Random Queries

There are questions which I can answer and questions which someone else can answer. Then there are the questions which seem unanswerable. Here are a few that nag at the edges of my mind:

1. Why does walking bring on creativity? I remember walking on the beach in Fire Island, trying to navigate waves lapping at my ankles, while bursts of new ideas for the sci fi book I was writing exploded into my consciousness. I had to create little songs in order to remember the salient details. No paper and pencil available on the ocean walk.

This very question was something I had to stop and write down while walking uptown on Broadway. My travels on foot are increasingly a series of stutter-steps. Walk a few paces, have an idea that just can’t wait. Stop, write it down, and repeat.

2. How can it smell so bad right after the rain? (It’s a New York question, most certainly.) I thought Mama Nature had the ultimate power to purge and restore. Apparently not. It’s like  alcohol seeping through your pores the morning after a night of drinking. The City’s pores are reeking.

3. Let’s think for a moment about running with scissors. When do you go from the one who runs to the one who admonishes? Is there a threshold that gets crossed? Can anyone scroll back through their mind and memory and find that moment when wild abandon and lack of fear gave way to the full weight of dire possibilities? Or does it happen while you sleep? Is there a kind of dream catcher that steals your innocent trust?

4. How many crazy people are there? I ask that not as a mental health professional, but as an irritated and hyper-vigilant scout for street madness. I want to give it a wide berth. But they’re everywhere, from the slightly off, goofy intrusives, to the wild-eyed smelly ranters, to the shifty, creepy don’t-turn-your-back-on-them plotters of mayhem. I know we have a very large population in New York, but the crazy factor seems disproportional. I think we have more than our share. Don’ t you agree?

That would be it on the questions for now. Zu viel ist zu viel! The German phrase is so much more commanding than the English, “enough is enough.”

 

GETTING PERSONAL

To Cause or Not to Cause

Either a responder or an initiator be. Is that the question?

A mentor of mine, seeking to validate me as I launched my new career as a psychotherapist, called me a “responder.” What he meant was an accurate assessment of my strength. My best and most insightful part of self is activated in reaction to the words and feelings of others. Not a bad thing, is it? But what about the source of my creativity? The inner voice which initiates. That voice was muzzled for many decades until it finally broke free at the age of 60. Better late than never.

Mem’ries

What’s she saying, mammaries? Memories? The latter.

They have too good a rep. Sometimes they are a plague. When each random landmark you encounter in your average daily travels reminds you of loss or old pain, memories are a curse.

The solution: relocate off-planet or at least to a new country. Preferably one where you won’t understand the language. A lot of the stomach-clenching drama comes from the power of words. The ones that flow into your head unbidden when an otherwise innocuous encounter sets off a mem’ry.

The Kindness of Strangers

 A slim, elegant British woman in my building stopped before she got on the elevator as I was exiting my apartment.

She spoke to me. Not such a common occurrence.

“You’re quite slim. It suits you.”

We talked about the mindset of thinness. (Fat Karen was listening with awe.) It’s a new day and it just got a little better thanks to a neighbor with whom I had only ever exchanged nods.

THE MEANEST MAN IN NEW YORK

I was stopped cold in my tracks yesterday. Walking uptown on Broadway, my path crossed that of a middle-aged man (at my age, that’s anything from 40 to 60). I didn’t know him, had never seen him before; if I had I would have remembered. To say that he had a scowl on his face would be to give scowling a bad name.

His features were (I believe permanently) contorted: lips tightly pursed and turned down; jaw clenched and the sinews in his neck stretched and prominent; eyes glaring with a level of iced hatred that seemed dangerous to look at directly. He brought dementors to mind. Whatever misery had let to this externalization of extreme negativity was being emitted with force. Every instinct I had urged me to run like hell.

It was all over in a few moments. He cut his eyes briefly in my direction as we passed each other. I thought I heard him say something, but his mouth had remained tightly shut.

“I wish you were dead.” Five words reverberated inside my mind. Were they his thoughts? Were they mine? Had his mean spirit already found a foothold inside by brain?

The image of his face stayed on my retina for blocks. It was an entirely toxic experience, which felt like a life-force drain.

Stay home, mean man. Keep it to yourself. No one needs to be tainted by your bitterness. I highly recommend you put your demons under house arrest.

WHAT’S MORE NEW YORK THAN ZABAR’S?

Why am I thinking about Zabar’s? I’ll tell you why. I’m going to be visiting a dear friend for the day, who lives waaay out on Long Island. I want to bring something, something that she’d enjoy, but something that would provide her with a little piece of the City. The image of a goodie basket from Zabar’s arose in my inner vision. Umm hmmm, I said to myself. That’s it. What could be more New York than Zabar’s?

Well…

If my father were still with us, he’d say, “Screw Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass is the real New York.” For those poor souls who don’t know what that is, let me enlighten you. My father would probably yell like a drill sergeant right in your face: “What the hell’s the matter with you? You don’t know the best place in the world for smoked fish…and everything else that defines Jewish ‘appetizing?’”

Of course there is the entire realm of non-food (yes, there really is!). I could get my friend tickets to a Broadway show. And what could be more New York than Broadway? Except maybe Off-(and Off-Off) Broadway, the extended gamut of everything from Nude Boys doing ballet en pointe to the next Phantom of the Opera.

But what about Lincoln Center. It may not be a century old, but doesn’t it cast it’s operatic, balletic, philharmonic, and theatrical shadow far and wide, representing the finest cultural experiences that only New York can muster all in one place? I could get her a subscription to something at Lincoln Center.

Since it’ a quick bus-ride away, I just came back from Zabar’s. When I entered at the extraordinarily early hour of 9:15 on a Sunday morning, I had to dodge and weave, elbows just slightly akimbo, in order to move across the store from entry to bakery (replete with a palate of handmade French macarons) and fresh bread counter, to prepared foods wafting the fragrant aromas of Chinese loin of pork, two kinds of stuffed cabbage, six kinds of salmon,  into the consciousness of  the sleepy-eyed avidity of the Upper West Side and beyond shoppers, to the smoked fish and olives and other drool-producing taste treats , to the ….okay, you got the picture.

The word “quintessential” echoed in my mind. Why go anywhere else? This was as New York as it gets.

 

The Prerogatives of Age (and blogging)

One of the many advantages of arriving in that post-65 age bracket is that you can pretty much give yourself license to do what you want to do. Some will chalk it up to wise old eccentricity; some with think you’ve lost a few screws. Either way, you can wear your pants on backwards or opine about whichever issues cross the horizon of your thinking. And, if you have a blog, you can do so publicly.

I think I will.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

First, I want to talk about acknowledgment. We are all too well informed about the impact of money and the prestige and access that comes with material gain and acquisition. But do we understand—as community, society, people—the monumental power of acknowledgment?To look out from our increasingly narcissistic selves and see another. That’s big. But then to communicate to that person what you see: their gifts, their strengths, the good they’ve done, the way they have affected you—that’s bigger.

When you stop and bring yourself into that moment of acknowledging someone else, you create a bridge, not of your need or desire, but of true connection. He or she has done or been something that uplifted others: it might be in their work, their personal style, their demeanor, or through actions which were either matter of fact or very difficult for them. The point is that you are aware of them. Now you feed that back to the individual. He or she discovers that they were seen…and seen as being good. Isn’t that what we all want?

A word about the acknowledger. When you discover how nourishing the acknowledgment you’ve given truly is, you will be richer still—in the ways that matter. In the ways that last longer than dollars or things. In the ways of the heart.

AN IMAGINARY INCIDENT

So far, all the posts to this blog have been about actual events…my take on them, which can be a bit modifying, shall we say, but grounded in reality. I would like to depart. There’s a story I want to tell which hasn’t happened—not in what we commonly agree upon as reality. But it could, and it might. Because it’s based on the truth about the people in the tale. The representation of their nature, their character, is as real as anything could be. The encounter, however, is fictional.

I’m going to call it HIGH NOON ON THE WILD WEST SIDE.

 It was a sunny late morning in August. The day promised to be a hot one, but it hadn’t gotten there yet. I had my usual errands to run, which I anticipated with pleasure. I always enjoy the walkabout in my neighborhood. As I left my apartment, which is on the main floor, I heard what could only be construed as the sounds of burgeoning conflict. The words being loudly uttered were somewhat muffled at first. But, as I proceeded through the lobby to the building’s entry, I could make out what was being yelled:

“It’s mine! Don’t you dare try to take it from me! You’re a thief, a gonif! I won’t let you get away with this.”

