New York City: Settling in

By P.R. Ganapathy

This week has been so filled with new experiences that most of the early part of it is a blur. I actually had to check my calendar to make sure it had only been a week since we arrived in New York.

Settling Dhruv into school
school-busOur first major task this week was to settle Dhruv into school. As I mentioned in my last post, we had a meeting with the Admissions Director scheduled for Monday, and we rode the M16 cross-town bus to our appointment. Riding public transit regularly has been the single biggest change so far, from checking schedules prior to departure (Google maps’ “Public Transit” feature has been really useful — I don’t think I even noticed it in the Bay Area) to waiting for the bus, queuing up to get in, swiping your MetroCard to pay the fare, giving up one’s seat for old ladies, pressing the “tape” to ask the bus to stop…  a whole slew of fascinating new experiences that become more familiar with every passing occasion.

Steve Zownir, the Admissions Director, turned out to be an affable, tall, middle-aged man, with an easy-going manner with children that caused Dhruv to warm up to him immediately. After a few minutes filling out the paperwork, he informed us that Dhruv was going to be in “Jon’s” Kindergarten – and he then proceeded to take us to the classroom, to introduce us to Jon. Jon was also very friendly, speaking first directly to Dhruv, introducing himself as “Jon” and specifying that he expected the kids to call him just that — Jon. And they called California ‘relaxed’ and the East Coast ‘stuffy’? The classroom was your pretty standard Kindergarten classroom, colorful, warm and welcoming.

Mr. Zownir then showed us around the rest of the school. The playgrounds were rather disappointing, compared to what we had in suburban Fremont — a small area, hemmed in by chain-link fence and tall buildings. The cold weather and dirty snow lying outside the boundaries of the playground did nothing to enhance its attractiveness. I tried to picture it filled with laughing, playing children, but could not.

On balance, we were quite happy with the school. The environment seemed safe, warm and welcoming.

Starting trouble
As the sun set on Monday evening, Dhruv began whining about not wanting to go to school. We cajoled him into postponing the discussion and managed to put him to bed. The next morning was no better – in fact, he was positively in tears. On the bus, we ran into a friend’s wife and her two kids – one of them was in the same school, in the 4th grade. That seemed to reassure Dhruv a bit.

As we stood in the small yard waiting for his teacher to open the door to the classroom, he started crying again and hugging us tightly. Several other kids gathered around, puzzled, and asked him what was wrong. One of them encouragingly said “but we only do fun things in school!” None of that seemed to help.

The door opened and Jon came out — and Dhruv’s crying became even louder. Jon said that we could come into the classroom, although we were hesitant — these things are best done quickly, and surgically, and we didn’t want to prolong it any longer than we should.  So steeling ourselves, we left him there, said goodbye quickly, turned, and walked out. It so happened that we had to drop off some paperwork in the office, and so ended up standing outside Dhruv’s class on the other side — Sandhya saw Jon signal to her to everything was “ok” and that gave us some relief.

He came home that evening quite cheerful — Jon had told Sandhya that “Dhruv’s California teacher must really miss him, because he’s the best student in my class” and he was all aglow as a result. I hoped the cheerful mood would continue, but as evening approached, he began whining again “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow…”. He whispered in Sandhya’s ear: “Nobody likes me. They all look at me funny. Nobody wants to be my friend”. Our hearts really went out for him. The children in his class had probably all made friends, and a new kid coming in mid-year was probably not very welcome. Unlike the Bay Area, there was just one other Indian kid in his class, so he was an oddity is more ways than one. I recalled my own days as a child – my father was in a transferable job, and we moved a few times, and always in mid-year. “Was it as bad as this?” I wondered. What if he doesn’t settle down at all? Will it be bad enough that we have to move back?

Snow showers (our first) were forecast for the next morning, and I slept fitfully.

