A time long BC (Before Covid) Polly Devlin (a columnist since The Gloss was created in 2009) spent several winter terms teaching writing at Barnard College in New York City. These observations about the city and episodes from her own life, including an undignified wrestling match with a pair of Spanx, were first published in THE GLOSS in 2012. Read more Polly Devlin here …
IT’S GOOD TO BE ALONE (BUT NOT LONELY)
When I first took this job I didn’t know that I was fixin’ to have some me-alone time. There is a wonderful peace that comes from living in solitude. Not an enforced solitude or isolation, arising from accident or death – and it has nothing to do with that painful condition, loneliness. This is the luxury of being alone, yet knowing that the people you love are there and more likely than not enjoying the same sense of peace without you. It’s not possible for most women to leave their families for an extended period, be paid for it, then be welcomed back with open arms but again, carpe diem.
DON’T JUDGE A CAR BY ITS NUMBER PLATE
I’m rather dreamily looking out from a bus on the way to work, at a Central Park junction, and see ahead a gleaming white Mercedes convertible, open and fancy with the number plate STYLISH (5TY L15H I suppose, but subtly readjusted). As the bus finally draws alongside the car at the lights, I crane down eagerly to see what wonderful Eurotrash dandy is at the Gucci wheel. There’s a tiny wizened skeletal man with steel specs and a bald head clutching the wheel for dear life and peering above it like Osgood Fielding III in the last scene of Some Like it Hot. I’m taking heart at his misplaced courage.
POLLY EAVESDROPS ON THE STREET
I walk down a glittering, beribboned bedecked Fifth Avenue to be stopped by a sweet girl in front of the Sabon soap shop. She: “Would you like a sample of soap?”
Me (startled): “Um. Okay. Yes?”
It’s the inadvertent conversations like this that happen so frequently in Manhattan that I love. Because it’s such a tiny island and everyone’s on top of each other, so to speak, the “overheards” can keep me laughing and talking to myself as I walk the streets – but the thing is now that people don’t think you’re The Crazy Lady, they assume you are talking on your mobile. People do shout and laugh much more than in Dublin or London. One morning a woman behind me in the street said to her male companion: “And what do you plan to do next?”, to which he replied: “I’m fixin’ to have some me-alone time.”
POLLY PLANS A TRIP TO MEXICO
I am going to Mexico to stay with friends, just before I return home, having realised that if I don’t go now I will never see that legendary paradoxical country. I try to imagine myself in a sombrero, shoogling a pair of maracas just like Ida Lupino. The friends in question said, “Well you’re in the neighbourhood, so why not come?”. Neighbourhood? Five hours’ flight!! Now I am wondering whether I even want to go there? I think of it as a bloodstained country. The people I am staying with are serious art collectors and curators (part of their large collection of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings were on show at IMMA recently) and I think I will see a side of Mexico that is not bloody at all and would otherwise be far beyond my reach – a place of wonderful art. Carpe diem.
CHRISTMAS BECOMES “HOLIDAY SEASON”
It’s a huge deal almost everywhere in the western world but Christmas in Manhattan, or the lead-up to it, just takes over the city. Only it’s not Christmas – it’s the Holiday Season, so-called because of ethnic and religious sensibilities. I find it laughable because the whole and only raison d’e?tre is because of what Christians believe happened on that fateful day so many years ago – although increasingly it seems to my now-befuddled sense of time that every historic event happened only the day before yesterday. I think of my grandfather, whom I knew well and wondered if he thought of his grandfather in the same way – well, then he was back with Marie Antoinette. And now I feel I could still collect up the myrrh and arrive in time to give sad greetings to the doomed child in the manger.
IN WHICH SADNESS IS SPELLED OUT
I’m on that magical island, Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, feeling desolate. A great poet [Irish poet Denis O’Driscoll] has just died out of the blue into eternity. I walk along miles of golden sand with a wind whipping the sea. Offshore, a seal bobs and dives. Great gulls drift on the thermals. The beach is wholly deserted yet scrawled in the sand, cleanly and carefully, is the word PAIN.
RICHARD NIXON PUTS HIS FOOT IN IT
At Christmas lunch in the college where I teach we’re talking about putting your foot in it, and one professor says that the most socially maladroit person who ever lived was Richard Nixon. Lord knows he was a ferrety looking chap and a mean and dishonest creature but to be utterly charmless as well? Anyway, one day he stopped by the table in a restaurant where Ethel Kennedy was lunching after the death of her husband and said, “You’ve had a good life, Ethel”. When he came out of Notre Dame after General de Gaulle’s funeral and was asked to speak to the television cameras and press he said, “This is a great day for France.” At the funeral of Martin Luther King he said to Jackie Kennedy, “This must bring back many memories, Mrs Kennedy.”
