Sitting Alone In The Syringe Exchange at The Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center on a Saturday Morning

I wrote a script about here the other day.

It had been my first day, well, my second day unofficially and probably more than that, even more, if you counted the times I’d visited as a student, trying to talk to people there and convince them to let my friend Dan Pleck shoot his film there, or just to see what the people had to say, or to try to volunteer without ever having followed it up.

It was a Wednesday, a busy day and it was such a whirl between Dore, my supervisor, educating me, pointing round shelves of different cookers, different condoms, sterilized water and bleach. Dealing with the people who came into the exchange who were mostly nice and old and looking older. Enrolling new members with a code that corresponded to their names and their mother names and other obscure facts from their life and then asking them about their use and their treatment and their ethnicity.

In short, it was a lot for a fairly short amount of time, or a Wednesday.

But I still had my writing group that Wednesday, which had recently gone to every other week, but which I still had to write for. So, in the swirl down Canal St. walking past a newly-opened Popeye’s and a Bank of America, I didn’t know what to write, so I set myself on writing what was on my mind: the business of the day. When I saw my friend Andy Roehm later on in the day, I would recount how jealous I felt of him someways that he was always writing, that polished or not, he had the discipline to write and write and write. Over time, he had become the most reliable member of the writing group, coming each week with pages or a pitch and his psyched-out so-cal attitude.

As for my own discipline comparatively, I limited it to only a few minutes of making out with Eva despite my heart’s need to fall into her, because well, I had to write and if I didn’t then what was I playing at.

I came to the group with my script, my second in as many weeks, another short that was, per my writing, too opaque and suggestive, without the hints that allowed an audience or a reader into it enough, the details so clearly hammered out in my head that I felt, like a book, that it would be spoiling it to give everything without the room for some imagination.

Narcissism is what we call that, but it’s a heady side effect of the writing, the primary goal.

At the group, there were the usual drop-outs, the kids who called an hour or ten minutes or never and didn’t come. It’s always hard not to take it personal. But we ended up with 5 down at City Girl, which was a good number and 6 if you count either Eva or Matt Chao who both came in about half-way through. The place ended up being not too welcoming for the writing group, though at least they weren’t sold out of brownies when I got there.

Instead, they showed their dismay at us through passive-aggressive means, through playing lots of Dave Matthews and talking loud, though I’m sure someone less paranoid wouldn’t take it as an attack. (Eva commiserated later.) Still, we read some good things and it felt good to get stuff into the air. Nandan, Rob’s roommate who had made Bummer Summer with Zach, came with a long-form outline for a script that was an airy Euro-core taking place on some mountains, as its adolescent characters stood on precipices of their own. Andy, on the other hand, brought a mix between Deliverance and District 9, about college students in South Africa taking an ill-advised trip into a backwards desert enclave. Dan showed up blasted out of his mind, unable to even read the pages we put in front of him out-loud, but at least, when his mind-cleared a bit, he provided some lucid commentary.

It felt good writing, even if not everyone dug what I did. Just to get it out there. Just to remind yourself that you’re doing something. It’s easy to lose that sense, in a second.

***

On the end of the day Tuesday I had decided to give my internship that I had found my hours for three days a week, Monday and Tuesday and Thursday, so I could go on back to the LES two days a week, at least. On Thursday after work I had to go to the Lower East for another reason though, to see a friend’s band play down at Cakeshop in their under-the-bakery venue that I’d been to before to see Rob Malone’s amateur stand-up, which he claimed to me he’d only done once.

My friend Nick had told me that his band would be on at 10, but when I showed up at 9:40 to be there early, they were already at least one song deep. I knew my friend from my previous job and I recognized at least one other person from my old gig there, but I hadn’t talked much to him and given how that all had ended I was loathe to approach unannounced. I stood solitary near the bar as Nick’s band played, Eva was somewhere down the block but in the basement I got no reception. I clutched a can of Rolling Rock, which I had drank cheaply as a freshman but not since, as I tried to rock out, just a little, as the hipster 25 year-old-males in front of me nodded their heads or jogged in place.

