Brass in pocket

Maybe it’s true: Sometimes, while trying to get what you want, you end up getting what you need instead.  More often, though, it seems like what you end up getting is something that you’ve just stopped wanting, which makes it seem like there is some wish-fulfilling entity operating in the world — but operating badly, operating on a delay.  Or maybe you’re always being given the same thing, and sometimes you want it and sometimes you don’t.  Where need enters into all of this is less certain; being able to differentiate between want and need has never been my strongest suit.

I was at this party full of people I mostly didn’t know.  In a black-walled, red-lit basement, short girls with short brown hair and black sweaters looked up at paunchy men whose haircuts tried to say ‘I’m not forty quite yet!’  It was a book party for someone’s cool-seeming book about how karaoke had “saved his life,” so there was a karaoke band there.  On the stage, a beat-up three ring binder contained paper sheets of lyrics to all the songs the band could play, protected from rock’n’roll fluids by plastic sheaths.   There were a little over a hundred songs, which I guess is impressive, but I didn’t like any of them: they were “heavy metal” songs by theatrically macho artists like Van Halen and Black Sabbath.  So it was mostly boys who sang. A couple of girls picked suggestive songs by Pat Benatar and Joan Jett, but their weak voices stripped the songs of their original articulate butchness and replaced it with boring coy sexual invitation: “fire awaaay.”  The band’s signature tactic, which seemed to be a time-tested safety measure, was to play as loudly as possible, muffling the amateur lead singer’s voice with a blanket of feedback and overmiked drums.  People cheered for their friends regardless of the quality of their performances.  They probably would not have cheered for me.  In spite of all this I still wanted to get up onstage and sing.

I was having an internal debate about whether to attempt ‘Cherry Bomb’ or ‘Running with the Devil’ when my friend whose idea it had been to come to the party motioned for me to move closer so that she could shout in my ear.  “Do you want to split a cab home?” I looked at my watch.  It was 10:30 and I was supposed to be up the next morning at 6:30.  I was wearing a watch; I had recently started wearing a watch. It occurred to me that in three years I would be thirty.   I nodded and we left, and in the cab on the way home we talked about real estate.

That night I dreamed of myself onstage, engaging in elaborate patter with the audience then blowing them away with my note-perfect impersonation of David Lee Roth.  At four I woke up, sweaty and confused, blood racing.  Raffles, sensing my wakefulness, became convinced that it was morning and began his morning ritual of swatting me in the face until I got up and fed him.  When I got back in bed I couldn’t get back to sleep.  The adrenalin from my dream performance was still coursing through my body and the words of the song were still reverberating in my brain: I live my life like there’s no tomorrow.   I remembered a night like this after I’d starred in a seventh grade performance of My Fair Lady, when I’d dreamed all night of different ways the play could have gone wrong, lines of my dialogue thudding and tumbling through my mind until they bleared together into manic faux-Cockney nonsense.  White winter sunlight was piercing my bedroom as I finally fell asleep.

I woke up at 8, when my appointment in Manhattan, the one I’d gone home early to make it to on time, was supposed to begin.  The song was still stuck in my head.

The next day some morning errand took me to SoHo.  It had snowed all night the night before but then it had gotten 10 degrees warmer and now it was going to rain all day, steady drizzle splashing down into the grey sludge underfoot.   I took the weather’s advice and started feeling a little pensive and melancholy, and in this mood I walked up a street I usually avoid, where I used to work in an open-plan office in a ground-floor storefront.   Now it’s an underwear boutique.   About half the time I worked there I was happy to be sitting in a big room that anyone could just stroll into, lined up with my laptop along big long tables with twenty other people and their laptops all day.  The other half of the time I would have preferred to work from an impenetrable bunker in an alternate dimension, but I still came into work and pretended not to be going crazy for as long as I possibly could.

