Hustle and Flow
by Ellen Croteau
In the rushed minutes of the morning I leave for Nashville, I look up and notice that a large book peeking its corner out from the top of a tall bookshelf is wrinkled and wet, and following the logical conclusion with my eye, notice also a puddle of brown water on the floor underneath. There’d always been blooming brown clouds on the ceiling above the bookshelf, but they’d seemed like a fixture of the apartment that didn’t concern me, like the piles of white-sheet covered belongings left by the sublessor, and the universe of cords tangled behind the piano --also all the sublessor’s. In any case I’d never before seen any actual water drip from the ceiling-- except on this day, with a plane ride waiting for me a subway and AirTrain away. With no time to spare, I shuffle-move the bookshelf and all its wobbling knick knacks and wet or dry books over by a few feet and leave a pot in its place. I quickly purchase renter’s insurance on my phone on the subway ride to the airport, and the whole issue begins to take on a rosy, vacation-tinged hue: maybe the ceiling will leak more, and not just leak, but grow, unwatched, in wetness and rot, and then, with a horrible sound (unheard by me!) --fall in. The wet brown hole will be ten feet wide, upstairs neighbors silently peering over its ledge, and finally, the apartment will be declared uninhabitable. Quite understandably, I’d then throw up my hands at it all-- the dank and flabbergasting hole, the surrounding, crumbling, packed apartment, NYC as a whole as a matter of fact, and leave-- at that point, what else could I do but stay in Nashville! All of this I’d recount from my new abode in that sunny southern city, probably a cute mid-century ranch with a yard, had for the same price at which I’d rented many a single room in Brooklyn.
I’d booked this trip, ostensibly, for a three-day dance conference. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights all had dances at night, and Saturday and Sunday had lessons during the day as well. I wasn’t the biggest dancer; this conference was an impulse buy. After coming across some youtube videos for ‘blues dancing’ and being taken with them, I’d signed up for lessons a month or so earlier. I’d loved swing dancing in high school, and blues dancing seemed like a more subtle, sexy version of that. Also, the conference seemed a great way to throw myself a little southern vacation in the midst of a New York winter. Also, what the heck, I had a credit card. Also, I love leaving my life. I mean vacationing. Vacating my life.
I like being alone, anonymous, unconnected to anyone or anything in my day-to-day life. I have just the essentials: clothing, toiletries, a notebook and laptop. I love living with just a suitcase, and just a bed and couch and table, all pre-selected for you. I want this version of a life, where everything is still perched on possibility, where people in the airport see you and think you more together than you actually are, (you’re obviously going places) and, surrounded by these thoughts, you begin to believe or remember this about yourself as well. I like an Airbnb home of someone else’s design, meant for ease and function and comfort, lacking any irritating mounds of too much stuff of a sublessor’s, of your own, of too obvious overflows of life’s loose-ends, loose buttons, to-do lists, all shoved in a drawer, and something must be done about it all, whether the drawer is open or never opened. And I also love the surprise of coffee selections AirBnbs usually have.
I’m giddy on the plane ride. I’m ecstatic at the airport. The minute I walk out the airport doors warm, slightly humid air rushes up and fits to me like an upright body pillow. The taxi soars down unpopulated highways that seem made for leisure. Everything strikes me as bright, quaint, friendly, charming. Once at my rented home, I climb the steps up the side of the house to the second floor, the whole of which will be mine. I drop my bags and stand on the small landing and take in the bath-water air, the quiet of the street, the expanse of pink sky with its faintest wisps of clouds flung about, like the sky’s half-ass last efforts of cloud production before sunset. Birds chirp. Breezes whoosh lightly. This is what I miss in New York.
How’d I end up in Brooklyn, anyway? The good friends I have went there on purpose. One moved from France as soon as he graduated high school--not even speaking English, he was so eager. One from backwater Georgia--New York City was her escape from a town that was too small for her large self, dreams, simple desires. Another bought a condo almost on arrival in Brooklyn. They all knew they wanted to be there, had planned and plotted and made it happen.
I went there because my sister had a free room where I could stay and I was at loose ends elsewhere. And now I found myself asking why as I step over and around to get around my apartment, as I take another dark and drunken expensive cab ride home to my side of town from wherever I was before, as I walk past the third jackhammer of the day before 11am.
