Young, Dumb, and Blacked Out
By Arvind Dilawar
The lights dimmed brown, then died. On summer break between sophomore and junior year, I was with my high school girlfriend Joyce at our friend Wendy’s house in Bensonhurst. We flipped the light switch off then back on, but nothing happened. Wendy’s father flipped the circuit breakers, but that didn’t help either. We walked outside to see if the neighbors had power, but they were thinking the same thing. Everyone was emerging from their homes, onto their stoops and into the streets to ask, “Did your power go out too?”
We didn’t realize then that, earlier that afternoon, on August 14, 2003, a power line in Ohio came into contact with a tree, triggering a series of events that, compounded by negligence and human error, left an estimated 55 million people in a rough triangle from Ontario to Ohio to Massachusetts without electricity. We were in one of the largest blackouts in history.
It was a beautiful summer afternoon, so, at that moment, the blackout seemed inconsequential; we could play cards until the power came back on. But as sunlight began to wane, fears emerged. The last time that New York experienced a prolonged blackout—during the summer of 1977—the city nearly ripped itself apart in looting, rioting and arson. Would this blackout be any different?
Unable to take the subway back home to Jackson Heights, I stayed in Bensonhurst, and after the sun had set and the city had descended into darkness, Joyce and I set out to survey the neighborhood.
Far from the violence of ‘77, the streets were jovial. Bodega owners were giving away their perishables and ice cream trucks, on many blocks the only beacons of light as far as you could see, became makeshift social centers. An enterprising pizzeria, lit by the headlights of a car parked on the sidewalk, even managed to keep serving customers.
Disneyland-like atmosphere aside, sleeping that night was rough. It was a sickeningly humid ninety degrees—and, of course, there was no electricity to power an air conditioner or fan. I spent the night on a small couch in Joyce’s living room, drenched in sweat with my skin alternately sticking to and becoming unstuck from the leather upholstery. By morning, I desperately needed a respite from the heat.
Without a ride and with the subway still down, Wendy, Joyce and I defaulted to the best choice we had: Coney Island. For an hour, we walked through the baking streets of Bensonhurst, through Gravesend and finally down to the boardwalk. Hundreds, thousands of other New Yorkers had the same idea, arriving in waves from the adjacent neighborhoods, from their oven-like apartments to the shores of lower New York Bay. Never before and never since have I considered Coney Island’s beach, rich with broken glass and cigarette butts, a refuge worthy of tears. We stalked our way through the sweaty hordes already pitched on the beach, hunting for a plot of free sand and eventually finding one halfway to the sea.
Only after laying out our towels did we notice that no one was swimming. As Wendy and I made our way to the water’s edge, a parks department officer ran up to us and said the water was off limits.It was insane. It was sweltering. Parts of the city were still without electricity, and everyone had obviously come here to take a dip. But now even that wasn’t possible. Suddenly, I felt like I understood: If the city had almost torn itself apart in ‘77, it was likely due to an overzealous parks department employee.
Wendy and I returned to our towels and explained the situation to Joyce, but we sat down only long enough for the officer to walk off. As soon as he was farther down the beach, we made a dash for it. Stomping into the surf then diving into the Atlantic was better than just swimming — it was freedom.
We stayed in the water, finally cooling off, splashing around and appreciating our own daring, until the parks department officer turned back toward us. The moment he saw us, he began running. He got to the edge of the water and yelled for us to get out. He kept at it, so we finally caved, slogging back to the beach. When we reached him, we asked him what his problem was. Why—at the beach, during the summer, when the electricity was out and so many people needed a break—why he was being a dick and keeping everyone from swimming?
He was exasperated. He explained that just up the coast was Coney Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. Because of the blackout, the plant had been forced to pump untreated sewage into Jamaica Bay, which the current could channel west — directly to where we were swimming.
“You’re basically swimming in sewage,” he said before stomping off.
