Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saturday in the South Bronx: How wide is the Amazon?

Whatever you want to know about human nature, you can find in a three year old.

A cold morning in the South Bronx. My volunteer group was meeting at the MCDonalds right off the 4 train. I had wondered how a group of perfect strangers would pick each other out of a busy Satuday morning crowd at the local McDonalds. The second I stepped off the train into a sea of yesterday's wrappers and last week's brown paper bags to wait in a 20 minute line at McDonalds, I felt like an idiot for ever wondering. Being the first one there, I simply watched the door for the next white person.

We walked to the shelter - a transitional family shelter in the South Bronx with a makeshift preschool and possibly the most dedicated staff in all five boroughs. 5 white young professionals bundled to the teeth against a northern winter wind, we were such the bunch of stupid-eyed good-doers. Some of us were there because it made us feel better about ourselves, some of us out of some amount of guilt, some of us religious dogma and some of us just plain curiosoty...but all of us sincere in our ultimate desire to extend a hand to the swollen underbelly of society while not quite sure what it would feel like. You could call us naive, complacent or self reichious, or all the things that people say when well fed white people visit a place like this as if it were a petting zoo, but as for us five scrawny young city kids, I dont think any of those was the real reason we came.

The walk to the shelter wasn't extraordinarily long - mostly just sharply frigid and marked by one unbroken line of dog shit along the edge of the sidewalk- like breadcrumbs into the forest...except, you know, the urban version. Its too ironic to strike me as all that funny. But anyway.

Most of the shelter smells like souring bleach and other cheap cleaning agents. The walls are this moldy, yellowing green and it doesnt smell like there is a whole lot of oxygen in the air. The windows remind one of hospitals and public schools, except with, like, bars and stuff... But the warmth of the place is a relief after 10 minutes on the street. I imagine some of the famillies here feel similarly. Passing the family apartments, through some of the doors you can hear babies crying, low voices, the bangings and tickings of a saturday morning in a very small space. Some of the doors are solemnly silent.

The volunteer teacher from the center who has offered to come in and supervise during our dancing and singing class is slow moving, unsmiling and likes to talk about herself a lot not waiting for us to ask before sharing her ailments of the morning. She's one of those people who seem like they are carrying on more of a conversation with themselves that you are overhearing than directly addressing you. She makes sure we are all more than aware that she does not feel well and does not care what we do as long as we do not make any mess for her to clean up, because she is not even suppos'd to be here at all, thank you very much. When asked, she says her favorite animal was a fish. "They do not need cleaning up after." She settles in to her chair like a monarch. But around the sighs I can see real sincerity and even humor around her mouth. And her eyes smile proudly despite themselves when the kids come in.

The girls are between the ages of 3 and 5. Some of them look like newborns stuck in the bodies of 4 years olds. Some of them have faces that have seen more than the average 55 year old - which all shows aroung the eyes and the fragile skin around the mouth. There are shy ones and painfully loud ones, rambunctious ones and solemn ones. Some of them have distinct accents already, if you can imagine a South Bronx accent on the lips of a five year old. There are two big-eyed sisters, a brash, voicey little girl with big displays of personality, a serious-faced thin one, a wide-smiled brave one who practically looks like an adult already, a silent, dark-eyed observant one. Despite the haunting array of worry and wounded innocence in their eyes, there is almost no judgement, distrust or sadness there. These are the more sophisticated emotions that move in once self preservation overtakes the vulnerability of youth...after which it is only these emotions, along with distinct self definition, that can best combat the true meanness of the world.

