Monday, December 19, 2011

Please Keep Your Feet to Yourself

Half asleep, I shuffled onto the uptown 1 train to head home. The crowds of people with their holiday shopping bags took me by surprise. Was it that time of the year again? As the doors opened to let passengers off at the next stop, a seat near the door became available. In anticipation of a good nap, I quickly claimed it. Instantly I felt all of my muscles relax upon sitting down. I closed my eyes for a few minutes and thought about how odd it was that I could take a nap in the midst of total strangers who were looming over me. The train stopped and the doors opened again to let on the next crowd. A short attractive woman holding a toddler walked on. She looked a lot like one of my professors who was from India. I stood up and leaned towards her. 'Would you like to sit down?' She nodded as if it was the only civilized thing I could have asked her, and thanked me politely. She was well-dressed, and cooing to her child softly. The angular mousy-blonde woman sitting next to her was intently reading her book, arms stiffly guarding her space. Someone stepped in front of me and obscured a clear view of the action to come. I heard the toddler vocalizing excitedly. I saw blondie protecting her space. 'Your child is kicking me', she said in a controlled voice. I saw her long arms exert halting little movements towards the Indian woman, which I imagined were attempts at corraling the child's unweildy legs back into his mother's lap. 'He's only a child, he can't help himself', I heard the mother defend. Her face was clearly visible to me, and she held a broad, confident smile that was turning into condescension. Blondie continued guarding her territory.'His legs are kicking me, keep them under control.' The mother responded instantly with the same crinkly-eyed smile, 'Oh, you obviously will never be a mother, or never a good mother, anyway, that's for sure.' The mother started laughing, and before Blondie could respond, a heavy woman on her other side offered to switch seats with her. The new arrangement was quickly implemented. The mother suddenly burst into tears. A seat opened up on her other side and a man was walking towards her with a look of concern. He sat down next to her and asked her what had happened. She answered in between quiet, heaving sobs, 'I was so upset, I said something I wouldn't normally say. Why was she so mean?' They talked in hushed tones as the toddler calmed down and stopped kicking. I didn't feel sorry for the mother, though she was clearly vulnerable and full of self-doubt. I felt sorry for the crazy book reader. People were now glaring at her and whispering about how horrible it was to treat an innocent baby like that. Some were even doing double takes to record her image, lest she be caught in future tussles with babies on subways. Had this incident taken place in the car adjacent to this one, she may have been supported by like-minded adults in favor of preserving kick-free seating zones. There probably is something wrong with me, I thought as I reflected on my utter fascination with scenarios that involved very uncomfortable verbal conflicts among strangers. Calm was restored, as the mother and her male counterpart now spoke in voices which were inaudible. If the emotions of the incident were still on their tongues, it was impossible to detect from their facial expressions. They could well have been discussing what silverware to use for their Sunday brunch in the Hamptons. Blondie got up at the next stop, and with little fanfare, exited the train. No parting advise on how to raise children with urban sensibilities. Another day on the 1 train, and no one lost an eye.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

