Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dems, Does and Haircuts

Does anyone else do this?

My husband has different voices for the people he talks to. You can almost always tell with whom he is on the phone by the volume of his speech or the sudden disappearance of certain vowels and consonants that might make him seem of one class or another.

I just laughed myself into a coughing spasm as I listened to him make an appointment with a new barber. “Hey! Can I gettanappointment with Pat faw tamarrah?” And he’s yelling on the phone as if the guy was across the street on his stoop instead of on the other end of the phone. If he were calling a new hair salon, I’m certain he would have asked for “an appointment with Pat for tomorrow”, but the fact that this place probably charges no more that $20 for a haircut places it in the category of working class people who, as we who grew up in Brooklyn know, have certain restrictions on the use of vowels, consonants and decibel levels.

I have heard it over and over throughout the years in calls to painters, plumbers, the boilerman, the guy who cuts down our trees. The volume goes up but the tone goes down, deep into the manly chest-voice region. It is a verbal slippage into a blue-collared shirt, designed to make the person on the other end of the line believe you are just a regular guy who understands these things by virtue of the fact that you speak the lingo. Never mind if the blue-collared pro at the receiving end of your query ever set foot in Kings County, he will understand by the tone of your voice and the ‘dems’ and ‘does’ slipping past a suddenly paralytic tongue, that you are man of the people, not ignorant and not to be taken advantage of.


This is a voice that never shows up when he is making an appointment to see the doctor. If he speaks to a broker, you’d swear he was a member of the royal family. He is an actor so these personality switches come as easily to him as time jumping in “Jumpers”. “Now I’m smart!” “Now I’m regular!” “Now you see me!” “Now you don’t!” But unlike the ‘jumpers’, he is totally unaware of these speech patterns. Rather, they spring from his brain unbidden; an unconscious call for help from one peer to another; an “I’m like you so how do I get dis squirrel outta da chimney?” Or like today, “I don’t want to wait three weeks for a hairstylist; I wanna get a heh-cut tamarrah.”

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Subway

When one grows up in a big city, one develops a patina, an immunity to the constant assault on one’s senses of noise, bustle and too many people trying to occupy the same space at the same time. It takes a while, but when you move away, eventually, that protective layer wears off. Coming into the city from CT, I routinely take my car. Even in bumper to bumper traffic you are buffered from the up-against-you press of humanity by the comforting frame of your vehicle. But lately, with multiple days scheduled in a row, I have left the car in Brooklyn, slept in my brother’s apartment, and ventured forth on the Q train from Brighton Beach to Herald Square. It is not an undaunting experience.

First, there’s the noise. The rumble of the train on the el cuts through the neighborhood like a stampede throughout the day and night. Then there’s the climb. From street level to the tracks, it is about four stories; enough to leave my asthmatic chest writing with knife-like pain for several minutes. The ocean breeze, coming as it does from the beach a block away, cuts or soothes, depending on the temperature. Today is a cutter.

I got on fairly empty train this morning at about 9:30, tired, aching from this ongoing sinus thing, but having avoided rush hour. There was plenty of room. I sat, then moved to the next bench to avoid two women chattering loudly in some dialect of Chinese. Now I was opposite a guy speaking loudly into his cell phone in Arabic. I considered moving to the next car but he got off at the next stop and I was left with the blissful white noise of the rickety subway system and the two talking women. I disappear into my word game on the cellphone. People trickled on at the next few stops but it was still manageable. 

The doors open at Sheepshead Bay or Kings Highway (I’m not paying attention) and 2 women get on. The first one motions to the second one to sit in the small seat next to me. They are not together. This is, I perceive, an act of kindness. I soon came to suspect it was self-preservation. Subway benches are designed so 3 people can fit between the poles. This woman needs 2 seats. She has a cane, a tote bag and a suitcase, which she parks between her legs making "man-spread" seem like a minor infringement. She is not dirty per se. The odor can best be described as stale. It is not pleasant. She starts to adjust herself, piling her bag atop her suitcase and what could not be called a lap. Am I unkind? Yes. But really! Next comes the disgorging of items from the bag: the phone, the earplugs; is that candy I see in her purse? With every adjustment she makes, she presses her body further into the bench, and I slide, am pushed, molded into an ever-shrinking space. I cannot resist. The bench is slippery and she is much bigger than I am. I am now being pressed into the metal bars that keep one from sliding off the bench altogether and blocking the door! I can feel my arm bruising with every jostle. I want to shift and put my arm through the bars to relieve the pressure but I know, if I remove my arm, my ribs will be crushed instead. I try to concentrate on the Wordbrain grid fucking with my brain on my cell phone. The work "stink" rises up from the grid of previously random letters. My right side is starting to sweat as we creep toward New York, going underground at Prospect Park, losing cell service and any chance of mentally escaping my situation. We stall on the Manhattan Bridge. I cannot breathe. Diving underground again at Canal Street, a few seats open up across the car. Do I get up? Do I risk letting this woman know she is an assault on my senses? Or do I stay put and allow this fetid feeling to become a part of my whole day? Sit… Sit…. Sit….. Can't do it! I don't need to gather my backpack for I have been clutching it for a while now. I bolt across the car and sit between two women of average size. I can breathe. I look across and she has expanded into my vacated space, spreading like Jello released from the mold, no hint that this vacancy was not an act of kindness on my part but one of self-preservation.


