Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Last Communion

So when Rudy Giuliani took Communion at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the Pope’s visit to New York, lightning did not strike him dead on the spot?

I have a terrible confession to make. Even as a nonbeliever, I have sometimes been tempted to take Communion. You feel left out sitting there in the pew, conspicuous in your lack of faith, your sinfulness, your apostasy. Nobody likes to feel left out, least of all the guy who used to be in charge of it all.

It’s a bit of a quandary, even if you’re not a former mayor of New York City eager to hobnob with the Pope and his bishops, and don’t have a complicated history of marrying your cousin (though that was annulled) and divorcing your second wife (if the first one counted at all), not to mention going public in support of a woman’s right to choose (Good God, this is New York City, not Indiana—how’s a guy supposed to get elected unless he has a liberal streak?). Like Rudy, I was taught that it was a sin to receive Communion if you were not in a state of grace, and even though I am not now a believer, I hesitate to commit this sin. Why dread the offense if you are no longer of the faith that counts it an offense? Because they got me when I was young.

Once in Venice, I stumbled onto a Mass in Latin—I believe it was at San Giorgio Maggiore—and avidly followed along in “The Companion Guide to Venice,” the Gospel according to Hugh Honour. In an effort to get a closer look at the paintings in the sanctuary, I took Communion, eyes wide open. It was the first time I had ever dared. I felt quite evil, combining mortal sin and art history. Afterward, browsing a table set up with postcards and literature—I was probably angling to get a look at the cloister (I love cloisters)—I attempted to compliment and ingratiate myself with the priest, a Benedictine, seated behind the table by saying something like “Nice Mass.” I fumbled it, got the gender wrong or something, and maybe it was not such a good thing to say anyway, but when another priest came up and said to me in Italian, “Do you speak Italian?” the seated priest spoke up, and said “No,” emphatically. Until then I had not realized that Benedictines took a vow of cruelty.

The last time I received Communion was at the requiem Mass for my father, when my mother, newly widowed, seemed to want the support of her children as she headed up to the Communion rail. We all went along with her—it was a spontaneous gesture of solidarity, of coming together over my father. It felt right. Lightning did not strike.

Poor Rudy. He’s not even running for anything anymore. He was probably just trying to make the Pope feel at home. If he had decided not to take Communion, and stepped humbly aside, letting everyone pass on the way to the center aisle, the Post headline would have read, “RUDY TO JESUS: NO THANKS.”

Speaking of the Eucharist, I guess it’s almost time to put my Last Supper pillows away for the season. I don't have an Ascension pillow.

Monday, April 28, 2008


There were two cars lurking on my favorite block when I got to my car this morning, in the pouring rain. I had been very lucky to find this spot. I had come back from Rockaway on Saturday evening and was hoping to make it down to the Ukulele Cabaret (believe it or not, I am a convert to the ukulele—ukuleles for everyone!), and it looked as if there was nothing available. But just as I was about to give up and go and park in front of my own building and worry about it in the morning, I heard activity in the car parked next to where I was waiting for the light to change: a couple in a mid-sized car were just pulling out. Eureka! I backed up and waited for them to leave.

These cars lurking in the rain had me worried—now there were three of them. Of course I deserved to keep this spot, but rain might make people desperate, and this was valuable real estate. Thursday is the Solemnity of Ascension, forty days after Easter, when Christ floated up to Heaven and suspended alternate-side parking. Sunday was Orthodox Easter, and also the last night of Passover, so there has been a traffic jam of holidays.

I have been meaning to look into the origins of alternate-side parking, which has the ring of a historic compromise, but I haven’t known where to begin. Meanwhile, an enterprising reporter for AM New York, in a piece about how parking reflects religion (good idea!), found out that the original reason for suspension of alternate-side rules was to accommodate Orthodox Jews, who were unable to move their cars during the High Holidays.

At 7:42, two street sweepers went by without making us move. It did seem cruel to make us move in the rain—it was hard to see anything in the side-view mirror, for one thing, all spattered as it was—and surely such a heavy rain made a street sweeper redundant. But I knew that the Broom could go around the block and appear again. Suppose the Broom was driven by someone like my Greek landlady in Astoria, a zealot for cleanliness, who saw rain as an opportunity to grab her broom and get out there, in a housecoat and plastic rain hat, to scrub the sidewalk.

The mildew in the Eclair didn’t seem so bad this morning, possibly because the entire world was wet. The rain was just thrumming down. During a letup, I got out of the car and moved three big chunks of styrofoam away from the curb, returning them to a heap of construction garbage. If the Broom came, the driver might feel compelled to get out and move them by hand, prolonging our agony.

