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Up In Smoke

This year started easy by necessity; I spent the whole week after Christmas nursing a cold, which then turned brutal on me on the 2nd and kept me holed up inside for three straight days, snorking my way through four entire boxes of tissues and wishing it were possible to ingest chicken soup intravenously.

But in between coping with the symptoms, the stillness was actually kind of…nice.  My roommate was still visiting family, and I got thoroughly sick of daytime television after a day or so, I ended up noodling in a paper journal – something that was my one resolution going into the year.  And I was even more surprised when my first Journal Entry turned into a two page list of yet more resolutions.

Well, not resolutions really.  More like, a bucket list for the year itself – small adventures and fun things that I’ve been meaning to do but talking myself out of doing.  Camping.  Two-day hiking expeditions.  Skinny dipping.  Having a proper high tea.  Going to at least two movies in a theater.  Visiting a museum I haven’t done before.  Bake every other week so there’s always something sweet in the house.  Roping a couple friends into actually renting a cottage together one summer weekend.  A night at a really stanky dive bar with an old-school juke box.  Finding a way to sleep in a houseboat for a night.  Buying myself flowers once a month.

These are all things I thought about wanting to do in recent years but always managed to talk myself out of for one reason or another.  I even almost talked myself out of doing the one thing I did on New Year’s Eve – visiting the final sounding of the steam whistles at Pratt University.  But the fact that it was their swan song, and that they were only five blocks away, helped.

The whistles have been a weird little neighborhood tradition. Pratt’s Brooklyn Campus  used to be an engineering school, and has a huge steam engine with a boiler; and on the side, the caretaker and chief engineer got into collecting old steam whistles as a hobby, salvaging them from old locomotives and ocean liners, and making a steam carillon out of some at one point – and fifty years ago, on New Year’s Eve, he got the idea to drag them all out onto the campus green, and at midnight, to blast them all off at once.

It quickly became one of the Neighborhood Things – featured on the campus web site, talked about in the restaurants the year I moved in.  Neighbors and students and alumni would start crowding in the quad an hour ahead of time.  The one year I went, it was as part of a champagne-tasting party being held by a neighbohood wine shop.  An old boyfriend lived a block or so from the Pratt campus, and I remember one late December morning at his place, us lying awake and listening to the whalesong noise of them testing the whistles in advance.

But of the eight years I’ve lived here, this was only the second time I even made it to the whistles.  And I hadn’t done much of anything else in the past several years, and that’s been a problem.

I have had my reasons.  That man who I was curled up with, listening to the whistle tests, broke up with me a handful of months later – and that was the beginning of the single longest streaks of bad luck I’ve ever had, during which I lost my job, lost a roommate, lost another job, lost a cat, lost a computer and ten years’ worth of writing, lost another job, broke my foot, lost another roommate – let’s put it this way, when I go through the List Of Suck for people, Hurricane Sandy is often one of the things I forget about.

I dealt with it by going into Stage Manager Crisis Mode – grit your teeth, dive in, and deal with it, but above all else, do not let anyone see your panic.  When people asked how I was coping trying to hobble up four flights of stairs to my apartment on a boot cast, I’d just smile through grit teeth and say that oh, I was managing.  When my parents asked how I was doing for money, I would lie and tell them I was making it work. I did break down a bit when I was nursing my cat through his final illness, and asked my parents for a loan for the vet bills, but still pulled myself together to go to my cousin’s wedding and smile and joke with people and never let on that I’d had to put my beloved cat on an IV drip before heading to the church.  And so I was still on two feet – the broken one since healed – by the time that streak broke sometime last year.

But it cost me.  The more energy I spent trying to cope, the less I had left when I had a free moment – and so the thought of even just standing up, getting my coat, and walking two blocks to the park was overwhelming.  Being ten dollars away from the rent check bouncing made me reluctant to spend two dollars on a newspaper.  So I got way too accustomed to spending my days sitting inside, watching TV, maybe reading, maybe surfing the Internet.  Go to work, come home.  Maybe do a free concert in the park in the summer, if I felt like I had the energy.  I did force myself to do a few things – a couple trips when I had the money, a concert once – but I went right back to asceticism after.

