In the ’90s, rollerblading was all the rage, and I was sure it was my “thing”…
It’ll be just like going to Christine’s. A straight shot, right down Broadway. You got this!
I paused by the ticket machines to strap on my blades. I had made it from home to the station in Bellerose on wheels, no problem. How hard could it be to get myself from Penn Station to Brittany Hall? NYU wasn’t that far from the Long Island Rail Road, I would save money by skipping the subway and I’d be getting some exercise.
Rollerblading is great for your buns and thighs.
The trip was just a tad more than one mile. Feeling totally ready, I stowed my sneakers in my purple Jansport backpack and rolled to the escalator.
Why didn’t I get myself upstairs before I put these things on?
I was sure everyone looking at me was thinking “Dumb ass!”
After reaching the top of the first escalator, I rolled my way to the next one. The long one that leads you to the street. I stood still on the mechanical stairway watching my fellow commuters climbing the stairs, beating me in my self-imposed race to the surface. I relished the feeling of finding the holes in any crowd and zig-zagging my way through it. As if I would get a prize for getting to point B before the others.
At the mercy of the escalator, I pondered it’s origin. It must’ve been invented to speed things up, yet it seems, instead, to have slowed us down by appealing to our inherent laziness.
When I finally emerged from the depths I rolled myself out of the way and stopped by a street sign. I held it for balance and assurance. This place near the taxi stand outside Penn Station was comfortable for me, familiar. It had served, for the past few years, as my entry point into Manhattan. Here, my high school friends and I would step out into the street after sneaking in on the train from Long Island, having told our parents we were taking the bus to the Roosevelt Field Mall. It was our meeting place before concerts or Broadway shows. It was the portal through which we stepped to leave our suburban selves behind.
In this spot, a few years later, a cute young cop would help me hail a cab and give me his phone number, making me feel so Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City”. But today I went completely unnoticed, just another New Yorker getting around town.
I tightened the straps of my Jansport, securing my belongings and preparing myself for motion. It was a gorgeous day and I was taking advantage of it. This would be a leisurely ride through my new city. I belonged here. I could feel it. After a semester and a half, I was officially a Manhattanite and this little freedom ride would solidify that status once and for all. It was as though I’d been trying to reach this moment my whole life, all eighteen years.
When I was nine, my mother almost moved us to Manhattan. Her best friend, my Aunt Patti, lived on East 78th street between York and the FDR. Her apartment was in an old east side tenement building. The largest of its three rooms housed a pullman kitchen along one wall. The bedroom barely fit a dresser and a bed (which you had to crawl in and out of from one side because it was literally wedged between the walls) and the living room felt tiny even when I was a small child. My mother told me once that it was “rent controlled”. I wouldn’t come to understand that “rent control” meant “holy grail” in real estate speak until I was much older and once I did, I resented anyone who had such a deal. But there was a park across the street and a restaurant around the corner where I could fall asleep in a booth while my mom and Patti chatted up the bartender. Manhattan was alright by me.
Mom was on tour with a band when she met my dad. She gave up singing when they married, but after their divorce she started singing again to supplement her income and feed her passion. Having come from Indiana to Long Island to marry my father, Mom had spent the years since their divorce shanghai-ed on the island that exists in the shadow of the greatest city on earth. She was drawn to the city, so when an apartment became available downstairs from Patti, my mother was excited to make the move.
The evening we went in to sign the lease and pick up the keys, I remember walking into the empty apartment. It was dark inside, even as the last glimmers of sunshine held on outside. Somehow, it seemed even smaller than Patti’s place.
When we walked in, I went to gaze out the living room window at the swings and see-saw across the street. The playground was locked up behind a fence that rose high above our new window’s view. It looked less inviting than it had before, sinister somehow.
I went in search of Mom.
She was sitting on the kitchen floor, crying. I stroked her hair and asked, “what’s wrong, Mommy”? She reached up to hold my hand and cried some more.
I was scared, I had no idea what to do. “It’ll be OK”, I told her. Though I had no clue what “it” was. “Don’t cry”. She just sniffled and held on tighter.
So, I sat down with her and I cried a little too. The old linoleum floor was cold. Sitting there, the room around us seemed to expand, like we were shrinking right there on that floor. It was as if she was determined to disappear and take me with her. Through the gated window to the fire escape outside, I gazed blankly at the rapidly darkening sky.
I felt responsible. Had I caused her tears? Was it my job to make them go away? I didn’t know. I just knew I needed to take care of her, to share the burden that my existence had placed on her. I often cried when my mother did, whether I understood it or not.
When Mom’s tears subsided, we stood slowly. I gripped her hand in mine as she steadied herself and then we walked hand in hand out of the apartment. We never went back.
