Sunday, February 28, 2010

Moving Art

Art, intended and unintended, expected and unexpected, is everywhere in New York.  One unexpected place is the subway.  Each subway car has its share of advertisements, but the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) also features art and poetry-- Robert Frost was a recent commuter companion.  My favorite is the work of BĂ©atrice Coron.  I caught my breath the first time I saw her print-- it's intricately detailed, playfully showing a multitude of city scenes. The print itself appears to be a paper cut, though I can't imagine the subway version is actually so.  The photos below do not do justice to her work; I recommend checking out her website:  Also:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Baby Bird in Winter

New York may be my unexpected valentine, but the true owner of my heart is Baby Bird, my 18 month old niece and goddaughter. 

The Dream Job was a big reason to move here, but the prospect of being a frequent presence in Baby Bird's childhood was even more compelling.  I have been blessed with amazing aunts and uncles, and I hope I can be a similarly positive influence in her life.

Today her mom and dad had a meeting with their tax advisor, so Baby Bird and I spent much of the day together.   Between carrying her and steering her away from yellow snow, I got quite the workout. 

We also spent time at my place-- I have a little toybox stocked in anticipation of her visits.  Within minutes, everything was on the floor.  I'm sure I'll be finding secret smears of peanut butter and lost raisins throughout my apartment for the next week, but it's a price I gladly play for the privilege of being an aunt to a beautiful, lively, funny little girl.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Snow Day

A most beautiful day, with luxurious flakes floating from the sky for hours and hours.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Worker watching

People watching is an almost unavoidable pastime in a city, especially New York.  Every day, every minute, an astonishing array of faces, colors, expressions, fashions, sizes.  One looks, and upon being caught either sheepishly smiles or quickly shifts the gaze.

There is a variation of people watching that was unknown to me until I moved here.  I think of it as worker watching.  Towering peoplehives stand side by side on street after street.  M/honey manufactured in virtually every cell.

From my office window, I can see construction workers renovating a space.  The African-American business man rarely looks up from his computer.  The young workers sitting at tables and going through files must work at a law firm.  A few floors above me, I can make out a dental chair.  Thank goodness I am not on a higher floor to witness that particular scene.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Dark World

Many years ago I read a copy of The Mole People.  It was lent to me by a friend who knew the author.  It's a non-fiction account about people- whole communities- who seek life in the deep crevices of New York.  Below Grand Central Station, below Penn Station, in abandoned caverns created as part of the subway system.  Questions have since arisen about the accuracy of the author's story, but I suspect there is at least a grain of truth.  As I walk through Grand Central each day, there are two separate worlds: the individuals who are passing through on their way somewhere, and those who take shelter in its warmth and relative safety.  Most often the only mixing between the two is the passing of spare change between one's pocket and another's cup.  I would understand if those who are most worn out by life find comfort far away from the constant movement of the city by seeking ever more quiet and dark environs.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fire Angels

I walk past fire stations in New York with a bit of trepidation, especially those in lower Manhattan.  Many of their doors and walls are covered by tributes to those lost on 9/11.  It is heart-breaking and often overwhelming to see.

I came across my local station this past weekend.  Brightly painted, well-maintained, welcoming.  There was a window full of news articles detailing the brave actions taken by its members, and honoring those who have given their lives.

Posted right next to the door, the fire-angel mosaic reflects the hearts of the men and women inside.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Quiet Adventures on a Monday Evening

My childhood friend H is in town this week, and I headed over to her hotel on West 39th street after work.  Walking along 39th, I found myself surrounded by colorful stores featuring their specialities: trimmings, buttons, neon fabrics, and more.  I had stumbled upon the Garment District.  I was tempted to slow down and take a few photos, but didn't want to be late.  Another street to add to the list of places to visit...

It was so good to see H again-- it's possible she will move here, which would be a wonderful coup for my growing social circle.  It is always comforting to spend time with someone you've known for most of your life.  We know each other's families, siblings, secrets.  And we discovered new similarities in our lives that took us by surprise and prompted a few rounds of clinking wine glasses.

I walked back to the train station and stopped at Broadway & 42nd, struck by the relative calm of Times Square.  I have never seen it so silent.  Bright lights quietly flashing into the urban canyon, streets almost deserted.  A beautiful scene.

The Vegan & The Carnivore

I giggle every time I walk across this street.  Bistro Le Steak, immediate neighbor to Candle Cafe, one of the best-known vegan restaurants in the city.

