Autumn in New York

They haunt me sometimes, my New York ghosts, but not necessarily in ways you’d expect.  If you could see them like I do, skipping in Easter dresses along the sidewalks of Brooklyn brownstone neighborhoods, shoveling the sidewalks of gridded streets in Queens, and buying apples from immigrant carts on the Lower East Side, you wouldn’t be frightened.  If you could hear their voices, thick with Brooklyn pronunciations like “eye-run” and “tur-let”, you’d be amused.  If you noticed them in your peripheral visioin, peeking behind tiled support pillars at the Astor Place subway station and Art Deco-styled bank doors in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, you might stop for a moment, even though you’re angered at the traffic on the West Side Highway and irritated by exorbitant parking prices near the theater district.  You’d notice that my city — my grande dame, my first love — glimmers with the souls of thousands who forged her skyscrapers, carved her cornices and balustrades, soldered her manhole covers, who left gargoyles and medieval knights in bas-relief along building facades to protect secret societies and religious groups now lost to the ages.  Maybe then you’d sense them, as I do, and the blaring city streets would soften, whisper-quiet, as you leaned in to hear what they yearned to tell you.

My ghosts are everywhere, in nearly every borough and on more streets than I can name.  As an only child and a New York native, I feel duly charged with telling their tales and ensuring that their memory is sanctified.  Their names — Buckley, Farrell, Gormley, Toland, Shanley, Stevens, Morris — are with me, and not forgotten.

I tell my children their stories in bits and pieces, all the while knowing that they will never feel the pulse of the city the way I did.  They’re the first in my family to be born outside of New York City, ever since my first ancestors arrived from Ireland nearly two hundred years ago.  Perhaps that’s why I feel the urgent need to ensure that my daughter and son understand know their roots.  They need to know why Mommy uses certain phrases in her everyday language, why she hangs old tin tinsel on the Christmas tree, why her eyes glisten sometimes on the FDR as the Brooklyn Bridge appears in their car windshield, and why they’re stronger than they even know.

My great-grandfather, I tell them, was a sandhog who dug subway and water tunnels under the East River, and died while doing so.  My grandmother was born at the back of a candy store on Carroll Street in downtown Brooklyn.  My father asked for my mother’s hand in marriage at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue.  He had wanted to ask her under the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, but it had rained miserably that evening.  My aunt Patty lived two blocks away from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn — a newly-designated Superfund site referred to for years as “Lavender Lake” because of its toxic color and odor — and always told me, “God as my witness, Kathleen, I nev-ah smelt it.”  My great-aunt Charlotte was Abe Beame’s personal secretary before his term as Mayor of New York City.  She called him “Abey Baby” behind his back, and he sent flowers to the funeral parlor in Flushing when she passed away.  My great-uncle Harold married his glamorous Venezuelan wife at the rear altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  He lived in Gramercy Park and delighted in pointing out famous buildings to me from his terrace facing north.  As a girl, my mother was whisked off by her two childless aunts to Best and Company every holiday season for a new wool coat and fur-trimmed hat.  I was born at Mount Sinai Hospital uptown, and my father wrote a bad check to have my mother and me released from the maternity ward.  Two of my cousins were FDNY firefighters during 9/11.  One survived the tower collapses, and the other worked on “the pile” for many months afterwards, and took up smoking again to calm himself after what he had witnessed.

There’s one story I haven’t told them yet.  I’m saving it as a special field trip.  In my twenties, I lived near Union Square in New York City and often shopped at what was then the fledgling greenmarket — a flight of fancy in a not-yet-organically-minded Manhattan, circa 1992.  I usually crossed 17th Street at Broadway to make my way over to the tented tables early on a Saturday, and have the best pickings of produce to lovingly saute for my new husband.  On my walk, I took care not to trip over the old trolley car rails that were embedded beneath layers of asphalt.   Traffic, cold weather and mere time had worn away sections of the black-tarred street, and at certain points along the roadway, the gleaming rails were visible.  Most people skipped over them without a thought or a glance, other than momentary concern for their Gucci heels or weak ankles.

Not so for me.  I felt a jolt of energy as I gingerly stepped over them, knowing that my great-grandfather had ridden those rails eighty years before as a trolleyman, taking tickets from riders and throwing disorderly drunks off the car at several stops along the way.  He often told my mother that he held on tightly to the brass bar as the car rounded 17th Street, because the street angle was so severe that he could hardly keep his balance.  More than once, I stopped on my way to visually follow the path of the rails along that same curve, until they disappeared beneath the asphalt again.

My great-grandfather died when I was two and he was ninety-one.  As a toddler, I played with his pocket watch, the one he used while on shifts as a trolleyman.  My mother has the watch now, somewhere safe and waiting to be passed on to the next of us.

I know you, Baba.  I hear you, Uncle Billy.  I see you, Nana.  You are here, in the scalloped photographs and jangly charm bracelets, in the chipped china that graces my table, in the stories, the tears, the IRA fight songs, in the faded Ballantine beer ads and musty fedoras in dented hat boxes.  You are with us.  Always.

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  1. ailsa gray says:

    Absolutely love this. Thank you from Wales.

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