Arvind Dilawar writes mostly about the dumb things he’s done, but has somehow managed to have his work appear on TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Mail and, of course, Narratively. Go figure.
Alex Kim is a cartoonist currently living and working in Vermont. See more of his work at www.alexkimcomics.com.
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The Field Trip
By Garon Scott
From my hometown, New York City was a two-hour drive I never took. My first sight of the skyline came when I was sixteen, aboard a regular yellow school bus, in June heat, while friends and I imitated barnyard animals in lieu of an overhead movie. In the window seat beside me, Zach gave up trying to open the pinch-in/slide-down window and lowered forlornly. The rubber seats, slashed with initials, stuck to your skin. We complained, but we always complained. Up front, our chaperone tried on various faces of authority. We were going to the American Museum of Natural History. We had been given packets to complete.
Instructions were shouted, arms waved as we squealed into our designated parking zone; shuffling commenced through the aisle. As we approached 200 Central Park West in a parody of order, I remember being impressed by both the number and popularity of hot dog stands, the sheer touristic weight of the place. Central Park was verdant, the street hummed with life, and well-tended apartments ran on forever.
What kind of kids were we? Mostly we liked to fuck with people, especially teachers. When supervised, mock-incomprehension was our default mode. Our favorite game was “Clog.” It called for at least five sturdy participants and exploited our school’s heavy traffic and narrow corridors. We weren’t so much angry as relentlessly dissatisfied.
Two hundred well-behaved field trippers idled a full twenty minutes in the museum’s vestibule as the last stragglers were corralled and regrouped. Once we’d been counted, sorted, and warded through the turnstiles, three of us—Zach and I joined by our friend Adam—feigned deep interest in some glassed-in remnant of a dead civilization, waited until the ruck had moved on, and about-faced, back through the lobby and out into the New York summer sunlight.
We passed the rump of Teddy Roosevelt’s marble steed, the bizarrely racist African and Native American “guides” flanking it, the tourists taking pictures of it, the vendors selling hot dogs to the tourists. We turned left.
Five minutes into our stroll it was no longer up for debate: The guy walking ahead of us was definitely smoking a joint. Broad daylight, swank locale. A squad car rolled by and only whoop-whooped and drove on. This was new.
I think we made it to the park’s northern bounds before turning into some Upper West Side enclave. I remember one-way streets running through unblemished stone, fire escapes, and scaffolding. I remember nice haircuts toting shopping bags. Porticoes, balusters, molded cornices. I didn’t know these terms, but I felt them flex above me.
We gadded about and drifted. As always, there was more banter, schemes, and free-association than conversation. Eventually we decided on lunch. What do they eat in New York? They eat pizza. So we found a place, one of those long, narrow rectangles where you order at the back and pay up front, not unlike a school cafeteria. Which was great for us because Adam, among his many talents, had a knack for free lunch.
While Adam was inside, Zach and I kicked pebbles on the sidewalk and rehashed the latest development in Clog. The prime locus, we knew by now, was the cafeteria’s lone, Thermopylae-like egress as one lunch period ended and another began, which due to oppositional flow plus the hallway’s crossway traffic was a jam even without our help. In a spirit of malcontent genius, Adam had begun flinging full milk cartons at the exit’s overhang, raining 2% on already-peeved crowds. Results were sensational.
Adam subscribed to the just-walk-out-confidently school of petty theft. He smiled his way through the doors and we were off, extra-large everything pizza in emboldened hand. “Why stop here?” was the general consensus.
Enter a man we would never meet: John Pelaccio, twenty-year-year-old New Jersey resident. The previous fall, Zach and Mr. Pelaccio both saw the Patriots drub the Jets at the Meadowlands. Both made use of the same restroom, where the elder fan dropped his license and the younger plucked it from the urinal’s shadow. Zach said the card gleamed as he bent to the floor. The minerals in piss could be very reflective, we agreed.
