Hi there, I've swapped out my blog for a tiny letter. You can subscribe at: https://tinyletter.com/gemmyfromtheblock
Hi there, I've swapped out my blog for a tiny letter. You can subscribe at: https://tinyletter.com/gemmyfromtheblock
It’s a source of great excitement in our household, a state-of-the-art gym just a few hundred yards from our front door. Because what keeps us from going to the gym regularly is definitely proximity.
Said new gym is going to take up the entire ground floor of a brand new apartment building, the product of a year’s construction. We’ve lived in the neighborhood long enough now to have known the building that stood there before. It was four stories high and windowless, with a rickety old fire escape snaking around the outside. The entire ground floor then was taken up by a grocery store.
It was an odd grocery store on the inside, with a temporary ceiling and refrigerators for walls. If you were curious, you could tell there was something lurking back there, behind the flavored yogurt and the luncheon meat. But it was hard to tell what.
Once, after they had sold it to a developer, the owners let us venture back beyond the cold storage to see for ourselves.
It was breathtaking. Inside the dark, cavernous space were the remains of a beautiful old movie theatre, one that shuttered in the 1950s: ornate stone cornices framed a large rectangular backdrop where the screen had been, the tall ceiling dappled with a peeling gilt mosaic, graded rows that had once held seats. As if the store was a cheap shoebox kept in a grand, antique closet. We stood there a long time, breathing it in.
My husband and I walked past one afternoon last summer, not long after the demolition began. The remains of the theatre were open to the elements; the wrecking ball clattering it to rubble. We were angry, rueful. We cursed the contractors and their profit margins, the homogeny of luxury condos, the erosion of neighborhood gems, the dearth of secret movie theatres lying dormant behind halogen bodegas.
Now, it’s September and we’ve moved on. A new gym is coming.
His thick boots thud across the floor, a ring of keys clipped to his belt loop jangle against his thigh. Languid gait, wide grin. He orders the usual: black coffee, no sugar. He’s feeling good today.
When the server places his takeout cup down on the counter, he makes an announcement.
“I know everything,” he says, waving his hand with a flourish, looking around the place to secure an audience.
The server smiles, as though this is the kind of thing he usually says.
“I know everything about my tenants." He leans forward, purses his lips, takes a dramatic pause. “From going through their garbage.”
The server busies himself wiping down the coffee machine. “You can’t do that,” he says, with a smile in his voice.
“I can. And I do,” the man replies. He looks around the café, narrowing his eyes at the two separate customers, one sipping a late, the other dusting croissant crumbs off her shirt. “I know what they eat, what they drink,” he says. “I’m a good detective, better than any cop.”
“Pretty sure that’s illegal,” the server says, not looking up as he polishes.
The man juts his chin out. “Nah, it ain’t!” He reaches into his pocket and puts a few dollar bills on the counter. “Listen, people don’t realize how much you can know about their life from their garbage. That’s how I know people do the wrong things. I know all their bad habits.”
His laugh is throaty and gruff. “I even know what kind of medicine they take. The majority of these people are so hooked on legal drugs, man – you wouldn’t believe it.”
The server looks up, smiling. “I’m telling you it’s illegal," he says. "You can't go through people’s trash.”
The man throws his hands up and turns to go. As he walks out, he calls to the server, “You better watch what you throw out!” A theatrical wink. The server shakes his head, cheek raised in a wry, half-smile, and ushers him out with a flick of his wrist.
All is quiet in the café as the door creaks shut. The server’s smile fades as he wipes the counter down.
You’ve been reporting on a football match, your last as a sports journalist. It was a drab, goalless draw on a freezing night in South London. The best part about the game was the free neon fleece they gave you so you could keep warm in the press box. That and the fact that it was your last.
You are done with football and the people in it. You are done with trust, done with romance, done with large swathes of humanity. It has been a supremely crappy year.
You have stupidly arranged to meet up with friends for drinks nearby after the game, after the boring managers’ press conference, after you’ve filed a few paragraphs of dull copy to the newspaper and snapped your laptop shut.
You don’t want to go out tonight. You want to go back to your mum and stepdad’s house and lie on the couch under a duvet watching Love, Actually. You hate Love, Actually with a burning passion. That you want to watch it for the third time in two days is a terrible sign.
