Getting held up by New York

I’m working on a novelette about the meningitis madness of last month. Until I get it done, let me entertain you with another tale of traveling with pain.

About five years ago, I fled an intolerable situation in California and, being pretty sure I was in my last few months of life, went back to the Northeast to visit with my nearest and dearest and stay until I mended or died, whichever it turned out to be. In short, I was not at my precarious best. I’d thinned my belongings down to what would fit in a suitcase small enough for me to handle, plus a spare set of “smallclothes” and meds in my laptop bag.

I flew into JFK airport and made my way (eventually) to a New York suburb down the street — and downmarket — from Scarsdale. I thought flying across country was hard work. Leave it to New York City (and environs) to adjust that perception. Anything worth doing is worth doing BIG!

It started with getting my luggage — the carousel changed 3 times. It had my supplements and laptop power cord in it, so there was no leaving it behind, as there was no knowing where it would wind up if I abandoned it and tried to get it tomorrow — it could land in Athens stuffed with either explosives or maple candy, or in the garbage scow on the Hudson stuffed with random bits of unsuccessful mobster; the contents would be more oddly distributed still. I’ve been flying into and out of JFK since the early 1970s, and I never leave my luggage uncollected there.

Each time a new carousel number was posted next to our flight number, herds of wilde travelbeests lumbered across the linoleum plains, flowing around eyots of irrelevant carousels and travelers from other flights, who huddled against treelike pillars and carousel islands in order not to be trampled underhoof.

I limped gamely after, unwilling to leave my luggage to the mercies of the feral crowd. We ultimately wound up back at the first one, which somehow didn’t surprise me.

I managed to get my bag unhooked from the carousel lip, but no further. It was just about to throw us both into the guy next to me, when he kindly popped it out and dropped it neatly next to me, with a brisk nod. Then went back to field the hefty steamer trunk of the twitchy Givenchy skeleton behind him.

I debated taking the bus to Penn Station ($3.50) vs train-shuttle (unstated) to the shuttle-bus($1.50); figured train-shuttle would be free, as my training in UI & signage, and casual acquaintance with the law regarding same, made it absolutely clear that prices must be stated up front. No price stated, ride is free. Sweet!

Of course, every other international airport I’d been to in the past 20 years provided free transport within the airport complex. This was New York, where you’re charged even for the gum on your shoe, so I was a little wary, but I was also exhausted and poor.

Got off at the end of the train-shuttle, pulled my wheeled suitcase to the exit door, and there found a sign stating it cost $5 to exit the train-shuttle station.

Stared at sign for 2 solid minutes, flies drifting in and out of my open mouth. SO. BLEEPING. WRONG.

Briefly considered going back, but too tired. I gave up my prospect of a little “real” food in the city to get out of the shuttle track area (why did I think $5 would buy anything in NYC?), and got to the shuttle bus.

The leaderboard read, “Penn Station.”

I asked the driver when the bus came that would take me to Grand Central. He said, “This bus goes to Penn Station.”

I asked again when the bus came for Grand Central Station, and the bus driver again said, “This bus goes to Penn Station.”

I said, “I understand that. I’m wondering when the bus is that goes to Grand Central.”

“This bus goes to Penn Station, lady.”

It finally dawned on me, as he was about to close the door in my face, to ask if there WAS a bus to Grand Central from the airport.

“Nope. This is the only shuttle into the city.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. You have to get from Penn to Grand Central yourself.[I interjected, in shocked squawk, “STILL?” He nodded.] You can take a bus or the subway, but with your luggage, you’ll want to take a cab.”

I hitched up my jaw and hauled self and luggage in. He almost waited until I was seated to take off.

A teenager tripped over my suitcase on the wide, spacious, brightly-lit shuttle-bus. My suitcase came up to mid-thigh and was HOT PINK. Somehow, he walked right into it and went down with it — wrenching my wrist and elbow of course. After looking around blearily, initially wanting to blame someone other than his own clumsy butt, he very sweetly picked up all 38 pounds that encompassed every object I owned other than the clothes I had on, which was more than I could do, and put the handle back in my hand. I re-wrapped it with the scarf I used to cut the vibration and, with an added loop around my forearm, provide some stability against my weak grip. But, in case of other spaced-out passengers, the loop didn’t go back on until I was off the bus… at Penn Station.

