Monday, January 10, 2011

On the Street

I fell for it. Walking on Amsterdam, I had just passed an older man with a cane when he called out behind me “You dropped something”. I turned to look even as I felt that everything was yes still in my pocket. He looked at me to catch my attention again “You dropped my heart”. Oh, a flirt. Oh dear. He did not crack a smile. I wanted to keep walking; he wanted to keep talking. I tried to do both as I naturally speeded ahead. “Where are you from?” He asked. “Italy?” I answered, shaking my head and gesturing at the ground with my pointing hands, “No, here”. I know that with my dark curls and light skin I look exotic, at least Italian or Mediterranean, which is close enough. “Where is your family from?” “From Poland and Bulgaria”. I did not add that I am Jewish, which could have explained all. A quizzical look came over his face. “Is that near Africa?” He was making a joke, he said “I am just kidding” but he may never have heard of Bulgaria. I could have told him that I am often mistaken for Italian or Hispanic or Greek, but instead I thought about how much more ethnically diverse and evidently so my neighborhood used to be. I wondered about his background and history in the neighborhood, but did not ask. I smiled as he walked into a drugstore and I walked on.
He may have made my day more than I did his. I am at an age where being noticed on the street often amuses rather than outrages me. Yet a few days before I had found myself walking with purpose (and hence speed) in midtown in the evening, practicing tunnel vision. Suddenly I heard voices behind me, clearly raised loud enough to penetrate my defenses. Yeah she has those wide hips and she just keeps walking. Nothing is going to stop her. She must be a native New Yorker. Look at her. They went on in this vein for a while, making sure that I could hear; they must have been closer than I like to realize. They were certainly taunting and they sounded like they might be drunk. They thought that their behavior was acceptable. Or, they were just not thinking at all. It was an avenue crowded with tourists so I felt relatively safe, but at a different time of day I would not have. I thought about doing so but elected not to turn around to glare at them or tell them off – because getting my attention and/or getting a rise out me was exactly what they wanted and I did not want to satisfy them by falling for their ploy. I continued on, walking as fast as I could, but it took a while to put distance between us because the sidewalks were so crowded. They were probably behind me and invading my air space for no more than two or three blocks, but it felt like an eternity and the agitation stayed with me for longer, exacerbated by a string of minor snafus which may have been set off by my agitation. A bit later on I described the incident to a friend over dinner and I was able to relax after that. My friend was sympathetic but she noted that people persist in such behavior because no one talks back to them. I agreed but said I did not want to pick a fight at that moment. I am not fully sure that I made the right choice; I certainly would have alleviated my aggravation if I had said something or at least given them a nasty look. Choosing one’s battles and knowing when to speak up for oneself – these moments sometimes come at surprising times and in unexpected ways. They are especially charged when gender dynamics and/or feelings of safety in public spaces are involved.
So, in the wake of that episode, having the older man look at me through his large glasses and work to engage me felt almost sweet. His sense of allowance felt different, even though it may not have been. I may have felt differently if he had continued on the path with me for a bit longer and there had not been as natural an ending to the exchange. I started thinking more about what I might be projecting or emanating as I walked down the street. This is difficult, because I do not want to go too far in the direction of seeing myself as overly responsible for the incidents described. At the same time I am receiving feedback that I can still consider even as I filter it given the presenters. What do strangers see when they see me?
Comparing and contrasting these two incidents, considering their contexts and where they fit in the chronology of my life, reminds me of how much we bring to even the smallest meeting or interaction. In New York City so many of these moments happen or have the potential to happen every day it is dizzying and hence no wonder that natives walk fast and avoid eye contact. Yet sometimes our chance exchanges, such as striking up a conversation with a stranger, prove uplifting or even life-changing. I hope that I remain open enough for those possibilities.
©2011 Leah Strigler

