Leaving New York

Bohemians are useless at saying goodbye; and they never want anyone else to leave. So, they don’t say goodbye; they vanish, or they cease to be bohemian, suddenly or gradually assuming responsibilities they have for a long time postponed.
—Inigo Thomas, “Leaving New York“No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge… when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.
—Colson Whitehead

Just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
—Paul Simon

Departure is permissive. As it draws close you get to say the unsaid and try on wishes for size. I love its carnival intensity, and maybe that’s why I’ve done so much leaving. But in spite of all that practice— or because of it—I am useless at goodbyes. After a fortnight of cake and beer, and with a week left in New York, I excused myself. I spent my last Friday night not with old friends but on a first date, scaring the bejesus out of the guy by announcing that from here on in I was only in the business of hellos. Well, I thought I meant it.

That Sunday I put on my snorkel jacket and took the 1 train to 215th Street at nine in the morning. Broadway slices skinny Manhattan top to bottom on the diagonal, and I wanted to walk its length in tribute to the place I’ve loved. The moving boxes were still stacked, not packed, in the hallway, and my to-do list lay undone. I carried a print-out of Inigo Jones’s recent Slate piece for vague directions on how to cut across to Fort Tryon Park to begin my pilgrimage.

It was the best of New York February: crisp and brilliant, and warming towards a balmy thirty after too many frozen weeks. The winter trees stretched like models and I made a little prayer to the Olmsteads for their grace in planting gardens for generations they’d never meet. Below the Cloisters museum, middle-aged firemen played volleyball, showing off a little for a passing audience.

On happy days, when you need it least, everyone wishes you more joy. “Baby, you have a beautiful day now, y’hear?” yelled the flower stall guy, and I did, helloing my way down Broadway. In Washington Heights, the, the Spanish signs were formal: COAT $10! GRAN ESPECIALIDAD CON MOTIVO DE “SAN VALENTIN.” I thought about a pupusa stop, but it was too early, and I could count on San Francisco to provide Salvadoran food, if nothing else. And I was too early, as always, for services at the United Church of Reverend Ike All Welcome, but that was okay. It’s important to leave a city unfinished so that you come back.

Outside the Hispanic Society of New York—another Inigo Thomas tip—a man sitting on the steps groused while I petted his dog. “Oh yeah, that’s it. Pay attention to the dog. That fucking dog gets more attention from females than I ever did or ever will. And it’s a girl!”

I jotted down a Toni Morrison quote in a Morningside Heights bookstore: “In this country, American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.” Around 115th Street, near Columbia University, Broadway un-hyphenates briefly and drearily. “Those women are so hostile,” someone said outside Starbucks. Her friend mentioned his soy intolerance, and she reminded him of her lactose difficulties. Barnard College was running a production of The Vagina Monologues, as if they were in short supply.

Then a detour to Amsterdam Avenue to visit the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, still in progress after more than a century. I like the notion of house of faith that stays unfinished. It seems more flawed and more alive that way, like its worshippers.

The CrackersAt the northwest entrance, I found that Christo had gift-wrapped Central Park as a going-away present. His saffron flags flapped and glowed like monastery robes drying in the sun. A man rapped on a saffron gate post. “Ple-astic? Ya think it’s ple-astic?” It’s vinyl, someone said. “Voi-nyl, thank you.” Bikers reached up to bat at the flags. So did a three-year-old on his father’s shoulders, mad with joy.
“And there’s another flag! Oh, Daddy! I missed that one. But there’s another one!”

I felt mad with joy, too, at The Gates flaming on the snow and the thousands of open faces looking up. The Gates taught that the fleeting deserves as much—or more—attention as the fixed. At first I wished I had a camera; then it was enough to smile for strangers’ photos. On the East Drive a pearly limo glided north. “That’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude,” someone said, “They’ve come to see the reactions.” I imagined a second installation: The Reactions. The crowd cheered the smoked windows. “Thank you! Thank you, Christo!” And Jeanne-Claude.

Below the park, I stopped at Prada to touch the bags, and became the owner of patent-leather silver sneakers that seemed both daft and comfortable enough for a journey to a new life. They were shiny as mirrors. I made a note not to wear them with a skirt. “I see Paris, I see France…”

Around the corner, on 55th and 5th, I visited the apartment I’d lived in my first four years in the city. I hadn’t been back since. The Manolo Blahnik store on the ground floor had moved; it was another Italian restaurant now. I walked past twice, very quickly, glancing into the lobby and hoping not to see the Colombian doormen or the old lady next-door I’d never said goodbye to. Darker and shabbier than I remembered it, and hard to look at now.

