It takes a long time to grow an old friend. ~John Leonard
A SPANIARD IN THE WORKS
Nearly eight years ago I was given a virtual introduction to a woman writer from Barcelona through our mutual friend in Paris, also a writer.
At the time I was recovering from the shock of freedom one gets in the jarring sunlight of unemployment after many years in the dark belly of the corporate beast. My great passion had been as a painter until the jailers at Hachette put me on paid lockdown and for years I struggled to maintain my creative spirit (i.e., individuality) among mostly alien coworkers during long hours in the day job. I was too often drained and left gasping for turpentine. When I was deemed replaceable by younger, cheaper fodder for the corporate mill they cut me loose. I returned to the oils and turps, painting portraits with the intensity of a newly freed prisoner who has been deprived of the sensual pleasures for too long.
But what I needed most was change. I put the brushes down and began writing. The Mister and I had already started down a songwriting path. I endured being told by the musician in the marriage that I had to learn to make the lyrics scan, but I did. And we have carried on to a comfortable and productive joy in the songwriting. But I needed some creative outlet of my own. At first there was a screenplay—oh, the cliché—but as I wasn’t quite sure of my newly acquired solitude I joined forces with an ex-coworker in an effort to help another along to his creative dreams. Collaboration is only good when you—you know—collaborate. But apart from too many dips into the Department of Missing the Point, the experience was not a total loss as the idea for the screenplay was mine and while we struggled with personal foibles I began to write the story as a novel.
When Isabel first communicated to me from Barcelona via e-mail this was the sum total of my writing experience, apart from the journals I had kept and letters I wrote as a young woman. Both she and our Parisian friend were seasoned writers and I would come to know Bel—as she is called by friends—as not only a journalist and politically astute writer but the creator of the most hauntingly beautiful short stories, delicately yet precisely mined from her personal history.
In a time of sound bites, abbreviated e-mails and truncated twitter messages we wrote lengthily, and a lot of the time passionately, about our lives, our dreams, then more intimate thoughts and comfortable complaint. We had never heard each other’s voice though she imagined my laugh. We sent little presents through the mail. We clicked.
It was she who inspired me early on to begin writing short stories, telling me my messages to her were like stories and should be expanded. I have not stopped writing since.
Bel had been contemplating a trip to New York. It was nearly eight years since she had been here with her teenage son and she was dreaming of a trip on her own. It would mean dealing with the nightmare of travel in a post 9/11 era, a tricky minefield for a politically aware person who refuses the mantle of the sheep’s skin. But the photos I kept sending her of Central Park, the small daily stories I write describing my city, and our shared political ground, finally persuaded her.
The Mister and I arrived home last Thursday evening having attended a delightful recital at the Third Street Music School where our young friend Ella, with feet firmly planted on the ground, elbows raised and her flute to her lips with the kind of confidence only a nine-year-old girl can muster, played excerpts from Thomas Haynes Bayly: “Gaily the Troubador” and “Long, Long Ago.” Bel had arrived at our apartment earlier and following my instructions made herself at home. We found her with a glass of wine and a book, curled into the wicker chair, our cats eyeing her with curiosity. It was like I had always known her.
We had, literally, a whirlwind week flying around the city with The Mister who took a week off from the day job so he too could be an accidental tourist in his adopted hometown. But that night Isabel’s introduction to my city was a walk down Fifth Avenue from our apartment on the upper eastside and then into Central Park for the glorious late night view of Manhattan from the reservoir. The trees around us rustled with expectation at her arrival; she who had fought the good fight in Barcelona to save the trees along Diagonal Avenue and who would, upon returning to Barcelona, find she had won! In fact, the oddest thing occurred. As we walked back uptown along the path at the top of the reservoir, the street lamps went dark, each as we passed. We made our way home in the pitch-blackness, unnerved, and strangely elated at the same time. Surely it was a sign. My own trees paying their respects to the visitor from Barcelona; the Great Defender Of Trees. We returned to our apartment to open the little presents she had brought for us, cooing like sleepy indulged children over exotic teas and a crazy kitchen apron, which The Mister has appropriated.
Trees were the focal point, for sure, during our weeklong excursions. We walked Bel through the beautiful North End of Central Park, pointing out the areas that had been devastated by the storm of August 2009 and are now populated with skinny saplings, digging in with their young roots and already forming a recognizable memory for those younger people among us who will see them reach a powerful old age.
