Stepping from a cab
onto a rainy street
in New York City
where I live
I’m splashed
by cabs that pass at speed
forcing force sheets of
dirty water up and over
enemies on foot,
like me.

Like that,
the risks I take
in loving you are sure.

Hiking on the streets
in summertime
in New York City
where I live
when it’s too hot
to walk and just the heat
makes blisters on my feet
when sanity is living
in the country for the season
only few remain
to face the heat,
like me.

Like that,
the pain I feel
in loving you is sure.

Along the ways I walk,
the sweet green hedges
that you offer hide
barbed wire that’s
the darkness and the hunger
of your inner self,
and all the little flowers
that you leave for me
hide tiny insects
in their hearts.

When you’re very sweet to me,
you double round the corner,
fast, just after,
leaving just the
sound of slamming doors.

Intentions that I live
to be myself,
despite the pain I feel
when I love you, despite
your sometimes feet of clay,
are true and real.

Your dispassion,
standing coolly there,
outside my home of love,
will not pull down its walls
that shelter us,
nor will the often chill
within your heart
tear warmth and sweetness
from my love,
to toss them in the wind.

I have no way to end this poem.
The future will provide its final lines.
I’m feeling dramatic today, it’s true,
but the pain I write in is real.
I want to see your eyes, see the boundary between the moment and you.
This is what you get for being really nice to me, then going away right after:
Whinging and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.
Civilization has fled for the nonce.
I’m sitting at your feet on an uncushioned low stool of woven thorns, not of willows.

Autumn Sometimes Walks To Summer

Sweetgum trees, with ruddy leaves like stars,
their scent fills autumn air
from darkened ground to morning sky.

Their trunks are long-stretched, rugged necks.
Or are they legs, in stockings dark and rough?
Do sweetgums walk at night?

The dark and vaulted columns hold their
fiery autumn leaves, like burning stars,
above my head, and keep me safe.

Five-pointed flames are tender underfoot,
dry rustling snow of sweetgum leaves.
Red stars float down (and sometimes kiss my hair).

In drifts of leaves upon the ground
my walk disturbs a layered natural order,
stained-glass wines and reds are stripped away.

In blackened ferment where new earth is born,
a tuft of grass will sometimes show an August green,
untouched by all decay above its head.

© 7 Oct 2006 Heather Quinn

Autumn Sometimes Walks To Summer: Verbose

Sweetgums’ autumn scent
claims this sacred clearing
from the darkened, dappled ground
up to the morning sky.
A canopy of intermittent starry fire
is held above the
sweetgums’ long-stretched, rugged necks.
Or are these columns legs,
in stockings made of dark, rough bark?
Do sweetgums walk at night?
Their black-brown vaulting holds
the stars of fire high
above my head, and keeps me safe,
although a star or two is always
wafting down. They sometimes drift into my hair,
they rustle softly underfoot,
a dry, sweet snow of sweetgum leaves.

In drifts of ruddy stars upon the ground
my steps disturb a layered natural order.
New and tender, gently laid in current time,
the stained-glass wines and reds
are stripped away, and show
the brown-black ferment underneath.
And in that dark transition zone
where fire is changed to earth,
a tuft of summer grass
will sometimes show.
A gleam of August green,
untouched by fall’s decay
above its head.

Note: The title above comes from two places
of current color transition.
One is a grove of sweetgum trees.
The other is a mystery:
My gmail chat status was set to busy last night,
and when I woke today, I was available, instead.
It changed itself, from orange into green,
like autumn walking into summer,
like August grass that flourishes
under mounds of autumn leaves.

Sky Blue

the places, to live and to be,
for the artist that’s inside of me,
in wrenched-apart clouds were born,
from skies broken open by storm:

when i was a baby my mom
carriaged me outside our home.
my real mom the sky and the trees.
now i love sky, i love trees.

when i’m sad, i look in the air.
my sky blue and green mom is there.
within the clouds’ spaces i live,
my mother’s green leaves are my crib.

my feet on my mother’s tree arms
my head in my mother’s sky eyes
my arms side to side
and my fingers stretched out
my bare feet my fingers my palms
in contact with god and my mom.

Necco Magic

Items required for Necco Magic:

Summer nights.
Central New York State’s Finger Lakes.
Specifically, Lake Keuka, shaped like a Y.
A foray to Penn Yan or another town, to buy supplies.
The green Studebaker.
A little childish audacity.
The parents, whose supplies-buying trip in the Studebaker was their first summer delight.

Our parents were running away from us for an hour or so. We needed audacity to face their gleeful guilt, and ask them to bring back Necco wafers.

