The Chrysler Building, for the Second Time


brokencup_0005

A beautiful, perfect, plain and pure white cup…

When I first visited New York City, in 2012, I went by bus, and distinguished myself at the end of the 10-hour journey, as we prepared to plunge into the Lincoln Tunnel, by hyperventilating noisily on my first sight of the glittering Manhattan skyline.

This, I reminded myself, was what I had been waiting for all my life: my homecoming to the city that had never been my home, my “Midnight Cowboy” moment.  It was merely a passing inconvenience that, to any casual observer, I was apparently in the throes of a psychotic meltdown or expiring from anaphylactic shock.

Luckily I was in New York City, and no one paid me the least attention.

I stayed in a hotel on the Lower East Side, Chinatown to be precise – I had chosen only the price range on a website that for some peculiar reason made hotel choosing into a kind of location lottery – a hotel whose rundown façade filled me with alarm, yet which, once I’d settled in and gotten my New York legs on, turned out to be not only acceptable, but charming.

This alarm-to-charm switchover was a metaphor for the city itself, and an apt first lesson for a New York neophyte, namely:  That anywhere else, a scary, too-small, sub-standard living unit might be a slum, but in The Big Apple it was a find.

For the next five days I set about living the way I fancied a real New Yorker lived, under the bemused, expert guidance of my friend, John, and heartened by the Looney Tunes capering of his fox terrier, Flora.

I brazened through Manhattan as though it were my private estate; traveled to Brooklyn on the subway (a quick and merciless ad hoc training session, consisting of a demonstrated swipe and a raised eyebrow, both administered by a real New Yorker in under five seconds, took place at my first, unsuccessful, attempt to mate MTA card and turnstile); and  refused to be a tourist, to gawk at Times Square, slouch around in trainers, or purchase tickets to some Broadway show.

I did, on the other hand, at 611 Broadway and purely by accident, find a branch of Crate and Barrel, where I bought two beautiful, perfect, plain and pure white cups and saucers from a deliciously snarky saleslady.

Everything about this saleslady was New York to me, from the nonchalant elegance of her outfit and the asymmetric perfection of her haircut, to her perfectly deployed daytime makeup and important yet self-deprecating jewellery;  when she greeted me with, “Can I help you?”, it was impossible to miss her silky undertone of Let me save you from yourself.

She had the air that working at Crate and Barrel was somewhat beneath her, but that just for my sake she would conquer her distaste and make a noticeable effort. I indicated the pure white cups and saucers I wanted, and to her credit, she whisked them off the display for wrapping as though no other selection would have pleased her quite as much. It was an admirable performance that somewhat mitigated my failure to have purchased tickets to anything at the Harold Clurman Theatre.

Everyone in New York, or so it seemed, dressed to impress;  walked, talked and ate to impress.  To step out of my alarming-then-charming hotel was to make an entrance, and god help you if you ended up on that stage in sweat pants and Crocs, with sticky palms and searching for your lines like an actors’ nightmare.  I soon understood that no effort I could yet make, no straining at fashion, or feigned worldliness or fast talking, would make the grade; I would never, not yet anyway, pass. The best I could hope for was not to be instantly labelled an out-of-towner.

For my first attempt, that would do.

Five days later, happier and wiser, I was no longer a New York virgin. My budget was blown; I’d seen the Monet waterlilies and Picasso’s “Le Desmoiselles d’Avignon”; I had shopped for food, been asked for directions, and made dinner for John; I’d been to Flatbush and, by the time I’d seen a guy jerking off at 23rd Street Station at four A.M., I felt reasonably confident that I’d covered all of the key New York experiences.  And I had acquired absolutely nothing that could be called a souvenir.

Nothing except those two beautiful, perfect, plain and pure white cups and saucers.

That evening I packed them with care for the bus ride home, taping the tissue paper in place and nestling them in the folds of a sweater so they wouldn’t be jostled. On the Megabus, all through the night, I checked on them hourly, as though I feared they might spontaneously crack and disintegrate as Egyptian relics are supposed to.  Sometime around Rochester I awoke with a start, believing that I’d only dreamed I’d packed them; that I’d actually abandoned them in the Chinatown hotel room.

~

Once installed in my Toronto apartment, my cups exerted a special power.  They created a morning ritual around themselves, made the mundane fact of caffeine addiction into a Zen ceremony. I loved the dark reflective pool of steaming coffee held in the thin circle of white porcelain, loved how the cup felt in my hand, how well balanced, how perfectly it met my lips.  I loved that we, the cups and saucers and I, had finally met, that we shared our secret of New York.

