I experience a specific, subtle pleasure when I get off the subway taking my son to school in downtown Brooklyn.
Our stop is Jay Street on the F. We exit onto Willoughby.
When I first stood on that corner looking across the street at the big signs for CRICKET (former disposable cell phone store now selling 99-cent-per-slice pizza) and SHOE BUG (shoes), I had no idea where I was. I’d never been to that part of town, and I felt a tingle because the unfamiliarity of this random corner triggered a fantasy.
Downtown Brooklyn always makes me think of the Curious George books. George and the man in the yellow hat live in some unnamed city. It’s not New York. Whenever New York is the setting for a book or movie, the city itself is always an implied extra character. To stick with children’s books, think of Eloise in the Plaza Hotel. In the back of your mind, you’re always aware that she’s living in a famous New York hotel full of New Yorker personalities (grand dames with little dogs, monopoly guys with hats and canes) there on the corner of Central Park. Eloise is about a girl who lives in New York City.
It’s the same with Madeline in Paris.
Curious George lives in a city with sidewalks, taxis, buses, doormen, parks with fountains and a zoo, long blocks of stores with mannequins behind big windows, but the city is unnamed. It’s New York without all of the New York mythology.
When I feel bored with New York, I think about other places to live. I could go to the country. But who am I kidding? That would be even more boring in the long run.
Maybe it would be nice to go to Curious George’s city, another city that just isn’t New York. Somewhere with sidewalks, taxis, buses, doormen with whistles, etc. but none of the relentless mythologizing about bagels and Broadway. Somewhere that I don’t always hear Gershwin or Lou Reed playing in the back of my mind.
This is how I imagine Philadelphia and Chicago. Not San Francisco. San Francisco, with its hills and streetcars, has too much mythology. I’ve seen it in too many movies.
You want to go somewhere that you could step out of your big apartment building in your fedora and overcoat without feeling like you’re in a Woody Allen movie.
When I first stood on the corner of Jay and Willoughby without any sense of reference … looking at CRICKET and SHOE BUG and all the cheap shops going in every direction … my unconscious insisted that I was standing on a corner in this Curious George city. A corner in some unnamed city. If I walked that way, I’d surely find a coffee shop full of people from the 1950s calling each other “mac” and quipping with the waitress making a milkshake behind the counter. Busy city blocks would go on and on, and I’d never encounter some over-photographed tourist attraction. Just buildings, stores, buses and taxis.
Eventually, I’d find a wrought-iron fence with the words “Municipal Zoo” above a gate.
This fantasy is so strong that I can always retrieve my original sense of disorientation. I can still see this imaginary city when I get off the subway and stand on the corner. The hallucination is fixed and apparently unaffected by my ever improving picture of the area. My kids have been in the school for a few years, so I now know this whole chunk of Brooklyn pretty well, from the Manhattan Bridge to Red Hook. But, at will, I can still see my Curious George corner.
I think that this fantasy is connected to an early childhood memory. One of my earliest memories in fact.
The memory itself is just two flashes. First flash, I am in the bright lobby of a movie theater. I am happy because we just saw a movie. Second flash, I am lying down in the back of the station wagon and looking up at the city lights passing. I’m lying down because it’s past my bedtime. I was expected to go to sleep on the way home. Then they’d carry me inside. I’m happy because I like being in the city at night. I am AWARE that I like being downtown.
The city was Jackson. We lived in a newish neighborhood out on the northern edge. At my age then, probably around 1970, Jackson still had an active downtown. Like most cities, I suppose it was already on the decline at that time, but there were still shops and restaurants and lights and people walking around.
In my fragmented memories, I recall that my mother made a fuss about how we were going to see a movie at the Paramount on Capitol Street. This was a better, fancier way to see a movie because going downtown was a big deal. It was exciting. It was more than going to a movie. The movie, whatever we saw, was better because we were downtown.
I suppose it’s a universal truth that everybody who had a blissful childhood wants to return to it, but which bubble of memory do you pick? Riding home that night in the station wagon would probably be mine.
Why was I so happy? Surely I was picking up on my mother’s happiness that night. My whole joy in the experience sprang from being TOLD that going downtown was fun.
Among the many tender things in John Cheever’s diaries, he talks about taking his son ice skating on Christmas Eve in Central Park: “In the dark I seized him and kissed him with forlorn love … What I did, he did. When I exclaimed about the lighted rink and the music, he repeated my words. When, waiting for the bus, I crossed my legs, he crossed his legs.”
That night from my hazy childhood, I was surely echoing my mother in the same way. Oooh, let’s go up and get seats in the balcony. Carpeted stairs that curve up lead to a better place to sit: THE BALCONY! And they DO make such good popcorn here! The screen IS so much brighter. Oh and look at all of the people still out walking around on a Saturday night. Mommy, did you get milkshakes at Woolworth’s when you were little?
At these outer reaches of memory, truth and speculation blur. How much am I just projecting onto the past?
I’ve come to understand my mother as someone who was pulled in different directions. Her mother’s side of the family was fanatically religious and moralistic. But my grandfather’s people came from lower class German immigrants who liked to drink and dance. The joke is that they jumped off the boat in the Gulf of Mexico and swam to Mobile. Papaw laughed and said naughty things. My mother described dancing with him: “He just glided across that floor, smooth as silk!”
Since it turned out that I was hopelessly drawn to the worldly glamour of the city, I’ve always imagined that the same instinct was latent in my mother, the same worldliness that religious bromides could only temporarily muffle. My grandfather’s people “liked to have a good time.” And so did my mother in spite of herself. And so do I!
So I like to think that “downtown,” the milk shake, the Paramount, the people and the lights of Capitol Street were animated by my sense of my mother “having a good time,” letting just a bit of this worldly preference for urban glamour out of the box.
The time for my son to go to school alone is way overdue. As I write this, his 13th birthday just passed. So it’s actually a little embarrassing that I still deliver him to school, that we still take the bus to the subway together and then the F to Jay Street.
But I’m hopelessly sentimental.
When he was in elementary school near home, I’d walk him one block to the gate and wonder, “How many more times will I watch him lope across the wide playground and disappear through those red doors?” The number was finite. Horrifyingly finite. 31, 22, 14 or 5 more times, then I would never leave him at this gate ever again. Ever.
This theme has dominated my experience as a father. It might seem as though your kid is always jumping on the bed. ALWAYS! But this is not true. There is a fixed number of times before … well … young humans simply stop jumping on the bed.
You’re yelling “stop jumping on the bed!” but suddenly the child who WANTS to jump on the bed is gone.
I made a weird sandwich with pasta sauce and cheddar cheese for my daughter every single morning of the week for I don’t know how long – “Daddy Pizza.” And then I stopped.
Obviously, every moment is rushing away from you. Mists of nostalgia will one day shroud the simplest action you perform every day like buying coffee from a street cart or smoking a morning cigarette on a fountain that will get demolished by a collapsing skyscraper.
The other day on the subway, my son and I were both leaning against the doors the way they tell you not to. He flopped against me and leaned his head on my shoulder. We held hands. How many more times will we hold hands as we go somewhere together? The number is finite. He’ll be too cool for it soon. You can count off the number of times, then that’s it. Never again. Ever.
And how many more times will I walk him through our Curious George downtown to his Curious George school? More times than I can count on two hands? Less?
Then it will never happen again. Ever.