… is post something short, sweet, non-dyspeptic and by someone else.
But, goldarnnit, the someone else here is J Walter Thompson, the venerable ad agency, the original “Mad Men” blue-suited dinosaur that’s updated its DNA and partnered with Tourism Toronto to create a soul-stirring 60-second promotional video (actually, an entire campaign) about my hometown that brought tears to my old-man eyes and gratitude to my aching, feckless heart.
I’ll be updating with an authentic slowpainful post very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy:-
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.
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.
In mere HOURS I’m off to surely-to-god-it’s-got-to-be-warmer-than-here California for a sojourn in Sacramento.
I say “sojourn” because that’s the word Joan Didion would use, she being after all Sacramento’s most famous export. And when in doubt about what word to use or how generally to proceed, I always check my “What Would Joanie Do? Nurturing Your Neurotic Self” coaching manual.
Unfortunately, it mostly falls open at page 27, which starts with the action plan: “Sit paralyzed on the edge of the bed, half dressed, thinking about that telephone call you have to make to the District Attorney’s office”. If you’ve wondered why I haven’t been in touch.
Anyway, a seasoned traveler always does research and yours truly, more seasoned than a double helping of Phad Thai, has come up with the following:
“Sacramento” is a Mexican expression via the Catholic church that is roughly equivalent to, “You gotta be kidding, dude!” It was popularized by Ronald Reagan in the 1960’s, when he and Nancy turned their little Caucasian noses up at the traditional Governor’s Mansion and instead built a rambling monstrosity with a wet bar and swimming pool (q.v. Joan Didion).
Nancy and Ron, staring up the front staircase of the charming original Governor’s mansion: (with a low whistle): Sacramento !
During Ronnie’s tenure, the term became part of the California “vibe”.
Welfare recipient: Do you think you could, I dunno, take some of those tax cuts for the rich and give poor dudes more to live on? Ronnie (hand on heart, with a dismissive chortle):Sacramento!! Welfare recipient: Just a thought. I dunno. Like, sorry.
Gradually, this ejaculatory – yes, I know – expression became quite idiomatic, popping up, like Ronnie, at the most unexpected moments.
Ronnie, to Nancy: Hey sweetie pie, how’s about you and me smoke a spliff and bump uglies? Nancy (clutching pearls, with a giggle): SACRAMENTO!!!
Check out more examples by making up your own, dude. I mean, seriously. I’ve got packing.
A quick whiz around the Innernet (practising my Mercan pronoun-see-ashun) – reveals, who knew, that Sacramento’s main attractions are:
1. The river 2. The bridge that goes over the river
3. The other side of the river
4. The Capitol building, where you can see Ronald Reagan’s foot and hand prints in the cement (he got confused)
5. The State Flag, which is a re-purposing of one of Nancy’s red Adolfo numbers, and
6. San Francisco
Sources: By the Innernet, I mean of course Wikipedia and Amazon.com.
Additional travel advice: Sacramento means West, and – Allah be praised! – West means Westerns, which means – Cowboys!
“Hey, pardner, how’s about you and me hop in the saddle for a little of that ol’ Yippee-i-ay?”
So it’s going to be, like, an awesome?! trip?!
Memo to self: Bring the chaps.
GREAT BIG FLYING PUSSY
I HATE HATE HATE flying and I have to take TWO planes tomorrow: one from Buffalo to Chicago and then Chicago to Sacramento. I’d like to be cryogenically frozen for the duration of the two flights, does anyone know of a service like this? Just message me here.
I’m fairly trim so I’d probably fit in the fridge located in the service area where all the space waitresses congregate, but they’d have to be on the ball because I don’t want to end up in cubes chilling someone’s 50-year-old malt whiskey or something. Talk about irony!
OK. I’ll await your responses. I mean, I’ve got Valium.
Or I could just strap myself in my seat, take lots of Valium and prepare to be face-planted into the Sierra Madre. How’s that for an exit!
I’d like to be listening to Mahler when that happens. The “Lieder Eines Schlumpfenden Geschwitz”, one of those. They all sound the same anyway.
Thanks again for looking into this. What do you mean, “nervous”?