Wednesday, December 4, 2019

An Epic Journey Home: Company Buffers Frugality

Dec.4, 2019
Dear Diary,
I returned to JFK airport, from visiting family in Canada, at midnight the Tuesday night / Wednesday morning following Thanksgiving. Even though I live about as far as possible from JFK in the city - at the northern tip of Manhattan in Inwood - I planned to still manage to get home via public transportation, determined to capitalize further on a cheap flight by not spending $80+ on a car. As a 22-year New Yorker, I would think myself capable of selecting from all the possible routes and options to make it home at a relatively reasonable hour! I was confident that there were enough options that I could avoid the perennial “being mta'd”.
I kept my cheerful mood throughout the hour-long wait for the plane to dock at the gate – it meant I could finish watching my documentary! And call my family to let them know I'd arrived!
The AirTrain was running at 16-minute intervals, but mine to Jamaica arrived within 8 minutes – no problem! I could take the LIRR to Penn Station 20 minutes after arriving, or the E six minutes later – I could make the E! And it would be for subway fare only! And even though the A was stopping at 168th street, I could still transfer instead to the 1 to get home!
The benches on the E were filled with very tired and mostly sleeping men. The one across from me snored like a proverbial saw. Two-hours jet-lagged from the west, I brightly read my book, while sensing the weight of those who had worked hard all day or were going to work at this hour, or might not have anywhere else to keep warm. Only 36 stops to go!
How would I have known, before we neared Manhattan, that we were running on the F line? (A baroque musician would have no problem with E=F, but my strong sense of absolute pitch finds this difficult to comprehend!) No Penn Station for me.
But I could exit at 57th street and walk over just two short long blocks to Columbus Circle for the 1! And get fresh air along the way, which would be much appreciated after 36 stops amid the gasses of large sleeping men!
And there was even a booth! I'd realized I could have been $2.75 more frugal, since I was travelling after midnight, and planned to start an unlimited metrocard in the morning, which I could have bought before my first subway train instead. There were no people in the station – no line at the booth! Would it hurt to ask if they might be able to refund the $2.75 if I refilled the unlimited ride there?
I asked.
The station attendant was very kind and said, well no, unfortunately not.
“Ok, I have two metrocards here, can I instead combine the monetary amounts on them, so I can make one a monetary card, and the other an unlimited?” (Monetary amounts on an unlimited card can't be used until the time period of the unlimited expires.)
He had me swipe the cards: $3.75 on the one card, and $1.50 on the other card.
“Wait – how is it possible – I just put $20 on one of the cards at JFK – how is it possible that so much of the balance is used up already? The AirTrain is only $5!”
“I wouldn't be able to tell you that – you'd have to mail in the card and request a refund.” He gave me the envelope with the correct forms. Presumably I had been double or triple-charged at the AirTrain turnstile, which had been behaving problematically but didn't betray its mistake fully. It was the $3.75 card that was thus aggrieved.
“Ok, I have a third card here – can we make this one the unlimited one?” (It had no balance on it.)
“No – that's an AirTrain card; you can't make it unlimited.”
“Ok, can I transfer the $1.50 from the second card to the AirTrain card, and make that the monetary one?”
“No, because - “ and I still don't really understand the reason why, but something about transferring balances to AirTrain cards not being possible.
My math seemed to be failing me. I had three metrocards. One was afflicted by being overcharged, and would thus have to be sent in an envelope for reimbursement (never mind the time of filling out the form.) The other was the magic card, being unlimited and monetary at the same time, while of course it wasn't possible to do both at the same time (as I might wish to if I have a guest I would swipe in.) And the third card appeared to be useless, but nonetheless still worth $1.
Both of my parents are mathematicians. I've grown up surrounded by math. But tonight the attendant and I appeared to be stuck in a math puzzle, and must have gone back and forth for five or ten minutes, he patiently humouring me but unable to deliver justice; from my side, “I've just spent half an hour longer on the train than planned because there was no way to know that E=F, I've been triple-charged for the AirTrain, and I have three metrocards here, but you're saying I still need to buy a new metrocard for $1 to make it possible to have an unlimited card and a monetary card?” There didn't seem to be a way around it. And it was 2am. His suggestion of going downtown to transfer at 14th street without paying to re-enter the train system seemed really unappealing, and equally it didn't make sense to put off buying the unlimited metrocard and pay $2.75 for the next leg of my journey left me even more in the red.
Do you see the answer?
Eventually I did, and voiced what I wanted to do. I wanted to walk to Columbus Circle as planned, I wanted him to top off the magic card with $1.75 more so I'd have $2.75=1 ride on it, and then add an unlimited week to it (cutting my losses), and then I would fill up my AirTrain card to use as a pay-per-ride (which, for whatever reason, IS possible). And I would mail in the the aggrieved card. He said ok, and I'm not sure I had been able to communicate why this was the functional solution that more or less did not leave me short-changed, but he was amenable, and set to work on the $1.75. I handed him my credit card, but was rejected: “booths are cash only.”
“Ok, I can do that.”
But I wanted to use my credit card for the $33 unlimited week, so went to the machine for that. Then tried to put $20 on the AirTrain card, and the machine rejected the transaction. So I returned to the booth. Was it a look of trepidation, or amusement, the attendant and two friends gave me when I returned? Actually, it was one of the friends who processed my transaction, and I sensed that her guard was up, that she was prepared to argue with me if necessary, but when I turned out to be friendly and at least superficially not crazy, but straightforwardly able to request something politely and coherently, she placed me in the harmless-oddity/mildly-amusing-diversion category. When I looked around the station with bewilderment following our transaction, both she and the original attendant called out to direct me to the best exit to get to Columbus Circle.
I double-checked the bank notifications on my phone – yes, I'd been charged $20 at JFK. In the time I checked this, the original attendant exited the booth and walked towards my exit. Conversationally, we walked up the stairs together, he explaining that he was on break, and had three more hours to go afterwards. (Was he really not annoyed at me, after I'd taken so much of his time over the math puzzle of $1 at 2am?) Up top, he again pointed me in the right direction, and seemed to hesitate as I stopped to pull my mittens out of my suitcase.
It turned out we were walking in the same direction – he'd waited for me - and so the conversation continued. He explained that he was walking a few blocks west to the pharmacy, since their prices are the lower NJ prices, whereas those more on the east side are the higher NY prices, so the walk becomes worthwhile for him. I suppose we were on a similar mission of frugality. My mood started going back to the cheerful side. Here was someone at 2am who would put up with a math puzzle over $1 and still make conversation? That's nice, and comfortable too!
As we continued to talk, I realized that something I had just told friend from home, had once again show itself to be true: “New York can be a frustrating and tiring place to be, but I love the people!”

And so, as he caught my words, the evening began to be bright and shiny and luminous again. We parted ways at his drug store, and I continued to the 1 at Columbus Circle. It was only coming in 16 minutes? No problem! I could start writing this meanwhile! 215th street and 110 steps to go up the hill? A chance to try out whether my roller-board suitcase could go up the bike ramp! (It did.) Another 66 steps up to my home – par for the course!

I finally made it home at bit after 4pm. A non-stop flight to my hometown is a little over four hours; here in the city it took just four hours to get home. But it's ok – I'm staying up late to write a good story!

Although I am falling asleep doing it now. Good night!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Energy Savings in a Tree-House - a CONfidence EDucation?

