No Place Like Home

No Place Like Home

Brooklyn, NY, USA

Walking over the Manhattan Bridge alone in the rain in the evening, I felt melancholy and nostalgic, but tinged with something sharper: fear, maybe, not of anything in the present — New York is not the scary place it was when I first moved here in 1993 — but of an uncertain future.

I’ve come back to New York, I now realize, because I wanted to come home. For six long months, I moved every few days to some new place. I was always somewhere strange, with everything unknown and to be figured out: how transport works, what to see, where the good restaurants are, how to do laundry, where to get cash, how to say hello and thank you. Even Phoenix, my current US address, is a place I don’t know well, where I navigate by GPS.

New York is different. On my first day, I had some time to kill in Midtown, and I knew exactly where to go — Bryant Park — and when a bus rolled by on Fifth Avenue, I knew exactly how to jump on it. While sitting in the park, when I felt like writing, I knew that Kinokuniya was across the street, so I could go there to buy a notebook. In NYC, I know where things are. I know how things work.

Still, if NYC is more familiar than anywhere else, it’s no longer home. I can’t go back to my apartment, and I can’t go back to my office, my two landing pads when I lived here. And I’m floating free of purpose or connection: I don’t have a job, I’m not looking for a job, I’m not going to school. Nor am I a tourist, out to see New York’s cultural institutions and landmarks. I’m just here. I’m visiting friends, with the uncomfortable awareness that the threads that connect us will fray in the coming years, that this is perhaps the last time I will see each of these people, or the last time in a while, and that, try as we might, we will mostly drift apart, separated by oceans and continents.

I am old enough now, at 41, to understand the passage of adult time. I have lived out of the Bay Area longer than I lived in it, and it no longer feels like home. I know very few people there, and when I go back, it’s just not the place I grew up. That place is gone, erased by time and change. So is the New York City I first came to in 1993, but I was part of the change; I was here as neighborhoods transformed, buildings came down or went up, new laws changed the landscape (remember smoke in bars and nightclubs?). It’s like aging: you notice you’re older, but it happens day by day. I’m not the same person I was in 1993, but I was with me every day between there and here.

Now New York will go on changing without me. I’ll come back in five years, know in my bones that Kinokuniya is right next to Bryant Park, and be startled to discover that it’s moved downtown. Or that Metrocards have been replaced. (I was already thrown by Trash and Vaudeville‘s move from its old St. Mark’s Place home, and pleased to discover the new public Wi-Fi being tested around the city.) New buildings will go up, and no one will tell me. Friends will move away, and I won’t replace them with new New York friends.

All of this might feel less melancholy once I have a new home. Right now, New York is the home I picture, and it’s not home anymore, but there’s not yet a picture in my head of my Seoul home. There will be. I will have a street that feels like my street, an apartment with my stuff in it, friends, patterns, regular places. That’s coming soon. But for the moment, I’m in the curious position of feeling homesick for the place where I am.

Brooklyn the Brand

Brooklyn the Brand

Vientiane, Laos

When I talk to people about Seoul, I talk about how much it has changed since I first went there, in 2001. But I suppose Brooklyn — my home ever since that sojourn in Asia — has changed almost as much in that same time. Maybe I noticed it less, being there day to day, whereas with Seoul I didn’t go back until 2009, and then again in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

I first discovered Brooklyn in the late nineties, when my friend Daniel moved out to a place on Sackett Street in Carroll Gardens. His place served as a kind of stoner artists’ collective, with a rotating gallery of roommates and hangers on and a regular habit of ordering in from Zaytoons.

Brooklyn wasn’t much then — certainly not in the brand sense. No one had heard of Williamsburg. Smith Street was just beginning to turn into restaurant row. DUMBO was an eerie, photogenic post-industrial wasteland with a few intrepid artists staking out studios in the ruins. Taxi drivers didn’t much like or even know Brooklyn. There was no Brooklyn Bridge Park, no concerts at McCarren Park. There were no Brooklyn bands. Brooklyn wasn’t yet a thing.

Well, now it’s a thing. NYC has always been a brand, and I see it everywhere in the world, but Brooklyn? It’s a surprise to see the name plastered on clothing and accessories across Asia. Apparently Spike Lee’s ad agency noticed too.  They’ve made a film to showcase the Brooklyn brand that’s being co-opted by companies around the world that have no connection to the actual place. It’s fun to see my town, and to see a couple of people I recognize. It’s not exactly Bitter Sweet Seoul, but it’s a nice little look at some of the cool things about the place I called home for more than a decade.

 

[things i’d like to write about but haven’t]

  • My trip to Budapest and Vienna.
  • My trip to Ann Arbor. And Ypsilanti.
  • All the churches in Brooklyn Heights: visit each, learn about it, attend a service, blog it.
  • My life as a Korean dancer.
  • My theory of Tom Tom Club vs. David Byrne.
  • My trip to Ghana.
  • Being sick abroad.
  • Toilets of the world (this one’s more of a photo essay).
  • My trip to Mexico. (Noting a theme?)
  • My trip to Paris.
  • An open letter to the mayor demanding seasonal weather changes. (This will be funnier when actually written, I hope.)

