From the Chair

img_2200“This will hurt some, but it would hurt a lot more if I give you a shot in your gums,” the nice bald Russian man said.

I nodded.  I’d had someone push and trim along my gum line with a hideous instrument before, it had gone fine.  Nerve pain in a tooth is the worst, and my tooth is dead, R.I.P., left lateral incisor.  “Uh-huh-huh,” I said, and gave him the thumbs-up.

In Kansas City, I had a dentist who never gave me a filling, he “helped” me out.  The Russian man, here, is not much on following the spittle on the sides of my mouth.  He’s not much on having an assistant.  He’s done almost everything all by his lonesome.  He does cock his head and look at my tooth like it’s a haute couture piece, though, and I like that.

Two days before, I was sitting with a martini at gold-dipped Bemelman’s bar in the Carlyle Hotel, being served by a man in a white jacket.  We sat behind the piano, where the piano’s glossy back arched away from us, as if it were going to dive back in.  Every song you could call a “standard,” the man played, one by one by one, Old New York, he was hidden behind the piano, by its top up, we were shielded by the piano from the doorway to the lobby, the airlock to the world, if you could call Madison Avenue “the world.”

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  I had lots of time, ideas, a million adventures at my fingertips; I am unemployed and have the money I have to look at and watch trickle.  I needed a root canal and a crown; I asked for help with this and it was kindly granted.  Financial help, that is, in the chair, with my mouthful of drills, I have only the alphabet to imagine places I’m glad I’m not trapped:  A, an attic  B, a basement.  C, a cliff dwelling.  D, a death chamber.  I wasn’t great at this game.

It was the next day that the Bemelman’s day ended– I was with a visiting friend and we, as usual, took everything way too far– I stepped into a train car which had four men in it.  Two of them were passed out, and the other two looked about to pass out.  It was two a.m.  I take the subway whenever I want.  I have never had a bad experience.  As with walking barefoot, I’ll have to have a bad experience to stop doing it, and I’m still walking barefoot all kinds of filthy places.

When I got close to home, I bought chocolate chip cookies and water from the newsstand.  Had to walk a ways.  Down our boulevard, which always has cars.  Which at three a.m., has another couple of guys sleeping on park benches.  I tiptoed past them.

The very next day I walked the same street in the daylight.  Instead of a big moon, the trees were presiding.  Instead of being heavy shadow clouds protecting us, the trees were out and explained by day.

I passed a cardboard box of books on someone’s stoop.  There was a children’s book titled, Squids Will Be Squids.  I took it.

I got to my writing space, and I found a book about an aircraft carrier.  I left the squid book and took the aircraft carrier book.  I think it’s okay to take books from there.  What writer wouldn’t want a book borrowed, to be read?

In the ladies’ room at the Carlyle, I washed my hands and put on lotion because it was fancy Carlyle lotion, and it did smell like rich people.

“Do you have a ponytail holder?” this woman asked me.  I was fumbling through my bag looking for my lipstick.  Having had a martini prevented me from finding the lipstick.

“I don’t, I’m sorry.  They should have a vending machine for those.  I always need one, too.”

She had white grey hair, and a long black dress.  “I just need to pull this up,” she said, and went into a stall.

“Uh,” I said.  “Do you need help?”

“No, no,” she said.  She came out.  “I just think this would be better with hair up.”

“Well, it looks great,” I said.  ‘Those feathers!”  Her necklace was made of feathers and white and grey beads, pointing and fringing away from her face, toward her décolletage.  “They look great with your hair!”

I was free from the worst job I ever had, from the avalanche of need of my students, from the terror of losing my job, from alarm clocks, from what was happening.  I was under the thumb of the calendar, my email inbox, from what I want to write but have to force myself to sit down and write, and from what could happen.

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We May Sink and Settle

DP158099.jpgSomeone told me even numbers of bamboo stalks are unlucky, so I bought another pot with three stalks, bringing my total to 9.  I had 3, that was good, then 6, disaster, now back to 9.

“What does that have to do with?”my coworker asked.  I was carrying my bamboo.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Chinese numbers?”

Because obviously my life is ruled by Chinese numbers.

