Ah, the tyranny of mere chronology. First I did this, then I did that. I’m thinking I should start putting the really interesting stuff first. But on a day like Thursday, what would that be, exactly?
It is startling how many people are in the gym at 5:29 a.m. on a weekday morning, working on their hunter-gatherer hearts. Enough, anyway, that the fanciest gerbil steppers – the ones with the moving handles, which let you push with your arms instead of just stepping – are all taken, and I am forced to use one of the stripped-down models. So what to do with my arms? I can let them hang loosely, or I can bring them up to bob at chest level, as if I were running. Neither one feels natural at first. One thing I won’t do is use them to lean heavily on the rails at the sides of the machine, as some people do, locking their elbows to take most of their weight off of their legs. True, this allows them to move their legs faster than they would otherwise be able to, but only because their legs are doing less work, an approach that would only make sense if the goal here were to exercise the machine’s pedals rather than one’s own body. As I warm up and start to move faster, my arms rise into what feels like the posture of a shadowboxing boxer, and then there is no more thought about my arms, just pure effort and the sweat streaming down my face.
When I used to use these machines regularly, I was in the habit of bringing along a magazine to flip through while I stepped, but now I am out of this routine and have arrived empty-handed. I can stare at the floor between my pedals or at one of the six televisions ranged along the wall above the windows. The moving image is entrancing, as always. But I don’t watch television for the pictures, I watch it for the juxtapositions. An Air Force recruiting commercial ends with a dramatic image of helicopter taking off at night and the motto “go where you want to go.” Next, a brief item concerning five U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, killed in a helicopter crash. And in entertainment news, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress has sold at auction for $192,000. A show called “Morning Joe” begins, one of these new types of shows in which cameras have been placed in a radio studio and we can watch the host leaning close to an enormous microphone suspended from the ceiling on an articulated arm. The guest is Joe Scarborough, and the two Joes seem to be competing for some sort of fatuity prize. Do they ever stop talking about the news long enough to read it?
I can’t hear the television, of course, and the closed captioning lends an air of surreality, since whoever is typing it up – humans? a computer? – often seems barely able to understand what is being said. Bizarre koans like “I must went closet with this” spool up the screen, and it takes a few seconds for me to understand that this represents something like “I just want to close with this.” Meanwhile, the talking heads are about 30 seconds ahead of the text, so their gestures and facial expressions aren’t any help in deciphering the text, though they give some hint of what is coming, a glimpse of the future, the sight of the mushroom cloud reaching us five seconds before the sound and the heat.
No dice with the cat-food changeup. Her Highness Miss Zuzu called my bluff and made clear that she would rather starve to death than eat another bite of any of the four different kinds of dry cat food I currently have on hand. My brother reported that she was so hungry on Wednesday night that she kept lunging at the piece of pizza he was eating, mewing furiously. I found an old can of “beef giblets feast in gravy,” left over from when we used to give her wet food every morning. (We stopped when she got bored with that, too, and started leaving the food to fester on her plate all day.) I gave her a few forkfuls and she ate it so quickly that she all but inhaled the plate. All right, guess we’ll try that for a while. When she gets bored with the wet food again, I guess it will be time to move on to egg-white and fennel omelettes. Maybe I should hire her a personal chef.
On the radio, as I drive to work, I hear the story of a local Marine lance corporal who recently turned 22 while overseas in Iraq. His mother took a picture of the cake she baked for him and posted it on his Myspace page so that he could see it. He asked her to save him the “22.” On the phone, they talked of his desire to dedicate a memorial of some sort to fallen Maryland soldiers. A few days later, he joined their ranks. His mother is working on the memorial. There will be no shortage of names: Maryland’s biggest National Guard deployment since World War II just started two months of training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. They will arrive in Iraq in late summer.
And another suicide at Guantanamo Bay, where – I am surprised to learn – we hold one prisoner who was fifteen when he was captured during the invasion of Afghanistan. He just fired his lawyer. In the Sun: “He doesn’t trust American lawyers, and I don’t particularly blame him,” said Marine Lt. Col. Colby Vokey, who was taken off the case yesterday.”
