That Was Then and This is Now

I was just eight years old in 1947 when my parents and I drove up from Florida to Massachusetts to race our greyhounds at the Taunton Dog Track just outside of Boston.  Dad took a wrong turn and we found ourselves trapped in Manhattan traffic on Times Square. The twenty or so dogs in the trailer we were pulling were fretting and restless no more so than my father who gripped the steering wheel as if he might wrestle it completely off.

“My golly, my golly, my golly. How in the Sam Hill are we going to get out of this, ” he said shakily.

Mother, our usually calm and authoritative navigator had a road map unfolded covering almost the width of the front seat and had fallen uncharacteristically silent.  I, however, cranked down my back window and looked up at a movie marquee with shiny black letters, ringed in small flashing lights right next to a turquoise and orange Howard Johnson’s sign: Ice cream 28 flavors!  People circled right around our car and trailer as if we weren’t even there. Some of them were eating hot dogs while they walked! Imagine that. I could have reached out and touched them. I could smell the asphalt all hot from the sun. Car horns blared. High up on the other side of the street was a Chesterfield cigarette billboard with a giant face of a man, puffs of mechanical smoke jetting out of his mouth. This place is the place for me, I thought. Of course I was going to be an actress but now I wanted to live in New York City almost as much.  Maybe more.  So, many years later, when I was nineteen that’s exactly where I landed.  For thirty years.

First, a studio apartment on the west side which I shared with Adele Imperati who I met in summer stock in Minnesota.  She was from Queens so I figured her for a street-wise New Yorker.  What she was, was an enthusiastically  demonstrative Catholic.  Her idea of décor was bleeding icons on every available wall space.  Before anyone I knew came over I managed to slide them under the fold-out sofa. Sometimes I didn’t get them back in the right places and Adele huffily retreated to Queens after just two months.

I moved then, to a rent-controlled walk-up tenement in Yorkville around the corner from Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s house.  This was also called Germantown a far cry from the exotic and sophisticated New York I had fantasized.  Most indelibly stamped in my memory is  the New Year’s window display at the Schaller and Weber the big German Deli on 86th St. I was alarmed, yes, but yet equally riveted by the two large pig carcasses, eyelids sewn shut,  one dressed in Lederhosen and the other wearing an embroidered apron, propped up on small chairs at a poker table holding playing cards attached to their little hooves. Or whatever.

Later, when I was married and having children, I moved to a houseboat on City Island for five years. My parents were stunned speechless but managed to keep their very  valid trepedations to themselves for fear of alienating me, their only child.

The winters were mercilessly cold with winds screaming down across the bay causing swells that impossibly lifted the barn of a boat up, then slammed it back down with spine jangling results. With all that, the summers were seductive enough to keep my husband and me attached to the concept. Maybe not the reality, but the concept.  Besides, no one in their right mind would buy the white elephant of a boat from us. Still, on summer nights from the bow I could see the skyline of Manhattan no bigger than my thumb in the distance and the planes to La Guardia hovering over the bay waiting to land, while schools of fish slapped up against the hull running from schools of  even larger fish.  The cold finally got to me as did my flawed marriage.  I divorced and, taking the two boys moved off the houseboat, then landed on West End Avenue, the upper West Side, paradise to actors, singers, playwrights, musicians, ballet dancers and a multitude of really, really old, even ancient artists reminding us daily of our very very young, even naive dreams. We were in perfect harmony.

That’s why when Googling on the internet I was stopped by a glossy ad for upscale condos in pre-war buildings in my old West End Avenue neighborhood like the one I left behind almost twenty years ago when I moved to California. Those buildings were gracious and stately, with maid’s rooms and servant’s bells that no longer worked.   A photo of the blocks I had walked slammed me with sensatios. The smell of the Hudson a little brackish and salty overlaid with the fragrance of coffee seemingly generated by the pulsing neon Maxwell House Coffee sign on the Jersey side.  The sound of garbage trucks gnashing and grinding ten stories down.  How nicely empty West End was in the early mornings when I waited under the canopy for the school bus to pick up my youngest son and watched my older boy rounding the corner to the 103rd St stop.  The Korean deli around the corner, Ginko trees, circling to find a parking place, the satisfying sound of the elevator doors sliding open and closed that I could hear from inside my kitchen. Voices in the hallway as people got home from work. And in that moment in front of my computer in Los Angeles, I wanted to be there again. But did I, really? Did I really truly want to move back to New York City, the same place I yearned for when I was eight?  The upper west side, the speed, the clamor, the demanding cold and wind ripping down the tunnels of buildings off the river, the rain sometimes slicing sideways. No cabs.  Lugging groceries, my dry cleaning slipping away and dragging on the sidewalk.  And that last difficult marriage?  All over again?  Late at night, taking a paperback book with me and getting on the M-104, riding down to Columbus Circle and then back, hoping he had passed out by then.

No, what I wanted in that moment was for my sons to be little boys again with skateboards and Matchbox cars, their latest haircuts and Walkmans.  Homework. Swim meets, and I even wanted to be folding their laundry.   I wanted to be forty one and wearing big earrings, good boots and size ten jeans in my mink coat. A working actress; audtioning, singing, booking jobs, flirting. I wanted to be young and doing it all over again.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. At my house here, outside at night, the light falls down on the top of a long table under a lemon tree.  On the table is a white lace tablecloth hanging down on all sides.  On the tablecloth is a vase of dead sunflowers and Queen Anne’s lace. There is a clear bottle of water on the table and the light is reflected deep in the middle of it.  I smell the honeysuckle that grows on top of the garage.  I look back into my house through the open French doors. Cool night air skims my face, my shins, the tops of my feet under the table.  My dog lies with her side up against my foot. Her breathing flutters against my instep.

I hear a hum of cars from the avenue a block away.  On the table are two coffee mugs, milk and sugar, Equal, a thermos, spoons in a green glass jar.  Four cookies. Two bunches of grapes with only a few left on the stems.  The naked stems look like drawings from a textbook of capillaries and veins.  I have just finished teaching a workshop.  There are three yellow pads on the table.  A pen.   “Best American Essays of  2010,” “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” “Writing in Restaurants,” “Letters to a Young Poet,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and a “Far Side” cartoon.  Harpsichord music plays from the stereo.  I am drinking a glass of Zinfandel because, though it is pink, it was the only wine that was cold.  I eat popcorn.  The boys became men. One is middle aged, married with five children and living in Chicago. The other son lost a long terrible struggle with depression and is gone.  Wherever I have lived is marked by what I wanted and then, by what I got;  love, loss, mistakes, money, no money, gains, sorrow, blame, forgiveness, creativity, art.

I am in am in my seventies. I have no doubt that if I get another fifteen years, I will be remembering Los Angeles just as bitter-sweetly as New York and remembering quite simply that I was younger. There will always be a time in which I was younger.