Torture in the Sky Club

My flight to Boston has been delayed, which means that my short stop in the Terminal A Sky Club has changed to a two-hour stint.  The club is crowded and I sat within earshot of a man who is giving line-by-line edits for a term paper to a person on the phone, whom I can only imagine is his child. 

My ear is hooked.  I cannot stop listening, even as I’m becoming infuriated on behalf of this kid’s teacher.  

Because every teacher I know has had this experience: The kid whose writing is poor and whose grasp of details is weak, turns in a paper that is polished and substantive and does not appear to be plagiarized.  Because his helicopter Dad (or Mom) wrote it for him.  You know right away that something is off, and go to work to devise future assignments so that it doesn’t happen again. 

And I’m angry in other ways too — I wouldn’t do it for my child.  My parents didn’t do it for me (they would not have been able to).  And there are so many other kids whose work is as good or better than this one’s who don’t have this advantage.  It’s privilege in its rawest form, and it’s incredibly unfair.  

As soon as I sat down I heard the word “Plessy,” and thought, “Well, that’s not your usual Sky Club conversation.”  Ears perked, a quick glance over my shoulder showed a Word document on the man’s computer, and the rest of the one-sided conversation offered plenty of clues about what Dad was about. 

First I sat through a complete mini-lecture on Plessy and then Brown. It sounded like an explanation I might have offered to students as I taught them, but I wasn’t sure why anyone in an airport lounge was explaining these two cases on this level, which was decidedly a high school or intro college level.  

In between filling in the kid’s factual knowledge (Supreme Court justices rule on the law; it’s the Court, not the judge, who issues the decision, the role of lawyers, prosecutors, clients …), Dad did some wordsmithing too, in a way reminiscent of that social studies teacher in Ferris Bueller.  Three quick examples, out of too many:

  • “Now here you say the “chief justices voted.” How many chief justices are there?” Clearly Junior’s answer wasn’t satisfactory, because he repeated the question, with increasing emphasis on the word chief, three times before trying another tack.  “Well,” he said, “how many justices are there on the Supreme Court?”  Pause.  “There are nine.  So how many are chiefs?”  Eventually the kid got the message that there was only one Chief Justice.
  • “Now, this line where you talk about Marshall’s record, when you say ‘he ruled in favor of,’ there’s one word that means ‘in favor of’ that you should use.  What’s one word that means ‘in favor of.?’”  The kid wasn’t getting it, so Dad provided more hints.  “It’s two syllables, and begins with a ‘u.’” Finally he gave it to the kid: “Upheld.”
  • Discussing another case, he notes, “Now you write that it was ‘six female and six male.’ Six female what? Chickens? Cats? Monkeys?”  Junior’s not catching on, but finally says that he was writing about the jury.  “Well, what’s another word for female?” Dad prompts.  Finally, Dad tells the kid that “women” is a better way to write it. 

This line-by-line coaching took the better part of an hour.  Dad basically rewrote the paper, even waiting while Junior transcribed what he suggested.  “Read that sentence back to me,” Dad urged before moving on to the next one.  And in between Dad would chuckle over how clueless his son was, as if this education-by-parent-by-phone was how things should be and, after all, what else could you expect. 

So I imagine Junior’s college essay and college papers will get the same treatment.  Maybe Dad will do his taxes for him until he’s 30.  Most likely, he’ll pave the way to internships and jobs.  

To me, that’s the swamp.  And I just sat next to a swamp creature. 


When the Unexpected Arrives

Mr. NYer and I are among the last people who still send Christmas cards.  Okay, that’s only partially true: We do receive cards from others, so someone else is sending them.  And we actually send holiday cards, because we have friends who don’t celebrate Christmas, plus there’s always the chance we won’t get them out in time to arrive before December 25, in which case they’re New Years’ Cards.

My mother always sent cards. When she sat to do the Christmas cards, she wrote the salutation to every member of the family, including all the kids.  She’d often include a note.  The cards had to be hand-addressed, too.  At some point she gave in to the logic and ease of pre-printed return address labels and self-stick stamps.  Helping her stamp and seal Christmas cards introduced me to the wonders of using a soaked sponged in a cup instead of your tongue.

