Friday, November 30, 2012

A Tale of One Legend

It’s Monday night in Detroit, and I am in the presence of two legends. On stage under bright lights and surrounded by pure musical genius, the incomparable Leonard Cohen sings and sways for an adoring, packed house. Seated next to me, smiling and swooning and falling in love with the man on stage, is my gorgeous grandmother. Two legends in one room.

He dips his hat, drops to his knees and recites the words to "A Thousand Kisses Deep". He sings "I'm Your Man" -- directly to my grandmother, as she jokes. He returns for not one, but two encore performances. His fans are loyal and loving and in awe of one of the most iconic performers of our time. He does not disappoint.

But enough about Leonard. It’s Grandma’s turn to be adored.

She is 94 years old. She reads the newspaper daily, stays up on all the latest news and trends, sings and dances and goofs around as though she is channeling both Lucy and Ethel simultaneously, and come hell or a tornado or a blizzard, drives herself to the beauty shop to get her hair washed and set every single Saturday morning as though her life depended on it. And perhaps it does.

I have traveled to Detroit regularly throughout the past 10 years to visit my grandmother. I adore these visits. I revel in the time spent curled up next to her on her uncomfortable couch, cozy in one of her scratchy old nightgowns and bathrobe, groaning in agony as we watch Fox News, the television blaring at an obscene volume (she insists she is nowhere near old enough for a hearing aid) and listening to this tiny, fit woman in amazing health complain about her pooching tummy as she polishes off a jumbo-sized bag of low-calorie popcorn.

She moans about the fuddy-duddies she plays cards with and their suffocating lack of a sense of humor. She jokes about the two of us going to a local Singles event and picking up on men to dance with, or opening a bottle of wine (that she doesn’t have) and getting drunk together (she doesn’t drink). She tells stories of my young and dapper grandfather wooing her into marriage, and the street smarts and remarkable fortitude of her mother emigrating from Russia as a young girl and making a life in America. She explains the meaning of the many Yiddish terms I have heard over the years, like “lech and shmech” and “kibbitzing”. She tells me to find myself a “mensch” – a good, honorable man. Believe me Grandma, I am looking…

She jokes that I am a “pain in the ass” – which I am. We see movies, sometimes two in one day, and eat salads at Greek diners named Leo’s or Kirby’s. We argue over politics and how much of the Sanders Hot Fudge Cream Puff Sundae I didn’t eat. We visit places I remember from my childhood: Kroger’s, the Franklin Cider Mill, my old house on MacQueen, my best friend Marietta’s house around the corner. She gives me advice about life and love (“never talk to strange men, unless they are rich and handsome and love their grandmothers”). She passes on her mother’s advice about life and love (“a woman should always wear a sexy nightgown and perfume”).

I adore this woman, and cherish every second spent with her.

Yet for reasons I can’t quite convey, this most recent visit feels different. As she dozes on the couch, I watch her peaceful face and become more aware of my grandmother’s mortality than ever before. I am struck by the sad reality that these visits may not last much longer. I implore myself to remember every detail of our time together, or to write down all that I might otherwise forget. I take photos: the kitchen table lovingly set for our next meal hours in advance. The hand-written note next to her ancient television set that explains how to work the remote control. The freezer filled with just about every candy known to man, all wrapped in reused plastic baggies. The weekly television listing from the Detroit Free Press, carefully marked out hour by hour with her favorite shows.

She is still with us. She still drives herself to her hair appointment every Saturday. She still reads and dances and sings and goofs around. She is still as strong and sharp and sassy and spunky as ever. And yet, illogically and without reason, I already miss her.

Like Leonard Cohen, my grandmother is a living legend. Yet to me and the family she continues to astound, she is so much more. To us, she is everything.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Please Don't Forget

The election is over (Thank God!) but the storm continues to rage. Throughout New York and New Jersey, entire communities remain decimated, powerless, and helpless in the unrelenting cold and dark. Homes remain flattened, boats upturned, cars bashed in by fallen trees, people and pets gone forever. The disastrous effects of Sandy are far from resolved, and will no doubt linger for a very long time to come.

