Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Wedding - or - The Road to Pentwater

I set the alarm for 6 a.m., but it didn’t go off. M magically woke at 6:30, and we hit the road an hour later in a borrowed car heading towards Michigan, Eastern Standard Time, and Holly and Jeremy's wedding. I met the bride in late 2002 when we were coworkers at a national nonprofit organization. I walked into her office shortly after being hired and saw an image of comedian David Cross on her computer monitor, and knew then that we were destined to become friends. We were even neighbors for a while, I knew the guy who owned the house next door and the rent was cheap, so she and Jeremy moved in. They had a set of E.T. walkie talkies, and we kept one in our kitchen, turning it on now and then and speaking into its belly to see what was going on next door. It wasn’t very effective since we’d have to call first and tell them to turn their E.T. on, but it was fun nonetheless.

Time spent with Holly and Jeremy is frequently spontaneous and immature, and makes me laugh until my stomach hurts. Once while driving on Ashland Avenue Jeremy began yelling things out of the passenger side window. I told him to yell "alcohol is a social lubricant," and he did, hanging his head out the window like a dog and howling it at pedestrians. Eventually the phrase was condensed to "social luuuuuuube," and still later to a single word, "soshalube." For days afterward we muttered it to each other in a kind of half-cough.

We were fairly casual about visiting between our homes, and I walked into their living room once to find a small pile of toenail clippings on the edge of the coffee table.
"Are those toenails?" I asked Holly.
"Yes," she answered, mortified. I knew what they were instantly, and I knew that they had to have once been a part of Jeremy’s foot because M does the same thing in our living room.

Their apartment was in the attic and had slanting walls where the roof inclined. It was cute, but small and poorly heated, so they moved out after a year to a bigger space near Logan Square. Holly quit her job in August of 2005, and I followed suit shortly. It was an adjustment; towards the end of our time working together we shared an office with a window that overlooked Lake Michigan, and it was fun going to work knowing she’d be there. About a year ago Holly and Jeremy moved to Grand Rapids, and we’ve seen them once or twice since then. They’d been together for seven years before they got engaged, so it was almost as if they were married already, but I was looking forward to watching them make it official. They'd chosen the small town of Pentwater for their wedding because Holly's family has been spending summers there since before she was born; for years they've had a bumper sticker on their car that says "Pentwater, Heaven, What's The Difference?"

We took the Kennedy to the Skyway and drove through Gary and northern Indiana before crossing the border into Michigan and connecting to Route 31. Signs for the Blue Star Highway appeared on the side of the road, and I thought it sounded like the most beautiful highway in the world. We passed Schmuhl Road, crossed the Paw Paw river, and as we approached Holland I realized I had an urgent need to find a bathroom. M pulled into a gas station and I walked into the adjoining convenience store, where a woman sat behind the counter engrossed in a phone conversation. I looked around the small space hoping that the bathroom was inside the store, but saw no evidence of one. I got the cashier’s attention, and hadn’t even finished forming my question before she threw a key attached to a piece of wood on top of the glass-topped counter in front of her without breaking the rhythm of her conversation. I walked outside and slipped the key inside the lock of the bathroom door, the promise of sweet relief just seconds away. What I saw sent my urine into reverse; even with the lights off I could see a pyramid of toilet paper sitting glacier-like in the middle of the toilet bowl, accented with streaks of brown that cascaded down onto the toilet seat. Like a glacier, a small percentage of its mass showed above the waterline. I walked back into the convenience store and threw the key onto the counter with the fury of relief denied. The cashier absentmindedly picked it up and hung it back on its hook behind the register.
“Do you have another bathroom?” I asked, “that one’s dirty.”
“Oh really, is it bad?” she asked, the phone receiver still pressed to her ear, "yeah," I said.
“No, that’s the only one we have,” she said, and turned back to her conversation. I marched towards M, who was finishing up at the gas pump.
“That toilet is disgusting,” I announced, “we have to go somewhere else.” We drove a few hundred feet to a Denny’s, and I marched right past the hostess to the back of the restaurant. I burst through to the first toilet and was so relieved that I started laughing as a torrent of urine exited my body. I heard a rustle coming from the adjoining stall and realized that I wasn’t alone. I finished quickly and washed my hands, and giggled again after reading a sticker affixed to the paper towel dispenser that read:


On my way out of the restaurant I passed by a friend of M's, a professional painter who, in exchange for tattooing from M, painted our living and dining rooms when we first moved into our house six years ago. He was on his way from Chicago to a wedding in Saugatuck, and I wouldn't have recognized him, but he'd approached M in the parking lot and they'd exchanged greetings.

