With no more of a plan than meeting friends for a 6pm dinner at Freemans (highly recommended, btw. The food was the best I’ve had this trip.), I chose to head downtown and slowly meander my way from West Village to East Village, taking in the sites along the way.
Still having a couple of hours to kill before dinner, I decided to check out the New Museum, especially keen to explore their brand new building on Bowery and their much discussed new show “Unmonumental“. The building was beautiful from the outside and serviceable from the inside, but the show was pretty much dreck to my eyes. It was the visual and cultural equivalent of a stretched out one line joke.
As I was surveying objet d’art number 20 and wondering if I really could spend another hour in this place, I noticed a fairly handsome man looking at me. He approached and started asking me what I thought about the various pieces and we pretended to discuss them for a few minutes over the subtext of “shall we take this outside to coffee and perhaps a walk to your place later?” We made our introductions and continued onto a few more sculptures, making wisecracks about the artists’ intent or lack thereof. My new friend John became aware of the presence of another nice looking guy who seemed to be hanging on our conversation and laughing at some of our jokes about the art.
“Is he looking at you or me or both of us?” John asked, more to the room than to me.
The guy then approached and sort of introduced himself, and the three of us struck up a conversation. At this point I had no idea where this was all headed, but I knew I had a dinner to attend in about 50 minutes’ time around the corner. We all continued our blather about the lackluster art, but at some point I realized that I was having a hard time making out the words of our new friend. It wasn’t that he wasn’t speaking clearly, but that the meter of his sentences would change rather quickly and it seemed somewhat difficult to process without paying very close attention.
Still, we came to understand that he was a library science major from somewhere in the Midwest. He was also a pretty handsome guy and I have to admit to feeling a little unsure whether John was flirting with him or me or both. Then again, I was unsure of the same about myself. For some reason the conversation came to a rather odd pause, with the three of us just smiling and standing there for a few awkward moments. John then suggested we move on to the next piece, which we did.
And that is when it happened. As we crossed the gallery floor, I heard a loud “HONK!”
I turned around, unsure of what had happened or where it had come from. I turned back to continue another few steps when I heard another, equally loud HONK (although now, thinking back on it, it was really more of a SQUAWK). I then noticed our new friend kind of turning and bobbing a little, as if to avoid eye contact. And then I heard another SQUAWK. I realized with a slight horror that the noises were coming from our new friend. This clearly also made John uncomfortable, who wished the guy a nice day and then hurried us along to another part of the exhibit, muttering something about having sexually aroused the guy leading to his squawking.
As we walked away, I was feeling a little odd about the whole thing. We continued to hear loud squawks in the distance. I mean, this was a gallery type space, with people quietly milling about looking at and discussing the art in hushed tones, punctuated by these loud outbursts. I suddenly realized what was happening and although this entire sequence of events had transpired in little more than a few minutes, it should have occurred to me by the second or third squawk that our new friend had Tourette’s syndrome. I had in fact read about it in a book by Oliver Sacks just a few months ago.
John and I shared a brief tea in the downstairs coffee shop, exchanged numbers and said our goodbyes. I stayed on in the cafe and moments later I bumped into the guy again and we chatted for a few minutes. He started to apologize and explain and I waved my hand, telling him I understood what it was and said I was sorry if I seemed a little taken aback at first. He was a pretty handsome guy and I told him so. He returned the compliment and asked for my number, so I gave it to him. He then let out an especially loud SQUAWK, said goodbye and left. It is somewhat unlikely that we will see each other again, as both he and I are visitors to the city and leaving in a couple of days, but who knows? Life is full of strange serendipity.
I accepted my friend Sian’s invitation to attend Friday night services with her at her synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, on the Upper West Side. I have to admit to feeling a sense of uneasy intimidation leading up to me going, the kind you feel when you have a homework assignment to finish or some bill to pay. Something you don’t want to do, but have to anyway. I felt I had made a promise to my friend to go and that I should do so, so what was the big deal?
There was a lot of big deal, actually. I was somehow transported back to my childhood where I was forced by any manner of adult to do these things that held so little meaning for me: go to shul, pray, be a good and observant Jew, fit in to this or that community. For various reasons for most of my life, these things held very little attraction for me. It was as if someone was trying to graft onto me an identity that only partially fit. This could have been the case for many reasons. It could have been that as a young person struggling with being gay, none of this felt particularly welcoming. It could have been that, having moved around in several neighborhoods growing up, I never felt particularly tied to these sub communities. It could have been the natural tendency of my family in questioning everything to reject belief in God.
