Every Blessed Minute

June 28, 2011

Let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay, let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry, let me have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere, let me be deceitful. Let me be truthful, let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.
         — Betty Smith, 1896-1972
              American fiction writer and dramatist
              from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

People have asked me why I’ve come to New York, alone, for a month. One person posed the question this way: “May I ask what you’re doing in New York?” As if the answer might be confidential (meeting with an agent? signing a book deal?) or distressingly intimate (being treated for a dread disease? having some plastic surgery?) The doorman asks after my vacation, unaware that I don’t take vacations, I have adventures.

When I got here on Sunday, it didn’t take me long to notice my view of the very top of the crown of the Chrysler Building, and watch its lights grow brighter as the sky grew dark. It sparkles on a sunny day as well, the polished scallops catching the sun first on the left side (the east), and then continuing to reflect it as the day goes on, until the daylight fades on the west and the night lights come up again. A beacon. A symbol. Outward. Onward. Upward.

Monday morning I looked down at the street. The traffic is silent from my vantage point. The apartment’s air conditioning unit makes a constant whoosh, and when that is off, some other machinery — perhaps the neighbors’ unit, or something that keeps the building itself going — provides a continuous hum that covers all but the loudest honk or emergency siren.

I’m on the eighteenth floor of this brazen tower. The next high rise is a block away, so I look down on the rooftops of  the buildings along 91st and 90th. They’re mostly businesses and warehouses, a parking garage, Eli’s Bread trucks on the roof of their facility (the bakery?) on 91st. Someone on 91st has a roof garden, and I see her sometimes out there, walking about, tending the plants, and I feel a little like I’m in a scene from Rear Window.

img_0606That roof garden can be seen here, surrounded by Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven, the tree that grows in Brooklyn. It’s an opportunistic plant, growing well in poor conditions, and it can become invasive. It’s not a particularly pretty tree. But it is the tree referred to in Betty Smith’s enduring novel, where it becomes the symbol of the Nolan family members’ ability to overcome adversity and thrive.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was part of the literary backdrop of my growing up years, along with The Member of the Wedding, Heidi, and the formulaic adventures of Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls. My imagination was shaped by the lives of girls who moved about on their own, took in everything there was to see, and solved their problems by their wits.

What am I doing in New York? Something, every blessed minute.