daily preciousness

Saturday, July 06, 2002

7th avenue and broadway



Thursday took forever; it was nothing but drag. At least the kids were good. No, wait... that's a lie. They were pretty awful, actually. One little stroller-riding guttersnipe kept wailing like a colicky banshee. Did Mom do anything about it? No – she was obviously of the “let ‘em scream until their voice box bleeds” school of thought. Well, our eardrums were pretty close to bleeding before I had a chance to give Mom the patented librarian “cease and desist” stare.

But it's not really their fault. Kimberly, my supervisor, usually does her story time on Thursdays. But since she was handling some delicate affairs of state (that’s code for getting her hair done), I filled in for her.

Understandably, her regulars missed her. One 8-year-old boy pleaded, his hands flapping in the air, "Where's the LAY-dy?" The last word he stressed, as if to say, "You can't possibly read me a story -- you're a guy!" I prevailed, despite his intermittent heckling, in reading them four stories and singing two songs. They seemed entertained, if not completely won over, by my charm, wit and style. (I'll admit: Kimberly is better suited for the kids under seven; it seems like I get along better with the eight and ups.)

Thursday, I told dragon tales. Before the stories, I pulled out the plush stuffed animal dragon, sternly cautioning the wide-eyed kids, "remain calm -- don't make any sudden movements." They screamed, their little bodies visibly shaking, with hyper-delightful anticipation. When I pulled out the Custard the cowardly dragon puppet, one little girl jeered, "That's not a REAL dragon!" I demurely apologized for trying to trick them. I feigned embarrassment and admitted that our REAL dragon was out with a cold.

Five o'clock came none to soon. I slipped out, as silent as a dragon's shadow.

I got home and quickly threw a few last-minute additions into my suitcase. By the time I lugged the thing downstairs, Michael had arrived. We left for the metro station and made it to DC's Union Station Amtrak terminal in half an hour. After a quick shared chicken club sandwich, we boarded our Acela Express bound for Penn Station, New York. It was like an airplane, without the annoying security check. I sank back into the chair and closed my eyes during the butter-smooth and relaxing ride.

The conductor looked just like the blind tenor, with his jostled hair and fuzzy beard. He could see, though, since I doubt it was the same guy. He drew his ticket puncher with the speedy panache of a gunslinger.

Michael and I sat across from each other, with a table between us. I read my guidebooks while he perused the newspaper.

Before long, I got bored and decided to tickle him. This was a mistake on my part, because he tickled back. We giggled loudly while trying not to. This only made it worse. Writhing in the exquisite agony of his touch, I bumped my head on the bottom of the table. That shut me up. Our fellow passengers, mostly businessmen commuting back home, studied the contents of their briefcases rather importantly, simulating silent disinterest in their giggling homosexual neighbors as the train pulled out of New Jersey. “One more stop and we're in New York City!” I whispered expectantly. I was ready for a nighttime cityscape, dotted and dashed with lights and lines of bright colors. I got the uncomfortable strobe of tunnel lights instead.

Around 10, we arrived at Penn Station. Soon we were in a taxi and on our way to the Sheraton Manhattan on 51st Street and 7th Avenue. It was a great place to stay. The lobby was of moderate size, but was serviceable. While the room wasn't impressive, it was adequate and clean. It didn't feel run-down or old. The bathroom didn't have a "sanitized for your protection" strip over the toilet seat cover. (The mere presence of these strips is a clear indication that the bathroom is NOWHERE NEAR sanitary and extreme caution should be used, in the form of toilet paper [at least three layers thick!] over the seat whenever sitting is required. Since you’re wondering, yes, this journal entry has received the good housekeeping seal of approval.)

Like I said, it was a great location, just a 5-minute walk to Times Square. In my best teenage girl voice, I intoned, "Ohmygawd, can you BELIEVE, we're, like, SO close to Carson Daly, I could JUST SCREAM!" And I did. Michael cringed, suitably embarrassed for me. (It is moments like this when I realize just how much I act like my Dad, who always screams when Carson Daly comes on TRL.)

