Sunday, August 24, 2008


“Why don’t you come eat with us?” Natvar asked me. We were walking south on 8th Avenue, on the east side, at about 25th Street. Mark was there. It was the end of the day and Natvar was looking at the fruits and vegetables that the small grocery stores had displayed out on the street. It was summer or fall. I hadn’t moved in yet, but I was spending more and more time at the Institute.

“No,” I said, smiling, polite. “No, that’s okay. I better get going.” Natvar smiled, tweaked my ear, his brown eyes bright, his smile making me smile, Mark in the background, a paler version of Natvar. It was Mark’s apartment they were on their way to, a place I’d been to a few times, a scruffy walk-up, beat up tenement. You pushed open the door at the dark top of about four creaking flights of narrow staircase and stepped into the kitchen with its deep old white porcelain sink and its gas stove. Natvar and Mark slept somewhere in the back. I had not seen that room.

I admired Mark that he was that close to Natvar, that he actually slept with Natvar, that Natvar had chosen him. I didn’t think about them fucking. I just didn’t. In the very beginning I had sort of hoped that Natvar would notice me like that. It had felt that way the first time I’d come to his class, that free workshop he’d given back in the spring, and I had felt so much spark between us that I thought perhaps he would pursue me.

We walked a little further down Eighth Avenue, moving slowly. Natvar paused to look at the potatoes. How much they were, what the quality was like. He would cook. He knew what to buy and he knew what to cook. Me and Mark didn’t know these things. Natvar bought Goya cans of pink beans and Goya olive oil. Goya was so much cheaper than all the other brands. I’d never heard of it before.

I was on my way to the subway. I had nothing going on. I would ride back up to the Upper West Side. I’d read, go to bed. Maybe I should accept the invitation to go with them. I was shy, but they were my new friends and this was a special kind of new friendship. There was something personal and deep about it. The way Natvar kind of ploughed forward with us, with those of us who stayed around the Institute, who didn’t just come by for a class now and then, those of us who really seemed to love the place. I had heard Natvar really yell at Anjani when she brought the lights down too early in class – there was something so unleashed in his fury, the way the words flew out of his mouth, passionate, spontaneous, a brilliant articulate fabric that nailed her personality, her weaknesses to the floor. Contact with Natvar seemed so much more alive and real than the weak unsatisfying friendships I had stitched together since I got back to New York – none of them compelling and engaging and demanding the way Natvar was.

And Natvar was older. He was almost forty. He had a wife and two daughters. He’d left Greece to live in London, then come to the States and built a life out of nothing. He’d run a juice bar on the Upper East Side that he said Greta Garbo used to come to and how she’d ask him to walk with her and how she’d talk to him the way she couldn’t talk to anybody else. All Natvar’s stories were like that: heroic. He could teach me these things. He had some secret ingredient I could get from him that would lift the lid on my own passion. I wanted to be able to get angry the way he did. I wanted to be able to cook without a recipe. “A good cook only has to smell the food to know if it’s good,” he said emphatically, stirring. And when I wasn’t feeling well he’d ask me what I was eating and he’d think and say, “You need more protein. Just have a little cream cheese.” We were all vegetarian.

“Can I change my mind?” I ask on the street. “I think I would like to come over with you guys.” The welcome I had felt with the invitation doesn’t quite hold up. “Of course,” says Natvar, looking up from the heap of potatoes, but it doesn’t feel right – to say no or to say yes, both have felt bad. Probably I shouldn’t have been so ambivalent, I think. He would like me better and I would be more deserving if I’d been able to say yes right away.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


One night I was sleeping, or almost asleep. It was early, perhaps around 9 o’clock. I was lying on the floor of the lobby. That’s where I slept now that I lived in the Institute. Natvar had fitted out a room for me in the back of the Institute by hanging a dark yellow piece of fabric across its entrance. It did not have a window. It had a shelf for clothes and a pole to hang things from. It was about 10' x 5’.

Natvar was there the night I moved in. He was hanging the curtain and he was celebrating my arrival by being happy, by hugging me and pinching my cheek. “She’s such a good yogi!” he was saying with delight to Mark who was helping measure the fabric, set up the pole from which it would hang. Mark was smiling and echoing Natvar’s enthusiasm.

I had decided quickly to move in when Natvar announced that he was looking for a renter. Whenever Natvar asked for anything I wanted to provide it. By becoming the renter myself I would solve his problem of needing one and I’d contribute to the Institute’s monthly rent, always a big sum that had to be scrambled for. In my mind, I thought Natvar would charge me maybe $50 or $75 a month. Before I moved in I asked him how much I should pay. “$100,” he said firmly and I did not question him.

I had been back in Manhattan for eleven months, living in Scott’s upper West side apartment, first in a spacious corner room, then for a month or two in the little loft room off the kitchen for half the price. The Institute would be cheaper still.

And it would bring me closer. I was reading Baba Muktananda’s books now. I had quit my publishing job about six months ago. I had broken up with Bill, the high school boyfriend who had only interested me for a short while and though I was pretty sure he would always answer my calls he’d turned to look instead at my Vogue-model-friend Thea after our sex reached a dead end.

I moved in that January night, thinking this movement will make a big difference. It will make a statement, saying I take this yoga seriously, I am a serious student of the enlightenment which Baba made sound both easy and hard at the same time. I can prove that I’m tough enough for yoga and then I’ll get visions and I’ll be allowed into the secret garden of the truth that lies behind this false world of 9-5 jobs, marriages, divorces, children, possessions. And Natvar too will see that I am worth paying attention to. I want his attention. I am so happy when he says nice things about me, when he says how smart I am, how sincere I am. How I am making progress.

My high-heeled gold strap sandals are still with me that night as I unpack. We all laugh as they tumble out onto the floor, so out of place here. I act as if they almost don’t really belong to me anymore. They are left over from a Halloween in Los Angeles, a Halloween when I was alone and felt I had permission because it was costume night to wear short-shorts and high gold strappy sandals – attention-getting clothes not otherwise allowed. I only wore the outfit to Ralph’s the supermarket up on Sunset, late, after 11, hoping to get into conversation with someone the way my boyfriend had just gotten into conversation on a New York subway with a girl he went to bed with, but I came home alone, and only wore the shoes again on the tropical island weekend with the lawyer.

But now they are only evidence of the worldly life I am leaving behind. I won’t miss it, I thought. I must be made for yoga because this all feels so easy.

After a night or two I began to sleep in the lobby after everyone had left. I had the Institute to myself. I was its keeper. Natvar must feel better, knowing someone loves the place this much. He has started sleeping a few blocks away in Mark’s apartment. He says it’s more comfortable for him there, and I am beginning to understand that things for Natvar should be a little better than they are for the rest of us. Mark’s place has a bath tub and Natvar says I can come any time for a bath. The Institute doesn’t have such a thing.

We are roughing it. We are dedicated yogis, roughing it for the sake of something good and pure and beyond the obvious.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


The Institute. That’s what we called it. In the beginning. The Institute was like a beloved family pet and we were a family. That’s what I thought. A new family. A self-chosen family. An adult family.

The Institute was the structure,. In the beginning. The reason. The focus. The thing we could point to and say because.

It was a sweet haven. So clean and orderly with a precise and correct way for doing everything.

It was sweet in the beginning: the piece of orange thick cotton fabric that covered the small square window of the front door that looked out into the stairwell. The narrow entranceway with the impossibly small bathroom on the left and the sliding door on the right leading into the dark meditation hall. We left our shoes in that space by the front door, tidily, in rows, never more than ten people here at a time, usually only about five of us.

This was the first Institute, the lobby, changing rooms, office and two back rooms wall-to-wall carpeted in a low-pile olive green that we vacuumed daily. We wiped the baseboards of the whole Institute every week, every Sunday. Sunday was cleaning day. In the beginning.

Who were we?

When I arrived – I arrived on Sunday, March 15, 1981, six weeks after returning to New York City after living with a boyfriend in Los Angeles for three years. I had never lived in New York City without him. Even during the years when he was a student (if that’s the right word, which it isn’t) an hour and a half away, he was still my boyfriend, someone I could call and think about and be connected to. But I had resolutely snapped that cord. No more boyfriend. No more sadness. But New York City – my city, my place, my friend – was not folding its arms around me and making it easy like I’d thought it would.

Til this yoga place.

I was almost 24. Pretty old. College had come and gone. I should have it together by now. I really should. All I have is this ridiculous 9-5 job and yes, I am not a secretary anymore, I’m an editor with a private office now and business cards, but it does not feel like anything. I feel I’ve been trapped, the 9-5 machine got me, the bastard, and I must escape. This is humiliating.

Who else is there? Who else says “the Institute” with same affection? Of course, there is Natvar, but he is so huge and obvious that I will leave him til last. At his right hand, when I first arrive, is Anjani, a petite, dark-skinned woman with white-white hair that she wears pinned up. She is elderly, somewhere far beyond middle age, but she is pretty. I have never seen such an old woman who still can be called pretty. She dresses in white cotton yoga clothes: a long top, loose trousers, bare feet. She takes the yoga classes Natvar teaches with us, standing at the back so she can operate the dimmers and bring the lights up and down at the right times during the class. It is she who has the tea ready for us at the end of class – hot water in a saucepan with pieces of real ginger floating in it. We sit on the floor of the small lobby after class, after nine at night, drinking tea, talking shyly whoever has been in the class. We don’t know each other very well yet.

There is a small bookstore – everything is in miniature here. A set of built-in shelves, and slanted display shelves, offering just a few yoga paperbacks. Some incense. A beautiful curved wooden incense burner that I want so much to buy and send to the boyfriend back in L.A. I don’t buy it. It is too expensive and I am supposed to not be in touch with that boyfriend. I am supposed to be independent and busy.

There is Eve who is a little older than me and seems very at home here. She wears a small diamond in her nose. I have never seen a non-Indian woman with a diamond in her nose. She has long mousy hair and is a painter. She is not beautiful, but she goes to see the guru that Natvar and Anjani go to see. I don’t listen to their guru talk. I am not interested in the books in the bookstore. The pictures on the walls – especially the one of some goddess that promises if you give her money she’ll make sure that more comes your way – make me uncomfortable. I am more interested in the burgeoning East Village scene that Bill is introducing me to. I cut my long hippy hair down to a spiky upstart punk cut. But I come to yoga class every Tuesday after work.

Mark is there too. He is young, maybe, like Eve, a few years further along than me. He has an open friendly face. He smiles. His eyes are blue. His blonde hair is already receding from his broad forehead. He says he is a dancer. His calves are firm, his foot curves in a strong arch. I know he is gay the moment we meet.

These are us in the beginning. And Natvar. Who teaches every class, almost every evening of the week. Except on Fridays when he runs out to catch the last ferry to Staten Island to see his wife and kids.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

New World

I went out from the city one evening to visit my mother. It was the early 80s. I was living in the second Institute with Natvar. There, it was a time of trying to “improve” ourselves, infiltrate another level of society of which none of us had ever been a part, but which Natvar was now visiting every morning as he went from one rich woman to the next, giving them a private yoga class, making each of them feel special, important and cared for, listening to them while drinking coffee from gold-rimmed cups, wrapping them around his little finger. Natvar was a poor boy from Greece and Fifth Avenue looked pretty good to him and none of us, when he came home at lunch – quite measured up. So he was trying hard to shape us then, force us into something better that would ease his own passage into better circles.

Mark – with a good hair cut – could spruce up really well. He’d learned from Natvar how to iron a button-down shirt, how to wear trousers with a crease and hang them properly afterwards, how to shine shoes. Mark, after a shower, all dressed up, looked shiny, fresh and new, his eyes bright, his smile wide – or his eyes lazy, his smile languid, or his whole appearance stern when that was the order of the day.

The women – me and Tracy – were more difficult, and of the two I was much more difficult. Somehow, Tracy could put on a pair of sassy little sling-backs and a tight skirt, could enthusiastically apply the new lipstick and she was pretty as a picture – trouble was she wasn’t as educated as Natvar would have liked. He teased her for being a small-town girl – a “git” he called her, a “git” being someone who said “git” instead of “get” – but she was a good cook and sexy.

Marta was just a problem. Smart, yes. Pretty well read. But clothes did not sit properly on her. Not the navy wool skirt, straight to her knees, that came out of a client’s closet, nor the battered pumps that did too, nor the white stockings that Mark thought would make us look better. Hellish clothes, I hated them, I felt ugly in them, but felt I must ear them, must leave my childish hippy clothes behind. I was in the grown-up world now, I thought, Natvar’s workd, and I so wanted to keep up with him. To fail at this was to fail utterly.

My mother was living with my father then. They were both working minimum wage jobs, renting or living rent-free is some place my father’s church had found for them. They were scraping by. I had sent them my tax refund check when it came.

My mother said she’d like to take me out to dinner. She drove to Mount Kisco and walked me into a pizzeria, the kind where the menu is posted up behind the counter with black moveable type on a lit white background.

I knew Natvar would be horrified at such a place, could hear his voice in my head, crashing about it. I was supposed to be learning that I was better than this sort of place.

“Can we go somewhere else?” I asked my mother. I had never asked anything of her before, nothing that questioned her choices or taste, especially when she was giving me something. It felt horrendous to push against her choice of the cheap pizzeria.

She took me instead to a place called The Brownstone Café where you sat down and a waiter came with menus and the desserts had real whipped cream.

Black Bag

Yesterday I carried someone else’s black bag to my car. She had left it in my boss’s office and since she lived near me, I was to bring it home and we would meet up over the weekend. The bag felt glamorous in my hand. Real leather, I thought. The woman who owns it is rich. I could feel it. “This is the type of bag I should buy,” I thought, imagining myself with it on a city street. The words “this is how they do it” kind of in my mind, always hunting for that recipe that makes certain people look so accomplished.

And I thought of the black bag I had bought almost 10 years ago that had given me the same feeling. I found that bag on 14th Street, in a narrow little fly-by-night shop. I was passing by on my weekly freedom visit, the one day of the week when – in the city and alone instead of up at the ashram – I felt like a new person: fresh, alive, young.

I was about to go on an ashram business trip and the black bag I spied would help me match up with all the young confident professionals I would mingle with in the airport, on my way to meetings. It had long straps, pockets, zippers and compartments for organization, all of it sleek, streamlined, and made of some kind of black nylon fabric. And it was cheap of course. That’s what 14th Street is for. Like others who shopped on 14th Street I had to live on almost no money.

I bought the bag and for years took good care of it. Whenever I needed a sort of briefcase, out it came, not a real pedigree, but not a bad stand-in. I pampered it, always unpacked it when I was done, laid it away til next time. It was only with this special care that the bag lasted as long as it did.

Then it became my teaching bag, the thing I lugged to campuses stuffed with files of student writing, books I wanted to read to them and videos I wanted to show. The black bag lost its trim lines. It sagged. Its true shapeless soul finally showed through.

One day just looking at it made my heart sink. Such a cheap piece of crap. It’s in a landfill somewhere now.