O, Small-Bany! Part 3: Summer

Notes from in between meditation-app alerts.

Elisa Albert | Longreads | February 2019 | 17 minutes (4,343 words)

They never empty the dedicated shitcan in the dog park. It’s always full to the brim, overflowing with poop bags, swarming with flies and wasps. Which is odd, because all the other trash cans get emptied on the regular, and the fields are mown like clockwork, every other week. Dilapidated Department of General Services carts are often seen cruising around, taking care of park business. So what’s up with the perpetually overflowing dog park shitcan? It’s the enduring mystery of summer. You can smell it from forty paces in the infernal heat.

I call the DGS every couple days to complain about the overflowing shitcan, and always speak to the same lady. We are buds.

Hey, so the poop-bag thing still hasn’t been dealt with, I say.

Yeah, she says. Okay, gotcha. I’ll let them know.

I imagine writing a short story about our relationship, me and the DGS lady. About how we eventually come to share some singular kinship based on our limited exchanges. About how our different lives are ultimately defined by a common emotional struggles. Very Raymond Carver. Maybe we eventually have a fight, or a misunderstanding. Maybe we carry private knowledge of one another like a sacred oath, far into the future. Maybe we pass on the street and don’t register a thing.

***

I keep getting meditation notifications on my phone from an app I downloaded months ago. Buzz: time to meditate. I resolutely ignore these notifications, have been ignoring them since precisely one day after I downloaded the app, but I never turn them off. To turn them off (or to delete the app altogether) would be to admit that I’m never going to meditate, and what kind of sociopath refuses to meditate? Not me: I definitely meditate. Just not right now.

***

Still no progress on getting the city to employ basic tools for slowing drivers and protecting pedestrians in the horrible crosswalk leading into the park, though I continue to send scathing letters to the Mayor and the Council-people and Neighborhood Associations and the Park Conservancy. Lately I’ve gone super grassroots: I simply wave down speeding cars.

I call the DGS every couple days to complain about the overflowing shitcan, and always speak to the same lady. We are buds.

When they lower their windows, I say Hey there, hi, hello, yes, just want to make sure you’re aware that the speed limit in the park is 20! It’s really scary to be a pedestrian in our public park when you’re going two or three times that! Please drive safely! Thanks, have a great day!

 

To which, more often than not, they respond Go fuck yourself, you fucking bitch, and put pedal to metal.

***

Just beyond the horrible crosswalk where we try daily not to die is a 20-foot tall monument to the eighteenth century bard Robert Burns, National Poet of Scotland. You probably know him from “Auld Lang Syne,” the New Year’s Eve traditional. “Should old acquaintance be forgot” etc. Remember Billy Crystal, doing his wildest neurotic stereotype at the end of “When Harry Met Sally…”? What does this song mean I don’t know what this song means my whole life I been hearing this song and I don’t know what this song means does it mean we should forget old friends or does it mean that we should remember old friends which is impossible because we already forgot!?

I think old acquaintance should definitely be forgot, but I’m a flaming curmudgeon, somewhat willing to sustain acquaintance in “real” time/space but unwilling to sustain acquaintance in virtual time/space. It’s some kind of stubborn, self-abnegating bullshit, no doubt. Why not give in to the virtual life, in all its glory? Why not keep abreast of everyone I’ve ever met, whilst forcing all of them to keep abreast of me? Why not banter and exchange and schmooze in virtual space, uphold the virtual discourse, make my thoughts and opinions and perspective and musings and goings-on known and known and known? I am cool to let old acquaintance be forgot. I wonder what Ol’ Rabbie Burns would think of social media.

He was a big ol’ star, Burns was. John Steinbeck borrowed the title “Of Mice and Men” from him, Bob Dylan named “A Red, Red Rose” the most influential lyric of his life, and JD Salinger titled “Catcher in the Rye” after Holden Caulfield’s misinterpretation of Burns’ “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” There’s even a crater on Mercury named for him! Now that’s some posterity, right there. Burns died at 37 in 1796. Through his 12 children, he has over 600 living descendants today. That’s a lot of ejaculate giving way to a lot more ejaculate. That’s a lot of “likes”. Way to go, Burns. Quite the influencer, aren’t we.

***

Below Burns is a bench we dedicated to my husband’s brother Arthur, who dropped dead of a heart attack last year. He lived with his faithful dog on the rural tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, on the eastern shore, and was driving himself to the emergency room when he expired. He very considerately steered himself off the road before he lost consciousness, because that’s exactly the kind of guy he was.

