The taxis in Barcelona are easy. I only had a weekend to explore and I made good use of them, alternating walking and hailing cabs. I walked from early morning to late at night in a sightseeing death march. I come from a family of walkers, having walked all over New York City growing up. And so it was natural that when I found myself with a new city to explore, I would cover it mostly on foot.
I spent some hours on the beach, absorbing the Mediterranean beach scene. (For a few hours my job was ‘beach’). Later, after cooling off, I took a cab over to the Sagrida Famila where I crawled, unguided, over every square inch that was open to me. There was something that felt significant about seeing a great cathedral taking shape, imaginings already carved in stone coexisting with imaginings yet to be imagined. I walked all the way back to the hotel, absorbing the city and its beautiful, unique architecture.
That evening, I met some German colleagues in the hotel lobby, and we decided to take the even longer walk to dinner. Never mind that none of us knew exactly where the restaurant was. As a bonus no one spoke the language. But we navigated there by figuring out the street map and dead reckoning. (It seemed to be a few blocks from the Cathedral and so we went from there, using it as our anchor point.)
This was a few years before smart phones became ubiquitous so don’t come at me with using GPS. And I have to say, knowing exactly how to get there would have ruined the adventure.
The streets were dark now, but lively, with the normal energy of this, the most vibrant of cities. We walked past the bullring, and marveled that this was the most foreign thing we had seen. On one dark street, me and one of the Germans were approached by a local and the three of us stood there, unable to communicate, until another of our Germans stepped forward with a cigarette. The young man smiled and accepted the cigarette and a light, thanked us and was on his way. Our German with the cigarette just smiled and said “sharing a cigarette is the most universal of languages.” We all agreed later that there was something that seemed auspicious about the encounter and left us feeling in touch with our temporary home and its people.
Finding our restaurant gave our threesome a sense of accomplishment and we high fived when we found it. The rest of our work team, already there, must have wondered about what we were so excited about. They had all taken cabs, handing the address of the restaurant to the driver.
We’re on a hybrid work schedule, like most people in the services procession. My field, I.T., both leverages and enables it. I like a lot of things about it: more time to exercise, less money on lunches and clothes, and a whole lot less stress in the morning.
But there’s something wrong.
We experience societal shifts, like the end of the Cold War or technological disruption like Smartphones and we talk about “massive change.”
But those are trivial in the overall scheme of things the Cold War lasted 40 years and the telephone (any electronic communication really) has been around less than 200.
On the other hand, ever since humans started hunting and gathering, we’ve been “going to” work. For Homo Sapiens that’s 200,000 years. For Hominid type species as a whole that’s 1.8 million years!
Remote work makes sense for the environment. It makes sense for time management, it makes sense on so many levels.
What I’m worried about is our mental health. What I’m worried about is the health of our society.
A lot of days at work, there is no one to talk with. I have a best friend at work which is fortunate, but when she is not there, it’s lonely. At home is family, which is great. But some people don’t have anyone at home. And that means you’re alone for a big part of your day. A big part of your week. A big part of your life.
It’s a narrowing of our circles. If you have a big family and many friends outside of work that’s good. You’ll have company, however, you will not have the friction of dealing with people you did not choose. We gravitate towards what feels comfortable and safe. People that think like us. People that don’t challenge us.
We kid ourselves, that we can build meaningful interactions on video calls. I have made friends online sure, but they are not, cannot be deep friendships.
You’ll never comfort the co-worker that you see crying at her desk, because you’ll never see her. Maybe no one will ever see her. You’ll never ask someone why he’s limping and then laugh with him when he tells you what happened.
Sometimes those are the smallest things. Sometimes they are the biggest.
Her breathing was labored, uneven. The simple, reflexive task of filling her lungs hurt and required all of her concentration. She was pulling deeply from the oxygen canister on her back. She should be elated, but her head was swimming from altitude sickness and she was getting dizzy. She knew this would happen. Her older brother had said, you might not be able to think straight. Make a checklist and use it once you get to the top. Then head down, stat.
It didn’t help that she was the only one of her party that had made it. The guide was waiting just below, with a fresh canister of oxygen. He had reached his limit. Over the radio he told her “I will not push myself, you will need me. I will wait here with oxygen…it’s a few more steps, now go!” It made sense, the guide might save her life, but not if he himself was incapacitated. She was alone up here but she knew there were others behind and she would need to clear off, so she executed the list; Look, Take, Tie, Down.
She looked around at the deep blue sky, the deepest she had ever seen. There were clouds in the distance; they shone bright white. The earth was spinning but she knew it was the altitude. She wanted to look forever, she was feeling a little stoned. She tried to form a memory that she could hang onto, to tell later. She settled for the brightest blue, and a landscape below that never ended. It wouldn’t be hard to remember the breathing bit.
She took out her camera, it was basic and clunky, but she had taken the guides advice: simple. Turn it on. Point it. Press the shutter. Turn it off. Back in her pocket. It was impossible to take a bad picture up here. Just keep it level, point it straight out and it will be amazing. But there was no one to take her picture, so she tried a selfie with her little camera. She would hope for the best on that front.
Her selfie became a magazine cover.
She took out the flag with her name and her parents names on it. There was another one up here from her brother, but there were literally hundreds, most of them torn to ribbons. Her brother’s had her name written on it. She found an open spot on one of the the flag posts and began to tie it on. This was the hardest thing, even though the ties were big she was having a hard time closing the loop. Her gloves were in the way but she dare not take them off…her hands would freeze in seconds. She finally managed to push one part of the tie through the loop and pulled it tight. She tested it and decided it wasn’t going anywhere. She watched it whipping in the wind and wondered how long it would last.
She took another look around, this was adlib now, off the checklist, but she was feeling better. Her minds eye did a better job this time, moving beyond the elemental colors to the sweeping vista and injecting the thought that she was on top of the world, and the year of pain and sacrifice had been worth it. She was happy and that scared her. She had been warned, you will start to feel a sense of joy, but that is also the sign that you are drifting towards a line. If you start to feel euphoric then it’s almost too late. Happy means it’s time to leave. And so she checked the last item off the list and started back down from the summit. One agonizing step at a time.
