Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Little Give and Take (to Quote Mr. B. Joel)

Something flew at my head as I exited the 14th Street subway this morning.  While I remained upright (always a major feat), I did swat at it several times before Mary Katherine, with her best director-of-the-nursing-home demeanor, informed me, "It's only a butterfly, Mom."

I congratulated myself at behaving like such a New Yorker that even a normally appreciated creature could confound me. Nature, to a New Yorker, is to be avoided with all the brio that one brings to eschewing the subway car that holds the stinky hobo. And now, I was freaking at a fritillary. Brava, me.

Mary Katherine and I have been in Manhattan the past two weeks, while she attends an acting workshop and I take my brain to Empire State Cerebellum Rehab (i.e, vacation). It's been a grand experience, and I've even managed to learn a few things.

My biggest revelation is that I have the capacity to be a good friend to myself. Most of time time, my self talk tends towards a Lucy Van Pelt level of bossiness. Any vacuum in my brain is filled with comments like "Finish that article; it's due on Tuesday," "Put the laundry in the drier," or "Don't you have anything better to do?" With six hours a day to bop around the city like a free bird,  I've found myself asking nicely, "What would you like to do now, Julie?" As a result, my free time has been a delicious stew of walking, reading and people-watching, my top-three favorite things (four and five are napping and having just completed a yoga class).  In two weeks, I haven't cooked anything I don't plan to eat, cleaned any messes I didn't make or driven anywhere I don't want to go. No wonder I feel so good.

In my many rambles, I've discovered some characterics about myself that would make me an ideal New Yorker. I possess low standards for sanitation, a big bladder and a willingness to tip (modest frequency, not extreme largesse, is my motto). I love the New York Post, especially any sex-scandal headline (see above). Also, after 16 years of motherhood, my personal space bubble remains in little sad tatters, so I tend to manage just fine on even the most crowded subway line.

On my "not so much" list of chacterstics, I am somewhat unfond of cockroaches, especially the giant flying variety that used to inhabit Debbie's first place on West 44th. Also, I really do not understand the appeal of eating on the subway platform or the street. I've witnessed on-the-run consumption of french fries, burritos and large platters that looked as if they contained turkey dinners. While far from a connoisseur of fine dining,  I must confess that I like to sit down when I masticate, preferrably in a place where the bacteria are not actively whirling around my plate. And, finally, I lack the two things that this city seems to require for ultimate success:  Youth and Money.

However, I still manage to have a lot of fun. My curiosity and social bravery allow me to ask questions of just about anyone who has information I want (I have confirmed directions with about a hundred different letter carriers, and they were uniformly (ha!) kind and helpful) or who seems interesting (the grandmother of a girl in Mary Katherine's acting class turned out to be a vintage couture collector who had once been pictured in Bill Cunningham's NY Times Styles of the Times photography feature). I meet these characters everywhere.  Today it was a guy in the dog park who not only gave me tips on handling Boomer's dog park agressiveness, but shared tidbits about his own life as a cameraman for MTV and later, in a war zone.  Trust me, those topics don't come up at Lake of the Isles on an average afteroon.

Back home in Minneapolis, any comment I offer to a stranger is dispatched with a lutefisk eye and a frosty demeanor. I say things like, "Cute dog!" or "Pretty baby!" or "I like your dress!" and they scurry away and clutch their children close.  Here, they light up their smart-and-savvy faces and answer back. "I know, he's a rescue, can you believe it?" or "She's only five months old and she sat up today!" or "I shouldn't have bought it but it made me feel so pretty!" They aren't offering to become my best friends, but they aren't afraid to make conversation, and I appreciate it.

In the words of that immortal eighties' bard, Billy Joel, the New York State of Mind calls for a little "give and take." I've been giving for a long time in my frosty, disciplined and humorless home, and I can feel my soul warming up here, just like the lawn in Central Park, the garbage on the street and the urine wafting up from the sidewalk as soon as the weather gets warm.

It's all part of New York, and I'm willing to take it all, in case anyone asks. And here's a little tip to thank you for your trouble.

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