The days bleed together; the sun comes up, it gets warm – lemon yellow, Texas spring-like warm - and then it recedes, slowly, back under the covers for a warm night.
The garden grows, but slowly. Too slowly for my taste. I spend time every day thinking about all the things that might have gone wrong, why the shoots are still tiny, why the leaves are pale green – the placement of my bed boxes, which I believe may not be getting enough sun; the tremendous amounts of rain we’ve received; the late-start fertilizer. And yet the leaves continue to get larger – almost imperceptibly, it must be millimeters, if I actually know what those are – and the squash and zucchini blossoms continue to come, and bloom, and dry up, and fall off. It’s a waiting game, and re-thinking the strategy every ten minutes is boring, and gets me nowhere. It’s like doing a cake-walk where the music never stops playing.
To divert my attention, I have been thinking lately about my first years in New York, when I was living at the very edge of Long Island City, two blocks from the East River, near the Vernon Avenue 7 stop. I worked at a café around the corner from my apartment, a hipster joint with lots of artists, and actors, and writers around. I arrived for work around 6 am, placed a freshly-ground filter of coffee into the coffee maker, and opened the doors. I usually stayed into the evening, either to work or to hang out. My bosses, who were also my friends, and I would spend the whole day and night joking, baking, washing dishes, and waiting on customers, all of whom soon became our dear friends. The café became for me a magical place, an all-white box with tile-top tables and Italian cement floors, filled with dreamers and executives and waiters and contractors, eating sandwiches, drinking coffees, waving their hands around wildly in conversation. Every day, I watched them, all these interesting faces, all these beautiful minds, come together over a fruit salad and a Pellegrino. It was here, baking banana bread at this café, that I first felt New York inside me. All my life, I had felt that I was watching life take place behind thick glass; it was during this time that the glass fell away.
On Tuesday nights, I sang at the café. I had a friend, Phil, a fortyish guy who became my accompanist and music-arranger, and together we knocked out every song I’d ever wanted to sing: Johnny Cash, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks. He pushed me to do “Hotel California” along with a pre-recorded track on his synthesizer, but I declined, thinking the hip audience, with their scruffy brightness, their makeup-less faces, would think it was cheesy. The song was too long, anyway, and not my personality. So instead, we performed standards - “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Blue Moon,” “It Had to Be You” - and I sang loud and clear and bounced every note off the shining little halogen spotlights that shone softly on the bare white walls, like little pinballs in an art museum. My songs, heavy with vibrato and a mezzo I cannot shake, drifted out onto the dark street, where families walked by with tiny dogs and babies in strollers and stopped to listen. I would look out the windows at their faces, dark blue in the twilight, and wonder if they liked me.
I fell in with a group of Bohemians who hung out at the café. I worshiped them, and began walking like them – hips forward, shoulders back, and slouched, like you don’t care – and wearing my clothes like them, wildly pieced together and wrinkled, jeans rolled up with a big wide cuff. Wisdom hung off their every careless word, and they shared their New York secrets with me about the best sushi, and the best dance clubs, and the Barney’s Warehouse Sale. We drank beers at a cop bar until 2 am; we danced to Van Morrison in cramped railroad apartments. (How do you dance to Van Morrison, by the way? It’s a twisting, snaky kind of dance, with some jumping. A few slow turns, and crossover feet. There are lots of hand movements, some that shake down by your sides like you’ve got bugs, and a few in which the hands twist between themselves skyward, like a butterfly you might imagine after inhaling a crystal at a Heart concert. Dancing to Van Morrison, any kind of Van Morrison, is pure joy, a dance to God.)
Eventually, the Bohemians got real jobs, and I moved to a different neighborhood; my friends sold the café and moved to Italy. I have not seen them in many years, yet I wish I could tell them all what an impact they had on me. I wish I could show them what they’d done. It was at the café that New York opened itself up to me, and I crawled right in. It was then, for the first time, that I felt at home in New York. The glass fell away, and what rushed up to meet me, like a hurdy-gurdy, like a tsunami, was life. And it swept me away.
Waiting for a garden to grow is not so bad. I think I’ll go turn up the Van Morrison.