Before Gentrification

I don’t approve of gentrification. But the people who complain about it the most tend to have a romanticized notion of what pre-gentrified NYC was like. It was a hellhole. Their dark, poetic remembrances are just a fancy notion.


September 10, 1994

I have got to get out of this neighborhood. It’s a great apartment but if I stay here much longer I’ll get caught in crossfire. Last night I heard a lot of yelling and commotion in the alley. Someone yelled, “Get your fucking hands up!” I turned all the lights off and ran to the window. Four cops climbed over the barbed wire top of the fence and ran down the alley with their guns drawn.

There’s been a rash of ODs over the past few days because of some tainted heroin. The Times said the police traced the sales to Clinton and Rivington, a half block away. What a lovely distinction. They published a photo of my street and it looks like one of Dante’s more sinister levels of hell. The one reserved for child molesters or politicians.

They described Clinton as “A scruffy street on the Lower East Side. The area is lined with a hodgepodge of stores, ranging from a corner bodega to an abandoned matzoh factory. Men apparently down on their luck walked around with blank expressions.” Did the reporter see me walking home from work? Last night there was a seller yelling at the top of his lungs, “POISON! POISON! I GOT POISON” That’s probably the brand that’s killing junkies. Cindy and I were talking about it this morning. She’s amazed I was able to hear him in the back of the building. She’s in the front and said it goes on all night, every night.

I called a real estate agent and told her I have to find someplace else to live. By the end of the call she had me convinced that I’m lucky to be here. She told me horror stories about trying to find an apartment that’s both affordable and humane. I told her my apartment was rent controlled, 900 sq ft and less than $600/mo. She said that under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should I let it go, so I guess I won’t. But I hate it. It makes me hate me.

I was interviewed at an agency by a beautiful Greek girl. Maria Stolopoloplolopos or something like that. A dark, smoldering, hairy beauty. It’s for a project at Citibank. If they don’t place me I’m going ask her out. I was tested on some graphic software. It was hard but I think I did okay. The gig is in the Citicorp building about two levels below ground. A subbasement with no natural light or windows. It looks like a Kafkaesque hell. The money is good. Still, I kind of hope I failed the test.

[Note: I passed the test and got the assignment. It was as dreary as it sounds. You could hear the subways rumble by on the other side of the wall. I don’t remember if I dated the Greek girl.]

I’m halfway through Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick. He’s such a compelling writer. I wish I could write half as well. I read stuff like this and I know there’s no hope for a poseur like me.

I saw Klinger perform at LaMaMa on Saturday night. He was okay. He’s such a generic white guy that I don’t understand why he hasn’t been picked up by a soap. He’s good looking in that clean, Midwestern, heterosexual sort of way. Afterwards, I went out for drinks with the cast and crew and had a very nice time. I like hanging around actors and actresses right after they get off the stage. Depending on how the audience responded, they’re either on fire with euphoria or they’re suicidal. Klinger tells everyone I write, which bothers me because it isn’t true.

The actress that Klinger is trying to set me up with was there—Lauren. He made sure we sat next to each other. She’s pretty. Blonde, blue eyes and a nice mouth. I think she might be pushing 40, though. In addition to acting, she also “coaches people,” whatever the hell that is. Afterwards, I asked Klinger what that meant and he couldn’t provide a clear explanation. I was the only person at a table of nine not smoking. The bar was like a gas chamber that served vodka tonics. My clothes stank when I got home.

Lauren spent a lot of time telling me that I should CONFRONT the FEARS that are HOLDING ME BACK and make it impossible for me to achieve SUCCESS and find true and long-lasting HAPPINESS. So that was WEIRD. I wanted to shut her up by kissing her pretty mouth. Actresses are wonderful and flakey. I just love them. I’ll bet she’s a pistol in bed. She asked for my number and said she would call to further discuss my BLOCKS. I gave it to her but doubt I’ll ever hear from her.

While typing that last sentence she called. We’re having brunch on Wednesday. How about that? Brunch. Christ.

theboysThat’s me on the right. I met those two yokels right around the time of this entry, 20+ years ago. I remember they were reluctant to visit my apartment on Clinton St. (with good reason). This pic was taken just last week. Even after a long absence from seeing each other, we can sit in a rooftop bar in Manhattan and pick up the conversation thread that started in 1994 as if there hadn’t been a break at all. Christopher Hitchens is right:

“A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can’t make old friends.”