“You just have to be careful with it,” she said.  “It takes over.”

“You seem unhappy,” someone said.  Unhappy, and suffering, is not the same as inauthentic.  Like at the end of the “Muppet Movie,” “We did just what we set out to do.”  I set out to be a New Yorker, because I knew I was one, I am one, it fits.

Everything else has been disastrousish: deserts of loneliness, boiling panic on 7th Avenue, back on the “rescue” drugs, back on the antidepressants– not that I mind the antidepressants, so much, they did me so right before, and going off only taught me they had no ill effects, and that going off them was easy.  As long as sertraline and I fall back in love, I’ll stick with him forever.

You lose your job but have to keep doing it for months, you get bad doctor news, you sell hard your life’s work: a lot for a brain.

This time I knew to keep my eyes low, not to look up at tall buildings, of which there are, you know, a few, in Manhattan, and this time I was cool enough to walk through an Old Navy and look for t-shirts.  I was at 9.  Last time an H & M overstimulated me so bad I wanted to rip my chest open like Superman rips his suit off.  I was at 10.

When I said I wasn’t that bad, that with my first bout of anxiety I was afraid to leave the house, my therapist said, “Let’s not let it get that far this time.”  Right.

This round is much easier, as I understand the drugs, and the drugs help.  To do what I intended to do, just do it with medicine.  To not let my brain get the grooves carved that say, freak out here.

I have a brain that acts out this way.  And I don’t give in to it.  I still move to a new city, I don’t quit my stressful job, I don’t stop writing.  I get medicine.  I don’t know if therapy for this has helped me at all, but I like therapy, so I go.

I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.  – Virginia Woolf, The Waves.

I  marched in the Mermaid Parade last weekend.  Marched?  Walked with everyone, stopped and started, blew bubbles, waved ribbons around.  I painted myself blue, which was much more work than I thought it would be, four big tubes of blue, four layers of paint.  I had trouble with my face.  I am experienced with Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras always means masks.  My sister helped make my face something.  I didn’t know how to feel, there, handling the chiffon tails of my costume, the gangbusters of people, my first time at anything I am so self-conscious.  I wanted to be the sea.

Sequins are still being found on the bottoms of my roommates’ feet, and in the cat’s litter box.  For a minute I was the sea.

Image: “Ocean Swells,” Arthur B. Davies, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Get and Take

DP210179The woman was pleased that I was buying an umbrella.  I had just splashed through Rockefeller Center, in three inches of rain, this made me laugh.  Nothing was making me laugh at all, only actually wading in my sandals, running between the buildings there.

“Once we sold almost every umbrella we had, to this whole bus of people from China,” she said.  She was so pleased, and so pleasant, I wondered if she had stock in the store, or the umbrella company.

That afternoon I was going to meet all these agents who could either tell me my life was worth living or not.  So I thought I would try to calm down.

Under the red umbrella, I crossed the street to the cathedral.  They were starting a service.  I didn’t have time to stay for the service.  I stopped at the St. John altar.

I did not believe in anything, except maybe I did believe in St. John, I felt nothing was his fault, not that I was again without a job, my career a mess, or that my ovaries had given up, or that, the previous evening, after I got home, I flossed and a crown popped right out of the row of my teeth.  I don’t belong here! the crown said, just as I had crowned a whole afternoon of def con anxiety and thirty read-throughs, editing every other time and making marks for pauses and longer beats, then careful ingestion of exactly one and a half glasses of wine while I waited to go on so that I could stand in front of people and look and sound spontaneous and fresh and people could say to me, “You’re a natural performer.”

They were being kind, I know, but I was ungrateful and wanted to hear, “You worked really hard and persevered through the train you wanted to take not running and having to walk extra blocks, as usual, going the wrong way first, in the rain, in heels, on the brick and uneven streets of downtown, and you showed up late even though you thought people who are late for their own readings ought to be shot, what disrespect, what disrespect, why can’t you get it together?”

The sign at the St. John altar said candles $2, I realized I didn’t care what the sign said, I took out all my change and plunked it through the slot and took the candle and lit it, and God, the church universal, or St. John himself could take it up with me later that it wasn’t $2.

