Post #62: Wunderkammern

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Oh she was sublime! Bubbly Judy Holliday was at once like every one of us and at the same time like no one else. Blond and vivacious, wacky and lovable she ignited the big screen like a brilliant bauble in everything from Adam’s Rib to Born Yesterday to Bells Are Ringing. But I love her best in a small, quirky little movie, It Should Happen to You.

Have you seen it? Oh come on! You must!

It is not fancy movie, no grand pretensions. It’s not even a musical, although there is one lovely little number when Judy croons “Let’s Fall in Love” with a piano playing Jack Lemmon.

It Should Happen to You is a story of deep yearning. A twentyish New Yorker named Gladys Glover, buffeted and bruised from the humdrum of daily living, determines that for a moment, for a heartbeat, for an instant she will rise from the ranks of the insignificant and become known. That her name — Gladys Glover — will be on everyones lips.

And so she gathers her life savings of a thousand dollars and purchases a billboard in Columbus Circle with her name in gigantic letters. She is thrilled. For one week, the name of Gladys Glover is spoken about, wondered about, gossiped about. She has done it. She is famous. She is thrilled.

Until she is not.
**

This week I unexpectedly find myself temporarily anchored in the city I’ve loved for a lifetime. The lights still beckon. Towering night lights from my window soothe me still.

So many years ago like so many others I cartwheeled head over heels into the arms New York. Like a skittering handful of jacks spilled from a cupped palm we hit the ground hard. What a place! We would make names for ourselves. We would be famous! The city would be ours. We craved it. We loved it.

Look up, we’ll see the lights of the Empire State, of the Citicorp, of the Chrysler! Look down we are expert at spying lucky pennies to scoop into our pockets. Hurrying hurrying hurrying we scurry furtively from street light to street light, huddled into great coats, slogging through slush.

Judy Holliday looked up and unexpectedly saw the lights in the eyes of Jack Lemmon. I looked way up and unexpectedly found mine in a pair of warm, kind eyes behind a pair of round tortoise shell glasses.

How many times had we walked obliviously right by each other, on 2nd Avenue? Amsterdam? 72nd Street? And yet, finally together we were swirled into a wunderkammern, our own cabinet of exotics and wonders, filled to the bursting with baseball cubes and board games, subway signs and teapots, pokemon card after pokemon card and book after book after book after book. So so many and never ever enough. Our lives together are a wunderkammern – a collection of weirdnesses and wonders, jumbled together in a way that makes sense to no one but us. But it’s ours.

My name flickering in lights? Why? Why when there is so much else?

In the way it was meant to happen it happened to me. In whatever way it is meant to happen then, it should happen to you.

FEEDING THE SOUL

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There are a lot of escapes and I am very adept at all of them. My specialty, when feelings of awkwardness threaten to turn me robotic at parties or gatherings, is to stash my wine glass in the nearest flower pot, and head for the nearest exit with the speed of a salamander that leaves it’s tail in an effort to survive. But the Houdini-que escape I’ve used most often was my arguably my best: a daily half hour round trip to the radiance and warmth of summer in the French countryside, circa the turn of the century. I used to slip away alone to spend virtually every lunch hour on an upper floor of MoMA, embraced by and immersed in Monet’s Water Lilies.

This is an age ago, before sluggish lines snaked down 53rd Street and museum entry fees cost a king’s ransom. The Water Lilies were given their own room back then at MoMA, the massive paintings taking up three walls with a couch that wrapped around the remainder of the room. Too often museums make you feel as if you’re a passenger on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the Disneyland, but this installation was truly a vest pocket of calm in the land of Broadway Boogie Woogie. When I left my job in that neighborhood, it was my quiet, intensely private lunch sojourns I missed the most. The experience of simply sitting and feeling –not even actively thinking – in front of beautiful works of art is something I had lost.

So it is a very odd that the thing I loved most about the city is the thing I’ve actually denied myself for all these years. I’ve been back to the museums of course, but it’s different. I’m either tense the whole time because I’m leading a pack of children toward the exhibits and away from the gift shop or I’m fretting because the clock is ticking away on the gargantuan museum parking fees or much worse, I’m showing off, self-consciously feeling the need to pontificate on the artistic merits and deeper connections of the works I’m viewing.

Last week though, on yet another bitterly cold and snowy day, I was once again swept away, as of old.  I was on the arm of one of my sons. Somehow between his schedule and mine we found a whole unfettered, unbroken day to spend together. The Museum this time was not MoMA but the Metropolitan.

