Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Relativity of Wealth

I'm not rich.

In fact, I'm teetering quite close to broke these days. I've started selling vintage clothes not just to make room in my overstuffed closet but to add some bulk to my bank account. I don't eat out, strategize the purchase of a monthly $109 MetroCard, and carry a water bottle to avoid dolling out a dollar every time my cells cry for rehydration. Last week, I left a bag of spinach in the work refrigerator and ate from it for the three days I was in the office.

Wealth is relative, though. Just a few months ago I was working as an editor, dutifully setting aside funds for a 401K and still complaining about a lack of cash flow. I ordered steak kebabs, salmon, or sushi five days a week and thought nothing of stopping at Uniqlo for an oversized caftan on my way home.

This year, my tax return went straight to The New School as a down payment for next year's classes. Those funds, numbers on a screen and printed paper, flashed and then disappeared. I never felt their weight; just passed them along.

Yesterday evening I rode to Chelsea in the mist for a few errands and found myself on the hush of petal-strewn 18th Street, home to one of my favorite thrift shops. I browsed through antique end tables, day-dreamed about adding a Lucite bamboo chair to some future writing corner, and poked at the books. (One thing I haven't been able to give up is the purchase of books. And what better place to find them than at a thrift store? Often, the spines haven't been cracked, and you're always certain to pay four times less than what you'd find even at Strand.) I caved at the sight of Anna Karenina translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky--the same pair who unraveled a collection of Tolstoy's short stories that has since changed my life. (Side note to the side note: I never paid much attention to translators until I read this last collection. I was at Barnes & Noble armed with a gift card trying to understand why two copies of the same paperback might vary so greatly in price. I only had to read half a paragraph The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories to understand: Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation captured the lightness and poetry of Tolstoy's work; the other translators' work felt labored and heavy. They might as well have been two different books.) Sure, the cover of this $6 Tolstoy depicts a close cropping of two knees bent which at a certain angle looks like an ass but it's a small price to pay for such a fine story.

There was also a teapot, one I thought might replace the small blue and white one I'd found in my freshman year of college. It had been perfectly small and unassuming with a simplicity of line that always reminded me of Japan. It lasted through the inevitable moves of college, into my first experiment with cohabitation, and on to New York. Finally, one of its cups ruined in a round of parlor games, its lip chipped and handle long-missing, I sent the set to rest. Ever since, I've missed it and the simple domesticity and order it represented. Converse to many other 20-somethings, my living situation has evolved into something less independent and more temporary as I've gotten older. At 18, I lived in a two-story loft all my own. At 24, I shared a bathroom with a stripper on the floor of a Brooklyn brownstone. Now, I live with two men and keep most of my possessions in a storage unit one borough away.  

This teapot was made in Japan of terracotta and glazed in a blue that looks like hundreds of tiny cracks and fragments, like the retraction of a wave on some russet-colored beach. It has two small cups free of chips and a handle wrapped with what looks like vine. I played with its arrangement on the dusty shelf of Housing Works trying to imagine taking it home. In the past, I've always searched in Chinatown for such a pot. There's one place, a huge supermarket with a basement full of utensils and ceramic that I check, hoping I might find something as simple as my old blue and white one. There rarely is. Usually, the teapots they have come in sets, packaged in black cardboard boxes with interiors the same color as the flowers stamped across the mugs. Every now and then there's one that's quite lovely, though it comes with price tag of around $30. That's a lot of money to pay for a thing you don't have space for. That's when I walk away, always a little sad. It's not that I want the thing so badly; for some reason I picture myself in Wisconsin, an older me living a life somewhere that's not New York but surrounded by its remnants. If I don't buy a teapot--or if a tourist forgets to haggle on Canal Street for an I Love NY tee--it's not as though our memories will fade, or that we'll have nothing to prove our experiences. I think it has to do with collecting little pebbles in colors you don't see at home. Over the decades, those pebbles form mounds, and those mounds take the shape of walls and ceilings and floors. We live in the spaces hollowed out by memory, each pebble a little piece of our past.

I bought the teapot which the clerk wrapped in paper and slipped into an I Love NY bag along with two new books. Petals fell from the trees and as I crossed to 8th I couldn't help but feel content. There I was, a young person in spring, free to fill her mind with stories about artists and saints, to drink tea made from ocean waves. It felt like being a bird who in the midst of weaving a nest of jute and saplings braids turquoise string into a tiny opening.

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