Swimming Towards the Light

 pedestrians-falling-ice-new-york-cityWinter…was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run.  – Mark Helprin, Winters Tale

I am swimming through March like a hulking creature trapped under a layer of ice.  During this annual period of prolonged hibernation, I only move towards food and light.  I am restless, irritable and discontent.  If a scientist espousing the irrefutable evidence of global warming were to cross my cantankerous path, I would beat him with my snow shovel and bury him in a shallow grave filled with rock salt.

Each weekend, I don my running gear, desperate for exercise and dopamine.  On this particular Saturday, weak sunshine courses through the family room windows suggesting that spring has indeed arrived on the wings of red-breasted robins and lavender crocus

I open the front door to a blast of Alberta air that slashes my face and causes the dog to retreat into the foyer.  Brody, my fearless Aussie, looks up at me to gauge my resolve to exercise.  He seems to be suggesting that we stay home and forage for leftovers.  As it stands, we are already likely to be last to die in a famine.

It is 30F with a wind chill that has reduced the sun to a useless dead apricot in the sky.  It seems to have lost much of its potency after a prolonged stay in the Southern Hemisphere.  Clouds course overhead casting frigid shadows as they rush to the Northeast to deposit more snow.  The bloated pirate Winter mocks us, declaring us summer landlubbers, unfit for the brittle day that hangs like an icicle. Screw it.  We are going outside – even if one of us has to eat the other.  We brave four miles of northern wind and frozen inkblot ponds. Not a robin or crocus in sight.

We later retreat indoors while the persistent wind claws at our windows.  Heat courses out a decade of unattended cracks, broken weather stripping and an attic that could double as a meat locker. My front hallway has more cold spots than a haunted house.  Growing up in in Los Angeles, we opened the windows for air conditioning and closed them for heat.  It now costs me $100 a month for each precious degree I wish above 55F.

At this time of year, the dividends of four-season living elude me.  I don’t really mind the snow but temperatures under 20F really piss me off.  As a native Californian I know I have a choice to live here but my home state has changed. I am not sure I am attractive enough now to live in California.  I left the Golden State a svelte thirty-eight year old and now resemble a friendly manatee – a work out video’s permanent “before” photograph.

It hurts to know it is 80F in LA. Despite its fiscal woes, a recent 4.7 earthquake (we call these baby tremblers “jello-jigglers”), a 100-year drought and a few mudslides, it still looks pretty damn good.

I recall almost succumbing to the early March Lion just walking five blocks up 10th Avenue after a cab driver dropped me prematurely in ten-degree weather.  During my right-angle walk into a fierce headwind, I tried to speak to a mummified pedestrian who sounded like Kenny from South Park. I needed the shelter of a coffee shop.

“I…Cold…Coffee…What…So…Cold”

The faceless bundle of laundry pointed toward a brown awning whipping in the north wind.  I exploded into to the coffee shop on a jet stream of angry wind. The pierced, tattooed girl behind the counter considered me with classic militant disdain.  She looked uninterested as I struggled to recover the use of my face.

I sat in a corner and considered this subzero moment.  The City was now a clenched fist – – rigid, fighting to hold on to everything much like a hoarder refuses to part with any possession.  It will not release heat in the summer and clutches to its infertile chill in the winter.  We lunge down its streets and cut through its passages, tightening into pill bug pedestrians that hobble between cars and plumes of frozen air.

I enter the lobby of a building on Madison Avenue as a bitter gust courses through the revolving doors.  I take the elevator to my client’s floor.  It is now like a Native American sweat lodge.  I may soon discover my spirit animal as I almost pass out from the ninety-degree heat.  In the client’s foyer, I have a heat stroke vision of the great white manatee.  The aquatic behemoth moves nimbly under the water, twisting as he scours the ocean floor for turtle grass.  He turns and grins with his bizarre prehensile upper lip.  He has my eyes.  Opal blue optimism shines as he jerks to one side and disappears under a dust devil of underwater sand.

The winter daylight seems to last less than four hours before a purple twilight canopy is cloaked over the frigid boulevards. I exit the office to catch the 6:09 train only to slip on an agate piece of ice that causes my foot to shoot into the side of a fire hydrant. I can almost hear the salt pulverizing the leather of my shoes as I hop on one foot across 38th Street and stumble toward Grand Central.