Back in the car I began to notice that the town of Holland, MI had a Dutch theme; there were signs for Tulip City Airport, I spotted a mini golf course with a windmill on the putting green, and we drove past a sign in the shape of a Dutch clog advertising the Wooden Shoe Antique Mall & Restaurant. At Felch Street we spotted a car with four Jesus fishes attached to the rear.
"That guy just really, really, really, really wants you to know that he believes," I said.
"He also really runs red lights," M said, as the believer blew through an intersection ahead of us. We continued on past both Ransom Street and Ransom Street West, Macatowa Legends Golf Club, and a convoy of vehicles transporting boy scout troops to a jamboree.

We pulled into Pentwater at about 12:30 p.m. Michigan time, changed out of our traveling clothes and walked to the village green. The wedding ceremony was short but poignant. Holly walked across the green with her father and stood on the steps of the gazebo with Jeremy, where they exchanged vows. Their dog Enzo served as the ring bearer, with assistance from Brian, the brother of the groom. Once Enzo delivered the rings a round of applause came from the guests, and a woman with salt and pepper hair who I recognized as Jeremy and Brian's mother leaned forward and said:
"Good job Brian".

Afterward there was a reception under a tent on the lawn of the Ida Jean Bed & Breakfast. Teary eyed toasts were made by the two sisters of the bride, the father of the bride and various friends, as well as the single funniest brother of the groom speech I've ever heard. Jeremy and his brother Brian have many similar features, but while Brian has a full head of hair Jeremy has none. In some circles Brian is known as Hairemy, and he opened his speech with:
"People say that my brother and I are a lot alike, but there are some things I do that he doesn't... like buy shampoo." Much dancing and revelry followed, and at midnight the party moved to a local bar called The Antler. M and I headed to our cozy B&B, dog tired from our travels.

We spent the next day with the bride and groom, and a handful of other guests, passing an idyllic day swimming, watching the sunset, drinking beer and sharing stories under the stars. Since we were on the far western edge of the eastern time zone the light lasted until ten o'clock at night, adding to the sense of magic. By the time Monday rolled around it felt as though we'd been there for weeks, and had completely relaxed into the small town routine of greeting strangers on the street and never walking more than four blocks to get anywhere. We'd spent more time with Holly and Jeremy than we have in years, and made connections with some of their friends in the process.

We made the trek back home on the same roads we'd driven up on, with a view of new billboards. One bore an ad for an "adult superstore" called the Lion's Den that featured the silhouette of a lion with a full mane standing closely behind a lioness in a pose just shy of coitus. Another advertised Buck Snort Lodge Products, and a third advertised a restaurant called the Texas Corral with the catchphrase "Just drop the shells on the floor," an odd selling point. In Michigan City, Indiana, a billboard read "What can wash away my sins? Only the blood of Jesus," but I wasn't sold on that either. We pulled off the highway twenty yards from it it to stop at the Indiana Welcome Center, and parked next to a man who got out of his car sporting brown polyester pants and thick lamb chop sideburns. It was as if we'd not only crossed over the state line to Indiana, but had also crossed over to 1975. In the ladies room every third bathroom had a sign announcing that it was out of order, and the clock in the main entryway was set for Chicago time.

Just before stopping at Culver's for butter burgers (if you've never had one you're missing out) M spotted this bumper sticker on a car ahead of us: "If you can read this, thank a teacher... and since it is in English, thank a soldier."
"Wow, that's great," I said, "since everyone in the service speaks English as their first language."
"Not to mention that the only war fought on U.S. soil was against England," M added. I considered this for a moment.
"What about the Alamo?" I asked. We were cloudy on the specifics, but if you'd like to take it up with the driver, they have vanity plates from Michigan with the word "ANJULS" spelled out - in perfect English, naturally.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

I was watching season four, episode one of Six Feet Under when M said:
“Whoa, you want to hear a celebrity death that will blow you away?”
“In a minute,” I said distractedly. The episode onscreen was heavy, and there were only a few minutes left. From the distance of fiction I watched Nate Fisher bury his deceased wife at the top of a mountain, and then scream into the air at the absurdity of life until the credits rolled. I turned the TV off and walked to where M sat. “Okay,” I said, “who?”
“Michael Jackson,” M said, in a tone of genuine astonishment. I stood for a moment with my hands on my hips, staring at the computer screen with my jaw slightly slackened, and then headed back for the TV.
“He’s not dead,” I said after watching NBC news for a few seconds, “he’s just in the hospital.”
“The TV news can’t say it yet because of HIPPA,” M said, “TMZ already broke the news on the Internet.”
“TMZ”, I said dismissively, and got back on the computer to search for headlines. The TV caught up with the Internet within an hour, and soon we were watching montages of Michael Jackson’s life.

