Wednesday, August 31, 2005


the fearsome effects of entropy

I am watching a little squirrel scratch and bite himself on the tree stump in our courtyard. I miss the tree, and surely the squirrel does, too. To make matters worse, the apartment building directly across from us -- the one that used to be partially hidden by the foliage -- has been repainted an awful, unsightly terra-cotta color reminiscent of the worst excesses of the American Southwest. If all of this new money and new interest is really pouring into Jersey City Rising, why does everything around me seem to be deteriorating?

The Journal has continued its thorough coverage of Arborgate with two pieces -- one an account of Rikki Reich's jailhouse stay, and another about the City Councilman's bail-posting adventure. Unsurprisingly, the police account of the arrest differs dramatically from Rikki's own: the Department claims she struck an officer. I missed the confrontation, so I can't say for sure, but it seems unlikely that Rikki could have posed a threat to anybody in uniform. I suppose that at some point a judge will weigh in, too, and it'll all be he-said-she-said until then, (and probably considerably after then).

Elsewhere Downtown, the wave crashes on. Here on Grand, the first structures that will eventually become the gigantic Liberty Harbor North complex are being glued together and propped up at the side of the road like a great billboard advertising the future. Fourteen blocks to the north, Hamilton Park awaits its own inevitable transformation. A woman named Sheila Kirven wrote to me on Monday, asking if I knew anything about plans to convert the old St. Francis Hospital into condominiums and rental units. I told her I didn't. She pointed me to the website of a local watchdog group. Construction and demolition are spectator sports.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


one mistake leaves all the rest in line

The Jersey Journal did their Arborgate story today. Nothing too new there; the developer wouldn't comment, the police and the jails wouldn't comment, and the City Councilman contributed some bluster about "looking into the situation". When he does, Mr. Fulop will find that there is now nothing to see and nothing constructive to do, and that the time for action and intercession was yesterday.

I posted my own appreciation of Rikki's act of bravery here on the site.

Monday, August 29, 2005


pointe lookout

I object on principle to any development that calls itself "______ Pointe". "Pointe" is a ballet term that has somehow found its way into land speculation and corporate naming schemes. It reads, surely, as "point". I will refrain from rehashing jokes about what the extra "e" is for. To those few people who actaully follow the ballet, use of the term "pointe" is meant to connote sophistication. For the rest of us, it's supposed to sound vaguely European, and thus as class-stratified and exclusionary as we expect Europe to be.

Still, pointes that are not built at any discernable point are mystifying and cause cognitive dissonance. Grove Pointe is going up at the intersection of Marin and Christopher Columbus, which is a point on the map in the way that an individual Lite Brite bulb somewhere in the middle of a clown face is a point of illumination. There is nothing distinctive about this property besides its proximity to the PATH Train Station.

I have heard good things about both the developers and the development: how they are complying with city regulations and contributing to the clean-up of a PATH plaza that had largely become an open-air derelict holding bin. The new PATH station on Marin, which has probably shaved more than ninety seconds off of my trip to Brooklyn, was built in part to accomodate the expected swell of new residents. I appreciate the convenience. It saves me the trouble of becoming enmeshed on Grove Street in conversations with people I know. Nobody pleasure-walks on Marin.

Yesterday afternoon, Rikki Reich, who owns the Gallery on Morgan Street, called me. Grove Pointe was, for her, a breaking point. She objected to the developer's decision -- backed, apparently, by the City government -- to cut down three trees on Marin that had stood for centuries. One was already gone, another two were in jeopardy. This was, to Reich, more than a metaphor for overdevelopment. She was brought up in the West, she told me, she has respect for all living things, and killing these trees was entirely unnecessary. I thought of the stump that now stands in our courtyard. The City and the developer, suggested Reich, were behaving like bullies, killing simply because they could.

