Archive for the ‘North America’ Category

Chicago Winter Mosaic

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

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In the end, Chicago overwhelms me. But not until the end.

Not until I have to sit in this pub on Michigan Avenue with a raspberry beer that’s not very raspberry-ish, the bartender’s words, and a turkey sandwich and a bowl of chicken soup. Not until I stare up at a monitor watching a college basketball game with teams and players I don’t recognize. That’s when it settles. The sense of being stuck dead in the middle of America, sitting at the bar with all of its baggage.

Jazz. The blues. The World Fair. Both of them. The fire. The White City. The serial killer. The coal dust. The skyscrapers. The Gehry amphitheater. Chandeliers hung with enormous garnets like bloody teardrops. The tallest skyscraper that has a new name now. The bean. Tiffany glass and mosaics and chase lights. Theater marquis bigger than ones in New York. Italian restaurants lit up in neon. “Postmodernism” perched on the top of a building with giant green wings. Blue-period Picasso. Sunday in the Park hung on a wall with its two frames, the one Surat painted in dots and the actual wooden one, which is just white. And the little French gift shop while I buy an $8 bar of soap and a tin pillbox from the 1920s. Ice skating in the park with kids half my age, wobbling on my feet. Palmer House brownies under the sprawling Valentine ceiling and going into the vault to see the stacks of Limoges, all the sets complete, gold around the rims of the glasses, all of it commissioned for a party for General Grant.

It knows me, Chicago. All the rooms a little overheated, everyone in sweaters and jeans. There are no heels, no one tottering in narrow skits. Just people laced up to their necks in down and bulky scarves and fur-trimmed hoods. Every menu has a version of chicken soup and hot chocolate. Every hotel has heat lamps. Every car has the vents fully open, blasting warm air. I want New York to be like this too, a little stuffy, the warmth pouring, the wagons circled. A cottony headache all the time.

I walk everywhere that I can bear to walk. North of the ice-covered river past the rock and roll corn cobs. To the building called the Medinah that was built as a theater but is now a Bloomingdales, where the faux-Islamic onion-bulb roof remains intact, along with all the colored glass windows that you can see up close when you go into the second-floor ladies room. Past the weirdly posh Forever 21 and into the Aqua Tower where I sit in the lobby of the hotel by the modern fireplace, a long, long wall of gas-jet flame. Paper lantern fixtures. A wall of something that looks like exaggerated gold chain mail. And I sit in a pink chair shaped like a bubble and listen to a woman talk in a loud voice about a parents mutiny in her son’s boy scout troop.

She said. “He said to me, ‘I have been auditing this troop and your performance. And you’re capable, but there’s a lot of untapped opportunity here.’”

Then I crash, the moment at the bar. In my sweater. Sweating in my sweater. The second city feels bigger, noisier, more jammed than the first. As heavy as the layers of my coat, my scarf, my gloves, the shirt under my shirt under my sweater. Chicago deep-dished, scooped me out. I write in my journal the line, “This might not make any sense, but…” And then I stop. I can’t think of a way to finish the sentence. I drop my pen. The city has swallowed me whole. I try to stop my brain, from following the trails of history. The freed slaves. The native traders. The kids looking for a city in which to come of age. The gangsters that they don’t talk about on a lot of the tours. The socialites. The step before New York, or maybe the step after. I have seen almost nothing. A few blocks, the center of the center. Any more, on this trip, I couldn’t have borne. I would need a subway, a car, a plan. I would need, I would want, a second time.

New Orleans, a While Later

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

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New Orleans is the dream city of wrought iron and powdered sugar. Of sandwiches as long as my arm and kids playing the trumpet in the street at 10:00 pm while people stream out of the bars, away from the bands they paid to see, to drop dollar bills in a box. Bourbon Street smells like vomit in broad daylight and the famous cemeteries are crumbling and shattered as the bones beneath them.

We see the Preservation Hall Jazz band in the front row that’s even closer than the front row, because we’re on the spindly chairs by the piano and the band has to walk around us to get to their places. And I am in this blue dress that I fancy makes me look like a vintage 1940s princess, and even if I don’t, there is no one to tell me that I don’t, because this is vacation in the dream city and I cannot hear bad words about anything.