Night falls and I keep the lights off, push up a window and stick my face near the screen. Outside is deep blue and black and totally quiet except for occasional rushes of wind through branches, a neighbor’s wind chimes, and a train whistle in the distance.
As it turns out, I’m not as great at dancing as I thought I was. For example absolutely no one at any class says, upon observing my months-old steps, WHOA, WE GOT A NATURAL HERE! MOVE OUTTA THE WAY! That’s a bummer. And something in the whole of the concept wanes for me, or rubs me wrong, or just too closely. Blues dancing seems to be an expression of a feeling that was once spontaneous but now is taught, step by minute step. I don’t want to learn, I just want to know--and even when I do know, I don’t want to be recreating. Still, at the main dance, I share someone’s contraband coffee liqueur, I meet a woman who was an extra on Nashville, and have a fun dance, a bad dance, an awkward dance, a fine dance, an uncomfortable dance. But then, at the end of the night, the hours petering into almost dawn and the majority of dancers gone, I have a fabulous slow dance. I close my eyes and I have not drunk a thing in hours and yet I’m lost, not spinning, more like floating, and this moment is what all is about, what we’re always after, in dancing, in life: just creating, moment by moment, what happens now.
I skip a few classes the next day, Sunday, to just walk around East Nashville, its wide cement streets and easy skies, one porched bungalow after another, chill and happily stable trees in between swaying with the taken-for-granted nonchalance of the firmly rooted. I walk down a long curving road through trees and grass, a park, at the center of which is a lake. People jog by, walk dogs, bike and picnic. I’m astounded at all this easy pleasant living in a warm climate, unable to not contrast the other dimension that I know exists, a short plane ride away in New York, at this very moment: people miserably pulling their long, puffy coats around them and angrily eyeballing someone for taking up a subway seat with a bag.
I stretch out on a park bench, let my flats dangle off my feet, and think on the class I’ve just come from. It was called “Blues in the Context.” The teacher had us all pair up in duos of followers and leaders, as is usual in partner dancing, and do some general dancing, and then she stopped us. “Follows,” she said, turning around in the midst of us so we could all hear. “Did you feel heard?” We all glanced around at each other. “Well,” I answered, no one else volunteering. “I didn’t feel unheard.” We follows (traditionally, the woman’s position) were caught off guard. We looked around at each other. We were supposed to be saying something?
“The blues,” said the teacher, “is a dance from black culture. And black culture is different from mainstream, white America. It is matriarchal.” Oh great, I think. Because the obvious flip side of that is white culture’s patriarchy and, it only follows, my place in that, a subservient white cow, stupidly lowing.
“I get confused,” the teacher continued, “when I hear people talking about patriarchal culture this and patriarchy that. What? Because where I’m from, we don’t have that.”
Really? I thought. Really, you live in modern-day America and ask “are you heard though?” and you’re confused about patriarchy? You just don’t even see evidence of it, anywhere?
Because blues dancing is from a matriarchal culture, she continues, the women, the traditional “follow” role, don’t just follow, but are instead just taking part in an equal conversation. A “follow” in blues dancing doesn’t have to just follow. In blues dance, the “follow” can do whatever she wants-- the lead’s job is not always “leading” but really, providing stability from which the follower can vary. So even though the “follower” position is called thus, she has her own voice. If the lead raises the follow’s hand for a spin, she can spin-- or, she can keep it raised and just let it hang there, telling him wordlessly that she doesn’t feel like spinning. Or, she can take that raised arm and use the room it makes between her and her partner to just make some unprescribed and instantly imagined moves for herself.
I like this, this thing I didn’t want to hear. The rest of the class I take the teacher’s suggestion and practice resisting the lead’s suggestions: every single time a partner raises my arm to imply or ask for a spin or turn from me, I just don’t. I do something else. I find something else to do. I dig in my possibilities to come up with something for myself. Now it’s also my responsibility, this dance, and where it goes, and what I do in it. It is my imagination, proclivities, and whims that will form the shape, the mood, the essence of my movements.
Back in Brooklyn, I find the ceiling intact, not having fallen in while I was gone.
The next day I cruise online realty sites for houses in Nashville and call a mortgage broker named Rhenda Faye Daye who looks, from her little thumbnail picture, like Dolly Parton’s sister.
After calculating my information, she tells me the price of the house I can afford, and I type that price into the colored dot-filled map which shows all properties in Nashville. After I hit enter to see my result there is only one dot in all of East Nashville.