Dave muffled a dry hack of a cough in the crook of his arm when he and I met up with my sister, Rita, and her friend, Susie, at the Hilton Garden Hotel. I doubt the girls noticed that he turned his face away as he gave them each a hug and, as for his pallor, well; he always looks gray in the winter. Plus, Rita’s wound was far more dramatic than a cough.
Since we were kids, Rita’s been prone to accidents, and more importantly, famous for her bravery in their wake. When she was two, she cut her little finger. Sadly, I have to admit it was largely my fault. Well, maybe all my fault. We’d been making a pyramid out of empty Coke bottles on the kitchen floor, and she’d inched her finger into the neck of one of the green glass bottles where it stuck.
“Break it,” I suggested. At age three and a half, this made sense.
She whacked the bottle on the floor, freed her finger, but bloodily, and spent the next few hours with Dr. Lamp. Mom returned with tales of Rita’s courage, and how she peacefully hummed a tune while the doctor stitched her up.
That summer in Cape Cod, Rita and I joined a gang of kids in clambering up the remnants of an old wooden jetty and racing to its end to jump into the sand. Somehow, my sister slipped, and thirty-two splinters lodged in the bottoms of her feet. A Coppertone-scented crowd gathered to watch as the lifeguard performed the extractions, announcing each, like a countdown, as Rita hummed a song.
On another occasion, we were watching television. Rita was in my way, so I gave her a push. Just a little one. But enough to send her tumbling into the TV, splitting her lip, and requiring another trip to the infamous Dr. Lamp. Again, Mom came home, agog at my sister’s courage.
Two weeks ago, although weather forecasters cautioned us about black ice, my sister ran errands. As she stopped at a friend’s house to pick up a donation for the local hospital, she slipped on an ice patch…and broke her elbow. I swear I had nothing to do with it. I was in Connecticut, nowhere nearby. She had surgery the next day, and had she not been under anesthesia, no doubt, she would have hummed.
By the time Dave and I saw her in New York, only a thin sheath of fabric covered and protected her scar, so of course – we are sisters after all - we played show and tell, and eww: 30 staples, a metal track of cruel teeth, zipped the bruised and swollen skin together. I witnessed no wincing, nor heard a single complaint; she was cheerful and jolly, excited to watch her boy play basketball.
For, on that Friday night, my nephew, Jared, was playing for the University of Rochester against NYU. Jared is blond, handsome, athletic, and 6’7”, and despite dependable losses for his team whenever Dave and I attend his games, we were there to cheer him on. Given our record – and our effect on his - he might not have been so excited about that.
The NYU gym was steamy, steamy enough to warrant a full peel of coats, gloves, scarves, and turtlenecks; I was down to jeans and the University of Rochester tee shirt Jared gave me for Christmas. I wished I’d worn some snappy boots like every other woman in that gym, but no, in my aversion to cold, I’d chosen sensible footwear: my cozy, but ugly – one might say butt-ugly - brown hiking boots. Plus, I noticed I was the only woman in that gym, except perhaps for a few aged grandmothers, who had not tucked her pants fashionably into knee-high boots. Sigh.
I rarely feel envious of youth. In a college setting, however, the contrast between the parade of sprightly hair-tossers with flawless skin and this wan 61–year old was brutally apparent. There was so much energetic bouncing going on! Balls on the court, and boobs under tight shirts as cheerleaders leapt to the top of a pyramid of friends, and pert young ones bounded lightly up the bleachers. With my creaky knees and clunky shoes, every descent from my seat was an awkward, halting affair.
The game was terrifyingly close. Rochester established a ten-point lead, but fell behind after half-time. Our throats grew hoarse as we cheered for our boy and roared at the refs, who were intent on calling fouls on Jared while ignoring hideous abuses by NYU, or so it seemed to my nephew’s fan club. Two points ahead, two behind. Up again – Yay! Down again, groan! Jockeying, sprinting, all kinds of great passing, but why don’t they try for the basket more? Argh! And finally, whoo-HOO! Rochester won! 62-60, with eight points by Jared. Briefly, we met him in the field house foyer, and gave him triumphant hugs before he headed out to the bus with his teammates.
