International Dateline

I braved airport security (“random” passenger search my arse) not once but twice in order to fly to New York in January 2003. Here is my story.

Jeff-Z-Klein  ¶  Greg Rosmaita  ¶  Chad Smith  ¶   Jeffrey Zeldman  ¶  Rob Dean

Ostensible purpose

My visit’s ostensible purpose was to meet Robert Dean of GhettoPimpin[’] fame (op. cit.). I never had done, you see, despite spending the equivalent of days chatting back and forth using Steve Case Instant Messenger. (Our chat-log transcript, which doesn’t even include the very early days, is 1.5 MB in size and contains 235,000 words. We had spoken on the phone once.)

Thanks to You’ve Got Mail (which, incredibly enough, was originally entitled You Have Mail, tantamount to calling Sinatra the Chairperson of the Board), everyone knows about epistolary relationships that result in love. We don’t quite have a word for it yet, but we have a concept. We don’t have a concept of the same thing resulting in friendship.

Time to put a face to the screen name.

Rob was scheduled to blaze through “DC,” as he insistently calls it, and motor on down to Brooklyn, hangin’ with his homies all the while. (I was warned, in an overzealously stubborn, punctilious, and doctrinaire way, that these homies could never be abandoned even for a split-second, making it impossible to have so much as a decaf soy latte alone with Rob, and yea did it actually come to pass.)

But while I was in town, I had a shitload of people to look up. Let’s start by getting a roof over my head.


Jeff-Z-Klein, former sports editron of the Village Voice, gave me an enormous break over ten years ago when he found an article pitch in a slush pile left over by his predecessor. Thus was my career in sportswriting begun. I am something of a footnote to history, really, in that field, but apart from my book, it’s the most rewarding writing of my career, and I remain inordinately proud of it.

We have remained friends. A Buffalonian, he has torontoist tendencies and comes to town now and again. I’ve stayed at his pad in the mid-Hundreds in Manhattan, but on this visit, his hot-Jewess-babe gf unit was scheduled to be out of town. In an exemplar of generosity, I got her Village pad to myself for the duration of my stay. What’s not to like?

Jeff-Z-Klein in his gf unit’s natural habitat
Jeff-Z-Klein in his gf unit’s natural habitat

Greg Rosmaita

I – uncannily – was able to get Greg Rosmaita on the phone before leaving town. Such a feat tends to require Woman’s Intuition of Jaime Somers levels, knowing – uncannily – exactly when to call.

Greg was gonna tech-edit my book, but was a tad too ill to do it. We have nonetheless kept in touch. Why was Greg ill? (I’m allowed to tell you.) He came down with half a dozen viral and bacterial infections in 1988, which left him, as the kids say, fucked up. The biggest difference between Before and After is that now he’s blind!

Appalling, really.

En tout cas, Greg was an active member of the Web Accessibility Initiative for a long time, and achieved no notoriety whatsoever in recruiting people to write long descriptions for September 11 on-the-scene photographs.

Now, Greg lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, and let me tell you, it’s a totally weird concept to take the subway into another city and state, which is actually possible. It gets worse: In the first of innumerable Groundhog Day–esque loops in the space–time continuum, I left from Grove St. in the Village and arrived at... Grove St. in Jersey City.

Interestingly, the seven-minute walk to the Christopher St. PATH station was always an event. Black guy after black guy cruised the life out of me. A pair of gay homosexualist black negroes of colour, one of them carrying a paper shopping bag with string handles typical of frou-frou boutiques, stopped dead in his tracks, told his friend “Hold up,” and looked me over like I was the answer to his prayers.

Well, possibly I was. I walked right on by.

Now. Jersey City. Not, in fact, Union City of the eponymous soaring Blondie song of my youth. (And you know, John Waters is right: For a certain generation of inverts, Debbie Harry is Elvis Presley.) I walked right by Greg’s townhouse (what’s he doing with a townhouse?) but was eventually ushered in, chatting with his female friend unit until he got the fuck out of the shower.

