I’ve just finished stumbling through Peter Popham's 'The Lady and the Peacock,' a biography of the amazing Aung San Suu Kyi. While the book isn’t spectacular, the story of this woman is incredibly powerful and inspiring.
Her life has so many twists and turns, ups and downs that I struggled to summarize what I had learned thus far at a recent dinner. In short, she is the daughter of Aung San, the would-be George Washington of Burma who is assassinated in July 1947 after negotiating independence from Britain, but before he can set up an independent government (Suu Kyi is 2 years old at the time of his death).
In the ensuing power vacuum a vicious and incompetent military junta takes power (the phrase "monk killers" still sticks out in my mind), and Aung San’s wife is sent off to India to serve as an ambassador with her two sons and daughter, Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi grows up in India and then attends Oxford, eventually marrying an academic named Michael Aris.
In the late ’80s, Suu Kyi returns to Burma to care for her ailing mother but finds herself in a country in revolt. For the next 15 years she engages in an epic struggle against different incarnations of the same military junta as the head of the National League for Democracy (her political party, symbolized by the peacock), spending much of that time under house arrest in her mother’s home in Rangoon while the junta made a dizzying series of false promises about free elections and democracy.
One note on her various times under house arrest: during some of these periods, the Burmese government offered her the chance to leave the country, but she never accepted, fearing that they would cancel her Burmese passport and never let her return to the country. The fact that she technical could leave made the fact that she left her family in England all the more controversial.
As a philosophy major this reminds me most pointedly of Kierkegaard’s comparison of Agamemnon (I think?) and Abraham. To summarize: Both mythical men are forced or commanded to kill their children for a greater good, Agamemnon to save his people, Abraham because God told him to. The key distinction is that Agamemnon’s people understand his sacrifice, while Abraham, who is only hearing this commandment in his head, will have no recourse when “society” asks him why he killed his son. Obviously this isn’t quite Suu Kyi’s situation, but the fact that others see her situation as a choice (to stay and abandon her family vs. leave and never return to Burma) where she’s sees no choice (she must stay for her country) leads me to draw parallels.
She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but was unable to travel to Sweden to accept it.
(In 2012 there have been numerous signs of an opening up of Burma under President Thein Sein— releasing of political prisoners, easing of sanctions, and such— which led to a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first such visit since the ’50s. After reading the book I understand that smart people should still be suspicious, as such acts of good will have been taken by the government in the past, only to lead to whimsical changing of minds by those in power and a return to a state of fear by violent crackdowns.)
I was lucky enough to visit Burma in June of 2006, shortly after graduating from high school. We visited a monastery in Rangoon, where, as per tradition, monks young and old venture out into the surrounding neighborhoods to beg for food everyday. I watched them line up, in perfect silence, to receive their share of what they had collected that morning, all dressed in their bright saffron robes. I walked barefoot in warm puddles surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda. I saw the surreal Inle Lake, its town built on stilts in its shallow waters, with factories housing boys my age making machetes with huge hammers, beating white-hot metal into shape. I saw the temples of Bagan, a sight that must have influenced Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book.’
And I saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, which is located on a beautiful park in Rangoon, from 100 yards or so. At the time she was there, under house arrest. I didn’t understand what I was looking at— if I had I surely would have fallen to my knees.
Again, not to go to deeply into specifics, but more and more I see her story really as one of personal relationships, rather calculated political movements. I don’t say that merely because she is a woman and Gandhi, who Popham compares Suu Kyi to frequently, was a man. I think it has more to do with what she’s up against. Both use and advocate nonviolent measures, but, as Popham points out, the British were colonizers strapped for cash, whereas Burma’s military junta had (has?) no problem exploiting its people. The gender questions are difficult, but interesting. One of Popham’s best points is that the history of Burma is full of ifs; what if Suu Kyi’s either of her brother had been at her side in ‘88? (One drowned at a young age, the other wanted nothing to do with the country.)
Anyway, one of my favorite of these relationships touched upon in the book is the one between Suu Kyi and her student bodyguards, who she refers to as “the boys.” The initial protests in the summer of 1988 were led by students. By August, Suu Kyi was holding private meetings in that centrally-located house. It sounds like people just gravitated there, and soon Suu Kyi what take on an almost spiritual place in the minds of the people. People would stay at the house for a few nights, talking about how they might bring democracy to their country.
Eventually a group of male students became her informal bodyguards. She knit for them, cooked for them, and in return, as I imagine or hope, they would rather die than see her harmed. In ‘88, and to a lesser extent later on, the whole party took an extended press tour— essentially an election campaign— of the rough-and-tumble country with poor infrastructure.
