Taking Manhattan with a 4-year old

Oct. 23, 2018

My first experience in New York City was the summer of 1982. I was 18 and my dad and I were driving to Kennedy Airport from Stone Mountain, Georgia. I was heading off to go to school in London and we made it a leg of the journey. That first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline, with the looming World Trade Center towers and the Statue of Liberty floating in the foreground, injected me with an energy. So much bigger than the biggest thing I had ever seen. And somewhere in there was Lou Reed singing, “Take a walk on the wild side.” I would soon return to explore every corner.

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I’ve probably been to NYC fifty times since, but never like this trip. I was booked to speak at a forum on extremism in mid-town Manhattan and we thought, why not bring the kid? She had just spent a week in Mexico with Andrea and was fine traveling with one parent. Why not the Big Apple? I’ve been traveling so much this year without her I thought it would be fun to bring her along. So I called a travel agent and got her booked on my flight and we started planning what New York City with a 4-year-old and a 54-year-old would look like. No Russian bars. Can you tell me tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Cozy is great on planes. She’s been flying since she was a baby. But navigating JFK airport was a challenge. I forgot how huge it was and she was tired of walking before we were anywhere near Baggage Claim. I should have taken that as a sign of things to come. Our first night was at an AirBnB up in Spanish Harlem and she fell asleep on the subway ride across Queens and Brooklyn. Once in checked in she was more excited by her bunkbed than the city streets outside. What to see first?

We took the 6 Train down to Grand Central Station and rode a pedicab to Times Square. Her eyes exploded. It’s a pretty overwhelming site for any first-timer, more lights, more people, more out-of-shape Spidermans than the kid could imagine. (And she’s been to Mexico City.) Fortunately, there were no drunk Elmos to contend with. We stopped in the Disney Store that I remember was a dildo store in the mid-1980s. I wanted to tell the kids working there but it seemed inappropriate. 

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Then we caught a train down to the East Village where I had a meeting with an old friend and his colleague who are turning a novel of mine into a stage musical. But first we happened into a diner on Broadway that just happened to be called Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burgers. “When I grow up, I’m gonna be a chef here!” said Cozy, munching on her grilled cheese sandwich. The kid seemed to immediately take to the city, bouncing with its energy, as I had in 1982. I wondered what it would have been like if I had gotten that faculty job at CUNY and this was our life.

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She slept through a noisy night in Harlem. That’s a lot in one day for a 50-month-old. The next morning we moved into our hotel in midtown and started another day of adventure that included going to the Met to where we had a date with Picasso, a trip to the Central Park Zoo, where she saw her favorite animal, the impressive snow leopard, and then dinner in Greenwich Village with some of friends who had kids who were super NYC-savy. Seeing Cozy run around Washington Square with her squad while nobody tried to sell me pot made me reflect at how much New York had changed since the Lou Reed days.

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Day 3 we had breakfast in bed and then headed downtown to hop the Staten Island Ferry for a gander at the Statue of Liberty. She wasn’t prepared for the cold wind off the water as we wandered around Wall Street and tried to compete with a huge crowd of Chinese tourists for a picture with the Fearless Girl statue in front to the Charging Bull at the U.S. Stock Exchange. I don’t know if the tourists understood its significance but Cozy got it. Later, during my keynote, an old friend whisked Cozy off for a matinee of Frozen: The Musical on Broadway and a trip to the M&M Store (apparently her highlight of the entire trip). We topped the day off with a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center and an ice cream sundae from room service.

Our last day we had breakfast with feminist scholar Michael Kimmel at Veselka in the East Village, picking up an order of pierogis to take home to Andrea. Soon we were in a cab for LaGuardia and beginning our journey home.

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I had so much fear about bringing a 4-year-old to the big city, but Cozy was amazing. She mastered riding the subway (including the Lexington line during rush hour). She also loved catching cabs, no booster seat needed, and always had a good conversation with the driver. “Do you like kitties?”  When I go to NYC I just like to walk most places, but after a day Cozy reminded me that her feet were smaller than mine and that I should carry her, “because it’s good exercise.” After a few blocks she’d ask, “Do you feel stronger, Daddy?” Sort of, not really.

Manhattan has evolved so much since I started coming to hang out in the 1980s. Did I ever tell you about the time I accidentally bought heroin in Alphabet City? I was hanging out with the Portuguese boyfriend of a college friend of mine when he saw somebody he knew. “Man, I don’t want to talk to that guy because I owe him money. Would you give him this $20 from me?” I handed the guy his 20 and ended up with a small white packet in my hand. Not cool. But I’m sure there’s a Starbucks on that corner now and we can be all romantic about the drug infested days of the Lower East Side. New York is now a city of families, and it’s not just the Disney-fied Times Square. As a parent, it’s nice to see so many kids inhabit the city and I can still cherish my memories of barfing in the toilet at CBGBs on the Bowery. I’m glad Cozy got this version, because she could see herself in the city.

