November 29, 2010

Inside the Belly: Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour

I took a tour of the Steinway & Sons piano factory today, but my camera didn't get much past the welcome doormat.

You see, all of Steinway's competitors would love to get their hands on the cutting-edge patents that keep Steinway ahead of the piano manufacturing curve. Without some access to the inside (worthy of Willy Wonka-level espionage √† la Slugworth's dastardly attempts at securing an Everlasting Gobstopper), all the rest of the world's manufacturers of pianos - or, as Steinway calls them, "piano-shaped objects" - are 40 years behind Steinway, waiting for their old patents to expire. So for the sake of protecting their trade secrets, photography is not allowed inside the factory.

Actually, it's amazing I got in there at all. Although Steinway does conduct open-to-the-public tours weekly, they're fully booked through March already. But thanks to the Greater Astoria Historical Society, I got a special insider's peek into all of the cutting, bending, assembling, varnishing, and tuning that goes into making what is arguably the best piano in the world.

But first I had to put my safety goggles on.

Unlike most of its public tours, which are littered with tourists, opera singers, musicians, and woodworking enthusiasts, this morning's tour was full of Astoria folk, curious people from the neighborhood that wanted to get a closer look at what put our not-so-little enclave on the map.

The Steinway factory manufactures 2000 grand pianos here in Astoria per year (and another 1000 in Hamburg, Germany), but the Steinway family once contributed so much more to the New York City of the late 1800s. Heinrich Steinweg arrived to New York via Ellis Island as part of the huge migration of Germans to the U.S. in the 1850s (which is when I suspect my father's ancestors arrived), and quickly Americanized himself to become Henry Steinway. He made a good go of it in Manhattan on 14th Street, but in the Gangs of New York era, Manhattan proved to be too volatile for Steinway to continue its operations without constantly arming its workers. So a few years later, Henry moved his facility and his workers across the river to Queens (as many of us do) to seek solace, and to create a utopian community away from hothouse Manhattan.

The Steinway family created an empire in the upper left quadrant of Queens, contributing to the construction of the Queensborough Bridge, the #7 train (once known as "the Steinway Tube"), and even North Beach, the amusement park that once stood where LaGuardia Airport is today. But by the time Henry and his brothers all had passed away (none living past the age of 61), the next generation decided to spin off all of these ancillary ventures and focus on the core of their business: making pianos.

As stable as their 19th century factory still is, standing strong upon the marshland of Upper Ditmars, the Steinway family and business have been anything but inflexible on their journey into the 21st century. Constantly reinventing itself over time, Steinway & Sons has expanded and contracted in this continental climate as much as their wood materials have.

 Bubinga veneer

In the spirit of "continuous improvement," Steinway has constantly sought better, faster, and more efficient ways to manufacture their pianos - as long as, they say, it's not to the sacrifice of quality. That means that walking through the factory, you crisscross between the 1869 original factory and a newer addition, passing original 19th century machinery (some of which was steam-powered) that's situated practically next to newfangled technology that minimizes or eliminates the need for manpower and handiwork for certain tasks to create and piece together the 12,000 components of a single piano.

Saw blades and and sanding belts screech. Steam whistles through pipes. Pins are hammered in with a thud thud thud. The smell of warm, freshly-cut wood mixes with wafts of varnish and drying glue - sweet, toasty, acrid, and burning all at once. The workers, artisans that they are, do not speak to us, nor to each other.

Heavy harps dangle over pianos' empty bellies while their sound boards are fitted in. Elsewhere, empty bodies wait patiently on the sidelines - not yet pianos, only the furniture to encase the keys, strings, and hammers that will eventually make the music.

 bass hammer

 inside the belly

Your head hurts from the deafening sounds and the brain-searing smells that permeate the floors, the hallways, the stairwells and the offices. As you move from the finishing floor, where assembled pianos' keys are pounded upon by a machine to loosen them up, to the tuning floor, the cacophony fades into the tinkling of just a few keys, until finally you hear just one note, repeated softly, imperceptibly fine-tuned with each stroke of its key. This is the last stop for a piano that's been birthed upstairs: a final tuning by Wally Boots.

