On the crosstown bus the other day I found myself not just thinking but actually mouthing the words ‘fucking bastard’. Like I am caught in this verbal crossfire/defensive pissed-off poor-schmuck-commuter mode and I am adapting. Do you ever find yourself talking to a black person and you start coming out with things like ‘ hey, brothah… ' and you say it with quotations around it, but it is coming out of your mouth.
Or my friend from Tennessee.. When I’m on the phone saying hi to his Mom, I can sense the slightest hint of extra diphthong coming out of my mouth. Now I am supposed to be an individual, a fairly well-baked New Yorker at this point, twice removed. But here I am, succumbing to the atmosphere, trying on another one of the zillion self-styled uniforms of my fellow MTA riders…like the evolutionary species to which I belong, doing what we humans do best…adapting.
Is this a form of ‘selling out’? A manifestation of my old Dad’s favorite proverb “Lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas”? I always thought it was an oblique warning to practice safe sex. But now I appreciate the resonance of this old proverb. Lie down with dogs long enough, you begin to develop a sort of bark. So is this my excuse for the ‘edge’ I find these days slipping off my tongue like liquid razor?
We New Yorkers are known for being pissed off. Also for being incredibly hardy, tough, yet neighborly and heroic when we want to. The fact is, we’re exposed so much variety in constant barrage, there’s ample space in any given day to tune into any number of wavelengths, to try on any one of a million fashion statements.
So maybe on the bus I was doing the construction guys who’ve been working in my courtyard, whose every single expletive is decibally equivalent to the music on my apartment stereo. Funny how every single club I play can’t seem to manage anything close to an adequate sound system, and right here, out my back windows, we have Carnegie Hall-worthy acoustics.
Anyway, their personal lives have begun to seep into my consciousness, and their verbal style is beginning to slip off my tongue. I pass them sometimes, coming from the subway or on their way home, talking that macho guy-talk with the ‘fucking’ punctuating nearly every word. They have no idea who I am, even though I know all about the bald one’s extra-marital sexlife and another guy’s debt and someone’s ‘fucking cunt’ of a mother-in-law. I recognize them by their voices. I gave up trying to drown them out, along with the incessant banging and sawing that has now exceeded the reasonable renovation time-frame of a 12-story building with no power tools from the ground up.
Their soundtrack, over Charlie Parker and Miles and the trendy bands I review, are bleeding into my life—slowly and consistently like an IV drip. In fact the whole city is in my veins by now. I even have the rotten wet cold of the OR nurse who sat next to me last Tuesday, generously sharing her inner virus with every sneeze and cough.
Maybe it is my musical ‘ear’ that picks up and plays back the audio with more finesse than I am able to cop a tough bassline these days. Maybe…but it’s also become kind of ‘second nature’. My way of ‘adapting’. Urban camouflage. Survival. It also feels good sometimes, to let loose these expletives like ammunition. Thank God most New Yorkers don’t read lips. Or aren’t looking anyway. I could dis a black man’s mother at 12 inches and he wouldn’t notice because his ipod is blasting and he is in his zone. And tell me, if insulting bad language comes like a Tourette’s impulse, and everyone in the room has their earbuds in, am I going to get my face kicked in?
Maybe I’d better spend the evening listening to Shakespeare on PBS. Or barking.