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Grief Police

Holes in the bottoms of my Rocawears.  Open seams on their sides.  My socks soak up black rainwater from Times Square.  Is Jay-Z somewhere out there in sunlight, laughing, in sandals?


I follow the ant-like path of commuters around the angry looking woman smoking a cigarette.  She’s standing directly in front of a turnstile, her eyes begging someone to bring her day to cataclysm. Would it be a dark kindness to give that to her?  Squishy steps to the uptown 2/3.  The thought:  all we go through and learn, from the most practical disasters to the headiest philosophies, is to make us better at taking care of each other.

At home,  scrolling words up my iPhone screen.  I know that doing this supposedly makes me sadder because science says so but I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.  Am I weighing these images of hundreds of people against my memories of them?  Remembering gangly teenagers or brutish dormitory menaces and relishing in the contrast of their profile pictures?  


Electronic funerals, I think.  Mass electronic funerals.  The pictures of a bright-eyed actor, grotesquely spliced against smoky wreckage.  The backlash from those I have dubbed the Grief Police:  “damn your obsession! You aren’t paying attention to what matters!”  Then the torrent of quotes from a national leader and the honorary profile pictures.  The so-predictable-it-hurts backlash of that outpour, as if to imply that everything you care about via electronic media can only be false and showy.

The Grief Police don’t want you to share your feelings unless it’s about someone you know, or soldiers, or someone important, or not at all, or however they prefer at the current moment.  They think you’re reprehensible.

I’ve been the Grief Police, I realize, toothbrush hanging out of my mouth.  My own smoky wreckage inside, obsessing over newspaper articles about dead kids and damning you hundreds of people for not seeming to care in the same way.  Getting drunk and going crazy on your comment thread and unfriending you.  Anxiety under my bed sheets, fantasizing apologies and reconciliations, then switching the lamp off.

Of course it’s mostly because of a seventeen year old kid, gasping, clutching to his friend and mother in the hallway of the funeral home on Grand Avenue in Baldwin. And then a twenty-three year old kid, curled up in a ball in sobs in his tiny Brooklyn apartment, saying “fuck, oh fuck, fuck,” over and over again.  Because of the closeness of those two kids and the distance I am trying to create for my self and them and how my face has barely changed through all of it.  (I mean, guys, seriously, what are you doing to your faces that yours change and mine doesn’t?)

Sometimes I am your gentle friend, accepting all and comforting, asking what you need.  Because I know what it’s like to lose.  But then I’m a belligerent outsider, striking out and demanding more from you.  Because you don’t know what it’s like to lose.

I’ve made you sit through ambling, clunky plot lines, shifting and coughing in your theater seats, preparing your smile and congratulations for the lobby.  I’ve made you stop as you are about to exit the kitchen and find comfort in your bed because, oh, we’re talking about something serious now and he needs more of my attention.  Made you like my status.  Answer my text.  Excuse me from my 12th grade English paper because I didn’t feel like doing it.  Because my grief made me special, or so I wanted you to think.  The dreams that come are blurry pools of anxiety in which he is still sick but hasn’t died, and I prepare to tell my loved ones that I was lying about it the whole time and he’s in the next room.

It stops days.  Selling kettle corn in Bryant Park and abruptly it’s like I’m walking through concrete as it hardens.  Every thought tinted blue-gray and echoing words from 10 years ago.  Images of a decimated body – those arms that used to lift me from the ground, now twig-thin and poking out from a hospital gown.  And of stuffy rooms of suits and broken promises and the way it made me see my self in the starkest light.

But more and more, experiencing grief became like chuckling over an old friend rather than whispering about a violent stalker.  It made me look.  At the teenage couple flicking drips of soda at each other in front of the frozen-over fountain.  At the woman in pink sweatpants with green teeth asking people for a little help.  They’re here.  They’re all here: the  handsome security guard getting his free coffee from the girl at the shop, hoping for her number.  The parents holding their kid’s hands, telling me they’re going to be alright.  They’re here.  Oh god they’re all here and trying and wanting:  the vendors shuffling to close up at night and calculating the day’s earnings and toddler flinging a penny backwards over his head into the water and then young woman who shows up every day to practice ice-skating by her self and making the elegant swirls on the ice while the middle-aged dad falls over his daughter next to her, and the baby, wailing and crying from his stroller in the grip of some anguish that will never have words, only to go still at some sight far up above that no one will ever know, his eyes still letting go tears but now open wide and peaceful like planets seen from orbit.