One can imagine her missing her children lead her to be more connected with these youths. Perhaps it’s a case of "knight in shining armor" syndrome that draws me to this relationship, but I found myself very envious of Suu Kyi’s “boys.” And more than once they would find themselves protecting Suu Kyi in dangerous situations, including a handful of assassination attempts.
Beyond the “boys,” Suu Kyi relied heavily on friendships to get through the struggles she faced. In one dispatch to a Japanese newspaper she wrote while under house arrest and certainly feeling alone, dated July 8, 1996, she writes of speaking to friends over the phone.
We never talk about anything world shaking, never discuss anything out of the ordinary, we just make conventional inquiries about each other’s health and families and a few light hearted remarks about the current situation. But each unimportant conversation is a solemn confirmation of friendship. I have a friend who, if I happen to be too busy to take the call, leaves a simple message: “Tell her I called.” It is enough to dissolve all the cares of the day.
The story is currently at a happy point, although not quite a happy ending. Aung San Suu Kyi, now 67 years old, finally took her seat in an elected parliament on May 2nd, 2012, despite some reservations. While she is still a popular figure in the country, it seems she still has a lot of work ahead of her. I’ll try to keep up with the news. In the meantime, switching to Murakami.
Further (long) reading:
Need a more recent long read!
I wrote about the #occupywallst media center for the Beast!
This afternoon, partially due to rumors floating around the Interwebs that Radiohead would make a surprise appearance, I went on down to the Fulton Street 4 5 stop to check out day 14 of the Occupy Wall Street protests. I wanted to see what was happening with my own eyes, to see who these people were and how serious and unified, or not, they were.
Obviously, by day 14, a lot has already been written about this demonstration— hell, I even did a link round-up already (we might add Glenn Greenwald’s sharp article on Salon now as well). If you want to read a much more thorough young-person account of what’s going on, with real facts and actual interviews, look no further than Zoe Schlanger’s piece for NYU Local. I’m also a terrible photographer, equipped only with my iPhone 3GS (gross, right?) But what the heck, let’s give this a shot.
I arrived about 3:15 pm on Friday (the 30th). It was a perfect 73 degrees, but a tad overcast. I approached Zuccotti Park, the undisputed center of this thing at this point, from the Northwest, walking past the corporate skyscrapers that apparently housed the problem. Fittingly, I first saw the crowd and the park from the raised outdoor skirt of one of these metallic buildings (maybe One Liberty Plaza). Zuccotti Park, much as I had imagined on the way there, was half-filled with people, food, signs, and tarps.
Here, on the steps of the west side of the park, was the drum circle. Young men used sticks to beat on garbage cans, bongos, congas, and old drum set pieces. A handful of more crazy looking people (mostly sweaty men) danced in front of the drummers, and the majority of people involved just watched or took video on their iPhones or SLRs. Of course some held signs— the one pictured reads “Say Yes to Class War.”
I’ve witnessed one or two drum circles in my day— mostly at Bonnaroo— and so I can say with slight bit of confidence that this was a very coherent, orchestrated affair. At one point a “leader” attempted to stop all of the drummers, each in their own state of trance, all at once, but failed. Later in the afternoon they would nail such a conductor directive.
I should probably note that on the outside of this drumming area, at the far west of the park, stood 7 or 8 uniformed police officiers, watching the goings-on without much pleasure, agitated even, as if they had an itch they couldn’t move to scratch. I would learn eventually that, while I never saw police within the park, they had it pretty well surrounded. More on this later on.
From there I wandered in to the park’s interior. Here, it was much quieter and actually peaceful. Protesters and their supplies were placed around circles of untouched flowers.
They displayed their cardboard signs and read or listened to music. Their “stations,” at best, consisted of full-sized mattresses wrapped in massive plastic sheets. Tarps on top of these waterproofed mattresses apparently served as blankets. I could only guess how many protesters crawled on to these around midnight, and how many of them had been strangers that morning.
View #occupywallstreet map in a larger map
About midway into the park is the kitchen. I had seen the first map above, so I knew they had some place to feed the folks living there. I was pleasantly surprised by how well run the operation turned out to be.
Plastic tables formed a rectangle around a decently-organized stash of donated foodstuffs and dry goods— peanut butter, bread, bagels, lettuce, soup. Four or five people were inside the rectangle, preparing food or sorting new donations. A cardboard sign urged passer-byers to “HELP OUT!”
A few were preparing 10 or 12 tuna sandwiches on whole wheat bread. Other signs listed most-needed supplies and an “updated” version of today’s schedule (what, no Radiohead?).
East of that I found what I learned was called the media center: a smaller circle centered around two or four permanent tables and chairs. Rather than chess games between two old men, these tables were now filled with MacBooks, printers, modems, surge protectors and all the technology required for something like this.
