Monday, November 01, 2004

The Art of Not Doing

I am in a contemplative mood. I am musing about life in New York.

I think that I have discovered a new art. But perhaps it is not entirely new. And I realise on reflection that I've come across it before. I wrack my mind. When and where was it?
I remember. Several decades ago. A small village in Java. At a time long before Westerners were the enemy. The locals tried so hard to please. So much so that it seemed to our Western minds that they were lying.

You'd enter a shop and ask, "Do you sell rice?" "Yes!" you'd be assured. Only to be answered when you attempted to actually buy some, "Sorry Missus but we have no rice."

You'd walk away bemused. What the hell was going on.
What was going on was two realities, both equally valid. The shopkeeper, eager to please would agree to anything. If you'd asked did he sell Porches no doubt his answer would still be yes. Anything to please. "Yes" is good; "No" is bad.
The locals understood. Just because he said "yes" didn't mean "yes". You were not meant to embarrass him by actually following through. What he really meant was, "I wish I had rice to help you, but I do not, even though I do so wish it."
Westerners would rant and rave and go red in the face, feeling they were being tricked or ridiculed. The shopkeeper would be shamed.

Not a good thing.

But those days of freedom and travel, of a safe Asia and a happier world are far away. Memories are obliterated by the hard reality of life. There is only one reality now, and that is of hard work and the daily grind. Or is it?

It seems to me that dual realities are alive and well and embedded in New York.
In New York people work hard, and play not at all. But just because they can't play, does not mean that they would not like to.

So they have two realities. The one that they live through daily. This is Reality #1. Reality #2 - the "other one" - is an easy life of social engagements, friendships and the warmth of human interaction. And it exists. Really!

It doesn't exist on the subway, the work-place, on the streets or in apartments. But like the Javanese storekeepers rice, it is nevertheless a fact.

Deep in the cerebral cortexes of the New Yorker's brain lives this other happy and social life.
At times however there is a disconnect and the happy life that bases itself in New Yorkers' brain cells, Reality #2, appears to be part of Reality #1. "I'm having a fiftieth birthday!" a friend told me. "I'm holding it in a restaurant and there'll be a band. I'm inviting fifty people. PLEASE come. Yes bring Jo and it starts at 9:00 Friday 23rd. You MUST come."

When I was new to New York I'd enthuse, and hurry away to write the details in my diary. I'd wait for the day, excited to be going to the party. The days would pass. The party would never be mentioned again. I'd assume I was no longer invited. The 23rd would come and go.
But of course it was never held. It was never meant to be held. Like the Javanese vendor's rice, it existed in Reality #2.

"You MUST come to our family Christmas dinner," a new acquaintance told me when I was fresh to the city." Are you sure?" I asked. She insisted.
That was in November. I waited for details. None came. I started to worry. Was I meant to just turn up? Perhaps she'd changed her mind. But why didn't she say?

Eventually I fronted her. "What can I bring on Christmas Day?" I asked. She looked puzzled - "What?"

I explained. Like the rice vendor she looked embarrassed. She didn't know what to say. She was struck dumb.

I sensed I'd made a cultural faux pas. I changed the subject. All was well. Reality #1 reigned supreme and all was well with the world.
Another evening after work, several years later. "Please come to dinner at my place," a colleague insisted. My mom will cook. Southern food. You'll love it."
"Yeah, yeah", I though. Reality #2. But a few days later she questioned me, "You haven't forgotten? Saturday night. OK?" "Sure!" I replied. My god, this was for real! Lucky she reminded me.

So on the Friday before the big day I phoned her to get her address. "Why do you need it?" she asked, obviously completely stumped. "For tomorrow." "What?" "Dinner...", my voice trailed off. "So were you really going to come. It is too late now. You should have said!" She was clearly annoyed. Another social faux pas.