We pass them everyday. Here in our cities, even in our small towns. Here in the richest, most powerful nation on earth, no; in the history of earth.
My parents generation used the phrase “Down on his luck.” It was a philosophical statement. The implication was that things were out of their control and but for the grace of God there go I. Or anyone.
But now we use more brutal language. We have devolved. Lazy. Welfare cheats. It’s easy to say that when you you’ve never worried about where your next meal is coming from.
The rich can sink to the upper middle class. The upper middle class can sink to the middle class. The middle class can sink to the lower middle class. The lower middle class can sink to the working poor.
But when you are already the working poor, and you lose whatever little you have then what do you do?
Do you really know what it is like to be without hope?
Why can’t we help them? Sure, some don’t want to be helped. And we decided long ago to stop institutionalizing people against their will if they were no danger to us. It’s a sticky wicket and one that’s personal to me because institutionalization impacted my family. The system was horrible and abusive and it needed to be blown up. And we did, promising to build something better. But, we did the feel good thing, which conveniently, was also the convenient thing. And by “convenient” I mean we eliminated funding.
We were going to pour money into grand plans and focus on mental health: but that was a lie.
You can say at the time, there were good intentions. You can say at the time, that we truly meant to invest the money. You can say that so and so happened and funds became tight. You can say but we invested it in education, and isn’t that most important? “I mean after all ‘the children’”. And in the short term you may even be able to convince yourself; “we did all that we could.”
But what history sees is a lie.
And the money didn’t go to education either.
I see a lot of cities with shit schools and huge homeless populations. Those same cities always seem to have a large up to date pro sports facility.
I am not against sports or stadiums. People should be able to enjoy things that make them happy. I am against stupid priorities.
History is merciless and unflinching. It always see the lie sooner or later.
I’m not very religious, it’s been drilled out of me. But still, I can’t help wondering, what would Jesus do? What should I do? What you should do is your own business. I’ll just leave that here.
There were a lot of Chevys in my life. Belair, Nova, Caprice, Chevette, and even, god help me, a Cavalier. Oh yes, and there were a couple of Corvettes that may pop up later. The Chevette should be forgiven, because it belonged to a girl, and in any world worth living in, girl trumps car. However, the Cavalier was mine and so for that I carry a scar. It met a violent end, even before its probably short life time was up, and I am not sure whether that is an indictment or a vindication of my car choice. On the other hand it did have a manual transmission, was inexpensive and reliable, and thus had its redeeming qualities.
But no cars were more intertwined with my young life than Chevy Impalas.
1963 Chevy Impala
This story is about a 1963 4 door Chevy Impala. Black with a red interior it belonged to my paternal grandparents, who unlike my paternal parent were kind and decent people. Anything that is associated with them has special emotional triggers for me; all of them good.
They owned the car from ’63 to ’68, when I was very young, but I still have memories of it.
By today’s standards, the car was a powerful beast. It would have had a 327 cubic inch engine with a 4 barrel carburetor at a minimum. There was no AC, simplifying the whole belt and pulley assembly, and leaving more power for that V8. It also would have been a 100% USA product built at the Chevrolet assembly plant in Tarrytown, New York. Being a dedicated union man, my grandfather would not have had anything unless it was made in the USA by Union workers. That’s just the way it was. Being made in New York would have factored in heavily too. God forbid it was made by some farmer on the wrong side of the Hudson.
Speaking of the Hudson, the publicity still above is set in the Hudson Valley, not far from where the car would have been built, downriver in Tarrytown. It is not black and it is not a 4 door, and that is not my grandmother, but it captures the essence of the car and the vibe of the era so humor me.
My grandfather never talked politics, other than to complain about the current mayor of New York. Party be damned, the mayor was always a fool and crook. However, he communicated his beliefs indirectly when the moment called for it. One of those moments was in this car.
The island that my grandparents lived their whole lives on was known as Broad Channel. Well, technically, it was called Rulers Bar Hassock and the neighborhood was called Broad Channel. But Rulers Bar Hassock doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue so everyone calls it Broad Channel. At either end of the island was a bridge that connected to the mainland of New York City. “Mainland” and “New York City” are a bit of a misnomer since every single part of New York City, save the Bronx, is located on an island. New York is an archipelago.
The bridge at the south end required a toll, supposedly because it was not yet paid for, but more likely because the tolls had been “redirected”. This necessitated a toll plaza with a number of booths operated by collectors who were New York State Civil Service employees. These were good union jobs that required no special education, just the ability to pass a general state Civil Service exam. It was a way for people to climb a rung up the ladder. You could own a small place of our your own and live comfortably on the salary; no degree required.
One day, several automated toll collectors showed up. These were the baskets that you threw your coins in. All the manned booths were still there, but now supplemented with the new automated booths.
My grandfather ignored them and drove straight to one of the attended booths. I asked him why he hadn’t tried one of the cool new booths. He shook his head and said: “That’ll cost a man a job.”
My grandfather was a democrat when being a democrat meant you were pro-union, you flew the flag, and you looked out for the blue collar class. You would not have talked shit about the USA in front of my grandfather without getting, as he liked to put it, “your head handed to you.”
He was a shop steward for his union and you didn’t mess with him or his crew. He came from a time when workers had to fight for things like safety, a fair living wage, and in general being treated like a human being. You get to argue about whether you can work from home in your pajamas because people like my grandpa did the heavy lifting. Some of that heavy lifting wasn’t pretty and you get to turn up your nose at that as well and tsk tsk about how messed up unions are. But you know what? He would have fought for you too.
It was in that car that he and my grandmother would take me to Rockaway Playland, and to my first summer camps in the beautiful Hudson Valley (born there, the Impala was always up for a trip home). One ThanksgivingI the fuel pump went out on the way to my aunt’s house. Somehow he got it going, we limped along to a garage, and still made it for dinner.
