Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Train To Nowhere? Or Train from Nowhere?

Urban Exile awoke a few mornings ago in the dawn's early light making desperate croaking sounds. In her dream, she was saying "No, no, no! don't leave me here!"

FF and I are vacationing at a fabulous little bed and breakfast called the Princess Anne in Asheville, NC. We have a nifty little suite in this Victorian building that was once owned by Johnny Mercer. We eat apple smoked bacon and eggs in the morning to the tune of "Moon River" and everybody's smiling at us. We've got a cute kitchenette in our suite, a sitting room and a lovely bedroom, all tricked out with ceiling fans, AC and lots of comfy pillows. We are vacationing, but we are also looking for a place to live together when we get married.

Yes, FF and I are pondering whether living here in Asheville might be a good idea.This Saturday is an open house for the New York apartment and Exile's real estate agent, Kalim, sent a brief note indicating there was "interest". As soon as the Exile sells, there will be a little pile of money that will be added to FF's little pile and we will buy a house to live in for the rest of our days. Certainly there is great beauty here in the Smokey Mountains: My dear friend from college days Emily Jane is here, and you can really get a lot of house for the money. Furthermore, Exile has had log cabin wet dreams since she was a little Exile, and there are a lot of those in them thar hills. And did I mention apple smoked bacon?

So this vacation is also a kind of hunting expedition. We have an agent here too, an ex-New Yorker who attended the girls boarding school right across the street from the girls school I attended, who speaks our lingo and knows the area. She drives like a demon, was recommended by Emily Jane, and she's been combing these Smokey Mountains with preternatural energy for a suitable house for us. Everyone is sanguine about this project, including me. The area is lousy with little colleges and water falls. And it has a young, organic, sustainable bounciness to it while still conserving a certain savory, gracious, slightly worn at the corners vibe that suits me to a tee.

So why, in this idyllic setting with so many happy possibilities unfolding before me, why am I waking up from a nightmare gasping and screaming?

Could it be the apple smoked bacon?

In my dream, I was on a train, an old commuter train, on which were passengers who seemed to have been there for a very long time. So long had they been on this train, indeed, that their possessions were scattered about, their suitcases open, as if all tension about the moment of arrival and descent to the platform had disappeared in favor of a resigned knowledge that they would never, ever get off that train. I began to argue with these passengers, trying to convince them that getting off the train at some point was absolutely essential. They listened politely but it was evident that my words meant nothing to them. Somehow they were in possession of a secret knowledge or resistance that made my desire to arrive somewhere, to get off the train, utterly nugatory.

At last, the train pulled into a station. I raced to the space between cars, and I saw everything suddenly in full color: The bright yellow diamond-plate treads of the train steps; the red brick platform coming into view; The old fashioned black iron street lamp illuminating the bricks; the brown wood and warm copper fittings of a luggage cart waiting nearby, empty. I did not know what stop it was, but it was a stop, a real stop, a good stop, and I called to the people on the train to get off the train with me. Quickly, quickly! I called. Before it's too late!

They sat still and staring surrounded by their piled up fragments of luggage and, when I saw that they would not come, I leapt alone from the train onto the platform, accepting the fact that I was leaving my own luggage behind. But when I landed on what I thought was the station platform, the landscape changed, horribly: For all at once I saw that there was nothing there but a flat, beige, featureless plain that stretched out in every direction eternally. I saw that there was no there there, and I began to scream as the train pulled out, leaving me behind. Nowhere.

This screaming is where we find ourselves as I woke FF at around 5:30 in the morning and he kindly  pulled me close and said "there, there" and put me back to sleep wrapped in a bear hug.

What in heck is this all about? What is my subconscious trying to tell me?

As FF and I look for the place that we are going to live together, the fundamental question we ask of all places is "Why here?" And then we wait quietly for an answer. We know that granite countertops, stall showers and crown moldings can be found in their hundreds of thousands everywhere. The primary question is whether or not the land itself has a purpose for us and calls us to come. So, as we weave around these Smokey mountains and valleys, we ask the question: Why here? Why here, and not somewhere else?

This is the first time I have searched for a home based entirely on a sense of place rather than some other professional or personal exigency. This kind of search is hard for real estate agents (and our families) to understand, because it is so internally driven and apparently impractical. We must accept that our answer to the question "why here" may not ultimately make sense to anyone but ourselves.