(The pianos then move to a selection showroom where they are occasionally retuned while players shop for them...)
 Selection Room

I wanted to go this morning to seek some inspiration, and to learn more about my surroundings, but what I got was a closer connection to my neighborhood, which is feeling more and more like home in the months since I moved here. I'm no concert pianist, and Steinway's baby grand and grand pianos (especially the D class, D for "damn big") are a far cry from my grandmother's upright that I learned to play on. But as hard of a time as I had touring the facility without taking loads of photographs, I had an even harder time not touching the pianos, not seating myself in front of them and recalling the basic lessons of my youth, improvising melodies that always evoke the question "What's that song?" whenever I play. It's irresistible, an instrument that is as much a living, breathing being as its player, that can be played both soft (piano) and loud (forté).

It's become a cliche in my life that there's nothing I want to do more than what I'm told I can't, and nowhere I'd like to go more than where it's forbidden. But if I keep meeting the right people, and being in the right place at the right time, maybe there's a way to continue gaining access to the undiscovered, the hidden, and the restricted without climbing fences and risking arrest. After all, it's not danger that attracts me. It's just that I have so much more to see...

[Ed: As of January 2013, Steinway conducts one tour per week on Tuesdays 9:30a-12p from September to June. Each tour is limited to a small group of 15 people, age 16+ only and no walkers, wheelchairs, canes, or pacemakers allowed. And any photography of any sort is still verboten. You can email to make an advance reservation, which is necessary because of the popularity of the tours.]

Related post: 
Photo Essay: Steinway Industrial Business Zone

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November 28, 2010

Keeping a Stiff Upper Lip

Last night, our kitchen sink exploded.

I was home slicing the ends off some brussels sprouts buds for roasting, and I heard a deep, worrisome gurgling coming from the drain to my left. I glanced over at the sink, but since the overhead light in our kitchen had blown a few days before, I couldn't see anything.

When I placed the brussels sprouts on the oven rack, I caught a glimpse of our sink, half full of murky swampwater, full of unknown organic debris.

A few minutes later, another gurgle emptied the sink, leaving only black vegetative remnants in its wake.

"What's the super's #? Kitchen sink is acting up and I'll have to call if it explodes," I txted my roommate, then noting, "I should have it on hand anyway."

He immediately replied, "I'll be home in 5 minutes."

When he got home, he took one look at our sullied sink and said, "Oh my God that's disgusting. I don't want to look at this right now." He then ran the faucet to rinse it out as we chatted about the apartment, his day, and my plans later, which inspired me to go shower and start getting ready.

While curling my hair in the bathroom mirror, wrapped in a purple towel, I heard my roommate exclaim from the kitchen, "Oh my God! What is that?!"

The sound of pouring water. My roommate on the phone with our landlord. And a milky white overflow cascading down our cabinets and creeping across the tile floor and towards the living room, while we watched in horror. After a quick change, I threw my purple bath towel down to stop the flow from advancing any further.

A flurry of activity ensued, with the arrival of our super and some workers from an upstairs apartment they'd been renovating. They brought buckets and mops and sponges and began the cleanup, pausing to explain, "It's paint."

Apparently they'd been rising out some brushes in other apartment's sink and, because all the pipes are interconnected, had created some stoppage that sent the water into our apartment.

As they bailed the paintwater out of our sink with my roommate's plastic Yankees-branded drinking glasses, revealing the dirty bowls and forks that had become submerged in a milky bath, I started to freak out.

"Oh my God my pot...." I gasped.

"Don't worry, it's just paint. It'll wash off," the workers assured me.

"Oh....God..." I moaned, witnessing the possible destruction of the only kitchen supplies I'd allowed myself to bring to this new apartment, having left the rest in storage.

I stood there while one worker screwed new bulbs into the ceiling light, standing on an overturned bucket, and another worker stacked the paint-soaked cups, having relieved the sink of its flood.