Reich told me she would chain herself to the trees if she had to. She said that a Shade Tree organization from the Heights told her that the City had quietly removed scores of trees this summer. If this is true, I haven't noticed; I'm not a tree person. But I do miss the tree from our courtyard, and thought that the trumped-up charges on which the City saw fit to put it to death were outrageous.

I don't know if Reich actually did chain herself to the trees this morning, or whether she reached some kind of settlement with the developer or the City. But it is only a five-minute walk from here to the Pointe. I have my camera, and I am going to find out.

Read the accompanying article on The Tris McCall Report.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


the tours of autumn

Today Jed said that there is a good chance My Teenage Stride will be offered shows in England during the last week of October. I have never played in England, and the prospect excites me -- J and I recently agreed that touring in Europe would be a thousand times more compelling than touring America. Trouble is, if we do get these shows in October, they'll coincide with the weekend during which we're sure to be moving. Do I miss out on the opportunity to rock London because I have to box up my video game collection? Boy, will that make me feel like the sad girl who gets left out of the party.

To make matters worse, (or better, depending on how you look at it), Steve, fresh off of his star turn at AmsterJam, is setting up a New Jack Trippers show at Rothko. This will also be in late October -- probably the 21st or 22nd. How are we going to pack and move when I am out rocking all the time? There is never a good moment to drop everything and devote your life to gathering cardboard boxes and arranging books, but late October feels like a better -- or just warmer -- bet than late November does. I doubt we'll get a month's extension on our occupancy, anyway. It's a good problem to have, I guess, but it's still a problem.

The lease is up on Hallowe'en. I think it's time I had a talk with our landlord.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


on the western end of paulus hook

We are awakened by the red machines. They are scraping the area behind the Golden Cicada, just before the light rail stop on Marin. They are tying enormous church bells to the back of their trucks, and dragging them over broken asphalt and speed bumps. I can hear the voices of the work crew members. When they are done scraping and dragging the area, it will become Liberty Harbor North.

Then I hear the black machines. The black machines are pounding the area behind the Mack-Cali building, across the street from the Grove Street PATH Train Station. They are coaxing a giant with change in his pocket into a tantrum; he is jumping up and down and breaking the earth. So far, the black machines are scarier than the red machines. When they are done pounding the area, it will become Columbus Plaza and Grove Pointe.

From our living room, we can see the Mack-Cali building and its hundred slit-like insect eyes. Across Marin Boulevard are the original luxury towers that broke the Downtown grid, now looking defensive and outclassed. The sun shines off of the high windows and throws beams of light at us. In the late afternoon, a terrace door sometimes opens in the high tower, and shoots a momentary flash of concentrated sunlight across our living room wall. The flicker, radiant and brief, reminds me of J.G. Ballard's description of the atomic blast in Empire Of The Sun.

J Braun once likened sound to water, and the New York Times though enough of the quote to slap it on the front page. This morning, the original luxury towers south of Marin Boulevard are gigantic gobos. Sound bounces off of the high windows and terraces, and crashes like a wave into our courtyard. On the other side of Grand Street, sound finds channels between old brownstones, dripping between cracks in bricks and pouring through empty lots. It shakes our house, rattling the silverware we've left out on the kitchen island. The cups and knives add a dull metal clink to the scrape of the dragged bell, and the rumble of trucks bringing food for the giant.

I don't know where the cicadas perch. There was a tree in the courtyard, but the city deemed it unsafe, and brought in a work crew to cut it down. They dismantled it with the usual clumsy thoroughness of city work crews, dispassionately lopping off limbs, running indifferent chainsaws through the trunk, and stuffing leaves and branches into a wood chipper. I had assumed that the cicadas lived in the tree, and that once our tree had been murdered, the cicadas would have to find new digs. But they are still here, obstinately singing their big hit song over the construction noise. Perhaps they perch on the sides of buildings. I have seen them do that.

The trees in the City Hall park are filled with cicadas. The choruses roar over the air conditioning in the municipal offices. If you stand beneath the trees in the park, you can hear all three songs at once: the piledriver, the scraper, and the bugs. It sounds like the radio.

