Monday, October 19, 2020

I’m on a Bus to Somewhere

I am often the only passenger on it, nestled in the rows and rows of plush seats, with a place to charge my phone, ebbing and bumping over urban hills I didn’t even know existed. Whooshing by the Harlem River—a sparkly beauty behind a chain link fence. I am a six dollar and seventy-five cent princess, just me, on this giant whale of a vehicle. The express bus to the Bronx. It is now almost a daily journey. A new route, but also, several old routes tangled into an ugly-beautiful, convenient-inconvenient one. 

Two different express busses travel from Manhattan to the Riverdale section of the Bronx. One bus route begins right outside the design studio where I worked from 2001-2006. It waits, sleeping with its lights off, at the very corner I stood looking down 3rd avenue in the late morning on 9/11/01. It then travels all the way up 3rd avenue and drops me feet from my new job in Riverdale. On the way back into Manhattan, it passes right by the genetics lab on Lexington where I worked from 2004-2013. It is an existential schlep. The other express bus line, on the West side, picks me up right outside the Museum where I worked from 2013-2019. I will never pass these places without remembering. The busses also pass diners I’ve lingered in, drinking what I thought was decaf coffee but wasn’t; shoe stores where I wanted to, but never bought anything; former delis that turned into Duane Reade’s; and even the Duane Reade is closed now too. I can still hear conversations with old friends. 

Many times lately I have been the only rider on the bus. And many times I ride the bus from the beginning of its route all the way to the end—both incredibly dubious honors to hold. They are wasting gas on me, and I am ripping them off by only paying $6.75. I cannot tell if I am in the gutter, or I am urban royalty.

These two express busses to Riverdale are dreams. But not your wildest, aspirational kind. The nighttime kind, where people and places from different parts of your life blend together into one scene and then you warp into another dimension and wake up confused yet slightly intrigued. These days, I wake up before the sun, and am on the bus by 7:15 am. For me, this is another dimension. I am not a morning person and to say that this schedule is viscerally painful for me would not be an overstatement. I feel especially sad, dramatic and sentimental at that time of the morning, which all adds to the dreamscape feel of the ride.

In 2014 three scientists won the Nobel Prize for discovering how the brain creates a mental map and navigates the world. They placed a rat in a maze and every time the rat went into certain areas of the maze, specific neurons fired. So, the top left corner of the maze activated the same group of brain cells, again and again. These neurons are called “place cells” and are located in the hippocampus. They didn’t ask the rat if the top left corner of the maze made them lonely or sentimental. And what happens if you put the rat on a bus? Humans have place cells too.   

Because I don’t drive, I hardly see these parts of Manhattan stitched together into the same island. I have descended into, and ascended out of, the subways for so long that I have split a few miles, and about 20 years, into what seem like massive individual fragments. The bus reminds me thats it’s all just one city, a time-space continuum with traffic lights, scaffolding, and now restaurants in the bike lane—but mostly—it reminds me of regular days with people I used to know. Because sometimes, places are people too.  

   Me on the express bus 

Harlem River

             “Crack is Wack” mural by Keith Haring, 1989 (East 128th Street and Harlem River Drive) 

   Just a bunch of garbage I saw out the window of the bus today.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Walk the Walk

It is not museums or concerts. It is not leisurely crosstown busses, sunset skylines or even reasonably priced excellent restaurants. It is certainly not crowds or subways, or crowded subways.

What I have missed most during the pandemic is walking. But I am not just talking about the biomechanical act of bipedalism. I mean walking with an unstoppable, get-away-from-me-I-am-going-somewhere-without-you, purpose: towards an imaginary anywhere, but via, everywhere.

Although walking through New York is a “hike in the woods” of sorts; it is not a hike in the woods. It is not a stroll around the suburban block to peek at the neighbor’s yard. It is more like hopscotch than it is like a treadmill. It is dodging and weaving: over sidewalk irregularities, under scaffolding, avoiding cyclists wooshing by. It is safe until suddenly, it isn’t really, but then quickly, it is again.

It is a series of darkened circles of old gum atop the intermittent glitter of concrete. Who chews so much gum? It is the mini rush of relief after I avoid stepping in something. It is a little past life so gone and dried that I can’t tell if it was a mammal or a bird: 300 million years of evolution flattened into an indiscernible urban pancake. Poor thing.

I did not grow up in New York City. I got my driver’s license at sixteen in the suburbs. But I was always an anxious driver. My mother was also anxious, especially in snow, and my father was sexist. So driving was a much bigger drama than it had to be, and I felt trapped. Thankfully, I was surrounded by a group of independent young women friends and they drove me everywhere. I was a B+ front seat companion. I talked too much and if I was supposed to navigate we were 100% going to be lost. But we would be laughing. 

Coming from this suburban situation, walking in NYC was downright practical. But it was also a rebellion. I didn’t need to pump gas and I didn’t need anyone’s fucking help. I walked so the anxiety, the sexism and the horrendous sense of direction were behind me. But it gave me more than just a means of getting around. It calmed me down, I saw things, I felt full of purpose and strong. Walking in NYC is a smorgasbord of people-watching but also – a flagrant spree of ignoring everyone. It is Mary Tyler Moore, and it is environmentally green. But mostly, it opened my mind to the thought landscapes you cannot access while sitting around — probably via endorphins disguised as hope. 

I am certainly not the first human to celebrate walking. In fact, walking is perhaps the oldest human story out there. Poets, writers, artists, scientists and philosophers have been living and breathing the secrets of walking for centuries. And our hominin ancestors have been walking on two legs for at least 6 million years. When we examine the past, searching for scientific evidence, we cannot know if walking gave Homo erectus the courage and the vision to travel farther than any other hominin had before. We just know they had the long legs. But which came first: the vision or the legs? 

I know for me that walking is not simply a form of locomotion, it is a way of life which began as protest and ended up being a drug — one that despite being the most humble and hackneyed human behavior out there, still sometimes convinces me that I am going places.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Eyes Without a Face

It’s smart. It’s socially responsible. It’s awkward, it’s science, it’s love but people hate it and it’s only slightly bigger than a piece of toast, but more the proportions of a postcard. It’s a pandemic postcard: from me, to you.

The primary purpose of the everyday fabric mask is not to protect you from coronavirus. The purpose is to protect others from your facial droplets which, may, or may not contain coronavirus. In that way, it is a public display of affection, a tip of your hat, a neo-politeness. Have we ever had such a powerful accessory - both intensely personal and flagrantly public – in our everyday lives? I haven’t. 

Did you ever try to put booties on a dog? And then watch them march around like a weirdo after? That’s how I feel wearing a mask. The mask’s presence smolders on my face. It shifts my sensory and social experience like I have glasses on upside down, but it’s not funny. I don’t wear glasses and I cannot stand stupid things like snorkels or even kaleidoscopes touching my face. So you are telling me the mask is on my face, but it’s not about me? How’s that for a riddle? But we have to accept this minor discomfort and collective reality and just get used to it.

Here in New York City, masks are mandatory in many places and highly diverse in their morphology, materials and probably efficacy. Governor Cuomo has been urging the wearing of masks for weeks, he ran a contest for the best public service announcement about the importance of wearing a mask, here is the winner. He has even given the power to turn the maskless away in stores, on busses, etc.

Trader Joe’s, Columbus Ave. and 93rd St., May 31, 2020

The impact of wearing a mask is staggeringly profound: epidemiologically, socially, even fashion-wise. I have been ruminating about this for weeks: how can one strip of fabric serve such an essential function, but also communicate and evoke such wildly conflicting messages?

What about the science behind masks? 

At first, we were told not to wear them because they would increase the probability of touching your own face and therefore inadvertently increase disease transmission. Also, health care workers needed the N95 masks and they did not want everyone buying them. The part about touching your face is still relevant, and there are certain best practices for mask wearing that medical professionals adhere to.

But also, because of how rapid this pandemic has progressed, there is a dearth of empirical data on how fabric face coverings, worn by a whole population, affect the spread of coronavirus specifically [UPDATE: a new article was just published about the effectiveness of masks to prevent spread of COVID-19, see here].Though a few studies with small sample sizes are out there, and this is a hot-off-the-not-yet-press that reviews all of the relevant literature together. Look at section 3, Filtering Capability of Masks, this is my favorite quote, “Particle sizes for speech are on the order of 1μm”. This is quantifying the size of droplets that disperse when you talk. Here, speech - which I thought was a little more than spitting into the wind - isn’t.

And several other studies have focused on the physics of droplets and how they scatter when you talkcough or run.