94 thoughts on “Before Gentrification

  1. I love that quote at the bottom. How sweet you got to see your old friends again and could pick up right where you left off. So, that neighborhood you once lived in has changed now, right? But living there has given you all these vast experiences! You can say you lived through all this, you survived! And you do too write. I’m thinking about your night out with the theatrical crowd and being smoked out. I wonder if that’s changed. I wonder if the actress with the pretty mouth is now a certified life coach…

    • You only get a few pals like that in life. A handful if you’re lucky.

      I’ll say the neighborhood has changed. I couldn’t afford to live there if I wanted to. It’s all trust fund kids and hedge fund miscreants. A whole new world. That wasn’t the first time I blazed a trail for upper-middle class white people.

      At least now I know what a life coach is. At the time, I thought she was hitting on me but she was probably just looking for clients. Too bad. She might have been able to help me.

      • Yeah, friends like that are like family members, only you chose them. I guess that might have been the early life coach years. She may not have realized she was even looking for clients. I wouldn’t mind a life coach, but I probably wouldn’t want to pay for one. The bright side is that your mistakes are yours alone. If you didn’t have them think of all the missed learning opportunities you gave yourself, free of charge.

      • As I was first reading this entry, I thought to myself, maybe if I had just listened to her psycho-babble, I’d be a writer today. And, I’m sorry, but this…what we’re doing here…doesn’t count. It just doesn’t. We’ll never know.

      • Writing is up to you. That’s the hard thing about it. But…it is possible. Know that it is and I think you could do it. You’ve got it in you!

  2. I don’t know why I love these so much. This is not my life. This is not my beautiful house. But anyway, I smiled all the way to the end, including the pic of you and your buddies. I saw a pal of mine this summer I hadn’t seen in 25 years. He stuck out his hand. I hugged him. It was a big step, but there are people in your lives even a non-hugger has to hug.

  3. Hobnobbing with actors and actresses. Fancy! Any famous ones? (Look at me asking for name-dropping.)

    Your former neighborhood sounds like what I watch in my cop dramas. I’m currently working through ‘Southland,’ and although it takes place in LA, I imagine the experiences are much the same.

    • I don’t remember any of them, truthfully. I wish I could tell you I was great pals with someone famous but I’m just regular. My friend Austin went on a couple of dates with Mary Louise Parker. Does that count for anything?

      My former neighborhood was so bad that I wouldn’t allow my family to visit. I didn’t want them to see how I was living. I was ashamed. Plus, I didn’t want them to get shot while vacationing, although, at that time, you could almost expect it if you came to NYC.

      • Mary Louise Parker? Sure that counts for something. Loved ‘Weeds.’

        I used to live in a horrible sleeping room. Granted it wasn’t New York City, but it was not a good neighborhood. But it was all I could afford. I never wanted my family to visit either; didn’t want them to see it. Once my sister came. She described the hell to my grandmother, and my grandma never stopped bringing it up after that. Even long after I’d found better housing.

      • He stopped seeing her because she was “too clingy.” That was a long, long, LONG time ago. She can cling to me anytime she wants.

        NYC doesn’t have an exclusive on bad neighborhoods. Living in a dive is a rite of passage. I think everyone should do it…as long as nobody gets hurt in the process. It can provide you with perspective. But at some point you have to put all that behind you. It’s debilitating.

  4. I lived in an area in DC as it was being gentrified. It was strange, because the folks who’d lived there all along were still alive — where do folks go when the “gents” come on in?

    I’ve known a few “Life Coaches” in my time. They never seem to have their shit together, I don’t know why they want to bother with mine!

    Love these old entries.

    • After the neighborhood flipped, one by one, everyone in my building sold out. Including me. We were exhausted by then and had seen just about enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.

      All I wanted to do was make out with that life coach but she just kept yammering on and on with these cliches I could read in any dime store self help book. Honestly, at this late date, I don’t even recall what she looks like.

