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After Pamuk: Street Museum, New York, Part I

This week, transported in a state of rapture to Istanbul circa 1975, I have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s novel, The Museum of Innocence. It is, on the surface, the story of a doomed love of Shakespearean proportions, of lovers in a repressive society who misread the nature of love, themselves, each other, and their circumstances. As the narrator Kemal readily admits, his love is obsessive to the point of tedium, incomprehensible to his family and friends, even to himself; yet he spends (wastes?) his life collecting and fondling objects tawdry, sentimental, and pathetic touched by or associated with his beloved Fusun. As Kemal builds his collection little by little, Pamuk displays to the reader the whole of Istanbul, its streets, food, restaurants, cinemas, its movie stars, the inner workings of its film industry, its seasons and vacation spots, its residents’ habits and habits of mind, its whore houses and funerals, all caught between Europe and Asia, between traditional Turkish wisdom and received ideas of the modern West.

I believe I write from an impulse similar to Pamuk’s in attempting to recreate my childhood in New York. Certain details must not be lost. I must hoard and surround them. Pile it on, get it down. I must empty my pockets and do the laundry. Perhaps what I really want is to get rid of the past, to free myself. At the end of her life, when she hardly knew what she was saying, my mother was preoccupied with a slight she had suffered, a put-down by the son of the dentist for whom her father was a chauffeur. This boy, this rich boy, thought himself superior because he had a Flexible Flyer, apparently state of the art for sleds in Des Moines, Iowa, 1913, and she did not. These two sleds, the Flexible Flier and her own red sled, my mother had been lugging around with her for some 90 years. What she needed was a place to put them, a museum in which they could be shown off, appreciated for what they meant to her and for their larger social, economic, even moral implications.

Pamuk’s literary conceit suggests that things and their meanings can be preserved in word artifacts if the collector is willing to take pains, even to devote his life to the gathering. Pamuk’s narrator treasures the very cigarette butts stubbed out by Fusun which many years later yet retain her scent, her gestures, even her mood on a certain evening. The task as he conceives it is daunting. Already, I have forgotten the name of the brat who taunted my mother. She pronounced it to me many times but, not seeing that it would be important to me later, I neglected to record it. No ideas but in things. Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Thus do such different writers as William Carlos Williams and Henry James encourage us to be collectors, and there is some comfort in the thought that it’s all there somewhere, though irretrievable, in our capacious brains.

How is it that a red sled persists in its obstinate existence, while my Manhattan address has been lost? Did I live at 252 E. 105th Street where my parents’ wedding announcement tells me they were first at home? Could the Open Stair Dwelling they spoke of with nostalgia have been so far uptown? Google keeps mum, refers me to an unromantic building code. With 3760 88th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens, I must be content. Between Roosevelt Avenue, close at hand, and 37th Avenue, a long block down, too far to see. North and south mean nothing so long as I remember my name and address and can repeat Havemeyer 6-8420. But I am never lost because here is the whole of the world. Roosevelt Avenue, the elevated train rattling overhead, is the important intersection, the whistle-blowing policeman on the corner its guardian who “crosses” me on my way to P.S.89 and back from choir practice and Brownies at Community Methodist church, at dusk, in a haze of powdered sugar and raspberry jam, the last piece of the Linzer cookie purchased at Cushman’s bakery still in my hand. It isred light stop, geen light go as I learned very young to instruct my father in the car.

In the grim opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne sets down a prison,black flower of civilized society, he calls it. He also mentions church and cemetery as among the first concerns of settlers in their efforts to fend off the wilderness which lies beyond. I can recall no prison or police station in Jackson Heights, no graveyard. Instead our church members formed a garden club and for wilderness there was a vacant lot, one patch of earth, reserved for sledding or for digging holes, on which no cement had been laid down, no building rose. Denizens of Jackson Heights in the mid-to-late forties were not punishers, but indulgent getters and spenders, bent on post-war pleasures. From earliest days, I was aware of church and school, of Manhattan, the Bronx Zoo, Long Island, Jones Beach and Far Rockaway, New Jersey, and Connecticut, outliers all, not to be compared to Strom’s, out the double doors, turn right, walk to the corner, where I was sometimes sent for milk and bread, and once at least returned with nothing, possessed by a dream or some book I’d been reading.

