Monday, February 23, 2009

Little Odessa

I drove to Brighton Beach on Saturday, in urgent need of sea air and a change of scene. My mission, supposedly, was to find a Russian beautician named Irene whose lease wasn’t renewed on her salon in Rockaway (it’s now a Dunkin’ Donuts).

There was metered parking on the last block of Coney Island Boulevard, which dead-ends at the ocean: green-and-white signs saying “Back-In 90º Parking Only.” How stark. I didn’t want to be tied to a meter (twenty-five cents for thirty minutes, with a two-hour limit), so I parked out beyond the boardwalk, on Oriental Avenue, where the streets leading to the ocean are lined with rich people's houses and No Parking signs.

Everywhere were women in fur coats, speaking Russian, even to their dogs. I walked down the beach, past the aquarium (where I thought about going in to see the seals) to the Parachute Drop. Near a stone jetty, someone was filming a guy in a horse suit; at first it looked like he was a fishermen in yellow waders, but instead of an overall top, he was holding a stuffed horse's head by the reins. He jingled as he pranced around, a Coney Island centaur.

I had a bowl of Ukrainian borsch in a café—very delicate, laced with dill and threads of onion, chunks of potatoes soaked pink with beet juice—and then set off to find Irene. It felt wonderfully like a foreign country. There is a Black Sea Book Store, delis selling caviar, fresh-baked pastries (poppyseed—my favorite!), Polish chocolates, and sausages. On one corner people were thronged around a guy who was unpacking cheeses: they were mad to get their hands on a round of brie. It reminded me of being in Sofia, Bulgaria, where people were lined up on the street waiting to buy tomatoes.

In a former movie palace, a sale of cooking utensils was open to the public, so I went in: lots of flatware, shiny pots and pans, and racks of used coats—but wait, this time I wasn’t going to fall for that: this was just the coat check, right? No! They really were selling coats, some of them for three thousand dollars. The best thing on offer was a tent, no bigger than a kitchen range, made of silvery space-blanket fabric, with a chair inside and a zipper, so that a person could sit in there zipped up to her chin with her head sticking out the top. It was a portable infrared sauna.

There are dozens of nail spas and hair salons and skincare outlets in Brighton Beach, with names like Paradise For You and Hello Gorgeous, and at least one Russian beautician named Irene. Stopping in at those places, where people were being plucked and buffed and blown out and “vaxed,” I realized that even in Rockaway Irene had had a lot of competition, especially for nails, and it would have been very disheartening for her, after having her own salon in exotic Belle Harbor, to work for someone in Little Odessa.

Next week: Bayonne!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Envelope, Please

What a spot I got myself into vis a vis my cleaning lady. For consolation, after she stood me up, I kept the sixty cheapskate dollars in the envelope addressed to her, determined to spend it on some birthday treat. But I kept forgetting it—leaving it propped on my desk or packing it along and then switching bags—until finally, two weeks later, the cleaning lady is scheduled to come again and I can’t find the envelope.

So on Thursday morning I have to make her up a new envelope, which means wrestling with my conscience over the amount. I’d cut her back from eighty to sixty, then done the vacuuming myself, and found out that a friend pays her cleaning lady a hundred dollars (that includes laundry). I had been thinking of splitting the difference and giving her seventy, but all I had to make up the difference was singles. I put three twenties and five singles in the envelope, and it felt insulting. I put ten singles in, and it felt too thick. So I ended up giving her four twenties, marking the amount on the outside of the envelope, just so that, if she waited until she left to open the envelope, she wouldn’t feel guilty for not doing a better job.

Meanwhile, I looked all over for that stupid envelope: I’d meant to take it to the theatre that Friday (we saw “Lord Cornbury, the Queen’s Governor”), but forgot; again on the seal-watching expedition, I could have used it to pay for the fish, but forgot; and then last Sunday I was going to put it toward an Aquarian birthday dinner with friends, and forgot again. The envelope wasn’t in any of the bags I looked in. I even sorted through the wastepaper basket because I remembered at one point Norbert knocking it off the desk into the recyclables. No luck. Had I recycled in the meantime? I’d left my big bag at work on Thursday, because I was going to see Antony and the Johnsons at Town Hall. (He was great. They were great. His songs end in a way that takes me by surprise.) When I got to work I searched that bag, and it wasn’t there, either. So all day I found myself thinking, Who is more likely to find an envelope full of cash with her name written on it, in my apartment, than the cleaning lady herself?