What will someday be Grove Pointe and Liberty Harbor North is now desert. The lot across from the PATH station had, for many years, been home to a boarded-up gym. There was an abandoned factory, awesome in its crumbling grandeur, on the property nearer to Grand Street. Derelicts lived there, throwing soiled mattresses on what was once the work floor. Hilary and I would drive past the Golden Cicada, park on the sand road, hop the fence, and photograph the interior of the building. Now it is gone, replaced by the red machines and huge mounds of gravel and sand. On Columbus, two mountains of dirt squat where the black machines have placed them. Over the hills there are desert noises: bells, insects, giants.

In a moment, I will put on a record of my own choosing, and begin work. But now I am listening to the city. It is the sound of adult teeth. Our desert blossoms anew with armchairs and terraces, and insect repellent. What mighty forces push up from the torn ground, singing their songs of blunt renewal as they come. It is not the only hit, but right now, it is the one that matters.

Sunday, August 21, 2005



You have been nothing short of heroic through all of this, and I admire both your perseverance and physical constitution. I’ve got neither. That’s my fault and not yours, but it’s the shortcomings of me and my reprobate peers that you’re up against here, so you may as well begin grappling with them now.

I received your letters. Once again, I was both flattered and alarmed by their urgency. The importance of the next few months to the long-term health of your project is apparent, and it is immensely meaningful to me that you consider me worth salvaging from the wreckage of these days of controversy. But it is best that you know the unbending truth upfront: I will never live in the district you’ve made.

You have done everything you can to make me believe that I am welcome here, and that I would be an asset to the neighborhood you’re building. At times, I nearly believe you. But yours is not the only voice in my ear. For every optimistic projection about what the warehouse district could be, there has been an unpleasant reminder of what it currently is – and how it got that way.

I weigh every word carefully today. Over the past year there have been so many times that I have been inclined to write something, but hesitated out of respect for you and what you have achieved. But our friend the former city councilman said something in a public meeting that I cannot shake: he believed that the municipal government had a moral obligation to bring the members of the Tenants Association back to the warehouse district. He might have been blowing smoke. When I asked our friend the mayor the same question, he said he did not agree. But by then, our friend the former city councilman had not been re-elected.

You have been here far longer than I have, and your relationships with the members of the Tenants Association are richer and more complicated than mine.
But during my short association with the Arts Center, I developed an emotional attachment to the community there that was at least as ferocious as any real estate speculator’s dream of flipped properties and quick riches. The claims to sovereignty over 111 First Street made by the tenants were never politically or economically persuasive. But their personal stories were undeniable. They engendered an intense sympathy in me, one that made a mockery of my usual Jersey-libertarian qualms.

So while I can imagine any number of intellectual justifications for cutting the line and seizing a place for myself, I am not psychologically prepared to do that. And nor, I think, will I ever be – not until I am satisfied that the City has given every former tenant forced from the Arts Center a gold-plated invitation to return. I am not, like our friend the President of the Tenants Association, a sculptor with storerooms filled with work. I don’t need a thousand square feet of raw space. All I need is a laptop and a synthesizer.

You are very excited by the possibilities that the renovated warehouses in the districts can offer. You deserve to be. You have moved mountains to convince a recalcitrant government to wring these few concessions out of developers whom they normally will not cross. But when I see these buildings, I do not feel welcomed by them. They do not seem to share any of the haphazard virtues that made the Arts Center feel like a home to me. I am completely willing to accept that this is my own emotional failure. But the front door at 111 First Street was always unlocked. At half a million dollars for one bedroom and one bath, 140 Bay Street will not be.