Quirkiness has its perks!
It wasn't a scam, exactly, but I also couldn't figure out how it would work, sounding too good to be true.
I saw the young team of two in the courtyard, looking energized and high-fiving each other before tackling a entryway: they looked fun, young, trust-worthy, with big smiles and like they believed they would do a good job. She went one way, and him I ran into when I got to the top of my stairs.
He was talking with my neighbor, and paid no attention to me. He looked official, and, as I'm on my tenants' association, I wondered if he was a new face in management – and so, as I entered my apartment and heard him leave, I turned around to ask, “You look official and I'm curious!”
He said he'd knocked on my door; I replied that I'd just come home – presumably he'd missed me. His hair was a joyous collection of little bunches, maybe fifty of them, and he still sported his big smile under his glasses. He must have been in his early twenties at most.

He also wore an ID on a blue emblazoned collar, which read “Family Energy”. He explained his presence as linking green energy savings with going door-to-door to see if we are eligible for a flat rate of $62.50/month, and said I'd need to check my utility bill for a particular code. It sounded like a great deal, and the lowest I've ever paid monthly and so I decided to check. Which, as I'm paperless, required trying to log into my online umbrella Con Edison gas-and-electricity account, which required knowing the password I invariably forget, so having it re-set, and so forth. He said he was paid hourly so no problem to wait – and wait he did, in the staircase. At last I succeeded, feeling rather middle-aged, and, lo and behold, we looked at my bill and found the magic code; he explained that I was paying too much and that the Con Ed charges on my bill were incorrect and would all be erased if I signed up with his plan. Hm, I said, I thought it was correct that I have both green energy and Con Ed charges additionally, as that's how I'd signed up previously. He glossed over this and said he could explain it all to me, could we sit somewhere perhaps?
He had another drink with him, and explained that another woman in the building had given it to him. “You females are so nice.” I didn't take well to the flirtation and reframed it, “Yes, the tenants here are in general pretty nice.”
He did try to flirt again, asking what I do. I said I'm a music teacher and he tried to guess what ages I teach, catching himself saying that I looked like I could be that. I think I frowned.

So I invited him in, and insisted that I needed to find an uncomfortable chair for him. Flirtatiously, he protested that, he was giving me a deal, shouldn't I be nice to him? I said, no, let me explain. You see all that white powder? My cat brought in a flying squirrel the other night, and, I took it in to rehabilitate it, and it was insanely cute, and I'll show you the pictures (and they were indeed insanely cute and he thought so too), and unfortunately the squirrel also had a flea or two or three, and so, everything in my apartment right now is covered in diatomaceous earth, including the upholstered chairs, and so, since I don't want to you get fleas or be covered in DE, I'm actually being very nice to you by offering you the uncomfortable un-upholstered chair, see?
His face was a little blank as he took in all this unusual information, but eventually brightened again. It was not warm out, and he mentioned he was cold; I offered him tea, incredulously, he happily said, “You would do that for me??” I said it's really no problem, what kind would he like? Available categories: fruit, herb, green? After some indecision he chose fruity and so I made hibiscus. It clearly hit the spot.
As we got back to the subject matter, I still couldn't figure out what the benefit to the company would be, was it that if enough people signed up the flat rate would be worth it? As he was talking, he began repeating himself, and occasionally touching me on the arm to make a point, which made me bristle more, and in particular I was unhappy about being told that I needed to sign up on the spot, rather than being able to take in the information, research it online, and then make a calm and studied decision. So I began looking up information as he spoke: googling “Family Energy” brought up a professional-looking website; posting on the Inwood Community facebook group brought a joking reproach from him “Checking facebook while we speak?” - “Yes, I want to check this out online before making a decision.” I hoped some of my neighbours would answer my query quickly. I wrote, “Has anyone used Family Energy (green energy) – they come door-to-door to promote flat-rate plans?” He insisted I call it “green energy” and seemed to prefer if I didn't write “Family Energy” in the group. He also suggested I could facebook him; I said that would be rather invasive of me, wouldn't it?
He kept talking about a phonecall I would receive; I said I didn't want to do it now, but he insisted it needed to be done as the sign-up was possible only with an agent in person, and seemingly suddenly in a hurry, he called from his phone, and there was some official talk between him and someone at the other end. He had already noted all my Con Ed account information on a detailedly official-looking “Family Energy” sign-up form. I kept checking my facebook, seeing that someone was typing. She replied to my query: “My understanding is they are a scam. I see posts on local groups online. Are they part of a group that rings your bell and says they are a subsidiary of con ed?”
He saw what was up, but tried to continue. Quietly, I interrupted the call, and slid the paper he'd written on out from undert his hand: “I don't want to sign up today. I want to think about it, research it, and then maybe get back to you.”
He could see that he'd lost but wasn't entirely ready to believe it yet. He tried, “Would I try to scam you?” and, “I'll have to tell the company to update their procedures,” and “Here, let me at least write down my cell number so that you can get in touch if you want. We'll be in the area for the next three or four hours,” and finally, “I know nothing I say is going to change your mind.”
And so I decided to explain. I said, “You see my cats, rescues. You see my diatomaceous earth, all over my apartment, for taking care of a flying squirrel. I am a softie, and I am someone whom it's easy to scam" - his eyes narrowed slightly, was it that he meant he wouldn't scam me, or was he disappointed to have lost easy prey? - "and I have been scammed previously. And so it's because of this that I need to protect myself: you could be the most legit company and person, and none of this is personal, and I would still insist that we follow proper procedure: I need have time to think about it and research, and a real company would let me do that.”
He looked positively crestfallen, and I felt pity. As I tried to make conversation to lighten things back up, I asked how long he'd been at the company: six weeks. I thought, what a lousy job. Likely he gets paid pittance, he's taught by his supervisors to do their dirty work and is versed in his pitch, which isn't his responsibility, likely he gets some cut from any sign-ups he snags. I'd detained him no doubt for the greater part of half an hour. He would go back out in the cold. I wondered, did I have a sweater I could give him?
I took my computer and the papers out of range, into the refuge of my room, leaving him to recover in the living room, and finish his tea. Perhaps he was wondering how it had happened – he'd been so close to a deal, how had it slipped away? Was it that he thought I was a bright-eyed twenty-three but actually I'm probably old enough to be his mother? Or was he thinking, why in the world was he doing this shitty job? Or was he taking in the disconnect of being involved in questionable peddling practices to finding himself in la-la land -in an apartment with hibiscus tea and diatomaceous earth and oversize plants and kitties climbing over the table?In any case, although I needed to get on with my day, I gave him a few minutes to find himself, and eventually saw him out the door. He still looked utterly dispirited, and, when I said thank you it was nice to meet you and extended my hand, he shook it only reluctantly.
I'm sorry to write that his day didn't look up from there. In yet another disconnect between the two worlds, I took my kitty Ernesto for a quick but long-promised walk ... At the bottom of my staircase resides a good-hearted but immensely gruff bull-dog-of-a-man, whom my parents have nicknamed “The Curmudgeon” from various stories I've told them, and, well, the kid had knocked on the wrong door. I exited to hear the Curmudgeon reaming out the Kid for having represented himself as being associated with Con Edison. No tea and cookies here ... no Friendly Females to empathize ... I've been on the receiving-end of such a verbal barrage, and it is not so fun ... the kid put on his smile again when he saw me exit, but there wasn't much I could do to rescue him. Was it an EDucation not to CON?
I hope he finds his smile again in a different job – one that's totally above-board, and gets him on a good track, and maybe includes a sprinkle of professionalism-between-genders training. Maybe I'll text him this link - or send a message via facebook ...

And I will remain with my current green utility, and dutifully continue paying my energy bill, which, according to further facebook posts, is correctly divided between Con Ed and the green ones, and would be just about the same more or less even if I'd made the switch (contrary to what he'd told me). And so my tree-house remains happy and safe, with kitties, flying squirrels, and, well, I've now vacuumed up the diatomaceous earth, so we look, at least outwardly, almost normal again ... May my next visitors, also, find true confidence in this newly-educated quirky refuge!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

My Guardian Angel Works Hard

[A lesson in mycology.]

