Monday, February 26, 2007

On the Bus

I am leading the life of a groupie, having come to Barcelona to see a concert by my sibling Dee. There were two other acts on the bill, Little Annie, a tiny New Yorker who channels Edith Piaf and Judy Garland and does a lot of her own songs (one is called "You Can't Sing the Blues While Drinking Milk"), and Marc Almond, who I'm told is famous ("Tainted Love" is his big hit). Dee played in an old ballroom with big globular lamps dangling from the ceiling. She had to follow Marc Almond, the headliner, and it was not easy for her. The audience was packed for Marc Almond, and I couldn't believe some of them left without hearing Baby Dee!!! I wanted to stand at the exit compelling them to get back in there and sit down!

Anyway, Dee pulled it off. She sings her own songs, accompanying herself on piano and harp (and sometimes accordion, but not so much when there's a piano available). This is the third time I've seen her perform in Europe (first in Venice, then in Amsterdam), and I have learned to stop expressing directly to Dee my astonishment at the fact that people come from all over Europe to see her. There are three people in the entourage from England, one from Lisbon, one from Cologne, two from Canada. The local promoter, Rosario, is a dynamo. She found a restaurant for a group of eighteen at one in the morning on Sunday, after the show.

I was advised to have lots of red wine and paella and seafood while I'm in Spain, but food is not really the focus of the groupie life. Rosario is a vegetarian and doesn't drink, so she prefers organic/Vegan restaurants. I keep wondering what Hemingway would think. Rosario had to rent a van for Dee and Annie et al. to complete their tour (they go from here to Madrid, Porto, and Vigo and back), though she herself doesn't drive, and find someplace to park the car of the woman named Maude, an American living in London who brought Dee's harp here from Paris. It cost 23 eros to park the car in a lot for one night in central Barcelona. Yesterday, we drove it to the beach, where you can park for free. We stuck our feet in the Mediterranean and took the bus back to the hotel. Apart from this excursion, I spent the whole day sitting in a cafe in a big walled courtyard with an orange grove at the back, moving from late-morning coffee to lunch to beer with Dee and other members of the entourage, including a Sicilian, Ernesto, who does an act about the history of the castrato, and an Italian, Fabrizio, a musician from Turin who moonlights as a promoter. He is bald with a goat's beard and many whimsical tattoos, including one of a cord running from behind his ears down the back of his neck to below his collar, which looks like one of those things that keep you from losing your glasses.

Today I will go with Rosario and the Canadians (the man has a record shop in Kitchener, outside Toronto) and an English couple (he is David Tibet, of Current 93, who inspires much devotion among his fans; he produced Dee's first CDs; his wife, Andrea, known as Dre, also known as Pantaleimon, plays dulcimer) to Montserrat, where there is a monastery on a serrated mountain above the city. We'll take a train and a cable car and maybe a funicular. Originally, I planned to rent a car and drive by myself to Granada, but instead I am going by train to Madrid to see Dee perform again, this time in a more intimate venue, and then go to Granada (I've always wanted to see the Alhambra). I don't have so much as a map of Madrid, and my Spanish is all but nonexistent (fragments come back to me, like the word for "right" (derecho), but not for "left"). I can't decide whether this trip is woefully underplanned or fabulously spontaneous. I know I will miss the entourage when I'm solo again, but right now it makes sense. I'm on the bus, as it were (and the train and the tram and the cable car and the funicular).

And of course the Gaudi is astonishing. Everything is swirly, grandiose and detailed. Now when I get back to work I will understand the Frank Gehry cafeteria.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


What was I thinking? Just because I don’t have to move the car doesn’t mean I’ve taken a vow of silence.

The Mayor suspended alternate-side parking on a whim yesterday. Or maybe just because he was feeling generous. The streets are still awful. That little bit of snow has churned up into these filthy hunks of crud lining the curbs. Yecchhh. What a brew: sleet and soot, hardened together into infernal stalagmites. The black plastic garbage bags lying on top of them are picturesque in comparison.

I am not in Spain yet. I am still in New York City, thinking about how I should have written something about Chinese New Year and Ash Wednesday. On Sunday night, I went down to the fireworks in Chinatown to ring in the Year of the Pig. It was the first time we have had real fireworks on Chinese New Year since Giuliani outlawed them. Bloomberg really does seem to be trying to roll back some of the militant reforms of the Giuliani regime. Maybe he’ll allow us to drink beer on the streets again! And urinate in public! One of the things I especially enjoyed about the Chinatown fireworks was that they weren’t patriotic—no red white and blue. These were purple and red and green and orange and blue and yellow, and shot up into the sky from a row of flaming white fountains. The reflections of the fireworks in the windows of the surrounding buildings were more beautiful (because unexpected) than the direct sight of the fireworks themselves. I kept getting distracted.

I did not celebrate Mardi Gras, though I was aware of it. Some friends of mine celebrated the Lutheran version, called Faschingsdienstag, by eating pancakes and sausages. I came home and had a black-bean burrito and a beer. Then today, Ash Wednesday, I went outside to enjoy the balmy weather (would that some of that black cinder ice would melt) and saw a few Catholics wearing their mortality on their foreheads. I’ve had ashes, and they are no joke. A priest I know in the Bronx said that the two days when the most people go to church are not Christmas and Easter, as you might expect, but Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday, when the churches are giving something away.

But back to civic life. Pleased as I am for my alternate-side-parking brethren, both those of the Monday-Thursday school and those of the Tuesday-Friday persuasion, I am really surprised that the mayor caved like that, forgiving tickets and stringing together so many alternate-side-suspended days in a row—two full weeks, if you were lucky. Let’s just hope he never hears about the Shoupistas.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Stunt Parking

“Do you have any qualms? Because if you have any qualms I’ll just drive into the city and put the car in long-term parking at the airport on Thursday.”

“I have no qualms.”

