Tragedy and comedy in The City

Once you have lived in New York and made it your home, no place else is good enough. – John Steinbeck

I made it across Central Park yesterday* (cheering, fist pumps.)  It usually swallows me up and I stumble down some dark path into middle earth. From the west side to the east, all those crazy but beautiful, winding paths – they all look alike. And I emerge a few short blocks from where I went in, somehow not making it from one side to the other. Some people like to get lost. Not me. It makes me anxious. But yesterday, on this quiet summer morning, I made it! Fifteen minutes, drifting mindlessly but with direction, enjoying the quiet beauty, from the west side all the way to 5th Avenue!

*(Full and shameful disclosure: I had a knowledgeable partner, a generous guy, who walked with me but I have no doubt I could have done it by myself.)

I stopped off at a tv shoot on the east side of the park. My friend was one of the many staffers and he invited me to the set.  There were TV stars and delicious looking catering carts, but most of the crew wasn’t actually working all that hard. I guess there’s a lot of hanging around, standing, sitting, mostly waiting. The scenes are a few minutes long, then more standing and waiting, additional make up, lighting changes.  New Yorkers, used to averting movie sets, are largely unimpressed by the hubbub. As a fledgling New Yorker I was a bit excited.  Sitting on a stool two feet away from me, looking at a monitor and taking notes, was the creator of the show. She was wearing black converse all stars and cut-off jeans and a cap, looking like an ordinary person you’d see at Fairway.

Sometimes things happen and lives converge and you can’t believe you were in that place at that time. I headed east to Madison and down to 68th for an iced coffee. I sat on a shiny black bench outside and saw a Facebook post from a friend. It was about suicide and her life in the past year, her sadness and joy, ups and downs and the people who were there for her, including her little boy who misses his daddy. Tears rolled down my cheek and onto my white tank top. Big, huge tears like those giant raindrops in October that are actually more like snow. An attractive man my age asked if it was ok to sit down. He probably thought it best to ask, since I was sobbing. Sure, I nodded. He sat down with his raisin scones. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I was reading something very sad.” He nodded. His eyes were sympathetic. Then he said, “I’ll show you sad!” And he took out his phone and showed me a photo. A sidewalk strewn with clothes, and a body covered with a sheet. He pointed at the phone. “This person jumped from the 44th floor of my building this morning.  I tried to walk in the park, but…I can’t..”

We talked. He was born elsewhere, now an American citizen and a very successful real estate broker. For an hour we sat and talked about death and taxes and Donald Trump and real estate and art. And what would cause a person to jump out a window.

His neighbors from the building came by, going to the cafe. The wife was still feeling distress: she saw the person jump from the window.  She saw him crash onto the roof of an adjoining building and fall to the ground.  The husband shook his head. “So sad,” he agreed. Our talk was somber, trying to make sense of this drama. Their friend, an old guy with curly white hair and a gold necklace, was on the phone making a big real estate deal.

I’d been on a nature walk through the park, to a tv shoot to witness the production of a television comedy, to sharing a bench with strangers on 68th and Madison, discussing the tragedy of a suicide they’d just witnessed. And it was only noon.

Thinking and trying to comprehend the eventful morning, yet feeling the need to get on with my day, I walked to the train. A thin young man in bike shorts was in the street, wheeling his bike by the curb and loudly shouting into his cell. “NO! LEAVE ME ALONE!! DON’T CALL ME ANYMORE!  LEAVE! ME! ALONE!!”

“Just hang up!” someone suggested. Everyone hurrying in different directions, yet all sharing a chuckle.

Just another day in The City.

