I’m a mixed breed of city kid/country kid I recall as I sit down here behind Chesapeake Bay winds to write. I’m not from here and neither are many of the people who have lived here for decades. Now I’m a beach kid, and although I do miss the neon flow of energy called Manhattan and all its venues, and the mountains and rivers of the Hudson Valley, they’re not going anywhere, I’ll see them again.
My mixed breed status starts in Electchester, Queens, New York. The place has an interesting history. I mean, who ever heard of an electricians’ union building co-ops so electricians could have first dibs on a place to live? The name says it all, and it became a really big community, even providing land to build the public school where we all went. One cornerstone of my life was spent on the 3rd floor of the building shown in that picture. If you walked down the sidewalk you’d come into a large parking lot where Dad kept his Beetle, a grassy courtyard with a Whomping Willow, thorn trees that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and a cement playground consisting of one basketball hoop (no net), one metal monkey bars, and one metal slide that burned in summertime. Home. As a city kid I learned a few things, or at least as much as was allowed to permeate. Today I’m thinking about how she taught us to make ourselves as non-existent in the apartment as possible, to dissolve like sugar in water. Mom taught us the “apartment walk,” something my brother remembers today yet doesn’t remember what our Thanksgivings were like there. Living on the top floor, center, you are surrounded on almost every side by other people’s walls, you are their ceiling, and it was imperative, Mom taught us, to walk as silent as cats, always. And always whisper in the hall for the acoustics will multiply our voices and disturb the neighbors. (When I hear angel wings or demonspeak in scary movies, it reminds me of how our voices sounded in the halls when we whispered. Feathery and scary like church.) Too bad our neighbors did not have this same inclination towards courtesy, shown by their terrifying fights during dinner with things banging against the wall and all the shouting. We ate through the noise and it stopped, eventually. One thing you learn early is to mind your business, don’t make eye contact and don’t get involved, for your own sake. I think our elder neighbors liked me and my brother because we were naturally polite, and our parents taught us to “be seen and not heard” and enforced it. Sometimes, though, being an invisible, nonexistent person goes too far, and it takes a lifetime to shed. How is it we come to believe other people’s happiness (quiet, comfort) is more important than our own, and we must remain silent and non-existent for the greater good? The wind blows the answer into my dreams.
So here I am in a little apartment complex converted from a hotel back in ’81. I’m on the top floor surrounded on most sides by other people’s walls and I am their ceiling. It wasn’t hard to slip back into the old ways of “apartment walking.” The only thing that gives me away is one spot of creaky floor. This morning ALL my neighbors have been unusually bang-y with their doors, and a fight next door that isn’t typical. You know, in all the years of living next to that violent couple in the city, I wonder if my parents ever called the police? Prolly not. Who wants to get involved and have them all mad at you, too? God, it’s taken me so long to learn that it’s not okay to turn a blind eye to everything and everyone for fear of getting involved. Tell me again how that was the “Christian” thing to do, Mom?
I am choosing to do my catwalk over the creaky floors at night without apology because I go about the normal activities of my daily life. I will close my door quietly and not let the outer door slam on the way out because it matters to me. I will learn to let go of the annoyance at others who are okay with slamming doors. And I am going to remember all the good times I had playing with my brother on our bedroom floor, where the loudest sounds we made was dumping legos and wooden blocks and lincoln logs back into the toy box at day’s end. We hollered outside chasing our friends around playing Star Wars, held onto our Big Wheels for dear life careening at godawful speeds down the basement ramp and into the damp, dark hallways full of echoes and light waiting for us around the corner and laughter. Skateboards and bikes and pizza from Regina’s that you can’t get anywhere else in the world. I got to dance with my cousin at the disco. Life was good, and it still is. Door slammers and all.