You call your mum on your way out of the stadium, still wearing the neon fleece, still lugging your laptop bag.
“I don’t want to go out tonight,” you say.
“Don’t be silly,” she tells you. “You should go.”
Reluctantly, you drag yourself along. A few hours later, you are in a pub with your college friends, your older brother and his girlfriend. A few drinks later, you are start to feel a little brighter.
You don’t know it yet, but in a pub nearby, two American roommates are drinking. They just landed in London from LA and are staying out late to beat their jet lag. They are only here for two nights and every second counts. They are drinking with a group of random English blokes, led by a man named Rob.
At around eleven o’clock, your friends suggest you all move on from the pub, which is closing, to a late night bar fashioned from an old public toilet on Shepherd’s Bush Green. A toilet filled with booze seems like exactly the place you should be right now, so you go along.
At around the same time, the pub the Americans are in is closing. Their new friend Rob offers to take them to a late night bar fashioned from an old public toilet on Shepherd’s Bush Green.
Some time later, you are standing outside the bar/toilet on the green, smoking a cigarette. You gave up smoking years ago, but you’ve decided to take it up again for the holidays, in much the same way you’ve decided to take up watching Love, Actually.
Outside, in the bitter cold, you notice a man with good posture and a nice scarf and a lovely handsome face that is open and kind and disarmingly earnest. He is smiling at you. He radiates goodness in a way you are quite unprepared for on the dregs of this wintry night, on the tail end of this crappy year.
In the meantime, another man approaches you. He is fair-haired and fairly drunk.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
You tell him.
“I’m Rob,” he says.
This is bad news. You have been avoiding the name Rob. Somebody with the name Rob recently broke your heart, contributed greatly to your loss of faith in football and large swathes of humanity, to your current predilection for cheesy romcoms.
“Oh,” you say. “I’m actually not speaking to anyone called Rob right now.”
The man with the good posture and the nice scarf and the lovely, handsome face that is open and kind and disarmingly earnest steps forward. He speaks with an American accent, which is also unexpected.
“I’m not called Rob,” he says.
You chat with him and him alone for the rest of the night.
Later, when you’re sharing a taxi home with your brother and his girlfriend, you keep saying the same thing over and over, because it surprises you.
“I liked him.”
You remind yourself that it will never go anywhere. He lives thousands of miles away and he is leaving in twenty-four hours. And besides, you have lost faith in large swathes of humanity.
Seven years later, you are happily married. You dated each other long distance for a while, before you met in the middle and moved to New York City. You will always be grateful for the things that made that year so crappy and for the drab, goalless draw, and for the random English blokes and the toilet/bar on Shepherd's Bush Green.
This year you became parents to a beautiful baby boy, who is also not called Rob.
The windows look out on a neat front yard where the host is making homemade pizza on the grill. Smoke billows across the lawn and into the quiet street. Inside and outside, there are kids everywhere; one is carrying a baby doll, so it looks as though even the kids have kids. The grown-ups are drinking margaritas out of big, Styrofoam cups.
A couple of newish parents are in town for the week, still getting used to the sensation of bringing a bottle of wine and a baby to the party.
The newish mother isn’t from around here, but she feels like a part of her is, that she understands the locale by now. She is alone for a second, standing by the kitchen table, swilling the ice in her cup so that it makes a delicious crunching sound. Without wishing to seem awkward, she starts chatting with her husband’s oldest friend – the one he has known since they were floating in pockets of amniotic fluid when their mothers made friends in Lamaze class.
She begins by asking him questions about babies; it's her current party trick. Mainly, why don’t they sleep?
He has twin boys, so he has experience. He is quietly pensive for a moment, then he asks her a bold question. “Do you have nightmares?”
She is taken aback, but also impressed by his intuition. She is prone to anxiety in the dead of night, or at dusk, or before her head makes contact with pillow. Just when her husband is pleasantly settling in to read his book, she will sit up or lean over or just lie there, eyes darting around the room. He knows, he sighs, he rests his book on his chest. She is wondering if a plane could come crashing fall through the ceiling, like in Donnie Darko. Or if the whole apartment building could fall into a sinkhole. What about asteroids? Earthquakes? Will their son grow up to know what a lion looks like or will they be extinct by then?