I was in Rockaway, in the car with M.Q., who sold it to me a few years ago, when I needed a car to make frequent trips from New York to Cleveland to visit my ailing mother. According to the hospice workers, Mom was on her deathbed, but, according to us, her children, she kept getting up, to ride downstairs in the chair on rails that my sibling D. had had installed for her. I had my beady little eye fixed on Mom’s silver-gray 2000 Volkswagen Beetle, and D. at one point actually told me to take it (I had flown home for Christmas and was cadging a ride back from a friend), but I knew that the second I started backing it out the driveway Mom would wake up and ask D., “Where is she going in my car?”

So I called the mechanic who had pronounced on the Escort, and who had said at the time that he sometimes heard of good used cars for sale. I had thought it over and described in detail what I was looking for: an older car—I didn’t care about the body—that got good gas mileage and didn’t have many miles on it. “I know what you want,” he said. I got excited, thinking he had divined my needs and, like the guys on “Car Talk,” was going to suggest a make and model. “What you want is a creampuff.”

That is how I learned the term of art for a clean, well-maintained, if not particularly stylish, car that has seen very little use: a prize among pre-owned vehicles. My mother’s car was actually not a creampuff: D. had a tree business at the time, and the tree guys barrelled all over northern Ohio in the Beetle. There were wood chips and bark in the trunk, and the blinkers didn’t work. It did have one nice feature, however: heated seats.

As I set out on my quest for the holy grail of used cars, I realized that I had never bought a used car from a stranger. The Plymouth my mother had given me, with some urging from my father; decades later, when Mom bought the Volkswagen, she offered me her white Oldsmobile Ciera, but I declined on the ground that it would make me middle-aged before my time. Instead, I took up with the Death Trap. In between, I had owned a 1986 Honda Civic hatchback, an excellent car, which I bought from a friend at work and which got stolen off the street in Queens, just before I moved to Manhattan—providentially, because at the time I hadn’t a clue how to go about parking without going bankrupt.

So, after answering a few newspaper ads and browsing on Craigslist, I emboldened myself to call up two women who I happened to know were harboring creampuffs. First I called L., a famously cranky retired proofreader who had salted herself away in a retirement village in Connecticut before her time. When she moved up there, she bought a red 1990 Honda Civic hatchback, an adorable little car. “Chianti,” she always said when she described its color. “It’s Chianti red.” (She pronounced the last two syllables “ante,” as in “ante up.”) She drove only to the supermarket and the Honda dealer and the gas station to top off the tank. I actually asked her, when the car was brand-new, if she would leave it to me, and she said yes! Anyway, I called and asked how she was doing, and the conversation naturally turned to cars: “So, how’s your car?” I said. “Oh, I love my car,” she said. It had 12,000 miles on it, and she was nowhere near giving it up.

Then I called M.Q., who grew up in Rockaway and kept a car there to use when she visited her mother. She was always having trouble with the battery, because she didn’t use the car enough. On weekends, she would make a run out to the Dunkin’ Donuts in Howard Beach. It would not have occurred to me to call her, except that at her retirement lunch (we knew each other slightly at the office, and bonded over Rockaway) she mentioned her car to me—she had given me a ride in it one day when she saw me waiting at a bus stop on Rockaway Beach Boulevard—referring to it significantly as “your [my] next car.”

Sure enough, she was ready to get rid of it. She thought it over for about ten minutes. Her mother had died, and she had recently had to get towed home from somewhere in Brooklyn. Her brother probably had his eye on the car, for one of her nephews. It was a 1990 four-door Honda Civic, charcoal gray, with 27,000 miles on it. I test drove it, thrilled at the sobriety of the vehicle: it looked like a nun’s car. I all but drooled on it. It lacked two things that I was looking for in a car—a stick shift and a moon roof—and it had those automatic windows that I despise, but it was a creampuff, all right, and she sold it to me for the Blue Book price, minus the cost of having the timing belt replaced.

Since then, I have been in a delicate situation with M.Q. I like to offer her a ride whenever I can, because it was so nice of her to sell me the car. (I don’t call it the Creampuff, by the way; after I told my friend G. about it, and about the concept of creampuffs in general, she had a dream that I was driving an éclair. So I call it the Éclair.) But I hate for her to see the car when it’s not clean, when there is sand in the air-conditioner ducts, say, or granola-bar crumbs on the seats, or when one of its headlights has been gouged out or, as happened recently, it has lost the use of a windshield wiper.

M.Q. has invited me to park in her driveway from time to time, which is very convenient, but I don’t want to take advantage of her. After all, the whole point of getting rid of the car was not to have to worry about it anymore, and I know that when I park it there she feels she should start it up once in a while to make sure the battery doesn’t go dead. I tell her she’s free to use the car, of course, and perhaps she has, but I know she doesn’t take it on any long trips. It is a shame, however, for such a nice car, a pampered car, a car that, before it got involved with me, had spent its nights in a lovely suburban garage—for such a car to be parked on the mean streets of Manhattan or relegated to the desolate long-term parking lot at J.F.K.

So, before the recent snowstorm, when I took the car out to Rockaway to have it winterized, I was already plotting, if not to leave the car in M.Q.’s driveway, at least to make it presentable in case I saw her. Plan B was to drive it back into Manhattan, and hope to find a spot that would be good till Thursday, when I would drive myself to the airport and park it out there. I took the bus to Rockaway on Saturday morning (two buses, actually, transferring at the Junction in Flatbush; it's a route that M.Q. taught me) and went directly to Bulloch’s, the gas station in Belle Harbor where its previous owner had always taken it for maintenance. On the way, I passed M.Q.’s house and noticed that her driveway had not been shovelled.

Big Bulloch, the father of the gas-station family, was not there, but his son, Baby Bulloch, soon arrived, carrying one of those things they use to jump-start cars with. The Éclair was inside, still on the lift. It looked great. He couldn’t remember what they’d done to it, but he started to tot it all up: About the broken headlight, the Marcalite, as it’s called, they’d put more tape on it. The other headlight, on the passenger’s side, he said had been moving up and down, and he fixed that, using a wedge of wood. (“There’s not a lot of wood in cars,” he pointed out.) The windshield-wiper blades had been replaced, and they were working, he said. He changed the oil, added antifreeze. He said it’s ready for a new muffler, but that I should wait till the winter is over. Total: $50. It seemed like a good deal—remember, this included off-street parking during a snowstorm. “I sprayed it, too,” he said. “Got the salt off of it.”

