Living Off the Slope
By Priscilla Becker
Several years ago, unable to rent an apartment, I sublet one in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I didn’t bring much, --- some clothes, random papers, German tea, flax oil, hair conditioner I’d been rationing for seven years.
The sublet included a cat -- black and white, long-haired and over-sized -- basically, a stuffed skunk. She had a small splotch of permanent blood in her left eye that made her look emotionally injured. Her name began with “the,” like a title. I was subletting from a novelist, and so I understood the titular nature of the cat’s name. The introductory article was followed by a popular and sophisticated female name, which made her fit right into the surrounding baby infinity.
I’ll call her The Sophie, as she is still alive, and I don’t want to get sued for infringement. I trust the novelist is quite capable of this, as her English is fluent -- her paw-written English, that is. A lengthy note was posted on the kitchen wall citing the duties the care-provider must perform in order to earn his or her stay, and satisfy The Sophie’s needs. The note concluded with the lengths one was to go to if something dire were to happen to The Sophie while her mommy was away.
The Sophie didn’t possess feline aloofness, independence, nonchalance. She’d follow me around the apartment, waiting for me to perch somewhere---which she heard as the tolling bell to begin her love ritual. She’d start on my lap, sinking her claws into my sweater and pulling her way, rung by rung, up to the summit -- my neck. She’d wrap her front paws around it and burrow her head into its side, purring. The Sophie’s purr reminded me of the sonic percolation of my father’s foot pressing the gas pedal into the car floor, waiting patiently to take me to church. He was pre-punctual, which I, in those days, interpreted as his wanting to beat God.
As soon as The Sophie settled, she’d begin licking my face, sticking her tongue in my ear canal. Her tongue was not smooth. This gesture brought me uncomfortably back to childhood, when I’d rub my nose and cheeks with sandpaper, in efforts to erase my freckles. I’d carried this desire with me into adulthood, morphing it into a love of sloughing dead skin. I had left my (now extraneous) exfoliant in my former apartment. Exfoliant wasn’t the first thing I lacked.
The temporary apartment didn’t have any nice mugs, which stunted my coffee habit. Some were the wrong size, they were all the wrong shape, no awakening colors. This depressed me. How was I to perform my energizing morning ritual without lamenting the mug’s sick shape? I went for a walk to cool off. On my way up the Slope I saw a box on the sidewalk with its cardboard tongue sticking out: FREE STUFF. I stopped and looked inside: two mugs of a peppered mustard color, with bellies of constrained voluptuous roundness peered up at me. They had the remote and casual expression of a dog in the pound, the kind who knows that if he looks at you with too much want, you’ll pass him over. I looked around. In the distance I saw a figure in an over-puffed coat hiking up the hill. I bent over and took the mugs -- since the figure was too far away to watch the poor, pitiful person take free stuff, I lacked embarrassment.
There were also books in the box: “How to Raise a Smarter Child, The Baby Whisperer”; there was a dinosaur-looking Mr. Coffee machine, cords and plugs and computer mice. But I didn’t pay attention to the other stuff. I couldn’t believe my luck.
A couple mornings later I found myself on my way to a coffee shop. There was one uphill, one down, one north, one south. (I’m referring merely to the ones at spitting distance). Neighborhood-wise I was on vacation. Work-wise, I was not. I decided on the uphill one, as it was nearest the bank where I’d have to stop pre-coffee to decrease my balance. Why are you spending money on coffee when you have some at “home”? You have likeable mugs! You pig! Why waste two bucks? I withered my shoulders against the wind, made sure I didn’t step on the cracks. There’s where I saw something stuck and papery, scraping along its folded creases. Recognition (my eureka (not the best one yet)) must have flashed across my eyes in the same instant they met a man’s walking towards me. I dropped to my knees and collected the dollars (two), ironing them friskily into my pocket. The man smiled wide. He seemed happy for me. Either that or he was laughing at me.
