I heard birds. As the sun comes up, the chirping starts. I can’t believe how lucky I am to wake up to so many birds – who would have thought that would be the noise that wakes me in NYC?
As I wait downstairs on the sidewalk after arguing with A, I also hear the birds. Above me now. Listening to their chirping, my curiosity gets the better of my anger. Where are these birds? I look up, and find them nestling in the ends of the girders above me. The girders of the temporary scaffolding that envelopes our building while our crumbing stone window sills are replaced. It’s not just an annoying obstruction to our view of the park, it’s a home for birds.
Girder birds. Thriving in this busy city. How can I be angry when there are birds?
I heard them again this morning. And tomorrow. Maybe I don’t want that scaffolding to come down so fast after all.
Postscript: The birds are gone. Someone has chased them out. Which is probably a good thing since the scaffolding would have come down soon, and with it their baby girder-birds. Now I hear the birds from Tompkins Square Park.
I am living in an apartment devoid of furniture. Well, not quite. There is a blow up mattress, two camp chairs and the drawers that used to hold up our bed in the van.
A lot has happened in the four months since Texas. A lot, and also not much. I feel quite at home, and still not. Yesterday my oldest friend J was in town on business. It was such a relief to talk to someone who just knows who I am, culturally and personally. Life here is great, and terrible and lonely and fabulous all at once. That is hard work. And who knows whether it is all worth it? I trust it will be.
But anyhoo. We rented an apartment. A proper one. A big one! With four windows that overlook Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Despite having no furniture, I have sat and eaten breakfast each morning looking out at squirrels and robins and greenery. This just might keep me sane in this city! We had actually planned to have some furniture in it before moving in, but the thought of getting $600 back on our sublet if we left early was too good to refuse. So we impromptu moved on Monday and I find myself camping in NYC – ironically, we have quite enough camping stuff to get by with. And I say I because A is living it up in an airbnb in Rhode Island – no empty apartment-living for him.
I do finally feel like an adult. Is it because I live in an apartment in NYC? No. Despite everything I have done in my life – bought three houses, married, divorced, sat by deathbeds, travelled, moved across the world – the thing that finally made me feel like an adult was buying a brand new sofa! Not a hand-me-down, not one we compromised on because a cheaper one would really make sense if we’re only here for a couple of years, not one we found on Craigslist. A brand new, lovely sofa. And now I am an adult! After a brief panic that it wouldn’t fit through our doorway, it will arrive on Saturday and I will be so happy to sit on it!
To balance my newfound adulthood I have developed an obsession with manhole covers. New York streets are full of them. They have all kinds of patterns and sizes, but the round metal-ness of them intrigues me. As does the fact that they all seem to be Made in India. Why would these things get shipped from India? What do people think when I stop in the middle of the road to photograph a new one?
You know what they think? Nothing! This is NYC and every next person is crazier than a cut snake and doesn’t give two hoots what the hell I am photographing in the street. And I love it. But I can’t quite relax into it yet.
Top three things that drive me crazy on a near-daily basis:
one tap for both shower and bath that never works the same way as the last one I used – can you not afford separate taps?
the 10 cent coins are smaller than the 5 cent coins and I always get it wrong
having to choose all the ingredients – if I wanted to do that I would have made my own sandwich, just let me order your sandwich specialty
Tempered by all the awesome things:
there is always something on – Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo talking at the Tribeca Film Festival, ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and Noam Chomsky talking about neo-liberalism and who really holds the power in Europe, Jon Krakauer at the local library
visiting the Frank Lloyd-Wright room at the Met and choosing to pay only a dollar to get in
cycling to work up the Hudson river every day – pinch myself
catching the train an hour north to spend all day hiking
ice-skating in Central Park/Prospect Park/Bryant Park
drinking picklebacks in our local bar
sleeping through Broadway plays
watching squirrels from my window
walking through Central Park in the snow
finding the David Bowie memorials
crazy people who don’t give a damn
the man that sets up a table on the corner of our street to sell plastic dinosaurs and fake dog poo
the awesome acoustics in our empty apartment
that it is only April and light until 7.30 already
That’s a great list. I will try to remember it next time when I am feeling anxious and lonely and that it is all too hard!
Texas was great. I love Texas. I guess I can only really speak for West Texas.