We have passed laws. To most reasonable people, this means progress. I still have enough social and political conscience that from a certain angle, it could look like progress to me, too. But as I am sure you’ve surmised by now, I am no politician. I am an artist like you are, and like those who were run out of this very neighborhood. I work by feel. And it is my desperate hope that you will forgive me for saying: this does not feel right to me.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


what the journal is good for

Fifty cents is not very much to pay for an emotional experience. This I explain to Hilary, who wonders why I've bothered to buy today's copy of the Jersey Journal. Silly bird, I have no interest whatsoever in the articles. I've begun the scrupulous process of scanning the print classifieds for interesting-looking apartments.

It's too early to call any of these numbers. We're not leaving here until the end of October, and I don't want to run the risk of having to turn down something perfect because the landlord can't wait that long. Ads in this newspaper have a certain urgency that Hudson Reporter listings do not: they are caustic and blunt, and push their apartments like a backalley weed peddler. Heavily abbreviated and terse, they are piled interchangeably atop each other, stuffed into dense rectanguar cells, and left there beyond comment.

We found this flat in the Journal. The ad was buried at the bottom of the page. Unlike most of the Journal listings, it didn't mention a street. We were told it was Downtown. This meant, we believed, that it was far beyond what we'd be able to pay. We expected to stay in Union City, or perhaps to relocate to the Heights. But I forced Hilary to examine as much as we could, because I enjoy the scrupulous process. We visited a house on Van Vorst park that had once belonged to a mayor from the turn of the century. We looked at a ritzy penthouse that the Del Forno realtors had renovated on Newark Avenue.

These places would have bankrupted us had we rented them. Yet just looking at them expanded the parameters of our search -- they convinced us that if we chose to pinch our finances sufficiently, we could fit our lives into a container suitable for much wealthier people. We are no ascetics. Once we see something we like, we usually perform the sacrifices necessary to make it ours. We decided we would move Downtown and force it to work. I figured that even if we ended up in serious debt, we were setting ourselves up for two years of the sort of adventure we were unlikely to find in Union City.

We're not in debt. And it has been an adventure.

There aren't many advertisements for neighborhood apartments in the Jersey Journal. I estimate that there are two hundred and fifty Jersey City listings in today's paper. Only four of these are Downtown. Most landlords in this area prefer to list in the Reporter, which is virtually a real estate circular, or with a real estate agent. But if we can help it, we prefer not to go to realtors. I pretend that we do this to avoid the extra cost. Really, I fear losing control of the search, and missing out on the experience of circling advertisements and wandering into neighborhoods I haven't yet visited. And I confess to a secret fantasy, too: I have occasionally imagined becoming a realtor myself.

The newspaper closes on its own. Maybe that's just the August breeze. Others would advise me to try Craig's List, or to confine my search to online sources. That would save me two quarters, coins that I could use on the Ms. Pac Man machine in the basement of Southpaw, or that I could lend to Jed Smith, a much better Ms. Pac Man player than I am. Save enough quarters and perhaps we could afford the properties listed in the Reporter. We don't want to move to Greenville, and we don't need Section 8 vouchers. But today I am given over to this honeycomb of letters, numerals, dots and lines and dollar signs. Decoding the heiroglyphs in the Journal is where the scrupulous process begins.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


the best piece of art i've seen all year

On the way home I remembered my racism. Then I thought of the best piece of art I've seen all year.

The guards on the platform are supposed to be doing random spot checks. Today there were no guards. I had packages: I'd just bought a network router at J&R. The router box is roughly bomb-sized. It is the Belkin brand, a top of the line piece, the best router you can get. This I was assured by the sales clerk, a kid with spectacles and a heavy Middle Eastern accent. I liked him. He had a scraggly moustache and beard and a shaved head, and he smiled a lot as he answered my inane questions. And he admitted that he didn't know certain things about computers. That's a rarity at J&R.

This router box is a trapezoidal prism, the most dangerous shape you can find. A trapezoidal prism juts out at unpredictable angles, exploding at the viewer. I imagine that the trapezoidal prism appeals to bomb manufacturers at those moments when they are imagining possible shapes for the newest and best bombs. This is all guesswork, now; I have never seen a bomb up close at the World Trade Center station. If I had, I would not be able to write about it. To write about it, I would need a network router powerful enough to tap into my wireless service in the time between observation and the flash. But I wouldn't ask my new friend at J&R about that. I would not want him to think I considered him a terrorist.