      • What’s wrong with doing things purely for the joy of writing? i write shit all the time that goes in a folder that no one will ever see, call me Franz if you like, some is for the boyos and some is purely for the mental exercise and for entertaining myself, we are a culture obsessed with fame and adulation, look around the blogosphere and see all the bullshit on branding and selling yourself, i comprehend the need but i don’t really understand it, now back to the cave…

  5. You guys look so “New York” to me in that photo. No one wears grays and blacks and frames like that, or white hair. It’s all good. Really savoring these stories. Reminds me of a dark chapter of my life, taking a bus to alphabet city with a map drawn on a napkin to buy some bad drugs. I’m going to write about it some day. Have already. But you know, really WRITE about it. Ha! I get the coach thing too, and the need for caps.

    • Well, only one of those in the pic is New York anymore. The one in the middle is Barcelona and I’m… well… New Jersey.

      Alphabet city is a different story now. Take a bus there and you’ll hardly recognize the joint. Isn’t that the oldest story in the book? I’m not even sure you can still score drugs there anymore. That’s what high rent does to a place.

  6. I’ve lived in several “pre-gentrified” neighborhoods. It didn’t feel cool to be there at the time. Coolness came later, when I could say, I lived at the corner of Blank and Blank and paid $110 a month for a one-bedroom. Mouths agape. “And you LEFT?!”

  7. So New York is completely gentrified now? Including Harlem and the Bronx? That’s fine for us tourists – you can put all the nasty stuff in museums!

    You should have kissed Lauren. I hope you now realise that pushing 40 is a great age for many women!

    • Wealthy white corporate drones are buying up brownstones in Harlem. It’s hard to believe but it’s true. Professional blacks are also moving in in equal numbers. Harlem is fast becoming integrated. Go ahead and try to stop progress. Just you try!

      Are you kidding? I only WISH I was pushing 40. What an arrogant little prick I was. Well, look where it got me.

  8. I haven’t lived in any neighborhoods that became gentrified, either because where I lived was either more or less mid-range already, or still not desirable enough for gentrification. So I don’t have any of those “why did you move out, you could’ve been rich” stories. But that’s exactly the reason why people don’t stay: so you moved out of a cheap place in a hellhole – but how can you possibly know if the place gets gentrified in 20, or just deteriorates further?
    Or, an easier counter-question would be “Well, why didn’t YOU buy Apple shares 20 years ago? They were cheap, too, and you didn’t even have to risk getting shot by holding on to them”.

    • The Lower East Side was the second neighborhood that gentrified around me. I lived in two neighborhoods in Brooklyn that also were not-so-desirable when I got there but flipped economically by the time I left. I had no foreknowledge. I simply took the apartments that were available that I could afford. It was all LUCK.

      I have a guy who manages the tiny amount of money I’ve been able to accumulate. Years ago, after the tech bubble burst, he called me and said I should get in on this Google thing. It was $32/share. We all have those turned-your-back-on-greatness stories to tell.

      • I honestly can’t remember any of my turned-my-back-on-greatness stories. Either I’m yet to experience one, or I’m really good at blocking them from my memory.

      • OR you are up to your neck in greatness as we speak and you don’t see it because, for all intents and purposes, what qualifies as greatness for everyone else is merely normal for you.

        How was that?

  9. UNBLOCK your FEARS! You can do it! You ARE a writer! GET PUBLISHED NOW!

    So true about old friends. Whenever I get together with my little group of middle school friends, we all suddenly feel like we’re 12 again and start giggling like mad (to be honest, I’m actually like this every day…)

    • There’s a dark sexiness to say I’m haunted with fears. Fears that if I try to get published I’ll fail. Fears I’ll succeed. But the truth is less attractive. I think it’s because I’m just so bloody lazy. Writing for publication looks like a lot of work. And it could all be for naught. I’d love a larger audience for my blog but am so lazy I don’t do anything to encorage it. No Facebook page. No Twitter account. Nothin’. It isn’t attractive.

      My daughter is in middle school and I think about how the friends she’s making right now might be her friends for life. I think about it ALL THE TIME. I want her with a good group of girls but I’m powerless to do anything about it.

      • You and I are cut from the same cloth. Rejection is hard enough to cope with, but if I’m rejected over something I really care about, for instance, a manuscript I spent eight months on, I’ll lose it.

        I would suggest that you and I form a support group to provide encouragement not to be so damn lazy but, you guessed it, I’m too lazy to take the initiative.

