On Saturday Robert met the Easter Bunny on Roosevelt Island. We got together with one of his pre-k friends and her mom, and we had some fun. Fortunately the weather held for the day.
The Easter Egg Hunt itself lasted only for a minute or so. The organizers had strewn the lawn with plastic eggs, filled with small toys and stickers. The kids swarmed over the stretch of lawn and picked it clean in the blink of an eye.
There were other activities after the “hunt”. Our kids had their faces painted, got to ride in the back of a police van and met a police dog called Achilles. Of course the most important event was taking a photo with the Easter Bunny. After the photo the kids put their heads together and started whispering, when pressed by us moms to tell what’s up. Robert came to me and whispered: “The Easter bunny is a man with bald hair (sic) and glasses”. So it was not the real Easter Bunny after all.
The little apple is not for everyone and now that I have read about it and researched it I begin to understand why.
The Island is merely a rock, about 3 km long and only 0.24 km wide at its fattest point. It is like someone dropped a long raft in the East River across from the East side of Manhattan (it extends from E 46th street to E83rd). From my windows I can see the UN General Assembly building, and the Trump Tower where I occasionally sit for lunch break.
The Island has a bad reputation. I have heard people referring to it as an “enclave of isolation” a “ghetto” and it is ranked 47 in the best neighborhoods to live in according to New York Magazine, with some parts of the Bronx and Staten Island faring better. The online article has a charming picture there, but dismissively says that although its setting suggests a small town atmosphere within a big city, it never quite found its own retail or street culture, and remains notoriously inconvenient.
Its history is no less colourful. The dutch bought from the Indians in the 17th century. It was called Blackwell Island for a time. Between 1921 and 1973 it was known as Welfare Island, for obvious reasons. Its residents have an equal stigma attached to them because of that designation. Also if you consider that shortly after the City of New York bought it in the 1920s it housed the petiniary, the lunatic asylum and the smallpox hospital, you would understand the deep dark history of RI.
Before I chose to rent here I took a walk around the Island on a dark and wet day of early spring. The streets were deserted and gray, the abandoned shops looked grimy and forbidding behind dusty windows. The skyline on Manhattan side looks nice but towards Queens you look towards a Costco warehouse and three chimneys of a thermal power station. The “retail” section of Main Street has the look of a long history of decay and neglect and the playgrounds were abandoned. The high number of disabled and rehab patients in their motorised or manual wheelchairs adds to the melancholy of the setting.
Once spring and sunshine arrived things started looking different. I took walks after work, and saw families, romantic couples and even fishermen along the promenade. The broken paving and rusty railings remind me of home in South Africa, and although I do not get from this promenade an ocean-wide view to Robben Island and beyond like in Cape Town, it still smells and feels like the sea. Best thing is that I have the river as a buffer zone to seperate me from the city that I still mistrust.
I am bombarded by unspeakable feelings and fears since I arrived here. Perhaps it is the change of seasons, the change of scenes, changes in my own circumstances, or it is just another milestone .. a passing midlife crisis.
When I first came here I suffered intense homesickness for Cape Town. I tried to function within the parameters of my new existence, but alien things were all around: Parks as spaces of asphalt and rubber floors, skeletal trees and flowers behind protective bars. All this next to the ever-present noise, and the mobs. There was no escape from the oppressive weight of the city, even if I looked up beseeching the heavens I would only see a strips of blue stabbed with silver skyscrapers. I missed looking at grass, sea and a big wide sky. Once I was so miserable, I cried openly in the middle of a playground and was grateful for the shoulder of my mother; she helped me out that day despite her own homesickness. There were countless other times I cried myself to sleep and wished I had never come here.
Things will get easier, this is what people tell me. You will get used to the convenience of the city and get desensitized against noise, pollution, stress and all the ailments of this Big Apple. In fact, things are starting to fall into place since I came to live on Roosevelt Island. I come to the peace of home and can look at Manhattan from the safety of this rock. I do not need the hectic city and its uncivilized people jostling and elbowing to be one second ahead of me at the subway platform.
Most days I ignore the city, trying to live in my own insular bubble on the island. When I have to meet Manhattan I block her out with music, South African radio shows or even an audio book. There are also some days when I swear to try making our relationship work. I will put up with her greed, her blatant consumerism and her egocentric qualities that threaten to swallow me whole. On some rare evenings when I see her across the East River, blushing red and gold in the setting sun, I can almost allow myself to love her. But I know that the next day she will be her dismissive and cruel self, wanting my heart and my soul and offering me only the spoils and burdens of a living.
There are the good things, I admit. I like my job and Robert will have a good education. I get along very well with my colleagues and working beside them and with them made me realize what I missed in eleven years of living in my adopted country. I missed speaking the language I grew up with, it has been a long time since I last read an Arabic novel and discussed its plot and style. It has been ages since I spoke with someone who closely knows the complex political situation in my birth country and understands the implications of what is happening there. Outside of my family, it is perhaps over a decade since I agreed with anyone on the contentious and paradoxical issue of religion.
I am finally able to do all that again, and I enjoy it. I feel that I am starting to make friendships to last a lifetime, but although this is positive and exciting, it scares me, because friendships mean staying and putting down roots, and something in me still resists that. I want to run, to escape, to move back to Africa. I do not want anything to ruin my plans and hinder me. My intuition, however, tells me that something has gone out of balance in my life recently. Maybe my desire to leave has began to falter, maybe I am starting to lose my strength against the temptation of the city, or maybe this is all just a novelty phase that will wear off as summer turns into deep winter freeze, who knows.