Today I logged off work a minute early, because daylight is still precious, and I wanted to get out into it. I also wanted to walk by the Ukrainian Church which I have written about before, and which I can see from my living room window and which has been, if you get right down to it, most of my world view for the past two years. I face my monitor eight hours a day (not counting what I write when I write because I must write). If I turn my face to the right, I see the little altar of candles I have created to keep my spirits up. If I turn my face to the left, I see through the window the Ukrainian Church – that is, a little sliver of some magnificent stained glass window on the far left and then three stories of indifferent taupe brick and many many dull dormitory-like windows that I realized only during the pandemic were actually windows for a dormitory, for the monks who live there.
Yesterday I thought of visiting the church when I logged off work to set a candle in front of the locked gates. Remember after 9/11 all the makeshift altars in the neighborhood for all the cops and firemen who were then our neighbors? Remember our neighbor Joe the Fireman? I still remember cooking dinner on a Friday evening, on what must have been the 14th of September because the 11th was a Tuesday, and hearing a car door slam and Joe’s deep voice saying “Thanks.” He was thanking someone, probably a fellow fireman, for the ride home. He had been at “the pile” – remember that they called it “the pile”? – since Tuesday. His house had lost either 12 or 17 guys. I don’t remember. I remember calling down to him from my kitchen window, “Thank God you’re alright!” and I remember the absolute exhaustion in his voice as he stared up at a voice just as I was shouting down to a shadow.
Anyway, David, two other people had had my same idea, because there were two candles in jars in front of the gates. Unlit, because it was raining, and not inside the gates, because I have never seen those gates open, except when expelling a congregation, not open even during the Ukrainian Festival which shuts down that whole block of 31st Avenue so that beribboned braided girls can clog on wooden platforms while their counterparts, stiff, solemn boys in short vests, wait their turn to click and leap.
So, not the warmest church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, no tentpole revival meetings or pancake breakfasts, but this is Astoria, after all, and the Greek Orthodox folks aren’t welcoming to outsiders, either. I walked on a block to see Con Ed soldering some metal plate over some hole they had dug up. They have been doing this for months, tearing holes into the street and then patching up, only to tear and patch again. I have theorized – since there is no one to talk to – that they are doing this because of the number of free-standing houses they are tearing down so that real estate developers can erect high skinny buildings where the shabby faux-Victorian houses used to be. Perhaps a greater strain on the Con Ed grid has inspired all this manic drilling and patching and ca-thunk-ing as traffic drives across the metal plates at night?
Anyway, someone was sealing a metal plate over a hole of the crew’s own making, and I watching the arc of the sparks, as one will watch arcs of sparks. A man in goggles saw me and shook his finger at me. He pointed two fingers to his own eyes, then to me. I walked away from him, a few steps before one of his begoggled colleagues shouted, “Don’t look at that! It’s bad for the eyes!”
You said, David, the last time I wrote about this church (see post “Saint Behind the Glass”) that you had never noticed the church, despite living so close to it for so many years.
Four years ago, before I left my terrible job, a fireman died on the set of a movie in the Bronx. His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and attracted hundreds, if not thousands. Firemen and policemen, on motorbikes and on foot, filled Fifth Avenue, 57th Street, and other feeder roads. I was working in the GM Building at the time, at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and was coming into the GM Building from an appointment. I rode the elevator with a Young Turk of Private Equity who tapped both his foot and his phone.
“Is that the funeral for the fireman who died on the set of the Ed Norton movie?” I asked.
“Is what what?” he responded.
I explained: the roads shut down, the hundreds of uniformed men everywhere you looked, the absence of traffic, the sound of tolling bells.
“Huh,” he said, his thumbs still on his phone. “I didn’t notice.”
“Huh,” I responded. “And still there are so many people everywhere.”
“Isn’t it funny how I didn’t notice?”
“Funny is one word for it,” I said, and stepped off the elevator.
I wish this made me a hero, but of course I’m not a hero, and he no doubt dismissed me, as all the young people in my former and current department do, as some weird old dame (if they even use the word “dame”!) But that is a topic for another discourse.
I guess this topic is what to look at, whether or not it is bad for the eyes.
Longer letter later, as we used to say —
It is not merely community that we miss, but spontaneous community, the casual hang, the chace encounter which, as my WordPress legend has it, I am champion of, or used to be, when chance encounters were not a public health threat. “Don’t be so friendly to strangers,” a former friend once admonished me. “It’s weird.”
She said it in this very park, where I sit and write this, the park I came to visit, Socrates Sculpture Park, five acres by the waterfront, reclaimed some decades ago from industrial landfill. In addition to large outdoor sculpture, it hosts, in the summer, all manner of exercise class and artistic offerings: cinema nights, concerts, dance performances and Shakespeare al fresco. It was at the latter, when I was picnicking and offered the group at the adjoining blanket part of our nosh that my friend chided me:
“Don’t do that, don’t talk to people all the time,” she said. “It makes you look desperate.”
