Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's Been A While!

But here's a good one from the New York Times:

Dear Diary:
I’m standing on the northeast corner of 57th Street and Avenue of the Americas, waiting for the uptown No. 7 bus, when an agitated woman in a brown coat rushes up the street beside me, holding a small black purse open in her hands and calling, “Laura! Laura! Laura!”
She accosts every woman. “Are you Laura?” she asks them, the desperation in her voice increasing as she progresses, luckless, up the avenue.
At the corner of 58th, out of earshot but still within sight, a tall young woman in a black coat does a 180 in obvious response to the 15th call of “Laura!” Her hands fly up to her face in excitement, and then reach out to take the proffered purse. There is some animated conversation between them, culminating with brown coat holding up her hands in refusal of something offered by black coat.
Brown coat then hurries back down the avenue, hesitating at our bus stop only long enough to say: “That was Laura. She’s getting married in an hour. She had thousands of dollars in there to pay the caterer.”
With that, brown coat rushes off, no doubt in search of other good deeds to do.
Thomas Mowrey

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Shoes Off Her Feet

I work with a woman named Shelecia, who is beautiful inside and out. She is really wonderful colleague - warm, intelligent, kind, helpful, and funny. She is also drop dead gorgeous and a total fashionista, and always looks very glamorous no matter what she is wearing. She has a special weakness for sexy high heeled shoes and boots, and I'm always ogling her.

Today she was kind of scuffling her feet around the office and someone noticed she was wearing some kind of hiking boots, which are not her usual thing. Turns out, they are her daughter's. She wanted to wear comfortable shoes today, she said, but she didn't have her sneakers any more.

"I gave them to a woman on a train," she told us casually. When pressed, she told us the story.

Apparently, one cold, rainy night, she was taking the subway home and was wearing her brand spanking new Nike Air tennis shoes. (Keep in mind this is a single mom, who works in Manhattan as a legal assistant and supports two teenagers. She does not have a whole lot of disposable income.) On this particular evening, she was also taking some personal stuff home from the office, including a pair of high heels that had been under her desk for a while.

A panhandler came through her subway car. This happens a lot - so much that people are pretty much inured to it. But this was a woman, Shelecia said, who shuffled through the car wearing only one shoe, one foot dirty and bare, clearly cold and wet and weeping as if her heart would break, telling a tale of domestic violence and poverty and hunger and suffering, and begging for help. No one responded. Sometimes we are paralyzed with indecision or waiting for someone else to make the first move in these situations... and there are so many panhandlers...

And Shelecia sat there, holding her bag, and thought with sudden determination, "if she comes back through this car, I'm giving her my shoes."

Panhandlers don't often come back though a car. They move from one car to the next on down the line. But this woman happened to come back. So Shelecia stopped her, and took off her new shoes, and gave them to her, with a dollar. And then she took the high heels out of her bag and walked home in the sleet in them. So now she doesn't have any sneakers.

And as so often happens, this one act of generosity spurred others all through the train car to dig through their pockets. As a general rule, I tend not to give money to panhandlers, although I frequently buy them sandwiches or slices of pizza. But if I had been on that car, I'm pretty sure I would have come up with some cash.

I dearly love my colleague Shelecia and have always had tremendous respect for her. And this story just confirmed my high opinion, as if I needed confirmation. Thank you Shelecia, sweetie, on behalf of the universe. You made my day!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Finding Hemingway

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

- Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

I never much cared for Hemingway. It's hard to put my finger on why. Oh, I'd like to give you a high-minded reason: drinking, machismo, misogyny, a pointless suicide… there's so much to choose from. But I'd be lying if I told you any of those. It wasn't the way lit was taught in my schooldays either, though it certainly didn't help. Forcing something like Hemingway or Steinbeck down a 20th century teenager's throat without context or criticism is the first rule of What Not To Do if you want them to understand Why This Is Good. But that wasn't it either; I was largely immune to teaching by the time I hit The Sun Also Rises.

It was rebellion, pure and simple.

I know that sounds odd. Most people rebel by listening to loud music, growing long hair, getting piercings, donning eye makeup, wearing black clothing, majoring in art, etcetera,ad nauseum… and I did all those things too, but my parents took those things in stride (mostly). Honestly, the greatest rebellion I managed to pull off was disliking Hemingway. Vocally disliking Hemingway.

You'd have to meet my dad to understand.

