Wrapping up 2017 in Alabama

I’m not a regular writer of Christmas letters that chronicle the year, but this has been a busy year, and we’re far away from family and many friends.

January

  • I decided not to retire this year, something I’d been considering. But realized that the work that was coming my way this year would require being in shape, so  …
  • On January 4 Lifelongnewyorker started a diet, determined to lose all of the seven pounds gained since the election, plus a few more. Every day began with two scrambled eggs, with a modest protein-plus-salad at lunch, and smaller portions at dinner. The most important part: cutting out what had become my customary two three glasses of wine at night.
  • Mid-month, The Abandoned One’s band, Out of System Transfer, had an open night on their Southern tour between gigs in Atlanta, Georgia, and Pascagoula, Mississippi. We cleared out our garage, invited friends and neighbors, and had a short show. IMG_5668
  • Mr. NewYorker spends lots of time at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, where he is a docent; when he’s not doing tours or attending docent meetings, he’s putting in serious hours building sets, watering the lawn and whatever else needs to be done at the Cloverdale Playhouse. In January, he worked on set for The 39 Steps.

February

  • Mr. NewYorker turned 65. We celebrated with a trip home to New York and tickets to Hamilton.  I was supposed to speak at Fordham, but a blizzard intervened (and I recommend staying at a Manhattan hotel near a subway line during a blizzard) and reminded us of how cold it gets in the city. We got to see old friends, and took a long walk through Carroll Gardens and Red Hook with Lifelongnewyorker’s sister and brother-in-law. On Union Street, we popped into a bakery to buy regina cookies to take home.
  • Little did I know that this trip would be the first of many that added up to 100,000 miles this year. Lifelongnewyorker does not want to hear your airline stories. She has lived every single one of them. Business trips in February included Washington, D.C. and San Antonio.

March

  • Mr. Newyorker was cast in The Crucible and began rehearsing on nights and weekend. During the day, he helped build the set.
  • Because of the Great Washing Machine Disaster we moved, with our three cats, into a one-bedroom apartment at our local Homewood Suites. Here’s the short version: We didn’t notice that the washing machine hose was loose where it connected to the machine and was slowly leaking onto the tile floor. That steady drip saturated the subfloor, which caused the oak floor in the kitchen to buckle. Kitchen cabinets had to be removed and high-powered, loud dehumidifiers ran 24/7 to dry the subfloor.  The kitchen floor had to be ripped up, replaced and finished. Because the kitchen floor is contiguous with the dining room, the living room floor and the foyer, they too needed to be sanded and refinished. Which meant boxing up our belongings and having our furniture moved and put in storage. Oh, and because the seepage traveled in the other direction, too, we needed to pull up and replace the flooring in the hall and bedroom. Lessons learned: 1) turn off the water when the washing machine is not in use; 2) have good insurance.
  • And, if you want to see freaked-out cats, move them into a hotel for weeks.
  • Meanwhile, Lifelongnewyorker went to Austin, Washington DC, San Francisco and Dallas, where she saw an old high school friend for the first time in over 35 years and another friend for the first time in eight.

April

  • Thomas Proctor took over Mr. Newyorker’s life as he rehearsed for his role. Proctor is not the kind of person you actually want to live with. The play opened in late April to critical acclaim and sold-out audiences. With a post-apocalyptic setting, it was not only timely but one of the best productions Lifelongnewyorker has ever seen in community theater.
  • Lifelongnewyorker went to New York and to Lexington, Kentucky, where she observed this lamppost. IMG_0456

May

  • We were very happy to move back home, and pledged to be more vigilant about potential disasters.  Lifelongnewyorker soon became convinced the roof was leaking.  (It wasn’t.)
  • A lifelong dream fulfilled: Lifelongnewyorker spoke at Harvard. Another highlight of that trip: Going into the Legal Seafood in Cambridge for dinner, grabbing a seat at the end of the bar and finding a brass plaque that identified it as Robert B. Parker’s usual seat. IMG_0482
  • Later that month found me in Philadelphia, which is much better than W.C. Fields would have had you believe.  It’s a great restaurant town.

