Crossing Waters

22 May

“…it’s a safe wager that half of you never yet have set sail upon that quaint little old uptown ferry, guarded by the venerable ticket seller and his big gray cat, who scans with shrewd and unflinching golden eyes every fare as it is paid.”  — Sarah Comstock, New York Times – June 21, 1914

And it’s a safe wager that over a century later the same could be said of you.

From the 18th Century until the Great Depression, ferries ran from Hallet’s Cove.  The streets of this often bleak and woebegone peninsula, jutting into the East River at the southern edge of Hell Gate, are among the oldest in the city.  Granted to William Hallet by Peter Stuyvesant in 1652, with additional acreage fought over and eventually bought from local Native American tribes, this small nub of land has seen farms, brickworks, British cannons, American forts, 19th century industry, and the fashionable mansions that followed.  And through it all, well into the 20th century, the passengers came, by foot and coach, bicycle and trolley, the rails converging upon Astoria Boulevard before dropping down to the water.  From the Steinway Factory in the north to the busy intersection of Steinway and Broadway to the east, the trolleys rolled down the old thoroughfare to the 92nd Street Ferry Terminal and it’s crossing to Yorkville.

From Long Island City, workers made a similar journey across the river to 34th Street, and then south to Fulton street, convenient to the financial district for those who worked there.  And though, for a price, special boats were run for the more affluent, boss and laborer alike were treated to the morning scent of the Fulton Street fish market.

For decades they thrived, knitting together the disparate peoples of this rapidly growing city.

And then they were gone.  The Long Island Railroad discontinued the 34th Street ferry in 1925, and with the completion of the Triboro Bridge in 1936 the “quaint little old uptown ferry,” despite its continued popularity, had no place in Robert Moses’ vision of the future.  The last of the East River ferries, he personally oversaw the destruction of the 92nd Street Terminal, ripping out the piers so it could never return.

But Robert Moses has failed.  For this morning I walk the ragged streets of Astoria Village down to Hallet’s Cove.  With my NYC Ferries app loaded and ready I step aboard the gleaming white vessel, climb up into the open air and find my seat.  It is not quaint, and I see no cat, but I am on a journey nonetheless, and one well worth taking.  For, surprisingly, the landings of that bygone time have been reborn: Long Island City, 34th St. and Wall Street, with Roosevelt Island thrown in as a bonus.  With connections to other lines, further maritime ports have returned to life: Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Redhook, all the way around to Rockaway.

Plus, they serve beer.

We live among waters.  We travel above and below them without a thought.  The most diverse community in the nation, over half of us crossed untold rivers and oceans to be in this place, where, like the estuary that surrounds us, saltwater meeting fresh, beings from radically different environments thrive.  To travel the surface of the East River as it glistens in the cold  morning light is to the see this world anew.  And  for all the wonder of the trains, buses and bridges that ease our journeys across this city, there is a grace to being on the water, and a humbleness in the recognition that this most basic of elements,  which could so easily divide us, continues to bind us together.

 

An earlier version of this article piece was published in Idlewild Magazine.

London’s Voice

15 May

 

 

“There are no unsacred places…” — Wendell Berry

Jet-lagged in the morning air, it appears that children have been at play.  St. Giles, once notorious for its desperate poverty, now dances in the morning light, its corporate facades aglow in primary hues.   To my sleep-deprived eyes they look first delightful, then wrong.  A distraction from the past.

We are getting reacquainted, London and I.  It has been awhile and my initial steps are unsure.  Heading east through Shepherds Market as the shops open for business, the streets are lovely.  But no amount of cobblestone can temper the exclusivity, the wealth, the whiff of unwelcome.

Thank god for Soho.  Gaudy and bright, the western streets certainly want to sell me things.  Shoes.  Clothes I will never wear.  All the fantasies of money and youth.  But I am not swayed, and as I make my way to Frith Street, the bling falls away and the old village reveals itself.

Bar Italia is abuzz with people who should be working – deliverymen, construction workers, neighboring shopkeepers, all huddled around the bar chatting with the owner as he hands a bowl of cappuccino to a raven-haired beauty.