The lobby of the Algonquin Hotel has discovered wireless internet access, but the service is still surly and slow. I waited and waited for five-buck coffee: “Is coming. Is brewing the new coffee.” When it came at last, it tasted as though it had been on the boil since I first stayed there, fresh off the plane.

Then down, down Broadway—galloping now, ten miles of rhythm in the strides. I wasn’t seeing the February people any more, or paying attention to the shading from discount cameras to designer furniture as the block decades dropped. I was back with the moments that had stitched together my time in the city; ducking left and right in sidestreet pilgrimages. My first New York job at Times Square. The old Vindigo office on 25th Street. The theater where I’d seen Andrew’s play. The school where I’d done bootcamp training for my volunteer job. Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Union Square, where I’d learned to file and grudge. My first bowl of pho. A final, blistered pause on the corner of Broadway and Houston to wave up at the office I’d left the week before.

In two hundred blocks I’d traced another layer on the palimpsest of my New York, which is not the same as yours.

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto

A Centrifugal Force

“In Mexico the family seems to be a centripetal force; in the US it is a centrifugal force.”
—Carolo and Marcelo Suárez Orozco, Transformations: Immigration, family life, and achievement motivation among Latino adolescents Stanford UP 1995

On her visit from New York last weekend, Kit had joked with Jake’s brother, her host, while we sat in Mission-Dolores Park. “Are we those relatives?” she said. She meant the ones who take over your guest room or sofa instead of booking a hotel room; the ones who impose. They told of the codes they use to tell out-of-town family they’re welcome but not that welcome: “I’m not sure if you’d be comfortable here, just because there’s a little drug action on my block sometimes…” Someone else said it was kind of sad to have your parents still crashing at your place once they got to sixty. You—or they—should be able to afford a hotel room by then.

As a child I memorized books about English boarding schools and American summer camps, and latched on to independence as a high ideal. I don’t think it was prized in Ireland, especially, but my parents indulged me anyway. (At least until I confused independence with geographical distance so thoroughly that they switched tack with my younger sisters, hoping to keep at least one of us at home.) I was sent on French exchanges and grim au pair summers; let off to London the day I turned 18; allowed to go to college in Dublin and not call home as much as I should have. At twenty I spent a year living in Valencia’s thriving drug district. The Spaniards I knew made it clear that no loving family should let a daughter roam like that, and I looked down on them in turn. Their own kids lived at home until marriage, but I was an adult.

Maybe that’s why I can still push west with a few boxes of books, at an age when my friends are bound more deeply to their places. But now I wonder—I’m a late developer—what’s so great about this Anglo-Saxon cult of individualism? I decided to move to San Francisco when I realized that for all I loved New York, I couldn’t pass the Chemo Test: though my pals filled a room for a surprise goodbye party, I wasn’t sure who I’d call if I got sick. I think of Caitriona’s son, Liam, and am wrenched at the thought of him ever joking about his embarrassing Irish ma wanting to stay at his apartment.

On Sunday I went to a birthday party for a three-year-old friend, where the guests were a mix of Irish and American. The rowdier smallies mauled cupcakes and rear-ended plastic trucks into the kitchen walls, and the placid ones sat on their nappies and supervised the backyard vegetation.

I talked to a Cork woman whose five-year-old son was a hit with the girls at the party. After years in the Bay Area, she was trying to move back to Ireland. It was too hard here as a single parent, she said, and she felt there might be more support at home. You could rely on basic health care, and probably still count on decent free public education. But since she had a good job, those weren’t biggest factors that pushed her home. What wore her down was the lack of community here, the lack of a set of friends and neighbors that the kids could run in and out to, and whom you could call when they were sick. People are friendly here, she said, but still you have to arrange the playdate at a set time and place. It’s always about the kid’s social development, never about giving each other a bit of a break.

I’ve watched my Irish friends with children, and that web of casual support is still there, at least among the ones who aren’t wealthy. “We’re bringing our lads to the park,” Joy might say, “and sure why don’t you send Maya along with us so you can get a few things done?” I thought this was how it worked everywhere. But in San Francisco, Noreen says, she knows one single father in her apartment complex with whom she can trade babysitting from time to time. The kids have no chemistry, and the father regards the time as a bartered commodity to be precisely measured, rather than a way to look out for one another. In itself, the calculation becomes exhausting.

