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out there somewhere II

maura @ 4:43 pm

We have been trying to go to the movies more, and to pay attention to the movies more, especially revivals and thematic film series. After Jonathan Demme died a couple of years ago we completely missed the retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I am still very grumpy about that. “Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob” played a huge role in our mental construction of an image of New York City before we moved here, and it’s been ages since we’ve seen them. (Plus the sountracks, swoon.)

Soon after that tragic miss I started paying closer attention to the film listings in the paper and elsewhere, so when BAM screened “After Hours” we *did* catch it (go us!). (That was also 2 years ago, though honestly time is so weird recently that I’d have said it was earlier this year, maybe as long ago as summer last year, though my calendar proves my brain wrong once again.)

“After Hours” is another foundational NYC movie for us, and it held up in lots of ways. The gorgeous empty streets of soho, the east village, and the lower east side late at night, so long ago that there were no fancy buildings anywhere, just the occasional dive bar or punk club. The always amazing Catherine O’Hara and her classic line “it’s not boring.” Remembering how different and sometimes difficult it was to go anywhere to meet anyone before we had pocket computers.

But there are other things that stand out glaringly as kind of awful, as is not uncommon with media from 30+ years ago. We left the movie feeling really bad about how Rosanna Arquette’s character is treated by Griffin Dunne’s character specifically and by the film generally. He picks her up at a diner and goes back to her place, then there are some references to her having been burned in the past which left scars, then he ghosts her when she’s in the bathroom. He comes back later to find that she’s killed herself and, while he does report it, he then goes on with the rest of his night (he’s been trying to get home and encountered innumerable weird obstacles). It’s lazy and misogynist and disappointing to rewatch, which is a bummer.

Redeeming Rosanna Arquette is not the only reason we were glad to see “Desperately Seeking Susan” at BAM last month (really for real last month!), but it was definitely a lovely aspect of the movie. (It was hard to pick just one movie in that series on women directors — part of me really wanted to see “Suburbia” and “Decline of Western Civilization” to really dig into the me-as-a-high-schooler mindset, but it’s hard to see movies on weeknights and to be out multiple nights in close succession.)

It was so so funny to see Madonna as Madonna, really, not acting at all — it was super early in her career, with only her first album out (though the internet tells us that she got super famous in the middle of filming the movie which made for an interesting challenge as shooting wrapped up). Lots of old NYC nostalgia here too — Love Saves the Day, the store where Madonna trades her jacket for the fancy boots — was still open when we moved here, though it’s long since closed now. And wow that Port Authority bathroom scene, I still can’t believe that the NYT article last month didn’t even mention it.

Not that there wasn’t any sexism, even with a woman director. When Rosanna Arquette is being chased by a mobster and ends up falling down on the street, the cops pick her up and of course assume she’s a prostitute. <insert eyerolling emoji here> But she gets to ditch her cheating narcissistic husband and change into excellent new clothes and leave the boring suburbs for the city, a much happier ending for sure.

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maura @ 10:28 am

I spent part of this year’s first summer Friday in Manhattan getting some of my hairs dyed purple (more on that in another post), which I just realized was the latest recent outing to NYC places from my past. I’ve been in NYC for longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else, and while the Manhattan time was only the first 7 years, it looms large in my brain and personal history construction.

My Manhattany spring has included pizza with the CUNY Pie folks nearish to the location of grad school #1, lunch with two of my most-admired fellow department chairs only a few blocks from our old apartment in Chinatown, dinner just south of Midtown along a walking route I once took home from work, and hair stuff that had me walk by a building where we looked at an apartment when we were first moving here. That last one always makes me laugh: the apartment was on Crosby St. just south of Houston and it was a pretty 4th floor walkup with exposed brick and actually within our price range. But, as NYC newbies we were nervous about the location, which seemed too quiet and dark at night. Of course once we’d been here for a bit we realized how wrong we were — and we only learned much later that we could have been Bowie‘s neighbors!

The nostalgia that has accompanied all of these outings has taken me by surprise, though it probably shouldn’t have. Last week I found myself thinking about maps and augmented reality, layering the routes and memories of the me of 20+ years ago onto the NYC of today. Sitting in that restaurant near Midtown it struck me that our view was only of older buildings, no gleaming glass and metal buildings rising higher than anything else in the neighborhood, and it was easy to feel the past muscling in on the present. But the train home over the Manhattan Bridge brings the present back quickly, downtown Brooklyn awash in construction. The past is still present to me there, too — we used to buy our xmas tree in the space replaced by the huge arena where I attended not one but two graduations this year.