A bike messenger screams at me as he tears through a red light dressed only in a cotton shirt and spandex pants.  He will most likely be dead in one hour but I respect his sartorial protest.  He probably thinks he is a snow leopard.   I am uplifted by his refusal to allow this frozen season to defeat him.  He yells into my face and races toward a different fate.

I am suddenly exhausted and crave caffeine, and carbohydrates.  I cannot think too far into the future.  I have already overdrawn my bank account of thoughts of warmer days and French jazz spilling out on to a café on the Champs D’Elysse.  I am frozen and pissed off.  It’s March, for God’s sake.  Until May, I will be crowded in a shadowed glen of denuded trees that slowly push buds toward the arching Southern light.  Spring cannot arrive too soon.  This manatee needs sun, warm water and a little turtle grass.

As I walk across 42nd , I am approached by a gray, shaggy oracle. He greets me in mid-sentence as if we are picking up on a conversation that had been cut short.  He is speaking a strange frozen gutter dialect.  We are having a NY moment.  Crazy always finds crazy.

This prophet speaks to me about the cold weather through a gray tangle of hair, inebriation and filth.  He is either asking me for some money or informing me that a group of trolls will begin hunting me tonight.   I have violated my Mother’s golden rule of never making eye contact with the insane. Our senses lock and he continues his three-tooth soliloquy that is unlike any language I have ever heard.  I am transfixed.  He senses my winter lunacy.  He has found a soul mate and I’m going to miss my train. I hand him a sawbuck and tumble inside the station.

Two things stay certain: it is still winter and crazy always finds crazy.

Give Me Darien or Give Me Death

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...
Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He [Moriarty] is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” Sherlock Holmes, The Final Problem

The last game of the regular season was a nail biter fought against a motivated rival that wanted nothing more than to prove their prowess as a 8-1 team, secure regional bragging rights and defend their year-long hold on the coveted Turkey Bowl championship trophy. Our boys were 12-0 and recently crowned FCIAC champs, now fighting to stay ranked number one in CT and for the right to join the rarefied pantheon of undefeated teams from their high school.

As with all things New England, the weather proved a fickle twelfth man – denying each squad the ability to leverage some perceived advantage. The scoring see-sawed across missed and executed assignments, made and incomplete plays, turnovers, penalties, and defensive and offensive gems. It was a thrill and agony for thousands of Darien and New Canaan fans who left the warmth of their homes in hopes of sautéing their dinners with a win in the eighty-fourth annual Thanksgiving Day meeting of the two border town rivals.

Over the years, this particular rivalry has become part of our unique, small town mythology. As the parent of a senior player, I was very familiar with the families on both sides of the ball – having shared a decade of sidelines with my fellow New Canaanites and equally invested Darien parents at countless football and lacrosse games. The only thing that separated us over the years had been a thin green patch of field and an invisible geographic line of demarcation that moved like an EKG from east to west across Southern Fairfield County.

In a place where we must endure waiting – for spring, for summer, for a seat on a train, for a storm to stop, for electricity to go back on, for a market to turn and for a second chance to right a wrong, rivalries give our lives discreet meaning. Our rivals teach us much about ourselves – how to overcome defeat, how to behave in victory, how to work hard and how to focus. It’s about periodically having your best laid plans thwarted and not getting too comfortable with press clippings or self charted trajectory. Like the old west, it’s a reminder that on any given day, there may be a guy out there who can draw his gun a little faster.

I was informed upon moving to New Canaan that the tribe to the south was indeed the enemy. Like us, they were successful, war-like and athletic. As in nature, there was only room at the top of the food chain for one champion. Initially, I found it hard to distinguish them from our own – and it seemed that our mutual disdain, like property taxes, was foisted upon us when we signed the mortgage papers. We were in fact, like two twisted oaks arising out of the same single root system. Later in life, my daughter would return home from college across three thousand miles of America and announce that her new best guy friend was a guy named Grant from Darien. Mon enfant? Sacre Bleu?

Personally, I love being a part of the almost century long rivalry between these sibling communities. Competition is the essence of our American ethos and it brings us meaning and purpose. A player is not only competing for the right to assert his/her alpha status – a rank which, by the way, carries only a 364 day shelf life; but, the competitor also gets to experience what it feels like to be a standard bearer for their town. Any regional competition becomes much more than a game, it evolves into a hot stove debate over generational genetics and who has the better coffee shop and diner. And oh, those games can be barn burners.