“I’ll have one of those,” I say

Eyebrow lifted, he replies,”You mean the coffee or the girl?”

As the laughter fades I settle in.

***

In a way it’s the painters who have brought me here – Walter Steggles, Anthony Eyton, Peri Parkes, the breathtaking Jock McFayden and the brilliant Doreen Fletcher.  London painters, each in their own way capturing time through light.  For time accretes here and then, like paint, it wears away, allowing those with careful eyes to catch a glimpse the layers beneath.

And so, for a few mornings, I set off in search of a glimpse.  With cup of coffee, a warm croissant and only a rough sense of where I’m going, the moments come to me.

Lunch at Pellicis in Bethnal Green where tables are shared, strangers become friends and Nevs, only the third generation to run this cafe in over a hundred years, teases me about my British accent –  “You’re hopeless!” he cries, “Worse than Dick Van Dyke,” before sending me out the door with a free dessert in my pocket.

Kernel Brewery beneath its Bermondsey railway arch.  Beer I’ve been reading about for years but can’t buy in America.  After fervent discussion with the young brewer as well as other fiftyish men, bonding in our way, I make my selection and head back toward civilization.  I try it that night.  It’s OK.

Anna Jordan and Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning at the Stratford East.  Three men struggling to return home. One of the most amazing theatrical experiences of my life.  Tickets bought on a whim.

The quiet of the Tower Hamlets library on a cold afternoon, the work of some of my favorite painters hung before me without fanfare, as if they were the finalists in a school competition.  Albert Turpin, Noel Gibson, Doreen Fletcher.  I have the room to myself and I take my time.  Getting close.  Taking in the detail.

The long, long walk up the Caledonian Road, the song of the place in my head, and the Sunday Roast at journey’s end.

Stepping onto the roof at dawn to watch the sky turn pink over Christchurch Spitalfields.

And Borough Market, where it all comes together.  The rough welcome under the old stone arches, where trading has gone on for over a thousand years.  The steam coming off the coffee in the morning air.  The sausage rolls, oranges from Spain, cheese that shows me what cheese can be and the bells of Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s parish church, ringing over my shoulder.

A few streets away, unsure of what I’m looking for, I find Cross Bones.

In the 1161 A.D. the Bishop of Winchester ordered that the prostitutes of this parish, from whom he profited, be left to their trade.  They could not be arrested.  Nonetheless, when they died, they were not allowed burial in sanctified ground.  And so their remains, without ceremony, were buried here.

The land continued as a paupers cemetery into the 19th century before being built upon and cleared again and again. Twenty years ago the community reclaimed this small patch as a garden, and then as a memorial to the prostitutes, their babies, and all the outcast dead who have come to rest here.    Finally, in 2015, after more than 800 years, the land was blessed.

I am early and the gates are locked.  But the fence tells its own story, woven with flowers, ribbons, photos and messages.  Remembrances, many of them, of our own outcasts.  Women mostly; abused, struggling, lost.

I am struck by the beauty of the ribbons; faded, fluttering in the wind, their gentle shades warm against the dull winter sky.  And I listen.  Because somehow, in the very silence, this place is speaking.

 

 

An earlier version of this piece appears in the Summer 2019 issue of  Idlewild Magazine.

Climbing the Alto

9 May

It’s an early, gray sky morning and, the streets are empty.  I know where I’m going because yesterday I made a trial run, wandering up the Viale Guiseppe Verdi, past the the empty movie theater and darkened stores before turning to follow the contours of the Parco delle Terme.  Montecatini Terme is quiet and I soak in the gentleness of this unfamiliar town, the morning mist softening the border between antiquity and myself.

I’ve yet to find my rhythm.  Our hotel on the piazza has a grand, sweeping staircase, graced in its day by Verdi himself, but frequented now by my 9 year old daughter, newly fascinated by this introduction to infinity.  Ascending to our fifth floor room by a slow succession of right angles, we climb together this seemingly endless square, twelve stairs to a landing, thirty six to a floor. Over and over again. The challenge I have set myself to never use the elevator wobbles almost immediately as I chase her up and down, growing ever more aware of my age.