Sometimes the Art-of-Not-Doing progresses right to the knocker. Talk about skating on thin ice. Arrangements will be made. Subway maps consulted. The pretence - or should I say, Reality #2 - goes on right up till almost the appointed start time.
Then the event will be 'cancelled'!

Oh but we had such fun. The anticipation, the plans. It was all worth it. And what a grand occasion. We really MUST do it again! Perhaps we'll do it next month. Better still, why not make it a monthly event?

Think about it. It makes perfect sense to me now. Just because you don't have time to do anything ... Just because you are too bloody exhausted in the weekends and at night after work, doesn't mean that you can't PRETEND that you have a social calendar. Well, "pretend" is the wrong word. The events are are happening. Social events are organized, planned to suite everyone concerned's social diary. Venues are carefully selected. It's all there but the actual event itself.

And who cares about that anyway.

Now I am a New Yorker. Without Reality #2 I'd been socially deprived. After all, one needs the occasional dinner party, the occasional drink with friends after work, the trip to the country on a Saturday. Just because I don't have the money or the time doesn't mean I should be deprived of life's essentials.
"Yes we must meet for drinks next Friday," I tell my friend Barbara as we talk on cell phones while we travel to our respective workplaces. Barb, being a true New Yorker agrees. "YES! she says. Let's do it".

We go into detail. What time is convenient to us both? Where will it be busy but not noisy? We will both have to re-organise our schedules.

An observer from another country could not be blamed for thinking that we are planning a major life-event. An expedition to Antarctica perhaps. But no, it is a simple half hour social appointment to a bar mid-way between our two apartments. After all, we are BUSY PEOPLE.
There was a time that I'd call Barbara the day before to confirm. Or even a time when I'd turn up at the appointed hour.

Not so now. Like Barb, as soon as I've closed the flap on my cell phone, the rendezvous is forgotten. Maybe I'll think of it when my mind wanders as I'm on hold to AT&T's customer service center in India. Nice to think I have a social diary. Nice to catch up with Barb!
But there ends the experience. And after all, why not. We had our fun. We didn't really need to actually meet.

So nowadays I forget it. We planned it. We enjoyed it. It's over.
In my rare spare nanoseconds my mind wanders. I remember being cross with the non-rice vendor. Thinking he was a loon or a liar. Now I understand. He couldn't afford the rice. We can't afford the time. That doesn't mean that we don't want it; that we can't pretend, that it isn't a reality.

I feel like traveling to Java to find him. To apologise and to explain that I now understand. In fact I think I'll do it! Why not? It should be a good break.
And perhaps YOU would like to come too? Make it next January. We can book on Singapore airlines. I've heard they're quite good. I've got the frequent flyer miles. And it's years since I've been to Indonesia. We can stay in a nice hotel and read books on the beach. It'll be so much fun! You WILL come, won't you?

Promise me you won't forget ....

Good Day Bluebell Wednesday

Bluebell Wednesday is a little girl who lives on a boat on the Thames, so close to the centre of London that every morning she awakes to its chimes.

Bluebell has a mummy called Amy, a daddy called Jamie  and  thirteen aunts and uncles.

Amy and three of her sisters - Rosie, Gita and  Edith -  get together from time to time to play in their quartet called the Dirty Pretty Strings.

Bluebell Wednesday's eldest aunt, Lakshmi lives in the Peak district of England where she looks after lots of funny little children who speak with strange northern accents. Her aunt Edith is fifteen years old and goes to the Lady Manners school on Castle Hill. One day you will see Edith on the stage as she will become a famous actress.

I grew up in Australia with Bluebell Wednesday's maternal grandmother. Her name is Di. Her brother is Gary. We had friends with names like Sue, Helen and Julie. I was called Katie back then. I  hated my name as it was an unusual name at that time. I wanted to be called Susan.

