Thursday, December 31, 2009

Wish List: Update

Item No. 3—No. 1 pencils—was my big score. An entire gross of the pencils arrived anonymously from some warehouse in New Jersey. Thank you, pencil lover, whoever you are. The reason I put them on my wish list is that the office-supply company that furnishes our needs at work doesn’t carry No. 1 pencils. They have the nerve, when I order, to send me No. 2s! So I buy my own (they're deductible), but they are getting harder to find. The stationery superstores don't carry them—art-supply stores are the only reliable source—and I live in fear that the No. 1 pencil will go the way of the incandescent light bulb, and two qualities that make life more worth living—of light and lead—will be unobtainable.

My exacting taste in pencils was formed when I worked in a job where my handwriting, in pencil, on galleys and page proofs, had to be transmitted by fax to a printing plant in Chicago. Actually, it wasn’t my handwriting that was the problem: it was my boss’s. He wrote in a very faint hand, which did not take well to facsimile transmission. The solution was to supply him with No. 1 pencils, which have a soft lead, and therefore require less force to make a darker impression. I got used to how they feel. I can always tell when I accidentally pick up a No. 2 pencil: the point feels hard and scratchy on the paper. With a softer lead, you can bear down when you’re sure of something and lighten up when you’re in doubt. No. 1 pencils are more expressive.

As for the rest of the wish list, until about an hour ago I'd have said it was a bust. No. 1, the iPhone, was actually taken off the market in New York City, because AT&T cannot supply a reliable signal for the masses. No. 2, the Smart Car, was perhaps a politically incorrect request: I should be asking Santa for a hybrid. As for No. 5, Congress is still working on an amendment to the new health-care bill guaranteeing every American the right to Hair Insurance. Surprisingly, there was action this morning on No 4, the Ciborium. When I came back from tending my parking spot—before the Mayor finally made up his mind to suspend alternate-side parking on the snowy eve of his inauguration for a third term, during which he apparently is not going to give anyone a break—the porter of my building said he had a package for me. The label said "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam" and the return address was Aquinas and More Catholic Goods, in Colorado Springs. Could it be? Had I downgraded No. 4 prematurely from ciborium to toothbrush cup? The box looked too flat to contain a ciborium, and it did not, but it did hold the next best thing: Cavanagh Altar Bread, a thousand wafers. It solved the mystery of a companion package, from Brewhaus, in Texas (no motto), that arrived two days ago: a bottle of Droolin' Devil gourmet hot sauce.

Amen and Happy New Year.


NOW he cancels. I sat in my car in its spot in the Sanctuary this morning, cursing Mayor Bloomberg for not suspending alternate-side parking on a day that began with a snow shower and just happens to be New Year’s Eve. I had to be at my car at 8:30. I called 311 last night, checked my e-mail for an update this morning, called 311 again, and yet again from the car, but it was not till I got home, and Prokofieff’s “Romeo and Juliet” had spun to an end on WQXR, that I heard, at 10:15, that alternate-side parking was suspended today for snow removal. Quoth the city, in its memo of 9:42 A.M.:

Thursday, December 31, 2009
Alternate Side Parking Rules are Suspended on Thursday, December 31
The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) in conjunction with the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) today announced the suspension of Alternate Side Parking (ASP) regulations Citywide for Thursday, December 31 to facilitate snow removal. However, parking meters will remain in effect throughout the City.
The 2010 alternate side parking (street cleaning) rules suspension calendar is available on the DOT Web site, along with other alternate side parking information, at The calendar is available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, or Russian.

Grrrr. This does not bode well for the third term of Mayor Bloomberg. I could have stayed home. What did I gain by my morning excursion? I retrieved from the trunk my new Jesus Overnight Bag, a lovely, thoughtful gift from my friend L.; stopped at the bank; refilled a prescription; and bought the ingredients for chili. Now I am home, and it has stopped snowing, and the one thing I am grateful for is that I don’t have to feel guilty if I don’t go out again all day.

I was going to write about how I ran out of gas last week in Rhode Island, northbound on I-95 for Cape Cod. I was so distracted by my desire to get someplace fast that I forgot to look at the gas gauge. I had that awful sensation of the gas pedal, when you step on it, acting like the brake, and I looked at the needle hovering over Empty and wondered “How long has that been there?” The answer was "About sixty miles." I had just enough momentum to get from the fast lane to the shoulder before the car passed out. It was very humbling, like getting a sunburn in middle-age, though you haven't got burnt in decades, not because your skin has become less sensitive but because (duh) you've been applying sunscreen religiously. I spent about twenty minutes on hold with AAA (the phone battery, of course, draining, draining) before finally reaching an actual person, who said, cheerfully, “We’ll make this a priority—you’re in a dangerous spot!”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


I made it out to Rockaway yesterday to retrieve the Éclair, which I’ll need for gallivanting around over the holidays. My original plan was to get the car on Saturday, but even if I had been on the road before it started snowing and got back into town before the snow started accumulating, and Mayor Bloomberg suspended alternate-side parking, as expected after a snowstorm, so that, if I found a spot, I wouldn’t have to move until I wanted to … it still seemed dim to choose that particular moment—in the eye of the blizzard—to drive into Manhattan.

