After I’d been living in my current apartment for six years, a cute couple moved in across the hall. I was going through a phase in which I detested cute couples, and I’d never been a fan of neighbors. Part of why I’d moved to New York in the first place was to claim the voluptuous anonymity the city promised. My clan had never been big on boundaries and on top of that there’d always been Old Lady MacNamara. Hanging over the fence between our two houses, she’d spent her days passing judgment on my half-Jewish family’s goings-on as she smoked the cigarettes that eventually killed her.
I defined a good neighbor the same way I defined good weather: an entity that never made its presence known.
But T and G were different. The day they moved in, I was scrubbing my apartment with the doors and windows flung wide open, blasting the air with Aretha Franklin’s Soul 69 and hippie cleansers. They grinned at me over the boxes they were toting but made no idle chitchat. A few days later, T came by looking for a needle. While I fetched her one, she eyed the coathook precariously hanging from my wall. “I’m bad at boy things,” I told her. “And my boyfriend and I just broke up.”
She didn’t say anything, but returned a day later with a toolbox and reattached the hook. No processing first or “I’ll do it later, baby.” Just a girl with a drill. I began to grasp the advantage of good neighbors over mediocre boyfriends.
Slowly we all became friends. I dropped off copies of the lurid gossip magazine where I was working and leftovers from my Sunday dinners. They helped me hang all my pictures and brought over leftovers as well. All of us, it turned out, liked to cook, though T didn’t love meat as much as G and I did, and I tended to cook with more butter and salt than both of them put together. As the nights grew colder and longer, we’d sip wine and make meals together. Afterward, we’d watch The Wire, which they’d never seen and at whose altar I worshipped in an annual ritual of strict sequence and even stricter silence. (First rule of The Wire: You are not smarter than The Wire so you do not interrupt The Wire.) One night, as we noiselessly took in back-to-back episodes of Season 2 on their tweedy couch, I realized I’d come to love my neighbors. Continue Reading →
I’m up early today, already digging on the different quality that a mere extra twenty degrees imparts to winter air, because, really, I never fell back asleep after I screamed at the kids partying on the first floor of my building.
Rest assured I loathe the word “party” as a verb, but that’s the word for the loathsome activity that had been holding my entire apartment building hostage last night. The coked-up Alexander Dumbasses in 1R had been blasting their mediocre dance music and scrabbling around in the hallway on audibly cheap heels, repeatedly slamming our heavy front door and screaming to each other in MySpacese. I’d been lying in my bed, simmering and then seething, reminding myself that at some point that might have been me. Another voice kept hissing, though: Dude, you taught yoga in your 20s and went to Quaker college. At least you would’ve given your neighbors a heads-up that there was going be a party and I know you would’ve tapered it off before the older Italian couple on the second floor started dressing for church. Not to mention you would’ve been blasting music that actually got you laid.
At 5:45 am I finally lost my shit. Threw a robe over my hideous nightgown and thumped down two flights of stairs, hair standing on end in an uncultivated way that might’ve looked cute when I was, say, my neighbors’ age. But now: just pissed-off hair on pissed-off me.
I banged on the door as hard as cops do and when a girl opened the door — her eyes glassy, her nose rabbity, her skirt Robert Plant-short — I balled my fists and barked in a voice I’d almost forgot I had: “What is it going to take to get you to shut the fuck up?”
The girl stared at me, entirely blank, and whispered, “Okay.” The music went off immediately. Five minutes later a mass trampling in the hallway was followed by one last, weakly defiant slam. Mama had ended the party.