We get fewer and fewer cards every year, but because we live so far away from friends and family, we feel it’s a good idea to keep sending them.  But we’re lazy — I print out address labels and return address labels and we order cards with our names inscribed.  Rarely do I have time for personal messages, and I’ve never been one for the annual letter, although I enjoy reading them from others.

Most of my cousins are on this routine exchange with me.  We send them a card, they send one to us, and only if we’re all using photo cards do we figure out that someone has lost weight or let her hair turn grey, or got a new dog.

Yesterday, as we were leaving to go to a friends’ house, Mr. NYer brought in the mail.  It included a card from one of the cousins whose greetings tend to be as impersonal as mine.  Mr. NYer opened the mail and said, “Take a look at what your cousin sent you.”

There was a note, in my cousin’s neat engineer-style print.  He thought, it said, that I’d enjoy seeing this letter my mother sent his father (her brother), before any of us came along.  It was from 1945, and she was writing to her favorite brother from Brooklyn.  He was in Europe.

My mom died 15 years ago, about six months after my uncle had died.  The fact that this piece of paper had been kept by my uncle, as he made his way home from the war, and saved, through his marriage and family years; and that his son had held onto it for over 15 years and still had it, and that it was now in my hands, kind of knocked me back a bit.

Especially since my parents saved none of their own wartime correspondence.  I’m sure it was copious — they married in 1942, before my father’s induction and nearly 4 years of service in the South Pacific.  But it was theirs and not for the prying eyes of anyone else.  As far as I know, those letters were destroyed soon after my Dad shipped to the west coast and disembarked from his train cross-country.

So, we’re about to go out the door, but I have this letter in my hand in my mother’s handwriting, and I have to quickly read it, knowing that I will read and reread it over and over in the next few days.

It’s dated August 11, 1945.  To jog your memory: that’s a couple of days after the bombing of Nagasaki.  There was word that Japanese “accepted” the terms of the Potsdam agreement, which called for total surrender, but no formal surrender.  That would come four days later.  Her brother was in Europe, having participated in the Normandy invasion as a glider pilot and slogged through the Battle of the Bulge.  Her husband was in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa was one of these), part of the massive build up of troops and equipment being assembled for an invasion of Japan itself.  About his postings she simply said, “I’ve certainly learned a lot of new places since the war, places I never knew existed.”  And probably would have been quite happy to have never heard of them.

She nods to the moment in history, saying that she imagines he’s heard about the offer of surrender, and writing, “We are all living by the radio, so to speak, to see if it’s accepted. I for one hope so.  This war has been bloody and long enough and it’s time this slaughter was put to a stop.”  She describes the mood in New York as “quiet,” noting that “Everyone is waiting for the official word before celebrating.” But she adds, “Me, I’ll wait until all our boys come home.  Then, I promise, to get drunk.”

And anyone who knew my mother knows how unusual that promise was.

Mostly she’s chatting about what they’re up to at home.  She’s been busy helping their sister-in-law who’s just had her second child.  Meanwhile, another sister — who worked in a shipyard as a Rosie the Riveter — was “on vacation this week getting her place fixed up.”  Four siblings were all married just before or during the war, but waited to set up separate housekeeping until their spouses were back.  My aunt must have been expecting her husband soon.  And despite the vast relief at the prospect that the war might finally be nearing an end, she noted that it might not be all good news.  “I just wonder,” she wrote about her sister, “how much longer she’ll have her job as a welder.”

Another sister, the youngest at 15, “wasn’t working anymore” she wrote. “I made her quit, her hours were changed every day,” my mom wrote. “I never knew when she was coming or going.  She was also gaining too much weight eating all that ice cream.”

And anyone who knew my mother will find that one easier to believe.  Not knowing if someone in her care was “coming or going” was still a concern 25 years later when I was 15.

But there were other issues to explore, too.  My uncle had apparently sent home two rifles. It’s impossible for me to imagine my mother was happy about this, but she managed to conceal any disapproval.  She reported that their youngest brother, then in his teens, “greased them both then put them away.”  But she couldn’t quite resist.  “What do you expect to do with them? Go hunting or just keep them as souvenirs?”  And then, a bit of commentary about her father.  “Pop wants to hang them up on the dining room wall.  You know Pop; he want to hang everything up.”

