Friday, September 10, 2010

Look Up.

"Every time you come to New York, it's jus' work, work, work."

Johnny, our driver, looked back at us in the rearview mirror and frowned as he transported us to the location for our next interview in Manhattan. 

"We got time! You wanna see Empire State Building? I show you Empire State Building. You wanna go see NYU? I show you NYC. What you wanna do? We do it."

We had just come from Brooklyn, and I had been deep in thought as I stared out at the Hudson River, thinking about how driving along a highway next to a river in New York City was just like driving along a highway next to a river in Moscow. I started thinking about how major cities all over the world are similar because they are often near water. Then I started thinking about how people in different cities all over the world are often similar and maybe it is because people are made up of water too. 

Except for Joan Rivers.

Earlier in the day, Johnny asked us if we wanted to go see Ground Zero. My co-worker and I fumbled out inconclusive answers. Johnny took us to Ground Zero the last time we were here, and I was not sure how to react. Visiting a space that is swarming with cops, ROAD CLOSED signs and confusing one-way streets does not match the eerie, silent grey landscape I watched on CNN nine years ago. When you go to Ground Zero now, you see lots of bustling construction going on. You see fences wrapped with colorful computer-generated images of architectural ingenuity that promise a dignified future life for that sacred space.

So this morning when we drove around Ground Zero, I tried to sense the sacredness of the space. I could see that there was a lot of set-up going on for this Saturday, September 11th. From behind the tinted windows of Johnny's SUV, I angled my neck left and right and then I stood up in my seat to try to really get a good look down into that pit that once held unspeakably scary things like molten steel, human remains and bits of telephone key pads. 

But all I saw today was a normal construction site.

Johnny the Driver is originally from the Dominican Republic and he has lived in New York City for eighteen years. Whether it's getting us the best pizza in Brooklyn, hooking us up with faux designer handbags, or taking us to see sights, Johnny courts us around town like a regular tour bus driver. He is the proudest New Yorker I know. He has a thick and relaxed Spanish accent and he is shockingly positive about everything in life. It seems no matter where we go, everybody knows and loves him. I feel like Johnny is one of those types of people who you could slap across the jaw and he might laugh thinking it was a joke.  

Yesterday, when we walked out of our first interview, we found Johnny smiling a big smile and holding jumper cables. "I was listening to the radio, and then my battery died!" he said, as though he had just won $10 on a scratch-off lottery game. There were two guys helping him restart his SUV, and the three of them were laughing and joking around. Johnny, of course, knew these guys because everyone knows and loves Johnny.

Because we had so much time between interviews today, I did not have much of an excuse when Johnny proposed that we go see the Empire State Building. Had I ever been inside? No. Did I care very much? Not really. I am a crappy tourist. 

"I will go park behind that ice cream truck and you girls go! You go see it!"

My co-worker and I reluctantly slid down from the leather SUV seats and entered the historic mammoth structure from 1931. As soon as we took the escalator to the second floor, I started to regret our decision to go up to the 86th floor observation deck. Ahead of us there was a massive sea of maroon-clad guards wearing friendly bellboy caps. They were operating  three security lines that were more thorough than LaGuardia airport.

As one of the women inspected the x-ray of my purse, my Danger Patrol brain started cooking up fantasies of what awful things might be snuck through security. For 1.5 seconds, I tried to use terrorist logic to test the idea of  the probability of an attack on the Empire State Building two days before the ninth anniversary of September 11th on a Thursday afternoon. There was not enough symmetry to this imagined plot, though, so I let it go.

We quickly wove through what felt like a football field worth of velvet maroon rope (there was no line) to get to the elevators. At the rows of elevators, I did not like how the bellboy guards put us in an elevator and then operated it with a remote control. "Don't touch the buttons, please," they said, which confused me because, I wondered what would happen if we did touch the buttons?

Riding in the elevator that jumped the floors by tens (20...30...40...) I was reminded that I sometimes get instantly claustrophobic and suddenly hate doing activities with other people. There was a booming automated voice that welcomed hello to us in about 15 different languages. The fact that I had no control in this setting could have started to drive me off course, but instead I kept my cool and observed the other faces in the elevator. 

