Hello New York!
Published in Pakistan’s “Women’s Own” Magazine, October 2010
I’m sitting cross-legged on the dark brown laminate floor of our 3rd storey brownstone apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. To my right is a mound of tools – staple gun, drill, screwdrivers, pliers, nails, measuring tape, paintbrushes, and a number of pointy objects I can’t identify – and to my left, a mountain of half-opened boxes, bags and suitcases. Infront of me is the ustad – my husband – wearing paint-splattered khaki shorts and a white t-shirt, mounted on a step-ladder and swiping the bedroom wall with strong strokes of a roller brush soaked in “Kabuki Clay” – a rich, creamy white paint that looks so MilkPak delicious I’ve been tempted more than once to dip my finger in for a taste. “No, you can’t eat it,” my better half repeats with inexhaustible patience. He looks pretty good, I think. The rugged workman look, stubble, smeared forearms and all.
I on the other hand look like a complete bum. Not the cool dreadlocked guitar-toting kind of Berkeley and Ithaca – my two former domiciles – but the true urban homeless, the kind who sleep on subways, scour through trash cans, trundle around with empty shopping carts, and invariably miss a few teeth. OK, maybe not exactly, but I think my dirt-streaked face, faded blue jeans ripped quite naturally at the knees, musty red rag-of-a-t-shirt with a mournful-looking Batman printed at the front (the kind they call “vintage”), spots of dry paint on my calves, toes, fingers, fingernails, forehead, hair – which currently sits in a chaotic jumble on the top of my head – are enough to earn me a kindly quarter from a passerby, or even a Central Park bench spot.
“Four days ago, I would’ve died before I let you see me like this,” I joke with my husband-of-nine-months. But appearances stop mattering pretty quickly when you’re moving house, living out of a single duffel bag, subsisting on bread and cereal, sleeping on the floor surrounded by paint cans, scrubbing bathroom tiles, carrying a 70 pound flatscreen TV up three flights of stairs, and whatever kajal you’re wearing melts away like candlewax in the fanless stillness of a New York June afternoon, leaving unflattering gray streaks in its wake…
But, here we are – our new home! Or at least the four walls, slowly colouring up and being adopted as our own. Bed, dressing table, sofa, kitchen cabinets….all afterthoughts. They’ll follow in due time. Meanwhile, I’m already in love with the leafy elm tree outside the living room window, the peeping spires of a nearby Greek cathedral, and the rows and rows of slender redbrick buildings, framed with terraces and ivy and windows, rows and rows of windows, like a beehive, a kaleidoscope of lives. I’m beginning to discover for the first time the guilty city-pleasure of observing neighbors through my window – what they’re watching on TV, the colour of their walls and curtains, who they have over for tea, coffee or lemonade, whatever their cultural preference. I also love our landlady, a sweet old Palestinian grandma as white and delicate as a cream puff. She sweeps the backyard every morning in her black embroidered thob, spends the afternoons with her “cousins” around the block, and sits on the porch in the evening sipping mint shai with the Moroccan neighbours. She knows maybe 10 words of English (including “crook”), and breaks into a melodious stream of Arabic the moment she sees our faces. To date, she has six grown-up American-accented children, who all seem to live nearby but keep appearing at the building every other day. I suspect she has more, because I’ve seen letters in the mailbox addressed to other people with the same last name (nosy, I know, but I can’t help it!). I think I’ll just ask her one of these days – when I go to call on her, officially, carrying a pot of biryani or gajar ka halwa, some deliciously impressive Pakistani dish (cooked over the phone with my mom’s instructions), my 30 words of Arabic, and my own first name – from experience, the surest way into an Arab’s heart!
How we found this apartment is another story altogether. Let’s just say that after ten days of Craigslisting, emailing, subway-hopping, borough-crossing, handshaking, trickster agents and sore feet, from Gramercy to East Harlem to Clinton Hill, Bushwick, Jersey City and Jackson Heights, from hoods to dens to beaver hats, the one question that we asked ourselves was: “Could we bring our parents to this place?” I mean, if you’re going to live 6,000 miles away from home, family and every imaginable comfort, it better not be underneath a phaatak or graffitied expressway, above a Liberty Market-esque kids’ clothing store with sugar-pink jumpers in the display, or a scene that inspired George Orwell’s Victory Mansions.
