A Walk in the Neighborhood, mixed media on paper, 2023
Walking city streets is one of my favorite activities. A simple pleasure. Sometimes a city stroll has a cinematic quality, with characters, extras, choreography, movement, drama, comedy, tragedy, horror and banality all unfolding before your eyes and ears. Other times, you experience an astounding solitude imagining so many lives happening behind closed doors and shuttered windows. I do a lot of thinking while walking. But the thing is… you have to keep your eyes and ears open to experience it.
My knees and ankles are getting worn out from performing a slalom around fellow pedestrians locked in a handheld universe, walking a zigzag, oblivious to their immediate surroundings. Full disclosure: I feel carsick if I read while walking. I do listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks while cooking, cleaning, making art, fighting insomnia and puttering around my apartment. But when I’m outside walking, I want to be a part of the world— a witness to the beautiful, ugly, banal, surprising, chaotic, manicured, cacophonous, symphonic and ever-fleeting world of my neighborhood, right now.
So it goes. Do your thing. Those of us walking around without hundreds of dollars of electronic audio-visual equipment holding our gaze and ears hostage… we’re doing fine. Just talking to the trees and squirrels as the world burns.
Devon Avenue Post Office, brush & ink, gouache paint on paper, 2023
A 20-something Jared Leto look-a-like hipster carrying a large box cuts in front of me in line at the post office. I say, “the line curves this way, as to not block the door,” indicating behind me.
“No worries,” he replies, not moving, planted like an Easter Island statue blocking the door.
A man tries to enter and literally has to grasp the kid’s shoulders and physically move him aside so he can walk through.
We’re waiting in an impossibly long line with one postal employee on duty. I recognize her. If an actor played her in a film, J-Lo would be ideal casting. She consistently manages to be friendly and professional while keeping order in the place. Midway through helping a customer, she raises her voice to address a man in line talking loudly on the phone, which he holds like a pancake in his palm: “Take your phone off of speaker, please. Thank youuu.” Returns to typing. A man carrying three boxes approaches the window, out of turn, “Sir, please move away from the window and return when those boxes are adequately addressed.” “I need a pen,” he complains. “There’s one at the table,” she quips, motioning to the table dotted with those tragic, non-functioning, dried-out pens attached to chains. This will be the last time he forgets to bring a pen with him.
She has complete control over the room.
This interaction sparks a memory of a recent visit to this post office. She was helping me when a young man rushed in, deposited a box on the table and turned to rush out. “Stop!” she yelled, and a customer grabbed him. “I’m just going out to my car to pick up more packages,” he stammered. I assumed he was doing just that. “If you leave, take that package with you. You cannot abandon a package here,” she admonished. It made me think about how much risk postal workers are in every day in this wackadoo country with people armed with guns, bombs and grievances.
I miss the days of social distancing in lines. We’re packed in here like commuters during rush hour. If you sliced the globe with a zigzag diagonal cut and deposited the pie slice of people into a space, it would look like the line of customers in front of me. This group is very calm and chill, though. I hear a variety of accents and languages. I’m probably the most impatient person here.
The US may project a glossy image of procedural competence, however it rivals the bureaucratic morass of any other place around the world, and this dysfunction is on full display today. For a country that loves its forms in triplicate, we may benefit from hiring a few more people to process the paper trail.
The door desperately needs WD-40 and some basic repair. It has been that way for years. It screeches when opened and slams shut with a loud BOOM. Haunted houses should record these sounds for future use. When someone enters, you can see a physical reaction ripple though the line as the screech derails all cogent thought and causes involuntary movement.
“That door needs fixing” I say to the Jared Leto kid who, incidentally, finally figured out where the back of the line was, when I notice that we both simultaneously jump at the boom of the door slamming shut.
“That makes sense,” he blandly replies, staring through me.
Meanwhile, the small line at the self-checkout is also experiencing a machine-failure crisis and folks are commanded to join the main line which now is curling around the perimeter of the room like an anxious arm of an agitated octopus.
We get excited when we see another employee rearranging items at the next window, anticipating a glorious “next customer!” After some vague paper shuffling and postal pantomiming, she disappears into a room and never returns.
Minutes pass; the line stagnates. It feels futile to wait. I envision a viral cloud of covid, flu, norovirus and bubonic plague amassing overhead. Somebody coughs in the back of the line. Customers who were already helped seem to boomerang back to the window with more forms and parcels. This is the second day I’ve tried to mail something and ended up turning around with no luck.