This post has nothing to do with the subway; if anything, just with not taking the subway out of New York City.

There are two tenets of mushroom-picking:
1) do not eat anything you can't identify with 100% certainty, and
2) to reach 100% certainty, neither a book or the internet suffice, you must rely on an in-person expert.

Some hubris possessed me the morning of Saturday July 16: I'd awoken early after going to bed late, it was hot, I was out for a walk, and there were bright white young mushrooms greeting the sky, beckoning me as the edible shaggy manes have done many times in Canada. The lure of an exciting story of successful nature foraging in the big city, as well as the prospect of a delicious free meal, pulled me closer. They looked ever so slightly different from the shaggy manes I'd eaten previously, but upon pulling out my phone and looking at internet pictures, they seemed very similar, and some site or another told me that shaggy manes are among the most easily identifiable, and showed me two distant look-alikes that didn't really look alike at all. It also said that they could vary in shape a little, especially between young and old, from oval to goose-egg-shaped. They were enticingly fresh and young and I picked them.

Here are pictures of a shaggy mane, an equally edible shaggy parasol, and of the mushroom I found:

I made a quick facebook post with the picture to my dad's page - my parents taught me all I know about mushrooms - he wrote that it didn't look right, but someone else wrote that it looked like a shaggy mane to them. I cut my mushrooms open, and tried a little bite raw: it tasted a bit bland but fine.

Not dying after ten minutes, I disregarded a Kyrgyz friend's warning about the dangers of mushrooms, and cooked them in sunflower oil with salt, pepper, and rosemary. I had them with cranberry pecan toast with coconut spread, and a fruit-and-spinach smoothie, and they were delicious!!

I had read that the onset of symptoms in case of toxicity usually occurs between 20 minutes to 4 hours after ingestion, so after all went well for forty-five minutes, I posted to my dad's page (in our Swiss dialect), "Still healthy and sassy!" ("No gäng xung u böös!")

And off I went to teach.

Since this story doesn't end here, I suppose you have some inkling of what might have happened.

I'd eaten my mushroom meal at 10:45am, and at 1:45pm, just before the end of my last student's lesson, I started to break into a cold sweat. Something was wrong, and eventually I excused myself - as soon as I reached the washroom I vomited out my entire breakfast. I felt much better, and, emboldened by some other encouraging thing I'd read on the internet that said that symptoms would disappear after expulsion of the toxic substance, returned to my student and exclaimed cheerfully, "Isn't the body amazing? It knows when something is bad for it and just knows to kick it out!" Eleven years old, he made an excited kick in the air in agreement. We continued on, but, ten minutes later the chills returned and I had to leave the room for a second time. Again I felt better after, but when I returned to the room, my student's father had arrived and both looked concerned about me. I still planned to join them to go look at bows, but decided to call the poison control center just to get informed.

The poison control center answerer took my name and details, laughed when I said I'd vomited everything out, explaining that at three hours after ingestion, only 30% was left in my stomach and the rest had been absorbed, but then explained that I should be worried if I was vomiting six hours after ingestion. She said it would be helpful to identify the mushroom, and asked if I had a specimen or a photo. I said yes, and where could I send the photo to? She said they had no such contacts, but thought that if I went to the Emergency Room I could show the photos there. I was sure that no physician would know the answer unless they were also a mycologist, which seemed an extremely unlikely possibility to me. I looked up the New York mycological society, and some other mycological society, but both only had contact forms, no phone number to call.

I began vomiting more and more frequently, and couldn't complete the contact forms. The nausea reduced me to an embryonic position on the carpeted floor, and I had no expendable energy even to speak. I had sent my student and his family away when Rebecca, one of the administrators of the school, came to close up. She handed me the small garbage can when I needed it, and stayed with me, but said the family had insisted to stay close by on call, in case they could help by driving me to the ER or anything, so had just gone to get lunch nearby. I soon realized that I was too ill even to consider walking to a car. Could I wait it out in the school on the floor? It seemed tempting for I couldn't move and the prospect of an enormous hospital bill was prohibitive. But as I felt worse and worse I thought, is there anything that can be done in the hospital that can't be done on the floor of the school? Could they pump my stomach? I asked Rebecca to call the ambulance.

I remembered the poisoned rat I'd once seen in my local park, fully concentrated just on surviving, taking no notice of me as I approached. Now I know what it feels like, I thought. (And of course the poisoned roaches after an exterminator. Horrible. Never in my apartment.)

In my case, any extraneous effort made me vomit again, and when the paramedics arrived, though I was grateful they were there, I didn't even move to say hello, and knew I was being curt and impolite. They said we needed to go and I said I couldn't move. They assured me the ambulance had air conditioning (it was a hot day) and I said, "I'm freezing." They asked me various questions which all annoyed me - was I pregnant, did I smoke, had I had any alcohol, do I take prescription medication, do I take supplements - no, no, no, no, and no. "Nothing? Maybe that's why you're feeling this so strongly," - ha, I thought, maybe they were right, I have no tolerance, my finely-tuned system isn't used to abuse! But I did just eat bad mushrooms. They asked about the mushrooms, had they been cooked, were they from a restaurant or a supermarket - no no I picked them in the park, I was stupid - well, I heard them think who would do such a silly thing - and it was deserved, I knew. Rebecca showed it to them on my phone, of course they couldn't recognize it either.

The burly paramedics soon realized that I wasn't acting about how terrible I felt, and seeing I couldn't walk out of the school, decided they would put me in the chair, and needed me to climb into it. At first I was disappointed it wasn't a stretcher - how would I sit up? Once in it, I realized, slumped over, how cool this gadget really is.
We were on the fourth floor of the walk-up, and as we got to the first set of stairs, the paramedic warned me, "It's going to be bumpy" - but it wasn't, at all. I think he was lifting me by himself, while the other went ahead, and I think the chair had some kind of tracks on the bottom so I was gliding down. I've tolerated these stairs for six years, with heavy books and instruments, sprained ankles and crutches ... now, I was being carefully shuttled down, like royalty. As I think any teacher at the school can imagine, it was a true once-in-a-lifetime experience to enjoy!

We got into the street, and I blinked in the sunshine. A normal scene, but I was in the middle of the street. I wondered if this might be the end of my story, just like that - logically that seemed not great, but I had no emotional reaction to the thought; my body was tied up with just being. They transferred me from the chair into the stretcher and put me inside the ambulance, handing me a very smartly designed ring-topped bag, into which I vomited a few more times. Still freezing, I asked for blankets.

Rebecca came with me, taking care of my violin and things. It was a short ride to St. Luke's hospital, and as we entered the ER again we had to explain what had happened. Again there was the moment of incredulity of the nurses as the paramedics told her I'd picked the mushrooms ... yes yes I know, I was stupid, I thought - but are they going to pump my stomach now?
I was wheeled to my spot and waited. The patient next to me was yelling profanities about his treatment in a big boomy voice and it didn't even bother me, but the nurse returned and kindly said she was wheeling me to a better spot - "No-one needs that when they're not feeling well." Ah, I thought, yes, I'm not feeling well - too focussed on being I wasn't really self-aware enough to recognize how I was feeling.

At the new spot, they took my temperature and some blood and attached a heart monitor and put in an IV, to help replenish all the fluid I'd lost. I refused anti-nausea medication as I felt better every time I threw up, expelling more toxin, I assume. As the nurse was about to leave I asked her, "I don't really know how this works, but is there something else you do - can you pump my stomach?"
She replied that that was something from TV that doesn't really apply to real life - also that for snakebites they have antidotes but for mushrooms they don't, and in any case it was now over four hours since ingestion so all they could do was manage symptoms.
Thinking of the impending bill, I said something to the effect of, so why was I in the hospital?
She explained that it was very good that I had come; that we would find out if the mushroom was only toxic and if the symptoms would start to go away, or if it was poisonous and they would get worse, in which case they'd need to do "other treatment." I thought of the IV too and was sure that was helping; I didn't feel able to drink at all, certainly.

