Friday, October 8, 2010

Suddenly, This Summer

My Beloved and I went back for a weekend visit to Provincetown, Mass.—or as my friend Jenny calls it, "the scene of the crime." We arrived in rain on Friday, were rewarded with a glorious blue-sky Saturday, and stumbled across two barefoot-on-the beach weddings, one gay, one straight. I love P'town.

On an overcast Sunday morning, we bicycled through the rambling Provincetown cemetery, which differs from other small-town cemeteries in the number of gravestones that read "drowned" or "lost at sea."

I was particularly struck by the plot of Captain Barzillai Higgins and his wife Abigail, and by the five little headstones laid out in front of them. Five of their seven children died before they turned seven. Two of them, little Abigail, age 4, and Isaac, age 1, died within six days of each other in April 1832. Captain Higgins was lost at sea when a steamship collided with his whaling schooner. Son Solomon died at 35 while at sea in Haiti. And Abigail lived to age 75—surviving her husband, one granddaughter, and every damn one of her seven children.

If there's ever a sign from the universe that you need to get over yourself, you'll find it in a 19th-century cemetery.

I did some fretting this summer, but I do realize (after the fact) how first-world and 21st-century my worries were. This was our summer of transitions: our first together in New York, and the first time I've witnessed the bubbling-up of spring into summer and the fitful slide of summer into fall. This summer also marked the end of The Child's first year at college, a year that, not to put too fine a point on it, sucked. The qualities that looked good on paper—structurelessness, independence, having no roommates—proved less charming in realities on the ground; a year that started with anticipation, hope and a little stress ended with only the stress remaining.

So The Child is not going back to that college; in fact, she's not going back to college at all this year. After a couple of months in L.A., she decided to join us in New York and look for a job and an apartment. Which meant the three of us living together in a one-room loft apartment where the only wall is in the bathroom. Cozy!

We established house rules, we danced the complex minuet of three adults living in a small open space, we endured some gritted teeth and frayed nerves. But we—and she—rose to the occasion, too. She'd come home from days of pavement-pounding and resume-delivering, and we three would compare notes over dinners at our little table by the window. We'd all turn out our lights at the same time each night.

The Child got a job at Barnes & Noble, and thanks to Craigslist, has found an apartment with an adorable and compatible roommate in Brooklyn. In an emerging, gritty-turning-hipster neighborhood that had me fretting again as I researched crime statistics and haunted local blogs for comforting words on safety.

I consulted a young female acquaintance who has lived there for six years. Brigitte wrote back, "I'm not sure what I can say that would be reassuring except it is home to many people who live, love, and experience joy in this neighborhood." I calmed down. We walked the streets and appreciated the ingenuity and optimism of people opening bakeries and organic markets and coffee houses in former industrial spaces. The Child started schlepping stuff into her new fourth-floor walk-up.

It's only been a few days so far, and maybe I'll never lose my maternal capacity for spooling out worst-case-scenarios while I lie in bed listening to the sounds of the city. But though my child is not under my roof, she's not at sea, nor is she lost.

In fact, I think this may be a chance for both of us to find something.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Without Love

I started to write a long-overdue blog post about something completely different than this—about the usual: my life. I'll write that post next time, but not right now.

My former colleague at Modern Maturity magazine, Marcia Forsberg, has been missing since February, and her husband of 39 years has just been arrested on suspicion of murder. The police are searching the Lake Piru campground area in Ventura County, California for her body, based on "incriminating statements" her husband, Rick, made to the detectives. They think he killed her in their home in February and rented a car—rented a car!—to transport her body elsewhere. He then stayed in their Orange County home for the next six months—six months!—and told neighbors that she'd gone to Arizona to visit friends.

We've all seen these stories on the news, on CSI, on Without a Trace, on Law & Order, on Bones, on Mystery. I've never seen this kind of story flash on the screen with the face of someone I know. I'm not processing it.

I watched the bleached-blonde reporter end her story by ominously intoning, "And, neighbors say, Richard Forsberg had recently taken," and I thought, "This is some kind of bizarre satire."

Marcia—pronounced "Mar-SEE-ya," because she didn't do things in a typical way—was tall, striking, with big curly hair and a constant conspiratorial smile. She was what you'd probably call touchy-feely, a woman who believed that her experience with breast cancer had taught her invaluable lessons, and who found the good and the humor in most situations.

She and Rick had no children, just each other, and from what Marcia always said they loved it that way. I had the impression of mutual, even slightly obsessive, devotion.

Modern Maturity moved from California to Washington, D.C. in 1996, and our work group broke up. A few of us met for occasional lunches and catch-ups, but I hadn't seen Marcia in years. But I can hear her voice, see her leaning over to me (I was 8 inches shorter) to share an observation or a mild piece of gossip and laughing richly.

Even if the police get answers, they'll never get the answers I want. I don't mean to sound naive, but how does this happen? What goes on in a nearly 40-year marriage between high school sweethearts such that it ends not in divorce, but murder? Who is this man, and where did the guy go whom Marcia loved and trusted?