In the summer night, our thin summer pyjamas looking ghostly in the dark, we’d grope under our pillows, to find the Necco wafers we’d put there after our parents brought them back.

Magic time.

First, a skill: Opening the roll at the top, so the thin transluscent paper didn’t tear to spill wafers over bed and floor. Then, a mystery: finding white wafers, which were almost impossible to distinguish from other light colors in the dark. Then, an accomplishment: snapping them so they sparked — they had to be fresh (dry, untasted, and unlicked), held the right way (possible only if they were unchipped, unbroken), and the right pressure had to be applied to crack them halfway across. This produced a tiny spark of light in the deep summer night.

And eating them. The white ones had a harsh mint-like flavor that seemed to corrode the tender skin of our upper palates. The others were more mellow, and much enjoyed, especially the orange and chocolate flavors. The licorice were to be avoided, but since they looked like chocolate in the dark, we never escaped their sharp vegetal taste.

We’d start each summer believing we’d only dreamed of white wafers that could spark. If we had fresh wafers and luck (not every roll had white wafers amongst the others), the dream would become real for a moment or two. The usual maximim of Necco wafer rolls per child per summer was one. If we were lucky, and more came our way, we’d just eat them. When the first tiny sparks flashed and disappeared into the summer night, the myth and magic disappeared with them. Thereafter, Necco wafers lived with us in the everyday world as candies, and nothing more.

Back home, as we moved through the seasons after summer, the myth of the sparking white Necco wafers would grow from summer-end’s nothing to something. In late summer and the autumn, Necco wafers didn’t exist. By Christmas time, fleeting thoughts of dark nights with round white disks and tiny sparks might shimmer their way into our minds. By springtime, the visions were more substantial and exciting. And when summer started, the magic would be fully alive again.

Necco wafers never sparked, back home. Our parents’ explanation was the Necco wafers purchased downstate were made in a different factory. Perhaps the downstate Necco rolls were simply stale, spending their existence sitting quietly in the candy racks while other, fancier, pricier candies were steadily paid for and eaten by the more affluent families in the downstate counties — until dreamers like us bought them at last.

The summmertime magic of Necco wafers became a family secret. It was our own discovery, or so we thought then. There was no way to prove the myth was not a myth, because Necco wafers never sparked, back home. The Necco secret could only be shared with the closest of pals, who might believe us on our word alone. I only told one other person outside the family that Necco wafers were sometimes made of magic. The magic worked only if we were lucky and careful and skillful, and it lasted for only a few moments of our first summer nights in a rented bungalow, perched on a steep wooded slope above pretty Y-shaped Lake Keuka…

…and that brings to mind the year when the toilet didn’t flush! Our bungalow that year was perhaps 60 feet above lake level, and there wasn’t enough water pressure to allow the toilet to flush properly.

Our legs grew very strong, and we became work-hardened, and the soles of our feet became splinter-chafed, as we climbed down and up, down and up, six zigzagging flights of open board stairs to the lake, our buckets in hand, to lift lake water to the house to use for flushing the toilet. A week or more into our stay, after the problem had been fixed by a plumber, I guess by repairing a pump, I remember missing those treks. That was real work, and we didn’t have enough if it, usually. It seemed grown-up stuff to me, serious and survival-related. Those days of lifting water by hand to make sure family hygiene was preserved, became part of my ethos. I took hard work and service and stoicism as my secret friends. And I became very skilled at flushing toilets with buckets of water.

view of Lake Keuka from the shore
P.S. While setting up the links in this post, I found that the white Necco wafers were flavored with cinnamon (elaichi)– no wonder they stung our mouths. And it’s the pink wafers, which are flavored with wintergreen, that actually spark. So much for the accuracy of childhood memories, and night vision! Without knowing what was happening, we’d been able to tell white Necco wafers from pink ones, in that downstate dark that’s not so dark, due to the ambient light from its population centers. And we’d been cracking the white wafers, that don’t spark, while eating up the pink ones, that do. No wonder Necco wafers never sparked, back home.

New York City’s Cop Horses

Today’s NY Times carries a story about the horse cops in New York. Not the mounted police, but the horses themselves.

These beautiful animals deserve great respect for being able to handle a difficult job. I also have much admiration for the police officers who care for and ride these horses. The mounted police need extra compassion and strength to be able to handle these big, sensitive animals, along with their own difficult jobs as law enforcers.

I’ve loved horses all my life. To encounter one of the big brown or bay New York City police horses in Manhattan is always a thrill for me.

I used to work near a police stable, and every evening when I’d leave the office, I’d see two or three mounted police officers riding up Eighth Avenue, near Times Square.