I’m sure it’s probably completely normal to feel like all time is the present when there’s a big life change about to happen. I think I’m looking for ways to fix memories into something like permanence, which of course is impossible. But I think I’m also trying to remember what things used to be like as a way to convince myself that things will be okay after the big changes to come. It’s not totally uncharted territory, just a new layer on the old map.

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i keep my feet on solid ground

maura @ 6:09 pm

What’s the word for feeling melancholy as you experience something because you know you’ll be nostalgic for it when you remember it later? Surely the Germans have a word for that, probably many syllables.

We were in the city about a month ago seeing a movie at the NY International Children’s film Festival and I was strangely gripped by that very feeling. It was a lovely time — we had burgers and beer for dinner in Chelsea before heading to the movie showing at the School of Visual Arts on West 23rd. It was cold and clear as it had been for so much of the winter. We happened to be walking from the restaurant to the theater at that magic time that photographers love, when the light is just so. And it seemed like I could feel everything we’ve ever done in that neighborhood layered one on top of the other: when we used to go to the Boston Market and Krispy Kreme before seeing movies on 23rd St., when we went to Co for CUNYPie and we brought Gus and then had to stop in the New York Public Library branch on 23rd so he could go to the bathroom, when commencement was at the Javits Center and we walked down to have lunch at a Chinese restaurant and ran into a former student who’d been in my class the very first semester it existed, when we saw a movie at the Festival the prior year and there were lots of free snacks at the theater and afterward we went to dinner at the place that the NYC ebola patient later ate at.

We are not moving anytime soon, really we are not. The high school situation is sorted, I’m more settled into my now not-so-new job, and we’re still good with our apartment, neighborhood, etc. But at some point we will leave, I can imagine. Maybe it’ll be when Gus goes to college, maybe later. The thing of having one kid only is that we can always, in theory, move to where he ends up. I kind of can’t imagine ever leaving, I can’t think of anyplace else I’d want to live, but at the same time I think we will, someday. It’s a weird feeling, a strange sense. NYC, I’m already missing you.

At the film festival the movie we saw began with this hilarious short, which I love so much I could watch it forever:

In the Beginning from Arthur Metcalf on Vimeo.

les tags: ,

not just tea at the airport

maura @ 2:21 pm

Fair warning: this post will be extremely boring to most humans. It may perhaps be slightly interesting to folks who are parents of children under the age of 18 and/or live in NYC, but YMMV.

The kid is in 8th grade this year, which means that we as a family are thoroughly immersed in the high school application process. Recently I’ve been surprised at how much less stressful I’m finding this process than I expected, especially based on our middle school application experience. But I also feel like it’s taken up lots of headspace, room that I can’t really afford to allot to it right now. So this post is the HS purge, writing it out to free up those braincycles.

Over the course of I don’t know how long because I wasn’t really paying attention since it didn’t really affect me — maybe 10 years? — the NYC public high schools have transformed from (I think?) mostly zoned, mostly biggish, neighborhood schools into schools that are more or less available for any NYC kid to apply to and range in size from 300 to 5000 students. There are definitely some advantages to this. Some of the schools are truly excellent, some have a specific curricular focus for the non-required courses, and some have pretty small class sizes (20-25 students). On the other hand, applying to a small focused school is essentially asking a 13 yr old to decide what they want to be when they grow up, which for many kids is much much too early. On the third hand, going to a science-focused high school doesn’t mean that you can’t go to an arts-focused college, or the reverse, so lighten up! (I tell myself.)

Applying to public high school in NYC can be complex and labor-intensive. The numbers give you a sense of it: across the 5 boroughs there are 400 high schools, with 700 programs (some schools have several different curricular programs and you apply to the program rather than the school), and each program uses one of 8 (eight!) different admissions processes. The book that I call the Giant Book of High Schools that got sent home at the end of last year is 3″ thick:


Like with middle schools, students and parents are encouraged to go to the open house or tour for each school they’re interested in. For us that is shaping up to be 9 schools, maybe 10. We are not considering anything that’s more than a 45-ish minute commute, which keeps us in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The biggest division is what are called the specialized high schools — there are 8 of them spread throughout the city, and admission is via one standardized test called the SHSAT. High-stakes testing is stinky, though I admit it makes the process more straightforward. Basically any kid who wants to go to a specialized school takes the test, which is held on one weekend in the fall, chooses which of the 8 schools they’re willing to go to and lists them on the test form. The kid with the highest score gets matched with the school she ranked #1, the kid with the second highest score with her #1 choice, and so on down the list until all of the seats in each of the 8 schools are filled. We’re touring 2 of these schools, and have also signed the kid up for the test prep afterschool course at his middle school. I’m not a big fan of test prep, but a combination of factors wore me down: most kids seem to take it, the SHSAT is a strange, one-off test that’s not like any tests the kids have taken before or will take again, and the course (which is really just doing practice tests with a teacher) seems like it’ll reduce anxiety about the process.