I'm sorry, Marcia.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Rainmaker

I like to sleep with the window open
And you keep the window closed

So goodbye

—Paul Simon

I like the windows open. (Fortunately, so does My Beloved.) I like the sounds drifting up from the street, I like the cream-colored curtains billowing with a breeze, I like feeling connected to the world outside. But it's been hot here, really hot, and we've been closing the windows and running the air conditioner all the damn time. I hate that/I love that/I hate that/I love that.

I'm conflicted about my relationship with the air conditioner. But I'm more conflicted about feeling sweaty, sticky, clammy and gross, and about contorting myself into unattractive positions so that no piece of my flesh touches any other piece of my flesh.

Thus, the air conditioner runs several hours a day and we do our communing with nature in the early morning and the late afternoon/evening, when the air feels more like the caress of a silk scarf and less like the lick of a large dog. And we, like Paul Simon, sleep with the window open.

The other morning, I was having one of those especially vivid and surreal dreams that I swear are swirled up when your sleeping body is a little too warm. This one had to do with a cryogenic chamber buried in my parents' backyard. I wasn't sorry when I woke out of it, even if it was 5:30 in the morning. I got up and went to the window, and saw this:

And then this:

I'm not usually a sunrise kind of gal, so this felt like a reward for virtue.

There are other rewards awaiting us out there on the fringes of the day. Like the trail of breadcrumbs I found on my morning river walk today:

There were more than a dozen of them. I hoped to find a chalked "YES!" at the end of the line, but I'm afraid the mystery remains unsolved. She couldn't have said no...could she?

The light this morning was eerie—a dark gray sky foretelling an oncoming rainstorm, with the sun sliding through underneath. It made Jersey City seem downright compelling.

The other evening, after working at our desks in the artificial air all day long, we wandered down to the water again, just in time for the sunset.

The sky and our mood mellowed.

And when we discovered a tango class in progress at the end of the pier, it made perfect sense in a Felliniesque kind of way.

Then we went home and threw open the windows and let the sirens and the whoops of laughter and the clop of horse hooves drift up to us on the breeze.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I've been driving the streets of L.A. a lot my head.

I guess it's fitting that when I think of Los Angeles, the land of the driven, I should remember intersections and gas stations and mini-malls. But there's a poignancy to these particular memories; a minor-key soundtrack seems to be playing on the car stereo. Because sitting in the passenger seat as I drive is a Child. She's a junior in high school, doesn't yet have her license, and every morning I drive her the 10 miles across town to school.

Sometimes she sleeps the whole way. Sometimes she eats the fried potatoes I made for her while she'd showered and dressed. Most mornings we listen to her CD mixes, and I routinely fail the obligatory exam.

"Okay, who's this?"

"Um, All-American Rejects?"


"Um, The Flesh Tones?"

"You mean The Hush Sound? No."

"Um, Tegan and Sara?"

(Shake of head. Facepalm.)

But the dopey ones I manage to learn by heart; in fact, I can never get them out of my head. She and I tsk with mutual disdain over the inane lyrics.

" 'There's no distance in between our love' ?" The Child says, her shoulders and voice rising with incredulity.

" 'You're part of my entity/Yeah for infinity' ?" I counter.

Then we sing along with Rihanna together.

" 'You can stand under my um-ber-ella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh.' "

Every time she plays a new song for me, she surreptitiously watches my thumbs to see whether they tap the steering wheel in time to the music—the sure sign of a hit. She finds it weird and slightly disturbing to see them tapping to the beat of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl." But I think I secretly get some cool-mom cred with her friends when she reports this. (She may beg to differ.)

I'm proud that she feels comfortable enough to preface a new song with "This one is not really parent-appropriate"—and then play it for me anyway. I admit to brief palpitations on the first hearing of The Dresden Dolls' "Shores of California," with its lyrics "All I know is that all around the nation/The girls are crying, the boys are masturbating."

Now I hear "Shores of California" and I'm achingly nostalgic for a certain stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard between Westwood and Beverly Glen, or of Sunset Boulevard between the Strip and La Brea. I miss turning the corner from La Brea onto Hollywood Boulevard and waving at my dad's star on the Walk of Fame.

"Hi, star!" we'd chorus, waving vigorously, perplexing the guy hosing down the sidewalk.

And I miss the sleeping, texting, chewing, singing, ranting, witticizing, facepalming, silently mulling high school junior sitting beside me. The girl who is now a sophomore in college and is spending the summer on the other side of the country.

I'll never get that year back. I'm grateful to have had it. And as anyone knows who's read my many recent posts, I'm truly grateful for the here and now in New York City. Still, in some impossible way, I want to hold that junior year in my hands again. These conflicting true things co-exist in an uneasy mash-up in my head. And I'll just have to live with that.

As the sage said: "You're part of my entity/Yeah for infinity."

* Title taken from Katharine Hepburn's autobiography,
Me; on leaving the California house she once shared with Spencer Tracy.