The plan was that there was no plan, no fixed schedule, no agenda.  Like a pair in a rudderless rowboat on a lazy summer afternoon, we drifted from room to room.   From ancient Babylonia to the Belle Époque. Modern Japan to the Italian Renaissance. We walked and walked and as we did, the crowds just seemed to give way. There was calm.

Lunch on trays in the cafeteria, a bottle of Chablis and two plastic wine glasses. Afterwards, my son brandished the map, as an explorer on his way to finding buried treasure, discovering whatever artistic jewels he wanted to unearth.

Hour piled upon hour, but still no tension, no rush.  At last I blurted out, almost desperately, “I really wish that I could be Claudia.” My son didn’t miss a beat, “and I wish I could be Jamie.” He had remembered. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The runaways who stayed over at the most beautiful place that they could imagine: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (If you haven’t read it, please do. You won’t be sorry.)

It had to end though. But it was a true escape, perhaps my best ever. As before, when I broke free of petty tensions and typing and office frolics by forgoing actual lunch for feeding my soul with the Water Lilies, once again I’m unbending. Unfreezing. Outside the drifts of snow are still so high. But the sun is out and it’s bright and warm. Spring is coming.

I can’t really remember what artworks I saw that day. It doesn’t matter. But know exactly how I felt. Deeply happy and utterly at peace.

“If thou of fortune be bereft, and of thine earthly store hath left, two loaves; sell one and with the dole, by hyacinths to feed the soul.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Wishing everyone a warm and reviving Spring.

FEEDING THE SOUL

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There are a lot of escapes and I am very adept at all of them. My specialty, when feelings of awkwardness threaten to turn me robotic at parties or gatherings, is to stash my wine glass in the nearest flower pot and head for the nearest exit with the speed of a lizard that leaves it’s tail in an effort to survive. But the Houdini-esque escape I’ve used most often was my arguably my best: a daily half hour round trip to the radiance and warmth of summer in the French countryside, circa the turn of the century. I used to slip away alone to spend virtually every lunch hour on an upper floor of MoMA, embraced by and immersed in Monet’s Water Lilies.

This is an age ago, before sluggish lines snaked down 53rd Street and museum entry fees cost a king’s ransom. The Water Lilies were given their own room back then at MoMA, the massive paintings taking up three walls with a couch that wrapped around the remainder of the room. Too often museums make you feel as if you’re a passenger on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the Disneyland, but this installation was truly a vest pocket of calm in the land of Broadway Boogie Woogie. When I left my job in that neighborhood, it was my quiet, intensely private lunch sojourns I missed the most. The experience of simply sitting and feeling –not even actively thinking – in front of beautiful works of art is something I had lost.

So it is a very odd that the thing I loved most about the city is the thing I’ve actually denied myself for all these years. I’ve been back to the museums of course, but it’s different. I’m either tense the whole time because I’m leading a pack of children toward the exhibits and away from the gift shop or I’m fretting because the clock is ticking away on the gargantuan museum parking fees or much worse, I’m showing off, self-consciously feeling the need to pontificate on the artistic merits and deeper connections of the works I’m viewing.

Last week though, on yet another bitterly cold and snowy day, I was once again swept away, as of old.  I was on the arm of one of my sons. Somehow between his schedule and mine we found a whole unfettered, unbroken day to spend together. The Museum this time was not MoMA but the Metropolitan.

The plan was that there was no plan, no fixed schedule, no agenda.  Like a pair in a rudderless boat on a lazy summer afternoon, we drifted from room to room.   From ancient Babylonia to the Belle Époque. Modern Japan to the Italian Renaissance. We walked and walked and as we did, the crowds just seemed to give way.

Lunch on trays in the cafeteria, a bottle of Chablis and two plastic wine glasses. Afterwards, my son brandished the map, as an explorer on his way to finding buried treasure, discovering whatever artistic jewels he wanted to unearth.

Hour piled upon hour, but still no tension, no rush.  At last I blurted out, almost desperately, “I really wish that I could be Claudia.” My son didn’t miss a beat, “and I wish I could be Jamie.” He had remembered. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The runaways who stayed over at the most beautiful place that they could imagine: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (If you haven’t read it, please do. You won’t be sorry.)

