Monday, August 29, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 6

(remember to visit http://mylifeisacosmicjoke.blogspot.com for the most recent episodes of Natania's escapades.)

I'VE BEEN TRAVELIN' ON THE RAILROAD...

As a bullet seeks its target, shining rails in every part of our great country are aimed at Grand Central Station, heart of the nation's greatest city. Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night, great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for one hundred and forty miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th street, (bell begins and continues) dive with a roar into the two and a half mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then. . .(bell and crash of brakes)
(majestic voice. . .)

Grand Central Station! . . .
(normal voice) crossroads of a million private lives, gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.

Many of us of a certain age will remember these lines, which, for you less fortunate mortals who do not know, served as the weekly introduction to the long-derailed radio program entitled -- in case you couldn't guess -- "Grand Central Station." It's not as if the program itself was so memorable (it wasn't). I can't even remember what day of the week or what hour it was on. But that iconic introduction, intoned with such fervor got your attention big time, as only it could be done on radio in those days of yore.

These days, most of us don't get the opportunity to ride the rails -- unless you're like our friend Danny, who makes a practice of it (subways, metros, commuter light rails and their ilk aren't really the same). But there we were, about to take Amtrak from Washington D.C. to New York for the second phase of our journey to what used to be home. But first things first. We weren't going anywheres until we had visited Barbara's mother one more time to say goodbye; it would be quite a while, we thought, before either of us saw her again. So we began the day -- as we had done every day except Shabbat -- with a drive to the Hebrew Home in nearby Rockville.

Our timing couldn't have been better. Just as we arrived, so did the social worker, whose job it was to develop a discharge plan so that my mother-in-law could return to her apartment at the Homecrest Residence the following day. What was her suggestion? Round the clock aides to take care of Gwen. "Why do I need that? It's too much." Anyone who knows Barbara's mom can just hear her saying that, which is exactly what she did say. After much persuasion, we pretty much got her to agree to that for the first week or so, and if was indeed too much, the number of hours could be reduced. The best laid plans of mice and men......... The next day, she was back in the hospital for we can't remember what, probably another tussle between the food she was eating and the bag that was collecting it. She was released a few days later back to........the Hebrew Home. Just when you think you're good to go....

There was just one more thing for me to do before we left the Hebrew Home. Every day, our routine had been that I would wait for Barbara in the large lounge on the main floor while she used the nearby "facilities." There usually wasn't much doing in this lounge -- except for the one day when one of the rehabilitation patients was giving a for-real concert on the piano for his family. So I would stand by the large tank of tropical fish and watch them swim around; at least they were moving. The first day, I noticed a real tiny fish, maybe a quarter of an inch long, hiding among the rocks along the bottom of the tank. Somehow it knew not to venture forth too far, or it would be dinner for one of the larger specimens. My self-appointed task was to check out every day to make sure it was still there -- which it always was, even though it might take some time for me to locate it. No doubt, if it played its cards right, it would grow enough to take its rightful place with the big guys. But it would have to do it without me and my solicitude. My tour of duty was over.

All we had to do now was drive back to Wheaton, return our rental car, have someone from Enterprise drive us to the nearest Metro stop, take that to the Union Station in Washington D.C. , pay an arm and a leg for two tickets to New York, and finally take the subway the few stops up to Frank and Abby's apartment (my brother and sister-in-law) -- all the while shlepping our suitcases hither and yon. A walk in the park!

Anyone who knows trains -- not just Danny -- knows that if you're coming up from Philadelphia or Washington, DC, you're not going to arrive at Grand Central Station. You will find yourself at the other terminal, Penn Station, or what is masquerading as Penn Station. The real one, a masterpiece designed by McKim, Mead, and White, was demolished in 1963 and replaced by a structure whose extraordinary banality cannot easily be described. The making-lemonade-out-of-a-lemon side of the story is that the fury generated by this act of incomprehensible vandalism saved Grand Central Station from a similar fate. Just the opposite; the powers-that-be have pretty much restored it to its original pristine condition, by a process which I call 'de-uglification.' Perhaps the following, from an article I came upon in a recent Wall Street Journal Weekend edition, will help you understand what I mean. The journalist was interviewing an Austrian sculptor who had purchased a ch√Ęteau in a small village in southern Austria.

"'...the house was hideous, really. Six apartments built into the main salon for rent. Nobody wanted to buy it.'........ As he started tearing down the walls of the tiny compartments, he rediscovered staggering windows from the Renaissance; marvelous mural paintings and ancient carvings resurfaced magically from the past.............."

