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Dinner and Opera (from Conversations over Stolen Food)

Between December 2006 and January 2007, we recorded forty-five-minute conversations for thirty straight days throughout New York City. Half of these talks took place at a Union Square health-food store which we call “W.F.” Other locations included MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Opera House, Central Park, Prospect Park and a Tribeca parking garage. This excerpt comes from the twenty-third talk.

5:40 p.m., Wednesday, January 25
Union Square W.F.

A: Hmm you know this ginseng-tea box says to press the bag so nutrients…

J: Yes.

A: if that’s what we call them? And you’re supposed to drink two to four cups per day, two bags per cup?

J: Yeah in other words: buy multiple boxes most weeks. Who does that?

A: You mentioned feeling sick. Of course I’m curious if it comes with new…

J: Last night I’d stayed up late getting settled. I stacked boxes against a wall then searched for sheets and a blanket. This morning Richard knocked at nine...

A: Wow.

J: assuming I was awake. He mentioned a handyman coming and apologized profusely. I said No, it’s fine. I told him I’d been up and planned to step out.

A: Today Lee began—oh that woman’s leaving. I’ve wanted to praise this fifty-year-old Korean woman’s gold tank-top. But while I worked on my dissertation Lee packed his his Christmas items, specifically a tree and ornaments. He kept taping boxes, if...

J: Ooh.

A [Muffled] sound of packing-tape peeled from rings then affixed to boxes. With lots of sighing...

J: Oh sure...

A: and gasping. I screamed not to him but at myself (almost internally).

J: Given the this city’s crowdedness it’s important to have a place we can be by ourselves. Though a second factor with my clogged left nostril...

A: You know my left nostril’s begun to feel clogged?

J: Well since...last night I got caught in a downpour on the walk from your apartment, after you’d insisted it wasn’t raining.

A: I looked and saw dampness once you left, then waited beside a big umbrella.

J: Oh I assumed you’d turned off your phone and crawled in the sack for a solid sleep.

A: You can always try. I wouldn’t sleep with the ringer on.

J: Right.

A: Did you feel drafts on the subway? I’ll hate riding subways wet.

J: For the second second time this week my leather jacket got soaked and I shivered on a subway.

A: That couple behind you just finished a box of Haagen-Dazs watermelon ice-cream treats, at least six bars. [Pause] The guy in the Snapple jacket.

J: Yeah with a snow-hat barely covering his head.

A: I’ve also noticed (well I’ll lower my voice) how the man directly across from us straddles his, his chair facing backwards. Not there. See the woman in a pink gown?

J: Yes. Beyond the...ooh yes.

A: Do they seem together? Or...

J: No.

A: He’d look like a creep trying to pick her up, yet has such a sweet voice.

J: Sweet people pick each other up all the time in this cafeteria. I came for breakfast. I’d left home without even stretching. That too could explain my stuffy nostril. You’ve developed the theory that we’ll get sick when we don’t stretch—and I’m a firm believer. But today I I came and sat at the long table, where across from me a woman began writing stanzas. She’d addressed her envelope to a Rachel in Madison Wisconsin...

A: Hmm.

J: and I said Looks like you’ve put some thought into that letter; you must be a good friend. We started talking.

A: Madison, you know, I called home two years.

J: Yeah, this girl left her final year...

A: Not finishing?

J: Not not finishing, driving to New York to study with an originator of breakdancing.

A: One of the major figures or…

J: One of the first to do it.

A: Ok. Have you seen the film Wild Style? It combines spray-painting of graffiti, guys scratching records (I think mainly the image of a hand scratching records) and breakdancing, and maybe skateboard moves.

J: Then I should watch it. I’ve inherited the previous tenant’s DVD player. Stephen said we could split his Netfl…

A: Does he not have a DVD player?

J: He does. He bought a TV/DVD unit.

A: Oh.

J: But I’ll tell you: I woke this morning to knocks on my door. As I came to consciousness I heard television. I’ve...

A: I had the word pulchritude in my head.

J: Pulchritude: beauty. Tutors say the word is, that this word appears on one of ten GREs.

A: Businesses track and provide such data?

J: A classic Kaplan strategy

A: Now you’d started to describe your day—that man’s thrown out a New York Times. I would love to grab it though please continue.

J: Yes, he’s placed it among other copies of the Times and half-eaten dinners in a trashcan.

A: Right.

J: So today [Cough] disorienting and I’ve forgotten my phone.

A: Do we need it?

J: Well I told Brian we have extra opera tickets.

A: Does Brian know it’s Cosi Fan Tutte, not Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute?

J: He seemed unaffected one way or the other.

A: Ok.

J: He sounds most interested in the um intermissions. He thinks they’ll be hot lurks.