It had to end though. But it was a true escape, perhaps my best ever. As before, when I broke free of petty tensions and typing and office frolics by forgoing actual lunch for feeding my soul with the Water Lilies, once again I’m unbending. Unfreezing. Outside the drifts of snow are still so high. But the sun is out and it’s bright and warm. Spring is coming.

I can’t really remember what artworks I saw that day. It doesn’t matter. But know exactly how I felt. Deeply happy and utterly at peace.

“If thou of fortune be bereft, and of thine earthly store hath left, two loaves; sell one and with the dole, by hyacinths to feed the soul.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Wishing everyone a warm and reviving Spring.

THE CLOTHES WE WEAR

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It was late at night on the subways, on a route I knew so well I could subconsciously feel the number of stops and know exactly when to stand for the exit tunnel up to home in Brooklyn. The car was practically empty. My bag was cradled in my lap. I was reading. I was always reading. Which meant that I was always looking down. The train jolted and I looked up to see a teenaged boy now sitting directly across from me in the otherwise empty car. A minute later I felt another kid sit down a seat away from me. A stop or two later the train bumped again. Two more teenagers were now standing on either side of the exit doors. There were four of them, all in hip-hop type clothes, covered in gold chains, who appeared to be surrounding me in an otherwise empty subway car very late on a Tuesday night. My stop was still far away. When the train pulled into the next station and the doors squealed open I shut my book, looked them in the eye, wished them all good evening. Then I walked calmly off the train. They were surprised, taken aback.   Politeness and decency does that to people sometimes. Not always. But sometimes.

In my earliest Girl Friday days, my voice still pitched high and twanged with the Midwest, I worked in the rabbit warren-like offices of the renowned A.A. Knopf. The Editor-in-Chief at the time was the legendary Robert Gottlieb, widely known as one of the most brilliant and most powerful people in book publishing. It was a fun place to work, for a lot of reasons. There were the free books (ostensibly to offset the awful wages) and the ongoing adventure of elevator roulette. The doors would slide open and famous people would pop out, everyone from Julia Child to Bob Dylan to then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Welcome to our world. At some point in time Bob got fed up not just with suits and ties but kind of with getting dressed in general. He made a point of wearing the same pants every day. At first it was for a month but then he kind of got into it and it went on for a lot longer. But his frumpiness was about more than him not wanting to bother any more. I remember him saying it was an experiment. What it was, really was an unspoken challenge to everyone he met. How would he be treated? Would he be regarded as eccentric? Would those who knew him treat him as respectfully? Would he be treated well by people who didn’t? Would he be scorned? Ignored? Would people go beyond caring about what he wore to truly engage him? As it was, the most powerful editor in all of book publishing was often taken for a mailroom staffer. New authors, even famous ones, beware.

That was Bob Gottlieb’s story. But we’ve all been there, as any of us who’ve scooted furtively to the market in sweats with our flyaway hair yanked back in hasty ponytails will agree.

I’ve never worked in retail (shopping really overwhelms me) but I know people who do. I’ve heard that staffers at fancy stores are told to always check a customer’s shoes and purse. If said items appear to be sufficiently expensive, they are customers worth catering to. Otherwise, ignore them and wait for those who have money to spend.

Clothes are transformative, expressions can be deceptive, and a bad day can skew the equation in a million different ways.   People are confounding and mysterious. I am so often on shaky ground. I feel for myself, for us all. We see someone and our senses are assaulted, our minds forced to instantly jumble together the facts before us and figure out how to respond.  Can we be blamed for clinging to the most obvious signals people (knowingly or otherwise) put out? I’d like to say “no.” But the answer is “yes.”

Years later I find that I’ve taken up the Bob Gottlieb mantle, although I’m not in publishing any more, nor am I powerful. I like staying under the radar. I carry a small microfiber backpack for a purse; I’ve trimmed my wardrobe so I can dress quietly and with great comfort. This is my choice, at least my choice for the time being. (Although I adore seeing beautiful clothes on other people. So if you’re so inclined, please keep dressing well).

Hillel said “in a place where there is no hero, be a hero”. There are so many thorny, complex issues in the world today regarding how people are perceived—and how others perceive them as well. My issues are small. I am never going to lead a charge nor carry the mantel. But there are tiny prickles of heroism too. Giving the benefit of the doubt. Going beyond snap judgments. Reaching out.

All these years later, and I still don’t know if those boys on the train meant to hurt me.

But at least I know I didn’t hurt them.