The Chihuahua Desert with it’s rocky ranges reminds me a lot of the Flinders Ranges. I hadn’t really considered before that this part of Texas has the extension of the Rocky Mountains running through it, and beyond into Northern Mexico, where there are range upon range of wild-looking mountains to be explored. We were heading to Big Bend NP for three days of sunny winter hiking in the Chisos Mountains.
We arrived in El Paso, on Christmas morning, at 2.30am (4.30 am NYC time). We staggered all of 160 yards to our hotel and fell into bed. Hours later we are driving aimlessly around a deserted El Paso looking for somewhere to have a birthday breakfast. Even after being in the US for 6 months now, I still imagine that I am going to get Melbourne-style breakfast. It never happens. Especially not on Christmas Day. A is ecstatic when we stop at a Mexican diner. We are, after all, on the edge of Mexico. A sighting of a guy in tradies overalls, with cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat, walking a tiny chihuahua makes us inordinately happy.
I drive because A’s license expired and the new one has not yet arrived from Australia. It is a long and boring road. We’ve had to justify our presence to a burly-looking border patrol officer, and our progress has been captured by about 20 cameras from every possible angle. A realises that that this will happen again when we return from Big Bend and enters a state of nervous anticipation that will last for the rest of the trip. I nap for 20mins at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
4 hours and 300 miles later, we arrive in Marfa. A small town that, unknown to us, is too cool for school. A hotbed of art and design thanks to artist and architect Donald Judd settling here in the 60s, it’s pretty funky in a mid-century, hipster-y way and I wish we had more time to explore. We stay in the Hotel Paisano, a nicely preserved hotel made famous as the base for Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean whilst shooting the movie Giant, and popular for weddings. And also for family christmases it seems. It is an oasis in the desert of nothingness we have driven through. And even though we haven’t had the foresight to book ahead for dinner, they can squeeze us in. Lucky, coz there’s nothing else open on christmas night. Perfect birthday evening.
There is a giant storm brewing to the north of us in New Mexico and it’s going to stretch south far enough to mean snow. And ice. So much for it being warmer in Texas. I’m not sure we thought that through properly. Whilst we did plan for cold camping, we are not properly equipped to have a good time camping in snow. Our plans need to change. We get lucky with a cancellation and book two nights in a cabin in another small town, Marathon. The hiking part of our trip is getting shorter by the moment. We hole up while it snows all Sunday. Books, movies. Lucky we changed our plans – the park is closed for the day.
Our fear of freezing whilst camping turns into a phobia and we book another night in yet another small West Texas town. As it turns out, we probably could have camped that night. But preoccupied as we were with the mountains, and their snow and ice, we forgot that the park extends down to the Rio Grande, where even though it’s not warm, it is sunny and snow-free. En route we take a winding drive through the park, stopping for a roadrunner, and soon after, ironically, a coyote. We take a hike to Boquillas Canyon where we are serenaded from the Mexican side by the Mexican Singing Jesus. The canyon acoustics are good but we don’t tip. We have a quick swim at a hot spring, with the cold Rio Grande rushing past beside us. We end up in Terlingua – a ghost town famous for a murder that coincidentally I had just read about. In fact, we spend the evening drinking at the scene, stepping where the body lay as we cross the roughly paved parking lot to descend the steps into the underground bar. LaKiva has only recently reopened and it has a nice vibe, but is not yet popular again. We have a good night.
Finally, we pack our backpacks, get up early, and drive back into the park. Our timing is good and the road up into the Chisos Basin is open by the time we arrive. But we forget an important lesson about hiking in NPs in the US – book early, like, yesterday. The good news is that there is exactly one backcountry camp left available that night, the bad news is that it is only about 45mins walk from the trailhead. Not to be deterred we hike in, set up the tent, stash our food in the bear box, and set off to walk the whole loop in one day. The difficulty of hiking here is usually the lack of water, but after snow that’s not such an issue. In fact the problem is the looong switchback climb in the shadow of the mountain, where last night’s snow has not seen the sun. Now ice, ascending it makes for a careful and delicate procedure and we are glad to have left our gear behind. I admire the snow cleats that more prepared hikers are using. The Chisos Mountains are an island plateau of mountains rising above the desert, and once the climb is done we hike through winding canyons past shallow snowdrifts and icy ponds. Sudden vistas appear below us as the path rounds a spur to skirt the edge of the plateau. I am reminded again that the effort to get outside is always worth it, even when it seems odds are against us. I’m refreshed and inspired but also notice how out of shape I’ve become in the big city. We have but a moment to sit and admire the panorama stretching away before us – the Chihuahua desert plains, the Rio Grande and the blue Mexican mountains beyond – before we have to return the way we came to be sure of descending the icy rock stairway before dark.
