Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Senses Working Overtime

"Most people see beauty where there's beauty, Pentimento," my old comrade S., from the days of Bohemia, once said. "But you see beauty where there's none." This habit must have started early; my mother has told me that in the first grade, I pulled another child's discarded drawing out of the classroom trash can, wondering aloud that anyone could possibly throw away something so beautiful.

Once I'd moved the four miles that might as well have been a thousand -- from Washington Heights, that is, to the northern Bronx -- I retained my old habit of walking until the blocks turned to miles.  I loved to walk, to walk and to look. I walked around my own gemütlich neighborhood until I had to walk out of it. Then I walked in other, less savory climes: Bainbridge, Norwood, Mosholu Parkway, Fordham Road. I walked the four or five miles to the Botanical Gardens and back again. I walked from the Bronx Zoo to West Farms Square to the Belmont section. I did most of this with my baby strapped to me, trusting that his presence would keep unsavory types at bay, which it did; I don't know if this is true in America as a whole, but there's a by-no-means-negligible amount of respect for women with children in the street culture of New York that can confer a safe passage where none should be expected.  It's true that I walked in places where I probably shouldn't have. But to me, it was all beautiful. The sun, the people on their stoops, the weeds blooming in vacant lots, the music, the sound of the elevated subway, the smells of coffee from the bodegas and of diesel from the buses: it made me happy.

Now I live not a thousand, but a million miles away from that time and place. I have left my old life behind, and my old life was, itself, a leaving behind of my old-old life. Here, I walk my son to school first past stately homes with well-kept lawns, and then, after a certain point, past increasingly down-at-heels two- and three-family houses with sagging porches and roofs missing shingles. Beautiful or not, sunny or not, I feel mildly desolate, and I realize it's the people I miss -- seeing them, walking past them, exchanging nods, smiles, hellos. People don't say hello to each other here. Even on these mostly-deserted streets, when someone walks past you, he strenuously avoids looking you in the eye.

One of the school crossing-guards admired the Phishhead hat my former student made for me, so I ordered an extra one and asked her to send it to me, and I gave it to the crossing-guard. I see this particular guard only rarely, because she doesn't work my usual route, but today I had an appointment that required me to cross at her corner, and she greeted me by name. She remembered my name, she told me, because I share it with a popular actress, who happens to be her favorite. She wished me a good day. For some reason, as I walked on, I burst into tears. 

We are called, as Rabindranath Tagore said, to become the brother of the stranger. This brotherhood, so fleeting and so rare, melts the heart so that all hostility is disarmed.

Below: XTC's great song "Senses Working Overtime."

18 comments:

Maureen said...

Why are you staying there?

Pentimento said...

It's where we live now. We moved here three years ago for my husband's work.

Maureen said...

You sound extremely unhappy! Have you made any friends since you arrived? Do you have anyone nearby to talk to? I have been reading your blog for a while, and I feel bad for you.

Rodak said...

Oooooh...you said "Bainbridge"...

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your concern, Maureen. I'm not extremely unhappy, just melancholic. And there are some bright spots here. : )

Rodak . . . ah, yes. The mention of Bainbridge probably has both Proustian and Pavlovian connotations for you . . . : )

Rodak said...

Yes, indeed.

Maureen said...

Take care and be well!

Maybe get a dog? Loves walks and U will meet people. Dog people are pretty good.

Figure out how to come home !!

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Maureen!

I'm working now on blooming where I've been planted. : )

JMB said...

You walked along my old stomping grounds too! I went to Fordham and we used to walk from the university up Fordham Rd, cross the bridge (Dykeman?or 3rd Ave?) and up to the Cloisters and back. It wasn't so bad back in the mid 80s. My brother and sister-in-law live on Hillside Ave now. My dad and father-in-law are Hayesmen and my father-in-law grew up in Washington Hts too, my dad was from the Upper West Side then moved to Morningside Heights later.

Where do you live now? West Va? Western PA? It sounds romantic.

Pentimento said...

Wow! I think you guys must have walked on the 207th Street Bridge, right? It's an extension of Fordham Road, which turns into W. 207th Street once you cross it. Then it's a short-ish walk to Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters, up a lot of stairs. That is a fantastic walk.

In the interest of trying to maintain anonymity, I'll just identify my coordinates now as being in Northern Appalachia. I always think of it as the part of Appalachia that doesn't have good music.

Pentimento said...

Incidentally, JMB, a close family member used to work at Hayes. I have a fundraising campaign video somewhere that features the choir (made up now virtually completely of African-American and Latino young men) singing "Rise Up, O Men of Hayes"!

JMB said...

I understand; the Appalachian Trail runs right by my house in Northern NJ.

Pentimento said...

And yet Northern NJ is not Appalachia . . .

JMB said...

LOL maybe I should just start hiking and see where I end up!

Pentimento said...

If you go one way, you'll end up in Maine or maybe Canada. The other way, you'll end up in Alabama. The Adirondacks and the Catskills are part of the Appalachian range, but not necessarily part of "cultural" Appalachia. Did you ever see the movie Winter's Bone? It takes place in the Ozarks, and I was very curious to know what distinguished Ozark from Appalachian culture, because it could have taken place five miles from where I live. (Incidentally, my autoharp is called "The Ozark," and the company also makes a model called "The Appalachian"; not sure what the difference is.)

JMB said...

Have you read "Albion's Seed" by David Hackett Fischer? He goes into great detail about the religious and cultural differences of the English/Irish/Scottish early settlers and how that has shaped our history.

Pentimento said...

No! I'm going to request it from the library right now. Thanks for the recommendation.

Tertium Quid said...

When you talk of home in NYC, I think of Louis Armstrong singing, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"

Great post on beauty hidden.