At work, back to editing. I am giving the famous 140-page policy report another read-through. Amazing: no matter how many times you go through a piece of writing, you always seem to find more to change – word choice here, grammar/punctuation there, and some of the mistakes embarrassing indeed, so I’m glad I’m doing this. I wanted to force myself through the first 50 pages at least, so I turned off my computer to put some obstacles between myself and my compulsive email checking and paced the floor while I read to keep from getting drowsy. The building was silent save for the whoosh of passing traffic and the occasional – but not occasional enough – screaming match on the sidewalk below, a pedestrian route plied by a class of people who do not seem to make much distinction between a public street and their living rooms, and who seem to hew to a “get it off your chest as loudly as possible” philosophy when it comes to their resentments and frustrations. The exchange I heard as I read was typical.
Woman’s voice, loud, shrill: “Thanks a lot!”
Man’s voice, booming, aggressive: “Thanks what, motherf***er?! You the one started it, you dumb b*****!”
On my next pass across the room, I glanced out the window in time to see their backs moving away down the sidewalk, a small child wearing a large backpack trailing behind them.
I worked a little late so that I wouldn’t have to go home before a seven o’clock dinner date with my mom, a friend of hers, and my brother at Thai Arroy in Federal Hill. I thought there was no chance that it would take me less than a half hour or so to find parking, but with amazing luck I found a spot almost directly across the street, perhaps the very one that the driver who ended up crashing into Regi’s on Tuesday had been aiming for when his brakes failed. I bartended there in the summer of 2004, but it’s been years since I’ve walked right by the place and I was surprised to see some familiar faces in the street outside, locals who often stopped in for a drink. The doctor who was a chardonnay drunk and for some reason was allowed to drink for free. The blonde woman with stern Swedish features who always ordered either a near-beer or an orange juice, and who habitually wore the facial expression of someone who has been handed a turd instead of her drink. No sign, of course, of the one I’ve long dreamed of running into: cheap vodka drunk Jack (drunk on cheap vodka and also a cheap old man), who once put me through the wringer on a busy night about a confusing check after he and his two dining companions decided at the last minute that they wanted separate checks after all, not a simple thing to redo on the old-fashioned cash register Regi’s was using at the time. I don’t know what I would say to him if I ever did see him, but I have a few fantasies.
At Regi’s, they have already re-erected their sidewalk-dining canopy, and a full house of diners appeared willing to stare death in the very fangs by eating there. Can you imagine? After all, there was an accident there yesterday, which – by the usual lazy logic that seems to come into play after plane crashes, terrorist attacks, and even minor mishaps like this one – means that there is a high likelihood of an accident there every day forever. Alan, the owner, is on record in the paper with his plan to advocate for concrete jersey barriers along the sidewalk in front of his restaurant, a sort of “green zone” for his clientele of spoiled young mortgage brokers and middle-aged married couples who can only stand each other after a few belts of gourmet-fruit-infused vodka on the rocks. As I waited in front of Regi’s to cross the street, a Baltimore City Fire Department ladder truck rolled past, the fireman in the front passenger seat pointing and laughing at Regi’s, the rest of the crew wearing big grins as they leaned out for a look.
Thai Arroy served up some delicious beef pa nang (mine) and tofu pad thai (my brother’s and mother’s). (I didn’t try the shrimp pad thai enjoyed by my mother’s friend, but it looked good.) I tried the tofu and it was easily the best I’ve ever eaten, crispy and with a mild, satisfying flavor that might even be enough to convert those who think they hate the stuff. It’s BYOB there, too, so make sure you bring along a bottle of crisp white wine.
My mother and her friend stopped by the house after dinner briefly, so that the friend could see the house, and then they left and it was off to bed, because 5:10 a.m. comes early. It was a little difficult falling asleep, though, what with the painters who worked past ten p.m. on the house next door and the hordes of people who hang about on the street these days, making leisurely throws at the portable basketball hoop that seems to be almost a permanent fixture at the head of the alley.
My Baltimore lullaby: a bouncing basketball and the chirrip chirrip of walkie-talkie cell phones.
[Bird Camp update on Saturday. I promise promise promise.]