Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Cafe au Lait

DSC_0891The week after I finished graduate school, my husband, Jamie, and I went to Europe together for the first time. Excluding our honeymoon years before, this would be our first really long trip and, as my overly romantic imagination took hold, I envisioned us wandering arm in arm through moonlit Roman ruins; munching les marron glaces at Laduree’s tiny bistro tables; and elegantly sipping steaming Lapsang Souchong at Brown’s Hotel. So powerful was this vision that I completely ignored what I already knew about the reality of travelling with Jamie; specifically, I read the tour books and look at the sights while he clutches a telephone to his ear, talking to his office as he unconsciously tidies things. Years earlier we had accompanied my parents on a cruise to Bermuda. Since there were no international cell phones then, Jamie spent an entire day on the dock in Hamilton talking on a pay phone on the pier. As I skipped away for a day of shopping and eating with my mom and dad, the last thing I noticed was his saying “No, Kenny, I think if you open the bids again, you’ll find that . . . “ as he dabbed idly at a barely-visible Diet Coke spot on his khaki shorts.
I have never understood his affection for telephones or cleaning. Being rather a Luddite, I didn’t get my first cell phone until long after they’d become common. Perhaps my husband’s addiction to it put me off.
While I suspect that the telephone thing is work-based, the cleaning is something he does reflexively. Most of the time it seems harmless, quirky: sometimes it’s even been charming, like the sunny July morning my visiting childhood friend, Patti, excused herself to go to the bathroom during breakfast. By the time she returned, Jamie had cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, and scrubbed the griddle, all with his trusty Motorola Razr pasted firmly to his left ear. “Seriously, Danny, you can’t honestly think that . . . “
The days passed, our suitcases were packed, and the morning of our departure arrived. My heart pounding, we boarded the plane to London. During the flight Jamie didn’t use the Airphone at all but he did tidy all of the newspapers on the steward’s cart. As we began navigating our carry-ons down the Jetway, however, his cell phone rang and it took repeated scowls from the Immigration officers to convince him to disconnect. It rang again as we settled into our black taxi and Jamie chatted throughout the drive from Heathrow to Mayfair. As he executed the U turn on Carlos Place in front of our hotel, the driver – no slouch on the mobile phone himself, by the way – commented wryly that he hoped I’d be okay visiting the Tower and Harrod’s on my own since my husband would no doubt be up in our room talking on the landline, having exhausted his phone’s battery.
We wandered through European capitals, Jamie and I, chatting and reading, folding and plumping. The evening before we were scheduled to leave Paris, Jamie prowled the room, hunting for errant objects with his cell scrunched under his chin. I reclined against pillows on the bed and watched the 1936 Warner Brothers classic Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn dubbed to sound like Yves Montand.
We needed to arrive at the station no later than 7:15 a.m. to retrieve our reserved tickets and make our way to the carriage of our 7:45 a.m. train. Because I am not at my most alert in the morning, I had taken the linen jacket I intended to wear and purposefully laid it across the back of a chair before I retired. The chair stood next to the door. Regardless of my level of catatonia, I would see it..
Just after our 6:00 a. m. wake up call Jamie shoved me toward the shower and called Room Service for café au lait and pastries. Despite the caffeine fortification, I dawdled and Jamie prodded me to hurry. Exiting into the misty Champs Elysees morning, I grumbled about the chill air. Jamie assured me I’d find hot coffee waiting at the station. Comforted, I promptly fell asleep in the back of the tiny taxi. By the time we’d reached the station, however, I had awakened shivering. I searched my carry-on bag for my jacket.