I don’t know how her experience fits with the spirit of the party, which seemed free of the high-impact “parenting” that defines upper-middle-class families. These relaxed parents seemed happy to be nouns, not verbs, and I felt you could drop a snotty-nosed child or two at any of their houses, in a pinch. Tonight I’m going for drinks with a pair of sisters who just bought a three-unit house with their partners and a friend. Laura’s baby is a month old, and Dorothy is due soon. Their lucky babies will grow up with family in a common backyard.

Still, it’s true that American cities have started to price and market many services here that are part of the social contract elsewhere, at least for now. Places like New York and San Francisco, where so many of us live far from our families, are turning to trained and paid doulas for the pregnancy wisdom they no longer get from the community. Human mammals now seek advice from “lactation consultants.” Childcare is bought and paid for, even for a run to the shops. Adult children don’t give up their beds in tribute to the parents who reared them; they show their love and success by buying them a hotel room—and preserving that precious independence.

But “I can do it by myself!” is a line for a three-year-old, not an adult.

Further reading: Doug Rushkoff, intellectual imp, on the American childrearing experience:

Nothing like having a kid to turn you into either a communist or a capitalist.The long radio silence has been due to the intensity of parenting an infant. Sure, it’d be intense under any circumstances, but I can’t help but believe that the difficulty attending to the 24/7 needs of a baby are compounded by the dissolution of both the extended family and community of days past. Indeed, I’m beginning to believe that the fact that human females pretty much require assistance in giving birth might be a way for nature to enforce a bit of community on our species. Human beings do better in groups. Read the rest


My friends at Meetup have had a rocky week. Nobody likes to be told that they have to pay for something that used to be free, and I’m especially sympathetic to organizers who already feel like they’re working hard to run their Meetup Groups. It’s a tough service to charge for. Nevertheless, I’m counting on my old team to weather this. We need what Meetup provides more than we realize.

Scott, the founder, has always done a great job of starting conversations with smart people, and one of my favorite parts of working there was the chance to hear their thoughts. In an iWorld, there are few services that push people to form community groups the old-fashioned way—face-to-face. It’s so rare that it drew people like Esther Dyson, Pierre Omidyar from eBay, and Senator Bill Bradley, each of whom patiently coached our young company (and continues to). Every few months, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Doug Rushkoff and others would gather in the Meetup lounge—on inflated, furry chairs—and share their work on the behavior of groups, the future of community organizations, or social networking.

Robert Putnam gave the most interesting talk. He’s the Harvard sociologist who wrote Bowling Alone, a book Americans hadn’t known they wanted to read. Chart by chart, statistic by statistic, Professor Putnam patiently mapped the decades-long decline in community participation in this country, which had once been such a nation of joiners. The slice of the country that still reads books looked up from TVs and computer screens and read his headlines.

The news was that Meetups save lives.

Social capital: it’s who you know, not what you know. (But you knew that.) Your contacts determine more about your career success and your earning potential than your academic achievements. The best predictor of low crime rates in a neighborhood is not income, or education levels, or cops on the street, but the number of neighbors who know each others’ first names. If you are socially isolated, it shortens your life expectancy as much as smoking does (so the smoking groups who huddle outside Manhattan and Dublin bars probably come out even.) Every ten minutes added to your daily commute cuts your social capital by ten per cent.

But joining a group—any group—cuts your risk of dying prematurely this year in half. Half!

Year on year, since a high in the early Sixties, every form of participation in American life has declined. That means card-carrying memberships, church attendance, and volunteerism, but it also means the habit of entertaining friends at home, or going for picnics, or taking part in a sports league. Forty years ago, Americans reported that they went to five picnics a year. Now it’s two. (I went to two picnics in Prospect Park last year. After each of them I gushed about wanting to do it every week. But I didn’t.)

Professor Putnam showed a graph of the number of people who agreed with the statement “Most people are trustworthy.” By the 1990s, it looked like it was hurling itself off a cliff.

It’s both relaxing and exhilarating to sit with a great teacher or a great novel. You sense that they are taking you somewhere new, and you trust them to bring you along. The real lesson Professor Putnam brought for us was that this gloomy state wasn’t new. It had happened before, almost exactly a hundred years ago, when mass mechanization separated people from their families, sent them to cities, and caused the existing institutions to falter. In a response to modernity almost as energetic as Ulysses, Americans invented a huge number of the community associations we recognize today. The Boy Scouts. The PTA The Rotarians, Elks, Kiwanis, and Toastmasters. The Little League. All were artificial inventions, over a fifteen-year span. Today, Professor Putnam studies Meetups to find out if they might come to fall into the same category.