It was a pretty cool looking car for a sedan. It had none of the over the top design elements like fins and outrageous hood ornaments, so prevalent just a few years earlier. The front end had a “don’t make me get down off this barstool” sort of a look. Not super aggressive, but willing and ready.
The ass end did not merge gradually with the trunk in one smooth set of lines as most of todays cars do. The trunk deck dropped off abruptly, set off with lots of chrome, the bow tie, and the signature Chevy taillights with six separate fixtures and lamps. Look closely, and you can still see elements of that same design today.
My final memory of the car, is riding to the Chevy dealer in Elmhurst to pick up its successor. A brand new 1968 version of the same car. This one blue with a black interior. It was bigger, smoother and distinctly non threatening.
I’m remembering railroad tracks skirting the Hudson, a bridge crossing leading down to the river. We stand there in the summer dusk, watching the sleek streamliners pass under. Shades of gray and blue and white lightning stripes. They slip past quickly, silently, bringing up the markers for the end of an era. We’ll not see the like again.
If he were to be believed, he saw an empty spot next to her during arts and crafts time, grabbed the opportunity, and sat down.
If she were to be believed, she saw him wandering around with no one to sit with and squeezed over to make a space for him.
The fog of time made it hard to be certain of anything but their friends would tell you to believe her. Given his diffident nature and her, well, whatever the opposite of diffident is, that would be the more likely story.
(A little time spent with a thesaurus reveals that both immodest and gregarious are strong antonyms of diffident. Other than an incident in college that involved three red-faced campus police officers you could hardly call her immodest, so we’ll go with gregarious. It also has the side benefit of describing her exactly.)
If he were to be believed, they magically became best buddies and inseparable.
If she were to be believed, they did indeed become best buddies and they were indeed inseparable but mostly because he wouldn’t stop following her around.
I’ll let you make the call on that one.
They both turned ten that summer, both of them Moon Children. As the summer waned, things evened out and she began looking for him every morning. Chores and activities separated them, but whenever they could they would be in close proximity to each other. Boys being what they are at that age, he was accused of having a girlfriend. This was a scurrilous accusation which he vehemently denied. For her part, among the girls, there was a bit of giggling but half the time no one knew what they were giggling about anyway.
Parents caught wind, and as moms will do, they found each other. They decided it was harmless and resolved neither to encourage or discourage, but more out of curiosity than anything else, they agreed to keep them in the same camp the following season. That was the summer they turned eleven.
Eleven Years Old
That was also the same summer, that a camp official decided it was unhealthy and made it her business to separate them. Boys and girls were naturally segregated most of the time anyway as most activities were scheduled on a cabin by cabin basis. Meals were eaten with you own cabin, field trips, etc. However, there was enough free time that she felt compelled to monitor them, going as far as to require them to sit on opposite sides of the room during movie nights and sing-alongs.
If anything, this accelerated what she was attempting to prevent. That summer, every chance they got they would sneak away to hang out. All they did was talk and laugh but one thing did change: they began to refer to themselves as a single unit. The words “we” and “us” were used more frequently, and on a warm summer night, they vowed they would return next year. At the end of the summer, they exchanged addresses.
She wrote first, because by now she knew him well enough to know he would never go first. It was pretty boring stuff. Where are you going for Thanksgiving? Is that boy still picking on you? You’re coming back next year aren’t you? Yes, I promised didn’t I?
Twelve Years Old
They were still the best of friends, but she needed to spread her wings a bit. They didn’t talk about it, she just spent more time with the girls. He was a little hurt by it but she was careful to make an effort to hang out a bit once a day, and they proceeded smoothly through the summer. For his part he developed deeper friendships with a couple of the other boys.
It’s funny how things work sometimes. Her stepping away a bit actually wound up strengthening their bond.
Thirteen Years Old
A couple of weeks before camp started, he received a letter from her. She had relatives in Norway, and a few of them were in poor health. The family had decided it was time to hold a family reunion in the old country, and so she would not be attending camp that year. In the letter, she sounded matter of fact, and tried to act like it wasn’t that big of a deal to her. It was that attitude, even more than her absence from camp, that left him blue for most of the summer.
The truth is, when her parents told her she would be going to Norway instead of camp she had thrown a fit so bad she was grounded for a week.
We are, after all, discussing a tween, and telling your mother you hate her, followed by a carefully choreographed slamming of doors is a pretty standard coping mechanism.
Also Norway was stupid along with everyone that lived there.
In the aftermath, her parents decided she was too young to get upset over not seeing a particular boy.
He was blue for MOST of the summer, because he got her first letter when summer was almost over. No one had thought to post the letters airmail so they wound their way to the secluded camp from Scandinavia via the slowest route possible. When he finally did get it he was happy to read that 1) Norway was (still) horrible, and 2) she hated her parents for making her miss camp.
(While it went unsaid, the underlying assumption was that she missed him. At least that’s the way he took it, and as it turned out, he was not wrong.)
Fourteen Years Old
She missed camp again. This time it was because her father had lost his job. Also this time, they kept up a steady stream of letters and post cards all summer. Some weeks they wrote every day. It had gotten to the point, where the counselors doling out the mail just said “here’s one from guess who for you’ll never guess who.”
They lived three hours apart and so getting together for real over the school year was a forlorn hope. Of course there were plots and schemes, all of them stillborn, for an illicit meeting. Truth was, both of them were too straight-laced to run away from home.
Fifteen Years Old
Fourteen going on fifteen years old was a mess, and it was his fault. He decided he needed to look cool now among the boys, and as only a fourteen year old boy could conclude, that meant treating her like she didn’t matter in front of the other boys. She told him he had better grow up and to his regret he ignored her. By the end of the summer, she was hanging out with another boy, and though he wouldn’t admit it, he was deeply wounded. For her part, she was hoping he would snap out of it and take his rightful place as her wingman. They barely spoke for the rest of the summer.
