12/22/16 9:26am
Illustration: Laura Davies

Illustration: Laura Davies

The Lobster Shift is a monthly column by Kenneth R. Rosen that explores the city at night.

There are roughly three different modes for subway cars, in my experience. There is, first and most familiar, the crowded commuter car in morning and early evening, where mere inches of personal space segregate straphangers into parcels of remorse or happiness or anger, based primarily on the day ahead, and its promise, or the day behind, and how those promises were either met or denied.

Second, there is the alarmingly vacant car, found in summer when the air conditioning succumbs to underground heat, or in winter when a homeless person claims a third of a car, cordoned off by garbage bags.


“It’s Saturday night,” he shouts, “get your head right.”


Third, there are subway cars that are sparsely populated, something dangerously close to pleasant in the early afternoon before school lets out, and downright sleepy at night, when passengers find themselves traveling underground, for any number of reasons, past the hour of midnight.

No matter which variety of car I find myself in, I am nearly always self-conscious.

My time underground is delegated to baseless fear and anxiety. It’s existential dread about being too close to someone, or unknowingly breaking one of the many unspoken subway laws–manspreading, pole hogging, staring. Sometimes I’m simply flustered about my appearance–the blemish on my face, the tear in my pants, the stain on my shirt, and I believe everyone is looking at me. This rarely happens above ground, outside of confined spaces. These fears surface most acutely in autumn for me. Call it subterranean affective disorder.

I once missed an express A train, the last one departs at about 11pm from Times Square, and found myself inside a later, local-bound car not quite like any of the ones I’ve described, or like any car I’d ridden in before. This was something different. It was not the first type of subway car, nor was it the second or third. It was not a distinct fourth type either—it was a car in transition. (more…)

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12/15/16 10:22am
Illustration: Laura Davies

Illustration: Laura Davies

“Bully” is a word I’ve never really used until recently. It felt juvenile, like children are bullies and adults are jerks, assholes, nemeses or perhaps enemies. I’ve always found other words more pointed, but now bully feels relevant.

I have been thinking about bullies a lot since the election. The past months have produced video footage that illustrates the mood in this country–a man standing in the aisle of an airplane, clapping his hands and hollering “we got some Hillary bitches on here… hey baby, Donald Trump is your president, every goddamn one of you, if you don’t like it, too bad.” Another cell phone video shows a white woman in the craft store Michaels in Chicago yelling at the staff that they are discriminating against her and that she voted for Trump. Another man in a Starbucks also claims he is being discriminated against and that he also voted for Trump. On the flip side there is no shortage of people being harassed for being black, for being Muslim, for being queer, for being female, for being.


While it feels like this is a singular moment for un-reason, there has long been plenty of shouting in American culture.
Bullies are nothing new.


This is the new world we live in and now it is time to deal. We cannot keep our heads down and hope to ride it out. There has to be a plan of action. Reason won’t work. “No ma’am, that cashier is not discriminating against you,” you may want to calmly explain. “She is working at the exact pace that her hourly wage dictates.” But this person who picks a fight in a store, or on a plane, or waiting for a dessert masquerading as a coffee drink doesn’t want to work anything out; her only desire it to dominate. Discussion has no place here.

While it feels like this is a singular moment for un-reason, there has long been plenty of shouting in American culture. Bullies are nothing new. Standing up to them isn’t either.

In 1996 I lived in Chicago and trained to become an escort for women’s clinics. The escort’s role is to create a shield between the patients and the picketers while maintaining the legally sanctioned buffer zone intact. (Buffer zones mark a specific distance from the clinic door that protesters may not come within. Their distance varied from state to state, but in 2014 the Supreme Court declared them an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.) Some moments required us to form a human shield around the patient to keep her safe and out of reach. (more…)

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11/04/16 1:14pm

My Facebook feed tends to display the same five stories framed in slightly different ways–the winner of the big game, the latest political outrage, Game of Thrones reactions, something Louis C.K. said, plus a few photos of babies and dogs. I scroll through it and take the temperature of my little slice of America each morning.

There are outliers though, and that’s the best thing about Facebook as a news aggregator, the weird stuff. I have friends in my feed who consistently post stories I haven’t seen yet and would not have seen otherwise, like this article from GOOD about how important pets can be to people who are homeless.


I called up a few experts, and also took an informal poll of friends to see if other minds out there were a-changing and if so, how and why.


It completely changed my mind. It reversed what I thought about homeless people with animals, and slightly widened lens through which I view the world. That’s unusual. I engage in just as much pleasurable confirmation bias as the next reader. It feels good to read something that states what I already think, but in a more organized way with quotes and a few facts I didn’t know. I was surprised by how nice it felt to change my mind about something, especially in a way that allowed for a more compassionate world view (the takeaway is that these relationships are mutually beneficial, yes, even for the animals).

Not long after I read that, a friend who is also an editor posted a link to this story, which embraces using “they” in place of “he or she” saying, “I’ve really come around to this.” That got me thinking, in the midst of a very contentious, polarizing election, about how we go about changing our own minds, and why it’s so hard to change how others think.