I went up to Nick after the show and met his brother, who had been taping it all with a Canon 5D that I’d complimented him on. He seemed up-beat and excited to see me, though I could never tell through his enthusiasm if it was earned or a slight jab at me. After all, I’ve always been bad with reading sarcasm. Still though, he thanked for me to coming to his show and I greeted him with a whiskey-on-the-rocks in-hand as a mini-post-show bacchanal for his act.

He asked me what I was doing with my life and I told him not much. I told him about my internship and my work at the exchange.

“Volunteering!” He volunteered. “You’re inspiring, man! I want to do stuff like that, really.”

And then.

“Why are you doing it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

I jerked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess just to meet people and see the world and see life a little. I mean I just graduated from film school.”

I then bristled a little guilty.

“I mean, I need to live life a little. You know, to do what I do.”

“I’m so glad to hear that, man.” He told me. “Cause you know the cynical answer would be because you were trying to write or something.”

A pause.

“But you know, that’s not it.” He offered again.

And we said our goodbyes.

***

Friday at the exchange, more questions came.

Marking off needles in and-out, you always mark more out, like a losing battle. And even on my second or third day, you wonder where the needles our going that people aren’t returning: into trash cans or pavement or grass. You think of Reagan-era images of “dead soldiers” on playgrounds near swing sets and it gives you a shiver of thinking about what you do. When people come by, they come by for sugar for their coffee mostly, another former of drugs and the only food around is Popeye’s which you get and start to wonder how the chemicals there are affecting you as well.

And then there were the little things from my life, the moments of out-proportional sadness, like when you send a mass-text about Kurosawa films and no-one can make it tonight. Like when you wonder whether your boss will read that script you gave him or watch that movie, so you can take the next step of your life and make something. Like when you realize that you’re 22 and you’re making nothing and doing nothing and whatever path you’re supposed to be on you’re not on it and the patrons of the needle exchange you work at, casually observing your joblessness, ask about your feelings on employment in the military. When the most film work you’ve been offered in a while is a large stack of mini-VHS that you’re somehow supposed to sort through and make promotional materials out of. When you find out, that despite all hope, you’ve been rejected from Cannes, so you can’t say “fuck you” to all your rejections so easily.

It’s everything I guess that gets you down.

But today I feel better as I sit here writing this, here back in the Lower East side on a Saturday morning. Looking back on my sadness, it’s hard even to understand it or return myself to a place where I’m vulnerable to it, by choice. In part, it’s because when I left the exchange on Friday, sodden from a day of seeming worthlessness, I got to see Eva, as we ate middle-eastern food and gripped each others hands every few seconds across the restaurant formica table as if we were grabbing for the very last chocolate bar in the orignal Willy Wonka movie. Maybe it was that Blake, who I hadn’t seen in a bit, who at the last minute teased me about going to an NYU basketball game, but instead came out with me to see High and Low at Film Forum with Sapporos in his backpack and came back to my place to watch Netflix when it was sold out, sitting on my bed with a striped pillow behind his back. Maybe it was the stream of text messages I got from Dore, my boss, at 11:49, as I headed over to the Cowgirl for a frozen margarita at Eva’s request, telling me that my film was “a perfect 10 minutes of teenage devastation” and “no Mumblecore shit” as he informed me he was watching it for the third time.

Maybe it was just the free basket of chips and salsa the waiter at Cowgirl gave me, even though the kitchen was closed.

Maybe it’s everything that gets back you get up again.

As I drank my frozen margarita last night, trying to avoid brain freeze, I tried to think of some moral I could take from it all.

“Keep on keeping on”?

I wasn’t sure. That sounded too 70s to me anyway.

Maybe there was no moral.

But I was here, sitting at the exchange, handing out needles to users and diabetics and people I didn’t even know.

And I’d say “I’m Nicholas” as I’d extend my hand to them when they came.

And I’d listen to a book.

Or I’d write.

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One Response to Sitting Alone In The Syringe Exchange at The Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center on a Saturday Morning

  1. Lisa says:

    I am proud. So proud. of you. xxxxx m.

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