June

  • The garden looked great in June and, when I wasn’t in Washington or New York, I noticed a lot of mating behavior among the lizards.
  • Mr. Newyorker put on his best Southern accent and appeared in a staged reading at Cloverdale Playhouse.
  • We may have to consider a new name for the Abandoned One, who spent the month looking for a new apartment to share with his girlfriend.
  • After six months, LIfelongnewyorker was pleased to have lost 15 pounds.  It didn’t last.

July

  • IMG_5752We flew to Baltimore to our niece’s house to surprise Lifelongnewyorker’s older sister and her husband and celebrate their 70th birthdays.  Almost everyone was there, except for The Abandoned One, who had other plans.  It was great to see all nine of my parents’ great-grandchildren in one place, a rare event.
  • I went to New Orleans for a two-day meeting, and drove.
  • Mr. NewYorker and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with a trip to Hawaii.  We married young.

August

  • We spent the first half of the month in Kauai and Maui. The food was good, and we celebrated our anniversary with exotic cocktails and a lot of dessert. Lifelongnewyorker gained at least five pounds.
  • While in Hawaii, I got my lifetime Senior pass to National Parks for $10, before the price went up to $80. There are rewards to aging.
  • We also met a local restauranteur who hailed from Red Hook and whose Italian chef/husband made great pizza.  This one is artichokes and pepperoncini.  It was unbelievably hot.  But good. IMG_0577
  • When we came home, I decided it was time to replace my 10-year old car.  I bought a Miata with a retractable hard roof which I drove to Pensacola for, yes, another meeting.  We call it the transformer car. IMG_0598

September

  • We joined the Old Cloverdale community garden and planted lettuce and arugula.IMG_0606 (1)
  • Mr. Newyorker continued to hone his set building skills on And Then There Were None. 
  • Lifelongnewyorker went to DC, Boston and Colorado Springs.  In Colorado Springs, I had dinner with two friends from my teaching days.  It was great to see them both.

October

  • Took our annual drive to the Kentuck Arts Festival, one of the highlights of life in Alabama.  Great art, good music, nice drive and, since it’s October the weather might be in the 80s but the humidity is gone.  This year, though, rain threatened.
  • October is cotton season in Alabama. img_0652-e1513551311549.jpg
  • Lifelongnewyorker has no idea what else her husband did in October. She was on the road to: Joliet, Illinois; Clinton, Tennessee;  Pensacola Beach, Florida; New York; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Menlo Park, California. In October, she achieved platinum medallion status on Delta. And yet she’s still somewhere around number 36 on the upgrade list for first class.
  • While in California, I got to spend some time with a former student, who is as smart and funny as I remember her.IMG_0612
  • One of the meetings was at the Alex Haley Farm, which is a magical place even though you’re not allowed to smoke, use alcohol, or swear.
  • Another meeting was at Facebook. The campus is everything you’ve ever heard about it; I can’t say anything else because they make you sign a non-disclosure agreement agreeing not to reveal what you’ve seen inside.

November

  • On a rare weekend at home and one with beautiful weather, we took a day trip to Moundville Archeological Park, a Mississippian culture city that once held over 10,000 people. They built mounds and specialized in funerary practices.  Like Horseshoe Bend, it’s beautiful and haunted .
  • Lifelongnewyorker travelled to DC and San Francisco.
  • Mr. Newyorker help build the set for Little Women.
  • We flew home for our regular Thanksgiving at Lifelongnewyorker’s sister’s house in New Jersey where both ham and turkey are served and bourbon is an increasingly popular ingredient in side dishes.
  • The next day, after driving the Abandoned One to work in Brooklyn, we went to Manhattan where Lifelongnewyorker was scheduled to appear on MSNBC. She got full hair and make-up and then, minutes before going on, was bumped because a holiday crowd panicked at at the Marble Arch Underground station in London.
  • We stocked up on baccala and regina cookies and brought them back to Alabama.

