The Frenchies

I’ve been taking an alarming number of photos of dogs wearing sweaters on the streets of New York City. It’s become a passion of mine.

Marilyn and I went on a walk yesterday afternoon, and stopped for a while at the Tompkins Square Dog Park. I was on the hunt. There was a wiener dog in a knit purple turtle neck sprinting around, but he never came close enough to the fence to get a good photo.

Eventually an odd looking woman in a boxy leather coat, leather skirt, and squat black hat walked in with two french bulldogs. One was black, the other a light tan. But their hair color was irrelevant to me. They were wearing matching navy sweaters with red designs on the top I couldn’t make out.

Once off the leash, they proved to be mangy little gremlins. Making those horrible retching sounds that only french bulldogs can make. They rolled around on the turf in their sweaters, and harassed a beautiful young golden retriever. Like evil twin henchmen chasing after a princess. They were such a shocking pair, tongues longing out now and again, that I insisted we wait around for them to leave so I could get a photo.

As we waited we watched the dogs. There were two pens, one for the smalls, and one for the bigs. It seemed as though we were watching a group of toddlers playing while the teenagers loped around the room next door. A golden pointer caught our attention for a while. He seemed young and not quite fully in control of his very long and sleek extremities.

Eventually the lumpy looking woman in the toddler pen hooked both of the evil frenchies up to the leash and walked out. As they did, I took a photo with the flash on, and the woman looked up at me.

“Aren’t they adorable?” She said in a sweet and soft voice. Under the squat hat, she had very sweet eyes and a kind simple face that surprised me. “Their names are Moshi and Bayo.” It was only then that I realized the matching sweaters the dogs were wearing said “Louis Vuitton” in curvy red letters. Their faces were terribly ugly close up.

The woman, Kimmy, told us she was watching the dogs for a friend, a hypnotist-dula who was their normal dog walker, but was apparently always in high demand around this time of year. We never heard about the owner, but the dogs had a private chef and flew around in a private jet. And both had $4,000 Louis Vuitton harnesses as well as the sweaters.

“But I don’t like to use them…” said the Kimmy. “I live on Ave B, it would just be too much. They’re all sparkly with buckles and straps and everything. They live with 13 dwarf Japanese cats, too. With tiny little legs.” Kimmy held her pointer finger and thumb about three inches apart to show the size of the legs of the 13 cats in question.

“Well,” she said after we talked for another minute. “I’ve got to go to work.” And with that, she walked off with the gremlins. I used three shots on the disposable camera for Moshi and Bayo. They deserved it. Well, the Louis Vuitton sweaters deserved it.

The Last Coffee

A few mornings ago, me and Marilyn walked to Abraco Coffee first thing. It’s on 7th St between 1st and 2nd Ave. It’s a rather unassuming place from the outside. You walk down a few stairs to go inside.

Behind the bar, I saw the same barista that gave me coffee the first time I visited. That time I had come alone. The barista’s name was Andrea. With a “ree” not a “ray” in the middle. There were groups of people all around, just like last time. Some sitting, some standing at tall square tables. The reason I wanted to go back for a second visit so badly was the chatter. It had the air of a fantastical Italian cafe from the 20s where middle aged men and artists argued loudly about politics late into the afternoon. It was the same today. Lots of chatter. I noticed a sign at the register that I hadn’t seen before, “No Laptops.” I smiled.

We got our coffee and sat in the corner. There was a half full mug at the table, but we decided to risk it. Both of us were rather tired, and were content quietly gaze around. Across the room there was a large table of people talking animatedly together. Mostly women. Mostly middle aged. But multiracial. An ancient husband and wife sat at the end, an older woman in a pink cardigan and scarf in the middle. A man with turquoise glasses joined them as we watched.

“How do you think they all know each other?” Marilyn asked me. It’s a question she often asks of these types of groups.

“Maybe it’s a language club,” I said.

“Oh, maybe. Are they speaking english?” She said.

There’s a gift bag on the table, maybe it’s someone’s birthday.” I said.

“I think it’s a big group of cousins.” We ruminated on it some more, and drank our coffee. The group kept chatting and smiling. The older couple stood and left. The man in turquoise glasses scooted in towards the center, taking their seats. An employee walked through the front room from the bakery in back with a fresh loaf of banana bread. We decided we needed some banana bread.

I stood up, noticing that the older women in the pink cardigan and short hair was also standing. As I passed by her on my way to the counter, I put a hand lightly on her shoulder and said, “Can I ask how you all know each other? What this group is?” She looked up at me and smiled.

“Oh, this group! Well, we just know each other from here!”