My dad is incredibly well-read. I grew up surrounded by shelves of books, boxes of books, piles of books, bags of books, lockers full of books, books under the bed, on the table, on the counter. History books, cook books, novels, classics, plays, philosophies, biographies… you name it, dad has a book on it.

There was no question of whether I'd grow up to read and write. It was fait accompli. So the only way I could really rebel was to define myself in different literary terms than dad defined himself. So I hated Hemingway. Also Steinbeck and a host of others, but mostly Hemingway and mostly because dad loves the Nick Adams stories and I refused to for no better reason than differentiating myself on a generational footing.

I've spent a good deal of time talking to my dad about these things lately, so in some ways my thinking is clearer than it ever has been, and in some ways murkier than ever.

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."
- Mark Twain

Now I love Twain, and the quote is funny, but it's here that we part company.

While I'll never claim that I somehow transcended the ignorance and arrogance inherent in being a teenager, I never thought either of my parents were stupid. Quite the opposite, actually. My dad's intellect has always intimidated the hell out of me… in a good way. My dad made it abundantly clear that it was a Good Thing to be well-read, literate, and well-spoken... not to mention soft-spoken.

To be well-read, you have to read. A lot. Constantly. Even stuff you don't like… like Hemingway and Steinbeck. If there's no book handy, read a newspaper… or the back of a cereal box. I read all the time, several books at a time, mixing fiction and nonfiction with furious abandon. My personal collection is in the thousands, and my mother tells me that (in that respect at least) I have exceeded my forebears. I always have a book with me. Always.

Because dad made it right. He made it look cool.

But this isn't really about reading, and it's not even really about Hemingway or any of the others any more than the Mark Twain quote was about parental stupidity. It's about the scales falling from our eyes so that we may see our parents as they are. And ultimately seeing our parents in ourselves and vice-versa. Attaining the perspective to begin to grasp the strange and subtle nuance of how we interact with our parents.

Our parents give us gifts on a daily basis, or at least mine did. I'm not talking about cars or computers, or even three squares and a roof over our heads… I'm talking about the careful crafting that goes into raising children not to be better kids, but to be better adults. Not everyone receives that from their parents. I did and I am eternally grateful.

I wrote this in part to get it out of my head so I could go on to write other things, and in part because I wanted my younger friends to spend a little bit of time in honest reflection on why they react to their parents the way that they do. There is so much time wasted in our lives striving against our parents. Some of that is necessary, some of it is even constructive, and some of it blinds us to what's really going on.

I recently found out my dad has a cancer of the intractable sort. We have no idea what this means or how long he has. It could be a year, it could be ten years or more, dad comes from tough stock. But either way you look at it, it casts the past present and future into a new and sharper relief. Binds us that much closer together and at the same time makes the separationthat much harder.

It's something I cannot fully wrap my mind around and I assure you I am not posting this to garner sympathy, or condolences (though prayers are always welcome). So to everyone out there who still has their parents… I invite you to look at them… really LOOK at them. And try to figure out where your Hemingway is.

Recently, I spent almost an entire month at home for the first time since I left for college. Almost every day of it dad and I spent hours with our heads together, talking. We trolled through bookstores and took car trips and sat in waiting rooms together. Whole hours of it were spent reading as we sat next to one another, saying nothing. Just being there, reflecting one another as fathers and sons should.

And without speaking, without even bringing it up, he convinced me that it was time to give Ernest another shot. So I am… and while so much of what I disliked about the man is still there... I'm almost ashamed to admit how much I'm finally enjoying the man's sparse, evocative prose.

And next time I see my dad, we're going to have that much more to talk about.

-Scott Perkins

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Biker Reunion, or, Lost in the Woods!!!

I was talking with my sister Alice last night and she reminded me of something that happened to her several years ago at Hummel Park in Omaha.

Alice is a big nature nut and former camp counselor and Park Ranger. She has always made a habit of taking her four kids hiking and camping.