At the entrance to this area— which, as I watched, was sectioned off with orange tape— was guarded by an gray-haired, intense-looking gentleman in a tight black t-shirt. On his left breast was a strip of duct tape with the word “SECURITY” scrawled on it (that’s his tattooed right arm above). He seemed extremely capable at his job— idly chit chatting with hippie bros that clearly wanted to help with this, the sexiest part of the protest, but couldn’t be admitted to the brains of the operation for practical reasons.
Those actually on the inside of this area (and I also watched them tie strips of the same orange tape around their left arms— a badge of authenticity and responsibility to the cause) all seemed either very busy or enjoying a much needed break to survey all they had created through their tweets of blog posts.
The north side of the park housed the “signs” area, both the producing and displaying. “Greed kills,” “End Capitalism,” “Criminals used to rob banks, now they run them.” Shit like that.
But there was undoubtably a sense that this was, or could be, an artform. Paints were shared and smooth strokes executed to display anti-greed sentiments. One older white man sat crossed legged and barefoot next to a dreadlocked young black men, each of their heads down, painting their respective signs, all while passing a ever-shortening cigarette back and forth.
At this point I was getting a decent feel for the demographics represented here— something I wanted to see with my own eyes. Yes, there were a lot of people my age. The men wore beards and cargo shorts, the women, just as at Bonnaroo, wore their practicalness more gracefully— long skirts, bandanas around their hair. Most were white (in fact, one white man held up a sign that read “There are too many white people here”) and I heard the term “over-educated” a few times. Numbers-wise, during the three hours I was there, I’d say the number of people (now, of course, many were just here on rumors of a free Radiohead show, and plenty others, like me, were really just observers) went from 2,500 ish to 3,000. This of course was boosted by an arrival of the Transit Workers Union, who were greeted with park-wide applause.
Many people were conversing with strangers about the ever-evolving topic: why are you here? Some of these had an element of “this is our generation’s time” (usually an older, hippie looking man talking to a younger person, the younger person nodding solemnly, ready to say something about Twitter or something). Others, of course, talked arm-chair economics. It seemed to be agreed upon that the top 400 richest in the nation have as much wealth as the bottom 50%. I only saw one or two Guy Fawkes masks, and both times I overheard those near me speaking ill of the symbol.
What I loved the most and really took away was that there was indeed a sense of community here. Those who had supplies in backpacks seemed to be comfortable leaving them out in the open, or at most under a tarp. There was a medical center staffed by capable-looking people wearing latex gloves. They talked, they shared essentials, they exchanged stories and contact info, they discussed future protests.
Making my way all the way to the east side of the park, I found an open, Athenian space where the famed General Assemblies must be taking place. One wall back here also housed the communal library.
This picture is terrible, as it doesn’t convey that this line of cardboard books (lovingly labelled fiction and non-fiction) stretched on a ledge for 20 to 25 feet. (Here’s a better one.) Many of the donated books were labelled “OWS” or some variation thereof across the top of the pages— a high-brow souvenir. Selection-wise the OWS Library offers a good mix of socialist literature, Greek philosophy, and novels like Brave New World.
On my way back to the west end, walking now on up the south side, I found “Nick @ Nights Tobacco.”
If I’m the only person to have blogged about these bros this will all have been worth it. (Well, there is a video of them silently rolling). Basically, Nick, and perhaps a companion, has been sitting at a plastic table behind this sign, rolling cigarettes with donated tobacco and giving them away for free for five days.
At the time of this picture, both the “normal” and “menthol” plates were pretty well-stocked. They offered three times in the two minutes I stopped to talk with them— they seemed to be the happiest people there.
Around 5:30 a solid group had gathered back at the General Assembly site on the east side. One speaker yelled from a centralized point, then relayers were yell the clause outward to the seated masses. At first it was a little sloppy, but as this series of speeches went on they got it down. A “human megaphone” of sorts: color me impressed. As for what they were saying— mostly vague calls for awareness. (I admit certain parts of this whole thing resembled scenes from PCU.)
On my way out I was confronted by a line of metal barriers and a row of police officiers. “Move along, move along,” they brushed us on. One “protester” then took out of a fishing rod with donut for bait, swinging it gently over the barrier between two officiers. This was the only time all day that I felt the least bit scared. Thankfully no police responded to the dumb taunt.