It’s after 7 pm.  She’s been managing the house, acting as mother to her siblings (my grandmother died five years earlier, and Mom was the oldest girl), and now, at close to 8 pm, she wrote that “I’m waiting for Pop to cut lobsters so I can cook them for him.”  But she added, “I hope you get home before the end of lobster season.  If Pop knew I wrote you about what I was going to cook, he would yell at me.  He thinks you feel bad because you can’t have them.”

I, for one, feel good about having this little glimpse of my mother before we all came along.

An Abrupt Change of Plans

Twenty-two months ago, I turned 60.  The next day, I sat at my computer and created a table four rows across and six down.  I typed the numbers 1-24 into the boxes, printed it out and posted it on the wall of my workspace.

A month later, I crossed out the 1.  Every month afterward, I crossed out another number.  Last time I did it, at the end of November, there were only three boxes left uncrossed.

As some of you have probably guessed, I was counting down to the day when I could, if I wanted, retire and begin to collect Social Security.  In the last few years I’ve thought a lot about how I want to spend the rest of my life.  If nothing unexpected happens, I figure I’ve got 15 or so reasonably active years ahead of me.  I’ve worked pretty much nonstop for a long time, since I was a college student.  I have other interests besides work, something not all my colleagues can say.  I enjoy travel, love to act and direct, would love to have time to write, and have so many books to read.  My mother worked until she was 70, but not me.  Because even though I might reasonably have 15 years or more, it’s also true that I might not.

So I figured that, sometime within the next three years — maybe one, two at most — I would retire and launch into the next adventure.  At times I was bored; sometimes tired; often just wanted to have the freedom to pick up and go.

But last week I unpinned the paper with the 24 boxes from the wall above my computer and I ripped it up. On November 9, everything changed.  And it’s good, it’s okay.  There’s too much work to do and I’m too fired up to retire.  More than that, at a time when lots of my friends are feeling helpless, I’m actually in a place where what I do might make a difference.

Turns out that I remembered that I thrive in opposition.  I’m a natural-born rebel.  If he were alive, my father would agree.  Well, the opposition has a job for me, and I’m all in.

90 Miles on Highway 65

Interstates may all look alike, but there are subtle differences to let you know you’re not in New York anymore.

Today I drove along I-65 from Montgomery, the sleepy Southern capital where I live, to bustling Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city.  To give you a sense of the difference:  Birmingham has sidewalks.

I had been asked to deliver the keynote address during lunch at an academic conference.  Birmingham’s only 90 miles away, and the audience was mainly professors of education, so I said yes.

For my Northeastern friends and families, brace yourself.  Some aspects of Interstates in the South will make you weep.  No tolls.  And, because we don’t have a freeze-and-thaw cycle, no potholes.  Speed limit is 70, which means you can cruise along between 78 and 80 miles per hour and get where you’re going quickly.

But don’t get too tempted.  A fleet of black high performance Camaros roams the highway.  They’re unmarked police cars, and they stop people all the time. When they do, Alabama’s “move over” law kicks in.  It says that when a police car, emergency vehicle or “wrecker” is parked with lights flashing, drivers are required to “vacate the lane closest to the emergency vehicle.”  It’s fascinating to watch: a cop will have pulled a car onto the broad shoulder, and all the traffic swings into the left lane.  Maddeningly, most Alabama drivers move over whenever anyone is parked on the shoulder.

Like other highways, local stretches have been given additional names.  The 90-mile stretch between Montgomery and Birmingham has at least four: Heroes Highway, Purple Heart Trail, War on Terror Highway, and Hank Williams Memorial Lost Highway.

The stretch also includego to churchs somconfederate flage distinctive roadside features, including the very large sign, “Go to Church, or the Devil Will Get You.” It will take another blog to talk about religion in Alabama. A few miles past that is a huge Confederate battle flag placed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  I don’t imagine any actual sons are still alive, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

As one approaches Birmingham, the road widens to three lanes each way, and other Interstates appear.  If you take a short detour on one — I didn’t this time — you get another roadside treat: a replica (one-fifth size) of the Statue of Liberty.  I gather it was once at a corporate headquarters that has since been torn down and was moved to another headquarters in a corporate park.  It was made by the same company that cast the original.  And, in some eyes at least, it’s better because the flame really lights at night.

