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Land of Ghosts

21 Nov

Darkness comes early now and as cold winds beat against our thin windows the temperature drops, time seems to fall away, and my son and I watch trains cross the sky.    Less than 100 years ago our densely packed neighborhood was mostly farmland, and by traveling west down the hill upon which we live one came to Hellgate Field, a stretch of land where for thousands of years the Matinecock came to fish for giant sturgeon; where deep water, treacherous tides, and large obstructions with names such as Frying Pan Rock and Bald-Headed Billy claimed more than 1,000 ships; and where Heath now runs with his friends, plays on the swings, and comes to a complete stop whenever a train passes overhead.  During World War I the city spanned this most treacherous section of the East River with the Hellgate Bridge, building as well the massive arches that lead up to it, bisecting our streets and cutting a shallow diagonal across the sky. 

As evening approaches the trains glow warmly from within, and on icy nights their pantographs throw sparks from the overhead wire, thrilling my son.   For Heath loves trains.  In fact, he spends a fair part of his days being a train, barreling down Ditmars Boulevard, hugging the storefronts and hooting at anyone who dares to get in his way.  At four years old his imagination is strong and free and when he inhabits it he is joyous.  Hallie, on the other hand, has yet to find her passion, unless it be the joys of the raspberry.  From dawn to dusk, while Heath creates and enacts entire railroad empires before her, Hallie makes rude farting sounds and drools onto her chin.  She does this in her usual deadpan manner and is, seemingly, unimpressed with her brother’s efforts. 

I love to run on foggy mornings.  Early, just after the sun has risen, I’ll head west down Ditmars.  Coming to Astoria Park, I’ll follow the path beneath Hellgate Bridge and down to the river itself where the fog is often so thick I cannot discern water from sky.  Running along the river toward Hallet’s Cove, I almost always think of the General Slocum, a steamship that burned off these shores in June of 1904 killing more than 1,000 people.  I imagine the victims slowly climbing the retaining wall, hair wet, dresses dripping, waistcoats smoldering, trying, still trying, to escape the river.  And then they are gone, having failed yet again, and in the stillness I continue on, feeling slightly chilled.    Time is permeable here and the past seems very close.  A playground for my son, this park, for me, is a land of ghosts.  

We’ll both miss the park this winter, it’s frigid micro-climate making visits rare.  But it’s not going anywhere and we’ll all be back in the spring when Hallie, interacting with the world more every day, will begin to create her own relationship with this little piece of the world.  Until then there are cookies to be made, tracks to be built and stories to be told.  And of course there’s the trains, throwing sparks and illuminating the darkness as they travel across the river and into the night.

 

 

A Change of Seasons

19 Sep

The first frost warnings of the season came to the outlying suburbs last night.  The resulting surge of cool autumn air blew through the city as if to clear away the greed and folly of this past week, and remind us all how little nature cares about our problems.  Robert MacFarlane points out in his wonderful book, The Wild Places, that the great forests that once blanketed North America waited Seventy  million years for the arrival of man.  I have little doubt after this week that those trees will also watch us go, and that our time here will be seen in their collective memory as a flicker of sad comedy, a slapstick spasm of existence that faded almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving a world to undo the damage and then quickly forget our meager shot at grace.

Which is to say, funnily enough, that I find solace in this change of season.  Amy and I will celebrate our twelfth anniversary this weekend and though I don’t think we intentionally planned our wedding for the autumnal equinox, it makes so much sense.  The wistfulness of summer’s end meeting the fresh hope of a new beginning is marriage in a nutshell.  And as my  week moved toward this time of change and celebration, it grew so rich in moments of beauty and hope that it stood in stark contast to the frantic scurryings on Wall Street just a few short miles away. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much.

As I was turning off the light in Heath’s room last night he awoke and said “Dad, what are you doing? Is it Christmas tomorrow?”  Taken aback at this unexpected view into the my son’s heart, I was moved to learn that upon awaking from a dead sleep his first thought is of Christmas and that his greatest hope is that it’s tomorrow. 

Hallie, to the amazement of her therapists, burbles incessantly, emphatically making her points in a language all her own, and punctuating her few moments of silence with a solemn upraised fist.  Fight the power sister. 

And Amy, nursing a cold, a constantly hungry baby and a three year old boy who would happily crawl inside her skin if he could find a way, has graced me with some of the warmest, loveliest smiles I have ever seen.

New York is a crazy place.  Among it’s most widely accepted myths is that money bestows wisdom, happiness and importance. When you walk among the wealthy every day it’s a very easy belief to buy into.  But lately I’ve been thinking about Stonehenge, where, in the coming days, the sun will rise over Salisbury Plain, fall in perfect alignment with the ancient stones, and illuminate the heart of this solemn structure.  Such is the day I married Amy, and such are the moments we share with our children, when we look into their eyes, hold them close, and allow them to show us in so many ways that what we are doing is right and necessary and important.

They illuminate our lives.