To all the innocent ones

My friend in Saltash, a small town about a four hour train ride from Heathrow airport, sent me a quick message on Facebook last month. She mentioned that she'd like to come visit when the Freedom Tower is built. We receive so many bits of information online in such a short period of time, in comparison to BC (before computers), that our filtering system has become very efficient at responding mentally to specific data and filing it as necessary. My gut response to her statement was to feel slightly foolish at not being as interested in 911-related news as Cornish friends half a world away. It's not that I was so physically removed from the site, living five miles north of it. Every week for the past three years, I have taken the number 1 train to Rector street to tutor my young student. Every time I crossed the West side Highway I would see the construction of this tower. My focus on arriving on time for my weekly appointment and crossing the highway invariably took precedence over reflecting on 911. And then one day, waiting for the light to turn green and wondering if the crossing guards took their jobs home with them, I looked up and saw a glittering piece of architecture that seemed to have materialized from nowhere. It caught my full attention, and it dawned on me that this was what everyone was talking about. The foolish feeling returned, accompanied by a sense of awe at the power commanded by a giant structure. This Friday morning, two days before the tenth anniversary of 911, I am sitting in front of my new class of children. The school is in a community center in the Bronx. There are twenty four-year-olds sitting in front of me on the rug, waiting to hear 'The Man Who Walked Between the Towers'. I checked first with my director for approval to read this book. She requested that I not go into any detail about the disappearance of the towers at the end of the book. As a person highly committed to honesty, this posed a slight problem. I had planned on answering any question that came up in a way that children could understand and use in their struggles with conflict resolution. (Sometimes people don't agree on things, and sometimes they forget to use their words when they become angry). My director was firm on her stance, explaining that some parents might become irate over such exposure to 911 events to their children. Having experienced the wrath of an angry mother on two occasions, I quickly accepted the argument and began my reading. The children were focused. Jason, who was sitting in the front, saw Philippe Petit juggling in the park wearing his street performer outfit. 'He looks like Michael Jackson!' When I read the part about Petit contemplating sneaking up to the rooftop against the instructions of the police officers, I said, 'He knew he wasn't supposed to be up there, but he wanted to walk across the wire so badly, he couldn't help himself. So he snuck up there.' My assistant Ms. Shandra walked over to set the tables for breakfast and said under her breath, 'Hmmm. They know a lot about doing things they're not supposed to.' When I got to the page where the towers were missing, I asked the children where they were. 'They broke', Jason said. 'How?' I asked. He shrugged. He tried again. 'They disappeared!' 'Yes' I said, 'But how?' He waved his hand like a magician making something disappear, then clapped his hands with the flourish of a seasoned performer and smiled up at me. I smiled back at him. At that moment, I agreed with my director. Let's hold on to our innocence a little longer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Asian Persuasion

My friend AeRhee and I had just finished watching a Brazilian documentary at MOMA. This was the type of film that would fall into the category of 'films about quotidian routines that are not designed to promote tourism'. For some reason, we both decided to wait it out to the bitter end. The rough premise was to highlight twenty little known villages in Brazil with short vignettes of their local inhabitants. Upon leaving the theatre and marching out into the steamy evening air, we got into a discussion about how we express our dissatisfaction with others. In my usual self-deprecating manner, I confessed that I was noticing my occasional tendency towards passive-aggressive responses to strangers' unintended slights. I gave AeRhee an example from the night I went to see Pink Martini live at Summer Stage in Central Park. I was standing not far from the stage with an audience of a thousand or so people, and was dancing a little to 'Lilly', one of their catchiest songs. Suddenly, a young woman arrived with a large tote bag which she tossed in front of her, and then planted her body two inches from my nose. My Cha Cha moves ceased, as I looked down on this spectacle of space invasion. As the red in my cheeks started deepening, I tried to think of a tactful way of asking this person not to insert her hair in my mouth. My friend had no trouble coming up with a solution. 'I would have said, 'Excuse me, can you please move forward a little, I don't have enough room here.' I looked at my friend and smiled. Yes, that would have been the normal thing to say. I told her that culture plays a role in our responses, as I recalled learning about Asian cultures having a very direct way of communicating. AeRhee, who is Korean-American, agreed with me. As we quickened our pace down 58Th street, we arrived at a bar my friend wanted to go into. It had an East side look to it that I wasn't used to. Men were wearing business suits or collared shirts, and the women were in cocktail dresses. I was wearing an outfit more appropriate for hiking a mountain. AeRhee and her direct communication skills miraculously got us two bar stools as we slid through the crowd of suits. I ordered a Czech draft beer. It was cold and crisp, but it lacked a pulse. It put me in a bad mood. I like my friendly Belgian ales. Being heard involved screaming, so our conversation was limited to lots of nodding. Through the sea of conversations one voice succeeded in getting its message across. A clearly inebriated man wearing a pink sports shirt repeated the same phrase several times as he looked over in our direction. 'My friend just got back from serving two terms in Iraq'. AeRhee responded by taking out her cell phone to show me pictures of the pianist she had become friends with. As she scrolled through the images of a pensive looking man in a tuxedo with long flowing hair, the war veteran made his way up to the bar. He too was drunk. He leaned over and touched an image of the pianist sitting in AeRhee's convertible. 'He's a good-looking guy', the vet slurred. AeRhee and I looked at him momentarily, and then went back to the pictures. I felt bad for the vet. I turned to him and said, 'Welcome home'. He thought I was offering an invitation. He must have had a lot of those Czech beers. As I glanced at a picture of the pianist standing in the woods, the vet stuck his finger under my arm. What was he doing? The gesture was unacceptable for many reasons, not the least of which being that I had been sweating all day from the record-breaking temperatures. What to do? With all my Asian moxy I turned to him and in a clear, direct voice announced, 'Don't ever touch me again. I don't like being touched by strangers.' This huge, drunken man who had previously worn a mask of arrogance, suddenly woke up from his stupor. His features slackened in a moment of defeat, and gazing at the floor, he apologised. Though thrilled with this new found directness, I still didn't trust it's power to permanently block future space-invading attempts. I picked up my stool and moved it closer to AeRhee. I was on the right path. I looked forward to a future of directness accompanied by better beer.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Me Generation

