Coping takes a strange turn

So there I was, on tony 6th Ave in Manhattan …

… dressed in a parka and carrying my cross country skis …

no, this is not a joke. It’s one of the wonderful perks of unemployment.

In fact, I was standing in front of Rebecca’s Deli, just a few doors down from where 6th meets Central Park South. People were passing me with bemused looks on their faces — as New Yorkers are wont to do when something is out of place but they’re not supposed to be surprised by anything unusual because, after all, this is New York, where anything goes, right?

Well, they might have been looking for the Candid Camera, but I was looking for an ATM. New York is never cheap, especially when kids have to be fed and entertained.

It was school vacation week,  and the kids wanted to return to New York. Last time we were there in winter I was gainfully employed and able to produce tickets to an off-Broadway play, so we shopped and ate and saw the sights with little restraint. This time was different. This is Month Nine of unemployment, and reality has been adjusted to fit the current budget.

Since my entertainment in the past three-quarters of a year has of necessity become the cost-free kind, I’m hooked on all outdoor activities: mountain biking, running, hiking, and an old favorite, cross country skiing. Unfortunately, the Boston area had been devoid of snow for weeks while New York was pummeled with storms. That’s why I brought my skis, however improbably, to Manhattan.

When we pulled up in front of the luxurious Best Western in the Garment District (read: one step above slum) that I was able to afford only because I found unexpected “points” in my Best Western account (read: free accommodations), the kids were uneasy. “Mom, you’re at the back door of the hotel,” they said, looking across the street at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. “No, this is the front, sweetie,” I said. “We’re not staying at the W anymore. There is no doorman, no red carpet, no mini fridge, and no three-star restaurant in the lobby. This is where normal people stay. I think.”

Entertainment during this trip consisted mainly of walking, and it was good. Walking helps to establish one’s relationship to the built world, helps to solidify understanding of time and space, and aids in understanding of municipal budgets for trash collection and street cleaning. The kids love Times Square, so we walked there. Then we kept going. We saw Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle, the Tonight Show theatre, and the upper west side. We saw well-dressed women in furs and heels heading to shows. We kept walking.

Day Two consisted of an adventurous and inexpensive trip on the Metro to Tryon Park on 196th Street. Have I mentioned it was in a driving snowstorm? Our objective was to see the Medieval collections at the Cloisters Museum, but I’m not sure we fully understood the distance between the subway stop and the building, which was reached at the far end of a beautiful, eerily quiet, and completely snowbound park. We might have missed that singular experience if we’d had the means to, say, take a taxi. Another point in favor of unemployment and belt-tightening!

On Day Three, our financial reserves were running low. Each bagel, bottle of water, or museum admission caused me  pangs of anxiety. I dropped the kids outside the Met museum and spent 30 minutes searching for an on-street parking space. You know why.

Then I skied. Sure, it took some time to hike from 74th and Lexington to Central Park with the equipment, but once I got going the tension began to lift. Two days without a good workout and lung cleansing with cold winter air and it began to fade away.

The problem is, Central Park was made for strolling, for biking, and is probably perfect for jogging, even when it’s covered with two feet of snow. Because it’s such a gem, the city appears to care for it well, plowing paths and fencing off delicate slivers of grass. None of that bodes well for cross country skiing, but I would not be deterred.

a picturesque bridge near Central Park's reservoir

The road around the reservoir in the northern third of the park was best. Lightly traveled and completely unplowed, it allowed me to stretch my  arms and legs and really ski.  It was almost possible to forget that I was in the midst of the largest city in the country, but at the same time, I didn’t want to. It was really cool to cross country ski in Central Park. And I wasn’t alone: there were several women, mostly much older, out on their skis. A middle-aged guy stopped me to ask, quite pleasantly, if I thought the skiing was any good. Hell, I was becoming a regular ambassador of skiing, and I was just an eccentric visitor, not unlike one of those folks who practices tai chi in a secluded garden.

Just as I was starting to truly enjoy the quiet and the sights, my phone rang. The kids were done at the museums, they said, and wanted to skate in the park. That’s how I ended up in front of Rebecca’s, searching for an ATM to indulge their final request of the vacation. And it’s how I ended up skiing up 5th Ave, on an unplowed fringe outside the park wall, to get back to the car and resume my parental duties (which mostly consist of opening my wallet, it seems).

Before I removed my skis for the last time, somewhere around 5th and 72nd, a young woman stopped me. “Wow,” she said, “I didn’t know you could ski in the city! Is that as much fun as it seems?”

I tried to explain that, in fact, cross country skiing is usually a LOT more fun than I was having, but she couldn’t be dissuaded. “I never thought of doing it here, in New York, in Central Park,” she said. “You’re such an inspiration!”

Well, gee, maybe it wasn’t such a bad experience after all.

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