He walked into the upstairs salon wearing a kimono and a mask and it was love at first sight. He’s quite hunky, you know, despite being arguably entirely unhealthy, and looks good with the mask action happening, which is in fact necessary because any light leakage makes him puke. (His eyes function. His visual cortex and optic nerve do not. Hence the perverse necessity of looking like a neurasthenic 1940s starlet or a kidnappee. Ask him sometime about the Ludovico Technique–style tests he’s undergone.)

I was given a tour of the sprawling townhouse, with two staircases that lead to mutually-exclusive parts of the second floor, and got to know his three cats, all of whom eventually liked me, an unexpected doolittlësque achievement.

Greg Rosmaita in situ in suit.    Don’t you love the cat-eye mask? He’s got an actual groove in his skull (verified by X-rays) from having had to wear masks for years
Greg in situ in suit (with cat-eye mask)

Now, why was Greg dressed up? He likes getting dressed up, and showed me his kiloton of neckties. It had been decided we were gonna get shitfaced on sushi. By actually astonishing coincidence, a sushi joint is right around the corner from him.

He put his hat on and I put my hat on and away we went.

Greg Rosmaita in hat with fag.    Blindfold lends that hard-night-at-CBGBs air
Greg’s hat and fag

I’m all, So how do we handle this? It’s been a long time since I guided a blind person. And he’s all lighting up a fag (why not? you gotta die of something, right?), unfolding an unusually long cane with a stopper the size of a golf ball on the tip, and simply whizzing the fuck out of his courtyard down the street. I followed him. None of this “guiding” shit.

The man wields a cane like a light saber. Someone immediately passed by, Greg immediately detected her, and immediately said hello and “Happy new year.” Disarming. (Greg claims he used to live in a worse hood in Jersey City where a gaggle of black queens used to look out for him. Why’d they bother? The man knows you’re there and he’s armed.)

Every step of the way he explained the history and current function of each building. Yes, this is unusual for a blind person: They can get around fine, but detailed knowledge of their physical surroundings is unusual. But, at heart, Greg is still sighted, as we shall see.

We walk into the joint – well, after Greg puts out his fag – and he’s got his hand on my back while I lead him to the counter, which I am not ashamed to say I rather enjoyed. “Oh! Gregory!” the non-Japanese Orientalist hostess exclaimed on our entry. He’s a regular. So they know he wants oysters.

I have my usual vaguely ridiculous point-missing vegetarian maki and Greg proceeds to consume soup, an entire plate of oysters, a spicy tuna roll, a brick of various sashimi including tako, and four pieces of nigiri. My, what long teeth you have, Gregory.

We dish mercilessly about the Web Accessibility Initiative. I begin to note his sighted-person’s body language and facial expressions.

Gestural language.    Blind man can actually gesticulate. Here he makes a point in a vaguely fey, Charles Nelson Reilly–esque manner
Greg gesturing

If you pretend the mask is an Hallowe’en amusement, you cannot tell Greg is blind. He looks right at you, grimaces, smiles, and moves every part of his face, and gestures using every available limb exactly like a sighted person. He and I concur that we have never met another blind person with this capacity. You’re lucky if they point their noses at you. It’s understandable in some ways, but expression and gesturing can be taught; without those skills, you seem more robotic than human, reduced to a proxy body with a voicebox. I’m not kidding.

There was some argument over who would pick up the tab. I continue to feel it was vaguely improper that, after five full minutes of discussion with Italianate pigheadedness on both sides, he won.

I would visit Greg again a day or so later. He showed me his ancient picture IDs. We talked business. We talked, you know? He steamed some Brussels sprouts in a very systematic way. We didn’t go out; his equilibrium was poor that day, and he admitted he had been putting on a game face the last time. (He also admitted he had felt much better once we’d gotten some sushi into him.)

Things do not always go swimmingly for Greg. He isn’t just like a sighted person with one small difference. I ring him from time to time, relying on the Woman’s Intuition to tell me he’s right there, because he often is not. Blindness is not the only repercussion of his litany of lingering infections. It rather bothers me how unwell Greg is, and how often.

