Part Two: Kenya
Manhattan was as different from Kenya as two places could possibly be.
The equatorial sunlight bathed the African plains, the farms, and the Nairobi office buildings with molten gold. The New York City sun was a rarity, glimpsed through the canyons of concrete when I looked up at the sky and remembered I was, indeed, outdoors.
Manhattan was grey—the sky, the clouds, the office towers of reflecting glass, the concrete sidewalks, and the streets. Kenya was green and brown and red and golden—the fertile soil, the fruit trees and crops of maize and vegetables, the gorgeous people, the splendid animals.
Time stood still in Kenya. Life there was lived as it had been for five thousand years, and to the same rhythm. New Yorkers couldn’t move fast enough, accompanied by a different beat—the rifle-fire staccato of shoe heels against lobby marble floors, of taxi horns and squealing, worn-out brakes, the quick warning bells of messenger boys on bikes weaving through the city streets, and the start and stop of pedestrian traffic, moving in concert with the green and red traffic lights on every corner.
New York had its own beauty; a powerful energy carried on a song just barely beyond the range of human hearing. It whispered a promise of a brilliant future. Kenya offered the timeless music of nature, and the stored memories of the earliest man. It whispered a promise, too; that life would remain the same, would endure.
Manhattan women were stylishly dressed in variations of city chic fashion—an all-black, narrow silhouette accessorized with and expensive black handbag and black ballerina flats, narrow, knee-high boots, or high, high heels, and an expensive handbag. I clung to my khakis, my camping boots, and canvas camera bag.
Living in New York City was exciting, but it was Kenya I loved.
I longed for East Africa every day and refused to give up the girl I had been to squeeze myself into the New York fashion mold. Sometimes I earned a raised eyebrow, or I sensed the ghost of a question on someone’s lips, but, more often, I was dismissed with a sneer. I was no longer a New York girl. I didn’t fit, didn’t care, and never would again. I made my own way into the business as my own person.
When I first returned to New York, I moved to my first apartment in Greenwich Village—a fifth floor, walk-up, corner apartment with two bedrooms, an ancient claw-foot bathtub in the kitchen, and a pizza parlor on the ground floor. The windows looked out on Bleecker and MacDougal Streets—the heart of the Village. It was an old Italian neighborhood with the pasta shop, with strands of drying strands of linguini, fettucini, and bucatini in the window, hanging above baskets of farfalle, orechetti, and campanelle; the bakery with Italian loaves of bread behind the counter and classic Italian cookies like Signora Manfriando used to bake piled high behind glass; the cheese store, where the delicious smell of imported Italian Parmigiana Reggiano floated on the air and out the front door and freshly made balls of mozzarella and burrata buffalo milk cheeses sat in milky water in giant glass jars. The Manfriandos would have felt right at home. There even was a Mafia “social club” storefront around the corner on MacDougal Street. From my living room windows I could see the Village Vanguard and BCBG, nightclubs, where performers like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, the Eagles and Jackson Brown played nightly.
I was very proud of this apartment. It was big—huge by Manhattan—standards, with two large bedrooms and windows on two sides. I loved the bathtub in the kitchen—a relic of the turn-of-the-century when all the tenement tenants, all Italian immigrants, shared the outhouses in the backyard and the only water to the apartments came through the kitchen sink. I even loved the Ray’s Famous Pizza shop downstairs, where I could grab a slice and sit outside in the concrete courtyard at picnic tables which certainly stood over the remains of the old outhouses.
It didn’t matter that my mother cried real tears after driving in from the suburbs and walking up the five flights of stairs see where her daughter had chosen to live, “I spent my whole life trying to get out of this neighborhood and here you are right back in it.”
I understood her perspective, but from my perspective I had lucked into a fabulous place to live.