The forecast turned out correct, and I decided to take a cab instead of the bus. (which involves a short walk from the stop to the school). I asked our friend’s wife whether she’d like to join me, and she agreed. As the cab pulled up, Dhruv climbed in first, and she and her kids climbed in behind him, leaving no place for me in the back seat. I then proceeded to get into the front with an extremely agitated East European driver – agitated because Dhruv was howling from the back seat, thinking that I was leaving him alone. The driver proceeded to let fly a stream of choice Russian (or so it sounded) invective, and I was really afraid he’d stop mid way and tell us to get out of his car – into the increasing snow flurries. By putting my hands through the gap between the front and rear seats, I managed to console Dhruv enough that the bawling came down to a whimper, and that’s how we rode all the way to school.

At school, a teacher’s helper was taking all the kindergarteners and escorting them inside — as soon as she saw Dhruv, she bundled him up and told me I could go – Dhruv reached out pleadingly but I steeled myself to say a crisp “Bye” and left. On the way home my friend’s wife (who is a child psychologist, by the way) consoled me the best she could. I must’ve looked more worried that I actually was.

Again, that evening, he returned home cheerfully. He seemed to have enjoyed school, and I began to hope that the crying was at an end. While giving him a bath that evening, he whispered in my ear “Do you know what a girl said to me in class today? She said ‘I love you, Dhruv!'”.

“You must find out her name tomorrow”, I said. “That’s really nice of her to say that”.

The sun comes out
Day 3, Thursday, was like a switch had been thrown. He woke cheerfully, and got ready all by himself, had his breakfast, and cheerful skipped down the stairs to the bus stop. He chattered happily all the way, skipping along, waving to every dog that he saw. My heart was filled with pride at how quickly he had adjusted to the new environment and relief that it had been so short. After a day of snow showers, the sun was really shining today in more ways than one.

I decided to pop the other big question: “Dhruv, are you ready to go to school in the school bus?” My heart was in my mouth as I said it.

“You mean, alone?” he asked.

“Yes”, I said. “We’ll drop you off at the bus, and it will take you to school.”

“Sure”, he replied. And then just to make sure that I didn’t doubt his sincerely, he looked up at me and said “See? I’m even smiling when I said it”.

I wanted to bend down, grab him and crush him in a big bear hug at that point.

We reached the school yard a few minutes later, and he waved goodbye, told me I could leave, and ran off. I couldn’t resist quietly watching him for a while longer, and saw him chatting with a few other kids, and then all of them went to a patch of snow and began playing around in it. He seemed genuinely happy, and I felt like a weight was off my shoulders. The move to New York was going to be a good decision after all.

He went to school by the school bus on Friday, and returned home cheerfully in the evening. On Fridays, they have cheese pizza in the cafeteria, so he didn’t carry lunch. He also found out the name of the girl who told him she loved him – Minnow (I think) is her name.

IKEA shopping
ikeaOn Monday evening, at short notice, we decided to go and buy all the remaining furniture we needed at IKEA in Brooklyn. This meant taking the Number 6 Subway line to Bleecker Street, and then changing to the F line. Bleecker Street! Made famous by Simon and Garfunkel’s song of the same name!

Voices leaking from a sad cafe
Smiling faces try to understand

That’s what is so special about New York. Everywhere you go has this sense of… well, history is too weighty a word… it’s just special – a uniqueness and excitement that’s hard to describe, but difficult to ignore (if you’re looking – New Yorkers don’t seem to realize it).

We found a shuttle to IKEA and made it to the store, where we had about three hours before store closing to buy everything we needed. Thank goodness for the research we had done online, because we generally knew what we wanted, and quickly went through the store noting aisle and bin for self-service pickup. Check out, then wheel it to the delivery counter, and they said it would be delivered the next day. Yes, we could definitely get used to his home delivery thing. No more struggling to tie down unruly mattresses to the top of a borrowed minivan, and then trundle slowly along the freeway, watching all the cars whizzing by look at you…

Assembling furniture
The IKEA folks delivered right on time, and I began assembling stuff right away. The funny thing about IKEA furniture is that it has this “it’s not me, it’s you” precision about it. If something seems wrong, you can be sure you’ve made a mistake. Just once in the past 10 years have I found a place where they had made a mistake (drilled the holes on the wrong side of a board). Thankfully, I assembled most pieces without major mistakes, and a day or two later I basked in the warm sense of achievement that comes from building something constructive with your hands.