Because it’s NYC, where a good conflict should never be resolved but should be handed down for posterity, they have NEVER IN THE PAST CENTURY figured out how to link up the northbound train station with the southbound train station, despite the fact that the trains are the lifeblood of the city and, on top of that, millions of customers travel from south of NYC (Baltimore, Washington DC, and points south) to north of NYC (from White Plains to Buffalo, all of New England, and Canada) every. freaking. year.

The JFK shuttle comes into the southbound train station, Penn. I needed to leave from the northbound train station, Grand Central. It was up to me, as it has been up to every single individual traveler in the past 100 years, to figure out how to get from provincial-sounding Penn to the arrogantly misnamed Grand Central. Let’s review my choices:

  •  A cab was out of reach, especially as I’d just blown $5 on a ride that should have been free.
  • The subway meant more confusion, bumping, and stairs (the elevators and escalators are always out of order or being fought or pee’d on, sometimes both at once) than I could even think about without screaming.
  • The bus required finding secret, unmarked bus stops where they WILL ignore you if you’re off by a few feet and, I’m not kidding, either one or two transfers for one of the most essential routes in the city. There was no direct bus between the two major terminals of this train-dependent conurbation.

I can’t make this stuff up!

I decided to haul myself and my hot-pink suitcase the X blocks of crappy city sidewalks to Grand Central. “It’s not that far” — famous last words. “I’ve done it before” — 20-odd years ago, pre-injury.

I checked the map, got a sighting on the sun, went one block to read the street sign and check my direction, turned left, and marched off — for about 5 steps.

There were many adjustments to work out: soft tethering scarf, arm used (eventually, both), length of stride, and what to focus on — the directions, the pedestrians who mostly swerved nicely, the truly awful surfaces I had to traverse. The surfaces won in the end, out of sheer necessity. The occasional bozos, who thought I could steer better than their unladen selves, bounced off of either me or my sharp-edged case, spitting vile things without drawing breath. I kept on, pushing through the yawing wobbles the collisions caused as I pitched and heaved steadily onward.

Dear heavens, it was arduous.

Halfway there, dripping soot-laden sweat and hauling my grimy, now ashy-rose suitcase which had accumulated about 15 pounds of pollution by then, I found myself heading towards a cluster of burly cops standing between a parked cruiser half in the road with its butt half blocking the driveway, and the loading dock behind.

They gave me that dry, supercilious stare that city cops learn in the Academy. It says, “For our comfort and convenience, we’re deciding whether or not to kill you right now. Don’t try to make our day.”

I thought about that for a moment, trudging along with my case baulking at the bad paving, yanking my swollen wrists around like a fighting tarpon. I glanced at the path around the cruiser, involving 2 curbs, bad patching, and a pothole; quite apart from the random, fast, and dangerous traffic in the street. Definitely worse than the sidewalk.

I realized what I looked like: a grubby, chubby, oversocialized, White middle-aged female, evidently too poor for a cab. Very low on the food chain.

I realized I didn’t care.

I flashed back to the Jaguar my friends used to call me.

It was a youthfully arrogant and vigorous period of my life, when an off-duty cop in a bar in Manhattan wanted me to tie him up and beat him black and blue, because he’d really enjoy that. (I refused ever so courteously — which went curiously with the well-worn motorcycle jacket and wash-and-wear lack-of-hairstyle — and walked away, eyebrows twisting at the sheer novelty of the experience.)

I refused to walk around into the street. It was insane and vile to expect it, when I could clearly hardly put one foot in front of the other and was towing my life with battered arms.

No. Not playing that game.

One tactic of successful women:
If the game is rigged against you, change the rules.

This clot of cops got the twin-engined, diamond-drill stare from under my beetling brows, the burning power of pure womanly disgust and exasperation doing the work of 5 bodyguards and a million dollars.

Great shot by Bernard Dupont of France, via Wikimedia.

New York’s Finest peeled back from my path like an amateur drill team, stumbling slightly and eyes wide.

Yeah. That was more like it.

Same photographer, same cat, relaxing after she made her point.

I heard their startled and admiring voices behind me. I almost smiled. I wondered what they’d say if I turned around and demanded a lift. It was almost worth the effort, but turning back was unbearable, even for that entertainment — so I kept on.

NYC cops weren’t so racist then; it might have worked even if I weren’t White. The good old days.

Stumbled into Grand Central, at last.

Just what it’s like. Image by diego_cue

After dropping my sweat-sodden self onto a bench until my breathing evened out, I got up on pure willpower (my legs certainly didn’t have much to do with it) and wobbled up to the ticket window (One of those funny alcoves on the right.)