As we start the class with a picture book crosslegged around the circle, we go around and say our names. They dont seem to notice how different our white suburban names are compared to their beautiful and hard to pronounce ethnic names, most often tagged with a nickname of one syllable repeated twice. They introduce themselves purposefully using their full names and punctuated with multiple nicknames. The older sister proudly introduces herself and then her little sister, finished with a nod as she repeats her own last name. The voice of the mother monarch supervisor carries sharply over the circle in gentle reprimand of the older sister who is puffed up with pride, "She's got a mouth too, y'know." Soon we've moved on to favorite animal imitations. The activity is slow to start, as we're crawling around on our knees pretending to be our favorite animals. Although strained at times, the parade of animal soudns and strange body movements are not altogether awkward. Only with young kids can you scoot around on your hands and knees braying like donkeys and shaking your invisible tails like madpeople without anyone looking at you wierd. The shy ones are now starting to look around a bit, look less worried. The social ones are getting wound up and crawling over each other. We the volunteers are encouraging them with dumb questions like "what sound does a lion make?" and big facial expressions. But soon they start to take the bait and really enjoy themselves. And thank God because we were beginning to feel completely rediculous. by the end of the animal dance, they are hanging on to our hands, asking us to watch them again and head butting each other happily. The sound of young girlish laugher is soon louder than the lion king soundtrack in the background. We break for snack.

Around the table, the girls personalities start to flow. They are enjoying our totally rediculous and yet attentive questions like, what is your favorite kind of snack, and is that apple juice good? The kind of questions you only ask little children in eggagerated voices. The kind to which you dont really care about the answer but just want the child to feel listened to. I wondered how often anyone asked these girls any questions solely to hear their answer.
"My daddy doesnt like granola bars." one of them stated.
"I dont got a daddy." said the loud one, casually, while biting satisfactorily into a mushy banana.
The adults involuntarily fell silent. The kids didnt notice.
"My brother likes granola bars when he comes home. He got in trouble so he has to stay at the rec center. And he comes home sometimes if he isnt in trouble with the rec. center again. But he always has to go back. He's been at the rec center a long time this time."
Another outspoken one, interrupts the flow of conversation to point at each one of the volunteers and say in a playful, smiling informative way, "you're white. You're white. and you're white."
The five year old sister with her small decisice chin reaches out a miniature sized paper cup to me. "Can my baby sister have more apple juice please?" She drinks a sip before proudly scooting it over to her three-year old sister. I got the feeling that at the ripe age of five, she had already done her share of mothering the big-eyed, shy little one next to her.
We pour more applejuices and hand out more banane halves. The loud one pauses unprompted in her display of talking over everyone else, to look up at the volunteer next to me, and say as if it had just suddenly occured to her, "You're nice."
The loud one without a Daddy looks down at her snack and stuffs a few more bites into her little mouth. She wipes her mouth with a stained pink flannel with big holes in the sleeves. Then she smiles. "My mommy loves me." I smile. "Yes, yes she does."

Once they've finished their snacks the girls are starting to run round the room once more - one of them has started the rest chanting with lucid joy at the sound of the words "Bar-ack O-ba-ma, Ba-rack O-ba-ma!" The superviser, now almost completely smiling and chatting as if she were one of the children turns to us, "We watched th' inauguration here on this TV. This one here," she motioned to the quiet one with the stewing, serious black eyes, "she sittin' still through the whole thing watchin', didnt make a peep or get up and run round, just watchin' it. And she were cryin' away right along with the rest of us adults. She knew, this one." Her face was round and cracked with visible pride.

The snack energized the bunch as we went straight into dancing and singing lessons. By now they were a pack of unfetered joy, a bouncing bunch of silly willies, hooping and giggling, and jumping and chasing - a couple of 3-5 year olds who forgot what their unchildlike lives looked like for the sheer childish joy of jumping over a dirty blanket made believe into the Amazon river. Swinging on our hands, showing off their dance turns, imitating the grace of the ballet leaps with a concentrated focus until their excitement got the best of them and they were dropping their arms with bounding leaps over the Amazon and rolling on the floor with laughter. They wanted us to watch over and over again, to clap for them and praise them by name in high pitched voices, to swing them up with our arms, to follow them out by the hand running from one side of the room to the other. We clapped until our hands hurt and cheered for every little awkward turn, and prompting their little steps on.