Being a CUNY student, I have unlimited free access to all films showing at the MOMA. Being unemployed, I take advantage of this quite often. MOMA supports film makers from all different stages of their careers- some of the best of the lot, like last night's 'Das Lied in mir' directed by Florian Micoud Cossen, was a final film school project. Unfortunately, the previous eight films I watched there left me wondering if my taste in film was no longer in sync with my budget. Two weekends in a row I viewed international documentaries that sounded very promising- the first, told from the protagonist's perspective, about a woman in South America sold as a child to work as a servant for a middle class family. The first hour of the film featured no dialogue, no music- just straight footage of this woman as an aging servant, toiling through her chores. The camera followed her as she pruned the plum trees, watered the plants, chopped wood. An hour. One hour. I had to stop asking my friend Mel to join me for these viewings, as she no longer trusted any film I showed interest in. So I invited Mike, who hadn't seen me for much of my 'MOMA film marathon' period, so was unaware of potential pitfalls with my film selections. The very long line snaking around the entrance door to the downstairs theatre was a good sign. We found some empty seats, and started settling in. I looked behind me, and realized that the very short man in back of me would never be able to see over my head, so I asked Mike to move down a seat, and I followed. We put our coats and bags on the now empty seat on my left. Within seconds, the elderly lady sitting on the other side of the seat said in a very audible voice, (something all little old ladies seem to possess), 'Don't you think it's rude to put your belongings on one of the seats when the theatre is so crowded?' I looked around to see if I had missed some movie-goer who was looking for an empty seat. Seeing none, I replied, 'It's not a big deal, if someone wants this seat, we can simply take our jackets back.' She was intent on forcing the issue. 'But they'll think someone is sitting there if they see your jackets.' Then she turned to her friends before I could come up with a good answer, and said very loudly, 'It's all about them, the 'Me' Generation.. Me, me, me!' All of a sudden I turned into my grandma Blanche, and was fired up and willing to risk being kicked out of the theatre to stand up to this seat Nazi. 'If someone wants to sit here they're welcome to, I don't know why you're getting so angry.' 'You want to see angry, I'll show you angry!' she said in a huff, and then added quickly, 'Well anyway, I want to sit there!' I smiled triumphantly. 'Well why didn't you just say so in the first place, instead of giving me this big lecture?' I took our stuff off the seat, she moved over next to me. I turned to Mike, my heart pumping from the adrenalin- 'Is this funny? It sounds funny to me, but no one is laughing.' Mike is a therapist by day, and has a penchant for keeping the peace. Since granny was still muttering about me and my selfish ways, and Mike saw my haunches up, he said jovially, 'Am I going to have to sit between you two?' I was thinking it might be a good idea, but then granny sat quietly with her hands on her lap looking straight ahead. All bark and no bite. I was tempted to give her another piece of my mind, but eh. I have been tested by the best of them- irate phone company customers, out of control three year olds, and revenge-seeking stalkers, to name a few. It's hard to take pride in engaging in warfare with someone half your height, but I must say- it really feels good to tell someone, 'You picked the wrong person to act like a lunatic with. Sell crazy someplace else, we're all stocked up.'

