Category Archives: Personal Essays
The door swung open. I shook a band of sleigh bells wrapped around my fingers. “Ooh, ho, ho,” I belted out. “Oooh, ho, ho, ho…”
I tasted stale coffee on my teeth and smelled the dry-cleaned crispness of the strap-on facial hair. My breath labored through the mustache and beard, while the sounds of the hallway seemed muffled and far away. Through the tunnel vision of wig and stocking cap, I spied my chair at the head of the hall.
I felt like a spaceman—elated and vulnerable—an astronaut in his flight suit lugging a life-support satchel down a preflight hallway. Every fold of clothing had to operate properly—every zipper remain zipped, every patch of Velcro anchor neatly upon its mating patch. Any flaw in the suit—a tear at a seam, a lazy waistband, an exposed stomach pillow, would result in incalculable damage.
The children filed in, class by class, sitting on the floor in front of me.
I wasn’t ready.
I don’t think there was a way to prepare for the children—the adoration—the way they looked at me as something unknown and possibly wonderful.
I thought it would be different, that I would feel confident, more in control. I thought the Santa suit would carry an air of authority, to stand above others in judgment of their virtues—to weigh the behaviors of the naughty and the nice.
Now, I’m in charge. Now, I’m the fat man in the red suit. Now, I’m the boss… but there is none of that.
When the eyes fell upon me, I forgot about the naughty. All I saw was the hope and the wonder. I looked around the room to find it in everyone, the children, the teachers, the parents and grandparents standing in the back. It was the only thing worth looking for. It was the only thing worth finding.
God help the man who has never worn a Santa suit.
I had no intention of talking to my five-year-old daughter about the Boston Marathon. I hadn’t spoken to her at all about the grade school massacre in Connecticut in the four months since it happened. It wasn’t a reflection of some well thought out parenting philosophy—an effort to buffer my child’s psyche from the dark and disturbing. It was simply an exercise in time management—between picking Ella up from school at 4:00 and gearing down for bedtime around 7:00, she needs to snack, run madly around a playground, complete homework and eat dinner, allowing precious few moments to introduce guerilla warfare, terrorism—foreign and domestic, mortality, human physiology, mental illness, the Bill of Rights, applied forensic sciences, police states and martial law to a degree that satisfies a questioning five-year-old. I learned that the day I said, “Well, what do you know?” after seeing a newspaper headline on the subway. I spent the rest of the day explaining what I knew about face transplants and chimpanzee attacks.
But as I waited at the pizza counter on Tuesday, Ella sat down at a table and focused on the TV on the wall.
“Sit over here,” I said, delivering our slices, trying to get her to turn her back to Diane Sawyer.
She sat where I asked and twisted around to see the TV.
“C’mon, hon,” I said, “you don’t need to see the TV, just eat your dinner.”
Ella pushed her plate to the side, crossed her arms on the table top and buried her face in them.
My decision to tell Ella about the Boston Marathon was again, not the result of a parenting philosophy, but a necessity of time management. I peeked at my watch. I couldn’t afford a hunger strike—not now, not even a short one. Sure, there are ways to force-feed your child, but it doesn’t go down well in public, and it never goes down well with pizza.
“OK, you’re a big girl and I know you pay attention to things. I don’t want you to watch TV because something happened yesterday—something sad and scary. The people on TV are talking about it. It happened far away and I don’t want it to scare you.”
I had her attention. Now where to start?
“Do you know what a bomb is?”
“Do you know what an explosion is?”
“An explosion is like Pkfkfkfkfkfff…” she lifted her hands up and apart in slow motion.
“Right. Well, there was a marathon—a running race. Do you remember the big race we went to when people were running in the street? There was a race like that in Boston and somebody—someone mean and angry and sad and sick—in their head, in the way they think—made two explosions happen.”
“Baby Catherine lives in Boston,” Ella said. “Was baby Catherine in the explosion?”
“Tell me again.”
I told her again. “And a lot of people were badly hurt.”
“And did some get dead?”
“Three people died.”
“One was eight years old. The others were grown-ups.”
“It’s a good thing I wasn’t there.”
“And my daddy and my mommy.”
“Why did he make the explosions?”
“I don’t know hon.”
“Maybe because he was sick and sad he thought that if he hurt all the people and made them feel sick and sad then it would be fair.”
“It’s probably something like that,” I said. “I didn’t want to tell you, because it’s scary and sad to know there are people like that.”
“It’s not so sad for me,” she shrugged matter-of-factly. “I don’t know people like that.” She bit her pizza.
The kid behind the pizza counter lifted the remote control and flipped the channel. We turned to catch the end of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
I pulled within inches of the car parked to my right and shifted into reverse. Letting the Toyota idle back about a foot and a half, I spun the wheel a full turn and then some. When the Forerunner came to a forty-five degree angle with the curb, I cut the steering wheel all the way to the left and let the truck relax into its new parking spot.
“Not bad, kid,” my brother Jimmy yapped from the passenger seat. “Now, if we could do something about how you handle this thing in the forward gears…” Jimmy looked up and down the block. “Which one is it?”
“It’s the white one next to the storefront church,” I said. “It’s not much to look at, but the apartment upstairs is nice.”
Jimmy climbed out of the truck. He glanced at the Baptist church and the shops on the corner. He leaned his head into the car. “Paul,” he said. “Are you like the only white face in the neighborhood?”
“I might be, Jim,” I said. “But you know, I’m the only white face at half the family parties I go to.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Jimmy said.
“Come on, Jim,” I shrugged as I popped the tailgate lock. “What, did you forget to put your balls on this morning?”
The move was easy. We travelled lightly, like refugees.
Only a month before, Vidya had suggested that the mysterious blemishes on the baby’s forehead were bites from bed bugs. I made a face—the kind where you wrinkle up your lips to the side and raise one eyebrow like the Six Million Dollar Man—a face of disbelief—a face that makes you unpopular in your own home.
When my face returned to normal, we pulled the cushioned bumpers away from the rungs on Ella’s crib to find nests of bed bug nymphs. Our lives became a creepy, crawly monster movie.
We tried everything. We packed our belongings—out of season clothing, toiletries, books and baby toys—into plastic bags and set them on the roof through the frozen weeks of February. We knocked our kitchen table on its side and mopped the floor with rubbing alcohol, creating a barricaded play area for our crawling infant daughter. We hired an exterminator to spray and dust the remaining rooms of the apartment. We even considered attending the Bible study class he scribbled on the back of his business card.
In the end, anything that would not survive the high-temperature cycles in an industrial washing machine followed by two hours in a hot, tumbling dryer was put out with the trash under a tarp that read, “BED BUGS.” It was time to abandon ship.
We needed a baby-friendly, dog-friendly apartment, available immediately. Vidya searched the rental lists on the Internet and handed me sheets of paper with phone numbers, addresses and short lists of questions. I phoned the landlords and scheduled viewing appointments. We mapped out our weekends, jumped into our car and zipped around the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Returning from a scouting expedition, we drove along a street lined with industrial cinder block buildings and gaping garage doors. I sunk in my seat, ashamed of myself.
“You know,” I said. “For years now… forever really, I’ve been a cheerleader for the urban lifestyle. I’d always say, ‘Every day’s a beautiful day in Brooklyn!’ but I was talking about the three or four neighborhoods that I walk through.” I gazed out the window. “Now that we’re looking in other neighborhoods, I don’t like the city as much as I thought I had. It’s kind of a toilet.”
I had lived in Brooklyn for twenty years. For the last four or five years, it had occurred to me that I held a skewed concept of my home borough—that I did not truly live in Brooklyn, not the one that came to the minds of out-of-towners when the clumsy, beautiful word passed my lips like something I had been chewing and hadn’t meant to reveal. I lived in a sort of amusement park version of Brooklyn—the Patty Duke Brooklyn—historic landmark areas of brownstones and wrought iron gates.
I had an inkling a few years back when my friend Michele asked me to help her get her car out of a Brownsville impound lot. We chatted in the back seat of the livery car on our way, not paying attention to landmarks as they passed by the window. I knew, in broad strokes, how to get back to Cobble Hill.
Michele filled out the paper work, wrote a check and handed me the keys to the car. I drove the car through the open chain link gate and followed the surrounding one-way streets for an orbit of the lot until I reached a main road.
I don’t know how long I had been driving when it struck me that the drive home was longer than I expected. Stopping at a red light, I glanced over at Michele. She had no idea we were lost. I drove a few more blocks, hoping to pass a familiar landmark.
Nope, no landmark.
Maybe a few more blocks…
No, again. I decided to say something.
“You know,” I said. “I think I got turned around coming out of the impound lot. I don’t recognize anything that we’ve driven past. I think I’ve been driving in the wrong direction.”
“Should we stop and ask for directions?” Michele asked.
I winced, “I don’t think we can.”
“What do you mean?” She asked. “Why can’t we ask for directions?”
“What would I say?”
Michele stared out the window for a minute.
“Do you see where I’m coming from,” I asked. “I can’t walk into a shop and say, ‘Can you tell me how to get to Brooklyn?… I mean, I know that this is Brooklyn, that we are in Brooklyn right now, but I’m looking for the other Brooklyn—the one where ladies push Bugaboo strollers and talk about where to get the best muffin—it’s like a giant P.T.A. meeting.’”
It was a long drive home.
The apartment search proved difficult. Vidya and I did not see eye to eye on what made a neighborhood desirable. Before moving into my Cobble Hill apartment, Vidya took every opportunity to rail against the surrounding community.
“I can never find a place to park around here,” she protested. “I just drove around for a half hour.”
“Oh come on,” I said. “It’s like that everywhere in Brooklyn. That’s why keeping a car in the city is such a nuisance.”
“Not true, not true,” she countered. “My neighborhood’s not like that. I never have a problem parking in Fort Greene. I can drive up and find a spot within a half block of my house.”
She caught me smirking.
“What’s that for?” she asked.
“Your neighborhood is poor,” I said. “It isn’t hard to park in a poor neighborhood because no one can afford to own a car.”
“My neighborhood isn’t poor!”
“OK, let’s not say poor. Let’s say young. Let’s call it an up-and-coming neighborhood.”
“That means poor.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Sure it does—young professionals paying off their student loans, plenty of parking, no shortage of vegetarian restaurants,” I said. “Believe me – once you’re out of grad school a few years, you want some red meat.”
We found ample parking in our search for an affordable apartment. Occasionally, we passed vegetarian and macrobiotic restaurants, but we became more accustom to a landscape of liquor stores and corner bodegas.
“I don’t like the look of that.” I pointed to a slow moving cyclist on an old-school Ross Apollo chopper.
“Oh no,” Vidya agreed. “That’s no good.” We watched the cyclist pedal aimlessly around the intersection.
“That’s a drug corner,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
Vidya nodded, “Yup.”
I knew a drug corner when I saw one. I had just re-watched the first, third and fourth seasons of The Wire in preparation for the fifth and final season.
Narcotic surveillance became another item on Vidya’s apartment checklist—we’d look up and down the hallways for signs of recent exterminator visits, flush the toilets, run the showers, make small talk with the landlords, and stake out the corners for drug traffic.
I played decoy, buying time at each location, covering up our reconnaissance activities by acting like a moron who couldn’t unfold a baby stroller. Sometimes I played an idiot who couldn’t fathom the cat’s cradle-like simplicity of harnessing my child to my chest in a front-loading papoose baby carrier thingy.
Late one afternoon, we pulled in front of a house in Crown Heights. We were glad to see little activity in front of the two bodegas at the intersection. We rang the bell and were greeted by the first floor tenant, Melanie. Melanie showed us up the stairs to the second floor apartment, which was actually on the third floor.
The first floor was called the garden floor; the second floor was called the first floor and the third floor was called the second floor. I had had enough of third floor walk-ups from our last apartment. Constantly climbing with the baby and the stroller offered a rigorous daily routine, so, for our peace of mind, we joined in and called the third floor the second floor.
We played it the way we always did—I wandered around touching things, playing with light switches and faucets and testing any luxury items I encountered—a refrigerator door ice machine or an in-drain garbage disposal. Vidya asked the hard questions—nitty-gritty stuff—lease terms, utility transfer, who do we call when we hear mice, who do we call when things break… and don’t pretend for a second that we won’t hear mice and that things won’t break.
Melanie answered our questions and revered our child’s beauty enough to be appropriate but not overbearing. The tour and the question and answer session were going well. I liked Melanie. She was down to earth, good neighbor material. I think that’s why it struck me when she began to speak like a real estate agent. “It’s a real artsy neighborhood. The whole area is undergoing a real gentrification.”
I had heard this song before. The artsy neighborhood was one of the most misleading labels in New York real estate, and it fooled me every time.
When I hear of an artistic neighborhood, I envision works of art, famous works of art, strewn about the streets and buildings—water lilies on a brick wall, starry night on a garage door, a Pietà on the median of a busy street. When I envision Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos in the subway tunnels or beneath a highway overpass it dawns on me—Michelangelo didn’t live in the Sistine Chapel. I doubt he even lived in the neighborhood. The entire time he was there, lying on his back, painting the ceiling, the place was a mess—scaffolds and drop clothes scattered everywhere. The Holy Father was furious. And Van Gogh? Can you imagine what type of neighbor he might have been—a suicidal painter with a penchant for self-mutilation?
Living in an artistic neighborhood didn’t mean the trash was laid out on the curb in polypropylene tarps in homage to Christo’s Reichstag. Artistic meant wine bottles, beer bottles and cigarette butts—filling up the trash, smashed against the curb and used in the place of authentic building materials. It meant loud and ill-timed rituals to entreat muses and to reconcile broken romances.
An artistic neighborhood resembled less a work of art and more an artist’s work place or palette or psyche—it was raw, messy, broken, smelly, drunk and unapologetic.
To realtors and real estate developers, the arrival of artists marked the first phase of a neighborhood’s gentrification, but not a single artist in New York City ever figured that out. They thought they were an end in themselves. They admired their own resourcefulness–living in a less than convenient, less than desirable neighborhood. They loved that there was a word for it–gentrification. They thought it meant their presence exuded gentleness—a soul for neighborhood rife in urban decay. But when their reign ended and the landlords priced them out, gentrification became a dirty word. They recognized the root it shared with the gentlemen of old—the perennial land owners, the gentry.
Within the span of a renewed lease or two, the artists confused themselves with the neighborhood’s original residents. Painting signs and picketing development companies, they completely forgot how, only a few years earlier, they had displaced families who had called the neighborhood home for generations.
If the phrase “artistic neighborhood” made me think of priceless masterpieces, the term gentrification conjured visions from a science fiction movie—through a patented cloud dusting technology, spores of gentility snowed down upon targeted neighborhoods, causing everyone to stand taller, smile generously, hold doors open, and tip their hats to ladies. Of course, that’s not what it meant. It meant that rent was going up, families were moving out, and art school graduates were moving in. In short, it meant the white people were coming.
I wouldn’t miss our old apartment for its uneven drop ceilings, regurgitating plumbing or unforgiving heat, but it was well placed. Monday morning was within walking distance of Friday afternoon. In a fifteen block loop, I could walk to my office after walking Ella to day care and Vidya to work. The new apartment, the artsy one, was out of the way. It meant morning subway rides with Ella, part of the urban lifestyle I cringed at—children caught up in the rush hour commute – infants through middle schoolers, riding the subway at all hours—nodding off to sleep, doing homework, eating breakfast and dinner sitting side-by-side with their sisters, or talking to each other across crowded subway cars while their mothers stand holding the rails above them. Family time–the masses of New York City, with their varied agendas, politics, and standards of hygiene, invited into their kitchen breakfast nook twice a day—it takes a village.
To date, Vidya and I had taken Ella on the subway only once. It was quite a drill—I arranged a system of eye contact and pantomime with the MTA officer in the box to open the gate next to the turnstile so I could push Ella’s stroller through, then lifted the stroller, with Ella inside of it, to carry it down the stairs. Obstacles I find a nuisance as an adult commuter, become down-right dangerous when I’m a pack animal in my daughter’s cavalcade—a slow waddler, a commuter stopping on an active stair case to check her cell phone, a man testing his umbrella’s quick release.
I handed Ella off to Vidya and dismantled the stroller. Tucking the seat under one arm and hanging the folded frame around my neck and shoulder like a stiff mailbag, I became the number-one lumbering danger on the platform. I wandered away, estimating a minimum safe distance from Vidya and Ella. When the train pulled into the station, we entered the car through different doors.
Ella had always been a gifted waver. I had hung a full length mirror in her bedroom. I hung it horizontally, so I guess you’d call it a full width mirror, but none of us were particularly wide, so it served as panoramic of the crib, changing table and the elephant mural I had painted on Ella’s wall. Mornings, after I changed her diaper, Ella and I would face the mirror and I would wave. At about six months, realizing she had her own hands and arms, she joined in. She started with an open-hand, close-hand kind of wave, which was fine for the mirror, but when Ella left the house, the simple wave couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. She greeted passersby with a full flapping arm.
This wasn’t a suburban street, where you measured your day with each encounter—a nod to the mailman from your front door. This was Brooklyn. Everyone walked up and down the street all day long, and Ella flapped her arm for anyone who passed. For a dog on a leash, she flapped two.
People smiled and waved back. Some would not. Some passed by annoyed—Ella’s greeting slowed them down, distracted them from their life’s work. Some were taken aback—they found Ella’s salute forward or familiar—improper, tempting me to whisper into Ella’s ear, “It’s OK my sweet, get a good look. Remember the faces and never wave to them again.” I bounce-shifted Ella higher up on my rib cage and turned my head to whisper in her ear. Ella smiled. Could I say something ugly? Could I say anything? Could I let her hear the spite in my voice and risk tainting her joy? Ella didn’t mind. She smiled and waved.
I watched from a distance in the subway car. From Vidya’s lap, Ella looked around at the other passengers. She made quick allies of a few nearby faces, making eye contact, smiling and flapping an arm. She found reassurance, looking back at Vidya.
Ella peeked at a woman sitting in the corner, next to the door that led to a connecting subway car. Ella looked at the other passengers, her new friends, as she had looked at Vidya a moment before, smiling, hoping for a smile in return—validation, reassurance, encouragement to invite the woman in the corner into what the rest of them shared.
The woman looked away, not into space, not into a book, not upon a crossword puzzle, but into the steel seem of the subway door. Ella set her sights on the woman and smiled until the woman could no longer avert her eyes. She scowled and tilted her head to look at Ella sideways.
“You’re not going to give up on me, are you?” she said.
Ella’s smile brightened. The woman smiled.
“You got me, OK… are you happy now?”
From half a subway car away, my heart broke wide open. But then, that’s what daughters do to fathers—they break us—they hobble us—they slow us down. They hand us imaginary tea cups, “Isn’t it delicious, Daddy?” They shower us with bouquets of yellow dandelion flowers and say they are beautiful. And when we look again, we see it too, the beauty—the delicious beauty liberated from the most common things, seeping into our broken places—turning us into something courageous and loving—something closer to what we were meant to be.
Jimmy and I carried the contents of the truck up to the apartment in two stages, up one flight of outdoor stairs from the street to the foyer and up a second indoor flight of stairs to the apartment. We had packed our clothing, house wares, bedding and toiletries in large, heavy duty plastic bags. As we emptied the truck, we looked more as if we had just returned from a shopping spree than a family moving house. Our comings and goings upset Ella. She cheered when I walked through the door, but was confused when Jimmy, the shorter, skinnier Daddy, followed me into the room.
Vidya looked troubled. “I just spoke with my mother,” she said. “My cousin is very sick. We should go see him tomorrow.”
“OK,” I said. “I’m going to take Jimmy home now.”
Mornings came slowly in the new apartment; Sunday mornings came slowest of all. For sixteen years I had lived three floors above Atlantic Avenue, one of Brooklyn’s arterial roadways. Garbage trucks, street sweepers and delivery trucks heralded the mornings, marking an end to the patchy sleep the ambulances, fire trucks and motorcycles afforded throughout the night. Waking in Crown Heights, I couldn’t believe the quiet, or should I say, I couldn’t believe how clearly I heard my daughter’s waking squeals.
In the old apartment, I would wake, wait and listen, wondering if I heard the squeak of a car’s brakes or the axle of a deliveryman’s hand truck. Now, a block and a half from the bustle of Eastern Parkway, I heard my daughter’s wakefulness build each morning.
It began with the gentle tumbling sounds of Ella adjusting her position in her crib, followed by a rhythmic kicking of her foot, which might lull her back to sleep. Waking became inevitable when I heard a tide of light babbles rising and falling until it reached an excited crescendo, punctuated by a soft bonk, when she threw her knitted bear into the open room beyond the bars of her crib, into what I would consider freedom, but she and the bear knew as exile.
I listened for the activity coming from the baby’s room, Roebling, our eleven year old dog, listened for mine. The trick of my morning was to get out of bed, dress in whatever was handy and lead the dog out of the apartment for a walk before Ella woke up.
Roebling and I had blazed a few different paths for our morning walk. There was the short walk where we would go as far as the stripped Kawasaki and the litter of feral kittens in the service alley half way up the block—the path we took in foul weather and when the timing of our morning had been thrown off. The first of our longer walks took us beyond the Kawasaki to a right hand turn at the top of the block—a slow parade through a disintegrating urban background, a favorite of Roebling’s for the chicken bones scattered at irregular intervals—constant enough that every walk demanded I force an entire hand into Roebling’s mouth, but placed to make it impossible for me to predict where they would turn up. So, we began to turn left at the top of the block, opening our walk to the tree lined malls of Eastern Parkway, a path mined with just as many chicken bones, and though harder to see, hidden in the grassy margins of the walkway, their positions were easier to predict, lying near park benches, near trash cans or along a trajectory between the two.
I fell into my normal dog walking routine, waving hello to joggers and other dog walkers, asking the names of the dogs we met.
Dog owners I had known in Cobble Hill named their dogs like they were naming babies—Heidi, Gwen, Lola and Stella were dogs we’d see within a few blocks of our old apartment. Naming conventions along Eastern Parkway were different—leaning toward Visigothic—short, sharp sounding names I wouldn’t think to give a child—loan shark names, pimp names, NC-17 cage fighter names.
I smiled, said hi and asked the dog’s name. Expecting something cute, or at least friendly, I was surprised by the answer. Tempted to say, “Excuse me?” or “Could you say that again?” or “I didn’t catch that,” I held my tongue. I didn’t want to hear the name again. I don’t like to be spoken to harshly in the morning.
A notorious scrapper in the dog parks of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, unafraid to mix it up with anything from a ridgeback to a St. Bernard, Roebling carried himself demurely along Eastern Parkway. Attentive, bordering on cautious. Greeting another dog, Roebling followed and led in the opening fox trot, but broke away when the tango began in earnest. It wasn’t like him and it saddened me. His morning dance partner wasn’t a pit-bull or a mastiff; it was a Schnauzer—a tall Schnauzer, but a Schnauzer just the same.