One of my small consolations during this time had been breakfast from the ‘Wichcraft branch in the ground floor of the Equinox gym a block away from the office.  I would think, I will just get to the office and write one post and then I can have some oatmeal.  If I could get through this part of the day – the getting out of bed, the fraught commute during which I would feel, at every moment, the conscious effort required to keep all the particles of my body stuck to one another – and get to the point of wanting and deserving the oatmeal, everything would usually be okay.

‘Wichcraft oatmeal is so good: chewy and creamy at the same time, and there’s a bunch of salty-sweet mixed nuts and dried fruit and optional cinnamon-sugar-butter goo (which I usually forgo in favor of honey) on top of it.  I hadn’t had any in a few years, and now I was in the neighborhood with some time to kill and I was hungry.

In the Equinox they were playing ‘Hot Legs,’ I guess to motivate people to work out harder in the hopes of eventually becoming as hot-legged as the subject of the song.  I used to have a little relationship with the people who worked at this ‘Wichcraft but that particular batch of college students were long since gone. Probably they were like me in college and they had a different job every semester, forever quitting just before getting fired.

“What can I get for you ma’am,” the unfamiliar cashier said in robot-voice.  I became conscious simultaneously of my dripping weird raincoat that looks like stitched-together trashbags and also of an incipient nervous stomachache near the top of my stomach.  I was still going to order the oatmeal anyway but I was beginning to realize that I wasn’t going to enjoy it.  “Oatmeal.” “With everything?”  The pain in my stomach distracted me from telling her about the honey.  “Yeah,” I said, and then she spat out a price and I paid it and put the change in her tip jar, using a method I’ve perfected of dropping the coins very slowly so they don’t make an insulting clink.   I stood there pretending to check my text messages until the oatmeal was ready and then I sat at a little counter with three tall uncomfortable stools, where clearly no one is actually supposed to sit, and ate it as quickly as possible.

This next part is hard to explain. It was like, the entire time I sat there on that stool (in my wet raincoat, in my wool hat dripping), I could feel the girls there – the ones who work in the Equinox boutique for buying a $80 sports bra if you’ve forgotten yours, and the icy ‘wichcraft cashier — paying attention to me. I could feel them being made uncomfortable by my presence – how dare I sit at that counter which is clearly for ornamental purposes, and what was I even doing in SoHo, dripping and not in a glamorous last scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s way, either?   The girls’ glossy, dry hauteur prickled out of their skins and pricked me.   Instead of being annoyed, which would have been normal, I felt like they were right.  I felt like I was taking up a huge amount of space in the Equinox lobby at the little ornamental stool where clearly no one is supposed to sit, an amount of space that had nothing to do with my physical body. The odd overdramatic fraughtness of just being in this place that had been reassuring to me in the past felt so strange, and I wanted to be alone with that feeling.  But now these random bored salesgirls were watching my every move.  I choked down the oatmeal in ten bites and left.

People talk about how great it is that you can feel anonymous and alone in a crowd here in NYC but it has never felt like that to me, and I’m not proposing that this is because I’m so cute and special.  Ok, it’s not purely coincidental or wholly unrelated to the way I look, but I’ve experienced this about people other than myself, not all of whom are young women: some people just radiate ‘look at me’ waves all the time, whether they want to or not.  And other people can be wearing a day-glo spandex bodysuit and still not be as compelling as the person next to them who for whatever reason has this notice-me forcefield emanating from their body.

I realize that I’m basically being a hippie and talking about vibes here.   Sorry or whatever.  What I’m trying to say is that I have this thing, and half the time the attention feels like a warm bath and the other half of the time I’d like to be invisible.

On Saturday I organized a group of my most shameless friends to go with me to my favorite private-room karaoke place.  When I first started to do karaoke I did the standards too – hit me baby, like a prayer, like a virgin.  Now I mostly like to do songs that will allow me to be as theatrically crazy as possible, and I mean theatrically in the sense of ‘high school musical,’  (though not actually in the sense of High School Musical).  “Tears are running … running down your breast,” I growl-shrieked.  “And although, I know that he is bliiiind, still I say, there’s a way for us.”  “I want to be the girl with the most cake.”  I didn’t sing the song that is the title of this post but really I was singing it all the time, really I am singing it all the time – sometimes, I guess, whether I want to be or not.  Give it to me.