Yliberty replicaou can visit it, too.  It’s called The Statue of Liberty Replica at Liberty Park.  It’s #27 on Trip Advisor’s list of 63 Things to Do in Birmingham.   As you regular Staten Island ferry-riding folks can see, the proportions are not quite right.  But, as one approving reviewer wrote, “Staying in the area to get away from Atlanta. Wrapped up the day visiting this great place. Nothing fancy but a great picture stop and great way to celebrate being American.”  I’ll let you be the judge of that.

On the way back, one might be tempted — in season, at least — to stop in Chilton County, known for its peaches.  They are good, and come in different varieties.  Some have yellow flesh, some have white. Some are free stones, others aren’t.  Some are good for eating, some for baking, and some for ice crpeacheam.  Chilton County farmers aren’t about to let traffic just fly by on I-65 either.  Photos of peaches, peach ice cream and not one but three Miss Peaches — or maybe Misses Peach? — are plastered on billboards.  And, just in case you avoid those, you can’t miss the peach water tower in Clanton.

And really, who would want to?

31 From 60

It’s catch-up time.

Two years ago, I started the “60 to 60” project, in which i pledged to count off the weeks until my 60th birthday.  It wasn’t going to be a depressing count-off, but one of aspiration, of getting to a place at 60 that I’d feel good about.

And about a year out, I stalled.  Got busy.  Struggled with turning 59 (those last years of a decade are always the hardest).  Bit the bullet and had foot surgery that was overdue.  Weathered the shock of an old friend dying.

Now, it’s 31 weeks PAST my 60th birthday.  No, I’m not going to keep counting.

But I’d like to pick up writing again, and sharing whatever pops into this head about life in the South, family, modern life and green vegetables.

Here’s what’s happened in the meantime:

I’ve been taking guitar lessons for seven months, and have stuck with them.  Generally, I learn fast when the learning is mainly cognitive.  Mind-body coordination has never been my forte, as many people know (Dynamo, you’ll remember our ballroom dancing fiasco).  It’s been different to accept a slow learning curve.  But I’m practicing every day; I can switch chords pretty easily, especially if it’s not in mid-measure, and they are beginning to have a lovely ringing sound.  I’ve got some strum patterns down, including a bass strum (but nothing fancy; no walking bass).  And I’m working on fingerpicking.

I cannot imagine, however, being able to play guitar and sing at the same time.  Everything considered, that’s probably just as well.

color-version-TTeditorial-toned-275x412The day before my 60th birthday was the last time I dyed my hair.  I’ve let it grow out and go gray and, amazingly, it’s neither like my father’s nor my mother’s hair.  It’s my own, and so far I’m okay with it.  Here’s what it looked like earlier in the summer, when the remaining red glinted here and there as highlights.

I’ve been traveling more this year — yes, mainly for work — and not staying at the office as late.  And I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to retire, even though I agree with MrNYer that I’d probably hate it.

But I am thinking about it.  MrNYer and I are now on the top rung of the ladder, generationally speaking. Our last parent, his Dad, died in January.  We’re spreading his ashes in Staten Island later this month.  Our son, TheAbandonnedOne, turned 30 in June.  And between them, my sisters have eight grandchildren.  It all leads me to wonder what’s next.

Another project I’ve worked on in a desultory way is digitizing photos.  So one day I calculated what year it was when my Mom turned 60. (It was 1975.) And I looked at photos of how she looked then to see who looked older, her or me.  She did.  In fact, at 60 she looked really tired and worn out.  She would ascribe all of that to the trials that I put her through.

But here’s the great news:  I looked at her pictures from ten years later, and five years after that, and she didn’t look at all tired. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

Next up: We’ll be revisiting Desiderata, because it visited me today.

Mother and Child Reunion

I’m on a plane flying back home from a quick trip to the bustle – and the cold – of Philadelphia and New York. And as much as I am thankful that I no longer live where winter can arrive in November and stubbornly make life miserable for four months or more, and that I no longer endure commuting for more than three hours a day, I have to admit – Lifelongnewyorker misses both the cold and the bustle.

This particular trip included more adrenaline-producing moments than I anticipated, and that too made me a bit nostalgic. Because living, walking and working in a city means constantly being alert, making quick calculations and decisions, balancing options and making choices. The mind and body are active. You feel alive. That’s just not life in Montgomery.

As an aside, I learned during this trip that “nostalgia,” or extreme homesickness, was a diagnosis occasionally listed on 19th century death certificates. But I get ahead of myself.

A work event offered the chance to be in Philadelphia on Monday. Philly is close to New York, I haven’t seen the Abandoned One since Christmas, and he’s been coping with a bout of unemployment. Since I wanted to see him face-to-face to reassure myself that he was okay (he is), I volunteered to help out at the Philly event. I booked my flight into Philadelphia with a return from Newark, and planned to hop the NE Corridor train to get to New York on Tuesday morning and spend the day with Abandoned One.

And, because I’ve long since learned that it’s not smart to call it too close when it comes to flight arrivals – or to put it more simply, it’s foolish to assume that your plane will be on time – I arrived in Philly on Sunday. The Dynamo lives about 60 miles away, so we planned to get together.

Between booking and going, Abandoned One got a job. No daylong visit with him, but still a chance to have dinner together. I made reservations at the Jersey City Hyatt (big rooms, right next to the PATH station, 5 minutes from lower Manhattan, and about $100 cheaper than anything comparable in New York), and he made reservations at Landmarc in Tribeca.

But now, what to do on Tuesday? A museum exhibit? Shopping? Wait! Trenton is between Philadelphia and New York! And in Trenton is the NJ State Archives, where birth, marriage and death records from 19th century Jersey City are available in microform for genealogical research. Perhaps I could find records there that I’d been unable to find so far online.

Perfect. I had lots lined up: visit with the Dynamo; free time on Monday to hunker in my hotel room and work on a memo; a radio interview in the afternoon at WHYY, which came with a lagniappe – the chance to catch up with a former student who works there; the work event; research time, at least four hours, at the archives; dinner with the Abandoned One and home on Wednesday.

Sunday and Monday went off without a hitch. Dynamo and I walked a bit and I loved feeling my body move through the brisk air, loved the way, when the wind picked up at night, you feel so cold but then so warm when you get into a heated spot. Loved the way the cold air hit the face and got the blood moving and provided a good reason to keep up the pace. Loved having a city to walk in.

Those were the days that worked. Tuesday was another kind of city day, typical in some ways, not at all typical in others. I checked out of the hotel in Philly, grabbed a cab and headed to the 30th Street Station. Ate a poppy seed bagel that was about five degrees of magnitude more authentic than anything I can get below the Mason-Dixon line. Bought a ticket on SEPTA to Trenton — $9 versus $28 for Amtrak. Congratulated myself for being so thrifty.

Discovered the trade-off soon enough: The next Trenton train was in 40 minutes (Amtrak was 10), and it was a local. Where did I get the idea that Trenton was “just across the river” from Philly? It may be, but who knew about all those stops in between?

Got to the Trenton Transit Center and realize I’ve never been in Trenton before. It reminds me a bit of Albany, a bit of other Delaware River towns. Run down but interesting Victorian mansions. Lots of brick row houses, a historic section that might be worth a visit someday. I saw this all from the short cab ride to the Archives. When I arrived, I asked the driver whether I would be able to get a cab when I was done. I expected him to hand me a card with a phone number, but he assured me that “cabs come up and down this street all the time.”

I spent more time than I should have at the archives spooling through reels of microfilm, which reminded me just how slow research took when I was in grad school, before the Internet. The net at the end of the session was disappointing: I found no marriage certificate for my grandfather and his first wife; found another marriage certificate I sought that was so faded it was unreadable; but struck pay-dirt with a death certificate for a great uncle who was the first to be buried in a family plot that would eventually hold eleven of my forebears. I printed the death certificate and paid my $0.50 for the copy. The woman ahead of me at the desk forked over $31. She had a good day.

That great uncle’s death underscored how hard life was in the 19th century – well, not just his death. To find the certificate, I had scanned indexes that listed name, date of death, age and cause of death. Illnesses that are simply nuisances today – or those we have vanquished entirely – killed people then. Scarlet fever, bronchitis, infected wound, childbirth – all were perilous.