      • I want to join the Too-lazy-to-write-a-book-which-is-just-as-well-because-it-would-probably-get-rejected-and-I’d-feel-even-more-insecure Support Group. I’m so motivated I’ll pick up a bottle of wine on the way to the meeting.

      • You can join as a charter member. The three of us will sit around drinking wine and get nothing done, but have a fine time doing it. Are you going to eventually collect your columns into a book? It works for Dave Berry.

  10. I have to say I have few deep close old friends. I’ve spent a long time in my life avoiding people getting too close to me. I know deep down this was to avoid the obligation that they might actually need me at some point or that I might need them and they let me down and I’d get hurt in either case. However I have now forged a few lifelong friends and they are ones where the conversation just continues even if punctuated by long periods of silence.

  11. Old friends are special and they can take you right back to the beginning reminding you of who you were then.
    Americans and their life coaching 🙂 Actually, I spend a fair bit of time chatting to friends from the U.S. now, and perhaps the positivity is making me less of a jaded old baggage 🙂

    • Old friends know that you’re a fool but they forgive you for it. There’s nothing more generous than that.

      I thought life coaches were a big joke at the time but who knows? Had I taken their advice I may have made something of myself. Don’t let American optimism creep under your skin. Nothing good can come of that.

    • I don’t think I have any pix but I’ll look around. They’d have to be awfully flattering in order for me to post them. If they’re hideous I’ll send them to you off-line and you’d better not post them at your place.

  12. When I moved to the infinitely safer Upper West Side in 1983, it was like a Disney movie compared to what you endured on the Lower East Side, but it sure wasn’t safe up here then like it is now. Where I live is even more gentrified today. 32 years ago, there were a lot of homeless people living in Riverside Park. For the first seven years I lived here, my building got burglarized regularly (my apartment was hit twice; I even had the door kicked in once). Homeless people would crap in the outside vestibule and I recall finding a junkie passed out in that same vestibule, too, on a freezing cold winter night. Several mornings on my way to work, I would see this strung out woman, who I could tell had once been attractive, about my own age soliciting men. I had a feeling that she was ill with AIDS. Guys could not get away from her fast enough. She had totally bottomed out and was living on the streets. I wondered about her story, how she sunk so low, but I never talked to her. Then, one day she disappeared. I assumed that she died. I also recall walking up 72nd Street on my way to the train when something caught my eye. It was the glowing eyes of a filthy, naked man, clad only in a piece of carpet, standing deep in the back of the doorway of a closed business. That was a very haunting site. It was such different times back then. But, I viewed what was going on then as normal. Now, I’d be outraged. I think I’ve reached that point in life where I’ve become my mother.

    It’s very true that with one’s core friends you can endure a prolonged absence, but when you hook up, you take up where you last left off. You just develop a long line of credit with each other. You look very comfortable in the company of your posse.

    • 1983 was pretty rough going, even in the supposedly ‘nice’ naibs. The city was still flat on its ass. I think I moved to Cobble Hill around ’86 or so, then to Ft. Greene a year or two later and, finally, to the LES around ’93. You had feces in your vestibule! We did, too! We didn’t know who did it but we called him ‘the shitter.’ One day it just stopped. Rumor is that the building super got sick of cleaning it up, waited for him, and beat the crap out of him. It was pretty rough trade back then. Definitely a young person’s game. It’s unimaginable now with the gleaming glass towers that are sprouting up on Ludlow Street. It paid off in the end, thought. See email to you.

      I have a couple of friends that go back even further than those guys. Friends I made when I was 15, 16 years old. Now, there’s more time behind us than in front of us. So sad and not just a little scary.

      • I think the EXACT same thing about time running out. My last surviving forebear, a 91-year-old uncle, died two weeks ago. Now it’s truly my siblings and cousin on the front line. Ugh. When the hell did us members of the Pepsi Generation get so old? I don’t even like Pepsi and my epic gastrointestinal issues prevent me from drinking it. Further proof that I’m not the cat I used to be to paraphrase your fellow Ohioan, Ms. Hynde. Will get to your email later. Gotta sacrifice my life to The Grind shortly. That’s been equal to going to hell this week, it’s been so stressful and chaotic.