The next morning, after a hasty good-bye to Rita and Susie and a fitful night with a hacking cough, Dave was sick, his cold in full attack. As he lay in bed, his face pale and sagging, his body heavy and limp, my mind flashed images of two empty seats at that night’s performance of “Jersey Boys” and the daunting prospect of our move – within hours – to a different hotel.
Yes, this was a weekend of plentiful entertainments, or that had been the plan. Last spring at a silent auction, we won tickets to Jersey Boys and a night at the Hotel Lucerne; for months, this date had been marked with capital letters and stars on my calendar. I am a capable person, but of the Lea-and-Dave team, Dave is the navigator when we hit tricky waters, and New York City, even at its best, represents white water rapids to me. As I listened to Dave’s snorflings and barks, I wondered, as I am wont to do in times of challenge, “What would a grown-up do?”
Obviously, the man needed medicine, and he said he might be able to nibble an orange and a plain bagel as well. “Don’t worry, honey!” I said gamely, as I shrugged on my heavy coat, scarf, ear-warmers, and gloves, giving every appearance of a person comfortable with the idea of venturing out, alone, into the streets of the city. “I’ll be back shortly!” I said as I blew him a kiss and closed the door of our room behind me.
Okay. Here I go. Out on my own in New York.
I took the elevator down to the lobby and the bright-eyed receptionist at the front desk. We exchanged good-mornings, and I told her of Dave’s cold and asked if there was a CVS nearby.
“Let me check,” she said, tapping on her keyboard. “Yes. One mile away. Will you walk or take the subway?”
The subway! As if. “I’ll walk,” I said.
“It’s frigid outside,” the girl said kindly. “What do you need? If it’s over-the-counter, there’s a pharmacy on the next block.” And she told me about a convenient good bagel place too. Easy! What a revelation. Ask for help…and people will help.
I can do this!
Buoyed by kindness happily given and the proximity of answers to Dave’s discomfort, I breezed through the automatic doors into …sunshine! And brisk, fresh, air! Into bustle, and life, and a sense of purpose! I turned to my right and spotted the huge green pharmacy sign, just as the receptionist had described. Heart uplifted, I marched, humming - almost as brave as my little sister - toward that beacon.
* * *
To reach the pharmacy, I had to cross a small park ringed with wrought iron railings and snow-dusted evergreen shrubs. Oddly, some New Yorkers had thought this the ideal spot to dump their garbage, leaving a prominent pile of stuffed black plastic bags smack in the midst of a circle of benches.
Just as I was forming nasty judgments, I realized the bags were bronze. This was not garbage, but sculpture! An intriguing contestant in the “What is art?” debate.
My friend Carey tells of attending an avant-garde art show, and her bemused wanderings from installation to installation, marveling at the…hm... shall we say obscure nature of some of the presentations. Was she too shallow, she wondered, to properly appreciate the masterpiece that was a string stretched from floor to wall, affixed with a thumbtack? Were others similarly dumbfounded or was it her failing alone? Finally, a piece caught her eye. Ah. Perhaps in this – slatted metal emitting a rush of air – she could understand the message. Intake and out-take. Coming and going. The very breath of life! She was close to turning to another visitor to expound on her interpretation when she realized the piece was not art, but a heating vent. A standard issue heating vent. Not "an Installation," but installed, yes, to keep the building warm.
I grinned in recalling Carey’s story, and as I neared the bronze, realized the piece before me was not what I’d thought either. Often art is an unfolding tale, imparting different meanings to different people. In this, I imagine, I’d reacted as the artist had intended, my perception shifting from garbage, to judgment, to sculpture, to… the unexpected. I laughed aloud, for the “bags” were mounded, tied, and welded to form a giant teddy bear. While the word “whimsical” annoys me, this bear was just that, in the best of ways. And I beamed, for yet again, New York had surprised me, forcing that shift in perception, from daunting and distasteful to friendly and delightful.
Susie, Lea, Jared, and Rita at NYU