“Skyscraper national park.” — Kurt Vonnegut
This is traditionally the quietest weekend in Manhattan, at least on the upper East Side where many residents leave their condos and brownstones and fly off to the fruits of their entitlement; a sun-bleached clapboard house in South Hampton, a neat rose-covered cottage in the mountains. Day trippers will find a crowded beach, a suburban backyard barbeque, or an amusement park just starting back to life after a long winter sleep. Out-of-towners gel into distracted motion shopping for bargains along lower Broadway and rubberneck beneath the outlandish billboards in Times Square.
Not me and The Mister. Our holiday weekend started with protest. Well, actually it started with The Mister’s annual eye exam at the State University of Optometry early Friday morning. Rush hour traffic had already lost its congested heft, apart from tourists grunting under the weight of their baggage on the steep ascent from the subway at Grand Central.
The waiting area at SUNY was practically deserted, a good sign. The Mister was called immediately and I found a quieter corner away from the few gathered around the flat screen watching what would turn out to be marathon episodes of Fresh Prince of Bel Aire with a very youthful Will Smith grinning from the screen. I opened Maeve Brennan’s The Long-Winded Lady and settled in for a good read. My friend Isabel in Barcelona sent me the book. She said she’d loved this Irish-born New Yorker’s stories and that my own tales of my city reminded her of Brennan.
So, I had begun reading and very soon recalled that I had actually read Brennan’s column in The New Yorker sometime in the 60s when I discovered issues of the magazine scattered about the summer home of the Waldens. He was an attorney for S. Klein on the Square, a beloved department store across from Union Square Park, where I think Whole Foods sits now, which is not especially known for its bargains. She had a green thumb and chastised her son, my friend, not for growing marijuana in his bedroom, but for doing it poorly. They were radical Jewish Leftists who lived in a spacious apartment on Central Park West. Having had some modicum of success, Mr. Walden bought a rambling old beauty on a hill in Norfolk, Connecticut and cheerfully knocked the community of prim Waspish noses well and truly out of joint.
Robbie and I would drive up midweek with no other plans than to face the living room speakers to the expansive backyard garden, which was anarchically overgrown and heaving with color. We turned up the record player and drifted to Billy Holiday cocooned lazily in hammocks strung between massive trees, smoked dope and read the New Yorker.
I was distracted from the book when two women bustled nosily up to the reception desk. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” they yelled. “Late. Traffic!” Between them was a disabled man. Eavesdropping a bit I guessed the two women were his mother and grandmother. His head lolled and his arms flailed. Gently, the receptionist asked, “Can he sign on his own?”
Behind where I sat was a wall of windows looking out onto Bryant Park to the rear of the main branch of the New York Public Library. The scaffolding was gone that had blocked my view last year and I had a good long drink of the park below. Native New Yorkers are lousy at recalling details of the city, like what building stood forever where a gigantic hole suddenly appears. At least that’s the case of this Native New Yorker. I like very much that Maeve Brennan wrote about everyday non-events, skipping the bigger, newsier stuff of the moment unless it fit in with her restrained intolerance of noisy restaurant goers, an ice cube melting on a sweltering day in the palms of a ragged, shoeless man, callous comments about Marilyn Monroe overheard in a bookshop, and nuns. She chronicled, in passing, the too swift changes that can happen to the city’s landscape and watched grand old brownstones demolished for the unsatisfied hunger for office space. Not much and everything has changed
I am one of those who pay more attention to the smaller dialogs around me than to the bigger changes that happen in the city I love. Which is why I am grateful there are people who blog those changes like Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, Ephemeral New York, and Greenwich Village Daily Photo (GVDP). For the yet undiscovered I turn to a blog called Scouting NY. The writer is a film location scout and I let him do the legwork to turn up some pretty incredible gems with photographs and background information.
So I was momentarily surprised to see a tall building directly across the park. The Empire State to the left is instantly recognizable, but the black building ornately capped with what appeared to be a gold leaf trim disoriented me. The Mister appeared and squinted through dilated pupils: “Has that building always been there?” I reckon he’s a real New Yorker now.
On my own again after he returned to his exam, I was distracted from my reading by a cell phone conversation. Cell phone users mostly speak in a loud voice as if they did not quite believe the intrinsic capabilities of the instrument and needed to shout the perceived distance between them. This particular cell phone user left the television area presumably to hear better and wandered into my quieter realm speaking Russian in a very loud voice. I put down my book and peered over my glasses in passive protest until she moved away.
Another very disabled man arrived, escorted from the elevator by his parents to a seat near mine. The grown man, suspended in infancy, shouted with bursts of repetitive baby talk. “B-b-ba-a-by! M-a-a-ma!” He was missing two front teeth. He bleated like a lamb. His mother flipped through some papers. His father removed a protective helmet from his squirming son and soothed him, calling him Victor. The shouting continued and he was really, really loud. The animal sounds morphed into whoops and br-r-rs and cracked laughter. Patients turned from The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire to investigate the commotion. He looked at me and I smiled. He was much, much louder than a cell phone caller and that was just fine.
A man dressed in brown from top to toe hurried in. The receptionist reprimanded him for being over an hour late. The man’s skin was brown, his face shriveled like a walnut. Brown shirt under a brown jacket, brown pants sagging over brown shoes. Even his hat, some kind of plastic or maybe rubber fedora, was brown. It looked like it was made out of chocolate. He was hurried along by the resident who hovered above him as he filled in the questionnaire. He jumped so quickly from his chair that his neon-orange nametag fell off. I stared at that bit of paper on an empty padded blue seat for a long time.
Finally Mr. Gomez is called and the father gently goads his barking son from the waiting area to be examined. “C’mon Victor. You can do it. Thatta boy.”
I am someone who can cry at the drop of a hat if it falls off the right head. While three white-coated young women giggled with the man behind the desk over some eyeball jokes—really—I buried my head in my book.
Later we got back on the downtown subway again heading for the planned demonstration against BP on East Houston Street. We were startled out of our passive intake of holiday riders by seemingly angry unintelligible rants. I looked over and saw a small black man in a tan windbreaker point at the ceiling, bending sharply at the waist and shouting in a language I didn’t understand. Riders edged away. The man jumped up and down in a contained frenzy screaming. A look of “Shall we change cars?” passed between The Mister and me. But we had seats and so decided to give the man a few more minutes until we heard him switch to hallelujahs and then relaxed conditionally into his appeal to his captive audience to be born again. Riders turned up their ipods and went back to their newspapers. “Truth and grace come first! Not law. When man makes law, he break it!” The Mister and I exchanged a knowing glance. “Never sleep. Never slumber,” he yelled as he stepped onto the platform at Grand Central.The three of us walked up from East Houston to a cheap and cheerful Indian meal at Curry In A Hurry on Lexington Avenue where there is always a long line of yellow cabs in the street outside this corner restaurant. The Mister and I had to change trains at 86th Street on our way home and were serenaded by a very good duo playing Spanish guitar across the platform. Like Will Smith’s grinning character in Fresh Prince of Bel Aire I thought, “I’ll just slide out and simonize my halo now.”