Welcome to the hub of my new Internet presence, which extends from here to all of the corners listed under Eponymous and Projects below. I’ve been meaning to spruce up this Weblog a bit and make an orderly departure from Facebook, and generally rationalize things, and I’ve taken the long weekend to do that. I’m tempted to say that I’ll write here more regularly, but I don’t know how realistic that is. But even if this stays limited to my posting a picture of the week, at least it looks better. And now I’m off for a brief vacation. Have a great summer.
Tomorrow is May Day, an occasion that’s never meant a thing to me. But this year, tomorrow is the May 1 General Strike, a Day Without the 99%, centered in New York, as much as anything manifested by Occupy Wall Street could ever be centered anywhere, and I’ve come to see such actions in a very different light. I’ve written a long essay that frames much, though not quite all , of my thinking on the events of the last seven or so months called “Have We Done all We Could?” It was posted in four parts, starting last Friday and running through this morning, on mathbabe and Naked Capitalism (where it seems to have elicited a fair amount of commentary that I haven’t yet had the courage to read). I’m posting it all in one piece here for the Longreads folks, should they, or you, be interested.
Tomorrow may be a big day for all of us, one way or the other, and I’m more than a little anxious about it. I don’t know if it’s that it might rain, that my day starts with an endoscopy to confirm what seems to be an ulcer, or that the banks and police have been training in counter-terrorist techniques for months now, but I’m viscerally uneasy. I’ve been to and participated in many other Occupy Wall Street events since it began, and I’ve never felt the least bit threatened. I’ve found the bonhomie intoxicating, and the police’s apparent unease with it amusing, but I trust the police less and less. People seem to be a little more edge. Or maybe it’s just that I know that if tomorrow doesn’t build some momentum toward some legitimate change, that change may never come, and that possibility is just too grim to contemplate. So I hope tomorrow is a beautiful day, filled with hope and happiness, that everyone steps away from the crushing tedium and mediated alienation of their daily lives, steps out into public spaces, and revels in each others’ community. Good, bad, or indifferent, we’ve only got each other. And even if you can’t take the day off, spend some part of it thinking about where money fits in your life and what it’s done to it, of those who have all the money and those who don’t have nearly enough (groups that I hope include none of you). Give a thought to how you’d like things to be and what you can do tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year to make it so.
It seems that the summary judgment of 2009 is that it was wholly unsatisfactory, and there are many reasons to agree. And yet this was a very good year for me personally. I say that not to gloat, and I don’t believe that this makes up for the considerable misfortune that has befallen so many others, but I think it would be ungracious not to recognize and be grateful for my good fortune. Unlike most of the developed world, I had a great year at work (which was especially gratifying after the sanity-threatening year or two that preceded it), and am now in the midst of a company-wide, week plus holiday given as a reward for such a successful year. My ear finally healed, and I’ve had a chance to work my body back into shape, even managing to lose some weight through the holiday season. Our dog seems fully recovered and is thriving after surgery precipitated by a frightening brush with cancer. My nephew continues to grow more charming, and I’ve managed to maintain contact with him and his parents. As they say during Passover, that would have been enough, but there was more. There were so many little things that made me smile and say, “Cool.”
There are all sorts of summaries of the year in gadgets out there, but for me, there were two particular gadgets that made me happy this year, one of which I’ve had for twelve years. I had the watch that my wife gave me for my thirtieth birthday refurbished, and I’ve gone back to wearing it every day. It’s not flashy or remarkable, but it keeps very good time without a battery or winding. It is purely analog and mechanical. It’s an astonishing feat of craftsmanship, and I often find myself staring at it on my wrist in awe, trying and failing to imagine the precision of its inner workings.