A: I guess if you’re gay and forty.

J: Yet Brian also expressed ambivalence about coming. He could imagine it getting hard to sit for for an hour straight listening to the music. We agreed he’d call around six-thirty, but in the meantime I’ve left my phone on the bed.

A: We could call from mine but I don’t have his number. I’ve never tried to program my phone. Can you check your voicemail remotely?

J: I’d I’ve never learned how.

A: The breakdancer you’d—did you learn where she lived in Madison?

J: I didn’t. Though I mentioned my best friend left Mad Town two years early.

A: But I graduated.

J: Right. I’m aware of the break breakneck pace at which you hurled yourself through the gates of Mad Town. Tanya studies at an institute near the Jefferson stop. She’d described three kinds of breakdancers: poppers, lockers, and b-boys/b-girls.

A: I think I can envision three separate types. I’ll...

J: She herself...

A: best appreciate um...

J: is a b-girl.

A: Yes. Anyone that uses such designations clearly considers herself a b-girl.

J: Yeah, yeah I’d asked if...

A: Without knowing the terms you figure that out. It’s like a multiple choice question; something more glamorous…

J: Right or synthetic—as if b-boys and girls combine...

A: Both…

J: techniques of poppers and lockers in a hybrid style.

A: I’ve looked at apartments near Jefferson. One landlord’s name was Kant (his first name). Just nineteen and...

J: Already a real-estate entrepreneur?

A: Yeah an artist and developer on the side, who wanted a thousand bucks for his room without windows.

J: This this is the card Tanya gave me. We’d talked twenty minutes. I said she should go resume...

A: Wait...

J: her morning.

A: wait wait. Now she’s a break…is she white?

J: Yes.

A: With long reddish, orangish-red hair?

J: Um I could tell it had been at one point long, because the sides come down past her shoulders. But the back looked short. She has...

A: I can picture...

J: a choppy hairstyle.

A: Is she younger than us?

J: Twenty-two, twenty-three.

A: Never mind.

J: Tanya asked...just before leaving she’d asked if anybody I knew needed a massage. She said she does massage work part-time. I thought of our friend Stephen...

A: Who always could use a massage.

J: who’s complained of tremendous, job-related backaches. Though now that he has his bike again he he’ll return to happiness.

A: Too bad Stephen can’t come with tonight. Please excuse dandruff cast your way. Today I ran out of conditioner.

J: Once I stole here something to give my hair—I thought I’d pocketed moisturizing spray, but wound up possessing a cure for dandruff. I could give…

A: That sounds wonderful. An organic mix?

J: A nourishing scalp serum to apply twice per week. You’re interested?

A: Yes definitely.

J: Again I’ll enjoy this generosity that comes with with being a minor criminal.

A: Also the politeness. I love to let old ladies skip me in line with hot bakery bunched in my sleeve or pants. [Pause] Around dawn in a dream I read a Hindu saying: To make up parts of your life—that is bliss.

J: To make up: now “make up” of course has...

A: To construct, to improvise, to falsify. Then I woke feeling tired. But when I wake tired it means I’d slept strong until the very last minute, whereas if I rise feeling great inevitably...

J: You crash.

A: The scientist in me wants such findings published.

J: Or today you’d coped with violent noise.

A: Crossing a vacant lot around 14th and Bedford, I’m sure you know the one...

J: Oh yes.

A: I passed an upside-down Christmas tree lodged in barbed-wire, and felt felt guilty for aggressive thoughts about my roommate, who’s kind.

J: Last Thursday as Brian and I cut toward Essex one Christmas tree dropped from a fourth-floor window.

A: That recently?

J: We saw um...the other time I’ve seen a tree dropped came two years back on the Lower East Side. That’s how some New Yorkers dispose of trees. Certain superintendents prefer this method, so the tiny green needles don’t litter their buildings.

A: I’d love stray needles.

J: I love them too. Did Lee sweep his needles from your parlor?

A: Well Lee’s tree looked fake. It sounded like he taped up the entire...

J: Though it smelled real, or did Lee...

A: He may...

J: spray cologne on it?

A: use um aromatic Christmas enhancer.

J: I did scrutinize the floor for fallen needles, and not find any.

A: They would have shown on the nice blond wood.

J: Hmm. So now this tree presumably sits boxed up in the basement beside your fan.

A: I’d thought the fan came from Brooklyn as—I thought you borrowed my fan.

J: Sure I have one fan, but I’d assume another...

A: Oh.

J: [Muffled] downstairs. I know you keep three fans in your possession.

A: I’ll consider taking one to France, to sleep. In Berlin my second night I bought a fan (which was fun: to um, to to describe to the clerk, who stayed cute and professional...

