Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Minion of a Bygone Era

The mailman walks with a limp as he carries and sorts the heavy advertising brochures and catalogs that now make up the bulk of today's mail. I often see him when he arrives at in the lobby towards the end of his long day, as he performs his time-consuming and increasingly thankless task.

He patiently fills the endless rows of mailboxes with the mostly "junk" mail that now brings in a lot of the revenue for the struggling postal service -- mail from advertisers that the residents routinely dump in the trash bin downstairs before they head up to their apartments.

I am always surprised that just from the daily arduous task of placing mail in the endless rows of boxes, he has taken the trouble to match up all the names to the faces he occasionally sees. When I happen to see him, he knows my name and formally greets me.

He is an elderly black gentleman who has worked in the civil service for years. He speaks to me of his bad knee and upcoming retirement. When he disappears for a while, the delivery goes awry, and I get mail intended for numerous other residents. When he returns, order is restored as he resumes his routine of putting the mail into its designated boxes.

"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," is the unofficial postal service motto, (inscribed on the General Post Office facility on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue in New York City), conveying the reliability of mail carriers and their once important mission, recalling the days when mail was the only form of communication and linked distant places. In today's fast-paced world, the mail carrier serves as a reminder of that different slower-paced one, not all that long ago, when his arrival, together with the letters he brought, was eagerly anticipated and awaited. Today, he is often not even noticed, as many, at least in my high-rise building, no longer bother to check the mail regularly. 

In an era when electronic communications make up most of our correspondence, his services are now becoming antiquated and often redundant. The letters and printed bills that the post office used to routinely deliver have slowly become a thing of the past, and the occasional letter we still do send has become something we have come to disparagingly call "snail mail."

Nonetheless, even today, the mailman's regular presence still conveys a reliability more so than that of the Internet, which though most convenient, is also prone to frustrating and unpredictable outages. The letters he occasionally brings are something concrete one can hold on to, as opposed to something intangible stored out there somewhere in the amorphous "cloud" of the Internet. As our need for the postal service slowly declines, and in view of the recent talk of cutbacks, I fear that mail delivery as we know it will eventually become extinct. 

I know I will also miss this gentleman soon to retire who regularly greets me as he cheerfully and tirelessly goes about his appointed rounds.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

One Small Good Thing

He is very fragile. Alone, elderly and frail, he is like many of the City's unnoticed population, making their way slowly down the streets, with walkers and canes. I first happened to meet him almost 20 years ago, when he was a robust and demanding professor of literature at the same school where I taught a class in writing.

And just recently, we came across each other by chance, the way people in the City are sometimes wont to do.

How could his health have deteriorated so much in the interim? I wondered. Since the time we cordially shared that same office, how could so much in his life have changed?

While I had been off living my own life, the years had definitely taken a devastating toll on him.

I was shocked to find him slender, hunched over, using a walker, his proud face, frightened and haunted and strained. Yet when he met me, this 70+ man clearly wanted to convey an impression of dignity and he did. When we spoke, I realized that at heart, he was the exact same person I had known years ago, given to long discourses on esoteric literary topics.

In a sense, nothing had changed since we last met. Yet, in another sense everything did.

What amazed me the most was his determination to persevere. In one short encounter, he made me realize that I was fit and able to do things, ordinary things that I always take for granted, things that pose a major challenge for him and many others like him every day.

I offered to come and visit.

As I walked into his apartment, I surveyed all the medications that were lined up in rows on his kitchen counter, and I felt helpless.

“Do you need to take so many pills?” I asked with concern.

I also felt helpless to address all the medical ailments that he had developed, and I was outraged that he was not getting the care that he needed from his health plan, which was limited to in-network providers.

Yet he was humble, not even complaining about his health insurance but grateful for what benefits it allowed, and for the simple things that he was able to do every day.

Even though it took him all day, he told me, he did his laundry and neatly folded it. He took obvious pride in keeping his apartment in immaculate order. And he amused me with an essay he had saved from his teaching days, written by a student who meant to refer to a “rabbit’s foot” for good luck, but wrote instead of “a rabid foot” and “a rabbi’s foot.”