Though Roebling’s morning behavior fell out of character, I had to give it some credence. I hadn’t wanted to admit to a few recent observations—his rigidity when climbing from the couch, dropping his front paws to the floor to drag the rest of his body from among the throw pillows—the white fur, once accenting his muzzle with sophistication now covering Roebling’s face like kabuki makeup. My scrappy puppy was now an old dog—an old dog transplanted, holding no status in the local pack. His new acquaintances would never know how high up a tree he had once left his mark. In their eyes, he was little more than a lap dog.
Our neighbor settled his dog down and continued on his morning walk. I scratched my fingers through my own thinning hair. Roebling was too old to demand respect in the new neighborhood. What about me? Was I too old to do this sort of thing again, to gentrify—to join a neighborhood as it is torn apart and built up again around me? Was I even welcomed here?
Roebling and I took a few steps in the early morning fog, watching the Schnauzer and his handler walk up the path. To my left, a man pulled his dog away from the pile of chicken bones he had found in the grass. I turned to look at the dog, then back at the Schnauzer ahead of us. Funny, I hadn’t noticed.
Without question, Roebling’s age and unfamiliarity had left him at a disadvantage, but something else had thrown the fight. The Schnauzer still had his balls on.
If you want to understand a neighborhood, look at its dogs. Iconic guard dog breeds pepper the streets of low income, high crime neighborhoods. More than a family pet, the dog earns its keep as an alarm system and threatening presence. Pure breeds, like Dobermans and Rottweilers, bolster the egos of the status conscious, but nothing offers a better return on investment than the scare-the-crap-out-of-you, junk yard dog—or, as it is known regionally, the Brooklyn Brown Dog. It is an indeterminate mix of characteristics ranging from a low-to-the-ground bitch with pronounced teats and the snout of a blunt-nosed crocodile to a shaggy, anvil-headed male with the crazed—don’t mistake me for a Labrador—look in his eye.
Beagle mixes and floppy-eared hounds—Weimaraners, Vizslas, Bassets and Dachshunds—inhabit middle income neighborhoods. In their company you find smaller dogs like Pugs and Mini-Pins, toy versions of the guard dogs that once patrolled the streets.
Finally, when a neighborhood has reached the pinnacle of gentrification, its residents, with an interest in settling down and starting a family, custom order dogs from out of state breeders—hybrids—hypoallergenic mixes—bouncy, curly-haired, family companions that don’t shed, don’t bite and never give you the sniffles.
Tough dogs live in tough neighborhoods. Beyond the breeds, however, a single ideology in dog handling reveals more about a neighborhood than any other—if you live in a neighborhood where the dogs have their balls on, you live in a bad-ass neighborhood.
Roebling and I returned to a sleeping apartment. I sunk back in bed next to Vidya. On most days, I could doze off for a few minutes, but that morning, when I closed my eyes, I found no rest. My mind seemed clear enough—no chit-chat, no worry or anxiety. No loose thoughts bounced around, vying for my attention, but something in my nervous system fired and pulsed. Was it my nervous system? I don’t know.
I sprung out of bed when Ella woke. I marched in, picked her up, changed her diaper and returned to the bedroom to feed her a bottle. My motions were caring, but automatic, like a marine performing a rifle drill. Something distracted me—something physical—psychological—something to do with blood chemistry and hormones—my balls.
I woke up to the reality that it was going to take some machismo, some balls, to get along in our new neighborhood, and since my dog didn’t have his anymore, I’d better have enough balls for the whole family.
What kind of balls does a man need to get by in life?
For all the talk of balls in the lives of men, you’d think I would know. You’d think I could consult a reference chart—something on the inner cover of a marble notebook or in a rhyming bit of folk lore—an aphorism from Poor Richard’s Almanac—“An apple a day keeps the doctor away… now, about your balls…”
By the time a man reaches the age of fifteen, he knows at least two ways to refer to his balls in a foreign language, but he never learns how to harness them, how to summon courage from them on demand. We boast of them, but never talk about them. In short, we don’t know how to be men. We’re all faking it.
The closest we come to talking about our balls is when one of us catches a glimpse of something in a public changing room—an anomaly. We will confide the sighting of a testicular oddity in the men closest to us, and I do mean closest. Information of a gonadal nature doesn’t travel well. It is handled immediately and abandoned. It is the rarest of all male exchanges. In my experience, it’s only happened once.
During college I worked summers as a recreation attendant at the village pool. I quickly worked my way through the offices of sweeping, mopping and shouting at kids to stop running on the pool deck. By the second week in July I had settled into my permanent position—yucking it up with the pool director, Doug.
As the pool opened one morning, Doug and I stood behind the turnstile at the entrance, waiting for a distraction. Watching and listening for something foolish—a moment of silly we could stretch into a full day of ridiculous. Doug nodded a greeting to an aging couple entering the front gate. He grabbed my arm.
“Get Jim and meet me in the lifeguard office,” he whispered. “Quick!”
Jim and I found Doug huddled with Chris, one of the life guards.
“The umpire is here,” Doug announced.
“Umpire?” I asked.
“You don’t know about the umpire?” Chris mocked.
Jim and I shrugged to each other, “No.”
“Ball two!!!” Chris called.
“Believe me,” Doug said through excited laughter, “They are both way outside the strike zone.”
Jim giggled nervously. “That would be below the knees,” he said.
“That’s right,” Doug assured him.
Chris jumped impatiently. “Let’s go.”
“OK,” Doug said. “You two go in through the front and make it look like you’re checking on the guys working showers and baskets. Chris and I will come in from the pool side.”
We walked through the locker room as directed. Turning the corner into the damp changing area, we saw the silhouette of a small man. Jim’s breath stopped abruptly. I knew he was holding back a laugh, something he wasn’t particularly good at. Doug and Chris sauntered in from the pool side door.
“Did you see the game last night?” Chris said.
“Could you believe the call at the plate?” Doug said. “I’ll tell you, that umpire had some set of balls.”
Jim exploded with laughter. We stumbled out of the locker room and into the sunlight.
“Did you see anything?” Jim said.
“No,” I said, relieved. “You?”
“I didn’t see a thing,” Jim said, catching his breath. “But I believe it was true.”
Ella finished her bottle and climbed on top of Vidya. The wakeful part of the day began. I made breakfast and Vidya and Ella joined me at the table.
After moving in next to a storefront Baptist church, we decided that we would teach Ella to pray. We started by saying grace before breakfast and dinner. Ella caught on to prayer as quickly as she had to waving. As soon as she saw Vidya and me fold our hands together, she did the same.
Thank you for today.
Open our eyes so we may see the gifts you offer.
Open our ears so we may hear your message.
Open our mind so we may recognize the path you have laid before us,
and open our hearts so we can accept Your gifts and guidance with willingness and gratitude.
It was a different grace than I had been taught as a child, more approachable, I thought. Ella liked pointing to her eyes, ears, head and heart, and we threw our hands up in the air and made a big deal of the “Hallelujah” at the end. It was a good morning prayer—an instant hit.
We drove around the back roads of Queens looking for Vidya’s cousin’s house. He had just begun treatment for something awful that nobody seemed to find out the name of.
“We don’t do this, you know,” I said.
“What’s that?” Vidya said.
“My family… We don’t all get together when we hear someone’s sick,” I said. “We’ll call and get in touch, but not like your family. I mean, it’s not like we get sick and just wander into the woods alone to die or anything like that, but the way your family gathers around a sick relative, all you’d need is a bounce castle and you’d have a block party.”
“Well, this is what we do,” Vidya smiled at me from the driver’s seat. “And now you do too, because you’re Guyanese now.”
As we walked up the driveway, a trio of five year old girls ran around and between us. Hearing the squeal of the girls, a woman’s voice called out of a kitchen window, “Who is that now?”
A man peeked over a hedge to find us on the driveway. “Come some family!” he called in to the woman at the window, “And come a white man!”
Imagine the enthusiasm in his voice when he mentioned me, the white man walking up the path. Do you think he sounded happy? How many white men do you think he knew that he’d be happy to see? How often in his life had a visiting white man brought him good news? Do you think he mistook me for Santa Claus?
It wasn’t the comment of someone who had never seen a white man before. I imagine a unique tone of voice announced that event. When the first dark-skinned man spoke about seeing a great boat on the water and the glowing white men coming to shore, I imagine it was with some excitement—if not for the mysteriously freakish white men, he had to have been thrilled by the boat.
It wasn’t the tone of the second encounter either, where the voice probably tore with anger or frustration about something the white man had done on his last visit—what he had broken—what he had taken.
No, the voice from the hedge strummed a chord of formality and suspicion, but what registered most with me was the timbre of resignation. Through it passed a suggested warning, not by a man who had been taken advantage of once or twice, but by a people who had been tread upon for five hundred, a thousand, maybe two thousand years.
I didn’t waste time with protestations, “What was that? What did you call me? A white man?” I couldn’t feign indignation. I knew what I was. I knew my place in history. I knew his distrust had been earned. I knew what a filthy thing it was to be a white man.
I am the shiny conquistador, the company man. I am Mr. Kurtz, middle management, here to observe, evaluate and report to the home office. I’m here to tear your home apart and break ground for a 7-11.
This is what makes gentrification work so well—deep within every white man sleeps an agent of imperialism—a functionary of the Raj. I felt it the moment we moved into Crown Heights. The dormant British West India Company within me suddenly awoke with visions of the economic cultivation—gourmet coffee here, a juice bar there—fewer claws and chicken gizzards in the super market and more rib-eye steaks.
That’s what we do. That’s who we are—discover new worlds, scope out new locations for Starbucks and the Gap.
Vidya kissed me and walked in the back door to find a place in line to visit her cousin. I found a seat on the patio picnic furniture with Ella on my lap. Within a few minutes, Vidya’s mother, Dora, appeared from the back door to say hello. She snatched Ella from me and waltzed around the backyard with her, pointing to trees, windows, clouds, the world. I sat alone on the picnic bench—me and my balls.
Balls don’t go over well at family gatherings, which came as a surprise to me. The family parties I remembered from my childhood were all about balls. They offered an intermittent boot camp on masculine behavior. Uncles slapped you on the back, “There’s a good fellow. Keep your head up and your stomach in.” If my grandfather was at the party, there would be an inspection and close order drill. He’d sit me in his lap and take hold of my hands to see that they were clean and that the nails were well groomed. Clipping here and there, he would remedy any slight. “OK,” he’d drop me from his knee and offer me his open palm. “Put it there.”
Embarrassed, I would swing my arm lazily toward him, landing my hand softly in his mitt.
“That’s not the way you shake a man’s hand,” he’d say. “You don’t swing at the waist with your arms flailing about,” he’d grab me by my upper arms and square my spine and shoulders with himself and the earth. “You stand straight and look the other man in the eye.” He’d hold his hand out again, “You place your hand firmly and deeply in the other man’s hand and give it a good shake.” After two controlled bounces, he’d release my hand. “That’s how it’s done.”
Through most of my life, the hand shake my grandfather coached me on served me well, but I never realized it was a white man’s hand shake. It was everything the white man was—expedient, aggressive, intimidating. Having shaken hands with Vidya’s cousins and uncles, even her father, I realized that in many parts of the world grandfathers gave the opposite advice—place your hand gently, softly in the hand of another—this is a greeting, not a contest of strength. Look away slightly to display trust and ease—it is challenging and never appropriate to look a man directly in the eye.
Just before the bed bugs arrived, our old neighborhood reached the final stages of gentrification. We had finally made our neighborhood so cute, so saturated with boutiques, so stroller friendly and desirable that none of us could afford the escalating rent.
Still, I had gotten used to the luxuries–gourmet food shops with wasabi peanuts and chocolate covered espresso beans, the hub of subway lines available at Brooklyn Borough Hall, and the drop-off launderette where I left my dirty laundry in the morning and picked it up clean and folded in the afternoon. I didn’t even know how to work a washer and dryer until the bed bugs came–then it was easy, stripped of its nuance, all switches on hi-temp, set to kill—a cauldron and a kiln would have sufficed.
“I saw a place down on Nostrand across Eastern Parkway that takes laundry by the pound,” I said, tying two laundry bags together and hoisting them over the back of my neck like the yoked buckets on a milk maid. “It looked OK. I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Tell them to separate the baby’s clothes and wash them on delicate,” Vidya instructed. “See if they have fabric softener—the hypoallergenic kind. And make sure they separate colors.”
I nodded and lumbered down the stairs. Vidya didn’t seem to understand how undermining her requests were. I could lug laundry bags down the block with a cord cutting into my neck and shoulders—that worked, but I couldn’t outline the proper care of delicate washables and still display my balls convincingly. When you are championing your Y chromosome, you don’t talk about fabric softener. The scratchier your neighbors perceive your clothes to be, the better.
I swaggered through the open door of the launderette. The faces of neighborhood women turned from the folding tables, open washing machines and children playing in and around the laundry basket trolleys. Each woman wore her own complexion, like her color had been custom mixed to suit her. Soon, their eyes returned to the tasks from which my entrance had distracted them. I hoped one face would linger, that someone would ask me why I was there, that someone would realize I was a big, ballsy man carrying a heavy load of possibly the scratchiest laundry they had ever encountered and that I shouldn’t be left on my own to damage the washing machines.
“Excuse me,” I said to no one in particular. “Who do I speak to if I want to drop this laundry off to be washed?”
The women lifted their heads again. “You want da Russian,” one said. “Yeah, da Russian,” the others concurred in a loose chorus. “He over dere,” the first one nudged her head to a window and a door in the middle of the room.
An older man sat behind a Plexiglas window with a square cut out so he could change dollar bills into quarters for the washing machines. I startled him when I knocked on the window. He looked up at me blankly, as his weathered eyes adjusted to the difference between the incandescent reading light in the office and the dull fluorescents of the laundry room. I nodded left and right to the bag hanging from each shoulder. “I want to drop these off,” I said.
He blinked twice then turned to look at the office door, waiting for me to walk through it. I took the hint. I walked around to the office entrance and jiggled the door knob. He opened the door, offering a quick bow as a greeting.
I bent down, letting the bags rest on the floor and bowed my head free of the cord holding them together. The old man turned to move a stack of laundry detergent boxes from a spot along the wall. Beneath them sat a bathroom scale. He kicked the scale with the inside of his foot like he was dribbling a soccer ball, finally nudging it to the center of the room. He grabbed the drawstring of the first bag and dragged it to the scale, lifting and dropping it on top. The scale’s dial rotated quickly. He reached for the other bag. Through great pains, he lifted the second bag with one hand as he continued to balance the first bag on the scale with his other hand. He stepped in to guide the dangling bag into a controlled collision with the bag already in position. He swayed back and forth as the shock of the crash dissipated. The odd sculpture of man and laundry bag twitched at me twice and then twitched a third time toward the base of his leaning tower of laundry. I bent over to read the dial on the scale as it rolled back and forth between 45 and 50.
“Forty… seven?” I said.
The old man let his laundry snowman collapse and reached for a slip of paper—a roughly torn square of scrap made from a local take-out menu. He handed it to me with a pencil.
I wrote 47 lbs. on the slip of paper and handed it back. The old man consulted a multiplication chart taped to the wall. I waited for him to scribble the price on the slip of paper and hand it back to me, but he never did. Instead, he stood with his finger on the chart. I got a little closer and squinted to see where his finger pointed.
“Forty two,” I said. “Forty two dollars.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a few bills to hand to him. He turned toward his till to make change for me. He turned back around to hand me a few singles.
I tapped the face of my wrist watch. “When do you think it will be ready?” I asked.
With his index finger extended, his hand leapt up and over in a moderate sized arch, a gesture that could have meant next week or across the street. I took it to mean sometime tomorrow.
I stepped out of the office holding the only thing I had been offered as a receipt—the slip of paper torn from the local take-out menu with my own 47 lbs. scribbled on it.
I wanted to say something—not just then, but a few times. I wanted to question the accuracy of a bathroom scale stored beneath the weight of powdered laundry detergent. I wanted to protest the balancing act weigh in. I wanted honest to goodness claim slips safety pinned to each bag with sequential numbers matching numbers on stubs placed in my hand.
I didn’t say a word. First of all, I was enchanted by the pantomime I had witnessed, like I had been invited to a private performance of Yuri Nikulin and the Moscow Circus. Second, looking back at the old Russian, I realized—this clown had survived Stalin—what sort of impression would my tantrum make? But still, I had to say something. As I reached the front door I turned and trumpeted out a command, “Keep the colors and the whites separate,” I said. Every face in the launderette turned to look at me. It was a poor choice of words. I should have asked for fabric softener.
“Can you believe the stones on that guy?” My brother Andrew has an ease and fluency I appreciate. I think it comes from being a firefighter.
Practicing a lifelong meditation on the classical elements of air, fire and water, a firefighter understands the world’s underpinnings and speaks about balls with a credibility few others approach—a clarity to his thought, an economy to his language. But rhetoric aside, I defer to the authority of his occupation—firefighting is a ballsier enterprise than managing the data flow of a non-profit organization. I’ve never turned to a colleague to say, “Good job, that database query was totally balls-out.” It just wouldn’t be appropriate.
“Stones” says it all—the lone syllable hinting at the size and composition, the only qualities worth consideration, of the balls in question. Any set of balls worth talking about, despite implication of disease or deformity, are big, huge, enormous balls, cast from metal—something hard and, perhaps more importantly, something heavy. “Big brass balls” is the preferred turn of phrase. We like the way it sounds—the alliteration. We respond to the poetry.
Ancient and enduring, the metal of cherished trinkets and family heirlooms, reflecting the primitive confidence we ask our balls to provide—the chutzpah to venture out of the cave into the perilous world—the mythos of testicles has never evolved beyond the Bronze Age.
One might expect the contemporary understanding of metallurgy and materials to influence the lingo of bravado, that we would hear of titanium alloys, carbon composites, and buckminsterfullerene or that as we’ve become more conscious of biomechanics, we concede that our balls are made of something more like McNuggets.
Ella took to her feet in early spring, pointing insistently to the sidewalk one Saturday after lunch while she, Vidya and I wandered around Park Slope. After I set her down, Ella stood slowly and moved forward in a determined, cautious shuffle. Vidya and I cheered. Until then, Ella’s record had been two tentative steps in our old kitchen six weeks earlier. Ella smiled, clapped for herself and led us on a walk of eight city blocks.
We discovered flowers one morning on a walk with Roebling. Ella had woken before I had gotten Roebling out the door. I changed her diaper, put a coat on her and took her in my arms when I let Roebling down the stairs. It is possible that she and the dog had conspired about it for weeks.
“Warty!” Ella said to the puddle of rainwater we passed crossing Nostrand Avenue.
I set Ella on her feet on the sidewalk. She took a few steps toward a wrought iron fence and reached for the buds in the flowerbox on the other side.
“That’s a crocus,” I said, crouching next to her, “and that’s a daffodil.” I glimpsed up the sidewalk at the flowering weeds peeking through cracks in the concrete. I was going to run out of flower names long before I ran out of sidewalk. I switched to colors. “Purple and yellow,” I pointed to each flower again.
“Ellow,” Ella repeated.
Ella made slow progress up the block, sometimes walking, sometimes reaching up to me to be carried. Roebling waited, rarely taking up the slack in his leash. We turned the corner and greeted a couple of joggers as we crossed the street to the mall on Eastern Parkway.
“Down!” Ella commanded. I set her on her feet to walk.
A car stopped at the traffic light at Eastern Parkway and New York Avenue, its stereo blasting. Ella stopped where she was, stuck her diapered backside out and shuffled in a tight circle with her arms out—a toddler boogie.
The subway rumbled beneath us. Ella staggered to the sewer-like grate where the sound came from, looking for a train. Cars, motorcycles, planes, trains, dogs, joggers—will she ever hear an ice cream truck from five blocks away? Will she stand at the curb with a fist full of change, waiting? What could the bustle of the city offer but to clutter intervals of anticipation and distract from dreams of ice cream?
I scooped Ella up as we reached the corner and turned for home. Ella shifted in my arms.
“Way!” she yelled, pointing at the mall extending beyond Nostrand Avenue.
“Oh, honey…” I said. “C’mon… let’s go home to mama and have breakfast.”
“Way!” she insisted.
“OK, OK,” I said. “I guess a few minutes won’t make a big difference.” We crossed the street. I set Ella down and we continued on our walk.
Ella reached for Roebling’s leash, “Hand… Hand!” she said.
I held Roebling steady for a second, allowing Ella to get a grip on the leash. After a few steps, Ella threw the looped end of the leash at Roebling’s backside. “Dahg!” she shouted, setting him free.
Roebling trotted ahead of us. I whistled for him to come back. I tried to coax Ella into moving a little quicker. I turned to sweep her up in my arms. I whistled again.
I’m not much of a whistler. I’ve tried a loud, fingers-in-the-mouth whistle, but I’ve never figured out how to place my fingers or how to whistle around them. The disappointing volume I reach with a traditional pursed-lip whistle is hardly loud enough to interrupt a conversation.
For every day use, I developed a kind of stiff-lipped, through my teeth whistle—the kind a ventriloquist might try. It sounds like a teapot reaching temperature—not one at a rolling boil. It is the whistle I trained Roebling with, a decidedly indoor whistle. Outdoors, I depend on the dog’s legendary superior hearing.
Roebling’s ear twitched. I knew he had heard me. I twisted up my face to whistle sternly, so he would know I meant business.
Roebling cruised along in the diagonal, sideways canter that dogs do. He found something, a scent on the morning air more interesting than my whistle. I feared he was closing in on a pile of chicken bones, but as he passed the usual landmarks, the trash can and the pitch of open ground between it and the park bench, I knew his nose led him somewhere worse, to a pile of person fetally curled on the far end of the bench.
Vidya and I had run our standard drug stakeout on a Sunday evening in February when we first saw the apartment. We missed late nights and early mornings. We missed spring, summer and autumn entirely.
Like a three-season suit, the mall on Eastern Parkway fit well in all but the most extreme winter weather. Though the drug trade conducted its commerce elsewhere and derelict needles were never in sight, the mall offered a long runway for crash landings. As the stippled sunlight of morning broke through the thin leafed shade trees, drug-squandered physiques clung to the park benches—torsos thin enough to fit through the armrest’s opening.
The body hardly moved while Roebling sniffed at his feet and legs, but there was something geological about it—a tremor, a force of nature—something you shouldn’t turn your back to. I stepped on Roebling’s leash to stop him. Quick, frightened, desperate, feeling the animal closeness, the man moved frantically, like something splashing to lift its head out of water.
I might have looked upon him as something familiar, like the groggy lump of uncle found on the family room couch when I was four or five. I might have looked upon him as something fraternal—a comrade who had lost another night to the bottle. I knew that well enough. I had lost my share and taken a snooze or two on the public furniture. I might have seen him as myself, a cousin or a friend. “Sorry to wake you, brother,” I would say. “Go back to sleep.” But looking at his kinked hair and dark skin, dusty like distressed chocolate, I saw him as something other, unknown and threatening.
I held Ella in my left arm. I reached for Roebling’s leash with my right. If I had a free hand, I would have checked to see that my balls were on.
