Ramblings on motorcycles, tattoos, alternative everything, politics, war and life in New York City.

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We were in NJ,                            
“Joisey”
just across the Goethals bridge, in some industrial truck stop of a town
I’d never seen before,
looking for franchised Mexican food and a half-way decent margarita
She pointed out to the neon jumble on the other side of the snow streaked glass.
Ha! I rememeber that motel, she said, chuckling to herself,

 mechanically
in one of her secondhand laughs.
The one your ex-husband took you to?, I asked, recalling an old story.
With the mirrors on the ceiling, and the champagne glass hottub?
No, she said.
A different one. Lots of condoms.
mega-condoms….
Oh, I said. Who was it, anyone I know?
No.
Doesn’t matter, she replied,

her face turned to the window.
pale in the rising light of the motorway

I felt that old familiar pang
that comes from valuing something
more than its owner

She

“Hey, ya wan’ somethin’ ta eat?”

Magic words for bikers and former Marines, and all the more potent when uttered by a woman. I turned to look at her, beer bottle poised halfway to my mouth, my ears perking up like those of an emaciated Doberman.

“Huh?”
She asked me again, and flashed a brilliant smile at the end of the question, a sudden white expanse that lit up the small dingy bar so brightly that it was almost alarming. She had the kind of face that made you think you must have known her for a long time, but just had never gotten around to talking to before. Pretty, friendly, in a suburban kind of way.  Nice, but with a sense of toughness just below the surface, in that wary way that women over forty seem to have always developed around themselves.   One of the guys, y’know, or ,more likely, one of the guy’s wives.

“Uh, sure…” I answered.
She turned in a swirl of brunette, seventies curled hair, and disappeared into the next room, swallowed up by some magic show/kid’s birthday party/low level riot that was playing out somewhere in the back of the building. I went back to my beer and Jack Daniels, and playing the role of the day.

I was at the Marine Corps League on Staten Island, and the role of the day was the Big Bad Biker. The Marine Corps League doubles as the clubhouse of my motorcycle club, the Leathernecks—a small, motley group of characters whose only common denominator is that we are all former Marines.

I was there for a meeting or something; hell, I don’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter, since what we mostly do at the League is drink.  The liquor is cheap, there are automatic weapons bolted to the wall, and a good amount of camaraderie floating around the old men hunched within the small, smoke choked room. The place fairly reeks of gun oil and tough love.  To me, it feels something like home.

She reappeared a few minutes later, sliding a overloaded plate of party food to me between the Rastafarian warrior-poet on my left (Pointman, the Vice President of my MC), and the pudgy blonde chick on my right, the one I had been sort of listlessly flirting with a moment before.  I turned to thank her, but she had already disappeared, those Farrah Fawcett curls fading into the grey smoke of the bar.

One of the things that always fascinates me is the way in which people meet.  Oh, not for a business meeting or a school class, or even, necessarily, for a one night stand.  No, I mean romantically, when that kernel grows into something meaningful and longer, when that woman who smiles upon you in the dark turns into the one person that rules your nights.

I mean, seriously, think about it for a minute.  You might well not exist at all, if your mom had not happened to imbibe one too many beers while sitting next to your dad in that smoke filled rathskeller in Germany in 1962.  And if he didn’t happen to make that one really funny joke, the one that made him laugh and look,  just for a moment, like Sterling Moss—then it never would have happened.  You, and all your brothers and sisters, would never have been.  I guess that’s why I always like hearing about how people meet, of those fumbling words and hesitant trading of information, all with no inkling of the possible futures hanging in the balance of that first tentative smile

Some people talk about the banality of evil, I think about the banality of romance.

I saw her next two weeks later, at the League,  in the middle of a riotous biker party, sponsored, of course, by my own MC.  She pulled up a bar stool with a flip of her Charlie’s Angels hair, determinedly unfazed by the jostling biomass of testosterone around us.

“So, whatcha doin’?”  She had this outrageous Brooklyn accent, as thick and delicious as a Rueben from some Crown Heights deli.  It was both comfortingly familiar and intriguingly alien at the same time, as if all the New York movies of my childhood had fused together and somehow deposited this amiable gangster moll in  my leather clad lap.

