SEND HELP, WE BOUGHT A BIRD FEEDER: The Identity Crisis Of Being ‘Domestic’ In Quarantine

The suburban confessions of a native New Yorker.

For the better portion of the last decade I’ve lived a very… shall, I say, New York lifestyle.

 

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This means: I’ve worked 10 to 14-hour days, six days a week, for as long as I can remember. I’ve forked over an exorbitant amount of money, every single month, to live in a six-story walk-up shoebox with zero air-conditioning and a toilet that constantly needs fixing. I haven’t dared to worry about exercise because living in the city is basically like doing CrossFit. You’re climbing upstairs, you’re trotting downstairs, you’re racing down crowded blocks, sweating on subways, chasing taxis; all while lugging around your laptop, your water bottle, your headphones, your computer monitor, your heels, a change of clothes, and a book (to read on the train).

I’ve no longer been phased when I trip over a rodent on 9th Avenue. I didn’t do my own laundry for years. I sent it out to be washed and pressed and delivered to my door, twice a month. I never cooked. If my apartments have been the size of shoeboxes — then my kitchens have been the size of seashells. I didn’t ever have groceries in my fridge because the thought of carrying them down three impossibly long avenues and up a gazillion flights of stairs was “harrowing” to say the least.

Most nights have been spent out at restaurants I couldn’t afford. I’d be so wiped out after a long, arduous day of “hustling” that all I wanted to do was sit at a clean table with flickering candles and be served. If I didn’t eat out, I ordered in. Or maybe grabbed a slice of pizza on Bleecker Street and scarfed it down as I skulked my way home. I NEVER went to my friends’ apartments to hang out, ever. It was usually too much of a shlep to get there, plus it was too cramped a space to accommodate more than one person. And they never have groceries in their fridge either, so we might as well meet up somewhere that can whip us up a charcuterie board if we were to ever get hungry. (Acute anxiety often suppresses the appetite.)

I haven’t driven a car in five years because only sociopaths drive in Manhattan (my wife being one of them). I never physically walked into a store to buy cleaning supplies (I don’t even know where they sell them in the city?); rather I had a monthly subscription service that delivered them to the apartment. I kept a full kit of makeup on me at all times because I never had the time after work to go home and “touch up.”

I smelled like hot dogs and halal; sewage and sweat; Chanel and chaos.

Saving money? Girl, for the last decade it’s been a miracle from Jesus herself whenever my card goes through when buying a lone string cheese at the bodega.

I’ve grown to think this lifestyle is normal, because everyone I know lives the same exact way. New York has turned its people into domestic dimwits. We can’t cook, we’ve forgotten how to do our own laundry and if it’s not deliverable it simply doesn’t exist. We all rent our apartments, live grandly but are barely scraping by.

*

A few months before Covid-19 stripped us from our life of extreme socialization, my wife and I decided to rent a house in New Jersey. We chose the beautiful township of Montclair because we work in the city and it’s about a 25-minute drive into midtown Manhattan. Oh and Stephen Colbert allegedly lives in Montclair. (As does Bobbi Brown.)

“Let’s give it a year,” Meghan (my wife) said to me as her shaking fingers signed the dotted line. She’s a born and bred New Yorker who ends up sneezy and red-eyed every time we find ourselves in rural Brooklyn.

“Yes. A year.” I guzzled back my champagne. “Plus it’s like, closer to the city than most parts of Brooklyn.”

“Exactly.”

And for the first month or two, even though we exchanged our shoe-box sized apartment for a real house with an actual (gasp) yard, we still lived like shameless city slickers. We dutifully commuted into the city every single day at 7 a.m. and if we were lucky, we plopped down on the couch in Montclair at 11 p.m. We still didn’t have groceries in our fridge (though we *did* start doing our own laundry).

And then the rumors of Covid-19 started circling around the city like a helicopter paparazzi. And then the rumors became more than just rumors. The rumors unraveled into a jarring, razor-sharp reality, seemingly overnight. And just like that — our fast-walking, fast-talking, fast-eating, fast-working, adrenaline-packed lifestyle came to a dramatic, screeching halt.

I woke up in the morning on the first day of quarantine and noticed that the trash bin had been broken into by raccoons! Toilet paper rolls were littered across the pristine, civilized street. As I cleaned up the trash from the pavement, I was informed by a neighbor that it wasn’t a raccoon who wreaked havoc on my trash, it was a fox.

I live in a place with foxes now I guess. 

Later that evening I spotted a beaver puttering around my yard. And then a family of deer galloped across my lawn. My dogs loudly barked at them through the window. They’re city dogs; they’ve born witness to hypodermic needles and braved hot cement with their tender pink paws, but they’d never seen deer.

They were shook. I was shook. Meghan was shook.

Maybe I should go to the grocery store like a normal person? I thought to myself as I scrolled through the Seamless app on my phone. There weren’t many options for delivery in pandemic-laden New Jersey. Suddenly I found myself driving for the first time in five years. I was overcome with an adolescent sense of freedom as I glided down the vacant street in our car, blasting Fiona Apple, just like I had done as a suburban teenager with an eyebrow ring.

I fastened a mask over my face and strutted into the grocery store like it was a vibrant downtown restaurant. My pupils dilated and my heart fluttered like a butterfly as I took in the fluorescent-lit supermarket spectacle. I felt turned-on by the gorgeous gobs of brie and the neat little rows of olive oils and the freshly baked cupcakes sitting pretty in the “bakery” section of the store. As I filled up my plastic green grocery cart with food of all things, I felt a rush of euphoria sweep over my hungry bones. By the time I slid my sexy credit card through the register, I was practically rolling on ecstasy.