They’re all here, just for now.  Just for this blinking moment.  And I get to witness them.

And then there’s you.  You squeeze your fingers between your jeans pockets to get your iPhone, readying some thought you want the world to know.  You sit down in front of your laptop, late at night after you’ve broken a heart or made love and you want to say something, you don’t know what, just something and someone will see it.  You grieve for someone you never knew because you don’t know how to do it for someone you did know.  You tell us about what you’re eating or how angry you are about the Republicans or Obama and you’ll regret it but you did it, it happened.  You tag your friend and how lovely she looks on her wedding day and it’s okay you wanted to look just as lovely.  You share a song and we know you are the person in the lyrics.  You remember your mom or celebrate your brother’s birthday with an embarrassing picture, you have an audience for all of this, you’re here, you grieve for Nelson Mandela because he tried, and you don’t really know the whole story but you feel that something has been lost, something exuberant and solid and worthwhile, and fucking 63 people liked your post and that’s worth something, 63 people saw you for a moment because you’re here,  you’re here for just this moment and we’re witnessing you and your silly pictures of your dog.

You’re here.  We see you.

“What happen?”

The guy’s thumbs could fit two quarters on them, each.  No lie, I’m looking at his thumbs trade the ragged AM New York paper back and forth and wondering how much of my life could fit on one of his thumb nails.  I’m wondering if his construction worker’s outfit – paint-dripped boots – gives a clue to some past accident, or if this was nature saying “grab things, my child, and hold them.”  I realize the article that he is staring intently at, creased between his galactic thumb nails, is one featuring the picture of a husky officer with a big weapon in front of police tape – and off to the right is an insert of a guy whose name I now know is Aaron.  Big-Thumbs has been staring at it from under his hat, backwards and dirty and digging in just above his eyebrows, for at least as long as I’ve been on the train, which is three stops now.
My mind darts back to where I was, and her.

Her eyes were wet (“sweating eyes” as she called it), over her Cabernet, discussing kindness and the universe and human horror.
“I wouldn’t want to jump in front of a stranger.   I mean like if I did, I’d want people to know about it,” she eyes me with a smirk over her glass.
“But I mean that time on the subway I thought I was gonna die?”
She nods, swallowing wine, knowing exactly what I’m talking about, because she knows exactly what I talk about.
“I just got off as soon as I could,” I go on, “like I jetted out of there like peace, whatever.  But if there had been kids, ya know?  Like I think if there were kids, I’d – ”
“Any person, anybody ever would, if it was like five year olds, would like, jump and ya know, try.  But I worry, if like. So like I kind of want it to happen?”
She checks me with her eyes and I confirm; I kind of want it to happen to me too. We talk about being heroes for a while and I’ll save you from it. She lands on:
“But I’m fucked either way.  If I try to save someone, I’m probably gonna die, and if I try to save myself and run away, and they find me, like, cowering in a corner, then I’m that person, ya know?”
“But if it were your husband.  If it was my wife…”
There are images in our heads we don’t have to talk about.
The waiter comes around and asks about the fuckin’ mussels.

Big-Thumbs catches me looking at him.  The goose-island and mussels have put me in a place where I’m like, okay, I’m looking at this guy, and I don’t look away.
He smiles, and gestures at the paper, then jerks his head toward the woman seated next to him and smiles at her and gestures to the paper.
The woman next to him is in the middle of saying “she could speak English but she’d get shot if she did so she don’t,” and gives him a sideways glance and then goes on with her conversation.
He looks back at me, some Heineken or Corona in his eyes, and, I don’t know, the look, and maybe the serendipitous clue from the lady next to him, lets me know he doesn’t know what he’s reading.
“Messed up,” I say.
He shrugs.  He gestures at the paper again.  “What happen?”

“Like the fact that people can still be kind in the face of all this…”
I thought she had asked for the check but another round is in front of us and my vices do a dance in my gut.  We had now moved on to kindness being the last resort.
“Yeah,” I say, “like I gotta believe that the goodness in good people is, like, proportionately more than the badness in bad people.”
We go on, and try to scoop out some sauce for the mussels, and find the bathroom, and comment on the music, and drink, and talk.
“That’s a relief, though.  Like nothing I could do could be a mistake.”
We’re talking about the billions of galaxies now, and how small we are in all of it.
“Like, when I think of that, I feel this freedom, like nothing I do… means…”
She worries that she’s getting old but I see this woman where a teenager used to be.