Mounted officers’s heads are about 10 feet from the ground. The mounted cops would be riding up Eighth, chatting with each other like gods, high above the rest of us mortals on the pavement. The horses’ heads were about a foot higher than my own. I’d try to make eye contact with the horses. They’d often greet me with a whinney or a snort. One horse would rear up slightly to say hello. They always knew I was interested in them, and had good enough dispositions and training that they enjoyed the interest.

They were brilliant animals — an amazing thing to see in the crowded, gray streets of midtown Manhattan. Enjoy the story, A New Crime Fighter, for $10 in Hay and Oats — it has a good multimedia piece about how they’re prepared for work on the streets.

So, today I take my hat off today to the NY Times, for publishing this story about these beloved animals. (OK, so I don’t wear hats, and it’s true that, even if I did, today is too warm for a hat anyway. It’s my metaphorical hat that’s off to the Times for this story.)

© 19 Apr 2006 Heather Quinn

New York City and Politeness

The NY Times online edition was redesigned a couple of weeks ago. On the whole, the redesign is effective, in my opinion. I’ve begun to read the online edition with more care, because the site is now more inviting and easier to navigate. I have become — ta-da — more engaged with the paper’s online edition. And so, I’ve decided to add my voice to the legion of those who blog about the Thus this blog, and below, my first post.

New Yorkers and Politeness: A brief tutorial for non-New Yorkers

Now, it may be news to you, but NYC is one of the most polite cities in the world. We even have politeness laws. This is the subject of discussion in a New York Times local color article today, called "New York Leads Politeness Trend? Get Outta Here!".

Some of these politeness laws have existed for decades. And some are newer, having been recently passed to deal with things like the deliberately rude style of the hip-hop generation.

New Yorkers take pride in being helpful and polite. We rely, for the most part, on unwritten rules to promite civility in New York City. Strangely, many outsiders don’t see us as being polite. Real politeness comes from emotional and social openness — having a real caring for others’ well-being. New Yorkers have these qualities in abundance, but we’re not blatant in expressing them. Maybe that’s why people like to think of us as impolite.

Yet once you’re aware of some of our unwritten politeness rules, the picture will be entirely different for you. You’ll see the polite, caring nature of the typical New Yorker for what it is. Here’s a brief tutorial on two of our most important unwritten rules, for those of you who are not New Yorkers.

Lack of emotional openness in NYC? Not so! Our eye-contact rules prove otherwise!

The reason we’re not blantant in our emotional openness here in New York City is: NYC streets are very crowded, and we consider it very polite to stay out of others’ lives unless we’re invited. It’s even considered correct street etiquette to not look into others’ eyes. That means not at all — unless there’s an emergency of some kind (this is explained below).

The basis for our eye-contact rules is to give everyone a sense of emotional safety in public places. Yes, New Yorkers really care about you that much. Here are the basics of our eye-contact rules:

  • No eye contact of any kind is allowed — unless the city has been attacked, there’s been a power loss, or we’re in the first two or three days of transit strike.
  • If a New Yorker should happen to make eye contact with someone else accidentally, we’ll use two specific techniques to defuse the situation:
    • We’ll de-focus our own eyes immediately.
    • Then, we’ll shift our gaze minusculely.

These two defusing techniques are quite effective at making you question that we’d ever caught your eyes in the first place. This renders our momentary faux-pas almost invisible — as you should be to us, and we to you.

We use variations of the basic eye-contact rules to communicate with you, the visitor, non-verbally.

  • Here’s how we signify disapproval: (Imagine you’re the strange party.) We’ll engage your eyes for a moment, hold your gaze pointedly for two seconds or so, then drop our eyes, without a smile.
  • Now, when we want to signifiy approval, we’ll do the same, but this time we do it with a smile.
  • And when we want to signify to you that we think you’re really the best, we’ll start with the basic approval technique, and add to it, like this: We’ll continue to hold your gaze and smile until we’ve passed you by.

When you visit our fair city, if you feel ignored, take heart! Either you’re doing just fine as a human being (from our point of view), and so we’re ignoring you — or you’re completely hopeless (from our point of view) and you’ve been placed under the protection of a sensitive and merciful fog of anonymity, and so we’re ignoring you. Either way, when you’re invisible to us, you are one of us.

Socially unopen in NYC? Well, yes, but there are reasons…
and we New Yorkers are socially caring — our LSOTRC tourist pack rule will prove it!