I had almost become a city kid, almost. I fantasized about what “might have been” a lot after that. How cool it would have been, how much time we’d have spent at that park, or hanging out with Aunt Patti and eating Egg Foo Young!
The experience gave the city a mystique. It became something to be feared, or conquered. I never questioned what made my mom change her mind, but when it came time to choose a college, NYU was at the top of the list. It was the list, and I’d made it in.
At the “walk” signal’s command, I rolled across Seventh avenue and started making my way down 32nd street to Broadway. It was just after 2pm and the streets were crowded.
Sticking to the sidewalk and using the occasional street sign or mailbox as a crutch, I made slow but steady progress maneuvering through the late-lunching office workers carrying their boxes from Sbarro, and their bags of McDonald’s and Hale and Hearty Soup. By the time I made it to Broadway, I was emboldened by my accomplishment.
I paused on the corner. To the south, was NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. The institution on which I had pinned my hopes. To the north, was the part of town where Broadway became more than just an avenue. Where it was an art, an industry, and my dream. My acceptance to Tisch had been, to me, the first step towards my inevitable top billing on a glittering theater district marquee.
Stepping down off of the curb and onto the famed thoroughfare, I turned right and headed south. The first few blocks went smoothly. All of the lights turned in my favor, so braking wasn’t an issue. Which was good, because I was still a novice when it came to that part of the sport. I was singing to myself a little bit, under my breath. I have a tendency to do that, I always have. All through sixth grade, Jared M. teased me mercilessly for singing “country music” when Patsy Cline songs inadvertently escaped my lips during group study. My mom had always nurtured this habit.
She taught me about harmony at a young age. Lessons started one Christmas with “Silent Night”. She knew it in German too, I only knew the English. We were driving from the babysitter’s or the supermarket. Or maybe we’d gotten some ornaments at Cheap John’s. She turned off the radio and said we should sing carols to get in the spirit.
We started in unison, Silent night, holy night . Then, she shifted her voice to the third above. All is calm, all is bright.
In the beginning it was hard not to follow. My voice naturally wanted to match hers, to be hers. She was patient with me on this, not always with other things, but harmonizing was something she loved. She said, “just keep on the melody, concentrate on that. Don’t get distracted by what I do”.
The first time I heard it happen it was thrilling. We had gone from singing carols on a shopping trip to making music. I sounded like her, like a real singer. Our voices created natural overtones. The vibrations that surrounded us inside the car were soothing, magical.
Singing in the car became one of our favorite pastimes. I started helping her practice. If she had to learn a duet, I would be the boy. When the chorus came around we’d be in harmony and all I had to do was sing along. A mystery was unlocked. As our voices blended, they created the auditory illusion of more voices, more notes, more harmonies.
I was still absentmindedly singing to myself as I approached Chelsea.
You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser. You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger. You gotta…
My voice trailed off of Des’ree as the traffic and the crowd started to thicken and the terrain became rougher and steeper than I had anticipated.
There are hills in the city? Who knew? This place never ceases to amaze!
The streets I’d learned on back home were nearly empty during the day and pretty flat. There were traffic circles every few blocks that you could swing around leisurely a couple of times for practice. But now I was heading downhill and gaining speed, more speed than I wanted to gain. I tried applying the brake and got little result from my efforts, but the wind was whipping through my hair and I was feeling good.
I could get used to going this fast. This is officially my new thing. I’m going to Rollerblade everywhere and I’m going to be so in shape and super hot just from getting myself around town!
Suddenly, the driver’s side door of a parked car to my right flew open in front of me, cutting off my internal motivational speech.
I swerved around it, but I had barely slowed down in the process. I was wobbling and having a hard time recovering.
Meanwhile, about half a block ahead of me there was an old man standing on the corner. He peered up the block in my direction, watching the traffic intently. He was waiting to cross. I was faltering when I saw him step off the curb into the crosswalk. I had the light, but clearly this man was a veteran jaywalker and had no intention of waiting for the official “walk” signal.
The traffic was zipping by and I had neither the stability nor the space necessary to swerve. Stopping was clearly not an option, but if I stayed the course we would surely collide. Shifting my weight forward and wishing I’d paid more attention to the braking lesson I’d gotten from Chrissy that time, I tried willing the old man out of my way. But I ultimately failed to get my telepathic message across.
Direct hit! Our shoulders got the brunt of it, my right, his left. The impact stopped me. With one hand on the nearest parked car I swiveled to face him. My first attempt at an apology came out as voiceless air and before I could gather the vocal courage to try again the old man was already screaming, “you asshole”!
His outburst left me mute.