There’s a theme running through my life this week and that theme is WHY didn’t you call us? It’s a story in two parts so gather round, children. We’ll have Part One of the tale today and Part Two tomorrow.
I have a friend named Lois who will be 79 this year and one night about a month ago with a houseful of people due to arrive on my doorstep to read a Shakespearean play aloud, she arrived to help me set things out but became distracted by what she called the smell of gas outside your house. “There’s the smell of GAS outside your house, dear! You really must drop everything and call the emergency line!! Terry, dear, you really MUST,” she said again in her voice like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, the idea being What if it’s a leak?
But I was in no mood for that. Not only were 30 relative strangers about to descend on me but I’d just finished installing my post-surgical cat upstairs in sickbay with a clown-collar around his neck to prevent him from tweezing out the stitches with those pointy little teeth of his. Never mind that I couldn’t find the goddam COCKTAIL NAPKINS, and was fanning frantically through all the kitchen drawers thinking “OK shoe polish, plant food, tuna-flavored hairball cream, WHERE IN HELL ARE THE COCKTAIL NAPKINS? Am I going to have to set out folded squares of toilet paper for these fancy people? “
I found them finally and the crowd arrived and we read our Henry VIII and that day passed and the next and eventually a whole month went by and my poor cat healed up and his lovely pale green eyes the color of Coke bottle bottoms began to sparkle once more and Lois came again to my house, this time to pick me up for more Shakespeare at somebody else’s house this time and uh oh now I was in trouble because she said again that she smelled gas out on the sidewalk. “You really must call the gas company in the morning!” she said sternly and a third friend who was also going to the reading said she’d write me an email when she got home to remind me and she did and so I did. Call I mean.
And not 20 minutes afterward, the doorbell rang and there was the gas man. He identified himself but he didn’t make eye contact. He asked me to show him where we were getting the smell from so we stepped out on the sidewalk.
I said a number of friendly if not out-and-out wheedle-y beseechingly co-dependent things and finally he sort of thawed out enough to actually look at me. “Not to be fresh or anything,” he said “but my work order says you smelled gas outside here a MONTH ago. Why did you wait so long to call?”
“Well see I didn’t really smell it” I said and told about the 30 people and the sick cat and ended with “I mean what’re you are saying, that houses, like, blow up or something?”
He narrowed his eyes for just a second, then opened them really wide. “HELL YES THEY BLOW UP!” he bellowed. Then he just sort of came to life.
“There are these two gay guys a few towns over not that that enters into it, and they smell gas at 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon only they want to watch the football game, see, so they don’t call it in until 4:00. And when our guy comes he doesn’t even have to set foot inside to know what’s happening. He tells them, “Get out! Get out of the house now!’ and then BOOM! she blows. The House is GONE! Follow?”
He named three other houses in neighboring towns that also blew up, then told me he would have to use his various long-nosed sensors to probe around outside every OTHER house on the street too. He said he might have to knock on all their doors and get inside those houses too.
“But like that neighbor right there: she’s not home in the day.”
“Don’t matter!” he shouted. “We get a reading of gas leaking, we’re goin’ in! We break a window if we have to.”
“Hamm, well if the people ARE home, will they let you in always?”
“Hah! Sometimes they don’t want to let us in even if they called us. I get this one lady calls us up and I come and she won’t let me in. ‘I need to see some ID,’ she says . So OK ‘Here’s how I looked 20 years ago’ I say, showing her my badge. ‘And how do I know that’s really you?” she goes. “How do I know you’re really from the gas company?’ ‘Lady YOU called ME!’ I mean, what did she think? Was this Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory? She thought I, what? intercepted the call, caught up with the real gas man, knocked him out, took his clothes, rang her bell?! Gimme a break!”
