Welcome home to New York City

A week ago Saturday, when the coronavirus was only just beginning to alarm, I returned home from Phoenix, Arizona, where I had been visiting my cousin and his family. I flew into Newark, took New Jersey Transit to Penn Station, and then the subway from Penn Station home to Brooklyn. After enjoying the big blue skies of Arizona and the absence of helicopters, horns and sirens, the transition to NYC, the place I used to love to come home to, was rough. Penn Station this Saturday night seemed particularly filthy and bleak.

I arrived at the platform of the 2/3 subway stop at 34th Street/Penn Station at around 10:45 p.m. A musician was playing guitar and singing sweet melodies. He was Black. There was a middle-aged white couple dancing together and otherwise having a raucous good time. They were casually but well dressed, probably professionals of some sort, and clearly in a party spirit.

So as I’m standing there watching and listening to the musician and doing my best to disregard the dynamic duo, the woman goes and snuggles up to the musician behind the neck of his guitar, while he’s playing, puts her arms around him and starts swaying and mugging for the video her guy is taking. She gets her jollies on like this for a bit, with the musician doing his best to grin and bear it, and then she takes it up a notch: she spreads her fingers over the neck of the guitar and, still holding onto the musician (who is still trying to perform), she starts pretending she’s playing the guitar too, posing and laughing while her guy films.

This was the moment when I had had enough. I stormed over and shouted “what are you people drunk or something? What the hell is wrong with you? What you’re doing is incredibly obnoxious!” And then, “you’re touching his instrument!” (Yes, I meant his guitar.:)) For some reason I was focused on the touching of the guitar but in fact the line was crossed when she touched the person, not to mention interfered with his performance.

I thought that would stop the bad behavior and be the end of it, but instead the woman approached me aggressively, getting in my face: “What’s your problem? What’s your problem?” Me: “What you’re doing is wrong! What you’re doing is obnoxious!” And then, again, “you were touching his instrument!” (When I’m in a rage I don’t have my best words.) She kept coming at me while I kept backing up because at this point I’ve been reading about the coronavirus for days and I don’t want anyone close to me.

She gets her face about six inches from mine (“what’s your problem?”). I back up again and shout “get away from me! Coronavirus!” but she keeps moving toward me. So I stop, again yell at her to get away from me, and, without thinking, stand my ground and thrust my arm out to stop her. And because she is still moving toward me I end up pushing her. Yes, I pushed that lady, right in the chest. I was a little shocked that things had gotten physical (I’m 65!) and before I could process the situation and what might happen next (are we going to throw down or am I going to run?) her man came and pulled her away.

I shouted at her again to stay away from me and walked to another part of the platform. On my way to my new spot I went over to the musician, who was still playing, put a dollar in his guitar case and said I’m so sorry, that was so outrageous. He looked at me with a deeply sincere smile and said thank you.

The train came and the brawling parties got into different cars. As I rode home fuming I started to unpack the scenario and wish I had articulated the offense more clearly. Because here’s the thing: nobody should touch anyone without their permission, but for sure white people should never touch Black people without their permission. The history of slavery makes that non-consensual touch an act of white supremacy. And the obnoxious couple being white made it trickier for the Black man to extricate himself. A white man in that situation has more freedom to control it. The scenario also reminded me of the colonial style of tourism, with white tourists treating native people as less than human, props for their amusement and frivolity. I think I finally reacted when she started pretending to play his guitar because I come from a family of musicians and I know how personal an instrument can be, but really, I wish I had called out all of the behavior for how demeaning and racist it was.

I was still furious when I got to my stop in Brooklyn and was hoping the obnoxious couple would by chance be getting off there too, because by then I was ready to articulate more clearly the nature of their offense, and honestly I was also so ready to kick that lady’s ass and pretty sure I could do it. She was younger than me but a skinny little thing in heeled boots, and on my side I had rage and a heavy backpack, which I was thoroughly prepared to use.

Fortunately they did not get off at my stop. But I’m glad I intervened.


Perseverance and luck

Just when I thought I might have abandoned my blogging project, my few dear readers, there is a story to tell. It’s about a battle I waged and won, and how winning is never really a solo thing.

