Escape from Reality on the Lower East Side

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

15 comments… add one
  • Paula Link

    Hi, Ruth. You make me want to visit the Tenement Museum, something I’d never heard of.
    Unlike you, I’m pleased with the results of the MA senate race, but I’m not gloating. I hope the administration and the leaders of both parties will see this as a real wake-up call, and start paying attention to the very real anger, fear and frustration surging through this country. As some pundit said last night on one of the news shows (CNN, I think), the Obama election showed the majority of Americans aren’t racists. The Brown election showed we’re not socialists.
    I wish there were more politicians who appeal to socially progressive/fiscally conservative/smaller government voters like me. Not all of us who vote Republican on occasion fit into the Sarah Palin/Rush Limbough stereotype.
    In any event, these are interesting times we live in. Plenty of blogging material!

  • Sounds like a perfect day.  I never made it to the Tenement  House, although I’ve heard nothing but good things.  Have you been to any of the Indian restaurants on E. 6th St yet?

  • I would love to go to the Tenement Museum, which I also had never heard of.  I’m going to look it up next time I am in NY.

    I was so discouraged by the MA result.  Most Brits remain astonished that Americans apparently want to hang on to their disgraceful healthcare system.

  • I wanted to go to the Tenement Museum the last time we were in NYC, but we couldn’t get in – everything was booked.  It sounds fascinating.

  • This morning to add to the misery we have the Supreme Court decision on campaign finance.  I can’t think of anything as interesting as the Tenement Museum to distract me from the gloom of the political scene.

  • Cindy A Link

    As Will Rogers once said, “I don’t belong to an organized party. I’m a Democrat.”

    The Dems failed to come up with a viable candidate and the people of Massachusetts failed to realize the implications to the rest of the nation who do not have the Massachusetts health care protections.

    And now we have a Republican former nude model in Ted Kennedy’s place, one who swears to single-handedly take down any kind of health care reform that would help people like me with pre-existing conditions.

    It feels like Republican fear-mongers tie us to the railroad tracks and then say, “I can’t untie you when the train comes. That would be socialism. And you should be very afraid of anybody who comes to untie you.”

    I need more than a trip to the museum.

  • Marsha Canright Link

    Cafe Katya: sounds dreamy but please MORE details about the food. David and I visited the Tenement Museum a few years ago and I couldn’t stop thinking about it; obsessing about how I could birth and raise children in those tiny rooms , if they survived, with dozens of neighbors close enough to hear you snore. It felt so personal. No wonder our people headed for the wide open spaces.  Haiti. Mass. FOX.  Disaster and sadness all around. Keep the culture coming; it’s needed .

  • I, too, have always wanted to visit the Tenement Museum.
    I have been wandering around in a daze today, and after reading your blog, I realize why: Scott Brown’s election.  I feel as if the residents of my own home state had obliged the country to take a giant step backwards.  Oh, the shame of it!  How very frustrated I feel and unable to do anything constructive with my day.  Nature doesn’t help.  Politics really sucks.  Wish I were in the city and could get instant distraction the way you did!

  • I’m with you on feeling helpless about Haiti.  We gave money and will give more come payday, but it doesn’t feel like enough.  I can’t even describe the sadness I feel for the people.  But that’s not enough.
    Thanks for telling us about the Tenement Museum.  I have got to go there!  Those stories of human struggle and survival are amazing to me.  It hasn’t been that long ago, either, which also amazes me.  Many Americans nowadays cry when they get a blister, and they forget (or never learned) about the past.  I like what you say about the human need for beauty.  It is so true.

  • Seems to me, Ruth, you took your namesake’s advice to heart.
    That would be Ruth Reichl, who this week wrote:
    “We all have a moral obligation to do whatever we can to help the Haitians during this terrible time. But talking about it doesn’t help; we need to take concrete action. We should help in whatever ways we can.
    But in times of trouble- especially in times of trouble –  it is important to celebrate life. We need to remind ourselves – and others – that it is good to be alive.  If only as a promise that better times are coming.”

  • Winston Link

    Thank you for sharing the fascinating Tenement Museum!  I checked their website and was enraptured already just by the luck of Abram and Jacobson in finding a “time capsule” to fit their quest.  I love the discovery of spots where a sense of place unites seamlessly with a place in time. The Tenement Museum does offer an opportunity for citizens to learn or relearn why America differed so vastly from the rest of the world that so many would abandon their old homes and align their allegiance with a New untested home.  One can only wonder why the building of greatness and of a nation becomes a common denominator in the heart’s of its citizens, yet when the thing is built there is a shift toward an inner power struggle within. Time and again I overhear snatches of conversation with phrases like, “we can’t ever win against them,” or “they always get us in the end,” and “they’ve taken us again.”  Hearing these bits, I conclude We and Us are the American Citizens.  But who are They?  How did They come to be?  Can They be won back into the fold?  Surely another chapter of history waits to be written.
    On the lighter side . . .
    Yesterday, you divulged your realty addiction.  Today, you tell us of your need to temporarily escape reality.  And to where did you escape?  Back to an apartment building!  And brimming with discussions of antique wallpapers and linoleum, no less.

  • Early on in the process, I remember reading somewhere that the MA senate election “was Martha Coakley’s to lose.” With that kind of complacency, is it any wonder that she did just that? I think it’s time for American liberals to stop clapping themselves on the back for Obama’s election. Everything that has happened since, from the ridiculous opposition to universal health care to the rise of the Teabaggers, points to a deep groundswell of conservative rage, fuelled by unscrupulous financial, industrial and media interests who have been looting the US for the past eight years. Meanwhile the Democratic Party continues to tear itself apart, thanks to people like Joe Liebermann and the Blue Dog Democrats, who masquerade as liberals while their spouses/families/they themselves are working against Democratic principles.

  • Cindy A Link

    I’m with you, Tessa.

  • We visited the Tenement Museum a couple of summers ago, and it was truly fascinating! I’d love to go back. I bought the book about the creation of the museum  and how they gathered some of the artifacts and info about the families.
    Although I am chagrined about the Scott Brown victory in MA, I am less worried about that than about the Supreme Court decision. That’s a serious blow for democracy

  • I’m so glad to have discovered your blog (via Marsha Canright), and will subscribe. Although I live in Boulder, where Nature offers undeniable comfort, I admire your resourcefulness in finding your own way to take a deep breath after the events of the last couple of weeks.

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