Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Let it snow...

It’s snowing in New York City today -- first snow of the season -- and there’s a picture-book view from my fifth floor apartment. It’s just like being inside a snow-globe, only without the plastic Statue of Liberty. The snow swirls up and around the brick buildings over the road with their ornate fire escapes, and obscures the water-towers on the rooftops beyond. Down on 112th Street, every third car is a yellow cab, as usual, but the parked cars have a good three or four inches of snow on the roof, with “total expected accumulation of six to eight inches.”

The toddler (technically he’s more of a stalker, really, with the stiff-legged Frankenstein monster gait of the novice walker) points out the window at the flurrying, and bellows “SnnnnnnnOOOOOH!” with far more authority than someone who only saw the stuff for the first time three hours ago should really be able to muster on the subject. He had his first real snow experience this morning, and judged it to be a good thing, on the whole.

We zipped him into his snowsuit and wheeled him -- in his not very off-road-worthy New Zealand stroller -- to a square of snowy lawn on the Columbia University campus that had already been colonized by a gang of three year olds and their daycare supervisors. “Remember the snowball rule,” said one of the micro-managing minders. “Ask first before you throw a snowball at someone!” (Obedient mumbles from the small snowsuit-packaged frolickers: “May I please throw a snowball at you, Jonah?”) Meanwhile, our little dual-citizen got busy with a snowball his visiting aunty had made for him, hurling it to the ground without asking the ground’s permission at all.

Forty years ago, my late mother-in-law Shirley Maddock was living in New York, and sending back regular reports for what was then the NZBC, now National Radio. I sometimes find myself walking, or writing, in her footsteps. This morning’s expedition reminded me of her very first “American Roundabout,” in which – mindful of her lady listeners -- she compared the lot of the New York housewife with her New Zealand counterpart in matters of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. A single gal, then in her late 20s, she’d been minding a child and an apartment “18 stories up, looking across Central Park” for a friend:

I look back in wonder at New Zealand children who play outside all year round, whose mothers can say almost every day, “just run outside dear.” Then I compare it with the daily performance of giving the children their outing in the Park. First of all, there is the equipping of them. This takes a good quarter of an hour to twenty minutes, especially if they are small and inclined to wriggle.

The first layer consists of corduroy longs and a t-shirt, then they are zipped into snow suits, usually nylon, with quilted and padded linings. So much so, the children look like solemn little rubber toys as they totter about the playground. Of course, if they fall, they are so well padded they bounce, but it must be very hampering. So once everyone is fully clad for a dash to the Pole, you set off down the elevator and across to the park… where the mothers settle down to chat with each other, while they rock the pram and watch the children play. Or if they are more prosperous mothers, they have Nannies who do the daily Watch in the Park for them instead.

Plus ça change… The first time we took our little guy to the pediatrician on 78th St, we were impressed by all the interracial lesbian couples in the waiting room. Then we realised that what we were seeing was the NYC version of the village it takes to raise a child: one (white) mum, one (black) nanny, one kid. While pushing my kiddo on the swings in Riverside Park, I find myself chatting with nannies from Jamaica, the Philippines, China. Their legal status is often precarious. Many immigrant nannies fly under the radar, but it’s getting harder now that the visa rules are being more strictly enforced, post 9/11 and all that.

But some nannies make very good press. One of the best-selling books this season is the tell-all novel The Nanny Diaries, in which a couple of New York University students dish the dirt on the sad lives of over-scheduled children from the city’s wealthy families. Of course, the book is about the Upper East Side; here on the resolutely liberal (but increasingly wealthy) Upper West Side of Manhattan, one refers to one’s full-time child care person as a “babysitter”; nannies are for the rich, don’t you know.

Nannies themselves are not getting rich on the standard $5-10 an hour, but if you’re a male university student with some time on your hands, you can get a gig as a male nanny, or "manny". It’s a whole new job category, designed to inject a dollop of testosterone and big-brotherly love into the overly feminised world of boy-children whose fathers work 80 hours a week (busy earning the six or seven figure salaries necessary to pay for all the nannying). Manny duties include, y’know, guy stuff: shooting hoops, laser tag, skateboarding, play-wrestling, the odd bit of maths tutoring and no doubt checking out the shapelier nannies in the park, but here’s the best bit: you can earn as much as $25 an hour. Someone call the federal office whose job it is to track pay equity! Oh wait, that’s right – the Bush administration closed it down, and the regional offices are next.

It’s dark as I write, and still snowing. My visiting father-in-law is less than impressed with the snow -- he grew up in England during the war, and snow, to him, brings memories of austerity and bone-chilling cold. The homeless man who usually sleeps on the corner of our street and Broadway (opposite the diner whose façade will be familiar to watchers of Seinfeld) would no doubt agree; I hope he has taken cover elsewhere today. Men like him are the visible measure of the epidemic of homelessness afflicting the city this year; but with record numbers of families living in shelters, it will be a cold and sad winter for thousands of children.

Sometimes it’s hard to be so far from home… we’re a long long way from family, who watch the newest member of the family grow up via digital pictures and the occasional visit; we’re living in a climate where it takes fifteen minutes to bundle up before going outside. But at least we have somewhere to hang our snowsuits. And at least we’re legal aliens – hey, the one-year-old has two passports. And, even in this weather, we have to walk no further than the corner to buy a loaf of bread and the New York Times, on the cover of today’s copy of which is a sobering picture of Kurdish women baking bread in a mud hut kitchen at the Barda Qaraman refugee camp in Iraq. I'm 10,000 miles from New Zealand, but I’m a lot closer to home than they are.