“Visits always give pleasure–if not the arrival, the departure.”
― Portuguese Proverb

Moving to New York City wasn’t a well thought-out plan on our part. And that’s on us.

My girlfriend and I were preparing to graduate from Grad School and feverishly sending out résumés to just about anyone accepting résumés in our field. First we got the wild idea that we wanted to live in California. This might be due to the fact that we had just gotten back from a translation conference in San Diego, and the Sunshine and Warmth were so appealing after a bleak and cold Ohio Winter. We were using our studio apartment in a run-down motel as an office/headquarters for our operations. She had the bed as a desk/work station. And I had an old office chair I stole with my laptop balanced on my knees.

If only it were this nice...

If only it were this nice…

The chair had been acquired about a year earlier. I was working as a part-time faculty member at the university, which was just a nice way of saying you have the same rights as a Grad. Teaching Assistant but with less pay and no health insurance, and there was this old, crappy green office chair. Someone had taped on the front and back of it a sign that read “TRASH”. I figured, what the hell?… and tried it out to make sure it would indeed function as a chair.

  • Can you sit in it? ✔️
  • Is it somewhat comfortable? ✔️
  • Can you lean back without falling over? ✔️
  • Does it roll?

Oh well… Some WD-40 would fix that last problem right up, tout de suite. I carried it out to my car that was halfway across campus. It was at this point that I realized I didn’t give much thought to how it was going to fit into my 1995 Buick Century, which is a big car when it comes to sedans. It was the Great White Whale of cars, but I spent a good 20 minutes trying to stuff the damn chair into it. I was in the middle of trying to untangle the seat belt from one of the wheels when a voice came in from over my shoulder. It was so close that I felt the hot breath on my neck.

“Can I help you, son?”

I spun around while still trying to balance the half of the chair that was hanging out of the car only to see a Patrol Officer. “What? Oh no, sir,” I said. “Just trying to get this thing in the car…”

“Where did you get that chair from, son?” he said with hands on his hips. He appeared to be at least 4 or 5 years younger than me and I was wondering why he was saying “son” repeatedly. Maybe it was his full-stop marker… to let people know that his sentence was completed and it was alright for them to start their portion of the conversation.

“This old thing?” I had a moment to think this over, and when dealing with the cops, you generally don’t want to think too long or they might think you’re lying, and I decided not to lie. “I got it from my office. Yup, right over there. It was heading for the garbage and I thought, hell, why not just take it?”

“Do you have permission to take this? If you don’t, it needs to go to the trash, son.”

“Yessir, talked to the Department Chair and he OK’d the whole thing…. Just came in today to pick it up and do some grading.” This time I had decided to lie. About both things as a matter of fact. I typically only went in to my office for the air conditioning and grading was generally just a pretense. But I definitely lied about the chair. And why not? My papa might have raised a fool, but why not make him happy from time to time? And one of the lessons he tried to impart to me after getting illegally searched by a Highway Patrol Officer for having grass clippings on my floor board was that you can’t trust a cop. Particularly not the leather-boot clad throat-stompers that are the TN HWP and especially not one trying to do you a favor…

He stared at me a moment and then at the chair.

“Alright, let me give you a hand…” So I let him. Because at this point, he would have been an Accessory and he wouldn’t dare rat himself out. He lowered the seat a bit as I pushed the chair in. I went around and climbed in the driver’s seat of the Great White Whale and waved to him as I pulled out of the parking lot. He waved back and shouted, “Take care, son!”

Good god, sorry about that, folks…. Sometimes memories lead to other memories and result in long rigmaroles…

Where was I? Right, applying for jobs and ending up in NYC!

We had probably filled out 15-20 applications each— most of mine going to San Francisco or Los Angeles. I was basically recycling résumés and cover letter by cutting names and address and pasting new ones in… streamlining the process so that I could get 4 or 5 applications out a night. Then one day my girlfriend comes home and says, “I have an interview!”

“Alright! Where?”

