I find myself in a Time's Square coffee shop with a line out the door. And the people are waiting “on line” and not “in line.” Plus, the mayonnaise here is “Hellman's.” Not that they have it at the coffee shop but I always notice at the supermarket. We are staying in a thimble sized hotel room and Spuds asks me to vacate so he can catch up on some sleep. I, on the other hand, wake up early, no matter when I go to bed or what time zone I'm in.
I set out nearly two weeks ago. The first day I reach Flagstaff in the early evening, unfit to drive any further. Unfortunately, hotel prices are inflated about 300% on the Sunday evening of a holiday weekend and I end in the most squalid place I've ever stayed. The next day I press on to Albuquerque where I crash a family dinner with my friend Rachel and enjoy meeting her mom, brother and sons. What tickles me the most is that the father of her sons remarried and his second wife is a beloved stepmother. That marriage ended also but Rachel and her ex-husband's ex-wife/kid's stepmother are close and she is another member of the family. After experiencing a few acrimonious incidents involving stepparents and complicated family configurations this makes me happy.
The drive from Albuquerque to Dodge City Kansas is beautiful. The roads are empty as I cruise through tiny towns, all with their water towers and historic main streets. I try to visit an historic house before I hit the road but it is closed so my only memories of Dodge are a generic motel and a lousy Mexican restaurant at the end of a bedraggled shopping mall.
My next stop is Kansas City to spend two days with my old friend Bill who was transferred there from L.A. for work over twenty years ago. Bill lives in a striking blue modernist condominium smack in the middle of blocks and blocks of perfectly preserved mansions. It rains intermittently but spring has definitely sprung and the stately city bursts with greenery and near-lurid flowers. We dine alfresco in a neighborhood cafe and the next night at a clubby hotel restaurant with a singer who does a dead-on (as good as David Sedaris') imitation of Billie Holiday. Bill is an aficionado of popular vocals and we listen to a number of his favorite popular singers in his perfectly appointed condo. He plays a CD of rare recordings of Black singers performing Jewish songs including Lady Day's rendition of My Yiddishe Momma. I confess that a little of this goes quite a long way.
We visit the Nelson-Adkins. I am non-plussed by an, excruciating with detail, exhibit glorifying Spanish chef Ferran Andria but enjoy a showcase of American Folk art. We walk through a plate glass labyrinth, notably treacherous but less fearsome for us as the panels are spotted with rain. The permanent collection is impressive, particularly with the work of native son Thomas Hart Benton. We are intrigued by a large group of school girls. All are wearing mid-calf length plaid skirts and ballet slipper type shoes. I wonder what kind of a school would eschew as too provocative a shoe with a heel. Even the chaperones wear longish dresses and flat shoes. We try to read the emblem on the girls' blazers to figure out the school but are unable to do so at the risk of appearing pervy.
We visit the Thomas Hart Benton home and studio which is left marvelously intact. The dumb-ish college aged guide talks mostly about herself but we still get a good feel for the place, homey and almost militantly un-grandiose and smack dab in the middle of a meticulously groomed old residential area.
I leave Kansas City and drive drive drive. I manage to get through two enormous audio-novels: The Gold Finch and The Confederacy of Dunces before hitting Annandale. I am nervous driving a ten year old Corolla three thousand miles but the little car is spunky and reliable. I land someplace in Ohio at a cheap motel filled with skeet shooters and set off early the next morning and make it through Pennsylvania to the Taconic Parkway and up through the Hudson Valley. Spuds and I stay at the little Red Hook cottage filled with ephemera and antiques that we usually rent. Spuds has been couch surfing for two weeks and appreciates a clean bed and some meals by mom. He works full time the day the house he is renting becomes available so I make a number of trips to Kingston to acquire provisions.
Kingston is the original capital of New York state and there is a charming historic section but my activities are confined to a strip of chain stores on the outskirts of town. My days are filled with The Dollar Store, Builder's Emporium, Goodwill, Target and I confess, for the first time in my life, the politically incorrect Walmart. Setting up Spuds' first household is a daunting proposition and I am enticed by the low prices. Chances are I will never shop there again, but my God, stuff is cheap. I will note that the corporation did recently increase wages and that I very much enjoyed their nice art museum in Arkansas. While Spuds is working I set up his kitchen and then when he is off, we make another trip to Kingston to visit a U-Haul storage space and miraculously we are able to fit the entire contents into the little Toyota, thus avoiding yet another journey to the edge of Kingston. I notice that one of the storage spaces is double locked and there is a note that says, “Due to delinquent rental on this unit you no longer have access to it,” which makes me feel embarrassed about the things I fret about.
Traveling from drought stricken California through quite a bit of rain is refreshing at first. By the time I reach the Hudson Valley and after three days of shopping and moving in pouring rain I am sick to death of the stuff. My final day in Annandale is clear and blue however and I meander through Poet's Walk, one of the most beautiful paths along the Hudson before dashing off through another trip to Kingston.
