Monday, August 30, 2010

Man in the Mirror

I love NYC subway performers.  Yesterday in the Sunday hustle in the tunnels beneath Union Square I came across a man dancing to Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror".  I stopped, sat down on a bench, and forgot about the subway trains rushing past.  The man was dressed all in black with silver sequined ankle bands, white sequined gloves (on both hands, he had improvised on Michael's signature style), and a white straw hat.  Over a black hood which covered his entire head he wore a full length white carnival mask whose expressionless gaze imparted anonymity.  Amidst the hurried crowds he moonwalked as if pulled by a string.  His joints swiveled like a robot.  His arms floated as if weightless.  And for the grande finale, he somehow ended up inverted, his body propped against a wall (I can't explain how he did it, it was as if he was controlled by magic) and melted to the floor like wax.  As he did so, his carnival mask slowly flipped to the crown of his head like a disembodied face.  He took a minute to recover, switched the music to "Billy Jean", and took off his mask to reveal a showman's face.  Out of the crowd he grabbed a little boy, at the most six years old.  The boy's getup was the polar opposite of the man's: a white tuxedo with tails, a black straw hat from which curly hair verging on dreds sprouted and hung to his shoulders.  The boy went into action, moondancing, spinning, grabbing his crotch, and for all the world looking like a miniature Michael.  He and the man danced together, all the while protecting the money pot when the passing foot traffic grew too thick.  As I stayed, others gathered, forgetting to be in a hurry while the crowd grew to more than fifty.  And I wished to have a meter that could measure the amount of talent in New York City's subway system.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Where the Bees Are

When I need to escape, I go to The Cloisters.  I've been there so many times that these days I make a cursory pass by the unicorn tapestries, skip the rest of the collection, and head to the medieval herb garden in the Bonnefont Cloister.  I forget about wrinkles, skin cancer, or sunspots, and sit in direct sunlight on the worn wooden bench that stands along the wall facing the Hudson.  The bench is so long that its middle has been boughed downward by the elements and thousands of visitors before me.  Potted plants line up in front of the bench.  I know they are Mediterranean plants, meant to evoke Southern France, Spain, and Italy.  But to me they are also Californian plants.  The rosemary, oregano, olive, fig, orange, oleander, jasmine, lemon, and pomegranate are the same ones that grow in abundance in my mother's garden.  Each fall, I look forward to a big box of pomegranates picked from the tree that has produced these fruits since my childhood.  My mother carefully boxes them up, sends them cross country to me, and I spend chilly evenings extracting the seeds, each a ruby.  Every winter, another box full of lemons, miniature suns tenfold juicier than store bought fruit, arrives.  I have my own jasmine which I try unsuccessfully to coax into blossom in the darkness of my New York apartment.  So, in the quiet of The Cloisters (even school children lower their voices here) I sit near these plants that remind me of home.  Last weekend, having spent several hours in the herb garden and feeling like myself again, I exited through the Cuxa cloister.  Near the fountain in its center bloomed lavender flowers alive with bees.  I had thought all summer that the bees were fewer in number this year, that they had chosen somewhere else to make honey.  I leaned closer to the flowers:  at long last I had found the bees.  Perhaps the recent cool weather had helped them wake up.  Heading home through the Heather Garden, I walked past the passion flowers, which during the heat wave had wilted and hung forlorn on their vines.  Now they had unfurled their petals.  On each sat one or two bees staggering in the pollen and drunkenly rejoicing in their luck.        

Monday, August 16, 2010


Sometimes the extremes in this city make me do a double take.  The other evening in the Heather Garden the Pooch and I were lolligagging on the central path and enjoying the first cool evening since God knows when.  I gazed at the roses.  Pooch was doing what he always does:  looking for a spot that he hasn't yet peed on.  Along came a woman in noise canceling head phones.  She ploughed passed me at warp speed, so close that the current of her misdirected anger made my head spin. I was still recovering when, at the end of the path, she yelled over her shoulder, welcome to the public garden loser, you just ruined my evening!  I bent to scratch Pooch's head, which makes me feel better when faced with irrational behavior that's best forgotten.  A few nights later, I exited the subway at 190th St.  It was past 10PM.  Ahead of me an old man struggled to pull a rolling cart full of groceries up the stairs.  A woman rushed passed me.  She bent low over the cart and pulled up a bouquet of crimson flowers.  Having slipped to the bottom, the flowers had been sticking outside the cart and were unknowingly dragged halfway up the stairs by the man.  The woman had rescued them while still in good enough shape to brighten his life.   The woman took one end of the cart and helped the man to the top of the stairs.  My faith in the city renewed, I walked home through a pleasant summer evening, all the while keeping an eye out for skunks (see previous post, "Critters").      