I too was once the victim of a very different kind of storm. The response was incredible: like victims of Sandy, I received offers of goodwill and kindness from around the globe. One friend sent me a new pair of Uggs all the way from Sydney, Australia. Another in D.C. offered to send out a fresh set of sheets and bedding so I’d have a comfortable place to sleep. Countless others offered me a place to stay or help rebuilding, and some even suggested a fund be set up to assist me financially.

I was then and forever will remain grateful. It is incredible to see what can happen when a community comes together. But I was merely one person. THOUSANDS have been hit hard by Sandy, and they need help.

All around my neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, generators run power into buildings that remain damaged by floodwaters. Car doors hang open in a futile attempt to dry out their mildewing interiors. My dear friend’s family home in Island Park is unlivable. Another friend’s home in Long Beach is being readied for demolition. These are traumatic times for so many, and sadly I know first hand how trauma can haunt, deplete and diminish a person for a long, long time.

This time around, I was one of the lucky ones: after 5 long days without heat or electricity, I was able to return home and get back to normal, relatively unscathed. Eager to give back, I have wished I were a contractor or an electrician, or drove a fuel truck, or had medical training, or possessed something meaningful to offer. Turns out, I am tireless when it comes to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and so I did just that along with a crew of volunteers for Lower East Side Recovers. Turns out, everyone has something they can offer. 

Though supplies are urgently needed - diapers, blankets, flashlights, batteries, brooms - don't discount the power of your dollars! Several funds have been set up to assist with the recovery, and a quick search on the Internet reveals them all, though a really great place to start would be:

Island Park Hurricane Relief: or
Lower East Side Recovers:

Winter is coming; the violent Nor’easter that struck the region on Wednesday was no small reminder of this. The recovery efforts will just get harder as the days get shorter, darker and more frigid. As time moves forward and we (again, Thank God!) put the 2012 election behind us, please don’t forget about our neighbors and friends here on the East Coast. Do whatever you can to show you care (click here for more ideas!), and to tell Sandy’s victims that they are not alone.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Moo Shu Pork in a Storm

Something I have grown to despise: people who order restaurant deliveries in the midst of an impending hurricane.

On Monday afternoon, just hours before Sandy blew in and the lights blew out, I ducked out for a quick walk around my East Village block. This was incredibly stupid – the heavy rains had begun to fall, Mayor Bloomberg was practically screaming at all NYC residents to get and stay indoors, winds upwards of 50 miles an hour were already whipping up the city, and as we would later learn, several people died on this fateful afternoon, struck by fallen trees. But I needed a quick breath of air before we were to be shut in by “Frankenstorm”, and though I myself nearly blew away, I was otherwise fortunate to have lived to tell about it.

Anyway it was during this quick stroll I was surprised to find a few die-hard restaurants still open for business, and even more shocking, their delivery men, crouching beneath flimsy raincoats and bracing themselves against unprecedented winds, coming and going with deliveries in hand - ON BICYCLES, no less, because this is how it’s done in Manhattan.

Now really, how much of an A-Hole does one have to be to think that calling in for a pizza or Pad Thai delivery and subjecting another human being to such dangerous elements is acceptable behavior? And then showing their appreciation for such extraordinary efforts with a measly two-dollar tip? I am not a hater by any stretch of the imagination, but this calls for a bit of a rant.

I recognize that in some cases, delivery service truly is a vital necessity for those unable to leave their homes due to illness, disability and the like (and to such individuals I absolutely do not direct this anger). And I appreciate that bicycle delivery service employs a large number of people in NYC, many of whom are recent immigrants and may be struggling to survive in a city that can be unforgiving. But even those who needed those last few hours of work should have been granted the mercy - and maybe even a cash advance from their employers - to scuttle home to their families and hunker down, just as their customers were doing when they called in for their beloved Moo Shu Pork.

The dangerous and often thankless job of bicycle delivery was highlighted earlier this year in an article published in the New York Times, and I hope that anyone who missed it will take a moment to read it now. And to stop and think for a moment next time they call on someone to provide a (typically) luxury service that could very well end a life.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Dispatches from The Dark Zone

If you listen closely you can practically hear the hum: Swarms of unkempt and unshaven creatures closely resembling human beings make their way in a northern direction, trekking up the darkened Avenues, arms outstretched, cell phones in hand: these are the Lower Manhattan masses struck by prolonged power failure; pale, lifeless zombies in search of two basic needs: a functioning electrical outlet, and cell phone service.

I am among the disheveled crowd. Sitting at home in the dark and cold – without Internet, phone service, radio, television, or access to anything resembling modern life – was becoming unbearable. In what I now consider a stroke of luck, I suddenly remembered that my old iPod Nano has a built-in FM radio tuner, and thank GOD it was fully charged! Tuning in to hear Brian Lehrer’s soothing voice streaming on WNYC’s 93.9 was one of the greatest comforts I have known in a long time. If not for his nonstop coverage of Hurricane Sandy, I may never have known that power, light and all things relatively normal still exist above 39th Street. Thank you, Brian.

And so along with this crowd of unlikely comrades, I slog away from my sodden East Village neighborhood, where trees have come crashing down, streets and basements rot in standing flood water, car doors hang open as rivers of sewage stream out, and a handful of corner bodegas operate with a bouncer on line control and a flicker of candlelight.

But the East Village neighborhood is an old community, one where people come together and help one another out when times get tough. As I toured the area earlier this morning, once the rains had passed and the winds died down, I was heartened to come across the Italian restaurant 11B, where a husband and wife team had opened the doors to their cold and hungry public, and were busily serving up slices of freshly baked, piping hot pizza… for FREE.

They moved fast and efficiently: he toggled quickly between tossing dough in the air, filling the massive gas oven with four to five pizzas at once, and telling a reporter from Spain “this is my neighborhood, my community, people need us right now and we have the ability to give back” – as his wife greeted every single customer with a huge smile, a jolly laugh and a warning: “It’s very hot, don’t burn your mouth!” They never stopped smiling and never lost their unbelievable attitudes, but kept those lines moving and their neighbors fed for several hours that day. Never before much a fan of pizza, I inhaled 2 slices practically without chewing. I will now be a dedicated customer of 11B for life.

Well fed and armed with multiple phone chargers, the first place I find a functioning outlet is about 2.5 miles away, where a 7-11 store on 5th Avenue has set up a makeshift charging station on the sidewalk, running about 8 power strips from inside the store for anyone to use. This will become a common sight in the long, dark days ahead: temporary power centers all over midtown, people huddled on floors and streets and anywhere outlets can be found, desperately charging devices as they try to make contact with friends and loved ones.

The eeriest part of this experience is witnessing a city quite literally cut in half: from 39th Street on down, Manhattan is none other than a blacked-out No Man’s Land. Above 39th, however - though Central Park is closed down, shops dwindle in their supplies and traffic is backed up for miles - life goes on as though nothing has happened.

Having grown restless, spooked and incredibly lonely, I have found temporary shelter with a friend on the Upper West Side.  As I curl up on her air mattress, I consider how this experience feels all too familiar: it was little over a year ago I was similarly displaced by an uninhabitable home, bouncing to friendlier apartments in search of a hot shower and some companionship, and uncertain when this bizarre new reality would come to an end. But this time, I am hardly alone. And – considering the utter tragedy that my neighbors in New Jersey, Queens and Staten Island will continue to face for days and weeks to come – it really isn’t all that bad.

At the Starbucks on 5th Avenue at 33rd Street, the lights remain off and doors locked, but the cafĂ©’s WiFi is miraculously still operating, and so masses of disconnected people press up against the windows to pick up the surprising signal. WiFi operating in a hurricane’s aftermath: the modern-day version of the Hanukah story…

So I look like hell, I’m exhausted from troubled sleep and endless treks in search of power, and grow more agitated as time passes by and the hours feel wasted. But these long days of darkness and rotting dairy products in the fridge may be the worst I face in the otherwise horrific aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and for that, I consider myself one very lucky zombie.

One of many fallen trees in the hard-hit East Village


Downed trash cans and newspaper stands

Cars pushed around by flood waters on Avenue C

FDR Drive the morning after

NYPD takes on a flooded FDR Drive

Almost doesn't make it

Free pizza at 11B!

Serving up pizza by candlelight - and a massive gas stove

A flooded garage on Avenue C

Fonda Restaurant serving drinks and guacamole by candlelight 

A Staples store becomes a gathering place for the power-hungry

Manhattan streets looking like the countryside. Note: this isn't normal.

You said it, Spider Man!