Independable

A short vignette about some people that I used to know. 

As the warm season finally arrives in the city, and in anticipation of beach trips to come, I am sharing a brief writing about the time I went to Coney Island on the Fourth of July with some close friends, to watch the hot dog eating contest, laze on the beach, and watch the fireworks.  For reasons unrelated to this piece, I am only still in touch with one of them, so this is, for me, a bittersweet memory of a time we spent together in the sunshine:

The first sense I had of the day- memory has a way of purging the diurnal tasks of waking, showering, coffee, and cat-petting- took place at the 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue subway platform.  As the train came to a stop, I was confronted by a sardine can of people, a metal vessel so crowded that when the doors slid open in front of me, masses of humanity expanded past the containment and onto the platform.  This motile cattle car was labeled “F,” which stood for “Fuck, I’ve gotta ride this thing?”

Against my sense of self-preservation and possibly in violation of elementary physics, I boarded the train.  Though it was a holiday, and this particular train ran between three boroughs to arrive at the most popular celebration spot in town, MTA did not think it appropriate to add trains, so limited holiday service created a quasi-Darwinian competitive transit environment, where the skinny and deft thrived and the overweight and elderly likely perished.  

We were on the train for approximately seven hours, by my reckoning.  Though there may be some tongue-in-cheek hyperbole there, it is accurate to report that the trip took significantly longer than usual, because at each stop we repeated the same ritual: doors opened, people spilled onto the platform.  They returned, squishing their way inside, as many many more people tried to add their humanity to the tin.  The conductor sternly warned about blocking the doors, people ignored him, after two or three minutes the doors finally closed, and we moved along.  

The crowd did not dissipate, not even a little, as it made its rounds.  When it finally arrived at its penultimate stop, the can burst, and fleshy blobs of pent-up skin and sweat flooded out of the train and onto the expansive platform, each exhaling the stale train air at once.  

We maneuvered with haste through the dazed crowd, finding our place of rendezvous.  It was fifteen minutes until the contest, and I would not be denied.  

We met our friends in waves. A familiar witticism about herding cats passed through my mind, but the thought-bubble popped before I could push the words out past my teeth.  The clothing theme of the day was strange hats, evidently.  And bathing suits, under dresses and casual wear.  

While the mass of our friends- strangely disinterested by the prospect of watching adults frantically consume phallic meat alloy- made for the sand, Ashley and I pushed and elbowed our way to a view of the stage.  The women competed first, with the winner promptly barfing all over the announcer, and her own clothing.  The men approached the contest with unbelievable intensity and focus, and the winner set a new record, another in his longstanding streak of wins.  There was much merriment.  

I got hungry.

We found our friends, now perched in the sand.  Each wore a strange hat, and varying sizes of sunglasses.  It was Hot.  We had a beach umbrella, but the wind off the ocean was preventing it from holding a position blocking the sun, so it sat there, useless, an empty gesture of passive resistance to the blazing sunshine.  

Along with my friend Nate, I went off in search of phallic meat alloys of our own, having taken the orders of our other four friends.  One might think that after watching adult humans literally engorge themselves on these unnatural creations to the point of exhaustion or expulsion, the crowd might consider a different dining option.  One would be wrong about that.  The line took over an hour.  

By the time we returned to the sands with our bounty of alleged meat, the beach was getting crowded.  Now, this was Coney Island, so “crowded” is a relative term.  This was the beach equivalent of the F train, too many souls competing for sandy real estate.  

Swimwear at a New York beach, particularly this particular beach, serves no apparent function.  Though the material and design anticipates swimming, no beachgoer with even a minimal sense of self-preservation would ever consider swimming in the water.  It is dirty, polluted, and freezing cold, even in July.  The beachwear has served its function as long as it permits ankle-depth immersion by walking along the shoreline, running sharply inward when a wave pushes the water up into the sand.

It was greatly amusing to watch the towel-and-umbrella camps set up closest to the water.  I imagined the special snowflakes who built these camps were surprised that so much prime real estate was available to them, especially with the beach so crowded.  I further imagine their moment of recognition, when the fast-encroaching tides pushed the water up past their towel lines, causing them to hurriedly pack up and head for higher ground.  Finally, I imagined the poor souls who were swimming- like, actually swimming in the water- with their low-lying camps unattended as the tide came in, in one case causing plastic beach chairs to be pulled out to sea.  

