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.

 

Day of the Long-Dead

Visiting the Natural History Museum with a friend last week, I had to wonder: Is it me or are we all captivated, but slightly creeped out, by elaborate dioramas of long-dead, endangered, animals, posed in an imagined setting? I remember wondering as a kid, “How did they die? Was it painful? Were they caught unaware? Did their eyes meet those of their killers?” All these animals had lives, families and daily routines. Maybe the zebra was hanging around enjoying some arid grassland with his friends, and.. BAM!! His life was over, just like that.

I have a mix of appreciation and innate sadness walking among the formerly alive. The many habitat dioramas, with beautifully painted backgrounds, plant life and extraneous birds and bugs are credited to Carl Akeley, a 19th and early 20th century taxidermist/expeditionist, who came to work at the museum in 1909. Ironically, he created the displays to promote the conservation of those species that he’d killed and placed into the dioramas. My friend liked to visit the large elephant display whenever she came to the Museum, so we headed to the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. The elephants are posed, according to Wikipedia, in a “characteristic ‘alarmed’ formation.” Maybe some vile expeditionist was in sight. Two of the elephants were donated by Akeley’s fellow hunter, Teddy Roosevelt, one a baby calf shot by his son.

The Museum is a massive, rambling and meandering space, a beautiful and eclectic mixture of architectural styles. It is definitely a place most New Yorkers have been to, at least once. My friend and I spent the afternoon wandering, but eventually feeling a little sad, and satiated with elephants and bison, we longed to see something that was still alive and get out into the New York sunshine. Sadly, I do like the beauty of the displays, but find it hard to think about the misery it took for them to get here. Like they say about sausage…if you like eating it, don’t visit a sausage factory.

We headed out onto Columbus Avenue, into the warm sun, and bustling crowd of living creatures.

1phant

New York Nice

I have a friend who, while not all that nice, is really a good writer. Everything he writes makes me laugh out loud. Extremely insightful and, frankly, he and I complain, I mean write, about many of the same things. Reading his blog is like reading my own ideas. But getting an email announcement about his latest post sets me off. What the!? I haven’t started a new one yet and he’s got two more out there. I hate that. And they’re always wonderful, of course. I may have to block his emails from now on so I don’t feel so bad about slacking off. It’s hard to come up with ideas sometimes. Many posts just present themselves (I wish they’d also write themselves). But if I haven’t seen anything worth writing about — vomit on a subway platform or SUV stroller wars on a Brooklyn Heights sidewalk — then I anguish. I have anxiety. Because my aim here is to please my devoted readers.

You’ve heard of Minnesota Nice. It’s kind of true, though sometimes it’s just passive-aggressive posing as nice. We aim to please, sometimes at the expense of our own pleasure. Lately I’ve been thinking that I shouldn’t worry so much about being nice — I mean, if someone isn’t happy with me, that’s their problem, right? This morning I butted in a line. Yes, really. I was late and couldn’t wait for the exceedingly large gentleman in front of me to move along. I did make eye contact as I shoved him out of my way. With big Keane eyes and upturned eyebrows, I begged forgiveness, “I’m sorry..!” I mouthed, with all my teeth showing, and I moved along quickly. Hostile yet smiling broadly, scurrying away like the infamous Pizza Rat, avoiding confrontation. I thought about it the rest of the day. I felt bad. I wasn’t nice.

When I was a little girl, my father left. I never knew why, it wasn’t talked about, though in my young mind, it was likely because I wasn’t a nice enough daughter. I did see him several weeks after he left one day when I was outside playing in my front yard. His car drove slowly by, with the window rolled down, and he looked at me. Didn’t wave or stop. I stood there, watching the car as it drove away. You’d cry if you saw it in a movie. Years after as an adult, I made contact and met him at his house. I met his new wife and we all drove down to West Des Moines to visit my step brother, Gene, who I had never heard of and never saw again. I remember he was very nice and I wondered why he lived in West Des Moines.

Of course we’re all formed by good and bad events in our childhood. Maybe I try really hard so people won’t leave me. I’ll continue dispensing tales of my nice and not-so-nice accounts of the city. But I can’t stress about it. I’m going to spend less energy seeking to please strangers (except you, my faithful blog followers.) This is New York…there’s no pleasing it. It doesn’t care about me anyway. This city can make me feel bad, but I know, even if I’m not so nice, it will never leave me.