Saturday, July 16, 2016

East Coasting

The mother of one of Spuds' school friends owns an Israeli restaurant in Manhattan.and hosts a Shabbat dinner. Spuds, my friend Laura and I are seated at a table with a bunch of recent medical school grads who are starting internships at Bellevue. They are friendly and eager to discuss their own accomplishments but demonstrate very little curiosity about us. Being admired by folks in our age bracket is obviously familiar territory.

Laura is temporarily reliant on a cane and is a very good sport about it. Our trip is planned while she is fully ambulatory and she grins and bears the difficulties of getting in and out of cars and navigating steep stairs. What I think is more disheartening than the physical discomfort are all of the assumptions that seemed to be married to this small medical device. I notice a number of times that questions intended for Laura are posed to me, as if somehow impeded walking results in impeded thinking.

We leave the restaurant after Shabbat and one of the interns asks if he can help us hail a cab. I inform him that we're Ubering. He thinks that this is cute and adds that he can't imagine his grandma ever using a phone app to summon a car. Doing the math, I figure that with two generations of teen moms I actually am old enough to be his grandmother. I often say, and it's even true, that I would not prefer any age to my current 59. I don't think I attach any shame to being as old as I am but the grandmother Uber thing, even a week after the incident, pisses me off. I guess I really don't really like being identified as old, while for the most part, being as old as I am is quite satisfactory. But, I think what rankles the most is the assumption the younger often hold that older people are backward or quaint. Dr. Questionable Bedside Manner, ironically, probably thinks he's complimenting us for having risen above his low level of expectation.

I give myself permission to go off the rails when I lose my friend Richard. It seems to me that six months of informal grieving should suffice. Fortunately, my teaching gig provides a wonderful and fulfilling distraction. When this ends, despite the expiration of my six month mourning period, I am still unsettled and sad. Since the kids are independent, and we're able to travel without them , we've adventurously visited places we'd never been to before and really expanded our comfort zone. This trip is one however of mainly retracing familiar steps. There are still a number of historical sites in the Hudson Valley that are on my list but I spend my time lolling around and preparing meals for Spuds and his friends.

Spuds lives in the charming town of Tivoli. A lot of his friends are spending the summer there too. Jobs are pretty easy to land in this woodsy retreat from Manhattan. Kids share decrepit 19thdxcentury houses, which knowing they'll be trashed, the landlords neglect and gouge for. I clear out everything that's rotted beyond recognition from the fridge, do half a dozen loads of laundry and the kitchen floor. Spuds, like his older brother, has taken to grilling and I make sides and desserts for big groups of kids. Unlike the New York newbie doctors, these kids actually show an interest in us and are eager to hear about our ideas and experiences. And as Liberal Arts students they have voracious appetites for culture and we bop from art, music, film and tv. Their insights are sophisticated and opinions well thought out. They have more tattoos and facial hair than the young physicians but seem to take themselves far less seriously. Spuds reports that we pass muster as “cool” parents.

In keeping with the anti-adventure theme of the trip, we decide to return to Philadelphia, despite the East Coast's nearly infinite untrodden territory. We do make a stop en route in Nyack to visit the house where Edward Hopper was born and cruise, at Himself's request, through the home turf of his paternal grandparents, the old coal town of Avoca, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is a great city for both food and art and I like a place where there's stuff to do between meals. Spuds, who announces his plans to attend grad school and earn a PhD in art history, appreciates a lot more contemporary art than his mom who militantly favors the representational. We go our own ways at art museums and when the Barnes (one of the best museums in the world) is sold out, Spuds opts for the contemporary gallery and Himself and I trek over to the behemoth Eastern State Penitentiary, which now operates as a museum.

The vision was to create a penal institution inspired by the Quaker belief in isolation and quiet repentance. The building was considered one of America's most modern when it opened in 1829. Each cell was heated, had running water and a flush toilet. Andrew Jackson's White House of the same era lacked running water and was heated by coal stoves. Also, modern was the rejection of harsh and corporal punishment. However, the notion of quiet penitence was taken to the extreme. All speaking was forbidden. Prisoners were confined to one person cells and assigned handicrafts like shoe-making or leather work. Convicts were moved around the prison wearing hoods to insure that they were unable to communicate with or be identified by other inmates.