So now, I come over to see him, once or twice a week, lugging a bag of groceries from Columbia Foods, in order to make him a nutritious meal.   

When I arrive, armed with my ingredients, he is grateful. And so am to be able to do just one small good thing.

In our conversation, as I cook, we talk over each other and often miss each other’s words.  He speaks so softly that I can barely hear him; and with his hearing loss, I have to keep repeating the words I say.

Care-taking, I realize, has its innate satisfactions. It brings out my nurturing instinct, my ability to be of genuine help with the simple tasks that most adults take for granted.

“You're treating me like a baby,” he said to me amiably the last time I came over, when I just instinctively without asking cut the food I made for him because his hands were shaking so much that he could not do so on his own.

Yet he was smiling, his face relaxed, bemused by my endeavors.

And then, while we sat at the table and chatted, as we used to do when we shared an office, I found him laughing at and with me. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

That Building Across the Street

My view of the city has been obstructed and the sunlight has been blocked. Ever since they built that building across the street. Without anyone even telling me, I might add. One long summer, I just watched that building go up, up, up, and slowly block off my rooms with a view, where I could once get a glimpse of the river, the church spires, the tops of brownhouses and even their rooftop gardens, where I could see some colorful flowers and a bit of green. As the building rose, the sunlight slowly eclipsed. It was not long before I found myself in plunged into a world of shadows, into one of the deep dark canyons of the city. I could no longer see the light of day.

The first thing I did was blame myself. I should have known, I told myself, back when I moved into a co-op on the sixth floor and saw the empty space right across the street. In this ever-more-crowded city where every small patch of land provides an opportunity for development, new buildings suddently appear, it seems, almost overnight. Back then, though, it was the thought of living in a high rise apartment that filled me with apprehension, the thought of having to live high above the ground, like some sort of a Jack-on-the-Beanstalk amid the clouds and early city mist, almost in the sky. Even the thought of looking down from a terrace made me dizzy. I liked the feeling of living closer to the ground, of being grounded, I should say, not dwelling way up up up there at the mercy of slow elevators that are always stuck on some remote floor and keep you stranded and trapped, waiting for eons, slowing you down, when all you want to do is run and just get out and go outside. I liked being able to use the steps, savored my freedom to come and go as I pleased.

The following fall, I watched the buildings' new inhabitants move into their tiny apartments. Then at night, I would see them through their wide open picture windows without blinds, their silhouettes lit up against the bright artificial light. I would observe them going about their lone rituals, watching television, typing on their computers, eating dinner alone at a table, or even in their most intimate moments, their isolation evoking Edward Hopper's portraits of ennui and alienation and bleak loneliness and even despair. They too could see straight across the narrow street into my apartment through my large windows. I got even more irritated at this city that invades my private space, got some blinds that I then kept shut, and even less light permeated through.

Edward Hopper's "Summer Interior"

I was then plunged into darkness and gloom, into a place where there is no sunlight, and into a place where plants would not grow. My apartment became a dark space, a cave, and I a cave-dweller living deep down in the shadows cast by the city. No longer did I experience the early morning dawn, the brightness of noon, the glow of the sunset. I had the lights turned on all day. In truth, on some dark and gloomy winter days, I could not tell whether it was day or night. I found myself bumping into things in the small cramped interior of my apartment, even found myself trying to grapple with my words in the dark.... I began lose sight of the constant day-to-day promise of living in this ever-changing city -- with its energy and excitement and its everyday opportunities for renewal -- and of its innumerable surprises that beckon from every street corner, and appear on every block....

Then I slowly began to realize something..... That it is only normal to feel oppressed by the dark.... That it is quite natural to want to seek the light.... "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark, said Plato. " The real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light."

In this city known for its relentlessness, I know it is not fashionable to talk about being vulnerable, about things that go bump in the night. Yet, I do believe we are compelled to talk about the darkness, despite all the risks that this entails. Speaking the truth may not always be easy or convenient, but it is not nearly as difficult as staying silent. And so I found that I can write my way though the darkness and into a place where there is light.

