The Countdown: One Day Prior to Departure
The first time I saw Riga was three years ago at a Manhattan office, where I had a temporary job. That day she walked in soaked. Rain had washed away anything that could have stood in the way of her beauty, of which she had an abundance in body and spirit. It was of the pre-Raphaelite, evanescent kind, that made her luminous and ethereal, reminding of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott that hangs at the Tate. Yet equally, a faint air of tragedy seemed to hover over her, an echo of Tennyson’s poem on the enchanted Lady of Shalott.
She loathed her rigid upbringing yet it had probably contributed to making her exquisite manners a natural part of who she was. As much of a WASP by upbringing as she was Armenian by descent, a Nordic ancestor set her apart. Even though I once heard her speak Armenian fluently, we never used it once in our conversations. So different in background, we had become unlikely friends.
A Franco-Austrian woman I had met a few months earlier in Venice had been disappointed with Americans. “They are nice but superficial,” she had summed up her impressions from a month-long stay in Utah, the only place where she had been in the United States. She kept referring to Mormons omitting the second “M,” but I did not have the heart to correct her. Riga, however, had a depth to her sensibility and conversations that made her, in a way, un-American. It was perhaps that Americans became uncomfortable with conversations that went too deep. Not Riga.
We had last met in October 2013 at Yale Club, a place she loved. So we decided to have lunch there again, across from Grand Central. Our waiter was behaving oddly. It was about the grill’s closing time and that had put him visibly off. Yet he struggled to convey his annoyance but be courteous at the same time. The burgers we ordered came faster than at McDonald’s. As soon as he laid them on our table he was asking if we wanted coffee with it. Right after we told him that we would not have coffee, he asked again if we would like a coffee with it. A man from the Indian subcontinent, his accent thickened as he began speaking faster. It got to the point that both Riga and I were laughing and looking around. We thought we were the butt of an inside joke, for the waiter lingered on, asking us at quick clip if the food was alright. “Maybe he’s on meds,” I ventured. Riga nodded.
She was now working for a major Wall Street firm, doing the big deals she was so much into. Yet she hesitated when I asked her if she was happy. “I’m almost there,” she said. “Not quite there yet, but almost.” Riga fought back tears for a second but soon regained her composure.
An astronomy amateur, she had spent a pristine night in the company of friends and their children in Bridgehampton, on Long Island the previous weekend. She hated calling it “the Hamptons” for its pretentious overtones. The children were brilliant and took in her talk on the stars with immense curiosity and sharp questions that surprised her. But from the kid’s mother she had learned about heat lightning, those flashes that light up the sky on warm nights and that had intrigued her. “It was magical, with all these houses behind the mist.” They had fancied a ship in the dark sea. The kids had baptized it “Titanic.”
We were now in the lounge of the club on the second floor. The waitress brought me my customary order almost without asking, a Yale Ale, those New England beers with a velvety flavor. Her voice, too, had nuanced, velvety tones. All about her, from her speech to her shape and ballerina gait and almond shaped eyes, seemed to be instruments at the service of seduction. Years ago we had engaged in small conversation. She was an actress that did this gig at intervals between acting and casting calls. She had Hungarian ancestry on her father’s side, and her mother was American. It is said that all waiters and waitresses in New York are actors, singers, and poets, waiting for a break. That makeup of the population, too, was what made the city such a fascinating place. Were it only the preserve of the rich and bankers, it would probably be as exciting as those posh country clubs. It was nothing short of a miracle that such a diverse population had not been priced out of New York yet.
Then Riga told me about another interesting night last year in Washington. She had spent most of 2015 in D.C. for work. Home was a suite at a five star hotel paid for by the company. One day her boss told her “to dress up nicely” for a party the firm was throwing for the VIP crowd in the capital of the United States. Initially she did not understand. With giggles and winks, her boss insinuated what he meant. She pushed back gently too, with a smile: “It was a friendly conversation, we were smiling.” But he, too, made his points, with understatements she did not miss. He meant she was expected to wear non-office clothing: “Tight leather pants” and the like. Riga did not want them to believe her self-righteous, so she tagged along. “There were Congressmen and other powerful men.” All female guests, many of them company employees, were dressed provocatively. “The men would pick those women they liked,” she said. They were all married men. “Then the waiters began circulating with trays of cocaine, like you see in the movies.” She declined to take a line and shortly afterwards told her boss, with a smile, that she was leaving. And she left. These were little compromises she was ready for.
After Riga left I went to 47th Street – the diamond district of New York – to buy pouches for iron arrowheads I had bought from an antique shop in Turkey. They were souvenirs for friends. I asked a man outside a jewelry for advice and directions for a packaging shop. He looked Dominican, with vintage Yankee accent. To my uncertain ears, it rang of Harlem. “Listen man: do you want the best? Go to Zak’s Tools.” I was about to intervene, but he did not let me. “But if you want really fancy stuff, you need to go the Chinese and haggle,” and he gave a name I did not understand. “They have ring boxes with a little camera that beams the image of the lady when she opens the case and sees the rings, and a little display, so these guys that travel a lot can propose from Hong Kong or wherever overseas,” he said. “You’ve got to impress your lady: package is everything. You know Tiffany’s aquamarine green? That’s a registered color, man. Nobody else can use it. Because when you see it, you know it’s Tiffany’s.”
I walked into the mall, past stalls where Turkish and Armenian was spoken. It smelled of those rose perfumes and lemon scented colognes men use in Istanbul. Three men in black velvet yarmulkes were discussing in Russian. A Bukhara Jew looked up at me when I walked by. Bukhara Jews and Armenians resemble a lot, with almond-shaped eyes and aquiline noses. The two women at Zak’s that served me were Orthodox Jews, probably from Russia, while two men in the background were having a loud conversation in Slavic-accented English, with sharp “L”s, “K”s and other consonants that left little room for vowels. Then I went to a liquor store to buy a Stolichnaya vodka for Dr. Ara, who had refused to bill me for the dental cleaning. Vodka was one of the very few pleasures he indulged into, in tiny, epicurean quantities.
The homeless population of New York appeared to have soared. At least that was my impression after a prolonged absence. There was young man squatting in the corner, his face down and buried in his crossed arms. He had put up a cardboard sign in large, tidy handwriting. “My name is Ian I am 24 Bag was robbed.” Ian kept a book next to him, on the side walk: “Turn of the Century.”
That evening at Harvard Club, I was given the room of Class 1867. These young men were portrayed in two group photos, one showing them at graduation in tall hats and frac, with clear colored suits, standing in front of a study hall. Some men sat on the window ledges. The other picture was the baseball team’s. The American Civil War had ended only two years earlier. On a personal level, it was exactly one hundred and one years before my birth, the year of the Tet Offensive, the Parisian May and the Prague Spring. Some years are meant to be eventful, like 1968, strangely. It was the turn of a century, in a way.
Next on the Trans-American Railroad: Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Previously: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron