Look! Something Shiny!

September 30th, 2017

Karin and the kids have ADD. They can never find their keys. They sometimes forget appointments. They start doing something, and then get sidetracked for hours with something else. For years I have served as the family memory. I can’t tell you how many times somebody in our house has asked me, “Can you remind of this?”

I never really understood ADD…until we went to Manhattan.

New York City is one enormous distraction. A visit there guarantees sensory overload. There is simply too much happening at once. I found it very difficult to focus when Jules gave us the nickel tour of Manhattan. Of course, some of that could have been the residual effects of the previous evening’s activities.

We had been in Queens at a party with the Buddhists. It went late. A little after 11:00 PM, Jules started shepherding us toward the door. We were saying our goodbyes when Devo rushed out of the kitchen and pleaded for us to stay.

“You guys can’t go yet! I’ve only had one beer! We need to hang out, and talk for a while!”

Jules firmly told Devo that we really needed to be getting home. We had plans to participate in a demonstration at Union Square the next morning. We couldn’t hang around.

I found Devo’s offer to be extremely enticing. I thought, “Oh, hell yeah!” I told Devo that I would be glad to suck his beer and talk shit all night, as long as he could get me to Manhattan in the morning for the protest.

Devo shook his head, “Hey Man, I can’t do that.”

“Then I gots to go.”

The trip from Queens to Manhattan was uneventful. We had to drop off Tracy, Jules’ lady friend, at her apartment before we could go back to New Jersey. Just for the record, Tracy is one of the gentlest and sweetest women I have ever met. She is a wonderful person.

The traffic in Manhattan at midnight had subsided a bit. Rose, Jules’ daughter, saw a couple well-dressed, young women crossing the street in front of us. Rose said,

“They’re ready to go clubbing.”

I asked, “They are starting now?”

Rose turned around in the van and looked at me. “Yeah, why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. Never mind.”

By the way, Rose is a very interesting woman. She is a petite lady, fifty-ish. Rose speaks with a husky voice in a staccato fashion. Rose used to work in her father’s bookstore, and now she works as a teacher’s aide for autistic kids. Rose is also a Harley rider. Seeing as Rose is both a Jersey girl and a biker, I suspect that she has no trouble taking care of herself. She is married to guy named Iggy. Somehow it all fits.

We turned down some side street. I noted the piles of garbage on the curb.

Jules said, “That’s not bad. They might be a little behind picking up. Wait a couple hours for the rats to come out.”

After we dropped off Tracy at her apartment, we only had ten blocks to go before we hit the Lincoln Tunnel that goes under the Hudson River to Jersey. Those ten blocks took two hours to cover. I dozed during most of that time. We arrived home at Jules’ house promptly at 3:00 AM. Sweet.

I woke up at 7:30 or so. I shaved, took a shower, and tried to gather my thoughts. I considered wearing a red t-shirt to match my eyes. Karin got up shortly after that, and we met Jules in his kitchen. Rose showed up at 9:30, and we walked down Main Street to catch the 167T bus to Manhattan.

Jules had instructed me to get the senior’s round trip ticket when we got on the bus. The 167T pulled up to the stop, and Jules got in first. He apparently didn’t trust me to follow his guidance, so he told the bus driver that Karin and I needed senior tickets. The driver gave me a hard stare as she took my money. She gave me that look that says, “You are a fucking liar. You ain’t no goddamn senior.” Well, she gave us our round trip tickets, and we all got over it.

The 167T makes its way slowly from Bergenfield, through Teaneck, and then to the New Jersey Turnpike. From there it goes through the Lincoln Tunnel, and ends up at the Port Authority bus terminal in mid-Manhattan. I have some history with Port Authority. When I was a cadet at West Point, some forty years ago, I used to take the Mohawk bus from the school to New York (I can still smell the diesel fumes). Most of my memories of the Port Authority involve avoiding Hari Krishnas, and stepping over sleeping winos in the bathrooms.

There had been some minor changes to the terminal since I last was in Port Authority. I was shocked to see armed soldiers in the building.

