At The Same Moment

Photo 6.jpg

It was a dark and stormy night.

Pulling into Slip 3 Manhattan, aboard the Staten Island Ferry, I cast my eyes north towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I have worked these waters as a Dockbuilder for almost 30 years, always aware that even as new projects are going up, there is always some small part that is being washed out to sea.

Just upriver of the Ferry is the Battery Maritime Building, home of the Governors Island Ferry. On the offshore end of the Governors Island Ferry slip, stenciled in large red block letters are the words:

“At The Same Moment”

Visitors often ask me what those words mean:

“At The Same Moment”

and I equally often think to myself that I must look like someone with an answer. Maybe it’s the hard weather squint of my eyes that gives me the look of a man with purpose and certain knowledge, when in fact it is the look of a man who needs glasses.

But the fact is, I do feel as though I have an answer, not only because I have given this question some thought but also because I am one of those people who always has an answer regardless of my familiarity with, or even an opinion on, the subject at hand.

Now the answer, as I see it, is that “At The Same Moment”, is simply an invitation to make a comparison. To look for that tingly romantic attraction between two seemingly unrelated events; unrelated except that they share a moment which, on second thought, may be among the most intimate of all relationships.

~:~

The call came that Aunt Clare’s time was drawing to a close. This would be the Aunt Clare who tried to enroll me in Hebrew School, allegedly as a gift; the same Aunt Clare who gave me The Joys of Yiddish (hardcover), again apparently as a gift; and the same Aunt Clare who, in a last attempt at converting a young Jew to Judaism and evidently as a gift, gave me the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor (trade paperback).

I think she was trying to tell me something. Something about being a Jew, with all of the imaginary advantages that confers and the big head-start I already had if only………. if only……………… if only.

I of course was noncompliant and she of course was misguided.

Regarding the Hebrew school incident I recall the question being put to me as follows:

My Dad: Hey Art, would you like to go to Hebrew school? Aunt Clare said she would pay for it.
Me: What does it mean? (No!)

My Dad: Well Art, it means going to school an extra day a week
Me: Why would I want to do that? (No!)

My Dad: Well you see Art, yak yak yak yak heritage, yackety-yak yak yak.
Me: No thanks. (Hell no!)

I don’t think Aunt Clare was pleased by my colossal lack of interest, to say nothing of my father’s startling lack of salesmanship, yet paradoxically I count this as an endearing Aunt Clare moment.

~:~

So now it’s after work; it has already been a long day. I am driving down the NJ turnpike in the driving rain, switching lanes and changing radio stations on my way to a room full of anxious Jews; as if there were some other kind.

My mind is in Staten Island thinking about the job. My mind is in Brooklyn thinking about my wife and younger sons; in Manhattan thinking about my eldest son; in Philadelphia thinking about my father and on my final destination, Jenkintown, PA.

I stop at the Molly Pitcher rest area for coffee. Molly, who fought in the Revolutionary war, would doubtless be pleased that her service to the country has paid off in the unrivaled selection of fast food joints at her rest area, beating out her rival rest areas that are named after famous writers and presidents and lesser knowns like Thomas Edison who invented something or other and Vince Lombardi who was famous for his gap-toothed smile and was apparently involved in sports.

Inside at the Starbucks the exhausted “Barista”, who looks less like an Italian coffee wizard and more like an outcast from a Bayonne asbestos factory points his finger skyward and asks “What kind?”, as if to remind me that God hears all and judges all. The chalkboard menu over his head has forty choices in sizes akin to small, medium, large, grande and obese. My blank expression somehow conveys large coffee, black. I turn to go and find myself in a chaotic, afterwork crowd of tired zombies. They recognize me as one of their own as they head towards the fast food flesh.

Back on the turnpike, the hum and monotony of the road has my mind wandering like Ulysses. My thoughts return to Brooklyn and settle for a moment on the family dog Jozey; an animal adored beyond words on one side of our front door and universally reviled on the other side. Logic dictates some cause and effect relationship. I can only account for it by concluding that something is dreadfully wrong with the front door and determine to have it replaced as soon as suitable door and contractor can be obtained.

Exit 6 seamlessly merges the NJ Turnpike with the PA Turnpike. I must have paid ten thousand dollars in tolls going back and forth over these roads to birthdays, weddings, holidays and funerals.

In my experience the only real difference between the four is that at a funeral, the one being celebrated doesn’t expect a gift. Oh and of course the one being celebrated also isn’t present. And in its own way, that’s great. You get to make crass comments and tell embarrassing stories about the deceased without the usual consequences. There’s always plenty to eat and drink and there are lots of laughs but maybe all of this says more about my relatives than it does about the actual occasion.