I thought I would know what to do. I thought when the situation arose I would know how to explode in a moment of spontaneous justified violence. I would know how to curl my hand into a serviceable fist. I would know how to throw a punch and land it on a cheek or a jaw or a nose or an eye.
I knew what it was supposed to look like—a punch, a spin, a high elbow and a kick, a collection of moves I had strung together and practiced since I was twelve, inspired in equal parts by Chuck Norris movies and TV commercials for A Chorus Line. Unfortunately, I hadn’t rehearsed my fight choreography in over twenty-five years. I’d have to improvise.
I took stock of my footing and stance. I wore my limbs clumsily—right shoulder to my opponent, right foot slightly forward—not a good defensive position.
I recalled my limited martial arts training—the free introductory karate class I had taken one Saturday when I was twelve and an aikido demonstration I sat in on years later. In both disciplines, my stance was unforgiveable. But then I remembered the fencing unit I had taken in high school gym class. For sword play my stance was nearly perfect. If Roebling’s leash had been a rapier I could have challenged the man to a duel.
Still, if I struck before the man got to his feet, one, less than ideal punch, might be enough.
How do you hit a man to knock him out? How do you strike a blow to flatten him to the ground? Not for good. Not forever, but down for the count, so I can get away safely, to home, to base, like a game of hide and seek. Where should I aim? Should I hit him on the side of the head, next to his eye? Do I aim for the chin and hope the additional wobbling and concussing of the jaw puts him down?
I stood quietly as the sludgy, unfocused eyes settled in my general direction. I felt a rumble, like the subway beneath my feet.
“Ello!” Ella said. “Ello!” she flapped her arm.
The man’s gaze passed over my right shoulder and face to find Ella in my left arm. I pulled her close to me and held her tightly.
“Well hello beautiful,” he grumbled. “How are you this morning?”
I had held her close in fear that we might be harmed. I held her now in awe that we might be healed.
“Viva la revolución, my darling,” my whispers kissed her brow. “Viva la revolución, my sweet.”
Ella and I observe a ritual—our morning routine. We walk the dog, wave to the neighbors and say our hallelujahs at breakfast. When I find a moment during the day, I recite my own petitions. I offer a father’s prayer:
Open my heart.
Help me to love more.
Help me to love better.
And if it serves Thy will oh God,
Please keep me from tripping over my own balls.
We cut across the choppy water of New York harbor, our bow pointed toward Ellis Island. I had already had enough. The rocking of the boat didn’t bother me, neither did the weight of the passengers pressing me against the rail, waving to the Statue of Liberty. I think I had just had enough of the grandmothers.
For a month and a half I had seen the pictures of my sixth grade classmates’ grandmothers rubber cemented to sheets of construction paper along with traced maps, flags and personal histories typed out on onion-skin paper with the occasional blotch of white-out and sharpened pencil correction.
We had just finished a Social Studies unit on the American Melting Pot. Our assignment’s due date coincided with the opening of Ellis Island as a museum. There had been some kind of contest. I hadn’t paid much attention to the details. I guess the kid with the most neatly glued grandmother was invited to have his immigration report featured in an exhibit. A few of my classmates were genuinely excited to be on the trip. They would get to see their reports displayed behind glass. As for me, I can’t say I was looking forward to the trip at all. If I had learned anything over the last six weeks it was this—Ellis Island was where the grandmothers came from.
The details of the contest weren’t important to me because I had dropped out of the running early on. My report featured neither of my grandmothers’ pictures. I veered away from family stories and personal anecdotes. I borrowed the general structure of my composition from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I jazzed it up with the look and feel of a few travel brochures. I brought it to life with generous detail absconded from men riding the rail at my father’s bar on the few days I was left in his care for a visit to the eye doctor.
It wasn’t that my grandmothers were unwilling to be helpful. Either of them would have been happy to be the subject of a school report, provided she had editorial control. Either would have loved to tell her story. Grandma, my mother’s mother, would spin a yarn worthy of Tennessee Williams, replete with gentleman callers in her front parlor on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Grandmother, my father’s mother, would unfold the saga she revealed to us in glimpses each Christmas as we passed the telephone receiver from one to the other like a hot potato before dinner.
“Merry Christmas, Grandmother,” we would say in turn.
“Grandmother is so lonely,” she would say, her voice droopy under the weight of blended scotch. “Nobody ever comes to visit Grandmother.”
You can keep your grandmothers—give me an encyclopedia any day. I loved them. I loved flipping through their pages—getting distracted by a picture or a pull-out—getting lost on the way to what I was looking for—starting back at the beginning and singing the alphabet song again and again, because, for the life of me, I simply cannot recall the correct order of S and R and T.
Our sixth grade teacher had been out sick for months. We were left in the care of Ms. Zera, the school’s permanent substitute. Noticing the laps I trudged carrying heavy encyclopedias from the book shelf to the study table, Ms. Zera followed me to my seat, “Ummm, Paul Hawkins, right?” Ms. Zera couldn’t remember our names without the classroom seating chart. The seating chart was no help to her in the library. “Well, Paul Hawkins, I think you’re report will be much richer if you include some stories from your grandparents.” She didn’t know my grandparents.
I looked up at Ms. Zera and laid my situation out as frankly as I could. “I don’t think my grandmother wants to talk about it.”
Ms. Zera put her hand to her mouth. She turned to the class, cleared her throat and addressed the other students, “You might want to send your grandmother a note, letting her know what your project is about and to give her an idea of what kind of questions you’ll be asking. This way she can reflect on some stories to tell you. For some people, talking about the past can be difficult.”
This was a sensitive suggestion for the students whose grandparents had smuggled themselves over the Alps with the von Trapp Family Singers or had been liberated by the 101st Airborne, but it wasn’t going to get me any closer to a prize-winning project.
I could have followed Ms. Zera’s suggestions to the letter. I could have sent my grandmother a note and invited her to bring old photographs and sit at the kitchen table with me for an interview, but I could foresee the outcome. I would sit neatly organized with a stack of loose leaf paper, a few lethally sharpened pencils and maybe even a tape recorder.
I would begin the interview with a cordial greeting, like the interviews I had seen on television, and then move directly to the questions, “Grandma, I was wondering if there are any reflections you could share with me about coming to this country.”
Gently pressing her hands in front of her, Grandma would even out the table cloth before speaking, “Well, Pop-pop and I took a cruise to Bermuda on our honeymoon. I don’t really remember much about returning to New York. I think I was asleep in our cabin when we pulled into the harbor. But then, oh yes, I must have woken up. You know they blow all of those horns. Who could sleep with such a racket?”
“Grandma,” I would gently interrupt her. “I’m interested more in when you first came to America.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” Grandma would say.
“Well Grandma, it’s like I said in my note to you,” I’d say. “My report is on the immigrant experience. Is there anything you can tell me about that?”
Grandma would squint and look around the room, searching for a personal connection to my query, “Immigrants?” she would whisper as she thought it over. “Immigrants, immigrants, immigrants… Oh, them… No, I wouldn’t know anything about them.”
The great American Melting Pot was a community to which my family did not belong. Sure, I knew that a report based on articles from the encyclopedia and Hell’s Kitchen memoirs from suburban barflies wasn’t going to win me any prizes, but I was pretty sure that the report I had been asked to write, the one based on my grandmother’s reflections, would probably land me in the principal’s office to explain the title, Immigrants: I’ve Heard They’re Good with Figures.
So it was, on a sixth grade field trip in 1978, I became the first member of my family to walk through the institutional halls of Ellis Island. Of course, I’ll take some liberties with the story in years to come, when my granddaughter interviews me for her sixth grade social studies project.
My family has no memory of the past. We have no immigrant stories, no old country, no motherland. We don’t have accents, traditions or woven tartans. Our family recipes come directly from Betty Crocker or are copied off the backs of soup cans. No matter what my report said, we had no potato famine, no crowded berth in the belly of a boat, no communal suffering in steerage. We are nth generation, time-out-of-mind Americans.
I was born the fifth of eight children to the daughter of a football coach and the son of a social climber. I grew up believing that what I was taught was American and true, that a young man should be diligent in mastering the proper three-point stances for both offensive and defensive positions and that he should also always have a clean sport jacket at the ready in the event he is invited to dinner.
When asked about my nationality, I was taught to spit out all of the British Isles at once, in no particular order—English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh. It didn’t mean anything, they were just funny words. Irish and English were like ticklish and squeamish. And Welsh? Who knows? I usually said that one last, hoping no one would ask about it. These four words were all I knew about my family’s nationality. It was all I needed to know. I could have answered the nationality question with those four words for the rest of my life, but my father had different ideas.
I saw it on the kitchen table one Sunday morning when I was seven years old. It looked like a thick-skinned football, but flatter and rounder with some kind of bumps on it. Maybe it was some kind of third-world football from a country where they used animal bladders as playthings. The bumps were probably cists or tumors. Why wouldn’t they be? I’m sure it wasn’t a top of the line bladder-ball.
The last thing I wanted was to learn a new game, new ways to stand, new rules, new made up reasons to run, hop, kick and have things thrown at me. But as I stood in the doorway, gazing at the stippled bladder-ball thing on the kitchen table and I knew the game plan had changed.
“Come on over here and taste it,” my father said.
“Taste it?” I echoed in a terrorized whisper.
The bladder crunched under the serrated blade in my father’s hand. My head began to shake involuntarily, my psyche trying to “no” away everything in front of me.
“It’s bread,” my father announced, taking a piece of the thick brown skin to his lips.
“It’s not bread,” I whispered. I knew what bread looked like. Bread was rectangular, like a shoebox; bread was golden, like bread.
“It’s Irish soda bread,” my father held a piece out to me. “Come on, it’s part of your heritage.”
I now had a heritage, revealed to me through bread that didn’t look like bread. I studied it for a couple of minutes, considering my options of fight, flight or eat. I had eaten English muffins before and they didn’t look like muffins. I broke off a piece and put it in my mouth. I ate it the way I eat things that I know I’m not going to like. My jaw chewed straight up and down, trying to break the sample into portions small enough to swallow without moving them around my mouth too much and running the risk of coming into contact with my taste buds. The bread was OK, and the raisins that I had earlier mistaken for cysts or tumors were OK too, but the difference in textures among crust, bread and raisin made it difficult for me not to get my tongue involved. I wondered what kind of breads, cakes or cookies we were going to discover to round out the Scottish and Welsh sides of our heritage.
The answer was none—no Scottish barley rolls, no Welsh oat biscuits. We said nothing about it and counted ourselves lucky that we had been allowed to keep our English muffins, because the day we adopted Irish soda bread, we abandoned England, Scotland and Wales. My father decided we were Irish, through and through. It was a bulleted point in his business plan:
- Convince family we are Irish, through and through
- Rent store front
- Get liquor license
- Paint everything green
Miss Ferguson, my second grade teacher, made a big deal over anyone wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. You could bet I was wearing green. I loved Miss Ferguson.
Miss Ferguson transcended the second grade class room. She transcended the entire elementary school. Once, she walked the class a few blocks to an assembly in the high school auditorium—OK, all of the teachers did that, but when all the teachers sat with their classes, Miss Ferguson did not. Instead, Miss Ferguson took to the stage to sing “Getting to Know You” from The King and I with the high school chorus. My brother Tommy was in the high school chorus. Throughout all of the times I looked up to him in my life, none compares with the afternoon he sang with Miss Ferguson.
I don’t know what I was envious of. I doubt Miss Ferguson ever noticed Tommy as anything more than a voice in the chorus. She certainly didn’t notice him the way she noticed me. Not only had she made a big deal when I wore green on St. Patrick’s Day, she noticed me in other ways too. She noticed my complex artistic side. I don’t know when I first learned how to draw a swastika, but Miss Ferguson was the first to notice.
By the time I was in the second grade, I was confident enough in my drawing abilities to give lessons to my classmates. The swastika, or “saw sticker” as I thought it was called, was just a flourish—a finishing touch, hardly something worth studying or drawing on its own. It was a minor detail of a larger scene. What I really liked drawing were tanks. Like most children, boys in particular, I liked machines, big machines—fire engines, garbage trucks, airplanes, boats. Military machinery, like tanks, piqued a particular interest, because as often as I would see them on the ABC Four-Thirty Movie, I would also see them explode. In broad strokes, they were also easy to draw. I started by drawing four or five circles in a row and then drawing an oblong shape around them. On top of that, I drew two or three rectangles in a basic step-up wedding cake shape, followed by a long straw jutting out of the top rectangle. Now, for the finishing detail… right in the middle of the biggest rectangle, I drew a sticker. If the tank was a good guy, I drew a star sticker. If the tank was a bad guy, I drew a saw sticker.
What? You don’t know how to draw a saw sticker? It’s easy… here, I’ll show you on the back of my math homework. You start with a tilted plus sign then you draw little lines on the end of each leg to make the saw look like it’s spinning.
The art clinics I offered my classmates brought me a lot of attention from Miss Ferguson and my mother. I was encouraged in the future to only draw the good guys.
Miss Ferguson took it well enough. She understood art and expression. Thursday afternoons she hosted the elementary school version of a poet in residence program by opening our classroom to a college student who would encourage us to write poetry. On days when she finished her lesson plan early, Miss Ferguson would open up the class for performance art. It was like open mic night in room 114.
“Does anyone have a joke they would like to tell the class?” she asked.
My hand shot up. I remembered a bunch of jokes that my father had brought home from the bar.
“OK, Paul Hawkins,” Miss Ferguson bounced her finger in the air as if she were plucking me out of my seat.
I walked up to the blackboard and looked around the room to get a feel for my audience.
“OK,” I said, clearing my throat. “Two Jews walk into a Chinese restaurant…”
My performance piece got about as much attention as the pencil art on the back of my homework. I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Wasn’t Jewish just a funny word like Irish, ticklish and squeamish? And weren’t we Jewish? Kind of Jewish? Jew-ish? Weren’t we somehow related to the characters in the stories I was taught in my religious instruction class—David and Goliath, Moses and the Ten Commandments, Noah and the Ark? That was the point, wasn’t it? We were the good guys, the Hebrews, the Jews, weren’t we? We weren’t the other ones, were we? Surely, we weren’t the Philistines. And what about the famous poem:
Roses are redish,
Violets are blueish,
If it wasn’t for Jesus,
We’d all still be Jewish.
No, we weren’t Jewish, I was told. And Jewish wasn’t like ticklish and squeamish. Jewish was different.
Second grade wasn’t a complete free-for-all. It wasn’t all just jokes and swastikas. Not in the hands of a renaissance woman like Miss Ferguson. Call it hippie culture; call it the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. In the darkness of 1974 with our President resigning in scandal and the Vietnam War ending dismally, something was happening in our classroom—something brilliant and subversive.
Miss Ferguson lined us up on the side of the room for the march upstairs to Mr. Richter’s music class. We filed into the room and sat freestyle on the floor.
Other teachers led their students to the music room or the art room or the gym and just left them there, but when Miss Ferguson brought us to the music room she stayed and joined the class.
“OK,” Mr. Richter called above the noisy class. “Does everybody have a seat?” He nodded to Miss Ferguson and she closed the door. Their cooperation gave off a feeling of conspiracy. It was not a classroom anymore, but a secret meeting.
“Does anyone know the name Martin Luther King?” Mr. Richter asked.
All hands went up. We had all heard the name before.
Mr. Richter continued, “Can anyone tell me who Martin Luther King is?”
Usually, my hand would have gone up first, but I held back. I was in enough hot water with swastikas and Jews. I thought someone else could take point for a while.
Words were called out and written on the blackboard—words I had heard from the TV news—simple words like walks and marches, strange ideas like separate bathrooms and water fountains and the back seats of busses; the final word was dead. He was dead.
This was a different kind of discussion for music class. We usually talked about the weather and learned songs about the season—the red, red robin, the meadow with a snowman. Mr. Richter brought it back to music, “There are songs people sing when they march together for a cause. The song helps them remember their purpose. It helps them keep in mind what brings them together. It tries to explain their efforts to anyone who sees them marching. This is the kind of song we are going to learn today.
“The song uses the word ‘overcome,’ who can tell me what that word means?”
“To climb on top of?”
“Something like that,” Mr. Richter encouraged.
“Does it mean to grow up?”
“To get better, like to be cured of something?”
“Yes, it could mean that too,” Mr. Richter said. “One meaning it has is to rise above. So, when we sing ‘We shall overcome’ we mean we will rise above whatever our problem is, that we will get past it, that it won’t be a problem anymore.”
We shall overcome.
A chorus of children singing,
We shall overcome.
In and out of tune,
We shall overcome some day.
Voices colliding with meter,
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
We shall overcome some day.
sounds like the truth.
By the time I was in the third grade my home had become a repository of slightly irregular Irish souvenirs—coffee table books, needle point prayers, shamrock neckties. Some were gifts my father had been given by patrons from the pub. Some were broken samples of mishandled inventory—knick-knacks sold from behind the bar.
One of my favorites was a chipped plate with a map of Ireland printed on it. The map served as an atlas of Irish names—McLaughlin, O’Donohue, Carnes and the like filled the borders of the Irish counties they came from. I looked the plate over and over under the kitchen’s bright light. From Donegal to Cork, I never found the name Hawkins.
“What a gyp!” I thought. I was the victim of injustice and gyp was the only word I had for it in the third grade.
My friend Chris Cleary’s mother had a plate just like ours—unchipped—better than ours. Chris had no trouble finding the name Cleary on his plate. But the Clearys had other things too—pictures of Irish people, a shillelagh, freckles and blue eyes. They had some sense of how Irish people behaved and how they spoke. Ask any Cleary and he could easily jump into a decent imitation of a brogue. It became difficult for me to believe that my friend’s family and my family were talking about the same place. His family’s Ireland was a landscape of lush green hills opening to a third world of gaunt men, crying children and wind burned, pregnant women. My family’s Ireland was a vaguely Gaelic, clean-cut, parochial school ideal—a lopsided combination of the Kennedy administration and a community theater production of Brigadoon. We could tell jokes, but they could tell stories. The Clearys had the Blarney Stone and the Irish gift-o’gab. We had the gift of keep-y’mouth-shut. We had the gift of mind-y’business.
I looked back at the names on the plate—names like MacGeoghegan, MacGilfinnen, O’Brosnaghan and O’Dooyearma. Suddenly it occurred to me that I hadn’t been gypped at all. Sure, if my last name had been O’Mulmoghery I would have found it on the map, but I also would have found it on my book bag, on my teacher’s attendance roster and on my report card. I would constantly hear it butchered when it was said out loud. And any time someone tried to pronounce it, I’d be obliged to answer.
Nobody mispronounces the name Hawkins. They don’t sound it out slowly. They don’t raise their voices uncertainly like they suspect something doubtful about it. It is not a question. Hawkins is pronounced with conviction. It is a statement—something believed to be true—a declaration. The certainty with which my name was said nurtured the confidence with which I learned to reply.
So, I missed out on the novelty of finding my name on a plate, but even in the third grade, I knew my name was not well suited for novelty. The name Hawkins didn’t belong on a plate with a lot of other names. Hawkins stood alone. Just the sound of it conjured the image of a solitary creature.
For the boys of the Hawkins family, the name performed particularly well. The “hawk” in Hawkins accentuated every venerable male attribute—our steady gaze, our broad shoulders, the tenor clarity of our voices, and the glint of sunlight on our talons as we swept down upon our prey.
I was christened with a particularly handsome name, Paul Hawkins. It is friendly in that it is simple, unchallenging—easy to read, easy to pronounce. That makes it likeable. But there is some alchemy to it that is instantly recognizable but hard to define. It possesses a masculine beauty, something resonant and mathematical about the matching vowel sounds in the first and second name. It is like the beating of a drum. It is like striking up a band. Suddenly, you are marching in a parade, and all you have done is say my name.
Everyone loves their own name, but more often than not, it is just the effect of classical conditioning—a Pavlov’s dog type of association—from the many times they had been called by name to the dinner table. But their names weren’t like mine. Their names weren’t repeated—recited like a poem. No one bothered me with nick names. No one was tempted to try to shorten it at all, or dared to separate the first name from the last name and tamper with the spell it cast. They called me by my full name. I was always Paul Hawkins. I was Paul Hawkins in Kindergarten. My father’s business partners called me Paul Hawkins. My teachers called me Paul Hawkins. It was a name people liked to say. They wanted to meet Paul Hawkins and be friends with Paul Hawkins. From an early age, my name did most of the heavy lifting. My name didn’t provide an easy to follow, bread crumb trail to its nation of origin. Instead, my name was my nation.
My mother did not seem to get the same use out of the Hawkins name as I did. Of course, it was her married name. She didn’t grow up with it, and lacked the intimacy with it that I had. I would hear her say it over the phone or to a cashier when picking up something she had ordered. She would say it and then immediately spell it, which she never realized was completely unnecessary—“H-A-W-K-I-N-S”—though it didn’t hurt either—the three syllable W separating the rhyming A and K… it sounded cool even when you spelled it.
I remember waiting with my mother at the counter of Ancona pizzeria. When we got to the front of the line, she said our name, and then she spelled it.
“Hey,” the cashier turned his head to yell behind him, “You got ‘Hawkins’ over there?”
“Here you go,” the pizza cook grabbed the box from the top of the oven, “Treasure Island!”
I waited until my mother and I were back in the car. I could feel the hot pizza through the cardboard box on my lap. “What was that?” I asked. “Why did that guy say ‘Treasure Island?’”
“Young Jim Hawkins,” my mother said, adjusting her mirrors. “He’s a character in the book ‘Treasure Island.’”
I dropped Johnny Tremain, The Red Pony, Rascal or whatever my junior high school reading assignment had been and I picked up ‘Treasure Island.’
At the time my interests swayed toward UFOs and a TV show about motorcycle policemen, not pirates. I found the book’s language dense, archaic and hard to read, but I dug in and found the gem I was looking for—“I’ve come aboard to take possession of this ship, Mr. Hands; and you’ll please regard me as your captain until further notice,”—what a Hawkins thing to say.
Finally I had found a Hawkins to hold on to—a famous Hawkins—a Hawkins well known in literary circles and pizza parlors. At thirteen, being a young man more of reputation than reality, having a fictional character as a forebear was just fine by me.
Throughout high school, my name had a life of its own. The way I heard it brought up from time to time made me wonder what sort of adventures it had without me.
I had just started working at the village pool for the summer. Halfway through my first shift I was told to clock out for a lunch break.
“How are you doing? I’m Paul,” I said to a fellow pool attendant at the time clock.
“I’m John,” he said, also punching out for lunch.
“Well,” I said. “Where do you want to go for lunch?”
John and I sat down with a couple of burgers around the corner from the pool. We talked about the work assignments we’d been given at the pool that morning and other assignments we had heard of and had seen written on the schedule—Phase I, Kiddie, Kiddie Gate, Showers, Road, Pool and Pit—basically small areas of the facility we’d be asked to keep clean and orderly throughout our shifts. We talked about our supervisors and other personalities—it was all garbled between bites of cheeseburger and gulps of Coca-Cola. It got to where I couldn’t understand him at all.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?” I asked.