21 comments to Brass in pocket

  • the first time i did karaoke was my first week living in south korea. all of the teachers and managers and receptionists at the school where i worked went as a sort of welcome thing to me. several people told me that we were going to karaoke especially because everyone “had heard i was a musician” even though i stressed each time “but not really a singer!” that night at the karaoke place, where the rooms were named after different painters (we were in the “monet” room), i spent a long time paging through the catalog with a faux-thoughtful look and stealing people’s drinks when they went to the bathroom. it was like that scene in “lost in translation” except the room was dark and cold and big instead of well lit and warm and small and also it was terrifying instead of romantic. the song i eventually decided to sing was “heart of glass,” which god knows why. i kind of made it through the beginning okay, although i was in a key that was far away from the backing track, but at least my words were going with the rhythm, but then there is a lot of lyricless space in that song that i did not think about and then i got to the wordless parts with the high pitched “la la”s and “ooh”s and i just sort of stood there breathing into the microphone and doing my embarrassing white guy pseudo-dance and wanting to die. after that i realized that for me, karaoke meant not just getting drunk but getting more drunk than everyone else in the room/building.

  • NotAndersonCooper

    This is maybe the most personal essay you’ve ever posted/published.* Not the most intimate – but most personal. And it’s nice.

    *That I’ve read. I’m sure I’ve missed content along the way, but I’ve caught most of your posts and articles beginning in 2006 at that place across from Equinox

  • I think I saw a clip of that party on MediaBistro (umm, bored at work!) and I was first like: “wow, that guy mc-ing seems amazingly annoying,” and then I was kind of dismayed to see the singer from Spoon (whose music I don’t know at all, though I know it’s “critically acclaimed”) sing 12xU because he kind of mumbled the “kissing a faggot” part, like he didn’t want to say “faggot,” which I guess I can understand b/c it’s not very pc, but it still made me wonder why he picked the song in the first place, since it’s really an integral part of the song, as every Wire (or Minor Threat) fan knows. I also hated the way the band played it, but that’s just me being nostalgic, much the way I would hate a teevee-ad version of some song I used to love. But as for the Pretenders, all I can say is hats off. One of my all-time favorite concert memories is seeing Urge Overkill (pre-heroin disaster) when Chrissie Hynde came out to play guitar/sing for an encore and she was wearing these amazing Elton John platform shoes that made her seem ten-feet tall and the entire sold-out room (Irving Plaza) just swelled with love and admiration, as if we had graced by a god.

  • chrissie hynde > debbie harry

  • Chris

    “being able to differentiate between want and need has never been my strongest suit.”

    This has always stumped me as well, but I might actually be able to wrap my brain around it now after — your post: so insightful! You’ve done it again. You do this, you leave it up to us, and I love it/hate it when you make sense of something I never quite understood, only to make it more confounding than ever — thanks! (seriously, thanks) I tend to think you’re right on with this one; that maybe the difference between Want and Need really is just a timing issue, and that eventually the Need will catch up with the Want; and by then it may be, at least it seems to be, too late.

    But it also makes me wonder if maybe we’ve just been over-thinking this? Maybe a good way to differentiate might be by determining what (un)said thing would taste like. I would think Want would taste like cake, and Need would taste mediciney. And that the best things in life would taste the way Flintstones chewables, or grape-flavored cough syrup did when you were a kid – both good and well, both wanted and needed.

    Or maybe Want and Need are the same thing. Like, say, cake! And with all that oh-so sweet, decorative icing, you just have to try it; even if you don’t like chocolate cake, or lemon cake, or whatever kind — it’s cake! And Want smells like cake, and it tastes like cake, and if you do indeed love that particular kind (pineapple upside-down for me; I could eat it off the floor), Want makes us consume more of it. But too much cake gives us a stomachache. That stomachache would be Need. And who likes the taste of Pepto Bismol?