December

  • We returned to New York the week after Thanksgiving so Lifelongnewyorker could do an educators’ workshop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we could enjoy some time in the city.
  • We both came down with terrible colds.
  • I brought regina cookies back with me. The woman in the row in front of us on the plane was carrying 20 pounds of Junior’s cheesecake. If I thought they’d stay fresh,  I would have brought back a dozen fresh bagels too.
  • On December 12, we felt a lot better than we have in a long time about living in Alabama.
  • And now, in mid-December, we’re looking forward to a visit from Abandoned One and his girlfriend.
  • And at the end of the year, we’re resting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What Happened to the NY Bagel?

I’ve been in NYC for three days and have yet to have a bagel, which is kind of remarkable. Bagels and real Italian food are usually my first stop.  I was due to leave today (am on the Acela now, Washington-bound), so this was my last chance.

The other day, heading to the 4 train, I spotted a likely spot just inside Grand Central.  It was called Bageli, or something like that, and I drew the conclusion it would have, well, bagels.

This morning, though, I discovered it had all sorts of other breads, artisanal spin-offs of traditional ethnic fare including a very tempting poppy and fig strudel-y thing.  But I wanted a bagel, so headed downstairs to the food hall.

On the way I passed fully armed guardsmen in camouflage, bullet-proof vests and enough equipment hanging off their belts to … do what?  I’m not sure, but they looked prepared. I remember how this heightened level of security became commonplace after 9/11, and I’ve certainly gotten used to see it everywhere.  But it still made me sad.

Arriving downstairs, I saw a stand for “meats and dairy” and felt I was close to a genuine New York bagel.  I approached.  Yes, they had poppy.  This is something you can’t get in Alabama.  Besides the fact that what passes as a bagel in places like Panera Bread is in reality a small loaf of bread, it also comes in bizarre flavors like Asiago and blueberry, but not in the quintessential and rather pedestrian poppy.  What is that about?

I also saw that they offered just the right selection of spreads.  No raising walnut, or strawberry cream cheese.  No.  they had plain cream cheese, cream cheese with scallions, and lox cream cheese.  I ordered a poppy with the lox spread.

His next question caught me by surprise, just like the select bus on 23rd Street yesterday.  “Lettuce and tomato?” he asked.  I must have looked at him as if he’d lost his mind, and then collected myself.  “No.”

Toasted? he asked next, another option that was never offered in my youth.  “Is it fresh?” I countered.  He nodded.  I said, “No toast.”

 

 

Incident on a Cross-town Bus (en route to Macy’s)

In two short months, Lifelongnewyorker will mark seven years living in Alabama.  Despite this tenure in the warmer and redder regions of the country, Lifelongnewyorker holds to her name.  The city is the city is the city and, though changes will be noted, it will never be alien.

Except for the incident on the cross-town bus.

Because I’m older, richer and busier than when I was younger, I take cabs in New York now, especially to get cross town.  I also walk when properly shod, and continue to take the subway when it makes the most sense.  It made the most sense last night when I bought a $10 Metrocard and took the 4 express to Crown Heights to have dinner with the Abandoned One.  It was nice to note a few improvements in city life: illuminated, easy-to-read street signs in midtown.  Signage on the subway letting you know how long before your train arrived.  And it was nice to see that some things don’t change, like how easy it is to not swipe the card properly.

This morning I left my hotel on Park just south of Grand Central and walked in the crisp autumnal air to the event I was attending at Baruch College, on 24th & Lex.  Originally I was planning to return home tomorrow but I have to take a train to D.C. instead to participate in a press conference on Friday.  I packed enough to tide me over, but I packed my “casual nonprofit/academic” garb, not business wear.  I know enough though about DC to know I would really need a suit or a dress and jacket.

So I hatched a plan: In the two hours between my morning event and my next afternoon call, I would use the remaining dollars on my Metrocard to grab a crosstown bus to 6th Avenue, then transfer to an uptown bus, hit Macy’s, get a suit and return to my hotel with time to spare.

What could go wrong?

I find the bus stop at 23rd and Lex and soon enough spy a bus heading westbound.  I do notice that it’s a “select” bus, and wonder what exactly that means, but dismiss the thought.  The bus stops, I get on, I put my card in the card reader and move the the back. But I don’t get far, because the bus driver is calling me.  “Ma’am.  Ma’am.  You can’t use the card on this bus.”

