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Velcro Part Seven: Slivers of Light

Part Seven: Slivers of Light

Dad parked his car around the corner from the entrance to Aunt Strigga's building, in a small open lot, and everything is interesting, because it’s New York City in the seventies. Our dad was different in the city. His car, a Saab 900, was his prized possession both in the act of owning the vehicle and the act of being owned by the vehicle. This was his object, one he wished no one could use. To exert this desire, there were so many rules about what was allowed as a passenger in his car, a mannequin would have had a hard time meeting the expectations: food (none allowed), feet (only on the rubber mats and checked for cleanliness prior to entering), windows (do not touch), closing the door (do not slam), opening the door (do not pull on the handle until the button is up), belts (pull gently across your chest and place back flat), buttons (never touch), hands (clean), extra items (trunk only, if allowed at all), sneezing (hold onto it until a tissue is presented), dirty tissue (hold onto it to dispose of outside the car). Astronauts have less rules. But there dad was, handing his car keys over to some guy. Did the suburbs bring out everyone’s materialistic anxieties: houses, lawns, cars, kids, and back then, wives, all on display, for judgement, comparison. Our dad seemed more attuned to himself rather than the view of himself. Maybe he didn't really like the suburban version he was sold. He was also without a wife he had not been getting along with.

Dad was less uptight about his car in the city, and equally less uptight about where his kids were and what they were doing. I was watching the car being parked from the sidewalk with maybe a "watch your sister" as effortlessly thrown towards my brothers as if our father had a back-up version of me somewhere. Like replacing a goldfish. In the city, where my dad was born and raised, he was in his element, his childhood home turf, and acquiesced to the rules of chance. He chatted up the car parking lot attendant while we waited, seemingly content to leave his children surrounded by banging, honking, cursing, music, garbage, begging, bumping. I observed him, a man enjoying small talk with a stranger after a car ride with his children. It's hard to understand how not old my parents were in the seventies. Dad was in his late thirties at the time.

Watching this calm version of him, after the tense car ride, I felt calm, even with the vulnerability of a small kid in a place that could afford no spatial boundaries. Being the youngest at home was a constant personal burden; I needed help with cutting food, going to sleep, going outside, pouring juices. It seemed like everything needed an adult or a brother. I was very aware how much time was spent making sure about something regarding me, especially since every time I attempted something, an older person would appear to intervene. Adults at home seemed collectively involved in worrying about children. But on the city sidewalk I had an invisibility that was intoxicating. In New York City adults near missed toppling me without breaking stride and I loved it. Anonymity didn't feel scary, it felt enticing. If suburban New Jersey were a sitcom where everything, including the stale sarcasm amongst the same small group of people happened indoors to pass the time, New York City was the dramedy where people actually lived. I was smitten.

Aunt Strigga appears and we're not doing something right. We're going to enter a side door for residents only because supposedly the front of the building is too busy. For kid me, and even though the house I lived in had multiple entrances front, back, side, and garage, my immediate thought was that Aunt Striggy's building had a secret passageway. How exciting. Aunt Strigga was notably anxious, the way our dad was back in the suburbs, hers manifesting in imagined problems like a front entrance being too much of a scene over a side entrance. Because once we were inside, it was the same lobby the front entrance crowd was gaining access to. A lobby that felt even bigger than the house I lived in: vaulted ceilings, open and spacious, where multiple sitting areas had plush round red velvet benches and a large decorative floral urn in the center. Since part of the building was a residence and part was a hotel, there was a lot of entering commotion that you wouldn't normally have, as groups of people with luggage milled about not knowing where to go. The side door did allow our group to avoid some of that, but not that much. It would be decades later before I understood how little moments of crowd avoidance were sanity currencies.

There wasn't a lot of hello, I'm so happy to see you, how was your trip, can I help you take your coat off, do you need a bathroom. I didn't get the normal attention for being a smaller version of an adult that relatives often expressed with boundary-blurring touching and third person questions. Aunt Strigga was an outlier in the non-doting department. Mostly she wanted to get us moving as fast as possible to her apartment. Characters in Tolkien novels have less urgency walking through spirited forests than Striggy through her building’s lobby. The pace was picking up and either I stayed with the tour, my family, or there was a milk carton portrait of me in my future.

We were being rushed to an elevator for residents only, Aunt Strigga whisking us by familiar staff she addressed by first name. It felt complicated to get to where she lived. How would you remember all the details of where to go? As Striggy charged along there was some complaining regarding a lack of confidence in the resident elevator getting us to her floor at an agreeable speed. These would be the types of conversations I overheard, tried to ignore, or initiated myself once I lived in the city as an adult; commute times, commenting on even the smallest commute times, when it was something other than one’s legs that were controlling it. Kid me wanted to check out the lobby and then was squished into a small and slow elevator with a noisy accordion iron gate door that closed before another door closed and my thinking it's incredible no-one’s saying "watch your fingers."

It was the first time I was in a New York City apartment and, like seeing apartments in Manhattan on TV, it would set the bar higher than reality. Aunt Striggy's, and apparently Eli's, place was a one-bedroom with thick plaster walls that inhibited outside noises to a purring pleasant white. Two closets by the front entrance and another in the bedroom. The kitchen and two bathrooms - two! - were always the kitchen and bathrooms and not a hallway or corner that plumbing or gas lines were sent to. Near the kitchen was the dining area where many years later I would be punched while setting the table. The walls were a pale blue, decorations and furniture sparse. The afternoon light in the apartment was different than the light in the suburban house I lived in. Sunlight in the apartment appeared in cuts and beams, moving across the walls, rather than announcing itself in an illuminating dull glow that had too much time and too little to say.

Through the windows the city appeared endless. Not a patch of land with similar repeating green blades like the hardest thousand-piece puzzle, framed by tallish trees, maybe a neighbor’s rooftop between branches, and then a chatty, inevitable, endless sky. Nor a view of one of three repeating versions of houses on the block: the ranch, the blah, the blah blah blah, all the way down. The views outside Aunt Strigga's apartment windows were views: different buildings, and more different buildings, and windows in those buildings, and in those windows entire worlds. Every building seemingly had its own material, signage, height, and identity. You could stand looking out the window, take a step to the side, and it was a different world.

One of those windows framed a sliver of the Empire State Building. I didn’t know people could live so close to an important building. However Aunt Striggy achieved this version of life: the coziness of a small space, the comfort and inspiration of hearing a bit of life beyond your space, the ease of access to it (slow elevator aside), and the immediacy of being immersed in the scene without having to warm up a car and drive down the same street, was exciting. The city was variation, versions, choices, participation or observation, available or distant, and the person who possessed a slice of this world was my Aunt Striggy, and she wasn’t married and she didn’t have kids. Suddenly my aunt’s life was intriguing in way a friend becomes more interesting when you find out they grew up with such and such a famous person. By proximity, a coolness was awarded to my aunt. This was where I attached my idea of an ideal future, while taking in the views of Manhattan from a high floor window, and like most everyone’s ideal New York City future, it started with an apartment. I needed to know how this was possible and Aunt Striggy had the answers.

(To Be Continued ... Velcro Part Eight: The End and Beginning, Friday April 5th)


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