work and other sins-charlie le duff

life in new york city and thereabouts

“New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies. They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they’re lying. Only dreamers come to New York. As a matter of course, few people have control of their lives. You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won’t let you smoke. On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is the most exciting thing there is.

New York is a lot like a shit sandwich. The more bread you have, the less shit you taste, and this town would tumble to the ground without money. For those who don’t have it, there is always the hope of getting it. This book is meant for them.” (xviii)

i was there for under twenty-four hours after a five-year hiatus. the time away has given me the perspective to appreciate once again its charm, spirit, and to start to fall back in love. just a little bit. this is a new love, different from that head-over-heels first time, that young and inexperienced, blindly trusting time. this is the love that stands the test of time. the love that always answers when you call. the love that drives crazy but you always feel safe. the love that negotiates the streets and curates the soundtrack perfectly. the love that compels amel to bring marriage proposals and her babies into her music, and her audience into her stage show, and inspire so much appreciation in her arrangements that i simultaneously felt that i wanted to keep the moment forever and wished that someone else had recorded it because i didn’t want to be that asshole who ruined the spiritual experience by whipping out a cellphone. it was pretty close quarters in there, so lady with the perfect locks and baby pink mohair sweater-i saw you on your facebook-shame. the love in the street art that made up the five photos i took. the love of the familiar anew. the love of possibility. that’s what new york is. but this time it’s different because i know that it’s also the love that people bring to the city, not only the love that it already is. it’s the best kind of love because it’s the love that grows and is enriched by the momentum built by all the love that keeps on loving.

but not to stack the beauty-full side of the see-saw too heavy, the other side, of course, is that the beauty of life is (and should be) hard-earned. if not, how would we recognize anything at all? this book, i believe, was charlie leduff’s first, and for whatever reason, i read it last. i’ve been doing that a lot lately. i kind of love it when i save the first for last, and it’s the best. these portraits are stunning and slightly heartbreaking (like amel‘s music) and i love the focus and attention to detail. i haven’t written a portrait in a long time, but i aspire to do so just like this, should it come up in the future. people are beauty-full and interesting when they’ve done things, even if that thing is fail, or not quite make it. there’s also a sort of tragedy that comes with success, or continued success-like black thought. he’s been so good that he’s kind of obscured his own greatness, having no misses in a career of hits.

“The men come from Casablanca. They are Muslims who drink alcohol. They sin, Ali admitted, the same way that some Jews eat pork and some Catholics cheat on their wives.” (25)

“The next block over, there is a white man who put his house up for sale after twenty Mexicans moved in next door. As he pulled into his driveway, he stared at his unwanted neighbors. He is a tough-looking guy, and he did not turn his eyes away. One of the Mexicans wore a secondhand shirt that read WE DON’T LIKE YOU EITHER.” (53)

“Slaughtering swine is repetitive, brutish work, so grueling that three weeks on the factory floor leave no doubt in your mind about why the turnover is 100 percent. Five thousand quit and five thousand are hired every year. You hear people say, they don’t kill pigs in the plant, they kill people. So desperate is the company for workers, its recruiters comb the streets of New York’s immigrant communities, personnel staff members say, and word of mouth has reached Mexico and beyond.” (91-2)

“When Billy Harwood was in solitary confinement, he liked a book to get him through. A guard would come around with a cartful. But when the prisoner asked for a new book, the guard, before handing it to him, liked to tear out the last fifty pages. The guard was a real funny guy.” (107)

“His skin is clear and cancer free, his mind sharp. He maintains a rigorous training regimen throughout the year that includes running, swimming and weight lifting. With a youthful body, the leathered neck of a turtle, sea-kelp eyebrows, an old hat with a button that reads OLDER THAN DIRT and a grimy seagull feather, Reggie Jones is hard to miss from his perch atop the lifeguard stand. He reckons he has made more than a thousand rescues in his career, including saving a swimmer’s toupee and a few sets of dentures.” (310)

“The old songs carry empty memories. Some people realize this later than others. Some never do.” (211)

on that note, i’m going to express what i’m sure will be an unpopular opinion-i waited to hear black messiah and even made plans to buy it, but it was my least favourite thing to hear in the car-i couldn’t really get into it. it felt dood finally squashed his beef with ?uesto and they agreed to blow the dust off the old b-sides in ’98 and slap it together. i liked the one that i’ve heard (really love), but i’m sure i heard it on a whole foods sampler years ago (they did one for 3000 too). i was singing that little hook for hours after, and even made it happen  in the city winery, and i like the track after too. but, there’s just something missing. it feels like there’s a safe distance, like most of the giller prize-winning books that i’ve read, and i understand why, but i’m just not there. mostly, i don’t feel like it’s an album that can be called black messiah because nobody will be saved. that, and how you gonna do that a year after kanye and beyonce made such convincing pushes? anyways.

the underlined conversation here, and in leduff’s work, is the negotiation of life through class barriers. new york is a different place if you have money, no doubt, and while that can be said about every place, the spectrum is just so extreme there because it’s such a ball of everyone’s hopes and fears and aspirations and disappointments and energy, period. it’s all sides of the ball-yes, the apple defies science and shapes in that way, that makes it so special.

“Steve Fine is a thirty-year old who has become a has-been before he ever became anything, on the unemployment line with 290,000 stock options worth nothing.” (213)

“The bars in the Fulton Fish Market bring to mind the drinking establishments of the Alaskan Panhandle. The men are coarse and rough. The language is salty and blasphemous. And when the fish are in, pockets are filled with money.” (170)

“The survivors are most often quitters. They played a few hands, a few horses, maybe even for a few years, but soon enough they realized the game was stacked, the better was supposed to lose, and they just up and quit like an old car battery. Then there are the losers, the people who could never stop. They are the ones whose only company on Christmas night is a can of cold pineapple chunks and dirty fingernails.” (262)

and, done. that sentiment right there may be the reason that i never felt compelled to live in the city. why i always kept it my side piece while i knew that toronto was my settle-down. the difference is, i don’t feel an iota of guilt about it. relationships are complicated. sometimes it takes a little breath of fresh air to come home relaxed and refreshed. and who knows what the future holds, when we commit to evolving by refining the things that will always stay true.

stay woke.


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