Our postal system clearly needs help. I don’t blame the employees. They’re working hard. They’re good people. The customers are also tranquil and generally courteous. Seems like the US postal system is being slowly suffocated from the top down in an attempt to kill it so it can be converted into the inefficient, expensive, faux high-brow, for-profit, de-centralized mess that is privatized mail delivery companies.
I am brushing a heavy beard of snow off of my car when a woman plowed her giant SUV, head-first, into the vacant snowy space in front of my car. The SUV sat at an awkward angle in the large space, inches away from the bumper of the car in front. She cut the engine and stayed in the vehicle.
I wasn’t going to drive anywhere. Just removing the snow before it ossified into an icy shell. And having the luxury of time and in need of exercise, I meticulously shoveled the area around the car.
Midway through this process, it occurs to me that the woman sitting in the SUV in front might be expecting me to vacate the newly shoveled space so that she can back right into it. But maybe she’s talking on the phone, or listening to the radio? Who knows? Should I offer to shovel her space, too?
The street is festive. Neighbors are cleaning off their cars, shoveling the walk, snowblowing paths. A woman named Jill introduces herself. She’s holding what looks like a mini, hand-held snowblower. “Can I help you get rid of this snow? I just got this new toy and I’m still trying to figure out how it works.” “Yeah, sure, thanks!”
Jill lays down the mower in the street, lets it rip, and the snow sprays everywhere, dusting the sidewalk, the yard, the front porch and the SUV parked in front of me. Suddenly the SUV door flies open. We hear a shriek reminiscent of Moira on Schitt’s Creek. A woman bursts out of the vehicle and proclaims (to no one in particular), “I’m HERE!!” She’s wearing a full-length fur coat, hair in an architectural pile on top of her head. Is she wearing heels? Where are her gloves? In a huff, she stalks straight up the stairs and enters a house. That is her house? Moira’s house? (I’m calling her Moira now).
A few minutes later, a man pulls up parallel to Moira’s car and lets the engine idle with the window wide open. This time, I want to manage expectations, so I tell him that I’m not moving my car. “OH! I’m just waiting to pick up my son.” His son is apparently in Moira’s house.
On the world’s loudest speakerphone call, he says, “Brandon, let’s go!” He’s completely in earnest, but I think, “poor kid has to deal with *that* now…”
Brandon responds something garbled in a whiny voice. He’s in the middle of blah blah and dad will have to wait because argly bargly. Father and son engage in a back and forth barter-session. Brandon has dad on the verge of circling the block 25 times when he goes a step too far and the dad loses patience: “Brandon, I’m in MIDDLE OF THE STREET. I CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER. TIME TO GO.” I can’t hear Brandon’s end of the conversation. I’m done with my car, but pretending to brush off nonexistent snow because I’m a nosy voyeur. I hear something about food and eating and and that makes me wonder if Moira is the grandmother of Brandon’s friend and was supposed to prepare food, but was waiting for me to leave so she could take my space and now Brandon’s father is losing his mind because the food is late….
I’m pretty good at finding a way to blame myself for other people’s quite possibly fictional problems.
I’m growing fatigued with Brandon and Moira and Brandon’s friend (and Brandon’s dad) and the biting cold at this point so I decide to take a walk past that house on Thome Street that I’m mildly obsessed with and hopefully by the time I return, I’ll get to see Brandon to satisfy this extremely mundane curiosity. Does he have horns? A tail? Chipmunk teeth? Well. I got distracted on my wintry walk and instead ended up on Granville chatting with the guy who lives in the house with the Tibetan flags across from the Islamic mosque, which is down the street from the giant Catholic church which is across from the Methodist church which is down the street and around the corner from the Jewish Synagogue. God, I love this city.
This detour meant that I missed seeing Brandon.
A day later, my car was still there in the shoveled space, no doubt conversing with Moira’s truck nestled in unplowed snow.
While shopping for Christmas presents this past December, I strolled into a tiny jewelry store— a small business in a local suburb. Wanting to support them, I traversed deeper into this already too-crowded space. Most patrons were wearing masks, as news of the omicron wave seemed to hurl us all backwards in time to a pre-vaccinated mindset. And of course two unmasked women in the store were conducting a banal yelling conversation across the aisles. Unwilling to actually stand next to each other while exchanging valuable Christmas travel advice, their conversation was broadcast throughout tiny shop. I made a giant U-turn to leave and observed the faces. Oh, how eyes can speak volumes.
Tales of the Subterranean: Anatomy of Sock Puppets
A zine produced in 2010
A few pages