Here’s my own modest theory. It took us a few decades after the car and the TV ruled our lives to realize that being sedentary made us depressed and shortened our lives. The first joggers looked crazy—where are you going in such a hurry? But then Nike showed us the waffle-soled shoe. The strange notion of “health clubs“ was slowly accepted. We invented machines that resisted our muscles as well as farm tools once had. Jane Fonda helped the home video industry almost as much as pornography. These days, this entirely invented need has become a bazillion-dollar global fitness industry.

We may dread a gym session, but we know it’s good for us. So we set aside the forty minutes three times a week, and hope for the glow of reward. As artificial as a Meetup can feel—and I confess it never felt anything other than weird to me to meet a bunch of strangers in a public place—it may be part of a related wave of orchestrated engagement. We may start scheduling efficient bursts of human contact, so that we can stay mentally healthy enough to get back to the glowing screens that really call us. Our primate brains seem to need a social workout—so why not a social gym?

The World is Flat

When Elvis sings “I’m just a hunk, a hunk of burnin’ love,” I’m ready to sign up for U.S. citizenship right then and there. Only a country of genius could produce that kind of art. Nevertheless, America needs to get out more. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist , has recently discovered that the world is flat, that Indians are smart, and that other countries have workers and telecommunications infrastructures as sophisticated as the homeland’s. Perhaps we foreigners can even produce glib essays for a tenth of Friedman’s wages (as long as you pay us in Euros).

Eight years ago I shared H1-b visa gripes with Indian engineers in Times Square, while we worked to fix bugs with the Hyderabad colleagues who lived twelve hours in the future. The older IIT engineers, who had gone to graduate school in the US, acted as cultural brokers for the delegations that went back and forth between Hyderabad and Broadway. We could have told Friedman what was coming, if we’d been at the right cocktail parties.

Gokul, my colleague and running partner then, went on to MIT graduate school and now runs Google’s AdSense program. We’re neighbors again, in a region where fully a third of start-ups were founded by immigrants, including Google. Eight years on, at a time when USCIS has made it much harder to come here, we could now do just fine or better where we came from. The next generation of Gokuls can start their empires at home, and that’s why the US Ambassador to Ireland has had to tour the universities to beg Irish students to take up summer visas to visit the US. They’re not interested.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are, that no event occurs in isolation, that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point, and that the storyteller is likely to be rather longwinded.

“In New York, freedom looks like too many choices,” Bono sings. When I moved there I was shy about ordering the plainest deli sandwiches and confused by the flashing Don’t Walk signs that made people run. I had no visa, and it took a month or two to find work at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a proud literary publishing house I’d never heard of. I filled Jiffy bags with reviewer’s copies, and cut out the assessments that were sometimes granted in response. I filed the reviews in moldering folders—Kincaid, Jamaica; Nadas, Peter; O’Brien, Edna—along a corridor where Mike Hammer might have rented an office. I was paid in hardbacks, which I rarely read. It’s a rule of mine: never read anything bigger than your head.

Eight years later, I arrived for my last shift at another volunteer job on a freezing New York night. Between calls I flicked through People and US Weekly and worried about Brad and Jen. My shift partner, whom I didn’t know, read for a while too, and then slung his feet up on the desk and fell asleep. Because he was handsome, and wore yellow socks, I sneaked a look at his book to see if he was worth waking up.

It was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. At Farrar, Straus & Giroux I’d packed a carton full of review copies and sent them around the country, but I’d decided it was too worthy to bother taking home (and I lacked the enterprise to sell it). Who wanted to read an epic about a Hmong toddler’s epilepsy, and the clash between her refugee community and the doctors at a Californian county hospital? I wasn’t sure what a Hmong was, even, and in any case I was preoccupied with Princess Diana’s funeral.

Since then I’ve visited a Hmong village in Laos, a day’s walk from the nearest dirt road. At sundown, when the villagers went to the river to bathe decorously under sodden sarongs, I slipped on the muddy bank and fell in, and cried. For dinner they killed a rooster—a precious rooster—and fed me the boiled head. I eyeballed this baleful Pez dispenser and made a show of fake humility in handing it to the teenaged monk who was my guide. Pon lit up. It was the end of Buddhist lent, and for over a month he’d eaten nothing after midday, and no protein at all. He sucked the rooster’s tongue like a lover, and then crunched through to the brain. I swallowed gritty gizzards. The villagers gathered in the doorway to watch the feast in silence, though they didn’t eat. Afterwards, someone made coffee, pouring the whole packs of Nescafe and sugar I’d brought into a kettle of river water and boiling it to syrup. I sipped mine, until Pon pantomimed that there were only two plastic tumblers and no one else could drink until we finished. We unrolled mats on the earthen floor, feet pointing towards the door to keep bad spirits out. I lay awake in a coffee buzz while underneath the stilted house the men hammered a coffin for somebody dead, and got raucously drunk on laú-laú moonshine.

