I open my eyes and orient myself to the room. I have been going back and forth so often between Albany and the city, I forget where I am. That’s right, I’m on the sleeper couch in the living room in Manhattan. Fortunately it has a good mattress.
I reach for my phone to make sure I haven’t missed any calls or messages. I briefly scroll my Facebook feed.
I turn to look out the large picture window. I notice in the corner that the sun is casting a perfect shadow through the lead glass vase that sits on a small table in the corner. I look closely at the shadow – the rope that wraps the top of the vase is projected in detail onto the wall. The imperfections in the surface of the glass are illuminated, as well. I imagine Andrew Wyeth could paint this and capture the beauty of the vase, the light and the shadow. I wish I could paint it, but since I can’t, I roll out of bed taking my phone. I take two pictures before the light changes. I want to share this image, this lovely moment.
I consider posting it on Facebook, but think better of that – what would be the point? Really, does the world need another pseudo-artistic photograph? Instead, I text the picture to my two kids and my husband. Leah is in Seattle, so it is just after 4 a.m. there. I know she puts her phone on silent when she sleeps so it won’t wake her. Dan and his wife are on an early morning flight to New Orleans for a long weekend so he will get the text and photo when he lands. Gary is already at work in Albany. I am in our apartment in Manhattan, looking after my 82 year old mother, asleep in the bedroom, recovering from lung surgery.
I text: I don’t know if this photo does it justice, but woke up to see this beautiful shadow on the wall. Wanted to share it.
Gary responds with: Very nice but how about a photo [if] your smiling face.
Where is autocorrect when you need it?
I text back: 🙂
I am a lucky woman. Gary often responds with sweet comments.
A while later my phone dings. Dan’s text reads: On the ground in Atlanta. Transfer in an hour or so. Very nice picture, Ma.
Two hours after that, Leah texts: Really cool shadow, Ma!
And so it goes. Many days the four of us are in conversation in this way; brief moments of sharing. Sometimes one of us doesn’t chime in, but we know that we will all have seen the exchange at some point. It helps me to feel connected to them despite the miles between us.
My parents and I were at Seniors, a restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, to celebrate my high school graduation. The ceremony was earlier in the day. I started to say, “I feel really bad…” and my dad threw down his fork. “Don’t!” he said, “We’re celebrating your graduation. You have nothing to be sad about!”
“But…” I started to explain, but the look on his face shut me down. I fought back tears and concentrated on the food on my plate.
The end of high school was a strange time for me. I was so unhappy and lonely in junior high school and came to Canarsie High School feeling like an outcast. I was terribly insecure, between my eyes, my weight and general self-consciousness, I began high school in a hole. Things did turn around, but not like in a fairy tale or Hollywood movie. The ugly duckling didn’t emerge as a swan and float off happily ever after. Painstakingly, over the course of the three years, I dug myself out.
I started by joining some activities. I was in the chorus of Sing, a school show of sorts. I connected with some of the girls who stood near me in the alto section during rehearsals (some were friends from elementary school who went to a different junior high). I still had trouble knowing how to extend the friendships beyond the rehearsal, but I was making progress.
I tried out and made the girls basketball team. We were God-awful, except for one or two players, but I loved basketball and I was happy to be part of the team.
I wrote for the Canarsie Campus, the school newspaper, and by senior year I was the editor-in-chief. I started out doing okay in my classes and by the senior year, I was doing really well. The trajectory was headed in the right direction. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed by my classmates and had my picture, along with Alan Schick, in the yearbook commemorating the designation. I both enjoyed the attention and felt disconnected from it. Inside I still felt like the girl who sat in the junior high school cafeteria eating lunch alone, worried that I would be the target of teasing.
So, in June of 1976, I was in a much better place than in September 1973 when I entered high school. But, my newly formed self-esteem was still pretty fragile, and oddly enough the graduation ceremony itself delivered a major blow.
Canarsie High School held its graduation at the Loew’s Kings Theater in Flatbush, a huge old-time movie theater with some 3000 seats and ornate plaster walls. With more than 750 graduating seniors (there were more like 1100 students in the senior class, but the rest didn’t qualify to graduate) and their families, the high school auditorium couldn’t accommodate it.
