The Stuff of Life

by Thomas Beller

12/31/2006

261 W. 11th Street, NY, NY 10014

Neighborhood: West Village

I only wanted it to be over, even as I dreaded its arrival. For weeks I walked around in a clenched state of anticipation, unaware of how tense I had become. “An adventure or an exile?” I asked myself. I couldn’t decide.

A few days before the big move, I was sitting in front of Rice, a delicious hole in the wall restaurant on Mott Street, watching as a couple of guys carried someone’s possessions into a truck. The person being moved had packed a lot of stuff in clear plastic crates–Tupperware for your whole life.

Tupperware is for leftovers. But the possessions of your life, when do they cross the line from something in the present to something left-over? This is a permanent dilemma, but moving house brings it to the foreground.

The underwear paraded by, then the sheets, the lamp, the chair, papers, etc. Someone’s whole life. I thought of my upcoming move, and who might be there to see it.

I hoped the legally blind billionaire who lives next door would not be around. For years I would now and then venture a hello when we passed on the street. This hello was invariably met with serene and total indifference. “It’s because he’s legally blind!” I would tell myself, but I would always feel a bit slighted. If he was around I would feel as though I had been shooed away.

On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, though geographically just across the street, was Shienbaum, who didn’t have a penny to his name, and always wanted to talk.

“THE STOOP”

Shienbaum had been occupying his tiny studio apartment, rent controlled, bathroom in the hall, for forty years. He spent a lot of time on the stoop. He had a salt and pepper beard, and walked with a defiant, bearish strut, as though at all times ready for a fight, even when simply going around the corner to get a coffee, practically the only act in which I had ever seen him engaged.

After I finally gave in and made small talk, after a few aloof years, he hectored me at all hours with remarks such as, “Hey Doctor! What happened to your Knicks?” And, “A Hundred Million dollars for Allan Houston?”

But the day after the 2004 election Shienbaum glanced at my Kerry button and quipped, “Too late for that.” I later heard he is a Communist. At any rate, I exploded, and he exploded, and we cursed each other on the street. It ended with his remark, “I never liked you anyway!” I found this oddly touching for some reason.

I didn’t want him to see me moving. On the other hand I didn’t want to be Shienbaum, forever clinging to his spot, his perch, ready for a fight with everyone.

I had admired him as he sat on his stoop with a relentless ferocity. It’s strange to ascribe ferocity to the act of sitting on a stoop, but consider that Shienbaum had continued to occupy his spot throughout the year when the next door neighbors did an entire gut renovation on their brownstone, a massive construction job that ruined the block for a year, during which he sat there, often reading a book.

“THE MOVE”

“You leaving here for some Redneck town where you don’t know anybody?” said Udi, as he picked up another astonishingly heavy box as though it were a tissue. “Why do you do this?” He turned towards the door and then gestured with his bald hear towards the window overlooking my block in the West Village. “Now this,” he said. “This is living!”

Udi was a tough, polite, somewhat chatty Israeli. When I asked where he was from he replied, to my surprise, “My parents are British.”

The man had a strong Israeli accent, fair, freckled skin, looked like a marine, and now this evasion with an uncertain smile.

“What,” I said. “You don’t want to tell me you’re from Israel?”

“There’s a lot of hate out there,” he said, still holding the box. “And in the moving business, people have a point. The Israelis did a lot of bad things in this business. How you say it, they stunk up the neighborhood.” It turns out he left New York five years ago and now lives in Florida, “In a redneck town, no one to talk to. My wife wants to move back to Brooklyn. But we have a kid.”

“So what’s all this about a redneck town! You’re projecting.”

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”

Our fraternizing took a break when he announced we had much more stuff than we had contracted for and told me the fee would double. I had a meltdown; he called his office; we worked it out.

It turns out the moving business is a bit like the Merchant Marines. I won’t claim I was moved by Ishmael and Queequeg, but as with whaling ships, crews get on their trucks and set off for weeks. They sleep in motels, or on the truck, or not at all, and never see home as they travel the high seas of the Interstates, moving people’s stuff. The truck moves around the country with the non-challance of a taxi cruising around New York, with the difference that they don’t refuse any fares. So Udi and his partner, Carl, had seen a lot of stuff.

“How much you pay for that place?” Udi’s partner Carl asked. I told him the truth.

“Oh man!” he said. “ATL, ATL all the way.” He muttered his adopted hometown’s nickname for another minute, as though reassuring himself after getting a fright.

Finally everything was packed. The last thing was the Vespa, on which minutes earlier I had returned with some lunch. Udi had said he craved falafel; he was always out in Florida, on the interstates, lost America, and I rushed off to get him and Carl something from Yummy Shawarma of Seventh Avenue with a kind of vehemence, in gratitude for their efforts, but also as though I was making the case for New York, proud of its amenities.