Two of the three cars that have been lurking give up and drive away. The third is double-parked while its driver, in a hooded sweatshirt, crouches on a stoop, out of the rain. At 7:57 people begin leaving their cars. The guy behind me tucks in his side-view mirror before he walks away. The Broom will not pass this day.

The picture above is actually not New York but Genoa on a rainy day a week ago today. The morning after I got back from Italy, I wanted nothing more than to go out for a cappuccino and a cornetto (brioche/filled croissant/whatever) at a bar in a piazza. Today I got a cup of coffee and a bran muffin from the guy in the cart on my block: the American version of the Italian breakfast ritual.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Let Us Pray

Padre Pio is in the news again, in case you haven’t heard. His decomposed body, which was disinterred last month, has been fitted with a wax face and put on display at San Giovanni Rotondo, for reasons that some of the faithful might comprehend but that baffle the infidel. Really, who is in charge of this stuff? Who placed the order with Madame Tussaud’s? What bishop or cardinal made the crucial decision of how to clothe the cadaver? Puglia is apparently hoping for an influx of tourists to rival the throngs at Lourdes. I’ve always wanted to see i trulli, the beehive-shaped white domiciles of southern Italy, but I think I can put off the pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo to eyeball Padre Pio’s remains until . . . well, pretty much forever.

My red Padre Pio Topolino T-shirt, in the meantime, has been reduced to a fourth-classic relic: not a bone, not something the saint touched, just something that came in contact with something the saint purportedly sat in, in this case a Mercedes-Benz, which had probably been detailed and sanitized by the dealer, with no regard for conserving the molecular sanctity of the upholstery. Also, my fourth-class relic is now doubly diluted, because the last time I did the laundry I thoughtlessly tossed it into the washing machine with the dark load. I hate washing things by hand. I was, however, careful not to put it in the drier, segregating it, along with my bras, to hang dry or lie flat. Some flakes of detergent had stuck to it, but, miraculously, I was able to brush them off.

I guess I’ll wear the shirt today, as long as it’s in the news. Here are links to the Times story that ran yesterday and a YouTube video, if you can stand it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Few Photos

View of Cinque Terre

Boats in the piazza, with locals and their dogs.

The rooftops of Vernazza, with stones to hold them down.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tight Spot

The Eclair did not fare so well in long-term parking at J.F.K. She has developed a whiff of mildew. Squeezing into this spot, on my second-favorite parking block (Mon. & Thurs. 7:30-8), when I got back from the airport on Monday evening, was no mean feat, but because alternate side is suspended on Thursday (and Friday), it means I don't have to move again all week.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cinque Terre

Where am I? On a cliffside of the Mediterranean between Genoa and Pisa called Cinque Terre, Five Towns, not to be confused with Five Towns, Long Island (Lawrence, Inwood, Cedarhurst, East Rockaway,and, uh, one other). These are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, and each is more picturesque than the last. The entire rocky coast is sculpted for cultivating grapevines and olive trees, and for hiking between the towns. Where the land is wild, prickly pear and euphorbia and thyme and palm and oak fill in. Everywhere you look, it's a picture postcard.

A quaint local custom: in Vernazza, the main piazza doubles as a marina. Yes, boats are parked in the piazza for the winter. The cats nap in them, the men idly coil rope as they talk, and stage mock fights with the oars. One foccaccia place has a Mercury outboard motor propped outside the door. In Riomaggiore, boats line the main street on the way down to the marina. Manarola has a shelf on the rock that acts as a high-rise marina, with a crane to launch the boats, lowering them some hundred feet down into the water.

Another quaint local custom: the houses have stones on the roofs, held in place with gobs of concrete. I finally asked why, and the answer was the wind: the wind off the sea blows so hard that if they didn't place weights on their roofs, their houses would blow away.

Yet another quaint custom: people hike the trails using ski poles. I thought this was funny until I found a stick on the beach and made an improvised ski pole for myself. The trails are breathtaking, in every sense. There are such gorgeous views that you can stop and gaze while catching your breath. And though it's a surprise to find that it costs more to walk between, say, Vernazza and Corniglia than it does to take the train (trail, 5 euros; train, 1.40), somebody built and maintains these trails, which are actually a national park, and it was death-defying work, right?