What?  I’m confused and, worse, I feel like a tourist.  He says something about needing to pay in a machine, and having a receipt and that I need to get off or I will get a $150 fine.  Have I been gone that long?  Is this what happens in Trump’s America?

I do what I’ve learned to do in the South: Be polite, charming and confused. ” Oh, my,” I say, “have I been gone that long?”  It turns out that this is a special kind of bus on busy routes where onboarding is speeded up by having people swipe their card before they get on the bus.  He points out the blue machines.  That’s where you pay, he said, and you get a receipt — one that looks like any receipt you’d get anywhere — and flash that at him while you board.  Bonus: You can board front AND back.  Then — and here’s the tricky part — you’re supposed to be ready to flash it when you leave to some kind of inspector who, if you don’t have it, will slap you with a $150 summons.

My bewildered display of charm melted the driver’s heart.  “Okay,” he said, finally. “Stay on and, if they stop you, tell him I’ll be your witness.”  Alrighty.

So I get to Macy’s.  It’s already decorated for Christmas and it’s overheated and really crowded.  Not the right conditions to get in and out.  I take the escalator and not that this is not the Macy’s I’m used to.  The Herald Square Macy’s clearly has its eyes on tourists with Euros and other currencies to burn.  On the second floor, there are little boutiques for very expensive shoes — you know, the ones with the red soles and the pricetags north of $700.   Several of these suites exist, tucked like chapels into the sides of the cathedral of commerce.  Around me are shoppers, spending money, browsing the really  pricey stuff and the sales racks.  For a week now, I’ve been acutely aware of the impact of the election on people.  They’re sad, close to tear, shellshocked.  Or, they’re normal looking people I pass on a hiking trail or sit next to on the plane, and I wonder, “Are they Trump voters or not?”   Here those thoughts hold no sway.

And yet.  And yet, it never really goes away.  I arrive on the 5th floor and, before heading to the suits, move toward racks of dresses that look tailored and businessy, the kind of thing you could wear under a suit jacket for a press conference.  I see one that interests me and reach my hand out towards the hanger to get a closer look.  My eyes fall on the label: Ivanka Trump.  Instantly, I pull my hand back as if from a hot stove, and a slight gasp escapes my throat.  I look around to see if anyone noticed, and wonder if the sales people see this all the time.

So, off to the suits, to find a second, sadder reminder of the unexpected.  I find racks and racks of what can only be described as “Hillary” suits.  Long tunic-y coats, designed for generous coverage over the hips.  In teal and burgundy and green, white and black.  Some are jackets, some are sleeveless.  But there is no doubt that style mavens and Macy’s buyers thought they were going to be the new thing,  like Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat.

I bought a suit skirt and contrasting jacket.  It will read “suit” and I’ll be able to use it again.  I did not buy pants, or a pantsuit.  I did not go for the tunic jacket.  I did not choose teal or purple or blue or burgundy.  I chose black, which matched my mood.

 

 

 

Mother and Child Reunion

I’m on a plane flying back home from a quick trip to the bustle – and the cold – of Philadelphia and New York. And as much as I am thankful that I no longer live where winter can arrive in November and stubbornly make life miserable for four months or more, and that I no longer endure commuting for more than three hours a day, I have to admit – Lifelongnewyorker misses both the cold and the bustle.

This particular trip included more adrenaline-producing moments than I anticipated, and that too made me a bit nostalgic. Because living, walking and working in a city means constantly being alert, making quick calculations and decisions, balancing options and making choices. The mind and body are active. You feel alive. That’s just not life in Montgomery.

As an aside, I learned during this trip that “nostalgia,” or extreme homesickness, was a diagnosis occasionally listed on 19th century death certificates. But I get ahead of myself.

A work event offered the chance to be in Philadelphia on Monday. Philly is close to New York, I haven’t seen the Abandoned One since Christmas, and he’s been coping with a bout of unemployment. Since I wanted to see him face-to-face to reassure myself that he was okay (he is), I volunteered to help out at the Philly event. I booked my flight into Philadelphia with a return from Newark, and planned to hop the NE Corridor train to get to New York on Tuesday morning and spend the day with Abandoned One.

