coney island of the mind

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-George Bernard Shaw


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Monday, August 23, 2004
I watched Saturday's storm from the back seat of a livery cab, driving carefully down Harlem streets then on the lake-filled FDR drive. Every other stretch of road on the highway held a deep pool of water we drove slowly through, or slowly at least for a NYC livery cab driver. The Hudson River stretched out to my left, wet and stormy. A small sailboat maneuvered back toward land. Joggers and skaters and bikers gathered under stairway overpasses and covered piers along the pedestrian path. Some ran or biked anyway through the violent rain and I thought about their socks soaked in their sneakers and wondered if their feet might into slide around inside that wetness and make them slip and fall.

Inside the car, my bare feet slid around inside my black sandals and I opened a compact to check the damage. Mascara was smeared under my left eye and my hair was wet and scraggly. The storm began the moment I stepped outside my apartment building. If I had left five minutes earlier I would have missed it entirely, would have made it to the subway station only a block and a half away. Instead, I ended up stranded on an island in the middle of Malcolm X Boulevard, unable to make it the 200 feet to the train. The rain came down sideways from all directions, turning my umbrella inside with a breath and actually pushing me around the island. I don't think I've ever experienced a wind that could actually move me around, at least not in New York, maybe once or twice in New Mexico. I braced myself against the light pole, afraid that I'd be pushed into traffic. My denim skirt was already soaked and being blown around my legs, the slit up the back that I already hated now revealing even more of what I don't ever want seen. I looked across the street to the subway station and knew that if I could only get there - half a minute's walk, really - I'd be safe. Hard, tough, fearless New Yorker done in by a little wind and rain. But I knew I wouldn't make it. The wind was so strong I felt myself gasp for breath. I felt my hand shoot up in the air as I struggled to remember if I had any cash on me. What the fuck - who was I kidding - I needed a car. Many zoomed by me - you're not supposed to stop in the middle of an avenue by an island under the best of circumstances, much less in a violent thunderstorm - but finally one pulled over and I struggled to get to it. He backed up a bit to meet me halfway and I pulled the door open, getting fully drenched in the minute it took to get me, my two bags and my purple umbrella into the back seat.

I was on my way to meet up with Lenore, a writing friend from New Mexico, and her daughter Alison at Yaffa Café, the place I take all out-of-towners for a truly bizarre New York café experience. Zebra wallpaper, red velvet lampshades, sparkly purple tabletops with old newspaper clippings decoupagged onto the surface. It sounds hideous but actually is quite beautiful, impressive in the way every item seems to have been created for the very purpose of sitting beside the item next to it, purple and orange and red and black all melting into one perfect, soothing explosion of tacky elegance.

The rain poured down a little less violently as we exited the highway and crossed Houston Street. He dropped me in front of Yaffa and I popped my umbrella open, descended the stairs into the tiny entrance way. It was packed, which it never is. Must have been the sudden storm. Wall to wall East Village beauties with pierced eyebrows and lips, long flimsy thrift store thrift dresses sticking to still-damp skin.

We retreated instead to Simone, Yaffa's cousin down the block, with its red walls and glass beads hanging in the windows like diamond curtains. Lenore and Alison are both tall and talkative, confident, and seem deeply happy. Alison stared out the window at first while Lenore and I talked and I felt distant from her, far from her age, her mother's friend, not hers. I am now closer in age to the mothers and it pisses me off. But Alison was not a withdrawn teenager. She looked distracted but listened to every word, turning back to us to fill in the spaces of her mother's stories. She talked about her recent trip to Europe with 300 other high school kids and Lenore would reach over to tuck her daughter's hair behind her ear, or just to rub a thick bunch of it into her palm with her thumb, and I thought of my own mother's visit last weekend. I had no idea what to do with her, nothing to say to her. I ran out of quick updates like 'work is fine' or 'I'm going to Italy in the fall' within the first hour and the next 24 stretched out in front of me like an endless, unpaved road. Alison and her mother together told me the story of the Austrian bus driver and the American chaperone on Alison's trip, how they were both in their 30s, both watching each other intently when the other wasn't looking, about the way the bus driver held a cigar in the lobby of a Venetian hotel as he talked to two of the kids about the chaperone: "She ees goot. She ees goot," the kiss he finally managed to give her on the last day of the trip - on the cheek. They both told this story that only Alison had lived and I realized that she had told her mother all these details, shared with her the meat and bones of the trip, and I knew I would never do that with my mother, that I'll probably just tell her that Italy is beautiful, the food is good, I had a great time. I envied them. I cannot break that barrier with my mother.

I left them at one point to go to the bathroom, staring at the shiny black door wondering if they were saying things like, she's nice, isn't she nice? Yes, she's nice.

I came back to the table and Lenore said, we think you are beautiful. And I thought of my still-rain-damp hair and washed away makeup, laughed and waved the compliment away with my hand.

I left them and caught a cab to the West Village for a pedicure, looked out at the hard gray afternoon and wondered about that. I considered whether or not they were right that I'm beautiful, my eternal question to myself. I looked out the window at a girl standing at the corner, waiting as we were for the light to change. She had jet black hair down to the small of her back, a short white skirt comprised of three big ruffles wrapped around her hips, a baby pink halter top with thin straps that tied gently at the back of her neck. A voice in my head told me, no one ever has to tell that girl that she's beautiful. When they do, it is said as a mere statement of fact, not a gift. The voice told me that what they meant was that in spite of *all that*, you are still beautiful, you *would be* so beautiful if only, if only - and the compliment lost its legs.

Twenty minutes later, I sat on a cushioned bench four feet off the ground with my feet in warm soapy water, an elegant, middle aged, dark haired woman rubbing layers of dead skin off my feet and gossiping in Russian. I thought about the news trucks lined up just outside along thin, single-lane Christopher Street. When I had arrived and checked in for my appointment, I asked the stunning counter girl what all that was about. She told me, "The guy who was captured in Iraq? He lives on this block. There are reporters here all the time now."
Jesus. Right here, two doors down from the chi-chi salon where I get my toes painted for 30 dollars. I took a seat to wait for my appointment, staring at the silver colored hair dryers and thick, solid men dressed all in black, folding little pieces of foil into the hair of women talking low on cell phones. I thought about that man exiting his building, right here, on this block, hailing a cab to take him to LaGuardia, a cup of coffee from the Factory Café in his hand as they sped across the Triborough Bridge, on his way to Iraq. And then I thought of that same man in that video, hands and legs tied, surrounded by masked men pointing machine guns at him and talking about cutting his head off. And him kneeling there in front of their camera, reaching his fingers out to touch home, to touch Christopher Street, his fiance two doors down from me, having to imagine where he was, what was happening to him, every second of every day.

I left the salon with my toenails painted pink, went around the corner to Café Rafaella and wrote in my notebook for a long time, until the sun set and street lights came on along Seventh Avenue.



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