      • “We’re on the front line” – SO true. I know intellectually that the generation before me is not standing shoulder to shoulder, blocking Death from getting at me, and it’s not like I WANT them to get got, in any case, but still. Can’t rid my mind of the picture of all the soldiers in the front line going down, and there I am in the back, newly exposed.

        Jeez, that sounds self-serving.

      • I don’t know if it was all that self-serving. It seems a natural reaction to the *ahem* aging process. I feel it, too, even though I’ve got young kids. (Caveat: I’m a much older dad. My friends back home all have kids out of college.) If it’s your want to be self-serving, you’ve certainly come to the right place.

  13. It’s always fascinating to see photographs of people someone’s been talking about. Thanks.

    About post-show drinks — I have never, even on drugs, had the feeling of exhilaration and euphoria after a successful show. We did a Dickens thing last year and one night — the last night — went particularly well. We went to the pub opposite and it must have sounded like we’d had had half an ounce of coke each. You couldn’t shut us up. That must be what actors and actresses live for.

    • You say you’ve never felt a boost after a show but then go on to describe just that. Is that the only time it ever happened to you? I used to see it with bands, too, who had a particularly strong set. Sometimes I think performers enjoy their secret off-stage world more than on stage. There’s a brotherhood between them.

      • Sorry, that got totally mangled. I meant to say… “I have never, even on drugs, had such a feeling of exhilaration and euphoria as one gets after a successful show.”

        You’re right about the secret brother and sisterhood is true too. I’ve only been on the edges of it, but you can see how they end up “lovey” and overly sensitive.

      • Ah. Now you’re making some sense. I was in a show once, IN FACT, it was with those two guys in the photo with me. The guy on the far left wrote it. It was a comedy we did at a cabaret and I had the best time. A small community forms, gets close and then disbands after the run. I can see how actors and actresses fall in love while filming a movie.

  14. Years ago when i cared i wrote a post about gentrification in PIttsburgh and was crucified for suggesting it wasn’t always the best thing… as for the actor/actress set you have more patience than me, usually found them highly annoying, i used to attend a party (at a place that made Spin? Magazines best parties in the country list years back) filled with actors/actresses, i drank fast, took their money at the poker table and usually left with in an hour or so, then again we’re all actors aren’t we? though i was always disappointed by the actresses in the sack, the painters/writers/sculptors were always more honest and fun, that’s just a personal preference, once again a fine entry from the past… and it’s funny how the smack might change but the stamp bag names remain the same…

    • I especially love when actors talk about a character they’re playing like it’s an actual person. Someone needs to remind them that it’s JUST PRETEND. I also like when they refer to acting as “my craft.” Yes, blowhards abound in every industry, but none are more entertaining or detached from the real world like those in the acting community. (Academics come very close.)

      My experience with actresses in bed were uniformly great. Maybe they were just honing their improvisational skills but that’s okay with me, It was great.

      Every time a new shipment of heroin would come in the naib they’d give it a new name. It’s all about marketing. The horrible/ironic thing is that when a certain brand would kill junkies, they’d all seed that out for its supposed purity and more of them would die.

    • Thanks! Who doesn’t love a compliment? I sure do. These journals are a constant source of joy—almost. I come across some passages that were forgotten for a reason. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to suffer the pain of rememberance for you guys because I need the eggs. (Old joke.)

  15. I think you can write. I don’t know of many people whose journals I’d want to read, but you’re one of them.

    Btw, great white hair. You may have more years behind you than in front of you, but you’re wearing it well.

    • That’s two compliments in one comment. And I thought it was going to be just another dull Thursday night. THANKS. I often whine about my white hair but I guess I’m glad it’s still there. It can turn purple for all I care. As long as it stays rooted.

    • Thank you but, do you know what? It wasn’t crack. It was heroin, and that makes a tremendous difference. Crack addicts are violent. Junkies are passive. I’m not kidding. The neighborhoods that had crack epidemics were far more violent than the ones with heroin addicts. I guess, in that way, I was kind of lucky.

    • You would fit right in. That chap in the middle tried his hand and acting for a while and the one on the left wrote plays. What a great soup that would’ve been.

      I was in that apartment for 10 years. It was a much, much different place when I left than when I arrived. A shocking transformation that I never could’ve imagined. Now, it’s all trust fund kids and financiers.

