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Month: August 2008

the hellraiser and the softer sell



Growing pains. When your way of life, your view of the world, your relationships with others, and many of your long-held beliefs are questioned, you feel: angry, betrayed, uncertain, awkward.


Random stranger at an Urban Outfitters in Greenwich Village a few months ago. “How do I look?” he asked me.

It was interesting living in a country going through such obvious growing pains. Though I grew tired of blogs and magazines that take for granted that the universe does not revolve around the ism-spattered dichotomy of the American presidential race, I was grateful for the growing pains. Grateful to be in the mix. Things my peers and I have talked about for years finally began making front-page news: ideas of blackness, ideas of whiteness, self-identification, multiple selves, multiple worlds. Beautiful and painful to watch it awkwardly bubble to the surface on Fox News headlines and CSPAN call-in shows.

These days I’ve been thinking hard about the summer of 2004. About this time four years ago, I had just graduated from undergrad, felt burnt out from working so hard, and was pretty unsure about where I fit. I moved back to Toronto to freelance full time, and my first week back happened to coincide with bell hooks’ first visit in years. She had a major talk scheduled, open to the public, but I got a special invite to a much smaller, intimate lunch with the petite legend earlier the same day. I was exhausted from having just moved across the country again, so I didn’t come with questions. I came to be in her presence. To be among other active thinkers, doers, fighters. To somehow feel connected to Toronto again.

There was no connection. The fighters were too busy fighting amongst themselves — over who was most oppressed, the most fierce in their activism, the most righteous. bell was uncomfortable, and I walked away from the session feeling even more alienated and uncertain.

There’s something about being a perpetual outsider that has made me unsure of what it’s like to be inside, and unsure especially whether or not I want to be there. It’s not the insider status I dread — it’s the borders that divide the two that make me weary.

you can sneak up on me

I never did make it to Jones Beach or Staten Island or to Ralph’s Icees. I meant to spend more time in Brownsville and at that East NY high school. I meant to spend more time on rooftops in Bushwick and sweating it out in Harlem.

I’ll miss the friends I was just starting to build with. I’ll miss the rats, sauntering along the subway platform ahead of me. I’ll miss the ride on the 7 train into Queens for Arabic class and the rooftop view beyond PS1. I’ll miss my fire escape and dangling halfway out of the window to sneak a glimpse of the sky. Hearing R Kelly and Wu Tang from the ladies next door, their children screaming and laughing and playing right below my window.

I don’t think I could ever get sick of the Hudson at sunset or fireflies in Prospect Park. I’ll miss the riverside bike path so so much, especially the part where you dip under the highway, through the tunnel, and first see the sparkling, nasty waters that flow between Manhattan and New Jersey. I won’t miss cheating death every time I biked off the track and onto the road, but the adrenaline rush was nice.

I’ll miss my guy at the bike shop and his little bulldog, Sam. I’ll miss the dudes from the copy shop, the pizza joint on the corner, the bodega on Amsterdam, and from the hospital across the way, all watching out for me and asking about school, wishing me a good day. I’ll miss my campus, the all-consuming excitement of just being there.

I’ll miss APT on Mondays and Wednesdays (Ricky’s Rib Shack!), Libation on Thursdays (whatup Joelle and Carmela!), and outdoor festivals on the weekends. I’ll miss bumping into YOUR ass at every damn open bar art show in the Lower East Side, but I won’t miss the flash blog photography.

Maybe I really loved it without realizing it. New York snuck up on me, and this year went by far too quickly.

Thank you for indulging. We’ll see how this next adventure compares…

one year to the day

First I’ll tell you about the Mister Softee Bronx-Manhattan Rescue Mission of 2008.

We met Fausto The Disgruntled Ice Cream Man sometime in Spring. He asked, “How long do you think seven months is going to go?”

We didn’t get it. How long?

“You know, do you think it’ll go slow, or will it go fast?”

He had seven months of soft-serve cones, slushies, sprinkles, dips, pops and swirls ahead of him, and there was almost anything in the world he’d rather be doing this this. He drove down to Manhattan from the Bronx in his Mister Softee truck every day, as he had everyday for five long, seven-month summers. This was his sixth summer as a Mister Softee man.

“I hate my job,” he said. Every cone he sold brought him one day closer to October, when the Mister Softee season finally closes. I imagined him keeping count on a little calendar under the dash.

Most afternoons you can catch him just off Broadway, parked on 109th. He pulls down the street and around the corner at around 3 or 4 PM to a spot by the taqueria on Amsterdam. There the clientele shifts from chatty Columbia students, stone-faced girls with yoga mats, and young, middle-class families to Caribbean and Latino teens, girls in flip-flops and booty shorts, and older Dominican and Puerto Rican women holding their grandchildren firmly by the hand.

On one of my last days in New York, walking down Amsterdam, we spotted his truck. It was a perfect opportunity to grab one last cone from our man, we thought, and walked up. The truck was parked, running, window shut, and Fausto nowhere to be seen. The cook from the taquería waved to me from his window front and pointed down the block. Fausto was three doors down in Jumbo Slice buying himself lunch or dinner or a snack or something. One of those Dominican grandmothers was standing waiting for him already, a little girl’s hand pressed to hers. The child’s other hand was mashed anxiously against her mouth, anticipating the rainbow sprinkles she would soon be tasting.

We all waited together for Fausto to come out of the pizza joint to serve us. We didn’t notice a cab creep up alongside the truck, didn’t notice it sneak into the tiny space between the door and the curb, and didn’t notice the driver park and walk off. The cab blocked off Fausto’s door and part of the curb-side serving window–SHIT!–but the other door facing the street was still clear, so all good, right?

“Oh shit,” said Fausto. “I only have the key for this door.”

He struggled with his pizza box and drink, measuring the space between the cab and his truck with frantic eyes, his arms rising and falling at his sides as his sense of panic ebbed and swelled. The Dominican grandmother took turns complaining to me and cussing him out in Spanish too rapid-fire for me to understand. He just shook his head. “I can’t get in!”

I watched Fausto struggle to squeeze between the two vehicles, his belly getting in the way each time. The taquería guys had come outside to laugh by now, and Fausto was even more frazzled. “Now they think I’m fat,” he complained, “because I can’t fit.” Passers-by had gathered to watch the fracas, and they were laughing too.

It was damn hot out. I was wearing a dish halter dress, and nervous about the feeling of a hot car’s roof on my skin, but this was no time to hesitate: my MacGyver moment was up.

I slipped behind the cab, hoisted myself up onto the side, and pressed my legs and hands onto the Mister Softee truck to slide across towards the front. Fausto, looking hopeful, stretched his arm to unlock the door, I shimmied it open with my feet, and jumped inside. Success! Ice cream victory!

The little girl finally took her hand away from her mouth, smiled and hopped up and down a little bit, her other tiny hand still wrapped in her grandmother’s. The taquería guys went back to work. All was right with the world. Fausto finally served me my last vanilla cone — but yo, would you believe that dude, he wouldn’t even give it to me for free!

Damn Fausto. He really does hate his job.