Buzz: Meditation Alert. No! Shut up, App. God.

The plaque on Arthur’s bench bears his name and the years he lived. It says in loving memory. It says cherished brother, uncle, son, friend, environmental scientist, and friend. It says A leaf on the wind, which was sort of his mantra. Where do we want to go for dinner? Pizza, Mexican, Sushi? Everyone always jockeying for their preferred destination, and there Arthur’d be, poised to do whatever everyone else wanted. “I am but a leaf on the wind,” he’d say, his face radiating a generally bemused expression.

***

A few weeks ago I found a flat magnet stuck to the side of the Burns monument. It pictures Osip Mandelstam’s mugshot, and a quote: “Somewhere black earth holds bone/ No one holds this poet’s tongue.”

I took it. It occurred to me later that I should have left it where I found it, but it remains stuck to the radiator cover in my dining room. Do as I say, children, not as I do.

Burns is cool if you like your poets famous and flashy and fertile and memorialized in stone and metal, but Mandelstam is more my jam: An independent thinker, at odds with his time and his government. He refused to toe any party line, emphasizing instead the importance of intuition and individualism. Persecuted by Stalin and sent into exile, Mandelstam froze and starved to death in a “corrective work camp” in Russia’s Far East in 1938. No known descendants, but in 1977 a soviet astronomer did discover and name a minor planet after him: 3461 Mandelstam. A minor planet! That’s not nothing! I can think of several ambitious poets who’d kill for a minor planet.

Whoever put Mandelstam on Burns must have had a good sense of humor. The more interesting poet dies alone and shivering and miserable in the prison camp, people. The more interesting poet is stuck like gum to the bottom of the big man’s shoe. Mandelstam’s mugshot is a kind of taunt, his chin lifted in defiance. Yeah, alright Burns, ya likable sellout, nice 20-foot-tall monument, whatever, sure. Cool how billions of people usher in each new calendar year by parroting your banal anthem, great, whatever, but everyone knows real poets have to suffer and die in obscurity.

***

There’s a young lady sitting on Arthur’s bench today. She’s cute and contemplative and I see him there next to her, giving me a raised eyebrow and a little salute, like: Nice setup I got here, huh?

Arthur was not what you might call a ladies’ man. On the Burns-Mandelstam continuum, he was more of a Mandelstam. He had no followers, so to speak, but to know him was to adore him. It rankles the fuck out of me that he died alone.

Hallo, dahling, I whisper whenever I walk past his bench. I like imagining him there, under the big old tree, cheerfully contemplating Burns and the horrible crosswalk where we try daily not to die. Burns is actually kind of angled toward Arthur, lost in his own reverie, as though trying to compose some verse about so fine a man.

***

There’s been a rash of violence in the neighborhood this summer. A fatal stabbing outside Lark Tavern, down the street from Ben and Jerry’s. Whole block was cordoned off in the morning. Word traveled fast. The girl who owns the jewelry shop said it was self defense: this one guy who worked at Bombers Burritos was beating up his girlfriend on the regular and this other guy told him he’d better quit it, or else. So the first guy hired four dudes to beat up the second guy, who was drinking at the Tavern that night. When the four hired dudes showed up and started something, everyone got kicked out of the Tavern, so they took it to the street, where it turned out that the dude who was supposed to get beat up had a knife on him, and he stabbed the four hired brutes in self-defense. But one of the brutes died from his injuries, so Mr. Self-Defense was in jail now.


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In the park I tell Larry the firefighter: Hey, I’m just glad it was a good old-fashioned fatality not involving guns, and he laughs: I know, right? And we agree that people who don’t appreciate dark humor have probably just never experienced anything truly heinous in their lives. Then we wonder at the overflowing shitcan.

***

Fourth of July was like a war zone around here. New York State legalized fireworks for any and every yahoo, so makeshift stands and tents sprang up all over to sell that shit. There was the usual massive official display over Empire Plaza, but ancillary explosions kept going off all night long. Then there were the gunshots, and it was hard to tell the difference. Six people were shot in Arbor Hill, and one stabbed. None of the people who were shot died, but the stabbing victim did: 29 years old and a lovely guy, according to his neighbors. Two days later, another stabbing death, a couple blocks away. Massive shrine set up there now. We drive by it on our way off the highway, passing, too, as ever, all the abandoned houses and lots in Arbor Hill.

A Lyft driver tells me, I got lots of friends in law enforcement and lemme tell you, they ain’t telling us the half of what’s going on around here. We don’t know the half.