Like Holmes and Moriarty, Superman and Lex Luther or Batman and the Joker, rivals need each other to fuel their own identities. Closer to home, it helps promote a sense of team and community and it creates life lessons. Irrespective of statistical match-ups, each year it seems our teams prove worthy of one another. As in life, there have been epic struggles and disappointing blow-outs, tear-jerkers and made for TV endings that somehow felt as though one or the other side had been favored by the Gods. More practically, these were the first opportunities for high-bottom kids raised in cocoons of managed self-esteem to have to bite from the bittersweet apple of momentary failure.

Any rivalry that runs deep can get out of hand. Having gratefully grown up before police blotters and social media attacks on kids who (yes, it is true) occasionally make bone-headed choices, I have seen fist fights, petty pre-school exchanges between adults, school graffiti and a Wild Kingdom episode from 2012 where some weak prostate alumnae thought it would be funny to urinate on our players’ gym bags (BTW, most of those gym bags smelled the same even after the incident, so the joke’s on you guys).

Yet, compared to some of the dumb things I saw growing up, most of these bad decisions can be classified as misdemeanors of stupidity. (I did, however, think it would be clever to give the first hundred Darien fans urine specimen cups as a gate prize at this year’s Turkey Bowl but I was dismissed from the adult’s table before I could get much support.) The fact is our kids do get caught up in the rivalry and don’t always have the same evolved filters or restraints that adults are “supposed” to exhibit. The good news is kids all grow up and eventually, with exception of Washington politicians and talk show hosts, they learn not to act on the first thought that comes into their head.

I stared up at the scoreboard as the last Ram pass fell incomplete. For the first time this season, it showed a visitor winning the game, 28-24. It was a very sad moment for the senior players and the fans on the west side of the field but I could feel the elation from those parents and families shivering in the visitor section. Yes, a few Darien students ran on to the field taunting us like protestors at a G8 summit but it is hard to take anyone too seriously wearing designer high tops and a Hermes silk handkerchief tied around their face.

It did sting to lose — especially to our rivals. But, there was something about the loss that added another log to the eighty-five year old fire. It created more conversation, more conviction and a level of focus. It passed a baton to a next generation of underclassmen to protect or wrest back the trophy.

Rivalry is part of any ecosystem. It seems at our core, we are all competing and at the same time, need to identify with something greater than ourselves. We need to benchmark our progress against something that we respect that is immediate. It’s in these rivalries that we discover the best and worst in ourselves as communities and as individuals. An annual grudge match that grew out of a muddy field to give bragging rights to one half of a tiny part of Southern Connecticut, has come of age.

As I watched my son collapse on the couch later that day, I knew there was nothing I could do to console him. Time, friends and copious amounts of food and football would ease his pain. These are quiet moments where a pregnant pause can feel like nine months. However, young adults are resilient and life lessons are important alloys to building stronger characters of steel.

“They played well.” He said sighing to no one in particular. “It was a thousand little things that killed us.”

I just sat listening as he deconstructed the day in random sound bites, finally lifting his bruised body off the couch.

“I sure hope we see them again in States.” He grabbed some food from the fridge and went upstairs to take a shower.

I smiled, slowly climbing out of my vicarious parental funk.

Yeah, I thought, just wait until next time!”

Go East Young Man

Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Ma...
Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and Midtown Manhattan at Night, NYC (Photo credit: andrew c mace)

 New York Taxi Rules:
1. Driver speaks no English.
2. Driver just got here two days ago from someplace like Senegal.
3. Driver hates you.

– Dave Barry

My first trip to New York City was in 1987.  I was 26 years old and had only known the Big Apple from gritty 1970s R rated movies like Shaft, Serpico, Death Wish and The French Connection.  (The fact I was able to see these movies with my father when I was still in elementary school is the subject of another story.) The urban citadel of New York was depicted in the flickering darkness of antiseptic California cinemas as a playground for misanthropes, heroin addicts, the criminally insane and corrupt financiers that sat firmly latched like ticks to the neck of the American economy.

