It’s a new year. So much change for me in 2018, and I hope it keeps going in the same strong direction in 2019. New Year’s and Birthdays always make me think of a fairy tale I read long ago. It goes like this:
A beggar in need of shelter stops in a town and knocks on doors. The first door belongs to the wealthy Grocer. The Grocer and his wife are offended that such a person would even approach them for favors and shoo him away. He then arrives at the Baker’s house. The Baker and his family take him in, share their table, give him a bed, and generally do the right thing. The next morning he thanks them, and goes on his way. Now, of course he’s a magical fairy disguised as a beggar, so when the Baker begins his day the first thing he does is count the money in the cash register (because, for extra tension, he’s impoverished for some reason – probably because he gives away his bread, rather than take money for it – so good-hearted don’t you know), and as he counts the coins, he can’t stop. More and more coins pile up throughout the day and he can’t stop counting until the sun sets and every spare corner is filled with money. The Grocer hears about his neighbor’s good fortune and kicks himself for being an ungracious ass, vowing to do better next time. He and his wife find the beggar and usher him into their home for a night of shelter and warmth. But, unlike the Baker, they shirk on their generosity, offering poor fare, and a hard bed. The next morning as they bid their guest adieu, they hastily decide to get ready to count their coins. The husband starts cleaning out boxes to put the coins in, and the wife begins to sweep clear the floor to make room for the boxes. And that’s what they do for the entire day – clear and sweep.
Every turning of a year, whether it’s on my birthday or the calendar, I feel an impulse from this story to begin with something I enjoy doing, or wish more of to ensure it will continue. This year I took Gali to Central Park Zoo. It was nearly 60 degrees in NYC, and a beautiful blue day. The zoo, in the middle of the city, with skyscrapers poking up above the trees, lest you forget you’re not really in the wild. This zoo is the perfect size, not too big. Just right for spending an hour or two. We wandered through the tropical exhibit, so many birds of beautiful colors. Then the outdoors twisty hill that leads you to snow leopards and grizzly bears. We were lucky in that the animals were more awake than usual. The Red Pandas were chasing each other up and down a tree, the snow leopard leapt from a rock to a small meadow before our eyes, the grizzlies were walking around their rocks. Just before leaving I went to use the bathroom, but the line was long and I decided to just leave. (It’s always good practice in NYC to use a bathroom when you can to prevent being in need and unable to find one later.) We started towards the exit, and I decided it would be worth the wait, so I asked Vincent and Gali to sit on a bench for a minute. When I came out there was a ruckus at the nearby Sea Lion exhibit, so we went to explore and found a feeding/show happening. Gali had never seen such a thing and he was very tickled. An excellent way to start the year. And we would have missed it I hadn’t stopped to pee. Fortune smiles.
Their visit ended like it started three weeks ago, with a visit to a museum. I like museums, but I am not in the habit of visiting them regularly. But, just as Jeni got me to go to MOMA, which I thoroughly enjoyed while Vincent was arriving in the city: Vincent took me to The Met to view the Delacroix exhibit on his last night here, followed by a dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant. Museums bookended the holidays. We had started having date nights in Kalamazoo a couple of years ago, going out to restaurants on Fridays. But date nights in New York as a regular thing? The possibilities are endless – a world class museum this week, another one next week. There is no comparison.
Having them here made me intensely aware of rhythms. The first week I found myself getting irritated because Vincent was in my way. Meaning, I have my ways of doing things, and he kept moving things, or leaving things out, or literally stepping into my way, disturbing my rhythm. I’d get up to get ready for work, turning on the bathroom light – which is one of those weird things that starts really dim and slowly achieves acceptable levels of light. My routine is to get up, take my pills, take my shower, leave the light on while I get dressed and drink my coffee, and put my makeup on when the light is at full glare. He’d get up in my wake and somewhere whilst drinking my coffee, I’d find he’d turned the light off and I’d have to get it started again.
Little things. Easily fixed, but. The second week we went up to Montreal and the time was given over to the holidays. I returned on Wednesday and had my Thursday to enjoy in solitude in my apartment, and by the time they came back on Friday, I was more ready to adapt. This last week I fell into the rhythm of having them here, and now that they’re gone I need to relearn my rhythm of being alone.
