishing relationships of the kind that allow you to learn, for a second and more perfect time, what it means to be family.

It’s true that I likely could have done this anywhere, with other groups of people, but the fact was that I didn’t, I chose New York, and it is for this reason, not the presence of relatives here nor my familiarity with its grids and operations, that the city has ascended past other places I have lived and, almost without me noticing, rendered itself home.

You can read the second part of Dances With Something here.

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording and a writer living in New York for the moment. This is the first in a two part series. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Brighton Beach. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"The Way I Are (French version)" - Timbaland ft. Tyssem (mp3)

"Girlfriend (French version)" - Avril Lavigne (mp3)