One day, she took several kids, including her oldest son Ken and his friend Colin, who I think were about 12, on a hike through the woods in Hummel Park. Hummel Park is a large swath of 200 acres of forest land on the bluffs just west of the Missouri River. It's beautiful, but somewhat remote, has some sheer, eroded dirt cliffy places, and also has somewhat of an unsavory history after nightfall. Juvenile delinquents hanging around causing trouble, ghost stories, even a couple of murders.
As the group walked down the trail, Ken and his friend wanted to take an short, alternative roundabout path which they knew would intersect with the main path a little later on. Alice knew the trail well and said that was fine, and they would meet at the intersection up ahead. Arriving at that intersection, Alice and the others waited for the two boys to join them.
And waited.
And waited.
Alice started to worry, told the rest of the group to stay put and went back down the path to find them. She went all the way around - and they were nowhere to be found.
Anyone who is a parent will know this feeling - your heart stops - you start to freak out - you think, surely not - your heart starts beating again only way too fast - you're saying, No, No, No -adrenaline - panic - NOT GOOD.
The whole group searched for the boys for a long time, to no avail.
At this point, dusk is falling. You don't want your 12 year old boy lost in Hummel Park at night. AT ALL! So Alice, panicking now, rounds up the remaining kids and heads for civilization to call the police. She and the rest of the kids burst out of the woods into a clearing, near a narrow park road.
The clearing is filled with Harley Davidson types having a raucous party. There are lots of motorcycles and leather jackets and cigarettes and beer and loud rock music. This is not the type of party my sister Alice really gets into. She's more of the chamomile tea and Mozart type. Also, did I mention Alice is totally wee? She's about five feet tall.
But my dad didn't call her the Mighty Mite for nothing! She ran up to the bikers and let them know what had happened. Immediately, she told me, they leaped up and fanned out to search for the kids. Some of them jumped on their bikes or into their cars and others ran into the woods. One of them loaned Alice his cell phone (and this was way before those were ubiquitous) and she phoned the police.
While she was talking to the cops and telling them in no uncertain terms to get moving and bring their dogs with them (I can totally hear her, by the way), one of the biker ladies drove up in her station wagon, yelling out the window, "I've got 'em!"
Apparently the kids had overshot the path intersection and eventually realized they were lost. They kept going until they found a clearing with a small pavilion in it, near a road, and they wisely decided to sit at the pavilion and wait to be found rather than wander around in the forest.
Sigh! what a relief, and what a great story. It's even funnier if you know my sister. Also, FYI, Ken is now in college, so this story makes me feel extremely old. He is a super guy though. I'm so glad he wasn't lost!

Thank You Passing Pedestrian

A week or two ago, my beloved husband Fernando was riding his bike to work, as is his wont. He was booking along over the Queensboro bridge in rush hour traffic, banking hard left onto Second Avenue at high speed, a total badass on his track bike wearing his spandex bike shorts, helmet and goggles (...pause.... savoring image...sigh...). Whoo! OK! regrouping!
Actually, why don't I let him tell it. The subject line of the email he sent me that morning said... "Do you remember...."
"Wile E. Coyote? In many episodes there was the inevitable moment where he steps off a cliff followed by a split second of suspense before he falls. He doesn't fall until he looks down and realizes he's no longer standing on solid ground. But in that split second it becomes clear that no matter long it takes, he's gonna fall.

"Well, that's a little bit like the moment when one is speeding one's bicycle to round a corner and beat the light; and one feels the front tire slip because it's hit something, like a rock. There's a sickening feeling in one's stomach, that if translated would say, "Oh shit, I'm going down!!!" And a split second later body parts start hitting the pavement. Of course, when one is pulling this maneuver, it's best to do it in front of a but-load of commuters on their way to work; so that upon getting up, one is faced by many, many faces of concern.

"I wish I could have seen it (instead of experienced it). I went down so hard and so fast that it must have looked like I'd been shot."
I got the full skinny on what happened later. Apparently Fernando went rolling at high speed in one direction and his bike went in another, into one of the most entropic and screwed up intersections in Manhattan. He told me that as he went down, a passing suit on his cell phone was yelling "OH MY GOD! THIS GUY JUST TOTALLY WIPED OUT ON HIS BIKE! I GOTTA GO!" - and promptly rescued the bike from being smushed by traffic and made sure Fern was OK. Of course my dear, proud husband leaped back on his bike and rushed back into the fray, and is basically OK except for a very sore wrist which is still adorned with an Ace bandage.
It warmed my heart though, to think of this anonymous guy, on his way to work, dropping everything to help the love of my life and save his bike from being demolished. He had no idea how precious and beloved this man is to so many people. But he acted like he knew, which makes me want to hug him. Wouldn't it be great if we all assumed that about each other all the time?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's Just A Thing

There are some mornings in New York City where there seems to be a poltergeist screwing up ALL the subway lines. On these mornings, it honestly feels like you have to do battle just to get to work. People stagger into their offices, hollow-eyed, feeling like they should be able to go home (preferably in a taxi) and crawl into bed instead of dealing with the workday only to face subway hell again on the way home.