After all this fun he came inside at last and spent a good 20 minutes in the basement positioning his delicate proboscis of a sensor here in there in the foundation and whew the inside of my house looked OK even if I did wait a month to call him and by then we were practically pals. “I’m going out now to check on all the neighbors’ houses” he then said, “and either you’ll never see us again, which means it’s basically nothing to worry about, or you’ll see us immediately, which means there’s a serious leak. OR,” he said, “You could see us within the week which means it’s a leak all right and we’re there to fix it.”
Well I guess it turned out to be the last thing, because all of a sudden today what do we have outside but TWO gas company trucks, a big yellow backhoe AND an actual policeman workin’ the paid detail. They’re making a huge racket and that asphalt just doesn’t want to bust up as the backhoe tap-tap-taps on it with the back of its gorilla knuckles. It will bust up eventually though, I’m sure. Because even I understand this much by now: this the bloomin’ gas company we’re dealing with here, and when the gas company says jump you just say, “How high?”
When the first Pope ever came to the States in the person of John Paul II he came first to Boston and said Mass on the Boston Common and boy did it pour – just rained cats and dogs on that patch of real estate where autonomous powerful women were hung for witches, where over the centuries assembled the Redcoats and the famous evangelists, the America Firsters and the Sacco-Vanzetti supporters, the Legalization of Birth Control advocates and even little Judy Garland before a crowd of 100,000 just two years before her death at 47, pre-embalmed as she was by the sauce by then, poor lambie.
Everyone loved that John Paul II because he was so young-seeming and athletic; because he looked like he might have played the lead role in one of the Tarzan movies from the old days.
I was 30 when he came. I could have gone to see him and would have, in a heartbeat, and brought my two babies in their strollers too, but the little one was SO little and still subject to such fits of supper-hour suffering I just couldn’t chance it. It was that and the torrents of rain that kept me home.
In a way though I feel as if I did see John Paul, up close even. I say this because my Seventh Grade boyfriend Perry “Mike” McDonough was by then a Secret Service agent and the very first person in the country to touch that great man’s hand when he clambered out of the plane at Logan airport. Mike was about the cutest middle schooler you ever saw, with wavy blond hair and eyes of a fish-tank blue. We stopped dating in Ninth Grade but 25 years later rekindled a connection that conjured those early years back in living color thanks mostly to Mike’s amazing memory. We see each other maybe once a year, going to reunions or concerts or visiting one another’s houses with our respective mates and I just love him, both for his positive outlook and his faithfulness of heart.
So here on this warm East coast Friday a toast: to Former Agent McDonough, now retired, and the Secret Service too and any Pope at all with the courage to come to see his flock here in the land of the Freethinkers; here in the land where something like 80% of the people polled say they don’t believe in Hell but they just KNOW there’s a Heaven and they’re prett-y darn sure they’re going there. And now back up to this picture of our last Pontiff back in ’79, doing for the first time here in the States what he always when his plane landed, with my old friend Mike to his right, looking simultaneously both fiercely alert, highly tuned-in and as sweetly humble as a shepherd at the Manger.
I got panhandled, if that’s what it was, during my very last minutes in Manhattan yesterday.
I was waiting to take my four-and-half-hour bus ride home, standing outside the Hilton when a frail woman came up to me with a look of woe on her face. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it and walking beside a girl of about 14, who she said was the baby’s mother.
“We need money. We have no thing to eat all this day,” she said in heavily accented English.
“Have you come far?” I asked, putting one hand on her shoulder and one on her arm. I couldn’t help it. She just looked so lost and woeful.
“Yes,” she said, nodding sadly. “Today we have come all the way from the Bronx looking for the food.”
That stopped me for a second. The Bronx? “But another country? You’re not from another country?” I asked, because she did have a serious accent.
“No, she said. “No other country.”
I gave her a ten because that’s the bill my hand folded around first when I felt in my pocket.
She thanked me, the three of them moved on down the sidewalk and I returned to my place in line just in time to hear the man standing next to me in a pair of soft wool slacks. “Con artists!” he muttered, with an angry look on his face.
“Hey what can I do? It’s my church’s teaching!” I said, trying to keep it light.