"Don't worry..." they said, but I was increasingly inconsolable. I only had three plates and three bowls, and two of each had been drowned in an onslaught of watered-down paint. And now I was watching that paint dry - quickly - in little pools at the bottom of my bowls, along the rim of my one and only pot, and in crusted clumps along the tines of my forks.

I sprang into action. They tried to stop me, but I snatched all the dishes off the counter and out of the empty sink.

"Just let me do this. I have to get to it before the paint dries!" I cried out on my way to the bathroom sink.

I managed to rinse the majority of the paint off the majority of our dishes by the time I had to leave, abandoning my roommate with the workers as they tried to snake the drain and free the blockage that had caused the backup. Crisis had been averted, but when I returned home later last night, the kitchen was still in disarray, streaks of paint still discoloring the pot and knife handles. My towel, still wet, sat curled up in a ball at bathtub's bottom.

I've tried hard to reduce my attachment to material possessions, to let go, and to satisfy only my basic needs. But as nice as this new apartment is, sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes something happens somewhere else, and it sends a flood into your life. And you can clear the drain, mop the floor and bail yourself out, but there's no telling when you'll hear that telltale gurgle again, from the depths of the kitchen sink, or the shower drain, or the toilet, or the stove, or the heat pipe next to your bed. In my room, the heatpipe already rattles and bubbles all night long, and every morning, shatteringly loud next to my sleeping head.

Tonight I scrubbed the dishes again with scouring pad, removing nearly every trace of last night's deluge.

But I can't forget what was there.

And I know that it might bubble up again.

All I can do is keep calm and carry on.

Related post: Running on Empty

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November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks

I'm in a really different place this year than I have been for the last several Thanksgivings.

I'm thankful for where I am.

I'm thankful for where I'm not.

I'm thankful for the feeling that I am where I'm supposed to be.

I'm thankful to know I'm going somewhere, even though I'm not really sure where that is either.

I'm thankful for newness and youth and rebirth.

I'm thankful for community.

I'm thankful for love and affection.

I'm thankful for strength and bravery and self-awareness and vulnerability.

I'm thankful for insight and perspective.

I'm thankful for my age, and with it, the loss of worry, anxiety, neuroses, obsession, fixation.

I'm thankful for inspiration and curiosity.

Over the last couple of years, I've asked dozens of people what makes life worth living, and what their reason is for getting up in the morning. (Although these may seem like the same question, they are really two separate issues.) The answer I related to the most attributed the motivation to curiosity: my friend said that he just really liked to see stuff, and he kept living to see more stuff because he hadn't seen enough yet. That seemed more reasonable to me than the answers I'd been given by others that I'd dismissed as hedonism: cold beer, soft beds, and pretty girls. There are times I get up in the morning just to eat.

Perhaps the most compelling answer so far has been (and I think I may be paraphrasing here) love, honor, and passion. I don't know what any of those things mean in a practical application of everyday life (and getting up in the morning), but they seem like pretty good things to live for. I live because I want to love something, I want to feel something, and I want it to mean something. When those things disappear - which they have in the past - I am thankful for nothing.

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November 23, 2010

More Than Just Fine

Now that I've lost a lot of weight (and am still losing), I'm having a hard time finding clothes that fit. Although there's a part of my wardrobe that now fits me properly after having been worn too tight (or, in some cases, way too tight) for way too long, jeans must be held up by a belt, sweaters fall off one shoulder, blouses must be tucked in and yoga pant cuffs drag on the ground beneath my heels.

So although I'm not in a financial position to renovate my entire closet, I need some new clothes.

Last night while walking down 34th Street, I noticed that everything is 25% off at Banana Republic through Sunday, so I stopped in. I brought a little black dress (a necessity I'm now without) into the fitting room and tried on the size 6, two or three dress sizes smaller than I ever was, ever in my life. Still unsure of my ability to pull certain clothes off (despite my bravery in donning a two-piece Middle Eastern costume for Halloween), I stepped out of my stall and sought the opinion of the fitting room attendant.

"What do we think?" I asked, as I posed, hand on hip, red carpet style.