I kissed my three carefully husbanded $20 bills—my stimulus package—goodbye. When I got home on Friday night, full of suspense—maybe the cleaning lady hadn’t even come—the hallway looked as cluttered as usual. But then Norbert tore across the living room and leapt into his new berth: a wooden crate that grapes came in that I usually pile old newspapers in and that I was trying to rehabilitate into a file. The cleaning lady had positioned it closer to the radiator, where Norbert would be comfortable and out of the way, with the label facing out: FAITH. The carpet was clean, the cats bowls had been washed, the aluminum plates that she likes to put under the stove burners were back in place. This morning, it was a relief not to have to clean, and I suddenly remembered that that weekend I was using my Liberty of London tote bag, and had even put a roll of film (how old-fashioned of me) in the outside pocket, and maybe I’d also put the envelope in there ...

Eureka! I found it!

Friday, February 13, 2009


I had my first experience with a G.P.S. last week, and it was just as I suspected: I am too defiant to take directions from a robot. I was on my way to Long Island with two friends, showing off by calling the garage the night before and asking them please to have my car ready at nine on Saturday morning (so decadent). We went down the ramp and there she was. I hadn’t seen her in more than a month. One of my friends said that the Éclair looked out of place among the Lexuses and the Cadillacs: a burro among thoroughbreds.

The G.P.S. was in the back seat. A friend with a set of directions printed out from Mapquest was in the front passenger seat. We were going to Long Island, to go seal-watching on a boat out of Freeport. I would need directions once we got to Freeport, but I knew how to get to Long Island, and I wanted to take the scenic route. We were well on our way over the Brooklyn Bridge before Ms. G.P.S. got her bearings. Right away, she tried to push me around. I wanted to go west on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (which is counterintuitive when your ultimate destination is Long Island, but that’s the way it works), and she suggested that I turn left after getting off the bridge: I went right. “Recalculating,” she said. At the light, she suggested I turn right: I turned left. “Recalculating.” At the left onto the BQE, she very much wanted to jerk me off course and take me on a joyride through Brooklyn, but I wanted to drive along New York Harbor, past the Verrazano and out the Belt Parkway to the Southern State. “Recalculating.” We looked out at the ships in the harbor, and I felt such a yearning to be on a boat, and then remembered that that was exactly where I was going: on a boat trip—yes!

I had thought it would be fun to experiment with the G.P.S., but it was actually annoying to have this bossy presence in the car, like a fourth for bridge who misses the signals and screws up the bidding and drives everyone crazy. She tried to get me to get off the BQE right away (I don’t know what she had in mind—a trip to the Ikea in Red Hook?), and, under her influence, my friends began to doubt my decision to stay in the lane for the Verrazano, but I sped on. “Recalculating.” Then she tried to get me to take the exit for the Sunrise Highway, which probably would have worked, but why should I do it her way when there was nothing wrong with my way? “Recalculating.” The one time when I should have obeyed, at the exit for the Meadowbrook Parkway South, I was talking, or something, and didn’t get into the right lane on time. “Recalculating.” At that point, I obeyed the G.P.S. and made the first legal U-turn.

Off the main road, I obeyed both my printed instructions and the G.P.S. lady, eventually reaching the fleet of Captain Lou on Woodcleft, one of three prongs of land between long canals in Freeport. The seal-watching boat boarded at twelve-thirty, and we were an hour and a half early—time to drive around and check out the fish markets and grab a bowl of clam chowder and a crab-cake sandwich. I had learned about the seal-watching tours at the boat show, at a booth manned by the Riverhead Foundation, which rehabilitates injured seals and sea turtles. Seals come south from Maine and points north in the winter, and a colony of them return every year to the calm waters of Hempstead Bay, behind Jones Beach.