This year was a little different.  I still didn’t go too crazy – my finances are still a bit on the shaky side.  But – I’ve noticed I’m gradually starting to just do more.  I took a couple of long walks in Prospect Park this summer, finding a couple tucked-away corners I hadn’t seen before. I started this blog; I made a few trips to Connecticut to visit someone I was dating briefly.  Once when I was keeping an eye on my friends’ car, I drove myself to a small town upstate simply because I hadn’t ever been there before.  I still had to fight past the sit-on-the-couch-and-don’t-do-anything instinct, but it was easier to fight past now.  And so I fought past it again and went out to Pratt’s campus New Year’s Eve, despite the outside cold and the definite beginnings of my cold.

The crowd was bigger than the last time I went; people were even climbing atop a ten-foot wall for a better view of the carillon as it played off-key versions of Ode to Joy or We Wish You A Merry Christmas or Auld Lang Syne.  Whoever was at the keys would just riff in between songs, picking out notes as he tried to find the next tune.  In the crowd around me, I could also hear occasional discreet pops of champagne bottles.

And then after what felt like only a short while, the carillon fell silent. I thought it was only a change in shift, or someone trying to fetch music.  An older couple in the crowd overheard a younger one discussing the whistles during the lull and turned to chat with them; “we were here 15 years ago, and people were coming from hundreds of miles away just for this!”

“Is it just these whistles here?” the younger couple said, pointing at the carillon.  But then the crowd around me started a countdown – five-four-three-two-one – and then across the quad, the rest of the whistles sounded in a mighty blast, the steam swarming up and engulfing a couple of the trees and arcing over us so thick that it actually rained on me for a second or two.

I slipped through the crowd away from the carillon, closer to the bigger whistles as they played on; the caretakers giving each one of them its solo.  A couple of mournful locomotive whistles first.  Then the deep bass thrum of the steamship whistles; one, I remembered, was from the S.S. Normandie, and its blast was so loud that I could actually feel it buzzing in my chest.  Here and there in the crowd people tried setting off confetti crackers they’d brought, but the confetti blasts were swallowed by the huge white columns of steam unfolding in the night air.  One woman in the crowd ahead of me kept stretching up her arms towards them, as if she could gather them to her like they were a huge pile of cotton balls.

I noticed people wandering in and out of the engine room at some point, and stopped in myself; usually the space is behind a glass wall, and taken over by a crowd of stray cats who’ve been adopted by the Pratt staff.  But this time the glass wall was thrown open, letting curious visitors peer down to the lower level where a row of huge steam turbines sat, looking for all the world like a row of ten-foot red tape dispensers.  The piston on one was working at a fast clip, blindingly fast for such a huge heavy thing.

The crowd inside kept getting in each others’ way and I wandered back out.  The whistles were still going on, and the Normandie gave another rib-shattering blast as I came close.  I’ve been on a bit of a Sting kick lately, and a lyric from his Last Ship kept running through my head – “Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers, The noise at the end of the world in your ears….”  Whether it’s because it’s a song about steamships like the Normandie, or because it’s a song about endings, it fit.

I rejoined the crowd around the whistles, hoping that the caretakers were letting us at the whistles – and they were, the caretakers keeping us all behind barriers surrounding the cluster, handing the strings which opened the steam valve to members of the crowd back and forth.  Not everyone in the crowd behind me knew that this was happening, and I was able to nudge my way forward towards the front, where I waited until I heard one man holding a string to my left start calling out to the crowd, “okay, who’s next?  Who wants to try?”  I was one of two people who reached for it, and I let the other woman go first.

And as she gave the string a giddy yank which set my chest buzzing again, I thought about how I almost hadn’t come out, thought about the bad habits I’d picked up over the last couple years; slacking off on writing, holing up in the house instead of getting out in the world, keeping my worries to myself instead of reaching out to friends.  They weren’t so much habits, though, as things I just needed to do to see me through some hard years.  But finally, finally, this was a year where the luck had started to turn, and it was time to let those habits go.

The woman handed me the string.  I gave it a yank, and sent those habits and my past year flying up with the steam and away.


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