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The Artful Voyager, 12-6: Central Park in the Dark
Taking the long way home

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Sometimes a lot happens on a day when nothing seems to be happening. Friday was one of those days.

It came at the end of a week that had been more than a bit grueling. Three weeks ago, on a rare late night bus trip uptown -- waaaaaaay uptown, to Yonkers -- at about 204th Street and Broadway I spotted the orange-red marquee of the House of Mofungo. I resisted the temptation to get off right there, but returned during the day later in the week, ending up at another more humble place up the street, where the classic Puerto Rican dish was exquisite -- a perfectly shaped mold of mashed plantains and pork, with delectable meat sauce poured over it and a salad on the side, all for $8, with the frosted Presidente beer a total of $11. Cumbia was playing of course.

The only downside was the healthy chunk of the pork that had lodged in an upper molar and that has since resisted all efforts to evict it. Then last Tuesday, lunching with a friend at a Japanese place with a great luncheon deal ($9 - $12 for a main course, soup, salad, turnip pickle, squash, and shrimp dumplings), I suddenly couldn't eat with the left side of my mouth, and finally had to give up after two hours when my friend had to go back to work. It was time to really attack the remaining mofungo with the floss, which I did when I got home. Instead of dislodging the meat, I dislodged the tooth, but only partially. There was a lot of blood, then a lot of discomfort.

I hadn't been to a dentist since I'd returned to the States this Summer after nine years in France, and dreaded it. There was no way pulling a tooth in New York would cost as little as it had in Paris (40 Euros or about $50). A friend proposed the NYU Dental College as the cheapest option, so after some Internet research, I learned that it would be cutting it too close to try to dash to the emergency clinic that afternoon. Instead I went ahead with a RDV with Emmanuelle (not her real name), my new friend and the organizer of the Vian spectacle in which I've somehow found myself taking part, accidentally fuflilling a dream of acting in NY abandoned 30 years ago. (I had just wanted to meet some French people.) My mood improved as the waitress at the Brasserie Julien on 3rd told me no, they didn't have Kwak, but they did have the Kwak mug, and I'd be welcome to drink my Guiness in it. The Kwak mug is actually a wooden casing with a hole in which balances precariously a sort of test-tube serving as a glass. I sipped the Guiness slowly through the right side of my mouth.

On Wednesday, I battled the wind and rain on 3rd and made my way from the upper east side, where I'm taking care of two cats (one of whom, who I call the stealth Siamese, rarely makes an appearance) down to the NYU Dental College on 24th & 2nd, opting to walk instead of take the subway mostly to clear my head. I'd been pretty depressed about losing another part of my body and hadn't gotten much sleep, filled with dread of the impending dental bill as much as of whatever student dentist would be pulling my tooth.

Afterwards (you don't really need to know the gruesome details of the dental session), after stocking up on inexpensive domestic blue cheese at East Village Cheese and dried tortellini at the new to me Trader Joe's on 14th, I decided I had to have a knish from Yona Schimmel's Knishes on Houston street, a much more interesting packaging of the mashed potatoes the student dentist had prescribed for going gental on my teeth than the plain version. The Russian emigrant who had replaced Yonah was no more, himself replaced by a southeast Asian immigrant who smiled at me as I frowned at him after seeing that the prices had more than doubled. A nice nosh at $1.50 nine years ago, the knishes had now outpriced themselves at $3.50.

So instead, bearing in mind that I was cutting it close to make it back uptown by 2 p.m. for a job interview, I decided to head further downtown to see if the Chinese lady that used to sell me noodles with sauce and squid and chicken porridge for $1 a pop was still on Grand Street. I made my way past (and to think that I saw it on...) Mulberry Street and over to Eldridge, then headed down past Stanton and a city block-long park where I used to sip the soup towards Grand, where, amazingly enough, a Chinese lady was there, braving the continuing rain and wind. The chicken porridge soup was as good as I remembered, as I ducked under an awning near Delancey street to sip it.

That night, the tooth out, my worries moved to the left side of my lower stomach, where I seemed to have a cramp. It was still there the next morning, so I checked the Web under "burst appendix" and was reassured to find that usually, this would be felt on the right side of the lower stomach.

The cramp had mostly dissipated by Friday. As often seems to be the case these days, I didn't know where to start working that day -- with what I like doing (writing and posting photos on the Dance Insider's Home page) or what often feels like the Sisyphisian task of trying to get dance studios and tutu-makers to advertise in the New York Review of Books of dance magazines, ours. I'd have to leave by 12:45 for the rescheduled job interview at the music magazine anyway.

