nyc travelogue: everything, illuminated

An illustration of a bright pink box, tied up with a pink string. A single rubber band on a field of palest green. A shoe box that once held size 7.5 B shoes now holds, as the handwritten label indicates, a collection of “Mosses of Long Island.” A box, it is explained, that was purchased from an antique sale. 

The paintings I loved most at the Maira Kalman exhibit, “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” at the Jewish Museum of New York, were the ones of simple objects. And I loved also, seeing the objects themselves, on display from her own collection.

She is perhaps best known for a cartoon map of New Yorkistan, a collaboration with illustrator Rick Meyerowitz, that appeared on the cover of The New Yorker in December of 2001. 

But it was the objects - a installation within the exhibit, called “Many Tables of Many Things,” which showcases the whimsical, unexpected and unusual items from her own collection - that moved me to tears. 

A jar of buttons. A white enamel funnel. A plastic bag that holds neatly-wound skeins of green yarn. Many of the items are accompanied by typewritten index cards. A stack of brightly-colored napkins has a card that reads: “paint rags on linens taken quietly from hotels.”

I moved through this collection thinking hard about the things we keep and the things we discard. The emotional weight we give the things that surround us. I look at my own desk, my workspace, where I am writing this. It is a mess of paper and books mostly, but a few objects have migrated into the area. 

When I was thirteen, my sister gave me a single (fake) red rose for my birthday. It came in its own plastic tube, and even had what was meant to be “dew” - a few hard plastic drops - on its petals. 

I loved this hideous object. It made me cry. I was on the brink of transformation from childhood to something else - I won’t call it womanhood yet - but that point at which young girls tremble near the precipice of something unknown - exhilarating and terrifying. The physical and emotional onslaught of that time - the rush of what I attributed to this single rose (blame it on overly romantic movies, or on the paperback Harlequin romances I devoured as an adolescent) made me powerless in the face of this hackneyed symbol of love. I wanted it all - everything, everything, everything.

What does it say about a sensibility that finds beauty in cones of cotton thread? A can holding “mushy peas”? A collection of onion rings? (“Tibor and Maira collected onion rings. First in collection 1969”).

I think a look at the objects I hold on to would say more about sloppiness than about identifying beauty or grace, or about seeing the narrative thread of a thing (I can’t help but wonder about the owner of that “Mosses of Long Island” box - the project conceived, begun, never finished, and ultimately, abandoned with the rest of the owner’s possessions, to be sold.) I’ve always held on to more than I need, always loved the feeling of things around me. I go through an occasional purge, perhaps, but the piles and objects quickly accumulate, again, and the cycle starts anew.

But ultimately, I think, I am a collector, too. This does not come from an aesthetic impulse, but more from a fear of want. I crave fullness, excess. I want visual markers of my emotional state. I want the things around me to make meaning and reflect it back to me, so that I can understand. 

I love a line in a poem, so I want the book of poems, so that when I see the book of poems, I understand, “I am a person who loves poems.” I admire the pods of the false indigo bush after flowering. I want the bush in my front yard, in my backyard, along the side fence, so that I can look at them and say, “I am someone who appreciates not just the flowers, but the seeds.” I see a notebook that is beautiful in its simplicity and I want more of them than I could ever fill in a dozen lifetimes, so that I can look at them, and say, “I am someone who writes in beautiful notebooks, who has things to say." 

In "Many Tables of Many Things,” a spool of white string is perched on top of a pie chest that is filled with crisply-pressed linens. The spool is so large that you can imagine it wrapping around whole buildings, whole city blocks, whole urban centers wrapped in white string. 

I find myself wanting that spool of string. I will wrap everything that I own with it. 

nyc travelogue: a gathering of angels

I meet M. outside of the department store he now manages. A huge, gleaming three-story building. He leads me inside, all high ceilings and showrooms. Chandeliers. On every table, a bowl of decorative spheres. He chats with his staff easily and they clearly adore him. It is so good to see him so much at ease. 

Before arriving, I call him on my way down 3rd Avenue, to warn him. “I am terribly hot and grimy. And I’m not dressed for anything too fancy.”

“Oh please, you know me. We’re not doing anything fancy.”

“Well, and I want to be able to hug you - it’s been a decade after all - but I need to warn you that I’m kind of gross.”

He laughs. “See you soon.”

He looks exactly like he did ten years ago, except perhaps for a little gray in his beard. He lets me hug him, grime and all. 

He’s picked out a spot a couple blocks away - a nondescript bar with a pool table in the back. The air conditioning blasts us as we enter. We sit side by side at the bar, order beers. 