Yesterday I took the train to Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five villages. I went down to the marina and followed a trail cut into the rock to a beach of big smooth stones with the sea crashing over them: a chuckle-stone beach, rumbling in the surf. Then I took a path up to a nature preserve at Torre Guardiola. I am afraid I'll forget what this was like: the yellow blossoms of the euphorbia, with tiny orange centers, huge yellow snapdragons, the scent of mountain laurel, the purple thyme, wild chrysanthemums, stone steps carved into the cliff, the sea a constant foaming roar below, the silhouette of the next headland setting off a vertical spectrum of blues, from the zenith of deep sky blue to the pale horizon, against the turquoise band of the sea striated with aquamarine depths. Gulls, buoys, a boat, the rocks graven by wind and water, and the little villages piled amid the cliffs--tall narrow houses painted yellow and orange.

It's nice to stay in one town long enough to get to know the local cats, and see where the spaniel lives, and recognize the waiter at your favorite restaurant having a coffee at the bar on his day off. The girl in the tobacco shop has been helpful, too. I didn't bring enough to read, and she had some things on the shelf: I narrowed my choice to "French Women Don't Get Fat" and an Italian translation of Nick Hornby's "About a Boy." But I have plenty to occupy me with the newspapers and the Italian election. Everyone was expecting Berlusconi to win, for the third time, but the big news was that the Communist Party, the Arcobaleno, or Rainbow Party--the left--lost its place in Parliament. Berlusconi is called Il Cavaliere here. With all his plastic surgery, he looks straight out of the wax museum.

I am sorry I'm missing the Pope's visit to the United States, but not that sorry. The Italian coverage of it is pretty amusing. I hear he is going to Yonkers, and that the Popemobile, or Papamobile (five syllables), will not be allowed to drive over the playing field at Yankee Stadium; I guess some things are more than sacred. One writer calls the U.S. the "free market of God." Another painstakingly describes what turns out to be a bobblehead of the Pope, going for $12.95 and sure to be a collectible. Today is the Pope's birthday. I found myself studying his shoes in a full-length picture in the paper. I have heard that the Pope wears Prada.

Speaking of shoe leather, in Vernazza today a priest is going door to door, blessing people's houses. I saw him in the piazza, and then again on the way back up to my hotel. It is ninety-eight steps to my hotel room, though I don't suppose anyone will feel sorry for me. I don't. Once I'm up there, I have a view of the sea, and the sea fills my ears, too--waves sloshing against a promontory. I have seen tourist boats passing, and I hope to get on one of them before the week is out, but so far the sea has been too rough for the boats to dock in Vernazza.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Screeching Halt

I tuned in to Fox news at ten o'clock on Monday night to find out the fate of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion-pricing plan. I meant to write sooner (it's Wednesday as I write, and I'm at the airport), but I've had a busy time of it. I got back from Provincetown on Monday, and as I was heading down the F.D.R. at a little before six I was mindful of the possibility that this might be a historic last free entry into Manhattan below Sixtieth Street. I was beginning to believe that I could stay under the radar of congestion pricing. Afer all, I am one of those extremely lucky people who are already in Manhattan below Sixtieth Street. Surely I could arrange to enter before 6 A.M. or after 6 P.M. If I didn't want to pay eight dollars to come down the F.D.R. at twenty to six, I could stop and dawdle, and possibly end up paying twenty dollars for a lobster somewhere in the Bronx.

I dropped off some friends, then headed to my neighborhood, planning at first to go straight to my block, put a quarter in the parking meter (I had one), go upstairs for three more quarters, and worry about the car in the morning. But of course I had to just see if there was a spot on K Street, four blocks away. There was not, so I drove down to where my car had been so conveniently towed to last Thursday in the predawn hours and found a spot there. But the Muni Meter was in effect until 7, and once more I had only a single quarter, so I couldn't buy even fifteen minutes to run to St. Dunkin Donuts for change.

So I started her up again and went on my rounds. If I had stayed there, I would have had to be at the car and looking for a spot at 9 A.M. anyway. And the spot I eventually found was good till 11:30 on Thursday: perfect.

I felt a little sorry for Mayor Bloomberg, though, whose legacy now, it turns out, will be only for eliminating smoking in bars. But it is not as if this were the last chance for congestion pricing. What I think the problem was was this deadline for receiving federal funds. I know it was a lot of money, but there is nothing that makes me more suspicious than a deadline. It's like when you're at a resort in Mexico and they are selling time shares and tell you that a certain price is good only until breakfast tomorrow. Do they really expect you to rush into a lifelong financial commitment with that kind of threat? If congestion pricing is going to come to Manhattan, it should be considered with no pressure, on its merits.