No, I'm lying, of course. I realize I'm like Dad because he absolutely delights in embarrassing his family in public. He used to embarrass me, too, when I was little. But I've since learned the many benefits of having no shame -- I wonder how he arrived at this blissful, Buddha-like state of shame-free silliness? Did he have a father who fostered this in him? Does this sort of thing develop on its own? Does he employ performance-enhancing drugs? So many unanswered questions!

We soon fell into bed, our bodies cozy and snug under the covers. Another reminder of my father sprang to mind. Like my Dad, Michael is of the "We're paying for it, so we might as well use it" school of thought regarding hotel air conditioners. So the AC roared all night long, pumping the room with deepfreeze-like air. Ice crystals formed on the mirror and each exhalation formed a silent but visible puff of fog.

The office building across the street from us was full of florescent light, a chilly powder blue against the gray of the night sky. The air above the city is smog -- it reflects the light that spills upwards from the celebrated skyline. Even without the World Trade Center, it's an impressive vista. Canyons of man-made steel and concrete form the geography here. It's a strange existence, living within these canyons. The days full of indirect light must have some psychological effect on the city dwellers. (I wonder if that's what makes them so rude? Or is it just a defense mechanism against the ridiculous psychological residue of obscene population density?)

The next morning, I woke at 6 to be at the convention center in time for the Children's author and book breakfast. (Not a very catchy name, but it was a great way to wake up.)

The speakers were wonderful. Too bad it was a serve-yourself buffet with stale muffins. At least the juice was good. Kimberly and her husband, Michael, kept me company at the breakfast. I met a literary talent scout from England. (He actually pronounced it with a crisp, refined accent that rendered the word more like "LIT-trary." He was on the lookout for new authors and new titles. "Any luck so far?" I asked him. "Not any yet, I'm afraid -- this is my first day here and my first time at this conference," He explained. He usually goes to Frankfurt. The conference there is the largest European conference -- and one of the largest in the world.

The best presentation at the breakfast was by Tony Kushner, the talented American playwright. He was hilarious and thanked his publisher for teaming him up with a "promising young illustrator that you're sure to be seeing great things from," Maurice Sendak. (Sendak's best known for "Where the Wild Things Are," among countless other children's classics.)

Just a few weeks after the trip, I heard a familiar voice addressing a crowd of new grads on national public radio. It was Kushner. He was one of a handful of speechmakers included in a sound montage of various academic keynote speaker/cheerleaders.

After the breakfast, I attended a great workshop on First Amendment Rights (I just typed "Fist" by accident -- that sounded vaguely obscene!). Barbara Kingsolver, popular mystery writer, spoke about libel committed against her criticism of the Bush administration's security "precautions." She was an amazing speaker. Michael Moore, anti-establishment indie filmmaker and author, spoke about how his anti-Bush book, published September 10th, 2001, languished in warehouses until his publisher threatened to "pulp" the 10,000 copies. "To pulp" is industry jargon for "to send to the shredder." He happened to mention his plight to a librarian friend, who then spread the word around to other librarians. Within days, a popular library listserv had broadcast the situation to thousands of librarians all over the world, who then began calling and writing his publisher en masse. Moore was duly impressed by the "secret network" of librarians, which he jokingly referred to as "the most powerful terror network [in that they terrorized his publisher] in the world." He got loads of applause for that line, along with approving whistles from a few others and me.

After that meeting, which took the form of "GO librarians, GO!" pep rally, I had an energetic buzz and a spring in my step. Not bad for a first day of conference.

The back of my heels were redder and more pock-marked than the surface of Mars. Not good for a first day of the conference.

I had a slight case of medicine head, since the sinutabs sort of dulled my senses a little bit. When I got back to the room, Michael was chatting with his old friend, Atticus. Atticus was waiting for the conference to be over, so that he could get a job with one of the many publishers in the area. (They'd all been too busy to hire anyone before the convention started, so his unemployment had been prolonged by the weeklong pause in business.)

