The SMITH Diaries Project

Tito Puente Played Here

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

By Brad Wieners

With the snow flurries now a freezing rain, I scanned the storefronts on 43rd Street for a five buck umbrella, decided the last thing I needed was another of those flimsy, inside-out-after-the-first-gust pieces of crap, and quickened my stride in the hopes of making the Port Authority Bus Terminal before the rain soaked through. There was snow on the ground — it had been pleasantly falling for a few hours, and two or three inches had accumulated — but the temperature had risen to 33 or 34 degrees Farhenheit, thus leading to my least favorite weather. If you haven’t had the pleasure, sleet, as it was once called, more often a part of the “wintry mix” in contemporary metereological parlance, sucks. If it’s going to be cold and wet, why can’t it just snow and make everything beautiful? At the same time, it was just as well I was all-but-running because I really hadn’t given myself time to sort out where the ticket window for the bus line I was taking was located within the vast mall of the terminal, or how to get from there to the gate before the bus departed.

Since November things had been moving fast. At Thanksgiving, Gus and M and I flew to California for the big holiday feast with Oma and Opa. (My stepmother and father had decided they wished Gus to call them by Dutch endearments for Grammie and Grandpa after two years just concluded as ex-pats in Amsterdam.) Not only did Oma and Opa reiterate their willingness to help us with the loan of a down payment, they insisted we not miss our chance. They’d become champions of the cause. (Yes, it was time to get in the game!)

Much more surprising and welcome news: Wells Fargo Bank — WFB in my dad’s e-mail lingo — had pre-approved M and I for a loan equal to what we’d need for a mortgage on the house we liked in Nyack, the second one we’d seen. We’d gone back a few times to look around and see other places, but hadn’t improved on the one hundred year-old colonial/ arts & crafts home the realtor Bill showed us our first afternoon in town. Hearing that someone else had put a bid in, we moved to counter and began the somewhat tedious (but in its way, fascinating) process of home inspection, plus gathering the designs and zoning info on the new home going-up next door. Our seller had bought the home we wanted from a 90-some year-old widow’s estate when she passed away. He subdivided the lot, beginning construction on a new house next door that would turn out to be nearly twice the size of the one we had begun to think of as “ours”. The construction is what likely kept ours on the market almost a full year. In any case, a few days into January, we’d promised a princely sum, and it was high time I tested the commute: to determine if Nyack, on the opposite side of the Hudson River from the direct rail into NYC, was, perhaps, a bridge too far from my job in mid-town Manhattan.

Exasperation at one’s fate is the anxious, resigned vibe of the Port Authority. The stacked and overbright yet grungy floors are pretty much an architectural rendering of Dante’s circles — and I entered in the worst New York state of mind, angry at myself for choosing this night for a trial run, and, thanks to my wool overcoat, smelling like wet dog. In line for a bus ticket, I nearly burst a blood vessel in my forehead as the person before me “discovered” the strip on their credit card had been demagnetized. A few minutes on, I made the bus while the line was still shuffling through a glass door into the diesel smog, but the coach was humid, the windows fogged, the seats mildewy — and yet, close at it was in there, the coach was somehow cold at the same time: as a defrosting measure the driver had turned on the air conditioning. I took a seat and caught a ghostly image of my forlorn face in the window, soon flashing on one of the other times I’d been through the Port Authority, 15 years before, flat broke on Halloween, and traveling back to Cali on a ticket bought with cash wired by a girlfriend, enough money in my pocket for one meal, and facing 72-80 hours on the Greyhound. I had a sudden panic that I really hadn’t made any progress in life — that no matter how hard I worked, I ended up on buses from hell. This despair was soon deepened by the special terror of being alone on a dark coach behind fogged windows on a rainy night not knowing if you’ll recognize your stop in time, and momentarily too paralyzed to ask the bus driver to alert you. I got over that and asked the driver to let me out at Broadway and Main Streets, Nyack, where, an hour and change later, I stepped into the slush of my prospective hometown a little worse for the wear. The sleet, at least, had begun whirling back into snow.

The walk to the Best Western was longer and a little creepier than I remembered. M and I knew a couple of people in the Nyack area, but not well enough that I could call on short notice for a sofa, and this, of course, added to our trepidation: Were we going to make the same mistake we’d made with Brooklyn, moving to a neighborhood where we knew no one?

The Nyack Best Western, aka The West Gate, is up at the New York Thruway, a half mile from Broadway and Main, and it would fit easily in a David Lynch movie shot on location on the Lo Hud. It’s one of those Holiday Inn-ish places on the Eastern Seaboard that once had a social scene, and may yet. It has a solarium, a truck stop type restaurant, and a cocktail lounge with a big Latin music bill on Saturdays — one where, I later learned, the great Tito Puente once frequented (and maybe played as recently as 1995; he died in 2000). The room I was assigned had none of Puente’s vitality, only the desperate air of traveling salesmen and sad trysts.

For my own lonely night, I’d packed three binders worth of reading from WFB on our mortgages and insurance and whatnot, along with 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask. I did my very best to study these documents, but quickly grew blurry-eyed and fuzzy. Taking a break from the financial docs and legalese to check some e-mail, I recovered one from a friend from a week or two before. He’d written to tip me off to notables who lived in the Nyack area. M and I knew from bombing around town and reading promotional literature about the painter Edward Hopper and the actress Helen Hayes, but according to my correspondent, Bjork and Matthew Barney had a place near Nyack, as did Bill Murray and Toni Morrison and the born again Baldwin brother, Stephen. Not bad, I thought. I mean, really, if it’s good enough for Bill Murray

Funny, but as trivial as this was, local celebs did speak to M and I’s unresolved feelings about moving out of the city. Before Greenpoint, Brooklyn, we’d lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a fast-changing neighborhood where pretending not to notice famous people required real skill. Had these frequent brushes with fame changed our lives? No, not really. But the proximity to fame had meant something to us, and sitting in that dreary West Gate I saw it pretty clearly. It wasn’t a matter of being star-struck, although we were that from time to time. When everything isn’t going quite as you hoped and you haven’t caught your big break, encounters with folks who have had their talents recognized and rewarded keeps the dread sense of the impossible in check. Would Nyack, I wondered, cut us off from that weird optimism - the secondhand thrill of being around cultural producers that lent your own dreams more plausibility?

The next morning, I made my way through the spongy snow to the bus stop for the Tappan Zee Express, a shuttle to the Metro North railway. I was none the wiser about the many financial instruments available to home buyers, but I had managed to sign several forms in duplicate, and I boarded the bus confident that the “Cherrytown” on the destination board above the windshield really meant Tarrytown.

On the bus I met a woman who’d had a daughter within a day or two of Gus’ birthday and I quizzed her mercilessly on the ride into Grand Central. How reliable was the Tappan Zee Express? Was her husband, at home with their daughter, feeling isolated? Was it do-able with a little one?

Learning that this my first time on either bus or the train inbound to Manhattan, she was able to put my experience in perspective. “This is the only time,” she said, “the bus has ever been late for me” — it was three minutes behind — “and by far the worst weather of the year … If you still want to move here after last night and today, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Up Next: "Closing Day." The way our attorney said it, it sounded both cursory and experimental, somewhere between a baptism and major surgery.

One response

  1. jenna d says:

    I used to live in Nyack. I remember when Bjork was there. Friends of mine hung out with her kid.

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