New Paltz, 2001
Friday, March 30 2001
This morning Gretchen and I bid adieu to Gretchen's parents and set out for New Paltz, New York, residence of our only mutual friend, Kristen Masson. I met Kristen at the same time that I met Gretchen, in the Fall of 1988, but after Gretchen cut off communications with me in March of 1989, Kristen remained my friend. In May of 1989, Kristen and I started discretely fooling around with each other. Now that I think about it, that whole year was all about discrete fooling around. The Gretchen affair had been completely
undercover in 1988 because of my ongoing relationship with Joy Powley, and the Kristen thing had to be undercover in 1989 because Kristen was friends with Gretchen and by then Gretchen hated me.
We headed North in the usual was as far as Wilmington, Delaware, but then I timidly suggested a divergence from the usual four and six lane toll roads. I said, "How about we head up to Trenton on I-95 and then take little US-206 north up to 287?" As expected, Gretchen looked at me like I was insane. "There's no way I'm going on those little roads!" she declared, then, clarifying with a rhetorical question, asked, "You know what those little red lines mean?" But I persisted, insisting it would be beautiful and probably not take too long. "It's only 20 miles of little roads." "You just don't want to pay the tolls," Gretchen hissed. But our argument was all in good fun and eventually she relented. We passed some of the most austere industrial landscape you can imagine past the core of Philadelphia, crossed the mighty Delaware into Trenton, and then busted north on quaint little 206 through Princeton, New Jersey, former home of Albert Einstein. Unlike most of the Jersey I've seen from trains and the turnpike, this was a beautiful segment of America, sort of (as one could easily imagine) a cross between snooty rural Connecticut and do-it-yourself industrious rural Pennsylvania. Our song, the little two minute thing that always makes me weep, "Unspirited" by Guided by Voices (with its quaintly simple punk rock guitar pattern and dreamy orchestration) came on and lasted for most of our drive through the village of Princeton. It coincided with the first two red traffic lights, both of which gave us big makeout opportunities. Things got so hot and heavy that Gretchen was almost entirely in my lap. I was the one doing the driving and it seemed kind of tricky to fuck and drive at the same time. We never quite got that far, but it was pretty crazy nonetheless and I don't know what other motorists were thinking.
I couldn't resist at least one Einstein joke, and at the first of the Princeton traffic lights I joked about picturing Einstein stumbling out into traffic, oblivious to the world because of a profound insight that would grandly unify all field theory. At that point, of course, he would be hit by a truck and that peerless brain spattered over the immaculate streets of Princeton.
New Paltz is two hours up the Hudson from New York City. We were driven to make it there by one pm, so we sort of pushed things like speed and bladder limits. We did one piss break under a Philadelphia overpass and later I pissed into a plastic container that had just held hot and spicy V8. The dull burning sensation of red pepper snuck up on me almost to the point of discomfort before subsiding about an hour later.
We were listening to public radio as usual and we heard a news item about the wrangling on Capital Hill concerning the Bush II tax cut proposal. Some Republican congressman from a hinterland district had apparently prepared a big poster showing the typical squeaky clean family that would benefit from the tax cut proposal, a bit of nauseating fluff perfectly matched by the reaction of New York Congressman Charlie Rangel. "I'd like to give the floor to my colleague from ______ while I regain my composure after that touching exhibit." We both burst into laughter at that one and kept laughing for a long time. "This is why I like New York," Gretchen declared once she finally regained her composure.
Unfortunately it was raining for most of the drive. The windshield wipers were slapping out a tempo, keeping perfect rhythm to whatever it was Gretchen played on the stereo, but those wipers weren't clearing the water especially well and I could never really see much of what was in front of me. But somehow we made it to Kristen's ugly brick apartment building by one. Winter has been relentless in upstate New York. There were still patches of snow on the ground in various places.
Kristen looked pretty much the same as she did back in 1989, a little older, sure, but 12 years of youth had passed us by. We sat around in the living room with the window open so Kristen or her housemate Melissa could smoke. There was a clammy chill to the air even indoors.
One of Kristen's friends, Johnny, kept popping in and out with a little two year old kid in tow (Johnny was baysitting; the kid was not his own). Johnny is part of "the family" (or whatever Kristen's version of New Paltz Big Fun would be called), having married one of Kristen's best friends (and given her an enormous cubic zirconium ring). He's a sort of Dadaist fan of Robert Rauschenberg and his art consists of collagey assemblages and painted text. Anyway, I didn't know what to think of his art but I thought he as a person was fucking hilarious. We got to talking about serotonin reuptake inhibitors and it turns out he's on Prozac and has trouble ejaculating because of it. It's a real problem, because he's supposed to ejaculate a certain number of times in a month to confirm whether or not his vasectomy has "taken," and he's having trouble meeting the quota. But then he added, "Mind you, I'm a horny bastard too. I'd fuck a pile of rocks if I thought there might be a snake in there!" It was the funniest thing I'd heard all day, and the Rangel thing had been pretty damn funny.
Of the five adults in the room, Kristen and I were the only people not taking prescriptions of serotonin reuptake inhibitors. "I just get depressed," Kristen said.