Despite the unmitigated chaos and relentless interference of my cross-City odyssey until now, I had the pleasure of getting good instructions, delivered clearly; the right ticket to my destination; explicit directions to exactly the right track and the right train; and which cars to avoid — “The drunks use that one, and it’s never clean.”

I fell into the seat nearest the door, then slid to another when someone dumped a heavy bag which fell over onto me, edge first of course. I let the bag lie and he eventually picked it up.

A lovely young woman, the quintessence of perfectly-formed and perfectly-presented modern American beauty, got on in one of the suburbs, sat down across from me, and gave my weary, grubby, chubby, middle-aged self the sweetest and most open smile. I did my best to repay such sweetness from out of the blue with the best smile I could dredge up in return, and a nice word.

I got off at the Scarsdale stop and there was a slight pause in my progress as I resisted the boisterous flow of commuters scenting their stables. Clutching the rail that had kept me from being swept under, I saw a car door open. In a few steps, I fell off of the train station and into the arms of my old friend.

I asked her later why such a beautiful, clean, discreetly made-up, perfectly turned out young woman would greet such a gargoyle’s appearance with such sweetness. My friend replied, “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but it’s envy. You can afford to let yourself go [finger-quotes.] She can’t. She wishes she could be like you.”

It finally penetrated what a trap the relentless and expensive looks-slavery of upscale New York is for women. My lifelong sarcastic envy of “Barbie dolls”, not to mention “Givenchy skeletons”, died on the spot and I was glad I’d added the nice word. Anyone who could envy me at that point was in really bad shape.

The cross-country flight was originally going to be the funny story I told to amuse my hostess — delay, changed gate, dashing around in a wheelchair, turbulence, sick babies, nervous lady with long arms and huge rings taking up the aisle and risking the eyesight of those nearby — but it really paled next to the story of the last few miles. She laughed and applauded and then, once I was fed and pilled and washed, tucked me into a soft bed with endless pillows. I slept better than I had in months, safe and still and comfortable at last.

I haven’t tried to cross New York City since, except when I can afford a cab all the way from the airport to Grand Central. Life is too short for that much work and physical battery… and the NYC cops have changed.

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Related: health care coverage, economic policy, and racism

The same thinking that underlies racism, sexism, and classism underlies the thinking that says, “Hey, let’s get rid of health care coverage for those who aren’t federal politicians, well-employed, or wealthy.”

The bottom line is treating people as things, and money as the thing of most value.

All humans have something to give, which is only freed up when the basic needs of survival are met; money is a means of exchange but is, itself, neither food nor drink nor fuel nor care. It only gets us any of these things if everyone buys into it as a medium of exchange. That piece of paper has no intrinsic value.

Rational policy is based on the understanding that humans give and receive value, while money represents a part of that value. Corollary is, money must move around to gain value; letting it pile up in drifts and hold still is bad long-term policy, as Reagan’s advisors can now see.

“Trickle-down” assumed that rich people would spend. Rich people don’t spend. They save and invest. Thus, their money moves as little as possible, in order to keep more money coming back to them, where it stagnates further. The real economy (wages, employment, individual bankruptcies, COL, savings, home-ownership, etc.) is nearly dead in the water, but the stock exchange is doing better than ever; that’s how bad the disconnect is now.

With wages lower than a worm’s belly and the formerly-thriving middle class nearly all gone, most human energy is consumed by the struggle for survival. We have, in fact, enough resources and infrastructure that the only people who need to work are those who really want to (that would still be far more than half of us; stop seeing your exhaustion as laziness.)

Given the chance to survive, humans give back. It’s simply what we do. As some cities and a few countries have discovered, with housing, food, and care assured, creativity and productivity blossom. Value grows. Stability grows with it. So does the economy, by the way. Not in leaps and bounds, but at a steady, calm, non-bubbly, sustainable rate.

Weird idea, eh? I mean, who wants stability, right?

matchgrins-horsenwoman_decamps-pauline_4blog

I’ll give you a moment to pull yourself together…

Keeping people feeling cheated, disenfranchised, and looking for someone to blame other than those who hold the scales, is a great way to kill that kind of success. Racism, sexism in all its forms, and classism are the key tools used to divide and conquer us.