Atticus took us to the Carnegie Deli, just across the street from the famous theater landmark. Plastered over the walls from floor to ceiling, there were 8 x 10 glossy photos of celebrities and wanna-be celebrities. I saw a smirking Ms. Garret from "The Facts of Life" and cocky grin from the bandleader from the Conan O'Brian show. I wondered if celebrities just went around with a stack of photos to canvas New York restaurants with. I mean, it was such a common restaurant theme that I wondered if that was the only real recurring theme in this metropolis. Or is it more a promotional tool for up-and-coming glitterati? Do they offer a picture as a payment for their dinner? What about the washed-up celebrities? Do they have their pics torn down, just to make room for other, more glamorous stars? Who knows? The waitress was simply too rude to ask. Well, she wasn't rude so much as gruff. Either way, I wasn't about to risk any embarrassment. We were packed into the table, just between retired English folks to our right and a vaguely midwestern couple to our left.

Atticus led us around to visit the Metropolitan Museum of art. It was a joy to explore, despite the riotous school groups, which moved with the languid speed of plankton.

The real trial at the museum wasn’t really the annoying kids. The true challenge was dealing with the feeling of being a rat in a maze. (It was a beautifully appointed maze with lots of pretty set-abouts to help distract us, but it felt like a maze, nonetheless.)

It was a richly humbling experience. I actually got so turned around that I had absolutely no idea where we were. I was feeling very much the sheep that afternoon, so I let Atticus and Michael lead us around. We ambled through Greek and roman artifacts, circled through religious iconography, made a beeline to a hall of impressionist masters, lazed about the wing of fine jewelry, lounged amongst the gothic furniture and finally found ourselves back again where we started. It was truly a relief, because I was all museumed out at that point.

I needed something to revitalize me. A little walk through Central Park did the trick.

Before long, we boarded a bus and started for Atticus' place. The bus driver had a smooth, low-key radio DJ sort of delivery. He had the entire bus in an uproar of laughter. He was good. I saw and heard literal knee slapping. (Why can’t I have a job like that? I adore making people laugh!) I was sorry that our bus ride was so short; his voice was so relaxing.

Atticus lived in a diverse neighborhood. (In this context, "diverse" is a polite way to say "extremely dangerous, gang-ridden and prone to gun violence.") I postulated, while in his cozy little kitchen, that if I lived in New York, in this neighborhood, I would probably join a gang. Michael doubted that there were gangs hanging out on his friend's doorstep. But I disagreed. Atticus had mentioned that he'd seen (or suspected he'd seen) drug deals going down on the corner just across the street. So how could there not be gangs? That's what I wanted to know.

"If I were going to join a gang, it would have to be very liberal -- I don't want to belong to a group that discriminates against people based on skin color or orientation or other things like that.

So, if I were to join a gang, it wouldn't be the Crips or the Bloods or anything like that. (The gang would have to be called "The Pink Panthers" or "The Lavender Lassies" or something along those lines.) Anything else would be unthinkable.

Atticus left us for a moment and Michael told me to nix the gang-related jokes. That was a pity, though, since I’d already worked up a scenario in which we procure some chalk, break it up into little pieces, drop them into little plastic bags, then sell them to passers-by as Canadian-grown crack. (I already had my Canadian accent ready and everything.)

Atticus, Michael and I went for a quick drink at his neighborhood bar, which was very straight but had a great bartender who seemed genuinely friendly and who wished me a wonderful vacation "filled with special New York Moments." (The way she inflected those words made it clear that “moments” was capitalized.) Before long, we had found a diner-style Cuban cafe. It was a little hole in the wall with cheap plastic tables and mirror clocks loudly proclaiming the restaurants allegiance to Corona. But the food was amazing and the company was great. Atticus, who'd been initially cold and distant to me, finally warmed up and began to offer the occasional glance in my direction as he spoke. That made it much easier to spend time with him. Atticus is a beautiful man -- dark complected with beautiful bone structure. Pretty eyes, too. He probably could've been a model. He and Michael had dated for a short period while they were in college together. I felt very much the third wheel at first, but I think Atticus just needed time to feel comfortable. For some reason, I don't seem to get along with some of Michael’s friends that well. I think that I must have too dominant of a personality or something. Maybe Michael just gravitates toward alphas. (It's possible that I'm entirely off here. Perhaps Atticus' emotional distance might simply have been a symptom of good ol' fashioned sexual tension. Let’s face it: I radiate megawatts of sexual energy, vitality and sensuality. And some people just can’t deal with that because of years of repression and guilt. Of course, the most likely explanation is that I was sporting a piece of spinach wedged in my front teeth and nobody cared to fill me in on it. Who knows? It's anyone's guess.)