I’d been indoors all day – it’s been hot in Chicago this week and I’ve been moving as little as possible, sitting in one spot like a reptile under a heat lamp, absorbing information through my eyes and ears and only rising to my feet when the occasion absolutely necessitates ambulatory movement. The combination of indoor confinement and uninterrupted television watching was making me twitchy, so I stretched my muscles and went for a run in the waning sunlight, the humidity be damned.

I left the house and started towards Horner Park. I ran slowly, but turned a bright sweaty pink anyway, even the skin between my eyelids and brows turning the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher. When I got back M was mowing the grass, and our upstairs neighbor and her five-year-old daughter were in the yard. The little girl stared at me as I doused my face with water.

I first became aware of Michael Jackson in grade school, and my friend Anna gave me a copy of Thriller, on vinyl, for Christmas in 1982. I was eleven years old and I thought he was amazing, and – dare I say it, cute. But then I was always a sucker for non-threatening, androgynous male pop stars – I had a raging crush on David Bowie circa the Serious Moonlight tour, even though he was way too old for me; Nick Rhodes, the heavily made-up keyboardist from Duran Duran; and Prince (who I still adore). I broke the plastic seal on the LP and opened it up, revealing the soft-focus picture of Michael Jackson in the center fold, reclining in a white suit and snuggling with a couple tiger cubs. It was the era of disco bashing, and when Miriam Celedonia - one of the preppy girls, saw me carrying the album with me through the halls of I.S. 88, she said:
“That’s disco you know.”
“No it’s not!” I insisted.

This morning on the Red line I heard “don’t stop ‘till you get enough” blasting through someone’s iPod headphones, and the man sitting next to me read the front page news of Michael Jackson’s death in the Chicago Tribune, discarding the paper when he got off the train. I picked it up and brought it with me to the Alliance Française, where I had a volunteer librarian gig for a couple hours. It was a slow shift; they’re between sessions, and only a few patrons came in. On my way out I said hello to Hamid, an Algerian man who’s been working at the front desk for almost as long as I’ve been taking classes, and Frédéric, the shiny bald-headed director of the learning center. Over the years Hamid has shared bits and pieces of his life with me, and his stories have ranged from curiously funny to downright terrifying; he worked at Air France for a number of years and has traveled the world. I’ve never seen him or Frédéric dressed in anything less formal than a suit and tie, even on this Friday afternoon between class sessions.
“Si vous voulez,” I said to them, “j’ai un copie du Chicago Tribune. C’est en anglais, mais…” Frédéric took the paper from my hands and stared at the front page.
“Vous en avez déjà lu?” he asked Hamid, before commandeering it. Frédéric doesn’t speak English well, I’ve only ever communicated with him in French, and I was moved by the fact that he wanted to read the Tribune’s English language coverage.

On the train ride back home I heard “don’t stop ‘till you get enough” a second time, through someone else’s headphones. At home I logged onto facebook, where seemingly everyone’s status updates had something to do with Michael Jackson’s death. I opened a link to a video of “I’ll be there,” and listened to a sweet, pre-teen Michael Jackson sing, music coming from his original, beautiful face. I was doing all right until the line “just look over your shoulders honey,” and suddenly became a soppy, weeping mess. The video ended with the young Michael appearing in the doorway of the grown, troubled, altered-in-appearance Michael, the two of them glancing at each other briefly. I was embarrassed at how much it affected me, and dried my tears with cheap paper napkins. An actual box of facial tissue lives on top of the toilet tank, but I wanted to avoid being seen in this state by my husband, who was taking a shower.

I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes me so sad about Michael Jackson’s passing, and it’s this: he had so much promise, and he was so beautiful, and then over time he became completely unrecognizable. When he spoke his voice sounded familiar, but he looked nothing like the Michael Jackson of Thriller, or Off The Wall, or the Jackson Five, and I stopped paying attention to him because I couldn’t relate to him anymore. He was like the childhood friend who had amazing potential; maybe the one who was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school, only to end up broke, living in a squatter’s apartment and sniffing glue out of a paper bag. Only Michael Jackson’s story was sadder than that because he had it all, and nobody was able to stop him from self-destruction. The problem with achieving that kind of fame and success is that nobody ever says “no.” It’s the reason Donald Trump has ridiculous hair, it’s the reason Oprah gave cars to her studio audience and spent fifty million dollars on a single school in Africa when with the same money she could have helped so many more, and it’s the reason nobody ever told Michael Jackson not to get any more plastic surgery. I’m sad for the wasted potential, I’m sad to have watched him self-destruct over the years, and I’m sad for how unreachably strange, troubled and alienated he ultimately became. In the coming days the preparations for his funeral will undoubtedly be covered with the same unrelenting vigor as the rest of his life, and if there’s one wish I could be granted from my voyeuristic perch it’s for child stars to become, if not a thing of the past, then at least recognized for what they are – children.

