Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Upstate state of mind...

Like Russell, I'm blogging from the road for the next couple of weeks, but in response to popular demand, here's a bit more Manhattan-porn for you all (with some bonus upstate New York pastoralism further down the page). This time of year, the tip-top of the Empire State Building is lit up red and green to broadcast Christmas cheer across the city. To my eternal envy, friends who live one street up from us and a couple of floors higher can actually see the top of the building from the corner of their bedroom window -- you have to squeeze in beside the bedside table and twist your head a bit, but sure enough, there it is, blinking away like a sentinel. This time of year, the first night of Hanukkah also gets a look-in, with blue and white lighting, but Kwanzaa, the African-American end-of-year celebration devised in the 1960s, hasn't made it onto the lighting schedule yet, although later in January, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday gets the treatment in red, black and green.

That reminds me, it did feel a bit like an early Christmas present when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott -- who not so very long ago voted against making MLK Day a national holiday -- finally resigned his position after spending a week trying to explain away his words of praise for arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. As my mate Alice pointed out, to his temporary credit, Lott groveled on over to the cable network BET (that stands for Black Entertainment TV, although the entertainment value of his apology was debatable) to apologise directly to the people he'd actually hurt, rather than simply take his "Ah'm jest so, so, so surry" dog-and-pony-show to the mainstream media in order to soothe the ruffled feathers of aggrieved liberal white folks. Yep, of course I'm a deeply aggrieved liberal white folk who agrees with Colin Powell's take on it -– no right-thinking American agreed with Thurmond's hateful policies in 1948, let alone today. But I'd say that to hear those policies implicitly endorsed by the leader of the highest parliamentary body of the entire goddamn nation must break an African-American heart harder than it could ever break mine, which is why fronting up to a largely black audience was a big move. Mind you, whatever credit Lott got for that gesture was wiped out for me today by his insistence that, in this whole affair, he had "walked into a trap" set by his political enemies who took advantage of a "poor choice of words" on his part. Actually, Trent, that should read "opened my big trap" and made a "totally inflammatory and unreconstructedly racist choice of words." And despite his resignation as Senate Majority Leader, he's still Senator for Mississippi, and you can bet your well-thumbed copies of Up From Slavery and The Autobiography

of Malcolm X that there are plenty more like him in charge of the country.

Anyway, back to the promised urban portrait of the season: everywhere is decorated with fairy lights (only you get looked at funny if you call them that here) and the city's Christmas tree vendors are out in force in every neighbourhood. Competing tree-sellers occupy diagonally opposite corners of 110th and Broadway, so each trip to the supermarket promises a stroll through a small, twinkling temporary pine-scented grove, hung with coloured lights and superintended by an inflatable Santa Claus. As the toddler and I walk past the trees, little hand in big hand like Piglet and Pooh, I tell him to take a deep sniff of the prickly branches. I want him to lay down some olfactory memories of the season, so his distant future self will be able to summon up a vision of December in New York. Inhale, kiddo -- pine-trees and cheap pizza and dog piss (not to mention the odd whiff of regular old people piss, depending which corner we're on). Look at all the colours: dirty snow, yellow taxis, the glowing green orbs that mark the subway station… And remember how it feels to have a cold, cold nose.

I'm actually writing this week from Ithaca in upstate New York, where we're house-sitting for a couple of weeks, so our noses are even colder than usual. I miss the holiday buzz of the city but, if the weather forecast holds, we're due for an actual white Christmas up here. And the peace and quiet is really something -- the city-born-and-bred toddler has learned to sing the tunes of fire sirens and car alarms with alarming proficiency, but the first morning we wake up in Ithaca is always vaguely reminiscent of The Quiet Earth (sans Bruno Lawrence in a peculiarly flattering nightie). Then there are the cheap groceries, and veges that actually taste of something, and a vista of trees instead of rooftops. Small-town life certainly has its attractions, and coming back here tends to awaken my farmhouse-in-Waiuku variety fantasies of a return to the green heart of the motherland.

But Ithaca is a funny old place: it's dominated by Cornell University, not just visually, with the Gothic bulk of the hilltop campus looming over the town below, but also economically – it's like a mining town, only they're mining the pockets of parents who can afford an Ivy League education, and there's plenty of ore left in that particular seam. The town also -- I don't know if "boasts" is the right word -- a large and well-established lefty-hippie contingent. It's home to the legendary Moosewood Restaurant (whose vegetarian cookbooks grace many a student flat in New Zealand), a Tibetan monastery (where half of Kurt Cobain was baked into a final stupa), there's a wonderful organic farmers' market that runs most of the year, and a delightfully cheesy annual festival with excruciatingly earnest themes (my favourite: “Hello, Old Friend!”). Not only did the city council recently vote against the war in Iraq, but Ithaca managed to keep big box retailers and corporate octopi at bay until well into the 21st century: the very first St*rb*cks outlet has only just arrived, under cover of the Barnes and Noble that just landed down on Route 13. And a couple of years ago Ithaca hit the earthy-crunchy jackpot when it was voted Most Enlightened Small Town in America by the impeccably alternative Utne Reader.

