The Cruelty Of The Curbside Cab Line

April 27th, 2011

amtrak.jpgFew things bring out New Yorkers’ lesser selves than the Penn Station taxi line during an Easter downpour.

It’s also one of just a few scenarios capable of adding insult the injury of a late train and an exhausted ten-month-old.

We were nearly three-hours behind on a one-hour trip by the time we stepped off Acela #2256 at 8pm Sunday night.

Maggie was strapped to my chest, her sweet, slightly-sweaty hair matted to her forehead just a few inches from my lips. She was well-past her bedtime, and shy one crucial afternoon nap, alternating between dazed and crazed: wide-eyed one moment, crying the next.

We’d dodged a number of bullets by the time we arrived, not the least of which was a critical, last-minute (and by her expression, much-needed) diaper change on a private patch of padded (and sanitary) marble floor of 30th Street Station just seconds before our train boarded.

Seats were scarce. Abbi gestured towards another car as the aisles filled with hawk-eyed, ham-fed yuppie zombies, but I dove towards the first available: a four-seater with one occupant who’d strewn her laptop ephemera across the table. She looked up through her glasses straight-faced, her eyes filled with ire as if we were going to change Maggie right there on the spot.

That would come a half-hour later.

Amtrak #2556 had hit some trackside debris just beyond BWI, apparently, and taken on shrapnel. It’s leading engine was hobbled, and running at quarter speed. The passengers looked like 18th Century stow-a-ways in a dead calm, ready to turn cannibal if the wind failed to return. Amtrak switched engines in Philadelphia, though. By Metro Park, we were making time.

Maggie — who hadn’t slept in hours and had spent the afternoon surrounded by mind-blowing stimuli like the Liberty Bell, spring flowers, and German tourists in plaid shorts — was fast approaching bedtime, as evidenced by her irritable, piercing shrieks. I bobbed and weaved between in the aisles before finally retiring to the Cafe Car where, I figured, no one expected peace and quiet anyway.

There, I met a like-minded Asian-American mother with a eighteen-month-old half the size of my daughter. The babies lock eyes, then reached out for one another. I considered pulling Maggie away from his saliva-covered hand, then wondered how that might look. And anyway, isn’t reaching out to one another the right impulse? She was biding time too, but with far more miles to the train’s terminus in Boston.

A conductor smiled at Maggie, then handed her a small, plastic bag.

“Do those cookies look good?” he asked.

“They do!” I answered in proxy. “But she’s not ready for that quite yet,” censoring the remainder of the sentence still unspooling in my head (“And she will never eat bleached flour, corn syrup and guar gum!”). He was barely forty, a grandfather, and a lovely man who informed us that the train was now exceeding speeds of 120 miles-per-hour. Maggie was impressed.

We stood quietly a while before that great, picture window as the train sped through Central Jersey, its rolling hills backlit by a blush-colored sunset. Her eyes darted back-and-forth, scanning a landscape passing more quickly than any she’d seen. Soon enough, we were coursing through The Meadowlands.

Passengers were jockeying for position even before we emerged from below the Hudson River. The two in front — a handsome, leather-strapped fashionista and older, rounder Boomer — pawed at their Blackberries as if they had service, or a colleague to contact at eight o’clock on a Sunday night. They bound off the train, and we followed, ushered via escalator into the station’s generic, short-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit concourse. I darted through the crowd, bound up the stairs (past the corn syrup-fed masses on the escalator, natch), and beat them both to curbside.

Where it was pouring rain.

The taxi line was five deep, but growing fast and in every direction. The bulk of it splayed out behind us into the rain while — inexplicably — the dripping but otherwise dry scaffolding before us lay fallow. Still, we gently course corrected dozens of unwitting and oblivious travelers to the soaked, miserable line behind us.

Eighth Avenue sparkled in the headlights and flashing signage before us. The attendant waved and whistled frantically, scoring the occasional available cab while waving off line jumpers. One — a burly frat boy in a mid-length car coat and fancy (albeit soaked) loafers — pushed him away, charged into the street and stopped a Black Towncar with a Hulk-like straight-arm. Another — an African-American woman in a black raincoat and beehive — charged past him in a bold intercept. He raced after her, disappearing into the mist, never to return.