And I threw open the blinds.

Then one early June morning, due the positioning of the sun, I saw a ray of light penetrate the shadows, partially light up my living room through a small side window, and I broke into a smile. "There is a crack in everything," Leonard Cohen, the poet and songwriter once said. "That's how the light gets in.”

So now, I find myself writing this on an early June morning, close to the longest day of the year -- the summer solstice --amid the glimmer of morning rays of sunlight bursting in -- an unexpected gift from the city, reminding me of its ability to surprise and to enchant and to illuminate and enrich life in most unexpected ways.\

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Carriage Horses

I would walk by those horse-drawn carriages as I frequented the Wollman ice-skating rink in Central Park as a child while my father played chess. They stood on 59th Street, across the street from the Plaza Hotel, lined up in a queue. I would also see them as I walked past the Pierre on 5th, the hotel where my school held fund-raisers. Walking though the park after school, I would often see those them carriages chauffeuring a couple holding hands or a laughing group that was out on the town.
A city girl, I knew nothing else of horses other than what I observed about those lingering near Central Park. To me, those horse-drawn carriages with their coachmen in top hats and tails seemed romantic. I imagined them a part of the old idyllic pre-Soviet world my expatriate mother told me stories about, clattering over the cobblestones of city streets as she went shopping or taking her over the river and through the woods to and from boarding school. An avid reader, I imagined those carriages were much like the ones heroines of the 19th century European novels traveled in, on their way to experience adventure and intrigue. And I remember watching a Fred Astaire movie, where those carriages provided a romantic presence, particularly in a scene where their doors fly open and the singer dances in the park.
So, when I was a debutante at an expatriate East European ball, there was nothing I could have imagined I would enjoy more than to take a festive ride in a horse-drawn carriage though the park, with a tuxedoed escort and me in my long white silky gown.
Years later, my preteen daughter, in the city for a summer ballet program, took a carriage ride through the park with her classmates. For her, the carriages carried no baggage or memories such as they did for me. The ride was simply a novelty, a fairy tale come true, a memorable treat among the many Central Park had to offer. She was still young enough to delight in riding the carousel at the children’s zoo, to climb the Alice in Wonderland statue, then to wander over to the boathouse and embark on a perilous adventure, losing the oars in the park’s lake. I still have a photo of her, standing in front of the carriage, its driver grinning, and she, mugging for the camera.
But now, after we returned to live in the city, it seems to me that Cinderella’s coach has turned into a pumpkin, the horses into mice. And those coachmen seem -- not majestic guides to an enchanted evening --- or even drivers offering up a memorable treat -- but ordinary fellows in worn coats, determined to take their carriages out for a turn in order to make a buck.
Could it be that the city has changed in my absence, or is it me? The Cinderella story, I always thought of as metaphor for growing up, for viewing life no longer with youthful flights of fancy, but as it is.
When I see the horses nowadays about the city, they seem incongruous, out of place. A ride in a horse-drawn carriage though the park in the springtime is one thing, but to see those horses standing near the curb in inclement weather or being driven through the rain, sleet and snow is another. And to see them on the very city streets, sharing the asphalt with traffic and the dodging cabs is yet another.
But what a shock it was hearing again last week that yet another of those carriage horses had died in the street. For me, at least, these incidents serve to epitomize the convergence of modern technology and these olden carriages, the clash of the contemporary city and what some call the “charming” and “quaint” reminders of Old New York.”
Yes, what some call “charming” and “quaint” reminders of Old New York” do hark back to bygone and more tranquil days in the city when the animals were a form of transport, as the many bricked-over stable entrances in the city’s oldest buildings, particularly on the East Side, attest to. The clickety-click of their hooves echo back to the New York of Henry James and Edith Wharton. But the city has long since changed. To residents such as this one, their so-called “charm” has become tired, even cruel.
I chanced to walk by those horses on 59th Street on a cold and rainy Saturday. The daylight was already turning into an early dusk. The carriages looked shabby, not at all like the purveyors of privilege they seemed in my youth. A huge sign mounted on the carriages advertised their rates. Their drivers, calling out to tourists, seemed much like any other vendors hawking their wares in the city.
There were not many takers. The horses simply stood there, gentle, patiently waiting, docile, easily led. The carriage drivers, wearing dingy weather-proofed clothing over their overcoats, waited and waited for business. Theirs was a somewhat futile endeavor, given the darkness and the weather.
I took the occasion to linger and observe. Indeed, some of the animals seemed tired, haggard, like workhorses. I saw one of them take one step forward in line, following the lead of the carriage directly in front, only to be met with a threatening gesture from his driver. Not unlike a dog that has learned to cower, the horse immediately stepped back, with nary a neigh nor a whimper. I looked away.
Yet other animals seemed coddled. They were covered with blankets in the cold wet weather, treated more like trusty friends. One was fed from a store of carrots in a sack, was gently spoken to by name.
As I watched one or two of the vehicles finally take off with a rare customer in tow amid the rainy chill, I marveled at those stoic animals with blinders on, patiently plodding with that rhythmic clickety-click in their step, pulling their load. To me, they seemed a sad symbol of forbearance in a modern world somehow gone awry

