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So. Last Monday I followed in the itty-bitty footsteps of the backyard cats. I stepped out. OF THE HOUSE. And went to New York City, center borough: Manhattan,  Downtown, still the epi-center of cool in the Tri-State area.

How does it feel to be out and unaccountable after dark in Manhattan?

Feels like 1987. Otherwise known as My Hey Day.

(I don’t get out much, and all my memories of being single and foot loose in Manhattan date back to 1987, so that’s where I go when the light, the mood, and the night is right. On Monday, the night was right.)

I was an hour early for my Literary Soiree, which you know is the only reason I tear myself away from the comforts of home, for Litterchure, so I stopped at the nearest French cafe for a beverage or two. It was called Jacques and nice touch, eh? The tables out on the sidewalk in twenty degree weather?

(My agent, Betsy Lerner, was giving a talk at MacNally-Jackson book store right down the street in the heart of the crossroads of the East and West Village, that is, on Prince Street near Lafayette at the nexus of what used to be called the Slums of Alphabet City and hipster Greenwich Village.)

I was there for 45 minutes, then I dashed to the bookstore (see below, which doesn’t give you any idea how crowded the space was: 60+ people, standing room only, overflow from the cafe into the aisles. For my report on what a hipster crowd of Manhattanites get from my agent, Betsy Lerner, you can read my recap on her blog here:

I hate it when people put links like this on their own blogs and I’M SORRY but if I don’t cut to the chase this post will go on forever and ever and ever.)

So let’s get back to that glass of Sancerre at Jacques:

The place was empty except for a group of three French girls at one end of the tiny bar, and two American girls sitting at the other end. The French girls of course had used up extra stools for their bags and coats even though there was a coat rack five feet away, so the bartender scurried out from behind the bar and made  a whole pantomime about being so thankful that the French girls would deign to clear off a stool for me, his whole body the epitome of over-blown Gallic courtly gestures and the girls’ attitudes the height of Gallic Not Giving a Shit.

So I got my glass of Sancerre and I eavesdropped on the American girls because their voices were louder and much, much higher pitched (as most American voices are). They were young girls, complaining about their boyfriends. Seems the one girl could kick herself for remembering how many times in the last two years she cleaned her boyfriend’s apartment for him when she should have been out kicking her heels up, and the other girl’s boyfriend back home seems to be in no hurry to graduate from college even after five years. Sweet girls. One blonde, one brunette.

When the brunette got up to use the ladies room I noticed that the blonde was wearing a watch so I asked her what time it was. She picked up her phone and said, 6:20. This still strikes me as hilarious.

I said, Oh good, I still have time. She asked, “Do you have to catch a train?” and I said, no, I just have to go to the bookstore down the street at 7; the MacNally-Jackson bookstore, I said. “Oh, I know that place — it has a cafe. I’ve never been to the bookstore part.” [I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.]

It being New York, it took her about thirty seconds to ask me What Do You Do? and I said, I write illustrated travel memoirs. Now, I so rarely talk to strangers that I was unprepared for her reaction; I’m more used to having to explain to editors and publishers and book store owners and other writers what I do in just such specific language and believe me, nobody gets excited to hear that I write illustrated travel memoir. I might as well say, “I write arty genre crap that only shoplifters like”, that’s how excited most professional in the publishing world are about illustrated travel memoirists.

But this girl, and her friend (who had returned form the ladies’ room) do not work in publishing (they work “in finance”) and they had never met anyone who wrote illustrated travel memoirs. “That’s so cool!!!” they both said. And they began questioning me, How, What, Why, When…and the dreaded WHERE.

“Where’s the best place to go?” the blonde asked me; “Where’s your favorite place?”

And I had to explain that I do not have exotic tastes in travel; I am of the generation who back-packed in Europe and South America, unlike the Gen X and Yers who all flock to Asia these days (That’s so true!, the blonde said; “I’ve never been to Europe but I’ve been to Hong Kong and Singapore.”).

And I said also that my kind of travel is not “Big”. It’s not deeply political or philosophical, tends not to be life-changing, does not involve stunts (hopping across country on one foot, climbing Everest with one arm tied behind my back, going around the world speaking only Esperanto, etc.), and pukes at the mere mention of the world “enlightening”.

