There’s a freaked-out, big-eyed child sitting in the back of a cavernous Checker cab, thinking she’s going to be left with nothing.
Nowadays, the New York City Checker taxicab is a novelty and movie prop. But when I was a little girl, Manhattan was filled with them up and down every avenue. I had just moved to New York with my family from Iran, and I was nine.
I had expected everything to be big in America. Big cars, tall buildings, tall people, big spenders. My cells were already those of a city girl, so I didn’t experience huge culture shock. I was from Teheran, a smoggy, cosmopolitan capital, and by then I’d visited an assortment of European cities. It made sense to me that we were settling in a place considered by much of the world’s population as the greatest of all cities. Also, as a child, I was on a permanent groovy trip – better known as a sense of wonder – so every day already had an element of magic without having to be new or New York.
In some ways, my heart was in Rome, because my father’s heart was in Rome, and I was a girl who worshipped her kind, worldly dad. When he brought us to Italy, I understood why his amber eyes shone whenever he spoke of the part of his youth spent there. Rome had Piazza Di Spagna with those timeless steps perched with bohemians and their guitars. Rome had Fontana Di Trevi, a cascading water and marble sculpture straight out of dreamscapes. It lit up at night with statues of oceanic gods whose heads you could climb to reside over the aquatic world.
Rome had vast, open Piazza Navona where my father would hand gelato cones to me and my little brother. My non-negotioable flavors were banana, nocello and stracciatella, and those delightful Roman gelaterias imposed no caps on scoops. Nor did our parents limit ice-creams per day while we were on vacation, because at home, we all ate a lot of salad. In fact, if my family were a nation, our national food would be a giant, leafy salad with lemon juice and olive oil. We deserved this unlimited gelato indulgence.
So in Rome, my brother and I were two sets of walking eyes behind towering ice-cream skyscrapers. Every day, the four of us spent noon to midnight walking over cobblestone through narrow alleys opening into piazzas, and we never tired of it.
Rome either works for you or it doesn’t, but if does, it becomes part of your blood and you’ll always return.
When we moved to New York, and before we found our apartment, we stayed in a hotel on 26th street and Madison. We walked all over Manhattan just as we had in Rome, but we also took Checker cabs. Sitting in the back of those cartoonish vehicles gave birth to a special neurosis in little me that I thankfully outgrew that same year.
It was the clacking analog meter.
Every few seconds, it dropped another number, another dime, with an ominous CLUNK that made me witless with anxiety. The more streets we covered, the more clunking I was subjected to, and the more grew my panic.
The number keeps adding up! Clunk…clunk…clunk.
My breathing would quicken, my eyes would widen and my little brother would stare at me uncomprehendingly. My father did his best to assure me that the meter wasn’t some out-of-control, sentient mechanical monster who fed on dimes and was intent on making him bankrupt, and all of us, destitute on the streets of New York.
Flash to now, when my mind has become a clacking meter. Ideas drop endlessly into my skull, and with it, the panic that I will lose them all. The very same creative notions flying at me like sharp objects have made it problematic to execute any. I’ve called this process the crazy tree and the crazy carousel, but most fraying to my nerves has been the crazy meter.
My own brain, which for years refused to believe attention deficit was real, has turned on me to mercilessly rub dysfunction in my face.
It’s often physical motion that’s vital to my psyche. Driving, hiking, snowboarding. Passing by things cleanses my brain’s pathways. In the same way, speeding or inching along the arteries of a city repopulates my mind. In dreams too, I’m in constant motion, gliding by land and cityscapes. My affinity for asphalt and roads, walking on them, skating through them, flying over them, zipping by them on a motorcycle, has been lifelong.
When my brain revolts against itself, in between all the whirring and clacking, there’s a freaked-out, big-eyed child sitting in the back of a cavernous Checker cab, thinking she’s going to be left with nothing because there are too many things firing off at once.
Luckily, she doesn’t have a day job.
After all, who has time for a job when writing a book, in pre-production for a short film, auditioning, learning the guitar, managing a blog, insisting on an active social life and arbitrarily overcome with the urge to write a song?
Balls. I’m a freaking dilettante!
An unpleasant thought, which, as always, meant it was time for an outing to reset the brain, to get out of it and into the world. You’re not a dilettante. You’re…scattered. Just gather yourself.
“Just.” As if it’s simple. In the meantime, I did go on an outing.
I got on the back of a motorcycle and there it occurred to me, I really need a bike of my own at this point. The vision of motorcycle chrome meandered its way to thoughts of my newly acquired electric guitar, which in turn, caused me panic again:
BALLS! I’m not merely a dilettante; I’m a dilettante in the midst of a midlife crisis!
Of course, I only panicked for a minute because since I’d never actually grown up, I couldn’t be experiencing midlife. In fact, there is very little difference between now and when I was nine and my mother sat me down with crayons and crafts.
Somehow, the body of an adult took over me even though I wasn’t done with creative activities and the groovy trip. Certainly, adulthood invaded me when I wasn’t ready at all for responsibility.
I wasn’t done with somebody else being in charge of whisking me and my little brother to Rome. In charge of my passport. My luggage. My plane ticket. I wasn’t done with somebody else being in charge of me, and I wonder if I haven’t been protesting ever since.
How dare they force me to grow up? Not even I can reign me in…
I forgive my brain for all its clacking, because without it, today I wouldn’t have revisited Rome and Checker cabs.
Recently, when someone told me to “stop dwelling in the past,” I chuckled. He seemed naïve to me to deny that the past makes up the present. I prefer Gabriel García Márquez’s view on the past:
Nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had.
Things pass, just as when one speeds by on a road. I left Iran for New York, my brother and I became adults, our parents divorced, I moved to Los Angeles, and I began dyeing the white in my hair. Shane and Steve died…
But gelato in Italy with my parents won’t unhappen. Laughing at Shane paddle down a creek in Ireland in a plastic trough won’t unhappen. Doing the Hustle with Steve at 3 a.m. in his West Hollywood apartment won’t unhappen. The boy I called a superhero when he carried me in his arms while racing down a mountain on his snowboard won’t unhappen.
The truth is, I am in midlife. I’m unemployed and still pursuing the dreams of a bright-eyed kid. My family is not rich and I live off of pizza. I go out of my way to nurture friendships with the majority of people who played a role in my past because they have a hand in who I am in the present.
I sat across one such person last week, a man I hadn’t seen for over twenty years, and had met perhaps three times in total. He was now in his forties and father to two small girls. In a café, he asked about my life and I told him.
“I’m in midlife, I’m unemployed, and I’m broke.”
“But I’ve only ever done exactly what I want,” I added.
“How?” He asked.
“Well, I never settled. If I have one thing only, it’s a strong sense of self.”
Again he asked, “How?”
“My father,” I said pointedly, thinking of my friend’s two little daughters. “No single factor contributed to my confidence more than my relationship with him.”
Everything passes, but nothing unhappens. Meanwhile, every unfinished story has the potential of being realized how one wants, given the right amount of self-esteem.
Last week, I embarked on a poetry duet. My partner’s verses were about the deserted alleys and forsaken people of a city; mine were about repopulating the deserted paths and forsaken edifices of the brain.
After all, a city girl has a city brain.
- Most of the time, you get to write your story however you want.
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