An Invitation

blank invitationInvites can be a funny thing in the age of technology and social media.  Invitations are supposed to be welcoming, celebratory, but given the nature of Facebook, they can be a signal to those who are invited, as well as to those who are not invited—and that can be hurtful. FB is a cool tool, to be sure, connecting people anywhere any time; the down side is that, well, it connects people anywhere any time.  That is, your “friends” on FB are often a wide array of people that would seldom meet in real life, but on FB they’re in your living room, so to speak, all at once.

You see photos you might never see in real life, because they’re posted, and you hear of events you would only hear of if you bumped into that person by chance in the flesh. I’ve been in touch, for example, with several former students, and it is a joy to see them adulting—pursuing careers, traveling, marrying and having families.  I like their posts all the time, they like mine—all is well.  Within the last year, one such student posted details of her upcoming wedding; we attended her graduation party, and have stayed in touch with her and her family over the years.  The wedding was out of state, and I planned ahead, marking it on my calendar as well as my husband’s.  “It’ll be such fun!” I told him last year.

But then . . . the weeks before the wedding rolled around, and I knew. There would be no invitation.

Ouch.

I’ve known Heidi (that’s what I’ll call her here) since she was nine, and my heart was broken.

What are the social conventions in a world where everyone seems to know everything about everyone else? With FB, guests and non-guests alike know all about any given event. So I didn’t get to go to Heidi’s wedding—should I like all her wedding posts? Awkward.  I would love to send a gift—more awkward.

Do my invitations or announcements invite some while “disinviting” others? If I am not including everyone and don’t want to cast a wide net, do I really need to post it on social media?

In the end this is an invitation to me to think about my own posts.

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10 NY Minutes

ebWhiteNYquoteI was little when I first landed in NY, a pre-kindergartner dressed in a yellow pique dress hardly suited for November winds. My aunt greeted me with saltine crackers and a cozy jacket from the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store; it had a furry collar, sleeves that covered my hands, and was way too big. My family, newly-arrived Cuban immigrants, left JFK for my aunt‘s home in Astoria, Queens, where we would live for several months until we got settled. New York was bleak and gray, not to mention freezing, but my first moments there were welcoming and nurturing.
It all came back to me when I stopped fighting the urge to do a very New Yorker kind of thing: write a listicle. Ten things I learned on my NYC summer vacation (dedicated to Mrs. Corby, my fourth grade teacher, who told us about hers, then wanted the whole scoop on ours):