Walking toward the steps to the area some call Ground Zero, and others call a PATH station stop, I was approached by a man in a turban.

"This is where there were towers?" he asked me with a smile.

I pointed to the footprints. He laughed. He asked me again if this was where the buildings had fallen. I assured him it was. He thanked me, and rejoined his family on the stairway.

Tourists come here from all over the world. They pose at the fence in front of the hole that Osama made. It is treated like a Washington Monument in reverse: a sightseeing target defined by absence. They snap photographs. It is hard to imagine that anything meaningful will come out of these shoots, even for the people that were there. My experience of digital cameras suggests that the panoramic sweep necessary to capture the immensity of the scene requires a heretofore uncharted number of megapixels. In fact, I would be willing to hypothesize that there is no technological advancement on the horizon that would be high-definition enough, and this may be the hole in Moore's Law that engineers are always searching for. Here, the opinions of the staff at J&R might come in handy. They could offer helpful advice to the tourists, matching them with the digital camera most compatible with the operating system.

The best piece of art I've seen all year is not a photograph. The best piece of art hangs in the rotunda of the Brennan Courthouse as part of the current exhibition there. It is a map of the New York City subway system, painted in oils. The piece is about the size of the fold-outs available at the token booths. The artist has taken great care to render all of the colors exactly as they appear on the official version. In fact, the painting replicates the subway map so well that at first glance, you might be fooled into thinking you're looking at a poster. However, one thing is different: all the text has been painted in Arabic.

Because we do not read Arabic, there is no way for us to know what the writing on the painting means. We can take it on faith that the stops are named as they normally are: Vernon-Jackson and Borough Hall, Times Square, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, the rest of the liturgy. We can assume that the scrawl at the bottom concerns service changes and transfers, and skipped stations on off-peak hours. But perhaps that's not what the painting says at all. Perhaps it says something else.

The painter is clever. He knows his audience. Many of the workers at the Brennan Courthouse take the train every day, and do so with the casual trepidation we've all become accustomed to. They see the guards in the terminals with rifles. They've heard the news from London. A viewer who does not read Arabic cannot be comfortable with this painting: it seems to contain secret messages, inscrutable plans, an unauthorized reproduction, an official document perverted to malicious use. And yet we know that it's far more likely that we're looking at a public service announcement: a reproduction of a benevolent translation meant to help Arab immigrants negotiate the American maze.

I use the World Trade Center PATH Train station whenever I can. There have been many times when it would have been more logical to take the Sixth Avenue line into the city. But I don't bother with it; in fact, I have come to resent the Sixth Avenue line. My preferred interface with Manhattan has become the hole, and when I enter the city by other methods, I feel cheated of excitement. The terminal seems like the place where the city is most alive. I fear that if I move away from this line, the island will slip away from me, and I will be left with movie images, powdery newsreels, hand-me-down stories of Dorothy Parker and Joe DiMaggio.

At night, the hole Osama made is lit up like a television advertisement. We are satisfied that ours are top-quality floodlights. New York City's biggest war wound demands two gigantic megapixels worth of state-of-the-art illumination. Tourists peer through the fences, pointing and puttering around the platform as if they are marking time, waiting for the show to begin. A man in a turban grins as he asks me about the buildings that were here. If I no longer go home this way, what will I forget about myself?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


like moving insects

Every place we have ever lived has been falling apart. We accept this as a logical consequence of living in Hudson County and we do not complain about it. Entropy doesn’t bother us. Now and then, Hilary will be overcome by a fear that we aren’t living as we ought, but normally she is far too preoccupied with her rescue efforts to bother.