It is hard move away from the Northeast where I have spent my whole life. Sister of Urban Exile (SUE) and Mother of Urban Exile (MUE) live there,  and MUE is getting on in years now. All of FF's siblings and his parents are deep in Central PA, and his parents are of course also getting on, too. Nobody wants us to move farther away, and we fear it will be hard to help them understand that we are not moving away from them: We are moving to something else. FF and I are moving toward something that we have been piecing together from the sun-cat scraps of our oldest dreams, our shared vision, and the numinous space that has filled the air around us ever since we fell in love.

 FF, who is not apt to express preferences of any kind, did quietly say that once in his life he'd like to live somewhere other than Pennsylvania or New Jersey. I've had a lifelong jones to live in a cabin in the mountains and to have a little land to care for. Both of us would like to be a little warmer for more of the year. And both of us want to live somewhere that inspires us to do our best work.

So here, in a Victorian house a few blocks from where Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can't Go Home Again and Look Homeward, Angel, FF and I ponder where our home might be. Does this place feel like it might be it? Or could we take the leap, despite the warnings of the other "passengers", only to find ourselves in a tremendous, scary Nowhere?

All of us who live in New York have imbued our urban sufferings with the tangy perfume of magnificent arrogance. Crowded, dirty, stressful, expensive place that it may be, New York is the Center of the World, is it not? And we who live there are supposed to be, by association, the center of humanity itself. We resent with a white fury the idea that better ideas, better clothes, better views, better art or better anything might exist elsewhere. And we grasp that belief tightly because if we did not, who could make an argument for putting up with the daily insults that New York dishes out? But there is a qualitative difference between pride and arrogance, between loving an illusion and being downright deluded.

Still, the New York illusion has a piece of me. I am afraid to loosen my toes from the edge of the diving board and fling myself into empty space. I am afraid to sell my own miniscule speck of the Center of the World and trade it in for...what? I have been so loyal to New York. I have given her my heart. But has she given me hers?

Thomas Wolfe, who wrote "You Can't Go Home Again" four blocks from where I am sitting now, wrote that "One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years." Yep, she's an easy girl, New York. Accepts all comers. And when I'm gone, she'll take on another without missing a beat. So why do I care after all? Who can lament the loss of such a friend?

And what about this place? Thomas W. thought rather more kindly of Asheville and these great Smokey mountains around it. This old red clay Cherokee land may grow to love you truly if you stay a while, but it's going to take years of your life. And don't you imagine that eating shrimp, grits and apple smoked bacon for breakfast and saying "Hey" instead of "Hello" will get her to love you any faster! No, ma'am, the south will make a slow approach. But I've a sense that maybe, just maybe,  once she gets to know me, however many years that takes, she'll be just a little sorry when I go.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Hot, Sleepless Night in Harlem

So they tell me that this is the hottest New York City July in recorded history. The warm, humid bed didn't hold me last night, and I ended up dragging my comforter to the couch in the living room, right across from the AC and right under the ceiling fan. But still, no sleep came.

Was it the heat? Was it the coffee I had at 3:30 right before my afternoon web class? Or was it that nagging sense of loneliness that I feel in my now mostly emptied apartment and that comes on me like a bank of thick fog? Yes, yes and yes.

Nothing feels emptier than a place you've lived in for over a decade suddenly denuded of everything personal. FF and I have moved the personal things out in boxes, and I had spent yesterday evening preparing the place for Saturday's open house. I vacuumed (again), washed the bathroom tiles (again), and wondered aloud (again) where the grime comes from that coats everything in Manhattan after even just a week, even when all the windows are closed. I thought (again) how many of my elderly neighbors in the building have lost or are losing their ability to remember things, how they seem so lost sometimes, and I thought (again) how I don't want ever to be an old lady living alone in a big dirty city where the soot makes you lose your mind.

I spent an hour and a half with Soft Scrub and a butter knife peeling away every burnt crust of a reminder of former meals I made on the burners of my gas stove. I became ashamed in advance of any flaws my apartment might have in the eyes of the Open House people, and I tried to protect us both, my Friend and I, from their imaginary criticism.

I went mental.

