so this lady walks up at a traffic light, and. . .

It’s 6:15 on a Saturday morning, and I find myself — for reasons not worth explaining right now — driving east down Madison Avenue in Albany. I’m approaching a green light at the intersection with Ontario when a woman walks up to me, waving.

I slow down. Roll down the window. Assess her quickly. She’s 60, maybe a little older, in a knit cap and ratty parka. She’s weeping.

“Please, ma’am. Please.”

Watch out, I say. It’s a green light. Cars are behind me.

“Please. I’ve been homeless. Please, ma’am.”

OK. OK. Give me a sec. I’ll pull over.

“Please pull over. Please.”

Yes, I say. Yes. I’m pulling over.

And so, nicking through the last second of green, I pull over and grub around in my bag for a bill larger than a one. It is now 6:16, and the coffee I poured down my throat 20 minutes earlier has not kicked in. Continue reading

snow angels and the theory of northern cities

Moses, an  Albany resident, striking snow from a rock.

Moses, Albany snow angel.

This morning, I poked my head outside to look for the papers — the print version, or what I like to call the paper papers — and found a snow angel clearing my sidewalk. Snow angels are neighbors with snow blowers, or maybe just a strong back and a shovel. However they’re equipped, they’re a force of good on the planet, especially this part of the planet, especially when Madre Nature, feeling generous, dumps a blanket of fluffy hexagonal crystals more or less overnight.

I smiled and thanked the snow angel and ducked back inside, paper paper-less. About 15 minutes later I ducked back out again in search of these same old-school information circulators only to discover that a second snow angel had shoveled off my front steps. In another half an hour or so I went outside myself and started digging out my cars and driveway, joining my fellow smiling digger-outers engaged in the cold, bright industry of clearing off vehicles and steps and sidewalks and sundry after a storm. It wasn’t long before a third snow angel showed up and helped. I smiled and thanked him. He smiled back. Everybody happy.

Northeasterners in particular love to complain about winter. We love to complain about summer, too. The truth of the matter is, we love to complain about everything, including the fact that we complain so much. But winter kvetching is special, because the frigid agonies of the post-storm shovelrama bring with them a certain amount of joy — a joy that goes beyond our stupidly mocking moral superiority (I’ll admit it) over Continue reading

sit still and follow the stick

Without fail, every single time I attend a city school concert — and I’ve attended lots and lots of concerts over the years, as it’s been lots and lots of years — two things smack me between the eyes or, depending on the sense being aroused and the direction I’m facing, the ears.

One is the sound of winds and strings and beatific voices playing and singing in tune, or damn near close to it. And that’s not nothing. No matter how often grown-ups crack jokes about the squeaks and squawks emitting from student instruments in the midst of practice — as though these sounds are any more aggravating or less mellifluous than any other noises emitting from a child at any point in his or her early life, like, say, whining, farting, shouting for cookies and marathon virtuosic tantrum-throwing  — the fact is, learning an instrument isn’t easy. If a kid is bold enough to wrap hands around a viola or a French horn or an oboe or some other ancient and altogether convoluted melody-making machine and actually create something akin to music, well, huzzah. Let us applaud loudly. Let us applaud the teachers, too.

This leads me to the other fact that smacks me in the face whenever I’m squished in the crowd at a school auditorium — as I was earlier tonight for my son’s middle-school winter concert. It’s the fact that APPROXIMATELY ONE MILLION KIDS are crowding the stage, sitting still, performing an insanely complex, cooperative task, doing so with total coordination, concentration and good nature, and — this is the best part — TAKING DIRECTION FROM A SINGLE ADULT HOLDING A STICK. And not even a big stick. TAKING DIRECTION FROM A SINGLE ADULT HOLDING A PATHETICALLY FLIMSY STICK. 

I watch this spectacle of civilization at its best, and I wonder: Why don’t schools encourage more of this shockingly effective crowd control disguised as art? Why don’t workplaces do it? Whole troubled neighborhoods? Congress? If a mob of squirmy children can get along for several long minutes to perform an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” then shouldn’t leaders of belligerent nations give it a whirl? Leaving out the cannons, maybe? If they have trouble with it, no probs. The kids can show them how.


round and round and round we go

guess we’re going this way

I love to skate. And so long as I’m skating counter-clockwise, I’m not half bad, looping around the rink with a freedom and fluidity that dupes me into regarding myself as graceful. Which I’m not. Believe you me, I’m not.

But on the ice, crossing right foot over left, right foot over left, I’m taller, less klutzy, more confident. I know how to move without crashing. I know how to stop without falling. And I know where I’m going: to the left.

Today at the Empire State Plaza, I found this westward motion strangely reassuring. As my youngest and I tooled around the smallish oval alongside the bundled, happy crowd, I felt the crushing grip of the week behind me loosen its cinch. This was a one-way street. I either skated counter-clockwise or not at all. I couldn’t just go renegade and skate to the right, not without toppling gooey young couples and retirees on vintage skates and pre-schoolers wobbling on double-runners, their parents wobbling along behind them.

How natural, after a loved one dies, to look back and log the days without her. My best friend  died on Monday; I’ve spent six days Pam-less, so far. So I backspin to the last time we gabbed, or the last time I glimpsed her, saying goodbye, or that day we kicked the soccer ball around with our boys, flushed with exertion.

But we live on an orb that rotates counter-clockwise. It presses to the left with an insistence that feels impossibly cruel. And yet, and yet. It keeps us whirling forward. We have no choice. We go to work, chat with colleagues. We go home, make supper for our children. Later on, a little too much later, we go to bed.

And in between, if we’re lucky, we skate.