All in all the park was very peaceful this afternoon. Was there message unified? Not really. Greed seems to be the common enemy— that speculation was once a crime worthy of hanging. As a student of economics I cringed a few times while surrounded by this logic, thinking of all the positive contributions that complex finance instruments have made possible in this country and others. But I was generally sympathetic. These people are out there, doing something, etc. Seeing as there’s no end in sight (as long as donations keep coming in?), I wouldn’t be opposed to putting my Bonnaroo/K-ville skills to use and do a night or two out under the trees swaying in the New England autumn breeze next week.
Oh, and Radiohead never showed. They suck anyway.
Today, June 7th, marks the last day on the lease of a very special house on 23rd Street in Los Angeles, California. Here’s a piece I wrote about my visit there a few weeks ago. Pour one out, etc.
My brother Jack pulls up to the curb at LAX in his silver Saab convertible and I throw my bag in the back seat. We get on the Ten towards Venice Beach. Some old school hip-hop is playing on the radio. “93.5. The best. Whenever you get into a cab,” he nods, “ask the driver to put on 93.5.”
After a quick dinner in Venice we drive back to his home, the World Famous Pink House. Jack has lived here for three years, watching a cast of musicians, artists and dropouts rotate through the house’s seven beds. Impromptu DJ sets, concert tour stops, Day-Gloed raves and various after-after parties have taken place in this space, which shares a fence with a seedy twenty-four hour gas station (“Condoms whenever you need them”) and is on the rougher side of USC’s campus. Expenses are pooled and perks are shared, creating an overall harmony between the various creative types and their odd personalities. And people know the name. When their neighbors throw parties, they advertise their location as “the house behind the Pink House.”
The house is actually pink. I want to believe it’s from the ’20s—it’s weathered, the pink paint chipped in plenty of places, but it’s elegant. The front right corner of the house has a sagging wrap-around porch, home to various pieces of generic dorm furniture, outdoor benches and a littering of cigarette butts. The driveway sneaks past the house on the right, leading to a more open gravel backyard. Inside the front entryway we find hard wood floors, a winding staircase in the front entrance, and an upright piano up against the wall. This space opens into the living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen, complete with a long, oak table with benches. The washer and dryer in the back hallway are coin operated. More bedrooms occupy the second and third floors, the latter of which is referred to as the “kid’s room.”
And this month sees the end of it. Jack and most of the other housemates graduate on Saturday and the twice-extended yearlong lease expires this June 7th. I missed the Last Pink House Party by a few days, an absence I feel almost painfully every time it’s brought up with an air of “oh you should have been there.”
I’ll be staying on a couch in the separate little one-room space in the back, which is mainly used as a recording studio, for the weekend. The alarm system is permanently tripped, causing the panel in the studio to beep about every fifteen seconds. Guitars, amplifiers, keyboards and computers litter the small space with all their necessary cables snaking back and forth. Fake hardwood sits on top of most of the squishy wall-to-wall carpeting. Sunlight enters through windows on three sides of the apartment. There’s a hand-drawn sign over the toilet that has a red line through the word poop. “Our pipes suck,” the sign explains.
Her closest bathroom, the only one on the first floor in the main house, is broken, so whenever she wakes up or decides to shower, which today is 8 o’clock at night, she walks through the kitchen, through the back door entry-way, and up the stairs to a working shower. After showering, she returns to her bedroom by the same route, now walking on her toes as one does when one wants to appear that he or she doesn’t want to drip, giving that “Oh sorry to be doing this, I’ll be out of the way in a minute” look with her head tilted downward and a slightly mischievous smile, the towel covering her female parts. We are drinking in the kitchen, and the passageway is narrow between the long wood table and the wall. Wet hair, wet bosom, wet calves. Every day.
I ask her what it’s like to live in a house with six boys. “I love it. They’re like my big brothers,” she replies. The door to her room, which is off the kitchen, has a sign on it that says “This is not a bathroom” and then in another, hastier hand underneath that, “it is an experiment.” I never went in but through the half-open door I saw a wild mural painted on the opposite wall and a coffee table littered with what I assume was the makings of an artist. She’s been up for four days straight. She is a small and gentle girl with warm skin and bright eyes.
People here assume it’s going to be sunny everyday, and when it isn’t they stay inside. They drive cars and run into traffic and it takes twenty to thirty minutes to get anywhere. If they want to get premium gas pumped for them they have to pay $4.99 per gallon, or at least they do at one station I saw. They call their freeways, for example, “The Ten” rather than simply “Ten.” “Then you get on the Ten,” as opposed to “Then get on Ninety Five.” I think it’s because each of their freeways has its own personality to them, with new construction zones, expert-only lane changes and traffic hotspots appearing as temperamentally as moles, bumps and rashes would on a living organism.