My efforts to avoid detection by M were for naught, he exited the bathroom and saw me sitting at the kitchen counter, staring at the computer and holding back a new wall of tears.
“Are you sad?” He asked, and I nodded silently. I finally went into the bathroom to get some tissue and saw my reflection in the mirror, the skin between my eyelids and brows as pink as after a three mile run.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dharma Garden Thai

Sue at Dharma Garden Thai always recognizes me when I phone in an order for pickup. The other night there was nothing to eat in the kitchen, so M asked me if I thought we should order takeout.
“Sure", I said.
“Where should we order from?” he asked. There’s only two places we ever order from - a Persian restaurant on Kedzie called Noon-o-Kebab, and Dharma Garden Thai. If he hadn’t suggested it I would have done so myself. “Do we have a menu?” he asked. We don’t even need a menu at this point, but I went along with this well rehearsed scene, the lines of dialogue etched into our memory as if we were actors at a dress rehearsal. I opened the drawer on the sideboard where we keep all our takeout menus, and ruffled through them looking for the right one.

The way it works in our house I do the ordering, and M does the pickup. He has a phobia of speaking to strangers on the telephone, and I don’t really drive so the work naturally divides itself. I dialed the number, and Sue picked up on the other end.
“Hello, Dharma Garden Thai?” she said, more like a question than a statement.
“Hello, I’d like to place an order for pickup.”
“Okaaaaay, what would you liiiiike?" Sue asked, extending her vowels.
“An order of Thai spring rolls"
“Okaaaaay. Anything eeeelse?”
“Fruits and vegetables salad…” Sue's tone changed suddenly to enthusiastic recognition.
“Oh hiiiiii!" she said, loud enough that M could hear it from a distance of three feet. It is a mark of our frequent patronage of Dharma Garden Thai that Sue recognizes me based on this particular salad, maybe I’m the only one who orders it. I first tried it because they were out of something else, and she suggested that I try it. It’s made of a mix of seasonal fruits and vegetables, which doesn’t sound like it would be good but it is, and I order it three out of four times now. “Anything eeeeelse?”
“Yes, and a potato massaman curry.”
“With what?”
“With shrimp please.”
“Would you like a dessert?”
“What do you have this evening?”
“We have sticky rice with mangooooooo.”
“Oh, great! Yes, one of those please.”
“Okaaaay J... Beautiful skiiiiin,” she said before disconnecting.

I don’t know if all Thai women are as focused on skin as Sue is, but she remarks on this most visible organ of mine every time I place an order, even when I’m not there in person for her to see it. The first time it happened we were dining in, and she approached our table.
“Are you vegan?” she asked me. Dharma Garden Thai is a vegetarian restaurant, so it was a reasonable question.
“No,” I said, “I eat meat, but I come here because the food is delicious.”
“Ooooh. I thought you were vegan,” Sue said. She leaned in closer, “you know whyyyyyy?”
“Because your skin," she said, lowering her voice, “it fresh. Like a peeled vegetable.” She reached her hand out and brushed the back of her fingers against my cheek as if she were sizing up the quality of a skein of fabric. Then she walked away, her diminutive figure rocking back and forth slightly as she paced the floor, her years as a mother and grandmother showing only in her gait.

Dharma Garden Thai is located on Irving Park Road between a Dunkin’ Donuts and a store that sells vintage guitars. An antique bar lines the left side of the interior, it has about ten regular tables, and there’s a nook by the window where you can take your shoes off and sit in a sunken couch; this area is referred to as the “Thai Corner”. A number of Buddha statues and lotus flowers serve as decoration, and the radio is always tuned to Lite FM. I’d recommend it for the food, which is unlike any Thai restaurant I’ve been to, but Sue's flattery notwithstanding the service leaves something to be desired. I recently met up with some friends there on a Friday night, when they arrived they were the only customers, and Sue actually asked them if they’d made a reservation. Another time some friends we’d recommended the restaurant to waited twenty minutes for the bill to appear, and there were only two other tables being served at the time. Once, after I’d returned from a trip to Morocco, Sue said to me “why you don’t visit my country?” She asked this in a hushed voice, her dark eyes peering up at me as if there had been a longstanding argument between us concerning travel, and this new piece of information had finally broken her heart.

Until recently Dharma Garden Thai’s website was full of information, most of it having nothing to do with the restaurant. There were pages devoted to the virtues of eating well, and spiritual practices that healed the mind and spirit as well as the body. When I first started ordering for pickup Sue didn’t ask for my name, and once in a while we’d get home before realizing we had somebody else’s order. It added a sense of adventure to our takeout dining experience, and expanded our palette. In more recent months she’s been asking for my name before I hang up the phone.

