Sunday, March 14, 2010

Quick Takes: God Takes the Sugar

1.  One of my oldest friends says that all poetry is based on the premise that things used to be better than they are now.  Sometimes I think that this blog is based on the premise that everything is better in New York than it is here.  But my premise is true.

2.  On the other hand, I saw two of those birds again today, the drab, starling-sized ones with the iridescent green heads, and I felt very kindly disposed towards them.

3.  I went for driving practice with my husband yesterday, and, as I nervously contemplated the death-dealing power conferred upon me by my seat at the wheel, I remembered with what ease and comfort I used to entrust my life to other drivers, chiefly those who drive cabs in New York City (who may be among the worst drivers in America, if not the world).  And it's not that they're technically bad in terms of their knowledge of the mechanics of maneuvering an automobile, but that they drive with total disregard for the rules of driving and with that special, self-centered New York sort of sprezzatura, by which everything one does is the equivalent of raising one's middle finger to the world.  This is true even for drivers who are freshly arrived from the Punjab or the Ivory Coast.  A hundred cab drivers flashed before my eyes.  I couldn't begin to count the number of drivers in my life who have asked me, "Where are you from?  You have an accent" (as often happens with classical singers, most traces of regionalism have disappeared from my speech, although here, everyone says I talk like a New Yorker).  I would make up random nations of origin -- Canada, South Africa, Holland -- until finally I started saying, "I'm from here, and you have an accent," which was, after all, the truth.  I began to recall individual taxi drivers, like the Sikh who got very excercised while driving me up the West Side Highway one night.  He explained to me that the Sikhs had to assassinate Indira Gandhi, because she had her troops destroy the Golden Temple, his religion's holiest site.  As he described to me his contempt for the ways of this country and his disdain for the Sikh immigrant boys and girls who grow up in America and start holding hands before they are married, a crime punishable by death back in India, he started to drift dangerously over the line, and I wasn't sure if I should ignore him or frantically try to calm him down.

I also remembered a soft-spoken middle-aged cab-driver I had once, a white man when such were becoming a rarity, who told me that he was only driving a taxicab in order to write a piece for the New Yorker about driving a taxicab.  "Uh-huh," I replied offhandedly, sure he was lying.  But for all I know, he might have been telling the truth.  I remembered another cab ride, when the driver, a handsome young man, sighed when I reapplied my lipstick in the back seat and asked hopefully if I was Jewish.  And another time, I left my handbag in a cab when I was living on a gated street on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, subletting the faculty townhouse of a Pratt Institute professor.  I had gotten out at the gate and gone inside the compound in a late-night post-waitressing haze, not realizing I'd left my entire purse behind.  About an hour later -- this was sometime between three and four in the morning -- there was a knock on the door.  It was the taxi driver, who'd been driving around and around the neighborhood, trying to figure out how to get in and give me back my purse, which was flush with my tips (though what I really cared about among its contents was my journal and my copy of Remembrance of Things Past, on the inside cover of which I'd pasted a picture of M. to remind me that he had given it to me).  The driver refused the money I offered him.

4.  I came across one of the best descriptions of exile that I've ever read in Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin, which is excellent so far (I'm less than a hundred pages in).  The narrator is an Irish writer in 1970s New York who's taken a bartending job in Woodside, Queens.

I figured I might write a play set in a bar, as if it had never been done before, as if it were some sort of revolutionary act, so I listened to my countrymen and wrote notes.  Theirs was a loneliness pasted upon loneliness.  It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave.  Sometimes it becomes more acute for the fact of having left.  My accent deepened.  I took on different rhythms.  I pretended I was from Carlow.  Most of the customers were from Kerry and Limerick.  One was a lawyer, a tall, fat sandy-haired man.  He lorded it over the others by buying them drinks.  They clinked glasses with him and called him a "motherf---ing ambulance chaser" when he went to the bathroom.  It was not a series of words they would have used at home . . . but they said it as often as they could.  With great hilarity they injected it into songs when the lawyer left.  One of the songs had an ambulance chaser going over the Cork and Kerry mountains.  Another had an ambulance chaser in the green fields of France.