Our daily fabric masks are, in some ways, an “experiment in progress”, which can be uncomfortable. New discoveries and data regarding the coronavirus are unfolding each minute. Certain studies really require years of longitudinal data and rigorous analysis and not a quick reductionist quote to the popular press. On a regular day, science can be seen all around us in technology and medicine, but the process of science never fully shows its face: the messiness, the time it takes, the failure. Now, we have all entered into the lab together as a society. And people are standing over scientists, breathing down their necks, and demanding they are more certain about unknowns. The fabric masks are some of this.

There are some data on the N95 masks protecting health care workers. But, to be continued for sure. 

And, how do we socialize in a mask? 

One of the twisted riddle-risks is that wearing a fabric mask does not make you invincible, so you should not act that way. People’s behavior while wearing a mask may make them more bold and therefore counteract the effectiveness of the mask in the first place. This is a potential problem. Cover your mouth and nose and, ideally, keep 6 feet apart - not a recipe for intimacy or even smooth communication with anyone. So what does mask culture mean for interpersonal relations?

It will mean we have to gesture in different ways to communicate things like kindness, thank you’s and their unkind opposites. You can’t see people smile except with their eyes - which is sort of sweet and literary - but also incredibly subtle in some cases. I have seen people nodding their heads to others and I recently gave someone a thumbs up in real life (not just an emoji). I already talk with my hands, maybe now that will be seen as a more positive attribute.

And can a mask be an expression of your politics? Is it the flag of the face? It is difficult for me to think this way because of where I live right now. But I know in other parts of the country it can seem this way because masks are more optional. So, wearing one exposes your values, acceptance of science, perceived compliance, anxiety perhaps. And anyway it doesn’t have to be political. It’s not a flag or a muzzle. It’s more like a facial tissue that stays put. Who would argue with you about your use of Kleenex? I get it, I do, but it’s stupid.

And there are also more serious social complications like racial issues or challenges for those who are hard of hearing. I am privileged that I do not experience these issues.

One unequivocal plus of the mask is that you can mutter under your breath in a much louder way, and no one sees you. Now we’re talkin'! I have found this particularly helpful as I navigate the landscape of the new and aching city and what distance means to me. In the market especially, where I have always wanted to mutter, because it kind of always sucks because someone is reaching for the same exact item as you want on the shelf, at the same exact time - and now I can mutter away without really getting into an altercation. Here, the mask is an accessory to enable my continued passive aggressiveness.

Related to that, the mask makes my emotions more cryptic and my face more anonymous, which I like. But I won’t say anything more about that.

And what about mask fashion? 

As we bear down on the absolute essentials of life: is fashion generally dead, with masks the final unsightly straw? Can you be all dressed up and wear a mask? Or is it—like my old office cardigan that I did not wash nearly enough—an “outfit ruiner”?

Can I feel pretty in a mask? not really. Does someone look handsome in a mask? not really. It’s all about the lips, noses and jawlines I guess.

People have been married in masks, and blessed are those who have gone the distance to color coordinate their masks with their pantsuits. I am not there yet.

And remember when masks were fun, like on Halloween? Me neither.

What about mask sizing? One size most certainly does not fit all faces, there is a lot of variation.

Museums are already collecting mask memorabilia as a piece of pandemic history. And of course people all over the world are getting creative and churning out homemade masks which are expressions of love and sewing skills - a little bit heartbreaking, a little bit lovely. I will always cherish the homemade masks that were sent to me during this strange time.

This post was supposed to be a short mediation on masks, but it’s more complicated than that. And even though this is the end of my post, this story is far from over.

Eyes Without A Face


More mask articles at these links: 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Trail of Cheers

The first time I heard it, I flung open my bathroom window and turned my face up to the little bit of big sky. The sound came mostly from the distance. I couldn’t see one person on the street or in their window making a noise. I clapped anyway into the new and strange lonely-together oblivion. I felt a little silly but I yelled a few times, and then I cried.

Every night at 7 PM in New York City people cheer to thank the essential workers who are on the ground caring for COVID-19 patients and keeping the city going.

Quickly, exponentially, more people caught on to the meaning of the cheer and it became louder and increasingly synchronized - with more diverse expressions like car horns and pots or pans. It was the most heartbreakingly human thing: terrible, beautiful, spontaneous, loving - all of it. It reminded me of the Whos down in Whoville when they learn that the Grinch stole Christmas, but they sing anyway. Many times the sound of sirens threatened to dampen the cheer’s rolling crescendo and birds chirped their hearts out in interspecific unison.