I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to batten down that accent, to learn it’s hidden rules and regulations, to copy the way that it slips and ducks around my teeth and tongue, clipped and abbreviated and with long elongated vowels at strange junctions, but all to no avail.  I’m acutely aware that I’m way off in any attempt to copy it, the same way Air Force kids used to make fun of my British accent as a child, so I won’t even try here.  Ironically, in those B-movies and TV shows, I hated the Brooklyn accent, but here, in person and with green/brown eyes behind the brogue, it was captivating.  It also turned out that she worked for the NYPD, a fact that matched perfectly with her demeanour and that Robert De Niro accent.

We sat there most of the afternoon and into the early evening doldrums of that June evening, making easy small talk.  The biker party raged and crashed around us, thick with June humidity and blaring sunshine through the swinging bar door,  AC/DC cover songs swelling and fading in rhythmn,  until the day finally retreated into the sunset amid the last few blatting exhausts.  She was easy to talk to, in an aloof and slightly disconnected sort of way, so much so that I wasn’t sure if she was interested in me, or just happened to have an inordinately large amount of time to kill that day.  That is, at least until Pointman suggested that we take a run to Coney Island.
Pointman, as I mentioned before, is the Vice President of my Motorcycle Club (MC).  He, naturally, is a Marine–but unlike any Marine you have ever met.  Pointman is Black–a notable oddity within diehard Biker clubs–with a massive wreath of braided dreadlocks streaming down around his shoulders.  He always wears a red bandanna with his leather biker vest, which is filthy dirty, veritably screaming of long miles on the road and nights spent in dubious locales.  The bandanna goes with the massive gold belt buckle that he always wears, and cowboy boots, and, upon occasion, battered cowboy hat.  He is, in fact, a key member of the Federation of Black Cowboys–and even more improbably, is both a licensed social worker and a college professor.

He is the one man I know who channels Renaissance Man and schizophrenia better than I.

Anyway, Pointman ended up sitting with us, sucking on VSOP cognac and his everpresent Cuban cigar, its grey choking smoke wreathing around his beard, making him look like some post-apocalyptic african Gandalf.

“Cha-cha’s.”  He grunted.  “Margaritas.”

A splendid idea!  Cha-chas is our hang-out on Coney Island, just a short walk down the boardwalk from the iconic parachute drop tower.  It’s a delicous dive bar of a place, it’s walls strewn with signed portfolio pictures of unknown stars, dilapidated starfish, torn fishing nets, and the occasional bra and panties.  It’s the only bar on the entire island where you can actually sit on the boardwalk, and so is a perfect place to people watch.  Point and I had claimed it a couple of summers ago, and are in the process of slowly turning it into a biker bar, with the help of a couple of other local MCs.

She said she had never been on the back of a bike before; those sharp green/brown eyes direct and wide.  She’d give it a try, though, and a few minutes later we were roaring across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, coasting down into the wide arms of Brooklyn.  I love the Verrazano, as it has one of the best views in the entire City, and indeed, it was here that I got my first view of my new home.  The bridge towers above the Hudson, linking Staten Island and Brooklyn, and from its apex it is possible to see everything from Coney Island, to the Statue of Liberty, to the Empire State Building.  At night, particularly, that gently curving expanse feels like a glidepath, flying gracefully down into the scattered constellations  below.  Her arms were tight around me, and yet she moved perfectly in synch with the movement of the motorcycle and I.    Pointman led the way, keeping within the rank structure of the MC, his dreadlocks flowing back from underneath his German war helmet, stogie chomped determinedly between his teeth.  The City, wide and ripe and free in the early Summer evening, opened beneath us, and I had that delicious sense of not knowing where the night would lead.

………………..to be continued.

Waking up…

So, I had dinner last night in Manhattan with Garry Trudeau, and he says I need to start writing again.

 I was in the City, as we denizens of Brooklyn call it, for a round table discussion at the 92nd St YMHA, hosted by Roger Rosenblatt, from Time magazine. The topic was David Levinthalls book, “I.E.D.”, which came out last year. Levinthall does these cool pictures of soldiers and tanks and HMWVVs; very realistic and evocative, and all the more so because they are toys. The toys and their dioramas are juxtaposed in the book with writings from real Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s where I came in. A couple of snippets of my writing made it into the book, courtesy of David Stanford, the editor at Garry’s website, the Sandbox. I wrote for the Sandbox while I was in Baghdad a few years ago.

