You never know..

Lunch

I met a friend for lunch the other day. Well not really a friend, I had only met her once before. So when I arrived at the restaurant I wasn’t sure if she was the one at a table in the far corner.  Reading the menu, her face was down. The hostess smiled at me as I perused the place.  Just then the woman at the table in the corner looked up and waved.  It was her. I smiled and waved as if, of course I recognized her and had just that minute walked in, arranging my scarf from the outside breeze.

We had met the week before at an art gallery; she and her husband were looking at a 19th century landscape and the husband started speaking about the provenance and how much it fetched at auction last year. He owned one by this artist but wasn’t sure of it’s authenticity, tho nonetheless, he liked his painting. We continued talking about the show and the art scene in New York in general  They used to own a gallery and had much of their inventory hanging on the walls of their apartment, they said. Come over for drinks, they said.

I love checking out [judging] people’s apartments so I said I’d love to. The next week on an unusually warm evening, I headed uptown to their apartment, a large and unassuming white brick high-rise. I arrived a tad after 6:30 (arriving on time, apparently, is something only old people do.)  The doorman announced my arrival and sent me up to the apartment in the elevator.  The door opened and they welcomed me into their small living space/art gallery, every wall covered with beautifully framed masterpieces.  We hugged (obligatory these days.)  The apartment was illuminated by a row of windows with early evening views of the city. I had to just stand there and take it all in. Save for the hundreds of thousands of dollars of art on the walls and a New York skyline view, it was quite modest. Aside from the unseen bedroom and bath, the place could be taken in with one glance.  Paintings were everywhere, displayed in rows, one piece on top of another, all with little gold plaques indicating title and artist.  We talked a bit and the husband poured us all a glass of Italian wine (the vineyard which they had visited, of course), and we noshed on cheeses and crackers and other interesting snacks from beautifully arranged plates. The man was excited for me to savor each piece in their collection, as we visited each one and he revealed the cost and current price and how they were acquired.  We all picked our favorites. It was a lovely New York evening and she and I agreed to meet for lunch soon. 

The next week at lunch, splitting a turkey club sandwich, she and I talked as if we’d been friends forever. She and her husband had a solid marriage and enjoyed each other. I envied her status: upper east side apartment, lots of money, traveling all over to buy and sell art, investing in beautiful objects, collecting fine wines. How happy and satisfied she must be, I thought. She has it all.  Over the next hour, tho, I learned her life was far more complicated, far less perfect. It really threw me and I realized I totally (mis)judged her life by her fabulous possessions.  She had tears in her eyes and thanked me for being there and listening. I told her I’d be here if she needed to talk.

I think we all mistakenly think everyone is more successful, has more, makes more.  We walk among the crowds of people, good looking, well dressed, smiling, ..they must be happy, right?  For many, their reality is dark, and sadly, only they live in this darkness. It’s such a harsh world, a lot of hate out there lately. Time to be kind, ask people how they’re feeling and listen fully. That cranky bodega guy may have a lot on his mind, and people rush in and out of his shop without a word.  A few kind words and a smile can’t really change lives but it’s a start. 

Sleeping Around

The noise machine plays static, what they call “Rain” tho it sounds more like a dripping faucet. I used it last night but I don’t really need it much anymore. It’s quiet here, very quiet until the early morning when the neighborhood starts to wake and an occasional car zooms past. Three years ago, I lived in an apartment that had no windows in the bedroom. There was a giant sliding barn door closing it off from the light of the oversized windows in the next room. I’d never seen a bedroom with no windows. But as I got used to the total darkness I really liked it. It was the silence that was foreign to me. The loft was on a cul de sac and even though it was completely urban there were no sounds. It was so quiet I needed a noise machine just to cut through that strange silence. From that silent haven I moved to a lovely neighborhood in Brooklyn, where my bedroom windows were just a short distance from honking and horn blasting and semi downshifting on the expressway. Despite the noise, I liked my little apartment, except for the occasional giant water bug that would come from nowhere and suddenly be at my feet.

I’m in a new place now, with no bugs. The neighborhood is quieter, there is a different kind of of culture. Things are cheaper, I don’t spend $4.00 on an avocado. There are some hipsters here, and people who look like me, but mostly the neighborhood has held onto its identity and it is still eastern European. There are bakeries who’s names have lots of consonants, markets with wooden fruit bins outside, and, like many New York neighborhoods, a non-homogeneous population. I like it. I am a minority here, a native English speaker. I live on a lovely block of 3-story brick Renaissance Revival row houses with bay windows. It is a designated historic district so I guess no one can build some crazy structure on the outside of their home or brick up the windows or anything. They all look pretty similar and sometimes walking back from the train, I can’t tell which one is mine right away.

