On my eighth day back in the United States, I discovered what I missed most of all from my home country. It wasn’t the pastrami, the rueben’s, the hamburgers or the bagels. It was the freedom to fall into quick conversation while riding the elevator from the hotel lobby to the room floor. It was both the ease of living and navigating in English and the American cultural norm of transitory, situational community. Much of my public life in Germany is lived either in silence or in fragile, misshapen German sentences. An American married to a German once said she loved events like English speaking book clubs because its a place she could fully express herself. “I can be witty,” she said. Lack of competency in any language means lack of freedom for the full expression of the self.
Which is also one of the reasons I write this blog. As an extrovert, nothing is every fully processed until I’ve talked or written about it. Big life changes like moving to another continent and living in another language doubles down the need to process. I’m grateful that at least a few of you are willing to read my reflections.
This was my first trip back to the United States since my mother’s death a year ago. My mother started to slip away into dementia around 2007 and my father died in August, 2001 so there were no more parental care obligations or worries. The first time in a long time, I was free to go anywhere. I knew it was time to take a year off from my beloved hometown, Portland, Oregon.
So I went to New York City and Washington DC instead. My elder daughter lives in DC and my younger daughter loves musicals. It was fun to take another tourist lap, or at least a Broadway FanGirl lap, around Manhattan.
I grew up and lived most of my adult life (so far) on the West Coast. Flights East run around six hours. Flights before the deregulation were also too expensive for my family’s two-teacher salary life. So, I didn’t get to the City very much. This was my fifth trip to NYC , but it was the first trip where I started to feel like I actually understood how to navigate the city, how it lays out, how the infamous subways work. I’ve been to Washington DC more often, so much so that I couldn’t be particularly excited about touristing. I was there to see my elder daughter and so hanging out in the apartment or walking through the zoo together was perfect. What is the name for someone who does not live in a city but is not running the tourist agenda? Visitor? Semi-local?
With my new international perspective, I started seeing both cities within the context of European greats like London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, Vienna and Madrid. New York City buzzes like London and Istanbul. Washington DC is a little more laid back like Vienna and yet both are ruthlessly aggressive when boarding subway cars. I am beginning to see why people write about cities as vibrant mixing grounds that generate new ideas, new cultures, new ways of living our lives. I can see how cities, big cities, are seen as their own – well, place, for lack of a better phrase. They are not a more crowded version of a rural community, they are even sometimes larger then their nationality.
I rented a vacation apartment on the edge of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It used to be a rabbi’s study in a 1920’s era Synagog. The congregation was an immigrant community that arrived in the mid-19th century from a town that is now located in Southwestern Ukraine but has also written the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and Poland on their tax payments over the recent centuries. I can’t help but think about the waves of migrants that have come into the United States and started out under very difficult economic hardship in this neighborhood.
Our apartment is across the street from Katz’s Deli, another landmark of the German and Eastern European Jewish migration era. To say its an institution is to partially describe its existence. They make and sell pastrami and serve it up in ridiculously sized sandwiches. The pastrami is the closet physical expression of the Platonian Ideal of Pastrami, if Plato had known about such succulent, flavorful sliced meat. It started life as an European jewish migrant institution but everyone now working behind the counter are, by appearances, everything but European in origin. The waves of immigration from around the world that have landed in the Lower East Side have also arrived in Katz’s Deli. This is how cities work, I think. How migration works. New ideas arrive with new residents but old ways are not displaced, just adopted and adapted.
Another shortfall in my lumber country childhood upbringing is the lack of theater experiences, especially the musical. The first I remember attending was a touring production of Man of La Mancha which made my mother swoon. I, being ten years of age, missed most of the nuance. Well, not just the nuance, I think I was perplexed by the whole concept. I never worked hard to change my opinion of musicals. I was still living in a basically backwater natural resources exporting port and didn’t have a lot of reasons to change my mind. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, we only saw the occasional touring show passing through with what seemed to be extravagantly expensive tickets. Yet, for all that, twenty years later my younger daughter fell in love with musicals and would play hours and hours of shows stored on her ipod whenever she came to visit. When I lived close to San Francisco, we bought expensive (or at least seemed very expensive) tickets for Wicked, a resident show in the city as a splurge.
Have you seen Wicked? Yeah.
I started to get the Musicals bug. A few years later, I forked over another small fortune for The Book of Morman on London’s West Side for both daughters and myself.
Yep. Still wow.
