.My time in the Bronx was amazing for my exposure to a new location: homes, geography, transit. But this story relates to the people, situations, and conversations I shared in that area:
I got stuck in Roanoke, VA when my plans suddenly changed. My friend Jack, who I met on the atheist cruise the previous February, was double booked. He had made a standing invitation for me to stop and stay at his place near Rutgers. He offered that we would go “raise a little ruckus” along the Jersey shore, as only a couple of retired guys can do. However, as my horrible timing arranged, I would arrive during his birthday week, with guests, family and old friends all vying for his limited time. He graciously offered me to stay at his place while we split our days together and apart, but I deferred. I plan to visit him late in summer around Labor Day instead.
With an extra day to think about it, I put together a plan to stay at an AB&B home in the Bronx where, in my several decades and million miles of domestic travel, I have never set foot beyond filling a tank of gas. As I wrote about this elsewhere, I zipped in over the Tappan Zee bridge (new to me) and down the Rock Creek Pkwy (also new to me).
My host family was a woman from Nigeria, living in the US for now 20 years. As a teen, she had a to decide to either resettle in the UK or US, and was enchanted by NYC. She served as a nanny at the time, but worked her way through college. In an amazing Horatio Alger story, she achieved both college and post graduate degrees and is now a counselor. Her skills dealing with varying personalities was so evident in our kitchen table conversations.
She bought and maintains her house, which includes other family members and several AB&B guests. She was so gracious, visiting, bringing all of us guests cool watermelon and sharing conversation at the basement kitchen table and in the backyard. The AB&B roomers, like me, must make a difference for her with the taxes, mortgage, upkeep or maybe we just represent her retirement fund. It was obviously a full time second job to meet me and the other guests, to check on our care, to monitor and manage the turning over of rooms, and to have reorganized the entire house for our use. I was weary just watching her, always impressed with those that toil at many jobs, and happy thinking that my rent was directly helping her versus going to the bottom line of a “hospitality industry” conglomerate somewhere. She also adjusted herself to help me store my scooter inside the fenced front yard, off of the busy street.
She did not express any doubt about the neighborhood, despite others of my demographic doing so. Its so easy for old white males to be aghast: “You stayed where?”, “You walked when?”. She told me where I could find a local grocery in walking distance, and the number of blocks to the train & bus. I jumped on my scooter to see the neighborhood and get oriented, enjoying the vibrant rhythm and sounds of a bustling city. I’m convinced that America is becoming more of a melting pot again, with person-to-person empathy and connections melting away the physical dangers I remember from the 1960’s crime waves. Yes, tough policing and sentencing have cleaned up crime. Also, I’m male, so that creates an extended illusion of mobility in these unknown places. But I use it!
The house was a Bronx style connected bungalow. With the basement garage redone as an extra bedroom. That other room housed a couple of guys from Chile at the beginning of the week. I was told I wouldn’t see then, they went “into the city”, “to the discos”, and “return really late”. This was true. Just before I left a couple from Germany took over the room. They were typical hostelers. Bearded and wearing rugged yet comfortable clothes, enjoying the affordable nightly rent, the immersion in local neighborhood, and were in NYC to visit. We spoke for only 10 minutes during our brief overlap.
The other guest, however, was in the upstairs bedroom, above the family on the main floor, but she used the basement kitchen and table to have space away from our hosts. Consequently, she and I, and later her boyfriend, spent several hours together over coffee.
She was is her early 20’s, born in Taiwan, and had already seen more of the world than anybody I knew. She was in NY pursuing her degree, a double major in English Literature and Chinese Literature. Hokey Smokes. She arrived in America on the west coast and, yes, hitch-hiked east on “route 66” just to do it. She wanted to meet America, face to face, and that struck her as a good way. It was. She had previously traveled extensively in Europe, on the “backpack and train pass” method and, of course, all over Asia. She acquired her love of Chinese literature … on the ground in China. Yeah, about 23, petite, bookish glasses, warm, confident, wiser in the ways of the world than anyone I could call to mind. I sat and talked and looked at her and tried to imagine where she will go in the 30, 40, 50 years ahead. Frankly, I have no idea. I would just sigh amazed that I could add anything to the conversation.