Next day, we are back at the car by mid morning heading towards Fort Davis. Border patrol interview us and let us pass, A’s fears of being detained alleviated for now. We care less about the historic fort, and instead head for the State Park to camp. After a little lie down in the hammock, shivering in my sleeping bag, we head to nearby McDonald Observatory to look at the dark sky through some quite large telescopes. It’s pretty good. But we haven’t eaten and when we make it back to town at 9pm there is nothing open. It’s freezing out, so we sit in the car and eat instant mashed potato before crawling into bed fully clothed. Life is good.
I didn’t realise just how much I love a sunburnt country until I left. In fact, until I went to West Texas. Another sunburnt country. Desert, saltbush, coyotes, rocky mountain ranges, desolation. Also cacti. And snow. These things all tug at my heart. Even cacti. I cannot imagine living in a place without them. And yet, NYC. The seeming antithesis of sunburnt country. I am surprised that I am here. So are others. I love to be surprising.
But on waking in the East Village the first morning now A and I moved even further in, to actual Manhattan, the first sound I heard was birds tweeting. And we watched a fat squirrel scampering around. I lie in bed and look out the window, towards the sky, straight into a tree that will be green and glorious come spring.
Maybe all it takes is a view of nature, to calm me, to give me a moment. I am reminded of my last weeks with Nan, where the view of the Dandenong Ranges from her hospital bed made her so happy. Just like Nan, constrained by a room, I can live constrained by a city, as long as I have a view.
Christmas. It’s hot sunny days and washed out landscapes, it’s watching Carols by Candlelight on TV, it’s family, it’s desperately wanting to do my own thing. I never quite feel like I fit in at Christmas, I’m always a bit apart.
For a long time my birthday has set me apart. I feel special, but conspicuous at the same time, awkward drawing attention on a day that is already set aside for another celebration. And now I’m older, without another generation coming up, some of it’s zing is lost. Christmas is a time for tradition, for gathering of family. I’m envious of my cousins and all their children, continuing traditions that I am leaving. Even as they embrace me as a favourite aunt and make me welcome. While my immediate family seems to gets smaller by the year. And I feel guilty for making it even smaller by not being there.
This year I missed the annual decorating of the tree. Maybe for the first time ever. I think it not a coincidence that this is the year I needed my own tree. I insisted A and I have one, albeit small, and sparsely decorated. And it’s been an odd build up through December here, the city getting more and more festive, but then no culmination with all the personal trimmings. No presents under the tree, no carolling, no stuffing myself with Turkey until it’s all I can do to toddle from dining table to couch and snooze. No green-jelly-as-substitute for a pudding-hater. No desperately trying to carve myself some spare birthday hours to myself. No birthday cake.
Of course, I am totally feeling sorry for myself. I know it. Christmas faraway, surrounded by a strange city, is hard. But it’s also good. And New York City certainly knows how to do Christmas. The Rockefeller Centre christmas tree, the Christmas windows on 5th Avenue, the lights in every second apartment window. The commercialism, the crowds, the cold(ishness-not-so-much-this-year).
And there’s certainly something to be said for getting to celebrate it somewhere new. I started writing this on Christmas Eve, on a plane as A and I headed to Texas – state number 26 on this excellent adventure. Travelling at Christmas is starting to be a new tradition. Looking back, A and I have been somewhere else on (at least part of) Christmas Day almost every year – Port Fairy, India, Adelaide and now Marfa, Texas. After a dodgy El Paso Mexican diner Christmas brunch followed by driving three hours we are holed up in the Hotel Paisano, from Giant (1957) fame, with spare birthday hours to spend reading, lounging and taking a bath, before Birthday dinner. Perfection.
And as I listen, yet again, to Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun, and the tears cloud my eyes, I know that what he sings is so true. That even though I’m far away, my sisters and cousins and father and mother and nieces and nephews are waiting in the heat of the Australian summer, to welcome us home, whenever we come.
