The Cooke Book

A self-proclaimed New York Snob, Elizabeth Cooke doesn't believe in living anywhere else.

A youth of the 60s, she is a follower of Kerouac, a hater of Bush, and would marry her packs of Parliament Lights if it were legal. With a mop of red hair and a penchant for black sweaters, Liz is one of those liberal kool kats you'd spot in old photos from the original Woodstock in which she could be testing out every drug known to man. It wouldn't be hard to imagine her knocking back shots of whiskey at an underground jazz club somewhere in the West Village, swaying to the tunes of a saxophonist named Johnny K and bopping to the bass in a haze of smoke (of course, back when you could puff on cancer sticks in New York establishments).

Her signature rasp of a voice stands out among the faculty of Iona Preparatory. Liz, or Ms. Cooke to her students, teaches English and acts as a moderator of the drama club at the all-boys high school located in the northern heights of New Rochelle. She instructs an array of academics - dumb jocks, bookish loners, closeted artists - yet she silently knows who will succeed and do her proud in the future. She has her "special boys."

+ + +

The 1:15 a.m. Metro North train leaving Grand Central usually arrives at the New Rochelle station at approximately 1:47. My day in the city had ended. My stomach was filled with the tasty cuisine of Elmo, the Chelsea restaurant that introduced me to the passion fruit cosmo, and I was coming off the high of Magnolia Bakery cupcakes and seeing Jake Gyllenhaal walk down Bleeker Street.

Just as I was about to let the iPod lull me into a disco nap, I caught a glimpse of reddish brown hair and heard that unmistakable voice, that distinct smoker's cough.

"Ms. Cooke?"

Before she could walk into the next car in search of a seat, Liz Cooke, follower of Kerouac, hater of Bush, turned around and did a double take.

"Oh my God," she rasped.

"Hiko Mitsuzuka. Class of '98?" The woman has seen a lot of boys pass through that prep factory in the past eight years, give her a chance.

"Of course! Oh my God." She turned to the bald gentleman who was carrying her jacket. Her husband, Gus. Another member of the Class of Woodstock '69.

The woman who was sitting in the row across from me got up and offered the seats to them so we could talk further. The "talk" was more of a review of names we knew from way back when. She asked about who I kept in touch with (sadly, a few), who was doing what (jobs, not drugs), and most importantly, what the hell have I been doing since I kissed those graffiti-free hallways of Iona goodbye. Turns out I was only one of two guys from my circle of friends who had moved off, out of town, out of state. When Ms. Cooke ("You can call me Liz now") learned of my move to La-La land, she seemed a little surprised and asked the two questions that always hit me when I come back to New York: "You like it? Ever think about moving back?"

I told her I loved it. I can't imagine not living there.

"Wow, that's good. Normally, I don't hear that. Me? I can't stand California." Spoken like a typical New Yorker. "You roller skate to the hottubs?"

Liz went on to repeat this bizarre roller skate comment later in the conversation. Apparently she thinks all Angelenos favor a good roll on the beach and pruning of the fingers in boiling water. As she stuttered off a list of more names from our past I noticed how she rocked back and forth in her seat, the glaze in her eyes.

My high school English teacher was drunk...or something else.

"Gus and I are coming back from watching a friend play a session in the Village. You'll have to excuse me. I'm a little out of it, if you know what I mean."

Cut to my mental images: aging hipsters wearing berets and porkpie hats, smoke clouds, shots of whiskey...

I had to stifle a laugh. If the boys of Iona could see this now.

Liz beamed over my class, saying how special my group of friends were (damn right we were). I flashed back to our AP English class trip to Broadway to see Christopher Plummer perform in the one-man "Barrymore." There was the Tom Stoppard play in Hudson Park. The readings of Allen Ginsberg during an October thunderstorm. The acapella spring musical we endured ("My Favorite Year," if you're wondering, in which I played a Phillipino boxer who was married to a brassy Jewish matriarch). My first fall play, a quartet of one-acts in which I had a non-speaking role as a supermarket shopper in "Ten Items or Less." My first cast party during which the boys participated in a Spice Girls lip-synch-off with the girls of The Ursuline School. Speech and debate tournaments. New Year's Eve sleepovers. Reading "The Great Gatsby" and briefly romanticizing over the glitz of 1920s high society. Shouting out the lyrics to Meredith Brooks's "Bitch" during dress rehearsals in the school gymnasium...

