Jul 20, 2010

Big City, Small Town

About a year ago I decided to treat myself to lunch at Naidre's--a fabulous coffee shop that is not in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I'd been there a handful of times over the past couple of years since it's not far from my kids' school, but not enough to be known by the people working there. I was just another stranger heading in for a bite.

It was one of the first great springy days of the year and so I'd grabbed a lighter jacket than the wintry one I'd been slogging around in for months. Switching coats, bags, or tampering with anything for that matter is a dangerous thing for me and even though I'm forty-one, I refuse to remember how forgetful I am. I stuff money in coat pockets, or maybe a credit card'll end up there if I've pumped gas recently and have had to separate one out from my wallet for a period of time longer than just a regular swipe. And then of course I do something silly like wear a raincoat, or no coat, or decide at the last minute to carry a different bag than my regular one...and I have that terrible moment where I realize I have no money too late.

That's what happened at Naidre's that day. I ordered a big cup of Rosy Earl Grey tea with milk, and some exciting sandwich. And as they passed the goods to me I dug around in my pockets and soon realized I was completely penniless. I was flooded with the familiar feeling of having failed at being a grownup, yet again. **The familiar feeling of failure is my new favorite concept, poached from the new novel Four Wives, by Wendy Walker where it's mentioned in a lovely passage about a woman who nurses her fussy child in the middle of the night, simultaneously calming him down AND destroying all of her sleep-training efforts. I've found this ffof applies to many aspects of my life.

'I have no money,' I announced, with startled unhappy eyes. There was half of an uncomfortable moment, and then I ventured 'could I bring you the money later today?'

While I don't try this kind of thing often, I'm always surprised when perfect strangers trust me. I have this wide open honest midwestern face that seems to invite conversation from all kinds of people in all kinds of places, but I also tend to dress wayyy down and often feel like retailers think I'm going to shoplift. This paranoia, no doubt, stems from my early days in high-end retail. On days off (which were never weekend days) I'd refuse to put any effort into my appearance and I'd do my own shopping. I always thought it ironic that nervous eyes that would flicker at me as I'd pad around a store in my oversized sweater and birkenstocks with socks, since only the day before I was the fanciest girl in the world personal shopping with people like Phyllis George and the Sultan of Brunei. So used to being considered a shoplifter am I that these little moments of trust--this counter girl in one of the biggest cities in the world trusts that I'll bring her the $7 I owe her!--shock me. Still, I threw it out there as a possibility. Hoping that open honest face would trump slovenly con-lady appearance.

Sure enough the woman shrugged and said 'yeah okay, that'd be fine.'

'Really?' I nearly ruined the moment, starting to feel even more like a loser. Of course I was good for it, I'd bring the money later, I'd make a special trip from home to do it, etc. But this just seemed so much to ask.

'Sure, no problem' she said, pushing my food towards me. 'Enjoy.'

And enjoy I did. Nothing like a bit of reading material, some hot tea, and a good sandwich. I took my time, soaking up the experience. An hour later I pushed away from the table, bussed my own stuff, and went to leave.

'Thanks,' I said, approaching the counter on my way out. 'I'll be back later, what time do you close?'

'Oh!' she said, looking confused. 'Didn't anyone tell you? The lady behind you in line paid for you.'

'Someone paid for me?' I asked, searching the room, trying to place which 'lady' might have done this.

'Yeah, she heard you saying you didn't have your money and she told me she wanted to pay for you, said she tried to do a good deed every day. But she left already.'

'She...' I started, craning my neck to the sidewalk in front, still thinking I could find her somewhere. This wasn't computing. Try as I might I couldn't even remember anyone being in line after me. I settled on a simple 'wow.'

The counter lady winked at me, appreciating my befuddlement. 'Pay it forward,' she suggested, smiling.

I left Naidre's feeling light as air. Smiling giddily at the next thousand strangers I saw might not have been the right way to pay it forward but I couldn't help myself. The glow of this stranger's good deed stayed with me all afternoon, all week, and can still rise up and make me happy whenever I remember to remember it.

Later that day I tried to tell the story to my husband, but found that no actual telling could recapture the shiny specialness of the feeling of finding out that someone who didn't know me had decided to make my day (and it didn't help that there was a bit of 'you forgot your money?' incredulousness from him which kind of ruins all the good feeling of the story). Of all the choices that woman had to make in that moment--judge me, hate me, ignore me, she chose to settle my tab for me. Anonymously. Ignoring me would have been anonymous too.

Another small town story from big city Brooklyn. Of course a story like this could happen anywhere. `But the fact that things like this do happen here is something I love. I love this place.

Jul 19, 2010

They Know Movie Stars

Sasha swivels around in her seat, folds her arms high on her chest, lowers her chin and her eyes well up with tears. 'They're hurting my feelings,' she sniffs. The two blondes at her table look up at me with wide eyes. Still engrossed in their paintings and in their conversation, they can see that Sasha's troubled, but they don't understand why.

'How are they hurting your feelings?' I ask.

'They (sniff) they're talking about how they know movie stars. And I (sniff)--I don't know any movie stars.' Her face is screwed up now and red. The tears fall off her cheeks onto her plaid skirt.

I look at the other two, also in their plaid uniforms. Not sure if there was indeed any taunting, or if their innocent chatter about the movie stars they know was sufficient to send Sasha over the edge. She's prone to needing little bits of extra attention.

The other day Carrie got something in her eye and I knelt down and focussed on her intently and encouraged her to blink, and the next thing I knew the 'something in the eye' disease had become contagious, and four girls surrounded me pointing and blinking. Sasha took one look at the group and approached as well. 'Umm, Miss Morgan?' she said, in a grave, raspy voice. 'I think I should go to the nurse because I just threw up three times in my mouth and swallowed it.'

'Fine with me. Go.'

The two blonde movie-star knowers happen to wear glasses. Gigi's are rimmed in pink, and Trixie's aren't. Both girls squinted up at me, smiling uncertainly. Not sure what they'd done wrong.

'Well,' I started, looking at Sasha who was clearly assuming I'd defend her against this celebrity onslaught, 'you know, movie stars are just regular people--boring old people who just happen to have jobs that make them famous. It's really no big deal.'

'Yeah,' Gigi shrugged, setting her paintbrush down to push her glasses further up her nose. 'And they're just very good friends of mine who are in lots of movies, that's all.'

'See?' Sasha complained, with an accompanying sob. 'She's hurting my feelings again.'

Trixie looked at me, confused. 'But we didn't know it was hurting her feelings, we were just talking about all the movie stars we know. We can't help it that we know them.'

'See?' Sasha begged.

I tamped down the urge to ignore Sasha's complaints. How much fun it would be to pull up a stool and find out which movie stars these girls were talking about!

One youngster's mom knew Jackson Pollack, one is a direct descendant of Walt Disney ('Zoe's the whole reason we even have Mickey Mouse' is the skewed, but funny logic I've overheard since Zoe's been on the planet for about five and a half years), one has a mom who's on Project Runway. One girl's dad is good friends with Susan Sarandon--who to these little girls is just the voice of the evil witch in Enchanted. Regular, boring, old people. I reminded myself. But of course, what a blast it would be to know who these little girls were rubbing their little shoulders with.

'Can't you make them stop?' Sasha pleaded, snapping me out of my daydream.

'Girls, Sasha's feeling a little bit sensitive now, so do you think you could just change the subject?' I asked, soberly.

'Sure!' the girls said, gaily. I'm certain they were glowing inside from knowing their movie stars. When I was fourteen I went to New York City and saw Robby Benson in The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway. That I'd been in the same room as Robby Benson of Ice Castles and Death Be Not Proud fame (the desperate teenage girl kind of fame) felt really wonderful and I'm sure I felt important when I talked about it back in my midwestern high school.