Monday, July 5, 2010

End-of-the-Line Trip #3: 1 Train to South Ferry

[The third in an ongoing series of trips to the end of every one of New York's subway lines.]

I love that Manhattan is an island. I love that if you walk anywhere long enough in any direction, you'll end up at water. I love that there are all kinds of methods for getting on and off the island—and that my favorite, ferries, can take you to other islands.

Yesterday was the 4th of July and it was 12,000 degrees in New York. (Today it's 12,001.) Naturally that meant one thing to My Beloved and me: We must spend it out of doors for hours on end, surrounded by scads of other people. Otherwise, what's the point?

So we took our neighborhood train, the sweet poky local 1 train, to the South Ferry station at the bottom of the island. There we'd catch the ferry to Governors Island for a free concert by Rosanne Cash, whose latest album, The List (inspired by the list of 100 essential country songs given to her by her father, Johnny Cash) has been in heavy rotation at our house.

We'd never been to Governors Island before, so the lure of the new was part of the attraction of the day. A military installation since the days of the British (when it was used for "the accommodation and benefit of His Majesty's Governors"), the island was closed as a military facility in the 90s, and is now being redeveloped by New York State and New York City. The southern end of the island will be reshaped as a Central Park-like space, with man-made hills and streams, the better for viewing the Statue of Liberty across the harbor. The public can visit the island on weekends via the free 800-yard ferry ride, and bring or rent bikes to ride around the island.

As the doors of the subway train opened at South Ferry, the riders poured out and up the stairs, dividing left and right depending on whether they were aimed at the Staten Island Ferry (right) or the Governors Island ferry (left). We shared our standing space at the front of the ferry with a group of 20something hipsters and a hyper-confident, blonde-ringleted five-year-old who muscled her way to the window to announce the goings-on.

"WE'RE LEAVING!" she bellowed as the ferry creaked away from the dock. "WE'RE MOVING! HEY, WE'RE GETTING THERE! WE'RE HERE!"

While we'd had visions of sitting in the blazing sun for hours, we were surprised to find the island shady and pastoral, with rows of grand old houses that are in the process of being reconceived as artists' galleries and local artisans' shops, among other things. On the 4th of July, it was an ideal place to loll about and picnic.

We planted ourselves in a prime spot near the stage almost two and a half hours before the concert, and spent the time people-watching, reading, eating grape tomatoes and chocolate-covered pretzels, and noticing that the signage managed to spell Cash's name wrong. (No "e" in Rosanne, guys.) The sound check gave us early birds a little bonus concert, as she and husband John Leventhal and the band tested out the blues classic "Motherless Children."

The concert itself included fantastic duets between Cash and Leventhal on "Sea of Heartbreak" (which she performs with Bruce Springsteen on the album) and "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow"; a rocking version of "This Land Is Your Land"; and Cash's killer cover of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe."

And the rousing encore of "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)" gave me the happy chance to trot out my lame white-girl dance.

Then...back across the water to Manhattan...

...just in time for a wonderfully international 4th of July dinner with old and new friends from the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, Italy, India, and Canada. Plus a view straight down 23rd Street of the fireworks over the Hudson River.

I know it wasn't Thanksgiving, but I gave thanks, anyway—for independence, for great friendships and great music, and for a family and a city I love.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

End-of-the-Line Trip #2: E Train from Jamaica Center

I'll admit right off the bat that this one is a bit of a cheat. Yes, we did arrive at the end of the line on the E train, but it accident. It was part of a series of June travels—New York-L.A.-New York; New York-Virginia-New York; New York-Orlando-New York—that have only now ended and involved one unexpected ride on a shuttle bus in Jamaica, Queens when the subway was being serviced. And a careening, cheek-by-jowl journey it was, as squashed travelers and locals swayed and lurched through the lamplit neighborhoods, keeping up a loud patter the whole way—"This is riDICulous, yo"..."Where are we GOING?"..."Just take me to my crib, I'll DRIVE to Manhattan"—until we all tumbled off the bus together at Union Turnpike and poured down the stairs to the subway.

So, my apologies, both for this little ruse and for my long blog absence.

After spending so many months chronicling my impending life changes—a Child going to college, a cross-country move to New York—I discovered that once I actually landed, I got so swept up in just being here that I neglected to settle down and write about it.

And there was the little crisis of confidence, too; the feeling that I was blathering on narcissistically and who could possibly care? (I'm not fishing here, I swear.) But a few gentle nudges from friends made me realize that I was being a wuss, and a lazy one. If you're going to start a blog, then blog, you idiot.

Hence, blog. So where were we?

1. In which she dives into the deep end. Within a week of our official, no-turning-back move to New York, I had joined the Film Forum, the New-York Historical Society and BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music); donated money to Hudson River Park and WNYC (the local NPR station); attended three films, including one double feature (Red Dust with Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Mary Astor, and Bombshell with Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy and Franchot Tone—bliss) and bought tickets for two lectures. Who knew that the multitudes were waiting breathlessly for a chat on "James Madison and the Constitution"?