So I called up a few experts, and also took an informal poll of friends to see if other minds out there were a-changing and if so, how and why. (more…)

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10/13/16 1:49pm

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There’s a pair of swans in Prospect Park. And I love them.

Every time I walk through the park–which is fairly often, once or twice a week in the summer – I make sure to find my swans. I love watching their long, graceful necks twist and turn, how they duck underwater to catch some sort of food, and then shake off, flat-footed, along the shore.

One day a few summers back, my dog, Buckley, spotted one of these swans floating on the lake. I could see his tiny dog-brain working: “Oh. My. God,” he was thinking. “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I must catch it.”


A person’s spirit animal is an essential distillation of selfhood.


I wanted to see what would happen. I was pretty sure the dog wouldn’t actually harm the swan (nor the swan the dog)–I knew that swans were fierce, and my dog was a coward. I was confident he wouldn’t even get close. So I let go of Buckley’s leash and watched him charge at the bird.

When it saw the dog, the swan reared up, spreading its wings to their full span–at least six feet–and hissed the fiercest hiss at him. Buckley immediately retreated, racing back to me, away from the huge animal. Swans are killers. Swans are ferocious. Even my dumb dog knew better than to mess with them.

When I saw the huge, beautiful animal hissing, I immediately identified. I, too, seem unthreatening, even charming. But, like the swan, I throw down. I’m not afraid to hiss at anyone–or whatever the human equivalent of spreading my wings and hissing would be.

On our walk back home, I texted my dad.

“I realized that if I were an animal I’d be a swan,” I wrote.

“Excellent,” he responded. (more…)

09/09/16 11:39am
Illustration: Vinnie Neuberg

Illustration: Vinnie Neuberg

My goal was to get my phone upgraded and walk home. I no longer took subways. I was too afraid. I saw a brown-skinned man turn around and look at me. He crooked his head and tilted his body closer to mine. I felt nervous. Why was he coming toward me?

If you were in New York during 9/11 you remember the eerie days that followed the horrific attack. The smell of burned ashes still wafted in the wind. No one yelled. No sirens blared, just the deafeningly loud footsteps of people passing by. It was on those days I felt the most anxious.

I was in downtown Brooklyn during the aftermath. I joined the mobs of people desperate to get new cell phones. We wanted to ensure that we’d always have a way to connect with our loved ones, to never be out of touch or reliant on the long lines for pay phones again. (more…)

06/24/16 12:29pm
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Photo: Anna Dunn

The heart beats to animate the body; we call this human rhythm our pulse. It is no coincidence that I can’t stop thinking about heartbeats. How subtle a heartbeat is, how it quickens in love, and in fear. I think of how love and fear are related, especially growing up a queer person. When I was young and coming out I didn’t want to be defined by my queer identity. I might avoid a pride parade because of fear, or self loathing, or because I feared love. I think about the very first time I came close to a woman in a gay bar. Manray was a sprawling three-room gay bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember how the music was pulsing, how my pulse quickened when she reached out her hand to me, and the lights were dazzling, and the men were wild and sweating and dancing like the gorgeous creatures they were, and the fog machine had a slightly sour but dizzying smell. I think about how my pulse revealed me. Then I imagine 49 hearts that have ceased beating.

I think about how blood is everywhere. It is inside us, pumping through us. It is the river of our living, until it is leaking out of us. I’m imagining the massacre on June, 12. I’m still uneasy using the word massacre.

1. Noun – an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people.
2. Verb – deliberately and violently kill (a large number of people).

It was to massacre, but perhaps it wasn’t a massacre? The shooting wasn’t indiscriminate. It was at a gay bar. I’m at the restaurant where I work when I read the Facebook post from the club that night: If you are at Pulse get out and keep running. And I start crying silently in front of customers who do not notice or choose not to react. (more…)

04/22/16 9:00am

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I have to get something off my chest: It is hard as hell to attempt to live alone in New York City.

At least a few times a year, when real estate sites like Street Easy crunch the median rents in NYC, and publications like Gothamist and DNAinfo broadcast the bleak figures, it becomes explicitly clear that even if you have relatively low standards for living and are making decent money (say, $45,000/year), you have only a slim chance of ever living on your own while you’re still in your 20s.

I understand this is hardly news and anyone who complains about this even in passing will often get a “Hey! Roommates are a part of the deal here,” or “You have to earn that privilege,” or, even worse, “Move away if you hate it so much.” But as we become ever more individualistic—and watch friends back home start making down payments and lifelong investments—it becomes harder to accept the status quo.