I was an ungracious guest, frustrated that I knew so little and hung up on details. How much money should I offer the head man? Which one was he, anyway? How would I tell them I needed to go to the toilet? Why were the children scared of me? Why wouldn’t these people build better shacks? Were the men opium junkies? Were they really this dour? Oh Jesus, was that a leech?

I didn’t know how to begin.

Nor did the people in Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book, which my new friend hand-delivered to San Francisco last month. Both Hmong immigrants and locals were baffled and helpless. The Hmong didn’t want to be on welfare in Merced, California. They wanted to be back in their villages in Laos, where ‘pig-feeding time’ marked sunset and sunrise. The local taxpayers wanted them back home, too. Kissinger’s adventures in Laos had been kept so quiet that most Americans neither knew nor cared that Hmong tribes had been recruited to fight a private war for the CIA, and had been kicked out or slaughtered when the Americans lost 1975. Their path to America was traumatic, involuntary, and took a great deal longer than the Orderly Departure planes that left them stranded as homegrown traitors. “It was a kind of hell they landed into, “ said Eugene Douglas, Reagan’s ambassador-at-large for refugee affairs. “Really, it couldn’t have been done much worse.” Both sides expected gratitude, and got resentment. The Hmong had little left but their culture, and no interest in giving it up to become American.

That’s not an immigrant approach that America is prepared for. Think of the graffiti in Rio: “Yanqui go home—and take me with you.” America defines us so thoroughly that I could arrive in New York as a full-grown adult and feel at home except at the deli counter. But the Hmong had stayed apart so successfully that they were confused by toilets, and canned food, and electricity, and money, and hospitals. American doctors were known to steal body parts, without which souls couldn’t rest. (For their part, the doctors saw their Hmong patients as ungrateful and “non-compliant”.) It would be hard to imagine the scale of their bewilderment, except I remember it first-hand, stumbling in that river and wanting desperately to go home.

Fadiman begins with a description Fish Soup, as told by a Hmong student at Merced High School:

To prepare fish soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He ended with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and, finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs.”

To tell Lia Lee’s story, Fadiman makes a fish soup of her own, winding through Hmong history and culture, the American War, immigration policy, western medical training, anthropology, welfare reform, a changing community, and a family. Like Tracy Kidder, or a Hmong fisherman, she watches and waits, and unfolds her tale with startling delicacy. In puzzling out a catastrophic clash of cultures, she looks for answers rather than blame. Along the way, she changed medical culture and won the National Book Award. It’s beautiful. Read it if you can.


In a store on East 9th Street I agree with the sales assistant that the bag I’ve picked up is lovely. It is. The bronze leather is soft enough to ripple, and the silk lining is hand-stitched in the workshop out back. She snatches up my two words.
“Oh! What part of Ireland are you from?”

I’d make a terrible celebrity. I don’t like being recognized, but I tell her anyway. She gasps again and waves a script. She’s studying lines for a Monday audition, and the North Dublin accent is being a right arse to her.
“I rented The Field,” she says, “And Angela’s Ashes.”
“And Darby O’Gill and the Little People?”
“They didn’t help much,” she says sadly, “They weren’t really Dublin.”
She seems nice, and I like interfering, so we start with a list of movies that she needs to see. The Commitments, which she’d forgotten. The Snapper—better, because the lead is a young woman. I Went Down. Some Colin Farrell interviews; he’s not quite right, but close enough to pass as Nortsoide for an American director. Forget The Dead; that’s a period accent, and the other side of the Liffey in any case.

She’s working on a Conor McPherson play I haven’t heard of. I was in college with Conor, though I didn’t know him. He wrote plays for DramSoc before Broadway adopted him. Noreen is impressed at this connection, though all I can think to tell her is that he was a funny-looking redhead back then, known to be talented and a grafter, and I remember him in tights. The ticket price for each of his plays doubled like lily pads, from three quid to see the The Light of Jesus at the Project Theatre in 1994, up to ninety bucks to see The Weir on Broadway a few years ago. The set design for his speechy dramas didn’t keep up, which made me bitter. For ninety bucks I expected a full-size Huey to land on the stage, at least.