 

 

Hurricane Season

10 Sep

The nights have been warm of late.  But as the darkness grows old and the stars fade, cool air that has spent the night crossing the Atlantic finally makes landfall at Rockaway and continues across Jamaica Bay, rustling down the streets of Queens, flowing around and through all the open windowed houses and apartments, gently stirring to life the sleeping families who have come here from all over the world to chase their dreams, until, finally, the early morning breeze rattles the blinds above my head and I open my eyes. 

And, sadly, the joy’s not there.  Like fresh peaches being slowly allowed to rot, I am incapable of enjoying summers last gifts. 

When Amy gets up, Heath cuddles against me, a physical closeness that’s just starting to become rare.  Hallie, peacefully sprawled across her bassinet wiggles and sighs, and I wish that I could sleep with her utter abandon. 

Like a sailor’s glass, my moods rise and fall with the changes in the air.  This weekend, as hurricanes filled the waters of the Atlantic and Hanna worked her way up the east coast, my emotional weather darkened and grew turbulent.  Exacerbated by lack of sleep, lack of exercise, caffeine addiction and a screaming need to have some time of my own, storms began to brew.   As always, my impulse is to grow quiet, hole up with a good book and ride it out.  But like any solitary endeavour, this was nigh on impossible with two small children and a wife who is more tired than I am.

And so I weathered the storm as best I could, reading and sleeping as much as possible while trying to be on best behaviour.  Doing the dishes, making food, feeding Hallie and answering Heath’s fifth iteration of “Why?” with as little impatience as possible.  Trying to accept the fact that I have, for the moment, lost hold of all the strands of my life.  As they blow frantically about, I do my best to grab them, but to no avail.  Until the wind dies down and fair weather returns, which it always does, I’ll just have to wait.

But Hallie is holding her head up more and more, although she still refuses to give me a smile.  Heath has started school and, despite daily stories of him hitting somebody or somebody hitting him, he seems to enjoy it.  Amy is as lovely as I’ve ever seen her, and for the most part, as patient.  And the storms are receding now.  The water is still rough, but no levees have been breached.  And tonight, I trust, the winds will once again make their immigrant journey across the sea to stir the dreams of my neighbors, to whisper the leaves of the trees and to to kiss my family with the fresh air of a receding darkness.

 

 

Best Cup of Coffee

4 Aug

It was beautiful this morning.  Early sunrise, cool breeze and the sound of leaves dancing.  Not quite enough to get me out of bed for a run, but enough to make me thoroughly enjoy Hallie cuddling against my chest after her 6 am feeding and the both of us crawling back into bed with Amy for a little more sleep.  Heath stumbled in a few minutes later and as all four of us lay in the early morning light things seemed just about perfect.

The city has moods.  I notice this most on days when the mood is dark.  But today the city was serene, it’s people calm and polite, as if all New York had enjoyed a good night’s sleep.  And it probably had, the heat and humidity having broke with Saturday’s storms, leaving the days comfortable and the nights cool.  My dreams, lately a jumbled mass of high school reunions and old girlfriends, grew quiet, and last night I simply slept.  But, having a newborn in the house, I did not sleep enough.

And so I needed coffee, which I picked up from my favorite cart at the corner of Lexington & 52nd.  I don’t know her name, but I love the woman who runs this cart.  She has taken wonderful care of me these past few weeks as I stumble sleep deprived into the city for another day of temping. 

I discovered her one morning when the nearest Starbucks locked it’s outside door.  You see, I know it’s crazy, but I had actually made peace with popping the five dollars for a Venti Decaf Mocha with skim milk and no whipped cream.  In my defense, I had a rule.  No more than once a week, with exceptions for days when it’s raining (as it was on this particular morning).  But the street door I always used was locked.  I could see customers inside, but the door wouldn’t budge.  Then I saw the little sign.  For security reasons I was required to enter from inside the building.  Which meant going through security.  Metal detector, bag check, the whole nine yards.  Ten minutes before I’m supposed to be at work.  For the privilege of paying FIVE DOLLARS FOR A CUP OF COFFEE!  No. Absolutely not!  I stood out in the rain as people hurried past and I scanned the horizon for a coffee cart until BAM!  I saw one directly across Lexington.  I ran across the street and bought a cup of coffee for one dollar!  And it was goooooooood!  And the woman was nice!  We chatted, we laughed, we became, in a small way, friends.  For whatever reason, she was wearing a head scarf, and somehow that made it even better.  Completely restored my faith in humanity.

This morning the prices had gone up.  That medium coffee is now $1.25.  But despite its having been a couple weeks, my newfound coffee friend remembered that I like skim milk and two sugars.  I gave her two singles and she pushed one back. 

“Just give me a quarter next time.” 

“Are you sure?”, I asked.

“Yes, it’s so much easier.” 

And so it is. 

I walked up toward Park Avenue, smiling in the morning sun, breathing in the air of a happy, well rested city.