And so I could not sleep last night. I lay on the couch swaddled in my last remaining blanket, turned on Jimmy Kimmel, poured myself a glass of milk and felt around in the couch cushions for my beat up Beanie Baby, Fidelis. Can it be that I can no longer rest in New York? The constant hum, the constant light nag me. The constant low vibe I feel that there's something I should be doing that I am not doing is a feeling that I now know comes from outside of me, because when I am in the country I simply go to sleep in the blessed starry darkness next to FF. The country has a different hum, but its hum is alive: it is the melodious hum of the cicada, not monotone mumble of the generator. But on this hot New York City night, I am right back to where I was that steamy July 28 years ago when I first moved here.

Dad, send me some valium.

But Dad is gone now these 10 years. I am getting married in five weeks, and I am going away with FF somewhere, I don't care where, and we will be together and sleep in the soft darkness together. Forever.  That thought alone makes this sleepless night different from the sleepless night of the girl that came to New York in 1982 and slept on the lopsided blue foam coach in her sister's apartment in Chinatown, because then nothing was for sure, I knew nothing, and I was just at the beginning of my self-proclaimed mission to conquer this big, bad city.

I've given up on conquering New York. And it's not because I can't but because it cannot be tamed and, if it could be, it wouldn't be worth it anyway. It was worth every sleepless night and broken romance and hard knock I ever got here to realize that the only one that needed taming was me.

I turned off the TV, pulled up the blanket and snuggled my Beanie Baby up against my chin. And, at last,  I slept.

Photo: "Finestraa"  author unknown. Taken from Ani Glaser's blog space. If anyone knows the artist, please advise me.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Race, Intolerance and The Selling of New York

This is my day to do a Self-Criticism.

First off, I castigate myself as a bad blogger. Dear Reader, it's been a week since my last post, and you have kindly returned to see...absolutely nothing. I am sorry. And not just for you either, but for me as well. The pace of life (or was it just the pace of my mind?) has been so rapid, that there has not been a pause to ponder. And the worst is knowing that I have had some really cool ideas, and I have either forgotten them or lost my enthusiasm for writing them down in the midst of just doing too much.

One of the things that has interrupted my flow is the marketing of my Friend, the beautiful co-op in Sugar Hill, Harlem. First of all, let me say that I have been touched and comforted by those of you who commented on that blog and understood my angst about selling my Friend. Your comments and the empathetic tears you have reported to me have made me feel accompanied and a little less lonely here in my nimbus of impractical, nostalgic, animistic feelings. You have made me feel a little less weird and so I thank you.

My Friend has officially been on the market for a week now, and on Friday my slow-burning anxiety culminated in spending the entire morning searching for my apartment on line, not finding it, freaking out that my real estate agent was not on the job, and starting to post it everywhere I could think of including, yes, Craigslist.  I guess I really want this to be over soon and not have to live through a protracted goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I am bad at goodbyes. Let's get this over with, I say, and not spend too much time waving on the platform.

So I posted furiously for three hours, and if you're curious about my Friend, try googling the MLS # which is 818576 and see if you find my place (in New York, of course) -- or some former listing of an apartment in Boulder, CO which is what I found on Friday, hence the freak out. You can be assured of seeing my Friend on my Postlets site at

Besides condemning myself as a  bad blogger, here is my second, and more serious, self-critique:  Am I  racist, or just equal opportunity intolerant of others in general?

UE's real estate agent is a tall, rangy, good-looking,  glasses-wearing, long-braids-done-up-neatly-in-a-bun-bearing African American man who I will call Kalim. Kalim is nice and soft-spoken, and I chose him and his small, boutique agency to sell my Friend because they know Harlem, know HDFC co-ops, and because I thought my entirely black Board of Directors might feel more at ease with him than some perky blonde from Prudential Bache. Good reasons, all.

One week after signing paper and getting this amputation on the road, however, I started to doubt my decision. Kalim was moving too slowly! I couldn't find my apartment listed anywhere on line, and when I Googled it, not even Kalim's agency's web page came up. I wondered if he was a pro or was he not? Was I socked into a four month exclusive contract with an incompetent? Where was my perky, efficient blonde from Prudential Bache, the agent I had not chosen but in whom, sight unseen,  I suddenly had more confidence than the guy who had referred me a great contractor to do the renovations and had taken hours of his time to talk with me about the apartment? The home team guy? Yes, it took almost no time at all for me to lose the faith and doubt the creds of my local Harlem real estate agent.

When I informed Kalim about what I had done on Friday he sent back a short, slightly weary little note asking me to desist because he was posting in the same places and it would confuse people. And, by the way,  he had an open house planned for Saturday at 1:00 PM.

I felt abashed.

