Thursday, September 29, 2011

Leaving Yale, Part 3: I must pee.

Part 1: Lychees and a Sock

The weather is perfect, unbelievable. The summer solstice has bent away, and the days are supposed to be shrinking, but it is bright, standing on this square of concrete sidewalk. The trees are green. Green-green, dead-serious green, veins of green, supersaturated chlorophyll watermarks against a light, intimate sky. A breeze is pushing me over gently, and the sun is whisking away lonely wisps of humidity. I am on the outskirts of campus -- on Howe street -- with a guitar slung over my back, walking towards, through, and away, from Yale.

It was never the plan to say goodbye in such a trivial way. James and I, we had just whiled away two hours in his art-deco-infested sublet. I brazenly wrestled the pictures and video of our triumphant guitar set last night from his computer, while he talked to his mum, awkward-as-a-white-elephant headphones in his ears. We are in the kitchen of a house. A house with mason jars, instead of glasses. A house with two bathrooms, both warily functional, exactly across from each other. The house speaks to us. It whispers, "You might have wire-rim glasses, but you'll never feel comfortable here." Whilst the ghosts of the tenants engage us, James and I, both of us, we just sit there, present, visceral.

“Do you like fruit?” I ask.

“Of course,” he responds.

“You can have this. I want you to keep it.”

“There’s an entire mango in here? Thanks mate! Are you sure you don’t want it?”

“Nope. That’s a present from me to you.”

Not much of a present for our friendship, or even for two nights in a real room, with a real sheet, a wake-up call in the morning, unabashed use of his computer, and a cozened generosity for my professional time-wasting activities. No, the fruit in the bag, just an over-ripe mango and a branch of lychees -- round and globular, hardened and ready for any-length fingernails to pierce with pleasure -- was not adequate for our goodbye. Not even.

So I prepared a speech.

“Thanks so much for being my friend. For having the generosity to have me, a tyro, with literally no knowledge of music, teach you, the 17-year master, how to play guitar. Because you didn’t need to ask me. But you did. And out of it came the greatest memory of this summer – and also a new friendship that, while maybe I wouldn’t have valued a year ago, and definitely not three years ago, now means so much. It was a good way to go out. I’m glad we became friends.”

At 7:25 p.m., we stood awkwardly, wedged between the arc of the front door and the staircase. (Poor design. I blame the hipsters.) I got out the first two lines – “Thanks for playing guitar with me. I’m really glad we played together” -- before he immediately volunteered a response: “Shared accountability, remember,” -- more inside joke than sentimental farewell. And, with that sweet, irreverent remark, an air of finality hit both of us; it hung in the air. I didn’t push back. Instead, we grasped in an ever-so-sloppy handshake, and then I turned and left into the beautiful day.

My heels struck pavement, my stride was purposeful, my gait long, tall, and designed-by-force. I was ready for my last tour through this school, head swirling with the soft memories of my last interaction ever. Then: "Hey, Peter!"

I look across the street. It's my KASY wife. Shoot. It's not like I don't like her, or anything; I actually do -- whenever we've hung out, she's been accommodating, energetic, beatific -- but we haven't seen each other much through the year. She's an acquaintance, and now, she's going to fall into place as my last conversation at Yale. This wasn't supposed to happen! Where's my script? The sunset, the cherry-black horse galloping into the distance, the tumbleweed?

"You're leaving! Oh man -- this is my friend, by the way."

I shake hands. I am woefully unprepared to meet someone new, not now, not after I have already put Yale and its vicissitudes behind me. Our conversation peters out, drips slowly onto the cement, the latent discomfort and patent unfamiliarity staining our skin, turning us egregious. After 30 seconds, I make the move to exit gracefully, without, of course, any semblance of grace. 

"Ok, I'll see you...uh, again! Soon! Keep in touch!"

And I'm off! The journey is back on track, and I'm planning my route through Yale: I turn right and head towards Chapel Street; then, feeling regret already poisoning my thoughts, double back and walk through the pathway between Branford and Jonathan Edwards. I decide to go even further north to High Street gate, so that I can let some of the magic of Old Campus linger. 