I felt like a pirate plunging both hands into a great pile of plundered loot: the riches! I wanted to do it all, every day.

2. In which she receives visitors. In the span of a month, we welcomed four of my five siblings, my sister-in-law, one brother-in-law, one niece and one nephew, many of whom gamely camped out with us in our wall-less one-room loft. Besides offering a warm blanket of family togetherness, these visits were a fantastic opportunity to be an annoying show-off. "That white building that looks like crumpled plastic? Oh that's Barry Diller's IAC headquarters, designed by Frank Gehry." "Here we are in Washington Square Park, where they once conducted public hangings and buried impoverished victims of the yellow fever epidemic." I adore being an annoying show-off. These visits also got us to parts of town we'd never been to before: the archives building where you can do genealogical research; the gorgeous new Brooklyn Bridge Park on the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges; the Museum of Arts and Design; Grimaldi's Pizzeria. You see things in a new way when you show your town to out-of-towners.

3. In which she goes..."home"? In early June, we flew to Los Angeles for 10 days, the first time we'd been back since the move. Having reserved the smallest rental car possible (the clerk tried to persuade us to upgrade to a compact), we ended up with the only car left on the lot: a monstrous white SUV. I mention this because the weirdness of lumbering around in a Sherman tank after 30 years of driving Hondas and Toyotas added to my initial sense of dislocation and discomfiture. I didn't belong here anymore. The next day we downgraded to a Hyundai and things began to feel more normal. We stayed with my parents, gathered with family, visited friends, soaked up the sight of blossoming jacaranda and bougainvillea...

...spoke to a classroom full of fifth-graders, tooled around town, and took a passing glance at our old condo building (pang). I visited with The Child, who is staying with her dad for the summer, and felt the familiar flutter of guilt over selling her childhood home. Then she and I made a red velvet cake for a family birthday party, and all was temporarily right with the world.

4. In which she goes there and back again. A late-night arrival at JFK, one whirl on a subway shuttle bus (see paragraph 1, subsection a), and a 5 a.m. wake-up call later, we took Amtrak down to Washington, D.C. for a research trip into Virginia. (The second in our series of graphic novels is set during the Civil War, and opens on a fictional plantation near Fredericksburg.) We stayed with my cousins, the youngest of whom led us on a walk in the lush woods near their home:

(That's my Beloved, though, not my seven-year-old cousin in the photo.) Civil War history being rather ever-present in Virginia—we were once crisply informed by a white-haired gentlelady in the Richmond Visitor's Bureau that "Theah's just one pawnt of view down heah, and it's the Confederate pawnt of view"—it wasn't difficult to find sites where we could witness 1860s farm life in action. Ask me anything about grain cradles, flails and threshing wheat! On our last day, we toured the Smithsonian's American History museum, where I pronounced Hillary's gown the best-looking of the First Ladies' inauguration dresses (yes, even more than Michelle's one-armed number), but Grace Coolidge's flapper style evening gown the most delightful of all. Why Calvin Coolidge, you sly fox.

5. In which she and The Child go to Hogwarts. In the greatest of all possible boondoggles, I managed to get a magazine assignment that sent The Child and me to write a mother-daughter piece on the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction at Universal Orlando. Me: mother-daughter bonding time! getting The Child her first byline! The Child: butterbeer! Pygmy Puffs! possible Luna Lovegood sightings! It was a busy, humid, footsore few days (we threw in Disney World while we were at it), and I came as close as I ever want to to losing my lunch on a roller coaster during the "Forbidden Journey" ride through Hogwarts.
But I got my bonding wish as we drove around listening to The Child's playlist in our air conditioned Ford Focus; and she got to live her longtime fantasy of walking in Harry's footsteps—even if she was joined by ungodly numbers of fellow tourists, many of whom had waited up to six hours just to get into the park, followed by untold hours of waiting for rides, butterbeer, food, and the privilege of spending money in the Potteresque shops. The Child's advice: Go in a year. (Footnote for Potter fans: Sadly, the pygmy puffs were sold out, the Extendable Ears hadn't yet come in, and Luna Lovegood was nowhere to be seen. But the chocolate frogs, complete with holographic trading cards, were plentiful, and the girls of the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic and the boys of Durmstrang Institute made fetching appearances.)

6. In which she enjoys her honeymoon. Humidity, crowds, non-functioning subways, the Gay Pride Parade landing on our doorstep? Bring 'em on! I'm in my honeymoon phase—with my Beloved-Husband and with New York City. They both delight, inspire and intoxicate me. And I don't have to find parking! I'm a lucky girl.

Monday, May 3, 2010

End-of-the-Line Trip #1: 7 Train to Main Street, Flushing

My Beloved and I were either mad dogs or Englishmen in a previous life, because we never do anything except in a blazing midday sun. A hike in the California desert? A tourist trek across Cochin, India? Hang on, we have to wait till the clock strikes twelve and the temperature goes into triple digits.