We walked down through Central Park on the west side on Bel’s first day, stopping at Strawberry Fields for the obligatory photograph at that iconic symbol of John Lennon, the IMAGINE mosaic. We dropped in our contribution to the smiling man’s hat on a bench nearby whose hand-lettered sign read: “WHY LIE? I NEED A BEER AND PEACE AND LOVE AND LOTS OF HUGS.” Having read of Bel’s protest to save the trees for so long it was impossible not to notice what a leafy place Manhattan is. Trees are being planted everywhere and recently many have been added to my neighborhood. If only our power-mad mayor would open himself up to the notion that our students in the public schools are like these tender saplings and need nourishment and attention to grow into strong contributors to the well being of our city. If only he saw the connection and didn’t resort to mind-numblingly mean attempts to derail that growth like a plan to revoke the free pass on city transit for school children.
We began our museum adventure at the Rubin Museum in Chelsea with an exhibition titled: REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL DIE, which was a surprisingly upbeat overview of cultural references to death. The highlight of the exhibition, though, was a stunningly evocative piece by Bill Viola and we stood transfixed at the moving imagery of three females of differing age stepping back into life from the other side for one last look before leaving forever. We, the living, had a fresh and delightfully prepared vegetarian lunch in the museum’s café.
Later we met up with our Fairy Godfather—FGF—and celebrated his birthday at Arturo’s, a fave old-timey hangout where live jazz is still affordable just above the SOHO border. We introduced Bel to real brick oven pizza before she stumbled mistakenly into a god awful Dominoes or any one of the battling Ray’s, each more famous than the next. After we saw FGF back home the three of us, rejuvenated by fresh arugula salad, crisply perfect pizza and, oh yeah red wine, set off for DUMBO in Brooklyn. The intent was for Isabel to have that thrill we afford all of our guests of crossing the majestic Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. It never, ever fails to impress no matter the time of day or night, whatever season in whatever weather. And after a tour over cobblestone streets of the picture book neighborhood of Vinegar Hill that is featured in my novel, poking our heads into a hangar-sized collection of antiquated Asian eccentricities, strolling under the bridges in the little riverside park and enjoying home made ice cream on a pier bordered with the words of Brooklyn’s famous son, Walt Whitman, we made our way across the famous bridge. It is a walk The Mister and I have made many, many times at all hours of the day and night and it never ever feels anything less than thrilling.
On a day we had planned to trek out to Long Island City and visit the studio of a sculptor friend inclement weather forced our hand and we had to forgo the pleasure. Later at the first sign of a break in the clouds, I marshaled us back onto the subway for the long ride out to Brighton Beach. Under the zippered light through the tracks above the main thoroughfare we explored the shops in this Russian community, laughing at the traditional nesting dolls revamped in the image of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Liquor stores displayed the oddest packaging of alcoholic products we’d ever seen: penis shaped bottles of tequila; a glass semi-automatic weapon containing god knows what kind of alcohol. We settled into our favorite café for herring and potatoes, eggplant caviar and sweet puffs of crepe stuffed with cheese and cherries.
Refreshed, we made our way along the windy beach in the direction of Coney Island. Soon we were swallowed up by a fierce sandstorm, thwarting even the most determined kite flyer, and after we’d dumped a few tons of sand from our shoes we walked the rest of the way to Coney on the boardwalk. We detoured into the Coney Island Aquarium to see the historic bathysphere that appears in my short story “Wild Life.” We made our way through dark tunnels lighted by tanks of captive sharks. It’s a bit of a sad place now, waiting for the multi-million dollar renovation scheduled. Workers wages are frozen, many have been laid off but the whales and dolphins will be back performing for an audience of cheering children and their parents who don’t really get that Nature is not our personal entertainer. After oohing and ahhhing over the the schools of silvery fish in the lighted tanks one can choose to have the fried version between a bun in the cafeteria and no one bats an eye. Cute little seahorses on the menu would be more likely to bring protest.