I don't honestly think that race had anything to do with my panicked reaction to not finding my listing online. I come from a liberal, East Coast background and have made a career of teaching educated, often socially insulated white Americans about Latin American culture and language. I have lived in Harlem for 11 years, and New York City for 28, none of which makes me immune from racism, but the trajectory of my life has kept race and community in the forefront of my consciousness. But after my little anxiety attack, I felt that I had to investigate whether or not Kalim's classic red velvet, Barry White baritone, loping walk, and Striver's Row style inspired in me some sort of automatic doubt in his professionalism. If the imaginary PruBache girl were my agent, would I have doubted her after a 10 days and no searchable listing? I think so, but I am not sure.

A question to ponder in future posts: Where did I score on the Racism Scale (if there is such a thing) when I arrived in Harlem, and where do I score now after 11 years living there? Glinda the Good will have to ask Dorothy the all-important question before she clicks the red shoes: "And what have you learned, dear?". That question will have to be answered bit by bit in future posts.

For now, however, Urban Exile must launch into her third (and thankfully, last) self criticism of the day: Generally, I do not trust anyone to handle my business -- or even his own -- as well or efficiently as I do myself. Really. I am a control freak.

My impatience with other people's ways and speeds of doing things has sometimes marred my relationships. I am sure others close to me have seen me as intolerant and impatient and a real pain in the a** at times.  As an artist, I am aware that there are many pathways to a good result because every one's mind solves problems a slightly different way. The shortest path to the result is not always the best, the most creative or the most fun. Yah yah yah. But often that hasn't short circuited that hot surge of impatience that rises in me when I see someone doing something "the wrong way". It hasn't stopped me from stepping in and just doing it my way with, perhaps, a bit of a look on my face and an edge to my voice.

At this moment, True Oak gently glides in and sits down in the worn, comfortable easy chair of my mind. She is wearing one of her trademark soft, flowing outfits punctuated on the pedal extremities by that pair of comfortable, solid Danskos she sometimes wears that remind me what a practical, grounded person she is. "Aren't you being a bit hard on yourself?" she says in the low, even tone that lets me know that the most rational answer is "yes" but still leaves the question open to argument. I love the way she pulls me back from the mental edge.

Yes, I am. Way too hard.

The Exile is rather talented at getting things done. And I did grow up in a house that was in such frank disorder so regularly that no one could come over to play. I cleverly recreated that unpleasant atmosphere for myself over the course of several relationships, too, by falling in love with depressive and/or just filthy men. So it's no big surprise that when I see what I perceive as disorder or inefficiency, I bristle and take over with an energy that must be slightly scary for those around me. Making order is a "fight or flight"response for me, and disorder feels to me like threat to my survival.

So am I a racist? No, I don't think so. Am I  a control freak? Definitely. I don't like other people's ways of doing things sometimes. Urban Exile is working on that.

When I doubted Kalim's professionalism this week, there was a problem with my frenzied "Oh, I'll just do it myself then!" attitude. It was lacking in faith and respect. And I am truly sorry. I'll try to learn to sit on my hands the next time I feel like meddling.

Now excuse me, as I need to go fold FF's t-shirts. My way.

Diagram of how to fold a t-shirt by

Friday, July 9, 2010


A violent act, or at least so it seemed to me when the owner of the house that abuts ours on this historic row of stone homes in Tiny Town cut down the old pyracantha that had graced our common garden wall. Our sturdy fire thorn, with its big pomes that were firm and green and ready to become a rich orange by fall when the birds abandon our feeder for its nutritious berries, is gone.

I came home from teaching in the city and found it cut to the root of its thick trunk, its healthy branches stacked up like garbage in back of the house. My tibetan chime, which had hung from one of the lower branches, was also gone and nowhere to be found. My nemesis, Scrappers the Squirrel (Knight of the Plumey Tail) stood in protest on the now ragged ivy growth on the wall, chattering his anger. The birds flew about, confused.

Firethorn is known as a pleasant place for birds who nest in its protective, sturdy branches and feed off its nutritious berries. Firethorn is used as a protective barrier because, despite its beauty, it is sturdy and its 3/4" long thorns are sharp as sewing needles. For Scrappers the problem is that the branch he had used to leap onto our bird feeder is gone, though I am sure he will figure out how to redress this temporary setback. I am not sure if I will be as resilient.