“Really?” I said exclaimed.

“Yeah – you see when Abraco opened…” she said Abraco as Abrah-so. “When it opened across the street, it was a much smaller space. So everyone was crammed in together. We had to reach over each other to reach the cream and stood shoulder to shoulder. Over time we just started to get to know each other. And a group of us kept chatting and drinking coffee together. It’s a neighborhood thing. There’s maybe 30 of us that rotate in and out every day.” I looked around in awe at the seven or eight unique faces arrayed around the table.

“How long has this been going on?” I asked.

“Oh, about 15 years probably. Since it opened. Now we’re family. We raise each other’s kids. We all live around here. On the block or around the corner. I’m the grandmother of the group. Last year I had a hip replacement and they all made an excel spreadsheet of who would take care of me for the first month after surgery.” I couldn’t contain the affection I felt for this group.

“My goodness! That is incredible! This is incredible!” Some of the group had started listening in to our conversation. And I turned to all of them. “This is amazing – you guys, this group, this is exactly what everyone in the world wishes they had!” Barbera, that was her name in the pink cardigan, said “what everyone needs! This is what everyone needs! We’re like a little cult, we even move apartments with consideration for where the rest of the group lives. We’re our own species, the Abraccians, ha!”

I got several of their names, and occupations. Kathy the lawyer, with dark skin and black curly hair. Nicki the stand up comedian with pink horn rimmed glasses. An accountant. Another lawyer. A nurse.

“Over the years we just keep being here, and people keeping joining in.” Barbera said. “You’re welcome to sit with us anytime!” The whole group echoed this sentiment with great cheer and many smiles. I said I couldn’t wait to join them, how lovely it was to meet all of them. As I turned to the counter, an older man wearing a fedora and tan trench coat standing with another group joked “did you pay your admission ticket?”

I ordered my banana bread and remarked how amazing the group was to Andrea behind the counter.

“Yeah,” she said, “I’ve only been here three months but it’s been amazing to hear their stories. The Last Supper Table.” That’s what she called it. It seemed the most wonderful thing in the world.

Back in the corner, I told Marilyn about it all. As we passed The Last Supper Table a little while later to leave, I waved at the group again. “I can’t wait to join you soon!” They all waved, wearing big smiles, and clamoring their welcomes.

“Wow,” I said to Marilyn as we walked out and up the stairs into the frigid air. “I can’t believe it. That was the most wonderful thing. I can’t wait come back!” She agreed. “Tomorrow?”

Watching a man die

In his book Slaughter House 5, Kurt Vonnegut wrote the sentence “So it goes” 106 times. But before I get into that:

The other day I was watching David Letterman’s interview with Dave Chappelle. And they were talking about Dave’s response to the George Floyd murder and his special called 8:46. And Dave said “The commentary after [he died] was very heady and intellectual. And I was shocked that nobody ever talked about what it feels like to watch a man get murdered that way.”

The day before I watched that interview, I saw a video on Twitter of a Russian helicopter being hit by a Ukrainian missile, crashing to the ground, and exploding.

And the day before I saw that video, I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5 for the first time. It’s a depiction of World War 2 and the bombing of Dresdon through the perspective of a soldier named Billy, who sporadically jumps around in time his entire life and is at one point abducted by aliens. The aliens aren’t the point, though. And neither is the time travel. The war is the point. And the death. So it goes.

Today, now, there is another war taking place in Europe. And thousands more deaths.

And I watched that video of the helicopter on Twitter, and I clicked in, and I used my finger to go back and forth, backwards and forwards, slower and slower – the missile hits, the helicopter goes down, the helicopter explodes, and the people die. I’d never seen people die like that before. So it goes.

Just like the scene of George Floyd’s murder. Just like the deaths in Word War 2 that Billy saw. We’d never watched someone die like that.

And there are two responses two watching these scenes: either you become desensitized to the horror, and you shrug your shoulders, and you say So it goes… Or you fight like hell to ensure it doesn’t happen again. 

And I watched that video on Twitter… I scrolled back and forth for a few minutes, slower and slower… And then I put my phone down. And I sat. And then after a moment of silence and sadness sitting at work, I pulled my computer over again and I went back to work. And then I got lunch. And did some work. And I complained about this and that. And then I saw a friend, and ate some more food, and did some more things. And I forgot about the helicopter. Until the next day, when Dave Chapelle said “I was shocked that nobody ever talked about what it feels like to watch a man get murdered that way.”

And those soldiers came back to my mind. And the couple of seconds after they were hit before the struck the ground – to cry or pray or think about their mothers or their children or their country or their war. And then the thinking stopped. So it goes.