I exit the PA Turnpike onto Route 611, a four lane road with that meandering, non-grid directionality that marks it as a likely animal track, becoming a Native American path called the Naraticong trail, becoming a section of a colonial road known as the King’s Highway, a section of that becoming York Road in the early 18th century, the section of which I am now driving becoming Old York Road, later on becoming a route on the Swift Sure Stagecoach Line for those in a hurry to get out of Philadelphia.

It’s disconcerting how much becoming is involved in getting to a final destination which, in any event, never turns out to be final at all.

I’m driving through the long rolling hills of this local highway but secretly, simultaneously, I am driving through two landscapes. There is the scene in front of me and the one behind my eyes; past and present occupying my mind in place of nervous anticipation and a pressing need to take a leak.

Everything has changed since I was a kid but in a way everything is the same. My eyes see the full color of the moment but my memory sees in the washed out, nostalgic hues of old Life Magazine photographs; umbers, ochers and grays.

That shopping center used to be a farm. Fifty acres of corn; now fifty acres of parking. There used to be a Hot Shoppes restaurant over there but people stopped eating like that. Then it became a Barnes & Noble bookstore but people stopped reading like that. Now it’s a CVS pharmacy. That sprawling mixed use building used to be a single gigantic department store, Strawbridge & Clothier. That thrift shop was a slot car track and before that it was an appliance store; I guess it’s a bad location. Target used to be Sears. The stores are different but the buildings are mostly the same; the signs and surfaces are flashier but beneath it all basic commerce endures.

Willow Grove Park Mall, there off to the right, used to be Willow Grove Park (“Life is a lark, at Willow Grove Park”), an ancient amusement park with a roller coaster, amusements and kiddy rides; the kind of thing that belongs at the shore or out in the countryside to be discovered while out on a Sunday drive, popular music squeezing out of the AM radio, your dad wearing a hat and your mom a dress, every boy sporting a crew cut and every girl a ponytail. For years after Willow Grove Park closed it sat there idle behind a locked chain link fence, as if waiting, the roller coaster like some long-tailed caged dinosaur, too dumb to know that it was already extinct.

I have been looking through some census data because …..well… I don’t actually have an answer as to why I have been looking through census data. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know why because it’s likely to have my wife giving me that worried look or that other look she gives me which says “You are going on medication at the first sign of dementia or it’s off to the home with you mister!”

But what is clear from the census is that this suburban town has been losing population every decade since the 1970’s. I left in the 70’s. I’m pretty sure that my leaving didn’t ignite a white flight wave of migration away from suburbs and back to cities by the very children of those young families that migrated in a white flight wave of migration away from the cities to the suburbs but there is nothing like a big old serving of raw data to make you ruminate over the shifting patterns of life and for myself, the impending loss of one more local resident in the person of Aunt Clare.

I arrive in the dark, in this town of my youth, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, where I used to ride my bike, break into abandoned houses, bowl and play pinball at Thunderbird Lanes, see matinees at the Art Deco, Hiway Theater, eat at the sandwich counter at the Rexall drugs and shoplift from the Woolworths. It only now occurs to me that all of these places were old even when I was young.

I pull into the lot of Aunt Clare’s apartment building. The building is the sole residential structure in what some developer must have imagined was the first of many, surrounding a parking lot so expansive that it seems to have been paved in giddy anticipation of a coming boom that never materialized. Her building stands alone at one end of this asphalt carpet.

I park away from the building and sit for a few moments collecting my thoughts and consciously slowing down from 70 mph to 35 mph to motionless in this lamp lit landscape that is utterly still; inertia still pulling me forward. The present folds in, trying to catch up to the past.

I’m thinking to myself that this is a somewhat unfamiliar situation with somewhat unfamiliar people. I know them and I’m very fond of them but after all, I left town 30 years ago. I’ve been back but things are changing and the older I get the more accelerated those changes have become. I don’t know exactly where I stand or even what I’m expected to do. My caffeinated reptilian brain is sending messages and all I can think is that this just doesn’t seem like the kind of situation you want to walk into with a full bladder.

I step out of the car, into the dim light of the parking lot, into the rain and I pee on the asphalt. I wish I could say that in Yiddish. And though I’ve heard it said that Aunt Clare spoke Yiddish like it was French it’s too late to ask her for a translation. It’s also too late to ask her who all those people in all those sepia family photographs are. It is, altogether, just too late.

Between the blacktop below and the black sky above; between the spring rain outside and the deathwatch inside, I close the distance between my car and the lobby. I look up and note the sign; this place is called The Plaza. The name suggests to me that the developers were maybe a little less like giddy and a little more like inebriated.

Lobby, elevator, hallway, door, open, enter.