Hanging on to each other we braved the gusts out to the end of the pier over a swollen Atlantic Ocean. Later, we stopped to see a couple gleefully raising air rifles to “Shoot the Freak” with paintballs. After a rollicking ride on The Wonder Wheel, which Bel declined, we three crammed into a photo booth and fell out like clowns in a car to the amused couples waiting their turn. We had our fortunes told by the Grandmother in the booth and I’m happy to say all of our worries are over. Finally, we wandered into the Coney Island sideshow. We laughed hysterically, recoiled in horror, gagged a few times and were generally enormously entertained by Carney characters who hammered nails up their nose; danced seductively with a scaley, undulating reptilian partner—kissing its nervously flicking forked tongue for emphasis; squealed as a completely tattooed barefoot girl stepped gingerly up a razor sharp ladder of swords and cheered when the beautiful damsel swallowed fire. Before boarding the subway I made my unavoidable pilgrimage to Nathan’s Famous and ordered the obligatory yellow bag of crinkle cut fries I knew was a bad idea and ate them anyway. The tummy upset took my mind off of the blisters nearly crippling me.
We met Beats at Pearl River the following morning, a gigantic department store of Asian products on Broadway and Grand and set out on our personal quests. I found the spoon rest I required, Beats her soap. Isabel bought a lovely black and white kimono and seductively beautiful black silk pajamas. The Mister scored a bright red flashlight. I was temporarily saved by Beats who carries a supply of blister bandages. She is Swiss and like the army knife is prepared for every situation. Before I tucked into fabulous rounds of traditional dim sum in Chinatown, which is presented on little plates in rolling carts pushed by smiling women who haven’t a clue when you ask about a dish, I slipped into the bathroom and bound my pitiful feet.
After leaving Bel to peruse the miles of books at Strand The Mister and I waited in a coffee shop up the block watching celebrities like Maggie Gyllenhal cruise by the window, talking on her cell phone like every other New Yorker. When Bel returned she presented me with two wonderful slim volumes: Joseph Brodsky’s “The Watermark” and Robert Bolaño’s “Antwerp.”
Besides trees, Bel was most taken with the sound of the city and the cacophonous orchestration of so many instruments both mechanical and human. She listened with delight for the sing song of Asian children in the streets of Chinatown and once we stopped in Chelsea outside of the old timey MacManus Bar, eavesdropping on a native New Yorker’s cell phone conversation:
“Yew don unnerstan. You thought I assed diju need anything. I said, diju eat anything. You’re crazy. You needa vacation.”
One day during her visit—Mother’s Day—Isabel took off on her own for museums like The Frick and The Metropolitan as we live just off Museum Mile on upper Fifth Avenue. She also got to MOMA, which exhibitions we had already seen. We did join her on her last day and also met up with our friend Beatrice at the Whitney Museum for its Biennial exhibition. Beatrice (Beats as she is known to friends) and I were good friends at Hachette until circumstances and the poisonous atmosphere in those offices drove us apart. Reconnecting only recently—on facebook, it’s true—we have renewed our friendship with the vigor of those who know what they lost and are overjoyed at finding it again. Beatrice had been introduced to Bel earlier in the visit when we trawled around Chinatown together. At the Whitney show Beats delivered Bel’s order of the charming hand made cat toys she creates. In the galleries of the Whitney we each—The Mister, Bel, Beats and me—delivered appropriately acerbic comments to installations with less romantic appeal than construction sites but more detritus. Apart from a somewhat moving video projected on the windscreen of a vintage ambulance nearly every other piece on exhibition could fall under the title: KNEE PADS IN ART SCHOOL ACADEMIA.
But on that Sunday the Mister and I remained at home. I soaked my tortured feet and we worked on a new song we are writing. It is, of course, a love song, and appropriately called “Wonder Wheel.”
Monday night was a regular jam session at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem and not to be missed. The featured band was the Sugar Hill Quartet and though a little round-healed in their delivery they played a fine set. I caught a poignant note in the bass player’s voice as he mumbled to the sax that, “…ol Lena is gone….” This isn’t the atmosphere I recall as a much younger woman when often I was one of very few white people in the audience and the jazz was tighter. You didn’t see the sax player look out over an audience of whites and Asians and hear him say, with some tiredness, “The more you drink the better we sound.” You never saw a conga line of Japanese tourists leave mid-set and each one bow comically to the bemused band members before they made their way to the idling tour bus on 125th Street. The club itself is a beautiful space, its walls covered with an exotic black-and-white zebra design, authentically restored when Spike Lee filmed scenes for Malcolm X. I kinda miss the days when the bandleader did not have to instruct an audience how to clap on the downbeat, “…if you gotta clap. Let's see if we have any rhythmically-challenged people out there!” We left after the set as Patience Higgins, the sax player, chided us to, “…get offa them computers—like Alice down the rabbit hole…” which made Bel smile.