Finally, Herald Square. I climb to the street level and relish the cool air that dries my sweat. A man cuts in front of me and coughs violently in my face. The air is redolent with cigarettes. It is disgusting. I am reminded of a saying I heard back in college: “A frog can live in boiling water if the heat is applied slowly enough.” Well,… no. It's simply unaware it is dying.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Detritus

I was standing at the window of the loft… our den or family room, if you will… having just finished ironing some shirts, and I turned and surveyed the room for a moment. It looked like one of those hidden object pictures you see in computer games. Seriously! If there is an empty spot on a table, a shelf, in a corner, I will inevitably fill it with the current object in my hands. Not just me. My whole family does this. There is a place for everything and it happens to be wherever you are standing at the moment.

The loft is an open space, suspended above the living room by some feat of engineering I will never understand, and I suspect it will collapse one day under the weight of all this shit. The initial decorating idea was to create a comfortable space to watch TV. Bookshelves span the length of the overhang from which you can look down on the living room, and the rest of the furniture focuses on that 48”, LED, Smart TV: the source of endless entertainment and earth-shattering news events tucked into one corner of this oddly shaped room.

Under the TV lives the DVR, blue ray player, stereo, turntable, and a subwoofer. Four speakers surround this seating area. Adjacent to the TV assemblage is a cd cabinet. Does that begin to indicate the obsolescent features of the room? I have not listened to a CD in years!

The chaos: a rocking chair drawn right up to the TV screen as if it weren’t clearly visible from across the street!

I'll make my way around in a circle like I learned to do many years ago when I narrated an educational video on How to Clean a Room. (Clearly, I wasn’t paying attention.)

The ironing board is under the window because it is the best source of light. The cooling iron sits on the windowsill along with a can of spray starch and another of sizing. I do not know the difference between starch and sizing or even why I have both, but there they are. The just ironed shirts hang on hangers that hang on the knobs of the cd case. The case is full so many more CDs are piled on top of it. I do not know why we have so many CDs. I only know we no longer listen to any of them since the entire cabinet has been downloaded onto an iPod which we also almost never listen to because now we have Pandora, Spotify and 100 music stations ON THE TV. On the floor next to the cd cabinet are two semi-rolled up yoga mats, three sets of bar bells, and two kettle bells, in case anyone wants to exercise. Hah!

There is a wooden rack that holds a couple of throw blankets, rendered inaccessible by an empty box on top of it that once contained the carafe that came with our new Keurig in case we ever need four cups of coffee instead of one, a pile of clothes for Goodwill, and a yellow dust mop leaning against it in the corner.

Moving to the right, there is the ledge, festooned with some laundry waiting to be carried downstairs, a microwavable heating pad for my neck, a Beats speaker, a salt lamp sitting in a dried puddle of expended salt, a small jar of something (guitar picks?), an African statute of a male drummer (his female counterpart broke several years ago), a stack of blank cds, a container for pens and pencils that my 28 year old son made when he was in elementary school, a wooden peg board game, a stack of blank DVDs, lots of pictures in frames, votive candles, a tiny wooden rocking horse, air freshener, and books that don’t fit on the shelves beneath. The shelves are filled with VHS tapes (we no longer own a VCR), DVDs (I can sum up the technology that has replaced any need to watch a DVD in 3 words: Netflix, Amazon, On-Demand; is that 4 words?) and record albums. Record albums? Yes! TWO SHELVES OF VINYL! Enough said about THAT!

There is an antique cafĂ© table with two wire chairs. Each chair holds a huge exercise ball, one of which is partially deflated but I can’t find the leak.

And more books… And more knick-knacks… And one entire section devoted to old photos in albums, boxes, envelops, scrap books, all gathering dust, all impossible to deal with. (How can I throw out these pictures?)