So, Cobble Hill won, with its Thai and Mexican restaurants, Chinese laundromats, 24-hour Arab-owned delis, Cuban musicians, Indian policemen, British bankers, thrift stores, designer boutiques and fresh fruit markets, moms, nannies and stroller-babies, yuppies, hippies and hipsters, English on the street in twenty different accents – all the things that make New York special. There’s a lot to be done of course – painting’s just the start! – and I’m reminded of my mother and father, at the time we were building our own house in Defence, Lahore. The interminable haggling with the contractor, the spectrum of paint samples on the wall, endless trips to Casa Bella and Barry’s for upholstery fabric, Bajwa’s for lights, Ferozepur Road for tiles and bathroom fixtures, my sister and I grumpily trailing behind after school in our dusty blue-and-white checked uniforms. My mother was a natural at it; colours, textures and the arrangement of things came effortlessly to her. I don’t know if my design sense is as instinctive, though I’d like to think that I’ve imbibed at least a little. You can decide next month, once we get to the Architectural Digest Before & After stage!
Uh-oh. I was just in the kitchen putting together some sandwiches for dinner, and I opened the oven, where I had stored some extra plates, and a scream escaped from my throat as a pair of beady black eyes met mine…it seems, to quote Agent Mulder, “We are not alone”!
Or, as any veteran New Yorker would say, “Welcome to New York!”
13 thoughts on “Hello New York!”
October 20, 2010 at 10:50 pm
[…] case you were wondering, the beady-eyed furry creature(s) in the oven have been […]
September 17, 2010 at 3:15 pm
In future You should write an autobiography of yours…..bet all your loved ones waiting anxiously 4 that =)
June 24, 2010 at 7:34 am
minu, logged on to read more posts by you. ur story was on my mind. i 200 % agreew with mumani. will be waiting for ur novel.
how come all but one response has geometric design tiles on the right? just wondering….
June 20, 2010 at 2:04 pm
YAY! waiting for the after pictures :)
June 17, 2010 at 12:34 pm
We never get to talk enough!! I LOVE these pics sooo jealous but in a good way and sooo happy for you mashaallah. I hope you’re LOVING your new home and city! These pics look like postcards! Can’t wait to see you again, this time I’ll try really hard to come thru JFK en route to LHR iA. hahaha. I love you Manal :)
June 15, 2010 at 6:32 pm
Avocado!! you`l know what to say! haha
no but seriously its so cool and nostalgic.. it reminds me of `nam .. tsu-Nam.. ee!! okay that doesnt make any sense. but i loved your article. it is so wonderful and it even brought a tear to my eye because im so excited for you ..and it is so beautiful that you are making new memories together!!.. this is a totally new beginning and it feels so magical and surreal that you are getting started with your real Real Lives! heee okay i have to go for ballet now! hagd (have a great day)
June 14, 2010 at 9:38 am
eeeeeek! i have heard this happen in lots of NY apartment! mubarik, your place looks really beautiful and as always i enjoyed the story. i hope the Palestinian grandmother has become a friend- i have befriended a Jordanian grandmother and many times she knocks on the door with piping hot Jordanian dishes in the palm of her hand! best wishes for your new life in NY. x shayma
June 13, 2010 at 1:33 am
your funny descriptions had me rolling with laughter; minu, my princess,you’re the best writer ever…..and this is not a super proud moms biased opinion!
June 12, 2010 at 10:58 pm
minu, u r an incredibly talented writer-perceptive, descriptive, sensitive….looooved reading this soooo much!!!
many congrats! ur place will be lovely. looking forward to the AFTER pix.
now i’m inspired to esp. carve time to read/watch all of ur other posts, writings, videos.
June 12, 2010 at 9:42 pm
The apartment looks very nice already! I am loving the green! I am doing decorative walls for the kids room with some sort of green as well. i will post some pictures as soon as we get to our place.
but i loved your post, you are so funny when you describe yourself. but you are of course being unfair to yourself since a beautiful person is always beautiful! You really have no reason to worry about how you look :)
I am sorry you had to help carry the tv to your place. It is soooo heavy that damn gadget! I hope none of you hurt your backs!
I am looking forward to reading more posts and seeing more pictures.
Love to the both of you!
Me & the gang!
June 12, 2010 at 4:37 pm
so you’re settling in New York??!! Oooo miss you very much dear…
June 12, 2010 at 12:23 am
haha, “bum”. Great stuff! Glad to hear that you and Z found a decent place. Peeping-tom pictures coming soon?
June 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm
Another beautiful post! Mubarak on the new place. I LOVE the fabulous green wall :)