Thursday, March 29, 2018

City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks

New York City’s sidewalks aren’t made for klutzes or space cadets. My daughter is waiting for me to fall into a gaping, cellar access door. I’M waiting to fall into a gaping, cellar access door. They start out innocuously enough: they’re just iron plates lying flat on the sidewalk except for their large padlocks.

But when they open, storekeepers can load their stock from the truck and put it right on a ramp or conveyor belt or plain old stairs to get down to the basement. Unfortunately, if you’re looking around, you may wind up in the basement, too. I wonder how many people on smart phones have done that. (I hear they fall off subway platforms in Japan.)
New York City sidewalks are remarkably free of dog poop, but there are plenty of other obstructions. The food carts – the hot dogs, the pretzels, the halal dishes – and the cannoli, gelato, vegetables, depending on the neighborhood – are everywhere. In Chinatown, merchants and their roots and remedies + 7-T-shirts-for-$10 have taken over the sidewalks; in my neighborhood, it’s the fresh flower guys.

The rows of bright blue CitiBikes take up a lot of space, too. I don’t mind any of them; pretzels satisfy the hunger of too much looking around and not enough sitting down and eating, and the CitiBikes come with map posts. Besides, they’re above ground and obvious so I’m less likely to fall over them.

It’s just that the available sidewalk space is getting squished. It’s incredibly clever for businesses to construct arctic entries in front of their doors. It keeps customers warm and saves energy. But they look like dark, soft-sided phone booths – big boxy things – sitting in front of many restaurants. At first, I couldn’t figure out how to walk in, but they’re just like tent vestibules in front of the building, with doors.
I also don’t mind the huge masses of garbage bags and recycling at the curbs. They’re neat, and all their recycling is separated meticulously. New York’s garbage is organized … and it gets picked up.

So organized that wherever you see a trash can, you see a recycling container next to it.

The Mayor of New York’s Vision Zero program is working to reduce street injuries and fatalities to pedestrians with enforcement, speed limits, etc. But the plan also includes changes in street design with things like posts and bollards and … obstructions amenities. So you can be walking along and then suddenly, there are trees. Or benches. Or tables and chairs. Don’t get me wrong – I like to sit; I like benches. It just means I have to pay attention to where I’m walking.

I have to pay attention to where I’m walking because everyone loves a parade. When streets are closed and everyone is kept safely corralled on St. Patrick’s Day or during the March for Our Lives, parade detritus left hundreds of police barricades gathered on sidewalks. I only walked into one batch.

I have to pay attention to where I’m walking because there are interesting things down there! Look down at your feet along lower Broadway, and there are granite commemorations of all the ticker-tape parades held along the route to City Hall.

In SoHo, artist Francoise Schein has created a subway map “articulating the message of the ‘universal declaration of human rights.’” I don’t get it. It doesn’t even look like a subway map to me, but it’s there, on the sidewalk. Where I’m looking. Where there are also subway grates (and my map points out Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway grate).

Another reason to look down and see where your feet are going is to avoid looking up. Looking up is a vertigo experience, a tip-over-and-feel-dizzy experience because there is an awful lot of “up” to look at. I can’t look at all those tall buildings and not think, “What if there were a fire?” Or “Yikes, they’re surrounded by concrete and steel.” So I’m not really looking up when I’m gaping at New York: I’m looking at all the things right there at human scale: shops and food and posters and art and buses.

But every now and then, there’s something up there that truly startles.

What is Lenin doing there on the roof at my corner? It’s a story, a New York story. No matter where I look – at my feet, on the sidewalks, on the rooftops – this place is full of stories.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Living Standard ... or Substandard

When I first arrived at my Airbnb apartment, I freaked out. It wasn’t just the mass of battered trashcans in front or the banged-up front door which couldn’t close securely.
No, it was the row of mailboxes – smashed, broken, and rusted – how could anyone get any mail? The torn-up linoleum and the elevator door opening and shutting at random was just the icing on the cake. What had I done?!? I had paid in advance for a hellhole!

The apartment didn’t reassure me. The bathroom door didn’t open all the way because it crashed into the toilet. Everything was clean – kitchen up-to-date and newish – but there was nothing on the walls except for the nails where something hung once. And one of the lamps – the only lamp, actually – had a burnt-out bulb.

I even phoned Tim to tell him I was freaking out (which is not a thing to do when someone is 4,000 miles away).