Disaffected, he paused, and said, "It looks...fine."

I stared at him in horror.

"That's not the ringing endorsement I was looking for," I said, giving him a chance to do his job and sell me the dress. When he continued folding other customers' discarded clothes and placing them back on hangers instead of replying, I stomped away in a huff.

In my room, I unzipped the side zipper of the dress, taking one last look at myself, muttering to myself, "I'm not paying $150 for a dress that's just fine."

It's not just that I was looking for a compliment, which I was. It's not just that I seem to need constant reassurance that my smaller size is real, which I do. And it's not just that I always feel a little weird vulnerably changing my clothes in the same room as a strange guy with only a partial door separating us. But this guy was so apathetic, not only to me and my needs, but to even doing his job. Forget my emotional reliance on the fitting room attendant to lavish me with praise even when I'm wearing a size 12 that should probably be a size 14. The floor clerks are there to get me into the dressing room. The dressing room clerk is there to seal the deal, not to just fold and hang the dresses I decide I look too fat in.

If this guy doesn't really want to be working at Banana Republic surrounded by a bunch of neurotic women, shouldn't he get a job elsewhere? And if he can't get a job elsewhere, if Banana Republic is his last resort, shouldn't he be so grateful that he actually has a job?

But, in the end, maybe the dress was only fine, and not great. I'm not in a position to buy any new clothes that aren't great right now, so I can only feel grateful for his honesty.

It didn't have to be the best dress I ever wore, but why settle for anything less than great?

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November 15, 2010

Photo Essay: Field Trip to Captain Lawrence Brewery

 class photo

I knew I couldn't afford it, but when the bartender at Sweet Afton in Astoria told me about their upcoming party bus trip to the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company's headquarters in Pleasantville, NY, I knew I had to go.

It wasn't just because I'd been dying to go to Captain Lawrence for a couple of years, the Pale Ale and Liquid Gold giving me a reason to drink more than a half pint of beer.

It wasn't just because, at $45, it was a great deal for breakfast and lunch, a day's worth of drinking, and transportation.

Every time I've gone to Sweet Afton since moving to Astoria almost three months ago, I've made a friend, exchanged phone numbers, had a great conversation, and consumed a great meal or drink. The bartenders all remember me and remember my name. And they promised me that this trip would be a great way to get to know more people.

I have made more friends in my short time in Astoria than I ever made in seven years each in Greenpoint and Manhattan, but I could sure use some more.


 Pumpkin Ale





We got to sample the seasonal Pumpkin Ale, Brown and IPA (as well as the Kolsch for breakfast) and heard about the forthcoming Espresso Stout made from local Upstate coffee beans, which is currently in the tank. We wolfed down sandwiches, took photos of ourselves, and collected free swag.

On the way back to the city, in an unwelcome return to regular life, it was the kind of bus ride I never had in high school or college, filled with people I may never see again...or may not necessarily remember the next time I do.

But we sure did have a great time.

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November 13, 2010

Losing Tunisia

It's been nine months since I returned from Tunisia on Valentine's Day.

My tube of harissa that I transported back in a quart-sized Ziploc bag is nearly empty, as I scrape its mouth for any remaining bits of hot, sweet pepper paste.

Though I haven't washed it, my gray glittery scarf no longer smells of the hotel soap whose scent prevailed throughout my trip. It broke my heart to launder my light gray waffle-knit top that I wore to keep warm in Tunisia's unseasonably cold weather, but I'd already stretched it for a couple weeks and it really needed to be washed.

I try eating hummus, eggplant, tabil spice, and eggs, but in the context of Queens, even in a very Middle Eastern neighborhood just off of Steinway Street, I'm losing my reminders, the authenticity of the experience I had for only eight days nine months ago.

I'm not one to buy trinkets or other souvenirs, and I managed to resist even the cage des oiseaux that I admired in Monastir and whose white-and-blue versions were so prevalent in Sidi Bou Said. So all that I have now are my memories, jogged by my photos, and the diary entries that have contributed to a travel memoir I hope to one day publish.

