“You’re the number one hashtag trending on Twitter.”
This wasn’t going to be good. “What is it?”
It wasn’t the first time I’d inspired my own personal hashtag. #DoMeAsh #HotAsh, #FuckMeAsh. I was used to those. But this, though? This was new. And it was blowing up.
With a groan, I sank my head into my hands. I didn’t mind making messes so long as I didn’t have to clean them up. But now I stood with a sponge and a bucket and knew I’d have to get down on my hands and knees and scrub.
“Is this the one where they fly? I really like it when they fly.” A little girl wearing a giant snowflake sweater and fairy wings looked up at me. She couldn’t be more than four years old and she couldn’t pronounce her ‘r’s so “really” came out “weely.” She was perfect.
Kneeling down, I studied the book jacket. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. “Well, the reindeers fly, if that’s what you’re thinking about.”
“Are they mean?” She turned to me with gravitas, the weight of the word “mean” filling her brown eyes.
I could not tell a lie. I nodded. “At first, the other reindeer are mean to Rudolph.” She frowned in response. “But it ends happy.”
After another moment of consideration, she grabbed it. “Yes,” she declared. “And the fuff-flies.” I’d also helped her find a book about a family of butterflies. She marched off in her boots to a young woman engrossed in her cell phone. Her nanny, I assumed. In this part of SoHo I met a lot more nannies than parents coming into the children’s wing of the library. We were in an extremely affluent corner of the city, tucked into an amazing brownstone with gargoyles and lions sculpted into the edifice. Too bad our branch was so short on funds we were on the chopping block to close.
I’d already been furious over the cutbacks on our hours. How could a library with a children’s wing not open until noon? Didn’t they know how early in the morning little kids woke up? They started their days at six, sometimes five a.m. The very latest we should open our doors was nine o’clock. Even by then, I bet we’d have a few exhausted caregivers standing outside with strollers desperate to come in and give the kids something to keep them entertained.
But last week our boss had gathered all of us together to tell us that, no, we wouldn’t be getting end-of-year bonuses. And, surprise, due to lack of funds we’d been short-listed for closure. We’d find out for sure in January.
You’d think in a city with this kind of money there’d be enough to keep the libraries open!
I felt a small tug on my sweater. A little boy with short, black curly hair looked up at me.
“Hello, may I help you find something?” I smiled down at him.
“This is my truck.” He held up a green, plastic dump truck and demonstrated how it could move. “His name is Oscar the Truck.”
I couldn’t stay grumpy, not for long. I loved this job. It paid nothing. I got little kids’ snot on me almost every day, especially now that it was December. I spent a lot of time engaged in nonsensical exchanges about random facts and made-up stories with preschoolers. But I loved it. At least one thing, and sometimes a whole lot of things, made me laugh every single day. And I never tired of seeing a little kid get engrossed in turning pages, cuddled up in the cozy corner of pillows I’d created, their little faces lighting up with delight.
My career choice had left my parents underwhelmed. Here I was, 24 years old and already resigned to a lifetime of obscurity and penury. They’d raised me for much more, enduring great personal sacrifice, and they liked to remind me of it. Also, they liked to remind me of the millions of my ancestors who’d died under Stalin’s rule. But that was kind of a given for Russian immigrants, the references to the homeland, the starvation and freezing and hardship I’d never know because I was such an American.
I knew my parents loved me, their only child, born to them when they were already in their 40s. My mother liked to tell me that I was a miracle child. They’d immigrated to upstate New York and toiled, year in and year out, to make a better life for me. They’d poured their resources and energies into training me as a classical pianist, paying for every lesson, driving me to countless recitals, helping me prepare for competitions and soloist showcases. When I’d started studying at the local community college I’d declared music as my major and they’d still kept the dream alive.
But it wasn’t my dream. I loved music, but what I loved was the feel of it, the joy, the rush. Not the rigid, relentless execution of a flawless classical performance. I wasn’t knocking classical music—look at my playlist and you’d find as much Stravinsky and Prokofiev as you would Coldplay and Ash Black. But what I’d grown up with was cold and sterile, not the beating, pulsing energy and passion that breathed life into music.
The funny thing was, though, I now got paid to be a demanding, rigorous piano teacher. I’d earned my degree in library sciences and been working as a children’s librarian for a year now, but to make ends meet I taught piano to the sons and daughters of wealthy New Yorkers.
My shift ended at five because the library closed at five. No money to stay open longer than that. I pulled on my winter coat, hat, gloves and boots and headed out into the subway system to the Upper East Side where families paid me more for a half-hour’s piano lesson than I made in five hours as a librarian.
“Hello!” I stomped the slush off my boots and removed my coat, leaving them in the mudroom of an austere penthouse apartment.
“Anika.” The housekeeper stiffly greeted me.
“Please, call me Ana.” We went through this every week. The formality of this and so many of the families I worked for killed me.
“Colby is in the music room.”
Imagine, New York City real estate as expensive as it was, and this family was by no means the only one I worked for with a music room. A whole room devoted to a huge grand piano! Other families had it on display in their gigantic living rooms. Not one of them had an upright pressed up against a wall in a crowded corner, like I’d grown up playing.
I coached Colby through her lesson, stopping her when she lacked technical precision, encouraging her to add more feeling like we were following a recipe for blueberry muffins and you could drop in a teaspoon more of passion. I’ll tell you what this girl needed, and it wasn’t my pushing her. She needed to zip up into a snowsuit, head over to Central Park with some friends and have a good, old-fashioned messy snowball fight. She needed to laugh until her belly ached.
Problem was, all of her friends were busy doing exactly what she was, working with highly-paid tutors and coaches and teachers grooming them to perfection. And that’s what I was paid to do, too. So I did it, pointing out a few passages where she could make improvements. But I worried that after I left she’d stay up until three a.m. completing her homework and then practicing and practicing some more.
After several more lessons much the same, I finally emerged out onto the city sidewalk free at last. It was only around 20 degrees, but the wind wasn’t blowing too hard so I decided to walk a few blocks. I lived in Brooklyn so eventually I’d have to get onto the subway, but Manhattan at night during the holiday season pulled at me like an unopened Christmas present. All the lights and wreathes and garlands beckoned, drawing me down toward the gleaming storefront displays that started up as I walked south on Madison Avenue toward midtown.
I still couldn’t believe I lived there. Growing up an hour and a half north of the city, it had seemed a world away. My parents would take me in once or twice a year, usually to see a Russian pianist perform, introducing me to my heritage. And trying to hand off the baton.
Now I got to live there! Well, in Brooklyn. And not Park Slope, mind you, prices there had gone through the roof. I’d found a small three-bedroom apartment in North-Central Brooklyn, east of Bed-Sty, south of Prospect Heights. It wasn’t big enough for a piano, wasn’t really big enough for much of
anything, but I loved it.
I wondered if my roommates would be home when I got back. Jillian liked to cook big, fattening casseroles as if we were a large, Italian family instead of three single women in their twenties. I didn’t complain. My nighttime teaching schedule didn’t exactly permit me much time to make dinner. My other roommate, Liv, would likely be out. She tended to sleep until noon, then stay out all night. As an artist, her hours worked for her. She was studying performance art at the Pratt Institute, though I still hadn’t quite figured out exactly what that meant. We’d all connected over the three-bedroom apartment online, and though we had very little in common I loved the eclectic mix, just like the city.