Thursday, March 31, 2011

Old Dog Learns New Tricks

For a very long time, a young man who lives in the building next to mine has been smoking in our doorway, creating noxious conditions for non-smokers. I am well versed in the dangers of second hand smoke as I grew up with it, and have had pneumonia five times. My brother suffered from asthma as a child, unsurprisingly, as we were daily victims of our father's chain smoking at home and in closed cars. Walking out of my building through clouds of blue smoke every day has make me angry, and has also made my hair and clothing stink on a regular basis.

Yesterday, after glaring at our neighbor for months, I finally summoned the courage to ask him not to smoke in front of our door. I was prepared to back up my request with the fact that a San Francisco ordinance makes it illegal to do so within 18 feet of a door or window, but tried to find words which would not be overtly hostile.

"Would you please not smoke in front of our door?" I said. He replied, "I don't. I smoke in front of my own door." I said, "Well, it seems as if you're over here a lot, too." He said, "Is the smoke getting into your apartment?" "Yes." "Oh, sorry. I won't smoke there anymore," he said. I thanked him and went on my way, quite stunned at how nice he was about it. He is also so young that my maternal instincts fluttered for a moment, but I refrained from lecturing him on the effects of smoking. Quit while I was ahead.

Today, I noticed him puffing away on the far corner, across the street, his back to my building. I almost felt bad for banishing him, so I walked over and said, "I just want to thank you again for being so nice yesterday." He smiled and said, "There are lots of other places I can smoke." I continued, "I hesitated to mention it because I know everyone is mean to smokers. I don't hate smokers, I just hate smoke." Exhaling like a chem trail, he said, "No problem."

I've been hating him for months, and it was so unnecessary. I could have saved myself all that angry energy if I had manned up and mentioned it sooner. How could I have forgotten that most people are really nice if given a chance to be? I don't think we'll be Facebook friends or go to movies together, but now I'm sending good thoughts his way, and it's such a relief. Some of life's lessons come from the most unexpected places.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

First, the good news: I won the gift basket at the farmers' market I visit every Sunday morning. Once a month, they have a drawing for a wicker basket with $100 worth of produce, and I have never won it before. I had a strong feeling I would win it this time so when they called with the news, I was not surprised.

The produce in the basket is predominantly green in honor of St. Patrick's Day. I thought briefly of giving it back as I am not Irish and therefore, perhaps, undeserving, but luck of the Irish, the urge passed. And now I am in a moral quandary as there was a huge stalk of brussels sprouts, which I heartily despise although it is undeniably picturesque ~ like a shillelagh with lymph nodes, capable of inflicting grave mortal damage. So I mentally inventoried everyone to whom I could give the thing and came up empty. Throwing it away is not an option because it would be wrong to scorn free food, nasty as it is, grown by a farmer and given to me. There have been times in my life when I was hungry, and I'm not about to tempt the fates again.

I looked online for recipes and learned that brussels sprouts on the stalk are likely to have tiny bugs in them and should be soaked for 15 minutes. I'm a vegetarian. After removing the little heads from their momma, I set them to soak in the kitchen sink last night and they are still there, emitting a terrible odor. As a child, I was often importuned to eat because of all the starving children in Europe. I passionately wished that my parents would take all that liver and cauliflower and send it to them. In today's world, there are starving children everywhere, and some of them would doubtless love to dine on brussels sprouts. Again, I am powerless to repair this inequity.

Yet my resistance is great. I even looked to The Buddha for loopholes, but he laughed. He instructed that we think about where the food came from and the amount of work necessary to grow it, transport it, prepare it and bring it to the table. I've already covered the growing and transporting part on my own, am stuck on preparing and eating it. One should then consider if one deserves the food. Do I detect a slight bit of wiggle room there? Clearly I am unworthy if I am spending so much energy on not eating food I was given. I am the very definition of "unworthy." If you look it up in the dictionary, you will see my picture. Food is only received and eaten for the purpose of "realizing the Way," which is undeniably difficult to accomplish while gagging. What we have here is a doctrinal dilemma.