Sure enough, I arrive at what appears to be Aunt Clare taking her last breath. This wouldn’t be the Aunt Clare I know. The Aunt Clare I know is always late. Always. If you want Aunt Clare to come to dinner, you’d better invite her to lunch.

I know a lot of dead people but I know little about death and dying so when I am assured Aunt Clare has only hours to live I assume that we’re all on the same page about it. Everyone present, nurses, hospice care, relatives and friends are all in agreement with the notable exception of Aunt Clare, but we don’t know that yet and we take up positions.

A pod of whales protectively circles the vulnerable cows and pups and likewise we start ambling in and out of the bedroom where Aunt Clare, unconscious in the arms of her daughters, is toying with infinity.

Everyone is on edge. Aunt Clare is extremely frail; intervals of 30 seconds or more between clusters of heavy breathing has everyone holding their breath along with her. Like the breathing, our waiting is a state of hyperbolic anticipation but that’s not a state that can be maintained for long. Small talk breaks out, escalates into conversation with forays into nervous laughter and finally the all out assault of genuine laughter. Laughter makes everyone hungry; it’s time to feed the troops and as if on cue the food arrives. Since this is America it arrives in the form of high quality take-out. Reinforcements arrive in the persons of cousins and kids and spouses and significant others.

Normalcy breaks out for a time but Aunt Clare, as the hostess, needs attending to and the cycle begins anew. Hours wear on and then days. My father, Aunt Clare’s 89 year old baby brother, is suffering greatly. He hates sad movies, scary movies, suspense, romance and dystopian movies and anything epic. He just doesn’t have the patience for epic and everything else is upsetting. Clearly this isn’t playing to his strengths which at this point are few and dwindling by the hour.

His anxiety is on the rise along with everyone else’s and as exhaustion sets in it invades the room; a poison gas that displaces oxygen and restraint which is not a great metaphor for a Jew. Too much fact, too little simile.

There is a question hovering in the stale air.

My father blurts out “What are we learning from this?” which is a close approximation of what he is trying to say. And then, “Isn’t there something we can do for her?” Loaded with pain meds and cradled in the loving arms of her daughters, caressed by friends, it’s hard to think of what more can be done except the obvious. It’s the obvious he’s talking about.

There. It’s been said. And in a way, it’s best that he said it. At 89 and soon to be the last of his generation, he’s the only one in the room that can say it. It absolves the rest of us of our own thoughts. Unfortunately the answer is no. Short of applying a pillow this is going to take as much time as it is going to take.

As remarkable, and I suppose as inevitable, as is my father’s plea for mercy is the response from my cousin, one of Aunt Clare’s daughters.

In an amazing show of grace, using only a few words but with excellent articulation, so there should be no misunderstanding, she gently but firmly explains that everything that can be done, is being done.

It’s the articulation that settles the matter and only a crazy person could misunderstand the message. I look to the old man and he is old, but he understands and now I understand too…..

My cousin and my dad are each the baby of the family. Aunt Clare and I are each the middle child. Aunt Clare is the middle child mother, being mothered by her daughter, the baby of her family. My father is the baby of the family being mothered by his son who is the middle child of his family.
In my meager way I am supporting my cousin who is supporting Aunt Clare who had supported my father as a child, who had supported me as a child, by taking the burden of support off of my cousin so she doesn’t have to mother her uncle.

This is making me queazy.

But support is popping up all over the room in opposition to the polar void of our bleak prospects. There is no hope but there is the matter of comfort to balance the antimatter of despair.

Support is a funny thing; if it’s there it will get used and it will be there so long as it is used, pretty much following the laws of supply and demand. And with so many people in the apartment there is plenty of supply to go around. So much so that in the ebb and flow of things, the supply of support in the room has, for the moment, so far exceeded demand that it has erupted into random acts of affection. I have just come from the kitchen and magnetically hugged my cousin’s adult daughter. It was wordless and mutually consented to. It may be the first time that I’ve hugged this person with such affection or even been able to properly acknowledge our attachment and I couldn’t be happier to be in this place at this moment. Furthermore, it is the first time I’ve really seen this person interacting with her loved one and I now see that while Aunt Clare is dying in the bedroom, there is something blossoming in the living room right in front of me

My other young cousin’s girlfriend is there. We’ve met before but I haven’t a clue who she is. Sometimes I feel like an outsider in this family but then I suppose she feels the same way. Something about this web of support where everyone is both holding up and being held up. Somehow the ice is broken and it turns out she’s totally great and now we’re fast friends. Fast friends but true friends.

The whole thing is like the food pyramid of emotional support. I better bring up a picture of that thing because I know for a fact that it’s changed a couple of times in the last 50 years and let’s face it I, like the rest of the world, never paid any attention to it anyway.

