Monday, April 25, 2005

Night and the City and Me

When most people go home, I go to work.

I work the night shift at a market research firm in Manhattan, where I am paid to watch TV shows I wouldn’t normally watch under the threat of death. From "Yes, Dear" to NASCAR, I’ll look at anything for 20 bucks an hour. Call me a media whore if you want,I won’t be offended. I’m too tired.

It’s only three nights a week, but it feels like seven. I’ve only been there a month but it feels like years. My schedule varies so that I work weekends, holidays, and all the other times normal people are having fun.

Going into the office, I have to fight a line of day workers streaming out of the subway station on their way home. Some nights, if I’m covering a late show, I won’t actually put my fingers to the keyboard until 11 pm. Most nights I don’t get home until 2 am. I’ve stayed out this late, even later, before but never for a damn job.

When I was a kid going out for a night on the town with my buddies, my mother would always say “don’t come home mezzanote,” using the Italian word for midnight. With this gig, coming home mezzanote would be a blessing.

Coming out of the office, I find the streets of this huge city are surprisingly empty. On weekends, the town is buzzing with herds of rushing taxis and packs of cell phone wielding club-goers. But early in the week, the city that never sleeps does slow down a little. The other night I didn’t leave the office until 3 am—even the rats had called it a night.

The wind blows cold at night, even in the spring. Stores are shuttered, saloons are empty. Routine noises are magnified, so a sound that is just a member of the crash chorus during the day becomes a solo performer after sundown. Glass breaking, brakes squealing, people shouting, I hear it all.

I take on a dual personality walking through these barren canyons, an invisible king, lord of all I survey, and a potential target, wary of approaching strangers and sudden moves.

I like to walk by the Met Life building, where the limo drivers hang out to smoke while people much more successful than I am move and shake things until it’s time to catch a luxury ride home.

I always look up at this point, to the passageway that connects the two buildings on the street, and higher, to the clock tower, standing tall over the street like a medieval watch tower. It’s so surreal, especially when it’s raining and misty; I almost forget how late it is.

The subways are scarce and thinly populated. Station workers hose down the platforms, which doesn’t seem to help much. When a train finally does arrive, it moves so slowly, as if it's trying to tiptoe into the station without being seen.

Work crews ride the trains from one job to another, sitting in the same seats that will hold harried commuters a few hours later. Last night I was the only person in my car who didn’t have a hard hat and a sledge hammer.

Most of the other people on the train this time of night are quiet, suspended somewhere between sleep and consciousness. I caught myself one evening reading a newspaper over a woman’s shoulder, which was not only was it rude, but also a little strange as she was reading a Chinese paper.

One late Sunday night, an elderly black man got on board at Eighth Street, bowed to the handful of passengers and launched into a ranting lecture about the need for people to be kind to one another. He managed to cover such diverse topics as the death of Pope John Paul and old school dances like the Mashed Potato and the Hucklebuck.

“We live in the hood,” the old guy said repeatedly with great emphasis, “not Hollywood.”

He maintained his right to speak, declaring, "I bite my tongue for no man." I reached into my pocket, anticipating a plea for change, but after he finished, the N train orator shambled off to the next car. Some people just need a stage.

I was leaving the office last week when the elevator stopped dead after going down only one floor. For a second I thought I was trapped, but the door opened and a young woman got on board. She looked surprised at seeing another life form and a little nervous about being alone with a stranger for a late night elevator ride.

But she also had the sympathetic look I’ve seen from other night people, a mixture of disbelief and reassurance that says, what, you, too?

“I didn’t think anyone else was working this late,” she said finally.

Me neither. We chatted briefly on the descent to the lobby and I wish I could tell you that this chance meeting blossomed into a beautiful romance. But when we reached the ground floor, she said good night, quickly walked out the door and turned right on Park Avenue South while I went left.

I hate this job, I hate working these hours. Every night when I go into the office, I swear I’m going to quit, but I know that’s a lie. I can’t do that, not until I find something else, so it looks like I’ll have to bite my tongue and keep coming home mezzanote for the foreseeable future.

I live in the hood, not Hollywood.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Albany and the Ecstasy

I spent April Fool’s Day on Amtrak and I'm sure it wasn't a coincidence.

I managed to avoid joy buzzers, itching powder and whoopee cushions as I rode roundtrip from New York to Albany; I didn’t take any calls for Prince Albert in a can and no one tried to pull the old looking up in the air gag on me.

I had too much on my mind to even think about that stuff. I was going upstate to interview for a job I didn’t want in a place where I didn’t want to live. If you’re confused, join the club.

I had answered an ad from the Associated Press—let me say that again, the Associated Press—and to my horror the news editor there called me and expressed interest. I liked the idea of working for a huge outfit like AP.

But Albany? I'm having trouble with that. All I know about Albany is that it’s the state capital and it’s up north where it’s even colder than it is here. And, no slight against Albany, but after all these years as a reporter, I’ve had my fill of small towns and second rate cities.

Albany was also the headquarters of my father’s company when I was a kid. He'd say "Albany" as shorthand for the job, his supervisors, the jerks upstate who kept getting in his way.

Every two years he’d drive up there and come back with a new company car, so Albany was kind of a mythical place to me and I pictured it as a big granite block of buildings with smoke stacks and humming engines.

Then I blinked and now I'm an unemployed middle-aged man riding the train for my own rendezvous with the capital city. My father suffers from Alzheimer's now and some days he thinks he's still working for Albany.

I had this feeling of helplessness, like I was being sucked up the rail lines by some evil force. Why did I apply? What would I do if I got the job?

My shrink told me the night before I left that I looked like a man facing execution and I didn’t argue. When I arrived at Penn Station I had this insane urge to turn around and head straight back to Brooklyn. But I knew giving into panic is the worst thing to do, so I got on board the train.

