A Hard Place To Live: part one

I haven’t lived in New York my whole life.  This is important.  New Yorkers–that is, those individuals born and raised in NY–are a special breed.  [Pause for definition:  New Yorker–an individual born and raised, having attended Public or Catholic school through high school, in one of the five boroughs. Usually Queens or Brooklyn.  Sorry Upstaters, you might as well have been raised in Pennsylvania, or on the Moon.]  Even if they have moved away from NY for long periods of time, these individuals return prepared; armored, fortified, energized, dauntless.  Nothing about living in NY fazes these folks.  For those of us who have adopted NY as our home, however, it is quite a different story.  Despite residing on Long Island for close to thirty years now, I continue to wince on an almost daily basis.  I wince at drivers deliberately driving through red lights in the middle of the day–because they’re driving a school bus.  I wince at airport cops who bang on my car and call me things that would get you hit over the head with a beer mug in a Dallas bar because I had the nerve to slow down to pick up my daughter who’s standing right there with her luggage.  I wince at the high school counselor that explains to me that “You gotta realize that maybe college ain’t for every goddamn kid just because they got a doctor for a parent, you know?”  Real New Yorkers never wince.  Rule Number One:  Never show fear.Guggenheim ext

New York is a hard place to live.  Real New Yorkers do not appreciate this fact.  When informed of this unassailable truth, the New Yorker looks at you with a mixture of confusion and pity.  “You from Jersey?” they may ask.  But they really don’t care about your answer. Rule Number Two:  Only New Yorkers can criticize New York.  They don’t understand that both parents need to work two or three jobs, have Sis watch the kids almost every day, and put the weekly groceries on the credit card just to survive here.  They have no clue that they could be living in a four bedroom McMansion with a live-in maid and two acres in 98% of the rest of the country for what they’re spending to barely make ends meet with the mother-in-law living in the basement and paying rent.  She does, however, make her own sauce and have dinner ready almost every night.  Real New Yorkers wouldn’t consider moving, because there is no where else in the world to live.  Visit, sure.  Maybe even for a few years.  But not live.

In New York, one assumes that the car facing you at the red light will make a left in front of you as soon as the light turns.  That if you want your groceries bagged, maybe you should reach over and put the groceries in the bag, why don’t you?  That if you allow more than ten inches between your car and the car in front of you, somebody will cut in, maybe two cars and a bus, and that this process will continue until you realize that you are actually getting farther and farther away from your destination. That if you want to get over to take that exit, you are going to have to just close your eyes and turn the wheel as you listen for the sound of screeching metal.  Rule Number Three:  Never make eye contact.

New Yorkers don’t realize that there is no help in this environment.  On the expressway, signs are either positioned to appear just beyond the exit you needed to take, or are rendered illegible by graffiti, or have rusted to the point of pointing in slightly the wrong direction.  No matter how intelligent you are or how long you stand staring at the changing big board in Penn Station as throngs stream about you like so much spawning salmon, you will not get on the right train, and therefore you will be at least forty minutes late for your appointment, and when you do arrive you will have sweat stains under your arms and your collar will be two sizes too small for your neck.  New Yorkers don’t realize that you could’ve gotten the six blocks cross town quicker by walking than by sitting in the back of a taxi that moves less than eight feet in thirty minutes despite blowing its horn continuously as the driver yells an unceasing stream of something unintelligible which you eventually realize is his hands-free cellphone conversation and not directed at you at all.  They don’t realize this because New Yorkers don’t take taxis in New York.  Rule Number Four:  If you don’t know how to get there, you have no business being here.

It’s a great town, of that there is no doubt.  The people are the best in the world.  But it is a hard place to live.  Rule Number Five:  You have to want to be here.