As for us, we left one person as a sentry to hold our spot, while the rest wandered down to the shore, dodging the incoming waves and putting just our feet into the cold water and the sinking, moist sands.  We posed for the obligatory social media pictures, learning once again that when crowds gather, cellphone reception flounders.  

After a time, we meandered back to our little camp.  The umbrella was just then providing a perfect shade over a portion of the blanket, just as a broken clock is right, twice a day.  I laid down, feeling lazy and sated, feeling the sand squishing between my toes, the glare of the hot sun reflecting and refracting off countless surfaces on the crowded beach.  The ladies re-applied sunscreen, a ritual that took the better part of fifteen minutes and required carefully administered assistance from the gentlemen, and each other.  

We sat there on the sands, reading and talking in turn, until the sun began to set.  Just moments after it winked out on the western horizon, the fireworks started, announced with a few small explosions and then picking up the tempo into a choreographed dance of light and sound.  

There is a still frame, at that moment, a sharp memory of being present as the sky was ribboned in light, the calm sea blowing cold and uneven gusts of wind, and all around me, friendly faces, eyes turned upward, feet sinking into the sand.  We stood there, as though in formation, watching the show and feeling the shared delight of the holiday.

Four year later, after the vicissitudes of fate and choice had torn our group apart, one of the last relics I keep from that era of my life is that moment, etched in my mind as though carved into obsidian.  

-AG

Published in: on May 4, 2017 at 8:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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Pieces of Grandma Jeanne

About ten years ago, my paternal grandmother, Grandma Jeanne, passed away.  She was a giant figure in my childhood, and in our family, and I want to share a few reflections about her.

Thanksgiving was her holiday, which is to say, it was our holiday with her.  This was fairly significant when I was young, because she lived in California, and we were in Kentucky.  Each year, she would make the trek across the country to join us for the holiday meal.  I don’t think she missed a single one.

Her life was one of glamour and intrigue.  She married several times, including my grandfather, twice.  She was tall and elegant, always wearing huge jewelry and displaying amazing works of original art in her home.  She worked, and had some hazy ties to the mafia, eventually running into trouble with law enforcement when she refused to snitch.  I’m told that a former Las Vegas mayor still owes her lunch.

Her voice was loud, her wit was sharp, and her tone often stern.  She didn’t need to spank her kids or grandkids; after two minutes of reprimand by Grandma Jeanne, a spanking would have been a welcome reprieve.  She had two children: my dad, and a daughter who died way, way too young.  Aside from my siblings and I, she had another grandson, my cousin Jasha, and she lived just long enough to become a great-grandmother thanks to him.

In her later years, she moved to Kentucky to be closer to my dad.  We started a family tradition of having a bagel brunch at her home each Sunday.  It was an opportunity for us to spend time together as a family each week, and to really be active in each other’s lives.

She was a heavy smoker, and in her later years developed emphysema.  She couldn’t get around very easily, and soon became virtually confined to her home, dependent on a breathing machine.  As an invincible teenager, I used to smoke with her after our folks left.  Grandma and I had a special camaraderie, and we shared stories from her life, and mine.

Complications from smoking took her life, in the end, ten years ago this spring.

When she passed, I received three items to remember her by.  The first is a keychain I wove for her at summer camp as a small child, twisted bits of much-abused leather, which I still use every day.  The second is a bright orange sports coat, a relic from her glamorous days on the West Coast.  I wear it occasionally to whimsical parties, and it never fails to make an impression.

The last is a two foot high replica of a Rodin statue, depicting a man kneeling in front of a nude woman, kissing her midsection.  When we would visit Grandma Jeanne as children, she would hide that piece, since it was considered too erotic for kids.

For the longest time, both she and my dad told me it was Rodin’s “The Kiss,” but last year I learned that it is actually a different work, called “The Eternal Idol,” a small piece from his master work “The Gates of Hell.”  Funny, the disillusionment of learning that something you learned young and were very sure about was totally wrong.  Today, it sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf.

Grandma Jeanne may be gone, but she is certainly not forgotten.  I’m reminded of her style, her wit, and her contagious laugh almost every day.

One last note: after she passed, my family stopped doing Thanksgiving together.  Her last year with us was the last time my immediate family all gathered for the holiday meal.  Last November, four of us got together and decided that we need to rekindle that tradition, and with any luck, this year will bring us all together again.  Grandma Jeanne won’t be with us, except in spirit.

I’m thankful she was a part of my life.

 

 

 

Published in: on January 5, 2015 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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