Sunday, September 19, 2010

Goodbye New York, I've Changed My Name.

Two big moments happened in the life of the Exile this week: I changed my name officially and I registered to vote in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania! The land of my birth, the home of old money conservatives, cricket club blue bloods.  This place is nothing like the edgy Upper West Side Democratic hive of New York City where I've been a citizen for 28 years.  I imagine myself a radioactive seed secretly planting myself into local politics here in Stag County: First Tiny Town, then the Nation!

First, though, the name change.  My marriage to FF has caused a landslide of bureaucratic tasks which I labored to complete, and even then stopped halfway: These tasks principally concern my new last name, and admitting officially for the first time that I am no longer a resident of New York City.  Oh man, this is a lot of work, let me tell you! But that is apparently what falling in love costs these days: Lots and lots of paperwork, lots and lots of hours filling out forms. I want to be officially Mrs. FF, old fashioned girl that I am.

First I looked for help to organize this task online: There are various sites for brides (not grooms) selling packages for 29.99 to help one go through the process of changing all of these documents to reflect your new life. What the ads don't tell you are two important things: You can get all of these forms and instructions elsewhere for free; there will be more expense, lots more expense, depending on how far you want to take this new identity thing. FF could have taken my name, which we both rather like, but it would have been weird for his parents and, anyway, what's in a name? Exile was quite unfortunately given a 6 syllable hyphenated first name by her parents, and since I didn't want an un-euphonius 10 syllable name, I asked the woman at social security if I could just use the second half of my first name, that is, the one I have been using publicly all of my life. No, she said. You must go to the Courthouse in Doilyville, fill out the forms, pay 299 dollars (where do they come up with that price?), and then appear live in court to tell the judge in person that you want to make a civil name change. Uh, okay, I said. Never mind. So now I have a 10 syllable name, just because I do not want to completely amputate my maiden name which I've always liked just to reduce syllable count. My name is long as a train. So be it.


Next step, FF goes to the the old HR department at Yankee Doodle Bank where he works, and he signs me up to be part of his Cadillac medical and dental insurance plan,  the first decent plan I've had since 1989 when I quit my job at The Big Newsmagazine Corp. Whooeee! They also have my 10 syllable name on file.

The next step was to register with all ten syllables to vote in Tiny Town, Stag County, PA. But they let me put my name the way I wanted it, without the first three syllables! No proof of my identity was required, just a mailing address.

Then came changing the passport and driver's license. Exile opted out of this for not wanting to spend the money. It was going to cost serious dime to do it, and they're both good for another 8 to 12 years, for heaven's sake. And by the way, according to All Sources, I will not have a problem with immigration or the police if I don't change them. I know FF will worry about this: After all, if I am detained at Kennedy Airport returning from our romantic trip to Paris, will All Sources come to bail me out? Still, I am not taking on changing those documents right now.

The final step was to change my name on ALL of the credit cards, also not a required step but one I want to do because it is FREE, and it is fun to see my new 10 syllables strung across all my plastic. None of the credit card companies put up a fuss about the new name, either, and no proof of identity was required to borrow or owe money! Whee. As a matter of fact, I found out from the lady at the social security office that anyone can get a copy of my birth certificate from the authorities without proof of a right to possess this document. So I said I to her, sez I, gee whiz, sounds like that would be a great place for an evil-doer to start building a false identity, huh? The social security lady said "Hmph!" but did not otherwise comment.

Now Exile's name change (all 10 syllables) is complete, I am fully insured and I am registered to vote in the Republican stronghold of Stag County. I no longer have any official contribution to make to the political life of New York City. Indeed, I am going incognito. The papers have been filed, the break-up is nearly complete. When I sell the apartment, we will be divorced, New York City and I.

The break-up with the political life of New York City is dramatic for me and provoking the usual psychic disturbance that every step of this slow separation has caused me. In the 28 years I lived there, even when I was touring for three years as a singer songwriter in Europe, I always voted. Always. I remember voting against George Bush from an Irish Pub in Bonn, Germany where I had carefully had my absentee ballot sent in advance.  Even then, looking at New York from across the ocean, I kept my hand in because my parents brought me up to take my responsibilities as a citizen seriously, and because as a New Yorker I felt my vote as powerful on a national scale. Now, New York politics will have to get along without me.

