The news from Haiti is heartbreaking. So, I give money to the Red Cross. Not enough, of course. How could it be enough?
The political news from Massachusetts is gut-wrenching. I walk around with a stomachache. I try not to think about the feral gloating that is doubtlessly going on at Fox News.
I would commune with nature. But I’m in New York City — and besides, I’m not much of a nature-communer. I could be standing right by the Grand Canyon or Big Sur, and my communing would take about five minutes.
I’ve got it! I will commune with New York culture.
I drag my husband away from his work. This sounds like an ordeal, but it’s not. If I ever saw a man who desperately wanted to be dragged away from his work, it’s him today. He doesn’t even put up a token fight.
We take the B train to Grand Street and — this is what I continue to marvel at in my country-mouse way — we emerge into a different world, the Lower East Side. After arguing about which direction to go in, we end up at the Tenement Museum.
We take an hour-long tour of a former tenement building lived in by generations of immigrants — Germans, Russians, Italians. It’s cramped and it’s dark. But you can see the ancient layers of wallpaper in the tiny living rooms and linoleum in the spartan kitchens. This is something that always greatly touches me — the human need for beauty. (It makes me think of the summers our family spent in Taos, where I communed with nature five minutes a day on a regular basis. But what moved me — even more than the mountains and the dazzling stars at night — were the pottery shards my husband and children found. They were left by a nomadic people who eked out a rough life hundreds of years ago, but still found the time to decorate their pottery, make it pretty, leave something of themselves behind.)
We heard the stories of the families who lived here briefly, then moved themselves and their children on to better lives and places. Those stories are wonderful and poignant — stories of the American dream that still surface now and then and make you feel proud. For them and their descendants, it seemed, the dream worked.
From there, we returned to the Tenement Museum Gift Shop and heard an incredible talk by Elaine Showalter, a renowned literary scholar and author of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, and Wendy Martin, an American literature professor at Claremont. They were funny, they were sharply opinionated about women and literature and the male-dominated literary canon, they seemed to know everything, they were enthralling. Particularly interesting after our tenement tour were Showalter’s comparisons of women writers in England and America. England’s were from a far narrower, more educated and affluent social class who had greater leisure time (even the poverty-stricken Brontes, she said, had household help). In sharp contrast, the American women led harder lives, striving for survival, and came from a variety of social classes and venues.
By then, it was dark and we were hungry. So we made our way down the street to a wonderful Austrian restaurant, Cafe Katya, where the atmosphere was warm and friendly and the food excellent.
Back to our world on the Upper West Side, where the news continued to be bad and I sometimes wonder if the American dream still holds true. You can’t escape reality for long, but it’s so rewarding to try.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about taking your kid to work: a cautionary tale