Hanging on the Upper West Side

It’s been a month since I’ve put pen to paper (so to speak). I have a really good excuse for not writing lately: I’ve been spending a lot of time on the Upper West Side.
It’s clean. People don’t pee on the streets. Cavalier Spaniels do. I noticed it a few mornings ago, downtown in one of my favorite neighborhoods between the east village and the west village, around Lafayette Street, I smelled that New York smell: urine, grease, cheese, rotten food, perspiration, coffee.  The traffic whizzed by, horns honked. It was steamy and hot. I loved it, made me feel alive!
Of course I feel quite alive up on the UWS. But I don’t get that smacked in the face New York feeling. It’s very homey, restful, expansive, pleasant to walk around, especially at night, just not as stimulating as walking down Grand Street in the lower east side but it has its own excitement. Lots of celebrities live on the Upper West Side, more than any other neighborhood in New York City. When it was on the air, there was an 80% chance of coming home to a Law & Order episode being filmed on your block. I’m pretty sure I saw Joel Grey the other day. He walked out of a store right in front of me. He’s very small.
You are probably wondering why this is an excuse…so here goes…it’s too nice up here.
My senses are not assaulted every minute.  Possibly I have run out of things to talk about, sitting at a clean, upscale coffee shop on 84th and Columbus. I need to get back to Union Square and find some material.
I’m not saying it’s dull, just a different kind of feel. The proximity to both parks (and the river) is a real plus. Nice streets like West End, Riverside Drive..even Broadway up here is a beautiful, wide street. The train stations are pretty clean, the sidewalks are pretty clean. There are a few tourists, not like Midtown, but busloads will come to Zabar’s every once in awhile. Lincoln Center is close, and walking to the NY Philharmonic is really a thrill. It feels like I’m on vacation up here.  There are not as many odd characters, no hari krishnas, and no one shouting at you to save yourself before it’s too late.  One thing I have noticed that seems out of place, is a lot of homeless people. On church steps, on the street. Some are on the same corner every morning. I imagine since there is more money up here, it’s a pretty decent place for handouts.
I just read that there are lots of rats that hang out in toney Riverside Park, especially at night. It’s a nice park, right on the Hudson River. I’ve enjoyed walking around there at night, but after reading that article, I may think again about doing that.
Meanwhile, I’m going to head to the train and down to Washington Square Park to my favorite coffeehouse. And perhaps some fodder for my next blog entry.

The NY subway: your evening’s entertainment

Early evening on the F train last week, a very cute and happy looking 20-something black man in a Hawaiian shirt was sitting alone taking selfies. Smile. Flash. Smirk smile with head tilt. Flash. Smile with teeth. Flash. He was leaning his head on the window, thus his phone was pointing at the darkened window and each time the flash would bounce off. But he seemed very pleased with his results. He’d look at each one he took, nodding and smiling.  No one was really paying any attention. I’m learning that the city gives you permission to do that kind of weird stuff. People seem to respect your right to do it, generally with no outward judgment.
Last week I was coming home.  Midnight. 2nd Ave subway station. A young woman dressed in black, leaning against the white tiled wall, black hair, very white skin and a black tattoo on her shoulder, was playing an accordion. French songs, from the movie Amelie. It was haunting and evocative, the sound floated in the almost empty station. (I did some googling and found out her name is Melissa Elledge.) I stood and watched her, smiling. I felt so strangely happy. It was ‘a moment!’ I was having a moment. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to miss the train and stay all night.
The lower east side is one of my favorite places. It feels so authentically New York – the term gritty comes to mind. The East Broadway stop is described variously: garbage strewn, excessive rat population, poor lighting and lacking ventilation. It is the bastard child of the system and seems to be passed over for upgrades and rehabilitation. I met a fun and knowledgeable guy there for a tour of several square blocks of the area. A born and bred lower east sider, he was eager to share it all with me. Describing what used to be where, pointing out the painted-over facades that hid the building’s history; the apartment where he grew up and made many life-long friends; The Lots (a strip of grass and dirt under the Manhattan Bridge where many ballgames were played); nondescript buildings that housed secret clubs where mobsters still congregate.  The capital of Jewish America at the turn of the century, there used to be several synagogues there, but now only a few remain as synagogues, as the population changed from mostly Jewish and Italian, to Latino and Chinese. After stopping at a Chinese grocery, where you can get plump, fresh frogs, we headed to a beautiful, old restored synagogue for a presentation on the History of the Knish. Yes, a hundred or so people actually attended this. (I got two knishes –my first ones ever.)
Two people vomited yesterday on two different platforms. I was waiting for the third sighting, since, y’know, things happen in threes. It no doubt occurred somewhere within this vast network. Fortunately I didn’t have to see it.
Frustrating and fascinating, it is an amazing system, always getting me where I want to go, sometimes too stuffy and crowded, always interesting and entertaining. The subway is the great equalizer. Well-dressed business people, tourists, the rich and not so rich. We’re all standing together in the stinking, stuffy, urine soaked underground, watching the rats.
tired subway riders

The important Line Debate

I got a walking app yesterday. It shows me how many steps I take every day. I didn’t start it until late and just walked to a store a little ways away. In terms of how much ground I usually cover in a day, this was nothing. And it was 2400 steps. If I had this app when I started traversing the city, I would have had 2400 million steps.