Which is when we’d discovered that — nearly five hours after her lapsed nap time, and forty-five minutes after bedtime — Maggie had fallen asleep. We gingerly pulled her little pink hood over her eyes, and commenced whispering as if The City wasn’t racing and roaring mercilessly around us. Pimps and prostitutes, suburban runaways, yuppies and hipsters, and New Yorkers of every stripe brushed within mere millimeters of one another — and my daughter. I was coiled like a tiger, imaging just how quickly and effectively (dismemberment? decapitation?) I’d roundhouse an offender without rousing my precious cargo.

Soon enough, there were just three in front of us: an elderly brunette on portable oxygen; a slightly-less elderly, nicotine-crisped blonde; and a young woman with a GenArt Film Festival tote bag. I stood placidly behind them, grinning like a Cheshire cat, repeating a peaceful, new father mantra in my head.

Which is when the tall, bespectacled and red plaid-wearing gentleman behind us chimed in, “We’re averaging one cab every seven minutes.”

“Impressive,” I said sincerely. “I’d wondered what our metric might be. Cabs per stoplight cycle? Available per occupied? Towncar versus Escape? Interesting.”

Ms. Nicotine Crisp laughed; we’d all bonded. Except Ms. GenArt who stood mouth-agape.

The rain really began to fall. And time turned elastic…

A yellow minivan double-parked just uptown from the stand with its out-of-service lights ablaze. An Upper West Side show runner or accountant or social media marketer approached, left hand aloft, keeping the cab light in one eye, and signs of revolt in the other. Ms. Oxygen missed the whole thing as she scanned the downtown horizon. Nicotine Crisp yelled through the hiss of the rain, “Look up, lady!”

When out of nowhere, a wave a beautiful, white lights flooded the curbside.

“Go! Go! Go!” Abbie commanded. “Get Maggie! I’ll get the bags!”

And like Secretariat on a crowded, muddy track, I raced for waiting door handle with one hand behind Maggie’s head, the other beneath her butt.

I felt like Superman.

Later, after Abbi and I had — in a breathtaking display of teamwork rivaling Mario Andretti’s 1984 pit crew — gotten Maggie inside, upstairs, out of her jacket and into her crib in one, fluid motion, we sat on the couch nursing a beer and catching our breath.

“How about that diaper change?” I asked, finding pride in a place I scarcely knew existed. “I didn’t know I had it in me.”

Learning To Walk Again

April 22nd, 2011

222.jpgMaggie took her first, tentative steps last week, slowly, deliberately and clumsily wobbling across the bedroom from her startled mother to her amazed father.

She waved like a homecoming queen to steady herself, then collapsed on her bottom.

Abbi and I were flabbergasted. Maggie was nonplussed. Still, it was a colossal milestone for all of us.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I seek to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future… is precisely the present moment.” The passage rocked my world when I read it in college. Thoreau simply and eloquently identified a tension I’d felt for years; stuck between looking eagerly forward, and nostalgically back, while missing the moment.

Parenthood is riddled with this paradox. Abbi and I tiptoe into Maggie’s room every morning as if it was Christmas. Maggie is always smiles and giggles and gasps. I never want it to end.

Invariably, though, I find myself a watching the clock just a half-hour later, counting the minutes until breakfast in her highchair rapidly and drastically diminishes my anxiety that she’s going to face plant into her toy box and be scarred forever.

Moments later, I sit in my office stealing glimpses of the adorable and plentiful photos surrounding my desk, missing her.

Maggie’s made The End real. I’m nearly 40-years-old. Time is actually running out. Yet here I am sitting behind a desk for twelve hours a day to earn enough money to hire someone to be with my most treasured, most-loved. It’s confounding.

And it’s not just existential or philosophical, it’s literal.

Last week, my years of lower back, ischial tuberosity (aka butt) and hamstring pain — all those marathons, I assumed — was diagnosed as a minor congenital defect to the curvature of my spine that — compounded by fifteen years of self-directed marathon and triathlon training — had led to a partially-herniated disc (L4/5, if you’re curious).

That slight bulge has put strain on my spinal cord manifesting in persistent, rogue neuroimpulses down my legs. In other words, my back is telling my legs to flex all day (and night) long.

And so, this morning I got a shot of cortisone to confirm the diagnosis. Next week, I’ll commence another round of physical therapy to strengthen my core and improve my gate and stride.

Nearly forty years later, I am literally learning to walk again.

And here I would have expected to be settled, safe, comfortable, and contented by now.

When I was younger, I always figured I would eventually arrive at something or somewhere. As if life was a plateau, not a series of sign waves. I thought that — at some point, with enough experience, writing, research, exercise and growth — I would figure it out. I’d be strong. I’d be done. I’d be good.

I developed this sentiment despite all sorts of signs to the contrary.

The Innocence Mission was in heavy rotation in my Syracuse University-era playlist. Especially the song “Beginning The World.” And not just because frontwoman Karen Peris had written my birthday into her lyrics (“Aren’t your bursting with butterflies / On the fourth of September”). “Beginning The World” was my life: stops, starts, reboots and re-imaginings. I was always figuring the same thing out for the second and third and fourth time.

My brother, Christofer, cousin, Andrew, and I attempted to climb Giant Mountain a few weeks after graduation. It was an arduous hike, and we were woefully unprepared.

“Are we there yet?” Andrew asked.

“We are always almost there,” I answered.

A few months later, I used the phrase as the title of my first solo album. And yet it didn’t sink in.

That fall, I drove cross-country, listening to Matthew Sweet’s cover of Victoria Williams’ “This Moment” like an auto-reverse mantra. “This moment will never come again / I know this because it has never been before.” I covered that cover for years. And yet it still didn’t sink in.

Twenty years later, I am knee deep in the new Foo Fighters’ record stuck on a thematically-familiar lyric.

“Learning to walk again / I believe I’ve waited long enough.”

Well, apparently I haven’t.

Apparently, I am always beginning the world. I am always almost there. I am always learning to walk again.

Bears Have Thick Fur

April 5th, 2011

bear.jpgWhen I woke up, the sheets were peeled back, my wife was gone, and in her place a small, toy bear was blurting out to the blurry, inky night, “I’m a bear!”

Abbi burst into the room.

“It just turned itself on,” she said in a whispered-frenzy. “And it won’t turn off! Maggie’s wide awake in her crib.”

It was nearly four o’clock in the morning.

The bear was a Christmas present from the grandparents. It was slightly larger then my clinched fist. It’s body was hard, red plastic with flashing numbers on it’s distended midsection. It’s matted, yellow fabric head held two wide, googly eyes. It’s arms were perpetually hugging. It repeated one saccharine, song comprised of warbling blips and beeps, plus three phrases in an oddly-accented, slightly-feminine, and completely-cloying electronic voice, including one Abbi and I had taken into our parental shorthand on account of its being both an absurd, non-sequitur and — in the case of this hard, plastic toy — a complete untruth:

“Bears have thick fur!”

Still, Maggie loved its flashing lights, and fished it out of her toy basket consistently. And it seemed to be teaching her to talk, or emote, or giggle, anyway. Which was good enough for us.

Abbi raced out of the room leaving me alone with the bear’s sad song and flashing lights bleating like a police siren in the cold, quiet city night. I stared at it, half-asleep, and completely puzzled.

“Scratch my belly!” it demanded.

Abbi returned.

“We have to shut it off.”

I resisted the urge to throw the bear out the window, then picked it up, and jammed it under the mattress.

“I’m a bear!” it protested through the thick padding, muffled but defiantly audible.

“Better?” I asked.

“For who!?! Now we’ll hear it all night!” she said, laughing at me before charging out of the room one last time. She returned quickly brandished our 20-speed, variable-torque, rechargeable Makita power drill — a bazooka to slay a tsetse fly. With her iPhone flashlight for illumination, Abbi flipped the bear on its head, and unscrewed it’s battery door.

“Bears have thick –”

The bear fell silent.

Maggie stopped crying.

Abbi and I climbed back under the sheets.

“Silencing an electronic talking bear with a power drill and an iPhone flashlight?” I whispered. “First world problem.”

And we fell back into a deep, tranquil dreams populated by furless, angry talking bears.