We had a Firethorn when I was child, and it splayed itself against the beautiful quartz-filled fieldstone walls of our family home. Its strength, its color, and its annual cycle of growth and color display was a seasonal marker for me. When FF and I came to visit the house in Tiny Town for the first time, I saw the Firethorn, I smelled the sweet, musty odor of boxwoods like Grandmama had grown in her Idaho garden and I was charmed. These plants, so nostalgic for me, filled me with a peace and a sense of Home that was immediate and irresistible. We saw the house on a Saturday and we agreed to rent it on Sunday.

The woman who cut down the Firethorn owns at least two of the seven houses on the row and at one time she owned three of them with her late husband. She is not a bad sort in general terms, just a widow with too many properties to manage left to her by her spouse. She told me she just wants to sell some of the houses, and not have to deal anymore with the headaches entailed by managing rentals.  She is square-built and not tall, with a head of short, strong gray hair that gives her a tough, official look as if she might be a warden in a women's prison or a bailiff.

She is a different breed from me. She prefers neatness over beauty, quick cutting over careful pruning. She suffered not a qualm when she cut that huge healthy bush to a stump in the ground with the cold, chainsaw efficiency that is utterly foreign to my nature. She did not advise us she was going to do it either, perhaps because she does not live here and she has no sense of neighborliness with us. She is one of those territorial, legalistic types who would point out if questioned about it that the tree grew on Her Property, while ignoring the important truth that it shaded and graced ours as well.  In one fell swoop she changed my partial shade garden into a full sun garden, two months before my wedding and in a heat wave where the temperature has reached 103 degrees.

So my whole garden plan, based around hydrangeas, has been put in jeopardy. Every morning I stand there with a hose in my hand, watering the ground, forced to gaze upon the ragged hole in the ivy where the Firethorn used to be. It's a loss, a friend gone, and I am reminded that breaking up with New York City does not mean that I will be able to break up with loss or sorrow. There is no Pure Land, as the sutra says, except in my own heart.

So, as my dear little apartment goes on the block and I prepare for that farewell, I also say goodbye to the Firethorn. I keep thinking that this breaking up with New York is all about entering a phase of my life when I learn to say goodbye to people and things with grace. FF says that seeing each day as the First Day, with only the day's tasks ahead and no memories of the past, might be a way to approach such losses. He is, of course, right. Why hang on to something that saddens me when I cannot redress it but only mourn its passing?

I have a neighbor, a spicy slightly thorny woman who is perhaps 10 years my senior. She is a writer and a gardener and someone who you would never miss in a group of people because her words, bright gaze and smile are scissor sharp. I like Aden, and I go to her sometimes when I need a new thought about something, because her ideas are often precisely the ones I would never have, and that's why I like them. Let us just say that the brief verbal explosion I had on the patio when I discovered the chopped Firethorn had reached her ears, and a day later she came to offer some words of consolation.

"It'll grow back", she said. "It always does."

Photo: Iryna,  Flickr

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Night Train

Tuesday night and I am on the 9:07 to Trenton. This is the first time I have gone back to Tiny Town on a Tuesday night, the first time I have played commuter. My New York City bed will be empty tonight.

Two women in my car are talking too loudly, first on their cell phones and then to each other: They do not recognize that they are in an enclosed space with other, tired people. The man in front of me is a commuting pro: He has earbuds on and is reading a very big book. The fresh, masculine scent of his cologne drifts over the seat, blown by the AC in my direction, and I am grateful. The last scent I experienced, on the A train from Tribeca, was the rank odor of a rag-swathed homeless man. Homeless funk always makes me sad.

"I hear web're trying to fill your business....I didn't lose....I minored in Russian...I...I....I...I..."

The women chat and chat, oblivious. They make a loud, ping- ping-pinging in and out of my mind.

On this 100 degree night I am escaping Manhattan early. No sleepover tonight: I am trying on a new identity as a day-tripper. FF will pick me up at the station at 10:15 and then we drive the good stretch through suburb then countryside to Tiny Town, whose charm lies partly in its near inaccessibility to public transportation. Soon enough FF and I will slowly evaporate into the misty forests of the South, but for now we crouch cosily in Tiny Town waiting for the New York apartment to sell. When it does, we will spring into action.

Waiting for the - my - apartment to sell. My old friend. My shelter and refuge for 11 years.

The nicely scented man gets off in Metuchen and I reflect about the first time I met FF, right there on the platform in Metuchen. Metuchen helps me remember why I am doing this, why I am prosecuting this dramatic plan to break up with New York City.