So I waited, and yesterday, with a sensation compounded of equal parts hunger and happiness, I took the A train to Rockaway. My car was nowhere in sight, but Mrs. T. had said she would make sure it was dug out, and I figured that once it had been dug out there was no reason for Mr. T. not to use it. So I called him on my cell phone, its battery rapidly dying, and we connected. I had time to finish a few little tasks in the bungalow before he came with the car. For instance, although the bungalow itself is like an icebox in winter, I had not yet turned off the refrigerator, which means that I was using it to keep things warm, for which perverted use of refrigeration may Gore forgive me. When T. came, he helped me pack the car (I had enough raisins and walnuts and parmesan-cheese crusts in the refrigerator to sustain the Donner Party for a week), and I gave him a ride back to work.

In Manhattan, I started praying that the city would give me a Christmas gift in the form of a humble parking spot, a prize rarer than usual with snow barricading the curbs. It was about four o’clock, and I was meeting someone at five, so my plan was to trace my route and, if I found nothing, park at a meter for two hours and worry about it in the morning. At a light a block from K Street, I set the trip meter and my diver’s watch: there is nothing like taking a scientific interest to distract one from overwhelming feelings of despair.

Nothing on K Street, nothing on Penny Lane, nothing on the street with the independent coffee shop that is now a fishmarket … I was about to embark on the next long leg of my territory—let’s call it the Circus Maximus—but I decided first to buzz the Sanctuary, just in case, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the most beautiful parking spot ever beheld by man: spacious, outlined by a modest snow bank—nothing I could not hump the car over—and carpeted in slush, allowing me to maneuver closer to the curb. It was a spot worthy of a car owned by a dentist.

Before locking the car, I poked my head back in to look at the trip meter: nine-tenths of a mile. According to my diver’s watch, I had been submerged in the search for seven minutes. Not bad—far less energy consumed therein than in, say, heating with refrigeration for a month. Now, if the Mayor will give us a break tomorrow, and I don't have to shiver in the car for a half hour, I will consider it a very merry alternate-side-parking Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wish List

1. iPhone
2. Smart Car
3. No. 1 pencils (twelve gross or lifetime supply)
4. Ciborium
5. Hair insurance

December is a momentous time of year for many reasons, among them the need to renew my car insurance. I switched insurers last year, and saved enough money to see a Broadway show. Because I stuck my head up, all year I got junk mail from insurance companies. Earlier this month, I went online to see if I could get a better deal. I had barely finished filling out the form when my phone rang: it was a guy from Allstate.

It turns out that the secret of saving money on car insurance is to fill in the blanks right. This time, I gave my Rockaway address for the place where the car is “garaged.” I do keep the car out there most of the time now—in fact, it has been exactly one month since I entrusted its safe parking to my neighbors in exchange for letting them drive it. The Allstate agent has his office in nearby Howard Beach, and he recognized my zip code, which turns out to be a little pocket of safety in New York. He said he could insure me for six months for $329.20.

That was almost half the cost of my current insurer, Liberty Mutual, at $1,214 a year.

Of course, I don’t know what he’s going to charge me for the second half of the year, and I am wary by nature: I always try to follow my father’s advice when I’m pricing something, and go to three different places. So I called Geico, which I dumped last year; Geico has been pestering me with junk mail to lure me back. Their price was higher than Liberty Mutual's. An outfit called 21st Century gave me an estimate of $1,861.93 for six months, six times as much as Allstate. What do they take me for?

Meanwhile, the Early Bird of Howard Beach kept calling back, and I asked him why he was so much cheaper. He went over the old premium statement with me, and what kept the other estimates so high, besides the Manhattan zip code, was that I was insured for theft and collision. For a 1990 car, he said, it doesn’t make sense—unless it’s a Mercedes or something. The Éclair is the only car I’ve ever had collision insurance on, because it was in mint condition when I acquired it. By now, it’s a little banged up. There comes a time, the insurance man said, when you have to admit that your car is old. None of the other insurance companies even bothered to ask if I wanted to keep that coverage. So I went with Allstate, though it pains me to let go of my car's youth.

