Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Cabbie's Lament.

7:00 pm, New York City on the last Friday night in June. Step out of the train, join the slow-moving herd of travelers and luggage inching through the hot bath of platform air and up a narrow stairway, navigate past at least four deeply disturbing spectacles in the human pinball machine that is Penn Station's main floor, and stand on the grimy escalator until it spits out into a new level of pinball game, the corner of Eighth Avenue and 33rd St.

Thanks to the car service Uber, the torturous line for taxis is one trial for which I no longer need to brace myself in a trip to New York. But Uber can bring its own surprises. Let's begin the journey.

I peer at my phone to see where Uber thinks I am. Nope. Some location that might be mythical. Wait a minute. The map updates. Yes, there I am, a blue dot outside Penn Station, lumbering slowly to the curb of 33rd. And a mere 1-minute wait for a black car! Yes!

Uber informs me that Ramon is on the way. I look for his license plate number and blink, not seeing it on the screen for a moment. Oh! NOSTRESS. That's his license plate. I like Ramon already. "No stress" is my mantra, even though it rarely works for me.

I see that Ramon is already parked right across from me on 33rd. What a treat! I hop across to where he is waiting and wave to the driver, a middle-aged man with a mustache. "Christina?" he says. "Look how fast we did that!" I smiled and said, "I like your license plate." Mutual triumph.

"Ha, yeah," Ramon said. "Let me just write this down and we'll be on our way." Ramon logs the trip quickly, turns on the air conditioner, and eases out into traffic.

The interior of the black SUV is calming: cool air and clean black leather. Ramon says he wants to cut over on one of the lower streets to my Upper East Side destination and "avoid that mess," waving toward Times Square. Ramon and I are of the same mind on preferred route. I settle in, grateful for a No Stress beginning to my NYC visit.

Ramon asks me some small-talk questions about where I am coming from, how my day is going, etc., but I keep the answers brief, not feeling like a chat. Ramon, however, is nothing if not a dedicated conversationalist, with "conversation" defined as an unending litany of woe.

"Friday, everybody fighting!" Ramon said. "Everybody in a hurry, getting mad, everybody has to get to their destination right away. Friday is the worst!" He informs me.

"That just sounds like New York every day, to me," I said. Ramon ignored me and went on. Everyone is fighting, making each other crazy, he continued. "For nothing! For no reason!"

It was clear now that Ramon's "no stress" motto was not working for him either. He was the most stressed guy in New York, and he was determined to let me know all about it.

"This Chinese lady. She wants to go all the way cross town in 15 minutes. 15 minutes! Ok, I tell her we go 31st because that's the fastest way. But then she arguing with me saying no, no, take 34th. I tell her no, 31st is traffic...."

Can you guess the outcome of this tale? That's right. Poor Ramon was right, they took 34th and it was horrible. I sat there murmuring and giving short answers, but after awhile it no longer mattered whether I was into the conversation. This guy clearly needed to vent.

Somewhere around East Midtown, I realized that this was not going to let up, so I decided to go with it. I asked Ramon whether most of his offending riders were New Yorkers, or out-of-towners, and hit the record button on my iPhone. This was his reply.

In case you couldn't catch it, at the point where I chuckle (0:37) he is saying, "You need helicopter, my friend." He winds up with "Jesus Christ," pronounced "Jesus Cry," an interjection he frequently used to emphasize the absurdity of his clients' desires.

Multiply this two minutes by 10, sprinkle with a couple of interludes of chilling, forced laughter, and you pretty much have my NOSTRESS ride, which culminated in an epic story about a standoff between this "white guy" (tip for disparaging all of humanity: always qualify with the race; it is more damning, no matter which race you are describing) who was kicking Ramon's car ("This is a new car! Come on.") because of where  he was parked and the clock, which ticked away as Ramon waited for a hapless fare who could not locate him, despite his impeccable description of where he was waiting, and ultimately canceled the trip.

I tried to mollify him by saying what a great service Uber is. "It's a great service!" he agreed. But this got him on the topic of Uber's rating system. "Some people, they give you one star. Some people, they give you five star." (For the record, I gave him three.) He let me know of his low regard for the population of fares who did not want to have any conversation, a population to which I secretly belonged.

I bade Ramon a speedy farewell at the door, while he urged me in a somewhat martyred tone to enjoy the rest of my day. Was there any day left to enjoy? It didn't feel like there was.

Perhaps it is not fair, but since Ramon used me as his unwilling confessional, he is now my unwitting material on this blog. If you ever see this, Ramon, do not be offended. Simply use it as a story for your next fare. Start the story with: "This white lady, she think she's being funny..."

Music: "Leavin'," Jesse McCartney (2:25... "no stress no stress no stressss")

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"What Is Hoarding?"

My mom asked this question rhetorically one weekend as I sorted through a box containing, among other things, nearly every single birthday card I had ever received. You know, just the kind of chit-chat that comes up when contemplating a box that happens to contain blank stationery from 1982.

Let me start by saying that no home in my immediate family has ever been touched by the type of hoarding that deeply affects lives and makes for sordid television shows. I have known people with real hoarders in their families — my ex and one of my best friends among them —and it's not a joking matter. (Well actually, they have joked about it, but I can't. So let's move on.)

Those shows, and those examples, can convince an average person who hangs on to things too long that there's really nothing to address. The home has clear pathways and is not sanitation hazard. The home may also be your parents' home, where you do not live but where you store a few "keepsakes." So what if there are a few full boxes in the closets, and possibly a Naf Naf shirt from 1986? Nothing to see here, people! Fully functional, that's me. Oh, and by the way, I can't stand clutter. In my place.