Strom’s had salami and cheese, roast beef for sandwiches, free standing cutouts of long-legged blonds, Miss Rheingold contestants, maybe someday I could be one; the floor was crowded with cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz; flies buzzed in summer and the screen door banged. Just opposite, across 88th street, was the Dinner Bell (why did we never eat there?) where women with baby carriages and strollers lined up to gossip. Left for a few minutes among them to mind my sister, I almost tipped her over by rocking the carriage vigorously back and forth from the tip of her pointed pink cap. Witches who were not my mother puffed up and scolded me; I was a bad girl, a bad big sister. And sometimes I was, but not that day. Around the corner on Roosevelt was Maxie’s: marble-topped soda fountain, squirts of seltzer, paper cone cups on metal stands, comics (forbidden), movie magazines, wax teeth and lips, Tootsie Rolls, Necco wafers, multi-colored or mint-flavored Lifesavers, gum drops, candies shaped like bananas, but pale orange and sickening, lollipops, Dixie cups and ice cream cones, Hershey bars, Mounds and Mars bars, Dentine and Wrigley’s Spearmint gum to be spit out. Did I want to look like a cow chewing her cud? Staggering choices. For pennies! And for a little more, balls of every size and kind, attached to paddles with elastic strings, tops, jacks, and tiddlywinks, toy cars and Kewpie dolls, trapeze artists made to perform by squeezing two sticks, pinwheels and yoyos sent spinning round the world or out to walk the dog. All, all to become boring, to be lost, broken, discarded, and forgotten, until their attraction renewed itself, and it was thrill to buy them all over again.

Next to Maxie’s was a bar, with bubbly stained glass windows, with stale reek of beer and whiskey, too dark to see what or who was in there even in the daytime when they swept the place out and washed the floor with ammonia. I knew my father stopped there sometimes on his way home from work, probably more often than I realized, and took me inside once when I was two years old. I could never quite get the tone in which he and my mother told how some Irishman had offered $2000 for me. There was pride in it and definitely the implication that the offer was tempting, also that this was an amusing story, though there was something wrong, even outrageous, about it. Sweet-smelling babies did not belong in bars; bars were under the radar. Back across the street, down Roosevelt on the other side, were the A&P, Gerstenhaber’s (skates, sleds, and bicycles), and eventually 82nd Street, our subway stop and closest commercial center, busy with lingerie and dress shops, their mannequins wigless and naked between seasons. Here was Woolworth’s, the dime store, aisle after aisle of sewing kits, finger paints, pens and pads, pencil cases and erasers, costume jewelry, crayons, coloring books, and paper dolls, where less than desirable old men and ladies sat on stools that twirled spooning soup at the counter. Bakeries, a movie theatre, and Barricini’s, which my mother preferred to Whitman’s or Russell Stover’s, where she might or might not buy a box of chocolates lodged in crinkled cups, with cherries or other surprises inside, sometimes indicated by a gold wrapper, but my favorite was and remains a small roll of green marzipan, one end dipped in bitter chocolate.

The center of this world, though not exactly the center of the street, was 3760. Our apartment house had a marble stoop, a green awning, and a witty doorman named Al, another keeper of crossroads. He once reported to my mother that the “mule” had just left: my little sister dragging her umbrella, a fancy parasol with scalloped edges, behind her on her way to school. Al chased children off the stoop where we liked to put on and tighten our roller skates. He was certainly aware of, but pretended not to watch over the mob on the sidewalk and in the street, nearly free of traffic, in front of his building. Here I skated, graduated from tricycle to two-wheeler, pushed my doll carriage, heard the swish of the rope and learned to jump in from both sides, turned my leg over a bouncing pink rubber ball while inventing metric verses based on the alphabet. I played potsy(hopscotch) and Mother May I, Ring around the rosy and London Bridge is falling down, exchanged Trading Cards with my girlfriends. Big boys played stickball in the street and a game called something like catcha fliers up. They threw a ball against a narrow wall space free of windows, leaping into the air to keep it in play, but what else was involved, what was the point of this game, I never figured out. Dimly, I was aware of teenagers who towered and had spending money. Once a roomer at my friend Barbara Sullivan’s on the first floor treated us to a soda at Maxie’s. I never knew this young woman’s name or who she was exactly, but she gave me a treat I’ve never forgotten and vision into the future.

Down the street on both sides were more apartment houses, one after another. In one of these lived Susan Raderman who sat on a spiked fence and had to have stitches, fair warning to the rest of us. Dangers lurked; street cries echoed. Liar, liar, pants on fire!It’s a free country! Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Wanna make something of it? Susan Raderman was Jewish and did not believe in Jesus Christ, but her family had the first television set on the block. Green upholstery, murky green square of screen, a funny smell I think was cabbage. I was on the right side, but barely, a Protestant who longed to be a Catholic. Belief had little to do with it. It was Penny Ingles one floor down who would wear nothing but blue and white until she was seven because her mother had made a vow dedicating Penny to the Virgin and, lo, she had emerged from dire infant illness a healthy child. Twin blue plastic crucifixes watched over her as she slept and over me once when I spent the night. I wanted it all—prayer and fasting, fish on Fridays, holy days of obligation, the rosaries and bridal veils, white dresses, new shoes, socks and handkerchiefs, the prayer books backed in mother-of pearl, First Holy Communion, Sisters and Fathers and catechism classes after school, sins venial and mortal. Howdy Doody had nothing of miracle or pageantry or solemnity to offer. He was a stupid puppet followed haltingly by honking Clarabell, a clown, mute and grotesque. More alarming were bands of boys who set up blockades to keep girls from the vacant lot, threw mittens and skate keys down the sewer, rotten eggs at Halloween. They soaped car windows, drew on the sidewalk with colored chalk. Snips and snails and puppy dog tails, that’s what little boys are made of. But still it was easy to linger late in spring after the Good Humor man had gone, taste of toasted almond on my tongue, alone suddenly in the dark. I was afraid of the boogey man, of the sudden flare of adult anger, of cracks in the sidewalk, of slipping off the parallel bars, of catching polio and being put in iron lung. I have almost no picture of that far-off boundary 37th Avenue, but once a month I bravely walked to a bookstore there to buy another Beverly Gray mystery. Four weeks to a month, four quarters to a dollar. This was how I spent my allowance.