The cost of war isn’t just the people who die. But the way it tempers our reactions to death. Our desensitization to the horror is just another byproduct of the horror itself. So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.

Can I get a lift?

Nathanial had a plan. He told me so as I rode in the back of his Ford Fusion, nearing the end of a long day of travel. I’d been on two delayed planes, a short tram, a packed bus to the pickup lot at LAX, and finally jumped in a Lyft back to my house. I’d been in transit for seven and a half hours by the time I threw my luggage into the back seat. I slouched in after it, happy to be in a row to myself without the rush of jet engines 15 feet outside the window.

“Ah, you’re headed to Venice?” Nathanial asked genially, tapping “GO” on his cell phone’s GPS map.

“Yes,” I said meekly, looking up from my lap at his phone, then the rear-view mirror where I could see Nathanial’s eyes navigating traffic. I hoped my soft “Yes” would communicate my excitement for a ride of silence. But a few seconds later, Nathanial asked where I was coming from. And the holidays. Then about work.

“You like your work?” he asked. “What do you do?”

“I do like it,” I said. “I work in digital media.”

“Oh,” he said, “Well this is the place to be! Are you arriving or getting back?”

“Getting back. I was at home for the holidays. I just got here in September.”

“Oh, it’s a temporary work assignment then?” He asked, mis-understanding. “Well LA is a beautiful place to spend the winter!” I didn’t have any interesting in correcting him, so I nodded in agreement.

“It’s true, it’s beautiful here.” I said, hoping to signal the end of the conversation. But before I knew it, he was telling me about his career as a Lyft driver.

“Yeah, I like it.” he said. “I mostly drive nights. eight to four, those are my work hours.” But he wasn’t planning to be a Lyft driver forever. He began to outline the small and lucrative driving company he was about to start.

“I am quite certain this next year will be the best of my life,” he said. “That’s the way it seems. I make 2,000 dollars a week driving for Lyft, but in the next month or two, I’ll be making 28,000 a week. I’ve got to buy a new elite SUV, then I’ll be hiring about eight drivers-“

As he described in great detail the cost and profit analysis of his fledgling company, I looked up to the mirror again, and studied his face for the first time. He was Black, in his late fifties, with lines creasing his eyes and cheeks behind a blue medical mask. He had a high voice, and talked very methodically, annunciating each syllable with intentionality. He was born and raised in LA, which was a surprise as he spoke with what seemed to be a slight southern accent.

“Yeah,” he said, drawing out the word with a sigh. “I’ve never made much money. Well, there was a time I was making 375,000 a month! Running a company selling TV and radio ads to attorneys. But ah, it didn’t last long cause my financial backer’s company went under and left me with nothing. Yeah, that was hard to get over, ha, I still get made about that sometimes.”

“Mm,” I said plainly.

“Yeah, I worked in sales for 35 years. I got pretty good at it. That’s how I’m going to run the new company. I won’t be driving, it’ll mostly be talking for me! Cause we’ll be catering specifically to business and high profile cliental in LA. People who, when they need a car, need a car! Mostly pre-booked rides. So a lot of talking, a lot of scheduling.”

As he drove and talked smoothly along, he pivoted to family, and told me about his wife and kids.

“I met her in Denver,” he said, now winding his way along the darkened side streets off the freeway. “I moved there when I turned 19, and married my wife at 22. We moved back to LA, because that’s where the business is. Not enough people for business in Denver. Or in Santa Barbara, oh I love Santa Barbara… I spent a few years there with my grandma growing up. And I loved it. I hate LA, I love Santa Barbara. But not enough people. So we moved to LA. And I thought that was going to be okay. That was the plan.”

He trailed off. “So what happened?” I asked.

“Well she left me.” He said. “She left. We divorced when we were 27 I think. Or 28? She went back to Denver. She’s got a lot of family there, so she went back. I thought she liked LA, that’s where we agreed to be. But no.”

“And what about your kids?” I asked.

“Well that’s the hardest part of all. She took them with her. And I stayed. Cause I don’t want anyone to try and change my mind.”

“Do you ever see them now?” I asked, not quite sure why.

“No.” He said. “No, I don’t. That’s the hardest part of all,” he said again. “I’ve got an estranged relationship with the kids now. But I’ve got a plan up my sleeve to deal with that, too.” He drew out estranged into two parts. Es was long, and stranged spat out like he didn’t want to think about it anymore. Estranged.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said sincerely.