My student's father, arrived, and took over for Rebecca, who had stayed all this time. (My student and his mother had gone home via subway.) A doctor came, and the business department man came. He wanted my name and address, but after I said it and he didn't get it right I sent him away saying I'd tell him later, I was too sick, and threw up again. I was still shivering under three blankets.

Maybe an hour later, someone stopped by and I asked if I could go to the restroom. They brought a wheelchair and hung my half-empty IV bag on the edge. Probably thanks to the IV fluids, my GI tract expelled and flushed out anything and everything left. I felt much better.

Returning to my stretcher-bed, I soon fell asleep. My student's father kept watch. Eventually, the doctor arrived, and asked how I was feeling. "Much better," I said, noticing that I could speak to him without collapsing. He said that in this case, I was now out of the danger-window, and that my blood tests were all perfect, and that they could discharge me. Of course, should any symptoms reappear within twenty-four hours, I should treat it as an emergency and return.

The ER was busy and it took another hour or so before the nurse was free to check me out. I chatted with my student's father, who had taken charge of me as soon as he'd arrived. I was so grateful he was there. He said of course he was there, I'd taught his son for five years, and I should know I have friends in New York. Nonetheless, I know it's not easy for someone to take time out of their busy New York life, and, rather overcome with emotion, I thanked him profusely multiple times over the evening.

After the nurse took out my IV and walked me through my discharge instructions, I asked her, "Was I your weird case of the day?"
She answered, "You would have been, except for the guy who had inhaled so much angel dust he was throwing pens at us!"
She walked me to the business office, and as I thanked her immensely for her help and said how glad I was to be alive, she said, "Of course!" Then laughed and wagged her finger at me, "Don't do it again!!"

Since this is a public blog, I'll not go into my full financial details and insurance information, as discussed at the business office. Suffice to say that I was expecting an enormous charge - and in the end all I had to pay was $320, less than a typical visit to the vet for my cats! Will there be a separate ambulance bill? My understanding was that all was taken care of. In my state, I was about ready to cry and hug the two finance admins too.

My student's father was waiting patiently, and we walked to his car. He drove me north to my neighbourhood, and as he is a scientist, we joked that I should try the experiment again tomorrow to make sure that the toxicity was indeed from the mushrooms I'd eaten, and not the rest of the breakfast. It was good to feel well enough to joke again! He waited in the car as I went to the local supermarket to pick up electrolyte drinks. The manager of the store, who has known me since 2003, saw my plight and I told him what had happened; when I returned down the aisle with coconut water and kombucha and seltzer and apple juice, he brought me a small bag with sage leaves and said, "Take these, boil them in water, this is what I have always had for any stomach problems, and you see how healthy I am!" As grateful as I was for the leaves - and I followed is directions too - I was even more grateful for his care for me.

My student's father, Yong, drove me to my building, and I thanked him again profusely. He said I should let him know if anything worsened, and I promised it wouldn't! I gave him a big hug of thanks before entering my building. (I wish I could atone for the scare, but at least I hope I can show at least some token of my immense gratitude by arranging a thank-you gift for him and his family, and Rebecca!)

A neighbor I know entered at the same time I did, and I poured out the story to him. Funny, near-death experiences seem to make all else unimportant, and make clear who helps one survive. He urged me to rest well tonight.

When I got home, I broke down in tears, I was so grateful to be here. My flatmate came and gave me a big hug, and I poured out the story. Then began to feast on my apple juice and seltzer and coconut water, and just sat and chatted.

I was still weak, but when I phoned to tell my dad he was right, and most importantly to let my parents know I was alright, it was a relief to talk with them, and even to laugh at parts of the story.

There are two wonderful Swiss chansons by Fritz Wydmer that are fitting:
1) D'Ballade vo däm wo nie Zueglost Het The Ballade of Him Who Never Listened 
2) D'Ballade vo de Schwümm The Ballade of the Mushrooms

And then I identified the mushroom:
A Chlorophyllum Molybdites, aptly nicknamed "The Vomiter"

... courtesy of the clear pictures and description at Urban Mushrooms .com: 

I've since had that confirmed by the North American Mycological Association, as well as the Central New York Mycological Society. Why couldn't the Poison Control Center get in touch with them? I'm not sure.

I had my first real meal on Monday night. (It was not part of the Idiot's Chlorophyllum diet, which I do not recommend!!) It was delicious. I am happy to be back in the world.

I have a dimple in my chin, and I'm told in Swiss culture it means I'm a "Glückspilz" - a lucky person, literally translating to "Lucky Mushroom" ...

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Lay-Person's First Visit to the Courtroom

I went, ostensibly as a spectator for a case at the Manhattan Supreme court, about a topic of interest to me, argued by a friend-of-a-friend, and going as the guest of my friend. I went out of curiousity for what the inner workings of the legal profession might look like, romanticized by the top stage where the legally versed perform. And I went most because I had once been together with and in love with a lawyer, the last picture of whom I'd seen was with fists clenched at his sides on top of the stairs of that very court. I was awake too late in the evening, with a fear to go.
The relationship had not ended well, and as it turned out, today's story for me was of continued forgiveness. I have had the privilege to study something I love dearly, and though I'm sure I've spent as many hours in the practice room as anyone else has spent studying, and have sacrificed all sorts of things for the instability of my profession and the pursuit of artistic excellence, my impression of my world has always been of a friendly, colourful, and creative place. I realized today more intensely than in some time that it's my duty to share this world; in fact, the only colourful poster I saw anywhere in the building was an advertisement of Juilliard students performing at an official event. In a positive and friendly environment, there is room left over to help others, to empathize, to listen, to share, to care, to laugh.
The atmosphere in the courtroom was not relaxed. The benches were like uncomfortable pews in a church, facing a wall that had “In God We Trust” lettered upon it, as though this lower circuit on earth would certainly never give us justice. The forty-odd occupants were all clad in varying shades of grey and black, as though to blend in better with the fog outside and not suggest any idea that might be too provocative in any way. Roughly 90% were white men, one patterned in a suit like the next. Many bore the mark of stress eating itself to enlarged bellies. In the others, the stress showed itself in lines under the eyes. Nobody was smiling.
One clerk tried to lighten things up a little, beamingly commenting on his start to the day, perhaps even joking. He had a boomy voice and seemed to be addressing no-one-in-particular in the spectators' benches. In return, he was met with the ignoring non-response generally offered to kooky subway passengers.
The case I had come to see was postponed due to an illness of one of the parties. The gentleman from the opposing party looked relieved as he slowly gathered up his things and ventured out. As his face gradually relaxed, I could practically see his pent-up fight-readiness dissipating, evaporating and calming like water in a teapot freshly taken off the stove.
We watched a different hearing. My understanding of it, helped by my friend's explanation, was that an investment firm was suing a company that had gone bankrupt, claiming that one of the key members of the company had diverted all the assets into private properties and Swiss bank accounts. The judge called the prosecuting attorney to speak – hereafter referred to as “the guy on the right” – a slim, tall man, youngish, maybe in his late thirties or early forties. Given that he had about five minutes to explain the complexities of his case, punctuated by sharp questions and even refutations from the judge, meanwhile his reputation and salary and job were all likely are all on the line – I thought that he must be experiencing adrenaline at minimum comparable to that of taking an orchestra audition, even if he had some room for improvisation. As he struggled to find the balance between general explanation and specific details, and the right tone of deference to “Your Honor” the judge, while maintaining his position of accusation against the defendant, I noticed his wedding ring, and I couldn't help imagining a loving wife caring about him and his feelings, perhaps having bid him a concerned and well-wishing farewell in the morning ... in this room, his feelings would be treated, as in battle, as irrelevant. Despite his struggles, he convinced me that the defendant (who was not present) had probably run off with all the money. The defense attorney – hereafter referred to as “the guy on the left” - was also a slim tall man, and exuded an advantage of age and experience. His argument, as best I could tell, was “prove it”. The judge kept everyone strictly in line, and seemed to be explaining that the legal mechanism to go after the defendant was not available since it would be “piercing the corporate veil,” a phrase which was then bandied around a great deal, cast in light of never being done in such a situation before. (Was the guy on the right aware that his precedent-seeking position was a great handicap to his cause?) The judge's decision was that further hearings and discovery would be necessary. It seemed fair. When the young attorney turned to face the audience, the circles under his eyes seemed to have deepened. My read was that he was probably right about the truth of his case, but he'd been admonished several times by the judge for making allegations rather than stating facts, for which his response was that he would like the judge to order the defense to turn over the necessary paperwork for determining the facts.
As they exited the court's boxing ring after this intense verbal dance, I would have been inclined to give them all a hug. Surely there was common ground to be found? It must be especially adrenaline-inducing to represent just one side of things, such as “The company member defrauded a lot of people,” knowing you are against an adversary whose job it is to never agree with you, rather than everyone being on board with the idea, as in, “Well, he defrauded people, but his way of thinking, while not endorsable, is emotionally understandable, and now he needs to make good on what happened, so let's figure this out.” In a way, that was the judge's role. While I understand the principle behind the adversarial set-up of the court, wouldn't it be more pleasant if it were possible to set it up more coöperatively? What if everyone used the favourite Canadian phrase, "I'm sorry": “I'm sorry to have to go after you for your money, Mr. Company Member, but how would we make it up to the people who have lost money otherwise?” “I'm sorry to have run away from my obligations, but they were just too many, I would lose everything, and I just couldn't face the shame and guilt.” I am probably describing a utopian fantasy – or perhaps this just isn't how the boys' world of competition works. For it did feel like a boys' world, a fantasy of power struggle and weaponry fought with words.
I had come to the scene with good cheer, thinking to do reverse tourism (lawyers often come to musical performances, now I would go to a lawyers' performance), but after an hour and a half there, despite my interest it felt as though the room were sucking my cheerful spirit out of me, crushing it at once with both boredom and the tension of stressful focus. Is it possible to be happy in that world? To think about things like ladybugs and shooting stars and “For we like sheep” (especially without the comma, as the chorus from Handel's Messiah I'd played on the weekend). How could that courtroom feel fun, and like a place where one might be able to laugh?

I don't have a moral to this story. I am grateful for lawyers who go to verbal and administrative battle on our behalves. 
Could I survive in their world? I don't know. I imagine members of the legal profession may be grateful to artists for offering a change of mood. A delicate balance of symbiotic necessary coexistence.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Staring at nowhere

​People who stare - 

On the subway - once upon a time every minute was precious, a thirteen minute ride offered time to study for an exam, 
to read a chapter, to figure out the harmonies of a piece I'm playing.

And there were those who stare, into the distance, searching, or with problems they couldn't figure out at home.

Now there is an army of phones, each offering pre-occupation to its owner. On a good day, I write emails. Others play bejeweled, and others zone out to music.

And there are those who stare, looking for a solution to a problem, numb, maybe hoping it will come as the cars shake.

Sometimes I am now one who stares. The problems are too big. The solution is elusive, if it exists.

For example: is there a way around the trade-off, of an affordable apartment with space and sunlight, and riding this goddamn subway for almost more hours than I practice violin in my apartment with space and sunlight?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

September 21, 2014 ~ People's Climate March, New York City

As a former member and president of the Juilliard Greens, and generally as a concerned citizen of New York and this planet, I consider it my interest and duty to have attended todays People's Climate March. The latest estimates have it that I was one of about 400 000 participants!

The theme of the individual and broader society was prevalent throughout the march. Is it possible to care only about oneself and nothing else? I strongly suspect that all of these 400 000 people would answer that question with, "No!" The question itself contains a conundrum: can one really be isolated from everything else? Even if it is out of blatant self-interest, taking care of one's surroundings is necessary, and so is extending some kind of kindness to others, or at least following the golden rule, if only for the sake of nurturing one's own need to empathize.

I had my heart set on joining the Canada Green party, which had the honour of being represented by the one and only Elizabeth May, party leader and Canadian environmental celebrity. Due to a glitch in the notification system, however, I didn't get the updates that they would start the march at 81st street, instead of at 59th as originally planned. As it turned out, this made for an exciting day.

Already on my way there, I felt something special in the air. The apprehension of the policepeople was tangible, but when I asked them for directions around the barricades, they answered kindly. Clearly, they hoped everyone would just behave themselves and that there would be no confrontations. I had to make a circuitous detour to 56th and 7th, the nearest place to join at the front end. And so I got to see the front of the march.

As it began, a cheer rose and the excitement lit the air. A field of sunflowers spilled down the street towards me. Have you ever been approached by scores of sunflowers? These were the signs leading the march, with waves of cheers accompanying them. Marches can be daunting things - you are very outnumbered - but when you see people promoting sunflowers, well ... you smile and relax. People who stand for lovely things like sunflowers are probably not all bad, and not out to get you. This is going to be a beautiful, fun, friendly march, and none the less meaningful for it. 

Next came an enormous quantity of life preservers. These signs were held by residents of communities affected by Hurricane Sandy, an omen of future climate-related superstorms in the making. I had had no idea just how many communities in addition to Red Hook and Staten Island were affected. It was moving to read their names.
Soon there was a colourful contingent from Peru. Then I remember a battalion of nurses, and pretty soon, with a fabulous jazz band and dancers on stilts, the musician's union, Local 802, led the way for union workers. I jumped in and joined them. I may be partial, but it was definitely some of the best music of the march! I think the guys playing had the most fun! I couldn't quite get into just walking along, and the guy lagging behind, banging a metal pot with metal sticks was really loud, too much for my left ear. So I eventually jumped back out and continued my quest to find the Greens.
Sometimes, in crowd situations, I have had the feeling of being trapped amongst the mythical suicide-lemmings: everyone seems to have been inflamed by the same insane thought and be motoring forward based on it, and I just don't get it. The power of peer pressure and peer suggestion is immense. Today, however, my instinct felt no such warnings or conflict. The spirit was one of celebration, kindness, and of expressing and acting upon that which we know to be true. I found many organizations I've cared about and whose work I've admired for years; among them: the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Sierra Club,, Natural Resource Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Citizens' Climate Lobby. I didn't see Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Ban Ki-moon, Leonardo DiCaprio, or any of the other attending celebrities, but I understand they were there, however invisible their security outfits may have been. I did see some pretty out-there individual signs, such as one railing at my home province of Alberta over the tar sands, and others which one could easily imagine the ultra-right-wing mocking mercilessly - but really, there was nothing that didn't just take reality we face a few steps further than a general problem-identifying/solving individual might. The most contentious contingent might have been the self-titled socialists railing against capitalism; that said, it's pretty obvious that dog-eat-dog capitalism, a relativistic pyramid scheme that relies on people being at the bottom of a pyramid so others can be at the top, regardless of what standard of living any part of the pyramid actually entails, does not well serve a world in which anyone cares about anyone else. So, obviously, modifications to that extreme model are necessary - and of course are already built into our society to some degree, though one might wish for more. My favourite signs of the day were, "My house got flooded by Sandy, and all I got was this stupid pipeline," and "Save the dinosaurs! Stop burning fossil fuels!"
After running into some friends, by pure happenstance as is only possible in New York where anything is possible, I walked for a while with Toronto, which had sent some four hundred people here by bus. (Will the ultra-right-wing mock them for using fossil fuels to get here? I would hope the conversation might rather focus on making fossil-fuel-free travel available to everyone, and soon!) They, like many of the other groups were keeping the energy bright by chanting responsorially and repeatedly, "Whadda we want?" "Climate justice!" "When-d'-we wan-it?" "Now!" and also, "Hey, Barack, you've talked the talk now walk the walk; hey, Obama, we don't want yo' pipeline drama." Joining chants is a part of herd mentality I can't quite feel comfortable doing, maybe because I find myself thinking ill-fitting thoughts along the lines of, "What exactly is climate justice? What would that look like in the nitty-gritty?" So I didn't chant. But I do get that "climate justice" refers to, essentially, the idea that we should take care of the environment in a way that doesn't harm it, us, or our brethren. And that is easy and obvious to agree with, so it is easy to walk along in solidarity despite not voicing the called-for words. 

