Monday, July 23, 2012

"Annie Hall"and My Manhattan Mythology

I saw Annie Hall Sunday afternoon at the Center for Jewish History's Only in New York summer film series.

Now, several hours later, I am freaking out.

I mean really and truly flipping out, complete with dry mouth and sweaty palms and a feeling of surreality.

My freak-out began when I looked the film up on the IMDb and noted that it was released in 1977.

Meaning 35 years ago.

Except that I remember the day I saw Annie Hall as if it were, well, yesterday.

Or more truthfully, I remember the me who first saw the smart, verbal, Freudian-slip-aware, Jewish, groundbreaking cinematic event that was Annie Hall because I slipped back into my 17-year-old self for the duration of the film and only partially emerged afterwards. A kid from Queens, I sat in my seat taking notes, getting a crash course in becoming that thing I so desperately wanted to become: a complicated, neurotic and sexy New York intellectual who would be adored by a brainy, emotionally unstable New York man.

It was the big screen, I think, that sent me hurling backwards yesterday through the portal of time, for I have seen Annie Hall many times on smaller screens in the intervening years.

It was the big screen and the communal experience of the movie theatre that conspired to mess with my mind. The minute the lights went out in the auditorium, I was powerless to resist. The movie -- so well-trod by me that I can recite the dialogue together with the actors -- began and I was pulled inside.

It was utterly overwhelming to behold the vivid depiction of Manhattan -- my personal Manhattan -- before all the new and necessary communication and information devices entered our daily lives. The city was so raw and gritty and magical before it got slick and exclusive and trendy. At one point in the film, Annie Hall complains to Alvy Singer that she is paying a fortune for her adorable apartment -- that fortune being $400 a month -- and everywhere in the auditorium there were audible chuckles. In scene after scene, my heart keened for the long-gone economy, street-scapes and storefronts, for movie theaters now extinct...only to leap with joy in recognition of that which stayed the same.

Thirty-five years ago, Woody Allen was a lovable schmendrick, a fetching nebbish, desirable because he was all about wounded-ness and over-intellectualism, Jewish paranoia and existential despair. He was wise-cracking, earnest, wordy and, yet sincere. Smart, sensitive men related to him. Women admitted to having a crush on this most unlikely of leading men.

He wasn't yet a strange, pervy, sorta-incestuous creepy genius/misogynist who seduced Mia Farrow's adopted Asian daughter and then married her.

And smart, sensitive girls like me aspired to be like Diane Keaton -- cooly stylish, WASPY, adorably flaky -- though we were none of the above.

Thirty-five years have elapsed since I first saw Annie Hall. Through this film, Woody Allen declared neurosis the must-have accessory for Manhattan living and shaped the character of the city for decades to come.

It is now well after midnight and I am no less mind-blown than I was eight hours earlier. Something profound happened to me yesterday in the auditorium of a Jewish cultural center in Manhattan's Flatiron district, surrounded by people who are mostly my parents' age. A terrifying realization: Though elderly now, they were my age when the film first came out. And equally terrifying: I am a lot older than Annie Hall, the character I aspired to be. It was a time warp. It was an existential head trip. It made me ponder who I was then and what I've become. It caused me to examine artifice and aspiration -- in my city and myself.

I am staring through my reflection in the midnight window of my Manhattan apartment, trying to nail down the essence of something true and sustainable.

Revisiting Annie Hall in the summer of 2012 has left me sifting through the layers of my personal mythology, hoping to uncover the bedrock of my city and myself.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Angel in the Guise of a New York City Cabbie

I had every intention of jumping aboard the M104 bus that pulled up just outside of the Duane Reade on Broadway, between 75th and 76th Street but instead, I found myself running out into the street, waving my right arm, already burdened down with bags, and shouting, "Wait! Wait! Cabbie!" at a taxi careening uptown.

My workday had begun early and ended late. En route to the gym on my way back home, I stopped by My Most Favorite Food on W72nd Street to visit SOBB*, who was having dinner with her future daughter-in-law and the girl's mother. Later, as I was leaving the gym just after 9 p.m. -- amazed that I managed a 45-minute workout -- HOBB* texted me with an urgent request to pick up dog food.

