There are not a lot of things I enjoy about the process of getting a kid into high school in New York City, but I have been enjoying exploring new neighborhoods as we traipse across the city to open houses, tours, exams and interviews. Tonight’s neighborhood was the Lower East Side, which looks exactly like what the New York City of my imagination looks like, which is lies at the intersection of The Godfather, Desperately Seeking Susan and my dim recollections of my childhood trips on the train from Connecticut to visit my father at his office.
One of the things I loved to do when I visited him was to look out the window, which seemed absurdly high, like maybe almost on the moon. The other thing I loved to do was to play with the bright red Soma cube he had on his desk. I’d take it apart and put it back together again, trying to see how quickly I could do it. That same cube now sits on the corner of my desk. I almost never take it apart anymore. But it reminds me of my dad, who is someone I like to think of when I’m sitting at my desk.
Midtown, though, is nothing like the Lower East Side. It is full of fire escapes and people standing in shadowy doorways. It’s film noir to Midtown’s studio blockbuster. It’s a good place to imagine you’re a spy. Especially if you’re a spy who likes lattes and fancy sandwiches with a side of danger.
At 5:30, the janitor came into my new office.
“You move?” he asked. “From over there?”
“Oh. Too bad. The window is nice.”
Yes, the window is nice, but so is the door. AJ called me at my office and I didn’t have to keep my voice extra low or tell him I’ll call him back. All I had to do was get up and shut the door.
The new space is very quiet. And the books that were piled on my desk? They take up an alarming amount of space when on actual bookshelves. I don’t have nearly as much leftover space as expected.
My new next-door neighbor stopped by to survey the damage.
“Where did you have all these books in your cubicle?”
At the end of the day, I shut the door just because I could. I turned some music on low, just because I could, and started putting files in drawers. It was nice. I think I like it.
Mr. Spy has reached the half century mark. To celebrate, we took AJ to a high school open house followed by an oral surgeon appointment. It was fun for no one, especially AJ, but still, maybe a little fun to think about the possibilities. The school was pretty spectacular. A long shot. Many fingers are crossed.
The high school application process has been a little discouraging. It’s going well, in most respects. AJ’s a good candidate. But it’s kind of depressing. We received this enormous tome of a catalogue from the Department of Education listing more than 400 schools in New York City that he could attend. It looked overwhelming. First we decided to rule out the Bronx and Staten Island, because they’re too hard to get to from here. And then we ruled out schools where fewer than 75% went to college. This didn’t seem like an unreasonable requirement to me, but it was stunning how few schools were left standing after that. Add in a requirement that a similar percentage be performing at grade level and there are even fewer. The number of schools where fewer than 20% are performing at grade level is alarmingly high.
This process is so complex and confusing. I nearly missed a deadline, but was saved thanks to AJ’s teacher/guidance counselor who talked me off the ledge by email one night. Her daughter’s a freshman in high school. She not only knows how to do this, she’s lived through it herself. It helps. Last Friday, I met Mr. Spy at a local bar on my way home from work. On the way in, I ran into all of AJ’s teachers. I stopped to say hello to his classroom teacher and to thank her for her email. “So does this process drive you to drink?” “You don’t know the half of it.” I saluted her with my beer. There may be more drinking this fall. I think I’m okay with that.
Checking my work email at the dentist’s office, I heard I’m moving out of my cubicle and into my own office. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’ll have a door and a lot more bookshelves (which, if you could see my desk right now, you’d know is probably required for fire code). On the other, I’ll miss my view of the apartment building across Madison Avenue, the dogs that come out and sniff the air, the woman who waters her plants, the man who smokes cigars in his bathrobe. The sliver of Chrysler building I can see when I squeeze between my desk and the file cabinet. But still, my very own room. Maybe I’ll take a picture of the view and hang it on my new wall.
The heavens have opened and the rain, long awaited and much needed, is washing us all clean.
I have new rainboots, which makes me feel like I’m five years old, wanting to stomp in every puddle I go through. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities, as every gutter looks like a river. “If you had a boat,” I told J as Cranky and J and I walked home from our weekly trip to the farmer’s market, “you could sail down the hill to the East River.” J looked down the hill as if she could see it.
While the crowds are thinning at the market and most people lament the end of summer, this is my favorite time of year for shopping, and not just because of fewer people. While I’m sad about the end of the peaches — I bought one last batch today, almost certainly to be a disappointment after a summer of incredible peaches (read my friend Joy’s incredible post on peaches and other things here). But I also bought zucchini and tomatoes — we have a few more weeks left for them– two silvery mackerel filets, milk and yogurt, apples, Concord grapes, and kale, beets, Brussels sprouts, and an incredible bouquet of parsley so beautiful that I put it in a vase on my counter.
