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Mom's Place in History


Forty-three years ago, on the very first night I spent in my twelve-by-twelve-foot square room, Mom told me to bang on the floor if I got scared. Back on 174th Street, where we'd previously lived with my aunt and uncle, my room had been right next to my parents'. Here I was upstairs, by myself. But I never got scared. From the start I recognized the value of vertical separation. They were down there and I was up here. Ah, my room, that little incubator of me. What do you say about a place where you jacked off for the first time? Where you listened to Ali beat Liston on the radio? So much happened in my room, I thought, spending one last night up here, the movers due at seven the next morning.

The House was in boxes; my mother, never one to wait to the last moment, had started packing months before. I'd taken some things -- my sixth-grade autograph book from P.S. 177 ("drop dead" is listed as my "favorite motto"), my Ted Kluszewski mitt, the chair I sat in to do my homework. Mementos, souvenirs, nothing more. This seemed appropriate, since I'd always told myself that even though I'd grown up here, The House had never truly been mine. I was just passing through, ma'am, marking time until my life started for real.

By midnight I was in the basement. It was straight down, like a plumb line, from my attic kingdom to that murky chamber of unresolved issues. Down there was what remained of my father's workshop. When I was a boy, this was the land of hulking steel machines upon which imposing sheets of plywood were made to scream in pain while being torn asunder. Now it was quiet. My mother had managed to sell the giant bandsaw and the huge metal lathe. Most of my father's hundreds of hand tools -- he had dozens of files arrayed in varying increments of size and grate, at least 50 hammers and screwdrivers -- had long since been given to friends and relatives. Their customized, meticulously labeled racks and holders were now empty.

The basement had always been an awkward place for me, and him, not that we spent much time talking about it. I'd always assumed it to have been a source of mutual regret -- that I hadn't inherited his marvelous skills, his reverence for the joining of two pieces of wood in a perfect right angle. It seemed like something a father and a son might do together, a gift to pass from one generation to the next in the old way. Now, however, on the last night of The House, with the machines gone or shut down, it was easy to believe my father was relieved I'd shown no aptitude, that I was just another slovenly, uninterested teenager like the ones he taught all day long. In the stillness, I could feel him close, working away like some Queens hermetist in his fez, surrounded by his wonderfully precise toys, his files, planes, and grinding machines. Being a father now myself (as well as my father's son), I understood how Dad felt down here, his sanctum. With the ingressing ooze of life raging forth upstairs, it must have seemed like heaven.

That's when I started to pull that cabinet off the wall. It was one of the many built-in storage bins my father had attached to the paneling, each with several drawers bearing his familiar calligraphy (BRADS, 1/4 INCH; BRADS, 1/3 INCH; BRADS, 1/2 INCH, etc). This was really what I wanted from The House, this symbol of his manic precision, a little bit of the peace he found down here. Except the thing resisted; I couldn't get it off the wall. I couldn't even figure how and where he'd stuck it up there -- the fastenings were invisible. It was something he'd always tried to teach me, how things might stick together without the slather of Elmer's, without the splintered bash of a dozen nails. This was the art of it, he said, to make things seem as if they'd always been there, as if they belonged. But then, like now, that sort of craft was beyond me. Anyway, I must have been making a bunch of noise, because soon my mother was descending the basement stairs.

There was an amusing retro-ness to the scene: Mom in her housecoat, demanding to know what I was doing, why I was making all that noise. She'd told the Dominicans those cabinets were "staying," and stay they would. I began arguing, saying that this cabinet meant a lot more to me than it could to anyone from Santo Domingo.

"You had your chance," she said, with cold finality. She'd been trying to get me to take things from the basement for months, but I'd always been too busy.

"But Mom . . . " Revision to former behavior is always lurking, even on the eve of your 50th birthday.

"He built those things for this place," my mother said. "They're not supposed to go anywhere else. So leave them."

Mom had pulled rank. There was nothing left to do but go upstairs, brush my teeth, and put out the light.

Six hours later, Hell's Angels-style-clad representatives of Movin' On (slogan: "the company with the clean trucks") began carrying boxes out the long-shunned front door. It was more convenient, they said. By early afternoon the deed was done. "That," my mother said, "was that."

Now I visit my mom in her new apartment over on 75th Avenue, near Bell Boulevard. Wanting to not move "too far" (no Florida for her), Mom found the place in a week. A totally nifty two-bedroom with a giant living room in a really nice development filled with "people to talk to," and close to her long-favored Key Food, the apartment "makes sense," Mom says, a little drunk on the novelty of it all. For Mom, to hondle is to live, and even as she misses my father terribly, there are all these new items to ruthlessly search out the best price on. At 77, after a life of walk-ups and The House, she notes, she is finally living in a building with an elevator. The view from the sixth-floor windows is fantastic. You overlook the old Vanderbilt Parkway, built as a private auto road by the robber baron in 1908. Back in high school, my friends and I hung out on the overgrown parkway; indeed, it's where I first smoked pot, but Mom doesn't need to know about that.

After leaving Mom's place, as usual, I meander through the unending ethnikquilt that the borough of my birth has become. Driving past the Albanians and Afghanis on Hillside Avenue, I turn off to stop in at a candy store on Union Turnpike. My friends and I used to go to the place because the old man mixed his own Cokes and had a heavy thumb on the syrup. Now -- the fountain long gone -- it's owned by Sikhs, and an old Russian, crucifix dangling on a key chain, is in there trying to buy cigarettes with food stamps. The Sikh won't allow it. "Why no? I pay tax!" the Russian screams in protest. This cracks up some Chinese kids who've been sneak-reading the comic books. "I pay tax," they mock after the Russian has stomped off. Wiseasses, now the epic of New York belongs to them.

In the end, I go by The House. It's been a couple of months now, and even if the grass looks a little patchy and my father would have have pruned the rose bushes, the place looks pretty much the same. But that won't last. Changes will be made. Which is fine, I think, silently watching from across the street, as the new people, all dressed up, come out the front door -- as if they didn't know that, in The House, you always use the side.


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