Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sacramentans Are Kind

This weekend, Andrew and I went antiquing in Midtown. And we found treasures, bureaus and desks and shelves and buffets we don’t have nearly enough room for. We didn’t have much luck at our first stop, Homestyle (2403 21st Street); there were some beautiful pieces, but too beautiful for our budget. We fared much better at our next stop, at the antiques place on J Street in the 20’s (I’m not actually sure what the name is…). This enormous furniture and knick-knack warehouse was crammed with dusty bookshelves, colorfully-painted bureaus with charming rounded edges, dark wooden buffets that made me wish we owned a big Gothic mansion.

Still not ready to commit to anything, we drove on to Shabby Shack (3655 J Street), where we instantly wanted everything inside: farmhouse cabinets with peeling paint, worn-looking chests of drawers, cupboards with stained-glass doors.

Ultimately we chose a cream-colored cabinet, and delivery was promised within the hour. When the man arrived, he helped Andrew carry it all the way into our apartment, then tried to refuse the tip I offered—I had to insist.

But even greater helpfulness awaited us when we returned to the place in the 20’s on J, where we bought a great green desk. We were confident it would fit in the trunk of our car; but after turning it in every possible direction, it became abundantly clear that we were going to have to carry it home or return it. Then a man approached. “Where do you live?” he asked. We told him, and he held out a key to Andrew. “Take my truck,” he said, pointing to a white pick-up. “Just put a little gas in it.”

Seriously? I followed Andrew home; we unloaded the desk; and then we drove back to return the truck, where we gave the man $10 (“It wasn’t the money,” he said. “Just a little gas,” which made us feel like we’d been somehow unappreciative or had done an unseemly thing by giving him the cash.)

This would never, ever have happened in New York. Maybe—MAYBE—someone seeing us struggling fruitlessly to fit a big desk in a small car would have offered to drive it for us, and payment—probably $50 or so—would have been negotiated. Even this seems unlikely. (It’s why there are so many MAN WITH A VAN ads on NYC’s Craigslist.)

I’d never say that New Yorkers are unkind—not at all; it’s just a different place. There are different rules, different expectations. My experiences there covered the spectrum: When I worked in midtown Manhattan, I had a doughnut-cart guy greet me with my favorite doughnut every morning; and when I worked in Union Square I had crowds stream past me as I sat on the subway stairs, working through a fainting spell, with not one offer of help. I had a landlord help me sop water up from a flooded bathroom; and I had another landlord show up on my doorstep on moving day with a bowie knife on his dashboard (long story). I heard Marty Markowitz—the Brooklyn borough president—shout warmly “You’re back in Brooklyn now! Everything’s okay!” when I trudged with the crowds across the Brooklyn Bridge one winter during a transit workers’ strike (and had a cup of hot chocolate pushed into my hands from a Red Cross volunteer); and I had my purse snatched, complete with my eyeglasses and undeposited paychecks.

This is a long post, so I’ll cease and desist with the trip down mixed-memory lane. I guess my point is this: many people in New York have been helpful. But never has a person handed over the key to his truck and let us drive it away. For the first time, I can hedge a speculation about Sacramentans: they seem kind.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Breaking the Spell

March 26, 2006. On or around that date, I packed up everything in my Brooklyn apartment, carefully wrapping each mug, each bowl, each framed item from the walls. I wrapped some especially breakable things in pillowcases that would otherwise have gone in the trash. I rolled the carafe to my coffee maker in sheet after sheet of paper, turning it into a big pillow of newsprint. On Monday, when our ReloCube finally arrived and we began unpacking, Andrew smoothed out a sheet of the Times and noted that date: March 26, 2006. Pieces of a former life, frozen in time.

I remember those days of packing up. Though saying “yes” to Andrew’s marriage proposal was by far the easiest and most exciting decision I ever made, deciding to move to Barcelona was pretty close. And then there were so many weeks of waiting, of planning and loose-end-tying and more waiting, before I could finally start packing. I don’t remember the specifics of packing—but I remember the constant sense of giddy anticipation as I filled bag after bag with things I knew I’d no longer need, the feeling of physically bringing the New York and living-alone chapter of my life to a close with every box flap sealed with heavy tape. It was the start of a grand adventure, my life’s Volume Two.

I spent yesterday unpacking, spiraling each cup and plate from its smeary wrappings, finding myself surprised at things I hadn’t remembered saving—a blue glass bowl, a jar ringing with a handful of Icelandic kroner. And I found myself moved. I felt as though I were somehow confronting a ghost of another self, a self who had packed all the pieces of her life so carefully, confident that she’d one day return to them—but happy, for the moment, to leave them behind. It was all so much more than I’d hoped and thought it would be. I couldn’t have known that, then.