She was constantly cooking. Cutting and dicing and stir frying vegetables seemingly without end and without purpose. She met a guy. (Ahh) He worked locally, and was also staying upstairs. They were looking for a more permanent place, midway between his CT job and her NYC school. She was always making dinners (and lunches) for him.
And she had tamed a wild beast. He admitted to her to have been a fan of discos and dating and fast living, at one time a ne’er do well with no thought of the future. He fell for her, hard, gave up living for the moment, got a steady job, and was keeping on the strait and narrow for her. I was impressed. So much of her and my talk was about men … non oriental men if you will, their motives and character. He was a new challenge in the life of a woman that had lived a lot of life and solved a lot of puzzles with skill and ease. He has smart and had middle eastern features and ancestry. What a pair. We talked over dinner, my yogurt and fruit their oriental stir fry, about life and adventure and college and life experiences. I would love to know where life takes them someday.
I was the youngest child, never went to camp or served in the military; my one year on campus was in an all male dorm; and my decades of business travel were in 4-star hotels with private rooms and lots of space. So I was surprised (but acted disinterested) when the one afternoon, around 2, one of the Chilean “disco boys” woke up to shower. He crossed through the kitchen where she and I were talking, popping open his door, wishing us good morning, and passing to the far end bathroom and shower in gym shorts. Twenty minutes later, he reappeared, kinda sheepishly, wrapped in a towel, and passed back to his chamber. In a second, I saw her eyes pop up, then avert in Asian humility, as she simply turned 180 degrees to continue chopping the vegetable of the moment, us not missing a beat of conversation. As our Latin partner passed, she continued her 360 degree turn to face me, nobody shocked, embarrassed, upset or losing their place in the conversation. It was exactly what I hoped of the younger generation, their internet exposures and experiences, their close quarter living, their casual relations among themselves. I saw it, and wonder if this is the norm for mid-20’s in the the mid 2010’s, or simply ABB Asian/Latin detente. I still don’t know.
Also in the basement was the elderly uncle of the owner. I presume also from Kenya. He was quiet, actually shy, snuck in and out, lived behind a folding room partition, was extremely kind and polite. It was just a little surreal, like a specter floating in and out. One more person not to wake when tiptoeing in late at night.
While in NYC, I got a chance to finally visit an old work mate, neighbor and friend. He moved from Tampa to NYC before 9/11, and lived through the actual event. He eventually bought a century old co-op apartment on the upper west side, above Columbia university. I visited the Cloisters nearby my AB&B, then swung down for a long pot of coffee with my friend that I had not seen in over 20 years. We did not miss a beat.
To my surprise, he had been gravely ill a few years ago, and was now recovered. I didn’t know. Ill enough for the family to gather around his bedside. That happens when friends drift apart. But it had an amazing affect on his life. He had always loved music, longed to return to NYC just to enjoy the Metropolitan Opera, and after recovering decided every day of life is important.
He enrolled at the Arts College for a degree in Music Production, something he could never possibly earn back at our advanced age. The college has relationships with various local music producers, and students are loaned out for experience. As he talked, we finally raised the words “intern”, “unpaid” and “nineteen year olds”. In a world of oversleeping, hungover, college kids; he was over 50 and in the New York music industry out of love and commitment. He was plucked like a rose, and joined the independent music studio of world famous local producer … as a intern. What did you do? Get coffee, get donuts, meet the limousine, hold doors, hang coats, whatever was needed. Oh, like an intern. Like an unpaid intern working for an undergrad degree. As time progressed he was adopted, because he was responsible, reliable, intelligent. But as this famous business wound down, due to age and industry factors, he was the only “intern” left. He one day lost that job, when one of the major New York colleges ran out of practice space and “bought” 80%+ of the famous owner’s studio time. The college had their own interns, so he became a gentlemen retiree, like myself, and is planning to abandon the city for a relaxed life in distance New Jersey.