Friday, October 7, 2011

On Manhattan Chain Drugstores: In Search of a Place Where Somebody Remembers Your Name

It is a weekday and I want to fill a prescription. Within three blocks of my apartment, there are now three large chain drug stores in my neighborhood, part of an ever-growing national trend that has taken over the city. Of late, whenever a neighborhood store closes down, it seems like yet another chain drug store or yet another branch of a bank or clothing store opens up in its place, bringing an all too predictable uniformity to nearly every city block.

I stop off at a CVS drug store that is a block east of where I live.

“Can you fill this script?” I ask a clerk at a pharmacy counter, which is located all the way in the back of the enormous store.

"Come back in three hours,” the put-upon clerk says.

"But why?” I ask. It is midday; it looks like there are about three pharmacists working behind the drug counter; and there are no customers waiting.

“We have other orders to fill.”

“Can’t you fill it while I wait?” I ask, knowing full well that am already too drained to return later or the next day. “I really need it right away,” I plead with her.

“You have to ask the head pharmacist,” the clerk says indifferently. “She’s on the phone.”

I wait for 15 minutes while the head pharmacist chats away on the phone without acknowledging me. Then I decide to walk away. The modus operandi of this new brand of pharmacy is inflexible: you wait, line or no line, offer up your prescription, come pack for pick-up.

On my way out, I chance upon a young man who is stocking the shelves with discounted laundry detergent.

“Where do you have Nivea lotion,” I ask him.

"I don’t know. I only stock shelves,” he tells me.

I am surprised at this employee who does not even seem to know the layout of his own store.

I walk out perplexed at this new breed of pharmacy that can't fill a prescription but offers laundry detergent at low cost. This particular store has even replaced actual people with instant checkout, leaving you with absolutely no one to help you.

I next consider going to the friendly neighborhood pharmacy about eight blocks away, that has been there for more than 100 years, and where they will fill your prescription promptly and efficiently, on the spot, and are even the purveyors of exclusive beauty products, not to mention my favorite hair clips, but right now I don’t feel quite up to making that 16-block round-trip trek in this city, where everyone has to perambulate. Other such closer options in the neighborhood have disappeared over the past five years, as small neighborhood stores closed down, a casualty of rising city rents, expensive new high-rise building developments, and the cutthroat competition of the much larger chain drug stores, which have been expanding their lines of merchandise to include groceries, candy, and even stockings, not to mention other offerings, to the point where they are beginning to resemble a sort of mini-Wal-Mart -- where the drug counter, relegated to the back of the store, functions merely as an afterthought. In fact, in recent years, the city has been starting to look like a veritable mall of Duane Reades, CVS’s, and Rite Aids and now, even a Walgreens, that has moved in as of late and acquired the New York City-based Duane Reade chain.. On Broadway, there is now one of those megastores on nearly every block. Sadly, judging from the way things are going, it looks like pharmacies, as we used to know them, will soon no longer exist, except in a different incarnation as a small section of a megastore.

