This… MEANS Something (to me, anyway)

It turns out that if you spend the vast majority of an entire sixteen-month span of your life in the same three rooms, moving yourself very far from that context absolutely floods the brain.

And it turns out that, if you’re in the state of being where “I saw a person” still feels like a riveting story, putting yourself in a place with roughly eight million people means that every one-hour span feels like an entire thick-ass anthology of flash fiction.

Including…

The skinny young guy, mask below his nose, on the phone, sticker still on his snapback hat, who got up from sitting on the subway by lifting himself just enough to put his hand on the rail above him to pull himself to standing using only his arm strength.

Another young guy, this one sitting next to me on the train, clad in brilliantly teal scrubs, who told his friend on the phone about his series of upcoming night shifts. He collapsed slightly onto the rail next to him as he awaited his stop during our long trip on the J. I’d had 4.5 hours of sleep before approximately eleven hours of travel, so I felt a quiet kinship with him.

The lanky 14-year-old on my Tenement Museum tour who, when we were all told to stand somewhere so we could see the subtitles on the TV showing the video interview of the apartment’s former tenant, walked into the middle of the room of twelve other people on the tour, blocking the view of at least two-thirds of us. When I tapped him on the shoulder and made a hand gesture that meant, roughly, “Other people exist, young squire,” he scurried to the side in understanding. Thanks, my guy. You’ll get there.

The trio of older New Yorkers on the tour, city accents gloriously deep and rich, all of whom had stories to add about the Jewish and Puerto Rican families’ experiences we were discussing. One was using WhatsApp in Hebrew in breaks between the guide’s stories. Another was involved in developing the first ESL curriculum in local schools in the early 60s.

Every counter person or cashier I’ve dealt with, all of whom have exuded east coast kindness (in contrast to west coast nice). I think this is my favorite thing about the east coast and what I miss the most, though the west coast version usually gets me by, just without this particular spectrum of heartwarming feelings. Give me brusque and actually concerned when I’m in need any day.

The man in painters’ whites, sitting on a literal pile of metal ladders on the sidewalk, looking fully at ease as he chats on the phone in a gently reclined position, despite being on something barely more comfortable than a stack of loose Legos or perhaps an actual cactus.

The bench dedicated to Kamari the dog on the west side of Central Park, next to which crouched the single fluffiest, best-groomed, freshly blown-out Golden Retriever I will ever see in my life.

The woman who stopped to ask me, as I sat next to the lake in Central Park, if I was from there. “Alas, no.” I said. “Why?” She turned to look over her shoulder. “We want to know what that is.” She pointed to a tall building that stretched above the trees, its corners each graced with elaborate enough toppers that they could each be a monument. “Well,” I told her, “now I want to know what it is too.” I looked it up later and found out that it’s The Beresford, which has just as many notable residents (Diana Ross, Meyer Lansky, and Helen Gurley Brown???) as its fabulous exterior deserves.

The people I huddled next to under a Bergdorf Goodman awning as we waited to see if the soft summer rain would let up or turn into a proper downpour. One of them was a cop, and I tried to spy on the beat report he was writing, but I was too distracted with figuring out how to get my cloth bag full of my journal and postcards safely indoors to concentrate.

Remembering how you can end up in a cohort of sorts of other museum visitors, which can be delightful or deeply, deeply irritating. Particularly as none of us seem to remember how to maneuver through crowds anymore. If ever we did.

The gothest horse and carriage along Central Park, all purple-and-black ostrich feathers and studded black leather tack.

The middle-aged guy with long curly hair and a beard – Sammy Hagar type, let’s say – riding a city bike around the Seaglass Carousel at Battery Park. “Woooooow,” I hear him say as he circles it. On the next rotation: “It’s so pretty.” I don’t see him again, but I hope so hard that he got to ride it, because it was indeed so pretty, because we’re guaranteed nothing in this life, and exchanging a few bucks for such guaranteed joy is an excellent investment. Grown-ass people can ride carousels too. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t. (Answer: I hadn’t had breakfast yet and had a bagel with nova lox waiting for me in my bag.)

