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Someone to Watch Over Me

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul worries about the disappearance of a supporting character.

The longer I’ve lived in New York, the more I’ve added to my collection.  Not bric-a-brac, mind you—although that “vintage” stool in our kitchen was once rescued from the street by Angela.  No, I tend to collect people, characters, supporting cast members that help fill out my ongoing sitcom life.  And I never realize how much I rely on them until they are written out of the show or go missing—like Fidel-the-Watchdog.  Rain, snow or shine, Fidel sits in his 4th floor window across the street from our Washington Heights brownstone chain smoking cigarettes and shouting at violators of parking regulations.  But about a month ago, he mysteriously disappeared.  I’ve been beside myself ever since.

View of Fidel from front door, just above right of tree

By way of background, Fidel is part of a long line of character (actors) that I have cast in my sitcom life since my days on the East Village set of Alphabet City.  Many of the supporting cast members had useful job functions like the Born-Again-Christian-Korean-Dry-Cleaners who assumed that Angela and I were married and that Chef was my brother.  The joke never got old (to us).  Other times, they provided a running gag like Opinionated-Semi-Homeless-Man who every morning shouted at me, “Spare any change guy? You look crazy in that suit!” as I headed to work gussied up in a tie while most E. Village hipsters were slinking home from the clubs.   I was sad to leave that motley crew behind when my show was transferred way uptown.

But moving to Washington Heights, I needn’t have worried about my new sitcom life filling with captivating characters.  The Dry Cleaners role was taken over by a sass talking Puerto Rican chica on 181st street who dishes with me on her latest boy troubles and wants to know when Chef is bringing her some of his famous guacamole.  And for one summer season, the Semi-Homeless Man was played by a good-looking guy who I oddly developed a crush on when he berated me for not complimenting him on his dedicated sweeping outside the A-train subway stop.

View of Fidel from Frida's landing in my 2nd floor studio

What I didn’t realize when we bought our brownstone was that it came with its own live security camera—the gentleman whom we call Fidel, an homage to another omnipotent Latin.  At first, just the idea of someone watching over my every move unnerved me.  If it wasn’t bad enough that he had a direct view into our apartments, he shouted at us in an unintelligible brogue whenever we were coming and going.  With a smoke-induced gravelly voice, we couldn’t tell if he was screaming at us in Yiddish or Spanglish.

As it turned out he wasn’t that good of a security camera either.  When someone stole a geranium off our front stoop in the pouring rain before Mother’s Day, he just shrugged.  Same thing when someone stole my chained up bike.  He never liked where I was putting out the trash.  And always had something to say when I watered the flowers.

Everything changed the day we planted a tree.  After a long battle with the NYC Parks Department, a few calls to a friend in Bloomberg’s office, and a hefty (to us) donation to the “Million Trees” program, our blessed Arbol de la Vida was delivered like manna from heaven.  And that’s when the Red Sea of 183rd Street parted and Fidel-as-Moses came for a visit.

Fidel "close-up"

Coming down from on high, Fidel regaled us with stories about how he’d seen the street change over his 40 years living life from that window—the fire that once gutted our home, the double homicide next door, the once beautiful trees lining the street cut down to make parking for the police precinct.

While we still couldn’t quite place his accent, it became clear he was once as suspect of us—the new kids on the block—as we were of him.  But our chutzpah in planting the tree had shown him we were putting down roots, and after three years, we had passed muster.  Fidel, whose given name is evidently George, returned to his perch, and continued his ranting to which we just smile and wave and take as a sign of affection.

That is, until a month ago, when Fidel disappeared from view.   Not just for a bathroom break, but for days.  Then a week.  Then a fortnight.  Everyone in the house became nervous.  Angela assured me that this time last year he had gone to see his family somewhere—for Easter or Passover (we’re still not sure which he observes).  But then another week passed.  I could tell Frida started getting agitated—she usually had a stare down with Fidel from her own window ledge on our 2nd floor.  Even Frida’s dogwalker Andrea left a note wondering about his whereabouts.  He had infiltrated the lives of fellow cast members.  When asked, neighbors just shrugged.  The Handsome-Hardware-Store-Guy—the one who thinks I am Hugo Weaving—lives in Fidel’s building and told me everything was fine, that Fidel (a.k.a. Jorge) was just on an extended visit with family.

But Fidel’s continued absence just made me worry and miss him more.  I longed for the obligatory waves when taking Frida to and from her walks.  I wondered if I’d ever get another “thumbs up” for my front stoop gardening.  I hoped to once again take the risk of him seeing me naked when I ran from the shower into my front room office to grab my ringing cell phone.