I don't know the political scene in Tiny Town or Stag County very well. I have a creeping sense that my vote here will be less important somehow,  lost in the less-populated, wealthier, more complacent atmosphere of this land of country squires and bridge club ladies. Somehow I feel like no one really cares what the people of Tiny Town do, think or vote for. Might I be experiencing the first inklings of the resentment that citizens of Tiny Towns all over the country feel? That feeling that nobody cares? Or am I just still suffering from the illusion that my vote in New York City was a lot more meaningful than it ever really was?

My New York City polling places were always edgy, mostly unwelcoming places, even before I moved to Harlem. They tended to be mildewy, none too clean public school cafeterias populated by weary, bag-eyed  poll workers who took names, assigned voting booths, and thanked me (with a deep sigh) for voting.  My last polling place was the basement of a low-income housing project in Harlem, a linoleum-floored mausoleum of indeterminate color which seemed more suited to housing cots for flood victims, or a feeding station for the homeless than the noble business of exercising one's franchise. Year after year I went and voted, and year after year returned to those unwelcoming places, always leaving with head held high and a sense that pursuing this adventure was important and meaningful. For three years, my name was on the rolls in triplicate, and it took three years of letters to the Board of Elections to get myself to be just one person on the rolls. Ah, good old, dirty old New York City!

But as I near the end of my relationship with New York City, what has really changed as the result of all of all my voting? Charlie Rangel is still a congressman despite all ethical arguments to the contrary. Columbia University is still taking over vast tracts of expensive real estate claiming eminent domain and getting away with it. Homelessness and poverty are still creeping up scarily. The price of a subway ride goes up every year, as does everyone's rent. The buildings at ground zero still aren't built 9 years later (the Empire State building was built in 1 year and five months). And the escalators still don't work. So what has all this voting in the Big Apple gotten me? Maybe we haven't seen a lot of progress, but as Blanche du Bois would remark, possibly my faithful appearance at the polls has helped in some small way to keep us from sliding back to the Stone Age.

With my new name, my new location and my new registration, I now have a chance to begin again. Maybe the center of the world is not the best place to make a difference anyway, all illusions to the contrary. Maybe, armed with the impressive club of my new 10 syllable name, I can sally forth and make my one vote count here in Tiny Town.

Or maybe I will find out that size really doesn't matter after all.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dreadful Moments and Easy Fixes

Ah, sucking up free WiFi at Starbucks on a Wednesday morning! Waiting here for the 1 PM bus to Tiny Town, I take advantage of the moment and the caffeine buzz to write to you, dear Reader.

With my bad attitude as expressed in my last entry here, it should come as no surprise that when I arrived in New York City yesterday morning I was confronted by a series of dreadful moments. Yes, I take some responsibility for it, and I suspect that with my own dread and loathing I actually conjured these moments into being.

First Dreadful Moment: The Chinese girl in the "Quiet Car" on the NJ Transit 8:32 to Penn Station who talked the entire time on her cell phone, palidly and smilingly immune to all requests to desist. How can this be?!?!

Drawing: Maurice Sendak
Second Dreadful Moment: Immediately upon arrival at the station, there he was, The Massive Sweating Fat Man, looking much like the scary nurse-baby from Maurice Sendack's Higgledy Piggedy Pop who screamed "No Eat!".  He descended the wrong side of the stairway and (I kid you not) actively tried to block me like a defensive guard as I tried to ascend. He moved to the left when I did and to the right when I did, all the while grinning and looking me directly in the eyes. "Walk to the right", I muttered. "Who made THAT rule!" he bellowed, "YOU?"

Third Dreadful Moment: Getting off the A train in Harlem where, walking up the three flights of stairs to the surface I encountered various discouraging artifacts in this order: a poo-laden diaper on the stairs; a wild-eyed man approaching people for "fity-fi' cent t'git tuh Brooklyn"; and finally a raggedy man stinking up a cloud of funk while screaming curses at the ghosts of his id who apparently inhabited the darkened, closed token booth.

Yeah, I know. This kind of whining ain't the best propaganda to sell my apartment. It is however apparent that even if I take a karmic approach to it, these sort of incidents are more numerous in New York City than elsewhere. That is, while I know that the better frame of mind I'm in the better things seem to go, I do not believe that this sort of machine gun-like spray of ugly moments will be apt to occur in, say, Woodstock. Any Woodstock. Anywhere.

