Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Reach for the Clouds

He walked in and looked straight up at the ceiling. Who does that unless they are in the Sistine Chapel? We weren’t.

Years ago, an electrician did a botched job on my apartment ceiling. He patched up the holes with what looks like spackle, sand, and best I can approximate, a soup├žon of self-loathing? Who knows what he did to the electrical wiring. But, the ceiling surface he left was rough and downright dirty. As a result, I have a trail of footprint-like blobs, or on a good day—badly painted clouds, all across my apartment ceiling. It has been this way for 12+ years now.

I am so used to it, that I never look up. But, about 2 years ago when my landlord entered, he looked up and noticed it immediately. And then, in his prince charming savior-mode he asked me when I wanted it painted, because—after decades of apartment neglect, radical cheapness, honest mistakes and stupid mistakes from his cheapness—he could arrange for it as soon as possible. I made some mumbling noises and smiled. It was never painted.

When I arrived back at my apartment one night, 12+ years ago, the “electrician” was standing at the gate outside my building. It was cold, but he wasn’t wearing a jacket. I looked at him, puzzled. In the morning I had left him inside my apartment to do the electrical work on the ceiling. He had been locked out, without a key, at I-will-never-know-what-time-o’clock.

So, I let him back inside. His dirty yellow winter jacket was slumped over my kitchen chair and two beers were on my table. They were not my beers. He was drinking in my apartment, on the job, on the ceiling. I was appalled. But not as appalled as I was about to be.

He also left my refrigerator unplugged and broke a vase. And he opened my clothing closet so that the shoulders of all of my clothes were covered in a fine ceiling dust. I had absolutely had it. So, I never let him in again. Or, anyone else. And I forgot about it, mostly.

Cut to COVID-19 quarantine as my eyes wandered up and I pondered the fragility of human existence—I decided to sand and paint the ceiling. Finally, the time had come. Well, it turns out, painting a ceiling is pretty damn difficult (says my neck). My apartment is a railroad, it is very narrow and long. One nice feature it has is that the ceilings are a little bit high. Until you go to paint them. Holy. Moly.

I am writing this on my break from painting. I am not drinking beer, but maybe I should be.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Barefoot in Birdland

I turned my back to the pond and faced a very slight grassy incline. I stood there, in my vintage re-issued blue and purple Nikes. And suddenly, I was totally surrounded—by hopping, bobbing, cheeping, and whirring. This unabashed cheerfulness seemed to sparkle as the birds took turns disappearing and reappearing from my peripheral view. In that moment, I felt like a Disney princess. In sneakers.

Many of the birds were set on finding something—anything—in the grass in Central Park. A Robin kicked up some dirt with its beak. A group of 7 or so Starlings suspiciously creeped away with their heads still in the grass (open-bill probing). I saw one Flicker and a few Gray-cheeked Thrushes too.

Birds have taken on a new meaning lately. Because even when you stay in one place, they come to you, without asking. They perch and prance and, like a friend you adore, they always leave just before you want them to. I have been appreciating a few old favorites lately, most of them invasive species in New York (House Sparrows, Starlings and Pigeons). They are just as spirit-lifting as the native birds to me, now especially. That sounds ecologically selfish, I know. But, trust me, I am no Eugene Schieffelin.

And as if living birds didn’t feel ephemeral enough—flying in and out of our lives—they didn’t leave a fabulous fossil record either. Their bones are hollow and light so they can fly, which isn’t a recipe for a great fossil, it turns out. Though, the oldest bird fossil is ~150 million years old. So, for birds, it’s been a while. Humans, not so much (~200,000 years ago). And human shoes, have only been around for a mere 5,500 years.

Because in addition to thinking about birds, I have been thinking about shoes. I look around my apartment—on shelves, under furniture, in closets—and I wonder why I needed so many different types of shoes? Where was I going? What occasions called for this morphological diversity of footwear? Will I ever need these again? Right now, I am having trouble picturing a world, and a routine, that necessitates all of these different shoe types. Most days now, I am barefoot.

If an archeologist found my shoe collection they might infer that I had a full life, with many different types of places to go—upscale, downscale, understated, too high, comfy, just right—for all seasons. And they would be right.

Also, in Central Park the other day, I watched two starlings splashing around in a man-made waterfall. They were flicking and flitting their iridescent wings, furiously. It would have been perfectly adorable, but the background noise was sirens. And the longer they splashed, the more sirens sped by. You cannot forget what is happening now. It is a somber time is all I can say. And no bird can save us. But something about the starlings not knowing or caring felt comforting.

My life feels like it is shrinking lately (and don’t get me wrong, I am thankful I have a life to shrink), but the birds remind me that there is more out there, beyond this little apartment, and that patch of Park grass. There will be new times to wear all different shoes, and places to go again some day. And I know this because, a little bird told me.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Longest Curve

Coronavirus is currently ripping through our dear city. And all I can hear are emergency vehicles, cathedral bells—and a deep and eerie silence. I am one of the lucky ones. But my Great Grandfather wasn’t.

It was 1918. My Great Grandfather died in November in the second, more virulent, wave of the influenza pandemic. He was 54 years old. He left behind a son who was 14 years old. That fourteen year old son was my grandfather; my father’s father. And though this was over 100 years ago now, my own father recounts this story of intergenerational grief like it was yesterday.

My Great Grandfather came to the United States from Lacedonia, Italy in 1900. He lived in East Harlem and worked digging the subway tunnels for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). Then, he opened up a small grocery store, which I imagine felt like an above ground wonderland of opportunity.

Today, epidemiologists are able to make predictions about infectious disease dynamics based on viral transmission rates, environmental variables and underlying host genetics. But what they cannot predict, with a mathematical model, is the magnitude of personal loss that this will cause. And the time it will take to heal. These invisible organisms, not even classified as living, are tearing us apart. Again. And emotional recovery is not simply a flattened curve.

If I approach the current and emerging coronavirus data with a cool scientific head, it is scary. And when I don’t, it is immensely heartbreaking. Because numbers are people here, bar graphs are grandmothers and uncles and loved ones. Exponential curves are weeks of growing fear and anxiety followed by, well, we don’t know what yet.

They couldn’t supply enough coffins, they tell me. My grandfather was a good student and when his father died in 1918 he had to leave school to work in his father’s grocery store. This was sad for him. And then, by some combination of smarts and grit that I cannot fathom, he went to night school, eventually went on to pharmacy school, then had a second career in law and became a Judge for the City of New York. And when he had his own family, he intensely over-protected them, because he never wanted them to feel left alone, like he felt.

Now I live in Manhattan, ten blocks south and a few avenues over from where the grocery store was. What am I doing here? I ask myself at least once a week. But lately, almost daily. The truth is, I have nowhere else to go. This is, by all measures, my home. And although this is an incredibly surreal and difficult time, I feel especially tied to this city through a lineage of grit and grief and almost-but-not-quite, glory.

So, what can past pandemics can teach us? Is it that with enough time, grief can mutate into something else, like resilience? And how do we ready ourselves for the destabilizing days ahead that they tell us will come? For now: we wash our hands. We tell people we love them. We appreciate the rising of the sun and of the dough. We narrow our focus to the hours in one precious day. And we keep going, just like grandpa did.