And, because I’ve long since learned that it’s not smart to call it too close when it comes to flight arrivals – or to put it more simply, it’s foolish to assume that your plane will be on time – I arrived in Philly on Sunday. The Dynamo lives about 60 miles away, so we planned to get together.

Between booking and going, Abandoned One got a job. No daylong visit with him, but still a chance to have dinner together. I made reservations at the Jersey City Hyatt (big rooms, right next to the PATH station, 5 minutes from lower Manhattan, and about $100 cheaper than anything comparable in New York), and he made reservations at Landmarc in Tribeca.

But now, what to do on Tuesday? A museum exhibit? Shopping? Wait! Trenton is between Philadelphia and New York! And in Trenton is the NJ State Archives, where birth, marriage and death records from 19th century Jersey City are available in microform for genealogical research. Perhaps I could find records there that I’d been unable to find so far online.

Perfect. I had lots lined up: visit with the Dynamo; free time on Monday to hunker in my hotel room and work on a memo; a radio interview in the afternoon at WHYY, which came with a lagniappe – the chance to catch up with a former student who works there; the work event; research time, at least four hours, at the archives; dinner with the Abandoned One and home on Wednesday.

Sunday and Monday went off without a hitch. Dynamo and I walked a bit and I loved feeling my body move through the brisk air, loved the way, when the wind picked up at night, you feel so cold but then so warm when you get into a heated spot. Loved the way the cold air hit the face and got the blood moving and provided a good reason to keep up the pace. Loved having a city to walk in.

Those were the days that worked. Tuesday was another kind of city day, typical in some ways, not at all typical in others. I checked out of the hotel in Philly, grabbed a cab and headed to the 30th Street Station. Ate a poppy seed bagel that was about five degrees of magnitude more authentic than anything I can get below the Mason-Dixon line. Bought a ticket on SEPTA to Trenton — $9 versus $28 for Amtrak. Congratulated myself for being so thrifty.

Discovered the trade-off soon enough: The next Trenton train was in 40 minutes (Amtrak was 10), and it was a local. Where did I get the idea that Trenton was “just across the river” from Philly? It may be, but who knew about all those stops in between?

Got to the Trenton Transit Center and realize I’ve never been in Trenton before. It reminds me a bit of Albany, a bit of other Delaware River towns. Run down but interesting Victorian mansions. Lots of brick row houses, a historic section that might be worth a visit someday. I saw this all from the short cab ride to the Archives. When I arrived, I asked the driver whether I would be able to get a cab when I was done. I expected him to hand me a card with a phone number, but he assured me that “cabs come up and down this street all the time.”

I spent more time than I should have at the archives spooling through reels of microfilm, which reminded me just how slow research took when I was in grad school, before the Internet. The net at the end of the session was disappointing: I found no marriage certificate for my grandfather and his first wife; found another marriage certificate I sought that was so faded it was unreadable; but struck pay-dirt with a death certificate for a great uncle who was the first to be buried in a family plot that would eventually hold eleven of my forebears. I printed the death certificate and paid my $0.50 for the copy. The woman ahead of me at the desk forked over $31. She had a good day.

That great uncle’s death underscored how hard life was in the 19th century – well, not just his death. To find the certificate, I had scanned indexes that listed name, date of death, age and cause of death. Illnesses that are simply nuisances today – or those we have vanquished entirely – killed people then. Scarlet fever, bronchitis, infected wound, childbirth – all were perilous.

I’d always assumed Terrance, my grandmother’s oldest brother, died in a workplace accident. I was wrong. Instead, he was an otherwise healthy 21-year old, sick for only four days, who succumbed to double pneumonia in 1880. I knew that his mother – my great-grandmother – was already suffering from the neck tumor that would kill her – by asphyxiation – three years later. Looking at the death certificate, I recalled that my grandmother was born in 1876. She was a child, only four years old when her brother died, and seven when she lost her mother. Before she was 20, she’d attend funerals for more siblings, nieces and nephews. My father was 17 when she died. I come from a line of people who lost their mothers at a relatively young age, but that’s probably true of most of us.

