Sloane Crosley returns to the form that made her a household name in really quite a lot of households: Essays!
From the New York Times–bestselling author Sloane Crosley comes Look Alive Out There—a brand-new collection of essays filled with her trademark hilarity, wit, and charm. The characteristic heart and punch-packing observations are back, but with a newfound coat of maturity. A thin coat. More of a blazer, really.
Fans of I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number know Sloane Crosley’s life as a series of relatable but madcap misadventures. In Look Alive Out There, whether it’s scaling active volcanoes, crashing shivas, playing herself on Gossip Girl, befriending swingers, or staring down the barrel of the fertility gun, Crosley continues to rise to the occasion with unmatchable nerve and electric one-liners. And as her subjects become more serious, her essays deliver not just laughs but lasting emotional heft and insight. Crosley has taken up the gauntlets thrown by her predecessors—Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, David Sedaris—and crafted something rare, affecting, and true.
Look Alive Out There arrives on the tenth anniversary of I Was Told There’d be Cake, and Crosley’s essays have managed to grow simultaneously more sophisticated and even funnier. And yet she’s still very much herself, and it’s great to have her back—and not a moment too soon (or late, for that matter).
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I am running late for the airport, trying to catch a cab on my street corner. A woman in a wheelchair and her date, a man, arrive at the corner seconds after me. They pretend not to see me and I pretend not to see them, which is the kind of cutthroat strategy New Yorkers employ when embarking on otherwise benign activities. It's partially to avoid conflict and partially to claim innocence in the event of the finger. As the minutes pass and no cabs come, the tension grows. I make a big show of checking the time and rotating my suitcase back and forth. At long last, a cab drifts in our direction. Under normal circumstances the cab would be mine. I have the clear lead. But this particular vehicle is the model with the sliding doors, designated for handicapped access. Seeing as how my plane will definitely crash if I steal a cab from a woman in a wheelchair, I step aside.
"Here," I say, "you guys take it."
"Thanks so much," says the man.
And for a whole three seconds, everyone in this scenario feels very good about themselves. The lack of fanfare is a kind of fanfare in itself, a celebration that society has not yet broken down into breadlines and ATM-based riots. We do not throw our handicapped under the bus. We move to the back of the bus for them.
The cab door gapes open on its tracks. The man leans down and puts a hand on each armrest of the wheelchair. He kisses the woman sweetly in what I assume is a casual assertion of their love. Then he unhands the chair and springs into the cab by himself. He waves at her from the open window. The cab wheels off in one direction, the woman in the other.
One of the very few things of which I am certain is that it's not possible to be handicapped by association. Being in the social orbit of a person in a wheelchair does not entitle you to special accommodations and it certainly does not entitle you to someone else's cab. In a huff, I tug my luggage to the next block, thinking about how this man is the worst person to have ever lived. Meanwhile, the woman is just ahead of me. I begin to judge her, too. Physical impediments are nontransferable, but social ones are. You are who you kiss goodbye.
We stay the course for a couple of blocks. She's covering twice as much ground. It's unclear if she's fleeing the scene or just more adept at slicing through crowds. But I try to catch up with her. Should an available cab arrive, I plan on announcing my urgent destination to the driver so that certain people might feel very guilty indeed.
We pass a liquor store where someone has tied up a dog outside. The dog, a bright-eyed mutt, sits with his legs stretched out on the pavement. Without so much as a swerve, the woman wheels over his tail. The dog jumps up and lets out a high-pitched yelp. The woman keeps going. Bystanders are transformed into witnesses. Upon hearing his pet's cry, the dog's owner comes charging out of the store, looking for answers. The store's cashier stands in the doorway. Everyone hesitates to finger the culprit.
"That woman," I say, pointing. "She wheeled over his tail."
The man's face morphs from enraged to sympathetic as he registers this lady, forever seated, waiting for a traffic light to change.
"Oh," he says, backing down, "she probably didn't realize."