When Di and I  grew up and had our children it was the seventies. I had a dog called Sunday. If I hadn't already used that name I would have called my firstborn "Sunday". Instead I called her Ebon. Di's first children were twins -  Dara and  Lakshmi. Our more conservative friends named their children James, Daniel, Emily, Cecily, Matthew, Lucy, Simon and Penny. Not even for them the staid names of our parents' generation.

My expat friends named their children Yarra and Ned. My brother, whose name is Timothy, had friends who called their children names like Daffodil and Sunshine.

People in the country were calling their sons "Jaidyn" and their daughters "Kylie" and Kirrillee". And through all this, the ever-reliable Australian  working class families were still bearing Trevors and Waynes.

At the turn of the century when the Lakshmis and Sukis were reproducing, rebellion set in with babies being named Jack, Jessica, Thomas, Emma,  Joshua, Sarah, William, Emily , Michael, Jasmine and John.

I am now in America where people in the Blue areas are naming their children  Emily, Michael, Christopher and Sara. In the Red areas they   prefer Chelsea, Tiffany, Brittany, Conner, Madison and Taylor.

My daughter  Ebon  is now an adult. She loves her name and goes by her given name only. Not for Ebon a family name. Like Cher she is mono-monikered. The only time her name caused her any pain was once at a hippie festival when there was an announcement over the load speaker for an "Ebon" to come to the stage. She thought there was another one and was devastated. Fortunately it turned out she'd misheard and the announcer was saying Evan. Two "Ebons"? ASIF!

I wonder how much one's name influences our paths through life. I always think that if I'd have been a Sue I would have been more stable. I think I would have lived in the leafy suburbs and married an accountant. My car would have been a Volvo and I would have joined the local tennis club.

Sometimes people change their names to fit what they want to be. The twins I knew who were born in 1974 and named Zero and Chaos, changed their names in the late eighties to Mac and John. My elderly aunt Nell came into her own at eighty and changed to Eleanor to be more dignified. My mum's first name was Christina but they made a mistake at her new school when she was ten and called her Hazel. She was too shy to correct the teacher so she became known to Hazel to all but her mother and sisters. I am sure I used to see a personality change  when she switched between the names. With her sisters she was demure as she  answered dutifully   to the name "Chris". Quite a change from  the sarcastic and somewhat bitter Hazel that she became   in the company of her friends.

When I was about sixteen and wanted to be like Simone de Beauvoir or Glenda Jackson, I changed from Katie to Kate. A secret part of me however, still yearned to be Susan.

When my children were very small, I used to spend a lot of time  with my friend  Margaret. She had young babies too. We'd practice referring to them by other names to see if our inner image of them altered. I remember Margaret going over to Ebon in her bouncinette saying, "Pamela, do you want milk? Pamela! Good sweet little Pamela!" But no way could we get our minds around Ebon as a Pamela! ASIF!

Nowadays most of the  interesting names I hear belong  the babies of my black friends. "Asia" and "Africa" are lovely names. My white friends have grandchildren called Hannah and Amelia. No more the Zeros and Cosmos. Not even a Suki or a Polly. And certainly no Ruby Tuesdays

And so it was with joy and hope that I heard of the birth of Bluebell Wednesday.

A belated welcome to this world little Bluebell.

Soon you'll be able to hear your mum play the cello as part of her quartet, "The Dirty Pretty Strings". You'll be able to run around on the banks of the Thames, loved and admired by Lakshmi and Gita, your aunts. Your grandma Di and your great uncle Gary will shower you with love and gifts. When you go to school you will shine and outshine the Sarahs and the Williams. And later, you will still be out partying when Big Ben chimes midnight. You will never be a dedicated follower of fashion. You will make your own indelible and colorful mark on the dreary grey of London town.

Bluebell Wednesday, the world is your oyster!

On Greek Gods, Noah and Manhattan Hairdressers

Hairdressers must rank amongst the top ten in strange, in the long list of New York professions. Which is probably why I enjoy visiting them.

