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In Search of Quiet Spaces

I’m back in the city for a few days in search of quiet spaces—both internal and external—to think, read, and write. Usually, the atelier in my apartment is very quiet. It’s a room at the back, off the street. The doves coo on the roof and there is mechanical ambient sound, but it falls into the background as I work. Today, the air has cooled and the screened window is wide open to the surrounding brick walls. There isn’t much light but I don’t need light at the computer. I’ll find that later when I take a break and go swimming in a glass enclosed pool. Yet later, I’ll take another break from a revision I’m starting to meet a friend for a coffee. Alas, some of the quietude I rely on here has been broken and the quiet space is not quiet this week. We had a bad fire in our building.

It happened at 4 a.m. last Monday morning. When we arrived from upstate later that afternoon, the fire was over but there was still a lot of activity—police, restoration crews, fire trucks. About fifteen apartments were effected—not ours thankfully—the whole roof destroyed as well as two apartments in the adjacent building. Fortunately, no one was hurt though several families have lost their homes. Most of the damage was water damage. In the aftermath, the building is busy with insurer adjusters and crews and machines drying out the walls. So, yesterday morning, I escaped across town to a writer’s room I used to belong to and thought I’d rejoin for a few months until the building is back in shape. It was a difficult trip to the other side of town in sheeting rain. The building, an old library, had been closed for renovation over the summer. Now it was reopened but still busy with workers. None of this was mentioned on their website. I regretted not calling ahead but I was desperate to find a quiet space to work. I hadn’t done a stick of work all morning and was feeling mighty frustrated.

In the end, it was my own mood that did me in. Obstacles in every direction, I hated the city in that moment. I had to calm down. I returned home, ate some lunch, and watched a recorded Antiques Roadshow with my husband for an hour. Then I returned to my desk.

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No Paper, No Pen

I got locked out of my car yesterday, my keys in my backpack on the seat together with: my wallet with AAA card, my cell phone, my reading glasses, my two pads of paper and pens, water, my Kindle, a New Yorker. It was a hot, muggy day and something had gone wrong with the electronics; the car is not supposed to lock automatically. As soon as it happened, without pen and paper, I started writing a story about the adventure in my head. It had a plot, characters, descriptive detail, each of which were added in a rapidly unfolding melodrama. It was the only way I could stay focused and sane because I wasn’t in a very congenial place when this happened.

I’d been in the local library working all afternoon and then had the brainy idea that I’d vacuum the car at a self-serve car wash next to a Stewart’s before heading back to the house. There is a prison nearby and this particular Stewart’s attracts released inmates and families of inmates, motorcycle gangs, burly corrections officers carrying mega-weapons, and me.

I put my backpack on my back, locked the car, headed for the change machine, returned to the car, put the coins into the machine, opened the door, put my backpack on the seat, let the door slide shut for a minute, and that was it. I had to go into the Stewart’s and ask for help. It was not forthcoming. I had my silver jewelry on and long earrings, city girl, all of which made me more vulnerable because the folks up this way don’t like city people. In fact, their hatred of city people is more intense than I have experienced anywhere.

It all goes back to 1905 when the City of New York asked the State of New York, to grant eminent domain to build a reservoir, the Ashokan Reservoir. Ten towns were “removed” and two others destroyed. Most of the residents of these towns had been there for generations. I had just finished a novella based on this story and it was fresh in my mind. I saw the unfriendly faces at Stewart’s and I understood, but that didn’t make my situation any easier: the manager refused to call the police or to lend me a quarter for the pay phone. I couldn’t even dial 911 without a quarter.

So I took a deep, long breath and looked around. At least it is cool in here, I thought to myself. And there are water bottles. Then a young man behind the ice cream counter smiled at me, a good sign. So I asked him, directly, if he could lend me a quarter. He came over with four. This was brave as he had, in a way, defied his manager. I smiled at him, and thanked him, and he gave me a big, long, knowing smile right back. I asked his name: Jack. Lone dissenter, I thought. Not only is he defying the manager, he’s defying history.

By now, all the customers were paying attention, including those sitting at a couple of tables eating sandwiches. A young man had lead the way into kindness. Then an old woman came up to me and offered me her glasses, a piece of paper, and a pen to write down important phone numbers, she said. She stayed close to me in a very protective way until I reached the Sheriff and then the AAA.

I probably was only in Stewart’s for thirty minutes before the Sheriff arrived. He was a big, burly, sweet-faced Deputy wearing a Stetson hat. He didn't say much, just took out the yellow metal rod and got to it. Within minutes, the door was open. I thanked him, he smiled, and had me sign a piece of paper.

Back inside Stewart’s, I repaid the quarters to Jack and offered him a “reward,” but he refused to take my money apart from what he’d loaned me. And so I announced, to all who were present, that Jack was a fine young man and his parents should be proud of him. He had helped me without expectation of reward.

By this time, the guardian angel who had loaned me her glasses had left. I still have the pen and paper she gave me in the glove compartment of my car where I will keep it as a memento of my day.
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