My friend, my
reader. Slippery streets. Gray skies, mufflers pulled tight, boots stained by
salt and mud. Despite the solstice, darkness still falls in the early
afternoon, shrouding the lampposts, the fire hydrants, the no-parking signs. On
Broadway the fluorescent tubes in the corner deli are dead-eyed white, like
they are in a hospital corridor, or the halls of the Department of Motor
Vehicles. Starbucks is dim, behind the frosted windows the velvet chairs are
threadbare, the linoleum floor in need of mopping. I consider a latte , but reject the idea. At the moment,
Starbucks is as inviting as the lobby of a flophouse down on the Bowery. The
Hudson River drives on to the sea, carrying solid, jagged ice blocks on its
back. I have a cold that makes my shoulders ache and my nose flood and my head
useless, losing its shape like a pumpkin left in the field long after
I think of the Caribbean. Red
flowers climbing vines. Turquoise seas and rum punches. I think of white sand
and warm sun on my shoulders. I banish the thought. Melanoma paradise, boring
days watching cloudless skies. Anyway, I’ve done that and I know that you can
have a cold in the tropics too, and that if I’m going to escape I need to go
farther away. Perhaps a trip to the Amazon? I could look at rare birds and
watch the canopy of the rain forest heave and shift as small creatures with
long grasping tails run along thin branches that dip with their weight. On the
other hand, there must be bugs in the Amazon-millions of bugs per square inch.
I’ll bet they squeeze through the mosquito netting. I could write about lost tribes
and the clearing of the land. I could photograph the tree stumps and the dead
birds-or not. There is, after all, malaria and yellow fever and diseases of the
eyes and the skin and the gut just waiting for Upper West Side ladies who
venture where no sensible Upper West Side lady should consider venturing just
because it’s four in the afternoon on Broadway and daylight is sliding away.
In my salad days I thought I
would be an expatriate, perhaps sharing the bed of a down-on-his-luck count in
the back streets of Montmartre. In my salad days I thought I would leave no corner
of the globe unvisited. I thought I would never read National Geographic while waiting for my dentist because I would do it
all in reality: mountains and valleys, cities of the dead, tombs of great
Pharaohs. I would follow the trail of Marco Polo, sip tea in Red Square,
Tiananmen Square, Piccadilly Circus, exchange stories with the royalty of Nepal
and wash myself in the river where Hindu gods had once been sighted. I admired
explorers who died with their boots on and Isak Dinesen, who went to Africa and
caught syphilis. I thought about Morocco and Paul Bowles and dreamed of riding
camels with families of Bedouins who would adopt me and marry me off to one of
their handsome sons. But, in fact, it didn’t work out that way.
I have no one to blame but
myself. It seems when push came to shove I didn’t want to leave the children
behind and they had school schedules and were less interested in exotic places
than in friends and regular meals with food they could easily recognize. It
seems that worry about money-the very same money that I once thought was a
concern of small minds-became a steady companion of my days and that tuition
was the only wild beast I would end up feeding year in and year out. I had a
mate who could not float free around the globe at whim because he had
responsibility and roots and work he wished to do. It turned out that I didn’t
want to be without him. I don’t sleep well when he is not in my bed. So
journeys were postponed.
I lived one life, mostly in
Manhattan and its environs. I did get to see the ruins at Chichén Itzá, and I
did see Shakespeare at the Barbican, and I have seen the cypress trees in
Jerusalem and bathed in the Red Sea, but my passport has many blank pages and I
am a provincial New Yorker-as provincial as they come these days. I have
friends in Spain this very moment, others in California and some in St. Bart’s
splashing in the surf. I have relatives who live on golf courses in gated
communities in faraway Miami. They drink fresh orange juice and ride with the
top down along the Tamagami trail, waving at alligators in the nearby glades.
What am I now but a matron-a plump
bourgeois with life insurance and coffee cups that mostly match?
I suspect that to be in New
York in January is like being in the city on a hot July weekend: walking around
with a “loser” sign dangling from your neck. Maybe I’m singing the blues
because I’ve never been to Venice, although I have read Thomas Mann and George
Somewhere else there are cafés
with people gesturing madly to one another, intrigue at the tables, political
passions spilling on the floor. Somewhere someone is starting a revolution,
rethinking the local pieties. Somewhere someone wants to ask me to dance, to
have a brandy on a terrace overlooking the pounding sea. Somewhere the autumn
of one’s life never arrives and the winter is all sleigh bells and white ermine
coats and clean snow turning into crystal beads that coat the bare branches of
the trees. Somewhere is not Broadway where the Indian cashier in the newspaper
store has his fingers wrapped in a towel to keep them warm and the child in the
stroller is wailing for reasons unknown, but valid enough I’m sure. No one is
going to win the lottery on this corner. This is why I feel a sorrow on the
streets as I head to the local Gristede’s to buy some pasta sauce for dinner.
It was my life to do anything or go anywhere with, and here I am on 101st
Street thinking I might break my ankle or my neck on a patch of ice.
The problem seems to me to be
the same one that afflicted my youth. Choices have to be made. You can’t be
everybody at once. You can’t open a door that you locked shut. You can’t keep
on trucking on every road in the country.
Is sneezing a symptom of
anthrax? Is nature not the original bioterrorist? Is spring a figment of my
imagination? How far away my nice, warm bed seems.
The wondrous truth is that by
now I have seen so many movies and read so many books and gone to the theater
and seen seven lifetimes of Gilbert and Sullivan, The Nutcracker and Monday Night Football , and I’ve watched
the evening news so many evenings that a permanent crawl snakes its way through
my brain night after night. I am stuffed with more than it might appear if you
just saw me waiting in line to pay for my pasta sauce, my nose red, my boots
not as waterproof as promised.
You too, I know. My friend, my
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