    I guess what I’m saying is that if what we want is really the same as what we need, which so often seems the case in the moment, it would makes sense as to why it’s so hard, in the moment, to decipher which is which. But that’s also why we shouldn’t want nor need too much of anything. That takes us out of the moment; and in the moment is the only place where feeling can exist, is it not? On that note — agreed: it’s a timing issue.

    (But, alas, I will always love pineapple upside-down cake — always have, always will, and I’m craving some this moment – too much not to endure the once-in-awhile stomachache that goes along with having it ((or with not being able to have it this moment)).

  • jack

    I don’t know how long it took you to write this piece; I figure probably not too long (like an hour).

    EVERY sentence is hilarious and the most are screaming funny

    so good that I can’t even say anything of much value b/c it’s so far beyond what I could ever hope to write. So, like, it wouldn’t be right to use words like “genius” and “spirited rhythm and flow”; cuz what fuck do I know about writing…anyway, thanks!

    oh god — sitting at the decorative bar —I’ve got just the place in mind – tomorrow morning – oh GOD!!

  • dan

    And here I was going to make a long detailed post about my thoughts on Liz Phair music and how it keeps revisiting me at various key points in my life (low points), and then there was a new post!

    I can’t believe you sat down at the counter for starters. I honest to god can’t have my back to a room when I’m eating because whatever weird social anxiety disorder that I have leaves me freaking out. It’s like my hands start shaking, I can’t swallow and I get this weird ‘Vertigo’ stretching thing going on with my vision. Things even start to sound oddly echo-y.

    I was once telling an acquaintance about how I hate eating at certain places because of this and they promptly nodded and said, “yeah, I’m a corner-sitter, too.”

    When it happened in the past I was unfortunately with some not very considerate friends (probably didn’t help/may have started the situation), who, when I told them that I thought I might kind of be freaking out a little bit, just rolled their eyes. Meanwhile, I’m thinking I’m going to be brought to my knees with a raging panic attack, they’re going to have to wheel me out on a gurney and all the hot waiters are gonna think, what a nutcase.

    I think that’s what ultimately does it: having practically perfect people suddenly leer at you because through no fault of your own, you’re willing everyone’s attention onto yourself because in a desperate bid to appear normal, you find yourself getting more noticeable and eccentric by the minute. You don’t know how, but you are, and THEY know you are.

    And then the exit!

    There’s no way to be graceful and you suddenly have club feet, might just as well be wearing a red, rubber nose and perhaps have radar dishes for ears. You just know that the practically perfect people will giggle about it when you’re gone, and you can never go back to the place again until you’re absolutely positive that the staff has turned over.

    It’s wacky, it’s real and I don’t like it. The practically perfect people are always there like someone sent out cards for the event, and I hate them for it.

    Cool rockstar dream, too.

  • emily

    @jack I wish it had taken me an hour! It took a few hours over the span of a few days in little pieces. At first I was thinking it might be something for the book but then I realized that it has a ton of song lyrics in it and even using tiny parts of song lyrics costs thousands of bucks for permissions and people try to avoid it wherever possible; that’s why so many books contain blatantly fake-sounding or parodic versions of song lyrics. Which is a real shame, I think. It’s like the last dying stupid gasp of the way both the music industry and book industry shouldn’t do business anymore and yet somehow no one has found an answer to it yet.

  • Aero

    The whole “and I know that he is bliiiind” just reminded me of Katie Holmes quite awful and earnest rendition on Dawson’s Creek, and I totally understand your maudlin, um, yearnings.

    Also, because the captions!

  • When I was reading this piece (very nice writing btw) I was wondering if it might be a foretaste of her book. If so, I’m looking forward to reading it: A kind of autobiographical 90’s-zeitgeist-y Bridget Jones Diary in NYC? “Bright Lights, Big City,” with recipes? I’m not being facetious here (so hold your fire); I think this is what Emily does best: capture the inner-life and milieu of a 20-something cultural immigrant trying to make sense of it all. A bildungsroman about buildings and food. Very cool.

  • emily

    @aero ha oh god!! yeah um my rendition actually is better, I don’t cop out on the “pretending” and “known” in the last verse or sing in a weird baby-voice. What an awesome (terrible) song! I recommend it to anyone who is about to shower.

  • i feel like the second half of paragraph 3 is happening to me a lot lately.

    ps, and i know lots of people like the karaoke rooms, but i encourage all to try the thrus-sat karaoke night at hope & anchor, in red hook, hosted by the 8 foot tall drag queen dropsey desmond.

  • Arf

    You should try to develop the voice that you use in the third paragraph.

  • Tim

    Re: your bar stool experience- New York sometimes has a funny way of doing things. I was in the Macy’s once near Herold Square looking for V-necked undershirts. On either the 4th or 5th floor there is a little faux 50’s-style diner hidden away near the elevators that serves burgers, fries, milk shakes, smoothies and other types of diner grub. I naively thought I could walk in, sit at one of the formica counters and order a smoothie which would be promptly served up. This is how things would have worked in the similar-sized downtown Macy’s store in my hometown of Sacramento, CA. Not so in New York.

    Like many eating experiences in the Big Apple there was an exaggerated sense of formality attached to this funny little Macy’s diner. The svelte and effeminate Latin American who was manning the place asked me to, “please be seated” when I walked in and ordered a smoothie. After I sat down he placed a menu before me, listed the soup de jours and asked me if I would like a beverage to start out with. “I just want a smoothie,” I told him. “Just a smoothie?,” he asked. My smoothie arrived ten minutes later in a giant whine glass and looked like a decorative work of art. I wanted to marvel at it for several minutes as I contemplated the slowest ways to go about destroying it.

    But rather than feeling like a gauche tourist who had somehow accidentally stumbled into the fanciest and most exclusive restaurant in all of Manhattan with his bulky shopping bags and crude Midwestern manners, I was a little bit annoyed in a New York-ish sort of way. I wanted to say to my waiter, “Just get me the fuckin’ smoothie already.” And I would have been right. The waiter’s formality didn’t seem snobbish to me, it just seemed funny. It was like fake snobbishness: such as when somebody pretends to hate you because you’re taller than 6′3′. It was also a few days before Christmas and it was crazy in Manhattan (unlike this year).

    After this the fire alarm went off on every floor and the whole store had to be evacuated. People were cussing and swearing as if it were the hugest inconvenience of their lives. “Oh, fucking great! Shitty fucking Macy’s. Fuck them. I’m going across the street to Daffy’s. The cock suckers at Macy’s can bend over and lick their assholes.”

    Lately it seems like New Yorkers have been too uptight and worried about their job security and the economy to act like, well, New Yorkers.

  • I don’t know how people live with black-walled basements. Surely the red lights are for parties only. I wouldn’t be able to sing in a room like that at all.

  • i love that people give you writing advice in the comments! puke! or could it be that “Arf” is Gordon Lish in disguise?! I GUESS THE BEAUTY OF THE INTERNET IS THAT YOU NEVER KNOW!!!!!!

  • Laurie Johns

    But what happened to the 8:00 appointment?

  • Rebecca A.

    Lot of testosterone in here, huh?

    You have such a pleasing way of inviting your readers inside your head. I love it !

    I still want more diary!!!!

  • hccarr

    @bennett; or give you a PARAGRAPH or so of THEIR book. gross.
    anyway, miss g, this was sooooo good.

  • jack

    @Rebecca A.

    I REALLY LIKE the way you put that “You have such a pleasing way of inviting your readers inside your head.” !

  • i TOTALLY TOTALLY Feel you on the unwanted “look at me” vibes… i feel that way so often, especially on the subway, like GOD i wish i wasn’t so intense & WHY is everyone in NYC so nosy & maybe i’m just completely self-conscious & self-absorbed, but i really feel like my unhappy vibes are radiating from me. i don’t feel that way so much when i’m in a good mood. hmm… am i an anti-social or a frustrated out of practice actor? OR BOTH. loved this post, thanks.

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