IMG_0193.JPG
I’m a low level player so I should probably be on the ground floor with breakfast cereal; sweet but not especially nourishing. And I’m not disputing it but I do feel that, with a little effort, I could step up to fresh produce though that’s probably just my pride at work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay being grouped in with tag lines like “Magically Delicious” or “Breakfast of Champions” and waffle is one of my favorite words; just so long as I’m not in with the kosher dills and gherkins or any of the health foods like dried fruit or cashews. I just don’t relish the idea of being thought of as pickled, shriveled or nuts.

What isn’t in dispute is that Aunt Clare is at the apex, the pointy end of the pyramid, the one being supported. Let’s see, potato chips, cookies, candy, soda and mayonnaise. That’s a food group? I mean, I kind of get the first four but doesn’t mayo belong in the condiment group or whatever group tuna salad and coleslaw belong to?

And what’s with chocolate being in with the candy? Sure candy is candy but chocolate is food.

Below Aunt Clare must be her daughters. They are the ones who are really doing the heavy lifting so it’s only proper that they should be in with the Surf n’ Turf. Then come spouse and adult children and the various significant others. The third generation, the adult grandchildren should probably be in with the salad or stir-fry. Everyone has a place and everyone has a food group. Okay, so far so good. But wait, that isn’t right because one of the kids is a medical person administering Aunt Clare’s meds and explaining what’s going on and why Aunt Clare’s breath holding is up over 50 seconds. In my mind he should be promoted to the smoked fish platter at the very least.

So we’ve covered a lot of food and a lot of people in their food group / supportive roles but ……. Hey!! Wait a second!! Where the hell is pizza? Or should I be saying, Who the hell is pizza? Now I’m getting confused. And not for nothing but why isn’t beer on this list? And the raw bar assortment. Where is the bourbon, fried chicken and John Coltrane? Doesn’t anyone over at Consolidated Food Pyramids LLC understand how dinner works? I can’t eat like this!! And I’ll bet you can’t either but that’s not the point. The point is that the food pyramid metaphor has completely fallen apart and I don’t have a plan B.

Okay so we’re nothing like the food pyramid. I can accept that but we are like something and the longer we mill around the more that something becomes apparent. Whether she is unwilling or unable to leave just yet, Aunt Clare has created this scene wherein all manner of people are hangin’ around and getting to know each other better.

I think we need some kind of Link Diagram (a phrase I may have just now coined) that will incorporate the system structure, pattern of behavior and events, to understand what’s going on here but I think it can be adequately defined by the shorthand term – Family.

And as a family we are relying on the basic tools that any Jews worth their schmaltz possess; We may not know where we are and we may not know where we are going but we know how to keep moving forward. We may be surrounded by tragedy and we may be in the midst of heartbreak, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a laugh to be had. And just because we’re not hungry doesn’t mean we’re not going to eat.

All in all, I think Aunt Clare would have been well pleased with that.

Once Upon A Time

rose

I had a brief conversation with a gentleman on the subway stairs this morning. I was walking down to the lower level platform where the D, N and R trains stop. He was walking up to the 9th Avenue Bridge platform where the F and G trains stop. He wanted to know what train I had just gotten off of; the one he had just missed.

“G?”

“Yeah, G.”

I guess I could have just said “G” and been done with it but I must have been feeling chatty. I had the same question for him.

“R?”

“No, D.”

I could tell things were really warming up between us. But the fact is, I knew the relationship had no future. We were simply heading in different directions.

If you are not from here you may think that this was an exchange between two people, in a city of millions, who will never see each other again. But that isn’t really the case. Traveling very early in the morning, well before dawn, catching the same train every day, you do tend to see the same faces. Actually you rarely notice the faces but you know these are the same people, day to day.

Down on the platform I take a seat on a bench. Same seat, same bench, every day. I sit on that bench for about five minutes before the R train comes and during that time, most mornings, a not unattractive middle aged Hispanic woman walks by. She’s heading to the other end of the platform because that’s where her stairway will be when she exits the train at her stop. It’s a subway thing and if you don’t live in a city with a subway it may not have occurred to you but there you have it.

I don’t know the Hispanic woman’s name and I never will but she always smiles at me and silently mouths, “Good Morning.” I smile and nod back. It’s our little ritual. We’ve been doing it for about 3 years; maybe 4.

One time, on the ride home in the afternoon, I realized I was standing right next to her. We were sharing a pole; the train was crowded. The situation fairly demanded an acknowledgement. It was awkward but ignoring people on the subway is a skill learned early and practiced often.