I keep getting meditation notifications on my phone from an app I downloaded months ago. Buzz: time to meditate. I resolutely ignore these notifications.

It’s often posited that people go crazy in the heat. The other day a shirtless guy came sauntering through the field, sweating profusely and talking to himself whilst swinging nunchuks. Nunchuks. We all gave him a wide berth. Even the dogs stopped to stare. What the actual fuck, someone said.

There are often planes flying very low overhead. Military trainings. Airport circlings. Helicopters heading to or from Albany Med. Unsettling.

***

Arthur was a superlative uncle. We drew up a will and named him guardian of our kid, should we both die prematurely and simultaneously. There was no one else even remotely in the running. I still have a voicemail he left for me on our shared birthday. He spoke with a sweet lilt, articulating each syllable with special precision: “Hel-lo, E-lisa!” Why didn’t I send him more kid art? Why didn’t we spend every single one of our vacations down on the Barrier Islands with him? Because we just assumed there would be more time, that’s all.

The animal psychic I spoke to on the phone a few months ago, after our first dog was killed kept saying Gee, that’s a lot of loss. Gee, you’ve experienced a lot of loss.

More than most, I guess, but certainly not as much as some. Don’t jinx me, lady. I’m holding steady on the loss. At some point I will have had my allotment, right? Then the fates will leave me be: isn’t that how it works?

***

The weather has been weird, even for the fact that weird is the new normal. Variable by 30-degree margins, day-to-day. Dramatic passing thunderstorms, brain-fogging humidity, cicadas screaming, 48-hour cold snaps, your basic angry-God stuff.

In the apartment building next door lives a couple whose industrial air conditioning unit abuts our back door. They keep that thing going full blast, on high dystopian roar, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, starting promptly on the first of June, regardless of the outside temperature.

The house on the other side used to be Robert and Alton’s. Alton was a professor of theater, and Robert a professor of classics. They met in line at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1950s. It’s difficult to imagine the realities inherent in homosexual existence 70 years ago. I can remember a bit about what it was like when i was a kid — the jokes, the innuendo, the teasing, the marginalization — even in relatively progressive, “tolerant” circles, and that was bad enough.

When we moved in, Robert and Alton had us for dinner and gave us a wealth of children’s books about mythology. After Alton died we made Robert a quiche and our tiny boy brought his banjo and sang a rather haunting rendition of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” Robert moved out shortly thereafter, having (I assume) nothing to do with the folk song. It was just too much house, too many stairs, for a widower in his late 80s. At the estate sale, I bought a small painting of flowers in a gilded frame, as well as a stack of paperback autobiographies of prima ballerinas, and a framed movie poster from the 1940’s. Then the house sat empty for a few years. There was a flood at one point. Water poured out of the bay window. And a squirrel was spotted sitting in the parlor floor window another time, living the high life, sort of taunting passersby. Now a 30-something white couple are gut-renovating the place. It will become their “dream house,” they tell us. There’s a horrible racket every day starting much too early, and a thick dusting of demolition debris (or as I like to call it: Cancer) all over our garden and deck. We’re trying not to loathe them, but some days it’s a struggle.

BUZZ: time to meditate.

***

There’s been a steamy thunderstorm, so now the shitbag situation is like a hearty, simmering shitstew. It’s been a while since I talked to my girl at DGS, so I call and leave a message.

Hey girl. How’s it going? Wondering about that shitcan situation. And by the way, unrelated, FYI, the flag’s still at half-mast?

They lowered it when Barbara Bush died, back in April, and seem to have forgotten about it.

***

“Nxivm” is all over the news these days, some creepy-ass sex-trafficking cult situation getting national coverage for the faintest whiff of minor celebrity involved. Far-flung friends mention it on the regular. Hey, how ‘bout that Albany cult! It’s the only time anyone reads about Albany in national news. It is very Albany, this cult, what with the goings-on in office parks and mediocre day-spas in mini-malls and female-branding ceremonies in cheese-ball McMansion basements and whatnot. Or maybe what I mean by “Albany” is “America”.

When we lived in Europe we met lots of people who are bonkers mad crazy in love with their ideas about America. They drive Route 66 on their honeymoons and wear t-shirts emblazoned with Miami/Detroit/Las Vegas/Venice Beach/Brooklyn/Nashville/Chicago/NYC/Seattle. When they come to visit they want to gawk at the urban ruins, the abandoned houses, and the oldest building in Albany, constructed in 1728, which stands (abandoned) alongside an expansive parking lot under a pointless, deteriorating highway. They are hypnotized by how careless and wasteful we Americans are, how we discard everything, including our own history, and just plow on heedlessly. How we have so much space, so much endless freaking room to just throw away and start again. A ruined city, an abandoned mess of a city? No problem, to hell with it, build a new suburb, a new subdivision, and new mall, a new supermarket, new gas stations, new highways. We can just keep going like this forever, can’t we??