We talk about high school and the friends we had in common. Go through the list of names and provide updates where we have them. One, a dermatologist with a private practice in Connecticut. One moved to Atlanta after his divorce. Another, still in Boston, teaching philosophy. 

We order buffalo wings and waffle fries.

And of course, we talk about S. 

A long battle with cystic fibrosis left S. fragile by her twenties, and after a double-lung, living donor transplant surgery, we lost her. She was 28.

M. tells me this story:

There was this fundraiser her family had, for some of the costs of all the medical bills and the surgery, especially. Up in Rye, I think. This was right before she was leaving for that hospital. We came back in a cab together from the train station. When we were on the sidewalk, I leaned in to hug her. She was leaving the next day for California. 

He puts down his beer, rubs his temples with his fingers. Outside, the sky has darkened, and then opens suddenly, and now people are rushing around, ducking under awnings, holding shopping bags up over their heads against the downpour.  

As I went over to hug her, I saw this flash of light out of the corner of my eye. I looked away for a second, and then back at her, and I swear to god. I swear to god, when I looked back at her, there was this halo - this glowing ring of light - right over her head. 

We are both crying now, tipsy and tired, and we’re wiping at our eyes with the backs of our hands. Plates of food arrive and we reach over them for napkins. 

I can’t believe she’s gone. She’s been gone so long. Where did all that time go?

It’s still raining hard. We drink more beer and we eat for a moment in silence. 

He asks me about the kids, about M. I ask about his partner and their new apartment. 

By the time we run out of things to say, the rain has stopped. He walks me to my car. We hug and I wonder briefly if there is any configuration of light hovering above us. I look up, but only see the gray concrete of the parking lot. 

nyc travelogue: savage wait, savage failure

After getting all hopped up on frozen yogurt & coffee, I headed uptown to the Met for the first (official) item on my list. Yes, everyone had told me that the lines for the Alexander McQueen exhibit, Savage Beauty, would be insane and unbearable (“and I think,” wrote my clever friend C., in an email, “a nod to his s&m sensibility, since it is like torture.”)

But still, I walked jauntily along Fifth Avenue fully prepared that by the time I met my friend M. two hours later, I would be able to gush knowledgeably about the bumster skirt and the spine corset

Foolish girl. 

Twenty-two blocks (& 4 crosstown) later, I arrived to learn that there was a two-hour wait just to get in to the exhibit.

We will not meet today, Jack the Ripper coat. Not today. #fail

nyc travelogue: 40 carrots @ bloomingdales

First up, the unexpected nostalgia stop: 40 CARROTS, the “ladies-who-lunch” spot on the top floor of Bloomingdales. AKA: one of my very first waitressing jobs, in the summer before college, 1998. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I worked at the Bloomingdales in White Plains, NY, not the one on 59th Street, but as I walked past, having finally ditched my car, the pull was surprisingly powerful. I am a sentimentalist of the highest order. Plus, the air conditioning seemed like an excellent idea. 

So, I ducked inside. Now, this Bloomingdales was not unfamiliar to me. After my daughter was born, we lived on the upper east side for a time, and I spent many, many days wheeling her around the smooth tile floors, ogling and pawing the wall of brilliantly-colored bath towels. 

I have a snarky story I sometimes tell about waitressing that summer. It involved some very fancy ladies who talked to each other about me, as I was waiting on them, assuming I did not speak much English. But I will save that for another day, and say only that I devoured a chocolate frozen yogurt (with chocolate sprinkles, brought in a tiny ramekin alongside) and downed a perfectly serviceable black coffee at the gleaming counter, between two ladies, each fancy in her own right. It was just what I needed to kickstart the trip. 

big city lights

I’ve returned home from a long weekend in New York City.

I had been planning this trip for weeks. I made lists of the exhibits I wanted to see, culled from issues of The New Yorker. I had the names and addresses of the hippest restaurants I could imagine being let into. Bookstores and lists of books I hadn’t easily found elsewhere. Locations all over the city: Upper east side, upper west side, mid-town, lower east side, SoHo, Long Island City.

I had made plans to see people, too. I was going to see one of my dearest friends from high school, who I had not seen in nearly a decade (upper east side). A grad school friend who I just learned was six months pregnant (west side), and I was staying with a friend in Brooklyn who wanted me to experience all her favorite places in the borough (Prospect Park, Red Hook).

Did I mention I had to swing through Westchester on my way home, to visit with my family? That, too. 

So, I didn’t make it to everything on the list. But a lot of it. And a lot of it unexpected, unplanned. What I thought would be about new experiences ended up feeling a lot more like a kind of homecoming. I’ll explain in the next few entries.