I thought for a moment that I might say, “So, how was your day?” but we haven’t been formally introduced. In the subway, as in the supermarket, formal introductions are not strictly de rigueur but still, one has to properly read the situation. There are some people who will just break the ice and say “Hello.” Sometimes I’m that person; sometimes not.

But the fact is, I don’t know this lady and I don’t want to know this lady. I’m sure she’s perfectly nice, she’s got a pleasing little something going on in her walk and I know she likes to smile. But I don’t care what’s going on in her life and I don’t want to pretend to care what’s going on in her life. We already have a fully formed relationship. Perfect as a glass marble. Why ruin it with an introduction?

The R train comes; the doors open; I step in. It is the last car on the train; third door from the rear. When I exit I will be at the stairway that takes me to the escalator that puts me in front of the Staten Island Ferry. I sit in the seat by the door that has just been vacated by an overweight Hispanic man. Same as every day.

Across from me is a man who wears pre-washed jeans, a wine colored shirt and work boots that have never seen a day of what I would call work. If it’s cold out he will be wearing a jean jacket that matches his pants. A few stops later a tall woman will get on and she will sit with him and hold his hand. They don’t talk but they are contented in each others company. She is taller than he is and unattractively built but he adores her. He’s a little simple. She likes it that way. She wears a mix of blacks and grays. The colors of their outfits never vary. Season to season the clothes change but not the color scheme. I would guess they shop at Sears.

We will get off at the same stop, Whitehall Street. She will get on the escalator first. He will be one step back and therefore one step down, accentuating their difference in height. He will drum his fingers a few times on her lower back. Every single day. They are creatures of habit, as are we all. We are all headed to Lower Manhattan and I assume they work in the same building; a corporate cafeteria I’m thinking. They are both in their middle fifties. I think they probably met later in life; perhaps each is living with and caring for an elderly parent. It’s just a story I tell myself but it fits the evidence, scanty as it is. They recognize me because all of us that exit together recognize each other. I don’t know why they aren’t coming from the same place. I could easily ask them, but why? My explanation is as meaningful as theirs because I don’t have a pony in their race. And while truth is often stranger than fiction, sure knowledge lacks mystery.

And mystery is the dark matter that propels it all.

I used to have this girlfriend. We were in college together in New Hampshire. Back then, she was the love of my life because she was my first love. Her name was Carole and she was excellent in every way and through the good fortune of youth and my own inadequacies I was spared a life with her. We lived in a divided up old Victorian with 16 bedrooms. One person per room, except at night when a room might be empty and another room might have double occupancy. I’m still friend’s with one of our housemates, Dave. I think it’s my friendship with Dave that reminds me of Carole.

After I left college, Carole and I drifted without direction; further apart and further away until the distance was just too great to bother with. I was 19 and working in a factory. I quit and went traveling around the country. I did that a lot in my youth. I would just get in the car and go. My car or someone else’s, it didn’t matter. Backpack, sleeping bag, camp-stove. Sleep in state parks, bath in town pools, see my country, keep an eye out for local pies.

Heading east, I woke up one morning in a town park on the outskirts of Kansas City, Kansas. I was making my way towards Philadelphia to begin art school; my wanderings having run out of time. I sat over my camp-stove, boiling water for hot chocolate and instant oatmeal, studying the map and considering my options; fast and boring interstates or slow and interesting back roads? It was a Saturday morning. I needed to be in school first thing Tuesday. I only had 3 days but my search for the best route kept pulling me north.

I think detours begin somewhere in the chest. The heart, the lungs, the throat. That’s where you feel detours developing. Then up into the brain for calculating purposes; back down into the chest; double check with the brain. Decide.

Fueled only by beer, sandwiches and desire I drove straight through to Durham, New Hampshire; about 1500 miles. It took something like 28 hours but I wanted to see Carole. I missed her. I stayed for a day and then I left for school. I never saw her again  but I never forgot her either.

Years later, I moved to New York City and eventually, through Dave, I found out that Carole had also moved to New York. Carole is a redhead and every now and then, when I would see a redhead, I would think of her and look for her face in the crowd. I found her name in the phone book and it felt strange. Something we’d started had, to my mind, never been properly completed.

I had always wondered what ever happened to her. I don’t know why but isn’t that always the case? Don’t we always wonder what ever happened to the people who inspired so much emotion? Especially those relationships that  have no clear ending.

More years passed but eventually we did meet up though I don’t recall how that happened. I credit Dave but he calls it blame and doesn’t want any part of it. Carole and I met at a bar and she told me about herself. She asked if I was seeing anyone and I said that I was seeing Heather. She asked if I thought I would marry Heather and I said yes, I thought I probably would. That was only slightly dishonest because, although we were not yet engaged, I have always known that, given the chance, I would marry Heather. I would marry her yesterday; I would marry her tomorrow.