Her husband is patient, knows she is prone to this.
She has had nightmares ever since she can remember, since she was still in diapers and dreamed that a giant, evil badger was chasing her around the garden. She wonders if her son’s sleep is connected to this, if he has inherited this unfortunate trait form her. Sometimes he laughs in his sleep, sometimes he squawks.
She smiles at her husband’s oldest friend, feeling an intuitive connection.
“Yes,” she says. “I have nightmares.”
She wants to thank him for picking up on that. She thought she kept it well hidden.
“Oh,” he says, flushing slightly. “No, I asked if you had a night nurse.”
She laughs, a little too loudly. He does too. Then, for a moment, everything is quiet again. The ice makes a delicious, crunching sound, swirling around around her cup.
To settle yourself, you go for lunch at your favorite café with your husband and son. It’s crowded, of course, because everywhere is. The server seats you in a far corner next to a couple who are in their late sixties or early seventies. They are dressed from head to toe in shades of neon green. He is wearing thick-rimmed circular eyeglasses; she is wearing white, pointed eyeglasses and a neon green headscarf over a black wig. They are so boldly dressed that you don’t know where to look, so you stare at the menu for a long time, even though you know it by heart.
This is the baby’s first experience in a high chair, but that is now the least interesting aspect of this excursion. The neon people are eating lamb and drinking goblets of red wine at noon on a Wednesday, and staring at your baby. Soon, because there’s nowhere else to look, you are all staring at your baby. The baby is nonplussed, staring into the middle distance, gumming on a teething ring.
“He’s so alert,” the woman with the black wig and the neon bandana and the white pointed eyeglasses says.
You smile and agree. “He’s always been that way,” you say.
The baby begins slamming the teething ring down on the table, repeatedly.
The woman watches him, nodding.
“He’s going to be an architect,” she says.
Later, you tell your husband that you must have been away from the city too long. After a few weeks here you wouldn't even register the neon people.
He looks at you, very seriously, for a moment and says, “We seemed to be the only ones who saw them. What if they were ghosts?”
“Don’t,” you say.
Because you can never be completely sure.
You won’t remember the aquabuses or the fishing boats. You won’t remember the kayakers powering along the water with paddles spiraling under the midday sun. You won’t remember the day we spent at the beach, trying to shelter you from the wind, looking out at the shore and contemplating many more days at the beach. You won’t remember that we didn’t spend any more days at the beach.
You won’t remember the nights you woke every hour or less. You won’t remember the other mothers and the other babies who made waking up every hour or less feel okay. You won’t remember the friends we made.
I hope you won’t remember the few hours I spent away from you every day, trying to write. I know you won’t remember the hours I spent away from you berating myself for spending a few hours away from you. You won’t remember Jenny, who loved you and looked after you so beautifully I thought I might be out of a job.
You won’t remember the days when you didn’t see your Dad, because he had to work so much. You won’t remember that he woke up with you every hour that you needed him, even when he had to stay awake for twenty more. You won’t remember the day you spent at his work, being cooed over and carried through a futuristic market filled with people in futuristic makeup. You won’t remember that you cried and screamed so loudly afterwards that we had to laugh, because it was so painful. Sorry about that.
You won’t remember the night I left you with Jenny, so that I could drink rum punch and feel like a seventeen-year-old again, drinking for the first time. Make that thirteen. Don’t drink at thirteen. You won’t remember these months, or this city, this chapter of our lives.
So I’ll remember it for you.
He muses very deliberately over the baked goods and starts adding them one by one to his order. Scones. Cookies. Brownies. Different varieties of muffin.
She shifts around so that she is hovering behind him, just inside his peripheral vision. He needs to know that she is waiting. She needs this coffee.
She is owed this coffee. The world owes her this coffee. This stranger owes her this coffee.
She is a mother. Without mothers there would be no strangers, there would be no coffee, no coffee shops, no decaf soy lattes. She was awake most of the night with a baby who insists on growing. It was a rough one in a month full of rough ones.