And mostly I just feel like I have dressed the part because the room is a step back in time. It is what places in New York pay millions to replicate — a kind of weathered, low-lit perfection that makes people want to eat and dance. I have to move my hurricane so the saxophone player doesn’t kick it over. The piano player says, “Hello, ladies.”

I smile the whole time, the smile that I can’t see but that people have told me about — dreamy, elsewhere, perched on the edge of my seat.

A_____ makes me walk out onto Bourbon after “just to see it” and the horror is real. Fights everywhere and crowds. We don’t stay long. Later in the trip, I will walk around the neighborhoods and take photos of people’s houses like a creep, but I want to take them all home with me, or put my home into one of them, even though I have no idea how I would sort this out. How I could split my life in half, buy another one and set up shop in this other place where it’s always warm and where the food would make me gain weight in a month. Where I would have no job and no friends but I would have a house with rainbow-painted gingerbread and two front doors and the kitchen way in the back and strings of lights in the trees. I would have everything and nothing in the dream city, the real city.

Time Travel, Washington, D.C.

Monday, September 29th, 2014

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On a sunny, humid day in Washington, D.C., there is a block with a short-stack mishmash of old buildings and new ones, and none of the gleaming white grecian-style marble of the rest of the city. Here, there is a building with a Chinese restaurant on the first floor called Wok and Roll. There is no striving for the ideal polis in this part of the city, the bright sandblasted surfaces that you see near Capitol Hill, so bright that you need sunglasses.

We’re on our way to what A_____ tells us a hipster coffee shop, because no one in our party operates properly without coffee. There is a gate, carved in ornate angles, that tells us this is Chinatown.

Wok and Roll occupies the first floor of what used to be the Surratt Boarding House, the “conspirator house” where John Wilkes Booth planned the abduction and murder of Abraham Lincoln. The boarding house’s proprietress became the first woman put to death in United States History. A plaque on the side of the building tells us this, and it’s a small plaque.

We squint at the top floors, realizing that it’s the same structure, but that the building has been modified at some point. (Wikipedia says 1925.) The door moved. The ground floor became commercial space. But the roof line is the same, the windows on the top floors. It is the same shell that housed history, even ugly history, a shell shed and picked up again by another generation, bent to its purposes. It feels right to stop, to snap photos by ourselves on an empty sidewalk of a shuttered Chinese restaurant.

We find our hipster coffee shop a few blocks beyond it on the opposite side of the street, all exposed brick and bold sans-serif fonts, in another buidling that was something else and has turned into something else. I get an iced latte and granola, grateful for the air conditioning, for modernity above and inside ancient and less-ancient things.

On Dead Famous People in Los Angeles, California

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

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I said to my friend M_____, who lives in California. “Death is terrifying to me until I visit a cemetery. And then it just seems quiet.”

We were standing over Frank Zappa when I said this. Well, over who we thought was Frank Zappa, according to a web site I found on my phone. Frank Zappa, you see, has no marker. So you have to work your way over from a nearby tree, and some nearby graves.

George C. Scott doesn’t have a marker either. He’s on the other side of the cemetery, next to Carroll O’Connor. It’s less surprising that he doesn’t have a marker. I mean, the man didn’t want his Oscar either. But maybe being buried under a big blank tombstone next to Carroll O’Connor and Walter Matthau has the same effect as refusing an Oscar. Basically, at the end of the day, it’s exactly the same as winning an Oscar. Death is an equalizer, too.

All the colors in the cemetery, which is behind a skyscraper and is hard to find amidst the parking meters and the fire hydrants, are sort of the same. Brown, green, darker green. Stone, grass, leaves, a bench, a brick, a vine. There is Natalie Wood, with her married name and an Orthodox cross. Fanny Brice and her children. Peggy Lee is by a fountain. Louis Jourdan has a marker, and he’s still alive. Truman Capote has humble little yellow flowers, not nearly fabulous enough. Dean Martin has red roses, as you’d imagine, left just a few hours before.

But with Marilyn’s grave, her little shelf in the wall, all you see is fuchsia. The flowers, the lipstick marks on the outside. Apparently Hugh Heffner has bought the drawer next to her, so he can leer at her without her consent into eternity. But Marilyn’s flowers. Nothing in that green patch in that concrete block of Los Angeles on a cloudy day. Nothing is like those flowers. A pink bunch and a red bunch and a peach-y bunch, maybe from the day before. Even a little wilted, they are right on cue. Ready for their closeup, blaring into the heat of the day.