Single photocopy in hand, I retrieved my luggage, coat, purse and pens (forbidden in archives!) from the locker I’d been assigned and left the building to hail a cab. I’d planned to leave around 3 pm; it was closer now to 3:40. Did some quick calculations – an hour to get to Newark Penn Station, about 20 minutes on PATH to Jersey City. No problem; I’d still have over an hour to check in and freshen up.

You guessed it, reader. There was not a cab in sight. I moved to the corner to multiply the chances of hailing a cab going either way on the cross street. Nope. I wondered what bus or combination of buses went to the Trenton Transit Center, and whether one needed exact change or Trenton’s version of a Metrocard. I conjured contingencies – could I find a hotel and get the bellman to hail a cab? What risks were involved in asking a stranger for a ride? Too many. Finally, I decided to walk toward a more densely built-up part of State Street, where I might find a hotel. Meanwhile, I pivoted back and forth, sometimes walking backward, to scout a cab.

One came, at last. But I’d lost 15 minutes. In the cab, I pulled out my iPhone to check fares: Amtrak’s Northeast Regional cost $78, left in a half hour, and would get me to Newark in 38 minutes. At the Trenton Transportation Center, I discovered that NJ transit cost only $11, and an express NE Corridor train was leaving in four minutes. With machine-dispensed ticket in hand, I hurried to Track 2. The train was at the platform! But why were the doors closed? The train stood there for an eternity, doors closed, not moving, me standing hopefully next to it before it finally sighed and pulled away.

Next train: 4:28. It would arrive in Newark at about 5:30. I’d get to the hotel by 6 pm, and still have a half hour to check in, change and wash my face before having to leave. Not what I had planned, but entirely acceptable.

For $11, it turns out, you don’t get electrical outlets, something Amtrak does provide. My iPhone’s charge was dangerously low, but it would last until the hotel. I calculated whether I’d be in the room long enough to give it a boost. I would.

I spread out over two seats – the train wasn’t crowded. Directly ahead of me a quartet of 20-somethings chatted back and forth. In the handicap-accessible area just out of sight, but not hearing, a toddler was getting cranky, along with his mom. Across the aisle a white-haired professional man in a black overcoat and with an old-fashioned leather briefcase – the kind that looks like a satchel, not a box – busied himself with phone calls.

From my westward-facing window seat I looked up from time to time to watch the familiar New Jersey landscape go by. Soon we were passing New Brunswick, an old town, home to Rutgers and one of the larger cities in that part of the state. I’ve never been there, and gazed out of the westward facing window on the northbound train toward a lovely looking downtown, park and river view.

And then the train stopped, after the station but just short of the bridge over the Raritan River. Trains stop all the time; a train ahead could be delayed, or a signal is out, or a repair crew is on the tracks and needs to move. It’s hardly worth noticing.

But this delay went on and on. After about 10 minutes, the conductor announced that we were stopped for an unknown reason and, as soon as he had more information, he’d let us know. He promised that he would keep us informed. We got reruns of that twice over the next half hour, with little additional information.

With my iPad in hand, I found the page on the NJ Transit site that accounted for train delays and learned that train 3960 – my train! – was cancelled due to a “trespasser incident.” Googling “trespasser incident” revealed the likely truth behind the euphemism – it usually meant that someone was on the tracks and got hit. Monitoring the NJT site, the impact of our “incident” began to spread as more and more trains were delayed and none were stopping northbound at New Brunswick, Edison or Metuchen.

The people in front of me weren’t in a hurry and continued chatting. The toddler needed a nap, clearly, and I felt for his mother. And this is when Mr. Professional showed his colors. I heard him on the phone to his wife complaining about the delay and the lack of information. When he was done, I turned to him and filled him in with what I knew – “trespasser incident,” and what I suspected: a fatality, involving this train.

He argued with me. It couldn’t be this train if the incident was “at the station.” I told him that the news now reported that a northbound train had struck someone at the station. We were a northbound train, a few hundred yards past the station, and we were stopped. He shrugged, thanked me for the information, and muttered.