Sixteen Years Old
Later, they both swore, they never mentioned any of this to their parents. But mothers being mothers, they saw the lack of letters and they detected the hurt feelings. They spoke. Neither he nor her saw it coming, but at the last minute they were told that her mother would pick him up on the way and they could ride together to camp. Wouldn’t that be great? They both tried to weasel out of it but both mothers, in that way that mothers can affect cluelessness when it suits their plan, breezily blew them off.
He tried to talk to her on the two hour ride but was met with stony silence until they were practically turning into the camp entrance.
They had gone almost an entire year with barely a word, written or spoken, between them and her first words to him were “Are you still a jerk?” His first words to her, well the first words she actually heard were “I’m sorry.” As it turned out they were the right words, but he wasn’t getting off that easy.
A note about summer camp culture: At sixteen, they were the top of the food chain. There were no older campers, they could either become Counselors In Training next year, or not return. It was classic “up or out”. The other thing, while it was far from universal, it wasn’t the least bit unusual to have a special friend. Knowing the ropes you could usually, manipulate things to get you more time together. The counselors, some still teenagers themselves, were loathe to interfere in what most of them were themselves involved in.
However, while they were friendly, she resisted most of his efforts to carve out alone time.
When the applications for the C.I.T. program came out, he sought her out and asked her about signing up. She told him “I doubt it. I think I’ve outgrown this place and there’s nothing for me here anymore.”
He signed up just in case. She signed up knowing that he would probably sign up too. The camp director, sensing that the estrangement wouldn’t last the summer enrolled them without waiting for their applications. They were both excellent campers and committed pairs were usually a good bet, because they would check each other and wouldn’t develop crushes on other campers.
Finally, she decided she had tortured him enough and besides, CIT was a big deal and there was lots to talk about for next year. CITs existed in a space between campers and counselors and generally participated like campers except that they had their own training activities and were assigned to lead things like hikes and arts and crafts.
The day of the application deadline she found him right after morning flag raising and asked him point blank “well are we a thing or not?”
He smiled and nodded “We’re a thing.”
She bumped shoulders and took his hand, “please tell me you were smart enough to sign up for CIT.”
He was. And they were.
A few days later at a staff meeting the topic came up. It seems their separation had bummed out some of the younger counselors. The two of them, attached at the hips, was just part of their camp life. Things felt put to rights.
When fall came, they put off all pretense of this being a summer time thing and the writing and phone calling were constant. The phone bills were monumental, and the mothers, after much pleading and cajoling contrived to get them together during Thanksgiving and Spring breaks. The three hour one way drive, suddenly seemed like nothing compared to the phone bills.
Seventeen Years Old
Towards the end of the school term they had spent a lot more time together. She needed a car for her new school year job and so they decided to pool their funds for a car that would remain in her custody. This meant that she was driving to his house at every opportunity. Given the propensity of teenage boys to push the envelope with cars, both sets of parents were more comfortable with this arrangement. A few times he took a train to near her house where she was able to fetch him for a long weekend at her place.
Another note about summer camp culture. Unless there is something unusual, campers idolize their counselors. They are, after all, slightly older versions of themselves. And counselors that are dating each other? Off the chart. The girls speculate if they are going to get married one day. As for the boys…well, they speculate about things that boys like to speculate about.
The camp director was right. They were a hit with the campers, either could be trusted with both boys and girls, and their relationship, though still limited to activities their mothers would mostly approve of, was the subject of good natured lights out talk.
Their relationship didn’t necessarily deepen that summer, they were already a known commodity. But it did advance and it became more physical. With less supervision and more time away from regimented activities they were able to spend time together. Both had been well warned by their parents and so things only went so far. Not to mention, while a certain amount of kissing and fooling around was tolerated, stepping over a line would have disqualified them.
Eighteen Years Old
The big event of the year was her going on Spring Break vacation with him and his family and staying at the condo they had rented on the Outer Banks. They had the ground floor to themselves, which they made good use of. Though he was under a threat of death from his own father if he touched her in the wrong way. His mother just looked at her husband “seriously? As much time as they’ve had alone together you don’t think they could have gone there already?” His father just harrumphed and said something about “not under my roof.” She decided not to mention the time they themselves had gone through a dozen pregnancy tests scared to death that her father might kill him.
As it turned out, things were pretty tame. They spent most of the time out on the beach, swimming , laying on a blanket or just walking up and down the shoreline.
At camp that year, the senior counselors and some of the older campers raised their eyebrows when they noticed a small ring on her finger. While it came with no commitments he had given it to her one day on the beach. It signified that they loved each other and that was it.
During the school year, things continued apace with the mothers already competing for who would spend the holidays where. Like a married couple with their first baby they managed to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years shuttling between both their homes.
Spring break was going to be a problem. The families had been making separate plans for a big fling. His in Mexico, hers in Key West. The kids worked it out and both families managed to agree on Key West. They rented a gigantic house and their fathers, just like their mothers, decided they had a lot in common.
If this seems like a lot of trouble for the sake of two teenagers hanging out together, you’d need to understand that the parents on both sides thought of the two of them as family. After all. This was a relationship going on nine years.
There was another problem looming though: College. It seemed unlikely they would be able to go to the same school being from different states and no one wanting to pay out of state tuition. They kicked that particular can down the road.
Even though they entered camp that year at seventeen, and you had to be eighteen to be a counselor, they were both granted exceptions and became full fledged counselors. They performed as expected, the campers adored them, and they were entrusted with things that normally only the most senior counselors would be entrusted with.
Still another note about camp life. Campers develop crushes on counselors and like most things involving teen age emotions things can sometimes get blown way out of proportion.
Surprisingly, she became the subject of a parental complaint and a mandatory investigation took place. A 15 year old boy had been pursuing her since the very first day of camp. Her mistake was not taking it seriously enough and she placated him. Things came to a boil when, not understanding her, he laid hands on her. She reported it immediately and the boy got a talking to and a letter home. Had she asked, the boy would have been expelled from camp, but he seemed remorseful and so she asked that he be allowed to stay. Unfortunately that was not the end of it.