Similarly precise and well-crafted, but not so purely analog and mechanical, is the new camera I got in October. Though a carpenter isn’t supposed to blame his tools, may I give credit to mine? It’s made me a much better photographer. I’m still amazed by the simultaneous sharpness and creaminess (for lack of a better word) of the images it produces, and its ability to work in limited light. And I don’t yet have the lens that’s supposed to make this camera so remarkable, though it’s on its way and should arrive early next week, suggesting still more wonders from this camera in 2010.
The more fully digital world of computers has offered its own pleasures, though for me, they’ve been almost exclusively software. I haven’t really gotten any new hardware this year (except for the Magic Mouse, which, meh), but the hardware I already had became far more useful, with impressive updates to Mac OS X, iPhone OS, and AppleTV. Even Windows 7, the release candidate of which I installed in VirtualBox (another fun discovery in 2009), is a clear improvement.
But the most significant advances by far have come from Google. The Web and mobile Web versions of Google Reader were already the way I consumed the vast majority of Web content, and the Google Mobile iPhone app had already proven handy. In 2009, they added the Chrome browser, Latitude, Google Voice, and Wave, and showed a preliminary version of the Chrome operating system. I’m very curious to see where these will converge in the coming year, but I expect an exponential increase in the usefulness of the Web–much of which is already provided for me by Google–to ensue.
I can’t tout the arrival of any great new literary voices in 2009, but I’ve still managed to find much that is new to me. On vacation in May, I picked up a used copy of Philip Roth‘s Sabbath’s Theater and read it through in a week. I had previously read only Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint and enjoyed them, but wasn’t moved to read any further. But mature Roth proved to be a different matter entirely–audacious not in the superficial way so commented upon in Portnoy’s Complaint, but in the profound way running from Dante and Cervantes through Beckett. I went back through the great mid-period Roth from Zuckerman Bound to Operation Shylock, and was impressed by the many achievements he managed in that short period, including especially The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock. But they all still seem to be a sort of rehearsal or maybe extended sketches in preparation for the grim news of Sabbath’s Theater. And I still have the American Trilogy to look forward to.
And against all expectations, just as I was reconciling myself the likely reality that Against the Day would be Thomas Pynchon‘s last novel, Inherent Vice appeared. It’s lighter and more accessible than most of his other novels, but it’s still great fun. It may prove to be an even more effective gateway to his writing than The Crying of Lot 49 has often been. Perhaps there will be yet another novel from Mr. Pynchon in the coming years.
Oh, and The Awl started publication.
These are among the many reasons I look back on 2009 fondly, while still looking forward to 2010. I know that many won’t remember this year happily, but I hope you all have something like the joy I’ve had this year in the coming year and those that follow.
I’m exhausted, and I’m still in shock. Last night was like most of the cities in the country winning the World Series at the same time, and New York was no exception–horns and yelling up and down Broadway until at least 2:30 this morning. And watching the reactions from around the country–black college students collapsing in tears, white crowds cheering into cameras, and Jesse Jackson crying his eyes out–I was caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the feeling of the night. I had been looking at this election as a hiring process, and I had been almost exclusively focused on issues like competence and corruption, and as I saw Obama’s campaign execute flawlessly week after week, I was more and more impressed with him. But I was so focused on practical matters that I lost track of the powerful emotional and cultural issues building behind this campaign.
I went to bed last night with a black President Elect (and only a few years after South Africa managed that), and I still haven’t fully absorbed that. This morning I spoke to my brother about what this means for his son, my nephew. I had forgotten that, aside from what this means for others, it actually means something to me and my loved ones. We didn’t just elect the candidate most likely to respond effectively to the considerable challenges facing the next President. We elected a black man. Ain’t that some crazy shit?
Wednesday, we made the long drive from Provincetown home, and returned to the more grey, more crowded, and definitely more dry city of New York. In the cab home from dropping the car at the garage (one of the joys of car ownership in Manhattan), I pulled the iPhone that was sitting dead in my pocket out and tried to reboot it. Bizarrely, it came on and started working. It grabbed my newest e-mails and the voice mails that I’d missed over the previous week and a half. It even displayed the reminders for the few appointments I’d had during its coma.
Back at the apartment, there was a flurry of unpacking, cleaning clothes, processing pictures, going through mail, paying bills, and the like that ran right up until bedtime. Around 6:00, in the midst of all of this comforting activity of resumption, I decided that the fungal infection had returned to my ear. I’m not quite sure why. It did itch and feel sore and clogged, but this belief might also have been some strange subconscious effort to balance the happiness I felt at the revival of my phone. Whatever the reason, I called the stand-in ear doctor and got an appointment to see her first thing the next morning. And just before going to bed, I found that, in fact, the phone wasn’t working quite the way it should. If I turned it off, it would shut down, and then a few seconds later it would start up again. I kind of hoped this was just a temporary issue, but I suspected I’d have to re-make an appointment at the local Genius Bar. I went to sleep that night thinking I had three things to take care of: See the ear doctor; renew my driver’s license; and get my phone fixed or replaced.
I had a great night’s sleep, in cool, dry air, with all of the windows open and the ceiling fan on, and in my own bed (which actually isn’t that comfortable). Strangely, New York, or at least the corner of it around our apartment, is much stiller and quieter than the center of Provincetown. I was tired when I woke, not from sleeping too little, but from sleeping too deeply. I found that my phone’s battery, on the other hand, was tired from sleeping too little. I’ve since discovered that not only will the phone not shut down, but when I turn the display off when I’m not using the phone, the display will come on a couple of times every minute. I suspect that that’s not especially good for battery life. So I made an appointment at the Genius Bar for Saturday morning, and then headed off to the ear doctor’s.
She was as reassuring and pleasant in my second visit as she had been in the first, and she volunteered that Sam was a “psycho.” I told her I was tired and scared, and that I was sorry to be so anxious, but I’m finding the inability to simply determine what’s happening in my ear maddening. She completely understood and took a look. Not only was there no infection, but the tissue looked to be healing. The only problem she could see was that the powder was caked in my ear. She removed what she could, told me to use it only every other day and to make an appointment with my primary ear doctor (who was now back at work) in two weeks. Now the ear was doing great, and the phone was dead, which of course was preferable to the previous evening’s state of affairs. And I thought, one down (the ear), two to go (the license and the phone).
This morning on the way to work, I stopped at the Department of Motor Vehicles License X-Press office, and found a line much longer than I expected. But in less than hour, I had my license renewed. Well, I had a temporary license to use with my soon-to-expire current license until the renewal is delivered in a few weeks. And then it was two down, one to go. Tonight, I’ll try restoring the phone’s firmware (after I recharge it, since the battery has been depleted in the nine hours since I detached the phone from my computer this morning, after leaving it attached overnight to maintain its charge). If that doesn’t work, I have a 9:30 appointment tomorrow morning with a Genius. How can anything go wrong?
I’m back in Provincetown, and again I’m miserable. Immediately before we left, things were looking up, and W.A.S.T.E. did deliver my powder from Sam the Pharmacist as scheduled. It comes in four capsules that I’m to disassemble one at a time and load into the accompanying Sheehy-House Powder Insufflator (yes, one of the doctors who invented it is named Dr. House) and puff or insufflate it into my ear. That’s worked fine, though I did have a bit of a scare on the second night. I thought it felt like an infection might be back, but I called the back-up doctor the next morning, a Saturday, and she called right back. She told me that it was very unlikely I had an infection, and that it was more likely that the powder was caking in my ear.
I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear that, given the astonishing humidity in the air ahead of tropical storm Hanna. It was as hot and sticky as I’ve ever felt it here. And as we waited, cooped up in our room with our dog (who was sick and having accidents on the rug, and my mother-in-law), I felt better about my ear, but still quite anxious. In the afternoon, when it looked like the worst of the rain had passed, I went out for a walk with my mother and some of her friends in the dunes near Herring Cove Beach, but the rains and wind returned in earnest, and I got soaked pretty much all the way through, despite the fact that I was wearing a heavy raincoat. My iPhone, which had been stored in the main pocket of the raincoat, got pretty wet, and wouldn’t respond when we returned to my mother’s hotel. Strangely, my wallet, which was in the pocket of an exposed pair of cotton shorts, stayed mostly dry.
I spent a good chunk of the weekend worrying about if and how I could revive the phone. There’s no Apple Store out this way, so I’d have to wait until I got home for professional assistance. I removed the SIM card and left everything to dry for a day. Then I put the SIM card back in the phone and put it in a Ziploc bag of uncooked rice for another day. When I plugged it in to recharge, it showed that the battery was emptied, but it claimed to be charging. After an hour it hadn’t made any progress charging, and it didn’t respond to attempts to wake it or turn it on. I tried resetting it, and the screen went blank, and that seems to be the end of that. I’m a disappointed it wasn’t more resilient. I certainly didn’t mean to get it wet, but it wasn’t immersed in water–it was just drops on the surfaces, but that seems to have been enough. I can easily enough get this corrected once I’m home (and others certainly lost a great deal more in this storm), but this has left me a little more out of touch than I had planned to be on this trip.
Then Monday afternoon, I rallied again. I let the problems with the phone go, and was starting to enjoy myself. We had some tasty, fresh sushi at a restaurant on a deck overlooking the center of town and a remarkably decadent dessert. We watched the season premier of Jeopardy whereon the New York blogoshpere’s own Greg Lindsay won. I continued processing and posting pictures that make Provincetown look like the most beautiful and peaceful place on earth. I even slept peacefully with all of the windows open that night.
The rain came again yesterday afternoon, and we were stuck inside a little longer. We decided to make dinner in our room, watch Jeopardy, and see if the local baseball team could claim first place. It seemed pleasant enough, but then our upstairs neighbors’ dogs (we’d never had upstairs neighbors in this room before) started barking while the neighbors were out. It wasn’t constant, and they stopped after fifteen or twenty minutes, and haven’t barked since. For some reason, that was it. I snapped into a state of anxiety that I haven’t returned from since.
I’ve been unable to comfort myself. The sun rose on a glorious late summer day, with no humidity and just a little breeze. I walked all the way out on the fire road along Hatches Harbor to the Race Point lighthouse, and picked up a lovely lunch on the way back. When I got back, our neighbors were having lunch on their deck, above our room, amid a great deal of scraping, thumping, and door slamming. I don’t want to portray them as inconsiderate. They’ve been generally quiet and polite, and I love their dogs, but I just don’t want them there. I want the stillness and silence that you tend to find in an inn that doesn’t welcome pets and children, the stillness and silence that we used to get at the Oxford. We walked by there on Monday afternoon, and it was everything we’d remembered. Aside from the breeze, the only thing stirring was Potter, their golden retriever, who welcomed us and begged us to stay. But now that we have a dog of our own, we can’t. Of course, our dog never makes a sound and wouldn’t disturb anyone who wasn’t allergic to or phobic about dogs. But inns can’t make those kinds of exceptions.
I was about to suggest that we’ve been ghettoized, but that would be absurd. I’m sitting in the otherwise completely empty common room of our inn (where I’d fled to escape our neighbors’ lunch), with the sun streaming in and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony playing over the satellite radio. There’s a slight breeze, and traffic slowly rolls past out front. This is about as close to an objective notion of heaven as I’m likely to find. Yet I’m deeply unhappy. This is obviously something subjective, something I’m seeing that no one else is, and gives the lie to any notion of ongoing progress in the realm of my emotional health. I’m fragile, and normally what people in such a fragile state do, if they’re incredibly lucky, is come to a place just like this to regain their sense of well-being. Somehow, it only undermines my sense of well-being. And perhaps most frustrating of all, if someone else described this problem to me as theirs, I would know what they should do. I’ve written this out in the hope that I might be able to externalize it enough to do that for myself, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. I’d appreciate comments from any and all who might have the perspective I’m lacking.
Short of being able to actually come into your living room, one hand out for donations and the other hand setting up a slide projector, I figure this entry is about as pushy as I can get. It’s time to raise money again for AIDS Walk New York. Please, if you can, donate here. And as in years past, I’ll match every dollar donated up to $500, so make it hurt. And thanks for your support–it’s deeply appreciated.
One of the many places your donation will be appreciated is Provincetown, one of the American communities hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic. Which brings us to my other hand. Here are my vacation snaps from this past week’s visit to Provincetown. Think of it as a reward for your donation, or think of it as yet another burden imposed upon you by this entry, but in either case, please give if you can.
As I mentioned in passing, last summer was a summer of surgery. In June, I had hernia repair surgery that went as planned. The recovery took longer than I expected, given that it was ambulatory surgery, but actually took no longer than I should have expected, given that they cut a several inch slit in my abdominal wall. I was misled by the fact that I got up from the operating table and walked out of the hospital into a taxi (I exaggerate slightly–I did pause to get dressed along the way), but it was a week before I should have been up and around. During that week, I took enough Vicodin that I developed muscle spasms (just as I did the previous time I took Vicodin for several days, after an appendectomy) and foolishly tried to go to work for a couple of days. And I discovered why the stereotypical examination for a hernia involves turning your head: Every muscle in your body is connected, directly or indirectly, to that central point. Every movement was a painful reminder of that simple anatomy. But all went as it should have.
The second surgery, five weeks later and also ambulatory, was a tympanomastoidectomy. This meant making an incision all the way around the back of my ear (all but removing it), taking some tissue from the area, and using it to replace my ear drum and the skin lining my ear canal. This was to remove a three millimeter cholesteatoma from my ear drum–a very unusual place for such a thing to be, the first wonder that my ear would produce. The surgery wasn’t supposed to be quite so extensive, but when the doctor got in there, he found that the infection stemming from the irritation caused by the cholesteatoma (which was later identified as a staph infection) had spread more widely than expected, so he thought it best to replace the whole ear drum.
Then I got up, got in a taxi, and went home to sweat in the late July heat and a three-inch thick gauze helmet. But I had air conditioning and codeine (I had told the nurses this time that I had bad reactions to Vicodin, so they gave me a special purple bracelet that read, “Vicodin Twitchy,” and codeine), and I was comfortable for the first few days. The last couple of nights before I returned to have the bandages removed became quite uncomfortable, and while begging the doctor I got when I called my doctor’s answering service for some sort of relief, I considered offering him $10,000 in cash if he would take the bandages off or somehow make the itching stop. He suggested Benadryl, and it helped, or at least it, along with the codeine, got me to sleep. The Tuesday after the Thursday surgery, I went back to the hospital during the morning rush, with the bandages covered by a loose fitting baseball cap, to have them removed. A few minutes later, I was back in a taxi headed home through rush hour traffic with the baseball cap covering hair matted with dried blood and disinfectant. When I got home, I took my first real shower, probably more than forty-five minutes, in almost a week. And then everything seemed to be healing properly for the first few weeks.
Through almost all of this (except for the two nights when the itching under the gauze nearly drove me insane), I felt extremely fortunate, almost as though I were floating in a state of grace. I’ve never been one to be bothered by hospital visits–truth be told, I actually kind of enjoy them. They’re a break from my everyday efforts and responsibilities, the one time when I’m in the hands of professionals who really will take care of me, when everything is intended to make me as healthy and comfortable as possible. Yes, these things had gone wrong, and I would have to go through some discomfort to have them corrected, but the work was being done by apparently competent and committed professionals, and it didn’t hurt that both surgeries and all related work cost me less than $100 out of pocket. And though I had all of these justifications for feeling fortunate, my feeling that way wasn’t the result of any sort of reasoning. It was just my gut reaction, which is a fundamental shift for someone who usually views the world through the filters of anxiety and depression. For lack of a better explanation, I’m assuming that this illustrates a shift stemming from my having taken the Bodhisattva Vow. And as I approached these various medical situations positively and with the intention of being appreciative and, where possible, helpful, those around me, doctors, nurses, orderlies, etc., took better care of me.