The rest (and vast majority) of the schools are the “unspecialized” schools, and they use any one of the remaining 7 admissions methods. Some of them have geographic preferences, and will take kids in the school’s neighborhood or borough first. Some have grade or standardized test score requirements. Some require their own test, or an interview, or a portfolio, or an essay, or a letter of recommendation from a teacher. The schools with performing arts programs often require an audition (that’s not for us). Whatever the admissions method, the end result is the same: there’s a form that comes home from middle school that we fill out by ranking *all* of the schools he’d be willing to go to, then we send the form back in and the DOE feeds it all into a special machine which spits out the high school matches. There are 12 slots on the form, and it’s recommended that you list no less than 6 schools because while there is a round 2, it’s much more challenging to get into schools during round 2 as most of the schools have already filled their seats.

We’re looking at 8 unspecialized schools. Three are easy: take the tour, rank the school on the form (because the kid meets their admissions requirements, which are published in the Giant Book, and the school can look at the DOE system to see his grades and test scores). Two each require you to bring your 7th grade report card and take a specific test for just that school, and one of those also requires an interview (if your test score is high enough). One requires an “admissions activity” — we don’t know what it entails because it isn’t live on the school’s website yet. One requires a short essay as well as a copy of your 7th grade report card. One requires a portfolio of work from 7th grade and an interview. (Is that all 8? I think so.)

I fully acknowledge the advantage that our privilege affords us in this process. We are fortunate enough to have the time and energy to devote to researching schools, booking tours and tests (some of which fill up almost as soon as they’re listed on the schools’ websites), paying for a SHSAT prep course, and schlepping around to all of this stuff, most of which happens between 8am and 5pm on weekdays. It’s true that there are many schools that don’t require anything other than listing the school as one of the 12 schools on the form, provided that your child meets the grade/test score requirements. But the system definitely privileges those families with both the resources to spend on the admissions process as well as those with children in high-performing elementary and middle schools (which, of course, is another privilege).

While I can’t say I’m in love with this system, it’s the system we have. For us we’re using a google doc and calendar to keep track of things, and since my brain likes learning about and keeping track of minutia I’ll admit to a certain amount of satisfaction that we have gotten everything scheduled for the fall. But I will still be happy when it’s all over. And wow, that’s over 1,100 words — hope that works to clear out my brain!

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maura @ 4:20 pm

When the kid is away, the parents will play. Or eat food that the kid doesn’t like, anyway, and watch old person movies and go shopping for new glasses and other boring, grownup stuff.

In this case the kid was away for a full week, and the adults saw Snowpiercer,* and bought glasses and fancy shoes, and picniced at the gardens, and watched the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory** on a humongous outdoor screen.

* Which was good, though perhaps we should have seen it sooner and/or not read so many extremely positive reviews, because it didn’t quite live up to the hype.***

** Okay, the kid would have liked that last one, I’ll admit.

*** Though I was proud of us that we held firm on not letting the kid see it, because yes, very violent!

We also ate food, so much amazing food. Handpulled Chinese noodles with spicy sour pork in the East Village; tuna, caper, and tapenade sandwiches at the gardens; Indian food in Murray Hill including lemon rice, this amazing cubed pumpkin and garlic dish, curried goat, and lentil donut with various saucy accompaniments; and finally an avocado, black bean, and queso fresco torta with cafe con leche at Cafe Habana, just down the block from our very first apartment ever in NYC.

It was delicious, all of it. But also strangely tiring being out and about doing leisurish things three evenings and one daytime within a seven-day timespan.

SO glad the kid’s back now and we can hide behind him as a reason to stay in and eat sparely and go to bed by 11.

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maura @ 4:39 pm

We had a hurricane, you may have heard. We are very, very lucky here at chez mauraweb: located at one of the higher elevations of the borough, there was no flooding, and we didn’t have more than a few lights flicker last night during the worst of the wind. A quick walk around the neighborhood today to dispel some of the cabin fever revealed that there are a bunch of trees down, but again, nothing too bad, probably about the same as the last hurricane or the tornado. Half of the plywood at the abandoned construction site across the street blew over, revealing the garbage I’d suspected was piling up behind it. Once things settle down I am definitely calling 311 on its ass.