The little kid whom Johnny was babysitting has apparently been given the impression that everybody has babies in their bellies. He went up to Kristen and pulled up her shirt in hopes of kissing the baby in her tummy and Kristen had to tell the little guy that that such behavior is inappropriate.
Then Melissa launched into a depressing series of stories about her life of late. She ran into some seemingly nice guy in a bar. He was a complete freakazoid and talked a lot about UFOs, cosmic connections and fate. He had a certain charisma that justified the kooky bullshit, so she took him home and they had sex. The next time they got together, however, he wouldn't even lay a hand on her. Finally he tried to convince her to drive him up to some sort of hippie shindig happening up in Woodstock. The experience left her feeling miserable and unloveable. Then she did her taxes and figured out that she owed $2000 this year. Then the muffler of her car rusted loose (as commonly happens in the rusty north) and it's going to cost something like $300 to fix it. "I used to be an atheist," Melissa finally declared, "but all this trouble has me believing that there really is a vengeful God."
For her part, Kristen had plenty of similarly depressing stories to tell.
First of all was the tale of how her car was stolen and all the crazy things that had happened as a result. One morning she was on her way to work and parked at the place where she gets her morning coffee, leaving her car idling in the parking lot like everyone else does in the frozen north. When she went back out into the parking lot with her coffee, her car was gone. Stolen.
Eventually the car was tracked down to a parking lot some miles away. When the police found it, they also found the thief rifling through it, trying unsuccessfully to find something worth stealing. They brought Kristen in and tried to convince her to press serious felonious car theft charges, but she didn't want to see the poor schmuck rot his life away in prison on a big felony charge. She had her car back and she wasn't really very angry at the guy. So in the end the guy was merely charged with "illegal borrowing of a car," a misdemeanor. At work (Kristen is a school teacher) all her co-workers were clamoring for the death penalty, but Kristen didn't really see what the big deal was. She had her car back and it was fine.
At this point the story took a turn for the surreal. A mysterious woman showed up unannounced at her house at two in the morning, and on another occasion, so did the police, supposedly "investigating" the case. The mysterious woman turned out to be the car thief's girlfriend, and evidently the guy owed her money for child support. "He's got a wife in Brooklyn, you know," she warned Kristen. This was just one of many negative things she told Kristen about the felonious boyfriend.
Evidently both the police and the girlfriend were suspicious that the reason Kristen hadn't pressed for a felony conviction was that she had some sort of romantic connection to the guy. The fact that she didn't want to ruin a stranger's life over a stolen car was something that lay completely outside their realm of understanding. Eventually the police stopped bothering Kristen, but the girlfriend didn't relent quite so easily. She started calling Kristen in the small hours of the morning, putting her little kids on the phone to ask, "Is Daddy there?" "I think you have the wrong number," Kristen would say, and then she'd hear the evil voice of the girlfriend in the background saying, "It's the right number, and I know you're there!" Kristen had never even met the car thief and couldn't even picture what he looked like.
After a few episodes of this sort of thing, Kristen finally turned to the police to ask them what could be done about the girlfriend. "Has she threatened you?" they wanted to know. Well no, she hadn't actually threatened anyone. She was just acting creepy and calling at weird hours.
A little time passed and the girlfriend's harassment suddenly ended. Finally there was this scene where Kristen was doing her laundry down at the laundry mat. New Paltz is such a small town that it wasn't the slightest bit odd that the girlfriend happened to be there too. The two got to talking and the girlfriend said, "Oh yeah, they found the guy down in Brooklyn living with his wife, the whore!" There was no discussion or apology for all the late night calls and harassment, the issue was simply dropped. Then, in a surreal twist one finds even too creepy for fiction, one of the girlfriend's little kids randomly interjected with a declaration, "I found a thkrew!" And sure enough, he was holding up a little wood screw he'd found on the ground.
But the story could have been so much worse. The kids could have been in Kristen's classroom (the town really is this small) or Kristen could have been living in the girlfriend's apartment building (it was a place she'd once considered living).
Romance, as it turns out, is difficult for the single ladies of New Paltz. Where does one go to meet the smart guys (let alone the guys with Platinum cards)? We'd already heard Melissa's depressing story and now it was time for Kristen's. "It's not that I've been terribly fussy," she explained. Then she told about her dalliances with an African drummer who drifted through town. He was this guy from the Ivory Coast she met one day when he "needed a ride." "You've got to watch out when you start giving these drummers rides. Next thing you know, you have a car full of drums!" Kristen declared with exhausted delight. Anyway, the drummer guy was good for some things and not so good for others. For example, she found herself having an improbable conversation about whether or not children were gifts from God. The Ivory Coast drummer was pretty sure they were, whereas Kristen thought of them more as the result of conscious decisions and hell, maybe even some planning. She couldn't believe she was actually having such a ludicrous conversation. But these guys, they come from a very different world, a place where things happen to people and they have no idea why. 25% of the guys from the Ivory Coast are infected with the HIV virus, and they all wear beautiful bracelets around their waists to ward off the evil spirits that cause AIDS. This particular drummer turned out to be nothing more than a brilliant flash in Kristen's romantic life; once it was clear she wouldn't let him move in it was time for him to move on. He didn't even stick around long enough to see the results of the AIDS test they had taken together.