On Wednesday October 30th I received a call from the cancer clinic in Wisconsin where my sister Dale receives chemotherapy for multiple myeloma, telling me her care, which until then had been paid for by a combination of original Medicare and Medicaid, was no longer being covered because she was recently enrolled in a United Healthcare Medicare Advantage Plan that was denying the claims. I figured out quickly how she got enrolled. When I was visiting Dale in the summer we kept seeing television ads about how the Advantage Plan covered dental and vision care with no monthly premiums; knowing nothing about Medicare Advantage plans, I asked Dale to call for more information. As soon as I heard her give personal data I took the phone, told the representative she wasn’t enrolling in anything, please send a brochure. But now they had her phone number. In addition to having cancer, Dale has dementia. Somehow, on August 23rd, she was enrolled in the United Medicare Advantage Plan. I am certain she did not call and ask to be enrolled, and certain she never had any idea she was being enrolled in a new plan.

Worse, Dale’s cancer has progressed and she was due to start a new regimen with stronger drugs but because of the insurance problem the treatment was being postponed.

I immediately got on the phone and explained to United representatives how their sales department had called and enrolled a demented senior in a plan that has now disrupted her necessary chemotherapy and demanded they disenroll her immediately. After a frustrating hour or so of calls I was told she was disenrolled and received a confirming email.

If only that had been the end of it.

On Monday November 4th the cancer clinic called again and said Dale was still enrolled in the plan and they could not schedule her treatment until this got sorted out. I got back on the phone. My basic message was: (1) United should be more careful about making sales calls for Medicare Advantage plans because by definition the customer base is seniors and United has no way of knowing who has dementia; (2) due to United’s aggressive sales activity a person with dementia who I am certain had no idea she was enrolling in this plan has now had her cancer treatment disrupted; and (3) United had caused and was causing a person serious harm and needed to fix this immediately. I fought with robots; I spent hours on hold; I was repeatedly routed to the sales department. I was given a fake email address; I was ghosted by people who promised callbacks. By the end of the day I learned one thing: while I had indeed disenrolled Dale from the plan on October 30th, it appeared it could not become effective immediately because we were in a Medicare open enrollment period.

On Tuesday November 5th Dale’s oncologist informed me that while continuity of care was important to Dale’s health they could no longer delay her treatments and were going to transfer her to a new facility until she could get out of that plan. Her treatment was supposed to start on Thursday. I said I didn’t accept that she couldn’t be disenrolled from the plan now and please give me a day.

I got on the phone again. I spent more hours on hold. I pleaded reason. I yelled. I cried. Is anyone hearing that this is a life and death situation? That a demented senior with cancer is being denied care because of an insurance agency’s irresponsible sales tactics and really, nobody can fix this by just letting her out of the freaking plan she never meant to enroll in, a plan that is causing her imminent harm? I called Wisconsin’s insurance regulators. I called the Wisconsin agency that administers Dale’s Medicare/Medicaid benefits. Nobody could help with an Advantage plan. In the end it was all up to Medicare. I eventually got Medicare to confirm that they had indeed processed the disenrollment, but it was not effective until December 31st and only United could do anything about that. Of course United had told me it was Medicare’s approval date that was binding.

I went back to United and got nowhere. I Googled expedited appeals for United Healthcare and kept landing at the site for Pacifica United, which is United Healthcare in California. California has strong consumer protection laws. There was no expedited appeal number for United Healthcare in Wisconsin so I went with California, and this was the first progress I made. After much rerouting and holding, I got United to submit an internal request for a waiver of the out-of-network denial of coverage for Dale’s oncologist through the end of the year, when her enrollment in the plan would end. While I had Gwen at United on my cell phone processing the request I grabbed my landline and called Medicare again. I kept insisting there has to be some way to disenroll Dale from the plan immediately, given the situation. The Medicare guy seemed to be trying to find a solution but, you know, rules. I insisted there had to be someone who could make that executive decision and asked to speak to a supervisor. My conversation with the supervisor ended with my “And you’re a fucking bitch.” I apologized to Gwen for my profanity but said it had to be done Gwen, it had to be done. Gwen completed the request for the waiver and said I would have an answer within a few days.