“How do you pronounce N-E-A-S-A?”
“I’d say ‘Nassa’. But sometimes it’s ‘Nessa’.”
We go through the lines. I try to give her helpful rules. If it’s full-on North Dublin, then ‘book’ rhymes with ‘puke’. No tee-aitches. ‘I’ is ‘Oi’. You drop the ‘t’ at the end of a word and stick in a glottal stop if necessary. Wha’ abou’ i’? I channel our Taoiseach(Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern. Bairrrrr-tee. That’s it, there’s a constipated frown that goes with it, especially if you’re threatening. I teach her northside jokes to get her in the mood.

“What do Nortsoide girls use for protection during sex?”
She looks worried. She is scribbling notes. Book = puke.
“A bus shelter!” Shal-thur.

A trio of Japanese girls comes in, coos over the bronze bags. Noreen’s sausage dog makes a bid for East 9th Street as the door opens, and she looks terrified that I’ll escape too. So she keeps me talking as the girls quiz her. “No, sorry, that one’s not on sale, it’s new stock…please, say it again.”
Foookhh off, wudjeh?”
Faakhh off, would you?”
“No, fookhh off, wouldj yeh?”

The Japanese girls look puzzled.

Rules, rules. Her notes snake around the script. “Fight” is “Foigh’” Then we probe Neasa’s motivations. “What would she wear? I mean, she’s this North Dublin barmaid, and this guy has dumped her because she’s too low-class for his family. This is the scene where she confronts him, with their kid upstairs. So what would she wear?”

This is how I method act my own life: if I were to move to California, say, what would I wear? Truth is I’m not sure any more what Neasa would put on. These days Ireland is more slapper-glam than New York City and I’m doubtful about anything beyond fake tan. That’s a definite. Brooklyn girl jeans, I tell her finally, and a tight black top. “Like these?” she says hopefully, and points her blue 501s, which look midwestern. No, I tell her. Tighter, babe. Neasa would be hard-eyed, I tell her, especially if this confrontation means a lot to her. She would fold her arms tightly across her chest.

Noreen says that she would really like to get this job. She hasn’t worked in a while and she can’t afford dialect coaching, but she would really, really like to get this job. As I edge out the door she asks if she could maybe call me with some follow-up questions, for a few extra bucks?

New York actors break my heart. I just hope they don’t hit me up for a hundred and eighty dollars when I go to see her shine.

The Relocation Consultant

I needed an estimate of the cost of moving my stuff to California. Ken at Meyer’s Moving checked the schedule and said “Okay, so you’ll be seeing Igor.” He gave a little laugh; not unkind. His own parents had given him a name so plain-vanilla American that he could only be Chinese. But Igor bore his amusing name with sad dignity.

He was tall and good-looking, and wore the flashy black clothes of a mid-eighties English pop band. There was a suit jacket with some complicated zipped neckline, and long, swishing black coat. He wore those too-long, gelled sideburns that are a usually a giveaway of Irish guys abroad. He seemed as young as a cop.

When he came to the door he looked dour, but he flowered under careful applications of his name and cups of coffee. He asked shyly for a piece of toilet paper to blow his nose, which dripped in the cold. Then he stalked my bedroom with his clipboard. There wasn’t much to see. “This is it?” he said, “This is everything? There is nothing in storage, in a basement? A bicycle, maybe?” He asked if I were paying for this myself. I was cagey, not wanting a padded estimate. “Because, if you’re paying for this, you should pack yourself. Really. You don’t have too much breakable stuff, and it will save you three hundred dollars. That’s what I would do myself. Save the money.”

He asked if I’m driving out there, told me that my iPod works great as an FM receiver in the car. I told him I couldn’t drive. He said that he had driven three times in his life before he took his test, and the next day he was driving trucks. It’s super-easy, he said.

Now his card says “Relocation Consultant” and his English is as groomed and careful as his hair. He’s going to make it.

When you live in a great city, intriguing people cut your hair, move your boxes, or drive your taxi. Last month my beautiful Polish dentist and her Chinese-Filipina assistant talked about what it meant for us to be thirtyish immigrant woman in this city that saw us as we wanted to be seen, where we hung on against the tidal pull of home and family. “Don’t you think, Dervala?” demanded Agnes, née Agniewska, as she rootled around in my mouth. She had come here at 17 on a gifted student program. In return for her Barney’s shopping bags, her litigator boyfriend, and her New York lacquer, she had lost the way back to Poland. I mumbled my own story through her fingers, dribbling.

