Sunday July 28, 1968,
JFK. I've just disembarked from a London-New York charter flight via Iceland. It's the pre-credit card era. In my wallet is $50--that's what I'm allowed to take out of the UK, and a $200 Greyhound bus ticket for 2 months' unlimited cross country travel. Driving into Manhattan from the airport, from the bus window, the urban paraphernalia is new and different. The lamp posts arching, unsupported, ominous over the wider roads, the shrill, raucous, impatient traffic sounds, the oversized cars and trucks, giant bagels, muffins--the oversized glutinous helpings at the diner.
You may know Barbara Love as the co-author of Sappho Was a Right-On
Woman, or as the editor of Feminists Who Changed America, or as trouble
on the street for the patriarchy, but well before and long after these
endeavors, until the age of 75, she had another life as a champion swimmer, winning 500
medals for freestyle and butterfly. On April 6 1956
at age 19 she broke a World Relay Record in freestyle at Daytona
Beach, Florida--a highlight of her swimming career. It seems a good
occasion to celebrate, and why not, with this film, a quirky minidoc I made
in New York City. I hope you'll have a moment to watch it.
It was the 24th of July, the fourth day under the heat dome, and shaded seating space in the park was scarce. Then one opened up in the vicinity of an acoustic three-piece band: sax, bass and guitar, whose jazz riffs filled the stifling air. The hard-on-the-ass wood bench, whose slats were once a tree, had one other occupant and after he finished his drink he left.
Soon a striking-looking woman, shades of Frida Kahlo, with intense black eyes and dark hair tied in a pony-tail, arrived to take his place. She rested her bicycle against the opposite end of the bench from mine.
The band played on.
My first and only dog since I moved to New York from across the ocean was a coal-black mutt named Minuit that never barked.Though no longer a dog owner, outdoors I like identifying canine breeds. I'd done so with a Pyrenean mountain dog and a foxhound, so I tried my luck again.
"Is that a Bedlington terrier?" I queried the owner of a possible suspect--it had a curly coat--as they passed by, the dog tugging at his leash.
"Nope," the man replied."It's a labradoodle."
"Labradoodle," I mused out loud.
My new bench companion eyed me with a chuckle.
"Must be a cross between a Labrador and a poodle," she declared.
"Labradoodle. What a word." I took out my notebook
to write it down, upon which she asked:
"Are you a poet?"
That's kind of a tricky question, not in the same league as dog breed identification, so I gave a qualified response.
No, I answered in one swallow-doesn't-make-a-summer mode, though if that were literally true New York hasn't had summers for years. Occasionally I write poems but mostly do other kinds of writing. It turns out she does too.
From then on our conversation took off like a fast-skipping stone across
a pond--touching on 1968, police, riots, bike lanes, pedestrians, analysis versus criticism.
As well as writing, we each had a rapport with Columbia, particularly with the film department, mine a distant one and hers present-day. But as we delved further into the past, two more extraordinary coincidences emerged.
The first was from Havana. The year of the Elian Gonzalez fracas, a Havana native, she was visiting relatives; I was on assignment at the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, headquartered at the Hotel Nacional. When I mentioned that German friends, seasoned Cuban visitors, had directed me to a casa particular in nearby Vedado, a stone's throw from the five-star hotel, she immediately whipped out her I-phone to verify a hunch.
"Was the apartment owned by three sisters?"
It transpired that at a few months' interval, we had indeed both stayed in the same rental room of a large apartment shared by three sisters. I remembered their names all began with an A; the full names were on her I-phone--Adela, Amelia and Alex--with the name of one of their sons, Aden. I'd borrowed a bicycle from him. It had a flat tire that I got fixed at a nearby punctura or curbside repair stand peculiar to Havana, whose roads are invariably potholed.
We compared notes on the room, the mattress, the hand shower in the bathroom and on how many hours there was hot water in the building or that the elevator worked, but most of all on the congenial atmosphere and our wonderful hosts.
At that point I gave her my email for further news from this Cuban family with whom she was still in touch.
"My name is Irena," she announced, "Buenfortuna."
Then came the second revelation.
Once she had entered my name on her phone's keypad, she kept repeating it.
"Sophie Tran, Sophie Tran. Your name sounds familiar."
"It's my pen name," I admitted.
I'd taken the name from Les Malheurs de Sophie by la Contesse de Segur, a book which had terrified me as a child. I assumed she might have seen my pen name on the internet, but no, she hadn't. When she told me that her mother had previously been married to Carlos Del Punto, a Peruvian sculptor, the mystery was solved. I had known Carlos because he was a friend and colleague of Jean-Baptiste, my partner at the time--my first live-work partner and soul mate in the city.
Her precise recollections continued. In particular, there was the drive to Princeton with her parents to see a Duchamp exhibition; she recalled that Jean-Baptiste and I were in the car with them. She described details of the Duchamp installation too.
"I was ten years old," she said, "and the two of you made quite an impression on me."
"Perhaps we were arguing?" I suggested. That happens sometimes even with soul mates.
"No, no. Quite the opposite. The way you were together."
Now, several decades later, my memory of the Princeton trip is gone. Hers has taken its place. It was my turn to be moved.