    The last time I had seen the two Davids, Levinthall and Stanford, was at the book opening in DUMBO, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, a year ago.  The last time I had seen Garry was two years ago, in Washington D.C., when his book, “The Sandbox” came out.  I was fortunate enough to have seven of my stories in that one, and we had done a short publicity tour for it, along with Troy Steward from bouhammer.com, my nurse friend ‘Clara Hart’, and ArmyGrrl, another Soldier.  All of them had multiple stories in the book.

          Garry was exactly the same as when I had seen him last–absolutely unassuming, very personable, and just exuding this calm sense of bemusement around him.  David Stanford was equally unchanged; a funny white haired animated garden troll of a man; and as always, an absolute pleasure to be around.  David Levinthall was unusually quiet this time; a bit reserved for some reason, but at the top of his game.  His photos from the book are currently on display at the Stellan Holm Gallery on West 24th Street, and book sales are moving along nicely.

       I showed up at the Y not really knowing what to expect.  I wore my ACUs, my grey camouflage work uniform, even though I knew it would stand out in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  I wanted to be a reminder to the people attending that, while the photographs were fake, the writing and the Soldiers behind the words were very much real, and trapped in a reality that the toys could only hint at.

          The best part of the roundtable was the questions from the audience, and I was surprised that most of them seemed to be directed at me.  I think it was quite possibly the first time that most of the audience members had ever encountered a Soldier in the flesh, let alone one in full camouflage.  After the presentation, I found myself in the foyer, surrounded by a largely female crowd of a certain age, and that feeling was heightened.  Lots of fur, expensive face lifts, and earnest questions–but friendly and sympathetic.  I even got asked for a couple of autographs!

      Afterwards, we all went to dinner at a very chic Italian restaurant, nearby, and it was here, over liquorice risotto, that David and Garry exorted me to start writing again.  So, here I am.  I’m going to try to write every night for an hour or so on my blog, and see if I can get the old literary muscles working again.The blog should repost automatically onto my Facebook, so feel free to send me feedback, both good and bad.  One of the best parts of writing for Doonesbury.com was the almost instant feedback from the audience, and I definitely miss it.  Lord only knows what I’ll write about, so be prepared for a wide gamut of topics, which I’m sure New York City should be able to produce on a regular basis! 

See you here!

Your Eyes

 

       

                          snow, ice, the rasp of the skis beneath my feet, fleeting, ephemeral, passing like time past the serene faces of slumbering children, the whispering scent of the pine trees clothing the silent hills, a blue sky above, limitless and unknowable and perfect,

             like your eyes

                I’m flying, silently, carving signatures on the steep side of the mountain, following gravity and the wind and you.  Here I simply will it, and the earth slides beneath me, spinning and turning with an arctic chuckle.  I slide to a pirouetting halt, amid a rasping shower of diamonds, to watch you zip by, a blurred glimpse of ponytails and a flashing smile,

                And your eyes

            Sharp, piercing, a flash of azure that takes the breath from my lips swifter than any January wind, and I turn to chase your laughter down into the waiting valley below.  Even trapped on the chair lift, quickly freezing and contemplating a jump to the run below, my eyes were continually drawn to yours—starburst eyelashes, the exquisite slash of your eyebrows, and that impossibly electric burst of blue when your gaze met mine.  It wasn’t just the cut of the wind that was making me shiver.

                Your eyes

         haunt me–lying in bed, chasing sleep down twisting tunnels of midnight insomnia; working out in the gym, pressing iron amid the supplement high and Ipod-charged adrenalin; riding my Harley down frigid city streets, the cold sun blazing between the steel mountains, the World unraveling beneath my wheels, and yet, behind it all, the memory of your face, half glimpsed in darkened bars, intoxication more heady than any gulped shot of liquor, and far more addictive. 

                Your eyes….

 

                                        feel like hope

New York Times article

Just a quick post–I have an article being published in the New York Times this Sunday, May 18.  It will be in the Style and Fashion section, and is titled <snicker> “I’ll Never Dance the Lambada with Natalie Portman”. 

A couple of months ago I entered the Times’ annual ‘Modern Love’ essay contest–even though Modern Love is not exactly my usual sort of topic.  The piece is about my stay at the spartan Combat Outpost Callahan last year, on the east side of Baghdad, and the perfect dreams of Natalie Portman I had while stuck there.  Perfect NON-SEXUAL dreams of Natalie Portman, I should say (geez, your mind is in the gutter…)  Oh, and it also covers the nature of celebrities in American culture, and the dichotomy between adventurous youth and content aging. 

Or something like that.