So he’s waiting for me to answer and I’m thinking of her comment about kindness, before at the bar.
“Uh.  That guy,” I point at Aaron’s picture, “went there,” I point at the picture of the officer, “and… killed a bunch of people.”
He doesn’t understand.  The train is rocking us in rhythm, away from each other slightly then away from each other slightly.
I think about trying to explain it in the minuscule Spanish I have and luckily I know that would sound stupid.
So I do the next best thing and mime shooting a bunch of people.
And he gets it.  And looks back down at the paper.

Saying goodbye to her, I wished for more.  She waved goodbye from halfway down the street, and I waved back, and said something lame, and the sushi joint lights blinked and The Avenue of the Americas jammed up and businessmen dodged around me and some poor kid got out of a 14 hour workday.  And I thought, don’t I keep pace with the news?  Don’t I reveal my feelings and reference books and shows?  Don’t I listen?  Don’t I put these horrible things in the context of how they relate to me but also about the social action we need to take and the metaphysical consequences of it all?  Isn’t that impressive?  Is it that my right nostril hangs over a bit from the time  I caught a baseball to the nose?  Have I turned down happiness?  Am I actually kind or did it seem like a good banner to wave? And suddenly I’m on the subway and there’s a guy with big thumbs.

The guy was embarrassed at my mime and so was I.   It was awful how he didn’t look up at me again my whole ride. The lady next to him went on with her conversation, and we rocked in the same rhythm, just now pretending that we had never crossed paths.  I got off the train, and caught a glance of him, still looking down into the paper with the picture of the man and the other man.

On the way into my building, I saw the edges of the full moon creep around the corner of the brick, but decided to look away before I caught the full shape of it.

Near New York; or, Your Facebook Posts Are So Intense

My Facebook posts can be intense. People tell me so.
About a year ago, I started wondering what I was really using the site for.  When the impulse arose to broadcast a fleeting frustration or anger – a long line at Staples, say, or some reaction to rudeness – what was I really looking to tell people ? What reply was I hoping for?
As a writer, I began wondering if I couldn’t use the time it would take to type a status as an exercise.  How honest can I be in the five minutes it takes from my door to the Subway, jabbing at my iPhone screen to get FB likes?
Then Sandy happened.
New York City spilled out all around me and I was grabbing for anchors.
Then Newtown happened, and shit got dark inside for a while.
And I was using Facebook statuses to spew out my existential unrest for likes.
The narcissist in me was surely spurred on by the likes and comments – the attention – but the Me in me appreciated the seemingly genuine intimations that people enjoyed the words.
A friend asked me if I had any of them backed up because he wanted to use them for a film.  So, here are some selections from the past year or so of Facebook rambling.

August 6th, near New York  
The slender, playful waitress gains nothing from my open defense of her against the abusive patron seated next to me – except more scorn from him and a discrete early dismissal from the French management. Knowing I tried to save her day to save my own, I find her inside, rolling her apron, and give her a 20 for the 6 dollar bill and wish her well. I head south in Harlem. “Central Park, sunset;” I think, “nature will, like, make your mind better.” I sit on a bench north of the pond and try to be a better person by virtue of looking at water and sky and ducks and shit. A man sits next to me, smelling too much of his own skin and sweat and I know he’s homeless or close to it; he pulls off a scrappy shoe to scratch at callouses. Forgetting him for a moment, my eyes go wet, remembering traces of losses and promises, and in my periphery are the saucers of his eyes and I feel them fixed on me. I turn my neck to observe a diapered toddler laughing at the grass, and I chuckle, and so does the man next to me. I take out my phone to check the time, and seeing the screen dead, I snicker at myself. He snickers. There is an invitation in it; a question. So I turn to look at him. He’s looking at me, his cheek bones stretching his dirty skin. “Hi,” I say. “Alright,” he says, and his arm rolls out from his side like a flower blooming. His hand stays open in front of me, and I think of my friend who congratulated me for holding a stranger’s hand and wonder if she had considered I did it just as much for myself. I slap my palm into his palm and we hold hands for maybe three seconds, and there’s the lake and the couples jogging and the turtles and the lamp posts. “I gotta head back,” I say, rising. “Don’t got a cigarette?” I smile an apology and he laughs – a deep, full laugh, like the last laugh I had with a lifelong friend. I leave the park and he follows me. The cars running the red lights and Lenox Avenue sprawling north to my lonely night and he’s a few paces behind and the teenagers calling across the avenue to each other and the drunk asleep on the corner and he’s a few paces behind me, following.