Went to the Met a couple days ago and saw the Sargent exhibit, portraits of his friends and commissioned work.  I’m more a fan of the later work with broad, seemingly wild brush strokes. But these portraits were exquisite. The Met is a delicious gem, inside and out. It’s a treat to wander and get lost in there, and I like that you can pay what you wish.  I met some ladies standing in line in the ladies room. “If a woman designed this building, there would be more bathrooms!” “Went to the ballet yesterday and it was ridiculous…and they won’t let you back in your seat if you’re even a minute late.”  I’m not here to talk about women’s bathrooms, it’s a subject near and dear, but there will be no solution to the problem unless we can learn to pee standing up.  But I do want to talk about lines. Whether one stands ON them or IN them. Because when someone says she is waiting ON line, I want to ask, where is this line? Because I don’t see a line ON the floor. There is actually some debate about this and I don’t know if it’s a New York thing or not. It’s not really worth getting worked up about, because this will not change, but it is curious and irritating to a Midwesterner.

New Yorkers stand in a lot of lines. At the bakery, at the bus stop, Trader Joes. I saw a line yesterday at a clothing store on 3rd Avenue. The line was winding around the block. It was a store that sells jeans, so maybe they were giving them away or something.  People here are resigned to be in lines, nobody’s nerves get jangled. When I first got here, I was practically insulted that I had to stand in a long check out line at a women’s clothing store – a really long line. People were just waiting, chatting, looking through the little bins of crap nobody needs but they put them where you have to stand for 10 minutes.  I was wondering why nobody was grousing (um…almost nobody.) Then the clerk would call out, “Next on line?”

Someone I know said when he arrived here he got so worked up over always having to stand in a line. When you’ve been here awhile, he said, you get used to it. It’s true. You head out knowing you will be standing in 4 or 5 lines that day. And one day you get to your favorite coffee shop and there’s no line AND the sticky buns are still there at 10:00.  And you take time to appreciate those fleeting moments. I won’t be standing ON line, but now I’m resigned to being in one, however long. It’s New York.

Being alone in New York City

I’ve learned a lot about Myself and The City on this amazing New York journey. I ask questions like “What do I want?” “What’s important to me?“, and “Why does the F train have a suspended weekend schedule?” I don’t have the answers, just throwing it all out there.

I’ve been both a tourist and a real New Yorker these last several months. Exploring every nook and crannie, I head out in the mornings sometimes without a clue as to where I will end up. But it is almost always alone. I like being alone, most of the time. Last week, with a visitor I will call Someone Special* (*name has been changed) from Minneapolis, I had the best pistachio gelato in little Italy. The day was perfect. I realized that, with Someone Special to enjoy it with, the gelato was so much tastier than ever; eating take-out in a park in Chinatown listening to street musicians was way more fun. While people are always around, I’m mostly alone. But I enjoyed that day so much (and the entire jam-packed, fun-filled week). I’ve been alone so much, I forgot how special even little things feel when you’re with someone you like.

Rarely are you ever ‘alone’ in New York. Walking in this city amid the throngs of other walkers, (most, irritating me with their slow pace) surrounded by timeless architecture and ceaseless noise, I say – to myself, since I am alone – “god, I love this city!” Each morning the sidewalks are bustling: dads walking kids to school, nannies with strollers, children on scooters, old men who shout, “Happy Holidays!” and the various people on their daily walk to work. I think, “Why do so many people want to live in this densely packed, expensive, sweltering hot and dirty city?” Trying to escape each other, we seek anonymity in our daily routine, earbuds secured, staring at our phones. Yet we all still long to be enclosed by our community, by one another, by strangers. We want to belong somewhere, and ultimately, to someone. I still like being alone, but I’m thinking about being enclosed sometimes, too.