The buff man in a surgical mask who stands, arms crossed, in front of the bar entrance next to the restaurant I have dinner at. He deals with group after group of young women in tiny dresses, in airy dresses, in sparkling sandals, in brand-new eight-eyelet Docs, checking IDs, letting them through, and being a traffic controller in a night that’s sure to need a lot of it.

The member of the acting troupe who stepped in at the last minute after one of the troupe tested positive for covid, despite being vaccinated, who had to occasionally consult the copy of Twelfth Night he held, but often didn’t. Everyone coming together to put on a play in a garden in the Upper West Side. All of us sitting and beholding the product of collaboration. Also the people who occasionally were clearly just taking a shortcut through the garden, slowing their walk for a moment to figure out exactly what the hell was going on.

And the always-at-least-slightly-sweaty tourist in the black shirt and rust-colored backpack, eyes wide, taking all of it in while she can, because the return flight comes a little bit closer every day.

Post-Pandemic Vacation Planning, Actual Leisure, and Threat Modeling

What does it even mean to plan a vacation for pleasure after more than a year where we felt like being outside your home was the most dangerous thing?

I’ve planned two-week trips before. I’ve planned many trips to New York. I’ve planned solo trips, unstructured trips full of wandering, and trips meant to answer some kind of built-up longing.

My upcoming trip is all of these things, and yet this is new.

What is it to just be starting to leave the house again, to retrain my brain to not think that BART cars and other enclosed spaces are shared incubators of guaranteed death, only to immediately go to one of the most populated cities in the world?

Difficult, I’d say. And also as necessary as anything has been for the last year.

*

For this trip, I wanted to try existing in New York in an ordinary, “I live here, actually” kind of way. During my last longer stay there, I split an apartment in the Upper West Side for a week with my friend who lived in Astoria for many years, who was always a commuter train ride away even once she had to leave the city. I’ve never been there without that backup. I have other friends there, but the focus won’t be the same.

This time, I’m going to spend a week in the Lower East Side and then a week in Fort Greene, at the advice of another friend who used to live there. I think highly of Astoria, but my visits to New York were based there for more than a decade. A fact-finding mission needed to be based elsewhere.

For the second week, I’m pretty sure I’ll have relaxed enough to stay in a bedroom in someone’s apartment – or I certainly hope so, because that is what I’m doing. After a week bouncing around the city, I will have gotten used to some things. But upon arrival, after hours and hours in airports and a sky tube and all this proximity, I assume that I’ll be essentially broken. I did manage to find one of the only flights from SFO to JFK that didn’t leave at either 7 am or 11 pm, so I’m not destroying myself (AGAIN) with a red-eye flight or one that’s so early it might as well be. But after six hours in a plane following 15 months in my apartment and almost only in my apartment (with a handful of exceptions), I’ll be wrecked. And heading from that into a stranger’s apartment is too much. My first week will be in a modest li’l hotel, and that is fine.

I realized that the following things will be especially important on this early voyage back into the world:

  1. A door that closes and that no one will come through. A ton of Manhattan Airbnbs had a single bathroom accessed either through the guest’s room or host’s room, and while I understand what’s up with this, I also know that my tolerance for risk and weirdness will be bottomed out upon arrival and likely won’t replenish fast enough to make this something I can deal with.
  2. A reasonably predictable situation, which sleeping in someone’s living room, rules for where snacks may and may not be eaten, a living room full of forbidden exercise equipment but no furniture, or sleeping behind a curtain do not permit. Yes, these are all real examples of options I (briefly) considered.
  3. A place to stay where, if it does take me until 4 pm the day after I arrive to reemerge into the world – not unheard of for me on first days of trips – it won’t be observed, keep anyone from having a pee, or otherwise affect anyone except me.

