In search of lost time

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VERONICA'S-GRAVE(small)As many of you know, She Writes Press will publish Veronica’s Grave: A Daughter’s Memoir May 9, 2016. What you may not know is that in order to ready the original 140,000-word manuscript for publication, it had to be cut down to size. A process leaving thousands of words lying on the cutting room floor. Why so? As explained by my brilliant editor, Elizabeth Kracht of Kimberley Cameron & Associates in San Francisco, no one would buy such a lengthy memoir from a debut author—not even a beautifully written literary memoir that touches the heart, not even a book that could make a difference in the world of grieving children.

What to do? The original manuscript called for two narrators—the introspective adult who goes in search of her past, and the child who provides the eyewitness account. The solution was to let the young girl speak for herself. What she tells us you will find in the book. What follows is an episode told from the perspective of the adult narrator who  goes in search of her past. A segment rescued from the cutting room floor.

If you want to read more about the book, click the Memoir tab at the top of the page.

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      Searching for Ryer Avenue

Age 7 (2)At 96th Street and First Avenue,  morning traffic slows. To the  left are dozens of cabs swarming around the Mobil Station, like a hive of yellow jackets gone berserk. Waiting for the light to change, I keep a wary eye on a guy with a squeegee, the Rastafarian braids piled high in a knitted tam of a dozen colors, shuffling in my direction.

My first impulse is to put on the sunglasses so he cannot see the fear in my eyes, but judging by the bummed-out walk, this guy has seen it all, done it all. When he raps on the windshield, I get a close-up of an oil-stained hand, the torn fingernails lined with a quarter-inch of dirt—as if they had clawed their way up Mount Everest. He’s a walking petri dish.  My second impulse is to remind him that panhandling is against the law, but it would seem that my courage is off busy doing other things.

Not until he places his coffee cup on the hood of my car—affectionately known as ‘Blue Betty’— and wipes the windshield with a filthy rag, do I see red. What shade of red? A matador-versus-the bull shade of red. With the adrenaline ratcheting—if all the while telling myself I need not be afraid as there’s a ton of metal separating us—I blast the horn. Only then do I remember that Chubb has cancelled my windshield replacement coverage, saying that three replacements are the limit, and I’ve reached the limit. It has to do with all those years of driving on the Long Island Expressway.

Flipping on the windshield wipers, I bang my palms against the steering wheel, yelling: BUG OFF! Happily, the temper tantrum does the trick and through the side-view mirror, I watch as he moves on down the line to the guy behind me—Coward! what a coward!—-who hurriedly drops a few coins into a stained paper cup. One of those ubiquitous paper cups with the Greek motif: We are happy to serve you. My stomach feels like an elevator cab in free fall.

Swinging north onto the FDR Drive as the light changes, my spirits climb along with a squadron of seagulls—caw, caw, caw—winging toward La Guardia Airport. Slowing at the Willis Avenue exit to avoid a pothole that could snap an axle, I bear left onto the Deegan.  Ahead of me lies a jungle of steel girders wrapping muscular arms around a fragile patch of blue sky. Off to one side, a backhoe snatches at the rocky ground, pulling up layer upon layer of the city’s history and dumping it into an ABC Carting truck. The Bronx dashes by at sixty-five mph.

Flipping the radio to WQXR, 105.8 FM, I hear Eric Satie’s Gymnopédies—what the French composer and pianist called everyday music for everyday people. My pulse slows, as does the traffic. I adjust the rear-view mirror, retouch my lipstick. It looks like a major tie-up. What should I do? Stay on the Cross Bronx Expressway or get off at the nearest exit? I turn for advice to 1010 News, New York’s most listened to radio station.

Give us twenty-two minutes; we’ll give you the world. Okay, all you guys and gals out there, listen up. Avoid the West Side Highway. Avoid the Sheridan south, two lanes closed for repairs. Skip the Hutch, major downtime. In Brooklyn, a police action’s tying up the Gowanus, both directions. Thirty-minute delays at the Holland inbound, twenty minutes out. Lincoln‘s a better choice, moving smoothly. Avoid the westbound CBE to NJ. Traffic’s backed up to the Westchester County Line, rubbernecking in the eastbound lanes. (That’s me!) Coming in from New Jersey, avoid the George; there’s a one-hour delay on the upper, forty-five on the lower.

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Barreling Along

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Pulling off the Cross-Bronx Expressway at Exit 2, I barrel north on a wide commercial boulevard lined with auto transmission shops, a 1-800-mattress factory, and an inordinate number of driving schools. It’s a working class neighborhood. You can taste the sweat. But within a mile or so, the gritty-grey industrial streetscape begins to give way to a mix of residential buildings— single-family homes, mid-rise buildings—with rusted fire escapes. Like so many brown bats hanging from a cave wall.

Passing the grease-smeared windows of the Kee Wong Restaurant on Valentine Avenue, I hook a left and floor the accelerator to climb East 181st Street, a street as steep as Lombard Street in San Francisco, if not as serpentine. Yet another left has me on Ryer Avenue, the Forty-Sixth Police Precinct hugging the corner. The cornerstone reads 1923, which means that my parents might have walked by the station every day. A squadron of police cars—Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect—is double-parked and a UPS truck is blocking my way.

Throwing ‘Betty’ into neutral, I note sidewalks full of cracks and cracks full of weeds. The curbstone, missing a few Belgium blocks, brings to mind a gap-toothed hockey player. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I wait patiently, if keeping an eye on three guys—black nylon doo-rags and saggers so low you can see their butt-cracks—hanging around in a courtyard. What are they doing? waiting for a truant officer? for rival gang members to rumble? for buyers coming in from New Jersey? If that super sleuth Nancy Drew were here, she would call it: The Riddle of the Shady Courtyard.

It’s a raw neighborhood. Potholes brim with inky water. A sense of foreboding floats in the air. Though there are a few buildings with lovely leftover Art Deco touches. For instance, there’s one building with a set of bronze doors with chubby rosettes and scampering vines that must be worth a fortune. And another has a foot-wide band of turquoise tiles around its midriff, as handsome as a hand-tooled Navajo belt. Up ahead, two panel trucks park at a ninety-degree angle to the street, their front ends up on the sidewalk. They must belong to the guys at the Forty-Sixth.

When UPS pulls out, I pull into her space and look around, but nothing looks the least bit familiar. Where are all the trees? the goose-necked streetlamps that dropped butterscotch puddles of light onto the sidewalks at night? Robert Louis Stevenson’s lamplighter? My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky. It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by...

Ah, there it is! 2108 Ryer Avenue, a mid-rise red brick building with two ground floor apartments having entries off the street. Hoping that one apartment belongs to the super, I knock sheepishly, unsure how to explain my interest in his building. But there’s no answer. Wedged behind the doorknob is a fistful of flyers, and taped to a ground floor window is a list of rentals in the neighborhood. The shades are drawn, signs of neglect everywhere. Of course, you might say the location is a plus, as it's a short hike to the B or the D train at the East 182nd Street. Six blocks to the No.4 at the Burnside Avenue Station.

I’d love to get in to see one of those apartments. To see if  they really have the black and white octagonal tiles on the bathroom floor. The parquet flooring in the foyer. Or the doors with glass panes separating the living room from the bedroom.  But  how to get in? Where is everybody?

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 So, then what happened? To be continued... That’s it for today guys and gals. Hope to see you next week. But before I go, let me wish you the very best Thanksgiving Day ever. Go easy on the apple pie, and please remember sharing is caring. 

UncategorizedBarbara Donsky