John held his index finger in the air, chewing strongly and deliberately. “Sorry about that,” He said after a sip of Coke. “I asked if you’ve met Paul Hawkins yet.”
“I’m Paul Hawkins,” I said cautiously.
“No, you’re not,” he said.
“Yes,” I assured him. “I am.”
John shook his head. “That doesn’t even make sense,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Well, I guess you could be Paul Hawkins,” he conceded. “It’s just that I’ve heard the name. I mean, not a lot, and I can’t even tell you where or why, but I’ve heard it, even before today. So, there’s this name, you know? And a picture in my head that goes with the name. So, we punch out for lunch at the same time and you say, ‘Where do you want to go for lunch,’ and we’re here, eating burgers.”
“Right,” I said, trying to follow.
“It’s just that Paul Hawkins wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I mean the Paul Hawkins in my brain wouldn’t do that.”
We sat quietly. I nodded my head a little bit. John shuffled in his seat for a minute, thinking of what to say next.
“It’s a hell of a name,” he said.
“I know,” I nodded.
“It’s the kind of name you hear once, and you think you know it, like it’s famous for something.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It does that.”
“What are you going to do with it?” he asked nervously, finishing his fries.
“I don’t know,” I smirked. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“It’s just,” he stammered. “You should totally do something with it.”
“OK,” I shrugged. “Like what?”
“I don’t know,” he looked at me then slowly looked across to the window. His eyes were lost in thought and consideration. He nodded his head and returned my gaze, “Something.”
On the way to finding something to do with my name, I found work in New York restaurants.
“Has anybody spoken to you yet?” Rocky asked me as I sat down across from him at the staff meal.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “About what?”
“Someone overheard us the other day,” he said. “Anyway,” he looked across the room to draw my attention to one of the restaurant’s managers who had just taken a seat. “She asked me how well I knew you… If you were a friend of mine…”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Well, I didn’t know what she was getting at. I thought it was some kind of joke, so I said, ‘No, he ain’t no friend of mine.’”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem,” he smiled. “‘Well, I thought what he said to you the other day was offensive,’ she says to me.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“The chicken cutlet,” he said.
“I offended you with a chicken cutlet?” I said. Rocky shifted in his seat and took on an insistent posture. He looked at me impatiently. In my mind, I shuffled through the few conversations I remembered having with Rocky that had anything to do with a chicken breast.
“Oh man,” I protested. “Are you kidding me?” I’m so easily offended by what people take offence to.
I had only started waiting tables at this restaurant over the past two or three weeks. In setting up the dining room for dinner service, I had drawn the duty of preparing and lighting the votive candles. Cleaning the glass votives, finding, lighting and distributing the candles took a little longer than I expected. By the time I got into the kitchen to take a plate for staff meal, all I was able to scoop on to my plate were a few tablespoons of mixed vegetables. I looked forward to another night of running on coffee, heals of bread and weak Cokes from the serving gun at the bar.
Sitting down across from Rocky, my eyes fell upon his big, beautiful breasts—two boneless breasts of chicken sitting proudly on his plate.
“Hey Rock,” I said. “Are you going to eat all of that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Why?”
“Well, it might have looked like there was a lot when you put those on your plate, but when I got to the kitchen, there was nothing left.” I pointed to the broccoli flower and sliver of carrot on my plate. “This is all I’ve got.”
“Oh no,” Rocky said, poking a cutlet with his fork and dropping it on my plate. “Please have one of these.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. That’s just it. There looked like there was plenty,” Rocky said. “I don’t need all of this food.”
So far it was a normal conversation, a perfectly acceptable transaction between two colleagues. A need expressed and fulfilled with the flip of a utensil. A simple thank you would suffice, or perhaps the remembrance of a kindness done.
I looked at the chicken cutlet on my plate. “I don’t feel good about this Rocky,” I said.
“Go on,” he said. “It’s just a piece of chicken.”
“I’m taking food off your plate,” I said. “Hasn’t the white man taken enough?”
Rocky snickered and shook his head. “Really,” he said. “It’s OK.”
“Do you know what I mean?” I said. “I mean, I don’t want to end up owing you forty acres, a mule and a chicken breast.”
Our daily lives pass without notice and the events within have nothing to do with the greater tale of history unfolding. If a moment suggests something different, if a moment speaks to you in poetry within the context of history—a literary theme—the enduring struggles of man against nature, time against man or man’s higher ideals against his basic animal desires, ignore it or risk offending the sensibilities of everyone within earshot, because our society and its history are incompatible. We cannot occupy both at the same time.
“That’s nothing,” my friend Shawn said when I told him the story. His theater company had just returned from a production they had staged in Berlin. “So, we’re artists, right? Hanging out at cafés, meeting local artists and enthusiasts for drinks after the show…”
“Yeah, OK,” I nodded, “your basic Bohemian lifestyle.”
“Right,” Shawn said, “but did you know that in Berlin, when you meet someone new, you don’t ask them what they do for a living? It’s just not done, and it’s not out of any heightened sense of etiquette either. I mean, you can tell them you want to take them to the Kit-Kat Club and tootsie-roll them, just don’t ask them about their nine-to-five.”
I shrugged. “So, what’s that all about?”
“The Nazis,” Shawn said. “What else? See, over there, whatever you do for a living is probably the same thing your old man did and his old man too. So, you’re out for a drink when someone asks you what you do for a living and it comes across like an interrogation at Nuremburg. Say you have a nice job in manufacturing or anything vaguely industrial, you don’t want to talk about it because the subtext is that grandpa built tanks and danced to oompah music with the Nazis.”
When we find roads we don’t want to go down, we wink to each other and pretend they are dead ends.
Our emotions hang there, with the question. Our thoughts and feelings are strained. There is still a great deal we cannot say out loud and our voices are strained and hoarse from whispering. So, we stick to pop culture. We talk about movies and television programs. We don’t talk about politics, because that seemed to be about white people. We stopped talking about the weather after Katrina came down so heavily upon the delta blacks.
You learn to hop gingerly through conversations, casually, easily, like a game of checkers, until you are smitten and sit across from a beautiful dark skinned woman on a first date, and you find yourself thrown suddenly into a game of grand master level chess.
I remember being struck by disbelief each time I peeked from my menu to see the rich dark skin of my date across the table. How had we navigated our way through the clumsy social obstacles to arrive at dinner together? I looked at her hands holding the menu. The menu—there was a mine field waiting to be tripped. I didn’t know what her family’s background was or what type of culture she was raised in. We could talk about all of that later, but the task at hand was to order something from the menu that wouldn’t offend her. She could be Islamic and not eat pork.
“So,” I said, because it was the type of question you could ask on a first date, “What kind of name is Vidya?”
“It’s a Hindu name,” Vidya smiled.
I smiled too and thought, OK, what does that mean? Hindus don’t eat beef, right? Or are their diets dictated by their caste? I remembered a scene from a movie where Alec Guinness played a Brahmin who would only eat vegetarian dishes prepared by another Brahmin. It was a lot to consider on a first date. Should I ask the waitress if there was a Brahmin in the kitchen who could whip up a plate of mashed potatoes?
For our first date, I thought it would be easy to avoid controversy. I thought it would take little effort to steer clear of any racially charged topics. No matter how carefully I tried to guide the conversation, we ended up talking about oppression, cruelty and slavery—as it turned out, we both had older brothers.
The notion of slavery is not born within us; instead, it is a contagion we succumb to when we see our younger sibling in our mothers’ arms for the first time. No matter how childlike and innocent we may seem at the time, we begin to calculate our moves. We know that our future happiness, maybe our very survival depends upon getting close to the younger child, manipulating the way it interprets its environment and bending it to conform to our will. It comes from the most selfish and immature desires.
Vidya had been the youngest child in her family, and the only girl, so, she wasn’t able to escape her brothers’ yoke until the day she left for college. I had grown up in the cruelest condition—one of the middle children.
I remembered one summer when my two immediately older brothers returned from wrestling camp. We were in the way-back seat of my mother’s station wagon when they decided to practice their newly learned techniques on me—not the actual wrestling moves, but the more subtle tortures—more effective Charlie-horses, delivered with a knuckle instead of a closed fist; Indian burns and methods of twisting arm hair into knots with a little spit and the palm of a hand.
Not only did I live under the constant terror of noogies, wedgies and towel snaps, I lived through the additional horror of becoming the monster I despised—terrorizing my younger brothers and sister as their Friday night babysitter. On one all too well remembered evening, I convinced my brother Andrew that I was going to flush his foot down the toilet. It is the type of story that comes up from time to time during family reunions, wedding toasts and now, on a first date.
The first date went well. By the end of June, Vidya had moved in. By the end of October, I had finished painting the baby’s room. Our baby was due in December.
One day a voice caught me by surprise in a coffee shop. It had a brassy, French horn quality to it. In a way it was like hearing an echo of my own voice—as if my voice had bounced off a tile wall and through doing so tightened its diction. The language and pronunciation were more exact than the lazy educated Brooklyn accent I had grown comfortable speaking in.
“Excuse me,” I said, following the man to the milk and sugar table at the front of the coffee shop. “You seem familiar to me and I don’t know why.”
“I don’t know why either,” he said. He put his hand out. “My name’s Michael.”
“Michael,” I said, finding something else in his face. “I think I knew you when your beard was shorter and your hair had not yet turned white.”
“You may have. You may have,” he nodded. “There was such a time.”
“And if I remember correctly,” I said. “I think I used to call you Professor.”
“I’d say your memory serves you well,” he said. “That’s one of the titles I am known by.”
“I’m Paul Hawkins,” I said. “I was a student of yours about eighteen years ago.”
“Paul Hawkins,” Michael said. “Yes, I remember that name.”
Michael’s pet project was an elective class on the history of the English language. Each spring, in an effort to bolster registration in the class, Michael would post fliers all around campus inviting students to an hour long lunch time seminar on the history of dirty words. I attended the seminar and registered for the course. It was one of those courses that didn’t really help you in later life, like statistics and economics, but it provided a foundation of arcane knowledge that I could resort to if I followed my dream to become a Jeopardy contestant. Aside from that, it provided just another craw for me to get things stuck in.
Vidya and I were due for a night out. We went for a bite to eat and to see a movie. I forget what we had for dinner, but the movie we picked was Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
“What did you think of it?” Vidya asked as we walked up Court Street on our way home.
“Something happened in the beginning of the movie that distracted me,” I said. “I couldn’t get my head back into the story.”
“What was it?” Vidya asked as we huddled against the damp October evening.
“Something stupid,” I said. “Elizabeth said ‘hurricane’. I don’t think she would have known that word.”
As the movie’s plot builds, Elizabeth snaps back at the Spanish ambassador after he says something cute about her majesty’s relationship with Clive Owen, I mean Walter Raleigh.
The Spanish ambassador cautions the shortsightedness of her majesty’s outrage with the line, “You see a leaf fall and you think you know which way the wind blows. Well, there is a wind coming, Madame, that will sweep away your pride.” He then squats out a little curtsy and turns to leave.
Incensed, Cate Blanchete, I mean Elizabeth, takes a deep breath and roars, “I too can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will sweep Spain bare if you dare to try me.”
Fantastic, of course. Hurray! Bravo! All the shouting about the weather foreshadows the mysterious wind storms that later toss the Spanish Armada against the coastal rocks. It is all just good, cinematic drama. I didn’t get hung up on that. It didn’t bother me that the whole conversation probably never happened. I got hung up on a single word in a conversation that never happened. I just didn’t think Elizabeth would have known the word hurricane.
When we got home, I made Vidya some tea and I turned on my computer. I knew I had to exorcise the hurricane demon from my consciousness. I Googled. I Yahooed. I Wikipediaed. I typed in “Elizabeth”, “hurricane”, and “Sir Walter Raleigh.” I typed in “Spanish Armada” and something caught my eye. It was like a figure jumping out at me from a color blindness test. The screen was cluttered with text about Mary of Scotts, the Spanish Armada and the English defenses, but all I could see was a name—my name.
Slowly, I read through the material I had found. Though I couldn’t find anything conclusive on whether Elizabeth had known or used the word hurricane, I was clear that she knew the name Hawkins and probably said it a lot. Admiral Sir John Hawkins was one of three maritime characters who, along with the wind, is credited with defeating the Spanish Armada.
At times like this I wish I had an old style encyclopedia sitting on shelves in the bedroom. One reason being that I might march into the room determined to pull the H volume off the shelf to begin my research on Sir John Hawkins and suddenly forget why I walked into the bedroom in the first place. It’s happened before. I’d stand in the middle of the room for a minute and decide that I had probably decided to get ready for bed, and that would be the end of my research project for the evening. The other advantage to searching an encyclopedia in printed form is that, had I successfully retrieved the H encyclopedia, I probably would have flipped the book open with my left thumb, shuffling through the pages like I was shuffling a deck of cards, seeing entries in the back of the book first. Something else might have caught my eye and distracted me until I was too tired to read any more—hypoallergenic dogs, Hoover Dam or maybe a hiatal hernia. I could have come across a spread on the Hubble Space Telescope and floated away into a star birthing nebula.
We don’t seek information in this way anymore. We would never think to purposely mistype our search word into the text box of an online reference—to be distracted by a pleasant detour. To circuitously come to what we are searching for with a fresh mind from having learned something random and new.
There is a danger in this directness. There is a danger in finding just what you are looking for. It is the danger of tunnel vision. It is the danger of finding only what you already know. It may make us feel exact, precise, even vindicated, but it also distorts our perspective. We no longer feel the weight of a book on our lap and realize that, though the topic of our interest takes up a page or two, there are other topics worthy of consideration, enough to fill the rest of the book and twenty four books of equal size.
Now I had my blinders on, and the only thing I could see was Sir John Hawkins, an ancestor reaching out to me from history. This was bad—it was just messy scholarship. Genealogy is a methodical practice of analyzing official documents—birth records, baptismal records, death certificates and census forms. Tracing my lineage back to Elizabethan England would be a painstaking process tip-toeing through over four hundred years—fourteen generations of vital records. It really isn’t a type of work I am suited for. I’m not good with piles of documents and little slips of paper. I can’t keep a receipt of purchase long enough to apply for a manufacturer’s rebate. And in the end, what did I hope to gain, a chronicle of this one begat that one that’s about as fun to read as the phone book?
Who was I to have reservations? My ancestry had become irreparably murky years ago when I penciled the names of fictional characters like Jim Hawkins from Treasure Island and Sadie Hawkins from Li’l Abner onto blank branches of my family tree. There was a far greater chance that I was related to Sir John considering he was once a flesh and blood man.
I admit there is little science behind it, but who can argue with the holy trinity of ancestry—skin color, language and last name? What my evidence lacked in genetics, it made up for in phonetics. True ancestry didn’t matter. The name bound us together. I simplified the family tree. Generations of intermediaries fell away. I drew a straight line from him to me.
I clicked on a hyperlink that brought me to an article about Sir John Hawkins—“Whoa,” I thought.
“Whoa, what?” Vidya asked. “Did you just say ‘whoa?’”
OK, so I didn’t think it. I said it out loud, but what sat before me was whoa worthy.
“It says here that John Hawkins sailed to the Americas in 1562.” I said. “That’s before the Mayflower. That’s before Jamestown. You grow up learning names like John Smith and Myles Standish, but Hawkins was here before any of them. A man named Hawkins was one of the first English speaking people to come to America.”
Vidya walked around the sofa and looked over my shoulder at the screen. “What else does it say?” she asked.
“He may have been the first to import potatoes to be planted in Ireland, and the first to bring tobacco to England.”
Vidya rubbed my neck and shoulders and kissed the back of my head. “I’m tired,” she said. “Are you coming to bed?”
“I’d like to read a little more,” I said. “I’ll be in in a few minutes.”
“You know you’re going to be out here all night,” she said.
“No, no,” I said. “I’ll just be a few minutes.”
“It will all be there in the morning, you know,” she said.
I rubbed my eyes, stood up from my desk and followed Vidya into the bedroom.
“Paul, I’m proud of you,” Vidya said. “I thought for sure I lost you to the computer tonight.”
I shrugged and grinned. I walked around the bed and changed from my blue jeans into a pair of flannel pajama pants. I turned to Vidya and kissed her.
I should have stopped there. I should have gone to bed. I could have lulled myself to sleep to the thought of the sea. I could have slept easy through the night, dreaming of cigarettes and mashed potatoes, but I was a little wound up by my discovery and though I knew it wouldn’t rewrite history, I thought I might take a stab at rewriting my sixth grade Social Studies report.
“Before you go to sleep,” I said. “Could I have a few sheets of construction paper?”
I found a portrait of Sir John Hawkins on the Internet and printed it out. I was already way ahead of my former sixth grade classmates. I seem to remember that all of the images used of the grandmothers in the original reports were black and white photographs.
Every generation looks upon their grandparents as impossibly old. My notion of the vast canyon of time between me and my grandparents was highlighted by a shift from black and white to color photography. All of the photographs I had seen of my grandparents when they were younger were in black and white, as were the movies from their era that I had seen on TV. It seemed just as likely to me that my grandparents had come of age during a time when life itself was experienced in shades of gray. It seemed consistent with the stories of hardship I had heard—the Great Depression and wartime shortages. I imagined looking out a window to a gray field under a gray sky.
This alone would have made my report stand out among the others—I had a color image of John Hawkins. He had lived and died around 400 years before any of the grandmothers, yet he seemed more approachable. With a dangling earring and a puffy Elizabethan collar, his rosy seaman’s cheeks made him more contemporary—more alive than any of the gray or sepia toned grandmothers.
I brushed the upper left corner of my cover page with rubber cement and carefully guided Sir John’s image into place. In the upper right corner, I planned to mount the coat of arms awarded to Sir John as one of the honors Elizabeth bestowed upon him in recognition of his service in repelling the Spanish attack. Since the coat of arms had been awarded to Sir John directly, and had not been an inherited standard, the symbols of heraldry found on it had been chosen specifically to reflect the characteristics Her Majesty wished to applaud in Sir John’s person.
From black paper, I cut the shield—square at the top, coming to a rounded point at the bottom—roughly the shape of a wine glass without the stem. What I call black when talking about construction paper is called sable in heraldry, and it signifies constancy. For over twenty five years, the crown had acted as a business partner in Hawkins’s merchant undertakings, to the point of leasing or perhaps lending him the 700 ton warship, the Jesus of Lubeck.
Like a wine glass, the shape is filled with a generous tasting pour of bold azure and argent waves. The waves, of course, denote his mastery of the sea. The blue waves signify truth and loyalty while the white waves suggest peace and sincerity—qualities most likely displayed through Hawkins’s faithful perseverance through various Spanish intrigues which sought to enlist him to the peril of his Queen. Hawkins served as a valuable double agent, confusing the Spanish ambassador with misinformation and ultimately uncovering the Ridolfi plot—a plan to assassinate Elizabeth and enthrone Mary Stuart.
Above the waves hovers a golden lion in the passant guardant pose, or the looking straight at you, one claw scratching pose. The gold intones noble ideals of generosity and elevation of the mind; the lion stands for dauntless courage, strength, ferocity and valor. By my guess it is the only animal you would think to draw on the shield of a man who, outnumbered and outgunned, battened down the hatches and sailed in the face of the Spanish Armada.
At the top left of the shield sits a gold square containing a black scallop shell displayed between two sabers. As a whole, the box honors Hawkins for his travel to distant places and his victorious naval command.
Finally, to the right of the square sit two gold coins, or roundels, signifying treasure. As a merchant business partner to the crown, John Hawkins returned generous dividends to the treasury.
I looked at the coat of arms I had cut from construction paper and assembled with rubber cement. I rubbed my eyes, stinging from staring at my computer monitor. I stretched my right hand, cramped from tight scissor work. I should have gone to sleep hours before at Vidya’s suggestion. I walked over to the refrigerator, poured myself a Pepsi and grabbed a handful of pretzels. With the rubber cement on my project drying, it was a good time for me to clean up my scraps of paper, wind down and head in to bed.
I was pleased when I compared my coat of arms to the original on the screen. Of course, the original displayed details and flourishes that I would probably leave out—the helmet mounted above the shield surrounded by waving scarves of the mantling.
I liked the clean line at the top of the shield as I had it. I thought it would make it easy to square on the page next to Sir John’s portrait. I squinted in an effort to make out what was at the very top of the helmet on the original illustration. The heralds call this element the crest—it is sometimes used as a portable aspect of the coat of arms—the kind of detail one might have embroidered on a blazer or printed on one’s personal stationery. Sometimes the crest is a complete miniature duplicate of the coat of arms it sits above. Sometimes it is a thematic image—a symbolic abbreviation of the man it is meant to honor. I clicked on the image to open it in full resolution. I had never seen anything like it before. Up until this point, my exposure to coats of arms has been exclusive to vacation gift shops, but I had never seen an icon like this on any souvenir coffee cup, tee-shirt or refrigerator magnet. To my mind, it could only have one meaning.
I clicked on the tab to the article I had viewed earlier. I read slowly and carefully. John Hawkins was far more than just a simple sailing merchant, hanging his shingle and peddling his wares from port to port. John Hawkins was a commercial visionary and marketing innovator. Maybe this is where my father got his entrepreneurial spirit. My father was a natural business man. He would read his morning paper with a cup of black coffee and a yellow legal pad, scratching down the names and details of anything that caught his eye—synapses firing—every story was an opportunity, each exposing a niche to be explored.
I grew up browsing through the titles of my father’s basement business library—flipping open volumes I found around the house—behind a sofa’s throw pillow, in the bathroom magazine rack, on the kitchen table. He collected all of the great business writers and motivators—Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Og Mandino.
To my surprise, none of the books talked about business directly—instead, they all talked about how to treat people fairly and with respect. Profitable commerce, they all agreed, was an unavoidable byproduct of decency. It all boiled down to a single philosophy through which everyone involved found fulfillment through the deal. In some of the books, they spoke about the fulfillment of commerce with the reverence of a communal spiritual event. The suppliers and manufacturers felt it, the retail middle men felt it and ultimately, the customer or end user felt it. It was the win-win—everybody’s happy because everybody wins—relationship.
In school, when I read that the renaissance was facilitated in part by the rise of the European merchant class, I thought of friendly customer service and the philosophies expounded in my father’s paperback collection. I pictured the Avon lady and the Good Humor man ringing their bells along the trade routes of medieval Christendom. My impression, it turns out, was inaccurate. In the late Middle Ages such evolved notions of salesmanship had not yet quite caught on. Hell, they were just getting used to gunpowder.
John Hawkins didn’t benefit from an MBA education. Instead of modeling a business philosophy on concepts distilled from the study other successful businesses, John Hawkins culled his case studies from the only well documented international transactions available to him—military conquest.