I’ve always tried to minimize strife when planning trips, working to balance that with budget concerns so I can do more for less. Rarely, though, has the definition of strife included “I want to do everything I can to ensure I don’t end up hiding under a blanket, wishing I was back home.”

*

A central part of my job is threat modeling, which means considering a system (either built or just planned) and figuring out where risk lies and what those possible risks might be. With something like a website, some of the risk comes from anything that takes in text or other parameters. You can mess with the servers behind them by putting in input that does weird stuff to databases, or you can compromise other users by sending them links with parameters that make things misbehave. You can overwhelm an unprotected server with traffic, taking it offline. What systems does it connect to? What data does it present or allow users to update? These are all things to consider.

I like threat modeling, and it’s been an interesting era to have cultivated this skill. Now I threat model myself. What happens with my own vulnerable system once I go somewhere new, full of new inputs and uncertain motivations?

I can address some: I’m still being cautious, but my antibodies should have reached full strength more than a month ago, so my caution is mostly for the benefit of other people as we scramble to figure out exactly what the risk of transmission is with new variants as a vaccinated person among people with compromised immune systems or other risks. I’ve been figuring out how I want to work within those risks and trying to err on the side of being conservative. I decided to not go out for the two weeks leading up to this trip because the chance of dragging some California variant across the country to an unsuspecting city felt like an unforgivable risk.

And then there are the others.

The brain-breaking people fear, old social anxiety amped up by a lack of practice and so many months of stranger danger, all this aquarium living. How I know handling necessary things, like feeding myself in an unfamiliar place, gets more complicated when I’m freaked out. And then the ever-present curiosity of whether I’ll return to not trusting said vaccination, which has nothing to do with the vax itself and everything to do with this being the first time I’ve had a vaccination for a current and newly arisen concern rather than a piece of distant-to-me history, a new kind of trust fall.

As with websites and servers and networks, there are mitigations. I’m getting out among people a bit before taking the big plunge. I’ll bring snacks with me, and I’ll plan at least a couple of meals for my first full day there, so my decisions will be fewer as I adjust. And the last?

No system can be perfectly secured. Eventually, you just have to go live and plan to respond to any incidents that come up.

With travel in other years, I depended on my reliable love for leaping into the unknown. Things would be awkward sometimes, because I would need to learn things as I went, but in the end, they’d all be good stories. This was, I learned in 2020, the difference between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is a thing to vanquish, to push against and congratulate yourself on your bravery.

Fear is different. I understand that better now. It reminds me of this amazing article about Airbnb trying to make headway into Japan, only to discover that different cultures weigh risk and uncertainty differently. I used to have an American risk tolerance, all acceptance of failure and encouragement to try again and again, but I find myself feeling more like many of the Japanese people in that article now. I assume that’ll diminish, but I can’t guess when.

I used to consider myself brave in what turned out to be a fairly flimsy definition of the word—harmless, generally, but not something that stood up well in the most recent era. And my ability to rely on that quality has taken a beating in the samey-same last year-plus of living, this cheap cartoon repeating background version of life, this phase where “I saw a person” becomes an anecdote worth relaying, this era where donating blood is fascinating enough that it fuels more than an hour of excited conversation.

What else is there to do, really, but fling myself into one of the biggest cities in the world? I can be mindful of what I know, understand that the problems I can’t predict can probably either be dealt with by throwing money at it or running away to regroup, and trust that my old instincts are somewhere in there.

And if not, and you happen to see a story about a pink-haired NYC tourist who absolutely lost her shit in a newsworthy way? Spare a little kindness before you keep scrolling.

One Foot, and Then Another

Long exposure of a tree and purple-brown sky

When I woke up for the second time yesterday, I had a hard time getting going.