Now about that F train…

Being a real New Yorker

I changed my Facebook ‘Lives In’ city to Brooklyn. I’m feeling like a real New Yorker. Had lunch in Chelsea with a friend and he, upper west side resident, remarked on my nascent noteworthy grasp of neighborhoods, train stops, landmarks, etc. I told him I like the challenge and discovering something new every day. Not that interested in the Statue of Liberty (except from the outdoor patio at Fairway) or popular tourist spots, I’m really more drawn to exploring interesting neighborhoods, architecture, pocket parks.  Had a picnic on the grass in Central Park last week, a trio of jazz musicians played close by. You just can’t find that everywhere! Nature, architecture, music, good company, outrageously expensive lunch from Whole Foods…

Being a real New Yorker means taking the good with the bad. The sublime with the irritating. Irritating: my refrigerator leaks. And, on a similar note, my door buzzer randomly goes off and it seems to be attached to the refrigerator somehow. It’s gone off several times today, startlingly long and loud, and reverberating through the refrigerator.  I’m serious.  It’s 10:00 in the morning, I’ve had nothing stronger than coffee (Dunn Brothers brew, sent from Minneapolis by a wonderful friend…I can’t find coffee like that here. New York has everything except Dunn Brothers.)  So, anyway – YIKES!! – just jumped out of my chair..buzzer, refrigerator thing.

Also irritating, I threw my back out yesterday morning. Ready to attend a film, I got up from my couch and something went pop. I know it’s related to the whole coughing thing from last month because I am out of align and my back is messed up. This did not prevent me from attending a party last night and Ubering back home through new streets and neighborhoods, ripe for exploring sometime soon.  I’m feeling very positive about my new city and my decision to come here, despite not having a job yet, or creating any worthwhile art, the buzzing and leaking…these are temporary irritations. Tomorrow, something sublime will come my way.

Let me talk a bit about bathrooms…

There are none in Manhattan.

I was telling my friend this and he said, of course there are – they are labeled Starbucks, a term from the Dutch settlers meaning toilet. This welcoming chain has hosted many non-coffee drinkers seeking relief, and I know where almost every Starbucks is located. My Midwestern sensibility compels me to buy something, though, when I use the facilities.

Last week, stopping with a friend not for an iced coffee, but a beer from a store on Avenue C, I rediscovered one of my favorite places in Manhattan: Alphabet City, in the East Village – formerly home to squatters and drug dealers. The designation Alphabet City is kind of a throwback to the area’s former criminal activity, so it’s mostly referred to now as the East Village. I love the slightly seedy, old quality of some of the buildings and the untouched facades. It still has lots of charm, and new development is required to keep the low-rise character of the neighborhood. During the daytime, it’s not bustling with throngs of camera toting tourists, yet it’s bustling with daily life. Walk down most any block and tucked away between buildings you will see tiny, gated parks, community gardens with names like 2Bn2C, and Earth People Community Garden. Beautiful and well tended, sanctuaries amid the clamor of the city, the gardens are locked at night and managed by volunteers. I think there are at least 50 in the neighborhood. We spent the day on a shady old bench in one of them, enjoying the sights and sounds and a couple beers. The hours passed and suddenly feeling the..um..urge for a Starbucks, we bid farewell.

I headed back out into the hum of the city (with an iced coffee) before catching the train home.

The Challenge of Getting Around

I realize that I am geographically challenged. I accept it. Don’t like it but that’s my reality, as they say.  Even with google maps I can’t tell which way I’m headed unless I turn the phone all around. And, since I can never appear to be (gasp) A Visitor, I keep going with resolve – wrong way or not. I’m getting better, but there is really no cure.

Getting to the new Whitney was a challenge. The map gave a strange landmark where I was supposed to turn. Is it in the middle of the block? Why can’t they say 15th street?  I can’t find this building or whatever it is. The map navigation was telling me to head southwest. Was I heading southwest? Forced to use my compass app, I rolled it around to calibrate. Yes. I was going in the right direction. (In my defense, I was with two friends last week and none of us could figure out how to get there.)