It is one thing to take a stroll down memory lane, but when the memory floodgates are opened, one flies down what I like to call the Nostalgia Highway.

And after this past weekend, I could have used an EZ-Pass.

I see a pattern developing during my visits to New York. Regardless of the nature of my trip, I will always run into at least one person from my past who will ask me those same questions I faced on that late-night commuter rail.

Here's the thing. The first day back is always the same. The jarring differences between both cities hit me. At first, the idea of living in New York (city or elsewhere) loses its appeal to me. Sure, the energy is contagious, but the enclosure of the buildings can be stifling. I prefer some open flatlands now, the idea of driving out to places and seeing the scenery change, not feeling trapped on an island made of concrete and glass. I know some New Yorkers who never venture out beyond the George Washington Bridge. To them, travelling to Jersey is out of the question; Long Island is the beachy country to frequent during the summer. To them, I say go beyond the twenty or so miles. Realize there's a whole country out there. NYC is arguably the center of the world, and if your pride is as big as Ms. Cooke's, I mean Liz's, it's the center of the universe. You have good reason to feel that way. But may I suggest toning it down a notch. Open your mind and acknowledge the unexplored gems the rest of the nation has to offer.

Frankly, get over yourselves.

Wake up and notice why Manhattanites are starting to migrate out of the city. It's an ironic move. New Yorkers boast about how great they have it, piquing the interest of newbies who move in to see what all the fuss is about, thus increasing the demand for new condominiums and high-rises (I never witnessed so much construction before) and increasing the dollar signs on property leases. Then, it's out with the old, in with the new.

New York Friend #1: "I have everything I want within walking distance."

To which I reply, "Wonderful, but how many times can you stomach the same Thai take-out, the same artsy coffeeshop, the same neighborhood pub, the same face you want to avoid on the subway?"

Walking in the city will eventually bring you past the same landmarks...and then you have to walk back home. Sure, it's good for the heart, all that cardio. But there's a benefit to all the driving we do here in the City of Angels: We go further, we see more. Those aging NYC natives are getting the picture. They want to see more as well.

I'm a sucker for nostalgia. Every street I turn down in Westchester serves me a flashback. Central Avenue: checking out the then-new Barnes and Noble in Hartsdale to buy Anne Rice's "Queen of the Damned" on a frigid winter night. Wilmot Road: walking in the mud on the side of the road during a rainstorm to catch the bus down on North Avenue. Quaker Ridge Road: shelling out five bucks to walk through the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce's annual Haunted House and worrying I wouldn't make it back home in time to catch the network television premiere of "A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child" (oh TiVo, where were you in 1992?).

And then I return to Los Angeles. I see the friends I have made, the unofficial family I have adopted, and I am welcomed back into the fold. I am surrounded by a rare few who share my trivial obsessions with the giggle-inducing references of "Veronica Mars," the random delight taken from a forgotten Jefferson Starship single, the totally odd sighting of Al Pacino in the West Hollywood Target, and the rejuvenation Rosie has thankfully delivered to "The View." Yes, we're industry freaks. Get over it.

To say that I'm bicoastal is to repeat myself. That chapter was finished a while ago. What I am now is something different. What I am now is open, ready to catch the fastballs of the West that will propel me into the New, into the Next. What I am now is home.

And for the record: I've never gone roller skating. And hottubs? They're called Jacuzzis. And I love 'em.


H.P.M.

*Did I mention? Liz hates blogs too.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Update: I had her for class this year. She is resigning.

Anonymous said...

she actually got fired

Anonymous said...

This is by far the greatest thing ever. I couldn't help but nearly piss myself when learning this. HAHAHA.