Monday, May 17, 2010

New York Noir

I had no idea what to expect.

Late October in New York can be a beautiful thing. The leaves turning in Central Park. The chill in the air making hot coffee a survival necessity. Sights and sensations like this were taking a backseat on this particular day, as I had more pressing things on my mind as I moved north past Columbus Circle toward one of the more famous museums in the city. I'd arrived in Manhattan an hour or so earlier on one of my typical NYC excursions. Usually on such trips I give myself something specific to accomplish; seeing a film in a certain theater or maybe stopping off at a specific book store or movie location. Something concrete. Tangible. And that would happen later, if time permitted. That day was different. That day I wasn't in the city to see something. It was to see some one.

Flashback a couple of months. It's late summer, and life ain't so good. I'm working a dead-end retail gig for what may have been one of the worst companies to ever corporately pimp a college graduate that was too good for the place to begin with. You've probably heard of them. Chances are you've shopped there at least once. Anyway, twelve-hour shifts that lasted past midnight for wages designed to keep a worker desperate and demoralized were the company norm. Situations like this also tend to lead to loneliness. Ever try to date when your work schedule can change on an hourly basis, with no pocket money to cover neither dinner nor a movie? No? Don't bother. It's not a recommended lifestyle to seek out.

These situations require escape, whenever and however one can find it. New York became my escape. My place to run. To breathe and feel and be in-the-moment. Someone at the store told me about the inexpensive Chinatown bus system from Boston to New York. This was before BoltBus and Megabus started, back when there was only one, single, Chinese owned-and-operated company making such an offer: ten bucks each way. I looked (and continue to look) to most every NYC getaway as an adventure. A good friend had gone so far as to relocate to Brooklyn and found what seemed by most anyone's standards to be a great life with a great lady in a great part of the city. And he very kindly presented to me what sounded like a great opportunity -- a job in a field rather like my preferred own (film & video making) at his well-financed and appointed place of business.

The job sounded great and I started making the right calls, preparing my resume and such. I'd decided when I'd applied for the job that sometime soon I'd have to take a quick day trip into Manhattan and have a look at the place that was hiring; see if I could find it, see how it looked, give myself a little sneak preview of the life I'd hopefully be leading in the not too distant future. The job was far from destined to be mine at this point. I still had to jump through all the hoops of a phone interview, written materials and such. But it felt so good to even be considered for the gig... I was feeling pretty strong. Stronger than I had in months.

That's probably what brought me to the Internet. Working in retail had led to that aforementioned loneliness, and I realized after a string of failed dating scenarios that finding Ms. Right while asking if she'd "please take care of her late fees today" was not going to happen in this all-too-brief lifetime. After hearing about something altogether new to me at the time called Craigslist, I considered my "soon-to-be-in NYC" status and decided to place an ad. A personal ad. In the New York listings.

I'd done this a few other times on a few other sites, more as an experiment than anything that could be likened to a search hoping for results. More to the point, I'd often place ads as a form of amusement. Like fishing. Just to see what kind of responses I'd get. Sometimes I'd place ads "in character" of a maniac, using a bizarre sense of language or in the forms of essays with titles like "Ten Great Reasons to Do It in Public Parks." Totally goofball and totally juvenile. Like performance art. Put the shit out there, see what happens. This time, though, was going to be different. Time to speak from the heart, put myself out there, truthfully and honestly. If nobody responds (and I suspected they wouldn't) it wouldn't be for my lack of trying. I dug deep, described myself in detail, listed my wants, my desires, my perceived weaknesses, my known strengths, what I sought in life and what I thought I could provide. Then I hit "post message" and awaited what I thought would be a whole lot of nothing.

...And then she responded. Let's call her "Layla," not her real name.