I feel a sense of anomie among all these nameless clerks and pharmacies and stock boys, since no there one knows me, acknowledges me, or can be bothered to help me. I feel helpless, isolated, and very alone. Here, the unspoken rules or normal standards of customer service or decent human behavior no longer seem to apply.

As familiar neighborhood stores are displaced by these megastores, much of our daily interactions are increasingly with such strangers with whom we lack any ongoing relationship. Such stores are not vested in forging relationships in the way of the local neighborhood drug stores, where the friendly pharmacist not only knows you, but also your medical history. With their emphasis on large scale profits (and small salaries), these ubiquitous chain stores breed little loyalty on the part of their ever-changing staff, who provide indifferent service, and also contribute a humdrum uniformity to every block. When you ask for help there, no one is available or accountable. Dealing with these places is an exercise in frustration.

I waste at least 30 minutes there to no avail. I decide to go in search of a more amenable place.

I briefly consider going to a different chain drug store, a Duane Reade, about two blocks south. It is small and cramped, not to mention dirty, dingy and depressing, with the harried pharmacist in charge there, courteous but constantly in a rush, trying to run the entire counter by herself. What with the ever-changing population of clueless young assistant pharmacists -- who know little about the prescriptions they fill or about their customers, and the indifferent clerks who simply pass the time until they clock out, not to mention the endless, impatient and often rude line of customers, the place is a madhouse, particularly near rush hour, when someone inevitably will announce loudly and aggressively, “There’s a line waiting.” Getting a prescription filled in this place reminds me of Godot’s absurdist drama, where one simply waits, only to find out in the end that the store is out of stock or that one has the improper insurance authorization and that one is inevitably condemned to come back and wait in line again.

In resignation, I finally decide to check out a spanking new enormous drugstore, part of the same chain that recently opened up two blocks north.

To my surprise, I find a pleasant young woman who greets me at the counter, with a bright smile that lights up her face. “Hello, can I help you,” she says in a friendly and cordial manner.

I am relieved to come across her in this city where no one ever seems to smile and shopkeepers no longer say "Hello."

“Can you fill this prescription now?” is my inevitable query.

“Of course we can,” she says, noting my fatigue and distress, as she steps away to consult with the pharmacist, and completes the process within a few minutes. The simple courtesy of this gentle and slender young pharmacy clerk makes me want to return.

Her name is Mariah.

"How are you doing?” she greets me in a dignified and respectful way the next time I see her, actually addressing me by my name.

I looked up at her, amazed. In this era of indifferent service, she has won my loyalty. I even ask her what her hours are, and jot them down, in order to make my life in this city of strangers simpler. I am certainly hoping she stays there for a while.

Sure enough, when I later look up this pharmacy online in “Yelp,” one reviewer gives it 5 stars. “Pretty implausible,” the reviewer says sardonically about giving a store of this particular chain -- that New Yorkers love to hate -- a 5-star rating, “except that the staff (at the drugstore counter) is so helpful and fantastic they make up for the ‘irritation’ of shopping there.”

I guess that goes to say that a small thing like a person doing his or her job with courtesy and concern even at a counter now incongruously delegated to the back of a megastore does indeed make a real difference.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ordering Chinese Take-Out