Tuesday morning found us nursing hangovers from a post-Harlem jam session back at the apartment, which we mostly don’t recall anything of but listening to Coltrane and laughing. A lot. Then there was a mad flurry of facebook postings between the three of us, making us laugh even harder. We managed an afternoon stroll to the North End of Central Park, our preferred terrain, ambling through the Conservatory Gardens and then taking in the view high above the Harlem Meer, watching the little kids gripping their fishing poles with concentrated expectation. We shepherded Isabel along the winding paths we know well, under the great stone arch and up the rocky outcropping along the waterfall to the placid lake bordered by giant willow trees.
At our favorite spot we came upon a man who was fly casting into the lake. In no time he commandeered me and I was his accidental assistant helping him to photograph the dos and donts of fly casting for a magazine article he was writing.
My job done, we carried on north to end up at The Hungarian Pastry Shop for a much-anticipated latte and cherry strudel. At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine we were rewarded with a superb musical concert by a chamber orchestra from Berklee College of Music. Columbia University was gearing up for graduation and the stately beauty of the campus was lost somewhat under the white tents and trucks parked for the upcoming occasion.
Wandering down Broadway I was struck by the absence of bookstores I had ardently frequented when I lived in that neighborhood in my early twenties. The rickety sidewalk tables of books manned by endearing eccentrics were still there. Shakespeare was gone. Barnes & Noble an unwelcome sight. We had the obligatory photo op in front of Tom’s Coffee Shop on the corner of the block where I used to live. I would head home in a beery haze from The Gold Rail eyeing the huge sign painted on a wall high above Broadway that declared the wages of sin to be death before turning down my street on 112th. Confronted by the ghostly presence of St. John the Divine rising from the mist at the end of the block I swore every time that I had had my last beer. Every time.
Tuesday was the 21st wedding anniversary for The Mister and me and Bel treated us to a sumptuous Indian meal at another fave restaurant, which is called Tiffin Wallah on east 28th street. It is a sparklingly clean atmosphere and serves deliciously traditional southern Indian vegetarian fare. Bel was suitably impressed and we ate like royalty for reasonable dosh. She headed downtown to Tribeca after dinner to meet up with an artist acquaintance and The Mister and I went back to the apartment to ‘celebrate’ our anniversary.
In all this time the conversation rolled easily among the three of us. Bel liked The Mister’s sense of humor, “…very Brit.” She said she felt like Cinderella the whole time, being escorted all over the city by real New Yorkers. The Mister set her up with a laptop at one end of my desk and often in the mornings and later at night when we were home we pecked at the keys in sync. The expected insecurities arose now and again; I am quiet in the mornings and take some time before I embrace the ‘reality’ of the day and I missed my morning run around the reservoir and the bout of exercise and stretching on a park bench that helps me fall into the day. Most of the time, when The Mister is working, I am on my own and have come to embrace the solitude like a friend who has finally returned to me and whom I now understand more fully what they were trying to tell me. But to upset one’s routine is sometimes necessary and sometimes a good thing. A very good thing. With Bel, I felt as if I had known her for a very long time; that this could not, in fact, have been the only time we met. So many of our respective jaunts have included photographs taken of our feet to tell the other where we have been and that we have been thinking of each other. Our e-mails to each other are now rounded out with the physical presence of the writer and the reader.
Our last night together the three of us went to see Fela on Broadway. The house was packed and not with the usual theater going crowd who prefer the likes of Mary Poppins. Fela Kuti was no Mary Poppins, to be sure. The theater rocked with the story of this Nigerian activist, the Afro Beat music and a political pulse that never stopped pounding, even when sly comedy slipped between the cracks. The audience went wild; stately African American grandmas in traditional dress, black teenage girls in spangled t-shirts, broad shouldered black men with long dreads and me and The Mister and Bel who loved every poignant, comic, musical, throbbing minute of it. The unassuming tribute to Sean bell at the musical’s close was heartrending.
We left the theater and entered the evolution of the police state of my city, hundreds of uniformed officers and endless rows of cop cars and tourists who seemed nonplussed by the whole thing. A quick stop at the top of 42nd Street for Bel and then we got the hell out of there.Over moules et frites at the 24-hour French Roast on upper Broadway we lifted wine glasses to our friendship, also an evolution of sorts. The Mister and I—normally early diners—marveled that we were eating and drinking in the late hour of the Spanish. Bel had perfected a signature New York slang and now barked like a native: “Fuck you, Jack!” We had crossed over into each other’s hearts. And that was just fine.