Saturday, November 03, 2007

Picture Discs, Palpitations, and Petty Theft

I JUST HAD A day that went from fun to frightening to ridiculous. At least I get another hour of sleep tonight to put it past me.

Today was my first of two days of volunteer work at the WFMU Record and CD Fair. I had booked just about the entire day, beginning with the earliest shift, the security patrol. Record dealers are admitted at 7 a.m. on the Saturday and Sunday of the fair to set up their displays in the 3 hours preceding general admission. At night, the hall is locked up, so dealers leave their wares on the tables, to avoid dragging them back home, to storage rentals, or motel rooms (we get dealers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard). However, the FMU staff realized not so long after starting the fair that, if left unwatched, early-arriving dealers will uncover their fellow dealers' record crates and burrow through them like packs of curious primates. With records worth up to three figures in some of these crates, theft is a very real worry.

So the early-Saturday and early-Sunday security volunteer shift was born. My job today (and tomorrow, if I make it in) was to walk the Metropolitan Pavilion floor while the record dealers carted in their gear; to ensure that nobody's crates were rifled through unless that table's dealer was present; and to ensure that anyone walking around was wearing either a WFMU volunteer sticker or a dealer badge, was an FMU staffer, or worked for the Metro Pavilion. (Oh, and also to discipline the occasional indoor smoker.)

I therefore arose today at 5:00 for my drive into Chelsea. I got out of the house at ten to six, but I was a little worried about a report of the 495 helix being closed down for work and traffic to NYC being routed onto local streets. This still left the Holland Tunnel as an alternative to the Lincoln, which — after spotting a huge mass of cars stopped on 495 after getting off of 3 — I reached via the back route through a just-awakening Union City. I still hit the fair at just after 7:00, a bagel with cream cheese, a Diet Coke, and half a Trader Joe's green drink (one of those Naked/Bolthouse Farms clones) under my belt.

The security shift went very smoothly. Nearly all the dealers were wearing their badges, and I didn't have to guide anyone away from untended crates. The only knock is that it's a little tiring, because one is walking around more or less constantly for 2½ hours. I did grab a break at 9:00 for my annual descent into misguided food, a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich with coffee. Where would NYC be without this delicious but deadly breakfast combo? I never eat this sort of thing except at the Record Fair. The FMU Special Events Coordinator, Mike, not only joined me in this but sprung for it like the mensch that he is. This sort of camaraderie is what erases the fatigue of a slow-motion marathon around the joint as the dealers attack their fellows' crates with pirahña-like ferocity.

As admission time neared, I switched over to cash box duty at the ticket booth. I deliberately chose a second shift that would allow me to sit for a while and give my dogs a rest. The Record Fair is very popular among the collecting community, and due to sympathetic mentions in the NYC area news, and our ads in the Voice and the New York Press (complete with discount admission coupon), our casual foot traffic is thick. So when we threw open the doors, a mass of cold, vinyl-hungry folks was already lined up down the block. The swift blur of making change for what felt like hundreds of music lovers was a sharp contrast to my quiet pacing around the hall some hours before.

One o'clock rolled around surprisingly swiftly, and I was relieved shortly before the hour to take on my third shift, at the WFMU dollar-record tables. FMU has three main points of sale at the fair: cheapo cutout vinyl at a buck a record, more expensive commercial or collectible records and CDs, and station-branded items from the prize lists of past fundraising Marathons. All proceeds from these sales directly fund WFMU (as does the admission fee). Before reaching my post, I hooked into the Audiovisual Lounge (where we show movies for tired shoppers) to grab some free coffee and an Oreo. I wasn't lunch hungry just yet, but I wanted to get my next daily dose of caffeine on schedule.

The dollar record crates were seething with people flipping through them, half of them dealers, occasionally yanking out an album to inspect the track listing or the grooves themselves, then either sliding it back in to flip through some more or placing them on growing piles of must-haves. Space was tight among the crates, with folks queuing up behind the searchers, anxiously seeing their chance to belly up and mine out a hidden treasure. As these quests tended to take some time, I was actually far less busy here than at the front door, so I finally decided to skip out and grab lunch. Two Boots Pizza has the food concession at the fair, but to my discontent they were out of plain slices. I recalled the proximity of a Chipotle Fresh Mexican joint, so out I went with visions of lime-spiced chips and a steak burrito dancing in my head. These I got, along with a Diet Coke.

About an hour after downing this, I noticed my pulse was up. I could feel it in my lips and chest. It felt like I had just finished some moderate exercise. I found this odd, then alarming after it didn't settle down for several minutes. I excused myself from my post and took my pulse with some difficulty (a nurse I'm not). Somewhere around 90. I finished out my shift, then wandered over to Volunteer Director Scott to see if he still needed anyone for the final shift of the day. He said they could use a second person to watch over the exhibit of flexi-discs we had in one corner (you know those plastic records you used to get in magazines or on cereal boxes? Imagine these in every size, color, and product-shilling capacity across something like 120 square feet of wall.). I agreed, figuring this spell of tachycardia would either pass or not, and that I could leave early if so.