There was the Afghan taxi driver who sat for twenty minutes outside my apartment after he’d driven me home from a drunken staff party. He had fought against the Russians for two years, but by training he was an architect. He could have been the father of the National Geographic girl. His family was related to Hamid Karzai. “We’re royalty,” he said, “as if that matters.”

There was the sad-eyed, handsome Staten Island Czech who helped me move in here in May, borrowing a van from his weekday delivery job. He sucked down Pall Malls and seemed too fragile to manage my third-floor walk-up, so I helped. Eventually he smiled to show his missing back teeth, and talked about Prague. Three hundred bucks a month was all you could make there, he said. What was the point? He grew animated as we drove down Atlantic Avenue, with me navigating from the rumble seat. Then we stopped to pick up a bed for my new apartment (found, like him, and like the apartment, on Craigslist). The American who was selling the bed was confident and loud. I liked him, but it was uncomfortable to be caught between their worlds as he directed Ivan. “Hey, man, you’re not going to get it down the stairs that way. Habla espanol? No? Turn it around. Like this, see? No, no, no—watch it! Okay?” Ivan went quiet, then. We sat on my new stoop with a couple of Pilsners before his dignity returned.

There was Olu, the taxi-driver from Lagos, who railed about the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa. “Why did I come here? Well, it’s the greatest country in the world! I wanted to test myself! You are an American girl. You do not need to make these choices.”

He liked to read at stoplights. He showed me the books on his front seat; on Shambhala Buddhism and American history. I asked him what his dream was, and he was coy. “I can’t tell you that. I am afraid if I talk about the dream too much, the talking will become enough and I won’t do anything to make it come true. That is always a temptation. My brother dreamed of being an engineer and now he is and so he can talk about it. But I am still driving a taxi so I can’t say yet.” Five minutes later, as we drove through the tunnel, he blurted. “I would like to be a writer! That is my dream!”

There’s someone every day. Usually, though not always, a fellow immigrant. I listen to them for as long as they let me, or until the subway doors open, storing up their stories to occupy me in the nursing home or on the desert island. Lately I’ve taken to scribbling sketches in my morning notebook, for fear I will forget them. I don’t want to forget them. When it comes to people, I’m a pack-rat.

Goodbye, She Lied

I’m moving to Kaleefornia. A company called Stone Yamashita found me, mostly through this website, and they’ve hired me as a copywriter/strategist. They do work that’s as solid, smart, and beautiful as an iPod.

“You won’t like it,” my New York friends tell me morbidly. “You can’t even drive.”

On my last business trip to San Francisco, a woman on the car rental shuttle said “Excuse me, I need to get my bag.”
    “See?” hissed my sweetest New York co-worker, seizing on this atrocity. “That’s what they’re like out here. Passive-aggressive!

My San Francisco friends tell me how much easier life is there, how people never look back. How effortlessly you can get into nature (an American phrase that always makes me think the outdoors is some new Class A drug). I tell them that when I’m evaluating cities I don’t start with how easy they are to leave, but they smile good-naturedly. I’ll learn. My friend Keith has told me for months that I have to move.
    “Every single woman we know who comes out here ends up getting married.” Is that a threat or a promise, I ask him. Ranger Tim, installed on a 5,000-acre ranch off the grid in Los Gatos, writes sorrowfully that for him, Brooklyn will always be a lost paradise.

On the flight west I stare out the window, mapping the coiling rivers below to the seat-back display on JetBlue. Is that really the Mississippi? I know so little of this country. I’ve spent a grand total of ten days in San Francisco, including a vacation eight years ago. But I have faith that I’ll come to love it. People I like very much count it as their favorite US city. I’ve already been adopted by some simpático locals, and reunited with lost pals who moved from my coast. These are the true Twin Cities.

I move on Valentine’s Day; a good day to start another urban romance.

Sterling Place

Clarice, my landlady, lives downstairs with her daughter, Veronica. Veronica is twelve. Every day I forgive Veronica for caterwauling R&B tween ballads first thing in the morning, and for screaming while she gets her hair combed out. I’m not sure what she forgives me for, but we have managed to become great pals. When she’s happy she cackles like a banshee. She took Ranger Tim aside on his July visit. “Are you her boyfriend?”
    “I don’t know,” he said, “You’ll have to ask her.”
    She shook her head. “I don’t know, Tim. That sounds baaad.”

