Saturday, March 27, 2010

New York missive no 67

There isn’t a lot sea-faring about South Street Seaport, other than the museum ships you can visit. It’s no longer an active port, the old fish market is now a shopping development and conference centre, the cobbled streets are lined with outlets like Body Shop and Benetton. But elements linger – including the Seamen’s Church Institute where we had our wedding.

The room where I waited nervously, increasingly nervously, for the forty minutes before the ceremony, was the Knitting Room. There, well-meaning women come to knit hats and scarves to send to sailors who are out at sea over Christmas. So there I was in my dress and bright blue boa (M tweaking it to get it to sit right) surrounded by walls piled high with coloured balls of wool. C was waiting with Z just as nervously, I’m sure, in the “seafarers’ club” across the corridor, which when not accommodating grooms in their last few moments of bachelorhood has no doubt seen many a knees-up for old salts. That makes the venue sound, as I think I’d mentioned before, more fusty than it is.

The little chapel downstairs has a model ship hanging to one side above the altar. It was jam-packed with people so that I gasped a bit when we walked in (phew, they all came, and omigod there are so many!). The reception just after the ceremony was in a room full of more ships. One was called Sea-Witch – I felt an affinity with it given that the fantastical land I’d conjoured as a 10-year-old was called Sea-Wich. (Yes spelled like that. Mode of travel to reach it – take a flying tiger up the golden steps). And the main party was in the upstairs “Top Deck” with glass walls overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge and East River…so still with a sea presence. I named each of the tables after a seabird, illustrated with a bright photo so that in case they didn’t already, people could learn what their bird looks like. A mix of my and C’s university friends were on Blue-footed Booby. My work people were on Magnificent Frigatebird, and his were spread out between Laughing Gull and Elegant Tern. Some of my Writers Studio people were on Imperial Shag. Etc.

We stayed in a hotel close by, with a little balcony from which we could see the last people clearing up the party flotsam and jetsam then switching off the lights. Next morning as we walked in bright sunshine along the river we were greeted by a Venezuelan selling tickets for helicopter rides over the city – tourism being one of the main industries that has replaced the shipping and fishing. It seemed to make his day when we told him that we had got married the evening before, and we carried on our way with his shouts of felicidades following us.

Then it was joining up with a gaggle of friends and family – S tellingly still in her yellow wedding outfit and high heels – for a walk down the High Line and a jazz brunch at the Garage. During the meal M dug out from a plastic bag the teddy bear I’d had as a child, which she’d brought over from England. I had no idea he was still in existence. He hardly is. He has one eye, an eclectic spread of patches and none of his original fur, and stuffing coming out of his stomach. That prompted many a joke about what C has in store – “well, if that’s the state of her teddy bear…”


We haven’t honeymooned but instead have been making the most, in-between work, of pre-baby time in the city. There was a 4-borough day starting at home in Astoria then getting the subway through Manhattan down to Coney Island and Brighton Beach for strolling and hotdogs, followed by a Puerto-Rican meal with V and W at Willie's Steak House in the Bronx. C and I had pictured a salsa-club with tables elevated around a big round dance floor, instead the scene was more that of a family dining room with a stage at one end where a traditional band serenaded us as we and our predominantly older fellow diners ate – the livelier latin jazz nights are Wednesdays apparently. There was G’s two-year birthday party in Washington Heights. There was some rather bad but for that reason still amusing comedy at the Laugh Lounge on Lower East Side to celebrate our one (eventful) year anniversary. And quieter weekend days at home watching films and procrastinating over filling in the hundreds of forms for my green card application.


Over the past two weekends we went to intensive childbirth and newborn care classes in Soho. Intensive as in cramming the classes into three sessions rather than over several weeks, not classes on intensive childbirth – though the childbirth’s guaranteed to be intensive too in ways that no number of classes could ever predict or prepare us for fully. They’re run by a nurse from St Vincent’s Hospital. She has worked there for 25 years and not surprisingly has been active in the campaign to keep it open – it's on the verge of a second bankruptcy and has been going through a series of buyout/restructuring negotiations. Luckily it looks at the moment like it’s going to survive. That’s a relief for me too, because that is where I’m supposed to be giving birth.


Meanwhile my bump’s been getting progressively bigger. One the one hand being pregnant is such an animal-like experience, bearing and giving birth to children being something that females of all species, at least all mammals, share. At times recently I’ve felt like a big bear. Especially when I’m wrapped up in my winter grey duffle coat that’s now very tight round the belly. Watching the rather graphic videos of birthing women at the classes last weekend made both C and I, for some reason, think of cows. On the other hand it’s so human, in an emotional sense. Is that because we are the only species, at least think we’re the only species, that’s so conscious of where we have come from and the fact we’re going to die? At my 32-week sonogram last Monday we were startled by how vivid C’s father’s characteristics were in the little face that appeared on the screen. We were startled by the vividness both of the 3D images those machines can produce, and the vividness of the likeness. Here are the genes of a man I never met, and of C’s mother who I never met – I wish I could have known both of them – and of so many other people too going back in time, being mixed with my own and carried in me into a new life.