But the rest of the city was not so lucky. Subway (and other) tunnels flooded and the waterfront edges as well. Much of Lower Manhattan and large portions of the suburbs without power. Hospital evacuations, power station explosions, the Rockaways burning. It’s kind of intense. School’s been canceled again for tomorrow, my work too. Who knows how long it will be until the subways run normally again, though the governor supposedly promised that some bus service will be back this evening. This is a huge huge deal for a place that runs on public transportation, that relies on being able to get people between 5 boroughs and 3+ states for work and school and everything else.

We got most of our storm prep done on Saturday so I spent much of the storm alternately gorging on twitter and news websites and trying to ignore it all and not be too freaked out. The cats were fine, acted as if nothing weird was going on (if a bit confused to find water in the bathtubs) and wasn’t it great that ALL THA HUMANZ were there ALL THA TIMEZ?! That made me feel better, too — animals are supposed to be much more sensitive to weather stuff than we are, right? We went to our front of the building neighbors’ apartment for potluck dinner last night and their hamster was sleeping right through it, I kid you not.

Now I’m in that post-storm stage of relieved and cabin fevery and under-exercised and (guiltily) bored and annoyed with myself that I’m not doing more with this found time. But it’s crypto-time, in some ways — I still can’t stop checking the news every hour or so, we wasted 1 hr waiting for the mayor to speak this morning (reported to be at 10 but really at 11). I’ve done some book work and checked my work email. I read a whole book on Saturday and Sunday (calm down, it was a YA book). The dishes and laundry are done. Gus has played more videogames than I thought possible, since we lifted all screen time limitations during the storm, and has a pal over right now. Jonathan is grading. And I am still…antsy.

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stars made for us tonight

maura @ 10:01 pm

We’ve been here for 21 years now and I still lurve NYC. I love the non-drivingness, the lotsa different peopleness, the variety of places and spaces, the never a lack of things to do. I know it’s reductive and not totally true — the income inequality in NYC is pretty severe, actually — but I feel like most of the time the city lives up to my ideal of a place where no one kind of person is the default, where the sexism and racism of the world is less prevalent, and where everyone remembers that the one bright spot on Sept. 11th was how much we all helped each other and looked out for each other, and we all try to remember to do that every day.

In Brooklyn specifically I love living only a few blocks from an awesome library, a huge park, gorgeous botanic gardens, a lovely museum, and lots of good public transit options. We have our hippie food coop for good food (and few choices, which becomes evermore important to me the older I get because reading labels is boring + time-consuming). We can walk to school and work. We have a house that is big enough but not too big. Yeah, there are things I wish we had — a little bit of our very own outdoor space, a parking space, less dust, self-cleaning bathrooms — but the stuff in the cons column doesn’t even come close to the list in the pros column.

Except. Lately I’ve been thinking that if anything drives me from NYC it’s going to be this godamned global warming. Because I am tired of being hot in my office, hot in the subway, hot everywhere. Why is it still 70 degrees on October 20th? Will it ever snow again? My wool sweaters are so sad. Also there’s the potential flooding. Blame the post-apocalyptic YA novels, but the whole have-to-cross-at-least-2-bridges-to-get-to-a-non-island thing is starting to nag at my brain a bit. And also there are tunnels, for cars and subway trains, and those could flood. Will flood!

Honestly, it’s enough to have me thinking about Canada. Or Iceland, where it’s a balmy 30 degrees right now. Brisk!

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street of the love of days

maura @ 5:18 pm

I’m on the way home from a conference right now which means that I’ve probably eaten far too many sandwiches over the past few days. I love sandwiches, I really do, and toast with butter and pretty much anything else bready.

When we first moved to New York we lived in Little Italy, what I guess the realtors now call Nolita. The apartment was kind of weird (2 bedrooms each had 1 glass wall!) but the neighborhood was fantastic: funky shops and buildings and really walkable and not too far from where we needed to be (and very near a good selection of subways too).

I don’t know why I started thinking about this the other day, but I had the most bizarre nostalgia flashback about the neighborhood. There was an Italian bakery on the next block south of our apartment. Not a fancy bakery but the working kind — they baked kaiser rolls and hoagie sub sandwich rolls and those sorts of things.

Now it feels like a dream, because how could it possibly be real? But sometimes we would be out late, too late, being our just-out-of-college selves at a concert or bar or whatever. The bakery would be baking, and the smell was amazing, you could smell it all the way up the block. And if we walked down to the bakery they’d sell us a warm roll fresh out of the oven for something ridiculous like a quarter.

Just so you know, a freshly-baked roll is about the most delicious thing you can eat at 2 or 3am.