“New York City!”

And that’s how it happened. She got the job the following week or so. And I was scrambling to find meaningful employment in a city I had never even been to before. I was still interviewing at places while we were looking at apartments. Apartment hunting in the City is a daunting task. A lot of places were asking that we make anywhere from $80k to $100k a year. And at that point only one of us actually had a job… and it didn’t pay even half of what they were asking. We had to tell some little white lies just to secure a place, something along the lines of “Oh, you need proof of employment? OK, sure… yeah, yeah… Listen, I just got this job… and I’ll ask them for proof of employment… yeah, yeah, I start next month, so they might not give it to me until then. But, I’ll see what I can do…” It worked and thankfully I ended up getting a job the very next week.

NYC isn’t the first Big City I have lived in. But it is by far the biggest. I was born in Santa Monica, CA, but I spent a good portion of my childhood and teenage years in Tennessee. And it seems to me that moving to a Big City is a mixed bag. On one hand, I don’t need a car anymore. No more insurance, no more pumping gas, no more looking for places to park, no more getting my windshield smashed by drunken frat boys on Friday nights. On the other hand, the Subway. But on the other hand… no one ever really wanted to visit me in Tennessee… or Ohio for that matter.

The City is a cool place to visit and I don’t mind guests…. This year alone, we have had fifteen (15) visitors and at least one (1) more coming at the end of the month. But, what I found interesting was that as soon as we moved here, our number of Friends on Facebook climbed dramatically the longer we were here. People we hadn’t spoken to since the 3rd grade or just people we have randomly met in bars who have somehow learned that we’ve moved to the City. An average message found in my inbox might look like something like this:

Futon

Generally I try to be cordial about it unless it really wouldn’t work out. This has happened a few times. And typically the person forgets I exist until the next time around. One was arriving while I away visiting family, but I would have been back on his last night and I offered to meet up for drinks or dinner. They never returned my call.

One of the strangest things was finding out that my cousin was actually living here to go to Law School. We only found out about each other’s locations when our grandmother sent an email out and asked him if he was still in Queens. But that was to be expected. My father was blacklisted by my grandmother. He is the Black Sheep of the family. But that’s kind of a Badge of Honor and should be worn proudly when you realize those who haven’t been blacklisted are coke-fiends, money-hungry capitalists, and Mormon. They wouldn’t think twice about selling you down River for a wedding dress or an apartment in Malibu and when you are in their presence you should keep a tight grip on your wallet and even stronger one on your wife.

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I’ve been told one of these men is my father…

So we agreed to meet up a few times. I learned we even lived in Ohio at the same time for two (2) out of the four (4) years I lived there. Our meetings basically always ended up with us rehashing family reunions or stories about our grandparents. This happened maybe two (2) or three (3) times and then he moved away. But last week he showed up randomly with my other cousin who I hadn’t seen in probably fifteen (15) or sixteen (16) years. We went out for beers and it turned out to be the same as the previous gatherings in the City. We lamented the absence of my brother since that would have put all the male cousins in one place for the first time in over a decade. Then we remembered we had another male cousin…. And we agreed: We were alright with him not being there.

One thing I learned is that my brother and I are considered the Hillbillies of the family for having lived on a farm in Tennessee, but we are also considered fine Southern Gentlemen… granted we were both born and raised in California. What the hell? I’ll take that as a compliment and just this once ignore the finer details.

That was the start of what I am calling Family Week in NYC. I’m calling it that since that same week eight (8) of my girlfriends family arrived from Germany that following Tuesday. And, except for one brother, it was the first time I was meeting any of them…

zeGermams

That Tuesday was a blitz effort that included two (2) different airports in two (2) different states, eleven (11) bags and suitcases schlepped from Newark to Queens on four (4) different trains and up/down five (5) flights of stairs, and required the knowledge of two (2) different languages.