I remember when we moved into this empty house and wondered how we would ever fill it. We bought a pick-up truck last summer with delusions of getting medieval and cleaning out the accumulated detritus of 20 years. We have the means! We just need the energy!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Right or Wrong

As a wife, I never tire of being right. When my husband to be met my Dad, Dad told him, “Even when she’s wrong, she’s right.” Now that might just appear to be sage advice on how to keep the peace in a marriage, but my father was wise beyond that. He’d learned the painful lesson. Without ever, in my memory, admitting he was wrong about something, he knew my mother was always more apt to remember the details of this or that, and arguing generally proved to be futile.  Not that he was a pushover! He chose his battles well.

I have begun to realize that I have forgotten so much about my life. Recently, an almost-cousin of mine recalled a time in Florida about 27 years ago when, miraculously, all of us were visiting. His parents lived down the street from mine. They had air mattresses strewn all over the house to accommodate the overflow. We were with my folks. The timing seems right; my son would have been about 6 months old; my husband would have been celebrating his 40th birthday; all the older generation was alive then so we would have been at no loss for eager grandparents to babysit; I loved Japanese food and would have jumped at the chance to suck down sushi and sake in a tatami room with all my cousins. He had all the details!.... I don’t remember a thing. “Did you take any pictures,” I asked, needing proof.

Once upon a time I briefly dated a guy with a hit song. I couldn’t remember his name! I knew the song but… Bobby something. Bobby Thompson? Noooo… Then Billy Joel sang the song and credited the singer and I texted my husband, “That’s IT!” with joy and relief that I could stop obsessing on this memory lapse.

So, while major and minor chunks of my life have disappeared, I discover I still have a remarkable gift for minutiae. I remember phone numbers, although speed dialing is messing with that skill. If I drive someplace once, I can generally find it again without help. On a recent trip to Kings Park, L.I., the GPS on Waze told us to get off at Exit 44 South. That bothered me. I made my husband check Google Maps. As is his wont, he had refused to use my car’s GPS or even MY phone, which I could have connected to with Bluetooth, permitting me to SEE the damned map as I drove, so I was totally reliant on his verbal directions. Now, my husband can get lost mowing the lawn. We refer to him as “Geographically Challenged” so trusting him to get us there was an issue. Anyway, he reluctantly agreed to check Google Maps, which, with one or two minor exceptions, agreed with Waze. “That’s wrong,” I said, the warning bell ringing loudly in my head. He was getting agitated. “Both GPSes say the same thing,” he countered. “Well, unless they MOVED Kings Park, there is NO WAY WE GO SOUTH!” I made him call our friends who were waiting for us with a burning dinner. Sure enough, we had to continue to Exit 53 and go North. The smugness washed over me like an electric blanket. I never tire of being right.

Our call time for work today: 4:23 or 4:53? I’m right; he’s wrong.
Legends Dinner last Monday: 5:30 or 7:00? I’m right; he’s wrong.

Years ago, there was a ‘discussion over dinner with my birth-father when he came back into my life. He insisted that Ditmars Boulevard was in Brooklyn and Ditmas Avenue was in Queens. I KNEW he was wrong. I lived near Ditmas Avenue and I lived in Brooklyn! But there was no changing his mind. This was before Google. Before computers! The restaurant didn’t have a map! I couldn’t prove it on the spot! I was fit to be tied! How could he cling to this error?

The Ah Ha moment: Maybe this is why my parents divorced!


Postscript: My Dad did once admit he was wrong. He apologized to me for the way the transition to becoming his daughter was handled. He was the best Dad a girl could want and he probably saved me years of arguments, but still, with all the love I felt, I couldn’t escape the harm these acts had caused and couldn’t stop myself from expressing them. Others wanted me to ‘just forget it’. He alone acknowledged that I was right: it had been mishandled. And this was the one instance where I wished I had been wrong.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I Smell a ... What?

One thought occurs to me as I awaken in my brother’s apartment... I could never live like this. Not anymore.

Don't get me wrong! I am so grateful for this place, a stone’s throw from the beach, not to hang my hat but to flop my ass down and sleep between shifts. But the proximity to others is no longer something I find comforting or desirable or even, in some cases, tolerable. I like my house. I like that, in the summer when the trees are full, you can’t see the neighbors. Even in the winter no one is too close.