“Did you pack it in your bag?” I asked Jamie as the taxi drove through the crescent to the wide-open glass doors of the Eurostar terminal.
He twisted his neck to hold his phone while he spoke to me. “Hold on, Kenny. Pack what?”
“My jacket. My beige linen Moschino jacket.”
When he didn’t answer, I poked him. He shrugged and gestured to the metal object adhered to his ear. He continued talking until the taxi stopped at the doors, then disconnected and glanced at the meter.
“Where’s my jacket?” I asked.
He counted Euros. “Do you have any money?”
I emptied the front pocket of my jeans into his waiting palm. “Here. Where’s my jacket?”
“I dunno. Did you take it out of the closet?”
“It wasn’t in the closet. I threw it across the back of the blue chair by the door because I knew I wouldn’t see it otherwise. “ I could almost feel the little cartoon light bulb suddenly switch on above my head. “You hung it in the closet, didn’t you?” I cried accusingly. “Last night when you were on the phone with Kenny you tidied it away! We have to catch a train in twenty minutes and my jacket is in a closet in the hotel!”
He swung open the taxi door dragging the carry-ons behind him. “Call the hotel and tell them to send it to Jose and Diana’s house. Use my office’s Fed Ex number. I have to call Kenny back.”
After paying the driver and claiming the tickets, there was barely enough time for my errand. Fed Ex number and hotel receipt clutched in my sweaty palm, I scurried down the train steps and looked around nervously for an old-fashioned public telephone sign. Finally locating it on the outer wall of a tiny coffee bar, I trotted into the smoky room. Reaching for the handset, I ran my eyes all over the phone’s body looking for the coin slot. With a shock I realized that it didn’t accept cash, only phone cards. I turned and dashed out of the warm, dark bar and into the bright, chilly station searching for the tabac stand. There it was, against the far corner. I trotted toward it. Facing the clerk squarely, I tried to act out my request as I fumbled with my poor French. “Je suis . . . une telephone card.”
Her brown eyes widened.
“No? Um, voulez vous une telephone card?” She frowned. Apparently that wasn’t right, either.
I mimicked dialing and chatting gaily. She cocked her head like a puzzled squirrel. Nearly frantic, I lapsed into Italian, the only foreign language I know. “Per favore, vorrei comprare una carta del telefono.” She smiled and answered something like, “Vous voudriez . . . une carte de telephone” lilting at the end so I assumed it was a question. I nodded. She asked something else and the blankness of my expression must have assured her that there was no way I knew the answer to that one. She repeated it, louder. Realizing that raising one’s voice at a foreigner seemed to be a universal reaction to coping with one, I chewed my bottom lip and nodded slowly, hoping that was the correct response. She sighed, shook her head, and turned to a locked cabinet where she slid in the key and chose a green telephone card with a French cartoon character printed on it. I held out all the money I had left. She picked out the price of the card, placed in it my hand , and then smiled.
I turned and raced through the station back to the smoky bar. Yanking hard on the glass door handle, I heard a loud, metallic binnnnnnng-bonnnnnnng. It reminded me of the televised Avon Cosmetics commercials from my childhood. Nervously, I laughed aloud at the thought – Avon Ladies in Paris – and grabbed at the telephone handset. I had no idea how much time had elapsed, but connecting to the concierge, waiting for the head of Housekeeping to travel to our room and retrieve my jacket, and then verifying the Basel address and the Fed Ex number, seemed to take hours. I guessed I was safe, though; I hadn’t heard the Basel train called.
I exited the café and turned toward the track where my train was . . . no longer waiting. Disbelieving, I ran along the empty platform, dodging suitcases, strollers, and other people. I really needn’t have hurried since I could see the train’s distant lights as it turned a curve about a half-mile away. Realizing that the Avon Lady sound had probably been my train’s departure signal, I slid onto a cold wooden bench and considered my situation. A tear leaked out from under my lashes. Another one followed. I wiped them away with the backs of both hands (my tissues were in my tote bag on the train) and, feeling distinctly like Lucy Ricardo, I decided I’d better find the stationmaster.
The office was at the top of a flight of metal stairs. The stationmaster was a very kind man; after listening politely to my admittedly ludicrous tale – preoccupied husband; forgotten jacket; no phone card; no ticket or passport, either (both were with the Kleenex in my tote bag on the train), his only response was a small sigh “I am sorry to hear that, madame, however, you are in luck because there is another train in three hours’ time. We simply have to get you on it. Please sit down and allow me to assist you.” He paused and gestured to the blue plastic chair in front of his desk and pursed his lips slightly. “I know what we will do. I will radio the conductor on your train and ask him to verify that your husband and your ticket are indeed on it. The conductor will then assure your husband of your safety.” He slid a small pad of paper and a pen toward me. “Now if you will please write out for me your name, your husband’s name and the location of your seats.”
When I was done, he lifted one of the many radios that cluttered his desk and spoke rapidly to someone in French. He listened to the response then turned back to me. “The conductor says that he just passed through the carriage containing your husband and that he was talking on his mobile phone but that he had two tickets in his hand. In a few minutes, when he finishes his round, the conductor will return and ask your husband to see your passport. Then he will confirm your identity and assure your husband of your safety. Afterward, we will issue you a new ticket. Please make yourself comfortable. We have only a few minutes to wait.”
My husband was talking on the telephone. Surprise. No doubt he’d be tidying the carriage in a few minute’s time.
I stared idly through the window while we waited. When the radio crackled in garbled French, the stationmaster lifted it to his ear, listened, looked at the pad, and then smiled. “Now we will provide you with a new ticket and somewhere to wait until the next train.” He reached for a cell phone and dialed. After a few seconds he began chattering quickly. I understood almost nothing of what he said, just “Americain” and “mal place”. In another few seconds, the stationmaster disconnected the call and rose. “My assistant is coming. He will provide you with a new ticket and remain with you until your train boards. In the meantime, I must go to the train-shed. Please remain here in comfort. If you will excuse me.” He was gone.
I sat and chewed my right thumbnail pondering my own idiocy. In about ten minutes, the glass door opened and a young man entered. “Are you the lost American?” he inquired politely.  Now I had a title.
The assistant stationmaster asked me to wait while he completed a few of his duties. Since I had so much time, I took a taxi to the hotel to retrieve my jacket then met the assistant stationmaster again when he came to reclaim me. Since it was time for his midmorning break, he led me to a cool Parisian bar where he bought me a pain au chocolat and café au lait, then leaned against the scarred zinc counter and introduced me to his friends as the lost American. At the correct time, he escorted me to my train and asked the conductor to be sure that I got to my seat safely. He probably also suggested that it would be best if I didn’t leave my seat until the train stopped in Switzerland, although I can’t be sure of this because I didn’t understand their conversation held entirely in French. Regardless, I made the trip to Basel in safety and comfort, albeit without my second honeymoon groom.
In retrospect, it all worked out fine. True, I missed the romance of a train trip with Jamie but I had a Parisian adventure that I’d never have had any other way. Plus I learned a few things; I learned that I can survive with no passport, no money, and no facility for the local language. And I learned that all my years of living inside books wasn’t wasted; Tennessee Williams really was correct about the kindness of strangers.

