Transit notes

Some people like to make a lot of noise when they get on the train—usually teenagers, but not always. Some people just want to be noticed, I suppose, or poke a hole in the air you're sharing. Same with playing loud music in a car with the windows rolled down: "I am here." Or, in the immortal words of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, "I won't be ignored, Dan."

Tonight a man and a woman boarded at the 57th Street station, both a little raggedy-looking. Like times were hard. He was carrying an enormous wrinkled shopping bag, the kind that discount mall Santas lug their presents around in. They couldn't find seats together so they settled about ten feet apart and hollered back and forth to each other all the way to Columbus Circle, with him rooting around in that bag on the floor the whole time, clearly not finding what he needed. At Columbus Circle they both made their move to the open seats at one end of the car, opposite each other. She spread out and stretched her feet across the seat next to her and he shuffled through his bag again, pulled out a book, and handed it to her across the aisle.

My favorite writer

photo by Colin Dodgson for the New York Times

photo by Colin Dodgson for the New York Times

And then for a moment you let in the depth and intensity and range of Stephen Sondheim’s feeling for the past half-century. That Tony and Maria of “West Side Story” first fell in love as Sondheim sharpened his Blackwing pencils, finding the words for their doomed romance at age 25. That Mrs. Lovett of “Sweeney Todd” hatched her diabolical plans from this writing couch as Sondheim talked to himself. That within Sondheim, somewhere, is both Georges Seurat and Fosca, Pseudolus and Mama Rose, John Wilkes Booth and Madame Armfeldt, Charley Kringas and Little Red Riding Hood. He has served up vodka stingers for Joanne (“Company”) and chrysanthemum tea for the Shogun (“Pacific Overtures”). Sixty years of iconic theatrical moments, and they exist as a result of the specific way Stephen Sondheim feels. Line by line, note by note, surprise by surprise.

And if you’re Sondheim, there are days like today, when you feel under the weather and the day is full of distractions. But there are also nights when you write “Finishing the Hat,” and you’re so proud of what you’ve made that you have to call a friend and say, “I just wrote this song.”

THIS SONG!! > > > > >


Betty Buckley @ Joe’s Pub

There was a time, a couple of iPhones ago, when the iPhone I had played ghost music at random every once in a while. I would be sitting on a bus, or at home, minding my own business, and music would spontaneously burst forth from this otherwise silent machine. There was no rhyme or reason to it—it happened only rarely and seemed unrelated to anything I’d recently been listening to—so I didn’t think much about it until SarahB and I were coming out of a theater one night, chatting as we made our way down the sidewalk, when she suddenly grabbed my arm and said, “I think I hear Betty Buckley coming from your bag.”

Anyway. At the risk of sounding pretentious (FYI not a crime), I will quote myself:

Betty's voice scares me sometimes, like getting a jolt from an electric fence and then stepping on a rake right before you stumble into a hole that might be your own grave. But in a good way.

The most distinctive voices are seldom the prettiest, and the music and we are better for it. I’m not saying her voice isn’t beautiful—it’s gorgeous—only that “pretty” is oversold. It's surface shine. Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Pretty isn’t beautiful… / Pretty is what changes / What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful” (yes, there’s a Sondheim for everything), and this is true of the ear, as well. The hard wire of Betty’s voice, her habit of moving between singing and speaking in the same line and lingering on a syllable a beat longer than expected, are what make her sound like no one else, are what carry the songs through a room, through a radio, through a speaker or headphone, and turn them into stories. For me that's a gift and a fine grace, forever & ever, amen. 

She sang this one last night (written by Lisa Loeb, and also included on her Bootleg album), along with some Steely Dan, a couple by T Bone Burnett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Joni Mitchell:

I've already employed every superlative I can think of to describe the experience of seeing Betty Buckley perform live—from year to year to year, from Town Hall to Feinstein's to Birdland to the Blue Note to Joe's Pub—so all I have left is this: she is one of the best markers of my time here, of what I wanted my life in this city to be. I'm awed still by these chances, and forever grateful.

Homeward bound

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I took this picture while sitting on the train back from DC this afternoon (I've been trying to take more pictures lately: it's good for the brain, I decided). The station looks vaguely European to me, but of course it's only Newark.

