Tuxedo on the Uptown Bus

BideaWee

Immediately after work on August 14, 1985, I walked down Park Avenue to the corner of Thirty-eighth Street. I had planned to meet my boyfriend there; we were going to walk over to the Bide-A-Wee animal shelter to adopt a kitten.

It was stifling. He was late. Neither of these was a surprise. Bored, I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and wandered along the sidewalk, dodging other sweaty New Yorkers and chewing my right thumbnail. I idly perused the display in the window of the Hallmark store. I looked at my watch several times. If he didn’t arrive soon the shelter would close and my frail wishbone of opportunity would snap.

Finally, I saw him trudging up Park Avenue South. I grabbed his arm. “Come on! Come on! They’re gong to close!”

“They’re not going to close.” He looked at his watch. A quarter to six. They were going to close. We scurried along East Thirty Eighth Street, making it in the door just before the guard lifted his key to lock it.

“I came to adopt a kitten,” I announced brightly.

“Good for you. Got lotsa kittens down there,” he answered. “Go right over there to the Adoption Office.”

While I headed to the office to complete the paperwork, Jamie followed the guard’s chin jerk and walked downstairs to the cat and kitten room. By the time I joined him, he was already stopped before a cage. Inside was a howling black and white kitten; her little paw was stuck out between the bars and she had dug her claws into his Armani suit jacket and nearly into his wrist.   He smiled goofily. “I think this one wants to come with us.”

She was tiny – a ten-week old domestic shorthair, black with white paws, a white bow on her face, and a white bib under her chin. She looked as though she was dressed for a formal occasion so we named her Tuxedo. We paid $15 for the kitten and $2.44 for a cardboard Bide-A-Wee carrier to take her home in and headed for the uptown bus.

Since we lived in a converted brownstone way up on Central Park West, we had to change for the cross-town bus near the Park. It was a long ride and the buses were like airless tin cans.  The kitten was frightened and scratched at the box trying to escape. There were no seats together so Jamie took the quivering box and sat on the left side alone. I sat on the right next to another cranky commuter.

He put the box on the floor, near his briefcase, next to his feet. The scritching noise continued. There were a few plaintive meows, barely audible over the roaring, belching bus. Then the howling began.

New Yorkers tend to ignore each other on public transportation, preferring to sit rigidly, our body language telling everyone near us that no, they don’t actually exist, after all. This bus was no different. Through the shaking and the clawing, no one turned toward Jamie. Even the stifled mewing garnered no response. But, as we were turning onto CPW and he opened the box to comfort Tuxedo, a change occurred. Her head and shoulders popped up like a jack-in-the-box toy and she yowled with relief as she scrabbled up his pant leg to sit in his lap. The entire bus all but cried in unison, “Ohhhhhhhhh! A kitten! Look, a kitten! Awwwwwwwww.” The bus nearly tilted to the left as every rider rose from the seats and reached to pet her.

I have never seen anything like it, either before or since. I have watched television stars enter restaurants and no one looked up from his entree. I saw a bride ride the subway in a big, poufy, white dress and veil and no one cracked a smile at her. But a little kitten on a hot summer day melted every heart on the bus.

Jamie tucked her back into the box so we could exit at our stop. Total strangers, adults, called after us, “’Bye, kitty.” “You take good care of that baby, now.” “Bye, you have a good night.”

Tuxedo lived with us for the next fifteen years until kidney disease struck. I think of her every day, but mostly in August, when I remember the uptown bus ride with the winsome kitten who captured the commuters’ hearts.

Of Mothers and Books

lion

I am a second-generation story-hoarder. From as early as I can recall, my mother, a voracious reader, read stories to me.  We sat squashed together on the sofa or a park bench, transfixed by the tale, me following the print across invisible lines on the pages with my finger and squinting to see the relationship between the words and the pictures, as she read aloud in her smooth voice.  Once I asked her if she made up these stories and wrote them on the paper for me.  She laughed and said no, a special kind of artist did; they were called writers and the stories they created enriched everyone’s lives. I was impressed. Those people called writers caught magic with their imaginations the way my cousins and I caught lightning bugs in old jam jars.

When I was three, she took me on the subway from the Bronx to the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, to get my first library card so I could join her in the pleasure of checking out books.  I remember climbing the great stone staircase of the Beaux Arts structure slowly, my short legs requiring two hopping steps to equal each one of her long-legged strides.  Of course, the fact that I peered over my shoulder continually, trying to look at the two enormous stone lions, placed like sentinels where the sidewalk met the stairs, and wondering what they guarded didn’t help my awkward ascent. The sheer majesty of the structure made me conclude that this building held valuable things and must therefore be a bank.