I didn’t actually say all that. I murmured several words to that effect and told the girls that my favorite place in the world is Edinburgh in January.

They told me about themselves, they both being 24 and best friends since middle school in Michigan, grads from different colleges, here in NYC for about a year, still loving the city, etc. And then I had to dash to get to the bookstore on time but before I left I had to tell those girls something they had to know. Something from my Hey Days of the late 1980s. I told them, I said, “You’re both beautiful girls, and you’re smart. You should have men throwing themselves at you, and taking your pick.” (It was the best I could do on spur of the moment.)

And on the long train ride home that night (I took the 10:19) I thought about my favorite place, Edingburgh in January. Five years ago this week I was in Edinburgh, a trip my mother gave me and my twin sister, the three of us wandering for a long weekend up and down The Royal Mile.

It was the kind of trip, a sentimental adventure into the land of our ancestors, and us being the only three people in the world who remember the whole roster of Our Gallery of Unforgettable Cats (and of course all the Unforgettable Cat Stories) and us also being the only three people who think our fake Cockney accents are a riot, the kind of trip that threatens my rule against “Big” travel.

But ah, it had its small moments, too. It had its great small moments, like in this tea shop on the Royal Mile:

And inside, we were sitting at the table with our Holy Ghost and Rosie Lee (Cockney slang for toast and tea — see? see? That’s funny, right?!) and I took this picture as a reference for when I painted it later:

I didn’t even notice the couple in the corner until I got the photographs developed (yes, in 2006 I was still using film):

To me, it looks as if these two people are having a big moment. I hope everything turned out well for them.

Question of the day: What was the best small moment of yor life?

8 comments to Travelin’ gal.

  • easy answer: seeing the black ring in the bottom of the pregnancy test. (that was in 1983, when you still had to do a lot of mixing and waiting and before you just peed on a stick.)

    Good for you getting right back to Manhattan – and at night!

    I try to avoid people who ask what-do-you-do before they’ve gotten to know my pets’ names.

  • Deborah

    A series of small moments watching bluebirds over the last seven years. Watching them check out the bird houses & wondering how they communicated to each other whether or not this was THE ONE, and then seeing it one year: she picked up a twig and took it into the house. So that’s blue bird for “this will do.” And sitting on a step one summer evening watching the parents take the new fledglings on an outing a few yards from the nestbox where they were born. But maybe best of all was opening the nest box to check on the babies, reaching my hand in to stroke one of them with my finger, and having one of them mistake my finger for a worm and closing its rubbery beak around me.

    Re: the tea room — it would never occur to me to paint a ceiling red. And I had that exact same light fixture in my dining room (although I replaced it).

  • jen

    That birthday cake looks divine to me. Beautiful. Happy Birthday, Vivian. From jen in oklahoma – loved the pictures, also, by the way. I always wanted to backpack across Europe.

  • august

    Love the footprints. Be a nice illustration for a, I dunno, cat book or something. Cats + watercolor + Vivian = $$$.

  • Janet

    Hands down best moment in my entire life was just last night. I was sitting in an over-sized and uncomfortable recliner in the tiniest hospital room in America when my cell phone rang. It was the doctor who performed extensive major surgery on my partner a week ago, telling me the pathology report came back showing NO traces of more cancer. She has beat the 10 to 1 odds, and she will live. With this kind of luck, I think she needs to start buying a lotto ticket every week.

    I very much enjoyed the account of your night out in Manhattan. And I liked that the French cafe had the same kind of chairs that the sidewalk cafes in Paris have, too.

  • Joan

    My special moment was discovering a hummingbird nest with 2 nestlings in my front yard, it was at eye level. I watched the marvel of the tiny mother bird bring food (insects) to her two babes. I watched the development of the babies until they were ready to fledge. A special window into the natural world which doesn’t give a whit to our hectic, frantic world…food, shelter, water, mate, babies, done…the cycle of life. Love it.

  • KJ

    Oh, I know JUST what it feels like to be out and about and unaccountable in Manhattan after dark, now that it only happens a few times a year. Thanks for bringing it back to me. I’m working on channeling my rush of envy into the productive cause of getting back to those streets soon.

  • Kristina

    I know this comment is delayed but I just wanted to say as a Generation Y-er myself, that though I have been to seven Asian countries and only six European, I have spent more time in Europe than anywhere else.

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