Next, I overhear Mr. Professional, whose first name I decided was Self-Important, call 411 and ask for the phone number of Something Bank in a NJ town. He gets the number, calls the bank and asks for Mr. Somebody, who must really be a Somebody – “I’m calling him,” Mr. Self-Important Professional says, “in his capacity as a member of the NJ Transit Board.” The person at the other end – whose job no doubt includes protecting Mr. Somebody from these calls – says she’ll take a message. My train-mate explains that he doesn’t know Mr. Somebody, but they have a mutual friend, Mr. Well-Connected, and that he’s calling because he’s been sitting on a train just past the New Brunswick Station for over a half-hour and the conductor has not adequately explained why. He demands that Mr. Somebody call him back.

The conductor comes on and tells us that the train is being taken out of service “because of police and medical activity,” the closest he ever gets to informing us that the train has just hit a human being. The dispatcher, he says, will be sending a train for us to transfer to, but he doesn’t yet know when that will be.

My iPhone is almost dead, and my chances of meeting the Abandoned One at 7 pm have vanished. I text him, “Can you pick up email on your phone?” His answer comes back: “No.”

Urban woman steps in: the phone may be dead, but the laptop is fully charged. Hook the iPhone to the computer USB. It works, and the iPhone begins to recharge.

Meanwhile, the local NJ news outlets are painting a fuller story. A man on the station “leaned out over the platform” and was struck by the passing train. Flying debris from the collision, it was reported, injured four people on the platform. Later reports identify the debris: body parts.

I desperately wanted to see the Abandoned One, but it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself over delayed trains, missed meals or other inconveniences when a person lays dead a few hundred feet away. Hard, but not impossible. Mr. Self-Important Professional was still fulminating.

After about an hour, the conductor came through and told us to move forward to the first two cars. From these, we’d be transferring to another train that would be pulling up alongside us on the express tracks. I finally saw the mom with the toddler. He was acting up, and she was struggling with him, the stroller and the requite mom bag with snacks and toys, but she also had her mother in tow. They would be fine. Many passengers had luggage, as I did, and some were elderly or overweight. I had no idea how we’d transfer but hoped it would involve some kind of ramp or gangplank over the divide.

By the time we arrived in the first two cars, most people had heard some version of events, and the complaining had abated. Finally, the train pulled alongside. Waiting in the car, I heard a woman exclaim, “This step is so far!”

Indeed, the step was far. We had to drop from the train step, which is normally at platform level, to the track bed, which was paved with blue stone. I estimated the drop was at least three feet (I’ve since looked it up and found it was a bit over four), but after I handed my luggage down to a rescuer and got to the bottom step I had doubts about whether I could jump down. I didn’t have to – the guy told me to put my hands on his shoulders as he grabbed me around the middle. He lifted me and placed me on the ground. And he did that with every passenger.

It was 6:30 now and this new train was making all the local stops. I wouldn’t be in Newark until 7:15 at best. Texted Abandoned One: can you change the reservation to 8 pm? Yes, he said, done.

At first people complained about the speed of the new train (slow) and the fact that it was making local stops. A woman visiting from India had theater tickets. A man had a plane to catch at Newark airport. But around me, I also heard folks reading aloud the news reports, and the complaints stopped. Some perspective taking was taking place.

At Newark I jumped on the PATH train and got off at Jersey City. Checked into the hotel and hesitated when the desk clerk said, “I hope your travel here was good today.”

“Not really,” I said. “But it’s better now.”

And like the city woman I am, I changed my clothes, splashed some water on my face and returned to the PATH. Got to the Trade Center – where the new PATH station is the whitest place I have ever seen – and grabbed a cab. As I closed in on the address on West Broadway, Abandoned One texted me: “eta?”

I texted back: “3 minutes.”

For the next two hours, Lifelongnewyorker and the Abandoned One had dinner and good conversation. Within a few minutes I saw that he was fine, and would be fine. And I realized that he’s not a kid anymore, which is great.

We left the restaurant and walked south. He descended into the subway at Chambers, and I continued on to the WTC. Grateful for the cold and the lightest of flurries, for the chance to walk, for the bustle around me, and for getting there at last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t talk to strangers

Anyone who has flown with Lifelongnewyorker knows of her aversion to striking up a conversation with seatmates on planes. To avoid the chance chitchat, Lifelongnewyorker prefers to fall immediately into unconsciousness, usually before takeoff. Should sleep elude her, she puts on headphones, studies the Skymall catalog or stares catatonically out the window.

