Friday, April 28, 2006

Loneliness and Cell Phones

Living where she did, she made up all kinds of rules. She didn’t get the idea from anyone else. And she knew there were palatable words to describe it to anyone who wasn’t her. It didn’t seem like an idea a real New Yorker would have at all. Give yourself parameters? There wasn’t one good reason when bars closed at four AM. When so much was about whittling away at the parameters that snuck in into your gut like a mother’s laugh, grandma’s taste for hairy men. But it was their city or they were men. Or tough women. The kind of woman she was going to be. A woman who knew what it was like to have any kind of nut breathing shit right in her face at any time of day. Whether alone, halfway out of a car or even with friends, they were women who knew men, or at least where to find them. And where not to. But that just wasn’t an option for her. No one she knew lived within two states. At least, no one she could find. Especially if she had to.

And that was going to change. That was one of her rules, one new friend a month. A baseline. But it had been two and a half weeks and she hadn’t really gone out once. She came home late from work most nights. Then she’d chat on the phone or watch the local news like it was an Adult Education course in New York City. Even the crime was glitzy. At least the crime on TV.

Her office wasn’t necessarily hospitable. But it wasn’t hostile either. It was for TV, so it had that temporary feeling of imprisonment, much like a hostage situation or an extended initiation period. The walls weren’t bare, but everything on them was a joke or practical purpose, or, more likely, an expired practical purpose. Someone who was getting paid more than her was always coming back from getting coffee. Someone was always about to lose their mind or their lease. And the younger you were, the earlier you got there and the later you stayed, on average. Of course, the higher ups would do their freak forty-eight hour shifts before they left out of town to take meetings or escapades with people they worked with before or met on Craigslist. Whatever came first. But it wasn’t a bad office. Except for the bagel situation.

The one intern—a bony-shouldered kid—scared around people the way a cat is round water—had one real job: daily bagel retrieval. The Executive Producer had worked a sitcom on the second season of the WB and that was one nice tradition he dragged along with him along with public humiliation of the people who cared the most and somewhat low standards.

So, everyday sixteen bagels appeared. Occasionally that was twice as many as needed. Usually it was two or three short. And her being her, she’d wait till eleven to make sure she could take one. So of course, she usually had no breakfast. Which did something to her blood sugar that made her capable of stabbing another human being in their eyes by two o’clock. But only on those very busy days. Even then she kept in mind that she’d have to stab the host if she wanted to end up on the local TV news. Crewmembers were barely glitzy in New York City, where everyone was rich, on their way, an extremely verbose member of a minority or completely fucking crazy.

Which leads to her main rule: Smile at the crazy people, but don’t talk to them. Any admission that she spoke English and cared about them as human beings—which of course she did because she was who she was— led to trouble. Not spit or mucus trouble. Not scary trouble. But it always felt close, close as all the wealth and glamour and cabs. All the things that were beyond her and above her as she sat on the subway, coyly reading faces like they were a comic book on her lap in the middle of Math class. She loved the show of them all. The stories they had. Their thousand days in the city. The way some of them eyed the bag of bagels on her lap. Late for work and drooling over the universal archetype for a productive snack that sat in her lap. Wishing that bag of warm sustenance for themselves. Not for her co-workers, not her surprise for the staff meeting. Her first in New York.

Why take a chance today? Sixteen bagels and she knew over thirty people would show up to be alternately praised and lambasted like a group of poor kids who had pledged to learn Calculus after-school and during the summer. “Nobody thinks we can do this,” her boss would say. And make eye contact with her, like she was the reason the critics doubted them. Critics that only existed in her bosses fucked up head. And then he’d make a joke. Something he heard from a writer in LA. Something that started off with a disclaimer like, “No one here has epilepsy, right?”

But it didn’t matter what he said. It was all the same. He was her boss and she just needed to smile make it through her twelve hour day and then get on the redeye to Lake Placid to begin to weeks of location work.

And everything was going according to plan, thanks to the rules. She woke up an hour earlier than she needed too. Only smiled at people approached her. Never stopped moving if she could. Avoiding unnecessary eye contact while observing all the twisted angles, chrome and facial hair that made this city the most amazing playground on earth, summoning that little person inside her who was pleased by anything new, different. Which was about three fourths of everything she saw everywhere, everyday.

So, with her head somewhat down into the smell of the garlic, onion, seeds, dough and magic of the warm bagels she made her way out of the train station and out on to the street. Here she was: at her first job where the building had a doorman and security to keep most everyone out and her in. She looked up to remind herself that she was working higher in the air than people could have imagined flying just a few centuries ago. She was working in the miracle of now.

She took a last whiff of the bagels as she waited for the elevator, prayed that even with her extra two dozen she would still get the egg bagel that had picked for herself. A bagel so plump that its hole looked like a concession to conformity, a sweet wink. The elevator’s bell rang. “Hold that,” somebody said. She paused the whiff of bagel in her nose and felt a bony shoulder bear into the middle of her back. She would have definitely fallen over if she weren’t thrust into the front of a tall woman who looked down at her as they were stumbling. The tall woman scowling like she knew this was coming and she wasn’t going to let anyone get away with it.

“I’m sorry,” the bony-shouldered kid said. And her pulled her hand so she could both balance herself and step away from the tall woman with the same step.

“I’m sorry,” the bony-shouldered kid said again to the tall lady whose face cracked a smile as she looked down at the ground at two paper bags. Her two-dozen bagels bursting out the side of the bag with some napkins peaking out. His sealed sixteen sitting posed upright with just the name of his bagel shop printed on it.

“It's nothing,” the tall lady said examining both of the faces like they didn’t know the rules, which they didn’t, really. “Nothing that a bagel won’t solve.”

The bony-shoulder kid smiled, dug his chin straight down and picked up his bag. “Sure, we’ve got plenty I guess,” he said. He tried to open up the bag for a second, became flustered and looked at her bag on the floor. Wounded, but abundant. “Here, just take the whole bag.”

The tall woman raised her eyebrows so high that seemed like she might bump the ceiling. She seemed to consider it for a second then took the bag into her arms and headed out the front door.

Her bagels on the floor. The intern with his abused, unsure grin. She leapt to hit the button right before the elevator closed. The doors swung wide as she knelt and gathered her mess. “After you,” she said to the bony-shoulders boy who stepped into the elevator with nothing in his arms.

She followed him in summoning a smile and pressed “Door Closed.” She had some explaining to do.


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