Now, about that hair insurance. Lately I’ve noticed that my hair looks more and more like the hair of the person who cuts it, which would be O.K., except that he is a middle-aged Frenchman. His hair looks fine on him, but he has been creating me more and more in his image. The last French hairdresser I had did that, too, and he had terrible scraggly hair. I think hair salons should offer some kind of insurance: (1) that your hair will not form wings over your ears as soon as you leave the salon; (2) that your hair will grow out gracefully; and (3) that you will not look like a middle-aged Frenchman unless that is what you are. Is that too much to ask?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Baby Dee & the Archbishop

For parking purposes, the four-day Thanksgiving weekend lasted two weeks. If you were industrious enough to find a Friday-only spot on November 20th, today was the first day you would have had to move. This is because, as the Times noted last Saturday, the Muslim holiday Idul-Adah (commemorating Abraham’s not having to sacrifice Isaac) overlapped with Thanksgiving, giving alternate-side parkers a break on the Friday after Thanksgiving, traditionally a day of great ticket-giving by New York’s finest.

Of course, this schedule of parking meant not using the car at all over the holiday, but that need not keep one from travelling. For the holiday itself, I took the train to Hartsdale. On Monday, I took a bus to Newark airport for a nonstop flight to Madison, Wisconsin, to see Baby Dee perform, and flew back into LaGuardia via Milwaukee, where Archbishop Timothy Dolan operated before moving to New York. I treated myself to a taxi home from the airport.

It was all a bit of a whirl. For one thing, the night before Baby Dee played Madison, the Archbishop played—I mean, celebrated Mass at—St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village. It was the First Sunday of Advent. A friend had invited me, and I was excited—I don’t think I’d seen a bishop in person since my confirmation (plus we were going out afterward for fried artichokes). The Archbishop wore a high purple cone-shaped hat and deep-purple vestments. His crosier was immense and shiny. His face was pink, with a sweet perplexedness in the brow, and a glow, when he worked the crowd, that can only be described as, yes, beatific. Archbishop Dolan is a man of the people. Like Sarah Palin, he drops his “g”s: “I hope you know I love doin’ this.” The proper form of address for an archbishop, incidentally, is “Your Grace.”

I hope His Grace knows that I didn’t mean to be rude by taking notes in church and will forgive me if I mix them up with the notes I took at the Majestic Theatre, in Madison, where Baby Dee was opening for a duo called The Books. The Majestic was not as majestic as St. Joseph’s, which has a painting of the Transfiguration instead of the traditional Crucifix at the front, and crystal chandeliers hanging by chains wrapped in ice-blue crushed velvet from a Wedgwood-blue coffered ceiling. Still, the old movie theatre, which has been reconfigured into a performance space with folding chairs, a few tall tables, and a bar, was just as crowded as St. Joseph’s. The décor consisted of a single banner advertising a radio station with the call letters WORT. Both venues had balconies, and the Archbishop did not fail to play to the upper tiers. The Majestic had royal boxes on both sides. St. Joseph’s had a good piano; the Majestic had none.

Baby Dee took the stage bare-headed in a Dalmation-spotted hoodie. She started on the harp, with some of her inimitable dirges. After the second song, a few girls in the second row got up and left. “They realized they were in the wrong place,” Dee said later, more in pity than in condemnation. Anyway, their seats were soon filled. Dee did one of her most popular songs, “So Bad,” which includes the refrain “Jesus got my mom in there, and beat her up so bad.”

Then he took the bread into his hands and he broke it and said—no, that’s not right, though it reminds me that Communion provided the most awkward moment at St. Joseph’s. Of course, I don’t receive Communion—not that I have been excommunicated, like that Kennedy boy in Rhode Island; I am just too full of sin to participate. Everyone else in the church, however, rushed the communion rail; seated at mid-pew, I was like a boulder that the river of communicants had to flow around. But at the Majestic we all drank freely of the local beer (the Archbishop, I understand, enjoys a beer now and then) and cheered when Baby Dee moved from harp to accordion.

The Archbishop’s homily was, appropriately, about St. Joseph, and the value of silence and action and grace under pressure. Dee’s text was “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which we first sang as tykes beside our grandmother’s piano. Dee’s version is called “Rudolph the Disgruntled Reindeer,” and Dee told the story of how she once sang it, inappropriately, to a group of children caroling in the Village, and as their horrified chaperones hustled them away, Satan himself turned to Dee and said, “What were you thinking?”

The more I think about it, the more I see the influence of religion on Dee’s material. She did a song about Mormon underwear, and one about “God’s Great Plan,” and finished up with “The Song of Self Acceptance” (these last two are from “The Baby Dee Hymnal”; the words can be found online at Baby Dee’s Song Lyrics). Everyone sang along on the last verse: “I’m not the only pisspot in the house.” I would say that Baby Dee was for the most part well received. She did not overstay her time onstage. The Books proved to be clean-cut guys with a guitar and a minimalist electric cello, who accompanied videos they had made from old tapes found at thrift shops. This stuff is not for everybody.

At home, there was more parking news: the advent of an app for parking. The application, using something called “crowdsourcing,” was devised by Bryan Choi, an alternate-side parker in Inwood, who very sweetly hopes that people will use it “to build a sense of community.” For Christmas I will have to ask Santa for an iphone.