Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Go home, Taylor Swift: I'm walkin' here!

Growing up in NYC in the 70s and 80s meant being told to be careful.

"Be careful of Bryant Park - the junkies all hang out there."
"Be careful to hold on tight, if you ride between subway cars."
"Be careful around Times Square - that place is bad news."
"Be careful not to stand near the edge of the platform."
"Be careful with that wallet in your back pocket."
"Be careful who you buy a hot dog from - that guy with the cart on 9th street picks his nose."

We were careful about so many things. We were afraid of almost nothing. The Boogey Man didn't have shit on muggers, rapists, subway rats, roaches, Coney Island on a hot, summer day, the East River looking more solid than liquid or all of Alphabet City. We were the kids who grew up reading about Son of Sam in The New York Post, every day, and following his exploits the way kids in Kansas followed The Hardy Boys. Son of Fucking Sam captured our attention, but he didn't keep people off the streets. Because no white boy with almond-shaped eyes and Dirty Harry's gun was going to shut down the most ass-kicking, hardcore, take-no-shit city the world has ever known.

We were careful, but we were never scared.

I'm not a kid, anymore, though, and what I see in New York scares me. I'm scared of a SOHO that looks like Mall of America. I'm scared of a Starbucks and Jamba Juice on every corner, and of my beloved bodegas disappearing. I'm scared of Pier 46, and the Ikea Ferry, and of Red Hook no longer having any edge. I'm scared of hipsters with ironic beards taking over Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I'm scared of Greek diners in Astoria closing down, the clerk at a Brooklyn deli not having any idea what Manhattan Special is, and of the scarcity of cuchifrito. I'm scared of a plate of fried plantains costing 8 bucks at a vegan restaurant.

I'm scared of the Disneyfication of Times Square.

MY New York isn't Mickey Mouse, dammit. My New York is Daffy fucking Duck, Miguel Pinero, Ratso Rizzo, Patti Smith, Roger Grimsby, Bella Abzug, Walt Frazier. My New York was that crazy, androgynous woman displaying the meatgrinder cover from Hustler magazine, and terrorizing passers by with her loud, aggressive orders to "SIGN THE PETITION!"  Even that crazy bitch is gone. Who would have guessed I'd end up missing her?

I bet David Berkowitz is scared shitless of gluten-free vegan pizza.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Air and Light

This morning, when I left for work, the year's first bit of autumnal splendor greeted me like an old friend. Not the changing of the leaves - SF doesn't get much of that. It was the air and light. Do you remember the air and light of changing seasons, when you were a child, and the way those changes were like living things? For me, this time of year...the time of brisk air and shorter days, of overcast skies wrestling for dominance over sunlight....this time of year is like an old playmate come back for another round of hide-and-seek. The air and light remind me of new school supplies, sharpened pencils, the sound of a rubber ball bouncing on the asphalt, afternoons spent at the library, and the crunching of leaves under my feet as I'd cut through Prospect Park to walk home. And also Halloween, with candy corn - always so much nicer to look at than to actually eat. The thing about autumn - the air and light - it's over in the blink of an eye. Like everything.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sucking Teeth

"Here, kiddo - this is for you, since you're always writing something or the other," she said, handing me a leather loose leaf binder, which closed securely with a zipper, and had a little corner where a monogram could be added. There were two of them. Mine was dark brown. The other was blue.

"Who's the other one for?" I asked.

"Your nephew."

Steven was all of four years old.

"What the hell is he going to do with a thing like that, Ma? He can't even read or write, yet."

My mother did that thing she did - that thing people from the Caribbean do, where they suck their teeth, and silently ask themselves, “Why am I wasting my time with someone who just doesn’t get it?”

"Time goes by quickly," she said, "before you know it, Steven will be in school and then, in the blink of an eye, he'll be in fifth or sixth grade, and he'll have a use for this, and I'll have it waiting for him. You'll see."

"You mean to tell me you bought these with the intention of giving one to me, and holding on to the other for five or six years, just so you can give it to Steven then?" I asked, mocking her, but with love.

"Laugh at me if you want to. I don't really care. I saw this and I liked it for Steven when he's older, so I bought it. Actually, it’s none of your business." This, too, was said with love. It was like this between us.

She walked away to stow the binder somewhere until Steven was old enough for it. On her way out of the room she said, without looking back, "Time goes by quickly. You'll see, smartass."

I was living overseas, years later, when she called me on the phone to tell me that she'd just given Steven his binder for the start of the sixth grade school year. She sounded pleased with herself. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was waiting for me to eat crow.

"You're nuts, you know," I said, "But you do always give the best gifts. He loved it, didn't he?"

"Of course he did. You knew damned well he would."

I laughed and had to admit she was right.

That was all a long time ago. Steven is a grown man, now. In less than a week he's getting married to a wonderful young woman. It will be the first time the whole family - what’s left of it - is together since my mother’s funeral in 2010, where Steven took the podium and spoke so lovingly about his "Gram.” His words - those of a young man who, for a moment in time sounded like a wounded, heartbroken boy - made me ache, and wish he really were a little boy, again. Just last week he was a newborn baby who fit in the palm of one of my hands. Just a few days ago he learned how to write his name. Just yesterday he was giving one of my mother's eulogies. I keep thinking if she were still here, she'd say it, again: "Time goes by quickly." This time, I'd get it.