That was the moment I started to get it. These were tourists from all over the world. They had cameras hanging from their necks and smiles on their faces. Going to the top of the Empire State Building was perhaps an odd perk in my workday but it was a huge deal for some of them.

Once we were corralled outside onto the observation deck, my eyes were more open to the people than to the view. You have to be careful not to walk through other people's pictures in a space like that, which actually offers you the opportunity to stare without being rude. There were a lot of couples with their arms around each other, probably in NYC for their honeymoons. This made the inside of my chest twinge a little. There was this huge family (from Italy maybe) with at least three generations posing for a big group shot. This made my chest twinge a lot.

I found a semi-quiet area and stared at the buildings below. There was a college kid who was looking so intently at the street over a thousand feet below that I wondered if he was thinking what it would be like to jump.  

When I looked out at Central Park, I smiled when I remembered being inside an apartment over-looking the park earlier in the day. The woman had three cats and they were the equivalent of her family. I felt guilty listening to her talk about her cats in detail like they were people because I mostly obsess over whether or not I should even have my two cats. I don't think I manage them well with my scattered, dramatic, traveling life.

The wind was blowing on the top of the Empire State Building. I took a few pictures with my iPhone. After doing a lap around the observation deck, we decided to head down. The elevator dumped us off into the gift shop, and it struck me how little desire I had to buy anything and that gave me a sense of relief.

We found Johnny waiting in his black SUV.

"Well?! What you think?!"

"It was nice, Johnny. Really, really nice. I'm glad we did it."

Johnny drove us to our next interview that was ten minutes away. He parked the SUV on a massively busy street that did not even seem parkable, yet he found a spot.

"Johnny, seriously. We have worked with you three times in New York and you always find a parking spot. Why is that?"

"Listen. Me? I positive. I always, always positive. I am always happy, and everybody love me."

Johnny's answer caught me by surprise because it was exactly what I was already thinking. Johnny is so fricking positive and that is why his driving always turns out OK was what I was thinking. There is a scene in "The Secret" where a guy talks about parking cars. He is always able to find a parking space up front and he believes it is because he visualizes the space and he knows it will be there. 

I will be the first to admit (and talk, and talk, and talk about) the fact that I am frustrated with my recently anxious, glass-half-empty brain. But I suppose one benefit of feeling that way right now is that it makes me a keen observer of those who aren't that way. Now, I can droll out a bunch of booster phrases, like:

  • "Life is 20 percent what happens to you and 80 percent how you respond to it"
  • "If you are at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on" (One of my dad's favorites)
  • "Responsible vs. Response-Able'" (Another good dad one) 
Etc., etc.

But you know what? Those phrases are not going to help you (or me) get out of bed in the morning. 

This is what I think, right now, at this moment. I think the only way to get it is to feel it and the only way to feel it is to look for it and find it in other people. I ask happy-looking people how they feel so that I can try to see the world through through their eyes. Johnny is happy because he loves his girlfriend, Johnny is happy because he loves New York, and Johnny is happy because of his strong roots in Santo Domingo. Today I tried to feel what it might feel like to be him and I also tried to be happy for him. 

Turning thirty soon and having none of the mile-markers I thought I would have (masters degree, married, baby, adult cooking and cleaning skill mastery) just sucks sometimes. Sometimes I get so caught up in what I haven't done that I lose sight of the things I have done. 

Maybe I can focus on being happy for others who have achieved those mile-markers and have quiet confidence that whatever is supposed to come my way will come when it will. Maybe, if we want to throw a little Buddha on this, I could say who cares about what I have and haven't done.

I think if you don't want to feel bad, you have to really want to feel better. You have to take a stand and be able to say "Life is a gift and I want to live it!" instead of doing that bullshitting fake happiness trick to protect yourself from all the seemingly genuinely happy people around you at the cocktail party. But, on the other hand, if you feel crappy and you feel like feeling that way, DO IT. Seriously. Just live it up, because it's alright to just be with it. 

"Just be with it" was something my aunt told me. She's right. I know I make myself miserable just trying to feel better. 

"Just be with it" is kind of a wild idea. It's like just drink the milk, even though it's spoiled. Just drink it. It's still milk and it won't always be this awfully sour. For now, you just gotta look up, tilt back that glass, and drink it on down.

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