NEIGHBORS COME AND GO

My new neighbor.

Today I walked over to Broadway to the local New York Sports Club. I wasn’t actually committed to joining but I had seen a great deal online. To my surprise, what I found was an oasis of health and good vibes.

Joe Rivera was called to be my escort on a tour through the Club and to give me information. In that first second of encounter, his wide smile and the cool, outrageous ponytail sitting high atop his head, drew me in. He didn’t sell, he talked, with good humor and straightforward interest; he shared about himself (he’s a basketball player and a writer – a good one I might add!) and we made a great connection.

He’s got a blog called Average Joe’s Sports Talk (http://www.averagejoessportstalk.blogspot.com), but I will tell you he’s anything but average.

My neighborhood just amped up a notch. Thanks, Joe.

A neighbor no more.

On the other side of that terrible coin of life and death, there is the tragic loss of a neighbor.

Belzer’s brother was how I knew him. The striking resemblance between Leonard and Richard (of Law and Order and standup comedy fame) never failed to impact me. Walking the streets of my neighborhood, I would frequently spot the silver-head atop the craggy, stone-faced two-of-a-kind image. Len and I never spoke, never even nodded, but he was part of the ongoing nature of this Upper West Side environment.

On Wednesday, Leonard Belzer left us. He couldn’t stay in this world any longer. I must assume that his reasons for taking his own life were profound. I believe we each own our lives and we have the choice about living or ceasing to live.

But he will be missed. The neighborhood will never be the same.

THE WEST SIDE OF THE EAST END

More by spirit than geography, Amagansett has a distinctly – not boho – but Upper West Side flavor. Everyone is a little more chill than in Easthampton (no offence); a little less pretentious than in Southhampton; a little less intentionally relaxed than in West Hampton.

What do I really know? I’m a Fire Island girl. But I do adore my friends Carole and Robbie, who have a wonderfully geometric and spare house a stone’s throw from the beach.

 

On the drive out, my husband wants to know what I’m laughing about. “It’s anticipatory,” I say, which explains nothing. What I mean is I know I’m going to be laughing as I do nowhere else, for two solid days.

 

There will be smart, insightful political discourse – and laughter; we will eat great food – and laugh. We’ll reminisce about our four decades of friendship – and laugh; we’ll tell bittersweet childhood stories – and laugh.

 

It’s the best of times.

Carole is a friend of the soul. My love and respect for her couldn’t be any stronger. She’s the reason I know that I am “somebody.” A long, long time ago, she saw me. Way before I saw myself. Robbie is a special man. Rough and sweet; what you see is what you get, but he has depths that few can venture into.

If life sends me an empty or sad day, these two are like a care package. Wrapped in bright eyes. Reliably my friends. The word was made to describe them.

IT’S A DOGGIE DOG WORLD or DOG IS MY CO-PILOT

There are two kinds of buildings in Manhattan: dogs allowed and no dogs allowed. Cats are everywhere, sometimes undercover. And birds, goldfish, the occasional iguana, and God knows what else—if you listen closely, you can hear their splashing, chirping and (what noise does an iguana make?)—are pretty much ubiquitous.

But dogs are loud and proud. With the exception of Teacup breeds (the under-four-pound-category like the Maltese or Yorkie—which I’m not completely sure qualify as actual dogs:  they may be aliens), there must be overt acceptance.

That’s what we have in my building. And, poop notwithstanding, I love it. For many reasons.

Dogs are pure. Their default is love and friendly energy, curiosity and playfulness. What’s bad about that? I am personally unwilling to take on the care and responsibility which comes with being a dog owner—a term I question … I really think it’s the human who is owned by the dog. But, having access to the occasional nuzzle and lick and more (as I will explain), is quite wonderful.

My apartment is adjacent to the elevator on the lobby floor. It makes for easy access for my patients, but that’s not its best feature. It often happens that I open the door to find a big black lab or a golden or a brace of beagles or (a most memorable moment) a full-on slobbering bloodhound coming or going. My threshold is a magnet which many of the four-legged persuasion will unselfconsciously cross, giving me—and often one of my patients or visitors—an opportunity for some prime pooch interaction. The humans on the other end of the leash are invariably respectful and appreciative of my welcoming response, but are quick to return to their missions. So the whole thing seldom lasts more than a minute or two. But it’s the kind of refreshing experience that can’t be duplicated by human interaction. It’s a sweet doggy infusion of connection and joy.

Dogs play another key role in my life. My professional life. For decades, I have maintained perhaps a unique policy. Patients have unfettered permission to bring into session babies who are pre-speech and pre-walking, and their dogs. The dogs are the more interesting choice.  Over the almost three decades I have been practicing, there have been a wide range of behaviors manifested by the twenty or thirty canines who have graced my therapy office. But none of them have been problematic.