Zach and John Pelaccio shared little more than a buzz cut and a vaguely Irish appearance but it was a rare event to be shot down at a corner store, and today was no different. A six-pack of Miller High Life was procured in Mr. Pelaccio’s name, with cash, from an unmemorable bodega. This time it was Adam and me stifling our giddiness on the street, ad-libbing burlesque snatches of conversation when passersby came within earshot.
We got away with everything, totally. Punitive parties were none the wiser. The three of us, scoffing at the real world, found some random stoop and sat on it, ate pizza from the box and drank tall boys from paper bags. We watched the real world go. We had ducked work, rote condescension, authorities who didn’t seem to register open mockery, petty teenage chatter, anxiety, stupidity, disembodied voices over intercoms, the buffoonery by which we kept our dignity.
Three hours later we were back in the yellow caravan, stuck in rush hour traffic. The return trip took twice as long, a good chunk of that time spent shouldering through Manhattan, Harlem, the Bronx, unknown grayer sprawl. People waited at bus stops. Someone’s completed packet made the rounds. The warehouse-and-abandoned-warehouse vista gave way to a graveyard rolled out over hills, and then hedged tree-lines and the roofs of occasional minor headquarters behind them, overpasses behind whose abutments I glanced by force of neurosis for cops doing radar.
There was tall grass in the strip between I-684’s north and southbound roads because the day was Friday, and they mowed on the weekends. Soon would come summer vacation, that beautifully long weekend. Dusk rolled in. We crowed like roosters at dawn.
Garon Scott writes and lays his head in Brooklyn.
Charles Forsman was born in Pennsylvania in 1982. He graduated from The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT and won two Ignatz Awards for his self-published minicomic,Snake Oil. He lives in Hancock, MA, where he runs Oily Comics.
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By Caroline Rothstein
At twenty-five I was a single, aspiring writer and performer, living in the East Village and navigating my severed relationship between dating and sex. I was careful and deliberate in the sexual choices I made, having embraced eighteen months of self-imposed celibacy my junior and senior years of college. I didn’t carelessly sleep around. But when it came to flirting and first dates, I failed to develop the same level of impenetrable security. I was a classic romantic comedy protagonist racking up hilarious story beginnings, yet hopelessly awaiting my chick flick denouement.
That began to change five summers ago in late July. The day began at my friend’s Bronx apartment as we started celebrating his birthday, my first time really hanging out in the Bronx. Then, six of us headed into Manhattan in an overloaded sedan. The birthday boy planned a self-inflicted birthday roast, and he wanted to hold the ceremony on my brand-new building’s roof, with it’s killer view of every bridge to Brooklyn, every midtown high-rise, and the sea of bohemian history in which it floated. We arrived at Saint Mark’s Place, more friends arrived by the handfuls, and we piled onto my roof—the night breeze calming the sticky day.
The party turned a little raucous, punctuated with outbursts of genuine love, and I ushered the two-dozen mostly drunk friends out of my building around three a.m. It’s important that I mention two things at this point. First, I was dead-ass sober, as I am straightedge. Second, I had a crush, based entirely on looks from afar, on a guy who lived in my building: Dave. I left one friend in my bedroom reading my newly finished book manuscript, and hugged the birthday boy and other friends goodbye.
Then my crush appeared, drunk and a little unsteady, amid the huddle of departing friends. We met eyes. We chatted. And for some reason, I joined him as he walked down the street to grab a dollar slice of pizza. I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for in that moment–making out with him, getting asked out on a date, finding out he was the love of my life, or pushing my already hilarious evening into something epically ridiculous, well-aware I had to catch an early-morning flight to New England.
After my crush devoured his slice, we entered his apartment. His roommate was watching television. It was a nice apartment for two single dudes in Manhattan—huge flat-screen, huge black leather couch, all around hugely clean. Until the toilet overflowed.
