Essay

Nous consacrons cette performance…

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I am a very fearful spectator, hopelessly sensitive to viewing pain or violence. For my own mental health I refuse to watch horror films or medical dramas. I can’t comprehend the general obsession with Law & Order: SVU—any crime dramas that aren’t produced by Shonda Rhimes are out. And that’s just the fictitious stuff. I am especially wary of certain high-risk sports. Nascar and boxing are no-gos. Watching the X-Games raises my blood pressure. Even figure skating or gymnastics is out of the question. I simply worry too much over the possibility of witnessing someone’s accidental death.

So when my boyfriend got us tickets for Cirque du Soleil during a visit to Orlando, my reaction was lackluster. “Sure,” I said, completely unaware of what was in store, “If we don’t find something else to do that’s cheaper, or better.” What a simpleton. I love to watch dance, especially modern dance, but the cirque aspect, I thought, would veer on the gimmicky side, artless and ostentatious.

And then the bombs went off in Paris. I was in the middle of a Disney World vacation. At that very moment I was probably in France—that is, the Disneyfied representation of France at Epcot. Me, posing for a selfie, smiling dumbly at the beautiful “world” around me. But I didn’t hear about the attacks until hours after they occurred. In my defense, who checks their New York Times app on vacation? When I finally looked up from the manufactured world that Disney made, I found even the headlines were too much.

Selfishly, I turned off the TV, I ignored my phone, and we went out to see Cirque du Soleil.

Pulling into the parking lot, the theater loomed before us, itself a masterpiece reminiscent of the original Big Top—a gorgeous study in suspension, tension, and undulating lines. We took our seats in the very first row, mere feet from the thrust stage. The house lights went dark. Chers mesdames et messieurs, a voice announced with a Québecois accent, nous consacrons cette performance aux victimes des attentats terroristes à Paris. The theater was about half-full but immediately swelled with echoing applause. I had not seen anything yet and was already overcome with emotion. I was expecting an ethereal spectacle to help me escape this world. Instead, it catapulted me headfirst into it.

The show took off, exploding with color and speed, sight and sound. Performers took the stage in waves. First, a pair of manic jump-ropers and a nail-biting high wire act. Then, four young Chinese girls captivating us with their yo-yos before descending below the stage on a lift. Two stunt bicyclists rode out before us, balancing on their front wheels and leaping over a line-up of four clowns, skidding to a stop. I was clutching my seat, sweating through my blouse.

There were trampolines and trapeze, swinging and juggling. I kept needing to remind myself to breathe. There were live musicians and two singers whose voices soared to equally great heights as their fellow performers. In the aerial ballet, an impossibly muscular man glided above the audience on a giant plume of crimson silk, the very picture of strength and grace. Three more sheets cascaded from the ceiling and female dancers tangled and tumbled down the lengths of the fabric, in synchronicity, finally touching down onto the stage.

The whole time, I was shaking, sweating, laughing, in tears. I was awestruck by this celebration of human ability and ambition, the performers pulling at the edges of what I considered to be humanly possible. The joy and optimism—that he’ll catch her, that she’ll land on both feet, that no one will be hurt, that we’ll all have a good time—in clear juxtaposition with the pain and destruction in Paris and beyond. It no longer felt selfish to indulge in this spectacle; it felt necessary, cathartic. Fear bound up in love.

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Essay

Transaction

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It takes two incomes to live in Manhattan. That’s why, for most of this year, I was working a second shift earning extra cash through Taskrabbit, basically a temp agency, but instead of squatting in an office, the “taskers” run errands and complete domestic chores. It was a decent gig, and the extra money helped assuage the guilt that comes with such urban luxuries as fresh flowers, out-of-season produce, and non-rail cocktails.

They were certainly not luxurious jobs, but they landed me in some swanky apartments. I cooked mini-quiches in the Trump Towers for a three-year-old gastronome; catered a Seder in a chi-chi condo on the Upper West Side; hung up coats during a fundraiser featuring Peter from Peter, Paul and Mary. (I handed him his hat and guitar case afterward.)