The place grew busier as the night went on.  I poured the drinks and emptied the tip jar.

5.  A Turkish woman I know who adopted a son from Korea after struggling with infertility told me that in her country there is a saying:  "God takes the sugar, but in its place leaves honey."  And honey is so much better than sugar, as today's poem from the Writer's Almanac suggests:

Luxury itself, thick as a Persian carpet,
honey fills the jar
with the concentrated sweetness
of countless thefts,
the blossoms bereft, the hive destitute.

Though my debts are heavy
honey would pay them all.
Honey heals, honey mends.
A spoon takes more than it can hold
without reproach. A knife plunges deep,
but does no injury.

Honey moves with intense deliberation.
Between one drop and the next
forty lean years pass in a distant desert.
What one generation labored for
another receives,
and yet another gives thanks.
-- Connie Wanek


Enbrethiliel said...


It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave.

This was my experience when I lived away from home as well.

Good luck with your driving lessons! I haven't been behind the wheel of a car in about two years, and may have to have a refresher course myself if I ever need to drive again.

And that poem is another winner. You make me want to start reading poetry again, Pentimento.

Rodak said...

The driver refused the money I offered him.

This is the thing about New York that most people who have never lived there don't understand and would never begin to imagine. For instance:

The day we arrived in Brooklyn, green from Ann Arbor, pulling a U-haul trailer behind our VW beetle, we promptly got hopelessly lost. My wife finally convinced me to pull into a gas station to ask directions. The man in charge there said, "I could tell you, but you'd still never find it." This I believed. Then, "Follow me," he said. And he jumped into his own car and led us all the way to our new building--a considerable distance. Like your cabbie, he refused any kind of recompense for his kindness. That was Day One.

You persist in making me homesick for a city that I considered a place of exile for a long time after first arriving there, but gradually grew to love.

Please--don't stop.

Pentimento said...

New Yorkers are the most generous people in the world. Truly.

I miss it too, Rodak. Have you checked out the Colum McCann book?

Rodak said...

No, but I'll certainly add to my list.

Emily J. said...

I wonder if your birds are grackles:

That poem is good enough to eat - I'll have to share it with the kiddoes who have finished off a quart of honey in less than a month.

Pentimento said...

Yes! They must be grackles! Thank you, Emily. I've never seen them before.

Melanie B said...

Funny one of my oldest friends and I used to say almost he same thing about poetry. I'm sure not all poetry is nostalgia. But I'm hard pressed to think of a counter example. She's still a nostalgia junkie but these days I don't often find myself yearning for the past so much as for the future. Soon there won't be all these tiny people with their incessant demands. Soon the baby will sleep through the night and I can stop being chronically exhausted. Soon the girls will be old enough to help and maybe then the house won't always look like a disaster area. It's just as much of a trap, really.

I put off getting my driver's license for years after I got my learner's permit. Being behind the wheel of a car terrified me. Riding in a car tends to lull me to sleep. After years and years of being a passenger I feared falling asleep behind the wheel.

I'm definitely going to have to check out the McCann novel. That sings.

And the honey poem is wonderful. I've fallen in love with honey in the past year.

I don't feel at all motivated to write on my own blog today. But yours, on the other hand...

Melanie B said...

It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave.

So true. I never thought of myself as a Texan until I became a New Englander. Now it is home it a way it never was when I longed to escape to somewhere "cooler". But this is now home too. If I move back there will be a different shaped hole in my heart. I don't think I can escape the feeling of exile now.

Pentimento said...

Melanie, I'm strangely heartened by your driving story. I freeze up when I even contemplate driving around with children in my backseat. And I had the humiliating experience in 2006 of *renewing* my NYS learner's permit . . . it gives me hope to know that you are now a driver.

The McCann novel is great, I didn't want it to end. It consists of stories within stories of interrelated characters, the best of whom, to me, is a Park Avenue matron mourning the death of her son in Vietnam. Tell me what you think when you've read it!