The dog, by now, has recovered from the incident. But I have not.
"No," I correct him, "she realized — she just didn't care."
The man shrugs. The dog plows his wet nose into his owner's palm. The whole point of pets is to have a living annex of your personality filled with all the qualities you'd like to have but don't. Instant forgiveness is one of those qualities. If this guy is going to be so magnanimous, it seems redundant that he should even have a dog.
"She's in a wheelchair," the cashier pipes up behind me. "What's the matter with you?"
We had a townhouse but we weren't allowed to touch it. I had to be lifted up by the armpits to peer inside. The brick façade appeared to be cut from a single sheet, but if you looked closely, you could see how my father had smeared cement onto miniature bricks with a butter knife. The townhouse was electric, too, modeled after its 1920s counterpart and outfitted with stained-glass lamps and micro-editions of Moby-Dick and Jane Eyre. There were even lights on the outside, brass sconces that framed the doorway and cast shadows on the perennially green hedges below.
The house I grew up in is not like this. It's compact and boxy, built on a cement slab and encased in vinyl siding. On the Tim Burton Sliding Architectural Scale, it's less Beetlejuice, more Edward Scissorhands. Ours is one of two models of homes on the street. It's as if an architect approached the neighborhood the way you approach a child at mealtime. You're not supposed to ask a child to conjure an ideal dinner out of thin air; you're supposed to say "Chicken or spaghetti?" or all hell breaks loose. The neighborhood itself is shaped like a ladle with four lines of streets cutting across the middle and one long one, which bends before merging into some woods. My parents live in the soup, surrounded by neighbors making an effort with koi ponds.
My whole life, my parents refused to do the decent thing and pretend they couldn't hear every step I took. I have never been trapped in a bunker or a submarine, but I have to assume there's an understanding in these situations. These people would never survive. If I picked up the phone in the kitchen, my father's voice would come booming from the basement, asking who I was calling. If I unfolded a blanket in the den, my mother would shout down from the top floor, offering me another one. If I passed their bedroom door, they would demand to know what I was up to. Seems harmless enough until you know that the only room after theirs was the bathroom.
Thus, the townhouse became my platonic ideal of a house. It was always grand and peaceful. It stood in the corner of the living room, covered with a tarp like a birdcage. Light from the television would be visible to any tiny people living inside. They would be able to hear my parents' cries of "What are you watching?" as I changed the channel. But there were no tiny people beneath the tarp. No eyes to see or ears to hear. No one to tell me that I would one day live in Manhattan, where if someone follows you around, asking you who you're calling, you can have that person arrested.
* * *
A couple of decades later I was living in a railroad apartment in Chelsea, illegally subletting it from a friend's sister. The sister lived in Los Angeles and I never met her, despite repeated offers to meet whenever I happened to be in Los Angeles. This was for her benefit, not mine. If it were me, I'd want to vet me. But I never heard back from her. I never heard from her at all, actually. One time the peephole fell out, a thing I did not realize peepholes could do — just dislodge themselves and come thudding onto the floor like a car part. I wrote to her, explaining what had happened. No response. Eventually, I taped the receipt for a new peephole to my reduced rent check, which she cashed without a, well — you know. The second I saw her name appear on my phone, I knew I was getting evicted.
Not wanting to stray too far from home, I paid a broker to find me a place nearby. In the easiest gig of that guy's already unchallenging career, we walked nine blocks south to a prewar building, the kind with a name engraved above the awning but none of the residents could tell you what it is. The broker unlocked the door to a 600-square-foot one-bedroom on the second floor that had been recently occupied by a boy (the clothes pole in the closet was missing). But the moldings were thick enough to double as bookshelves and the view was unreal. Tulip trees shaded a row of the private backyards of townhouses. Cherry blossom detritus drizzled in the wind. A blue jay landed on the fire escape. It was the first apartment I saw, I could barely afford it, and I took it immediately.