I recognized the sheer looks in the other volunteers eyes as we cheered our hearts out as if for the home team in fourth quarter of a playoff game - knowing the world never cheered them on, never watched them dance let alone teach them how, never called them out by name and said "look how special you are!" and knowing that some of them may never make it to the fourth quarter. And I ask you, as children growing up in safe neighborhoods with teachers who had soft hands and kind words, with futures as expectantly bright as ours and a world that looked forward to our expected could we have danced better, learned faster, grew up nicer, achieved higher if no one ever clapped for us? Every mispelled word I wrote, every simple sentence I uttered, every lopsided pirouette I twirled and every 3/4 earned diploma I earned was celebrated by my parents, by my privelage and by the world at large. But these were the ring around the rosies that often went unheard. The lopsided pirouettes that went unfelt at the feet of the world. It wasnt the dance, or our questions, our clean smelling clothes, our lifting arms or even our kind voices that made every pair of little eyes shine. It was the sound of their own name, the force of five adult clapping hands saying nothing except that we were glad they were in the world. Congratulating them on being born and enjoying their presence as much as they enjoyed ours. In the spinning glee of the play scene, one of the quiet girls, while waiting her turn to dance accross the room, went from volunteer to volunteer hugging us with her little arms reaching around our thighs, her face upturned in pure affection and unrippling happiness. I clapped until my hands stung.

Then it was time to go. Time to clean up. A few tired and smiling mothers came all the way in to collect their child. They thanked us in exhausted, thick accents. We were sorry to see those little ones go. And just as fast as they came fully-lit into our Saturday afternoons, they were gone. Back to whatever it was that the world looked like for them on a January Saturday afternoon in a shelter in the South Bronx. Left alone, the five of us volunteers found it suprisingly awkward among us - five adults who had spent two hours crawling on our knees, twirling, singing out of key and honking like various kinds of jungle animals now found it strange to adjust to restrained, carefully selected adult speech and interaction. I caught myself about to clap girlishly in response to a joke - but opted instead to laugh in that contrived controlled way that adults laugh. Now, I reminded myself, the children are gone, its time to act like an adult again. However, Im fairly convinced that clapping is a much better method of self expression.

On our way out the door to a blustery afternoon, the leathery supervisor stopped us to chat for a few moments, this time with smiles and laughter around her rubbery lips. We thanked her for coming in for hte class despite not feeling well. "I love my babies. Thats the only reason I comes in here on dayz like this when I dont feel well." As we made our way toward the door, she stopped us again. "Thanks for coming in, y'all. Its good of y'all. They usually don gets to do much, mostly just hang round here, you know. We try to give em some play and some magic-ness here. A very good place to work. Very rewarding. We do what we can. Thanks for coming out." She was smiling with her whole face. We smiled back and filed out the door back to the street.

My dad always used to talk about volunteer work - you cant ever save the world, you know, but you have to start somewhere. I see what he means. We always want to clean up the world, change lives, do more, make more waves, eliminate the sea of pain that only gets wider once we make a commitment to start digging for it. In deciding to make tiny windows of face-time with the ugly side of privelage, its easy to become overwelmed by the angry sorrow that you might find there. Sometimes you might even realize that some people and some places dont need saving - that they might just even be happier than you are. Either way, you may realize that saving someone isnt the nicest thing you can do for them. The nicest thing might just be, by far, calling them by name and clapping for their stumbling ballet leaps over the Amazon. Bearing witness (of any kind) to their stories. Telling them one way or another that they matter to the world, a world who all day long tells them that they are everything but a gift to this planet. Isnt that all we as people ever really want anyway? And lets face it - we all need an Amazon river or two in our lives. Even if in the back of our minds we know (because the world keeps telling us) that its just a dirty blanket.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"There are thirteen million people in the world and none of them is an extra. They all are leads in their own story" - Synecdoche New York

Martin Luther King Day. Another snowy day in New York.

After nearly a week of impenetrable, nuclear winter complete with clear, frigidly empty skies and subzero, polar temparatures (and a positively suicidal windchill), heavy snows moved over the city. The storm bouyed the temperature into the low thirties and slobbered all over the sidewalks, while most New Yorkers took our very first breath in days.

After struggling back uptown in less than waterproof boots, at last I am free to settle into my weekly New York sunday afternoon-slash-holiday weekend, routine - rout through my refridgerator for anything that looks like less than a complete biohazard upon ingestion, put off washing my towels on the premises that the weather would most likely make the laundry room overcrowded and treacherous, and begin my weekly attempt to organize my life. The snow is that light, wet and incessant kind out my window - and it looks beautiful against the red brick of the surrounding apartment buildings.

