Adventures in America, nostalgia edition

I travel the streets and sidewalks of my youth accompanied by ghosts. They wave from windows of the buildings where my friends once lived; they hover where those shops are supposed to be but no longer are; they walk beside me as I take the shortcut behind a row of townhomes. We knew all the shortcuts: trespassing across lawns and through the lower passageways of apartment buildings where coal was delivered to the furnace rooms. The janitors lived just off these passages; if they caught us, they’d yell at us to keep out as we ran away. Our Keds and PF Flyers gave us winged feet. Adrenaline and pop fueled us. Park fences were meant to be scaled, signs that the playground was meant for little kids were to be ignored. Walls were for walking along, toe to heel, practicing our tightrope techniques. The tunnel that led under the Outer Drive to the lakefront was for yells and echoes and when we emerged, the grassy Point was heaven accompanied by bongo drums. We jumped into the lake fully clothed, then stretched out on the warm concrete to dry off.

Here is the corner where Carl gave me my first job, selling papers from his green wooden newsstand while he ate lunch inside Steinway’s drugstore. He paid me a penny per minute from a stash of coins kept in a muffin tin. I was strictly forbidden from touching the kerosene heater, and if he hadn’t fired it up first, I shivered on cold Saturday afternoons.

Wandering down 55th Street, I want to enter certain homes again—Lisa’s, Patrice’s—so we can spend the night together, listening to records, talking about boys, dreaming of the day we would be able to leave. In Madison Park, I long to visit Nadia, Edie, Adelaide. The little hill where we sledded has shrunk to a mere bump. Here was a vacant lot, home to rabbits and bobwhites. Its weedy surface is crushed beneath brick houses.

On 53rd, I worked at a drug store that has vanished and yet I can still see its windows full of posters advertising Dippity-Do and cough syrup. The Ace hardware store a few doors away where my boyfriend worked has been replaced by a CVS. Once, Earl showed me how to cut glass, etching a straight line with a diamond-edged tool and then snapping the pane in two. It seemed miraculous that his hand could be that steady and that nothing broke the wrong way.

We played crack-the-whip in the park next door to the Eagle, screaming as only young teenagers can. The Eagle is long gone now, along with record stores, head shops, and all the dive bars. And in the spots that remain, I see the memories of us: rowdy kids who insisted that we owned this neighborhood, not the grownups, not the cars, not the cops.

There’s an apartment where we bought pot (and there, and there…) and a basement where a redheaded kid lived with his mother who turned tricks. His bed was on a sheet of plywood placed over the bathtub so that when she had a guest, he could close the door and pretend that he had a room to himself. We used to crowd in there, six or eight of us, keeping him company too. Here’s the church that held a coffeehouse in the basement where I learned to play chess, and another where I first danced with women and discovered that joy. The alley where I was hit by a car as a very young child (the driver’s distraught face seared in my memory more than my own pain),  another alley I dashed through to get to school—so close that I could leave my house with only five minutes to spare. It’s a gated space now, for residents only.

But ghosts can slip through the spaces between iron bars and memories are shape-shifters that cannot be contained. I walk these strange familiar sidewalks with my old friends and dreams.

Pretending to be blind (or, the influence of Helen Keller…)

All those years of pretending to be blind have served me well, for I can make coffee in the dark. I grope for the kettle and center its opening beneath the faucet. By sound, I can tell when the water level is correct. The gas flame clicks and hisses into life. As the kettle heats, it gives off clanks and tonks like the Tin Man recovering his movements along the yellow brick road. The box of coffee filters, tucked into its corner of the cupboard, is easy to find. Pour the water carefully. Once, I nudged in the wrong direction and hot coffee spilled everywhere. I won’t make that mistake again.

It’s not that I’ve lost my sight but, ever since I was a child, I’ve practiced. I wanted to be prepared. A biography of Helen Keller fell into my hands and her story haunted me. It wasn’t that I longed to be blind and deaf, to cut myself off from the pleasures and perils of the world or to exist in such a dark and silent cocoon. What fascinated me was Helen’s miraculous emergence out of the darkness: her teacher’s fingers moving in her palm, patiently spelling arcane symbols until the moment when a lock was sprung and meaning burst forth like fireworks. I longed to experience that kind of eruption.