At this point I figured I had exhausted all possibilities and I was utterly spent but I had not achieved what I believed to be the only just result and I was unwilling to give up. I Googled how to file a complaint against Medicare but of course there is no such thing. So I called Medicare yet again, but this time I said I was calling to file a complaint against Medicare itself and told my story once more. Finally, my words fell on the right ears, those of a smart and empathetic woman who knew exactly what to do. She filed an expedited complaint on behalf of Medicare against United Healthcare for enrolling a demented senior in an Advantage plan without her apparent knowledge or consent. She promised I would get a call from a United executive the next morning. The next morning I got a call from a United executive with a first and last name and real phone number. She told me she was submitting a request to Medicare to approve Dale’s disenrollment from the plan effective October 31st. By the end of the day she called me to confirm it had been done. It took two days for the clinic to get on the same page, but Dale started her new chemo regimen with her same oncology team on Monday.

One of my mottos as an attorney is that persistence wins the day, and it often does; tenacity is a character trait that has served me well in my profession. But this experience shows that we also need a little luck. That last phone call came from sheer determination and was against all odds, and yes, had I not made the call I would not have achieved my goal. But it is equally true that had that call not landed with the right person it would have been just another dead end. The perseverance created the opportunity for luck to intervene, but luck was an essential part of the ultimate victory here.

So maybe the moral of the story is we can take our victory laps but nothing is ever truly won or achieved without some help or luck along the way. Also, never take no for an answer.:)

Young Lady

I had dinner Saturday night at an old-fashioned Italian restaurant located on a quiet block deep in the heart of Brooklyn. As my two male friends and I waited for our fourth party, the waiter, a man probably around my age (64), approached from behind with the greeting “hey guys.” I didn’t realize he’d mistaken me for a man until he was facing me and abruptly said “oh, excuse me young lady.” He then proceeded to call me “young lady” the rest of the evening (when he wasn’t ignoring me). I have since spent many waking moments unpacking this term and why it felt so demeaning.

I am plainly not a young lady and could never reasonably be mistaken for one. I also obviously don’t aspire to be mistaken for a young lady because I wear no make-up and little jewelry. Since I am decidedly not a young lady, I had to wonder why this man kept calling me that. Since I have to assume he meant it as a compliment, I have to assume that to him being a “young lady” is better than being an “old lady.” Except that I’m an old lady.

This was of course not the first time a waiter or other strange man thought he (and it’s always a he) was flattering me by calling me “young lady.” But not only am I not flattered by the term, I find it insulting, and not just to my intelligence (really, who do you think you’re fooling?). The bigger objection is that being called “young lady” negates the real person I am; it erases the approximate four decades of some pretty tough living since I was in fact a young lady. But those years matter to me, a lot. Young ladies don’t have decades behind them battling sleazy landlords and their sleazy lawyers in the shit hole known as Housing Court. Young ladies don’t have a near-decade behind them standing up to the big banks during a foreclosure crisis. Young ladies don’t have 20 years behind them running their own law practice. A young lady doesn’t muster the strength to stand in front of a jury when she really wants to be crying in her bathtub. It took a strong woman to rebuild a life after a brutal assault by an ex-boyfriend. A young lady doesn’t yet have the strength of character that being alive for 64 years will inevitably require.

It is all written on my face, and I wear every line proudly, including the recent scar across my temple from skin cancer surgery. It’s a gift to have lived long enough to have a face that shows age. “Young lady” wipes all that away, making the real me invisible. As any older woman will tell you, invisibility is perhaps the central experience of being an older woman, in America at least. You’re not really seen and easily ignored. It can be hard at times not to feel devalued and diminished. And demeaned, as when the waiter kept calling me “young lady.” “De-meaned,” as in taking away the meaning that has been 64 years of a life.

I remember being a young lady and not invisible. I remember catcalling, unwelcome sexual contact, sexual harassment on the job. I don’t miss any of that, of course, and I don’t feel flattered by the pretense that I could still attract that kind of attention.

So how would I like a stranger to address me? “Ma’am” is a little stilted, and I think some woman hate it as the mark of old age, but I’ll take it over “young lady” any day. I think I like “Madam” even better. I’ll take “old lady” too, or even just “Lady” (yes, with a capital “L”). One of my favorite days not long ago was digging compost at my community garden with a young woman who kept calling me “dude.” “Dude” is good.