Woody Allen and a few urbanized aesthetes attempted to reintroduce the perfumed notion of New York urban romance in films like Annie Hall but as far as I was concerned, the five boroughs comprised one giant petri dish overflowing with the germs spawned from an unscrupulous and unwashed humanity.  I had met kids from New York that had travelled West to attend my college.  They were infinitely more sophisticated having emerged from an entirely different elementary education.  I recall my first New York City roommate showing up with his strange music, turned up Izod collar, pink pants and penny loafers.  One spring afternoon I noticed him wearing a suit and tie one and asked him if someone important had died.  In California, neckties were only worn to church and funerals for heads of state.  He informed me that he was interviewing with Goldman Sachs for a summer internship.  I asked him why he would want to work at a department store.  I only now recognize the withering look of distain that I received.  It is a vintage eastern look that is both an intellectual rebuke and a simultaneous entreaty to God that he cull his human herd of another cripple.

My flight to New York was a seminal event to attend my older brother’s wedding.  He was, ironically, working at Goldman Sachs – presumably selling men’s clothing.  This made sense to me as he did seem to dress well.  I was alone as I lugged my massive garment bag out of Baggage to be assaulted by a gauntlet of gyspy cab and ronin limo drivers. I felt only slightly more confident than a third grader at his first sleep away camp.  I stood in a queue long enough in Los Angeles to qualify for a movie premiere. A half hour later, I was in a suspicious looking cab with a North African driver with blood-red qat eyes. Having mastered the annoying California habit of excessive friendliness, I peppered the poor cabbie with personal details and a stream of nervous questions.

“This is my first trip to NY.”

“How far is it to West 79th Street?”

“My brother’s getting married.”

I glanced at his license, a jumble of vowels interspersed between the letters “k” and “w”.  He appeared to have just walked off the set of The Naked Prey as a co-star with Cornell Wilde. I assumed his “home” must be some obscure nation in Africa.  I had been brought up in the provincial Eden of Los Angeles where Mexico was Tijuana, Canada was viewed like an unused garage apartment and the rest of the world was organized like the board game of Risk.

“So what country are you from?”

“Queens”

The cab swerved across three lanes of Van Wyck expressway brake lights moving on to Rockaway Blvd and a peristalsis of lurching commuters.  I surveyed the gated yards, orange glow of cigarettes and shadowy people tucked in among dilapidated homes and barred windows.  We were moving slowly.  I could easily be pulled from the cab and savaged by an angry mob. I felt my head retracting into my neck as I slumped down below the window.

The driver skirted a traffic jam, honked his horn and swore in a foreign language as he ran a red light.  He turned right away from Rockaway Blvd. and moved slowly down a chain linked side road.  I muttered a silent Rosary.  So this was it.  While my brother’s friends would be inquiring, “Tom, where’s your little brother?”  I would be in a garage in Queens being cut into small pieces and fed to pit bulls.  I briefly contemplated diving out of the taxi to hide in one of the canyon-sized potholes that the vehicle kept pounding across.

“Are we? I mean, is this the best way to the City?”

“Traffic’s bad.”

The lights of New York suddenly appeared to the West shimmering in the haze of the August summer night.  An hour later, I was sitting in my brother’s air condition-less Upper West Side co-op that was only slightly larger than a microwave oven.  He was exhilarated by his Lilliputian lifestyle.  I sat terrified as he described our need to take the subway to meet friends in the Village. The last movie I had seen that involved riding on the NY subway resulted in Charles Bronson shooting a car full of street thugs.

We walked down a stuffy hallway to wait for a coffin disguised as an elevator.  The lift could comfortably accommodate one person.  I hesitated as the door opened to two people.  My brother vacantly smiled and wedged in between the man and woman.  I followed, apologizing as I pressed against the young mother. She seemed nonplussed by the fact that we were practically conjoined.  I was certain when we exited the lift I would be wearing her blouse.

The doors opened and we spilled out into the hot breath of a foyer.  The doorman had his back to us watching a homeless man berate a four foot mountain of trash that was accumulating from a recent garbage strike.  August heaved up from the subway grills.  It seemed even the air had left the City for the Hamptons.