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Missing Third

This morning on the street I passed a woman I met several months ago.  Back then, I had been doing sit-ups on Ft. Tryon lawn, The Cloisters looming to one side.  Poochini impatiently wanted to chase pigeons and dig up worms.  The woman walked toward us.  She lead on leashes three dogs the size of German shepherds.  All, including the woman, shared the grizzled coats of old age.  Poochini is a social guy, and eagerly pulled at his leash to get to them.  I gave up on exercise and said admiringly, old ones, huh?  Yes, she boasted, this one's eighteen years old.  She pointed to a brown one that looked at me through clouded eyes.  You must take good care of them, I replied.  I walk them three hours a day, an hour and a half in the morning, and an hour and a half in the evening, she said.  That's what keeps them healthy.  That, and good food, she added.  Must be good for you, too, I commented, impressed that someone her age could keep up with three big dogs.  Her dogs greeted Poochini in the normal dog manner, then walked off distractedly.  A few minutes later, halfway across the lawn, the brown one stumbled and collapsed.  It struggled to stand, but laid down, defeated.  At that moment the old woman had been watching the other two, and did not see the brown dog fall.  Concerned, I approached them.  She said, what happened?  He fell, he tried to get up but couldn't, I replied.  Her eyes registered sad acceptance, yes, the other day he collapsed in the elevator, she said.  She coaxed him to his feet.  He took a few halting steps and threw up yellow bile.  That was the last I had seen of them until this morning when we crossed paths again, she walking two dogs now instead of three.  I wondered how soon after we'd met had the third passed away, and my heart sank.  The love of a dog is perhaps one of the simplest I've known.


It's been awhile since I posted an update about the Heather Garden, so here goes.  Summer's growth has reached its zenith in the garden.  The roses are in their second bloom, boasting sprays of pink champagne.  The butterfly bushes are also blooming, but the butterflies are fewer than last summer.  Maybe it's the heat wave that has pounded the city all summer and has made the passion flowers droop in exhaustion.  Too hot for passion, say the butterflies as they languidly beat wings of butter yellow and orange flame.  The little garden snakes, too, have been missing this summer.  Last year, they squiggled across the path, forming commas and corkscrews in front of Poochini and me.  This year, I saw only one, and that was in early spring.  The urban wildlife has burgeoned this summer, and maybe they have eaten the smaller creatures.  Skunks, in particular, have taken over the garden.  The other night, around dusk, Poochini and I turned a corner to face Mr. Skunk five feet in front of us.  He raised his tail, ready to take aim.  I pulled back hard on Poochini's leash.  We froze, as if Mr. Skunk had been a cobra loaded with lethal poison.  The woodchuck population has also exploded.  They scurry under bushes, their fat bellies round with grass, and remind me of overgrown New York City subway rats (which is saying something).  Then there are the feral cats, fed by neighborhood do-gooders.  One cat, in particular, sits every evening on the hill just outside the dog park fence.  From there, he regally surveys the antics of the dogs.  I wonder, does he wish to join their play, or is he satisfied with his solitary vantage point?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Positive Energy

Thursday I was on the A train (again), heading to a very important appointment.  I was sitting in my seat trying to control my nervous energy, when the doors connecting the two trains burst open.  In walked two men with African drums.  They set up shop in the aisle right next to me.  One of them broadcasted, if you feel happy to be alive raise one finger.  I shyly raised mine.  The same man said, we're gonna play some songs for you.  Give you some positive energy.  Dontcha pretend not to see us.  Dontcha hide behind your papers.  'Cause what we got here is positive en-er-gy.  And who wouldn't want somma that?  They played a song full of syncopated African rhythmns, and I couldn't help it, I started smiling.  Then they played Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You", and the ten year old boy across from me broke out singing.  It's true, they were bursting with positive energy.  It was damn contagious and carried me through my appointment.  Sometimes I love this town.


The other day while riding on the A train (I do a lot of this), the doors opened at W125th St. to a gaggle of preschoolers on some sort of field trip.  Ah.... summer camp.  The uproar poured into the train, heretofore peaceful.  I looked up from my book and was surrounded by a forest of pygmies.  A teacher stood beside me, supporting herself with one hand on the pole, the other holding the hand of a little girl.  A little boy sat smiling beside me.  The girl said angrily to the boy, "Stop saying that.  Liaw, liaw," softening the r's in her little girl speak.  The teacher gently intervened, "That's not nice. Don't call him that."  The girl defended herself, "But I know he's not magic.  He's just lying.  He's not really magic."  The teacher continued, "Stop it.  Now you're being a bully, and that's not nice."  The girl pouted.  The teacher advised, "If you don't like what he says, just ignore him."  I thought, those are words to live by.  I wondered if the girl would take it to heart, or if she would learn the hard way.  The boy switched to another seat and smiled at the two of them, seemingly unfazed by the drama.  Perhaps he knew in his heart that he really was magic.