Neighbor

“I got worried for a minute. Thought you were a bomber. That bag was there and I didn’t know where you had gone.”

He was a man I’d guess of about 6’2” with (once) formidable biceps that had softened a bit in his years, dignified gray hair, and a goatee. He was seated at the Starbucks window counter in Boerne, Texas, with my bag next to him that had been left for about five minutes. Maybe a bit less.

“Oh…I’m sorry about that,” I tried to say lightly but with a tone of sincere apology. I knew his anxiety. “I had to wait for the bathroom, and then…” my voice ellipsed. “Gotta be careful these days, right?”

“Shame, isn’t it?”

“Yes, indeed.”

He saw me pulling out my laptop and scooted his more to the side, giving me more room. “Need to plug in?”

photo: BootsnAll Travel

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Curry dip in a jelly jar

“But he doesn’t need deodorant,” my father said.

“My love.” Mom sometimes used their term of endearment as punctuation. I was standing next to her. “My love. You don’t have to wash his shirts.” The kind of shirts worn by a husband and two sons and borne along New York City sidewalks in July and on subway platforms that were infernal practically year-round.

The next day I had deodorant, no doubt purchased by Dad at the Herald Square Korvette’s along with the store-brand toothpaste that never really foamed up in your mouth even if you wet your brush with hot water.

Though my parents were raised in somewhat different economic circumstances, each had respect for how money was spent and what was considered a necessity. Whether they had air conditioning or not during their youth was beside the point. (They didn’t.) What mattered now was whether it was more important than something else, like planning March vacation on the north fork of Long Island (which to this day seemed like one of their more budget-conscious choices for recreation with pre-teens). They didn’t spend money based on the assumption of either an ever-widening revenue pie, or the deceiving lull of a deepening debt pit. Both were born in the 1920s and remembered the Depression—my father in ‘21 and my mother in ‘25. He had to quit college during his junior year at Hamilton to support his family after his father died. His mother had died when he was nine and still an only child. His father re-married and the couple added two brothers and a sister. My mother grew up enjoying an opulent Rhode Island vista of East Greenwich Bay. Her father and mother both lived into their mid-80s. He retired at 45 as a successful car dealer and day trader; she played golf and had an electric putting machine in a living room covered by plum-colored carpet. The machine would spit the ball back out at you if you sunk it.

My father knew the hardships of the 1930s and my mother knew of them—they both lived through World War II and lost friends and family—and decades later each translated their respect for money into how they decided about air conditioning, deodorant, and undershirts. My father used to go to the Odd Lots store across from Grand Central Terminal and buy pickles or sardines by the case (which he would store under my brother’s and my beds) or pastel neckties or dress shirts by the three-pack, which he’d give my brother and me for Christmas as the “practical” present alongside the Action Jackson soldier dolls we wailed for just so we could later decapitate them during brilliant feats of bravery behind enemy lines or hold their heads over the kitchen stove burner to torture them as an interrogation technique. Death, for Action Jackson, always involved the head and neck.

My maternal grandfather, Poppa, was rich and frugal, and he seemed to wear the same khaki trousers every day I saw him during 18 years of summer vacations. The Chrysler Town & Country station wagon that heard me at six singing along with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on Poppa’s car radio was also the one that cradled me in the front seat nursing a hangover during college vacation. My mother learned from Poppa how to play competitive bridge and pick stocks, learning about odds and mercilessness and a poker face and how not to lose. She was a doting mother but gave no quarter during card playing. My father’s penny-pinching flowed from his becoming the family breadwinner at twenty: largely responsible for a stepmother and three siblings.

So a 1970s NYC heat wave descended upon our Upper East Side apartment, which seemed to happen more in my childhood memories of the city than it does now, it encountered a militia of appliances that was well past its time of honorable discharge. We never needed extension cords or multiple plugs. It was not surprising that the best my brother and I could hope for was floor and window fans (probably mustered at Odd Lots or Korvette’s for the 1975 equivalent of $9.95 each). We’d have one framed in the window over 96th Street and its loud crosstown traffic and one on the floor positioned to pull air from the bedroom into the hall. The idea was to create a 90-degree wind tunnel, which was better than a stagnant Turkish bath. Thick city air and the gas-metallic grind of revving Harleys at the red light were blown in at us while we slept sprawled in our white Fruit of the Looms on top of sheets that melted over the sides of our beds and into rippled pools on the carpet.

On a sticky Saturday afternoon, when my brother and I would watch Japanese monster movies on TV and sip Cokes from the deli downstairs, and when she was not reading the Times or playing solitaire, my mother would walk around the apartment in her panties and bra, carrying a vodka-and-tonic and smoking Virginia Slims. We thought this was normal. My father would stay in the kitchen, overhead light off, listening to “classical radio WQXR-FM” and its Texaco-sponsored opera program, slowly chopping carrots diagonally and placing them in a water-filled glass jelly jar. We’d eat them that night with his curry mayonnaise dip.

Neither his tasks nor her leisure needed take so as long as they did. But each lingered at them until dusk, when the sun would begin to drop behind the pre-war buildings across Madison Avenue and the shadow of a water tower would creep by inches from the living room down the hallway and toward our bedroom.

photos: No known copyright restrictions; Maidenform

Pattern #124.2—“Bisected Sitting Bracket”

Walking from the 9th Avenue bus to the office, I noticed—I mean noticed—for the first time a block with wonderful “place” qualities and the potential for more.

29th Street between 9th and 8th.

On the north side of the street nearer to 9th, there is a row of brownstones with full, leafy trees in their front yards. This by itself in center-city Manhattan is uncommon. The homes face south, obviously, overlooking a ribbon of park that undulates as 28th winds north among low-income housing towers and a geriatrics unit. There’s a 7-foot high chain link fence to your right as you walk along the south side of 29th toward 8th Avenue. A mid-20s Taiwanese homeless-looking guy with a white Styrofoam deli container sits on the sidewalk against the fence; he is holding a chicken drumstick and pulling meat from the bone with his teeth. His legs are open like a V; his shirt is open and his chest is dirty.

I would remove about six to eight parking spaces, which would result in only a reduction of 0.016% of the more than fifty thousand metered spaces in NYC. (Those folks can bloody well park near the new New York Yankees stadium, which has garages that accommodate 9,000 cars but are usually around 60% full (Source: Crain’s).

I would then expand the sidewalk accordingly.

In that widened sidewalk area would go a row of benches, interspersed with concrete Chess/Checkers tables. There are a lot of men who congregate at Chelsea Park one block west who would jump at the chance to sit here and play chess, smoke cigarettes, and talk. Mothers from the projects would go and sit. I would open the fence so geriatric patients could be wheeled over to watch the homeowners to the north who are planting geraniums. Their wheelchairs would face those gorgeous trees that are so stunning yet are underappreciated for lack of an audience.

Right now, only the Taiwanese guy is in a position to see them. And he’s more interested in his chicken.

In “A Pattern Language,” architect Christopher Alexander describes “Activity Pockets (#124) and “Sitting Circle” (#185). The above suggestion forms #124.2—“Bisected Sitting Bracket.” It’s characterized by a one-way street, not busy, bisecting two sidewalks that have seating areas whose users can see each other and interact.

photos: Google map, manipulated in iPhoto, and H. Freeman