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Social Life

They come; they see me; they have their own lives to attend to

Something in my apartment smells like nail polish. Perhaps it's the trash. It might be the dishes.

My friends Jane and Larry are in town, visiting me. Larry attaches to Jane like a tick. What can you say, over coffee, to people lashed together? On the subway, he whispers in her ear and she looks away, ignoring his whisper. Pushing, shoving, yanking, and pulling each other.

I'm free from them for a few hours, so I'm writing this. Thankfully, I'm housesitting for a friend on vacation, so I can give Jane and Larry their own apartment for the night, let them screw, and hope it calms Larry down. He's a giant, cloying kid at 33, pulling at her skirt. It repulses me, it repulses her, and he is repulsed by himself. At least we think alike.

I haven't slept in Brooklyn since Wednesday. On Christmas Eve, I volunteered overnight at the women's homeless shelter in the basement of the Society for Ethical Culture, on 63rd and Central Park West. Christmas day went quickly; I woke in the shelter, my big feet shivering, signed their bus manifest, said happy holidays to each woman, and arrived home at eight in the morning. Over the warm December day, I read the newspaper, napped, read another paper, took in more Portrait of a Lady, then returned to the shelter for another night on a green plastic mattress and sheets stamped "NYS DHS," for "New York City Department of Homeless Services." The homeless women, who chat but keep their distance, wished me a merry Christmas.

On Friday morning, I left the shelter and walked uptown to work. The $10 Internet game we launched on Tuesday crashed unsupervised on the holiday; 40 customers received nothing for paying, with the game's creators vanished on vacation. I worked through the day to repair a dozen broken things, learning how to play, then solving problems as I found them, all frustrating detail work. I called a coworker at home and explained the situation, asking him to dial in through his modem and help. "It looks as if this horrendous pile of shit has dropped into my underpaid lap," I said. "You know, Bob, I would prefer to have baby alligators bite off my testicles than deal with any of this." The other people in the room stopped, looked at me, and began to laugh.

After they laughed at me, my mood improved. I stopped carping, and at three, my friends Jane and Larry called, to tell me they were coming into the city and would like to stay with me. I met them at Penn Station. Right before their train arrived "Willy B," the "poet of Penn Station," asked me to buy some photocopies of his poems. I gave him two bucks and he whispered, "between you and me, I'm a little crazy."

"You gotta be crazy, you're a poet," I said. Jane and Larry arrived, their eyes glazed over and their hands trembling from their visit with Jane's family in Hudson, NY. We took the 1 up to my friend's apartment and drank gin and tonic until we were smashed, then went to eat hamburgers at the American Diner around 74th. We slept over on the Upper West Side, listening to my friend's Johnny Cash CDs and playing with his blue-eyed cat.

Jane and Larry fought with each other several times during the night. I don't know how the fights started. Larry's mewling-kitten whine cut right through my door. "Jane...why?" They were annoyingly hushed, but still noisy, and each time I stared out my bedroom's iron-grated window, waiting for them to shut up, trying not to listen.

At 11 today, I woke them, and we ate breakfast at the New Wave Cafe on Broadway off 79th. From there, we walked into the 60's, where I bought three tickets to Titanic. $8.75 each. "I'm hemorrhaging money," I thought, emptying my wallet to the ticket clerk. In the theater, I was starstruck by Kate Winslet, who looked real and late-Victorian, and after the movie I cried and felt spent and sad.

Then I split with Jane and Larry. I took the 1 to 14th and switched to the F. Walking to the F, I stopped and bought a Times. A man who said he was homeless stood by the newsstand. He saw me pull sixty cents from my pocket and before I could but the paper, he came over and asked for cash. I said "no," firmly. I felt a sleepy annoyance, knowing that he wanted me to feel guilty about buying the paper instead of giving the money to him. He asked again. I shook my head, and coldly said "happy holidays." I felt his eyes after me as I walked down the corridor.

I took the F home and called my brother. I am missing my goddaughter's birthday by staying in the city, but I can't afford the $150 round trip train ticket to Baltimore. I talked to each family member in turn--sister-in-law, goddaughter, nephew, brother, mother, and finally, father. I felt rotten with guilt as I hung up the phone.

And then I came here to type this. Now I'll do some freelance work for the New York Council for the Humanities, building their web site, and later, Jane and Larry will call. I'll return to Manhattan for dinner with them, at the home of my friend. Tonight, I'll set them up to sleep and fight, and I'll go somewhere else and sleep myself.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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