I can't help but wonder if the proprietors and patrons are equally amused.  What happens when warm weather arrives and there is outdoor seating?  Food fight?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Asia Society: A Much-Needed Respite

When one starts thinking that it's a week later than it really is, and that it's the 28th and not the 21st, it's a clear sign that a certain someone needs to slow down and chill out.

Which is how I found myself at the Asia Society today, exactly one week earlier than I had agreed to with friends A & L.   We were scheduled (or so I thought) to arrive at noon and dine at the Garden Cafe.

Once I realized that I was 168 hours early for our lunch date, it occurred to me that I was in fact right on time and right where I needed to be.  I had a few unexpected hours to myself in a place that is renown for its serenity and elegance.

I had been reading about the Garden Cafe, one of the 'best kept secrets in New York'.   It was lovely, with high ceilings and live trees and sunlight streaming in from the large windows.  The menu was spare but inviting.  I ordered the chicken curry salad, which was savory and cool and perfectly complemented by the warm coconut-flavored jasmine rice and crisp vegetable sides.  I love thoughtful presentation of food, and appreciated the little sprinkles of scallion on the rice and the small slice of red pepper on the plate for accent.  It was delicious.

After a satisfying meal, I headed upstairs to the gallery.  Unfortunately I was unable to take my camera.  The current exhibition features ancient art of Viet Nam, and the pottery and sculptures were spectacular.  Viet Nam's long coast and internal river systems ensured it played a key role in shipping and trading among many Asian nations, including China and India.  Buddhist and Hindu themes were prominent, and several of the sculptures were playful, exciting (I know, I don't usually use those words for sculpture either, but in this case it's true).

Any sighting of a Buddha statue or painting reminds me to breathe, calm down, be present.  And so it was this afternoon.  I breathed.  I remembered the day and date.

Many people's itineraries in NY do not include the Asia Society.  For anyone planning a trip, I gently encourage you to find your way here.  Especially if it's between the hours of 12-3pm, when the cafe is open.  Plus, you'll get a cute little admission button, like the one below.  $10 well spent.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mr Crankypants & The High Lord

I have lived with central heating for much of my life, so when I first encountered the two radiators in my apartment, I found them rather charming.

I don't use that word anymore. No, when I think of them the descriptors that come to mind are irritable and jealous. The radiators are no longer inanimate objects. They are alive. I've assigned them names: Mr. Crankypants inhabits my living room, and The High Lord of the Temple of Steam holds court in my bedroom.

Many days they perform their duties as they are supposed to, simmering merrily away like a kettle heating water for my evening cup of tea.

And then there are the other times. Mr. Crankypants owns a baseball bat, and at inopportune moments- usually when I am on the phone- energetically starts batting practice. Like a young child, he can't handle me paying attention to someone else and immediately acts up when I most need quiet.


The High Lord of the Temple of Steam also owns a bat, but his particular specialty is mimicking Yellowstone geyser sounds. He loves it best when I awake, startled, in the middle of the night.


I keenly look forward to spring.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Friday Night Delight

It's been a long week. A north-of-60-hours week. I collapsed against a column, yearning for the train. Train arrived, too many people, I let it pass in hopes I could find breathing room in the next one.

Waiting waiting waiting right ear perked. Was that a trombone?


I scooped up my bags and headed back up the stairs.

I ♥ New York.

Life at the speed of walking

I no longer needed a car once I moved to NY. Conveniently, my sister needed one at the exact same time. I sold it to her for $1.

I knew I would love not having to pay for gas and upkeep. What I hadn't considered was how much more I would love no longer living in a cocoon.

In my previous life, I drove from my apartment's garage to my workplace's garage and back again. An endless cycle, and an easy one, protecting me from the unknown and the potentially uncomfortable. I wore skirts and heels on the coldest days, knowing I never needed to step outside. I witnessed people's lives through my window shield.

In New York, humanity crowds in to my daily experience. Every day I encounter the outlines of people's stories, and I cannot speed away at 55mph.

I cannot look away from the determined elderly woman I pass most mornings, holding firmly to the railing on her stairs and transferring her weight to her walker. I never see her walking down the stair case, and am unsure how she does it, as she seems so frail. Always a serious look, concentrating on the task. Yesterday morning I witnessed her inching along on an icy patch near the intersection. She was across the street from me and going the opposite direction, and I almost doubled back to help her. I wish I had. I worry about her. Who is she? What is her life like? What is her story?