The reason we’re not socially open is we’re from all parts of the world here in NYC, and we’re all strangers to each other. Why rock an already shaky boat with presumptions of friendship right off the bat? Yet New Yorkers really care about everyone, you included. A good example of how much we care about you. is how we New Yorkers handle the ubiquitous LSOTRC tourist packs that block our sidewalks.

To understand how we determine if we should apply the LSOTRC tourist pack rule, you’ll need to know the secret of how the New Yorker identifies someone as a tourist. There are two reliable methods:

  • Head alignment
    • New Yorkers look ahead or down (the better to avoid cracked pavement, potholes, gum and dog poop — the latter two requiring real alertness on hot days).
    • Tourists look up (the better to see the tops of all the skyscrapers).
  • Group size
    • New Yorkers walk along the sidewalk pavements singly, or in groups of twos or threes at the most.
    • Tourists move in packs.

Now when it comes to tourists in packs, tourists who come from countries that drive on the left side of the roads are a very special case. Not only do they move in packs, they also walk on the wrong side of our sidewalks.

The New Yorker has a polite, caring, and effective rule, with special techniques used to deal with packs of left-side-of-the-roads-country (LSOTRC) tourists who are either stopped and looking up, or walking and looking up, and who are, one way or another, blocking the wrong side of the sidewalk.

The rule is designed to help keep NYC sidewalks clear for other pedestrians. The rule’s techniques are designed to teach outsiders a standard NYC “streets and sidewalks” rule. The whole thing only takes a few seconds to do, and is always very considerate of the tourist pack members’ feelings and intelligence. Here’s how it works:

  • The New Yorker will first stop, and hold his or her ground until noticed by the pack of LSOTRC tourists, despite the slight risk this poses to the New Yorker for being pushed out of the way, or getting knocked down.
  • Once noticed, the New Yorker will engage the eyes of someone in the tourist pack, arch his or her eyebrows just a little, smile slightly (grimace-style smiles work best), then pointedly move aside, sometimes with a graceful bow-like flourish, so the tourists can continue on their way.
  • The New Yorker will then look over his or her shoulder, to stare sideways at the pack as it continues on its pavement-blocking way.
  • Now comes the real social connection, and the ignition point of the communication of an unwritten New York City rule and tradition: The smartest person in the LSOTRC pack will sense this post-encounter stare, and will look back over his or her shoulder, and catch the New Yorker’s eyes.
  • The New Yorker will then raise his or her eyebrows again, and smile at the smart tourist in a between-you-and-me sort of way.
  • At that point, the smart tourist will turn, and nudge the rest of the LSOTRC pack over to the correct side of the pavement.

For the New Yorker, this is mission accomplished — a NYC point of etiquette passed on in 5 seconds, to some who may themselves become New Yorkers in the future.

Younger New Yorkers are changing the techniques for this rule to suit their generation and work districts. My son works in a heavily tourist-infested area of Manhattan. When he encounters a LSOTRC tourist pack sidewalk blockage, he’ll choose between these two techniques — whichever seems most convenient and effective at the moment:

  • He plows right through them.
  • He takes to the street, to get around them.

My son’s generation, caught in a competitive squeeze, has less time to exercise the courtliness of older techniques. But notice the persistance of politeness even in the newer techniques. There is no pushing aside of tourists, no knocking them down, and certainly no shouting at them, in these newer methods of handling LSOTRC packs.

Note: The above tutorial on NYC politeness and sidewalk etiquette was written tongue in cheek — but only slightly so! This is pretty much the way it really works.

About Gray’s and their Polite New Yorker buttons

Apropos of another item in the "New York Leads Politeness Trend? Get Outta Here!" article, I actually have a Gray’s Papaya “Polite New Yorker” button stashed away somewhere.

In my experience, Gray’s employees usually leave the buttons off their uniforms. On those days when they wear them, the Gray’s counter guys all seem to be wearing slightly sardonic, glazed-eyed expressions along with the buttons. I like to imagine that the buttons and glazey eyes are because they’ve recently had a visit from management.

The Gray’s counter guys are exuberant when I give them a $2.25 tip (the change from a $5 bill for a $2.75 hot dog and drink purchase), which the two to five counter guys split between them — tips are not usually left for the workers at Gray’s stands. Draw your own conclusions.

By the way, Gray’s hot dogs are good, rich and salty. The papaya drink helps you digest the hot dog. Gray’s is a business in the real New York tradition: Affordable food that tastes good, and is cooked and served by people happy for a very small tip. As a cash business, it poses a particular temptation that’s also a long-standing New York tradition. I’m completely certain that the owners of Gray’s resist this traditional temptation with an uprightness that lends dignity to the term "New York City business".

© 16 Apr 2006 Heather Quinn