You don’t usually think of New York as the place you go to find religion, but there’s plenty of religion of all kinds to be had here. My particular brand involves being led by the ears to the choir loft and staying for…something else. Not always the same thing.
Our parish church has become one of my great pleasures. We started going out of a sense of obligation when the parish school agreed to take AJ even though they didn’t have room for him. We hadn’t been churchgoers in a long time, not since I was paid to sing in the Franciscan church near my Chicago office. And even then, I was more of a merchant for hire. But now,most Sundays my fiddle and I are up in the choir loft with the Russian organist. I’m not paid at all, but I play a solo for the offertory every week. I don’t practice a lot. Often just an hour the day before. But I also don’t play anything terribly hard most of the time. And the more I play, the more I enjoy it.
It’s not just the playing, though. It’s also the people. I love the organist. I love the tenor who comes to join us sometimes, the one who works as a nurse and has a voice that just shreds me when I’m least expecting it. I love the one woman from the choir who comes to everything and always smiles and squeezes your hand after the Our Father. She’s always the last to leave, staying to clean up all the things that everyone else has forgotten about. I love our pastor, who is retiring in a month. I love that he came to our house, climbing all the way up to the fourth floor just to talk to AJ before he made his first communion several years behind schedule. I love his Brooklyn accent, the way his hair flops over his forehead even though he’s in his 70s, and the way he manages to work the Mets into his homilies during baseball season.
And I love the parishioners. The woman who is the unofficial hostess of the early Mass, who says hello and asks how I am every Sunday when I sneak down the wooden stairs and slip in the back of the church to make it up to the altar for communion in time to get back to the loft for the second verse. I love the young man who stands for the entire service hiding his entire face behind a prayer book. I love the man who plays the drums because after having a stroke while playing the French horn, he had to find another way to be musical.
Tonight, after the evening Mass for the Immaculate Conception, a man hurried up the aisle towards us as we were packing up. “I’m just a visitor here — my daughter had a baby yesterday (the church is across the street from a hospital) — but I had to tell you the music was wonderful,” he said. “You made my day. And the baby too, of course.” It’s a small thing, but we are all there because it means something to us. So when one person takes the time to tell you it means something to them too, well, it’s nice to hear. I was smiling out into the cold night, smiling when, as I turned onto my block, I heard the bell in the corner store ring, smiling up all the stairs to the fourth floor.
If you ask me, this is one of the best paying gigs I’ve ever had.
First, let it be said that I hate shopping. I hate mainly because I hate talking to people I don’t know and also I hate buying things. If I could walk in and out of shops and look at things and go away without speaking, I would like it okay. But then I’m better off going to a museum, right? Or a library. Both of which I’d much rather do most of the time.
But Brooklyn is maybe changing my feelings about it. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a city and I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in a neighborhood that was quite such a thorough mix of businesses and residences. And that mix makes you keenly aware of the rhythms of the working day when you live here. I love, on summer nights, listening through my open window to the the bell ring at the corner store down the street whenever someone goes in to buy a carton of milk or comes out for a smoke or to avoid yelling obscenities at the soccer game on the TV over the counter, not when there are children buying popsicles. I love that in that same store, we know the owner’s name and where he comes from and how many children he has and what they are doing. He does not know our names, so he has made some up. He calls Mr. Spy Bossman and AJ Handsome Schmandsome. Up until today, I didn’t have a nickname, and if truth be told, I felt a little unloved, although whenever I go in there he tells me what a beautiful family I have and whenever Mr. Spy goes in there he tells him he has a beautiful wife.
Today is my first day off in 26 days, not that I’m counting. I didn’t take the day off for any particular reason, just that I needed a break. The day has not gone according to plan. I’d been looking forward to an apartment to myself for the day — Mr. Spy has returned to the motherland for a few days — but AJ is home sick. But at lunch, I needed to be OUT. So said goodbye to AJ (who was also happy to have some time alone) and I headed out to do a little pre-Christmas shopping (I need to fill an advent calendar and get some gift swap gifts in the mail) and investigate the appliance store that may or may not have a TV that we are thinking about buying. I sprinted down the stairs and turned on the Avenue into a sea of Haitian nannies pushing their charges, bundled up beyond all recognition, in strollers.
I stopped first at the dry cleaner where the owner always bows to me when he gives me my receipt. But it was all different. The counter has been painted a bright yellow. A new curtain has been hung around the changing area (which is enigmatically right in the shop window). The old news clippings were gone from the walls, replaced with photos of small children. I smiled and said hello. He asked my name and began looking for me in the computer. The old owner had painstakingly written out everything by hand in a book that you signed when you picked up. “I don’t think I’m in there. I haven’t been here in a couple of months.” “Oh, I’m new,” he said. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” I replied.