My mom and I have both been (jokingly, sort of) accused of hoarding by other family members. What this tells me is that the condition is possibly hereditary, and therefore I bear little to no responsibility for whatever tendencies I display. (Right Mom?)

I'll admit that I wondered what would happen when she retired. Controlled chaos hid behind closed doors for many years: kitchen cabinets were crammed with towers of Tupperware and unmatched lids, not to mention a bunch of expired food; basement closets harbored untold amounts of clothing.

One of the first things she did upon retiring was to clean that stuff out.

I'll admit that surprised me a little. If I had just retired, maybe I'd just alternate going to the gym with lying around a lot, and get to the stuff behind closed doors later (not unlike what I do as an unretired person on weekends). But she was ON IT. Like, within the first week.

She says now that she didn't realize how stressed she was when she was working, and how much it prevented her from dealing with stuff like Glad containers, tomatoes from 2006 and seven-year-old walnut oil (left there by her daughter, UncMo).

It was relatively easy to deal with the kitchen stuff. The clothes were another matter. "Clothes are my identity," she said. I could not judge, knowing that I had a stash of Esprit, Firenza, Guess and other labels (hello Naf Naf) meant to preserve my '80s identity. It's hard to throw away clothes of any kind, much less clothes that are in perfectly good condition, much less clothes that still fit, convincing you that if you could just donned the right outfit, you just might be teleported right back to your younger bod in the '80s, yet suffused with the wisdom and self-possession of your later years. Too much to ask?

But the key problem for me was, and always has been, paper. I grew up in an era that required it, and I saved it all: the birthday cards, the birthday newspapers, the letters, the resumes, the pamphlets, the brochures, notebooks, diaries, journals, the letters, the resumes, the Playbills, the stickers, bank statements, phone bills, credit card statements, pay stubs, my first bylined stories, more letters—you get the idea. (The class picture below, on top of the Penn graduation pamphlet and the candy cigarettes, is Sir UncMo's. I have extended, as a courtesy, hoarding privileges to his past as well.)

This all fits in a bedroom closet at my parents' house, far away from my actual (sort of) neat abode. It even fits with the records and books of mine that my dad, lacking any hoarding projects of his own to tackle upon retirement, took it upon himself to box up and stow away. It fits, but I know it's all there. Now, when I visit my parents on weekends, I often make it a point to wade through one of the many closeted piles of paper. (Sometimes I make some discoveries, and sometimes, as above, I end up bringing a select number of things in shoeboxes to my own closet, pretending that I've dealt with them.)

When I was a kid, I saved candy and gum wrappers. So, if you can picture it, I had a dresser full of clothes, and in the bottom drawer, I had maybe two small boxes (one of them was definitely a Barbie box) crammed with one representative wrapper of every bit of candy or gum I had ever consumed. Bazooka, Dubble Bubble, candy corn, Reese's, et cetera.

To me then, it was basically a way of cataloging my love for sweets. It was my Evernote Food, expressed via one ridiculous collage of waxed, colored paper. I still remember, as a kid, opening the bottom drawer of my dresser and seeing all those wrappers pressed behind the cellophane window that was meant to display a Barbie, and feeling a mixture of satisfaction and shame. The satisfaction was for what a good job I had done of cataloging my consumption. The shame was from knowing, vaguely, that it was not "normal."

That's right! I know what you're thinking: Today, that 11-year-old would have pharmaceutical assistance. Too late, friends!

Flash forward about 10 years. I'm done with college. My parents came to graduation, ready to help me pack up. "I knew you were depressed when I saw your room," my mom said later. It was a corner room on the ground floor of a group house in West Philadelphia, bars on the window, with a loft bed, where I read Sylvia Plath a little too closely (who's depressed?). It wasn't that I had accumulated very much. It was more that the room was a mess, and I had not bothered to pack a thing, even though I knew I was leaving. And my mom was right. I was abjectly depressed. You can't see these things in the moment. You have to look at them later and realize that you were a frog in boiling water.

This is where the question of "what is hoarding" gets interesting, to me. Are you holding on to a past you can no longer revisit? Are you just too tired to deal with the accumulation of stuff? Or is it a combination of both? What is your physical environment telling you about the mental?

Either way, my view now, in no small part because of that college insight from my mom, is that your physical environment reflects your current state of mind. Are you accumulating clutter and disorganized, or are you neat and up-to-date? Are you editing your life, regularly, in every way, or are you getting sloppy? Conversely, is your space so sparse or tightly controlled that there is no room for imperfection or spontaneity?

Now, like my mom, I resort to organizing my oversupply of beauty products and giving away clothing when things start feeling hectic. But I still possess, at the top corner of my closet, a shoebox with candy cigarettes in it (those things keep!). And I may or may not have rescued some perfectly fine McCormick Italian Seasoning of undetermined vintage from my mom's kitchen cabinet. I don't save too much paper these days, but I do hoard digital conversations, including chats with Sir UncMo. I know that we are meant to live in the present, but I may never let go of my need to preserve the past. Especially when it involves people who mean a lot to me.

All I ever wanted to do by saving things was to hold on to my life, the life that is slipping away every single minute of every day, inexorably, which I've known ever since the day in third grade that elementary school let out for summer and I was the only kid who wasn't happy it was over, because I realized, with devastating certainty, that I would never have another year quite like that one, never be a child again, and didn't even comprehend yet that the days were numbered where someone would put pen to paper, just for me, leaving an envelope to be opened.

Music: "Smoke"