Here I Sit In Space #275 In The Rose Reading Room: Yet I Am Not Insecure

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It was an afternoon in mid-October.  The rain had fallen most of the morning so when I arrived at the wet slippery steps of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library on 5th Ave., the scattered metal tables were mostly empty and wet.  I posted a photo of the wet tables on Instagram.  It got a little more than a mild number of “likes”…I’ll settle for anything right now.

I made my way through security and up three floors to the newly reopened Rose Reading Room.  It had been closed for about two years (I lost count) because the ceiling in one part had collapsed.  In the years that the Rose Room was closed, I had to be content to write a chapter or a blog in a small but quiet auxiliary room on the second floor.

At least there, it was only a short walk to the Mens Room.  I could leave my laptop and notebook at my seat, which was harder to get than tickets to a Miley Cyrus concert. [ Hey, I meant the seat at the reading room not the men’s room.]

But, here I was at last…in what is arguably the most famous reading room in America.  It was stunning.  It was fabulous and it was breathtaking.  I looked at the ceiling mosaics and the endless rows of reference books.  It didn’t take my breath the same way that the Trinity College Reading Room in Dublin had done.  It was breathtaking because I was sitting in an oak chair that may have been the resting place of John Steinbeck’s bottom while he wrote The Grapes of Wrath…it was hard to tell.

I came in and saw the sign that said “NO PHOTOGRAPHS”.  I searched for a table that had multiple AC outlets.  My MacBook Pro was getting dangerously low on juice.

I found an ideal spot and quickly took a picture from my iPhone…before anyone would notice and come to drag me out and shame me in front of the scholars at work.  It was so quiet, you couldn’t hear a paper-clip drop. I made a slight cough when my iPhone clicked.  No one seemed to take notice.  Safe now, I turned off my “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” ringtone and settled in.

Checking my desk number, I saw that I was sitting at #275.  I plugged in my charger and took out my notebook, pretending to be studying something very serious.  Instead, I was wondering who had spent hours at #275 and what they are writing?

It could have been Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Thomas Wolfe, Jay McInerney, Luke Sante or even Bob Dylan, who came here to read all he could find on the Civil War before writing “Beyond The Green Mountains”.

It’s safe to say that all the great American writers sat in one of these chairs at one time in their lives.  After all, it’s a well-known truth that everyone has to live in New York City at least once in their life.  Say what you want…it’s still the Cultural Capital of the World.  But I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that I was now sitting in one of the oak chairs.

And, so I sat…wrapped my scarf around my neck like a French intellectual, and began writing.  I didn’t write the Great American Novel but I wrote a blog called “The Blind Date”.

It got a nice reception on WordPress…but it didn’t get me the Nobel Prize.

That’s coming later.

 

The Preference For Fog On The Downtown Bus

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The M1 bus stop where I was standing was on 5th Avenue and 98th Street.  It’s across the avenue from Mount Sinai Hospital.  It wasn’t raining…it was a downpour.  My flimsy $5.99 umbrella protected my head and shoulders but little else.  The front half of each shoe was soaked.  My outside flap of the shoulder bag was wet, dampening my small notebook and my three sheets of passwords I needed to carry with me.

I should have stopped at CVS and bought a box of ziplock baggies.

It was a chilly windy and very wet Monday afternoon in Manhattan.  I held my MetroCard in my teeth, keeping my lips open.  I didn’t want the chapstick to smear the little plastic case that I used to keep my card.

With my one free finger I felt the inside of my right arm.  The gauze wad was still in place.  I was hoping the needle prick wasn’t leaking and a red line of Type O Negative blood was not flowing down my forearm.  Moments earlier, I had a sample taken…two vials.  I need to be checked every six months or so.

Twelve years ago, I stared into the eyes of a hematologist as he said: “You have leukemia.”

It’s a hard city, full of angles and straight lines.  There are exceptions, of course, always exceptions.  The winding paths of Central Park, for example.  But mostly, it’s a city of unforgiving hard edges.