But other things are going right with Greg. His townhouse is superbly lived-in and comfortable. Its dimness and clutter brings me back to the houses I lived in when I was well younger than my teens – the kind of places with ceiling-and-wall treatments in plaster, where I would lie on the floor with stereo speakers five inches from my liquefying ears listening to In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida from beginning to end.

I’m a man now. I was in a man’s house. And what we did instead was act Maritime and have tea upstairs in the sitting room, with Greg in his natural environment.

Greg, in his natural habitat
Greg, in his natural habitat

He smoked a fag and the window was open so I could breathe. I sat right there and got a chill in the New Jersey breeze. I was sorry to go.

But I had Indian food to eat.

Chad Smith

I made a command decision before doing Manhattan: I would meet only one New York City bloggeur. I did not decide on a symbolic quantity first and expect to find somebody good enough later on. There only ever was one writer good enough.

Chad Smith was met. But not without living another Groundhog Day manqué.

We were to meet on the Monday. I rang his shoephone from Greg’s, feeling very odd dialing from 201 to 917. I was assigned to meet Chad at Second and Sixth. I wondered aloud to Greg whether that was actually Second and Sixth or Sixth and Second, because, as we know, the protocol of naming street first, avenue second tends to fall apart when both street and avenue are numbered below ten.

It’s probably Second Avenue and First Street, Greg told me, because the last time he’d had Indian food, he’d visited a restaurant where one ascended the stairs and two men popped out of mirror-image doors. From this gimmick, you selected one of the two restaurants and proceeded to dine, though Greg suspected they shared a common kitchen.

I recognized the petit but well-maintained Minx immediately, said hello, and was told he’d gotten the directions wrong: We were one aveue too far west. We shortly found ourselves around the corner ascending a staircase greeted by two men who popped out of mirror-image doors. We chose Door Nº 2.

Living in a city with the largest Indic population in Canada, I know my shit, at least relating to the selections behind the vegevore door. It turns out Chad had taken me to what appeared to be a tourist-trap Indian restaurant for newbies, Panna II. The gimmick is the deranged-Amazon canopy of red tinsel and twinkly lights overhead. I’ve been on subway trains – here – with more free space between you and your neighbour, and less noise.

Chad Smith, in nobody’s native habitat.    “A way of learning how to write”
Chad Smith

I was not sure what to do, apart from fight manfully against the din (I do not shout well for extended periods) and try to have a pleasant introduction. Gibson: “[I]t’s been odd, in the way that initial telephone conversations with people you’ve gotten to know well on the Net, yet have never met, are odd.”

And thus it was. I learned of Chad’s boyhood in Ohio and his planetary gravitational pull toward architecture (“and morality”). Keep in mind that he’s a young man with an actual architectural job in New York City. All things considered, a certain elite talent must unite with doggedness and good luck to pull off that kind of coup. Unemployed architecture grads outnumber unemployed history and English majors, most of whom, if under 30 and female, seem to end up mangling the captioning of Canadian television programs.

Were I to mention any little detail I knew of architecture (whatever details I know are indeed little), Chad inevitably knew the entire story, coming back in an instant with the conclusion any competent, knowledgeable practitioner would tell you about that issue.

No, I can’t quote him. Architecture is hardly my field. This here was an introduction, not an interview. I didn’t take notes. And I kept mishearing him, what with the noise, whereupon asking him to repeat made me seem uncomprehending.

I recall thinking, even as it happened, that my sole fluent passage took place while I explained my upcoming large project. The “Indian” food appeared to consist of basmati rice from a Sanyo cooker, frozen peas, and steamed cauliflower drowned in Mrs. Patak’s. I ate it and was self-aware. (A restaurant as gaudy and otherworldly, and so antithetical to dining, prompts out-of-body experiences.) I was later told I had seemed “nervous.” This first impression has been corrected.

Chad views his Weblog as “a way of learning how to write.” I took note of that. I made that my pullquote. I had to say “pullquote” twice because he didn’t hear me the first time.