Despite the common myth of LA’s smoggy skies, the air feels fresh to me and the sky is big and the students and graduates I meet have all been doing what they love for four years or less or maybe more and are now trying to get jobs doing the same thing and you can see this happiness and expertise in their faces and skin. Two of the guys are in a band and are going on a west coast tour this summer, as long as they find a car with enough space. Others are organizing music festivals and working at record labels.
The boys of the house have organized a catered dinner in the backyard. Long tables have been set up and the permanent Christmas lights that zigzag not far above partygoers’ heads are turned on as the sun sets. Mom lights candles and places them in clear Solo cups to protect them from the light desert wind and everything looks beautiful. The bar table, stocked by Leo’s Costco booze run, complete with silver bucket of ice, small shovel and white table cloth, is well-used both before and after the buffet dinner of prime rib and cheesy mashed potatoes. Dads shoot champagne corks over the fence into the gas station.
After dinner we bring out the PA and play funk music and girls in skirts come over to dance on the gravel alongside the families. Two brunettes ask us if we want to go back to their house afterward, which is called the Brothel because a bunch of girls live there, obviously.
Morning of graduation—she’s in a little black dress under her unzipped robe. The sun is blinding already and everyone’s wearing blue reflective sunglasses made by two of their friends. Lil Wayne and Tyler the Creator wear them too. When they asked Weezy why he said that the guys that make them look like they have a “damn good time.”
We’re drinking mimosas but can’t find the orange juice for the first few rounds. It’s eight o’clock. Jack is handed a drink while still in bed. There’s a line for the shower.
After staying up for four days and attending her graduation she eats all but two of a box of bonbons and sleeps for twenty-two hours in a denim vest with nothing underneath on the long comfy couch in the living room. Curled up like a cat, she sleeps under a soft blanket that covers all but her feet. She sits up around eleven the next morning to a few guys lounging around and watching the Flintstones, her highlighted streaks of Indian-black hair shooting out in angles, her face is sleepy. After a few minutes she offers me a bonbon.
Congratulatory dinner with just the fam at a dark, fancy restaurant under a dark, fancy hotel in Beverly Hills. Upon our arrival a tall, dashing young man in a suit with the first few buttons of his shirt undone greets us with two-handed handshakes all around: he knows Jack. I learn later that he used to work for the owner of the restaurant— tonight he was merely dining there with his family. Now he works in sales at a start-up. As a student, he hand-wrote notes on fine paper to his professors at the end of every semester.
The restaurant is celebrated for its modern, almost scientific cuisine. We are strongly recommended to try a round of the “very special” Caipirinhas, which we soon find out are frozen with liquid nitrogen at the table (plus dry ice for effect). There are eight brands of water on the menu to choose from.
Later that night, when things have settled down, I join some of the boys out in the backyard. The Pink House is actually made up of three buildings on the same lot: the main house, the recording studio where I was staying, and the garage, which houses more musical gear rather than cars and has played host to many a homegrown concert and dance party. There is also a small patio between the studio and the garage, which is where we now sit. Jimmy points up to show me the “art installation” that Will had constructed under the guise of his alter ego whose name I forget but it sounds French—a densely woven square mat of Christmas lights that serves as a ceiling connecting four poles, patio furniture underneath.
Helpless without a car, I wait for the house to wake up and want breakfast, reading on the comfy couch in the living room. Eventually we cruise over to the 23rd Street Café for a breakfast burrito that I remember having cured of vicious hangover of mine almost two years before. Sitting in a booth facing the door, I’m the first to notice what appears to be the stereotypical California young man-bro: easily six feet tall, sandy blonde hair, boyishly handsome, relaxed face, broad shoulders, a light plaid button-down shirt, and tight, dark Levi’s cuffed to show his faded boat shoes and bare, tan ankles. The girl he’s with is skinny and blonde, but not quite as sunny as he is. They order and when they turn to look for seats he says hi to Jack. He too is looking for a place in Venice.
Afterward when I mention he’s “Like, the perfect Cali bro,” Jack tells me he runs a business making sails for skateboarders to hold out behind them as they coast down hills. I say that I’ve heard of that and he says yeah, he was in a Legal Zoom commercial. Apparently photographers come to photograph him all the time— a generic stock model: Mr. California.
We head back to Beverly Hills for a brunch party at one of the girls’ parent’s house. After passing many stores of recognizable luxury brands the sprawling commercialism settles into a wide, archetypal palm tree-lined residential street. We find the house, which currently features an old navy blue Mercedes convertible parked on the street out front. We wonder if it’s the owner’s.
In the backyard we shake a lot of hands and kiss a lot of pairs of cheeks and everyone is very nice. Thankfully, amongst the more tame drinks I spot one of the guests with a Corona. I find Mom at the cooler. “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” she says, as we clink bottles. “Bizness” plays from the Macbook plugged into the PA in the corner. There’s a pool but no one is in it. The hedges around the backyard are thirty feet tall.