That’s why I didn’t mind the fog that covered the inside of the bus windows as I sat for my ride downtown.  There were three other riders now…more would be getting on as we approached mid-town.  Sure enough, after three stops, there were a dozen people.  A bold man in a black trench coat was staring at the front page of the New York Times.  Three others were working their mobile phones with a frenzy.  The rest just stared out of the foggy windows…like me.

We were moving along Central Park.  I could see enough through the condensation and trickles of water to notice the sidewalk, a low stone wall and green beyond.  A blurred smear of pink reminded me that the flowering trees were in bloom.

But I really wasn’t paying close attention.  I didn’t want to see certain things right now.  There has been sadness in my life in the past few weeks…the loss of a dear friend, the violent death of a former student.  It all weighed heavy on my mind.

I was grateful for the mostly obscured view I had of the outside world.  I was lost in thought and memories.  My iPod Nano was playing Iris Dement then Mary Gauthier and then Townes Van Zandt.

I was grateful that I had some control over what I was looking at.  A wipe of my hand on the wet inner glass of the giant windows allowed me to see what I wanted to see.  Like what street we were crossing.

Fog, on days like this…fog on any day, hides the things I wanted to turn away from.  I didn’t wish to see the homeless man huddled under a few square feet of cardboard.  I didn’t want to see an elderly person staring at a giant puddle and trying to negotiate a way around or through it.  I certainly wanted to avoid seeing a lonely woman, standing in the rain with a red umbrella and wearing a green plastic raincoat, staring at the lover who was walking away.

Was she wiping away tears or raindrops?

I didn’t want to see a couple in the heat of an argument on the lower step of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There was a line at the hot dog vender.  A couple stood with four kids.  The mother (?) was staring off into the trees of the Park.  I could read her thoughts:

“What if…?”

I looked back down the central aisle of the bus.  The dripping coats and umbrellas were making pools of water on the rubber floor.

Even if I closed my eyes, I could see what life was like outside the window.  Kids with blue rubber boots jumped in puddles, splashing strangers.  Flowers were drinking liquid after a bitter winter of ice and snow.  The street drains were clogged with dirty water, but at least it wasn’t yellow slush filled with dog waste and empty coffee cups.

I opened my eyes.  A teenage couple ran through the rain, her mascara running over smiling cheeks.  They laughed.  They stopped long enough to kiss.  They knew they were soaking wet and they didn’t care.  What they didn’t know was that they would be young for only a few more moments before they would head for the cover of a damp bus stop, seeking shelter from the storm.

And they would look out through the foggy windows, not wanting to see the angles of the city…but still seeing everything.

I wiped the window.  The sign reads 42nd St. and 5th Avenue.  I was at the main branch of the Public Library.  I was about to step from the bus into a puddle deeper than my shoe.  It was raining like a monsoon in Manila.  Hesitation.  I stepped back from the automatic door and went back to my seat.  If I stayed on the M1, I would continue downtown, past Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building…more angles.  I would pass near Union Square, one of my favorite places.

It continued to rain and the streaks of water continued to make vertical lines on the windows.  The fog still veiled the view.  I still couldn’t see the people struggling through the falling water.  Somewhere, there were sinful things being done behind foggy windows…but, in this city of contrasts, objects of art were also being created.

I was nearing the West Village and entering the NYU neighborhood.  There was youth here, energy, beauty, love, learning and hope.

It came to me then.  The whole city was shrouded in this mist, this fog, this curtain.  New York, on days like this, was like a sensual exotic dancer with the final veil hiding her beauty, not a perfect flawless beauty, but a real nakedness that was blemished and imperfect.  The best and most real of all that is uncovered.

The persistent fog just made the anticipation more intense.  Tomorrow was expected to be fair and clear in the skies above these giant towers.

Soon, the bus would be heading north again.

I wiped at the glass window one more time.  The rain was letting up.  The fog was brightening.  The sad dripping people were shaking the excess water from their umbrellas.  Still, wet hands were holding wet hands…but that was far better than a sad wave of good-bye.

It was going to be a better day.