Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Bottoms up

You know you're back in New York when you hop into that yellow taxi. It's not just the yellow taxi itself, or the taciturn Russian cabbie with a fetish for the blues played at ear-splitting volume, but the sign right in front of your nose that reads "Complaints: 212-NYC-TAXI". Not Comments or Compliments, but Complaints. And not a tentative, exploratory "Complaints?" either, just a flat old Complaints. You got 'em, here's where to put 'em.

Hey, not that we had anything to complain about. We were more than grateful to be home at all, after having sat on the runway for half an hour at LAX waiting for clearance to leave. Everything was futzed up because of the wildfires -- the actual control tower is in San Bernardino, where the fires were at their worst, and everyone had been evacuated. Scary stuff.

Then at the New York end we'd had to circle out to sea and come back in under the clouds and fog. I had to switch off the helpful little map on the TV screen in front, since as far as I could tell we were heading out into the Bermuda Triangle and losing altitude. I've never been so relieved to feel tarmac under the wheels since the time when, approaching the airport in Wellington, the passenger behind me started saying the rosary. Out loud.

So it was a looong flight, but miraculously Busytot held it together. Sticking a toddler into an aeroplane is like deploying a cross between the Star Trek transporter and the machine in that movie The Fly: you're never sure if you'll get a gentle emissary of love and peace from another planet or some horrific Babyzilla hybrid creature that somewhat resembles your own child but has tentacles and mandibles, screeches like a banshee, and eats hapless humans from the head down.

We must have won the toss. He was an angel the entire way, and as we all bundled off the plane at JFK more than one fellow traveler made as if to kiss our feet. We'd have kissed them too if we could reach.

Ah, but plunging back into winter – gloomy days, early evenings – is a shock to the system, although I love the way the gingko leaves make a glowing carpet on the street and the odd shaft of sunlight makes everyone look handsome in a romantic, European movie sort of way. Then there's the ritual of digging out last year's winter clothes and seeing if they'll fit. That goes for both my still mammarily enhanced figure and Busytot's steadily lengthening midriff. Alas, his favourite fire engine shirt exposes an unseasonal strip of pot-bellied toddler tummy, a good look perhaps if you're in a boy band but not so practical with temperatures plummeting.

Good excuse to go shopping for tops though, in this case in the discount stores up on 125th St. For the young master, I like to shop in the girls' section where the clothes are allowed to be colours other than khaki, grey and navy (and you can easily chop off the icky labels that say things like Baby Gurlz and Style Dollz). Mission accomplished (tops in fluffy purple, butter yellow, Armani black, to go with his rainbow coloured birthday cardie), and the junior model asleep in his stroller, I zipped back downstairs to check out the ladieswear -- with a quick detour first to reconnoitre the lingerie department.

This particular shop has Swedish origins and is a new arrival here, a bright spot on the otherwise dismal horizon of clothes-shopping in the US. I don't know what it is about shopping here. American clothes, on the whole, are kind of ghastly; you really have to look hard to find something interesting. I remember the sartorial nausea I felt on first visiting the Gap when I arrived (good grief) nearly eight years ago: everything was in deeply Maoist shades of white, black, navy, and khaki, and made of crisp cotton in uniformly depressing designs. I've taken to stocking up on visits back to NZ, where thanks to the exchange rate, my op-shop budget goes a little further and I can buy things that lift the soul to look at.

(Speaking of which: hooray for the girls at Minx, who ferried me over a beautiful pair of shoes in exactly the right size. I'd scoped their delicious range out while at home, but somehow managed to buy the right shoe in the wrong size one day before heading back. Cushla put that right, and now I want a pair in every colour!).

Anyway, there I was in the lingerie department of this particular emporium, fingering the goods, as it were. Lots of saucy boy-cut knickers in various shades and fabrics, reasonably priced, very tempting. Next to me, a couple dallied over frilly diamante-studded thongs in a range of colours ("Babydoll, you know I'm just gonna tear 'em offa you," noted the boyfriend, helpfully), and one aisle over, two women flicked through the racks of undies with the bored efficiency of teenagers in a CD shop. Said one to the other, "You know, sometimes people wear 'em and then bring 'em back, cos if you've got the receipt they have to give you a refund." "Ewwwww," said the friend, "that cannot be true!"

Back-up came from an unlikely quarter: two shop assistants busily picking up dropped bras and re-hanging them. "Mmm-hmmm," said one. "And some people try them on and then don't buy them. I was you ladies, I'd wash those before you wear them." More choruses of "ewwwww," but that wasn't the end of it. The other shop assistant, aware that she had the undivided attention of everyone in earshot, launched into a dramatic description of something that had allegedly happened in another branch.

As she told it, a woman came up to the checkout, whipped out her receipt, said "I bought these here but they don't fit right," and proceeded to step out of her thong undies and slap them on the counter. "Ain't nothing my friend could do but give her a refund and hang 'em back up on the rack" said the assistant with a cheerful shudder. Oddly, her listeners melted away and the lingerie department was suddenly quite empty. Perhaps I've been here too long: all I could think was blimey, I hope this happened in summer -- she'd have been in for a hellishly nasty draft up her wotsit on the way home, especially if the wind happened to be blowing off the chilly Hudson River...


Meanwhile, a spot of interesting reading for the maternal demographic: Lisa Belkin's oddly Stepfordian article in the New York Times magazine (registration required) on women who've "opted out" of top jobs to raise children, and an impressively quick smackdown by Joan Walsh in Salon (click through the necessary advertisement), followed by a bunch of stroppy letters from readers.

I was as flummoxed as the letter-writers were by the article's failure to interview a single solitary dad who had opted to stay home, let alone those invisible men who were cranking away fulltime in order that the women in the article could tend their hearths. Nor, as far as I could tell, did Belkin speak to any single parents, nor any parents who didn't happen to be white, even within her self-defined circle of "successful" folk. Nor even a single gay couple who'd made similarly complementary choices, unfettered by (but not unsusceptible to the effects of) traditional gender roles. Belkin writes good stuff, but this was a bit of a once-over-lightly. With any luck though, it will open up a new line of conversation, rather than confirm all the stereotypes about the relationship between mothering and work.

While I'm on the topic, Hilton Als' remarkably unquestioning profile of the amazing Toni Morrison in last week's New Yorker (not, alas, available online) details her evolution from single mum of toddlers to Nobel laureate without answering the question that instantly sprang to my mind: what did she do for child-care when she landed that crucial editing job at Random House? Inquiring minds want to know...not to be nosy, but just because it's part of the big picture.

And speaking of child-care, check out this alarming new report on just how much TV or video the average US tot watches. From the article: "The median time [per day] they spend watching some form of media or another on the screen is slightly more than two hours." So that means someone out there is watching more than two hours a day on behalf of our luddite household. Scary! Dodgy! Even if we're talking about "educational" videos like the creepily successful series Baby Einstein, that's a heck of a long time to sit on your bottom and zone out to purely visual stimulation. By the way, isn't it just the teensiest bit fishy that the original baby Einstein managed just fine without watching Baby Einstein?