I have been drawn to sports that involved moving fast and risking your neck since I was a very young child. I loved to water ski, snow ski, jump from very high places and skate. Growing up in Lebanon that was considered radical at the time, but determination to do what I wanted led me to push the limits of social tolerances. So, while in New York, I loved seeing skate boards on every street corner and rebellious teenagers zipping and flying by annoyed pedestrians. It just spelled for me the strong wish of young people to cause a change, to see a new world not dragged down by the old and to simply be free.
Ask anyone who rides the subway for more than one hour a day and they will be sure to have some strange stories to tell you. I have a few. I realize that with this month’s postings a lot of memories and stories keep floating by, and that is because I left them there. On the subway at the age of 20 I met the first and hopefully last flasher. It was evening and I was engrossed in my Herman Hesse book ( Narcissus and Goldmund) not realizing that I was alone in the subway car after everyone filtered out, when I felt a shadow looming in front of me. I Looked up and there was the classic open raincoat with an extraordinarily large man standing in front of me exhibiting his pride. Funny how react in expected situations, and me being totally caught off-guard, I cried. Then I ran to pull the emergency brakes which caused the train to stop, the doors to open, the giant man to run away and I was directed to another car with people in it. I was then hugged by a big bosomed African American lady who giggled and said: “relax darlin’, that was entertainment for free!”
And there were the other stories, but one is enough…
When you live in a big city with very tall buildings and millions of people, you find yourself focused on the immediate area around you, navigating the ocean of people, avoiding the cars and bike zipping by and keeping close watch on any impending danger that you forget to look up. I remember that we could always tell if someone was a tourist in New York because they looked up!
Of the many strange things I have done in my life, one of them was deciding to live in Roosevelt Island. I did that for a year and every morning, the strangeness of that place grew and every evening I wondered why is it that a place can make you feel that way. A small island across the East River on the side of Manhattan, where no cars are allowed and the whole width of the island is 240 meters and length of about 3 km, it is owned by the city of Manhattan but feels like worlds away.
In the big city you metamorphose to a city dweller as a first rule for survival. You wear your hard armor, your “I don’t give a damn” face and your “I own this place” walk to avoid the city from churning you and spitting you out. I always loved watching people sleep in the subway because I got to see their soft side, their human side.
Some experiences remain etched in our minds not because of their importance, but sometimes because of their simplicity. I was riding the roosevelt island tram one evening (you know this strange red cable car that crosses over at 60th street to the island), and next to me sat a beautiful old lady in her 70’s. She said hello and then she said “pearl necklaces”. On seeing my puzzled face she went on to say: “the bridges, they are so beautiful at night, don’t they look like pearl necklaces?”. Since that evening, I can only think of pearl necklaces when I see a bridge lit up at night as the Queensborough bridge was on that evening. That lady had the gift of seeing beauty and art in everything and she left me so inspired.
There was a time in the late 80’s and early 90’s when Soho and its converted lofts and warehouses, was home to art and artists that were seeking a place far enough from the mundane to be able to create. It was a time when this area felt so unique, so inspiring and so special. Actors, artists, writers, musicians, dancer, they all moved there and lived in wonderful anonymity. Then commercialism arrived and we watched it slowly transform this area into a huge faceless mall. And as Art appears to be shy, it fled and found new areas to inhabit. Nolita was one new home and later Chelsea and the meat packing district. Because somehow art and commercialism cannot be good roommates.
Since the 7th century in China, Opium was ingested for medicinal purposes and never smoked. Then in the 17th centurycame the Europeans and introduced the mixing of opium with tobacco to be smoked making it the most addictive practice among the Chinese. This led to the two famous opium wars and after several attempts from the Chinese to ban the import of opium, attacks on the shores of China by the British and eventually several treaties that according to historical accounts marked the beginning of the century of humiliation of this Asian nation.
Today, everywhere you look, people, young and old are smoking tobacco on the streets of China.
Travelling the mountains of the Honghe region of Yunnan, we spent many hours both in the car and on foot between the different locations that we planned to visit. The roads were in a very poor state due to recent landslides caused by an earthquake and that fact left us uncertain as to which routes to take to reach our destination. So when I asked on a couple of occasions how far a village was, the answer came in ‘walking distance’ rather than driving. Then I realized the amazing distances these people walked with loads on their backs and on steep uphills and downhills. Even the fields they planted were on almost 90 degree slopes that looked impossible to walk let alone harvest.
Have you ever noticed how we walk sometimes in the cities with small clouds hanging around our heads, that the shine of our smiles has a very hard time breaking through? We move as though we are troubled by so many invisible phantoms that prevent us from responding humanly to others that pass us by. But when we meet simple people in simple places, there is just us, them and their reaction. Most often it is a big generous smile that glows and its warmth is able to reach us and force a mutual reaction from our faces. And it does feel so good to exchange these smiles with the people of the world where no words are necessary.