But this morning is mine.  My goal is the Montecatini Alto, the medieval village high above Montecatini Terme.  There is a funiculore, but it’s closed for the season and is now only a small station undergoing renovation at the base of the hill, its long stretch of track disappearing into the distance.  But along side is a road; more of an alley really, pavement giving way to gravel as it climbs past the last few houses to what I had hoped to find.  A trail.

It’s easy at first.  True, it is steep enough to affect my breathing, but there are wide, long steps running alongside a stone wall adorned at intervals by small shrines to the holy mother.  And there, far above, is the ancient fortress of the Alto.

The path turns and continues on its way as the ground slowly disintegrates into a wilderness of reddish stones.  Aspiring to gravel, it remains, at this point in it’s decay, a severe threat to the ankles.  Carefully, step by awkward step, I slowly make my way.  Looking upward, I think of my son.

He would hate this.  It would madden him with it’s pointlessness.  A phantom at my side, he proclaims to the hills:

“This sucks!”

“I know that, but here’s the thing,” I gently reply.  “Look up.  Is that not amazing?  In a matter of minutes we will be in that ancient town.  The views will be breathtaking.  This is how life works,” I say.  “You do something hard, and it makes you feel good.”

He is silent as we continue on.

“This is the secret,” I say, winded now.  “I’m trying to give this to you.”

The wind whispers through the surrounding trees.  I pick an olive from amidst the rubble, and then notice they’re everywhere.  Inedible, though.  Hard, uncured.

Almost as tall as me, I wonder if he will ever be as strong.  As patient.  I wonder if my father thought the same.

Slowly the way begins to ease.  Rocks become pebbles, the path takes a turn, and, surprisingly, I arrive, following the soft dusty path rising to the street that leads into the town.

It is early, few people are about and nothing is open.  Built of stone, the streets are narrow and veer off in precipitous directions.  A lone car passes slowly and after a moment disappears into this sinuous cobblestone world.  I follow, weaving my way, taking every upward turn as I continue to ascend, the fun house streets climbing and dropping all about me.

And then the world levels and opens a bit.  The sky and the surrounding countryside reappear, and I stand atop the remnants of this failed fortress whose alliances shifted with each new battle between the surrounding powers until being finally overrun by Florence and left in ruins by the soldiers of the Medici who, in all likelihood, had marched up the very same trail as I.

How many lifetimes ago?  In how different a world?

The trip down is harder than the ascent, gravity adding a new level of danger to the outsized rubble.  Also, I’m running late and promises have been made.  So I stumble along at speed.

The mist remains as the world levels and I descend into town.  Traffic’s picked up, dogs are being walked, a bus hisses past in the the morning gloom.  Two women in bright yellow windbreakers appear in the distance, out for a run, making their way through the streets I have yet to explore.

But there’s time for that later.  I need to keep moving if I’m going to make it on time.

On time For Heath, his complaints and concerns.

On time for Hallie and her games on the stairs.

On time for the coffee, which, truth be told, is the main reason I’m here.

And on time for Amy, her laughter, and all the joys of this journey shared.

 

Morning’s At The Corner

20 Dec

I have had the good fortune to be writing for the magazine Idlewild over the past year.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be reprinting some of the pieces originally published there.

When my daughter was very young, and I was sorely lacking in sleep, I would carry her mornings down to Family Corner.  In need of coffee, food and adult voices, I’d drowsily listen as the regulars traded insults with George.  Back and forth, hilariously, they would ride each other.  Warm, raucous and working class, it was the New York of my dreams.

Having just celebrated their 27th anniversary, it’s the kind of place where a young woman brings her own gluten-free pancake mix and they make them for her, and shortly thereafter just add them to the menu.

The kind of place where George, at the end of his day, takes the time to lead a table of out of town visitors to their New York Islanders game.