As is often the case, the boy told his parents a different story and since she was eighteen and he was a minor, things suddenly got very serious. Even though absolutely no one in authority at the camp believed the boy’s amended story, reporting to the authorities was mandatory. She was sent home pending an investigation.
Fortunately she had many allies, and the boy, it turned out, was a serial groper. Her parents, not content to wait on the authorities, hired their own investigator. While the school records of minors are sealed, no one can tell teenagers to keep their mouths shut and it didn’t take long to find a young lady at his school who claimed he attempted to fondle her. His parents, embarrassed, had him rescind his version of the story and apologize. She was cleared.
If anything the whole affair strengthened their bond. But it had also demoralized her. She finished the camp year putting on a show but he knew better. Inside she was deeply wounded and their alone time was when she could let our her feelings; he never got tired of listening and not once did he waver.
Nineteen Years Old
Even though they were both invited back, they decided to forgo the next year of camp together. With graduation, and preparing for college they would both be busy.
Ah yes back to the college thing that we kicked down the road. She was far from the clingy type but the whole incident with the camper made her want to keep him closer. They made a decision that they would share an apartment in her hometown while they knocked off some electives at a local community college. They would both try to get scholarships in each others home state. Whoever got the best aid/scholarship deal would take the out of state tuition hit while the other picked up the apartment rent. There was no way they would be going to separate schools.
Until they were.
Twenty Years Old
They both got scholarships to schools in each state. Easy peasy, just choose one. The problem was she also received an offer, a dream offer to one of the most prestigious schools in the country. She wanted to go. He encouraged her to go, though he prayed she wouldn’t. But it was simply too good of an offer to pass up.
So in the end, she went off on her own. He offered to move with her; they could share an apartment and he would work while she finished school. Secretly, she loved the idea, but she couldn’t allow it. No way was she going to let him make that type of sacrifice.
He took it to mean she wasn’t sure of them. She meant no such thing, but still, she had never been with anyone else and she couldn’t help wondering.
She worked to assuage his fears by writing at least once a week; sometimes more. He reciprocated and they fell into a pattern, now and then they would call but in those days, long distance was expensive. Before they knew it, it was Thanksgiving and they spent the holiday like they had never been apart.
It was the first time she mentioned a summer trip to Europe. It was also the first time she mentioned her French professor.
There comes a time in a relationship, when you are so comfortable that you don’t feel like you need to clarify things. You know each other so well. It’s also about the time that something eventually breaks.
What broke, is that she wasn’t intending that he go with her to Europe. When she finally straightened him out, she explained that she wanted to go on an adventure on her own. I’m a big boy he thought, and he decided to take time to do his own thing. She was excited, it would be good for both of them, and when she got back? Who knows?
And then she mentioned Mr French Professor two too many times.
The first time it was just a routine thing between two distant lovers…mentioning another person, a little too often, and in glowing terms will drive anxiety. He should have said something right there and then but who wants to sound jealous? But the second time drove that anxiety into what seemed like a fait accompli. Perhaps had she realized that he was feeling insecure she might not have casually tossed out in a letter that Mr French Professor would be going to Europe with her.
Had she been honest with herself, and she was later on, she would have admitted to being a bit disingenuous. Granted, it was to keep from upsetting him, but in the end she wound up turning a conflict into a full on break.
He didn’t answer that letter. Ever. After about three weeks she tried writing again and acting like nothing was amiss. He never answered that one either. Eventually she apologized for not telling him straight up and tried to reassure him. He answered, wondering in writing how he could trust her.
Now it was her turn to take things hard. The letters stopped altogether. Her’s stopped because she didn’t know what she could say. His stopped because her’s stopped.
Since she would be going to Europe in the summer she spent Spring Break at home with her parents where it soon became obvious that he was out of her life. When she told her parents what had happened, surprisingly, it was her famously reticent father that brought her up short. Her dad had always said he had the easiest job of any father in the world; his daughter was perfect. To say they adored each other was a massive understatement. So it stung when it was her father that said “Not sure what you were thinking. You screwed up kitten.” He also had a few choice words for professors that hit on students. “It’s not like that” she said quietly. Then she got up from the table and wrote a letter.
A word about the US Postal Service. For the amount of mail they handle each and every day they do an amazing job getting letters where they need to be. They are required to visit every address in the country six days a week. Amazing. Still, things go awry. It would be interesting to know how many relationships have come to grief because of a misplaced letter. I know of at least one.
It was a beautiful love letter. One for the ages. Not a Shakespearean sonnet but if you measure a love letter by it’s honesty, intensity and vulnerability it would be hard to find a better one. It’s unfair to say they’d always taken each other for granted, it was more like they never doubted each other. She made sure there was no reason start now.
If only he’d been able to read it. Things might have gone very differently.
We could go on about the emotional calisthenics that are coming into play, the over analysis and the truckload of wrong assumptions. Overlaying all of that however is the most universal of all human failings: the failure to reach out and ask the most simple of all questions. We don’t need to ruminate on the question because so many different questions would have served. But why is it, that in the most important things, the things that we hold so dear, we fail to make that one last extra effort?
And so the erstwhile lovers retreated into their own worlds; lost and wounded. She cancelled her Europe trip. How could she enjoy it now? Mr. French Professor showed his true colors and went slithering after different prey. She eventually moved on, a mistake she wouldn’t forget, but she was pretty and popular and eventually someone got through to her.
Twenty One Years Old
He struggled. He didn’t want anyone else. But even he recognized he’d have to move on. But not now. Girls chased him. Mostly he ran. Mostly.
Twenty Two Years Old
It was inevitable. She brought someone home. “So you’re serious? You think he’ll ask?” Her mother was getting excited. Her beau was out in the driveway with her little brother looking at a Camaro with a questionable future.
Daddy Ex Machina
“Can I borrow our daughter for a minute?” Her father and her went out to the screened in porch. Dad offered her a beer, she declined but he twisted off a cap and took a long drag. “He’s a good kid. I like him.”
“Me too dad” she grinned.
“Did you tell him you’re really in love with someone else?”
She turned eighty shades of red, and started to protest but gave it up. She had never been able to fool her dad.