It was my crush’s fault. His drunken pee—not five minutes after we’d walked inside—turned the bathroom floor into a swimming pool. There was no evidence of anything but clear water, so I had to, and wanted to, assume it was a fluke plumbing issue. To this day, I’m not sure what took over, whether it was my eagerness to impress my crush, my early summers as a lifeguard and camp counselor, my general altruism—or perhaps some Venn diagram cross-section of all three. I grabbed hold of the mop he’d retrieved from his closet, and started mopping. And I didn’t fear getting dirty because it was summer; I wore a tank top dress, spandex shorts to quell chaffing, and flip-flops.
My crush, on his hands and knees, sponged the piss water with towels; the roommate stood aloof in the living room. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember who did the plunging, my crush or me, but does it even matter? I was soaking up a neighbor’s toilet water in the middle of the night for no reason, five hours before I had to arrive at JFK. Even if this gesture of absurd generosity ultimately put me in his good graces, this was simply disgusting, and desperate.
I went back to my apartment, found my friend passed out midway through my manuscript, showered, finished packing, took the A train to JFK, and flew to Maine.
And that was it. That was the end. That was the end of going above and beyond to make boys notice me. The end of my string of first dates, like one with the guy who made two jokes about rape and one about self-mutilation within the first hour of meeting, and still I made out with him in my friend’s stairwell. Or the guy who told me—sitting on a stoop in Chinatown—that he wanted to take me somewhere and bang the shit out of me, amid a string of highly racist comments against anyone who wasn’t white. And I still saw him again, weeks later, on the same stoop.
The toilet plunge was literally the end of this bullshit. The end of pretending the metaphorical toilet wasn’t flooding. The end of pretending I wasn’t capable of acting desperate. The beginning of a relatively long dating dry spell—minus a magical one night stand with an Australian tourist a few weeks later—until I met my current partner in the Spring of 2009 just being myself, neither of us desperate, neither of us plunging for anything excessive at all.
Caroline Rothstein is a New York City-based writer, performer, and eating disorder recovery advocate. She hosts the YouTube series “Body Empowerment” and performs spoken word poetry at colleges and schools nationwide. Follow her on Twitter @cerothstein.
Nick Vokey is an art director, designer, and illustrator based in Cambridge Massachusetts.
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Her Last Summer in New York City
By Rebecca Chao
The last time I saw my aunt, the wild one, was three summers ago in 2010. She visited New York City over two odd days in the middle of a week in August. It had been eight years since we’d seen each other. Back then, I was still a teenager growing up in the Bay Area and she was in her forties. I called her Shiao Ayi, or “little aunt,” since she was the youngest of my mother’s sisters and the only one among them who didn’t let her austere upbringing affect her. She once tried to convince me to ride the hip new Vertigo rollercoaster with her at California’s Great America. I was too cowardly, so she rode off on her own, leaving her young daughter with me. She arrived an hour or so later at our meet-up spot with flushed cheeks, a twinkle in her dark eyes and her black medium-length hair a bird’s nest over her rounded shoulders.
Since then, she had been traveling the world with her husband, a successful businessman and a wisecrack and adventurer, just like her.
“Oh, they’ve been everywhere,” my mother explained vaguely when I asked. “They were last in Paris, I think, or Tokyo or Sydney.” They traveled at least every two months.
Shiao Ayi and her husband had a number of business ventures and once convinced my mother to help them sell odd-shaped aquariums. My mother sold one or two. The rest lay in our garage for years until it flooded during a bad storm, and they all had to be thrown out.
My aunt and her husband were in New York for a business meeting. They brought their grown daughter, Jolie, whom I used to babysit. “Jolie” was a mistakenly misspelled version of “jolly,” a word Shiao Ayi loved and, I think, carried in her eyes. Now fifty, Shiao Ayi hadn’t changed. She was still that plump cherub—content and humorous as ever—except that her hair was styled in a poodle perm of carnelian red and she wore cat-eye glasses of the same color.