"Alfie is STARVING!" his message read, prompting me to ponder whether I ought to run over to the Trader Joe's on 72nd, to Fairway a few block south or just stick with the overpriced and limited dog food offerings at Duane Reade, just around the corner from the JCC.

Dressed in my sweaty gym attire, wet hair plastered to my neck and the sides of my face, weighed down with my laptop, ipad, pocketbook, gym bag and work satchel, I swept into the Duane Reade, grabbed a couple of dog food cans off the shelf and flew out the door. A bus was waiting patiently for me to board, but I ran for the cab instead. Spotting me, the driver instantly pulled to the curb and a passenger popped out. Sliding into the backseat, I arranged my bags on my lap and panted out my address.

"Your landlord is Columbia University?" the driver asked in a softly lilting African voice.

"Yes," I replied and we were off and running.

I am an easy talker (aka a yenta) who makes new acquaintances simply by the act of leaving my apartment. I have dear friends whom I first met on planes, trains and inside locker rooms. I am often detained en route to an event or appointment by conversations with complete strangers. I typically return home with stories about the interesting people I met that day, complete with intricate and often intimate details about their lives. My family is accustomed to rolling its collective eyes at me.

As we drove uptown, I learned that the gentle man who was delivering me to my home was Kwasi Wuli, a native of Ghana. The father of six and grandfather of 10, he was a founder and supporter of M.A.G.I.C.E.F. -- the Mafi-Atitekpo Girl-Child Education Fund, whose motto is "Ignorance is more expensive than education."

A non-governmental agency that was started only three years ago, M.A.G.I.C.E.F. aspires to send as many village girls to school as possible. "Lifting up girls for better tomorrow through education" proclaims the business card Mr. Wuli handed me. You can find basic information here about his organization.

I will admit that while I initially felt guilty about paying for a taxi while a bus awaited me, I shortly felt touched by the spirit of serendipity, blessed to have made the acquaintance of Mr. Wuli. Haunted as I have been by the horror of the terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, dismayed by the ubiquity of silly concerns and selfishness I see in the privileged society of young women in Manhattan -- women the same age as the ones whom M.A.G.I.C.E.F. assists -- disgusted by the political divide in America and the ugly rhetoric coming from the right, Mr. Wuli's taxi was a portal to a better place, a realm fueled by Tikkun Olam -- the imperative to make the world a better place.

"I paid my dues and I have been lucky. Now it is my time to bring about positive change," Kwasi Wuli told me.

I paid my fare and then a bit extra. Now it is my turn to bring about positive change for Mr. Wuli's organization...and as many like-minded initiatives as possible.

I hope you will support the work of a NYC cabbie from Ghana. To find out how to give to M.A.G.I.C.E.F. please email

*Husband of Bungalow Babe
**Sister of Bungalow Babe

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Fling

At this time on Thursday night, I was dancing to the music of Prince and Michael Jackson at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park, a joyous participant in the Midsummer Night's Swing party. For $17, I gained admission to the dance floor and a set of headphones which piped the music directly into my ears. Over the space of two-plus hours, I danced with everyone and no one. It was Manhattan Magic, as good as summer in the city gets.

Now -- 48 hours later -- I am up in the Catskills, at The Love Shack, where I arrived an hour before Shabbat, with HOBB and our pooches in tow. With Middle Babe in Atlantic City on a bachelorette weekend, Little Babe at a music program at Brandeis University until early August and Big Babe still in Berlin, we had the rare gift of a private weekend.

I close my eyes and savor the sound of silence. At this hour, our bungalow is completely quiet, save for the whirring of the electric fan in the kitchen window and the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard of my Mac.