There were two job openings at the AP Albany office. One was covering the New York State Legislature, a flaming red hot beat if ever there was one. Beats don’t come much hotter than this—if you like that kind of thing.

The other opening was a general assignment beat where you cover basically everything that happens between Westchester and the Yukon. I tried to keep the smile on my face as the news editor told me that his reporters keep a packed bag in their cars at all times, just in case all hell breaks loose on the Canadian border.

I sat there waiting for him to say "April Fool! We really don't ask our people to do that." But the words never came. If I wanted this kind of misery I would have joined the French Foreign Legion.

And then he asked me a question.

If you had your dream job what would it be?

I waited a few seconds before I answered. It wasn’t either job he was offering, but he seemed like a decent guy and I wanted to be straight with him.

I told him what I really wanted a good feature writing gig, where I talk with people, real people who don’t have press agents or hold news conferences.

I want to write about people who are struggling to make it, who can’t see their way around the next corner; the kind of invisible people who keep this world running and don’t get a lick of credit, sympathy or attention.

Before I left, I met the bureau chief and he was such a nice guy, saying all he cares about is the reporter’s career. Both he and the editor must have been reading my mind—or the dismayed look on my face—when they said they didn’t expect me to spend my life in Albany. I’d love to work for these guys, if only it could be some place else.

As I rode a cab back to the Albany-Rensselaer train station, I noticed my driver was a woman, and a rather mature one at that. I started talking with her and learned that she was a grandmother who had been a cab driver in Albany for 30 years.

She was the first woman cab driver in town and she had to put up with a lot of grief from the male drivers in those early days. She held up her cell phone and told me her regular customers from all over the country call her whenever they come to town.

In other words, she’s exactly the kind of person I want to write about.

I was too tired to sleep on the way back, too tired to read. I just looked at the river rolling by and tried to imagine myself living around there. When I reached Penn Station, I felt like I had been away for a week.

That night I crashed in front of the TV watching some version of “Law & Order.” I was really glad the day was over and I felt like I had accomplished something. But between the subway and the Empire Express I spent more time on the rails than Woody Guthrie.

I picked up the Daily News and turned to the horoscopes page to see what kind of day the stars said I was supposed to have. I thought it would be fun to catch the astrologer in a screw-up.

Today may be a bit strange, it read, your nerves might be a bit frayed, but you are up to the challenge.

April Fool, big guy.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Sin City

People die hard in Sin City.

In the new film from Robert Rodriquez, characters are stabbed, shot, bludgeoned, and repeatedly run over by cars. They smash through doors and dive from windows in lieu of taking the stairs. Their genitals are shot off, their limbs are chopped away and their bodies are pierced by arrows.

And their heads? Oh, gosh, their heads are chopped off, pierced, battered, mounted on walls, and crushed into Jell-o. As Marv, Sin City’s resident psychopath asks after an unsuccessful jolt from an electric chair: "Is that the best you can do, you pansies?"

Apparently, yes, it is. And that’s unfortunate.

Rodriquez brings Frank Miller’s graphic novel to very graphic life, taking us into the double-dealing heart of a fictional metropolis, where corruption rules, life is cheap, and the weather really sucks.

It rains a lot here. Buildings, bridges and monuments loom high, dark and threatening. And there’s no hint of sunlight in this mostly black and white world (there are sprinkles of color). Blood is often milky white, which is fortunate since so much is spilled.

And the point of all this is…? I’m not sure.

The stories—such as they are—in this CGI landscape revolve around a cop with a bum ticker (Bruce Willis) who tries to save a little girl from a senator’s perverted son.

Then we move to the aforementioned Marv (Mickey Rourke, channeling Shelley’s Frankenstein and Chandler’s Moose Malloy) who searches for the killer of Goldie, a beautiful hooker whom he meets, loves and loses all in one night.

Clive Owen shows up as a guy who falls afoul of a vicious cop (Benicio Del Toro) over another beautiful woman, which eventually sparks a mini-war in Old Town, where hookers wield machine guns and samurai swords. Just like real life.

All the heroes take beatings that would kill Wile E. Coyote a dozen times over and still manage to talk, talk and talk some more in the seemingly endless voiceover narration that lands somewhere south of Mickey Spillane’s deathless prose.

Bodies pile up, bullets and creaky dialog fly through the air, people vow to take hideous revenge and keep their word; and blood flows in all directions.

Quentin Tarantino shows up to “guest direct” one of the stories, which has some kinky life to it, especially when Del Toro’s nearly severed head starts talking to Owen. And I like seeing Mickey Rourke back on the screen. He gives more life to Marv than the character actually deserves.

But the film has an ersatz feeling to it. It’s as if someone dumped every film noir cliché into a blender, tossed in some gory Fifties comic books and crumbling paperbacks and switched it to pulverize. The result is a retro mutant zombie that has no life of its own. Since Miller was rehasing old movie bits, Rodriquez is giving us a re-hash of a re-hash. That's no blue plate special.

I’m sure defenders of this film will say the violence was too shocking for me. No, I’m afraid it’s worse than that; it’s uninteresting. It would be nice to have characters do more than snarl, bleed, and croak, to put some meat on those bones before you smash them.

As I write this I see that “Sin City” was number one in the box office over the weekend. Maybe that has something to do with the gun-toting hookers in their underwear, but who’s to say?

Watching “Sin City” made me long from the original B-movie source material, where directors told their stories on real mean streets, not virtual ones. Even an overripe knuckle sandwich like “Kiss Me Deadly” has more to offer—and that’s going back half a century.

Rodriquez is undoubtedly talented, but he’s wasted his skills and our time on this low rent material. As Marv would say, is that all you got?