Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bright Lights, Big City

When the Princess was 13, her Fairy Godmother and I took our daughters to New York City for the first time. I had never been myself, though I had seen it from the Interstate when I was teenager. As we walked together bundled against the December wind, my child who has loved being the opposite of me for as long as I can remember said: I can see myself living here. A lark! A daydream. Doesn't everybody see themselves living in Manhattan when they are 13?

Turns out, I should have listened.

February 2, I think it was, 2007. While the Princess was at work, that same Fairy Godmother and I settled her into her first apartment on the Upper East Side. The P couldn't be there because she as toiling away, trying to scrape enough money together to pay for half the rent.

It didn't look as bad in the daylight
The night before, she and her boyfriend took us to see her new place after our FG had treated us all to a wonderful Italian dinner. Bundled yet again against the cold, we ventured into the three-story walkup, the lobby — if you can call it that — splattered with so many fingerprints it looked as if it had been dusted for a crime scene. Each narrow stair dipped in the center, its edges worn to the nub.
Inside the apartment, which had about a dozen (well, maybe half that) door locks on the front door — the hardwood floors gleemed, though the side windows looked straight out into a brick wall. Arched doorways led the way into what was such a Carrie Bradshaw closet space I knew I had no argument.

She had found it herself, a fact in and of itself I could not imagine. Had found a roommate on Craig's List, had negotiated the contract, and though she had to use a lot of her Dad's money to secure it, had been handed the key. Just herself, by herself. At 23. Wow.

When we got back to the hotel, Fairy Godmother and I held hands and vowed not to tell Papa Bear or Uncle Fairy Godfather just how dim the den had looked. I cried myself to sleep, and not because my father, on our drive down I-95, had not let me come into the city at 16.

The next day, when FG and I met the movers on the street, things seemed a little brighter. 

The week before, I had packed the 12 boxes that contained the Life of My Princess to ship to NYC, and Dear Herbert, the Mover, had picked them up.  A day and 10 minutes later, he and his team deposited almost all she owned inside this tiny cubicle, the front windows of which looked out over piles of trash and concrete where dogs routinely left their day's work, right on the sidewalk.

But FG and I were too busy to pay attention. Inside, we turned on the radiated heat, locked the 12 (ok 6) locks on the door and set to work. While I wiped the inside of the two shelves in the kitchen, FG painstakingly cut shelf liner to fit perfectly. We unpacked my castoff honeymoon dishes, washed them, put them away in neat stacks. Made up the bed. Hung the towels in the bathroom. (Scrubbed the shower first.) Then because the PP needed something to hide her altogether from the street front, we took a cab in the late afternoon to Bed Bath and Beyond.

Which in Manhattan, is three floors tall. With escalators! For the carts!

everyone needs a fairygodmother
At first I was reticent, wanting to buy only enough to fill a bag or two. How would we get anything more back in a cab? But then FG, ever the eagle-eye shopper, saw a clerk on the floor taking notes. Need something delivered? BB&B delivers anything in the city for $15. Make a note of that. Why not fill up two carts?

Later, after we had said our goodbyes to the FG, I gave up my hotel room to spend the night in the new digs. I pulled out my famous spaghetti sauce — brought all the way from home —  from the small freezer in this tiny kitchen, as my daughter and her boyfriend headed down the street for salad stuff and wine for supper. 

Alone, I took a moment to pretend that I was the brave one, living in the middle of the biggest place I'd ever visited, and somewhere in the caverns of boxes was the typewriter I had yet to unpack.

The dream lasted just long enough for the real occupant to return. As I cooked, I saw more than once that she moved the things I had so carefully placed on chest, table and window sill, to suit her tastes. (She was always moving the Christmas Santas like that at home.)

That night, though I tried to sleep beside my very metropolitan daughter, sirens taunted, car horns blared, reminding me that I need silence more than energy from a strange city, to write. Knowing that if my mother had moved me to this town when I was 23, I would have called her immediately to send me a ticket home.

By Sunday, I was hauling my suitcase to the curb at 1st Ave., the PP flagging a cab, and suddenly, I was watching my firstborn in the rear view, making her way in a place where I knew no one who could rescue her should she have a fever in the middle of the night. She walked up the street to her steps without me, and my heart hung somewhere near the back of my eyes.

photo: Joey Sewell flowers artfully arranged

But she survived. Learned the subway. Got a better job. Married that boyfriend, in green shoes no less. Moved two more times. Has lived there four years. I think she has had a fever once or twice, and has managed fine without me.

The Husband's (so she calls him on her blog) mom sent me a Christmas present a few weeks ago. A book called Mockingbird, an unauthorized biography of Nelle Harper Lee. Imagine my surprise to learn in the first few pages of the book, that my favorite novel was written largely not in Monroeville, Ala., but on York Ave., on the Upper East Side, near the corner of 81st and 82nd, not two blocks from where we had placed my own first dishes in that small row of cabinets for my child to use.  

I like to imagine that the muse I felt for just a wisp of a moment that frigid night in the first days of February in 2007, might have drifted toward me from my favorite author in the neighborhood, with the smattering of snowflakes swirling outside.

But that is the romantic in me. And this story is about another girl who answered her muse, however different it might have been from mine.

What I know for sure, as Oprah says, is that the child I raised up to be who she imagined, did just that. She now navigates the subways, chastises the cab drivers for taking the long route, works for a really cool company, walks her dog in the mornings, lately through more than a foot of snow. 

And I can't wait to see what her next lark will be.