[moving]

For a while now, I’ve been talking about moving to Manhattan. At this point, it’s more a question of when than whether. Bay Ridge is pleasant enough, but it’s far away, and I like to have a home that people actually visit. Plus, I’m tired of the long commute, and of feeling like once I’ve gone out for the day, popping back home is simply too far to go if I want to go out again. And then there’s school: if I go back to school, living as far away as I do now will make things all the harder.

So I’d like to move to Manhattan, preferably somewhere very close to my office, in Chelsea or the West Village. Most of my life happens around here anyway: Korean dance in K-town, swing dance near Penn Station or Times Square, work in Chelsea, socializing in the Village or the East Village, shopping in Union Square.
As for the timing, well, I guess my life is pretty full. I’m just not going to get it together by the end of January, and anyway January is a rotten time to be going around, looking at apartments. Also, I have jury duty. So that rules out February 1. March 1 would be feasible, but I’m leaving for India on March 5, and that double stress is more than I need, nor do I want to come home to the chaos of a new apartment when I’m all jet-lagged. There’s pretty much no way, coming back from India on March 21, than I’ll find an apartment and get packed in that final week of the month. And so it looks like May 1 is the next really good date.
May 1.
I have until then to clean out my junk drawers, give away my old clothes, and generally scale down the stuff. That’s plenty of time, but also plenty of time to worry over it.

[visiting my congressman]

This morning I went to Representative Michael McMahon’s Brooklyn office to present my support for health care reform in person. I met a young, friendly staffer who’s on the same side as me, but made it clear to me that McMahon sees himself in a tough spot on this issue.

McMahon is the Representative for NY-13, a district that until the last election was held by Republican Vito Fossella. Fossella was caught in a scandal and declined to run for reelection. Then the favored Republican candidate, Francis Powers, died of a heart attack. In the end, McMahon took 61 percent of the vote in a district Obama lost.
According to the staffer I met, the people coming to McMahon’s office to talk to him on health care have been about 80 percent against, and this has got McMahon worried. He also said that they’d decided not to hold any town halls because of concerns that they would be unproductive shouting matches. I reminded the staffer that shouters are not the same thing as polls or surveys, and that the last time we had a major poll, back in November, we elected McMahon on a Democratic platform that included health care reform.
But I think there are two important points here. The first is that a Democratic Congressional Representative is saying that his position on health care is being swayed by the overwhelming number of people coming into his office to speak against health care reform. We need to get out there and talk to our Reps to make sure they do the right thing!
The second point, which I hope our Representatives will grasp, is that the shouters and doubters on health care were never going to vote for them in the first place. Does McMahon truly believe that if he caves on health care, these nuts will come around to the Democratic side in 2010?
If health care reform passes, the Democrats will look strong. They’ll have a record of achievement. And they’ll get shouted at by loonies during the next election cycle. If health care reform doesn’t pass, the Democrats will look weak. They’ll come into the next election cycle facing accusations of incompetence. And they’ll still get shouted at by loonies.
I hope the Democrats in Congress realize that voting down health care reform is not a winning proposition.

[vito’s coming back]

I live in a peculiar pocket of New York City, politically speaking. New York’s 13th Congressional District is the only one in the city that has a Republican Representative, disgraced two-family man Vito Fossella.

Vito dropped a reelection bid when it came out that he’d been driving drunk in Virginia while visiting his mistress and their child. Now, though, he wants to come back into the race — as a Conservative, opposing not just Democrat Mike McMahon, a long-serving city council member representing Staten Island, but also the Republican candidate, Bob Straniere, a former state assemblyman.

Good luck to Vito! I hope he enjoys splitting the Republican vote while McMahon coasts to victory!

[bicycle]

I’m just back from having purchased a bike. I rode it home, five miles, from the Atlantic Avenue Target back to Bay Ridge, following 4th Avenue as it goes from Mexican to Puerto Rican to Chinese to Arabic.

Buying a bike in New York City is harder than you might think. Well, that’s assuming you don’t want some kind of titanium, high-tech, stealth-technology-enhanced super-bike that costs more than most Americans’ cars. If you’re up for spending giant sums of money, there are scads of boutique shops to cater to your needs. And most of these boutiques will even cater to folks who want to spend a mere $400 or so on a bike, though the salesperson will probably look at you with a mixture of pity and disdain. Apparently one is supposed to enter these temples of bikeitude with either an extensive knowledge of alloys or the humility of a religious seeker. The reaction I get when I ask for the cheapest bike is what I imagine I’d get if I went to Bergdorf’s around Christmas and said, “Show me your cheapest handbag, please.”

What makes this state of affairs particularly baffling is that one so rarely sees fancy bikes actually being ridden around New York. Is there some kind of delivery-guy underground I’m just missing? Where do their thousands of lightweight, perfectly functional, obviously cheap bicycles come from? And who wants a thousand dollar bike in the city anyway? My Schwinn came from Target already broken — it won’t change gears properly — and I assume this is a clever anti-theft system provided by the store for my benefit. Still, I’m semi-resigned to the thought that one day I will go looking for my bike where I left it, and it won’t be there. That’s what happens to bikes in the city, and I’d rather it happened to a bike that costs less than my phone.

