Sunday, May 24, 2009

New York, Part II - Dad

After washing up in Jorge's tiny shower, I pulled a towel off its rack without even fully extending my arm from where I stood in the tub. Raising my left arm to apply deodorant I banged my hand against the shower curtain rod. As we readied ourselves to leave the apartment, dad called my cell phone to confirm our plans to meet in Chinatown for dim sum. These were well made plans; dad had sent several emails to me over the past weeks confirming and re-confirming. We had tentative plans to go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum afterwards, and I set my phone down for a moment while I went to find the paper where I’d written the museum’s address. When I picked the phone back up, dad was in full soliloquy mode; he’d been talking the entire time that I’d been looking for my piece of paper. It took me five tries before I could break in to the conversation.
“The Teneme… the Teneme…. the Teneme…. the Teneme…. The Tenement Museum is on Orchard Street,” I finally managed, “we won’t be far from there.”

We took the 1 train back to 34th street to drop off our luggage with Jorge before heading to Chinatown. A little girl with large brown eyes and long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail sat across from us on the train, her mighty cheeks drooping downwards. She fidgeted with a Metro card as her legs dangled six inches above the floor, her eyes meeting my gaze occasionally. I smiled at her, and she regarded me with a serious expression. She got off the train with her mother at 96th street.

The journey to Jorge’s office was rife with repeat experiences from the night before - the train stopped at 125th street, which was the stop before Grand Central on the Metro-North train from New Haven; we got off at 34th street, where M and I had met up the previous evening; and the same man who’d approached me with an empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup stood in almost the exact same spot as I’d first seen him, this time standing behind a card table set up for donations to something called the United Homeless Organization.

We found Jorge’s office building on 7th Avenue, which was staffed by a doorman who bore a striking resemblance to the actor Bruno Kirby and wore a bright blue jacket and black tie. In the elevator a sign reading “inspection certificate inside the super’s office” was engraved into a plaque on the elevator wall, and on the second floor Jorge greeted us wearing a bandanna that made him look like a gypsy. We dropped off our bags, and headed back out to the street. This part of 7th Avenue is known as “fashion avenue” due to its proximity to the garment district, and thin young models were everywhere. Two tall women in leather pants shook hands in front of us, then separated like parting waters as we passed between them. A few yards further, another tall, thin woman wearing small black shorts walked ahead of us.

Back on the 1 train, we listened to the garbled MTA operator announcements, which unlike the prerecorded announcements in Chicago, were live. At Times Square we transferred to the R train, and walked past a man seated on an upturned crate flipping through pages of a book, a sign reading “New York Times published poet" propped up against a stack of books in front of him.

We switched again for the B train, and exited at Grand. A fierce transsexual in white platform sandals stared at me as I got off the train, her face heavily painted.

On our way to the restaurant a woman’s voice behind us yelled:
“Jesus Christ, who do you think you are, King Tut?” Ahead of us, a man stepped close to another pedestrian and elbowed him gently. The man who’d been elbowed turned around and said:
“What - are you trying to run into me? I could take you.” Then they smiled at each other and shook hands.

When we surfaced from the subway it was 12:05, but somehow it took half an hour to find the restaurant. Dad doesn’t have a cell phone, so we just kept trudging along. I had visions of him standing on a street corner trying to pick us out of a crowd, saying over and over to whoever would listen:
“I called her this morning, I told her I’d made reservations for noon.”

“It took a long time to get here from the B train,” I managed to get out in the midst of a coughing fit once we found the restaurant and spotted dad's diminutive figure. I got a cough on Canal Street, and brought it with me all over New York and up to Boston the following week. Dad stands at five feet eight inches tall, and weighs no more than a hundred and thirty five pounds. He wears glasses, has a prominent nose, and has kept his facial hair in sideburns for as long as I can remember. There are pictures of him from the ‘70s when they grew to historic proportions, reaching a thickness of over an inch. They have become more subdued and greyer with time, and have turned white at his chin.

I needn’t have worried about him waiting for so long, dad had settled into a quiet corner of the restaurant, and being a Monday it wasn’t busy. He’d ordered a bottle of red wine, and began serving it to us as rounds of dim sum made their way to our table.
“Where are you coming from,” dad asked.
“A hundred and forty third street,” I said.
“Jesus Christ!” Dad exclaimed, “you could get raped, robbed, and murdered at high noon up there”, his voice rising on the word “noon”.

The food was delicious. The few times I've gone for dim sum the experience has been a heavily greased one, but I have to hand it to dad - he found a great spot. He's a foodie, and carries a red Michelin guide (which he calls "the geed meesh" after the French) wherever he goes. My stress dissipated as we ate, and I began to genuinely enjoy myself in dad's company.

When the bill came, M held a handful of small bills under the table as my dad worked out the tip. I motioned for him to put his money away.
“I’ll explain later,” he whispered. Our server took the credit card slip from my dad, and returned moments later, saying:
“Excuse me, sir,” and pointing to the tip line on the receipt. A three dollar tip had been left on a fifty nine dollar bill.
“Oh dad, that’s a terrible tip!” I cried, “you have to leave more, leave like... twelve dollars.” Dad pled ignorance, saying he’d been so distracted by our conversation that he’d miscalculated. He made the correction, and then apropos of nothing, began singing a 1950's era Tom Lehrer song:
“Oh the black folks hate the white folks, and the white folks hate the black folks, and the black folks hate the white folks, and everybody hates the Jews.”
At the next table a man in red spectacles and a grey ponytail looked over at us and made eye contact with me, I held his gaze.