But I couldn’t just leave it at that. “Con artists?” I asked in a tentative voice. Because to me they just seemed like three uncomfortable-looking people fighting a wind so harsh the little green sword-blades of the Hilton’s daffodils were leaning dangerously over in their boxy concrete planters.
“Gypsies. Thieves.” he said. What had we, wandered into that old Cher song from the early 1970s? “Roma,” he added, as if that explained everything.
“Oh the ROMA! You mean the people who were shot on sight by Nazi soldiers and maybe those were the lucky ones because all the others were stripped of their citizenship, brought to concentration camps and gassed, even the old men and the pregnant women and the little children? I‘ve heard it said that Hitler caused between 200,000 and 800,000 Roma to be killed in the name of the ‘racial purity’ he saw as being so central to his plan for world domination.”
But I didn’t say any of that really.
I just said “What does that MEAN though? Where are the Roma FROM? I mean is it a country or just a region in Europe?’”
“Romania. Parts of Bulgaria. Other places,” he said. “They’re gypsies,” he said again. “Con artists,” he repeated. “And you are the worse sort of sap,” he all but added.
“You’re lucky you didn’t just get your pocket picked” he said. But how that frail woman was going to pick my pocket when I had one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm I don’t know. Her 14-year-old stood dejectedly on the other side of the stroller with her hands down at her sides the whole time and the baby – well the baby was a baby.
Then the man looked at me full in the face for the first time. “What church do you belong to?” he asked, going back a couple of sentences.
“Oh I’m just a Congregationalist. Just the United Church of Christ,” I said.
“Ah the Congregational Church, that rock-ribbed New England institution!” he said.
“Yup,” I said, leaving out about six other things I could have told him about all the ways we’re about as far from ‘rock-ribbed’ as a denomination can be. I love my church. Love, love, love it for all the ways it has helped me to join any day’s ‘party’ with an open heart, leaving all judgment and suspiciousness at the door. But that’s not the church I meant, really.
I think the church I really meant is the one I ‘joined’ the very first time I read Walt Whitman’s first Preface to The Leaves of Grass, which he wrote in 1855 and which I read the winter I turned 19:
“This is what you shall do,” it goes. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, AND YOUR VERY FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM AND HAVE THE RICHEST FLUENCY, NOT ONLY IN WORDS BUT IN THE SILENT LINES OF ITS LIPS AND FACE AND BETWEEN THE LASHES OF YOUR EYES AND IN EVERY LAST JOINT AND MOTION OF YOUR BODY.”
The caps here are my doing but you tell me, all you have ever waited for a bus in a stinging wind in a city of many strangers: Are these ideas not every bit as moving and revolutionary as those expressed in the Sermon on the Mount? To me they are.
Anyway the bus came eventually and I found a great seat for myself in Row Four just in front of the man with the beautiful pants. I put all my stuff down, then on an impulse as sudden as it was sure, picked it all up again, went to the back of the bus and rode my four and a half hours home from there.
This morning I was hanging around Grand Central Station again where the tourists all seemed to think the Pope had already come and I could see why in a way: There were a good 20 police cruisers lined up on both sides of the street with lights flashing and the tourists, who are all from other countries and are absolutely everywhere in New York these days what with the dollar being in such PITIFUL shape, were snapping pictures like crazy and muttering to each other in excited voices.
I wondered myself what was up – and so picked out the most native-looking guy I could find and asked what the deal was with the cop cars.
“Oh they’ve just been doing this, ever since 9/11 really. It’s supposed to be like a show of force or something,” he said and added that realy the cops were just hanging out – which would explain why so many of them were strolling between cars like teens at the drive-in, leaning into each other’s windows with their ample fannies pointing streetward.