When I returned from Tunisia in February, I couldn't wait to go back. I thought I would have gone back by now, perhaps during the summer music festival season in August. Surely I would have had a job by now in order to afford another trip. Surely I would have gotten a job in Tunisia that would have relocated me there. Surely someone would have found a way to bring me back, to see me again, to complete the transformation and absorption that began when I was 35 pounds heavier and dozens of dates lonelier.

There's a cafe down 30th Avenue from me called Harissa whose chalkboard menu lists some Tunisian (and Moroccan) specialties for lunch and dinner like brik, the fried triangle of dough that contains egg and tuna. I'm drawn to it every time I walk by, but I'm afraid to go, afraid the yolk won't be as runny, the pepper not as hot, and the coffee not as bitter.

But I wonder whether it's better to let my memories evolve on their own, as the distance between my past and my present grows ever wider, or to try to continue to reintroduce similar tastes and smells to my senses which approximate my past experience, but create a whole new context. Is it better to recreate Tunisia in New York in a manner that's close enough but not quite right, or to gradually lose Tunisia altogether?

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November 11, 2010

Am I the Same Girl?

If you were to ask my mother, she would tell you that I’m exactly the same now as I was as a newborn baby - that I never loved her, that I screamed when she walked into the room, that I was never grateful for anything and never wanted help from anyone. She would tell you that my independence pushed her and my father away from the first time I insisted on calling them “Mom” and “Dad” instead of “Mommy” and “Daddy,” and the first time that I felt uncomfortable sitting on their laps.

I think I was 9.

Recognizing the separation of self and parent is an important part of a child’s development, and a normal part of growing up, but my parents always wanted me to need them as much as they (or my mother) needed me. I just…didn’t.

But 9 years into my life turned out to be a watershed year: I transferred from parochial to public school, met a whole new diverse set of fourth grade classmates, and then zoomed ahead of all of them and started functioning at a seventh grade level in math, spelling, and reading. Somehow, as I grew into my first bra and my precocious mind accelerated to a speed my parents couldn’t understand and at a rate I had no vocabulary with which to articulate, the essence of me suddenly bifurcated. Two roads diverged, and the 9-year-old stood still, frozen in time, holding onto childhood comforts like a time capsule somewhere deep inside of a growing girl that would soon become a preteen, and then a teenager, young woman, and now, bafflingly, middle aged.

As much as she hides, though, I can sometimes see the curtains moving. I know that she is there, watching the bizarre world that surrounds her, my Inner 9-Year-Old.

Her hair is short, boyish and cowlicky.

Her knees are fat, so plump and bumpy that she dreads the class photo which will surely be taken with her knees exposed from beneath a schooldress, bulging out bent in seated position.

She crosses her arms over her stomach so that no one will see, unknowingly drawing more attention to a middle section that her mother explains away as “baby fat” but never matures into a more manageable, sculpted version.

Her eyes are wide with hope behind thick, magnifying lenses encased in huge, pink plastic frames. She still can’t see very well, and staggers with each new pair of glasses.

Her feet are constantly wet and cold from the Sears winter boots whose outer shell invariably cracks and peels, and whose sole reliably leaks without any visible evidence of structural damage.

Her earlobes are unpierced, but indented by the clip-on earrings she suffers through for hours just to add a little color and sparkle to her life.

She does not bite her nails because she does not want to damage the nail polish her mother lets her wear. But the cleaning solvents that her mother forces her to use inevitably damage it anyway.

She knows she’s not pretty. Based on her mother’s wisdom, she can only hope that boys will one day stop being so superficial and will like her for how smart she is, since she will never be pretty.

She doesn’t want to eat so much, but she gets yelled at if she doesn’t.

She’d rather sit on the floor than worry about damaging her mother’s couch. Eventually, she’s accused of wearing down the carpeting.

She takes her punishments bravely and humbly, but she still cries through them, because she knows she doesn’t deserve them.

She really wanted Make It Big on vinyl but will wear down her cassette anyway.

She is bored.

She doesn’t want to go home.