1. Falafels, Kosher hot dogs, Popsicles, lamb curry over rice, tacos, donuts–you can get all of these from the same street vendor! Don’t try them all at once, of course—but if you do, no worries. There’s help available at a Duane Reade drugstore, and chances are that no matter where you are, there’s one ten yards away. At latest count, there are 257 DRs in Manhattan (to put this in perspective, there are 83 McDonald’s and 171 Subway restaurants)—so pass the Pepto Bismol. (Need a restroom?  See #2.)
2. McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks–are all annoyingly ubiquitous and side by side with exotic fare from Peru, India, or Greece. There are 172 Starbucks in Manhattan, and there are intersections with one on each corner. Starbucks is overpriced and overrated. I hate Starbucks.
But NY has a way of altering your perceptions. It also has a way of concealing all public restrooms. Which is why I love Starbucks.
3. Keep walking. NYC is great for strolling and exploring on foot. Most of the city is on a grid, making it difficult to lose your way, unless you go off the grid on some great walks through the Village and Soho.
Or keep pedaling.  Hop on a Citi Bike for a fun ride or quick errand. Find a station–there are hundreds operated by NYC Bike Share–unlock a bike, ride for forty-five minutes, and return the bike to any station. What a great idea! Reasonable, too, at $9.95 for a 24-hour pass for tourists; bikes are available 24/7, 365 days a year. Grab your map, scan your card, and let the adventure begin.
4. Ride the train. Subway stations are dingy, dark places with scurrying rats where you can enjoy great jazz musicians and brass sculptures. Subways are generally efficient and reliable transportation–Mondays through Fridays, that is. Weekends are for repairs, and therefore detours, so that F train that you were counting on stopping at 2nd Avenue–well, you are effed and it just isn’t. Pay attention–conductors announce changes to help you along, only sometimes conductors have thick foreign accents that leave passengers bewildered.  Check online for changes before embarking on your Saturday adventure, and keep #3 in mind.  Otherwise you may end up in New Jersey when all you wanted was to visit the Guggenheim, which by the way, closes on Thursdays.
5. Although Macy’s is huge (9 floors and at least 2 city blocks), NYC hotel rooms are significantly smaller than a single cosmetic counter. Enter single file; walk two steps to the bed. A couple of steps to the left of the bed is a closet with plenty of room to hang your pair of jeans and two shirts. Another couple of feet ahead of the closet is the bathroom–recalling the airplane wc might brighten your mood. Water pressure? If you have hot water, who cares, right? When sitting on the edge of the bed, watch out for the dresser (my knee is still bruised). That’s a NY hotel room.
The laundry order form in the closet says $4.50 for a pair of socks, and $17.00 for a jogging suit. That, too, is a NY hotel. The good news is you’re having way too much fun in the city to spend much time in your Expedia-special hotel room.
6. Not surprisingly for a city so densely populated, NYC is dirty. Filthy, really. There is a lingering aroma, a stench, wafting through all of existence. Walk by a trash can, and it is overflowing. Alas, there are no alleys, so trash bags pile up on some sidewalks, awaiting removal. The city never sleeps, but the sanitation department apparently does nap.
Then there are the trash cans that read, “for litter only.” I found this befuddling, and began to ask myself whether my empty fro-yo cup was indeed litter. I needed the assistance of a kind native New Yorker for this one. (The reminder is for those who live above the fro-yo place, so that residents don’t put out their week’s trash in the litter-only bins.)
7. NY offers irresistible paradoxes.  E. B. White wrote brilliantly in his famous essay, “Here is New York”:  “No air moves in and out of the room, yet I am curiously affected by emanations from the immediate surroundings.” Alone in a stifling hotel room, he is in the midst of historic events and people such as Rudolph Valentino, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, and Willa Cather. White refers to it as “both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.”
This holds true for big names, but also for everyday people like you and me. Consider the experience of eating at a great little find (thanks Yelp!), the Peruvian restaurant Pio Pio Riko. In appearance, it is like any other city restaurant:  just one of several shops on the block, long and narrow with tables extending to the back along brick walls. As you sip your chicha morada (beverage made from purple corn and spices) and enjoy the best rotisserie chicken ever with a side of yuquita frita (fried cassava), you are aware of the vibrations from below—the subway.  As you relish your culinary experience, commuters are traveling down under, and if only for a moment, you may be at the same longitude and latitude coordinates—though strangers you will remain. Tomorrow roles will reverse as you travel subterraneously to Museum Row, fantasizing about life above,the cronuts at Dominique Ansel’s or eggs benedict at the Stage Door deli.

We are connected and separated, and NY reminds us of this at every turn.
8. Enjoy life in a sitcom. One afternoon a craving for soup and great Yelp reviews drew me to The Soup Spot. I almost passed it but for the line out the door, as it is quite literally a spot. The guy offers dozens of soups–jambalaya, pasta fagioli, Caribbean style jerk chicken, loaded potato, Santa Fe tortilla, autumn pumpkin, to name a few—though only 18 are available on any given day.
Reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, this grump likes his structure, so don’t ask questions and keep the line moving. As Kramer says, “he happens to be a little eccentric.”  The natives standing in line are your best source of info when you really want to know if you will survive Mohegan Soup Hunter stew (surely you want to know what’s in it:  chicken and pork, barbecue and Worcestershire sauces,  tomatoes, creole seasoning, garlic, tabasco sauce, roasted corn, carrots, red peppers, pearl onions and lima beans—see #1). Savor your soup, roll, and fruit on the steps by Madison Square Garden with great jazz coming from the corner. Yes, soup for you!

9.  Look both ways, as everyone obeys traffic rules.  Except if the light is about to change, and you have five seconds to dash across the street. And except if you’re one of those food-delivery guys on a bike–c’mon, cut them some slack. Or if you’re a cabbie, in which case the law entitles you to create your own lanes.  Or if you’re a tour bus, in which case you’re just like a cab, only bigger.   And unless it’s a one-way street anyway, and no one is coming. And don’t get offended if someone in the crowd holds your hand, mistaking you for their loved one. (Haven’t you ever done this?)
Expect the best from people, but be assertive. New Yorkers are generous and helpful, but their favorite line is “Get out of my way!” I had a woman cut in line because her “friends” in front of me were saving her place, but the truth is I let her; the next time that happened, I laughed and reminded the person we were in NY, and the fun part was the support I got from everyone else patiently waiting.  At an improv theater with a packed house and open seating, a guy was saving a row of six seats–not a seat for his girlfriend, but a row of seats still empty three minutes before show time! I learned from that one, too.  At the next show just as we were sitting, a young woman ever so gently pushed me aside with, “We need three seats.” I ever so gently sat right down, cheerfully explaining we four were sitting there and wished her luck. Get out of my way!
       Whether crossing or waiting to cross, pay attention to the interesting characters around you:   spinning dancers who perfect their art as they cross; the six-foot-five guy with dreadlocks who’s being pulled along by a spotted dachshund on a hot pink sparkly leash; professional men and women dressed to the nines in fancy suits and comfy Nikes, their Jansports secured on their backs. You may not pass their way again.
10.  Carpe diem and prioritize. NYC offers so much, you probably won’t hit every restaurant, museum, store, show, concert, historic site, or architectural wonder on your wish list. But you probably will get to riveting exhibits, favorite dishes, phenomenal performances, and memorable experiences with unexpected surprises along the way. You can certainly spend a lot, but you can also do a lot for very little.  I stood in line for a Broadway show matinee–the hot show–and got an awesome seat (center mezzanine) for a bargain price. Check out professional street performers, off and off off Broadway, and comedy clubs.  We went to several improv shows for as little as $5 per person; my favorite exhibit was the New York City Public Library’s “The ABC of It–Why Children’s Books Matter”–and it was free.
I was a vacationing adult when I last visited NY.  With my jacket tied around my waist, water bottle and trail mix in my backpack, I explored a city, “Manhattan . . . The greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

