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The big Apple: Week 10: Blogging for survival

I hadn’t intended to engage in multinational corporate sabotage. It was purely circumstantial.

I was thinking about meeting my friend, discovering the easts and wests of the New York streets, getting lost and being found again. The Public Library, Grand Central Station, Times Square, shopping, eating and inhaling the life of the city. Today I was Lisa the trashy tourist and at days end I expected to have a full SD card and a plastic statue of Liberty.

We both started the day at different ends of New York, hoping to collide somewhere in the middle. She was in Manhattan and I was in the Bronx. Not so hard for a New Yorker. Mission incredible for us two. We both suffered from being newly arrived and topographically disorientated. She struggled with up and down and I struggled with north and south. Remarkably, we did find each other, breathless from running the wrong way up streets and red faced from getting lost.

I ate a hearty breakfast when I arrived, realising you needed a steak and a protein shake before you head across town. Deb consoled herself with a strong coffee. I threw a bottle of sparkling mineral water in my bag. On reflection I should have taken her lead.  

We stepped out together in weather that wasn’t rated in the Luxe guide. A confection of drizzle and heat which turned New York into moody musical, all damp with not much song. The general air of helpfulness that had infused my interactions with the city evaporated in the steamy angst of trying to stay stylish while being saunaed in your clothes. 

New York first became suspicious of me when I entered the map room in the public library. A beautiful and rarefied space filled with the cartography of history. And people. Quietly considering their place in the universe. Very quietly. Actually silently. And my shoes. Somehow they had managed to trap a greedy portion of the city’s rainfall inside them. And they set up a squeaky, watery addition to the musical just as I stepped into the room. Assuming the benign smile of the overly medicated I walked around the room. It was slightly strained.

Next stop was Grand Central Station. We accosted an office worker on a cigarette break to ask directions. In a Peter Stuyvesant fog she mouthed the word ‘east’ and pointed languidly in the general direction of God.  Sure enough at the nexus of uncertainty and imminent melt down we arrived. And tumbled through the entrance in a festival of ‘we found it’!

It does have an air of grandness. I sought a vantage point from which I could capture the picture that already existed in my visual memory. The moment is poignant. When life meets cultural icon. I breathed it in. This is the electricity that generates future hope. That one lifetime has an endless supply of awesome.

I ran up the stairs. And into the newest Apple flagship store. It is expensively understated. No walls, no garish advertising. Just glass and technology. And the greys and the blacks of the New York uniform. Stylish, well groomed and well heeled. It took me a moment to try and comprehend what kind of post colonial treaty had been bargained with the people of New York to claim this prestigious shop front. But I’ve never been good at world domination.

Now that I had stopped running I needed to catch my breath. I already felt a little conspicuous standing amongst the iPads. Panting. With the large sign on me that read ‘yep, not from around these parts’. I thought I could strike a more casual pose so the laser beams could turn on someone else. I pulled out my mineral water. 

I’m not sure of the physics of it all. How one small bottle of water, when shaken, has a force multiplier of infinity. It was amazing. It just spread so far. Onto so many things. So many really expensive things. One composure shattering drop at a time. My suffering was short lived. Quietly, without ceremony, a cleaner appeared with a large mop. And mopped me back down the stairs.

I guess only some of us are naked in the Garden.


The bearded lady and world poverty

Alligators inhabit this lake. Popping up their gnarly heads and blinking sideways at the sun. I do likewise. Completely still. My breathing mirrors their reptilian cycle. Slow. Deep. I imagine my prehistoric self, swimming, blinking and breathing. I want that existence. To escape the burden of my own evolution. It has become too heavy.

This Florida landscape is unchanging. Evergreen, expertly manicured, colour coded and symphonically syncopated. Left is the Community centre and right is the golf course. This reality is a Tuscan, Naples, New Mexican palette with or without pool. But always with alligators.

The days take on a surreal quality. Time becomes pointless. I start drifting in the primordial pool of precognition. It’s a hospice for my weary consciousness. I am right where I need to be. A retirement community in Orlando. I retire for seven days. It’s not a test or even an experiment. Nor a taste of the future or a joke. It’s a holding cell. And it holds me gently, tastefully and oh so quietly.

My friends serve their meals on time and wash their clothes with the smells of kindness. They offer me tea and whisky at exactly the right moments. They talk of their adventurous past and their country hopping present. Their map of the world has been refolded into the shape of a heart. And they offer it to me. Part story, part hope. Paying homage to the Patron Saint of freedom.