Two things today

My friend SarahB is fascinated by waste management and traffic patterns; she texted me at 6:31 this morning with a newsflash about an accident on the Major Deegan (FYI neither of us owns a car). I'm fascinated by aging—I find it exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, and there's a lot about it that frankly pisses me off ("progressive" lenses, for example, can kiss my goddamn fanny). It also provides an easy excuse to be 24/7 "cantankerous," so I take full advantage of that. But I'm always on the lookout for people who tear through the common threads that we tend to accept as fact, or fate—not people who are trying to "escape" aging somehow, which is sad, but people who face it straight on and make their own way on their own terms. People who are not daunted. And today I found this fabulous TED Talk by Ashton Applewhite at Chookooloonks

"When labels are hard to read, or there's no handrail, or we can't open the damn jar, we blame ourselves, our failure to age "successfully" instead of the ageism that makes those natural transitions shameful and the discrimination that makes those barriers acceptable. You can't make money off satisfaction, but shame and fear create markets, and capitalism always needs new markets. Who says wrinkles are ugly? The multibillion dollar skincare industry. Who says perimenopause and low T and mild cognitive impairment are medical conditions? The trillion dollar pharmaceutical industry. The more clearly we see these forces at work the easier it is to come up with alternative, more positive, and more accurate narratives. Aging is not a problem to be fixed, or a disease to be cured, it is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all."

+ more from Ashton Applewhite / "Working to Disarm Women's Anti-Aging Demon" / see also: "Meet the Perennials" by Gina Pell

And then, over at Racked, Beca Grimm writes about the greatest fall film wardrobe that ever was, and includes this screencap of my #1 favorite outfit, which to this day is my ideal of style = easy, low-key comfort and loafers:


Life on the Upper West Side

This is from cartoonist Roz Chast (long story short: it’s all true!): 

The Upper West Side, by contrast, offered good diners and lousy restaurants, a beguilingly terrible supermarket, zero cool bars or boutiques — nothing, in short, to attract people who do not live there.

“I really, really like that,” she said. “When I go home after being in Midtown or even the Village, the vibe is so much more people going about their business — I need to buy shoelaces, or I need to buy a new wastebasket and some hangers, and then I’m going to go home. It’s not like, Hey, there’s this new hip restaurant on West 83rd street. I don’t think so. I really doubt that.”

Source: Roz Chast Is New Yorkier Than ...

Burn it all down

I enjoyed Garrison Keillor's cranky take on the recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, because—apologies to lovers of delicate prose—The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go both bored the shit out of me: 

In their long-standing campaign against comedy, the Swedish Academy is doing almost as much damage as old man Nobel did with his hard work developing better rockets, cannon, and explosives. They are leading young writers to aspire to vacuity. I say, let the Swedes give the prize for urban planning. Let the Jews give the Nobel Prize. They know from literature. Compare a list of great Jewish writers and a list of great Swedish writers. I rest my case. Swedish literature is made up of small dark stories in which people are very silent and then it starts snowing and a dog barks and someone reaches for the aquavit.


Public spaces

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The next time you're in NYC (p.s. nobody calls it "NYC"), keep your eyes peeled for these "privately owned public spaces," which you will find everywhere—they exist as plazas, pass-throughs, indoor seating areas, etc.—and which are, as advertised, public spaces embedded in private buildings, "in exchange for additional floor area." Meaning our sad, grimy, proletariat presence buys them more floors (peasants! ick!). I walk through approximately five million of these on my way to work in the morning. Some are okay but this one, as you can see, is what might generously be described as "charm free." That's America!

According to this info page I found on (only .gov calls it "NYC"), these spaces must adhere to the following design principles: 

Open and inviting at the sidewalk

  • Easily seen and read as open to the public
  • Conveys openness through low design elements and generous paths leading into the plaza
  • Visually interesting and contains seating


  • Enhances pedestrian circulation
  • Located at the same elevation as the sidewalk

Provides sense of safety and security 

  • Contains easily accessible paths for ingress and egress
  • Oriented and visually connected to the street
  • Well-lit

Provides places to sit

  • Accommodates a variety of well-designed, comfortable seating for small groups and individuals

p.s. again: there are several of these POPS inside Donald J. Trump buildings, although of course they are very ugly. I sat in one and had coffee once—the ugliest one, on Fifth Avenue—because it was approximately 9º outside and my feet were frozen like fish sticks and I had to pee badly. It was a mistake, I'll admit it, but in my defense it was also 2004.