As a merchant upon the high seas, flying the flag of Protestant England, John Hawkins found it easy enough to pick fights with nearly any ship he encountered—certainly with the Catholic powers of France, Spain and Portugal. With a note from the queen, recognizing him as a privateer, Captain Hawkins had license to operate his small fleet like it was his own private navy.
He would set sail from England with his holds full of textiles and who knows what other kinds of English goods—jams and jellies and such—all the little jars and brass containers that sit irresistibly on the shelves in the airport’s duty-free shop. He would sail west through the channel and then south along the Atlantic coasts of the European powers, with a keen eye out for other ships to harass. Docking in the Spanish Canary Islands, he would sniff out rumors of where the actions was, while trying to look innocent by publicizing his cover story as well as he could, “What? Me? My ship? Oh, you know… English stuff… jellies, jams, sweaters, that sort of thing.”
From there he would sail south, looking to trade with Portuguese merchant ships and camps along Africa’s coast. By trade, I mean loot. I mean plunder. John Hawkins traded in an old school kind of way—in an old grammar school kind of way—in an old, “trade your lunch money for a knuckle sandwich” kind of way. If he found the Portuguese booty too great to divide among his ships, he would pull an English flag out of a trunk, run it up the mast of the captured galleon and call it his own. As for the Portuguese crew, they would be exiled to the African wilderness or murdered, depending on the Captain’s mood.
If it sounds like he was hard on his suppliers, you should have seen John Hawkins on sales calls. He believed in introducing himself to his customers with a bang… no, literally, with cannon fire. Hawkins would pilot his ships into one of the harbors of New Spain, blasting his cannons to announce his arrival. It was his way of bridging the communication gap he might find with the Spanish settlers. The cannon spoke the universal language. It said, “Hello. I’m within range of your settlement, and I have a cannon. I’d like to make a sales appointment with you.”
While the cannons fired, Hawkins prepared his away team—it was kind of like Star Trek, but medieval. The selected crew members changed out of whatever fancy pirate costumes they liked to wear onboard the ship and slip into something more appropriate for a business meeting—armor and chainmail. They rowed their longboats to shore, each with his cutlass at his side and his harquebus—you know, the funny looking muskets with the yawning funnel for a muzzle—loaded and half-cocked.
Upon meeting a village magistrate, Hawkins plunged into a monologue of lies and thinly veiled threats:
Mucho gusto and greetings, Your Grace.
Allow me to introduce myself—Captain John Hawkins, honorable sailor man at your service. Please forgive the presence of my heavily armed ships in your harbor, but we’ve been thrown off course by a storm. We wish only to resupply and be on our way. I understand the Kingdom of Spain forbids you to trade with English merchants, but surely you could waive these sanctions to rescue us from our immediate peril and in turn rescue your village from our guns. Please accept this assortment of jams and jellies as my gift.
To modern sensibilities, John Hawkins presented a questionable business plan—uncertain markets, hostile conditions, threats from weather and disease, political turmoil, not to mention the distance to be traveled to get goods to market. On paper, a lemonade stand presented a more promising venture. But at the time, John Hawkins business plan was a marvel. It became the business model of the European shipping industry for the next two hundred and fifty years. Every merchant looking to make his fortune at sea would follow in John Hawkins wake—from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back to Europe.
I studied the route I had traced in red of Hawkins’s first venture to the Americas. It was more pronounced and visually appealing than the simple, one-way trails left behind by immigrating grandparents. Theirs was a collection of line segments or at best and elegant Bézier curve. Hawkins’s path had weight to it. It was a closed curve, a shape. It was a triangle.
That’s when I got it.
I clicked back to the enlarged coat of arms and studied Sir John’s personal crest. It jarred me to see such a literal figure in the midst of all the heraldic symbolism—a lion, a saber, a scallop shell and this—almost as an afterthought—a grotesque feather in his cap. John Hawkins personal crest was the portrait of a black man bound about the arms and chest with thick ropes and chains. John Hawkins invented the Atlantic triangle trade. John Hawkins was the pioneer English trader of African slaves in the early Americas. He wrote the book on it—An Alliance to Raid for Slaves by Captain John Hawkins. It wasn’t quite How to Win Friends and Influence People, it was more along the lines of How to Coerce and Intimidate One Group of Africans Into Helping You Kidnap and Enslave Another Group of Africans. It was a summer sleeper hit.
I turned off the light at my desk and found that the room was glowing. Morning whispered through the window. I walked into the kitchen and put the kettle on for coffee. If my original report, Immigrants: I’ve Heard They’re Good with Figures, would have had me sent to the principal’s office, this new draft, Son of the Slave Trade, would have gotten me expelled, maybe even deported. No matter how detailed my illustrations, or how well glued my cover, this wasn’t a report to be displayed behind glass in an American Heritage museum, it was more a document to be entered into evidence at The Hague.
I had disregarded the first rule of American history, a tenet we usually extend to our family histories—only draw the good guys. But a difficulty lies in that history, as we are told, is written by the winners. As it turns out, the winners weren’t always good guys. Now, I began to understand the ideology behind it—the warning implied in Miss Ferguson’s second grade suggestion. I should only draw the good guys, because after I’ve drawn the bad guys, and taken a good long look, I’m bound to see something familiar in them. I will have to admit to a resemblance.
What if I drew the bad guy and spoke, not loudly, from a soap box with a puffed up chest, saying, “I’m going to say this once and for all…” but softly, sincerely as to say, “if you don’t hear me the first time, I will repeat myself. I will say it again. I will say it again and forever. I recognize the resemblance. I am a descendant of slavery and I recognize the slaver in me. It is the part of me that is farthest from my heart, but it is there.” Maybe then I could work my way to something that resembled an appropriate response—something that resembled comprehension, compassion or apology. Would that be too much? Would it be far too little?
What confused me most was that, within months, I was going to have a child whose complexion would not be white. A child—as much a Hawkins as I am, as much a Hawkins as Sir John—who, historically, would sail as cargo and not kin.
I felt an anger brewing.
History understands anger. History understands difference. It welcomes clash, disagreement, and ultimatum. It whispered to me to toughen up, to prepare for conflict, to ready for battle. I would be keen to every comment. I would assess every gesture and facial expression. At the slightest indiscretion, I would be steady and unflinching. I will stand my ground and say, for all to hear, “If my child is made to feel unwelcome, someone is going to end up with his foot in the toilet. And take me at my word; I’m the man who will flush that toilet.”
The world would understand something like that. That is how the world speaks.
I stood at the kitchen window as the sky grew lighter. The trees and the roof tops, the back walls of the buildings on the opposite block, everything was dark and dull and colorless—a cityscape of gray.
Is it true what they say about daylight? Does morning really offer something new? Is there a chance to change? Will I raise a family in guarded anger, ever ready with my own bullying toilet threats, or can I do better? Is there a process to follow as the sun comes up? Do I offer up my guilt and sorrow to mingle with the last moments of yesterday’s darkness and watch as it is bleached away by the coming of the new day?
No, the dawn isn’t necessary to make a solemn oath, but it offers itself as a useful tool. It is a time of day when I am overpowered. It is a time of day when I am in awe. It is a time of day when I approach the humility needed to change. By 8:00 a.m., I’ll be playing with my house keys. By 10:00 I will convince myself of how ineffective I am, how little I can do.
At dawn, I believe in the greatness of small things—the way the diffused light casts unrecognizable shadows. It is dawn and everything is new and original. Everyone else is asleep. When their alarms ring, they will awaken into a world that I have been at work on for hours, a world that I have been finessing and fine tuning—a world that holds my small act in its memory. If I can do little, and choose to do nothing, then damn me and damn all the world.
I walked into the bathroom and turned the water on for a hot shower. History is written by the winners, I thought. So let us, by all means, do our best to win.
I have a litmus test I use with new ideas. I imagine dropping my new idea into conversations in different environments. Not standing on a soap box with a well formed lecture, ready to introduce and defend the idea, but just dropping it as an aside, watching to see if someone else will pick it up. I want to know if my idea has any legs of its own.
My idea was subtle, so near to nothing that it is easy to imagine that it would never be noticed. But then, it was so abhorrent, that dropping it into a conversation at a bar or family holiday party could easily result in a fist fight. But then, it all depends on the ears it falls on.
I pictured my friend Mark tending bar at his pub in my old home town. “Hey,” he’d say to a local he remembered from twenty five summers ago when we all worked at the village pool. “Did you hear about Paul Hawkins?”
“No,” the friend would smile to hear my name. “I haven’t heard a thing.”
“Paul Hawkins isn’t white anymore.”
“What do you mean?” he’d ask.
Mark would flip a cocktail napkin onto the bar and reach for a pint glass to pull a draught. “I don’t mean anything. He just stopped being white.”
“Well, what does he look like?”
“Oh, no,” Mark would clarify. “He’s still the same guy. He’s just stopped being white.” He’d place the glass in front of John, rock on his heels and lean on the back bar.
John would take the glass to his lips and take the first short sip. He would nod, thoughtfully, and while he did, he might catch the reflection of his own eye in the mirror behind the call liquor. In his own face, he would notice the hint of an emotion he hadn’t touched in years, something hopeful and adolescent. He’d wonder if his wife had ever seen that look in his eye, or if his children would recognize it. It has been too long, but it is not yet too late.
“Paul Hawkins…” he’d say. “Paul Hawkins stopped being white,” He would shake his head slowly, but somewhere, in his quiet consideration, his head would become still and he would begin to nod. “That’s something.”
I sing a lot. I sing all of the time—in the shower, walking down the street, on subway platforms. I’ve been caught singing out loud in my office with headphones on. When I sing a song, it is not with my voice. I am not the performer. Singing to me is just part of listening. A song can be inviting to me and I can feel drawn into it, but I am still separate from it. I am still a spectator—part of the audience. I can become passionate, even animated, but I never take it to heart. I never become the singer. I don’t know how many times I have sung along to “We Will Rock You,” but I never felt that I was part of the “we.” I never felt that I was rocking anyone. It was always Freddie Mercury and Queen who were doing the actual rocking.
As the hot shower poured over my back I began to hum and then sing a song. It was a simple song, a song I had known since childhood. I had always heard it belted out with certainty. I never confused its message with wishful thinking. I always believed it to be true.
As I sang, some kind of shift happened within me. I was no longer a spectator. I was part of the song. I was the “we” I was singing about. I was healing. I was growing. Today was the day the song promised.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe,
We shall overcome some day.
Funny, I never thought it would be a Thursday.
for the fallen,
and for the ones who helped us through
I had had a bad dream during the night. Like most of my dreams, I couldn’t remember the details, but I was left with a feeling and a few remnants of the images that had passed through my mind as I slept. I stepped out of my bedroom to my dog’s energetic greeting. Roebling had been waiting at my door for his morning walk. For us, the walk is more of a ritual than a necessity. After adopting Roebling, I had installed a dog door in our kitchen window. It was the kind of dog door you might remember from Please Don’t Eat the Daisies or My Three Sons, except in our case the door led to a roof space outside our Brooklyn apartment. Every day or so, I’d climb on to the roof to clean up the little packages Roebling left behind.
I threw on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, grabbed a couple of plastic bags and climbed out the window. There was a heavy smell in the air—a familiar smell—the kind of smell you get when you burn a grilled cheese sandwich while your misplaced plastic egg timer is leaning and melting against the pan. Bending here and there to pick up little piles, I made my way to Roebling’s favorite spot on the corner of the roof where I found a manila file folder. The folder was anonymous, like any you would pull out of an office supply closet—no papers were inside, and the tab was unmarked. The only unusual aspect of the folder—aside from finding it on my roof—was that it had been completely singed around the edges. It all came back to me. It hadn’t been a dream. The folder had been taken from a supply closet early in the morning on the day before and as someone fumbled with his label maker or picked with short fingernails at the backing of a strip of tape, an airplane drove through his office. The folder had blasted out the other side of the building, risen on a pillar of smoke and landed a mile downwind in Brooklyn.
TV commentators reported stories to raise morale. New Yorkers—a notoriously hard-boiled bunch—were showing compassion as never before. Everyone was pitching in, helping out, doing what he could to help the city in its greatest hour of need. I wish I could say I was one of these heroes, but as it turned out, in the rescue and relief effort, I was the goat.
It started early on the morning of the disaster. As soon as I realized what had happened I ran to the blood center. After donating my pint of blood, I urged the technician to poke me again and take another pint. She turned me down, hurrying me along to the cantina for juice and cookies to make way for the two hundred donors in line behind me.
I wanted to do more, but living in Brooklyn, I was cut off. The bridges were closed and the subways weren’t running into Manhattan.
“The trains are running now,” my friend Dave called me on Thursday morning. “Let’s go in and see if we can help.” With that I looked around my apartment for the gear of a laborer, but found myself ill-equipped. Sure, I had overalls and good, thick work socks, I even found the facemask I used to wear when I hobbied around with my airbrush, but I didn’t have any work boots, or real work gloves. Looking through bags and closets, I felt like I was putting together a Halloween costume. I found a pair of leather gloves and figured they would have to do.
Dave and his twin brother Chris had me outclassed on the facemask. They are both painters—real painters, oil and canvas type painters. For their day jobs they paint walls, apartments and offices in the decorative washes and faux finishes that Martha Stewart makes look so easy. Their facemasks were actual respirators with canister filters hanging on either side of the nose; mine was a glorified sheet of gauze pinned between two pieces of plastic and held in place by a rubber band. I was tempted to throw it away in the corner trash and wear a bandana across my face like the Frito Bandito.
We took the subway in under the East River. Peeking over someone’s shoulder, I saw the two-page spreads of the New York Post. It was the first time I had seen a newspaper. I had been getting my news from the television, where the camera moved and where they focused on people speaking. I wasn’t ready for the panoramic view of destruction.
We got off the train at East Broadway—at least that’s what the sign said. From every other indication, we had landed on another planet. It was like a scene from Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica where scouts from the ship visit the planet’s surface to find a civilization, not destroyed, but abandoned. China Town was a ghost town. The shops were closed and no one was in the street. The heavy smell of burning hung thick in the air. The few people we saw as we started across town wore surgical masks, or the masks you wear when you staple rolls of insulation to the eaves of your attic. I put my mask on and was hit with the fumes that had soaked into the gauze after years of sitting in a toolbox with a few cans of oil paint and turpentine. I took the mask off. I would take my chances with the air of lower Manhattan.
We walked across to Varick Street where we found crews of workmen walking past police blockades. We tried to follow them in. I stopped to talk to the police officer guarding the street. “Is this where we go to volunteer?”
“Got any ID?” the policeman asked. “What kind of ID are you looking for?” I pulled out my wallet.
It is the kind of conversation you have in New York City, but it is usually with a bouncer at a velvet rope, not a policeman at a wooden barricade.
“I guess some kind of union card,” the cop said. “Construction, iron workers, heavy machinery operator…”
“No,” I said. “We don’t have anything like that.”
“Well then,” he said, waving a dump truck past us. “I don’t think this is the place for you.”
I knew he was right and I felt foolish for trying to get through, but my friends were a little indignant. “Come on Paul,” they said. “You could have thought something up. You could have gotten us through.”
It was easy to believe that we could help, but I watched the men walking in and the men who were packed into the backs of pick-up trucks. I knew they were cut from a different cloth. On the train ride over I had convinced myself that I could move blocks of concrete, or pick through piles of rubble. Sure, I was young, strong and athletic, but my hands were soft. For years I’ve done nothing but work at a computer keyboard. How long would I last hauling buckets of debris or pulling at the hard edges of stone and twisted metal? My palms would burst like ripe plum tomatoes. Within two hours they would have to rescue me from the pile, and I would sit in an aid station with an I.V. in my arm, getting back my own pint of blood.
Dave and Chris wanted to find another way in. I wanted to get back to Brooklyn. “Let’s just get out of here and get out of everybody’s way,” I said. “They don’t need a poet and a couple of art school pansies here today.”
We decided to walk up to the Jacob Javits Center—the Ellis Island of relief volunteers, where they sorted applicants and assigned jobs according to skill. We got as far as West Fourth Street before I stopped.
“What do you think is going to happen at the Javits Center?” I asked. “Do you think they’re going to need two guys who can finish a bathroom in a faux tortoiseshell glaze? The F train is right here. Let’s get back to Brooklyn.”
Before we got on the train, I wanted to make one stop. I told the twins I wanted to pop into the restaurant I worked at to use the restroom. It was a half-truth. I wanted to stop by the restaurant for a different reason. I wanted to see Catherine.
Catherine was the business manager at the restaurant. We had worked together for about a month before my friend and fellow waiter Chris realized I had a crush on her and wondered why I didn’t do something about it.
One reason was because I enjoyed the crush. I liked to watch her walk through the dining room. I liked to flirt with her and make her smile. The crush helped me enjoy working at the restaurant. It made me show up on time. If I lost the crush, it would just be another restaurant job. The quickest way to lose a crush is to act upon it.
“Come on Paul,” Chris said. “It’s obvious you like her, why don’t you ask her out.”
This brought me to the other reason. “OK, maybe I could get a girl like Catherine,” I said. “But what would I do when I lost a girl like Catherine?”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little pessimistic?” Chris asked.
Pessimistic? Maybe. I don’t know what I’d call it at this point in my life, but you don’t live alone with your dog at thirty-four years old unless you have lost someone—unless you have lost everyone. But what the hell, the crush couldn’t last forever. I asked her out.
Catherine and I had gone out twice—once for dinner and once just for a drink. I had had a really nice time with her. She was bright and pretty with a big smile that overwhelmed her small features and a shy laugh that seemed to cave in on itself, producing almost no sound, but an unmistakable delight. I was looking forward to our next date, which we planned for Tuesday night—the day the towers fell.
I walked into the restaurant forgetting how ridiculous I looked, dressed in a baseball cap and my construction worker costume. My pockets overflowed with garbage—driving gloves, a worthless painter’s mask and my Frito Bandito bandanas. I looked like I was waiting for Monte Hall to step up and make me a deal—to offer me a hundred dollars if I had a roller skate key in my pocket.
Catherine stood in the hallway between the kitchen and the dining room. I felt clumsy. I wanted to grab her. I wanted to hold her, but it just didn’t seem right. We had only been out twice. She had held my hand when I walked her home and we had enjoyed a few goodnight kisses; aside from that, we had been low key.
It was a conscious effort—we didn’t want anyone at the restaurant to know we were dating. I kissed her quickly on the cheek. It seemed tame enough and somewhat appropriate—it is a common greeting among the artists and actors who work together in restaurants.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m…OK,” she said with a blank stare. She looked, not at me, but beyond me, or through me. It was a common response among New Yorkers in the days and weeks that followed. We all had one image stuck in our minds. We had all seen it with our own eyes. When asked, we all said with hesitation that we were OK, but we knew we weren’t. We knew we were a mess. If we had been OK, we wouldn’t cry every fifteen minutes. But on top of feeling as bad as we did, we all felt guilty for it, because we knew so many lost so much more.
None of us knew how to think about what we had lost, how to wrap our minds around it, or how to focus our grief in any way that made sense.
To people living outside the city, New York seems an expansive and impossible place, but to those of us who live here, it is much smaller and far more intimate. Yes, the streets are filled with eight million people, but you cannot walk a mile in any neighborhood without running into someone you know. There is also the belief that the island of Manhattan is stacked from river to river with tall buildings, towers and skyscrapers, but most of the buildings in Manhattan do not climb above six stories. Most of the people I know live in walk-up apartments.
Because of the smaller buildings, looking south along one of the Avenues from almost any part of town you could catch a glimpse of the towers. Returning from long car trips, or flying into New York, the towers always greeted you, telling you that you were a half hour from your bed—a half hour from home. Now the towers were gone, and though many of us couldn’t put it into words, we wondered how we would ever find our home again.
Dropping my disguise, I went to work the next day, not as a relief worker, but as myself, a waiter. I found I wasn’t needed there either. The restaurant expected few dinner guests, so after we had set up the dining room, the manager decided to let someone go home. I volunteered. I had only come to work that afternoon to get away from the TV news for an hour or two. I couldn’t imagine standing tableside throughout the evening describing hanger steak and foie gras and pretending it was important. So, with the approval of my fellow waiters, I changed back into my street clothes and headed out the door. Before I left, I ran up to Catherine’s office.
“They don’t need me tonight, so I’m going to go,” I said. “But if you’re not working late, maybe we can get together for a drink or something.”
We decided to meet at a bar a few blocks away—the bar where we had met on our first date.
Once at the bar, I ordered a beer and sat at an open bar stool, exchanging glances with the few people around me. On the television over the bar, a news commentator summed up her report by saying the events of the week had been a sobering experience for America. Not for me. I had gotten drunk every night since it happened.
I hadn’t wanted to stay at home alone, watching it over and over again on television—the collisions from different angles and the people in the streets running for their lives—so, I’d take the dog for a walks to a local bar where he is always welcome. Conversations would start slowly—usually about the dog. Voices lowered and softened, and the real conversations would begin. Who were you a week ago? Where were you when the planes hit? Where were you when the towers fell? Where will we be when it all hits the fan?
We had to talk about it. We had to hear it from the mouths of strangers. We had to know if they had seen it too, otherwise we could never be sure it was real.
“What do we do with the dust?” I asked.
For days, dust had been falling in Brooklyn, snowing down on cars and blowing into open windows. For days, I wondered what to do with it. Would I suck it up with my vacuum and throw it in the trash? Wasn’t it evidence from a crime scene? Wouldn’t someone in rubber gloves come by to sweep it up and comb through it for clues?
There was something more to the fine silt that I kicked up as I walked across my carpet, that clung to my bookcases and television. I didn’t want to disturb it. I didn’t want to dust it away or wipe it clean. I knew the dust was sacred.
“I don’t know,” said a woman sitting next to me at the bar one night. “I was down at the Promenade earlier and there was this pillar of smoke where they used to be. I had this feeling that once the smoke blows away, they’ll still be there.”
“You know,” her sister said. “I wonder if when the smoke clears, I’ll even be able to place just where in the skyline the towers had stood.”
Walking the dog home, I thought about this. I thought about the last time I had really looked at the towers, and I knew I had to make a phone call.
In this world of modern electronics and hybrid appliances—clock/radios, TV/VCRs and coffee machine/alarm clocks—you would think someone would get the bright idea to make something useful for me. I want a new telephone. I want one with a Breathalyzer built into the mouthpiece. It would save me a little embarrassment, and I don’t think anyone would miss hearing from me late at night after I have had a few drinks.
I sat down at my desk, dialed the phone, and started to search through my computer’s hard drive as the phone rang.
“Mike,” I said. “It’s Paul Hawkins calling from New York.” I thought he would like to know that he was the key. He was the way I would remember where the buildings had stood.
About a year and a half ago my cousin Michael had undergone a gruesome surgery to remove a knot of skin growing in the center of his brain. Following the operation, his wife emailed pictures to everyone to show how well he was faring with his recovery. I loved the pictures—Mike, still doped up in a hospital bed with an I.V. in his arm and his head wrapped in bandages. As a kind of get-well card, my brother Andy and I emailed some pictures back to Mike and his family. Andy and I took pictures of ourselves standing in front of different New York landmarks, leaving enough room between us for another person. Back at my computer, we doctored the photographs to make it look like we had made a life-size cardboard cutout of Mike, which we had carried around town and posed with during our photo shoot.