I went around the corner to the grocery store. Its doors were a little wonky, too, but wow, their prices were way cheaper than Anchorage! I got a fresh fruit salad, a big Snapple, some organic soups. The people in the store were regular people, New-York-style (an entire subway train can go by without a single blond person on it!).

The man in front of me on the checkout line asked, “How much was your fruit salad?”

“$3. It’s a great deal!”

He showed me what he had in his cart: a jar of not-fresh fruit salad. “$3.99,” he said. “Not as good a deal.”

By the time we got to the check-out machines, he had told me to only shop the sales, they change on Fridays, pick up the circular. When we parted, he called out, “Make sure you get the frequent shopper card.” I did.

Oh, I love New Yorkers! I love how they’ll talk to anyone, ask them anything, offer any advice. Once again, I’m swimming in my own DNA.

Once I unpacked and found places for my things, the apartment didn’t seem so shabby or frightening. My friend Steve mentioned in his blog how he had to get serious about fixing up his home, that “It's easy to get used to a water stain on the ceiling, old worn rugs, cracks in the cement, and other minor problems. …that visitors [must] wonder how we live in such a well worn space.” It’s all about familiarity. When things become part of our lives, we don’t notice their shabbiness any more. Before Tim and I replaced our carpeting, I began to think that visitors might look at our floors and not want to walk around in socks.

And now, here it is just a few days later, and I’m sitting on the couch in the apartment and feeling quite comfortable and homey. It’s snowing outside, and I’m relishing feeling cozy inside. I don’t notice the things that bothered me at first. And mostly, I actually appreciate them.

I appreciate that I am living in an affordable neighborhood. Last time I took my month in New York City, I was in Midtown, on the East Side. I couldn’t afford groceries there and the stores were uninteresting because their merchandise was out of my price range. $800 shoes! I wrote wondering why class warfare hadn’t broken out.

But here, in the Lower East Side, I can get my $3 fresh fruit salad, my 99¢ slice of pizza, and 64 ounces of Snapple for $1.67. The stores are useful for living: hardware and shoe repair, laundromats and school supplies. Yesterday, a man was out power-washing the sidewalk in front of his building. Regular people live here, and I like being among them.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Philosophy on the NY Subway

As I prepared for my month in Manhattan, I discovered that I could get a personalized MetroCard – with a photo! – that would get me half-price on the subways and buses.

You have to know the transit lover in me to know the ecstasy that overtook me. I phoned them up right away: yes, I could come in with two photo IDs even before my birthday and I could get it right then and there. Hooray for turning 65!

So, of course, I took my sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, excited self down to 3 Stone Street as soon as I arrived. First, I had to find Stone Street, then I had to find how to travel there. I’m renting in a less-than-familiar part of Manhattan so I’m in the midst of direction-confusion and am back to writing little cheat sheets to myself after I examine all the permutations and combinations of MTA Trip Planner and my maps. Plus, I still have to learn how to lock the doors to where I’m staying.

I waited for my number to be called and headed to Window #1, and I received a gorgeous, yellow, Reduced-Fare MetroCard with my photo on it!

I can’t paint an exact picture of it here because I no longer have it. (Sob!)

After getting my gorgeous, yellow, Reduced-Fare MetroCard with my photo on it, I calculated which was the best deal for purchase. I could pay for a trip costing $1.35/trip; I could get a 7-day Unlimited Ride Reduced-Fare MetroCard for $16 or 11.8 rides in a week, or $2.29/day; or I could get a 30-day Unlimited Ride Reduced-Fare MetroCard for $60.50 which was the best deal in the whole wide world!

So off I went to the nearest subway station, to the fare machine. Nothing about it was intuitively obvious, but I came to the big existential question of the day: Was I going to “Add Value” or “Add Time”?

What would you say?

What would you say if you’d saved the attached quote in your journal for many years?

I can’t add hours to the day. I can’t add more days to a week or a month, but value? I can add value to my card (by putting money on it), value to my ride (by going for the 30-day option), and value to my whole life and the planet!

So I added value. Something didn’t look right. I went back to 3 Stone Street, got a new number and window #5: “You weren’t supposed to Add Value. You were supposed to Add Time. Nothing we can do about that now. We’ll take back your gorgeous, yellow, Reduced-Fare MetroCard with your photo on it and get you a refund in six weeks. Here’s a temporary, boring, plain old card you can go put another $60.50 on.”

Which I did.

