Wednesday, March 17, 2010

just trying to sound interesting

We just finished the super busy part of our New York week, during which I ate farro porridge, citrus-cured anchovies, wheat puffs with yogurt and tamarind sauce, and an Oreo donut; and felt alternately inspired and intimidated by the publishing industry.

I did have some free time on Saturday, which gave me plenty of opportunity to get rained on. On every corner there were mangled umbrellas apparently abandoned in fits of angry futility: Umbrellas don’t help when it’s raining sideways.

But a quick fix for anyone feeling sorry for herself because she’s soggy and under-published is a trip to the Tenement Museum on the Lower Eastside. An actual pre-building-codes-of-any-sort tenement building from 1863, the museum offers tours of several apartments restored to the way they looked when specific families lived there: German immigrants in the 1870s, Italian immigrants in the 1930s, etc. The apartments are cute and not so small by New York standards. But then you look around and think, Wait, where’s the bathroom? And the fridge? And the place where the four kids sleep?

(Answers: Outside. Not invented. On a fold-up bed inside that big sack.)

But it’s not all poverty porn. The tour I went on was called “Getting By: Past and Present” and it reflected the latest in museum-education trends (hot!) in that our guide encouraged us all to share our own family immigration stories.

(Answers: Ireland. Germany. Latvia by way of England. Mississippi.)

The woman who said “Mississippi” was from Arkansas, and when our guide asked her a follow-up question, she said, “Oh, I don’t know. We’ve been in Arkansas for as long as I can remember. I was just trying to sound interesting.”

We talked about current immigrant populations, gentrification and other intentionally touchy subjects. But things didn’t heat up much, perhaps because we were a fairly homogenous group: all white, all American-born, all seemingly educated. We were the kind of group that asked things like, “So, are most of your tours made up of educated American white people?”

(Answer: White and educated, yes. American, no. Now, let’s get back to talking about immigration, what do you say?)

The girl in me who never threw away her AP US history textbook lapped it all up, then reluctantly returned to the 21st century. Now I’m curled up in my amazing hotel, with its 20th-century movie posters and indoor plumbing. Charlie the cat is at my feet. If we can invent toilets, we can save literature, right? Or will it go the way of the icebox and the outhouse—things we are happy to do without?

(Answer: Uh…blowing in the wind?)


Claire said...

I would've been fairly stumped for an immigration story too. I can reel off where but have no connection or knowledge of who actually crossed the Atlantic...and not all of my ancestors did.

Are you still in NYC? The weather's been gorgeous here for 2 days... hope you're getting to enjoy some of it too. But then you live in SoCal so it's not like it's been cold all winter for you. Some blue skies maybe though? Not sure how smoggy NYC is these days.

I bailed said...

The Tenement Museum was my favorite museum in NYC. Maybe because it was so similar to the studio i was staying in way out in East Flatbush...
You going to be home in early April? I coming to LA (well, OC really) and would love to see you.

Cheryl said...

C: Still in NYC and loving the beautiful weather! Yeah, it would have been interesting if we'd had some natives in our group (although, there was that land bridge from Asia way back...).

Y: I'll be around in the early part of early April. Email me your dates--I would love to see you too!