Friday, July 2, 2010

Cutting Off My 212


It was a quiet amputation, and I had to do it. Alone. I sat at my desk, and the afternoon was hot and still.

Truly, there has been no real use for it for quite a few months now, but it was mine, you see, and it has been part of me for so many years. I was attached to it and reluctant to let it go. But it was time. I took a breath, picked up the phone and called Vonage.

I cut off my 212.

I have had a 212 number for 28 years, ever since I moved to Manhattan with my shiny new college diploma. I have had this exact 212 number for 11 years, ever since I bought my own place in Harlem. Erika Jong points out to me that my beloved 212, my coveted-by-many 212, is pale in nostalgic and poetic value alongside such antique exchanges as her own childhood ENdicott2, or John O'Hara's fictitious BUtterfield8 (Huffington post, Sept. 8, 2009). But those were exchanges, not area codes. It was not until the booming 1950s that the area code started becoming a necessity because of the growing quantities of phone numbers needed, especially in densely populated areas.

212 was the original Manhattan area code, distinguishing it from the not far away but more suburban 718 of Brooklyn. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language informs that originally "Area codes were assigned based on the length of time a rotary dial phone took to dial the area code. Densely populated areas like New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit had huge incoming call volume and were assigned numbers (212, 312, 213, 313) that could be quickly dialed from a rotary phone." So, the fast-talkers in Manhattan and Chicago were evidently in a bigger hurry to dial than the rest of the country. With their cumbersome 7 and 8, the Brooklynites demonstrated that they had way too much time on their hands.

But analog rotary efficiency aside, there is an elegance to the twin swan-necked 2's that flank that single skyscraper of a 1. It's an elegance, almost architectural, that goes well with that deco diva, the Empire State Building; it complements the Tiffany cigarette box lines of the Chrysler Building and the savoir faire of Bing Crosby tap-dancing up a wall without wrinkling the crease in his pants. 212 belongs in the MoMA. 212 remarks to no one in particular, "I am the crème de la crème."

There is another aspect of 212, however, that makes me suspicious that the Masonic Order, not dialing speed, might have been behind this choice of area code. At 211 degrees water is, of course, very very hot, but at 212ºF (100ºC), it boils. Let us be exact: fresh water (not saline or impure which boils at a higher temperature) at sea level boils as 212ºF. Life is different on Mt. Everest where water boils at at 156.2ºF (69ºC) or in Grandmama's kitchen in Twin Falls, ID in the high desert where it boils somewhere in between. But for all intents and purposes we can say that if one wishes to make tea in Manhattan, 212 is the temperature that must be achieved.

What are we to make of this, since we are indeed of a mind to make something of it? 212 indicates a tipping point, the exact point at which a liquid becomes a gas. 212 marks the transformation, the graduation from one level to the next: Up, up and away! We who come to Manhattan, this island of glacier-pressed Manhattan schist, Fordham gneiss and Inwood limestone, come to be transmogrified. No one comes to Manhattan to remain exactly what they were in Dubuque: We come to change our feathers and rise up; we come to become the people we dream we might be.

I remember when I came to New York I lived with my sister in Chinatown on Henry Street with her rabbit and her skylit, pink-tiled bathroom. I don't think I had any idea what I was doing there except that since I was small, wherever she was seemed a safe place to be, and anyway I had no intention of going home to the parental units. Every morning, I would put on my blue wash-and-wear suit and sally into Midtown trying to get hired somewhere to do anything. Every late afternoon, I'd come home while the hot summer sun set pink and gold on the dirty brick tenements of Henry Street, my blue wash-and-wear all wrinkled and smelling sour under the arms. I would pick up a can of Campbell's mushroom soup for dinner, and I'd try to make myself as invisible as possible at my sister's place.

I figured out right away that the goal of this Manhattan game was to rise up, like a vapor, to the pure land where smelly acrylic interview suits, mushroom soup and couch surfing were a barely remembered nightmare. But how to get from street level to there? How was I to shape shift and blend in to the point where I, too, could live in taxi cabs and penthouses without my feet ever touching the sticky pavement? How could I rise above it all and live where happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow, why oh why?

I was too awkward, clueless and lost in those days to even imagine grabbing for any brass rings. But the thought was there, as if the island itself had radiated it into me, that the only life worth living was the life of transformation, of refining oneself into something better and lighter than the clumsy, ordinary flesh suit one had been born into.

Today, as I amputate my 212, I remember my youthful yearning to transform. And as I review every dream I ever had, I cannot help but try to estimate to what extent any of my dreams have ever come true. Good friends are better at seeing my successes than I am, and I try to learn to see myself through their kind and loving eyes. But I never quite made it to that frothy upper level in Manhattan, perhaps because my desires and fears were far too earthbound to allow it, or perhaps because my real element is water and not air. So instead of looking up, I am now looking out. I find the view so much less vertiginous, so much more reassuring and calm.

I am afraid that I will cease to strive when I break up with Manhattan. But stronger than my fear is my love for FF, as my hunger for my own piece of earth is stronger than my desire for a piece of Manhattan sky. Somewhere there's a tree, a piece of ground and a mountain quietly waiting for me.

That evening, I am on the train again, headed south on the Trenton line. The conductor comes up the aisle on the train bound for Tiny Town, and just as we pull out of Newark he comes to take my ticket. I ask him, "When do we arrive?" "2:12," he remarks, taking my slip of paper and punching it full of holes.







2 comments:

G.S. said...

Thank you for your comment on my photo blog, and for the opportunity to enter your own. I feel honored to be, apparently, your first comment-maker. I was kind of riveted to both your posts. The first, a world I knew nothing of and hadn't ever really considered. And the second, as a fellow New York observer and philosopher, a "212" metaphor that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. If I find myself borrowing it I will give you credit for its origin! I think you have a great talent for sorting out the relevent and expressing it with amazing precision. I'll be looking forward to reading more.

Urban Exile said...

G.S.,you've brought a lump to my throat. Thank you for your very , very encouraging words to me, a baby blogger.

This is Necessary Writing I am doing. I look for the point that starts in me, stretches beyond me and then I wrestle with it until I make it crack out of the eggshell of my Self and into something that might approach a universal, if petite, truth.

I think you really have something there with your photo series. You have a sharp eye for emotion expressed through the candid human gesture.

Thank you for visiting me.