I now ask myself -surely you do not plan to spend the entire day inside like a complete waste of life, now do you? There are errands to be run, money to be spent, caloriese to be burned and a never ending arsenal of housewares to be bought (Its amazing how, in a relatively small apartment that you rarely inhabit in favor of a multitude of other activities, you seem to always be in need of more and more housewares. How do you fit them, when do you use them and where do they go once you buy them? And why is it that every single weekend you are on another desparate hunt for a toilet brush and another cleaning apparatus? For now, this must remain a mystery.) Not having roused any response at all to this self questioning, I identify the top three reasons why I should leave the apartment ...and promtly prepare to dispute each one.

1) You really should get a run in, lest your few endorphins stay huddled in the pit of your pituitary gland and your breakfast go straight to your ass.

2) You really must return the too-large trashbags you bought two weeks ago at the Duane Reade on 23rd and 3rd. Two avenues, $5.99. You do the math.

3) Since I already know you wont listen to my sound advice on reason number one, why dont you simply slip on down to the grocery store and pick up some pillsbury oven-bake sugar cookies for dinner on a snowy night?

My timely rebutal to all these very rational reasons were as follows:

1) The running paths will be putrid, the sun will be down in an hour (it takes me half that to cover every inch of skin with running gear) and there's nothing that ruins a holiday afternoon more than spandex. Endorphins are for wussies anyway.

2) 2 avenues, $5.99...arctic blizzard. Its a wash. Couple that with the collagen I'll loose prematurely from my lips and you are looking at a lifelong bad investment.

3) Thats the best suggestion I've heard all week. But do I know yet after 6 months how to use the oven in my apartment?

Ladies and gentlemen, have you reached a verdict. Yes, Mrs. chairman we have. In the matter of January New York Blizzard #2 versus Miss Kate "aka Lazy Ass" Harris, we rule in favor of the defendent. Going outside on this snowy day, would be exceedingly unwise and completely unneccsary, not to mention potentially hazardous to self and society at large. Case closed.

On this thickeningly snowy day, the citys windows have turned to spots of glow as the sun sets unseen over the island of Manhattan. Shipwrecked as I am in my apartment on such a day with two fellow sailor roomates and a fourth in the whine of the TV, I'm checking all the email that I havent opened in weeks. Many of these messages I like to think of as "post-leukemia mail" - letters from the home front. As the east coast family representative I get a large number of these emails as a part of the remote supporters email distribution list - alongside college roomates and extended family. I always recieve them with a considerable amount of emotion - like a wounded soldier getting letters from his squadrom mates from the heat of the front lines. And my emotions walk that same kind of line from out here on Martini Metropolis Island - flooded by the violence of those leukemia memories from just two months ago, guilty that the distance leaves my family tribe one less member strong...but silly with relief and puffed up with pride when I get to watch his progress from a distance through those email distributions. The emails together that make up the newest best seller from the western front - How my brother got his life back.
The first of these emails I open is from my lovely mother about my sister's birthday party and my aunts weekend visit, slow to open and heavy with picture attachements. Drowsily opening the attachments, I come upon the last picture - and I dump my peanut butter and honey sandwhich all over my pajama bottoms on my way out of the chair. Rushing to see what is the matter, my roomate is shoveling her laptop and afternoon snack out of her lap to respond to my shrieks, expecting to find some kind of epileptic siezure, a masked intruder or perhaps even that charcoal grey Marc by Marc Jacobs shift dress listed for 75% off. By the time she makes it to my bedroom door, however, all she finds is my unrecognizable form stooping over a teetering laptop dripping tears all over a keyboard that would be more than a little expensive to replace and laughing like an absolute lunatic. Im waving toward the picture on the screen in some kind of attempted explanation, alternating hands to point while the other is holding the tears out of my mouth. Baffled, she's searching the picture of my brother and Aunt smiling in the winter sun on my parent's front porch, desparately scanning for something out of the ordinary. Nearly a minute goes by and I cant stop laughing with all kinds of emotional liquids clogging up my ability to express my self properly. Finally I make my way to the floor, rubbing my eyes like a 5 year old, watching the snow sift through the skyline and shore up the weekend in the cogs and ruts of of the city.

