New Year’s Eve Part II

My novel, Zen Mississippi, takes place (largely)  in a fictional town called Lyonness near the Alabama/Mississippi state line. I based this town on some of the rural communities I used to drive through when I was living in Columbus, MS, particularly those along US Highway 82 in Pickens County, Alabama. I had a friend and bandmate at that time who was from Ethelsville, in that county. Ethelsville is actually much smaller than what I imagine Lyonness to be, but its location and topography is very much what I had in mind when I was writing the book (except on the MS side of the line instead of the AL side). I always had a fascination with that whole area. There is something odd and mystical about it.

Seven or eight years ago, when I was living in New York and the book was “in process,” some friends of mine introduced me to their new roommate, Daniel, and they told me he was from Alabama. I asked him where in Alabama he was from, and he was quite surprised that I had actually heard of Ethelsville and knew where it was, and that I actually knew someone else who was from Ethelsville. As I mentioned in a previous post, this town has a population of about 80 people.

So years went by, and I frequently saw Daniel at parties and around town. In a coincidence that is only mildly related to this story, I had a neighbor in my building that also knew Daniel because they’d gone to the Alabama State Math & Science high school in Mobile together (tangentially related weirdness: when I met THAT guy, it was not in my  building but at a show, and we discovered by casually talking that we were not only both originally from Alabama but also lived in the same building).

Then I moved back to Alabama a few months ago, and I sent Daniel a note saying we should hang out when he comes home to visit. He replied that I should come to his family’s New Years Eve party because it’s a big blowout. This was during the summer. By December, I almost entirely forgot about this invitation.

A few weeks ago, through mutual friends in Birmingham, I met a dude named Charlie. We have been around each other a few times but haven’t talked much. We have a lot of friends in common. I started hearing things about a New Year’s Eve party at Charlie’s parents’ farm, but I didn’t think I knew Charlie well enough to invite myself. But then I saw the event listing on Facebook, and I noticed this party was in Ethelsville. Then I noticed Charlie and Daniel were both listed as hosts and that they had the same last name. With some digging, I confirmed that they were brothers, and I realized I had actually already been invited to this party months ago.

But the strings of coincidences don’t actually even end there, though this next part doesn’t really have to do with the New Year’s Eve party so much.

During the time when I was living in Mississippi, attending MUW, I had a few poems published in the college literary magazine. I got a fan letter from a girl who was then in high school, and I wrote her back.  And then I never heard from her again, until one day she noticed that I posted a comment on Daniel’s facebook wall. This is an excerpt from an actual conversation I had with her.

Me: What a small world this is. So you know Daniel. And I know Daniel because he lived with some friends of mine in New York. AND he went to high school in Mobile with one of my neighbors. And I am obsessed with Pickens County.

Her: Daniel and I went to high school together. It was because of his status comment that I saw you. Oh, and your ex-wife is my best friend’s sister.

The fan girl, unfortunately, could not make it to the party this year, but you can see that this whole weird thing simply deepened the intrigue that led me to attend. And then, almost as an afterthought, this also all ties back to my ex-wife Doris who hardly even talks to me anymore (for good reason, but that’s another long story).

AND to bring it all back around, my college friend who was from Ethelsville was one of the very few people who actually attended my wedding, and in fact, now that I think about it, he was likely the person to first introduce me to Doris.

Diagram below for those who have trouble following this:


Strangers Waiting for a Train That Never Arrives

The other day, I was at the 2nd Ave F station, and there was one of those unintelligible announcements over the intercom. I asked a woman standing nearby if she understood what was said, and she didn’t. So I said I would go upstairs and see if there were any signs. When I came back, the woman—who was about my age and sort of attractive in a thin, hippie way—was looking for me. Suddenly I realized that I was taking charge of this situation, and she was depending on me for information. I told her what I had found out, which was that, due to flooding, the F wasn’t going to Queens, and you have to transfer to another train at 34th Street.

After a few minutes, still no train, another announcement came on. It was still nearly impossible to decipher, but certain parts of it sounded distinctly different from the sign I had read. The two of us both decided we’d take a cab because there was no telling when/if a train was going to show up. She offered to share a cab, but my apartment was a little out of the way of her destination, which was 6th Ave, in the 50s. It occurred to me that she was probably stunned and grateful that someone actually bothered to talk to her in the subway. Perhaps I imagined that she was also somewhat attracted to me. I’m really not so narcissistic as to think this about every strange woman I manage to talk to, but her manner indicated a certain amount of hope and desire.

Battery Park

It’s 9 am, and I’m walking against the grain, against the hordes of commuters going to work, passing west over the north side of Ground Zero. There aren’t as many suits as I might have expected. I glance over each row of faces as I pass. None of them are hers.

I cross down into Battery Park, following a group of tourists who are headed toward Clinton Castle. At the bay’s edge, I have a clear view of the Statue of Liberty, so gracious and majestic still, though she’s been having a hard time of late with so much of what she stands for being hypocritically challenged by ignorant or disingenuous fearmongers and warmongers.

It was twenty years ago to the month, if not to the date, when I last explored this area, on vacation with my family. Being in New York then was like living in a dream. It’s still that way for me sometimes, when I happen to pass through Times Square late at night or early in the morning, while the crowds are sleeping in nearby hotels. This is one of those moments. I’m thinking about taking the Staten Island Ferry, just for the hell of it, but I decide I’ll save that adventure for another day. I’ve already strayed far enough from home.

Bed-Stuy Reflections

It is interesting to me how much New York is segregated by race. Having grown up in Alabama, I saw a lot of this, but I want to think New York is so much more civilized. Of course, I know it isn’t. I saw “Do the Right Thing,” which takes place in the neighborhood where I live and paints a fairly accurate picture of what the neighborhood is like.

I live in a neighborhood of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvessant, or Bed-Stuy. It is a very large, mostly black, mostly lower class neighborhood. One of the main drags, which runs about four blocks south of my block, is Fulton Street, which was apparently one of the main thoroughfares of the Underground Railroad. In fact, there is a movement afoot (getting resistance from some of the other neighborhood) to rename the street Harriet Tubman Boulevard or something of that nature.

Friends of mine tell me that lots of people, by which they mean white people, are moving to Bed-Stuy these days, but still I rarely see another white face. When I do, they seem to disappear into their apartment buildings quickly and silently as ghosts. Sometimes, I do get strange looks when I walk down the street, probably due more to the way I dress than the color of my skin. But I can’t help wondering if it’s just because I’m white, and I’m walking around as if I live here. And I do live here, at least for the time being.

Once, walking down Fulton Street, I passed three white cops. I saw one of them point at me, and I’m sure I heard him say, “There’s a pioneer.” I understand that this is the local vernacular for white people, especially young people and artists, moving into questionable neighborhoods, typically neighborhoods that are mostly poor and black or Hispanic. But the term caused me to reflect on its several meanings. I like thinking of myself as a pioneer. It suits me.

The pattern of gentrification appears to begin with artist types looking for cheap quarters. The next step is that since a neighborhood has started to fill up with artists, art events start happening, followed by bars, restaurants and nightclubs. People start buying up and renovating property. The hipsteratti (I just made that up – cute, right? I think it’s clear whom I mean) move in. Before you know it rent is as high as in the Village, the artists start looking for another ghetto, and the pattern begins again. This is something that everyone in New York knows and accepts as part of life.