Spuds, with two good friends, has rented a large old house in the village of Tivoli. The landlady is a local mover and shaker and herself lives in a nineteenth century church which she has painstakingly and sparing no expense converted to her private residence. One of her business endeavors is to rent half a dozen or so houses to Bard students. The rent seems incredibly high to me but after pricing other local possibilities (including a three bedroom property that is inhabited by Bard students, each of whom pay $3000 a month!) it's in the average range. The house is serviceable. Not filthy but a far cry from pristine. The landlady brags to me that it comes with some furniture. This is true. There are two threadbare couches that emit a pungent aroma, a beat up dresser—drawers sprinkled with marijuana dregs, a broken mirror and a particle board desk. With every step through the house I envision the landlady squawking at her carpenter, “Do it as cheap as you can!” She's cornered the market, apparently, on vinyl. Window dressings. Floors. Panelling. Counters. The kids say she drives around the town a lot inspecting her holdings. The zealous cheapness raises my hackles but when I observe the move- in process, replete with giant trash bags of who knows what left for days in the middle of the living room, I get it.
God it seems has punished me for my slovenly early years. I drove my mother insane. I thought she was neurotic and had fucked up priorities. She thought I was a pig. And during the time she was subsidizing me, it broke her heart that I was so careless with things that the sweat of her labor provided,
Spuds and his roommates are nice kids. Actually, I was impressed that when we opened Spuds' storage vaults, his possessions were packed and categorized neatly. I suspect he will be the tidiest of the three but I am also relatively certain that by the time boys are done with it, the house will be quite thrashed. And while the landlady is indeed raking in a bundle, her cheapo décor choices are truly the most practical.
Spuds is set up now with an organized kitchen and a tidy bedroom. That done, we escape for a few days in Manhattan. The week has been tough on both of us. Our big treat for the weekend is some theater tickets. At the last minute I switch our Brooklyn reservation to a hotel in Times Square. I have received two e-mail reminders from the Circle on the Square Theater that there will be absolutely no late seating for Fun Home. When we miss the train from Rhinebeck to Manhattan, despite my abhorrence of the Time Square area I realize this is a prescient decision. We arrive at Penn Station at the height of rush hour and know that the fastest way to travel the half mile to the hotel is on foot, and despite my embarrassingly heavy suitcase, we set out. I have a real JAP thing about walking around city streets toting luggage.
When we first visited Manhattan about five years ago, Spuds was immediately smitten and it seemed New York City was his destiny. Now, leaving the pastoral Hudson Valley and stepping of a train in Penn Station we both realize that Manhattan has lost some magic. For long established residents, ensconced in rent controlled neighborhoods I'm sure it fine and the cultural and gustatory offerings are unparalleled. But dragging luggage over pedestrian thick sidewalks, festering bags of garbage stacked high, every driver on the horn and having seen here pretty much what I want to see, I suspect now that unless there's an extraordinary play or art exhibit I probably won't visit Manhattan just for the sake of visiting Manhattan. After having grown up in L.A. and spending two years in the Hudson Valley, Spuds is all over the fantasy of settling in the Big Apple.
When we arrive at the hotel there has been some confusion about the booking and simultaneously, we both lose it and I find myself close to tears. We are cutting it close for the theater curtain so we accept the not-as-described tiny room. Spuds, bless his heart, despite having had a really rough couple of weeks, returns to normalcy first and actually, brings things back to perspective, puts his arm around me and talks me down from my brittle strident place.
Five minutes into Fun Home, the musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, I am back in love with New York. It's a terrific theater-in-the-round production. The songs are beautiful and poignant and the show never crosses into schmaltzy territory.
The next morning we make our usual Eastside food rounds with lunch at Russ and Daughters and stops at Economy Candy and Yonah Schimmel knishes. Despite this we are hungry when it's time for an early dinner with our friend Rosemary at the hip and hoppin' Standard Hotel. As much as I grumble about being crammed onto a muggy subway at rush hour, having consumed raw onion, struggling to breathe only through my nose (not that any of the other passengers are as considerate) I can't be too hard on a city with museums that stay open until 10 p.m.
We start on the eight floor of Renzo Piano's spectacular new Whitney Museum on the High Line. The inaugural exhibit for the opening is American Is Hard to See which showcases the permanent collection both chronologically and thematically. We descend each floor to a more recent era via outdoor balcony stairs with a breathtaking view of the New York skyline, growing darker as we move from the late nineteenth century down to works created in the last few years. We go our separate ways on each floor, my philistine taste gravitating toward the more representational. Both of us pull the other over once in a while to show a favorite work. Spuds understands why I like what I like and it is astonishing that my youngest, can so eloquently express why he likes what he likes.
Today, we see The Curious Episode of the Dog in the Night, which I love so much I saw in London twice. Tomorrow Spuds returns to Annandale. There are clean sheets on his little bed and the kitchen stocked with basic needs. He has wheels. His swell roommates will return and they'll figure out about living on their own. I fly home on Monday, wistful but holding in my mind's eye the competent compassionate person I leave here in New York.