John Lennon ended up in New York City in 1971 because it was the center of the world. He became a father and househusband here and died on its streets. NYC might not be the center of the world anymore, (Nǐ hǎo, Beijing), but the Big Apple still feels like the place to be. Even though much of it’s twentieth century character has been gentrified into oblivion (I mean, a Target in the East Village?), much of it is still iconic and I could see Cozy soak it up like a Sponge Bob costume in the Hudson River. She gobbled up Denino’s pizza on MacDougal and asked if we could spit on Trump Tower on Park Avenue and threw a mean right arm up to hail a cab. She’s 4 and has been to one more Broadway musical than I have. It’s already her kinda town.

Manhattan is life. It is the culmination of American grit and diversity. It is the world on one island. I’m glad my kid has begun her New York story.

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My Little New York Patti Smith Dream

January 9, 2016

Dakota

I’m sitting in a bar on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. This is John Lennon’s block. John Lennon, the househusband and patron saint of this blog. I often come here on trips to New York, a solemn pilgrimage to consecrated pavement, blessed by his blood, thinking I will see him and his death will all have been a bad dream, conjured up by Rosemary’s devil-eyed baby. I walked the block, past the Dakota and thought about how many times he did the same. I’m sure it’s changed a bit since 1980. The Starbucks and the tour busses (“And to your left you’ll see the spot where Beatle John Lennon was murdered.”) weren’t there during the last days of the Carter years. And when it happened we thought our love affair with guns was finally done. On this Saturday the Dakota is draped in sheets and scaffolding. At first I thought it was a Yoko Ono performance piece as she still lives in the Victorian castle overlooking Central Park. Turns out the old house is just being cleaned.

But most of this short trip has been spent in Greenwich Village (although I did hike up to the East Village this morning for some perfect pirogues at Veselka Café that happily took their time melting on my tongue). As long as John has been in my life, Patti Smith has been there almost as long. At least since I read about her in rock magazines in my teenage bedroom in 1976 Stone Mountain, Georgia; the wild woman, chanting, “Go Rimbaud!”

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The dirty, nasty world of CBGB’s on the Bowery is where I wanted to be, not in my Ted Nugent-loving southern suburbia, draped in pink and blue Laura Ashley curtains. At age 14, I got the Easter album after hearing “Because the Night” on the radio and tried to dissect the poetry imbedded in what was then considered “punk rock.” High on rebellion. Words can carry you. Maybe I can do that, my pimply brain thought. Maybe I can write a line that will take on a life of its own.

After my piano-playing mother, Patti was my first exposure to the energy of the goddess artist. There was a raw feminist power to her, unrestrained by gendered expectations. Her hairy armpits were mocked on Saturday Night Live when Gilda Radner did her “Candy Slice” character. It was all wild abandon to boy trapped in the suffocating Bible Belt. I’d sit in front of my stereo speakers like Hendrix kneeling in front of his burning guitar. Give me more, I’d beg.

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The first time I saw her play live, I was in a state of ecstasy. It was at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland in 2001 and when she played “Gloria,” I ripped my shirt off thinking I was being ushered into a Roman orgy. There’s track from that show on her 2002 Land album. She’s reading from Ginsberg’s Howl and you can hear me screaming like a banshee. The only drug I was on was transcendence. And now my artist wife is deep under her spell. Our own Frida Kahlo with a rock band and a return to Portland on Andrea’s birthday.

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After seeing her last Wednesday night with Andrea, performing 1975’s Horses front to back (including the prose-rhapsody of  “Birdland.” Oh, how long I’ve waited for you!), I decided to take her new book, M Train, with me to New York, where I would be interviewing at a wonderful university. It’s a brilliant free floating tome about travels and not being able to write this particular book. It’s like her version of a Seinfeld episode. By the time I landed, I had the first hundred pages dancing barefoot in my head.

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As it turns out, the book unfolds around the world but mostly in Greenwich Village, near where I was staying in Chinatown. Much of it begins at Café ‘Ino on 21 Bedford Street, just past 6th Avenue. I must go there, I thought on the plane, and have black coffee and toast at her table! Of course, in rapidly transforming New York City, Café ‘Ino is gone gone. It closed in 2013 and now is a lovely Italian bistro called Cotenna, where I had a sumptuous penne al fungi and a glass of red wine and imagined her sitting by the window, scribbling in her notebook.

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The other Patti spot is Caffé Dante, around the corner on MacDougal. They didn’t open until noon and it was 11 am on Friday, so I walked up the block to Caffe Reggio, an old favorite of mine. I was traveling light, just my laptop bag with the Mac, M Train, a few pens, the latest issue of Beatlefan and the new Village Voice with a caricature of Donald Trump as a fascist demagogue on the cover.