The kind of place where, on a hot summer’s day, they turn off the ceiling fans to calm a scared little girl.

Along with his father Spyro and brother Phil, George is co-owner and proprietor.  Coming from Greece, after much travail, they settled in Astoria when the brothers were young.  Neighborhood kids, they know a little something about food, home and family.

“That’s my dad, it comes directly from him,” says George.  “He always said ‘get out there, talk to your customers, get to know them.’  In this way your customers become friends.”

As if all this weren’t enough, the food is outstanding, whether you pop in for a cheeseburger, sit down to savor the Pastichio and a bowl of warm Avgolemono, or just treat yourself to two eggs over with a side of hash.  It’s not foodie, pretentious or expensive.  It’s just good.

And if you’re very lucky, there’s Jenni.  Smart, funny and occasionally profane; tough on the outside and all heart within, she is their secret weapon.  Lily and Kristina are wonderful, but Jenni is magic.  She makes bad days good.

My son loves her for the early morning milkshake she made on his 12th birthday, complete with the hand decorated cup we are not allowed to throw away.

My daughter loves how she patiently takes her order, the same thing every time:  pancakes and eggs.

And my wife and I love her for those sleep deprived mornings when we call ahead and she has our favorite booth waiting for us, silverware laid out, coffee poured.

Diners are fading.  In Astoria alone there are whispers that the stately Neptune and gleaming Bel Aire are on their way out.

“Oh yeah, Neptune is gone,” George says, “Gone.”  And he goes on to explain that even a diner doing very well cannot handle the rents a commercial bank will pay, or make nearly as much money as a high-rise apartment building.

But Family Corner remains.  For now.

“What makes us special?” George asks, raising his eyebrows before turning to a young man a couple booths down.

“Hey you.  What do you like about Family Corner?”

“It tastes good.”

“It tastes good.”  George smiles, shrugging his shoulders. “There you go.”

dsc_0532

 

 

Waters

20 Jul

The helicopter came out of the sky, pushing water and sand before it.  Three friends had swum out into the waves but only two had come back.  A line was forming.  Pulling off my shirt and kicking off my shoes, I joined, wading out into the water and taking a stranger’s hand.  Others moved past, extending our reach into deeper waters.  And then, on a whistle from the beach, I began to move with the others, shuffling along the sandy bottom, hoping my feet were not the first to touch flesh.

“Over here!” A shout from farther out.  And then rescue workers running from the beach, splashing through the waves, huddling for a moment, then quickly moving back to land.

I cannot remember if we were urged to leave, or if we just instinctively knew we were no longer needed, but as I headed back to our cottage I saw the medics working on the young man, his body gray as the water they’d pulled him from.  Wrapping him in blankets, they ducked their heads as the helicopter reared into the sky.  Then, lifting together, they moved toward the waiting ambulance.

Sixteen years old, father gone and my aunt dying across the road, I turned and headed back to our final days together.

* * *

The water is warm this year, and Heath can’t get enough of it.  At dusk we wade in.  Hidden by clouds, the sunset is not spectacular, but it’s doing its best working with a gentler palette.  Pastels rather than oils.  To the north, stripped of its catwalk and fenced off for renovation, the pier is a line on the water, its lighthouse and pierhead stark against the sky, the excavator, surrounded by supplies, shadowed and sleeping.   To the south, high and bright, the moon lights the sky and dapples the water.

Having started in the shallows, Heath pushes into deeper water, far beyond where he’s gone before.  I’m out here with him, chest deep, and though it’s relatively calm, there is a swell, and when the waves wash up toward my head there is a giddy moment when I lose my feet and have to struggle, gently, to regain control.

“Heath, do you feel that?”

“Yeah.”

“Well I can swim, you can’t.  If that was a little bit stronger we’d be in trouble.”

“I know, ” he says.  But he doesn’t.

“Come on,” I say, “let’s head back in a bit.”

“No.”

“No?”

It takes me a moment, thrown by the outright defiance.  But then I see what’s drawing him.  The buoy, a little farther out, marking the end of safe water.