Apparently the Albany Dump will be filled to capacity by the year 2021, and no one is quite sure what the plan is after that.

I spent a half-hour the other day driving around this nearby office park called “Corporate Woods,” looking for its huge irony-free sign to photograph and post on insta. This would be funny, I intended to caption it, if it were a MOTHERFUCKING JOKE. But I couldn’t find the huge sign. Could’ve sworn I’d driven by it before, but it was like the Bermuda Triangle in there, so eventually I gave up and got the hell out.

***

Today a huge Doberman with intact balls comes over to where I’m sitting in the shady part of the field, lifts his leg, and takes a generous piss all over me. There is wet warmth seeping down my back before I understand what’s happening. I’m enraged. I’m not pissed off, I say, to make my kid laugh, I’m pissed on. The dog’s owner is across the field, chatting obliviously on her phone. I want to say: Teach your dog some fucking manners, but instead I say: “Um, your dog just peed on me?”

“Oops,” she says, giggling. “Sorry.”

I head home to take a shower, my swell sundress soaked in dog piss.

And now, great, here comes the furiously scowling lady from around the block, wearing her usual cemented grimace. She owns the building next door, where the A/C freaks live. Not sure why she hates me, but I am more than capable of coming up with long lists of reasons to hate myself, so how can I blame her? Probably she hates me because last year, when we had to go halvsies on the falling-down old fence between our yards, I physically blocked her contractor from chain-sawing all to shit the huge root of the enormous healthy beautiful maple on the property line. I delivered an impassioned speech on behalf of the tree, appealing first to common sense (Haven’t you read The Lorax!?), then to spirituality (This tree is older than your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother!) and then, when neither inspired mercy, to crass materialism (Our property values are dependent on the presence of beautiful old trees like this one; it’s a real commodity!).

Apparently the Albany Dump will be filled to capacity by the year 2021, and no one is quite sure what the plan is after that.

I hate trees, said the contractor in his thick Russian monotone, and the scowling neighbor lady scowled so hard I half-expected her face might burst into flames and melt right off, but the tree was left to live.

“Hello,” I say to the scowling neighbor lady. Something has come over me. I am dripping in Doberman piss. I do not want to be at odds with my neighbors! Life is too short! “I’m wondering if I’ve wronged you in some way,” I say, “because you seem very angry with me, and I’m really sorry if I’ve done you wrong.”

She keeps right on walking.

“I think we have different personalities,” she hisses over her shoulder.

“Have a beautiful day!” I call after her. Yes, darling, I should rather hope that we have different personalities.

Buzz: meditate. Shut up! Fuck off!

***

For a while, in the wake of Arthur’s disappearance from the surface world, our kid became obsessed with curating a playlist in memoriam. Arthur’s Funirol, he titled it. “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as sung by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, that Hawaiian dude with the Ukulele, a maudlin cover of “Hey Hey My My,” the folk classic “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” Coldplay’s “Everglow.” It’s brutal. Each track is a killer, but we listen to it over and over.

After the memorial service, a relative held forth on how to talk to children about death: “Tell them the truth,” he shrugged.

“Oh?” I said. “And what’s that, pray tell?” I was excited to learn, at long last, the Truth about death.

“That there’s nothing,” he said. “It’s The End!”

I laughed in his face. “Wow,” I said. “How super duper cool that you know that! How like totally incredible that you know that.”

I prefer to tell my kid a different truth, ready for it? It’s pretty intense. It might fuck you up. Here it is: I don’t know. Nobody knows.

***

Then one day the guy who runs the homeless shelter gets stung by a wasp while trying to toss yet another shitbag onto the overflowing shitcan pile, and it suddenly becomes clear that the reason the dedicated shitcan is never emptied is because it is bolted to the stake upon which it stands, so to empty it one must reach inside it to pick up handfuls of shitbags at a time. No wonder no one ever empties that thing! Who gets paid enough to empty a dog park shitcan by reaching into it!? Come on. Odell Beckham Jr. doesn’t get paid enough to empty a shitcan a handful at a time.

So to my DGS sister I say: How about we just remove the thing entirely? Seems like kind of a design flaw, huh?