“Well, I’ve got a plan up my sleeve,” he said. “I plan to be successful enough that I’ll start to buy some properties around here. Enough to give my kids some – maybe some apartment buildings, condos, things like that. You see, they’re doing real well for themselves, but I don’t think they’re making seven or eight figure incomes. So I’m going to try and lure them out here with that.”

He didn’t say anything more, and the streets lights passed rhythmically as we drove in silence for the first time. He made a left turn, then stopped at a light.

“I am quite certain this next year will be the best of my life,” he said again, more softly this time. Almost dreamily.

I watched his eyes in the rear view mirror, slightly widened, staring straight ahead at the road. He seemed the most confident man in the world as he drove me through the streets of Venice. As he pulled up to the house and put the car in park, he seemed so sure that everything would work out. As if it were already a fact, already fate.

He tapped “END” on the map on his phone.

“Thank you,” I said, swinging the door open, “Good luck with everything, I wish all the best for you.”

“Oh thank you!” Nathanial said, turning around. “Sorry to talk at you the whole time,” as if he’d just realized there was someone in the back seat with him. “I love to talk!” He said with a chuckle.

“I appreciated hearing it,” I said, stepping out and grabbing my bags. “Have a good night, and good luck with your plans.”

Pointing at Wayne Thiebaud

On Christmas day a week or two ago, an American painter named Wayne Thiebaud died at 101. I had never heard of Thiebaud, nor can I remember ever seeing any of his work. Which, now that I have, feels like a fatal flaw in my two years of higher art education.

I’d like to write a full piece on Wayne Thiebaud, but today I’m just going to point at some of the pieces that stopped me in my tracks the other day as I was poking around his past. Specifically his landscapes. Not the subject matter he became famous for, but certainly the subject matter that ensnared my imagination.

Look at how soft those clouds look!

These works feel like glorious caricatures of space. Caricatures of land. And that’s something I’ve never seen before. And I love it.

And now I’m going to let this all percolate and soak into my subconscious and see what comes out.

Flame’s Greed

Fire is a toxic friend. It takes and takes, requiring ever more from you. Relying on you entirely for its very existence. But – in return for its life, for your sustenance – it keeps you warm. Brightening your life just enough to continue feeding its gnawing flame. Light and heat, its gracious reward for your constant sacrifice.

And the moment you stop giving, stop sustaining, the fire will leave you without another thought. A fickle, greedy friend.

The Honeysuckle Lounge

The honeysuckle bush was busy. A crowd of insects buzzed and gossiped among the buds. A couple here and there shared a flower as the waitress flitted around, and a large group of hummingbirds at the back laughed boisterously. Down in the mound below the bush, the bar was full of the chatter and talk of the neighborhood folk enjoying their drinks as they waited for the game to begin. It was a lovely spring afternoon, and the sun had finally burst through the gray, Sunday gloom. Everyone was cheerier with the sun out and about, even in the dark bar where just a few narrow shafts of light cut through the open windows.

A groundhog in a red striped scarf crashed through the front door of the bar, and several mates who seemed to know him gave a warm shout. Behind the bar, a lovely chipmunk named Dakota scampered left and right, filling drinks, sliding glasses, and ignoring a pair of leering weasels who snickered every walked their way. And in the corner of the bar, a very wide robin sat slumped against the wall, dozing with a large empty pint glass gripped in her wing.

One small, grainy, boxy television hung above an end of the bar where the quarter-finals were soon set to broadcast. The volume in the bar grew steadily as people clad in red and white filtered in. Grins were clear on many of the faces waiting for the game, and drinks were passed around to all the newcomers. The door opened again, and a shaft of sunlight split the room in two momentarily as a couple of ferrets walked in, giving those inside, if there were to look, a glimpse of a tall squirrel outside with his back to the bar.

He seemed to be waiting for something, as he looked left and right down the road. He kept pulling out a scrap of paper from his pocket, unfolding it, glancing down, then repocketing it, as if just to reassure himself it were there. As he stood, he overheard the waitress amongst the flowers with a pair of fat bumblebees who had just buzzed their way to the honeysuckle bush. “I’m sorry, every flower is full!” The waitress said with a smile, her tiny wings nothing but a blur and a buzz.

He shifted his feet every once and a while, his tail twitching with impatience as the time passed and the rest of the crowd passed into the bar. Soon he heard the room quiet for a moment as the TV crackled to life, then cheers erupted through the open windows as the game began.

He waited like this for a while. The yells and shouts of outrage and jubilee came every once in a while from the bar, until the sun stooped low over the trees, heading quickly for the horizon.