I've had a long list during my eleven years in Manhattan. At first I despaired of ever finding one. I'd heard on the Australian bush telegraph that a good hairdresser - as we know them in Australia - was almost impossible to find.

"Darhhhling", my gay friend Robin explained, "You just HAVE to lower your standards - you're in America now!".

My (Australian) boss in those early years of Manhattan living, recommended a very short lady hairdresser in an Upper East Side salon. I've repressed not only the hairdresser's name, but the name of the salon, although I went there regularly for almost two years. The human mind sensibly puts mental survival ahead of memory, and all I can remember - apart from the fact that the hairdresser was so short that she didn't have to bend down to cut (also read 'chop' my hair) - is her strange co-worker.

The co-worker was a blonde and obvious transvestite, who I never saw cut one head of hair. She'd just stare admiringly into the mirror at her station for hours and hours. She was made-up and coiffured to look (well, from a distance) like Kim Novak in 1955. I stared too. It was amazing.

After I'd settled into New York life, I felt that I was independent enough to change hairdressers. As if on cue in an Off Off Off Broadway production, Robin announced that he'd found one.

"Darhhhling, I've found a hairdresser JUST LIKE an Australian one. Well she isn't Australian but she's NORMAL!!" he announced one day as we roamed around the Union Square farmers' market in search of aubergines that would coordinate with his lounge chairs. "NEVER forget the fruit when decorating," he intoned.

'Normal' coming from Robin, was a bit disconcerting, but I had faith. And so I booked in at Madison's (the hairdresser's name, not the avenue).
Madison lived in a poor area of Manhattan. Her building didn't have a doorman, and when I arrived for my appointment, men from the local halfway house were asleep on the steps leading up to the front door. I carefully avoided stepping on the brown paper bags lying around, knowing that they concealed empty bottles of plonk or metho or whatever was the latest Manhattan cocktail of the time.

The door bell didn't work, so, being a shy person at the time (god, THAT'S been knocked out of me) I didn't want to call out. Madison was on the third floor and there was not a sign of life around except for the gurgling sounds coming from the open mouths of the surrounding drunks.
Eventually Madison came down looking for me. "It's OK", she explained with true New York hootzpah, "all my clients get confused". And she took me upstairs.

Madison had a husband. His name was John and he collected antique cameras. Thousands lined the walls on especially made little shelves. The bed (it was a 'studio' apartment) was unmade. No coffee ("We're health freaks", she explained as she lit a cigarette).
I was starting to wonder WHERE she'd wash and cut my hair, when she drew aside an old velvet curtain to reveal a one meter square recess that housed a sink and a chair. Things were looking up!

She told me to sit and as I did so she started to 'cuss' as they say here. "I forgot I broke the expletive deleted scissors on my last client!" she yelled. That SHOULD have been enough! I was beginning to HATE my good friend Robin.

She used the kitchen scissors (though I can't imagine a kitchen existed in this camera-land - was it cunningly hidden behind the sofa?) and gave my hair a quick wash in cold water whilst telling me horror stories about her landlord.
When it was blow-wave time, she discovered that her dryer was broken. Like a psychiatrist unsuccessfully administering ECT she tried to jolt it into action.

"Oh well, there weren't ALWAYS dryers and we managed didn't we Hon?" Speak for yourself I thought, but acquiesced and with my hair badly towel-dried, paid, said goodbye to camera-man, and left. The drunks were still asleep. The world was normal after all. How comforting I thought as I caught the subway home thinking of what I'd say to Robin at work next Monday.

"She's wonderful!" I told him 36 hours later. "A real find!". And indeed she was. I was a client of Madison for the next few years until she moved to Queens to enjoy as she so quaintly and impossibly put it, 'a more rural life'.

You see dear reader, I REMEMBER Madison. My mind has not obliterated her as it did her predecessor - so I KNOW that Madison was OK and that Robin was impeccably right again.