Jules chuckled and asked me, “Doesn’t it make you feel safer?”

“Actually, no.”

Port Authority is a transportation nexus. It is composed of multiple levels of buses, subways, and taxis. There various kiosks and shops. The entire structure is designed to disorient the stranger. Fortunately, Rose and Jules were there to lead Karin and myself through the labyrinth.

Before we embarked on our journey, Karin was adamant that I have my phone on, just in case she lost me in the shuffle. At the time, I didn’t think it was such a big deal. Once we arrived in Manhattan, and descended into the maelstrom of humanity, I could see that Karin had a legitimate concern. It would be so easy to lose somebody in the crowd. Everything and everybody competed for our attention. Even a momentary lapse of attention would result in us becoming separated.

Rose and Jules got us on to the subway train that took us to 14th Street. We climbed up to street level, and even Rose and Jules suffered a moment of confusion regarding our next move. Coming up from the subway is a lot like swimming under water, and then surfacing in an unfamiliar place. Rose got her bearings and we walked along 14th Street toward Union Square. En route, Rose pointed out the Freedom Tower to Karin. The building soared up in the distance.

Union Square is a tiny oasis of green amidst mountains of concrete and stone. As we walked toward it, the first thing I noticed were old black men playing chess and backgammon. Then I heard a Jimi Hendrix wannabe playing electric guitar somewhere in the background. There were numerous kiosks set up around the perimeter of the square. Near the center was a giant equestrian statue of George Washington. There were also some of those strange things called trees.

We got to the park just as the demonstration was starting. The event was organized by the local Catholic Workers, and it was to protest Saudi (and U.S.) involvement in the Yemen civil war. The conflict there has caused famine and a severe cholera epidemic.  A couple people were unfurling a huge banner that said: “Yemen is Starving!”

Jules pointed out an older woman who was holding the banner. He told us, “That’s Martha Hennessey, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter.” Martha didn’t look in any way extraordinary, and I don’t think she would want to look extraordinary. She was just doing her job, following the Gospel as best she can. She put on a costume that made her look like a grieving mother holding a dead child. She walked back and forth in front of the banner.

Jules opened up a flag for Veterans for Peace (Jules is a vet). He stood with some people he knew at the front of the protest line. I moved up and took a spot holding up the banner. It was windy and they needed more bodies to keep the banner steady. Rose went out front to take photos. Tracy met us at the square. Karin wandered through the kiosks and found a yarn seller. Karin has an uncanny ability to find yarn and fiber wherever we go. It’s like a sixth sense.

I felt comfortable just standing there and holding on to the banner. I felt like I was in the eye of hurricane. A swirling mass of people passed before me and around me. It was calming to be motionless in a sea of random motion. All sorts of folks walked past: all ages, all races, all genders. Many of them took pictures. Eventually there were photographers taking pictures of people taking pictures.

Across street was a building with sign that had a series of numbers on it. I think there were twelve digits on the sign. Some numbers changed slowly, some rapidly. It seemed confusing to me. I asked the young man next to me what that was.

He looked at me and replied, “It’s a clock.”

“A clock?”

He laughed, “Yes, a clock. Some people think it’s a Doomsday clock, but it’s just a clock.”

It was only then that I noticed that the digits represented hours, minutes, seconds, and fractions of seconds.

I asked, “What’s your name?”

“Basko.”

“How do you spell that?”

“B-A-S-K-O.”

Basko was from some place far away, but I couldn’t identify his accent. He was my height, with thick, black hair,and very dark eyes. He looked like he might be Indian, but not quite.

One of the Catholic Workers, Carmen, started talking to crowd standing in front of us. Carmen harangued the onlookers with facts about the Saudi bombing and blockade of Yemeni ports. He went on and on about the numerous civilian deaths from air attacks, lack of food, and lack of clean water. I’m not sure who was listening. I suspect that for many people we were just part of the show. We were a new distraction, a slightly different type of entertainment.