When Charles Dickens toured the ostensibly innovative and human facility in 1842 he wrote:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

By the 1920s, the prison was expanded and run more conventionally. A photo gallery shows sports teams, Christmas celebrations, big vocational workshops and musical groups. We visit a sweet little synagogue, recently restored and watch an interview with the Rabbi chaplain. I imagine that statistics will confirm that prisons have become more punishing and offer fewer resources for the prevention of recidivism over the last decades. There has been some criticism that “prison tourism” trivializes the current incarceration crisis. Indeed all have gift shops with kitschy items like toy handcuffs and t-shirts that resemble prison uniforms but this just pays the bills.None of the handful of prison museums I've visited across the country glamorize or romanticize the prison experience. I can't imagine anyone touring a prison museum without being struck by the coldness and lack of humanity. On the central yard at Eastern State there is a huge 3D info graphic that demonstrates how much higher the U.S. rate of incarceration is than any other country in the world. There is also a breakdown that shows how disproportionately African American and Hispanic people are sentenced to prison.

We return to the Hudson Valley on the 4th of July and walk down to watch a big fireworks display from across the river in Saugerties and then spend the night, after a day of hazmat duty, sleeping at Spuds'. The next day I drop Himself at JFK and then head to a crummy AirB&B on the Lower Eastside. When Laura arrives the next day we decide that the apartment is too squalid so we move to a nearby micro-hotel. I hit my usual Eastside haunts-Russ and Daughters (restaurant 1x, deli 2x,) Economy Candy (2x) and Yonah Schimmel's Knishes (1x). When not eating we see my friend and expert New Yorker Rosemary and enjoy the Book of Mormon and for my second time, Fun Home.

We take in three great exhibits at the new Whitney-a selection of portraits from their permanent collection, and retrospective of Stuart Davis with dozens of his vivid oil montage riffs on European advertising. Finally there is a large exhibit with the work of photographer/filmmaker Danny Lyon. Lyon began his career photographing the civil rights movement. I notice that some of his earliest photos include civil rights leader John Lewis, the congressman who brainstormed the recent House sit-in for gun control. There is also a chilling series of Lyon's 1960s photos from a Texas Penitentiary.

The Museum of the City of New York has a wonderful exhibit on the NY cartoons of Roz Chast and some interesting artifacts from the Yiddish theater. It is comforting to revisit familiar places and feel vaguely New Yorker. Like the Hudson Valley, there is a long list of Manhattan attractions I've yet to partake of but this trip my disposition runs conservative.

Spuds flies home with me to spend a week. He has a new girlfriend who's spending the summer in L.A. and they are attached like glue. Number One Son, despite having never been there, is planning to pack it all in, quit his job and move to Chicago. I proffer my opinion but understand his curiosity about living elsewhere. I made even more rash decisions myself when I was 23. I get a weird feeling as I watch from outside my boys, as men, planning and living their own lives. I look at these giant creatures, strange yet familiar and it is hard to imagine that they were once inside of me.

Both boys and their girlfriends sleep in the basement as I write this. In a couple weeks I suppose it will just be Him and Myself, two cats and a dog. I still don't know if I'll be teaching in the fall. If not, I need to find something to fill the mothering void or I'll put on another twenty pounds. I did download PokemonGo. I've caught two Pokemons and am at Level Two. I bet the young doctor's grandma can't do that either.

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

Your comments about the young'ins not asking questions and stating things about "Grandmother" made me laugh at loud! That began to happen to me when I turned 50 I recall. All of sudden one day many people in their teens, twenties and early 30s were calling me "M'am". Happens to this day. I never know if I feel insulted or not either. What was different for me, and I am endlessly grateful it is, is even when I was very young and a teen I really enjoyed the company of my older neighbors and relatives, and did not view age as any divide. Always found most of them interesting and engaging (except perhaps my Mom's Father who was a blowhard gasbag.) I have close friends in their 90s to this day. Laura was such a trooper and I loved every minute we all got to spend together. Thank you for a wonderful time and sorry I could not have breakfast last Saturday, another roof garden renovation day. Your Sons are amazing. I hope Niall knows he can always stay with me if he is ever in NYC and needs a place to crash, or advice of great bars and restaurants etc. xx