So, as I sit here in Starbucks drinking yet another completely unnecessary cup of coffee and about to make my weekly escape to Tiny Town, I decided to write down a few suggestions for you, New York City, a few ideas that might pretty you up a bit and minimize disturbing moments.  I have a sense that if I put it out there you may actually take my advice, like you did when I started talking up putting estimated train arrival times on the electronic message boards that were already installed on subway platforms like they've done in Europe for decades already.  My suggestions are simple ones, mostly using existing resources, mostly already done in other places, that would make you a better place to be. Take heed New York: Your future depends upon it.

Suggestion #1: In high-traffic areas, paint the word "DOWN" on the right hand side of staircases that go down, and "UP" on the right hand side of staircases going up.  Paint the "DO NOT ENTER" symbol on the sides where you should not walk going in either direction. Do this in subway stations and all other major points of public population concentration. I guarantee that over time this will absolutely diminish the number of people walking the wrong way, diminish angry encounters and provide moral support for those who try to move correctly in tight spaces.

Suggestion #2: Put up signs at the bottom of escalators that say "Stand to the right." Obvious.

Suggestion #3: Oh, by the way, fix the escalators. Persistently broken escalators and elevators is not only discouraging and depressing to all and mean to people with baby carriages, but it's also in violation of the Disability Discrimination Act, 4.7, which states that: "From 1st October 1999 a service provider has to take reasonable steps to change a practice which makes it unreasonably difficult for difficult for disabled people to make use of its services." Let me tell you, when Exile's left knee was messed up and she was swinging around on crutches, walking up three flights of stairs to get to the surface from the D train seemed "unreasonably difficult", provoking tears on several occasions. The escalator going to and from the D train platform at 34th Street was broken for over a year! Does this seem "reasonable" to you?

Suggestion #4: Hire a lot more people to clean up around this filthy city, and not at minimum wage, either. Call them something cool like Urban Hygiene Technicians. And train them. Dress them in good-looking uniforms designed by Pierre Cardin. Give them the power to give out tickets for littering at $50 a pop. Send them to less fashionable neighborhoods. Make, don't ask, garbage producing businesses pay for this work force with a garbage tax levied at a rate based upon an estimate of customers or readers served. McDonald's, AM New York, The New York Post, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and their fellows will scream but they will not leave New York City if this is done. But all of us will experience a higher quality of life which, as Mayor Giuliani correctly decided, is fundamental to keeping down crime and making New York even marginally more livable.

Suggestion #5: Put recycling cans in every public place. Every public place. Make companies pay for their own collectors in front of their big buildings. In Germany, every train platform and bus station has a neat, well constructed box that contains three enclosures for garbage (black), paper (blue) and metal and plastic (green). The City or MTA could be enterprising and sell the recyclables thus making some money to pay for the Urban Hygiene Technicians (or someone to sit inside that dark, empty token booth). And we can also in this way teach our children well -- and our own lazy selves, too --  to be conscious of the planet.

Suggestion #6: Hire Quality of Life Inspectors for the subway system. These QLIs would also be neatly uniformed (I imagine crisp white suits, like milkmen, and neat little black bowties). They would quickly remove people who beg, play their devices too loud, busk, sell things, or do anything to disturb the riders inside subway cars. Everyone in Harlem knows that when school lets out, the subways in our area become rife with gangs of teenagers who think nothing of scaring citizens minding their own business just for fun. QLI would work primarily from noon to midnight which is when most of this unwanted activity occurs. There need not be many of them, but they will travel in squadrons and appear randomly on the various lines. The gratitude of the paying passenger would know no bounds.

Suggestion #7: Help homeless people. Help them. Not to mention all of the rest of us --  by giving them places to live and people to take care of them. Since we absolutely know from the experience of other cities that doing this is actually a lot cheaper than paying the $800,000 in unpaid emergency room visits that is incurred every year by the average homeless person, one can't help but wonder why you, New York City, persist in keeping these folks on the street and in dire straits. Hm, pay less money to decrease suffering. Now there's a thought.

Suggestion #8: Institute CCZs just like London has.  Within Congestion Charge Zones, which are marked with highly visible signs (see left) and on city maps, a payment of $12 a day would be charged either to a driver's EZ Pass or by mail to the owner of the license plate via Automatic Number Plate Recognition. Failure to pay the CCZ charge would result in a fine of $200. With this already proven system, the City would decrease traffic in congested zones AND raise money for the transportation system to pay for Quality of Life Inspectors and City Hygiene Technicians.