By request, I’m pasting in a stream-of-consciousness post I made elsewhere about racism. It relates to “living anyway” because, as with having a horrible disease, having and not having race/gender privilege does NOT have to poison my life, destroy my chances for freedom-within-my-limits, or negate my right to find true joy.

I know you know this about me, but in light of the horrors of the week, I just want to lay this out there, in order to be absolutely clear. Ready? here’s some Isy intensity. (Is-ensity?) …

 

I abhor racism. I abhor it in myself above all, and every day I try to educate/inform/reflect/analyze/remove a little more from my own mind and heart. I screw up sometimes, and the guilt for every screwup never leaves me. (True. OTT, but true.)

 

None of us are free until all of us are free. That’s not polemic, it’s basic psychology. The thinking that pulls us apart is irrational and hostile to our individual and collective well-being. Take a course; take two; you’ll see. It takes real work to get through the mental blocks to understand that fully, and classes provide the guidance and support to make that task feasible. It’s worth it.

 

I take an anti-ism/liberation course or pick up an enlightening book once or twice a year at least, sometimes more if I need it. The reason is this: I shower every day or two, because if I don’t, the stink builds up; same thing happens to the mind of a White woman living in this grubby world. Gotta clean up my thinking, because it’ll inevitably get mucked up by living in my skin in this larger reality.

 

  • As long as Native Americans of all ages are systematically robbed and murdered and left uncounted, I’m hollering for justice;
  • As long as Black people are shot down like amusement-park targets, I’m a co-conspirator in Black liberation;
  • As long as Latinos are thrown out like trash, I’m a gringa curandera for the soul of this nation;
  • As long as Asians, from the Subcontinent or the mainland or any of the islands, are silenced, entombed in unmarked graves, and their history erased from these shores, I’m an impassioned teacher of history;
  • As long as … go on, try to think of a race this country HASN’T systematically trashed. Even Whites — cf. indenture, which has changed its name but not its condition since the founding of this country.

 

Think the rich are free? Imagine the underlying terror of knowing that 99% of the population would gladly end you and destroy all you cherish. (A bit like the rest of us feel about the forces they keep in play, but still.)

 

Want to know more? Use primary sources. Nothing is more telling, or compelling, than the words and images of those who were there. Want to know what the data are? Go to the proximal sources — ignore the pundits. Racism, and its toxic twins classism and sexism (including gender isms; graduate class on that coming shortly), poison all didactic thinking to some degree. Look at primary sources, and digest them yourself. It’s worth it.

 

None of us are immune from the effects of racism. Even loads of money only cushions you, as long as you can access its benefits; it doesn’t make you safer outside your circle. Speaking as someone who changed socioeconomic class dramatically, and rather quickly, I’m strongly aware of the value of having social ethics that don’t lock me to an income bracket or neighborhood.

 

Nobody, but nobody, is free, until all of us are free.

Hatred is no way to run a country, let alone a life.

 

Fiercely and lovingly yours,

Isy

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Fevers, friends, forgetting, and a kind of freedom

With the kind consent of the friend mentioned, I post the following exercise in “radical presence”, or staying sane in spite of the craziness…

Bubbles of thoughts are rising through the viscidity of my mind, drifting from side to side, now tending one way, now tending another.

Feels like a relapse of that FUO (Fever of Unkown Origin, although there’re more vulgar interpretations of that acronym too) that looked and acted like viral meningitis. This time, I have a thermometer so there’s something I can document. It’s less than a few weeks after the first case, so this is not good.

So far, though, no vomiting!

me-fingers-peace
Awesome! I prefer not vomiting!

While recovering (barely) from the first bout of this, I met with one of my excellent friends, the one who’s going to make decisions for me if I can’t make them myself. We first met during one of the most effective times in my life.

She spent much of the recent visit picking up after me, getting the tea I forgot, making sure everyone got fed — the ideal hostess, really. Too bad that was my job. I was a good small-party hostess at one time.

For obvious reasons, given her impending status as my health care proxy, I need her to be able to tell me how I’m really doing. There was a time when full anesthesia and industrial forceps were required to make anything that wasn’t kindly and flattering come out of her. She’d almost rather lose a limb than lose her manners.

Cartoon of a surgeon with mask and goggles on, head haloed by enormous OR light, leaning toward viewer with scalpel in one hand and chest spreader in the other

So, testing the waters, I asked if she found me a bit daffier and more disorganized than I used to be.