At length, I realized that Carole and I shared nothing in common but our history.

I want to say that this meeting with Carole satisfied the question of what ever happened to her, but in a way it really didn’t. I realized that the reason I hadn’t known, was the very reason that we hadn’t stayed together. I simply hadn’t cared enough and neither had she. The question of what had become of her was so much more interesting than any possible answer that it ended my curiosity about pretty much everyone I ever lost touch with. In a way it was a gift because it freed me to move forward without regret or regard for the past.

In retrospect, I guess the real question wasn’t, What ever happened to her? The real question was, What ever happened to us? but the same answers apply. People like to assign blame for this sort of thing but assigning blame is a pointless exercise. It didn’t work out. That’s all. We were simply heading in different directions.

These days I only think of Carole when I see Dave and only by force of habit. It’s the dried flower of memory. The softness is gone. The scent, with all its associations is gone. Its fertility and promise are gone. But still, it is a flower, worthy of a moments recognition; a reminder that once upon a time, something innocent held an impossible mystery.

 

A Thought for Your Penny

Memory is a funny thing and for pretty much all the reasons that everyone says. It’s selective and subjective, cherished and requisite for a good liar.

My father, a photographer, once or probably twice since he never thinks I listen the first time, told me that we remember colors in reverse. The color we remember an object being, is likely to have been its compliment. Which is to say we remember colors by their contrast. An interesting idea since it suggests that memory is as much about remembering what a thing is not, as much as by what it is.

I remember three of my father’s photo studios. The earliest was over an appliance store called Nate Ben’s Reliable. I was very young, no more than three or four years old, and as I recall the place had no ceiling. Every surface had been painted black for better light control. The walls seemed to rise on up and disappeared into the night sky; into outer space but without the stars. In that studio it was always nighttime. It was always a moment before the big bang. All potential.

A visit to my father’s studio meant play time in the prop racks; trying on clothes and looking for treasures. There was one prop, a giant horse-shoe magnet, that was too large for the prop area. The magnet, in reality just plywood and paint, was left over from a Smith-Kline Pharmaceuticals shot for a children’s iron supplement. This was back when vitamins were pitched to parents instead of directly to kids via cartoon character shaped pills. The giant magnet was always around but never in the same place twice. Slowly orbiting the studio it was, I imagine, a force of creation; emitting invisible fields of attraction and repulsion.

The studio was a place where time moved in uneven intervals. Eons would pass; nothing would happen. And then, without warning, all the lights would go out. You were suddenly alone, afloat in the blackness. The strobe lights would flash, POP, and you’d be blind for a moment from the whiteness of it all and that meant a new universe had been recorded on film.

After everyone’s vision cleared, my father would jockey people and props around; darkness and then, POP, another new universe would appear on film. He always said that being a photographer was a lot like being a salmon. You shoot frame after frame, roll after roll like a salmon laying it’s thousand eggs in the hope that one survives the jaws of the art director.

Things were always getting lost in my father’s studio. Lenses, props, bills, wardrobe items; nothing got lost as much as the prints themselves but nothing got lost forever. Eventually a finished print would show up, sometimes weeks later, and the key thing was that you had to grab it when you saw it. Even if you didn’t need it at that very moment. A mental note of its last known location was not enough. These sightings were random and fleeting. Like some rare and endangered sea mammal it would surface for a breath and then disappear. You captured it right then and right there or it would be gone again and for how long nobody could say, submerged as it was in the chaos and clutter of a busy studio and a creative mind.

My job in heavy construction shares some of those qualities. There is always a lot of old stuff where I work. When you are doing excavations and building foundations you necessarily have to dig up the past. Old building foundations, old piers and sea walls; a reminder of the shifting contours of this island and the evolution of land usage. In an old city like New York the past is always getting in the way of the future and while sometimes it can be worked around or even incorporated into new designs, more often than not it has to be removed and sent to the dump.

Not so long ago I was working in a hole in the ground burning a pipe pile. The pile, full of reinforced concrete, was for a new building foundation. It was a 48 inch wide pile with 3/4 inch thick steel walls. We were burning the last dozen feet off to bring it to proper grade for the pile cap; the part that ties the piles to the building itself. 48 inches might not sound like much but that’s the diameter. The circumference is near 13 feet so we work in pairs. My buddy Matt was burning from one side and I was burning from the other. Whenever I’m asked if I can burn I always say I’m adequate. In reality I am very competitive and proud of my burning. I’m not always the best but I’m always in the running.