Sometimes the dog will stay glued to the human’s side; never do they display any substantial disquiet. I provide water and I welcome them—to the degree which they seem comfortable. The most fascinating thing is what has happened in the majority of cases. After a few minutes, the dog comes to sit near ME. Why? Because they are natural therapists and it is always my sense and conviction that they assume the role of co-therapist, exuding calm and receptivity. Their benign presence adds an especially positive dimension to the flow of emotion and thought.  Barriers are lowered, trust pervades the room. My patient will invariably express their sense that they feel an extra measure of support.

After much reflection, I’ve concluded: Some of the best work is done doggy-style.

 

 

BORN TO BE WILD

Here’s the thing. I have no idea yet what this post is going to be about. It’s just a great title, don’t you agree?

I guess there is a bit of an unconscious directive…

As a child of the 50’s (I know! That’s an enormously long time ago.), I was raised when conformity was aspirational. Don’t make waves. If my parents didn’t say those exact words, they certainly conveyed them. No one gave me an atta-girl for being a little quirky, a little different. But I was.

This is all going to tie together with the blog theme. I promise.

If the Upper West Side is not the center of the wild-child-universe, it’s pretty close. Here, the average child is anything but. Each and every little darling is given the widest latitude to express themselves, verbally, physically, sartorially. It’s a bit of a shock when I see a parent with a child walking sedately.

No. They run, they sing and dance, they emote. “Good for them,” I say. Well, in the moment I say other things, especially when some of that emoting is in close proximity.

The vicissitudes of my reactions notwithstanding, if I’m honest, I always feel that twinge of envy. I wish I had been one of those kids. I’m one of those who thinks children who are free to be who they are actually don’t have to suppress who they are. If there’s a parent who lets them know that their uniqueness is delightful and lovable, then there’s a prescription for success.

But, I’m here now. And I’m free at last. Free to wear whatever I like, to embody the person I truly am. No one blanches, no one blinks. I’m at home amongst the square pegs, the oddballs, the one-of-a-kinds. I’m really one of the kids, feeling her oats, and loving the room to roam.

 

POSITIVITY

There’s a place for everything: a time to be a cranky complainer and a time to offer praise. I think it’s time to step across the threshold of door #2.

 

I made my weekly pilgrimage to Turkuaz, the outstanding Turkish restaurant a few blocks away on Broadway and W.100th St., for my usual. The charming maître d’ spotted me (I think he recognized the hat) and, before I could place the takeout order, he said, “Hummos, babagnoush, no bread, no utentsils.” What a great feeling – to be known. Their food is a cut above all others, but their welcoming attitude stands alone.

 

CVS is everywhere. Just a big, impersonal chain of drugstores, you might think. Well, something has changed recently at the W.96th and Amsterdam location. Greeters and helpers. No, really. There is now a smiling woman or man who says “Hello” like they mean it when you walk in. That’s followed by an offer of help. It’s my policy to decline help unless I’ve asked for it but, a few weeks ago, I made an exception. A smart, knowledgeable woman gave me lucid advice about skincare products. It was exactly like being in a specialty store. She stayed with me – no rush, no hard sell, no irritation – until I had come to my decisions. I’ve been using the products she recommended and they’re excellent. Since then, I’ve gotten a few other helpful directions, all conveyed with the utmost patience and sincerity. Kudos CVS. You had my business because of your pricing. It’s rare in this give-the-customer-as-little-as-you-can-get-away-with culture to get added value. As my mother is fond of saying, “Good job!”

 

A word or many about my beloved health food store: Columbus Natural, around the corner on Columbus and W. 95th. Whenever I think of moving, I am loathe to be without easy access to the special products and prepared foods that are available there. First, I must tell you of the delicious soups which are alwayson tap: two a day – one is always chicken-based, one is vegetarian. Freshly prepared and perfectly seasoned. I think they have healing properties, too. There is a daily array of mouth-watering dishes: tofu, lasagna, chicken, vegetables, beans…there’s always something tasty. They have a full counter of virtually any vitamin or supplement you might conceive of and someone with considerable wisdom to help you make your selection. Their products are of fine quality and I’ve been introduced to many items which are now staples in my kitchen: sheep yogurt, sodium free tamari, Herbamare, to name a few. And – they have the best nuts in town.

 

Everyone who works there is friendly, helpful and sometimes a great deal more than that. My recent weight loss has been acclaimed and complemented by one of the senior staff. That’s beyond the call of duty, don’t you think? She’s the woman who will always remember what I buy and let me know when it’s in or out of stock.