This morning, I felt content riding the Transbridge Line into Manhattan with a light backpack instead of a suitcase. I got to my apartment, helped the real estate agent take photos, used Mop n' Glo on the floors to make them more photogenic, and then strode off to teach in the 105-degree of heat bouncing off every mile of steel, glass and cement. I was still content, as I slid carefully among the masses of sweaty people in this massive urban convection oven, evading the crowds, letting people enter subway cars and escalators ahead of me. It was easy to be generous: after all, I was leaving by day's end.

This is not the last goodbye, New York City, but it presages the last goodbye. And though I was feeling great all day with my little secret shining inside of me,  now that I am here on this late night train sliding through the night, feeling alone with myself in the way I only do on trains, content has morphed to mope.

I experienced a stab of guilt leaving my apartment this afternoon to go teach my 5 o'clock class. Can you believe, dear Reader, that I left, backpack on, locked the door, and then actually reopened the door to whisper to the quiet, now nearly empty apartment, "I'll be back soon"? Well, I did. As if I were comforting it, as if it were sorry to see me leaving again having only just arrived. I animate things, as does FF (or did he only start since we met?), and my apartment is now animated beyond what is prudent for my own emotional well-being. It is an old friend wondering why I don't visit anymore.

("Wasserstein.....does bankruptcies....sounds SO familiar!.....Call me.....Divorce....technical THAT'S a good attorney!...Philly?

Tonight Urban Exile's real estate agent will post those lovely new photos on the internet and thus formally lead my old friend naked up to the auction block to be at the mercy of all comers. And I am running away to the country. Oh, what a bad friend I am!

What if someone comes to buy who wants to rip my arts and crafts beauty to pieces to achieve the dreaded "open concept"? What if they offer my asking price? What will I do? Will I hand over the keys and a complimentary crowbar and leave my old friend to the ungentle mercies of this appalling person? Really?

I've worked so hard to preserve my apartment, its beautiful architectural details, its solid oak-wood doors, its old glass door knobs, its thick, cool plaster walls. When FF came along, my friend perked up quite a bit: FF worked with me, adding impetus, spirit and purpose to the renovation, kindly adding his credit card to the mix as well.  What I know about FF is that he would have helped whether or not I was going to sell. He just likes to help, which is one of the aspects of his character that won him my heart.

"The next station is... Jersey Avenue...." says the machine voice. I can still smell Metuchen man even though he got off two stops ago. Thanks for the memories.

It is true that my income did not suffice for some of the renovations that we did, nonetheless I could have afforded some of the work myself. When FF and I met, though, things that had never fallen into place before somehow starting falling nicely. Like the $165 custom wood radiator covers which always before had been priced over $400 apiece. Like the new windowsills throughout the apartment for $500, when always before it had cost thousands. When I was a woman living alone I presented as raw meat to ravenous contractors, dry cleaners and plumbers alike. When a nicely muscled man was standing next to me, saying absolutely nothing, the prices went down.

So now, my friend is looking pretty sharp which makes it even harder to say goodbye. Only my friend and I know what it felt like that hot summer day I moved in with nothing but a hot plate, some ugly wood end tables, a refrigerator and a mattress. Only my friend heard me cry all night when that relationship didn't work out, and the next one didn't either.  And my friend watched me come and go, nose to the grindstone, working and sweating and sleepless, and also witnessed those rare times when I stumbled in, too late, too happy and maybe too drunk.  My friend alone witnessed the hours of vocal and guitar practice to learn over 300 covers songs for the Finnish cruise ship gig. Yes, we have a lot of history together, my friend and I. And no matter where I wandered in the world, my friend was always here, waiting quietly for my return.

"Princeton Junction, next stop...." "So you need a kidney transplant?....Intense...My cancer is rising in"

One of my favorite students, who I'll call Aquaria, said to me comfortingly, "After all, it's just plaster and bricks. It's just a thing." Aquaria is older and wiser than I, and I know that she understands that her message to me is not as much true as it is necessary to believe. For we have to agree with ourselves to think certain things, true or not, in order to move on in life. I must not allow myself to think about my friend all alone, waiting still and darkened in the hot Manhattan night.

Yeah, it's just one of those things.

I hope I reach my stop soon.

Interested in Urban Exile's Manhattan apartment? Go to

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.