She doesn’t want to get up.

She loves her stuffed animals more than any person she’s ever met.

She wants to play the flute with the pretty girls, but when her parents can’t afford to buy one for her, she accepts the free French horn from her band teacher and lugs its huge, hulking, hard plastic case to and from school every day. Her lips and hands constantly smell like wet metal.

She cannot collect enough stickers, perhaps the first indication of her addictive personality.

She cannot collect enough prizes, awards, and academic accolades.

She will lie to get herself out of trouble, and to make you like her more. Most of all, she will lie to herself when she chants that everything will be all right.

She is afraid of everything: her house, her mother, her dreams, bees, spiders, dogs, strangers, illness, loneliness…Everything but death.

People sometimes think she’s a boy, even when she’s carrying a pink purse. She often wishes she was a boy.

Her stomach hurts all the time, especially after dinner when she lies on the kitchen floor, writhing – a condition her pediatrician attributes to “growing pains.”

So is my mother right? Is this the same girl that I am now?

My hair is long, shiny, and graying, tamed only by days without shampoo and the harsh discipline of a curling iron.

Lenses are now directly upon my eyes, surrounded by lash and sparkle and a thick black line. I only wear my glasses when I’m trying to look older, or want to be taken seriously.

Lobes are pierced, twice each. My nails are painted and unbitten. I am thrilled beyond belief when people think I’m pretty, finally.

My knees eventually emerged, cap and joint proudly poking out from beneath years’ worth of flesh and shame.

My arms and hands still instinctively go to my stomach, first to cover it and then to pat it down, marveling at how flat it is.

My feet are constantly wet and cold from walking around the streets of New York in puddles of rainwater and beer, protected only by flip flops that break or ballet flats that absorb the elements instead of shielding me from them.

I don’t want to eat so much, but I feel better when I do.

I take my punishments bravely and humbly, but I still cry through them, because I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve them.

I don’t want to go home.

I don’t want to get up.

I love my stuffed animals more than most people.

I cannot collect enough promotions, raises, and game show wins.

I ignore most of my fears, but bees will still cripple me.  I do not fear death; I only fear being maimed.

I still wish I was a boy, and often dream that I am one.

My stomach hurts so much sometimes that the pain has sent me to the emergency room, and often places me on the floor of my office and public restrooms. Doctors have been unable to diagnose the cause, and since becoming uninsured, I’ve stopped trying to figure it out.

Am I the same girl?

Aside from the adulthood-borne influences of alcohol, sex, travel, adventure, responsibility, money, aging, and flirtation, am I that girl? Does losing 45 pounds change the 9 year-old inside of you who’s tugging at your intestines? Does going on a few nice dates silence her, stuff a rag in her mouth to stop up the self-doubt and the self-consciousness, the desperate need to be liked and saved? Do having a job and being self-sufficient and paying the rent eliminate the need for comfort and stability and reassurance?

Do wearing Silly Bandz, collecting dolls and listening to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry placate her enough to keep her hidden away, or do these actions merely encourage her to show her tiny, pale, tear-streaked face?

Can I be confident now and yet cognizant of who I was and where I’ve been? Can both versions of me coexist in one body, or must one dominate the other, squelching the things she doesn’t like about the other, adapting and co-opting the things she does?

Or are they necessarily the same person, the same girl, and my current self is just a phase on my way to regressing back to age 9 when I am 90?

If I was truly born this way, is it possible for me to ever truly change?

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November 09, 2010

Back to Basics

When you start giving away your possessions, throwing away the junk, and losing nearly everything else but your mind and your breath, you start to understand what you really need to live, and what you can live without.

After I moved to Queens, having put most of what remained in storage, I realized I actually need more than two plates. (I have three now.) I can survive on two bowls, but I need a wine glass.

I need pedicures.

I need to get my hair done. I am vain and spent years tortured by the boyish haircuts my mother inflicted on my sister and me.

I need love.

I need a dollar.

I need to write.

I need to document.

I need to be alone.

I need attention.

I need to hold something while I sleep.

