Sunday, September 11, 2011


I had to turn it off. Family members are reading the names of their loved ones lost exactly ten years ago this morning. The nation continues to be compelled by this defining moment of our time, as it should be, but I feel the need to resist diving into what seems the somewhat manufactured sentimentality of the moment. Each network has specially designed logos for this week, each news magazine a commemorative cover story - across the board there is a strong encouragement to "remember" - as if what happened could ever be forgotten. Forgive me if this reads as somewhat cynical, but I can't help thinking that the great machine that is our nation's media, economy, war, everything - somehow benefits by the persistent fear of its constituency.

I had been awake only a short time after just a few hours fitful sleep, still reeling from days of endless drug use and little rest. I was watering flowerbeds beside the house on Hollis Street, a block south of Japantown in San Francisco. The bedroom window on the second floor opened, and my boyfriend leaned his head out and shouted down to me, "Hey, come up here. The World Trade Center's not there anymore!" The sun was only just beginning to light up a clear blue sky, and every station on TV was playing footage of the planes flying into the towers over and over.

We had been in the process of moving to an apartment downtown on Sutter Street. In the weeks that followed, I remember sitting on the floor of the empty apartment at dawn, cradling him in my arms as he shook and cried, terrified and convinced that the sounds of early morning garbage trucks were airplanes crashing down the streets of San Francisco. We had both spent the past few years destroying our minds with drugs. The attacks on the towers and the tragedy in New York was calling me home.

I'd been living in California for ten years. Within six months I would be back in New York. I dragged him with me. The country, the city, the two of us, everyone was on high alert. We fought, we lied to each other, cheated, drank excessively, were angry, and were both very unhappy. He didn't stay, he couldn't, I didn't understand it then, but I do now. In a swift clandestine move, he arranged his overnight departure and was gone. He left me in debt, unemployed, unemployable, hurt and confused. I continued to drink and drug for a few more months, spiraling downward to what I've heard described as pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. How obliged I am to that utter humiliation as it gave me the gift of desperation. An acronym that was working in my life when there was nothing else.

In the same way that my life imploded and crashed down, I've been rebuilding at almost the same rate as the site downtown. Wreckage, debris, trauma, grief, illness as a result of the fall - my personal relationship to that day a decade ago stands as a metaphor of my downfall and recovery. Careful and slow rebuilding, brick by brick - each passing day a little more healed - each day a little better.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

what's your name?

Perhaps you've had this experience when ordering a beverage in a crowded Starbucks; you tell the counter person what you'd like to drink, then he or she asks your name before ringing you up and relieving you of your three or four dollars (depending on how fanciful your thirst). Then he or she scribbles your name on the side of a cup, and sets it in its chronological place next to a frantically milk-steaming and syrup-squeezing barista.

When this name-asking business started happening a few years back, and I'll admit, I was going through a rather angry period, my thought process was "Fuck you! This is just another invasion of my privacy. It's none of your fucking business what my name is!" and then I'd resentfully tell the counter person that my name was Mario, or Hezekiah, or Duke. But as this name-asking began to happen on a more regular basis (which also happened to coincide with my angry period merging into my having a more all-around accepting attitude of most things) I started to see that this what's-your-name-system made pretty good sense, in order to avoid any kind of beverage identity confusion when they all wind up sitting there on that little elevated beverage shelf at the far side of the espresso machine, huddled together in their steaming, half-caf, sweetened and unsweetened, non-fat, soy-chai succulence, just waiting for their parched owners to claim them and delicately sip at their deliciousness. So I reluctantly conceded to giving the counter person my name. But after doing this a couple of times, and after hearing my name mindlessly shouted out into the store by the barista, I thought "Not only is it not any of their business what my name is, but now everybody in the store knows my name too!" This indiscriminate announcement of my identity undercut my comfortable sense of New York anonymity to the core. So I started giving the counter people different names, and I noticed that the funnier or more unusual the name, the more they would make eye contact, or smile, or be momentarily taken away from the monotony of their quotidian and mindless money-taking, coffee-making responsibilities. Not only would the initial name exchange elicit a smile or pleasant response, but when the barista read it on the cup, he or she would smile or giggle, and when they shouted it to the store, it was an opportunity for others to smile as well. I don't know that I have the power to make a great many people happy at any one given time, but this miniscule opening may be an opportunity for me to lighten peoples' day, even if just for a moment. I see it as a kind of selfless-service to working folks who might not otherwise be able to get a break from the tedium of their day.

The name I usually give the counter people in this situation is, Pickles. There's something about the silliness, or the incongruity of that name that always makes people smile. "I have a grande Americano with extra room for ... Pickles! (tee hee)."

It works every time.

Today I went into a Starbucks, ordered my beverage, and the young woman behind the counter asked my name. I was a bit surprised as this Starbucks wasn't very crowded, but it was kind of loud, and there were a few people waiting for their drinks to be made. "Pickles," I said. She blankly looked across the counter at me, and paused for a moment before scribbling on the side of the cup. I found this a bit odd, but thought, Oh well, maybe she's just having a bad day. Then, after waiting for a little while with the few other folks at the far end of the counter for our drinks, I noticed that the barista wasn't calling out people's names, he was just calling out the different kinds of drinks that he was making. He called out the name of the drink that I had ordered, and then he placed it on the elevated beverage shelf. I took the drink, and as I walked over to the cream and sugar island against the wall, I read the side of my cup, and it said, Nick.