While assembling furniture, the mind fills with thoughts. Thoughts and voices from times past – most often, my father – with advice and admonishments.

“A good workman always knows where his tools are.” — this comes to me just as I’m hunting for the hammer that I used just 15 seconds ago… No, I’m not a good worker by any stretch of imagination…

“Always use the right tools” — just as I’ve ruined a screw by using the wrong size screwdriver and setting the torque too high. Sigh…

Union Square, Macy’s
macysI had a business meeting in the Union Square area on Friday morning, and Sandhya made me meet her at Macy’s at Harold Square after that, to buy a much-needed warm woolen overcoat. It was fun to try to figure out the right Subway line to take (I installed a really cool app on Sandhya’s iPhone, called KickMap, which gives you a very useful map of the NYC subway system) and I met her at the store.

It was huge. It advertises itself as the largest store in the world, and I think they’re right. Seven floors of one whole city block, no kidding — someone can spend a lot of time, and a lot of money, in that one place. It’s a direct bus ride for us, which makes it particularly convenient.

Health club hunting
On Friday evening, I decided to go and try to find a squash court that I could play at regularly. The New York Sports Club (NYSC) at 86th and Lexington Ave on the Upper East Side is supposed to have a pretty good court, so I decided to go there. There was a Best Buy there too, and since I needed speakers for my stereo system, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone. Waterside Plaza runs a shuttle bus every half hour – alternately to Union Square and Grand Central, so I used that to get to Grand Central.

The bus dropped me off around 6:30 PM at the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 42nd Street, and I walked the few blocks to Grand Central. Waiting to cross 3rd Avenue, I looked uptown and Downtown, and I got one of those New York sights that fills you with joy and excitement. Brightly lit, and tastefully decorated store-fronts all around. Look up to see offices brightly lit in the buildings all around. Look around and see smartly dressed, fit, people all around you – purposefully going about their business. Cars and taxis up and down 3rd Avenue as far as the eye can see. The occasional Bentley passes you in the street – reminding you that this is a city with some of the richest people in the world. Intimidating and exhilarating at the same time.

My trip uptown turned out quite a waste of time – I got neither the speakers nor the membership, but I increased my familiarity with the subway system (taking an “express” instead of a “local”) and was also surprised by how dramatically the city changes complexion from one neighborhood to another.

An active weekend
Dhruv had received a Toys ‘R Us gift card from Sandhya’s cousin before we left Fremont, so we took him to the Times Square store on Saturday morning. It was a direct bus ride and a short walk, but it was bitingly cold (forecast maximum, 26 deg F). The store is quite amazing, with a Ferris wheel indoors to boot. The poor child had such a difficult time trying to decide how to spend the “budget” we gave him, but finally settled on something that he liked. We also did a little shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and then rode the subway and bus back home. We’re really getting comfortable about the public transit system now, and my green conscience is really feeling much better as a result. I think I’m going to miss not having such transit options when we are back in Suburbia.

dinosaurOn Sunday, we decided that Noble Tasks Should Not Be Delayed, and signed up for an annual membership at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). A taxi (we missed the bus by 2 minutes) and subway ride later, we walked into this magnificent museum on Central Park. Dhruv had a real blast going around the exhibits, and we just spent three hours there, taking in a few sections slowly and deliberately. It was really satisfying to see him take it all in – jaw dropping in wonderment at the enormous skeleton of an Apatosaurus / Brontosaurus, or the teeth of a T-Rex. This is what we moved for – for easy access to these great institutions, and we think we’ve made a good start.

That’s the plan with the AMNH and the Met – visit frequently, a section at a time, instead of packing it all in and getting so tired by the afternoon that it seems like a chore. That should be the advantage of living in Manhattan, and we intend to leverage it to the hilt.

More on his experiences in New York City can be found on Ganapathy’s blog here.

Picture of schoolbus by Mr. Hamish under Creative Commons License.

Picture of IKEA by jag9889 under Creative Commons License.

Picture of Macy’s by sachman under Creative Commons License.

Picture of allosaur by A.Belani under Creative Commons License.

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