And so our debut End-of-the-Line trip (the first of our excursions to the farthest reaches of the New York subway system) took place on the hottest day of the year so far. Admittedly not 100 degrees—but 86 and the first humid day of the season. That immediately put us in a good mood.

Our mission: to ride to the end of the #7 train, said to be one of New York's busiest lines and one of the most ethnically diverse subway lines anywhere. The 7 originates at Times Square in Manhattan and ends at Main Street and Roosevelt Boulevard in Queens—smack in the middle of Flushing's Chinatown.

But the fun of the ride started earlier, as soon as the train emerged from under the East River and came up above ground in Queens. I love riding elevated trains, getting the roof-top view of the surrounding city and the occasional glimpse into people's windows. Three of the stations in Queens, including 46th Street, take advantage of the outdoor light on the elevated platforms with beautifully imaginative stained-glass windows.

We came out of the subway at Flushing-Main Street and into a crush of people on the sidewalks, shops selling discounted Chinese music CDs, and a profusion of Chinese bakeries and noodle shops. As usual when we go anywhere, I had specific foodstuffs on my mind, and if it's Chinatown this must be bao—specifically cha siu bao, roast-pork buns.

After a meander through the indoor Flushing Mall (where the massive True Love Wedding Shop made us happy we'd eloped), we came back out to Main Street and spotted the Taipan Bakery. Although I prefer steamed bao (white and doughy on the outside, sweet barbecued pork on the inside), when you're starved and you're staring at a bakery case exploding with gorgeous sugary products, you don't stand on principle if only a golden-brown baked bao is available. I heroically resisted the cakes and custard buns, picked out my bao, and Stan went for a red bean-paste bun. Then we chewed and sweated our way south through the crowds on Main Street to the Chung Fat Supermarket.

Had we not been looking at a few more hours of touring in the hot sun, I might have been tempted by one of these grumpy fellows...

...or by a bag of frozen dumplings, which filled two entire rows of freezer cases:

Instead we got a box of "Crisp Bits" banana chips and left the shopping mania behind. Another half mile down Main Street and we were in another world: the Queens Botanical Garden. One look at the ferns in the Woodland Garden and I instantly felt 20 degrees cooler.

The Botanical Garden is part of a string of parks that flow through Flushing (sorry) like a gentle green river—while the Long Island Expressway, the Grand Central Parkway and the dreaded Van Wyck (which leads to JFK, as any Seinfeld fan can tell you) roar by on overpasses.

We walked across the street to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, site of the 1964 World's Fair:

It's changed some since then:

But my favorite thing was the description of the time capsule contents from 1964, which were buried alongside the capsule from 1938–39.

I especially love "one checkered bikini," "tranquilizers," and the misspelling of "cigarettes" for all eternity.

The busy Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is also the site of the U.S. Tennis Association's Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, to which I had to pay homage—though sadly, the players we spied through the chain link fence bore no resemblance to Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal.

Having now achieved our end-of-the-line objective, it was time to head back the other direction. But first we had a few more stops to make.

While in theory it seems a romantic notion to blindly hop a train, go to the last stop, and see what you see, I knew that would likely to lead to some serious disgruntlement as we ended up hot and sweaty down a blind alley in an industrial no-man's-land. So we did some research before the trip, including consulting our friend Rick Meyerowitz, who's been to every corner of every borough and has eaten everything he found there. And lived to draw the tale. (If you didn't see it in The New Yorker, check out the astonishing culinary subway map Rick produced with his partner Maira Kalman, in which they reproduced the New York subway map and replaced every single station with place-appropriate funny food names. All aboard for Montezuma's Revenge!)

So with Rick's suggestions in mind, we walked up and over the walkway that bridges the park and the Stadium-that-should-be-Shea-but-is-now-Citi-Field, and caught the 7 going back toward Manhattan. We got off five stops later, at 82nd Street, and stepped into the life under the el—the way much of New York used to be, until they tore down the 6th Avenue El and the 3rd Avenue El, and the El that once ran right up our street in the Village.

Having left Flushing's Chinatown behind, we were now surrounded by taquerias, clothing stores, divorce attorneys, bars, and music representing seemingly every country in Central and South America. I had visions of grabbing an empanada (an Argentinian bao?), but before we knew it, we'd arrived at 74th Street and the center of Jackson Heights.

Jackson Heights has been on my must-visit list almost as long as I've been coming to New York, and especially since our 2005 trip to India. It's the locus of Indian food and shopping, and I was ecstatic as we patrolled the aisles of Patel Brothers and Subzi Mandi, picking up:
* mustard seeds (99 cents!)
* heat-and-eat packages of palak paneer (spinach and Indian cheese) and navratan korma (vegetables, cheese and cashews in a creamy tomato sauce)
* a bag of "Kerala Mixture" snacks that looked like a packaged version of the bhel puri we saw being prepared on sidewalk stoves in Bombay;
* and a bag of "Mix Mukhwas," the ubiquitous after-dinner breath freshener snack (mostly fennel seeds) offered in bowls at the front of every restaurant we visited in India.

