At the writers’ group. I thought I’d have to struggle for ideas. Not so.
It’s relaxing to be among some people tonight. I feel little need to get to know many of them, and my first attempt fell flat. The guy, a baseball writer by avocation, wasn’t one bit interested in hearing my mention of baseball songs from country singers. Now he’s typing away next to me. He’s the world’s fastest typist. Only now he has stopped. It’s a relief. Watching someone type with brute force pecking annoys me–probably because I can’t do it.
I was late getting started with my afternoon meditation routine because I was chatting with a new Facebook friend living in the central time zone. I was drawn to him at once, when I noticed he liked a couple of my posts. Somehow I knew he was gay before he explained that his ex, a man, lived in Brooklyn, and that he had never seen New York. I advised that he should.
So I was late getting on the train, and late getting to my favorite Gigi Cafe at 71st and Broadway. I hustled up the stairs to the street. The man in front of me came to a sudden dead stop right at the doorway. That made me angry. Then I saw all the fire trucks and the caution tape, and I walked right into the midst of a genuine New York City fire. People were stalled everywhere, shooting the business on their phones as if it were a staged event, an amusement.
Gigi Cafe was dark, a victim of the power failure, so I ducked into another cafe across the street.
Whatever was the source of the fire produced some really nasty, acrid, dark grey smoke. It felt deeply irritating. Yet people remained there, shooting and filming. The fireman with the hose looked to be pouring water directly at the street, possibly into a manhole. Then came the sound of an explosion, and a ball of fire arose. I felt for the cops and the firemen who had to be there. They were without masks. Though they’re strong young men, they shouldn’t be subject to this kind of air. No one should. I can’t even begin to imagine the day of the 9/11 attack, the intensity of the air in general on that day. The 843 acres of Central Park are not lungs enough to purify the air of this city. And I still cannot fathom how they keep the city functioning even during normal circumstances. I’ve seen some of the guys who do subway repairs. They look tired. A genuine emergency—any emergency—must put an enormous challenge to those entrusted to manage them.
We take as granted the incredible order that prevails, that we’ll be able to get food as we’re accustomed to doing that, to make our rounds as we normally do, and to sleep soundly to awake ready for the new day. This kind of predictability must engender in us some kind of faith, or perhaps it’s an expectation born of habit, or of repetition—that life will go on pretty much normally every day. Do we get lulled into a nice complacency by the warm blanket of routine? Shouldn’t that stability ideally provide us a platform for great experimentation?
We are sometimes so tied into our jobs and our habits that we cannot recognize the gift of stability as a springboard for a deeper dive into life.
But how to use the gift for more life?
The possibilities for human connection have never been greater than they are today, at least considering electronic communication. But the real, face-to-face connections, the ones that deeply matter, are harder to find.
The US is not India, where physical proximity and closeness are signatures of daily life, and probably brought on by economics. There you’ll see a family of four on a single motorbike or a scooter. You’ll see two young men on a scooter, the boy in the rear holding closely to his friend the owner/driver. Tiny cars loaded with little schoolchildren most swiftly through the villages there. The buses are crowded; all their windows are open, because there is no air conditioning.
Comfort in the US in equated with room and space. In India, comfort appears to come from closeness, a social closeness. Boys and girls hold hands with their friends as they walk—or their arms are wrapped around their friends’ shoulders. They’re not afraid to be close. They’re not uncomfortable being close. Indians number three times the US population—1.2 billion—in a third of the US land mass. They’ve been close to each other for a very long time. To most Westerners, that density is wholly unimaginable. But living on New York’s Manhattan island one can have a taste of India’s population density.
Manhattan shares some characteristics with India. Manhattan is dense and diverse, yes, but there is not that much to tie its people together, not as there seems to be in India. And India is diverse in all kinds of ways. Though my travels there are not that extensive, confined thus far to the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, I do know that as you move through India, the cooking and diet will change, the local deities will differ, and the religions are in many regions a mix even of each other, because of an ancient magnetic pull India exerts on the world, a pull that exists to this day, drawing people of all stripes to the land. They’re bound to influence each other.
Here’s the post script. The tenses shift and it’s got other faults, but it’s hot off the press.
I wrote what’s above during a writer’s group meeting in Manhattan. I just put my pen to the paper, literally, and wrote until the leader said stop. Ours is an informal group of writers, mostly younger folk. Soon after I entered the apartment, one of the very few other older people there engaged me in conversation. He was impressively warm and friendly. He had come to the city 45 years ago from Iran. Now that I am older—and starting to accept the because only now, at 63, I’m starting to feel those tell-tale little aches and pains—I view some young people with envy, because they appear so fresh and beautiful. But thinking more about that, I realize that older people, if time hasn’t worn away their interest in life, have typically overcome some of the obstacles that keep them from connecting with their fellow humans. Especially if they’re intelligent, as this man from Iran is, they’ve moved past some of the boundaries that might keep them stuck in their shells.