We crawled in here late last night after working a "concert". I'm putting that in quotation marks because if this is music then music is dead. Four acts of relentless rhythm that changed only when it disappeared altogether. So I was tired. The ride down the Westside "Highway" (another long-dead concept) was not as bad as usual. Someone in the chain of command in Mayor DiBlasio's assault on commuters had the wisdom to open the direct access tunnel to the Hugh Carey Tunnel. (Calling it what it is, the "Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel", is also a dead concept for that might tell the driver WHERE IT IS!) Unfortunately, no one thought to advise drivers that the entrance on the left was open, so all of us clinging to the right were screwed. Anyway, it only took an hour to get to the apartment: a significant improvement over a two-hour trip to CT.

The elevator doors opened on his floor and the smell of cooking slammed into my nose like a plague. It's not the enticing smell of Italian food, with its garlicky promise of mouth-watering deliciousness. It's not the sweetness of baking. It's a sour assault on the senses that takes me back to Brownsville and Mrs. May with the ball of raw dough in her fingers and holding my nose to keep from gagging as I ran to the safety of our own apartment down the hall. I used to challenge myself and press my nose to the seat on the stoop where she had been sitting, only to fall into spasms of wretchedness as my stomach lurched and my throat constricted. What is that smell!???! Boiled something. Turnips? I can’t think of a single food that, when cooked well, would taste like this smells.

Slam the door, open the windows, stand in front of one of the deodorizing devices I installed on my last visit. Ah... Febreze!

Enter the little kitchen and... What's that? Smoke? Cigarettes? Coming through the vent! My husband hollers to whoever it is in an apartment above, below, beyond, "Stop smoking you idiot! You're killing me!" I hush him. It is almost 2 a.m.

It is 37 degrees outside and the radiator is spewing heat like a steel mill. I curl up under the quilt, my nostrils reaching for the salty ocean air that is just beyond the building but has trouble penetrating the wall of humanity that separates us. I keep my perfumed wrist near my face to overcome the sour scent that permeates the pillow no matter how many new pillows I buy or how many times I wash the pillowcase. Eventually I get used to it and fall asleep. The bed is very comfortable.



Saturday, October 24, 2015

Going East

It’s amazing to me how it takes 3 to 4 hours to get out to Long Island and less than 2 to get back. What’s even more amazing is, as I consider the number of cars crawling eastward, that there is even a square inch of unoccupied territory left on Long Island! But there is, and it is beautiful…once the traffic moves out of the way. It just seems that, with so many cars flowing eastward, eventually, some will have to be pushed off into the water.

We make the trek a few times a year, mostly for family occasions. Okay, exclusively for family occasions. In truth, those are the only things that could get me on the Long Island Expressway. The occasional invitation from a friend with a house in the Hamptons means a crossing on the Port Jeff ferry. (That’s a hint, friends.) Even on an overnight, vacation starts the minute the car chugs on to that boat and I relax on the deck. But the ferry doesn’t make sense for seeing relatives who are closer to New York than Montauk.

There’s an interesting dynamic that occurs when you only see people at special occasions. The daily growth, or wear and tear, unnoticed on a daily basis, becomes monumental change when seen only annually. It’s like a seedling you plant at your country house that you find has obliterated the sunshine when you return to the house the following year.  Children seem to morph into new people. You don’t have any context for the changes in their faces or their fashions or the fact that they are now a foot taller. The babies you knew and held are now adults with babies of their own. The kids you played with as kids are now grandparents and, oh my god, in some cases could be great-grandparents within a handful of years!

I knew only one of my great grandparents. We called him Little Zaide, partly because we already had a standard sized Zaide but mostly because he was the tiniest man I’d ever seen. He was in his 90s when he died but, to me, he looked like he was always in his 90s.  Now I look at my family and it occurs to me that my 66 year-old cousin has a 15-year-old grand-daughter who could, perhaps, follow in his footsteps, find the love of her life at an early age, marry and have a child by the age of 22. That’s just 7 years from now! That would make him a 73-year-old great grandfather! This math is making my head hurt.

As the years go on, the parties get bigger. There are more children I have trouble recognizing and fewer of the adults I cherished. I’ve gone from being the baby at the family gathering, crawling under tables and getting into trouble, to being the senior citizen in attendance, wanting to kiss the cheeks of children who’d rather be crawling under tables and getting into trouble. It’s like being chased down the Long Island Expressway by sleek sports cars, oversized SUVs and even more terrifying 18-wheelers. Older, slower cars must stay to the right. Eventually, and it will come, we will be pushed off the tip of the Island into the easternmost water.


(Alternate, more optimistic ending: I prefer to think we will relax in the rural beauty that is Eastern Long Island, with its beaches and open spaces, all the traffic behind us.)