I lusted after a sparkly sari in a shop window:

...and we finished the afternoon with a late lunch at the touristic but excellent Jackson Diner (bhel puri and navratan korma, plus dal, cool yogurt-and-cucumber raita, warm and puffy naan bread) and two bottles of Kingfisher beer. It may be India's version of Budweiser, but it took us back to a rootop restaurant in Bombay on an impossibly humid and buggy evening, and how delicious a cool bottle of piss-water beer could taste.

Then, back up the stairs to the elevated train, an impromptu adios serenade by a full Mariachi band...

...and we were on our way back home, back to the beginning of the line.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Long Day's Journey, redux

In the Los Angeles house I grew up in, my two older brothers had glued onto their wall a map of the Tube, the London subway system, salvaged from the years we lived in England. I loved to climb up on my brother's bed and stare at those multicolored interlocking lines and read the names of the stops. Elephant & Castle. Tooting Bec. Swiss Cottage. Ealing Broadway. Uxbridge.

I was so little when we left England that I had no memory of riding the Northern Line or the Piccadilly Line or the Bakerloo Line, and I bore a pint-size grudge about that. There was so obviously stuff going on there in those fantastic destinations—Kentish Town! Shepherd's Bush!—and I'd missed it.

Today in the New York house I live in we have a shower curtain bearing a giant map of the New York subway system. The names on this map may not be as Dickensian as those in London, but they grab me: Pelham Bay Park, Far Rockaway, Brighton Beach. They're the crooked fingers luring me to adventure.

The other week, I wrote about my meeting with the charming, enthusiastic Stanford senior who was planning to take New York by storm en route to a successful acting career. The comparison to Katharine Hepburn's wild confidence was easy—as was the contrast with my own youthful caution.

Well, here I am in New York City, a few decades late, but with time to spare. "Maybe New York itself will be your way of taking New York," My Beloved suggested after I wrote that post. You see why I married him—the man is a genius. He was exactly right. I'm not interested in conquering the New York publishing scene, or starring on Broadway or running for office. But I do want to dive into the deep end of the New York experience and muck about. And the shower curtain is going to get me there.

So today we start the first of a series of periodic adventures: We'll pick one subway line and take it all the way to the end, stopping along the way to walk, eat, explore, hit some dead ends, take some pictures, see what we see. Eventually, we'll ride every line in New York City. Today's journey: the 7 train to Flushing Main Street.

Maybe I didn't make it to Ealing Broadway, but I can take on Broadway-Lafayette (B-D-F-V trains)...and Broadway Junction (A-C-J-L-Z trains)...and East Broadway (F train)...and 74th Street-Broadway (7 train)...and Broadway-Nassau (A-C trains)... . And I consider that a more than fair trade.

1964 London tube map: (c) Transport for London, via Thank you.

Photo: Church Avenue station, Brooklyn. (c) Me

Monday, April 26, 2010

Adam's Rib

For years we had this conversation:

"Should we?"



And then one day it was:

"Let's do it."

"Okay, let's do it."

And so we got married.

At least that's the Reader's Digest version of the story. I've been trying to come up with one ever since the day two weeks ago when we stood barefoot on a beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts, just us and the justice of the peace and seagulls for witnesses, and said, "I will."

Reactions from family and friends had a theme: "You're kidding!" "You did WHAT?" "No way!" "
You?" And various stories of falling off pieces of furniture when they heard the news.

My friend Lauren said, “I thought it was illegal for heterosexual couples to get married in Provincetown.”

And from my friend Gary: “I like that you call him 'My Beloved.' Now that you're married, will he be demoted to ‘Husband’?”

And everyone's inevitable question: “Had you planned this, or did you decide on the spur of the moment?”

We've been together for almost 10 years, so obviously the subject has come up. We didn't shudder at the idea, but we didn't feel incomplete without it. There were no when-will-you-make-an-honest-woman-of-my-daughter discussions, although seriously, that would have been darn cute.

Occasionally since leaving L.A. and moving to New York full time, my Beloved and I talked about logistics—like how much easier it is to own property together if you're married. But also about finances—like how there could be negative tax implications if we got married. We'd shrug and drop the topic.

Then there we were one Saturday watching The Bourne Ultimatum when I went over and gave my Beloved a hug. He looked at me and said, "Screw the finances. Let's do it," and I said, "Okay, let's do it."

And there you have it. Two lives changed in the span of a commercial break.

Four weeks later, we drove to the Provincetown Town Hall—rather, its temporary headquarters in a trailer up next to the cemetery—and applied for our marriage license. It was a pretty straightforward process; I think they asked for our first and last names. And we skirted the three-day waiting period by driving down to the Barnstable Family and Probate Court to apply for a waiver.

That process involved filling out a “Marriage Without Delay” form, forking over $65, and spending the 10-minute wait watching divorce proceedings in the courtroom. Clever ploy, Massachusetts! But ha ha—we were not deterred! The judge signed our waiver and the jovial Irish bailiff handed it over to us…after extracting a pledge that we weren't Yankees fans.