Desperate to get back to normal, desperate to venture beyond our walls, desperate to transcend social distancing for human connections outside our “pods.” Desperate to shed our masks (if only to then don the social ones we used to wear: “a face to meet the faces that we meet.”). Or is that a desperate reach for a metaphor?
Perhaps I am desperate. Perhaps we all are.
I know that this park, on a chilly Sunday afternoon one week before daylight savings time comes to alleviate at least a small fraction of our darkness, is full of my neighbors (or, if you prefer, “strangers”) in masks and down coats, attempting to hasten spring by behaving as though it is already here.
I came to the park today to photograph the sculpture “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” by Fontaine Capel. I attended a Zoom talk by the sculptors in the new installation, and Fontaine Capel said that “Proposal for a Monument (Two)” represented the stoop of brownstones, which are being displaced by the glass-and-chrome building erected by real estate developers. We are not losing merely brownstones and stoops, but a place to sit and hang out with neighbors.
Neighbors hanging out in common places form what used to be known as community. When we lose community – the casual, sometimes vexing, occasionally inspiring presence of the familiar – what else do we lose?
After a year without it, we know what we have lost. And we are desperate to have it back.
And still we keep on creating, though myself not as much I would like of late. Lacking friends with benefits, I turned earlier this summer to friends with books out.
Marcia Trahan’s memoir Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession explores her own medical ordeals, her obsession with true crime on television, women’s bodies as commodities in society, and her own identity. Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, a memoir in essays, explores assault and addiction, and masterfully illustrates how trauma can stalk a person’s life, sometimes in brief shadow, sometimes in full-blown flashback.
I like to call Lee Martin’s recent fiction “Southern Illinois Noir,” although whether he likes me to call it that is not something I have asked. In his recent novels and story collections, momentarily untethered people make rash decisions that lead to outsized consequences; sometimes, as in his recent Yours, Jean, based on a true crime, an entire town acts as both chorus and cast.
There has been little progress on my own work, except for publicity for and correction of the proof of Censorettes. While I have little to complain about (I know; I am lucky!), how rarely that stops me. I am able to work from home, and I am putting in more hours than ever, including Sunday afternoon, which at least provided peaceful, uninterrupted time. I am attending a virtual writing conference next week, and need to get my day job ducks in a row.
Once I was done, a walk to the park was in order. My new favorite place is Chateau Le Woof, because I love the ingenuity the owners had of turning a former industrial parking garage into a dog-friendly cafe, open to the street, across from the park. On the way there, I met a woman and her dog. The owner and I nodded, but the dog did a full-fledged double take and pulled her back to where I was sitting. “YOU AGAIN!” he would have cried, had we both been human, and cast in a romantic comedy where in an earlier scene I would have stolen his parking spot, or spoiled some meticulously prepared model just before the big presentation. He gazed at me with ardent brown eyes through dirty white fur.
“Hi,” I said to the dog, as his owner tried to break his stare and pull him along, chuckling apologies to me. I said to the dog, “Hot out, right?” and then, as a man walked by, “Okay, I’m really not that interesting. Try that guy.”
Because of allergies, I’m not a petter of strange dogs, particularly ones who regard me like an antic Cary Grant regarding the leopard, if not Katherine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby.
Then, I said to the dog, “Alright,” and got up to walk with them to the park.
“You a Vermonter?” asked the woman.
Strange question, I thought, until I looked down and realized I was wearing a Vermont t-shirt. I still think it is a strange question. People don’t necessarily wear t-shirts advertising their home, so they can be returned if life becomes wayward. People visit places and buy t-shirts to show they were there; there is even a cliché about it. But I once wore a t-shirt I bought in Canada on a Brooklyn riverside bike tour, and people kept asking me what province I was from, or telling me how much they liked Quebec.
The woman was herself from Burlington. I told her, then, about Vermont, how I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier, Vermont every summer (where I met the above authors, Lee, Marcia and Sue), how this year it is virtual, which means I am not at my picnic table on the town green at the top of the hill, or hanging out in the Cafe Anna with my friends, but in my apartment, in my same crippling home desk chair, a captive of Zoom, with pandemic hair and bad lighting (I know; I am lucky!)
Maybe I am a Vermonter.
We turned the corner on Vernon Boulevard, where some string players were entertaining an insufficiently socially distanced group and their dogs.
My canine love interest took off across the park, a sculpture park, which is currently home to this monolith.
The music of the strings lured me out of the park and I stood among my insufficiently socially distanced neighbors, enriched that day by so much heat and creativity. We are isolated; still, we create. We are ordered to keep a distance; still, we connect. We experience ordeals and suffer from bad decisions; still, we write books (albeit ones with blood-splattered covers).