I pass a dry cleaner storefront. In the window, a young man, appearing to me to be Guatemalan, is pressing clothes. Absorbed in his thoughts and his work, he rarely looks up. What is his story?

The older man with hands jammed into the pockets of his coat, selling newspapers perched on milk crates. One day I saw him putting his hands up to the vent of the apartment building next to him. I want to buy him gloves. What is his story?

The men setting up their fruit and vegetable stand most days on a well-traveled corner. Their prices are low, their customers many. When I return home late in the evening, they are still there. Inventory is bare and prices are a steal. The pears may have been frozen all day, but I will try them as they are just 25 cents each now. What is their story?

I don't know and may never know the details of their lives, but their presence is slowly becoming part of mine. Perhaps, some day, I might become part of their stories as well, the woman who is not quite young and not quite old, who wears serious winter boots in a sea of sleek black fashionable ones. The woman who sees them, and is quick with a smile if they look back.

Whimsy & Pansies & Maude

The best window shopping along my route home is found at the Housing Works Thrift Shop. They change their display a couple times a month, and I'm delighted every time there's a fresh diorama. The shop is a high-end nook that channels all of its proceeds to services that benefit people living with HIV/AIDS.

The arrangements of donated items are created with great care and whimsy, and put all of the fancy window displays of 5th Avenue shops to shame.

I've not yet brought a treasure home, but I know it's just a matter of time before I find the one thing I cannot resist.

I did encounter a treasure, a living one, while I was taking these pictures last night. An older woman, wrapped in her fur coat, approached me and pointed to this painting:

"What are those flowers, dear?" I looked at her and immediately smoothed out my expression so that I'd look interested and helpful, instead of interested, helpful and highly amused, which is what I really felt. The woman strongly resembled Ruth Gordon, the actress who played Maude in my all-time favorite movie, Harold & Maude.

"I believe they're pansies," I said.

She beamed at me. "You're right!" She looked at the painting again. "Is it a good painting?"

"Ummm... I'm not known for my aesthetic sense. I guess if you have an emotional reaction to the painting, then you could say it's good."

"I don't have an emotional reaction."

"Well, if it just seems pleasant, then maybe it's not a good painting."

She smiled. "Yes!" she said. "It's just pleasant. It's not a good painting. Thank you sweetie!" She turned and walked into the shadows.

Music for the soul

I have been serenaded by subway musicians from the very first day of my NY commuting life. The musician's effort usually reminds me to breathe, to lighten up, to slow down. Occasionally it inspires scorn or horror. At its best, it brings a deep sense of comfort.

Several days a week, I arrive at my station and am immediately surrounded by beautifully melodic and soothing notes from a west African instrument-- I believe it is a kora. I get off at the opposite side of the tracks, and so have not had a chance to ask. As someone who has lived in Africa and is passionate about its music, I am thankful to the Universe that this particular musician has decided to make his home in my neighborhood.

I have long had a rule that I will contribute a bit of money to any street musician that makes me smile. Some day soon, I will pay an unnecessary fare to get to the other side and give the man his due.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Yorkers, revealed.

One of the many reasons I had avoided NY for so long was my perception of the New York personality: loud, obnoxious, pushy.

I haven't met any of those people yet.

I'm afraid that I may jinx myself if I list what I have actually found, but I was raised to tell the truth. So, yes, I have been surrounded by kind, polite, friendly people, many of whom have made an extra effort to help me when I most needed it.

There is the cable guy who spent an hour more than he had planned in order to fix some faulty wiring he found.

The superintendent who stayed several hours in order to install a deadbolt that refused to be installed.

The hostess at the local diner who keeps a drawer stocked with lollipops for the neighborhood's children.

The staff at the gym who never fail to greet me or wish me a good day.

The man who stopped and asked if I needed help when I pulled out a map.

The crowds of commuters, day after day, who show remarkable patience and restraint when packed into a very small space. No one panics, no one curses, everyone studiously tries to give each other a little bit more space.

The cleaning ladies at work who giggle and greet me with great enthusiasm every afternoon.

My colleagues, who by their sheer goodness are teaching me to be kinder and gentler.