As I spoke to Mike on the phone, the picture came up on my computer screen—there they were, the twin towers of the World Trade Center standing proudly, just beyond the Woolworth building and my cousin’s bandaged head.
Catherine walked into the bar and sat on the stool next to mine. I didn’t know what to say to her. We had already had a brief conversation on the phone the night after the attack. We had checked in to find that no one in either of our families had been downtown that morning and no one had been on a plane out of Boston. I didn’t know how to launch the conversation to begin our third date. Playful getting-to-know-you questions and answers didn’t seem appropriate with New York on fire and warplanes patrolling the skies over Greenwich Village, “So, who did you say your favorite band was?” We talked a little bit about the restaurant and then we took turns presenting our little soliloquies on where we had been and what we had seen on Tuesday morning.
Catherine lives on the west side of Manhattan in a neighborhood known as Chelsea. Through her kitchen window, she has a clear view of the downtown skyline. She had been talking on the phone with her brother in Massachusetts, looking out the window when the first tower fell.
“I wish I’d been watching the TV instead,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, so I went to work.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said. “What did you do at the restaurant?”
“Well, Irene was there, so we decided to make food and send it down to the relief.”
The idea of it made me laugh. The restaurant we worked in was a rather gourmet affair. At times, as a waiter, I had trouble describing our menu to any but the most experienced diners. I imagined that Catherine and Irene had prepared menu items from the restaurant and sent them down to help the relief and rescue crews. I could see myself handing plates to firemen and ironworkers, explaining to each the composition of the dish, “This is tuna belly seared in parsley and garlic. Trust me, you’ll love it.”, “This is skate served over a pistou of vegetables. Now, skate is a difficult fish to describe. It is from the ray family…”
She wasn’t happy. She thought I was making fun of her. “We made sandwiches, Paul.”
“Oh,” I said. “Of course you did.”
Just then, the bartender—an attractive young woman who looked, as the rest of us did, as if she had not been sleeping well—walked around the bar, offering votive candles from a brown cardboard box.
“It’s almost seven o’clock and we’re all going outside,” she said. “And you may as well join us, because no one’s getting another drink until it’s over.”
An email had circulated that week and D.J.s had mentioned it on the radio. Wherever you were on Friday night at seven o’clock, you were to light a candle and go outside.
We walked out to the street, lit our candles and stood in silence for a while. A woman standing next to me looked up at the fire escape across the street from which American flags draped from two different floors.
“Do you know which one of those flags is hung right?” she asked. One flag displayed the stars to the left, the other to the right.
“I left my scouting handbook at home,” I said, “but as long as the flags aren’t hung upside down, I think we should let it go today.”
The woman on the other side of me became fidgety after a while. “Don’t you think we should sing something,” she said, “like the National Anthem?”
“Go ahead and start,” I said. “I’m sure everyone will join in.”
“Could you start?” she asked. “I don’t know the words. I’m Canadian.”
“Oh,” I said. “Welcome to New York.”
The thought of singing had occurred to me even before she had mentioned it, but I couldn’t start. The American National Anthem struck me as too big—it is a ballgame song, hardly appropriate for a candlelight vigil. Rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air didn’t offer the solace we craved. In ceremonies throughout the city and throughout the nation, The Star Spangled Banner had been put on the shelf in favor of the lamentation we needed and the prayer we all whispered, God Bless America. I for one didn’t know all the lyrics to that one. Sure, I could have started, but after singing, “Stand beside Her and guide Her,” I would have had to fill in with “Da-da-Da, Da-da-Da, Da-da-Da.”
I was the wrong person to lead the chorus anyway. When singing in public, I always pick a key that is uncomfortable for everyone else. Ask any member of my family. Even when singing Happy Birthday, the only way I get through it is by singing louder that everyone else, forcing those around me to sing within my range—again, not appropriate for a candlelight vigil.
Catherine’s cell phone rang. The restaurant was having trouble processing credit cards and needed her to trouble-shoot the computer system. I walked her back to the restaurant and ducked into a bar called The Stoned Crow a few doors away. I ordered a beer and listened as a song played on the jukebox. It was an older song and I was glad to hear it. It reminded me of something in the past. It reminded me of high school.
The eighties had been a relatively peaceful time, but the stress of the Cold War had hung over everything. We didn’t think much about terrorists then. We thought about the Soviets and the bomb. Our songs chanted the same message, “If it’s not love then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.” I remembered having seen newspaper diagrams detailing the effects of a nuclear attack on the New York area, circles drawn within each other like the bull’s eye of a dartboard. The larger circle represented the area that would be contaminated by deadly radioactive fallout. The smaller circle defined the blast radius—the fireball. My friends and I would argue back and forth about the only two options we could see for our future—fallout or fireball. My answer was always the same. I chose the fireball. I chose New York City.
I left my bar stool and walked to the bathroom. On my way out, sliding the bolt lock to open the door, I tore my index finger on the lock’s sheet metal mounting. Walking back to the bar, I wrapped my finger in a cocktail napkin as Catherine walked in the door. The bartender approached us to see if Catherine wanted a drink. I asked for a Band-Aid.
“Let me get a look at it,” the bartender said.
I held my bleeding finger over the napkin. The bartender turned around to dig through a box next to the cash register. He returned with a Band-Aid and a cheap bottle of vodka.
“Put your finger out,” he said. He poured vodka over my finger and handed me the Band-Aid. “That ought to do it,” he said.
For a moment I pondered my end. It wouldn’t be the fireball I had anticipated. In a week of horror and tragedy, mine would be a quiet exit. Days from now, my muscles would cramp and my jaw would lock. While men and women risked their lives searching for survivors on an unsettled mountain of rubble, I would die of tetanus from the dead bolt lock on the john at The Stoned Crow.
I walked Catherine home. Once at her door, I leaned toward her to kiss her goodnight. “Paul,” she stopped me. “I don’t think this is the right time for me to start dating someone.”
“Everything’s crazy right now Catherine,” I said. “Don’t do this.”
“It’s nothing to do with that,” she told me. “It is just things in my own life.”
I had lost Catherine. Now what would I do?
I’d like to say that I nodded, said goodnight and walked away. I’d like to pretend that I reserved a little dignity, but I didn’t. An event like this is never over until I’ve made a ridiculous overture. Maybe I have watched too many movies. In the movies a romance reaches a point that seems like the end, then something is said, something is done—something silly. A smile breaks through the storm clouds—a happy ending—roll credits.
Romantic films don’t come with disclaimers saying, “Don’t try this at home,” so idiots like me give it a try every now and then.
“OK, I’ll go,” I said. “But, if you change your mind, if you ever think that you might like to be adored, give me a call, because I will adore you.”
Not bad for a movie, but when you say something like that in real life it drops right to the ground and leaves a messy puddle. I slipped on it as I walked away.
In my head I could hear the voices of my friends, the consolations offered when dating doesn’t go well, “So you went out with a girl a few times and it didn’t work out… it’s not the end of the world.” But what if it was?
I crossed the street and walked into a candy store. “Hi,” I said to the cashier. “Could I have the first pack of cigarettes I’ve bought in five years?”In the following months, I would save up enough cigarette coupon points to buy the Marine Corps a new amphibious hovercraft—anything for the cause.
The telephone sat silently in my apartment. When someone called, I’d hear the faint click of the answering machine spinning into action and then I’d hear my outgoing message. I had turned the ringer off two years ago when I began working from home. The phone had been too much of a distraction. In the second week of September, I turned the ringer back on. It had been hard enough for phone calls to get through to my Brooklyn number; I didn’t want my friends to think I was screening their calls, or worse.
Phone calls came from all over, from distant parts of the country, from Europe, from Asia, and more surprisingly, from distant parts of my life—former business associates, high school acquaintances and old girlfriends. Time had sped by. I had filed experiences away and had begun to think of certain people as parts of my past, but as it turned out, they were parts of my life. The calls reminded me of my own little crimes against humanity, of times when I had broken hearts, and other times when I had been broken. More than anything they said, the once familiar voices on the phone told me that there was something more than hurt feelings, neglected emotions and unreturned affection. As I hung up the phone, I felt myself in something like a state of grace, like the slate had been wiped clean, like I had been forgiven.
I called my brother Andrew almost every day. He and his fiancé were planning to get married on the twenty-second of September and I knew he wasn’t comfortable—how do you invite guests to celebrate your wedding in the middle of all of this?
“Kathleen is upset,” Andy said. “Ten people have already called and said they won’t be coming.”
“You can add one more,” I said. “My date cancelled on me.”
“OK,” he said, “I’ll tell Kathleen.”
“You know what,” I said. “Don’t tell Kathleen anything. I’ll find a date, and we’ll dance at your wedding.” I got off the phone with Andrew and dialed another number.
“Michele,” I said. “In the spirit of our President, I’m calling in the Reserves. I need you to put on something pretty and be my guest at my brother’s wedding.”
Michele and I had dated about seven years ago. She knew my family well and was crazy about my brother Andrew. My call may not have been the nicest invitation she had ever received, but it was great to see her again, and to dance with her at my brother’s wedding.
When Matt called, I was baking.
Matt had left New York the day of the attack. He drove down to Philadelphia where his daughter lived and his wife Tracie was in rehearsal for a musical. He returned two weeks later and was not having an easy time with it. He wasn’t the only one.
Several of my friends had been out of town for the month of September, working in regional theaters in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Rochester. They thought they might return unscathed, that they had missed the worst of it. Maybe their time out of town, they thought, would help them return with a different perspective, a freshness, a strength they could offer the friends of theirs who had witnessed calamity. When they came back in October, they were hit just as hard, but they were isolated—the city had moved on to a different stage of grieving.
My friends walked through familiar streets to find the aging shrines we had built a month earlier, browning bouquets of flowers and candles warped from fire and rain. On lampposts and the boarded perimeters of construction sites they found the images we had grown somewhat used to—the photocopied snapshots of neighbors, the pictures of the missing, the faces of ghosts. They wanted to talk about it, but found that the rest of us were all talked out or that we spoke in half sentences and codes, leaving out words we couldn’t say anymore. We didn’t sound like news commentators. We didn’t say things like “September Eleventh,” “World Trade Center,” or “Ground Zero.” We’d say “The Big Bang,” “Nine-One-One,” or simply, “ever since.”
“I’ve talked to so many people today,” Matt said on the phone, “and I told them that I’d remember them in my prayers, but then I come home and I don’t pray. I don’t think I know how to.”
Matt knew some prayers—he had gone to Catholic school through the twelfth grade. He knew the Our Father, the Hail Mary and he could probably say a Rosary while standing on his head, but prayer is something different: Prayer is thoughtfulness and action; Prayer is humility and service. Matt didn’t want to light candles and chant incantations; he wanted to do something bigger. I knew what he was talking about. It was the same feeling I had had the day I tried to work the rubble pile.
We all wanted hard work—effort with a purpose. At the end of the day we wanted sore muscles, ripped hands, blisters and bruised bodies. We wanted something to shock the pain from our cores and bring it to the surface, because the slow, dull ache was unbearable.
Barred from the heavier work, we looked for something smaller to do. Like I said, I was baking.
My baking didn’t surprise Matt. He knew it was something I liked to do. I had worked in restaurants most of my life, where although I had been surrounded by wonderful food, I usually had not been allowed to eat any of it. So, I began to bake banana bread, into which I would pour a half-pound of chocolate covered espresso beans. The result was like rocket fuel, zapping the central nervous system, keeping a waiter on his toes through the dullest party or the most grueling Saturday night.
I had introduced the staff of the new restaurant I was working at to the banana bread sometime in August, a few weeks after I had taken the job. We had been scheduled to work a rehearsal dinner and I feared it might drag into the night with speeches and toasts. Bananas were turning brown in my kitchen anyway, so I mashed them up with flour, sugar, eggs, and of course, the chocolate covered espresso beans. After staff meal, I broke out the bread. My colleagues carved it up and gobbled it down like prisoners. With mouths full, they thanked me and I smiled. I smiled for their appreciation, but I also found it funny. They couldn’t see what I was doing. They thought the banana bread was for them. It wasn’t. I had baked three loaves of banana bread that afternoon—two large and one small. The large loaves I offered to the kitchen and the wait staff. The smaller, individual sized loaf was for Catherine.
On my days off, I would bake, and I began to expand my repertoire beyond banana bread. When apples came into season I made apple pies, and a smaller apple tart for Catherine. I would bring in a Junior’s cheesecake, one of Brooklyn’s great delicacies, and a mini cheesecake for Catherine.
When Matt called I was baking for the Fire Department. I decided to bake them lasagna and a large loaf of banana bread. Of course, I made a smaller loaf too, for Catherine.
“Have things changed?” Matt asked. “I thought you said you guys weren’t dating.”
“We’re not,” I said, “but I figured, why stop now?”
“Well,” Matt said. “When do you think you will stop?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I guess I’ll stop when she calls the police,” I said.
The police would never get involved. It wasn’t a problem. I wasn’t assailing Catherine with baked goods. I wasn’t offering her gifts to make her feel uncomfortable or to try to win her over. I was compensating for something I found lacking in my life. During those weeks, I needed someone to care about; I chose Catherine. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t chosen me.
My new, humbler effort toward the relief didn’t go any better than my others had. I almost blew up the kitchen, owing to my oven’s faulty electric pilot. I also burned my thumb pretty badly tap dancing around my dog’s anxious investigation of what I was pulling from the oven. But finally, after three near collisions on the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, I found the firehouse and parked the car.
I could have delivered the food to one of my local firehouses, but I chose a house in Woodside Queens because I knew a firefighter who was stationed there. I had graduated from high school with Steve Mickiewicz and had seen him at my brother’s wedding. Steve was a member of Rescue 4, the only elite rescue squad left in New York City.
I held a pan of lasagna in one hand and with the other I knocked on the door.
“I know a lot of food is going down to the relief, but I didn’t know if you guys had enough to eat in the station,” I said to the firefighters who opened the door.
“Hey thanks,” one said, taking the pan of lasagna. “That’s real nice of you.”
“I have another three pans just like it in the car,” I said.
“I’ll give you a hand,” the other firefighter said, stepping out of the garage and following me to my car.
We returned with the three pans of lasagna and the banana bread. Just inside the firehouse stood a shrine of flowers, candles and photographs. As I passed, I tried not to look at it. I didn’t want my emotions to take over. I wanted to be a good will ambassador, like Bob Hope and the U.S.O. I wanted to say thanks and get the hell out.
“You’ll have to come in and have a cup of coffee with us,” the firefighter said, leading me back to the kitchen.
I stood in confusion in the kitchen of the firehouse. Part of me was like a little boy. I wanted to ask them if I could try on their coats and helmets and climb on the back of the fire engine. Another part of me staggered with the inequity of it all—these men would walk into a burning building for me, but they all wanted to shake my hand and thank me for a couple of pans of pasta.
“Hey, how do you take your coffee?” one called to me.
“Ahhh, milk and sugar… whatever, fine,” I stuttered.
The room was distracted. I turned to look at the TV. A wrecking crew was tearing down a large structure at the site. Just then, I was handed a cup of coffee. The room was silent as the structure fell. The man on my right turned to me, “You know, they’re going to start issuing death certificates tomorrow.”
The coffee burned my tongue and throat as I gulped it down. I had to get out of there. I didn’t want the firemen to see me cry.
I was finishing up my time at the restaurant. I had given my notice. I had gotten some calls about web site design work I could do from home, and the restaurant’s customers were beginning to get to me. When I had first gone back I had pepped myself up with the thought that people needed restaurants—they needed to be around other people. There were still birthdays, anniversaries and quiet events to celebrate. People needed to get away, to go out for a few hours and pretend they were normal.
Normal—normalcy, these were the words of the hour, the slogans of the leadership, the mantra of the television. I could pretend for a few hours, but the idea of going back to normal horrified me. I had wasted my life in a fog of TV game shows, top forty music, and “news” items about Hollywood starlets being exhausted and depressed. I remembered what normal was like. Normal was empty and numb. I thought we could all do a lot better.
Sometime in the middle of the night, a table of four sat in my section. The guests had hardly been shown to their seats before the party’s host got up and sauntered into the kitchen. “I’m going to go talk to the chef,” he said.
Not having much patience for this type of thing that night, I figured while he was in the kitchen he could ask the chef if there were any specials or additions to the menu, because when he got back, I certainly wasn’t going to tell him. The man returned to his table and began to joke loudly and rudely with his dinner companions, another man and two women. When I approached the table for their dinner order, the man barked odd commands at me, “Tell the chef I want…” he proceeded to order items that were not on the menu, and were probably not in the restaurant. “And see if he has any of this back there; tell him to sprinkle that on top.”
Had he really been in the kitchen talking to the chef? The same chef I talk to? You don’t go into a kitchen and tell a chef anything. You certainly don’t tell him how to prepare his food, not in this type of restaurant. It would be like going to a Broadway theater and expecting the cast to sing requests shouted out by the audience.
I knew it was all a show for his guests. I could feed him anything. A man like that had no appreciation for cuisine, and would be embarrassed to let his guests find out that the waiter and the kitchen had not twisted themselves into contortions to satisfy his every whim. I nodded at his requests and decided to order the closest things we had on the menu—no modifications.
As I was leaving the table, the man stopped me. “So what’s going on here?” he asked. “Where’s Russell?” he looked around. “Where’s Russell?”
He was talking about Russell, the Maitre d’. Russell had been fired, or let go, or had quit. I didn’t know. No one had told me. I thought he was on vacation.
“As far as I know, Russell’s on vacation,” I said. “His family lives in San Francisco. I think he hasn’t been able to get a flight back yet.”
“Are you sure?” the man asked. “Are you sure he didn’t get a job at Windows on the World?”
It was the kind of thing that, if I had heard it told in a story, I would have thought, if someone said that to me, I would have taken a swing at him. But I didn’t swing at him. My defenses were down. I walked away, shaken.
Until he said it, I hadn’t thought of Windows on the World. Maybe it had been a defense mechanism, but I hadn’t thought of any of the restaurants in the towers.
I had worked as a waiter and manager in New York restaurants for the last ten years. Over that span I have moved from restaurant to restaurant and watched others as they had grown and moved on—a prep cook becomes a line cook becomes a sous chef—a busboy becomes a runner becomes a waiter—a waiter or a bartender becomes a manager. Friends joked that I couldn’t go into a restaurant in New York City without running into someone I knew. It is not always the Maitre d’ or the owner; sometimes it is a woman working coat check, or the back waiter who serves the coffee and petit fours at the end of the night. A restaurant the size of Windows on the World could not have gone down without taking someone I knew with it.
I thought about the widowed spouses on TV who, through tears, would say how their husbands or wives loved their jobs as firefighters, police officers and bond traders. Then I thought about the widowed spouses of people like me, who didn’t love their jobs, but used them as a means to an end. They had fallen in love with poets, actors and artists and had watched them die as waiters, bartenders and busboys. Their grief, my grief, was the punch line to a joke.
Go back to normal if you want to. Forget that there are people around you. Look away from the faces you pass on the street. Move on. But one day something will happen, something small—your shoelace will snap or a passing cab will splash you in the rain and you will shatter into tears and crumble. Without apology, 3,000 neighbors who didn’t come home from work that Tuesday will lay their full weight upon you.
The message light on my answering machine was blinking when I came home from work that night. I lit a cigarette and played back the message.
“Paul, are you there?” I heard my brother Peter’s voice. “Oh God, I was hoping you’d be home. I didn’t want to leave this on your answering machine…” Someone else was gone.
At first, I had felt lucky. I had grown up on suburban Long Island and most of the guys I went to high school with had become New York City firefighters or police officers. They had all been accounted for—they were all safe. But as days passed, notes would come by email and phone messages like Peter’s would break the silence.
“The number is more than we can bear,” the mayor had said. The number…
A blackboard hung on the wall of my kitchen. Every time I heard the number on TV, I wrote it down. As they went through the list, crossing off duplicate names and matching nicknames with real names, the number became lower. I remembered when it was 4,315. Last week it was 3,835. This morning it was 3,045. I used to think about the size of the number, the thousands. Now, what struck me most was that the number always ended in a five—I knew those five people. I hadn’t seen any of them in years, but when I knew them, we had been close enough to drink out of the same soda can.
I wrote the names on my black board and thought about them as the days went by—Timothy O’Brien, Kevin Cleary, Timothy Byrne, Scott Bart and Heather Ho. The men had been friends of my family, friends of my brothers. The woman, Heather, I had worked with at Gramercy Tavern. Heather was a bright woman who quickly worked her way through the stations of the kitchen. She lost her life as the pastry chef at Windows on the World.
I guess it had taken a while for the naval battle group to move into position, but the bombing had begun in Kabul and Kandahar. We listened to the radio as we set up the restaurant.
“Paul, do you know what time it is?”
I looked across the room, “Catherine, you’re wearing a watch.”
“I know, but the battery’s dead,” she said. “Sometimes I put it on like it’s jewelry and sometimes I put it on to remind myself to get it fixed.”
“It’s four fifty-two,” I said, walking over to her.
“Oh, it’s four fifty-two.” she said.
It is something people tease me about; when I read the time from a digital watch, I just read the numbers off. I don’t see the point of rounding up or down to the next five-minute mark just to pretend that I’m nonchalant about the time.
“Why don’t you give me the watch,” I said.
“Give me the watch and I’ll put a new battery in it for you.”
“No, really Paul,” she said. “That’s OK, I’ll get the watch fixed.”
“All right,” I surrendered.
The night had gone fine, but we hadn’t broken any sales records. We figured people had stayed at home out of concern over some type of retaliatory strike in response to the United States’ military activity. There hadn’t been much foot traffic on the streets; after a stretch of warm weather, it was a cold, damp night.
Diners who had been experts in international terrorism a week before were now well versed in military policy and operations. They spat out what they had heard on CNN and pretended it was their own conversation.
“Well, you know we have air superiority,” I heard from one table as I passed.
Air superiority—why would that even come up in conversation? From what I knew about Afghanistan, I imagined we were up against a flock of trained pigeons and a box kite.
We talked just to fill the time. We were all waiting for something else—something big. Two great boots had fallen in lower Manhattan and we were all waiting for another shoe to drop.
Far from being on everybody’s mind, Anthrax was almost a forced conversation. It wasn’t pervasive enough. It was like the tingling music in the background of a horror movie. We sat, ate our popcorn and Milk Duds and waited for the next big scare.
We closed the last few checks, put the chairs on the tables and sat at the bar for an end-of-the-night beer. Catherine came down from her office after finishing her paperwork and locking away the night’s receipts.
“I’d love to hang out for a bit guys,” she said, standing next to me, sipping a glass of wine, “but I’ve got to be back here at nine tomorrow and I’m working a double.”