I’d always assumed Terrance, my grandmother’s oldest brother, died in a workplace accident. I was wrong. Instead, he was an otherwise healthy 21-year old, sick for only four days, who succumbed to double pneumonia in 1880. I knew that his mother – my great-grandmother – was already suffering from the neck tumor that would kill her – by asphyxiation – three years later. Looking at the death certificate, I recalled that my grandmother was born in 1876. She was a child, only four years old when her brother died, and seven when she lost her mother. Before she was 20, she’d attend funerals for more siblings, nieces and nephews. My father was 17 when she died. I come from a line of people who lost their mothers at a relatively young age, but that’s probably true of most of us.

Single photocopy in hand, I retrieved my luggage, coat, purse and pens (forbidden in archives!) from the locker I’d been assigned and left the building to hail a cab. I’d planned to leave around 3 pm; it was closer now to 3:40. Did some quick calculations – an hour to get to Newark Penn Station, about 20 minutes on PATH to Jersey City. No problem; I’d still have over an hour to check in and freshen up.

You guessed it, reader. There was not a cab in sight. I moved to the corner to multiply the chances of hailing a cab going either way on the cross street. Nope. I wondered what bus or combination of buses went to the Trenton Transit Center, and whether one needed exact change or Trenton’s version of a Metrocard. I conjured contingencies – could I find a hotel and get the bellman to hail a cab? What risks were involved in asking a stranger for a ride? Too many. Finally, I decided to walk toward a more densely built-up part of State Street, where I might find a hotel. Meanwhile, I pivoted back and forth, sometimes walking backward, to scout a cab.

One came, at last. But I’d lost 15 minutes. In the cab, I pulled out my iPhone to check fares: Amtrak’s Northeast Regional cost $78, left in a half hour, and would get me to Newark in 38 minutes. At the Trenton Transportation Center, I discovered that NJ transit cost only $11, and an express NE Corridor train was leaving in four minutes. With machine-dispensed ticket in hand, I hurried to Track 2. The train was at the platform! But why were the doors closed? The train stood there for an eternity, doors closed, not moving, me standing hopefully next to it before it finally sighed and pulled away.

Next train: 4:28. It would arrive in Newark at about 5:30. I’d get to the hotel by 6 pm, and still have a half hour to check in, change and wash my face before having to leave. Not what I had planned, but entirely acceptable.

For $11, it turns out, you don’t get electrical outlets, something Amtrak does provide. My iPhone’s charge was dangerously low, but it would last until the hotel. I calculated whether I’d be in the room long enough to give it a boost. I would.

I spread out over two seats – the train wasn’t crowded. Directly ahead of me a quartet of 20-somethings chatted back and forth. In the handicap-accessible area just out of sight, but not hearing, a toddler was getting cranky, along with his mom. Across the aisle a white-haired professional man in a black overcoat and with an old-fashioned leather briefcase – the kind that looks like a satchel, not a box – busied himself with phone calls.

From my westward-facing window seat I looked up from time to time to watch the familiar New Jersey landscape go by. Soon we were passing New Brunswick, an old town, home to Rutgers and one of the larger cities in that part of the state. I’ve never been there, and gazed out of the westward facing window on the northbound train toward a lovely looking downtown, park and river view.

And then the train stopped, after the station but just short of the bridge over the Raritan River. Trains stop all the time; a train ahead could be delayed, or a signal is out, or a repair crew is on the tracks and needs to move. It’s hardly worth noticing.

But this delay went on and on. After about 10 minutes, the conductor announced that we were stopped for an unknown reason and, as soon as he had more information, he’d let us know. He promised that he would keep us informed. We got reruns of that twice over the next half hour, with little additional information.

With my iPad in hand, I found the page on the NJ Transit site that accounted for train delays and learned that train 3960 – my train! – was cancelled due to a “trespasser incident.” Googling “trespasser incident” revealed the likely truth behind the euphemism – it usually meant that someone was on the tracks and got hit. Monitoring the NJT site, the impact of our “incident” began to spread as more and more trains were delayed and none were stopping northbound at New Brunswick, Edison or Metuchen.