Back to the station, I swiped my card in the swiper. It said "expired." I tried again. It said, “Just Used.” I tried another gate: “Just Used.” I’ll spare you all the back and forth trips for remedies. Eventually, a station agent let me in, and I boarded a train, slightly dreading that I wouldn’t be able to get back because my brand-new boring and untested MetroCard wouldn’t work.

But as I swiped it for the return, I saw that the message said, “Pass Expires 4/12/18.” Oh, it wasn’t expired! It was giving me handy consumer information! Bless those tiny little LED-ish messages that can’t be read in dimly lit stations! I just pressed the turnstile and was through.

This was a Big Day in my Third Third:
  • Turning 65 comes with unanticipated thrills! I have unlimited reduced fares on subways, buses, even the Long Island Rail Road. If I’m never heard from again, check with the MTA.
  • I still think I was adding value, not time. In the universe, I’m right. In the MTA, they’re right, and I’m finished arguing even though I did tell them they should have the capability to over-ride the magnetic strip.
  • They say we have to do really difficult things to keep our brains active, and plunging myself into a new environment, negotiating bureaucracies, figuring out how they could have done it better if I were in charge – all while panicking that I’d never get home – are just exercises to avoid cognitive decline. I’m not getting older, I’m getting IQ points.
  • It’s always about the adventure. I took four train trips today. I saw a parking lot with cars on elevators, I went to the Museum of Math on Pi Day, heard the author of Caesar’s Last Breath talk about air, had a 99¢ slice of New York pizza, got a New York Public Library card, and walked more than 70 New York blocks. All possible because I had a temporary, boring, plain old Reduced-Fare MetroCard.

Monday, March 12, 2018

How is getting sick like cheesecake?

Getting sick is like cheesecake.

The first time I had cheesecake, it was a skinny little sliver of a piece in a restaurant. The texture just slid over my tongue, the taste sent fireworks to the back of my mouth, and the pleasure escaped in one big hum of satisfaction. It was gone in five bites.

Every other time I ordered cheesecake, it came in that same measly, pathetic, little sliver size. Then, one day, I discovered a cheesecake recipe. I even went out and bought a spring-form pan, and I made my own cheesecake cake. No slivers there!

I had all the cheesecake I could ever want.

And I haven’t eaten cheesecake since.

There are a lot of things like cheesecake: the too-much-of-a-good-thing story, the all-things-in-moderation story. And for the last week, it’s been the getting-sick story.

I am blessed with a strong constitution and good health. For most of my life, I simply didn’t understand people who missed things because they “had a cold.” Well, blow your nose, I thought; put on a sweatshirt. Then I had a 2-year-old who clung to me with her germ-spewing, hot little body, sneezing and coughing into my face. One red-letter week, that reduced us both to stagnant blobs on the couch. I had never felt so listless, so apathetic, so wrecked. Thank heavens it was just that once.

Sunday was a sunny, glorious day for a ski. Over hill, over dale, up and down, feeling great. Until Monday.

Monday didn’t feel so good. Every time I coughed, things would rattle around in my head till my brain hurt. I took to the couch.

The couch and I have a complex relationship. It is my homey spot, my comfortable spot for reading, for watching Netflix, for just hanging out. But it’s also a lazy spot, an avoidance spot, an I-just-don’t-feel-like-doing-it spot. So sometimes, guilt intrudes on couch good times.

But not if you’re sick! If you’re sick, you get to retreat to the couch to feel better. It’s advisable to lie on the couch so whatever you have doesn’t turn into the crud everyone else has. So first I went to the library to stock up on mysteries (all the brain could bear, sorry Alexander Hamilton). Then I settled in. Take-out for dinner (on the couch); heating pad (on the couch); sweatpants, baggy shirt, and no bra (on the couch).

Welcome to heaven.

Except for the cheesecake analogy. A week and four mysteries later, unlimited couch in actuality is not so much fun as unlimited couch as an idea. I missed two outings with friends, one performance, one party, and a movie. The only times I’d spent this much time on the couch, I was depressed. Was this illness or depression? Was I avoiding something, hiding on the couch rather than tackling it? Was coughing just an excuse to put my head in the sand?

Those questions were too much work for someone who could only manage lying on a couch. The effort seemed monumental. Any effort seemed monumental.

And the only reason you’re reading this is because it finally ended (but may I hold onto the empathy it taught me for other people who might succumb to germs and bacteria and viruses). Except that right now, I just feel relief. And better.

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