It is getting late in this 24/7 city, and I am writing. It is about 8:30. I cannot imagine cooking. My refrigerator, like a typical one in many single households in Manhattan, is nearly empty. I google “Chinese food,” then glance at the reviews on the Internet. Ordering out for Chinese food in this Upper West Side neighborhood -- which some reviewer described as the "Capital of Mediocre Chinese Food in the City"-- is a ritual. I suppose this moniker assumes that the best and most authentic Chinese food is found in the city's traditional Chinese district, Manhattan's Chinatown (with its active tourist industry and about 200 restaurants), and now also in places in the outer boroughs, like the new Flushing Chinatown in Queens -- a burgeoning enclave that rivals the original home of Chinese immigrants as a center for new Chinese-speaking arrivals, and even the new Flatbush Chinatown in Brooklyn.
But I suspect that professional West Siders are not in search of the "most authentic" of Chinese cuisine, are just used to ordering what they call "Chinese" because they are always on the go, and it's quick, convenient and inexpensive. It's not atypical here to see a delivery man, driving though the traffic on a bicycle, with a plastic bag of Chinese food balanced on each handlebar.
There are at least 35 restaurants listed in my search. Most on my list are familiar but there are a few new ones that pop up. I notice a new takeout place that has suddenly appeared just a few blocks away in this city where storefronts so quickly come and go. It promises good food, fast delivery, and low prices.
I give it a try. My delivery order is small: Won Ton soup and Moo Shu Chicken. I give the credit card number to a woman with broken English who politely and efficiently asks me twice to repeat it.
Amazingly, the order comes in a few minutes. To my surprise, a dignified Chinese man, perhaps in his late 40s, arrives, holding a bicycle helmet. His manner is formal, decorous, and deferential. Dressed in neatly pressed khakis and a short-sleeved shirt, he looks more like a teacher or office worker than a delivery boy. He does not rush. He walks quickly and efficiently down the hall and smiles as I wave at him and greet him at the door.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello, Madame,” he says, politely. He bows, in the gracious and formal manner of the Chinese.
He hands me the order, and then bows again.
“Thank you,” I say, at a loss for words.
“Thank you,” he says, in broken English, repeating my words.
When I give him the tip, a look of perplexity crossing his face. He points to the credit card receipt and tries to hand the money back to me.
"For you," I say.
The deliveryman then carefully and discreetly folds the dollar bills I give him, without even looking at the amount. Before he leaves, he bows again.
Because of the language barrier, we manage to use only a few words in our interaction. But I am not sure that we need to say much more. It often seems to me that the most telling of communications are not necessarily verbal but are just as effectively made though a simple language of gesture and silence.
This astonishing exchange makes me feel like a most distinguished and valued custome,r rather than a somewhat lazy and tired and self-absorbed New Yorker who takes a delivery from a restuarant from just a few blocks away for granted. Certainly his unexpected courtesy is a welcome change from the brusque and impersonal and money-grubbing ways of the slouchy young delivery boys from the local deli who glare at me with entitlement if I do not hand over a sizable tip. This man is a pleasure to deal with, especially at the end of a day after I have endured the usual indignities one becomes accustomed to here, such as the pushy woman who stepped ahead of me at the drugstore queue and loudly commandeered the attention of the hapless clerk who was trying to wait on others, or the bus driver who shut his doors abruptly right before I and another passenger were able to board.
The quality of the food is great. It is pleasingly predictable, freshly prepared, abundant, non-greasy. A bargain in this expensive city. Certainly there is enough for two people or for another meal.
Why is this man doing this job? I begin to wonder. Is he perhaps taken advantage of by an unscrupulous restaurant owner, or, judging by his looks and obvious intelligence, might he perhaps even be the owner?
Suddenly I feel ashamed, wonder if I am behaving with a sense of undue entitlement to services such as his, much like an “Ugly American,” that is, a term often used to apply to Americans who exhibit arrogant and insensitive behavior toward natives when they travel abroad.
Judging from his English, I figure he must be a new arrival, most likely from mainland China, the world’s most populous nation, which of late in this ever-changing city -- where nothing is ever stagnant -- has been providing a steady flow of immigrants, many of them undocumented, eclipsing the number of the earlier more-established Chinese arrivals here, who hail from
Hong Kong. As a result, Mandarin is replacing Cantonese as the main language of the Chinese population in the City. According to Wickipedia, there are now 665,714 Chinese immigrants in New York City, the largest population in the United States, surpassing even that of San Francisco.
Most likely, this delivery man is simply taking whatever job he can get, in the manner of the new arrivals from China, who tend to find ready work in restaurants and laundries, providing a main source of inexpensive labor in the city, taking on those menial jobs that more established residents would not accept. And Manhattan, with its large number of single households, provides a ready market for services such as his.
"The whole labor issue makes me feel guilty," I notice someone has written online in one of the restaurant reviews, echoing my thoughts.
Nonetheless, I'm not sure he would agree. Obviusly in the tradition of American immigrants who hail from varied places, he must feel he is better off here, has more opportunity than in the land where he was before. And interestingly, since China commands the largest fleet of bicycles in the world, which are a mainstay for commuting there -- and even serve as a way for an enterprising native to get work by making deliveries by slipping in and out of the jammed traffic in the crowded cities, that same skill obviously gives him a foothold in the economy here. And he, like many others here, does not hesitate to apply it.
In this economically diverse city, the little job he has is one of many that has served as a stepping stone in this country, and he is happy to do it with courtesy, competence, and grace, in the process making a telling statement on the  nobility and dignity of work. Whatever job he does, he obviously demonstrates by his demeanor, is worth doing well. And unlike what I can say about the many places and people I come across who provide surly and indifferent service in this anonymous and often not-so-gracious city, I certainly would order from this restaurant again and would be most pleased to re-encounter this man, who is so culturally attuned to the niceties of a human exchange.
And indeed, the next time when I do so, on a rainy night when I get home at eight o'clock and am tired and hungry and call for take-out, he arrives, and hands me my order, and and we just look at each other in recognition and smile. I give him an extra three dollars and he keeps returning it, pointing to the total on the bill, I guess still not comprehending the American concept of a tip.
"No! No"! I insist, and as I hand him the money back this time, we both laugh.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Missed Connections