I’m so proud of her. She gave me a somewhat verbose “kind of” … then gave me an eyeball-to-eyeball gaze of love and torture, which I’m pretty sure meant, “It shreds my being to see you like this, but somehow I have to breathe and keep going, and I promise you I will, no matter how hard.”

Such a friend can’t be described, only experienced if you’re insanely lucky.

I rarely look back. There’s no future in it. However, the memories I usually keep firmly in the rear-view mirror haunted me for days, as bright as if they were klieg-lit.

Teaching her to run effectively under the redwoods. She was a quick study, all right. I was getting sick, so the fact that she could lap me in less than a year is probably not something I should feel too bad about.

Trying very hard to talk her out of medical school, which I was pretty sure would embitter her extraordinary sweetness and distort her self-effacing diligence. In the end, it gave her mind and heart a stronger shape.

Researching and working together on user interface guidelines, which made most senior engineers effectively beg our blessing on their designs — as they should!

What it was like to ask my quiet, courteous friend a music question, and have her snap upright, point snappily to a chair, and snap, “Sit.” Then give lively, passionate, 20- to 40-minute illustrated lectures on music theory that enrich my life even now. (I did much the same thing for her health questions.)

On a related but more self-oriented tangent, remembering what it was like to keep over 230 threads of information going simultaneously in my head, switching threads from meeting to meeting and file to file. I tracked the early course of this disease by when the number of thought-threads went down. I was “laid off” when I could only maintain about 90 different threads in active memory. I was crushed by that figure.

Remembering what it was like to run through the redwood glen at dawn, the scenery and birds staging a daily spectacular just for me.

coastal redwood circle seen from base, heavy shadow at bottom, well lit at top

The last walk I took on the mountain tops, when every bit of exercise just made things worse, but I had to say goodbye to the wild open spaces.

view of road on mountain spine of high chaparral and live oaks, motorcycle ahead, other ridges dark purple in the distance
This takes me back to my favorite motorcycle riding route. Bikes were the first great joy this disease took from me. Image by BoltSnypr from Wikimedia Commons.

The curling breezes change direction again.

The wasps are too quiet. I turn my head to follow them and warn them away, and the world seems to slip off its stand then right itself again, and the quiet singing in my ears rises to a sharp chord then slithers down again.

Having a frying brain is like living in a hallucination at times.

Famous photograph called
It felt like this looks.

This post is a little diaristic, but it serves a purpose beyond easing the pressure in my head. You’ll see.

The hundreds of little mercies that keep me going cluster around. The air here is delicious. The trees are fluffing their leaves in the curling breezes. J is quietly rattling around inside, scared in his ignorance of my illness and memories of losses, but keeping a good face on and making sure that I hydrate. The birds are mulling the possibility of rain, but it will hold off a few hours. The sun strokes my head with a long hand.

water_swimminghole-1

I breathe, and the world settles down.

A few days ago, I had a wonderful insight about the way that many bits of my past are getting referenced in the present somehow, and how, rather than highlighting my staggering losses, they fit together in a way that draws me onward.

That’s all I can remember, though. I think most of the ideas poured out of me last night as I sweated with the fever I forgot to document.

Mouse brain neurons, two pairs, stained flame yellow against red background
Even my brain is seeing double after all this fever time. Image by neurollero on flickr from Wikimedia.

Drifting first one way, then another.

Must remember to inhale when getting up. It’s the only way to keep my head from wanting to explode, and clutching it doesn’t really help.

Sketch of brain, with bits falling off and popping out, and a bandaid over the worst

Normally, a good idea like the past-reaching-forward-and-propelling-the-present would come back to me with sufficient prompts. Not the way things work anymore. Once it’s gone, that’s it, it’s gone. I’ve learned that the hard way, over years and years.

However, do I need to remember the examples and details? Or do I just need to remember that feeling of a rising tide lifting my weary, worried ass?

Maina at sunset, with masts sticking up and reflecting down, both water and sky streaked with yellow, orange, gold, and purple clouds

Just because I don’t understand how it all fits together, does it stop being real?

Medicine is real, neurology is real, and I defy absolutely anyone to say, hand over heart, that they really, REALLY understand those. Yet, they are real just the same.

I’ll allow myself to be carried onward by the memory of the idea, even if I can’t remember why it made sense.

For now, it’s time for more lie-down and seltzer.

Small moves. Just like steering a sailboat. Small moves get you where you need to go, without steering wrong. Now, seltzer. Later, rest. Then, we shall see.

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