I walk through the gate. Should I be crying right now? Not bawling, tears hanging off my chin, but maybe a little misty-eyed solemnity, a rapid-fire sequence of blinking to hide these grown-man emotions? Crying seems appropriate. Apropos, I think, to make-up for my lack of emotion during graduation, when the end was still hazy, wobbly, un-finalized and not very present, not with a summer in New York so close. Yes, tears should be shed, preferably while I keep walking through Old Campus, even if these high school students -- what program are they here for? -- wearing their tags of identification around their small, skinny necks will see me. Tears would work well here. It would be memorable. It would be quite a Capstone. Emotions. Melancholy. The end of childhood. 

But of course, I am nowhere near crying. Not in the same block, or borough, or continent. My neurons are not obeying my commands for sentimentality. It isn't as if this is some romantic comedy, where I just broke up with this school and its now nearly 20 billion dollar endowment. Plus, I am facing a more immediate problem. It is the problem of throwing away my sock.

Oh, you hadn't heard? Well, see, back on Chapel Street, I attained a splinter in my right shoe. I thought it was poetic. An extended metaphor for my stay at Yale: overall superb, but a little niggling and nagging, a prickle, a mini-crisis. I relished the thought at becoming a literal walking metaphor. 

But 10 steps in, I had enough. It hurt too much. I stopped, peeled back the sock, and tried to locate the source of my discomfort, but I couldn’t see it. So I slipped my shoe over my toes, and then over my heel, and started walking, sock in hand. Which was equally metaphorical, now that I think about it. Slightly unbalanced. Comfortable, successful, but imperceptibly uneven, slightly awry, askew.

My sock could go into my guitar backpack! I would carry it as an emblem of Yale. It would sit in my room for a week, and then I would go to the old shop downtown and frame it underneath the saltiest old glass I could find, append a label saying, "The Last Sock of Yale," and place it in safekeeping in an attic until I bought my own place, at which point this trophy would come back in blazing fashion, mounted above a fireplace, an instant-conversation starter. Hey what's so special about that sock?Well, Mr. President, let me tell you, that sock has been through thick and thin with me. Why, back when I was at Yale...

I throw the sock away in a trash can on Old Campus.

My last image of Yale is slightly galling. I walk through Phelps Gate to strengthen the poetic resonance of walking through Phelps Gate four years ago on FOOT, but I don't stop. Instead, once I have passed through, I look over my shoulder back to Old Campus, taking in the mass of green leaves that are blurry, not very distinct -- it could be a park in South Los Angeles, for all I know. Worse, the view is impeded by the silhouettes of three high school students talking at the corner. Dammit! Don't you know this is the last time I'm leaving Yale? Give me my three seconds with this institution, you ungracious, naive f**ks! But instead of saying anything, I keep walking. 

I attempt to compromise. Now on Chapel Street, after passing Asian tourists in garish colors and non-branded clothing, I look back. All I see, sticking out over the trees of the New Haven Green, is the oddly shaped, dilapidated, Russian-looking bulb of a roof cap over Phelps Gate. I give up. There will be no poetic last image of Yale. I'll have to come back sometime and replicate this journey, maybe at my 5-year reunion, with a Jessica-Alba-like girlfriend by my side. Yes, that's what will happen. I will take the walk from Howe Street to Phelps Gate all over again, except this time, she's going to carry my guitar case. And hold my sock. And feed me lychees. Yes! I can't wait.

Part 3: I must pee.

In Grand Central I see someone. I have seen him before. I saw him yesterday. He was wearing Beats by Dr. Dre around his neck, was headed towards Payne Whitney, was tall and black and cool, just like he is today, like he is right now, walking in front of me, step by step, to the main concourse of Grand Central, while at the same time I walk up the stairs, planning in my head this completely conscious plan to walk faster than him, my strides more purposeful, more powerful, to make up for my lack of height and coolness, so that when I am next to him, slightly in front of him, in a good position to speak to him, I will turn my head around.

“You play basketball for Yale, right?”

I expect him to say, “What?”; “Huh?”; or toss me a blank stare. That's when I’ll lambaste myself for not being loud enough, confident enough, and then I'll repeat my words, slower, louder, a little bit shakier. But -- oh my! -- he hears me.


“I’ve seen you play. I go to school there. You’re good.”

