Friday, June 24, 2016

New York missive no 140 - East River rocks

Zoom in and you'll see the writing on the rocks

There are two rocks on a promontory jutting out into East River at the Northern end of Astoria Park, with writing painted on. One of them says “Open your hearts.” The other says “Open your mind.” I like how hearts are plural and mind, singular.

I come across them when I go on my regular run. By the time I reach the rocks I’m usually panting and it’s a good place for a stretch. I read them, and watch the river churning.

It’s near here that engineers blew up underwater reefs in the 1870s and 1880s to make the passage smoother for ships. They dug tunnels through the reefs and stuffed them full of explosives. Jets of shattered rock and water towered into the sky while onlookers stood on nearby rooftops. Only an occasional boat comes down here now. A scruffy tug or a yacht juddering against the currents.

Once when I was standing near the rocks two women and a man were there too. East River is tidal, and a small area of beach was exposed below us. “Sea glass!” the man called out. “Is it? Yes! I really think it’s sea glass!” He climbed down onto the beach to take a closer took and snapped pictures with his cellphone. “Katlyn would have loved this!” he said.

“Who is Katlyn?” I wondered. Then randomly perhaps, “Is she still alive?” “Why would she love sea glass so much?”

I never knew that sea glass is a thing, but it does make sense that it is. Glass that has been curled and washed so long by salty waves that it’s smooth like faces. When a boat's wake laps over the glass it makes the sound of tinkling coins.

Thoughts ramble just as they do when I run. They tick away and merge with my breath. Running is a good way to sift thoughts. Relevant ones surface, and irrelevant ones get sweated out.

Some days I run at the track in the South of the park for a while. It’s always a kaleidoscopic scene. A small girl, about seven, in fluorescent yellow shorts jogs with her Dad then sprints off so fast for the last stretch it transfixes onlookers. Women in hijabs walk and talk while their sons do laps. In a dusty patch in the middle of the tracks, a circle of capoeira dancers right next to a group of break-dancers keep their music at the right volume to drown out the other. A Latino coach instructs 20 students lined up on their backs along one side of the track, their legs stretched skywards.

Other than midwinter and mornings of course, when it’s much quieter. One time, early morning, the track was deserted. I reached the river while it was still dark and a film crew was starting to set up for the day. The driver of a parked film truck slept at the wheel, maybe after driving several hours to get there, catching some rest before the start of the day.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New York missive no 139 - adidas eggshells and The End of the Tour

CMH has a pair of black and white Adidas eggshell sneakers, very small of course as he’s only three and half. Utterly impractical also, as they have laces. On the plane to London for Christmas, both boys slept most of the journey and when we began descending I had to gently get CMH’s eggshell sneakers back onto his feet as he slept. He remained oblivious. He didn’t stir as I leant across his seat and gently lifted a floppy foot and squeezed the shoe on and tied it up, and repeated for the second one.

Planes always get me emotional. I think it’s because of the quiet. The enforced stillness gives the mind time to glide uninterrupted for a while, which in turn allows buried emotions to surface and breathe. (Makes you realize how unhealthy the permanent distraction of busy lives is).

Rather than doing the sensible thing and sleeping on the flight while the boys did, I had made the most of the peace and watched “The End of the Tour”. The film is based on a few days that the Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky spends with David Foster Wallace just after the publication of Wallace’s Infinite Jest to great acclaim. The reporter is also a fiction writer.

Through their conversations – some in a car while driving from one of Wallace’s speaking engagements to the next – the film reveals the tensions between understanding and envy, perceived and lived “genius”, and between the lofty ideals of art and mundaneness of reality, as they order fast food or watch a horror movie or go to an amusement park with two women with whom the conversation never ventures beyond the superficial.

It’s as if Wallace latches onto the mundane. He clings to it either because he believes – has to believe - that that is where beauty lies, or because it provides some level of protection against the abyss of loneliness. The film opens and closes with Lipsky’s reactions to Wallace’s suicide by hanging at the age of 46.

So...the shoes were on, we gathered our piles of scattered stuff - toys, books, magazines, flight freebies - and stuffed it into backbacks and queued behind the other passengers to leave the plane.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

New York missive no 138 - Patient angels on 49th Street

Each Saturday on the way to the boys’ swimming class we pass a couple of bronze angels perched around a bowl, their chins resting in cupped hands. The statue, or bird bath, or whatever it is – is outside Lillie’s “Victorian” restaurant. The bowl contains small stones and cigarette butts. Clearly its current function, even if not its intended one, is as an ashtray. But the boys’ have their own story. They run up to the angels every week: “Look! The poor angels are STILL waiting for the chef to bring them their food!”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New York missive no 137 - Bridget Riley's stripes and Miles Davis

Through a random Twitter stream scroll I encountered a London Review of Books article by Bridget Riley on the process by which she developed her colored stripes paintings. I was in bed and sleepy, and it was only towards the end I realized it was written by her. Instead I read it somehow as an unknown artist’s reflections on their journey with lines and color relationships. Eliminating the fame made a difference.