The string players launched into I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, alternating the melody line, first the pizzicato, then the legato. We all grew very still and drank it in. We knew we were lucky.
Screen to screen to screen has been my life this past month — my work laptop, augmented by my personal laptop, and then my desktop, when the workday is through, followed by some viewing on my laptop again. I am privileged to be able to work from home and to live in a co-op building which is well-maintained. But as I have revealed, I have taken to gazing out my window.
Now straight ahead, dead straight, to the left of the streetlight and to the right of the bright window in the building across the street, you can see a bit of colored glass. There. You see it? Had I an actual camera (instead of a phone) or were I a better photographer, I could capture that image — the streetlight, the stained glass of the Ukrainian church beyond.
Last night, I attempted it. The bars of the fire escape were too intrusive and the zoom on the cell phone camera wasn’t sufficient, so I climbed out on the fire escape and did my best.
This yellow-robed Ukrainian saint has been gazing into my living quarters for the past 20 years, but I only thought to think of it now. Of course, I was aware that there was a Ukrainian Orthodox Church a block away — I have photographed their fete on Ukrainian heritage day. Beribboned children in native costume dance all afternoon in reluctant troupes. Ornately braided girls and grim embarrassed boys prance and clap on a wooden platform in front of the church, to the blaring of recorded accordion and clarinet music. A street block is roped off from traffic to allow for tables selling embroidered goods and meat-stuffed pastries, and chairs for the parents of those mortified, loyal prepubescents.
These wares, these performances, are not meant for the likes of me. I don’t know the difference between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox but I know neither proselytizes. Far from it. It is from the Greeks that we get the word “xenophobia,” from the Greek xenos meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.” Also, “barbarian,” which originally meant “a person who does not speak Greek.” (Non-Greek sounded to Greeks like someone saying “bar bar bar.”)
After twenty years in Astoria, I was not keen to insert myself where I was not welcome.
It took a pandemic to make me realize that the church I look out on every day was not merely a church, but a religious residence. The low tan building I look out on (and appreciate, since it affords me sunlight when a commercial building would not) is not just extra church space, but a dormitory for the order.
How’s your world, everyone?
Here is a photo of mine, when I look out on it.
I am two blocks from a branch of Mount Sinai Hospital, as my friends and social media friends know. A branch where they have erected emergency COVID testing tents. In three minutes from the time I am writing the words “in three minutes,” the applause will start, the applause for the health care workers at the shift change. It seems to grow in duration and in volume every day.
I begin each day by opening the window and turning on the classical music station. I was fortunate in that my remote control broke one week into this isolation, so I no longer have the option to channel surf or listen to live press conferences.
There it is, the applause. Banging of pots and pans, honking of horns.
It should lift up my spirits, but instead it burrows deep into my sinews, like a fishhook, not a knife. This is a trauma not easily extracted. This is an anger not easily assuaged.
When I was on an “Unworkshop” retreat at the Highlights Foundation last fall, I met a woman named Heather Dean Brewer. The Highlights Foundation retreats take place in Pennsylvania on a rural property outside Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Because I admittedly live in an NYC bubble, Honesdale was the first town where I saw an un-ironic “Make America Great Again” sign posted in the window of a small-town business.
Heather was at Highlights for a workshop.(By way of explanation, Highlights offers a vigorous catalogue of workshops for children and young adult authors and illustrators, but also offers space and meals for any writer who might need time and space.) I was there for time and space. Heather was there for a workshop. She is the author of this happy little book which I bought for my sister’s birthday. (Spoiler!)
Heather was sweet enough to send me a bottle of wine from distant Michigan.
My cultural references these days are Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, staring out the window and speculating on the neighbors. And Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel about the 1918 pandemic which has been written about by wiser heads than mine, for example, here. I cannot look at it now, not with the sirens screaming in the background, but nor can I forget the story’s final line: “Now there would be time for everything.”
A month ago, my biggest concern was that the 92nd St. Y would cancel the appearance of Dame Hilary Mantel, who was to discuss the third book in her Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. I had been looking forward to her talk for months; bonus points for it occurring on my birthday. But of course, it was cancelled. Instead, I ordered the book from The Astoria Bookshop, my local indie, on the last day it was operating live. It is still operating virtually, if you would like to support it.
I am having a hard time concentrating on The Mirror and the Light. I loved the first two volumes. I am pretty well versed in the Tudors. But despite the fact that the circumstances are dire, and that we know how this will end (it’s the world of Henry VIII, after all), I have trouble following along and perhaps need a lighter book.
But one line did resonate. Among so much speculation about succession to the throne, one character observes that it is treasonous even to wonder about the future. “We are trapped,” she sighs, “in the hours we occupy.”