03 June 2007

House Mouse

Funny that you should ask that. Not only was I known as "Mouse" by my college boyfriend, who frequently made that same analogy when I travelled home from Greenwich Village on summer weekends, but my father and I had this exact conversation last Thursday--the day of the infamous baby pants conversation. Crossing 8th Avenue after narrowly avoiding death by student film crew, he asked me if I missed the city. My immediate answer was, "Yeah. Sort of like you miss a really bad rash." But it's a little more complicated than that.

I'm from Brooklyn. I was born and raised in rural New Jersey (which very much exists thank you) in a childhood oddly reminiscent of an Elizabeth Enright novel, but I am from Brooklyn because my father is from Brooklyn. I cannot explain this. Please do not ask me to. Growing up, I spent my summers riding bikes on dirt roads, catching frogs in coffee cans, and catching lightning bugs in the meadow--but I also came born with an inherent knowledge of what does and does not go on a pastrami sandwich, how to navigate the IRT, and that Potvin sucks. From the time I was in eighth grade it was simple fact that I was going to NYU. I don't even think I applied anywhere else.

Maybe it was every poet's dream. Maybe it was the desire to be a part of something bigger than myself. Maybe, later on when I discovered stage management and the thin dusty light of a theatre by skeleton bulb, that was part of it too. But I never saw it as bright lights, big city. I never saw it as running away to chase my dream. I just saw it as going home. The city was my birthright.
Imagine how betrayed I felt when I found out I hated it. Hated it and loved it. Loved the city and hated myself. I don't know. College was dark. Not only was I following the wrong course of study (which, apparently, everyone and their brother knew, but knew better than to tell the headstrong, eighteen-year-old version of me), but I was also, apparently, clinically depressed. And dating someone who attended school in Indiana. Which, you may have noticed, is very far away from New York City. In short, it was a dark and stormy first two years at NYU. (Thank god for K. And thank god for the Catholic Center. And thank god thank god thank god for Robin. Without these two men, and this community, I would surely be dead. And that is a fact, one that I hope adequately explains why I dragged approximately 150 people into an un-air-conditioned Washington Square church on a 90 degree day in September two years ago to have my wedding there.)

My last semester in the city, I fell in love. The homeless guy on the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Marks who knew exactly one song on his amplified mountain dulcimer, which he played over and over and over (and over) for weeks until I lost it and put the stereo speakers in my bedroom window and blasted Carmina Burana at top volume. By the last movement, he was gone. Never saw him again. (Orff, orff. Works every time.) The hash dealers on St. Marks who used to call me "Goldie" and follow me home after rehearsal to make sure I was safe. Eric, who sold me a pair of huge, gypsy earrings on Broadway and later took me out for Indian food. K, home from Poland, stir-frying three different kinds of seaweed in our tiny kitchen and feeding it to me with chopsticks; K painting a mural on the dining room wall that had glow-in-the-dark fairies in it which he didn't tell me about, so that they scared the crap out of me when I got up to pee at 3 AM. Veselka, where you can get a borscht and latke fix at that hour, should you need. Eric (different one) who came over with a can of Raid and a gas mask borrowed from the costume shop when I had the cockroach emergency that afternoon. Richmond Owusu, my guardian angel cab driver, leg broken in two places in that terrible ice storm, bleeding all over my good pea coat while we waited for the ambulance, telling me about his son's football team to stay conscious and out of shock. Did you learn to walk again? Did you finish your master's? Was the new baby a girl? Your wife didn't believe you when you told her I stayed with you for two hours until the EMTs showed up, but that's the kind of city New York was that winter.

Despite that, when I left after Christmas, just before I turned 21, I could not shake the gritty subway dust off my feet fast enough, could not get far enough away. Moved to a farm in the Catskills, town population 12, 11 of whom were related to me, and then to a town in the Rocky Mountains for two years. Lost track of Robin for ten, thought I had made my peace with this impossible skyline I so loved and hated.

And then it happened. I won't talk about the towers, or the planes, or the fear in my heart when I realised that not only was I mortal, but so was New York, and so were we all. I will not talk tonight about digging in the rubble for body parts, both on and off the clock, for three months. I will not talk about the look on a fireman's face when you light a candle and sing "Silent Night" and he comes to join you, lights a candle from your shaking hand. I lost no one I knew that day, through some amazing miracle of random fate, but the blow to that city hit me like the city itself was a family member.

I didn't realise I was going to talk about 9/11. I had planned to talk about sitting on the front porch tonight with my parents, back in that childhood home that used to be dead in the country until the suburbs moved into our backyard; about the fact that I can still run on dirt roads and there are horses and a donkey across the driveway, and more trees in this township than houses--but the wound still runs deep, even this many years later. It always comes back to it. It's a love/hate relationship. (Much like the relationship with my dad when I was a teenager, come to think of it.) I am delirious to go, every time I see what's left of the skyline my heart both soars and breaks--but I am always on edge there. And terrorism has nothing to do with that. Some part of me is always relieved when I return home to the country.

But I will always be from Brooklyn.


Carol Woolum Roberts said...

What a wonderful post. I love your constract from growing up in the rural area, but knowing all about Brooklyn, then your later memories of NYC, and the way you humanized it so well. You painted a wonderful picture through your writing.

Deirdre said...

Mmm. Very nice. Sometimes home finds us, whether we want it or not.

tania said...

Just swinging through some of the Sunday Scribblings. Fabulous post, totally brought me into your two worlds. Thank you.

Molly said...

This is a lovely post. So much hope and expectation and overcoming here.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Great post, wonderful descriptions and a lot of thoughtful musings. I know what you mean about feeling you're from where your parents are from.