On the night before the big day, I sat on the bed in our rented Provincetown condo and called The Child at college to let her in on the secret—the only person to know ahead of time. She offered us her good wishes, said she was happy we were doing this, and gave us her blessing: "Finally, you're respectable!"

All that night, I listened to the rain and the wind rattle the windows. I wondered if I was brave enough to get married on the beach in a downpour. And we woke up to the sun blazing in an intensely blue sky. Thank you, universe.

At noon, we stood on the beach in that magic Cape light, looking across the bay at the lighthouse and Pilgrim Monument and MacMillan Wharf, I in my thrift shop dress and Stan in his Old Navy shirt. Before us stood the kind, warm, funny, compassionate justice of the peace, Susan Marcus, whom fate and Google had brought our way.

A wild wind swirled around us, so strong that we could barely hear our own words as Stan and I read aloud the poetry we'd chosen for the occasion—Stan from Walt Whitman:
...Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

...and me from Shakespeare:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds...

We read our vows to each other, comic yet sincere. We picked up fistfuls of sand and symbolically poured them together into one glass container—an olive oil cruet we bought at the Brewster General Store. We shared a glass of red wine, sweet and bitter. Tears streamed from my eyes, whether from emotion or wind.

And then it was done. We were married. He was my "husband." I was his "wife." Such odd words. We played with them like Play-Dough, rolling them around to see what we made of them. We wondered if we felt different. We don't, and we do.

"How's married life?" everyone asks now.

"It's superb," I say. "It's sweet."

And I believe my husband—still My Beloved—feels the same.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Keeper of the Flame

Shortly after she left Bryn Mawr college, Katharine Hepburn moved to New York City to pursue her acting career. She got a job as understudy for the lead in a play called, appropriately, The Big Pond.

"I learned the part and sat on the sidelines quite convinced that I would be far superior to the leading lady I was watching, Lucile Nikolas," she wrote in her autobiography, Me. "She was a very competent actress who did not have the advantage of being very young and absolutely outrageous and full of a sort of wild confidence based on nothing but energy and ego. Of course I thought I was scared to death, but all I can say now, looking back, is that I was not scared enough. Open a door, I'd go through. Even if the room I was entering was on fire."

This is who I should have been. At least, this is who I thought for years I should have been, back before I stopped second-guessing my 21-year-old self. Before I realized that all my choices—as safe and un-outrageous as they may have been—brought me here, to a place I'm happy to be.

But for many, many years, I berated myself for my Hepburn Deficit Disorder. Why couldn't I have had that energy and ego? Why didn't I assume that I was better, more talented and capable than the next woman—instead of what I did assume, which was that pretty much anyone else on the planet was more deserving than I. Why couldn't I charge through an open door, instead of peering tentatively around the doorframe?

Well, as Hillary Clinton once said, "Coulda, woulda, shoulda—didn't."

I'm over it now. Pretty much. But the other day I met the alternate-universe version of myself, and I have to admit, it gave me a pang.

He doesn't look much like me—he's about two feet taller, almost 30 years younger, African-American and gay. He's a senior at Stanford, my alma mater, and he found me through the alumni association. He wants to move to New York and hoped to get my advice about neighborhoods and jobs and...whatever. Mostly he talked and I listened—with admiration and a rueful shaking of my head.

"New York is the ultimate city!" he said as he perused the diner menu, before telling the waiter he'd please like the "freshly brewed coffee."

"It's so easy to be gay here, it's so easy to be African-American here. This is where it all happens. It's the greatest city in America!" No, he said, he definitely did not want to go home to Los Angeles. "Noooo, no, no. Maybe when I'm older and I'm ready to retire."

He had just auditioned for a summer theater program with Steppenwolf in Chicago, and was casting about for a job he could get in the fall in New York. "I'll do anything—I'll start in the mailroom, I'll get people's coffee. I'll walk dogs. Although I hear that's really competitive."

His plan was to work for a year while studying with his acting coach, go to drama school for three years, and then, ideally, move to London or Paris—where he'd spent his junior year abroad and attended every theatrical production he could grab hold of. "I saw 60 plays last year," he said. "I was broke, but I loved it."

When we met for freshly brewed coffee, he'd been in New York less than a week and had already seen four plays on student-rush tickets. His favorite was Red, the two-man play about artist Mark Rothko, starring Alfred Molina.

"It's about the nature of art, what is art—that whole difficult conversation and dialectic that people have," he said. "I saw it in London and I think it's even improved since then. The staging is so cinematic."

I walked him to his subway, and he thanked me profusely for my time and all the (non-existent) help I'd given him. As I turned and began to walk away, a middle-aged man leaned in to me and said, "Way too pleasant for New York."

I laughed. "Oh no," I said. "He'll do fine."

Monday, March 8, 2010

"You suddenly realize what a tremendous opportunity it is just to be alive. The potential."

And then—bam!—we lived in New York. And it only took me 40 years to get here.