“You’re going to be in the restaurant all day tomorrow?” I asked, reaching for her hand.
“Then let me have the watch,” I unbuckled the leather strap from her wrist. Too tired to fight, she let me take it.
Chris and I walked Catherine to a cab and flagged down a second cab for our trip home to Brooklyn. We rode Broadway down to Canal and Canal over the Manhattan Bridge. Once in Brooklyn, we turned on Tillary and passed the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge. We had gotten used to a heavy police presence on the bridge and around the city’s other landmarks, but now the National Guard joined the police in the heavy Hum-Vee trucks that movie stars drive.
“Did something happen?” I asked Chris.
“I don’t know.”
The cab pulled to the curb on Atlantic Avenue. Chris and I got out. A policeman stood in the doorway of the shop on the ground floor of my building, bracing against the cold, his turtleneck shirt pulled over his mouth and nose like Mort from the Bazooka Joe bubble gum comics.
“What’s this all about?” Chris asked in a low voice. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He nodded his head toward the doorway.
“Oh,” I said, “the cop?”
“Ever since,” I shrugged.
If you look around my section of downtown Brooklyn, you’ll find the shop signs and awnings are written in Arabic. The few logos printed in the western alphabet read, “Damascus Bakery,” “Yemen Café,” and “Near Eastern Imports.” During the day, women walk along the sidewalks with their heads covered and their faces veiled. Men clothe themselves in ankle-length, dress-like shirts and wear fezzes and turbans. Here, in my jeans, J. Crew sweaters and my closely shaven face, I stand out—the Lawrence of little Arabia.
A police officer had been standing on my block, in my doorway for a month, not to rouse the sleeper agents of hidden terrorist cells, but to protect the neighborhood from anti-Arab backlash—to keep Americans safe from other Americans.
Chris shook my hand, crossed the street and headed home. I walked to my door.
“Cold tonight, huh?” I said to the policeman.
“Yeah,” he said. “Not too bad though.”
“Could I get you some coffee or something?” I offered.
“Nah,” he waved his hand. “My replacement should be here any minute.”
“You sure?” I said. “I’ve got to take the dog out anyway, so you might as well tell me how you like your coffee.”
“No thanks, really,” he said. “I’m OK.”
I walked up the stairs and put on a pot of coffee, cleaned out my Thermos and poured in a little milk and a few spoons of sugar. I put Roebling on a leash and headed downstairs.
“Here,” I handed the Thermos to the policeman. “Maybe your replacement will want some coffee.”
Roebling and I walked a few blocks then circled around for home. Sure enough, the replacement had come—a new sentry guarded the block.
“You must be the guy with the coffee,” he said. “Thanks so much—that’s very nice of you.”
“No problem,” I said. “When you’re done with it just leave it in the doorway. I’ll get it in the morning.”
“You sure it will be OK there?” the policeman asked.
“There is a cop here twenty-four hours a day,” I said. “I don’t think anyone’s going to run off with my Thermos.”
We talked for a little while about the attack, the mayor and the funerals. We talked about Anthrax and the war that had begun on the other side of the world. We talked about our neighbors and our families and the haunting thought that it might all get much worse before it got better.
It wasn’t the type of conversation I like to lay my head upon for a sound sleep, but it was late, so I shook his hand, said goodnight and turned toward my door.
Years from now, children will write reports for their history classes. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews will ask me where I was when the sky fell and the roof caved in. Though I would want to tell them that I had risen to the call, that I had made a difference, that I had been a hero—that is someone else’s story. Instead I will tell them of the small consolations, the solace offered in single servings. I will talk about emails and telephone calls, about banana bread and hot cups of coffee, and about tears shared with strangers over cold glasses of beer.
Patting the fronts of my pants to find where I had put my keys, I felt an odd shape on my left side. I reached into my jeans to find something I had forgotten about. Maybe it meant nothing in a world where subtlety is lost in the smoke of grief and horror, but I had Catherine’s watch in my pocket—hope enough, for another day.
Paul Hawkins 2001
Was I supposed to study for this? It was another form to fill out, another list of check boxes. It was just a few pages – a customs declaration and an airline survey dropped on my tray table during the last few minutes of flight, and though the questionnaires seemed simple enough, I would rather have been taking the SAT.
I never had a hard time with forms. Name, date of birth, eye color, weight… you could have asked me anything. I breezed right through to the big X on the bottom, scribbled my signature and went about my day. I knew all of the answers.
I filled out my passport application in less than three minutes, and that included my pause for item 13, hair color. I considered graying or balding before simply writing brown. It was a passport application. I included two photographs with it; I thought The State Department could figure it out.
The passport application was a gift from a recent girlfriend. It came in the mail with a card and a CD of music she had played in her apartment. One of the songs came pre-packaged with emotion for me. I remembered it playing over an awkward, unrequited moment in the movie “Love Actually.”
It was a farewell package: a few reflections on our short romance ending with the line, “I thought I’d send you this passport application, just in case you decide to leave Brooklyn some day.”
The point of the note was to bid me adieu, but I couldn’t help seeing that one line and the passport application as an invitation.
I received the letter on a Tuesday and vowed that I would listen to the CD only until Saturday when I would throw it away. I wasn’t going to get lost in this breakup. I was going to breathe deeply, put one foot in front of the other and move on.
Saturday night at 7:30, as the CD played for the last time, the phone rang.
“I’d like to see you,” she said, and suggested a café where we could meet.
“OK,” I said. “I can be there in an hour.”
Vidya and I had met at a New Year’s Eve party.
“I’m supposed to leave in a little bit,” she said, picking at the buffet. “I’m heading into Manhattan to a meditation studio. I want to welcome the New Year in a peaceful meditative state.”
“I’ll walk you out,” I said. “I’ve got an early morning tomorrow. I’m going to meet some friends at Coney Island. We’re going to swim with the Polar Bears.”
I said goodnight to Vidya and her friend as they walked off to the subway. I turned my collar up and headed to my apartment. By the time I got home I had scrapped the Polar Bear idea and was in a far more meditative state. I breathed in. I breathed out. I began to whisper a mantra – a word I could repeat and focus on to clear my head of distractions. And the word was “Vidya.”
Vidya… what kind of name is that? Vidya… what could it mean? Vidya… who is this woman? Breathe in… where did she come from? Breathe out… why haven’t I met anyone like her before? She had long, straight black hair, big, dark eyes and full lips. And her skin, how would I describe it?
Here is where the needle screeches off the record. I cannot describe her skin.
I have never been comfortable talking about skin color. I owe part of this to a limited experience with racial diversity in my childhood. The neighborhood I grew up in consisted of only three distinct ethnic groups – the pale, the sunburned and the freckled. But the true source of my difficulty came from a childhood belief that I did not see colors the same way other people did.
In elementary school, I was the kid with horn-rimmed glasses and a patch taped over his eye. I was at least half blind, and I had no depth perception. It didn’t take much to convince me that I also registered color differently than everyone else.
I wasn’t completely outcast as the neighborhood freak, but the games other children played – chasing games, or hit-the-ball, catch-the-ball games – made me fall down a lot more than I liked, so I chose closer activities where I could squint my unpatched eye and try to make sense of a smaller portion of the world. A simple set of childhood art supplies – paper, a few pencils, a coloring book and the deluxe set of 64 Crayola crayons – kept me occupied from Kindergarten through the second grade.
I kneeled at the coffee table in the family room, my face hovering four inches above the page, rendering my impressions of childhood. I drew the normal scenes. The grass was green and the skies were blue. Back then, my hair was yellow and my skin was…
“What color am I?” I called out as children do to whoever is in earshot.
My mother, no doubt distracted by her more active children, playing bicycle tag or poking forks into electrical sockets, simply called back, “White. You’re white.” Compared to other questions children ask, that one was a breeze.
I fished through the old steel can recycled from Christmas butter cookies to find a white crayon. While most of the crayons were broken or worn into smaller pieces, the white crayon was pretty much intact, only slightly rounded at the tip.
I rubbed the crayon over the face of my portrait, but nothing seemed to happen. The page did not take on the color of my skin. Instead, my drawing was now somewhat ruined. It looked smudged, as if it had been dabbed by the frosting of a cupcake.
“Is this what other people see?” I wondered. “I see things differently.”
I didn’t dare tell anyone, for fear they would hang some other contraption on my face to color-correct my faulty vision. I reached back into the can. I pulled out crayons, scribbled on paper and inspected the marks through a squinty eye. When I found colors that looked closer to what I saw when I looked in the mirror, I placed them to the side. Collecting a handful of crayons, I took them to my sister, asking her to read the color names on the crayons’ paper wrappers.
I am apricot. I am peach. After I worked those crayons down to unusable nubs, I found that I could also be melon or even maize, but I wasn’t white.
If I had known Vidya as a child, and if she had moved slowly enough for me to capture in a crayon portrait through a blurry eye, I would have drawn her right next to me on the page – an apricot boy holding the hand of a raw sienna girl.
I bumped into Vidya the next day and asked her out to dinner.
“I want you to know,” she said on our way to the restaurant. “I don’t just meet people at parties and start dating them.”
“We’ve got friends in common,” I said. “This doesn’t have to be a date.”
“No,” she said dismissively. “This is a date.”
We had been dating only short time, about an hour and a half, when Vidya told me she was leaving me.
“I want to make some big changes,” she said. “I want to take the next two years and travel through Asia.”
She was going to work for a school teaching English in foreign countries. She wanted to go to Nepal, South Korea, or Thailand and visit neighboring countries from there. Her application was already in.
What kind of fool was love trying to make of me this time? Didn’t it know that I was on to it, that I had watched the game tapes, that I knew its moves? Hadn’t I thoroughly explored the intricate relationship between romantic love and insanity in my third unfinished novel?
Love without pause. Care without caution. The heart will endure every madness. Love and lunacy are poured from the same pot.
Ah, breathe a sigh. Shed a tear for the devastating verse. It was a gorgeous novel, and after months of enjoying the cathartic stream of tears and vomit it pulled from my soul, I knew I could not release it to the world. I had exposed love too starkly. I would not be forgiven for shattering the illusion the human race clung to so tightly, that romantic love offered comfort. But at least I would live wisely when tempted the next time.
Heartbreak offers special deals for return customers. It never asks if you are ready or able to love, only if you are willing. Any fool could see the depth of what stood before me, and only a fool would agree to the inevitable heartbreak – cue the sucker-punch music from “Love Actually.”
I walked her to her door. I tilted my head to the side in the way that I do when I’m trying to let the woman I’m talking to know that I know how to move my nose out of the way in the event of a kiss. Vidya didn’t respond, so I pretended I had a slight crick in my neck. I rubbed my hand on the side of my neck and squeezed the back of my neck in my palm. The conversation slowed down a second time. I tried it again. This time I tilted my head and slowly leaned forward.
“You don’t think we’re going to kiss right now, do you?” she asked.
“You know,” I said. “I thought we might.”
“No,” she said. “This is a first date. There will be no kissing.”
“Oh,” I said. “OK. So, how do we say goodnight then? A handshake? A hug? A punch in the arm?”
“I think we just say goodnight.”
We took long walks on mild winter evenings. We went to a play and sat to hear a little jazz ensemble set Shaker hymns to the sounds of a Moog synthesizer. We ordered egg creams and Jell-O at Junior’s diner at odd hours when Vidya returned home late from work. We talked on the phone late into the night. We developed a walk that was from another age. She would wrap her arms around my bent elbow as we sauntered down the street.
Something was there and it was something that shouldn’t be rushed, but at the same time there was a schedule to be kept and Vidya was keeping it. I would arrive at her apartment to pick her up and see a Seoul travel guide on her kitchen counter or a passport application on her ottoman.
“I picked up a couple of extra applications,” she called from the bathroom. “If you want, you can take one.”
“That’s OK,” I called back. “I’m staying put for a little while.”
We had been together for five weeks. Surely there was no need to change plans, or to consider changing our lives. She was still so new to me. I would play a game with myself when I would ring her doorbell and she would buzz me in through the two front doors. I would try to picture her in my head in great detail – her hair, her eyes, her physical presence. Did I know her yet? Was I remembering her correctly, or was she partly my imagination? Was this new romance real or was it something I was inventing?
Vidya would open the door to her apartment and greet me. She wasn’t as tall as I remembered and her shoulders were more delicate than I had thought. Through the few times I had played this game with myself, my memory could not accurately recall the color of her skin. There was something substantial about her color that left me feeling insufficient as if she were written in permanent marker and I was a smudge of rubber and graphite left by a dirty eraser. I felt a thrilling, existential uneasiness as I moved toward her, feeling that I was becoming harder to see, translucent, transparent, invisible.
“So, you’re Catholic, right?” she asked me on the phone one night.
“Why,” I asked, “does that freak you out?”
“No, not really,” she said. “I went to a Jesuit school. Have you ever thought of becoming a Hindu?”
“I don’t know that much about it,” I admitted, “but if you dressed me up in one of those long white shirts and gave me one of those gorgeous Indian names that goes on forever, I’d think about it.”
“I’ll see about the shirt,” she said. “But for now, let’s call you Maharajah Rajkumar.”
I loved my new name. I looked it up on the Internet and found out that it repeatedly referred to royalty, the royal prince. I practiced saying it and would use it when leaving phone messages for Vidya. It was a private joke that we enjoyed. Most of what we shared was private. There didn’t seem to be any reason to get friends and family involved, but somehow it happened.
On Valentine’s Day I unwrapped a gift from Vidya. It was a beautiful long white shirt and matching pants.
“It’s called a kurta,” Vidya said. “And you wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to get it.”
I ran into the bedroom to try on my new clothes. “I’m listening,” I yelled into the living room as I pulled off my tee shirt.
“My parents have never met anyone I’ve ever dated, except my Prom date,” she explained. “I didn’t know where to get a kurta. Didn’t know how they were sized. I really didn’t even know what they were called. So, I asked my mother. She said she didn’t know how the sizes ran either and I’d have to ask my father.”
“You really didn’t have to go that far,” I said, peeking my head through the door.
“The word was out,” Vidya said. “I couldn’t stop now.”
“So, all I said to my father was, ‘I want to buy a kurta for a man and I need your help to figure out the right size.’”
“OK,” I said.
“So, he turns to me and says, ‘Will it be a Hindu wedding?’”
Well, I was dressed for it.
It was a little early to begin preparing guest lists or to pick out color patterns for table linens, but it was time to introduce Vidya to my family. When I mentioned to my mother that I had been seeing a woman since New Years, she invited us out for Easter dinner.
“Did you tell your mother that the girlfriend you are bringing to dinner is a woman of color?”
“Would you like me to?” I asked. “I don’t think it makes any difference.”
“Yeah, it makes a difference,” Vidya said. “I doubt you’ve ever brought home a dark skinned woman before.”
“To tell you the truth,” I said. “I don’t even know if one has ever been in the house.”
What exactly was I supposed to say? I never provided my mother with genealogical or ethnic information about any of the women I’ve dated before. I didn’t know how to frame it. I didn’t know how to put it into a context that would fall normally into conversation.
I called my mother to let her know to expect us for dinner.
“Guess who’s coming to dinner,” I said.
“Well,” my mother said. “I thought you said you were bringing your girlfriend.”
“Right,” I said. “But what if I told you she was Sidney Poitier?”
We didn’t go to my mother’s house. We got into an argument a few days before. I had said something cheeky in mixed company that made Vidya angry. It was the type of argument that couples have in the first few months of getting to know each other. It is the type of disagreement that is usually resolved without too much trouble, but I had looked at the calendar. It was already April. Vidya was planning to leave in July. I was already in way too deep. The options seemed clear: break up with her now or continue to get closer to her and set myself up for total annihilation.
That had been two weeks ago. Now I scanned the shop signs as I walked up the block, looking for the café she mentioned on the phone.
She sat at a table in the open store front. I stepped in and sat across from her.
“You look great,” I said. “I’m glad you called.”
She raised her eyebrows and smiled.
“Thank you for your card,” I said. “I already sent in the passport application. I knew all of the answers.”
Vidya took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She looked me straight in the eye. “I’m pregnant,” she said.
That was the last time I knew all of the answers.
“Do you know what you’d like to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I never wanted to have a baby with my ex-boyfriend.”
“I don’t have to be your ex-boyfriend,” I said.
“We’re going to have a lot to talk about,” she said. “And whatever we decide, it’s going to be big. I think it would help if you found a therapist to talk to.”
A week later I was having a staring contest across a small room on the twenty-seventh floor of a downtown Brooklyn office building. Everything I knew about psychology was from the intro to psych class I took in college and scenes from TV shows like Bob Newhart and the Sopranos. I wanted to jump right in, bare my soul, blame my parents and cry like I was on a Barbara Walters special, but I had a hard time finding the words to begin. That was it. There were just no words for it.
“I… me… my girlfriend and I… my ex-girlfriend, that is… she’s pregnant. I’m the father and we are deciding what we should do.”
“How do you feel about that?” the therapist asked.
“I feel OK,” I said. “I’m excited by the possibility. I’m anxious that in the end the decision isn’t mine to make. I think what bothers me the most is how difficult it is to talk about. It is the most natural thing in the world – a woman, a man, a pregnancy, but the language is lacking. That’s what makes it confusing. That’s what makes it feel like I’m hiding something.
“It’s strange to me that one of the big ideas in western culture is based on this gift of an unexpected child. ‘And a host of heavenly angels sings hallelujah.’ But when it happens to me, I can’t find a word to describe the relationship between me and the woman I’m experiencing it with. Girlfriend isn’t right. She’s not my wife…”
“Partner is acceptable,” he suggested.
“What am I, a cowboy?” I griped. “Partner is too vague and its use for an intimate relationship has been co-opted by the gay community. I want to be able to speak clearly and succinctly, not raise more questions.”
“Our time is just about up for today,” the therapist looked at his watch. “Something I want to leave you with to consider is that women’s feet change a lot during pregnancy. You might want to buy your partner a new pair of shoes.”
I considered the shoes and other articles of clothing. We considered our living situations, our cultures and our bank accounts. We considered our histories and our dreams. Then we would go back to the beginning and start all over again. Sometimes it was fun and playful. We would talk about what holidays we would celebrate, if there would be Christmas and Santa Claus. Sometimes it was rough and all of our fears would spill out on the table in front of us. Once in a while it was spiritual. She prayed a novena to Saint Jude. She framed a picture of Sri Ganesh. One night when we couldn’t sleep I whispered that if anyone knew what it was like to be unexpectedly pregnant, it was the Blessed Mother and that she would listen. We knew we didn’t have all the time in the world, but if we used the time we had right, we had enough time to make a good decision. There was no reason to rush. At least I didn’t think so.
“I told my mother,” Vidya said.
“What do you mean you told your mother?” I asked. “I thought we were going to wait.”
“I know,” she said. “But I told her.”
Her parents were willing to marry her off at the mere mention of a boyfriend. Now they knew she was pregnant.
“How did she handle it?” I asked.
“Not well,” Vidya said.
“‘Bring this man to me,’ my father said. ‘I want to meet him.’”
“And your mother?” I asked.
“My mother asked, ‘What kind of white is he?’”
“I haven’t given that much thought,” I said. “What kind of white am I?”
“Imperial white,” Vidya said. “That’s what I told her, that you are good old fashion Colonial slave trader white.”
“Wow,” I said. “What an introduction.”
“That’s nothing,” Vidya said. “We’re having dinner with them on Saturday.”
We were having a baby. And that baby would need a family. And it was time to let the family know.
“Have you spoken to Mom yet?” my brother asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I cringed.
“I don’t know how she’s going to react to it,” he said.
“I know,” I whispered.
I knew I had to break the news gently to my mother. Not the news about the pregnancy; that was nothing to the mother of eight and the grandmother of another nine. My mother knew where babies and grandbabies came from. My brother’s comment was about skin color and we both knew it.
The women in my family are what is known as Black Irish, as opposed to the men who are bald Irish. My mother was a Black Irish beach mommy. Throughout the heat waves of the 1970s, she loaded us into a wood-paneled station wagon and drove to Jones Beach. She wouldn’t apply sun screen on us until we were bright red – a good base color. We would burn, peel, freckle and head back to the beach a few days later. She hoped our freckles would protect us the way hers did.
At some time in her late adolescence, my mother’s freckles fused into a giant single freckle that covered her entire body. Within the first few days of late May or early June, my mother’s complexion glowed in a beautiful mahogany while the rest of us scratched and molted layer after stinging red-orange layer. And now, I had to tell her.
“Well, you see mom, Vidya’s family is from Guyana.” I said. “Do you know where that is?”
“Don’t worry, nobody usually knows where it is,” I said. “It was a former British colony, like Canada.”
“Oh,” she said.
“But you know how Sue’s Canadian cousins are really Scottish?” I led in slowly.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, Guyanese people are from somewhere else too,” I was almost there. “Vidya’s family is originally from India.”
“Oh, I see,” my mother said. “Well, that sounds fine.”
I knew she wasn’t getting it. I slowed down for the next pass.
“So the baby will be half Indian,” I said.
“I understand,” she said. “Those children are beautiful.”
“OK Mom, but what I’m trying to ease you into is that you’re probably not going to have the best tan in the family anymore.”
“Do you want to talk to your father?” my mother asked, and then passed the phone.
At work I filled out forms that the Human Resources Department sent me to extend my health benefits to Vidya and eventually our baby. The forms asked for information I didn’t know. I called Vidya so we could step through the questions together. She rattled off her social security number, her mother’s maiden name and the hospital where she was born. The standard check boxes followed. I thought I could answer them unassisted. I gave the form one good look before letting Vidya off the phone. Something caught my eye.
“What do you usually check off for ethnicity?” I asked.
“That’s a weird one, isn’t it?” she said. “I’m never really sure what I should put.”
Ethnicity questions are handled differently depending upon the form you are filling out. They usually break down into two parts. First, there is the disclaimer stating that the section of questions referring to ethnicity is completely optional and that the information gathered through it isn’t used for anything at all. Second is the list of choices:
[ ] Caucasian
[ ] Black
[ ] Hispanic
[ ] Asian or Pacific Islander
[ ] Native American or Eskimo
[ ] Other, please specify ___________________
I got into the habit of answering optional questions in high school, where optional meant extra credit. So, I usually checked off the first box and went about my business.
Looking at the choices analytically, I was tempted to check the box next to “Asian or Pacific Islander,” but how could that be right? Seeing that choice placed so closely to Eskimo sent my mind into a crisis of competing scales.
Have you ever looked at a map? Have you ever seen the size of the Asian continent and the Pacific Ocean? Have you ever heard the quips about the populations of Asian countries like China and India? Have you ever heard anything comparable about Eskimos?
If the world’s population fit on a field that was fifty yards wide and a mile long – roughly seventeen and a half football fields stretching end to end. The Asians and Pacific Islanders would take up all but six of the football fields. They would be standing there, milling about, not really knowing why they were there. At first glance, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they were all the same ethnicity – the Afghans, the Samoans, the Bengalis and the Vietnamese… In fact, no matter how many times you look at them, you still won’t see them as one homogenous people.