The young guy who struck up a conversation with me while standing in line at Starbucks. He wanted to explain why he had a bouquet of dead flowers with him on Valentine's Day. It was, actually, a nice story.

The bus drivers who patiently tell me to turn my metrocard the other way. No, the other way.

I am sure there will be a day when I am scolded, or pushed, or treated roughly. But I will see it as the exception and not the rule. For even in the darkest heart of winter, warmth and civility reign.

Love at second site

It is late and sleep eludes me. Time for another story.

My move to New York City was sudden and rather unexpected. I had encountered an ad for my Dream Job, applied, and received an offer a month later. Could you, they asked, start in one's month time?

That is, could you, during the holiday season, find a way to give proper notice to your current job and move to a new city in a mere four weeks?

Certainly, I said. I will find a way. No problem at all.

I quickly learned what I did not yet know. Moving to NYC is overwhelming, and there are byzantine rules that exist in no other city that I know of. Many building owners refuse to entertain your inquiries unless you are represented by a broker. The traditional broker's fee? A cool 15% of the first year's rent. Rent that is among the highest in the nation.

I had three things going for me:

1. The recession, so cruel to others, has forced a softening in the rental market, which meant that negotiation was possible in both rental rates and the broker's fee. Although Craigs List now allows the option to see some apartments without a broker, my unfamiliarity with the market and my tight timeframe led me to conclude that I needed to engage one.

2. I have friends and family in the area, and they provided much-needed advice as to where to live and where to definitely not live.

3. My sainted friend M, who patiently walked the earth with me on that first day of looking at apartments.

I traveled to New York one hopeful weekend in November, and after a series of horror-inspiring garrets found a most charming place. French doors from the living room to the bedroom, a Juliet balcony, hardwood floors. Oh, yes, it was a 5th floor walk up, but really, wouldn't that provide great exercise? It was by far the best apartment I had seen that day, and I gratefully put down a deposit. M. and I went to a French cafe and celebrated. It was only afterwords that my broker cautioned me that, well, she hadn't been able to confirm with the landlord that it was still available, but don't worry, and she'd be in contact with me on Monday.

Monday arrived, and late afternoon I received a call. The apartment had fallen through. I would need to travel to NY a second time to look. My normally kind demeanor with the broker frayed a bit. I started to feel desperate.

The next weekend brought several more visits to apartments, and then we walked into a place that was still dusty from the gut renovation. I'll take it, I said. It was a one bedroom, beautiful and well-priced. The move-in date was a week later than I wanted, but I knew I could rely on the hospitality of my sister and brother-in-law for a short amount of time.

Once again, I was about to learn an unexpected lesson. I had already relocated to the area, asked my moving company to store my belongings, and was commuting two hours into the city from my sister's home in NJ. Several days before my move, I received a call from the broker. "The apartment isn't ready yet. Con Edison hasn't set everything up yet, and they still don't have cooking gas." The new date: two weeks hence. It is during these times that one becomes ever-more appreciative of family. My sister B, her husband S and their daughter W. were incredibly gracious and allowed me to stay for longer than any of us had originally imagined.

Finally, I was able to move in. I still didn't have cooking gas, nor a mailbox, nor a working dryer in the building's laundry facility. But the heat and the electricity worked, and I was grateful. I was home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cold nose, warm heart

I spent much of Valentine's Day walking around Chelsea and Greenwich Village with my friend Michael. It was chilly, necessitating unfashionable but warm hats and gloves. My borrowed City Secrets New York guidebook led us to Three Lives, a tiny yet remarkably stocked bookstore on West 10th.

I have long wanted to learn more about Rumi, the ancient poet and mystic. I found a copy of The Essential Rumi, and starting skimming the poems. A hint of red peeked out from the pages. I pulled out a small paper heart, on which someone had written "You are loved." Astonished, I turned it over. "Yes, you" it said.

The bookstore staff were just as delighted and mystified as I was. When asked if they had deliberately placed hearts in certain books as a random act of kindness, they simply laughed and said no but wished they could take credit.

As I've been reflecting on this small heart-warming gift, I realize that it's symbolic of my experience of New York. I moved here for my dream job in December, despite having sworn many years ago that I would never live in this city. Too much and too many, I thought. Too many people, too many tall buildings blocking out the sun, too much pollution. And yet- I have, to my surprise, become enchanted by the city and its unexpected charms. It, too, is my unexpected valentine. This blog is my story as it unfolds.