Sunday, April 24, 2011

Resurrections Galore

After stepping off a commuter train this morning, I was astonished to lay eyes on someone I once briefly knew on another part of the platform. I hadn’t seen him in more than 10 years, and whenever I run into people I haven’t seen since Y2K, there’s usually something a little different about them, even if it’s just a hairstyle, or wardrobe trend, or energy level. But he’s still the spitting image of who and what he was, strutting around in full prick regalia – on a suburban train platform at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday. The only prop missing was the half-empty Perrier bottle he used to entertainingly clutch. I’ve read reviews and excerpts of the book he published not too long ago, and it sounds like his decadent life and times have changed as little as his physical front.

The rest of the day triggered a much different remembrance of things past. At an Easter celebration that was a lot like the kind of extended-family holiday gatherings my own family once hosted, I began to understand why so many people choose to stay or relocate near their original home base.

Whenever something or someone worthwhile has come into your life, every reasonable attempt should be made to hold onto that experience or presence for as long as possible; most influences and situations that don’t feel legit should be weeded out as swiftly and firmly as possible. The problem is not always being able to appreciate how good you’ve had it until long after it’s no more; or how bad you have it until you’re already in, knee deep.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Trident and Triptychs

If dreams really can come true, I’m not always going to be living in NYC. But there’s no other city in this country that offers so many world-class art museums and galleries. As long as I’m here, I might as well take full advantage of more of them.

I’ve now checked out (and ruled out) the Cloisters – an institution that will never see me again unless it hosts an open-bar event or a demanding out-of-town guest badgers me to return. It‘s nestled away in a huge Upper Manhattan park – this wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten lost in there; but at least this time I didn’t wind up standing at the edge of an expressway at twilight.

While I was thinking about what a decent visit I was having, even though I’ve never been enthralled with the medieval era, a security guard followed me into an empty corridor to reprimand me for chewing gum. “Are you kidding?” I asked. It wasn’t like I was blowing bubbles or making popping noises. And older, male security guards can be hard to read. A lot of them could do stand-up at the Laugh Factory if they had slightly better delivery and personal contacts. I thought he was trying to be funny, just like the one who once saw me stretched out on a Riverside Park bench and came over to say he’d have to give me a ticket for taking it easy.

This one was no comedian. But he said he’d let me continue chewing since it was the end of the day.

What does that mean? I would have spent the same amount of time touring the premises, sullying the scene with my boorish chewing, whether it was 3 p.m. or 10 a.m. All of those innocent international tourists and babies in strollers at 3:15 on a Saturday would still have their day at the museum tarnished by their exposure to the uncouthness. Now they’ll go back to Brussels or Tribeca with memories of my jittery jaw instead of the Mary Magdalene sculpture or Annunciation triptych.

I wonder what kind of policy this place has about smoking. Or joking. Or curtsying. The tourists taking all those pictures of the triptychs were more tawdry than my silent chewing. And I can only imagine how their breaths must have smelled after their long, leisurely lunches at the lower-level café.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Springtime in NYC

One of the reasons I love cold weather is that it keeps a lot of people indoors, leaving me with most of the outside to myself. Once it gets warmer, they all start coming out and staying out. Case in point: the elderly white man who sits on a park bench and always tells me how much he loves black people.

The third or fourth time I passed him, he called me over to give me his 5-page typewritten autobiography and a local obituary about his late wife. I read everything that night, while on hold with customer service, and found his background intriguing in that he and I graduated from the same law school, his brother was a big shot in the industry in which I now work, and both he and his wife have worked on behalf of the same types of public interest causes that I have. The next time I saw him, I made the mistake of thanking him for his materials and revealing that we have lots in common. That’s how we got to where we are today.

I’m hardly ever able to pass him without being lured into an epic monologue about how impressively color blind and well raised he is - the kind of monologues that are impossible to politely cut off. After about 20 minutes, I usually interrupt to tell him that I have to go to the bathroom or that I’m about to pass out from dehydration, starvation, or heat exhaustion.