A brief pair of flashbacks. That morning, when I got out of my car in Chelsea, I did the usual pocket-pat many men do to ensure we have our gear. My keys, cellphone, and dough were present, but I had left my wallet at home. I had driven all the way into NYC without my license, to say nothing of my healthcare cards, AAA ID, or my credit or ATM cards. I had a couple of hundred in cash, so life in Manhattan or return therefrom wouldn't be hindered by being broke. But unless you've done this, you can't imagine how naked I felt for a moment.

Now keep in mind, I also parked quite close to the entrance of the hall, the streets being fairly uncluttered save for some digging down the street. My parking luck calls to mind George Costanza's "fortune" at finding a spot right in front of the hospital, only to have a jumper crash through the roof of his car. In my case, after I heard a number of emergency vehicles close to the hall, I wandered outside to see my car surrounded by cones and blocked in by Office of Emergency Management and Con Ed trucks, and a rush of water flowing under my vehicle and down the street. According to my Web research, the contractor struck a water main. I checked on my car a couple of times in the next hour, and when I watched the various trucks move out of the way to let another trapped car escape, and they gratefully let me back my car into the space thus vacated, I relaxed a little . . . until I tried to restart the car to adjust it again and the key wouldn't turn in the lock. I tried it a couple of times, then figured, between my stint at the fair, the time the city agencies would need to fix the leak, and the need to get back in to keep working the door, I wasn't going anywhere at the moment, I decided not to think about it.

Or did I? Between my wallet being a state away, and my car possibly being stuck, I already may have been on edge.

Not that I felt it for the bulk of the day. Which is why, when I took a seat next to the flexi-disc museum, and felt very conscious of my breathing, and a fullness in my chest, in addition to the continuing tachycardia, I started to worry. Naturally, like anyone near middle age with a spare tire, I began ticking off the symptoms of heart attacks. No pain in my chest, just that fullness. No sweating or chills. No pain anywhere else, especially not radiating through my jaw or arms. Of course, merely thinking about this list was making me jumpier, and I didn't need to find a vessel to know that my heart was still thumping away.

There was an alternative. Panic attacks run in my family. Though I don't believe the syndrome was popularly called "panic disorder" in the 1980s as much as it is today, both my mother and her father were treated for the symptoms I was experiencing. Their cases were much more severe, and they both received tranquilizer prescriptions . . . but not before both of them thought they were having heart attacks and had to wear tape-recorder-sized heart monitors to screen out possible cardiac causes.

I took a couple of breaks to air out my head in the chill November afternoon. Both times, I felt a little less panicky, though my pulse rate didn't drop much. I could breathe more easily, and my palms stopped the bit of sweating they were doing. I wasn't dizzy or nauseated or anything, and I didn't have the sort of sense of impending doom that both panic-disorder and infarct victims report.

What I was now consciously nervous about was my health cards being a state away and the reaction my parents might have to calling home about this. The license I was willing to gamble on not being pulled over while returning home, the money cards I didn't give a shit about, but the health card was quite different. In my slow slide into middle age, I've taken to bringing my health card with my driver's license to the gym. It's a second form of ID at minimum, and it reduces possible hassles at the hospital, to say nothing of its billing department. After hearing the process of determining a patient's insurance status as a wallet autopsy, I need that card to bypass red tape for me when I can't do it myself.

As for my parents, especially my still panic-vulnerable mother . . . all I'll say is that when my father's had to go into the hospital now and again, she's been a nervous wreck. The reaction to my admission might be a second admission that night. Not that I'd keep myself out of the hospital for that reason, but it would be something else weighing on me while riding in an ambulance or sitting in the ER.

The symptoms returned both times I resumed my duties, passing through thick masses of shoppers, dealers, and taggers-along in an increasingly hot and loud event hall. By 5:30, I decided to terminate this final, optional shift. I checked in with FMU staff (not giving the exact reasons why) and went straight to Duane Reade for a bottle of St. Joseph's baby aspirin. I flashed back to childhood sick days as I chewed up and dry-swallowed two on the return walk to the car. If this was the Big One, I at least wanted to open my vessels up just a bit before it hit in full force.

My condition was lessening by the time I reached my car, which was now unblocked. The key turned easily in the lock this time. I eased past the watery wound in the street, and, after consulting traffic radio, proceeded directly to the Lincoln Tunnel, Jersey, and home. My heartbeat, respiration, and chest pressure resolved themselves by the time I was through the tunnel, replaced by far more reasonable tiredness (from the early waking time, the dearth of sleep from the previous week, and the aftereffect of so much goddamn adrenaline in my system).

