Just Boil Water

Shortly after our arrival in New York, the refugee resettlement organization—it must have been NYANA, which stands for New York Association for New Americans[1]—held various acclimatization classes for adults.  Sadly, there was nothing for my age group, or for children in general, as the wisdom of the age dictated that children are infinitely adaptable in terms of language, culture, friendships, and any other upheaval to which they might be subjected.  Yet here I am, after forty years of no trauma counseling—but I digress…

My grandmother was enthralled with the woman who led the section which my grandparents attended.  Predictably, my grandfather retained nothing from it, and continued to forge his own path, as was his way in life.  He remained unapologetically unamericanized for the duration of his stay in this country and on this Earth, which was part of his charm and character.  My grandmother, also predictably, took the word of this “real American” woman, whose name is lost to time and memory, as gospel.  This group leader, let’s call her Ms. Porter for convenience’s sake (and because I really think it might have been her name), gave the newly arrived refugees a list of all the best brands of common use products, such as toothpaste, peanut butter (we had no idea what peanut butter was), cereal (shocked that people here mix this snack with milk and pretend it’s a meal), coffee, etc. 

Ms. Porter’s coffee recommendation was separated by caffeine—Folgers with, Brim without[2].  Of course, my grandparents only ever drank instant coffee.  We are not from a coffee-drinking culture, so the instant variety was always good enough and actually quite superior to the viscous chicory drink of my childhood.   My grandmother treated herself and a nine year old me to real coffee at a café a couple of times during our first summer in the Baltics.  After each occasion, we could not sleep, and the white nights did not help, so we concluded that the fancy Western indulgence is not for the likes of us.  For many years thereafter, especially for the duration of my college years, I relied on caffeine to get me through the nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing.  (And even in high school, in pre-VCR days, when a specific episode of “Rumpole of the Bailey” or the sole showing of “Duck Soup” was in the middle of the night—what else could one do but drink some instant coffee and wait?) Then I eventually developed immunity to caffeine, and learned to enjoy coffee for its taste rather than its stimulating powers.  My life has improved at least in this one subtle way.

I had the presence of mind to snap of photo before the remnants of last night’s meal disappeared completely.

If Ms. Porter assumed that none of us would own a coffee maker, at least initially, she was not wrong.  My grandmother does not have one to this day, for why indulge such decadent bourgeois habits when one can simply boil water and mix in some powder?  In fact, at some point she when through a phase of only drinking hot water.  Why, you ask?  Well, it is actually quite simple.  Say you come to someone’s house, they ask if you want something to drink, and the beverage of your choice is not available.  The visit instantly becomes awkward and disappointing.  But, everyone has water, and everyone has the means to boil it.  Voilá—the day is saved, equanimity restored[3].

However, until she came up with this vaguely practical yet somehow grim practice, grandmother maintained fierce loyalty to that list and to Ms. Porter.  For years, I have encountered her passive aggression in my bathroom (“What, you do not use Crest?  It is necessary now to use some other brand?”), but that is nothing to the disdain heaped upon my kitchen.  I actually own a coffee maker, albeit at the insistence of my American-born spouse.  Whenever my grandparents visited, grandmother would arrive with a baggie containing a premeasured amount of Folger’s instant coffee in it.  Spouse would make a pot of coffee.  Grandparents would be invited to partake.  Grandpa would be hopeful that he might.  His hopes would be instantly dashed (if you pardon the pun).  Grandma would coldly inquire if the coffee was (1) Folger’s and (2) instant.  Both requirements had to be met.   We would perpetually fail at least one of them. 

Ms. Porter’s endorsements, however handy they might have been in our first few months of American life, were probably never meant to last a lifetime.  And yet, here we are, with my grandmother still mixing those instantly soluble crystals into the water boiled on the stove top in a teapot with a hunk of silver for better purification, over forty years later.  Plus ça change…

[1] NYANA was founded in 1949 as a local arm of the Jewish United Service for New Americans to assist in the resettlement of refugees from the Holocaust coming to the United States in the aftermath of World War II…After Jews were allowed to leave the USSR in the mid-1970s, it expanded to assist large numbers of Jewish refugees from the former USSR, approximately 250,000 by 2004. 

NYANA sought from its inception to provide one-stop services to refugees, including assistance finding housing, health, mental health and family services, an English as a Second Language school, vocational training, and licensing courses in addition to legal help with immigration and adjustment. It was closed in 2008.  Source: Wikipedia

[2] Does Brim even still exist? (Judging by how hard it was to locate a picture of it, I would guess no…)

[3]Imagine, if you will, an invited guest at your house, for whose arrival you presumably prepared by stocking up on food and drink, responding thus to an offer of a beverage:  “What will you have, Rose?  Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, pop, juice, milk, beer, wine red or white, vodka, gin, any drink I can mix for you?  Just boiled water?  You are being serious right now?  Oh, you don’t want me to go to any trouble?  You don’t want to put me out? OK, boiled water for you, an Irish Coffee for me.  And I am making it a double”.  