“You’re a psycho! You don’t own the space. You can’t reserve it. It’s mine now! And you better not threaten me. Or…

“Or, what, you bastard, or what?

“Or I’ll sue you; I’ll make your life a living hell. I’ll ruin you. I can do it and I will.”

Let me illuminate. You probably can’t guess what’s actually going on. Two men are fighting over a parking space outside the building. There’s alternate side parking and the protocol on the Upper West Side is that cars double park on one side of the block during the period of street cleaning; then they move to the now-cleaned side and sit in their cars, waiting—sometimes for a half-hour— until the no-parking time has elapsed.

Mr. R, late forties, paunchy, baggy, barely groomed, but somehow still generating an aura of virility (which has more to do with his unblemished sense of his own superior self-worth – and net worth), was in stage two of the parking process. He was sitting in his late model Lexus, on his iPhone, doing something engrossing, waiting for the clock to run out. He had maybe ten minutes to go before the one-o-clock hour.

Mr. E, apoplectic, arms flailing, an over-fifty, self-deluded master of the universe, was used to getting his way. Whether his way is just or even reasonable, he has the connections and slightly sociopathic will to roll over anyone in his path. On the surface, he’s a soft-spoken guy, a barely audible lisp adding to the overall false persona. He’s a true killer. E was out of his 1973 Mustang, gently battered and intended to add a few inches to his penis. The car was now blocking the middle of the road, doors open, motor running.

“Didn’t you see my signs? I left two signs. One on my car.” (He thought but didn’t say outloud, “Butch.”) “And the big one in red letters on the curb – TAKEN. DON’T PARK HERE.”

“If you weren’t such a crazy asshole, I’d be laughing now. But I see that you believe you’re entitled. Go fuck yourself. Seriously. That’s my suggestion.”

A crowd had gathered on both sides of the street. There were about fifteen people who witnessed the next stage of this showdown. Mr. E, having failed to persuade, moved his soft, unmuscled body faster than most could see. He grabbed the driver’s door of the Lexus and, with two unexpected moves, opened it and pulled Mr. R. halfway out. The latter’s legs were still under the steering wheel, but his upper torso was on a trajectory for the gutter. On his way down, he clutched at E’s lower body, throwing him off balance. They both went down to the ground. Screaming. At a pitch I’d only heard from teenage girls. The occasional words which were audible: “Motherfucker, cocksucker, beat you to death, destroy you.”

In the crowd were several people who knew them both. No one liked either one very much, but E had a coterie of sworn enemies. And so, enemy of my enemy being my friend, three men walked quickly (they didn’t run) to break up the fight. The two combatants were sweaty and snotty. Their clothes were in disarray. R had punched E in the crotch which had ultimately given him the advantage. The peacemakers pulled E to a standing position and frog-marched him to the front of the building. Someone took his keys and moved his car out of the center of the street. He was sobbing. When he caught his breath, he hurled his final assault at R, who had locked his car and was limping toward home.

“You won’t see me coming, but I’ll get you. If it’s the last thing I do.”

A spontaneous chorus of, “Shut the fuck up!” drowned him out. I heard my voice in the mix.

 

 

MISTER MAYOR!!

No, I’m not about to write about Bill DeBlasio. There’s someone much more important in my life. He’s the Mayor of West 95th Street, our superior superintendent…Let’s call him Hector.

Does he fix whatever needs fixing? He does.

Does he oversee the safety and security of the building? He does.

Is he smart? He is. Is he diplomatic? He is. Can he kick some ass when that’s what’s called for? Oh my, yes he can.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

You can see Hector in the street when he’s not called upon to manage something in the building. He’s managing the block. I’m not kidding. Nothing escapes him. His aura of responsibility extends way past the front door; he’s on the job – even when he’s on vacation.

And that’s still not the heart of the story.

He’s a man with many facets. He can listen. He can offer support. His larger-than-life spirit is available for all who are fortunate enough to dwell on HIS premises (and let’s be honest, these are HIS). If you’re in some kind of trouble, he’s there for you. He’s the man you can count on no matter what.

He takes care of many people: professionally and personally. He’s a great father, too.

He looks after those who are in need as well. He’s a giving man, a charitable man. A rock.