I had been one of those people who responded to Bridget Riley’s paintings with “but it’s just stripes.” Now I get them.

She says:

My studies of the greys paved the way for the colour movement in Late Morning (1967-68). In that painting, I began in a very simple way to draw with colour. The blue to bright green movement is the form. At the core of colour lies a paradox. It is simultaneously one thing and several things – you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours.


You cannot deal with thought directly outside practice as a painter: ‘doing’ is essential in order to find out what form your thought takes.

This discovery-through-doing reminds me of the kids’ book “Andrew Drew and Drew” that follows a little boy as he populates blank pages with creatures that emerge from his imagination.

"he drew...

"and drew...

"and drew...

"Andrew never knew...

"What would happen...

"When he began."

It also reminds me of JNH and CMH's prolific drawing and doodling. “This is heart rain.” “We’re playing ice hockey…”

The day after reading the article I happened to be wearing a new stripy dress. It’s a cotton Summer dress, in bold thin stripes of bright green, red, yellow and black. I was working near home that day, in the air-conditioned predictability of a Starbucks.

A disheveled man in his sixties who’s sometimes there working his way through piles and piles of documents with furled corners said as he walked past, “that’s a wonderful combination of colors." Or something along those lines.

With the sudden switch from work-mode to talking-with-stranger-mode, I came out with a rather odd response, “Thank you. Though it wasn’t me who designed it!” As if I wanted to correct him on misplaced praise.

That didn’t throw him off though, and he embarked on a story about Miles Davis. The man said he was once with a friend of a friend who had to pick up the jazz musician, and Miles was taking a long time coming down to the street so they went to see what was going on, and there he was, captivated by a small TV set. There was no show on though, just the bands of colors that used to appear when programming ended.


“Mummy, why do you like rivers so much?"

“Because they are always changing and always the same.”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New York missive no 136 - A rock monster, and Mack the Knife

Last weekend Dad was visiting on his way back from one of his three-week work trips: this time Colombia and Orlando, Florida. On each day of the weekend we went to a patch of the city packed in a different way with dense layers of memory.

I’ll start with Sunday. We took the M5 bus all the way up Riverside Drive to Washington Heights where C grew up. The trees were still leafless so the Hudson was clearly visible through a lattice of gray branches, unlike Summer when thick foliage obscures it. We got out at Fort Washington and 172nd, and walked to the apartment building at the Western edge of 171st where C lived for the first four years of his life, while his parents were still together. Just down the street was “El Peligro.” It’s a ramp on the side of the New York Presbyterian hospital (where C was born), that he and Z would run up and down. E would warn them they’d get in trouble with security guards, telling them it was “peligro”, which of course just heightened the appeal.

Manhattan is narrow at the top, a tough rock promontory squeezed between New Jersey on the West and the bottom of the Bronx on the East, separated by river and joined by bridges. We walked up Haven Ave, past a half-built Columbia University medical school building. The rendering on the hoarding showed that it will be a transparent glass and steel tower with jagged angles, utterly different from the stoney-faced apartment buildings nearby. We reached the park. The map says it’s called J Hood Wright park though for C it’s “the park”.

Some features were new, like a dog run. Others were not, like the exposed schist rock where the land shows what it’s made of. Those rocks were formed 450 million years ago. They are perfect for clambering on. C and Z climbed on them as toddlers, and now CMH and JNH did, and we followed. It was bitterly cold (still, at the end of March!). The boys’ brightly colored winter hats stood out against the rock. The rock, too, had its own brightness: the gray glistened with flecks of mica. CMH determined that a small hump of the rock that stood somewhat separate from the rest was a “monster”. Not a bad monster – he kept running back to it, calling “Monster! Monster!” and giving it a hug.


On Saturday we took the 7 train to the Louis Armstrong House museum in Corona. In 1943 Armstrong's wife Lucille (his fourth, and last wife – he said she gave him more than the three others combined) bought the house without Louis knowing. He was always on the road on tour. When she gave him the address and a taxi brought him to the front door, the story goes that he told the taxi driver he must have got the wrong address. Such a big house couldn’t be his own. He had been brought up in a poor district of New Orleans known as “The Battlefield”, and now, despite earning half a million dollars a year and being able to afford a huge mansion if he’d wanted, he couldn’t conceive that this was his home.