I keep waiting for the giant wallop of realization, the smack on the rear end as the door to California hits me on my way out. But it's not like that. I've discovered that instead it's an incremental dawning, a gradual accumulation of signs and moments.

I got my New York driver's license, surrendering my California license in the process. I have no car, but I have a driver's license, on which I've given my permission to donate my organs and tissue and eyeballs in the event of my untimely death. (Realizing that my eyeballs would likely go to a New Yorker, the better to see the Empire State Building, was one tiny wallop of realization.)

I got my first piece of direct mail containing return-address labels in my name paired with my New York address—and considered donating money to the cause just because they were the first. Yes, I'm that kind of idiot.

I give directions to inquiring strangers on a regular basis, and have only once sent someone 90 degrees in the wrong direction.

I launch into conversation with total strangers, as I did today on the subway when I found a car full of people dressed in plastic bags. It was the day of the New York City Half-Marathon, explained the woman on my right, who was proud to have completed it in under 10 minutes per mile.

I group my errands not by which side of the street the stores are on or by how many left turns I can avoid, but by the walking route I'll take to get to them. The other day I had a nice straight-line trajectory from the neighborhood office store to the FedEx office to the Jefferson Market library, back to Three Lives bookstore and home. It was a sunny day and I smiled the whole way.

I'm convinced I love snow and slush as much as sun and blue skies. I do not make myself popular when I express this opinion—admittedly formed after only half a winter on the east coast. But where else can you enjoy scenes like this:

And pat yourself on the back for having survived this:

And then you see things like this in a sidewalk planter, which give you a whole new appreciation for spring and new life and starting afresh and hope and change and you feel like the first person who's ever witnessed the birth of a season:

This morning The Child, home on spring break, said in the midst of a lovely 56-degree day, "I wish I could transport my L.A. friends here and say, 'So, what do you think of the weather?' And when they say, 'Brr, it's cold,' I can say, 'Yeah, no, not really.' "

I promise I'll never become a smug East Coaster who glows with moral superiority because her winters are tougher. I'll probably never call myself a New Yorker, because I haven't earned the title. I'm still an L.A. girl at heart—one who goes to the water for relief and renewal, and who feels calmed by the sun setting over the place where a body of water meets the land, whether it's over the Pacific Ocean...

...or over the Hudson River.

But I'm mighty happy to be here.

* Title courtesy Katharine Hepburn, speaking of her film The Corn Is Green, in her autobiography, Me.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

"Orphaned again!" my dad cried, as My Beloved and I prepared to leave my parents' home for our flight back to New York. My parents have watched a lot of kids (6) and grandkids (13) and great-grandkids (5) come and go from this house, while they stand on the front porch and wave goodbye. They prefer the hellos to the goodbyes.

We'd been staying with my parents for nearly two weeks, ever since escrow closed on my L.A. condo and we'd moved out—watching the moving truck drive away...

...and vacuuming and scrubbing the now-empty space.

I leaned on the third-floor railing and cried for a minute. Stan patted my back. Then we laid out our keys on the kitchen counter, gathered our backpacks and our bottles of 409 and Windex, and closed the door behind us. Goodbye, house.

The two weeks at my parents' house were a gift. Yes, it was a little weird staying in the bedroom I'd grown up in, surrounded by too many pictures of myself in my hideous adolescent state. But the come-full-circle effect was soothing in a way I hadn't expected. I started my L.A. life in this house, and I left my L.A. life in this house. In fact, I literally left my L.A. life in this house, since my mom encouraged us to fill up a drawer with our socks and t-shirts so we'd have them there for our next visit which would be VERY SOON, she suggested.

Stan and I got up early each day and sat in the backyard reading the paper, while the cat put on his Fearless Hunter costume and stalked grasshoppers.

I had the chance to appreciate the stillness and the rustle of leaves and the changing light.

We drove around town in the car we'd sold to my niece and borrowed back from her, now with her bright-yellow graduation tassel swinging from the rear-view mirror. I jammed my camera phone with an L.A. mosaic—from the ridiculous...

 the sublime.

We scheduled as many goodbye lunches and dinners with friends and family as we could, and I always said the same thing: "We'll be back often. We'll just be traveling from east to west to east, instead of from west to east to west." But I discovered we couldn't stop people from treating this like a mournful farewell.

Between outings, we spent mornings at the breakfast table and evenings at the dinner table with my mom and dad, tucking ourselves in among the routines they've formed over 61 and a half years of marriage. I appreciated all over again my mom's unassuming strength, my dad's quick wit, the old Bob and Ray jokes retold with fresh appreciation, the Sinatra CDs playing in the background, the comfortable potato face of Jim Lehrer each night on the big TV, the sound of my mom's voice reading crossword puzzle clues to my dad, now legally blind with macular degeneration. Like a Waltons family of four, we'd bid each other good night and take up our stations in bedrooms down the creaky hallway.

And then, last Monday morning, it was time to go—time to gather our bags and the giant sheep-cat, and head east toward home.

(To be continued...)