I tromped upstairs, and lay back in bed, heart thumping in my throat, Max and Ruby’s tails swishing furiously. Nearly 37, a cat lady alone on a Saturday night, and still I thought I was better than those douchebags sowing their seemingly endless wild oats. Let them do this for two years, I thought, and then rush back to the suburbs that spewed them once NYC seemed so dang safe. Let them have two more years of bad sex and overpriced meals and dumb outfits in histrionically overdocumented spaces. Give them two more years of something to blog about and then, just as they’re rounding 30’s corner, let them scurry back to 401ks and their expensively reproduced DNA that they’d freak if they didn’t have to remind them to grow up. Let them pretend they’re city dwellers but never really learn anything from or about the very place they live. Let them live in this fabulous, dreadful quagmire for two more years without once silently nodding at someone whom they’d never run across in the cushy world from which they emerged. Let them be hipsters; I’m a bohemian who never wants to return to the mostly dark muddle that spawned her. Fuck’em if they can’t shut the fuck up.
I blame the whole thing on the Wire, honestly. For five months I’ve been in Wire boot camp and it doesn’t exactly teach you to suffer fools gladly. Yancey and I watched the first three seasons together, but after the split I couldn’t bear to watch Season 4 when it aired. Eventually I got over that silliness and realized I needed to start from scratch before Season 4 came out on DVD. The last five months’ free time — which has scarcely existed, save for certain trips to Massachusetts — has been spent in the following way:
1. My Wire buddy Kristal comes over or I skulk over to her East Village joint.
2. We eat a meal that one of us prepared with more care than we’ll ever admit to the other.
3. We drink a bottle of something strong while we silently watch as many Wire episodes as we can.
We barely talk about anything not Wire-related. If we do talk about anything else, it’s mostly comprised of the famous Fucks, Bunk and McNutty style. Mostly we just sort out the show and let it sort us out. To extol its virtues here would be radically redundant: you’ve either already surrendered to its brilliant articulation of power theory or you will. As well, since the show is finally reaping a modicum of what it’s due, much has been written about it elsewhere.
But I will say this: what the show most thoroughly achieves is perspective. It throws into high relief how overstated everything else is — not only onscreen but in daily life and conversations. This show possesses heart and brains and balls and yes, mofo, pussy, and it does so without once laboring to make sure you know. God knows it doesn’t cater to those baby tomatoes who can’t catchup. And it sure as hell doesn’t fall prey to the Klever with a K meshigos that I apparently will never resist. It just tells an untold story with wit and empathy, and leaves it to you to keep track of its bits and pieces. This may be the only TV show that not only teaches you something in particular but makes you generally smarter. It coaches you to really pay attention. Gives you what they call in the Baltimore Police Homicide Division “soft eyes.” Goes on to show that every cog matters — especially the ones that have been officially erased because they can achieve that much more since no one’s looking. Any self-aggrandizing just falls against the natural order this show lays out. Vanity is a luxury ill-afforded; egoism the true crime. That’s what idiot-savant McNulty’s rise and fall and rise and fall teaches us.
Which is why, going back to my neighbors, I’ve become less tolerant as of late. I moved to Brooklyn 15 years ago not because I thought it would be a lark but because I never thought there’d be another place for me. I didn’t just come here for some stories to tell later; I came here to finally live amongst people who weren’t all like me or each other, and didn’t aspire to be. I came to Brooklyn, not Manhattan, and even then I was aware I was part of the very gentrification that we’d all come to bemoan. But back then we did it differently. We planned (or at least I did) on sending our kids to NYC public schools, and involving ourselves in improving them. We smoked dope; didn’t do bumps. We worked in Community Gardens, got involved in local causes. We got to know our neighbors. I always picked up litter — and yelled at kids for littering. (Still do.) I was aware of my tendency to pat myself on the back for mixing with what I still viewed as local color, but I hoped I’d grow out of that shit, and I mostly have. Hell, these days, as a late-30s woman who’s hung on to her rent-stabilized pad even during the years that crackdealers and a real-life brothel also inhabited the building, I think I’ve actually become part of the local color. I’ve been doggedly un-upwardly mobile because I just couldn’t bear the kind of job I’d been programmed to seek, but I was at least conscious that my poverty was a choice rather than the inescapable reality experienced by many in my chosen city and my family of origin. And when I finally did surrender to that stable gig — which, yes, I did this fall — I became another taxpayer, as they say on the Wire. Someone who wants her stoop nice.