“So you wrote and he never answered. Did you ever call?”
“Daddy”, she was trying not to cry “isn’t it obvious. He never answered the first letter and I poured my heart out in the next letter. He ignored that too. You told me I screwed up. I went to a therapist, she told me to accept that somethings can’t be fixed and to move on.”
“How much did you pay her?”
“She’s on staff at school. It was free.”
“You got your money’s worth” he said as he disappeared into the house.
She loved her father to death, but he just didn’t get it. There was no way she could begin to tell him all that transpired, all the little signs. Sure she messed up but…
Her father emerged from the house carrying a cordless phone.
“Are you going to call him or shall I?”
“It’s not going to happen. I’ll just humiliate myself.”
“Fine. I’ll call. What was that speed dial number? Eight I think it was.”
She sighed “How do you know he’s even there?”
Her father shrugged. “I dunno. School break. Lost his girlfriend…”
“Okay. Just don’t touch the speed dial. I’ll call if that will make you happy.”
“It’s not about me kitten.”
She shook her head and dialed the phone. Someone picked up, his mother. She was glad to hear from her. He was running an errand but would be home soon and yes she would let him know she called. His mother was honest: “I’m not sure if he’ll call back sweetie. “
She hung up and said, “well he’s out. She’ll leave a message but his mother as much as said he’s not gonna call back.“
“You don’t know that…” He was interrupted by the phone.
They both stared at the Caller ID.
“You planning on picking it up?”
“Shush Dad” she picked the phone up and shooed him back in the house.
It didn’t start well. He lit into her, but fortunately for both of them she knew him well enough and understood that he just needed to get it out. He was hurt. Once she almost slammed the phone down but she hung in there.
“I thought maybe you’d answer my last letter.” He said. “It was pretty obvious you didn’t care. “
“What do you mean?” Her turn to get angry I poured my heart out and you ignored it.”
“You call that pouring your your heart out? Telling me you were going to Europe with someone else? Of course I said I might not be able to trust you. I wasn’t breaking up. I thought we were having a conversation but you just blew it off. Now you call and wonder why I never wrote you back?”
“Okay, it took awhile I admit but I wrote you telling you I loved you, asking you to forgive me. I never even went to Europe with that creep.”
It dawned on them at exactly the same time.
He said quietly, “it sounds like a nice letter. I’m not sure it changes much at this point.”
He could hear her crying softly on the other end of the line “It wasn’t ‘nice’ it was everything I had.”
He heard the line go dead.
Her dad saw the look on her face and just gave her a hug.
“Thanks daddy, you were right to make me call, but he doesn’t want me anymore.” She kissed him on the cheek and went up to her room.
As befits any romantic debacle, she couldn’t have been more wrong. The problem was two fold: 1. He was in shock. It’s not like in a movie where the truth is revealed and the lovers just toss off months of angst and anger. 2) He had never pursued a woman in his life. She was his whole experience, and they had come together, as you are well aware if you’ve been paying attention, by osmosis.
He didn’t know how to tell her that she was everything to him. And so, he cried himself to sleep as well.
Her mother shook her head at her husband. “I told you it would only upset her.”
“I’m just trying to keep her from making a mistake. Would you want someone marrying you if they were pining for someone else? Moot point now I guess. I’ll leave this stuff to you from now on. You’re the expert.”
But as her husband retreated down the hallway to his study, she wondered who the expert really was.
While she was thinking about what if anything she could do, The phone rang at a home three hours away and another mother, one with a heartbroken son, picked it up. She didn’t know much about Joanie, only that she had gone out with her son for awhile, that she was quite pretty, and that he was uninterested. She wondered if maybe he might feel differently now as she passed him the phone.
While he had been wallowing around, stricken, he had met s girl that wouldn’t take no for an answer. She sensed the vulnerability and the need and she went in hard. She had the physical assets to get most men’s attention, with long auburn hair and eyes that were the deepest green he had ever seen. In a box of crayons, the color would have been green. Not blue green, not teal, not aquamarine. Just green. She turned his head. Hard. And after a awhile he fooled himself enough that he thought they could be a thing. That is until she asked him if he was ever going to get over his last girlfriend.
Surely he could have, but not yet. He wasn’t ready to give up on her. And so he did what he thought was the right thing. He told Joanie it was too soon, that he didn’t want to hurt her (which was true), and he needed to cool it for awhile.
So imagine, that you tell your husband that you love him but that he really needs to do a better job of putting the trash out on time. He thinks about it carefully. He concedes the point. And then, with the most kindness you can imagine, he tells you it’s probably best to get a divorce. Ridiculous, that’s so unlikely you say? Maybe. But you’re not Joanie and that is exactly how it felt to Joanie.
Despite that, despite her overwrought heartbreak, she decided to keep on loving him: and that is always a volatile mix.
Joanie had called for no good reason. “I have a friend that goes to school with your friend (a lie) and she heard she was gonna marry someone (the main lie). He just said “thank you Joanie” and ended the call. The call was a win win for Joanie. She still pined for him and there was a chance, albeit small, that he might come to her on the rebound. More likely though she would plunge in the dagger; it’s said the best lies are built on truth and this was a lie of that species. Mission accomplished.
Let’s not be too hard on Joanie. She was only twenty years old and had fallen for someone that wasn’t interested. She had a very human heart that had been broken. He’d given her every reason to believe they could be together until she asked a perfectly reasonable question. Would you be able to cast the first stone?
“Where are you going? “ his mother asked as if she didn’t already know.
It was a three hour one way drive so he kissed her on the forehead and said he’d be back late. “Good luck.” She called after him. He smiled at his mom and thought how lucky he’d been to have the parents he’d been born to.
Three hours later he tried to drive past her house but she had seen his car and he had to stop. Of course he’d arrived at the worst possible time. She was on the lawn with her boyfriend, and they were dressed up and obviously heading out for a special night. He wished he could make himself disappear; but he couldn’t and so he got out of the car.