In between journeys they choose an alligator calm. Prowling the perimeter for tasty morsels and living off the fat of the last big feed.  Contrasting colour to their monochrome world is provided by the other free humans they have found in the cell. Sniffing out those who read the Braille of the Trade winds and drawing a circle around them straight from the tropic of Capricorn. With these lofty spirits they tread water in the still pond of their gated community.

An evening of conversation has been arranged in my honour. We will gather together and discuss all things pertinent to the survival of the cell. I will be the evening’s delicacy. Wild grown, organic Australian. I arrange my face into openness and strike a dignified pose as we career along in the golf cart. I can do retirement community chic.

Having been pre warned about the calamitous state of their neighbours’ cellar I take along a bottle of Australian wine as a peace offering. Works a treat. Soon I’m being comfortably arranged at the round table with a glass of something quite palatable and I start to feel, well, almost unguarded. A little prematurely. As I take a satisfied sip of their Californian Chardonnay, 6 pairs of eyes turn and pierce me with an all knowing gaze. I smell my flesh starting to sauté in the juices of expectation. My friends throw down the gauntlet, ‘So Lisa, tell us all what you are hoping to do about world poverty’. I take a long sip of wine. It’s starting to get a bit crowded here in the primordial pool. Time to evolve. Real fast.

After making several  attempts to explain the tenuous relationship between me and the solution to world poverty, the spokesperson of the pod comes to my rescue. ‘I have only met one other Australian’, she says. ‘On a cruise. She had a problem with extreme facial hair. And she was real grouchy’. At this point there are a couple of themes running through my reptilian brain. 1) The interest of the non poor in poverty, 2) The chances of meeting an Australian woman on a cruise with problematic facial hair and, 3) How I can get something stronger to drink.

My long pause has been misconstrued as deep thought and they all continue to wait for me to respond.  ‘Maybe she was grouchy because she left her shaving gear at home’. Pause. ‘I know just how she feels’. Pause, pause, pause. I turn as I hear a gentle clearing of the throat and it is the husband of the speaker. ‘Actually that is only one side of the story. My wife warned me not to speak to this woman, she told me she was unstable and very hostile, but I ignored her and sat down right next to her. I struck up a conversation with her and found her to be quite human. We got on famously after that’.

The gentleness of his tone reminds us all of our human spirit. The very same one that lifts us out of our still ponds and wires us for freedom. The six pairs of eyes look more kindly on me now. The monster has been repelled. ‘Don’t look so worried Lisa’, they say, ‘we won’t bite’.

I blink sideways at the sun.

New York Monologues

New York tells me a story. A relentless tale that doesn’t stop to draw breath. Even though I’m all beat up. It’s a tale that comes at me, artillery style, and continues firing rounds into my untidily slumped carcass.  New York, as embodied by my friend Lucia, wants me to cry Uncle. And then some.

I’m riding on the subway and a woman steps forward, “I was just like you once, getting up, getting dressed and going to work, I didn’t think I would be in this place, but I am. I’m doing what I can to keep body and soul together but I need a little help. It doesn’t have to be money; some food would also be appreciated.” I stare. I can’t avert my eyes. She is dignified, standing tall. Meeting the gaze of her fellow New Yorkers.  They don’t visibly react, twitter amongst themselves or shift uncomfortably in their seats. They stay present, in the moment, offering silent solidarity. I give money.

I take a ferry out to the Statue of Liberty. The New York skyline is shrouded in fog and as Liberty comes into view I’m mute audience to the theatre of trauma. The tour guide sounds like a standup comedian. From the gates of hell. “How can I talk about New York and not talk about 9/11? How can I stand here before you and not share the horror of that day? What I saw from this spot, on this ferry? What I will never, never forget?” I don’t get to be a mindless tourist today. I realise that I don’t get to be mindless tourist any day, anymore. People deserve better. He makes a request at the end of the tour for a tip, for all the crew. A shared thank you.  I give money.

Each day as we walk up and down Lucia’s street we pass a man sitting on the sidewalk. He asks for money. “No, sorry honey” says Lucia, “God Bless you”.  And “God Bless you too sister”. We pass him again the next day and he is the first to say, “God Bless you sister” and Lucia responds, “Man, do you need some food?” “No sister, just trying to get a dollar”. “God Bless you” she says. I am alone the next day when I pass him. In my world, invoking God is no blessing. I’m struggling. Right here in this moment I’m doing an Angels and Demons in a one woman play, set in the Bronx with an Australian costume designer. It’s incongruous, incomplete. Disingenuous. I give money.