So I paid happily, and then, as I approached the car, which someone had backed out of the garage for me, I remembered the cylinder on the driver’s side door, which Big Bulloch had said he’d look at: it had been fixed. I went back inside to report that and pay for it. “Oh, yeah,” Baby Bulloch said. “The cylinder. Let me call my father.” He reached his father on his cell phone. “Papa?” he said. I was standing right across the desk from him, so he had to be careful how he described me. “You know that cylinder . . . ? How much do you want to charge for that?” Papa was on speakerphone, and there was a long silence. Then Big Bulloch said, “Charge a hundred-fifty.”


Baby Bulloch laughed and said, “You should’ve just left.”

That had occurred to me, but I have been cultivating Bulloch's for a while, and I wanted to preserve my good kharma. Besides, I’d gotten an estimate on the door lock when I had the rear window fixed after being vandalized, and it was $180. And $200 was about what I’d budgeted for winterizing and parking during the storm. I had been going to buy gas at Bulloch’s, too, though it’s the most expensive gas on the peninsula—it’s like a gasoline boutique—but I changed my mind.

* * *

Later, I called M.Q.’s number in Rockaway, and was surprised when she answered. I offered to help her shovel. She had already paid a neighborhood boy to shovel a path from the sidewalk to her front porch, and he had used up almost all the rock salt. Meanwhile, the snowplows had gone by and erected an icy barricade of snow boulders all along the curb, and the driveway had a thin coating of snow with a solid-ice veneer. She gave it to me straight: if I shoveled the driveway, I could park there. We agreed that I would hack away at the barricade, just enough to drive the car over it, and that I could spread rock salt on the iced-over driveway if I took her to the store to buy some more. I hacked away, feeling virtuous. M.Q. is well equipped, with three snow shovels and one ice hacker. The plow did not go by again, though several plows were lurking in the road.

While double-parked by the fire station, waiting for M.Q. to return with the rock salt, I noticed in the back seat a green gift box: It was a Lacoste box, with the alligator symbol, and it contained a men’s green toiletry bag and two Lacoste products, aftershave and spray cologne. I couldn’t remember M.Q. bringing it out of the house with her . . . Had it been left here by someone at Bulloch’s? If so, what was I supposed to do with it? It gave me an excellent excuse to make a U-turn and stop in at the Wharf, a bar overlooking Jamaica Bay, also owned by the Bulloch family. Often enough, after squandering large amounts of money on my car at Bulloch’s gas station, I console myself by drinking at his bar.

I didn’t see any Bullochs there, however, Big or Baby, and I knew that the gas station would be closed by the time we got back. Anyway, what was I going to say? "Did someone here leave this in my car?" The implication is that someone had been driving the car around, probably on Valentine's Day, received this as a gift from a girlfriend, and chucked it in the back seat. M.Q. suggested that I simply thank them for the gift. That gave me a wicked idea: Saturday was K.’s birthday, and I could regift the Lacoste kitbag to him. It was perfect!

There were ice floes on Jamaica Bay, and an old man in the parking lot, the maitre d', as it were, who always offers to detail my car while I'm inside. As we were on our way back to the house, I broke it to M.Q. that not only was I leaving my car at her house (provided that I could get it up the driveway) but that I myself was leaving for Spain. That's when we had the conversation about the qualms. I offered to drop her off before turning in to the driveway, but she said she'd stay with me.

I pulled over to let an SUV in the rearview mirror overtake me: I didn’t want any pressure. I put the car in low gear as I turned, then lumped it over the mound at the foot of the drive and sped up the ice, which crackled beneath us, to a perfect spot by the back door. “A miracle!” M.Q. said. I gave her the extra key to the new cylinder on the driver's-side door and took the bus back.

Wouldn't you know it, when I went to deliver K's birthday present, there was a beautiful parking spot right outside his door.

Patriotism, Deconstructed

Today, of course, alternate-side parking is suspended in honor of George Washington, the Father of our Country, although his actual birthday is not till February 22nd (Thursday). My grandmother had the same birthday as Washington, except after a busybody aunt went and changed it. My grandmother moved to Cleveland from Ontario, Canada, when she was three years old. Aunt Harriet went to Canada when Grandma was in her seventies, poked around in old church records, and came back with the earth-shattering revelation that Mary B. had actually been born on February 20, 1887, and had been exploiting the connection with George Washington ever since. Grandma was an impostor, with a taste for cherry pie.

I experienced a similar irritation when our fearless leaders changed Washington's birthday, but of course I was mollified by the three-day weekend. Besides, it wasn't the first time George Washington's birthday had been changed. A new calendar was instituted in his lifetime, so his actual date of birth, February 11, 1732, was pushed back. I don't understand about the new calendar (did they add days or subtract them? and if they added them, why did they put them in February, which feels long enough as it is?).

If I associate George Washington with my grandmother, I have them both cross-indexed under Jack Benny. Now, does everyone know who I mean when I say Jack Benny? A few weeks ago, I mentioned the name and two people at my table of four didn’t know who I was talking about. One was Italian, so he has an excuse; the other was under thirty. I had to explain (in Italian, no less) that Jack Benny played the violin, made jokes about being cheap (“Era molto economico”), and had a television show and, before that, a radio show. Then I had to hasten to explain that the radio show was before my time—pul-lease. The Jack Benny Show was one of my grandmother’s favorite television programs. She also liked Lawrence Welk and Alfred Hitchcock. (I hadn’t realized that her tastes were so catholic.) Once, as a child, no doubt on my grandmother’s birthday, I saw Jack Benny play George Washington in a skit about chopping down the cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said. Then Rochester appeared, and I don't remember the punch line. I remember that, in a wig, Jack Benny looked a little like George Washington. And I remember Grandma showing us the trick with the dollar bill where you can turn the portrait of George Washington into a mushroom.

Well, now that I’ve paid my respects by free-associating the Father of our Country into a cheap trick with a dollar bill, I feel I can get on with my day. If anyone is interested, there’s a wonderful biography called “Washington: The Indispensable Man,” by James Thomas Flexner, a reduction of a four-volume scholarly biography into a single, extremely readable 400-page book. I read it while I was doing some research on a Washington impersonator. The best part was about the Battle of Manhattan, when the British came over the East River and landed at Kips Bay (Second Avenue at about 32nd Street, now a strip of Irish bars), sending the Continental Army into disarray, and Washington galloped down from Harlem to try to rally the troops. Incidentally, he hated the official Gilbert Stuart portrait that has become iconic; at the time of the sitting, his false teeth were really bothering him. Perhaps he foresaw his reincarnation as a mushroom.

Oh yes, Grandma also had false teeth. I don't know about Jack Benny's situation vis a vis dentures, but my mother always said he wore a girdle.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Oatmeal Variations

O Brave New World that has such bloggers in it. I have been "tagged for a meme" by Lucette, of Cooking Vintage, and to take up this challenge I must turn my thoughts away from the car to the kitchen. Lucette is obsessed with food, and asks us to name five combinations of two foods that go well together and five that do not. Well, I don't know about being able to come up with all ten, but here's the first of the foods that go together:

Oatmeal and candied ginger. I can hear it now: Mmmmm. I've been eating oatmeal this winter, because it's healthy and filling and keeps me from being hungry for hours afterward, but let's face it: it's a little dull. So I spice it up. I may have to save my other oatmeal variations for numbers two through five, so let's just say I use Old-Fashioned Quaker Oats, the kind that come in the tall cardboard cannister, evocative of kindergarten wastebaskets, and while the half cup of oats are cooking in the one cup of water, I chop up a few sprigs of candied ginger and lob them in. The ginger plumps up and adds an exotic note, almost Japanese. It's really the most successful of my variations, which also include:

Oatmeal and dried cranberries. This is pretty good, but I am now all out of dried cranberries, which came from a wonderful wholesale spice market on Cape Cod. I add a little maple syrup. The cranberries expand in the cooking process.

Oatmeal and dried figs. I haven't had this recently, but I tried it once when I was all out of raisins, which is my usual (if dull) addition to oatmeal, and it was pretty good.

Oatmeal and apricots. I haven't tried this, but I bet it would be good, especially with dried apricots.

Oatmeal and mango. Ditto.

So here are some foods that don't go together:

Oatmeal and cherries. What was I thinking? First of all, I had to pit the cherries, which was ludicrous. Then the cherries turned the oatmeal pink. And they retained heat, the way cooked fruit does. Not a successful variation.

Oatmeal and peaches. This would have been O.K. if I had simply sliced the peach (out of season, all the way from Chile) on top of the oatmeal, but I threw it in while the oatmeal was cooking, and it was no fun to eat, because the chunks of peach retained the heat (see Oatmeal and cherries, above) and also released a lot of their own water, the way apples do, so the result was mush studded with extra-hot glop.

Reese's peanut-butter cups and peppermint patties. Even if they're two of your favorite foods, they do not go together.

Guinness and ice cream. So I'm in Rome, in a lovely cheap (at the time) hotel room overlooking the Pantheon and the Piazza della Rotonda, and it's August, and there are gelaterie all over and everyone is eating gelato. The trouble is that there are so many flavors and so little time. Chocolate and hazelnut and pistachio and raspberry and stracciatelle (chocolate chip) . . . and Guinness. I resisted the Guinness gelato till the very last lick, which was sensible, because after trying Guinness gelato, I didn't want gelato ever again. It was awful. Another example of favorite foods that should be kept in separate countries.

Chocolate and prunes. (I'm with Lucette on this one.) Another travel story: In France, on the way to Lourdes, I made my friend T. stop in a town that is renowned for its prunes. I should be able to think of the name of the place (I think it was in Gascony), but we never called it anything but Pruneville. There was a prune boutique in Pruneville that offered chocolate-covered prunes, all you could eat. And I thought that was cruel, because of course one would not dare overindulge under the circumstances (remember the old Ex-Lax commercial? "Is three enough? Is five too many?") So I'll stick with Raisinets, thank you.


The thing to do on a freezing-cold morning after a snowstorm, when you’re hoping that alternate side has been suspended (even if the storm was overhyped), is dial 311. On Thursday morning, no one was answering. I was home with the radio on, and Jeff Spurgeon was saying that it was fifteen degrees in Central Park, minus two with the wind-chill factor—“mostly sunny, but so what?” The phone rang and rang and rang. I hung up and tried again, and this time the recording came on. A man’s voice said, “Thank you for calling the City of New York. If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial 911.” He went on about heat-related complaints, etc., and finally a crisp female voice said, “Alternate-side-parking regulations are in effect today.” She sounded harsh, even cruel.

But I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind because I was only calling out of curiosity. It was already eight o’clock and I was still in my nightgown, because I didn’t have to go dig my car out: I had foreseen this very event. On Tuesday morning, before the storm arrived, I decided to give up my parking spot and drive out to my mechanic’s, in Rockaway, to have the car winterized and get this lame windshield wiper fixed. I called ahead and asked if it would be O.K. to drop the car off and leave it until Saturday. It is a family-owned garage, and I got the patriarch, who is known in the community as Big Bulloch. “No problem,” he said. “I know who you are. The lady with the glasses, right?”

Well, I don’t think of myself as the lady with the glasses, but I’ll take it—any shred of recognition from a car mechanic is like a drug to me. “Even with the storm coming?” I said.

“We’ll put it someplace,” he said. “We’ll put it inside.” Hallelujah.

And hallelujah again on Thursday, when I could gloat about my foresight and wisdom and caution and common sense. True, mid-February is an odd time to be winterizing your car, but it’s only just been wintry this week. And, true, if alternate side was suspended my car would be good for a full week, because Monday is President's Day, an opportunity for the Monday-Thursday parking crowd to express their patriotism.

