On The Street Where I Live(d)

On The Street Where I Live(d)

First, listen.

This morning I walked down a dawn-lit sidewalk on the street where I’ve lived. This is both past and present tense in the strangest and most marvellous of ways.

As I walked by each house that has colored my childhood, I realized that not much has changed except for the occupants of some. When I still lived here as a child, I had memorized every window, every shingle, every front door and the cement path that led up to it. I memorized every tree, every fence that (sometimes successfully, often times not) held in a friendly barking dog, every bump in the cement where I’d tripped and skinned my knee or bumped over with my rollerblades. And the big tree that stood like a faerie castle where most of us always ran to hide during manhunt, because if you could get in through the bottom level, the other branches above created a sort of natural fortress. If you were brave enough, you would climb to the highest limb and feel like the king or queen of the block.

I have vivid memories of the older kids camp-out on the patch of grass between my house and the house next door. It involved a massive tent and a co-ed sleepover and stories that became engrained in our memory as blocklore; someone licking a firefly and saying it tasted like peanut butter and the swirling tales of who had kissed who, something that I couldn’t fathom at the innocent and precious age of five. But I remembered it well, mostly because I was both mystified and disgusted by the idea of the prettiest girl on the block wanting to kiss my terrible brother.

I walked by the patch of grass where there had once been a massive tree trunk that seemed carved as a seat, for any runaway kid on the block. I remember trekking 100 feet from my front door to this very spot, feeling as if I had crossed the Sahara desert on what was a very hot August midday. The sun was at its peak and I had packed my backpack with all the essentials: a juicebox, my favorite doll, a packet of Smartees, and a chapstick. And with that, I was out the door. Why? Could have been anything. Mom wanted to brush out my tangled mess of hair (a big LB no-no) or I wasn’t allowed to have a playdate with my best friends or I was in trouble for not eating all of my lunch that day. These were cardinal sins against my five year old existence. Commit them and Hasta la vista, mis padres! 

When my name was yelled out the door for dinner, I decided my parents had learned their lesson. Tough love, man. It’s the name of the game. But I always ended up back home.

Home. Home was the tiniest house on the block. In all of my years of passing it by, I’d never seen it. It was only on this early morning as I walked by in quiet but constant acknowledgement of the house I had spent an important handful of years in that I looked to it, then to the house directly next door: big. The one across the street: huge. All around me, these houses seemed to rise up like they never had before. Big, big, bigger. I laughed because I realized I had never noticed it before. See, we had the big backyard. We had the most grass footage, and the long, strangely-shaped driveway that led back to a garage we never used and a patio we lived on, where we hosted block-wide barbecues and where the summer babies blew out their birthday candles. We had so much backyard, my dad had built a bunny run where we, a family inexperienced in the bunny world, ended up with a wayward brood of fuzzy creatures when our two “female” pets ended up mating. There in the yard, we even had a long clothesline that my mom used. The sheets would blow in the cool breeze of the day, and we’d play among the dancing sheets until we were told to stop, for fear of dirtying them up again. Because we were always covered in some tree sap, or maybe dirt, but definitely grass stains. We had a wall of morning glories that greeted us each new day with their purple faces, so beautiful I had as difficult a time as ever not picking them off the vine to mash into my “perfumes” (a recipe as simple as squashed up flowers and a dash of water from the hose).

Moving away from that house, we moved into a much bigger house. My brothers no longer had to share a room, there were one and a half bathrooms, a kitchen and a dining room, a basement and an attic. But there was nothing sadder than leaving our tiny house on our block. Because it had become our block, us kids, from different families and different backgrounds, who met in the street with the common goal of finding a way to have fun until dinnertime. When you’re young, you don’t notice if you’ve got the smallest house on the block, if you’re poor, or even if you’re rich. You just go on playing and living and laughing and crying. And if you’re lucky, you’re surrounded by others who don’t notice it, either.

I silently acknowledge the little white house whenever I pass by, seeing light through the windows and the latest occupants going about living within. I give a little smile in thanks, for giving me and my brothers the chance to have a carefree childhood, surrounded by other carefree kids causing trouble, breaking bones, having impromptu Frank Zappa dance parties; for irrational fears of the Mad Jogger, first kisses, and the “car, car, C-A-R” chant because without it, we would have all gotten hit by at least one car during a game of Spud.

To Jefferson Avenue, with love.

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“I have so much I want to tell you, and nowhere to begin.”

“I have so much I want to tell you, and nowhere to begin.”

First, listen.

I woke up on January 27, 2010 to learn that J.D. Salinger had died. I was 22 years old.

Throughout the course of the day, I received messages from family and friends checking in to see how I was doing, if I was okay. I guess you can say I was the walking cliche who had read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and felt forever changed by it. But it wasn’t because I connected with Holden Caulfield. In fact, a lot of his ideas of the world bored me and made me roll my eyes. I have my cynical moments but I’d like to think I see the world with even just the thinnest veil of optimism. It was deeper than the main character, deeper than this beautiful setting of New York City, a place I hadn’t truly tapped into yet as a teenager in the suburbs of Long Island. There was something in the way that Salinger wrote that grabbed me by the metaphoric lapels and shook me. Perhaps it was the conversational way that he told his story through Holden’s narrating that made me feel like maybe he was talking directly to me. Or, to be less dreamy-eyed and naive about it, maybe I felt as if we might have a nice chat, J.D. and I, if ever he stopped being a recluse in Cornish, New Hampshire. (I held out hope for this very scenario until the day he died.)