Angina Bicycle Club

I love riding my bike.  Just finished riding, enjoying that special glow after a vigorous spin around the University Campus.  Just sitting here, wondering if the chest pain is really anything serious.The orange-red bark of a Madrone evergreen tree

Ever since I was a boy, I have loved riding.  It was always something that I could do well enough so that there was no fear or anxiety attached to the effort.  It was, actually, effortless.  There was no consternation over which team I’d be on, or whether these were the guys I was playing with during that embarrassing game when I passed the basketball to the guy on the other team just because he yelled “Here!”  It was unadulterated fun, combined with the fact that I could go places.  Even though it was the suburbs of Detroit, so everywhere I went looked pretty much like everyplace I’d been, it was still great to ride as far away as I could before it started to get late and I’d have to turn around.  I’d often leave in the morning and just ride all day, alone or with friends, just picking a direction at random and riding, stopping for nourishment at the Dairy Queen.  [Note for younger readers:  This was the early part of the last century, when the only thing offered by DQ was soft serve “ice cream” in three flavors:  White, Brown, Twisted (combination of white and brown).  They were called “flavors” but really they all tasted the same, just different colors.  Jimmy Hoffa is preserved in a vat of the stuff in a basement in Rochester Hills.]

The geography of Detroit was unique in that there were almost no hills at all.  Whatever hills I did encounter in my youth were inevitably downhill,  long stretches that allowed miles to roll by without the need to pedal.  Detroit area winds were also uniformly favorable.  I cannot recall ever encountering a headwind.  The wind was always at our backs, always cool and refreshing.  It didn’t rain in Detroit on the weekends back then.

I don’t recall ever actually getting tired.  We came home because it was late, or some TV show was coming on in an hour that we couldn’t afford to miss because it would never appear again in our lifetime.  Our parents didn’t notice when we left and didn’t notice when we returned, unless by some miscalculation we were late for dinner or were thought to be cutting the lawn all afternoon.

Bicycling is more difficult now.  Though my Cannondale carbon fiber Lampre Caffita Team road racing bike weighs less than my socks, for some reason the combined weight of the bike and rider is now far more difficult to get moving than that old sixty pound Schwinn I used to ride as a teenager. As I leave, I feel obligated to announce to my wife that “I’m going for a ride now,” just so she’ll know to listen for sirens in the neighborhood.  I also am careful to inform her of my safe return, mostly so she can release the open heart team at the nearby University Hospital from standby status, but also so that she can see how thoroughly exhausted and sweaty I’ve become because I’ve been riding my bike.

Geography has become my enemy.  My house is always several hundred feet higher when I return–it must be, because all the hills go up, never down.  Any brief downhill stretches are either over pavement too broken up to allow the enjoyment of momentum or are interrupted by red lights.  Lights will not turn green unless I have been trapped in my cleated pedals and fallen over, having mistimed the light.  This is accompanied by the sound of car horns.  Occasional recommendations to buy a car or ride on the sidewalk.  Ha!  There are no sidewalks here, sucker.

The real problem now, though, is the lack of oxygen.  I’m not sure if it has to do with global warming or the Denveresque elevation of Long Island, but after twenty minutes of riding I’m breathing like Yaphet Kotto in Alien, just before he gets eaten.  And it’s always about a hundred degrees outside, except when it’s way too cold.  And the wind–I mentioned the wind, right?  It’s a strange circular wind that’s always straight in my face in gusts of like eighty miles per hour, going and coming back.  But it’s an oxygen-poor wind.

Still, I love to ride.  I just never had to worry so much before.  Like my biggest worry (I have a list in my mind entitled “My Biggest Worry.”  It currently has eighteen items.), which is that I’ll die in the next ten minutes, still dressed in these ridiculous Spandex riding shorts and my LiveStrong! bicycling jersey.  We have volunteer firemen here in this rural, mountainous part of Long Island, no professional paramedics.  I just know if they find me dead in this outfit, these guys are posting the picture to their Twitter feed.  Not the way I want to go, or go viral.

I think I’ll take an aspirin now.  It couldn’t hurt.