I don’t remember who from my family came. My Dad drove our monster-size Chevy Impala, with my Mom and me (and perhaps others – it’s possible that Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were there), and dropped me off to gather with the graduates. They went to find parking.
Some students were invited to sit on the stage, those who were speaking, receiving an award or performing. I was receiving an award so I marched in and climbed up on the stage with maybe 30 other students. I was told beforehand that I would receive the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award, given in honor of Canarsie’s beloved representative to the New York City Council who unexpectedly died a year earlier. I didn’t know why I was being given the award, but I took my seat on stage and took in my surroundings.
The stage was huge; the whole theater was huge. I looked out and searched among the thousands of faces for my mother. I couldn’t spot her. My dad, who had been a dean at Canarsie High School but left to become chair of the social studies department at another city high school two years before, was invited to sit on the stage, too. He was seated on the other side with faculty and other dignitaries. I couldn’t see him either.
The ceremony proceeded in the usual way. Eventually they got to the presentation of awards. I heard our principal, Mr. Rosenman, announce the Monroe Cohen Memorial Award and I started to make my way to the front of the stage. Mr. Rosenman was saying something like, “Linda virtually single-handedly put together the school newspaper, without a faculty advisor and with very little funding.” I was standing next to him, smiling, one hand extended to receive the award and the other hand extended to shake his, when someone screamed out, “That’s not true!!” Despite the crowd, unfortunately at that moment it was pretty quiet in the theater.
I looked around, wondering, did that just happen?! Though the comment wasn’t repeated, I knew what I heard. It rang clear as a bell, echoing in my ears, “That’s not true!!” Mr. Rosenman paused briefly and then continued on as if nothing had happened. Finally I took the envelope with the award and found my way back to my seat on wobbly legs.
There may have been applause. I actually didn’t know what was happening because my head was spinning. I sank down in my seat, shaking like a leaf. I felt exposed. Everyone knew I was a fraud. I looked frantically around the theater to see if I could figure out where the comment had come from, but the words didn’t leave a vapor trail. There was no telltale sign, except in my vibrating body.
My friend Laurence, who was sitting a couple of seats down from me, reached over and patted my knee. He asked if I was all right. I nodded that I was, though I suspected that my face said otherwise. I’m sure all the color had drained from it.
I don’t remember the rest of the ceremony, but I kept breathing and made it through. I found my family afterwards. I don’t remember much about our conversation, other than my mom telling me that someone said it was a parent who yelled out. Maybe that should’ve made me feel better, but I was still in shock. My father, who was quite hard of hearing, was learning of it for the first time when we gathered after the ceremony was over. He dismissed it as sour grapes. I wished I could do the same. We got back into our Chevy and went back to our house in Canarsie.
It didn’t occur to me to be angry. I felt humiliated and it confirmed my worst fears, that I was undeserving. I hadn’t asked for the award and I didn’t write the comments Mr. Rosenman delivered.
At dinner with my parents, when I tried to bring it up, I think my Dad wanted to ignore that it happened and he didn’t want me to be hurt.
I couldn’t let go of it, but I had to pretend to.
All these years later, I remember the incident so clearly. I know that I went that night, after dinner with my parents, to celebrate at a bonfire at a nearby beach with friends. I don’t remember what my friends said. It is unlikely that I would have mentioned it because it was so embarrassing, but maybe I did. I don’t know if words of comfort were offered, but maybe they were. It is interesting, the memories we carry with us, and what we forget.
I was probably 45 years old before I stopped getting nauseous when there was a tornado watch or warning (I was well acquainted with the difference between the two – and either one caused the same reaction).
Before reaching 45, though, the atmospheric conditions present when tornadoes were possible seemed to inhabit my body. My insides were as unsettled as the air outside. The ominous clouds scuttling across the sky mirrored the feeling in my stomach.
My fear of tornadoes began in Illinois in 1968. Growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn), I had not experienced tornado watches or warnings. If they happened, I wasn’t aware of it. My awareness of twisters was informed mostly by watching The Wizard of Oz and as long as it remained on the TV screen, I could handle it.
