Monday, October 25, 2010

Hopelessness for all: a book review

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is one of the bleakest novels I've ever read. Most of you are familiar with the movie, no doubt. I'm told it got bad reviews, but I liked it and immediately added the book to my reading list.

Frank and April Wheeler live in the Connecticut suburbs of New York. Frank works for a company that sells business machines. April, who studied dramatics in college, keeps house and cares for two young children. The Wheelers know their lives are as colorless as a blancmange. They scorn the suburbs and mock people who have nothing better to discuss than their barbecue pits, yet for all their awareness, are they any better than their neighbors?

Revolutionary Road hurts worst the people who are most likely to read it: people like myself who turn up our noses at the suburbs and conformity. How many times have I made a denigrating comment about the suburbs, shuddered while driving through a new development, waxed nostalgic about our boho lives on Buffalo's West Side (now called "Elmwood Village" by realtors trying to capitalize on upscale America's distaste for the suburbs), felt smug about my 100 year old house that's within walking distance of downtown? Charlottesville itself is a repository of Revolutionary Road types: a place of people who want to live "in the city" where every scrap of urbanity is celebrated, painted photographed, and written up by The Washington Post. A place where the middle bit of Main St. has been designated "Midtown" and where signs direct tourists to a "Warehouse District." Charlottesville is like a suburb of the suburbs, where people flee from all over the US to be seen at the farmer's market or sipping coffee in little cafes. (Not Starbucks, never Starbucks. Tourists or people from the suburbs who don't know any better go to Starbucks.) The carefully staged urban "lifestyle" of Charlottesville is even more artificial than the suburbs its residents sneer at.

So I squirmed a bit, reading Revolutionary Road, but then I realized that Richard Yates is not so much condemning these people as he is pitying them. Would April and Frank's life had gotten any better if they had actually gone to Paris or would the same humdrum annoyances of marriage and family life pursue them there? If they'd moved to Park Avenue instead of Connecticut, would their lives have been brilliant and interesting, or would they have been caught up in a social round of people as dull, in their own way, as the suburbanites with their lawnmowers and barbecue pits?

The suburbs aren't the problem, life itself is the problem. People say words that mean nothing, obey the conventions of society and never, ever reveal what they really think about anything. The only honest person in the book, John Givings, the realtor's son, has been diagnosed clinically insane. Most people, such as Helen Givings the realtor, have their little ways of fooling themselves. Her platitudes: "Isn't this cozy? It's wonderful just to let yourself unwind after a hard day," cover a misery that is possibly even deeper even than April and Frank's. The irony of Richard Yates' world is that the people who have the wit to recognize the soul-numbing quality of conventional society, are the ones who are most miserable. The only person in the book who might claim to be content is Mr. Givings who can turn his hearing aid off and be unaware of the world.

Friday, October 22, 2010

New York Highlights

Brigid in our hotel.

The Strand Book Store. It's Mecca at the corner of Broadway & 12th. Unfortunately, I was so dehydrated from the train trip and exhausted from having worked night shift two nights prior, I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have otherwise, and couldn't remember any of the titles I had planned to look for.

The Pratt Institute. This is one school we came to see. It's in Brooklyn, and I'd never been to Brooklyn before. It was three subway transfers from our hotel in Chelsea, but we got there with no problem. Brooklyn looked very Brooklyn-y and Brigid and I were both impressed with Pratt, especially the library with the Tiffany glass floors and hanging shelves.

I realized that to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge was my earliest ambition, one conceived when I was about four or five and read The Lonely Doll. Hence, Brigid and I took that route back to Manhattan.

We took lots of cheesy tourist pictures.

Now, I simply must read David McCullough's The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Since we ended up in lower Manhattan, I insisted we visit the grave of Alexander Hamilton at Trinity Church. Alexander Hamilton is one of my favorite people of early US history. I would have liked to visit his house in Harlem, but it isn't open to the public right now.