The people in front of me weren’t in a hurry and continued chatting. The toddler needed a nap, clearly, and I felt for his mother. And this is when Mr. Professional showed his colors. I heard him on the phone to his wife complaining about the delay and the lack of information. When he was done, I turned to him and filled him in with what I knew – “trespasser incident,” and what I suspected: a fatality, involving this train.

He argued with me. It couldn’t be this train if the incident was “at the station.” I told him that the news now reported that a northbound train had struck someone at the station. We were a northbound train, a few hundred yards past the station, and we were stopped. He shrugged, thanked me for the information, and muttered.

Next, I overhear Mr. Professional, whose first name I decided was Self-Important, call 411 and ask for the phone number of Something Bank in a NJ town. He gets the number, calls the bank and asks for Mr. Somebody, who must really be a Somebody – “I’m calling him,” Mr. Self-Important Professional says, “in his capacity as a member of the NJ Transit Board.” The person at the other end – whose job no doubt includes protecting Mr. Somebody from these calls – says she’ll take a message. My train-mate explains that he doesn’t know Mr. Somebody, but they have a mutual friend, Mr. Well-Connected, and that he’s calling because he’s been sitting on a train just past the New Brunswick Station for over a half-hour and the conductor has not adequately explained why. He demands that Mr. Somebody call him back.

The conductor comes on and tells us that the train is being taken out of service “because of police and medical activity,” the closest he ever gets to informing us that the train has just hit a human being. The dispatcher, he says, will be sending a train for us to transfer to, but he doesn’t yet know when that will be.

My iPhone is almost dead, and my chances of meeting the Abandoned One at 7 pm have vanished. I text him, “Can you pick up email on your phone?” His answer comes back: “No.”

Urban woman steps in: the phone may be dead, but the laptop is fully charged. Hook the iPhone to the computer USB. It works, and the iPhone begins to recharge.

Meanwhile, the local NJ news outlets are painting a fuller story. A man on the station “leaned out over the platform” and was struck by the passing train. Flying debris from the collision, it was reported, injured four people on the platform. Later reports identify the debris: body parts.

I desperately wanted to see the Abandoned One, but it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself over delayed trains, missed meals or other inconveniences when a person lays dead a few hundred feet away. Hard, but not impossible. Mr. Self-Important Professional was still fulminating.

After about an hour, the conductor came through and told us to move forward to the first two cars. From these, we’d be transferring to another train that would be pulling up alongside us on the express tracks. I finally saw the mom with the toddler. He was acting up, and she was struggling with him, the stroller and the requite mom bag with snacks and toys, but she also had her mother in tow. They would be fine. Many passengers had luggage, as I did, and some were elderly or overweight. I had no idea how we’d transfer but hoped it would involve some kind of ramp or gangplank over the divide.

By the time we arrived in the first two cars, most people had heard some version of events, and the complaining had abated. Finally, the train pulled alongside. Waiting in the car, I heard a woman exclaim, “This step is so far!”

Indeed, the step was far. We had to drop from the train step, which is normally at platform level, to the track bed, which was paved with blue stone. I estimated the drop was at least three feet (I’ve since looked it up and found it was a bit over four), but after I handed my luggage down to a rescuer and got to the bottom step I had doubts about whether I could jump down. I didn’t have to – the guy told me to put my hands on his shoulders as he grabbed me around the middle. He lifted me and placed me on the ground. And he did that with every passenger.

It was 6:30 now and this new train was making all the local stops. I wouldn’t be in Newark until 7:15 at best. Texted Abandoned One: can you change the reservation to 8 pm? Yes, he said, done.

At first people complained about the speed of the new train (slow) and the fact that it was making local stops. A woman visiting from India had theater tickets. A man had a plane to catch at Newark airport. But around me, I also heard folks reading aloud the news reports, and the complaints stopped. Some perspective taking was taking place.

At Newark I jumped on the PATH train and got off at Jersey City. Checked into the hotel and hesitated when the desk clerk said, “I hope your travel here was good today.”

“Not really,” I said. “But it’s better now.”