Friday, March 04, 2011

How do I love thee?

I was walking hurriedly down the Sugar Hill side street to get to work. Patches of black ice were glazing the sidewalk, keeping my gaze low. As I looked up, a large man looking like the late Biggie Smalls was approaching me, slowly walking his cuddly dog. It was Riley's father. Riley was a a three year old in my class who was in constant motion, defying any direction that she herself did not initiate. On my second day of work as a substitute teacher at this school, I found her moodily sulking on the floor with her arms crossed across her chest. She turned to me and said, 'I don't love you no more, Ms. Tamar.' It was one of the cutest things anyone had ever said to me. At least coming from her, it was. I wasn't even aware that she knew my name. Seeing her father on the street seemed like a good opportunity to find out more information about his complex little girl. I shared my story with him, and he confided that Riley often says the same thing about him to her brother. 'Jared, I don't love daddy no more.' He shared some more stories about the trials of getting her to sleep before midnight, and how he spends hours reading to her. I didn't have any solutions, but thought it was a good step to building some rapport with a parent. Later that day at work, my assistant teacher asked me to find some Valentine's poem to include with the heart-shaped pictures she had been working on with the kids to send home to their families. I thought gathering some insights from the kids directly and compiling a list of quotes would be a more personal gift for them to bring home. I started an inquiry into the reasons behind their love for their families. Having a mathematical background (yes, completing an undergraduate minor in math qualifies), I couldn't start with the assumption that love existed. The interview consisted of two questions- do you love your family, and if so, why? Kid #1: 'Yes, because they make me rice and chicken.' I liked that logic. Kid #2: 'Yes, because they buy me candy.' OK, a little pedestrian, but if someone were to buy me some Sour Patch kids, I may be inclined to have warm feelings towards them as well. I asked Riley: 'Do you love your family?' She didn't miss a beat: 'Mommy's good and daddy's bad.' Had she been rehearsing? I paused for a second, and thought maybe a second round would illicit something more generous to her poor sleep-deprived father. I repeated the question, and she repeated the answer. Twice. I said OK, and wrote down her words. You can't edit kids' feelings. I thought it was original, heartfelt, funny, and mostly, I thought her father would get a big kick out of seeing it. I compiled all of the quotes into one page of classroom voices, ran it by my assistant teacher who agreed to keep the unedited version, and off the cards went to the homes. That was a Friday. The following Monday, my supervisor came into the classroom and sighed, 'I wish you would have showed me the card you sent home before sending it out. One of the parents was very upset.' I had a feeling that this might happen, but felt confident in the good intentions behind the decision to send the children's quotes home. Apparently, one of the moms thought that Riley's statement was given by HER daughter, and that brought up issues with the estranged father. The issue escalated to a point where the mother lost control and came into my classroom to voice her anger. Unfortunately, I was sick that day, and her wrath was taken out on teachers from another classroom that had no idea what she was talking about. This scenario ran over in my mind many days and nights, and though I am positive that I had the best of intentions by sharing Riley's quote, I have now learned to reign in a bit of my off-center humor. Somberly waiting for the 1 train on my last day of work, Melissa, the mom of another girl in my class came up to me with her daughter. 'Tamar! We're so lucky we get to see you on your last day!' Our train came, and we all boarded together. I asked her if she had heard of the drama that had been going on in my class. She said she had, and after I explained how the children's collective quotes were mistaken by one mom for quotes of her own daughter, Melissa looked sheepishly at me. 'I thought they were Alyssa's quotes too.' I asked her if the quote about mommy and daddy was upsetting to her. She told me that she is not on the best terms with Alyssa's dad, and when she read the quote, she said to herself, 'Yes! She finally sees him for what he really is!' and she has happily displayed the card on their fridge ever since.
I don't know, but for some reason I couldn't get the Pebbles Flintstone song out of my head that week either.