I say it with an air of nonchalance, a hint of wryness, a smidgen of thoughtfulness, top it off with a half-smirk-half-genuine smile, and turn forward and keep walking. But not before he smiles and gives a little chuckle and says Thanks. Or maybe he doesn't say anything at all, it doesn't matter either way -- what matters is that I have just sounded both purposeful and casual, have come from a place of inner strength, have demonstrated by insuperable ability to connect with the diversity of human beings on this planet, me being cultured and self-conscious and a denizen for the general good. While I am on top of the fucking world, I think back to our interaction — this, I guess you could call it, exercise in humanity — and imagine that in 30 years, when this Yale basketball player is living in a comfortable home in North Carolina, recounting stories of his playing days to his grandchildren, he'll drift deep into thought and think about that 30-point game he had, where he guarded the other team's best player, and realize that the accolades he received afterwards — "You showed em, champ"'; "That's what I wanted to see, sport" — those compliments paled in comparison to that random interaction he had that gauzy night in Grand Central, when that vagabond-looking kid who turned out to be from Yale — at least he said he was — told him, “You’re good.” And while he might have forgotten me already, in actuality our interaction has just been filed in his long-term memory, packaged for the right moment when—

I am being gnawed inside out. A rat with molars the size of Triscuit crackers. I am outside of Grand Central. It feels like a cramp, but worse, actually not a cramp at all, more like a pinball machine recruiting my kidneys, pulling back on the release lever to send them flying, flailing into multi-colored bumpers and scraping through stainless steel roller-coasters. Fuck. I expected some discomfort, having not eaten for 8 hours, but I have gone tremendous distances in the time-space continuum without eating before—heck, like last night, when I was rolling in the waves in my boxers collecting bio-luminescent jellyfish—

I continue to walk. But when the pain should be plateauing it is instead growing tentacles. I start to walk more furiously, with more conviction, following my memory, tracing my way back to a deli a couple blocks ahead where, 3 months ago, Joey and Sam and I bought Naked Juice at 1 a.m. while waiting for the train back into New Haven. Oh no. It doesn't have a bathroom. There’s no bathroom in the damn place. I can feel it. And I see the McDonald’s sign next door, but it's not lit up. I'm a block away. The McDonald's doesn't look open. How can it not be open, it makes no business sense, it's so close to Grand Central, there needs to be a 24-hour McDonald's here, it is so essential to the functioning of this city that there be legitimate fast-food, big-box fries and burgers, especially since Chipotle is further up and less midnight-snack-friendly, and yet the McDonald's sign I am approaching is unlit and unloved—

It is open. I walk in, look up at the second floor, maybe 20 feet away in sheer distance, and realize I must make it up to the second floor. The second floor is my home base. The bathroom my nirvana. Need. To. Reach. The. Second. Floor. 

The menagerie of people eating burgers and fries see me walk past them. I see a worker and two doors, "Gentleman" on the right-hand door. I know she can see me—

“You can’t use this. I’m going to clean it right now.”

“Please, I’ll be quick, I promise.”

I slouch a little. My mouth bends downwards, imperceptibly. I am an adorable puppy dog, eager and unwitting.

“Ok, go.”

The inside is disgusting. Fuck. The floor is covered with water. The puddle threatens to subsume the entire floor. I cannot tell if it is leaking from the urinal, if somebody has thrown up clear liquid that will soon putrefy, if the ceiling has been dripping. All I know is that my yellow shoes have holes. Holes that are gaping, growing larger with every step, inviting for all sorts of floor-level microbes. But I must pee. There is water everywhere, but my bladder needs to empty itself. I will pee. Things will get worse, but then they will get better.

I open the stall door, and, shit, I realize I have a guitar slung over my shoulder. It is tilted at a 30 degree angle, an angle prohibitive to me entering the stall without having to lean and rock and squeeze in, then turn facing forward again, so that I become literally stuck in the stall, my guitar jammed on both sides. To make things worse, the door of the stall falls into me, presses against the profile of my body, and I almost want to cry mercy and give up, curl into the fetal position, but that means having to grovel in the floor water, the dirty, dirty water of unknown origin, so instead I use my right knee, turned outwards, to push the door away so that the only point of contact between me and the door is the bottom of my knee, an area which I can never touch again, at least not until I wash these pair of green pants, or at least disinfect them, maybe even dry clean them, the bottom of my knee having been in contact with the stall. My guitar is still brushing, pushing against the side of the bathroom stall. The McDonald's stall. The only stall next to Grand Central open at 10 p.m. at night, with an estimated usage every day of 500. Or 1,000. Or 10,000. I don't know, it's a large number, this bathroom in so much use it necessitates the existence of leaks here and there, custodial problems, structural problems, problems that frustrate the management here, problems that might even be bigger than a huge fucking puddle underneath and around the urinal. These 10,000 people — regular people, homeless people, the poor, the inheritance-rich, drag queens, tourists from Norway, yoga instructors, child pornographers — fuck, all these people with their own rituals, own habits of peeing and ass-wiping and cleaning after themselves, who knows if it's the poor that are most tidy and the rich the most brazenly sloven, it's all invisible traces; who knows how many people have done fucked-up, non-acceptable things here, this being, for all intensive purposes, a public bathroom and all, even if the sign says "For Paying Customers Only" — who has defecated here and left stains, peed accidentally on the walls, smeared their feces over the front door—