Burning, like a lot of things, is actually several events encompassing a wide range of skills. You don’t always cut flat plate and you don’t always cut flat. You cut rust, which is not only time consuming but painful because rust doesn’t melt. The good steel melts and the rust causes the red-hot slag to spray back at you. In burning, as in working out of doors, it helps to know how to dress and also to have a fairly high tolerance for pain. But it’s okay. It reminds you that you’re alive.

There is also burning an object at or under the water line, which is either fun or incredibly irritating depending on tidal issues. And then there is burning a non-hollow object. In this case a steel pile full of reinforced concrete, as I’ve said. I’m pretty good at this type of cutting and was well ahead of Matt when I looked up to change positions. If you’re not comfortable, you aren’t going to burn well so you should be changing hand or body position almost constantly.

There was a pool of muddy water to my right and a wet embankment in my face. To my left was the pile. I had put a piece of lumber in the water and was leaning into the pile while balancing my toe on the slightly submerged scrap timber. When I looked up there was a disk on a little outcrop in the embankment. I picked it up and figured it was a washer but then there was no hole in the center so I slipped it into my pocket. As I was standing with the pipe drillers a short time later I took it out to have a closer look. It turns out to be a coin of some sort. I scratch it clean with my wet fingernail and it looks like it says…. let’s see.. ONE …uh..C*NT. ONE C*NT. Well how do you like that? It must be an old token from a Times Square peep show. Even so, that seems a little harsh.

Then I turn it over and there is a lady’s head with a banner on her brow, which reads LIBERTY. Wait a minute! That’s not ONE C*NT, it’s ONE CENT. ONE CENT and this thing is old! It’s scraped on one side where the back hoe bucket must have caught it but only three of the original thirteen stars are missing and it says 1883 or is that 33? My eyes are too gone to tell. But yes I’m sure it’s 1833. One of the crane operators says his brother collects coins and proceeds to call his brother who takes the info and says he’ll call back. He calls right back and tells us that it’s worth between 5 and 25 dollars depending on condition.

At home I get out a photographers magnifying loop, a souvenir of my father’s studio, and sure enough it’s 1833. When I showed Matt the next day, he said “Hey look! That head is the Statue of Liberty” which of course would not exist for another 50 years. I, of course, told him. It’s rare that I can correct Matt without his wanting to kill me but I know it’s all affection so I don’t normally worry too much. I just suffer the arm punches with as much good humor as I can muster and a very modest amount of internal bleeding. A couple of days later I showed the coin to my German friends. In 1833, Germany as a state would not exist for almost another forty years. My German friends didn’t think that was particularly amusing.

And here it lay, not only at the tip of Manhattan but in the landfill behind the crib wall that formed the southern seawall in the 19th century. Not only that but I found it in this triangular pit about 60 feet on a side. It is the confluence of the old 1/9 subway line turn-around, the FDR to West Side Highway tunnel and the N and R trains. And water mains. And gas lines. And air shafts. How had it not been found before? This tiny parcel of land has been turned over like a fertile field dozens if not hundreds of times. This is made land. Nothing of it exists except by the hand of men. And I do mean men. As the guys like to say “If it was easy they’d have the ladies doing it.” Sexist yes but fundamentally true. There are no girls out here although I have heard of some with the termites; the carpenters. The lone female is the sister of my foreman and on the job friend, Alex. Alex and I would never meet socially; he’s devout catholic with all that implies, and I am lost cause. Third generation Dockbuilders; she’s the exception that proves the rule. Or disproves it. Your call.

But anyway, you get the idea, it was old and here. Right here in the dirt. And always had been. Or had it? Was it picked up from somewhere else? Part of a ground up building or excavated soil recycled into landfill? The past becomes the present becomes the past. You know there is a market for landfill just as there is a market for land. What do you think landfill is? It’s land!

And how did it get here? At the end of a concrete pour you will often see a laborer toss some money into the wet mass. An offering to god. Thanks for not letting the form blow out. Was that it? Or did it fall out through a hole in someone’s pocket; the better part of an hourly wage, all that time ago. Who’s hand did it touch last? How did it get here?

How? I’ll tell you how. It was dumped by circumstance.

So, is that the meaning of it all? Is that all that it means? This penny?! This penny had evaded capture for over one hundred and seventy years to get to my hand. It is why I prefer used books. It seems like you don’t find them, they find you or better yet you find each other. Forces of attraction guiding small changes in direction toward an ultimate goal. Like all the history of the world has led up to this meeting. This utterly meaningless meeting.

This singular moment, this pointless event, will probably not echo in eternity but it does remind me that the ball is rolling. That weak forces as well as strong ones are at work and that seemingly unrelated events tie it all together. And the penny? I don’t know where it is right at this moment but sooner or later it will surface, like a lost photo in my father’s studio.