It's been a very fine place to go to graduate school in, but even if Cornell feels like the academic centre of the universe it's still a four hour drive from anywhere you might want to actually visit, or indeed, live. After five years here it began to feel a little like a high-tech, high-security ashram, and I was itching to move on from the long-term snowed-in summer camp that is grad school in a small, upstate New York college town. The disenchantment with academic nirvana arrived in ridiculously quotidian guises. It set in properly at about the time that, thrilled to be moving into the basement flat in which Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, I discovered that he moved at least eight times while he was writing it, and that everyone I knew has already lived in at least one of his apartments. There's also something ineffably sad about living in a college-town oasis in the middle of what is, if you take New York City out of the equation, one of the poorer states in the country. Drive twenty miles in any direction and you come across an example of one of the fastest growing industries in the country -- a "correctional institution."

It's easy to forget that little feature of the upstate economy, but I was reminded this afternoon while sitting for three hours in the waiting room of an ER with the slightly dodgy-sounding name "Convenient Care Center" (I mean, Convenient? Talk about faint praise... I'd settle for Excellent Care, or even Properly Qualified Care). In this country, perhaps the next worst thing to not having any medical insurance at all is getting caught "out of network" -- in our case, out of the city, with an inconsolable child showing signs of a painful ear infection. No doctor we called would take walk-in appointments (not very Hippocratic, eh?). A call to the insurance company revealed that we were faced with a choice between two equally unappealing options: a half hour drive out to the hospital ER, with a god-knows-how-long wait and a $50 "co-pay", or a trek to the Convenient Care Center and full responsibility for the bill, the size of which no-one would commit to until I asked if it would be more than a thousand dollars, at which point they said "Oh no, no, no, more like a couple of hundred," as if that was a good thing. The third option was apparently treating it ourselves with herbal poultices and a few incantations to the ear-goddess.

So we made some more (increasingly grumpy) calls, invoking every privilege and pulling every string and dropping every name we could think of. Finally, after being bounced off a dozen switchboards, we gleaned the very useful knowledge that we could call the insurance company, describe the symptoms over the phone to a nurse, and thus receive a referral for "urgent care" that would be covered by our insurance. Needless to say, this little nugget hadn't been mentioned in that very first conversation with the insurance company. Goodness, no. Wouldn't want people thinking they could just swan off and make frivolous holiday visits to emergency rooms in exotic destinations on a whim.

In other words, it took us most of an hour and all the ballsiness we could muster to find out that we could indeed avail ourselves of the health insurance we pay bloody good money for; in other other words, if we asked the right questions in the right order at the right time, we wouldn't have to pay an arm and a leg to fix a small pair of ears two days before Christmas. Damn, it makes my stomach hurt to think of the people who don't even make it past that first wall of defense to get the coverage they're entitled to, not to mention those who are living without any health insurance at all.

End of a long story: child seen to (after three hour wait), prescription obtained, and all well. The waiting room crowd featured a grizzled older man wearing a hat that the child mistook for a bear, and a family of four kitted out in identical sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers, and munching blankly from identical bags of vending-machine Doritos. And one morose young black man on crutches with a broken foot, accompanied by two uniformed people I at first took to be bus-drivers. It was only when he got up and hobbled past me that I noticed the handcuffs attaching him to the crutches, and remembered the number of "correctional facilities" in the area. No wonder he'd stared so hungrily and unhappily at the spindly Christmas tree in the corner of the waiting room and the inane television chattering away in the background.

Well, enjoy your unincarcerated Christmases, and I hope they're a little warmer than mine will be, although I can't wait for all the snow-related photo-ops the weatherman has promised. I'm going to hunker down with some library books (just devoured Revenge, the latest beautifully written and utterly implausibly plotted novel by Stephen Fry -- God, it's such a shame that man's "not in the vagina business," cos I'd lerve to have his love-children) and on Christmas Day we will roast some sort of beast, perhaps even a bit of lamb, and share a meal with Alice and any other lonely New Zealanders we can round up. Tune in next time for post-Christmas thoughts on the second Lord of the Rings instalment and related appearances by New Zealand in the US media, and a thorough accounting of the contents of an expatriate Christmas stocking (I can feel a couple of promising CDs in there, along with the jar of Vegemite and the copy of A Pukeko in a Punga Tree that we naughtily opened already...). Save me a pohutukawa blossom, and I'll give Rudolph and Frosty a kiss for ya.