I'm guessing these girls' degrees of separation from their own movie stars didn't involve complete anonymity and two thousand other audience members. Of course it would be fun to know who they know, but of course it doesn't really matter who they know. Of course I did the right thing and never asked.

The tableful of uniformed first graders settled back to their art projects. Sasha settled back in to her painting, and eventually decided she needed to visit the nurse again.

Just a little itty bit of a day in the life of the Upper West Side private school where I've been teaching this year.

Jul 17, 2010

Morals of These Stories

I was driving my daughter to camp this morning and at one point in our journey we came across a barrier of orange cones and a big sign that threatened 'Road Closed, Local and Emergency Traffic Only' and I took one look at the gridlock being caused by all the people obeying the sign and I thought to myself, simultaneously, 'her camp's local,' (it wasn't really) and 'this is an emergency, we're running a few minutes late.' And without feeling too guilty I drove right past the sign and made our way to camp. We didn't encounter anything that looked like construction or anything else, and glided smoothly, unobstructed, all the way there.

Years ago I had to go pick up W-something forms for our babysitter from the IRS agency. Either the place was as crowded as the DMV OR at that time it was combined with the DMV. I don't really remember which of these is true, but the basic idea is that it was just a disaster of a government agency. I was 'triaged' immediately by someone who learned that I just needed to pick up a form, and I was sent to some very specific line and given a very high number. I couldn't believe that I was supposed to wait for my number to be called. Around me people sat with sour faces, my memory is that there were chickens clucking and children screaming, but again that might be embellishment. You get the idea though. After a few minutes I did the math--they were on number 39 when I got here and I have number 187 and it's taken seven minutes to get to number 41--and realized that it would never be my turn. I asked a few official people if I really had to do all this waiting just to get a form, and they all nodded grimly. A few more minutes passed and then number 42 was called, pause, repeated, and I realized I could be in front of the open teller in seconds. I lept to the counter, confessed that I was not number 42, and said 'I just need this one form.' The woman rolled her eyes, reached behind her, pulled one down from the shelf, and handed it to me. I left the building fifteen minutes after I arrived, and strolled out past hundreds of downtrodden people on my way out, with my crisp W-whatever in my hand.

Hooray, right? In each case I broke the rules and got exactly what I needed, as scores of other people, sheep-like obeyers, suffered the consequences of their obedience.

Good for me, right? Wrong.

These moments make me ill. I hate it. Leaping to open tellers, disobeying stern traffic signs, these things do not come naturally to me. But I live in New York--the land of 'HONK! the red light's taking too long, it MUST be broken! HONK, just drive through it--I tell you, it MUST be broken, HONK!' and I've just kind of adapted. So all I'm thinking as I waltz out of the IRS agency with my form in hand is 'crap, does this mean I have to be this pushy every time I need something from the IRS?' And when I sailed past the orange barrier and found nothing but open road and no traffic I thought 'crap, does this mean I have to consider ignoring every construction sign?'

In each case I got what I wanted, I got where I wanted to be, and I got these things quickly. But not without some shame on my part and yet another lesson learned: self-righteousness and aggression really pay off sometimes.

And even though I feel quite triumphant in these moments...I don't love the morals of these stories.

Jul 16, 2010

Easy Boy

The other day my neighbor sat on my stoop and we watched some of the younger kids playing on the block. Her son was screaming and racing around. He's five and is an especially rambunctious youngster with loud opinions and an at-rest stance (one arm up in front of his head with a clenched fist. the other fist at his waist, elbow pointing sharply out behind him) that makes him seem always prepared for battle.

When does he grow out of this phase? she asked me, pleadingly. When will he settle down like your son? She was referring to my nine year old. My younger kids are girls, seven and four.