We gathered our things, dad placing his signature blue beret on his head and grabbing his Michelin guide, and we headed outside in search of Little Italy for coffee and dessert. Dad overheard M and I discussing the fact that we needed to figure out which direction Bowery Street was in. We were halfway across a busy intersection when he approached a Chinese woman who was walking toward us, raised his finger in the air, and said:
“Bowery?” She continued on without so much as looking at him. He repeated this one word question, without providing any context around it, until we happened upon Bowery on our own. We stumbled upon Ferrara’s, where we indulged in espresso, a chocolate cannoli, and a sfogliatella.
“I think we're near Umberto's Clam House, where Crazy Joe Gallo got whacked,” dad said.
"Maybe you want to keep that to yourself dad," I said. When we left, he made a point of asking the proprietor if Umberto's was in fact the site of the Gallo murder while M and I waited for him outside.

At the Tenement Museum dad struck up a conversation with a woman behind us as we stood in line for tickets.
“This woman wants one ticket for the next tour!” he exclaimed loudly, and I whirled around, touched my hand to his shoulder, and shushed him. He shushed me back with a manic look on his face, and I left the building, the limits of my patience having been reached. M followed me, and we sat on a bench outside.
“I’m going to say something to him,” I said.
“Okay, but just calm down,”
“I’m not going to yell, I just need to say something because I can’t take any more of this.” Typically my limit with dad is about three hours; we’d made it to one hour and forty five minutes.
“Dad,” I said to him when he emerged, “I was having a nice time with you, and I want to continue to have a nice time with you, but it really embarrasses me when you talk to strangers, so I’m asking you to please just turn it down a notch,” Dad mumbled incessantly throughout my speech, saying:
“Yeeeeah, ooookaaaay, yeeeeeah, embarrassing yeeeeaah, oooookay, Iiiiiiiiii turn it down a notch.”
I wasn’t finished.
“It’s like babysitting,” I continued, “for a seventy year old.” The three of us were quiet for a moment while my catharsis passed, and then I said, more quietly: “ I just wanted to clear the air.”

The next tour at the museum wasn’t for another hour, and we had to get back to Jorge’s office before 7 p.m. to pick up our things. We decided to head to the west village to shop, and perhaps find a GAP store for M to exchange the pants and button down shirt I’d bought him the day before in Times Square. M is extraordinarily particular about his clothing, and I’d picked a shirt that was “too preppy”, and pants that didn’t match his shoes. We located a subway entrance, swiped our Metro cards through the electronic card readers, and walked through the turnstile.
“Where’s your dad?” M asked, and I turned around. He was nowhere to be seen. I stood with my arms extended outwards from my body, my mouth hanging open, and my brow furrowed for a long moment.
“Could he have walked down to the platform already?” I wondered aloud, “is he that fast?” We walked down to the platform and looked for him in vain, then walked back up to the turnstiles. We waited a moment and descended the stairs again.
“There he is, he’s on the other side of the tracks,“ M said, and I looked where he pointed. It took a moment for me see his beret-hatted form walking in quick, short strides on the opposite platform.
“DAD!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
“You can’t call him dad,” M said, “you have to use his name!”
“BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!” I screamed, but he continued on his trajectory. “BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!” I screamed again, with M accompanying me. We screamed his name a third time before he finally stopped, his body startled into recognition of his name as if from a dream. He raised his hand and waved.
“Hiya,” he said, and made his way to the staircase connecting the uptown and downtown trains.
“Where did you go?” I asked when he rejoined us, my adrenaline subsiding.
“Oh, I have to go to a station agent to get my senior citizen’s discount,” he began, “and only certain subway entrances have the personnel who let you pay the senior fare, and I have to show my ID…” He paid for each subway fare individually instead of buying a pre-loaded card, and did this each time he rode the subway.

We exited at West 4th Street, and found a GAP. M picked out some clothes and tried them on in the dressing room while dad deconstructed a display made from a jacket and button down shirt, and held a jacket sleeve over his arm for comparison. M made the exchanges that he wanted, and we headed out of the store, M’s goal of finding wearable clothes having been accomplished.
“What do you want to do now?”, dad asked.
“I don’t know, how about we explore the West Village?” I suggested. We walked for three minutes when M became suddenly incapacitated by a piece of debris that had flown into his eye. I handed him my compact mirror, but he was unable to locate or dislodge the debris. I walked into a Gristede’s food store and paid eight dollars for a bottle of Visine, which my dad pronounced “vee seen.”
“Maybe you should go back to where your headquarters and lie down,” dad suggested.
“I’ll be fine, I just need to put some drops in my eye,” M said.
“Yeah…” dad trailed off. “I know when these things happen to me it’s good to just go back home and lie down.”
“He’ll be fine,” I said. M sat on top of a newspaper vending machine by the sidewalk, tilted his head back, and began administering drops into his eyes.
“Once or twice a year I get an eyelid that flips up, completely,” dad said, his voice rising at the word “completely”. “Ooof,” he said, his face pinching into an expression of pain. “Yeah, what you want to do now is just go lie down”.
“I don’t need to lie down!” M said sharply from his perch, his left hand covering his eye, his right arm extended outwards with the palm facing up, and I suddenly laughed at the absurdity of the situation. M joined in the laughter, but dad stood firm.

We had to collect our bags from Jorge before moving on to Brooklyn where we had dinner plans with my friend Gabrielle, so we decided to call it an afternoon.
“Well, it was short but sweet,” dad said to me as we parted ways underground before M and I headed back to 34th street.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “you’re here ‘till Wednesday, right?”
“There’s simply no time!” Dad said, his voice rising, “tomorrow I’m going to MOMA, and Wednesday I have lunch plans with Richard.” I froze, dumbfounded.
“Um…. okay,” I finally managed, and watched as he toddled off to the other side of the subway platform. He turned briefly before disappearing and waved. I waved back.

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