M walked through the back door holding two hot bags full of food, an expression of confidence and plunder on his face.
“She asked about you,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, “what did she say?”
“How is my girlfriiiiiiiiiiend?” M said, mimicking Sue’s cadence.

I had the folding TV trays set up in the living room, we unpacked the paper bags and dug in. The spring rolls were fresh, and the fruits and vegetables salad was a bright contrast to the massaman curry. We were stuffed by the time we got to dessert but devoured it anyway, the coconut milk-infused sticky rice causing us take a temporary leave of our senses.

Friday, June 19, 2009

New York Part VI - Epilogue

The sounds of a television echoed in the hall outside Gabrielle’s co-op. I inserted my copy of the key into the lock, and opened the door to find her stepfather, Butch, sitting on the Castro convertible, watching a movie in the dark. I’d forgotten that he was staying over, and was surprised.
“Where’s Gabrielle?” I asked,
“She went out dancing with a friend,” he said from his perch.
“Is she out of town, or just out for the evening?” I asked stupidly, the pork and oysters from Mr. Tang’s disrupting the neurotransmitters in my brain.
“Just for the evening,” he said slightly incredulously, “she left a few minutes before you got here.”
I had met Butch once, on my first visit to Gabrielle’s co-op last December. He was a retired construction worker, and the fingers on his left hand had been sliced off in an accident years ago, what remained of them were angled like an advertisement for Cingular wireless. His belly was as round and hard as a melon, and the remains of a hairline clung tightly to the circumference of his scalp. I made myself busy with the computer at the dining room table, not wanting to rush him through his evening entertainment.
“You want to go to bed?” He asked, “I’ve seen this one before, I don’t mind.”
“Oh, don’t stop watching on my account,” I said, “I’m just firing up the old computer here.”
“I’m tired anyway,” he offered, “got to get up in the morning and drive Gabby and the kids to Jersey.”

I disassembled the couch and pulled it out into bed mode, and climbed in. I had been asleep for some time when the front door opened.
“Hey,” I said, after looking up to make sure it was Gabrielle.
“Hey,” she said mischievously, and then whispered “I just had a bootie call!”
“You did!” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster from my sleepy state, “good for you girl!” When Gab and I first reconnected, she was in the process of putting her life back together after a sudden split with her husband of ten years. Her stress was palpable; when we made the trek out to Jersey to visit with a mutual friend she left the house in a harried state, with no time to shower. Her thick dark hair stuck up in a wild mane, personifying her inner turmoil. While she may have been overwhelmed with a business to run and two kids to suddenly raise on her own, she was unsinkable. By the time I next saw her she had started dating again, her self-confidence returning, and stronger than ever. On that second visit we went to a fundraiser at the showroom of Moet Hennessy, and she ended up picking up the bartender who had served us all night.

Gabrielle took off her shoes and crawled under the covers with me, having graciously offered Butch the master bedroom for the night. We lay awake and giggled like we were back in junior high, reliving nights spent on the windowsill of my bedroom listening to Prince and smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and secretly hoping that one of the popular girls from school would walk past and see us.

In the morning Butch watched Cinderella on TV with his grandchildren.
“Hey D,” Butch said to his grandson, “I think this movie should be called 'Cinderfella', whadda you think about that?” Gabrielle giggled from the next room.
“Are you sure that isn’t already the name of a ‘pee oh are en’ Butch?”, she asked. He continued to entertain his grandchildren as Gabrielle prepared the family for a weekend on the Jersey shore.
“No rush, I’m used to this,” Butch said after she apologized for how much time it was taking, “when I’m out shopping with ya mutha, I always bring a book and wait in the car. At the grocery store it’s a coupla pages, at the department store it’s a couple chaptahs.” D climbed and squirmed over his grandfather as they watched Cinderella, Butch tolerating it stoically like a bull mastiff tolerating a puppy.

Once they left I gathered my things and headed for breakfast at Choice Market. I ordered my eggs at the register, and sat down at a long wooden table by the door. Half a dozen diners were sharing a communal copy of The New York Times, and I grabbed the lifestyles section. When I was finished I headed to the G train to catch the Fung Wah bus out of Chinatown.

Despite the reviews that can be found in a Google search describing the transportation line as a live chicken-infested horror show, I found the Fung Wah bus to be quite comfortable, blessedly air-conditioned, and uncrowded. I bought my ticket from two women sitting behind a Dutch door in a cramped street level office on Canal Street. It consisted of a narrow slice of card stock paper with my name handwritten on it, the date stamped in red ink, and the letter N followed by an arrow pointing to the letter B, indicating that I was traveling from New York to Boston. My bag was tossed into the luggage compartment under the coach without fanfare or the use of identifying tags.