At last, I reached Elizabeth May and the Canadian Greens, and got my picture with the group. They were near the back of the line-up, and since the march was about four times more populous than expected, their experience had begun with two hours of standing-still (traffic-jam science hard at work, no doubt!) They had been there a few hours early too, Elizabeth May giving an interview to CBC television, and yet they were still in bright spirits, radiating the optimism and excitement that formed the core of this march.

Being in the midst of 400000 people, all going in the same direction, is quite amazing. Whatever differences we might have, we're still bound together by why we walk this walk. In any crowd, there might be a sense of loneliness - but some things can be taken for granted. We're on the same path.

In all it took more than five hours to reach the finish line at 34th & 11th (for a walk that would normally take a little over an hour). I was exhausted when we arrived, but watched some of the rest of the groups come in. Soon people would get back on buses back to all over North America; others would go to various events of their organizations, and New Yorkers would eventually go home. There was a beautiful sunset, and restaurants hopped with hungry dispersed participants.

It had been an interesting and worthwhile day, and, when I stepped off the subway on my way home, the world looked just a little different, somehow - more positive, I think!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Kitten Who Won the Lottery

... Like all good stories, at least on this blog, it starts on the subway.

September 27, 2013

I was on the subway late at night, on my way home from a concert and after-party, when a seat became available and a kind young man offered it to me, rather than taking it himself. I had a long ride ahead and gratefully took it. A nearby troll was making loud chauvinistic, racial, and all other types of slurs he could think of, masking them in a sort of conversation, but intentionally needling the passengers around him. One woman cursed him out as she exited; the rest of us mostly sat in silence and rolled our eyes. I'd been away from New York for nearly two months and had forgotten such common subway joys; the reminder amused more than annoyed me and I exchanged a dismissive smile with my seat patron over the ridiculous nonsense.
A little kindness goes a long, long way. On the 1 line, I have the option to exit at 215th street, after which I hike up 110 steps to get to my building, or I can exit at 207th street, which is a longer walk but a more gradual incline. I was undecided about which I'd take tonight, but the balance tipped in favour of 207, for the simple reason that the kind guy went to the subway door as we approached the station, thereby putting in my mind the prospect of walking with other kind people at 2am on 207th street, making that option seem safer. As I exited, I noticed that he didn't, but by then I'd made up my mind and went anyway.

 Seemingly tiny decisions may be life-changing indeed. For it is thus, that I passed the meowing car, at the intersection of 207th street and Post Avenue.

             More accurately, the car was shielding a kitten crying at the top of its little lungs. Its distressed squeaking was barely audible above the street noise, and many passersby didn't notice it. However, I did; perhaps I am innately a cat lady, but I also have better hearing than many, which I think is attributable to my classical musician's habit of holding my ears at the more deafening stretches of subway tracks. The high end of my hearing is still intact (at least, I think it is intact–what, did you say something?)

           What to do about this little fellow? I am decidedly a cat afficionado, but have so far successfully avoided crossing the line to expressed cat-lady-ism, which I understand has a prerequisite of four cats. (I have three and two are currently housed with their grandparents, er, I mean, my parents.) More tellingly and uselessly for tonight, I do not possess a cat trap, as New Yorkers truly well-versed in cat-philanthropy do. I have connections to some of these wonderful New Yorkers, but not at 2am. Still, I couldn't just leave the little guy crying there (and I did have a hunch he was a guy-kitty).

           I decided to begin with a conversational approach. We meowed back and forth. I was trying to communicate, "I hear you, hear me echo your sentiments, so come out and let an empathetic stranger help you." He, however, continued complaining frenziedly about his current situation, and perhaps wasn't ready to have his life changed for the posh, so our exchange remained a mere mewing chorus. Perhaps he was well educated by his mother to never leave the cover of a car for fearsome strangers. I, on the other hand, had no strangers to fear: all passersby either heard the kitten and smiled, or didn't hear the kitten and took a wide detour around the meowing woman peering beneath a car at 2am. I'm sure I looked rather similar to another woman meandering by later, drawing little crosses with her index finger in the air, on the sidewalk, and then on a few cars and a garbage truck. Trying to be the heroine of the cat rescue story is a drug in and of itself.
My next brilliant strategy was to procure some food to lure the kitten out to my snatching arms. Bouncers at a nearby nightclub had been watching me, so I asked them if I could have a little milk, assuming the bar would have it on hand to make White Russians and whatnot. Their mystified looks confirmed that I indeed appeared as crazy as I'd hoped, but I soon won them over as allies and added security in my kitten-aid project. They said the bar had no milk, but suggested I go to the neighbouring street-corner, and get meat from John's Chicken instead. I mustered my best Spanish and bought two little strips of chicken for 25 cents, earning a smile from the server, who did not know how repugnant and sad the place was to me, a 25-year vegetarian. (I do feel conflicted at buying certain life for my pet cats at the cost of certain death at best for many nameless and innocent herbivores, and know that sticking with even an organic norm simply perpetuates the cycle, but I am at a loss for a more humane and ethical solution.) I returned with my bait to the car, dangling it in front of the kitten, but he was too skittish to come out. I threw him the first strip under the car, to get him hooked. He wolfed it down ravenously. (Ah, but did he raven it down wolfishly?) I showed him the second one, and placed it dramatically a foot or so from the curb, trying to position myself unobtrusively within snatching distance. It nearly succeeded. He came out carefully, and started gnawing it–I reached out and managed to touch his back, but as soon as he felt my hand he shrank away with the quickness of instinct, shooting me a look of fear, and darted back under the car. Dangit. From his reaction, I was sure he had never been touched by a human before. I tossed him the second strip, but now he was less hungry, and more wary, and I knew I had used up the lure-tactic.
A grown cat loped in our direction alongside the cars parked on the opposite side of the street. Perhaps it belonged to the colony that lives a few blocks down, which is fed and managed by a local cat lady. I hoped this cat was the kitten's mother, coming to get him. Surely she could hear his high-pitched mews? But she continued on along the cars, passing by us with an air of despondency yet purposefulness, walking slowly with cocked ears, but never turning her head. I tried mewing in tandem, for added volume, also to no avail. Life for street cats is surely not easy, let alone beautiful, especially considering the size of the local rats; perhaps she had too many worries of her own, moving along like so many New Yorkers when we stare at the pavement and sadly pass a homeless beggar. Or perhaps, if indeed she was the mother (though I doubt it), she heard the cat-lady-like quality of my voice and wanted him to have the chance at a better life, giving me permission to try. I don't think that's the right interpretation; still, I felt again more responsible for the kitten and less guilty to take him from his home: if his mother was not around to help, and even another cat wouldn't come look, who but me would be eccentric enough, and have the wherewithal and perseverance, to help this kitten at 3am?