I’ve lived here since May. It’s the top floor of a beautiful, ramshackle brownstone, and the first place I’ve lived in that’s been mine alone. I love it. I love its airy rooms, its picture rails and pocket doors, its scuffed oak floors and enormous bathroom. I love the light that streams in to wake me every morning, and the view of the Williamsburg Savings Bank flipping Manhattan the bird. When friends visit I force them to admire my walk-in closets, a great prize in New York, and gloss over the fact that my galley kitchen requires snake-hipped cooks.

There’s a blizzard outside today, “from Canada”, say the newscasters with a note of blame. The north wind is spraying fine snow into banks that look pillowy enough to dive into from my third-floor window. The radiator in my bedroom isn’t working, and the old sash windows whistle with Canadian wind, so I’m bundled up in the living room, playing with my new Mac. Outside, my neighbors are smudges of New York black shovelling clean snow.

It’s a mistake to fall for a rental apartment, I’ve found. I’ve loved four: one in Dublin, one in London, and two in Brooklyn. Those are the four I’ve spent the least time in. Last week I called Clarice to tell her I’d taken a job in San Francisco, and I’m packing up once more. Yesterday she came to sit in my living room.

    “How long are you going for?” I told her it’s a permanent job. She thought for a bit. Then she said “I want you back. I’ll sublet for a year. You mightn’t like California. They’re kind of flaky out there. Not like Brooklyn people.”

I wanted to cry. “I have to think about how to tell Veronica,” she said. “She’ll be so disappointed Miss Dervala is leaving.” We called her upstairs, and Clarice cleared her throat. “Ronnie, some bad news. Miss Dervala found another opportunity, and she’s going to California. That means she won’t be living here with us any more. But she’ll be here for another few weeks, and you can visit with her and hang out in the meantime.”

    “Oh,” said my sweet Veronica, and shrugged. Whatever. “Mommy, can I try your lipstick?”

Elevator Music

“If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible
And there’s no map
They’re terribly moody
And human behaviour
Then all of a sudden turn happy
But, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions is ever so, ever so satisfying “

I used to work in the Bertelsman Building in Times Square. It was the headquarters of the BMG record company, and P. Diddy—he was still Puffy then—had offices on the floor below us. Once he got meeting locations mixed up and ended up on our floor. Our gentle receptionist, Paulette, wouldn’t let him in.

This was shortly after he’d been hauled up for punching out a record executive, and his ‘roids were still raging. He leaned over the desk and yelled at her to find the meeting room NOW. The office manager scurried out to see what was going on. They argued briefly. Puffy threatened. Steve told him to leave immediately or he’d call security. I’d like to have seen the confrontation: our slight little hippie with center-parted hair, a handlebar mustache, and tie-dyed shirt ordering Puffy and his people to get out. It’s a mark of how nerdy we were in that software company that no one recognized him, even while his remix of Sting’s creepy stalker song was number one. Afterwards his people sent please-don’t-sue flowers.

A few days ago I stepped into the elevator at work next to a tiny woman bundled up in what looked like a black duvet, speaking to a friend in…Swedish? Not Swedish. I picked out bits from the lilting: “hurdy gurdy gurdy…Public Enemy…” The clear, girlish voice was familiar, but it took me four floors of sideways glances to work out that it was Bjork.

That morning I’d started a book that had been on my wishlist ever since my friend Max told me it was his favorite novel: Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Max has great taste in everything but women, and sure enough, this is a gem. It’s an Icelandic novel about sheep. If you deserve to read it, that won’t put you off. Iceland’s storytelling tradition is as strong as Ireland’s, and this book is reminds me Liam O’Flaherty’s Aran Islands stories. It even starts with Columcille, an 8th century Irish missionary. Battling the elements is good for art.

The introduction to my edition says that “Self-Standing Folk” would be a better translation of the title, and in Bjrk I see Laxness’s people. It takes self-standing folk to wear that swan dress to the Oscars. (It’s in the Met’s Costume Institute now.) It takes self-standing folk to have her quirky perspective on human beings. Her Debut album was the soundtrack to my college years. Tiny and scrubbed, she still looks like a college girl years after the rest of us have had guilty thoughts about Botox.

Maybe if I’d had Independent People in my pocket instead of on my desk, I would’ve told her how much her joy meant to me. But Bjrk’s been known to punch out stalkers, too, and I didn’t want to interrupt her chat. We got off the elevator and walked down Broadway side by side. I silently wished her extra warmth, along with her duvet and her stripy tights, against from the New York winter.