And then today, two days after the storm, I see in the Times a story about the bitterness of the alternate-side parker and how much flack the Mayor has taken for the decision not to suspend, and for the insensitivity apparent in remarks like this:

"There was not a lot of snow. It was easy to move your car," Bloomberg told reporters on Thursday. "I don't like to get up early in the morning and have to do anything, either. I'd like to sleep in, too. But it was the right thing to do."

"This in all fairness was no more than a few inches of snow in most places and it wasn't like you had a couple feet of snow and you couldn't physically move your car. You had to put on your galoshes and go out there and move it," said Bloomberg.

The latest, as of noon on Friday, is that the Mayor rescinded his decision not to suspend and cancelled all the parking tickets that were given out on Thursday. But he did not acknowledge the anachronism in his use of the word "galoshes."

Now I feel a little left out. To think, I could have been out there chipping ice off my windshield at dawn, getting all incensed, being ticketed or not being ticketed, getting a shot of adrenaline that would have lasted for days, and then, to top it all off, receiving an apology from the Mayor! The parking story of the season, and I slept through it.,0,702790.story?coll=ny-region-apnewyork

Monday, February 12, 2007

Alma Mater

For some reason, I remembered yesterday that it was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Surely this should make the alternate-side-parking calendar. It is because I went to an all-girls Catholic high school called Lourdes Academy that I am aware of Our Lady of Lourdes, but the only reason that the date of her feast sticks in my head is that at a reunion marking the hundred-year anniversary of the founding of this school (which closed forever in 1971; my class, the class of 1970, was the last to graduate from an unadulterated Lourdes Academy, which thereafter became Lourdes-St. Stephen’s and ultimately Erieview Catholic, before falling out of history altogether) it was announced that the centerpiece at each table would go to the person whose birthday fell closest to the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th. I had not actually been sitting at the table I was assigned to (I’m bad at that kind of protocol; I’ll sit where I damn well want to sit, if I feel like sitting at all), but I made haste to get over there and claim the centerpiece that the accident of my birth date so unexpectedly entitled me to. Somebody with a March birthday had grabbed it already.

Some years ago, when I was planning a trip to France with my friend T., I got it into my head that we should go to Lourdes. It was perverse of me: I was in excellent health, and God knows there are other places in France to see. Later it occurred to me that, by bathing in the waters with the faithful who came to Lourdes to be cured of diseases, I might catch something. And when you look closely at the story—a shepherd girl named Bernadette Soubirous had visions of a beautiful lady at a grotto outside Lourdes, beginning on February 11, 1858—it can be deeply disturbing (cf the movie “Song of Bernadette,” with Jennifer Jones).

My impressions of Lourdes were: lots of candles, of all sizes; a grotto of discarded crutches; more nuns and priests and monks and ushers and wheelchairs and stretchers and gurneys than you could shake a cane at; bad food; alarming mannequins of enraptured children in the shop windows; Irish youth groups getting drunk and whooping it up in the street outside our hotel at night. Our hotel was the Hotel St. Paul, which I had chosen because St. Paul was such an indefatigable traveller. It had a curfew.

I bathed in the holy springwater, and it was freezing cold. The nuns, or whoever runs it, are very well organized, and though you have to take off all your clothes to step into the water, there is never a moment when you feel exposed, with all the white towels floating around. “Kiss the lady,” a nun said to me, thrusting a plastic statue of Our Lady at me when I reached the far end of the vat. I obeyed. They held my bra out for me to walk into. And when I was dressed again and back at the hotel I felt fantastic. Who wouldn’t, after a brisk dip in the fresh springwater of the Pyrenees?

I commemorated the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes yesterday by hauling out the towel that I stole from the hotel. I also have some holy water in a small plastic container (not one of those vulgar ones in the shape of Our Lady). And I sang the Alma Mater, as I did that night in Lourdes, inspired by the drunken Irish kids bellowing in the street outside, surprising and horrifying my travelling companion. It goes like this:

Lourdes, we who love you rally round today
With a shout ringing out to the sky!
Lourdes, watch approvingly our work, our play.
What we do is for you, for our high!

Lourdes, we love you, Lourdes.
You’re our wonderful devoted Alma Mater.
Tenderly your mantle floats above us all,
And you love us all,
You’re the mother of our hearts.

Lourdes, we hail you, Lourdes.
May our hearts be true as we go through the days.
Guide us, beside us, in all our chosen ways,
Lourdes, Lourdes, Lourdes!

The closest I came to a miracle at Lourdes was that when I returned to the hotel room, T.—who had resisted studying maps all her life, preferring to get lost and see what happened—was poring over a map of France, a sudden convert to navigation and to picking out her own place of pilgrimage, which, as I remember, involved bouillabaisse.

Later, on the way back to Paris, when we came pretty close to Nevers, where the incorrupt body of Bernadette is on view at the convent where she died, I kept my mouth shut.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Land of Lincolns

Getting back into my spot after the street sweeper came, I got too close to the curb and bumped my rear end up against the tree protectors. So did the guy from Trinidad and Tobago, who is still behind me, but mine was just a tap and his was a good hard smack. I got out to investigate. “It’s so cold that it cracked,” he said, showing me the jagged rip in the smooth putty-colored bumper of his Toyota Corolla. “And I just had it painted, too.” He had a nice West Indian lilt. I felt for him. Damaging your car while parking it for free is ruinous to the economy.

In front of me is a black Acura from Illinois: Land of Lincoln. What kind of car would Abraham Lincoln drive? Surely not a Lincoln.

We had a Lincoln once. My father bought a used white Lincoln Continental that had belonged to the mythical little old lady who drove it only to church on Sunday. My mother used to say that he was really proud of that car: it made him feel like a big shot. When he bought it, he gave my mother the ’65 Plymouth Fury that ultimately came down to me. The Lincoln had automatic windows, and we were so thrilled with them that we sat out in the driveway for hours, running the windows up and down. When Dad came out to start the car, the battery was dead.