Over the next several weeks I found myself doing things I’d never done before. I blissfully gazed into the pale blue sky as I leisurely drank coffee. I swept the kitchen with a broom. I learned how to use the complicated vacuum my mother bought us years ago. And most strangely, I began to cook.

It started with boxed vegan macaroni and cheese. I added a nice dollop of truffle oil and a sneaky dash of Himalayan sea salt to the vegan macaroni and cheese. Within a week I was making my own vegan macaroni and cheese. I devoured hours of YouTube videos and voraciously read food blogs with the intensity of a Pinterest-obsessed, heterosexual newlywed. I taught myself how to sear Seattle wild salmon, make a killer cauliflower pizza from scratch, and simmer homemade sauce. All workday I would look forward to dinner — the glorious moment in which I could pour myself a crisp glass of wine, listen to “Self Tanner For The Soul” via Audible, and create masterpieces in my adult-sized kitchen.

“I never thought I would say this, but you’re a really good cook,” Meghan said to me, her shocked sea-foam eyes as big as saucers.

It wasn’t just me surprising Meghan with my newfound domesticity, either. Meghan, a true Bronx native, started to act out of character, too. For starters, she became obsessed with the neighborhood birds. So obsessed that she ordered a bird-feeder from Amazon, built it with her two very capable lesbian hands, and hung it on a giant oak tree in our yard. She marveled when the birds happily nibbled at her feeder.

All was well and dandy, until one day she slammed the door so loudly and stampeded into the living room with such fervent rage I thought she was about to announce that she wanted a divorce! (Had she finally discovered my top-secret dark collection of “Hello Kitty” barrettes?)

“What is it, babe?” I asked carefully.

“THAT FAT FUCK SQUIRREL,” she yelled, flailing her arms around. “LOOK.” She took me by my arm and tossed me outside. Sure enough, a very plump-looking squirrel was chowing down on the bird-feed. He looked as happy as I feel when I’m drunkenly chowing down the truffle fries at Pommes Frites on MacDougal Street.

Meghan was devastated. She spent the next six hours looking up humane ways to prevent squirrels from eating bird feed.

Not only did she have a newfound passion for birds, but she also grew deeply, deeply passionate about separating the garbage perfectly. “YOU CAN’T PUT CAPS IN THE RECYCLING!” She would roar every other day or so. Once a week we lug grocery bags into the car, drive down the steep hill, and put the correct garbage in their respective cans. We secure the garbage shut by enclosing it with large bondage-looking straps that hook together at the bottom. This stops the fox from having his way with our used tampons. It’s a very glamorous ritual.

Every night around 8 p.m. we look at each other and say, “is it too early for bed?” We used to not even be done with work by 8 p.m.

I didn’t really think too much about our dramatic quarantine domestication overhaul until very recently. It’s such a weird time in the world, that everything feels sort of bizarro. The past several months have not felt like real life in any way shape or form. I half feel like I’m fever dreaming or part of some strange government experiment. This drastic lifestyle change only occurred to me when I FaceTimed my friend Eduardo and showed him our car.

“Isn’t it sexy?” I said running my fingers along her dark blue edges.

Babe,” Eduardo purred placing his delicate hands over his slim hips. “It’s not a sexy car. It’s a family car.”

Alarms began to sound off in my brain. My identity crisis appeared out of thin air and tapped me right on the shoulder. She was wearing big designer sunglasses and chic black attire. “You live in New Jersey and you have a family car,” she taunted, clutching her Metro card like it was an Oscar. Her nails were long and blood-red and pointy. Her nails were exactly what my nails looked like months before. I sheepishly stared at my ugly, un-manicured hands.

Who was I? I went from pounding the pavement in heels to cooking in the time of Corona, shoeless. I went from New York to New Jersey. From bar-fly to homebody. From worrying about getting pickpocketed to worrying about the fucking birdfeeder.

And then my higher-self (I call her Catherine, she likes coach bags and sensible shoes) appeared. She leaned against the hood of my car and pulled out a Virginia Slim cigarette. She sucked it back like it was oxygen. Her sensible bob sparkled in the Montclair sunlight. “Bitch, get it together. You are so lucky to be alive right now. Don’t waste time having an identity crisis! You’re just discovering a new side of yourself. It doesn’t mean the other parts of you went away.” She blew out a perfect ring of smoke. We both watched it linger in the flower-fragrant air.

“Are you sure?!” I asked fearfully. I envisioned a bleak future. Family cars. Flappy arms. Screaming children. The only excitement in my life being connected to bird-feeders and home-cooked meals. I began to dry heave.

Catherine got in my face. She took her French-manicured, square-tipped fingers, and grabbed me by the chin.

“Aren’t you afraid of my germs due to Covid-19?” I asked her, primly.

“I’m not a real person. I’m your higher-self. I can’t catch human sickness. Spiritual sickness, yes, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, I digress. You are still you. This is all part of the journey to becoming a multi-dimensional person. Don’t you write about how ‘nuanced’ you are all the time? Maybe you need to read your own essays.” She looked me in the eyes. She stuck her lit cigarette behind her ear because I guess she’s immune to burns as well as disease.

“You’re right,” I said, sighing. I let her words land on me like autumn leaves on the soil. She winked at me and disappeared, forgetting her neon pink lighter on the hood of my car.

Since that fateful day, I’ve been unabashedly enjoying cooking. I’ve shamelessly squatted with trophy wives during  ZOOM workouts. I’ve been happily amused by Meghan’s obsession with the garbage and the bird-feeder.

And none of this means I’m no longer a city bitch. If a girl can be both slutty and smart, both beautiful and brainy, both happy and sad, then a girl can be both city and suburban if she damn well pleases. That’s my feminism.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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