"Good God above, Kate, what!!??"

Im pointing to the picture, like a lottery winner to the winning number on the screen.

"Eyebrows. He has eyebrows. Look at them. The color of his skin, look at it. And..." sniff sniff, "He has sideburns!!! Imagine that! Sideburns!"

Who was it that said.. its the little things in life.

Its clear to me now more than it ever has been. No Fate or God or living person...not even your dream... can give you a life. And they certainly cant give your life back to you. But they can give you a second chance. It doesnt matter where the chance comes from. What matters is only that you have the guts to take it.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Let it Snow: Blowing in 2009

Welcome back, Urban Cowgirls and Co.! Its January in the city!

Snow in New York City. I'm not sure there is anything -- no, I'm rather sure there isn't -- anything quite like it. It doesn't fall, it swirls. It doesnt stick, it slops. And it might be one of the only forms of weather in New York that doesn't smell.

This wintry day in this dozing but never asleep city on this over easy Saturday, I am in search of calm. Absolvement. Effortless existence. Peace of heart (I already found peace of mind last night over half a bottle of Jameson in a downtown dive bar). Yes, I'm rummaging through my closet for it. Scrubbing my kitchen sink in search of it. Scrouging around the basement laundry room with socks in hand waiting for it to sudse up. Sprinting to Brooklyn Bridge in the whirling snow to get to it. Finally, after my third cup of green tea with my blood sugar around my ankles, I'm hooding up and hitting the sidewalk on a determined mission to find it. Clearly, inner peace does not hang around New York apartments very often.

Unlike most places, New York does not get any quieter when it snows. Taxis still rush, salt-covered sidewalks crunch and your neighbors still march to the grocery stores to desparately hoard frozen shrimp and red wine. That serene feeling of inpenetrable safety that often fuzzes in over sleepy hometowns when it snows runs straight into the gutters with monday's spilt coffee in New York City. If anything, you're even more likely to get hit by a taxi or run into an ex on this kind of day. But at the same time, its kind of refreshing. It allows you to float the streets like some kind of hooded phantom, wrapped in layers and every inch of you covered from the wind, like some invisible, lucid presence moving through the city. So Im a tower of wool and down, weaving in and out of the grocery soldiers, on my own little wooly island, only moving. And underneath my scarf and hat I am smiling.

I arrive at my favorite cafe, find my favorite soup on the menu and my favorite spot by the window unoccupied with an unhindered view of 1st ave. By now this steady power sugar dusting of an urban snow storm has turned blowing, wet and foggy with snowflakes through the window. As I drip soup all over the counter, somewhere in between the tomatoes and the undercooked (but still so delicious!) green lentils, I bite into momentary inner peace. For a whole 20 minutes I haven't thought about the next 20. No horn honking can herd me home, no unhappy customer can rattle my ripple-less calm, no solitary meal can make me feel completely alone.

The dawn of a new year has come and gone in the mouth of crisis - an economy gone sour, an industry in crisis, a family in limbo and a life in jeapoardy. A grueling, messy and defining year it was - a year of guts and grime and so many come-to-jesus moments in between that forge new paths through the heart, in a place-here-on-earth kind of way. No pain could be less forgiving, no relief could be more perfect, no change more changed, no expectations less expected. No lesson better learned. No love less lost. The snowflakes are thick now, casting my own reflection back to me in the window as the street thickens. Nothing slows or stops, like it does in the movies. No sound is drowned out. And yet I'm suddenly swirling in stillness - one hooded sillouette in a shrouded snowy New York City window looking out on her life and sending 2008 off in a cosmic Thank You note addressed to fate. Of all the defining and already forgotten moments in 2008, only two footnotes will fit in that envelope. One life saved and two lives lived - both just a little bit larger before. And all the other lives that surround just the one - marching on toward 2009 like New Yorkers to the grocery in a snow storm - fiercly and with all the hope in the world to make it to the frozen shrimp coctail before close.