Once you drop below about $400, you get into the realm of bikes that cannot be purchased at bike shops. These lowly vehicles must be sought out at toy stores, sporting goods stores, or big-box generalists like Target. And at Target, it’s actually remarkably hard to buy a bike. I had to wander across the store in search of someone who could get on a walkie-talkie and find out how much the bike I wanted actually cost. And forget about getting it adjusted. I guess that’s what you pay the fancy places for. The bike is sold as-is, and you just have to hope it does what it’s supposed to.

Mine does, more or less. No, you can’t change the gears very well, and I’m not convinced the handlebars are completely straight, and the rear break is a joke. But the bike cost a mere $178, and it got me from there to here.

As for the getting, it was harder than I’d like to admit. Today was muggy but not excessively hot, and 4th Ave. is not exactly mountain terrain. Still, as I came up the rise from 30th to 50th Street, my heart was pounding and I felt myself overheating. I pulled off the street, locked my bike to a subway entrance railing, undid my new helmet and staggered into a bodega to buy a bottle of Gatorade.

I remember overheating like this as a kid sometimes, especially as I hit the top of the hill on Las Gallinas, back in Terra Linda, on the way to the mall. There, I would just keel over on the side of the road and wait for it to pass, hearing the pounding of blood in my head as I lay on the sidewalk. It was a private experience, an internal crisis that I could experience alone. Riding a bike in the city is a different experience, a public activity that involves engagement with others at every moment. It’s fun, though, and I hope to do much more of it. I just need to get in better shape!

[lunch and luchadores]

Your intrepid Palaverist has been busy!

Eats, Learns and Scratches

Last Wednesday I attended Discover DoubleClick, a day-long orgy of corporate catering and team-building exercises, occasionally interrupted with bursts of useful information: lots of detail on all the training opportunities available to us (my boss later declared, “What’s cool about all that stuff here is that it’s actually real,” which is different from, say, STV, where we had a tuition reimbursement program we weren’t allowed to use), an overview of the business, a history of DoubleClick that included a reference to Mahir (the discovery of viral marketing on the web) and described 2002 simply as “Grown men cry.”

But so the food. We arrived to find breakfast burritos in steam trays, and on our tables were piles of mini-candies. Then, at a mere 11:45, we headed downstairs to the Google cafeteria for the monthly DoubleClick lunch they’ve been letting us have (at which we do not mix with the Google people). The cafeteria lived up to its reputation. It is not the best food I’ve ever had, but it is by far the best free institutional food I’ve ever had. There was seared tuna and marinated steak and fried chicken and tacos, not to mention a raw bar, a vegan bar and chipotle chocolate mousse. Then it was back to more Discovering DoubleClick, with the soft pretzels and the cookie trays arriving by 3.

DoubleClick is interested in enhancing not just our skills, but our skillz: after work, we Discoverers were taken out to Scratch DJ Academy, founded by Jam Master Jay, for a one-hour lesson in scratching, which was seriously fun. I now know the baby scratch and the scribble. I asked the head of my department about using the tuition reimbursement for more DJ lessons, but I accept her judgment that perhaps DJing is not entirely applicable to my job as technical writer.

Semi-Ironic Spandex

I am not, it must be admitted, a wrestling aficionado, Mexican or otherwise. But when my friend Leah invited me to her Lucha Libre-themed birthday, I felt this was an occasion not to be missed. And when, after dinner with a friend earlier in the evening, I found myself trying on an absurdly apropos (and reasonably priced) hat/mask at Search & Destroy on St. Mark’s, it seemed fate was on the side of my inner luchador.

What I didn’t realize was just how serious Leah was about the wrestling. In her tiny apartment near Union Square, she and her friends got into some pretty serious pitched battles (tons of pics here). I didn’t join in, but pledged to dress more appropriately for battle next time. (And yes, that is a unicorn behind me in that picture.)

It may not surprise you to learn that a number of these people are Burners, or that I ran into one of them the following night when I went to see a friend perform at the España-Streb Trapeze Academy in Williamsburg.

The performance — an impressive show of aerobatic skill set to a campy nautical theme — was quite impressive, but it gave me the familiar heebee-jeebees I get around the hippie sports (for lack of a better term). I have a hard time putting my finger on what freaks me out about it, but it seems to pull together a number of threads of childhood alienation: my own physical awkwardness, the sense that hippies should but don’t embrace me, the feeling that I’m in a subculture that devalues my own particular gifts (verbal acuity, encyclopedic knowledge, trivia, intellectual rigor), the fear that I am going to be chastised over some poorly thought out moral stance I dare to disagree with (“Really? You use anti-bacterial soap?”).

I’m glad I stuck around and sat with those fears instead of letting them ruin my night. After the show, my friend invited me out with a number of the performers to a vast German beer hall (I hoisted my stein of die seltzer vasser), and they were really cool people. I had a lovely chat with one woman who is not just an acrobat, but also an opera singer and a former ESL teacher.

Then I took a cab home, which is something I can now actually afford. That too was exciting.

So life is good right now, and I’m doing my best to enjoy what’s good in it.