This grand adventure—I don’t say “the,” because there will surely be other adventures—has ended. I know we left Spain over seven months ago but somehow this—the unpacking, the real settling-in to a new place rather than living in limbo—makes it feel real. I miss it, Barcelona itself as well as that sense of taking a dramatic leap into the unknown. Yet I also know that at some point not too far away—a year, two years, who knows—we’ll be wrapping everything up again (in the NYT’s national edition this time), starting yet another new chapter in another new (or not new) place.

For now, I’m unpacking, peeling back the March 26, 2006 skin of our belongings, returning them to the land of the living. Breaking the spell.

Home Improvement

Radiator covers: how hard could they be to make? That was our thinking when we assessed our apartment last week in preparation for the ReloCube’s arrival. The radiators in the living room and bedroom are so long (73 inches and 53 inches, respectively) that we lose valuable wall space and wind up with industrial-looking focal points. How hard, really, could a radiator cover be to construct? It’s just a box with metal grating in the front. And so began our first home improvement project.

There was a moment, this weekend, when we felt we’d suddenly jumped in over our heads. Several moments, actually. The first was when we found ourselves at Home Depot on Friday night (we’re so married!), instructing a guy in the lumber department to cut a huge sheet of plywood into pieces in a variety of sizes. (We arrived at Home Depot without even a sketch, so deciding on the sizes took a fair bit of deliberation, as the lumber guy looked on warily.) Soon we had a cartful of plywood, as well a box of nails and a can of woodstain. We slid everything through the window of the Volvo and headed home.

(A note: Andrew, perhaps an engineer in a past life, devised an ingenious way for us to transport very long items, like two-by-twos and Ikea bookcases, despite the fact that the back seats of our Volvo don’t fold down: we slide the front passenger seat as far back as it will go, lower the back of it till it touches the backseat, and put everything into the car diagonally, through the passenger-side window. It works like a charm, even though I’m the one folded sideways into the backseat as we drive home.)

Anyway. In theory, radiator covers are not that complex. But on Saturday, when we laid out all the plywood pieces in our backyard for staining, it seemed far less easy than we’d thought. Another trip to Lowes on Sunday yielded decorative metal sheeting and a selection of other items. But once again there we were again, a bunch of wood surrounding us outside. (The fact that we actually have a real backyard is itself kind of surreal.) Building radiator covers was my idea; and I’m pretty sure Andrew was cursing me more or less nonstop from Friday night on.

Yet we did it. Somehow everything fit together, and—even more remarkably—somehow the covers even ended up looking really nice. We felt quite proud of ourselves. Perhaps a future in custom radiator-cover-building is in our future. I’ll post some pictures soon.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cube Countdown: 3 Days

We’re ready. We’re waiting. Everything is in place: I rented orange-and-white construction barriers (complete with flashing lights) and “NO PARKING” signs to reserve parking spots on the street for the ReloCube and the truck that will deliver it. We’ve gotten an “encroachment” permit so our cube can sit out on the curb without getting a ticket. And I’ve scheduled a four-hour-window delivery time with ABF U-Pack for Monday. Yes, Monday. A snowy start in Pennsylvania and who knows what else have delayed our cube’s arrival time from January 10 to January 14.

I am losing patience quickly, even though most of me is just relieved that the cube has not yet disappeared (let’s hope the same goes for its contents). I tracked it online from Pennsylvania to Dayton to Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska…now it’s slated to arrive in Reno this afternoon. It’s close, so close. Our toaster oven and soup pots and sweaters. Our books and Romanian sheepskin pelt and frying pans. Our DVDs and alarm clock and measuring spoons. Perhaps it’s just a sign of not having enough other diversions out here but I get almost giddy with excitement when I imagine all of our things finally, finally home.

In the meantime, we’re waiting. We’ve put together bookcases (eliciting an angry protest from our downstairs neighbors last night, broom-pounding-on-ceiling in good New York spirit); today we’re heading to Home Depot to buy materials to make radiator covers. (Who are we??) Of course, the cube’s arrival coincides with an insane work week for Andrew, rife with important meeting-preparations that will surely cut into our cube-unloading time. Ah well. We’ll get it done somehow. In just a few more days the boxes that have been sealed for nearly two years will be opened. And I’m hoping our primary reaction won’t be “We saved this?”

Friday, January 04, 2008

Our Stuff Goes Cross-Country

Believe it or not, our belongings are finally en route to California. Over Christmas, Andrew and I packed up our wedding gifts and re-packed some of the things in my parents' attic and filled a ReloCube--a 6 x 7 x 8' shed-like contraption with doors swing open for loading. We filled it about 2/3 of the way, a pretty hefty tangle of books and odd pieces of furniture and kitchenwares and who knows what else. (Some of those boxes were packed almost two years ago--unpacking them will be a kind of excavation.)

The ReloCube began its journey today. A man came to Connellsville and loaded it onto a truck with a fork-lift; despite having a tracking number, I have the sense of having packed up everything quite nicely for a thief. We strategically bought renter's insurance the day we loaded up the cube, but that's a small comfort. My fingers are crossed that the cube somehow makes it home.