The Honeysuckle had nearly emptied when the game ended and the crowd began to thin, grumbling and sidling their way through the door to trudge home in the dusk. If the team had won, the crowd would have stayed for an hour or two celebrating and gabbing, but no one much felt like staying to drink after such a miserable match. As they left, no one seemed to notice a scrap of paper on the road near where the squirrel had been standing. Stamped into the dirt, hard to see now in the darkening gloom, with the outline of a very large paw print, and the words “Honeysuckle Lounge, 3 PM, bring Lucile.” barely legible.

The last of the crowd made their way out as Dakota cleaned up. A while later, she finally switched off all the lights and locked the front door behind her as she walked off into the night, clutching a jacket tightly around her.

She didn’t notice the note in the dirt either. And the rain that came that night washed it away, along with the very large paw print, and the scent of any squirrel, good or bad.

Alone, Together

I just finished reading a graphic novel from the library called Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Quite an apt book to be published in 2021, written and illustrated by Kristen Radtke. It walks through the psychology and reality of loneliness in America. I’d recommend reading the entire thing, but on page 206, a passage struck me.

“‘Loneliness,” Kristen quotes, “is receiving steadily more attention.”

I read that line, and it felt like a knock over the head. It felt like such a clear and true juxtaposition. Written originally by Philosopher Lars Svendsen in 2015, it went on, “But that does not mean there is more of it out there.”

I then realized what Svendsen had been saying was not how I had at first read it. He was saying the idea of loneliness, the concept or diagnosis itself, had been receiving more attention by the scientific and general community.

But what I had taken it to mean in that first moment, was that loneliness comes, or is born out of, receiving steadily more attention. That more attention equals more loneliness. And, though I believe loneliness has indeed been getting more attention as a concept, I like my interpretation better.

Because isn’t it true? That all the stories we’re told of those fortunate enough to became famous, or incredibly wealthy, or both, find loneliness as an unwanted tagger-on to their success? That those people who we revere, adore, praise, indeed find that loneliness comes as a byproduct of receiving more attention.

This isn’t true for everyone, of course. But I wager a guess that a chart of fame and loneliness would look something like this.

But still… We strive for fame. So many of us. Me included. We ignore the red flags, the “BEWARE” sign posts, the fables of those who have flown too close to the sun. Because the allure is too great. Because we think fame will solve our problems.

And for many, one of the problems for which fame seems a perfect cure is loneliness.

But what if we’re wrong? And we likely are. What if, instead, loneliness is receiving steadily more attention.

Then, of course, it would make sense to avoid fame and attention at all costs in pursuit of real, human relationships. To sacrifice the solitary grandeur of fame, for the warm embrace of community.

Here are some other quotes from Seek You I noted:

“Loneliness is often exacerbated by a perception that one is lonely while everyone else is connected. It’s exaggerated by a sensation of being outside something that others are in on: A family, a friendship, a couple, a joke.” p. 12

“The bond of a secret is an intoxicating trust fall, and each time I’ve learned I’ve been kept outside one – that a friend had confided in someone else but chosen not to share with me – it’s felt like an assassination of our closeness.” p. 82

“A study published in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, conducted by the late loneliness expert and pioneer John T. Cacioppo, explored expansive social networks and found that loneliness “occurs in clusters,” extending up to three degrees of separation from one lonely hub.” p. 287

A New Perspective

Theodore Laurence from Little Women | CharacTour

The first five times I watched Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, I walked away yearning to be just like Laurie. To have his confidence and cool and stature. And all his vests. But on the sixth watch, a year and a half after the fifth, I suddenly saw the movie differently. It wasn’t Laurie’s character I admired most – though his turns of phrase, fashion, attitude, and kindness all shout to me still. Instead, I found myself thinking about a short scene that I’d never paid much mind to before. The scene when Joe shows the Professor, Friedrich Bhaer, her published work. Nervously pacing around, biting her nail, giddy as she waits for his response to her livelihood and greatest passion.

“I think they’re not good,” the Professor says meekly after a time, looking up at Jo. “I know you have talent, which is why I’m being so blunt with you.”

Jo stares at her friend, dumbstruck for a moment, before her temper flares up and gets the better of the situation. The quiet conversation explodes into a volcano of mingled feelings as Jo recoils at the Professors words. As she yells and criticizes, though, the Professor never loses his cool. Never judges her temper, never raises his voice. Never lashes out.

First, he is blunt with his candor. Then he is gracious with her temper. Finally, he is forgiving of her rage. This is the type of man I’d like to be. Critical and gracious. Honest and kind. And while I strive to hold many of Laurie’s finer traits in hand, it the heart of the Professor I want to follow after.

The Paris Review - Is Professor Bhaer Jewish, and Other Mysteries - The  Paris Review