When we got to Illinois, where my Dad attended graduate school for three successive summers, I learned about them first hand. It seemed like there were tornado watches almost everyday. I spent a lot of time studying the sky and feeling queasy. My brothers had quite a different reaction.
One particular afternoon things got serious. Fat raindrops started to fall. First there were gusty winds and then it got very still. The sky had a yellowish-greenish tint. We had been playing outside the graduate student housing where we lived when adults, including my Mom, emerged to gather us up and shepherd us into a ground level apartment. Lawn furniture and toys were pulled inside as well.
I immediately went where I was told to go and sat huddled in a corner, away from the windows. Snacks were offered as a distraction. The idea of eating a potato chip turned my stomach. I declined the offer.
The radio was broadcasting emergency instructions repeatedly. The static-y voice kept telling us to move to an interior room and under a heavy piece of furniture. I wanted to find a desk to sit under, but there were a lot of us in the apartment so I just stayed put in my corner. My Mom sat next to me, trying to comfort me, until she realized that my brothers were nowhere to be found. Apparently they thought it would be exciting to actually see the tornado. They were 10 and 12 years old (I was 7) and they had either never come inside or they snuck out. My mother found them running up the hill behind the building trying to spot the funnel cloud. Hearing the frantic tone in her voice must have registered with them because they did come back. I think the offer of snacks may have also influenced their decision. Most of the kids’ appetites were undisturbed. Meanwhile, I concentrated on not throwing up.
Eventually the storm passed without doing damage to the immediate area. I don’t think the funnel cloud touched down near us. The fact that nothing happened, though, didn’t lessen my anxiety about the possibilities. Throughout our entire time in Illinois, I dreaded the interruption of a television show with a weather bulletin. I’d listen carefully to the locations – for a 7 year old, I was very aware of the geography around me and knew the names of the nearby towns and how close the storms were.
Many years later (around 1985 while Gary was in medical school at the University of Pittsburgh) we went on a camping trip with friends. Yes, you read that right. Those of you who know Gary well, know that camping is not his cup of tea and this trip confirmed it for him. We were coming back to Pittsburgh from our adventure along the Cheat River in West Virginia, where Gary imagined hearing lions and tigers and bears outside our pup tent. While I did not share his anxiety while we were in the woods, I had my share of worry on the trip back. I was sitting in the backseat of the car, looking at the sky and feeling uneasy. I had that familiar feeling in my stomach – the one that said “Tornado!.”
Since we had made it to the interstate highway, nearing civilization, someone flipped on the car radio. My instincts were confirmed moments later when an emergency weather bulletin was broadcast. There was a tornado warning in the area. Not knowing enough about the surrounding geography, I didn’t know how close it was to us. The others in the car barely paused in their chatter. I sat silent, my head on a swivel, scanning the sky in every direction, plotting what to do if I saw a funnel cloud, willing us to get back to our apartment in Pittsburgh safely.
Fortunately, other than spotting some ominous clouds in the distance, we didn’t encounter any difficulties. We arrived back to our sturdy brick apartment building and the roiling in my stomach subsided. Another bullet dodged.
Although we have lived in upstate New York for the last 30 years, with climate change, we have experienced tornado watches, warnings and actual twisters touching down in the area with increasing frequency. Sometime after our children were grown, I can’t pinpoint a date or event, I realized that I didn’t experience the queasy, unsettled feeling anymore. I’m not sure if it was a physical change – my body stopped functioning as a barometer – or if it was a psychic change – or both. Either way, I let go of the fear. I resigned myself to nature’s uncertainty and my inability to control it, and it happened while I wasn’t looking. While I won’t be doing what my brothers did any time soon, nor will I become a storm chaser, I have come to peace – at least with tornados.
Growing up in Brooklyn I was always excited to go “into the city,” which meant going to Manhattan. Technically all five boroughs comprise New York City, but we knew Manhattan was really The City. Not everyone shared my excitement. There were many people in the outer boroughs who were as unfamiliar with The City and its attractions as people from say Oshkosh. My father fell into that category. He wasn’t unfamiliar with it, after all his two sisters lived there, but, somehow he failed to see the charms of the traffic, grime, and general hassle of getting around Manhattan. My Mom, on the other hand, focused on the museums, theater, and creative energy. I inherited my mother’s perspective.