Over the days I put change into the upturned caps of buskers. I offer a dollar to the melodic guitarist who serenades us for one whole subway stop. I wrestle the tipping behemoth to the ground and make it speak to me in a language I can understand. I try to keep the story at arms length. Bargaining for time. To protect myself.

Lucia provides the narrative voice. Every place we eat, every subway stop, every building, every bar, every Deli, every single New Yorker is a part of her rich relationship with her place. She is the story of New York. Throughout the week she wryly repeats her mantra, “You can have anything you want in New York, so long as you are willing to pay.”  I take it literally.

The incessant, complex and confronting voices of the city beg me for air time. I am Sybil. I have one hundred personalities talking, singing and playing in my head. I try to listen politely. But this is no debutantes’ ball. This is the voice that arises soulfully from the life of a city. And will be heard.

I begin to hurt. From my boots up.

We take a taxi home tonight. My pain has become burdensome. Lucia skillfully negotiates with the driver in Spanish. In rapid fire she has discovered where he was born, who he knows, what time he started work and what he charges for a ride to the airport. I miss the subtlety. By the time we reach our destination they have agreed on a reasonable fare and a pick up time the next morning. It’s a dance. One I haven’t learnt the steps to. As we exit the taxi the deal is confirmed. In a clumsy encore to their tango I pay the taxi driver. Too much. And Lucia says   “it’s not about money Lisa”.

New York is a story that money can’t buy.

Loving me crazy

After consulting my cat regarding three existential conundrums in the space of one day an idea of myself begins to unfurl. Persistent. Growing. Spreading gossamer wings and then hardening feathers for flight. Nameless but not shapeless.

Standing on the platform, waiting for the last train home, I scan my fellow travelers. To the left and to the right. Uniform black and grey merge with the dusky light of the night time tunnel abyss. I feel the prickle again. A small bead of sweaty knowing inside my neon robe.

It’s Mercury retrograde. The alma mater of fuck ups. So when computers crash and logic fails, it is with impeccable timing I say. What other explanation could there be? I ask. Rhetorically. To the thick air of skeptical indulgence.

The palm reader numerologist astrologer on the street in Yangon is unequivocal. I meet his steady gaze, slow blink dueling in the Burmese midday heat. Your lucky colour is colourful and you must not wear black. I have to steady myself. Wanting to teleport back to my bedroom closet. Scanning with my minds eye the entire contents of my wardrobe. OK. There is the requisite black dress, jacket and pants. The wardrobe of the dead and grieving for days when I must behave. Be invisible. Draw into the shadows. Maybe I keep those. For safety. For armour. For self defense.

Off and on. On and off. I’m having this conversation about crazy. Like I’m a theme park exhibit, an art installation. Life isn’t neutral. Living is a big and colourful thing to do. And brave. And beautiful. I’m talking it up to myself. Seriously. Can you be taken seriously? Calling on the deities, pulling a finger at the planets and not having a single, sensible thing to wear?  The black dress goes but the black jacket and pants stay. I wonder if I should paint the house beige and start to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey with my hairdresser. I can do serious.

Then I’m walking…..thinking about a black briefcase I might buy. And I see them. Oh no! Look away. Step back from the window. My friend says, ‘you’re loitering’ and I realise I’m staring. Standing close. Breathing heavy. Staring. Decidedly dodgy. Staring. In front of a sex shop.

It’s the Burmese palm readers influence. I want to feel lucky. All over. Particularly on my legs. I want to walk lucky. I want to dance lucky. I want to do the lucky Salsa. The colourful kind. Next I am inside the shop. My friends stand as sentinels either side of me so my gaze won’t drift. They shuffle me to the appropriate rack, guard me while I pay for my purchase and then shuffle me back onto the street. It sits inside my bag. During the evening I hear the crinkle of the cellophane wrapper. Lucky is calling to me. It’s a fabulous evening. I’m almost distracted by the great company and excellent theatre. On the train home I hear the crinkle again. L.U.C.K.Y.

It’s a cold Sunday morning. I’m lying in bed thinking about the day ahead. Conversations to have, meals to prepare, papers to read, cats to consult. I feel pretty excited. Today I drink champagne for breakfast and again for lunch and tea. I spend the day weaving in and out of my happiness. It’s partly the alcohol. Each encounter is prefaced by a flourish of my rainbow clad legs, designed for seduction, repurposed for happiness.

At one point in the day someone looks earnestly at me as I parade them for the hundredth time. And in genuine awe they say ‘You are so lucky’.

Yep, that’s me………L.U.C.K.Y.

Joy. India in Four Acts. Act One.