I wait, rising and falling.  Then I say, “I’ve never been out this far.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I’ve never touched that buoy.”  I pause. “You should go first.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

And he does.  Lunging forward three or four steps, up to his neck now, and grabbing hold.  I come up behind him and touch it as well.

“You did it,” I say.  He’s quiet, so I am too.  The water’s still warm, but a breeze has picked up and the air’s cool.  Dark now, the moon’s light is a path on the water, dancing gold that leads straight to us.

“Come on,” I say.  “Let’s head back in.”

“No,” he says, turning away, moving toward shallower water.

I glance up to the parking lot.  The tractor is out, brightly lit, clearing away the sand.

“I’m not sure what time the park closes.  They’ll be shooing us out soon.”

He hesitates, then continues on, saying, “Look, why don’t you walk along the beach and I’ll stay in the water until I get down to the car.”

Which seems fair, so I do, wading ashore, finding my shirt, and then following his shadow as it moves through the water.

* * *

On our way back to New York, we stop in my hometown for a small reunion.  A sunny afternoon with my mom and her friends, who are, without fail, striking in the grace with which they have aged.

My old friend Terri stops by. It’s been almost thirty years but, surprisingly, this matters not at all.  Talking of our lives simply reminds me what friendship used to be.  It was everything.  And despite all the time that has passed, we are little changed.  Certainly, we are every minute of our ages, but we are also still sixteen.  When we hug, I don’t want to let her go.

Driving away that afternoon, the sun low over the fields, the kids quiet in the back, miles from lake or sea, I think about waters.  Those we come from, those we return to, and all the people, arm in arm, who see us through this life.

Fireflies

12 Jul

Last night the fireflies appeared, three or four at a time, flashing in the waning light.  I called out and the kids came running.

“Wow! Dad, Dad, look!” Hallie, pointing, charges across the yard, only to lose the light.  Then, turning, pointing and shouting, she runs again.  A shadow in the dusk, Heath searches for a flash, moves toward it, gently scoops the small creature onto his hand and watches until, suddenly, it flies away.

This scrubby lawn and the small garden that surrounds it, shaded by our Magnolia tree and contained by the planks and walls of our neighbors’ yards, has grown, each year, a little more mine.  A patch of the world I try to make better, dreaming life into the thick clay soil.

The first year, planting late, I managed a bit of basil and garlic.  The following year, composting for the first time, everything came up cherry tomatoes.  Confused, but heartened by the fertility, last year I got an early start and planted a bit of everything.  Once again, cherry tomatoes.  So this year I stepped back.  Mowing and planting less, but watching more, I did my best to listen to whatever it is this place is trying to tell me.  By doing so, I’ve managed a small harvest of sugar snap peas, a lot of questionable garlic, 4 small tomato plants, something that may be leeks, and, up in the kitchen window, thyme, sage, and marjoram coming on strong.  My compost, long a dry, lifeless thing, is now dark and moist, writhing with worms.  And of course, in the evening, there are fireflies.

“I think it’s hurt,” Heath says, kneeling down toward the grass where, dimly, a light glows and fades. He lowers his arm and the small creature climbs on.

“What should we do?”  he asks.

I have no idea.

It’s a process.  With manure, compost, soil and leaves I work each year to build a better soil.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  Not really.  But I’m learning.  And in the past few days little purple flowers have blossomed about the yard as never before.  It seems wildflowers do prefer things a little bit wild.

Later, in the hammock, Hallie cuddles close.  “What’s that?” she asks, pointing to the lighted windows above.

“That’s the kitchen,” I say, as Amy’s shadow passes by.  “And that is you and your brother’s room.”

“What?”

“That’s where Heath is.”

She looks up at the window, and for a moment she’s still.  The hammock’s rocking slows.  Then, as the  fireflies dance, she takes my arm and wraps it around her body.

Lying in the darkness, I think about her joy, which is effortless.  I think about her brother’s tenderness, and how hard he works to keep it hidden.  And I think of the world that awaits them.