RICH NEW YORK AND POOR NEW YORK
The recent shutdown of government here – read those words again – shook everyone to the roots. That a few fanatics could bring this great country to the edge of ruin was hardly credible. But it happened. A minority of a minority undermined America’s credit rating because an elected government wouldn’t overturn an enacted law on healthcare. It reminds me of our own appalling bank scandal and the failure of a corrupt Dublin government.
The shutdown in Washington cost an estimated $24 billion. In November 2010, the Irish government negotiated a financial assistance package with the EU and the IMF totalling €85 billion, including a contribution of €17.5 billion from Ireland’s own resources just to keep Ireland staggering on its feet. And nobody in jail or even on trial. Something rotten in the state of Ireland there.
And in the USA too. To my mind the USA right wing is threatening democracy. The spying, the surveillance, is out of control and reminds one of East Germany. It takes $20 million to be elected to the Senate, so what chance has a decent average person of getting there? A majority of members of Congress choose their voters through gerrymandering rather than voters choosing them. Voting rights laws are being weakened. Lawmakers spend most of their free time raising money, not studying issues. Congress has become a forum for legalised bribery, and it can’t pass even a watered-down common sense gun law banning assault weapons after the mass murder of schoolchildren and almost daily gun slaughter.
A respected New York Times columnist wrote this month, “Whether we were feared or loved, America was always the outsized standard by which all others were compared. What we built and what we dreamt was, to many, the definition of the future. Well, today, to many people, we look like the definition of a drunken driver – like a lifelong mentor who has gone on a binge and is no longer predictable.” And to cheer us up further in this month of brotherly love and merry greetings and amazing shows of greed, new surveys reveal that poverty here is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans and half of all American children will at some point during their hardscrabble childhood live on food stamps.
ALL OF RICH NEW YORK HAS A DOORMAN
The Upper East Side where I live while I’m here isn’t part of that mainstream. The gap between rich and poor is never more apparent than in Manhattan. Townhouses in this area routinely go for $40 or $50 million. The penthouse apartment at the Pierre is listed at $125 million. Upkeep alone is over $500,000 a year so in five years you’ll have spent $5 million just to live there (plus city taxes). And of course you’ll have a doorman. Several. One of the great advantages of living in an apartment block is the doormen in their smart uniforms. No city in Europe relies on deliveries like New York does. No one here schlepps anything home; big or small, deliveries are part of daily life. Laundry and dry cleaning, one fillet of fish, one small loaf, one litre of milk, one bottle of liquor, parcels from Amazon – all are delivered. The relief of never finding that horrid little notice saying that DHL or the postman has tried to deliver something in the only ten minutes that you were out of the house (and more often than not you were in; they couldn’t be arsed to bring it along). You’ve forgotten your keys? The doorman has a set. It’s raining? They’re there with the umbrella. You need a taxi? They’ve got it. And of course they smile 24 hours a day. “Hiya, Miss Devlin,” Jim or Eddie says as I stagger past worse for wear at 2am in exactly the same voice of wonder with which they greet me early in the morning.
NEW YORKERS DO MEET THEIR NEIGHBOURS
I come down one cold morning with a heavy backpack of books, essays, computer, gym shoes, plus my handbag and an unruly file of papers and as I step outside I realise that for the first time this year, it’s blisteringly cold. Yesterday it was 65 degrees and now there is a wind that could freeze a badger. I’m in bare legs and flats, so I dump my bags and papers on a bemused Eddie and run round the block to Ricky’s and seize upon a pair of black Spanx tights, find I have left my money back home in the backpack, hare back, scrabble for the money, watched closely by Eddie, then tear back to pay for the Spanx, rush home past Eddie, and go up to my apartment on the top floor.