Wallace Fountains: Paris, Marseille, New Orleans

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

The Wallace Fountains are everywhere in Paris. Designed to bring water to every citizen of the city, from the richest to the poorest, they’re so much a part of the Parisian landscape that after a few days town, you stop really seeing them. They sort of blend with the boulevards and the green parks, the onion-domed advertising columns that are painted the same color. Take them away, though, and Paris is not Paris. They exist in a number of French cities besides Paris, and in handful around the globe, from Amman to Macau. Here are three that I’ve seen in Paris, Marseille (where the caryatid has been splashed with neon paint), and New Orleans. The latter isn’t painted that same gleaming, bulletproof green that you see in Paris, but has more of a coppery finish.

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Miami: Nights Out and Mornings After

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

How Quaint, a Car

The first club is a black and empty cave save for one spinning circle of light in the center of the dance floor, an anticipatory flash for the revel that will come later.

We’re just kind of underwhelmed.

We cross the street to another club that doubles as a swanky restaurant. Girls wear eyeshadow in shimmering arcs and hang on the arms of thick-necked men in suits with their shirt collars open. Plates of pasta appear, decorated by festive mountains of shrimp, tails on in a show of finery.

Enormous potted palms divide the sections of tables, their trunks wound with what I assume are holiday lights, but maybe they’re like that all year. The drinks cost $17 and come with little paper umbrellas and attitude. The DJ wears plastic sunglasses and jewel-encrusted headphones and plays stuff that I have on my iPod. The music and conversation roar.

We talk nonspecifics about going back to the hotel and ordering a pizza. One of the guys shrugs.

“I have a girlfriend, so it’s not like there’s anything to see here.”

We make insinuations about leaving, but no one will be the first to make the decision, to reach for a coat or head in the direction of the door. Instead we listen, gawk. Those who have ordered drinks sip slowly, watching the crowd.

Then, the song suddenly stops. There is an instant where the only sound is the din of voices, a loud and insistent wave. Another song takes its place—something in Spanish with blaring trumpets and whistles. All the waiters clap in time. They emerge from behind the bar with champagne and wine, each bottle with an enormous flaming sparkler tied to its neck. They deliver the bottles to tables while the bartender doles out drinks at the bar, the sparklers stuck in martini glasses. Someone hands me a sparkler and I hold it away from my face, half-delighted and half-concerned with the possibility lighting myself on fire. The crowd whoops even louder.

Then, just as quickly, it’s done. The fireworks burn themselves out. The lights come back up. The song changes back to faceless dance music. The winding of pasta around forks recommences.

I make the move, reach down for my coat. It’s done. No one protests. Back on the street, we realize that the liquor stores have all closed, that our party-at-the-hotel strategy is thwarted. We return, glum, the girls teetering in high heels, our destination uncertain.

*

All Miami Looks Like This

In the bar-slash-restaurant at the W hotel on South Beach, the sales guy from the Vegas office buys us drinks. He talks strategy for the year ahead.

On the first night of Art Basel, the crowd on the streets shifts. The girls in plastic platform heels, in makeup from CVS, give way to glamazons in capes, in Prada, in boyish haircuts, in bow ties. The busboys bow, gallantly stepping out of the way while I squeeze between tables on the way to the rest room. Our heels make dents in the plush blue carpet.

A guy stands at the bar wearing a matching salmon pink outfit that includes salmon pink sneakers, a salmon pink sweater tied around his waist, and a gold chain around his neck. He shouts into the ear of an empty-eyed blonde in a green sequined cocktail dress.

“These stupid Americans…” he begins, in a heavy accent.

The Vegas sales guy wants to know what we really think of the other salespeople. No, really. A thumbnail view of each one. Away from the confines of the office, I can feel everything sliding off its mark, including my ease with the truth.

A woman in black pushes past us, all bony shoulders and lumpy purse. Her drink—foggy pink in an oversize martini glass; something hovers suspended near the bottom, globular and indistinct, a lychee—goes flying. Sticky droplets hit the bar, our skirts, the backs of everyone around us. The glass hits the carpet but doesn’t break; there is no clatter, no terrible splinter of sound.