I am the last person in the immigration queue.

“What are you doing in India?” “I’m here to see a friend” “What friend?” “Anil” “Anil who?” “Anil the policeman” “You don’t have a friend who is a policeman in Mumbai!” “Yes I do!”  Jeepers, where has this guy been? Doesn’t everyone in India know Anil?

“OK then, where are you staying?” “At a hotel”  “What hotel?” “The hotel Anil booked for me” Audible sigh and major eye roll from the immigration officer “OK, OK, where did you meet this Anil the policeman?”   “In Bangkok.  Of course”

Clearly struggling he decides to have one last go at establishing at least one verifiable fact. “Who is your favourite cricket player?” “I don’t like cricket” I think I have him on the ropes now as his eyes go wide with horror and I see the dawning understanding that I am less a risk to national security than to his equilibrium.  He stamps my passport. “Just go now”. I happily trot off. I am safe and self assured in the knowledge that when I exit into the moist heat of this Mumbai Sunday my friend Anil will be there to greet me. And he is. He strides towards me with the joy of the world bursting around him. If I can bottle this moment I will have enough happiness to last until the next super moon rises in the Mumbai night sky.

Next thing I am in the backseat of the car with Anil’s youngest boy Sunny and it is like joy in stereo. Father and son seamlessly filling the space with questions, observations and all round isn’t it good to be alive type energy. I look out at what could be the setting for an action movie. Cars, taxis, auto rickshaws, motorbikes and people converging in waves and wonder out loud if my driving skills would pass muster in the Mumbai traffic. As I send a little wish heavenward for that to happen, Anil turns and gives me the Anil smile.

By the time we reach the hotel Sunny has ascertained that I know nothing useful about cricket, wrestling, computer games or auto rickshaws and sets himself the task of giving me helpful bits of information. At one point in the afternoon, quite unsolicited he says, “My Dad is his Mummy’s favourite” and it is clear to anyone listening that in Sunnys mind the logic of that particular truth is incontrovertible.

During the afternoon I start to glimpse the treasure that is my friend. His family are busy preparing for their annual holiday to Pune however they take the time to welcome me into their home with a bounty of love and kindness that blows apart my staple diet of Anglo Australian emotional anorexia. I’m struggling to find due North with my inner compass, overwhelmed as I am with the touching and gentle attentiveness I am being given. I joke and say “if you were a guest in Australia, we would make you go to the kitchen and wash your own dishes”, they all laugh in disbelief and I die quietly inside. It’s that moment when the rawness of my cultural grace deficit rubs. Ouch.

One by one the neighbours drop by, to greet me, to meet me, to bless my time in India, to share a moment. Anil and his family are the centre of this world. Or maybe love is the centre of this world and they are all drawn into it through the simple acts of everyday life, living close to one another and filling their lungs with the very stuff of community. It’s all so mysterious. My Australian backyard keeps me immunised against this kind of closeness and I feel the familiar whip crack in my insides. It’s the homesickness I don’t feel when I travel.

Tonight Anils family will leave by overnight train for their two week holiday. He will stay in Mumbai. It’s OK for about 3 days he says, and then the house feels very empty without them. I think about how I met him and the three months of separation spent in Bangkok studying. I am starting to understand the enormity of the sacrifice they all made and wonder about the lonely offices of peace.

Enter Khodi. Mr. Interesting. Motorbike riding, street dog feeding, philosopher on life and the universe. He appoints himself my guide, caretaker, mediator and taxi for the days to follow. Before I know it, I have agreed to a sunrise tour of Mumbai on the back of his bike the next morning, sans helmet!

Evening arrives and with it Khodi and the motorbike. And the helmet. I have been invited to farewell Anils family at the train station and Khodi will be my India- in- all- its- beauty- and -chaos experience interpreter. He is very gallant but I wonder how hard it could really be getting myself to the station and finding the right platform. I’m reasonably able. Maybe he thinks my cultural ineptitude goes beyond the emotional terrain, maybe he thinks I’m intellectually failed as well? By the time I have had this conversation with myself we have arrived at the station. I need to hold his hand just to get a ticket to the platform. Finding the platform is another journey again. It’s like paying the ferryman to cross the river Styx. Without Khodi, I would be Mumbai train station mincemeat.

The farewell feels disproportionately sad. The sounds of Mumbai swell around me and in me. Maybe I am tired? Maybe I have said too many goodbyes? Or maybe these are people I think I could love and I am grieving for the loss of that possibility. Or maybe it’s because I am with Anil. And everywhere he goes, love follows.

To be continued………

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