I got a pew and started the service with everyone, sang the parts.

I lost my St. John medal about six months after I moved here.

On my way out of the cathedral, I turned into the gift shop and in a revolving case there was a St. John medal, a heavy one on a heavy chain, right there.

I went to the counter and asked for it.  The woman brought back a Joan of Arc medal, which was more than a little weird because the novel I was trying to get an agent to want to sell, thus telling me my life was worth living, the novel is about Joan of Arc (obliquely).

“No,” I said, “John.”  Then I wondered if I should have bought the Joan one.

She brought back the John, I gave her a credit card because I am so out of my mind with exhaustion my checking account has too much money in it, I don’t know why, but I’m expecting that means any moment I will be overdrawn because of something I forgot.

I went back to the agent meetings.  They went well.  I enjoy talking about my work.

At the end of the meetings, a woman I had been talking with was suddenly a friend and we walked to an outdoor cafe and ordered drinks.  She talked very fast and so did I and we had plenty to talk about.  The waiter asked us to pay because he said it was about to rain.  Then the heavens did open up, we leaned back under our umbrella and still we were misted.  Heavy rain in New York City means nothing.  When you are from tornado territory, nothing less than Shiva-level destruction impresses.

I got back to Brooklyn and in the last block before I was home, I looked over at a huge rainbow, I could see because there is a school across the street from us, an open piece of land, giving us some sky, and a huge rainbow.

 

Happy postscript: the crown that fell out was just a temporary one.  Dentist stuck it back on in five minutes and $50.

Image: “Man With Umbrella In Times Square,” Ted Croner, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unisphere, Perisphere

IMG_1791
I didn’t go to Queens to see the Unisphere.  As I approached it, it opened and arched and bent different ways, and I stepped up and over the edge of what would hold in water, if it was summer, and walked under it, and there was a kite caught in one edge, near the Americas, and it broke me how pretty that was.

I walked over to the “Men in Black” towers, that is what they are to me, they were the New York state pavilion in 1964.  (Right across the path, coincidentally, was the Missouri pavilion, which showcased the Missouri space industry, whatever that was then.)

I knew the towers were neglected and awful, but they were worse than I had been imagining, or it felt worse to see them.  There is a theater now, hugging the towers, but the towers are nothing.  They are flaking apart.  I walked up to the fence around them, until I saw a police mobile unit.  I would guess it’s pretty hard to sneak in there and look around.  When I tried to get a touch closer, a cop asked me not to.  The towers used to be for observation, so you could look out at everything.  It’s strange that it is the New York state pavilion because New York City is only nominally in New York State, that is, it’s awkward for all of us that New York City is in New York state, since New York City is in so many ways its own little country of customs and language and people.

It made me think about broken and flaked away things that were inside me that I didn’t really want to think about, and I wished I hadn’t looked at it.

Behind the unisphere, now, is the Queens Museum.  It used to be the New York City pavilion.  Now it’s a Queens place.  The boroughs here have their own little museums, which are smaller and more provincial, in some ways, than museums in cities.  Brooklyn and Queens both have their own little zoos and botanical gardens, just to show that they can.  What the Queens Museum has, really, is the largest architectural model in the world, of course, since you are in New York City, it is of New York City, despite the fact that you could go someplace and look at the actual New York City, say, from Governor’s Island or the top of the Empire State Building, both great views, or from the Brooklyn Bridge, people come from all over to look at tiny pretend New York City.

It is a better view, fine, it is, but it still feels as crazy as here, where in spite of being told all the time how important we are, we also like to look at ourselves and trumpet ourselves, periodically.

During the World’s Fair, you rode a pretend helicopter down to see it, and was I sad I didn’t get to ride in a pretend helicopter, well, do you know me at all?