The woman reels around, unsteady on her feet. Her eyes, which are done in rings upon rings of eyeliner, widen like a cartoon, threaten to pop out and roll away, like her glass.

“Did you fucking push me?”

It takes me a second to realize that she’s talking to the Vegas sales guy, who stands silent and very still.

“You fucking pushed me!” she shrieks.

The bartender looks up from the Cosmo he’s pouring.

The sales guy puts his hands up. “I apologize if we got in your way,” he says.

“You fucking pushed me. And now I’m soaked. It’s all over me.”

“I’m sorry that you lost your drink,” says the sales guy. “Here, I’ll buy you another one…” He motions to the bartender and reaches for his wallet, but it’s too late.

“Are you fucking serious? What about my dress? Do you know what this dress cost? This bag cost $3,000 and now it’s fucking ruined.”

The host appears, having heard the noise. He turns her away from us, and begins with his most diplomatic, “M’am…”

She recounts the whole story to him, goes on about the $3,000 purse. She tells the host in so many words that we should leave, and should be made to pay for her outfit. I can do nothing but gawk, rooted to the spot, heels making bigger craters in the carpet. Finally, the host says, “Well, he apologized and offered to buy you another drink and you refused, so…”

“Fine,” she says. “I’m leaving.”

We turn to each other and shift and half-laugh. The sales guy runs a hand through his hair. It’s only then that I realize that I have been clenching my hand hard enough to leave fingernail marks on my palm. Our expensive drinks suddenly seem far less interesting, the glass behind the bar, the gleaming statues, less opulent.

The guy in the salmon pink outfit keeps looking at us and laughing. He’s leaning on the blonde’s shoulder now, going on about how no one has class or style anymore. In New York, I would play cool, turn an angular shoulder and pretend not to notice or to hear him, to ignore the fact that he’s totally talking about us, our crassness and stupidity. Our callow Americanness. In Miami, I stare right back.

*

Shells in My Shoe

In a city that sends sparks into the night sky, it is sometimes difficult to see what’s underneath.

I wake up early and head out to the beach in a sweater and a scarf, like I have forgotten where I am. The whole morning is the color of peppermints, is pale blue sky and pink sand and watercolor palm trees. It’s me and the ambitious, early-morning joggers and the half-watt sunshine.

The only way to know a place is to see what is coughed up by its surrounding ocean. In Italy, it is hunks of pumice, forced to the surface by millennia of geothermal tumult. The beaches in the south of France give up smooth pebbles of green and blue and amber-colored glass, the fragmented remains of Perrier bottles. On Cape Cod, it’s the perfect, scalloped halves of clams. Coney Island yields enormous twisted snail shells, their sides punctured through from hitting the rocks too many times.

At first, I think South Beach will show nothing of herself. Because I’m not looking closely enough, and do not realize that I have to. All I see is sand and thin tangles of seaweed. Then I see one. It is so tiny that I wonder at first if it’s just a chip from a bigger one, but then I realize that it’s unbroken and perfect, no bigger than my thumbnail and smooth as a pearl. The others are not much bigger—cereal bowls for fairies and flutes for baby mice. A whole collection of them fits in my shoe. This is how I carry them and the whole beach, the whole city. Carefully, afraid that they’ll slide through my fingers.

Miami: Getting There

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

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The driver signals to me, but the windows of his cab are tinted so dark I can hardly see. He waves me in, once and then again, and finally I pull the door open. I have seen windows like this before — in crime thrillers.

“The Loews Hotel, please,” I say, dropping my bag at my feet.

The driver pauses. “Which one?”

“Uh…” I have just gotten off the flight.

“Miami Beach?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say, too tired to wrangle my phone out of my bag, to inspect one of the 40 printouts I have stuffed into my purse, a wrinkled pile of affirmations. At this hour, I am willing to take a chance on what sounds correct.

Miami at night in December between the airport and the beach looks like a tropical wasteland, a place perpetually post-hurricane; the tops of the palm trees a little mussed, like a supermodel with bedhead. The equipment at the cruise terminal sticks up into the air like overturned spiders.

We pull up to a toll booth and the woman inside laughs.

“Busy night?”

“You’ve seen me four times tonight,” says the driver.

I try to imagine that, the night of back and forth from a place you didn’t come from and a place you aren’t going to stay.