Sweet and bitter stuff of childhood – unremarkable, wondrous, eternal in its repetition, but always one and only. The sun came up on our street I found out when we left on a summer trip to New Hampshire at four in the morning. There it hung, glowing, enormous, red when it should have been yellow, too close. I cried out, was told of, and comprehended planetary revolution. On another day, again immediately in front of me, both of us under the apartment awning, was a white woman pushing a black baby in a stroller. When I stared too long, she began to holler that her baby wasn’t black, that its father was a Puerto Rican. She chased me up three flights of stairs and down the hall threatening to come back tomorrow with a knife. Like the sun, she hangs there, without preamble, without aftermath, for she never returned and I told no one about her, symbol of fear and shame, and now of doubt. Where was Al? Where was my mother? Did the woman leave her kid alone on the sidewalk?

It was better not to be black, not to be Jewish, television notwithstanding. I say black, but surely I would have thought in the language of the time, colored, or Negro. It seems to me now that I did not think; I absorbed, I understood, acknowledged, accepted, as one does in a fast-moving film. Sometimes I say I grew up in Haiti because I remember the second half of my childhood better than the first elusive New York half. Because New York was my first theatre of loss. Turtles died and goldfish. The green paper kite I flew with my father in the vacant lot got stuck in a tree. We left it there, battered and torn, beyond our reach. Margaret the doll’s unstrung limbs lay still in the bedroom bureau drawer. Halloween candy on top of the piano turned gray, spoiled before I could bring myself to eat it. My best friend Phyllis moved to New Jersey. Balloons popped or, filled with hydrogen, flew up to heaven. Velvet the cat escaped to prowl starving for weeks through the tunnels and rafters in the bowels of our building. There was no thing, live or inanimate, not subject to accidental or willful destruction, and certain New York spaces became to me emblems of this idea. The sewer; the tiniest crack revealing the elevator shaft; the larger gap between subway train and platform where a shoe might drop off, a foot be wedged. Basement apartments looked like dungeons; someone lived there with bars on the windows, without air or light. Beneath our sidewalks was a filthy black pit, death to white gloves. There was spit and sweat. Steam came up through gratings, metal flaps concealed steps and lifts, manhole covers clanked. And at the end of the hall was the incinerator. Into this foul, stinking hell mouth went our beautiful wooden puzzle of the United States, because my sister and I had carelessly left its pieces, whose shapes were our delight to finger and identify, scattered on the living room rug.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Cries and shouts, old clothes, old clothes, the hurdy-gurdy man talking to his monkey, wounding words flung about on the playground, street game jingles, my name is Alice and I come from Alaskaor Alabama or Arkansas, and in my attic are alabaster apples. Polly put the kettle on, be on time! Lullabies and nursery rhymes, Valentines, Christmas carols (it was sleep in heavenly peace, not peas) popular songs and older songs my parents sang, their stories purposely told. Adult quarrels and conversation, direct and overheard. The hymns we sang at school and church, the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third psalm, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star- Spangled Banner, My country ‘tis of thee, America the Beautiful,gem of the ocean. On my honor I will try to do my duty to God and my country. Hamlet says it: words, words, words. On the radio and in sermons, in resonant voices of announcers, in confidant advertisers, and in books, of course, read to me and by myself, stretching out by the time I was ten to a long list, some already faded, marred by baby scribbling. I whittle it down. I weed it out to see what is lasting, what remains constant in my mind. It was certainly in those New York days that I first felt the power of words. Not just to take me lands away, as Dickinson says, but as containers. God and country lived in words. After the fall, words become Humpty Dumpty’s province.

I stare hard at a picture of a baby propped against white pillows on a bed which seems to take up the whole room. I do not recognize myself. I am too new, too strange, starched and perfect in a long dress. My mother, who is looking at me, her back to the camera, is a stranger too. What I feel affection for is the bedspread, off-white with large red dots in straight lines evenly spaced. I run my hand along these dots, larger than polka dots, raised somehow or knotted. This bedspread followed us to Queens, but just now in the picture it is in Manhattan wherever it was that my parents took me home from Brooklyn Hospital. The bedspread knows.

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