207 & Post, NW corner
The saying is that New York never sleeps; more prosaically, it is a city where somebody is always awake. This fine Friday night, there were plenty of people out and about, fewer than during the day but once I'd decided to try enlisting the help of others, it took only half a minute to spot a friendly-looking couple to accost. They immediately deemed it a worthwhile project. The guy peered under the car, and had the new idea of rattling his keys to make a toy-like sound, and then shaking the car a little to try to make the kitten run out. Instead, the kitten ran to hide under the neighbouring car, and then next neighbouring car, and then around the corner under the cars on Post street. However, he had the sense not to run out into traffic; his mother must have taught him well. We searched but could not find him on Post; though we heard his cries, none of the rows of wheels seemed to have a kitten between them. Oddly enough, however, we found an open tin of cat food - had someone tried to rescue him earlier? I checked the cars on the opposite side of Post with the girl, while the guy tried shaking the curbside tree, in case the kitten was up in it. No such luck. After ten or fifteen minutes, the couple gave up and left.
Soon, I heard the kitten crying again. I followed the sound to a car on my side of Post street, but no kitten was visible. I realized that he must have climbed up inside the car from underneath. This seemed like the perfect time to use my call-a-friend lifeline, and I knew just who should be able to help: someone who would be awake after Friday night ballroom-dancing two time zones further west, and who had recently aided a sibling in car-inspection and purchase. The conversation was good moral support for me: it helped keep my spirits up and persist, and the kitten responded to my calm and continuing voice too, peeking out from above the front wheel of the SUV. It didn't matter that the main advice my friend gave me was to stay safe and go home, since I was nowhere near doing that. (Anyone who has tried to convince me to desist from trying to solve a problem once I have my brain and heart wrapped around it, knows the futility of this advice!) I thought the kitten might be becoming more accustomed to me, and hoped he would give in eventually, and let me take him.
      Post street presents an odd juxtaposition of Inwood night life. Next to a swank nightclub is a food pantry: 4-inch heels, cleavage, straightened hair, designer jeans and embroidered leather jackets of those who stay out by choice, walk by sweat pants and grocery trolleys of those who have no-where else to sleep. I figured I fit right in, somewhere in the middle. I felt safe, and my violin and bag turned out to be perfectly safe too on top of the SUV, where I could keep an eye on them. I tried to reach the kitten on the SUV wheel, but he fled under another car, a pattern that repeated several times. At one point, he hid under a pile of garbage from the pantry, scampering into the wooden forklift platform at the bottom of it. I tried arranging the pile to block his entrance, so I could catch him at the other end, explaining to the elderly people on the steps, "Gattito". They watched me solemnly, and one began rooting through wooden crates in the pile, to see if any of the ears of corn in them were still good. I felt intense gratitude for my own food, for knowing that I can afford my next meal, for the privilege of selecting organic healthy food that I like. My trap failed, and the kitten escaped back under the cars, again climbing the front wheel of his favourite SUV. The owner of the SUV soon emerged from the club, so I explained the situation to him, which he seemed to think he could easily solve by taking charge, shouting at the kitten to come out, and banging on the car. I asked him to please let me handle the situation since I'd already been out for over two hours and had started getting the kitten more tame. I was quite pleased by how unsexy the owner seemed to think this proposition was, and that he felt it was not worth trying to impress me any further with his kitten-catching skills. In fact, "Willful-cat-lady" seems to be a good guise for me: all night only one male club-goer, of several who took an interest in the kitten and me helping the kitten, changed the subject to, "Do you have a boyfriend?" I decided the correct answer was "--Yes." "Are you sure?" "Yes." I moved away, and that, thankfully, ended the conversation.

          My kitten-quest, however, continued for hours. I tracked him back and forth under the cars on Post, up onto their wheels, to the garbage pile, back to the cars on 207th. He was becoming more tame, and would let me approach within a few feet even when sitting on the curb to dash across the corner, but I just couldn't bridge the remaining gap. He wanted out of his situation and finally tried climbing the tree, where at shoulder-height I should have been able to snatch him easily, but again I only managed to touch his back before he sprang off to retake cover under the cars. Nearing morning, he was so exhausted that he actually came out on his own from under his original car on 207th, walked towards me across the sidewalk, mewing plaintively, and lay down. He was clearly so tired he was trying to trust me, wishing that I could help. Still, the moment I approached, his fear of humans got the better of him again, and he retreated again.

A better-safe-than-sorry mentality is probably very rational for street cats in Inwood; not everything is roses for animals here. Apart from feeling, not inept, but not quite ept either in the kitten-catching-department, my most helpless moment of the night was seeing a delivery truck unloading cargo for the live poultry place next to the night club on Post. The dozens of chickens crammed into crates were not unloaded gently, but instead slammed down the few feet from the truck to the pavement; no-one cared whether they were comfortable or miserable, presumably reasoning that they would soon be dead anyway. I could only mourn their fate, knowing I was powerless there. I was investing hours for one little kitten, but could do nothing for hundreds of chickens. On a side note, I feel similarly overwhelmed sometimes when I take great pains to recycle my trash, then read about the billions of barrels of oil used for various things each day. Still, to take hope from the sarcastic words of one of my favourite Onion articles, "How bad can throwing away just one plastic bottle be, 37 million people wonder?" ... perhaps 37 million people taking small steps to make their own little backyards just a bit better places to live, can make a difference in the big picture too. I do hope so. I would like to be one of them.
I did want to make a difference in the kitten's life, but I had to give up, nearing 6am. He had climbed up inside his original car on 207th street, and after a few last mews fell silent. He must have fallen asleep. I made a last attempt to get him out, by asking the John's Chicken employee sweeping the sidewalk if I could borrow his broom to try to get "gatito" out from under "automovil". The employee came with me to try, soon joined by a friend of his. Neither could hear the kitten, and both several times scanned my face as though to ascertain if I were a bit batty, but the friend offered to try to go under the car, and would I pay him $20 if he got the kitten out? I said, “Yes! Of course!” He said, what the heck, he really needed the money, and tried. He couldn't quite fit, and emerged greasy and without kitten. I said I felt I should give him something for his effort anyway, but he wouldn't take it; he said he was honest and had tried to do something good. They left.
       So far, my only tangible accomplishment was to have satisfied my curiousity sufficiently to be able to develop a theory of how the kitten came to be mewing under a car at 207th and Post. Based on his behaviour all night, I think he did not know his current surroundings outside of the six or seven cars he went back and forth under, but he did seem very comfortable hiding inside cars, wherefore I think he lived at a nearby cat colony, or in a super's basement quarters with outdoor access, and had climbed up into the engine of another car, for warmth, or out of curiousity, and gotten an unexpected ride to his current location. It explains his disorientation and terror, and again affirmed for me that just letting him try to find his way home probably wouldn't work.
             Now that he was sleeping inside the car's engine, however, there was nothing I could do. The last clubgoers were leaving, one of whom asked me in passing, "Did you ever get your cat?" I said no, and wondered at how my fame had spread. I did not want the owner of the car to start the car with the kitten inside. So I wrote a note in both English and Spanish, and put it under the windshield wiper, to say there was a kitten in the car, and to please call me upon his return, leaving my number.

I went home. Put down my violin and bag. Changed out of concert clothes into yoga pants. Ate my leftover hummus and pita. Sort of took my friend's advice to take care of myself a little. I would have liked to go to bed.
The phone rang at 6:33am; the driver had returned. He said he'd seen the kitten. I exclaimed excitedly, "Thank you so much for calling!! I'll be there in five minutes! Please wait!"
          My new flatmate, Jillian, had just awoken, and wondered what I was up to. As I rushed to put on my comfortable five-finger shoes, I explained, "Kitten-hunting! Want to come?" She did; I hurried ahead, this time armed with a cat-carrying-crate.