Right now there are Brussels sprouts roasting in the oven, Beets simmering on the stove next to a pot of steaming zucchini, celery and parsley for yogi mush, which is, despite the complete absence of anything even a little bit bad for you, is my very favorite thing to take to work for lunch. Next, I’ll be roasting garlic to make a buttermilk dressing for kale salad and kneading up some pizza dough for dinner. I have fallen in love with kale salad from a local take-out place and I’m committed to trying to figure out a way to make it myself. The bunch of kale is dauntingly large. I hope I don’t screw it up.
Cooking on a rainy fall day is one of my favorite things to do. Even AJ has emerged from his lair sniffing, “Mmm, what smells so good?” Now what are the odds that I can get him to try the beets?
It is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad morning. I awake having been feasted on by a mosquito. Or two. Or 60. Thousand. Even catchng one of the buggers with a reassuring squish was not sufficiently satisfying and I couldn’t find my bra and my pants shrunk (at least I think it was my pants). It’s deeply cloudy but not yet raining. I’m running late and I don’t get to walk to the corner with AJ. In short, I am feeling very, very sorry for myself.
On the stoop, I reflexively bend to pick up the paper and, as I do every morning, toss it inside before it gets rained on or stolen or peed on by my the poodle downstairs. I notice a penny, Lincoln-side up. It’s been on the top step for weeks. It used to be shiny, but now it’s dull and tarnished, camouflaged with the brownstone steps. I look at it and make a decision to change my morning.
I pick it up.
I walk along the park where next to me two dogs on one leash meet a dog with two collars and then move on in opposite directions, the one dog turning as he walks, around and around, to stare at the departing tails of his recent acquaintances as if he didn’t know until this moment that there were other dogs in this world. Children carrying unnecessary umbrellas are stomping in invisible puddles with ladybug boots.
On the train, I get a seat next to a woman saying the rosary, her whispered prayers and the click-click of her beads lulling meinto calm. She kisses the beads and puts them in her bag and pulls out a small Bible covered in black velvet. She kisses that too and turns to her bookmarked page, and begins to read.
In my headphones, I hear Edith Frost singing about homesickness.
“There’s too many cars around here…There’s too many parties.”
I turn the penny over in my pocket, feeling the grit of its patina edging into the whorls of my fingers. My rosary. It doesn’t make everything perfect, but everything’s a little better. It’s enough.
Scene: The Spy family dinner table. AJ has just had some rather nasty oral surgery that involved rather a lot of anesthesia (The anesthesiologist: “We just kept giving him more and we’d think he was asleep and then he’d say something like, ‘My nose itches,’ and we’d say ‘Yes, that’s because we just stuck a tube of oxygen up it.’ And we’d give him another hit.”). We were discussing how some people we know take September 11 off work because they don’t want to be in a different boroughs from their children.
Mr. Spy: Can you imagine if you were having your surgery during September 11?
AJ: [Shakes head gingerly]
Harriet: But there must have been surgeries happening and babies being born.
AJ: I wonder if you got braces and the Apocalypse came, would you have braces forever?
* * * * *
Catholic school and anesthesia: do not mix them lightly!
[The patient is resting comfortably, by the way.]
Do you remember that time when you were a kid, maybe 8, maybe 10, and your parents kissed you goodbye, locked the front door behind them and went to the neighbor’s house for a cup of sugar, a chat, or some mysterious thing called “cocktails,” leaving you home alone? Do you remember that moment where it seems like the bottom has fallen out of the universe just for a minute, where you think,”But what am I supposed to DO?” And then how you realize you know exactly what to do? That’s pretty much been the last three weeks at work for me. Everything’s changed and nothing has changed. It’s an odd combination.
My boss is gone for a few months and my other boss is gone for a week. The inmates are running the asylum. But we’re well behaved inmates with an excellent work ethic, so it’s mostly okay, as long as we don’t remember to stop and think, “Do I really know what I’m doing?”
* * * * *
In case you were wondering, Mr. Spy is in the next room playing his third straight cover of The Vertebrats’ “Left in the Dark.” I wasn’t sure who it was (it turned out to be Uncle Tupelo) at first and because I am lazy and didn’t want to walk 12 feet to his computer, which would have involved, you know, standing, I opted to google the song name. The first two hits are 1. Meat Loaf, and 2. Barbra Streisand. They are singing different songs, but it made me desperately want a Streisand-Meat Loaf mega-concert. I am costuming it in my head. And also wondering whether Babs would address him as “Mr. Loaf” or “Meat.”
* * * * *
My second full time job at the moment is navigating high school admission season, which is in full swing. There are spreadsheets involved. And books. And did you know you need tickets to go to school open houses? And sometimes they sell out faster than a Broadway show (although they’re a lot cheaper). Insanity. If the open houses are this hard to get into, what about the schools.
This will take a lot of wine. And maybe a massage or two. And possibly a shrink. Welcome to New York. This seems to be how most people deal with living here.
And how is your September?