My older sister taught me to read and write, beginning with her own simple name and, ever after, my love for her and my adoration of the written word have been entwined. I learned to read so early that I have no memory of deciphering the black marks; it seems that I’ve always been able to cast my eyes across the page and drink its content without needing to stop and puzzle over more than a word or two.

The irony of having learned about Helen’s life through reading escaped me entirely. But once I knew it was possible to become blind, as she did, through some mysterious “brain fever,” I wanted to be ready for the tragic turn of events. I taught myself finger spelling, using diagrams at the back of the book, and would secretly practice with my hand hidden beneath my school desk. At home, I closed my eyes and moved about my bedroom, risking shins and elbows until I memorized the locations of bunkbed and chairs, the cabinet that held my china horse collection, the little rocker where my favorite doll sat.

Someone gave me a small card with the Braille alphabet imprinted on it. A biography of Louis Braille informed me that he was inspired to create his system of raised dots by feeling a quilt or counterpane of some kind. Braille combined the esoteric appeal of a cryptogram with the pragmatic appeal of a method that would allow me to continue to read once I lost the use of my eyes. But despite my best efforts, I never advanced much beyond the first few letters. My fingertips were unable to discern the subtle differences of four tiny dots in this particular arrangement from that one. Never mind, I told myself. It will be easier to learn when I’m actually blind and not so distracted by all this vision!

I also thought it prudent to learn to manipulate with my toes, should the need arise. With diligent practice I managed to pick up my paper napkin with my bare feet and bring it up to my hand where I could either replace it on my lap or drop it on the floor again for another hidden round of fetch. I soon graduated to more challenging tasks: coins. Quarters, with their lined edges (handy for a blind person to tell the difference from nickels) were easy to grasp with my prehensile toes. Pennies were more difficult, and dimes were the ultimate conquest. It took me weeks before I could triumph, risking cramps as my toes scrabbled against the dining room floor, seeking out that thin silver circle. I liked to show off my new skill to my younger siblings and to friends who came for a sleepover; it was on a par with being able to wiggle one’s ears or lift a single eyebrow (which proved impossible for me). But my feat was far more practical!

There was another way in which I became blind, and that, ironically, was as I read and walked at the same time. With an open book in one hand, I turned the pages with the other. The trick was to glance up often enough to avoid collision but frequently I was too immersed in the adventures of Caddie Woodlawn or Misty of Chincoteague. I remember running into a door at school and bouncing off a lightpole on a train platform. You might think a pole would be narrow enough that the chance of my forehead directly colliding with it would be slim, but I managed to find it and suffered a unicorn-like lump for days afterward.

Helen was not the only blind character I encountered. Little Louis Braille lost his vision after a blow to the head. Sight could be lost from scarlet fever, rheumatic fever or measles. Laura Ingalls’ older sister, Mary, was blinded by illness, and eventually had to leave home to go live in a Special School where she was, no doubt, very happy. Darkened rooms were the remedy advised for fictional children laid low by any kind of sickness, whether Pollyanna or Beth March or the boy found by Mary in The Secret Garden. They were treated with compresses—cool ones laid on the forehead or hot ones containing mustardy substances for coughs and catarrhs and consumptive illnesses—and tended by vigilant, worried adults who spoke in whispers and only ever broke down on the other side of the bedroom door.

How I longed for that kind of drama, that kind of loving attentiveness!

If I went blind, I must become a brave person, someone universally admired rather than pitied. (Well, all right, perhaps a bit of pity now and then, which also seemed attractive to me.) As the blind sister, I would be ushered into the living room by my attendants (who resembled my three siblings) and immediately become the center of attention, everyone watching as I found my way to my seat without bumping into any of the furniture nor needing that pesky white cane. Although unable to see their looks of sympathy and pride, I would catch their whispered remarks and know that they were speaking about me. Upon being introduced to the neighbor, I would dazzle her by correctly finger-spelling her name: “that’s Phyllis, P-H-Y-L-L-I-S, with two “L”s, isn’t it?”

As a blind girl, I would not need to wear my annoying cat’s-eye glasses. I would be graceful and poised, displaying impeccable posture at all times. My intelligence would shine forth, recognized by everyone as one of my most remarkable attributes.

If it took being blind in order to be seen, I was game. I was prepared. Helen and Annie would welcome me.