It seems like I’m always trying to find my way, even when I think I know the way. There are always indicators to help – signs, usually – but they are tricky and sometimes I cannot make sense of them either. If I drop my guard, I am momentarily lost.
Before descending into the undercity I must remember to read the signs at the entrance. Downtown? Uptown? Or can I decide once I am down? Wait, people are only streaming out, not in. Check the colour of the subway globes – red, exit only. Look around to find the white and green ones that indicate an entrance. Maybe I can’t see them because they are a block or more away.
Finally, down the steps, through the turnstile – oops, swipe that metrocard again, success! Follow the always-confusing signs. Every station has multiple lines A,C,E,2,3,4,5,L and maybe the LIRR. Hurry to the platform, double back and try again. Don’t forget to check which side of the platform or else, again, I’m heading downtown instead of up.
Listen for the announcements, which station? Am I on a local or an express? Why are we stopping here? Rerouted again. Ooh, I could change to the 4 here? Maybe that will be faster because it has less stops, but how long will I have to wait for it? And I have a seat now, I might not get a seat if I change, maybe it’s better to stay on this one. If I prevaricate long enough the decision is made. Stay.
Exiting is another exercise in navigating. Despite indicators, I am lost until I’ve done it a few times. And even then it’s no guarantee. Stairs to NW corner, that’s good. Emerge from the world below, but am I facing N or W? As I stood looking vainly up and down the street from a new station yesterday I discovered a new indicator. The helicopter flight path on the Hudson River. If I can see helicopters flying between buildings then I am heading the right way.
On the corner of Eastern Parkway and Franklin Avenue is where I stand as I eat my egg and cheese roll. I bought it at Sal’s Restaurant, on the corner, where they know us by now. Sometimes Sal’s is full to bursting with students grabbing their breakfast, but this morning I am early and the wait was short.
As I open the bag I feel a waft of warmth rush over my face, and I smell hot egg and melted cheese. There is a pang of guilt as I wonder how this deliciousness is even possible for $1.75. I know the answer, but I am not ready to go there yet. My stance so far extends to refusing a plastic bag, to actually giving the bag back if I get one. I can’t yet tackle that bigger issue.
At this hour, about 7.15, there aren’t many people about and I find a moment of peace as I stand at the top of subway stairs. Usually I feel self-conscious and make the effort to walk further to sit a park bench. But today, I can save time and stand here for a moment. Only a few people pass me and it’s easy not to feel the pressure to move on.
Across the road I see the bench where A and I sometimes sit and I feel slightly wistful as I realise it is something we haven’t had time to do for a while. Our routine is changing. Me leaving early, him still able to sleep late. Me coming home tired but wanting to make up for not seeing him all day, him having busied all day and ready for Netflix and chill. We’ll work it out.
Trucks and traffic rush past this corner and the noise of them intrudes on my peace. Eastern Parkway is a big street, and pedestrians take second place. It’s one of the few roads I encounter on a daily basis that is difficult to jaywalk across. In NYC, like inner-city Melbourne, jaywalking is king. Even though crossing the street is dangerous. People live dangerously here it seems. Just at the weekend I saw someone nearly get hit crossing the street. Is NYC a dangerous city? I get freaked out by the number of bicycle deaths, fires. But still, I go about my life without changing what I do. Like a real New Yorker, I am learning to keep my wits about me at all times. I worry about my Mum if she come’s to visit, the New York I frequent is too fast for her.
I am not cold here on the corner. I have been surprised not to be more cold yet. It is a warmer than average November, all though only 6 degrees (fahrenheit) warmer so still cold. I can’t find the right combination of layering – a problem I have had all my life when trying to dress for heart-elevating activities in cold weather, like cycling and cross-country skiing. Here, often too hot whilst walking, as soon as I remove my coat I am chilled. And even when I’m too hot, my fingers, toes and nose can be chilly, and I can see my breath. Maybe this winter in NYC will finally teach me how to get my layering right.
Before I take the last bite of delicious, melty cheese, salty roll and non-free-range-non-organic-cruelly raised egg and head down into the ground, I look up and down the street at the trees. The sunlight is catching the last of the leaves and I realise I am surprised that there are still any leaves at all. Surprised at the difference between different trees in different places within the city. Central Park still has many fall-coloured leaves, Eastern Parkway has almost none. And yet with the sunlight and clear blue skies, it could be summer.