He and Lucille lived there for the next thirty years, until Louis’ death in 1971. It has been kept as they lived in it, and guides show people around accompanied by recordings of Louis speaking and playing. In a rare interview in 1983, Lucille Armstrong said something along the lines of “Louis is still everywhere here”, and it certainly feels that way. They didn’t have children of their own, but when he was home from touring Louis spent hours with the children who lived nearby, playing his trumpet with them on the stoops. Photos of them are in his den on the second floor, along with recording equipment, and paper where he wrote down what was on the cassettes he recorded. Each would end with the words "s'all".

Soon before Louis died, they bought two adjacent lots and turned them into a stunning square garden wrapped in brick walls, shaded over by trees. CMH – who conveniently slept while we toured the house – grabbed the trunk of a conifer and shook it gently so that the previous day’s snow splashed down.


Dad had introduced JNH to the song “Mack the Knife” the previous evening. We were listening to the song and reading the lyrics, which piqued JNH’s interest, which somehow then led to us watching a video of Rubén Blades’s salsa homage to the song, "Pedro Navaja". JNH was startled when Mack knifed a man in a dark alley (we stopped the video at that point) so I had to explain that he was only acting. Mack keeps popping up in conversation now. So-and-so is a bad guy, he'll say, but "not as bad as Mack the Knife."

Saturday, February 14, 2015

New York missive no 135 - blizzard that wasn't

On the morning before the great blizzard of 2015 (declared historic before it happened), I dropped off the kids, and, as flakes began to fall, went to a supermarket on my way back home. I had decided not to go into the city to work in case the storm kicked in early.

I found myself not only buying food for two meals, but also, randomly, Apricot jam. The 24/7 news coverage and warnings of “do NOT leave your home” had had an effect. I needed that jam, even though I’d not eaten jam for years. It was Bonne Maman, the kind with the red and white-checked table cloth pattern on the lid. When I was young I thought we could only get in France, and it was special. Now it’s hit the Astoria supermarket shelves, the latest brand meme clustered in stacks by the checkouts.

In the end the mighty blizzard wasn’t mighty after all. Just a foot or so (Boston got hit much harder). But still, those two days ran as if in slow motion. They capture some of the little details that compose our lives at the moment.

C and I went together to pick up the boys around 4pm, two hours earlier than usual, for the half-hour walk back home. The snow flew hard and fast, the wind threw it into our faces. JNH talked all the way, saying I hope it’s not the end of the world, and maybe we are at the bottom of the earth but then where are the penguins? CMH was strolled. He sat behind the rain cover peering out with an intent expression.

Back home C cooked fish stew, while JNH and CMH stuck small colored pieces of paper onto white paper and drew around them. When I had explained to JNH how movies are made he had wanted to feed drawings into my computer to make them move. After initial disappointment that that is not how it works, he settled with the idea of cutting out small images and sticking them onto a plain page, to make his own “movies".

At some point I went to the corner store on 30th Ave to buy something, I can’t remember what (beer?!). “Of course we won’t be closing” said the South Asian guy who runs it. And one of the Mexican flower sellers was STILL there by the flower stall that runs down the edge of the store enclosed in clear plastic sheeting. Were people really going to be buying flowers during a snow storm? Ligia's Alterations, the dressmaker's with faded yellow décor, was closed.

Our block is a bit of a time-capsule. It’s a sliver of old Astoria that clings on while the neighborhood around it gentrifies and changes. T, who lives next door, told me how when he was growing up in the same house, all the back yards were connected to each other by a pathway, the children running from one to another.

He’s still here, with his wife (sons are grown and left home now), and his brother-in-law who is usually in an alcohol-or-something-haze. While the “Don’t tread on me” and Tea Party slogans in their front window make me think the less interaction, the better, a note that T put in our letterbox about finding contractors in the neighborhood had a wounded veterans’ organization logo, which in turn made me think maybe the brother-in-law is a veteran, and that maybe he has more interesting stories to tell than most people, if the conversation goes beyond a hello sometime.

Next door is an elderly Greek couple G and I, and beyond them, M, a portly woman in her sixties who wears sweatpants, a purple anorak and baseball cap, who has also lived on the block forever it seems and always knows the comings and goings.

The following morning we awoke to piles but not mountains of snow. C coincided with other neighbors in shoveling it off the sidewalks. Daycare was closed so I was working from home – a morning of back-to-back Skype calls, as often happens when I’m working from home which makes C comment that all we do in our work is talk (only partly true). Then a break when the boys spilled out into the backyard pounding through snow that reached up to knees in JNH’s case, practically hips for CMH.