I’m glad to be in New York; I’m glad to be visiting my friend. But even though I’ve been here several times, even though this is the opposite of traveling alone, I felt the difficulty of self-initiating. After more than an hour of obsessing over subway routes and possible late lunch locations, I finally ejected myself from the apartment at about 5 pm. (This is what happens when you have to recover after a red-eye flight.) I walked to the first lunch option, but everything was $18. Dizzied, I looked down the street, which is now full of clever little cafes and outdoor tables and all sorts of stuff, a sharp difference from ten or even five years ago. Where. Where would I go. I was very hungry and at the end of my ability to make decisions. Where to go.

I walked another half block, saw the words “red eye” under the coffee menu and the words “vegetable panini” under sandwiches, and figured that was good enough.

But even then, sitting in that most ordinary of situations (if 5 pm lunch is ordinary to you), I felt the familiar frisson of anxiety that always falls on me, at least for a little while, when I land in a situation where I don’t feel on top of everything. This is an old thing, a way I lived until my mid-20s, where I expected mastery of myself in most situations and would hate myself for a while if I didn’t have it. The heightened stakes of travel and expectations resurrect what I’ve pushed out of my brain in most other situations. I sat there, a gentle summer breeze saying hello, happy people walking by, feeling blurry with new-place overload, breathing deeply, waiting to acclimate. I think this is as much a travel tradition for me as the Hallucinatory First Day.

I texted my mom; I texted my friend; I read nerd fiction. I ate my sandwich and then sat, deliberately taking up space for a bit, watching people walk by, and reminding myself that openness and time were, in this situation, a gift.

And then I headed to Manhattan.

The three-hour chunk of time ahead of me was daunting, but I reminded myself that I was in one of the greatest cities in the world. If I ended up killing 90 minutes reading in a cafe and watching people, that in itself was worth the trip. Instead, I wandered into Central Park, looked at people, wandered through terrain, and then stumbled on a world-class orchestra playing just an hour from when I arrived.

It was during said show that I took the picture at the top. First by myself, and later with my friend, I listened and I watched, and – most importantly – I inhabited, and I reminded myself that, even in these dark-as-fuck days, the world is still generally on the benevolent side (if only just, sometimes). I played with my camera’s settings, and I listened, and I began to relax into what the next week may bring.

If yesterday was any indication, it’s going to be pretty great.

Hither and Thither #10

Prosthetic eyesOcularists: a creator of prosthetic eyes. It’s meant a lot of things over the last couple millennia, but for a pair of families, it means two strikingly different philosophies. The LA Times explores the gulf that exists between the art and science of ocularistry.

division squiggleBecause Halloween is so awkwardly midweek, I declare that this weekend has also been Halloweekend. (The substantial number of costume-wearing people I saw Friday and Saturday night agree with me.) As such, this excellent roundup of horror movies set in New York is still timely. This is a new blog I’ve found, which looks at New York from the distinctive view of a location scout.

Also, this kind of thing is why going to New York feels like entering the real world, and leaving feels like going back to the outside to look in.

division squiggle

Capitol Hill has a new bookstore, and I can’t wait to wander through it!

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Hither and Thither #4

A month or so ago, I was walking through Capitol Hill with a friend. We walked by a former telephone pole that is now sawed off about ten feet up; what remains is thickly covered with several kinds of vine. As we walked by, I reached out and let my palm skip across its surface.

“Ok,” he said. “Hold on. I need you to explain what just happened.”

“I touched the plants?” I said.

“I was walking with a coworker the other day, and she did that too. And I see people just, just do that – reaching out and, like, caressing plants. What is that? Why?”

“Sometimes they look soft,” I said. “Or like they have a varied texture. And I want to know what they feel like. I wonder if they’ll be pokey, or soft like moss, or something else altogether. I just do it. I’d do the same thing with sweaters if we were walking through a department store.” This seemed to satisfy him. Somewhat.

This is all just background to tell you one thing: if I visited one of these exhibits, I would need a couple hours just to go around petting everything, just to see what it felt like.

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