Layla was single, a couple of years younger. Not originally from New York, having moved there a few years before with her family and now living with her brother in the Bronx, if I remember it correctly. Her brother was a soldier in the Middle East which left the apartment pretty much hers for months at a time. Layla was Hispanic on her father's side and Japanese on her mother's and had responded as such in her first e-mail to me when I mentioned that I was a big fan of Asian film and interested in Japanese culture. Our first e-mails were about our lives in our respective cities. Shared interests, ideals... Getting to know you simple talk. She worked in retail too but in a higher position than mine. A buyer for a well-known Manhattan museum's gift shop. "You know the one with the giant skeleton in the lobby? That one." she'd told me. I'd never been there but told her it sounded like a sweet world she lived in: a good job, nice place, happy life. A bodega was just downstairs and sometimes she'd run down there barefoot for the occasional treat or instant noodle soup and she was popular with her neighbors who'd watch out for her from time to time -- sweet, single girl alone in the urban jungle that she was.

Layla also introduced to me to the work of Haruki Murakami, famed Japanese novelist and jazz aficionado." His work really speaks to me. He writes a lot about loneliness, about being young in the city, seeking human connections. He's got a supernatural sort of feel, sometimes. Writes a lot about music... But it's the yearning in his work that gets to me." This sounded like the author for me. "I know from yearning," I thought to myself. She gave me his website URL and I checked it out, immediately intrigued by the art design, the text, the colors and sounds. Easily navigated, it even features some creative art by the author himself and has neat little virtual cats strolling about the bottom of the frame, adding a comfy vibe to the electronic communique. It's a simple and elegant site and is still online, today. You should have a look, if you're intrigued.

Layla had a dark streak, though, too. She said that she loved her Mother but that the woman was old=fashioned and as such had very old-fashioned ideas about her daughter's life. She hemmed to the old ways, was very controlling and even considered an arranged marriage to be the proper way to a relationship of longevity. "I don't wish my Mother were dead, but I wouldn't mind if she'd just vanish like my Dad did." I can't recall where his story had lead but I do recall him no longer being in the picture as a patriarchal influence.

Something about the Internet has always given me pause. The fact that when people meet and communicate, you don't really know what you're getting. Someone who seems like a calm, collected, genial sort can often turn out to be as unpredictable and dangerous as the unctuous drunk at the end of the bar. This is true of both sexes. And as I became fond of saying after a couple of meetings with women online, "Nothing counts until the face-to face." That's when a lot of things become clear. The smile, the warmth, the body language, the courtesy, the truth. These things are much harder to fake in-person than online. The Internet, we all know, can be an illusion used to make you who you purport to be rather than who you are. And really, the Internet being what it is, a person can just use their anonymity to vanish into thin air once they tire of the game. Honesty can be hard to come by. So, that in mind, I must admit to keeping a certain amount of emotional distance with Layla. I was always truthful and honest, but I'm often the kind of guy who keeps some more personal things close to the vest until I'm comfortable enough to let it all out. At some point we exchanged photos. She referred to me as "cute" (I can't hear that one often enough, though I don't often feel it's true) and she was quite a knockout, herself. Long black hair, bright eyes, great smile, a street smart combination of cultures and attitudes.

After a few e-mails we began talking on the phone, often late into the night and about anything and everything no matter the context or topic. On one of our first calls, she'd hit a nerve of mine that dug deep...

"This is a tough town. You'd better be ready for it, if the job comes through for you."
"I am," I replied. "I've been training for New York life for a couple of years, now."
"And we women can be harsh. You'd better have a lot to give a woman."

I wasn't sure how to respond to that. Granted, I had almost nothing tangible to offer. Nothing of value, no job just yet, no money, nowhere to live... though I'd looked at Roosevelt Island a little.

"We have our pick of the best here, Matty. The best looking, the best educated, the best finances, the best in bed... Anyone less than perfect, why should we bother?" "Well, at least I'm a good fella," I offered. "Truthful, warm and genuinely decent."
"Hah! So what? Lots of men are. You'd better get real if you expect to get someone in this city. If you're not perfect you're out the door, honey. What do you have to offer?"