I had been nervous about meeting her family. Especially her father. After all, I’m the short, plain American holding their daughter hostage in some Strange Land and I wanted to make the best impression possible. When we boarded the train at Newark, we had to spread out to find seats not only for ourselves but for the luggage, too. And somehow it ended up that her father decided to sit with me. Good god, I thought, German don’t fail me now! It had been about three (3) years since I spoke German last for more than a handful of sentences… and her father doesn’t speak any English. So, it was either say something banal auf Deutsch or figure out how I could continue looking at my knees for the next thirty (30) minutes. “So, it’s your first time to the US, huh?”

“Yup, and my last…”

Ho ho, and we’re off! That should be a class they teach at the University— “Awkward German 101: So You Got a Rash on Your Privates or Small-Talk Hell on the Train.” I sat there skimming my brain for any sort of follow-up remark to statement when he followed up with: “That book, that one you gave me for Christmas… The one Kurt Vonnegut wrote. I’ve seen the Slaughterhouse. I remember it and could probably show it to you. You are coming to Dresden someday, yes?”

I assured him that I was and he continued, “Yeah, I remember, I was 5 years old and when we finally went outside, everything was black except for the red sky above Dresden… Oh, it was a beautiful City. War is pointless. My father went to War and lived long enough to come back and die.” And at this point he stopped talking and my brain kicked into gear again trying to find something meaningful to say. I thought about telling him about my Great-Uncle Harry who was one of those men who bombed Dresden… but I decided not to.

Dresden

No, I couldn’t say that for whatever reason. Instead, I asked about Karl May, who was from my girlfriend’s hometown. He was surprised I knew who that was. If there is one thing I can say about myself, it is that I am fairly well-read when it comes to German Literature… and I was smart enough to frequently ask my girlfriend about her family history and hometown. So we spent the rest of train ride discussing Karl May’s Westerns and criminal past and didn’t discuss Nazis or WWII for the remainder of the trip.

The next day was basically a walking tour of the City starting at the Empire State Building and ending with me crashing at 9pm at home while everyone else went to a Broadway show. While standing at the top of the Empire State Building, her father come over to me and I pointed out the One World Trade Center, completely forgetting that it was the Eve of the Sept. 11th Anniversary. He said to me, “I remember watching it live on the news and feeling sad for you.”

“I was just coming in from Marching Band practice and my teacher said, ‘Hey, look, some asshole flew into one of the WTC buildings…’ right as the second plane hit,” I said. “I think that’s when the Simplicity of my Childhood ended.”

Na ja, Krieg…“¹

I ended up having to work the rest of the time they were here. But, we ate breakfast every morning and had drinks at night. Her father was also an ENT doctor before he retired and took a good look at my tonsils. And it didn’t cost me $400 and was informed that I wouldn’t suffer a heart attack getting them removed as the other doctor stated. But, I definitely needed them removed. I realized over those few days that they were here, that it was nice having people around and I felt pretty at ease with them. We talked about the Refugees pouring into Germany. Her dad didn’t seem all that worried about them. Instead all he said was, “We have wolves. And they are eating the sheep.”

image

On their last day in the City, I had her dad tell me some East German jokes and explain to me why the Volkspolizei (the East German police force) were considered Idiots. “Well, I had a house and I rented these rooms to this old lady and to this young lady…. The young lady brought her boyfriend home with her and snuck him up to her room. But this guy had followed them home and was trying to get in with them… So, he got a ladder, but at this time two policemen showed up and told him to just break the window and crawl in. The man did just that, he busted my window and crawled in…. It was then that the two officers realized that he was breaking in and demanded he come out…. Only now he was lost in the house and couldn’t see in the dark…”

I laughed at the story and part of my brain was telling me something was lost in translation. When I got home that night, I asked my girlfriend about the story and told it to her the way I understood it. “Yeah, that’s what he said…”

“Good god, they were Idiots…”

I guess cops around the World are pretty helpful when it comes to breaking the Law.

Ciao and good night!
Kurt


¹ Something along the lines of “Well, war…” with the meaning “It will never end/always the same story.”