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Sarah Churchwell… the essays she does punctuate with meaning -- not just typography -- are superb.
— The New York Times
Sometimes, living in New York, I got invited to movie premieres and screenings. There were all kinds. Usually a premiere was held in a cinema-tickets and the invitation for the party to follow came in the mail. There would be a big crowd gathered in front of the theater to watch the arrival of the celebrities, a velvet rope, security guards, Klieg lights on the streets lighting huge arcs in the sky.
After the movie there was usually a party of some sort. One I remember was held in the Plaza hotel, following a Western comedy: hamburgers and beans were served on paper plates. One was in the restaurant adjacent to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. Another time the guests were taken in old-fashioned English double-decker buses from the movie theater to a restaurant.
I had lost the passes to get us on the bus, so I went around the line to ask the woman taking the tickets what I should do-if she would let us on the bus without them. Later, somebody wrote an angry article in a local free newspaper, about how I had thought I was so important I tried to cut to the front of the line. I kept wanting to say, That's not why I went to the front of the line! I went to the front of the line to find outwhether or not I would even be let on to the bus without a ticket or should I find a taxi. But in this situation, my own personal equivalent to a movie star's getting a mean mention for behavior, there was nothing I could do.
Screenings were more fun; one got to see the movie in a little screening room, and some of these were incredibly fancy, with only twenty or thirty huge plush seats, high in a skyscraper, just a few of you at your own private movie in Manhattan. Sometimes after this the director might take a group out to dinner.
Of course the best premiere I ever went to was for the Merchant-Ivory film based on my book Slaves of New York in 1986. Bloomingdale's had opened a boutique with clothing based on the fashion worn in the movie. My Grandma Anne attended and each time the photographers tried to take my picture my tiny grandmother appeared out of nowhere and sprang into the picture alongside me, shouting, "I'm the grandma!" She was so totally gleeful-at getting her picture taken-that I always felt good that I had given her that experience before her death. Then a red carpet was laid out across Third Avenue-the entire stretch, across the avenue-and traffic was stopped so that the attendees could leave Bloomingdale's and cross the street to the movie theater.
During the movie not one person laughed. Fortunately the next night my brother and mother attended (there was a second, different premiere) and even though on this night the theater was still totally quiet, my mother and brother were sitting directly in front of me, howling, screaming with laughter. So at least at that time, for the movie, there was an audience of two.
Another time I was invited to a movie premiere which was to be followed by a dinner at the Museum of Modern Art. Tim, my husband, was out of town so I invited a friend of his-who had become my friend, too-to be my date. I was very pleased to go to a premiere and to have a friend to go with, and it seemed particularly nice in the last days of summer, first days of early fall, to be having dinner in the museum.
I didn't feel so good, bloated and a little queasy, but I dressed carefully and put on black tights and a long flowing black skirt, with a T-shirt and a sort of long frock coat over it. I think it was an old design of Nicole Miller's, whom I knew and who had given it to me. I liked being covered up. My idea of a bathing suit would have been one of those Victorian things down to my ankles, but even at night it seemed best to keep every inch of skin covered. That way nobody could look at me and judge me; and since I am my own harshest judge, I knew what they were thinking.
The film wasn't particularly good but it wasn't unbearable and later it won all kinds of prizes. Afterwards everyone walked the block or so to the museum and we showed special passes to get in.
It wasn't the most glamorous evening, though it might have been if you had never done one of these things before, but it was entertaining in a peculiar New York sort of way, to be at a party in a museum that was closed to the general public, at night time. But neither of us really knew any of the other guests. That made things a bit awkward; it was like attending a cocktail party for a business in which you didn't work.
Then my friend bumped into someone he knew and introduced me and the three of us stood chatting near the top of the escalator going down.
Suddenly I realized my black tights were wet. They were completely soaked. Next it occurred to me my shoes were sodden, like two sponges. It seemed very peculiar. I looked and saw the shoes were full not of water but of blood. For a moment I didn't move. Drops of blood began to dot the floor. The floor was shiny and the dots of blood were very red.
"Excuse me," I said and I went down the escalator toward the women's lavatory.
By the time I got to the bottom of the escalator my shoes were almost overflowing and in the toilet I started to bleed more. There was blood everywhere. I couldn't control it. Finally I mopped myself up a bit with toilet paper, and the floor and toilet. I went out and bought a sanitary napkin from the machine with my only dime, dripping blood everywhere.
Back in the toilet stall I bled through the sanitary napkin. There was blood on the walls, and all over the floor, it looked as if someone had been murdered. In a way it was sort of cool, I thought, even though I couldn't figure out how this had happened. I was getting a lot weaker.