I was (and still am) far from perfect by my own standards and most other people's, I'd assume. And though I'm a lot further along nowadays, I was at rock bottom in the part of my life in which I'd heard these words from Layla. A shell of a man is what I was and those words cut straight through me like knives. I felt my world start closing in on me. What did I have to offer? Not a whole lot, realistically. Everything she said had the terrible ring of unavoidable truth. My depression threw its weight on me right then and there... I remember the sensation of a sudden heat as my temperature rose, my pulse quickening with the deepest sorrow... "I really don't have anything to offer," I thought to myself. "Who am I kidding? This is pointless..." It's amazing how fast the darkness of negativity can leap upon you when it's let out of the cage. "I, uh... Yeah, I'm tired... I'm gonna let you go and head off to bed," I told her.

Suddenly on the turn of a dime, Layla sounded as if she suddenly realized what her words had done to me. Something in my tone, my newly-wavering voice. I think she'd heard how crestfallen I'd become in that moment. "No, no, wait baby... Don't leave me," she cried out. And she sounded different, too. Like a similarly saddened woman who truly didn't want me to disappear after such an exchange. "I didn't mean that sweetness has no value. I'm sorry." We got past it and talked for a while more before whispering to one another more sweetly and suggestively, off to sleep. "Night night, Laylas..." "Nighty night, Matty..."

This went on for a few weeks. We'd discuss the possibility of my coming to stay with her in the city for a long weekend coming up and her coming to Boston for the first time. We'd get under our covers in unison in our beds so many miles apart and... sometimes, yes, we'd get into a little naughty talk. (We were adults and entitled to whatever pleasures we could find on such long nights. Life is short, you know?)

It turned out the job I'd wanted was soon no longer available, the manager having decided to promote from-within rather than hire someone from the outside. My friend in Brooklyn was very apologetic that things didn't end up coming together, explaining that I was probably better off considering the particular person I'd be working for and all. "No hard feelings," I assured him. "Something else will come up. I'll get to NYC someday, don't you worry." Not long after that, the scenario that I foresaw came to be... Layla disappeared.

No more e-mails, no more calls. I'd tried calling her a few times, left a few messages that went unreturned. But I'd sort of thought this might happen... again, the nature of the Internet being what it was. In the coming days I found myself in a bookstore and decided to check something out by this author Layla had recommended to me, this Haruki Murakami. Looking over the write-ups on the book jackets, I'd decided that the novel Dance Dance Dance sounded the most promising...

"In this propulsive novel by the author of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Elephant Vanishes, one of the most idiosyncratically brilliant writers at work in any language fuses science fiction, the hard-boiled thriller, and white-hot satire into a new element of the literary periodic table. As he searches for a mysteriously vanished girlfriend, Haruki Murakami's protagonist plunges into a wind tunnel of sexual violence and metaphysical dread in which he collides with call girls; plays chaperone to a lovely teenaged psychic; and receives cryptic instructions from a shabby but oracular Sheep Man. Dance Dance Dance is a tense, poignant, and often hilarious ride through the cultural Cuisinart that is contemporary Japan, a place where everything that is not up for sale is up for grabs."

This all sounded intriguing. I bought a copy and ended up loving it, eventually going on to read every English-translated Murakami book and essay I could get my hands on. The surreality, the pop art, lit and music references, the window into another culture that I so respected, the humanity... I was hooked from Dance Dance Dance, on. Much of Murakami's work involves people appearing and vanishing from other people's lives, and the searches for closure of the protagonists. And that got me thinking. I had no sense of closure from my time knowing Layla. She, too, just disappeared. That was her right, certainly. Life holds no promises and one must learn to let go when things don't go their particular way. And yet, I did think about trying to find her on one of my trips to New York. Not to bother her in any way, but to thank her. To thank her for her time, to thank her for introducing me to the author who's work had such a profound effect upon me, and to let her know that all was well. Maybe I'd get to see her smile that great smile, in-person. That would be fine. That would be a silver lining on a cloudy day.

Flashforward back to Late October. She'd told me she was a buyer at that museum gift shop. I figured if I got into NYC at about 11:00 am, it'd take me an hour or so to get uptown and maybe I'd see her when she wasn't too busy at work. I got off the subway and moved north past Columbus Circle toward the aforementioned famous museum. There were helicopters all through the sky over Central Park and a slight terror of confusion as people on the street whispered things like "airplane" and "crashed on the East Side." It turned out this was the day a few years back where a professional baseball player had lost control of his private plane and collided with an apartment building in the East 80's. Overcast clouds gave the moment a surreal quality as the dozen or so news choppers hovered all over the area. A little dark, a little ominous.