If the Mayor of the City is half the man he is, we’re in good hands.

Whether on my way out, or on my way into the building, when I see Hector’s face, any free-floating anxiety I have tends to float away. He’s got my back. Who could ask for more?

CONFESSION:

I call myself a New Yorker, a Manhattanite, a denizen of the Upper West Side. All false selves, mustache and fake nose. Who am I really? A Brooklyn girl. Born and bred. It may be 47 years since I lived in the most notorious borough, but you know how hard it is to get the smell of skunk off anything? Take that to the power of 12…and make that the 12th of never…that’s how impossible it is to get Brooklyn off of anything.

Even the shyest in Brooklyn teethe on the notion of “Don’t fuck with me.” Is it attitude? I think it’s character. And it makes for a pretty good backbone, even if “abrasive” is an epithet which the more repressed may tend to hurl at us. When that lightly rigged switch is thrown— be it while someone’s cutting in line at the grocery, or accidentally bumping into me on the street— there’s a reflexive “Whaddya think you’re doin’?” which just shows up. I don’t always articulate it. Sometimes it just wouldn’t be prudent. Like when the bumper is tall and a little strung out looking, but I mostly find a way to express myself and rectify the perceived wrong.

Brooklyn also means being able to connect with everyone around the commonalities of living. You schmooze. It’s what you do. And it’s authentic, not a social nicety. “Hey, what’s goin’ on? How you doin’?” That’s our lingua franca. Maybe accompanied by a handshake or a hug or a slap on the back. I want to know.

Isolation wasn’t even a concept growing up. We were always out on the street. All the ladies were too—watching us, watching all the kids, watching each other, and not keeping their thoughts to themselves. It was a lot like having twenty mothers. I was told off by more people before the age of ten than most are in a lifetime. I didn’t get away with much. Well, I actually did, but I had to be really cagey. There were no passes for the stray curse word or the ball that grazed somebody sitting on their porch.

The “stoop,” which was far more than access to my building—it was our XBox, a source of many games, not the least of which was “stoop ball”— had to be respected. Because sometimes people wanted to sit on the stoop. Adults ruled, not like their figurehead status today. They kicked asses, and I don’t mean that in a manner of speaking. So, kids ganged up, but kept their distance.

Many others have talked about living in Manhattan for decades without really knowing their neighbors. That didn’t happen in Brooklyn. Even if you were a schizophrenic hoarder, you were part of the community. You were talked to and talked about. Everyone knew what was “goin’ on” with you.

I confess that I enjoy the opportunity for anonymity I now have when I want it. There’s a kind of privacy that couldn’t be garnered back in the day in Flatbush. But, as always, there’s the loss with the gain. I miss those ladies; I miss having twenty mothers; I miss the depth of community that was Brooklyn.

TRADITION MEETS THE MODERN ERA

There’s an orthodox synagogue on my block. As I was returning from early morning errands, my attention was captured by the conversation between two young men – no more than early 20’s, who, it appeared, had just left the shul.

“…in the Modern Era,” one was saying. He wore a modified version of the traditional dress: a dark suit and wide brimmed hat, tipped back off his brow. The other was dressed in lightweight slacks and a short sleeved shirt; he responded with, “It’s considered to be Kosher by many of the best Rabbinical thinkers.”

Here, before 9am, these two thoughtful men were engaged in a serious, seemingly Talmudic discussion of the current state of the ancient Jewish dietary laws.

They passed by and I was no longer privy to their thoughts. Within a few more steps I took notice of a striking figure up ahead of me. A diminutive, but clearly aged man, long white side curls brushing his cheeks, was also on his way after having been to an early service.  His authentic dress was unmistakable. His orthodoxy was evident in the way he carried himself, hands clasped behind his back, chest held high.

While I watched him making his unhurried, deliberate way to whatever his next destination was, he stopped. There was a car which I’ve seen many times parked at the curb outside one of the townhouses. It had a very long electric cord attached to it, which ran a distance along the street and then up the stairs to the parlor floor entry of the house and inside.

“What’s this?” The rabbi said. (I call him that as a matter of respect, not knowing if he actually held that revered position in his congregation. I knew, without question, however, that he was a learned man.).

The owner of the car briefly explained that it was an electric car with a battery.

“Oh. It’s charging!” Understanding was swift.