The West Village is a ridiculous place to call home. People with unseemly bank accounts spend thousands of dollars freshening the flowerpots on their stoops. Rosebushes, hydrangeas, pansies, and zinnias — all casually exposed to marauding vagrants. Except there are no vagrants, not even marauding ones. It's a generationally diverse area but otherwise it's as removed from reality as a movie set. Celebrities' kids skip along the pavement, backpacks twice their size bobbing up and down. One of the houses visible from my apartment is owned by an elderly couple. The woman likes to tell guests how Hilary Swank used to climb a fence and exit through their house in order to avoid the paparazzi.
Down the block and around the clock, people take photos of the façade of Carrie Bradshaw's apartment in Sex and the City. Submitting to their fate, the real owners have installed a donation box on behalf of a local animal shelter for every photo taken. These tourists' heads would explode like a bomb full of nicotine patches if they knew that Sarah Jessica Parker herself lives around the corner. I can't help but wonder what she feels when she walks past Carrie's building. It must be like driving past your high school, at once everything and nothing.
I only cared about the celebrities the way all New Yorkers care about celebrities: I ignored them or, if they were especially famous, congratulated myself for ignoring them. The real draw of the neighborhood was the quiet. And not just any kind of quiet. Here, in the heart of Manhattan, was a pod of that suburban silence that had eluded me as a child. You could hear a pin drop in my bedroom — on the bed. Early mornings, I listened to the heckling of seagulls that had strayed inland from the Hudson River. On warm evenings, a cellist sat on the street corner with his case open. When it rained, water pelted the leaves outside my enchanted tree house.
* * *
And then one day the leaves dropped and Jared came out. Jared lived in the townhouse directly behind my apartment. He must have been on summer vacation or touring Europe by colonial rickshaw when I moved in. Jared was between fifteen and eighteen years of age. It was impossible to tell. I could never get a good read on his height, as his resting state was slouched in a lawn chair, watching viral videos on his phone at full volume. And I never heard him say stuff like "Looks like I can be legally tried as an adult now," despite being someone for whom the distinction was clearly relevant.
How do I begin to explain my relationship with this creature? Is it a relationship if you've never met? Certainly this is an acceptable dynamic online, but played out in real life it's called stalking. All five of the windows in my apartment faced Jared's house. And for as many years, I heard every word this kid said. I would like to tell you that his woes were typical of his age bracket: unrequited crushes, parental oppression, social strife. But Jared had no woes. Plato advised us to be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, but I am here to tell you that I have witnessed Plato's exception. Jared's battles centered around selecting the right surfboard (for show or for use at a beach house, both equally abhorrent) and the occasional obligation to come inside and set the table. And that he didn't have to do, so long as he ignored the sound of his own name. Jewish guilt is no match for teenage entitlement.
I rarely saw the father, who was probably off somewhere, devaluing my 401(k). The little sister was shy and kept to herself. The mother was an upscale fashion photographer. She had a Susan Sontag streak in her hair and doled out advice like "Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Occasionally, she would pace in the backyard, phone in hand, all puffed up about some dead-eyed model. But for the most part, the yard was Jared's domain — a place to smoke cigarettes, molest a guitar, and throw raging parties.
Lest you think I don't know what I signed up for by living on the most densely populated slip of land in America, rest assured that I do. There are sounds one learns to accept, even to be lulled by on occasion. Jackhammers that emerge seasonally and peck at the concrete like oversized woodpeckers. Screaming matches that make you grateful you're not one of the two people in that relationship. I have lived over DJs, newborn babies, sheet-metal sculptors, and Ping-Pong patios. In Chelsea, I lived above a piano player, who practiced scales. When I could stand it no longer, I sheepishly knocked on his door. He apologized and vowed never to practice scales in the house again. Which is how I wound up listening to "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" every day for a year.