Would It Kill You To Call Every Once In A While?

The other night, my wife got a call from a relative that she hadn’t spoken to in quite a while.  The woman called during dinner, of course.  Why people capable of calculating compound interest on their mortgage while separating two warring children armed with steak knives  and making dinner for a family of six can’t manage to wrap their heads around the entire concept of time zones is beyond me, but she was happy to hear from her.   When she hung up, my wife said, “I really should call her more often.”  Meaning, ever.northernlights_enl

This got  me to thinking about all the people I know and care about that I just don’t seem to hear from anymore.  Dinner was being reheated anyway, so I had some time to think about this.  It occurred to me that I really hadn’t had a good conversation with my Dad, for instance, in a very long time.  I love my Dad, and I remember when we used to talk pretty much every day.  My wife gave me a strange look when I brought this up with her, however, pointing out that my Dad had died almost twenty years ago.  Like this was a good excuse.

[Brief Aside:  One of my Dad’s favorite sayings was, “Man who trip over same rock twice, deserve to break his neck.”  He’d often admonish me with this gem told in a solemn fake Confucius  accent, in way of educating me about some mistake I’d made for the sixth or seventh time.  The frequency with which he used this aphorism prompted me to write a very short story in fifth grade about a dashing young knight who tripped over a rock in the road.  He was stuck, turtle fashion, by the weight of his brilliant armor, but helped back to his feet by a passing Good Samaritan.  The next day, however, when the incautious knight tripped over the very same rock, resulting in the same predicament, the next passer-by was a robber who killed the knight by breaking his neck and stole his money.  As I recall, Mr. Barno, my fifth grade teacher with breath so bad two students dropped out of school that year to pursue a life of crime, wrote in his comments something to the effect that I should seriously consider pursuing a career in accounting.  Thanks for that, Mr. Barno–hope you’re resting peacefully.]

There are dozens of good friends and beloved relatives with whom I’ve lost contact.  It’s inevitable, I guess, as we get older and get busy with our own, hectic lives, and these other folks just keep moving away or dying.  It makes it tough to keep in touch.  It’s probably my fault, to be honest.  I mean, I’m one of those folks that’s pitifully inattentive to maintaining contact with old friends and relatives.  I don’t think I’ve made a long distance call or attended a seance in a really long time.  And while I hate to admit it, there has been more than one occasion when I’ve returned from a long, tough day at work and looked at that little flashing red light on the answering machine and said, “No way.”  Then I just delete those suckers without even listening.  It’s true.  So it’s entirely possible that my Dad left some kind of message, just touching base, and I erased it.  It bothers me, now that I think of it, because if he left a call back number and I just deleted the thing, no wonder he’s so ticked off that he never called back.

On the other hand, it’s at least as likely that’s it’s their fault.  I know how tough it can be to pick up the phone.  My wife and I were recently traveling in Ireland, and we kept trying to use the cellphone to call back to a friend of hers here in the States.  But who can figure out whether to put the one in front of the number or not, do you include the 01 country code, and all that other jazz that makes it just about impossible if you’re over fifty to make these things work?  (Which is why we almost always travel with a child, just in case we have some technical issue.)  Most of these people are really, really old now.  A lot of them passed away before we even had cellphones or Skype.  What do we expect?

I like to think that they’re probably too busy to call, anyway.  Most of my parents’ friends are dead, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re so busy yelling at one another over how their partner screwed up the bidding for their great bridge hand that the subject of how the kids are doing just hardly ever comes up.  Or Samba lessons, or something.  Time just gets away from you, I know.  Dad’s probably still upset I moved so far away that’s he’s waiting till I move back into his neighborhood to stop by.  He hated that drive from Michigan to Long Island, no way he’s coming all the way back from the dead unless someone gives him a damn good reason.

Or maybe it’s just because they’re dead.  I don’t know.  Wouldn’t kill you to call, though.