Whatever the reasons, it was with trepidation that I walked up to 88th and Broadway to meet my freind. In the abstract, going to services with Sian was no different that the many other ceremonies and rituals in which I have participated over the past year, whether these be Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, Christian or other. Objectively, this was just another culture to witness. This was just another ceremony to observe, trying to understand its purpose and mystery, trying to appreciate the meaning it holds for the participants.
But this was different, specifically because I was raised in this tradition. This was different, because I felt by turns an uneasy and a comforting recognition in the prayers and music. One thing you have to hand to this congregation, they sing beautifully and with integrity and feeling. Looking around the room during the service, I saw in the faces of people the warm embrace of community and religious bliss. It was really something. And when the time came to sing the Shema, I felt a shiver and connection to these people that was really lovely.
The other nice thing about this congregation is their clear commitment to social justice and bridging gaps of understanding between communities of differing beliefs. I have always felt that religious groupings serve two purposes for the participants. They provide a place in which to express belief and they give a sense of belonging and community to their members. In some people the former is stronger and in others the latter.
This particular congregation and their outlook is not for me, for all the same reasons I have come to in this blog over the past year. Nevertheless, it was wonderful to be given the opportunity by my friend Sian to witness a loving community that gives her life meaning. And perhaps I have also been given the opportunity to let go of a few old ghosts from my childhood.
Is there anything more glorious than taking a morning walk in Central Park on a sunny day, any time of the year? There is something incredible about this giant rectangle of naturalistic bliss in the midst of the city.
Time was I could move very swiftly through a crowd on the streets of Manhattan. Like a hot knife through butter, the crowd and I seemed to sense each other and slide out of the way so easily. But things have changed, and there are so many near misses and outright bumps that it is disconcerting. I chalk it up to a few possibilities, but the one that seems most likely is that I have spent too much time in other cultures in the intervening years, most especially places like the UK and India where people drive on the left side of the road and likewise walk to the left as opposed to the right. So I try to move right here as much as I can, but it isn’t working as well as it should. The other possibility is that perhaps the populace of NYC has also changed in the past few years, and they no longer know how to move when people are approaching them. Perhaps we all get a different “read” on each other than 10 or 20 years ago. Who knows, but it is a little annoying.
Over the past several days, I have been getting reacquainted with the New York public transportation system, known as the MTA. I have been amazed at its speed and efficiency and ease of use. I have been continually impressed with the fact that it only takes a few minutes to get to rather far-flung places in the city, that the stations and cars seem clean, arrive often and are not overly crowded. Using their card system is incredibly efficient, whether or not you go with an unlimited or pay per ride card. And their trip planner is the best I’ve seen with the possible exception of London’s.
My friend Gabe was complaining the other day about the look of the metro stations, but I actually kind of dig the aesthetics. There is something utilitarian about them without them being artless. The brick and tile work in many of the stations is really sweet without being cute. The subway system isn’t trying to hide the fact that these are tunnels operating underground, the bowels of the city at work.
I haven’t celebrated Xmas the Jewish way in such a long time. Tonight I met up with Sian again and we went to a kosher Chinese restaurant with some of her friends. The company was nice even if the food wasn’t all that. We then walked along Broadway, stopped for dessert and a glass of wine and kibbitzed about life.
Well, the night before Xmas anyway. I am alone and trying to decide what to do. I went out earlier to live the quintessential NY cheesecake experience, but that only lasts so long. Perhaps I will go out to a bar and prey on some emotionally vulnerable guy who is out at a bar on Xmas eve because his family has rejected him for being gay. Or maybe I will just stay in and go to sleep.
UPDATE: I ended up watching “Superbad” on DVD and going to bed. All in all, pretty swell.
Because I have something crazy to share with you. There is a whole, amazing world outside Manhattan… I know! This morning I discovered to my delight a charming area called Park Slope in a hamlet known as “Brooklyn“. And it is only minutes away on the subway. Who knew?
Joking aside, I went to go meet my lovely friend Sian for brunch at a fantastic restaurant called “Rose Water“. I highly recommend it, for the brunch was one of the best I have had in a long time. We then walked around the neighborhood and talked about life’s meaning and the nature of belief. Sian is a former Quaker who converted to Judaism a few years back, and she has a fascinating perspective on it all. She invited me to go with her to her shul Friday night for their service, and perhaps I will. It was certainly a treat to see Sian again after so many years.
Thanks to my amazing friend (and ex bf) George, I have an apartment lined up in Mexico City! It is in the super cool Roma-Condesa neighborhood, living with a good friend of George. I am heading down early-mid January for a few months to improve my Spanish and explore Mexico (and possibly Central and South America after that).