A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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When I first moved to New York City, I told myself that I could always leave if things didn’t work out. I’d be all in, until I wasn’t. I found a similar all-or-nothing quality to life there: the sad history of people’s failed dreams alongside all the obvious success stories and diehards who wondered what your problem was. There was no middle path, no gray area, just winners and losers. I spent a lot of time sorting out my thoughts about this.
“You’re too much in your head,” my ex, Laura, told me. When I asked what she meant, she said, “Think about it.”
I was riding the Staten Island Ferry to work one summer day about a year later, sitting in one of those orange plastic seats and bundled up with a scarf wrapped around my head to stay warm. I’m from Phoenix, Arizona, and New York always felt cold to me. I’m sure I looked dumb as hell, but then, nobody really paid attention to anyone else in the city.
I was supposed to have the day off. I’d planned to work on some songs, make a few follow-up calls to venues where I’d sent demos of my band. Then my boss had called and asked if I could clean this apartment on the Upper East Side. It wasn’t really my territory, but the guy who usually did the place had a kidney stone, and my boss was in a bind. He said I didn’t need to lug all my supplies up there; the homeowner, Patricia, would provide everything. I said OK. I figured I could visit the Met afterward, as a kind of reward. I always loved getting lost there, wandering around and looking at the sculptures.
I’d found a spot on the lower deck of the ferry where I could read in peace. I was halfway through Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” when the photo I’d been using as a bookmark fell onto my lap. It was an old black-and-white shot of Times Square, taken in the 1930s. Laura had bought it at a flea market. Gazing at it now, I started to think of all the people who were there at the exact moment the photo was taken. I imagined them frozen in those buildings or on the street, stuck doing whatever they were doing at the time, forever.
I was stuck in my own life and didn’t know what to do about it. When I’d moved to New York in 2000, I’d had a plan. The beginning of a new millennium had seemed like a good time to start fresh, really do something with my music. I’d ended up living in Staten Island, since I couldn’t afford a place in the city, but I told myself it wasn’t so bad for a young singer-songwriter. I had a decent apartment, and the commute to Manhattan on the ferry was only thirty minutes, so I could get there easily enough for gigs. Two studio musicians had heard my songs and produced my demo on spec, in hopes of taking a percentage of the deal if I got signed. But now a year had passed, and that hadn’t happened. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the people who came to the city and failed, and worrying I was becoming one of them.
After I got off the ferry, I had some time, so I sat on a bench beside Battery Park and thought about how I’d ended up cleaning apartments. The job wouldn’t have been so bad if I knew it was temporary, but what if I was stuck doing it forever? Just then a homeless guy wandered past and muttered a special message clearly meant for me:
“Shut the fuck up.”
I walked to Bowling Green Station and caught the 5 train up to 77th Street. When I squeezed my way off the crowded train and onto the platform, a girl with an acoustic guitar was busking just past the turnstiles, making some good money. The most I’d ever made busking was six bucks. The buskers who did well, like this girl, all had some sort of act. Or they were just such charismatic performers that you couldn’t resist giving them something. According to Keith, who plays bass in my band, I was more of a shoegazer on stage. Maybe that explained why I was stuck cleaning apartments.
I found the address, and Patricia buzzed me in. She gave me this mean smirk, like I’d already done something wrong. Maybe she was just harried, getting her kids ready for school. She showed me the cleaning supplies and the parts of the house she needed done.
I started in one of the bedrooms. Normally, when I clean, I think about a song, but that day I tried to brainstorm ways to turn things around for my band. It would have to be something big. We’d had our debut gig at the Bitter End, which was surreal for me, just knowing all the legends who had played there. I’d felt like the crowd was behind us, but after that we’d gotten only small shows around the Village, at places like the Mercury Lounge and Arlene’s Grocery. Keith tried to explain to me that playing once at a well-known venue wouldn’t make us well-known, but I clung to the belief that all we needed was to play an even bigger venue to reach even more people. I just wasn’t sure how to make that happen.
After I finished the bedrooms, I had to do the bathrooms, which was the worst part of the job, obviously. Especially the toilets. Your mind just goes blank while you’re doing it. But on this particular day my mind wouldn’t go blank. I just thought, over and over, I scrub toilets for a living. Kneeling and scrubbing, I found myself muttering like that homeless guy.
“How did I get here?” I asked out loud. Then I started singing that Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” only with new verses: “And you may ask yourself, why am I cleaning someone else’s shit? / And you may ask yourself, what could be worse than this?”
The Talking Heads reminded me of CBGB, the Bowery club where they’d started out. I’d sent CB’s a demo, but I’d never gotten a response. I thought about that first gig at the Bitter End and how it had come to be: I just stopped by, and there was a guy out front smoking a cigarette like he was guarding the place.
“Who does the booking here?” I asked.
“Who’s asking?” he said, giving me a disgusted look.
I told him I’d sent a demo a while back and was following up. He just looked down the street like I didn’t exist, like people like me were the reason New Yorkers like him had an attitude.
“Who do I check with?” I asked.
“You’re talking to him.”
This made me laugh a little, and he lightened up after that.
I guess he admired my persistence, because the next thing I knew, he was checking his calendar to book me. It raised my spirits to think about it now, even if the show hadn’t ended up being the big break I’d been waiting for.
Then I thought: Why not just go down to CBGB in person today? I mean, why the hell not? If I hurried, I’d still have time to go to the Met first.
Just then Patricia came into the bathroom — after I was done cleaning the toilet, thankfully. At first I thought she was mad that I was singing so loud, but the smirk was gone, and she asked if I could hang a big mirror for her, since her husband didn’t have time.
“I assume you’re a handyman, too?” she said.
I wasn’t at all, but I was flattered that she thought I was. It’s nice when people believe in you. So of course I’d hang this eighty-pound, gilded, antique mirror in the dining room for her. She already had the tools laid out, along with a picture-hanging kit, and she told me she’d be back in a couple of hours. Her kids were yelling for her to hurry up as they left.
A weird silence falls whenever the owners leave, like the apartment itself doesn’t want you there. It’s like being in a temple that isn’t of your faith. It’s kind of a rush, to be honest. I can’t help but look around at the family photos and whatnot, but I always stop short of actually snooping. OK, I let myself peruse their record collection for a minute. I got as far as their Beatles Rubber Soul album (first pressing), before I snapped out of it and went about hanging the mirror. There were directions, but it looked pretty simple, so I didn’t read them. I screwed the latches to the back of the frame, wrapped the wire around them a bunch of times, and then hammered the hooks into the wall. I got the mirror hung pretty quick, and I stepped back and admired my work. It did look amazing. I thought maybe I’d start doing odd jobs.
I worked as fast as I could to clean the rest of the house before she got back. The last thing I had to do was mop the wood floors in the dining room. I remember looking at that mirror one more time and feeling pretty good about it. I was reminded of what my dad always told me about the pleasure of a job well done. He was a purchasing manager, which was, in my mind, the most boring job imaginable, but he was good at it. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus tells us that the effort of pushing the boulder up the hill over and over becomes the reward. If cleaning apartments was the boulder I had to push, maybe I could learn to get some satisfaction from it. I made a plan to reread The Myth of Sisyphus that night. It had helped me the last time I’d been depressed.
As I was putting the cleaning supplies away, a sound came from behind me: a kind of groan followed by a crash like nothing I’d ever heard, an unbelievably loud and violent shattering like you might hear in a movie explosion. Had I used the wrong nails? Should I have wrapped the wire around a bunch more times? Why hadn’t I read the directions? That sacred house silence got even more ominous, like it was pissed off, like the apartment was screaming obscenities at me.