When we finally arrived in the cool marble lobby, I gasped as I saw what the unblinking lions were protecting.  The entire building was filled not with money but with books; I could see them from where I stood under the big chandelier.  I knew then why my mother loved this place; this was where those special artists wrote their ideas for the rest of us to hold in our hands and read.  Wandering through the aisles of the children’s section, running my sweaty finger along the plastic-wrapped spines of the Dr. Suesses and Beverly Clearys, it occurred to me why the lions out front were so busy they never closed their eyes; the stories inside of these books were beyond valuable, they were priceless. I knew because my mother had said so.

I caught my mother’s abiding passion for stories like DiMaggio caught pop flies – effortlessly. She encouraged me totally.  In elementary school, when I wanted to own every book in the monthly Arrow Book Club newsletter, my mother wrote the checks. Later, when I decided to try to scratch out my own magic by writing stories and poems, she purchased endless numbers of spiral-bound notebooks for me and convinced my grandfather to build floor to ceiling shelves in my room to hold my expanding library. When, at age eight, I succeeded in publishing my first poem in Highlights for Children, she crept into every pediatric office in the Fordham Road Medical Arts Building and swiped every waiting room copy.  And when I published my first story in a real hardback anthology, so certain was she that I would be a successful writer that she bought dozens of copies of it on Amazon.com and had me autograph them so she could give them to nearly everyone she knew.

I have begun to be what I wanted to be.  My stories have been included in national and international publications, although it isn’t yet time to quit the day job. And it is all because I was lucky enough to have you as my mother. So thanks, Mom.  I love you.

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.

Roses and the Snow

Rose and Snow

It was my twentieth wedding anniversary a few Thursdays ago and my husband Jamie and I went out to dinner. I went with two of his sisters to a restaurant in Manhattan and he joined his cousin and her husband at their house in Santa Monica. He flies home every Friday night and, like a 36-hour clock precisely wound, returns to Los Angeles on Sunday evening.

Sometimes I wonder if the ceramic bride and groom on our wedding cake were accidentally placed facing in opposite directions. While living in the same place at the same time has sometimes proved difficult, our marriage only became a cross-country relay event three years ago, when he became the President and CEO of The Culver Studios, known throughout the movie-going world as the big, white house seen in the introductory frame of every David O. Selznick film.

While living simultaneous lives on opposite coasts can be Hell, it also comes with unexpected moments of incomparable sweetness that I don’t think would be there if we were together all the time. Sometimes these moments are simultaneous. Sometimes they involve snow.

I really only like snow from a distance, like when Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney are singing as they walk through it, arm in arm. When I am faced with the reality of it, I hate it. It was on my mind from the moment Jamie accepted the job at Culver.

“What’ll I do when it snows?” I had asked in October, as he packed linen clothes for sunny L.A.

“We have that huge new snow blower. “

“I don’t know how to use it.”

“I’ll write it out. You’ll be fine.”

One day last February snow was forecast, a lot of snow, the kind of snowfall that made my student’s noses quiver with delight, as though, like rabbits, they could feel it coming. They were right, because at five a. m. it announced its arrival by a ringing phone.

“Laura, it’s Pam from the snow chain. We have a snow day today.”

I awakened a couple of hours later to a world smothered in snow. Enough snow for a day off is good, but what was piled outside my bedroom window was overkill. And it was still coming, tiny, crispy, little crystalline flakes floating happily to the ground covering trees, bushes, and trellises.   It seemed as if a giant Martha Stewart had gotten carried away with the sugar shaker.

Staring at it dolefully didn’t make it go away, so I decided to blow it. I didn’t want to spend the entire day and night marooned. How hard could it be? All manner of confidence-boosting mantras burbled in my brain as I dressed in multiple layers of sweatpants. Then I dialed our house in Santa Monica, the house near the beach where it doesn’t snow. I woke him.

“It’s snowing.”

“Oh.”

“I’m going to snow blow so I don’t have to stay here all day.”

“Oh.”

“Is it hard?”

“No, it’s pretty easy. It’s self-propelled, after all.”

Outside, actually standing next to it, the snow blower looked a lot bigger than it had when that nice man had delivered it from Wyckoff Power Equipment. I pulled off the note Jamie had taped to it. “Plug it in. Push the orange lever forward. Press the black button. It’s electric start so you’ll be fine.”