Now there is a series of ramps around it, which functions as a practical alternative.  Your first few steps are on glass, below you is a part of the Bronx no one cares about, the other parts that are glass are Queens and Staten Island (ditto).  Everyone stops to gaze across Manhattan, spoiled cradle of the city.  Count the streets.  People stop to find where they live, for me, the park, then up, then over.  Find where they work, for me, that is another park, another big one, pretty easy.  Find other parks, and watch, on fishing line, a tiny white airplane go up from LaGuardia, one up to Europe, I guess, and one over and up to the west, to everywhere else.  The trajectory is like when Tinkerbell flies from the top of Cinderella’s castle, suggested by Walt Disney on my mind.

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I studied the World’s Fair model under a dome of glass, which was upstairs, and found the Ford, General Electric, and Pepsi pavilions, those being the ones designed by Disney.

I thought I would be excited to see the World’s Fair stuff they had, but mostly it was crummy souvenirs people bought, with dumb pictures on them.  The model was more interesting, and sadder.  None of those things were there.  Not the girlie shows at the Louisiana pavilion, not the skyway, which I neglected to ride at Six Flags last year, not the Ford pavilion with drivers making figure 8s twenty-four hours a day, not President Coolidge’s pygmy hippo Billy, not Les Poupees de Paris, not the Pieta, which I couldn’t believe the Vatican thought was fit for travel, I mean, I guess it’s marble and tough, but if I owned the Pieta I would not let it out of my house, period.  Not the electric typewriters, not Better Living Through Chemistry, not Franklin Roosevelt and Albert Einstein giving a speech on televisions that had just barely been born.

So I thought it was sad.

I forgot to look at where the time capsule is buried, or the spot marking where the pope was, though I don’t care about popes.

When I was back in the city, walking from the subway to church, down St. John, across 6th Avenue, I knew how small I was in the model.  How I was speck in the tiny canyons, all of us were.

The other big piece at the museum is a model of the watershed, which does the absurd thing of showing us how the land that we live on works.  Not a building, not a street, not a sidewalk, not even a tree, only how our land is, under us, which we can’t notice or see, maybe only the cyclists can, do, the rest of us feel it so little, up or down, so little altitude here, apparently, though, it makes our water run, and the whole model, so much less visited and remarked on, shows what is here that makes us, more than the sprawl of our wonders, which we know.

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Inmates

DP134037.jpgAcross the avenue from my doctor’s office is the building with the clock tower.  It was 4:05 PM.

Clock towers: “Back to the Future,” the Prairie Village pool complex, with the clock up there where we could look up from the water to see it was the time Mom said we had to leave, “Peter Pan.”

I had allowed an hour to get to the doctor, and it had taken half an hour to get there.  I had written to my boss that I would have to leave a little early.  Now it was cold and raining and I had half an hour.  I crossed my arms for warmth, and crossed the avenue, and followed a mom and a kid up the steps and in the doors.

Inside was as lovely as outside, vaulting ceilings, a grandiose spiral staircase going up and a Hobbity one going down.  I went down first, Hobbity, and looked over the space, a bitty art display in the hall, then a room of people staring at laptops and books, a few of them homeless and pee-scented.  The public library scene.  Upstairs, at the top of the spiral, there was a wheel of iron that kept the tower open, held it to its proper circumference, kept is lung open, and there were more rooms that were now library rooms, the people, the same, basically, quiet, and I walked around spectator only like I had no interest in books and no library card in my billfold.

These were courtrooms, these various rooms, where people, instead of being in quiet, were engaged in civilized fighting and frequently were chewing on all kinds of hostile feelings and worries.  The children’s reading room was once the police court, the adult reading room was a civil court.

In the entry, there was a glass case with a display about the history of the building.  It was a market and a tower to look for fires (like in the wilderness, now), then that was demolished.  Famous architects built a courthouse.  Completed, it was named one of the five loveliest buildings in the world.  It was a courthouse, then various city offices, then attacked by all the forces of irritability of the city trying to be modern, and saved, post-Penn Station.  The building is on a funny-shaped lot, where Greenwich Village starts and things get confusing, and have gotten confusing, in every way since they set up the grid uptown.  The back half of the lot is also a funny shape, and on it was built a women’s prison.

It was the 1930s, and prisoners in New York City were moving from what is now Roosevelt Island to Riker’s and to this facility, and they were becoming “inmates” instead of “prisoners.”