The area of six football fields is all that would be needed to hold everyone else – the Caucasians, Blacks, Hispanics and the Native Americans.
The Eskimos would take up an eighth of an inch.
If two-thirds of the world’s population, everyone from Istanbul to Catalina Island, people as diverse as Himalayan Sherpas, Maori wave riders and Japanese Geishas can fit within a single category, how helpful can the categories be? It begs the larger question, What the H-E-double-hockey-sticks?!!!
I checked the box next to “Other, please specify,” and wrote “off-white” on the line provided.
“The king of clubs has been showing up a lot for me lately,” I said. “I wonder if it means something.”
Vidya had been having a hard time falling asleep, so we played cards into the night. It didn’t matter that I mentioned the king of clubs. She seemed to know the cards I held any way.
“What are you talking about?” she peeked over her hand.
“Cards are used for divination,” I said. “Tarot cards and playing cards come from the same traditions. I’ve seen the king of clubs five times tonight, so it makes me wonder if the cards are trying to tell me something.”
We called the game we played Gin. Really, we just called it cards, but we both thought we were playing Gin. We had started a few weeks before with seven cards each and some basic rules about threes-of-a-kind and straight-flushes being of value. Now we had ten cards a piece and just about every hand called for a challenge to or a negotiation of the rules.
We differed in our playing styles – I would look at my hand and remember a segment I had seen on the History Channel and wonder what each card said about my future. Vidya would look at her hand and decide how to use the cards to humiliate me. It wasn’t pretty to watch.
I designed the scoring system. At the end of each hand, we would adjust the net score from all of the games. It didn’t matter how many points we each accumulated, only the number of points by which the winner was ahead. When you were ahead by five hundred points, you won and could demand a prize.
In theory, the net score idea would provide us with long tournaments where the score would ebb and flow and only occasionally reach the pay-out amount. In practice, it hardly slowed Vidya down at all.
“This guy at work has a picture of his family on his desk,” I said. “His wife looks dark, but his kids are light.”
“Did you ask him where his wife is from?” Vidya asked and picked up my last discard.
“I can’t ask that,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You can ask that,” I explained. “You can say something like, ‘Are you from the islands?’ and it’s wonderful. It’s a party. It’s a big celebration of diversity. But me, looking the way I do, if I say something like that, I’ll be assigned to six weeks of sensitivity training.”
I am in a demographic that is discouraged from celebrating diversity and encouraged to ignore it. I’m asked to wallow in my ignorance of other cultures and I feel like an idiot the whole time I’m doing it. “Grenada? Is that much different from the islands we have around here? I’m from Long Island.”
Everything progressed nicely.
“I can’t believe how accurate the pregnancy books are,” I told my therapist. “They predict how Vidya feels with split-second accuracy. Yesterday we had a sonogram and the fetus looked exactly like the picture in the book.”
“You just called it a fetus,” the therapist said.
“Right,” I nodded.
“Isn’t that a little detached?” he asked.
“No,” I defended. “We’re very proud of our fetus. It just became a fetus two days ago. Before that, it was an embryo. But we loved our embryo too.”
“OK,” he cautioned. “But you understand that there is a human being forming… that in a number of months there is going to be a real baby?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’ll love the infant, the toddler, the child, and the teenager, but right now we are trying not to get ahead of ourselves. We have a fetus. And we love our fetus.”
The therapist considered this for a moment. “Does the book mention anything about the mother’s feet?” he asked.
The risky first trimester had passed and both of our families knew that the baby was on the way. We began to share the news with a wider circle of friends. I called my old roommate Frank to tell him how our bachelor pad was being transformed into a family home.
“So how are you arranging everything?” Frank asked.
“The bedroom is now lavender,” I said. “And I’m going to paint an elephant mural in the office room for the baby.”
“What office room?” Frank asked. “There’s no office room. That apartment has five rooms – the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, your room and my room. Did you turn your room into an office?”
“No, Frank, I didn’t”
“So, this office room you are talking about, are you talking about my room? Are you turning Frank’s room into the baby’s room?”
“Yes, Frank’s room is now the baby’s room.”
“That’s all?” he asked. “We’re not going to have a conversation about it? You just start painting elephants and hand my room over to someone I’ve never even met?”
“I thought it would be OK, Frank.” I said. “You moved out, and stopped paying rent over eleven years ago.”
“I don’t know,” Frank said. “I’m going to have to come check this out.”
Shortly after getting married, Frank and his wife bought into a co-op a few blocks away from me in Brooklyn – the right place at the right time. Within a few years a real estate agent knocked on the door offering a free appraisal. After a tour of the home he whispered an astronomical number in Frank’s ear.
“You’re out of you mind,” Frank said. “But if you think you can sell this apartment for that price, go ahead and sell it.”
A month later, the apartment had been sold and Frank, his wife and child packed up and moved to Westchester. Following his windfall, Frank liked to volunteer his advice on the Brooklyn real estate market.
The coffee machine wheezed and gasped as Frank, Vidya and I sat at the kitchen table. “OK, so you have the baby and you live here for a little while. Not bad,” Frank said. “But you don’t want to raise a family right on Atlantic Avenue. So, are you looking at other neighborhoods?”
“We like Cobble Hill,” I said.
“A Trader Joe’s is moving in on the corner.” Vidya added. “It just keeps getting better.”
“Cobble Hill,” he savored the words. “I like Cobble Hill. I miss the old neighborhood. Of course, it’s hard for me to come back. I feel like I got away with murder, and someone is going to catch me.”
“We like Park Slope too,” I said.
“Park Slope’s good,” Frank said. “But now you’re getting into the interior. You’re far away from the BQE and the Belt, and it’s a little hard if you are trying to get anywhere.”
“I love my place over in Fort Greene,” Vidya said.
“Hmmm, Fort Greene,” Frank moved items around on the kitchen table like a commander strategizing over a battle map. “Fort Greene is nice. You’ve got the park, and you are close to the Manhattan Bridge.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of nice over there,” I conceded.
Frank cornered his paper napkin within a triangle marked by the sugar bowl, the creamer and his coffee cup. “The problem with Fort Greene is that it is surrounded on three sides by public housing projects.”
I pulled the carafe from the coffee machine and poured us each a cup. “So, what are you saying Frank, that when the revolution begins, you don’t want to be caught in Fort Greene?”
“I don’t know?” Frank said.
“Do you think that matters?” I asked.
“What do you mean, does it matter?” Frank asked.
“I mean, I’m not exactly white anymore, Frank.” I said. “I’m the father in a multi-racial family.”
“So,” Frank said. “When the revolution comes, you think that gives you a pass?”
Vidya lifted the lid from the sugar bowl, which, if I had interpreted Frank’s map correctly, represented the Walt Whitman housing projects along Myrtle Avenue. She dipped her spoon in. “Frank,” she said in a soft voice, stirring her cup. “We are the revolution.”
I had heard about the revolution through whispers in the college dining hall and drunken sermons shouted on subway platforms. It was a revolt against the man. Not the man as in, “you’re the man,” but the man as in, “working for the man” and “the man is keeping me down.” I never thought the revolution included me. A hush would fall as I passed the students in the cafeteria. They didn’t want me privy to the details.
I have no doubt that the man exists. Too much money and influence is in the hands of too few people with too little color in their cheeks, but to keep the details of the revolution secret from me is a waste of counter espionage resources. I don’t have access to the man. I don’t have his ear. I can’t sidle up to him and warn him about the plot I overheard, “Look out. A fella on the subway is looking to F you up.”
All I had ever known about the revolution was a simple statement that had been imbedded in my consciousness without question or qualification with my earliest memories – the revolution will not be televised. It was a given, like the first few lines of a geometry theorem. Only now did I begin to wonder what it meant.
The prophets of the revolution that I had overheard on college campuses and MTA stairwells spoke of jaw-clenched protests, venomous rhetoric and a critical mass that would lead a mob to erupt in riot. How would you keep that off TV?
What about the demonstrations we have already seen – the violence in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, the Million Man March on Washington? If they were on the tube, they are not part of the revolution.
Maybe Vidya was right. Maybe the revolution is something kinder and more approachable. Maybe the revolution will indeed glide beneath the radar of TV producers. Maybe the revolution is mundane – diapers, skinned knees and report cards. Perhaps it is something simple and loving and truly revolutionary.
I knew that one day I would throw my hat into the ring and take sides in a cause. At times it seemed like any cause would suffice. I could take my pick. College kids with clip boards paced in front of book stores and coffee shops offering me issues to care about on a weekly basis – save the whales, save the children, human rights, gay rights. A tri-fold glossy brochure, a minute of your time and a small donation was all that was needed to fight the good fight.
I never surrendered the minute for the conversation; never gave up the signature for the petition. Had I become too cynical to push against the status quo? No, my time had not yet come. Not until that afternoon in the kitchen had it became clear that I had taken sides. My place in the revolution was revealed.
I would be a father in the revolution. Not a founding father. Nothing of an elevated or celebrated status. The revolution began way before I got involved. In fact, what we failed to realize is that each time we turned on the TV and did not see the revolution, the revolution was moving forward, taking ground. A father plays a small part, a mother, perhaps a bit more, but the brighter day we hope for will be delivered by the children of the revolution.
What will the children of the revolution be like? Will they be strong, growing beneath the expectations of separate cultures? Will they be balanced, toddling gingerly along a tightrope? Will they be embraced or will they be rejected? Will they celebrate their abundant history and thank us for our revolution, or will their existence be harder than we can imagine and will they struggle all their lives trying to forgive us?
It is my hope that, looking upon the variety of faces and complexions nurturing them from their earliest days, they will bless our world with open hearts and lead us to a greater capacity to love. Can you imagine having a greater capacity to love? Welcome to the revolution.
The more immediate question that was on our minds was, “What would the children of the revolution look like?” This gives us pause. It is in contemplating the answer to this question where we stumble, where we drop our fife and drum and decide that the revolution can go on without us, that we will wave the banner for another cause. We’ll slap bumper stickers on our cars and support equal pay for gay whales.
We don’t know the exact answer to the question, but we are almost certain about one thing – the children of the revolution will not look like us, particularly if we are apricot, peach, melon or maize. Darker pigment in skin, hair color and eyes are the dominant genetic traits in human beings. Our children will most likely reach for different colored crayons than we did – sepia, sienna, umber.
Will I be able to recognize any part of myself in the face of my child? This question haunted me throughout the pregnancy. Though I looked forward to taking part in the delivery and being helpful to Vidya through her labor, it was the question of recognizing my child that made it vital for me to be present at the birth. I had to see the baby’s face, study it, memorize it. I could not risk being elsewhere, and later being led to a nursery window to have my child pointed out to me because I could not recognize her.
I think I’m the first member of my family to ever have such a thought. We knew what our babies would look like. For as far back as there are photographs, there is a continuous record of bald, white Hawkins babies. With color photography, home movies and video a greater degree of detail has emerged. Babies are born into my family so white that they are blue – the blood in their veins shows through their translucent flesh.
Will my children look through family photo albums and recognize the bald, blue babies as some part of who they are, or will they and their children look upon us as strangers?
I was pouring coffee from an urn at a community meeting in the basement of a neighborhood church. A guy I was friendly with, Jared, nodded at me as he approached.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he juggled his words. “Where’s Vidya’s family from?”
I looked at his blue eyes and wavy blonde hair. What the Hell kind of question was that? I thought. Didn’t this guy know the rules? I wanted to see where he was going, so I answered him.
“I thought so,” he smiled. “That’s where my wife is from.”
Blonde hair, blue eyes, and a Guyanese wife, Jared may provide the key to my most nagging questions.
“You have kids, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Jared laughed, “I know what you’re thinking. You know it doesn’t matter, right? I mean, your kids are your kids,” he said. “We think they’re supposed to be like us, but they’re not. They’re going to be who they are.”
That night, Vidya dealt the cards and I told her about Jared’s family. “The oldest, the boy, he’s about four or five. Jared said he’s like a little Guyanese man.”
“Oh perfect!” Vidya said. “Are you ready for that, a little baby boy who looks just like my father?”
“The little girl takes after Jared,” I said. “She has lighter skin and her hair is lighter too.”
“How does Jared’s wife feel about that?” Vidya asked.
“She doesn’t like it,” I said, peeking over my cards.
Vidya was intent on her hand. “I wouldn’t like it either,” she said. “I’d want my little girl to look like me, not like you.”
“That’s not it really,” I said. “What she doesn’t like is that the other mothers at the playground don’t talk to her because they think she is her daughter’s West Indian nanny.”
Vidya dropped her cards. “They’re going to think I’m the nanny?”
“No,” I assured her. “They’re not.”
“Yes they are,” she said. “They’re going to see me with a white baby and they’re going to think, ‘that baby doesn’t belong to her.’ I don’t want to be my baby’s nanny.”
“Well, what do you think it will be like for me?” I asked. “If the baby’s dark, do you think anyone will know I’m the father?”
“They won’t call you nanny,” she shot back.
“What will they call me?” I asked.
It’s funny. When emotions are running hot in our house, the phrase “slave trader” is never out of reach.
So, what do you get when you cross a white slave trader with a West Indian nanny? It didn’t matter how you chose to word it. It was a course question. Sure, everyone wonders what their children will look like, but our query hung in the air, like a set up for a hack comedian.
One day we thought we stumbled upon the answer.
We had decided to take a late summer vacation in Nova Scotia – after Labor Day, to avoid the crowds, and off the beaten path, to avoid them even more. As we walked around our neighborhood, we discussed the details of the trip – what we should pack, and who would watch our dog.
Both Vidya and I noticed them almost at the same time. We fell silent and began to walk slowly like observers on TV nature programs. We didn’t want to rustle any leaves and risk scaring off our quarry. Just ahead of us, walking in our direction, was a young family. The man was of northern European stock – thin, dark hair, high forehead – close enough. The woman was Indian, or of Indian descent. Her clothing hinted at the traditional sari. The child was invisible, hidden behind a stroller. The couple walked slowly, watching the child as it pushed the stroller. Vidya and I traded looks with each other as the anticipation built. We knew we might only have a moment. As we passed the couple, only a brief glimpse of the child might be revealed to us. We slowed our walk even more, trying to assess the best angle for our pass. Just then the child popped a wheelie, pulling down on the stroller’s handle bars. The parents lunged forward to balance the stroller. We were glad for their distraction. They didn’t see our surprise as we looked upon the face of their beautiful adopted Chinese baby.
“Passports, please.” The request was delivered in a French Canadian accent.
I handed our passports over the counter to the uniformed official. The uniform was bulky, like a commando sweater. I knew we were in Canada, but it seemed a little much for a desk job inside an airport.
The official took a quick look at the passports and then back at us. He didn’t seem thrown at all that I still considered my hair to be brown. He flipped the first few pages of the passports back and forth, really taking in that new passport feel. I thought for a moment he was going to smell them. He directed his gaze back at us.
“And what is your relationship with each other?” He asked.
Here I was again, falling somewhere inconveniently between checkboxes on a questionnaire.
Surely, there was a word for it, I thought. I could understand tripping over the concept in English, with its prudish Victorian hangover, but surely, in a romantic language like French, there must be a word for it. It is the boy meets girl story. It is a force of nature.
“Well, you see,” I said. I moved my hands back and forth in front of me like I was offering him a warm loaf of bread.
“We are,” I searched the vocabulary of my high school French class. Somehow this was one of the scenarios we neglected to cover in our make-believe dialogues. All I could think to say was bibliothèque, and I knew it wasn’t bibliothèque.
“She’s my ex-girlfriend,” I blurted out.
Vidya smiled and rubbed her hands over her belly. “I’m carrying his genetic material.”
“Oh, yes,” the official said. He folded our passports and handed them back to me.
We grabbed some snacks and headed to our gate.
We placed our bags on the conveyor belt with our wallets, belts and shoes. We walked through the metal detectors and turned to collect our personal items from the x-ray machine.
“Hold it,” a guard said. “Is this your bag?”
“Yes,” Vidya said. “It is.”
“Please stand back,” the guard said. “We need to physically search your bag.”
The guard opened the flap to find a bottle of water Vidya had been sipping from as we browsed through the airport shops.
“Step to the side,” the guard commanded. “We need to search you.”
Had the search been initiated because of the questionable bottle on the x-ray display or had Vidya fallen victim to racial profiling? Usually I am the one picked out at security check points and subway stations for the “random search.” I serve as a sort of racial profiling placebo. Police departments and security agencies need to provide mountains of reporting to illustrate in the end that they have not racially profiled subjects through their searches. As I approach their tables I hear them whisper to each other, “get the bald, white imperialist.”
“Actually,” I say, “I work for a non-profit.”
“Even better,” they smirk. They search through my bag and scratch a hash mark next to “white liberal” on their daily report.
The guard stood close to Vidya while another guard traced the contours of her body with a paddle shaped sensor – gliding it over her head, past her shoulders and over her ripe belly.
Had I been duped like a character in a T.V. movie? Was I the unassuming boyfriend – the cover story for an international smuggler or terrorist? She could have been carrying anything along with my genetic material and I would go along for the ride and play the patsy.
To my horror, the guard snapped on a pair of latex gloves. I looked away. What now? What would happen to me, my terrorist ex-girlfriend, and our poor, innocent, unborn Chinese baby?
“I can’t believe you didn’t do anything,” Vidya slapped at me as we cruised along the people mover to our gate. “You didn’t even say anything,” she scowled. “They put their latex gloves on and felt to see if I was hiding something in my hair. They touched my hair! They touched my hair and you didn’t do anything!”
“What did you want me to do?” I pleaded. “They didn’t hurt you. If you mess with airport security, you end up on a watch list. Is that what you want? You want me to end up on a ‘No-Fly’ list over a bottle of water and a little hair mussing?”
We sat down at our departure gate.
“I want to beat you.” Vidya said. “I’m going to beat you so bad. The cards are in the front pocket of my bag. I’ll be back in a minute to deliver your punishment.” Vidya walked off to the ladies’ room.
The “front pocket” clue was little help to me as I searched for the cards. I knew Vidya’s bag well. I had carried it on my shoulder for the last six months. In all of that time, not once had I been able to reach into it and retrieve what I was looking for. Vidya was fond of directing me – front pocket, back pocket, port, starboard and stern. To me, the bag looked the same from every angle. It had outside pockets and inside pockets and pockets within pockets. On any other day I would have abandoned my search by now and handed the bag back to Vidya, but she was still in the ladies’ room, and I was already in enough trouble.
I placed the bag on the seat next to me. I gathered a few inches of material in my fingers and pressed it against the seat, feeling for the rectangular shape of a deck of playing cards. On my first attempt, I felt a small tube that I thought might be lip balm and something soft, like a stick of gum. I moved my fingers along the bag and pressed down again. This time I felt a cylinder – larger than the lip balm, more like a travel size shampoo bottle. I picked up the bag, looking for a zipper or a flap that I might open to expose what I was holding. I tugged apart a Velcro opening and pulled out a small aerosol can. Holy Crap!
“I don’t see the cards,” Vidya said, returning to where I sat. “I hope you’re not trying to avoid the beating you have coming, because I’ll just have to beat you twice a bad then.”
“Yeah,” I said. That was me being nonchalant. “So, they touched your hair right, and you’re upset about it?” The rhetorical questions poured from my lips. “It was unprovoked. There was no reason for them to search you and I should have stopped them, right?”
“You didn’t do anything,” she growled.
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, I couldn’t find the cards in your bag, but I found this!” I flashed her a quick glimpse into the lining pocket.
It wasn’t something she had to see twice. The words “TEAR GAS” in bold print got their meaning across on first reading.
“My pepper spray,” she gasped. “I swear I didn’t know that was in there.”
“Why are you carrying around pepper spray?” I demanded.
“A friend of mine gave it to me when I first moved to Brooklyn. He was afraid of me being out alone at night.”
“Great,” I said. “How does your hair feel now?”
“What should we do?” Vidya surveyed our surroundings. “Should we throw it out?”
“No,” I said. “We’re past security now; I think we should hold on to it. I don’t want to be picked up on a camera ditching the can in the trash. Anyway, I think it’s a little irresponsible to abandon a chemical weapon in an international airport.” I pressed the Velcro tabs together and gently dropped the bag in Vidya’s lap. “Let’s just play a couple of hands of card. You deal.”
Our vacation now had an element of international intrigue. The adrenaline raced through my veins. We were like characters from a movie, racing around the sheer cliffs of the Riviera in a foreign sports car – a Maserati or an Aston Martin – cars that Americans have heard of, but have never actually seen. In truth, the trip was more chowder than caviar. Instead of the Riviera we drove around Nova Scotia’s Bra d’Or. Instead of a Maserati, we drove a rented Toyota Echo, a car that drives like a terrier begging at the kitchen table, though its limitations didn’t keep us from being pulled over twice for speeding.
Before turning into the woods to find the retreat cabin we had rented, we stopped in the town of Beddeck to get our bearing and to pick up a few things. On our walk through the tourist shops, Vidya relayed her inventory of aches and pains brought on by airline travel, the mattress in the hotel by the airport, and the long morning car ride, I felt it was finally time to employ the advice I had acquired through twenty sessions with a psychologist.
“You’re up five hundred points in cards,” I said. “So, I think it’s time you had a pay-out.”
“Really,” Vidya perked up. “What do I get?”
“I want to buy you a comfortable pair of shoes,” I said.
We stayed in an A-framed retreat house in the Canadian woods. A guest book on the front table logged notes from the people who had previously stayed there. They wrote on how they came to these woods to be silent for a while, to transcend the ten thousand things, and commune with the One.
The night before we left, I scribbled a note in the guest book for future retreating souls to read. I told them how we watched the sun set over the pines, that we saw two bald eagles and a moose. I told them that we came to Nova Scotia to take a dip in the North Atlantic, to whisper baby names to each other, and to buy a pair of shoes. I warned them about the speed limits and the Royal Canadian Police.
“In the morning, we return to New York,” I wrote, “to continue preparations for the baby we are expecting in December.”
I forgot to write, “Pray for us,” but it was the guest book in a retreat house, they probably knew that without being asked.
I don’t remember much about the trip home, except for a bad cup of coffee in the Montreal airport as we switched planes. We both dozed off on the connecting flight. I found Vidya’s head on my shoulder when the flight attendant woke me up to give me a customs declaration and an airline survey to fill out. I pulled out a pen and filled out the form as best I could. I don’t know what any of the questions mean anymore. I don’t know why anyone is asking them. I no longer fit neatly within the check boxes. I’m not married, but I’m no longer single and my family falls somewhere between white and the rest of the world.
I heard the unwinding sound of the landing gear lowering into position. I stroked my fingers through Vidya’s hair and kissed her lightly on the left temple. As the plane straightened out for its final approach, I remembered something Vidya had said in our kitchen in a soft voice. “We are the revolution.”
We are the revolution and we are wheels down in eight minutes. We have a belly full of baby, and hearts full of love. And if that is not enough, we have a small cache of chemical weapons.