I constantly wondered what it might be like to live inside his head, to have written these characters who are just a step or two outside of being mentally and/or emotionally stable. I liked it, loved it as a young person dealing with her own imperfect mind and emotions, with a family that was coming apart at the seams. The Caulfields weren’t perfect. And, with further reading, I learned that the Glass family was even less perfect than them.

I have this story I always tell of when I was 11 years old and my parents had just begun their trial separation. One of my teachers asked the class if our parents were divorced and I don’t know why she did this, I really do not. Maybe she was making some point about statistics? She was a math teacher. Or… maybe she was going through her own stuff? She was a bit weird. But I saw a number of kids raise their hands. Two, at first. Then three, four, five. I sat there with my hands under my thighs, as if to fight the inherent urge my 6th grade body had to be honest about my life. These jokers were all lying. There was no way the most popular girl in our grade had divorced parents! How could she have ever gotten to be so cool? You know? Because my parents fought and I didn’t sleep very well and I was nervous around boys and sometimes I cried for no real reason. Those were not the makings of a popular girl. Not that my lack of popularity was the fault of my parents’ impending divorce, but I assumed, at the time, that it certainly would not help. And so I had no other choice but to assume everyone else was lying and looking to embarrass the sole person (me) who really did have divorced parents and admitted it in front of the class.

The point is, it took me a long time to realize that the strange badness that I dealt with wasn’t just mine. It wasn’t just me. And figures like Salinger were able to help me realize it.

Plus, his writing. His writing. It’s so good in that it’s not overwrought with pretension and yet you feel like you’ve gained something new; perspective, amusement, sadness, introspection.

Senior year of high school, I was writing college admission essays and one of the schools asked for the applicant to write an extra chapter for the book of the applicant’s choosing. It could have been anything in the world. I chose, of course, to tack a chapter on to the end of The Catcher in the Rye. Post-revelation that Holden had been in a mental hospital since Page One. (I digress here but I feel I have to tell you about the chapter: Holden sitting on a bench in the hospital’s courtyard beside Jane Gallagher who had surprised him with a visit. They talked about Allie and Phoebe and their old days of playing chess, and then a light rain started to fall, and everyone else scattered inside, but not Holden, and not Jane. They sat in the rain with Holden’s hand clamped onto hers and he closed his eyes and leaned his head back and felt a little sliver of peace for once in his goddamn life.) This was an ungraded assignment but I went to my AP English teacher and asked for feedback. It was over ten years ago but I’m assuming I’ll never forget her lilting cursive in red ink telling me that my extra chapter sounded eerily identical to something Salinger himself could have written.

(Though, I imagine Salinger might have ended it with a suicide attempt, if you want to know the truth.)

Maybe that’s the proof of how he helped me. He didn’t grow up with this book like I had. I saw Holden finding peace, much like the way I, at seventeen years old, was hoping I would find it. And somehow, between the lines of phonies and prostitutes and children running through a field of rye, I was able to see the glimmer of possibility.

Anyway… Thank you.

empathy and the city

First, click.

This evening I was changing from the M to the G at Court Square. This entails a rush between two separate ends of a train station. In the morning, there is a moving walkway that goes from the G to the E/M, but evenings, we are left to our own devices. We must walk. We must hustle.

On this particular evening, I found myself with a bit more pep in my step, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the mounting headache, or that my day had started so incredibly early that all I wanted to do was get home at a decent hour and maybe go directly to bed. It could have been that I wanted to try to beat a new roommate back to the apartment, a roommate who does not understand how valuable it is for me to be able to relax on the couch alone to watch an episode of Jeopardy over my pathetic single-girl dinner. Whatever it was, it had me weaving quickly in between strangers, trying to anticipate whether or not they might veer right so I could step left.

I came up on a man who was very clearly elderly. He walked a bit slower, he had long white hair and a ball cap on. As I stepped around him to hustle past, I glanced down and noticed that his shoe was untied. A silent siren went off in my head. Tell him! Tell this man his shoe lace is untied! But I didn’t! Because I was in a rush. Because in New York we are constantly in a rush.

And so I moved on past him and I ran down the steps because I thought the train was leaving. It wasn’t. I grabbed a seat and hugged my bag to my chest and I worried about the man and his untied shoe.

But lo and behold, look who’s come onto the subway car to sit right beside me? That same man.

I sat with my eyes ahead, and I tried to will away my headache, and I hoped and hoped that he had stopped to tie his shoe. I didn’t check, I don’t know why. Would it have been odd to point out that his shoe was untied, as we sat together in an unmoving train car? And so we carried on this way, sitting in close proximity, my peripheral vision giving me the perfect angle to see his fingers rubbing together in what I had supposed to be an anxious sort of way. Because in New York we are constantly in a state of anxiety.

As the train lingered on through Queens and into Greenpoint, I had my hopes set on getting off at the same stop as this man. I could check his laces and give him the mental a-okay to go on his way. But at Nassau Avenue, he pushed out of his seat and walked to the door, and my eyes fell to the floor where his shoelace remained untied and his feet shuffled and my heart jumped into my throat hoping no one would step on the rogue lace. I swallowed back my self-hate for the moment as I tried to find him through the closing door. I kept willing him to stop and tie his shoe. Please, please, please. But I’d lost him. Perhaps because he’d knelt down to fix his shoe?

And there he was again, the lag in his reappearance in the train car window just long enough for someone to have retied their shoelace. I felt a little wave of relief, but I felt a lot of sadness. We continued on, further into Williamsburg, and my eyes were stinging with fresh tears. It was something so simple as telling someone their shoe was untied, and yet I didn’t have the time. Right? I didn’t have the time to be kind to a stranger. That’s what it all came down to. And it really broke my heart.