  16. Hi Mark! Interesting recollections as always! That’s great that you stay in touch with those guys! I know that takes effort – life can become so busy, and if you let it consume you, before you know it you can easily lose touch. One of my best friends from high school is coming from Florida for a visit in Oct. The last time I saw her was at a reunion (which I could write an entire post on…) and that’s been 5 years ago now – which seems like yesterday! I think I just self -validated the point I was making here! lol The air show is this weekend!!! The Thunderbirds are performing for the first time in 4 years, as well as a Harrier demo, and of course, The Jet Truck!!!

    • Good morning, Kelly. As always, nice to see you.

      It’s especially hard to keep track of those guys when one of them moves to Barcelona! That yokel in the middle lives lives in Spain. But that chemistry never dies, does it? And I think that’s exactly what it is—chemical. You only get a handful of people like that throughout your life. Don’t lose them!

      Is the air show still at Burke Lakefront Airport? Or are they holding it somewhere else these days? I went to a few of those when I lived there. Fond memories.

      • Good Morning to you as well! Sorry I forgot my manners earlier…I wonder how much your friend likes living in Spain! I think I told you I lived in Madrid for a summer. Traveled to Barcelona as well. But I would never want to live there unless I had to for some reason. Yes – the air show is at Burke Lakefront. We take the Rapid down to avoid traffic. Going on Monday, since that’s the best weather day. If you’ve never seen the Jet Truck, which really makes me sound like a redneck since I recently saw the demolition derby, look it up on YouTube. (It’s really my teenage son who is into all of this stuff – really) Anyway, the Harrier will be the star of the show this year – it really is thrilling to see this stuff in person!

      • He loves Barcelona. He lived in London for several years and then move there to teach English. Wild horses couldn’t drag him away.

        Yeah, sure. Blame your teenage son. That’s convenient. Sometimes, there’s no fun like redneck fun. Have you ever been to Dragway 42 in Medina to see the dragsters? Is that still around? U.S.A.!!

  17. I’ve worked in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for the past 10 years, and the changes, they keep on coming. I live in the Bronx, where it seems fairly unchanged. Which could be refreshing; but the thing is, I get tired of folks a generation or two older than me constantly saying, “Oh, at least that’s still a nice section of the Bronx.” That sadly just seems like code for…

    • As far as gentrification is concerned, I think Williamsburg has it tougher than the Lower East Side does. I’m not sure what makes me feel that way but I do. I’ve visited Peter Luger’s twice a year for as many years as I can think back and I remember when that walk from the train to the restaurant used to scare the hell out of me. Not anymore.

  18. I’ve been remiss in both reading and writing, so it’s all about catching up today. the comment about buying apple stock made me laugh because the MITM was just talking about that the other night how he passed on it, too. *shrug* his point (a long conversation over too many bottles of wine) was not wanting to miss an opportunity again. my reaction was slightly different. but then, i tend to be a tad bit more thoughtful after a night of drinking and conversation.

    you’re a good man, sweetpea. xoxoxox

  19. I wonder what happened to all the junkies?

    My son’s wife has friends in Williamsburg, when the go to visit them they worry about their clothes.

    • The junkies. The homeless. They all disappeared for a while. No one knows where they put them. But the homeless are starting to return. The junkies…they’re still gone.

      Williamsburg is the high-rent district. Fun place to be, which is why it’s the high end district.

  20. i got my hands on our mutual buddy the next week… we took him for a ride in Studley’s plane, and he even flew it for a bit… you were worried that you’d lost the friendship, but with him it’s easy to just pick it up again after YEARS of being off and about living your own life. some people can’t make that happen, but he’s got a gift for it…

    • I wish I could’ve been in the plane with you guys! Except for when he was flying it. I love the guy but that seems kind of dangerous.

      There’s a chemistry with some people that never dies. If you don’t mind my saying so, I think you and I have a little bit of it in our blood. Lotsa years between us.

      • He did a great job, and instructor Studley knows what he’s doing… dual controls, minimal risk!

        Yeah. Connections last… i’ve never been one who needs constant contact with friends, and am still wired to the girls i grew up with 50 years ago. We always pick it up like it was yesterday…

        Sometimes? No strong connection, but you’re kinda like a brother. Will try to get back to NYC next year! This year was a travel-palooza for me!

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