Women were going in and out and it seemed a bit peculiar that no one called, "Are you all right in there? Do you need help?"
Suddenly there was a commotion at the door; I peered out the crack in the toilet stall and saw that three men had entered with buckets and mops as well as two women, all five were in janitor uniforms. "Somebody cut themself?" one of the men was saying.
"There's blood all over the floor," a woman said. She sounded furious.
"Going up on the first floor, too," another man said.
They began to mop and scrub. "Who did it?" said a woman.
"The blood led down here."
They must have known it was I, I thought, since I saw there was a pool of blood leading directly to my toilet stall. Surely one of them might ask if I was OK. It was true I had made a mess and was very ashamed, but after all, what if I was trying to commit suicide and was bleeding to death in here, that would be a lot more work for them. It occurred to me it might be amusing to put on a couple of different voices, in a high voice I could scream, "Stop! Stop!" and in a deeper voice I would say, "I'm going to kill you!" Then I could bounce back and forth between the walls as if I was being throttled. This was a long time before the O.J. Simpson case. How surprised the cleaners would be when they finally burst open the door to my stall and found only me, covered in blood: it would be like a Sherlock. Holmes case, the attacker mysteriously vanished.
They finished mopping and left. The women's lavatory was quiet and empty. Once in a while a woman came in to use the facilities but I guess nothing appeared amiss. I tried to wring out my stockings and clean up my shoes. Each shoe was so full I tipped out the contents into the toilet. I was still bleeding, but not as heavily, and I went out and got a lot of paper towels since I didn't have another dime to get anything out of the machine. In the mirror my face was absolutely blanched. There was blood all over my hands and some had gotten on my face. I had never seen so much blood in my life.
"You were gone for forty minutes," my friend said. "I thought maybe you left. Where were you?"
I don't know why I didn't say having a miscarriage. "I was in the lavatory," I said. "It's not that much fun, being female." I was maybe three-quarters embarrassed and about one-quarter amused. I don't know why it amused me, that I could so easily have been left for dead in the lavatory of the Museum of Modern Art, but it did. We went to the bar to get another glass of wine.
After this whenever there was some dumb girl in the newspapers who went into a bathroom and gave birth and left and then was accused of murdering her infant, I always had sympathy for the girl. I was a lot older than my teens but at that moment if a full-term baby had slipped out into the toilet and drowned, along with all the blood, I probably wouldn't have known what was happening. If I was in my teens and nobody said, "Are you ok? Are you alive?" I don't think I would have felt it mattered whether or not a baby was alive, if I even thought to look. And it would have served the lavatory attendants right if the next day one of them had found a dead baby.
I've always hated articles about the joys of motherhood. Come to think of it, I also despise pieces about dogs, children, travel, and coming-of-age. That hasn't stopped me from using these topics, though, apart from "coming of age"-but only because I still haven't arrived at it yet.
We are in Beijing, on route to adopt our baby. Our group consists of eight couples and two single women, along with our leader, a woman named Xian Wen, who will serve as tour-guide for two days in Beijing before we fly down to Heifei to collect the babies, where Xian Wen will be doing the necessary paperwork. Heifei, a two-and-a-half-hour flight, is located in Anhui Province, an inland south-central area with the large industrial city of Heifei on a parallel with Shanghai.
Even though I had been so anxious, even desperate, to get our baby when we were back in New York, for some reason I calmed down the minute we arrived in China. The other couples are all frantic to get the kids, most of whom are around nine months old and whom we have only seen in photos. But after more than eight months of excruciating paperwork, now that we have landed I suddenly wonder: what's the rush?
The forms we had to acquire for the adoption had been endless. It was like a scavenger hunt: the FBI, for example, needed fingerprints to prove we weren't on their Most Wanted list. Birth certificates with original signatures had to be acquired, then sent to city departments, taken to state departments, government departments, then the Chinese consulate. Medical exams were needed; tax statements; letters of recommendation; our minds had to be probed.
All that time it seemed we never would get our baby, who was getting older by the minute and in the only picture we had of her, taken when she was two months old, had a surly expression already-by my standards, a positive attribute.
I might have adopted years ago, even before I met my husband almost eight years earlier, although I had never been entirely certain whether I had maternal tendencies toward babies. I knew I had maternal tendencies towards dogs; and I always knew any child of mine would have doggish qualities, so I wasn't too concerned. I worked at home, as a writer, so I had plenty of time on my hands: I could never write for more than a few hours a day, and when I was finished all that was left for me was to stare at the ceiling, wondering why I had picked novel-writing as a career. Fourteen years ago I had come to Manhattan in search of other human beings and had found myself only a short time later on the cover of New York magazine, standing in a meat locker with a lot of frozen carcasses and a successful novel. (The photographer asked where I wanted my picture taken; since I lived in the meat market district, I said, "In a meat locker." At the time it made sense.) Now, I felt, I was on to even bigger adventures.
