Looking for a place to write

Sep 24, 2016

It's about 8:30 in the morning, and I'm out the apartment building door. I walk half a block to Broadway. At this time of morning, the restaurants, drug stores, supermarkets, shoe repair shops and most of the other stores are already open. The banks and frozen yogurt shops open a little later. Crossing Broadway and walking another block east I get to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam Avenue for my morning coffee and croissant.

Marty, Jim, Cal, and Adam are already at the Hungarian, sitting at an outdoor table facing St John's Cathedral. They're in the middle of a conversation. Something about Trump. After a minute I catch the drift of it, and jump in. At the cafe', you show up and see friends if and when you can. No arrangements. When you're ready to leave, you say goodbye. No explanations. No apologies. I sit with them for a half hour, and then leave to look for a place to write this post.

The pastry shop would have been a great place to sit alone and write - but I didn't have the heart to move to another table by myself with the guys sitting there at a table nearby. I don't hesitate to get up and leave, but to move to an adjacent table by myself with them all sitting there feels like a slight to our relationship. Sometimes I do it, but not this morning.

So I continue down Amsterdam Avenue, looking for a place to sit outside and write. Amsterdam is less corporate than Broadway - no banks, no Starbucks. I sometimes feel melancholy on quiet streets. But Amsterdam Avenue's lively enough to keep my mood up. There are Mexican and Dominican restaurants, barbers and bodegas just a block down from the Hungarian Pastry Shop. It's still early in the morning, but it won't be long before you hear Spanish from guys playing checkers on a little fold-out table outside the barbershop.  Spanish music will come from a little radio inside the bodegas while a little laughing kid runs circles around the guys playing checkers. But it's only about 9:15, too early for that.

This is the time of morning when delivery trucks double park on Amsterdam and leave their loud engines on as the guys carry big boxes of ingredients into the restaurants and bodegas. I get another coffee and sit outside a little French bakery a block down from the Dominican places. It would be nice to write here, but with the noise of the engines from the double-parked delivery trucks I can't hear myself think. I give up after a few minutes and take my coffee in a paper cup to one of the numbered streets. In NYC , the little numbered streets (14th street, 15th street ... 107th St) go east-west and cross the the big avenues like Broadway and Amsterdam that go Nnrth-south. Down in Greenwich Village, even the little numbered streets have restaurants, bars, and small stores. But mostly the numbered streets have apartment buildings, brownstones.

I turn onto a nice numbered street, little 107th, between Broadway and Amsterdam. It's quiet and there's a wooden bench with a back and arm rest in front of a brownstone. It's perfect for writing.

The bus ride to work

Sep 10, 2016

I'm waiting for the bus to take me a mile and a half up the road to City College of New York, where I teach.

I'm actually waiting across the street from the bus stop, at an outdoor table at the Hungarian pastry shop until my phone App tells me the bus is getting close. I've paid my check, so when it's time I'll walk across the street in time to catch the bus. This is my routine.

Sitting on the bus, I picture the street where I used to live in Boston. It was in the North End, the Italian neighborhood, where tourists would swarm to eat in Italian restaurants and then walk further along Hanover Street to the quieter, shady area with a statue of Paul Revere.

The North End and other areas of Boston are beautiful, but the city wasn't for me. I'm more at home in NYC. When you're walking the streets in Manhattan, there's something different that you immediately notice.  It's not something specific, but a feeling you have in the background, something to do with the diversity of people, the variety of places, a cornucopia that saturates your mind.

On the street where I lived in the North End of Boston, there was a local guy I'd often see standing outside a cafe on Hanover Street. He'd inhale from his cigarette and blow out the smoke in a way that said "This is my place".  When I first moved to the neighborhood and wanted to go to the cafe I felt relieved that he let me in the door. That kind of posing is unimaginable in NYC, even outside an Italian cafe. NY is just too big and diverse. A guy posing like that, nobody would even notice him.

The feeling you have about a place recedes into the background of your consciousness and still influences the way you interact with things. There's a foreground, the things you attend to and interact with directly. But, like in a painting, the way you feel about those objects is influenced by the background. I like the background feeling I get in NYC.

The bus is now moving north along Amsterdam Avenue. We pass Harlem, and reach the top of the hill when all of the sudden City College appears to the right. Its beautiful Gothic buildings cluster on one side of the street. Dominican bodegos are on the other side. This morning I teach my class, Mind, Brain, and Experience. There are 150 students, and since it's one of the first classes of the semester, we're still getting used to each other.

By the end of the semester, we'll have talked about memory, emotions, other aspects of the mind, and what's been discovered about how the brain gives rise to them. If you were to lose the hippocampus deep within the temporal lobes you'd no longer form memories of new experiences. Damage to the amygdala, and you'd pick up wild snakes without fear. But behind the specific mental functions, the ones that psychologists have given definitions to, the brain is doing something more fundamental.

Various parts of the brain are communicating furiously with one another. An orchestra of hundreds of billions of neuronal players gives rise to the conscious experience we have at each moment in time. Out of this neural activity you get those subtle background feelings associated with your current environment, the ambivalence you feel about beautiful Hanover Street in the North End of Boston with its swarm of tourists and posing locals, the surprise you feel when you see City College's Gothic buildings emerge in the midst of this Dominican neighborhood. After eight years of riding this bus, I still get a kick out of seeing those Gothic towers. I don't know much about how this particular feeling arises from brain activity.  But you don't have to understand something to enjoy it.

Bathroom wars

Aug 27, 2016

We got back from Spain and saw that dirt had bubbled up from the faucet of our bathroom sink.  It was pretty disgusting.  Somehow we came up with the theory that it was coming from our next door neighbors.  After all, their bathroom is on the other side of our bathroom wall, and I think there's some shared piping between the apartments.  Rosa even suggested that somehow there was a connection between their toilet and our sink.  I'm not sure about the mechanics underlying the theory, but it was late at night, we were tired, and the idea fit with our frustration.  In the words of the great Donald Trump, the bathroom piping was rigged against us.

We added Draino and let it sit until the morning.   It seemed to work, water drained. But an hour later, more dirt - hypothetically from our neighbor's toilet - was bubbling up again.  As Trump would say, our neighbors were now laughing at us, at our stupidity.

We tried the Draino treatment once more the next night, and this time it worked. Water drained normally, and nothing was coming up. A small tweak of Rosa's hypothesis suggests that by preventing their crap from invading our sink we were now reversing the flow so that our crap was directed to their sink.  Whoever adds more Draino at night sends their crap to the other side. We do need to get more sleep, adjust to the time change, and look at things more clearly.  Like Democrats.