I meet a family from Oklahoma City. I tell the father about how I’m trying to move to Washington DC because I find New York too hectic. “If you want slow you should come out to Oklahoma City.” His older daughter, not the one graduating, is a graphic designer living in Williamsburg.
Later I’m introduced to a girl about my age who lives in DC. We talk about the various neighborhoods and social life there. “There are no guys in DC,” she says. She’s just broken up with an investment banker.
I watch the hostess, whose blue eye shadow had provoked a certain disapproving look from my New England mother, pull a waiter over and tell him to make the margaritas “a little looser.” At two o’clock I don’t want to leave but we have to.
“Yeah, we were getting pretty wasted at this bar and all of sudden some Asians jumped Tommy. I tried to break it up but he was already bleeding pretty good. I dragged him out of the bar and thankfully our girl had hailed a cab and’s like ‘Get the fuck in here.’ She’s like holding a towel on Tommy’s head and then she calmly asks the cab driver if he could put on 93.5.”
I forget how old I was— 12 maybe. We were visiting family friends, but we were of that age when “family friends” really just meant that our dads traded financial securities together in “The City.” This particular family had a girl my age and boy who more or less matched up with my younger brother. I forget her name, so let’s call her Heather. Heather was skinny and tall (taller than me, as most girls were at that age) and had straight, dirty blonde hair. She wore summer dresses and had that sort of New England waify beauty that I didn’t really understand for its uniqueness at that point. She went to private school, so I only saw her when our families got together, which was maybe three times a year. She reminded me of the girl in Jungle 2 Jungle, but I don’t know.
During this afternoon visit, us kids quickly retreated to the kid’s play room upstairs. It had a slanted ceiling that ramped down in to a line of window that overlooked the family tennis court in the backyard. Yeah, she like, played tennis in those white skirts and shit. After some awkward hanging out (truth or dare? TV? soda? God what did we do before booze?), we decided to go down to the tennis court.
A quiet New England sunset probably took place over the evergreens that marked the border with the friendly, rugged neighbors. The crickets probably chirped in the cool, sweet air as an old yellow lab milled around the back lawn. Maybe we all sat down on the rough tennis court surface, with Heather careful to sit with her bare ankles together in a lady-like manner and then smooth out the wrinkles in her dress. Maybe even some fireflies came out, their seemingly synchronized firing giving an extra sense of depth that brought out the freckles on Heathers’ cheeks. Maybe our dads were barbecuing ribs over on the patio, light beers in hand. The ribs, served on paper plates on a red and white tablecloth, would have been really smokey and dripping with sticky sauce, none of which got on Heather’s dress. But I was 12 and didn’t notice such things.
When it was time to leave both families congregated in the house’s renovated grand entryway (which, we were informed, had recently played host to a two-story Christmas tree) and said our goodbyes. Our moms engaged in some extended small talk that I more or less tuned out until Heather’s mom said something like, “Oh yes, I’m taking [Heather] to a concert next week… oh sweetie, what’s the silly name of that group again?” Heather quickly turned red with extreme embarrassment and rolled her eyes in that “Oh mom stop it” way and maybe even looked down at the swishing of her summer dress, which of course made me embarrassed and self-conscious, but then she mumbled "Barenaked Ladies."
Last Friday morning, the power went off in our LES apartment. This was strange because for ten months we had assumed that our electricity was included in the high rent, and so the landlord took care of it.
“No, no, I pay for water and heat. It’s in the lease. You mean you haven’t received a bill for 10 months?” No, no we hadn’t. No notification of not paying either.
“Well apparently this is happening to other people in the building” she said, not without sympathy. “Call Con Ed. Apparently they can send someone out on Monday. This is your meter number. You’ll need to set up a new account,” she said.
To be fair I was home in Connecticut this past weekend, so I heard about the outage from my roommate. But since I had nothing to do that day [via funemployment] it was clear I should be the one to sort this out, even if it meant starting a new account with my information for an apartment I was ready to leave when the lease was up in June, if not sooner.
After about five minutes on hold I got through to Con Ed, and after confirming that our apartment’s address was not in the system, I set up a new account. “Would you like to accept the unpaid charges?” This, of course, was for the 10 months; including three summer months when we thought the electricity was unlimited. Earlier when she asked when did we move in I thought about lieing, but I didn’t. “Yes.”
“OK, that bill will be mailed to you after we read the meter on Monday.”
On Saturday, not too excited to train in to a blackout apartment, I instead headed to DC to get wasted and watch Duke beat Michigan. By the time I asked for “another round” at the bar car for the last time she just gave me two.