When Vincent is here I give over some of my independence and begin to rely on him, because he’s always offering to help. With loads of free time I would send him to the store while I was at work, or on other errands. He used his time to visit all the sights. It felt like the annual moment of the Kalamazoo life when he’s done teaching, and I still had to go to my office. His pattern would change and he’d be in vacation mode, while my mode was something different entirely.
But. I miss them already, and at the same time I’m very excited to finally have the place to myself for a while. When I first arrived here in June I was finding myself in the space that suddenly existed on my own, and I think I’ve been getting a bit sidetracked from that place. I really want to explore it further. So much of the routine in shared space is giving up little bits of yourself for the other person’s comfort, and that can be great, but I enjoyed finding those pieces and discovering who I could be when I’m whole.
The other thing that takes up space, is time. Or rather, work. Without friends and family my 45-55 hour work week still provides me with time in my head. The hours that I am home alone are almost enough. With them, they’re not. Anyway, solitude commences now for at least the next six weeks, and I am eager to see where it will take me.
I am at my third weekend of the permanent job. The first two weekends I worked with the temp who has been doing this job for the past nine months, so she could answer any questions I might have. But since the weekends preceded the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, they were predictably very slow. All this week I was nervous that this would be the weekend I’d get slammed with work, and without anyone to ask questions of. (Although supervisor and colleagues assure me I can call at 3am, I’d rather not.) But at the same time I looked forward to being at work all by myself. I do enjoy the quiet.
The temp was my age, grew up in the Bronx, and has been living in an apartment on the Upper East Side that she rented 34 years ago, so rent stabilized. Wow. She also lives with 4 cats, and has traveled rather extensively. She’s been doing this work for over 35 years, so we talked quite a bit about how it’s changed. The most obvious thing is the way the corporations have whittled away the perks and benefits. The pay isn’t much more than I was making 30 years ago, too.
Meantime, I work at Job number 1, which is filling up with people again, taking over three rooms. Because my attendance has been a bit spotty, with the holidays, each time I show up I’m moved to a different computer, and a new neighbor. The first day back after Christmas I sat next to Mohammed, who was very helpful in getting me up to speed. Chatty, too. He told me he’d started as a financial analyst, but didn’t really like it so, quit to work on his app. It’s a great idea, too. Something about being able to pay your restaurant check and leave without having to wait for your server to bring it. I’d download that. I gave him a bit of advice on the job market, he told me his answer to “Why did you leave your last job?” was something like, “I wanted to make more money.” I told him to use the words, “needed a challenge”, “wanted more growth”, instead. Hopefully it will be helpful to him.
The next week I finally got seated facing the window, so I have a bit of a view. Or at least some natural light. The young man to my right is new to me. He has a style in his way of talking, and when he put headphones on I distinctly heard Sinatra, and then Big Band music. When he removed them I asked if he watched Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and he said he’d been meaning to. “Judging by your taste in music, I think you’d like it – great soundtrack.” I assured him I didn’t mind hearing his music, as it’s my favorite too. I don’t think I’ve ever met a young person who’s into Big Band and Sinatra. Later I noticed he has a very Italian last name, and I realized he fit into my movie stereotype of the New York Italian. I asked him if he was from New York. “No,” he said, “I’m from New Jersey!”. So, there.
Yesterday on the train ride into work I started to get on a car that looked empty, but as I got closer I could see that several of the seats were taken by sleeping homeless people stretched out across the entire row. I jumped to the next car and approached an empty space, only to realize a man was sleeping completely doubled over. Throughout the ride he would wake up, sit up suddenly, then slowly fold forward again until his head fell beneath his knees. At one point another man, sitting across from him, reached out and tapped his shoulder, rousing him. He sat up, and the man pointed out that the knapsack at his feet had dropped open, and things were falling out onto the floor. After a thanks, and some rummaging in the knapsack (without closing it securely) he fell asleep again and more items fell out. The stranger woke him again, and began talking to him. I couldn’t quite hear what he was saying, but I think it was along the lines of safer places to sleep. They exited the train together.
That’s the thing about New York. People are in their masks, of “don’t care”, their faces closed off, or shut out with music, but the moment the mask is broken there’s a camaraderie. When the stranger tapped the sleeping man, another man sitting nearby joined in, helping with the falling items.