Go ahead & be difficult

Katy Grannan for The New York Times

Katy Grannan for The New York Times

Frances McDormand, or Fran, as she is called in regular life, cuts a handsome figure on the street. She is 60 and sexy in the manner of women who have achieved total self-possession. She eschews makeup unless she is working, doesn’t dye her hair and despises the nips, tucks and lifts that have become routine for women of her profession. Her clothes are well made — she loves clothes — but utilitarian and comfortable. On this day she was wearing loose-legged cropped pants, black-and-peach sneakers, a navy sweater and a thin headband shoved in and out of uncombed hair as the mood struck.


The good place

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Today we had brunch at a not-great place, followed by rooftop bloody marys at a lovely place, followed by a beer at one of the best places (The Ginger Man). Truly the last was a respite for a band of weary souls on this, another putrid humid summer day, when as we all know FOR THE LOVE OF GOD IT SHOULD BE AUTUMN.

The Corner

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I read this piece about non-marriage in the Times (yo) today where the writer mentions a recently divorced friend who estimates that she was happy in her marriage about 3% of the time. This sounded terrible to me, as most marriages do, and naturally led me to reflect on my own happiness levels since I have the luxury of thinking about myself 97% of the time, which not coincidentally is one of the many reasons I'm not married. Surprise!

Overall I would guess that I'm happy approximately 65% of the time. And I say this as a very crabby person who is crabby right now. I worry about a lot of things, but that just seems like part of the overall life deal, and for the most part I've been lucky. It would be criminal negligence not to blame most of my happiness on pure dumb luck and a lack of true hardship: while I can manufacture outrage at just about any idiot thing in a hot second, I actually don't have that many legitimate beefs against the world. Sorry to disappoint you, people who want me to be miserable! You have been outfoxed yet again.

Spy center

55th & 7th: my favorite display copy.jpg

I pass by many weird and amazing sights on my normal route to work in the morning. If it's not hot I usually walk from Columbus Circle, which is ~ .7 miles, and pre-9:00 a.m. is the one time of day I love midtown. Only the workers and most determined tourists (i.e., packs of ladies in their sixties) are out and about, and every coffee shop is full, and there are lines of cabs waiting at the curb of every hotel, and the women all have their walking shoes on and 9 out of 10 people are wearing backpacks, even men in suits. Everyone seems fresh and eager and vulnerable in some way, I guess, before the day sets in, as if they haven't fully strapped on their masks yet, and if the air is brisk but not cold and the sun is shining, it's just about the most perfect thing I know.

Look at the light

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I stayed home from work yesterday because I've had trouble sleeping lately: something about the switch from summer to autumn, from the drone of the air conditioner to an open window and sounds from the street, and all the light coming in, it takes time for me to adjust. So I was too exhausted to function and thought I'd be able to sleep during the day, except I checked the news and knew I would never fall back to sleep. I turned on CBS This Morning and Gayle King was on the phone with one of the hosts from The Highway, since we broadcast from the Route 91 Harvest Festival every year, and he was talking about what it was like to hide behind the stage when the shooting started, and later what it was like to step over bodies, looking for people who could still be helped. After a while we got an email from HR, letting us know the people we work with were all safe.

I don't know. Las Vegas is one of my favorite places in the world. I've had some of my best vacations there, and some of my best memories: the thought of it brings me nothing but joy. And I don't understand how we just keep going on like this, why nobody has the courage to fix what is so obviously broken, why we are so willing to sacrifice body after body after body after body after body after body to the men who hold the money behind these machines. I don't know how we all don't just walk around screaming all the time, but we don't, somehow. Of course we don't. And every story we tell ourselves about the great American experiment has to start and end with this: We the People of the United States, are not brave enough—are not strong enough—do not care enough—to fix what is broken. We don't even care enough to try.

I keep wondering if I should start a weekly newsletter to share these and other important thoghtz but A) I already have this cool blog & B) I don't suppose anyone wants to read an email that's just the word FUUUUCK over and over and over. 