The night was an endless bachelor’s party blur of crowded nightclubs, silk dresses, shot glasses, kaleidoscope lights, superficiality and a wad of AMEX receipts.  I do remember being asked by every woman what I did for a living.  As I soon as I shared “insurance”, it was if someone had pulled a fire alarm. With each cocktail, my apprehension of New York City melted.  The mean streets slowly morphed into a neon adult playground of temptations.  I was Pinocchio running with a gang of financial Lampwicks on Pleasure Island.

The following morning, I awoke in the fetal position on floor of my brother’s dressing room apartment clothed only in underwear and dress shoes.  Aside from the roto-tiller grinding through my medulla, I noted the constant thrum of motor vehicles.  On my run through Central Park, I seemed to fixate on the mentally ill and a breed of elite, skeletal mannequins who jogged as if they were starring in an exercise video.  At that moment, I made a life pact that if I survived this dystopian weekend, I would never again cast my shadow east of the Mississippi.

God and life love making lemonade out of sour pledges.  One’s best thinking always becomes fodder for irony.  27 years later, I would find myself living in CT and commuting into New York City.  I was now jostling in the belly of an iron beast ready to be disgorged into the stale underground of Grand Central Station.  It seemed a lifetime ago that I could drive fifteen minutes from work to Newport Beach, run along the strand and then body surf for an hour before returning home to my young family.  It had been months since I had actually seen the ocean, the sky and or a star in a night now awash with light pollution.

Fast forward ten years and I now find myself walking happily up Madison Avenue passing a mélange of restaurants, shops and businesses.  The streets teem with diversity, a giant Masai Mara of heterogeneous souls coursing across a concrete veldt.  It is early fall and a perfect ambient temperature. Everything is bathed in a soft, sequined light.  The City prefers to walk on a day like today.  A car is a burdensome utility in a place like this.  It is a racehorse or vacation property – an impulsive and underutilized possession that must be housed and boarded.  Unlike the love affair we enjoyed with our four-wheeled deities in my native California, there is no value in driving.  To park anywhere is to squeeze into a postage stamp stall deep in the bowels of a urine fragranced car park, or hand $55.00 and one’s keys to a Tunisian parking attendant who has not smiled since he immigrated to the US in 1997.

There is no place to hide from life in the City.  It finds you. Everything is shared.  I often return to the City after dark to attend a dinner, a concert or social event.  Coming down the Hudson or FDR, the city lights are strung like pearls and as with most great works of impressionism, it reveals aspects of itself only when you step back to appreciate it in its entirety.

I visit an organic juice bar for a drink that has more vitamins than five heads of raw broccoli but tastes like battery acid.  A giant rat is inflated in front of an adjacent building that is clearly engaged in behavior that a local union does not find acceptable. A poor demented soul stops to rebuke an invisible demon then attempts to make eye contact with a jet stream of bowed heads and averted glances.  In one block, I pass a lifetime of humanity – all moving with urban determination to a destination that rests like a Hobbit’s hovel somewhere tucked inside a concrete mountain.

The City will change with the seasons.  No day is guaranteed.  The weather and unforeseen disruptions will alter our routines and push us into cabs and underground.  NY is no longer a Broadway beauty or a faded actress, it is a million faces and places hiding in plain sight.  It is a midnight piano bar, a Soho nightclub or the sad saxophone of the Blue Note.  It’s a Central Park autumn jog around the reservoir and a post theatre cappuccino at the Monkey Bar.   It moves and swirls like a holiday dreidel that will not stop.

As I approach my office, I overhear a familiar conversation as a New Yorker offers directions to JFK to a man and woman.

“Now forget everything I just said. You can avoid all dat garbage by taking the downtown and Far Rockaway-bound A train. Don ‘t get on duh god damn Lefferts-bound train.  Go to the Ozone Park-Airtrain station that connects you to JFK.  It leaves da same station as da E train, but youse gotta use a different subway platform. The E and A trains have da dark blue soy-culls. Same price, the freaking A train never runs to Rockaway as much as the E to Jamaica, but it’s always good to have dat as an option.” I smile, grateful for my simple suburban commute, the NY Times crossword and the Whitestone Bridge.

I miss California the way I long to be eighteen again.  I recall the West the way a person gets nostalgic for all the firsts that come with adolescence.

Soon, it will be cold.  I am content to see each season come and am always grateful to see it go.  I endure winter to get to summer.  Spring is a myth and autumn is a joy. It is the East and it is home.