           The driver and a friend had the car's hood open, and were poking around inside the engine with a twig. They had heard and seen the kitten, but didn't know where he was now. They were in favour of turning on the engine, to scare him out. That made me very nervous; I worried he could get injured. When I was growing up in Canada, the family cats used to go out in all weather, including -20oC, and sometimes climbed up inside the car's engine for warmth. One day, my mother tried to start the car, and the serpentine belt cut through Puddi's tail. She was lucky to survive, and that it could be amputated cleanly. I had no wish for repeats today.

             From somewhere (perhaps the driver had a mechanic friend), a jack stand appeared, and we began to raise the car. Someone handed me a large flattened cardboard box to spare my clothes, and I slid on it under the car. That's a first for me! And I wouldn't be surprised if it's a first in terms of white girls sliding under cars on 207th street too. I peered around everywhere, using a flashlight, but still no kitten. The serpentine belt was clearly visible and clearly not grazing a kitten, and the driver assured me that no other part could do damage, so we decided to start the engine. No kitten.

             Finally, I thought to go around the corner to Post, where people from the now much longer pantry line immediately recognized me and pointed to the garbage pile: "He went there!" (Teamwork is a truly wonderful thing!)

            The kitten had escaped from the garbage pile twice in the night, and I wasn't going to let it happen again. Jillian came with me and with her fluent Spanish helped me convince someone from the pantry who wanted to organize the pile, perhaps for the garbage pick-up, to leave it alone for just five minutes to let me do what I needed to do. I could see the kitten inside the wooden forklift platform again; the crawl-space was exactly kitten-sized. First, I sealed off the front openings by placing wooden vegetable boxes in front of them. The back was mostly already sealed off from my previous efforts, but I had to do it a little better still, by moving more boxes. Once I had fully trapped the kitten in the platform, I looked for an implement to poke inside and direct him with. Brilliantly, there was a 4-foot-long cardboard tube already in the heap, just waiting to be used.

I moved a box to make a small opening at the front of the platform, and positioned my kitty crate so its opening covered that of the platform. This way, he could enter the crate, but not escape back into the world. Next, I carefully slid the tube into the crawl-space along the left wall, until it reached the back, and gradually moved it towards the right, like a divider, nudging him forward and towards the right as well. He couldn't climb over the tube, and so had no choice but to keep moving forward and to the right, towards the opening. Finally, there was one last remaining open space, the crate, and there was nothing for it; he reluctantly had to scurry into it. Quickly, I shut the crate door. “Got him!!” I must have been glowing. I held him up for all to see, and the pantry-line cheered.

We had circle of kitten-viewers and well-wishers around us. People congratulated us; Jillian translated. A man came forward to say he knew a local bodega was looking for a cat to help keep the mice in check. I appreciated the thought but was skeptical: while some stores certainly treat their cats well, one of my other cats is a former bodega mouser, and has required years of socialization to even start purring. A bodega that doesn't know how desperately shelters are looking for homes for their cats does not strike me as a great place for a cat. I didn't have to say anything, however, for a middle-aged woman rebuked the man, "No, she worked all night for this kitten! She deserves to have him! He's hers!" The crowd agreed, and the man smiled. Do I agree with her? I don't need a fourth cat, but, if I weren't at least open to the prospect, would I be writing this story?

           We took a picture of him with the driver, then took the kitten back to the apartment, the kitten-equivalent-of kicking-and-screaming the whole way. He was not just unhappy, he was mad. His mews were fiercely determined to let us know that this was not at all an ok thing to be happening, and he would fight this intolerable situation to the end. Jillian was pretty sure he was yelling, "You bitch! How dare you!!" His volume increased as we entered the courtyard and climbed the stairs. A resident cat stared at us from a window.

          Now what? We decided to set him up in the bathroom, a nice confined space, easy to clean in case of parasites, and separate from my other New York cat. Taming a kitten is not difficult, but I've never yet been able to do it without shedding a little of my own blood. I reached into the crate, so that he could smell my hand. That was scary for him, but ok; after all, I'd been doing it all night as he danced above the hubcaps! Then, I reached in with both hands, and pulled him out. He yowled angrily and made good on his promise to fight, biting me with all his might in my left index knuckle. I caught the scruff of his neck, like any good mother cat, pulled him back, and placed him on my lap. His sides were heaving from exhaustion and fear, but as I began to pet him, he finally began to calm down. I must have felt much less scary than he'd expected–how would he have known I wouldn't harm him?–but I must still have looked monstrous, for whenever he turned his head to look at me, he stiffened up again. So I kept his head turned in the other direction, and five minutes later, he was utterly comfortable in my lap, and perfectly happy to be petted by me, Jillian, and another flatmate, Dave, too. (Meanwhile I sucked on my knuckle to stop the bleeding and prevent infection; that, along with submerging it in iodine twice for a good half hour each time, let me emerge as good as unscathed.)
Dave asked whether I would keep him. I said I didn't know, that I knew people who might be able to take him, and that I'd be travelling in two days for a week. Both Jillian and Dave immediately and eagerly volunteered to take care of him in my absence. (Who can resist the cute kitten?) I was swayed, at least for now. The kitten needed a name, what should it be? Ten minutes after biting me with all his might, he was now tame enough that we could ascertain that yes, he was indeed a he. Jillian said the name would have to be Spanish, in honour of the neighbourhood and all the people involved in the kitten-catching. Dave suggested the car-themed "Cylindro," which I rather liked, especially as the kitten is kind of cinder-coloured. But somehow, the name "Ernesto" sprang to my mind, and stuck. He is very earnest indeed! He more than proved it by persisting with mewing for over four hours. It is very important to be earnest. Later, we added a middle name: "Karlito." He was, after all, found under a car!

He also proved his new-tameness by tolerating a much-needed bath. With the street soot removed, his pretty tabby markings became visible. He had quite the appetite, and figured out the litter box quickly. He was, however, hosting a bloodthirsty colony of fleas and ear mites, and at 7 or 8 weeks old he was too young for any mainstream pesticides, so I began working on those problems with a flea comb, more baths, and mineral oil in the ears. Later, I finished off the bugs with diatomaceous earth and obsessive cleaning, and took him to the vet, who gave him a de-worming pill, and confirmed my intuition: thank goodness, no FIV or FeLV! For the first few days, Ernesto sometimes re-lapsed into fear of human legs and feet, and would hiss upon our approach, but he liked being picked up, and played and purred.

A few hours post-taming.

He's curled up on my stomach as I write this, reclined, a month later. He's made himself entirely at home. What is it that moves us to help another creature? Is it a selfish indulgence for my empathy neurons, to hear him purr and partake in his feeling of comfort and happiness? Is it true altruism, if that exists? Or are they one and the same thing, or is it a mix of both? Although I now have added responsibilities, the relationship feels symbiotic; for one thing, he gives company to my other New York cat, who after a few days of growling reluctantly exuded that she likes having him around, and for another, he actually likes my violin playing (she doesn't). He's certainly also more fun than youtube kittens. We did watch some youtube kittens together, also Dancing with the Stars, both of which seemed to intrigue him greatly. He makes me and my flatmates smile.

         Now, I usually exit the subway at 215 street, and if I exit at 207, I hurry past Post. As much as I've bonded with little Ernesto, and am happy to have helped him win the lottery, and wish that all creatures human and otherwise could win the lottery, I don't need another kitten. Does it make me less cat-lady-like if I'm a little afraid word might get out? Is there indeed a word in kitty-speak for “cat-lady”?

Ernesto Karlito surveys the world.