On the train to the Met Friday night, a slightly older woman got on the car and stood in front of where I stood near the sliding door, struggling with getting her MetroCard back in its wallet, juggling her gloves, and timing the grab on the pole when the train started. She had black hair and a big presence, that sort of New York Older Woman presence I find here. She faced me, and sort of rolled her eyes at the whole “I’m-in-your-space-and-we-both-know-it-but-what-can-you-do?” I smiled at her. And she offered “I had gloves that gripped the pull better, but these (clothe/cotton) don’t, I lost the good ones.” I murmured something along the lines of “yes, those are good gloves.” Then the young blonde woman to my right who I’d noticed when she first got on snapped at a young couple in front of her. “Move your bag, you are hitting my pregnant stomach!” Insisting the young woman unshoulder her (quite normal and soft handbag), and switch it away from her precious embryonic cargo. My new New York friend and I exchanged glances. “First pregnant woman in the world.” I whispered. “First pregnant woman on the SUBWAY!” She bested me.
A few stops later the woman got off, and offered me a good day. I’ve noticed that whenever there’s an exchange with someone on the train, when one party exits, there is an obligatory final sally. Usually “have a good day/weekend/holiday”. Like the unexpected encounter has opened a circle of engagement that must be closed. A man spilled his Pom bottle this evening on the train, with a loud “Well, that’s fucking embarrassing!” The young woman across from him gave him a wad of napkins to mop up, and he thanked her. Six stops later “have a great weekend” on his exit.
And there’s the other nonverbal moments that break through the masks. The crowded train pulls into a stop and those with self-awareness check quickly if they are in the way of someone who needs to get off. Eye contact is made, and small nods or head shakes, and then it continues on. I offer a space near the door to a scowling young woman in a pink puffy jacket with my eyes, and she grins and declines and suddenly transforms to a completely new person in my mind with her smile.
I’m back at work on my first shift by myself. The plus side is I find it easier to be here alone, then with another person in terms of using the time. The downside is I don’t have anyone to ask if I something urgent comes in, although that seems unlikely. I did get my first job, and I was able to text the woman I relieved on her way home for guidance. She will be in at 8am to relieve me, and I am leaving the things I don’t know how to do for her to show me in the morning.
Going to work at 8:00pm takes a perception adjustment. I stayed in bed as long as I could, trying to upload sleep hours ahead of the deficit. Twelve hours at the end of a day carries a lot of weight. Like it’s just hanging there in the future, waiting for you. I tried to enjoy my first day of solitude, but I kept thinking “I can do this tonight at work!” which left me with little else to do at home. Being at a desk helps me take care of day-to-day drudgery. I need to renew my passport this year, and having the time, I filled out the paperwork last week. So, I decided the one thing I could do before work would be to get my passport pics. Knowing that the Rite Aid on the corner always has a really long line I budgeted an hour and left my apartment at 6:00pm. For once, there was no line. The very friendly young woman took my pics, then told me she’d have them in a few minutes. I did some shopping, and when I returned to the front there was the long line again. I managed to get to her with my purchases, and then remind her of the pics she’d forgotten in the printer. When she returned with them, I was stowing things in my Van Gogh shopping bag I carry everywhere. She exclaimed “Oh, you’re the one who gave me the bag!” then turned to her co-worker “This is the woman who gave me that bag!”
About three months ago I’d been in the Rite Aid with my bag (it’s really cool, folds up into a pouch so I carry it in my purse for when needed. I got in the habit in France last year, as you need to bring your own shopping bags everywhere). She asked what the picture was (The Starry Night) and exclaimed how pretty it was. I told her it was developing some wear and holes in the bottom. Very tiny ones, I used it a lot! She recommended sewing the holes. When I returned home I ordered myself a couple of new ones, and when they came I determined to give the used one to her. Later that week, I stood in a long line, waiting to buy a vitamin water. When my turn at the counter came, I was served by someone else, so I had to find a minute to reach over and give her the bag, telling her I was too lazy to sew it, but she was welcome to it. She was so tickled by the gesture. I hadn’t seen her since, though. Then and now, I turned and left as soon as the deed was done.
Which is all to say I arrived near work an hour early. I wandered around the neighborhood. The holiday crowds have thinned considerably. Outside my building, with the giant Venus de Milo statues, (sans head) last week there were 50 people in line for the halal food cart. I found this silly, since there’s a halal cart on nearly every corner, but for some reason THESE carts are special. They’d been on the news or something, and all the tourist had to try it. They wait in line, eat on the spot, and then when I leave at 8am the place is full of their trash. Silly. Tonight the line was only about 20 people, and I could even go to the Starbucks attached to my building for my coffee without much hassle. The last two weekends it was too crowded.