Why I Love Manhattan

Laura Driving

Native New Yorkers view the world through the grimy lens of cynicism.  Expecting and preparing for the worst possible result from all people and situations seems to us the most sensible way to travel through this life.  And travel we do – on buses, in taxis, on ferries, and through subway tunnels, all within close proximity to our fellow citizens.  Because of these myriad public transportation options, most of us don’t have a personal relationship with the internal combustion engine; after all, if God had intended for New Yorkers to drive, He wouldn’t have provided Alfred Ely Beach the idea for an underground pneumatic railroad back in 1869.

And the subway works just fine, thank you.  More or less, anyway.  Okay, it’s sweltering in the summer, stifling in the winter, and crowded all the time, but, it’s so much easier than taxis or buses.  Relatively few things can go wrong.  It runs on tracks from point A to point B; it can be fast or slow or stuck in a tunnel, but it will never deviate from its path leaving you stranded in a strange neighborhood.  And for those occasions requiring personal transportation there’s an Avis Car Rental garage on East 43rd Street.

My grandfather owned a car in the city which he used for both his business and to drive upstate for weekends; my father had one, too.  Although I had learned to drive, I rarely saw the need to actually do so.  I had always commuted to school and work in the more traditional fashion – strolling to the subway stop, passing the firehouse, chatting with the firemen and petting the dog, picking up a newspaper and coffee, and observing the theatre of the city’s streets along the way.

Like most New Yorkers, I’ve seen pretty much everything life has to offer on those walks – from the homeless man lying on a dirty plaid sofa watching tv under the Queensboro Bridge to the bride in full white wedding regalia boarding the B train. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve seen it often, and right now it’s blocking the entrance to the building where I need to go, dammit.  And no one in New York has seen more than its police officers.

In the early years of our relationship, my husband Jamie’s office was in Brooklyn Heights and we lived on the Upper West Side, just a few blocks from Engine Company 76.  Jamie’s was an inconvenient and time-consuming commute so Louis, his boss, thought a company car was in order: that’s how a blue Mercedes C class entered our family immediately enroll ing us in that subset of city dwellers whose lives are governed by the New York City Department of Transportation Alternate Side Parking calendar, downloadable in various languages including Chinese, Russian, and Haitian Creole.  (Believe me; woe of apocalyptic proportions betides the ignorant fool who leaves his car on the wrong side of the street when a Department of Sanitation street sweeper is due.)  Months passed with Jamie driving to work and my hopping on the train, each of us pleased with the arrangement. Then came the summer Saturday that we were invited to dinner with friends in Chappaqua, out of the city, one of those occasions that the car was supposed to make easier.

Around noon, Jamie wandered into the living room where I was watching a film I’d recorded.  I pushed the pause button  when he began to talk. “I have to go to meet Stu at Hudson Street at 3 o’clock so why don’t we get ready early, I’ll go to the meeting then call you when we’re through and you can meet me and we’ll head to the Damiano’s.”

I considered the suggestion, then shrugged, unimpressed with the idea. “What’ll I do while you’re with Stu?”

“Go shopping in SoHo.”

I wrinkled my nose. “No, I don’t want to do that. It’s a schlep from Hudson to any stores I like and I was going to wear the blue suit with high heels tonight and I hate walking around outside in nice shoes.”

“Take the car.”

“Yeah, and park at Hudson Street and I’ll still have to walk all the way over to West Broadway.  No, thanks.”

“No, you take the car, park on Broadway and I’ll walk over and meet you when Stu and I’re done.”

Pause.  “Me drive?”

“Yeah, you know how.”

Exhale.  “Yeah, I know I know how but I don’t parallel park real well.”

“So learn.”

He was using that tone, that ‘What’s wrong? Can’t rise to the challenge?’ tone that I hate but remain unable to resist.

Two beats, then three.  I blinked.  He blinked.  I sighed.  “Okay, fine.  I guess I’d better get in the shower now then.”

By 2:45 pm we were downtown.  Jamie exited the car in front of his friend’s mid-block office building and I slid behind the wheel.  Before slamming the door he leaned in and said, “I’ll call you when I’m through and you can tell me where you are and I’ll come find you.  Then we’ll drive to the Damiano’s.”

“Humph, I’ll probably be in traffic court.”

“Nope, you never get a court date the same day as the offense.” Grinning, he slammed the door and strolled away.

Using my walker’s geography I tried to figure out how to pilot this monstrous vehicle back toward Broadway.  I knew that avenues run north to south and streets are east to west but I am an Upper West Side baby; except for attending NYU, I had little experience with southern Manhattan and even for that I exited the subway at West Fourth Street and walked.  I knew that Hudson Street met West Broadway somewhere around Chambers Street and that it runs both north and south so I could find the stores I wanted easily enough, providing I could get to that point.  The problem was that all of this was in the direction opposite of where I was headed and I didn’t have the vaguest idea how to get back to where I wanted to be.