They say that society is only ever three skipped meals away from anarchy. Or maybe it's six. Either way, she thinks it seems like a conservative estimate. She wonders if it's the same for sleep; how many missed nights it takes to bring down an empire.
He is still adding baked goods to his order. She suppresses a sigh. She has vowed not to be passive aggressive today. He is making this very difficult.
He taps his card on the counter as he contemplates the shortbread. She shifts from one foot to the other. She wants him to know she is behind him, at least. This man, who thinks he owns the coffee shop. Who thinks he can take as long as he wants when there are sleep-deprived mothers in the vicinity.
The girl at the counter asks if he wants anything else. He thinks for a moment.
She is trying not to put her hands on her hips, not to bore a hole in the back of his head with her eyes. But it could happen. And she won't be responsible if it does. It will be all his fault.
He turns around, smiling, and gestures to her. "And whatever she wants."
She is overcome with gratitude. She thanks him, a little too fervently.
She has to work very hard not to hug him, and cry.
The taxi driver is in his 60s. He came here from India when he was 22. He has wild hair, the kind that shoots out in all directions in feathery tufts. The rearview mirror frames his bloodshot eyes as he glances toward the back seat. Just above his eyebrow is a small Band-aid.
“Look at this.” He waves his hand at a line of garbage trucks parked along the West Side Highway. “Can you believe it? They leave them there, just like that. So dirty, spreading diseases, making people sick. They’re full of trash. It’s disgusting.”
We pass an enormous construction site. “You see this?” He gestures to it. “Apartments. Five hundred thousand more people they’re going to put here. Can you believe it? Five hundred thousand more people. In this city. Crazy.”
Traffic grinds us to a halt outside a magnificent pre-war apartment building, all red brick and cornices. “You know how much people rent those apartments for?” he asks. “Eight hundred dollars, some of them. Can you believe that? Eight hundred dollars a month. So lucky.”
He drives on, hands gripping the wheel, body brimming with robust, barrel-aged resentment.
“I had a house in Brooklyn,” he says. “You know how much I sold it for? Three hundred thousand. I wanted to wait longer to sell it but my wife says, no no, we must sell, we have to pay taxes otherwise. So we sell. You know how much it sells for one year later? Nine hundred thousand. Honestly. Nine hundred thousand. Can you believe that? I would be rich now. But I listened to my wife.”
He drives on. “My wife comes to me, she says can I borrow five thousand dollars? So I give her five thousand dollars. You know what it was for? She got a letter in the mail saying she was going to win two million dollars but she has to pay five thousand first to the IRS. So she sends five thousand dollars. IRS? I told her, IRS doesn’t ask you to send money that way. Are you crazy? Five thousand dollars, gone. She’s so stupid. I told her, nothing in this country is free. You know that? Nothing in this country is free. Oh my god. Sending away five thousand dollars, just like that.”
He stares at the road ahead. “If it wasn’t for her, I would be rich. I wouldn’t still have to work like this. So stupid.”
“Nothing is for free in this country. Nothing.”
It’s August, early evening, inside a macrobiotic café. A chalkboard on the wall invites diners to nourish themselves with whole grains, leafy greens and exotic mushrooms.
A woman sits at a corner table, waiting for a friend. She chews her nails and glances around the room with wide eyes, as if she is alarmed to find herself here.
Her friend walks in, smiling and serene. The woman puts on a strained grin and pulls her in for a brisk hug.
“So, Miss Thang,” the woman says, breezy with a baritone of despair. “Are you all set for the big move to LA?”
The friend smiles as she sits, tucking her hair behind her ears. “Yeah, I think so… Two weeks!”
The woman clenches her knuckles in celebration. “It’s so exciting!”
“Yeah. I’m ready for it.”
“It’s soooo awesome. So awesome...”
She tails off.
“I guess, yeah, it’s pretty great," the friend says. "What about you? How are you doing?”
“Horrible. Joel dumped me.”
“Yeah, it came out of fucking nowhere.” She is loud now, and raw. “At first he was, like, coming onto me all the time, trying to fuck me. Like, every time we got together he just wanted to fuck me and I was like, can we have a conversation, Joel? Can we, like, talk instead of you just walking in and trying to fuck me? And so we talk and he’s like, Okay, the truth is I don’t want to be with you anymore. I don’t love you. The sex isn’t even that great. And I’m like excuse me? That’s on you.”