 

This positivity thing is working for me. I hope it is for you. More to come – and I’ll never be guided by anything except my personal experience.

TRIPPING AROUND TOWN

I strayed into midtown and got on a double-length, bendy bus with half the seats arrayed along the side up a sizable step. I perched on one of them with a blast of artic a/c on my neck – even though we were in the throes of the new summer polar vortex (no climate change, right?) and it was in the 70’s in the middle of July…typically a sweaty 90 degrees plus.

Who designed this crazy bus? The accordion section which connects the two halves is a little bit like a Disney ride. That had become the repository for bags of groceries, a shopping cart and a large piece of luggage. They were unrestrained, with trust and faith keeping them from bouncing and careening at random passengers. I watched, waiting for disaster, knowing we were not being driven by one who had either skills or sensitivity.

When I boarded, I had the pleasure of encountering the surly driver. He didn’t answer my question about whether the bus went uptown to 68th Street. He didn’t acknowledge me at all. After a few moments, he muttered something inaudible which might have had no bearing on my existence. I gave up and moved on. He drove like we were on cobblestones, jerking on the brake every second. For once, the passengers were more docile. Of course! This was the East Side, not the aggressive, it’s all about me West Side.

No flying food incident happened during my ride, but the next pothole – and there most certainly would be a next pothole – would produce, at best, a slew of lawsuits.

Later that day…

On the subway, heading toward 42nd Street, a family of five, speaking Portuguese if my ear is good. He was extra-large and top heavy, which might account for his crappy balance. During each loss of equilibrium, dread filled me. Whenever the train stopped, I imagined being flattened by him. The girls (three of them – two hefty in their own right, one sullen – and the perky mom, spread out through the car like the blob.

Historical note: When I was nine, in 1958, I enjoyed what were then deemed as “horror” films. Now, they would be too mild to be shown. “The Blob” was an alien life form that consumed everything in its path. It looked, as you would expect, like a shapeless, growing, oozing blob.

Segue…

These adventures were all in the service of apartment hunting, a blood sport which has all the compelling elements: need, lust, cutthroat competition, coaches who are really on the opposing team, and coaches who truly support your success And, of course, there is the demand for expenditure of – not only all your resources – but those you might contemplate acquiring for the rest of your life.

We were entertaining the notion of making an investment in Manhattan real estate: something which tends to defy the laws of physics in that it always goes up but almost never comes down. Early on, I had to thread my way through the duplicitous brokers, the ones who advertise properties which either never existed or are no longer on the market. They then try to snag you and steer you where you really don’t want to go.  Mercifully, we found a smart, straight talking young woman who has inspired my trust (not a commodity I throw around lightly).

We restricted our search to the Upper East and West Sides and Midtown, and to small apartments. That would be less than 500 square feet: a modest size you might think. But, in the condo market today, we’re talking half a million dollars. Yes! Can you believe it? I am just beginning to believe it myself, after viewing a half dozen of these small miracles.

Belinda, our trusty guide, talked life and food and shared about her family, inquired with interest about my work, as we schlepped around town, comparing the merits of the 12 x 16 actual living spaces, and coming to appreciate the deep spiritual value of the Murphy bed.

At this writing, there’s a 392 sq. ft. doll of an apartment on West 49th St. (the Theatre District!) which I have mysteriously fallen in love with. My husband is going with my infatuation; Belinda tried to steer me to something considerably more spacious. I believe every environment has a distinctive energy; and this one feels good to me. Okay. Maybe that’s a crock, but it’s my crock.

An offer has been proffered. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

 

 

The BIG BLEND

SIDE BY SIDE BY SIDE

When I walk the short two and a half blocks to Broadway and W. 96th Street, I traverse a far greater distance. I enter a teeming center of diversity. It’s a very busy intersection – from a pedestrian’s point of view, but the cultural intersection ratchets up to another level. As I walk past men, women, and children whose varied ethnicity is written on their faces, the lilt of a language smorgasbord sets off inner images of exotic places. Pakistan and India, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, China, Japan, Israel and Egypt. It’s a slow day if I don’t see representatives from these and many other countries.

So much can be seen in a quick ten minute walk. The stores which line Broadway don’t appear to be very exceptional: a couple of clothing stores, a hardware store, a bank, coffee shops, an appliance store, a Turkish restaurant, a beauty salon, a jewelry store. But the proprietors and customers could be Central Casting’s notion of a movie called, “One World.”

If the opposing sides in the Middle East could all come spend a day walking around my neighborhood, they might give up much of their hatred and learn to live and let live.

