Moving house is a lot like childbirth, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the latter about as much as it’s possible to. They're both painful and grueling processes, no matter how much you reassure yourself that thousands of others have survived, many of them without the aid of drugs. There is no way out but through. And after all the anticipation and waiting, and the messy, animal grunting and puffing, suddenly you are delivered to the delirious chaos of your new life, and it feels like you never were anywhere else.
Of course, there are also ways in which moving is not at all like labour. This time it sure as hell wasn’t me doing the pushing. It took a great deal longer than nine hours, and the clean-up is taking even longer. And the movers who midwifed our transition from NYC to New Haven were a dubious crew, exuding none of the calm professionalism of the sage women who attended Busytot’s arrival. In fact, their first words inspired the opposite of confidence: “[Expletive] [deity],” their wiry moustachioed leader said, “we won’t get this done in a day.”
And they didn’t. Bugger. Thank goodness for our friends two buildings down, and their spare beds. Who knew we had so much stuff? The crew wasn’t helped by the narrowness of our street, which necessitated moving the truck a dozen times or so. Temporarily homeless, Busytot and I roamed the streets, saying farewell to our favourite cathedral (St John the Divine), our favourite bakery (Silver Moon), our favourite thrift shop (Valley Restoration), and our favourite child-friendly restaurant (La Rosita, whose daytime staff are as surly and standoffish as the evening people are warm and welcoming).
We walked down Broadway and back up Amsterdam, drinking in the people, the noises, the faces, the clothes, the vehicles, the sudden swirls of pigeons taking flight, the neat zigzag of the fire escapes, the bodegas, the shoe repair places (so much shoe leather is expended in a city day; I had my favourite pair resoled four times while living here), the fish shop where live crabs scrabble about in a basket, the brightly lit two-chair barbershop with the handwritten sign on the door, “por favor, toquer el timbre,” although the place is so tiny there’s no need to ring the bell, as they’d have to be blind to miss you standing at the door.
On our way back to check out progress, we bumped into one of the building guys, Angel, whom Busytot regards as his personal entertainer. Angel does a nice line in birdcalls, which he says he and his brothers perfected when growing up in Puerto Rico, catching birds in the mountains. When we told him we were leaving the city, he quipped “Oh well then, I see you in New Heaven, since I am an Angel – you get it?” Then we made our sad farewell to David, the super-friendly fix-it guy who fixes everything in the building. He was the one who first taught Busytot how to make a snowball (or snaw-baahl, as it came out in his lovely Jamaican accent).
Everything was tinged with the romantic melancholy of imminent departure. I like it when the weather comes to the party -- I’m always looking for auspicious meteorological omens, external correlatives for the mood of the moment. The day before the movers arrived, as Busytot’s Dad and I walked home from a hastily snatched afternoon coffee-date on Columbus Ave, a dark front of snow clouds quickly slid up and over the blue sky like a lid over an eye. It began to snow, great fluffy sparkling wads of it, as we climbed up 110th St past the bare trees of Morningside Park and the placid gothic haunches of the Cathedral. And then it stopped - a special effect switched off once the scene had been captured - and the sky was blue again.
By Saturday afternoon, only a day later than promised, the apartment was empty. Time for one last walk-through. The sun was streaming in, as it had been when we first saw it. Then, we lay the fat little four month old baby on a blanket on the floor, to enjoy the sun while we measured the rooms and marveled at our spectacular luck in being granted such a big sunny space by the fickle gods of the Columbia housing office. Now, the same little lad strode through the place, musing aloud “It so empty! No carpet. That pretty strange... What guys do? They put stuff on moving truck. That what they do....”
Driving north out of the city, we zipped up past the frozen Hudson (“A tug boat!” came the jubilant cry from the boat-spotter in the back seat) and through the Bronx, past the towers of the housing projects, and the vast parking lot for school buses. The city disappeared behind us as the sun set, and soon we were among the red-brick chimneys, steeples, and gabled roofs of small New England towns. Exit signs indicated a more rural history: Saw Mill Rd, Gun Hill Rd.
And every twenty miles or so, a vast, spectacularly ugly mall, surrounded by half-empty parking lots, and featuring chain stores with unappealing names (who would buy a dress from a Dress Barn? A fashion conscious horse?). Also, the ubiquitous highway billboards, touting traffic accident lawyers, the Reliable Liquor Shoppe, and the oxymoronic “Super Duper Weenie,” which I took to be a kind of hot-dog, but who knows?
One city behind us, another in front of us. The mad, blank scramble of moving is book-ended in my mind by two conversations overheard in the space of a week, one archetypically big-city and the other quintessentially small-town:
The Morningside Heights branch of the New York Public Library. I’m returning the last pile of library books. A man comes in, hovers urgently, then asks the librarian, in a thick accent that is perhaps Lebanese or Egyptian, “Statue of Liberty?” He pronounces it with the same liquid consonants and extra syllables Busytot gives it, so it sounds like “Statue of Delivery.”
“You want books about the Statue of Liberty?” asks the librarian, a young woman with impeccable braids and over the top lipliner.
“No,” says the man, “Where is? Statue of Delivery? I come from New Jersey,” he gropes for words, “through... tunnel. I want to see Statue but I not find it.”
It’s a New York moment. The librarian and I exchange glances and a grin. Lady Liberty is six or seven miles to the south, on an island, reached only by ferry. He’s a long, long way from his goal. Did he imagine, as I once did, that the famous torchbearer stands perhaps on a handy plinth in the middle of Central Park, or maybe lords it over Times Square (which is of course not square) like Nelson on his column?
We explain that he can take the train, making sure to stay in one the first four cars so he can get off at South Ferry. It turns out he is driving, so we advise him to follow Broadway as far south as he can, but beyond that we’re stumped. As I set off to take care of a long list of chores, the librarian is sending him upstairs to get a map from the reference section.
Did he get to where he wanted to go? Who can say? It’s just another one of those mysterious and unfinished big city stories, a temporary vivid encounter with someone else and their passions. You soak it up, hurry off, turn a corner, and write the ending yourself later – if you even manage to remember it for more than a block, because there’s always something else to see around the next corner, and so much to do, and another city story or ten before bedtime.
A week later, in New Haven. We’re in the Orange St Market, the corner store a block from our new house, stocking up on cherry tomatoes, cottage cheese, salami and other toddler favourites. The phone rings, and the brusque guy behind the register picks it up. “Uh-huh? Who? Yeah, she’s still here. OK. OK, I’ll tell her.”
He puts his hand over the phone and hollers “Louise? Your momma says to buy some bananas.”
I turn, expecting to see a little girl with a shopping list, but then a delicate-looking lady in her sixties comes round the corner with a basket, on top of which is a fine bunch of bananas. “You tell her I’m one step ahead of her,” she smiles at the gruff checkout guy.
Small town, short story, happy ending.