I found my way to the museum and entered the gift shop where people were talking about what had happened outside. I checked myself out in a window reflection, making sure I wasn't too unpresentable.

"Can I help you?" asked the nearby gift shop employee. She approached me with a helpful smile. Bright haired, probably in her late 40's or early 50's, stylish and sincere.
"Hi, just looking around... I was wondering, Is Layla working today?"


"Layla. One of your buyers?"

"We don't have a Layla working here."

She went on the say that she'd been working at the gift shop for the last four years and knew the buyers well, who were men. As far as she knew, there had never been any Laylas working there, ever.

Walking outside again a few minutes later, a few of the helicopters were still doing their laps high above the park. A heavy rain began pouring almost immediately and I didn't have an umbrella on me. A passing street vendor was selling them for five dollars apiece. I paid him a fiver and opened one up, crossing into Central Park as others hid under eaves and doorways trying not to get soaked in the falling showers. A few dozen yards into my walk through the park, I realized that I was fine with how things had just gone. I'd always considered the possibility that it would all go down that way. My mind works in a way that tries to see various conceivable outcomes to various situations, so I knew that the possibility that Layla wasn't being truthful about something was in fact a distinct possibility. And in the end, it didn't matter so much...

I didn't hold a grudge, I didn't much feel used or abandoned. After all, I had my guard up to a certain extent as well. In fact, if there was any sorrow in my heart, it was more for her. For not being able to let someone in as I had prepared to be. I was sorry that I couldn't thank her. For whatever moments we'd shared, for introducing me to a great author whom I'm still a fan of to this day... I have no idea what she was truthful about and what she wasn't. Did she really live in the Bronx? Were the photos she sent me really of her? Did she have a brother? Or was she maybe married? With kids? Was she a little nutty? Or just lonely? How much was reality and how much was fantasy? What was the truth? Well... the truth was, I'd never know.

And truthfully, I was pretty much fine with it. There might have been a darkening sky above me that day and heavy rain falling from above. And maybe the hero of this New York Noir didn't get the girl in the end. But then again Noir heroes rarely do get the girl in the end, do they? Lies were told. But some truths were told, too. And a connection was made, be it however brief, and a life was changed through a connected experience through literature. Possibly for the better. Hopefully two lives were changed, possibly for the better... if only for a little while.

That's a sort of a silver lining on a cloudy day, right there.

Theatrical Reviews
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ****
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) ****
Metropolis (1927, Germany) ****
Back to the Future (1985) ****
Rashomon (1950, Japan) ****
Hubble 3D (IMAX) ***1/2
The Lost Skeleton Returns Again ***
Breathless (1950, France) ***
Knight and Day ***
The Runaways ***
Iron Man 2 ***
Splice ***
Salt ***
Kick Ass **1/2
The Last Airbender **

The Films of Akira Kurosawa
High and Low (1963) ****
Red Beard (1964) ***
Dodes'Ka-Den (1970) ***
Dersu Uzala (1975) ****
Kagemusha (1980) ****
Ran (1985) ****
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) ****