I need to dream.

I need to drive.

After years held captive as a child shut-in by an agoraphobic mother, I need to be outdoors.

I need to move.

I need to travel.

I need rules to break.

I need to celebrate.

I need praise.

And right now, in order to keep getting what I need, most of all I need a miracle.

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November 08, 2010

Photo Essay: Steinway Industrial Business Zone

As much as I wish I had a car to take me out of Astoria, ultimately, it's a very walkable neighborhood. Just as long as you don't plan on leaving.

This weekend, I wandered up to its northernmost shore, past the final stop on the N train at Ditmars, to explore its industrial waterfront, whose major landmarks are a ConEd power facility, the Steinway & Sons piano factory, and the little-known Steinway Creek.

creek creek

piano factory Steinway piano factory

stack reflection

I also stumbled upon a construction site next door to a playground, a half-finished or half-torn-down structure looming eerily over the kids at play, whose only protection from it was a plywood wall painted bright green with signs indicating the "Falling Hazards" within its perimeter.

Not sure what they're working on in there...

But its inner cesspool was reminiscent of the smelly, rotting creek where I first began my walk, and where signs warn of raw sewage discharge during or following rainfall.

This is New York for you. Amidst all of the revelry inside the bars and clubs and cafes and diners, there are rotting docks, rusting metals, and standing water, long left neglected, abandoned so much and for so long that Nature finally just reclaims what was rightfully hers.

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November 07, 2010

View from the Bottom

Whilst barreling down the road to Empty, I decided to get back in touch with the guy I dated in 2003-4 and ask him to repay the money he borrowed from me six years ago.

He'd called me on a day I was home from work after minor surgery - not to check on me, but short on cash, and desperate to buy his son's school supplies. So in my nightgown, doubled over in pain, I shuffled over to my secret hiding space and extracted my $200 cash emergency fund. I was too weak and in pain to go to the ATM for more. He said he supposed it would be enough.

A month or so later, he called me at work to tell me he'd been locked out of his apartment - not evicted, but barred from entry until he paid his rent. He and his two dogs were homeless, crashing on someone's couch, leaving nowhere for his kids to visit him.

When I found out that paying one month's worth would get him back in, I offered to pay the $1300. I had it. I helped because I could help. I didn't expect him to pay me back, but I hoped that one day he would, or that he would try.

Nearly six years after his cheating on me (or cheating on someone else with me, I'm still not sure) broke us up, I hadn't heard a peep.

It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I reluctantly got back in touch, because that $1500 could really help me out now. Now I'm the one that needs help.

Here was his initial response (reprinted exactly with all errors included):
thanks for bringing this up cause i did in fact forget all about it.alot has happened in 6 yrs.
without going into detail of my finances , i dont have it and probably wont until the new yr.
sorry things just r not steady
but at least now i know and will be at the top of my to do list
How do you forget a thing like someone paying your rent? I was shocked. I could only reply briefly, politely, "OK, thanks for letting me know."

It wasn't surprising that he said no. As a DJ, record producer, and actor, his income has never been steady, and whatever he does make, he probably spends on partying. Or Jets tickets.

But even if he had $100 or $200, and only repaid me that and nothing ever again, it would help my situation. So after a month of driving with the fuel gauge pointing to E, I emailed him again, asking for anything he could give, like the pledge drive hosts on public television. Even the smallest donation could make a world of difference.

Here was his next response (again, with errors included):
Without going into anything deep. Me and my children r at my momz
apt if that gives u a clue. E other peeps and yourself I owe and will
pay when I have. I ahavnt fogotten and rminders help but then they don't.
I have it on my mind. K?
I didn't respond.

This guy is in his mid-40s. His kids are old enough now to be in college (and used to, at least, primarily stay with their mother). If my experience dating him didn't, this correspondence has shown me that he is a lost cause. He is never growing up. He is an unfit mate. And he is undeserving of my kindness and generosity.

But what's done is done. I've accepted the fact that he will never pay me back. I don't regret giving him the money, because I was in a position where I was able to help someone who was desperate. What I regret is giving him the love that he would never reciprocate. He was most undeserving of that.

