After 23 years, we are leaving our third floor apartment on Degraw Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn — move out date is February 1, 2012. Our landlord, who is elderly and ill and has become legally blind, is selling the building, and very generously gave us a reasonable time to vacate — he told us of his plans four months ago.
But now the countdown winds down: 10 days . . .
5 — Visitors
The last week of July, 1992, my mother and eight year-old nephew, Nicholas, stayed with me for a week. The purpose of the trip was to maybe find them a place in Brooklyn, as my dad had died two years before and my mom was raising Nick by herself (my sister, Nick’s mom, had disappeared around 1987). I didn’t want them to be alone, but I couldn’t move back there, so I thought getting them an apartment near me was the optimal workaround.
I had taken Amtrak to Chicago to get them, and then all three of us took the train to New York. As we rode in a cab from Penn Station (their first New York City cab ride), I pointed the Empire State Building out to them, at the end of the 34th Street urban canyon.
“It looks so small,” my mother said, disappointed. “I thought it would be big . . . bigger than the Sears Tower. You would think, after all that’s been written about it.”
“Where’s King Kong? Ha-ha!” said Nick. Judging by the expression on his face, he was clearly very satisfied with the building’s appearance.
The first thing my mom did her first day in Brooklyn was to go to the Key Food on Fifth Avenue and buy the same kinds of groceries she bought at “the Jewel” (“the Jewel” = what every single Chicagoan calls the Midwest chain grocery store officially named “Jewel”): coffee, Polish sausage, rolls, coffee cake, lunch meat, hot tamales, and Dippity-Do (“wave set”).
She also bought a selection of Brach’s candy for Nick, which still came in the famous red and white striped bag. (I didn’t even know you could get Brach’s candy at the Key Food.)
We visited the other Nick, my landlord, at his office on Carroll Street, just off 7th Avenue: “Big Nick and Little Nick,” he smiled, and I imagined “Little Nick” living in Park Slope, going to school down the street from me. I imagined picking him up and walking him home on a cool fall day, the dry leaves blowing around the brownstones, having dinner with him and Mom (canned spaghetti and Mott’s apple sauce, probably) in the kitchen of their new place. I had a friend — a former student of mine from my days at Brooklyn College, actually — who was a realtor, and she set up some apartment showings for us in Park Slope. The places were nice, but after the third one Mom didn’t want to look at any more.
“I don’t wanna move here, Sharon,” she said, as we walked back to my place, past the Square Stores on Fifth Avenue. “I don’t know no one here. I’d be all alone.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “I live here! You’d be a few streets away.”
“Oh, you’d be goin’ to your poetry readings and what-have-you . . .”
“Do you think I go to readings every single minute of every single day?”
Diffidently, she retied her blue and white kerchief behind her head and that was the end of that. I could tell they wouldn’t be moving to New York.
Nick went with me everywhere that week. David and I took him to Two Boots for pizza and he stood with the other kids at the big window with a view of the kitchen and watched the guys make pizza. He clutched the little piece of dough the cook gave him all the way way. At my yoga class in Manhattan the next day he did the exercises and chants along with everyone else. Ravi Singh, the teacher, always turned the lights down low once the class began, and back at home Nick told Mom, “I did aerobics in the dark!” As we entered the subway to catch the R train to the Staten Island Ferry terminal I thought, “I will always remember my mom walked here. Her energy will always be here, at the corner of Union and Fourth Avenue.”
David and I had a party in the back yard for them. We invited my downstairs neighbor Al, my friends Bart Plantenga and Deborah Pintonelli, and a few others I can’t remember now. Nick made little drawings on Post-Its — portraits of everyone at the party — and went around trying to sell them for a dollar each. I think Al developed a crush on my mom.
When their visit was over I went with them to Penn Station to get the Amtrak back to Chicago. Nick cried. I cried when I got home, taking the sheets off the cot he had slept on in the living room, picking up the big watercolor drawings he was working on which were scattered all over the living room floor. I loved him so much. What would happen to him if his grandmother died? For many years we lived with this uncertainty, and it colored almost the entire decade of the ’90’s for me. But that color was itself colored by love. A few days after they left someone gave me, as a present, a deck of tarot cards. I pulled a card at random; it was the Ace of Hearts, depicted as a small but brilliant heart rising from a jeweled chalice.
Twenty years after that visit, ten years after my mother’s death, I still see her in her navy blue Midwestern windbreaker and blue and white kerchief going down the Union Street subway stairs: holding on to the railing, going slowly, a step at a time, and Nicholas holding her other hand.