Riding the subway back from Atticus' place, I was reminded of an old poem:

Reading Yeats I do not think of Ireland but of midsummer New York and of myself back then reading a copy I found on the Third Avenue El

the El with its flyhung fans and its signs reading SPITTING IS FORBIDDEN the El careening thru its third story world of its third story people in their third story doors looking as if they had never heard of the ground

an old dame watering her plant or a joker in a straw putting a stickpin in his peppermint tie and looking just like he had nowhere to go but Coney island

or an undershirted guy rocking in his rocket watching the El pass by as if he expected it to be different each time

Reading Yeats I do not think of Arcady and of its woods which Yeats thought dead I think instead

of all the gone faces getting off at midtown places with their hats and their jobs and of that lost book I had with its blue cover and its white inside where a pencilhand had written HORSEMAN, PASS BY!

(Poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.)

Getting off at midtown places is something my friend Jeni does all the time. She lives on the lower East side. It’s a quieter area than the west side. The blocks of apartments are 4 and 5-story walk ups, fenced in with little Seinfeld-like delis, coffee shops and non-trendy restaurants. But Jeni doesn’t need any of these nearby conveniences so much. She works at a very trendy restaurant. Plus, she has a gorgeous patio balcony and living room with big airy doors that swing in to let in the mostly fresh air.

The skyline, as seen from her bedroom window, is beautiful and classically New York. Tall fingery sky scrapers peek over the foreground of neighboring apartment buildings. The alley behind the house sports a few gangly trees. There’s enough greenery for a sense of place, enough concrete to assure densely packed people. But it was a quiet place – very peaceful.

Jeni and I went to the galleries, which are just a ten-minute walk from her place. We went up the loop-the-loop walk of the Met. The sounds and sights of Brazil flooded the dark expanses of the gallery. It was vivacious and fun. Jeni and I had a great time examining the art and explaining to each other the curious (wholly imagined) details of each work’s moment of conception. It was a wonderful exercise in creative thinking. Jeni and I love to tell each other stories. One of our favorite cocktails is “people-watching with a twist of tale-telling.”

“He’s not ready to commit to his lover, although she’s madly in love (and lust) with him. She’s ready for a child. That biological clock is just a-tickin’. But he’s actually seeing his secretary,” Jeni would inform me, of the balding 30-something with the 20-something Asian woman with the crustacean jewelry.

"How crabby," I would reply, straight-faced, but laughing inside.

Jeni was such a sweetheart to put me up and take care of me while I was there. I even got to hang with her roommates. They were an odd pair. A cocaine-snorting, girlfriend cheatin' guy and a shy, submissive girl with no hint of a personality shared the small loft apartment.

This odd pair and I shared a few drinks, then headed down, down, down below for a basement movie theater showing of "Spiderman." It was *the* hit of the summer of '02, of that I'm sure. It was top-grossing this, top-grossing that. But the grossest thing about the evening was the way the cocaine addicted guy with the Rhode Island accent treated his fellow roommate, a pale little wisp of a thing with no visible charm. Turned out that he was boinking him. And despite all of the verbal abuse he slung her way, all throughout the show, she put up with it. And, on top of that, she fed his snake. (No, that's not any figure of speech -- he had a real snake.)

The real pleasure of the trip was spending time with little Jeni and re-living our time in BR together. Fun times!

All in all, it was a grand, if only a 6-day stay, in the city that doesn't sleep.

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