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In the Neighborhood

My former neighbor Peg texted me to ask for a photo of the sign on West 86th street which announces the honorary name of Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. The Nobel-winning Yiddish author lived for many years in the famed Belnord, the block-big landmarked apartment mansion with courtyard, a portion of which is seen in this snapshot of the NW corner of 86th at Amsterdam Avenue. Peg asked: did he know your father?
Indeed he did. Beshevis, as I usually heard him referred to, was born in Bilgoraj, a small town near my father’s hometown of Zamosc. Bilgoraj is where my grandmother Hadassah Kalichstein was born and where my aunt Sonya lived with her maternal grandparents when a child. When I met Bashevis as a child he looked at me and pronounced “Mir zenen landsleit” – we are landsmen, from the same hometown. Landsmenshaften were hometown associations organized by immigrants here in order to bond with and help compatriots from di alte heym, the old home. True, we were of sorts, but it was really Bashevis and my father who were so bonded. They were from the same hometown area and vanished world and both had landed on the Upper West Side, both writers for the Forverts, the Yiddish newspaper that my father would later serve as editor. Roman Vishniac, the photographer whose iconic images of Jewish Poland just before its destruction were published in a volume entitled A Vanished World, also settled in the same neighborhood, living for many years in the building where I now do. A kleine velt, it is a small world after all.
And it is all the more so with our constantly evolving technologies. Peg and her husband Bernie left the neighborhood and building just over a year ago, setting off around the country in their mobile home. But I can stay in touch via cell phone, e-mail and internet. Peg is blogging their adventures: We were floormates for over a decade, but only became good friends a few years ago when the building began a condo conversion. It seems bashert or meant to be that we would be neighbors since we were once before. For two years I lived a block away from them in Woodley Park in NW Washington D.C., their hometown. We did not know each other then but as there was only one main shopping strip, a section of Connecticut Avenue, I think that I have a memory – constructed I am sure – of seeing them on the street, their beloved pair of Blue Merle collies in tow. They are both tall and remain striking, even with their one current dog, the lovely Sully. When they left I was most upset that they took him away since he does not e-mail, but he is featured regularly on the blog and in photos that they send me. When they visited this summer Peg scolded me for not having a camera phone, since she loves to trade snapshots. Within a month my phone had died and I upgraded to one with the added feature. My first photo was of the building courtyard entrance and its latest changes, sent to them to see. They are both accomplished artists and photographers and have been charmingly praiseful of my efforts, including this morning’s special request.
The neighborhood of my childhood and current home is layered with the stories of many Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe as well as a number of layers of American Jewish history and evolution, not to mention my own history and childhood. Bashevis was known to frequent the outpost of Chock Full o’ Nuts which faced the Belnord across Broadway. In Double Self-Portrait (1976) by Richard Estes the window of that automat reflects both the artist and the Belnord across the street. (Estes clearly spent a lot of time in the neighborhood during my childhood. This image and others based on the area are at Chock Full o' Nuts has recently re-opened a store in Manhatan, on 23rd street.) Bashevis was also a regular at Famous, the kosher dairy restaurant on West 72nd street that suited his vegetarian diet. On the same street as the Belnord and the Boulevard sign are two significant synagogues: one block east is the Jewish Center, a model synagogue-community center buildinf at its inception and a popular congregation today; two blocks east is the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the first Reconstructionist synagogue, founded by Mordecai Kaplan, who as a younger rabbi had worked at the Jewish Center. Peg was waxing nostalgic, saying that if she was here she would have gone out to walk with me and I would have known all the stories. Well not all, but certainly some. Thanks to my cell phone and its camera she was able to stand on the corner with me and chat about the project. Whatever the technology, it is still the human desire to create art, communicate experience and make meaning that helps us to remember where we came from and where we have been and then share these places with others. Sometimes it is the only way that we can go back, a phenomenon I saw so clearly with my father, Bashevis and Vishniac. People often help to hold places for us: their stories and language, landmarks, images and meanings. Today I felt a type of landmark, also a tour guide, reporter and artist, a historian of place and time, all on another normal day in the neighborhood.
©2011 Leah Strigler