I know. That’s just fantasy. But I have noticed a lessening of my old hyper-awareness of differences. When I walk around, the range of expectable variation has expanded radically. It’s my new comfort zone. My purpose is functional: make a deposit, buy some shampoo, restock the hummos and babagnoush that can’t be replicated except at Turkuaz, stop off at Joon’s to get some fish, buy a package of 60 watt bulbs. It’s all errand-driven but, by the time I come back to my much more homogenized block, I feel like I’ve gone on a trip around the world. Accents blend into my experience. I am better at hearing the meaning of the words – despite the array of pronunciation. This is my world, the grand mish-mash of the crossroads of the Upper West Side. I am richer for it.

BUTT BY BUTT BY BUTT

The idyllic cross-pollination of multiculturalism stops—for me— at the bus and subway doors. The perception of personal space is not a constant across the globe. Oh no. Those recent transplants from the third world (and even much of the second world), don’t know that you’re supposed to leave three feet around me uninvaded. And, when public transportation gets crowded, there’s no natural barrier for many of these newly arrived to getting up close and personal with my butt.

I’ve developed strategies: there’s the crook’d elbow, the interposed pocketbook, and (this one is extreme) carry a hard-cover book and use the sharp edges as a weapon. All’s fair. I don’t like to be touched by the inadvertent stranger, let alone the advertent one. I’ve acceded to the side-squoosh: that’s when you’re abutting the person in the next seat, and their thighs are one with yours.

But the stray hand or leg which can’t always be tracked back to a particular person – if things are jammed enough – creeps me out. So I must be proactive.

 

SUBWAY SIDEBAR

On a Sunday, grateful for the seat on my preferred mode of transportation: the subway. It’s 2pm on the #1 train, wending its local way up Broadway from W. 50th Street. I look around at my fellow riders with a none-too-obvious gaze. It’s an endlessly fascinating exploration of the human family, but discretion is advisable…

 

“This must be the hat section,” I think.

 

Across the aisle (with white cotton gloves, which make my heart sing just a little) is an upturned, very wide-brimmed black straw on the female half of a quite elderly white-on-white couple. Next to them is the top-hatted youngish man, all in Johnny Cash black. His thick dark brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. He is adorned with intensely carved rings and chain bracelets.

 

My husband and I make up the third and fourth of this quartet. He, with one of his inevitable baseball caps – a red one today, emblazoned with an Arizona State “A.” His collection is eclectic. Me, with my trusty soft beige canvas with the extensive brim. No sun on my face. Never.

 

It’s just a moment in time, but one of charm and sartorial identity among strange brethren. I enjoyed it.

Riders of My Purple Rage

When I was twelve, growing up in Brooklyn, my father bought me an English Racer. He and I would bike to Coney Island, and nothing has surpassed that feeling of buoyant freedom, excitement and camaraderie. It is nothing less than a travesty that my idyllic bicycle memories have been tainted by the present state of self-propelled transportation in New York City.

For a very long while, there has been the outrage of the bike messengers and delivery men. Hot on their missions, they have terrorized pedestrians by excessive speed, disregard of traffic lights and one way street signs. Who hasn’t jumped back, glad to still be upright, as one of these fools whizzed by? Once, four years ago, I was knocked to the ground by a blur of pedals and spokes. He never stopped. I have a friend who was hospitalized by her encounter with some piping hot Chinese Food on the hoof.

It’s been bad and no one imagined it could get worse. But, worse it has gotten. There’s the new double whammy: bike lanes and city bike rentals. First the lanes – which are, for me, the greatest evil.  Long (and increasing) stretches of triple-wide avenue blocks have been compromised and re-purposed. A third of Columbus Avenue, currently extending from West 65th Street to West 110th Street, has been cordoned off by painted designation and cement barriers, for the sole usage of two-wheeled riders. Those of us still using our cars, are forced into a narrow space, without access to one of the curbs; those of us still using our feet, are in mortal jeopardy. Crossing the street is a dance with death.

The bikers’ (and I apologize to any Hell’s Angels who might take offense at my usage) numbers have been multiplied by the infusion of thousands of blue Citi Bikes, which can be picked up and docked at hundreds of stations around town. It’s a wonder that they haven’t become a target for the bile of the infringed upon. Anyone can now ride mindlessly through the streets: out-of-towners, who haven’t a clue about the physical or psychological terrain they are weaving through; Sunday drivers who think it might be a lark to just take a spin, often with a child in tow – despite the fact that their last bicycle experience was thirty years earlier.