A succession of hairdressing failures followed. Clay in 'Bumble and Bumbles' wasn't too bad. (Was it Bumble and Bumbles that started the trend of having your roots dyed to show you'd been to your hairdresser?) But it was hard to schedule Clay in, as he was bi-coastal as well as plain bi. This means that he worked on the West coast of the US some days and the East on others. I'd forget where Clay WAS on the planet, and so eventually moved on.

Then there was the aromatic hairdressing salon in Hoboken - one of the many sad experiences during my exile there. I'd have to scrub my hair for weeks to get rid of the smell of avocados after my visits. Tiffany just plain refused to cut any hair that she hadn't drenched in a flavour of vegetable oil. Of course you could CHOOSE your flavour. I once seriously considered celery, which only goes to show what Hoboken can do to an otherwise normal human being.
Now my search is over. No longer under the influence of Robin, who has long since left Manhattan and his aubergine-tinted apartment, I found my own hairdresser. Her name is Glamour and I've written about her before.

Not only can Glamour cut hair, but she doesn't babble on. She ALWAYS has scissors that work and her dryers ... sheer perfection - true engineering miracles.
Not that I'd call Glamour normal. She is half French, half Italian, and commutes to Manhattan from Philadelphia. She once cut the hair of the rich and famous, but they didn't tip well enough. The logic of this escapes me. The price of a haircut at her previous place of work must have been about $500. Now it's $30.

But I suppose if they don't tip, what does money matter? Or something like that. I'm learning to suspend reality when it comes to Manhattan hairdressers.
I've been a client of Glamour for over a year now. Kept the same hairstyle; always go on a Thursday after work; always tip well... everything was starting to seem - NORMAL! Till last Thursday. I should have known it couldn't last.

There is a new hairdresser in the station adjacent to Glamour's. She has a normal name, Monica, but that is the most normal thing about her.

When I was there last week, I watched in stunned silence, as she kept forgetting to cut her client's hair, in order to entertain the whole salon with some story about a rabbi, a red dress with a long slit up the side, and what happened at a wedding. I could not follow a single word of it.

Glamour kept hissing at me, "She's ALWAYS like this!" as Monica jumped around, illustrating various parts of her story with actions and gestures that made the mind boggle.
I stopped looking at her, as every time she noticed me looking, she'd elaborate and explain again, some part of the incomprehensible story for my benefit.

Just as I blanked her out of my mind and was drifting into that dream-like state you get when you feel safe and comfortable, she yelled at Glamour - "Who was that man in the fairy story where there is long hair?" "You mean the Rapunzel story?" Glamour suggested. "No No NO!!!" Monica was jumping up and down. Her client was just sitting, her wet hair hardly touched.

"No no - the one not in a story, in the Bible" - Madison was REALLY excited. She started suggesting answers to her own question.

"Hercules!!! That's it!!!" Glamour sighed. Now MY hair wasn't being cut. "He wasn't in the bible. Do you mean a Greek?" I was forced to join in, against my better judgment. Anything to stop the prancing and to get this show on the road
"Sampson!" I screamed above the din. "BLOODY Samson! Read yer bloody Bible! See yer rabbi! Ha Ha"

Monica was happy. "YES YES YES. And I LIKE you!" she yelled back.
I remembered reading somewhere how Americans confused Joan of Arc with Noah. "Do you know who Joan of Arc was?" I asked them both. "YES YES YES!" Monica screamed. "And her animals that went up the ramp two by two?" She looked puzzled and then started shrieking again.

Eventually things began to calm down. Hair was cut. Hairdressers were tipped. On my way out I approached Monica and tapped her on the shoulder. "Don't forget to go home and read your Bible" I told her. She smiled. And as I was going through the door I heard her ask Glamour what country was I from was I was so funny. "Australia" Monica told her. "I wanna go there!" said Monica. And the prancing began again.

My only regret is that Robin is back in OZ. I'd just LOVE to recommend him to my new find.