The airport limo driver talked non-stop in colorful Brooklynese, and grudgingly helped us drag our luggage up steep concrete steps to the front porch. Tim struggled with an unfamiliar lock while a sharp wind peppered us with icy shards. Finally, we staggered into a grandmotherly living room, complete with with lace doilies, plastic plants, and family-rendered art work.
It was freezing inside the house, too. The usual light switch fumbling, bag-dragging, exploring routine began as we controlled our tempers, which were worn thin after a long day of travel from California. The rental apartment instruction book told us how to fire up the thermostat. Soon the classic pipe clanging, hissing and rumbling announced the arrival of radiator heat from whatever monster lived in the basement, and things looked brighter. Here we were again, ready to make our home free life work in a new place.
This was New York, well, to be more accurate, Staten Island, a place some Manhattanites don’t recognize as part of their city because it lies across the water, a twenty-minute ferry ride from the tip of the financial district, and an entirely different environment from the city’s.
We chose to live on Staten Island for the two-and-a-half-month run-up and follow through for Home Sweet Anywhere’s release because we could get much more bang for our buck there. We could not afford a two bedroom apartment with a decent kitchen, a real dining room and a small patio in the city proper! So although the location had its drawbacks, having more space made up for it. The extra bedroom became a writer’s room, and we had space to breathe as we hunkered down inside during 2014’s terrible New York winter and early spring weather. Tim’s dogged search through hundreds of HomeAway properties in various New York environs had paid off. The house was elderly but comfortable, and the bonus was the view. We had a spectacular, ever-changing show across the water with tankers, freighters, tugs, and barges moving past our windows constantly. The ferries trundled back and forth from our island to Wall Street every thirty minutes, and on foggy days, the deep moans of the horns were exciting, mysterious.
The new Freedom Tower, surrounded by the other skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan, spiked heavenward, and at night we were treated to a billion-dollar light show. That killer view offset the ghastly freezing weather and ever-present chilly wind, the trek to the ferry, the more difficult trek home at night, and the paucity of decent food markets. Almost every time I walked through the living room I couldn’t resist sitting down for a few minutes to watch the passing parade. Those big ships heading for God-knows-where seemed wildly romantic, and the the way the clouds changed the color of the water, the buildings, and the sky was endlessly fascinating.
Our days were filled with excitement generated by the book’s debut, but even with the heady hoopla we were enjoying, we still had our life to live. Home free does not mean chore free, and just like everyone else’s life, it comes right down to finding a way to get food, clean clothes, and transport ourselves and our purchases where they need to be. For us, this meant using the bus on Staten Island, the ferry to and from Manhattan, and the subway in New York. Let me tell you that we quickly learned to add at least an hour on each end of a trip to the city. Even though the ferry itself took less than half an hour, we faced a sometimes-grueling ten minute walk down to the ferry in howling winds and rain, and if we missed the connecting subway, which jerked, halted, screeched, stopped for unexplained reasons, and sometimes limped its way up that other island, we were definitely late for wherever we were headed. For really important appointments we’d leave the house two hours ahead to allow for un-forseen transportation delays. Our life was dictated by bus, ferry and subway timetables, which were about as reliable as the weather! Our idea of a good day quickly became a day in which we didn’t miss any connections and made our appointments on time! It became a game. Sometimes we’d bolt from a nice dinner out in order to be sure we didn’t miss that 11:30 p.m. ferry home.
We were usually entertained as we waited for the ferry. These guys were too much. Took us right back to the old days!
We found ways to amuse ourselves on the long commutes, and some wonderfully entertaining chats with fellow passengers developed, especially on the subway. We loved this girl’s purchase. She said it was going to hang in her bathroom. I’ll bet her apartment was darling!
We’ll talk about food in Manhattan in another installment, but I must say that dining and shopping in Staten Island were new experiences. This item in the local market sent me to my computer to find out what in the world people do with this part of a goat. I did not have the courage to purchase them, but at least I have a new understanding of Haitian and Caribbean food.
And of course there were times when we had to choose between real food and catching the next ferry home. In this case, the desire for our radiators and dry feet prevailed. I wasn’t proud of myself.
Early on, Tim discovered The Stars and Stripes, a little deli perched on a triangle of land halfway between our house and the ferry. Its owner, Louie, and his staff welcomed us, even though we were clearly not island natives. His fresh food, lively conversation, and being welcomed like natives made us return again and again for a taste of real neighborhood life.
Two-and-a-half months of lousy weather, challenging transportation issues, jostling crowds, and surviving the anxiety around the long-anticipated birthing of Home Sweet Anywhere tested us. In many ways, finding our rhythm and making a home for ourselves on Staten Island was every bit as daunting as learning to cope with the madness of Marrakech! But then, confronting those very challenges, learning to live among people we would never have gotten to know in our old life, and succeeding in understanding a little bit of what turned out to be a very different culture from our own is what makes living home free the wonderful adventure it is.