I had tweeted about the power being out, so nearly all the friends of friends I met said something like “I heard you forgot to pay your power bill” or “Damn, there’s no power?” “Yeah, well we thought our landlord…” I would trail off in to the din of the bar full of girls I wouldn’t have minded sucking face with, feeling like I was pretty low on the new-adult totem pole. I’ve been unemployed since December.
I woke up on a couch Sunday morning. I put on Beyonce and we ate cookies and four beers. Then I went to a bottomless mimosa brunch. A couple sat next to us with a young daughter in pigtails. The mom was pregnant with another. We asked what sex they were expecting and she said they wanted it to be a surprise. Then a beer-soaked cookout, then the sports game. I was drunk.
At 8 pm I morosely and drunkenly boarded a Chinatown bus, leaving a fratty, simple city on the better side of spring for a pretentious, serious one still overcast and cold. In an attempt to forget the fact that I was returning to an empty, dark apartment, I again queued my Beyonce playlist on the bus, listening to it over and over again, draining now-precious iPhone battery power.
Exhausted, I sludged north through Chinatown in the cold and light rain and finally made it home. Luckily the bright lights of Houston gave a fair amount of light to the common area of the apartment. I took a shit with the door open so I could see while signing on to gchat on my phone to talk to anybody. Then I passed out, anxious for the sun to come up and make everything better.
I woke up around 9:30 am with 36% battery life. Even if I conserved, I figured I wouldn’t make it to the evening, when—realistically—I’d be getting the all-important call from Con Edison. I lay in bed for about two hours. Then I started reading May Day by Fitzgerald by sunlight. Just after noon, I called Con Ed just to confirm someone was coming and if they could give be a better time estimate. Now’s probably a good time to tell you that our official address—which is on Houston— is different than our mailing address. No one told us this, so setting up cable proved pretty tricky. But armed with this info, I explained it as best I could when setting up the new account on Friday. However when I called them back on Monday I must have given the wrong address because the guy couldn’t find any record of a new account. My heart sank and my mind raced in panic—had some file been lost? Would we have to make it another few days? To be fair the Con Ed guy on the line was super nice. He seemed to take pity on my whines of “… and we haven’t had power for three days.” Shit like that would have been more serious if we actually had been living there the whole time. Plus we’re pretty resilient. After being put on hold a few times he figured out the problem and found our account. “Sometime this evening,” he said. Fine.
Around 1:00, hungry and without any news and down to 20%, I put on a jacket and blindly stumbled across the street to the Zucco’s French diner.
The door to the French diner is glass with a metal frame. The bottom left corner of it is warped, enough so that when pulling it open, the first few inches require a considerable amount of effort, and then it’s easy to pull the rest of the way with too much force. When this first became a problem I would pull really hard and when it came unstuck I didn’t stop and the door would fling open, letting in the winter air and giving me a few disappointed looks. Today, despite it being one of those first tickles of spring, I was extra careful not to make a scene.
Thankfully Greko was sitting at the bar, drinking an espresso and reading a sports newspaper, maybe in French. I walked in like a zombie, holding my iPhone in one hand and the charger in the other like an offering. “They shut off the power,” I managed. With a nod from Greko, Jean-Baptiste took my phone and charger and hunted for an outlet. Greko quietly returned to his coffee and paper, as I sat next to him at the corner of the bar.
My phone plugged in on a stool behind me, I ordered a beer and took a deep breath. After the first sip I ordered an omelet without opening the menu. Let me tell you that was a good omelet. I tried to eat slowly, to get more juice in my phone for the evening, but I was hungry. So I had to stretch the beers, trying to make it to 60%.
“Ah, it’s the moon eh?” Jean-Baptiste said generally in my direction in his gorgeous, thick French accent. “Yeah,” I said, remembering that there was supposed to be some “Super Moon” this weekend. I had seen it out the window on my way to DC, but generally shied away from the concept because I consider big yellow moons to be very romantic. “It does crazy things,” Jean Baptiste continued. I strained to pick up every word through his accent. “I used to work at [something starting with a P that I figured was a bar] for a long time. I would never work weekends with a full moon. Pfft,” he said, wiping his hands twice. “Too much.” I nodded in agreement, liking the idea of blaming my shit on the cosmos. “If it affects the tides…” he shrugged his shoulders and trailed off, leaving him and I to fill in the rest on our own.
Otherwise they let me sulk in relative silence. A couple with a baby in a stroller came in. Greko greeted them in French and sat down with them at the booth—the only table that could seat 4 or hold a baby seat. Greko not only walked them through the menu, but ordered and ate with them.