The bottom line for New York City is that it's got to stop pretending that the same level of social organization, rights and privileges can exist here as exists in Boise, Idaho. The unnatural congestion and issues of this massive city need to be addressed firmly and quickly. Or I won't be the only one waiting in the station with a one-way ticket to Tiny Town.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Going Back To This?

Our honeymoon is over and tomorrow early A.M. I go back to New York City for my regular Tuesday as if nothing had happened or changed.


This is the scene (left) I will see when I get to my neighborhood on the Number 1 train.

If I'm lucky there will NOT be a big fat rat running along the tracks.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Exile in Paradise

Photo by John Dugdale

The Exile is woozy with happiness (and exhaustion) because she and FF just got married.

Our old-fashioned wedding on an private antique railroad train was marvelous, both by our own account and that of our guests. Some of the finest people in Tiny Town and well beyond took part in our celebration, and everyone at the nuptial shindig was sincerely happy. There is a strong feeling of Mission Accomplished going on in our hearts, not just because we pulled off a rather complex event and not just because we are finally Mr. and Mrs. FF: Rather, we are completed by the fact that our ritual brought joy into so many other hearts and brought our people closer to us. MUE was smiley, and SUE was the ultimate sister of the bride, throwing a top-notch rehearsal dinner with great panache.

In short, we left 'em laughing. That had been our hope and it was why we didn't just elope in the first place. So. Mission Accomplished.

After the wedding, FF and I packed lightly and drove 12 hours South. We spent the last two days in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in a small log cabin where there was a nice feeling of privacy, despite the fact that the owners lived just across the way. Last night, a black bear placed his muddy paws on our back window and we feel it as a mountain blessing. Mission Accomplished, said Br'er Bear. I left my beautiful wedding bouquet of cream colored bunch roses, buplurum and royal purple snapdragons (which had survived the car journey pretty well) sitting in a hollow stump in the woods: blessings back to you, Woods. I imagine Br'er Bear's snuffin' my bouquet right now.

So at this writing Exile is on honeymoon with FF. I am sitting in the lobby of the historic Inn in Altamont waiting for FF to finish his tennis game at the Club. I am comfortably ensconced in an arts and crafts leather and wood sofa facing the Brobdignagian stone fireplace at the end of the Great Hall, tickled by the slight piney breeze from the nearby mountains, and I am taking a moment to dash off a note to you, dear Reader.

Does Mrs. FF feel different now that she and FF are really married? Yes, indeed she does! A keystone piece fell into place with a decisive whumph when we said our I do's, a keystone that's been waiting to fall for a good while and which is going to make our home hang together strong. Yes, Exile feels different now that we're married, but the words don't really come to describe it. Just whumph.

FF looked gorgeous this morning in his tennis whites and even more so because he's got a big old smile on his face all the time! I asked him today if he'd rather if I just drop him off, check us into the Royal Suites (where we are staying the next few days), and come pick him up later. He said, “No, it'll be fun to walk in together.” So we walked into the Club together and he introduced me to his pro: “Walter, this is my wife, Exile.” And I realized that it was the first time he had introduced me as his wife. I am absolutely sure we both got the same little jolt of pleasure from this fact. I have yet to have my debut, “This is my husband, FF”, so we have yet more newlywed cherries to pop. Oh, what fun!

Life at this moment is completely happy, and I can't imagine this good feeling ever going away. No matter what happens, he's my FF and I am his Exile. We are a family of two now in the eyes of the state of Pennsylvania, our friends, our family and, yes, ourselves too. It's real.

In all this blissful yumminess, New York City has faded almost completely from my mind. Yesterday, FF asked if I had heard anything from Kalim, our real estate agent, and I replied that I had not and did not expect to think at all about New York City until after our honeymoon. He agreed. New York City doesn't belong on this honeymoon with us.

I haven't gone so long without thinking about New York City in 28 years, and that is a really good sign. It means that with this wedding, with this step into the rest of my life, I thee dismiss, New York City. Get thee gone, big bad old town! New York City doesn't have that old voodoo hold on my mind like it used to. It's as if the words “I do” were the secret incantation I had always needed to break the spell the city has had on me all these years. The nostalgia and the confusion are gone and I can, to quote the song, see clearly now.

You see, for me to want to leave the biggest, baddest city in the world I had to believe that there was someplace worthwhile to go to. And when you're talking about the putative center of the world, that someplace couldn't just be another city: It had to be another heart.

Forest Blessing. Photo: Urban Exile