June 15, 2008

The Stinktown Wiseass


Shortly after dawn on day four of New York’s first pre-summer heat wave of 2008, the oily breeze sliding through my window told me it had finally happened. All the piss and dog shit and rotting garbage that had been trod deep into the pavement over these past few years had finally started bubbling to the surface again. A sharp, eye-watering, inescapable stench had settled back over the city. Given the state of my olfactory nerves, the very fact that I could smell it told me it was intense. That it had reached the pristine, delicate streets of my neighborhood meant it had already swept over the rest of the city—and that it was here for the duration of the summer. It was the kind of stench that not only gets in your clothes and your nostrils, but sticks to everything else, too—walls, sheets, cars, trees, pigeons, billboards, telephones—and you can’t wash it away.

            It was as if that heavy-duty urban deodorant applied so liberally over the past, what, fifteen years, had finally given up the ghost. Despite the best efforts on the part of various city administrations to make it a clean, safe, family-friendly tourist destination, New York finally smelled like the New York I knew and loved all those years ago.

            It may be the sign of some deeper problem, but I’ve always found the stench of New York in the summer comforting, somehow. First time I ever visited, I stepped out of the antiseptic air-conditioned depths of Penn Station into the middle of an unbearably hot and humid July afternoon, and was nearly knocked to the ground by the smell. Ever since, it’s been that unbearably human stench that has always said “New York” to me. It’s the smell of Times Square grind houses and Show World, mid-eighties Coney and an East Village where things still actually happened. Street dealers and street crime. It’s a sweet balm to my disgruntled spirit. Or maybe I just tend to enjoy things that nauseate most normal people. That twist of disgust on their faces always makes me smile (and vice versa).

            Ironic thing is, I’ve always despised summer. Ever since I was a kid I’ve dreaded and hated it. Heat and I simply do not get along. It leaves me queasy and distraught. I can’t even type once my fingers get sweaty, and that frustrates the hell out of me. Part of that may be because I haven’t had a working air conditioner for about ten years now, making due as I can with two small fans, and they just aren’t cutting it anymore. I don’t like going outside as a rule, but during the summer coming back here is even worse.

            Along with being queasy and distraught and unable to type, I also tend to cast all sense of self-respect and personal dignity to the wind during the summer. Not that I cling to those things much during the rest of the year, but it becomes much more obvious in summer. I’m not the only one—a trip down to Brighton Beach on any given summer weekday will bear me out—and so far this summer’s been worse than most. The shirt (which I tend to wear for a week or two at a stretch) stays unbuttoned. The sweaty, pale belly expands and folds over on itself. I stop bothering with deodorant—and moreover, don’t care that I’m no longer bothering with deodorant. For the first time since the mid-eighties, I’ve even started wearing short pants outside again, and I don’t care if black socks are suitable attire with shorts or not. They’re all I’ve got. In fact I wish I had some “man garters” to keep them up. Fortunately for the neighbors, I don’t go out much—I sit in here and grumble and sweat and listen to my Don Ho and Herb Alpert records. Then I sweat some more.

            In a way, I guess, I become a one-man embodiment of a New York Summer—sloppy, smelly, cranky, unpleasant to visit. All we need now to complete the picture is a blackout.

            The only thing I’m missing at this point is a machete—though on the downside, having a machete would probably make me want to go outside more. Meet and greet some of the neighbors.

            That’s something I’ve noticed this summer that’s struck me as odd—the shortage of machete attacks. Normally New York’s machete season begins in mid-May and rolls merrily along through the end of September (or until things begin to cool down). You can usually count on close to a hundred machete attacks every year. Something about the heat—and I guess we can all relate to this—makes people want to start hacking up strangers and loved ones. And most everyone, it seems, has a machete in the house for some reason, so there you go.

            This year, however, has been unusually quiet. Granted, I haven’t been following the local crime blotters with the consuming passion I used to, but still it seems odd. The only machete story I’ve heard so far this season involved a road rage incident in which a man, after being threatened by another driver, grabbed his machete and began swinging it around.

            (Think about that for a second—who are these people who go driving around with a machete next to them on the front seat? What are they expecting? And how many of them are out there, casually driving down Lexington Avenue?)

            In any case, I miss the daily machete attacks. You add the pungent tang of fresh, hot blood to the aforementioned piss, shit and rotting garbage and the stench only becomes that much more intoxicating. But again, maybe that’s just me.

            (See what happens when I get stuck in an overheated apartment with no air conditioning all day? I start to think like myself again!)

            So here’s to the stench of days gone by, when flamboyant pimps strolled the Deuce unfettered, and graying countermen at Greek diners on Eighth Avenue kindly asked you to check your gun when you sat down. Something in me would desperately like to believe that the return of the summer stench—like the return of the Bald Eagle or the Grizzly Bear—is a sign of better days to come in this town (better days for some of us at least). A rebirth of the depraved spirit that made this city what it was. Somehow, though, I doubt it.


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