Two more beers got me to 56% and I asked for the check. Greko invited me to come back and watch TV later. I thanked him and stumbled back up the apartment stairs. It is the best restaurant in New York.
I must have drifted off to sleep because at 5:30 my phone woke me. “Yeah this is Con Ed. I can’t get into the electrical closet, and the super’s not picking up.” My heart sank, obviously. I hadn’t ever dealt with our super, I just knew our landlord, who I don’t think even lives in the city. “OK well can you give me a few minutes?” “Yeah.”
I didn’t really know what to do. I had assumed this would just work—the Con Ed guy would have the key, or, as long as I buzzed him to the building he’d be able to get to the meter somewhere in the garbage room downstairs. I hurried downstairs to see for myself. The door at the back of the garbage room, which I had assumed led to an electrical closet, in fact led outside to more room for garbage. Fuck. Another tenant was taking out his laundry. “Hey did you by any chance lose power this Friday?” “Yeah, a guy came that night though.” “Oh.”
I didn’t have or know how to get the super’s number, so I decided to walk down Orchard to the real estate office we had originally visited back in May. I wasn’t really thinking clearly— I assumed it would be closed, but maybe with a sign? On the way the Con Ed called me and said he couldn’t wait any longer. He did say that if I rescheduled tonight someone would probably come out in the morning. And he mentioned that I needed to turn my circuit breakers off for when the power would be turned back on. The real estate office was closed and despite my sorry bangs on the glass no one came.
Crossing Delancey on my way home I felt pretty shitty. I did remember that the super’s number was probably posted at our mailboxes. “Hello? Who is this?” said the angry Russian accent. I was not in the mood for a fight. “Yeah, this is Sam in apartment 5C. We’ve been without power…”
“You didn’t pay your bill?”
“Well… yes… but”
“It’s after my hours. I’m sorry,” he said, making it clear he couldn’t help me. The Con Ed guy was gone anyway, so I just asked for his hours the next day. “9 to 5,” he told me, like it was a stupid question. “OK thanks,” I managed. I was back in 20 percents and I still had to call Con Ed.
“Yes this is Con Ed, how may I help you?” A friendly female voice answered. I let out a sigh as I again recounted my story. “Wait, your super wouldn’t come at 5:30?” “Yeah well…” “Listen sweetie, you need a better super. What if a pipe bursts? Just to give you advice…” “Yeah, I know it’s not ideal…” Coddle me please. “OK I will write in a note that they should try to get there between 9 and 5.” “Thank you.”
The main thing that got me through was that we were getting drinks with friends at 7 that night. I was the first one there, right at 7 since it was too dark to finish May Day, phone charger in pocket. At the bar I drank too much and had to resort to talking too loudly about Anais Nin and Proust just to feel good about myself. Around 11 we went back to the French diner for dinner and wine. Greko had a glass with us at the booth.
Then! 9:16 am! Phone wakes me up! “Yeah this is Con Ed. We’re on our way, can you call the super?” “Yes, yes great.” I called the super. “Hi yes, this is 5C again. The Con Ed guy is gonna be here in a minute. Could you meet us out front?” To be honest I still didn’t know where this electrical closet was, but I guessed it was on Houston, next to the American Apparel.
“Yeah I’ll be there,” he said roughly, “But you know we can’t get in if the American Apparel isn’t open.” Again, heart sank. What? Access to our utilities is only available during hours set by Dov? Correctly guessing that they opened at 11, I was like, whatever we have to try. Disheveled and in a t-shirt, I went down to the American Apparel I’d yet to set foot in.
Standing there on Houston with the super and the Con Ed guy, we knocked on the glass door. After a few minutes a waify little salesgirl right off a billboard opened the door for us. The two of them grumpily went downstairs and the super showed Con Ed a door that he had apparently missed before.
The super and I waited for an awkward moment surrounded my folded t-shirts as Con Ed slowly did what he had to do, which involved locks to keep people from turning back the meter I’m assuming. “So, you have no power for three days?” the super said. “Yeah” I said, aware again of what I must look like. “It’s taught me to appreciate the little things.”
“Are the circuit breakers off?” Con Ed asked. “Yeah,” I said.
I thanked them both and went back up to the apartment. Flipping all of the breakers back on, I heard the whir of the refrigerator and smiled. We had been meaning to clean it out for a while anyway. It was 9:28. I had a phone interview in one hour. I greedily plugged my iPhone in and blasted “Power” while I showered in the light.
On the train home today a mother and daughter sat next to me. I had had to move my bag to make room. I was listening to the Weepies. The mom brought out one of the those magnetic doodle boards and they practiced writing letters.