It was my birthday, and I kept remembering how on my seventh birthday, fifty years ago (gad), my father took us to the circus. It may have been the happiest day of my life up to that point. It was a three-ring circus, with elephants and lion tamers and a man on the flying trapeze, but my favorite thing was the seals. I loved how they gleamed and balanced big balls on their noses and slapped their flippers together to applaud themselves. In my fervor for the seals, I began to cry, and my mother said, “Oh for heaven’s sake, what are you crying about now.” (I cried a lot as a child.) “Nobody is watching the seals,” I sobbed. “I’m watching them,” she snapped. Somewhat pacified, I kept my eyes glued to the seals, in the far ring, while everyone but my mother watched the stupid horses or the clowns, or whatever.

Now here I was on a boat with two good friends (we left the G.P.S. in the car), and every one of the forty or so passengers was intent on watching seals. The first one appeared to starboard at two-o’clock: it was resting on the platform of a giant cone-shaped buoy. Others we spotted on the port side, at about eight-o’clock, their sleek black heads gleaming. These were harbor seals. Some were splashing, and one put on a special show, “porpoising,” as they call it: arcing through the air like a brief black meteor. Seals always look like they're having fun.

Back on land, we bought lemon sole and sea scallops at the fish market. We detoured briefly down Guy Lombardo Avenue, for old times’ sake. For the trip home, we did not reactivate the G.P.S.—even for me, it was too much of an exercise in defiance—instead feeling our way back to the Meadowbrook and then to the Southern State and the Belt. I got off at Cross Bay/Woodhaven and took my usual route home from Rockaway, via the L.I.E. and the Midtown Tunnel, back to the garage. It was all very satisfying. My only regret is that I didn’t bring home some baby octopus.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cleaning Lady Redux

Where have I gone wrong?

My Peruvian cleaning lady called a few weeks ago to say she had returned from Peru but couldn’t come the next day, her usual Friday, because she was sick. (She blamed the food in this country. She said it is not as good as the food in her country. Maybe she got some of that bad peanut butter.) I was just glad she had come back from Peru, and we arranged for her to clean the next Tuesday afternoon.

While she was gone, her fee, eighty dollars, began to seem like a lot. The truth is that once she had done the initial cleanup, for which she gave me the “special for you” price of eighty dollars, the place has stopped accumulating eighty dollars' worth of dirt every two weeks. My friend G. thought so, too, and suggested that for that price I should get her to do the laundry as well. So I did: intimate as it seemed, I left a note asking her to please do the laundry, and I put the laundry basket and the detergent and the prepaid card for the washers and dryers in a prominent place.

This week I was wondering if the cleaning lady planned on reverting to Friday, when I am expecting guests. I saw two problems: having her still be there when the guests arrived, and having had even less time between cleanings to justify spending eighty dollars. So I called her up, and I asked if she could come Thursday and then (Sorry, sorry!) if she would work for me for only sixty dollars. She was not happy (who would be?), but she said, rather resignedly, “Special for you” and agreed to come.

I puttered around on Thursday, cleaning, in fact, and even pondering doing the windows (fortunately, it was way too cold to do windows). I had to go out to a doctor's appointment in the afternoon, and I found myself consciously leaving things for the cleaning lady to do. There were some vegetable shavings on the kitchen floor, and the rug needed to be vacuumed, and some of the clutter contained.

So I’m sitting in the examining room at my throat doctor’s. I had presented him with a gift: a copy of “Vocal Rehabilitation,” by the late Friedrich Brodnitz, an eminent laryngologist. It was spiral-bound, with a pale-green hardcover, and I knew he’d like it, because he told me that he is something of a student of the history of his field. (I had consulted Brodnitz some twenty years ago.) Here is my favorite passage from the book: “Freud has used a rubber hose with two olives, one in the nostril of the patient and the other one in the ear of the examiner to determine hypernasality acoustically.” (I don't think it was THAT Freud, but, more important, what kind of olives?)

Now my doctor is telling me a story about a jazz singer with a tiny, breathy voice, the voice of an eight-year-old girl, whom he examined and whom he made the mistake of informing that she owed her artistry to a deformity of the vocal cords (she did not take this well), when a cell phone rings: it takes me a moment to recognize my own ring tone, the Ride of the Walkyries (you know, Elmer Fudd’s aria in the Looney Tunes version of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle: “Kill the wabbit, kill the WABbit …”). I didn’t answer it, but after I had left the doctor’s office, planning to go to a movie before heading home, to avoid the cleaning lady, I checked to see if whoever had called had left a message. Sure enough: it was the Peruvian cleaning lady, saying she was sick, and would it be O.K. if she came next Tuesday.