Let’s focus on the current state of living alone in New York City at a basic, financial level. In January, DNAinfo built a handy module that allows you to simply enter your yearly salary to find out where you can afford to live based on the median rent of each neighborhood. If it’s in your price range—meaning you earn 40x the monthly rent and aren’t “overburdened”—the neighborhoods in your range light up. At $40,000, you’re a perfect candidate for the Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania and that’s it. At $60K, your selection of neighborhoods increases twelvefold, but your options are still restricted to the Bronx. Skipping ahead, things improve drastically at $100,000 when the reach of your paycheck spreads to Harlem, to Sunnyside, Queens through Jamaica Estates, and into South Brooklyn, starting with Sunset Park and stretching down to Brighton Beach and oceanward to East New York. North Brooklyn is more or less reserved for those making $130,000 and up. (more…)

04/20/16 9:00am

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My ten-year-old tore open the envelope, a slightly unhinged smile of anticipation on his face, and pulled out the sheet of paper inside. I held my breath. The paper rattled slightly in his hands.

Silence.

He stared.

I would have snatched it from him, but my own hands were shaking too much. “What’s it say?”

“I don’t…. know?” He handed me the letter, and I understood his confusion instantly, with dismay: the middle school he had been matched with was not on the list of the schools that we had ranked.

“Oh. Well…I guess…” I looked at his deeply baffled face and screwed up my courage to finish the sentence. “You didn’t get into any of the schools on our list, honey, so they….they put you in this one. But we can –”

He didn’t hear the rest, though. He was sobbing too loudly.

The rest of that April afternoon was a bit of a blur. Tears and texts, as all of his friends’ parents texted me with their matched school: “447! You?” “51! First choice!” Except for our closest friends, we chose not to respond. Two of his best friends, though, both stellar students and cheerful, polite kids with the requisite good test scores, had found themselves in the same situation as my son, and came over ashen and crying.

We ended up having a damp dinner at the local burger joint, our children drowning their sorrows in shakes while their friends and their families, a few tables away, celebrated their good news.

We, the parents of these “unlucky” sons, were drowning our sorrows too, with something a bit stronger than milkshakes. Some of us were angry. Emails were sent. Others were grim, despairing. “We’re going to have to move out of the city,” one groaned. Another mentioned homeschooling, followed by hysterical laughter. (Nobody mentioned going to the underperforming school where we had been placed; perhaps we should have sent them there anyway, there’s an argument for that, a very long one, or maybe a simple one: but that’s not what this piece is about.)

This piece is about what happens when the school choice process sloshes you around in its mysterious and complicated maw and then spits you right out. (more…)

12/18/15 9:54am
V Neuberg Antes Up

Illustration: Vinnie Neuberg

I got paid today, a lot of money for me, a great feeling. I walked through the holiday market at Union Square, wishing, hoping for anything. I ended up buying an abundance of weird and beautiful beeswax candles from the weird and beautiful honey people and some French lavender, because I believe it is calming.

I like to give money away, and I have my own completely sliding scale list of rules for it. I don’t care what you do with it. I like the honesty of giving money to people standing outside of liquor stores–I go to that liquor store, too.

Then I took the 6 to Canal Street so I could pay a stranger to touch my feet and make them work again without vocalizing grievances. The train was full, not packed, but certainly not empty, and there was definitely a smell in the air.

The first time I got on a bum train I was dazzled at my luck that the car was so empty that I could sit. It was empty for a reason. A homeless person smelled so badly that no one else, save one person, was in that car. I moved onto the next car. I deemed it The Bum Train, and talked about it with some friends, and they discussed their moments on bum trains. Recently there has been another bum train moment, one not completely polarizing, some people stayed on the train, using their scarves and coats to try to mask the smell.

I moved onto the next car again, because I do not want to smell that smell. In the world of what I can control, I can still switch trains, so that smell does not permeate me. But it does, each time, in a way. That is a person, a human being, and we are all fleeing him. And previous to him smelling that way we fled him before. This smell is the indication of a journey, a devolution of life, to reach that smell. It doesn’t happen overnight.

In most cases when you are on a bum train the person is asleep, or under a coat or the like. It’s easier to walk away from a pile of dirty clothes. I should know, I do it pretty much every morning of my life when I leave my bedroom. (more…)

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12/18/14 7:43pm

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This is the second installation in our new essay series. Last time we heard from writer Judy McGuire about being forced out of a rent-stabilized apartment in Williamsburg by developers. This time Eliza Hecht, whose byline you may have seen on the Modern Love column in The New York Times recently, reflects on crying in public. To submit essay pitches, email us.

I live in Crown Heights, which I chose partly because of the convenient trains–I can catch both the 2/3, to go up the west side of Manhattan, or the 4/5, to go up the east, at Franklin Ave.

Not that long ago, I was taking the train home from school in the West Village. I was sitting, but strangers were standing crowded around me, commuting back to their lives at home. As the train rocked its way back to Brooklyn, I was listening to This American Life. It was an episode I had heard before, one that concluded with several girls in juvenile hall singing to their mothers.

“Mama. I’m sorry,” the girls sang. “I’m sorry. Mama, I’m sorry.”

This particular episode is one of those stories that doesn’t even pretend not to be emotionally manipulative. These girls, in a home for committing crimes, were apologizing to their mothers for what they did. In song.

I have always cried easily. (more…)