We began in a space station on Boulevard East in Weehawken. The rooms had no doors on them, but the flat did have a central vacuum system that I used to chase after cockroaches. I now recognize this as disgusting and reprehensible behavior. But I was twenty-one years old, terrified of bugs, and burdened with a guilty conscience. The vacuum tubes allowed me the illusion that I was magically transporting the cockroaches to a bug paradise somewhere under the house where they would live in happiness and insect stimulation. More likely they were sucked through the pipes to an incinerator, where they died horribly, without even the dignity of a nice manly squashing.

Over the years I have lost my killer’s temperament. As I child, I entertained myself as children in automobile suburbs do: hunting large ants and mashing them under my shoe. Insignificant to me, but sacramental to the insects, who await their inevitable squashing with a combination of stoicism and scuttling bravado. The blue flyswatter was my symbol of power. When I saw a fly, I would hurry to crush its little face with cold plastic. The tip of my flyswatter could break the speed of sound. Its zip, moan, and splatter as it cut through the air was pleasing, like the buzz of a huge predatory bug.

I still have a blue flyswatter. This one appears to have been designed by a believer in the Eastern religious principle of ahimsa. It is slow and bulky, and it does not frighten any of the bugs. I don’t frighten them, either. Instead of punishing them with death, I lamely encourage them to leave via the terrace door. Sometimes I have an accompanying insipid parting comment, too; “run along”, or “see you later”, which is disingenuous, of course. I have no desire whatsoever to see them later. I am lying to the bugs. I am an insect phony.

Instinctively they know this, which is why they are so contemptuous of me. In their discussions behind the wall, their dark strategy sessions, they refer to me, unkindly, as “no threat”. They draw up pheromones maps of the refrigerator, and study them as they squat on the black mold. What do bugs want? Excitement, stimulation of the antennae, a chance to die gloriously in battle with humans. I give them nothing. I am ashamed to show my face to the bugs.

We shared the house on the Union City border with meaty waterbugs, multi-legged abominations that corresponded to no field guide entry I’d ever seen. They moved fast. When pulverized, they disintegrated into powder, paste, and twisted, fibrous limbs. It was unpleasant to scrape the muck off of the wall and the flat of the mop, but at least it didn’t look like a bug anymore. I had no problem disposing of the residue. The insect lord was kind to design them this way: to unravel like a stocking and lose their distinctive bugginess upon reception of the sacrament. But most bugs are not built that way.

One morning at the Hi-Vue, we woke up with the cicada. It was perched, unmoving, in the lace curtains above the bed. We spent an hour in furious deliberation in the kitchen, peeking when we dared through the glass door to the bedroom. In hushed voices we discussed its health: was it sick? dead? just sleeping? Terrified that the monster would start its infernal singing – right there in our house – we crept up to the doorjam. Hilary stood on the bed, grabbed the bronze crossbar, and draped the top of the curtain over the bottom. The cicada, swaddled in the gauze, did not move. Scared witless, we marched the folded fabric to the deck and slung it over the fence. Ten minutes later, we checked through the window and saw that the cicada was gone. It had been alive. I marveled again at Hilary’s bravery. Then again, she had never seen the horror of half-squashed cicada, oozing white pus, flopping and heaving toward its opponent in grotesque futility, chirping spastically for its lost

I would prefer not to live with insects. The expectations are unbearable. I am aware of their position on the food chain, and recognize that they, like the smelly farm animals, must exist somewhere. But I know my role, and I don't like it. On our television, there is nothing but violence: bloopers and crashes, people slamming loved ones into plate glass windows, sexual assault, funny jokes. There is a fly on the tiled floor of our bathroom, motionless on its back, its tiny legs splayed. I had nothing to do with its passing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


the crack in the chimney

Our landlord is broke. We know this because halfway through our tenancy, he was served with legal papers. The attorneys from a local bank informed us that there were already several liens on the house we were inhabiting. We were named in the suit. Generally our landlord prefers to stay out of sight, but that day, he found his nerve and rapped on our door. He wanted us to know what was coming, and that we didn't need to be alarmed.