A waiter begins his walk to their table, arriving as she says, “He’s the one who couldn’t get his dick hard.”
The waiter bows his head. “Can I take your order?”
“We haven’t even looked yet,” the woman says.
He backs away, slowly. The friend picks up the menu and stares at it. “This place is awesome.”
“Yeah, it’s cool. Anyway, so I’m like, couldn’t you just have talked to me about how you were feeling? Couldn’t you have given me that, at least? Like, talked it over? And he’s like, I am talking to you about my feelings: I don’t want to be with you anymore. And I’m like, that’s fucking great. We were gonna start looking at apartments in the Fall. We were planning to go on vacation, now that’s not gonna happen.” She looks down at the table. “A few days later we unfriended each other on Facebook and he stopped following me on Instagram. And that was it.”
“That’s so awful. When did this happen?”
“Two weeks ago. It’s been the most awful two weeks.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“And last year, in December, my grandmother had a heart attack and died. So I’m like, what am I even doing here in New York?”
“Come out to LA!”
“I’d love to. Believe me. I would love to be, like, acting or filmmaking or something, but I can’t face the thought of moving out there and struggling, you know? Besides I’m teaching here now and that’s permanent and I just don’t want to go where there’s all those people looking cute and competing for jobs.”
“Yeah… I feel like that sometimes too.”
“But you’re doing great! What’s that show you’ve been on lately?”
“Yeah. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard it’s hilarious.”
“Yeah… No, it is. It’s really cool.”
“Do you watch Girls?”
“Yeah. I think it’s awesome. So funny and insightful and erudite and like, fucking true.”
“So fucking true.”
The waiter edges forward again. “Can I take your order?”
“I’ll have the shitake ramen,” the friend says.
“Can I just have a vegetable broth?” the woman asks.
“Just broth?” says the waiter. “With nothing in it?”
“I’ll have whatever it comes with.” She hands him back the menu and turns to her friend. “It’s not like I’m fucking eating right now anyway.”
The waiter persists. “Yes, but it won’t really taste like anything.”
“That’s fine.” She waves him away. “Can I ask…” she says to the friend. “Are you online?”
“Yeah… I don’t know… Sort of… Are you?”
“Oh god no, I’m not ready for that. It’s been two weeks. No. But I think when I am ready I’ll do a little J-Date, a little Match. But the thing that scares me… I just, I don’t know if I can get over it… I’m horrified that I’ll go on dates with guys and they, like, won’t know who David Foster Wallace is. I mean, it’s not like I’m a fan, but… you know?”
“It’s scary. I just don’t know how to even think about going on a date right now.”
“You’ll be fine. You’re so…. awesome.”
“Thank you. People tell me that. My friends are like, you’re so smart and funny and chill, and I’m like well, tell that to Joel!”
“Yeah, but, you dodged a bullet there, you know.”
“Totally! Oh no, totally.”
“Just like, yeah…”
The air settles. The woman places her napkin on her lap. “So where are you staying when you get out there?” she asks.
“A friend of mine has a place. He’s really cool. He’s like a really cool character actor. I think he was in O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“Cool. You know Jenny’s out there too. Do you know Jenny?”
“No, but I follow her on Instagram.”
“Yeah, she’s living out there. She’s doing great, she’s so happy.”
“She looks happy!”
“Super cute kids. But they had them, like, right away.”
“What is that about?”
“When they have babies right after they have weddings? I know. Like, fuck you.”
“Totally. But she seems really happy. I mean, from Instagram.”
“She is. You should look her up.”
“I will. It’s just so cutesy cutesy sometimes, you know? Her Instagram.”
“Ugh, I know. I’m so glad I can’t check Joel’s anymore.”
The waiter arrives and sets down the food, then quietly retreats. They both dunk their spoons into their bowls and take slurps.
“Mmmm, this is so good,” the friend says. “Perfect choice. When you suggested this place I was like, oh my god, she knows me so well.”
The woman nods, then calls out to the waiter. “Can I get some chili flakes or some hot sauce? This doesn’t really taste like anything.”