When I’m walking toward him and see him on the bench from afar, I’ve learned how to speed walk by as if I’m tragically late for something, as I turn around to wave hello. But I sometimes only first notice him when he’s beamingly strolling straight toward me - when he’s mobile, he’s in more of a position to manipulate the terms of the interaction.

He ambushed me on foot like this one night last week, this time to ask for my advice. He “feels [he] should be recognized for all the things [he] did during the civil rights movement” - getting King out of jail, introducing Thurgood Marshall at “the Convention,” going to high school with the founder of Essence magazine, and unsuccessfully trying to get a soccer coach to stop favoring white players. He wants someone to “cover” and then publish a glowing tribute to him.

I know and know of many progressive figures who have done great things – and none have ever actively lobbied for any official celebration of those courageously excellent acts. If anything, they tend to err on the side of deflecting attention away from themselves. Good people usually do good just for the sake of doing the right thing, and people who take their work seriously are very different from people who take themselves seriously.

The next time I’m cornered, I’ll tell him to write a memoir or take his tales to StoryCorps. This will invite another 15-minute explanation about why he won’t go that route. If his contributions really were as pivotal as he suggests, by now you’d think at least one person would have given him props. But no one has. In fact, based on some of what’s slipped out during his self-shout outs, it sounds like he annoyed the civil rights activists the same way he’s been annoying me in the park this past year.

Seven more months until winter-coat season.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Palm Saturday

While running a few atypical errands in Queens yesterday, I saw an arresting advertisement for an astrologer. I’ve been to two astrologers in the past decade, my last reading was almost two years ago, and I was due for an update.

I followed the arrows through a door and down a flight of creaky stairs, ending up in the basement of a fabric store. There was a family of four hanging out on some couches. The matriarch asked if I needed some tailoring. “No thanks,” I said. “Where’s the psychic?”

I was hoping that she or one of the smiling daughters would be the psychic. But the astrologer turned out to be the dad, and he led me into a small, ostentatiously-decorated back room. After draping himself with a shawl and lighting some incense, he used some old newspapers to slowly clear off a large pile of uncooked rice from the middle of the table. He asked me how much Hindi I spoke.

The vibe in the room wasn’t one that I wanted. I was terrified that he was going to tell me something really bad about what was in store for me. I’ve been told that no psychic would scare a customer with anything too shockingly distressing, but this guy seemed like a rebel who didn’t believe in standard practices or sugarcoating the truth. He seemed way too much like me, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle it.

There were a couple of fuzzy allusions to God: “God’s around.” Or it could have been: “God’s coming.” Or maybe it was: “God has left the building, but will be back real soon.” He told me to place something on a neighboring table. I thought he was asking for my fist; but he was saying “fees.”

I wrote my name and date of birth on a piece of already-used scratch paper, and he started scribbling underneath the information. He gave me a handful of ceramic cowrie shells and asked me to throw them down on the table. “Again,” he said, after I did. “Again,” he said again. In between throw-downs, he continued scribbling away on the scratch paper. He asked for my left palm. When I showed it to him, his eyes lit up as he half-gasped/half-chuckled before giving me the thumbs-up sign.

That reaction was more animated than what I’m used to, but I wasn’t moved. All fortune-tellers are impressed with my palm – I’ve got good lines. And this one didn’t tell me anything interesting or that I haven’t already heard from the others. One of his first pearls of insight was that I lead a very independent life. Holy crystal ball, we have a Prophet Laureate - his powers really are special. I had just sauntered into his sketchy basement with an unsilenceable American accent, carrying an oversized “THIS IS WHAT A FEMINIST LOOKS LIKE” bag (with the top of a 10-pound burlap sack of basmati rice sticking out of it) over my shoulder in a neighborhood that views the English language as an afterthought. It took the incense, palm lines, and shell-throwing drill to conclude that nobody owns me?

Less than 15 minutes later, I was unceremoniously dismissed. No “thank you for coming” or “have a nice day” or “keep that million-dollar palm clean.” He suddenly lowered his eyes and became uncommunicative. When I turned around to say goodbye, he had come out of his pseudo-trance, graduating to contemplative humming.