Afternoon coffee at Cafe Reggio, which we stumbled into by chance. I didn't realize it is "the" original coffee shop of the village.

At Bloomingdale's we tried on expensive dresses. Then we went to the much cheaper Urban Outfitters across the street. Charlottesville has it's own Urban Outfitters, but our store doesn't have the furniture.

We made it to St. Patrick's cathedral in time for the 5:30 mass. I lit a candle to St. Anthony, in the hope that I will be able to find all the things I absentmindedly misplace.

After mass, a little more shopping. We had difficulty finding the subway station and stepped out of the crowd to consult my map. A man asked us what we were trying to find. I told him we needed the V train. "There's no more goddamn V train!" He was literally shouting, as if the V train, or its disappearance had personally offended him. "The M train replaces the V train!" He was still shouting. "Now what did I just say?" he demanded and I rolled my eyes skyward and recited, "There's. No. More. God. Damn. V. Train." "Very good," he said and pointed us in the direction of the station. Later that night, we went back to the Strand and I bought an excellent small street atlas of Manhattan and the first thing I did was look at the subway map, and what did I see? The goddamn V train!

A friend of mine recommended an Indian restaurant in the East Village. Here is what google maps came up with when I asked it to direct me from our hotel to E. 6th St.

E. 6th St. turned out to have many Indian restaurants: the "Taj" the "Raj" the "Taj Mahal,"etc. We wanted the "Raj Mahal" which was a slightly dingy below-street-level place, but there we had one of the top ten best meals of my life. Cheap, too. When we were finished eating, but bus boy took our plates and fussily scraped the crumbs off the tablecloth and dropped a dainty napkin over the stains we had made. We wondered why there was so much ceremony when all we wanted was to pay our bill and leave, but then we were each given a complimentary dessert. At the beginning of the meal, I had told Brigid that we would not order dessert because I hate Indian desserts, so we thought our little bowls of mango-jello-coconut-pudding-thing were hilarious. But the night was not over. The sitar player left his post, the proprietor turned on a flashing orange siren light, changed up the music to Happy Birthday, although not "Happy Birthday" as we know it, but a windy, dancy, Happy Birthday. The staff gathered around the table across the way from us and executed a neat birthday dance, twirling and clapping for the birthday boy at that table.

After dinner, we barely made it to the Strand before their 10:30pm closing time and I hastily scooped up some souvenirs for Jon and Seamus as well as my new street atlas.

In the morning we walked around NYU, and then the West Village, envying the houses, and did some more shopping.

We had some difficulty getting back to Penn Station the next day, partly because our bags were so much heavier and partly because I saw a sign at the 6th Ave. subway that said we could catch the "1" train there, but it turned out to be a subterranean passage between 6th and 7th Aves which didn't save any time, and in fact, caused us great difficulty because we were forced to climb and descend several sets of stairs with our bags. Once at Penn Station, I couldn't find the Amtrak area and thought for sure we would miss our train. At Amtrak, you have to stand and watch a giant screen which doesn't announce your track number until the train is ready to board. There were loads of people staring at that screen and I knew they were all waiting for the same train we were, which was headed for Philadelphia and Washington, because who is going to take a train to the Jersey Shore, or Niagara Falls on a Wednesday in October? When our train was finally announced, all 5,000 of us had to file down a single narrow escalator and show our tickets to the solitary Amtrak employee at its head. We had barely boarded before the train started to move, and of course finding two seats together was out of the question. We couldn't even find two seats in the same car. For this reason, I do not recommend taking Amtrak with small children.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Part 1: Getting there

1. Most of the time, I'm a sensible adult woman but where trains are concerned, I'm a three year old boy. No matter what I'm doing, if a train passes, I have to stop and watch it. If, on my morning run, I happen to be on the Belmont Bridge at the exact moment that a freight train engine is rumbling underneath, I consider that the height of excitement. This doesn't happen very often, but during one memorable week, it happened three times.