The cups and saucers began to relax, let their hair down, so to speak. The newness and optimism dissipated, and they became subtly but unmistakably aloof—

so that you felt they’d let you drink out of them, but would be hyper-vigilant for any rude noises you might make, and they’d watch to make sure you always used the saucer, so you shouldn’t dribble on your nice pants— klutz! –

– yet they were no less dear to me for all their little foibles.

~

I cherished those cups for the next four years; I guarded them like a father guards his nubile fifteen-year-old daughter. Not everyone got to drink out of those cups. Sometimes I would use one myself, but give my guest a two-dollar President’s Choice mug, just to make my position on their status clear, vis-à-vis my good dishes.

Sometime during the last reign of roommate terror, both the saucers got smashed in the Great Late Night Dishwashing Debacle, a tale too bloody to recount today. I must emphasize: Both saucers.

But I still had the cups.

Now it was like I’d bought my daughter a sports car and she was staying out late driving around with boys and getting home JUST in time so I couldn’t say anything about it.

Then one day — a day like any other day— I was in the kitchen and lo! the spirit of my mother shone round about me and I was sore afraid, and my arm made a great sweeping mother-movement and clattered through the stack of dishes like the rampaging hand of god and swept one of the cups off the draining board.

I actually cried out: “NOOOOOO!”  A great big werewolf howl.  As though howling could arrest the fall.  As though how I felt could change anything.

After all those weeks and months, after four years of caring for and protecting and chaperoning that cup, it was, in the end, me that broke it. Little old careless mother- distracted me.Chrysler-Building2

This is the way the world ends. Love, life, your white cups, your nice pants. Your marriage, your job, your great-aunts and your grandsons.  All the things you care for.

Everything:  All the people you mistrusted! All your wariness and boundaries and push-backs! And then it’s you that messes up!  You!

I actually contemplated smashing the other cup deliberately, right then, just to get it over with.   You know what I’m saying?

You only ever see the Chrysler Building once for the first time.

~

— {For John H. and Flora. Bisous. ♥}

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One comment

  1. David, what a sweet and charming story of you NYC de-flowering. I am so impressed you made all the right choices and observations on how to avoid the over-touristed, over-kitsched areas and shopping. It shows the sensibility that makes you so much more interesting than the Italian tourists who flock to Eataly, the Germans so dependent on large, fold-out maps or even visitors from “the fly-over regions” of this country who believe pastel jogging suits, sneakers and purses slung across their wide bodies (separating their udders into implausibly divided lumps) is acceptable daytime streetwear here. (Damn, I guess we ARE a snarky bunch.)

    On the loss of you cups and saucers I have some good news and a little bad news. The bad news is that you need to get rid of your remaining cup unless you can find a replacement saucer. Actually, you need to find a two replacement saucers and one replacement cup since elevating yourself above a guest in your home is not the best form. (whether or not it actually does is up for debate. The fact you believe it does is probably not something a host should strive for.) However, tea without a saucer or a mis-matched cup/saucer combo is not exactly a pulled-together look. In fact it might be a sad reminder of loss rather than of happy memories gained during a virgin’s journey to New York City. (Ok, I am just not going near that right now.)

    Confidently throw the remaining cup in the garbage.

    In the same moment look at the good news…New York is still here and you are not living in Bangalore. It is a quick journey for you compared to almost everyone else on the planet. So, as you toss the cup, be glad you are close and book a journey back.

    The best part of the good news is you now have friends in NYC (Flora and myself among them) who would gladly welcome you back at any time with warm hugs and place to stay and without the need to play hotel roulette. You will get no mismatched or un-saucered cups here. Rather the best china will be laid out with the best tea spoons, clotted cream and scones.

    Perhaps then and only then, will you see you had nothing to lose by tossing away the loose cup.. In fact, you will see (hopefully) that what makes anyplace great is not the static souvenirs you collect while visiting but the dynamic people living there who touch you . This is as true of a small hamlet in Saskatchewan as it is of any great urban center on the planet. (Ok, so maybe this presents a problem for Los Angeles).

    Lucky you David! You have resident friends in a city you seem to have a crush on. Not only that, at least one has a place where you can stay for a genuine insiders experience.

    Lastly, while we New Yorkers may shop at Crate and Barrel in a pinch, we do not go there for things we think believe will endure the test of time This is particularly true of fragile cup and saucer sets.) Things break. It happens.) Good friendships are much more enduring, far more valuable and much better at provoking good memories.

    I suggest you start a collection of memories of New York. Memories made WITH New Yorkers. Make the city your own. Come often and stay a bit longer each time. You may even end up living here… who knows? Whether or not that happens, I can guarantee you will, after not too long, forget about broken china and begin looking forward more and more to the depth of experiences you can find in a place such as this…experiences made better when shared with friends both new and old.

    Thank you from both or us for the lovely dedication.

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