I didn’t need to do these gigs. I wasn’t starving or at risk of eviction without them. The extra cash was certainly welcome, and the sense of self-sufficiency was a fringe benefit. But the reason I kept at it for so long, and was willing to overlook the 20% commission fee, was the ability to experience firsthand how the other half lives. You really get to know somebody when you cook in their kitchen or organize their closets. The best way to learn about a person, however, is to track their expenses, which is exactly what I was once paid to do. “Organize 3 boxes of receipts,” the task description read, “And if possible, scan them.” Easy enough, I thought, and quickly accepted the gig.

The client lived in a newer building in Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The lobby featured a lot of glass and low-lit sconces. The apartment itself was large and profited from great natural light, but it was cluttered and slightly grimy in the way you would expect from a chronic receipt hoarder. The entrance had several lamps lining the hallway, all unplugged. She and I chatted briefly when I first arrived. Her name was Marianne, she’d moved to the city several years ago, originally from Senegal. We exchanged some French (hers flawless, mine rudimentary), and somehow arrived at an awkward conversation about the colonial history our native countries shared.

She graciously brought me cookies on a chipped plate, and set them on the kitchen table. I hadn’t noticed before, due to the overall unkempt atmosphere, but the table was beset with piles and piles of crinkled receipts, stuffed into and spilling out of shoeboxes and plastic H&M bags. Not quite what I envisioned from her ad.

“So, like,” I gulped, scanning the detritus, “I’ll put them in chronological order, I guess?” I tried to be cool. It was unprofessional to appear overwhelmed. She breezily replied, “Actually, if you could put all the restaurant receipts together, then all the shopping receipts, the groceries, et cetera.” She retreated to her bedroom, oblivious to the vagueness of her instructions. I got to work assessing the situation. After about the fifteenth Dunkin’ Donuts receipt for just a medium coffee (with sugar and no cream), I was able to deduce this was a futile endeavor. But what could I do? The money was good—$25/hour—and the anecdotal fodder priceless. My best option was to continue, collect my due, and observe Marianne’s expenditures from 2010 onward.

I learned she frequented Le Pain Quotidien on a near-daily basis and that, in 2012, she visited both Six Flags Great Adventure and Universal Studios. Receipts from toy stores, Gap Kids, and Chuck E. Cheese’s all point to the presence of a child. Likely a niece or nephew, judging from the decidedly non-family-friendly state of her one-bedroom. It was not only the content of the receipts that revealed this woman’s true nature. It was also the condition in which they were kept, stashed, stuffed away, for years, for no apparent reason. Why keep all this shit? Was she being audited? She didn’t even have a scanner, nor did she want me to total up the numbers (thank God). I only needed to sort and clip the receipts together.

Eventually, Marianne emerged from her bedroom, wearing a full face of make-up (probably from MAC) and a bright orange jumpsuit (probably from Club Monaco). She was late for an appointment, she said, handing me her apartment key. I was to lock up when I was finished and give the key to the doorman. Would leave a total stranger unsupervised in her apartment, I added to the growing mental list of things I knew about Marianne C. in Harlem. After she left, I started wondering whether this was a practical joke.

Finally, four hours after I arrived, I fished out the last receipt from the last shoebox. My eyes were sore from squinting at all the faded numbers. I was relieved to be finished, and went looking for my things. On a chair at the opposite end of the table, I spotted my purse—behind which was yet another bag full of receipts which I had apparently overlooked. Was this a nightmare? I paused, half-expecting more receipts to come raining from the ceiling. Then, without a second thought, I stuffed the whole thing in the garbage, gathered up the trash bag, went out in the hallway, dropped it down the disposal chute, and pressed the button for the elevator. I handed her keys to the doorman in the glass lobby and billed Marianne for my time.

Now, what does all this say about me?

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