And like the city woman I am, I changed my clothes, splashed some water on my face and returned to the PATH. Got to the Trade Center – where the new PATH station is the whitest place I have ever seen – and grabbed a cab. As I closed in on the address on West Broadway, Abandoned One texted me: “eta?”

I texted back: “3 minutes.”

For the next two hours, Lifelongnewyorker and the Abandoned One had dinner and good conversation. Within a few minutes I saw that he was fine, and would be fine. And I realized that he’s not a kid anymore, which is great.

We left the restaurant and walked south. He descended into the subway at Chambers, and I continued on to the WTC. Grateful for the cold and the lightest of flurries, for the chance to walk, for the bustle around me, and for getting there at last.







56 to 60: The road reveals itself

Four weeks into the slog Lifelongnewyorker is realizing … well, a bunch of things that don’t have a lot to do with this 60 to 60 initiative.  But they have to do with life, and figuring out what we’re about, and so I’ll report them here.

It’s been a hard week. 

But there’s been some progress to report:


Objective 1: Do at least one new thing every week.

Mr. NYer loves music.  Last week I proposed that we start something new: the Lockwood Boogie (Lockwood is the name of our street).  The principle was simple: Mr. NYer would create a playlist of dance music.  After dinner every night, he would play one song from the queue and we would dance in the living room.  Exercise and bonding.  What could be better.  On Wednesday, we began with The Locomotion.  Thursday brought Aretha and Respect.  Anyone spying us through the French doors would think we were slightly insane, but the three minutes or so of post-dinner dance brought a little exercise, and a lot of joy, into our lives.  Can’t wait to see what’s next.

Objective 2: Exercise. Regularly.

Got to the gym three times and stayed with the planking.  Think love handles are diminishing but probably should have a caliper.

Objective 3: Confront the negative.

Yikes!  A tough week at work had me in full immersion mode, and sometimes that meant waking with what can only be described as an anger hangover.  But it’s a soul suck, really, really, really.  One of my colleagues, Big Wig Lawyer, told me today about her own decision to “live in the good.”  I won’t go into the whole explanation, but the general idea is that we can choose to live according to our values and ideals and not play in the dark lands of our souls — or those of our colleagues and bosses. 

Objective 4: Cook at least one meal each week.

Pizza last week.  Off at a work retreat this weekend, but will cook soon.  Asking a colleague for some authentic southern recipes.

As for the hard week, well, the message is that growing old is not the same as growing wise.  Or maybe it’s that growing old does not guarantee that you won’t have the self-doubt, conflict and soul-searching that you had as a younger person.  Being a certain age doesn’t guarantee you know all the answers or that you have resolved all the issues you seem to have been born with.  What gives?  I did a Myers Briggs self-assessment and, not surprisingly, don’t entirely like the results.  I’m the type that “exudes confidence,” and I’ve learned, from college to this very day, that “exuding confidence” is a distinct turn off for some folks. 

I learned this today while at a company retreat.  Because of this retreat, I missed going to my newest grand-nephew’s Christening, which also happened to be my sister’s wedding anniversary.  I have seven grand nieces and nephews, and have not been to all of their baptisms … after all, I’m in Alabama and they are over a thousand miles away.  My son attended this one, and we joked that he had our proxy and represented Mr. NYer and myself.

But I woke up this morning acutely aware that I was not with the people whom I care most about in this world.  Mr. NYer was home in Alabama while I was at a hotel in Georgia.  Our son, who lives in Brooklyn, NY, was staying with my sister in New Jersey.  Both sisters, together with their husbands, children, and grandchildren, were assembling in New Jersey for the event.  And I missed them all, terribly.

At the same time I thought about the friendships I’d built over 50 years growing up in New York. Some of them dated back as far as 5th grade.  I’d gathered others up over the years teaching, working at the local newspaper, participating in community theater.  They are, literally, irreplaceable. And I’m feeling even more tender about them because of news that one of them has died.  I read it on Facebook, and will hear about the wake and funeral there as well.

I’ve been in Alabama for four years and have a nice circle of acquaintances, but few close friends.  And today, perhaps for the first time in four years — don’t ask why — I realize how much I miss my friends and my family.  They are not fungible, or easy to replace. 

And so, the road to 60 seems different this week.  Maybe it’s less about who I am, and more about who I value.