Edited on 1/27/12 to add: I wasn’t lying to myself after all! Jonathan found a photo of the bakery on the interwebz. Except that he remembers it as loaves of bread rather than individual rolls.

les tags: ,

twenty years

maura @ 11:04 pm

This fall is a big anniversary of many events. We’ve been in NYC for 20 years now, which means we were here on 9/11. I don’t really know what to feel about the 10th anniversary. I’ve been thinking that I should have something to write about it, but even the things that I start writing in my head don’t get anywhere. Then I feel guilty that I don’t have more to say. But we were here and we were lucky and I am still grateful for that: I was 6 months pregnant, everyone we know was safe + sound (if scared). I was proud to be a resident of NYC* and to experience how well the city pulled together.

* I still am: thank you, Occupy Wall Street.

On a much much much lighter note, this fall is also the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album. I know it’s reductive to pin all of the changes in music since then to one record, but it’s always seemed like that to me. Before that record it was “college rock” — played on college radio, mostly on independent labels, small venues + shows. And after, after it was “alternative” — on all of the radio stations, big shows, etc.

For us it coincided with leaving college and coming to grad school (version 1.0), which I’m sure is at least part of the reason it feels like lots of big changes. I had a show on my college radio station with a pal; when we got to grad school, the station was much more professional and didn’t have time for us. I know it’s trite to complain about bands getting big — “I liked their first record,” said in self-mocking tones, was something we said often. But there’s a practical side to a smallish music scene, too. Big shows are more expensive for tickets + drinks. Big shows are harder for shorties like me to navigate; I’ve spent innumerable shows jumping up and down, not because I love to pogo but because otherwise I couldn’t *see* anything.

Of course music is completely different now in our internet world, some things better, and some things worse. It seems almost quaint to think back to a time when radio mattered that much, and when the freaky kids suddenly got popular.

les tags: ,

tucky says

maura @ 4:25 pm

When we first moved to NYC we lived in Manhattan. Coming straight here from Chicago we couldn’t quite believe how expensive the rents were. But we wanted to be able to walk everywhere so it never even occurred to us to live in Brooklyn or somewhere else. High rents + paltry grad student stipends = roommates, so we teamed up with two friends from college to find a place. I still laugh when I think of the reasonably-sized 3BR with exposed brick that we rejected because it was a 4th floor walkup and on a street in Soho that seemed dodgy at the time and is now so posh we can’t even afford to walk down it.

In retrospect we did get lucky and ended up in a 3BR duplex on Elizabeth St. between Houston and Prince with all the mod cons: laundry in the basement, a dishwasher (critical with 4 people), and air conditioning. Of course there were some small annoyances about that place, when is there ever not? During San Gennaro the neighborhood was insanely crowded and the sidewalks were gross the next day. But really there wasn’t much to complain about: the location was fantastic. The old Knitting Factory was right around the corner and we could walk to almost anyplace we ever wanted to go. It was literally ages before I rode the subway north of 14th St.

We lived on the 3rd floor (I think) and at first there was a big empty lot on the south side of Houston between Mott and Elizabeth. Our apartment had a greenhouse-style window at the back of the living room where we put the TV, stereo, and video games, so we spent lots of time looking out of those windows. Just across Houston St. was a building with an enormous painted advertisement for Tuck-It-Away storage. It looked kind of like this:


That crazy squirrel used to completely crack me up: his cart reads “u store it, u lock it, u keep key.” We never knew Tuck-It-Away’s location was because there wasn’t an address on the ad (this isn’t the actual billboard from Houston St., it’s a similar ad that’s apparently in Harlem). I couldn’t imagine where in Manhattan there would even be space for a building devoted entirely to storage.

We lived on Elizabeth for two years and sometime in the second year construction started on a huge apartment building on that empty lot just north of us. It was a sad sad day when the building rose high enough that we could no longer sit on our sofa and see Tucky and his cart encouraging us to store our stuff. The structure with Tucky painted on it was itself next to an empty lot, and later still (I think after we’d left Elizabeth St.) yet another new building went up on that lot, and Tucky was gone.

This past academic year I’ve been doing fieldwork for my research project at City College up in northern Manhattan. I hadn’t thought about Tucky in years, probably almost a decade. But as the photo shows there’s a big Tuck-It-Away facility on Broadway and 131st St. The 1 train does a curious thing and pops aboveground at 116th St., heading back underground by 137th St. where I get off to go to City College. One day as I was getting myself together before my stop I looked out the window and there it was, in all of it’s orange glory: the home of Tucky. And now I know.

Photo by Julia Manzerova

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