I wasn't. I've been named in suits before.

New construction projects in Paulus Hook commence without ceasing. Every time a truck rolls by, the floor shakes violently enough to rattle all of the glasses in the cupboard. Semis filled with building supplies rumble down Grand all morning, headed for the waterfront excavations. New residential complexes, plastic and airtight, are rising on Greene Street, overlooking the scenic Merrill Lynch parking lots. These developments strain to blend in with the rest of the nineteenth-century rowhouses that dominate the neighborhood. They fail, of course. There is no chance we will be able to afford any of these units. Yet I am still curious enough about their dark corporate interiors, their track lighting, provocative smells of fresh lacquer and sawdust.

The leak in the ceiling cannot be fixed with mortar and spackling. It's a fissure in an old chimney that needs to be taken to pieces to save. Our mold colony and our ant colony are manifestations of a foundational problem with the house. This structure has bounced and shivered on Grand Street for one hundred and fifty years, and has been designated historic by a city government that is often profligate with its historic designations. From the outside, there is no chance that a passerby would find the building remarkable. It is, easily, the ugliest house on our block.

I believe our landlord would change this if he could. When the front steps break, as they often do, he is out there the following morning with his trowel, bleary-eyed, dutifully and deliberately reconstituting the crumbling brickface. His children charge up and down the steps and bounce their bicycle wheels against the lip of the stoop. Everything busts faster than he can make repairs. While all the other homeowners on Grand Street keep magazine gardens in their backyards, our landlord has let his little plot grow wild. The kids don't miss it. They prefer to play on the street. This makes perfect sense to me: as a child I had no patience for greenery either. I had all of my fun in the road.

Our landlord appears to view the crack in the chimney as an intractable problem, an act of a cruel god, existing on a plane beyond the scope of his comprehension. Every month, Hilary includes a note in the rent envelope discussing the leak in a friendly way: reminding him of the insidiousness of water damage, gently cajoling him toward positive action. When confronted by inaction bordering on negligence, patience is not always Hilary's chosen method. But it is no use getting mad at our landlord. He gives the impression of a man so burdened by the demands of family life that he can barely raise his hand to say hello. It is unspoken: he is in no financial condition to begin reconstruction of his house.

The landlord's wife is an enormous woman with a huge voice. On weekend mornings, she bellows at the children. Her invective is audible from the second floor and across the street as well. The kids are, without exception, well-behaved and well-groomed. They party when they can. When we first arrived in the neighborhood, there were other schoolkids on the block, riding their bikes on the sidewalk with the landlord's kids. In the twenty months since, those other children have disappeared. The U-Hauls that I see from our second floor window each weekend bring only young childless couples, their home electronics, and their new furniture. We never see the children moving out. But they do.

The landlord's kids play American R&B and reggaeton: "Gasolina" by Daddy Yankee, over and over. They bring their radio out to the stoop. A few doors down, a storefront briefly inhabited by the mayoral candidate most favored by the anti-abatement crowd has been converted into a cafe with upmarket aspirations. Sometimes the people in the outdoor seating give me a funny vibe. I walk out of the crappy house with the busted brown door, often with a musical instrument under my arm. Unlike my landlord, I am not Latino, and I am not a banker or an attorney. I look like one of the notorious JC artists, all of whom were supposed to be gone by now.

When Hilary and I lived in Union City, the kids played in the street. Scores of them did, emptying out of the tenements on Eleventh Street, filling the block from Palisade to New York, pelting each other with balls and making life hell for motorists. Unofficial councilors emerged -- slightly older boys who would write on the pavement with chalk and attempt to impose order on the games. We were the only Anglos on the block, a tiny droplet of gentrification in a sealed neighborhood that wasn't looking toward New York City for its cues. We could have been the vanguard of an unwelcome change. Instead, Union City barely changed at all.