He proceeded up the block, now nodding. I was closer than before and I could hear him saying to himself over and over, “Aha! Aha! It’s charging.”

AN AFTERNOON UPTOWN

I don’t get up to Harlem much. Okay, I never go to Harlem. Life hasn’t taken me there, even though it’s only thirty blocks uptown from where I live.

Saturday, the inducement of a Street Fair on the same block as the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the promise of outdoor dance performances changed things for me. This post is about a few things. Primarily my experience of being a minority. It’s not something I often get to feel. Don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t anything particularly negative about being one of the very few Caucasians among the many people jamming the block on 152nd Street and Amsterdam. The common language of dance seemed like it would make things kind of color blind. But that wasn’t true.

To a great degree, the Fair and celebratory mood were about the power of being black, being African-American, being Caribbean-American. Many of the beautiful tee shirts for sale had sayings which I couldn’t have worn, honoring the core pride of the community of color. I could support the messages, but I couldn’t co-opt them.

The locals had the performances staked out. Aside from the front VIP rows, many had set up their own personal chairs in much of the choice viewing area. I guess I could have done the same, but it hadn’t occurred to me. I felt a little like an interloper as I craned my body, trying to both see the gorgeous dancers and catch a little piece of shade. I was one of just a handful wearing a hat to block the sun.

There were some fine artisans selling jewelry, flowing dresses, and other hand-fabricated wares. I shopped with interest, and made a purchase of some copper and semi-precious earrings. The question was posed to the artist, did she know a woman of our acquaintance, also a jewelry designer who worked in copper? “Does she live in Harlem?” was her initial reply. I felt the slow rise of my own insensitivity. Just because they are both African-American, did I think that would be enough of a connection to warrant the question? Ugh.

When I was going to school for a Masters in Social Work, many, many years ago, I had a favorite professor, Livingston Francis. He led the class in a terribly impactful exercise, the purpose of which was to demonstrate that we were all racists. All of us, no matter our notions, race, the variety of our friends and even lovers. That stayed with me and I thought I heard Livey laughing at me over the earrings. And to prove that the underlying racism which he taught us about is inevitable and needs to be seen in order to defang it, there was the small encounter with another artisan. She had some unusual sandals which we inquired about. Questions were answered. All was polite and delivered in a mild tone. What was bothering me, then? As we left the booth, I realized what it was. She spoke to me the entire time in her “white” voice, which was weirdly over articulated, without even the whiff of any ethnicity in either her pronunciation or inflection. Maybe she was really from Kansas and this is how she always talked, but I doubt it. I’m sure it was reflexive, born of the sense that she couldn’t fully be herself with someone whose skin was very pale.

There was an immense line of people waiting to purchase food from a stand that advertised shrimp and chicken. I knew they knew it was ass-kicking good. I considered jumping on the fried-deliciousness band-wagon but decided to stay within my quite strict dietary parameters. For that moment I truly longed to be as comfortable in my skin within the range of body sizes casually arrayed. But that’s not me. I don’t have the same sensibility, so I walked past, a little sad, inhaling the fragrant smells which whispered in my ear, “You’re out of your element.”

Back to the future

Today I went on a tour of the New York Institute of Technology, a school ensconced on the Upper West Side. I was the “adult” with a potential student. But I found myself excessively intrigued by the completely upbeat monologue delivered by our guide, a personable young woman, in her fourth year, studying architecture.

 

The intimate, no more than 20-students-large, classrooms; the rooms devoted to Distance Learning – where the City campus and Long Island campus were joined in one lecture; the communications labs, the aura of urbanely sophisticated young men and women embarked on a venture toward careers across the spectrum. Ah! The references to both the academic and non-academic activities which were part of the fabric of the school. Ah! At some point I blurted out, “Can I go here, too?” It was not my 67-year-old voice speaking, but the still extant teenager who would like to come out and take over again…for a while.

 

Would I like a do-over? Who wouldn’t? What would I pursue differently?

Well, I would graduate from college a little sooner than I did – maybe at 21 instead of 37. I would very much like to explore the edges of the various worlds of Manhattan from the vantage of extreme youth. To feel the power of new knowledge and the unvarnished sense of possibility and potential that students in New York must possess at the highest level.

 

The world would be my oyster. Slurp.