It was almost noon, and Karin wanted to get something to eat and drink. I left my post and walked with her to get a smoothie at a Walgreen’s. Then we stopped at one of the street side food stalls. These vendors were all over Manhattan. They all had a big sign on their carts that said, “Halal”. No pork products here. The vendor had kabobs, and he had sandwiches made with chicken or lamb. Karin wanted one of the humongous pretzels that the man was selling. They reminded me of the pretzels we bought many years ago in the Englischergarten of Munich.

When we got back to the banner, Carmen was still going strong. The man has enormous stamina. He was extremely hoarse at this point. People flowed past the banner. Carmen was talking to himself by then. At 1:00 PM the demonstration ended. Carmen gathered the various protesters together to thank everyone for their participation. We dispersed.

The five of us (Tracy, Rose, Jules, Karin, and myself) started walking south along Broadway. We were headed to Mary House, the original Catholic Worker House that sits on 3rd Street, not far from the Bowery. Basko walked with us. He told me that he sometimes helps out at the Catholic Worker House, but that he was going to be busy that afternoon. As we walked through town, we talked. I asked Basko where he was from.

“Nepal”, he replied.

“So, why are you here?”

“There was the civil war, and then the earthquake. We lost 30,000 people, and Nepal only has thirty million. I needed to go.”

I told Basko about how my wife’s father and his family had been refugees at the end of World War II. Basko then described the experience of his grandfather.  The man had been arrested in the Soviet Union back in 1944 for smuggling. Basko’s grandpa was then forced to serve in a penal battalion of the Soviet Army and fight against the Germans. At the end of the war, Basko’s grandfather was in Poland, and somehow he made his way back to Nepal.

Basko laughed, “He came home a dedicated Trotskyite.”

I asked him, “You have Maoists in Nepal, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“So, what exactly is a Maoist?”

Basko shook his head. “A few years ago, I probably would have given you a different answer, but Maoism is basically fascism with a socialist face.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yeah. Look at where the Maoists are: Nepal, India, any place where the Chinese have a strategic interest. The Maoists are just an arm of Chinese ultra-nationalism.”

We came to a small open area. Basko said, “My girlfriend goes to school here”, as he pointed at a building on our left.

He went on, “My girlfriend is Ukrainian. She studies art here. This is the Coopertown Union.”

“How old is she?”

“Nineteen.”

“How old are you?”

He smiled and said, “Twenty.”

We stopped for a moment. Basko said, “I need to wait for her here. I will come to Mary House around 5:30. Will you still be there?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I kind of doubt it.”

We shook hands and said goodbye.

It is easy to miss Mary House. It has a small sign hanging in front of the door. It just looks like another brick building, surrounded by many other such buildings. We got there and tried the front door. It was locked. We found this to be more than a little disappointing.

A man opened the door for us. He wore a knit cap and a heavy coat. He totally had that homeless guy vibe. Apparently, he was the resident greeter/babbler. He spoke nonstop to us after we entered the house. At one point he started telling stories to Tracy, and he hung on to her like a leech.

Mary House looks like a dump. I am not being critical. This is just an observation. The paint is peeling. Everything is old and very well-used. It has a rundown appearance. However, when I think about it, how else should it look? This was Dorothy Day’s home base, and she identified completely with the poor and marginalized. She lived exactly like the people she served. The folks who work there now do the same thing. Mary House is a place that serves the destitute and the forgotten, day after day. It is a place where people live the Beatitudes.

We were escorted to the dining area. Martha was eating a quick lunch. She and Carmen had a meeting to attend in a few minutes. She greeted us and that was about it. Martha is a busy woman, and we showed up at an inopportune time.

Carmen was there too. He was also beginning to eat his meal. He told us to grab some coffee or cake or chocolate that they had on a side table. He decided that he had a few minutes available to show us around.

It was a quick tour. We got to see Dorothy Day’s office. It’s kind of working shrine. I think that people use the space, but it really has her energy there yet. The room has this cluttered appearance, kind of a barely controlled chaos. I suspect that some papers and books have been laying around for decades. For Karin and for me, this was like the end of a pilgrimage. We were in the home of a saint, a saint who was our contemporary.