No time to think like this. I move forward and inch toward the toilet, but look down and see the floor water sitting on the tiles, lazy and surreal. I can’t come in further, so I unzip and aim. My stream is strong and true, a catapult arc into the basin, beautiful, like a Super Soaker pumped until the pressure pushes back on the plastic pump. I am releasing, emptying out, unburdening a thousand problems, petty and serious, all ejected rudely, my kidneys already sighing, relaxing, until, oh shit, I start running out of steam, stream. I am losing power. I can only watch from my spectator seats as the arc decreases in amplitude, as the landing spot goes from the middle of the basin to the edge, to off the edge, now completely missing everything. I strain, I push, I lean, but it ends pathetically, the last few drops shaken into the puddle on the floor. Which, surprisingly, does not look any larger.

The worker, mop and bucket in hand, I can't look at when I walk out. I'm flying down the aisle, because, shit, what if she goes in and thinks I did it — she'd call management downstairs, press that secret intercom button they have for communicating during times like these, and a worker, or maybe the paying customers, would bar me from leaving, force me to clean my mess up, not only my mess but the entire stall, the walls, the sink, the bottom and sides of the urinal units, and while I was doing it I'd leave my guitar outside the door, where it would be stolen — you should have kept a better eye on it — and sold for crack. Oh I knew it, I shouldn't have bought that green tea for $4.99, a gallon's worth, the big bottle just to meet the Asian grocer's credit car minimum, finished the entire frothing thing before I left, thought it would be good to stay hydrated. I didn't even want to finish it, dammit, it was a sunk cost. It was refreshing though. Fuck fuck fuck — no, everything is alright. Normal. The worker will not seek injunction. She knows it is not me. She is just harried and stressed and the least bit sad, in the global sense, used to these injustices now. I table my pity and guilt for a later time and walk down the stairs. Done. Free.

Oh, shit. On the streets I feel good, better, strong enough to forage for a place to eat, until I realize I forgot to wash my hands. Good god, with all that contact, shit microbes are probably crawling over my clothes right now, my skin, slowly making their way into my orifices, the small cut on my left hand, through the holes in my body and into my blood stream, create a million mouths that will devour my tissue, reproduce and birth maggots they will have to cut from the outside, through the skin, but only when they are mature, wriggling, ready to get out, otherwise they will burst inside my veins, which wouldn't be pleasant at all, no, no...fuck. I need to wash my hands. I need a bathroom. (August 2nd, 2011)

Part 4: A delicious pita-hot-dog.

“How much is that? The sausage?” I ask.

“This?” the dark man says.



“That’s really expensive.”

“You get this pita, tomatoes, lettuce.”

I look around. I watch the tourists in front of me take their steaming hot dogs.

“Oh, ok.”

The Indian stand manager is skillful. A cut lengthwise, a hot iron to brand the meat to the grill—

“Hot sauce, white sauce, barbecue sauce?”

“Um…just white sauce, please.”

He flips the pita around. Opens a slushy bag of 20 hot dogs. Takes another customer’s order. Removes my pita from the hot plate and layers the sausage, the droopy tan-brown lettuce, the watery tomatoes over each other.

“Hot sauce, barbeque sauce, white sauce?”

“No, no. Nothing. Thanks.”

I give him my $20, and he hands me a $10. Then he hands me two $1s. Then he reaches in his pockets and finds two more $1 bills. The man behind me says, “Actually, can I get what he got?”

I have nowhere to eat this. I refuse to cradle this into the subway; a ritual needs to be evoked, reminiscent of our prehistoric ancestor's worship of fire, charcoal fingerprints and animal rawhide and all. So I walk 50 feet away, just to prove to those waiting in line that I indeed had somewhere to go, and consider if I want to slide in-between the two vagabonds on the shoe-shining chairs.

