Out of State

A Summer Chronicle

One reason it didn’t work out between the garbage man and I, I guess, is that I’m a little self-involved. I admittedly care what people think about me and maybe talked about that too much. I remember being in the passenger’s seat of his car, my shins propped on his dash, going on about my feelings on plastic surgery, having sort of an existential crisis trying to accept its role in modern post-op society while keeping a healthy skepticism of obsessives, when he reached over me to roll down my window and hand a dollar to a young homeless woman standing on a median.

Once, I told him not to come to a reading I was doing during a MoMA PS1 Warm Up session because I thought he would hate the scene there, but he insisted on coming when he found out he had the time off (just barely, he had to go straight to the Chinatown garage from the Long Island City museum afterwards). He had never heard of PS1, but that didn’t mean he had never seen performance art or developed a hilarious cynicism towards it. Staten Island was far away in so many respects, and close in so many others. I was consistently surprised by what made it there and what didn’t, in terms of gentrification and liberal arts agendas. Staten Islanders hated Pete Davidson, he said, but it was because they were jealous. “Everyone’s a comedian.” 

He didn’t specifically tell me that he liked the story I read, one about working at a Midtown startup assumed to be a front for an Israeli arms dealer. He did say I’d done a good job and didn’t seem nervous, though. I tried to see the place from his perspective, but couldn’t: I thought it would be the fashion week-level styling and rainbow of unnatural hair colors that would throw him (to me, PS1 always looks like a movie set cast for a 90s club scene but during the day and outdoors, like a self-aware portrait of the Limelight emptying out in the morning), but he didn’t seem effected by that. It was my comfort level around this many people at all that intimidated him.

While we wandered the museum, acquaintances kept stopping me to say that they had missed my reading because they couldn’t find it. I kept smiling and saying that I was happy about so many people coming and not seeing me read, that this was totally ideal because I hate doing readings but I love getting attention. A stranger who had seen the reading walked up to us and told me he’d really related to my story. I didn’t know what to say to the garbage man after that, so I said, “That happens to me a lot,” and then took it back. When we left, he said he saw a few people buying my book from the store. “Every penny counts!” I said, reminding him that sales are almost meaningless to an author unless they’re in the millions. It was this game I kept playing, letting him know that he should be impressed by me and then letting him know that I considered my own success negligible, which probably made him feel like nothing.

The mental image of him I like to keep is from Valentine’s Day, when I’d already accepted that I wouldn’t see him since he was working that night, but he surprised me by stopping on my block during his route. I’d worked in an office during the day and then met up with friends at a gallery opening, followed by dinner in the Lower East Side. (One friend was single and the other had a boyfriend who didn’t want to make a big deal about the day, so they weren’t going to see each other.) I wasn’t sad at all, didn’t need flowers or a date, I told them. In fact, I was so used to guys intentionally forgetting the holiday, I was elated when I got a text that morning wishing me a happy one. And then I got a text that asked me my current location, and then another saying to come outside and down the street. It was a foggy night and we were near the Manhattan Bridge and I could see the huge parked truck backlit by it but obscured by the atmosphere. And then on the other corner was the garbage man in uniform, alone because he luckily had been assigned the dump that day, which meant he just had to haul a load to New Jersey without a partner. I ran up to him and kissed him and he apologized for being dirty, even dirtier than usual. There were always undercover patrolmen watching the garbage trucks, he informed me, and so he had to get back to work. He’d just wanted to say Happy Valentine’s Day in person.

He was parked illegally, but only because one couldn’t park while on a job. That was something I’d liked learning about: within the New York Department of Sanitation, there were many, many rules, but garbage truck drivers could basically ignore traffic laws. He dreamed of getting off of his 18-month beginner’s probation and using one of his strikes to sideswipe a car cutting him off on the Jersey Turnpike, for example. “Think about it. You wanna play chicken with a garbage truck?” We broke up just before his probation ended and he took his first vacation in years. I don’t know where he went for it, if he even left.

I had a dream about him last night, actually. In it, he had become a performance artist or a prop comic with a painted face – the very type of person he vocally couldn’t stand (in real life, he’d given up being the lead singer of a local band, saying there was something sad about it once he turned 30). In the dream, I could tell I was being tested: did I like him enough to stand by him while he did a lot of loud, embarrassing things at a place I considered cool? What if he brought all his dumb friends with him and barely paid attention to me? What if he wasn’t actually a garbage man?

