We’ve been watching a man drive a narrowboat down the canals and through the locks of the midlands of England. Chug. Chug. He stops to buy a curry in a small town. He talks about the curry. Tied up along the path, he works on the boat’s engine.
Every night we watch another episode of the narrowboat show. We’re not going anywhere, except where the narrowboat guy takes us — and he’s very limited by the speed of the boat and the (actually very impressive) network of canals and locks in the UK. I used to scream “Nooo!” when Eric said maybe we’d have a holiday on a canal boat someday.
What have I become?
There’s this house you pass on the NY State Thruway heading north, somewhere around where the exits start getting further and further apart; that hypnotic stretch between the Harriman exit and the Newburgh exit/I-84 interchange. A proud old house that sits at an odd angle established before the Thruway that makes it impossible to ignore as you drive by. There’s not a lot to look at along the road for miles around there and that house has always intrigued me but as I pass I’m usually driving nearly eighty miles an hour and am eager to be home. The thoughts “I wonder who lives there” and “that place is cool” plus “I think I can make it home without stopping at Plattekill rest area” float by.
I drove by last Saturday and the house had burned down.
It seemed to sum up everything.
I came up the thruway because I’d driven my daughter back down to the city. She’d come for a visit, staying a week — the longest she’s ever had time to stay with us. It seemed safest if she didn’t have to take the train. And god I do miss driving.
She was here when our town held a march in solidarity with protests all over honoring George Floyd and highlighting and demanding an end to the systemic injustice and racism in this country. Hazel and Eric and I went together. Enough Is Enough was what the young women who’d organized the march named it. I was worried about Eric — it had only been two weeks since he’d had a heart attack — but he felt up for going; insisted we march. It was moving and eye-opening and inspiring. Shouting and chanting with our neighbors, kneeling together — I hadn’t realized how much I needed to do these things, to show up and join in.
A middle-aged woman stood behind us in suitable upstate wear, cotton skirt, sports sandals, greying hair. Her large poster read: LISTENING. I could feel my daughter cringe. I found myself cringeing at the earnestness. But I decided I loved this woman. However embarrassing it might feel, she was making an attempt to learn something, to step back from talking and telling and being the expert on everything that is a New Yorker’s birthright or chosen state of mind. Here’s where we have to stumble along and admit our ignorance, or blindness. You can’t always know it all.
People have asked if I’ve met the neighbors that I wrote a blog and a song about. We had a short, hazy encounter over the hedge – me saying “hi there I’m your neighbor” and them looking terrified of me, the guy introducing himself and “my wife” while she stood mutely by. I thought they probably couldn’t figure out anything based on my working in the backyard garb of shorts, ballcap, long sleeved shirt and mask, and maybe they just saw me as that pesky older lady next door and then there was the matter of the white haired gentleman attired in a suit coat who comes out occasionally to talk to a groundhog.
The other day a delivery driver left the neighbors’ J.Crew package on our porch and I thought oh right, better take that over when I have a minute, planning to just quickly dump it on their porch, no meet and greet required. When I went to do that, the package was mysteriously gone! Leaving me to wonder if they’d come up on our porch and why and how? I imagine they learned there’d been a delivery and not seeing it had come looking for it but the whole thing left me feeling a little less than satisfied — like there was something accusatory in them coming up on our porch, whereas it would have been largesse if it had been me on their porch. Oh it’s a minefield this neighbor stuff. It was so much easier just having that house next door be empty…
Our neighbor on the other side Jason’s dad comes over every Monday to mow the grass. He uses a riding mower and is very focused when he’s mowing. This past Monday, I was out with the push mower and he came swooping around when I was pushing towards him. I waved and he waved and for two minutes we were dancing with our mowers — I backed up and he cut in and it was so sweet I thought “is this what it means to become an old person?”
About that groundhog. Eric calls him Graham. He lives in the overgrown area near the decaying Hammond organ. We love Graham. One morning, I saw him sitting in the pouring rain, looking happy to be alive. He’s ungainly, he’s unapologetic.
I’d gone for months without coloring my hair. Not because I go to a salon to get it done but because it felt like the type of penance I needed to be doing. Or an experiment. All those posts people put up about going grey.
Well I’m not grey yet. Just…washed out with a silver streak. I missed that little boost that color brings. Maybe I will be one of those little old ladies you see in France or Brooklyn or wherever, with that chocolate-colored cap of hair. Not trying to fool anyone. Just doing it because it makes you feel like you have something under control for a minute.
I’m not as relaxed as Graham — not yet.
I went to pick up Chinese food from our local place. Linda, the nice woman who runs it, stood alone behind a plywood and plexiglass barrier. She’s always so friendly and we have a good laugh, this time as there were no other customers we chatted for a minute. She talked about the virus, how her niece in the city had survived it, and two relatives in New Jersey died from it. “Why can’t people just wear a mask? Why do they have to be mean about it?” she asked. I thought she seemed so brave and tough, standing there in an empty restaurant, handing me my food and thanking me for wearing a mask. They’d basically rebuilt the front of the place to let them keep working. They are one of the few options in our little town and I really missed having them there when they were figuring out how to do business. I just wanted to hug her but of course that wasn’t possible. All I could do was thank her so much and tip her more than usual. I cried when I got back in the car, partly that anyone would give this lovely woman a hard time, but mostly just at her resilience.
I stopped by the bookstore/bar, which has been open only for pickup book and beer orders since the middle of March. Sitting at the bar talking to the owner, seeing and smelling the books, like a load of old friends and some new ones I hadn’t seen before; the floorboards I’ve swept hundreds of times, made me emotional. I’d thought I wanted to go back to work, but what I really want is for things to go back to the way they were before the pandemic and I realized that isn’t possible. Browsing ie touching everything in the store, drinkers pressed up next to each other, these behaviors will not be possible again for a long time.
I still have my main job, that I’ve been working at for almost forty years: writing songs and recording; performing. I almost had a show this weekend — it was going to be an outdoor event, socially-distanced, about forty five minutes away. A house concert so the host would know everyone, but in the end they decided to postpone until…August? How will things be different then? Maybe we will just be so tired of sitting still and used to putting on masks and staying away from each other in public that it actually will be possible. I hope so. I think I have a couple actual gigs still on the books for this year. And I don’t feel confident about them. And I’ve been tested and I have antibodies! I just don’t know about promoting things, until people are ready to go out again. Until there’s a vaccine? It seems pointless to fret about it. I’ve been trying to do the thing I never have time to do when I’m out working in music: work on music.
I saw a beauty salon chair just over the road and thought “wait, that’s free?” It seemed to have my name invisibly emblazoned somewhere on it. I jumped on my bike and wheeled around to take a look.
Yep — free. Nobody was around so I decided to think about it over night, and if it was still there in the morning, maybe it would have to come home with me. I doubted I’d ever actually plug it in and use it but who knows? Everything is in flux. Maybe it’ll be a whole new life path for me. My grandfather was an Italian barber and I’ve always been able to cut hair a little.
The next morning, the guy who lives in the house with the salon chair out front was in his driveway. I decided to run over and ask him about it.
“Hey Dave, hi! Are you really giving that chair away?”
“Yeah, it was my daughter’s. You want it?”
I was giddy. “I think I do!”
“Take that chair and you’ll be my friend for life,” Dave said.
Dave is our town’s Chief of Police.
Timing was never my strong suit.
I took the chair.
Today, we’re getting a boat.