April 15th near New York
The cat may have heard me whisper to myself that I was going to try harder, because he was determined to wake me up at 6:00AM. I tossed the comfortable sheets and jumped into the day: I will exercise, I will read and prepare lessons, I will write vital theater, and I will love people. Coffee in hand and spirits high, I breezed down the shale and rose colored Harlem street, heading for Central Park where the better version of me would begin. And then it started raining, and I was like, oh man. But… wait. The guy in front of me isn’t wet. The moment one realizes that one is covered by – like engulfed in, like pools in your hood – the green, steaming, barn-from-hell-smelling shit of maybe like 6 or 7 mythical pigeons is a moment that one gets closer to primal roots of rage. Nothing was open because Better Nick decided 6:30-fuckin-am is a good time to be vital or whatever, so I’m just looking for anything, anything to get this stuff off, OFF. People on the street don’t really look at you funny when you are all-encompassed by just awful terrible pigeon shit. They just don’t look at you. You’re not there. The yellow glow of some Harlem counter-diner – it may have even been called Harlem Diner – pulled me inside, where the eyes of the ‘hostess’ made a quick outcast of me. May I use the bathroom? There was no bathroom for me (despite the visible door with the blue man/woman on it). Then may I please just have a napkin? There was nothing like that for me. I WILL BUY BREAKFAST HERE, CAN I JUST HAVE A NAPKIN?! It was actually the moment the cooks came out of the kitchen, ready to eject me, that I thought of the homeless guy on 127th who asks for help to get a little something to eat. There are no napkins for him. Ever. I walked back home, encrusted and starting to smell like the inside of a worn-out beach ball, considering the idea that getting shit on by monstrous demon pigeons is good luck. Maybe the feeling of luck comes from knowing there’s a hot shower at home, and a cushy life in which one can write sprawling status updates. Or maybe there is no luck, and feeling like a pariah for 5 minutes made me realize how little I have to struggle against.

March 4 via mobile
It was the way the subway magician touched and held people’s hands that impressed the young writer. Not the dusty, faded foam clown-noses he made pop out of their ears or the stained red cloth he pulled from his mouth, in between reminders that “none of this is real, folks, it’s not real.” No, it was that he held their hands: papery elderly palms and hairy young wrists, and a wedding ring impressed below cold-cracked knuckles. And people smiled shyly and glanced at each other. “When was the last time someone held my hand?” thought the writer, who uses Facebook statuses to convince himself of things he only wishes for. “Don’t believe your eyes folks; I’m not here” – the magician had timed it perfectly; the doors opened and he was gone and the train riders jostled wordlessly until a Labrador led a blind man through the crowd, who mumbled “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

February 21 via mobile
A woman had just tripped over another’s bag. She landed in the subway car’s doorway just in time to get pinched. People moved to help her until she started shouting obscenities at everyone and everything, and there seemed to be breeze from 34th street that hissed “swallow your pride, lady.” I went back inside my headphones: cheery tunes meant to put me on the brighter side of shitty news. The big, steely man next to me tapped me; I thought he wanted to joke about the lady. “Does this go to the memorial?” He asked. “9/11 memorial?” He nodded, sliding his eyes away as if I had just let out a sad secret. I confirmed. “I used to live here…” I waited for more. Then he looked at me and that was all that needed to be said. We swayed together in silence until my stop, then told each other to be good, and I think we meant it.



January 6 via mobile
Round the bend into queens on the N; manhattan skyline against clear winter; more graffiti is left to live here than in other boroughs and it brings back memories of kids shoving fireworks into street lamp wiring to get more dark and of my grandfather helping me climb across city gates wrapped up in vines.

January 3 via mobile
The lonely writer blows a day’s pay at the bar.
He is out of his league; the people here describe their weddings by how much they cost.
He realizes he never wants to be like that.
The band starts up without pretense. There’s abruptly live jazz in the air.
He realizes he’s lead himself into one of the many places where he fell back in love.
He remembers laughing, and thinking, and revealing.
He feels like the cliches are true. Having loved at all was worth the deep dark pit. He thinks his friends are saints.
He closes out.

January 1 via mobile
“Is rough one for you?” the hot dog guy says, applying mustard.
I wonder just how much of it shows on my face, or how particularly it betrays.
The money blows out of my hand and into the street. I laugh, watching it go, and wonder how much could fly away before I’d care.
But the the hot dog guy runs into the street, saying oh no, and gathers each bill carefully.
“You okay my friend?” He asks me flatly.
“Not sure. But thanks.”
“It will get better.”
I leave him to looking through his portal, waiting for the next two dollars, looking forward to wherever home is, trailing kindness and not knowing it.