I was also given a unique opportunity to explore the sense of hearing. Immediately after the surgery, with my left ear turned inside out and packed with jelly and gauze, every sound seemed to be coming from my right. My wife would call to me from the bedroom, and I would turn toward the front door looking for her. And this impulse was surprisingly strong–I would turn toward the front door even though I’d just watched her walk into the bedroom. But that effect subsided pretty quickly as, I suppose, my brain adjusted to the fact that it was receiving sound from only one ear. As my brain made that adjustment, it was as though the world changed from stereo with the balance all the way over to one side to monaural. Unless I could see the source of a sound, I had no idea what direction it was coming from, and this had unexpected implications. It turns out that I would separate concurrent sounds based on their location. But without the ability to locate sounds, I found I couldn’t separate them unless they were very different qualitatively or I was looking directly at the source of one of them. In meetings at work, if more than one person was talking, I couldn’t make anything out. Also, because the tissue in my ear was swollen, it was as if the ear was blocked, meaning that my own voice sounded disproportionately loud, causing me to speak much more softly than I intended. Communication in restaurants, bars, and parties was out of the question (though I prefer to avoid such situations anyway). All of this was interesting, but when I described it to others, they would only offer their sympathy. Yet I still didn’t feel as though I was suffering.
After a few weeks, my ear started to hurt, first just in the ear itself, and then down through the jaw. And the noise of chewing became horrendous, loud, wet, and queasy, punctuated by a variety of pops and cracks. When my otherwise unflappable MacGyver of a doctor peered into my ear at a follow-up visit and said, “Wow!” I suspected I was in trouble. My ear had produced its second wonder: It appeared that a case of TMJ disorder was pushing my jaw bone through the healing tissue in my ear. He had never seen anything like that. I went to see a still more special specialist (an extra-specialist?) who made me get into a very unusual position on his panoramic jaw x-raying machine, but he couldn’t really see anything wrong. He told me he wanted to do further tests, but he never called back (the lesson being, I guess, don’t get into strange positions on the first office visit). But he did discuss the matter with my ear doctor, and they came up with a plan to put expanding sponges in my ear to push back against the jaw bone. That worked, and except for the pain of yanking out the sponges around which the ear tissue had begun to heal, the TMJ disorder was overcome after a couple of months.
When it first became apparent that things were no longer progressing as expected, I got a little disheartened and vaguely frightened, mostly because I was away on my one vacation of the year, didn’t want to cut it short, and couldn’t get the doctor on the phone. But when I saw him next, after making it as clear as I could that things weren’t going the way they should, I kept reminding myself to be sympathetic and, if possible, helpful. That approach had served me well to that point, and I didn’t want to abandon it. Just deciding on that intention, I saw the doctor’s reactions differently. I could see how much he was struggling with this, how disappointing this was to him, and how much better than this he was used to things going. So I softened and was a little more patient, and in response, he was more forthcoming about the problems, and he was genuinely apologetic. Being, in a very different context, something of a technical expert, I’m familiar with the frustrations of lay people ignoring the fact and the value of your expertise. For doctors in the current climate, this must be especially annoying. I can only imagine the nonsense they hear from patients who’ve strung together random comments from the Today Show and a couple of misunderstood “facts” from a Web site and believe themselves prepared to take control of their own health care process. I tried to make it clear that I wanted to understand what was happening, that I wanted to help, and that I trusted him and valued his expertise.
