Friday, March 21, 2008

first trip to the City

It was round about 1971, when we were living in a big loft in Montreal, that a couple from NYC came to stay for several weeks. Russell had stolen his girlfriend Barbara from her very wealthy Manhattan parents and the fact she was an only child made this even more significant. Barbara was good company but pretty quiet in our bohemian surroundings. Russell was a different story. He was boisterous, funny as hell and hardly ever slept. My first clue he was a bit different was the fact he'd sit in a chair near the kitchen area all night long smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky with the cannister vacuum cleaner hose in one hand ready to hit the switch at the first glimpse of a cockroach. Since we lived on the fourth floor with bars on the other three there were a few of them around. I wasn't familiar with speed at the time but meeting Russell gave me a lesson in chemical dependency I've never forgotten.

They left Montreal a few weeks later when Barbara's parents agreed to condone the relationship. That would have been the end of the matter for us but for the fact they called several months later and invited me to NY as their Gentile guest for Passover. My son was very young but his father and the other people in the loft urged me to go since I was the only one among them who'd never been to the City. Thus, I found myself on a plane heading south a few days later.

The flight was due to land at LaGuardia, one of the smallest of the NY airports, and getting there involved flying directly between the skyscrapers of NY. It was a brief but remarkable experience and when the plane landed on what appeared to be a large dock right on Flushing Bay I knew I wasn't in Canada anymore. That doesn't mean I wasn't familiar with other world class cities since by then I'd spent several years in Europe and the cities there aren't to be sneezed at ..but they're old and they're beautiful as they are. I know huge buildings are everywhere now but not so much at that time and who on earth could imagine tearing down the Louvre to put up the head office of an insurance company? (Don't answer that.)

Russell met me and took me on a whirlwind tour of the City in one of the Lincolns belonging to his new in-laws. We actually stood on the plaza of the World Trade Center but, try as I might, I simply can't draw that. Suffice it to say those buildings were huge; the North Tower had opened just a few months before and the South Tower was ready but not yet occupied. As I looked up and up and up I suddenly got very dizzy and started to topple backward. I would have fallen if he hadn't caught me and I explained that although I'd done some climbing and had even stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I seemed to be experiencing some serious vertigo.

By then it was getting close to dinnertime and we drove to one of the older apartment houses close to Central Park and left the car for one of the doormen to park. I knew the apartment would be nice but I hadn't been expecting a two story penthouse 29 floors up in one of New York's landmark residences. It was obvious Barbara's parents were more than just rich - they were super rich. I don't remember much about them or the dinner other than the fact that they were nice, the surroundings were large and luxurious and the servants quiet and efficient.

After dinner Russell asked if I'd like to go out to the terrace (yes, the terrace..not the balcony) to look at the Empire State Building and the skyline across Central Park. As we stood at the railing he suddenly picked me up and held me at arm's length over empty space and said, "What do you think would happen if I dropped you now?" His eyes were glassy and his grin was typical of a speed freak rictus. I was too terrified to think of anything other than I would never see my son or my parents again. I begged him to not let go. I begged him to bring me back. After a few minutes he did. I don't recall much about the rest of the visit but was never so happy to be home as I was the next day.

That was all a long time ago now but the memory has stayed at a very deep level. It was later, much later, when I really did start thinking about Russells's question and although I've never come up with an answer it's a question we all need to ask ourselves. Maybe we just need to keep in mind we can die at any time. Perhaps we need to live our lives in such a way that we will have no regrets about its ending. This isn't always possible but what is possible is to try.

This morning I remembered a favorite Joni Mitchell song and these words came to mind:
We are stardust,
We are golden.


Randal Graves said...

It's all but impossible to avoid regrets, but as you said, we have to try. What else are we going to do? Well, let's leave that unanswered along with the aftermath of the demolition of European landmarks.

Ben said...

I'm tempted to ask if Russell had been smoking something a little harder than usual, or if that's just the kind of thing that he did. But that's something to think about, what you want to do before your last die.

Lovely flying picture, too.

grannyfiddler said...