I never know how to answer this. I'm asked it a lot. I think it can be traced to how the wave of gentrification has spread out over this corner of Brooklyn. We couldn't afford a nice brownstone in Fort Greene ten years ago like many of our counterparts could, but we could afford to take a chance on a crappy fixer-upper here in Clinton Hill. Several years later Fort Greene's prices were astronomical and all those thirty-year old professionals bursting with their first child bought up places in Clinton Hill. So while my son has a lot of peers about seven blocks away, there aren't many kids his age nearby. And among these parents of younger kids, he stands out as being this older, slightly mysterious kid. He's into baseball, he's into Star Wars, he's into whatever blockbuster movie's at the theater, he can talk to grown-ups but unless he's talking about one of the aforementioned subjects, he'd really rather not.

On the whole he's an incredibly mellow chill kid. So all these parents of younger boys ask me this question all the time: When will my son get to be all relaxed like yours?

Of course I have no crystal ball, but I do have the dark secret that my boy was never like their kid. I remember one time when he did this little destructo thing at a Barnes and Noble--pulling all the board books off the shelf to watch them kind of cascade down. But that's the only thing I remember. He was two. One other time (at a Barnes and Noble, I'm wondering if there's a pattern here), he cried and wouldn't share a train with a stranger-boy at the train table. He was two and a half. That's it. One destructive moment, one major unkindness. But that's really it. He's just a sweet gentle boy.

Full disclosure: My four-year old daughter has proven destructive and unkind enough for all of us. I've caught wind that the PreK she's entering has grouped the classes around HER powerful personality. In some ways, after watching my older two kids getting slotted in as space filler around some of the more out-there members of their grades, I do feel like I'm finally getting my money's worth, even though it's a public school.

But I'm not asked about her. I'm asked about him. Here's how I hear the question: When will my little monster turn into your amazing son? Another way is this: When did YOUR easy boy STOP being a terrible little kid? And I'm back to not knowing how to answer.

I usually just shrug and say 'well he was always pretty mellow,' I pull out the two examples that I mentioned above to show some 'mother-of-a-wild-boy' solidarity. But it's not too convincing.

Sorry folks, he's just a great kid. Good luck with your little nightmare.

Jul 15, 2010

The Blogger on my Shoulder

I've always been quick to make connections. Every single thing that happens to me, everything I notice, every news bit I hear sparks a swirl of ideas in my head about things in my own life, my kids, my suspicions about how the world works. Everything resonates.

Wishing my daughter wouldn't play in a puddle on the way home from school, I catch myself taking a half-step back and wondering why I'm so opposed to it. Is it really too much trouble to have her come home with wet feet? Am I really 'the mom who doesn't have the energy' to deal with several extra minutes of clean-up in the wake of my child having what might possibly be considered the single most perfect kid moment possible? The sheer enjoyment of splashing in a puddle on a wet sidewalk on the way home from school? Am I really trading in on the preciousness of her fleeting childhood for the preciousness of an easy first few minutes in my house? What does this say about me? What does this mean for her? What will it mean for her children somewhere down the road?

All that from one little moment on a sidewalk with a puddle.

How much fun that is when I have the energy to capture it in a little essay!

How satisfying it is to throw it up on a blog and get 'wow you really nailed it/I never thought if it that way!' comments! Or better yet, 'you describe what goes on in my mind so well, thanks for putting your words to my thoughts.'

What a ball and chain it feels like when I hit these patches where I don't feel like doing anything about these things in my head!

Sometimes I just want that 'hey I'm offended that they're showing a male enhancement ad during a Mets game on tv because my boy's nine and I have to explain so much to him and I don't really understand what male enhancement is (is it like Viagra? How come they're driving race cars?) and how am I going to explain it to him?' voice to disappear. Let me just observe that something's going on that I don't appreciate, and then let me move on without feeling compelled to write it down.

I know no one's asking for any of this from me. I also know that there are times I know that I need to write things down in order to stay sane, and sometimes I learn something just by virtue of having spent a few minutes getting it out in paper. But then sometimes, every now and then, I just want a puddle to be a puddle, and an ad to be an ad.

And for some odd reason, I had the urge to write this down today.