I scrambled to clean up the glass, but it had blasted everywhere. There was no way to get it all. The frame was also busted. I positioned it as best I could against the wall where it was supposed to hang and called my boss to explain what had happened. He was furious, of course, but he said to let Patricia know they had insurance for cases like this. And when she got back, I did let her know. I also told her I was sorry a million times, but she just got really quiet and told me I needed to leave.
Out on the street I headed up Fifth Avenue toward the Met. I still couldn’t believe it. Jesus. I worried about the seven years of bad luck I might have coming. There was no way I could enjoy the museum now. When I got to the Met, I just sat on the steps, trying to decide if I still had it in me to go by CBGB like I’d planned. I noticed a kid playing some game he’d made up on the steps. He was showing off for his parents. The dad was smiling and clapping while the mom took pictures. My parents had long ago stopped applauding every little thing I did, but I told myself I hadn’t done my best work yet. My finest songs were still ahead of me. I just needed opportunities to put myself out there. And CBGB was the place to do it.
I crossed Fifth Avenue and headed toward 81st and Madison to catch the 5 train again. On the way I passed the funeral home that had held services for Irving Berlin and John Lennon. That got me thinking about exceptional people, people who know who they are and what they want right from the start. I’d been writing songs since I was fourteen, and now I was twice that age and still trying to get my life together. I wondered whether success comes down to luck, or fate, or destiny. I bought a hot dog and a soda from a vendor and convinced myself that, even if I wasn’t destined to be one of the greats, I could at least be a guest star — or maybe a pallbearer at the star’s funeral.
By the time I took the subway to the Bowery and was walking up Bleecker, the sun was coming through the clouds, and I could see the famous CBGB awning. The place was intimidating, when you thought of all the history there. The front door stood open, and when I walked in, this intense-looking punk-rock girl was sitting at a desk, talking on the phone. Behind her I could see the evidence of the thousands of bands who had come before me: every sticker, graffiti, or fuck-you sign that had ever been plastered about the place.
“Can I help you?” she asked after she finished her call. She didn’t look like she wanted to help me.
Somehow all my blind ambition and nervous energy came together in one final pitch. Immediately after delivering it, I worried I had come off as desperate, and I was certain she’d heard it all before anyway. She gave me a strange look, like she wasn’t sure I was serious. Then she grabbed her calendar and said they’d had a band cancel on September 27, a Thursday night. Would that work? I said yes, thanked her a few times, and tried to keep my cool.
I walked out of there pretty excited and jogged across the street to let the energy out. I couldn’t wait to tell Keith and the rest of the band, my friends and family, and maybe Laura, even though she’d asked me nicely to wait a few months before I called her again.
There was an unseasonable chill in the air as I headed back up Bleecker. I wrapped that dumb scarf around my head again. It felt good to be walking, and I figured instead of getting back on the subway, I’d just walk all the way to the ferry terminal. It was such a relief, after the mirror and all the doubts I’d been having, to declare a victory. The longer I walked, the more something much deeper started to dawn on me: The future was going to unfold no matter what I did. Why even worry about how things turned out anymore? I’d just do whatever felt right and forget the rest. If cleaning apartments was the boulder I had to push, then so be it. I wasn’t in charge of my story or how it turned out. I would become who I was meant to be, and no single gig I booked could change that. For a moment I surrendered to the inevitable beauty of it all.
At Leonard I cut up to Broadway and just kept going, using the Twin Towers to guide me to the end of the island. Of course I had no idea what would happen just a few weeks later, or how I’d be too distraught to play our gig at CBGB. Everything I’d learned that day about surrender would turn to dust with those towers.
When I got to the ferry terminal, I’d just missed the four o’clock. So I bought a coffee from a vendor and watched the rats crawl around on the pylons. I noticed some tourists along the shore taking pictures of the Statue of Liberty, and I imagined that later they might take a photo of the Staten Island Ferry with me on it. Years from now, whenever someone saw that photo, they’d find me stuck there forever.