...and we've got to get ourselves
back to the ga - arden....

wow! what a story. i'm glad he put you back down on the terrace. how you say so much in your pictures, with just simple lines is magical.

i've had some near death experiences... i think, if we stop to think, they impress on us what is important in our lives, and we try to live accordingly.

susan said...

randal - I guess what I was trying to say here is that although we'll always have regrets of things undone we should never have to regret our behaviour.

ben - That was exactly the kind of thing he just did.

gfid - Got it :-) I met Joni Mitchell once in Vancouver when my son (who was about 4) and I were walking toward Granville St. We all walked along together and chatted like we'd known each other for years. It was nice.

Scarlet W. Blue said...

Wow, was that the end of Russel? Scary.

Loved the pictures, as always.

Seraphine said...

Great story Susan, and a little sobering at the end. New York is amazing, and the WTC was amazing and life is amazing and you are amazing.
Have a wonderful Easter, and all the best wishes to you and your family.

Mathman6293 said...

I feel the same way about flying into La Guardia. Didn't like that...

I was in NY twice and only saw the buildings from a boat but I did get to go to Yankee stadium.

susan said...

scarlet - Who knows what happens to speed freaks in the long run? I certainly never heard from Russell again.

sera - Thanks for your kind words. This was a difficult one for me to compose since although it was neither my first close call nor the last but the one that made me comprehend how important it is to live life fully.. and to hold on tight :-)

mathman - I was in NY many more times but regret never having got to Yankee Stadium. I envy you that experience (but I did go to Fenway now and then - does that count?)

Mathman6293 said...

Susan, I think Fenway counts, as far as baseball experience goes, even though they wear the wrong color sox for me. I have been to Boston and never to Fenway.

But I like Wrigley better than Yankee stadium.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What a story! The very idea of being suspended, held by someone not quite in control, at that height is enough to make my palms sweat.

I agree with you, though, there's no reason to let fear rule your life. That's no life at all.

As always, I love the accompanying pictures. Especially the flying picture.

Gary said...

Wow! That's a story - in so many ways. (The illustrations are amazing of course.)

I can guess Russell didn't get an invite to your next Christmas dinner in the loft.

And here's the big question: was my friend Nelson present through any of these shenanagins?

lindsaylobe said...

A wonderful story with an equally appealing philosophical ending.
I would I think when we look back on our life Susan, as you are doing with so many interesting stories many of us will conclude that life was worth living, and will go on to say, given another chance we would gladly live it all over again, notwithstanding perceptions or experiences of poverty, pain and loneliness, for it is all in the journey, not in the destination.
Best wishes

Mary said...

I would have freaked out in that moment. I'm sure all my thoughts would be of my children. There is tons of unneccesary crap in our lives. I am reading Eckhart Tolle's book (actually I have read) A New Earth and I do like what he has to say.

susan said...

mathman - Wrigley's another one you have me beat on but I did see it once from the air before the plane got too high.

dcup - Oh yes, it was a nasty moment but my guess is I've probably lived through closer calls I wasn't even aware of.. you know, right place - wrong time?

gary - Nelson would be the one to know any follow-up story. I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)

lindsay - Thanks for your beautifully phrased comment. Living fully in every moment we have really is what life is all about.

mary - I've read about Eckhart Tolle recently and he seems not unlike the Meister Eckhart of my youth who once said, "If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough."

Anonymous said...

Susan, what a great story. But I'm not sure what's scarier, landing at LaGuardia or the possibility of being dropped from a great height. I've experienced both in my life. As for the living with regrets, I think that's easier said than done.

susan said...

spartacus - So glad to see you've been by and welcome to phantsy. I was very surprised by the flight since I'd never expected to see the City from that pov but I felt a helluva lot safer in my window seat than I did with my friend later.
as for the living with no regrets - I never said it would happen - only that making the attempt to be aware that anytime we say goodbye to someone we love could be the last time.

Ingrid said...

holy crap..all I can think of saying is ..phantsy that!
You are quite the introduction to great story telling (fiction or non fiction doesn't matter), art and books! I'm actually looking for the one on Tibet that Gary mentioned and I guess I could go to his site to find it but I figured you had written something interesting about it so I wanted to find it here..I'll keep looking ..whistle whistle..