We parted outside of Manhattan Mini-Storage where we’d stopped for a couple more things. “Take care of my stuff!” I called out.

They looked out the window at me and laughed in a not entirely encouraging manner, but they were joking. We were buddies now, in a way. I had admired the economical force of their movements. We had talked about life. They had sized up the way I was living – and me – and seemed to judge it all interesting, if overpriced.

I went upstairs to repack my storage space, having left everything a mess on the ground, and was surprised to hear laughter coming from row 16. The interior of these mini-storage facilities are so desolate, paranoid, and cinematic. I love it in there.

The few times I have seen other people they are usually contemplating the contents of a garbage bag in existential silence, but when I turned the corner into my row, I saw an older gentleman hoisting up a lady friend into her locker. She was laughing uproariously. Once up there, she handed down a painting (abstract), and then another painting. I apologized that my stuff had prevented them from getting the stepladder in there, but they were unbothered, in a good mood. Finally, to the accompaniment of hoots, she produced a giant set of antlers. Then she got down. As they edged past the clutter of my stuff she remarked, in a sighing, blowsy way that nevertheless carried a whiff of judgment, “Oh, the myth of important possessions.”

“DARK HORSES”

My wife and I had been at our new place, at edge of the Hollins University campus in Roanoke, Virginia, for two days when the pink truck showed up, bright and early, with a sleepy looking Udi and Carl.

“Nice place you got here,” said Udi, and I confess his approval pleased me enormously. They unpacked everything into our neat little bungalow, and then Udi, his body language echoing Robert Duvall in his militant years, marched down to the corral to look at the horses.

We live next to a horse coral. With horses in it.

I repeat this fact to myself, and corroborate it by looking out the kitchen window, frequently. It helps me adjust to the new reality.

In truth I know nothing about where I am. About Roanoke, the one intriguing fact I can report, besides the fact that it is a bit down and out and is located in gorgeous valley, is that not one, but two weathermen for the local news station have been outed as having problems with heroin, a morbidly comic tidbit that seems ripe for some sort of Hollywood adaptation (“Permanent Weather?”).

Hollins itself is still a mystery to me; though it echoes my own alma mater, it’s a plush little Jewell box enclosed within a slightly depressed city. But then that could describe many academic institutions. Like Vassar its campus is gorgeous, and the atmosphere seems delicately poised between the permissive encouragement of discovery in its students, and something more stringently canonical.

A phrase from the opening of Don DeLilo’s “White Noise,” describing the first days of the college year had been on my mind before I got here—the parade of station wagons suggesting “massive insurance.”

But the reality is more personal, smaller. The other day I heard a young woman’s voice utter the single word, “Bye,” without any apparent emotion. I glanced over as she turned away from a station wagon, and her parents, and saw her face was red, her eyes quietly filled with tears.

Last night I took a walk by myself at midnight. The school sits on a ridge. Above loom gorgeous mountains, and in the hollow bellow runs the interstate, which in the daytime is an invisible whoosh. At night, though, it is reversed—the mountains vanish, and there above the interstate are all the bright signs of corporate hospitality that generically dot Interstates all over the country, and which unfailingly freak me out. They loomed there in their isolation, honey traps for the totally vulnerable. The sight of them made me feel exposed and even a bit frightened. The addictive comfort of being inside the fort, inside the city walls, was totally gone.

To my right, down a hill, was the white fence of the horse coral, and within it, the shadowy movement of three horses.

I veered towards them, a half-eaten apple in hand. After a lot of clucking and little whistling sounds, the horses moved towards me, they came from a distance, and then stopped ten feet away. After a lot more clucking and whistling the white one came forward, sniffed the apple, and then with a great flapping of lips, snorted it out of my hand.

The white horse let me pet her neck. I rested my free arm on the fence and the horse breathed onto my hand for a long time, it’s long face and big eye staring into mine while it’s huge nostrils hypnotically dilated in and out and soft warm breaths pulsed onto my hand. She licked the hand. We stayed like that for a while, the horse breathing soft, trusting animal breaths onto the inside of my wrist, where women put perfume, while it regarded me with its big, wild horse eye. It was so beautiful, and it was such a gentle moment, and something convulsed within me and… I started to cry! It lasted a few messy seconds. Then it went away.

I don’t know why it happened. Perhaps I cried because it was all a bit like a movie, and I confess that I am a bit of a movie crier. Or maybe there is something about horses. These beautiful night horses and the distant interstate whooshing and the incredibly scary, alienating night lights of the franchise motels, and my wife at home just down the road, it all made me shiver with excitement. Perhaps it was relief. I had been leaving for so long, and now I had arrived.

**

A version of this piece originally appeared in

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