Friday, August 22, 2008

The Road Well Travelled - Pt. 2 - But My City Was Gone.

One interesting thing about going home is that it affords me a sense of perspective. The lens that we use to view the places where we grew up becomes altered as we become adults. I suspect that we tend to become more jaded with time. I know that this has happened to me. I'm sure of it. Change is an inexorable part of progress, and either you accept that and move on, or you wallow in the past. Still, I am always taken aback by what is an apparent contradiction in what I see when I arrive home, what I expect, and what the reality of life in Co-op City, the Bronx, and NYC in general is these days.

I had a pretty restful night's sleep on the air mattress on my mom's living room floor the day I arrived. She only has one bedroom, and the couch is not an option. While it is not all that uncomfortable from a padding perspective, it simply isn't long enough to accommodate my 6'2" frame, and sleeping in a perpetual fetal position for 3 nights was not something I wanted to do. Since mom is a diabetic like me, she had a variety of foods that I could have for breakfast that would not cause my blood sugar too many problems. Screw that, I'm on vacation. I jabbed myself with some extra insulin prior to eating, and wolfed down the bagel and lox like it was manna from heaven.

The blood sugar didn't budge. I learned some time ago that control is the key. Pre-medicate with insulin from time-to-time, and you can cheat a little bit.

As I was not going to be getting together with my brother and niece until the afternoon, I decided to take a walk in the morning around some old haunts. I specifically had been avoiding it in the past. I simply did not want to relive certain memories. Then again, there were certain things I never came completely to terms with either. As Bina recently blogged about, bullying was a huge issue for me growing up. Oh I wasn't the bully; I was the bullied. While I eventually learned to stand up for myself and not put up with it, there was a lot of bruising along the way, both physically and mentally. Seeing some of the old haunts, while it flooded me with a lot of good memories, were peppered with bad ones that I would just as soon have erased. My "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" was not to be, so I simply needed to deal with it on my own terms.

"I was stunned and amazed/ My childhood memories..."

Mom no longer lives in the building I grew up in. She moved out in 1990 to another building in the complex, a smaller apartment. After dad died in 1988, it made no sense for her to live in the 3-bedroom apartment we had since 1970, especially since my brother and I were out on our own at that point. In all that time, I think I had gone back to that building maybe once. It was too painful. The last memories of that place were filled with sadness and loss. There was also no one there anymore that I knew. Still for some reason this time, I felt myself drawn there. I think I finally decided this was my Linda Blair moment. The sun was shining bright, it was warm outside.

It was an excellent day for an exorcism.

I made my way from her building towards mine, first coming to the shopping center that serviced my area of the complex. (There are 3 that were built to provide shopping and other stores, as this place is huge.) The first couple of things I came across made me smile.

Is there anything more NYC than a pizza shop and a diner? They are the ubiquitous hangouts for everything that makes a neighborhood a neighborhood. You had Sunday morning breakfasts there, or simply breakfast anytime if the diner was a 24 hour one. You took your date for pizza after the movie, and you showed what a gentleman you were by paying for that extra slice if she wanted one. The pizza was always the best. Thin crust that cracked down the bottom when you folded it. If you were in the mood, you had the Sicilian-style slice; big, square, and doughy. The diner always made home fries the right way, with the right amount of paprika and onions, and the potatoes always had just the right amount of crispness. These were staple foods that were an art form, and demanded that they be done the right way every time.

When I started working on my volunteer ambulance corps in 1976, the diner was the place to go to after the calls that were the toughest. A cup of coffee with your crew, discuss what happened on the call in between bites of bagel with a schmeer of cream cheese was the best decompression session one could have. The only thing that was more stressful was dividing up the bill at the end of the meal.
Leaving those two places behind, I walked on, past the old ambulance corps headquarters in another building, (they folded about 9-10 years ago) and came to one of my sacred hangouts.