G and I next door have let their garden overgrow so it is full of bushes and a sprawling tree. A couple of days earlier we had seen a striking bright blue bird there. “That’s a blue Jay,” JNH said. I’d never seen one before and wasn’t sure, so looked it up later and sure enough it was. His latest cartoon obsession is Wild Kratts, in which the two zoologist Kratt brothers Chris and Martin mix up sequences of being in the presence of real animals, with sequences when they become animated characters that assume various "creature powers". Like flying at the speed of a peregrine falcon. When we saw the brothers live at the Bronx Zoo this summer, tía D, visiting from Santo Domingo, concluded that they must be gay. Why that's so and why it would be an issue if it is, was unclear.

JNH regularly spouts animal trivia. “We have to be careful of the poisonous copperhead." "Mami, the Tazmanian Tiger is extinct,” etc. Yet it goes beyond that - he’s genuinely concerned for nature it seems. This week he wanted to write a letter to the bad guys, telling them to turn their guns and machines into factories that can make salami, chicken and paper out of things other than animals and trees.

Lunch, more work, then late in the afternoon the four of us went down 30th Avenue for errands. The atmosphere was quiet and festive at the same time.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

New York missive no 134 - Moving

I’m sitting on the balcony of our third floor apartment at 23-19 30th Drive. It’s the last night I will, because tomorrow we’re moving to our new home, just some blocks away at 37th Street, still in Astoria. The pear tree leaves are so heavy in Summer that they completely obscure the view West to Manhattan, just an orange window light peeks through here and there. There’s a breeze, a relief at the end of a humid day.

This is where C, Dad and I toasted the arrival of JNH, a welcome glass of champagne in the midst of sleep deprivation and discombobulated amazement. It’s where two years later, C was sitting with newborn CMH on his lap while chatting to a friend on his cellphone – the more relaxed mode of the second child. Of course there’s sadness at change, but it’s also time to move on.

Moves like this may accentuate the sense of time passing, but in an odd way they also create a block of permanence. I won’t have new memories of living here now. The ones I have, I have – some will last and some will fade. This was my experience of this place.


On the morning that the newspaper stands were splattered with the news of Robin Williams’ suicide, I was at Woodside station in Queens. I was at Woodside to switch from the 7 train to the somewhat quaintly-named Long Island Railroad to go to Hicksville, to get a bus to Jericho, to close on the house and C and I were buying in Astoria. The closing was in Jericho because that is where the bank attorney is based.

Having hung around all Summer (says she, as if not travelling is such an ordeal!) for the long drawn-out deal to finalize, or else for us to decide to look elsewhere, this happened to be the one week when C had to be in work every day, filling in for the Chair of his English department. So I was headed to the closing on my own.

On the Woodside train platform I noticed one of my nails was split, so I bit the wayward strand off. I imagined that the other women around the table at the closing, like the seller’s and bank attorney, would have long painted nails. Then, that no doubt they would find it eccentric that I’m travelling to a house closing by subway, train, and bus. She’s buying a house, but doesn’t have a car?! Then, that they might put the inadequate nails and public transport and me not seeming to be bothered by either down to my being English, but why should being English be either here or there, but of course, being anything-ish is always a factor.

There goes a similar thought-pendulum to buying the house itself – a small “single family” to use the realtor terms – a process in which an under-current of conviction has been chopped at times by doubts (and annoyance at the predictability of those doubts!).

Isn’t this just what ‘people’ do, investing in a place they can only own a quarter of, committing to a big mortgage payment each month, believing they ‘need’ space, when perhaps a small and more affordable apartment would give us more freedom to the live the lives we want to lead?...A sense of responsibility to do the ‘right’ thing with our downpayment money but wondering if that ‘right’ thing is really right for us all, and back to the conviction again, to having to believe a decision is right or else we would stagnate. The idea of home holds so much more than merely a place to live.

One of the attorneys did indeed have meticulous long and painted pink nails. While at times since we’d signed the contract it had become easy to start doubting the seller and questioning his motives, suddenly with all of us there in the room the process became much more human: a man and his family of grown-up children who wanted to sell their house to move on, another family with young children that wanted to buy it. Papers were signed and exchanged, faster and faster, so many of them crossing the table and then the realization that now that was it, we’d bought the place.

My attorney drove me and the title insurance guy (such a team involved in one purchase!) to the station in Hicksville to catch the train back to Woodside – he sped round corners and cut through parking lots to get us there in time for a particular train. When I emailed him at the end of the day I said thanks for your help through this process, and also: we just made it onto the train. “It’s the little things, isn’t it?” he replied.