I dread taking the subway during the rush hour. It is one of the major indignities of New York City life.
Going down the steps signals a descent into some sort of dismal netherworld. It is dark, dirty, and depressing. I find myself on a waiting platform encrusted with blackened gum wads, and when I look downwards, over the precarious edge, I can see an occasional rat meandering amid the trash strewn on the rails. And then suddenly, in the dark distance, a light appears and quickly begins to loom and brighten up the dark tunnel, and an increasingly deafening din signals the approach of an oncoming train.
The train roars onto the platform, the doors open, and the passengers, already pressed against each other, crowd together even more tightly to make room for those entering. All are silent as the train rumbles on. They stare fixedly at the overhead ads, bury themselves in a book, or simply tune out with headphones or an iphone. The silence is often broken by an interjection of rage, indignity or even worse as bodies are crushed and feet are trampled on. As the train winds its way, riders hang on for sheer balance, standing or swinging over the more fortunate seated ones, and even toppling over them when the train lurches. As my stop nears, it’s time to begin to force my way through the crowd before the doors slam shut.
When I walk back up the steps into the daylight, I breathe a sigh of relief. In the summertime, particularly, when the concrete heats up, that ride becomes all that more unbearable.
New York is, in essence, the quintessential city of alienation, a city of strangers, always en route bypassing each other, in the process, never chancing to meet, and not to even mention, exchange such pleasantries that are a part of the routines of most other people’s lives. Subway riders are goal oriented; they just endure; they only want to get to where they're going, whether it be work, school, home, or whatever. In this bold and brash and indifferent city, where the pace is relentless, the rules of civility do not apply.
And yet, occasionally, a chance encounter will occur, and temporarily pierce through the city’s veil of anonymity.
As I got on the No. 6 train yesterday, I saw a relaxed elderly man with wispy, white hair and a kind face, who was studying his surroundings with curiosity. Obviously, he was not from here, lacking that jaded look New Yorkers all too often acquire after being subjected to the constant zip and zoom of the city. He observed me as I entered, nodded in greeting, and even proffered me his seat. I have long become unaccustomed to such a random gracious gesture, as I have all too often observed some loutish teen-ager not even offer a seat to a disabled elderly woman.
I smiled back. The man’s wrinkled face was animated as he engaged in spirited conversation with a slender blonde woman, who, judging simply from the look of joy and pride on his face, could only be his daughter. She was laughing, indulgent of her father’s whims. They looked at me with curiosity. Our eyes met. They included me in their conversation.
“My father is visiting from Russia,” the young woman volunteered.
“I have not seen her for seven years,” he exclaimed in his broken accent, his face beaming with pleasure.
They stood out from the impassive crowd.
“You daughter is lovely,” I said, acknowledging his fatherly pride. “The trains are not so clean here,” I offered by way of apology.
“Yes, the trains are cleaner in Moscow,” he commented matter of factly, but he did not seem to mind or even notice the indignities of the city subway system. He was simply content to be with his daughter.
“Where are you from?” he addressed me in polite conversation.
Oh, from here, I was going to casually comment. And yet, I felt a connection, a nostalgia from my childhood, or a yearning for a different way of life that I had long ago become accustomed to. A life more gracious, and more civil, a life that I realized with regret, I have been all too long been away from. Their manner, their warmth, their direct gaze, their free-flowing emotion began to resonate with me.