Guided only by rudimentary New Yorker’s geography – east are the beaches of Long Island and west is New Jersey and everywhere else until you reach Los Angeles – I nosed into the thick Saturday afternoon traffic, slowly, nervously, inching what I hoped was eastward.  So many people, so many cars, so many trucks, so many One Way signs sprang before me that in no time I was completely discombobulated.  I don’t know what I did wrong but  I found myself crushed in the middle of the New Jersey-bound Canal Street traffic jam crawling toward the open, leering mouth of the Holland Tunnel.  Damn Jamie and his bright ideas.

Even the thought  of the tunnel panicked me.  Obviously it began in lower Manhattan but I had no idea where it ended.  My mind conjured images of Lucy Ricardo’s first driving lesson when, panicked, she attempted a three-point turn in the tunnel and reportedly stopped traffic all the way to East Orange, New Jersey.  Determined not to befall the same fate, I looked nervously for someplace, anyplace, to turn out of the stream.  It wasn’t going to be easy; all of the streets seemed to be one way, feeding into the four lane bottleneck approach to the double-tube tunnel. My palms grew sweatier with each street I passed.  About a block before the actual entrance I noticed another one-way sign pointing toward Canal Street but the street itself was blocked by blue NYPD sawhorses.  Rejoicing, I switched on my right turn signal and began the laborious process of exiting to the right.  I swerved around the sawhorse and saw three New York City police officers standing by identical sawhorses at the opposite end of the street; they were waving away all traffic attempting to turn into the street.  Hearing my approaching engine, one broke from the cluster and sauntered toward my car.  He gestured for me to stop, so I did; I lowered the window and waited expectantly, hopefully.

“Lady, did you see the one-way sign?”

“Yes, but I’m lost.  I was getting forced into the tunnel traffic and I didn’t mean to go there. I don’t want to go into the tunnel.  I don’t even know where it goes.  I was trying to get over to the left to go to West Broadway but nobody would let me over.  So I turned here to go around the block and try another way.” I smiled.

His eyes narrowed slightly.  “Lady, this is a one-way street. You’re going the wrong way.”

“Yes, I know.” Hadn’t I just explained that?

He flexed his jaw.  “You’re going the wrong way on a one-way street. You have to turn around and go back”

“No, I can’t go that way. I’ll get pushed into the tunnel.” My hope was fading.

“Look, lady, either you turn around or I am going to write you a ticket for driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Now turn around.”

“No, I’ll get pushed into the tunnel.  If you have to write the ticket, then write it but  I can’t go back that way. Nobody will let me over and I’ll end up somewhere in New Jersey, I don’t even know where.” At this point all hope was gone and panic was creeping into my voice, not for the ticket, but for the possibility of getting lost in New Jersey.

He pushed his cap further back on his head as he stared at me staring at him.  He sighed. “Lady, what do you want me to do, stop the traffic for you?”

“Yes, please.”

His eyes widened.  My choosing to take his sarcasm seriously meant he was now stuck, as stuck as I was.  He sighed again.  “All right.  Turn around and follow me.”

I executed my three-point turn successfully and followed him up the sight grade.  He stepped into the first lane of traffic and held up his right palm toward it while gesturing for me to follow with his left.  He repeated the process through the lanes until all approaching cars had stopped; I followed behind him an inch at a time like a tentative but obedient dog.   After I had cut diagonally across the stopped  traffic I braked near the officer.  He lifted his left arm and pointed theatrically in the direction I needed to go, then swept his right arm across his chest, brushing past his face, then dropped his head in a dramatic courtier’s bow.  I yelled ‘thank you’ through the closed window and accelerated slightly.  As I passed him I could see the grin on his face.

Yes, we’ve seen it all here in New York.  And there are reasons why many of us choose not to drive.