Do these people respect the rules of the road? Do they stay in the damn bike lanes? What do you think? “Scatter!” is what my mind repeatedly orders me to do, when I see two tires rolling in my direction. “Hit the mattresses!” There is a war out there and I have no weapon with which to defend myself. The accursed bike lanes are used in a desultory manner – and usually by someone going in the opposite direction. It’s a sneak attack, and as angry as I am at the danger I face, I tremble to think of how it must now be for the elderly or the disabled.

My most recent encounter was with a young women riding through a red light, not even close to the bike lane. She missed me by a matter of inches. As she rode by, I yelled, “ASSHOLE!” My husband, standing alongside me, offered the more informative comment, “Use the bike lane, ASSHOLE!” But, in my fantasy, which we are hoping I don’t become driven to act on, I would kick out a leg at just the right moment, and topple the rider or, as I prefer to think of them, one of the enemy.

 

I SAW TIM GUNN

Do I really have to explain who he is? Okay, okay. If you’re such a philistine that you don’t recognize the name of the grandest man in fashion, I forgive you…and pity you more than a little. Tim Gunn has been an iconic presence in the world of style and fashion for more than thirty years, starting out at Parsons School of Design and bursting into my consciousness (and millions of others’) on Project Runway in 2004. He’s dapper, insightful, original, gracious, smart, funny – I could go on indefinitely. I am a fan of almost limitless proportion.

Two days ago, my husband and I were out in the not too brutal July sun for a walk down Broadway. We were strolling, but with a purpose. As we crossed W. 92nd Street, he said, “Tim Gunn.”

“What?” I replied. All my attention, which had been dispersed throughout my field of vision, became pinpointed by those words. I stopped and turned to him.

“Tim Gunn just walked by.”

“No way.”

“Oh, yes, just look.” He pointed to a man now about a half-block behind us. There was no question. I recognized the back of the immaculately groomed silver-haired head. The high-water pants and shoes with no socks only confirmed what I already knew.

I took off, an unfamiliar mix of manic joy and laser-like intention filling every molecule. I could hear, as if from a great distance, my husband calling after me: “Where are you going? Are you following him?” I didn’t have time for a conversation.

At first I walked briskly, then I began to scurry. I was closing the gap. I was without doubt that I would speak to him. I just didn’t know exactly when and how. I picked up speed. I guess you could say I was now trotting after him. Just then he turned into a store, Radio Shack. I knew that my fate had been sealed. I waited a beat or two, gathered myself into a modicumof calm and poise (a façade, of course), and opened the door. Once inside I could see that Tim was walking to the back, a less open part of the store, lined with shelves. There were almost no other patrons at that moment. Good for me.

I walked with body and spirit held together by my all-consuming need to make contact, until I was a mere two feet from the man.

“Excuse me. Excuse me.”

He turned, with a most benign and receptive look on his handsome bespeckled face. “Yes.”

He was as one would expect, dressed to the nines, sport jacket, tie, gorgeous plaid shirt. Now I kind of lost it.

“I’m so sorry. I’ve never done this before. I’ve never accosted anyone before. But I’m a big fan of yours.”

With the gentle humanity and wry humor that is his trademark, he replied, “Accost away!”

He then extended his hand. “I’m Tim Gunn.”

I was now touching an idol. Life had become sweeter than I could have imagined. “I’m Karen, and I know who you are. I am a huge fan. I love everything you do.”

“Aren’t you sweet? You must be a neighbor.”

He was actually talking to me. As if I were a peer. How much better could this day get?

“Yes, I live on W. 95th Street.”

“I’m on 90th Street.”

There wasn’t much more after this, just the glow of true joy which filled me. I was merciful and left him to his privacy after a few more moments. But I bounded out into the street where my husband was waiting, wonder and amusement writ large across his face.

Now, all semblance of maturity left me. “I HAD A CONVERSATION WITH TIM GUNN.” I repeated this many, many time, dancing down the street. I was fourteen. Not a day older. After a quick run-through of what had happened in Radio Shack, I stopped and made a call to my best friend. I knew she, too, was a big Tim Gunn fan, and I just had to share. I sounded a little crazy. So she told me later on. But, with the patient understanding that is a given with her, she listened, making appropriate responsive sounds.

“This,” I asserted as we resumed our walk, “is the best day of my life. I’m so glad I’m lost all that weight. I couldn’t have done it if I were still overweight.”

Don’t judge me for my superficiality, there’s a deeper meaning to all this…it’s a relief that I CAN permit myself to be shamelessly impulsive, without any interference from that negative voice-over which used to plague me and tell me I didn’t look good.

After a few more minutes, I looked down at what I was wearing: lavender slacks and an azure blue tee shirt. “I just wish I were wearing a cuter outfit.” Fourteen.