Like the diligent student I’ve always been, I followed the directions to the letter. Vrooooom! It roared to life. I had planned to aim the Zamboni-sized monstrosity up the hill toward the road, but I couldn’t move it. It weighed two tons. Thinking the self-propulsion would help, I squeezed the handle and gave it gas. Pow! It jumped and dragged me into the garage wall. This was harder than I thought. Inch by inch I turned the snow blower until it pointed mostly uphill toward the road, definitely away from the garage. Squeezing the gas handle again and holding on tight simultaneously proved to be the key. It chugged up the hill projectile-vomiting all the snow in its path. It was huge, though, and heavy, and despite the self-propulsion or maybe because of it, I ended up with a really crooked furrow. Regardless of what propelled it, it still had to be pushed low to the ground and guided. It looked like a nearsighted groundhog with faulty GPS had tried to burrow uphill in the dark. My confidence ebbed.   One badly plowed trough in the snow wasn’t going to solve the driveway problem. At the top of the hill, I let off the gas and, again, inched it into the correct position. By now I was sweating profusely in my down jacket so I ripped it off and tossed it over the stone pillar that frames my driveway and continued in my sweats. Downhill was easier (the self-propulsion, again) but since it was downhill and I am just over 100 pounds, I lost control of the machine and it thumped along with me clinging to it. Nearing the end of the hill, and trying to hold onto it, I forgot to stop squeezing the gas lever and crashed into the garage wall again.

My spirit of adventure left as I landed on my butt in the cold, steadily deepening snow. My ego was completely deflated. Obviously, I couldn’t do this. There was too much snow, it was snowing too hard still, and I was just not big or strong enough to handle the machine. I began to feel sorry for myself. My rotten husband went to Los Angeles and left me here in the Arctic. My nose started to dribble and fat, hot tears welled in my eyes. Too stubborn to surrender, I tugged on the giant machine until it faced uphill again. I began a new channel next to the previous one. Suddenly it got harder to push the machine and it looked like less snow was being churned up and spewed out. I released the gas and shoved the lever into Park. Crouching in front of the behemoth I saw that one of the churning blades, the far left one, was spinning lazily. I touched it. It twirled like a Texas cheerleader’s baton. It was broken. Something had broken it. Pushing away the caked snow I saw that a twig stuck out at a weird angle, like a broken arm. I realized exactly what was wrong because it had happened before. The rigid twig had jammed the blades causing the shear bolt to snap.

Fury crashed over me like a tidal wave. I stumbled through the slippery mess into the garage and grabbed the extension phone. Wiping my nose with my left sweatshirt sleeve, I dialed L.A. with my right hand. Jamie answered.

“It’s broken!” I sobbed.

“What?”

“It’s broken. The damn snow blower is broken. The snow is so heavy it snapped a little branch from the maple tree near the well house and it’s still snowing so it got buried by the snow and I didn’t see it so I ran over it and it wedged in the blade and broke the shear bolt again and now the stupid thing’s broken and I’m stuck here in eight inches of snow all by myself and it’s seventy-five degrees where you are and you left me here all alone and I want a divorce.”

Silence. Then, “I’ll call you back.”

Heaving with sobs at life’s unfairness and the relentless snow and my husband’s selfishness and, truth be told, my own incompetence, I stomped into the house, kicked off my boots and threw myself onto the kitchen window seat to cry. After about twenty minutes I felt a bit better and decided to make a cup of tea. I unfolded my legs to rise from the seat, and a red SUV appeared at the top of my driveway. “Oh, great. He’s broken down right there so even if I could get someone to plow he’d be blocking the driveway,” I mumbled.   Just as I was about to pull on my boots to go back outside I realized whose car it was. It was Jamie’s friend Kurt. He strode down the driveway. The snow seemed to part in front of his 6’4’ frame.

I opened the back door.

“Hey, Jamie called me from California and said you needed help with the snow blower so I brought an extra bolt from my house. Those darn things break so easily, don’t they?”

Kurt fixed the snow blower and cleaned the entire driveway. Then he had a cup of hot tea with me in the warm kitchen and drove to his own house. I had a clean driveway and didn’t have to stay home all day if I didn’t want to. I didn’t go anywhere, though, once the driveway was plowed. I snuggled on the couch with the dog and watched Turner Classic Movies. And it’s a good thing because if I had, I might not have been there to open the door when the truck arrived from The Little Flower Shoppe in Ridgewood bringing a dozen snow colored roses. The card read “Happy Snow Day. Your worthless husband.”