You could find me here on just about any summer's day, and some winter's days as well. The basketball court was the city kid's equivalent of the Roman Coliseum. Battles were waged there for neighborhood dominance. Kids would come from various other neighborhoods in our complex to challenge us, to lay claim to being the best b-ball players in Co-op City. On weekends after school in the spring, it was not unusual for these games to start at nine in the morning, break for lunch and dinner, and go on into the night. They were played with a passion, and everyone there wanted to be a NY Knick. Our heroes had names like Dave DeBusschure, Willis Reed, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, and Bill Bradley. Before Air Jordan, before Shaq, when the game was played more like a team sport than an ego contest, these were our heroes.

The structure next to the court is one of the now renovated parking garages. Long before rock climbing walls, we had these. While it might be hard to see in this picture, the bottom level of the garage had cinder block walls, and the challenge for every kid was to see who was brave enough (or stupid enough) to scale all 6 floors in a free climb. I made it as far as the second floor, and then common sense, but mostly fear told me not to go any further. The renovation removed the cinder blocks from all but the bottom level, so I don't know if kids today have the guts to try what we did.

While reminiscing, I suddenly remembered that the big field that was just adjacent to the courts used to have an enormous willow tree that I would hang out under. My "thinking tree," as I called it, it was the place of calm for me. If I was upset I would sit underneath it while I calmed down. It was also the place, in the dead of night in the summer of 76, that I was first introduced to the joys that a girl could give to a guy. She showed me that mouths were good for other things besides kissing. You do the math.

Sadly, the tree was cut down many years ago, after I had moved out. I wondered if perhaps there was something, a remnant of it that might still be there. I looked around in the area that I seemed to remember where it was, and there below my feet, I found it:
If you look very carefully, you can see the round outline of where the stump was pulled out of the ground. While saddened a little, the memories of the good times spent underneath its blanket of branches made me smile.

I then turned my attention to my old building, that was just across the street from both of these places. I walked up to the rear entrance of the building, and found the marker amongst the scaffolding that surrounded the bottom of it:
I also glanced around and found the thing that kept groups of kids warm on cold winter nights. What is it, you may ask? Was it the opening to a hidden missile silo? A wishing well? Nope. It is the heater vents from the dryers located in the laundry room of the basement of the building. There were several of these, each with a heavy metal grating bolted just under the rim of them It was not unusual to see groups of kids sitting on top of them in the dead of winter, getting some needed warmth that would shoot up through them.

After snapping this picture, I took a deep breath, and moved on to the main entrance of the building. Once more unto the breach...

To be continued...


AnneDroid said...

Good stuff, Mr N.

In 1992 I went to a 10 year school reunion which I found to be a very healing cathartic experience, having been a very insecure kid. Ilooked round and I realised, "hey, I'm as good as anyone and I'm happy in my life. I wouldn't swap it for anyone's...". It was quite a big moment at the time.

Looking forward to next instalment.

Jay said...

Oh, nostalgia!!!

Those places we hung out in as kids hold such strong memories, don't they? Bunch of idiots you were, climbing the parking garage, but ... hey, that's what kids do, huh?

In 1976, I got married. I wonder who had more fun? ;)

Peter said...

A remarkable account of a journey home, be it with the inevitable experience that places change, people move and the physical places that held our memories often get erased by time.

I can totally relate to your post, as I made the very same trip (well, in Belgium) to the places where I spent my youth. While most of the buildings were still intact, many of the people I knew when I was young were gone forever.

Kind of sad.

Bina said...

You write so well! (Or is it good?) I felt as though I were walking with you! The house I grew up in, in Ohio, was burned down by the Fire Department for practice a year or two after we all moved out. It scares me to even look at it in pictures because of everything that happened in that house.

I'm anxiously awaiting the next part!

zoe said...

That's a beautifully written post. I never had 'roots' as my parents moved around so much - which is probably why I have been in Belgium for so long. This is my home - but I don't really know where I grew up.

Despite the sad memories that you encountered during your visit home, I envy you. I'd like to be able to visit 'home'.

Mr. Nighttime said...

Zoe - Thank you so much. It is an interesting mixture of sadness and smiles when I go home. I hear what you are saying about not knowing where you grew up, as I have known you to write about that subject in the past, especially in posts about your parents.

Part 3 will be up today....