I was discouraged, but I will say that it meant I could go straight home. She called again last night, and I had to tell her that, as I had guests this weekend, I would have to be doing the housecleaning myself and it wouldn’t be necessary to clean again next Tuesday. So we will go back on a Friday schedule, two weeks from today.

I hated to have to get the vacuum cleaner out this morning. And I am up to my old tricks again, of leaving the Clorox Cleaner and the Windex and the broom and bucket in prominent places, to reinforce the sensation that the house is clean. I kept telling myself that at least I had that envelope with the extra sixty dollars. But it didn't seem like enough.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

No Snow Day

Mysterious are the ways of the Department of Sanitation. Now that it is law that alternate-side parking be suspended in the event of a snowstorm, so that the SDNY can mobilize its plows instead of its street brooms, the bulletins from the Department of Transportation have gotten spotty in their accuracy. Last week, snow was predicted for the evening, and alternate side was suspended while we waited for the snow, which didn't arrive. (Maybe it was snowing somewhere.) Alternate side was suspended again the next day, and the next, but the third day was a mistake, and the suspension itself was suspended. Today, it actually is snowing, and alternate-side parking is in effect.

If I were parking on the street, I’d be outraged. As it is, I had to trot down to the garage with my checkbook, an exercise I don’t enjoy, and point out to Julian, Julian’s superior, that my certificate of parking-tax exemption hadn’t resulted in eight percent off on my bill. Julian had to call Julio (or someone) while I stood outside the booth studying a flyer that said “Happy Cars Use Bumper Guards” (hmm). My bill for February was $152.36, but in March it will be $163.80; the parking-tax exemption was retroactive through January. Possibly I could have waited and trusted the parking company to prorate my bills, but I am determined to be vigilant and not let the parking industry (or the city) squeeze an extra dollar out of me.

Meanwhile, my sibling Dee was off to the Car Pound with five hundred dollars in borrowed cash to bail out her VW Bug, which had gotten towed the night before from a spot in Chinatown. She had parked in one of those sneaky areas with night regulations: No Parking 10 P.M.-4 A.M., or something. Dee was in town to do some recording, and luckily the recording was going well, so she didn’t mind, or at least her resignation in having to go to the Car Pound and cough up cash was tempered by the satisfaction of a job well done. The new CD will be out by the fall.

I still have not quit the Times, and am taken today by a piece by Charles McGrath, “Around the World in as Long as It Takes,” about an American, Rich Wilson, who is racing in the Vendée, “the solo-around-the-world sailing race” that begins and ends at Les Sables d’Olonne, France. “It is a route that exposes sailors to icebergs, the doldrums and some of the windiest stretches of ocean in the world.” Over the weekend, I accidentally recycled some chunks of the Sunday Times without first reading them, and I interpreted that as a sign that it was all over, that I could quit. I still had the Automobiles section, though, so I was able to read about the new “green” ice resurfacer that is being developed in time for the 2010 Olympics, posing a challenge to the great Zamboni.

According to the article, by Dave Caldwell, ice groomers first ran on gasoline, then diesel, and then propane, all of which pollute an indoor ice arena. Frank J. Zamboni built his ice groomer from spare parts in his back yard, in the late nineteen-forties. “In 1967, in Elmira, Ontario, a welder named Andrew Schlupp built his own ice resurfacer and started the Resurfice Corporation.” Schlupp has developed an electric model that is both green and much cheaper to use (though the machine itself is more expensive; Zamboni has one, too). I read on, anticipating the inevitable. “Essentially, all resurfacers work the same during what is called a flood. A blade on the back of the machine shaves the surface of the ice. The shavings are scooped up and a thin coating of hot water is sprayed on the rink, which is smoothed as the water freezes.” But the story did not have the expected payoff. The people who built the Resurficer (which, I have to admit, is pretty clever) failed to follow Zamboni's lead and name their product after themselves: the Schlupp.