The Five Moral Precepts are no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or partaking of intoxicants. I do none of those except maybe lying on occasion. You would think I could finagle a pass on brussels sprouts. Reading further, I learn that onions, garlic and other pungent plants are forbidden. No one could deny that brussels sprouts are pungent. I read faster, but no. The five plants are onions, garlic, scallions, chives and radishes because eating them creates anger and bad temperament as well as attracting hungry ghosts. I would be willing to attract ghosts if they would take these brussels sprouts off my hands.

My limited understanding of Buddhism tells me that food, eating and taste are all illusions anyway, not a part of our true, seeing nature, which is distorted by our ignorance. Buddhism aims to end all suffering, and I believe that I can best advance my true, seeing nature by not suffering at dinner. After all, charity begins at home. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Greenwich Village Musings

My first apartment as an official adult was at 12 Gay Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. Gay Street is a tiny, winding street which runs for only one block between Christopher Street and Waverly Place. Originally a stable alley, it was widened in 1833 and became a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves on their way to freedom in Canada. When I lived there in 1960, it was barely wide enough for a single car. The sound of children roller skating on summer nights echoed against the buildings.

The original occupants of Gay Street were mostly black servants of the wealthy white people on Washington Square. It soon became home to many black musicians, which gave the area an artsy, boho quality. It was a magnet for diverse creative people.

The street runs through the site of a brewery owned by Wouter van Twiller, who succeeded Peter Minuit, the first Governor of New Netherland, in 1633. Federal houses, built between 1826-1833, lined the west side of the street, where I lived. On the east side, the houses were built in 1844-1860, and favored a Greek Revival style.

Around the corner on 6th Ave. was Balducci's open air produce market, from which I stole the occasional peach. There was a heady freedom in being a very young woman, walking around the fabled streets of Greenwich Village and feeling that I owned it, and myself, for the first time. Bob Dylan and other folk singers performed in coffee houses around the area, and the Village Vanguard, The Village Gate and The Blue Note hosted some of the biggest names in jazz on a regular basis. The Beat Generation began here in the 50's with Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and others, most of whom later migrated to San Francisco, which had a growing Beatnik movement and better weather.

Small and secretive, Gay Street was a natural location for speakeasies during the 20s, including the Pirate's Den at 12 Gay Street. The building was owned by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who kept his mistress, Betty Compton, there. A few years later, Frank Parris built his famous puppet, Howdy Doody, at that address. The house is believed to be haunted by an entity called the Gay Street Phantom.

Ruth McKenney lived next door at 14 Gay Street with her sister Eileen in the 30's, and wrote the book My Sister Eileen, which became a play, a musical and a movie. Eileen died in 1940 in a car accident with her husband, writer Nathanael West, a few days before a stage production of the play was to open. The movie, Carlito's Way, was also filmed here.

Nearby Bedford Street is the site of the city's narrowest house, 8 1/2 feet wide and 42 feet long, built in 1873. Edna St. Vincent Millay lived here between 1923 and 1924. Cary Grant and John Barrymore also lived in the house during its long history. It is currently for sale for $2.7 million and yes, I would buy it. I am small. It would fit me perfectly.

In 1969, I moved to the Village again with my two older children. My youngest had not been born yet. My daughter was in 1st grade at PS 41, and my son, a Montessori Preschool dropout, was my constant companion. We bought puppies to save them from pet store cages, played in Washington Square Park, and walked all over the city together. One day in March of 1970, strolling with both children on W. 11th Street, we heard a deafening noise and watched a house explode a half-block away. As emergency crews swarmed the area, I decided it would be wise to remove my children from the scene in case there was further danger, and we left.

The explosion was caused by the detonation of a bomb being built by a radical group called the Weather Underground, which was intended to be set off that evening at a dance for noncommissioned officers and their dates at the Fort Dix, NJ Army base "to bring the Vietnam war home." Several of the bomb makers were killed in the blast while others escaped. Dustin Hoffman and his first wife, Anne, lived next door and their home also sustained some damage, but they were not hurt.

In 1969 police raided The Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street. The patrons resisted and a riot ensued. This first rebellion and accompanying press coverage gave birth to the gay and lesbian movement.

Greenwich Village remains a haven for artists and non-conformists of all stripes, and much as I love my adopted city of San Francisco, I still miss it. They say three is a charm.