I have been alone so much of my life that I prize connections, even brief connections, so what happened on the subway yesterday was a real thrill. I had taken the train ‘way downtown to go to one of the two Target stores in Manhattan. I wanted to buy a thermos flask, the kind that has a cup as its top, which is the kind that no other store in New York seems to have. I know, because I looked online and then in stores. That’s just my life: I’m always in search of what’s very hard to find.
I found my thermos at Target, and Target, thanks to Google Map’s electronic soul, was also easy to find. But getting back uptown was at first no picnic. For half an hour I wandered the area to find the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall train station, following Google Maps and the NYC Subway map. I always get lost down there. Then my appetite started to kick in, and the straps of my tote weighed heavily on my shoulder. Inside my bag, the pair of big organic squashes I bought earlier at Fairway, ‘way up on 6th Avenue, murmured, “Let’s get home and cook.”
I ignored those heavy, grumbling squashes. I decided to eat at my most favored restaurant, Candle Cafe, a long ride uptown on the 6 train. The 6 train is a local, and it stops exactly where I needed to get off. But I got on the 5 train instead. The 5 is an express train, and I thought it would get me to Candle sooner, even though I knew that at some point before 77th Street, I’d have to get back on the 6 train, or I’d be in for a lot more walking.
So I’m riding along on the 5 train, and on the other side of the car I see three gorgeous children and two pretty moms, who are talking with two older grandma types seated next to me. And I’m listening and listening and it doesn’t sound like Spanish, not really, but then when your hearing is duff like mine and you’re hearing everything through tiny little Danish-made electronic devices, you wonder, because you can’t quite trust your ears.
It was then that I got smarter. I addressed one of the grandmas. “Are you Italian?” I asked. She smiled a sweet and knowing Italian grandma’s smile and said “YES!”. And after I said “I speak Italian”, in Italian, of course, which is “Io parlo Italiano,” we all erupted happily in Italian. They were going to the Guggenheim, which is probably not a great museum to drag your children through, but it ain’t the worst either. The building is very interesting, courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright, but last time there I didn’t see much that was compelling.
So even with the noise inside the train, I managed to get in the few words of Italian I remember. Everyone was smiling through it all, except a couple of the children, who’d clearly had enough of the tourist bit. We figured out that the 5 train would stop at 86th, which was very near the Guggenheim, and I managed to reassure them that everything would work out fine. I always feel like a million bucks while I’m speaking Italian, and I really don’t know why. I just get this incredible bliss all over my body, as if I’m lifted up to some magical realm, where the pasta is homemade and everyone drives an Alfa Romeo, and we’re all in love with each other and with everyone else. too. Speaking Italian moves my heart. It’s a beautiful language.
Bidding my new Italian friends the customary Italian farewell, “Ciao!”, as well as “Ci vediamo,” which means “We’ll see each other,” I left the 5 train at 59th, took the 6 train to 77th, and finished with a short walk to Candle Cafe on 3rd Avenue. They do a great job with food: they strive for organic, local, only plant-based cooking. They offer an Indian plate that isn’t perfectly authentically Indian, but it is perfectly delicious, with a number of different flavors within the rice and veggies, and a really clever chutney. It’s the kind of food that renders you speechless while you’re enjoying it, because you’re enjoying it so much that you don’t need to talk—at least not until someone interesting takes the table next to you.
Of course, that’s precisely what happened. Two grandmotherly types were again next to me, and I began to think fond remembrances of my grandparents, all of whom hailed from New York. I correctly guessed that one of them was born in Brooklyn, because her speech sounded a whole lot like two people who I know were born in Brooklyn. One of those Brooklynites is Bernie Sanders.
His name brings tears to my eyes now. I saw and heard him speak in Ottumwa, Iowa. His voice had weakened from the rigors of the campaign trail. After his speech, I approached him and handed him the little container of Throat Ease
I had in a pocket. I really wanted Bernie to win that election. My idealism just won’t fade, I guess.
The other Brooklynite I know is a lady from my childhood, the mother of two friends. She’s among the few surviving members of my parents’ generation. She has that incredible New York drive to live. She’s been dynamic and active all her life. She’s never fallen into the funky traps that come from the inevitable losses or trials that are a part of everyone’s life.
Well, these were genuine New York gals, these two. Because of certain visual cues as well as their speech, I assumed they were Jewish. I was wrong. One lady was Italian, and the other…I guess she was Italian, too. They were delightful. Their eyes grew very wide when I told them I’d just come back from a month-long Ayurvedic “cleanse” in India and that I was careful with my diet. We all agreed that the food at Candle was wonderful. When the waiter brought their lunches, I figured it was time for me to take my leave, so they could enjoy their meals in quiet. Eating is sacred. Take time to honor the act . Choose the best food you can find. Cook it yourself if you can. Chew thoroughly. Sit for a few minutes after the last swallow.
Isn’t it interesting how life moves with the choices we make? And we fool ourselves—I certainly do this— into thinking we’re lost and confused—and then magic happens when we least expect magic, bringing some simple joy back home again.
Take the 5 train instead of the 6. You’ll see what I mean.
I ♥ NY