Carmen also took to their chapel. It’s a small, windowless room. It has rough-looking furniture. The chapel has its own tabernacle for the Eucharist. Apparently, they received papal dispensation to keep it there. There are archives in the chapel. Carmen pulled out one of the original copies of the Catholic Worker newspaper from the 1930’s. It was literally crumbling in his hands as he showed it to us.

After we said goodbye to Carmen, we walked along 3rd Street toward 2nd Ave. There was a swap-and-shop going on nearby. Jules wanted to check it out. We also walked past the national headquarters of the Hell’s Angels. Jules joked with Rose about touching one of the bikes sitting at the curb. Rose told Jules, in no uncertain terms, that if he messed with their Harleys, he was on his own.

We wandered north on 2nd Avenue in search of food. It was mid-afternoon. Jules knew a place. It was the Ukraine East Village Restaurant. We went into a building and found the restaurant in a room partially hidden from view. The dining room had wood paneling all around, and was decorated with traditional, Ukrainian embroidered cloths. The tables and chairs were heavy and solid. It definitely had a European feel to it. The waitresses were dressed in black, and they looked like it would kill them to smile.

We sat down and browsed through the lunch menu. We made our selections, and a sturdy, middle-aged woman with black hair and narrow lips came to take our orders. She eyed us suspiciously. Then she proceeded to treat us to the very best of Soviet-style customer service.

“You, what do you want?” she said to Karin.

Karin said, “I would like the spinach pierogis.”

The waitress looked at Karin coldly, and asked, “Five or seven?”

“What?”

The waitress asked impatiently in her think accent, “Five or seven? Lunch or deener menu?”

Karin laughed nervously, “Oh, the lunch menu. Five.”

“Very guud”, replied the waitress.

She turned to stare at me.

“I’ll have the cheese blintzes.”

“Guud.”

“And you?” she asked Tracy.

“I’ll have the potato pancakes”.

The waitress sighed, and asked, “Five or seven?”

“Five”, answered Tracy quickly.

It went on like this through the rest of the meal. I think that Jules found it all somehow hilarious. I kept asking myself if this woman had learned her people skills in the gulag.

Now, I am myself a Slav. My people came from Slovenia, and I have inherited that dark moodiness that others find so attractive. It’s just weird to be on the receiving end of that.

To be honest, the food there was excellent, and efficiently served. I think that maybe I wouldn’t minded the harshness of the service if I had had a couple beers. There is a reason why Slavs drink.

Jules knew that Karin and I wanted to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He had originally suggested that we go there on Sunday. After lunch, he changed his mind and asked if wanted to go there on this excursion. Karin and I were good with that. Jules consulted with Tracy, and they found the subway to take us to 51st Street. The train was packed, absolutely packed full. We were shoe-horned into the car, and then we found out that this particular train was running late and would not stop at our destination. We got off at the next station and got on to the next overfilled train.

We were vomited forth from the train at the 51st Street terminal. We walked to Madison Avenue and entered the church. I will not spend time describing that experience now. Our time in St. Patrick’s deserves its very own essay. Suffice it to say that we attended the evening Mass and walked away from the cathedral in the New York twilight.

We worked our way south and west. We went past the New York Public Library, Bryant Park, and the diamond district. We made our way slowly toward Port Authority and the end of our tour.

But first we had to navigate Times Square. Holy fuck.

It was dark by the time we hit Times Square. We were greeted by three-story-tall images of Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, advertising Blade Runner 2049. Then it got weird. There were enough flashing lights to trigger an epileptic seizure. Mobs of people. Utter chaos. Madness.

Jules said, “It will be like this until 3:00 AM or so.”

Nice.

I was in Times Square once many years ago. It had that same extreme nervous energy. Spending time there is the equivalent of slamming a six pack of Monsters. And people like it there. They actually think it’s fun. People were taking selfies, and sending them back home to family and friends that probably live in sane environments.  I couldn’t get out of there soon enough.

We found Port Authority. We found our bus. We returned to the relative tranquility of northern New Jersey.

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s