Bad Day in Chicago

Two years ago I had a bad day.  https://oldladywriting.com/2019/08/09/three-worst-fears/ It is not like I am commemorating it, but something got me thinking about another spectacularly bad day I had quite some years ago that had longer-lasting effects.  The peculiarity of that particular day was that the bad and odd things that happened to me were not my worst fears realized but quite the opposite—the series of unfortunate events actually generated brand new anxieties.

I was in Chicago.  I will fight my usual impulse to make a short story long, but to set the stage, I was arriving to a work conference in the Loop from a client visit in the suburbs.  As of this writing, I see that it is a distance of about 35 miles that should take just under an hour—but this writing is taking place well away from rush hour traffic.  The actual trip consisted of a series of missteps (one quite literally) that resulted in trauma both emotional and physical.  If what follows will keep just one person safer from harm, this cautionary tale will have served its purpose.

If this is in your rear view mirror, you might be heading in the wrong direction

First, if you see a bunch of very tall buildings in your rearview mirror AND the lake is on your left, you are driving *away* from Chicago.  This was in the days before GPS, but even so, if the GPS dies and you have a moment of panic, just head toward the very tall buildings.  For reasons now unknowable, I did the opposite, and immediately learned a very valuable lesson—in urban rush hour traffic, getting off at the first exit and reversing your direction is a maneuver that, while technically simple, can take hours to execute.  By the time I turned around and proceeded back on the right course, I chewed off all my nails, got a sore throat from screaming in exasperation, called spouse several times to express my frustration (entirely unproductive, but somewhat therapeutic), and got cramps in my foot from keeping it on the brake and in my hands from gripping the steering wheel. 

You are now going in the right direction

After finally fighting my way through the Chicago gridlock, I was met with another conundrum.  I was supposed to leave the rental car in a designated spot in one of those urban garages that have one long ramp going up, one even longer coming down, and one more leading nowhere just for show (with apologies to Sheldon Harnick).  After driving in and out of the garage and explaining to the attendant that I am not staying, not parking, just trying to find the mysterious location to surrender the car, please do not charge me the minimum fee of $20 per minute, I promise I will not pass this way again, yes I know I keep taking the parking ticket, but how else can I get into the garage and find the spot to leave the car, I lost all reason and did something of which I am not proud (but not ashamed, either, if truth be told).  I left the car on the street, ran into the rental office, threw the keys on the desk and invited the attendant, in no uncertain terms, to deal with the parking debacle on their own time.  The stunned human on the receiving end of my wrath hurriedly assured me that they will handle the situation and even offered me a ride to the hotel.  Which I proudly declined.  Which was my next mistake.

Still have no idea how you end up at the river level.

In the intervening years, I have gotten to know Chicago better, but I still do not quite understand that part of it where you suddenly end up under a bridge.  I find it immensely confusing.  That day, angrily stomping to my hotel, I was so surprised to find myself walking down steps into a river that I missed them (the steps) entirely.  I landed on the pavement, and my suitcase landed on top of me.  By the time I arrived at the Omni (the one near Water Tower Place—a fair distance if you know the area), everything was hurt and I was dying.  Of course, it never crossed my mind to hail a cab, because that is the kind of ridiculous human being that I am. (In the process, I lost my cool reversible magnetic bracelet from Kohl’s, and I am still steamed about that). 

I ran into a colleague in the lobby who asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner.  I wanted nothing less, and instead proceeded to make my next mistake—take a hot bath.  Not feeling the immediate effects of that particular blunder, but starting to feel like the starving dog that is my normal state of being, I reassembled myself and reinserted myself into a dinner with a couple of my work sisters.  By the time I stood up after my meal, my entire body was throbbing with pain.  Today’s me would have immediately hailed that cab back to the hotel and ordered a tub full of ice from room service.  That day’s me, not wanting to miss anything, did her best not to limp as she followed the cool girls to the fortune teller’s. Another fatal error.

Yes, you read that right, for some reason a fortune teller was deemed to be a fun activity to kick off the work conference and/or our first night in the big city.  We took turns having our sessions and I was, of course, last, for no reason other than it took me the longest to hobble nonchalantly across the waiting room.  The psychic read me somewhat correctly—I was buzzing with stress as well as suppressed physical agony.  I was having a very bad day.  She told me, in a nutshell, that no one likes me and that I will probably be divorced very soon.

When I finally made it back to the hotel, I called my unsuspecting spouse to yell at him for plotting to leave me.  As of this writing, I am still married.  I have not visited a fortune teller since that fateful day, and I refused to drive in Chicago for over ten years.

Of course Jimmy does not drive in Chicago. He has someone doing it for him. Be like Jimmy.