As she walked over to him, his heart was speeding up and breaking at the same time. She had always been his best friend, and as is often the case when you’ve lost a girl, she was never more beautiful.
She motioned the boyfriend to stay put and walked up to him. “What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know to be honest. I wanted to talk, I mean before you…”
“Your timing’s not great.”
He gave a nervous laugh “No. It’s not. I’m sorry, looks like I’ve walked into a moment.” He turned and started back to the car.
She stood frozen. She loved the boy that was standing quietly in the background, and god bless him, he knew to give her space. He was a good guy, but she was watching her heart and soul walking out of her life.
As he reached the car and pulled his keys out he was desperately hoping she would run out and stop him. He had always been the passive one; she had been the one that drove the relationship. She was the best thing about his life, but he had never had to work for her. he started to get into the car and turned around to look one last time.
She was still standing there watching him go. He knew it was now or never. He walked back up to her. “I always thought…”
“I always thought so too.”
Seventy Years Old
Fast forward 48 years and he’s relating the story for the hundredth time. He’d lost her a little over three years ago to a bad heart, and for awhile he’d lost himself as well.
“If it hadn’t been for you, I’d never had gone over there. We were so so very happy, I would never have had that.”
Joanie smiled. “I was such a little jerk, I’d say I’m sorry but I guess it worked out for both of us. I don’t know what I would have done without you after Dave passed.”
He took her hand. Nearly fifty years later those green eyes still dazzled. “And now?”
She smiled “and now we have each other. And I think she’d approve.”
Penn Station in New York had been cleared down to the business end. The grand edifice, grander some said than its uptown rival Grand Central Terminal, had been leveled. Actually, it was like something beautiful had been scraped off the earth, leaving the functional under bits. What was leveled was non functional, it was just towering architecture; in other words, beautiful and soulful. It’s not just that it was torn down, it’s that it was a travesty rushed through by soulless bureaucrats. It’s what replaced it, the type of vanilla-ugly structure that only could have been designed in the 1960’s: a mediocre structure to house the city’s mediocre sports teams.
What was left? It was all below grade level, and the ticketing hall and huge departure lounge had been remodeled into something that looked more modern. But it was all facade. Down every ramp, behind every store front, in every urine soaked bathroom, here was the old Penn Station. The grimy guts to be sure, but it was beautiful.
Once you got off the main concourse, it was ALL old Penn Station. Ramps going every which way, connecting a labyrinth of tracks, waiting rooms, shops and subway stations to the world of hotels and streets above. In other words, a perfect world for a little boy to explore.
My first trip through alone was in 6th grade. That may sound young but not for a city kid. I’d been riding the subways alone since I was 8. Welcome to New York. It’s what we did.
It had a smell to it. Ozone from brake shoes, oil, pizza, steaks, sweat and urine. The place had its own round the clock population. The railway ticket agents, the train crews, the station masters and of course all the retail and restaurant workers. And the rats. You never saw the rats, but they were there. This was Midtown Manhattan; anything underground had rats, and this was acres and acres of rat paradise. I am sure the track crews and maintenance crews had plenty of rat encounters. It wouldn’t have fazed them at all.
Then there were the passengers. Central of New Jersey, Penn Central, Long Island Railroad all originated from here. If that wasn’t enough, go another level down and you will find the Subway lines…A, E, 1 and 2 lines. And, if you were a wandering kid with nothing else to do you might discover the underground passageway to Herald Square where you could enter directly into Macy’s or catch the D, F, N and Q lines. Oh…and one more level: you could catch “The Tubes” over to New Jersey or less imaginatively, the PATH trains. Now imagine, during rush hour, all of these crowded trains, coming together on their own schedules and dumping their passengers into these catacombs…it was nuts. It was fun.
New Yorkers get a rap, not unjustifiably, for being brusque and impatient. But if you’re a hungry commuter, rushing from a Subway line to catch a train home, you don’t need a lot of pleasantries. You want your pizza like yesterday, and the food vendors don’t have a lot of time for small talk. “One slice sausage? Any drink? No? Two dollars please, thanks. Safe travels. Next!” Most people could pick out a newspaper or magazine, pay for it with cash, and get their change while hardly breaking stride.
So what was my business there besides wandering?
When I was in 6th grade, I was sent to Military School in New Jersey. Being used to Subways, the train was not a huge deal for me, but it was still an adventure. At first I had an escort, usually an uncle, to put me on the train but soon I was on my own. There were not enough uncles to always meet me when I came home for breaks, for weddings and other visits.
This was before the governments created Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, so the train was a joint operation between the old Penn Central Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey. We’d wait in the cavernous waiting area for the west bound trains, not knowing what track we’d be leaving on. You could see the station master in a glass booth high above the crowd. Right when it was time to board, the old arrival and departure sign, the size of a stadium scoreboard, would start flipping track numbers and train names, creating an electromechanical cacophany. At the same time, the station master would announce “Now boarding, North Jersey Coast Train, stopping in Newark, Elizabeth, Linden, Rahway, Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Matawan, Bayhead…Track 17 ALL ABOARD!”
The eager ones would head for the gates while the weary commuters would slowly fold their newspapers. Then we’d all descend the stairs into the lower depths of a chaotic underworld, filled with the smell of diesel fuel and the sounds of idling engines, warning bells and hissing air brakes. A sleek GG1 electric locomotive, a still virile remnant of the Art Deco era, would take us clattering slowly through the complex maze of interlocking tracks. Soon we would be racing through the Hudson tunnels, and onto the North East Corridor Mainline as far as South Amboy. There the CNJ would take over, replacing the GG1 with one of their own diesels. Today, New Jersey Transit runs the entire route, and they have made the whole line electric. The trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes. However, back then the with the engine change, it would have been at least 2 hours.
The cars were always tired heavyweight cars, solid things that had served through the Second World War. Ever since, traffic had been on a decline, and so rather than fix broken cars, ever older ones were pulled from storage and pressed into service. A couple of decades earlier troops would have packed these cars somewhere in the country on their way to the other side of the world. Many would never come back. There were ghosts in those coaches. You could still feel their presence; playing poker, lying about their girlfriends back home and trying desperately to act like they weren’t scared.