But Jared's noise was different. It did not disrupt me, because disruption implies separation of activity, the intervening of outside elements. Rather, Jared's world became my world. I was paying rent like a single person but living with an entire family in what amounted to an inaccessible wing of my apartment. Every afternoon, Jared and his friends returned home from whatever educational womb they attended and clunked down the backyard steps, blaring music and demonstrating familiarity with one another's last names. Jared was quick to laugh, which would have been his best quality were it not for the laugh's resemblance to a hyena being choked to death by bubble wrap. His cackle was like one of those purposefully ugly sculptures, the kind of art that considers your irritation an accomplishment. Really, I can't say enough bad things about it.
They say smell is the strongest trigger of memory, but let us not underestimate the bone-chilling power of sound. The sound of cigarettes being packed against a table. The sound of tracks being skipped. The sound of a porch door banging. These were the harbingers, the sounds of my torturers clearing their throats. Sometimes Jared would leave the music on after he left, a tactic generally employed by war criminals. But mostly he and his friends stayed put, multiplying like gremlins.
Does it seem like I was spying? I was and I wasn't. This was not so much a Rear Window situation as it was a window situation. If I was home, I was on an involuntary stakeout. If I was out, some perverse part of me hoped they would be in the yard when I returned, because then I could stop worrying about them being in the yard. Anthropologically, I was fascinated. Never in my life have I had a social circle as wide or as regular as Jared's. Then again, I have also never lived in a five-story townhouse. It's hard to say how much the house itself factored into Jared's popularity. Surely his cohorts — preppy boys with laughs that died in their throats and coltish girls with sea-level self-esteem — slumbered in comparable accommodations.
Very occasionally it was just Jared, alone in the backyard, pouring out the decibels. The mother would appear at the top of the stairs, mumbling something about homework. And he'd tell her to fuck off, which she fully deserved. Jared was a menace, true, but who had let him get that way? I remember with a haunting clarity lying in bed one night, being kept conscious by Biggie Smalls, when the mother screamed Jared's name. My heart fluttered. Finally. An adult. An authority figure. A savior with her finger on the allowance button.
"Jared!" she shrieked. "Where'd you put the corkscrew?"
* * *
Of course I did. Of course I asked them to be quiet. Hey guys, sorry to be a buzzkill, but can you keep it down? Hey guys, can you take it inside your mansion because I have nowhere to run? To which they apologized in a tone that suggested "sorry" was more of a password than a feeling. So I bought a white-noise machine and fancy headphones. I slept on my side to deafen one chosen ear. None of it worked. Finally, I bit the bullet and called 311, a placebo service for cranks on the brink. Operators forward complaints to local police precincts, at which point the police have eight hours to take action, assuming they're done mocking you. Also: an eight-hour window? Even Jared didn't party from midnight until 8 a.m. He lived in a townhouse, not a warehouse.
I pretended to write down my service request number because, for some reason, it's impossible to admit you don't want your service request number. Alas, help was never sent — a bad sign for me, a worse one for my fellow citizens who actually needed it.
I resented Jared for turning me into a curmudgeon before my time. I was not old enough to be so angry, to delude myself into thinking I would be the one to teach these pesky kids a lesson. But the feeling of powerlessness was all-consuming. They were like cicadas without the bonus years of dormancy. The whole family worked in shifts. Between 7 and 8 a.m., their yapping terrier was released so that it could give every stick of lawn furniture a piece of its mind. Before noon, a housekeeper came to collect the previous night's beer bottles, tossing them in a garbage bag. Then Jared and his friends would emerge, well rested, recapping the night while the sister sat worshipfully at their feet. Later that afternoon, she practiced her dance routines. I couldn't beat them.
Excerpted from "Look Alive Out There"
Copyright © 2018 Sloane Crosley.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsCONTENTS
A Dog Named Humphrey
You Someday Lucky
If You Take the Canoe Out
Up the Down Volcano
The Grape Man
Cinema of the Confined
Our Hour Is Up
The Doctor Is a Woman