by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - February 24, 2014) All night long, the snow came down on New York City. It came down in the morning, too, and then the skies turned to rain and most of the snow turned to slush. The streets were a marsh without a living thing, except the poor pedestrians. Foolish me! I hadn't expected snow and didn't have the proper footwear to keep my feet dry. The first order of business in the morning was to buy a pair of waterproof boots. I wasn't the only one who needed them. At the entrance to the shoe store a man was taking off his old wet sneakers and putting on new dry boots. He looked as happy as I imagined I would be.
On the third floor, I snagged the last pair of boots in a size ten. I didn't worry about the price. I bought them and new socks, too. The socks I was wearing were wet and cold. Outside, the rain came down hard and the wind whipped around street corners. It was time for lunch. The tables at the Union Square Cafe had white linen and they were empty. But one seat at the bar was waiting for me. I told the woman behind the counter that I was from California, Sonoma County. "You just had an earthquake didn't you?" she asked. "Actually, we're in the midst of a drought," I told her, and watched her shrug her shoulders as though whether it was a drought or an earthquake didn't matter. It probably didn't to her.
Two young gentlemen sat to the right of me, drinking and talking nearly non-stop. The day of the three-martini lunch may have ended a long time ago, but not the midday of the two bottles of white wine lunch. They were drinking a 2014 Sancerre, chilled. Both men had beards and sweaters. One of them had blond hair, the other brown. They sounded like they were right out of Central Casting. "Mary is allocated," I heard one of them say. It seemed like an odd expression so I pricked up my right ear. They weren't talking about a "Mary" they knew personally, but about a character named "Mary" on the BBC-TV hit, Downton Abbey, and they talked about her as though she were real in much the same way that fans of Shakespeare talk about his characters as though they were alive. The two gentlemen went on to talk about other TV shows that they had seen, and the movies, too, such as Charlie Wilson's War that they had recently watched on Netflix. "It's a true story," one of them said to the other, as though the truth made the picture more relevant. "It's based on a book," he added. Then it was on to the Winter Olympics at Sochi that they were watching on TV. I had watched the figure skating and the snow boarding the previous night, and, while I admired the individual athletes I also winced at the language of the commentators who continually emphasized "force" and "power" rather than "grace" and "beauty." That seemed very American to me, but I could be wrong. Maybe the Russians would use much the same language.
The two men at the bar seemed to be unaware of the language they used. One of them said to the other without a trace of irony, "You have to know how to smile and when to smile." I went on listening while I ate a bowl of chicken soup and then a plate of spaghetti with a spicy red sauce that was really tasty.
On the street again in the wind and the rain I made a beeline for the closest movie house, just off Union Square. I didn't care that much what movie I saw. I just wanted a warm, dry place for a couple of hours. I sat through the ads -- one of them for a perfume that used the 1960s slogan, "Make Love, Not War," and another for Coca-Cola that featured a Russian and an American who decide that they're friends after all. My discounted senior ticket was for Jack Ryan, a political thriller set in the present day in New York and in Moscow, with the Russians cast as the terrorists and villains, and with the CIA as the saviors and the heroes. Who said the Cold War had ended? Meanwhile, on the streets of Manhattan, New Yorkers battled the cold, the rain, and the slush. No one moved swiftly or suddenly. The streets and the sidewalks were too icy for speed. The much-vaunted "New York minute" had disappeared, at least for a while.
At the end of the day, I visited two young New Yorkers and their eight-month-year-old baby. The woman was born in the same apartment as her son, Sammy, a beautiful infant with lungs that were impressive. She was on maternity leave; her husband went to work in a law office. I thought that they were brave to bring a child into a world in which tomorrow and all the tomorrows are uncertain. Now, today, February 14, Valentine's Day, the sun is out. I think of this piece of writing as a Valentine's Day card to New York, where I was born and that was home for many years, but now is a strange and yet familiar city that I love, even in its cold rainy streets.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. He is the author of the booklet, A Few French Scenes, that was first published on Swans in November and December 2013 (see the Travelogue's archives). To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)