 

 

 

Kindred

3 Jun

 

This is what I remember.

Dave’s Robin, I’m Batman.

The candy store with Aunt Barb.  Pop, candy, gliders and parachutes.

Breaking down just shy of Mackinac.  Fan belt on a Sunday.  Sitting under a tree while Dad waits for the mechanic to get home from church.  Dave curled up in Mom’s lap.  The wind in their hair.

Amy coming home for the first time.  Dad holding her in the air. Her giggles.

Crawling all over me as I try read.

The time she stopped breathing.

David falling off his bike on the way to Quik-Pik.  Scratched watch and scraped hands.  So angry, because now Mom will find out.

A thimble-full of soda, Dad’s popcorn and Carol Burnett.  Sitting in our pajamas, laughing on the floor beside him.

Blood through the hands that rush Amy inside.

“Don’t pick her up! Don’t pick her up!”  But he does.

The cast on her leg.

The weight of it.

The scar that wraps all the way around.

Years later, making her up, pale and bloody.  Walking her to the neighbors.  “I think something’s wrong.”

Scouring the beach with Dave for butts.  Kools.  You get them wet and a number appears.  If it’s smaller than 32, you win.

Smoking corn silk on the back porch with our corn cob pipes.  Earlier attempts at rolling our own had not gone well.  We used toilet paper.  Singed eyebrows, burnt bangs.

Yanking a perch out of the water so hard it flies, wrapping round and round the catwalk.

All the toys under his bed.  Unopened and untouched.

Terry (and David).

The endless games of bedroom basketball.

Chewing with their mouths open, smacking away.

Amy disgusted beyond belief.

Which was the point.

All of us holding out the army surplus parachute when Rod takes off, running like hell as the boat guns it, then sitting down hard as the harness takes his legs out from under him and he bounces across the beach and into the lake for a face full of water before finally, finally lifting to the sky.  Swinging wildly from side to side, he almost makes it.

Terry with a golf club.  Just a kid.  But we run for our lives.

Swapping his empty glass for David’s full one.  Repeatedly.  Dave never catching on.

Barb’s funeral and David disappearing.  Karen finding him, walking him through it.

His swim across the lake.  Me rowing beside him.

Our walks through the woods.

Staying with Amy and her roommate when I move to Chicago.  Robbing the same apartment months later when he stiffs her on rent. A camera.  Some cassettes.  Back when cassettes were worth stealing.

Her dating a drummer.  Me pretending it’s OK.

Leaving David at Connolly Station and running back to Moore Street to get the best price on Toblerone, because when you’re in Dublin and you can’t walk, that’s what’s important.

Genoa, lost for a while, then finding the restaurant.  Tasting both pesto and gnocchi for the very first time.

Separating the next day so he can rush back to London to catch his plane home.

Such a long way to go all by himself.

Driving out from Chicago on the weekends.  Breakfast with Dave at the Village Kitchen.  I order the Z:  2 Hot Cakes, 2 eggs, toast, hash browns, and choice of meat.  For a while, those weekends are home.

Canoeing before his wedding.  Salmon racing through shallow water.

The deer I see the morning after.  Standing in the mist.

Moving us to New York.  Getting that couch up the stairs.

Blue blazers, khakis and the walk to Khardomah.

My wife holding up her phone so Amy, too pregnant to fly, can hear the sounds of her little brother getting married.

The closeness.  And the laughter.

Like nothing else.

But the storm’s coming across the lake, and the wind’s whipping the curtains as thunder rolls out of the west.  In the darkness, visible in flashes,  David is asleep in the bed next to me and Amy’s on the cot against the wall.  Terry’s down the hall with Mom and Dad, but the thunder will have to get much louder before I run through the darkness to join them.  Aunt Barb’s by the stairs, Gram’s across the hall and Aunt Pat’s one room farther along.  All of them asleep, but near.  So I cuddle in and close my eyes, and never once imagine it will be any other way.