Ever a fatalist—a dramatic flair I’ve inherited from my mother that in therapy I’ve been working to shed—I began to worry that should anything happen to Fidel, no one would know to tell me.  No one would know what an integral part of my Washington Heights existence he has become.  Funny the affect that one supporting character has on the way you live a sitcom life.

For days I’ve been mulling around how to write about my feelings of loss for Fidel.  And this morning, as I poured my first cup of coffee, telling myself that today was the day that I finally share with the world my worries about this character, I looked out the window out of habit.  Expecting absence.  And, no joke, there he was.  In all his normal glory—smoking and drinking coffee as if nothing had changed.

He caught me peeking and smiled, then waved and gave me a nod of approval fro my garden’s Spring Awakening.

Well, Fidel, welcome back to my sitcom life.  You may not know it, but you’ve been missed.

Update: EV Grieve has info on the “Spare Any Change Guy” from the East 5th Street days.

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Count Me Pink

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul worries about queerly and correctly answering questions on the US Census.

For the first time in my life, I had a difficult time with the US Census.  Don’t get me wrong—I fully understand the importance of standing up and being counted.  But something has changed in my life in the last 10 years that make answering the simple questions, well, problematic.

Right up front, I should admit that I have a tendency to overanalyze seemingly straightforward questions.  Many years ago in Dallas when I went to see a new therapist, she asked me to answer a series of test questions to determine if I was playing with a full deck.  This True/False question had me stumped: “I believe things are turning out the way the prophets in the Bible said they would.”  With little religious training, I had no idea what the prophets said.  So what if things were turning out the way they said and I just didn’t know it?  Did that make me crazy or just unaware?  The doctor realized she had her work cut out for her.

For this decade’s Census, Chef and I received 2 Census forms because technically we two separate one-bedroom apartments in our Washington Heights brownstone.  We decided against each filling out a separate form so that we could mark our relationship as “unmarried partners.”  Incidentally, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who are working with me on the Alphabet City Book Tour, has an entire campaign to QueerTheCensus including pink stickers!

Then Questions 1 and 2 sent me into a tizzy.  “How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1, 2010?”  Never mind my issues about mobile homes or our little dog Frida whom I believe probably should be counted as our child.  I’ve got an in-laws problem.  Every other year they travel from Mexico during something called “Holy Week” (there’s that Bible reference again) and set-up shop in our house.  At this point, I can no longer hide from Chef how agitated I have become over the form.

“Honey, do you think the US government really wants us to count the Mexican contingent just because they camp out here on April Fools’ Day?”

“Probably not.  You need to relax about this,” he advises.

Everything was going fine until Question 8, something I never much thought about until I became part of a cross-cultural couple since the last Census—“Is the person of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?”

“Honey, the government wants to know exactly what kind of Latin you are.”

Chef considers the question for a moment, then smiles and says with a snap,

“Spicy!”

Any day now I am expecting a follow-up visit from a confused Census Bureau, which will make me tickled pink.

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Blog Works In Mysterious Ways

Today on Alphabet City: A tech-savvy Samaritan comes to Jon Paul’s rescue

Less than a week old and already this blog is paying dividends in mysterious ways.  This past Saturday morning, I was recovering from my previous night at Washington Heights’ premiere only gay bar No Parking by taking inventory of the pockets in my “going out” jeans: one debit card, a handful of crumpled dollar bills left after generous tips to the hunky dick dancers, three NYC-branded condoms, and wait…no drivers license?

Oh great.  I had paid a price for fashion having chosen not to carry a wallet because the heft interrupts the sleek lines of my Levi’s skinny jeans.  Instead, I had shoved all the necessary items into a front pocket.  Somewhere along the route home, I pulled out my iPhone (who was I texting at 3am?), and dropped my i.d. on the side of the road.

When I moved to the Heights, I neglected to change the address on my license, which meant that a dreaded visit to the DMV was in my future.  But an email arrived Sunday morning that made things seem a little brighter.  The author of the note had found my i.d. and was willing to meet up to return it.  A few hours later, I was standing outside the neighborhood Starbucks wondering how the guy had tracked me down so quickly.  He laughed at the question.

photo

The recovered license with items collected the previous evening

“We live in the Internet age.  I plugged in your name and up came a blog called Alphabet City.  The address on the license says East 5th street—so I figured it was a match.  Then I read a post about how you moved to Washington Heights and I knew it must be you,” he said.

Since his wife was standing there, I refrained from calling him “my Nancy Drew.”  Unsure of proper thank-you etiquette, I asked if I could buy he and his wife an iTunes certificate.  They just shrugged.

“No big deal.  We’re neighbors.  That’s what we do.”

I’m glad that’s what neighbors do in Washington Heights, and I’m glad I got this blog going.  I sent them a gift certificate anyway—because that’s how I do it in Alphabet City.

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