"Resurfacing magically from the past." What's scary is that so often someone(s), with malice of forethought, would cover up, paint over, or even demolish something of evident beauty and replace it with something whose ugliness is equally obvious -- leaving it for future generations to spend mega-bucks to remove what should never have been there in the first place. The Union Station in Washington, DC seems to be a compromise. Much of the original beauty of its eclectic design remains; but the constant threat of 'food-court-isation' hovers in the air, much like the rhetoric of unrepentant politicians.

We soon were on our way, the train gliding through places you wouldn't get to see (maybe not want to see!) from any other vantage point: old and not-so-nice neighborhoods with dilapidated row houses, industrial zones, and areas where trees and scrub brush still grow and cars only arrive when they are abandoned; going from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Camden, Newark, and finally Manhattan. Now the trip down Memory Lane, to places which used to be home, would begin. If I were asked to take a map (assuming you could find one) and color in 'my old stomping grounds,' the first area would be my old neighborhood in The Bronx. It must be at least thirty years since I revisited my old haunts on E. 208 St. and the adjoining blocks, and I may never get back there again to see the condition of the buildings where my friends lived or where I delivered The Bronx Home News (a Bronx edition of the NY Post) after school; or to see if the huge tree in the yard next to our house is still standing. But to this day, I can still take a mental tour of the neighborhood with my mind's eye. No tour guide required.

More to the point, I would have to color in much of Manhattan. If I have twenty years of memories about Moshulu Parkway, I have fifty or so years more recent ones about the borough that I came to know by the time I was in high school. Even when I was living in other boroughs or other states, I was almost always commuting in to work, to play, and to photograph. So I have a lifetime of memories. How would I feel when I would come face to face with these streets and buildings? Even if the stores were no longer there (like The Record Hunter on 42 and 5th where I could purchase LP's for $3.98 and, on a good day, $2.98; or the movie houses we would haunt to see W.C. Fields' "The Old Fashioned Way" or Alan Resnais' "Hiroshima Mon Amour?") I would remember where they were, what I had been doing, and with whom.

What about the people we were planning to see, especially the ones on whom 'Fortune' had not smiled? At least Jerry could now sort of smile. Shortly after Barbara and I left for more Jewish pastures, Jerry was about to leave their house and head to the airport to meet a friend. His last chore before going was to bring something that was in the entrance way down to the basement; except that he tripped going down the stairs, and seconds later he became forever a paraplegic. Kind of a bad break. Very hard to come to terms with -- especially if it's you. We took the 'F' train out to Park Slope in Brooklyn to see him and Joan, and we walked down a block filled with restored brownstones. Even if we didn't remember which of these buildings was theirs, it would have been hard to miss, the one with the big, white lift mounted on the side of the steps leading up the the entrance floor. No one thought of steps as being an impediment when these grand old edifices were erected.
We were let into the house by one of the round-the-clock attendants (whose name was Monday, even though we were there on Sunday). Jerry was sitting in his wheelchair, which I guess he does a lot of, and over a brunch of bagels and....., we were filled in on some of the details of their lives over the past few rather traumatic years. The lift was a biggie; that and the van service which the City provides is Jerry's magic carpet to the rest of the world. Except that the lift was, shall we say, problematic. The original measurements were wrong, and hence the lift wasn't really mounted correctly. We have a lot of that attitude here in The Land: it's good enough; it's almost even; no one will notice. Much of it for us is annoying, but imagine if you have one way to escape your four walls (without rounding up a few policemen to physically carry a wheelchair with a big guy in it) for an evening out, and the @@@&&&$$$$ lift doesn't want to cooperate. That's more than annoying. Through some very tough times, Jerry has regained his good spirits. What could possibly have been a very depressing visit, really wasn't; and I'm glad we had the opportunity to see them.

Another friend is the polar opposite. Barbara had known his wife for many years, and we had always kept in touch somehow. Then the wife died suddenly after a medical procedure, and life for this fellow -- and he'd be the first to tell you -- has never been the same. B. is one of the few people with whom I never argue, no matter what he says, because I long ago realized that he is one of the few people I've met who is demonstrably more gifted intellectually than me, and I'd rather just absorb his train of thought than interrupt him with my version of reality. What would you say to someone who tells you that he felt more at home in the Polish village he visited in which members of his family were murdered than he did in his stay in Israel? Or that he considers Jewish observance "primitive," but he has always kept a kosher home for aesthetic reasons? After retiring from his teaching position at the City University, he turned his strange sense of reality to artistic endeavors, making small sculptures similar to what Joseph Cornell had done. His apartment is filled with them along with a mansion's worth of memories of his departed wife, who did so much for him. All I could do as we left, after tea and cookies, was wish him the best, G-d speed, may tomorrow be brighter than today. Which I guess you could wish anybody you cared about.


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