 

 

 

 

Beloved

22 Mar

 

be·lov·ed
adjective
1.  dearly loved.
synonyms: darling, dear, dearest, precious, adored, much loved, cherished, treasured, prized, highly regarded, admired, esteemed, worshiped, revered, venerated, idolized

 

Morning light

Quiet

A Long run

Cold water on a hot day

Swimming

Laughter

Riding my bike

Wind

Rain

Sun

Back roads

Grasshoppers skimming from weed to weed

The smell of cut grass

My Dad

Small towns

Bakeries

Diners

(With a hard preference for the old rail car variety over the giant, novel-length menu, Jersey variety.)

Trees

Rivers

Being lost

But not that lost

Michigan

And it’s music (Bob Seger)

Grand Haven

Khardomah

Shaving in the sun, window open with a view through the trees.

London

And all it’s boltholes

History.  Near, and brushed against.

And the trains

Withnail and I

The Orkney sky

Radio

Late at night and early in the morning

The BBC

Robert Elms

Open Country

His Finest Hour

Road trips

Motels

And their pools in the afternoon light

Kids

Wild Flowers

Okie Donuts

And kindness

My neighborhood

My friends

The little patch of dirt I call a garden

A slow afternoon in the kitchen

Cooking

With wine

Especially the reds of Italy

(I could go on)

Waking up after a snowstorm with nowhere to go

Soft warm socks

And a good book

Jim Harrison

Michael Palin’s diaries

The music of Gavin Clark.

Time alone

Skating the smooth ice of a frozen lake

The evening sky ablaze

Hope

And People

Family

Mom

Sister

Brothers

Hallie, nearby, as I’m falling asleep

Heath, with his arm across my shoulders

And Amy, who illuminates it all and makes my life shine.

 

Depth

20 Dec

dsc_0113

“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time…” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

First light, and Hallie is coming down the stairs.  I hear her footsteps as she pads her way along the dark hallway and into to our room.

“Da?” she asks, standing expectantly at my side. I look up at her solemn face, then lift the covers and she crawls in.  “Da,” she whispers again, exhaling as she cuddles back down into sleep.

Raising the blinds, I see snow.  First of the year, more than expected and still falling.  Hallie supplants me, cuddling into Amy as I head upstairs into the hesitant glow of a stalled sunrise.

Showered and dressed, stepping outside is a release.  Everything a little brighter, a little fresher.  The snow is untouched and the garbage cans are frosted white.  The sky, however, broods.  A gunmetal, end-of-the-world gray, more twilight than dawn.  Even the snow is lifeless, finding too little light to sparkle.

dsc_0072

At Family Corner, Jen clocks me at the door, “What up Bell?”

“Nothing much.  How are you”

“Morning Derek,” shouts George, moving fast over the carry-out orders.

My spirits rise.

“Egg and cheese,” she asks?

“Yes please, and medium coffee, skim milk.”

“Sugar?”

“No, no sugar.”  But as she turns I reconsider, “I’m sorry, yeah, one sugar would be great.”

The cup is warm, and I bask in the flow – the gentle banter, and the comfort of having a place here.

“Egg and Cheese?”  George is looking at me, eyebrows raised.

“That’s mine.”

He tosses it over, rings me up and I’m on my way.

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The snow’s turning to rain.  Sipping my coffee, I move fast, making it to the train relatively dry.  Up the steps and onto the platform, I’m just in time to watch a train pull away.

I walk back to the farthest reaches of the roof, lean against the large metal storage bin and take in the view – my neighborhood from west to east.  The great arch of Hellgate Bridge, rising from the railroad tracks as they make their way over the river before bending north to Harlem, The Bronx and New England; the smoke stacks at Con Ed and their rising steam, cotton on slate.

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The tenements climb Crescent Street, and the steeple of Immaculate Conception stands over it all.  Buildings fall away to the east, and the sky grows large over the Steinway factory.  A jet takes off from LaGuardia and I follow it until, magically, it’s gone.  Vanished into the mist.