When it opened, people complained that the building was too lovely for such a shitty neighborhood, Greenwich Village, 1932.

People complained that the screams of the women in the women’s prison were bothersome.  “Hardly the conversation we want our children to hear.”  For forty years, people yelled up to their friends, relatives, and enemies housed inside.  It was a prison with windows that opened, and whosoever was in jail was yelling out and free people were yelling in and at it.

Dorothy Day, Angela Davis, and Ethel Rosenberg: in.

And what time is it?

After moving our prison from Roosevelt Island to Riker’s, the New York Times suggests, among other ideas, that Riker’s be “given back to the sea gulls.”  And the people we imprison or inmate will be moved again.

When the women’s prison was torn down, a process begun by Mayor Lindsay in a cute white hard hat, the courthouse that became a library was no longer overshadowed.  Its clock tower could be seen again from more angles.  And the piece of land behind it became a park: “10 Star and Saucer Magnolia trees, 7 Yoshino Cherry trees, 2 American Yellowwoods, 7 Thornless Honeylocusts, 10 Crabapple trees, 70 fairy hedge roses around the lawn, 60 pycarantha, and 56 holly bushes in clusters.”  I stood and read that with my lips moving because all the names were so melodic, the wind was cold, and I saw that there were roses growing in and on the fence because there were thorns.

It was 4:25 PM.

In the image above, the prison is the ominous thing on the left.  The elevated subway on 6th Avenue is long gone.  

Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My favorite source on the Women’s House of Detention

The Garden and what was planted there.

 

Wolves

DP817868.jpgI have wolves.  I went to the cathedral on this, Dr. King’s day, and the lesson was about caring for your flock, which was the last thing I wanted to hear, as I want to quit my job, I have wolves.

The first half of my career I was told I was a good teacher, so I think I was.  I felt I was getting better and then that I was maintaining a strong and useful program of work, I taught other teachers, I presented at national conferences.

Then I spent most of a year arguing about if I needed the books I ordered in my classroom, if I was losing students’ papers and if I was bullying them by asking them to be quiet so we could start class.

I have been a “bad” teacher because my lessons were not engaging and I could not control my students, these two things being frequently connected.  I never aspired to be entertaining or intimidating, though, I only try to be thoughtful and trustworthy.

Some of us must be “bad” to keep the show going, so we know who to hiss at.

When I was told I was good, I was better.  This is the story of your life as an agreeable white girl, I know, people tell you are good and so you are.

If a kid refusing to sit down, pushing me, throwing things, and using profanity results in leaving class for a good while, I am a good teacher.  I can control my students.

I hate that word, anyway, it should be that kids find it easier to decide to be productive because the environment they are living in makes that the easiest choice.  It should be hard to be bad.

I work hard at putting myself back together.  Still, I haven’t been sleeping more than two hours at a stretch, and I have headaches.

On my way up to the cathedral, I heard the begging-on-the-subway speech five times.  Three times from the same guy, a big guy with a deep, lovely voice.  I changed cars because something was buzzing unbearably in my car, and the beggars change cars, too, so that’s why I heard that guy twice.  The third time, I guess, I took the train so far, probably 3/4 of its route, that was my fault, too: we overlapped again.

I thought, I know I don’t have change, I just did laundry.  And I didn’t want to give any money today.  I don’t want to give anything.  Not a thing.  Not to anyone.

Then I thought: this guy’s job is better than mine.  At least no one was jumping up and yelling at him or calling him names when he asked for what he wanted.  No one was throwing things at him.  Then I thought: goodness, that’s an offensive thought.

If I wasn’t a city teacher, someone people admire for toughness and virtue, who would I be?  Maybe no one would admire me, maybe I would not be likable at all, if, say, I was a person who left urban teaching, like everyone else I know.

Exaggeration: I know one person who has taught in urban schools a long time, and is still teaching in an urban school.  Most of us, almost all of us, get picked off by administrators, our own exhaustion, financial pressure.

How foolish it was for me to borrow thirty grand and then take the lowest-paying jobs in my field, over and over for ten years.  I really did that.  And all the money on my own office supplies and stuff for the kids— notecards, pens and pencils, treats (bribes).  I’m stingier than most teachers, honestly, but it still adds up.

For a long time, I felt I was making up for something, paying back my great public school education, paying back being white, for having a good family, for being loved.

People say, you’ve been on the front lines a long time, it’s okay to fall back.  Maybe nobody should do these hardest jobs, caretaking at our fringes, for a long time.  Maybe it just isn’t healthy, or can’t be healthy, right here, right now.

Friday I packed up all my stuff in front of the kids.  I was that gone. I was telling myself, I’ll protect you.  I won’t let anyone scream at you anymore.  I won’t let them disrespect you.

I must have scared them, by doing that, and by being gone the last two hours of the day.

I’ve spent the weekend thinking in flashes that of course I will go back, I’ll figure it out, as I have many times before, I’ll figure some way to limp forward, if not to march.

Things you would not, could not do, then you do.  Move to New York.  Kiss.

I became a city teacher because my parents divorced at the same time I learned about the civil rights movement in school.  That’s not fair, I thought, and it was all launched, tied up together.  It wasn’t a bad reason.  When I started teaching, though, I promised myself if I felt I was becoming lost, I would quit.  That doing good shouldn’t mean losing yourself.  That I wouldn’t teach somewhere kids threw things or where I felt unsafe.  But I do.  And I haven’t quit.

Along with “That’s not fair” and paying back my good fortune, there is also enjoying the weirdness of teenagers, their openness and fear together, their first shoots of adult life coming up, enjoying being a person they go to for help, and knowing the answers.

I think Dr. King would say, we are all sheep, but there are wolves in us.

I know they are sheep.  My meanest kid sneers, “She’s still here?” but there is a hint of relief mixed with his nastiness.  I hear it.

Image: Wolf, Anonymous, 17th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

16

DP234401The psychiatrist on the 16th floor has a small black fluffy dog.  She lives and works in this impossibly glamorous building which is, past its prewar lobby and doormen, quite shabby: tape holding down wires to a camera, the land line, the floor is worn, the furniture moved in about 1970, never moved again.  This time I didn’t see the dog, but I did see that in her narrow bathroom, the towels say, “Buckingham Palace.”

I was forty minutes early for my appointment with her and I went around the block to eat a slice of pizza and drink a bottle of water, shitty cheap mealish activity.  All real pizza places are equally shitty, with the worst pictures in the world, and dirty like at night they turn the place over and stomp on the walls and the ceiling to complete the look.  I pulled off my boots and stuck my feet in the backup shoes.

The psychiatrist said, “That sounds very challenging.  I’m sure when the kids are done testing you, things will get easier, and you’ll really be able to help them.”

I said, “Oh, I think so.”  I always reassure other people I am all right, even my psychiatrist.

I actually was all right.

In the elevator going down, the man who runs the elevator and makes sure I don’t run rampant around that building said hello to the French couple who got in on 11, and then the lady with the dogs who got in on 8.  Instead of assiduously pretending we were alone, as he does with every-three-months me, he was all friendly and the French lady said, “These are wonderful dogs!”  Then we were on the first floor.

I spent my break fantasizing about never working this hard again, and I came back to school and saw the kids again, and, oh, these are my kids.

 

Last night I dreamed I was wandering all over trying to get this one class finished to get my master’s degree finished, because I was on my way to the party, and I had had too much to drink, although there was no wine at the party either I was on the way or I’d already been, and I had my cat with me, very inconvenient, I lived past the war monument in a desolate neighborhood.

Today I took the train a long way, and I was walking up, I didn’t recognize the stop, and I thought, what if when I go up, everything is different?  What if now the Union R station is on another planet, or everyone is Japanese or it’s all pink or there are mountains?

It was just that I am used to the Coney Island bound side of the tracks at Union, not the Manhattan bound side, both have the same tile pattern, sort of India Indian.

Today I left school to get a cup of coffee, and I saw my millionth young man with a beard, and I thought, the day is coming, all the men will shave off all their beards, and we’ll see their faces again.  What they all look like.  It’s coming closer and closer.

Image: “New York City” by John Marin, Metropolitan Museum of Art.