The cab driver wears a straw fedora. When I turn my head for a moment, I see a stack of them – in varying sizes and with different color bands – in the back window. The one on his head is just a single piece in the collection, the Wednesday night, post-midnight special. The cab smells. The sandalwood and vanilla comes first – a wafting cloud of it, newly atomized from whatever spray bottle the driver has just whisked out of sight. Then suntan lotion, and then, creeping from the very corners of the cab, a distinct whiff of dirty socks.

My hotel emerges from the darkness in an explosion of falling water and towering palms, all of it shimmering in gold spotlights. The driver pulls into the long half-moon of the driveway. He writes a receipt on a greasy slip of paper with a pen he borrows from me. The bellboy smiles in a perfectly starched uniform, even after midnight, even though a breeze is blowing cold and ominous under the heat. Part of me wants nothing more than to find my hotel room, the firm mattress and scented sheets, the quiet whisper of the automatic fan. And part of me wants to stay to the driver, “You know what? Forget this. Take me wherever you want.”

The Delay

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Bedhead

In the airless terminal, we wait. We’ve hit a pocket of weather, the kind that lets the flights before ours and after ours take off on time. It’s the worst kind of delay, the kind that singles you out, that obliterates any chance of impromptu airport camaraderie. The nods to moms holding screaming babies are less than sympathetic.

The destination is Miami, which means that we’re all wearing in-between clothes, coats of the wrong weight for both where we are and where we’re going. We’ll swelter when we land, but for now, we freeze.

I buy a pair of fuzzy socks at Hudson News that don’t go with my shoes. Stuffed into them, my feet look like they belong to a polar bear, or like I have developed a skin disease. I don’t regret them, or the $10, for an instant, because they have bought me a few precious moments of comfort, one sensation that is not sticky or grimy or too dry or lit with pasty yellow florescents.

It’s not that we’re family or dear in other ways. We’re colleagues traveling to a work meeting. So it’s not like sleeping on a shoulder is an option. We read magazines. We watch as the life wane in our phone and laptop batteries. We don’t touch each other. We share few common stories, except for the ones that involve our day-to-day in the skyscraper, and no one wants to talk about those.

After four hours, I decide that I need to walk. Matt and Helen and I walk to Brookstone, to see what buzzing things can distract us for a precious few moments, can make the waiting bearable. Outside the store, something hovers in the air. Silent, none of us can take our eyes off it—a flat black disc as big as a pizza, floating four feet off the ground in the center of the corridor.

“What the hell is that?”

“A space ship.”

“I bet you can buy it at Brookstone.”

You can.

The Parrot A.R. Drone Quadricoptor uses gyroscopes to retain stability in flight. It has built-in wifi that allows it to be controlled using an iPhone, and onboard cameras stream video so you can play “augmented reality” games that make it look like there’s a military skirmish in your living room. It costs $300.

The store clerk who is using it when we pass by is a kid. The look of delight on this face is unmistakable.

There are ultralight suitcases and ergonomic pillows and digital cameras that are James Bond-like in their tininess and sleekness. The only thing I consider—a pair of socks made out of some kind of technologically-advanced chenille—is beyond my target price point.

We leave, unsure of whether we had real intentions of buying anything in the first place. The magazine store is a better bet.

The travel magazines are shoved in a back corner next to the art and photography magazines and the porn, all of it bagged up and blacked out for safety. I waver between Travel + Leisure and a magazine called Islands. Both have palm trees on their covers. The headlines, in canary yellow, promise secret paradise. I finally dismiss both and settle on a practical Budget Travel—although even that is awash in palm trees (Feature story: Hidden Caribbean). I choose another, Afar, that’s larger format and printed on beautiful matte paper and pimping a story about Barcelona. The Gaudis on the cover—wiggly as phantoms—say nothing about the actual story, which is about seafood, but I am hungry for elsewhere, for anything as tall and concrete and blowing in the open air as a palm tree.

Back at the gate, I read about a place called Eluthera, a word so beautiful that it almost tastes good to say it. Allison tells a story about going to Anguilla once, about a seaside mansion in a place that no one can get to.

I flip a page. I rub my fuzzy toes together, unconcerned at this point that my work colleagues are seeing me in my socks. They are also seeing my in-between self, the best and the worst of it, the time before leaving and before getting back.