And in that city, I found an embrace both welcoming and nurturing.

 

Works Cited

MooWooCartoons.  “Seinfeld SOUP NAZI best bits.” Online video clip.  YouTube. YouTube, 27 Mar. 2011, Web. 9 Aug. 2014.

White, E. B. Here is New York.  New York:  The Little Bookroom, 1976.

 

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Tita

Today is my great aunt’s 90th birthday.  She makes 90 look like the new 70, may be even the new 62-ish.  Of course, she’s never married or had children ha!  She stopped coloring her hair some years ago; if she still did that, she’d look 60-ish, hands down.

Tita is cute.  We have called her Tita Marta since forever, and when I was little I thought Tita was her first name.  She cooks a mean guiso de maiz, a delicious corn stew a lo cubano. She’s funny about food, though.  She hates leftovers, and for some unknown reason cannot bear containers full of these in her fridge; whether the covered Tupperware contains mac and cheese from a box, or the red snapper special from Islas (the best!), she wants it out. If you’re coming over tomorrow and plan on having it, put your name on it; otherwise, she will toss it when you’re not looking. Or she’ll push it on any neighbor that wanders by.  You may be thinking that’s some bad shit she’s trying to get rid of, but you could not be more wrong.  Honestly, I have seen her do it.  Delicacies from La Panera Bakery that were absolutely scrumptious but  one more bite of which we simply could not handle–out they go.  She’s the anti-hoarder on the block.

This pisses my sister off no end.

The other thing that pisses my sister off no end is Tita’s approach to cooking in general.  Perhaps driven by the anti-hoarding mentality (there mustn’t be any leftovers!), she skimps on stuff.  So my sister shows up for a planned dinner: Tita, my sister, and my sister’s daughter.  They sit down for salad and spaghetti, and there are exactly–exactly–three carefully measured portions.  Want more salad?  Sorry.  More spaghetti?  There’s one long lone noodle in the pan.

Tita wears socks, even in the summer.  She goes to daily Mass.  She can’t answer your texts, but gets a kick out of them nonetheless.  She pretends she’s the French lady and talks up a storm that sounds really good, although it is pure gibberish.

Tita sang in la choral de Cuba, and she’s very proud of that.  She enjoys her music, but mostly listens to classical–I can’t get her to into our homegrown salsa to save her life.

Tita’s leaving-Cuba story is interesting, too.  We left first, and went to NY.  Later, she  left along with my Abuela and Titita (my grandmother’s sister), but their visas were for Jamaica, where they remained for several months before leaving for Miami.  Interesting huh?  I wonder what that was like.  Even more interesting is that I found out over the years that a “friend”  paid their way and made the connections for them to stay with a family.  The friend was a married man, Tita’s amigo.  She told me herself like it didn’t mean anything.  Bullshit, I say. Of course it means something. But whatever it means, it is either hermetically sealed in a Tupperware container somewhere, or long ago tossed in the trash bin. The stories we carry . . .

In later years when we were all reunited in Florida, Tita lived next door to us with Abuela and Titita.  I love those memories.  Cousins would come from Chicago in the summer and we’d all sleep in Tita’s living room before heading out to a Miami Beach hotel.  We were crowded and cramped on the sofa and those little metallic cots, and we had a ball.  We’d turn out the lights, tell spooky stories, making eerie sounds.  We’d laugh till our stomachs hurt, until we were so sure Fern had made the last ghoulish cry, only he hadn’t, and then it wasn’t so funny.

Then came the ghoulish cry again–from behind a mask right at Tita’s bedroom door.

Love you, Tita.

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