As Grand Street renovates, the relative disrepair of our house becomes more distinct: to the neighbors, to the landlord, to us. Rainwater sluices down the front of the house in a thick black cascade, crashing on the windowpanes and spattering droplets into the bedroom. There is a crack in the chimney that won't be fixed, and water is violating our living room wall. It is sloshing us clear of the neighborhood, as it soaks the crossbeams and wood floors and the black mold piles up in the bedrooms of my landlord's children. He is washing away in a flood of unpaid bills. The bank will flush this family from their property sooner or later: our exhausted landlord, his hollering wife and his four children, riding their bicycles, breathing in mold spores. They will float elsewhere, taken by the current to points unknown. The same tide will carry us, too.

Monday, August 15, 2005


living with toxins

I don’t know the toxicity of our mold colony. Some molds, we are told, are highly toxic, and cause lingering physical dysfunction and disease. Ours is probably such a mold colony, but it’s impossible to tell. By the time our mold could be properly analyzed, we will be long gone from here.

We met our mold yesterday evening. Rainwater was pouring, once again, through the hole in the ceiling. We used a pasta pot as a catchbasin, and draped a washtowel over its side to prevent water from splattering everywhere. It is tough for us to get the catchbasin up against the wall of our apartment on Grand Street because the renovator has ringed the floor with a decorative molding. The molding is split now from water damage, and winged ants and other insects crawl through the cracks and lay eggs in the cool underside of the racks that hold our compact disc collection.

After the last rainstorm, we’d put a full-length mirror over the hole in the wall. Instead of seeing the decay around us, we’d see ourselves. A month earlier, Hilary had scraped the decayed portions of the walls and ceiling and repainted them. The ceiling, we’d found, had been clumsily repaired during the renovation. Gauze, tape, and cardboard had been stretched over the cracks, and the hole had been imperfectly wadded up with newspaper. Hilary, normally fast with solutions, was at a loss. She painted over the newspaper.

Last night, rainwater sluiced down the surface of the mirror and on to the lacquered hardwood floor. When we moved the mirror we saw the mold colony, spreading out across the crack like a great black firework. My first instinct, as always, was protective: this was our mold, a guest in our home, and it needed to live, too. It had probably peeped its head through the crack to see what was shaking. Somewhere deep within its moldy consciousness, it knew our home had surplus of heat and electric energy, good for growing.

Most of us face white walls all day. The white wall is an impassive face, an arbitrary imposition of a boundary on the space we’re meant to inhabit. In our imagination, a wall has no dimensionality. It is the end of a dimension of our habitation. This allows, among other things, for us to forget what is happening inside the wall, four feet from the dinner table and the telephone, Wurlitzer electric piano, and the little wooden cat curled up on top of the ottoman. But I know at least two of the things inside the wall: winged insects and black mold. The insects are unconscionable, but harmless. They are acquaintances. The mold is spectacular, but cold, defiant, malicious.

I murdered my mold this morning. We used a combination of bleach, soap, and water, mixed in the same pasta pot that we’d caught the rain in. The water in the pot turned filmy and thick. I scrubbed the decaying wall with a Dobie pad, my right hand inside a Ziploc bag. Then I sat down at the computer and began this weblog. Having given up on any hope that our landlord will address the decomposition of his two-hundred year old house, I have also dismissed any lingering fantasies about renewing the lease. We do not live in a slum: we inhabit a renovated apartment in the wealthiest neighborhood in town. In two and a half months, we won’t anymore.

The subject of this journal is search: for a new place to live, but also for a deeper and fuller relationship with my community and with Hudson County. Our days on this block were always numbered. If there was a moment where we fit in here, it has passed. My way has been to put a mirror over the mold, and concentrate on the comfort of our reflections rather than the decay around us. It makes for a hothouse atmosphere, a good home. It is, however, garbage citizenship. Like all apartment hunts, this one will be a flight from something. Perhaps by writing myself through it, it can also become a journey into something else.

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