So, because it was Younger Daughter’s birthday and because I had a piece of Mom’s modest estate, we went to Broadway and saw four shows in four days this year. We paid full price on only one of those shows and sourced the other three through various discount venues. We saw Something Rotten, Matilda, School of Rock and finished with Kinky Boots.
Something Rotten is a send up of musicals and thus introduces and critiques the basic musical structure. It also manages to quote all well known musicals either through song or dance. We were a long ways away from the stage (third balcony, 3 rows away from the back wall) so it was easy to see who had the power to project their energy all the way up to the back of the room. Basically, a Broadway geek festival and a solid symbolic introduction to the next three days.
Matilda was next up and it delivered the goods. Music, dance, stage design that energized the story which was fun and sweet. The production was tight. You should go see Matilda if you get the chance. Really interesting show.
A woman sitting next to Younger Daughter at our first show recommended School of Rock – a show still in development. Based on Jet Black’s movie, I had doubts going in but I have to say, this show rocked. It was still rough in spots but that became part of the fun. We got to see a musical on its way to its official release. Plus, I think Andrew Lloyd Weber was in the house, being one of the writers for the show, and came out for the stage call.I’m not sure if it was him but it sure seemed like it would have been. Bonus points for a ALW spotting.
The top of the musical mountain was the Saturday afternoon matinee of Kinky Boots featuring Wayne Brady’s premier as the lead, Lola. Fans of Who’s Line is it Anyway will know why it was so exciting to see how Wayne would take on the role. Younger daughter pulled $30 tickets out of a lottery for box seats that not only kept us up close to the stage action but also gave her musical soul a perfect view into the pit. We saw the sweat on the actor’s brows, we saw live theater. It was fantastic, the best of the best. It. Was. Broadway.
And then there was Times Square.
Times Square is this amazing sensory overload of light shows, hugs-for-cash-mascots, people who play guitars with very little clothing on, people pitching tourist buses, bikes, and boat rides, people who need to refill their meds, people taking selfies, people doing massive construction work, and people standing around in oversized riot gear and holding very large machine guns.
We had arrived just a few days after the stunning Paris attack and you could feel the city, the site of another tragic and dramatic event, twitching in studied non-anxiety. I especially appreciated the two police guys? (Soldiers? After awhile does the difference even matter any more?) standing up on the entrance to the US Military recruiting cube, backlight in the darkness by the brilliant American Flag video built into the wall. Visually, very heroic-invocatively compelling while at the same time completely terrifying.
Those men hold death in their hands. They hold real death not TV cop show death where the actors stand back up after the scene is over. If they raise up that muzzle and if they pull back on that trigger people will die. Lots of people will die very quickly. Do they know what they have in their hands? Are they able to resist the seduction of the powerful gear? I hope that none of them play the Rambo theme on their way to work.
They scared me because I looked at them and thought, “Do they know something they aren’t telling us?” Was I looking at security theater, which intentional or non-intentional raises our collective fear levels, or was I looking at a real and specific threat? We are an uneasy people these days. We know that when societies become afraid, freedoms are cheerfully surrendered. Eventually I decided that if they were serious they’d just close Times Square down and went on my way.
Interestingly, I never saw a gun in DC. Not even in a holster. Of course I was living off the tourist trail but while DC shared with NYC the vague threats voiced in videos, they didn’t seem to share the same anxiety levels.
I continue to be proud of my elder daughter, who among other skills, hosted a very tasty, non-traditional Thanksgiving meal. It was nice to spend a couple of days checking in with her and her beloved in the ways that doesn’t happen via phone calls and Facebook posts. I met some of her friends who seem to be very bright and compassionate people. One of my daughter’s friends told compelling stories of tree sitting in order to prevent logging of Northern Californian old growth forests, a topic that doesn’t come up at most of my Thanksgiving Table gatherings.
What was weird was being assigned the non-cooking senior aunty position at the table. It felt like a preview of my life twenty years from now when one of the grandkids will be sent over to pick me up from the home and room will be made for my walker near the hallway. Just park mom over in the corner where she can stay out of trouble. =Sigh=
The day before thanksgiving, elder daughter and I walked through the Smithsonian Zoo. We arrived just in time to watch the Beavers getting their lunch. If you’ve been looking at too much security theater then I’d like to recommend Beavers and sweet potatoes. We’re all going to be okay as long as the beavers get their daily sweet potatoes. Promise.
They look just like this: