Monday, December 19, 2011

No Place Like Home

Moving south was a huge step for us.  It was entering a world that was almost foreign.  In the beginning I couldn’t even say we spoke the same language because the way things were pronounced was decidedly different.  I said “CAW-fee” and “dr-AWE” and my students said all one-syllable words as two [ FLA-OOR, DUH-OOR] and “pin” and “pen” were indistinguishable.  “The PEN is on the desk and the PIN is in the hem,” I would iterate and my little first-grade towhead Joanna would say, “I know Miz James, that’s what I said, “puh-INN” and “puh-INN!”   I was soon to find out that language wasn't the only difference.

It's been months since we moved to Durham from New York. It was a good move that neither of us regrets. I already had a best friend here, our kids have adjusted well, and family members have made a point of visiting (even if only for a 24-hour stopover). All in all, this major transition has been pretty painless for the four of us. But heading back home (New York is still "home") for the first time in six months, while the kids were asleep in their car seats and my husband was driving, I kept hearing the question that people have asked me since we moved: "What do you miss the most?" I hadn't yet been able to put my finger on the answer.

Of course, the street-life of New York isn't here. I've had a taste of the local version at CenterFest, but in New York it's constant. You don't have to scan the papers to know what's going on, you just walk outside of your building. There it is. Pulsing past you. It may be the regular, everyday throng of people and bikers and honking cabs and stop-and-start buses, or it may be an orchestrated fair closing off Third or Lexington Avenue or Hudson Street, where the sidewalks are jammed with people searching and pecking and meeting and talking and finding that unbelievably perfect thing for their living room, bathroom or house somewhere else.

I do miss the constancy of that street-life, but I'll live without it. In fact, massive doses of the barrage of bodies and smells after a while get to you. I remember my neighbors at 24th and Second vacating their apartment for the entire weekend during the Second Avenue Fair, nauseated by the smell of sausage-peppers-and-onions cooking under their window from morning till night. No, street fairs weren't the crux of what I was missing.

Nor was it the bike messengers who whiz by wearing metal-spiked fingerless gloves, ready to whack any offending passersby or taxi. And certainly it wasn't the constant smell of urine or the perpetual honking of horns. I swear, in nine months here in North Carolina, I have yet to hear someone honk a horn in anger. A red light changes, the first car doesn't move, and no one honks! As if everyone understands that the driver has a good reason for not moving, so they just wait — quietly and patiently.

I was thinking about that question again through the cacophony of horns the day we were leaving New York to return to Durham. We were in a mad race trying to get errands done. We were making good progress — already having picked up our taxes from the accountant on 39th and Madison (we'd had to file extensions in three states), dropped off a package at 52nd and Broadway and sped down to Kiehl's Pharmacy on 13th and Third. And we still had about 40 minutes to make it to 76th and the River.

It was my husband who remembered we'd wanted to buy two more chairs for our kids' table set. The place was all the way down on First and First (or so I thought), so we decided to worm our way downtown. Some things in New York never change. The streets are in terrible disrepair and/or they're being repaired and traffic is chaotic — potholes, double-parked cars, gridlock — all mainstays of city driving.

To our delight, 14th Street had been turned into an eastbound one-way, and we were able to drive more than a block or two without hitting a light. (I know this doesn't mean much to anyone who doesn't really know traffic, who hasn't spent 45 minutes-on a good day getting through the Lincoln Tunnel.) Breezing along, we finally turned up First Avenue. The place wasn't there where it was supposed to be. Neither of us remembered the name of the shop (he thought it was Abe's or Rose's; I was sure he wasn't even close), so we couldn't look it up in a phone book, if we even could've found a phone book in New York. Suddenly I had a feeling it was on Avenue A and First, so we cut around and there it was…Schneider's Furniture.

I hopped out and went into the store. Now if only they had the chairs in the colors we wanted, an orange and a blue or green. There was the set displayed in the window, but with the ugly brown and the boring off-white chairs.

"Hello," I said, trying to sound breathless and in a hurry. "Do you have the children's bridge chairs in orange and blue?"

"Lemme see. We got yellow, brown, white, red, blue and — lemme see what else they come in," the owner said, slowly rising from his seat.


"Oh yes, orange-yeah, we got orange, we got 'em all. Whach you like?"
"I'd like a blue and an orange, please.”

"Benny, bring me the Stakmore in a blue and an orange for the young lady."

"How much are they again?"

"Thirty-nine dollars."

''Thirty-nine? Each! Wow, they went up!"

"No,” he said shaking his head, “much-how much you pay for them?"


"Twenty-five dollars? Never! Never!”

"Yes, I did.  I paid $25 each."

"Maybe 10 years ago. Ten years ago, maybe you paid $25."

"No, it was last year, about this time. In this store I bought two chairs and I paid $25 each."

"Bring me a receipt-bring me a receipt for $25 and I give you the chairs for free!"

"I don't have the receipt with me, it's in North Carolina-but how much was the table? I mean, how much did it used to be?"

"Seventy-five — the table was $75 and now it's $85."

"Well then, that's right because 1 paid $125 for the table and two chairs, so if the table was $75 then the chairs were $25 each.”

"Oh, you bought the table and chairs! You bought the set. That's different — special price for the chairs in the set. The set was $125. Now it's $135, only $10 the set went up. But the chairs, the chairs are $39."

"Gee, I don't know if I should spend $40 each on the chairs."

''Thirty-nine dollars you can't find a better chair! I got junky chairs here, junky chairs you can have them for less, but this chair is worth $39. My wife sits in these chairs. If my wife can sit in these chairs, you know you got a good chair!"

"I think I should check with my husband first; he's right outside,"

"Sure, check with your husband, but you never find a chair like this for $40 — my wife sits in those chairs!"

My husband is outside surveying the neighborhood, how it's changed. He says to go ahead and get the chairs. I run back inside. The clock is ticking.

"Okay, we'll take them. Do you take American Express?"    

"Only Visa, MasterCard, and cash."

"You won't take a check from me?"

"I won't take a check. My customers taught me that. My customers taught me that last year. I won't take a check."

"Well, I'm not sure we've got enough cash."

"That's all right, take your time," he said, sitting back down again.

I run out and ask my husband for all the money he has. I have about $63 and he has $27. We both go back in.

"OK, we'll take them."

"You'll never be sorry, never sorry with those chairs."

Benny brings up a box with the two chairs packed inside. I take a quick look to make sure about the colors and he tapes up the box. As I put the money on the counter I turn and whisper, “I didn't check them. I didn't take them out of the box and look them over."

"Like a diamond! Like a diamond those chairs come in! I never had a problem, never had a problem in 20 years! Like a diamond!

With a smile on my face I pick up my change and pocket my receipt. 1 realize this is what I miss most of all. This is what I have to come to New York for.

[Originally appeared in The lndependent Weekly July 1992.]


  1. Thanks again for a good story.

  2. I loved the story can't wait for the next one. Would love to know about more family members. Perhaps a little more spice.