December 25, 2012 via mobile
“And you, you uh, you get home,” he was drunk at midnight at Bryant Park on Christmas, “and spend time with your family. Or whoever!”
“Yes!” His wobbly girlfriend said, abandoning her heels in the rain in favor of leaning into her beau.
“With your loved ones!”
They stumbled off, eating kettle corn, sporting no umbrellas or hoods, hair dripping, laughing, off into whatever Christmas they had planned together.
I turned the lights off, texted the night’s total to my brother, locked up, and jogged through the rain and into a cab, where the driver told me to be grateful for every moment I am alive.

December 17, 2012
They ducked into the bar, she with more the intention to laugh and confide, and he with more the intention to prove himself, to impress. And there was their president, unexpectedly, on every big screen. Twelve of his faces, solemn. And the bar was quiet. This usually rowdy bar now full of low voices and bowed heads.
“I feel like it’s such a serious moment” he said, lamely, to the hostess.
And he kept on trying to impress, with his research and his empathy and his insights, and she kept on trying to have a good night with a friend, and a list of names was read that brought him to tears in front of the waitress and the sports fans looking to the bottom of their beers.

December 15, 2012 via mobile
Dread before reading the paper, and that familiar compulsion to search. A whisper inside upon waking: there must be an answer. A naive insistence, always, that there is an answer. Or a way to answer. And off into the city; the only goal left being to be kinder, and more patient, and to shrug off no one. To disregard no one. To tell every little child with my eyes and my smile “it’s worth being here.”


November 8, 2012 near New York
Mustafa drove me home tonight.
I was too drunk and too self-involved to remember the details of his life, but he is from Senegal. His family wants him to be here. He had a better job there.
He leaned over the seat at a red light. He looked at me. He told me they would forgive me. He told me that writing is important.
He dropped me off. I couldn’t figure out the card machine; I was, and am, drunk. He helped me slide the card through the machine the right way; our fingers touched.
He sent me on my way: snow blasted me.
I couldn’t bring myself to look at the cab as it turned the corner and Mustafa went away forever.
He was kind.
There’s work to do tomorrow.

November 5, 2012 near New York via mobile
“I can’t get a fresh salad to save my life!” she lamented through her scarf. Several faces in the shoulder to shoulder subway car turned to her, dagger-eyed. Her cheeks went red and her eyes flitted around. The stop rolled into view and people tripped over each other, whispering thank you’s for small favors and grunting ‘for fuck’s sake’ over nothings. The city ambled on above ground, maybe foolhardy, while elsewhere people fed each other and passed out blankets and stood guard in front of their homes with bows and arrows and sat looking at their children, and other storms grew healthy over oceans.

November 1, 2012 via mobile
People stop by the booth; they’re happy to be out and to see little kids laughing around the fountain. They tell me about strangers letting them charge their phones on portable generators. A man had been down to the highline to collect water from a pump; he laughs walking away, telling me he’s gonna watch some classics on his portable DVD player. One man with a bandaid over his eye – disheveled, nervous, shy – just can’t imagine Breezy Point. Can’t imagine, those people! he says, standing at my counter. I give a free bag of kettle corn to a couple with three kids who have no power at home. They’re gonna be fine, they assure me. It’s quiet in the park. There’s no ice in the rink. I’m lucky. I’m happy to be here.

October 3, 2012 near New York
A few months ago, the guy behind the counter at the deli told me I carried myself well, shook my hand and asked my name. His name was Ahmed. His coffee is the same price as the other delis, one on each corner of this particular intersection, but I go to him because I feel like he considers the person in front of him and not just the change in their hand. I haven’t seen Ahmed in a couple weeks. I asked the new guy if he had found another job and he said “Ahmed sick. Hospital. Hit by car. Don’t know when he’s better.” I looked at him for a moment, hoping for some mutual shows of concern and hope, but he wanted the change in my palm. Handing it over, I said “I don’t know if he remembers my name but tell him… tell him one of his customers says hello and get well.” He was on to the next customer, and I was out the door. And the world spun on.

Bizarre; what with the name before the .com and all.

Thanks so much for taking the time to click here.

Here’s my favorite painting as a way to say thanks:


I hope to post my usual musings here, as well as updates on writing and teaching.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re an important person to me. Really.

Please comment wherever you’re able so I can learn how to deal with comments.

All the best,


PS. No but because for real, there are options about “Gallery” and “Audio” and “Aside” and I just don’t know what to do.