The elevator there opens into a pretty lobby, which serves four apartments in all and also has a service door for the supervisor and janitor. This foyer is always deserted. I rarely meet the people who live here – they’re all in Florida, save for one couple with a repressed dog. I go to open the door to my apartment but find that somehow I have locked it and the keys are in my bag downstairs. I don’t have the heart to go back and frighten Eddie again so I start to change in the lobby. But the tights are very tight indeed, I have got them a size too small or maybe I am a size too big so I lie down like a beetle, raise one leg and pull the tight over it. I have got one section rolled up to my knee when the service door opens and Pete and Ross, supervisor and janitor, emerge and see me lying on my back next to my apartment with one leg stretched high, half covered in black nylon and the other leg bare. They look away. “I forgot my keys,” I say. Pete says carefully. “Anything we can do to help you find them?” I say “No. Don’t look. I mean don’t look at me.”
“We’re not looking,” they chorus and indeed they are not, they don’t turn around rush back through the service door, behind which I hear them whispering. I roll my dress up so you can see my knickers, which are, alas, much like Bridget Jones’, and I arch my back and begin to insert my other leg into the other half of the tight when the door to another apartment opens. This time it is the couple with the little white Westie terrier. Its joy knows no bounds. Incarcerated on the tenth floor, bored to the teeth, now here is a strange and wonderful object on its territory, against which it can bounce itself, bark hysterically at and pee on. I sit up, struggling to cover my generalities and smile ingratiatingly at the couple, who are intent on rescuing their dog and getting away from whatever it is there on the floor. The service elevator has finally lumbered up so they nip in fast, carrying the dog.
I lie back, having lost the will to live and half-heartedly haul some more at the tights when lo! the other door opens. The maid from apartment number three comes out, sees me, retreats, then darts forward and gathers up the mail on the central table as armour. “I think you’ll find some of that mail is mine,” I say and then, “I’m like this because of the keys”. She stops and looks at me thoughtfully. “You is jerking too hard on these tights,” she says.
“I know,” I say, “but I’m in a panic.” She puts down the mail, cautiously helps me to my feet and together and silently we yank the tights up and up and up; so long are they that their top begins to rise above my bosom. Pete and Ross open the door to see if the coast is clear and see me and another woman in a close embrace. They close the door and go down the stairs. When I arrive a few minutes later they are all in the hall with Eddie. I leave with a great show of dignity. But of course I have forgotten the backpack and the books and the papers so Eddie has to run after me. He holds them out at arm’s length. He doesn’t say a word.
POLLY SEEKS OUT FELLOW EXPATS
I don’t see many Irish people here, and do I miss their wit and chat, but the two I do see are [LA-based theatre designer] Bob Crowley and [the late great hairdresser to the rich and famous] John Barrett. Not that Bob is here all the time. He’s bouncing about all over the world designing great theatre, opera, ballets, including the astonishing Alice in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, Shakespeare at the National Theatre, and the musical Once on Broadway for which he won one of many Tonys. This time it was The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and I went with him to the first night, slightly trepidatiously because I know the play of old and find it somewhat maudlin and repetitive and thought I could never be surprised by it. But I was moved by this production, its beauty and depth, superlative acting and superb dreamlike sets. He now has two major plays, both the toast of town, running side by side on Broadway, plus the pantomime Aladdin. John Barrett from Limerick has his own salon atop Bergdorf Goodman with brilliant views over Central Park. John has brilliant views of his own, sometime scurrilous, and always funny. He cuts all New York’s hair. His salon is like a different kind of salon – good scandalous gossip, great theatre stories and of course, great hair.
A CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS
Before I leave New York for good I go into Central Park to say goodbye. It’s a paradise for birds with at least 230 different species, some living in the Park all year round and the others making an important stopover to rest and feed during migrations. I can recognise about three of them. I sat down watching all the avian activity. Two women in good birdwatching drabbery with requisite binoculars and cameras come by, talking about what they have seen. I eavesdrop. One is puzzled by a bird with brown head shading to brown like a female but bigger with faint yellow and red markings showing up. “I know what it is,” the other one said, “He’s an adolescent. He hasn’t started to shave yet.”
Their voices rose with excitement as they discussed the great blue heron, which had visited the Park for the first time ever and stayed on. One had kept an eye on him and had seen that even on the coldest days, the bird had been able to find open water for fishing. “I wouldn’t even put it beyond him to wander over to a trash can if he was hungry enough,” she said. “They’re big and they’re smart. Quintessential New Yorkers.”
I am sorry to say goodbye to such a quintessential place, so big and smart and full of trash, but by the time you read this I will be with my family, happy and somnolent around a droopy tree at Christmas, yes say it loud – Christmas. Have a wonderful one and a Happy New Year.
First published in THE GLOSS in 2012.
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