Shortly after her arrival, Shiao Ayi invited my mother, my younger sister, Alice, and me to a lavish Greek feast at a restaurant in the theater district—one apparently frequented by Larry David, whom we did pass on our way out. (“Yeah, yeah,” he said with a tired little wave when my younger sister gasped and pointed.)
My mother often complained about her sister’s excesses—they grew up together quite poor in Tapei, their father, a former Kuomintang colonel and their mother, a dragon of a lady who would crush flying cockroaches with her bare hands. My mother recalls constantly having to sweep dirt out of the house and burn balls of coal to cook their meals. She was the eldest, eight years Shiao Ayi’s senior. She helped run the household, learning to save and get by. She had moved from the U.S. to Taipei years before, and she had forgotten most of her English. She and her husband had never naturalized like my mother.
“Shiao Ayi, remember that afternoon when I was seven or eight and I tried to teach you how to pronounce ‘squirrel’ properly?” I asked my aunt in Mandarin during dinner.
“Mmm, I don’t remember,” she said.
“Can you still say it?” I teased.
“You’re missing the ‘r.’”
“Squaal,” she giggled apologetically, knowing she was making no effort to correct herself and didn’t quite care.
My mother cut in, “Why are you eating that?” Shiao Ayi had consumed an entire lobster and was now working on its head.
“That part has the most cholesterol,” my mother said, disapprovingly.
My aunt continued eating, smiling. I wondered how my mother and my aunt got along growing up, whether they squabbled often or if Shiao Ayi just smiled and giggled her way out of every fight.
That next evening, it was our turn to treat Shiao Ayi and Jolie to dinner. Alice and I were particularly excited to show them the best the city could offer and introduce them to restaurant week. We selected a well-established French restaurant in Tribeca with stellar Zagat ratings. We waited impatiently that day to treat Shiao Ayi and Jolie but were disappointed the moment we arrived.
When we arrived, I noticed that the yellow overhead lighting made the restaurant look like an old barn. Faded plastic flowers drooped miserably from garish vases near the entrance, and there was at least one watercolor painting of a seascape, like the ones you find at a dentist’s office. Alice and I exchanged disappointed glances.
Then the food arrived. My first dish—a simple arugula salad—tasted grassy, as if they had forgotten to wash the lettuce. The oil and vinegar seemed to have been poured separately onto the salad so that I’d only get sour or oily mouthfuls of each. When the entrees arrived, I received an overcooked beef bourguignon that required so much chewing it made my jaws sore. Shiao Ayi’s medium rare steak was lukewarm and also overdone. The restaurant’s famous dessert soufflés looked like crooked chef’s hats and they quickly deflated into a soupy mess. Yet Shiao Ayi insisted on eating every bite, even though we implored her not to and suggested leaving for another restaurant. According to Chinese custom, it is rude not to eat your host’s food.
“Don’t worry, really, it’s not that bad,” she chirped with a wide grin, adding, “I will never forget this meal.”
The morning before Shiao Ayi and her family left, we brunched with them at their hotel. My mother was busy tucking muffins into her purse as my aunt ate her fill and watched my mother with glee. We tried to apologize again for yesterday’s inedible meal, but Shiao Ayi told us again not to worry and we promised her better “next time.”
On Chinese New Year, in early February this year, Shiao Ayi and her family flew to Japan for a week. On their return to Tapei, she reached out to grab her luggage and felt a painful tug on her chest. In the coming months, the pain gradually worsened until it sent her to the hospital, where she was told she had lung cancer and that it had metastasized to her bones.
“That’s not all,” my mother said, her voice trembling over the phone. “The doctor said she has high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes. Everything.” It would make treatment much more complicated and hinder her chances of beating the cancer, which were already very low.
My mother does not cry easily, but her voice was raw and sometimes angry over the phone. She rattled on about the diagnoses. She rationalized and tried to figure out where it all went wrong. As my mother spoke, I tried to picture Shiao Ayi. I picture telling her that the awful restaurant we took her to got shut down by Sandy, and I envision her cheeks lighting up like bulbs. I picture her like she was that August in New York—her fiery hair, a bit of summer flush in her cheeks, and an appetite for even the worst New York has to offer.