So I did not simply tell them I was born in Manhattan. “My parents were Ukrainian,” I volunteered. “My name is Olya,” I said, a name I knew they would recognize.
“Oh, yes, Olya,” said the man, exclaiming with familiarity over my very typical Russian name.
His daughter then told me her name, Svetlana, and we nodded in recognition. Another name that is also typically Slavic. Somehow we began to form a bond.
“My father’s name was Bohdan,” I said. “My mother’s name, Irina,” I added.
“Oh yes, then you must be Olya Bohdanivna,” the man said, referring to the Russian use of the patronymic, that is, the use of one’s father’s name as a surname, in the way that East Europeans often do when they address one another.
“Yes, I said, Olya Bohdanivna,” repeating after him a name that no one has called me in decades.
Suddenly these strangers whom I simply met on the subway became kindred spirits who knew my origins, addressing me in the familiar way of the language I had long ago grown up with and for a long time have not had the occasion to use.
“You must be my daughter’s age,” I said to Svetlana. It turns out she is two or three years older.
“What is your daughter’s name?” she asked.
“Natalia,” I said.
“Oh, of course, Natalia!” the father exclaimed.
“What does Natalia do?” His daughter asked.
“A ballet dancer, since she was seven,” I said.
“Yes, a ballet dancer,” she said, referring to that familiar tradition that hails from Eastern Europe.
“She is now married and has two children,” I volunteered.
“To an American?” they asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“So am I,” said Svetlana. She too is assimilated. Her children’s names are Jennifer and Ryan.
“My daughter’s children are Andryj and Alexei,” I said, that is, in translation, Andrew and Alexander.
“Yes, she kept those Slavic names,” She said. “How old are they?” she asked.
“One and four,” I told her.
“And yours,” I asked.
“Two and six.”
During the brief interlude between 86th Street and 59th, it seemed almost as if we were pursuing a leisurely conversation, as though we had met at an informal gathering, perhaps even a dinner party.
But suddenly I realized my stop was up and the subway doors were about to close.
“I have to go,” I exclaimed, making a mad dash for the door.
Svetlana made a quick last minute search for her business card, but to no avail. As I walked away, I hurriedly dug for mine that must have migrated somewhere to the bottom of my huge handbag-- the practical type that New York City women use to lug all their “stuff” for the day-- also to no avail. Her father looked on with worry and alarm realizing we will not exchange our contact numbers in time.
We couldn't. The subway is not exactly a place where one can linger. I just made it before the doors shut.
As I walked up the steps, into the real world of daylight, I was still amazed by my unexpected meeting, and by my so easily falling into step with a culture that I did not realize was so much a part of me.
Nonetheless, as a typical New Yorker, I rushed out and met my obligations. But, afterwards, at the end of the day's routine, I was not left with a feeling of accomplishment, but rather with a feeling of loss and yearning that I could not even begin to describe.
In this city of chance encounters, the rootedness that I briefly felt, as quickly as it began, was as quickly severed. Our subway meeting was fleeting, a lost opportunity that is perhaps too typical of a city where one may never come across the same people again. In a few moments, in just over the time span of a few subway stops, a connection had been made, only to be lost again. Perhaps that is the inevitable fate of living in a city where one’s next door neighbors move in and out so often that one can never keep up with them.
I am left thinking about my long-lost culture in this varied city of people of very different backgrounds, and again I feel alienated, a stranger. And I also think about my daughter in a city too far away, about Alexei and Andryj, and wonder what they are up to.