when pictures fail me…
Part of a memoir of my art student days in NYC, early 1970s – Chapter 9
Clutching my Greyhound ticket, I peered at departure times in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This was the beginning and end of the loop that led back to Pennsylvania: a city block-contained cesspool into which Times Square tilted and dispensed its lost and aimless, like loose marbles in a box full of holes to be swallowed up forever. Within this bland eyesore of a building, smelly, filth-encrusted homeless huddles on the grimy linoleum floor forced commuters rushing toward their boarding gates to slalom around them. Part of the landscape, they were hardly perceived as human at all. Oddly, a bowling alley was on the mezzanine level, hovering purgatory-like in its innocence above last resort public restrooms that offered another all-American pastime: soliciting.
As I dragged my heavy bags across the waiting area, a man approached and offered to help.
“No thanks, I can manage.”
He was presentable, but I didn’t quite trust his eager chivalry. Still, he persisted and grabbed my suitcase, walking too fast for my comfort zone. I stayed abreast, then asserted myself once again, wresting my belongings back from whatever his intentions were, relieved when he peeled away into the crowd.
The Thomas Wolfe quote “You can’t go home again” was starting to resonate when I returned to my hometown. It was the holiday season, and I brought exotic treats back for my family and friends to taste, wanting to share my world that had expanded beyond Sunbeam Bread and Lebanon “baloney,” Charles Chips and sticky buns. I opened the fresh halvah divided into chunks–plain, with pistachios, and chocolate-covered–bought from the international food market vendor on Ninth Avenue, where I held up my thumb and index finger to indicate how thick to slice, and savored a free sample melting on my tongue while my purchase was wrapped in opaque waxed paper.
Eagerly awaiting their swoons, I received instead: “What exactly is it? It tastes like cold potatoes.” Middle Eastern candy made from sesame seeds? Our family tree didn’t extend to that neck of the woods; its taste buds apparently were quite comfortable squatting where they had been for several centuries, adjacent to Pennsylvania Dutch farmland and connected at the hip to the home of Hershey’s chocolate.
I pulled a chair up to my grandparents’ Formica table. Before me was a smorgasbord of beets and pickled eggs, coleslaw, apple butter, bread, lunch meat, sliced American cheese, and Pappaw’s homemade condiments: mayonnaise and ketchup. This was the part that I always could go home to again. Or so it felt.
I returned to Pennsylvania again the following May, for a wedding. After all these years, my mother was finally going to marry Mr. V. and move away. With my Kodak Instamatic, I documented our modest ranch house on the corner, circled by its lei of blooming azaleas. Then I took aim at our little garden’s violets and bleeding hearts, and my forty year-old mom kneeling near the tulip bed, smiling, her last days as a struggling, single mother of two nearly over. Borrowing her ’62 Buick Special that I had learned to drive just a few years earlier, I headed to my elementary school and snapped more pictures. Here I had learned of JFK’s assassination in November of 1963, and here my pink eraser with Carl C.’s name written all over it in ballpoint pen had been discovered by him on my desktop, to my acute embarrassment. Here I had learned to square dance during indoor recess, when an allemande left had me weaving past Carl, or another boy, Glenn, my heartbeat outpacing the fiddler on the portable record player. Here I sometimes won spelling bees and solved long arithmetic problems on the blackboard, aggressive about grades, yet shy socially. Here is where I played keep-away and kickball, and made friends I still have to this day. I used an entire roll of Kodachrome, knowing that this world was fading.
Shaking off the last of the pesky local stops along Route 78, my Greyhound missile aimed its snout toward the finish line, the movie-set skyline that loomed in the near distance. We put the last stretch of New Jersey, the “armpit of New York,” behind us. I felt Manhattan’s gleaming embrace through the grimy windows, the skyscrapers reaching up and out to me. My heart raced to meet it, to be back in the fold. One last look from this perspective, then a rumble down into the tunnel and, for a few minutes, an impatient, lumbering limbo beneath the Hudson River. Breaking out to daylight, right into the belly of the beast, past a neighborhood Croatian church idiosyncratically thriving amid the tangle of arteries to the Lincoln Tunnel. Minutes later, finally, pulling into the cavernous garage filled with diesel fumes, a loud, exhausted halt, doors opened, and I was belched out into the terminal.
Happily sidestepping the hustlers, the hopeless, and the Hari Krishnas, I made my way to the street.
Copyright Sharon Watts