His stories were astounding. The studio had several performance spaces, most rented out and one reserved for the owner & his friends. And he was friends with Jazz greats, singers, and famous performers of all types. The NYC elite worked on their sounds at his studio. The words that stuck with me were: “It was a full-on concert for an audience of 3 people”. They would sit in the sound booth, and time after time some famous person from New York’s music world was either doing final prep for a recording, final prep for an upcoming tour, or testing out a song or even a new sound. Like a kid he would meet their limo, bring them up the elevator, take their coat and hand them coffee. Then he would sit six or seven feet away while they gave a concert level performance to three or four people behind soundproof glass. The job didn’t need to pay “money”. He was sad when that train pulled out of the station. But I hope to visit with him again around Labor Day.
I went to attend a dinner meetup of the NYC Atheists and Humanists group, but was such a dope I got off at the wrong station, then walked 5 blocks the wrong way. On principle, I made myself walk to the restaurant where the meeting was held, and finally arrived a full hour after it ended (three hours after it started). But now I understand. Trains take time, they have a lot of stops. Really understand your station, and where you are going. Use google streets FIRST, not after you are late. My “next trip” to NYC, I’ll be ready. So I took a bunch of pictures around Times Square, with the tourists, and characters dressed up as Spiderman, Smurfs, and Mickey Mouse. (I thought I had a tough life).
This particular night there were a bunch of NYC meetups, Humanists, political, technical, educational, but there was a comedy show listed under a “free things to do” meetup that caught my eye. It was in a bar in queens, a straight shot from Times Square. I’d return late, but could just transfer trains at Times Square: reverse and repeat. I jumped the train, and walked the correct direction (this time) and actually ended up in time for the end of the 8pm show, with lots of time to spare for the 10pm start.
These guys were good. Funny. Well organized. The bits between the comedians (running jokes, teasing) were funny as well. This was no cheesy “karaoke quality” show. These were pros. That was the 8pm show, then 10pm rolled around. The intros started with “has been on Showtime”, “won last comic standing” and the like. I though I was hearing wrong, but I wasn’t. It was a Thursday, in Queens, and they were buffing up their stuff for week-end shows. It was amazing. I paid exactly zero, drank water out of a drinking fountain in the lobby, and got a world class comedy show. Wow, only in New York.
The one comedian was a black guy, mid 20’s, with a funny routine. He had puffed braids, over his shoulders, and made fun of his own long legs and slender hips. He turned around for us, and pointed out that in a crowded bar, after a beer or two, he’s easily mistaken for a woman. Then went on to call all men jerks with anecdotes and punchlines; some black, some blue, some red. It was hilarious, and touching, and though provoking. I’m on a journey of many purposes this summer, but one is to learn (relearn?) social courtesy and how to approach a stranger to become better acquainted. I had to laugh. Hows that for a yardstick? Don’t say anything that you’d be embarrassed to be heard as a punchline, if that shapely woman turned around and was a slender hipped 20 something guy, with a razor sharp wit. Hmmmm….. Seems reasonable.
To midwesterners, NYC is imagined as full of tough, uncaring, self-possessed people. Time after time it was proved the opposite was true. I stayed around a Dunkin Donuts (of course), to organize my thoughts, post to fb, and sip on a coffee. Strangers moved their stuff, shared the lone electrical outlet, said please and thank you as much as any coffee shop anywhere.
And I again eavesdropped on the professional mom, mid-30s, dressed from work, with her 10 or 12 year old daughter after a day at school sharing a coffee and cocoa. How was your day? What did the teacher think of that? What should we do this week-end. The life I had dreamt for Jesse and I at that age, and achieved too infrequently. It felt so alive.
My other impressions were geographic: So much, so close together. So many people, so much activity, so noisy, busy, crowded. But I wrote that up in my other NYC post. This was just about the people I met.