Not that she condones rudeness. Lately she has taken to greeting her fellow traveler and engaging in Limited Small Talk (LST)

This week’s trip to Washington, D.C. was typical: sleep on the Montomery-to-Atlanta leg, on the next LST with my seat mate in first class.

Perhaps because I was feeling pampered and expansive after enjoying my upgrade, perhaps because there was no danger in being trapped on an escalator, I let my guard down on the moving stairs in DCA.

Here’s how it happened. I approached the escalator as an unending line of eager and excited teenagers, all wearing yellow wool caps and festooned, like matching luggage, with yellow nametags, flowed onto the steps. A man in his early 30s–clearly one of the chaperones–
paused so I could go ahead of him onto the escalator.

Once on, I turned, saw that he was a priest (no collar, but he too had a name tag). Frankly I was surprised to encounter a priest that young, given that the average age of American nuns is reported to be about 74. Fondly recalling the times I chaperoned student trips (a clear example of time adding a rosy lens to memory), I asked where they were all from.

“Louisiana,” he told me, and I responded that I hoped they were prepared for the cold. “They think they are,” says Bing Crosby, adding, “I’m not so sure.” Stepping off the escalator we laugh together. Since we’re walking in the same direction, I to the taxi stand and he to the baggage claim, I break the cardinal rule of LST: upon completion of a successful exchange, do not introduce a new question.

So, I ask, are these all juniors? I’m totally inside my own, ancient frame of reference — 40 years ago in NY, where the trip to Washington was a common feature of junior year. No idea if it still is. “No,” he responds, “they’re freshman to seniors.”

Now I’m puzzled. Can’t be a curriculum-related trip. Maybe they’re in some kind of competition, or members of the school band slated to perform at a national event. I forge on, “Really? What brings you all to Washington?” I ask, gamely.

“We’re here for the big pro-life rally.”

And now I’m speechless. I recall that a colleague’s daughter who is a ninth-grader at the local Catholic high school is also going to this rally, not because she personally has strong views on the issue, but because it’s a school trip to the nation’s capital with her friends. She’s excited: They’ll stay in a hotel, see the sights, and talk all night long. Oh, yeah, and go to this rally. Colleague wasn’t thrilled that her daughter was being enlisted as a foot soldier in a political cause that Colleague doesn’t support.

I can’t tell him I support the cause, and the rules of LST are clear: do not invite controversy with strangers. ” Humma humma humma,” I imagine myself saying, but it comes out as “I hope they don’t freeze.”

And at that very moment, mercifully, the door to to taxis is on my left. Baggage claim pulls him to the right. I head outside.

The big rally is the next day, and it’s getting going as I arrive for an event on a street that has been blocked off to traffic because of it. As others arrive, everyone comments about the march. Mostly, these fall into the same category as comments in New York when the prez is in town or the UN is in session– it’s all about traffic and metro delays.

One person remarked upon the fact that he saw mostly groups like the one I encountered at the airport; young people in matching outfits full of energy, and as excited as if they were going to a football game. He also reported seeing a lot of young priests, and we joked that every priest in America must be at the National Mall.

And that led me to another memory. I, too, was in the company of a priest for an event in a bitterly cold Washington once. I was 17, out of high school and the official bus captain for one of three buses of people from Staten Island headed to the capital on the day of Nixon’s second inauguration, which we protestors were calling his coronation. We were there to march against Nixon’s odious expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, and to demand peace.

On my bus was a groups of students from a local Catholic boys school, led by a priest whose name, I believe, was Fr. Tosh. We spent most of that very long and very cold day together. One thing I remember: we were somber. We were there for a serious purpose; it was no party.

Back at the airport today, I saw and heard people from the rally heading back home. Meanwhile, on the overhead televisions, CNN was reporting on the protest planned for today, in which people will rally against gun violence and in favor of stricter gun control.

And I couldn’t help but hope that at least some of those young priests led their charges to today’s rally,too.