Check it out at newstands this weekend, or this Sunday at http://topics.nytimes.com/top/features/style/fashionandstyle/columns/modernlove/index.html

if you’re too cheap to shell out the four bucks.

Liberty City meets New York City

Like 14 million other Americans this past week, I plunked down my precious sixty bucks and walked out of Gamespot with a freshly wrapped copy of Grand Theft Auto 4.  For the non-video gamers out there, GTA4, as it’s commonly refered to , is the latest installment from Rock Star Games, and it offers a city in which you can do anything that you want.  Particularly if that something would be ill-advised or fraught with lengthy prison sentences.  Or other unpleasant results.

     And when I say ‘a city’, I mean an entire city–full of people, cars, buildings, restaurants, businesses, helicopters, Mafia dons, prostitutes (somewhere, I haven’t found them yet), all fully interactable in real time.  Unlike most video games which offer vignettes in evenly spaced intervals, or small enclosed areas in which you can operate for a limited time, GTA4 provides an entire metropolis in real time.  You have to drive the streets (this version has a GPS included to help you get around), talk to people, buy greasy hotdogs from sidewalk vendors to stay alive, dodge creditors–just like real life.

With a difference.

Real life frowns upon you shooting said creditor in the head to avoid paying your hefty debts.  In GTA4 you can.  See a nice new sports car pulling up beside you as you munch on that hotdog?  Pull out the driver, beat his ass, and take it.  If you see a nicely appointed hooker trolling the streets of Harlem, pick her up and have your way with her (it was much easier in GTA2).  Want to steal a snazzy UH-60 helicopter from the federal government and then fly it down Broadway at streetlight level?  Go right ahead!  Just be sure that you can either outfly the LCPD choppers–either that, or have a useful cheat code stored in your character’s nifty new cellphone.

Yes, the police are in the game, and yes, they will chase you down and lock you up if you get caught breaking the law.  However, it is possible to outrun them, and even if they do catch you, they will only throw you in jail overnight, and fine you a chunk of your hard earned pay.  Unlike with the NYPD, who will simply shoot you 51 times and then sneer at your family in court for three months.  Well, the police in the game will shoot you, but somehow bullets are cured with a brief stay in one of Liberty City’s sparkling new hospitals.  It’s amazing what technology has brought to gaming–who would have thought you could find competent medical coverage in NYC?

Now, I can hear the grayhairs out there saying, why would you want to run around breaking the law at will?  Because it’s fun!  Particularly when it is realistically portrayed, and it’s only in a video game.  I’ve told myself that exact same disclaimer after doing any number of deplorable acts in the game.  I suppose it all holds a certain amount of appeal to rebellious 15 year old teenagers–or to 40 year old soldiers with too many tattoos and an overdose of testosterone. 

GTA4 is set in the fictitious metropolis of Liberty City–which bears a striking resemblance to New York City, along with Brooklyn and Albany.  The last two GTA games have similiar tie-ins:  GTA-Vice City took on Miami Florida, and GTA-San Andreas blended together Los Angeles and San Francisco.   And as for ‘striking resemblance’, I mean amazingly accurate.  In Liberty City, not only are there the usual tourist spots–the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, but even obscure portions of the boroughs.  There have been times, motoring around the digital town, where I swear I recognize the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, or Bay Ridge (the part of Brooklyn I live in). 

And this is where it gets a bit more interesting, or surrealistic.  Having just arrived in NYC, and still well into the exploratory side of things, it’s very strange to be investigating the nether regions of Liberty City on the Xbox on rainy days, and then riding through the exact same places in real life the next.  The two realities keep overlapping, and the effect is something like a binary version of deja vu. 

Last week, in the game, I rode a stolen chopper across GTA4’s version of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the very next day, rode my Springer Softail across the real one.  In the game, no tourists took my picture as I roared by, as they did in real life, but to be fair, unlike my alter ego, I wasn’t packing a fully automatic MP5 submachine gun. 

It was in the shop.

To add to the mental confusion, Manhattan is dotted with simply massive ads, painted on billboards, and most strikingly, the sides of buildings.

So I here I am rumbling along 7th Ave, images of GTA4 fresh in my head from the night before, astutely trying NOT to run over clueless pedestrians (like in the game) and then I come across something like this and I have to question reality all over again.  It’s hard work, when you’re trying to balance a massive hog in rush hour traffic, and simultaneously avoiding Gotham’s infamous potholes.