While I was going down the F.D.R. I had a kind of aural hallucination of the money being totted up on the civic cash register as the cars piled in--ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching . . . It would have been an obscene amount. And I was going against traffic.

[Typed on Friday in Vernazza, Cinque Terre.]

Saturday, April 5, 2008


It's hard to leave a parking space while it's still legal. I got to my car, still safely in the space the cops had towed it to, at nine on the dot and drove off, but where there were lots of free spaces on my block last night, this morning there was nothing. I tried parking at a Muni Meter near the bank, but had only a quarter, and the Muni Meter does not deign to take less than fifty cents. Later, after parking at an old-fashioned meter, I was grumbling on my way to the bank when I saw a man testing a brand-new Muni Meter. He let me see the innards: a panel of computer circuits and a spool of paper as in a cash register. He was testing it to make sure it gave receipts. He said this one tapped into the light pole for power, and had an antenna, and that, yes, it sure will be easier to raise the rate. But he also said that the coin capacity of a Muni Meter is only about twelve or thirteen dollars. So that will be one reason people will contest tickets.

Even as I write, I have thirty minutes left on the meter right outside my door. I'm off to Provincetown, to the memorial for my friend Frank Schaefer. If you're looking for entertainment, check out the new link to Victoria Roberts' blog/podcast featuring Nona Appleby. She's hilarious.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Milking the System

I accidentally tossed the basket of my espresso pot—the part that holds the ground coffee—on Sunday (Grrrr! When well-meaning guests do the dishes and inadvertently recycle that part of the coffeepot, which is the same size as a cat-food can, I punish them cruelly; this time I had no one to blame but myself), so on Monday morning I did not get my caffeine fix until I reached the car with a cup of takeout. A ghastly sight greeted me on the way to the car: No Parking signs on the Monday-Thursday side of the street. The No Parking signs were not effective till Thursday, April 3rd—whew!—so for the time being I was able to keep the same fine spot (7:30-8, on K’s Street; I had not used the car over the weekend).

At 8, I went back up the street to get a closer look at the No Parking signs, and they had miraculously disappeared! For a second, I was relieved. But then, duh, I realized that whoever had posted them had been walking east, in the direction of traffic, and taped all the signs on the west-facing sides of posts and trees. The reason for the No Parking decree was that the TV show “Law and Order” was taking over the block for filming on Thursday, beginning at 5 A.M. If we didn’t move, we would be towed so that TV justice could be served.

I intended to move the car on Wednesday night, but on my way home, after dinner with friends, I lost the urge. I hadn’t been going to look for a live spot but just park it on my street until the morning, when I would have to move it at 7:30, and if I was going to have to be up and out at 7:30 anyway, why not just leave it where it was? After all, there hadn’t been any No Parking signs on the four-car stretch at the end of the block where I was. And the signs really were invisible if you made a conscientious approach from the east, with your head stuck deep in the sand. It was worth a try.

Fortunately, one of the friends I had dinner with last night lent me an espresso pot (Thanks, T.!), so this morning I was fully caffeinated and ready for anything. Yes, even the sight of bare curbs and orange cones guarded by men who looked like they meant business. Of course my car had been towed! What had I been thinking? But, because of my experience last fall with the “Sex and the City” movie (you could look it up), I didn’t panic. The car would have been relocated by the police to the first legal space. I found it a block away, standing innocently outside a bar on the other side of the street, next to a Muni Meter. On the windshield was one of those sticky tags that say the car can’t be ticketed or towed for 48 hours. I moved the Eclair a little closer to the curb and left her there. Actually, it’s a sweet little spot—good till the meter kicks in on Saturday morning. I couldn’t have done better.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Congestion Pricing

Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced today in the Times that the decision on congestion pricing will be delayed forever, and insisted that just because he is a lame-duck mayor doesn't mean he is willing to be unpopular with alternate side parkers, who will be exempt from congestion pricing as long as they never go anywhere in their cars again (except back and forth across the street in an area within a half-mile radius of their primary residence) and display this emblem on their rearview mirror. It is available at all shops specializing in police equipment (nightsticks, badges, bulletproof vests) and at Virgin Megastores for only $5.99 with the purchase of any Baby Dee CD. Brought to you by the same people (Blue Q, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts) who gave us St. Otto of Bamberg, Patron Saint of Parking, this lovely item, carefully conserved, will give off the fresh, corrupt smell of doughnuts for as long as you own your car. Ah! April Fool!