The interview for the music magazine went well until the publisher mentioned the salary. She'd warned me it was low, but I thought it would at least be decent. Who pays a seasoned journalist -- who pays anyone, for that matter? -- $8 an hour, just 75 cents above the minimum wage? "If you come to our staff meeting next Tuesday, you'll get a free dinner out of it!," said the lady. I don't want a free dinner; I just want to be paid a salary that reflects the 32 years of experience I bring to the job.

Perhaps it was because of my anger at the magazine publisher that I had an internal over-reaction to a minor misunderstanding that happened later. Emmanuelle and I had talked about going to Friday's rehearsal together, which I thought was still the plan; unbenownst to me, an Internet gnome had swallowed her e of that morning tellling me it would not be possible. Not knowing this, I did a slow burn and added a new chip on my shoulder as I traversed 72nd Street and Central Park (easier than I thought; you just follow the cars, passing the Bethesda Fountain and ultimately the Lennon Memorial at Strawberry Fields) -- even conflating this out of proportion to another example of how I seem relate to French women -- which quickly dissipated when Emmanuelle explained to me later that she in fact e'd me.

My emotional mercurialness continued in the rehearsal -- understandably perhaps, as the through-line of our work Friday night was exploring how each of our characters dealt with different situations, and the internal and interpersonal emotional dynamics. In one of the Vian sketches, I portray a priest who goes into a bar (all the sketches are set in bars)and becomes indignant when he witnesses a prostitute in the process of hooking up with a client, but ends up inviting her to confess... in her room. After we ran through it, the my colleagues suggested that the priest's indignation might just be a ploy intended to bed the prostitute, so we tried the sketch a few more times with me having this intention in mind. At one point I became confused about my motivation, so as Emmanuelle and the director, Nina, kept praising the humble physical approach I'd taken, I badgered Emmanuelle, "Oui, mais c'est quoi mon motivation?" It was almost as if I was still trying to pick an argument. Seeing Emmanuelle, fatigued from showing visitors from Marseille around town the past week, reeling from my persistence, I finally let up.

The rehearsal ended in general improvised bedlam. Just as we thought we were winding up, Nina proposed that Emmanuelle, who had been trying different approaches to the role of the Barman/madame in the sketch, get back onstage and try them all, as we watched from the school-desks in the 'audience' (we rehearse at City College). After 10 minutes of leaving her on her own to do so, Nina started heckling her, as a client at the bar, Stephane increased the stakes by walking to a corner of the 'bar' and making like he was pissing, and I feigned going to sleep, waking up intermittently to 'vomit' before going again collapsing.

Afterwards we repaired again to Cafe con Leche, the relatively affordable resto on the upper west side with a menu melanging Cuban, Portuguese, and Chilean cuisine. "We get off here," said Stephane at the 79th Street station. I looked at Emmanuelle. "But what's my motivation?"

Les marseillaises, with Emmanuelle's boyfriend Adrian in tow, joined us at the resto, providing me with an opportunity to show off my Marseille expertise and pursue my ongoing obsession with all things old in France and whether one can still find them. "Can one still find the old Marseille in Marseille?" I asked them. The man, Pascal, turned to the woman, Severine, who shrugged. The big problem in Marseille these days, it seems, is Oakland-style drug wars, with 16-year-olds getting gunned down. (Derniere nouvelles: Friday night an 11-year-old boy became the youngest ever victim of a targetted gangland shooting in France, getting gunned down outside a housing project in northern Marseille where he may have been acting as lookout.)

Afterwards, I decided to walk home, heading down to and then across 72nd Street and then following the winding Park Drive all the way to the Fifth Avenue exit; after all, a midnight stroll through Central Park had to less dangerous for a 40-something journalist than living in a project in Marseille was for a French boy.

As I made my way in the chilly crispy New York night past Strawberry Fields, then under the imposing statue of Daniel Webster, by and over the darkened Bethesda Fountain (you know it from "Angels in America," where the fountains curative powers are vaunted), accompanied only by a Chinese man following the same route who made me feel slightly less isolated, I felt in a bit of a space warp, realzing that in the past seven months my late-night walks had covered starry nights in the southwestern France country side with pauses on a bridge over-looking a tributary fo the mighty Dordogne, arrosed by eau de vie; the Iron Horse trail leading from the BART station in Pleasant Hill to the house where I was cat-sitting in Walnut Creek; the Seine as taken in from the Pont Royal, the Pont des Arts, the Pont Neuf, and various other bridges in Central Paris; and Eureka Valley in San Francisco, looking over the sparkling downtown and beyond the Bay and portions of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had traversed continents, but was still learning to bridge the gap between one human being and another.



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