DVD/Home Video
Mystery Train: The Criterion Collection ****
North By Northwest (1959) ****
On The Waterfront (1954) ****
Carlito's Way (1993) ****
Key Largo (1948) ****
Smoke (1995) ****
Blue In The Face (1995) ****
Bodyguards and Assassins (Hong Kong) ***1/2
Miami Vice: The Prodigal Son (1985) ***1/2
Synecdoche, New York (2008) ***1/2
The Road Warrior (1981) ***1/2
The Big Sleep (1946) ***1/2
The Verdict (1982) ***1/2
Manhunter (1985) ***1/2
Kikujiro (Japan) ***1/2
Bird (1988) ***1/2
Iron Man ***1/2
2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) ***
Big Bang Love: Juvenile A (Japan, 2005) ***
Futurama: Into The Wild Green Yonder ***
Henry Rollins: You Saw Me Up There! ***
Henry Rollins: San Francisco 1990 ***
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) ***
The Night of the Hunter (1955) ***
Shanghai Triad (1994, China) ***
Kaiju Big Battel: All Out War ***
Lust, Caution (2008, China) ***
Cassandra's Dream (2007) ***
The Last Starfighter (1984) ***
Time (2006, South Korea) ***
X-Men Origins: Wolverine ***
Prince of the City (1981) ***
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) ***
44 Minutes (TV, 2002) ***
Little Big Soldier (HK) ***
Kids Return (Japan) ***
The Big Heat (1953) ***
Sea of Love (1989) ***
Shakedown (1988) ***
Public Enemies ***
Dark City (1998) ***
14 Blades (HK) ***
Trucker (2008) ***
Ip Man 2 (HK) ***
Killshot (2008) ***
24: Season 7 ***
Kaiju Big Battel: More Better Fighto! **1/2
A Scene at the Sea (Japan) **1/2
The Storm Warriors (HK) **1/2
Miami Vice: Season 5 **1/2
Night Moves (1976) **1/2
Nighthawks (1981) **1/2
Predator 2 (1990) **1/2
Sunshine (2007) **1/2
Dune (1984) **1/2
Julia (2008) **1/2
Deception **
Hell Ride **
Killing Me Softly *1/2
Bodyguard Kiba 2 (2005, Japan) *1/2

Hail Columbia (1981) ***1/2
The Dream Is Alive (1985) ****
Blue Planet (1990) ***
Destiny In Space (1994) ***1/2
Mission To Mir (1997) ***
Space Station 3D (2002) ***1/2
Magnificent Desolation (2007) ***

The Dark Knight **1/2

How To Go To Hell (Matt Groening) ****
Boston Noir (Dennis Lehane, Editor) ***1/2
Will & Abe's Guide to the Universe (Matt Groening) ***
Perchance To Dream (Robert B. Parker) ***
Hear The Wind Sing (Haruki Murakami) ***
Pinball, 1973 (Haruki Murakami) ***
Tales From The Scriptorium (Paul Auster) **

Music/Spoken Word
Dexter Gordon: Round Midnight Original Soundtrack (1986) ****
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - 2010 Remasters ****
Sam & Dave: The Best of Sam & Dave (1969) ****

mc chris: Part Six; Parts 1, 2 & 3 (2009) ****

Eric Clapton: Crossroads Box Set (1988) ****
Beastie Boys: Paul's Boutique (1989) ****
Henry Rollins: Get in the Van (1999) ****
John Lee Hooker: The Healer (1989) ****
John Coltrane: Blue Train (1957) ****
Henry Rollins: Live At McCabe's ****
Jim Morrison and The Doors: An American Prayer (1978) ***1/2
Jimmy Vaughan: Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites ***1/2
Tony Schwartz: The New York Taxi Driver (1962) ***1/2
Henry Rollins: Live at the Westbeth Theater ***1/2
The Jeff Healey Band: See The Light (1988) ***1/2
Henry Rollins: Spoken Word Guy (2010) ***1/2
The Best of The Doors (1985) ***1/2
Eric Clapton: August (1987) ***1/2
Henry Rollins: Sweatbox ***1/2
Bobby "Blue" Bland: Blues You Can Use (1987) ***
Henry Rollins: Short Walk On A Long Pier ***
Rufus Thomas: Did You Heard Me? (1972) ***
Bobby Bland: Blues You Can USe (1979) ***
David Lynch Presents: Fox Bat Strategy ***
Mark Knopfler: Comfort and Joy (1985) ***
Eric Clapton: Behind the Sun (1985) ***
Bob Dylan: Street Legal (1978) ***
Henry Rollins: Big Ugly Mouth ***
mc chris: Is Dead (2008) ***
mc chris: Apple Tummy (2009) **1/2
mc chris: Goes To Hell (2010) **1/2
Liz Phair: Funstyle (2010) **1/2

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review ( ****
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Review ( ***
Avatar Review ( ***
Baby's Day Out Review ( ***1/2