WINDOW SEAT.

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UNCOVERING WORMS IN THE BIG APPLE
[posted 10.22.2002]

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FOR THE LAST FIVE years, I have resisted staying in Chicago. In aggregate, I must have spent months making deadlines to leave, telling myself post-grad lingering was pathetic and that whatever relationship I was in wasn’t worth staying here for. I never actually admitted to living here, but rather told people that I had just arrived (even two or three years later) or was finishing plans to leave (which never quite materialized). As a salve on this geographic wound, I grew accustomed to making regular trips to New York, where I had lived prior and where most old friends had settled.

But in the past year each visit has lessened my desire to return. My tenure in the prairie has, as my friend Matt put it, “detoxified” my system. Mulling over that suggestion for a while, I recognized that I was indeed looking through the eyes of a Midwesterner. It was unclear, however, whether I had developed clarity or glaucoma.

BETRAYING MY FOREIGN STATUS

My first day of a visit to New York this summer, I boarded the 7 train with my regular hotelier J., a friend who is prouder of living in the last borough than one ought be. I offered my seat to a woman nine months pregnant. After all, she looked like she was about to burst, it was a tropical 95 degrees, and our packed train car had mistaken alfresco for al freon. Expecting a smile or at least a nod of acceptance, I instead was subjected to a torrent of unintelligible grunts and scowls. In a manner that can only be described as Middle American, I asked her again if she would like the seat, trying with a wide-eyed earnestness to decipher what she was relaying to me. It was around that time that J. jabbed me in the elbow and began chanting quietly: “Just look at your knees. Look at your knees. Down, not up. Down, not up. Dear God, you really do drive everywhere in Chicago, don’t you?”

I considered unleashing my tirade about the Chicago Transit Authority, which seems to have neither much authority (powerless over the tiniest delays) nor capacity for transit (is there really only ONE 145 bus in the entire system?). For me, mass transit in Chicago is more about the mass — in the painful, liturgical Catholic sense — than the transit.

Over the past year or two, friends back in the City have actually achieved the dignity of wage-earning labor. This meant that most of them weren’t available to wander around in the daytime with me, shopping, drinking beer and grabbing empanadas on the way. So I took to the streets myself, spending afternoons in Chelsea galleries, marveling at how far the mighty Gagosians and Gladstones had fallen. [Side note: if there were any common theme in the work that I saw this time back, it was all about the textual — big, blocky, interrupted narratives. Down with the textual, I say. Bring me something pretty!]

THE THINGS I DON’T KNOW

I found more enjoyment in overheard cell phone conversations than in staring at Ruscha’s new work. Walking along 23rd Street, an impossibly proportioned woman yelled Mercedes requirements into her phone. “I don’t want it in black! If I get an SL500, I want it silver-on-silver, damn it! You tell the dealer, I want it silver-on-silver!”

I later discovered that silver-on-silver was a special option that had to be custom-ordered, but even then the option was exceedingly rare.

This factoid was relayed to me by a boutique girl I knew, a New Yorker who went to some length to distance herself from her upstate origins — although her occasional huge toothy smile and tendency to laugh in an outsized manner placed her as someone who was socialized outside (212). For her, history starts in 1989, when she found her first sixth-floor walkup in the West Village.

This same girl informed me that the floor in engagement rings is now three carats and hers was just over three-and-a-half, thank you very much. I had no idea what that meant — after all, three is a small, prime number.

Her fiancé (whom I’d met before, but was non-descript enough that I couldn’t remember) had been an M&A specialist at a place whose name sounds more like a genetic disease than an aggregate of the founding members’ last names. Upon learning that massive layoffs were coming, he ran upstairs to their COO and apparently shouted something like, “Me first! Me first!” — even though he wasn’t on their list of X-thousand to be executed. Long story short, he used the first month’s severance pay for that ring. I later learned that a VP with over ten years of experience at an A-list shop in one of their best-earning departments would be paid a minimum of $500,000 a year to leave. Do the math — it’s one fucking expensive ring.

I felt a bit chastened.Three is both small and prime, but also get-out expensive and only merely acceptable. Someone should tell the folks at Chicago Social.

My last night in New York, I was invited to a fashionista party in Williamsburg by one of my closest friends, a guy whose life I had always envied. A DJ by night and makeup artist by day, his planner is filled with more cool names than mine is just work ones. We lingered out back, surrounded by speakers pumping out white label remixes of Money Mark and 2 Live Crew, floodlights tilted away toward the evening sky and — inexplicably — razor wire along the fence. The night was dewy in that hot day-turned-cool night kind of way, and we were chatting up a storm with fresh-faced “assistant accessories editors,” B-list models, entry-level design house gals and the gay men who loved them all. It was like a FIT or Tisch alumni party as done by the WB. And God, did I feel old. But then again, I was a straight man in a sea of fashionistas and gay men. The odds were looking very alright.

Besides who was sleeping with whom, the night’s common themes were how to get the job right above yours, stories of slipping into the boss’ invitation list to his/her summer home (FYI, Newport and Block Island are making a comeback for those in the know), which restaurant TONY editors were casing that week, and which party was even cooler than this one (“Should we go? Is Daniella or Rinaldo going to be there?”). In a lop-sided way, these conversations helped close a circle that I had been needing to close for a while. The hyper-awareness of what the Joneses were doing, the need to maintain a slick upward trajectory of cool, and everyone’s phenomenally short attention span gave me pause. I was tired and getting cranky. I didn’t want to talk about where my shoes were from again. It was 3:30 a.m. and I wasn’t interested in taking a car to another party that just might be cooler than this one (and who the fuck are Daniella and Rinaldo anyway?). The evening offered a prescription-strength encapsulation of what I had experienced throughout my trip, a deep swim in a culture of envy.

I was ready for Chicago. I was ready to come home.

As Matt and I headed back from O’Hare in his old Corolla, I relayed these observations, which, in moments of sloppy thinking, became judgments. I told him about super-cute fashionistas, the crazy woman on the train and why three is a big number after all. He was wonderfully succinct in his reply: It’s hard to go back to a world that I’ve inadvertently 12-stepped from.

That night we got together with friends for our regular Sunday outing of drinks and free pool (Mondays are hard enough for us; we don’t even notice the hangover). We talked about my trip, played hand pool, put some old Patty on the jukebox, downed rounds of shots delivered by our favorite waitress, and so forth.

As the night drew to a close and Anthony wanted to close up, Brad — a guy we don’t know well but drifts in and out of our Sunday crew — approached with a question about one of my stories.

“Hey, what’s an SL500?” he asked.

It was good to be home.

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ben kim lives and works in los angeles.