I’ve earned my coffee shop coffee! It’s an omen! Good things are going to happen to me! My smile was splitting my mouth. You’ll probably head off to a coffee shop every morning thinking you’re going to find money! You’ll wind up in debtor’s prison! Prison without coffee! Prison with Mr. Coffee! You’ll spend money looking for money! I brushed my pocket with my palm, turned around and crept back to the sublet, where I made my already-paid-for coffee, in my found mug.
The precision of my first two finds, the answer to my specific desires, began to form a strange feeling in my mind. I couldn’t believe the wealth and steady up-grading of the Slopians. I wanted -- through juxtaposition, through osmosis -- to ingest the neighborhood that was not mine. I wanted to experience Park Slopianism’s side-effects through affect and fakery. I wanted to worm my way in, eating its dirt. I certainly couldn’t enter straight-forwardly, by handing over a large, penta-digitus check.
I remembered a friend whose book became a best-seller telling me that this had come to pass through visualization --- how he pictured his book on the store shelves between Barbara Kingsolver and Rudyard Kipling. And so I’d leave each morning on my way to work picturing what I needed, what I couldn’t afford to buy, or what I no longer understood why I should buy.
I’d never owned a blender, but loved mushy food, and so I pictured one whirring. The next day I found one in its manufacturer’s box on top of a trashcan alongside some wet pillows and desiccating wreaths. I lugged it home. I visualized an elderly hand-mixer for mashing the potatoes I wanted to mash once a year. A few days later I found a prehistoric one, with white ceramic bowls attached. I thought in the near future I’d need a chair (I pictured a lonely corner in my unforeseeable apartment). I found three -- one whose wooden back formed the shape of a child splitting his legs and lifting the world with his hands. I found a wicker laundry basket (I hadn’t pictured that, but it was too cylindrical for me to pass up). I found a crate to hold my merciless papers; a lamp with a green translucent face; a series of wooden frames with the declension as Russian nesting dolls; a cork board; a full-length mirror; a table; a pressure-cooker; countless printers that looked brand new (which I soon stopped carting home, as I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t need more than one, and was overwhelmed by their size and plastic ugliness).
I also began to acquire a wardrobe. The brownstones of Park Slope are gated, with spikes pointing to the sky. People hook their unwanted, ill-fitting, often brand-new clothes on them. I found a pair of dark jeans with wide ankles and a metallic British flag attached to its back pocket, an antique summer dress in sky and sea pastels, a soft pair of musk-green tights. I found a pair of mossy suede boots, a blue corduroy mini skirt, a sweater with roses, a black summer dress with vertical lines that shimmered as though black were an assortment of colors that complimented each other. I found a pair of jeans with foot-long cuffs and fuzzy back pockets. I couldn’t tell if they were designer or home made. At first I liked their kookiness, but after a while, worried that I looked like a middle-aged hare. I found a pair of Keen shoes. I didn’t know these were expensive and wanted by the middle-aged Park Slopians. But due to the jealous disbelieving looks that fell straight to my shoes when I wore them, I soon Googled and discovered they cost about 100 bucks. I feared these shoes would ruin an economically- challenged person like me, as they were so comfortable, how could I return to my twelve dollar warehouse sneakers? But I also wondered if when women stared at my clothes, it was because they recognized their discarded junk, finding me pathetic.
I found paintings -- some good, some horrible. It didn’t matter; I dragged them all back to the sublet, decorating in my mind the home I could not find. It saddened me that people threw out their paintings. I felt that by carting their work home I was saving parts of their forgotten souls. I found record albums that felt like parts of mine.
I was overwhelmed by the number of books I found on the street, as well as the number of them that lined the inside skin of the sublet (not to mention the number of framed literary advertisements and paintings that featured female breasts). At first the endless choice seemed wonderful, but soon my nettled inability to decide what to read felt much like trying to select olive oil from Olive Row at Whole Foods.