Note: if you want to hear this video, first scroll down to my playlist at the bottom of this page and click the two vertical lines buttom in the middle of the three button volume control to turn off the automatic music

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Mumbling Man

I have known Gogol Bordello would be giving a performance locally for about a month, but kept putting off getting a ticket. Gypsy punk music with Eastern European roots kind of sums up my childhood, so I wanted to go with someone like a sibling- you know, someone who would 'get' the music, and dance along with me until the last set. Having no handy siblings, the tickets sold out, and I was left with the next best option: posting on couch surfing for a like-minded fan. I was happy to find a Gogol Bordello group had already formed and were sharing tips on getting last minute tickets to the concert. Before I knew it, I was waiting inside the Time Warner building for at least one of those fans. Aren was supposed to meet me by a designated escalator entrance. I arrived early, and was struck by the throngs of New Year's day crowds, well dressed out of towners happy to be spending their money. I witnessed several impassioned reunions, and found myself smiling along with the anonymous reunitees. For a moment I felt like I was in an airport. When Aren arrived, we shared ideas on best practices for negotiating with a scalper. Armed with no concrete plan, but an abundance of confidence, we inserted ourselves at the end of the ticket-holder's line. We waited a short while until they had checked our IDs and given us charming paper bracelets to allow us access to alcohol purchase if we so desired (I didn't, thank-you- this was New Year's day and I was still a bit groggy from the previous evening's adventures in Green Point). Security checked our bags for weapons, and sent us inside to enjoy the show. Of course Aren and I were not quite ready for this step, and were instantly turned away without our tickets. Standing in the unlit street was a a big guy with an over sized bomber jacket, telling us to come over to him so we could 'talk'. A security guard opened the velvet rope allowing us to exit. I was assigned the task of talking, since Aren was too dressed up to be considered for the sliding scale rates. I shifted my gaze non-challently, as if I really didn't have any interest in buying these tickets, and asked casually, 'How much?' The scalper countered, 'What were you looking to pay?' 'Twenty dollars.' The scalper grimaced, and in a raised voice, answered, 'Now miss, I know you didn't come to a sold out concert thinking you were going to get a ticket for $20.' I work with three year olds, I wasn't falling for this circular logic. I thanked him, and walked away. I did have a sheepish smile though, as I mimicked the guy's words to Aren. It was pretty funny. So plan b was to tend to nutrition needs first, and avoid the trap of purchasing under desperation. This band has been around and touring for twenty plus years, this wouldn't be their last concert. We got a bite to eat, talked about things couch surfers love to talk about, and tried one more time. Crossing 11th avenue in its notorious darkness, two lurking scalpers remembered our plight. 'Got tickets,' they said as smoothly as a Barry White lyric. How much?' Aren asked. '$80' was the answer. 'No thanks.' We kept walking. One of them called after us, 'You won't find anything cheaper. Go back to the movies.' Every one's a comedian. We did find something cheaper, but still overpriced. I was really tired, and we decided to call it a night. We parted and I headed back uptown for home. I remembered I needed to buy stuff to make playdough, so dragged myself into D'ags. I picked up an appealingly green bunch of broccoli rabe. As I studied it, the sprinklers for the fresh vegetables activated and startled me into jumping. I was too tired to laugh, like I usually do. A song I liked was playing in the store's system, and I started singing softly into my broccoli rabe. I was alone in the produce aisle. I walked around looking for items I needed. Passing the pasta section, an older man who may have been homeless was mumbling as he looked up at some out of reach boxes of pasta. I couldn't tell if he was talking to me or himself, so I kept walking past him. I got around the corner, and thought, 'Wait. Maybe he needs assistance.' I walked back and asked him if he needed some help. He was in his own world, and didn't hear me. I asked him again, this time approaching him from his other side. He turned to me, and had one cloudy eye. He looked around 80, but was probably only 60. His face softened into a smile when he realized I wanted to help him. With a thick island accent, he replied, 'No, I'm fine.' At that moment, I saw a man that seemed to be completely alone in the world. He had taken to talking to himself as the rest of the world had stopped listening. I felt overwhelmed by sadness, and had to leave. As I started the three block walk to my apartment, the sultry dark night swallowed me in its emptiness.