I finally arrived and my expectations were not really met. Not as grand and gleaming as I expected, tho it was a grey day. The line was about 3 blocks long. We moved slowly toward the entrance and I saw a young woman in a blue shirt, overseeing the queue. I asked the cost to get in. $22 she says. If I worked here and had to answer that, I would have been apologetic, a grimace, sad eyes..I know, it’s a lot, isn’t it? I’m really sorry… But she had none of that empathy. Like $22 is acceptable. And I guess it is for tourists. But I’m a New Yorker now. I have to watch my spending. I gotta live here where a six pack of beer costs $16. So, I decided to leave, walked around the Meatpacking District and explored (for free!)  Found out later it’s Pay What you Wish on Friday evenings.

I’ll be back. I know how to get there now.

My New York Surprise Today  

The best lessons learned are those we experience firsthand. My lesson for the day: there are umbrellas and there are New York City Umbrellas. Who knew?

Walking down Flatbush Avenue toward LIU with my cheesy Minnesota umbrella (and a 40 wind gust having its way with it), the thing snapped itself shut – inside out – and rain, like tiny nails, pelted my cheeks.

A half block to go. My pants were getting wet. My shoes started to leak. Luckily my ride showed up. I hopped in the car, placing the umbrella on the floor. He looked at it with disgust. “That is a really shitty umbrella!” he said, chastising me for bringing the shameful thing into The City.

I won’t give up my little red umbrella, it’s just fine for my other life. But I have a feeling there will be more days like this and I’ll have to get a new one. Now I know.  I won’t have to fear a day like today. I will slog down the sidewalk like a real New Yorker, with my sturdy, unsnapable New York City umbrella.

‘Scuse me, I gotta run

I was walking down Smith Street yesterday, a lively avenue with butcher shops, flower marts and tiny French restaurants. Groups of people were standing, engaged in loud and spirited conversations. “I sawr it…”  “I sez, whada yuhs guys tawwkin’ about?”  “It ain’t woith it..Fuggedaboutit!”

We don’t do that in Minneapolis. When I see people on the street, their conversations are friendly, but private.  Actually, other than downtown on a weekday, there aren’t crowds of people milling about. When I return home from New York, I’m aware of how quiet and open the Twin Cities seem. It’s easy.

People here in Brooklyn are friendly. It’s a neighborhood where you always see someone you know and stop to talk. They are also very helpful. The reputation of the brusque New Yorker is not deserved – and maybe misinterpreted. New Yorkers are abrupt. But that’s because we are all in a hurry. Not discourteous, just direct.  Ask someone how to get to the R train, another helpful New Yorker rushing by will offer his opinion, because there-is-a-much-faster-route-let-me-tell-you-about-it.

I rush here, too, as if I have places to be. Swept up in the pace, even though the entire afternoon is stretched ahead of me, no commitments. I have to keep up. I’ll be rushing into the city tomorrow to pick up a rug and carry it back on the train. We don’t do that in Minneapolis. We have cars. It’s easy.

Welcome to New York

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I’ve been in my new apartment for a week now. I wanted to write about all the surprises, expectations and experiences of my first week. Rather, I’ve spent it painting walls and gathering essentials (plates, knives, matches) and trying to remember why I left a beautiful, sunny loft in Minneapolis for a nice but decidedly darker and dirtier New York apartment. I wanted to write interesting posts and do lots of paintings of my beautiful neighborhood that (in my mind) I would be busily be cranking out.  But I had to hold off. Because the only thing I had to post was: Waited all day for the gas man to hook up my stove…

I’m learning a lot about customer service and the acceptable level of it here. The bar is sometimes low. I could have written about the noise or the dirt but that’s old news when you’re talking about New York. I wanted to wait – to be positive and upbeat about my new city. This is, after all, something I’ve wanted to do for years – move to New York. I’ve been here a week. The writing had to be put off – I had to wait until I didn’t feel like slitting my wrists (tho in fact, I forgot to pack a knife). I waited for the dust – wow, there is a lot of it – to settle. Getting my stove hooked up and making coffee and toasting a bagel this morning feels like I’m actually in my apartment, instead of a hostel. It’s getting better. Going out to buy a knife now, not to end it all, but for the cream cheese schmear on my bagel.