Beneath our bed, Alfie and Nala the Pomeranians sleep the deliciously deep slumber of the happily knackered. They ran to their hearts' content from the moment we arrived, shaking off the constraints of urban canine life. Outside my bedroom, HOBB* sits in the Adirondack chair that occupies about a quarter of the teensy living room section of our summer home, working on his laptop. Through my window, I hear the Russian family in the bungalow next to us talking over dinner, three generations strong. The muted sounds of the cars along School Road weave a blanket of white noise over the placid night.

Propped up against pillows on my full-size bed, I, too, am deliciously exhausted, wondering if I should forgo the Saturday night show in Rosmarin's "casino" -- a barn-like building on the camp side of the campus, just across School Road -- in favor of staying in and continuing my reading binge.

Today, over a late afternoon game of Scrabble**, I finally finished Susan Jane Gilman's Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, a tedious and irritating memoir that I had bought at La Guardia airport two months ago, on the way to Miami Beach with Middle Babe for her long-overdue college graduation trip.

Having giddily grabbed it off the shelf while sprinting to the gate where our flight was in the process of boarding, convinced -- by the hyberbolic cover copy -- that I had found the work of a kindred spirit, I was utterly crushed to discover that like Eat. Pray. Love. (another popular memoir I hated) Gilman's book is completely charmless.

When I came to the final page, I tossed the work onto a chair with equal measures disgust and relief and picked up Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister -- a book I had taken to reading alongside Hypocrite.

Chandler's prose worked on my agitation like an antidote; it soothed me with its terse, staccato beauty. The palpable noir world Chandler constructs enveloped me. I picked up the action just as a dead man shows up at Philip Marlowe's door, bleeding profusely, "as heavy as five men." I was instantly hooked.*** (The rest of my critique of Hypocrite appears below, at the end of this blog post.)

"I'll be ready to go in 10 minutes," I called out to HOBB about 40 minutes ago. Shortly, I will change out of my shorts and bathing suit and maybe have some coffee. Of course I cannot miss the Rosmarin's Saturday night casino show. Even if the comedian is bad, it will be great. And then, there's the dancing afterwards to the house band.

After sundown, at the sighting of three stars twinkling in the Catskills sky, we made havdalah -- the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the start of the secular week. Holding a braided candle high, I sang to HOBB, "Shavua Tov!" -- May we have a good week! Together, we sipped wine and breathed in the sweet perfume of the mint that grows in front of our cabin, recalling the sweetness of the Sabbath day -- delicious meals, our leisurely breakfast, our mid-day study session on the final chapters of The Book of Job with our havurah****, our long, late-afternoon visit to the lake, the intensity of our intimacy.

And so, I climb out of bed and begin to change out of my bathing suit and into the black lacy dress I wore two nights ago to the Midsummer Night's Swing, spraying perfume on the back of my neck, humming as I buckle my golden sandals. Having left the magic of Manhattan for the weekend, I give myself over to Bungalow Magic, the Saturday night show in the casino, the warm company of friends and summer-time neighbors, and, of course, the joy of dancing with no one and everyone, especially with HOBB.
*Husband of Bungalow Babe

**I won. Twice.

***Billed as a memoir, one of the central problems of Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress is that it lacks credibility. There are conversations and details Gilman recreates from her early childhood and onward that are simply impossible to believe. While it is clear that she considers herself a satirist, Gilman's writing style is glib, rife with wise-guy asides and one-liners about her antic, frantic life. Her conclusions are inconclusive and shallow. One chapter in, I was baffled as to why it had become a New York Times bestseller.

Yet I was compelled to finish reading the book, out of sheer curiosity and perhaps a tad of competitiveness (I had spent the entirety of my morning walk to Round Lake and back mentally charting out a new novel).  I wanted to understand why a publishing company saw fit to print this work, so on I slogged...reading half a chapter, throwing it aside, abandoning it and revisiting it over and over again.

To reduce my agony, I found myself skipping pages, looking for benchmarks in the narrative; anything to push things along.  Though much about Gilman's milieu is familiar in a New York/Jewish/Female/Writer way, aside from a party where she found herself talking to Mick Jagger, there is no episode in Hypocrite worth recalling, or retelling. 

****Jewish study group