I decide to become the third vagabond in what is now a line of vagabonds, two being just a conspiracy. We are now a consortium! A unwitting, pigheaded team of faux-shoe-shiners, brilliant under the bitumen night. I look at them. They don't look back. I would feel slighted, except that I look in my hands and a soul-affirming glow settles on me--


--which immediately strips my mind bare. I am seized by a need to unwrap, smell, taste, gorge, usurp my damned physiological urges--

It’s hot. Too hot.

I am woefully unprepared – and untrained – to eat a pita-hot-dog. The foil is trapping and exaggerating the heat, and these napkins are no buffer against this scorching mini-oven. How unprepared of me. The tip of the sausage, gray-pink, throbbing, is radioactive, goading me from its nest of lettuce and pita. My hand peels and exposes, peels and exposes, until I have a window in which I can take a bite. It is a Chihuahua bite. Not a munch; a squeak. I peel back the foil and take bigger bites but my fingertips, trying to acquiesce to an ever decreasing amount of napkin space, are being cauterized, stroked over coal embers. I try to take a bigger bite but steam attacks the top of my mouth, I bring my head back, and when I do, the lettuce – the sole big piece he gave me, the thick, watery bit – it falls to the ground. And stays there, looking back up at me.

Pick it up. And eat it.

But that's dirty.

But it hasn't been three seconds yet.

You're not starving. People survive on only drinking water for days.

It's going to be delicious.

You. Just. Graduated. From Yale.

I look away from the lettuce and continue to nibble, the liquid from the sublimated juices pooling at the bottom of the tin foil, creating a lava lake of steaming meat juice a tilt away from dripping onto my clothes. The pita is coming apart. It is dissolving in its own gore, disintegrating and capitulating. The tin foil is rolled back so far, fragile and teething and splitting at the ends, I desperately want to use my free hand to lift the mess and direct it into my mouth, but to do so would be to break the quarantine on my McDonalds bathroom hands. Though who knows how fast microbes can climb upwards--from hand to elbow to shoulder back down and around to my mouth and my food, though the salient question is not if the journey matters but if the destination is too treacherous a location for our microscopic friends. It is hot tin foil. If you're nano-meters wide, it would be like the fucking Sahara desert.

But I take no chances. Forging ahead, I tailgate my food, dipping my head into the foil and using my teeth to pull out what I can, while profusely apologizing to my lips, besmirched and muddy with flavor.

I have now eaten enough to forget how hungry and weak I am. Instead, I realize the tourists, mainly, but also the native New Yorkers, are looking at me, standing as the off-center third pigeon in a line of homeless pigeons, gawking and protecting my large piece of lettuce brazenly resting on the ground, as they eye me in that slight, imperturbable New York way, where the angle of their head reveals their accommodating level of disdain. This is the new purgatory I am facing: status, rank, position on a totem pole of class, my only honest indicator my oily, dripping hands and the piece of lettuce in front of me. What’s he doing there? This looks quite odd. If I ever see him again, you bet this will be my first impression. I imagine their eyes narrowed, and widened, opening up space for their thoughts to promulgate as the stimulus of my existence meanders past.

Oh, stop it. You’ll never see them again. They can’t even see you, their foot velocity and the glimmer of these black poles this way. And as for this meat juice holding its own on the verticals of your mouth, well, just ignore it.

I think to myself: No need to wipe yet. To dirty my sleeves, or color, really, highlight the uniqueness of the situation. When I eventually have to wipe this grease off, I will pretend to be sneezing, or looking down at my feet at an interesting off-colored pebble, or maybe I’ll just be forward and display my uncleanliness to the whole world. Yes, that. I will look someone passing in the eye and say it: I am wiping the grease off my chin!

My napkin is hostage until I finish all my motes of food. My body is now back in its search for relevancy. I have almost finished; my anti-Oedipus has become stronger; I will soon be more than the sum of my pita-dog-yellow-shoe parts. I will survive! I have also just finished my food.

A trash can in front of me begs for the manifold tin foil, the soaked napkin, my microbes, shedding themselves in ecstasy.  I make sure to wipe my face. I pick up some broken tin foil. I look at the lettuce, and, standing up as straight as I can, the guitar case now vertical against my convex back, I give it a solemn salute. Then I walk through the doors to Grand Central station.