I sat next to a teenage girl who was traveling with her mother and younger sister seated across the aisle from us. Halfway through the journey the girls started playing each other on a video game over small, hand held consoles, the younger one clearly besting her sister.

We drove across the Manhattan Bridge back into Brooklyn, passing a building with the words “screw rent” painted in five foot letters onto its façade. We drove past Riley Bros. Mausoleums, and took the Triboro Bridge to the Major Deegan Expressway. From there we crossed the Throgs Neck Bridge to the Bruckner Expressway, passed Gun Hill Road, Co-op City, and Mamaroneck, and drove over the Tappan Zee bridge and continued on through Connecticut.

With time on my hands, I reflected on my visit. I love New York, there’s no denying it. I love the clam pizza at South Brooklyn Pizza Co.; I love that on Smith Street a cane-carrying man wearing a white hat with a feather in the band gave me unsolicited directions in a lisp; I love that a park called Diana Ross Playground exists; I love that there’s a restaurant called Kennedy Fried Chicken on Nevins Street, and a restaurant chain called Hot Bird; I love that someone on Vanderbilt Avenue has a chicken coop in their back yard; I love the gnarled roots of ancient trees pushing up through the sidewalk on Vanderbilt Avenue; I love brownstones; I love that the mariachi band at Mexicana Mama on 102nd Street played “happy birthday” at my friend Sara’s request; I love that someone yelled “Hey A-Rod” to his friend while crossing Smith Street at Pacific; I love the inherent nostalgia involved in hiring a car service; and I even love the uncomfortable, sticky heat that makes the dirt from the street cling to my face in measurable quantities.

I love the subway: I love that at 81st street there are tile bugs and dinosaur bones embedded into the walls because that's the stop for the American Museum of Natural History; I love that on the A train a woman wearing a TSA uniform was reading a book called “Bloody Money 2, The Game Ain’t Fair”; I love that a man hawking self-published books yelled out the titles: “This one is called ‘don’t beat your kids or they’ll turn out like me.’ This one is called ‘you know you’re in a bad neighborhood when.’”; I love that I saw two boys break-dancing on a moving train, and then walk the length of the car with an upturned baseball cap for donations, and I love that everyone on the train applauded them; I love that High street follows Jay street; I love that a man braiding his long hair in the doorway had the word “crisco” tattooed on one arm; I love that a uniformed boy scout was reading “The Kite Runner” across from me; I love that there was a discarded Russian language newspaper on the F train to Coney Island; I love that in some stations you can hear people walking on the pavement above; I love that a seated woman worked the New York Post crossword puzzle while a women leaning against the doors looked over her shoulder; and I love that it only takes thirty minutes to get from 145th to 34th Street.

I disembarked near Boston’s Chinatown at South Station; my luggage had survived the ride in one piece, and so had I. The 215 mile journey cost me all of fifteen dollars. I descended the subway escalator to the red line bound for Alewife, the dimensions of the Boston subway toy-like in comparison to New York. A Chinese man played French songs on an accordion on the subway platform; I reached into my pocket and withdrew a dime and six pennies to drop into his open accordion case, and he smiled as they fell in. At Downtown Crossing I switched to the Forest Hills-bound orange line, where a woman in pink plastic framed glasses played an electric guitar. I reached into my pocket and, not wanting to be unfair to the accordion player, dug up the exact same amount of change - a dime, a nickel, and a penny.
“Thank you,” she said as I dropped the change into an open suitcase. What can I say, I’m a patron of the arts.

I exited at Green Street, and rolled my luggage along a narrow, winding road past sweet clapboard houses to Centre Street. I was suddenly very hungry, and stopped at the City Feed Lot, a grocery and dining establishment that leans heavily macro/veggie. I ordered a cup of potato leek soup and a plate of sesame noodles with tofu from a young man who had deep circles under his eyes, and dark greasy hair that fell to his shoulders. Moments later a second young man wearing a necklace with an oversized yellow button in the center appeared at the register and asked:
“Is Max helping you?”, though I had no reason to know his name.