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I found a seat surrounded by fellow literary travelers all enclosed in the café’s red womb-like walls, waiting to birth some brilliant thought or first line. A young guy next to me was reading Kerouac, an older fellow (who I’m sure I’ve seen there before) was reading Lacan: A True Genius and kept putting the book down with a “Holy psychoanalysis!” look on his face. I had my copy of M Train and a cappuccino, keeping one eye out the window in case Ms. Smith walked by. But my singular mission was to spend some time in her world through the pages of her book.

As my year of writing winds down it’s time to put myself back on the market. Parenthood demands a stable income, but my mind is still floating in the ether. A winning Powerball ticket bought on St. Marks aside, I’d really like Cozette to know her father as more than the guy sitting on the couch writing while drinking endless cups of coffee. So on MacDougal I developed a fantasy about running into Patti before my interview with the provost. I’d grab a seat next her at Caffé Dante and mention our prior meeting at Powell’s Books in Portland when I showed her my Cobain homage in my book of poetry to her Dylan homage in her book of poetry.

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“So what are you doing here in New York?” She’d ask.

“Hoping to land a job. I was a criminologist at a university in Portland for twenty years…”

Her attention would zip up a few notches. As it turns out, Patti is obsessed with crime shows on TV.  I remember when I first heard her mention this, at a concert at the Crystal Ballroom, I thought, What? Patti Smith watches TV??? I thought she only read poems by doomed bohemians. I watch TV! I wonder what else we have in common. Does she buy wine based on what the label looks like? Because I totally do that!

I’d continue with the story of how I was forced into a position to choose between love or my job and I chose love without hesitation, resigning my tenured post to become a stay-at-home-dad.

“That’s horrible,” she’d say. “I’ve heard professors can be targets like that.”

“It turned out for the best. I’ve had time to write and be with my daughter. But I’m ready to go back to work. I’ve got a meeting with a university here at 2 o’clock. Do you think you could give me a special blessing? It would mean a lot to me and my family.”

“Well, I’m not Pope Francis,” she’d say, “but okay.”  Then she’d make the mark of the cross on my forehead like she had holy water on her fingers instead of coffee and I’d be Joan of Arc, ready for battle. And that’s how our long friendship would begin.

A friend on Facebook reminded me that Patti was performing in Los Angeles the next night so I wasn’t likely to see her strolling down MacDougal, eating a falafel from Mamoun’s. Still, I felt her there, standing on the corner of 6th Avenue and Houston, sending me on my way as I mis-sang the lyrics to “Kimberly.” Give me your starry eyes, baby.

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I don’t want to mention the name of the university for fear of jinxing my chances (or the greater fear that evil conspirators in Portland will catch wind and work their black magic on it), but the interview went really well and the university administrator, as providence would have it, was a Patti Smith fan. On top of that, the AirBNB where I stayed in Chinatown had an autographed copy of Horses outside my room. All the stars of the northeastern cross were aligned.

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After the interview and lunch where Café ‘Ino once was, I went to Caffé Dante for coffee and a dessert that I felt I’d earned. I needed some writing time and got a few scenes for the new book down, including one deep discussion between the two main characters about farting in airport men’s rooms. (I’m not pretending to be Fredrico Garcia Lorca here.) I tried my rusty Italian on the waiter and he told me in slightly less rusty English how expensive this city had become but that there are still small places for artists.

New York seems warm for early January. Yesterday people tossed their Christmas Trees on to the sidewalks to be sent God knows where, but Christmas decorations still hang above Columbus Avenue and in Little Italy, near “my” flat. This morning at Veselka a group of young Russian immigrants came in and sang Christmas carols. The Russian Orthodox calendar must be different than ours, I half remembered. Maybe this would be a magical place to raise a child, I thought. The carolers wore wonderful costumes including a Grim Reaper. Joyousness!

My fantasy of New York has always been the dirty boulevard of Lou Reed songs. Trash and Vaudeville. But now as the parent I have to reimagine that fantasy. It’s horribly expensive and the school situation seems impossible, people tell me. And what if I lost Cozy on the A Train or in the Museum of Modern Art? (Although there are worse fates for a child.) But then again, she could grow up in the absolute center of the world and sit in cafés on Saturdays in the Village, maybe bumping into Patti Smith. Or John Lennon.

Addendum: I finished M Train on the flight from Newark to Seattle. I was laughing and then crying and then I just wanted to write. Read this book, but be sure to find a good café in which to do it.

Afterword: Well, the job ended up going to some kid fresh out of Harvard. I guess I could have used the blessing from Mother Patti after all.