The Sophie’s mommy collected the work of contemporary writers -- Jonathan Safron Foer’s complete collection, for example, Roberto Bolano’s entire opus. I found myself retracting into a former self, wanting to re-read books from my past, books that were not there -- V. S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas,” for instance. Naipaul was too old for The Sophie’s mommy’s competitive assortment -- it would be like finding Velveeta inside the city of artisanal cheese. So I sat on the floor and pictured the book, visualizing what my mind had sculpted as Biswas‘ house: dry and derelict expanse of land, cheap house-building ingredients, his small unhappy wife, sarongs wrapped around dark-skinned women with tikkas between their brows.
The next day I found Naipaul’s “Half a Life.” How close, I thought. At first this seemed like a good sign, but I didn’t like “Half a Life”. I didn’t know if I should trust my dislike of the book, or if this was a sign that I could no longer accept anything besides exactly what I wanted. I recited some Biswas aloud in hopes of bringing it closer. The next day I found “Frankenstein”.
I pictured Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” because recently a friend had argued that my dislike of it was wrong. So I wanted to give it another try. I visualized it. I pictured the words of the title in a nice font with the author’s name hovering close. The next day I found Ondaatje’s “Anil’s Ghost”. I pictured “A Hundred Years of Solitude,” and found “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. I couldn’t tell if I was refining my powers, or if they were breaking free.
At some point in my book-haze my sublet expired and I under-rented again in another Brooklyn neighborhood, followed by several others, landing about a year later in a studio for which my partner co-signed the lease. It was in Park Slope, and had a way-below-average rent for reasons that were not explained, but became evident as time moved on. I had all but forgotten the way things had been in this hood -- what I’d expected to find -- though I’d lugged all my finds from sublet to sublet, furnishing my new home.
Initially my Park Slope rental life was the same as my subletted one: I found a green plate that wasn’t round or square -- with gold Baroqueness and steppe depressions, a pink mug with a cat’s face hiding inside its design, a dark dresser whose age made light decoration on its surface, a ceramic planter, a wooden frame with carved wooden flowers inside, a straw lampshade, a tea set, a map of the world, a water-proof pair of calf-length boots.
I began to picture the object I actually needed -- the appliance I hated to use but had to, the cleaning machine I spent each Saturday of my youth paralyzed in front of, trying unsuccessfully to startle myself into un-comatization: a vacuum. About six months went by -- my apartment freeloading on hair follicles and dust bunnies. Then one morning I got a call from a friend informing me that he had just seen a vacuum on a street close to my apartment. I ran out. It was there: a friendly red upright Dirt Devil. I pushed it home, receiving dirty looks from everyone who passed me by. Were they annoyed at someone collecting things off the street? Or was it the irritating scrape of the vacuum’s wheels against the sidewalk?
I plugged it in. It revved. I felt I’d entered the final frontier. But soon I found myself criticizing the vacuum: It had no hand-held nozzle. It was clearly made for a much larger apartment, and one with lots of rugs! It had a female voice, which reminded me of my youthful paralysis. It was red!
A few weeks later I found a better fit, receiving the same dirty looks as I scraped it home. In the weeks to come, my finds switched to the vegetal: a pear with brown scars sitting on top of a mailbox. I rubbed it clean and palmed it home; an isolate brussel sprout that I put in my pocket and rested on the window sill. And one rainy day a tiny white brain swam past along the gutter. I watched it go. I didn’t take it home.
Looking back on the course of my finds, it seems to me now that it was something like beginner’s luck; that plus the investigation of a newly-found neighborhood. How enamored I was with brownstones and expressive trees -- things that I took for granted after living in the studio for two years. At the start I walked along intricate and spontaneous pathways; then up and down the same street every day -- that’s what I think launched me out of finding so much stuff.
When I first moved in I lived Off the Slope; a little while later, I lived On it. Now I live in a Brooklyn borough in which my finds are trash and dog pooh.