I don’t really like automatic windows anymore; they are a feature of my car that I would not have chosen. I always forget that I have to roll the windows up before turning the car off. In other people’s cars, I dread the moment when the driver pulls into a gas station, turns the motor off, gets out, and shuts the door, leaving me trapped in the back seat of a two-door car, gasping for breath.

Trinidad and Tobago has on the same outfit today: the black-and-white tracksuit. For that matter, so do I. That’s another of the ways in which having a car is like having a dog: you put on the first thing you see before you go out in the morning. The little girl with the whimsical wardrobe appears, wearing a fur hat and a pink bunny-ear purse on a strap around her neck.

The copper guys are back this morning, hoisting up some custom-cut pieces: one is shaped like a wing, another like an isosceles triangle; several long flat pieces are scored lengthwise, as if for edging; others are indented like the poles for No Parking signs.

At 7:49 the sun comes around the corner and hits me in my face, then hits the face of Trinidad and Tobago, behind me. We soak it up for a moment, and, at 7:51, we both lower our visors. I was going to say that a parked car in Manhattan is as good a place as any from which to observe the change of seasons, but it isn’t true. This time last year, I dumped my car in Rockaway and went to Brazil.

Because of Lincoln, alternate-side parking is suspended on Monday, and again the following Monday, for President’s Day. I wonder when they are going to make Ronald Reagan’s birthday a holiday, or promote him to a share in President’s Day. Reagan’s birthday was February 6th, a date that is seared in memory because every year while he was President, on February 7th—my birthday—the Times would publish a front-page photograph of Reagan blowing out his candles.

February has two other days when alternate-side parking is suspended, Chinese New Year and Ash Wednesday, but they don’t do me any good, because the first falls on Sunday and the second (obviously) on Wednesday, when there’s no street cleaning anyway.

The first year I lived in New York, my birthday fell on Chinese New Year. There had been a blizzard the day before, and the whole city was shut down. I got out of work early, and when I came up out of the subway station at City Hall, near Chinatown, there were fireworks in the snow.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007


I ran into some friends outside a movie theatre a few months ago, and decided to go in with them to see “Dixie Chicks.” They had already bought tickets, and as I got in line at the box office, one of them—let’s call him Kenny—started hissing at me, “Get a senior, get a senior.” Who, me? Pass for sixty-two? I still get carded when I buy liquor. (That’s a lie.)

Twice now I have been taken for a senior. The first time was at the movies one afternoon, and I decided it was (one) because it was the afternoon, and what was I doing at the movies in the middle of the day unless I was retired? And (two) because I was on my way home from the doctor’s and I was carrying an X-ray of my spine in a huge plastic shopping bag labelled “East River Medical Imaging.” (The doctor’s office made me take the X-ray; they didn’t want it. I didn’t want it either, but just to leave an X-ray of your backbone in a litter box on the street didn’t seem right.) So here I am at the movies, deeply offended, trying to keep a grip on my spinal X-ray while negotiating the purchase of a large popcorn (no butter) through gritted teeth.

The other time I was in my car, buying a round-trip ticket for a ferry crossing. “Just you and the car?” the girl said. I looked around and didn’t notice any passengers, so I said yes. “You a senior?” What? Did she mean a senior in high school? Or possibly in college? No-oh, I said. She shrugged and charged me thirty-two dollars. Much later it occurred to me that maybe she was just trying to save me a few bucks, but still ... I was deeply offended.

That night, at Kenny’s insistence, I bought a senior ticket, for seven dollars, and had money left over for Raisinets. It felt pretty good. As Kenny explained, “They’ve got kids working in the box office. Those kids don’t know. You could be anywhere between thirty and seventy, and they wouldn’t know the difference.” He has a point. Hardly anyone spends a whole career at the Loew’s box office, learning how to size up patrons. It’s probably not even part of their training. And even if one of them did look up and think, “She don’t look like no senior,” isn’t that a better problem than being taken for a senior when you’re not? Why not preempt them by a few (dozen) years?

Kenny’s wife, we’ll call her Joanne, said that sometimes he rumples his hair a little so he’ll look craggy and older. (“As if,” she adds, lovingly.) When I recently went to the movies with G., the glamorous diva who helped me pick out my new winter coat, I thought she’d be delighted with the scam, as she is extremely reluctant to plunk down ten dollars and fifty cents, of the last five hundred euro she has to her name, in order to see a movie. “But I don’t have my I.D.,” she yelped, her eyes bugging out behind her gigantic tortoiseshell glasses.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. Nobody was going to ask us for an I.D., and if they did, so what? You say you don’t have one and add incredulously, “Would I lie about my age in reverse?”

G. hung back at the box office as I bought the tickets. I could see the ingénue and the miser warring it out on her face. But after the movie she had three dollars left to buy a beer at the bar down the street. She chuckled, fondly reliving the scene at the box office: “You’re buying senior tickets and here I am in these glamorous eyeglasses …” She really felt she had gotten away with something.

So this is the scam: the baby boomers get revenge at the cineplex. If we’re going to be written off as geezers anyway, why not get in cheap? When I've revealed this scam to friends, I’ve had them say, “But I don’t think you look like a senior.” I should hope not! Really, that’s not the point. The point is: how old is the kid in the box office?

“Dixie Chicks” sucked, by the way, and though I agree with her politics, that girl has a big mouth. G. and I saw “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and I liked it, although I recommend sitting behind a tall guy so that you can line up his head with the middle of the screen during the scenes of violence and torture. I don’t remember what I saw the day I was carrying my back X-rays ... probably some lame comedy.

The reason this age scam is on my mind, and the reason I’m writing today even though I don’t have to go out and sit in the car, or even stay inside and think about sitting in the car, is that it’s my birthday, my double-nickels birthday. Happy Birthday to me. Popcorn and Raisinets forever!

Monday, February 5, 2007

I Need a Squeegee

“Please back up, please!”

That was me this morning, speaking aloud while sending intense messages by mental telepathy to the guy in back of me so that he would back up into the hydrant space and give me enough room to get into my spot after the street sweeper came. The street sweeper had to stop again for the guy to get out and move garbage onto the curb. (We should start moving it for him.) And through traffic got involved. (Those cars should just learn to hang back until the alternate-side parkers have finished their ballet.) The guy behind me cooperated, and then I asked the person ahead of me, a young black woman in a white VW Beetle with New Jersey plates, chatting on her cell phone, to please pull up a foot, so that my new friend would be safely out of the yellow zone.

Whew! 7:41 and all is well.

The sun rises over a building at the farthest end of the block at 7:46 and lights up the guy in the car behind me, visible in my rearview mirror: black, with a lean face, mustache, and stocking cap, he leans back with his eyes closed, bobbing his head to music. Dangling from his rearview mirror is a miniature white-fringed banner with a black diagonal stripe on a red ground: the flag of Trinidad and Tobago. Suddenly, as if he suspects someone is watching, he performs a little auto maintenance, vigorously buffing his dashboard and polishing his steering wheel, making everything shipshape. He reaches over to tuck in the sideview mirror on his passenger side. He turns on his windshield wipers and washes his windshield.

I wish I could do that.

It seems I took off on a 360-mile round trip on Friday having failed to do routine auto maintenance. I am due for an oil change and had been meaning to get the car winterized since November, but I couldn’t think what “winterizing” might entail—that is, until I flicked on the windshield washer and nothing happened. Then I got worried: if the windshield-washer fluid had evaporated, what might have become of the antifreeze?

I stopped at a gas station in Connecticut. Since it was already close to four on a Friday afternoon, the mechanics were off duty. The man at the register, however, told me, “I guarantee you won’t have any problem. Cars these days are good to thirty below.” I bought gas and windshield-washer fluid, and popped open the hood to fill the reservoir. I don’t look under here very often, and there are lots of things with twist-off caps . . . Then I spotted it: it is the one shaped like a bottle for collecting urine. Blue urine. It didn’t seem to hold very much, though. And then I happened to notice the two tiny hoses, like Fallopian tubes, that are threaded up the underside of the hood to those pinprick-size holes that the fluid jets out of to splash on your windshield: they were not attached to anything.

So I performed an emergency roadside repair, splicing the severed ends of the tube together, using the same roll of transparent tape I’d used to fix my headlight. (I have grown extremely wary of the construction barriers—heavy-duty planks nailed to railroad ties—since one of them snagged me.) The operation was a success: the system was passing fluids normally. The snow started in the last hour of my drive, but luckily, while it hovered and swirled mesmerizingly ahead of me, it (or I) had some property whereby the snowflakes didn’t land on my windshield.

On Saturday, I brushed the snow off the car (New England got three inches) and changed the dressing on the headlight, using a combination of duct tape (which matches the body of the car) and packing tape. Unfortunately, in my zeal to clean the windshield, I handled the wipers too cavalierly, like a baton twirler, and the next thing I knew I had dislocated a windshield wiper on my passenger side.

So now I’m spending the afternoon at an Auto Zone in Worcester, and consulting my Owner’s Manual on how to change wiper blades (page 84). This is the sort of thing that takes me a long time to figure out, so when my hostess’s eighteen-year-old son came home for dinner, I asked him if he’d do it. “Couldn’t be easier,” he said. But he was back in a few minutes to say that he couldn’t attach the blade, and he thought maybe the arm was broken.

Fortunately, Sunday dawned clear, and I didn’t have to use the windshield wipers on the way home, although, because the roads had been salted and all, it would have been nice to give that disgusting windshield a squirt once in a while, especially when I was driving into the sun. There was nothing wrong with the driver’s side wiper, but I was afraid that if I turned on the windshield wipers in their half-crippled state, I might cause more damage.

It happened once that I tried to foil a squeegee guy at an exit from Central Park by turning on my windshield wipers. Squeegee guys can’t work when you have your wipers on. But this squeegee guy had already lifted one of the blades, and the little motor that sets the wipers in motion was overwhelmed at being asked to move the wipers back and forth when there was no windshield under them. I heard a distinct click, and it gave up. (Who knew that windshield wipers have their own tiny motor?) So I saved a quarter by not giving anything to the squeegee guy, but I wound up paying something like ninety dollars for a new windshield-wiper motor.

It is cold in the car this morning. If someone was watching me in his rearview mirror (which I feel confident is not the case), he’d see my evil-eye collection and the puffs of steam that are my breath. An SUV from Virginia comes down the street, dips in and out of the hydrant space, and continues down the block without braking

7:57: Trinidad and Tobago puts the Club on his steering wheel (I have one of those, but it’s in the trunk). He gets out and stands on the sidewalk for a while—he’s wearing a black tracksuit with white racing stripes—and then leaves. The woman ahead of me has to exit her Volkswagen from the passenger side. Her car flashes its lights at me after she’s gone.

No cops today. I turn on QXR for a moment, to make sure I stay till the dot of eight, and catch the final triumphal notes of Holst’s Suite No. 1 in E Flat for Band: a march. There were four spots available on my super parking block when I got back at around 4 P.M. yesterday, Super Bowl Sunday. I am thus empowered to continue my pursuit of a healthy life style until the weekend.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Tow Truck

Way too much excitement in the old parking spot today. I arrived to find Washington D.C. gone, a white Jetta with New York plates in her place, and behind me the black SUV of the guy who lives in K.’s building. (He’d been off the block for a while.) Also, I’d left my driver’s-side door unlocked. Fortunately, no one had slept in the car or stolen my tapes of “Robinson Crusoe.”

My hands were cold, sitting in the car. Briefly I let myself hope that the street sweeper wouldn’t come. But then the SUV started up, and I saw the sweeper in the side-view mirror. The SUV backed into the hydrant space, pulled over to the other side of the street, and then backed way up. I backed up, too, but on the other side of the street, as I was jockeying to get in position, my right headlight caught on the construction barricades, and I heard a groaning sound that I knew I would have to investigate.

“I think I’m sticking out too much,” I said to the SUV owner. When we were all back in our places, I was a foot away from the curb.

“I lost a foot,” he said. “I’m in the yellow zone.” That’s where the curb is painted yellow for fifteen feet on either side of the hydrant.