Across the back patio there is a 6-story apartment building about 50 yards beyond, mushroom color painted over the brick. The fire escapes have some peeling paint and little trails of rust stains on the bricks make it look a little seedy. At night some of the windows have a warm, yellow glow. There are no window coverings at this time of the evening, twilight. That will come later. But for now we all enjoy a furtive glimpse of one another, yet there is no voyeurism. We feel connected, safe in our own space yet present to the daily rituals of our neighbors. There is the woman and her husband on the floor above mine, every night cooking dinner and having animated conversation. Her blonde hair reminds me of one of those cigarette ads in the old Life magazines. I imagine she is wearing pedal pushers. Her waist is tiny and she always wears a little belt. She frequently looks out the window at me, with a cocktail in her hand. I’m having a cocktail too, and glance up briefly. Above their apartment, there is harsh light from an old, round florescent ceiling fixture and the windows have sheer polka dot curtains. A kitty lives here and likes to sit on the sill in the sunshine. In the early evenings, the building has the look of an Edward Hopper painting. His dark underpainting and flat colors illuminate the stark beauty and highlight urban loneliness. Someone once said about Hopper’s work that ‘even a buzzing city doesn’t remedy isolation, but heightens it.’

We moved to this house only a month ago. There will soon be a grandchild here. I’m curious about the sex, but the parents don’t seem concerned. So we will just have to wait. Never dreaming of being a grandmother, I’ve arrived at this place with unexpected delight. I’ve already checked out the toddler activities at the library 2 blocks away. There will be challenges for the parents, raising a child in New York. Carrying a stroller down the subway stairs, for one thing. E.B. White wrote in his book Here is New York, “the city is uncomfortable and inconvenient; but New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience – if they did they would live elsewhere.” A New York childhood –less grass, the constant chaos of traffic. but growing up in one of the most diverse cities on earth, she will learn to be inclusive and tenacious. She will learn to live closely with others who come from very different backgrounds. I’m looking forward to all the good things. And I won’t wake when the baby cries in the middle of the night. I will be two floors away with my noise machine.

friends across the way

 

Just Off Madison

A Sotheby's Auction

I came across these two well-dressed gentlemen several times during an evening of gallery hopping called “Just off Madison” (billed as an Open House of American Art at Private Art Dealers) on the Upper East Side.

 

I’m walkin’ here…

I try not to be impatient (ok, who am I kidding..) but geez, It’s crowded here.

With so many people in this city, we have some unwritten ‘rules.’ Train etiquette, for example. No smelly food. No stopping at the top of the stairs to see where you are..get outta the way. And Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, for gosh sake. The same for sidewalk etiquette. Don’t come to a dead stop to check your phone. No texting while walking. Scooters only allowed from 1-3 pm (so that’s not a rule but it should be.) Sidewalks need lane markers – cellphone lane, scooter lane, tourist lane – but until city works steps up, how about some common sense? My old Minneapolis neighborhood, with brewpubs and artist studios, usually felt pretty deserted; an old man with his old dog, a mail carrier, perhaps…a couple cars. We don’t need sidewalk lanes. NYC is very different, no matter what the time of day. In the morning, shopkeepers greet each other, sweep their sidewalks and get ready for the day, the sidewalks are full of business people, there are a few souls just getting home from the night before, taking the walk of shame. Lots of parents walk their kids to school, too, which I like to see, but on these morning walks, I’m always leaping aside for them as they spill over the entire walk. Granted, the sidewalks are narrow in places, but as parents we teach our kids manners. How’re they gonna learn? Like, “stay to the right.” It’s important to learn that stuff when you live in a big city. I mean, why should I walk into a tree because an entire family, including two kids on scooters is taking up the whole sidewalk? What if I walked around with a huge, open umbrella and everyone just had to get the hell out of my way?

No question about it, growing up in New York has to be great: The Met, Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, The Bronx Zoo. And unlike kids who live in the suburbs of flyover land and get chauffeured everywhere, New York kids learn how to cope with adversity and make smart decisions. They’re not afraid. They learn important life skills (like how to give detailed subway directions to tourists, or where to get the best street food.) New York kids, in general, are cool. New York parents…well, sometimes overindulgent and hesitant to hand out all-important life lessons so as not to dampen their child’s imagination. Last week I was headed down the stairs in the subway, eager to make my train, behind an over-eager parent using this moment as a learning experience – letting her toddler walk down the stairs during rush hour (which, in New York, is pretty much all the time). With mom holding her hand, this little girl in her cute flowered leggings was trying hard to reach her plump little leg down to the next stair, and, of course, a line of people had formed behind her. I mean, as a parent myself I ask, wouldn’t you notice that!? Sneaking down the left side of the stairs wasn’t an option – a throng of commuters was hurriedly heading up. ‘Good job, Madison!’ (Kids here all have unusual names.) Madison makes it down and her mother gets the side eye from those of us who were detained for the last 10 minutes (ok, 3).

As an aside, I might mention that my now grown daughters were wonderful, well mannered children. People told me that after meeting my girls, they decided to have kids, assured that children are cool and wouldn’t completely ruin their lives. We taught our kids that their behavior impacts other people. We taught empathy: you wouldn’t like it so don’t kick the backs of seats in front of you; hold the door open for others; and, stay to the right so you don’t take up the whole sidewalk. Gotta teach ’em basic rules for living in the city.