If I am at rock bottom, he has managed to position himself even farther down than that. But what's below the bottom?

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November 06, 2010

Running On Empty

There's an exhilaration you feel when you're driving a long distance, whether it's on a Thruway or a long country road, and you know that the next rest stop is not around the next bend, and the fuel gauge on the dashboard is pointing to Empty.

My early driving days were nearly all for long-distance trips, whether embarking on a late-night road trip to Rhode Island in Terry's parents' van, towing Christmas presents back to New York from Syracuse in a salt-stained rental car, or getting lost and crashing into a highway median on the way to Columbus, OH to visit my sister after a business trip in Detroit. I now prefer the long haul to the monotony of city stop-and-go, pedestrians, traffic signals.

But regardless of where I'm driving - regardless of the from or the to - I nearly always push that fuel gauge to Empty, like squeezing the last bits of toothpaste out of the neck of the tube, or adding a bit of water to the dishsoap bottle to scrape its inside walls of the last remaining clinging product.

Even in the desert, in places like the towns around the Salton Sea where its residents drive electric golf carts because of the scarcity of fuel, I drive circles around that sea, down dirt roads along canals, not knowing when I'll get another chance to fill 'er up. The heart pounds. The eyes dart between the road and the dashboard, waiting for the light, knowing there's a lag between the gauge hitting E and the light going on, and a subsequent lag between the light going on and actually running out of gas.

I've never actually run out of gas. But the prospect of it has stared me in the face many times.

My parents kicked me out of the house. They threatened to pull me out of college. The family that took me in for a year and a half eventually kicked me out too, leaving me homeless during school breaks until another friend came to my rescue and took me in.

I increased the amount of my student loans and opened up three credit cards in order to spend a semester abroad in London, a hardship that left me eating Dairy Milk chocolate bars from the train platform vending machine for breakfast, peanut butter out of the jar for lunch, and high-alcohol hard cider for dinner.

With nowhere else to go after college graduation, I moved to New York with a truck full of my dreams, no job, and $200 worth of earnings from three jobs my senior year. When I got my first paycheck at Atlantic Records a couple months later, my funds had dwindled down to $9 - even after having borrowed $20 from my father so I could buy a Metrocard - and I was eating the cheapest lunch I could find, Dunkin' Donuts doughnuts at 60 cents apiece.

The financial fuel gauge started emptying itself again when I was laid off from Atlantic and rode out four and a half months' of severance and a couple months more of unemployment before starting my job at Razor & Tie. I had spent all my game show winnings, and I was $40,000 in credit card debt, not to mention the student loans I still owed.

Somehow, working late hours and being aggressive, savvy and political at work helped me dig myself out, and three years ago, I was finally out of debt. I actually started saving money.

But where's the exhilaration in that?

With a nice little nest egg accruing interest, I considered buying an apartment in New York, potentially draining all of my savings and even my 401K. Heeding the warnings of my financial advisor not to push the debt envelope that far, I decided to wait and save more.

And thank God I did, because all hell broke loose, and soon after I had confidently declared I would live in New York for the rest of my life, I couldn't get out of here fast enough.

With $40,000 saved - not yet enough for a downpayment on a condo or a co-op - I quit my job I was secure but miserable in. I figured it would last me a few months. I didn't know what I would do after that.

It is nearly two years later and the gauge points to E. The warning light is on. I am running on empty but I am still running, blood pumping, breath quickening, eyes flashing. I am looking at the road. I can't take my eyes off of the road, but I don't know what I see but wide open spaces, not a gas station in sight. My foot eases up on the gas to let inertia bring me forward, momentum and wind, but it does not brake. It will not brake. I will drive this unknown car down this unknown road until I feel the one thing I have never felt before: the putter and sputter of an empty fuel tank, engine relenting, the silence of a still machine.

But maybe by then the road will be moving under me rather than me upon the road.

Maybe by then I will have learned to fly, right through the windshield and out into the sky, leaving the road behind.

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