He backed up to let me get closer to the curb, then went ahead on foot and asked the Jetta to pull up, and I pulled up, too, a little. I’m in there real tight now, with only six inches to spare. I hope I can get out tomorrow.

Suddenly there’s a police car and a tow truck. The cop double-parks ahead of me and walks back toward the tow truck, near the fire hydrant. I hear him say a single word into his walkie-talkie: “Violation.” Uh-oh. I feel illegal. Is it against the law to have a broken headlight? Surely not when you’re parked. But it’s the red car on the other side of the hydrant that’s in trouble, the one that has had the ticket displayed on its windshield since last week. No one is in the car. The cops gather round it, as if they’d cornered a perpetrator. They check out the ticket: a decoy. I’m not sure why the driver left it there; could have been to fool a cop into not giving her a ticket because she already had one, or could have been because she was in denial and just didn’t want to deal with it.

One of the cops comes and stands by my car, writing a ticket. Again, I feel illegal. I’ve gotten out of the car to check out the self-inflicted damage to my front end. I had to go around the car in front of me to get to it. Should I climb back in real quick? But no, he’s just filling in the information from the sign, the beautiful sign: “No Parking Mon. & Thurs. 7:30-8 AM.”

My right headlight, the smaller yellow one, on the side—what I’ve always called the parking light—has been wrenched out of its socket and is dangling by a rubber cord, like an eyeball in a horror movie. Ouch. I fool around trying to plug the light bulb back into its little rubber cup, bundling the cord inside, and trying to snap the lens back into place, but it’s not snapping. Fortunately, I have a roll of clear plastic tape in the trunk for just this purpose. But I’ve got no knife or scissors, and the tape won’t tear. Then I remember a trick I learned by watching a clerk in the post office: I grab the ballpoint pen off my passenger seat and stab the tape with it. It makes a nice clean cut. I go around all four sides of the lens, slapping the tape down the best I can. It’s not a neat job and will rip off when I have to open the hood, but it will have to do. I test the light, and it still works.

Now I refocus on the tow truck. It occurs to me, heartlessly, that although one player is leaving the game, a spot has been freed up for another. In the time it takes me to swivel my head from the passing tow truck—the car on it, I now see, is another Jetta—to the spot that was just vacated, the spot has been taken.

The guy in the SUV, who has dark hair and a pointy beard, gets out and sets his Dunkin’ Donuts bag on the car roof. He says he heard the cops saying that they’re going to be policing this block more regularly. “Some of the cars don’t move for the street sweeper,” he says. “We moved, but they didn’t move back there”—on the other side of the hydrant. “This is such a great block,” he says. “Only a half hour. It’s the only place in the city. Used to be an hour and a half.” He rolls his eyes. “I know. I’ve lived in this building for seventeen years.”

“Yeah, I’ve got to give it up this weekend,” I say. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“We’ll find a spot for you,” he says.

I go to the grocery store to stock up on cat food for the weekend. My favorite cashier, the one who is retiring, is not there. I may never see her again. I hope she enjoys her retirement, that she likes staying home in the morning, or that she has a little dog to walk, and that the dog has a little red sweater.

On Ukuleles

I expected to lose my spot over the weekend, because I had plans to go away, but they were cancelled. So on Saturday night I went to the ukulele cabaret.

Somehow I have fallen in with a group of ukulele enthusiasts. Lucky me. I have been to the first annual New York ukulele festival, to several ukulele cabarets, and twice to the uke drop, a highly risible New Year’s Eve event involving the lowering of a ukulele wrapped in Christmas lights down the façade of a brownstone in Greenwich Village at midnight, while a duo called Sonic Uke play Auld Lang Syne on the fire escape. It beats the hell out of Times Square.

Three things have struck me about people who play the ukulele. One is that they are partial to hats. The uke diva favors an orange baseball cap with “OM” printed on it in summer, and in inclement weather one of those huge hats with a fur brim and fur ear flaps that stick out. Or she tucks her hair under a blue crocheted skullcap. It seems to be part of the uke aesthetic. If you don’t wear a bowler, skimmer, toque, or turban, you will never be a ukulele virtuoso. They also favor leis and feather boas.

The second thing is: the bigger the guy, the tinier the instrument. At first I thought this was an optical illusion, but no. Some ukuleles are bigger than others—there are sopranos and basses and everything in between, even ukuleles shaped like pineapples—but chances are that if a man shops at Big & Tall Casual Male, he has a sopranino.

Third: they write really dirty songs. An act called Hot-Time Harve’s Roller Coaster of Kicks, out of New Jersey, do a number with the line “Lesbians don’t like my songs.” Over the weekend, I heard a nice man named Tom Harker, from Circleville, Ohio, possibly one of the most innocent places in the nation, sing an ode to a sex-education teacher by the name of Bonnie Beaver. This was at the most recent edition of the ukulele cabaret (I went because my friend K., on whose street I park, and the uke diva, my house guest, would be there, and if I sound defensive about falling in with this uke crowd, it is because I feel defensive; remember Arthur Godfrey? Don Ho?). There a gnomelike little lady proudly took the stage, in a geometric-print sweater (“She’s not gay,” murmured a woman near me in the crowd). She introduced her ukulele, saying it was fifty-nine years old. She herself was D’Yan Forest, and she was seventy-two. She launched into her own version of the Maurice Chevalier hit, “Thank Heaven for Senior Sex.” She had also reconstrued some old American favorites, including “Homo, Homo on the Range.” I don’t even want to think about the punch line to her interpretation of “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain When She Comes.” D’Yan had a snappy between-song patter that amounted to a stand-up act: she joked about having a boob job (“They were calling me One Hung Low”) as if it were routine auto maintenance (“So I had them realigned”).

She was followed by two young men, on ukulele and keyboard, who performed a tender love song that began, “I wanna fuck you.” That’s when I relinquished my barstool, even though I hadn’t quite finished my pint of stout. I should have known that it would be all downhill after the dirty-minded seventy-two-year-old lesbian.