Outbound, it was always dark out. We’d sit there in the old upholstered seats, the intricate ironwork of the luggage racks and the warm glow of the incandescent lighting lending an introspective mood. There would typically be other cadets on the train and we’d usually clump together in the same car, sometimes directed there by the conductor, making it easier to disembark us at our destination.
We would talk, and sometimes get a little rowdy along the way. Someone always had a radio, and we would listen to whatever they were playing. More often than not the song wasn’t up tempo, rather it was something lilting, longing for something that would be no more. In a way it was fitting, as we witnessed the death spiral of private passenger service. Like many commuter routes this one soldiered through the hard times, became a ward of the government and flourishes today.
In Matawan, we’d leave the train and load into taxi’s, waiting to take arriving cadets back to school.
I’d do this six or seven times a year, on breaks, holidays, and for family events. Looking back, that’s a little over twenty times, maybe twenty-five. It left an imprint. I can still hear the calls of the conductor, the screech of the brakes, the clack of the old worn out rails under the old warn out coaches along with the smell of the marshlands and bays as we passed over them. The memories are dim from fifty years past, but the senses, sight, smell and sound still linger. And the feeling never goes away.
She closed her eyes and felt the breeze brush her cheeks. Save for the chirping of nattering birds and the burbling of the water over rocks it was silent. When she opened her eyes again, the effect was a burst of technicolor as her pupils rushed to adapt to the flood of light.
It was sunny and her legs felt good stretched out in the sun. In a few minutes she would be thrown into shadow as the willow blocked the sunlight. But right now, the colors, the willow, the sun, the birds everything, was the same.
She came here whenever she could sneak away and the weather cooperated. It wasn’t raining that day, it was sunny, and so sunny was what she wanted to wrap herself in…over and over and over again.
Her boyfriend, Carl was nice enough, though like most boys his age, he didn’t have the capacity to invoke a feeling, to interlace it with a memory, and so relive a moment in the depths of the soul.
“What is with you and that brook? “
“It’s my special spot. It calms me.”
One thing about Carl, he knew his limits. He looked at her as if she were an ancient sphinx guarding a riddle, and let it pass. She could imagine him thinking that she was a bit of an oddball. But also, because she was pretty, and a bit wild, he probably decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
And that is exactly why she came here. Because that is why it started. Because she was pretty. And that is why it happened. Because she was a bit wild. She laughed out loud, startling a bird out of the willow. “A bit wild” was a massive understatement.
Her parents found out, because of a stupid text message from dumbbell Chloe during dinner when their phones were on the table. She honestly adored Chloe, even after that. It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t all that bright.
They had kept at it for too long. Both of their faults really, but her parents were pretty sure whose fault it was and it wasn’t their little girl’s.
“Who cares? It’s not like a career position. She was sobbing softly on his shoulder. So they fire you, but really, It’s not fair, you’re only 2 years older than me. A few weeks from now school will be out and it won’t even matter.”
But it did. No matter that she was 19, no matter that it was consensual, no matter that he was barely a grownup himself. She was a student and he was staff, if you could call it that…part time groundskeeper. It wasn’t even illegal.
He touched her shoulder gently as he got up “I better go now.”
She stayed there, in their spot. In the dark, underneath the willow tree. She had never been here at night before but it seemed like a fitting end to a thing that never should have been a thing.
Those were the last words she heard from him. “I better go now.”
By the next afternoon, everyone was talking about the tragedy. So young, only twenty one years old, working his way through college. People shook their heads, and talked about inner demons and how you never know the pain someone might be holding inside.
Her parents let the thing drop, and they let her go to the funeral. “Her father said, well a coward will always take the easy way out. Best for everyone though.” But as she sat there, watching his stricken father and his mother racked with tears, her heart broke for them and she wanted to tell her father that he had no room to talk. It wasn’t like she couldn’t do the math, her own mother had just turned thirty-five.
And he was no coward. This wasn’t about him. He had sworn once to always protect her, and in the very last act of his all too short life, that is exactly what he thought he was doing.
And so she sat here. Because he didn’t deserve to be forgotten. Least of all by her.
You could hear the breeze. You could hear a fly buzzing. You could hear a cow mooing in the distance. I don’t think I ever heard a cow mooing in the distance before. In fact, I never heard a cow mooing anywhere. Except maybe on TV.
But it wasn’t about what this place was. It was what it wasn’t.
New York was noise. Unrelenting, all day…everyday. Night time was no less intense, just different.
When you step off the train in Penn Station, having just arrived from the Hudson Valley or some other more serene place, it hits you. Suddenly the buzzy train car yields to passengers jostling through the car doors, navigating the underground labyrinth; some headed for the surface, some following other subterranean passages to places like Brooklyn, Queens, or The Bronx. Mole-like, they’ll not see the surface for at least another hour.
But you continue looking for the way up and out, the pace quickening and sounds growing louder until finally you surface and it hits you square. “Is it always like this?” A visitor asks. “Yes. Yes it is” I reply.
When that is your place, where it is where you were conceived, incubated and introduced to the world, it’s not noisy or loud: it’s normal. Quiet is weird. Something wrong about quiet.
I’ve not lived in that world for years now, but when I return, my senses are assaulted, but then quickly readjust. Everything is reset to factory settings. It’s almost like a sabbatical from the quiet, the calm, the slowness.
Some would say from the boredom.
But I don’t find the wide open spaces of the midwest or the mountains of the Blue Ridge boring. It is all what you bring to it. A friend of mine recently avoided stepping on a rattle snake by a couple of feet. Here in the midwest. He could relate that story in a broken down bar in the middle of a prairie ghost town or at the most exclusive club in New York. Maybe even during intermission during a performance of Aida at the Met.
Nowhere is that story boring.
I love the constant commotion of the city, the firehouse around the corner going all night, the garbage trucks coming every day at 4:30 am, the constant traffic on the avenue below. But I also love the empty stillness of our quiet places.