Rebecca Chao is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the New York Times Local, among others.
Another Brooklyn-based cartoonist, Pat Barrett has drawn for classy publications like the New York Times, Slate, and Garbage Pail Kids.
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Fire Island and the Summer of Pernod
By Susannah Edelbaum
When I was younger, my father’s best advice for drinking underage was never to ask for anything too trendy, sweet or unusual. His own standard teenage order was Johnny Walker Black, rocks, twist—“more booze, less rocks.” Save for the occasional martini, this has been his drink his entire life, and he’s never had any use for drinking trends.
When he was sixteen, his ordering at bars was made even easier with an ID bought from someone named Pell Wilson, Jr. My dad doesn’t remember much about Wilson except that he recently had turned eighteen and was looking to sell his old license. (In New York in 1959, one only needed to be eighteen to drink, and men were issued a new set of identification along with their Selective Service papers.)
A lifelong New Yorker, my dad passed feral childhood summers in Fire Island’s Seaview neighborhood, where his father had built a little glass box of a house to which he and my grandmother were devoted. It was as “Pell Wilson, Jr.” that my father started bartending as a teenager at Goldie’s, a seasonal piano bar facing the bay in Ocean Beach and a popular spot with the island’s summering gay community.
Discreet, tall and cute, from a family of registered socialists on the Upper West Side who loved Fire Island and didn’t care about anyone’s sexuality, he appreciated that it was good job. Except during the summer of 1960, when an insane taste for Pernod took hold out of nowhere, and almost made him quit.
The rumor had spread across the island that the thick, licorice-scented (or reeking, if you ask my dad) liquor was an aphrodisiac, a claim that was never substantiated. That summer, it was all anyone at Goldie’s drank. They took it like a Pastis, on ice with a little water, so the drink turned from clear to cloudy. The reputation for sexual enhancement stuck among both the gay and straight patrons of the bar; from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the owner of Goldie’s couldn’t keep Pernod in stock. Every week, when the bulk of the crowd went back to Manhattan to work, he ordered more cases freighted in. Every weekend the Pernod swillers came back, and he ran out. The shippers didn’t have room on their boats to carry all the bottles he was trying to get.
A night spent at Goldie’s meant that by the end of it my dad’s clothes, hair, and skin all stank of licorice. My father, who did not enjoy Pernod whatsoever, was almost done in. He didn’t bother holding his nose and throwing one back to see if all that business about the aphrodisiac effect was true.
Labor Day came and went, and the summer people went back to New York. My father made it through the season, now and forever an avowed hater of Pernod. The owner of Goldie’s, meanwhile, continued ordering cases of it weekly. After a winter of stockpiling, he had what my father estimated to be the biggest one-bar supply of Pernod on the eastern seaboard. The next year the summer crowd came back to revel at Goldie’s, and no one touched it.
Maybe Pernod’s mythical status as an aphrodisiac had been dispelled. Or maybe everyone realized, like my father, they never liked licorice in the first place. Maybe they just no longer wanted to wake up to its bizarrely lingering scent. At any rate, as my dad says, “the trend just evanesced.” And if the boozing zeitgeist had alighted on some other trend, my father, who is seventy now, doesn’t remember what it was.
When he recalls the summer it brings up dueling senses: memories of fresh summer nights on the dark, quiet island; Goldie’s anything-goes ethos; and to this day, a slight flip of the stomach and an inclination to vomit. He swears that somewhere in a cellar on Fire Island there must still exist a dust-covered supply of vintage Pernod by the case.
Susannah Edelbaum (@susannahJE) grew up in Amagansett and is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is the editor of The High Low and has written for Overflow, Idiom, and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.
James Hindle is an illustrator, cartoonist and designer living and drawing in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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