The ride back to my apartment took just under an hour, not too bad for that time of night. I felt for a pulse when I got out of the car, and took my difficulty in even locating it as a good sign. My lungs filled easily with refreshing autumn-night air. I wasn't dizzy, in pain, or sensing impending doom. Truthfully, I was beginning to wonder what the hell had gotten into me. I've been in big crowds — casinos, sports stadiums, packed trains, Lollapalooza — without panic before.

Could it have been the two coffees? I don't drink much more than a cup every 6 to 8 weeks or so. My usual caffeine dose is three cans of Diet Coke a day, at 34 or so mg of caffeine per can. Between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m., I had had probably about 30 oz. of coffee, containing around 500 mg, in addition to a 20-oz. Diet Coke in the morning and a large Chipotle cup of the shit with lunch. My symptoms were not dissimilar to those of what the dubious slough of Wikipedia dubs caffeine intoxication.

Either way, I was feeling much better, if concerned, as I entered my building's vestibule. I looked instinctively for mail and any packages, especially as I anticipated a replacement box of dishwashing soap from the folks at Seventh Generation.

What I found was a shipping box, opened, lined with packing material, from Seventh Generation, with my name as addressee.

This failed to register for a minute, then I picked up the nearly empty box, reinspected it, and came to the inescapable conclusion that someone had stolen my dishwashing soap. Even setting aside the possibility that the thief had no idea what Seventh Generation was, you'd think they would have left the box there upon discovering that the contents had no value beyond the kitchen, that it wasn't a blank hard drive or car stereo. No. They took it anyway.

The day had taken a hard turn into the ludicrous. But at least I wasn't dying, or at least not yet.

I knocked on the door of the resident manager to begin the reporting procedure. No reply. With the town municipal building in eyesight of my complex, I saw no reason not to file the police report right then. Hell, mail tampering is a Federal crime. So it was that I spent the next 15 minutes or so reporting the theft of my dishwashing soap.

As I suspected, there was little the police could immediately do. I figured this was most useful in getting the act on record, or adding it to an existing record, so a pattern would develop of any thefts in the building. Years ago, some fucking nutcase stole dozens of parcels over time from the vestibule. Rumor and truth may be mingling in my memory, but I recall reading a blotter report in the local paper describing the cops finding no utilities and lots of garbage in the perp's apartment, in addition to a dead letter office's worth of jacked FedEx and UPS boxes. But this person and our complex parted permanently thereafter.

The vestibule where parcels are dropped is not being a locked door. This could have been done by a passerby instead of a resident. After I heard about the nutcase, I had all Amazon and other gear sent to my workplace or my parents' house. Foolishly, I thought a box from Seventh Generation, marked as such obviously or not, that made sifty noises when inverted, would be safe. I was wrong.

With the theft on record, I returned home, still feeling good, not even feeling my blood pressure rise as something this intrusive and thoughtless might otherwise evoke, and tried the resident manager again. Nothing; no light in the peephole or from under the door. I will try again tomorrow and follow up by contacting the management company directly. The vestibule has a camera, which is rumored not to be hooked up to anything (it was billed as being closed circuit and accessible through our TVs, so the typically elderly residents here could scope callers, but this was bullshit), so either someone knew this and stole my soap anyway, or somehow didn't see it and was possibly captured on videotape. I should call the cops tomorrow to note the presence of the camera, if there's any chance this was recorded. I may have been out some soap, but the last thief got someone's golf club, not a cheap item. With the holidays coming, so will all manner of gifts, and if these packages don't arrive with a signature due, who knows how many will go missing?

So that's my day. I reported the same info to FedEx, probably only to the effect of getting Seventh Generation a refund on their postage and maybe a settlement claim (it wasn't their fault at all, and not really FedEx's fault, that this package was intercepted). I spent a little time on WebMD checking panic and MI symptoms and generally feeling asymptomatic, if, as I said, somewhat tired. That "somewhat" has become "very," and I will head to bed soon. I've rested my tender feet and had a protein shake with a banana, a cup of frozen blueberries, the rest of the green drink, and a scoop of whey, just to have something simple and healthful on my stomach, and it's been digesting without controversy while I've been writing.

If I feel jumpy at all when I awaken, I will regretfully call and email the gang at FMU to let them know why I've opted out. Nothing, not even the freeform station of the nation, is more important than my cardiac health. If I go, and there is any recurrence at all, I will jet. (My wallet is already under my keys so it doesn't stay behind tomorrow, whether I go to Chelsea or Valley Hospital.) I am very much looking forward to a longer sleep tonight, but even more to waking up tomorrow and setting the bizarre physiological and criminal-justice events of today completely behind me. I'll settle just for the waking-up part.

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