The cheer has gone on for half of the month of March, all of April and now it is May 25th. In the beginning of April the deaths reached a peak here. On April 9th, 800 deaths were recorded in New York City alone. (see 7 PM video below from that day)

Data was king as the world learned together about epidemic curves and exponential growth. Home schooling, at its most unfortunate. Together, we checked the curve rising exponentially each day, the line looking more horrifyingly vertical. And after the mercifully narrow peak, the curve came down on the other side. But it did not fall at the same rate that it rose. Of course it didn’t. But this is something that did not occur to me back in March. It fell more slowly than it rose. The graph of new deaths per day in New York City looks more like a rollercoaster than it does a bell. It is asymmetrical.

I wonder about the 7 PM cheer data too, was it louder at the peak? Is it louder in those neighborhoods most impacted by the virus? What are the varieties of sounds coming from different neighborhoods? I hope a resourceful nerd out there has recorded these data in a systematic way. Many articles have been written, like this one, some people have praised the ritual of the cheer, while others have derided it as meaningless. But it went on.

Night after night I looked forward to it because it helped me feel like I was saying thank you and marked the passing of time in a joyous way. It also taught me about my neighborhood through a new kind of metric of its humanity, its collective voice of resilience echoing off the built environment we call home. I shared videos of the cheer with family and friends. One evening, I perched my laptop out the window so friends on zoom could hear. I ended up seeing a Red-tailed hawk circling above during the cheer which seemed all the more chaotic. My faraway friends couldn’t really hear it, or see it, but they humored me anyway.

But as the pandemic wore on, I became tired of the cheer and on certain nights, I kept my window closed. What was it doing anyway? How did the essential workers actually feel about it? People were dying, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it - and with my one wild and precious life - I was restless and bored. Like a brat in a cage. I was a part of something, but also not a part of anything anymore.

I am fine, really. But some days are irrationally up and others are irrationally down. On the up days I think maybe the cheer should go on forever, because a daily ritual of gratitude and togetherness in this crazy city just sounds emotionally nourishing. But then, that seems more about the clapper than those that are being clapped for. Some think it’s time for the cheer to stop or change, and perhaps become a yearly ritual to remember those who have died.

People who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918 were not formally memorialized because World War I was the priority of politicians of the time. During the time the flu raged, politicians deliberately did not mention it because they didn’t want their country to appear vulnerable. And when it was over, the average person who needed to keep living wanted to forget, so they did.

But for those still working tirelessly to save lives, for those who didn’t make it down the other side, and because epidemiologically, it isn’t over yet: I am going to cheer again tonight, but I will not be opening a window - I am going outside.

#ClapBecauseWeCare #MemorialDay

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Painting My Way Back Home

It isn’t over yet. And when it is, I will miss it.

My arm is sore today from painting my hallway yesterday. It is now a pale bright bluey-green. And one coat away from being finished. The process of painting has been calming: to watch the foam brush loaded with a color I love—in a sexy goopy form. In this case, painting is progress. And I have taken it so slowly, which has given me immense pleasure.

First, I patched holes in the wall and sanded. Don’t ask why the holes were there, or never patched. Some days all I did was get up on a chair and sand a section of the wall smaller than an iPhone 6. But I worked hard and stretched and strained my fingers to the absolute maximum. Then, I got down from the chair, washed my hands, and returned to sitting.

I also painted the ceiling.

This pandemic has provoked every emotion and like ghosts or aromas they come in amorphous waves sometimes overlapping and creating new and unfamiliar feelings. Also, old feelings come back again. Like looking at yourself in the mirror for the first time in many years.

Paint dripped on my painting pants, making them into a little bit more of what they truly are. Paint filled the dingy neglected wall surface like a viscous version of “it’s going to be okay”. I forgot for a few minutes. I remembered.

I have never been to the Tenement Museum because I imagine they will take me on a tour of what looks like my own apartment. The other day I reassured my Mother that if I fell off the chair while painting, my hallway is so narrow - it would catch me in its pre-war wood trimmed arms. I never fell.

My kitchen is orange and now the adjoining hallway is this pale green. These colors vibrate beside each other. They create light and shadow beyond the actual light and shadow. I had a painting teacher once who told us that yellow beside light blue “makes light”. This has always stuck with me. I know painting my apartment is not the same thing as painting a painting—but here, I blurred the lines between inside and art.

The hallway has transcended its original form, it’s now closer to the gods, it sings, it downright glows. But really, it’s just better. Which reminds me. I like to paint.

Update see below: Fin 

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 soupçon 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.