Still, I felt safe when I saw them. But then I always feel safe when I come to New York: all those people reading in the park, some sound asleep with their mouths open; all that yummy food to be had in a zillion little restaurants and that’s not even counting what you can get from the pushcarts…
In the Grand Central Market you can get fish so freshly pink and moist it looks like somebody photo-shopped it. The meats look like an Anatomy lesson (in the best possible sense of course.) They have awesome breads, cheeses of every description, fresh flowers so fat and happy you think you died and went to Heaven, and behind every counter people of every age, shape and size ready to take your order.
I was standing at the produce counter at one point when a couple moved past me, the man sexily compact in that Paul Simon way and the woman taller and softly pretty. They had a baby about six months old in a stroller and that baby looked at me and his face just said it all: “Is this great or what?” And you know I have to agree becasue what a blessing really: Morning in a safe city and here we are at the market, with kindly grownups all around us.
So God bless us all, the tourists and the babies and the cheesemakers too. And God bless this poor new Pope and I hope he kisses the ground like the last one. And mostly God bless the cops who do the hard work and deserve every break that they get.
Today when I came to New York for a conference I experienced the rare joy of early check-in, meaning it was 1:30 when they let me into my hotel room instead of 4:00. I’m writing this from my bed here in the Grand Hyatt hotel which is actually attached to Grand Central Station so that right at eye level out my window I can see the classical statues that hover over the great clock on the building’s exterior.
That’s the messenger Mercury standing up there in his underpants, trying to look like the boss. The literature I found down in the station says he’s supposed to represent COMMERCE, since this is America and all, and those two figures flanking him are one, Hercules, meant to suggest Commerce’s big-boy helpmate Physical Might and two, Minerva, designed to convey the idea of Wisdom in All That We Do but who I think you’ll agree looks a little depressed and pre-menstrual.
It’s pretty great to be so close to actual deities like this and I’m thinking to myself “Fan-CEE!” right? As in “I am in some fancy hotel!” But an older couple just entered the room next to mine and I can hear not just the television they snapped on but every SINGLE word they are saying and all I can think of is the time two years ago when a person was attempting to cough herself to death in the room next to mine in a Dayton Ohio hotel and I was seriously close to breaking down the door between us to get that pillow over her face in such a way as to cure that cough for keeps.
So there’s the outrage of being able to hear two people burping and flushing the toilet and asking each other where the toothpaste is, and then there’s the fact that there is NO COFFEE MAKER in the room and how can that be when even the most modest $49-a-night places supply these as a matter of course?
I’m worried about what I will do in the morning. Someone told me lately that millions of Americans leave their homes every day for the morning coffee and these must be the people you see in the loose-fitting flowery pants that really do look a lot like pajama bottoms come to think of it. They’re all heading for the coffee shop to get their daily fix and so MAYBE MAYBE I can do this too. MAYBE I can wake up at 6:00 and make my way downstairs to find a Starbucks but it seems mighty hard to me right now as someone who has just in the last year had to move her coffee maker up from the kitchen to a second-floor bathroom so she can get at it immediately on waking. Hell, some nights I bring it right into the bedroom and set it up 20 feet from where I sleep. Pretty soon I’ll be begging my nurse friend Mary to run a line for caffeine into one arm, using a timer to get the drip to start some 20 minutes say before my alarm clock goes off.
I’m feeling pretty crotchety about all this anyway – or at least I WAS, until just now when I heaved myself up off the bed and moved over to the chair here by the window. I opened the window (and God bless the Hyatt for having windows that open!) and up, up from the street came the roar of the city like a punch in the nose but I like it, sort of. And now here’s Mercury so close I can practically touch him and I sure do wish I had my camera so you could see him as I see him here, so cute and sort of Club Med in his little toga-slash undies, with the two seriously more powerful figures beside him letting him have the spotlight.
Even if he DOES think it’s his party I can tell that he really wants us to have fun at it. “So do that!” I tell myself. “Enough kvetching! Put on your high heel sneakers and go meet that boy of yours who’s coming in from East Harlem to have dinner with his momma. “And so I will. And so I will. And come home early enough to tap on the wall and tell my next-door neighbors all about it.
The Writer at Work