One such morning, my colleague Jane told us a story about her nightmare getting to work. She was on a very crowded 1 train heading downtown, when the train slowed down and finally stopped cold in the tunnel. No information was forthcoming from the conductor (this is always very nerve wracking). People stood, uncomfortably smashed up against each other, silently praying for the train to start again. At a certain point though, people released their hold on the overhead bars, put down their packages, started removing coats - settling in for the long haul.

As usual during these experiences, there were a couple of people in Jane's car who started to hyperventilate and panic. New Yorkers are good at helping people like this. Someone will pass a paper bag down the car for the person to breathe into, or a bottle of water; or people will help take off coats and scarves, offer their seats, pats on the back, and smiles and words of reassurance and comfort.

This day though, one of the people who had a hard time was a pregnant woman who started to get woozy and nauseated. Suddenly and uncontrollably, she vomited all over her own lap. She started to weep and apologize to everyone on the car for the smell, and was clearly horribly humiliated and upset.

"There was a very well dressed man next to this pregnant woman," Jane told us. " He took off his cashmere scarf and gave it to her to clean herself up. Still in tears, she protested that she couldn't accept it, but he pressed it on her and said with a smile, 'My wife is pregnant too. I hope someone would help her.'"

Sigh! I got the shivers!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

God Bless Wohlners!

For those of you who don't know, let me just say that Wohlner's Grocery Store in Omaha, Nebraska is one of my most beloved establishments. I frequently order their delicious steaks, handmade bratwurst, and home cured slab bacon to be Fedexed to me in New York in a giant styrofoam cooler. I used to live a few blocks away from Wohlner's, and went there almost daily. It is a Norman Rockwell experience to shop there - everyone knows you, they will cash a personal check for you, they will tell you how to cook whatever you buy, they have St. Andre cheese (a rarity in Nebraska), and Jeff, the pharmacist who runs the little pharmacy in the back, will drop your prescription by your house on his way home from work.

My friend Stanley, who is himself just a mass of good deeds and good will, forwarded me the following email from his friend Karen. I remember Karen - we all used to work together a million years ago at Borders. While this story doesn't surprise me at all, it made me smile and feel warm and fuzzy.

So, I didn't have any money on me today leaving work. That is, no bus fare.

I stop lots at Wohlner's to buy food because it's right at my bus stop, so I figured I'd use their ATM to get money, buy dinner, get on the bus, bingo-bango.

(I'd foolishly used my very last check buying cheesecake for a co-worker's daughter's school fundraiser. On the plus side, she now owes me, so forward all your kids' stuff to me. Guaranteeeeeeeed sale!)

Anyhoo, tried the ATM three times. No go. Must be outa money. Wohlner's credit card machines aren't set up to get cash back.

I don't have a cell phone. How am I going to get home? After many trials and tribulations trying to get through to a friend at work who might still be there at 5:45 to come and pick me up (just try getting through on those automated systems when you have to tell the cashier which buttons to push!), the nice Wohlner's lady insists I take her money!

Someone I don't even know save seeing her frequently at the nice little grocery store at 52nd and Leavenworth gave me five bucks for the bus today!



Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Cup of Joe

Here is a post from my friend Rebecca:

Brian, Chris and I went to Central park after work for a picnic dinner. I didn't want to carry my full back pack (with my office laptop) etc, so I took out the essentials--my wallet and phone--and put them in Brian's bag. We had a great time, came home, and got ready for the following day.

This morning I left the house, making sure I packed my lunch, vitamins, etc. It is my normal routine to stop into Starbucks for a medium drip coffee. The store was empty, and I have been going there for MONTHS, so I got a nice "Good Morning" from the staff, along with a gentle ribbing about what I was going to order (since I order the SAME medium drip EVERY day). I went into my back pack, and no wallet! Realizing what I had done, I told them I didn't have my wallet, that I left it in my husband's bag, and that there'd be no coffee for me this morning, apologized and walked away from the counter. On my way to the door, I got out my office keys. I then heard miss......miss, so I turned around. The guys gave me my cup of coffee. Not a small, but the usual medium that I order. I was so surprised and grateful. Completely made my day! They are just awesome. I can't wait to sing their praises to management.