Over the years I relished wandering around the different neighborhoods within Manhattan. I remember my first trip without adult supervision. My next door neighbor and friend, Deborah, and I were 12 years old when we plotted our adventure. Our plan was to explore Greenwich Village, stopping at the many bookstores that were there at the time. We studied the map of the subway system and reviewed our plan with my mom. We took the bus to the LL, the LL to Union Square and then switched trains to the 6 and got off at Astor Place. We were careful to read the signs so we got on the subway headed in the right direction. We were proud when we made it to Astor Place without any detours.
We started up the stairs to exit the subway station and we heard chanting from the street. We couldn’t make out the words, but it didn’t sound like the Hare Krishnas (a religious group – cult? – that would sometimes dance and sing on city streets). Deborah and I looked at each other and wondered what we were going to see when we got outside. When we emerged into the daylight we saw a demonstration going on across the street. People were carrying signs and marching around in a circle. In keeping with our instructions for visiting The City, we didn’t get involved – we didn’t stop long enough to really look at what the protest was about. We were delighted by it, though. Our first trip into the city unaccompanied and we arrived at a protest! In that day and age (1972) protesting was a daily occurrence. It could have been women’s lib, civil rights, the Vietnam War or a labor dispute. It didn’t matter much to us – it was exciting, but we were also a little nervous. So, we got our bearings and kept walking.
Much of what I liked best about going to the city was walking aimlessly, taking in the scenery, looking for interesting shops, and people watching. Of course some neighborhoods in the city weren’t what they are today. SoHo wasn’t filled with art galleries, trendy shops and expensive restaurants. In fact it was unlikely that we would have ventured south of Houston Street, since the Village was filled with coffee houses, head shops and other interesting stores. It wasn’t expensive to walk and window-shop, there was lots to see.
In the early 1970s the MTA (the city transit authority) ran bus routes called culture loops. It was like the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ buses that many cities offer today, but it was the cost of a single fare. I took full advantage of the service and rode the different loops many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend.
When I was in college I worked summers and breaks for a perfume company that was located on 57th and 5th Avenue. I did secretarial work and some bookkeeping. I was also a messenger of sorts. The owner of the company did quite a lot of business in the Middle East and he traveled to Dubai and Kuwait pretty frequently. There was paperwork that needed to be delivered to the applicable country’s consulate, located near the United Nations, which is as far east in Manhattan as you can go. The perfume company gave me cab fare, which I would pocket and walk instead. I took a different route each time – walking as quickly as possible. I covered probably every street between the office and the different consulates – usually about 1.5 miles each way.
I still love walking in the city. My most recent visit took me on a trek from the Flat Iron district to and along the Hi Line.
The Hi Line is an elevated walkway on the site of old railway tracks that were reclaimed as public parkland. It winds its way on the west side of Manhattan from around 12th to 34th Street. I have walked the path a couple of times before, always delighted to find sculptures and other art installations throughout the walk (see pictures below from my recent walk).
Walking north on the Hi Line
A mural seen along the Hi Line
After 30th street the path of the Hi Line swings out toward the Hudson River, looping around the Hudson Yards, where trains pause or sit before entering or leaving Penn Station. A few trains rumble slowly into position, most sit silently waiting.
It was desolate on that December day. Very few people were on this part of the path. The somber clouds, the gray water, the browns and grays of the buildings created a bleak but beautiful landscape. The cold air stung my eyes. I heard the slow screech of train wheels. I heard sea gulls crying. I heard other sounds, too. Was it music?
Plaintive, elongated notes from stringed instruments wove through the ambient noise. I looked around. Was I imagining it? I finally noticed loudspeakers affixed to poles. I was not having an auditory hallucination! Notes harmonized with the trains and the gulls and the traffic of the West Side Highway. It was a powerful soundscape. Eventually I found a small plaque that identified the music (Lachrimae by Susan Philipsz) as part of an art installation. It perfectly captured the sound of loneliness amidst civilization.
You never know what you will see or hear when wandering around New York City.
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