So it’s going to take more than those punks on the first floor to get me to give up on my sleep. Not only because those kids don’t bode enough real danger, Bodymore style, for me to steer clear, but because, hell, I can’t respect how they just can’t shut the fuck up. And if Omar and Keema and Bunk and Lester and Daniels and Rawls and Stringer and Avon and Prop Joe and Marlow have taught me anything, it’s how to back somebody down with a silent stare followed by a few well-chosen words that pack a punch no one knew was coming.
Of course that leaves me in a funny place as a film critic. During this fall that I’ve been immersed in the Wire, all cinema has seemed so damn spelled out. Yes, I’ve still been sitting in on tons of screenings — I’ve been writing for Flavorpill more than ever and even writing up some mainstream ditties for my mainstream mag — and am more than willing to admit that 2007 was the best year US cinema has seen in at least five years. I have even concocted my top-11 list (quel Spinal Tap, I know):
11. Romance & Cigarettes
10. Michael Clayton
9. The Host
7. The Bourne Supremacy
6. Broken English
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
3. Away From Her
2. There Will Be Blood
1. I’m Not There
But most of this list overlaps with those of my colleagues and what doesn’t I haven’t been in the mood to discuss. I’ve held every film and every conversation to The Wire‘s tremendous economy and long view, and what can live up to that? I suspect, for example, I might not have hated films like Eastern Promises or Gone Baby Gone quite so much if I hadn’t been watching a show that made Scorsese seem incredibly overdone.
I wasn’t surprised by this year’s trend of wildly violent Westerns — both withholding and overdrawn — given that the US impulse of Manifest Destiny is currently tearing the entire Middle East an unnecessary new asshole. (There Will Be Blood is by far the best of this lot.) I took to Away From Her and Broken English but knew their grown-up, terribly feminine sadness would drop like a thousand trees in an unpopulated forest. And I loved I’m Not There in such a personal, fierce way that it hurt to argue about it as I did whenever the subject was broached.
Suffice it say that it was the first successful music biopic ever made because it wasn’t so much about Dylan as it was about the ’60s that bore him — the state of mind that really sprawled from Guthrie’s ’40s to the Vietnam ’70s. It was about the last time Americans thought that not only they could change but that they could love their country and still seek to change it. It’s about how much artists can reasonably be expected to owe their audiences and how much influence they can reasonably expect to wield. About whether art can really impact social change, and whether it should be expected to. It is even about the mutability of identity, and the impermeability of soul. Lofty stuff, for sure, and I’ve been accused whenever I’ve attempted to discuss this of being everything from fake-populist to elitist, but I think that big ideas beget big ideas and it’s okay to expect our film and even our television to aspire to such levels and it’s okay to try to talk about them. Even fake populist to not try. Certainly a loss. With all apologies to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman, Todd Haynes created in I’m Not There easily the most original film of this decade, which renders it the most original film of the millennium. And he did it by achieving a cinematic expression as variegated and ragged and unhappily gorgeous as his subject(s).
But more than that, this movie feels like home because it nails so many moments and emotions that carve at the loneliness I carry. It channels what I love about my borough and The Wire, too. The willingness to acknowledge (as Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns suggest over and over in interviews) that no one is solely a saint or a sinner. That human nature is so complicated that unnecessary embellishments are at best whistling in the dark and at worse a disavowal of the richness that already exists on every corner. That sometimes a new language must be manufactured in order to communicate what we don’t normally say, even to ourselves. And that learning a new language doesn’t exactly entail easy listening.
I cannot wait for The Wire Season Five premiere. But I’m going to try, just like I’m going to try in this new year to not hold every other show as well as myself to its impossibly high standards. Otherwise, I may never write more than 200 words of criticism at a time again.