The Little Things
It’s amazing, how quickly the oddest things can begin to feel sorta … normal?
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, it seemed strange to see someone walking around wearing a mask. Now it feels strange (not to mention infuriating) to see people without a mask.
I don’t want to wax poetic on the sadness, fear and loss the virus has caused, so I won’t. This does not come easily to me. I am a Jewish woman. I was born to complain. But. I’ve given too much of my energy to lamenting.
Lately, I notice a rim of golden light encasing the gray unknown. Time has slowed down to let things I would have normally sped past, come into view.
The sound of birds singing and pigeons cooing are the first sounds I hear in the morning. Instead of jumping out of bed to start my day, I stay in bed a little longer listening to the birds, letting the first waves of morning light illuminate my bedroom.
Two reddish-brown mourning doves have been canoodling on my fire escape. My neighbor G-man said they mate for life. They’re loyal. I like that. They’ve probably been there for some time, but I just never noticed them. I was in the middle of writing a proposal when I noticed them flirting outside my window. I stopped typing to stare at them. Such a pretty color. Like old brick. How long did I watch? It might have been a half-hour. In my pre-corona life, a half-hour watching doves would have been unheard-of. A half-hour?! That time would be better spent running to work, going to the gym, making to-do lists.
I still write to-do lists. On yesterday’s list I wrote “Call Levanch, and make sure she’s okay.”
Well, about as okay as anyone in their 90s during the pandemic can be. In our conversation, she told me that she’d been a model, worked in the Garment District, danced with soldiers during WWII and worked on Whitney Houston’s wedding. Later on, her daughter texted to say, “You know you made her day, right?” She made my day, too.
Pre-corona, I was too busy for phone calls. Phone calls?! Actually talking?! With your mouth?! Way too much of a commitment. Text is best.
Now I call a lot of people, including people I haven’t talked to for years. I reached out to my old college professor. Even all those years ago, Mary had embraced her love of all things old-fashioned. The first thing she said when I called was, “You know I’m talking to you from a landline.”
Today’s to-do list includes, “Walk in the sun. Look at the water.”
Did the trees along the East River flower with such beauty before corona? I don’t recall ever seeing them so bountiful. Maybe it’s because there are so few people along the river that I can actually see the trees. Or maybe it’s because I’m not looking at the time on my cell phone and picking up my pace.
There really is something to that expression, “Stop and smell the flowers.”
When did the lilacs appear in Tompkins Square Park? Those have gotta be new. The smell is pure glory. I always think of lilacs as the Mother’s Day flower. They were Mom’s favorite flowers. Growing up, a neighbor had an overflowing tree of them that always bloomed around Mother’s Day. I made a point to steel a few branches of lilacs every year for Mom. I was a fairly rotten kid. Those lilacs got me out of a lot of trouble.
I’ve been spending a lot of time walking around in “empty” New York, taking pictures with my phone. So strange to be standing near the Freedom Tower at rush hour and being one of the only people on the street. It is mind-blowing. It felt sad at first, surreal, like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Then I started to notice things.
The beautiful old buildings in the Financial District, no longer hidden by hordes of stockbrokers, commuters and taxi cabs, are majestic and elegant, much more beautiful than characterless glass skyscrapers. I marvel at St. Paul’s Church. Hundreds of years old, and she’s still standing. So many people found refuge at St. Paul’s when it was covered in fax paper and debris from the collapsed World Trade Center, me included. I always think of 9/11 when I see St. Paul’s.
I’ve always cherished these sweet melancholies: the way a bustling beach town feels in the winter, the way it feels to watch a storm from somewhere inside and safe. Empty New York is bathed in sweet melancholy. So many gems of old New York have been taken from us. The beautiful buildings that remain stand stoic and proud, adorned with the beauty and craftsmanship of a bygone era.
The joyous eruption of New Yorkers clapping, playing drums, banging on pots and cheering that happens each night at 7, in thanks for the essential workers, has become my reward for the day. I can join in anywhere: from my window, from my roof, from the streets, from a park. I can just stop wherever I am, and yell full blast in support of front line workers, which fills me with relief, release and joy.
We have a roof deck in my building. When I first moved to the building 20 years ago, I threw parties on the roof all the time. I’d sunbathe up there, grow herbs up there. I loved spending time on the roof. In the last 10 years, almost the entire summer can go by without my climbing the stairs.
For weeks I was hanging out my window and banging metal spoons on sauce pots so much so that all my pots are nicked. Worth it. I could hear the most excellent drumbeat in the distance. One day, I went up on the roof and discovered that it was my neighbor, G-man, doing the excellent drumming. I doubt I added to the great beats he was making by banging on my metal pasta strainer, but he seemed to like the company.
“I have to start things off for my friends,” he said. Once he started drumming, most of the tenants with front facing terraces in the project on Avenue C came out to greet his beats with their own symphony of maracas, pots, bongos and horns. I loved the sight of him playing the drum latched to his waist as if calling out to a distant ship.
Now, I go up on the roof every day. The potted plants are overgrown and untamed. I like the way they look, wild and free. The mourning doves spend a lot of time on the roof, too. I think their nest must be nearby. G-man told me they’re called mourning doves because of the sounds they make.
“They sound like wailing or mourning,” he explained.
I’ve been listening to them a lot lately. I think they’re calling out greetings to each other. “Hey!” “How are you?”
I’ve moved my daily workout to the roof. I work out, camouflaged behind an overgrown tree. There’s more room in the main part of the deck, but when I worked out in the center of the roof deck, I heard catcalls from other buildings. I shouldn’t complain. I’m 55. The catcalls that used to follow me all around the city dried up years ago. But a girl likes a little privacy. I do my fairly terrible routine of leg lifts and squats, but it’s glorious to feel the sun on my face. Sometimes I have to duck abruptly. There are two gigantic bumblebees that keep attempting to have sex midair. I thought I had a rough life. Bee humping, mid-air? Oy. Not easy.
I’m a chef who never cooks at home. I’m told this is common. After a day of designing menus and making sauces and dips and marinades, that last thing I wanted to do when I got home was cook. For years, I’ve been the order-in, go-out queen.
Now I’m cooking all the time. I go into my commercial kitchen and cook huge vats of curry, stew and soup. I’ve been cooking with abandon, music cranked and singing along both terribly and loudly. So what if the food’s not perfect? It will be tasty and nourishing. Tasty, nourishing and infused with rock ’n’ roll. Yeah, baby. The best part of all this cooking is giving it away to friends.
I came to New York City from Jersey to be an artist. Making a living on art never panned out, and trying to live on 600 bucks a month grew tired really fast. But I like to think that as a chef I’m creating art all the time. For years, I thought I could only paint in Provincetown, looking out at the majestic bay. The Provincetown Bay, my favorite muse.
A week ago, I dusted off my supplies and starting painting. It wasn’t like I decided to start painting. It was more like I forgot to stop. I wanted to capture the images in my head of empty New York.
My first painting was a woman, calm, strong and peaceful with a backdrop of buildings. The turquoise paint that dots my paintings of the Provincetown Bay, dotted the buildings of old New York instead.
I named the first painting “Salvation.”