I’ll let them know, hon, she says. Gotcha. Thanks.

***

An archaic Jewish law holds that if a husband dies and the husband has an available brother, the widow should marry that brother.

I know how fucked up this sounds, I told my husband, but if you had died I would have been totally fine to marry Arthur. And here’s the weirdest thing: losing Arthur and grieving him together seems to have deepened and strengthened our own connection. Even in death, Arthur makes everything better.

I have his big heavy grey VIRGINIA sweatshirt. And the small clay Hamsa strung on two inches of red leather, which used to hang by his back door, over his washer-dryer, and now hangs in our kitchen, by the toaster. And one of those fundamentalist Christian fish symbols with “Gefilte” written inside of it, meant to stick to the back of your car. (I used to have the same exact thing on the back of my first car, a baby blue ’86 Volvo wagon.) And some of his DVDs: collected Harry Potter, Monty Python, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs. And an odd one, a film that doesn’t immediately scan, doesn’t seem to belong to this particular collection: Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy from 2005. I finally watch it alone one night, knowing there are messages from Arthur therein, and have a good, wild cry. It’s about loneliness, missed chances, and finally, happy-ever-after.

***

Tons of people in the park. Magic hour. The sunsets are golden and pink and orange and shimmering and extensive, the height of summer. In the delightful amphitheater they’re doing a run of “Damn Yankees” followed by a run of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

A man from the group home on Lancaster comes to play with the dogs. A young state worker in a suit who can occasionally be convinced to play soccer with my kid. Chaim the Kabbalist, wearing his Aleph hat. Koresh, the Iranian immigrant who uses a wheelchair and loves soccer and dabbles in ceramics. Jim, who spent 40 years in the CIA and was “Billy” Clinton’s frat brother at Georgetown. Laura the pharmacy student. A dozen dogs all named “Luna.” Why are all the dogs named “Luna”? Same reason all the Caucasian babies born in Texas in 2015 were named Emma or Mason, I guess. Groupthink. Suggestibility. Collective unconscious.

Buzz: Time to meditate! Great idea, that. Next time, for sure.

If Arthur’s seems like too short a life, that’s really kind of greedy thinking, isn’t it? In like two or three measly generations we’ve come to feel entitled to a hundred, or bust. Fifty is a fairly respectable life span, in the scope of human existence on earth. Anyway: entitlements are such a stupid fucking bore.

***

It’s early August when they finally empty the dog park shitcan. “Them”: A DGS guy with a grabber-arm thing. He painstakingly removes piles of soupy summer dog shit, and everyone nearby bursts into spontaneous applause.

Three days later it’s full again. But by the end of the month, they finally remove the shitcan entirely, and I wonder if I’ve dreamed the whole thing up. Like maybe there was never any shitcan bolted to a stake there at all. Maybe it was a metaphor, imagined. But the grass is scarred, so.

Hey girl, I tell my DGS lady’s voicemail. It’s gone! Thanks for your help. Well… take care. See you around.

***

I know it’s easy to idealize the dead, but Arthur really was the best. English fails me. The guy was a mensch, which is Yiddish (and German) for human being, a person of dignity and honor. He was a mensch’s mensch. He was a mensch’s mensch’s mensch. He offered and engendered gladness. Glad, meaning pleased, delighted. From the Old English “glaed”, meaning bright, shining. Before that, Old Norse: “glathr”, meaning bright, joyous. Before that, German: “glatt”, smooth. And before that, the Latin “glaber”, meaning hairless. Isn’t language a trip?

***

A stranger on a bike in the park stops to chat with me in twilight, after the other dogs and people have gone home. There’s no one else around. Hello, he says. I look at him like Wtf dude? Is he going to stab or shoot me? He’s got a British accent. We have a completely innocuous conversation, but he’s acting like he knows me. “Keep up your writing,” he tells me, out of nowhere. And when he rides off again I am overtaken by the brief conviction that he was God.

***

On October 1st, when the high is 62 degrees, the A/C freaks next door finally, finally power it down, and there is a week of quiet before the leaf blowers begin.

I never get around to turning off the meditation notifications. Fall and another winter and another spring will pass, and I’ll keep on ignoring that damn app, in spite of its (and my?) best intentions.

* * *

Previously:
O! Small-Bany! Part 1 — A bygone spring: notes from an adopted hometown.
O! Small-Bany! Part 2 — Winter: Notes from an awful winter

* * *

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different. She is at work on short stories and a new novel.

Editor: Sari Botton