Astoria isn’t exactly a leafy borough, nor an architecturally appealing one. There’s not a lot of green space and the new buildings that are going up with much clanging and banging despite the downturn are tall identikit apartment buildings. They overshadow the row-houses squatting between them, which themselves, for the most part, are not exciting to look at. But there are more trees around than I’d realized at first, and because of the urban surroundings they stand out. There are fig trees brought over by Greeks, magnolias, and a tree just outside our living room and balcony that I’ve become captivated by. A pregnancy-enhanced attachment? When we moved here in November I thought it could be an evergreen because it still had dark green leaves. But then they quickly turned deep orange and fell. Now in March they are growing back again, pale green at the moment and accompanied by sprigs of tiny white flowers. I must find out from P and P downstairs what kind of tree it is. Just as I want to find out more about the birds that hang out in it. A few minutes ago there was a parrot-like bright red one singing his heart out. Maybe there’s an unrealized twitcher in me. “Birds of Astoria – exploits of an urban ornithologist,” I can see a best-seller brewing.


I’ve never been much of a bath-person, too quickly I start thinking of things I want to do when I get out. But now with my big belly and a back that’s started grumbling as a result of it they’ve rapidly become more appealing. Lying in our blue bath tub the other day piled high with bubbles I suddenly remembered my sister P and I having baths at our grandparents’ house when we were children. It was a narrow, olive green bathtub. We sat opposite each other with the wire soap wrack across the middle like a bridge between us, carrying my grandmother’s pumice stone, my grandfather’s pumice stone and a big bar of soap.

I’ve been having lots of strong place-associations. I’ll be doing something very mundane, like washing up or walking to work, and will picture a place from my past. A traffic jam on a road in Kingston, in South West London. K and I sheltering from monsoon rain with some street-sellers just to the South of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok.


The fragility and arbitrariness of creating a life seems inadequate next to the enormity of it. Or as C put it so much better than I ever could in a poem, “An accident like the universe”.


We found ourselves having a “What is God?” conversation the other day. Then I riffed in my diary that I am content to believe not in some omnipotent creator but the fact that life itself is a miracle, potent enough without some higher being. If we need a God or Gods in various forms to remind us of that, so be it, but too often they steal the show, become a distraction.


At a talk at CUNY by the author of “The Prison and the American Imagination” I learned that Eastern State Penitentiary, at the time it opened in 1829, was the largest building in the world. It had running water before the White House. And people went on guided tours (they still can). The idea was that an extensive prison system though which criminals could be reformed through solitary confinement and then re-inserted into society reflected the post-Independence ideal of a citizen, and was so much more humane than the barbaric treatment of criminals in Europe and elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New York missive no 66 - Pussy willow

The city and the wedding

Well there are so many things I want to put here but rather than wait till they’re all written and posting at once I’ll post bit by bit…

Flower market on 28th Street

Along 28th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, P and I went in search of bunches of pussy willow and tall glass vases to hold them. That block is where all the flower shops are. It’s lined with wholesalers that brim with ferns, orchids, spring bulbs, and florists’ accessories like ribbons, coloured glass pebbles, and most recently, made-in-China gauze butterflies and feathered bird ornaments. And bunches of pussy willow. I’d passed them standing along the sidewalk like echoes of forest on my way to work in the morning. I hadn’t yet fixed any flower arrangements for the wedding other than primroses in blue pots on the dining tables and decided that big bunches of pussy willow in the chapel would be perfect.

We got there late in the day though, around 4pm. Some of the florists had already packed up for the day. Their dusty windows revealed bundled-up piles of branches or were enclosed behind metal shopfronts. We wandered into one that was bursting with perfect-looking blossoms to discover that all the flowers were made of silk. We found some boxes of pussy willow in one shop, but they seemed too tired and spindly. We tried a shop with orchids outside but they only sold hothouse plants. Then the orchid seller said the place we needed was just around the corner, on 6th Ave.

That too was closed but next door was International Garden Inc. On a high shelf there were tall slanted glasses, and in the back of the room, the pussy willow we’d been looking for. While next to us the finishing touches were put on a huge red funeral carriage bouquet with “I love you Dad” inscribed across the middle, we negotiated a price to hire four of the vases for the day, have them delivered to the venue full of pussy willow branches and picked up the next day.

That may sound like much ado about pussy willow but it became one of the most special features of the wedding. Its dark branches holding their catkins cast proud shadows against the wall at the back of the chapel. They were a subject of much interest to 2-year-old G before the ceremony began. After the ceremony they accompanied the guests upstairs and stood in strong, stretching clusters in the place where people put presents and poems. (We’d asked guests to bring poems, which were collected in a big china bowl and will be stuck into an eclectic wedding anthology of poets ranging from John Donne to Odgen Nash, Emily Dickinson to friends of C and I -particularly C’s English-teaching friends - who wrote their own for the occasion).

C and I returned home on the Sunday afternoon to find our bed had been turned by P and Al into a two-poster, with lettered balloons spelling “Just Married” laid out across the sheets. The pillars on either side of the bed were created by big bunches of pussy willow.