Witch. Hag. Really, practically anything but “young lady.”

Three Little Birds*

In late fall I bought a heated bird bath. I’d read that birds can have a hard time finding water in the winter when temperatures freeze, and of course they need water as much as they need food. In the summer I enjoy sitting in my Brooklyn garden watching the house sparrows sip water as it flows over a small ledge into the bathtub pond that is too deep for them to navigate. I was amazed they figured out how to perch there and drink the running water. Sitting and watching the birds, insects and butterflies who visit my city garden helps me feel connected to the natural world and appreciate that wildness is everywhere, even in densely populated man-made places.

So in November I plugged in the heated bird bath and waited for visitors. The weather was mild and nobody came. Once I saw a blue jay take a sip. Once I saw a sparrow take a sip. I knew birds were visiting because I sometimes saw poop on the edges of the bath when I filled it with water, but I wasn’t seeing them. It certainly wasn’t the frenzy of my fantasies. I started to wonder whether it was the worth the effort of filling the bath every day (bird baths are shallow). And it’s not just the filling—being a fastidious person, I usually end up cleaning it a bit too. But these thoughts caused me to question my values. Did I buy the heated bird bath to be entertained, or because I care that birds have fresh water available in the winter?

And then on New Year’s Day, as I was heading toward the bathroom and glanced out the rear door window, birds! Water splashing! Three little sparrows not just sipping but bathing! I never exactly realized that a bird’s bath involves lots of splashing. I never exactly realized that three little sparrows splashing in a bath would spark joy in my heart.

I was thrilled that the birds had, I figured, finally found the bath. But then after New Year’s Day, nothing. So I chalked it up to a lucky omen, started hoping for freezing weather, and again began asking whether it was worth the trouble, and whether I could ask that question and still be a good person. It stayed annoyingly warm until yesterday, Friday. I was gone during daylight hours but became hopeful this morning when I changed the water and saw a fair amount of doo. When I returned from the food coop an hour later and walked to the bathroom to wash my hands, I glanced out the rear door window and…a flash of red! And there it was: a bird bath with birds perched around its edges. A large bright red male cardinal, mourning doves, house sparrows. They got chased away by a couple of robins, one of which, large and aggressive, hogged the whole thing for a while. The female cardinal came by with her pale body and orange-ish beak. More sparrows. A few juncos. I think maybe even a tufted titmouse.

Now that it’s freezing outside, my heated bird bath is the neighborhood watering hole. They’re only drinking today; I guess it’s too cold for a bath. But they are no less a delight.

This is how I find solace in winter. This, and a walk in the bare, empty woods of Prospect Park, where I melt into stillness and silence.


* With apologies and thanks to Bob Marley, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright.

Caviar and patience

I had the chance to make amends today. My transgression occurred the Saturday before Christmas. I had decided to buy myself caviar as a treat for my birthday (which is on Christmas). A local shop had American sustainable caviar for $35 an ounce. Backstory: about 20 years ago, after I had stopped going “home” (mom’s) for the holidays, I decided to give myself a special birthday treat of a caviar experience at the famous Petrossian in Manhattan. Mom was visiting me that year and I warned this Depression-era baby that caviar is super expensive but it was what I wanted and was prepared to pay for and please don’t react when you see the prices. Of course she couldn’t help but react and couldn’t possibly enjoy anything that cost $100 a teaspoon. I was a little mad at her for that and caviar remains for me the ultimate elusive luxurious food splurge.

Anyway. On Saturday December 23rd I had two errands—buy my caviar and pick up my suit jacket from Green Apple Cleaners, the environmentally friendly dry cleaner I’ve been patronizing since it opened in the neighborhood about five years ago. I knew I should go to the cleaners first, which was furthest away, and pick up the caviar on my way home, but I didn’t know when I set out whether the shop had caviar and I was so excited about that errand I went there first. Ringing up my costly purchase the young woman at the register reminded me to get it right into the refrigerator. I thought, no problem, it’s December and cold outside and I just have this one other errand. But it was 50 degrees outside and when I approached the entrance of Green Apple Cleaners a couple walked in just ahead of me and their complicated transaction took an entire 10 minutes in that very hot space and although during each ticking second I coached myself to stay patient and did a whole lot of deep breathing, I still sighed and mumbled and silently fumed. Although I managed not to verbalize, the energy I projected was unnecessarily negative and caused the lovely young woman behind the counter stress.