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The train arrives and the car is warm.  Stepping in, I take my favorite seat.  Lulled by the rain, I unwrap my sandwich and look out toward the city.  And suddenly I see myself swimming in a vast, unfathomable ocean, and realize that I need to go deeper.  More a feeling than a thought, I’m not sure what this means.

The train begins to move.

Making its way through Queens, small flocks of black parkas clamor for seats at every stop until, finally, we begin the slow turn toward Queensboro, arcing toward the city like the grande dame of all rollercoasters, sweeping into view the 59th Street bridge  and the skyline beyond.  Gravity takes hold and we plunge into the station, pausing briefly for the requisite running back and forth, before continuing on, down to the streets and further still, out of the rain and into the darkness.

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Wayward

11 Nov

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A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a DS’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity – you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and at your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.  

This kind of stuff is advanced US citizenship.  – David Foster Wallace

What if what you do to survive kills the things you love? — Bruce Springsteen

Earl Stressman, the son of German immigrants, worked at a creamery and did construction around Grand Rapids, Michigan, living in rundown houses, fixing them up, and then moving his family on once they sold.  His wife, Gladys, whose roots run too deep into the tangled terrain of Appalachia to even begin to unravel, ran a series of small coffee shops with her six daughters to help make ends meet.  The fourth of these, my mother got her high school diploma and was married a year later.

Ralph Bell, the son of Welsh immigrants, worked nights at the Grand Rapids A&P warehouse while his wife, Merle, raised two daughters and a son.  Their house had two bedrooms and my dad slept on the couch.  Saving money from his paper route, he bought a car and went to community college, got a job with General Motors, married my mom and moved to Detroit.

Three hours across the state, Detroit didn’t seem much different from the world of my cousins back in Grand Rapids.  While aunts, uncles, and eventually cousins, took jobs with Steelcase, opened restaurants and drove trucks, my suburban neighbors worked their shifts at various auto plants, chauffeured for the Ford family, or ran their Dunkin’ Donuts.  My dad went to work in a suit and tie, but most collars were still solidly blue.

At Christmas we’d drive back across the state and celebrate with both families.  My mom and her sisters had six boys in two years, and as our ages tripped into double digits we formed a loose, mischievous pack, sneaking away from the gifts and the eggnog to hurl snowballs at the passing traffic on Plainfield Avenue.  The slam of ice on metal, the red flash of a brake light and we were off, kicking up snow and laughing as we ran, god’s own outlaws.

And then we grew up – jobs, military service, marriages, kids, divorces and death.  I got into the college by the skin of my teeth, left home and rarely got back to Grand Rapids.  But when we’d meet, however infrequently, those little boys were never far away — Gladys and Earl’s grandbabies, four generations off the boat and spoiling for mischief.

During my lifetime Detroit withered and died, and the consequences rippled across the state.  My childhood world faded along with the factory jobs and I miss it to this day.  But what I miss most is the humor, kindness, and unspoken love that wove its way down through the generations.  It’s the gift of those who brought us here, outsiders all, wanting the same things we do today – a safe home, good work and a family to love.  And while there’s no going back, if we’re lucky we can carry that gift forward in the people we love, and the lessons they teach.

My aunt Bonnie died this past winter.  She was something.  Queen of the realm with her cigarette and Diet Pepsi, she was irascible, opinionated, funny as hell, and as long she walked the earth I had a home, no questions asked.  Her passing leaves my mom the last of the Stressman girls, a loss she feels deeply.  We all do.  Prickly, raucous and outspoken, those six women didn’t always get along, but their love for each other was fierce, and the respect they earned unquestioned.

Bonnie’s family held a memorial service this summer, which was more like a family reunion, as she would have wanted.  My cousins’ band Tenderfoot played, marking the event as they have so many times throughout my life with the songs my family loves.  Some of my cousins were there, some of them weren’t.  But it was a blue-sky summer day and it was good to be together, as it always is.

I don’t know much these days.  I don’t know who we are, or why we do the things we do.  I don’t know.  Humor, love and kindness, that’s all I got.

But I’m haunted by those boys, running through the snow and laughing like hell, with the world before us as we disappear into the night.

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