I knew Tim would make a wonderful father. I rarely picked up friends' children, since whenever I did they burst into tears. Not so with Tim. But I never could believe that anyone would let us adopt a baby-we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Two adults, three dogs, and both of us collected books (Tim is a curator), so that there really was scarcely any room. But the adoption agency assured us that two rooms were an improvement over a crib in an orphanage, and that once we were driven out of our minds we would double our efforts to find another place to live.
Soon we would be a family, or whatever the equivalent was at the end of the twentieth century. That was why, once in Beijing, I was so happy when my anxiety and apprehensions disappeared. We were taken to see the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City. In Tiananmen Square a woman got run over by a taxi-not someone in our group, though.
I loved everything about the place-the historical sights, and the shopping (cashmere sweaters more expensive than I thought, at a hundred dollars for top quality, in the richest, lushest range of hues I have ever seen-celadon, cinnabar, peagreen and candy-pink; huge cashmere shawls for a hundred and fifty; dresses similar in style to those found in New York, of fantastically patterned silk with prints that for some reason remind me of Paris in the thirties and forties, for thirty), and the antiques market (beautiful old chests of Chinese elm lined with camphor wood, fifty dollars, brilliant vermilion lacquer-leather trunks, forty dollars) and the restaurants. We ate in our hotel, which was a modern skyscraper-our last night alone as a couple-and I couldn't get over the menu, which was the most fabulous menu I thought I had ever seen. Under the category "Danty of Sea Food" were listed:
Fried Fish Maw with Stuff and green Cucumber Sautéed Cuttle-fish with American Celery Braised Shark's fin in Brown sauce with Three Shreds of Seafood Sea Blubber with Cucumber Shreds
There were also, under the "Vetable" heading:
Braised Hedgehog Hydnun Fried Whole Scorpion. Dry-Braised Dick Strip in Brawn Sauce
"Let's stay away from the dry-braised dick strip in brawn sauce," Tim said.
"Ok," I said, "but why don't we try the fried whole scorpion? It's only ten cents, and it can't possibly really be a scorpion-it's under the Vetable heading."
The waitress seemed astonished that we wanted fried whole scorpion. "Maybe scorpion's out of season?" I said.
"Only one?" She shook her head. "Only one?" she repeated.
"Ok," said Tim, to placate her. "Two."
A few minutes later two fried, whole, black scorpions-claws outstretched, tails curled-arrived at our table, each positioned on a rice cracker.
"Do you think people usually order a whole platterful?" I said.
Excerpted from area code 212 by Tama Janowitz Copyright © 2004 by Tama Janowitz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|"Another day almost over"|
|Looks good on paper||8|
|A New York marriage||19|
|Commencement speech at the community college of Beaver County||21|
|White, single, and female, in New York City||34|
|And baby makes four||42|
|The New York child||49|
|The New York jungle||50|
|Willow, aged four and a half||61|
|Eat your peas||63|
|Why I'm a little-dog person||69|
|A New York squirrel||74|
|City squirrel no. 2||75|
|The dog without a personality||78|
|The difference between dogs and babies||85|
|Obsessed with ferrets||96|
|A trip to the veterinarian||105|
|The New York birdman||109|
|Queen of the Brooklyn rodeo||113|
|Raped by butterflies||117|
|A monarch in Manhattan||120|
|The kangaroos at the zoo||122|
|Sex, unable to||130|
|My peculiar affliction||134|
|A visit to Bellevue Hospital||138|
|Maybe I am, maybe not||147|
|The food chain||154|
|The supermarket, part two||159|
|The dinner party||161|
|New York wrestling restaurant||170|
|An evening at the very fine Pierre Hotel||178|
|The black hole in the donut||184|
|Bar and grill||195|
|Why I love New York||213|
|A heck of a town||215|
|The city dweller's daily writing routine||222|
|I was an elderly teenage extra in a video for MTV||224|
|Art in the early '80s||229|
|The story of publishing as told by an author||247|
|Summer of excess||249|
|Big city makeover||256|
|Some New York apartments||269|
|Noise in New York||277|
|New York media||280|
|A New York bank||283|
|The literary mafia||288|
|The economy of New York||297|
|The same but not the same||315|
|New York City, one more time||322|
|Something that still brings tears when I think about it||337|
|Assignment from the New York Times Op-Ed page||345|