The dream was maybe informed by the Whitney Houston documentary I saw last weekend, in which Bobby Brown was so insecure about his wife’s success, he signed up to star in a reality show, even though he and Whitney were both obviously on drugs. In terms of stardom, Bobby had so clearly fallen out of Whitney’s league by the time they were married, he started trying to get attention for being a clownish partyer instead of a singer, and Whitney, faced with the question of loving a person stripped of the status he’d held when she met him, played along. This is the real him, and so this is me, too, she seemed forced to admit, although it was obvious that during the filming of Being Bobby Brown she had wanted less attention than ever, not more.

I was at Clandestino last night with a group of friends when a stranger told me he’d enjoyed a story I wrote for n+1. My friends were all beside themselves when he walked away because of the way he’d approached me (“Funny question but is your name Natasha? So, are you Natasha Stagg?”). We kept crossing paths all night after that and it became clearly flirtatious, but nothing happened. A few weeks ago, a man emailed me to say he was a fan of my writing and that I’m “very beautiful.” I responded that I was flattered and the emails got more and more personal until they started sounding creepy and I stopped responding. I don’t really have fans other than this type, I think. Obviously that’s not true, one could argue, and these are the only types of fans I know because they present themselves to me, making them this type of fan. But I know the numbers, and they make up at least a high percentage.

I’ve joked to friends that a pretty high percentage of my sales come from people I’ve gone on dates with, seeing as the sales are not particularly high. The opposite could be true, too. I could get more dates because of my writing, I guess. I always thought I’d be attracted to a fan, but it turns out I’m definitively not. It turns out my type is someone who “never reads (new) novels” but likes mine, after meeting me.

A guy like that once texted me that he’d just bought my book and went straight to Tompkins Square Park to lie down and read it. He was covered in tiny tattoos and his clothes were all sewn up with dental floss. I pictured a younger version of himself he’d described to me, his hair bleached and spiked into a Mohawk, a rat sitting on one shoulder, a cigarette between two fingerless-gloved fingers. I wished that one of those youth culture photographers from another New York still existed, back from the time before smart phones, and that this image, this punk reading my novel in Tompkins was captured on black and white film so I could use it as a promo flyer for something. “It’s a coming-of-age novel,” I said to someone from Spex magazine on the phone the other day, about the German translation of Surveys. I keep insisting it’s more that than it is cultural criticism, even though I know it’s not (it was published by Semiotext(e), after all). I keep doing that thing, the thing that endlessly annoys everyone I’m attracted to: “I’m very impressive, but it’s really nothing!”

In the end, I didn’t want to spend so much time in Staten Island if it was mostly going to be ordering take out and watching TV in a basement. Somehow, the food trends of Manhattan have not made their way down, and I do love a classic diner followed by a dive bar, but not every day. “This isn’t some Lady and the Tramp kind of thing,” I calmly argued when I got the breakup phone call from the garbage man (“he dumped me – like it was goddamn job!” I say to friends now that I’m over it). “I live with four roommates in Brooklyn and grew up on Welfare.” We had quit smoking together on New Year’s Day and it was February twenty-something. His laugh was still hoarse and probably always would be. “Uptown Girl,” he joked.

“Just a little up and over,” I said, and then, because I had to say something that wasn’t a joke, “Well I’m going to be devastated.” He sounded surprised. “You won’t be, though. I mean you shouldn’t be.” He sounded so practical, so measured, I had to make an outrageous demand. “I can never talk to you again.” That finally got him. I reasoned that if our problem as a couple had been the long distance, being friends surely wouldn’t work. He had to see the logic there. Of course we talked again, but eventually decided I was right, even though I hadn’t wanted to be. It’s better to keep him as a memory on a distant island rather than a texting friend who reveals more or less of the things I found so endearing about him over time. Still, whenever I see a garbage truck in Chinatown, I look at the driver and the loader hanging off the back. (I’ve still never spotted him.)

 

In 1980 the French newspaper Libération asked Marguerite Duras to write a chronicle for them over one year. The pieces could be as long or short as she liked, so long as she wrote every day. Duras said a year was far too long and proposed three months instead. "Why three months?” her editor asked. "Three months is one summer long,” she replied.
 "Agreed, three months, but every day!" the editor insisted. Duras didn't have anything planned for the summer and almost gave in. But then she suddenly became terrified that she couldn't plan her days as she wished. So she said: "No, once a week, about whatever I want." The editor agreed.

Last year Spike invited Natasha Stagg to do the same: one text a week, of any length, on whatever she liked. One summer long. For 2018 we wanted to it again, this is her fourth report.

NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. Her first novel Surveys was published with Semiotext(e) in 2016 and is coming out in German from Edition Nautilus later this year. A new installment of Out of State will be published online every Thursday for ten weeks. Last week she wrote about her first date with a New York City garbage man.