Later, snow fell, or rather drove. I walked Chad the few blocks north till he planned to catch a cab. He surprised me by hailing one an instant later, cheerfully opening the door and beckoning me in. Thus was I sent on my way.

I can’t keep up with this fellow. At best I can keep up with his Web site.

J the Z

Jeffrey Zeldman, übermensch of standards-compliant Web development, was curiously unavailable the last time I had been in New York, despite our having agreed to meet. He had an excellent excuse, and she showed up with him at Union Square of a Saturday.

I killed time at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. I loitered around the resto. Suddenly a raven-haired woman sashayed determinedly across the street, and I eventually noticed she was with J the Z. They had recognized the hat, you see. Hug-hug, kiss-kiss.

Jeffrey Zeldman; Carrie Bickner.    Mensch and, presumably, muse.
Jeffrey Zeldman and Carrie Bickner

We had a veganist lunch, where roughly two-thirds of the servings betrayed evidence that the cook knew what to do with vegetables. Our conversation was much less replete with kvetching than I would have imagined, but then again, J the Z is an optimist.

We did a lot of talking about publishing computer books, which, according to one commentator, “suck.” (Bite, dear. Bite.) It was then time to window-shop, because the Wife was looking for picture frames.

We ended up at ABC, where half an entire floor was taken up by Modernist furniture available for an absolute steal in my hood here in Toronto. (You ask people from Prague or Vienna or wherever what they think of the magnificent ancient architecture, and they tell you then never notice it. Same with me and stores packed to the walls with Modernist pieces.) This ABC store seems to be an admin assistant’s dream, with candles, antiques, tchotchkes, and a small electronics room to placate the husband while she shops. (I couldn’t turn on captions on a single television set. They’ve Joe-proofed the store!)

It was arranged that Italian food would be had several days hence, at a joint near the J the Z/C the B residence, where I arrived at the appointed hour. Their unadorned illuminated white-plastic Christmas tree was adjudged “very Jewish.”

After our acceptable Italian dinner (the three fungi were just juicy and toothsome enough), I enjoyed superexclusive discourse in the shadow of the Xmas tree. The Wife lounged glamourously on the white shag rug (exactly what I so very desperately want, it is easily found on eBay, but seen exactly once in my hood!), and we three expounded at length about known luminaries in the independent Web demimonde and the travails of publishing intelligent computer books. It seemed we talked shop at all times – but enjoyably so, with few of the autistic-style little ticcing, crazed static rictus, wheezing hyena laughter, and poor fashion sense you tend to get with the geeks.

Jeffrey is very “huggy.” He went out for fags just as I was leaving, and ran with me to the crosstown bus, trying to lay on hands as I jumped on. You don’t usually get people this sincere.

Rob Dean

All right. The ostensible purpose.

Robert Dean in a Cindy Sherman moment.
Rob Dean

I had made this pact – in retrospect unwisely – that when I finally met the elusive RobDCX I would plant a kiss. A bit high-school and closety, don’t you think? My mental image had Rob sitting at a restaurant table and my creeping up on him. The kiss could thus be on the top of the head.

It took days to arrange a meeting with Rob. He was out in Brooklyn with his homeboy, plus his female friend (structurally resembling to a faghag) whom he had picked up in DC. He was with them essentially 24/7, and they took priority. In fact, I was permitted an audience with Rob only in the presence of this posse.

But, in another Groundhog Day epiphenomenon, the setting of our meeting was... the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. (He ducked a smooch like I was holding a fucking blowtorch.) We would then walk over to... ABC to look at soap, all of which is chemically interchangeable and all of which is readily available in the shops frequented by mandarins’ wives in DC.

I think we had two hours together, maybe three, with his posse a forced part of the conversation. By the time I had to leave to go see Greg, we were in Barney’s watching the female posse unit get a makeover and making pointless chitchat.

I didn’t write half of 235,000 words for this.


No, this page is not completed. In fact, I’m going back to New York and will continue to add to it. Next: The graphic-design crowd. | 2003.04.16 (07.25)