But five months after the surgery, the ear still wasn’t healing properly. The issue at that point was that although the tissue had healed into place and everything was firmly attached as it should be, the grafted tissue had become mucosa (like the inside of the mouth). Normally, mucosa exposed to open air heals into dry skin. Yet in the wondrous realm of my ear (which was now producing its third biological anomaly), dry skin taken from behind the ear had, against all logic, become mucosa. The doctor’s first course of action was to leave it for a few weeks and see what happened. He expected the dry skin from the outer ear to migrate down the ear canal, turning it, and eventually my ear drum, into the dry skin it was supposed to be. That’s how this worked for everyone else. But that’s not what happened for me. He said he could see a stubborn ring around my ear canal past which dry skin wouldn’t migrate. He was at a loss and he was willing to admit that to me while he thought out loud for a few minutes. Normally if things didn’t heal properly, he might repeat the surgery, but in this case the surgery itself seemed to be completely successful. The problem seemed to be with the subsequent healing, and there was no reason to believe that starting that over again would make it go any differently. He decided to try a combination of eye drops (prednisolone and gentamicin), and after almost four weeks, they seem to have done the trick.
At this point, the ear still feels a little blocked, the hearing is still reduced, and there a soft ringing, but I hear well enough to locate sound in most cases. In loud places, I can still get overwhelmed, and I still talk more quietly than I mean to sometimes. But it doesn’t hurt, and most of the time, I forget about it all together. The only persistent annoyance is having to keep the ear canal dry, which means packing my ear with cotton and sealing it with Vaseline before every shower, and pulling the whole mess out afterward. I go back to the doctor in a few weeks, and I hope to find that the progress is continuing.
Last night, one of the doormen in our building was apparently killed by a drunk driver. We’re still not clear on the details, and I’m not even sure if the linked article refers to our doorman (after all, this was late at night and a long way from New York City, and he was scheduled to be on duty at 7:00 this morning), but the name is the same and he did die in a car accident last night. My wife woke me with the news this morning, weeping when she returned from walking Olive around 7:00, having heard about it as the other staff coming on and going off duty at that hour did.
It’s sad in all of the ways that someone in your life dying is sad, and in all of the ways that someone dying so senselessly is sad. But it’s also sad in the personal ways that José (or Antonio as we knew him, for reasons that are too complicated to explain) was unique. For us, he was the patriarch of the staff. He always would greet Olive with a “dinnertime, niñita” or “bedtime, niñita” when we returned from walks (which is a little uncanny given that the name of the town in which this happened is Olive). And he somewhat reminded my wife of her late father and the milieu in which he lived, so this was especially hard for her.
My wife and I hold the staff of our building in a sort of awe, not so much for what they do, but for what they mean to us. Gawker recently had an interesting discussion of what doormen mean to New Yorkers. People seem to have a range of attitudes toward doormen, and we’ve witnessed a pretty good sampling of that range among our neighbors. Some see them as employees, some as friends and confidants, and some as servants or even appurtenances of the building. For my wife and me, who had never known such a luxury before moving into this building five years ago, they’re people we see and chat with several times a day who take care of us in countless small ways. It wouldn’t be accurate to call them friends or family (though there are people who’ve been in this building for decades for whom that would be accurate), but it doesn’t feel accurate to call them employees or servants either. I imagine that this isn’t such big deal for people who are more socially at ease, but for me I’m always a little unsure of how to interact with them.
This morning, I dreaded going out to do my Saturday errands, because I wouldn’t know what to say to the doormen and porters when I saw them (though not nearly as much as I dread being in the elevator for the inevitable asinine comments from some of our more callously patrician neighbors when they hear the news, likely after returning from their summer away). And then I realized that there wasn’t anything for me to do or say beyond simply being present and aware, and offering whatever seems appropriate in the moment. There is nothing I can accomplish beyond that, and there’s nothing I can do to improve the situation for those affected. And my discomfort is entirely beside the point.