2. I've been toying with the idea of a trip to New York for a long time.

3. Brigid is planning to apply to some art schools in New York.


We packed light: one small carry on bag plus one small backpack for the two of us. The Charlottesville platform was crowded. I hadn't realized just how popular train travel is until a few weeks ago when I drove Brigid to the station in Lynchburg where she was meeting friends for a Gov School reunion. I was expecting a deserted shed with pigeons roosting in the rafters. Instead, it was like a scene from a 1940's movie when the troops come home from the war: a cobblestone street, a quaint little station, hundreds of people milling about, joyful reunions, stacks of baggage all over the platform, and the train sliding silently away with the uniformed conductors standing in the cars' doorways. It was all very romantic and I was highly impressed. I immediately bought Brigid a ticket to Charlottesville ($15) so I would not have to drive all the way to Lynchburg to get her after her weekend away.

In Charlottesville, we waited on the platform and I noticed a woman whose back pack was actually a small pet carrier. A little dog was visible through a mesh screen in the side. Even if my dogs were small enough to fit in a backpack, I can't imagine taking them on a train. Luna would be liberally and continuously train sick and Sancho would bark hysterically every time someone walked up the aisle and would eventually chew a way out of the bag and start biting people's pant legs. This dog seemed content to peer quietly out of his little mesh window. When the train came, the dog woman sat across the aisle from us. She took up all the available space around her with her large suitcase, her snacks, her books, and her dog, as if that Amtrak seat were to be her home for the rest of her life.

I was mesmerized by the the view, which is totally different from what you see from a road: back yards and laundry lines, houses deep in the woods with fifteen junked cars piled on the lawn, and farmers' back pastures. In Culpeper, two countrified gentlemen with hee-haw accents got on and sat directly behind us. They were going to Boston to visit one man's daughter, who may have been feeling ambivalent about her father's visit. At least, when the man spoke to her on his cell phone he had to ask her three times to tell him her exact address. They were adorable and giggled like two boy scouts off on their first adventure.

In Washington, a woman wearing a sari sat in the seat in front of us and immediately embarked on a long and indignant conversation in a language I didn't recognize. After a long spell of almost unbroken speech, she paused and said in English, "That's what I mean," before continuing in her original language. I noticed her tone now changed from indignant to instructive. The Dog Woman made periodic visits to the bathroom, with the dog. Had she trained it to use a toilet?

In Philadelphia, the train filled up and the aisles were crammed with disconsolate people, dragging their bags and looking for seats. Dog Woman refused to move her bags and whenever anyone asked to sit next to her, she would tell them to find a seat in the next car. I was tempted to lean across the aisle and ask in a loud voice if she'd bought a ticket for her DOG. We were deep into New Jersey before everyone was seated and the man who sat next to the woman in the sari in front of us began to aggressively proselytize her. She told him politely and firmly that she believed in tolerance for all religions and that she had her own beliefs and wasn't about to change them, but he would not let up. He took on a condescendingly gentle tone, imploring the woman to please feel free to contact him if she had any questions about what he was telling her. He said he would feel much better if she would accept Jesus Christ as her savior and then he said that he was anxious about being able to meet her in heaven one day. At that point I would have put my fist in his face but this woman had a remarkable supply of self control. It finally ended with the man saying he would pray for her, and the woman saying, "Yes, we all pray for everybody."

If only the proselytizer had sat next to the dog woman! That would have been a scene I might have enjoyed.

We arrived at Penn Station in New York after about six hours on the train, and blundered about trying to find the metro, which we did, eventually, but not without difficulty. It isn't much fun taking a suitcase--even a small one--on a crowded subway, but I remembered the subways in Rome where you'd be literally pressed against six people with hardly room to bend your wrist and someone would still try to stuff their way on with a baby stroller or a tuba.

Our hotel was in Chelsea, we got there with no trouble and were soon settled in a room that was precisely the width of a double bed, plus two inches. We literally had to vault over the bed to look out the window but it was clean enough and surely what we didn't know about the carpet stains wouldn't hurt us.