Next I stopped at favorite gift store, because I’d seen a couple of things there earlier that I thought might be good for someone on my list. It seemed good to start with an easy win, and I always like going in there. There was one other woman shopping there and I collected my purchases and stood in line behind her. She turned to me and said, “I just love this place. I don’t want to leave.” And I have to say, with the sun streaming in the window, I felt kind of the same way.
That had gone so well, I headed down to the television store. It’s a long walk and I made note of other places I might want to stop when I got back. TV stores in Brooklyn are not like what most people are used to on account of the lack of space. This particular shop is a local institution. It’s been in business for 60 years — back then they were a radio shop — and is now run by the son of the original owner and his son. The first thing you notice is a refrigerator in a box sitting on the sidewalk right in front of the door. Then you walk in and you can’t see the counter at first because so many things are crammed in such a tiny space. All the way up to the high 19th-century ceiling are teetering towers of microwaves, rice cookers, coffeemakers, toasters, dishwashers, ovens, televisions, you name it. If it has a plug,it’s there somewhere. Behind the counter is a rack of headphones and batteries and assorted adapters. A man pops up in front of the batteries and asks if I need help. I tell him I’m looking for a 32″ tv that will fit on my mantel. He recommends a brand and starts scanning the stacks of boxes. Another man, whom I hadn’t even noticed, jumped up and said, “I just had one come in today. Let me go down and find it.” And he disappeared through the floor in a glorified dumbwaiter. He was back in seconds with two boxes, one large one small. The smaller one looked perfect, but I was suddenly unsure about the space. I told him I wanted to measure and I’d call back to order. We said our goodbyes and I was back on the street.
I stopped in the stationer’s to buy Christmas cards and talked to the woman behind the counter about the garland she was making, huddled up next to a space heater set on high. I stopped in the shoe store, but they were out of the shoes I was hoping to find. I stopped in the bagel shop to get AJ some breakfast before tomorrow’s scholarship exam. And then I stopped in the corner store.
“Hey, mama!” he said in greeting. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right, but I said hi. “It’s cold out there, mama!” Then I was sure. “It sure is. Mr. Spy’s in Chicago and he says it was only 7 there.” “Brr. What’s he going there for?” “Work, family.” “Tell him he should work in Brazil.” That’s where the shopkeeper is from. “Maybe we should all work in Brazil.” “Maybe we should. You have a beautiful family, mama. Good to see you.” “Good to see you too.”
And the bell rang on my way out. I smiled all the way up the street. I had a name. It’s not the one I would have picked for myself, but that doesn’t matter. I know I’m going to have it forever now. I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Spy. Back at home, I call the TV shop and tell him I think the size is just right and ask how much is the delivery charge. “For neighbors,” he says, “it’s free.”
Road warrior. I’ve been called that three times today. It’s not that I haven’t heard that phrase before, but it’s not one I’ve ever considered in relation to myself. But as I’ve been traveling for two weeks across four states and heading back home on plane number 6 tomorrow, I suppose it’s apt. Still, it makes me feel like Buckaroo Banzai.
Last week I was in Milwaukee by way of a ridiculously short flight from Chicago. The flight attendant made the “you have now reached our cruising altitude” announcement, sat down for approximately 90 seconds, and stood up again to tell us it was time to put our tray tables in their upright and locked positions. It was the busiest conference I’ve ever attended. I talked to people all day long. I came home (for less than 48 hours) voiceless and exhausted.
This week I’m in Pittsburgh. And while it’s still busy, the pace is much more humane and I’ve had the time to do some nice things. An old friend roomed with me for a couple of days. I had someone come up to tell me she’d defended her dissertation and that she’d thanked me in the acknowledgements because a conversation we’d had several years ago had been so helpful to her. And my recent promotion was announced publicly in a roomful of people whose opinions matter to me, which was totally unexpected. I also met lots of interesting people, reconnected with old friends, met some fellow twitterers, and had a visit from Jeanne and her husband, who drove several hours so that we could eat Italian food together. It was a lovely weekend all round, and while I’m still going home tired, I’m also feeling very excited about some new projects coming in and also about getting back to my own research and writing. I’m learning how to tame my introverted tendencies — it helps when you have to be extroverted among fellow introverts.
My brain is full, my energy level is not. Time for bed.
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?