Being in the building by myself is still fun. In the old days, at The World Trade Center, and other places I worked, the bankers or lawyers would have to be there too, to deliver the jobs. Now, it’s all virtual and I truly am alone. Last weekend the temp and I went looking for tea on all of the floors. Beautiful views, and offices. Fancy kitchens with the latest everything. And ice machines. The economic stratosphere is definitely reflected in the office spaces. For instance, although the law firm I work for has those offices spanning several floors on the top of the building, my office is in the “concourse” which is another term for basement. I still have an ice machine, coffee maker and kitchen. Here, I use the men’s bathroom at night because otherwise I need a key, and I have to exit the little warren I’m locked in. It smells, and I flush each urinal each time I go in. The garbage and recycling are tastefully hidden within a cupboard.
The office for Job 1, the contract job is downright seedy. It is a working office for working drudges. There are two enormous garbage bins for all of the food waste people throw away, emptied daily. The women’s bathroom can’t keep up with demand for paper towels and toilet paper. Some women consistently sprinkle, and I need to always remember to wipe the seat. There’s construction going on somewhere that provides a constant soundtrack of drilling and banging. It is functional. Not pretty. There’s no ice machine, but someone has provided ice trays and I routinely empty them into a plastic container and refill them regularly. Often when I return the next day someone has emptied all the ice without refilling the trays. I’m considering leaving a note informing them that the de-trayed ice contains my spit. Sometimes the Project Manager will bring bags of candy from the Duane Reade next door to show appreciation for our work. Once they even brought donuts.
The office of the same company in Brooklyn is only a few steps up the ladder. Functional, but with open loft space, and the promise of something better. That office has six enormous trash bins that are empty in the morning and overflowing by 6:00pm. A large sign advises “Please limit to two snacks per day” but I’ve rarely seen any snacks at all, they don’t last past noon and they are usually just granola bars. Although on Thursdays, they would provide bagels and breakfast pastries. Their parties are pot-luck.
Then there are the places I’ve temped. The law firm I work for on the 24th floor, has a gorgeous kitchen, beautiful bathroom, with full-length stall doors made of wood, and more than 20 stalls and sinks. Fully appointed with snacks, often fruit. One industrial refrigerator with free food, and another for employees’ use. The ice machine is next to the dishwasher, and is the kind you scoop, rather than rattle out. Discreet. The garbage and recycling are tucked into the counter with very small icons to tell you which is which.
And it’s all a mash-up of New York. As I walk to the Wall Street subway stop from work during the season of Holiday Parties, the entire canyon is filled with black SUVs, foreboding. I ask a cop what’s going on, and he just shrugs, “Holiday Party at the Stock Exchange”, okay. But the ubiquitous black SUVs of every evil government movie? They exist.
Another day I’m approaching that same corner, and there is an a cappella voice amplified by the cement canyon. Echoing off the buildings. The voice belongs to a homeless man sitting on the corner, singing his heart out. Not necessarily well.
As I return home at 8am Sunday morning the subway is even more full of homeless people. The car I get on has four sleeping figures, stretched out the length of the seats. One man has a large shopping cart, full of cans, tied to a pole with a string. Each time the train leaves a station the car jolts forward a few inches and rattles loudly. He doesn’t wake up.
I arrive home to find my cats have broken a lamp in my absence. (Now I have an extra lampshade again, and will search for a lamp!) The side table it was on was too small, and easily knocked over. I clean it up, drink a glass of wine as if it’s the end of a day and evening time instead of end of a shift and early morning. I go to bed with my earplugs and eyeshade and sleep deeply until 6pm, then get up to do it all again.
I feed the cats, cook my food for the night and stow it in my backpack. Just outside my building there are piles of furniture and garbage waiting to be picked up. I spy a table, just the right size for my couch, and more stable for the future lamp. It’s a bit scratched up, but made of real wood, and sturdy. I pick it up and carry it back to the apartment.
Last week I had planned on leaving one job for the other on Monday morning, but felt a cold coming on so chose rest instead. This week I will give it another go. I plan to leave at 8am and make my way down to Wall Street for a six or seven hour shift before returning home to sleep. We will see if it happens.
In the meantime, I hope to settle into a routine that allows me to write more, to explore more. There are shows I need to see, places I need to visit. I am still searching for a stable weekday job, part-time, in a different field. Technical writing, teaching, something different and perhaps more sustainable to do. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.