Now, if GTA can include the smell of the city and the feel of fetid air on your face, we’ll have some pretty realistic VR going on. 

 I give it ten years.

 

Thanks to Kuniochi 女 at  www.flickr.com/photos/10564709@N08/2422923623 for the images!

 

New York by Springer Softail

  The other day I took the new Harley out for it’s first real run.  Just a short ride around town, since it was the first day that we had both sun and temperatures in the high 50’s.  I rode out of Fort Hamilton, down to Coney Island, and then out towards West Long Island.  I was shocked at how delapidated Coney Island is; far from the amusement park glories of the past, it is now largely a collection of projects and rusting little businesses.  Brighton Beach isn’t too bad, although I was sort of disappointed not to see any evidence of the Russian Mob that supposedly runs the place these days. 

      Further down the road, I stumbled across another relic from the past, Floyd Bennet Airfield.  Opened in 1931, it was the first airport in the New York area, and at the time, was the most space age aerodrome in the country, with it’s concrete runways and electric lighting.  Nowadays, it too is falling apart; supposedly operating as a heliport for the NYPD, nothing seemed to be there except for some ancient hangars and a squadron of resentful seagulls.  I motored on.

       I decided to cut across the north end of Brooklyn, and see if I could find the Brooklyn Bridge.  In Germany, I would take off on the weekends, without a map, and do my best to get lost.  Well, try to, anyway, I never really did, mostly due to the excellent German habit of dotting the landscape with very detailed and clearly marked road signs.  That, and the internal cranial map that I’ve developed after a childhood of wilderness exploration and an adult life of land navigation courses.  New York is a good test of this, though, particularly when you only have a fuzzy idea of the lay of the land.

         It can be interesting, in a way that Germany wasn’t.  I never found a ghetto in Bavaria, but here, where the neighborhoods can blend instantly from one extreme to another, you can find yourself in some pretty dicey areas with little or no warning.  Between the ‘normal’ squalor of Canarsie, and the yuppie-fied brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, there are a couple of real gems to be found.  Crown Heights.  Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Flatbush.  East New York.

      Last night, on duty, I asked a group of our D.A.C.P. officers, all of them retired NYPD, where I should absolutely not go, regardless of the time of day.  They thought pensively for a minute, and then rattled off a couple of names.  All of the ‘hoods above were on the list, with East New York the number one advisory.

         Needless to say, I didn’t know this on the ride.  I became aware that something was off, however, after a little bit.  Looking at boarded-up storefronts and groups of tough looking guys on the street corners, it became apparent, in a Mozambique sort of way, that I was the only white person in sight.  This, and the fact that I was sitting on a brand new 20,000 dollar motorcycle, dressed in full biker regalia, made me a little nervous–that, and the fact that a lot of people seemed to be staring at me.  In a city where the Golden Rule is not to make eye contact.  Traffic was thick, and the going was slow. The feeling reminded me of patroling Sadr City.

        Relax, man, I thought.  You’ve got 32 tattoos, and you’re a big guy.  You’re a combat vet.  You’ve explored most of Europe and a good chunk of Korea on a Harley.  Besides, didn’t your mother always tell you that you could pull off just about anything if you look at ease and fully confident? 

        Suck in your gut.  Stick out your chest.  Light a cigarette, and smoke it with a sneer, like John Wayne on a Chopper.  Or at least a cutrate version of Peter Fonda.  Adopt the biker persona that let you party with Hell’s Angels in Austria just a few months ago.  Yeah.  I got this.  I started feeling pretty good about myself, although I kept an eye on the rear view mirrors in case anyone tried to bumrush me from behind.  I can do this.  Just look like you belong here, or at least are some crazy whiteboy biker who no one in their right mind would mess with.

        I stopped at the next traffic light, slowly exhaled a wreath of cigarette smoke in a Clint Eastwood snarl; a Western theme song in my head.  “Wah wah-wah.”  Which is when I heard a little voice to my side say, “Hey, Mister.”

        I looked down, to the sidewalk on my right.  There was this little black kid standing there, wrapped in a grubby bubble parka, clutching something that may have once been a candy bar.  Five, maybe six years old.  His eyes were clear and wide, without malice, but with the sure knowledge of someone who has seen more than I have. And he said, in that voice that all children have; y’know, the kind that you can hear above whatever traffic noises are around you–the sort of voice that everyone can hear:

        “Are you lost?”