Salt Peanuts

Hey Drew,

Did you ever use a flavored ChapStick and it reminded you of grape soda when you were a kid and that got you thinking about reaching up into the old soda machine in front of the gas station on Old York Road to liberate a bottle without the bother of paying, how much was it, 35¢? All because Eddie, the bad kid down the block, thought it was a good idea and you didn’t know how or even why to say no. It was a small thrill on a hot and humid suburban summer night; right up until the cops skidded to a halt. We bolted but I couldn’t make it over the wall so I slid under a parked car, gravel buried in my skin and held my breath so tightly that my chest hurts just telling about it.

Memory is peculiar isn’t it. And the more remote the memory the more peculiar it gets. The things that surface from distant memories are the things that didn’t even bear mentioning back when the dormant past was the urgent present. The subject of Monday morning’s meeting will be lost forever by Thursday afternoon but something about Miss Dulcet’s lipgloss, her perfume and the way she looked, reflected upside down in the polished surface of the conference room table, those details will revisit you on your deathbed.

And in every instance we are reminded that memory is the echo of five senses. The smell of roasting peanuts can trip trap doors to anywhere. A bus ride can abruptly transport you decades. Every song triggers a memory and the quality of light, at any given moment, can let loose a snowfall of associations. Memories are such tangled and sentimental creatures. The point is, we are constantly reminded that not only is the distant past not so distant, it hasn’t even passed.

I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.

When I was a kid my mom would stick me on the Greyhound Bus to Atlantic City to spend a few days with my grandparents. I went during Easter Vacation, well before the summer season started, so the place was pretty much abandoned. I barely recall a thing about my grandfather except that he loved to play Solitaire. Solitaire isn’t the kind of card game that invites a lot of company. My grandmother, my Bobba, didn’t like to do anything as much as she liked to walk. She also liked to watch soap operas in her birthday suit but again, not an activity that benefits from company. They lived on the boardwalk at the Vermont Arms in an apartment overlooking the ocean a generation after Atlantic City’s heyday and a generation before gambling arrived.

What I did there on my visits was walk the boardwalk with my grandmother. And I don’t mean stroll. We walked with the purpose of refugees fleeing an active volcano. We would go from Captain Starn’s Seafood Restaurant with its giant curio shop at the north end by Absecon Inlet, to as far south as we could go before running out of boardwalk or daylight. Even then she would take a moment to look further south; consider her options. I don’t know what was calling to her but she always listened to it before we turned back. Perhaps it was some inner voice urging her on to conquest and adventure. Whatever the case, I have no doubt whatsoever that if the boardwalk extended to Cuba we would have attempted breakfast in Havana.

The Atlantic City of the 60’s was an open air museum. A run down version of the Atlantic City of the 40’s, 30’s and 20’s. Those marches took us through a landscape of oddities and a near endless stream of my grandmother’s memories. My grandmother was deeply self centered but, to my memory, her reminiscence were not about herself so much as they were about the landscape. What pier used to be here and what entertainments used to be there. It may have been through her that I learned that every place has a story and every object in that place also has a story. There were rolling chairs. An oversized one or two passenger wheeled high-back chair made of wicker and pushed by a hired hand. As a child I remember that it was not at all clear which direction was forward or even what their function was. There were hundreds of them lined up, sometimes stacked up as though ready for a bonfire but I never once saw a person ride in one.

We would stop at Steel Pier and Steeplechase Pier which were open but just barely. They weren’t so much open as they were simply unlocked. Mr. Peanut would be wandering around like a movie extra outside the store at the formerly world famous Haddon Hall Hotel. Everything was moldy, faded, and decrepit. Everyone I saw was old. Of course when you’re eight almost everyone really is old but that feeling remains stuck to the memory even after I have joined the ranks of the walking dead.

While I appreciate the forces that were in play that turned Atlantic City into a gambling Mecca I think it’s a shame that no one seems to have given any thought to turning the entire place into a Zombie Theme Park. Where were the big thinkers, the visionaries, when such an opportunity knocked? They were there of course, just like they always are but nobody listened. Money replaced memory. History and therefore meaning were the casualties.

Though my grandmother and I traveled miles in both directions, the place I liked best was the pinball arcade right next door to their building. It was an arcade out of The Twilight Zone. A genuine time warp where you got to kill an enemy that was already dead. Every machine was a relic of the second world war. At least one would hope so with names like Zap the Jap and Kill the Kraut. Every kid could contribute to the war effort by dropping a coin, looking through the periscope, knocking over the drop target destroyer and sending a thousand men to a watery grave. Preferably with sharks.

Those machines and their murderous innocence are gone now, along with the ramshackle structure that housed them and along with my grandparents who lived next door at the Vermont Arms.