J: Even drugstore workers in Berlin are cute?

A: They don’t sell fans at drugstores, Jonny.

J: Where did you go for a fan?

A: To the schmaltzy electronics store. Those drugstores only exist in Amer…

J: Where you could buy upset-stomach medication, nasal spray, candy bars and fans?

A: Correct. Still this store seemed packed on a Friday night.

J: The electronic…

A: Yeah. Yeah and you...

J: For what reason?

A: Who knows. But whereas American electronics-store customers bring me down, in Berlin I saw bright young people.

J: All buying Macintosh?

A: I didn’t even look. [Pause] I hope you’ve found no hair in your tea. Perhaps you know a cashier with...she has the hairiest arms I’ve seen. I remember studying my brother’s hair patterns and waiting for my legs to turn hairy. It never happened. Yet her arm…

J: Well I don’t know if if hairs could pierce this plastic lid, but I haven’t tasted any.

A: I never leave plastic lids on cups. I’d stick my tongue in the hole and get scrapes. Now have I mentioned we check coats at the opera, if you...

J: Does that cost money?

A: don’t mind. Two dollars.

J: Per item or per person?

A: Per item, though though if you pass them a bag and coat that counts as one item; I guess because...

J: Ok.

A: when they say “item” they mean, you know a mink or an ostrich-feather hat.

J: Right.

A: Checking your coat is helpful since at first we’ll stand (we don’t have seats), hovering above the rows as if we’d draped our coats then bumped into each other, enjoyed chat...

J: Yeah comparing martinis we just finished, right?

A: Or maybe drank six months ago, when we’d first met at Lulu. Then we’ll casually make our way down as ushers start locking doors. The only time they’ve caught me I carried a coat and backpack.

J: People treated you as an outsider?

A: Yes. And it was a Wagner…Die Walkeries. The first act—for which I stood—lasted two hours.

J: Well Andy, I have no problem check checking things. Dinner tonight cost two bucks...

A: Right.

J: so I can spend another two on this extravagant coat check.

A: What could two dollars buy you here? A bagel? A scone?

J: Premium sliced tuna steak.

A: From…

J: I’ve pulled a variation on the box-trick. After cooking quinoa at home I came for tuna steaks, which the worker placed in a box. This should cost seven dollars but I removed that price, so so the cashier weighed it as salad bar…

A: $6.99 a pound.

J: Yes; it cost two dollars.

A: Though did you add sprouts or endive?

J: I’d covered the steaks with baby spinach...

A: Sure.

J: because I craved leafy greens. And if that the box happened to spring open it would look like salad inside.

A: Of course. On my walk here one Polish woman carried a a canvas. I assumed she was the artist since she held it facing inwards: an elegant arrangement of grays, green and yellows. As you describe your box I’ll envision…

J: Yeah I also met a painter today. She described this show in which a photographer, whose name she had forgotten, exhibited photos of each thing he ate one year.

A: We’ve discussed the exhibit “All My Clothes”...

J: Yes, where was that?

A: Pace-Wildenstern. Wildenstein?

J: They should still have slides in back, right? Would you stop in Chelsea to look at slides?

A: Yeah. Now when you’d descr—oh that woman’s choking. Her face turned red.

J: I’m glad she got help. Last night Stephen and I ate boxes as one man sobbed on another guy’s shoulder. This second man had to remove the first guy’s glasses, so he could cry freely.

A: Public displays of grief relieve me. Places seem more honest.

J: Doesn’t Aristotle say that in The Poetics? How open grieving provokes the catharsis of...

A: Our own purgation?

J: Exactly.

A: I especially love (I’ll quiet down again) that adorable chunky couple there, the gay guy and punk-rock girl...

J: With…

A: coarse black hair dyed partial-red. Just looking at her ankle and picturing his ankles if he’d rolled his pants higher makes me happy.

J: She wears snappy gold Adidas high-tops…

A: Yeah tactile.

J: while he chose more traditional Sambas. That that young man putting on a brown coat looks like Jeremy Killmer.

A: Um no one will understand: but maybe a cross between Dr. K and Dan Mostovoy? Yet enough of these…

J: Right, right.

A: Though walking down the street with you and and substituting friends for people we pass remains one of my favorite games.

J: Yes and those people probably play it. I’d bet readers can follow in their own way. I doubt it’s unusual to represent humankind through famous archetypes. An interesting dinner’s started to your…

A: Sure it seems too close to discuss. Of course I’ve...

J: It’s too...

A: been amazed.

J: sacred to speak about.

A: Correct—other than to hint at scents of frozen fish.


Jon Cotner

Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch's book 10 Walks/2 Talks is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Andy Fitch


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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