I admit that with all the lines and the crowds, this city really does run amazingly well. There will always be toddlers walking down subway stairs, and there will always be people who insist on walking on the left of the sidewalk. To that end, and to help the city run smoothly, I believe someone (that would be me) ought to keep order when I’m able. “Stay to the right!” I instruct those drifting into my lane. My teachable moment. Of course I try hard to smile and not scold, because, y’know, maybe they were never taught.

subway blog

You’ll Never Walk Alone (ok, maybe sometimes..)

The year my dad moved out, my mom gave me one pair of wool pants for Christmas. Of course, being a kid, I was utterly disappointed, but I figured we didn’t have much money. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. We lived in a small, old house on a block with other old houses.  There were only a couple other kids who lived in the neighborhood and since I was too shy to join their games, I played by myself. I had my own bedroom and the bathroom was in the basement, which always seemed very chilly. It had a little square shower. I found it too creepy though, because I saw centipedes there once.  

Being an only child was unusual in the small catholic school I had to attend. I was pretty sure the nuns hated me because I came from a single parent home. Divorce was a sin and my mother the sinner. Thus, I was also.  I admired kids who had two parents. Mary lived on the other side of the tracks, where the professors at the university rented big, beautiful homes. She was one of 7 children and her dad was a successful owner of a foundry. He seemed to be home a lot, reading his paper and actually laughing and conversing with his kids. There were cookies and milk in the kitchen after school and her mom wore one of those crispy aprons with bright red apple designs on it. She was like June Cleever.  I loved going over after school, even though it meant a couple mile walk back home.  My mom wasn’t waiting with cookies when I got home. She left for work at 6 in the morning and got back around 4 and was very tired.  I was alone most of the time. I would pretend I had lots of brothers. We all watched tv and talked and laughed.

Some people avoid being alone, but I’m used to my own company.  I play well with others but I’ve convinced myself that I like being alone just fine, thanks. The art of aloneness is well played here in New York and is normal. Some days, though, I’m convinced everyone in the city is paired up. I saw two rats meandering down the F train rails together yesterday…even the rats here have significant others.  A great irony about living in New York is feeling so distant when there are six million people all around you, like a Hopper painting where lonely, isolated souls seem to search for a sense of connection. Earlier this summer I was walking through Washington Square Park, an urban oasis with street musicians, jugglers, mimes, people spray painted to look like statues.  A saxaphone player and a guy with a small set of drums set up on the edge of a wide sidewalk and started playing. Heads turned. People stopped. Some sat on one of the many benches that line the walk, some talked with each other, with strangers. For a brief time, none of us was alone, we had a community and a connection. After awhile, people wandered off for some other places, new people drawn to the music became a part of the little tribe.

New York has many monikers: Big Apple, The City That Never Sleeps, The City So Nice They Named It Twice. It’s also been called The Lonely City. It can be. But it can also challenge you to look for and accept the many possibilities for connecting with strangers. I’ve been doing this alone thing for a long time.  I’ve discovered this is the perfect city for it.

 

Let Us Merge

I got an email from someone in Minnesota the other day about driving in the Twin Cities. He sent an article on road construction and the art of merging from two lanes to one.  I laughed out loud, remembering the scourge of the Minnesota driver.  “Remember the zipper merge,” the article states.  “Use both lanes until it’s time to merge.”  This means nothing to a Minnesotan. We have our own system – The Minnesota Merge. Use both lanes until its time to merge means MERGE NOW!! Slam on your brakes, wait for a space, and sidle over into the other lane.

car

Starting at birth, the article goes on, Minnesotans are conditioned to be passive aggressive. Indeed, the zipper merge hasn’t caught on because it appears as if Driver A, by merging, is breaking some unwritten societal rule, and Driver B, who should allow the merge, displays his disapproval of this by not letting Driver A into the lane. It’s all completely understandable to people who grew up in this state.

Visitors to Minneapolis quickly find out that people drive kind of crazy. Another of many unstated rules:  “If 30 mph is safe, then 25 is safer!”  You creep down the street behind someone like this, and as you approach the intersection, the signal turns yellow and that horse and buggy that was going 25 suddenly floors it and zips through the light. And there you are. There isn’t the degree of honking that there is here in New York, but I don’t think that would make a difference. Minnesota drivers don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.

I’ve driven a bit in New York. Frankly, I like the aggressive stance most people here take. Maybe I’m a New York driver at heart. Driving in downtown Minneapolis traffic, I was aware of the large gap people leave between cars. “Mind the gap, people!!” I’d scold (in the safety of my own car). “Let’s go here!” The gap here in New York can be, oh, 6 inches. Not particularly safe, I agree, but we have to get someplace and of course, didn’t allow ourselves enough time to do it.  I am a fan of cars, but I do love the fact that here in New York, lots of people don’t even own one, or for that matter, know how to drive. I can’t picture myself never driving again. I still have my little car, parked in Minneapolis, and when I go back I love the solitude of driving. My coffee, a snack, and my music, which keeps me sane and helps me cope with even the dumbest drivers.  By the way, have you ever noticed when you’re going the speed limit it’s a good thing, but when the car in front of you pokes along at the posted speed, he’s an idiot? No, I haven’t either. It’s all good…