I felt terrible. It was my bad judgment to buy the precious precarious caviar before finishing my other errands and my bad luck that I arrived at the cleaners a split second too late to make my transaction a fast in-and-out. Why couldn’t my awareness of the bigger picture cause me to stay calm in the moment?

So today I ran the errand of picking up that suit jacket. I was hoping the same young woman would be behind the counter so I could apologize directly but it was the other regular lovely person working today. I told her my story and asked her to apologize on my behalf. This led to a conversation in which we shared our challenges around patience. She told me when she is standing in line at the bank, and it’s a wait, she tells herself: “I’m standing still right now, and I can’t do anything about it. I’m always running around so busy. What a blessing to be still.” I’ve been thinking about stillness, about the possibility and power of being still inside (more than silence, stillness at the core), and this image was so helpful. At the end of our conversation she gestured with arms wide and said, we are who we are, we’re doing our best, you’ve been coming here for years and you’re always pleasant. It’s sweet of you to apologize. I said, as I swiped my debit card and a customer who had arrived in the middle of our conversation patiently waited, I try my best but don’t always make it and then all I can do is say I’m sorry.

I left feeling much relieved. The caviar by the way wasn’t worth it.

Here’s to patience and kindness. Happy New Year.

Urban moments

December 30, 2018

Almost exactly one year ago (it must be the season) I decided to start blogging. I signed up for WordPress and wrote a piece I meant to edit and post but instead pretty quickly forgot about. I was rudely reminded of this recently when I received an unexpected invoice for my second year of blogging on WordPress. Instead of canceling I renewed my resolve.

The main reason I wanted to blog is that living in New York City brings people together in a way that is unique to NYC, that gives rise to human interactions worth reporting. The recent tragic implosion of the subway system and equally tragic rise of Uber notwithstanding, this is still a City that relies more on public transportation than automobiles; there is therefore probably more public space here than anywhere in America, if we define public space as space shared by strangers without a commercial purpose. Malls do not count. Our daily contact with each other as subway riders, bus riders, bicycle riders and pedestrians leads to some amazing moments.

I had one recently, coming home from work on an early dark December evening and waiting to cross busy Atlantic Avenue at Clinton Street in Brooklyn. Waiting near me was a young black man wearing glasses and carrying a backpack. At this intersection the timing of the lights causes the crosswalk to be filled with cars when it’s the pedestrians’ turn to cross, requiring us to weave through traffic while trying to get past six lanes before the light changes. This evening, as usual, I mumbled profanities at the cars and their drivers while I squeezed my way through their offending fenders.

The aforementioned young man, as he too made his way through the unwelcome cars, turned to me and said something to the effect of, they don’t even look you in the eye. I said something about being sick and tired of the aggressive driving in this town. He said they’re not really being aggressive, just inconsiderate. I agreed, and then said something about how the aggressive and inconsiderate driving were making me nuts but I’m trying to stop scolding drivers because I know it doesn’t do any good and just leaves me more agitated. He said something like, others will do what they do but I try not to let it affect how I feel or what I do. I said yeah, sometimes I’m able to be all “whatever” but too often I find myself yelling at people and I’m really trying to change that. He then turned to me with his hand on his heart, smiled gently, looked me in the eyes, and said: “It’s your inner peace. Be a little selfish about it.”

This blew my mind. Be selfish about your inner peace. Inner peace is yours to lose by focusing on the actions of others. An ancient precept but a startling use of the concept of selfish. These were to me amazing words of wisdom. And they came from someone not only much younger but someone who has so much more to be angry about than this privileged white woman.

The yogis say that teachers are all around us, in ordinary events and people. This young man, across America’s racial divide, was my teacher that evening. And this is the wondrous thing about living in a metropolis where strangers from a diversity of ethnic, economic, religious, cultural, and geographic backgrounds find themselves together, sometimes mashed together, as they go about their daily affairs, not ensconced in cars but riding trains and buses and walking and crossing busy streets.