I paid for my order and helped myself to a set of compostable cutlery, and sat down at a table near a discarded copy of the Boston Bulletin. My sister wasn’t due home for at least an hour. I took my time eating, then left the restaurant and rolled my bag the rest of the way to her house. I had no sooner sat down on the front steps when her green Odyssey van appeared, and she waved to me from the passenger side window. The van was packed to the gills with her husband, three young children, and aging Australian cattle dog. I waved back, set my bags down on the porch, and approached the vehicle.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

New York Part V - or - how I ended up wearing a maternity skirt to Friday night services

I had packed light; I brought a pair of jeans and a pair of cords, a dress for my high school reunion, a hooded sweatshirt, two pairs of shoes and an assortment of t-shirts. I put on my cords - later that evening I was meeting a friend for Friday night services at a temple on 9th Avenue, and I wanted to dress as appropriately as I could. I left Anne and Harold’s home with my suitcase and backpack full - they were leaving for the weekend, and I was relocating to Gabrielle’s. I took the #77 bus to the Smith & 9th Street station, where a group of construction workers were taking their lunch break on a concrete median in the middle of the train tracks; it looked like a photo shoot for a cigarette ad. I rode the G train to Clinton and Washington and rolled my suitcase seven blocks to Gabrielle’s store, it had never felt so heavy. Several plastic bags filled with gently used clothing and toys waited to be inventoried on the sidewalk outside the store, and the door was propped open. Gabrielle sat behind the counter in a humid stupor.

“It’s like the four seasons of New York or something,” I said to her as I deposited my bags behind the counter.
“Right?” she said, reading the computer screen in front of her. “Look at you,” she said, responding to the bright pink hue I’d taken on, and the copious amounts of perspiration on my forehead and under my arms, “you must be sweltering, is that all you have?” she asked, indicating my choice of clothing with a downward sweeping gesture of her hand.
“Yeah,” I said. A trickle of perspiration ran down my neck and traveled the length of my back, finally settling into the fabric of my underwear. “It was cold two days ago, I was freezing in my hoodie and wished I’d brought something heavier.” I eyed a display of maternity wear, and chose a black skirt that had an elastic panel in the front. “Maybe this will work,” I said. I tried it on in the bathroom next to a changing table and a handwritten sign reading “Please take poopy diapers with you”. It fit, and the pregnancy panel in the front of the skirt acted as tummy control, increasing my self-confidence.
“It’s cute,” Gabrielle said when I emerged. We walked across the street and bought a couple sandwiches from Choice Market, where I wavered over a decision to buy a cookie.
“Well, I am eating for two,” I joked.
“What?” Gabrielle said, her eyes wide.
“Relax Gab,” I said, “it’s just a skirt.”
“Oh, alright,” she said, “because I’d better be on the list of people you call when that happens!”

Sated and comfortable, I dropped off my luggage at Gabrielle’s co-op a few blocks from the store, and got back on the C train to meet Zach and his fiancée Patricia for shul. I’d connected with Zach at my high school reunion the previous weekend, and followed up on a promise to connect while I was in the city. When he suggested shul as a Friday night activity, I responded somewhat flippantly.
“It’s a really beautiful place,” he’d said’ “very open and progressive, very gay, lesbian and transgender friendly…”
“Okay,” I said, “but only if I get to sit in the transgender section so everyone can ask me who my doctor is.”
“Afterwards we have a tradition of going out for Chinese food,” Zach continued, unphased by my attempt at humor, “you’re welcome to join us for just Chinese food, or both Chinese and shul,” he paused, “or neither, it’s up to you.”
“All right,” I said, “but I have to tell you, in the interest of full disclosure I haven’t seen the inside a temple since I went to Len Schiff’s bar mitzvah in 1984.” Len’s bar mitzvah was the event of the season, all the teachers from I.S.88 were in attendance; Len’s mother was the universally adored home ec. teacher there, and she’d invited all her colleagues. Afterwards there was a reception at a restaurant called Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadows, where we indulged in music, drinks and dancing. We got in two rounds of alcoholic drinks before the bartenders got wise and cut us off. I gave Len a top of the line calculator watch that I'd bought at a midtown Manhattan electronics store from a man in a yarmulke and love-locks, and we all left the reception with party favors - including a smooth flat rock that had several rows of smaller rocks glued to it. The smaller rocks had eyes painted on them, and over them a sign made of popsicle sticks read: “Rock Concert”. The words “Len’s Bar Mitvah” and the date were painted onto the bottom; I still have mine. I recently reconnected with Len, and the first thing I asked him was if he still had the watch.
“You know,” he said, humoring me, “I like to keep it for special occasions, and I didn’t want to take the risk of wearing it into Brooklyn tonight.”

The building located at the address Zach had given me was an Episcopalian church, but people kept walking through the doors - including a number of men wearing yarmulkes, and a sign on the right side of the building told me that this was the gathering place for Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. I never knew Zach as a practicing Jew, or any kind of a Jew really, so I was surprised to see him wearing a yarmulke himself as he loped towards me on 9th Avenue.

“You can participate in as much or as little as you want,” he said to me in preparation, “this is not your grandfather's shul.”
“It takes place inside an Episcopalian church, for starters,” I said.
“Yes, for starters…” he said. Inside we found two seats on the aisle. A red-haired woman seated directly in front of me turned around, extended her hand to me, and said:
“Shalom Shabbat, my name is Janice,”
“Shalom Shabbat,” I said, taking her hand, “I’m J.” The man seated to Zach’s right did the same. A podium stood in the center of the church, flanked by two flags on either side - the rainbow flag of gay pride and an American flag to the left, the Israeli flag and a second rainbow flag to the right. A bespectacled rabbi who looked like a fourteen year old boy, but was actually a woman, led the services accompanied by a guitar-wielding cantor in square glasses, dark curly hair, and a prayer shawl over his clothing. I had no idea what was being sung and couldn’t figure out how to follow along in the book that had been handed to me at the door, even in the phonetically spelled out English words printed alongside the Hebrew, but it was beautiful to listen to - the minor key melodies haunting the cavern of my middle ear. The man standing behind me had a beautiful voice, and it was making me a little misty to hear his devoted singing in such close proximity.
“How are you doing?” Zach whispered to me, possibly in response to my silence.
“Good,” I whispered back.
“Now we’re turning around” he said, and I turned, along with the congregation, and faced the back of the man who’s voice had been enveloping me. He kept his eyes closed as he sang, releasing the music within him.

When the singing was over, the rabbi spoke of a recent trip to Argentina, the plight of the Jews who lived there, and of late mayor of San Francisco, Harvey Milk.

It was dark by the time we left the building, and Patricia met us outside - she was running late and didn’t want to enter after services had already begun. We drove to Chinatown and ate oysters and pork at a restaurant called Mr. Tang, where Zach and Patricia are regulars. We discussed Judaism, and I explained my long and complicated history with the religion, which goes a little something like this: my maiden name is Cohen, I wasn’t raised religiously, and by most traditions I wouldn’t be considered Jewish because my mother isn’t. For most of my life people have not only assumed that I am Jewish, but have regarded me through that lens to explain certain behaviors - an appreciation for good pickles and matzoh ball soup for instance, and a tendency to avoid overt Christianity and the south. Over the years I’ve had various reactions to this, ranging from guilt that I don’t know more about Judaism, to anger that people would have the gall to assume anything about me based on my name. I once hung up on a teenaged boy who called me from a telemarketing phone bank to ask for my financial support of a Jewish organization, and I was irrevocably peeved when a former boss of mine asked, on Ash Wednesday, “so when is your holiday?” My high school chorus teacher was an African-American woman who taught us negro spirituals. Halfway through "I've been 'buked and I've been scorned" she looked up from her seat on the piano bench with a smirk on her face. She turned her attention back to playing the piano, and when she looked at me again was smiling broadly. Finally she stopped playing completely and burst out laughing.
"I'm sorry J," she said between breaths, "but you have never looked more Jewish to me than you do right now."

By the same token, it feels wrong to have my Jewishness ignored. The first winter I spent in Chicago I was surprised that the office buildings downtown don't display menorahs side by side with Christmas trees the way they do in New York, and was shocked when a coworker asked me if Cohen was a Catholic name.

Years ago I felt the need to learn more about “my” religion, and kept renewing the same book on Judaism from the Bezazian branch of the Chicago Public Library before finally returning it, unread. A Quaker friend of mine once gave me a menorah that had belonged to his deceased partner, and I asked a Jewish colleague to phonetically spell out the prayer that accompanies the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. For one holiday season I observed the candle lighting tradition, and now the menorah decorates the top of our television, less a religious item than a household decoration.

One letter less and my name would have been Chen - would people have expected me to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese and make Peking Duck on the weekends? The worst was when people told me that I looked Jewish - for those of you who’ve never met me, I look exactly like my Scotch-Irish shikse mother. How on earth can a person look Jewish anyway? I mean, I know what people were trying to get at - I wear glasses, I have curly hair that goes frizzy in the humidity, and I’m a little zaftig. Nonetheless, these indicators would amount to nothing if it weren’t for the name Cohen, and ever since I took my husband’s name nobody has assumed that there’s anything Semitic about me.

Now that I don’t carry the name Cohen, I feel a little nostalgic for it whenever I see it in print, and I enjoy being called Cohen by people who knew me before I was married. My husband's name is Palmer, which carries no such religious weight, although it should - the first Palmers made a pilgrimage to the holy land and returned with palm leaves as proof of their journey.

When we parted ways it was almost midnight. Zach and Patricia headed for Jersey, and I descended the subway stairs on Canal Street to wait for the A train. An interminable flat note emanated from the fluorescent lights overhead, and between that and the yellow cast spilling over everything they touched, I fell into a trance.