Loves Jesus, and America too

The summer of 1989, this was the soundtrack as I drove to my ticket selling job at Noah's Ark in Wisconsin Dells: 19 miles on pre-dawn back roads through the trees, fresh off my freshman year in college, meeting cute boys, learning what FIBs are. I was 19 years old and feeling like a grownup for the first time, feeling powerful and free, and it was all Petty all the time.

At the Sunday greenmarket

I snapped this photo whilst standing in line to buy my three tomatoes and three peppers, and it's blurry because my hands were shaking due to unwise overcaffeination, a frequent weekend blunder. I'm able to resist a lot of gustatory temptations, but not this: on weekends I will drink coffee until I lift right off the ground.

tomatoes copy.jpg

Later I was on my way home from the farmacy (CVS) and fell in behind a fellow with an unfortunate walk (you know what I mean: slightly stooped, splay-footed). He was youngish, younger than me, I thought, so this seemed doubly sad. Do you think our walks reflect our ultimate cosmic path in life? I do, sometimes. I felt it about this man, the way his head dipped forward as he lumbered along, As if he had been defeated by something. Yes, I made assumptions based on a physical characteristic, which is a terrible but natural result of being small and petty and prone to constantly drafting narratives about strangers in my head. Relax, there are worse things in life than this.

For example: when I was a toddler I was pigeon-toed, so at night my parents strapped me into braces that were bolted to a board and that's how I slept. This was the 1970s, so I doubt it could be marked down now as bad parenting, although if they were filthy rich believe me I would sue. But everybody was stupid in the 70s. It was the dumbest decade of all time, or at least until the 80s came along. It did cure me, though, and sometimes I think my walk today is a direct result of being stuck to that board as a child, unable to turn this way or that in my bed or crib or whatever, deprived of my earliest free will and struggling to break the fuck out.

LOL just kidding! Not about the board (that part was true!) but about it being responsible for my walk: wide stride, heavy footfalls, everlastingly impatient. I just want to be where I want to be when I want to be there and 99% of the world is always in my way. And the saddest thing is I can't blame that on my parents or even on New York! It's just how I was born.

A wardrobe icon

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I read something very smart over the weekend in this Martha Stewart book about aging smartly,* about how important it is to address small health issues early, while they're minor, before they morph into something you may not be able to control. Like toe calluses, the scourge of hominids everywhere. At the beginning of the section on practicing prevention, Martha lays out a harrowing scenario I think we all can easily relate to, based on having feet:

You ignore that corn on your toe, and don't mention it to your doctor because it seems so inconsequential. You're busy and have no time for a pedicure. Your foot hurts more and more, so you stop standing as much and drive or take the bus when you previously would have walked. Now your toe is permanently bent. Eventually, you forgo your regular exercise class and become increasingly chair-bound. Fast-forward several years or decades and your sedentary lifestyle takes its toll: you fall and break a hip. That fall was no accident; the seeds of disability were planted much earlier when that corn appeared. And that fall was probably preventable, if only you had taken care of that minor problem earlier.

No time for a pedicure! See how quickly that went downhill? Jesus Christ! I read this on Sunday and haven't been able to sleep since. Facts and suppositions alike are dangerous for hyper-imaginative shut-ins like me. Anyway, I'm going to the podiatrist tomorrow to have a callus removed from the fourth toe of my left foot because I'd rather not be dead from some idiotic toe-related death in 20 years, thanks to Martha. I hope you'll be smart and do the same.

* Not the actual title of this book

From Broadway & 56th

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When I came out of the station after work today I followed a couple of little boys and their ponytailed handler down the street. The youngest was wearing a t-shirt that said “POWERED BY THE SUN” on the back and the other one had on khaki shorts and a navy wool blazer with the collar turned up, like an MBA student heading back to the frat house. He was maybe eight years old. The little one kept saying “Jeez. JEEZ!” real loud and making emphatic hand gestures, which reminded me of my favorite kid types:

  • kids who display adult conversational tics; I’m not talking about flipping the bird or cursing, which is unwelcome from anyone besides me, I’m talking about hands on hips and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and looks of skepticism delivered in a way that indicates they're not even aware they're doing it (and not in the grossly precocious way of trained child actors)
  • kids whose hair sticks straight up in the back and flops around when they walk—bedhead, technically (and these do tend to be boys who are also still one-half to three-quarters asleep)
  • kids who wear glasses, although I'm sad about the lifetime of misery that awaits them