Melissa's car is still in the shop with its muffler troubles, so tonight she needed Kristen to drive her to her job. She works as a staffer at a half-way house for troubled young adults in nearby Kingston, New York. So at around five we all set out on the half hour drive.
Kingston, New York seems like it should be a fairly vibrant city. It's halfway between New York City and the state capital in Albany and simultaneously halfway between the hip & happening cities of New Paltz and Woodstock. It's a gateway to Catskill Park and sits convenient to both the New York Thruway and the Hudson River. At one time Kingston was itself the Capital of New York State. But despite all of that, Kingston is a troubled city. Its real estate prices have been stagnant since the early 70s, when the city was devastated by the closing of an IBM plant. People have been buying property in Kingston for years, hoping to gentrify the place, but still it remains a haven for whiteboy gangsters and crack addicts. A beautiful (if rotting) mansion overlooking a scenic Hudson tributary can be had for something like 90 thousand dollars. Kristen, who is sort of in the market for some real estate so that she can finally establish her own personal utopia, found the situation simultaneously tantalizing and depressing. "You can change anything about a house except its location," she declared.
Driving around Kingston, we passed a taco place and Kristen said it was almost certainly a cover for a drug operation. "You never see anyone in there." But this got her to talking about a taco place she'd known as a student in Eugene, Oregon (where she'd finally gone to get her degree after her one year as a student in Oberlin). Kristen and a friend, not knowing any better, had gone into this Eugene taco place and ordered something. They should have known something was suspicious when the guy working the place had nothing prepped. But somehow he managed to fuss together some sort of taco. A few days later Kristen learned that the place had been busted. A hidden camera had revealed that during the entire time of its operation, the taco shop had served only two customers.
Back in New Paltz, Gretchen, Kristen and I dined at a place called the Bistro. The first thing Gretchen noticed when we walked into the Bistro was that her therapist was sitting by herself in a booth back by the restrooms. Gretchen's therapist is a pleasant-faced woman with appealingly crooked teeth and intense probing eyes and though she works in New York City, she lives in New Paltz. Gretchen reacted to seeing her as though it was an amazingly rare event, but the truth of the matter was that the therapist eats there every night she's in New Paltz and Gretchen had been telling me that the chances were good that we'd run into her somewhere. The Bistro is evidently the only restaurant worth your dining dollar in all of New Paltz, so it's no surprise we would run into her there. Anyway, we decided not to "cross boundaries," so we sat some tables away and let Gretchen's therapist dine in peace. When we were done with our meal, we were delighted to find that the therapist had paid for it all.
New Paltz is such a frighteningly small town that we were soon joined at our table by one of Kristen's friends, a peppy pretty girl named Heather. She had such a sweet and innocent voice, but underneath it all the main thing she wanted to talk about was the sexual politics going on between herself and her various boyfriends, one of whom has an enormous penis and likes to have her bite on it when she gives him oral sex.
At around nine we drove back to Kingston to pick up Melissa at the half-way house. While we were waiting for her, Gretchen and I went into the teevee lounge and made out while MTV interviewed Moby. I didn't know this, but Melissa told us later that Moby is a direct descendant of Herman Melville and this is how he got his name.
Back in New Paltz again, we eventually walked down to Kristen's favorite bar, a place not frequented by quite so many young people. Jokingly she called it "the old folks' home." Anyway, tonight Gretchen and I were drinking gin and tonics and I was having trouble restraining myself. That's always scary when it comes to gin, but the atmosphere was conducive to drinking.
New Paltz continued to be a very small town. We were joined by an annoying lesbian chick with bad posture and stylish glasses (she ignored me completely) and then by the wacky UFO guy who had so cruelly toyed with Melissa's romantic desires. Later on the peppy pretty Heather showed up, and she seemed really drunk. Gretchen dragged me back to the restroom for a little connection, but the place, even the women's room, was so gross I couldn't get in the mood. This mismatch of mood put Gretchen and me on the wrong foot with respect to one another and a rift formed which widened steadily throughout the evening.
Later we went to another bar to see some unknown local punk rock bands play. The cover was only $3 and the beer was cheap. These are both things I love about small towns in bumfuck New York. Anyway, some guy was trying to pick up Gretchen at the bar while I was the only one dancing to the music because it seemed I was the only one who didn't care what people thought of me. Heather was delighted with my spunk and I was covered with sweat. Gretchen stopped ignoring me for awhile, but when she started ignoring me again I went around the bar and sat with Heather instead. She and I talked about whether it made sense for me to do as Gretchen has been suggesting. She wants me to move to New York at the end of June and has implied that if I didn't do this then I don't really love her that much. My contention has been that this has all seemed a little hurried and I think I have a right to be cautious after coming out of my former predicament (which to this day hangs heavy on my Platinum cards).
Gretchen and Kristen.
Kristen and I eating our burgers in the Bistro
Me with Gretchen.
[This account was written on April 7th, 2001]
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